“That’s…heavy stuff,” Gabriel said slowly, frowning into the distance. “And by the way, am I the only one noticing a pattern here? Deities seem unusually interested in our social circle.”
“I had the same thought,” Teal agreed. “And…honestly, it’s a little unnerving. I mean, not that we haven’t all been treated well by various gods, but in the stories…”
“In the stories,” Ruda finished, “when the gods start paying undue attention to you, it’s usually either the cause or the effect of you being utterly fucked.”
“So that’s true in Punaji stories, too?” Teal asked.
Ruda grinned. “Gods are gods, Teal. It’s been eight thousand fuckin’ years. People everywhere have pretty much figured out to stay outta their damn business.”
The group was nominally moving, but at a pace more conducive to conversation than getting anywhere. They had paused in a bench-lined alcove sheltered by oak trees, most of them consumed by curiosity over Teal’s late arrival to class and what had caused it. Now, with that story told, the students were occupied with digesting and discussing the details of her encounter, and only incidentally making their way toward their next class.
“Well,” Juniper mused. “The last one made a new paladin. So…maybe that’s what he wants from you, Teal!”
Teal groaned, covering her eyes with a hand.
“I think, with all respect to everyone present,” Shaeine said softly, “I would not prefer that outcome, either.”
“There’s never been a Vesker paladin before,” Fross chimed, fluttering slowly about their heads. “On the other hand… There’s never been a Vidian paladin till now, either. And when Vidius came to the campus this spring, he kind of implied he wasn’t the only god looking to expand his repertory, didn’t he?”
“That’s not the first time I’ve heard something like that,” Toby added. “When Omnu called me, he stated outright that the Pantheon had all been reconsidering the state of the world, and that was why they’d held off calling paladins for thirty years.”
“Avei said the same at my calling,” Trissiny said, frowning thoughtfully.
“I really don’t think that’s it,” Teal said fervently, “and I’m fairly sure that’s not just the voice of wishful thinking. Honestly, he seemed more critical of the way I’ve been doing than anything else.”
“It’s kinda funny a god would show up out of nowhere just to nitpick,” Juniper pointed out. “I mean, the paladin thing makes some sense, right? Also, sorry if I’m being dense, but I’m not sure I get why you’re so down on the idea. It seems to come with a lot of advantages.”
“Paladins tend not to live very long,” Trissiny said in an extremely neutral tone.
“Well, but she’s got Vadrieny!” Juniper said brightly. “So, hey, maybe that’s the whole point. An un-killable paladin!”
“Nothing’s un-killable,” Gabriel said rather darkly.
“Hell yes!” Ruda crowed, brandishing a bottle of scotch. “Paladins all around! Everybody gets a divine calling! Fuck yeah, I can be the new Hand of Naphthene!”
“Um, excuse me,” Gabriel said, “but isn’t she the one who doesn’t like anybody, doesn’t give a shit about anything, sometimes sinks ships even when they’ve made the right offerings, smites people for praying to her, and cursed your entire family?”
“Exactly!” Ruda replied, grinning madly. “It’s perfect for me!”
“I don’t really think so,” he said, regarding her pensively. “That’s just chaotic dickery. You’re an invested, goal-directed asshole. It seems like a basically different kind of a thing.”
“Anyway!” Teal said firmly. “Seriously, why ever Vesk has decided to take an interest in me, I really don’t think that’s it. Especially with my situation with Vadrieny. Vesk is not impressed by brute force; that’s the whole point of being a bard. He, uh, didn’t sound very impressed by my ability to do without brute force, either…”
“The more we contemplate this,” said Shaeine, “the more obscure his intentions appear. I am reminded that it is generally so, when discussing the plans of the gods. For the time being, perhaps it would be more productive to simply consider Vesk’s advice, and act upon it insofar as it is possible. You have our full support in this, Teal,” she added more softly.
“Hell yeah,” Ruda agreed. “All joking and theorizing aside, we’ve got your back.”
“In theory,” Juniper said thoughtfully. “I mean… Based on what it seems he was talking about, I, uh, kinda suck at that, too.”
“Now, that is a potential reason Vesk might take a firm interest in our resident bard,” Trissiny suggested. “If you consider us as an adventuring party in one of his stories… There are three paladins, a cleric and a demigoddess among us—we’re a group who might reasonably attract the interest of any deity. And subtlety has not exactly been our strong suit.”
“Ballroom dancing isn’t our strong suit, Shiny Boots,” Ruda said cheerfully. “Subtlety is the realm in which we have collectively set new standards of failure and ineptitude.”
“Right, so it’s something we can work on,” Gabriel said seriously. “As a starting point, perhaps we could all refrain from fucking stabbing each other.”
“Arquin,” Ruda said sardonically, “if you’re gonna keep trotting that old thing out, I might just have to arrange for it to be fresh and applicable again.”
They all straggled to a stop as Scorn came stomping up the path, waving. It had taken a few weeks of getting to know the demon before people stopped being alarmed by that approach, but despite the appearance that she was trying to punish the earth with her claws, she was probably not walking that way out of anger. It was just her gait.
“Hi, Scorn,” Teal replied, waving back. “What’s up?”
The Rhaazke came to a stop in the path in front of them, wearing an uncharacteristically pensive frown. “Where you were just now? You have a class, yes? Right before now?”
“Yes, magic with Professor Ekoi,” Teal said slowly. “I was late, though, because… Well, that’s a long story. Why, were you looking for me?”
Scorn shook her head impatiently. “You are always in this class, this time of day? It’s known?”
“Well, the schedule’s public,” Teal said. “Why do you ask?”
The demon let out a short breath through her nose, looking off to the side, then narrowed her eyes. “Tell me… Hellhound breath. The hounds, they are from my place—very hard to get here, yes? Almost impossible, like me?”
“Uh, yeah,” said Gabriel. “Did…you want a pet? I mean, I can see how a reminder of home would be nice…”
“Ooh!” Fross bobbed up and down in excitement. “Melaxyna has two down in the Crawl! They’re crazy strained for resources down there, I bet we could get her to trade for something!”
“I rather suspect that Professor Tellwyrn has already ruled that out,” Shaeine said calmly, “considering the value of those creatures, and the fact that several of our fellow students are appallingly mercenary.”
“No, no!” Scorn waved a hand impatiently. “I don’t need, I am asking about the breath. Hard to get here, yes? It is expensive?”
“Hellhound breath is illegal to possess or trade in the Empire due to its use in high-level necromancy and the necessity of category one demonic trafficking to obtain it,” Fross recited. “The substance has unparalleled powers of awakening, and aside from its necromantic utility has—”
“I know what is the breath,” Scorn exclaimed in exasperation. “I have four at home! They are stay in their kennel at night so I can have sleep. I am asking, it is rare here? Very rare? Very expensive?”
“Oh, sorry, I guess you would know that,” Fross said, chagrined. “Um, yes, then. It’s rare, and expensive.”
“How expensive?” Scorn pressed. “Say, amount in a bottle the size of a pea. This costs what? You could buy a building with?”
“Um…sorry,” the pixie replied somewhat awkwardly. “I do like to diversify my studies, but the economics of magical contraband isn’t something I’ve found a need to investigate.”
“Scorn, what’s going on?” Toby asked. “Why do you need hellhound breath?”
“I don’t need,” Scorn said brusquely, turning her attention back to Teal. “You do not like Ravana Madouri, right?”
Teal drew in a slow breath and let it out in a sigh. “Ah. This is all beginning to make more sense.”
“Glad you are having sense made,” Scorn said in visible annoyance. “Meanwhile, I am asking question which is not answered!”
“Scorn,” Trissiny said pointedly, “calm. We talked about this.”
“Yes, when you will not take me to town,” the demon shot back, scowling at her. “Your talk is boring, Trissiny.”
“Having you leave the mountain requires special permission from Professor Tellwyrn,” Shaeine said, “which she would not give if you approached her in a state of anger. The attempt would likely set back your progress in gaining her trust. This was all explained.”
“Well, I am understand a few things better now,” Scorn said. “I leave the mountain today, just now.”
“What?” Teal shouted, almost overwhelmed by similar outbursts from several of the others.
“Not very far off,” Scorn said quickly, making a dismissive gesture with her hand. “Not into the town. There is a spot at the bottom of the mountain, yes? Sort of still on it, I guess, actually. There is a nice hill and shady trees and boulders and stuff.”
“Wait, you went down to the make-out spot?” Gabriel said, his eyebrows climbing abruptly. “I am suddenly very alarmed, and oddly intrigued.”
“If you act on either of those feelings, I may be forced to emulate Princess Zaruda with regard to your foot.”
“Shut up, Ariel!” several people chorused, including Scorn.
“What were you doing down there?” Toby demanded. “Scorn, you know the rules, and the risks. If you aggravate Professor Tellwyrn we may not be able to protect you!”
“I am not need protected!” Scorn shot back, baring her teeth.
“Enough.” Teal’s voice was firm, but flat, and cut through the argument like a shut door. “I have a feeling I know, generally, where this is headed. Were you with Ravana, Scorn?”
“Ravana, yes, and Iris. I am not say her last name; not sure I can do it right. Anyway, I was asking.” She frowned again, gazing at Teal’s face. “You do not like Ravana. She is say… Um, well, I am not sure how much I trust what she says. She has ideas that are make me think. But you I trust, Teal, and Lady Vadrieny. I am concerned to know why you dislike her.”
“Ravana,” Teal said in a slow, careful tone, her eyes never leaving Scorn’s, “is extremely devious, highly intelligent, highly driven and ambitious, and… I don’t think she really has any moral scruples. At all. She definitely doesn’t regard other people with much personal feeling. She’s a very dangerous person.”
“Wait, really?” Gabriel said. “Ravana, the cute little blonde one?”
Trissiny turned very slowly to stare at him.
“Oh, don’t give me that look,” he huffed. “That is neither the dumbest nor the most offensive thing I’ve ever said.”
“This week, even,” Toby said dryly.
“Thanks for chiming in, there, bro.”
“And for all that,” Teal said in a softer tone, now frowning at the ground, “I don’t think I’ve been entirely fair to her. We…met under extremely stressful circumstances. It’s entirely possible part of what I feel toward her is based on that, rather than on her.”
Shaeine stepped closer, shifting her hand to press the back of it against Teal’s.
“Do you think,” Scorn said thoughtfully, “she would lie to harm me?”
Teal ruminated for a moment, then shook her head. “I think…that’s the wrong question, Scorn. Yes, she’s capable of harming you, or anyone else, but what’s more important is why. In my opinion, the way she acts toward people is not based on any personal feeling for them, but…cold logic. A calculation of what she feels is most in her best interests.”
“Hm,” the demon said, nodding contemplatively. “That is not really honorable. But maybe is not dishonorable, depends how it is done with.”
“That’s actually a pretty damn salient analysis,” Ruda commented. “An’ I think you’re right, based on my own conversations with the girl. Ravana Madouri is a born stateswoman. She’s not gonna hurt anybody for no reason, but if she has a reason, she won’t hesitate for an instant.”
“I thought she seemed sweet,” Gabriel mumbled.
“Of course she fucking did, Arquin,” Ruda said scathingly. “That’s what they do.”
“Scorn,” Teal said, “what does hellhound breath have to do with me being in class and you talking with Ravana just now?”
“There is class for younger scholars,” Scorn replied. “Alchemy with Admestus. Ravana is bribe him to cancel, so she can talk with me—hellhound breath in a bottle, size of a pea, she says. And I am thinking, what is worth to her to talk with me in one time she knows you will not be there? So I want to know how much is hellhound breath worth.”
“Holy shit,” Gabriel muttered. “I mean, I don’t know black market economics any better than Fross, but hellhound breath is one of the rarest magical reagents there is. I’m pretty sure a pea-sized bottle of hellhound breath is worth more than a pumpkin-sized ball of platinum. That stuff’s right up there with mithril.”
“I have to say it’s somewhat alarming she’d consider it that important to get her hooks into Scorn without us around,” Trissiny said, scowling and absently fingering her sword.
“Bear in mind,” said Shaeine, “that a thing’s value is a function of various factors. Its rarity and utility, yes, but also the facility with which it can be traded—which in this case, I gather, is not easy. A House as ancient and wealthy as Madouri is likely to have unimaginable treasures in its vaults. If Ravana already owned such a substance and had no intention of performing necromancy, she might not consider it as severe a loss.”
“That’s reasonable and probably true,” said Juniper, “but it’s also just speculation.”
“Quite right,” Shaeine agreed, nodding to her. “I was merely pointing out that we do not know her means, motivations…anything, really. There is also the fact that she stands to gain by cultivating Professor Rafe’s favor, both during her academic career and afterward. He is one of the world’s foremost alchemists.”
“Hm,” Scorn said, folding her arms and tapping one clawed foot. “Ravana wants to be friends with me. She says she can teach me to…um. Behave better. More like is supposed to do on this planet.”
“I thought we were doing that,” Trissiny said, sounding slightly affronted.
“I’m not sure I can say how well we were doin’ it,” Ruda said dryly.
“Also, I thought you were from the same planet on a different dimensional resonance?” Fross added.
“Augh!” Scorn exclaimed, grabbing her horns dramatically. “Again! Always you do this, all the time! You people are never just having a talk on the subject, it always goes around with arguing and jokes till I am not remember what I was talk about!”
“Annoying, isn’t it?” Ariel agreed.
“Well, I think they’ve got us there, guys,” Fross chimed.
“I am talk about Ravana,” Scorn said insistently. “I am ask what you think, because you have my trust. It is…safe? I should take her advice?”
“Hmm,” Teal murmured.
“Yes,” Ruda said, catching her eye, then turning to Scorn with a decisive nod. “Yeah, I think a lot of what you can learn from Ravana Madouri would help you hugely with what you need to know about the world. But.” She pointed a warning finger at the demon. “You keep it firmly in mind at all times that anything that girl does, she does because she sees an advantage in it for herself.”
“In fact,” Teal said, raising her gaze to meet Scorn’s, “I agree. And I think I will join you, Scorn. We both have a lot we could learn from a scheming noblewoman. She clearly wants to teach, for whatever reason… And I think we’ll be a lot better off not letting her separate us to do it.”
“Home again, home again!” Embras said cheerily, strolling up to the broad door of the barn. The shadow of the mountain kept Last Rock relatively cool at this time in the afternoon, but this one structure, out beyond the edge of town, was half in direct sunlight. It was also, despite being clearly repaired and stocked with hay, currently disused and apparently unoccupied.
“Yes, looks cozy,” Vanessa said absently. “Embras, exactly how heavy a deflection did you lay over this barn? Quite apart from that damned kitsune, it’s not smart to make assumptions about what Tellwyrn can or can’t pick up on.”
“Relax, I am a constant work in progress,” he replied, turning his head to wink at her. “Each day I pick up new tricks. In this case, I spent the morning sniffing around that shiny new Vidian temple. The deflection over this spot currently looks exactly like their method—augmented with our own particular brand of misdirection till I bet Vidius himself would think his people did it.”
“I’m not sure it’s to our advantage to have Vidius sniffing around here to see why his priests are hiding barns,” she muttered. Embras patted her on the shoulder.
“It doesn’t have to hold long, Nessa. In fact, it specifically needs to be penetrable in a few hours. And as I’ve said before, I have plans in place for Tellwyrn’s intervention.”
She sighed, but offered no further complaint as he slid the door open.
“Ah, good timing,” Bradshaw announced inside, straightening up from the spell circle he had just finished inscribing in the middle of the dirt floor. “Nessa! How’re you holding up?”
“Well,” she said, limping in as Embras stepped aside, gallantly gesturing her forward. “Tired, but satisfied. Calderaas is under control—we’ve inevitably lost some political capital, and I had to spend some rather more literal capital to wrangle some irate acquaintances, but I judge the city safe to move in again. A little more time to rebuild our connections the organic way and it’ll be almost as good as new. How about you guys? I gather from our fearless leader, here, that the trip to Puna Shankur was productive.”
“Quite,” Bradshaw agreed, pacing in a slow circle around his spell diagram and peering down at it. “Hiroshi sends his regards. Yes, it went well once we were out of Mathenon, where Embras felt the need to further detour what was already a detour so he could grouse about the Vernisites.”
“Excuse me, that was hardly a detour,” Embras said haughtily. “Hiroshi asked as we were passing. It cost us not a second to have a discussion while walking.”
“Oh, you and those Vernisites,” Vanessa said with wry fondness. “What were they doing this time?”
“Trading stocks,” Bradshaw replied.
“Embras, that’s been going on for centuries,” she said in exasperation.
At that, Bradshaw lifted his head, frowning. “It has?”
“Sure, among themselves,” Embras snorted. “Behind closed doors, with their cronies, their bankers and guilded merchants. Now they’re peddling stocks in special exchanges, involving the general public, who have no idea what they’re dabbling in.”
“Yes,” she said, deadpan. “The temerity, expanding the ability of the common people to participate in and profit from the wider economy. Those fiends.”
“People profit from participating in what they understand,” he shot back. “Do you think the average, cobbler, farmer or factory worker knows a damn thing about stock trading? How to analyze a company for risks and reward? Pah! All they’re doing by opening that up to the public is promising people the prospect of big winnings and raking in the dough because they’re the only ones who know how the system truly works! It’s exactly like that casino the Eserites run, except they at least are only picking on the wealthy and corrupt. Those Vernisites milk the whole economy—they cheat everyone, even those who don’t play their games. You mark my words, by the end of the century they’ll be replacing coins with bank notes so they can artificially inflate the value of the currency itself!”
“Really, Embras?” Bradshaw said wearily. “Are we so lacking in problems that you have to spin conspiracy theories?”
“Well, you’ve certainly got a point there,” Embras agreed. “Best to keep our minds on the task at hand. How close to prepared are we, Bradshaw?”
“This has been done, theoretically, for half an hour,” the warlock replied, now walking around the circle in the other direction. “I have been double, triple and quadruple checking it. This is not simple spellcraft we’re talking about, here.”
“By all means,” Embras said, “be certain. I trust your expertise implicitly—we don’t proceed if you’re not confident the spell will work.”
“Oh, I’m confident,” Bradshaw said, sighing. “At least, I can’t find any errors in my casting. It’s just…this plan.”
“Yeah,” Vanessa said softly. “We are talking about tweaking the nose of a demigoddess arch-fae, under the nose of a grouchy archmage.”
“We’re not tweaking anything,” Embras said patiently. “Assuming Bradshaw has arranged this thing to my specifications—which I don’t doubt he has—I think she’ll be rather flattered by the attention.”
“Just…don’t forget the risks,” Vanessa murmured.
“You have the item?” Bradshaw asked, straightening again.
“Right here.” Embras produced an envelope from within his jacket, its seal of black wax embossed in the shape of a spiky wreath. “Do you need to add it yourself?”
“No, there’s no great ceremony involved,” Bradshaw demurred. “And it’ll be better with your personal touch. As long as you place it at the proper time. If you’re certain you wish to be the focus of the attention you’re drawing…”
“Very good, then,” Embras said. “That being the case, I believe we’re just putting off the inevitable, now.”
Vanessa heaved another sigh and shuffled back a few steps to position herself by the door.
“All right,” Bradshaw said, nodding. “Stay alert, then. As complex as this is, it’s not going to take long to execute. Your part shouldn’t require very specific timing, so long as you don’t jump in too soon, but keep in mind aspects of that stage of the spell are designed to degrade gradually. No point stretching things out.”
“Of course. On your lead, then.”
“All right,” he repeated, visibly steeling himself. “Here we go.”
Bradshaw made no apparent physical move at the spell circle; for a warlock of his caliber, a pointed thought was enough.
At first, only the six lesser circles inscribed around its outer edge lit up, the lines forming them gleaming white. Inner rings from each rose bodily off the ground to rise into the air, where they hovered about four feet up. Below, the six small circles shifted in color to an eerie purple, and the first demonic forms began to emerge.
The katzils hissed in displeasure, as they were prone to do—these were wild creatures called straight from Hell, not tamed pets trained to behave. As they were forced upward through the invisible columns marked by their little summoning circles, the glowing rings above narrowed. At the moment when each katzil’s head passed through one, it snapped into place around the demon’s neck, solidifying into a black collar of gleaming metal, richly inscribed with spell runes in elaborate demonic script.
It took only a few moments for all six demons to emerge. As soon as all were caught and collared, the runes around the lesser circles physically shifted, and shadows rose up from nowhere—rather a disorienting sight, happening as it did in the middle of a glowing spell diagram—swallowing up the demons. A moment later, there was no sign that they had ever been there.
“That’s incredible,” Vanessa murmured. “Just that you can do that much, for one thing. If you could summon and control a demon with one spell…”
“Those won’t hold them long,” Bradshaw said absently, watching his spell circle closely as the inner ring slowly glowed to life, its own binding runes altering into a new pattern and the outer summoning circles melting away entirely. “Those collars will, in fact, kill the beasts within a few hours.”
“But the controls on them!”
“Yes, they’ll keep them from harming anyone, and the shadow-jumps will direct them away from people. Each will be impelled to sniff around a different type of bait; at least one is bound to catch the kitsune’s nose. But they’ll leave six trails back here, and we know she can follow shadow-jumps. All right, the remaining circle is re-configured. Embras, you’re up.”
“Right you are,” Embras said, stepping forward and extending the envelope. His sleeve shimmered as he thrust his hand into the area defined by the spell circle, but it caused him no evident discomfort. When he had the envelope positioned in the center of the space above the circle, he paused, standing utterly still and gazing in silence at it for a long moment.
“I’m exhausted,” he said finally, his voice suddenly soft and every bit as weary as his words claimed. “The last year has been a constant chain of screw-ups. The last four years, but it’s been escalating badly. Ever since the summoning of the archdemons was intercepted, and we lost them… All those years of planning gone up in smoke, to say nothing of the Lady’s heartbreak. We’re the Wreath; we lay our strategies in advance and act when we have control of the board. Since that day, we’ve been forced to react, to adapt, and it shows. We are not doing well. It was bad before, but since Tiraas this spring… I very much fear that was the deathblow for us. We’ve been running, fighting, making do with guerrilla tactics when we should have been moving pieces into place to dominate our endgame. It’s been centuries since the Black Wreath suffered so many failures and setbacks in such swift succession. Each day I find new reasons to be proud of our people, but I cannot escape the fear that now, after eight thousand years, I will be the one to let the Lady down when she needs us the most.”
In the aching silence which followed, the nigh-inaudible hum of magic at work was barely discernible at the edge of hearing.
Then, all at once, Embras released the envelope and stepped back away from the spell circle, briskly dusting off his hands.
It hung there, suspended in midair, while the circle morphed again, first shifting to a deep red, then re-configuring its runes till it was nothing but a single ring of crimson light. Finally, the circle shrank inward upon itself, vanishing into a coin-sized spot, and winked out entirely. Above it, the envelope melted from view, leaving the barn looking empty and totally mundane.
“Embras,” Vanessa said softly, gazing at him with a pained expression.
“I… I thought you were just going to…invite her,” Bradshaw said hesitantly.
“Nonsense,” Embras said brightly, his tone as light as ever now, as though his last speech had never occurred. “That spell wasn’t designed to carry a verbal message, merely the sense of one to a creature with fae gifts of perception. You both know that school of magic is the best at parsing and representing emotions. Well, she’ll notice the katzils, follow the shadow-jumps back here, decode the vanished circle as she did the last one and find our written invitation, ready and waiting! No sense adding another request for her presence. Fairies rarely do what they’re asked, and never what they’re told. A gift of real emotion, though?” He turned to them and winked, grinning. “A sensation of vulnerability, from a master of shifting facades such as myself? That will get her attention, and sweeten the offer to the point she won’t be able to resist. If you’re dealing with a foe clever enough to see through any trap you can lay, the quality of the bait is of paramount importance.”
“Is it truly that bad?” Vanessa asked quietly.
Embras’s expression sobered slightly. “You know better than most how bad it is. Both of you. But we’re still who we are, and we still have assets not yet brought to bear. It’s far from hopeless—and remember, this is not over until we have the gods of the Pantheon in chains at the Lady’s feet.”
They both nodded, expressions resolute, and Embras nodded back.
“For now, my friends, time we move out. Remember, no shadow-jumping till we’re a safe distance away—don’t want her following us. Until our invitation is delivered…there’s nothing to do but wait.”