All posts by D. D. Webb

About D. D. Webb

D. D. Webb is a highly suspicious character who is widely believed to be up to no good. A bookseller by trade, he lives alone in a tiny house in the woods of Missouri, which is neither as romantic nor as creepy as it sounds. He has, to date, published one novel, Rowena's Rescue. If he's not stopped now, there's no telling where this could lead.

13 – 23

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“It isn’t that you’re wrong, Mr. Moss,” Tellwyrn said, pacing slowly up and down her dais as she usually did while lecturing, “it is a question of detail. The difference between an educated person and an uneducated one is comprehension; both perceive the same basic reality, in this case that the Age of Adventures is trailing to a halt and has been for centuries now, but you are studying to become the sort of people who can name specific causes, understand how those factors interact, draw insights from them and then apply those to current and future events.

“Specifically, in this case, we are covering the end of the Age of Adventures to illustrate a rather uncomfortable and little-appreciated but vitally important fact that underpins all societies.” She came to a stop, resting a hand on the lectern, and regarded the class over her spectacles. “The single, unavoidable, core reality which separates an organized state from primitive, tribal societies, is that the state holds a monopoly on violence. Police forces exist to enforce this internally, and armies externally. A state which fails to maintain this monopoly has failed to exist, and is by definition already in the process of collapsing by the time this effect can be widely observed. An organized state only exists when it is the sole entity within its purview whose exercise of force is considered legitimate.”

The door at the rear of the classroom opened and Colonel Azhai slipped inside, quietly pushing it shut behind her and taking a position against the upper wall. Almost every head in the room turned at her arrival, and several students twisted around fully to stare up at the visitor.

A shrill whistle followed by small explosions seized everyone’s attention; Tellwyrn had pointed one finger upward, which had spouted a small display of fireworks.

“Class is still in session,” she said peevishly, “and I am down here.”

The Professor waited for everyone to fully focus upon her again, and then a few seconds longer just to make her point, before continuing.

“With regard to the adventurer problem, it is important to consider that for most of recorded history, human civilizations have been islands built around useful clusters of resources; on most continents and especially this one, a combination of limited populations and abundant hazards have kept the borders of nation-states from pressing against each other. To take what is now the Tiraan Empire as an example, there was a time when Calderaas existed a two-month ride through bandit-infested no man’s land from the Tira Valley or Viridill, and much longer to any of the dwarven kingdoms. Constant pressure existed on all states in the form of marauders from Tar’naris, from Athan’Khar, from the dozens of dungeons, centaur and plains elf raiders from the Golden Sea, the odd fairy excursion from the Deep Wild… Even from other groups of humans, as the Stalweiss, Punaji and Tidestriders regularly molested any of their neighbors who neglected their defenses for a moment. In this era, adventurers served a vital role in legitimizing the states from which they launched. They exerted counter-pressure, thinning out these aggressive agents at their source without requiring kings to institute expensive military action. They also appropriated wealth from these targets, which then bolstered local economies, and served to keep trade routes clear simply by traveling along them and representing hazards that most bandits wouldn’t try. I trust you can all, by this point in the semester, explain what changed that? Miss Fillister.”

“Human populations expanded,” the girl called upon replied, lowering her hand, “and all of those external threats were eventually pacified, one way or another.”

“Precisely,” Tellwyrn said with an approving nod. “The role of population is very understated in most modern discussion of the adventurer problem. Everyone knows there is not much left for adventurers to do; few appreciate the importance to them of having a place in which to do it. While there were broad gaps between states, blank spots on the map and regions considered too dangerous to settle, adventurers were useful in keeping the hazards therein from encroaching upon established kingdoms. They aided the legitimacy of states by keeping violence outside their borders. But when all the borders come together, when there are no more gray areas outside the law, the opposite happens. Adventurers doing what they do within the purview of a state’s authority are an inherent challenge to that authority, because so long as people are committing violence, for any reason, it means the local government has failed to assert itself. Thus, the government is forced to either assert itself harder, or collapse. For a time, when the dungeons began drying up and rogue societies were either contained, destroyed, or folded into the Empire, some adventurers tried turning to vigilantism. They were landed on harder than those who flocked to the frontiers. Yes, Miss Willowick?”

“Talkin’ of current events,” Maureen said, lowering her hand, “ain’t this sorta what’s goin’ on in Puna Dara right now? Rumor is, the local government’s facin’ the prospect of a change, if it can’t keep its own house in order.”

“That’s an excellent example,” Tellwyrn agreed.

“And…in Last Rock?” Maureen said more hesitantly. “Like…last night, fer example. I know we’re only technically within Calderaan Province here, an’ the Sultana’s writ runs pretty thin. But if there’s t’be mobs an’ chases an’ whatnot…”

“An interesting point,” Tellwyrn said, beginning to pace again. “Last Rock is a somewhat unusual case, due to my presence and this University’s. A better example would be the ongoing expansion of wand regulations in frontier towns throughout the Great Plains. In the decades since their initial settlement, private ownership and use of firearms was considered a widespread necessity given the hazards represented by the Golden Sea. More and more, though, laws are changing; the situation in Sarasio was something of a tipping point, showing that heavily-armed residents are more of a danger to one another now than centaur or plains elf raiders. Not coincidentally, it took an event which directly challenged the Empire’s authority to provoke a wave of reforms. All of which are potential topics for your homework! Next class, I want a two-page essay from each of you on a current application of this principle, covering an example of your choice: discuss a modern situation in which a state’s success or failure to assert control of violent action within its borders reflects upon its overall stability. And with that, we’re out of time for today. Class dismissed.”

She remained by the lectern, watching placidly, while they all gathered their books and filed out, several exchanging greetings with the Colonel on their way to the door. Azhai was a woman of reserved and formal bearing, but compared to some of the fellows assembled at the new research division of the school, she was not standoffish with students and had already garnered a positive reputation.

Once the last of the pupils had shut the door behind them, she finally strode down to the dais, where Tellwyrn was waiting with a mildly quizzical expression.

“My apologies, Professor,” Azhai said. “I didn’t mean to disrupt your class.”

“Nonsense, you were perfectly decorous,” Tellwyrn said, dismissing that with a wave of her hand. “Maintaining focus in the face of extremely slight distraction is just one of the basic life skills I have to teach these kids, since so many of their parents clearly couldn’t be arsed. What can I do for you, Colonel?”

Azhai drew in a slow breath, frowning in thought. “I wanted to let you know in person that I’ve been recalled. I’m to abort my assignment here and depart Last Rock.”

“I see,” Tellwyrn replied, raising an eyebrow. “Well, I must say you will be missed. I confess this surprises me, Colonel. Have you been told anything about a replacement? I am assuming, here, that the Empire’s interest in my program has not abruptly ceased. I’ve not heard so much as a hint of this from Tiraas.”

“That’s…the thing, Professor,” Azhai said, a grim note entering her tone. “No, I was not given any instructions regarding my successor. I have also not heard so much as a rumor from the Azure Corps that the Throne has changed its position on you and your research program. Staying in touch with Tiraas from out here is a bit of an undertaking, as I’m sure you know, but I have been doing my best to remain on top of the rumor mill. Everything I have heard suggests that the University is in good standing with the Empire, and with Intelligence in particular. Furthermore, Professor… Forgive me if I seem to be dancing around certain topics, but I was explicitly instructed not to reveal details of my reassignment to you.”

“I see,” Tellwyrn repeated in a low drawl. “How extremely mysterious.”

“Off the record,” said Azhai, glancing at the door. “As I am no longer on duty here, and in the interest of casual conversation… I transferred to the Azure Corps from the Corps of Enchanters, Professor; I have no shortage of personal experience working with special forces. When you’re not attached to one of the regular corps, you tend to gain some insight into the politics behind the Army. There are lots of factions wanting to make use of forces with special skills, and some which simply resent the special corps and like to throw petty inconveniences our way when they can get away with it. You learn to watch for certain red flags… And I am seeing a lot of those today. Being told to abandon a mission and vacate the premises but not given instructions on where to report next. The sudden reversal of policy from Command—and most damning, orders to keep this hushed from the Azure Corps’s brass and Intelligence. Professor, somebody, somewhere, is up to something they should not be, and which I seriously doubt is being undertaken with the Empire’s best interests in mind.”

“I appreciate you offering me your insight on this, Manaan,” Tellwyrn said, nodding. “I understand there are risks to you in doing so. Rest assured you can count on my discretion.”

“Thanks, Professor,” Azhai said, nodding in reply, a hint of relief passing across her features. “Understand that I like it here, I support your program and I was very much looking forward to the research we were about to undertake. My loyalty, though, is to my Emperor. And as a soldier I will follow orders, but if those orders aren’t for the Emperor’s benefit…”

“You don’t have to justify anything to me,” Tellwyrn assured her. “Assuming all this gets resolved soon and the Empire’s participation in my research initiative continues, I’ll hope to see you back here. You will always be welcome.”

“I’ll hope to be back,” Azhai said fervently. “In the meantime… I have been ordered to be packed and out of Last Rock by tonight.” She tilted her head forward, staring into Tellwyrn’s eyes with as much emphasis as she could muster.

“Thank you for keeping me in the loop,” Tellwyrn replied, patting the shorter woman on the shoulder. “I had better not detain you any longer if you’re on a tight schedule. And don’t worry about me, Colonel, you take care of yourself for now.”

“Worrying about you seems presumptuous, somehow,” Azhai said wryly. “Just… Take care of the kids, Professor. I mean that in a general sense, of course.”

“Oh, I always take care of my kids,” Tellwyrn replied flatly. “I mean that as generally or specifically as the situation requires, and you might pass it along to whoever needs to hear it.”

“I will. Here’s hoping to see you again soon, Professor Tellwyrn.”

“Safe travels, Colonel Azhai.”

Tellwyrn waited until she had departed the classroom before snapping her fingers. Maru popped out of midair nearby, dropping a foot to land lightly on the dais.

“If you must do that, you could at least teleport me directly onto the ground,” the tanuki complained. “I know you do this on purpose, Professor.”

“Maru, I should hardly have to remind you that we met when you tried to drop me into a spike pit,” she retorted. “You don’t get to fuss about these little jokes.”

“Ah, but my fussing about them is half the fun,” he said, grinning widely. “For you, I mean.”

Tellwyrn did not smile in response. “I brought you here because making Fedora vanish out from in front of whoever he’s pestering right now would be the fastest possible way to reveal that something’s up. I may have secured a brief head start, which could be squandered if whoever’s watching this campus realizes I know. Find that incubus and both of you haul ass to my office as quick as you can without drawing attention. Whatever’s going down, it’s going to be tonight.”


“I see your hunt was successful,” King Rajakhan stated as he strode into the room, his daughter on his heels. Ruda paused to kick the door shut, her eyes also on the guest perched on a chair at the end of the conference table.

The Queen and the rest of the sophomores were scattered around the table, Juniper playing with Jack in one corner and Teal in another, experimentally plucking at a sitar—which, to judge by the results produced, she had never played before. Principia lounged next to the door, making a show of cleaning her fingernails with a dagger. Most of them, overtly or not, were monitoring the woman garbed in black, including a climate-inappropriate cloak, who was seated in a prim posture with her hands on her knees, watching them all calmly.

“My business also went well, husband, thank you for asking,” Anjal said archly.

The King grunted. “I always assume your efforts meet with success, wife. I can’t be so safe about all of these.”

“Flatterer,” she accused, but with a smile.

“So what’s the story with this one, then?” Ruda asked, scowling at the woman in black.

“She came along quietly enough,” Gabriel reported. “And in fact she’s been quite willing to help. That is, with anything we ask that’s not explaining who she is, or who she works for.”

“Also, she’s got an invisible friend.” Juniper looked up from her jackalope at the ensuing silence, finding everyone staring at her. “You guys didn’t notice? She does the same exact thing Gabe does when Vestrel’s talking. Tilting her head to listen and staring at nothing for a second.”

“Well, how about that,” Gabriel drawled, turning fully to face their guest. “Anything you wanna add, Milady?”

She cleared her throat. “I don’t suppose you would believe I was talking to another valkyrie.” Her accent was Tiraan, her voice with the precise diction of an educated person.

“Do you find that funny?” he asked coldly. “Because I guarantee, you’re the only one.”

“Yeah, an’ this standoffishness isn’t gonna work,” Ruda added, glaring and ostentatiously fondling the jeweled hilt of her rapier. “Way I heard it, your fuck up sank negotiations with the Rust and spooked them into releasing that fucking thing in the harbor. I wanna know just who the hell you think you are, in detail.”

Toby cleared his throat. “I don’t want to tell you your business, Ruda, but consider that there may be an advantage in leaving it vague.”

“Ex-fucking-cuse me?” she exclaimed, rounding on him.

“Well, I mean, it’s pretty likely she’s from the Imperial government,” Fross chimed, swooping around the woman in black in a wide circle. “I mean, gosh, look at all these enchantments. She’d have to be an archmage to make this gear herself, which I don’t think she is. That means it was probably supplied by a government, and not a dinky little poor one.”

“Like ours?” Anjal said dryly.

“Oh.” The pixie dimmed, fluttering lower. “I didn’t mean…”

“And that’s the point,” Toby said quickly. “If she is Imperial, as seems overwhelmingly likely, there are benefits to everyone having some deniability. As soon as we all officially know the Empire has been unilaterally acting here and making a mess of it to boot, the Crown will pretty much have to respond to that, right? Which will create a whole slew of new complications.”

“As things stand,” Anjal added grimly, “we can avoid wrestling that shark, and make it damn clear to the Empire that we know and don’t appreciate this, without being forced to do so through formal channels. Listen to the boy, Zari, he has surprisingly good political instincts for an Omnist.”

Toby returned her smile. “Actually, your Majesty, that little theater we put on earlier helped me work through a spiritual problem with which I’ve been grappling.

“Happy to be of service,” Anjal said, tipping her hat. “But back to the point at hand. You two haven’t missed much, yet, but the revelations so far are not small. Apparently we have an ancient hideaway of the Elder Gods buried underneath the middle of the harbor.”

The woman in black cleared her throat as everyone focused on her again. “Yes, a fabrication plant—a place where they made their machines.”

“That explains some stuff about the Rust, doesn’t it,” Gabriel muttered.

“And you know this…how?” Rajakhan demanded.

“All the facilities of the Elder Gods were sealed at the end of the Pantheon’s uprising,” she explained. “And then, after that, they were all buried underground or sunk underwater by Naiya, probably to keep Scyllith from getting at the resources in them if she ever got out of the hole Themynra has her in. Some, though, have subsequently been re-opened by various mortals. I have worked closely in one of these. You might say I’m the closest thing available to an expert on the Infinite Order’s technology. I mean the real Infinite Order,” she added. “The actual Elder Gods, not these Rust idiots.”

“They’re idiots,” Teal muttered from her corner, plucking a discordant twang. “Who got caught screwing around in their tunnels and borked our mission there?”

The woman sighed. “Fair enough. I’m sorry; I tripped an alarm I failed to see coming. But back to the point at hand, the Order’s machines have the ability to connect to each other and communicate over long distances. It was severely diminished when the Pantheon shut off the transcension field linking them, but it can still be made to work in a limited capacity.”

Gabriel scratched his head. “Trans what?”

“A kind of magic. The point is, I learned from another of these systems elsewhere, weeks ago, that the fabrication plant in Puna Dara had been opened and accessed. Actually, this was done ten years ago.”

“Ten years,” Anjal muttered.

“It gets worse,” the woman in black warned. “The Infinite Order’s machines and facilities require their personal input to be re-activated. The one here was opened under Scyllith’s credentials.”

“Ffffffuck,” Gabriel whispered.

“Now, nobody panic,” Toby said hastily. “If Scyllith were loose, problems would be a lot worse than the Rust and a lot more widespread than Puna Dara.”

“That’s correct,” the woman agreed, nodding. “It’s far more likely that someone got hold of her credentials somehow and used that. There are ways; I have some experience with them.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Juniper said. “If you need one of the Elder Gods to open these things and you’ve opened one, whose credentials are you using?”

She sighed, making a resigned face. “Naiya’s.”

“And how did you do that?” the dryad demanded.

“By recruiting some of her daughters to help,” she said wearily. “Dryads and a kitsune.” The woman frowned suddenly, looking to the side. “I do not think that’s a good idea. No, seriously, that’s just going to agitate… Okay, fine, but there’s still security to—”

“Have you utterly lost it?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“Invisible friend, remember?” Juniper said, gathering Jack into her arms and standing up. The jackalope’s behavior had indeed improved; he hardly struggled at all. “This is good, though, it’s finally something we can verify. Which dryads? What kitsune?”

“I don’t know how we can verify that part,” Fross objected. “We only know one kitsune and she’s not exactly available to ask.”

The woman in black was frowning now, staring into the distance. After a moment, she sighed heavily. “All right, fine. I said all right! I don’t… Oh, whatever, it hardly matters now, anyway. Apple, Hawthorn, and Mimosa,” she finally answered, turning to Juniper.

The dryad let out a low whistle. “Well. Aspen told me those there are in Tiraas.”

“Mm hm,” Anjal grunted, scowling. “Tiraas.”

The woman in black sighed again. “Fine, fine, on your head be it. And I am being requested to convey a message.” She turned to Gabriel. “For Vestrel. Yrsa would like her to know that things were hard for a long time, but she is doing well, now. She sends her love.”

“Okay, what the hell was that?” Gabriel demanded after a short pause. “Vestrel is completely freaking out. And not in a good way, Milady. If that scythe were tangible on this plane you would be headless right now.”

“I told you so,” the woman muttered, rubbing unconsciously at her neck.

“Are we seriously calling her Milady?” Ruda snipped.

“Well, she won’t tell us her name, and it’s as good as—” Gabriel broke off, wincing. “Yeah, you’re gonna have to explain that some more. And no more of this cagey—”

“If I may?” Everyone turned to look at Principia, who had raised a hand. “With apologies to Vestrel, this sounds like family business. And if there’s one thing I know about family business, it’s that it is messy. We really have much more urgent things to discuss; valkyrie drama is going to have to wait for now. It sounds like what we’ve gotta do is break into an Infinite Order facility and destroy it. I’ve been in those before; this is not a small undertaking.”

“Not destroy it,” Milady said quickly. “In fact, the opposite. The Infinite Order are using something called nanites to do what they do. I don’t know what those are, but I do know it’s a prohibited technology; the Order sealed it and even blocked records that explain them. Which means if the Rust have got them out and working, they have disabled the security in that facility. There should be an intelligent system governing it, which has to have been seriously messed with for this to have happened. If we can get to that and repair it, we may be able to completely disable them.”

“Intelligent system,” Principia grunted. “And you say it’s broken. When an intelligence breaks, that’s called madness. I do not look forward to trying to wrangle an insane Avatar.”

Milady’s gaze snapped to the elf. “How do you know what an Avatar is?”

Principia grinned at her. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, pumpkin.”

“Enough,” Rajakhan growled. “You say we have to fix this thing. How do you propose to do this, not even knowing what’s wrong with it?”

“That’s the hard part,” Milady admitted. “I’ve done so before, but it took days, and we have no choice but to go in blind. It is in no way going to be easy. But this is not like repairing a machine; it has more in common with…counseling. These are thinking, feeling things with personalities.”

“I may be able to help with that,” Toby said slowly. “Though I don’t want to get anybody’s hopes up.”

“Juniper’s help will also be invaluable,” Milady said. “She is a link to Naiya, which may help get us access. And I think Principia had better come,” she added reluctantly. “Anyone who knows anything about Infinite Order systems will be useful.”

“Someday I’ll learn not to open my goddamn mouth,” Principia said philosophically. “Oh, who’m I kidding? No, I won’t.”

“Before that,” Gabriel interjected, “we have to get into this place. Something tells me the Rust isn’t going to be enthused about that prospect.” He was still scowling at Milady, clearly having picked up some of Vestrel’s agitation. “How do we even find the way there?”

“I can guide you,” said Milady. “My…counterpart has a complete map of the tunnels and mineshafts all around Puna Dara and can convey directions to me in real time. Several of them link up to the corridor the Rust have dug connecting to the old fabrication plant. There are a number of paths that avoid areas they traffic.”

“So we need to distract them,” Anjal said, suddenly grinning. “We are already working on that. Rajakhan has been exhorting the people while I worked on the powerful; Puna Dara itself is going to turn on the Rust.”

“If you can provide me with some disguise charms,” Principia added, “something to make my squad look like locals, I can furnish a more focused distraction. Like, outside that warehouse that they’re using for their public face. Five people who start screaming and throwing rocks can turn an angry crowd into a mob in seconds.”

“What you are talking about,” Rajakhan grated, “is dangerous almost beyond comprehension. To everyone involved.”

“I comprehend the danger, your Majesty,” she said seriously. “The offer stands, if you decide the risk is worthwhile. But I agree—if somebody has a better idea, that would be excellent.”

“It’s too bad the weather’s nice,” said Fross. “The Rust’s mechanical augmentations are metal and run on electricity; rain will impede them. Maybe not much, but every little bit helps.”

“Maybe more than a little, actually,” the King said, frowning. “We have noted, in monitoring them, that they avoid going out in storms. Most Punaji love rough weather—it was a notable pattern of behavior.”

“Yeah, but I don’t think we can afford to wait around for a storm,” Ruda snorted. “Fross is right, the weather’s gorgeous and gonna stay like that for at least a while. We can’t afford to fuck around; every minute that thing is in the harbor, the city’s economy is hemorrhaging, to say nothing of how it’s riling up the populace. And while we’re on the subject, distracting the Rust is only part of the issue. If we’re going to be out in the harbor, the sea serpent’s a factor, too. Not to mention that it could attack the city if the Rust feel too threatened.”

“A nice, big storm would solve that problem as well,” Fross offered. “It’s still subject to the laws of physics, even if it’s designed to withstand mag cannon fire. With the water agitated it will be unable to navigate and will have to go to the bottom to avoid getting beached. It might be forced to leave the harbor entirely.”

“Fross,” Ruda said with strained patience, “it is not storming. It is not going to storm any time soon, and no power in creation is going to make the weather change. Trust me, that’s in Naphthene’s hands, and Naphthene does not give a shit. That is the core reality of Punaji life. Talking about storms is wishful thinking.”

A suddenly loud twang chimed from the corner, making Principia wince.

“So,” Teal said slowly, “a storm would temporarily neutralize the sea serpent and the cultists, and since the Punaji like harsh weather, might actually help the public move against the Rust. Do I have all that right?”

“Teal, what did I just fucking say?” Ruda exclaimed.

Teal carefully set the sitar down and stood, adjusting her robes. “That we can’t conjure up a storm. All due respect, Ruda, but… I bet I can.”


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13 – 22

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The sun rose over a city stirring with barely-contained furor. A constant hum livened the streets, anger and incipient panic growing steadily. It would not be long before it exploded, one way or another. Already people were gathering around the walls of the Rock.

The sight of Puna Dara’s movers and shakers entering the fortress helped to deflect some of the rising unease, at least for a while. Punaji as a rule did not revere the powerful and wealthy, but by the same token, everyone in the Punaji nation who had accrued power and wealth had done it themselves. With the sole exception of the royal family, there was no hereditary nobility, and a hefty estate tax limited the wealth a person could inherit; anyone positioned as a leader in Puna Dara had earned that, and was treated with respect. Not the fawning that Imperial or Narisian nobles expected, but respect.

Even the royals could be deposed if enough public sentiment turned against them, which added another dimension to the arrival of over a dozen wealthy visitors to the Rock. That the Crown would seek council with the various guildmasters, merchants, and civic leaders of the city was a sign that action was being taken, and served to assuage some of the public’s fear. By the same token, though, if there was to be a change of leadership, it would almost certainly fall to one of those now summoned by the King.

And there was still the serpent making its slow patrol in the harbor. The thing was tireless, and bore no marks from the mag cannon fire it had suffered last night. One way or another, the tension rising would soon boil over.

They met with the Queen and her advisors in a formal dining room first thing that morning. The Rock’s throne room was mostly used for entertaining foreign visitors who expected such grandiosity from a crowned head of state; Punaji, particularly of the successful variety, did not respond well to being lorded over. Anjal had positioned herself at the head of the long table, and that was as far as the privilege of rank went on this occasion.

None of those assembled would have stood out among the rich in Tiraas; ostentation in Punaji culture was seen as an invitation to a comeuppance. Leathers and fabrics were of the highest quality, hats had more feathers than most and some coats had understated gilt trim; swords and daggers were of exquisite workmanship and in many cases not even bejeweled. That was how the Punaji displayed wealth, in quality rather than frippery.

Guards stood at each of the doors, servants along the back wall, and the Queen’s special guests behind her chair, which immediately brought comment.

“I see some interesting faces present,” said a woman a few years younger than Anjal and apparently high in the rankings, as she positioned herself close to the head of the table. “I do not see his Majesty. Has he something better to do this morning, Anjal?”

“And it’s a pleasure to see you too, Ashla, as always,” Anjal said dryly. “The King and Princess Zaruda are preparing to address the public, and in fact I intend to involve you all in that, but first we need to have a discussion. With me are some allies who have been sent by the major cults to assist with this Rust issue. Brother Ermon and Corporal Shahai have been most helpful already.” She turned and nodded to the incongruous pair standing against the wall behind and to her left. Both were impressive, Ermon in full regalia but for the fur cloak, which the climate did not permit, Shahai in Legion dress uniform borrowed from the local Avenist temple. “And this is Tobias Caine, Hand of Omnu.”

“Toby is fine,” he said, bowing slightly. “A pleasure.” He was closer, standing at the Queen’s right.

“Interesting,” mused a tall man whose beard was more gray than black. “Shall we take this as the Crown’s formal declaration that it requires help with this crisis?”

“Neither my husband nor I have called for help, until this morning when we asked you to join us,” Anjal said calmly. “All these have been here for days now; their various masters dispatched them and we have made them welcome, as is not only polite but strategic. The last thing we need right now is various cults running around muddling the issue further.”

“You’d think they would have learned, after what happened to the Fourth Legion,” Ashla commented.

Nandi cleared her throat. “It is not often that Avenists and Shaathists find common ground, but we do have in common that we do not scare easily.” Ermon grinned.

“And this wasn’t a crisis until this morning,” Anjal continued, “merely a problem. Now it is damn well a crisis, as you can all plainly see, and we’d be fools not to accept any aid which is available, so be so good as to lose the attitude, Jandhar.”

“Of course, you’re quite right,” the man who had spoken replied, nodding deeply and giving her a smile. “My apologies.”

“I should clarify,” said Toby, “that I was not sent by my cult. I’m here as a personal friend of the Princess, at her request.”

“Yes, Zaruda’s entourage,” replied a stately woman halfway down the table. Most of the women present wore Punaji attire of greatcoats and hats, distinguished from the common folk only by finer fabrics and brighter colors, but this one was in formal silk dress, her white hair held up by an arrangement of fine gold chains connected to the blue jewel set between her eyebrows. “I daresay we have all heard of you by reputation. She keeps fascinating company, our Princess.”

“That damned school,” another man muttered.

“As to that,” Jandhar piped up, “stop me if I’m just shooting my mouth off again, but how is it the lot of you haven’t already put this thing to bed? You represent quite the bundle of firepower, from what I understand.”

“Complex problems are rarely solved by hitting them hard enough,” Toby replied.

“Spoken like an Omnist, to no one’s surprise,” said Ashla, curling her lip. She had set her hat on the table and picked up one of the pastries laid out, but was now tossing it idly from hand to hand rather than taking a bite. “This one seems to occupy pride of place, Anjal.”

“We don’t get many paladins,” Anjal said brusquely. “With regard to the matter at hand—”

“This clearly is the matter at hand,” Ashla interrupted. “The Rust have been building themselves up for the better part of a year, and you’ve done nothing. They proved their will and capability to be a threat by striking down an entire Silver Legion, and you did nothing. Now you’ve got…what, a multi-cult strike force? Paladins? And somehow you’ve abruptly made this worse.”

“Oh, keep it in your pants, Ashla,” snorted the youngest man present, who didn’t look any older than Toby. “This is not the time for a political upheaval, and you aren’t going to be the next Queen. I want to hear what her Majesty and these fascinating people have to say.”

“I am absolutely flabbergasted to find you sober enough to be here at this hour of the morning, Khadesh,” Ashla replied with a cold little smile. “That’s how we know things are bad.”

“Ashla, if you want to take potshots at me, knock yourself out,” Anjal said sharply. “But anybody who’s just going to snipe at each other can go stand in the hall and do it. We do not have time for this childishness. We are here to discuss the situation, and options. We have not been doing nothing. The Huntsmen have helpfully located the Rust’s base of operations—their real one, not the harbor warehouse we all know they’ve been using. We are also in contact with the local Eserite chapter, who are gathering intelligence for us. Corporal Shahai’s squad is the first of several Silver Legion special forces units the High Commander has sent.”

“Don’t you have any actual Punaji to solve your problems?” Ashla exclaimed.

“We Punaji solve our problems by keeping our wits about us,” Anjal retorted. “For most of their existence the Rust were apparently harmless. Their involvement with what befell the Fourth Legion was unproven—until last night. Thanks to Toby and his friends we have confirmation of that from the Rust’s leader himself. Prior to this, the Crown had no excuse to clamp down on them.” She leaned forward, gripping the arms of her chair. “Had we attempted it, Ashla, you would have raised bloody hell—and unlike your posturing here and now, you would have been right to do so. The one thing the Punaji must absolutely never tolerate in their government is its clamping down on anything resembling dissent, which was all we could prove the Rust to be guilty of.”

“Hear, hear!” Khadesh exclaimed. “And furthermore, we all know this, so let’s not waste time and insult each other’s intelligence by making the Queen explain obvious decisions we all fully understood to begin with.”

“The Rust admitted fault for striking down the Legion, then?” the richly-dressed old woman asked, narrowing her eyes.

“Yes,” said Toby, “right before unleashing that sea serpent and instructing my friends and I to carry an ultimatum back to the Crown. They don’t actually want anything but to be left in peace; I gather they were quite alarmed by the display of force we represented to them. We were trying to negotiate when a third party intervened and spooked them.”

“Third party?” Jandhar demanded. “Who?”

“Someone anonymous,” Toby replied. “The rest of my group is working on that right now. Someone wielding powerful magic, which is why we cannot have them running around unsupervised any longer; I believe the current crisis would not have developed had they not antagonized the Rust while we were there. But they seem to have done it by interfering with those magic machines the cultists use, which makes me suspect they have valuable aid to offer once we catch them.”

“Probably Imperial,” Ashla snorted. “Tiraas just can’t leave well enough alone.”

“Perhaps,” Anjal said mildly. “If that is the case, there will be no official acknowledgment. Both because the Crown does not need to have the Silver Throne meddling in our business so intimately, and because if this rogue agent is not going to cooperate, I intend to throw them to the Rust as a chew toy to placate them.”

That brought grins and a few chuckles from around the table, quickly cut off when Ashla slapped her palm down.

“So that’s it?” she demanded. “Placate them?”

“As a first step,” Toby said. “That is not the only—”

“And this is who you’re getting advice from, I see,” Ashla barreled on. “Omnists would have us all sit and meditate while our city is overthrown by machine cultists! Do you not understand, boy, that that sea serpent represents the end of Puna Dara?! As long as it’s out there in the harbor, we have no trade. Our ships can’t sail. It will be days before the lack of fish causes widespread hunger, at most. Without our ships, we are nothing!” She finished on a shout, actually hurling the pastry at Toby’s head.

He caught it, looking bemused.

“Toby,” the Queen said in a deceptively mild tone, touching the jewel on her forehead with a fingertip, “did Zari ever tell you the significance of these?”

“Uh…” Toby blinked. “No, your Majesty, it hasn’t come up.”

“It was actually started by a foreigner,” she said. “Queen Sera. She was Calderaan, married to a Punaji King for political reasons.”

“Oh, come on,” Jandhar exclaimed. “Is this really the time for a history lesson?”

“Shush,” Khadesh said airily. “I like this story.”

“The Calderaan, of course,” Anjal continued lightly, “are a military society, and largely Avenist, but King Dakresh mostly thought of his new wife as foreign, and noble, and therefore delicate. So when Puna Dara was attacked by the Sheng, he forbade her to leave the fortress and fight. Not only did she take up a sword and join the fray, she took the time to place a target on her forehead.” Anjal grinned, tilting her head so that the gem flickered in the light. “It has ever since been the custom for Punaji women of a certain rank. Only one of sufficient power and importance that she is already a target wears the jewel; to put it on is to proclaim that you believe yourself such, which is not wise in our society unless you are prepared to back that up. It is a standing invitation, in essence.” Her grin widened. “A woman wearing the jewel is saying, ‘slap this off my head, if you think you can.’”

“Hm,” Toby mused. “I see.”

“If you’re quite done educating your foreign guests,” Ashla said, her voice dripping with acid, “I think we have a rather more urgent matter to—”

Toby’s hand was much faster than hers; he threw the roll hard enough that the impact on her forehead made her jerk backward.

“Wow, that’s on there good,” he observed. “You know, I always wondered how Ruda kept that thing on. Didn’t seem polite to ask.”

“It’s enchanted,” the grandmotherly woman explained with a wry smile.

“Who’s Ruda?” somebody inquired, but was drowned out by the scraping of chair legs on the stone floor as Ashla shoved her seat backward, standing and drawing her saber.

“Little boy,” she said in deadly calm, “I do not care whose Hand you think you are. If you issue a challenge to a Punaji woman, you are going to bleed.”

“You started it,” Khadesh pointed out gleefully.

Ignoring him, Ashla lunged at Toby with the sword.

He moved like water, flowing aside and toward her, spinning around the back of her blade and coming to rest behind her. Somehow, in that split-second, he had ended up with one hand on her sword arm and the other on her waist, as if he were guiding her through the swing.

Ashla emitted a high-pitched grunt of pure outrage, trying roughly to shrug him off. Toby continued to flow with her impetus, spinning the pair of them in a full circle like they were dancing and tugging the sword from her hand in the process, as a smooth continuation of her own attempted stab. He twirled them around, extending a leg almost as an afterthought to kick Ashla’s chair.

It slammed against the back of her knees, causing her to drop back into the seat with another grunt. In the next instant she froze, Toby having planted the tip of her saber against her belt buckle. He shifted it a few inches, however, guiding it unerringly back to its sheath. A single flick of his wrist sent the blade sliding home with a whisper and a click.

“The monks of Omnu exist to encourage peace,” he said, “as gently as possible.”

Pushing her chair back into the table required more brute force, but he did not seem to lack for it; Ashla’s midsection met the edge of the table hard enough to wring a squeak from her.

“The Hand of Omnu,” Toby said from right behind Ashla, both his hands resting on her shoulders, “exists to insist upon peace. No more gently than necessary.”

He held that position for a few seconds before releasing her and taking a step back.

Khadesh applauded until his neighbor reached over and swatted his hands down.

“I do prefer peaceful solutions,” Toby continued, stepping back over to the Queen’s side; Anjal was grinning openly at him. “I certainly tried to reach one with the Rust’s leader. But if any of you are worried that I am going to try to broker a solution which will not reflect the best interests of your nation, let me put that fear to rest. There was a moment, talking to him, listening to him, when I wanted to believe. As little respect as I have for the Rust’s philosophy, as long as they weren’t harming anyone, as long as they just wanted to practice in peace, I really wished I could support them in that. Reassure them, and persuade the Church, the Empire, and whoever else to leave them alone. But that was before. That man, Ayuvesh, acknowledged attacking and all but destroying a Silver Legion—just because they might have been a threat to him. When startled and faced with the possibility of my friends and I intervening, he set loose that beast in the harbor. He operates through fear, securing his needs by the threat of force. He is a bully and a terrorist, and he has to go.” He nodded firmly to the Queen. “I speak for my friends as well when I say that we are fully behind the Crown in this. The Rust must fall.”

“So when we talk about placating them,” Anjal continued, nodding back, “it is a tactic only to buy time. We must acknowledge that at this moment, the upper hand is theirs; so long as their pet is swimming around the harbor, they have a hand on Puna Dara’s throat. Our first priority must be to break that grip, and persuading them to release it, as galling as it may be, is our clear best bet in that regard. But in doing so, however we must, we will not lose sight of the fact that the Rust have declared war upon the Punaji.” She bared her teeth, and the expression was no longer a smile. “And the Punaji do not suffer tyrants.”

There were fervent mutters of approval at this, and one outright cheer from Khadesh.

“Well said,” Jandhar stated, nodding. “What, then, is your plan?”

“The situation is this,” Anjal said, folding her hands lightly. “We have two paladins, a pixie mage, a dryad, and the archdemon Vadrieny—together enough sheer force to crush almost any opponent. Unfortunately they can’t be used directly on the serpent because none of them can fight while swimming. The Rust did not do what they did to the Fourth Legion, which suggests that they aren’t able to. Conjuring that sea serpent guaranteed them the enmity of all Puna Dara, not something they would have done lightly if they had a cleaner option.”

“Back up,” said Ashla, not much the worse for wear for her recent manhandling, aside from an even more annoyed expression. “Vadrieny? That one’s the worst of Elilial’s get. Mindless destruction personified. Are you certain you have her under control?”

“Vadrieny is not under control,” Toby said quietly. “She was nearly destroyed five years ago and has no memory of her existence before that point. She is a friend, and has earned my trust. These…are interesting times,” he added wryly.

“I note that your assessment of the situation made no mention of conventional military assets,” said Jandhar. “Are we just not going to bother solving this ourselves, with soldiers?”

“This is not a conventional military situation,” the Queen replied. “We do not know what additional tricks the Rust have yet to play, and more to the point, they have made it plain that if they are further antagonized that serpent will begin destroying the docks and the ships there. What we need is to get to a point where we can use our forces. That means we need, first, to neutralize that serpent and cripple the Rust’s magical abilities. And that is being worked on as we speak.”

“Don’t keep us in suspense,” said Khadesh, grinning.

“I am in here talking to you while my husband is out there addressing the public for one reason,” Anjal said with a smile. “He is a much better public speaker than I. For the time being, the Crown is forced to comply with the Rust’s demands, to prevent the destruction of the docks—but the Rust have made a critical mistake in that regard. They depend upon Puna Dara for…everything. They have to eat. They have to move freely through the city to get any supplies they need. They wish to spread their gospel, which requires a public that will listen to them and not, for example, hurl bricks. The King is reminding the people right now that the government serves them, not the other way round, and while the government is forced to wait—for now—the Punaji people, themselves, are far from helpless.”

“So that is why you need us,” the old woman said slowly. “We can command action from our various employees. More to the point, we command respect from the general public. A united plan enacted by everyone in this group will spread throughout the city.”

“I like it,” Ashla said suddenly, nodding to the Queen. “Make it impossible for the Rust to do any business—even to exist in Puna Dara. As long as it’s not soldiers refusing to sell them food or let them walk down the street unmolested, they cannot claim the Crown has challenged their ultimatum. They may have cut off trade in Puna Dara, but Puna Dara can cut them off just the same.”

“And making that point,” Jandhar mused, “might just encourage them to call off their snake. Which brings us back to the other point: how, then, do you plan to neutralize their magic and put a stop to them?”

“That,” said Toby, “is what the rest of my friends are doing right now. We know someone who has insight into the Rust’s workings; it’s just a matter of bringing her into the fold.”


Milanda had given up on sleeping and gone in search of breakfast. All she’d managed after coming back to her rented hovel was a quick nap before another eyeball-gouging nightmare had catapulted her back out of bed, and she hadn’t dared try again. Worry and remorse made for poor company, but they sure kept her occupied.

They had occupied her mind, too; she was stymied as to her next move, and keenly aware that stress and lack of sleep were wearing down her faculties. If she still had that Infinite Order screen she could maybe have kept working at it, but as Walker had rightly pointed out, that thing would undoubtedly lead the Rust straight to her. So she’d ditched it back in the mines, and now here she was, alone, probably responsible for the current disastrous state of affairs in Puna Dara…

This mission was altogether not going well.

Dawn found her out on the street, heading for the nearby market where she could obtain some bread and fish. Milanda honestly felt too anxious to be hungry, but it was an excuse to move. Maybe a little air and exercise in the tropical sunlight would help clear her head. Maybe it would tire her enough that she could actually get some rest.

Of course, that was before she felt the blazing beacon standing out from the sea of candles that were the people around her, perceived through her life sense. She recognized that bottomless font of fae power from having followed her around last night, and from working with her sisters. Well, actually, she couldn’t distinguish between dryads at a distance this way, but how many could there be in Puna Dara right now?

And more to the point, what the hell was Juniper doing here?

Walking along with her attention on the dryad some two streets off to her left, she was sufficiently blinded to her own surroundings that only the reflexes granted by her fae attunement enabled her to catch the object tossed to her.

“Here ya go!” a voice said cheerfully. “On the house. You could use it, hon, you look half dead.”

It was a steamed honey bun, and it had been lightly pitched to her by a black-haired elf. There were few enough of those, but Milanda had taken pains to be able to recognize this one in particular, and her stomach dropped further. She resisted the urge to glance down at herself; the disguise charm on her gear should make her look like an unremarkable Punaji woman. Maybe this was a coincidence?

And maybe Justinian would spontaneously drop dead of a heart attack and she could go home.

“No, thank you,” she said politely, holding out the bun to the elf.

“Take it,” Principia bloody Locke said in a gentle tone that made Milanda want to punch her. “I know the look of somebody who hasn’t slept or eaten all night. A full stomach’ll help you get some rest, too.”

What the hell was going on? Was this a Legion special forces thing, hunting her down in connection to the ongoing Rust debacle? Or was it Locke on personal business as Trissiny Avelea’s biological mother, trying an even more indirect route? Milanda wasn’t on speaking terms with her grandmother, but she was aware that Narnasia had bodily ejected the elf from the Abbey last time she came sniffing around.

And in either case, how the hell had she found her?

Plus, that dryad was still wandering about not far away. Not getting closer, but…

“Guilty conscience?” Locke inquired innocently, and Milanda very nearly hurled the sticky bun at her face.

“What do you think I have to be guilty about?” she snarled.

The elf shrugged. “No idea. Worries, then? Or recently in love? Those are the big three, when it comes to insomnia.”

She could run. Of course, even with all her new gifts, she likely couldn’t outrun an elf. And even if this elf didn’t chase her down… Now that she was here, Milanda had to learn how much she knew and how she’d found it out. That this was a coincidental meeting was simply beyond the scope of possibility.

She started walking again, slowly, and Locke fell into step beside her. Obviously, she did not take a bite of the bun; gods only knew what the wretched woman had done to it.

“Conscience,” Milanda said suddenly. “And worry.”

Locke nodded, strolling along and apparently not watching her. There was silence for a long moment.

“Have you ever done something,” Milanda finally said, painfully aware she was in no mental state for these games, “something unspeakably awful…that wasn’t at all your fault, but you were there. No matter how rationally you know you couldn’t have stopped it, you can’t help feeling…”

“Nope,” Locke said after she’d trailed off. “I’ve lived a long time—at least, by human standards—and done some pretty awful shit, but I am glad to say everything I did was my idea. Good or bad, for better or worse, I own my mistakes. I’d hate to be in your shoes, if that’s what’s eating you. It sounds…disempowering.”

“That’s a good word,” Milanda mused. “What’s the worst thing you’ve done?”

The elf emitted a soft huff of breath that might have been the shadow of a laugh, or a grunt, or almost anything. “Oh, that’s easy. Abandoned my daughter.”

So…maybe this was a personal thing after all? That was not better. The absolute last thing she needed was this random event blowing her cover.

“I’ve lied and cheated like you wouldn’t believe,” Locke continued thoughtfully, “killed and maimed… And stolen, oh, gods. I bet I’ve lifted about the annual gross domestic product of Stavulheim, one way or another. But all that was for a purpose. Even the people who’ve suffered for it…well, I knew what I was doing and why, and I always considered it worthwhile at the time. My little girl, though. I was just scared, and confused, and stupid, and mostly pissed off about being those things when I’d spent two hundred years thinking I had all the answers. I did something for all the wrong reasons, something I didn’t understand, and it…huh. I guess maybe I can relate to you a little better than I thought.”

“Mm,” she said noncommittally.

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” she asked, turning to give Milanda an inquisitive look.

Murdered a room full of soldiers? Accidentally provoked the Rust into unleashing a sea serpent on Puna Dara? The burning presence of the dryad was drifting closer; she was hemmed between Locke and Juniper. Was that an accident?

Gods, she was so tired.

“I don’t really care to discuss it,” she said shortly. “Thanks for the bun. I’d better be going.”

“Well, it really isn’t that easy,” Lock said, stopping and turning directly to her. Oh, great, here it was. “Y’see, I was hoping we could have a conversation. You know, connect, maybe find some common ground.”

“I think you have me confused with someone else,” Milanda said politely. What could she do to this elf, if it came to that? Her augmented reflexes worked to protect her; they were useless on the attack, and she didn’t think she was faster than an elf. Plus, there were people around. Ignoring the two of them, as people in cities did to each other, but that would change if she took a swing at somebody.

“The thing is,” Locke said mildly, “the pixie and the dryad have this trick where they can…okay, honestly, it’s a bit over my head. Something about attunements and tracking and I dunno from fae magic, I left all that crap behind when I fled my parents’ grove. But no, I don’t have you confused with someone else. I’m just the first envoy, lady. The polite one. Isn’t it best for everybody if we do things the polite way?”

Milanda dropped the sticky bun in the street, planted her feet, and loosely balled her fists.

“Try to do it the impolite way,” she said quietly. “Go on, Locke. Try.”

The elf raised an eyebrow. “She knows my name. That’s interesting. Anyhow…no, sorry, that’s not my job. I guess you’ve just removed me from the equation.”

And suddenly the dryad was right there.

The overwhelming presence simply shifted spontaneously from its distant position to mere yards away; Milanda spun, right in time to see a young Stalweiss woman remove an enchanted ring, staring at her, and resume her natural green-and-golden coloration.

“You’re new at this,” Juniper said condescendingly. “If you are very helpful, and I mean so helpful that I end up getting over how annoyed I am at you, maybe I’ll teach you a bit more about the attunement. Maybe.”

Before Milanda could decide on a course of action, the earth shook, and people began screaming and scattering.

She whirled back the other way, where Vadrieny had landed in the street hard enough to make a small crater in the dirt. Locke was backing away slowly, but Milanda paid her no attention. She had just spied something else out of the corner of her eye.

She hadn’t felt him at all, and still didn’t; it was like he was completely absent from her life sense, he and that absurd, smoke-and-fire horse he rode. Gabriel Arquin brought his mount to a halt a few yards distant and leveled his scythe at her.

“Morning, sunshine,” he said flatly. “I see you decided not to play nicely with our elf. Very well, by the power vested in me by this here life-destroying divine weapon, I hereby deputize your ass. Welcome to the team.”

 

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13 – 21

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The King of the Punaji strode onto the tower platform to find it already abuzz with activity, as were the other towers of the Rock itself, and to judge by the distant lights, every defensive emplacement across the harbor. It might be their alliance with Tiraas that secured Puna Dara from retribution by other naval powers, but the Punaji were not foolish enough to blithely rely upon it. The deep hum of a fully-charged mag cannon occupying the center of the tower platform attested to that.

“Papa!” Ruda said with clear relief. “The signals are in from the other towers; all cannons are ready to fire on command. That thing is a much more mobile target than a ship, but it’s cruising around in predictable circles out there. I’ve given orders for every artillery team to focus on one spot in its established course, but we’re inevitably going to have some missed shots once it starts reacting. That’s as much as I wanted to order without you here.”

“Well done, Zari,” Blackbeard rumbled, joining her at the battlements and placing a heavy hand on her shoulder. Together, they stared out into the night, and the augmented sea serpent dominating the harbor. As she had said, it was in some kind of odd little patrol route, swimming around and around in a tight circle right in the center of the bay, as if going out of its way to avoid impacting the docks or ships. It was wasting a lot of energy, too; sea serpents were not designed to move with their upper bodies extending out of the water. This thing was deliberately making a show of itself, which implied direction by a much greater intelligence than an animal should have. “To judge by the gadgetry plating that aberration, I surmise your friends have failed to negotiate.”

“I trust my friends,” Ruda said, glaring at the circling monster. “It was worth trying. Sometimes, some people just can’t be reasoned with.”

“It’s good that you understand that, little minnow. Prepare to fire!” he added in a booming voice of command. “Signal the other towers to fire at will upon this weapon’s discharge!”

“Aye, sir!” barked the nearby artillery specialist, hunkering over her mag cannon’s runic controls and staring down its huge barrel, while another soldier swiftly ran signal flags up and a third flashed the beam of a fairy lamp to illuminate them.

“As soon as we fire, it’s war, Papa,” Ruda said grimly. “It’ll be war in our streets.”

“That is not a threat, Zari,” Blackbeard rumbled. “Even if only meant as one, the harbor is unsafe while it’s out there. We are the sea. Without our navy, without merchant ships, Puna Dara is crippled. This is war. I have not rushed to confrontation, but once we are attacked, I will not hesitate.”

“Yes, sir.”

The King’s chest swelled, and he roared, “FIRE AT WILL!”

The cannoneer had been tracking the beast, her weapon’s levitation charms straining to adjust it upon its hinged and spring-loaded mounts; mag cannons were easier and quicker to aim than older conventional artillery, but that was not saying much. At Rajakhan’s command, she immediately yanked the ignition lever.

Everyone’s hair stood up and the tower was illuminated by a white glow as the mag cannon discharged a tremendous beam of pure energy, momentarily cutting off all conversation with its deafening, metallic roar, oddly reminiscent of the semi-mechanical serpent’s. It was a glancing hit; the beam raked one side of the monster’s upthrust body, sending it careening away, then gouged a path of steam and spray through the ocean as the cannoneer tried to adjust, following the beast’s movement. The beam persisted for less than ten seconds, though, and the heavy weapon was awkward to move; she did not get it back onto its target before the energy expired.

Per the King’s orders, however, more fire immediately followed, from each of the mag cannon emplacements on the Rock and the harbor walls. Massive streams of pure arcane energy lit the night, blazing from the arc of Puna Dara’s docks and filling the center of the harbor with an inescapable field of destruction. Not every shot connected; not every shot that hit was a direct blow. Two beams struck the serpent dead on, however, and three others managed glancing strikes off various portions of its long body as it flailed under the assault.

A mag cannon could bore a hole through a fortress wall or obliterate a warship with a single shot. A famously lucky hit by an Imperial mag artillery team had once cleaved a dragon right out of the sky. They failed, however, to sink the beast.

Even as its hide was ignited with a furious torrent of energy and lightning arced from its beleaguered body across the surface of the water, the serpent did not go down. Its metal plating flared alight, the spiny ridges along its back blazing with the intensity of the sun, and apparently diffusing even the colossal energy of the mag cannon fire and dispersing it back into the ocean itself. Waves surged outward toward the docks, whipped up both by the artillery and the sea serpent’s thrashing.

The cannons fell silent, having all fired within seconds of each other; it would take roughly a minute of recharging before they were ready to discharge again at full power.

Still glowing and sparking with residual energy, the sea serpent reared up again, opened its tremendous jaws and let out another deafening roar which boomed out across the harbor.

Princess Zaruda gripped the battlements, sticking her head out toward the sea, and roared right back. Soldiers on the tower followed suit, brandishing staves and swords, and the wordless call was taken up and spread rapidly across the walls of the whole fortress. Faced with an apparently indestructible, unstoppable foe, the Punaji screamed defiance into the dark.

King Rajakhan, however, stood still and silent, one hand resting upon the battlements, watching for whatever fate brought next.


“I won’t hold that against him,” Ayuvesh said magnanimously to the group staring in horror at his massive screen. “Perfectly reasonable reaction to my little pet’s sudden appearance in the harbor. In fact, it makes a very useful object lesson!” He turned a beaming smile upon them, his overt jolliness not quite hiding the venom lurking at the edges of the expression. “Much better in the long run that Rajakhan understands there is nothing he can do against the serpent. This way, hopefully, I will not have to make any demonstrations upon anything which bleeds.”

“You piece of shit,” Gabriel growled, striding to the edge of the platform and leveling his scythe.

“Ah, ah, ah!” Seemingly unperturbed at having a divine weapon pointed at him, Ayuvesh shook a chiding finger. “Careful where you swing that thing, Hand of Death. Yes, yes, we all know you can reap the life from everyone here. Just be advised that if you do, Puna Dara will soon follow. My will alone keeps the beast in check, now that it is awake.” Abruptly, his jovial expression collapsed into a flat stare. “It will not attack…for now. I will give you a few hours to return to the Rock and explain the situation to the King; my pet can withstand the venting of his outrage until then. Beyond that point, however, I expect the Infinite Order to be shown some consideration in Puna Dara.” Slowly, he leaned back in his chair, turning the walking machine again to face them directly. “Once these extremely reasonable and basic conditions are satisfied, perhaps we can resume our discussion. But I see no reason to negotiate until my people’s safety is assured. Especially not with interlopers who talk with one face and scheme with another. And now…” He raised one hand to make a languid gesture at them—or rather, at the doorway behind them. “Until then, children, it would seem you have a rather urgent errand to run. I trust you remember the way out?”


“Your Grace…es.” Inspector Jaahri paused, cleared his throat, and then adjusted his lapels, the living portrait of a man knocked off balance. “I assure you, this situation is under control. If you will allow me to do—”

“Well, drat,” Bishop Darling said, turning to Syrinx, “now he’s gone all diplomatic. That looked rather promising for a moment, there.”

“I never get to have any fun,” she replied petulantly. “Well, if the boy is through making threats, I suppose this’ll go more quickly.”

“Now, see here,” the Inspector said loudly.

“Hush. You’re done.” Basra flicked her fingers at him in a contemptuous gesture, turning a cold shoulder to Jaahri and addressing the rest of the group. “Fortunately, I did not just traipse off into the sunset after interrupting my old friend Falaridjad trying to illegally arrest you kids. I can only surmise from this debacle that you’ve been trying to unravel this affair yourselves in spite of repeated advice to keep safely out of it. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know someone competent has been addressing the matter while you scurried around wasting time.”

“All that’s a little strong,” Darius complained.

“Meet Bishop Syrinx,” Jasmine muttered. Schwartz clenched his fists, breathing slowly and evenly and making a concerted effort not to look at either Basra or Jenell. Meesie, meanwhile, had puffed herself up like a pincushion and was emitting a high, constant hiss.

“All right, this is enough,” Jaahri barked, trying to reassert control. He took a menacing step toward Syrinx. “I will have to insist—”

Jenell’s sword hissed as she yanked it from its sheath and strode forward, pointing the blade at his heart and interposing herself between him and Syrinx.

Jaahri halted, staring at her in clear disbelief. “Young woman,” he said finally, “I am an Imperial Inspector.” For good measure, he pointed at the silver gryphon badge pinned to his coat. “Assaulting me constitutes treason.”

“Congratulations,” she replied, deadpan. “Step away from the Bishop while you’ve still got legs, fool. You just started to charge one of the Sisterhood’s top blademasters. If I meant you harm, I’d have let you do it.”

“Thank you, Covrin,” Basra said lightly. “In any case, I have been investigating this conspiracy with every resource available to me.”

“And that includes me!” Darling said in a cheerful tone, raising a hand. “Hello, everyone, my name is Antonio Darling and I serve as the Church’s liaison to the Imperial security council. My own contacts, working on information helpfully gathered by Bishop Syrinx, singled out branches of this mess among the military police. Including one Inspector Jaahri—who, as we just learned even while gathering intel, was himself on the way to the home of a prominent Eserite to investigate the mysterious demise of one of the best leads in this case.”

“That is slander,” Jaahri hissed.

“Actually he’s got the documents to prove it,” Flora piped up.

“So, being written down, it’s technically libel,” Fauna added.

“Except, proof is absolute defense against a charge of slander,” Flora corrected her.

“Oh, that’s right. So it’s just… What was the word he used?”

Jenell had not lowered her weapon, and now smiled at Jaahri across it. “Treason.”

“Antonio, so help me,” Basra complained, “if your little vaudevillians start including my aide in that insufferable act of theirs I shall be very cross with you.”

“Heel, girls,” he said dutifully. Both elves stuck out their tongues at his back. “Anyhow, we came down here in something of a hurry; we only just learned of this development.”

“But not too much of a hurry to take precautions,” Syrinx added with a predatory smile. “I have a squad from the Third Legion on the way here.”

“And,” Darling said complacently, “I took the time to start several balls rolling before leaving Imperial Command. For your edification, Inspector, General Panissar and Lord Vex are on that council with me, so if you were entertaining thoughts of going over my head, I hope your arms are a lot longer than they look. If you act very quickly and are very adroit, perhaps by this time tomorrow you won’t be in a cell. Who knows? If you’re a lot more capable than I think you are, you might even still be employed by his Majesty’s government.”

Jaahri stared at him, breathing loudly through his nose. The other soldiers in the room watched both him and their sergeant uncertainly.

“Or,” Basra said into the ensuing quiet, “you can attempt what you are contemplating right now. With no surviving witnesses, things might still go in your favor. Then again, you are in a room with two powerful divine casters, one a blademaster, two elves, a Butler, a Silver Legionnaire and…” She glanced at Schwartz with a faint smirk. “…a witch who, despite his numerous failings, is probably capable of demolishing your squad single-handedly. Think carefully, Inspector. Take your time. Some of us can spare it.”

“There seems to be no probable cause to seek arrest here,” the sergeant said suddenly. “Men, you are to ignore any such orders. If the Inspector sees fit to file a complaint, let it be on my head.”

“Yes, sir!” several of them chorused in clear relief.

Jaahri’s left eye twitched violently. He drew in an exceptionally deep breath and let it out through his teeth.

“This is not over,” he promised the two Bishops, and swept toward the door. His dramatic exit was ruined by the fact that Flora and Fauna were still standing in it, and made no move to clear the way.

“You may want to curtail that melodramatic streak before being interviewed by Intelligence,” Darling suggested. “In my experience, the innocent don’t issue threats. Girls, let the man out.”

Jaahri made a point of brushing aggressively against Flora as he departed. She exaggeratedly pantomimed fainting against the door frame, causing Fauna to snicker.

“Weren’t you just making threats, Sweet?” Tallie asked.

Bishop Darling turned to her and winked.

The sergeant cleared his throat. “Well! I guess our business here is done. Unless your Graces will be needing us for anything else?”

“Report to Imperial Command, if you would, Sergeant,” Darling said politely. “That is a request; I’m not empowered to give you orders. But Intelligence will be wanting your testimony on this anyway, and the faster you tell your side, the less opportunity that one has to throw you lads under the carriage.”

“Thank you, your Grace, I’ll do that.” He tipped his cap politely, then again to Glory. “A good evening to you, your Graces. Apologies for the inconvenience, Ms. Sharvineh. Fall in, men.”

There was a slightly awkward silence while the soldiers filed out, Smythe following them into the hall. The moment they heard the front door click shut, Tallie let out a whoop. “Now that is what—”

“Shut up.” Darling’s voice was not loud, but flat and forceful; it commanded instant silence. “You little idiots have come within a hair’s breadth of getting yourselves killed. You actually did get Carruthers Treadwell killed, so, thanks for that.”

“I was the one who invited him here, Sweet,” Glory said calmly. “The security of this house has never failed before. I still don’t know how someone was able to commit an act of such violence without alerting my wards.”

“I’ll wager you’ve never made yourself an enemy of renegade Salyrites, Sharvineh,” said Basra. “You were probably better off trusting Schwartz than your own passive defenses in that regard.” She gave him a suspiciously bright smile. “So long as you can deal with his tendency to develop inappropriate and obsessive crushes, he’s a very useful boy to have around.”

Schwartz grabbed Meesie, who tried to lunge at Basra from across the room, squealing ferociously. “Always a pleasure, your Grace,” he said tersely. “Glory, unless you need me for something else, I’ll just be in the kitchen. I imagine it will mess up your nice parlor if I set that woman on fire, which is where this is heading.”

“Maybe absenting yourself is a good idea, Herschel,” Glory replied softly. Ami, meanwhile, let out a theatrical groan and rolled her eyes dramatically.

“And Talaari,” Basra added. “This is downright nostalgic! Almost the whole gang, together again.”

“I am here to further my career,”Ami said haughtily, “this being a most prestigious house in which to perform. It was going rather well until the unfortunate homicide. No offense meant to anyone, but I would be delighted if the ‘gang’ remained separate. Every time I see any of you people, I end up with some maniac trying to kill me.”

“Wow, you weren’t kidding,” Darling mused while Schwartz slipped out the back, still clutching a struggling Meesie in both hands. “She really talks that way.”

“Ami’s another one who’s very good at what she does,” Basra said dourly, “and so annoying it’s almost not worth it. I seem to attract them, somehow. Anyway! We both have to go resume cleaning up this mess, so we can’t loiter here much longer. Ms. Sharvineh, assorted junior reprobates, I’ve given orders for the Legionnaires coming to escort you to the Temple of Avei.”

“Now, just a ding-danged second here,” Tallie began stridently.

“If,” Basra all but shouted, “you choose to go! I strongly encourage you to do so—renegade Salyrites may be willing to take on a famous socialite’s personal defenses, but the Sisterhood of Avei is another matter. If you prefer to take your chances alone, though, they will stay here to secure the house until further notice.”

“My neighbors will love that,” Glory murmured.

“The problem,” said Jasmine, “is that we know for a fact this conspiracy has a presence in the Sisterhood of Avei. The Guild is the only cult we believe isn’t infiltrated.”

“And that’s why you don’t let anybody corner you alone,” Basra said in a tone of exaggerated patience. “Stay in the Temple’s main areas—or better yet, in the Silver Legion’s public grounds. I’m sure you know your way around, Jasmine.”

“And for the record,” Darling added, “just in case it comes up, the Huntsmen of Shaath are also clean.”

“Hard to imagine that becoming helpful,” said Darius.

“Yeah,” Darling said sharply. “All of which makes it very curious that you left the Guild in the first place.”

“The thing about that,” Tallie began.

“We fucked up,” Ross interrupted. He shrugged when everyone turned to stare at him. “That’s the truth. We saw cults infiltrated an’ panicked. Didn’t think about the Guild bein’ harder to corrupt.”

“Well, at least they can learn,” Basra said, shaking her head. “The good news is that all of this may be coming to a head very soon. We’ll take steps to get you lot safely back to the Guild if it’s not cleaned up by tomorrow. What I assume you don’t know is that today, Archpope Justinian gave an address in which he warned in the strongest possible terms against clerics of any faith prioritizing Church loyalty over obligations to their own gods.”

“Wait…what?” Tallie said incredulously. “I thought this whole thing was about Justinian’s inner circle making some kind of power play!”

Darling and Syrinx exchanged a look.

“Kid,” he said, “we’re his inner circle. And one thing we know Justinian likes to do is use his loyal agents to winnow each other down.”

Layla suddenly straightened up, her eyes widening. “He’s cleaning house.”

“Well, good,” Basra said, “at least one of them has a mind.”

“Well, it ain’t me,” said Darius. “What do you mean, cleaning house?”

“The general tensions between the Church and the Imperial government were brought to the very brink of open violence just a few weeks ago,” Darling said somberly. “The details are classified, but suffice it to say, each runs secret projects, and two of theirs blundered into each other in the dark and it got messy. Sharidan knows the Archpope has designs on increasing his power at the Throne’s expense; all that restrains him from acting is public opinion and the support of the Houses and cults. If the government moves on the Church without damn solid evidence of wrongdoing…”

“It would be the Enchanter Wars all over again,” Jasmine whispered.

“Probably not that bad,” said Basra, “but it’s enough of an issue that the Throne having any legitimate, actionable grievance is an existential threat to Justinian’s ambitions. He has been frantically rebuilding bridges; the two main fronts appear to be this business and what’s unfolding in Puna Dara. The Archpope is setting up those loyal to him but whom he doesn’t need to take a fall, and prove his goodwill toward the Silver Throne.”

“And that’s why their moves have been so…reckless and unwise,” Layla said eagerly. “He’s directing them to make mistakes on purpose!”

“Oh, he’s not directing this,” Basra said grimly. “That would leave a trail Imperial Intelligence can follow, and Justinian is far too clever for that. No, it’s as simple as placing incompetent people in positions of leadership, and letting events unfold naturally—hence Ildrin Falaridjad. No one who has worked with that whingeing, glory-hounding nitwit would place her in charge of a fruit stand, much less a conspiracy.”

“Wait,” Jasmine said, “what’s happening in Puna Dara?”

“None of your business!” Syrinx barked. “You little nincompoops have caused enough damage! If you truly have no regard for your own welfare, as seems to be the case, then at least quit messing up the efforts of people who can actually do this work!”

“This is a conflict between the Universal Church and the Silver Throne, ultimately,” Darling said in a calmer tone. “Everyone you’ve encountered so far is considered expendable by the real players, including yourselves, and us. This is over your pay grade, kids. We have contacts within the Imperial Government and every cult we could reach moving to clean up the conspirators as we speak. This is going to unfold quickly, and it’s going to get a lot messier before it gets cleaned up. The best thing you can do now is hunker down and butt out. Let the Legions keep you safe until this blows over.”

“And if you can’t manage that,” Basra added disdainfully, “at least try not to get any more useful witnesses murdered.”

“Well,” Darius said after a short pause, “no promises, but we’ll see what we can do.”

 

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13 – 20

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“All right,” Inspector Jaahri said in a weary tone, “one more time, then. Miss Sakhavenid found—”

“With all respect, Inspector,” Glory said, finally with open sharpness, “we have been over this six times now. It is neither a long nor a complex story.”

“I find that repetition helps weed out accidental little falsehoods that tend to creep into any narrative,” the Inspector replied, matching Glory’s stare flatly. “Or do you imagine yourself to be an expert on Imperial investigative procedure?”

“It is not procedure for you to have dismissed the entire house full of guests,” Jasmine interjected.

“Quiet, girl,” Jaahri snapped, shooting her a sidelong look.

“Each of those,” she pressed on, “was a potential witness and suspect, and I know you did not have time to interview them all in detail—”

“Sergeant,” the Inspector said loudly, “if that young woman interrupts me again, take her into custody.”

The tension in the room increased significantly, and it had not been slight to begin with. Glory and her staff for the evening had been gathered in the downstairs parlor at the insistence of the Inspector, along with Schwartz and Ami. The rest of the house had been cleared out, at Jaahri’s insistence, leaving them alone with eight Imperial soldiers, who had positioned themselves in a ring around the civilians. Their demeanor was cold almost to the point of aggression; they stared balefully at the gathered Eserites (and Vesker and Salyrite) as if expecting to have to break out wands at any moment. A rather peculiar attitude for soldiers to have toward a group of young servants whom they had not been informed were Guild apprentices.

Smythe was gliding smoothly around the chamber, offering tea to each soldier in turn, and being irritably rebuffed every time. Which, of course, did not ruffle his equanimity in the slightest.

“Why are your men not investigating the house, or the crime scene?” Glory asked, her tone again deceptively mild.

“Madam,” Jaahri said impatiently, folding his arms, “I will ask the questions, if you don’t mind—”

“I mind,” she interrupted. “In fact, I have had just about enough of this. It beggars belief that you would dismiss an entire house full of suspects only to sit here grilling those least likely to have been implicated in this crime.”

“Don’t presume that I know nothing of this matter except what I’ve learned here tonight,” the Inspector retorted. “I already have my suspects, Ms. Sharvineh, thank you for your concern. For instance, the late Mr. Treadwell was not a social creature, and in particular was last seen in seclusion due to an embarrassing misstep within his own cult. Someone exerted significant pressure to bring him out to this event…at which he was subsequently murdered. And as luck would have it, I happen to know already who did so.”

“You accuse me of this?” She raised one eyebrow, her expression artfully skeptical.

“I am not yet ready to make accusations,” Jaahri replied, tucking his notebook away in an inner pocket of his coat. “But I am well aware, Ms. Sharvineh, that there is an ongoing matter here, and that you have attempted to conceal the connection from me. This group of young people very closely matches the description of a group of Thieves’ Guild apprentices who were involved in the burglary of a temple of Avei, an event connected to Mr. Treadwell being reprimanded by his superiors in the Collegium. Now, it would seem he has been silenced.”

“Now, that’s real interesting,” Tallie snapped. “Since Schwartz and Ami weren’t part of—”

“Hzzt!” Ross grunted, driving an elbow into her side nearly hard enough to knock her over. Glory glanced over at Tallie, letting out a soft sigh.

“And that is an admission,” Jaahri said with grim satisfaction. “I believe you had all better accompany me to the barracks to discuss this further, in more detail.”

“She is right, though,” Glory said thoughtfully, holding up a hand to forestall Darius, who had straightened up and unfolded his arms at the Inspector’s last comment. “Mr. Schwartz and Ms. Talaari are not involved in that. Why would you see fit to detain them? Herschel is a guest this evening—the only one you did not dismiss. And I cannot fathom what connection you think my paid musician might have to the murder.”

“The fact that you know less than I is the reason this will be quickly solved,” Inspector Jaahri stated. “Sergeant, start gathering these people up, all of—damn it, will you go away?” he snapped at Smythe, who had offered him a canape. The Butler bowed in silence and retreated to stand by the door. Jasmine glanced at him once, pressing her lips together; Smythe’s act had effectively removed him from the soldiers’ consideration except as a buzzing nuisance, and now he had placed himself in control of the room’s primary exit, holding a tray which would serve as either weapon or shield. Clearly, these troops were not accustomed to dealing with Butlers.

“Hershel,” Glory said calmly, “what do you have for neutralizing enemies in a crowd?”

“You are on thin ice, Sharvineh,” Jaahri warned.

“In fact I’ve got just the thing!” Schwartz replied, while Meesie bristled on his shoulder, chattering at the Inspector. “Cooked it up after our last go-round. You know, the one where we trounced a contingent of Svennish intelligence agents?” He cast a pointed look at Jaahri, who hesitated in the act of opening his mouth again. “Controlled chain lightning. I can cast it to arc only to targets I designate; a quick and clean way to clear out a room of mixed hostiles and friendlies. I’d sort of rather not, though. Lightning has a tendency to be lethal.”

“Are you aware that threatening a duly appointed agent of the Silver Throne is a crime, Mr. Schwartz?” the Inspector grated.

“Are you aware of the penalty for corruption for officers of the Emperor’s law?” Jasmine asked quietly.

“That does it,” Jaahri snapped, pointing at her. “Sergeant, arrest that one. Now.”

A man wearing sergeant’s stripes glanced at Jasmine, then at Schwartz, and swallowed. “Sir…”

“Did I stutter?” the Inspector asked incredulously, rounding on him.

“A thought occurs to me,” Glory said idly, inspecting her flawlessly manicured nails. “We know that poor Mr. Treadwell was involved in a conspiracy which has been pursuing these apprentices. All of us had been operating on the assumption, however, that this was strictly a matter among the cults. I confess it simply did not occur to me that there would be enemy agents among the Imperial Army. And yet, I am stymied as to why else you would choose to dismiss most of the possible suspects from investigation, Inspector, or how you would know to include Mr. Schwartz and the bard in this…net, of yours. Tell me, what do you think will happen when I bring my own influence to bear upon you?” A feline smile uncoiled itself across her lips. “I am not, as I suspect you know, without powerful friends.”

“You have managed to say the worst possible thing available to you in this circumstance, Sharvineh,” Jaahri said. “You are all under arrest, and I strongly suggest you comply voluntarily. Resisting his Majesty’s—”

Smythe interrupted him by clearing his throat loudly; the Butler, in fact, was in the process of slipping back into the room, having ducked out while everyone was distracted. Jaahri whirled on him, reaching into a pocket of his coat, and one of the soldiers actually drew a wand. Smythe ignored all of them, directing himself to a point in midair near the center of the parlor.

“Bishops Darling and Syrinx to see you, madam,” he intoned, stepping aside.

They paced inside in lockstep, both wearing their formal Church robes and tabards, but both moved with the graceful stride of a pair of leopards, their eyes snapping to Inspector Jaahri as soon as they entered the room. Even the ecclesiastical uniforms did not detract from the effect; these were plainly here as Eserite and Avenist, not Church officials.

“Oh, now, don’t let us interrupt you, Inspector,” Darling said in an uncharacteristically flat tone.

Behind them, three more women strode into the parlor, immediately fanning out to assert full control of the exit; Flora, Fauna, and Jenell Covrin also stared coldly, making a point of watching the assembled soldiers.

“Yes, by all means,” Syrinx growled, fondling the ornate hilt of her sword. “Finish your thought.”


Akhatrya rapped on the wooden door frame even as he stepped into the room without waiting to be invited; the palace seneschal enjoyed certain privileges as well as responsibilities, and being on hand to assist the royal family whether they sought him out or not involved some blending of the two. It was late, and this wasn’t strictly his responsibility—any number of lesser servants could have seen to it—but he made a point of keeping an eye on any of the family who were under unusual stress, or acting out of the ordinary.

Both conditions applied to Princess Zaruda this evening.

She did not commonly choose to spend time in her father’s office, or any place predominated by papers and books. Neither did the King, but Rajakhan never shirked his duties, no matter how tedious he found them. It was a safe bet, however, that when the King did not need to be actively poring over documents, he would be elsewhere, and so Ruda had had the office to herself all night. She’d spent the evening having clerks bring her a variety of textbooks, financial records and copies of several treaties. Now, Akhatrya entered to find her hunched over an open volume of conversion tables, muttering to herself and tracing one fingertip across a page as she read.

“Would you like anything, your Highness?” he asked diffidently.

“Think I got everything I wanted, thanks,” Ruda muttered without looking up.

The seneschal smiled faintly. “Good. I meant more in the way of food or drink, however. Perhaps a pillow?”

“It isn’t that late,” she said, finally lifting her eyes to frown at him. The office had two narrow windows looking out across the battlements at the harbor, which showed nothing but darkness at this hour. It was not dim, thanks to the fairy lamps.

“Very good, your Highness,” Akhatrya said, bowing. “I am, of course, at your disposal, should you have questions about anything you read.”

She was already frowning at the book again, and absently shook her head. The seneschal waited another moment before bowing again, despite the fact she was no longer looking at him, and turning to go.

“Hey, Akhatrya, wait a second.”

“Your Highness?” He turned back to face her, folding his hands in front of himself.

Ruda almost grudgingly tore her gaze away from the columns of figures she was studying. “Let me pose you a hypothetical.”

“I am at your service.”

“Suppose you worked for a King or Queen who wanted to change the standard of measurements we use from the common system to the dwarven system. How would you advise them to go about implementing that?”

He hesitated for a moment, thinking. “Well… In honesty, Princess, my first recommendation would be not to.”

She drummed her fingers once on another book, staring at him. When she said nothing further, he continued.

“Forcing changes in people’s way of life from the position of the Crown is always tricky, Princess, and should be done as sparingly as possible. This is true for all rulers, but most especially for those governing a people as free-spirited and prone to defiance as the Punaji. Any hint of heavy-handed action without a clear and specific purpose will agitate the populace. That, in particular, would impose costs upon everyone, most especially merchants. Converting from one system—any kind of system—to another is always a difficult transition.”

She let out a soft huff, and turned her head to scowl at the dark windows. “If there’s one thing I would expect of Punaji, it’s not to carry on following a mindless tradition when there are better, more effective ways. Especially a tradition that it turns out was created by the Elder Gods for the specific fucking purpose of holding people back and making our lives difficult. Akhatrya, have you ever looked at the tables of dwarven measurements? It’s all so…efficient. Everything’s derived from a base measurement designed to be specifically useful. Everything scales in neat increments of ten—no figuring or fumbling involved, if you can damn well count you can do shit it takes a trained accountant to handle now. No wonder the dwarves switched over. If they can do it, why the hell can’t anyone else? Why not the Punaji? What the economy alone would save in the long run is more than worth the hassle of converting!”

“If only people saw life in terms of neat costs and rewards,” he said wryly. “Your Highness, I have not been party to your political education. Are you aware of the systems of government used by the dwarves?”

“Mm, not in much detail,” she admitted. “I could probably tell you more about Tiraan or Sifanese or Arkanian politics than the Five Kingdoms. They’re pretty insular an’ they bend over backwards to accommodate us whenever we do business; I’ve mostly learned how to show ’em proper manners when they visit and leave their inner workings alone. Hell, even the Sifanese are less standoffish about people getting into their internal business.”

“I see,” Akhatrya said thoughtfully. “Are you acquainted with the concept of socialism?”

“No, but I like it already,” she replied, grinning. “Sounds cuddly.”

“It’s an idea which is implemented, in one form or another, in the governing policies of each of the Five Kingdoms,” he explained. “Basically, the core contention of socialism is that nothing which is necessary for life should be the subject of personal profit, for anyone. Food, lodgings, and medical care, for example, are all provided to all citizens equally by the state. The different dwarven nations have varying standards of what is necessary; by and large, they are all more highly organized at the state level than any human nation, and their governments provide a very wide range of services compared to ours. They have elaborate public education, for example, all the way through the university level, and state-sponsored arts, museums, scientific research, loans of business capital… Obviously, this necessitates a very high level of government involvement in all aspects of life, and is funded by a heavy income tax, levied progressively according to individual wealth.”

Ruda stared at him in blank silence for a long moment.

“Well,” she said at last, “that’s not quite the dumbest fucking idea I’ve ever heard, but I respect it for trying.”

Akhatrya grinned. “Consider this, though. Even with most of their economies in shambles and gross domestic products flatlined at best for the last ten years, the Five Kingdoms have universally low crime, almost no unemployment, and zero homelessness. Most societies in the state of economic vulnerability they currently suffer succumb to further related maladies, notably outbreaks of disease. No such thing has happened in the Dwarnskolds. They suffer some privation, but they do so equally. The strong do not prey upon the weak, and society itself endures without leaning upon its most vulnerable members.”

“Akhatrya, it sounds like you like this cockamamie scheme,” she exclaimed. “You can’t possibly be thinking of trying something like that in fucking Puna Dara! We’d have a revolution within five fucking minutes!”

“And that,” he said, nodding, “is exactly my point. I heartily approve of you studying the ways of our neighbors to learn from their strengths, Princess. But never forget that we are not dwarves. We are not even Imperials. We are Punaji, and not every useful idea that exists in the world would be useful to us. Some, though they might indeed prove to be assets, are simply too far from the core of who we are. The people will not tolerate anything they see as an attack upon the spirit of our nation.”

She turned again to frown at the window, but this time the expression was more thoughtful than disgruntled.

“The spirit of our nation,” Ruda said quietly, “is already under attack. A long, slow one that we can’t seem to do anything to halt. There’s no room for a pirate nation in the world as it’s shaping up. We already depend on the Empire’s goodwill to prevent one of the other naval powers of the Azure Sea from invading us, and isn’t that a constant fucking insult. Sooner or later, we have to either change who we are, or…give up. Forget who we are, be absorbed by Tiraas like the Calderaan and the Stalweiss and the Onkawi and…” She trailed off, and swallowed heavily. “Gods. I hope Mama and Papa are gone before it comes to that. I don’t want them to have to see it.”

After a moment, Akhatrya stepped quietly over to the desk, and reached out to lay a hand upon her shoulder. It was not strictly appropriate, but the Rock was probably the least formal of the government palaces in all the world. They were, after all, Punaji.

Ruda heaved a sigh and cleared her throat, turning back to regard him with a freshly incisive expression, and he let his hand fall, stepping back.

“We’re already the Five Kingdoms’ biggest trading partner, though,” she said. “Everything they make and wanna sell overseas comes through Puna Dara. Since the Narisian Treaty they’ve vastly increased the business they do that way instead of selling to the Empire, too. There is no possible way Punaji merchants aren’t already familiar with dwarven systems of weights and measures.”

“That is true,” he allowed. “Most have found it profitable to endure our neighbors’ little peculiarities. And if the systems are indeed as superior as you say, there may well be some who already favor them.”

“So, getting back to my original question.” Ruda leaned back in her father’s chair, staring at the far wall, and propped her (thankfully clean) boots up on a copy of a tariff agreement with the Kingdom of Stavulheim. “How to implement that, while still respecting the independent spirit of the Punaji. Since the precedent’s already there, I think we could begin by encouraging the use of dwarven standards without mandating them. Go slow, go careful, gradually get the population more acquainted with ’em an’ make sure there’s widespread acceptance before starting to switch actual government practice. Hnh, I much prefer to get shit done, but I guess you’ve gotta take your time when dealing with the egos of tens of thousands of people.”

“The safe way is the slow way, as a rule,” he agreed, smiling again.

Ruda looked back up at him, grinning. “So! You like my general strategy, then? Anything you’d add?”

“Well,” Akhatrya said, “you asked me what I would do, hypothetically, if I served a monarch who insisted on pursuing such a course. In that situation…yes, I think I would proceed much as you describe. And I also would offer thanks to the gods that my people were in the hands of a wise Queen.”

Her smile actually faltered, and the princess cleared her throat, averting her eyes. “Ah… Yeah, well, I guess—”

Both of them stiffened as an alarm bell began tolling outside the fortress, quickly followed by a second, and then more.

Ruda swung her legs back to the floor and bounded up, crossing to the window, where she pressed her face against the glass, peering out at the darkened harbor.

“What the fuck?” she exclaimed after a brief moment, then whirled and dashed for the door.


“THINK!” Ayuvesh thundered, his voice booming from the walls of the cavern.

The group actually hesitated, which was just as well for the sake of diplomacy; Vadrieny had already burst forth, both Huntsmen had bows drawn, Gabriel was brandishing both scythe and saber, and even Toby had shifted to a ready stance.

“You servants of the Pantheon are always so quick to turn to violence,” the leader of the Rust continued, bestowing on them a mocking smile from his perch atop the walking machine. At the touch of his fingers upon the chair controls, it took a lumbering step backward, then shifted, awkwardly turning itself to face them at an angle. “Really, it’s not as if I don’t know who the lot of you are. Would I actually want to start a fight with you, here, in our own sanctum? Knowing it would cost the lives of many of my comrades, and incalculable damage to our home and resources? No, no, children, rest assured, I was not challenging you to battle.”

“Y’know, for a guy who talks so much about how put-upon he is,” Fross chimed irritably, “you spout a lot of what are really easy to take as threats.”

“This is a misunderstanding,” Toby said firmly. “I honestly have no idea what’s happening, and I have no qualms at all about telling you anything you want to know about the woman who stole the screen off your gateway. I can’t even say for sure if she’s the reason for this—”

“I would be willing to put money on that,” Gabriel growled.

Toby shot him a quelling look. “But we certainly have no attachment to her. Her behavior was not exactly friendly.”

Ayuvesh regarded him sardonically while he spoke, then lowered his gaze to study something set amid the controls on the arm of his mount’s seat. “Hummm. And yet, I find no indication of someone apart from you lot creeping around…” He paused, frowning. “And yet. A screen was remotely activated, and its position is currently unknown. So…perhaps.”

“Perhaps is a starting point,” Toby said soothingly, holding up both hands. “Look, we’ve already established that none of us here wants anything to get more violent than it already has.”

“Ah, yes, so we should now lay our cards on the table,” Ayuvesh said bitterly. “As you did when you mentioned this mysterious woman as soon as you entered.”

“Honestly, man, what would you have said?” Gabriel asked in exasperation.

Vadrieny turned on him with the same tone. “Are you under the impression that you’re helping, Gabe?”

“Not usually,” he muttered.

“Let me lay out for you some other things we have established,” Ayuvesh continued, again manipulating his controls. The walker retreated further, even as the other members of the Rust scattered to man various pieces of machinery, or disappear into side tunnels. “None of us are eager to volunteer information—perhaps understandably. You kids have a tendency to perceive threats in every little thing, and respond with the promise of your considerable capacity for brute force. I, on the other hand, respond to threats by…rearranging the playing field. The best way, I find, to avoid getting into a pitched battle is to make the process so uninviting that no one seeks to offer you violence.”

“Like you did to the Silver Legions,” said Juniper.

“You seem to think that was an extreme response,” Ayuvesh said grimly. “What’s more reasonable, when presented with a large, threatening force, than to remove that force from the board, as gently as possible? But you lot aren’t a Silver Legion. You have a lot more firepower, a lot less restraint, and not half the logistical hurdles involved in doing anything. Carefully incapacitating you isn’t really a prospect, I suppose. So I must, if we are to continue these discussions, somehow ensure your good behavior. I wish I could think of a less regrettable way to do so. Truly, I do.”

He pushed a lever and the walker turned to face one of the walls, which was already shifting into motion, its innumerable machine parts whirring and shuffling like a colossal swarm of ants. Metal arms extended from dozens of points, each bearing view screens of various sizes, and began fitting them together into a single, huge display, its image clear despite the lines of connection running across it and its wildly uneven edges.

The cobbled-together screen showed them an image of the city harbor under the moonlight. As they watched, the waters began to stir.

“I expect you kids to be respectful, henceforth,” Ayuvesh chided, “for the sake of Puna Dara.”


Ruda burst out of the fortress doors onto the battlements, racing for the foremost tower which extended into the harbor with Akhatrya right on her heels. It was chaos, but organized chaos; soldiers dashed alongside them, moving themselves into proper order, as more assembled in ranks in the Rock’s main courtyard below.

The princess and the seneschal reached the tower, troops hustling out of their way, and tore up its steps to the platform on top, where Ruda pressed herself against the crenelated wall, staring incredulously out over the harbor.

Ships were moored, but there was fortunately no active traffic at this hour, and thus no vessels were lost in the disturbance. The spot near the center of the bay, which alternately bubbled as if pressed upon from below and descended into a whirlpool, abruptly exploded, spraying water as far as the docks.

The thing that rose up from within was titanic, a thick, sinuous shape plated in irregular metal over its coiled scales. A row of metallic spikes ran along its spine, with lengths of wire connecting them and giving off sparks and arcs of lightning which danced across the surface of the water. Most of the massive sea serpent’s head was original flesh and bone, but its wedge-like lower jaw was entirely metal, and its right eye had been covered over with a huge patch connected to the plates and spikes climbing up its back. Into this was set a tremendous green fairy lamp which cast a sickly glow across the whole harbor.

Giant sea serpents did not come this close to the shore, they very rarely breached the surface and definitely did not vocalize. The augmented monstrosity finished showing that it did not respect any of these rules by throwing back its head and emitting a mighty roar which had a distinct undertone of metal scraping against metal.

“Are you fucking kidding me?!” Ruda roared right back, turning to Akhatrya and pointing accusingly out at the beast. “Look at this! This is what happens when I leave those assholes unsupervised!”

 

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13 – 19

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Much as the children of Vanislaas favored the subtle approach, there was a time and a place. With a renegade Hand of the Emperor bounding toward him at impossible speed, Fedora dropped all camouflage and shot skyward. No one was close enough to see the revealed bone-white perfection of his skin, his crystalline irises or blue-tinged hair, but the wings and tail would have made quite a stir, had anyone been watching. He ascended as fast as those wings could propel him—not specifically to avoid notice, though it would be a nice perk. He had more urgent matters on his mind.

The Hand, however, moved with equally unnatural velocity. Even as Fedora rocketed off the steeple, he landed on the roof of the general store and instantly bounced in a high arc toward the church. The Hand impacted the side of the steeple near its peak, almost exactly where the incubus had been standing, and kicked off again, pushing himself skyward in a wide parabola that would send him crashing back to the outskirts of town from a horrifying height, and stood no realistic chance of catching the airborne demon.

He flung one hand forward and up as he ascended, though, aiming right at Fedora’s rapidly-vanishing tail.

The wash of magic that burst forth was invisible, and mostly fae in nature. It quickly dissipated in the air; Hands of the Emperor were phenomenally deadly in close combat, but had little in the way of flashy magic to throw around. That fistful of raw energy was too unfocused even to qualify as a spell, and barely reached Fedora before flickering out into nothingness. What it did have, however, was sheer power, and “barely” was enough.

Vanislaad were limited to human-like forms in their shapeshifting, and one of the drawbacks of a human form was that nature had never intended it to fly. Fedora’s flight was far more magical than aerodynamic—enough so that when a wash of unfocused fae magic rushed over him, temporarily suppressing the power of his demonic nature, his wings abruptly discovered that they were trying to hold aloft a creature far too heavy and entirely the wrong shape for soaring through the sky.

He tumbled and flopped midair, cursing and frantically flapping his beleaguered wings like a singed moth. Fedora managed, after some struggle, to right himself and get rearranged into an awkward glide, but the fact remained he was going nowhere but down. At least he had enough wingspan to manage a descent that would put him down out of range of the town, and without forming a crater upon impact.

The effort so absorbed him, however, that he failed to realize his position relative to his pursuer.

Just as Fedora was leveling out his fall, the Hand came arcing back down from the apex of his final leap. The incubus’s midair struggles had shoved him far to the side of his descent, inevitably, but he craned his head as he fell, studying the angles.

Then he vanished as though slipping through a crack in midair. Instantly he reappeared, still falling and at exactly the same angle and speed, but now directly above the gliding Inspector. It wasn’t a precise hit—given the forces and speeds involved, that would have been truly uncanny—but it put him close enough to reach out and, as he passed, grab Fedora’s extended tail just above its spaded tip.

The demon let out another aggravated yelp as he was abruptly yanked downward. “Oh, how are you possibly—”

The Hand of the Emperor, not in a conversational mood, swung him around in a complete circle as they plummeted, releasing at exactly the right moment to send him hurtling downward at far greater than terminal velocity.

This time Fedora managed to right himself faster, largely through luck, and snapped his wings back out to their full extent. There was no possibility of another saving glide, however; he was heading down far too fast and at far too steep an angle. Curling himself into a defensive ball with the exception of the wings, outstretched in a desperate makeshift parachute, he came slamming down onto the roof of the barn which stood on the outskirts of Last Rock.

Onto, and through.

The incubus crashed through the timbers, bounced off the edge of the hayloft and hit the ground in an agonized heap, trailing bedraggled wings which flopped over him in a mess of snapped bones and ripped sails.

It took priceless moments for the pain to recede enough for him to think. The Vanislaad were among the least physically powerful demons, but hardy in their way; what did not immediately kill him would right itself in time, and far faster than humans healed. Not fast enough to get him out of the present danger, however.

What broke him from his reverie was a second impact, which caused the entire barn to shake and one corner to partially collapse as something hit it. Timbers and planks fell, luckily far enough from him not to add further injury, but the noise galvanized his attention enough to take inventory.

Broken…lots of things broken. An arm, a leg—no, both legs—wings completely out of commission. Ribs, apparently most of them. Not his spine, good; that wouldn’t paralyze him the way it could a human, but there was only so much muscle and tendon could do around a fractured core. Even luckier, he had avoided hitting anything skull-first. Fortunately none of his internal organs actually did anything—except, less fortunately, ache and bleed when subjected to this caliber of abuse.

After a momentary pause, the wreckage of the corner of the barn began shifting insistently, causing the whole structure to groan in protest. Hands of the Emperor were nothing if not physically hardy. That fall wouldn’t be good for anybody, but the bastard had assuredly been damaged less than Fedora, and would heal much faster.

Marshaling himself, he faded into invisibility and began scuttling away to hide behind a stack of straw bales. With one arm and two legs broken, this was utterly excruciating, but having pushed through the initial shock, he managed to embrace the sensation, forced it to sharpen his mind rather than fogging it. Pain wasn’t preferable to pleasure—at least, not to him, though he’d known incubi and even the odd mortal who felt otherwise—but children of Vanislaas sought out extreme sensations as a matter of course. If they went too long without feeding the itch, whatever stimulated the nerves could provide partial relief.

He managed to conceal himself behind both his native shroud of invisibility and the physical obstruction of the straw, which would hopefully buy a few seconds; he was sure the Hands had extra senses, though of what nature he did not know. Fedora carefully rummaged in the inner pocket of his trench coat with his un-broken hand. The bag-of-holding spell had, of course, shielded the contents from damage and yielded up exactly what he was reaching for. Bless modern enchantment; this situation would’ve been an immediate death sentence fifty years ago.

He reflected wryly, as he flicked off the cork and downed a vial of healing potion imbued with pure infernal magic, that he might have outsmarted himself here. All this ruckus would’ve already been resolved had he not persuaded Tellwyrn to hang back and watch rather than “saving” the day as per her distinctive idiom. Well, it had been the right call, and he’d outmaneuvered the Hand’s gambit. Now he just had to survive the son of a bitch long enough to tell her what she was up against.

Fedora took some tiny satisfaction from the groans that accompanied the Hand’s self-extrication. Precious seconds ticked by, in which they both rapidly improved in condition. The Hand’s innate magic straightening out the comparatively minor injuries he’d suffered, Fedora’s potion working far more rapidly on him. Rapidly or not, though, it was working on much greater damage to a much more fragile vessel. He’d no immediately useful basis of comparison to the Hand’s condition, but best to assume the man would be in better shape than he by the time he couldn’t afford to stall any longer.

That time was fast approaching.

Teeth gritted against the urge to gasp—luckily he did not actually have to breathe—while several bones shifted excruciatingly back into position, he took stock of his surroundings. No exits in the back half of the barn, of course. To reach either the front or side doors he’d have to go back out in the open. Was he faster than a Hand of the Emperor? In this condition, no. In his optimal shape…based on what he’d seen tonight, also no.

He’d just have to be smarter, then.

Easier said than done; brains couldn’t do much without usable options. Fedora quickly discarded extraneous details, fixing upon two of immediate importance: invisible or no, his crawl back here would have left a trail in the dust which the Hand would find sooner than later, and there was exactly one discreet exit from this position.

His arm and leg bones were in their right configuration but still somewhat fractured, which meant that while he could haul himself up the steep ladder into the hayloft, he could not do so in silence. Bracing himself on it and trusting his invisibility, he pulled his battered body upright, peeking over the strawbales and watching the Hand for his moment, already reaching once more into his coat pocket.

As he’d thought, the Hand paused in his pacing, bending over to watch the trail Fedora had left on the ground. That put him seconds at most from pursuing, but also gave the incubus his opening.

He withdrew his hand and hurled the vial he’d just grabbed over the man’s bent head, straight into the wrecked corner of the barn.

It was one of his favorite alchemical explosives: not terribly powerful, but extraordinarily clean. No fire, no light, not even heat or a puff of smoke, just a burst of pure kinetic energy when the vial broke and the solution encountered air. The blast sent broken planks tumbling again, and caused the whole barn to creak ominously. More importantly, it made the Hand whirl to face this new threat, giving Fedora time to scuttle up the ladder with the speed of a spooked squirrel.

He had barely enough mental wherewithal to collapse as gently and silently as possible when he reached the top. Kelvreth’s lashes, that had fucking hurt. Yep, the broken arm was well and truly broken again—and now the effects of his infernal healing potion were fading, so it was gonna stay that way for the immediate term. He didn’t dare take another vial; just the amount he’d already used was risky in the presence of a fae-attuned creature like the Hand. His legs, fortunately, just hurt. Like Hell itself, he thought authoritatively, but at least they were somewhat functional again.

Fedora lay stretched out, wings awkwardly flopping beside him while they continued stitching slowly back together—he might manage one more awkward glide tonight, but he wasn’t flying anywhere—and concentrated on listening and not breathing. The potion helped a bit but he still felt weakened by fae exposure. Or maybe it was just pain. The barn shuddered again due to something the Hand did, but the man was already on the prowl again. Also, there were sounds from within the town, rapidly approaching: footsteps and voices. Whether anybody had noticed them soaring through the air was unknowable at this point, but thanks the the Hand’s efforts at stirring up a mob, plenty of people were out and about to hear two man-sized projectiles plummet to the ground, and the state of this barn would quickly reveal where they had landed.

He lifted his head, again taking stock. Good, he was slightly less cornered now. There was a wide loading window up here, with a sturdy bar extending outward conveniently lined with rope. Why the hell would—oh, lifting hay bales into the loft, of course. If he was going to stay out here in the sticks he needed to familiarize himself better with prairie life. More immediately important, that provided a neat exit. He could also go over the front edge of the hayloft, back to the floor and out one of the exits; the Hand would soon find his trail again, which would lead to the ladder, which would keep him facing away from the front of the barn.

That would require split-second timing, speed he wasn’t sure his battered legs were up to, and would put him out facing the town, right in time for whatever crowd was coming to get here—depending on how Maru was doing, possibly under the effect of mob-maddening Vidian jiggery pokery.

Yeah, that really was not a choice.

Moving as fast as he could without compromising stealth, he stood and crept to the window. Its bottom was even with the floor, which luckily meant one less thing to climb. More importantly, the coast was clear. Fedora grasped the rope with his good arm and hopped out.

Only instinct honed by centuries of cat-and-mouse games like this one saved him.

Before he had consciously processed the noise below him, he’d reflexively yanked upward, hauling his feet and tail out of range of the Hand’s grasp as the man hopped from below. Fedora swung all the way up and landed atop the beam in a crouch; both legs screamed in agony, but they held. For the moment. One was quavering, though, and he knew another maneuver like that was going to send him to the ground.

He peered over the side of the beam; the Hand of the Emperor glared up at him. Clever bastard hadn’t followed his trail at all. To get out here he’d have needed to exit the barn from the side and circle all the way around…which meant he had anticipated Fedora’s reactions and plans in detail, right in the moment.

Well, that was good and fucking ominous.

They stared at one another in silence for a moment, and Fedora was again pleased with himself for cultivating such a disheveled appearance; it neatly concealed the fact that he himself was physically a wreck. The Hand wasn’t so lucky, his usually pristine black coat being torn half off him. Even the fringe of hair surrounding his bald head was sticking out in all directions like a bird’s nest.

Fedora thought as fast as he’d ever thought in his life. Then, powering through the howling pain, he first straightened up and darted forward along the beam, then instantly pivoted and shot back the other way, bounding onto the roof of the barn.

He had a clear shot to the mountainside from the barn’s rear, but that would put him in the position of trying to outrun the Hand on open ground, which he was in no shape to do; his wings weren’t up to flying again, either. This way set him back facing Last Rock and all its hazards, but the poorly-planned little town made a neat obstacle course even before all the construction going up on multiple sides.

Of course, that unwise maneuver immediately caused one of his legs to buckle, exactly as he’d feared it would. Fedora managed to land on the sloping roof, barely, and it was all his frantic scrabbling could do to stop a calamitous slide right over the side. He managed to land on top of his right wing, further ensuring its uselessness—and adding to the pain, of course, though that was a drop in the bucket at this point.

Gritting his teeth, he forced himself upright, stepping carefully on legs which blazed with agony at every step, turning to make for the front of the roof and the town. Maybe he could jump as far as a nearby rooftop, and probably break his leg again, but he had to do something and there’d be only seconds before—

Fedora stopped, staring. The Hand was already standing on the roof, right at the front edge, straddling the very peak.

“Y’know what?” the incubus said aloud. “Just, fuck you, that’s all.”

“Treason,” the Hand said flatly, taking a measured step forward, “applies to citizens of his Majesty’s realm. Despite the fact that you are absent without leave from your sworn duties and in league with an enemy of the Empire…” His lip curled in a contemptuous sneer. “Well, no one should really be surprised, should they?”

Fedora shuffled along the edge of the roof, making slowly for the peak even as the Hand made slowly for him. He couldn’t betray his intentions by glancing down—the moment he moved with any speed, the man would be on him like a pouncing cougar—but if he got to the center of the roof it would be a straight drop back to the protruding beam below. And probably more broken bones, and then he’d still have to make it to the ground and somehow away…

Well, at this point, his every desperate gambit was just to survive a few more seconds. Chain enough of those successes together and he’d be golden.

“Intelligence, of course, anticipated this when they brought you in,” the Hand continued, pacing toward him. “It was not merely expected, but planned. Eventually, when you were no longer worth keeping, it would be necessary to put you down. I suppose Lord Vex will be disappointed that he doesn’t get the satisfaction himself, but that’s what he gets for failing to keep you under control in the first place.”

He was at the peak. Tallest point of the roof, making the drop even worse; in hindsight, maybe he’d have been better off just dropping straight to the ground from a lower height. Orange lamplight illuminated the far edge of the barn and the Hand’s silhouette, signaling the arrival of Last Rock’s citizens.

Maybe the Hand would refrain from physically tearing him apart in public? No, a Hand could legally do anything he liked, and with Fedora’s wings still on display they wouldn’t even object… He tried to shapeshift, which brought nothing but another spike of pain. Probably the combination of fae magic, physical trauma and infernal medicine, in that order.

Would Tellwyrn bother to summon him back from Hell? That wasn’t in his contract… He had a suspicion she didn’t value his services nearly that much just yet, especially not after how displeased she’d been with this night’s work.

The Hand was almost close enough to grab now, and smirking, which was somehow the worst thing tonight. It was bad enough getting outmaneuvered, without the asshole rubbing it in.

“You probably thought you were going to get away with it, didn’t you?” The man twisted his mouth, baring teeth in a truly unsettling expression; there was a grin in there, but also a sneer, and still that smirk, all beneath eyes too wide and with pupils too narrow. The insanity could practically be smelled at this distance. “Now you know otherwise. Nothing defeats the Tiraan Empire.”

“In the Enchanter Wars, pretty much everybody did,” Fedora said sweetly, and “accidentally” twisted his foot on the edge of the roof, flailing his arms for effect as he plummeted. Well, if this was how it ended, at least he got the last word.

The Hand lunged for the edge, then immediately skidded to a stop, staring in disbelief as Fedora bounced right back up, still spinning and flailing. It was an open question which of them was more startled.

Then the big, soft thing he’d impacted ascended above the rooftop, and the Hand actually stepped back, glaring in consternation. Fedora came down again, bouncing once more, but the next time on his descent he managed to catch one of the blimp’s ears on his way toward the ground, and clung there, dangling and trying to ignore the blistering pain in his shoulder.

The blimp’s…ears?

It wasn’t even the size of the smallest zeppelins, but the huge balloon could have lifted a carriage easily. More distinctively, it had four tiny paws along its rim, a fluffy striped tail hanging from the rear…and an enormous grin facing the Hand, which Fedora was now dangling close enough to see up close.

Maru opened his mouth, puckered his giant lips, and blew possibly the biggest, wettest raspberry anyone had ever heard.

Exactly like a rubber balloon with the air being let out, it produced a blast of wind which sent the Hand of the Emperor tumbling all the way back across the barn’s roof, and the tanuki balloon with its battered passenger shooting away in the opposite direction on a crazy course that bounced them what felt like halfway across the sky and back.

Given Fedora’s condition by that point, it was hardly a surprise that he lost his grip.

“ARE YOU KIDDING ME WITH THIS?!” he shouted more at the universe than at Maru as he found himself plummeting out of the air for the second time in the last few minutes, this time without the benefit of working wings.

Then he was grabbed again—by the collar, now, rather than any portion of his anatomy. Awkward as that was, it was still a step up from his recent treatment.

Fedora craned his neck to peer upward, finding Maru grinning down at him. Back in his normal-sized raccoon form, now, and hanging from what appeared to be a bamboo-and-paper parasol painted with Sifanese calligraphy, which somehow kept them both floating aloft.

“If you find this excessively uncomfortable,” the tanuki suggested, “I could return you below to try the diplomatic approach. Your new friend could greatly benefit from the lesson you just learned about premature monologues.”

“I know what you’re doing,” Fedora accused. “You think you’re too cute for anybody to get pissed at you.”

“Oh, is that what I’m doing?” Maru’s grin widened. He had an awful lot of white, needle-like teeth. “What baffles me the most in all this is how your hat is still on your head.”

Fedora grinned back, reached up, and carefully extracted a long hatpin, holding it aloft for him to see.

“Ah. A fashionable ladies’ accoutrement, is it not?”

“Also a serviceable improvised weapon, and two make a decent set of lockpicks. Never underestimate a fashionable lady, bub.”

“A shame you did not get the chance to use it on our associate down there!”

“And don’t think I wasn’t gonna! If he’d—”

It said something about the night he was having that the sudden disappearance of the entire world was far from the most shocking transition he’d experienced recently. The empty sky vanished from around them, replaced with the domed roof of Helion Hall, and Fedora found himself unceremoniously dumped to the floor, where he lay in a disgruntled heap. Maru lit neatly atop the little table which made the centerpiece of Professor Tellwyrn’s personal little patio, accessible only by teleportation.

“I sincerely hope you two are pleased with yourselves,” she grated. “That way somebody is!”

“Now, now, give the fuzzball a break,” Fedora suggested, raising his least injured arm to hold a finger aloft. Gods in bloomers, he hurt everywhere. “This is a college town, and a magical one at that. I’m sure Maru’s performance will just go down as the new student prank to beat. Hell, Chase Masterson was in town, I have no doubt he’ll take credit when nobody else steps forward.”

She took two steps to loom over him, leaning over to accomplish the feat of staring at him over the rims of her spectacles—not easy to do, given their respective positions. “And what do you have to say about your perching atop the bloody church like a self-important gargoyle?”

He found a new reason to wince. “Ah. So you were watching.”

“In fairness to Murgatroyd,” Maru said diffidently, “that is somewhat redundant, is it not? Gargoyles by nature, almost by definition—”

“Urusai!” she barked. Maru subsided, a satisfied little smile lingering on his sharp muzzle.

“So it wasn’t as clean as anybody woulda liked,” Fedora grunted, finally forcing himself into a sitting position. “Aaaiee—yow, that hurts! Fuck, I feel like the china shop after the bull got through…”

“You engaged a Hand of the Emperor in hand-to-hand combat,” Maru observed, “and are not dead. Nor even dismembered! All things being equal, I believe that counts as a resounding success.”

“What he said!” Fedora agreed quickly, pointing at Maru but keeping his eyes on Tellwyrn. “Look, Prof, this was messier than I hoped and I know it goes against your grain to hang back while other people do the heavy lifting, but we won tonight! The kids are home safe, the enemy didn’t get to make a spectacle of you, which had to’ve been the bulk of what he was after, and we succeeded in turning the scheme around on him. Now he’s got nothing to show for it, you haven’t shown your hand, and we know who our enemy is!”

“A Hand of the Emperor,” she said more quietly.

“The same one from before,” he replied, nodding. “My official connections with Intelligence are cut off, but I keep my ear to the ground. There was plenty of rumor about the Hands going wonky a few weeks back, but it’s widely known they’re stable again. Except…they seem to have missed a spot. That guy was not playin’ with a full deck.”

“Even I know Hands are famed for their discretion and efficiency,” Maru added. “This one cost himself a victory by engaging Murgatroyd in a futile display of wordplay. Really, standing around on the cusp of his victory and making a speech instead of finishing the job. Can you imagine anyone being so unutterably foolish? Not to mention cliché.”

“I know where you sleep, fuzzball,” Fedora warned.

The tanuki turned to him and bowed. “I am very flattered, but you are too tall for me. Also, Tellwyrn-sensei, there is more. This Hand is working with a Vidian priestess, Lorelin Reich. It was she who used her arts to stir up the town against the students.”

Tellwyrn drew in a deep breath through her nose. “Reich. Back in Last Rock. Well, well. Just when I could actually use Arquin for once, and I’ve sent him off to Puna Dara.”

“It might not hurt to let yourself trust the kids a little more,” Fedora said, starting to rise. He changed plans halfway through, easing himself into the little chair she kept by the table with a wince. “Nnnnf… But yeah. Szith made a damn fine show of herself tonight. I tolja she would. That girl’s been training to be a noble’s bodyguard since she was big enough to pick up a sword. If there’s one person up on this mountain who can be relied on to extract somebody from a mob—”

“All right, point taken,” Tellwyrn said impatiently. “Not unconditionally agreed, but you can stop harping on it. We had better deal with what’s coming next.”

“Yeah,” Fedora said, frowning. “Yeah… There’s a downside to victory. It narrows the enemy’s options, forces them to move faster. I’m afraid we may not have as much time to prepare, now. Now that we know who he is, whatever that Hand does next, he’s gonna have to do soon.”


“Sir, I’ll take responsibility for this,” Lorelin said formally, folding her hands behind her back. “When that creature engaged us, I instructed Mr. Carson to hold it at bay while I kept concentrating on my own task. That was a mistake; it was far too much for him to handle. Maybe if I’d dealt with it, I could have resumed focusing the crowd and prevented it from intercepting you later.”

The Hand gazed at her in chilly silence for a moment, then transferred his look to Fred Carson, who flinched. He hadn’t fared nearly as badly as the Hand himself, whose clothes were still in tatters; Fred’s coat was a mass of scrapes and rents from the creature’s tiny claws, though Lorelin’s healing had washed away his actual wounds and hopefully neutralized any fae nonsense that might have lingered on him. Even she was somewhat disheveled after scuffling about in the toolshed. The sole fairy lamp in the basement in which they met was an older model, and cast a flickering light that did none of them any favors.

“Do you know what that thing was, Reich?” the Hand asked finally.

Slowly, she shook her head. “No, sir, I don’t. Some manner of fairy. I’ve never heard of one that looked like an overlarge raccoon.”

“Carson?”

Fred swallowed heavily. “N-no, sir. That is t’say… I mean, I ain’t seen it myself, but I’ve heard from my trips up the mountain that Tellwyrn’s got a critter like that workin’ for her. I…shoulda thought of it. Plumb didn’t occur to me till after it’d left us. S-sorry.”

The Hand finally shook his head. “This was not your fault, Carson. Nor yours, Reich. We were simply…outmaneuvered. It happens.” He reached forward to lay a hand on Fred’s shoulder, ignoring the flinch the gesture prompted, and gave him a light squeeze. “You have served your Emperor well, never fear; sometimes, we simply don’t win. What matters is learning from defeat and applying the lesson. Next time it will be different. For now, Carson, go home, get some rest. I will need to call upon you again soon.”

Fred’s departure was accompanied by much bowing and stammering. He had barely shut the cellar door behind him before Lorelin turned to the Hand and spoke.

“Sir, I have to ask. By designating the gnome as the primary target, were you trying to avoid setting off a major confrontation?”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “What are you talking about?”

“I mean…a dangerous one. Something that could have caused major damage to the town and not involved Tellwyrn.”

“Talk sense, Reich,” he snapped. “That Masterson boy is possibly the least dangerous thing on that mountain, and not even the most annoying.”

She stared, her Vidian mask of control slipping slightly to permit surprise to peek through. “You…don’t know…?”

“What?”

Lorelin swallowed. “I assumed you were… Well. I have no up to date word from my contacts in Intelligence, as you ordered, but I was briefed on the situation unfolding in Last Rock. Your first mission here, and Fedora’s, in response to the Sleeper outbreak. Sir… There is something you should know about Chase Masterson.”

 

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13 – 18

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The apparent leader of the Rust was a more visibly impressive specimen than most. Fully half his face was covered by a coppery mask, accented by wires which appeared to be brass; his left eye was a blue glass orb which gleamed from within. Though he had no beard, the half-mask did not extend over his scalp, and he sported a full head of luxurious hair trailing down his back, once black and beginning to shift toward gray. He wore only a kilt, serving to accentuate both his lean physique and especially the reddish metal which covered him. His entire right arm was of machinery, except, somehow, the flesh-and-blood hand attached beneath some kind of cloth wrapping which obscured the junction. It was a more elaborate arm than the rest of his followers sported, physically bulkier as if housing additional machinery, and attached to a shoulder mount which extended partway across his chest. A green glass disc was situated above his heart, emitting dull flickers of what looked like contained lightning. Below the kilt, his left calf and foot were machine, the right human but with odd patches of metalwork and protruding wires, as if he had machinery implanted beneath the skin.

The supreme confidence of his smile was somehow more unnerving than his collection of unnatural attachments.

Gabriel finally broke the silence. “Yeah, well, if you’re expecting to do anything about us, mister, you may be taking too many things for granted.”

“So I may,” the cultist replied, then suddenly hopped across the gap between his giant mechanical mount and the door platform, causing the lot of them to reflexively shift backward. Seeming not to notice their reaction, the man swept a deep bow. “I am called Ayuvesh, speaker for the Infinite Order. And already, it seems I have spoken out of turn. After all, it is protocol in many places to attend to old business before raising new, is it not? Mandip!” This last was spoken in a sharper tone, the cultist turning his head to direct himself back at the throng of his followers below.

A man stepped forward from the group, and Toby drew in a deep breath. The cultist stared up at them through narrowed eyes, and made an abortive move as if to fold his arms, which did not work as he had only one. The other was metal from the shoulder to the elbow, where it ended in a small profusion of tiny coppery struts and wires, almost like a miniature scaffold. At that distance, whatever was inside it was hidden from them.

Mandip continued forward; as he stepped upon a growth of lichen-like machine parts which had crawled across the stone floor, a column pistoned up out of the ground beside him, bringing a small panel of buttons to chest height. On the wrong side, forcing him to twist awkwardly to push three keys. That done, he continued on with incredible aplomb as a series of hinged struts and pulleys manifested from various pieces of the surrounding machine overgrowth. They swung swiftly and precisely into place for each of his footsteps, forming an impromptu staircase whose every step withdrew behind him, some re-positioning themselves to assist him upward. In moments, he stood upon the platform with them and Ayuvesh.

Then, to their surprise, Mandip bowed deeply.

“I owe an apology,” he said in a stiff tone. “It is not the way of the Infinite Order to push, provoke, or defy. I should have departed the Omnist compound once asked to by the monk. For that, I am sorry.”

An incredulous silence hung for a moment before Toby cleared his throat. “Well. On behalf of the faith of Omnu, apology accepted. And perhaps one is owed to you, as well?” He turned a pointed look on Juniper.

She frowned back at him. When Toby did not back down, the dryad sighed softly and shrugged. “Yes, well…you were right. You had no business inserting yourself there when they told you to go, but…yeah, I guess I may have reacted a little more harshly than was…necessary.”

Mandip had straightened, and now stared at her through slitted eyes which belied his polite tone. “Perhaps a little.”

“Well, then, I’m sorry, too,” Juniper said, folding her arms. Mandip’s nostrils flared once.

“There!” Ayuvesh proclaimed grandly with a broad gesture of his metal arm. “All friends again! And perhaps, if you are so inclined, honored guests, the return of Mandip’s arm would be a conciliatory gesture.”

Toby glanced at the others, receiving shrugs from Gabriel and Teal; Juniper was still watching Mandip as though expecting him to spring, a gaze he returned in equal measure.

“I can’t exactly promise that, at this point,” Toby finally answered. “It’s in the possession of the Crown. But we have a little pull with the King and Queen, and I can’t think of any use they’d have for it. Yes, that’s fair. You have my word I will attempt to secure its return for you.”

“Mm.” Ayuvesh folded his arms, lightly drumming his flesh fingers against a metal forearm. “Yes, I suppose by now you’ll have learned all you can from it.”

“Nobody’s ever learned all they can,” Fross opined.

“How very wise!” Ayuvesh said, grinning broadly.

Ermon cleared his throat. “There is other old business to attend.”

He was gazing down below, where another figure had appeared from a side passage, this one familiar and accompanied by a female Rust cultist who strode on two mechanical legs with digitigrade feet like a dog’s.

“Ah, yes!” Ayuvesh said, turning to follow Ermon’s look. “Brother Arlund, thank you for joining us. I believe your friends would like to be reassured as to your status!”

“I am well,” Arlund said curtly, his voice projecting easily through the cavern. “I cannot say whether I am a prisoner, as I have not yet tried to leave. My invitation to come inside was polite, but…insistent.”

Ermon’s eyes flicked to the Rust’s leader, then back to his fellow Huntsman. “You are unharmed, though?”

Arlund’s mustache shifted enough that his sneer was evident even from a distance. “These machines are an unholy abomination, and the dogma I’ve been forced to listen to is the most asinine drivel I have ever imagined. But I cannot fault their hospitality,” he added in an openly grudging tone.

The cultist with him cracked a sly smile at that, and bowed; Arlund just gave her a sidelong look and set off for the stairs which followed the wall up to the door platform. Nobody volunteered to trigger a moving mechanical staircase for him, which was probably for the best.

“So!” Ayuvesh turned back to the students, now wearing a patrician smile, and folded his hands behind his back. “That is the past, attended to. Let us now discuss the present.”


Due to Walker’s probing of the whole region via magic—transcension field, as she irritably corrected Milanda when thanked—they had a complete three-dimensional map of the mining tunnels. It was the work of only minutes for Milanda, following Walker’s guidance, to slip through a series of turns to a dark little dead end, where she planted herself on the ground with her back to the wall, the detached viewscreen laid across her lap. Its dimensions made this slightly awkward; the thing seemed not to have been designed for human use, unlike the highly ergonomic Infinite Order computers with which she was familiar.

“Only one risk I can think of,” Walker buzzed in her ear. “Gabriel Arquin is a Hand of Vidius, and while there is no precedent for what that means I’d be astonished if he doesn’t have at least one of my sisters hanging around him at all times. Probably Yngrid, she was always a little boy-crazy. I also don’t have a basis for comparison between a valkyrie’s extradimensional senses and the modern enchanting that keeps you invisible. So it’s not impossible that you’re being watched.”

Despite herself, Milanda raised her eyes to glance around the tunnel. It wasn’t quite pitch-black, there being a faint glow from the piece of technology she held, but even so it took all of her dryad-augmented senses plus the enchantments on her hood to give her a clear view of the apparently empty corridor. A normal human would be all but blind down here.

“As long as none of the physical ones followed me,” she replied. “Valkyries can’t touch anything on this plane, right?”

“Only on Vidian holy ground or where dimensional barriers are abraded for other reasons. Again, though, there are unknowns. It was Infininte Order technology that cast us to the dimensional insulation layer in the first place, and it does not appear that these Rust people understand what they’re fooling with. I can’t say what might have resulted from all their button-pushing.”

“Mm. I’m going to consider that a remote possibility, all the same.”

“Probably for the best. Just don’t get complacent.”

“What, me? Complacent? You jest.”

“You sure didn’t go out of your way to befriend those adventurers.”

Milanda ignored that, studying the screen again. She had selected this one for the indicators that it had its own attached power source and transcension field connection, icons which Walker had coached her on how to recognize. Unfortunately, it was also the largest of the screens which had been attached to the walls by the gate; between that and its peculiar shape, it was awkward to hold the thing with one hand while navigating the touch screen with the other. Still, at least it was working.

“These menus are all different from the ones in the spaceport,” she muttered, flicking and tapping with one fingertip. “I mean, it’s clearly the product of the same intelligence. Same…what did you call it? Operating system. But it doesn’t do any of the same stuff. Everything’s set up differently.”

“Hm. Touch screens are a fallback for when holographic interfaces are turned off; if it’s set to some kind of minimal settings, you can try closing every active window. If there’s a base desktop below them, it may have labeled icons to identify any installed programs.”

Milanda paused, raising her eyes to frown into empty space. “What are holographic interfaces, and why don’t we have them back home?”

“It’s a long story, and because the Avatar apparently disabled them when setting up his system with Theasia. I couldn’t say why, except that voice commands and touch screens are simpler for novice users. Anything?”

“Yes, actually.” She hadn’t been able to close the active programs running, but had managed to move them into a neat stack onto one side, exposing the screen’s base layer. There were, indeed, icons. “I can’t read them, though.”

“Oh…it’s probably set to Esperanto. That makes me wonder how the Rust are interfacing with the computers if they’re not set in a language they recognize. Tap the background twice on a spot that’s away from any icons. A menu will appear; you want to touch the line that says ‘Settings.’”

Milanda did this, rolled her eyes, and sighed. “None of them say that. None of them are in Tanglish.”

“…oh. Right. Try ‘Agordoj.’”

“That’s the goofiest word I ever heard,” she muttered, touching the appropriate line. At least Esperanto apparently used the same alphabet, more or less.

With Milanda guiding and translating, she managed to switch the machine to Tanglish—or English, as it was labeled.

“There we go,” she said in satisfaction as the labels beneath the icons changed. “Now, these are more sensible. Network, hardware… What is Silverfox?”

“Silverfox? That’s Druroth’s personal web browser. What a weird thing to find on… I mean, it can’t possibly still work, Naiya disabled the transcension field the Order’s systems used to communicate with each other. Unless they’ve piggybacked it on one of the others, like we did…”

“It just says there’s no connection when I pull it up.”

“Well, that tells us a bit. The Rust clearly don’t have much control; they may not even be using the software themselves. Which, of course, just raises more questions. If has to be connecting to something if it’s working, otherwise it would be a mass of error messages. Maybe tachyon or radio transmission…”

“Nanite control,” Milanda muttered. “Walker, what does ‘nanite’ mean?”

“I have no idea. I’ve never heard the word. You’re sure it’s in the right language?”

“Yes, I’m sure!”

“English and Tanglish are maybe ninety percent identical, there are bound to be some words that don’t translate exactly. Hang on, let me call the Avatar and ask him.”

Milanda nodded absentmindedly, forgetting that Walker couldn’t see her, and touched the icon.


“And we’re back to us getting dealt with,” Gabriel said bluntly.

“I wonder,” Ayuvesh mused, “how aware you are of the circumstances into which you have stepped?”

“You’re effectively holding Puna Dara hostage,” said Teal. “Behaving barely enough to avoid provoking the King to clamp down, while trying to undercut his authority.”

“Oh?” He grinned. “Tell me, what have I done to undercut his authority?”

“Attacking and disabling a Silver Legion is an inherently hostile act,” Fross charmed. “The ruling monarch of the country in which you did it can’t help but interpret that as a threat!”

“Just so,” Ayuvesh replied, nodding graciously. “Let us follow that line of thought, then. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Infinite Order are behind the fate of the Fourth Legion, clearly we would have the power to overthrow the government in Puna Dara. And yet, we have not. If we are not behind it, this whole subject is moot.” He spread his hands disarmingly. “By your logic, my actions would seem to make no sense!”

“Perhaps you could elucidate for us?” Toby suggested. “Your perspective on these events is one thing we do not have. I was very much hoping we could learn more about it.”

“Ah, so you are here to learn.” Ayuvesh’s smile broadened slightly. “And so naturally, you chose as your delegation two paladins, a Huntsman of Shaath, and an unstoppable archdemon in the thrall of the Universal Church.”

“Excuse me?” Teal exclaimed. “I am in no one’s thrall.”

“The Narisian robes are an interesting touch,” Ayuvesh acknowledged, pointing at her chest. “You clearly have complex allegiances. I am mostly interested in that fascinating pin you wear.”

She raised her hand to touch her Talisman of Absolution, the icon bearing the holy sigils of Omnu, Avei, and Vidius, and marking her an ally of the gods despite Vadrieny’s nature.

“Interesting,” Gabriel said, stroking Ariel’s hilt. “That sounded like a threat assessment, but no mention of Juniper, who you already know can physically tear your machine men apart.”

Ayuvesh again folded his hands behind himself, and this time turned to stare at the walking contraption he’d ridden up to the platform. “We are heirs to a truly ancient legacy. The Infinite Order, as we call ourselves, were first a group of scientists and philosophers from another world, who came here to pursue the greatest of all possible goals: the unlocking of humanity’s full potential, and the ascension of the universe itself to its next higher state.”

“They have gone on and on about this,” Arlund grunted, folding his arms. “The prattle about empowerment and being beyond limits isn’t just for personal appeal. Apparently, they think the universe is trying to evolve and consciousness is one of its means of doing so.”

“I thought the Infinite Order meant the Elder Gods,” Fross chimed. “That doesn’t sound like what you’re describing.”

Ayuvesh’s long hair shifted as he nodded slowly. “Indeed. The Order…lost their way. Their means of seeking that most noble of goals was to attain godhood for themselves, which ended every bit as badly as history tells us. Absolute power is extremely unhealthy for mortals. They descended into vile selfishness and cruelty, and were rightly brought down by rebellion from within.” He glanced back at them, his faint smile visible in profile. “Naiya, of course, aided the Pantheon’s revolt. Scyllith helped passively by refusing to take sides—a grave loss for the Order, as she commanded their greatest destructive powers. Tarthriss, however, was the one who truly planted the seeds for the salvation of the Order’s vision.”

Toby frowned. “Who?”

“He is sadly forgotten by this world,” Ayuvesh said softly, again staring out over the cavern. “The greatest of them; the greatest god, in fact, who ever lived. He aided the Pantheon in bringing down his comrades, even sacrificing himself in the process. More importantly, he left all this behind.” He held his arms wide, as if to embrace the chaos of crawling machinery which had overgrown the huge chamber. “And the records of the Order’s original purpose. So you see why we may have a problem with agents of the Pantheon today.”

The cultist suddenly turned to face them again, grinning, and executed a mocking little bow. “While we seek only peace in which to practice our faith and pursue our vision, the Infinite Order and the Pantheon are still in a state of declared war, eight thousand years in abeyance only because the Order was thought crushed and its survivors weakened or contained. And worse, we have been brought into modern politics not of our choosing. You see, children and Huntsmen, we are not the only souls to have unearthed fragments of the Elder Gods’ power. Both the Tiraan Empire and the Universal Church possess such artifacts. Possess…and use.” He tilted his head inquisitively. “Perhaps you, as Hands of two of the greatest gods, know something of this?”

Gabriel and Toby exchanged a puzzled glance.

“I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about,” Juniper said bluntly.

“Don’t you?” Ayuvesh raised his only eyebrow. “Well, whether you do or not, I shall give the benefit of the doubt and explain. Both activated and used their respective systems against one another in a shadow war which, inevitably, exploded into real violence. And this, students, upset the delicate political balance in Tiraas. The Throne and the Church cannot be openly in conflict; the Enchanter Wars are too recent and vivid a memory for that to be a palatable option. So they sought out a scapegoat. A patsy.” His grin took on a distinctly hostile cast. “Someone possessing and using the machines left behind by the Elders, who could be falsely blamed for having intervened and caused the infraction.”

“I realize you have no reason to trust us,” Toby said slowly, “but upon my word, I know nothing about any of that. I can do my best to find out, but…if it was the Church and the Throne, even my cult may not know. It will take time to make those inquiries, however.”

“While you are taking time,” Ayurvesh said, folding his arms, “consider our position. Unjustly condemned by Sharidan and Justinian for their misdeeds, we are forced to be wary of Pantheon or Imperial agents. And the sudden arrival of an entire Silver Legion, with backing of Salyrite casters from all four Colleges… Well. That demands more than simple wariness, does it not?”

“I can see,” Teal said slowly, “how the arrival of paladins and Huntsmen and maybe even me would look to you in that case…”

“The particular means of your arrival, I have to say, do not assuage my concerns,” he replied.

Toby drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “All right… Let me ask you this, then. Whatever you did to the Fourth Legion has kept them incapacitated. Can you lift that…curse, or whatever it is?”

Ayuvesh raised his eyebrow again. “I? When have I acknowledged responsibility for such a thing? A convenient event for us, to be sure, but still tragic. I wish no ill upon anyone who wishes none upon me and mine.”

“Oh, you smug little—”

“Juniper,” Toby snapped, cutting her off with a warning look.

“We, if left alone, are a threat to none,” Ayuvesh said. “Not the Empire, not the Church, or their gods, and certainly not the Crown of Puna Dara. Rajakhan is a good King, and I do not desire the chaos that will erupt in my city if his government is overthrown.”

“You have to understand that it’s no longer that simple,” Toby replied. “After what befell the Legion.”

“Of course,” Ayuvesh said, nodding deeply. “But so it is with all the great powers of the world; they respect one another out of fear that war between them will be more destructive than profitable. Those with no claws to bare are snapped up or crushed. All we desire is to be left in peace, and sadly, that requires that we demonstrate the means to insist upon it.”

“Then maybe we have grounds to begin reaching a compromise,” said Toby. “If your story is true, than you are victims in this. We have little pull with the Empire, but Gabriel and I can command at least some action within the Church. The Archpope has no obligation to listen to us, but we have influence to wield.”

“And you will do this for me, out of the goodness of your divine hearts?” he replied pleasantly. “How noble.”

“Don’t be unnecessarily difficult, man,” Gabriel retorted. “If it comes down to claws, as you put it, you might not survive the night.”

“Gabriel!” Toby exclaimed.

“But!” Gabriel held up a hand. “We’re in the same position as you, basically. It would be for the best if everybody backs off and no one further gets hurt. So, what we want is for you to release whatever hold you’ve got on the Fourth Legion and provide some assurances that you aren’t going to upend Puna Dara. What you want is assurance that the Empire, the Church, and the Punaji aren’t going to land on you. Yes?”

“Succinctly stated,” Ayuvesh agreed, nodding again.

“It strikes me,” said Ermon, “that those are a very difficult set of goals for anyone here to attain.”

“Yes, they are,” Toby agreed, his eyes on Ayuvesh. “But not inconceivable… And even in them, I see potential for common ground. After all, it best serves us if the Church and the Throne are both prevented from underhanded shenanigans. We can start with small gestures. For instance, Mandip’s and Juniper’s apologies, and Arlund’s safe return. We can procure and return Mandip’s arm to complete the cycle. Little things, in the grand scheme, but they at least show good faith. It’s something on which to build.”

“And in the meantime,” Teal added, “perhaps we can all work on…deescalating. The Punaji are just about up in arms; I believe we can persuade the King to show further restraint, if he’s provided with a reason.”

“You have something in mind?” Ayuvesh asked mildly.

“Several of the Legionnaires have already died,” Toby said. “I understand the curse on them seems designed not to kill, but anyone that weak is vulnerable to other maladies. If there were a way to lessen—”

Abruptly the light in the huge chamber changed to a deep red, and a cacophonous series of whistles and sirens began shrilling from dozens of points among the machines crawling across the walls.

“What is that?” Juniper exclaimed.

“That,” Ayurvesh replied, bracing his feet in a wide stance and baring teeth, “is the sound of saboteurs being caught.”


“He wouldn’t say!” Walker’s voice when she abruptly returned to the line was excited. “The Avatar refused to answer questions about nanites, which means they’re a classified Order technology. That has to be the Rust’s weapon!”

“I know!” Milanda replied in the same tone, fingers working furiously at the screen. “This thing is showing me a map of nanite distribution on its front page—they’re all over Puna Dara, but concentrated here in the mines, in a spot out under the harbor, and in a big knot up in Rodvenheim! This is what we’re looking for!”

“I’m searching the sub-OS for information,” Walker said. “It won’t tell me anything directly but there may be mentions of them among other literature. Anything might help me extrapolate in general what we’re dealing with…”

“I bet this thing’ll tell me a lot more,” Milanda said, pulling the screen closer to her face. “Hum… There’s a list of processes. What does that mean?”

“Assuming it means the same as in computer terms, those are tasks the nanites are performing.”

“There’s a red warning, here…insufficient resources. There are more processes pending than being executed. Walker, does that mean what I think it means?”

“It means these things are a finite resource, and they’re being stretched way beyond what the Rust want to do. Which means we officially know their first weakness.”

“Finally, some good news,” Milanda said with a vindictive grin. “I wonder if I can make their problems even bigger…”

“Step very carefully,” Walker cautioned. “We still have no idea what these things are. Why are they invisible and undetectable? Learn details before trying to make changes.”

“Right, you’re right. Let’s see if it’ll tell me more.” She touched one of the pending processes, choosing it for the only term she immediately recognized: Fabrication Plant One. The line of text indicated maintenance and repair. That line immediately shifted forward at her tap and grew to cover the middle of the screen, but changed color from pale blue to yellow, and additional text appeared above it. “Huh. Walker, what does ‘retinal scan’ mean?”

“That’s a secur—Milanda! Don’t look at the screen!”

Too late; the whole display flashed, and a new line of bright red script informed Milanda that this access was unauthorized.

“Um,” she said warily, “now it’s telling me that this activity has been logged and reported…”

“Oh, no.”

Her entire screen turned red, and began emitting a shrill tone. Not shrill enough that she couldn’t also detect similar noises echoing through the tunnels from a much louder source deeper in.

Milanda cringed behind her mask. “That…is not good, is it.”


Gabriel clapped a hand to his forehead. “The woman in black. I told you.”

“Aw, nuts, she took one of those shiny thingies,” Fross fretted, darting back and forth. “The one that controlled the door and who knows what else…”

“A woman in black,” Ayuvesh said grimly. “How mysterious.”

“She’s the one who opened the gate,” Toby said quickly. “She wouldn’t speak to us and as soon as she’d got it open, ripped off a piece of your machinery and fled. We don’t know who she is or what she was doing there, but she knows something about these machines of yours, obviously.”

“Oh, obviously,” he said flatly. “And somehow, has gone undetected. We perceived you approaching before you even entered the mine, but not this enigmatic woman in black.”

“I realize how this sounds,” Toby began.

“Oh, please,” Arlund scoffed. “That is not believable enough to be a lie. A woman?”

“You should not talk anymore,” Juniper informed him.

“Please listen to me,” Toby said urgently, but Ayuvesh held up his hand to forestall him.

“I will indeed listen, Hand of Omnu. And in fact, I am still willing to negotiate. But we must have parity, don’t you think?”

Before they could react, he whirled and bounded back to the top of his machine, his agility astonishing considering how much he had to weigh with all that metal in his body. Ayuvesh whirled lightly into the seat, placing his hands on control panels affixed to its arms.

“You have aided your negotiating position with a show of force,” the Rust’s leader said with a broad grin. “Well done! I salute your brinkmanship. Now, allow me to reply in kind!”

 

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13 – 17

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Jasmine allowed herself a sigh of relief as she set the empty canape tray down on the kitchen counter. None of the others were present; given the sudden availability of free “help,” Glory had not troubled to bring in staff for this event. Ami and Schwartz were circulating among the guests (with differing degrees of skill), but the lady of the house had not hesitated to put the Guild apprentices to work. That left Smythe to handle the cooking, a skill none of the rest of them possessed.

“Well, this hasn’t been nearly as bad as I’d feared,” she said aloud, adjusting the collar of her still jacket. Actually the livery the Butler had found for them didn’t bother her; it reminded her of dress uniform. Layla and Darius, likewise, seemed to find it hilarious to be dressing as servants, but Tallie in particular was not enjoying the role. As usual, it was hard to tell what Ross thought.

“Do not mistake caution for virtue,” Smythe advised, glancing at her with a faint smile but not turning from the sauce he was stirring. He manned the stove without the benefit of an apron, but his uniform was, of course, spotless. Butlers did not make mistakes. “Many of those men and several of the women have fondled waitresses in other venues. No one invited to one of Tamisin Sharvineh’s events, however, would be foolish enough to mistreat working-class people in the home of a prominent Eserite.”

“I hadn’t even thought of that,” Jasmine said, frowning. “I just meant that I’m not as terrible at this as I could be. It’s my first time serving appetizers at a society party. Believe it or not,” she added dryly.

The Butler gave her another glance; his expression relaxed subtly, conveying the aspect of a calm smile without actually moving his lips. It was incredible what the man could communicate with his face. “A military upbringing confers many traits which are crucial in domestic service, notably punctuality, discretion, good posture, and the capacity to behave deferentially toward worthless people. Alone among your friends, I would gladly provide you references toward another position.”

“I have other plans, but I appreciate that,” she said with amusement. He nodded, turning back to his sauce. “Will you need me to take another tray?”

“Not yet. Your compatriots have that in hand. There is a rhythm and a balance to social events; madame prefers her hospitality to seem generous but not excessive. It is a subtle reminder to the powerful individuals present that on Eserion’s ground, even they may go hungry.”

“That’s slightly terrifying,” she observed. “But I’m amazed how you can be so aware of the situation from back here in the kitchen.”

“I am a Butler,” he explained. “It might be wise for you to circulate, however. Ostensibly to see if a guest needs anything, but more significantly to keep an eye on the house. With so many present, opportunities for mischief abound.”

Jasmine frowned. “You don’t think the conspirators would attempt something here, surely? Even the Svennish intelligence service didn’t dare attack this house.”

“The Svennish intelligence service are professionals. Your adversaries have thus far abducted Eserite apprentices practically from the Guild’s doorstep, attempted to unlawfully imprison the same under the very nose of the Sisterhood, and employed intrusive scrying spells on a witch sufficiently powerful to detect and counter them. Reckless or incompetent foes present their own dangers, Jasmine. They may be more easily beaten once confronted, but a person unburdened by strategic sense might attempt almost anything.”

“I see your point,” she said, then deliberately smoothed her expression. “I’ll make the rounds, then.”

Smythe shifted to give her another nod before going back to his stirring, and she slipped back out.

It was odd, she reflected while navigating the busy townhouse, how none of the guests appeared to notice her. When she was carrying food, they would select bites without acknowledging her, as though an unattended tray were floating past. Smythe had lectured the group about the invisibility of servants (she really hoped Tallie’s resentment toward nobles wasn’t already bubbling over), but to Jasmine’s mind the Guild’s doctrine had more to teach about this phenomenon. She wondered, while climbing the servant’s stairs in the back, whether this qualified as “don’t see” or “won’t see.” A bit of both, she decided; for the most part, ignoring servants simply seemed the thing to do, and they had no trouble detecting the canapes and cocktails. But then, after overhearing snippets of conversation, she was starting to suspect that some of these people didn’t regard those below their station as actual people.

And these were Glory’s guests? It was downright horrifying to imagine what must be going on in the houses of the city’s nobility. This party had done more to impart a good Eserite’s resentment of those in power than weeks of Lore’s lectures.

Apparently no one wanted anything, and most of the guests were fully occupied with one another, or clustered in the central salon where Glory was holding court; at any rate, she was not stopped on her way around the lower floor. She did pass Ross holding a tray of drinks, and received a blank-faced nod from him. Technically a breach of Smyth’s rules of servant conduct, but she wasn’t about to rat him out. Her rounds were uninterrupted until she passed the bathroom door on the second floor rear hallway, not far from the servant’s stairs.

It opened so abruptly she had to take a step back to avoid being struck, but did not swing wide. Layla squeezed through the crack and instantly pushed it shut behind her.

“Jasmine,” she hissed. “Thank the gods. That guest this is all about, Carruthers Treadwell? He’s a gnome, right?”

Jasmine tilted her head curiously. “Treadwell? Yes, Schwartz said he was.”

“A little paunchy?” Layla continued in a furious whisper, glancing surreptitiously about in exactly the way Style had told them not to do. “White hair, big mustache…?”

“That I can’t tell you; Glory’s been monopolizing him and I haven’t met the man yet. Apparently he didn’t want to come and she had to apply persuasion, and just winked when I asked what that…” Jasmine trailed off, suddenly frowning. “Why? Did he corner you in the bathroom or something? Layla, even if we need his help you do not have to put up with—”

Layla grabbed her arm, and Jasmine focused on her face, suddenly paying closer attention. The girl had always had an aristocrat’s composure even before the Guild’s coaching in the fine art of lying, but she was two shades paler than normal, her eyes wide and lips pressed into a stressed line. She glanced up and down the empty hall once more, then stepped aside, pulled the door open just a crack, and jerked her head urgently toward it.

Taking the hint, Jasmine shut her mouth and immediately slipped inside, making room for Layla to follow. By the time the younger girl had pulled the door shut behind them, she had already forgotten she was there.

The gnome sat against the wall next to the ornately cast porcelain toilet, eyes staring vacantly at a point near the ceiling. His black tuxedo jacket did not reveal stains, but the white shirt beneath was now more crimson than white, and the blood spreading from around him had rendered the carpet a total loss.

They stared in stunned silence before Layla managed to speak in a thin, tight voice.

“It’s surreal. The one thought I cannot get out of my head is it does not seem there could physically be that much blood inside a gnome. Isn’t that surreal?”

Jasmine blinked, swallowed, shook her head once, and straightened her spine. “Right. Right. Okay. Layla, get Glory. No!” She shook her head, closing her eyes momentarily in thought. “You can’t push through that crowd to get her attention, that’ll kick the beehive for sure. Go to the kitchen, get Smythe. He will get Glory and she’ll direct our next steps. I’ll stay here and make sure nobody else finds…this.”

“Right. Yes. I’m on my way.” Layla seemed energized at having direction, and grasped the door handle again.

“And be careful,” Jasmine added, turning to her suddenly. “This can’t possibly be a coincidence.”

“Yes, I know,” Layla said, drawing a deep breath. “Whoever’s after us is in this house, and now we know how far they’re willing to go. And that they can get around Glory’s wards. I’ll be quick.”

No sooner had they slipped back into the hall than Layla shot off toward the rear staircase at the fastest pace that would not draw attention. Jasmine planted herself in front of the door, falling automatically into parade rest.

Layla had only been gone a minute before a well-dressed man strolled up, drink in hand, and paused to give her an inquisitive look. “Excuse me?”

“I’m terribly sorry, sir,” she said with a deferential little smile. “This one is out of order.”


They went for the slope itself, Maureen stubbornly clinging to her basket of metal—she was not about to relinquish her haul to whatever nonsense this was—but made it only a few feet up the slope before the roar of the crowd abruptly ceased. Naturally, she didn’t slow. When fleeing a pursuer, it was a fatal mistake to sacrifice footing and control to look back; any gnome knew that.

Unfortunately, Chase Masterson had not had the benefit of a gnomish education.

He immediately skidded to a stop, turning in the process to see what made the change, which proved to be a more complex maneuver than he could handle while running up a steep slope. Or, knowing him, probably at all. He slipped on the grass, one ankle twisting out from under him, and went tumbling to the ground, immediately rolling downhill.

Even more unfortunately, a great towering human-sized lummox rolling down the mountain at her from barely more than her height ahead proved an obstacle Maureen could neither vault over nor dodge around. The impact bowled her right over, causing her to lose her grip finally. The basket went tumbling away, strewing scrap metal across the grass.

Being knocked down and rolled upon did not phase her, but for that, she punched him as hard as she could manage in whatever piece of the big oaf it was that currently blocked her vision.

“Ow! My kidney!” Chase scrambled away, but stopped before rising back to his feet, staring back down at the town. “…huh. What the hell’s got into them now?”

The erstwhile mob seemed to have abruptly lost its impetus. Suddenly, it had ceased to be a seething organism and had become a dozen or so prairie townspeople, standing around and staring at each other in confusion, as if unsure what they were doing or why. Silence gradually gave way to subdued muttering.

“Dunno,” Maureen grunted, hopping nimbly back to her feet. “Their problem, an’ I’m out before it becomes ours again. An’ you owe me a basket o’ metal bits, y’great clodhoppin’ galoot!”

“Oh, sure, blame me,” he said cheerfully, scrambling back upright and following her into a dash. They set off up the slope at an angle this time, heading for the stone stairs and their more certain footing. “Surely you don’t think I caused a mob?”

Maureen didn’t spare him a glance. “I dunno, Chase. Did you cause a mob?”

“Well, not that I know of!” he replied with an exuberant laugh. “But let’s face it, if there’s an angry mob and I’m in the same town, there’s at least even odds that somehow—”

“Just bloody well run!”


“Hey!” Fred protested as the shed door was yanked open, whirling to face the intruder. He had to lower his gaze; whoever had interrupted them was about half his height.

“What’s this? What’s all this, now?” wheezed a reedy little voice. “What’re y’all doin’ in my garden shed?”

“Your…” Fred stared, blinking in astonishment. The voice was an old man’s, one he didn’t immediately recognize. “Your… Mister, I think you’re a mite turned around.”

“Don’t you lecture me, sonny boy!” the intruder said shrilly, and Fred stumbled at a sharp jab to his thigh. A moment later he stumbled back again, throwing up a hand to protect his eyes against the brilliance that had suddenly erupted. The tiny old man lifted an old-fashioned oil lamp to illuminate the interior of the shed. Even without the hunch that bent him nearly double, he was short, his head entirely bald with incongruously huge tufts of white hair erupting from his ears, face so lost in wrinkles that his eyes were completely obscured beneath bushy brows. He jabbed at Fred again with a gnarled cane, though this time Fred held his ground; if he backed up any further he’d stumble over Lorelin, who was still seated in meditation. The old man prodded him once more, shaking his lamp aggressively. “This here’s my tool shed, an’ I don’t take kindly to trespassers, nosirree I don’t!”

“You said garden shed,” Fred said dumbly.

That was apparently the wrong answer, and earned him a whack on the hip. For such an apparently frail old fellow, he could swing that cane hard.

“Don’t you correct me, y’little hoodlum! I know my rights! Eighty-seventeen years I’ve worked this farm, an’ I know every inch of it! This here’s my garden toolshed, sure as my name’s Cletus Custer Indominus Boomerang McGee! My poor wife’s buried right behind it, an’ my dog too, Vidius rest both their souls! But not the cat, little bastard never did an honest day’s work in his furry life.”

Rubbing his thigh, Fred snuck a glance back at the priestess, who did not react to the invocation of her god, either. She was still concentrating; his job, after all, was to see she wasn’t interrupted. He shifted position, planting himself between the old man and Lorelin. “Now see here, mister, this here shed’s in an alley behind the Saloon, there ain’t no way…” He trailed off, frowning, then leaned forward. “Hang on. Do I know you? I ain’t never seen you ’round town…”

He really should have expected the ensuing whack to the skull, he reflected when he could think again. In hindsight, it was obvious. When his ears stopped ringing, he found he’d barely caught himself against the wall of the shed. That and…oh, no.

Lorelin grunted, almost sending Fred entirely to the ground in the process of crawling out from under him. The old man was still ranting, shaking his lantern at them.

“…never heard such disrespect, in my day, young ‘uns had a proper regard for their elders, yes sir they did! Why, when I fought off the elves with my trusty lightnin’ staff, even they wasn’t so rude! Elves got proper respect for their elders, yes they do! ‘Mr. McGee,’ they said t’me, ‘beggin’ yer pardon but we’re here to pillage yer farm, if y’please.’ An’ I served ’em tea before I shot ’em all in the face in alphabetical order with lightning, cos in my day we had us a little thing called manners!”

“I’m unsurprised you don’t recognize him, Mr. Carson,” Lorelin said, straightening and brushing off her shirt. “This creature is some kind of fairy.”

“You’re some kinda fairy!” McGee shouted, whacking Fred again. “I never heard o’ such—”

The light that blazed from behind Fred was by a wide margin more blinding than the lamp, and made him distinctly grateful he wasn’t looking in its direction. The pure golden glow of divine magic pulsed outward, and at its impact, Cletus Custer Indominus Boomerang McGee seemed to blow away as if made of dust, leaving behind a shape that made even less sense.

Fred locked eyes with the four-foot-tall raccoon dressed in robes for a moment. Then the creature had the temerity to giggle.

Then it darted forward, dropped to the ground, and bit him on the ankle.

Fred yelled and stumbled over backward, once again collapsing atop Lorelin. This time he bore them both fully to the ground, again breaking her concentration. The light vanished, plunging them once more into oppressive darkness.

“I’m sorry!” he stammered, scrambling off her and accidentally kicking her in the process. “Gods, I didn’t mean—”

“Don’t worry about it, Carson.” Her voice, oddly enough, seemed amused. “It seems this may not be as easy as we were expecting.”

“What the hell is that thing?!”

“I’ve no idea; fairies are over my head.” His vision was gradually adjusting; he could make out a shifting shadow as she altered her position. “But we have our mission, and it looks like yours is no longer the easy part. Do your best to keep him off me, if you please.”

She fell still, and silent, apparently sinking back into meditation. In the ensuing silence, Fred heaved himself upright, lurched over to the door, and swung it shut, pressing himself against it.

The distinct scrabbling of little clawed feet scampered across the roof above them, followed by a shrill and distinctly insane giggle. And then a whimper, which Fred only belatedly realized had been himself.


Whatever caused the lull lasted only moments, and then with a roar, the crowd was after them again.

“Bloody ‘ell, are they gaining?” Maureen protested just as they reached the stairs.

“Well, yeah, their legs alone are taller than you,” Chase pointed out, a little breathless. He had pulled ahead, and now paused, turning back to her. “I could’ve left you behind, but Tellwyrn would turn me into an entire new dumbass-leather wardrobe. Her words, not mine. Oh, fine, I guess I have to do everything around here.”

“Don’t you dare!” she squawked, smacking him and jumping away as he bent and reached for her.

“Ow! You pint-sized idjit, do you want to get torn apart by a mob? Come here!”

“You can barely carry yer own weight, the way yer gaspin’!” Maureen skittered wide, departing the staircase to circle around him outside his reach. The distraction had cost them; she chanced a glance down the mountain, and the inexplicably enraged humans were rapidly gaining.

“Dammit to hell and back in a handbasket,” he complained, huffing as he followed her and lacking the sense to shut up when he was clearly not in good enough shape to be running up mountains in the first place. “This better actually be my fault somehow! If I get killed and it’s not because of something I did, everybody I care about is gonna lose the pool I have going. Best thing I could leave for ’em, not like I’ve got anything worth putting in a will…”

Only when he trailed off for breath did she note the sound. She had never heard it so distantly before, but Maureen knew that sound.

“No,” she breathed.

The lights came into view ahead and above them, a sharp blue glow that descended the mountain right at them at a frightening speed, the noise growing louder. It was a hum both deep and shrill, that seemed to exist somewhere on the boundaries of hearing.

“What the fuck now?” Chase demanded. “I really hope that’s help. Is that help? It doesn’t look like help. Doesn’t sound like help, either…”

“No, no, no!” Maureen wailed, putting on a burst of speed. “No, she’s not ready yet! She’s not done! Aye, she runs but I’ve the whole stabilizing matrix to install!”

“Who’s not ready?” he demanded.

Then the thing drew close enough to come into focus.

It angled away from the staircase, swerving wide to avoid striking them, and immediately began wobbling, which caused Maureen to cry out in panic. No surprise; stabilizing matrix or no, there was nobody alive who had any practice at driving that thing at all, much less down a mountainside at breakneck speed.

Even without practice, Szith’s natural elven balance and agility made a world of difference. She turned the machine entirely sideways till it was sliding horizontally down the slope, its single wide wheel ripping up and spewing a veritable fountain of grass and sod. The arcane blue fairy lamps mounted to its round bronze shell flashed as their beams swept across the two astonished students, then the angle changed, leaving the vehicle backlit by the glow of the levitation charms holding its tapering tail aloft. Szith leaned upslope in its saddle, planting one booted foot on the ground and ripping up another streak of grass as she manually slowed and controlled the descent.

It was unfair, Maureen reflected, how elves were just naturally good at everything. She knew for a fact the drow had never even ridden a horse, much less a…well, she hadn’t quite got around to naming it yet.

The arcane rider’s approach made even the mob trail to a halt, gaping in astonishment. The wheeled vehicle wobbled violently as Szith fought for control, and for a horrifying moment Maureen was certain the whole thing was going to flip over and roll the rest of the way down the mountainside. The drow (and the levitation charm) prevailed, however, and the whine of its motive charms surged as she gave it a boost of power. More dirt flew and it surged back into motion, getting its wheel firmly under itself. Having slid all the way past them now, she angled it back uphill and came after them.

Szith actually leaned out of the saddle, holding one arm out and scooping Maureen up into her lap even as she squeezed the brakes, skidding to a halt. And nearly toppling over again as the vehicle wobbled and swerved in the process.

“Gently!” Maureen squawked. “Ya gotta guide ‘er gently, she’s not got the balance fer this stop-an’-go!”

“On!” Szith barked, pulling to a halt next to Chase.

“Oh, hell yes!” he crowed, vaulting onto the saddle behind her and wrapping his arms around her waist.

“Gently!” Maureen wailed, to no avail. Szith shifted her grip on the handlebars, relaxing the brakes and twisting the throttle forward, sending Marueen’s project into another skid as she poured far too much power far too fast into their acceleration, causing the gnome to regret showing her how the controls worked even though this was very likely saving her life.

But it stabilized quickly, and they shot upward far faster than Maureen had ever climbed this mountain, rhythmically bouncing as the big wheel crossed over the switchbacking paved path. In just moments, the University gates hove into view.

“I WANT ONE!” Chase bellowed, and Maureen really wished she was in a position to push him off.


“Gotcha,” Fedora whispered savagely, peering through the spyglass. Even in a form which lacked his wings and tail for balance, even perched at the top of the church’s steeple in the stiff prairie breeze, he held his stance easily, quite enjoying the dramatic way his trench coat billowed behind him. Up ahead and far below, a single figure in a black coat stood at a distance from both the town and the now-puzzled mob which had staggered to an impotent halt a scant few dozen yards up the mountain.

The Inspector ignored them as he had the pulse of divine light which had briefly illuminated the alley behind the Saloon. Maru had done his job, and nothing Lorelin Reich had in her bag of tricks was going to more than inconvenience the tanuki. For that matter, Fedora had probably better go collect him before her efforts made that game too much fun. Fairies tended to lose themselves in the hunt, and all the University needed right now was for Tellwyrn’s personal secretary to turn somebody into a tree stump.

“It was a good play,” he said aloud into the wind as the Hand of the Emperor shifted to glare at his defeated lynch mob, bringing his familiar profile into focus. “Create a ruckus, threaten students, bring Tellwyrn down here to intervene. If you did your job well enough, she might go overboard, give you an excuse to rile the town further. At the very least, you’d test her, see how she reacted to being poked. But you didn’t count on a dashing, demonic voice of reason to summon student help and persuade the boss lady to butt out, now didja. And now it is Fedora who has seen the face of the enemy! You lose this round, cupcake. What shall we play next?”

His triumphant grin vanished as the Hand of the Emperor abruptly turned to stare directly at him.

“No,” Fedora muttered, lowering the spyglass. It was dark, there was a good quarter of a mile between them. Even an elf could barely have made him out, perched on the steeple. “There’s no way…”

The Hand vanished momentarily from view as he suddenly sped back into the shadow of Last Rock’s buildings. Then he reappeared even more dramatically, having vaulted from the ground onto a rooftop. He proceeded onward, leaping from roof to roof faster than a jungle cat, and making straight for the church.

“Oh, shit.”

 

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