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.

Bonus #46: The Light of Dawn, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backers Lanky and Akashavani!

“It’s a mess out there, milord,” the Silver Huntress reported, dismissing the spectral hawk which had just returned to her shoulder into mist. “Our forces are still scattered across the approach; some of the adventurers and light regulars have been able to go over the rocks, but most of the infantry are still pinned down in the passes. Friendlies are converging on the mountain from all over the east, there are contingents from Thacaar on their way from the west, and scattered smaller groups from multiple other directions, mostly adventurer parties. Everyone’s being harassed by demons, though. It won’t take long for the stragglers to be picked off at this rate, and even the bigger groups are drawing more attention from the enemy.”

He placed a hand on her shoulder briefly in acknowledgment and thanks, his scarred steel gauntlet peeking out from beneath the ragged sleeve of his brown robe.

“All according to plan at the moment, then,” he said, turning to Razeen. “You know what that means.”

“It’s all gone to hell on us before,” she replied, raising her chin defiant. “Yet here we stand.”

“Here we stand,” he agreed, shifting his head to look across their assembled forces. They had secured the best vantage in the region, a flat if slightly tilted plateau which looked melted, as if some awesome heat source had scoured away its once-jagged peak. Here in the Wyrnrange, that was likely to have been the case. With some twelve hundred troops forming a ring near the center of the plateau, they were not only the largest concentration of allied forces in the area, but had occupied the only tenable position overlooking the Mouth itself. That made them the target of a lot of demonic attention.

Not enough, though. Not yet.

The Mouth itself was no ordinary hellgate, but the cause of this infernal war. A simple set of standing stones, obsidian from the local mountains, it towered twenty feet in height and almost that wide, enabling the ingress of not only large numbers of troops from Hell, but sizable demons of types which had never before made it to the mortal plane. The allies had secured every minor hellgate possible, but the Third Hellwar would never come to a stop until the Mouth was destroyed and Elilial’s forces denied access to this world. Consequently, it was a heavily if sloppily fortified position, surrounded by a hasty construction of walls and towers, manned by swarms of demons and even featuring some primitive siege engines.

Even as he turned to look, a flaming pitch-coated stone came soaring toward them from one of the catapults and was blasted out of the air by one of his own mages, probably Vadigern himself.

They were being pressed, both by three columns of demons clambering up the plateau’s main approaches and by constant harassment from smaller ones which could clamber up the steeper sides of the mountain, to say nothing of the relentless pressure from above. The Silver Huntress, Ayavi, had already rejoined the mages and rangers in shooting down katzils and bhavghai which spat flame and acid against the shield their priests were trying to maintain.

“I will begin,” he said to Razeen, Vadigern and Rolof, raising his hands to the sides and already beginning to channel divine magic in an intricate working. “You all know the plan. I am sorry to leave our people to face this without my aid, but they must hold.”

Razeen Alshadai, the last living Hand of Avei, held up the crystal-tipped spear she had recently acquired in a salute. “And hold we will!”

“The men trust you,” Rolof added before turning to follow her back to the front, the dwarf’s face mostly hidden behind his thick helmet. “Do your duty, my lord, as will we all.”

Vadigern, ever a man of few words, just nodded to him and turned back around, raising his hands to hurl arcane spells at the swarming demons.

It was ignited quickly once he began, a feat of divine magic more complex than most upon the mortal plane could have achieved. A vast spell circle rose from the very ground around the defensive lines of the soldiers holding this plateau, three luminous rings of glyphs which rotated in alternating directions, and in all the area within, silver mist coalesced out of the very stone. This would help both repulse the demons and invigorate their flagging troops, but it was the lesser part of the purpose.

From the very center of the circle, the spot where he stood with hands upheld, a column of pure light burst up from the stone, soaring to a hundred feet in height, where it erupted into a radiance like the sun. The ankh, an ancient symbol associated with divine magic irrespective of faith, formed out of pure light in midair and hovered above his spot, casting golden light in every direction and filling the air with the pure, shivering tone of bells.

Immediately, a roar went up from the fortress surrounding the Mouth. Demons continued to stream out of the gate itself, but those clustered in and around the fortifications surged outward to attack.

The beacon would provide guidance to his scattered allies, while also drawing the attention of the enemy. Attention, and unrelenting assault. One of the few saving graces of conducting war against demons was the mindless aggression to which infernal poisoning made them prone; even a reasonably competent general could usually outmaneuver an enemy which knew no tactic but frontal attack.

They could hold for a while, having turtled up as thoroughly as possible without actually erecting field fortifications. Their front ranks consisted of the regulars from Stovolheim; dwarves were some of the best heavy infantry in the world, being tough, nearly immovable, and usually possessed of the very best armor and shields. Unfortunately, fighting demons changed a number of calculations, and he had blundered immediately upon adding the dwarves to his forces when a wave of hthrynxkhs had simply vaulted over the dwarves and torn into his archers. Waves of ikthroi and baerzurgs had likewise piled against the Stovol troopers until they were buried by sheer weight. Now, he had them positioned with second ranks of lighter infantry behind, mostly from the League of Avei and the Sorashi Chosen, both to counter such tactics and to surge forward whenever a gap was opened in their lines. Priests were placed at intervals among the second ranks with orders to conserve their magic for shielding against spellfire and delivering unfocused bursts of divine energy to break up massed demon attacks. The rest of the priests stood back in the innermost ring, offering healing and maintaining the shields that kept them from being swarmed from above, interspersed with the archers, mages, and witches who were holding back aerial assaults and intermittently focusing fire on especially large demons which reached the front lines.

It was a tested and true formation, but they were now in the open, isolated from support, and facing what had to be at least six times their number, with the discrepancy growing by the second as more demons streamed through the Mouth. They simply could not hold forever. Of course, the plan did not require them to, but it did call for the defenders to stand their ground under unrelenting assault for an indeterminate time, until they were under the maximum possible pressure and the Mouth’s fortress was emptied of its host.

And his part in the plan, for now, was to stand there and let them. The beacon did not require him to actively maintain it, though he did have to protect the working from attack by warlocks. That took little of his attention, however. For the time being, he had to watch the movement of the demons and let his comrades fight and die while he stood there doing nothing to aid them.

He added this pain to the list of grievances he planned to throw at the Dark Lady’s hooves at the end of this.

The distances involved were not small; it took nearly twenty minutes for the wave of attackers which surged out of the Mouth’s fortress to swarm up onto their plateau from the passes between the two rises, and less than half that for the redoubled efforts of the demons already converging upon them to be broken by their divine-augmented turtle. That at least gave the front ranks a breather, though the pressure from above never let up and in fact grew worse as time went on. Andior’s recent gambit had deprived the demons of most of their sapient fliers until more could be brought through the Mouth, leaving only the katzils and bhagvai to provide them air support. Those, of course, were both dumb animals and demons, so when taunted by the blazing divine sigil they streamed in steadily from miles in every direction. The pressure they exerted wasn’t nearly enough to break the defenders, but it was constant.

Fortunately it was beginning to taper off by the time the main wave impacted the dwarven lines.

And still the fortress was not emptied. Still columns of howling demons poured in through the Mouth.

As the attackers hit, they were given a reminder of why gambits like this were necessary, why demons could not be assumed to be mindless brutes. Timed to coincide with the impact of the horde upon the defending lines, two of the khelminash flying fortresses revealed themselves.

They preferred not to become targets until they had engaged an enemy. The relatively small fortresses that could be brought through the Mouth seemed to have limited power, and the warlocks piloting them could not maintain their Cloak of Shadows while doing anything aggressive. Now, one of them began reaching out through subtle flows of infernomancy to probe at his beacon. Those were easy enough to deflect, and despite their caution they inadvertently revealed which was behind it, as the other fortress opted instead to pelt his northwestern lines with spells.

The priests shifted to put up stronger divine walls in that direction and he focused his attention on the other fortress, so far doing nothing except effortlessly deflecting their efforts, while also watching for a sudden attack from them; the khelminash were lucid enough to exercise actual strategy, and it wouldn’t have marked the first time he had seen them draw off priests in order to hit them from behind their divine shields. There was still the third fortress that he knew had come through the Mouth, which was still cloaked somewhere in the vicinity.

Not that he could have done anything, had they chosen to attack. He had to stand, and wait, and not reveal himself until the time was right.

The mob manning the walls around the Mouth was finally thinning out. Their reinforcements through the portal itself had not abated, but he had already concluded he would have to act before they did. It was the fortifications that posed the problem; the infernal wards and counter-spells in them were enough to threaten even him. They could be dealt with, but not while he was dealing with all the other demons. For now, he just had to get them out from behind their walls and exposed.

The khelminash fort assaulting them listed and began to drift away as it was hammered by arcane spellfire from Vadigern and his fellow mages, and its inherent magic began to falter until more judicious pressure from the witches in their ranks. Both began to retreat, the damaged one drifting downward as it did so. Damned khelminash; they just couldn’t throw their lives away like all their vile brethren. It was a blessing that they were rarely seen on the mortal plane.

To the surprise of probably everyone involved, it was the second fortress which was destroyed first, even as the damaged one drifted out of range. The barrage of arcane fire that pierced its walls came from off to the northeast; clearly some of the allied forces trickling in were heavy hitters, and not too distracted by all the demonic harassment to contribute to the battle. The fortress’s hellseed core collapsed in an explosion that sprayed chunks of stone in all directions, felling friend and foe alike within the range of its fallout.

The circular lines had shrunk, pressed in from all sides. There they had stopped, the lines having retreated to leave the outermost edges of the divine spell circle beyond their feet, which created a blessed ground that weakened any demons which approached. That gave the defenders the chance to firm up, but inevitably they would be pushed back again. If the line broke entirely and demons swarmed into the center it would be all over, but it would not come to that. Should that seem imminent he would take action early to prevent it, even at the cost of denying them a decisive victory over the Mouth’s fortress. So long as the allies survived in some form, they could continue to fight. There just weren’t enough left from the shattered kingdoms outside the Wyrnrange to reinforce them again. If the forces here were lost, the world was lost.

He could tell the moment was near. The walls were all but emptied, only a relatively few stubborn and/or clever demons remaining in their shelter. Still the fortress gates were open and providing a path for the constant stream pouring out of Hell to join the offensive. Elilial must have just massed another sizable force on the other side of the Mouth, preparatory to invading. They just wouldn’t stop. Already the demons’ numbers had nearly doubled since he had launched the beacon, even with the constant attrition they suffered from piling against his defenses.

Then they faltered.

Immediately he cast his vision upward, linking his consciousness to the beacon itself to gain a bird’s eye view of the area. From there he could see the many groups of mortals converging on their position, having been freed to move by the distraction the beacon provided; almost no stray demons were bothering with anyone else when so enraging a target blared a challenge at them.

More importantly, he was right: the flow of forces out of the Mouth had slowed. Whether they were truly running out or had paused temporarily for some logistical reason on the other side, he did not know and did not wait to find out. Much more of this and his lines would begin to buckle. This was the moment.

He re-oriented his perception to his body, and in a swell of magic, launched himself straight upward, soaring up to almost twice the height of the beacon itself. For a bare second he hovered there, a figure in battle-scarred armor beneath a cowled robe of plain brown. Probably none but the still-hidden third khelminash fortress even noticed him.

At least, until he revealed his other form.

Colossal golden wings spread over his armies, and he poured magic into the beacon. A pulse of pure divine energy flashed out from the circle in all directions, bodily sweeping back the demon tide and burning many of them to ash. It gave his beleaguered lines a breather, but more importantly, it put the frontmost ranks of demons far enough from his own people that there would be no friendlies caught in his next move.

With a roar that echoed from mountain to mountain to the horizon, Ampophrenon the Gold descended upon the exposed demon hordes in an apocalyptic fury of fire and Light.

Plunging downward, he pirouetted neatly on one wingtip, whirling in a tight circle above the ring of his defending forces and spraying the demons surrounding them with a constant stream of fire. Dragonfire in its un-augmented state was one of relatively few heat-based magics that burned through infernal defenses on its own. Demons favored fire themselves, and stood up well to arcane and even fae variants. He, though, had long since so infused himself with divine energy that it was a major component of the flame he breathed. The fire he exhaled across the demons was so fierce and so anathema to them that they did not burn so much as dissolve. Nothing but dust was left to stain the rocks.

To their credit, whoever was leading the demons reacted swiftly, bolstering the defenses around the fortress. Infernal magic did not provide shields as such, but more power swelled in the wards until the sheer infernal energy radiating outward from the walls took on an almost physical force, dispersed through an array that skillfully mirrored the layout of the fortifications themselves. It wouldn’t do anything to actually strengthen the walls but would bolster the demonic defenders and pose a threat to anyone trying to assault the keep.

He couldn’t spare a second to do anything to counter it. His desperate gambit had bought him a single window in which to annihilate as much of the enemy’s forces as he could. Nearly all were outside the fortress’s protection, and most had converged to make a single, conveniently massed target. He would not have time to hunt down stragglers; it was now or never.

Ampophrenon spun in wider circles, spraying streams of divine flame in three more passes before he had burned away the entire forces encircling his on the mountaintop. More demons were clustered on the approaches, and he diverted himself to dive onto each, blasting every path in its entirety with a wide spread of fire to cleanse it of demon filth. Some at the edges might have survived; there was just no time to be meticulous.

Maneuvering in midair at the greatest speed with which he was able, it was the work of moments to clean off the approaches, and then he set to work on the main body of demons.

Spells and missiles peppered him as he descended, but nothing this rabble could throw would pierce either his hide or his magical defenses. He had to track back and forth against this much larger horde, pivoting repeatedly to scour them off the face of the earth. Again, he prioritized speed over thoroughness, but even so, an army that had to have been sixty thousand strong disappeared to ash in minutes under the force of his fury. Almost before he knew it, he had created a scorched but clean reach of stone where there had been a hellish army leading right up to the outermost wards surrounding the fortress itself. By the time he got there, he had already enjoyed the rare sight of massed demons trying to retreat. They wouldn’t flee from anything they could fight, no matter how hopeless the odds, but even the demons could plainly see they were contending with a force of nature.

And still, he was free to rain destruction on them. Banking away from the painful burn of the magic radiating out of the fortress, he considered whether the extra moments he had somehow been granted would be better spent making another pass to clean up any surviving demons or unleashing an attack on the Mouth’s defenses themselves. He surely didn’t have much time before—

She was moving at well over the speed of sound; even his reflexes barely saved him. He was able to put up a strong enough divine shield that the impact wasn’t instantly catastrophic, but she still smashed through it and got a grip on his neck, even as the force of the hit sent them both tumbling half a mile away.

Ampophrenon roared in outrage and pain, tossing his head as he fought to turn his wild horizontal fall back into a glide. She ignored all this, clawing and biting at his scales like a maddened badger—a flying badger whose talons could rend steel and who shrugged off all but the most overwhelming magics.

He took no chances with half-measures against this one. The dragon pumped his wings once, shooting straight upward, then rolled over in midair at the apex of his ascent and beat them again, hurling himself toward the ground at the greatest speed he could manage.

He hit the side of a mountain back-first, throwing up the most resilient divine shield he could manage right at the moment of impact, crushing her beneath the overwhelming force of his Light and the unyielding rock below.

The rock gave before either she or the Light did. In fact, the impact made a sizable crater beneath them, but she was crushed even deeper into the stone. At least the blow dazed her enough that she let go, and he was able to hurl himself forward and away again, leaving what must have been half the mountain to crumble atop her.

Ampophrenon shot across the air to the nearest mountainside, where he landed on all fours and nimbly spun to face his attacker. Already she was clambering out of the wreckage they had made of the mountain.

The dragon spread his wings, roaring a warning at her.

Vadrieny fanned her own, and screamed right back, a brain-clawing sound that made the very air shiver in pain.

The detestable little brute was clad in the only armor that could stand up to the kinds of abuse to which she subjected it, and even so it was already ragged and beginning to fall apart. That would be adding insult to injury, but the sheer insult of dressing herself in dragonscales was unmatched to begin with.

She gathered herself, crouching to lunge across the gap between them, and Ampophrenon blasted her with a concentrated stream of Light-infused dragonfire, pounding her bodily back into the crater.

It was an open question whether enough of that over a prolonged period could have really harmed the archdemon, but this was not the day he got to test it. Almost immediately he broke off his attack and shot upward, evading another sneak assault.

Azradeh was generally more circumspect than her sister. Her approach was not nearly so fast or violent, enabling him to dodge her, but also giving herself wiggle room to adjust her dive to avoid piling face-first into the stone. She wheeled away to join Vadrieny, and he took the opportunity to retreat.

He did not actually know whether he could defeat two archdemons alone; he had not had the opportunity to face off against one. Most of the seven were too careful to risk themselves against the relatively few foes who could actually threaten them, and they kept a firm grip on the rest—like Vadrieny, who lacked the sense to retreat from danger and only wasn’t dead already because she obeyed orders from her elder sisters.

Regardless, this was not the time. He was not merely a warrior of the Light, but a general, and there was too much at stake here for him to go haring off in pursuit of one or even two targets, no matter how significant.

Apparently, Azradeh agreed. As Ampophrenon soared back to the mountain on which his forces were assembled, two much smaller figures flew in a wide arc to avoid him as they returned to their nearby fortress.


As it turned out, the forces massing beyond the portal really were depleted. They continued to trickle forth, but at nowhere near the previous rate. Slowly the fortress’s defenders were replenished, but in one fell swoop Ampophrenon had annihilated the bulk of what was meant to be another wave of invaders sizable enough to overrun yet another kingdom. It had been cheap in military terms, given what it had cost him in the lives of his own troops, but even this victory did not end the war. There was still the Mouth itself, and breaking its defenses would not be a small task.

The beacon remained lit, and over the next hours, the scattered forces of the mortal allies converged on the flat mountaintop even as the demons slowly bolstered their own numbers again. The remainder of Ampophrenon’s own troops were among the first, and he inwardly cringed at their numbers; fully half had been lost to demon attacks on the way there. Splitting up his army among the scattered adventurer teams to disguise their strength had worked, insofar as it had baited the demons into overconfidence and ultimately cost them their entire invasion force, but the butcher’s bill had been even more than he feared.

Not only his own army had answered the call, though, and the allied encampment swelled with each passing hour.

Adventurers there were aplenty, of course. They weren’t much good in massed combat, but Ampophrenon had found their chaotic approach a useful counter to the even more chaotic methods of the enemy; demons and adventurers didn’t take orders well and might do just about any fool thing. The gangs of wandering, heavily-armed malcontents and loners at their worst made a serviceable distraction enabling him to execute actual strategy against the demons, and at their best proved instrumental in pulling off surprising victories. The best adventurers, after all, were known for succeeding when by all rights they should not be able to. Without performing an actual head count, he estimated close to two hundred had gathered. He would definitely find uses for them.

In terms of actual soldiers, he gained a force from the Western tribes almost two-thirds the size of his own spellcaster-backed infantry. They were light and agile, able to cross the forbidding mountains with good speed; mostly spearmen, archers, a few swordsmen and a dedicated corps of shaman, with the added benefit of a smattering of priests. Three separate parties of Rangers had arrived, forming an additional seven hundred troops, as well as a surprising contingent of elves under the leadership of an Elder called Sheyann, whom Ampophrenon had not met but knew by reputation.

Typical. He needed heavy infantry and divine casters, so of course the gods had sent him a bunch of the finest scouts and archers in existence. No time did he waste on complaints, however. War was not chess; one maneuvered against circumstance as much as against the enemy general.

There were some real boons among the late arrivals, however. Sheyann herself was a significant asset, even in comparison with other elven shaman. Three more Silver Huntresses had turned up, as well as an actual Huntsman of Shaath, and two Dark Riders of Sorash. His forces also gained some significant arcane firepower; Andior Caladaan was not dead, as Ampophrenon had feared, but arrived looking somewhat the worse for wear and no less pleased with himself for it. Like most Hands of Salyrene, he could be a trial to deal with, but as he had been the one to singlehandedly bring down that khelminash fortress, Ampophrenon was inclined to let him strut a little. Sheyann’s party also brought the most surprising arrival yet, a powerful high elven sorceress who spoke with an accent the dragon couldn’t place, and also seemed to be slightly crazy.

“Wow,” the woman introduced to him as Arachne said, gazing at his towering golden bulk with a childlike expression of glee. “Are there any more like you at home? A few of these and we will maybe spank Elilial right where the sun does not shine!”

Standing right behind her, Sheyann sighed and shook her head, but did not intervene. Ampophrenon decided to assume it was a serious question.

“None who can be here in time to help,” he said, keeping his powerful voice to a courteous low rumble. “My brethren are unfortunately difficult to persuade that Elilial’s depredations are any concern of theirs, and even those with the sense to lend aid… Several have already fallen. Ramandiloth, Syranorn and Khadizroth are aiding from a distance, assaulting the Dark Lady’s forces elsewhere to help buy us this opportunity. What you see,” he added, straightening up and sweeping one wing to indicate the assembled mortal forces, “is what we have to work with.”

“Hm…maybe not so much, to attack Hell,” she observed.

“That’s not even on the table,” Razeen replied, leaning on her spear. “Our mission here is to stop the invasion, not launch our own. The portal must be destroyed.”

“And for that reason,” Ampophrenon said, nodding first to her and then to Andior, “the arrival of powerful mages is most welcome. We will sorely need experts in portal magic. I am grateful to see any help from the high elves; you alone are more than I expected.”

“High elves?” The woman blinked at him in apparent confusion, then turned to peer over the heads of the surrounded soldiers at the mountain range beyond. “Well… I guess this is as high as I have ever been. I have spent more time under mountains than on top, now that I consider on it.”

Ampophrenon stared at her. Sheyann caught his eye, made a face, and shook her head again, so he decided to leave that alone.

“What is your plan, exactly?” Andior interjected. “Because despite the difference in its scale, that is still fundamentally a hellgate. We can probably disrupt it by destroying it physical housing, but that will only destabilize the rift and then I have honestly no idea what will happen. To truly close it we must have someone working on the other side.”

“Ah,” said Arachne, “so my idea was maybe not so wrong, yes?”

“And who would you propose to abandon in Hell?” Razeen demanded. “Would you do it?”

“I have not seen Hell,” the elf mused. “Could be interesting. Demons are not very good company, though. How close is the least far hellgate from here? Maybe I can walk back that way.”

“I…wasn’t seriously asking…” The Hand of Avei looked a little unnerved by the sorceress’s apparent willingness to sacrifice herself.

Arachne frowned at her. “Then why do you open your mouth? This seems like not a right time for jokes.”

“Peace,” Ampophrenon rumbled. “Tensions are inevitably high in this situation, and we have gathered together many who would not voluntarily seek one another’s company. Remember our need, and why we have come here to stand as one. There is no time for infighting.”

“Well said, Lord Ampophrenon,” Sheyann agreed. “The question remains, then. How can we prevail?”

“I have a plan,” he said gravely. “But it is unconventional, and risky.”

“Your unconventional and risky plans have brought us this far,” said Razeen.

“I have just confirmed that there are two archdemons leading the defense of the Mouth’s fortress,” he continued.

“Three,” the taciturn Huntsman, Torol, interjected unexpectedly. “Arvanzideen is prowling these mountains.”

“Four,” Sheyann corrected in a quiet tone. “We have recently encountered Invazradi as well.”

The dragon nodded. “Four, then. Even better than I had hoped.”

“Better?” Arachne blinked twice. “More archdemons is more good how?”

“It is better,” he said, “because we do have someone on the other side who will shut the Mouth for us. Elilial herself.” He paused to let the murmuring at this subside, and chose to ignore Andior’s sudden delighted grin. “I will ask her politely to cease hostilities and close her portal. And she will agree,” he growled, drawing back his lips to bare rows of glittering fangs, “because she has previously betrayed her only true weakness. If the Dark Lady wishes to see her children again after this day, she will submit to the Light.”

“Ah,” said Arachne, nodding sagely. “So we are all going to die, then.”


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Bonus #45: The Masks We Wear, part 2

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Being saddled with Reich began immediately.

“I’m curious, Tarvadegh,” she said as soon as they were in a private corridor outside the innermost sanctuaries of the temple in which Gwenfaer lived and from which she governed the cult. That wasn’t hard to arrange; the underground complex was sprawling and easy to get lost in unless you knew your way around. Finding a hallway with no one else in it was usually much easier than finding another person. There were countless possible routes to the exit, and Val had followed Reich simply because she had chosen to set their path and he didn’t feel like engaging in a pissing contest with her. “Vistirian is an old teacher of the Lady’s. Raskin is one of her favorite hands with which to reach into people’s pockets. I, of course, know why I am useful to her. But you—and I mean no offense by this—I’ve never heard of before today. How did you come to be a confidant of Lady Gwenfaer?”

He gave her a sidelong look of appraisal. Reich was wearing a mask of calm, open curiosity, which he took for an honest one as it was the sensible attitude in her situation. Had she tried to play coy, he might have been annoyed. He was wearing a similar mask himself, but now switched it—to a coy, slightly smug one he’d modeled off a burlesque dancer on whom he’d had an unhealthy crush as a teenager.

“Oh, didn’t you know? I’m her secret bedtime boy toy.” Pause for comedic timing, as his actor friends had taught him. “She likes it in the pooper.”

Reich switched back to her disapproving schoolmarm mask.

He showed it right back to her.

“Are you being difficult for a specific reason, Tarvadegh, or do you have a defective personality?”

“Eh.” He made a waffling motion with one hand.

“If you consider it in poor taste for me to ask your credentials without offering mine, that’s fair. For my part—”

“I know who you are, Reich,” he said, switching to a mask of weary acceptance, one inspired by his various ministrations to the grieving over the years.

“Ah.” Her own mask changed again, back to the serenely inquisitive one, and this time he knew it had to be much less sincere. “And you don’t approve of me. You aren’t the first. Which part troubles you, if I might inquire?”

“I’ll warn you up front: my sense of humor is wasted on most people…”

“Yes, you did warn me of that up front, didn’t you? Rather vividly.”

“…and that is the last personal detail I am interested in sharing, Reich. If you will kindly leave me alone, I will do my utmost to make this partnership as efficient and painless as I can, the better to end it sooner. Deal?”

“Hmm…I’m not sure I can meet those terms,” she mused. The farther this conversation progressed the more clear it was she was using that mask of calm to conceal her actual feelings, and Val resolved not to take it for a sincere one again even if it seemed situationally appropriate. “We are dealing with enough uncertainties without me having to work hand-in-glove with one more—not to mention that I cannot help being vaguely nervous about partnering with a man who seems familiar with my record, when the same is not true in reverse. One does hate to be at a disadvantage. Meet me halfway, Val. We all respect privacy; throw me a bone and I promise not to gnaw on your ankles.”

She wasn’t wrong, he had to acknowledge. He was letting his own aversion affect his conduct, and far too easily. That was not going to work if they were to actually get anything done.

“My acquaintance with the Lady is personal,” he said, putting on a mask of blank indifference to match hers of blank curiosity. “Regardless of my actual skill or utility, she trusts me.”

“Yes, it would have to be so,” she murmured, “if you’re comfortable making wisecracks like that scarcely out of her earshot. So, that’s the way it is. I’m the competent one and you’re the reliable one.”

He gave her another look out the corner of his eye, mask still in place. She matched it.

“See, Val, I can make jokes, too.”

“Think of me as your reflection, Lorelin. I have basically your skillset, with an opposing philosophy.”

“How intriguing,” she mused. “I wonder why the Lady wants two specialists in Vidian mind magic to tease the Bishop out of his hole and pick a teacher for young Master Arquin.”

“Gwenfaer knows what she is doing.” He permitted himself a sigh, a small one that did not break his current mask. “In my experience, everyone else will find out what she’s doing when it’s too late to stop her, and not a minute sooner.”

Reich had the audacity to laugh. “Well, then. While we make our way to the Cathedral, we may as well brainstorm. Who do you think ought to be the boy’s teacher?”

“Why don’t you do it?”

“Hmm…” She chewed her bottom lip pensively, which had to be purely performative; Val was already certain the woman constantly kept up enough layers of masks to conceal any hint of her actual thoughts. “That’s an interesting idea… I’m not sure I would be the best candidate, though. Young people wear on my patience.”

“I wonder what that feels like,” he said innocently.

She laughed, and he did not ignite a divine shield and bash her into the wall. So far, so good.


The Grand Cathedral, needless to say, was a kicked beehive. The Universal Church was hard at work both assisting in the city’s recovery and coordinating the efforts of the various cults doing the same, not to mention dealing with a sudden influx of Huntsmen of Shaath, who had an unfortunate tendency to cause problems when suddenly introduced to urban environments. The halls of the Cathedral complex were intermittently tricky to navigate simply due to all the people rushing back and forth, some of whom were carrying heavy loads of supplies. On the upside, chaos was a boon to discretion. Two priests could pass through all that furor without attracting the slightest notice, which under those circumstances was for the best.

The traditional offices of the Vidian Bishop were a suite of two rooms, rather than the single large one most Bishops were assigned. Val caught Lorelin shooting him a speculative look when he led the way there, doubtless wondering why a street-level priest such as himself would be so familiar with the section of the Cathedral where such august personages worked.

It was a given that she’d deliberately let him see her wondering, too. This was going to wear him out; having to think this way was a big part of why he hated dealing with the political movers and shakers. Not that he couldn’t do it, he just resented the necessity.

They entered without knocking, as was customary. The first room was square and, while not overly large, not cramped even with the rows of bookshelves lining two of its walls and the desk taking up much of another, next to the door into the inner office. Behind the desk sat a young woman in formal gray robes marking her an acolyte. She did not have the hood or ceramic mask on; they rarely did outside the temple of Vidius itself. Non-initiated tended to find that formal getup aggressively creepy, and Vidians were nothing if not willing to adjust their outer appearances to achieve a desired effect.

“Good day,” she said politely, and with some trepidation—clearly too new to the cult to have a proper command of the Masks yet. “I’m afraid Bishop Querril is secluded in prayer at the moment.”

“Yes, so we have heard,” Reich said from behind a pleasantly formal mask. “I am Lorelin Reich; this is Val Tarvadegh. We were sent by Lady Gwenfaer to speak with the Bishop. This is urgent.”

The girl’s eyes widened and she swallowed. “Oh. Um, I’m afraid…his Grace…”

“How many times have you been yelled at already this morning?” Val asked, letting a mask of patronly amusement slide onto his features. It was one he had cultivated for dealing with street children. Getting it just right had taken some work; it was tricky to convey openness and good humor with no hint of condescension.

“I’ve stopped keeping count,” the acolyte said, clearly warming to him somewhat, though not enough to look substantially less guarded.

“Why on earth would anyone yell at you?” Lorelin asked.

“Not everyone looks at a situation and tries to reason out all the factors at play to decide where best to spend their efforts, Lorelin,” Val said. “In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s just our cult. An awful lot of people will throw the most appalling tantrums at even the slightest setback.”

“Even the kind of people who would have business with a Bishop?” she demanded, adopting a skeptical mask. Val had suspected she was putting on a show for the acolyte, here, and that confirmed it. Lorelin Reich unequivocally did not need the nuances of human social interaction explained to her.

“Especially those,” he replied, playing along. “Important people aren’t used to having their way blocked by underlings.”

“Well, I’m very sorry we have to add to your burdens, then,” Lorelin said, turning a kindly mask upon the acolyte. “Unfortunately, the Lady commands, and she outranks even his Grace.”

The poor girl swallowed again. “I, um, wasn’t notified you were coming. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be difficult, but going against the Bishop’s express orders without confirmation from the cult…”

Reich smiled and opened her mouth, and while Val didn’t doubt she could shmooze this girl into doing whatever she might possibly ask, he decided he did not want to spend the whole afternoon playing this game. His fellow cleric closed her mouth again, turning to him in surprise when he simply stepped past the desk and reached for the latch to the inner office door.

“Oh! Sir!” the acolyte fretted.

“Don’t worry, I will personally assume full responsibility,” he said, adjusting his kid-friendly mask with a roguish wink. “You can feel free to tell his Grace I threatened you or something, it wouldn’t be the worst rumor about me swirling around.”

“I’ll just bet,” Lorelin muttered, which he ignored, pushing the door open and stepping through.

Like many ranking Vidians, Alonsius Querril had a taste for the dramatic. His private space was laid out more like a temple than an office, with its walls lined by heavy velvet drapes reminiscent (no doubt deliberately) of stage curtains, and a dais against the wall opposite the door surmounted by a large idol of the cult’s mask-and-scythe sigil sculpted in wood and polished to a glow. The Bishop’s actual desk was tucked away in the corner least visible from the door, half-hidden behind a folding screen.

Querril himself was on his knees, head bowed, before the idol with his back to them. He did not move upon their entry, though he immediately spoke.

“I hope you manipulated your way past my aide instead of bullying her. She’s a studious child with a good heart.”

“I agreed to let her decide how it went down,” Val replied.

“Tarvadegh,” Querril said in an openly fatalistic tone. He finally rose ponderously to his feet, his once-impressive height somewhat blunted by a slight hunch that had come with age, and turned to lay a gimlet stare upon them that hardly seemed to bother with a mask. “And Reich. These truly are the end times.”

“That being the case, I am somewhat surprised to find you still sequestered in here, your Grace,” Reich replied smoothly. Tarvadegh noted with amusement that her mask was now as close to true blankness as could be. Bishop Querril had a reputation as a fussy old man, but he had not attained his role without being infamously incisive. She at the least feared that his perception would be more than a match for her deflection. Which was probably the case.

“Oh?” Querril was no Gwenfaer, but his masks were both smooth and deep; it took some real focus to discern the artifice behind the full force of personality he turned upon Reich now, his disapproval a very nearly physical force that filled the office. “I suppose you feel I ought to be out there inciting rebellions just to turn them in to the Empire for reward money? Or embezzling Sultanate treasury funds? Keeping the grand old tradition of frontier witch hunts alive?”

“You are familiar with my resume,” she said, still blank-masked. “How very flattering. I am comfortable with disapproval of my methods, your Grace, but the fact remains that this cult’s activities, including the exorbitant salary of its Bishop, are funded in part by my efforts. At the end of the day I do my job, even when it is unpalatable.”

“Shut up, Reich,” Querril ordered. “Today of all days, I am not going to listen to moralizing from an Eserite who picked the wrong cult to rise through. Yes, I’m sure Lady Gwenfaer must want me back at the temple in the worst way, to have sent you two out here to shake the branches. What I am not sure of is how concerned I am with that.”

“This is a historic moment for our faith,” Val insisted quietly. “Omnu’s breath, man, a paladin! After eight thousand years, we get a Hand of Vidius. To be alive at a time like this!”

“A half-demon paladin,” Querril said, suddenly projecting exhaustion so persuasively Val found himself actually wondering whether it was a mask. The Bishop turned his back on them again, slowly sinking down to his knees before the idol. “You two, and likely Gwenfaer as well, only see the situation and how to exploit it. Not one of you, I guarantee, has paused to think on what this means.”

“It means that the cult is facing an unprecedented crisis,” said Val, “and nobody has time for this, Querril. You are needed.”

“And you need a new partner, Val,” the Bishop grunted, adjusting his legs to kneel more comfortably. “Playing the bad guard doesn’t suit you.”

“That’s the least of the reasons I need a new partner,” he muttered.

“I would be offended, but neither of you are wrong,” Reich added. “Fine, I will take over the role. This is not acceptable, your Grace. You are the Bishop of our faith, at a time when we desperately need both leadership and a practiced hand to interface with other cults which, unlike ours, know how to handle a paladin. You can play the stubborn old man on your own time. Right now, Lady Gwenfaer has given her orders, and we are here to see them carried out.”

“Just think how much it’ll embarrass the cult if I have the Holy Legion carry you two out,” Querril replied with his back still to them. “Lady Gwenfaer and Archpope Justinian each have the privilege of removing me from my position if either finds my service unsatisfactory. Until that time, this is my office, and I wish to be secluded within it. I have praying to do. As do we all, not that I expect the likes of you to bother. Good day.”

Val and Reich met each other’s eyes, silently weighing the pros and cons of trying to push this further. After a pause, he shook his head, and she nodded minutely in agreement.

“I guess we’ll leave you to it, then, your Grace,” Val said, reaching for the door latch.

“Take some time to contemplate,” Reich added, pausing before following him out. “This is not concluded, but there is a…grace period. We also have to deal with others who don’t face the future on their knees.”

She shut the door firmly.

The acolyte behind the outer desk sighed. “He’s not coming out, is he.”

“Oh, one way or another, I guarantee he is,” Val replied. “But apparently not right at this particular moment, no.”

“Thank you for your help,” Reich said politely the girl, her assertiveness of a moment before completely obscured behind a smiling mask. “Please make sure his Grace is well. This is a very stressful time for him, it seems.”

“I do what I can,” the Bishop’s aide said sadly. “Gods watch over you both.”

They stopped, out in the hall, finding it much quieter than before. There was activity at the intersection in the near distance, but the space around them was presently free of people.

“Well, that leaves us our other project while he gets his head in order,” Reich said. “What do you think, Val? Since we’re here, is there anything we can do toward that while at the Cathedral or—what are you staring at?” She turned to follow his eyes, then frowned back at him, finding nothing at the end of the hall toward which he was fixedly peering.

“Still and invoke,” Val said quietly, the first words of a mantra that Vidian clerics of their specialization would have heard countless times during their training.

Reich moved to follow his eyes again, this time imposing a meditative state upon her mind and channeling the slightest amount of divine magic in just the right way, a preparatory measure that did virtually nothing on its own save to make the practitioner, for all intents and purposes, a tiny patch of Vidian holy ground, a necessary first step toward a number of more complicated workings.

Then she actually gasped. Val didn’t bother trying to guess whether the betrayal of surprise was genuine or an act; he could drive himself crazy trying to unravel her constant performance, and there were much more interesting things to focus on right now.

Both of them moved to the other side of the hall and pressed their backs to the wall, giving the valkyrie room to pass. Nothing could be seen of her expression, or indeed of most of her; there was just a blurred, watery shape swathed in black, with huge ebon wings. The scythe was crystal clear by comparison, and even knowing it couldn’t physically touch them, both gave her even more room than respect demanded. They both knew exactly what that weapon could do.

Val thought the valkyrie might have turned to look at them in passing, though it was impossible to say for certain as she didn’t slow down. At the very least she had to have discerned that they could see her. She walked by, though, and only stopped in front of the door to the Bishop’s office.

There, she gripped her scythe just below the blade, and deliberately sliced at the door latch once. The scythe, of course, passed right through the solid matter with no effect.

Then she turned and continued on, folding her wings to a more compact shape as she stepped out into the landing where there were other people. They both stared until she had descended the stairs out of view.

“What do you make of that?” Val asked quietly.

“It’s a portent, obviously,” Reich replied in the same tone. “Of what, I can’t even guess. It’s not as if we didn’t already know great matters are afoot, and if she was trying to communicate something to us you’d think it would have been less deliberately cryptic.”

“I can’t imagine what else that was about,” he said. “There’s nobody else here who can even see her. Querril probably can, but she didn’t even go in. And I’m certain she wasn’t surprised that she failed to actually cut the door out of the wall.”

“How did you notice her?” Reich asked, gazing at him with a speculative mask. “Do you just walk around open to channeling all the time?”

“That sounds exhausting,” he said with a shrug. “I just had a feeling. I try to pay attention to those. Well… I’d say keep your senses open in case any more come to visit, but for now I don’t think we can do anything else about it. You were voicing an idea that has merit: what can we learn while we’re here at the Cathedral?”

“Ah, yes,” she said, switching deftly back to her standard mask of open politeness as if this business were in any way settled. “I was thinking the Arquin boy isn’t even Vidian; we might have good luck picking someone accustomed to working outside the cult.”

“You sure you don’t want the job?”

“More so all the time. We are here, and you seem familiar with Bishop Querril. Do you know of any other priests of the Brethren attached to the Cathedral who might make good prospects?”

“Querril’s entire staff consists of that poor beleaguered teenager in there,” Val replied. “I can think of a couple of possibilities, but… Okay, how about this. What say we pump a few outsiders for perspective? You must be acquainted with several of the other Bishops.”

“Well, Syrinx, but I don’t want to involve her in our business.”

“No kidding,” he agreed fervently. Everybody who dealt with religious politics in Tiraas had at least some idea about Bishop Syrinx. “I’m on good terms with the Eserite Bishop, and he’s a fantastically useful person for just such times at this, but he’ll be out in the city on a day like today. I do have some friends among the Church’s parsonage, though…”

“And I helped arrange employment for a few officers in the Holy Legion,” she said, putting on a knowing mask. “Let’s have a few casual conversations, see if anyone feels particularly positive about a priest of the Brethren and cross-reference any such names with people we know.”

“Good,” he agreed. “In fact, let’s split up. We’ll cover ground faster that way, plus we can meet back here in an hour and rattle Querril’s cage again. Maybe if we make it clear we’re not going to leave him alone he’ll get tired of trying to hide in there.”

“You just can’t wait to get rid of me,” she said, adding coy amusement to her mask.

He mimicked it as precisely as he was able. “Yes, but it’s also a good plan. Unless you have a better?”

“No, that works out, I think. Both your contacts and mine are probably better not being brought into contact with one another. I’ll see you in an hour, then, partner.”

He nodded politely, then turned and walked in the opposite direction to the one in which she set off. Val went to the end of the hall, then turned around and came right back, sinking into a meditative state as he moved.

Reich was fully out of sight by the time he reached the office door, and he was fully immersed, holding onto both divine magic and his mental projections that pushed away the attention of other unguarded minds. True invisibility was well beyond the scope of Vidian mind magic, but they got excellent mileage out of not being noticed.

Actually getting into the office was the hard part, and a barrier only passable by someone of Val’s skill; lesser practitioners could not sustain the illusion of somebody else’s problem while manipulating physical objects. But he opened the door and shut it behind him without the acolyte looking up from whatever she was frantically scribbling. It was feasible since she was the only person in the room, and he could focus his attention upon her directly, pushing hard against her awareness and nudging her attention firmly into her task.

Crossing the office without her noticing was a breeze, and after another brief spurt of intense focus to deflect her while opening the inner door, he was safe.

There was really no point in keeping up the effort once in the inner office. Val Tarvadegh was better at this than Alonsius Querril had been at his age—he knew this, having asked people who would know—but he wasn’t at the level necessary to outmaneuver a highly experienced practitioner.

“Of course it is not news to me that you’re up to something, Tarvadegh,” Querril said without turning around. “But I find that considerably less off-putting than the other one being up to something. Is that why you ditched her?”

Val considered telling him about the valkyrie, then decided to leave that for leverage in case he needed it later in the conversation.

“Why are you really hiding in here, Querril?”

“I told you already, boy.”

“And you seemed to be of the opinion I misunderstood. Which was true. So explain it to me.”

The old man’s shoulders shifted in a quiet sigh. “Or?”

“I realize we aren’t close, your Grace, but you know my reputation well enough to be aware I have not begun to be annoying.”

That brought a tiny huff of amusement, and Querril finally turned. He didn’t stand, this time, but awkwardly shuffled around to sit down with his back against the idol, stretching his skinny legs out on the steps of his dais.

“What do you think it portends that Vidius has done this, now?”

“Change.”

“What kind of change?”

“Honestly?” Val shrugged, letting his face set a mask of what he was really feeling: annoyance, mild confusion, worry. Trying to hide his true mask from Querril was probably wasted effort. “I haven’t had time to maunder on it and I frankly am glad of that. I’m not a philosopher, your Grace, I talk to people and do things. Gwenfaer gave me a task, so I’m doing it, and so much the better.”

“That’s not a bad way to be,” Querril allowed, “but keep in mind what the Veskers always say: every fault is a virtue taken to an extreme.”

“The Veskers are talking about characters in epic poetry, Querril. That’s all they ever talk about.”

“And what do you think these masks we wear are, if not characters? You’re a priest, Tarvadegh. Some prayer and contemplation is inherent in your vocation. Don’t neglect it.”

“All right,” Val said, shrugging again. “For now, let’s agree that I’m somewhat neglectful. Correct me. I mean specifically.”

Querril closed his eyes, leaned his head back against the idol. “People are going to focus on the demonblood thing. I’ve no doubt some consider that the cause of my own unease. That was an inspired move by Vidius; something like that can’t help but seize everyone’s attention. It’s a mask, Tarvadegh. It conceals the important part. The bit he doesn’t want us to see coming.”

“I’m in suspense, here.”

“The boy is not Vidian.” The Bishop opened his eyes, and there were tears in his lashes. Val had the sudden irrational thought that the anguished expression on the old man’s face was not a mask at all. “He knows nothing of our traditions. He has no grounding in the Vidian mindset. A half-demon boy, growing up on the streets of Tiraas with no religion, yet with enough principle or just smarts to stay out of the Black Wreath’s clutches. A friend of an orphan monk who would become the Hand of Omnu. A student of Tellwyrn’s. Place yourself in the position of a god, Tarvadegh, and don’t worry about the presumptuousness of it. You, a deity, have chosen someone like this to be the first-ever paladin of your cult. Why would you do this?”

Val slammed a mask of serenity down on his features just to keep the sudden realization from knocking him over.

Querril was watching him knowingly. “There, see? You do get it, when you take a moment to try. What is it the Eserites are always saying about systems?”

“We aren’t Eserites,” Val said woodenly.

“The really terrible thing about Eserites is that they aren’t wrong. What we are, Tarvadegh, is corrupt. A corrupt system. You wouldn’t have come so easily to that conclusion unless you already understood this. Every cult suffers from a tendency to attract the absolute last people it needs; you’ve met them all. The Avenists who just want to stick swords in people, the Vernisites who just want to get rich, the Shaathists who just want to abuse women. Eserites who only care about stealing, Veskers… You know, I’m sure that if your religion centers on being an annoying little twit there must be a way to do it wrong, but I can’t imagine how. The point stands, anyway. There are also Vidians who are so obsessed with their maneuvers and games of power that those have become the end, and not the means.”

“Not all of us,” Val protested. “You make it sound worse than it is. We’re nothing if not balanced.”

“Balanced,” Querril grunted. “No, boy, I make it sound exactly as bad as it is. Of all those faiths, all the members thereof who do their religion wrong… Do any of the other ‘bad’ cultists consist of half the cult?”

The silence hung between them.

“We’re about to be culled,” Querril said at last, hanging his head. “And we need to be. We deserve to be. I have given my life to this faith, and now at the end, I have to accept that we have failed our god so catastrophically that he feels the need to take a scythe to us. Let an old man pray, Val Tarvadegh. What else is left to me, now?”


“Poor Lorelin is going to be so hurt that you left without her,” Gwenfaer said with playful reproof when he reported back to her alone.

“She’ll live,” Val said bluntly. “Probably. I don’t care either way. In the end, we didn’t manage to drag Querril out of his hole because, as it turns out, he’s the only one here who is right.”

“Is he?” She tilted her head, blinking prettily like a slightly simple-minded schoolgirl, and he had never been so tempted to grab the head of his faith by the shoulders and shake her until her perfect hairdo came undone. “Well, that gives some perspective to the other task I set you, does it not? It seems all the more important that young Gabriel Arquin should have a teacher who also understands this problem, and the severity of it. Especially since, as we now agree, that is likely to be the major thrust of his duties to Vidius.”

“Well, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Gwenfaer, but that’s your problem now. If I had the skills or the right mindset to help the Hand of Vidius start cleaning house around here I’d have been doing it for years already. You know very well the opinion I have of some of the sleazers we keep on the payroll. But I don’t, so I’m going to go right back to doing what I can with the people who actually matter out there, and keep my head far enough down that it doesn’t roll when the scythe starts swinging!”

“Oh, that’s all right, Val,” she simpered, patting him on the cheek. “Don’t you worry, I’ve already selected teachers for Gabriel.”

He hesitated, allowing overt suspicion to taint his mask. “Teachers? Plural?”

“Of course, darling, we are still Vidians, after all! We must have a matched pair of everything. Gabriel needs an honest, principled teacher worthy of his trust, and an example of the problems infesting the Brethren. He must learn from both. I believe I picked out perfect specimens of each for him, but for thoroughness’s sake, I arranged a little test for them. And wouldn’t you know it, they both went and did exactly what I expected them to!”

“…oh, no. No, you don’t, you rotten bitch!”

“Don’t be such a fusspot, Val,” she said fondly, reaching up to ruffle his hair. “You’re great with kids. And Vestrel approves of you! That is not a small thing at all.”

“I do not want to go to Last Rock! Have you ever been there?”

“I know for a fact that you haven’t.”

“It’s exactly like every dreary little dustball of a town, except with dozens of wannabe adventurers and that screeching pyromaniac Tellwyrn! The worst of both worlds!”

“And what could be more Vidian than that?”

“I cannot believe you would willingly inflict Lorelin Reich on those poor yokels!”

“Where but in Tellwyrn’s shadow could I rely on dear Lorelin to behave herself for a few months, until Gabriel is ready to bloody his scythe on his first target?”

He could only stare at her, barely keeping his mask in place. She didn’t do it often, but now, Gwenfaer let him have a peek through the facade at the calculating mind beneath all her antics. It was there in the glint of her eye, the wry set of her lips.

“…is it that bad, Gwenfaer? Do we really need to be…culled?”

“Oh, Val.” She took his face in both her hands, and wonder of wonders, managed to make the gesture sweetly comforting without a hint of condescension. “However bad it is or is not, you’re one of the good ones. I can assure you of that. You won’t be the one called on to swing the scythe; your task is to uphold the good, not destroy the bad. There’s no one I would rather count on to do it.”

Slowly, he drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh that ruffled her bangs.

“Well… Damn it all. I guess I’d better go pack.”

“That’s the spirit! Bring me something exotic back from the frontier!”

“I hate you,” he stated.

Lady Gwenfaer rose to her tiptoes to kiss his cheek again, though she was tall enough that she didn’t actually need to. “And you obey me anyway. That’s why you’re my favorite.”

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Bonus #44: The Masks We Wear, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backer Fernando Freitas!

“There,” Val said finally, lowering his arms. The golden light in that dingy alley receded as the other clerics followed his example and let it ebb away. “That’s about all we can do here, but it should be enough.”

“More than,” the Avenist agreed, nodding and rolling back her left sleeve, which had come loose during their casting. “A brute force approach works fine for that kind of simple cleansing. We were seeing no reaction for at least the last minute. This is just mundane scorched carbon now. Charcoal.”

They all paused, frowning down at the smudge and piles of black detritus stretched across the alley floor which had been a crocodile-sized demon minutes ago.

“Still,” the Avenist added thoughtfully, “I don’t think we should just leave this here. In theory it’s safe, but I wouldn’t want somebody to put it in their stove or something.”

“Oh come on,” the Izarite said with a weary little laugh. “Surely nobody would do anything that stupid.”

The other three just turned to look at her.

“Yeah, I know,” she said sadly after a momentary pause.

“Well, then, this calls for more mundane tools,” the Omnist said briskly, turning back to face the mouth of the dead-end alley. “I’ll see if one of the adjacent shops will loan a broom and dustpan…”

He trailed off and they all turned at the sound of booted feet. A woman in bronze armor marched toward them, at least three more following. The narrow walls made it hard to judge the size of the squad.

“Everything all right here?” she asked. “Someone claimed there was a demon back here still.”

“Good timing, Sergeant,” said the priestess of Avei. “There was, but it’s taken care of.”

“It was just a canker-dog, and already injured,” Val added, stepping aside so the Silver Legionnaires could see the smudge and pointing down at it. “Cleansing finished it off. We were just discussing cleanup.”

“It’s pronounced khankredahg,” the Avenist cleric corrected softly.

“Ah, thank you,” Val said, turning to her with a polite nod and donning his stereotypically priestly mask, all beatific serenity. The monk of Omnu gave him a sidelong look that said he caught the irony, but there was no point in explaining the joke to an Avenist, and even less in getting openly sarcastic about it.

“Very good, we can take over that,” the sergeant said briskly. “I’m sure the four of you have much better things to do. Private Sola, bring up some cleaning supplies.”

The nearest soldier saluted her and trotted back to the mouth of the alley.

“Thank you, Sergeant,” the Sister said, nodding to her.

“Of course, ma’am.”

The other three followed her back to the main street, the Legionnaires pressing themselves to one wall of they alley to make a path for them. The damage here was heavier than in most places; this had been one of the sites of an actual skirmish, evidence of which lingered in smashed windows, broken shingles, and fallen shop signs. The charcoal corpses of slain demons had by now been cleared off the sidewalks, but there were still black scorch marks where stray wandshots had raked the storefronts.

It was also more active than such a sleepy street would ordinarily have been at this hour of the morning, and not merely with commerce. Shop owners were cleaning up and repairing their stores as best they could—actual repair crews were in high demand today. Like most of the city, too, it was under much heavier patrol. The rest of the squad from the Third Legion was distributed around the vicinity, talking with the locals and checking the alleys for more stray demons. A few Imperial soldiers were just disappearing up the street as the four priests emerged from the alleyway.

“What is with all these Huntsmen?” the Avenist cleric asked as a group of five bearded men in leather and fur walked past, carrying longbows. Some unfriendly looks were exchanged between them and the nearby Legionnaires, though nothing worse than that; clearly everyone had the sense to stay on task today of all days. “I’ve seen more today across three streets than I thought there were in the entire province.”

She and the other two all turned questioning looks on Val, and he changed masks to a more pensively focused one, just to keep the sardonic look off his face. Naturally, when something fishy was up, everybody looked to the Vidian. Explaining that he wasn’t one of those Vidians would either be wasted effort or just ignite a particularly unproductive theological discussion.

“I’ve been running on the assumption there’s a lot more going on here than any of us have been told,” Val said aloud. “In fact, I’m hoping that my cult has patched together some more intelligence on it—some of the higher ups are very good at that—but I set out with the dawn this morning and I’ve been doing spot healing and cleanup all day. If more is known, it’s not by me, yet.”

The monk leaned his head back to study the cloudy sky. “Hm. Now you mention it, it’s nearing noon. Have any of you eaten?”

“You look exhausted, sister,” the Avenist added, turning to the Izarite. She was right; the girl’s robe was smeared with ash, her cheeks were sunken and her eyes were practically pits. “You’ve been at work longer than the rest of us, haven’t you?”

“Oh…since the announcement last night,” the girl replied with a strained little laugh which served to emphasize her youth relative to them. She couldn’t have been much more than a novice. “It’s fine, there’s too much need—”

“Self-sacrifice is only noble up to a point,” the monk said, doing that distinctly Omnist thing where he could cut someone off mid-sentence without ever seeming less than politely gentle. Val had tried repeatedly to form a mask of that over the years and never pulled it off; he suspected it relied on that aura of peace they were rumored to have. “You can help no one if you drive yourself to collapse.”

“He’s right, you know,” the Avenist agreed. “I didn’t realize it was this late in the day. There is still much to do, but I think we should all find temples to rejuvenate ourselves before continuing. The cults probably know more by now, too,” she added, nodding to Val. “It’s a good time to check in and get new marching orders.”

“I agree,” he said, then turned to the young Izarite, adopting a mask he’d made from studying Omnist monks, a kindly but firm one which ineffably projected wisdom that made people reluctant to challenge him. “And the brother is right, you really need to get some rest. There’s plenty of suffering for us to address without adding your own.”

She sighed heavily. “It’s not that I don’t know you’re right, it’s just…”

“Come with me,” the Avenist ordered, slipping an arm through the younger woman’s and turning her to head up the street. “There’s a Legion post two blocks from here with an emergency medical station and kitchen active. We’ll get the news and get some food, and if the medic on site clears you for more service…”

She led the unprotesting priestess away. The monk gave Val a smile, and a shallow bow. “Be careful out there.”

“I’m never anything but,” Val promised, mimicking the gesture. “Be sure to take your own advice, friend.”

They parted in the same way they had met: without ado, without even exchanging names, just seeing the need and getting to work.

Tiraas was reeling from the Black Wreath’s attack, but was far from broken. As Val made his way back toward Imperial Square, he saw plentiful evidence of the damage, and the personnel both Imperial and religious out in force to help, but also signs that at least some of the capital’s citizens were stubbornly going about their business as normally as they could. Shops were open, factory antennae alight, and enterprising vendors were hawking in places they ordinarily did not, to take advantage of the additional crowds.

Including one he was particularly glad to see.

“Rip!” Val called, raising a hand and allowing a natural mask to slide over his features; the relief he felt at finding the boy unharmed and hard at work didn’t need any careful presentation. Sometimes it really was best to let the face do what it wanted. “Am I glad to see you!”

“Hey, Val!” the paperboy replied cheerily, flashing him a broad grin that showed two missing teeth. “Figured you’d come along sooner or later! Buy a Lancer? Extra edition, all that’s known about the Wreath’s dastardly assault and the freshest news from the frontier besides!”

“Yeah, you can spare me the spiel.” Val was already handing over the coins. “Not like I’m going to pass up the news on a day like this. You look okay. Is your family well?”

“Everybody’s fine, thanks to Ma bein’ such an old worrywart,” Rip reassured him while handing back a newspaper. “We spent the whole night huddled inside, not even goin’ near the windows. Pa’s already back at work an’ Lorinda went down to the Omnist temple to help out.”

“Glad to hear that. You keep your head down till things settle a bit, will you?”

“The hell you say,” the boy replied cheekily. “EXTRA! SPECIAL EDITION! BLACK WREATH ASSUALTS TIRAAS AND LAST ROCK! GET YOUR NEWS HERE, FOLKS, IF IT’S KNOWN, THE LANCER KNOWS IT!”


The central temple of Vidius was, naturally, a far more somber place today. Strictly speaking, Val didn’t have to pass through the public areas of the underground complex to reach his destination, but he did anyway. It was a point of principle for him not to distance himself from the experiences of the people. Vidians ministered to a lot of the most fun and gaiety civilization offered, their god being the patron of actors, but also to those touched by death. A good life was a balanced life. A person who sought only pleasure and avoided even glimpses of pain would become unhinged. Val Tarvadegh, though he was not a death priest by vocation, never avoided them or their work. To be a calming presence among the grieving was part of what it meant to be Vidian.

There were many grieving today.

Not as many as there could have been, in a city which had been invaded by demons during the night. Even as he passed funerary processions, occupied viewing rooms, heard the weeping and saw survivors clutching each other for support, he could not help tallying up the impact and offering silent gratitude to the gods that the harm had not been greater. These mourning vaults had been filled to greater capacity by the last typhoon. Clearly, the damage had been far lighter than it had any right to be.

Which was just one of the things of which he’d started keeping a mental tally that did not add up.

He was joined by another welcome face as he retreated further into the temple complex. Sayid was an older man and one of those within the Brethren whom Val trusted most, a priest whose vocation was ministering to the grieving, and who had been responsible for Val’s own training in that aspect of their faith in his youth. Though the Brethren had no formal uniform, Sayid was dressed as he usually did, in the manner most death priests in Tiraas adopted, with a tightly-cut long black coat such as Vidius was often depicted wearing. Allegedly, that was how their god most often manifested himself, when he did, but of course few among his faithful had ever seen that, or ever would.

Sayid was wearing the very mask he had taught Val years ago, the one Val had automatically assumed upon passing through the halls of mourning while they were in use. It held sympathy, openness, the offer of a calm presence and support if it was needed. Truly held those things; this was not a superficial mask. Sayid had hammered that point home back then. Unless they truly cared for those who needed them, and were willing to offer ministry when it was called for, they had no right to name themselves clerics. It was far more than divine magic that made a priest.

“You look tired,” the older man said quietly once they were deep enough in the corridors to be out of earshot of anyone grieving loved ones. “Been rushing around the city putting out fires, if I know you, Tarvadegh. How is Tiraas coping?”

“Well,” Val said, shifting his mask to one which revealed a hint of his uncertainty. “Much better than I feared. There are indeed fires to put out—you’ve been doing the same here, old friend. Overall I’m surprised by how superficial a lot of the damage appears. The cults are all active, as is the government, and a lot of the people seem determined to get right back to work.”

“Good for them.”

Val held up the newspaper he was still carrying. “Information is still sketchy, but the Silver Throne is already claiming to have dealt a mortal blow to the Black Wreath during this. Imperial Intelligence claims much of the Wreath’s leadership were captured or killed in the fighting. Of course, you know what that means.”

Sayid grunted, his own mask changing to project his skepticism. “Means the capital wasn’t razed to the ground and the Wreath is not in a position to put out its own press release. The Throne all but has to declare victory here, if they can at all get away with it.”

“I’m hoping there’s more word here, by now,” Val said, not changing his mask. The look of calm, slightly suspicious uncertainty still suited his purpose, at least here, before a trusted friend. “I know you’ve been doing important work, Sayid, but have you gleaned any important news?”

“Have I ever,” Sayid said, and his mask changed to a countenance that made Val immediately wary. Whatever Sayid had learned, he didn’t know what it signified and expected trouble at the very least. The older priest gave him a significant look, and Val nodded, falling silent.

They proceeded without speaking till they reached the circular doors into the inner sanctuary, the parts of the temple where only initiates of the Brethren were permitted. Rather than the mask and scythe sigil of Vidius, the doors were made in the shape of an even more ancient symbol, a circle divided by a sinuous line to form two curving teardrop shapes, one black and one white, eternally chasing each other. The gray-robed novice standing watch over the doors bowed to them, her face hidden behind a mask—a literal one of ceramic, as Vidian clergy wore in some ceremonial duties, or when they were new enough that their tutors had not vouched for their mastery of the Doctrine of Masks. A face which could not control itself should not be seen.

As soon as the round door had slid shut behind them again, Sayid halted right inside the sanctuary, taking Val’s sleeve and leaning close. His mask was still one of excitement, worry, intensity. “Tarvadegh, everything is changed. Vidius has called a paladin.”

For the first time since his own initiation, Val Tarvadegh slipped. For just a split second, his mask tumbled away to reveal naked shock, before he composed himself. Sayid simply put on a mask of understanding. Under the circumstances, it was a forgivable lapse.

He shuffled mentally through the obvious questions, of which there were far too many.

“I know little,” Sayid said while Val scrambled to get his thoughts in order. “As you said, there’s been much more important work than hobnobbing with the rumor-mongers down here. All I know is he’s one of the kids at that cockamamie school out in Last Rock, apparently a close friend of the Hand of Omnu.” He hesitated—mostly for dramatic effect, as the mask he put on expressed. “The boy is a half-demon.”

Val allowed his own mask to revert to a natural one, now that he’d mastered his shock. An expression of awe and trepidation was entirely appropriate. “Omnu’s breath. I bet the vultures down here are going absolutely insane.”

Sayid nodded, assuming a mask of wry amusement. Even beyond the natural Vidian predilection for duality, it was a truism that there were two kinds of people among the cult. The way they were described varied widely, but everyone understood what the kinds were. There were the clerics who went out and did the work of ministering to people going about their lives, and then there were the clerics whose primary vocation consisted of maneuvering for power.

Though Val (and Sayid, and most who shared their outlook) privately sorted them into groups of “ambitious” and “useful,” it had to be acknowledged that the other kind—the vultures, as he had just called them—were far from useless. They may have had self-serving motives, but not exclusively so; after all, any Vidian worth his salt would be working on at least two objectives with any given action. The cult itself thrived in large part due to the funding and influence they secured by maneuvering among nobles, royals, and the other rich and mighty in society.

Complex their aims and natures might be, but manipulators and schemers needed the constancy of intricate systems in which to operate. Now? A Vidian paladin? A half-demon Vidian paladin? There was absolutely no guessing how many careful ploys had just been permanently upended.

Val couldn’t deny feeling a spark of satisfaction at that prospect, though of course he kept it concealed behind his mask.

“Speaking of,” Sayid murmured, and Val, following his gaze, had to switch to an almost dishonestly serene mask to suppress the fatalism he suddenly felt. Another gray-robed novice was making a beeline toward them from the opposite side of the long sanctuary, where she had clearly been watching the door. “I warned you not to cozy up to that woman, boy. Told you she was destined for great things. Now look. Every time anything happens…”

“Don’t jump to conclusions,” Val said innocently. “It may not be a message for me. Perhaps you’re being excommunicated.”

Sayid gave him a scathing look that barely counted as a mask.

“Val Tarvadegh?” the novice inquired with proper diffidence, stopping before them and bowing slightly.

“Yes,” he said simply, turning to her wearing his clerical mask of serene benediction.

“There is a meeting in progress in the Outer Sanctity; Lady Gwenfaer wishes your attendance as soon as you return to the temple.”

“I guess I’m safe for another day,” Sayid said, wearing Val’s own mask of serenity rather than his customary one.

Val just turned the look on the older man without bothering to change it. Would’ve served the old coot right if he’d stuck out his tongue, but he wasn’t about to set such a bad example in front of a novice. “Thank you, acolyte. I will attend the Lady directly.”

The girl bowed again, retreating, and Sayid patted him encouragingly on the back. Val nodded to him and set off for the innermost depths of the temple, putting on a mask he used almost exclusively for events such as this: calm, no nonsense, not aggressive but unwilling to suffer fools. He had crafted it after the example of an Avenist cleric he knew. When he couldn’t avoid being drawn in by Gwenfaer and her ever-rotating circle of hangers-on, it was the closest he could manage to keeping himself unscathed.


“Do we even know what kind of demon he is?” a priestess he didn’t know was exclaiming with open exasperation when he joined the meeting underway.

“Half-demon,” said Tarkan Raskin from behind a mask which projected calm so aggressively it was clearly a deliberate rebuke at those who failed to. Val didn’t know Raskin intimately, but he was one of the upper-circle maneuverers whom he respected the most, a man who enjoyed his games of connivance but was more interested in the cult’s goals than furthering his own temporal benefit. “And no, so far we know very little beyond what the god has revealed to Lady Gwenfaer. Gabriel Arquin is known to have been a friend of Tobias Caine in his youth, so there are records available to follow up and we’ll be doing so as quickly as we can. For now, though? We know he’s a boy, so he’s not half khelminash. That’s the extent of our intelligence.”

“They could put that on your tombstone,” the woman replied acidly. Raskin looked directly at her without replying verbally, though he shifted his mask to a condescending parent’s disdain toward a misbehaving toddler.

Arquin, hm. Val didn’t recognize the surname; it might have been Tiraan, Western, possibly even Stalweiss. Gabriel was an old but not very popular given name. This still told him very little.

“Val!” Gwenfaer gushed, rising to her feet and gliding across the room toward him. He put on a deliberately long-suffering mask, which she ignored, swooping right up and kissing him lightly on both cheeks, a greeting used by absolutely no one outside Glassiere except Gwenfaer Maalvedh.

The Lady Gwenfaer was tall, blonde, and one of those women whom it was impossible to tell how voluptuous she was because every movement of her body and article of clothing in her wardrobe was part of a contrivance to make her seem more so. Her face was improbably free of even the tiniest lines for someone in the descending half of her forties. That mane of luxuriant golden hair was impeccably styled, as always, in tousled waves which suggested she had just climbed out of bed; her robes were also very deliberately cut to evoke a hastily-donned dressing gown, hint of cleavage and all.

She insisted she was Old Tira, not Stalweiss in descent. While it was a matter of record that there had been a race of pale, fair-haired humans in the Tira Valley before the modern Tiraan had begun moving in from Calderaas (in fact, Tanglish was thought to descend from their language), they had been gone for centuries. It was a purely laughable claim, and that was Gwenfaer all over. Her goofy affectations and overt vampishness were both masquerades not held in favor among the Brethren of Vidius, where they were considered Vesker stereotypes. Val had never met anyone else in the faith who tried to leverage either; Gwenfaer was surely the only one who made a practice of both.

She was also the most intelligent person he knew, and it frankly scared him that he had no idea how deep her capacity for ruthlessness went. Nobody ascended to the leadership of the Brethren unless they were a person to take with the utmost seriousness.

“Welcome, Val,” said the other blonde woman present when Gwenfaer had drawn back enough that he could see the room again. “Are we awaiting anyone else, my Lady?”

“This should be it for now,” Gwenfaer said, wearing a dreamy little smile. Alone among the Vidians Val had known, she had a knack for making her expressions look like the uncontrolled emotional flickering of the uninitiated. Others had remarked on it; Vidians could generally recognize each other simply by their facial control, but not the Lady Gwenfaer. He suspected there was some secret branch of their cult’s attention-deflecting magic involved in it. “Lorelin, would you be a dear and catch him up for me?”

“There hasn’t been much established so far,” the other priestess said, nodding respectfully to Val with a mask of pleasantly aloof friendliness in place. “I believe you heard Tarkan’s clarification just now. Vidius has called a Hand, he is a half-demon attending Tellwyrn’s University, and a friend of the Hand of Omnu. The only thing you’ve missed is that Bishop Querril has placed himself in formal seclusion in the Grand Cathedral at this news.”

“Oh, dear,” Val murmured, adopting a mask of perplexed concern to avoid having to respond directly to Lorelin Reich. If Raskin was his idea of a good ambitious Vidian, she was the opposite. In his opinion the Brethren would be better off if someone stuffed Reich full of pine cones, bent her in a circle, and strung her up as a solstice wreath.

“Of all the bloody times for one of his snits,” huffed the priestess who had been sniping at Raskin a moment ago. She was the oldest of them, white-haired and clearly fond of aggressive masks. “Querril has always been more of a theological purist than is good for him; I’m frankly impressed he received this news without having a literal stroke.”

“Are we absolutely certain he hasn’t?” Lorelin asked from behind a mask of concern so obviously insincere it was clearly meant as a joke. “That is a downside to seclusion, of course. Poor Bishop Tannehall was dead in her office for almost two days before anyone discovered she wasn’t praying.”

“We should be so lucky,” the old woman grunted.

“Really, Tassie,” Gwenfaer chittered, a picture of vapid reproof. “This is hardly the time.”

“Not to mention that Bishop Querril’s long service to the Brethren merits some respect,” Raskin added, “no matter how annoying many of us find him.”

“Tassie, was it?” Val inquired politely.

“Not to you, boy,” the woman retorted. “Tasselin Vistirian. And you are…?”

“Val Tarvadegh,” he replied, putting on a mask of such ostentatious politeness that the reproof was implicit. Raskin smiled thinly at him.

“So!” Gwenfaer clapped her hands, affecting a delighted and somewhat vacant smile. “It seems to me we have two immediate objectives. Or rather, the countless problems before us can be sorted into two neat categories: the internal and external.”

“Imagine,” Val said, adopting a mask of pure sincerity. “Vidians dividing an issue neatly in two.” Reich and Vistirian gave him looks wearing masks so similar they might have been modeled on the same disapproving schoolmarm.

“Oh, Val,” Gwenfaer tittered. “But yes! We are very much in the dark. Tarkan, you’ve made a start at tracking down information on this Gabriel Arquin?”

“I have set some inquiries in motion, my Lady,” Raskin said respectfully. “I dare hope there may be some answers waiting for me by the time this meeting is ended. I’ll get more as soon as I am able to devote my own energies to the task.”

“Splendid, splendid, we’ll need to know everything we can. No detail is too extraneous! Bring me any scrap you can dig up.”

“As you will, my Lady.”

“But that isn’t the only thing on which we must gather intelligence. I don’t have to tell all of you that the official line spouted by the Empire and the Universal Church about this Wreath attack does not entirely hold up. Under any circumstances I wouldn’t want to be kept in the dark, but last night’s events culminated directly in our god naming a paladin for the first time in history, and choosing a specific individual guaranteed to precipitate a theological crisis.”

“That’s a truly remarkable coincidence,” Reich observed.

“Isn’t it, though?” Gwenfaer said pleasantly. “The people in this room I know I can rely on—even if you have to do things others might not approve of.” The four of them so pointedly avoided looking at each other that the entire room practically throbbed with unvoiced speculation. “I am dividing these responsibilities among you. Tarkan, Tassie, I need you to sniff out secrets among the city. Find everything that can be known about Gabriel Arquin, and what he has to do with what happened last night—what really happened, and why and how the truth is being hidden from us.”

“A tall order,” Vistirian murmured, adopting a mask of disgruntled contemplation. Val had the stray thought that she might have modeled it off a librarian; he had seen Nemitites make that exact face whenever someone raised a voice in one of their libraries. “For one thing, some of the other cults are riled up even more than the situation calls for. This city is absolutely crawling with Huntsmen of Shaath, which is truly inexplicable. And the Thieves’ Guild is far more active than I would have expected.”

“There, see?” Gwenfaer beamed. “You have a start! Work together on this—and do try to get along.”

“I will see what I can do,” Raskin replied with a mask that was as close to expressionless as Val had ever seen. Vistirian gave him an openly sardonic look.

“That leaves the other half: the internal.” Gwenfaer turned her wide smile upon Val and Reich.

“I can only imagine how stirred up the entire cult is right now,” he said.

“I doubt you can,” Reich murmured, and he put on a particularly bland mask of politeness. Was he really going to have to work with this woman?

“Oh, my, yes, but that isn’t what I need you two to deal with,” Gwenfaer said earnestly. “I really cannot have the Bishop losing himself to a crisis of faith at a time like this. Do something about him, won’t you?”

“Like what?” Val demanded.

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll think of something,” she simpered. “I have complete faith in you both! And there is also the matter of young Gabriel himself. After all, he’s now one of us! And we’re definitely going to have to do something about him.”

“You want us to go to Last Rock, my Lady?” Reich asked, shifting her mask to reflect uncertainty.

“Dear me, no, I need you both at hand! But someone has to train the boy, after all. He’s not even Vidian by upbringing; believe me, if there were any of those at Last Rock, I would know it. Therefore, I want you two to sniff out and nominate a teacher for our new paladin. We must find someone to serve as Gabriel’s tutor and guide, someone to teach him our doctrines and our ways, and nurture his development. Someone we can trust to administer the needs of the Brethren without interfering in whatever exciting thing Vidius is planning! Because oh, my, yes, our god is clearly having a little fun at our expense.”

“Fun.” Reich turned a blank mask upon Val. “Yes…this will be fun, won’t it?”

He heaved a sigh. “Oh, yes, Lorelin, I’m very much afraid it will.”

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Bonus #43: The Audit, part 3

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Akinda wasn’t one to flatter herself, but she thought she was doing rather well considering what had been looming all morning. Her work involved a lot of interaction with rich people in general and nobles in particular, who were arguably more dangerous than Eserite street soldiers in their way. Today, though, would be her first time facing a room of Guild enforcers who were likely to end up being pissed off by what unfolded. To be uneasy at the prospect was wholly reasonable.

But her well-practiced poker face did not suffer for the unaccustomed exercise. She smiled blandly and looked skeptically aloof as an auditor should on a routine inspection while spending the morning looking over the factory’s attached mana well, where a slowly grinding magnetic generator spun infinite circles right in a major leyline nexus and conjured a steady stream of enchanting-grade dust ready to be refined into usable form. It was a pride and mainstay of Falconer Industries, and had been the elder Mr. Falconer’s original cash cow before his son turned his personal fascination with horseless carriages into an even more lucrative empire.

Geoffrey Falconer himself had decided to join her for her noon visit to the employee services center, accompanied again by his wife. This time, to her relief, their daughter was not present. Their Butler, however, was. Depending on how events unfolded, that could prove to be very good, or cause a lot of potentially messy complications.

“I mean, there are limits,” Marguerite Falconer was saying blithely while stirring a bowl of split-pea soup with her spoon. “It’s not a feast fit for the Duke’s table or anything. The factory does need to turn a profit and we’re not running a restaurant! But we do employ dedicated cooks and kitchen staff, and there are firm standards for the quality of ingredients used.”

“And you find this is cost effective?” Akinda asked mildly, taking a sip of soup. It was hard to judge its quality objectively; she hated peas. The buttered rolls were quite good, though, and it was hard to ruin tea.

“Oh, definitely,” Geoffrey said, having swallowed his own bite of ham and peas. “Tarvedh was skeptical when Margeurite first floated this, but it made sense to me from the get-go. Obviously people do better work when they’re well-fed and don’t have to worry about fetching their own meal.”

“Tarvedh was skeptical, was he?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Oh, now,” Mr. Tarvedh blustered, “not at the principle of the thing, merely some of the particular expenditures!”

“It is in line with Vernisite practice,” Akinda said noncommittally. “Human employees are like any beast of burden in that they are most productive when properly cared for.”

A few nearby people in overalls turned to give her flat looks at that.

“You, uh, don’t often talk doctrine in front of the beasts of burden, do you?” Marguerite asked with a reproachful frown.

In fact, she did not. Akinda cleared her throat, covering her momentary lapse by wiping her mouth with a napkin. “Speaking of which, do you often eat with the laborers?”

“Oh, not most days,” Geoffrey said blithely, gesticulating with his spoon and causing his wife to snatch it from his hand before he could spray them all with droplets of broth. “But it’s nice to have this down here, just in case, you know? And one does like to keep in touch with the staff. Can’t very well stay on top of the condition of the place if we’re always hiding away in the office.”

“Truthfully he’d eat down here more, except he often forgets to eat at all,” Marguerite added, giving her husband a fondly annoyed look. He grinned at her and retrieved his spoon.

Akinda had actually never eaten at a picnic-style table surrounded by working class people on their lunch break. She liked to think she was not so snooty as to find their company objectionable in and of itself; it was hard to analyze her own emotional reaction given the constant pressure of what she knew was going to start happening any minute. Every moment that it didn’t only increased the sense of looming threat.

The Falconer’s Butler had not sat down at the table with them, which was no surprise. Suddenly, though, he shifted to look at one of the double doors into the cafeteria from the main floor—the one closer to the factory’s entrance. Then, with no sign of hurry or change in his expression, he took two steps to the left to hover in front of the Falconers.

Akinda inhaled slowly, but deeply, and set down her spoon. Showtime.

She was now listening, and so picked up the sound of a lot of feet on the stone floor outside over the general low hubbub of the cafeteria. Neither of the Falconers had noticed their Butler’s movement; he was staring at the door, and had not yet sought their attention. At the first raised voice outside, the babble of conversation at the tables began to subside. Enough that the brief sound of a scuffle was audible, followed by a wordless shout.

Geoffrey looked up, frowning deeply. “What in—”

They streamed in through the two wide doorways, two groups of four people in mismatched attire immediately planting themselves in wedge formations inside the cafeteria to secure the entries; another foursome glided swiftly to the kitchen doors where they split up to cover those. Then more slipped in around their comrades, slowly spreading to either side to cover most of the room’s front. Not all of them were visibly carrying weapons, but…enough were.

“Excuse me!” Geoffrey said, his voice a sharp crack that cut across the rising murmurs of his employees. He got to his feet and took a step forward, clearly not intimidated by the mass of scruffy people who had just invaded his factory. Marguerite remained frozen in place, clutching a spoon, her face almost white. Tarvedh looked like he might faint.

The Butler shifted with his master, not blocking his view of the enforcers or exactly hovering, but remaining close enough that no thief who recognized the uniform was likely to make a move toward Falconer.

Akinda slowly turned fully around on her bench. She let herself stiffen, let her eyes dart nervously across the ranks of Guild enforcers forming up, just as would someone who was surprised by this development.

There were close to two dozen of them. How many practicing thieves could possibly infest a given economy? This had to be a significant chunk of the Eserite population of Madouris.

“Just what the hell is going on here?” Falconer demanded, glaring.

“Now, now, now!” The ranks in front of the closer door parted and he emerged, swaggering even as he held up both his meaty hands in a placating gesture. Rogue wasn’t dressed exactly as he’d been the night before; the dashing woodsman theme was still in place, but today’s leather doublet actually had gilded embroidery and his pointy hat and blousy shirt were a deep maroon instead of forest green. By all the gods, he was wearing a cape. “Let’s everybody remain calm, shall we? I realize this must look a certain way, but you have my personal assurance that my associates and I don’t intend to so much as ruffle anyone’s hair, nor make off with even one pilfered spoon.” He came to a stop in the forefront of the line of grim-faced thugs, grinning and tucking his thumbs into his broad leather belt. “I do, however, require a few moments of your time.”

“And you are?” Falconer replied acidly. His wife sighed heavily. Akinda had to wonder whether the man was actually brave, or just too perpetually in the clouds to fully grasp the situation. Then, too, she’d met a lot of wealthy people who couldn’t quite parse the notion that bad things could happen to them, even after they were bleeding.

“You may call me Rogue!” The man swept off his insipid little hat and executed a bow elaborate enough for the Calderaan court. “I have the honor of heading your local chapter of the esteemed Guild of Thieves. And yourself, sir! May I presume you are Mr. Geoffrey Falconer?”

“Well, you don’t seem to have trouble presuming,” Falconer snorted. “If you’ve harmed my guards—”

“I’m going to have to stop you there,” Rogue interrupted, holding up one hand as the gregarious smile melted from his face. “You probably think you’re showing some spirit in front of your subordinates and lady wife, sir, but you are not the only one here with an audience. There’s a stark limit to how much backtalk I can afford to take with my own people looking on. So what say we agree to be polite to one another, whether or not either of us likes it?”

“Now you listen to—”

“Geoffrey,” Marguerite pleaded.

He hesitated, half-turned to catch her eye and hold it for a moment. Then a little of the tension seeped from the set of his shoulders and the industrialist turned back to fix his gaze on Rogue.

“Fine,” he said, folding his arms. “What do you want?”

“Well, what do any of us want, really?” the Underboss replied, spreading his arms and grinning broadly. “Peace, justice, happiness, a wholesome world for—”

“Rogue,” interrupted one of his subordinates, a thin hawk-faced woman in a long velvet coat. “You’re doing the thing again. Just because we busted into the guy’s factory doesn’t mean we gotta waste his time.”

“I am justly rebuked,” Rogue said, giving her a sidelong glance. “Right, then, to the point. What I need from you at the moment, Mr. Falconer, is forbearance. As I have said, I’ve no intention of causing any further kerfuffle here than we already have; I believe my point is made. I can get to you, Falconer, any time I so choose. You’ll have to take my word that I can do so subtly—after all, if you knew who the Guild operatives among your staff were, that would be rather missing the point, eh? But now, you are aware the Thieves’ Guild has the forces and the will to march in here at any time we like, and do…well, really, what couldn’t we do?” He winked. “After all, what would you do to stop us?”

“And?” Falconer replied with scathing disdain.

“And that is all I have to say to you, sirrah, and thank you for indulging me.” Rogue tugged the forward point of his hat politely, then raised his chin and his voice. “To everyone else present! Clearly, you value your employment too much to squander it here and now by coming forward. But now you know that your petty overlord is not the almighty tyrant he tries to seem. The working man’s lot in life is going to start improving in Madouris, as of today, and as of here. Starting now, you can be assured that any further abuses by your employer will be…” He grinned lazily, casually rolling a coin across his fingers. “…addressed. We’ll be around, never you fear.”

Akinda’s blood had gone cold, and not because she feared incipient violence—in fact, quite the contrary. Her entire strategy here counted on Rogue creating a confrontation; it had not occurred to her that he might throw down an offer of support and then leave. Did he really need to bring so many enforcers just to do this? Of course he did, she realized. Shows of force were the only language Eserites understood, and this was her fault for assuming that meant they were completely unreasonable. Between the Duke and her own cult pulling strings even Rogue couldn’t entirely be blamed for having been maneuvered into this position.

Now, she had to find a way to push this to a head or the entire endeavor would be a complete loss. And there was just no way she could see that didn’t involve exposing herself…and therefore becoming a personal target of the Guild’s vengeance.

Akinda, for the first time in a long time, froze. Was that a sacrifice she was willing to make? Was it one she should? Would the bank expect it of her, or chide her for recklessness?

And then it was abruptly taken out of her hands.

“You have got some god damn nerve!” roared a man at the next table over, shooting to his feet so suddenly he almost knocked over the bench, and the two coworkers still sitting on it. He was a burly, towering specimen even for a factory laborer, with the handy addition of an immensely bushy black beard to enhance his fearsome scowl. “You come into our factory, you threaten our boss, an’ you wanna talk to us about abuse? Fuck you Eserite pigs!”

An ugly murmur rose in the cafeteria—no, more of a growl, Akinda decided. The assembled crowd of laborers shifted, a stir running through them like a great hibernating beast twitching as it dreamed. Instantly, at least half the thieves in front of them straightened up visibly, reacting on instinct to a threat.

“Yes, yes,” Rogue said in a tone of condescending faux-mollification, “I was made aware that the bosses have their sycophants, as in every—”

“Piece of shit!” screeched another woman, surging forward from her seat the next row of tables back and almost tripping over a bench even as she leveled an accusing finger at the Underboss. “You wanna call Rajesh a sycophant? How about you come over here and do it to his face without your little posse, then?”

Far from being displeased at being thus nominated, the big Rajesh—who was one of the few men in the room physically larger than Rogue—cracked his knuckles, glaring at the Underboss. All around him, more of the employees were rising from their benches, and several had started to stalk forward to the front row of tables.

The row of thieves began inching forward, as well. It seemed that not only were street soldiers sensitive to a hostile mood, but their innate response to it wasn’t a sensible retreat. None raised weapons yet, but a few had started to finger them.

And Akinda, right on the front row of tables, was positioned between the two groups. Well, the good news was she could return to worrying about her physical safety and not her whole plan going belly-up.

“Everyone, please,” Falconer said, turning back to face his employees and finally, it seemed, starting to understand the potential danger here, “let’s not make this worse.”

Rogue was frowning, his eyes cutting back and forth across the increasingly angry crowd of factory workers. Akinda could see him doing the math. Nearly the entire room was furious, many enough to push aggressively forward, and he hadn’t even hit anyone. They reacted this way in near unanimity to having their boss merely insulted and threatened. To a man like Rogue, accustomed to both manipulating individuals and steering large groups, the evidence of Falconer’s popularity was staring him right in the face.

He fixed his gaze on Akinda, and she tried to look confused and alarmed. She wasn’t his sole source of intel on the state of this factory, but he couldn’t miss the significance of her contribution. The plan was for her to be out of the province anyway before the Guild could begin unraveling any retribution against her, but if he decided to make an issue of it here and now…

Meanwhile, the rest of the thieves were growing increasingly nervous, which in their case meant increasingly ready to fight. The cafeteria full of laborers might not be professional knuckledusters, but every one of them had the well-muscled frame of someone who did heavy labor for a living, and they outnumbered the Guild’s presence by a good five to one. If this became a brawl, it was likely to end with Madouris emptied of Eserite presence for the foreseeable future.

Apparently Rogue either bought her helpless act or decided to put off dealing with her for later. Shifting his attention back to the crowd, he raised his hands again. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you please…”

“Get outta here!” a woman’s voice rang out, quickly echoed by a chorus of agreement. The growling crowd pushed a few steps farther, momentarily cutting off Akinda’s view as they shifted in front of her table. She reflexively pushed herself back against it as the sounds of scuffling broke out.

The crowd parted again, letting her see, and apparently the two fronts hadn’t clashed yet; in fact, there were a couple of matching tableaus where particularly aggressive thieves and workers were being held back by their fellows.

A roll of bread went sailing over the front ranks of the laborers, accompanied by an upsurge in the angry noise.

Rogue snatched it out of the air and took a big bite. His eyes widened in surprise. “Hey, that’s pretty good! Are these fresh? And it’s… Is that rosemary and butter?”

He pitched his voice a little too loud for a man commenting on a buttered roll, but it had the designed effect. The crowd—both crowds—calmed slightly as he carried on, studying the bread in his hand and chomping enthusiastically away.

“Well,” the Underboss said after pausing to swallow, “I’m starting to think I’ve been misinformed on a few important points. I realize we’ve already overstayed our welcome a tad, but if you’d indulge me just a moment longer—”

“Fuck off outta here!” one of the laborers yelled, igniting another angry push forward.

“Now just a minute!” Falconer shouted, himself pushing to the head of the crowd. “That’s enough of this. Everybody calm down!” He turned to stare at his employees, waiting for the muttering to subside somewhat, before returning his attention to Rogue. “What, exactly, were you misinformed about?”

The Underboss had taken another bite of the roll and was chewing while watching this scene play out, still projecting a picture of perfect calm. Akinda forced herself to breathe evenly. At least the two men in charge here had enough leadership ability to set an example to their respective groups.

Rogue swallowed and casually brushed off his fingers on his jerkin. “Now, I say this to inquire, not to accuse. Just repeating some stories I’ve been told, you understand. But on the matter of Falconer Industries employees being required to work extra hours, unpaid, and threatened with dismissal if they didn’t—”

“There is nothing like that here,” Geoffrey burst out, glaring.

“With all respect, Falconer,” Rogue replied, actually showing a little respect in his demeanor now, “that’s also what you’d say if that were going on, isn’t it? If you don’t mind, I’d like to hear from—”

“You heard the man!” interrupted another FI laborer, a short but barrel-chested man with dark Onkawi features, pushing to the front of the crowd. “This is a good job. We make the best damn carriages in the Empire and we get paid well for our work. Everybody here is proud of our company!”

The chorus of agreement was very nearly a roar.

“I see,” Rogue said, raising his bushy eyebrows in a serious expression. “And, for another example… These tales I’ve heard, of employees taking sick and their children having to step into their jobs so they don’t lose their positions?”

“Bullshit!” squawked a woman with steel-gray hair, pointing accusingly at him. “We get sick leave, we do! An’ four times a year Mr. Falconer brings a doctor in an’ everybody here gets whatever treatment he can do for whatever it is we got, on the company time. He set my daughter’s busted leg, he did, an’ she don’t even work for FI!”

Rogue, again, let his eyes flicker back and forth across the assembled factory workers while they shouted a disjointed chorus of agreement. He took another bite of buttered roll, chewing for a strategic pause while letting the noise die down somewhat. Geoffrey Falconer also waited, eyes narrowed; thankfully, so did the assembled thieves, though some of them clearly weren’t happy with the prospect.

“Well, this is awfully embarrassing,” Rogue said at last, turning to his compatriots. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry to say that we have been played for chumps! It looks like we’ve got no business here after all.”

“Damn right!” someone shouted from among the workers, quickly repeated by others.

“Mister Falconer,” Rogue intoned, turning around again and sweeping off his hat in another deep bow. “Assembled men and women of this esteemed establishment! You have my humble apologies for this disruption. It seems I was in error to have so accused you—truly, I am sorry to have caused you trouble. I will be taking my people and myself and getting out of your hair as swiftly as possible.”

“What about her?” The oily-looking young man who spoke was better dressed than most of the thieves in a well-fitting suit, with slicked-back hair and sharp features; he was a stranger to Akinda, but he clearly knew her, and stared accusingly. “If we’ve been misled, it’s obvious who did it.”

“It’s anything but, Thumper,” Rogue said with an ostentatious roll of his eyes. “Whatever person is right in front of you is rarely the one to blame for whatever’s on your mind, and I know we’ve had this conversation before.”

“Yeah, but she—”

Rogue turned to stare at him, and that was enough. Thumper clamped his mouth shut, scowling.

“Again, my sincere apologies,” the Underboss said to Geoffrey, holding up the half-eaten roll. “Thanks for lunch, Falconer. It’s on me, next time.”

“Hold it,” the industrialist said flatly. “After all this, you think you’re just going to walk away? I think I want to have this conversation with you and the police present.”

“Falconer,” Rogue said in a very even tone, “today you have seen the Thieves’ Guild made a fool of. That, sir, is a rare treat for anyone. Now, I truly am sorry to have unduly burdened you. I’m willing to say that I owe you a favor for the trouble—so long as it doesn’t end up being anything too unreasonable. Like, for example, that.”

“Geoffrey,” Marguerite said quietly, “let it go. They’re leaving. That’s good enough.”

Falconer folded his arms again, fixing Rogue with a stare which the thief met without flinching while his assembled enforcers began streaming out through the cafeteria doors. Rogue was the last out; he paused, tipping his hat once again, before vanishing.

Akinda let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, and felt the tension begin to leak from her body. Slowly, she turned back around on her seat, and found herself face to face with Marguerite Falconer, who was staring at her over steepled fingers.

“Why,” Marguerite asked calmly, ignoring the noise going on around them as the crowd of factory workers began expelling the pent-up tension of the encounter, “would the Thieves’ Guild blame you for their misconceptions about this company, Ms. Akinda?”

Her husband, now, was also staring at Akinda. As was Tarvedh, the Butler, and a couple of nearby laborers who had overheard.

Akinda cleared her throat. “I wonder if I could trouble you for a word in private, Mr. and Mrs. Falconer?”

“Yes,” Geoffrey said pointedly, regarding her with a decidedly unfriendly expression, “yes, I think that is a good idea.”


“With the rapid advancement of the science of enchantment has come rapid industrialization. That’s not news to you, of course,” Akinda said, nodding politely to the two Falconers once they were safely ensconced in their top-floor office. Tarvedh had not accompanied them this time, though the Butler remained discreetly by the closed door. “You have probably had reason to think about the social changes this has brought; the new industrial class are the first incidence of a rising economic power that can compete with the nobility since the first merchant guilds were formed.”

“Yes,” Marguerite said wryly, folding her arms, “Duke Madouri has made that a point of interest to us.”

“And that’s it exactly,” said Akinda. “Responses among the nobles to social change vary widely, but as a group they tend to feel threatened by anything which shifts the landscape on which their privileges rest. Some have moved to profit from the great manufacturing companies springing up within their fiefs. Others have Madouri’s attitude. You may not be aware of this, but a very old trick in the aristocracy’s perpetual maneuvers against each other is to try to trip one another into conflict with the Thieves’ Guild. That’s practically the preferred regional sport in Calderaas. Unfortunately, while the Houses are prepared to play that game, people like you are most often blindsided by it. In the last ten years, there have been several promising companies damaged and in some cases completely dismantled by the Guild over offenses which in hindsight proved to have been completely fabricated.”

“Really,” Geoffrey said, frowning. Now both of them had pensive expressions, which was an improvement over their hostile ones of a moment before.

Akinda nodded. “Eserites, like all religious people, are prone to a few predictable flaws. Once they smell corruption and abuse, they pursue it single-mindedly enough that they can easily gloss over exonerating evidence, even with the best intentions. That is the reason for my presence, and involvement. Obviously, the Guild doesn’t need outside help to investigate Falconer Industries. They do have people here already, as Rogue said. But those people are looking for weaknesses, not reasons to back off. My bank went to a great deal of trouble to give Rogue the impression that he could use me to ferret out your secrets, and arranged for him to acquire falsified evidence of some trumped-up crimes on my part. He believes he is blackmailing me into complying with his efforts here.”

“You’re telling me,” Geoffrey said flatly, “that Duke Madouri manipulated the Thieves’ Guild into attacking my factory.”

“Yes,” she said. “And the Vernisite bank in Madouris, which had been watching for such activity, warned central bank in Tiraas, which sent me. My assignment was to re-direct the Guild’s efforts.”

“You couldn’t just warn them?” Marguerite demanded.

“They don’t listen to bankers,” Akinda replied, shaking her head. “Our relationship with the Guild is rather one-sided. We find them an extremely useful measure against corruption, even within our own ranks—but that only works so long as they keep us at arm’s length, so we deliberately make no effort to cozy up to them.”

“And you couldn’t warn us?” Geoffrey snapped.

“For that, I apologize,” she said, inclining her head. “It’s policy. We tried that, early on; the effect was, consistently, industrialists taking aggressive measures either against the Thieves’ Guild or their noble tormentors, with predictably disastrous results.”

“I can’t believe anyone would do something that stupid,” he huffed.

“Yes, you can,” Marguerite said with a sigh. “You almost did it not ten minutes ago, Geoffrey. Don’t make that face, you were that close to throwing a punch at that guy and you know it.”

“Now,” Akinda said, “the Guild knows better than to attack you. Rogue has been embarrassed and will look into his sources of information with greater care. He will find details my bank has planted revealing the source of Madouri’s original misdirections, and turn his anger on the Duke. Madouri will bleed for this, and hopefully not try it again. Most importantly, his reprisal will come from the Thieves’ Guild and not from Falconer Industries, giving him no pretext to punish you.”

They stared at her, then turned to each other and shared a silent married conversation. Then turned back to her, still staring.

Akinda cleared her throat discreetly. “Needless to say, the bank regrets the imposition, and greatly appreciates your role in this affair, unwitting as it was. This has been a success for everyone—Falconer Industries, the bank, even the Thieves’ Guild. Well, everyone except Duke Madouri, who is soon to be given a lesson in not antagonizing Eserites. This ostensible audit was a formality anyway; FI is an excellent company and has been consistently a valued business partner. Your loan is approved, at twenty-five percent above the asked amount.”

“No.” Geoffrey Falconer stepped closer to her, staring right into her eyes. His wife remained behind, and matched his glare.

“No?” Akinda raised an eyebrow.

“We’ll take the amount originally applied for,” he stated. “And we will take it at zero interest, with no defined term of repayment.”

Akinda could only gape at him for a moment.

“Ah. Mr. Falconer, the bank of course wishes to accommodate you under the circumstances, but not to the extent of obviating the reason we give loans.”

“Tough,” he said flatly. “You can tell this to your bank, Akinda: I don’t need more money from you, I need you to walk away with your knuckles stinging. This scheme of yours came within a hair’s breadth of setting Thieves’ Guild brawlers on my employees. Omnu’s breath, my daughter could have been here. You will hurt for this, is that understood? If the bank will not accept my terms—or if you ever again put any of my people in danger for any reason—I will go right to the Duke, to the Guild… The Empire, the Universal Church, the Sisterhood of Avei, everyone I can think of who even might take exception to a Pantheon cult engaging in this kind of chicanery. I know very well that I’m not a sly manipulator like your masters, Akinda. But I have money, I have magic, and I am pissed off. I’m willing to bet that by the time I get finished throwing blind punches, you’ll have lost a lot more than the interest you would’ve made off this loan. Am I understood?”

He met her gaze in silence after finishing, waiting for her to answer. Akinda stared back, then shifted her eyes to look behind him at his wife. Marguerite raised on eyebrow at her.

“Well,” she said at last, “obviously, I cannot personally authorize such a measure. But I will convey your, ah, terms to the bank. And,” she added, “I will encourage them in the firmest language possible to take your offer, Mr. Falconer. In this particular situation, I am reasonably confident I can persuade the bank to agree.”

“Good.” He turned his back on her and walked back to his wife, who took his hand with an expression of pride. “Then I bid you good day, Ms. Akinda. This audit is concluded.”

She bowed, just for good measure, then turned and walked out, the Butler opening the office door for her. Outside the office, Akinda allowed herself a soft sigh of relief.

Not the outcome she’d gone in looking for, or expecting, but…one she would accept. A hoarder had been thwarted, the bank could continue doing business, and the company would thrive.

It must flow. And for now, at least, it would.

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Bonus #42: The Audit, part 2

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It wasn’t as bad as she’d feared; Akinda’s work in the heights of finance took her to a surprising number of dingy dives, but this particular bar seemed borderline respectable. Certainly on the shabby side for the neighborhood, which lay in the very shadow of the walled hill on which loomed the manor complex of House Madouri, itself practically a fortified town in the middle of the city of Madouris. Of course, she recognized the role such a bar in such a place served: it was a discreet haven in which the city’s movers and shakers could conduct shady dealings.

Of the kind she was doing now.

Akinda had set herself up in what was probably the most popular seat in the house, a corner booth with an unobstructed view of the entrance. Luckily there had been no competition for the spot, and in fact she was the only person present save the sleepy-looking bartender. No great surprise, as it was still barely evening, early enough that the bar had only just opened. She laid out a folder of papers before her which she pretended to peruse while also pretending to sip at her glass of wine. Mostly, she studied the disinterested man behind the bar, the door to the quiet street outside, the other booths, the smoke-stained posters advertising long-defunct plays, the glimpses of dark wood paneling peeking between them. This place had fairy lamps, but just two and the old kind that flickered almost like torches.

Fortunately, her date didn’t keep her waiting long enough to wonder whether he had actually understood her necessarily cryptic message. The bartender looked up at the opening door, nodding a greeting to the man who stepped inside and then paused, blinking in the bar’s dimness.

Akinda raised one hand, beckoning him over, and he squared his shoulders, stepping forward.

“What can I get you?” the bartender asked pointedly while the guest passed in front of him, and Akinda was somewhat displeased to see that he had the manners to stop and order a beer rather than loiter in the establishment for free. For her purposes, it would be better if this guy were the worst sort of bitter malcontent. If he actually had legitimate grievances to share with her, this could get complicated.

Thomas Schroeder was a tall man, his naturally lanky build filled out by years of factory work; he was, at least so far, all muscle and no gut. He had the classic Stalweiss coloring, or what was commonly thought to be such. Stalweiss who had brown hair and dark eyes could tan and pass for Tiraan, if they were lucky. Actual discrimination was rare in this day and age, but it happened, especially to pale blondes like Schroeder. She wondered if that had done anything to shape his attitude.

“Thank you for joining me, Mr. Schroeder,” she said politely while he slipped into the seat across from her with a bottle of what was probably the cheapest beer this place had, and still an indulgence for a man on a factory laborer’s wages.

“Sure,” he said noncommittally, watching her closely and not opening his beverage just yet. “You’re investigating the factory, right? You’re what, Treasury?”

“Treasury agents don’t make polite requests,” she said with dour amusement, “nor hold their meetings in discreetly out-of-the-way bars. No, if any Imperial Marshal wanted to talk with you, Mr. Schroeder, they’d be very…insistent. There will be nothing like that here; I am simply a representative of the central bank in Tiraas, looking to have a conversation.”

“Oh,” he said, nodding in understanding. There were, of course, a plethora of banks in Tiraas, and any institution in the capital had some grounds to call itself “central.” Everyone who knew the first thing about banks, though, knew which one was meant when it was just called a bank and not named. That was why she always introduced herself thus; the combination of money and the backing of a major cult sufficed to keep most people polite. “So, what can I do for you, then?”

“I am conducting an audit of Falconer Industries,” she said briskly, “preparatory to approving the loan sought from my bank for the upcoming expansion. I’m sure you’ve heard about it.”

“Of course,” he said, still wary.

“The upper management is very cooperative,” she continued in a neutral voice, “but naturally they take care to show me only the sides of their operations they wish known. In the interest of thoroughness, I like to get the input of employees… Off the record, in settings where they feel comfortable being honest.”

He slowly shoved the beer bottle back and forth between his hands, frowning at her. To her practiced eye, his expression betrayed a distinctive venal eagerness she had seen countless times. He didn’t jump at the bait just yet, however. “Sure, I understand that… I’m not looking to get on the wrong side of the bosses either. If you’re looking for somebody to bad-mouth the factory, I’m not your guy.”

Were that true, he’d have said so with a firm look at least and likely visible offense, not a coy sidelong glance. Bless Gimmick’s careful eyes, she had a real prospect here. Akinda leaned forward, adopting an earnest expression. “And yet, you did agree to meet with me. I promise you, Mr. Schroeder, no one values discretion as much as a banker. I carefully protect any source of valuable information. The bank takes great care to cultivate those who prove fruitful.”

An overt offer of compensation wouldn’t do. In this case, it shouldn’t be necessary. If she had read him correctly, he had enough reasons to supply what she needed without wanting to be paid for it.

And indeed, Schroeder matched her posture, pushing his beer aside to lean toward her across the table. “Well, I suppose the gods can’t fault a man for being truthful. As long as my name doesn’t get back to my boss in connection with this…”

“As long as anyone outside this booth is concerned, Mr. Schroeder, I have no idea who you are.”

There it was. The smile—small, controlled, but eager and malicious. Yep, he was one of those all right. “What would you like to know, then?”

“The bank must be fully aware of any risks before lending money,” she said smoothly. “Falconer Industries looks like an inviting prospect for investment, but large companies are often adept at putting on a good face in front of auditors. The most common pitfalls involve mismanagement. Abusive practices by the owners, anything which might make it difficult to retain employees…”

She’d had to dangle the bait pretty blatantly, but he finally snapped at it.

“You won’t hear this from Tarvedh or most of the floor supervisors,” Schroeder said, lowering his voice and leaning further forward. “Bunch of suck-ups—they’re all on the golden teat. But unless you’ve gotten in good with their little circle, you’ve got no future at FI. It’s the worst kind of old boy’s club, Ms. Akinda.” So he did know her name; he’d clearly paid closer attention than he wanted to let on. “Competence and work ethic don’t mean a thing—it’s whether you’re willing to do favors, sweep things under the rug, and especially keep your mouth shut.”

Big bucket of nothing, so far. “Have you some personal experience with these…problems?”

His face creased bitterly. “Don’t I ever. I’d be a senior supervisor long since if seniority meant a damn thing. But I’m the one who doesn’t stand for corner-cutting or slacking off. That’s my job, keeping those under me on task. Stupid me, caring enough about the factory to point out the same going on above my head! It goes right up to Falconer himself. Doesn’t matter that the work gets done fast or right, just that his favorites get preferential treatment.”

“This is very pertinent information, Mr. Schroeder,” she encouraged. “Can you give specific examples?”

Over the next five minutes, Akinda lost any hint of respect she might have felt for Thomas Schroeder while he launched into a laundry list of the pettiest non-issues imaginable. She immediately had enough information to eviscerate him verbally, had that been her goal, but instead she kept subtly goading him to keep talking, and to reveal himself for a venal, entitled little man who lorded his small amount of power over his subordinates and bitterly resented his resulting unpopularity among his colleagues. It was the work of a few noncommittal questions to reveal that he was passed over for raises and promotions because of his own performance, and his grievances were the imaginings of a narcissist with no room in his worldview for self-reflection. People like this were everywhere, unfortunately, an eternal pestilence hiding in the ranks of every employer. She had handled them by the dozen over the years. Akinda personally wouldn’t have passed up Schroeder for promotion, but tossed him out on his ear. Then again, nobody had ever put her in charge of a business.

His petty nonsense was precisely what she needed right now, so she let him talk, listening with half an ear while thinking ahead on how to guide this in the proper direction.

The door opened. Akinda did not betray herself by looking up, but well-practiced instinct warned her that time was up.

“Useful as this is,” she said, interrupting a tiresome anecdote about how Schroeder had been humiliated by his own superior for reasonably disciplining a tardy employee (probably spoken to in private for berating someone who’d been caught in a thunderstorm), “the bank won’t attach much credence to the personal accounts of one laborer. The way you describe the factory, there must be a great deal of unrest that your employees are afraid to bring up openly.”

“Yeah, that’s it exactly,” he agreed, nodding eagerly. She kept her eyes on him, though most of her attention was now on the soft footsteps pacing toward their corner booth. “I’ve been lucky enough because I’ve been with the company for years. Most of my subordinates, it’d be more than their job’s worth to say anything.”

“Well, that sounds like a truly terrible state of affairs, and no mistake!”

Schroeder looked up, a portrait of startlement, and then scowled. “Excuse me, this is a private conversation.” Akinda just sighed.

The man who had joined them could easily have looked ridiculous, were he not large enough to be menacing just by existing, or did he not exude self-assurance like a cloud of cologne. He actually wore a leather jerkin and a pointed felt hat with a jaunty little feather; his weathered face sported a waxed handlebar mustache and matching goatee. Between the heavy knife hanging from his belt and the way his blousy sleeves were rolled up to expose hairy forearms that looked capable of lifting an ox, he probably didn’t have to endure much ribbing over his ostentatious costume.

“Why, so it is, and my apologies for interrupting you,” the big man replied with a grin, snagging a chair from a nearby table and sliding it deftly up to the side of theirs. Backward, of course; he immediately sat down with his legs spread to either side of the back and arms folded across it. “But as it happens, I’ve an interest in these matters, too! Ms. Akinda and I share a mission, you see.”

“We share nothing, Rogue,” she said distastefully.

Schroeder’s eyebrows shot upward and he took a second look at the new arrival’s hat. “Rogue? As in…the adventuring class of, what, two hundred years ago?”

“A bit more modern, but yes, you might consider it an homage, as the Glassians say,” Rogue replied blithely, a doubloon appearing in his fingers. That was a really impressive trick, what with his sleeves being rolled above his elbows. It was the way he rolled the coin across the backs of his hairy knuckles, though, that caught Schroeder’s attention.

The man’s face drained of what little color it had. “Now, look here,” he stammered, “I want nothing to do…”

“Friend, let me put you at ease,” Rogue said, closing his hand around the doubloon and leaning forward over his chair back. Considering everything else about him, it was remarkable how he could suddenly project a reassuring countenance. “An honest, hard-working man such as yourself has nothing to fear from the Thieves’ Guild. Even if you won’t believe we act with a moral purpose, well…” He winked, flashing a row of flawlessly even white teeth. “No offense, old fellow, but what’ve you got that’s worth the trouble of stealing?”

Schroeder actually un-tensed slightly. That was no good; she could not allow these two to have an open conversation. A man like Rogue would immediately see right through a small-minded fool like Schroeder, and then the whole operation might be blown. So she put a little more fear into him.

“Rogue is the Thieves’ Guild Underboss for all of Madouris,” Akinda said flatly, still giving the thief an unfriendly stare. Schroeder immediately re-tensed, and then did so further when she continued. “And if I’m not mistaken, that is one of his lackeys blocking us into this bar.”

“Now, now,” Rogue said, favoring her with an amused little smile. “That’s most uncharitable, Ms. Akinda. Neither of you are prevented from leaving, you have my word of honor! Style is just insuring that we won’t be interrupted.”

“Though the next person who calls me lackey is gonna choke on their own teeth,” the beefy woman now lounging in the door with her arms crossed announced aloud. Akinda could immediately see why a man like Rogue would pick this specimen as his enforcer; she wore a hat even more ridiculous than his, a broad-brimmed Punaji number bristling with ostrich and peacock feathers. Even more ostentatious was her knee-length crushed velvet coat, jewel blue with gaudy golden embroidery, and lace visible at the neck and cuffs. It must be absolutely humiliating to get beaten up by a woman dressed like a cabaret fancy lad.

“She’s all bark,” Rogue said, grinning at them. “You have my personal guarantee of safety—the both of you,” he added directly to Akinda. “The Guild is not in the habit of molesting people who assist us.”

“Even under duress?” she snorted.

“Especially then,” he said glibly. “Now. We were discussing Falconer Industries, and its mistreatment of its employees.”

Schroeder swallowed loudly. “Oh. Um. I, uh, that is, I wouldn’t…”

“And this is why you came to me,” Akinda said disdainfully, reaching across the table to pat his wrist. “Normal, decent, working-class people are not going to want to speak with the likes of you, Rogue. It’s funny the effect a long record of violence and intimidation has on people’s disposition.”

“Yes, alas, I fear not all of that resentment is unearned,” he said with a woeful sigh, shaking his head. “I maintain that the Guild is the ally of the working man against their corrupt bosses—but you are far from wrong, Ms. Akinda. When you solve problems by breaking the fingers causing the problems, efficacious as that is, it does tend to spook people. So! Since you have so generously agreed to help us, let me put it to you!” He had the gall to grin and wink at her again, pausing to let sink in the reminder that he was extorting her into helping him. “How would you recommend we go about addressing these terrible injustices?”

Akinda played the part well, if she thought so herself—but then, it was by no means her first time on stage. She averted her eyes, staring angrily at the wall for a moment, then turned a speculative look on Schroeder just long enough for him to get good and nervous about what she was thinking, and to let it show on his face. Then she sighed softly, shot one resentful sidelong glance at Rogue, and finally lowered her eyes to the table top. The tension, at least, was real; the Underboss had handed her exactly the golden opportunity she needed, which only made her more cognizant of all the ways this could abruptly blow up in her face if she lost control.

“You can hardly burst into the factory and start bludgeoning Geoffrey Falconer,” she began by waffling. “The Duke and the Empire would come down on you hard, not to mention how that would look to the public. If you think you’re not liked now…”

“Yes,” Rogue agreed equably, “not to mention that the Falconers have a Butler. He’s not always at the factory, but they have a way of turning up when they’re needed. Have you noticed that?”

“It hasn’t really come up in my line of work,” she said bitterly, scowling at him, then looked away again and made a show of reluctance. “…I’ve been invited to examine the employee services area in detail, while it is in use. Tomorrow during the main line shift’s lunch break. Apparently most of the floor workers will be in the cafeteria then, save the maintenance crews who’ll take the opportunity to once-over the production equipment. Right?” she prompted Schroeder, who twitched.

“Um, that is, yes,” he squeaked, and Akinda had to carefully withhold contempt from her face. Pathetic twit. “That’s, uh, part of why they want to put in the second production line. You know, two shifts on rotating, um… But now, yes, everyone will be at lunch at the same time. Almost. Almost everyone.”

She patted his hand again to stop him talking.

“Interesting,” Rogue mused, raising one eyebrow. “All the employees, gathered together. But you were just saying, Ms. Akinda, that getting these folks to listen to the likes of us would be rather an uphill battle.”

“Because you are half-mythic boogeymen as far as they’re concerned,” she snapped. “Based on what Mr. Schroeder has been telling me, their fear of their bosses is far more immediate and real. If a bunch of boogeymen suddenly descended on the factory in the middle of the day…say, when the upper management are guaranteed to be there and can’t afford to act too brutally due to my presence…”

“Why, I believe I catch the drift of your thoughts!” he said, grinning. “If there is one thing we Eserites are good at, it’s frightening the mighty. Enough street soldiers on site and, Butler or no Butler, Falconer will have to give these grievances a good listen!”

“And with the Butler here,” she added pointedly, “I’ll be at least somewhat confident you people will restrain yourselves. The Falconers have a young child, Rogue. She was at the factory yesterday, and apparently often is.”

“My dear lady,” he said, suddenly solemn and holding up a hand, “not only does the Guild suffer no abuse of children, I personally make it policy among all in my chapter not to, shall we say, correct the manners of even the most deserving rich bastards where impressionable young eyes might see. The truth is,” he added earnestly, “we do a lot less kneebreaking than you think, Ms. Akinda. You think that because we work hard to encourage the misconception! The more people think we’re one hair from a bloodbath, you see, the less often we have to actually perpetrate one.”

“I suppose that does make a certain psychotic kind of sense,” Akinda huffed, turning her eyes back to the other man present. “Mr. Schroeder, you don’t look well.”

“Oh.” He actually jumped at being addressed, and swallowed heavily. “Um. No, I’m…no worries…”

In truth he didn’t look well; hopefully Rogue would put it down to nerves at the presence of a Guild Underboss at the table, though Schroeder’s reaction was a little extreme for that. The man was pale as a sheet and glistening with sweat even in the dimness of the bar. He actually looked like he was deciding whether to faint or hurl—an appropriate dilemma for a man who had just discovered that his easily-disprovable bullshit had just conjured up the presence of actual monsters and created the looming likelihood of someone getting hurt. Someone very likely to be himself.

“Why, she’s got the right of it, old man!” Rogue cried, suddenly the very picture of amicable concern. “You look half-dead! Must have been something in the beer.”

“Oh, screw you, Rogue,” the bartender said from behind him, confirming Akinda’s suspicion that this was a Guild establishment.

“I think,” the Underboss continued, ignoring the interjection, “you might want to stay home from work tomorrow.”

Akinda could have cheered. In fact, this was all going almost suspiciously well; was it possible Rogue knew what she was up to and was setting her up for a fall? She didn’t see how—either how he could know, or what he might be trying to achieve if that were the case. But with Eserites, you could never be sure. For the moment she could only play the game to the best of her ability.

“There are any number of turns tomorrow’s events might take,” she said aloud to Schroeder, in a gentler tone, “some of which might prove perilous for the man who provided valuable information to the cult of Verniselle, which was then stolen by those who do such things,” she finished in a deliberately bitter tone.

“Um. Yes, actually, now you mention it,” Schroeder said tremulously. “Perhaps…a day resting up’ll put me right.”

“Capital idea,” Rogue said pleasantly, and Akinda nodded. If Thomas Schroeder had any sense, he would be in Shaathvar by lunch tomorrow. The Rails weren’t running at this hour, but he could be in Tiraas to catch the first caravans in the morning. She would have felt a lot worse about descending upon his life and then upending it so, had he not been such a sniveling little pustule of a man. “So, then! I believe we have, at least, a place to start.”

Rogue winked at her again, and she pressed her lips into a thin, disapproving line which did not entirely have to be feigned. “Yes…so far, so good.”

That much was true. So far, so good. If it all continued to go well, this would all be wrapped up tomorrow. Of course, the fact that it had gone so well already made her distinctly apprehensive about the future. The gods made playthings of the overconfident.

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Bonus #41: The Audit, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backer Jonathan Hogg!

“And here we are!” Tarvedh said as grandly as if ushering her into a throne room. He pulled open the frosted glass doors and stepped aside, actually bowing her to precede him into the office. Akinda acknowledged the gesture with a nod in passing, wondering about his demeanor. He, of all people, should know better than to try to suck up to her.

The central office of Falconer Industries was not what she had expected. It was a large space, though not as much as one might expect from the beating heart of a factory this size, and looked more like the private lab of some absent-minded wizard than the headquarters of a manufacturing company. The square room was bordered on three sides by glass: one wall of tall windows looking out at the factory’s front drive, the one opposite overlooking the main assembly line a story below, and the third of frosted glass in which the door was set. Directly across from her, the far wall could only barely be identified as brick, it was so covered in runic diagrams, enchanting schematics, and miscellaneous notes, some of which glowed subtly as if somebody had been jotting down ideas in expensive enchanting ink instead of the customary black. The whole room was a profusion of mismatched, comfortably battered furniture and enchanting paraphernalia, both free-standing equipment scattered about with no apparent plan and an assortment of power crystals and vials of glittering dust interspersed with the drifts of papers covering every flat surface—including, in some places, the floor. Somebody had scrawled what looked like a haphazard summoning circle on the floorboards in the corner.

Three of the four people present looked up at her entry, the smallest abruptly cutting off strumming a guitar, and Akinda was left standing there under their eyes while Tarvedh bustled around her into the office, pulled the door shut behind him, and finally turned to make the introductions.

“Here she is, sir,” he said with the same peculiar eagerness. “Mr. Falconer, this is Auditor Akinda. Ms. Akinda, Geoffrey Falconer.”

“Imbani Akinda,” she clarified, stepping forward and extending her hand.

“Ah! Of course, hello! Good morning!” Falconer was a nondescript man in his thirties who wouldn’t have been taken, at a glance, for either a brilliant enchanter or one of the richest people in the Empire. He set down the rod and vial of arcane dust with which he’d been working—rather carelessly, causing the vial to spill sparkling powder across his diagram—and hurried across the office to clasp her hand.

“Geoffrey!” the woman near him said in exasperation, snatching up a rag and rushing to join them as both Falconer and Akinda jumped slightly at the electric shock that snapped between their hands.

“Oh! Gods, I’m sorry,” the industrialist said, wincing and withdrawing his grip. His hands—and now Akinda’s—bore smears of enchanting dust. “Really, I do apologize, I have no excuse. You’d think that by this time I’d have learned…”

“He does that to everyone,” the woman said, offering Akinda the rag with a smile. “Employees, Imperial Marshals, Duke Madouri, everyone. It’s a wonder nobody’s shot him yet. The cloth is clean and magically neutral, I assure you. I make sure to keep them on hand,” she added, giving Mr. Falconer a look.

“No harm done,” Akinda said neutrally, wiping the arcane residue off her hand.

“My better half, Marguerite,” Falconer said, slipping an arm around the woman’s shoulders. Despite her remonstrative expression, she let herself be tugged against his side. “You know our head numbers man, Mr. Tarvedh, of course. This is Meron Talidar, our head of research and development.”

The man to whom he gestured had not looked up from the desk over which he was hunched with his back to the door, and still didn’t, though at being introduced he raised one hand to wave over his shoulder with an irritable grunt.

“Who is an irascible wizard of the oldest school,” Marguerite added with a sigh, earning no further response from Talidar.

“So I see,” Akinda observed, studying the man sidelong. Even with his back to her, his personal style bordered on affectation. He had unruly hair loosely tied back with a leather cord and apparently untrimmed for at least twenty years, a beard so bushy it was visible to both sides of his neck, and wore robes. Even among wizards, only Salyrites in formal attire and old men who couldn’t be bothered to learn what century it was still went about in robes.

“And this, of course, is our daughter, Teal,” Geoffrey concluded, turning a beaming smile on the last person in the office.

“Hello,” Teal Falconer said with all the uncertain politeness of any ten-year-old girl formally meeting a stranger. She carefully set down the guitar she’d been playing on her chair and approached, more cautiously by far than either of her parents. “I love your dress! That’s so beautiful, I’ve never seen one quite like it.”

“Thank you, Miss Falconer,” Akinda replied with a small but unfeigned smile. “You’ll rarely see a buba outside Onkawa, but I’m fond of traditional dress, even in Tiraas. I’m sorry to interrupt your playing; you handle that instrument beautifully for someone your age.”

“Thanks!” the girl said, breaking into a broad smile. “I get a lot of practice. What brings you to visit?”

Tarvedh cleared his throat, bending toward Teal and raising the pitch of his voice in exactly the manner one should never adopt toward any child old enough to recognize condescension. “Ms. Akinda is just here to do some business, Miss Teal! She’s an auditor from the central Vernisite bank in Tiraas.”

Teal had sighed softly as soon as the accountant started speaking to her, clearly used to him, but at that her eyes widened in alarm. “An audit? Are we in trouble?” she asked, turning to her parents.

“No, no, honey, it’s not like a Treasury audit,” Marguerite soothed, laying a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “It’s for expanding the main assembly line, remember? We’re taking out a loan from the central bank.”

“They do these things from time to time,” Geoffrey added, waving a hand vaguely. “We do a lot of business with the bank but once in a while they want to send somebody to look the business over, especially when we’re asking for a loan. The bank has to ensure its own interests, after all! It’s pretty routine, nothing to worry about.”

Teal’s eyebrows drew together in a worried expression. “Why do we need money from the bank? Don’t we have enough to just…build it ourselves?”

A round of glances passed between the adults.

“Oh, now, you don’t need to worry about that for a few years yet!” Tarvedh said with boisterous good cheer. “It’s all technical, Miss Teal. You just concentrate on your schooling and your music, there’ll be plenty of time to learn about business later.”

Both the elder Falconers shot him sidelong looks, less openly annoyed than their daughter’s, but not completely neutral. Mr. Tarvedh must really be an excellent accountant; the factory clearly did not hire its top staff based on social acumen.

“It’s actually very rare for a major business to finance its own activities, Miss Falconer,” Akinda said to Teal, in exactly the tone she would use to discuss the matter with a junior clerk at her own bank. As a child, she had hated adults talking down to her. “Especially venturous ones—major expansions and the like. It protects the business from loss, and creates opportunity for investors to profit. If the new venture does well, the loan is paid back with interest, and so the business and investors both benefit.”

“Oh,” Teal said thoughtfully. “What if it fails?”

“Oh, now, we don’t even think about that,” Tarvedh said, grinning nervously. “That is, there’s really no prospect of it! Falconer Industries is fully solvent and very profitable—”

“Thank you, Mr. Tarvedh,” Geoffrey Falconer said firmly.

“That’s the risk you take by investing,” Akinda explained. “There’s great profit in it, if you do it wisely, not to mention the benefit to the total economy by keeping money in motion, and new ventures always rising. Investors are in it for the chance of profit, and in the case of Vernisite institutions like mine, to help keep the economy moving. But whenever you take a risk, there’s a chance you will lose out, and that’s something investors have to accept. We minimize the risk by doing our due diligence and knowing exactly what we are getting into.”

Teal nodded. “And that’s your job.”

“Exactly,” Akinda said, smiling at her.

Geoffrey cleared his throat. “Well! We don’t want to waste your time, Ms. Akinda, so consider us at your disposal. Can we get you anything? Tea, biscuits?”

“Dear,” Marguerite murmured.

“Oh!” Mr. Falconer clapped a hand to his forehead, leaving a comical imprint of glittering arcane dust. “Drat, sorry. Does that count as an unsolicited gift?”

“The bank doesn’t consider basic hospitality an attempted bribe,” Akinda said with an amused smile. “And thank you, but not at this time. Perhaps I will take you up on it when reviewing your books later, but I would like to begin by looking over the facilities, if I may.”

“Of course! Like I said, at your disposal. I’d be glad to show you around myself, just let me find something to wipe off my hands…”

“Actually,” she said, quietly but firmly, “I prefer to roam unescorted by owners, as a rule. You understand.”

“Oh,” he said, blinking. “Of course, yes.” Clearly he didn’t, but wasn’t going to argue, which was good enough for her.

“But I would like to have someone on hand to answer questions,” Akinda continued, “if I could continue to borrow Mr. Tarvedh?”

“By all means, I should be delighted!” the accountant beamed, apparently meaning it sincerely. He didn’t strike her as being mentally equipped for deception. “I can offer a guided tour, Auditor—or, if you’d prefer, just tell me what you’d like to see and I’ll take you there!”

“The latter, I think,” she said, nodding politely. “Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Falconer. Miss Falconer. I look forward to speaking with you again soon.”

“Of course, take your time,” Geoffrey replied. “I’ll probably be right here, but my assistant can find us for you if not. Tarvedh, take good care of our guest! Make sure she has everything she might need.”

“Without doubt, sir!”

“Bye,” said Teal, waving.

Tarvedh again bustled ahead to open the office door for her, but moments later they were out, and pacing slowly along the walkway leading to the main office, lined by doors to smaller chambers on one side and the railed drop to the factory floor on the other. Akinda stepped to the edge of this, trailing her hand along the rail and setting a slow pace while organizing her thoughts.

She rather liked the Falconers and their operation; rich people who did not let their wealth go to their heads appealed to her Vernisite sensibilities. Geoffrey Falconer more resembled an absent-minded academic than an industrialist, and it was noteworthy that he had married a mousy woman who wore glasses and went about the factory in a workman’s shirt and overalls. Falconer Industries had prospered mightily under Geoffrey, but he had inherited a business already wealthy enough that he could have easily obtained a beautiful noblewoman for a bride. Many young men in his position did exactly that.

Of course, a facade was only that, often as not. The Falconers wouldn’t be the first people she’d ever met who could understand what image would impress a follower of Verniselle and put it on. Even the child could have managed, by that age; she had encountered some truly ruthless sprouts among the seeds of the nobility and the newer industrial wealthy. Money did things to people.

Tarvedh was watching her as if afraid to speak. He was an odd little man—apparently loyal to his masters, and yet the very picture of a good Vernisite. Even the triple-coin pin at his lapel was perfect, richly detailed by a jeweler but made of plain steel, displaying wealth by having given work to a skilled artisan rather than by using expensive raw materials. His clothes were likewise well-tailored but far from ostentatious.

She decided it was better to start by putting him at ease.

“Teal?” Akinda inquired softly, raising an eyebrow.

He cracked a grin at that. “Ah, yes, well. Mrs. Falconer is an artist.”

“Ah, I see. Well, she seems a charming child.”

“Mm, as children go,” he said noncommittally. “Remarkably well-behaved! She often accompanies her parents, and I can’t recall the girl ever having caused a problem. If there must be a child underfoot, I’d rather it be Miss Teal than basically any other. Well! This is as good a place to begin as any! You see the main factory floor—this is where the main expansion we are planning will begin.” He stepped in front of her to the rail and leaned across it, pointing. “You see there, the far wall! The doors currently lead to a large lot with a gravel track where we test-drive carriages, but that can be moved basically anywhere. According to the plans we’ve drawn up, we intend to add a new wing onto the building itself, leaving the wall intact but removing the doors to open both production lines to each other. That’s the goal, of course, a second line added rather than an expansion to the first one.”

“Mm,” she murmured, sweeping her gaze across the room. “Mass-produced carriages are not currently the larger part of FI’s profit.”

“Ah, that is, not at present. Hence our interest in expanding! It’s the Imperial economy, you see—these are boom years, lots of money going around, and falling into lots more hands! Right now, the really expensive custom jobs for nobility and the like provide a wider profit margin, but the demand for mass-produced models has grown steadily, and all our projections insist it will continue to do so.”

“Enchanted carriages still are not a toy for the middle class, though.”

“Yet,” he insisted with a grin. “But the middle class is expanding and growing more affluent, and has been since not long after Empress Theasia was crowned, the gods rest her soul. You know, of course, that his Majesty Sharidan has taken more of an interest in the economy than his mother did, and the good times continue to roll! Especially since the treaty with the drow; the prices of some of our raw materials have bottomed out. But more relevant to our discussion here, the bulk of our R&D at the moment is on improving the efficiency of our production line rather than devising new enchantments. The second line will open up great new prospects for us! With the assurance of one always running, we can use the second for more experimental measures and greatly increase our rate of advancement. By investing in our own processes we will bring down production costs and therefore the costs of our products, making them more widely available to a broader customer base. Falconer Industries has its eye on the future!”

“I’d like to have a look at your R&D division, if possible.”

“…ah. That, as you might imagine, is more sensitive…”

“If it is too great an imposition…?”

“Oh, not at all, not at all!” he assured her hastily. “It’s just that the company will have to have some guarantees of security if you are to view any proprietary enchantments in development. Given your status with the cult, a written pledge of confidentiality will suffice.”

“I’m willing to do that,” she agreed in a noncommittal tone, resting both hands on the rail and gazing down at the assembly line. For the most part, the employees applying enchantments to carriage pieces and assembling them together were bent over their tasks, but once in a while she caught one sneaking a peek up at the walkway. The supervisor pacing up and down the line spent almost as much time looking up as at what she was supervising. Clearly, the rumor mill had forewarned them of her presence, and what it signified. “I have noted that FI is considered the most desirable employer in the province.”

“Not just the province!” Tarvedh said proudly. “I think you will find that Falconer Industries is a leader in the carriage business. We pay the best wages to be found south of the Five Kingdoms! And not merely to our enchanters—Mr. Falconer is adamant about taking proper care even of our unskilled laborers.”

“The employees are his family,” she said, and Tarvedh grinned. It was a tired old joke, but one no Vernisite could pass up, if only because nobody outside their cult ever got it. “It’s a positive sign, of course, very promising. But, obviously, the lack of a trade union’s presence anywhere in the company is a black mark.”

“You know very well there’s nothing we can do about that,” Tarvedh all but snapped, then stopped and drew a deep breath, visibly composing himself. Very loyal; that, too was a good sign. An employer who could secure that kind of devotion from a Vernisite in good standing with the cult would be looked on favorably by the bank. Akinda would note this in her report, but wasn’t about to make a point of it here. “His Grace the Duke,” Tarvedh continued in a calmer tone, “is…how to put this…extremely concerned with potential challenges to his authority. And he is prone to seeing such challenges in places where, well, others wouldn’t even think to look. It’s been an unfortunate characteristic of House Madouri since his Grace’s late father Ravaan had all that trouble with the Thieves’ Guild. Tiraan Province is a veritable wasteland when it comes to trade guilds and unions of any kind. It is far from FI’s fault, Ms. Akinda. And Mr. Falconer does his very best to insure the well-being of his employees in the absence of a proper union.”

“That brings us to the real problem, does it not?” Akinda said quietly, still watching the factory workers going about their tasks. Even to her untrained eyes, the operation was a smooth one. The assembly line flowed steadily, pieces of carriages being conveyed constantly forward on a mix of conveyor belts, enchanted carts, and the arms of burly men and women. Enchanters, upholsterers and woodworkers applied their crafts, and less-skilled laborers fitted pieces together; notably, the factory uniform was the same for all and the workstations were equally well-appointed, the difference in skills revealed only in their application. That was a positive sign, but one which bore further investigation. The bank’s research had found that segregating employees by skillset and level of compensation could damage company morale, but then, so could failing to appropriately acknowledge and reward those who had invested the time and effort to learn valuable crafts. “The bank is, of course, aware of the difficulties his Grace the Duke causes throughout the province. He appears particularly threatened by the success of Falconer Industries. I don’t say this to imply any fault on the part of the company, but it’s a fact that cannot help but influence the bank’s decision.”

“I would never speak ill of the Duke,” Tarvedh said with a bitter twist of his mouth as if not speaking ill of the Duke was a painful task. Akinda could well believe Geoffrey Falconer had given Duke Madouri an arcane shocker handshake, and perhaps not quite by accident. “But yes, his…micro-management of the province is…just in some cases, mind you…at least potentially more trouble than it is actually worth to the provincial government. You know, in terms of revenue generated.”

“Intrusive management is one thing,” she said. “House Madouri’s taxes upon Falconer Industries have grown downright punitive.”

Tarvedh sucked in air through his teeth, his chest swelling. “We make do, Auditor, I assure you. While the High Seat in Madouris may be less than reasonable, at times, the Silver Throne remains very interested in supporting its most valuable economic producers—and the Treasury has been…ah, discreetly sympathetic to our issues with his Grace. I can provide you a full list of the Imperial incentives FI enjoys. Nor do we over-rely on the Throne. Some of the Duke’s more unreasonable taxes and regulations can be evaded by transferring certain, ah, peripheral aspects of the business out of his domain. As the Rails and telescroll network are rapidly filling in their gaps, it is less and less of an imposition. We try not to overuse this method, however, lest his Grace…” His grimace was very nearly a snarl. “…take offense.”

Akinda nodded, keeping her expression neutral. “I would like to have a closer look at the assembly line, if I may.”

“But of course!” And just like that, Tarvedh was all smiles and sunshine again. “Not too close, you understand, our employees have their tasks down to an almost musical rhythm and we mustn’t get underfoot. But I’ll call Ms. Alvaraad over to show you around, and it should be fine. That’s the supervisor, you see—there she is, currently on the catwalk over there. Oh, but we’ll need to pick up goggles and rubber gloves first. I’m afraid the safety rules are inviolable, and apply also to factory guests. Even important personages such as yourself!”

“Good,” she said, nodding in approval. “First, though, could you show me where the…facilities are?”

“Ah! Yes, of course, that’s just perfect,” he burbled, stepping away from the railing and beckoning her own down the walkway. “We’ll make a stop by the employee services area, I think you’ll like what you see there. The cafeteria just underwent renovations last year—we’ve greatly improved upon the institutional benches and tables it used to have! There is also a cafe area with comfortable seating so it needn’t be all business on lunch breaks. And the whole place has been decorated! Mrs. Falconer insisted on having potted greenery, and selected the wall art herself—some of it her own work! You know, Falconer Industries was the first factory in Tiraan Province to provide a hot meal a day to its employees. Just this way down the stairs. Ms. Akinda. Yes, in fact, the washrooms were also improved recently, I think you’ll be impressed! The sinks run cold and hot water—”

“Thank you, Mr. Tarvedh, but this is one inspection I would prefer to make un-escorted.”

“Oh, um. Right. Of course.”


The women’s washroom did, indeed, speak well of the company, being clean and brightly lit, with the amenities Tarvedh had boasted of. Not a single fixture was out of order. Akinda didn’t dawdle just to enjoy the scenery, though; one bank of sinks and public toilets wasn’t tremendously different from another, unless you were a connoisseur of plumbing. Which she was not.

While she took her time washing her hands, twisting the faucets this way and that to get the temperature just right, the washroom door opened. Akinda’s eyes snapped up, watching in the mirror, but then she relaxed. It was nothing but a young girl in a factory uniform. Surely not much more than fourteen, the youngest a person could legally do factory work in the Empire. Of course, people did lie to get work, which this one might have. Her Sheng features made it hard to guess her age; all the peoples of the northern archipelagos tended to be slight of build and aged almost as gracefully as elves.

Well, perhaps it was too early in her visit for her to be contacted. It wouldn’t be too hard to ditch Tarvedh at intervals; he wasn’t the brightest star in the firmament, however good an accountant he might be. If nothing else, she could visit the washroom at least every couple of hours, especially if she took up the offer of tea.

But then the girl, pacing forward with her eyes on Akinda, deftly flicked a doubloon out of the sleeve of her coveralls into her hand. In the next moment she was rolling it back and forth across the backs of her fingers.

Akinda carefully twisted the faucets off and dried her hands on the towel, watching the girl’s reflection in the mirror.

The young Sheng stepped up to the next sink, made the coin disappear, and began washing her own hands, eyes meeting Akinda’s in the mirror without turning her head. “Good day, Mizz Akinda. How are you finding?”

Akinda blinked. That accent was distinctly Sifanese, not Sheng, and thick enough that she was clearly a new arrival to the continent. Most Imperials couldn’t tell the difference, but she had spent four years in Shengdu and was passably fluent in the language; one didn’t prosper in any of the island countries by mixing up their peoples. Most of them did not get along.

“And you are?” she asked politely.

The girl narrowed her eyes, shutting off the water. “It is not I who am she who is questioned.”

People underestimated bankers. In their own way, they had to be as perceptive and as predatory as thieves. Akinda did not speak more than a few words of Sifanese, just enough to place the accent, but she knew its grammar wasn’t nearly that garbled relative to Tanglish. This girl was far more nervous than she.

Well, she was a kid, after all. She had to hand it to the Thieves’ Guild, they knew what they were doing. Any company as big as Falconer Industries would be watching for spies, but they probably wouldn’t think to watch a teenager who barely spoke the language. Of course, there were a number of downsides to having a child do your dirty work.

“Where I’m from, it is polite to introduce yourself,” she said with a kind smile, turning to face the girl directly. “You know my name, after all.”

“Watash—” She broke off, a faint blush rising in her cheeks. “I am Gimmicku, that is all you need.”

“Gimmick,” Akinda said politely, omitting the extra syllable. Eserite bastards; what cruel idiot had given this girl a tag she could barely pronounce? Some of the poor kid’s story was obvious. Akinda was sure those were Sheng features; the teenager had at least one parent from the Kingdom. That could well explain why she’d been eager to get out of Sifan even at such a young age. Even more than most islanders, the Sifanese notoriously did not welcome perceived outsiders among them. Obviously, nothing good would come of vocalizing any of that, so she kept to business. “What do you have for me?”

“I do not have for you,” Gimmick said coldly. “You are to find answers for the Guild, Imbani Akinda.”

“And I will,” Akinda said, projecting calm. “But it will be a slower process if I must do it entirely on my own. I presume the Guild planted you here for a reason beyond making contact with me. If you can point me in the right direction, my work will be done faster and better.”

Gimmick hesitated, her eyes narrowing and cutting to the side. Akinda couldn’t help feeling for her; this was probably her first important job, and it was a much trickier matter than picking pockets or whatever the Guild usually had its younglings do. Not so much that she was shy about manipulating the girl, of course.

“Your boss wants information on the Falconers’ malfeasance,” she said gently. “I’m being escorted around by one of their favorite henchmen, who’s going to try to curate everything I see and hear. All I need is to find a less sympathetic voice. Someone who’s not happy with their job, and who might know certain secrets. I know you’ve been watching and listening here, Gimmick. If you can give me a name, and an idea when and where to find its owner, I’ll do the rest.”

Gimmick finally dried off her hands, again facing the mirror. She glanced at Akinda’s reflection in it, then lowered her eyes. “Thomas Schroeder.” She took her time with the name, laboriously pronouncing every letter, and got them recognizably right. After that, though, her diction accelerated and got less precise. “Staruwaiso man, yellow hair, he is working after the noon shift. Line sup… Soupero— Aiya!”

Definitely half Sheng; she hadn’t picked up that epithet in Sifan. “Supervisor?”

A glare full of adolescent affront met her eyes in the mirror. Gimmick nodded curtly, then turned and strode from the room.

Only after she was gone and the door shut behind her did Akinda allow herself to sigh heavily, grip the edges of the sink, and lean on it for a moment.

A lead. Now all she had to do was navigate her way between one of the most powerful industrialists in the Empire, the House of Madouri, her duties to her own bank, and the bloody Thieves’ Guild, pitting all of them against each other without allowing herself to become a target.

Simple.

Akinda straightened up, composed her expression, turned, and glided back out to the factory floor to continue her tour.

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Bonus #40: Curse the Darkness, part 3

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“Pl-please initiate bodily contact wi-with the conduit.”

Macraigh shifted, glancing around the circular chamber. “Which is—ah.”

Behind him, the black obelisk had come to life. The pyramid shape which formed its peak, previously of pure transparent glass, had turned an opaque white and begun to glow gently. Though the sides of the obelisk themselves still appeared to be the same matte metal, vertical lines of glowing text had appeared on its faces, and their position made it seem for all the world as if they were set an inch or so within the structure and viewed through a transparent surface—which did not, otherwise, appear to be transparent. Ah, well, this was far from the first disorienting thing to which his exploration into the deeper secrets of magic had exposed him.

Slowly, Macraigh lifted a single hand and placed it against one side of the obelisk, where it did not obscure the writing. He could not discern what language the luminous violet characters were, if indeed they were language as he knew it. Under the circumstances, they were just as likely to be symbols of power.

“In-initiating biometric syn-syn-ssssnnnnnnNNNN— Initiating biometric synchronization,” the spirit informed him. “The acclimation procedure can begin momentarily, user Laran Macraigh. You will be physically incapacitated for the duration, and may not remain conscious; if consciousness persists, you will likely find the process disorienting. Individual experiences vary. Be aware that there is a risk of injury due to falling, as the fac-facility’s physical safeguards are offline due to po-po-power const-constraints.”

“I understand,” he said solemnly, and drew in a deep breath to still his nerves. “I…am sorry to ask this of you, Sub Ohess. I swear that I will honor this sacrifice.”

She chimed noncommittally. “Biometric synchronization is complete. The acclimation process can begin when you are ready.”

This moment was the culmination of everything he had been working for his entire adult life. It deserved reverence, ceremony even. She deserved more than a few hollow words; though the spirit seemed unbothered by what he asked of her and this was probably no more than her sworn duty as guardian of the shrine, he could not view the snuffing out of a thinking being as a small thing. But he had no time. And besides, given the not-insignificant possibility that he was about to be driven irrevocably insane, his unease could keep him dithering here basically forever. Sometimes, the scab simply had to be ripped off.

“Do it,” he ordered, “please.”

Macraigh was watching the obelisk he had been directed to touch for some further alteration, but it turned out that not all the magic of the Elder Gods was visibly flashy. While he was still waiting for the lights to change, an entire suite of new senses exploded into his consciousness and, luckily for him, he blacked out.


The shouting wasn’t really a surprise. If anyone alive were to walk up to a notorious sorceress and an actual dragon and begin shouting demands at them, it would be the Inquisitor. It was actually sort of impressive that they were letting her shout. And perhaps a little unfortunate. She so rarely encountered people who had no need to tolerate her antics; experiencing some repercussions for once would’ve done her a world of good, in Macraigh’s opinion.

He felt a strange detachment as he ascended the stairs out of the now-dark ancient shrine. Behind him he left only silence and dust; even the lights had vanished as the guardian spirit’s last act had, as she warned, consumed every remaining spark of magic in the place. Macraigh had awakened on the floor with a peculiar lack of worry, or emotional reaction of any kind. It felt, somehow, as if his head were floating a few feet above his body. The sensation was eerily aloof, yet serene.

“The will of the gods will not be thwarted by arrogant monsters!” the Inquisitor’s familiar voice was shrilling as he slowly ascended the stairs toward the sunlight above. “I have pursued this warlock from Calderaas to Varandia to Athan’Khar and now here, and you will not be the thing that—”

“You can’t actually believe that guy’s a warlock,” Arachne’s voice interrupted. “I could see that misunderstanding if you’d bumped into him once in a dungeon, but if you’ve chased him all around the continent, you have to know he’s a wizard. Or do you understand the difference? Have you seriously never met a warlock?”

“Maybe she hasn’t,” Zanzayed added, and his voice was different, lighter. Macraigh stopped on the stairs, his head just below the level of the top step, and shifted his gaze in the direction of the dragon. “Inquisitor, what even is that? How do you get that title? I’ve never heard of an Inquisition. Are you sure this is authorized by the Pantheon?”

Macraigh was staring up at him. He could not see through the intervening layers of metal and earth, but he perceived that the dragon had reduced himself to his humanoid form—a half-elven one, in his case. In fact, he lacked the vocabulary to describe the way he was receiving this information, but it was as clear as anything his eyes or ears told him. More so, given that he was standing in a metal-lined stairwell at the moment.

“My mandate comes from Avei,” the Inquisitor snapped. “Move aside, or be moved.”

“I like her,” Zanzayed stated, turning to Arachne. Macraigh was still standing out of sight below them, taking in the experience of being able to tell such little details of positioning without having eyes on them. “I really like her! This is the most entertaining mortal I’ve met since…well, you.”

“Yes, she’s your type, all right,” the sorceress sneered. “Stupid, and breathing.”

Divine magic ignited in a corona around the Inquisitor, seizing Macraigh’s attention. He could physically see the glow from the doorway at the top of the stairs, but sensed it more directly in a way to which he was not accustomed.

Something about it was…wrong. If only he had more basis for comparison. He had never before observed a divine aura in this fashion, and could not yet tell exactly what was off, but there was a peculiarity in the way she projected the magic.

“You doubt me now?” the Inquisitor demanded. “The Convocation at Tira endorsed my mission in the sight of every god of the Pantheon. I am empowered by Avei to seek justice against— You!”

Macraigh had resumed climbing and emerged from the stairwell while she blustered. Now he studied her quizzically while she pointed an accusing finger at him. Though he had avoided close contact with the Inquisitor as much as possible, he of course knew her well by sight. Her pale skin and coppery hair weren’t common even among the Stallmen of the eastern mountains, and less common still among the Tira people from which he and she both came. Macraigh had always suspected, rather uncharitably, that she abused her divine magic to heal the sunburns to which redheads were unfortunately prone, and took some satisfaction in seeing now that he had been right. Well, not seeing, but he could discern the residue…

Now that he peered closer, he found the cause of that odd discrepancy. There was something between her and the divine, a peculiar dark membrane which allowed the power of the gods to flow through her as normal, but kept her insulated from it in a way. In fact, that thin web of shivering shadows resonated so specifically with the new powers of which he had just become conscious that Macraigh suddenly understood exactly why her access to the divine was so different.

Well, that explained a lot.

“I guess we can begin the chorus of ‘I told you so’ now,” Arachne said with an exasperated sigh. “Who would like to go first? Inquisitor, I think you have seniority.”

“Pardon?” Macraigh asked, then stopped, blinking his eyes in surprise. His voice, for some reason, sounded a lot like the shrine spirit’s; resonant, hollow, as though he were speaking from the other end of a very long tunnel.

“Look at yourself, man,” Zanzayed ordered.

“At myself? What’s…oh.” Macraigh, as instructed, looked down at his body, and then at both of his arms. Once he focused upon it directly, everything made sense in accordance with the new awareness he’d gained, but as a consequence of that awareness none of this had seemed out of order until he beheld it with his more mundane senses. Now, he found himself limned by an oscillating web of purple, a peculiar visual effect which could have been called a glow, if shadows glowed. In fact, it looked to the eye very much like the energy between the Inquisitor and her divine power did to his augmented senses.

Not a coincidence, that.

“What have you done to yourself, Laran?” she demanded, staring at him with a very convincing expression of horror. For just a moment, looking back at her, Macraigh experienced a further expansion of his awareness, becoming conscious of the emotions of those around him, betraying her tight self-control and the surprising depth of layers to the facade she was projecting.

That also called his attention to those behind the Inquisitor, a squad of troops from the League of Avei and two Silver Huntresses, including the one he had encountered earlier.

More than that, the extended awareness was accompanied by a visible fading of his own body, as he became slightly transparent behind his new corona of shadows. Macraigh concentrated—on what, he could not have articulated exactly, but he concentrated on it—and the sudden emotional senses vanished as his body snapped back into opaque focus.

“All right,” he acknowledged, “this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.”

“I’ll bet,” Zanzayed stated.

“And this is why I tell people not to mess around with Elder God rubbish,” Arachne added with a sigh. “Exactly how much of a mess did you leave down there, boy?”

“Oh. I’m afraid the shrine is completely inert, now,” he mused, still gazing around abstractly and absorbing data in intriguing new ways. “The acclimation process used up the last of its power. The shrine guardian warned me there might not be enough energy left to do it properly, but she made it sound like it would drive me insane, at worst. This is a surprise.”

“Oh, just insane?” Zanzayed said, rolling his eyes. It was the most fascinating thing; the dragon’s eyes were smoothly featureless, luminous spheres of cobalt, and the gesture did not alter his expression, but Macraigh could tell he had rolled them. “No wonder you sprung for it, then. Who wouldn’t?”

Macraigh turned his attention fully on Zanzayed, and as if the act of focusing had slipped a lens over his eyes he could suddenly see more. The dragon, even in this body, was a vast being of pure magic, a titanic vortex of arcane power shot through with veins of gold, green, and even trace amounts of orange—all the forces on the known Circle of Interaction. Even, he saw with great interest, the tiniest darker currents of shadow magic. Nothing the dragon was using deliberately, he decided upon peering closer. But it accrued in interesting ways when the four main schools were used in conjunction…

He shifted his attention to Arachne and was almost knocked over. She was something else entirely. Macraigh felt his awareness expanding against his own will, as if it desperately needed to re-position itself in order to make sense of what he now saw. She was a wound in the world, or more accurately, a patch over it—a piece of a quilt which did not match the rest of the stitching. He saw spider webs straining to hold together a bleeding rent in reality. He saw an hourglass stretching away into infinity, its uncountable chambers whirling with a blaze of magic whose nature defied even his new senses to define.

And for an instant, Macraigh understood, consciously and in complete detail, what every one of those things meant. What she was, exactly. He also felt his own identity becoming so frayed at the edges that he seemed on the very cusp of dissolving entirely into the fabric of the universe itself, and through a sheer effort of will closed down his own consciousness. The broadened awareness and understanding retreated as his mind limited itself back to a form which didn’t have the necessary capacity, and he was left with only the awareness that Arachne was one of the more interesting beings in the cosmos, even if he no longer knew exactly why.

He also felt that he had been stretched by that momentary glimpse. Seized from all directions and pulled so hard that part of him was still…thin. Thin, and fading.

Macraigh glanced down at his own hands again. Yes, fading.

“Look at yourself,” the Inquisitor breathed. “Did you crave power so much you were willing to endure this?”

He looked up at her again, and smiled. “One of my teachers liked to say that it was better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, Inquisitor.”

She shook her head, and drew her sword. “In the name of Avei—”

Macraigh reached out with his will. It didn’t feel like using arcane magic; it was pure instinct. The shadows wreathing him shimmered, touched the darkness lurking inside her own aura, and her divine light winked out. Her expression was very satisfying.

“Nnnnope,” Zanzayed said flatly. “That does it, I’m out.”

“Coward,” Arachne said without rancor.

“You do what you like,” he retorted. “In my opinion, this has officially crossed the line into ‘just as hazardous as messing around with Elder God shrines’ territory. I came here to deal with this guy for his temerity in daring to manipulate us, and now that’s done. He won’t last an hour. In the meantime, he is using unknown magics to prod at the Pantheon’s power directly, and I’m not interested in being within a mile of that. Goodbye.”

The Inquisitor’s divine aura flared alight again; Macraigh had disrupted it, not blocked it. Her expression at finding it still viable was almost comically relieved, though she immediately turned to Zanzayed even as the dragon strode away through the tallgrass. “Wait! What do you mean, he won’t last an hour?”

“What’s the first rule of magic?” Zanzayed replied, pausing and looking over his shoulder at her. “The most basic principle, even more fundamental than the four schools of the Circle?”

“Subjective physics,” Arachne said softly, studying Macraigh. “Magic is taking a piece of reality and making the rules answerable to a singular consciousness, not the hard constants of the universe. Zanza’s right, I’ve seen the likes of this before. A being that absorbs too much magic stops being…a being.”

“Anything too subjective may as well not exist,” Zanzayed agreed, turning again and continuing on. “At some point, there have to be rules. The alternative is pure chaos.”

“What, he’s turning into some kind of…ascended entity?” the Inquisitor exclaimed, pointing her sword at Macraigh in alarm. Both the Silver Huntresses flanking her nocked arrows and did likewise.

“No.” Zanzayed had gained enough distance to emerge into his larger form without crushing any of them, and did so. His angular head swiveled around on his long neck to stare down at the Inquisitor. “He is dissipating. Something which ascends is moving purposefully in a single direction; this is more like dropping ink into a pond. Congratulations, Inquisitor, your work here is done. Coming, Arachne?”

“Wait,” Macraigh said, turning to the elf and holding up one hand. “Please, just a moment.”

Zanzayed snorted and hurled himself aloft with a pump of his wings that nearly knocked them all down. All of them except Macraigh; the mighty gust of air the dragon kicked up swirled right through him without making contact.

“This is just intriguing enough I’m willing to hear you out, briefly,” Arachne said skeptically, smoothing her hair back into place.

They were right, Macraigh realized. It was growing harder and harder to keep his consciousness constrained to a single point, and with the constant expansion of his senses came the awareness that he wasn’t going to endure much longer. Highly magical beings like fairies, dragons, and elves were made that way; the accidental process he’d undergone in the shrine had not adjusted his consciousness enough to encompass the magic coursing through it.

Macraigh himself didn’t feel any particular way about this; that disembodied serenity still lifted him above these concerns. Already, he was too far beyond a singular perspective to feel any emotional upset at facing the end of his own discrete existence.

Thinking faster and more deeply than he’d been able to before, he had already found a way to hold on, but it wouldn’t be as a conscious entity, and wouldn’t last forever. But it would, if the sorceress was willing to cooperate, at least accomplish his mission. Seeking a way to secure her aid, he found that in studying her closely, he could peer through space, through time, across the faint shadows of connections, to see what divine entities she had touched, and would, and in what order. The present moment was one spot on a wheel that constantly turned.

“You haven’t obtained an interview with Salyrene yet,” he said.

Her eyes narrowed to green slits. “There’s not much point in asking how you know that, is there?”

“Don’t speak to him,” the Inquisitor instructed tersely. “All of you, fall back. Sisters, remain close enough to see him, but whatever is about to happen—”

“Would you hush for once?” Macraigh snapped in the first open irritation he’d shown her in their entire relationship. “I’ll deal with you in a moment.”

“How dare you—”

“I can offer you something to tempt her,” he said to Arachne. “It is not a guarantee, but it will be important enough to draw her favor. If it doesn’t prompt her to grant your request, it will at least be a large step in that direction.”

Her expression did not alter, but he was aware of millions of minute electrical signals in her brain that revealed her interest. He was also aware that this wasn’t going to get her what she wanted; Salyrene would be the last of the gods to whom she spoke, and that would not be for well over a thousand years yet. And even then, none of the Pantheon had the answer she sought. Obviously, he did not share these insights with her. It was for good reason that mortals could not perceive such things, he was beginning to realize.

“I’m still listening,” Arachne said in a neutral tone.

Macraigh held up his Bag of Holding—not with his hands, it floated outward on a tendril of his shadowy aura—and it opened.

“My books,” he said, and they began to rise from its mouth, beginning with the Wraith Codex.

“Where did you get that?!” the Inquisitor screeched. Macraigh and Arachne both ignored her.

“I have made you the bag’s new owner,” he said to the sorceress, having blithely re-worked this enchantment in a process that ought to have taken hours. Oblivion was tugging at the edges of his awareness, each use of magic drawing him closer to the inevitable. “Most of what’s in it is trash to someone like you, but you may find the books valuable. This one I already promised you. And these four are the most important.” The Codex returned to the bag, and out rose the four volumes printed by the shrine guardian. “These contain the secrets of the four schools of shadow magic that I was able to uncover. They contain everything known by the Elder Gods. Very little of it is still usable, as weak as those powers are now, but with this knowledge will come the ability to constrain the power of the infernal. If you bring this to the Collegium and convince them to study it, it will mean an end to the Black Wraiths and their demon allies. Or at least, force them deeper into hiding and prevent another event like the Hellwars. With time and study, the Collegium may even be able to safely wield infernal magic in the Pantheon’s service.”

“Blasphemy,” the Inquisitor spat, practically foaming. “Kill him!”

Both Huntresses frowned at her. “But…what if he’s right?” the one Macraigh had met earlier objected.

“I am called by Avei to end this heresy before it can spread,” she snapped, “and this must stop now. If you will not—”

“Shut up, you petulant child,” Arachne exclaimed, flicking a hand at her. A wall of blue light sprang up between the Inquisitor and the two of them, and she turned her attention back to Macraigh, ignoring the woman’s furious pounding on it with her sword. “I can see the academic value of this, but as I recall the entire reason for your predicament was the necessity of personal initiation into these schools of magic. How do you expect me to give them that?”

“You won’t,” he said. “I will. Just give them the books and I’ll do the rest.”

“Don’t do it!” the Inquisitor screamed.

“Hmm.” Arachne frowned at him. “I see. You can bind what’s left of yourself to the books?”

“If you’ll keep them in the Bag of Holding until it’s time to hand them over,” he agreed, nodding. “Its dimensional enchantments will help. I can confine myself to a state that will endure just long enough to grant the initiation—correctly, this time, so the recipient won’t end up like me. Do warn whoever agrees to take them, though. It’s not something that should be sprung on someone unawares.”

“Trust me,” she said dryly, “I know well the hazards of sneaking up on wizards. Very well, boy, you have a deal. I’m almost glad you decided to drag me into your insane quest. Though I wish you’d approached this with enough forethought to have avoided the way it will inevitably end for you. One hates to see the loss of a promising wizard.”

He shrugged, smiling ruefully. “Well, we can’t all be archmages. I did my best. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to deal with her.”

“Hadn’t you better just leave her alone?” Arachne asked, turning a disdainful look on the furious Inquisitor. “I assure you, she’s no threat to me or anything in my possession.”

“Well, yes, but I feel an obligation. We are sort of bound together, in a way, and right now I’m the only person who knows she is a Black Wraith.”

That pronouncement brought sudden and total silence, the Inquisitor freezing with her sword upraised to hammer at the shield again.

Macraigh knew this was going to be his last significant act of magic, and that he must make it count. The good thing was that at this point, it was easy; he was already so diffuse a being that working magic came more naturally to him than pumping his own lungs. Once again, he reached out and connected his shadows to hers, to the arts by which she called on her goddess’s power while concealing her true affiliation—that to her other goddess. She had wrapped those shadows around herself by means of ancient demonic rituals, whereas he could manipulate them as intuitively as thought.

He simply gave them a little tweak, and brought Avei’s unique energy into direct contact with Elilial’s. From his expanded perspective, he knew that both goddesses would instantly and directly sense the presence of the other, and exactly what it signified. From a basic grasp of theology he knew which would immediately abandon her agent and flee from that fight, and which would do something aggressive.

Macraigh’s broadened senses told him every detail of what happened as Avei poured her power into the two Silver Huntresses, calling upon the rituals they had performed to gain their divine gifts and align themselves with their goddess. He saw, faster than thought, faster than they themselves were consciously aware of acting, the goddess-given instincts which compelled them to act with a physical speed that would have put elves to shame.

He was the only spectator to all this nuance. To the eyes of everyone else present, both Huntresses simply shot the Inquisitor in the head. At that range, their arrows pierced her skull fully, almost emerging from the other side. She slumped against Arachne’s arcane shield, and then to the ground.

While everyone was staring in shock at this, Macraigh expended his last focus, feeling consciousness bleeding away. With everything he had left, he fused into the enchantment he had just laid upon the four books of shadow. They slipped back into his Bag of Holding, and as his dark aura dissipated, the body beneath it being no longer there, the bag floated soundlessly to the ground.

Arachne watched the flurry of drama unfolding between the Silver Huntresses and the soldiers of the League over their Inquisitor’s corpse without lowering the shield that separated her from it. Instead of weighing in, she turned and began a steady conjuration of matter, systematically filling the inert Elder God shrine with rock and dirt and then piling more atop its recently-unearthed entrance.

Only when that was done did she finally turn and pick up the bag containing the secrets of shadow magic and the last vestiges of the man who had brought them to light.

“Better to light a candle,” she mused, smiling sadly. “I like that.”

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