All posts by D. D. Webb

About D. D. Webb

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

13 – 38

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The Crawl shuddered.

The rumble was low, but it echoed through the vast slanted cavern, accompanied by the distant clatter of falling rocks and a few small plumes of dust that drifted down from above. And, moments later, by fearful mumbling from the ill-equipped soldiers gathered on the stone bridge which arched down to the entrance of the Grim Visage.

“Steady,” said their captain, his voice nearly as gravelly as the Crawl’s.

“Focus,” snapped the Hand of the Emperor a moment later.

Willard Tanenbaum did not lift his eyes from the great carved face that gave the Visage its name, despite the sweat dripping from his brow. “Sir… The Crawl is known to have a sentience of its own.”

“A rudimentary and diffuse intelligence, mechanistic and barely aware,” the Hand said curtly, also staring at the Visage. To the observers behind them, the two men seemed simply to be standing there, frowning; the subtle magic they worked made no visible effect, aside from the minor seismic reactions it was beginning to provoke. “Like a god’s. In fact, rather like a sleeping bear. Keep focused, work slowly and steadily, and don’t jostle it. We can finish our work and be gone before it wakes, if we’re careful.”

“Tiptoeing around a bear is one thing,” Tanenbaum replied, still without breaking his stare. “Carving a hole in the wall of its den without waking it, in the short time it’ll take Tellwyrn to get back here—”

One of the rough-looking soldiers cursed—in Glassian, oddly enough—and turned to bolt back toward the exit. He froze with a yelp, finding himself face-to-face with the Hand who had an instant before been in front of him, next to the warlock.

“So long as we are not incompetent,” the Hand said icily, staring at the would-be deserter without expression, “it will work. So long as we are not cowardly, we will not be summarily tossed off the bridge. Do I make myself clear?”

Another faint rumble sounded from the depths. The men pressed closer together, the one faced down by the Hand retreating frantically into their midst.

“Clear,” Tanenbaum said after a short pause. The Hand kept his gaze on the men for a moment longer, then stepped to the side, moving around them to rejoin the warlock.

“Sir.” The captain stepped out of the group to meet him. “The Duchess sent us for what we were told was a simple police action on a college campus.”

“Are you protesting your treatment, Captain?” the Hand asked quietly, a dangerous sibilance creeping into his tone.

The soldier did not react. He was clearly made of sterner stuff than the rest of his command, possibly the only one among them to whom the word “soldier” truly applied, though in most militaries he would have been considered too old for active duty.

“I’ll serve however I’m ordered, sir,” the Captain replied evenly. “And I’ll shoot any man who deserts right in the back before he gets ten paces, as we did in the old days. But I warn you, sir, this isn’t the old days, and this isn’t the Imperial Army, nor even the House guard that trained me. These boys are not a group I would pit against adventurers and monsters, or whatever else is coming outta there, sir. They’ll not stand up to that, no matter what you or I threaten ’em with, sir, begging your pardon.”

“It won’t come to that,” the Hand said, relaxing somewhat. “Keep your men in line, Captain; all they’ll be needed for is to keep the retreat orderly, as we’ll have prisoners in tow. I have all of this under control.”

He stepped past the officer, rejoining Tanenbaum, and no one who doubted his assurance was daft enough to voice it. Even when the Crawl rumbled another sleepy protest.


“You tryin’ to catch flies?” one of the guards sniggered.

His companion finished his long, luxuriant yawn before turning to give him a rude gesture, earning another coarse laugh in reply.

In front of them, a few feet away, Lorelin Reich lowered her arms, turned around, and stared at them.

“Sorry, ma’am,” the first man said unrepentantly. The one who’d yawned, at least, cleared his throat and straightened to a semblance of attention.

“Do you have any idea how difficult this is?” the priestess demanded.

“Not really, no.” He shrugged, and scratched the side of his neck. “No offense, I can’t actually see you doing anything. Just standing there in front of the door.”

She had, in fact, been at it for over half an hour now, standing and staring, occasionally making hand gestures. The campus chapel’s magical defenses were visible to the naked eye: the walls and door were slightly blurry, as if seen through murky water, and a few inches in front of that was an almost transparent layer of blue light, cast by an arcane shield. Lorelin’s guards, in truth, weren’t giving her enough credit; what she was doing had caused both of these effects to occasionally flicker or ripple.

Nothing of import had happened, though, and the two men were clearly losing patience. They were typical examples of the troops the Hand of the Emperor had found, which was to say, unimpressive. Neither of these was one of the aging House Dalkhaan regulars, but the younger, scruffier generation of hirelings whom very few Houses or militaries would have taken. Both were in need of a shave and some long posture drills, and one was so overweight he couldn’t button his uniform coat. At least neither had so much as leered at her. Fading and decrepit or no, Dalkhaan was still a House of Calderaas, and Calderaas was Avenist country. Men with such habits weren’t drawn to military service there. Not even a “military” slovenly enough to accept these dregs.

“Then take my word for it,” Lorelin said patiently, “it is difficult. I would appreciate it if there were no distractions.”

The man she was speaking to put on a mulish look and opened his mouth, doubtless to complain, but the yawner jabbed him in the hip with the butt of his staff.

“Sorry, ma’am,” he said, nodding.

She nodded back, and turned again to face the chapel. That was undoubtedly as much acquiescence as she was going to get.

Before she could even raise her arms again, there rose a shrill whine at the very edge of hearing, like a particularly large mosquito in the ear. It ended suddenly, followed by the complete disappearance of the force field around the chapel. A second later, the building seemed to solidify before them as it shifted back into phase with the world.

“Hey,” the yawning man said brightly, “it worked!”

Lorelin had her back to them and so didn’t conceal her expression, frowning at the doors in consternation.

Fortunately, she was standing at the base of the three steps leading up to those doors, and so was not close enough to be struck when they suddenly burst open.

Both guards raised their staves, one fumbling so badly he nearly dropped it, to take aim at the group who appeared in the chapel’s doorway. Two drow women stood at the forefront, one in formal robes and holding a puppy of all things, the other with a green streak dyed through the center of her hair.

A wall of silver light snapped into place across the top step. Lorelin shifted backward away from them.

“All right, hold it right there,” one of her guardians said. “Let’s not go and do anything rash, kids. You’re not in trouble, but you need to move off the campus, by the authority of the Emperor. Let’s lower the magic, nice and easy, now.”

“If you do lower the shield,” the green-haired drow said to her companion, “I can kill all three of them before they can fire.”

“Ugh, no, you can’t,” a female plains elf just behind her snorted. “All he has to do is squeeze that clicker—”

“Okay, that’s enough of that kind of talk,” the guard snapped. “You don’t want the trouble that’ll come from defying an Imperial edict, much less attacking troops operating under the Emperor’s banner.”

Lorelin shifted to look back at them, then up the stairs again at the students. Another elf, a woodkin this time, had pushed forward between the two drow, and whatever he had just conjured formed a blue glow from his clenched fist.

Of course, she was aware of the identities of everyone who was supposed to be in that chapel. What were they doing awake?

She held up a hand, and a golden sphere formed around the two troops, sparkling in the sunlight.

“There, see?” the more talkative of the two smirked. “You’re not the only one who can—”

Lorelin clenched her fist and the shield bubble contracted abruptly, slamming both men against each other. One discharged his weapon, which sparked blindingly against the inside of the sphere. It immediately widened again, leaving them staggering.

She clenched the bubble three more times in rapid succession, smacking the pair together until one of the staves cracked and both men were too dazed to stand unaided, then released the shield entirely.

One of them immediately flopped to the grass, unconscious from an unfortunate impact of his head against a staff. The other stumbled woozily, clutching his own skull with both hands.

A rod of pure golden light appeared in Lorelin’s grip. Not bothering with any further finesse, she lifted it overhead and slammed it down atop the distracted soldier’s head. The lightworking dissipated at such sharp contact with solid matter, but not before doing its job; he dropped like a sack of beans.

She turned back to scowl at the five students, who were now staring in confusion through Shaeine’s shield.

“I wish you hadn’t done that,” Lorelin said testily.

“Yeah, I just bet you—wait a second.” Raolo pointed accusingly. “You did that!”

“That chapel,” she said, “was phased out and shielded, with both effects somehow tied to the powerful fae geas laid on this mountaintop. I was tasked with cracking those defenses using my skill at divine magic, based on a very brief demonstration of how the geas could be interfered with. Frankly, I’m far from certain I could have opened that door if my life depended on it, but at the very least, I could have stalled for hours.” She held out her arms in an exasperated shrug. “But then you had to go and open it up yourselves! And now here you are, out in the open where he can get at you.”

A human girl—that would be the young Duchess Madouri—slipped through the cluster of elves to position herself at the forefront of the group.

“Stalled?” she asked in a tone of mild interest.

“All right, listen,” Lorelin said, heaving a short sigh. “It’s too complicated to explain the whole thing right now. Professor Tellwyrn is temporarily absent, and your campus is under attack. Most of your classmates have been evacuated into the Crawl, where they should be safe, at least for the short term. Tellwyrn will be back before too long, and I’ve contacted Imperial Intelligence. Help is coming. But for right now, with you outside the protections of that chapel, you’re in more danger than any of the rest of the students. You need to get off the campus, quickly. Don’t go to the town, the— He has allies in Last Rock, and didn’t bring them up here, so I know they’re waiting below. You’re college kids, I’m sure you know someplace in the area to hide yourselves from official eyes? Don’t tell me where, just get there.”

“Just a moment.” Ravana held up a hand in a peremptory gesture to forestall both Lorelin and her fellows, Natchua and Addiwyn both having opened their mouths. The effect was somewhat ruined by Shaeine’s puppy leaning over to snuffle at her upraised hand.

Lorelin blinked, and squinted. Was that a baby hellhound? Well…that answered one question, and raised a whole host of others.

“Who, exactly, is leading the attack on the University?” Ravana asked calmly, lowering her hand out of the puppy’s reach.

“There’s no time—”

“Natchua, are you able to send a shadowbolt through any shield she can conjure?”

“Not directly,” the drow replied with a tiny, unpleasant smile. “But I know a dozen ways to crack a divine shield in less than four seconds. Then shadowbolts.”

“You see, madam,” Ravana said in that condescendingly pleasant tone aristocrats apparently learned in the nursery, “all we know is that you were engaged in trying to dig us out of our protected chapel and have a predilection for turning on your allies. There is little ground for trust, here. You will have to offer more than vague hints.”

Lorelin let out a long, slow breath, controlling her expression. In the tension of the moment, she had actually not considered the sheer physical danger of her situation, but one of the drow was a fellow light-wielder of some skill, and apparently the other was a warlock. And, as Ravana pointed out, they had no reason to trust her. In this situation, they might well decide that blasting her was a preferable option to walking away.

Well, she’d handled worse. Unlike the Hand, at least these could be reasoned with. Hopefully. How much did they know? Best to play it safe, for now.

“About a month ago,” she said, deliberately glancing up the path to display nervousness, “the Hands of the Emperor began acting strange. Paranoid, aggressive, showing sudden magical abilities they’d never had before. Within a week they were back to normal, with the exception of one. He had been working with Tellwyrn on…your situation. Now, for whatever reason, he is obsessed with her and completely out of his mind. The Empire won’t acknowledge one of their Hands has gone rogue, so he is still acting with the Throne’s full authority until they can get here and put a stop to him. He is behind the attack on the campus, and is down in the Crawl with a Salyrite warlock, trying to dig your classmates out of the Grim Visage.”

She could tell already, even before she finished explaining: they knew. Ravana and Shaeine kept impassive, as she would expect from noblewomen, but Raolo and Addiwyn exchanged a satisfied glance and Natchua nodded slightly. Someone had not only awakened them with a fresh source of hellhound breath, but brought them up to date. Her instinct had been correct: trying to prevaricate would probably have led to a barrage of shadowbolts.

Belatedly, it occurred to Lorelin the only likely source of up-to-date intelligence and hellhounds who could get in and out of Tellwyrn’s heavily-defended chapel without disrupting its wards. Well, Shaeine was involved with Vadrieny’s host, after all…

“Listen to me.” She glanced once more in the direction of the Crawl, affecting subtly more nervous body language. “I realize that for students at what amounts to a school for adventurers, being asked to stand down is tantamount to a challenge, but you need to think strategically. This Hand is a complete lunatic; the only troops he’s brought are losers like these.” Lorelin nudged one of her erstwhile guards with a foot, prompting a soft moan. “The other Church contact working for him here is as wary as I am; I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s called for help, too. Fighting this guy will only escalate matters. There’s no actual way he can win here; all he can do is cause damage. Please get yourselves out of the area so you don’t become that damage.”

Lorelin stared pleadingly up at them. Had it just been the surface elves or Natchua, she’d have put on the mask of a reasonable authority figure, but the two noblewomen made it complicated. They wouldn’t acknowledge any authority on her part, and would be suspicious of too much earnestness. Just a touch of fear and vulnerability should hopefully do the trick…

“Well?” Addiwyn prompted after a pause in which they all just watched her, as if by staring hard enough they could read her intentions. “Are we trusting her or not? She did tell the truth…as far as we know.”

“Trust is a stronger word than I would choose,” Ravana said, glancing at Shaeine as if for confirmation. “But…yes. Fact-checking aside, she is correct on one point: escalation is a concern. An unstable man with the powers of a Hand of the Emperor can cause incalculable damage, not least because he will not act strategically. His very presence here proves this; there is no possible victory in assaulting the University.”

“So…we run, then,” Raolo said with a sigh. “Well, I don’t like it, but it’s sense. I know a place—”

“I will be proceeding with the plan I outlined for you,” Ravana said smoothly.

“Of course you bloody will,” Addiwyn muttered.

“Now, see here!” Lorelin did not have to augment the frustration in her voice.

“If any of you wish to follow the Vidian’s advice and flee, I will not judge you ill,” Ravana stated, stepping forward and turning to face them, the motion neatly placing her at the head of the group and physically excluding Lorelin from the discussion. “Mistaking strategy for cowardice is the mark of the defeated. It is only sensible to secure your welfare. However, the woman is correct: while the Hand cannot win, here, he can cause damage. Our classmates will be in the Grim Visage, and he will be interfering with the Crawl as he taught her to do here. If he can overcome the sanctuary effect, he will be in a confined space with a large group of people, many of whom are physically quite powerful. He will be taken down, but in that situation, it will inevitably be a bloodbath.”

“That is a big ‘if,’” Raolo pointed out, then craned his neck around Ravana to address Lorelin. “Hey, you! What are the chances he can actually do that?”

“…I have no idea,” she said honestly, pausing to think for only a second. “I don’t understand the magic involved, and I don’t know the capabilities of Hands even before they’re…interfered with, or malfunction, or whatever happened to him.”

“Very well, then,” Ravana said briskly. “I will proceed. I welcome anyone who chooses to join me and will not begrude any who would rather retreat. You,” she added, turning to indicate Lorelin with a curt nod, “will report to this Hand, inform him that we have broken out and are on the way to the uppermost terrace of the University to pursue some plan against him. That happens to be the literal truth, by the way, in case you are actually in his pocket. If he cannot get through the Visage’s defenses, we lose nothing by making him run around wasting time. If he can, this will save the lives of many of our classmates.”

“Except you will have a Hand of the Emperor after you!” Lorelin exclaimed. “If you’re expecting your warlock friend to help—”

“The imperviousness of Hands to warlock magic is precisely how it is known among the nobility that they are fae-powered,” Ravana said condescendingly. “Don’t you worry, I know what I am doing.”

“How did you know she’s Vidian?” Raolo asked.

“That’s Lorelin Reich,” Addiwyn sneered. “The one Arquin chased out of town.”

“I recognized her, yes,” Ravana said pleasantly. “Also, it is generally a safe thing to assume of a cleric who is as adept an actress as this one. Now, there is no more time to waste.”

With that, she glided the rest of the way down the stairs, turned right, and headed off up the path toward the upper campus. After the barest pause, the rest of her fellow Sleeper victims followed. Every one of them.

Lorelin watched them go for a long, incredulous moment, then threw up her hands in frustration, turned, and stalked off in the direction of the Crawl, leaving two bruised bodies on the ground behind her.


“Prince Sekandar, can I ask you to keep this safe for me?”

He sighed, but reached out to accept the scabbarded saber. “If you like, Szith. I’m never going to convince you to just call me Sekandar, am I?”

“I’m sure it speaks well of you, in your culture, that you make yourself so approachable,” she said, her face a mask of Narisian calm. “In my culture, the habit of excessive familiarity with one’s betters can be lethal. In a few short years, I will return there, and after Natchua’s…performance…I suspect my conduct will be scrutinized closely.”

“You don’t want that sword, then?” Scorn asked. “It is the bigger one. More powerful, yes?” The Rhaazke sat on the stairs, one arm draped over Maureen. Generally she didn’t enjoy being physically dominated by her classmates, but under the circumstances, Scorn’s towering protective presence was as comforting as Iris on her other side, murmuring to herself and rubbing some dried leaves between her fingers. They smelled pleasant; Iris claimed what she was doing would have a calming effect on the pub’s occupants.

The more than a hundred refugees from the University filled the place to capacity, and had already displaced most of its usual crowd. The tension could have been cut with a knife, but so far it had stayed relatively calm. Maybe Iris actually was helping.

“Do you recall when Matriarch Ashaele visited the campus?” Szith said, putting on one of her tiny smiles. “The guards she brought with her carried sabers like these.”

“Yes, I remember,” Scorn said impatiently. “Powerful swords, like I said.”

“Power is not without is disadvantages. This is a better weapon.” The drow rested a hand on the pommel of her short sword, which was still belted at her waist. “A saber must be swung in wide arcs, which handicaps it in close quarters, and makes formation fighting very difficult. For organized infantry combat, you want short swords—like this one, or those the Silver Legions carry. For precisely that reason, Narisian House guards are not permitted to own them. They may only carry the saber, which is a dueling weapon. Aristocrats and their protectors are trained in a ritualized style of formal combat which leaves them no match for an organized infantry. I am a soldier of House An’sadarr, sworn to fight for the Queen and Tar’naris. Thus, I have a weapon which is better suited to these tight quarters.”

“Interesting stuff,” Maureen said, nervously turning over the chunk of decorated quarts which was (hopefully) the heart of Crystal in her hands. “An’ Sekandar, here, is also trained in Narisian dueling?”

“Well, no,” the prince said with a smile, “but also sort of yes. Up here on the surface, a saber is more of a cavalry weapon—and Calderaan cavalry is rightly famous, if I do say so myself. We also have a dueling style which uses it. Probably not the way Szith was taught, but I can manage not to cut my own leg off, if this comes to a fight. Hopefully,” he added, turning to the drow again with a more sober expression, “it won’t come to that. If I understand how the Visage works, it can’t.”

“One always hopes battle will not come,” she said, shifting her gaze to the front of the tavern. “One always assumes that it will, and prepares accordingly.”

The doors were shut and had been barricaded with furniture, but Melaxyna and Fedora both perched on the second-floor windows which were set in the eyes of the great face that gazed outward at the Crawl’s entrance. Neither of them was putting on any pretense; though his rumpled suit, coat, and hat contrasted with the ragged piece of hide she wore as a dress, both were in fully demonic form, complete with alabaster-pale skin and crystalline eyes—and, more relevantly, wings and tails. These provided an aid to balance, as there was no actual place to sit in front of those windows, leaving them precariously clinging to narrow sills.

A sharp whistle turned every head in the room; Xsythri, Melaxyna’s hethelax henchoman, had clambered up onto the rail near the group on the stairs and was waving frantically for her boss’s attention.

The succubus heaved a dramatic sigh, then shoved herself off the wall and glided the short distance down. Fedora did not follow, but kept his head turned and attention fixed on their conversation, disregarding whatever he was watching outside.

“We’ve got a problem, boss lady,” Xsythri began.

“Wait, wait, don’t tell me,” Melaxyna said sourly. “We’re out of mushroom beer again.”

“Of course not, you know we can’t give that to student—no, dammit, worse than that! I just had to break up a little scuffle in the market room.”

Melaxyna’s lashing tail suddenly went still. “…how bad a scuffle?”

“Not bad,” Xsythri said, eyes wide and worried. “Very minor, just some jostling from being too close together. Somebody threw a punch and that went nowhere, cos of the sanctuary effect.”

The succubus heaved a deep breath, turning her head to stare sightlessly at the front of the tavern again. She couldn’t see out the windows from this angle, but by that time they all knew the Hand was out there with some of his new lackeys, doing something.

“Why’s that a problem?” Iris asked warily, opening her eyes and pausing in her soft chant. “Sounds like an inevitable little nothing, in a situation like this.”

Melaxyna shifted again to give the witch a long look, then abruptly whirled, wings flaring out for balance, and punched Xsythri in the face.

Her fist stopped an inch from the hethelax’s nose, a soft ripple in the air marking the sanctuary effect’s protection.

“Oh, nice,” Xsythri snapped. “That’s great, boss, thank you for your concern.”

“Yeah, so…we’re protected, right?” Iris prompted. “Ow! Hey!”

Melaxyna had struck again, this time lightly flicking Iris’s ear with a fingertip.

“The sanctuary effect,” the succubus stated grimly, “is absolute. All violence—all violence—is impossible within the Grim Visage.”

Under the demon’s stare, Iris stopped rubbing at her ear, her eyes going wide. Sekandar let out a long breath, and a soft growl rumbled deep in Scorn’s throat.

“But now,” Melaxyna said, again turning to face the entrance, “the effect is…relative. Whatever the hell that guy is doing out there, it’s starting to work.”


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13 – 37

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“So, here’s a question,” Ruda grunted, taking the heavy power cell from Gabriel. “We’ve got two people here with invisible valkyries whispering in their ears, who apparently know how all this shit works. So why the fuck are they both together screwing around with that thing, while all the rest of us are having our slow-ass orders relayed by Mr. Avatar?”

“Hey, you heard the man,” Gabriel said with a grin, and dusted off his hands as he backed away from her. “Worst you guys can do is break the factory and drown us all. If we screw up, we could end the whole world!”

“Neither of those outcomes is remotely likely,” the Avatar said soothingly from the nearest of his floating projections. Talking to him in this state was a little disorienting; as they had scattered to various pieces of the command platform to dismantle equipment under his direction, he addressed them from whatever apparatus was most convenient, which meant there were several purple men displayed in viewscreens and hovering as light sculptures, sometimes more than one talking at once. “I assure you, the software modifications you are making will not destabilize the facility. And the dimensional gate’s full capabilities would have to be accessed very deliberately; it has far too many incorporated failsafes to accidentally activate any kind of rift, stable or otherwise.”

“Yeah, okay,” Ruda said, carefully slotting the power cell into a housing indicated by small flashing lights the Avatar had activated. “Question stands, though.”

“Counter-intuitive as it might appear, I believe this to be the most efficient allocation of our manpower,” the Avatar explained. “Your work is with the installed software, via interface devices which I can access directly and relay detailed instructions, responding in real time to developments as needed. The gateway is a completely separate device, and seems to have been deliberately installed in such a way as to avert my standard oversight measures. Their work is better facilitated by additional—”

“Yeah, yeah, point taken,” she said sourly, stepping back while the Caretaker slipped in with a diffident chime to begin attaching the power cell to the console. “Right, this thing’s being hooked up. What’s next?”

“As soon as the console is powered, it should form the last link in our jury-rigged system to bypass the gateway’s intrusion into my network. It will need to be configured; I will walk you through the process once it is online.”

“You okay?” Toby asked quietly, straightening up from the screen he’d been tapping to lay a hand on Ruda’s shoulder.

“You know, this thing you do,” she said wryly, “how you’re everybody’s mom all the time? That would be really annoying if it was anybody else. But for some damn reason I can’t get mad at you, Caine. And that is also annoying, but I can’t get mad about it either. It’s a recursive loop of stymied pissiness.”

Toby blinked, then grinned and held his arms out. “Hug?”

“Fuck off,” she snorted, but not without grinning in return. “Don’t mind my bitching, I’m just worried about what’s goin’ on up there without us. Faster we get this done, the faster it all becomes moot.”

A few feet away, Gabriel had returned to the gate, where Milady was bent over its attached control screen, eyes narrowed in concentration. The soft background noise of voices drifted by them, from Toby and Ruda’s conversation and the Avatar giving instructions to Fross and Juniper at another part of the machinery.

“Soooo,” he drawled quietly, “since it was brought up, maybe this is a good time to have a chat about valkyries?”

Milady’s lips twitched. The sharp light of the viewscreen emphasized the dark circles under her eyes. She kept her gaze on it, answering him after a short pause.

“You place me in an awkward position, Mr. Arquin. My loyalties being what they are, I cannot go divulging Imperial secrets.”

“Okay, well…” He knelt next to the base of the gateway. It was in two distinct parts: the actual gate, a metal doorway with an attached control screen, and a hefty base in which its power cells were installed, which the Avatar had set him to cannibalizing so they could build extra units to work around the blocks forced into his main system. “Can you at least account for what happened to Yrsa? Valkyries are kind of experts on death; when one of them dies, the others notice.”

“Apparently not,” she muttered. Straightening slightly, she glanced sidelong at Juniper, whose back was turned to them at the other end of the platform. “Are you aware what can happen to daughters of Naiya who are severely traumatized?”

“They transform,” he said, frowning. “Though…I thought that was just dryads.”

“Well, it’s valkyries, too. And, theoretically, I suppose also kitsune, though it’s hard for me to imagine anything really hurting one of those.”

“Met one too, have you,” he said with a grin, which immediately faded. “So…Yrsa?”

“Have you heard the legend of the Dark Walker?”

“Sure, I grew up with the same fairy tales you did, but what’s…” Gabriel trailed off, then straightened up, the color fading from his face. “Oh. Oh, no.”

Milady cleared her throat, glancing up at him. “So…on the one hand, Imperial secrets. On the other is a good friend whom I hate to deprive of access to her own sisters… Is Vestrel here right now? I mean, close by?”

He winced. “Uh, yeah. By the way, you’re decapitated again.”

“Charming,” she muttered. “Well, I am just going to casually mention the words spaceport and gravitational isolation chamber, and if anybody here can make something of that, well, good for them.”

“Oh…kay?”

The purple figure of the Avatar appeared nearby, projected from the closest surface he could access. “How goes it?”

“I found the activation records,” Milady reported in a louder tone. “It’s good news: this gate was last powered up more than fifteen thousand years ago. Last portal activation was never. So your worry about the other side coming through seems to be unfounded.”

“Excellent!” the AI said with a broad smile of relief. “That also bodes well for our immediate work here. As I hoped, the interlopers were using the connector between the actual portal surface and its base rather than the portal itself. The gate’s technology is merely being used to connect the dimensional vortex in the Golden Sea to this structure, which is already nightmarishly complicated. It would have been much worse had there been another rift involved. This means the Caretaker should be able to disconnect them without ill effect. Which is an additional benefit; all of these gates were slated for destruction, but their maker hid an annoying number of them. It is gratifying to be able to remove one from the world.”

“Wait, there are more of these things floating around?” Gabriel placed one hand against the side of the gate. “Just…doorways to other dimensions, built by the Elder Gods?”

“Unfortunately, yes. Have you found where this one goes, Milady?”

“Not yet,” she said, frowning at the screen. “This is the most annoying thing… It doesn’t seem like there’s very much information in this; each piece I find is just a few lines, if that. I bet it could all be just displayed on the desktop. But everything is hidden behind links, and each one wants multiple confirmations before letting you see it…”

“Yes, that sounds like Heilo’s idea of a user interface.”

“Heilo?” She glanced up at the purple hologram. “Let me guess, the Infinite Order member who made these?”

“Correct. Allegedly, his aim was to make them difficult to access for safety reasons, but Heilo also took personal satisfaction in being obstreperous.”

“What kinds of places might it go?” Gabriel asked.

“Heilo devised these gates as a means to solve intractable technological dilemmas. Each has only one destination, because each was formed by scanning possible alternative universes to locate one according to specific criteria. The Infinite Order used them, when they were unable to devise a given technology, to seek out a universe in which the technology already existed and observe it.”

“All the power in the world and they were still lazy, cheating bastards,” Ruda grunted. She had wandered away from her console, waiting for the Caretaker to finish installing the power cell and turn it on.

“That’s absolutely fascinating, though!” Fross chimed exuberantly, zipping around overhead. “Why, it’s confirmation of the many-worlds hypothesis!”

“Not necessarily,” the Avatar cautioned. “It was never entirely clear whether the alternate universes viewed through these gates had an independent existence, or were actually created by the act of viewing them.”

“Oh, come on,” Gabriel exclaimed. “Sub-atomic particles are one thing. How can an entire universe not exist until someone opens a door to it?”

The Avatar’s nearest projection shrugged, even while another called Ruda back to her station and a third continued to walk Juniper through disconnecting something. “Reality gets that way, when you pick it apart in sufficient detail. Are you familiar with the Big Bang theory? According to one interpretation, this universe didn’t exist until a door to it was opened. In any case, these gates should all have been destroyed after use. In addition to their practical application, however, Heilo had a hobby of creating gateways to view universes in which his favorite mythological stories were real. Obviously, the Infinite Order did not tolerate this and had all such dangerous devices destroyed. I think most of the fun for Heilo was hiding them from his colleagues. If you ever encounter another device like this, I strongly urge you to verify that it is inactive and then leave it strictly alone. It would lead either to a dimension inhabited by beings more advanced than the Infinite Order, or given Heilo’s taste in fiction, to someplace chaotic and wildly dangerous.”

“Azeroth,” Milady said suddenly, straightening her back without lifting her eyes from the screen.

The Avatar’s projection, with oddly human body language, stiffened and widened his eyes in visible alarm. “I beg your pardon?”

“I can’t find anything labeled as a destination for the portal, but there’s a folder that says it’s the device’s name. It just says ‘Azeroth.’” She looked up at him. “What’s that?”

He remained still for a moment, though a flicker ran through his form.

“You are certain this gate has never been fully activated?”

“Well, that’s what the records say,” she replied, her eyebrows rising, “though of course I can’t know if anybody has tampered with them…”

“Mr. Arquin, if you would, please take a moment to disconnect all the power cells from that apparatus.”

“Uh…sure, okay.” Gabriel picked up the multi-tool the Caretaker had brought him and bent to begin working on one of the three remaining cells. “Rough neighborhood, I take it?”

“One of the stories I mentioned. Certain entities there might detect a dimensional rift and attempt to cross it, none of whom I wish to meet. That is not my primary concern, however. This gate is among those listed as missing; the world it leads to was not one of Heilo’s personal interests, but Scyllith’s. He built it for her as a gift, attempting to coax a favor in return. Scyllith’s personal dimensional plane is inundated with her personal transcension field, which makes it difficult and dangerous to traverse, even for ascended beings. The gate was hidden there and then never accounted for again. I am relieved, and somewhat surprised, to see she retained enough sense never to open a full portal through it. I cannot, however, explain what it is doing on this plane of existence, much less in my fabrication plant, attached to my systems.”

The others had all stopped work and turned to listen while he spoke; apparently the Avatar was spooked enough by this discovery that his other projections had fallen silent, leaving only the one near the gate speaking. After he finished, there was a pause in which only the rush of water below could be heard. Even Gabriel had halted in the act of detaching one of the power cell’s couplings.

“We knew whoever broke into the facility in the first place was logged in under Scyllith’s credentials,” Milady said slowly, at last breaking the silence. “I had assumed someone had just found them. As…a relic, like all the other Infinite Order junk that’s turned up over the centuries.”

“But this thing was actually in Hell,” Toby added, eyes wide, “and apparently only Scyllith knew where.”

“Elilial has reigned in Hell for eight thousand years,” Fross pointed out. “She could’ve found it, easily.”

“If the Black Wreath were involved in setting this up,” Juniper countered, “why would that Mogul guy have helped us get down here to fix all this?”

Ruda snorted derisively. “The only thing we can be sure of about why the Black Wreath does anything is that they’d lie to us about it.”

“So it was either Elilial or Scyllith,” Gabriel said, shifting from his uncomfortable crouch to sit on the floor next to the power cell, his task apparently forgotten. “Remember the hellgate last year? The demons that came through that weren’t loyal to Elilial. She doesn’t fully control Hell, any more than the Pantheon has absolute control over the mortal plane. I bet Scyllith still has secrets and allies there, even if she’s been banished. And if one of them has access to something like this, plus the ability to cart it through a hellgate somehow to get here…”

“Elilial can’t get through Infinite Order security,” Milady murmured. “Scyllith could. Elilial also can’t just hop between dimensions whenever she wants, it’s known she has to use the hellgates like everybody else. But Scyllith was part of the Order that created the separate dimensions in the first place. If anybody could work around that…”

“Also, Scyllith or someone working for her might know how to build a big, complicated gadget like this,” Fross acknowledged, her glow dimming slightly in alarm. “I don’t think the Wreath would.”

“Scyllith is bound,” Toby insisted. “Elilial stole her throne in Hell, and Themynra and her drow are keeping her imprisoned in the Underworld.”

“And yet…here’s this thing,” Gabriel said, craning his neck to stare up at the dimensional gate. It was such a plain thing to look at, little more than an empty, rectangular doorframe, unadorned and apparently made of stainless steel.

Ruda slammed her fist against the side of a console, making several of them jump. “All right, enough. Yes, this is a big fuckin’ deal and I am pretty goddamn sure we’re gonna be dealing with the implications of this later on, so we’d better not forget it. But right now there’s not a damn thing we can do about any of that. What we can do now is finish fixing the Avatar’s shit, so he can shut off the nanites and kill the Rust. Gods know what’s happening to my city while we sit here maundering. Back to your stations, people, we’ve got work to do.”


Kheshiri was forced to cover her tracks by following one of the wall guards through the gatehouse; she had been drenched in the storm, and the only way to conceal the trail of water she left was by following a trail of water the guards expected to find. Unfortunately, that meant she had to stop in the north gatehouse barracks where the soldier she was stalking had come to rest. The good news was that he had plunked down by the fire to dry himself and his gear.

She was now lurking precariously in the rafters near the brazier. It would’ve been nice if they’d made a proper fire, but Puna Dara was simply too hot at this time of year; the glowing coals were only being used to dry uniforms soaked in the storm, and that only because the arcane heater shoved into a nearby corner was apparently broken. The succubus wasn’t willing to risk filching a towel, not in front of this many people. So she perched there, wings fully spread both for balance and to expose them to the rising heat, while water dripped from her. The occasional drop fell in the brazier itself, but the hissing went unnoticed thanks to the wind outside and the boisterous chatter within.

At least this enforced pause gave her a chance to eavesdrop. Somewhat to her surprise, she actually overheard something useful.

“Sir!” A soldier had entered who was not part of the wall rotation; rather than going to dry off, he had marched up to the officer in charge and saluted. “Message from Lieutenant Laghari in the south gatehouse!”

The local commander, a tall man with a waxed mustache and captain’s knots at his shoulder, kept himself in the barracks with his men instead of squirreled away in an office; at this, he set down the book he’d been reading and turned on the bench to face the dripping trooper who had just arrived. Nearby, conversations faltered as onlookers turned to watch.

“At ease, soldier,” said the captain. “Go ahead.”

“Yes, sir. The squad of Silver Legionnaires from Tiraas are in the south bunkhouse, including an elf. She reported hearing something. The Lieutenant felt you should know.”

“An elf,” the captain said flatly, “heard…something. What kind of a something, did Lieutenant Laghari see fit to mention?”

“She wasn’t sure, sir,” the soldier said crisply, eyes straight ahead. Even Kheshiri could see this captain wasn’t a hardass from the relaxed manner in which his troops chatted around him while not on watch, but there was a certain, universal way about soldiers having to report something even they knew was stupid to a superior officer. “Corporal Shahai reported a possibility that someone was creeping around the gatehouse under magical stealth, but couldn’t be certain. The Lieutenant didn’t feel it warranted further action, but he wanted you to know in case you disagreed. I’m to convey the message and bring back any orders if you have them, sir.”

The captain sighed. “Orders? Well, obviously, be on watch for intruders. But since that is the entire mandate of gate watch duty, I hopefully don’t need to issue orders to that effect. Back to your post, soldier.”

“Yes, sir,” the man said with clear relief. He saluted again, then turned and made for the stairs with incongruous eagerness for someone about to climb up into the kind of storm that blew people off battlements.

“Think there’s anything to that, Captain?” asked a female sergeant hovering nearby.

“Oh, who knows,” the captain said irritably, picking up his book again. “Keep an eye out, regardless. It won’t hurt anything to be extra wary, but I don’t think we need to change our rotation over it. Naphthene’s tits, but Laghari wouldn’t even have humored something like that if the elf in question had been male.”

There was a round of guffaws at this, by which time Kheshiri had already started moving again. She was still dripping, but time was now out. Apart from the elf’s warning, her partners had been waiting longer than they were supposed to, and she didn’t need them getting antsy.

She dropped to the floor, pressed herself to the wall, and crept as rapidly as she could for the door opposite the one she had come in. The layout of this gatehouse was a mirror of the other, so she knew where she was going. The succubus luckily encountered no more soldiers as she descended a narrow staircase to the ground level.

The barracks was on the second floor; down below was an armory and a narrow hall leading to a small, sturdy side door. As with everything in the Rock, it was almost excessively defensible. Slits in the ceiling and upper walls provided soldiers above the ability to fill the space with arrows, wandshots, spells, boiling oil…whatever they had handy. Sections of the wall next to the outer door and the stairwell were cut away, the space beyond filled with stones and angled to create an avalanche that would completely block the hall if the sturdy net covering the opening were released.

Only one side door opened off the hall, into the armory. Kheshiri peeked into this in passing, finding two more soldiers “guarding” the exit by playing cards. Well, they weren’t drinking and their backs weren’t to the door; clearly nobody here expected trouble, but the Punaji soldiers weren’t incompetent. There was a good chance the people she was supposed to let in were not going to get any further than the gatehouse.

Not that that was her problem. She had her job to do, and the offhand satisfaction of knowing somebody was going to die because of it. Who it was didn’t concern her. This petty little religious squabble was even more boring than most such inane affairs.

The small side door was only small in comparison to the main gate; though narrower than the average door, it was a single piece of oak, which she knew to be fully six inches thick and with a hollowed out interior filled with a sheet of steel. It was barred and locked.

Picking the lock took her a few minutes. The Punaji hadn’t grown complacent in the years since anyone had attacked the Rock, so this was a new and well-maintained lock. Fortunately, she’d had ample opportunity to practice during all the downtime lately…

It finally gave with a soft click, and she smirked and tucked her lockpicks back into her bodice. Lifting the bar was the challenging part, for her; it was a bar designed for two men to pick up, and she was a demon designed for stealth, not brute force. Not that she couldn’t have managed to shove it loose, but raising the thing to rest against the wall without creating a noise had her clenching her teeth and concentrating hard to avoid giving herself away with a grunt.

Soon, though, it was open, and she didn’t waste a second to rest on her laurels, or even catch her breath. Opening the door itself was risky, thanks to the noise outside; she waited for a particularly heavy thunderclap to shove it outward and slip through the gap, pushing it shut behind her. The whole maneuver took less than a second.

Outside, there was a broad space between the Rock’s walls and any other structures, which left her exposed. She was invisible, sure, but if anyone had been paying close attention, an invisible person moving through a rainstorm was an eye-catching sight. Nobody was within view, however, and at this angle she wouldn’t be visible from atop the wall. The door was also somewhat sheltered from the wind, which had prevented it from being loudly slammed shut.

Still invisible, Kheshiri shifted into a form exactly like her usual one, minus only the obvious demonic features. Without wings and tail to get caught in the wind, she had less trouble getting across the square. There wasn’t much she could do about her hair being blown around, but at least it didn’t obstruct her vision when it was blown across her face. A fringe perk of invisibility.

As she’d entered the other gatehouse, she had to swing all the way around the corner of the Rock’s outer wall to get back to where the others were. In moments, though, she was there, slipping through the warehouse door.

Inside, dozens of individuals whirled, pointing weapons at the door which had apparently opened and shut by itself. Kheshri popped back into view, raising her hands in a gesture of surrender. She didn’t bother to keep the predatory grin off her face. The local rubes would expect such from the likes of her, and this was the most fun she’d had in weeks.

“It’s about fucking time,” Shook growled, holstering his wand. He shouldered roughly past several Rust cultists and grabbed her by the upper arm in a bruising grip. “What held you up?”

“Sorry, master,” she said, still grinning, well aware of the tinge of madness in her expression and enjoying it. “That was a little more fun than I’d anticipated. There are Silver Legionnaires in the gatehouse I entered, including an elf; she could hear me.”

“You were discovered?” Two figures stood apart from the crowd of cultists; the one who had spoken wore heavy robes, a deep cowl, and a mask below that. The other was half machine, and now fixed her with a piercing stare.

“No,” Kheshiri replied, deliberately leaning into Shook’s touch. By this point she had conditioned him to a specific degree of roughness that she’d led him to believe she enjoyed. Well, she actually did rather enjoy it, but that was beside the point. “I couldn’t mask myself completely from the elf’s senses, but she couldn’t figure out what she was hearing, either. So I went across to the other gatehouse, to be safe. The side door is unlocked.”

“That’s a longer run from here,” Ayuvesh said sharply, shifting his gaze from her to glare at the hooded man with him. “More time for the guards on the wall to see us and react.”

“My girl’s the best at what she does,” Shook stated flatly. “If that was what she could do, it’s all anybody could do.”

The machine-man gave him a long, contemplative look, as if pondering the relative merits of a rodent he had just discovered digging through his trash, and Kheshiri had to concentrate to keep the anticipation from her expression. That was exactly the kind of provocation that could send Shook into a most amusing snit.

The enforcer simply stared back, however, and annoyance rose in her. Apparently Khadizroth’s efforts with him were beginning to bear fruit.

That simply would not do.

“Very well, I take your point,” Ayuvesh acknowledged at last, turning back to the hooded man. “Your people seem quite capable. Since this is now more difficult than we had planned, we could use—”

“Our part in this is finished,” he replied, his mellifluous voice not muffled by his mask. “We have opened the door for you, as agreed. That is already far more than you could have achieved unaided. What you are able to do with this advantage depends upon you.”

“Very well,” Ayuvesh replied after a moment’s pause. “I would thank you for your help, but I suspect we are soon to learn what your motive is for intervening here, perhaps to our detriment. Farewell, then, strangers.”

The hood shifted as the man nodded. Ayuvesh turned his back with no more ado, and strode for the door.

It took time for the dozens of cultists to file out. They went without speaking, though their movements were accompanied by a soft scrape and clatter of metal which was only mostly overpowered by the storm outside. Soon, though, they had all exited the warehouse.

Almost immediately, the sound of alarm bells began.

With a sigh, Khadizroth reached up to push back his hood and lower the mask. “And that is our signal.”

The Jackal popped out of nowhere nearby, wearing his usual borderline insane grin and toying with a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman. “Aw, sure you don’t wanna stay a while? His Holiness’ll just put us back into storage for fuck knows how long.”

“There’s good fun to be had here,” Kheshiri agreed eagerly. “I haven’t seen a coup go down in ages.”

“In that castle,” Khadizroth said quellingly, “is the Hand of Vidius, who is accompanied by at least one valkyrie. You of all people should be anxious to get away from here.”

“Yeah,” Shook agreed. “I’m as stir-crazy as anybody, but this isn’t our problem. Those demented half-metal assholes are going to get themselves killed, and I say good fucking riddance. Better them than us.”

“Oh, I highly doubt we are the only surprise they will spring on the King today,” Khadizroth said dryly. “That Ayuvesh is too lucid a man to attempt something like this unless he believed he could truly gain. But that, as you rightly point out, is now his business. Our part in this is done. Let’s go.”

 

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13 – 36

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The Wizards’ Guild occupied a broad tower, one of the tallest structures in Tiraas, situated in (oddly enough) the financial district. It was close enough to the Imperial Casino that it hadn’t taken them long to get here on foot; having Trissiny in full armor at the head of the group had made the trip considerably faster, as nobody wanted to impede the Hand of Avei, especially when she was moving at a brisk stride and wearing a scowl.

Now, as the group reached the top of the long staircase to the entrance, they finally slowed. It had been a significant climb; the actual door was on the third floor, on a wide balcony suspended above the base of the stairs, which wrapped all the way around the tower.

“Just excessive, is what it is,” Schwartz huffed once they eventually reached the entrance. “Wizards, always having to make a spectacle…”

“Shh,” Tallie muttered, nudging him. “I think they can hear you.”

Flanking the broad doors were two golems made of brass and crystal engraved with glowing arcane runes. The things were eight feet tall, proportioned not unlike gorillas, and deliberately turned their small heads to track the visitors’ movement.

“It’s all right,” Schwartz said, despite his own suddenly worried expression. “They can’t really be…that is, weaponized golems are illegal in the Empire, surely…”

Trissiny had paused to glance back and make sure everyone was still present, and gave him an encouraging little smile before stepping forward again. She strode right up to the doors, paying the towering golems no mind.

At her approach, one of them reached across and pulled one of the doors open. The other bowed politely.

“Wow,” Darius said as they filed past, into the tower. “Wonder if they would’ve done that for us?”

“Probably not for me,” Schwartz murmured, reaching up to pat Meesie for comfort, but fell silent despite the questioning looks Layla and Tallie gave him.

They had arrived in a sizable foyer with marble floors and columns, the walls paneled in mahogany—and marred by erratic chips and old scorch marks. A once-expensive but now slightly battered desk sat immediately to the right of the door, with a glowing contraption perched on one corner which seemed to consist of levitating gears and pulleys that turned endlessly around without actually touching one another. Benches padded in shabby red velvet lined the wall on the opposite side.

There was a constant soft rustle of paper from books, scrolls, and individual sheets which zipped back and forth overhead, passing in and out of small tubes which extended from the walls near the ceiling.

“Good afternoon,” said the supercilious-looking man behind the desk, raising his eyebrows at them. “Welcome to the Honorable Guild of Wizards. May I help you?”

“Yes, please,” Trissiny said crisply. “I apologize for the short notice, but we need to commission a teleportation for five people to Puna Dara.”

“Five people and one class two fire elemental,” Schwartz added, leaning around her and raising one finger. Meesie squeaked in affirmation, nodding. He met Trissiny’s questioning look with an apologetic shrug. “Sorry to cut in, but details like that are relevant in teleportation.”

“Quite so,” agreed the man behind the desk. Though it would not have seemed possible moments ago, his eyebrows had somehow ascended further. He studied them each in turn, eyes lingering on Trissiny’s armor and Schwartz’s green robes; the two of them made a surprising contrast to the three casually-dressed apprentice thieves. “That is some considerable distance… Forgive me, but have you made arrangements ahead of time for this?”

“I’m afraid not,” Trissiny replied. “This is an emergency.”

“I see. That is difficult…” He pursed his lips momentarily, then nodded. “I will see what I can arrange. Please excuse me briefly, General Avelea. You and your companions may wait here.”

With no further ado, the man turned and strode away at a rapid pace, departing the foyer into the large chamber beyond and turning the corner out of sight. Past the columns around which he had disappeared was a cathedral-like round space, far too large to have fit inside the tower they had just climbed all the way around to get in here.

Schwartz blew out a short breath. “Well! I hope me being along isn’t going to make this difficult…”

“Why the hell would it?” Darius asked bluntly. “I mean, you’re just about the nicest guy we know.”

“Anymore,” Tallie whispered.

Everyone fell silent. Layla closed her eyes.

After a moment Schwartz cleared his throat. “Ah, yes, well, it’s a question of…history. I, ah, might not have worn the, uh, official robes of my cult had I known this day would bring me to the Wizards’ Guild.”

“Bad blood, there?” Tallie asked. Her tone was barely interested, but Schwartz nodded, obviously glad for the excuse to keep talking.

“It all goes back to the Enchanter Wars. You know how that started, of course.”

She frowned slightly at that, turning to him with more focus. “The Enchanter Wars? Sure. The Empire bombed Athan’Khar with the Enchanter’s Bane, half the provinces seceded in protest, the Emperor was dethroned, House Tirasian took over, Horsebutt the Enemy invaded and Sarsamon united the rebel provinces again to repel the Stalweiss. Who went on to settle the Great Plains and that’s why the Empire extends all the way to the Golden Sea now. Just ‘cos I’m not a noble or a paladin doesn’t mean I dunno basic history.”

“Nobody’s saying that, Tallie,” Darius said with a sigh. “Nobody here has ever said that to you. We’re all hurting, here. Don’t take it out on Schwartz.”

She lowered her eyes. “Right. Yeah. Sorry.”

He smiled, and patted her gently on the shoulder. Meesie scampered down his arm to do the same, which earned a small grin from Tallie.

“I think he was talking about Magnan. Right?” Trissiny had stepped a bit away from the group, staring ahead in the direction the greeter had gone, but now turned back to the rest of them.

“Right, yes,” Schwartz said, nodding. “Magnan the Enchanter, the last Hand of Salyrene. The whole shebang was basically his fault. He built the Bane, he pressured the Emperor to use it… And he also caused the religious war that made all the rest of it possible.”

“Religious war?” Tallie frowned again. “Okay, I’ll admit I hadn’t heard about that one. Nobles, paladins? Fill me in?”

“Well, the provinces didn’t just up and secede,” said Layla. “Viridill did, and the Silver Legions crushed the Imperial forces sent to retake it. The Sisterhood provided military support to other rebel groups, the cult of Vesk launched a nationwide campaign of propaganda to encourage revolt, and the Thieves’ Guild started selectively sabotaging and assassinating Imperial interests to weaken the regime. The cults were very much involved in the Enchanter Wars.”

“What’d Magnus have to do with that?”

“Magnan.” Trissiny’s voice was soft, and tired. “He was the most brilliant wizard of his age, and also a dangerously unstable man. He was obsessed with fae magic and fairies, thought the whole business was inhuman, somehow, and should be prohibited. Eventually he amassed so much political influence in the Empire and the Universal Church that he got the Emerald College nullified and expelled from Salyrene’s cult, and got the Empire to ban fae magic entirely. That caused a schism within the Collegium, and within the Church. The Colleges all took sides, and the cults took sides. Avei, Eserion and Vesk sided with the witches, which put them against the Empire.”

“Actually it wasn’t college against college, in my cult,” Schwartz added, “which is how it all comes back to the original question. Magnan listened too much to his sycophants and overestimated how much support he had. When he started hunting down witches, most of the Sapphire College itself turned on him. It was…well, it was a huge mess, during the Wars and for a while after. It’s why there are secular traditions of magical study, now, and why the numbers and influence of the Collegium has never fully recovered. Also why Salyrene never called another Hand. A lot of witches and mages both felt she had betrayed or failed us, and turned away from the faith. The mages who just wanted to continue their research without the goddess’s oversight left this continent to found Syralon, while…”

“While those who fought back against Magnan went on to found the Wizards’ Guild, right here in Tiraas, beholden to no god but the mortal mind.”

All of them straightened and turned to face the speaker, who approached them briskly from the great open chamber beyond, flanked by the man from behind the desk and half a dozen other people. All of them wore suits, of various degrees of stylishness, formality, and cleanliness; the woman in the center, who had addressed them, was by far the best-dressed, in a clearly tailored black suit with a bolo tie inset with a luminous blue gem. She was old enough that her narrow face was deeply lined, her short hair entirely white, but she moved and spoke with the vigor of a much younger woman.

“We still have old tensions with the Salyrites, yes,” she said, coming to a stop and smiling wryly, “but a witch of the Emerald College, of all people, will find welcome here. I am Fareena Raasvedh, Archmage of the Guild, and it seems I am suddenly transported to a past age! Here there’s a Hand of Avei on my doorstep, asking for magical assistance for herself and her adventuring party.”

“Holy shit, she’s right,” Darius muttered. “We’re an adventuring party. Does anybody else feel like we’ve suddenly switched to a whole different type of story?”

“Shut up, you oaf,” Layla hissed. “Don’t banter in front of the Archmage!”

“I realize this is asking a lot,” Trissiny said to Raasvedh. “Especially on such short notice. We need to get to Puna Dara as quickly as possible, and teleportation is by far the quickest way; there isn’t even a Rail line any closer than Desolation. I’m afraid I don’t have on me the kind of funds this commission would normally require, but the Sisterhood will of course compensate—”

“Now, that we don’t even need to discuss,” Archmage Raasvedh said with a grin, holding up a hand. “It would be an absolute honor to help the Hand of Avei in smiting whatever thing it is you’re hunting. Just because we’re agnostics around here doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate what you do for the world.”

“No, just a moment,” said one of the wizards accompanying her, a man only a few years younger with a long beard and bushy eyebrows, which now lowered in a frown. “Five people, to Puna Dara? That’s a substantial commission, Fareena, you can’t just—”

“My gods in bloomers, Tanaquin, really?” the Archmage exclaimed, turning a scathing look on him. “If your licorice and tobacco budget is so strained, I will personally pay you for your labors. Anybody else?”

“Yo!” The youngest woman in the group, whose dress shirt was buttoned askew and lacked a tie, raised a hand. “If you’re paying out of your own pocket—”

“Shut up, Lessa,” Raasvedh grunted, turning her back on them. “I am pretty curious about all this, General. What’s going on in Puna Dara that’s so urgent? And you are, after all, traveling with a Salyrite. It seems like it would be easier to have Collegium mages ‘port you. They’re almost obligated to aid a paladin without charge, are they not?”

Trissiny hesitated, glancing back at the others. “It’s…a long story. I suppose you’re aware of the ongoing crackdown of Universal Church loyalists being rounded up by the government and their cults?”

“Mm.” Raasvedh’s lips curled up in a catlike expression. “I don’t know if you’ve read Stalweiss philosophy, General Avelea, but I have been following the news and meditating upon the concept of schadenfreude. Heard of it?”

“I was not aware Stalweiss philosophy was even a thing,” Trissiny said with a sigh. “Those are the people we’ve been dealing with, and they were doing a lot worse than just thinking the Archpope has some good ideas.”

“Obviously, or the government wouldn’t be involved. Beyond vague whispers of treason, I’ve not heard what, specifically, these alleged conspirators are up to.”

“We’ve had at least one Salyrite hounding us already,” Trissiny said bluntly. “Possibly more. A friend of ours was murdered this morning by members of my own Sisterhood. My faith in the faithful is very thin right now. Until everyone’s house has been thoroughly cleaned, I’m not inclined to trust any of the cults.”

“I’m very sorry for your loss,” the Archmage said, her expression immediately sobering. The only mage with her who wore a hat immediately removed it respectfully; the messy young woman at the edge of the group looked like she might actually cry. “Not to pry, but you think these people are up to something else in Puna Dara?”

“I think most of these people are patsies who have been abandoned now that they’re no longer useful,” Trissiny replied. “But the person behind them is up to something in Puna Dara.”

“Say no more,” Raasvedh said, nodding sharply. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have work to do. General, if you and your friends will step right this way? The main chamber here is what we use for mass teleports.”

They followed her out of the foyer into the broad, domed space beyond. The floor was engraved with concentric rings, each elaborately marked by runes, making multiple spell circles of varying size and purpose. More enchanted equipment was positioned around the edges of the space, some of it extending overhead toward the middle of the chamber; much of this was immediately identifiable as scrying devices, consisting of mirrors, telescopes, and constantly-changing maps. It probably would have taken a wizard to understand the purpose of all the various banks of crystals, glass, wire and metal. Or perhaps a witch, to judge by the way Schwartz avidly stared around at everything.

Despite the chamber being broader than the tower itself, arched doorways opened off it in multiple directions, leading to halls which extended into the distance beyond sight, lined with more doors. Several wizards passed in and out of these, though as the Archmage and her companions took up positions around the circle and scrying equipment, they hurriedly got out of the way. Several lingered in the doorways to watch, eyeing Trissiny in particular and whispering to each other. To judge by what they wore, the Wizards’ Guild had a most peculiar dress code. Everyone wore suits, but the majority were shabby, out of style, and markedly disheveled.

The five of them clustered not far into the room, trying not to feel awkward as they were abruptly being ignored. Schwartz craned his neck about, lips moving soundlessly as he studied the machinery and whispered to himself, but the rest were left to just…stand.

“I get what you mean, Darius,” Tallie muttered. “Man, all this magic shit is over my head…”

“Apologies, the Archmage is a very…task-oriented person,” said the sharply-dressed man who had greeted them at the door with a faint smile. He had just finished activating a bank of power crystals next to a huge scrying mirror at which two of his colleagues were already working. “Your request requires some considerable planning. We have more than sufficient power reserves here that a five-person teleportation across the continent will not be a hardship, but this demands absolutely precise data before we act. In any kind of teleportation, precision is paramount. The consequences of the slightest mistake are…exceedingly ugly.”

“Uh, yes,” Darius said emphatically, nodding. “I’m in favor of whatever doesn’t get us turned into soup or stuck halfway through a wall.”

“The soup thing is practically unheard of,” the man replied with a faint smirk, turning to join his associates at the mirror.

“Practically?” Layla said shrilly.

“A little wizards’ humor,” Schwartz said, patting her lightly on the back. “Really, I dunno what it is about arcane magic, but they’re more macabre even than the warlocks. Anyway, he’s right, stuff like that hardly ever happens. Most teleportation accidents involve re-materialization errors that leave pieces out or accidentally integrate their subject with an unforeseen object in the landing area. A complete physical breakdown like he described can really only occur if the data stream is interrupted by a dimensional rift of some kind—a chaos event, or hellgate, or accidental intersection with a shadow-jump in progress. The odds of that—”

“Schwartz, man, I love you,” Darius said seriously, “but shut the hell up. Right now.”

Layla had squeezed her eyes shut and appeared to be whispering to herself.

“Ah…sorry. I was just trying to be reassuring. The point is, any such thing is extraordinarily unlikely! That’s the reason for all this preparatory work they are doing. I mean, with magic, nothing is truly impossible, but only in the rarest circumstances does a standard teleport result in—”

“Schwartz!”

“Hey.” In contrast to the unfolding argument, Tallie’s voice was almost imperceptibly soft. She had edged away from the others to where Trissiny was standing a little distant from the group, staring into space, and nudged her armored side with an elbow. “I see you there, brooding. Don’t do that, your face’ll freeze that way.”

Trissiny sighed softly, not looking at her. “Sorry.”

Tallie tilted her head slightly, studying the other girl’s face in profile. “You don’t need to apologize to me.”

“I didn’t just mean—”

“I know, Jas, I’m not an idiot.” She sighed and folded her arms, now looking to the side. “Look, I’m past the point where I might have been mad at you keeping secrets. We’ve all had…more important stuff to feel, today. Anyway, nothing’s really changed. You were always right, it was none of my business, and I definitely see why you kept it to yourself.” She cracked a grin, turning to look at the paladin again. “Hell, if anything I feel a little better. Secrets mostly bug me because I’m afflicted with insatiable curiosity; it’s a challenge, anything I don’t know. Sort of like…I needed to prove I wasn’t stupid by figuring out the truth. Well, ‘secret Hand of freakin’ Avei’ is one I was just never gonna guess. Honestly, how could I? So, not my fault.”

There was silence for a moment before Trissiny replied. “You’re right, personal business is just that. That isn’t what I meant. Everything that happened today is my fault, and we both know it.”

“Bullshit.” Her voice was loud enough to cut off the bickering going off a few feet away. Tallie stepped closer, Trissiny turning to face her in surprise. “What, you get your shiny armor and your high horse back and suddenly you think you get to be responsible for all of us? No, uh uh. With all due respect, General, screw you. We make our choices and we face the consequences, all of us. I am not a side character in someone else’s story, not even yours.”

“I could have ended that at any time,” Trissiny replied, still quietly. “Or before it got to that point. It was me keeping secrets that—”

“You know what, if I thought you were to blame, I’d blame you. You know damn well I would. Jas—Trissiny, I killed Ross.”

“What?!” Trissiny took a step toward her, clearly aghast. “Tallie, no—”

She reached out, but Tallie stepped back out of range. “Come on, you were there! That priestess shot him by accident. Ross was right: she wasn’t a murderer, didn’t have that in her. She was trying to psych herself up to do it while he was trying to psych her down, and he was a lot more persuasive. But then I stood up, which made the soldier yell, which made her jump and squeeze the clicker. Me. I did it.”

“Tallie,” Trissiny said miserably. Behind Tallie, the others stared in silence.

“And you bet your shiny ass I will spend a lot of nights crying over that,” Tallie said flatly, her eyes already shining with moisture. “There’s no way not to feel what you feel. But you know what? I am not going to brood, or wallow. It was a fucked up situation. We made mistakes, all of us, and it went horribly wrong. But goddamn it, we tried. We did our best. Ross deserves better than for any of us to just shrivel up. Mistakes are to be learned from, not curled up around. And that goes for you too, Ms. Fancy Paladin. Yeah, I believe you fucked up, you probably could have done something different, maybe better. So don’t do that next time. But you loved Ross just as much as any of us and you didn’t mean for this to happen.”

She stepped forward again, and held out her hand.

“No fucking brooding, Jasmine. For Ross’s sake. We learn, and we’ll do better next time. We’re not gonna wallow like losers. If you can’t do that on your own, then make it a pact between us. Shake on it.”

Trissiny stared, her own eyes bright. After a moment, though, she reached out and clasped Tallie’s open hand with her own.

“…a pact, then. You’re right, Tallie, mistakes are to be learned from. When’d you get to be so much wiser than me?”

“Pff, don’t act like that’s new.” Despite the tears glittering in her eyes, Tallie cracked a grin. “It’s called an upbringing. I love you guys, but you’re a bunch of fucking rubes, always have been.”

“Ahem?”

They all turned to find Archmage Raasvedh standing two yards away, hands folded before her.

“Sorry to interrupt, but there is a slight problem.”

“A problem?” Trissiny hastily scrubbed a hand across her eyes, not seeming bothered by the metal-plated gauntlet. Tallie, though, winced slightly, flexing the fingers she had recently squeezed. “How slight?”

“There appears to be a massive storm in Puna Dara right now,” Raasvedh reported. “This makes our business far more complicated. Ordinarily you would want to be teleported to an open space, which would be a matter of picking any unoccupied one which would fit the needs of your insertion. However, this is a ‘raining sideways’ kind of storm. Water passing through the space is a catastrophic thing to materialize into, and that doesn’t even account for flying debris. The wind itself, even if it was bone-dry… Point being, these are the worst possible conditions to ‘port into.”

“Wait…does that mean you can’t do it?” Darius asked, frowning.

Raasvedh shook her head. “Merely that it’s a little more complicated. We’re going to have to scry for a suitable indoor space. In Puna Dara, that’ll most likely mean a dockside warehouse. And that means trespass via magic, which is a big enough offense in the Empire. I don’t know the actual laws offhand, but the Punaji in general are very big on both privacy and business.”

“The warning is appreciated,” Trissiny said, inclining her head politely. “We will take extra care not to disrupt anything when we arrive.”

“Well, that’s great and all,” Raasvedh said dryly, “but with my Guild being responsible for doing this, we have liability.”

“Ah. Yes, of course. As it happens, Princess Zaruda is a very close friend of mine. If anyone’s feathers are ruffled, I’m sure we’ll be able to smooth it over. And if not, I will personally assume all responsibility.”

“Fair enough,” said the Archmage with a little smile. “That’s all I needed to hear. There’s another thing you ought to know: this storm isn’t natural.”

Trissiny frowned. “Not natural? How?”

“It doesn’t match with the surrounding weather patterns, which means it was summoned very abruptly and will also blow itself out pretty fast. But we checked the vicinity and found a colossal amount of unfocused divine residue out to sea which explains where it came from. This particular storm is an act of the gods. Or, far more likely, a god in particular: Naphthene.”

“Huh,” Darius grunted. “Any idea why she’d hit Puna Dara with a storm?”

“There is absolutely no telling,” Schwartz said, shrugging. “Naphthene hasn’t even got priests, and she’s rather notoriously…touchy. She just does things like this sometimes. It could be something as simple as somebody spilling chum on one of her harbor shrines. It’s not likely to be anything to do with us,” he added, turning to address Trissiny.

“Is the origin of the storm relevant to your calculations for the teleport?” Trissiny asked the Archmage.

“It won’t make a difference what caused the weather,” Raasvedh said with a grin. “But you’re charging into the place after rebel cultists; it sounded like the kind of detail you’d want to know, going in.”

“Quite right. Thank you for informing us.”

“That reminds me, though,” Raasvedh said thoughtfully. “You know Arachne Tellwyrn quite well, don’t you, General?”

Trissiny hesitated. “I…doubt whether anyone knows Tellwyrn well. I see her often enough, though.”

“Well, that’ll do. There is a little favor you could do for me, if you are so inclined.”

“Oh?” Trissiny’s tone was openly wary, but Raasvedh just grinned more broadly.

“I’m a tremendous fan. If you could get me her autograph, that would be fantastic.”

“Oh,” Trissiny said in relief. “Well… That’s the kind of request that makes her curse and start throwing fireballs, but it’s not like I haven’t survived worse. I’ll definitely ask her; it’s the least I can do. In fact, if you’re interested, I might be able to arrange for you to meet her.”

“Oh, gods, no. I’m a fan because we’re far too similar in temperament; one of us would end up dead.”

“That would be you, Archmage,” Lessa called cheerfully from across the room. “Tellwyrn has beat up Zanzayed the Blue with her bare hands at least twice!”

“I’m gonna polymorph that girl into a barnacle one of these days,” Raasvedh muttered. “Thanks, General. Now if you kids will move toward the center circle, please, we’re locating an insertion point for you; we’ll let you know when we’re ready. Any particular needs we should watch for?”

“Discreet,” Trissiny said. “We’d prefer to be able to get out without being noticed, to scout the situation before acting.”

“Well, thanks to the storm, that part will be easy. Even the Punaji will be indoors in a mess like this.” The Archmage turned back toward her colleagues at the nearby scrying mirror, who were muttering to each other and pointing at images appearing in the glass. “You may have trouble scouting, though…”

“Close, personal friend of the Princess,” Tallie muttered as they made their way toward the center as directed. “Knows Arachne fucking Tellwyrn. Honestly, shit like that is gonna take more getting used to than the armor, Jasmine.”

“Tellwyrn’s always teleporting people everywhere without any planning,” Trissiny said, shaking her head. “I never appreciated how impressive that actually is, I guess. Mostly it’s just obnoxious.”

“Not to mention presumptuous and highly rude,” Schwartz said with a frown. “Some cultures object to teleportation on religious and/or philosophical grounds.”

“And it’s Trissiny,” Layla added primly. “Respect cover, Tallie, you know that. When she’s not disguised you don’t throw around her cover name.”

“Yeah, yeah. Trissiny. What kind of name is that, anyway?”

“Elvish,” said the paladin with a wry grimace. “It means ‘silk tree.’”

“Wow.” Darius mimicked her expression. “I’m really starting to understand why you don’t get on with your mom.”

“You’ve noticed I have a sword now, right?”

“All right!” Raasvedh called to them. “We have an insertion point! A half-empty warehouse just off the waterfront, no sapients or active magic inside. Are you ready?”

“As we’ll ever be,” Schwartz replied, glancing at the others. Meesie hopped onto his head and grabbed a firm grip of blonde hair, flattening herself against his skull.

“Then godspeed, kids,” the Archmage said, raising her hands.

The lines on the floor around them flared a piercing blue-white, a shrill whine rose at the very edge of hearing, and then with a sharp electric crackle, the world vanished around them.

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13 – 35

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It was a most peculiar sensation, to become aware that she was dreaming. She drifted, while all around her the act of drifting itself petered off into more linear movement. Reality crystallized, the churned amorphousness of dream logic retreating as solidity intruded, and whatever she had been dreaming about faded away from the sharpening of her consciousness.

She had arrived, with no memory of the act of moving, at a peaceful little rooftop garden very like those kept by the wealthy in Tar’naris. This was not Tar’naris, though, but a vast cavern that seemed empty, its walls studded generously with dimly glowing crystal, and night-blooming jasmine and other flowering plants she did not recognize decorating the little terrace—plants which fared poorly underground. There was a table and chairs made of glass (the latter with embroidered red cushions) in a style she had never seen anywhere. One chair was pulled out invitingly, while at the other sat a woman in red.

“Hello, Shaeine, dear,” she said with a kind smile. “Please, have a seat. It’s high time we had a talk, you and I.”

Slowly, Shaeine stepped forward, settling herself into the proffered chair and scooting it up to the table, all while studying her new acquaintance. She was a drow woman with her white hair hanging long and unbound down her back in the classical style, and skin the shade of pure black that had become rare in Tar’naris. Only the very old still had the unadulterated bloodline fostered by the spider goddess of long ago; most Narisians had grayish complexions from thousands of years of slight but steady infusions of human blood.

Pure drow or not, the red dress the woman wore was a cocktail gown of a Tiraan cut, and her broad-brimmed matching hat in the Punaji style. The dress was low-cut, immodest by both Narisian and (to a lesser extent) Imperial standards. She smiled knowingly at Shaeine and began pouring tea.

The tea service had not existed a moment ago, and had not appeared. It was simply there, now, and suddenly had always been.

“This is a dream,” Shaeine said aloud, more to herself than to her…guest? Host? Whose dream was it?

“Quite so, dear,” the woman in red replied, nodding and adding three spoonfuls of honey to her tea, just the way she liked. “In fact, you are under the influence of an unnecessarily elaborate sleeping curse, lying with your fellow victims in the chapel on the campus of your University. And that, I’m afraid, is as good as the news gets. The chapel’s defenses have been activated, a most impressive combination of divine shields, arcane deflection charms and a fae effect tied to the geas upon the University that keeps it slightly out of phase with physical reality. Arachne is away from the campus and most of the rest of the faculty and students have been evacuated into the Crawl, while enemies close in upon you. A damaged, deranged Hand of the Emperor, gone rogue from his own government, leading a consortium of random thugs and a few magic-users he does not know were hand-picked by the Archpope of the Universal Church to cause maximum havoc to both him and poor Arachne. They will probably get into the chapel before Arachne gets back to stop them. Whether they can dig your classmates out of the Crawl is another matter. Have some tea, dear, you could probably use it.”

Shaeine accepted the proffered cup and took a sip, keeping her expression politely blank. “It sounds as if I have missed some interesting events.”

The woman smiled again. “You don’t believe me.”

“On the contrary,” Shaeine said diplomatically, “I do not rush to accept or dismiss your assertions. Either would seem unwise, as I don’t know who you are, much less why you are telling me this. Although… We have met, have we not? Yes, in Sarasio. You’re Professor Tellwyrn’s friend, Lily. Though you wore a different face at the time.”

“Quite so! I’m pleased you remember,” Lily said with a most un-Narisian grin. “I’m the Lady in Red; it’s a new thing I’m trying out. Do you like it?”

“It seems to suit you,” Shaeine said neutrally. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Oh, well, you know how it is. By and large I prefer to keep my distance from mortal events. You are different, though, now. I’m sure you are aware what must have happened when you were struck down by the Sleeper.”

“I imagine a number of things happened,” Shaeine said in her most careful tone, mind already racing after the implications of that question.

“True, true. I am referring to the only business that brings me here, dear one: family business. You will be pleased, I’m sure, to learn that your mother accepted Vadrieny and Teal’s courtship of you and, as is your people’s custom, immediately validated their adoption when you were cursed. Felicitations, my dear. I’m sorry I missed it.”

Shaeine managed a polite nod, her throat suddenly too tight to speak, which went perfectly with the sudden pressure in her chest. Goddess, Teal, Vadrieny… It must have been horrible for them to see her this way. At least they had each other. At least her mother had embraced them into the family. She had to get out of this somehow, get back to them… And, when she paused to consider it, it suddenly seemed likely that her new acquaintance was leading in that direction.

“Your mother is quite the lady,” Lily continued in a light tone, stirring her own tea. “One of very few people who have fully understood what Arachne is capable of and got right up into her face anyway. And all without losing her composure! I was quite impressed.” She winked. “And I don’t impress easily. When one has seen as many things as I have, not many mortals still have any surprises to offer.”

Shaeine had raised her teacup to cover her near-lapse of composure with a sip, but now suddenly lowered it again, connecting the dots.

“Elilial.”

The goddess smiled warmly at her. “Welcome to the family, dear.”

Oddly enough, the surreality of the situation helped; it was easier to have tea with the divine queen of demons and maintain her public face while nothing around her made sense or even existed than it would have been with the full weight of her mortal frailty making itself felt.

“I must tell you up front,” Shaeine said politely, “that I am an acolyte of Themynra and will not alter my path. If you intend me to aid in your plans, I’m afraid I must disappoint you.”

“Shaeine, dear, please don’t take this as a personal rejection, because it isn’t,” Elilial said seriously, “but I don’t want you anywhere near my plans. Not you, or Vadrieny, or Teal. In the last handful of years I have lost six daughters and now gained two; I intend to lose no more. And that means Vadrieny’s role in all my grand schemes is indefinitely terminated. Not even a clever, determined priestess and a bard with the world’s biggest heart are a replacement for her six elder sisters; the events unfolding now are simply too dangerous. I didn’t come here to ask anything of you, but now that you raise the issue, this is the only request I have: keep them safe.”

“I would do that anyway,” Shaeine said evenly. “Not that I am able to contribute much in my current state.”

“Which,” Elilial said, her smile curling a little wider, “brings us to the reason for my visit!”

“I was under the impression that gods were…constrained from intervening directly. Or at least, dramatically.”

“Oh, pish tosh.” The demon goddess made a dismissive gesture, smiling benignly. “The only individuals who respect the Pantheon’s rules less than I are the Pantheon themselves. For heaven’s sake, Shaeine, you have personally seen Vidius stomping all over the mountaintop as if he owned the place. No, dear, godly restraint is simply a behavior we have all learned is better than the alternative. The more a deity sticks their fingers in, the more others do, and it doesn’t take much of that before the wheels fly off the whole thing. Avei and Sorash burned down half the world between them before Arachne put a final stop to that, just because their respective champions kept butting heads and they couldn’t leave well enough alone. Almost everything modern gods get away with stems from their capacity to show a little restraint. Eserion is by far the most interventionist of them, and that works because none of the Pantheon—or even I—can justify exerting divine force against what are, after all, just the actions of his mortal followers. Vesk, Vidius, Omnu, Verniselle, even Salyrene, they all keep their hands off nowadays, and it’s that very fact which enables their cults to flourish: no other god has an excuse to act against them. Like life itself, it is a game of actions and reactions, of choices and consequences, in which some of the players like to fluff up their egos by by pretending that acting only through intermediaries is some kind of moral virtue.”

“I…see.”

Elilial grinned, lifting her teacup in a little toast. “Ah, but I see I’ve bored you already. I’m afraid you’ll have to get used to that, my dear; the hypocrisy of the gods is a subject upon which I tend to rant. Bringing this back ’round to the point… You’re correct, it would not be circumspect of me to interfere too aggressively. At the minimum, that would draw attention to my Vadrieny that she does not need. Already the agents of the Church are watching her, waiting for an excuse. You should be wary of that as well, dear. But!” She smiled again, and this time it was such a performatively sly expression that Shaeine barely repressed the urge to throw a divine shield around herself. “Even they surely won’t object to me giving my little girl a wedding present.”

“By,” Shaeine said cautiously, “for example, un-weaving the Sleeper’s curse?”

“You may consider this a divine revelation directly from the goddess of cunning, Shaeine dear: simple plans outperform complex ones every time. Each step or factor you have to account for is another opportunity for everything to go wrong. That’s part of the reason Arachne’s various minions have had no success trying to analyze and dismantle this curse in meticulous detail; what they need is a sword to cut the knot.” She set down her teacup and reached across the table to squeeze Shaeine’s hand; Shaeine, for her part, had to hastily squash the urge to draw back. Elilial just smiled warmly at her. “His name is F’thaan. Now go knock ’em dead, daughter.”

“His n…”

She broke off, gagging, as an impossibly wretched stench filled her mouth and nose. It was a melange of rotten eggs, brimstone, and hot metal; more than just a smell, it felt as if the stink had a physical force, pushing her back from the table.

In fact, she was being pushed away. Elilial’s knowing smirk receded, the whole scene around her growing chaotic and fuzzy, and Shaeine felt as if the smell were hauling her bodily upward through an ocean of thought and pressure, until—

Her eyes snapped open.

A furry little face was right in front of her, surmounted by a pair of shining eyes very like Vadrieny’s, pits of swirling orange fire. The sound of eager panting filled her ears; the hot breath in her face reeked like rotting demon flesh.

Shaeine winced and raised a hand to cover her nose and mouth, struggling to straighten up against the pillows on which she lay. At her movement, the little creature retreated, bouncing eagerly down her stomach to rest in her lap. She managed to drag herself up, braced on one elbow, to a reclining position, and get a good look.

It was a puppy.

He yapped excitedly up at her, bouncing on her lap, little tail wagging furiously. Coal black, he might have passed for a perfectly normal young dog, if not for the fiery eyes, and the blunt little nubs of horns sprouting from above them. At least now that he was more distant from her face, the smell of his breath wasn’t so overpowering.

Shaeine carefully reached down to scratch behind the little hellhound’s ear, and he let out another little yip, rubbing ecstatically against her hand and then licking at her fingers.

“F’thaan, I presume,” she said aloud, then cleared her throat. Her voice was slightly hoarse, probably from simple disuse. The puppy barked at her, and began clambering back up her chest toward her face. Shaeine hurriedly straightened the rest of the way up to a sitting position, getting a grip on him with both hands and tousling his ears while holding him down away from her sensitive nose.

He continued to squirm and wag his tail in delight, but after a moment allowed her to settle him down a bit. As long as he was being held and getting scratched behind the ears, he didn’t seem to mind being kept in place. That, at least, gave her the space to look around and find her bearings.

The campus chapel, of course, was familiar. Right now it was dim, the only light coming through its stained glass windows. It had also been thoroughly re-arranged, the pews pushed together and lined with pillows and quilts to form makeshift beds in which she and her classmates now lay. One of these was now so piled at the end with bouquets of flowers that it resembled a funerary display. If her own bed was any indication, though, there were subtler gifts left. Shaeine found that in sitting up she had displaced a number of flowers, notes bearing well-wishes from her classmates, and little talismans representing various faiths, as well as fairy charms. With a pained wince, she extracted a silver Themynrite blessing talisman from underneath F’thaan.

“No,” she said firmly when he tried to grab it in his little jaws. Somewhat to her surprise, the puppy seemed to heed her, settling back down into her lap to gaze up at her, tail still a-wag.

Still holding him, she carefully extricated her legs from beneath the quilt laid over them and clambered upright, then hopped lightly over the side to stand in the middle aisle, before the dais at the head of the chapel. It was a non-denominational space, lacking holy sigils of any faith; there was nothing but a slightly raised platform and an unmarked lectern to mark the front where an altar would be in other temples. From this position, at least, she could see into the beds and take a quick roll.

Natchua, Addiwyn, Raolo, and Ravana slept in pew-beds like her own. Apparently, then, she had been the last to fall victim to the Sleeper. Well, that was good, at least.

F’thaan barked again, craning his neck up to lick at her chin. Shaeine cringed, tilting her head back away from his breath, but obligingly scratched his ears again. He still wriggled with an ecstatic full-body wag at the attention, but seemed a bit calmer now. Adorable as the creature was, dogs and demons were both foreign to her; she had no idea how she was going to manage a fusion of the two.

“Now, you behave yourself,” she said, firmly but gently, looking down at his little face and evening her expression despite the smell of his breath. “This is a sacred place. It is probably the only Pantheon temple you will ever be in, as most priests will not share Professor Tellwyrn’s consideration for demonbloods. Don’t even think of defecating in here.”

He yipped at her and licked her chin again. Was there any chance he’d understood that? Just how smart were dogs?

Shaeine sighed and stepped toward the nearest impromptu bed, which was Ravana’s; it was the one piled with flowers to the point that the girl’s feet were entirely buried in them. Pausing to scratch behind F’thaan’s ear one more time in the way he seemed to like, she adjusted her grip on the puppy and carefully held him out, right in front of Ravana’s face. He eagerly licked the young Duchess’s cheek, panting in excitement.

Ravana’s peaceful expression vanished in a grimace and she twitched violently, rolling her head to the side. “Pfah! What is that?!”

“Hellhound breath,” Shaeine explained, withdrawing F’thaan and holding him against her chest again. “Welcome back, Ravana. We seem to be in a bit of a situation.”

“…so I gather,” the human replied, peering up at her through narrowed eyes. “I am quite eager to hear this story.”

“I’m afraid large swaths of it are unknown to me, but I’ve been warned of the immediate… Actually, let me wake the others, if you don’t mind. There is no sense in going over it multiple times.”

“Indeed, quite right,” Ravana said briskly, after clearing her throat much the way Shaeine had earlier. She set about climbing out of the bed, showing no more sign of stiffness than Shaeine had felt. Odd that the curse allowed the voice to grow rusty but left its victims to awaken feeling quite spry and well-rested. Or perhaps that was an effect of the hellhound breath?

While Ravana explored the piles of offerings left around her bier, quietly bemoaning her lack of shoes, Shaeine set about delivering the necessary but unpleasant dose of hellhound breath that freed each of the others from the Sleeper’s curse. Addiwyn’s first waking act was to snarl insults at her in elvish, though to her credit she looked quite abashed as soon as she was lucid again. Raolo actually yelped and leaped up, and probably would have gone over the side of the pew and to the floor had he not been entangled in his quilt.

She came to Natchua last, noting as she approached that there was another Themynrite talisman resting over her heart. These were crafted by House priestesses, and Natchua’s was identical to her own, decorated with ribbons in Awarrion colors. It was like her mother to be thoughtful enough to bring one for an exile, when apparently House Dalmiss had officially disavowed her. Shaeine carefully moved it to rest in the other drow’s hand before holding F’thaan out to breathe in her face.

F’thaan barked excitedly and licked Natchua’s nose. Unlike the others, she instantly drew her lips back in a furious snarl, snapped her eyes open, and sat bolt upright, forcing Shaeine to yank yer puppy back out of the way.

“CHASE!” Natchua roared, clutching the side of the pew with both hands. “You little bastard, I’ll—” There, finally, she paused, blinking, and turned over the one still holding the Themynrite sigil.

“Well, that answers one question, I guess,” Raolo commented.

“Which is a start,” Addiwyn said pointedly, folding her arms. “I find it odd that we are in the chapel instead of the infirmary, and the doors are both closed and barred.”

“Yes,” Ravana added as they all turned to frown at the wide double doors, which indeed had been secured from the inside with a large wooden bar. “Also that we are being revived by a fellow student and not a member of the faculty. My sincere thanks for the revivification, Shaeine, but I am rather curious why you chose to secure the door behind you.”

“And where under the sun did you get a hellhound puppy?” Raolo amended in a fascinated tone. F’thaan yapped excitedly, squirming around in Shaeine’s arms to keep everybody in view until she finally knelt to set him on the ground.

“Actually, I was cursed as well until moments ago,” she said. “F’thaan was a wedding gift from Elilial, who it seems is now my mother-in-law.”

They all stared.

“Veth’na alaue,” Natchua said at last.

Shaeine cleared her throat, shifting her head to keep an eye on F’thaan, who had bounded over to Ravana’s huge pile of flowers to investigate the fascinating scents therein. “Allow me to explain as best I can…”

Summarizing her recent conversation with Elilial went faster than the dream itself had, and also served to emphasize how little she actually understood of the situation. Shaeine finished, and then went to retrieve F’thaan, who had buried himself fully in flowers and begun repeatedly sneezing. The distraction was welcome; even her diplomatic training did not safeguard her against feeling awkward at having to deliver that painfully incomplete summary of the situation.

Fortunately, Ravana rescued her. “I do say that all sounds quite cogent,” the Duchess proclaimed, nodding sagely. “The campus coming under attack could really only occur in Tellwyrn’s absence, and withdrawing the students into the Crawl is a most reasonable safety precaution. While a number of our classmates represent potent forces themselves, the sanctuary effect of the Grim Visage would serve to keep them safe despite anyone’s best efforts.”

“I don’t know,” Addiwyn said, frowning deeply. “A Hand of the Emperor? Gone rogue? Inconceivable.”

“Nonsense,” Ravana said briskly. “The Empire has kept the means of the Hands’ creation and empowerment carefully secret, but I do know it was done through mostly fae magic—”

“How could you possibly know that?” Addiwyn snapped. “Nobody knows that!”

Ravana smiled primly at her. “I, as you are well aware, Addiwyn, am not nobody. I know many things of which the general public is not aware. My point is, it was only a matter of time before someone found a way to interfere with that craft and suborn a Hand. No plan, system, or spell is perfect; all have weaknesses, and all will eventually be exploited. Politically speaking, a renegade Hand of the Emperor is the perfect means of attacking a hot target like the University. The Empire will not be willing to acknowledge they have lost control of one, and thus will have to act with great circumspection to contain the situation, which prevents them from simply inundating the region with troops and strike teams as the Throne ordinarily would to counter a threat of that caliber. The same facts neatly conceal the identity of whoever tampered with this Hand in the first place, and enable him to cause havoc without risk to themselves. Truly an elegant attack. I wonder what is happening in Puna Dara?”

“You—Puna—what?” Raolo exclaimed.

“The last time a major disaster occurred upon this campus,” Ravana said patiently, “the current sophomore class refused an evacuation order to remain here and contain it, and they collectively represent a threat that even a Hand of the Emperor could not challenge.” She nodded graciously to Shaeine, who was holding F’thaan again and slowly stroking his head. This movement seemed to settle some of his eager squirming. “Given their power and disrespect for rules, and the fact that they would not abandon Shaeine to this kind of danger, obviously they were drawn somewhere else first, probably by a similar threat to loved ones. Nothing else would keep them away during a crisis like this. Most have no such mortal attachments, and woe betide any force which assaulted Avei’s stronghold in Viridill. Logically, then, something dire must be unfolding in Zaruda’s home to have fixed their attention away from the University.”

“Or,” Natchua said disdainfully, “they’re just off on a class assignment and don’t know about it.”

“I rather think even Tellwyrn would have had difficulty shooing Teal away from campus while Shaeine lay cursed here,” Ravana said with that prim little smile.

“Or,” Natchua repeated, curling her lip in a sneer, “since everything we know about this situation came from Elilial, it is all a pack of lies, because that is what she does!”

“I suppose you would know,” Ravana said pleasantly.

Natchua took an aggressive step toward her. “And what is that supposed to mean?”

“Whoah, now,” Raolo interjected. “This is not the time—”

“Why, simply that you are the other warlock endowed by Elilial,” Ravana stated.

“How dare you?!” Natchua snarled. “I should—”

“Hang on, now,” Addiwyn said suddenly. “How’d you know the Sleeper was Chase? He was Sleeped himself when the curse was cast on you.”

“A clever gambit on his part,” Ravana said, nodding. “It was known that Rafe had hellhound breath in his possession, thanks to me, so he could be certain of being awakened by the only such dose available. And applying the curse to someone by some delayed mechanism while he lay under it provided him an alibi. Yes, quite clever. Also,” she added with the hint of a smirk, “a personal encounter with Elilial is the only reason I can think why a Themynrite drow would carry the kind of antipathy toward her that you just expressed, Natchua.”

The silence which followed was tense enough to hang from. Natchua glared daggers at Ravana, fists clenched and quivering; Ravana simply smiled amiably back at her.

Ultimately it wasn’t either of them who broke it. F’thaan let out a yip and squirmed in Shaeine’s grasp, twisting up to lick at her face. She grimaced and turned her head away from his breath again.

Natchua, suddenly, seemed to deflate. Turning her back on the group, she trudged over to the makeshift bed in which she had recently lain, and carelessly shoved one of its two pews aside, causing pillows, flowers, and half the quilt to tumble to the floor. There, she sank down onto the seat and put her head in her hands.

“Has anybody ever told you,” Raolo said to Ravana, “you’re just a little too smart for your own good?”

“Why, yes, in fact,” she mused. “A man did say that to me once, quite shortly after I assumed the head of House Madouri. I had him executed soon thereafter.”

This time, they all stared at her directly; even Natchua lifted her head again to gape in disbelief.

“Well, not for that,” Ravana explained. “He was one of my father’s loyalists who’d been plotting to assassinate me. Not carefully, either, there was an embarrassing plethora of evidence. Really, what do you take me for? One cannot go around executing every person who insults one to one’s face. That is no way to earn the respect one requires to rule.”

“Anyway,” Addiwyn said pointedly, “have we decided we’re taking Elilial’s word for this?”

“I cannot think of any reason she would lie,” said Shaeine. “If she wished us harm, she could simply have refrained from acting at all. We were all lying here, terribly vulnerable, while enemies closed in.”

“I concur,” Ravana added. “It seems most reasonable, under the circumstances, to assume the warning was legitimate. In which case this chapel is defensible, but its defenses will not hold for long. We are apparently alone on campus, surrounded by foes of unknown type and power, and isolated from any potential help until Tellwyrn returns from her unknown errand.”

“We’re hardly helpless, though,” Addiwyn pointed out. “We have here a mage, a priestess…” She glanced uncertainly at Natchua. “…and apparently a warlock. In terms of firepower, that’s not insignificant.”

“Against a Hand of the Emperor, though?” Raolo said, frowning thoughtfully. “Not to mention whatever other help he has. Hand-picked by the Archpope, was it? Able to beat the defenses of the campus? That doesn’t exactly sound like small potatoes. I don’t mind admitting I’m not much of a mage. A rank amateur, to be frank. I understand Shaeine is extremely skilled for her age, and, uh… From what I heard…”

“I haven’t had a lot of practice or anything,” Natchua said suddenly, staring at the floor. “But theoretical knowledge? Sure. Virtually all of it.”

Addiwyn emitted a soft, incongruous laugh. “Well! Sounds like we’ve got three-quarters of our own little strike team, then. I don’t suppose anybody is secretly a powerful witch or shaman?”

She directed that last at Ravana, who started to shake her head, then suddenly straightened up, her eyes widening. A smile spread across the young Duchess’s thin lips.

“Actually,” she said, “that gives me an idea.”

 

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13 – 34

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Such a procession drew attention and created a ripple of rumor that quickly swept across the city. It was early afternoon by the time they reached the wealthy district in which the Imperial Casino lay, and by that point, the news of their coming had preceded them. Well-dressed men and women had gathered on the sidewalks to stare, but mostly had the decency to remove their hats and lower their eyes in respect as the group passed. The street was also thronged with silent, grim-faced thieves of the Guild, waiting.

Trissiny walked in the front in full armor, her expression closed and eyes straight ahead, leading her silver-clad warhorse by his reins. Arjen followed with his own head lowered, surrounded by four young people, two men and two women. Only Schwartz stood out visibly, in his Salyrite robes and with Meesie riding on his shoulder. He, Tallie, and the Sakhavenid siblings kept pace with Arjen, each with one steadying hand on the carefully-wrapped bundle lying across the huge horse’s saddle. Though fully swathed, it apparent even without the presence of obvious pallbearers that it was a body.

Four Silver Legionnaires followed them, in uniform but helmetless and conspicuously absent their weapons, shivering in the winter air and looking a great deal more nervous than Legionnaires usually did in public. At the end of the procession walked a fifth soldier: Covrin had her helmet on, shield in hand, and lance held menacingly as if she intended to prod the woman in front of her at the slightest provocation. Beside her, also bare-headed and with an expression promising retribution, was Bishop Syrinx, her golden eagle-wrought sword drawn and ready.

The broad avenue terminated in a broad cul-de-sac before the steps of the Casino itself, the space now lined with quiet onlookers. Dozens of civilians murmured and jostled each other to stare, most of them in the expensive attire of the Casino’s usual clientele, but none tried to push past the perimeter of cold-faced Guild thieves enforcing a clear area in front of the steps.

Everyone stood where they were as Trissiny led the group straight toward the front doors of the Casino, with one exception. She had been standing on the top stair, watching up the street, and now as they approached, Style strode down and through the crowd. Only thieves had placed themselves in front of the steps, and so nobody had to be pushed bodily out of her way. They all knew better than to impede her.

Trissiny finally came to a stop near the center of the plaza. Style strode right up to and then past her, seeming not to notice anyone standing there and not the least bit impressed by the divine warhorse. Darius yielded his position and she came right up to Arjen’s side.

All muttering and coughing had utterly ceased among the onlookers by the time Style slipped her brawny arms, bare even in the cold, under Ross’s body and lifted him from the horse’s back. Despite his size, she did it with no apparent effort, but it was not her physical strength that held the watching enforcers silent. Everyone knew Style’s capacity for brute power, but rarely had they seen the towering chief enforcer’s face as it was now, crumpled with pain as if she might begin weeping any second.

The Hand of Avei stood to the side, head lowered, while Style carefully laid Ross upon the paving stones, and with amazing gentleness, folded back the white quilt with which they had covered him to reveal his face. He was already too pale to be merely sleeping.

At no apparent signal, every Eserite ringing the plaza silently raised their right fist defiantly to the sky.

“Lest the mighty grow complacent.” Lore’s voice was not raised—in fact, he spoke barely above a murmur from the top of the Casino’s steps. In the silence, though, he was clearly heard by all present. “Be warned: a thief can die, but the fight cannot.”

“WE ARE STILL HERE.”

Hundreds of voices, even in a respectfully soft tone, were deafening when they spoke in unison. The sounded from the enforcers circling the plaza, from the alleys and windows and rooftops all around. At this, finally, some of the civilian watchers began shuffling away, trying carefully to move up the street from the casino without creating a disruption that might draw attention. These were rich people, the kind the Thieves’ Guild existed to humble. It was one thing to play with danger by idling in the thieves’ own casino; being surrounded by the Guild in this mood was a horse of a different color.

Several enforcers came closer, forming a smaller, less precise ring around the group—not so much delineating space as making it plain by their presence, turned outward to stare flatly at the crowd, that no one was welcome to approach. Around them, though some stubborn rubberneckers remained to gawk, the crowd was beginning to stream away with enough speed that its sounds quickly grew loud enough to cover conversation. They were encouraged along by thieves turning from the scene in the middle of the plaza to give pointed looks at those who remained, several toying idly with weapons.

Style carefully folded the quilt back over Ross’s face. Still kneeling over him, she paused for a long moment to draw two steadying breaths before straightening back up to her full, intimidating height.

“All right,” the chief enforcer said simply. “Who did it?”

She turned to stare at the four disarmed Legionnaires, all of whom drew closer together in alarm and would have tried to back away had Covrin not deliberately planted the tip of her lance against the back of the sergeant’s breastplate.

“None of them,” Trissiny said evenly. “The murderer preferred death to justice. I…failed to apprehend her. That’s on me.”

“I’ll assume that’s the armor talking,” Style said shortly. “Avenist justice may be complicated, but as far at the Guild is concerned, if you killed the killer, that’s settled. Now I want to know what role this lot played, and why you brought them to me.”

“These are accomplices,” Trissiny said, turning to give the four a cold look. “They are guilty of abducting Ross, and also Schwartz here, but none of them did him any harm beyond that. Private Ulster, there, broke from them and raised steel on her comrades when Ross was shot. I don’t think they wanted anything to do with murder, and that one at least had the spine to take a stand, even if it was too late to be useful. We brought them here because they need to be debriefed and held until the Imperial investigators rounding up this conspiracy can finish their work. And right now, the Sisterhood of Avei is not trustworthy. I don’t want any more fish slipping the net before Commander Rouvad gets her house in order.”

“Well, you heard the General.” Boss Tricks materialized from the crowd as if he had teleported, pacing up to the group with an uncharacteristically dark expression. “We’ve got some guests, people. See that they’re comfortable.”

Several of the surrounding enforcers stepped forward, two hefting cudgels and Grip, at their head, toying pointedly with a long knife. The soldiers drew into an even tighter knot, eyes widening, and the sergeant finally found her voice.

“Now, just a minute here. High Commander Rouvad specifically said Legionnaires aren’t to be held by—”

Trissiny crossed to them with astonishing speed for someone in armor, her sword clearing her scabbard as she came; Schwartz barely got out of her way fast enough to avoid being run over. Sergeant Raathi broke off with an undignified squeak when the edge of the paladin’s blade came to rest against her throat.

“Rouvad,” Trissiny said icily, “is not here. I am. If I were to take your head off your shoulders right now, Sergeant, who among those present do you think will raise a whisper of complaint?”

Bishop Syrinx twirled her own sword, the flash of motion intended to catch Raathi’s attention, then deliberately sheathed the weapon, folded her arms, and smirked. Raathi’s throat moved abortively, as if she had started to swallow and then changed her mind.

“You will cooperate with the Guild,” Trissiny continued after enough of a pause had stretched out to make her point plain. “You will answer any questions you are asked and cause no trouble, and if I receive a favorable report of your conduct, I will make certain it’s considered at your trial. Do otherwise and I won’t do anything at all, and you can learn for yourself how far Commander Rouvad’s say-so goes among the Thieves’ Guild. Do I make myself plain?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Trissiny held her gaze for a moment longer before lowering the sword and turning her back dismissively on the four. “Boss, I’m trusting that they won’t be mistreated here.”

“No call for that, I don’t think,” Tricks said, studying the armored women dispassionately. “Long as they do what’s asked of ’em, it’s better for the whole business if they have no cause to complain about their treatment when it’s time for trials and sentencing. We do know a thing or two about handling the justice system, after all. In fact, we can consider that my official verdict on the matter.” The Boss raised his voice and subtly shifted to direct his words to the crowd at large. “The law is already closing in on this conspiracy, and seems to have most of ’em in hand. If it does so, fine; the Guild won’t contest the right of way with the Empire. But. These bastards have killed one of our own—an apprentice. There will be no more mercy offered. I officially no longer give a shit about interfaith procedure. Any member of this conspiracy who is not safely in Imperial custody by sunset will be found hanging in the doorway of their own temple by dawn. Be they altar boys or High Commanders, I don’t care. Eserite blood is never the last to be spilled. I have spoken.”

He received a round of sharp nods, and almost every Guild thief present who was not already moving to escort the four Legionnaires into the Casino turned and began melting away into the shadows and alleyways.

“Why have I got the strangest fucking feeling,” Style said grimly, folding her arms, “that you kids aren’t done making a goddamn mess.”

Darius cleared his throat. “Style, none of us are in any mood. If you even suggest what happened to Ross is our fault, I’m gonna come over there and smack you one.”

She raised her eyebrows fractionally. “Boy, you have to know I can demolish you with one hand.”

“I surely do, and I’ll do it anyway.”

“The defiance is good, Darius, but keep it pointed where it deserves,” Tricks said firmly. “No infighting, not right now. Kids, I expect great things from all of you, and believe me, I know what it feels like to want retribution. You all know our doctrine of revenge, though.”

“You…have a doctrine for that?” Schwartz asked hesitantly.

“Revenge should only be sought,” Tallie recited in a quiet monotone, “if it serves both a strategic and personal goal. Strategic in that it will dissuade the target or others from committing more actions that demand retaliation. Personal in that the target must understand by whom and for what they are being punished, and be unable to prevent their comeuppance, because only in that circumstance will it bring satisfaction.”

“That is disturbingly insightful,” he muttered.

“And the killer is dead,” Tricks stated, glancing at Trissiny. “which takes that off the table. The people responsible for the whole debacle are being rounded up by far more effective agents than you. This is not a situation where you can help.”

“Not more effective than her,” Tallie said defiantly, also turning to Trissiny.

“And,” Layla added, “it seems the one person most responsible is in no position to be rounded up.”

Tricks shot a look at Syrinx, who still had her arms folded and was now listening without expression.

“If you kids are thinking of trying to rough up the Archpope, so help me I will put you all in cells until you cool down. I don’t care whose Hand any of you are.”

Arjen turned to stare at him, laying his ears back, which the Boss ignored.

“Excuse me, I’m not even in your cult,” Schwartz said testily.

“I think it’s pretty significant we didn’t even have to say who we’re all talking about,” Tallie said dryly.

“And no,” Trissiny added, “no one’s talking about going to the Cathedral and attacking Justinian. No one here is stupid enough to think that would work.”

“Yo.” Darius raised his hand. “Totally that stupid, for the record. That’s why I let my baby sister tag along all the time, she’s the plan person.”

“I take full credit for his survival to date,” Layla said primly.

“It seems,” Trissiny continued, “the events of this week in Tiraas are just one part of something that has parallels in Last Rock and Puna Dara. While Justinian’s name has been brought up a lot, the truth is we haven’t absolute proof that he is the one orchestrating all this behind the scenes. Which means that both justice and revenge can be best sought without attacking him directly. Whoever is responsible for this, I mean to go make certain they get nothing they want today, and that they see who wrecked their careful plans.”

Style swelled like a bullfrog, but then released the air in a heavy sigh. “And so you’re thinking of taking my apprentices and charging off to Last Rock to help your little adventurer friends?”

“She’s not taking us anywhere,” Tallie stated, glaring at her. “We’re going with. You can dish out whatever punishment you want when we get back, Style, but this is fucking well happening. Live with it.”

“And no,” Trissiny said before Style could retort. “Last Rock is a monster that eats overweening fools; anybody who wants to try their luck with Tellwyrn and my classmates is welcome to have at it. But Puna Dara is not prepared for the kinds of trouble someone like Justinian can unleash, and I have a good friend who will never forgive me if I turn my back on the Punaji when they need help. That is where I’m going. And as far as I’m concerned, everyone here has the right to come if they choose to exercise it.”

“I swear,” Style muttered, shaking her head. “A thorn in my ass to the very end.”

“You realize, kid,” Tricks said quietly, “that not everybody is secretly a paladin. The kind of trouble that you exist to stamp down gets regular people killed. How many friends are you looking to lose today?”

“If you can persuade them not to come,” she whispered, “do. Please.”

“We’ve had this out already,” Tallie said, much more firmly. “This isn’t the big bad paladin ordering us to fight. We’re Guild, Boss; nobody orders us to do jack shit.”

Style cleared her throat pointedly.

“What’re you grunting about?” Darius snorted. “It’s true and you know it. You complain about it often enough.”

“Historically speaking,” Layla added, “paladins do not operate alone; they have usually been the focus of adventurer teams. Three thieves and a witch makes for pretty good backup, I’d say.”

“Apprentice thieves!” Style grated.

Tricks shook his head, but held up a hand. “Technically, I do have the prerogative to forbid you from going.” He gave Style a long, pensive look. “But…we’re not big on technicalities here, are we?”

“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” she said incredulously.

“A great doom is coming,” the Boss murmured. “Shit’s going down, Style. I’ve heard from the Big Guy himself about our pet paladin, here. The word is to give her space to do what she wants, unless she gets into something we specifically cannot support. This is Guild retribution of exactly the kind our very few doctrines support. If any thieves want to have her back, apprentice or no… They’re cleared to go.”

Style turned her back, cursing monotonously under her breath.

“But you,” Tricks said grimly to Trissiny, “just keep in mind that raising a fist in defiance is the why but not the how of Eserion’s people. You assess the situation, you act with strategy, and you don’t take needless risks with our people’s lives.”

“You don’t need to tell me,” she replied, “but I appreciate that you did, nonetheless. I don’t plan to lose anybody else, today.”

“Yeah?” he shot back. “Did you plan to lose Ross?”

“Okay, that was not necessary,” Schwartz snapped. Meesie hopped onto his head and chittered angry agreement.

“It’s not wrong, though,” Trissiny said quietly. “Anything could happen. In war, people die.”

“You gotta trust us on this, Boss,” Tallie said, wearing a grim little smile. “I’ve been thinking on it all the way over. The biggest advantage of having our very own paladin isn’t even her capacity to break shit: it’s that with her riding at the head, nobody’ll even see us coming.”

Tricks heaved a sigh, rolling his eyes. “She said, in the middle of the street.”

That prompted a round of winces and glances around. Actually his concern might have been overstated; most of the onlookers had left, either voluntarily or shooed away by enforcers, and nobody who remained was within earshot. What was left of the crowd was again generating enough typical city noise to cover their conversation.

“Hey, give her a break,” Darius said reasonably. “After all, we’re just apprentices.”


“How’s it look out there, Sanrachi?” one of the gathered soldiers asked merrily as their soaking-wet comrade entered the barracks.

“Fucking glorious,” she replied with the same good cheer, settling onto one of the benches close to the fireplace and picking up a rag from the supplies laid out there. She began removing, drying and oiling her gear as she continued, not seeming to mind the rainwater that plastered her own clothes and hair. “It’s one of Naphthene’s own rages out there. I can’t believe you lazy sods are sitting around in here instead of out playing in the rain.”

“Yeah, well, you can go back out when your shift is over,” the lieutenant presently in charge said, looking up from his book and raising an eyebrow. “We’re all on standby. If that means missing a really good blow, well, life’s hard.”

“Not me!” another man called. “I haven’t missed a really good blow since I met Apta’s—”

“Yeah, yeah, my sister’s a whore, we’ve all heard it,” a fellow soldier grunted, tossing a boot at him without raising his attention from his game of chess. “You need some new material.”

The small barracks was on the second floor of the Rock’s southern gatehouse, set inside the massive outer wall of the fortress itself. This was not the main troop housing, but served as a common area where soldiers stationed on gate watch gathered. At times like this, the policy was to have enough troops on the ramparts to keep watch over the city, but more in reserve below not being distracted and tired out by having to remain alert in the middle of a storm. As much as Punaji enjoyed stormy weather as a rule, manning the top of a wall during a tropical gale as fierce as the one now raging could wear a person out. Sanrachi’s replacement had already gone above to relieve her, and another swap would take place in half an hour. With the weather this bad, the twelve soldiers patrolling the gatehouse’s towers would be rotated constantly, so there was always someone with fresh eyes on the city.

In theory, the Rock should have nothing to fear from the people of Puna Dara, but the very fact of the Punaji affinity for storms meant that watchers on the walls could not trust the weather alone to keep the gates clear, as might be the practice elsewhere.

“All quiet out there?” the lieutenant asked, then had to pause for a particularly loud clap of thunder. “…you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sanrachi said, grinning. “The usual. Some folks out in the street, but not a sign of these Rust bastards. I guess their name’s not a complete coincidence, huh? They seem shy about getting wet. So, uh…” She glanced curiously at some of the new arrivals, whose silver armor stood out strikingly among the Punaji uniforms. “What brings you out here, Sisters? I heard you were honored guests of the royal family.”

“That’s the theory,” Ephanie said lightly, “but we’re letting our LT hog all the honor. Honestly, you know how it is. We all complain about the digs we’re assigned, but put me on plush carpeting and silk sheets and I’m afraid to touch anything. I have no idea which one’s even the shrimp fork.”

“Shrimp fork’s the one you use to stab the shrimp who complains about what fork you’re eating with!” shouted the man who’d made the crack about Apta’s sister, earning a round of guffaws.

“Well, you’re welcome in here,” the lieutenant said, smiling warmly at her. In fact, Ephanie in particular had been the focus of a fair amount of attention from most of the men and several of the women stationed in this gatehouse. “Good company’s always appreciated. We don’t even mind you sharing the rations; we don’t go hungry around here.”

“Aw, we wouldn’t wanna be a burden,” Casey said cheerfully. “That’s why we keep Lang around! Someone so terrible at cards can’t help but make us friends.”

Merry scowled at her, slapping her handful of cards down on the table amid the laughter of the rest of the poker players. Indeed, her stack of pennies was the smallest by a wide margin. “I fucking knew it! That’s it, soon as we’re back in Tiraas I’m putting in a requisition for come compensation.”

While the joking and laughter carried on, Ephanie politely extracted herself from the lieutenant’s attention and went to join Nandi, who was standing by one of the windows, staring out at the storm with a slight frown.

“All right, Shahai?” she asked softly. “I’ve never known you to be bothered by a little thunder and lightning.”

“It isn’t that,” Nandi said slowly. “I can almost hear…something.”

Ephanie’s eyebrows drew together pensively. “Can you be a little more specific?”

“I wish I could, Avelea. I cannot pick it out, but I have the sense that there is a background sound that…” She trailed off, then finally tore her eyes from the window to look at Ephanie directly. “Elven hearing is a matter of focus. Discerning as many sounds as we do, we’d go mad from over-stimulation if we did not learn to tune most of it out. There is an art to hearing almost everything in one’s vicinity and deciding, subconsciously, what is important. Sometimes the fact that this is art and not science works against us. Something is nagging at me, and I cannot fix my attention upon it. The storm and the soldiers, obviously, do not help.”

“I’ve never seen you do that, either,” Ephanie said, studying her. “You have a great deal of experience to draw on, Shahai. Is this ringing any bells at all? Anything you want to tell me about?”

Nandi’s eyes had narrowed in concentration, tracking to the side as she listened, but at that she fixed her gaze back on Ephanie’s. “It’s nothing I would be comfortable initiating action based upon, but… My experience has been that when I have this sensation, it means someone nearby is attempting to be very stealthy, aware that an elf can hear them. Stealthier than a normal human is capable of being.”

Ephanie nodded slowly. “All right. Thanks for the warning; I’ll discreetly notify the others to be on the alert, but I don’t think we want to spook the local troops just yet.”

“No…tell their lieutenant, at least,” Merry said, having abandoned the last of her pennies and joined them in time to catch the latter part of their exchange. “We’re not the big damn heroes here, that’s those Last Rock kids and possibly Locke. We came here to support the Punaji; I think it’s a bad idea to have the attitude that these troopers are yokels who can’t be trusted to take care of their own city. We should share intel that might be important. Uh, I mean…ma’am.” She finished weakly, belatedly noticing Ephanie’s very pointed stare.

“Mouth off like that in front of anyone, Lang, and I’m gonna have to land on you,” Ephanie said dryly, “but with that said, you are dead right and I thank you for the reminder. Just learn to watch your tone. Most of the Legions do not share Locke’s idea of military comportment.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Merry said contritely.

Ephanie nodded to Nandi. “I’ll go have a discreet word with their LT. I’ve been getting the vibe he’d be happy enough to speak with me in private. It should be his call what to tell his troops, if anything, and if he doesn’t believe me, that’s that.”

“I find human soldiers are often impressed by ‘elf stuff’ to an almost superstitious degree,” Nandi said, her grave tone somewhat spoiled by the twitch of her lips. “Don’t hesitate to mention the ears.”

Ephanie grinned and patted her shoulder. “Back shortly. Keep those ears perked and let me know if you can pick anything important out.”

“Will do.”

Not even an elf could have heard the distortion of candle smoke, or even the movement of air as it was displaced by an invisible body in the rafters; with all the noise of the storm and the boisterous soldiers present, the hidden figure above managed to creep from beam to beam all the way to the stairwell door without drawing further attention.

Rather than risk opening it herself, she had to wait for the next shift change and slip out after the soldier who went to relieve his counterpart upon the battlements. It was a simple enough matter to trip him while he was opening the heavy wooden door, providing her with an opportunity to squeeze past and scamper almost silently up the stairs.

At the top, troopers were hunkered down against the battlements themselves, lifelines tied to their belts in case of someone being blown over the edge. With the wind roaring as it was, Kheshiri didn’t even try to unfurl her wings; she’d have been instantly picked up and hurled halfway to the Stalrange. Flattening herself against the floor and as close to the inner wall as she could, she made her way carefully across, mindful of both storm and soldiers, heading for the other gatehouse—the one not currently inhabited by an elf.

This delay had cost her time. The others would be getting impatient; Shook could only take his frustrations out on her later, but if Khadizroth feared she had been intercepted he might go and do something unfortunate. She would have to move faster to get the gate open, which meant creating an opportunity rather than waiting for one.

The thought was enough to set her tail waving in anticipation.

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13 – 33

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“Excuse me, but I consider this issue too central to table, even to discuss related matters,” Magister Eranis said, leaning forward over the round table. “The nature of Tar’naris’s ties with the humans is fundamental to this entire proposal. And, indeed, of theirs with you. What expectations will they have of each of our peoples, following this? The Empire is too large a beast to be tiptoed around.”

“I concur,” Elder Caminae added, the beads dangling from her ears rattling softly as she nodded. “It is the humans who have pushed us all to so dramatically break with precedent and tradition; there is no sense in denying it. We must address this. It is at the core of the entire discussion.”

“Forgive me, I was not proposing to avoid the issue,” Ashaele said politely, still calm and unruffled despite the frustratingly circular nature of most of their discussion thus far. In fact, most of the delegates had remained admirably poised, and willing to forgive the little slights and missteps that inevitably resulted from having multiple cultures represented. Only Eranis had shown overt signs of tension, but whenever the Magister had begun to show open irritation, one of his Highguard had leaned forward to whisper in his ear, so lightly that even the other elves present could not hear what was said. Whatever the reminder, it had always prompted Eranis to regain his composure. That alone made it worth tolerating the two armored soldiers, when none of the other delegates had brought an escort.

This was the first time in three millennia a high elf of his rank had left the reclusive strongholds of his people, and the first time one had ever visited a drow city. That fact alone would have been historic, but this gathering consisted of Ashaele and Queen Arkasia herself, a Magister of the high elves of the Dwarnskolds (the Spine, as they called it), and seven Elders from various plains and forest tribes. Every moment that passed in civil conversation was a virtual miracle. Ashaele liked to think each of them took the same encouragement from this fact that she did. Something more than simple necessity was keeping the stiff-backed pride of ancient elves in check here.

“I did not infer a suggestion that you were, Matriarch,” Elder Tamaar replied before anyone else could jump in. Somewhat to Ashaele’s surprise after the way this forest Elder in particular had resisted her diplomatic approaches for years, Tamaar had proved one of the greater moderating influences at the table. “Let us be mindful of the difficult nature of this discussion and not perceive insult or manipulation where none is meant.”

“Indeed,” Elder Ehshu added, turning to Caminae and nodding. Despite both being plains elves, they had not agreed on much so far. “And I see wisdom in Ashaele’s suggestion, anyway. We have not forgotten Tiraas and will not ignore it, but there are countless matters we must discuss. Might it not serve the discussion itself to turn it to a less contentious topic, for now? The thornier issue may yield to compromise if approached later from a place of agreement, rather than from the frustration of the last hour.”

“I suppose,” Eranis conceded with a displeased clench of his thin lips. “So long as it is understood that we cannot ignore this.”

“Just as you say, Magister,” Ashaele said courteously. “We cannot ignore the matter of Tiraas, and I think none of us gathered here are foolish enough to try. I only raised the more pedestrian subject of passage rights because… Well, Elder Ehshu phased it more gracefully than I.”

She nodded to Ehshu, who smiled and inclined his head in return.

They had assembled upon the uppermost terrace of House Awarrion’s well-defended estate. Between the position and the presence of arcane wards (of Tiraan make) which prevented those outside from eavesdropping but allowed them to hear the sounds of the city, the delegates were uniquely well-positioned to discern the shouts which began to sound from the surface gate region.

All of them turned to look, several half-rising to get a better view, and as such they all saw the streak of fire which soared out of the great cavern’s entrance tunnel and arced up over Tar’naris itself. The city was not dark even to human eyes, but it was certainly dim enough that the archdemon’s burning wings were an illumination no one could have missed.

“There is no cause for alarm,” Ashaele said quickly, and fruitlessly. As Vadrieny clearly headed straight for House Awarrion, several of the delegates and both of Eranis’s Highguard drew weapons, and the Magister himself began conjuring something which produced a faint arcane whine at the very edge of elven hearing. Of course, all the shouts were from the city below; the An’sadarr soldiers and other House guards patrolling Tar’naris’s defenses had been told about Vadrieny.

Ashaele did not permit herself a sigh, but wanted to as she watched Vadrieny approach—carrying a human boy in her talons, for some reason. And to think Shaeine had been the impulsive hothead in the family. Truly, she was gaining a new appreciation for Nahil’s deliberate, strategic obstreperousness.

Unfortunately Vadrieny did not see as well as an elf, and so approached the upper terrace directly, and came close enough that several of the delegates had defensively aimed arrows, tomahawks, and spells at her before she realized there was a meeting in progress. Immediately she twisted her wings, arcing away in a wide loop, and settled gently onto a lower terrace of the House.

Ashaele noted with approval that she had selected a less-than-convenient landing spot for the sake of keeping herself within view of the upper terrace, so those present could see her ensuing harmless conduct. They were unrefined, but Teal did have good political instincts. Talent which could be shaped.

“I apologize for the interruption,” she said smoothly. No one was looking at her; everybody was watching the archdemon’s form retreat to leave a young human woman with brown hair to drop her prisoner unceremoniously to the rooftop. Already a House priestess and five guards had converged upon them, but not aggressively. The sight of Awarrion personnel behaving so clearly deferentially toward the intruder made those with drawn bows lower and relax them. Ashaele continued, keeping her tone calm and nonchalant to further defuse the tension. “It seems my daughter has brought me something. She can wait; please, do not concern yourselves.”

“Ah, yes,” Eranis said, still staring down at Teal. “Your…daughter. Of course. Silly of me not to note the resemblance.”

That earned him a few chuckles, and the hum of nascent magic vanished from the air. All those who had reacted un-tensed visibly, lowering weapons, though they continued to watch with open curiosity as, under Teal’s direction, the House guards took up obviously aggressive positions guarding the human boy, one binding his hands behind his back. Ashaele was quite curious about that, herself.

“Perhaps this is fortuitous,” Queen Arkasia said suddenly, commanding everyone’s attention. She had mostly preferred to listen rather than talk, trusting Ashaele to present Tar’naris’s interests rhetorically, and alone of those present had not moved or otherwise reacted to Vadrieny’s arrival. “Were we not just agreeing that it is sometimes better to retreat from a contentious problem and approach it later with a fresh perspective? We all understand the issues, and what is at stake here. I believe that by this point each of us has a working grasp of the others’ perspectives.” The Queen rose smoothly from her seat, prompting those still seated to do likewise. “I propose we have a recess to allow Ashaele to address House business. Several of you expressed interest in viewing our agricultural caverns; I would be most pleased to show them to you. And when we reconvene, perhaps new solutions will be on the tip of someone’s tongue.”

“I had very carefully not expressed such an interest,” Magister Eranis replied with a wry smile, then bowed to the Queen. “I salute your perceptiveness, your Majesty. Indeed, I am quite curious to see what the Tiraan have done there.”

“And I have, indeed, wondered how you can grow plants so well underground,” Elder Shaire added with a pensive tilt of her head.

“Well, I thought the idea made sense on a smaller scale and I think it makes even more on a larger,” Elder Ehshu agreed. “By all means, let us take a break. I think it will do our discussion good in the long run.”

Ashaele bowed deeply to Arkasia, who gave her a small nod in response. As protocol required, the Matriarch waited politely behind, allowing all of the delegates to file down the stairs after the Queen. Only when she had the rooftop to herself did she finally turn and make for the other staircase.

It would not do for the Matriarch of the House to be seen hurrying, especially with such important negotiations in progress, but she did not dawdle. It was a scant two minutes later that she re-emerged upon the lower terrace to find Teal standing with her hands folded in a very serviceable posture of Narisian patience. She had even taken time to fix her hair, which had grown long enough that flight did it no favors.

“Mother,” she said in elvish, bowing.

“Wow, you actually call her that,” the blonde human added. Behind him, Commander Vengnat yanked subtly on the cord binding his wrists, causing him to stumble.

“Teal,” Ashaele said, raising an eyebrow.

“This,” Teal explained, nodding in her prisoner’s direction, “is Chase Masterson. Also known as the Sleeper.”

“Accused!” he clarified.

“Indeed,” Ashaele said grimly, studying the boy in more detail. He seemed a very unremarkable specimen for a human. Young, of Stalweiss stock, a bit on the scrawny side… And looking strangely at ease considering his predicament. In fact, he grinned and peered around at the scenery as though he were a tourist being guided through the House. Ashaele had an immediate suspicion, which Teal promptly verified.

“He is anth’auwa, and apparently granted knowledge of infernal magic by Elilial. I…confiscated him from Tellwyrn in Tiraas.”

“That sounds like a longer story,” Ashaele observed, still studying Masterson, who was failing to look appropriately intimidated or contrite. “Do you expect reprisal from the Professor for that?”

“Are you kidding?” Masterson scoffed. “She let you go and you know it. Tellwyrn’s got a thousand ways to—”

“Commander, I am not interested in the prisoner’s input at this time,” Ashaele stated calmly.

“Be silent until spoken to,” Vengnat ordered in Tanglish, giving the boy another yank.

“Based on what I heard of their conversation,” Teal continued, “it seems Tellwyrn laid some kind of magic effect on him to block his ability to cast spells.”

“Can I just remind everyone that all these are just accusations?” Masterson said with a broad grin. “Seriously, this has been a big misunderst—”

Vengnat punched him right in the mouth, sending him reeling to the floor.

“This,” Ashaele mused, staring down at the boy, “is going to be more complicated than I had hoped. Very well. Commander, remove him to the lowest dungeon. I want him held under the strictest warlock protocols.”

“At once, Matriarch,” Vengnat said crisply, then grabbed Masterson by his collar and dragged him bodily away. The other guards present immediately fell into step behind them.

“I didn’t realize he understood elvish,” Teal murmured as the procession vanished into the House. “What are warlock protocols, if I may ask?”

Now that they were alone, Ashaele finally permitted herself a soft sigh. “Drugs, Teal. Binding a person’s magic that way is the province of fae craft, or of all three of the other schools working in concert. I don’t know which Tellwyrn used, but I suppose it should not surprise me that she has unexpected talents. But no such bond will hold forever, not with a skilled caster working at it from within. We have only priestesses and the very occasional wizard; we cannot reproduce that craft. Keeping a warlock of great skill prisoner means we cannot trust passive wards or Themynra’s blessings upon his cell. We will have to keep him in a mental state from which he cannot work magic.”

“I see,” Teal said softly, frowning.

“I don’t think you do, entirely,” Ashaele replied, stepping over to place an arm around her shoulders. Teal leaned into her as she continued. “We will extract whatever information we need from him to lift the sleeping curse, have no fear of that. It should not take long. But justice, what I spoke of to you in Last Rock… That, now, is likely to be a longer process than we would like, daughter. Him being anth’auwa is deeply relevant; it may mean he is less culpable for his actions, or possibly more so. That condition manifests in innumerable patterns. He will have to be very thoroughly examined by priestesses trained in such psychology.”

“But how are we going to psychoanalyze someone who is drugged—oh. I see.”

“Yes.” Ashaele nodded, and rubbed her shoulder. “Yes…this makes justice very complicated. But it is still justice, and I will not see Shaeine deprived of it. I will see that whatever time is needed will be taken. Resign yourself, daughter, to a process. Narisian justice strives to be swift, but we may be denied a quick closure. There is no telling how long this may drag on.”

“I understand, Mother.” Teal sighed softly, and gently pulled away. “I’m very sorry for interrupting your meeting.”

“You acted rightly, Teal,” Ashaele said, giving her a smile. “That meeting is a secret of the highest order, however. You are not to breathe a hint even of its existence. To anyone. There are no surface elves visiting Tar’naris.”

“Understood.” She stepped back enough to bow respectfully. “I am sorry I can’t stay, but I left my friends in the middle of a very difficult situation in Puna Dara to bring Chase here. In fact, I have reason to believe a mutual enemy revealed him to me specifically to remove Vadrieny from that situation. I must return as quickly as possible.”

“Then make haste, daughter. And remember.” Ashaele reached out to squeeze her shoulders briefly with both hands, smiling. “I love you, and I am proud of you. You’ve done very well by your House.”

Teal smiled in reply, reaching up to grasp her hands for a moment, and then stepped back again.

She actually leaped straight upward, Vadrieny emerging in a rush of flames a few feet off the ground. One pump of the blazing wings sent her shooting toward the cavern’s ceiling, and then she arced away, back toward the city gates.


“House fucking who?”

“House Dalkhaan,” Sekandar repeated, still studying the man’s uniform while Miss Sunrunner set his arm. “And…that’s actually a pretty good description, Inspector. They used to be a big deal; there was a Dalkhaan Dynasty in Calderaas centuries ago. The House has declined, though, and these days there’s nothing left of it but the old Duchess.”

“Huh,” Fedora grunted. “Why would this Duchess Dalky-whatsit want to send troops to our campus?”

“It’s a Hand of the Emperor barking orders, my man,” Rafe pointed out. “He can command any House troops to do whatever damn thing crosses his mind.”

“Not…exactly,” Sekandar said with a wince. “There are limits on Imperial power, especially since the Enchanter Wars…”

“Yeah, well, more immediately,” said Fedora, “this Hand is not acting with the Imperial government behind him and he knows it. He’ll be reaching out specifically to people who might be sympathetic to what he’s trying to do—which is pursue an irrational vendetta with Professor Tellwyrn. So, with regard to that!” He turned back to Sekandar, raising his eyebrows. “Any insight, your Princeliness?”

“Two reasons,” Sekandar immediately replied. “Duchess Irmeen hates my mother, and she has nothing to lose. Houses Dalkhaan and Aldarasi have been rivals for generations, and enemies since the Enchanter Wars. But now, the Duchess’s children have all died, and she’s in her eighties. When she passes on, so does her entire legacy.” He shrugged, turning from Fedora to Rafe and Yornhaldt. “Arachne Tellwyrn has been a friend to House Aldarasi since long before the University. I don’t even know what the source of her attachment is, but she apparently really liked one of my ancestors. Irmeen is a spiteful old bag with barely two dozen House troops left, not a one of them under forty or in fighting shape. If somebody offered her a chance to stab blindly at a friend of my mother’s, I can’t imagine she would pass it up. What is Mother going to do about it? Or even Tellwyrn? The old lady’ll be dead soon anyway, and House Dalkhaan with her.”

“Well, then, that’s actually good news,” Fedora said brightly. “If that’s all the manpower this guy can bring to bear…”

“It’s what we’ve seen thus far,” Yornhaldt cautioned. “And we don’t even know when he gathered them up, or what he’s been doing with his time. Don’t assume he has no other allies.”

“Obviously,” Fedora replied with ostentatious patience. “But it’s significant that these are the caliber of people he’s calling on. What was it you said, Aldarasi? Not a one under forty or in fighting shape?”

“They’re a blend of Dalkhaan veterans who should have retired long since, and riffraff no other guard force would employ,” Sekandar said, nodding. “And it’s not as if the Duchess has the budget or the inclination to keep them trained up, or properly equipped…”

“There, y’see?” Fedora said cheerily to Yornhaldt. “These aren’t elite troops, or even passable troops; they’re warm bodies to throw at a problem. Aren’cha!” He leaned forward to grin obnoxiously at the portly man in House Dalkhaan livery, who was grimacing and experimentally prodding at the sling into which Miss Sunrunner had just finished settling his arm.

“You take a step back, mister,” Sunrunner said dangerously. “Don’t think for a moment that Arachne won’t hear about this. You let a student deliberately maim a man in University custody!”

“’Maim’ is a strong word,” Rafe protested. “Look how quick you fixed him!”

“Sides,” Fedora added merrily, “Tellwyrn’ll think it was funny.”

“Yes, I know.” She stood up and folded her arms, glaring at him. “But by the time I’ve finished chewing her ear off, there will be consequences, no matter how funny she thought it was. Ask Admestus if you doubt me.”

“It’s true,” Rafe said solemnly. “Even the great Tellwyrn is no match for Taowi’s powers of wet blanketry once she gets going.”

Fedora sighed. “All right, all right, we’ll burn that bridge if we all survive to reach it. The point is, everyone’s down here—well, everyone we could get down here—and the actual forces the enemy’s placed on campus are a big bucket o’ nothin’. That means he’ll be bringing some other leverage to bear. Everybody across the bridge; let’s all be safely in sanctuary before we find out what else the asshole has up his sleeve. Come on, chop chop.”

The group had been huddling in the alcove where the deep staircase from the Crawl’s entrance finally opened onto its vast, slanted main chamber. Scorn and Maureen had already crossed the bridge ahead into the Grim Visage, at Fedora’s direction; the Rhaazke’s long stride and the gnome’s willingness to be carried had enabled them to reach the tavern far in advance of the rest of the group, who were prodding their injured prisoner along. As ordered, they had sent Sekandar and Miss Sunrunner back to meet them. Now, with her first aid done and Sekandar having identified the man’s uniform, there was no more reason to delay.

The man actually whimpered as he was led out onto the bridge, closing his eyes and refusing to look at the impossible drop all around them, but at least he didn’t try to dig his heels in. The group split in two as they went, with Yornhaldt and Ezzaniel falling back to match the prisoner’s pace. Sunrunner, of course, stayed right by his side, urging him gently along. Fedora sauntered on ahead, Sekandar in tow.

As such, they were the first to enter the Grim Visage itself, finding the place densely packed with the over a hundred students, teachers, and other personnel currently on campus. Some had obviously departed up the stairs to the rooms, or into the broad market space beyond the common area, but there was still barely room to squeeze into the tavern’s main floor.

Which didn’t stop its proprietress.

“What the fuck!?” Melaxyna screeched, launching herself from the balcony to glide down to the entrance, where she landed atop a table near the door.

“Well, hi there, Mel!” Fedora said cheerfully, doffing his hat. “It’s a bit of a long story. See, the campus—”

“I know all about that, you ass, you think I haven’t been talking to the dozens of kids who’ve suddenly descended on my bar?” She planted her fists on her hips and glared down at him, wings unfurled menacingly and tail lashing. “What in shit’s name are you doing here?”

“He’s the head of campus security,” Hildred offered from her perch on the arm of a chair by the fireplace.

Melaxyna went entirely still, even her tail. Her eyes narrowed to slits.

“The answer to your next question, doll,” Fedora said smoothly, “is that I sucked up to Tellwyrn outrageously, and I bet you did something to gratuitously piss her off. As, I presume, did Rowe. Sound about right?”

The succubus snorted, but folded her arms and adopted a surly expression. “Well, fine. I can needle you about that later. Exactly how goddamn long do you expect to keep my tavern crammed to the gills with these kids? They’ll eat every scrap in the place in ten minutes flat, if I know college students. Which I damn well do, being a permanent stop on their bi-annual fucking tour!”

“Hopefully not long,” Fedora assured her with a wink. “We just need to hold out till Tellwyrn gets back to deal with the clown making a ruckus up top. She knows better than to dawdle, and it’ll likely be short work once she gets home. Meanwhile, we just need to keep the students in the Visage for the sake of the sanctuary effect, where they’ll be safe.”

“Uh huh,” she said skeptically. “Because it’s not like nobody’s ever found a way to fuck with the Crawl’s permanent effects before. Like I did in Level 2, for example, or Rowe did with the entire fucking place.”

“Yeah, but you were down here for years, both of you,” Fedora said dismissively. “That guy’s got hours, at most. What could he possibly do?”

Half a dozen people scattered about the room simultaneously let out loud groans.

“And those,” Sekandar helpfully informed the Inspector, “are the bardic studies majors.”


“Well, this is very mildly diverting,” Magelord Tyrann said from the other side of the barrier, inspecting his fingernails, “but do you think you will be done soon? We are in the middle of very important research.”

As if on cue, a man with wild hair, a long face, and a dark Punaji complexion leaned around the corner of the doorway behind him.

“Hey, Tyrann! We’re all playing charades now. Since you missed your turn in the last round of go fish we’re lettin’ you go first. C’mon, you’re gonna miss it!” Chortling, he vanished back into the administration building of the University’s new research campus.

Tyrann smiled thinly at the audience before him, his image only slightly distorted by being out of phase with physical reality, along with the structure behind him in which the University’s entire research staff were presently assembled. “I suspect there is no game of charades,” he confided in a dry tone. “Prince Raffi simply has the most incredible sense of comedic timing of any man I have ever known.”

“OI! What’d I tell you about callin’ me prince!”

Accompanying the yell from within, a beer bottle came sailing out through the door. It slowed in midair, drifting to hover next to Tyrann’s shoulder. The Magelord calmly plucked it from the air and took a dainty sip, still watching his would-be assailants with a superciliously arched eyebrow.

“Do you have it?” the Hand of the Emperor growled in a strained tone, his eyes fixed on Tyrann.

“I…yes, sir,” Lorelin Reich said warily, glancing between him and the other man who had recently joined them. “That is, I can sense the disruption well enough, and it is similar enough to Vidian arts…”

“I, too, can detect the general shape of what you are doing, sir,” Willard Tanenbaum said with equal unease. “Working a thumbnail into the cracks in the fairy geas upon this mountain, as it were. Most impressive. But sir, that is a Magelord of Syralon. With all due respect, I don’t believe we are going to break this phasing with him actively maintaining it…”

“You’re too kind,” Tyrann said wryly, lifting the beer bottle at him in a toast.

“I am only minimally interested in these cretins,” the Hand said shortly, his demeanor changing as he relaxed whatever magical effect he had been concentrating upon. “What matters is that you two paid attention to what I was doing, so as to be able to imitate it via your respective schools of magic.”

“It is a fairy geas, sir,” Tanenbaum said diffidently. “My arts are uniquely un-suited…”

“I’m aware,” the Hand said curtly, turning around. “But there are…”

He trailed off upon catching sight of the two House guards standing watch a few feet distant. One was leaning upon his battlestaff in a nigh-suicidal mockery of firearm safety, while the other industriously picked his nose.

“FALL IN!” the Hand roared, setting off uphill toward the main campus. Both men jumped and scurried to trail along behind the little procession, Reich and Tanenbaum flanking the Hand on the way up. The man leading them had acquired a limp in the last few minutes, somehow, which they did not ask about. Both had learned very early on that asking questions was both pointless and unwise. “I don’t care about those fools back there. My concern is the students. Right now there are defenses similar to those upon that building covering the campus chapel, and a spot deep within the Crawl; both contain students. Neither has a magic user actively defending it, and won’t so long as Tellwyrn is absent from the campus, so our window of opportunity is limited. Reich, I want you to bring that chapel back into phase and disable its sanctuary charms. Can you?”

“Without having inspected it… I mean, I believe so, sir. So long as I don’t have to argue the right of way with a Magelord or something similar.”

The Hand nodded once, curtly. “Do it, and retrieve those paralyzed students; I want them in my custody before we leave. Tanenbaum, you’re with me. We are going to go fishing deep below. There is, as they say, more than one way to skin a cat.”

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13 – 32

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The back door opened onto a perfectly ordinary kitchen, dim with the lack of any active fairy lamps or torches. There was both a modern arcane stove and an old-fashioned hearth, neither showing signs of having been in recent use. The apprentices crept through with all the silence their training had granted them, even Meesie perching still and quiet on Jasmine’s shoulder. It was hard to tell how intelligent the little fire elemental actually was, but despite her clear agitation over Schwartz’s abduction, she was able to follow orders well enough, at least once Jasmine had explained the necessity.

In truth, there was some cover for their movements, as Bishop Syrinx had evidently found someone, to judge by the raised voices echoing from somewhere in the house—both female, one hers. Tallie took the lead, gesturing for the rest to follow, and peeked around the kitchen door the way she had been taught: approaching it backwards, leaning her head to the side around the corner and presenting the smallest possible profile while glancing rapidly about with one eye.

She gestured them again, indicating that room was clear, and they slipped into a parlor that was just as ordinary in appearance, and just as dim. The only light came from the windows; a lack of drawn drapes suggested someone was in residence and awake (one of the signs a thief was trained to look for), but there remained no sign of the house’s inhabitants, aside from Syrinx’s confrontation.

They froze at the ring of metal upon metal, accompanied by a shout. Jasmine started to lunge forward, but Tallie seized her by the arm, and she restrained herself in response, nodding acknowledgment of the silent reminder. Tallie resumed point position, creeping up to the other way into the room, which had no door and appeared to lead into an entrance hall.

She paused at the sound of heavy footsteps, and then more scuffling and another shout much closer at hand—just around the corner, in fact. There came a thump and a shriek, and then the distinctive ascending sound of booted feet running up a carpeted stairwell.

Tallie peeked carefully around the edge again, then glanced back at the others and beckoned them forward as she stepped brazenly into the foyer.

They found Jenell slumped against the banister of a staircase, shield dangling from her hand and sword lodged in the wall nearby, with her free hand pressed to the side of her head. Blood seeped from between her fingers. Syrinx was just arriving from another direction, also carrying a bared blade. She gave the apprentices a single dismissive glance, then her aura flashed alight and she raised a glowing hand to touch Jenell’s.

“I suppose after having you do secretarial work for months on end, Covrin, it’s not fair to expect you to be able to stand up to a real Legionnaire in a fight. Hold still, you flighty hen, this won’t take a moment.”

“Hey, that’s a head wound,” Darius said, crowding up behind Jasmine and Layla. “Shouldn’t she go to an actual—”

“Boy, if I ever ask for your opinion, it will mean I am possessed by a particularly inept demon and I want you to shoot me on the spot.” Syrinx lowered her hand and her glow, already stepping around Covrin to peer up the stairs. “Heading to an upper floor is a quick way to corner yourself, unless… Whatever that girl is up to, I had better put a stop to it. Covrin, come.”

“Wait!” Jasmine said quickly. “Show us where that soldier was standing. The exact spot.”

There was a pause in which the other apprentices frowned in confusion, while Jenell cast a wary look at Syrinx as if expecting some kind of outburst, but after a second the Bishop nodded thoughtfully.

“Quite right, well spotted. Straight down the hallway here is a small library; she was standing in front of the bookcase with the bust of Theasia on one shelf. Come, Covrin, time’s wasting.”

Once again they parted ways, and in much the same manner as before: Syrinx charging ahead and dragging Covrin along in her wake, while the apprentices moved most cautiously deeper into the house.

“Psst,” Darius whispered as they filed into the library, which was roughly the size of a bedroom, lined with laden bookshelves, and actually lit with fairy lamps. “Anybody know what Theasia looks like?”

Tallie swept a stare around the room. “Well, we do now, since there’s only one bust of anybody in here. Her Majesty was a handsome lady!” She crossed to the case in question, which was heavily laden with books, apart from the spots kept clear by bookends to create display space for the small bust, a unicorn horn in its own stand, and a bottle full of thick liquid that glowed faintly and moved in a continuous slow swirl. “Jas, you’re thinking secret entrance?”

“Only thing that makes sense of this,” Jasmine replied, still hovering by the door. “If they’re really short on personnel, like if they didn’t have enough to post guards at all entrances of the house, they might have just posted one on the sole entrance to wherever they’ve gone. Then, if the guard came under attack and couldn’t quickly retreat through it, she’d logically try to run to draw the attacker away. Meesie, is Schwartz behind that door?”

Meesie squeaked once, and leaned forward off Jasmine’s shoulder to point straight down.

“Layla, you’re the best with locks,” Tallie said. “Can you find the hidden whatchamajigger?”

“Ah, yes, in fact I know a trick for situations just such as this,” Layla said primly, stepping forward. The pulled a book off the shelf, then another, and another…

“Are you just trying every book?” Tallie demanded, softly as Layla continued to build a stack on a nearby table.

“If someone knows a faster way, that would be delightful. I know locks, not secret bookcases.”

“Careful, there,” Darius warned, hovering around her worriedly. “This is a warlock’s house and that’s apparently the door to his secret basement…”

“So be wary of traps, yes,” Tallie said, “but…I don’t think this guy is home. If there was a warlock in residence, it stands to reason we’d be having demon problems by now, after Syrinx blew the hell out of his wards.”

A hefty thump sounded from directly above them, followed by scuffling, a muffled shriek, and then more footsteps stomping away. They all stared at the ceiling for a moment, then Layla and Darius resumed dismantling the bookcase.

“One problem I see with your theory, Jas,” Darius grunted, setting an atlas down on the floor as quietly as possible. “Posting a guard on this entrance basically revealed what it was. That doesn’t seem smart.”

“How many of their actions so far have been smart?” she countered. “If the warlock’s not here, this may just be Legionnaires; remember the Bishops were out rounding up other members of the conspiracy. Some Avenist personnel are trained in intelligence tactics, but most rank-and-file won’t—”

“And click goes the mechanism!” Layla said smugly, her hand on an economics treatise which had not come all the way loose. Indeed, she and Darius then had to back away as the half-unloaded bookcase swung silently outward. Behind it was a dark stairwell, descending in a steep spiral into the unknown.

“Okay,” Tallie said grimly. “Slow and silent, people. This has got to be the last leg of the journey. We get down there, we scout, we do whatever needs doing. We all know our strengths. Any fighting, Jasmine takes point, followed by Darius. Layla’s best with nimble fingers and a silver tongue, so you’re on any filching or sweet-talking. I’m a cat burglar; I’ll do any stealthy clambering around the situation calls for. We may not be able to talk once we’re down there without revealing ourselves, so keep your eyes open and watch each other’s backs. Ready?”

A chorus of soft affirmations followed, including one from Meesie. Tallie nodded once, then turned and stepped into the darkness.

Gauging distance by feel was among the skills Guild thieves learned, but it was one that required practice to develop judgment, which none of them had had. It was clear, though, that this stairwell went down below the level of a basement. Below that would be the sewer system, which made sense; the Guild used the broad tunnels when they weren’t flooding, as did various other troublemakers, but that very fact made it unlikely that a warlock would use a sewer space for any secret purpose. Somebody would likely come across it, and it would be swept clean by the regular torrential runoffs from Tiraas’s heavy rains which were the reason its sewer tunnels were so broad.

Then again, rumors of secret, sealed-off chambers hidden within the tunnel system were as old as the sewers themselves…

Jasmine walked second after Tallie, with Meesie on her shoulder; the elemental’s glow wasn’t bright, but it was the only light they had, and barely enough to find their footing in the cramped stairwell. Darius, bringing up the rear, had the least illumination and descended with one hand on Layla’s shoulder.

They decreased their already slow pace as voices began to sound from below. The words were garbled beyond comprehension by distance and echo, but if nothing else it was a sign that they were close. A minute later, the faintest glow of light appeared.

The group paused, Tallie turning to look up at the rest of them. Jasmine picked Meesie up off her shoulder, lifting the mouse to her lips and whispering a few almost silent words. The little elemental sat bolt upright in her palm, whiskers twitching, and then nodded once and quickly squeezed herself into Jasmine’s sleeve. Without her reddish glow, the paler yellow of lamplight from below was all they had to go on.

It turned out they were closer than they’d realized; immediately around the next turn of the stairwell, a doorway appeared. Tallie crouched next to it, peeking carefully out, and then dropped to crawl on her belly through the opening. The others followed suit, each as the one in front cleared a space for them, emerging from the stairwell into an underground chamber lit only by a single fairy lamp.

Finally, they had a stroke of luck; this place might as well have been designed to give anyone entering from the stairs a tactical advantage over the room’s occupants. In fact, judging by a few rusted chains still bolted to the walls, that might have been literally the case. It was laid out exactly like the Pit back at Guild headquarters, only a fraction of the size; a stone path ran all the way around the edges of the room, at the level of the entrance, with a single flight of steps descending to the cubic depression below. Crawling along as flat as they could get to peek over the ledge, they had a perfect vantage.

And of course, by the time they emerged from the stairwell they could clearly hear the conversation taking place, and listened while getting themselves into position.

“But it’s different if it’s someone you know?”

“Yes! All right? Is that what you wanted to hear?” Ildrin Falaridjad’s voice cracked and she paused before continuing. “I have worked with Herschel, and he’s a sweet—look. I didn’t decide to kill the gnome, nor did I do it, nor would I have approved of that! All of that was on Tanenbaum!”

“Or on whoever he got his orders from…”

“I am the liaison to his Holiness!”

“You’re certain you’re the only one, Sister?”

Tallie was the first in position to peek over the edge; the others spread themselves out to the right, avoiding the steps which would be the first place the pit’s inhabitants would look for intruders.

Ildrin had been pacing up and down in agitation, and now stopped to glare at the Legionnaire wearing sergeant’s stripes, who was the one arguing with her. Two other Legionnaires, both privates, were standing against the wall, looking nervous.

Both their missing friends were against another wall. Schwartz lay in an awkward position; he had his wrists bound together in front of him (a rookie mistake as they all had been taught; you tied a prisoner’s hands behind them, especially if they were spellcasters) and was slumped on his side, clearly unconscious. Ross sat next to him with his back to the wall, awake and apparently perfectly calm, watching the argument unfold. It was hard to take cues from that. Ross was always calm.

“What are you insinuating, Raathi?” Ildrin demanded, glaring at the sergeant. Tallie gently nudged Jasmine, then tilted her head once significantly and received a nod in return. The Legionnaires were only carrying their traditional melee weapons, but Ildrin had a wand in her hands. In fact, she was twisting it nervously in both fists in a manner that would send anyone schooled in basic wand safety into a rage.

“I don’t mean to insinuate anything,” Sergeant Raathi said, meeting the priestess’s gaze without flinching, “but we need to face the fact that this situation is completely out of control. Tanenbaum was supposed to be here to tell us our next steps, but he’s not. You are supposed to be acting on orders directly from the Archpope, but he was just in a public pulpit yesterday denouncing people exactly like us!”

“His Holiness is wise, and clever,” Ildrin shot back. “Obviously, he had to deflect attention from—”

“And were you told that or did you assume it after the fact?” one of the other soldiers interrupted.

“Can it, private,” Raathi barked. Ildrin glared at the girl who had spoken, who shrank back against the wall, all the military stiffness leaking from her shoulders.

Tallie, meanwhile, had been instigating a series of nudges to get everyone’s attention, and now began gesticulating. She pointed at Jasmine and then Darius, and then to the stairs down to the pit, finally making a sign to wait. Tapping her own forehead, she indicated the far corner of the room, behind Ildrin, then pointed at Layla and made a couple of hand signals at which the girl in question frowned in confusion.

Jasmine nodded once, though, and Darius leaned close to his sister to whisper directly in her ear. He and Jasmine would draw attention via the main stairs; Tallie, being the most limber, would ambush Ildrin from above and behind and take that wand out of play, and Layla was to hang back until the scuffle got underway, the intervene in whatever manner opportunity provided to tip the balance. They had no way of waking Schwartz, but with the wand down Ross would be able to help. Hopefully, they would collectively be enough to fend off the Legionnaires.

“Insubordination aside,” Raathi was saying, turning back to Ildrin, “she has a point. Do you know what is happening, Sister?”

“I…” Ildrin trailed off, turning a helpless stare on Schwartz and Ross, and swallowed. The hair at her temples was slick with sweat. Again, she fidgeted dangerously with the wand, and both privates began edging away from the direction in which it happened to be pointed.

“Aimless grunting is not what I want to hear,” Raathi snapped. “Goddess, we just abducted an apprentice of the Thieves’ Guild! Arresting them was one thing, but this. Tricks will send enforcers after our families if we don’t have a plan to get out of this situation, and here you are, making goldfish faces and stammering!”

“I did not tell you to do that!” Ildrin shrieked. “What were you thinking?!”

“Well, we had to do something! He was following and—it’s done, now, regardless. What about the witch, Falaridjad? You said he fought off Athan’Khar monsters! I had exactly one sleep dart, and he’s going to be waking up in minutes. What then? He’ll demolish us! Unless—”

“I am not going to murder an unconscious boy!” Ildrin snarled.

“Then him murdering us, that’s all right with you?”

“He won’t,” the priestess insisted. “I know him. Hershel wouldn’t harm anyone who didn’t… That is, unless he was…”

“Was what? Threatened? Abducted? Tied up and drugged? Falaridjad, you’re supposedly in charge, here. That means you need to come up with a plan. If you’re not going to kill him, what are we going to do?”

“We could surrender,” suggested the soldier who had spoken out previously.

“Private, you will shut your mouth!” Raathi growled.

“Ya could, though,” Ross said suddenly.

Everyone paused.

Jasmine and Darius were in position, flat on the ground out of sight just behind the stairs, she whispering to the quivering lump in her sleeve. Tallie had just reached her spot behind Ildrin, creeping low along the wall, and was in the process of worming forward to peek over the edge again; Layla just huddled in the far corner, looking surly at not having something more specific to do. All of them froze, as did the abductors in the pit.

“You just…be quiet,” Ildrin said at last with an unconvincing effort at authority.

“The thing is, you’re all right,” Ross said. “I mean, all correct, I don’t think anybody here’s all right. This mess is out of control, an’ it’s not really any of your fault. Well, maybe not all of it.”

“Shut up,” Ildrin snapped, brandishing the wand. “The last thing I’m going to do is listen to you!”

He shrugged; Darius, Jasmine, and Tallie had all wormed forward to peek carefully over the ledges, watching for the right moment. They had to time this precisely, and Ildrin was the dangerous element here. She was agitated and playing around with a deadly weapon. Unless they neutralized her quickly…

“I think you tried to do the right thing at every step,” Ross continued, his voice oddly nonchalant. “Started out want’n ta be moral an’ stand for what you believed, right? Dealt with the problem in front of you the best you could, an’ then the next thing, while it all got more an’ more outta control, till you’re ass-deep in kidnapping an’ murder an’ don’t really know how it happened. I can relate, a bit.”

Ildrin and the soldiers were all staring at him now, apparently stunned into silence. The apprentices above barely dared to breathe. If he could talk them down, this could all be over in the most perfect outcome they could hope for.

“I mean, not the kidnapping an’ stuff, that’s outside my area,” Ross continued. “But…doin’ your best and it all goin’ to hell anyway. I’ve been there. The private’s right. Sorry, miss, didn’t get yer name,” he added to the soldier. “Maybe you just gotta stop and realize what a mess you’re in, and… Y’know, stop. I think we’re in a thing now where doin’ anything more will just make it worse for—”

“All right, enough, shut up,” Ildrin said suddenly, gripping the wand again and holding it up. Behind her, Tallie tensed, preparing to burst into motion if she had to. Not that she could move faster than a lightning bolt… “Just…stop. You’re just trying to confuse me. We’re working on behalf of the Archpope. He is right, we are in the right, and this will work out. His Holiness has a plan. We just have to…to stay the…”

Ross grunted, then moving slowly as if to avoid spooking a skittish horse, began standing up.

“Stop it!” Ildrin said shrilly, pointing the wand directly at him. Sergeant Raathi rested a hand on the hilt of her sword, but didn’t otherwise move. “Don’t you—just sit down!”

Disregarding her orders, Ross finished straightening, and took one step, placing himself between her and the unconscious form of Schwartz. He held up his hands, palms forward, and spoke quietly.

“Look, lady, I dunno your story. But just from listening to you, I can tell you’re better than this. You just wanted to do the right thing. Well, everything’s a mess right now, but… It’s time to do that. You gotta stop.”

“I—you don’t…” She had the wand clenched in her fist, pointed straight at him; it quivered from the tension in her arm. “You’re just… You sit down, and be quiet. I will shoot!”

“No ya won’t,” he said quietly. “You’re better than that.”

Ildrin emitted a strangled noise that might have been part of a sob, then squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head away. She did not lower her hand, though. Ross watched her face, while Jasmine and Darius watched the tip of the wand in mounting alarm.

The priestess was distracted but wouldn’t lower the weapon; Tallie rose smoothly to a crouch, gathering herself to pounce like a cat. Hesitation could be fatal, and there would not be a better opportunity.

But in doing so, she brought part of her body above the edge of the pit. Raathi, watching Ildrin from the side, caught the motion and turned toward it, letting out a yell and drawing her sword.

In the dim, enclosed space, the flash of lightning rendered everyone momentarily blind; the crackle of the wandshot, ordinarily no rival to a real thunderclap, was absolutely deafening.

The apprentices moved, though, blind or not, several with anguished yells. Darius lost his footing on the steps, slipping painfully down them and fortunately not tripping Jasmine, who had leaped straight off the edge. Tallie flung herself from the rim of the pit, but with her eyes closed, missed Ildrin, who had skittered back amid all the noise.

They landed there and froze again, Ildrin having backed up to stand next to Raathi, and turned the wand on them.

“Freeze! Everyone stop right there!” she screamed. Tallie crouched with her arms spread, clearly preparing to spring at her, but obeyed. Jasmine, though, ignored the order, rushing to Ross’s side.

He had fallen back against the wall, partially on top of Schwartz. His clothes smoked faintly.

“You bitch,” Darius snarled, his voice half-choked. “You fucking—”

“No,” Ildrin cried, turning her stare on Jasmine and Ross. “I didn’t—no, that’s not, I wasn’t… Oh, goddess.”

“It’s a little late for prayers, Falaridjad,” Basra Syrinx stated, striding into the room from the staircase above. She descended the second flight of steps in three long bounds.

“You!” Ildrin shrieked, turning the wand on her.

Basra lit up, a golden sphere snapping into place around her, and in the next moment a wandshot sparked against it harmlessly.

“I suggest you cut that out before you make this any worse for yourself, Ildrin,” Basra said flatly. She strode across the pit floor, apparently unconcerned with the wand being fired at her, and knelt next to Jasmine, the light surrounding her brightening further. “Give me space, girl.”

“Is he…” Layla’s face appeared over the rim of the pit above, but she couldn’t finish the question.

“You—all of you—you just freeze,” Ildrin stammered, clutching the wand in both hands now. Tallie started forward, then halted as the weapon was turned on her.

Basra let out a soft sigh, and the glow about her diminished. “…damn. There’s nothing I can do here.”

“No,” Tallie shouted, turning to her and seeming to forget for a moment about the wand trained on her. “No, it’s… People get shot by wands all the time, and walk away. You’re a priestess, you can…”

“Lightning is unpredictable,” Basra said evenly. “It might give you a mere burn, or nerve damage, but if it strikes the heart, or the brain…”

“No!” Tallie protested again. “You have to do something!”

“Vidius himself can’t fix this,” the Bishop said, shifting to kneel over Schwartz. She began lightly slapping his face. “Come on, Schwartz, it’s time to get up. What did you do to this boy? You’d better hope you haven’t left two bodies in your wake today, Falaridjad…”

She paused when Meesie came skittering out of Jasmine’s sleeve to perch upon Schwartz’s head, pointing up at her and chittering furiously.

“Two,” Ildrin whispered.

“Put. The weapon. Down.” Jasmine rose slowly to her feet, fixing her cold glare on the priestess.

Ildrin swallowed once, heavily. “Sergeant… Soldiers. Weapons up. We’re already—”

“Falaridjad,” Basra warned, “I know what you’re thinking, and you are wrong. You have no idea the danger you are in right now. Lower the weapon.”

“Already have blood on our hands,” Ildrin said, her voice firming by the moment. “If they all just…disappear down here—”

“Absolutely not!” roared the more outspoken of the two Legionnaires suddenly. “That’s enough of this. Sister, lower the wand.”

“Private,” Raathi shouted, “I am not going to tell you again—”

“Go right to hell, Sergeant!” she snarled back, drawing her sword. “This is insane! That boy was talking the only sense I’ve heard in days, and now…” She stepped back from the others, bringing her sword up. “No more. Your Grace… Orders?”

“I suggest you step away from the murdering traitors while the stepping is good, private,” Basra said dryly.

“Raathi, swords up,” Ildrin said, baring her teeth. “It’s us or them, now.”

“I don’t…” The sergeant trailed off, swallowed, and raised her weapon. The remaining Legionnaire looked on the verge of panicking, but did the same.

Ildrin turned the wand on Tallie. “I’m sorry it had to be this way.”

“It didn’t, you unmitigated cunt,” Tallie hissed.

Then Jasmine stepped right in front of her, placing herself in the path of the wand.

“I’ll tell you again,” she said coldly. “Drop that weapon, or I will take it from you.”

Ildrin swallowed heavily. “I really am,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”

Once again, the burst of light was blinding. But this time, it didn’t stop.

The glow of divine light blazed from her, annihilating the presumptuous lightning bolt and putting Basra’s aura to shame. Dimness was banished from every corner of the room by Avei’s light, and yet it was strangely gentle to the eyes. Though it was as if a miniature sun had risen in the chamber, they could all see plainly through it.

Golden wings extended upward almost to the edges of the pit from behind her. The silver armor materialized out of the air, first as simple lines of light and then hardening into metal and leather. The shield, marked with the golden eagle, appeared in the same way on her left forearm, and last, the ancient sword of Avei coalesced in her grip.

Trissiny shifted to point it straight at Ildrin’s heart. “DROP THEM.”

Raathi and both privates instantly did.

“…oh,” Layla said softly.

Ildrin had not dropped the wand, but she slowly lowered her arm, the weapon dangling loosely from her grip now. The expression with which she stared at the paladin of her goddess was lost, desolate.

“I…didn’t mean…any of this.”

“I don’t care what you meant,” Trissiny snapped. “Now there is only justice. Put down that weapon and face the consequences of your actions with some honor, for once. I will not tell you again.”

She took one step forward, still glowing, and the golden wings shifted, arching out behind her.

Ildrin closed her eyes for a moment.

Then she opened them, and raised her arm again to aim the wand at Trissiny. Her grip, suddenly, was perfectly steady.

“Don’t do it,” Trissiny warned, shifting to a combat stance, shield partially upraised between them.

“I…can’t,” Ildrin said quietly. A strange little smile hovered about her lips, though tears began pouring down her cheeks. “I’m sorry. I’m just not strong enough. If everything I believed was…”

“Falaridjad, don’t you dare,” the paladin barked, shifting forward. “Drop it and—”

Lightning blasted against her, having no effect. The bolt sizzled out a foot before it even reached the shield. That didn’t stop Ildrin from firing another, and another yet behind it. Her face was calm, resigned, and still streaked by fresh tears.

“Stop it!” Trissiny bellowed over the vicious crackling of electricity.

“Sister, stand down!” Raathi pleaded.

“I’m sorry,” Ildrin said again, “but I won’t.”

Then she turned to aim the wand up at Layla.

Trissiny, apparently unencumbered by the metal she now wore, uncoiled like a spring. She was too far distant to effectively rush with her shield, but Ildrin was just barely within the range of her sword, fully extended.

The tip lodged in her throat just below the chin.

Blood poured as if from a faucet, quickly staining her white robes, and then the ground around her as she stumbled backward to slump against the far wall. Raathi retreated, staring down at the dying priestess in open-mouthed horror.

Silence finally descended, cruelly, forcing them to listen to the wet rattle of Ildrin’s last breaths. Even had either of the remaining Light-wielders wanted to, that was beyond their skill to heal. Too much blood lost, too much of it pouring into her lungs, the wound itself a total disruption of a delicate piece of anatomy. A random burst of healing light would only consign her to die more slowly, and in more pain.

Basra shook her head. “A coward to the very end.”

The armored paladin simply stood in the middle of the room, staring at the floor with all eyes on her. The sword she held in a firm grip, pointed down. Scarlet blood dripped slowly from its tip.

The remaining apprentices had gathered themselves, now, and crept hesitantly forward.

“Jasmine?” Tallie asked uncertainly. “…Jas?”

Layla softly cleared her throat, reaching out to lay her small hand on one silver pauldron.

“Trissiny?”

Trissiny drew in a sudden, heavy breath through her teeth, threw her head back, and let out a wild, piercing scream of pure, helpless rage.

“WE’RE SUPPOSED TO BE BETTER!” she roared, stepped forward, and viciously kicked Ildrin in the chest.

The priestess only slumped sideways, already beyond feeling it.

“You’ve got some things to deal with,” Basra said calmly, “but right now, you need to suck it up, soldier. Grieving has to wait until the battle is done.”

“Oh, my fucking gods,” Darius snarled. “Lady, don’t you ever stop—”

“She’s right,” Trissiny interrupted, turning around. “And don’t bother arguing with this one, Darius, it’s a waste of time even when she’s not right. We still have work to do, here. The innocent and the guilty, the living and the dead, all must be dealt with. And then,” she added, curling her lip in a snarl, “I am going to go find the one responsible for all this, and deal with him.”

“No, you are not,” Layla stated, glancing at the other two apprentices before returning her gaze to Trissiny’s. “We are.”

 

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