Tag Archives: Archpope Justinian

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“I think I’ve found a flaw in your plan,” Aspen declared.

“Oh, really.” Ruda looked at her sidelong, not shifting from her position leaning against the spell lab’s wall except to take a long drink from her bottle of beer. “If I asked reeeeeaal nicely, wouldja share it with me?”

“Sure,” Aspen said immediately, folding her arms and looking smug. “You don’t actually know when this Sleeper guy will attack, or even if he will. And you’ve got everybody locked in here to wait for it, which… You guys don’t hunt much, do you?”

At that last pointed question, she half-turned to look around the room. Toby and Shaeine were both sitting against a wall in lotus postures with their eyes closed; Teal lounged next to the drow, apparently asleep. Scorn was pacing furiously back and forth, muttering to herself, while Juniper paced in a much less energetic fashion, wandering aimlessly all over the room at a slow amble. Inspector Fedora sat on the floor against the huge window, almost swallowed by his trench coat, which was rumpled up around him by his position. He was reading, of all things, an Avenist libram, and seemed quite absorbed in it. Only Fross and Gabriel were engaged in apparently goal-directed behavior, having claimed a space a few feet distant from Fross’s model of the mountaintop to work on some enchanting project, surrounded by loose sheets of his spell parchment. Their quiet discussion was the predominant sound in the room.

Ingvar, as usual, stood near Aspen, currently watching her conversation with Ruda. The whole evening, as hours had stretched on, he had simply stood, in apparently perfect calm.

“See, like Ingvar,” Aspen said approvingly, pointing at him. “Hunting requires patience. You gotta be able to just wait for a long time without going stir-crazy. I don’t think most of this group has the knack. Specially that one.” She shifted her finger to point at Scorn.

The Rhaazke ground to a stop with a muted screech of her claws upon the stone floor, turning on her and clenching her fists, tail beginning to lash. “Listen here—”

“Scorn,” Teal said without opening her eyes. “Please don’t. Starting a fight with dryads is pointless.”

“I am not the one starting!” Scorn snapped.

“You wouldn’t be the one to finish it, either,” Fedora commented, turning a page in his libram and not lifting his eyes from it. “That’s not a reflection on your personal power, gorgeous, trust me. Our sort would be well-advised not to fuck around with high-level fairies.”

“We do not share a sort,” she said disdainfully.

“Sure,” he agreed. “You have more magic and muscle in your abs than I’ve got in my entire body, while I, contrariwise, have some basic goddamn social skills. And that dryad would puree either of us if we pissed her off, so let’s refrain, yeah?”

“And this is what I mean,” Aspen said with unmistakable satisfaction. “Everybody’s gonna go nuts cooped up in here like this. Especially if the Sleeper never shows.”

“He will,” Fedora stated, still reading. “The cat’s away. The mouse will play.”

“I don’t know what that guy’s talking about half the time,” Aspen complained to Ingvar.

“You are not missing out,” he replied.

“Have you considered,” Ruda said with deceptive mildness, “that you picking at this is, if anything, going to make it worse?”

The dryad scowled. “It’s not my fault!”

“More academically, then, have you ever considered anything in your life before you just hauled off and did it?”

Scorn laughed, far too loudly for the enclosed space.

“Now you listen,” Aspen began, but Ingvar swiftly interrupted.

“Aspen, stop. She has a point.”

The look the dryad turned on him was almost hurt. “I—but—she’s being rude about it!”

“Yes,” he said calmly, “which is her business, not yours. You’re not responsible for what anyone else does, only what you do.”

“Oh, again with the philosophy,” she huffed.

“I don’t have a lot of interest in philosophy,” he said, “unless it has an immediate practical use. Turning the other cheek for moral reasons is Omnist practice, and no concern of mine. What concerns me is that when you react to other people, you let them control you. A man—a person, in order to exercise any power, must be self-contained and controlled.”

“Huh,” she grunted with poor grace.

“Rudeness aside, she is right,” Ingvar went on. “You are also right. This is a tense environment, and pointing it out will only make it more so. Better to set an example. You’re a hunter of no small skill, Aspen; you could teach these students a great deal about patience.”

“That’s true,” Juniper agreed, coming over to loop an arm through one of Aspen’s. “I always thought so, back home in the Deep Wild. You’re a lot more collected than most of our sisters.”

“That is the more collected one?” Scorn said skeptically.

“Scorn,” Teal pleaded with a sigh.

“You.” Ruda lifted the hand holding her bottle by its neck, extending one finger to point at Ingvar. “I like you.”

“That’s good to know,” he said noncommittally. She laughed almost as loudly as Scorn, earning a frown from Aspen.

“Yeah!” Gabriel shouted suddenly, jumping upright. He grinned at everyone as they all turned to look at him. “We got it working!”

“Hey, that’s pretty great,” Ruda said. “You got what the fuck working?”

“We’ve solved our communication problem!” Fross reported, whizzing about in an excited circle above them. “Fortunately I had a book in my aura storage with the proper charms described, but we’ve had to adapt it to use the materials on hand, since the proper ones are sorta expensive and there’ll be all manner of trouble if we get into the classroom stocks, so it was real tricky to make it work with just folded spell paper and enchanting ink, and the final product won’t last for very long, but since we only need them to work for tonight it should be fine!”

“I think Ruda’s question stands,” Shaeine said, finally opening her eyes.

“Communication charms!” Gabriel enthused, holding up a square formed of paper folded over multiple times, inked with elaborate patterns which glowed in shifting blue and green. “You just hold it and you can hear the voice of whoever talks to you through it!”

“That solves a lot of problems,” Fedora said, finally looking genuinely interested. “If we can coordinate in the field it’ll overcome our main handicap here.”

“Oh, well, don’t get too excited,” Fross cautioned, suiting the advice herself by slowing to a stationary hover. “Actual two-way communication is orders of magnitude more complex and really can’t be done with these simple materials. I can project through it, cos I’m extremely magical, but you won’t be able to talk back. So I figure, since I’ve gotta run the map model and the fae-arcane field, I can stay here and give directions and you guys can surround the Sleeper!”

“Please understand that I don’t mean to disparage,” Ingvar said carefully, “but organizing a hunt is not as simple a matter as it may appear to one who has never done so. Are you sure you can do this, Fross?”

“Fross is extremely intelligent,” Toby observed quietly. “More to the point… Our group’s actual military strategist is taking a semester off—”

“Which is a goddamn shame,” Ruda interjected, grinning fiendishly, “because I’m really curious what she’d make of Ingvar, here.”

Toby ignored her. “…but Fross has never, in the time I’ve known her, misjudged her capabilities. The safe assumption is that if she says she can do a thing, she can do it.”

“Agreed,” Shaeine added.

“Yeah, that’s pretty well unanimous around here,” Juniper said, grinning. “You can count on Fross.”

“Aww!” Fross chimed bashfully. “I would blush if I had the necessary physiology! But you guys couldn’t see it anyway so I guess that’s maybe kinda pointless.”

“All right, then!” Gabriel said more briskly, sitting back down and tearing another sheet of enchanting paper out of his book, “let’s get to work, Fross ol’ pal. Hopefully we can make enough of these to equip everybody before the Sleeper arrives.”

“Yes! On it!”

“Well, that’s good then,” Aspen muttered. “I guess we’ll just…continue to stand around.”


“Antonio!” Justinian came to meet him at the door when he entered the Archpope’s office, moving as smoothly as always but more quickly than usual. “Splendid. I greatly appreciate you coming on such short notice, and especially at this late hour. Please, stand.”

“Not at all, your Holiness,” Darling said, rising from the kneel he had assumed upon the Archpope’s approach. “I’m always available for necessity—and I figured this must be urgent for you to call at midnight. How can I help?”

“I need to call upon you in your capacity as liaison between the Church and the Imperial government,” Justinian said seriously. He wore a faint frown—very faint, but still more concern by far than he usually displayed in public. “The late hour is specifically relevant—I am counting on your ability to enter the Palace in the middle of the night and find someone of high office willing to speak with you.”

“How high, if I may ask?”

“Ideally, the Emperor himself…though that might be hoping for too much.” The Archpope turned to face the window of his office, concealing his expression for the moment. “What matters most is that we reach out to the Throne as quickly as possible. Something…rather untoward has happened, I’m afraid. There is a risk of hostilities emerging if the matter is left to fester.”

“Your Holiness, what’s going on?” Darling asked tersely, beginning to absorb some of the uncharacteristic tension in Justinian’s shoulders. He had to admire the man’s ability to do that; usually he was far too in charge of himself to be manipulated even so subtly.

“This is difficult.” Justinian shifted again, placing himself in profile from Darling’s view; his frown had deepened. “I trust you will not be offended if I state that there are secrets of the Church which I cannot reveal to you—even now, when I must call upon you for help related to them.”

“Not in the least,” the Bishop said immediately, “I’ve always assumed that was a given. What can you tell me, your Holiness? My ability to access the Palace won’t extend to barging in there in the middle of the night with a vague story.”

“Among my efforts,” the Archpope said slowly, clearly choosing his words with caution, “has been a subtle campaign against an elusive foe, undertaken by specifically skilled and trusted individuals on behalf of the Church, using, among other things, artifacts left behind by the Elder Gods.”

“Dangerous business,” Darling said quietly.

“Indeed so.” Justinian turned to him and nodded. “And to be taken only with the utmost caution and restraint, with every possible safeguard in place, and besides all that, only at what seemed the most urgent need. There has been…an enemy on the move. A most elusive one. My specialists have been conducting a remote campaign to attempt to identify and monitor this being, using the aforementioned artifacts.”

“An enemy?” Darling frowned. “If you don’t know who, your Holiness, what makes you think them an enemy?”

“Understand that I do not, under ordinary circumstances, meddle with the works of the Elders,” Justinian said seriously. “The Church has many such relics in its possession, which my predecessors have collected and contained largely because they universally prove all but impossible to destroy. It is, as you yourself know very well, sound general policy to leave the toys of the Elders strictly alone. So long as they are buried in vaults beneath the Cathedral, under the eyes of the Pantheon themselves, those tools are relatively safe, and contained such that they pose no threat. At least, that had been my assumption until quite recently, when one became unexpectedly active.”

“And…your response to this was to have a specialist…poke at it?” Darling cleared his throat. “Forgive me, but…”

“No, no, you are right,” Justinian said wearily. “I do my best, Antonio, but a man who must handle as many delicate threads as I inevitably outsmarts himself once in a while. I suspect you know a thing or two about that, yourself.”

“Well.” Darling couldn’t help but smile. “Maybe one or two.”

“Yes, the safe thing to do would undoubtedly have been to bury it deeper and invoke the Pantheon’s auspices to ensure it took, this time. I have never been one to brush dangers under the rug, however. That which is out of sight and out of mind is more menacing, not less, because one grants it the element of surprise by not engaging. I sought to learn what was happening, what it meant, and who was responsible. It did become clear, at least, that the device’s sudden activity was due to some manner of…sympathetic principle. Someone, somewhere, had a counterpart to it, and was doing this deliberately. Having learned that, I could hardly afford to ignore it. That is the kind of threat which could come to endanger countless uninvolved innocents, if not the world itself.”

“Clearly, yes,” Darling agreed, nodding emphatically.

“Tonight,” Justinian continued gravely, “and quite recently, in fact, after a pattern of several days of exchanges between my agent and this mysterious figure, the device abruptly destroyed itself. The violence of it was…extreme. My people barely escaped with their lives.”

“And…you wish to warn the Throne?”

“Oh, it is more urgent than that, or it could wait till morning. In the moments before it erupted, the artifact projected an image of the silver gryphon.”

There was a moment of silence.

“In other words,” Darling said slowly, “this whole time, you were playing a very dangerous game of chess with what turned out to be agents of the Empire.”

“Even that would be blessedly simple compared to the reality,” Justinian said seriously. “Such a misunderstanding could be explained. In hindsight, this revelation makes sense of much about the exchanges which had baffled my agents. The enemy’s moves frequently made no sense, and we had ascribed them to the idea that he was as awkward and uncertain in his use of the Elders’ crafts as we. Looking back now, though, it becomes apparent that we were dealing with more than one party, themselves at cross purposes. The original aggressor, and more recently, also the Empire. I suppose it should not surprise me that the Throne has similar treasures hoarded away. It only makes sense that if someone had begun to activate them remotely, it would affect more than the one in my own possession.”

Darling’s eyes widened. “Your Holiness… Do you have any idea how many of these things still exist?”

“None,” Justinian said grimly, “and you have hit upon one of my concerns.”

As always, Darling kept his racing thoughts firmly away from his face. The Emperor, the Hands…the timing. This was a moment to tread with extreme care.

“Coordinating with the Throne would obviously be important in that case, yes,” he mused aloud. “But…with all respect, are you certain this entire thing wasn’t the Empire’s doing?”

“Quite.” Justinian nodded. “I have been wrong about people, of course; individuals are endlessly surprising. Those who possess and managed to maintain great power are often much less so. I understand Sharidan quite well. I know his ambitions, both their shape and their extent, and the reckless menace posed by this agent’s initial activities was not in his character.”

“What activities?” Darling asked, frowning again.

“Before the thing began to obstruct scrying efforts,” Justinian replied, “we found a trail leading to Puna Dara.”

“Surely the Punaji wouldn’t…”

“Agreed. It is also not in their nature to poke the bear, as it were; some past leaders of the Punaji might have been so ambitious, but Rajakhan is not the sort to meddle with dangerous powers to begin with, and definitely would not begin to rouse the kind of trouble in his own territory that our early divinations perceived.”

“What sort of trouble?”

“This is what we must discuss with the Throne,” Justinian said seriously. “To begin with, aside from the need to merge our information, there is also the matter that the Throne might consider the Church responsible for these problems if they are not informed otherwise, and I don’t have to tell you all the risks that could pose.”

“Indeed not.”

“But additionally, Puna Dara is beyond the direct control of Tiraas—and largely outside the influence of the Church. Between their association with Naphthene and a native spiritual practice which focuses on their windshaman, the Punaji generally have little use for gods. If someone intended to probe at both the Church and Empire, or even set them against one another, they could hardly pick a more perfect place from which to strike…and it becomes more ominous still in light of rumors I have begun to hear from Punaji territory. In this matter, Antonio, I hope you may have information to add that I do not.”

“I might have to disappoint you there, your Holiness,” Darling admitted. “The Guild’s presence among the Punaji is pretty slender, as well. Their culture makes Eserites sort of…redundant. Rajakhan is possibly the only world leader who discourages the Guild’s activities in a way that doesn’t provoke the Boss to double down on them. Only the Five Kingdoms do a more thorough job of keeping us out.”

“I am aware of this,” Justiniain said, nodding. “Nonetheless, you may still have information I do not—and of course, I cannot begin to guess what Imperial Intelligence may know. Tell me, Antonio, in any of the whispers you may have heard from Puna Dara, has there been anything about the Rust?”


Even under the circumstances, Ravana enjoyed the atmosphere of the campus after dark. Its peace was rather like that of her private gardens at home in Madouris, one of the few outdoor spaces where she could be free of the pestering attentions of the countless people who demanded a slice of her time. Professor Tellwyrn’s emphatic discouragement of interlopers had finally quelled the upsurge of interest which had begun with Gabriel Arquin’s calling last year, and relatively few of her classmates were knocking about at this hour. For the most part, she had the path to herself.

Especially these days, for obvious reasons. She tightened her grip on her lightcapper for a moment before forcing herself to relax it again. And, then, to relax herself overall. The wind in the trees, the sound of crickets and night birds, even the pleasant warm glow of the fairy lamps; all the details of her surroundings conspired deliberately to be comfortable, even if she generally found the faux-gothic stylings of Tellwyrn’s taste in architecture rather gauche.

The oppressive drowsiness hit suddenly, as she had expected. Immediately following came the stab of blinding agony in her temples—also expected, but she had not been able to test the potion before taking it (obviously), and Ravana was not accustomed to physical pain. She was unable to repress a shriek, barely catching herself before taking a tumble which would have damaged her personal dignity—or worse, her lightcapper.

A moment later, though, it faded, and she straightened, a predatory smile stretching across her features.

Mages were so obsessed with magic, they always tried to counter it with more magic. A noblewoman knew to play to her own strengths, to find mundane solutions to the threats posed by even the most capable wizards and warlocks. Even if, in this case, the solution had been provided through the auspices of expensive (and extremely illegal) alchemy, it was still a basically mundane one: a person simply could not fall asleep while in severe pain.

“Predictable,” Ravana said aloud, raising her lightcapper and turning to face the Sleeper.


“Contact!” Fross shouted, shooting toward the ceiling and chiming loudly. “We’ve got him! South lawn, the path outside the music building roughly equidistant between the gazebo and the Wells!”

Ingvar had already thrown open the door of the spell lab and strode out, Aspen right on his heels. There came a disorganized rush as the sophomores, Scorn, and Fedora followed, but the Huntsman moved with swift purpose and total calm. In seconds he had strode the length of the hall and out the side door, raising his longbow as soon as he had a view of the sky.

The arrow he nocked wasn’t exactly identical to the one which he had made with his own shaman in Tiraas; he had had to improvise, lacking the shaman’s expertise and rank in Shaath’s faith. Thanks to the help of the fairies, though, its blessings and charms should be correct. Ingvar angled his bow to aim straight skyward, drew, and released.

The arrow burst into light as it soared aloft. For a moment he experienced uncertainty; would it work? But it continued, shooting straight skyward, as it was meant to. The shaft climbed far higher than the power of his draw could have propelled it, till even with its glow it had vanished from visibility with sheer distance.

Only for seconds, though. When it erupted, it was with a surge of clouds that spread out over the mountaintop as rapidly as a cup of ink poured into a bucket of water. With it came the low howl of wind, swirls of snow, and the sharp cold of the upper Stalrange, unheard of on the prairie.

The very light shifted, taking on a pale bluish tinge. The blessing of Shaath lay over Last Rock, and across the very dimensions, blocking all shadow-jumping.

“That is a bit more ostentatious than I was expecting,” Gabriel remarked from behind him. “People might notice this, guys.”

“It works, though,” said Juniper, turning to him. “Right?”

He hesitated, listening, then nodded. “Yes! Vestrel confirms. We’ve got the Sleeper pinned down!”

“Magically, at least,” said Ingvar. “The easy part. Now…we hunt.”

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12 – 27

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It was not without relief that he finally delegated the immediate clean-up and departed. Ildrin could handle the more urgent practicalities, while Delilah attended to the more trying duty of calming Rector, whose understandable upset at the sudden loss of so much of his hard work was considerably exacerbated by his inherent…difficulty. Getting him under control would be a necessary first step before the project could be cleaned up and resuscitated; he would be nothing but an obstruction to anyone trying to work in the ruins until then. Hopefully Ildrin could arrange the important matters alone, but if worse came to worst, he was prepared to involve Nassir. For obvious reasons, the number of people aware of, and involved in, this particular project had to be kept to an absolute minimum, consisting only of his most trusted lieutenants.

Justinian strode through the deep passages below the Cathedral at as rapid a pace as he could manage without resorting to unseemly haste. Not that there was anyone nearby, as his innate sense of others’ emotions revealed, but there were habits he maintained even when they seemed unnecessary, precisely because they were so necessary the rest of the time. He also kept his expression clear and serene, despite the turmoil of his thoughts.

Occupied with his inner whirl of plans, countermeasures, concerns and stratagems, he passed deeper and deeper below the Cathedral, penetrating layers of security with the minimum attention necessary to get through them. Several were magical devices which recognized him and required no conscious input, but he ardently eschewed the laziness of over-reliance on sophisticated gimmicks. The confusing layout of the deep passages was a help, which he had enhanced by placing barriers in such locations that he had to backtrack repeatedly through even more twisting, switchbacking corriors to retrieve various keys from their hiding places.

The descent took the better part of an hour. It was fairly rare that his demanding schedule allowed him the leeway to come here aside from his weekly visits, but that was for the best, considering how demanding these visits often were, themselves. And in the end, it was not optional. No one could know what he kept here.

The final door was hidden in plain sight, one simple wooden barrier in a hallway lined with identical ones, the rest of which were all trapped in some way. Justinian opened the correct door and slipped through, closing it behind him, and availed himself of the remaining few moments it took to traverse the opulent entry hall of this subterranean apartment to make extra certain that his face and bearing were composed.

He emerged into a grand chamber which, on its own merits could have belonged in any palace. Round, three stories in height, and with much of its second level encircled by a balcony from which doorways branched off, reached by a curved staircase beginning immediately to the right of the entry, it was carved entirely from marble and liberally gilded—with actual gold. The domed ceiling high above was a single piece of crystal, and also the primary source of light. A grand pianoforte and a large harp stood against one wall on a dais, though they were not the source of the music currently playing; a string quartet echoed from one of the adjacent rooms, with the characteristically scratchy undertones of a soundisc player. Rugs and pillows were scattered about more like the detritus of fallen trees than any deliberate attempt at décor, mismatched and drifting into piles against the walls.

The curtains covering the doorways, in contrast to the expensive quality of the room itself, were practically rags, dusty and torn. Only upon closer examination did one see that they were not, in fact, ragged or dirty, but that shape and color because they were nothing but dense masses of spider webs, arranged in roughly flat shapes. More of their kind were draped across the dome above, giving its clean light an eerie quality. Those immense cobwebs shifted slowly, as if in response to a breeze which was not there, causing peculiar patterns of light to sway gently across the floor.

“Where I am from, a man entering a woman’s home uninvited would experience…consequences.”

Justinian’s smile was only partially faked. Partially because on several levels, he truly did enjoy these exchanges. Faked because on other levels, they could be utterly nightmarish.

She had appeared in the doorway to his left, silently as always, and now posed with her arms braced against it, shoulders slanted one way, hips the other, smirking mysteriously. Everything a pose, a slice of pageantry. From some women, such behavior seemed like manipulation, and to be sure, she was manipulative in everything she did. He had come to understand, though, that there was no hostility in it, and not necessarily even an agenda. She manipulated like she breathed, and quite possibly could not stop.

He bowed, ignoring the obvious rejoinders about where she was from, or who provided her with this luxurious space in which to live.

“Ah, but if I were well-behaved, Szaiviss, you would find me so much less interesting.”

Her answering smile could almost have been genuine. Perhaps it truly was. It was a sly smile, but that might be the most genuine thing of all, from her.

Few Tiraan would ever see truly black skin on a drow; in Tar’naris, after millennia of interbreeding with (mostly enslaved) humans, drow came in an entire grayscale palette, ranging from a deep slate color to the nearly white of some of the modern half-drow who could be found in Lor’naris. Szaiviss came from an older and undiluted line, one which had had no contact with the surface since before the Elder Wars, and her skin was black, and subtly glossy, like living obsidian. Her eyes, too, were startling; unlike the more muted colors common to Narisians, they were a vivid scarlet which seemed almost to glow when the light hit them just right. That wasn’t due to her blood; the likes of vampires and some succubi had eyes like that, and for similar reasons. She wore a short gown that was necessarily filmy, being woven of cobwebs like her curtains, clinging to her and concealing almost nothing of what little it actually tried to cover. Against the dingy off-white garment and her black skin, her ankle-length white hair seemed almost to glow, falling all around her like a cloak.

“Let’s see,” she purred, her Tanglish fluent but heavily accented, and oozed out of the doorway to come slink toward him. “Only two days since you last came just to spend time with me, my love. Not long enough for the desire to overwhelm you again… I know I don’t yet have you that addicted to my charms. Which means…” She had come to stand very close, gazing up into his face from mere inches away, near enough that her breasts grazed the front of his tabard. “You want something.”

“Aside from the obvious?” he murmured, slipping his arms around her. Szaiviss did not pull back, but her expression hardened.

“No, no, beloved. No games, not till later. I rather it not hang over us in the meantime.”

“You seek to put me in a box too small for my comfort, my dear,” he replied, pulling her closer, which she allowed. “I can have more than one goal at a time. Any pressing need makes a perfect excuse.”

Szaiviss chuckled low in her throat, and finally did extricate herself, pressing her hands against his chest and pulling back out of his grasp. “Then I shall have to prioritize, as usual. Before we take time to play, you had better tell me your problem. Otherwise, you’ll be too…distracted.”

She turned and sauntered away, rolling her hips fluidly as she went. Justinian followed her through the curtained doorway into a much dimmer space, also bedecked with webs across the ceiling and pillows all over the floor, this one narrower and lit only by a single fairy lamp. The soundisc player was in here, as well as a stand currently burning incense. She did so love her sensual distractions, particularly of the kinds not available where she had come from. Then again, precious little was available there.

“My project with Rector and the Avatar has been stalled,” he admitted, watching her stretch herself out in a pile of cushions. She did not invite him to sit yet, and he did not presume; her jokes were one thing, but he had learned to respect some of the drow cultural mores she held in sincerity. “In fact, completely destroyed. Rector and his minders barely escaped unscathed, not to mention myself.”

“You’ll be wanting the goddess’s touch to access it again, then?” she mused. “How…prosaic. How disappointing.”

“Eventually,” he agreed with a grim little smile. “I have more urgent problems, however. Rector’s machine exploded with the full force contained in its power crystals, which I have made very certain before providing them that it should not be able to do. Someone at the other end of the connection did that quite deliberately. After replacing his display with the Imperial sigil.”

Her grin was a white slash across her face in the dimness. “Oh, Justinian. Poor, clever boy. Even your setbacks are just so fascinating.”

“Open confrontation with the Silver Throne has always been part of the plan,” he said with a shrug. “But it is much too early. Everything could be ruined if I am forced to proceed to direct hostilities before the other necessary factors are ready.”

“Then perhaps your plans are less thorough than you thought,” she said, her face devoid of levity now. “That forces me to question things, Justinian. Many things. How will you provide what you have promised me if the Empire comes storming in here before you can arrange it?”

“They will not,” he replied, beginning to pace back and forth. It was not his habit, but he preferred to show a few nervous tics and mannerisms in her presence which he did not ordinarily betray. Keeping her under control was far easier so long as she assumed she held the upper hand. “Even at the height of the Enchanter Wars, the Imperials did not dare invade the Cathedral. Sharidan is quite capable of eclipsing my ability to move, however, which would be bad enough.”

“Yes. And so, here we are, in this pit you have dug.”

“Rector grew too focused on his task and failed to adequately cover his tracks,” Justinian said, as if to himself, which continuing to walk slowly back and forth across the piled carpets. The lowest-hanging spider webs brushed the top of his head; he raised a hand to push one aside, though it didn’t really bother him. “Quite typical of his particular type of aberrant personality, and a risk I was aware of when I employed him. My errors were in overestimating the control his handlers have over him, and under-preparing for such an extreme breach of security. Minor breaches I expected, not…this. Even so, however, this is a setback, not necessarily a disaster. I find it is a mistake to over-plan; much better to surround oneself with the resources necessary to adapt to the unexpected.” He came to a stop, turning to face her, and spread his arms, smiling down at her. “And in that, I am still well-positioned. Even the Empire does not possess a resource such as you.”

Szaiviss regarded him in aloof silence for a moment before answering. “You imagine, Archpope, that you possess me?”

“As much as anyone does anyone, my dear. You are no one’s creature but your own, but our aims are in harmony.”

She smiled at that, but only briefly, before her expression hardened again. “And in all your scheming up there, what progress have you made toward my needs? I’ve heard nothing of it since that absolute silliness with the newspapers backfired on you.”

“That was only an exploratory probe of her defenses,” he replied calmly. “I continue to make them. A creature like Tellwyrn is not to be attacked openly, or without detailed knowledge of her capabilities. In point of fact, my dear, circumstance has recently conspired in our favor. Tellwyrn has her own problems lately, and though I did not intend it, Rector’s interference with the Hands of the Emperor has quite accidentally exacerbated them.”

She came smoothly to her feet, as rapidly as a pouncing cat, and pressed herself into his space, this time with no hint of allure. He did not back down from her, simply meeting her glare in perfect serenity.

“I must be the one to kill her, Justinian, or this is all pointless. Do not overstep yourself.”

“She would destroy you as effortlessly as she has all your predecessors,” he said calmly, declining to acknowledge her furious hiss. “My plotting is what will make your aim possible, Szaiviss. And Tellwyrn’s newest strength also provides her a weakness she has never had before. This University gives her many new advantages, but she is too bound up in it to abandon it at need. And the University is vulnerable as all institutions are, in many ways that an archmage is not. We will destabilize it, and thus her, to create the opening you need. But first, we must watch, and prepare, and lay the groundwork. I assure you, none of what I have done thus far will come close to ending the Arachne’s life. But every little step helps me learn how it may be done.”

She narrowed her eyes, but after a pause, slowly nodded, and drew back. “Very well, then. Your problem with the Empire…what do you wish me to do about it?” Her lips curled back in a displeased grimace. “There will be a price, Justinian, if you seek to invoke her presence.”

“Quite apart from the price she demands, there would be a cost,” he said, grimacing in return. “No. My dictum stands; under no circumstances must you invoke Scyllith’s presence here. No shrouds I can throw up would prevent the Pantheon from noticing that, and then we will both be finished, and all our plans come to naught.”

“Good,” she said with a wry little smile. “I meant a price I would demand, though, quite apart from whatever she wants. I desire nothing more than to be out from under the lunatic old bitch’s thumb as long as possible. The only reason she has a cult at all is the cursed Themynrites prevent my people from fleeing the Underdark.”

“We are in accord, then,” he replied, indulging in a small grin of his own. “No, not Scyllith, my dear; only you do I trust. I need your ability to find the unknown.”

“What, your room full of oracles is not enough?”

“Those sources are obstreperous,” he said, “and take time to use—time I don’t believe can be spared, in this case. Besides, my little tests have verified that all four of my Bishops have figured out how to ascertain who has been studying what in the Chamber of Truth. I don’t yet trust them with matters this sensitive, and for now, I’d rather let them chase each other’s schemes than catch a whiff of mine. Besides,” he added with another slow smile, “all the accumulated oracles of the world have never performed as well as your skills.”

“Your flattery is blunt,” she said, folding her arms and raising an eyebrow. She did it with a smile, though.

“I flatter you only when the simple truth gives me the opportunity, my lovely. It happens more often than I would have expected.”

“Yes, good boy,” she said approvingly. “Later, you may spend time praising me in detail. But! Work before pleasure. What is it you seek?”

“An enemy,” he said immediately. “Last year, one fortuitously appeared in the form of a hellgate, accompanied by a new stage in Darling’s own plot, which enabled me to ally the Church with the Throne against a common foe. One is not conveniently available, now, which means one will have to be found. I must re-cast this…little indiscretion as just that, and not the dramatic breach it truly is. To that end, I need alliance with the Throne against a common danger. To begin with. The rest I can arrange myself.”

Szaiviss turned away without answering, strolling toward the opposite end of the narrow room from the entrance. It was more of a wide hallway, really, its sides lined with occasional articles of furniture and thick drifts of pillows. Across from its entrance, the back wall was entirely swathed in more cobweb-curtains.

She shrugged and then rolled her shoulders, and her paltry garment slipped from them, slithering down to lie puddled around her bare feet. Szaiviss languidly raised one hand; Justinian, having seen this before, now knew to watch the shadows on the wall, barely visible as they were in the dimness of the one nightlight. He could see, however, the shadow of her arm. The arm did not move further, but the shadow did, reaching out to entangle its unnaturally long fingers in the darkness swathing the multiple layers of ragged silken drapes concealing the back of the room. At the shadow’s touch, the whole arrangement was pulled to one side, gathered up into a bundle, and draped over a hook on the wall, revealing what lay beyond.

The semi-circular space was bathed in pure white light which had been invisible behind the thick curtains. Its walls were of obsidian, crisscrossed by lines of white paint designed to resemble spider webs. Its floor was a raised dais, upon which was engraved a sigil which had been unseen on the surface of the world for eight thousand years, deliberately expunged long ago by the Pantheon. Scyllith’s personal glyph did not depict anything Justinian recognized; it was simply an arrangement of lines, like the Infinite Order’s. Perhaps, though, both of those had meant something more concrete in those days.

Szaiviss turned to glance at him over her shoulder, just in time to catch his eyes wandering over her body—because she expected and enjoyed it, mostly, but she was beautiful enough that his appreciative smile was the result simply of relaxing his customary reserve, not faking an expression.

The shadow priestess stepped up onto the dais, turned to face the room, and knelt, closing her eyes. Her chest swelled with a deeply in-drawn breath, then relaxed. Then again, and once more.

And then she opened her eyes. They were pure white, blazing with light. In trance, the drow began to speak. He listened intently, even after the first words revealed that she said exactly what he expected.

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12 – 26

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“Ah, there you are,” Walker said without looking up. “Don’t forget to re-seal the door.”

“It does it automatically,” Milanda said dryly, approaching her workstation. “I took the opportunity to double-check your checking while I was out there. Any progress?”

“I’ve been trying to get an inventory of this place, and been frustrated. Everything should be accounted for, but someone quite deliberately erased all the records of anything taking place in the whole port during whatever happened to the landing surface above, where the city is now. According to facility records, none of this is even in here and nothing should be out of place, so…we’re at a loss.”

“Unless, of course, we check. The old-fashioned way, with our eyes. Like they did in barbaric times before there were computers to store all the answers.”

“Much as I hate to interrupt a really good head of sarcasm,” Walker said, eyes still on her screen, “I did not fail to think of that, and it’s potentially problematic. Undoubtedly, most of these boxes contain miscellaneous, pointless, harmless junk like what’s strewn on top of them. Some are secured crates, though, of the kind used to hold valuable or dangerous objects. They’re marked from every department of the facility. There is, in short, no telling what’s in this room with us, and considering the kinds of things the Infinite Order were prone to playing around with…”

“I see your point.” Milanda leaned past her to set the data crystal down on the metal ledge below Walker’s monitor. The fairy glanced at it momentarily before returning her focus to what she was doing.

“So I’m trying to assemble an updated map of our nearby environs. Since the system doesn’t know what’s in these boxes, or even that they’re in the room, the stored map doesn’t reveal what’s stored in adjacent compartments. The security system works, though; I’m pulling up feeds of the nearest chambers to check them. It’s all pretty much the same: boxes, barrels, random things lying about, all shoved in. I think our best bet is to gather up the boxes in here and in your barracks and stack them in there.” She tapped her screen, causing the map to zoom in on the room she had touched, then pointed to a door across the security hub from the one to the barracks. “Access hall leading to an elevator shaft, which goes up to nowhere, and down toward a power station, where we have no reason to go. I see no harm in blocking that off.”

“Sounds good to me,” Milanda said, unable to suppress a yawn. “And there is your program, by the way.”

“Thank you.” Walker picked up the crystal and inserted it into a slot under her monitor, eyes flicking across the boxes which opened up on her screen. “I double-checked the quetzal’s tube, and yes, it’s plugged into the grid, and doesn’t have a broadcast power receptor. So we can’t move him. I suppose we could drape something over him…”

“Him?”

“Oh, yes,” Walker said, finally looking up, and turning to gaze thoughtfully at the imprisoned demon. “The tube has a bio-readout, over on the other side. Male, barely mature… Interestingly, this appears to be an un-corrupted specimen, not altered by exposure to Scyllith’s transcension field. Possibly the only one of his kind in existence, unless there are more bottled up somewhere in this or another facility.”

“That is fascinating,” Milanda said with another yawn, “but I think you were right in the first place: better for him and us if he stays in there for now. The last thing we need is a pet.”

“Indeed.” Walker turned back to her screen. “I’d just kill him, and that would be a shame.”

Milanda sighed, turning toward the barracks door. “Anyway. I’m going to get some sleep while I can. You do…whatever you do with that program. Be sure to have the computer wake me if the intruder comes back. I want to be here for that.”

“Since it seems I need your authorization to connect this to the exterior data lines, I’ll clearly have to. I can look over the setup before then, though. Rest well. Ah, it even has a tutorial…what an efficient Avatar.”

Milanda shook her head, yawning again, and made her way toward the barracks door. She almost got there before Walker suddenly spoke up again.

“Oh! Speaking of. Computer, please locate user Milanda Darnassy and direct her back here.”

The soft chime sounded from the air. “User Milanda Darnassy, your presence is requested in Security Hub Five.”

“Thank you, computer,” Milanda said acidly, turning around. “Funny stuff, Walker. What’s going on?”

“System being accessed,” the ex-valkyrie said, grinning at her screen. “I almost missed it—he’s prodding at the code again. Yep, environment controls. Why is he so obsessed with that, when he has the Hands to play with? Maybe he actually messed them up by accident…”

“I’m not nearly optimistic enough to believe that,” Milanda replied.

“Indeed. Would you be good enough to activate this session so I can engage him, please? I do believe it’s past time we welcomed our guest properly.”


“Environment settings,” Ildrin said quietly, causing Delilah and the Archpope to look over at her in surprise. She shrugged. “You’re better at helping him personally, Dee; I’ve been trying to be better at interpreting the things he says when he’s concentrating. It seemed like a sensible division of labor.”

“Well done,” Justinian said mildly. “What do you mean by environment settings?”

“That,” she replied ruefully, “I’m not really sure…”

“Environment,” Rector abruptly said in a loud voice, interrupting his own muttering. He was, as usual, hunched over the racks of runic controls attached to his machine, the ones positioned in front of the magic mirror. He had set that up such that he could stand there with a perfect view of the mirror and also have the levers and valves attached to the power crystals in easy reach. “Environment, temperature, humidity, light, air pressure. Environment. Machine has settings to govern them…”

Standing on the incongruous little back porch above Rector’s cave, the other three frowned in thoughtful unison. The enchanter below them resumed muttering, continuing to manipulate his runes. If he had any opinion about them talking about him behind his back, he gave no sign of it.

The Archpope cleared his throat. “Rector…” He nodded calmly at Delilah when she gave him a weighted look, laying a hand gently on her shoulder. “Are those the settings for this environment?”

“I haven’t noticed any changes like that,” Ildrin murmured when Rector did not immediately respond. “Dee?”

“No.” Delilah shook her head. “I’m sure I’d have noticed; the arcane heater down here is top of the line. Rector is very particular about the temperature.”

“Rector,” the Archpope said in a firmer tone, “the access I gave you is to a system the Imperial government uses. If you—”

“Yes, Hands, I know,” Rector said impatiently, his own hands freezing above the controls. Despite the fact that he’d apparently stopped working to speak, he kept his eyes on the mirror, which currently showed nothing but rows of text and figures which made little sense to the onlookers. “Environment controls are simple, easier to access—good test runs for understanding the system. Very important before accessing complex system like the Hands. Helped me know how to touch that system…understand the software.”

Delilah frowned. “Software?”

“The…enchantments that run thinking machines, I believe,” Ildrin said softly.

“Yes,” Rector agreed, nodding, and beginning to touch runes again.

“Of course, that’s good thinking,” the Archpope said calmly. “But if you are creating noticeable changes, the Hands and others may see and intervene.”

“Yes, thought of that,” Rector said impatiently. “Also a reason. Change a setting, see if it changes back, how fast. Tells me if they’re watching, before I change anything important.”

“I see,” Justinian said, nodding. “Good work, then.”

“Watching now,” the enchanter muttered. The Archpope stilled; both priestesses widened their eyes.

“Excuse me?” Justinian asked. Rector just muttered, hunching further over his controls and touching runes in faster succession. After a few moments of this, the Archpope spoke more insistently. “Rector. What do you mean by that?”

“Interruptions!” Rector exclaimed irritably, slapping himself on the side of the head. “I change something, it changes back. Immediately. That is new. They are watching now!”


“Well, this is mildly amusing,” Walker said, touching the screen again. “I’m sure having his every move instantly undone must be quite frustrating, but I’m having a modest amount of fun. It’s a remarkably smooth piece of software; I’m amazed the Avatar was able to produce it so quickly. Then again, I suppose that’s what he does.”

“Maybe it’s something he already had?” Milanda suggested thoughtfully. The timing of that conversation had been…interesting. She had come away with the impression the Avatar was very carefully guiding her toward some end of his own. That was exactly what she needed, another agenda to untangle.

“A program that enables a layperson to counter digital security?” Walker shook her head. “The Infinite Order would never have kept something like that in their systems. They were nearly as paranoid as they were elitist. The Avatar simply does good work, that’s all. More immediately, our visitor has stopped trying to mess with our settings after I simply put everything back as soon as he did it. I guess he gave up.”

“Then he knows we’re here, now,” Milanda mused.

“Hard to say what he knows. The worm function is working perfectly; I have full access to his system, as well. The problem is how very primitive it is. He’s got basically no processing power left over for…anything. Last time we crashed him just by querying his system specs. I’m getting data back, but…”

“Wait,” said Milanda. “If the problem is that his machine is too slow to parse this information, can’t we just retrieve it and, um, re-organize it here? This computer clearly has all the power we’ll need.”

“If it were an Infinite Order computer, I could do that,” Walker said, leaning back in the chair and folding her arms. On the screen in front of her, the windows and indicators sat quiet, the other user apparently having paused for thought as well. “Or even an older operating system from Earth. The shared architecture would give me backdoors, as well as some basic similarities that could be assumed. This thing, though… In order to know anything about his system, we have to activate each part of that system, which…is very, very slow. This computer can interface with another computer easily, but this isn’t like that. It’s more like…analyzing a foreign machine than connecting to one. Maybe if I could see the thing, how it’s wired together, I could make educated guesses…or at least, the computer could. But honestly, it’s barely a computer at all. There’s almost nothing there for our system to talk to.”

“I see…”

“Wait.” Suddenly, Walker leaned forward again, touching the screen. “Wait, you’re right…you’re completely right, that gives me an idea. The Avatar’s suite, here, is an interface, it assumes I’ll be interacting with another computer through it. That’s not the right approach; I should be studying the data coming in, not trying to connect to it like these two things are the same.”

“I thought you said he was using an Avatar?”

“He appears to be using pieces of one, which if anything makes it worse. That shouldn’t even be possible; it means the only parts of his setup that our sub-OS recognizes are confusing it, because they’re not what it expects. Fortunately, we are not without additional resources. Hah! This program lets me access them—good thinking, Avatar!”

“Access what?” Milanda demanded. “What are you doing now?”

“It’s a little technical,” Walker replied, fingers darting across the screens now. “I wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do this, because there are inherent wards and defenses in place. But, him connecting to our system like this creates an opening to use some of this facility’s additional tools. I should be able to track them along that connection without slowing the flow of data or disrupting his machine any further…give me a moment.”

“What tools?” Milanda asked impatiently. “Much as I appreciate your enthusiasm, we don’t have such a level of trust here that I can accept being left in the dark.”

Walker grinned savagely at her screen. “A transcension field is, as I said…data processing. There are ways to query reality itself through them. Easily blocked by other transcension fields, but ‘easily’ means ‘not perfectly.’ I believe you call it scrying.”


“Please be careful,” the Archpope said firmly. “There could be severe consequences for all of us if the Hands discover you. I told you up front how dangerously corrupt they have become—they will show no respect for either law or basic ethical restraint in their retaliation.”

“Rector,” Delilah said nervously, “maybe it’s a good time to…disengage.” She had stepped down to the floor of the cave, though had not stepped closer to him yet. The enchanter greatly disliked being physically approached while he was working.

“Good time to learn,” Rector said curtly. “This is fascinating. Reaction in real time! Never seen it before…”

“Listen to his Holiness,” Ildrin urged. “This is dangerous. If the Hands are watching…”

“Maybe the Hands,” Rector mumbled. “Maybe something else. Maybe another thinking machine. Didn’t find a working Avatar, but the pieces…suggestive, yes…”

“Your Holiness?” Ildrin turned to the Archpope, her gaze almost pleading. “I’m not… That is, this is a new situation. I’m not sure what to do. Do you think we should stop it?”

“No!” Rector barked, actually glancing at her in annoyance.

Justinian inclined his head, his expression thoughtful. “Rector…what is your assessment of that danger?”

“No data!” Rector exclaimed. “Am I a fortune-teller? No! Situation suggests conscious reaction, conservative reaction, restoring defaults. No sign of aggression, no hint of intentions…” He trailed off, slowing twirling one rune in a circle and watching a line of text scroll past on the surface of the magic mirror. “No further interaction. I stopped, changes stopped. May not be a person—system naturally reset itself over time, previously. Could just be doing it faster. Characteristic of thinking machine. Basic learning, no initiative.”

“If the system resets itself,” the Archpope said slowly, “could the Hands—”

“Totally different!” Rector said impatiently. “That is a very different system! Full of fairy magic—messy, all variables, no constants. Very hard to grasp, possibly the labor of a lifetime. Response to stimuli unpredictable. Not sure the effects of my experimental touches.”

Justinian and Ildrin glanced at each other. Delilah spent nearly all her time down here with Rector, but they were both connected enough to the world to have taken note of rumors beginning to swirl that Hands of the Emperor had begun to act agitated and aggressive.

“Rector,” the Archpope said calmly, “if you are amenable, I would like you to try something, please.”


“Yeah, this location is heavily warded,” Walker murmured, eyes darting back and forth at the data on the screen. “Divine wards, notably, though there are some standard arcane wards…”

“But the connection between the computers lets you penetrate them?”

“Precisely. In the absence of physical connectors, Infinite Order systems are designed to communicate directly via transcension fields. Whatever he’s using, it clearly has that function installed, along with parts of his Avatar. And it worked like a charm! I’ve got a very clear model of his computer.” She flicked her finger along the screen. “Ahh, now this answers some questions. Somehow, he got his hands on the Avatar template, the model from which they individuate new Avatars. That explains why he’s got an Avatar our sub-OS doesn’t recognize, and how he’s able to use parts of one…”

“The base template, hm,” Milanda murmured. “That sounds like something important.”

“Extremely, yes.”

“So…not a thing that would be left just lying around.”

“Let me caution you,” Walker said, holding up a warning finger without turning to face her, “that almost by definition, anyone who has retrieved anything from an Infinite Order facility at this point in history is bound to be a powerful player, with substantial resources and considerable skills. But yes, it would take the highest possible clearance to have obtained the template, which of course raises far more questions than it answers. In this case in particular, though, I believe I can shed some light on the subject.” She touched three icons on her screen in quick succession, and suddenly the huge central structure in the room was projecting another three-dimensional map above them. “Now, while I have basically unfettered access to the enemy’s system, it’s harder to get information from beyond it. The space where he is physically located is under some very, very aggressive wards. But! There’s a technique our computer can do, a kind of transcendental echolocation, which isn’t effectively blocked by modern scrying because modern mages don’t know it.”

“You do that on purpose,” Milanda accused. “You use these words you know I don’t recognize, just because you love explaining things.”

“I do like explaining things,” Walker agreed, shrugging. “I’ll ask your pardon. A few thousand years with nobody new to talk to can engender bad habits. Basically, this is bouncing waves of energy off surfaces to form a three-dimensional image of them—bats do it with sound waves, to spot prey. And this map is…suggestive.”

“Yes,” Milanda said grimly, stepping back to examine the huge light sculpture now filling the center of the room, “it is.”

The map, or more accurately the model, wasn’t perfect, of course. Whole sections were missing, or fuzzy; there was one upper part which projected an irregular geometric structure into the air that was obviously not a part of the real thing. It started with deep sub-levels, which could have been part of any basement complex, but rose to form an unmistakable structure. Even with no color and with numerous details fudged, Milanda had seen it every day from the windows of her own home in the Imperial Palace.

They were looking at the Grand Cathedral of the Universal Church, which stood directly across Imperial Square.

“That’s where our friend is,” Walker said, pointing with one hand and touching her screen with the other, causing a blue dot to appear in one of the basement rooms near the very bottom of the complex. “Hmmm… According to the numbers I’m seeing, that’s almost directly above part of the spaceport facility. Not here, we’re right under the Palace. But…”

“I wonder who else has access to this,” Milanda pondered aloud. “There’s a whole Vidian temple complex under the Square itself.”

“No one else has access, I checked. The elevator shaft leading down here from the Palace is the only one still extending that high. Probably has something to do with why it wasn’t under lockdown when Theasia’s people found it… The proximity doubtless helped our friend get access to the systems, though. The Order could do it from anywhere on the planet, but that gimpy little rig of his is another matter.”

Milanda narrowed her eyes. “Do you think you’ve got as much information from him as you can get?”

“I would say so,” Walker replied, turning to look speculatively at her. “Why? Do you feel ready to put an end to this?”

Milanda paused before answering. “This computer… Can it make…pictures?”

Walker blinked. “Pictures?”

“Of things. Images. Art. You said it had cultural archives…”

“Well, sure, it has a suite of graphic design software. Is this really the time…?”

“Yes.” Milanda stepped forward, holding out her hand. “I’m a politician, Walker; we’re now in my realm of expertise. We need to shut this down and shut him out—but given our resources here, I find I don’t want to block this access completely. You’ve proven it can run both ways, and I see all kinds of use in being able to get into the Church’s experimental program without them knowing we can. So! In terms of keeping them out, that leaves scaring them.”

“I believe I follow you.” Walker lifted her eyes from Milanda’s hand to her face, and grinned. “Yes, in fact, I rather like the way your mind works. I’ll bring up the relevant program; then, just hold that signet ring in front of the screen so the computer can take a photo, and give it directions to reproduce the sigil. For something this simple, spoken orders should suffice; we’re not doing complex graphic design. Oh, this will be fun…”


“Huh,” Rector grunted, abruptly freezing.

“Is there a problem?” the Archpope asked quietly. He and Ildrin had also stepped down to the floor, but at Delilah’s gesture of warning, had not approached further.

“Stopped… Not reacting. No, this is different. Tried a basic access, reversed a moment later. Now, though.”

“Yes?” Justinian prompted after a moment of silence.

Rector suddenly hunched over his controls again, fingers moving rapidly. “No…no. No! NO!” He slammed his fists against the side of the rack in frustration, causing the runes to rattle ominously. “Nothing—nothing works! I’m blocked, can’t access it!”

“I think that means it’s time to shut this off,” Ildrin said.

“Wait!” Rector barked. “Wait wait wait…”

“Rector,” the Archpope said firmly, “you know the risks.”

“They’re right, Rector,” Delilah said in a gentler tone. “Don’t forget to think in terms of maintenance. If you provoke the—”

“Hah!” the enchanter crowed, pumping his fists over his head in exultation. “Still have access! To the basic controls, environment. The Hand system, though, that’s locked now.”

“That,” Justinian said, “is a sign of conscious action on their part. It’s time to shut it down, Rector.”

“Last change reversed,” Rector muttered, seemingly ignoring him. “Wait…something’s…wait…”

“Rector, enough,” Ildrin said, stepping forward and ignoring Delilah’s expression. “You’re putting yourself and all of us in danger. Including his Holiness! You need to turn that thing off, or I’ll have to do it for you.”

“Ildrin!” Delilah protested.

“No no no,” Rector growled. “Something’s… This is doing something—it’s not supposed to do—”

He jerked back from the runes with a yelp; they all started glowing brightly, as if at the flip of a switch. In front of him, the magic mirror had suddenly gone black.

A moment later, its screen was lit with the silver gryphon emblem of the Tiraan Empire.

“Rector,” the Archpope ordered, “get away from there.”

Lights flickered on all over the sprawling banks of machinery; the constant low hum of arcane magic powering it began climbing. The enormous power crystals began glowing more brightly, and brightening constantly by the moment.

“Your Holiness, get out!” Ildrin shouted, grabbing him by the arm and tugging him toward the stairs. Justinian was physically far larger than she, but she was insistent and not weak; he allowed himself to be tugged, moving under his own power without objecting to her grip. Behind them, Delilah had lunged forward to seize Rector. The enchanter shouted and flailed, clubbing her repeatedly with his fists and elbows, but the Izarite priestess grimly pulled him along with surprising strength. It took her a few moments longer to haul her struggling charge through the quaint door into the cozy little kitchen beyond the cave.

In that time, the machinery had begun emitting sparks and gouts of smoke, as well as shrill whines of protest and the alarming smell of hot metal. Sharp cracking noises sounded throughout the room as glass tubes and filaments shattered. All the while, the light level steadily grew as more and more power blazed from the crystals.

Ildrin slammed the door behind Delilah, and behind her, the Archpope unerringly opened a kitchen cabinet and yanked the emergency lever concealed therein. Instantly, a thick wall of solid steel plunged down from the ceiling, covering the outer wall of the kitchen.

Their last sight through the window before the view was cut off was of the ancient, priceless magic mirror exploding into powder.

Rune flared to life along the shield wall, and then static and the smell of ozone rose in the small room, accompanied by a blue glow, as potent energy shields were activated.

Not a moment too soon.

Despite the fact that they were deep underground, entombed by the living rock, the explosion shook the room.


“The thing about transcension field access,” Walker explained, “is it doesn’t need a physical component to access these systems. As long as there’s someone alive over there who knows how they got Scyllith’s personal access and hooked into the system in the first place, they can try again. And probably will…carefully, eventually. Humans can never just leave well enough alone.”

“And now, we’ll be ready for them if they do,” Milanda said with great satisfaction. “More importantly, in the meantime, we can set about fixing the mess they’ve made.”

“Oh, yes indeed,” Walker said smugly. “I mentioned the possibility of someone being alive over there because…well, that is a relevant variable. I was guesstimating a bit when it came to certain factors, and based on what I’m seeing here, I may have overdone it a bit.”

“Good,” Milanda said firmly. “Then someone has learned a valuable lesson about respecting their Emperor.”

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12 – 25

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“I apologize for keeping you waiting,” Eleanora said as she entered the kitchen.

“Not at all, your Majesty.” Elder Mylion did not rise to greet her, but bowed politely from his position cross-legged on the floor, next to some kind of spell circle. “I’m certain your time is precious and your business important.”

“I also needed directions,” she admitted, stopping to peer around. “At the risk of sounding like an aristocratic cliché, I’ve never actually been in this room.”

“I’m sure it doesn’t usually look like this,” he said gravely. “Your staff seems quite efficient.”

Indeed, the harem wing’s kitchen was something of a mess. Mylion was surrounded by barrels, bags, and in some cases, disorganized heaps of food. Fruits and vegetables, beans and rice, various grains, sausages, spices both bottled and bagged, countless other items. There was some pattern to the disorder, things being generally separated into categories, but almost every container had been opened and some of its contents spilled out, as well as samples contained in the dozen ritual circles laid out on the flagstones all around him.

“All kitchen staff are currently being examined by my people,” Lord Vex said, lounging against a nearby counter and looking bored as usual. They were alone in the kitchen at present, Imperial Guards being stationed outside all the doors.

“Gently, I hope,” Eleanora said.

“Of course, your Majesty. At present, our assumption is that these are all loyal and dutiful servants, and the assumption will stay thus until we have solid evidence otherwise. In fact, according to the Elder’s findings, we may not have a spy here at all.”

“Oh?” She turned expectantly to the shaman. “Your message said you had found widespread sylphreed contamination.”

“Widespread is putting it mildly,” Mylion replied, frowning up at her. “Your Majesty…this is most peculiar. Most unnatural. I began by examining a random sampling of food containers, and found the presence of sylphreed in every one of my samples, without exception. Then I went through them more carefully; it took most of the morning, but I have determined that every single container in this kitchen, from the largest barrel to the smallest spice bottle, is tainted.”

“We’ve brought him samples from the main Palace kitchens,” Vex interjected, “and those apparently turned up negative. Only the harem wing’s supplies are affected. And that is a logistically significant finding; all the supplies that come here start there.”

“When I have finished here,” Mylion added, “I mean to prepare a sampling of the plant for your alchemists to examine, so they can test for it themselves. Alchemical methods may yield different results, or at least more precise ones. If I may be permitted to take some samples from the stocks here, I believe I can distill the essence of sylphreed for them from the food without needing to send to a grove for some. That would take weeks, at minimum. My own grove does not cultivate it.”

“Of course,” said the Empress, nodding. “Whatever you need.”

“Moving on,” he continued, “I began a series of more intensive divinations. Your Majesty… It’s everywhere. Everywhere. Every bean, every grain of rice, every infinitesimal speck of spice is touched by sylphreed. At least, every one I have tested. Obviously I’ve not examined every single iota of food in the kitchens that intensively, as I’ve not spent the requisite months at it. But at this point, I’ve been over what I consider a representative sampling, and am confident that is what I would find.”

Eleanora frowned, then looked between him and Vex. “That seems…excessive.”

“It almost completely rules out a physical delivery vector,” the spymaster agreed, nodding. “The only possible way such could be done would be to somehow distill sylphreed into some kind of liquid and spray all the food.”

“Which,” Mylion added, “would alter the texture and taste of most of it, and also would be impossible to do without attracting notice. Either your entire kitchen staff are involved, or none are.”

“When you say it rules out a physical delivery vector…”

“Yes, Lord Vex, I think the Empress should know of your other finding,” Mylion said seriously.

Vex actually sighed. “I’ve had my aide collate reports on the personal lives of every staff member who has worked in this wing of the Palace during Emperor Sharidan’s entire reign thus far. Beginning with the kitchen staff, but I expended it to all servants, and then soldiers. Your Majesty… I have to admit a serious failure in having failed to catch this before now, but we were simply not watching for patterns of this kind, and don’t habitually examine these aspects of everyone’s family life. I assure you, that is about to change. But to the point, none of the female staff, not one, have become pregnant while on duty here, nor within two years thereafter.”

“Two years is a highly significant time frame,” Mylion continued. “I assume a person of your education is aware of the way elves metabolize food?”

She nodded. “Yes, go on.”

“Two years,” the Elder explained, “is approximately how long the effects of sylphreed would remain in an elvish woman’s aura if she ingested the plant. That is an elf, though; our auras are slow to change once affected. In the case of humans, the dose would need to be administered weekly, at least, to remain effective. That is a large part of why your kind’s over-harvesting all but wiped it out. That, and habitat destruction, which…is a topic for another time.”

“If the substance is not being delivered physically,” she said, “and is affecting the humans exposed the way it would an elf…”

“And the third significant fact,” Mylion said, nodding, “is the distribution throughout the entirety of your food supply. Your Majesty, I don’t believe the actual plant has been introduced to your food. Its effects appear to be delivered by the dissemination of its magical essence into this wing of the Palace.”

“I had no idea that was even possible.”

“It is fae magic of an extremely sophisticated level,” he said seriously. “And it has its limits. There would be no way to focus the effect on the Palace or even the people here; that would take a constant, massive supply of sylphreed, applied to a constantly maintained spell. It would require less of the plant to just administer the drug conventionally to everyone. However, impregnating—forgive the pun—the food supplies here with its essence is another matter. There is a sympathetic principle at work, since these items are all biological in origin, most also being plants, and all are food. For this? A sufficiently skilled caster would not even need a sample of sylphreed. He or she could project its essence directly, from memory, assuming they had internalized it at some point in the past.”

“You suggest not just any shaman could do this,” she mused. “How much does this narrow the prospects?”

“Considerably.” Mylion finally rose, smoothing his hands along his vest. “Your Majesty, I am not certain I could do this. Examining the evidence, I can conceive a method in reverse, so the speak, but the actual doing would be exceedingly…tricky. Fae magic is far more organic and less methodical than the arcane, or even the divine. Each caster’s methods are different, at least subtly. But this? Only the most powerful shamans could create this effect. And that means the oldest. Your Majesty… If an elf is behind this, it is almost certainly a grove Elder. That being the case, we must know who, and address this recklessness. The tribes cannot tolerate such brash intervention in the Empire’s affairs; it threatens us all directly. Done by another sovereign state, this would be…”

“An act of war,” she said quietly when he trailed off.

Mylion nodded, his expression grim, almost haunted. “I must insist upon knowing who is responsible, if your agents are able to learn.”

“You insist?” Vex asked mildly.

“Quentin.” Eleanora’s tone of reproof was gentle, but unmistakable. “Elder Mylion is an honored guest, and is putting forth great effort for us, not to mention protecting our secrets—all of which are favors. Don’t forget that. Besides, in his position it is an extremely reasonable request. However,” she added to the shaman, “I must warn you, Elder, that if we identify and apprehend the culprit, the Empire will exercise its own right to justice in this matter. He or she is very unlikely to be handed over to any other party, for any reason.”

“I understand that,” he agreed. “I personally will not contest it, nor do I imagine that any of my fellow Elders would. I simply want to know who is behind this. We must identify any such behavior among our own, and yank it out, stem and root. The groves cannot afford to be implicated in antagonizing the Empire this way.”

“If anything,” Vex said lazily, “this raises prospects beyond the groves. This has clearly been going on longer than the Conclave has existed, so I doubt the dragons in the city could be involved. However, after the recent business in Viridill, we have word that Khadizroth the Green is not part of the Conclave, and has been associated with actors hostile to the Empire.”

“A green dragon could do this,” Mylion mused, frowning. “Any but the very youngest.”

“Also,” Vex added, “Mary the Crow has been repeatedly seen in the city of late.”

Mylion’s expression soured further. “The Crow could definitely do this. My intuitive response to the thought, though, is that it isn’t likely.”

“Oh?” Eleanora raised an eyebrow. “She is certainly hostile to the Empire, and this kind of roundabout scheme is far more her style than anything overtly violent. There is, in fact, a historical precedent of her interfering in lines of succession.”

“Yes,” the Elder agreed, “but as I said, actions of this kind bring danger to all elves. If she were caught, her position among the groves would be damaged irreparably. Even as tauhanwe as she is, the Crow values elves too much to take the risk, I think, much less to provoke the Elders this way.”

“And is that an impression, or certainty?” Vex inquired.

“An impression,” Mylion admitted. “One of which I am fairly confident, but it is not proof.”

Vex nodded. “Proof we don’t have. Not yet. But this is definite progress.”

“Doesn’t the Palace have wards against magical attack?” Eleanora demanded.

“The very best in existence, your Majesty,” Vex replied, his face falling into an irritated scowl. “But there is, as they say, always a bigger fish. I assure you, I will be revisiting this subject at length with our magical defenders in the days to come.”

“That’s not what I meant,” she said impatiently, waving a hand. “For something like this to be in constant effect for ten years, through multiple cyclings and upgrades of the wards, it would have to be done by an entity with a clear and decisive magical advantage—over the Empire itself, which employs the best defenses available. That seems implausible.”

“It is, at the very least, highly mysterious,” Mylion agreed.

“If,” she continued, “it were penetrating the wards. But Quentin, do these wards function like shields around the Palace, or like detection fields within it?”

“That…depends on the wards in question, your Majesty,” he said, frowning in thought. “The wards are complex and multi-layered; that is an absolute necessity, considering they are meant to counter all four major schools and every known manifestation of shadow magic. Not all of them have identical coverage.”

“Then,” she said, “it seems to me that the most obvious blind spot someone could use against our defenses is if this magic were being cast from inside the Palace.”


The castle rose from a hill in the forest, surrounded by an infinite sea of trees stretching to the horizons on all sides. In fact, from its vantage, there should have been ample view of the mountains rising in the center of the island, the coast on the opposite side, and human cities in the distance, but that was not how the Twilight Forest worked.

It was a beautiful structure in the traditional Sifanese style, with high, subtly angled stone walls, battlements and arrow loops, and wooden walls rising above the fortifications, surmounted by decorated, sloping roofs. The boughs of massive, ancient cherry trees rose from multiple courtyards, standing higher than the walls in defiance of the castle’s apparent military purpose. They were heavily laden with pink blossoms, despite this being entirely the wrong season. It was also the wrong season for the thick snow which was falling over the castle, and only over the castle. The effect was beautiful, though, and that was what mattered.

Their feet crunched only subtly in the snowfall as they crossed the bridge to the castle’s opened gates, Emi skipping along ahead, carefree as a lark. Tellwyrn followed more sedately, looking appreciatively around at the scenery.

The tanuki dangled limply from her hand, her fingers clutching him by the scruff of his neck. He whimpered, softly and constantly, front paws covering his eyes, rear ones trailing despondently along in the snow. Considering how fat he was, and how thin Tellwyrn’s arms were, it looked downright odd that she could carry him with no apparent effort.

“Good day.”

There had been no one present when they first approached, but suddenly another kitsune was there, just inside the gates. Taller than Emi and with raven-black ears and tail, she was dressed in a much simpler style of robe, with a traditional sword and short sword thrust in her sash. She regarded the approaching party calmly, one ear twitching.

Tellwyrn stopped and bowed to her.

“Kyomi!” Emi squealed, bouncing up to her. “Look, look who’s come to visit! It’s Kuni-chan!”

“I can’t believe you still let her call you that,” Kyomi said dryly to Tellwyrn. “You know it just encourages her.”

“Yes,” Tellwyrn replied with a faint smile, “but arguing about it would only encourage her more. Someday, I really must find time to come back and play those little games, but I’m afraid I have responsibilities right now, and no free time to endlessly push that boulder up that hill.”

Kyomi nodded in simple understanding, while Emi tittered in delight, now skipping around her with her tail bouncing gaily.

“Well met, then; on whatever business you have come, it is always a pleasure, Arachne. What brings you?”

“Oh, she’s looking for Kaisa,” Emi reported, coming to a stop nearby and smiling coquettishly.

“Ah. I thought she was waiting for someone. Kaisa has been unusually reserved since she got back.”

“Nice to know I’m so predictable,” Tellwyrn muttered. “So she is here?”

“Of course she is,” Emi said reproachfully. “I brought you here, didn’t I?”

“In the courtyard just beyond,” Kyomi said, half-turning to nod at an interior gate which opened onto a snow-dusted garden, past the wider but shallower gravel-paved ground onto which the castle’s main gate opened. “She doubtless is expecting you.”

“Then I’d best not keep her waiting,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “Something tells me this is a conversation I won’t enjoy.”

“They never are,” Kyomi replied, smiling mysteriously and ignoring Emi’s gales of laughter. “Will you have time for a game of go while you are in the country, Arachne? None of my sisters play with quite your aggressive style.”

“I have to return to my school more urgently than usual, I’m afraid. You know, if you’re that eager to see me embarrassed, you could always visit me, for once.”

“I could do that, yes,” the solemn kitsune replied in a tone suitable for commenting on the weather.

“Go right ahead,” Emi added with a broad grin which showed off her long incisors, pointing at the quivering tanuki still dangling from Tellwyrn’s hand. “I’ll keep an eye on that for you.”

“Thank you, Emi,” the elf said courteously, dropping him to the snowy planks of the bridge with no further ceremony. She paused only to bow again to both women before proceeding toward the inner gate.

“What’s this about?” Kyomi inquired, studying Tellwyrn’s erstwhile captive, who sat huddled in the snow, seemingly without the nerve even to try to run.

“Well,” Emi said with predatory relish, “it seems Maru has been tricking travelers into pit traps with the promise of giving them directions if they do him a favor.”

“Yes,” Kyomi said disinterestedly. “And?”

“And,” Emi drawled, “he tried that on Kuni-chan, and she didn’t fall for it.”

“Well, of course she didn’t.”

“And then, rather than honoring his promise, he tried to run.”

Very slowly, Kyomi turned her head to stare down at the tanuki. Her ears shifted to lie flat backward, and one hand drifted to rest on the pommel of her katana. “Maru.”

He let out a muted wail, prostrating himself in the snow before them.

“Anyway,” Emi continued gaily, “she has a claim on him, obviously. For now.”

“Yes,” Kyomi agreed, “for now. A favor is owed. And after that, we will discuss manners.”

Maru fainted.


“And I’m afraid that’s all we’re going to get out of him for now, your Holiness,” Delilah said apologetically. “He’s…focused, now.”

“So I see,” Justinian replied, favoring her with a brief smile before transferring his gaze back to Rector, who was puttering about his machine, carefully pulling levers with slow, smooth motions. As each slid into place, one of the attached power crystals hummed to life, putting off a steady glow. “It’s quite all right; I have long since resigned myself to appreciating the fruits of his work without necessarily understanding them.”

“Sorry about the delay, your Holiness,” Ildrin added, hovering at his other shoulder on the little porch overlooking the cave in which Rector’s workshop was set up. “After the last…incident…”

“Yes, of course,” Justinian said calmly. “Not to worry. Since our man of the hour is again distracted, ladies, were you able to discern from anything he said at the time whether the disconnection was deliberate?”

“You mean, on the part of the other…Avatar?” Delilah frowned. “Honestly, your Holiness, I have no idea. I was concentrating on keeping him…well, stable. He took that disruption rather hard at the time, though he bounced back from the disappointment unusually quickly. I take that to mean he is close to a breakthrough. His episodes always become both shorter and more frequent in proximity to real progress.”

“He mentioned it as a possibility,” Ildrin said quietly. Delilah turned to her, blinking in surprise, and she shrugged. “You’re better at keeping him happy when he’s in a mood, Dee. At times like that, I concentrate on listening to his muttering. There’s sometimes something worthwhile amid the noise.”

“There’s always something worthwhile,” Delilah said a little defensively. “Every thought he has is worthwhile. They just aren’t always sensible to others.”

“Of course, I didn’t mean to be disparaging,” Ildrin said, nodding. “I certainly don’t doubt Rector’s brilliance. But as you were asking, your Holiness, he mentioned that possibility while talking to himself. I don’t…think he came to a conclusion in that regard. He also muttered about it being an overload in his own system, or just another random failure…”

“I see,” the Archpope mused. “Regardless, I appreciate you keeping me informed. It sounds as if this attempt may yield significant results. It would be quite pleasant to observe one of these successes firsthand, for once, rather than hearing of it after the fact.” He smiled at each of them before turning his focus back to Rector, who had just activated the magic mirror which formed the focus of his sprawling device.

The peculiar symbol appeared on its surface, followed by the circle slowly burning itself down to nothing, and then the mirror turned white.

“Avatar template loaded,” a passionless voice said, crackling from interference. “Warning: personality subroutines inactive. Social subroutines inactive. Ethics parameters disabled. Overall intelligence reduced to ten percent of optimal value. Avatar individuation is impossible. Do you wish to continue using the template in debug mode?”

“Yes!” Rector cried impatiently. “Yes, as always, let’s get on with it!”

“Yes,” Archpope Justinian repeated very softly, watching. “Let it begin.”

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Prologue – Volume 4

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Ravoud was always precisely punctual, which aided the Archpope tremendously in timing his appearances. It was a small thing, but great things were only aggregates of smaller ones, and image was both his weapon and his battlefield. When people looked at him, they saw what he wished them to see, and it was the entire foundation of his power.

He stood, straight-backed and calm, with his hands folded behind his back, gazing through the windows of his office at the city, a view he could have painted from memory. Though his face was not visible from the door at this angle, he kept it schooled in an expression of thought. A scene was constructed of many pieces of scenery, and just because the audience did not see the work of the stagehands did not make it any less important.

“Enter,” he said calmly at the sharp knock on his door, his voice projected just enough to be audible without.

The office door swung open, then shut, and then came the footfalls on his floor, approaching him; he had learned to recognize Ravoud’s step even among those of his soldiers, whom he trained to mimic his precise gait.

Justinian turned exactly as the Colonel was kneeling behind him, giving the man a perfect view of the very moment when his expression transitioned from a contemplative frown to a kind smile at the sight of his subordinate, a split second before he lowered his own eyes.

Small things, in aggregation, made up all the world.

“Rise, my friend,” he said as Ravoud kissed his proffered ring. The Colonel straightened up smoothly, saluting—which Justinian had made it clear he did not need to do, but he valued the man’s sense of protocol and proper respect too much to insist on the point.

“Your guests have assembled, your Holiness,” Ravoud reported, “in the conference room as directed.”

“Then by all means, let us join them,” the Archpope replied, setting off for the door.

In the hall, the two Holy Legionaries bracketing his office door saluted, but at Ravoud’s gesture remained in place rather than following. Justinian liked to use these walks through the less-populated upper halls of the Cathedral to hold discussions to which he preferred there not be an audience.

“And how are the Bishops, in your estimation?” he asked as soon as they had rounded the corner.

Ravoud kept his eyes ahead, but his brows lowered in a thoughtful frown. “In most respects, much the same as always. Bishop Varanus is the only one of the four I feel comfortable turning my back to.”

Justinian smiled warmly. “Do not underestimate Andros’s cleverness. But yes, you judge him well. The man’s sense of honor is his greatest driving force. Most respects, though?”

Ravoud nodded. “There is more tension between them than before, since Syrinx’s return. And beyond her presence, I believe I’ve only just realized why.”

“Oh?”

“Most of the time, Snowe and Darling are a moderating factor. The other two have strong and mutually hostile personalities, and the Eserite and Izarite deliberately keep the peace. Suddenly, though, they are not. In the conversations I’ve seen, Darling appears suddenly more neutral—not as if he is courting trouble, but more as if he wants to watch the others to see what happens. And there is a specific tension between Syrinx and Snowe, now. I suspect that is what caught his interest. I suspect he noticed it long before I.”

“How fascinating,” Justinian murmured. “And what do you make of this?”

“I think,” Ravoud said with the slower diction of a man carefully choosing his words, “Snowe has done something to antagonize Syrinx. A couple of times, when she thought no one was looking, I caught Syrinx giving her a look which frankly I think will keep me up at night. As a rule, any new tension between them I would attribute to Snowe; Syrinx is the aggressive one, and more hostility from her would change nothing. If the usual peacekeeper turned to bite her, though…”

“Nassir,” he said warmly, “I continually marvel at your perceptiveness when it comes to the motivations of others. Well beyond your military and organizational skills, it makes you a priceless asset to me.”

“I merely apply lessons I’ve learned from leading people, your Holiness,” Ravoud replied, inclining his head modestly. “Soldiers are trained to follow orders and procedures, but even in the military, I find you get the best results from others by paying attention to their needs and strengths.”

“Indeed, that very observation is the cornerstone of my own leadership strategy. Hmm. I trust Branwen’s loyalty absolutely, but it could become problematic if she begins taking the wrong sort of initiative on my behalf. She could damage carefully laid plans by stepping into them unawares. Goading Basra would be exactly that kind of misdirected initiative…” Justinian came to a halt, tilting his head back and gazing upward as he often did in public to indicate he was thinking. Ravoud stopped beside him, folding his hands behind his back and waiting with no hint of impatience for the Archpope’s next pronouncement.

Justinian made him wait only a few moments before delivering it. “I believe I shall change my schedule somewhat, Nassir.”

“Oh?”

“There is another errand I had intended to make after meeting with the Bishops, which instead I shall do now.” He turned to regard Ravoud directly, nodding once as if to indicate he had settled upon an idea. “Please inform them of the unfortunate and unexpected events when demand my attention; I expect I shall be with them in less than an hour. In that time, I would like you to observe them carefully, please. I shall be keenly interested in your analysis of what is revealed by having the four of them cooped up in a room together for a little while.”

The corner of Ravoud’s lips twitched once to the left, the only tiny sign of approbation he permitted to breach his professional reserve, and he bowed. “Yes, your Holiness.”

“I want you to know, Nassir,” Justinian said, laying a hand upon his shoulder, “that I appreciate your willingness to aid me in these many little ways that you do. You have provided exemplary service well beyond that for which you were contracted.”

“It is my honor to serve in any way I can, your Holiness,” Ravoud replied, his voice firm with conviction.

“Even so, it is appreciated, and you deserve to know that.” Justinian smiled and squeezed his shoulder once before letting his hand fall and stepping back. “Go, then. I shall not keep you waiting long.”

The Colonel saluted him crisply before continuing on in the direction they had been walking, at a far more brisk pace than the Archpope’s customary leisurely glide. Justinian watched him go for a moment before following more slowly, and turned down the first side corridor he reached, leaving Ravoud to vanish into the distance of the Cathedral’s hallways.

As he moved into more heavily-trafficked areas, he encountered more people—clerics, guards and servants he knew, as well as various visitors to the Cathedral. All of them stopped in their own tasks to bow deeply, and all of them got a smile and a nod from their Archpope. He was careful to vary his expression by small degrees, with the tiniest changes of the muscles around his mouth and eyes, as he made eye contact with each person. Just enough to create the expression that that smile was for them, for each of them in particular, and not a fixed expression he simply carried on his face. Another time he might have stopped to talk with several, inquiring after details of their lives about which he was careful to stay informed. Indeed, today he made silent mental calculations over how often he had done so with each recently; it wouldn’t do to become overly chatty with everyone, and create the impression that anybody could demand a slice of his time on a whim, but he thrived on the perception they had of him as a man who saw each of them individually, and not as the faceless masses many leaders saw in their servants. Not today, though; he had places to be, and without too much delay.

Near ground level in a wing which provided guest quarters for visitors to the Cathedral, he arrived in a quiet hallway and strode unerringly to a door whose location he remembered without need to consult any notes. A soft knock was followed by the rustling of activity within—immediate rustling, suggesting the suite’s occupant had been waiting for that knock, though it was several seconds before the door opened, so she had not been sitting eagerly beside it. About as he expected.

In the second between the door opening and the woman behind it recognizing him, he took note of her expression: intent and slightly tense, far too carefully neutral to belong on a happy person. That was only to be expected, considering the last few weeks.

“Your Holiness!” she gasped, immediately bending to kneel.

“Please, Ildrin, stand,” he said, reaching out to grasp her by one shoulder—on the side, not the top, making the gesture supportive rather than patronizing. “You have had a trying enough time without being expected to bow and scrape. I promise you, I shall never demand that of you.”

“I wouldn’t complain,” Ildrin Falaridjad replied, not entirely keeping the bitterness from her tone. “I’ve made enough of a mess of things…”

“You have done quite well with the resources and the situation you were given,” he said firmly. “Never think otherwise. I am told by the healers that you have been certified free of any lingering effects of mental tampering.”

“But,” she said, her face twitching with the effort to repress anger, “such tampering occurred. I… Even now I can’t believe…” The priestess had to pause and physically swallow down emotion before continuing, gazing intently up at him. “Do they…know who, or what, or how…?”

“I assure you,” he said gravely, “I am pursuing what avenues of investigation I can, but they are limited. And considering the circumstances in Athan’Khar, you must be prepared to be disappointed. It is very likely that your opponent in that situation was responsible, if not another completely undetected third party. Or fourth, or fifth party,” he added ruefully.

Ildrin heaved a heavy sigh, some of the tension leaking from her shoulders. “Well. I understand that both the Bishops have returned.” Once again, she didn’t quite manage to keep the ire from her face.

“Yes,” he said simply, granting her an encouraging smile. “They are here, in fact. At my request, Bishop Syrinx’s pursuit of your affairs has ceased.”

“Thank you,” she said fervently.

Justinian sighed softly and shook his head. “I find Basra a very valuable agent—there are few more skilled at accomplishing the right type of tasks. She is not, however, a people person. Of course, I cannot advise High Commander Rouvad on the disposition of her assets, but personally, I would never have placed Basra in charge of others in the field. Well, what’s done is done. On the subject of Rouvad’s policies, it seems it will take some time yet to terminate the case the Sisterhood has laid against you. They are congenitally less inclined to accept our explanations about mental influence; the evidence seems not strong enough to meet Avei’s admirably high standards. Do not despair, I am more than confident we can smooth all this over, but it is likely to take more time.”

“I see,” she said, bitterness once more creeping into her tone, then took a deep breath and bowed to him. “Your Holiness, I greatly appreciate the effort you are expending on my behalf. I can’t imagine what I’ve done to deserve it.”

Justinian smiled, tilting his head infinitesimally and regarding her pensively for a moment before answering. “I will tell you a secret, Ildrin. One which I’ve never voiced to an Avenist before, as I fear it runs counter to their doctrine. It has been my experience that no good comes from giving people what they deserve. I treat people according to the potential I see within them, to help them grow into it as best I am able. Never once have I been disappointed by the results of this policy. I foresee great things for you.”

He allowed her to stammer wordlessly in overawed gratitude for a careful space of seconds before continuing in a more serious tone.

“In point of fact, I would not inflict idleness upon you; I know you to be a woman of action. For the time being, necessity demands you remain my guest, beyond the direct reach of your sisters. If you are willing, I have a request to make of you.”

“Anything!” she said, eyes shining with fervor.

“I must warn you,” he said more seriously still, “this is an extremely sensitive matter. I believe the situation calls for your skills exactly, but your involvement will be…experimental. It may not work out, and I don’t want you to push yourself beyond your comfort if the job is not a good fit. Regardless of how the matter ends, it is a project which I insist must remain secret for the time being, until I tell you otherwise.”

“Your Holiness, I will not let you down in even the slightest way,” she promised avidly, nodding with almost childlike eagerness.

He gave her a gentle smile. “You haven’t yet. If you are interested, then, please come with me. There is something I would show you.”

Ildrin remained on point as he led her through the Cathedral, clearly eager to ask questions, but containing herself. Justinian held his peace for the remainder of the walk, taking in observations as they progressed deeper into the sub-levels below the Cathedral itself, through ever thicker doors with larger locks. Ildrin was self-disciplined and did not ask or push beyond what she saw as her place, but on the other hand hadn’t much of a poker face.

That, perhaps, was just as well.

He led her along corridors, down stairwells, and through increasingly secure doors, occasionally passing other personnel who stepped back and bowed to him, but for the most part they were more alone the deeper they went. She either had an excellent sense of direction or hadn’t considered that she would need help to make her way back out of here, he decided, based on her obvious interest untarnished by any sign of unease. Finally, Justinian stopped before a door made of actual steel, and turned to her.

“Remember,” he cautioned, “absolute secrecy.”

“I swear,” she promised, “I will do credit to the trust you’re placing in me, your Holiness.”

He smiled at her, then placed his hand against the metal door frame. Ildrin looked suitably impressed when, a moment later, the metal door—six inches thick—swung silently inward. He would, of course, have to explain how the enchantments worked, but that could wait.

Inside was another, much shorter corridor, terminating in another door, this one whitewashed wood and looking for all the world like the front entry of some country cottage. Justinian strode forward, Ildrin falling behind as she jumped and turned to suspiciously eye the metal door when it swung shut behind them.

He rapped once with his knuckles, then opened the door and stepped through, beckoning to Ildrin.

The room beyond matched the expectations set up by its entrance: it could have been anyone’s living room. Comfortable, just slightly shabby, yet clean. Ildrin blinked, peering around.

A woman had been sitting in a worn easy chair by the fireplace; upon their arrival, she rose smoothly, stepping forward with a broad smile. “Your Holiness!”

“Delilah,” he said warmly, coming to meet her and taking her hands in his own. “And how are you faring?”

“Quite well, thank you,” she replied. “As always, I would love a nap, but generally speaking I am well. Just taking a short breather; he’s fully occupied making little adjustments. Actually, your Holiness, I think you have good timing. We appear to be close to another attempt.”

“How fortuitous!” he said. “And how is our guest of honor?”

“Very much the same,” Delilah said with a sigh, releasing the Archpope’s hands and stepping back. “I do the best I can, but… Well, you know, of course.”

“Indeed I do.”

She glanced past him at Ildrin, her expression openly curious. Delilah was a pale, dark-haired woman in her early thirties; she wore a simple shirt and trousers that didn’t look clerical in the least, but had a pink lotus badge pinned at the shoulder.

“Delilah Raine,” Justinian said, stepping smoothly aside to gesture between them, “Ildrin Falaridjad.”

“Charmed!”

“Pleasure.”

“Ildrin,” he continued, “is here to try assisting you.”

“Oh?” Delilah’s expression grew markedly happier. “That is wonderful news!”

“Delilah,” Justinian said to Ildrin, “is, for want of a better term, a caretaker. Beyond here, the primary occupant of this suite is…well, you’ll be introduced to him momentarily. He is a truly brilliant man, but…somewhat difficult. Delilah’s nurturing approach to looking after him has yielded great results, but I’m afraid it keeps her rather tired; this is a full-time job. In addition to lightening her workload, I would like to explore the possibility of trying another approach. He was quite irascible when he first came to us; now, after some months of progress under Delilah’s care, I believe it is an appropriate time to branch out. Ildrin,” he added, turning to Delilah now, “has ample experience as a novice trainer and interfaith mediator; she is well prepared to offer the sensitivity and understanding our friend needs, but in general is known for a sterner approach than is the Izarite way. It is my hope this can help not only hasten his work, but move him toward better adjusting to looking after himself. I will caution you both,” he added seriously, “that this is an experiment. Our friend is somewhat delicate, Ildrin, as you shall see, and not everyone is able to form a connection with him. It is entirely possible that this will not work out, through no fault of yours. You must be prepared for surprises, and disappointments.”

“I will, of course, do my best,” Ildrin replied, now looking somewhat nervous. “Just…who is this person?”

“Well, why don’t we introduce you?”

“I would recommend against that,” Delilah said, frowning. “At least, at the moment. He is in a working frame of mind right now. But this would be a good opportunity for Ildrin to see what that looks like.”

“Quite so,” Justinian agreed. “If you would lead the way?”

She dipped her body slightly in a curtsy which looked a little odd, considering she wasn’t wearing skirts, then turned and led them through the door at the back of the room.

Beyond that was a kitchen, with what could have been a back door set into a side wall. Delilah opened this and stepped out onto a neat little rear deck.

Instead of extending over a yard or garden, though, the back of the ‘house’ opened onto a cavern that was clearly natural, though parts of it had been carved to make it more habitable. The floor was even, and numerous fairly lamps hung from the walls, casting the stone chamber in bright illumination. The entire space was filled to bursting with machinery and enchanting paraphernalia, ranging from enormous structures of glowing glass rods and copper wires to miscellaneous drifts of partially-inscribed spell parchment and casually strewn bottles of enchanting dust.

Ildrin stepped forward to join the others at the rail, gazing about in awe.

In the center, a space had been cleared around another apparatus, which seemed to consist of a large magic mirror in the old style, surrounded by banks of various crystals, tubes, wires, and plates of stone and metal engraved with runes, some glowing. The mirror itself had been wired directly into a stand containing four sizable power crystals—the three-foot-long industrial kind that held charges for major factory machinery.

Laboring over this with a wrench in one hand and a feather quill in the other was a man in a ragged, dirty coat, with gray hair forming a wild nimbus about his head. He muttered continually to himself, making minute adjustments to his peculiar device.

“Very close,” Delilah murmured. “I’ve seen this many times. Fine-tuning before an attempted activation.” She sighed. “And of course, I’ll be needed for what comes next.”

“Who knows?” said the Archpope. “This might be the attempt that works.”

She shook her head. “I’m almost afraid to wonder how to look after him if that happens. At least I know how to handle his failures.”

“There are no failures, Delilah, only steps in the process.” The priestess just shook her head again.

The man abruptly barked a laugh and stood back, planting his fists on his hips and breaking his quill in the process. He set off on a slow circuit around the device, studying it closely from every angle and incidentally giving his audience a better view of himself. He had a receding hairline,and a wildly unkempt beard beneath a hooklike nose, with piercing dark eyes which flickered rapidly across the structure he had assembled. His build was generally lean, though he had a noticeable paunch—the body of a man who did all his work with his fingers and brain. Despite the position giving him a clear view of the porch, he did not seem to notice them there.

“Ildrin, this is Rector,” the Archpope murmured. “One of the most brilliant enchanters alive today.”

“He won’t make eye contact when speaking to you,” Delilah said softly, “so don’t be offended by that. And he does not like to be touched. When he gets lost in his work this way, he’ll tend to think of nothing else until he reaches a stopping point, at which time it’s my job to make sure he does stop, to eat, bathe, and sleep. He hasn’t done any of those in four days. At other times, when he’s not in this state, you’ll find him fastidiously clean and actually quite devoted to his daily schedule. There are numerous other nuances. I’ll acquaint you with them as best I can as we go.”

“I see,” Ildrin said thoughtfully. Justinian took it as a very positive sign that she seemed intrigued and contemplative, not disgusted or even startled, as some tended to be when meeting Rector in one of his moods.

The enchanter came back to the front of his device, rolled his shoulders once forward and once backward, and began systematically cracking his knuckles. One joint at a time, at precisely one-second intervals.

“This is the pre-attempt ritual,” said Delilah. “Here it comes…”

The attempt, when it came, was almost disappointingly simple after all that buildup: Rector simply grabbed a lever attached to the side of the rack of large crystals and pulled it downward.

A low hum of magic at work filled the air. A powerful hum; even one of those crystals could have powered a mag cannon. Runes and glass tubes at various points along the apparatus blazed to life, and finally, the surface of the magic mirror itself did.

Its silver face flickered once, then turned stark black, and a peculiar symbol appeared in its center, rotating slowly. A circle formed around it, then broke at the top to make a partial ring and began slowly disappearing along one side, like a fuse burning down. No, given its pattern, more like a clock ticking down.

Rector dry-washed his hands, gazing avidly at the mirror and absently shifting his weight back and forth.

When the “clock” reached zero, the circle completely consuming itself and vanishing, the mirror flashed once more, and a figure appeared.

It was a man—purple, translucent, bald, and strangely dressed. His image flickered and wavered erratically.

“YES!” Rector crowed in a reedy voice, pumping both fists in the air.

The purple figure moved its mouth; a half-second later, out of sync, words sounded from the mirror, the voice strangely resonant when it wasn’t stuttering and halting.

“Av-av-avatar temmmmmmmmmmmplate lo-lo-loaded. Wa-wa-warning: critically in-in-insufficient processing power detec-tec-tec-tec-tected. Advise—warning, critical—cri-cri-cri— System fail—”

The mirror flashed once more and went dead, again nothing more than a simple reflective surface. An array of rune-engraved spell plates connected to it by wires and glass tubes began to smoke faintly. The hum of arcane magic faded rapidly, the slight glow of the power crystals cutting off.

“NOOOOO!” Rector howled, falling to his knees and clutching his hair with both hands. “So close—SO CLOSE! WHY won’t you just WORK!” He doubled over, sobbing and pounding at the floor with his fists.

Delilah had already stepped down from the porch and went to him, circling around front where he could see her approach and making no move to touch him.

“Rector,” she said firmly, kneeling.

At the sound of her voice, he bounded abruptly upright again. “Yes! Right, you’re right, no time for carrying on, I think I know what went wrong. I know what to try, I just—”

“Rector,” Delilah said, kindly but implacably, “it’s time to take a break.”

As she had said, he didn’t even look at her, bounding over to a nearby table laden with scrawled diagrams, power crystals, and vials of faintly luminescent enchanting dust. “No, no time, I can take a break later, I have an idea…”

“We talked about this,” Delilah insisted, moving around to the other side of the table so she was in his field of view again. “The mind and body are machines, too, Rector; you have to maintain them. Yours are far too valuable to risk being damaged from neglect.”

He froze at that, staring down at his table, but doing nothing with the pen and paper he had picked up. “I…yes, I know. But my work. I’m close!”

“You will still be close after some food and sleep,” she said gently. “You’ll be able to work better then, too. Isn’t this too important to approach it at less than your best?”

She was clearly adept at handling him; his recalcitrance slowly but surely melted as Justinian and Ildrin watched from above.

“And so you see,” said the Archpope gravely. “This is a peculiar task I’m asking you to undertake, Ildrin, and not an easy one. There will be no recrimination if you decline to take it on.”

“No,” she said thoughtfully. “I think…I can do this. I want to repay your kindness, but… I actually think I can do this. He certainly seems more difficult than anyone I’ve worked with before, but I’m not a stranger to difficult personalities.” She snorted softly. “Quite frankly I think this will not be as bad as working under Bishop Syrinx.”

Justinian allowed himself a wry smile at that, even though Ildrin wasn’t looking at him. She did, however, look up to frown at him after a long moment.

“Your Holiness… What, exactly, is he building?”

The Archpope nodded slowly, keeping a sage smile in place.

“The future.”

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“This Ingvar sounds like he’s cruising to get himself digested,” Tellwyrn snorted.

“Perhaps,” the Crow mused in reply. “Perhaps not. Likely not, I think. His manner toward Aspen is not at all the approach I would take… If anything, he appears to be relating toward her as a devout Shaathist toward a young woman who has suddenly become his responsibility.”

“You could print that up in a handsome leather binding under the title How to Get Eaten by a Dryad.”

Kuriwa smiled faintly. “In general, yes. I think that this situation reflects Sheyann’s hard work, and ours. Assuredly Aspen as she was when you placed her in this situation would have responded very poorly indeed to such treatment, but Sheyann reports that she has found success in teaching the dryad some self-awareness and responsibility. Not enough that I would inflict her upon your campus like Juniper, but she is, at least, primed to want to better herself. You of all people know how it is with the young. They act out, on some level, because they need to find where the boundaries are. Ingvar is providing her that. She appears to be taking to it quite well, far better than I could have anticipated.”

“So he’s teaching her Shaathist boundaries.” Tellwyrn shook her head. “Be it now or further down the road, someone’s getting eaten. Meanwhile, we face the question of what to do with this.”

“Yes.”

They stood in the magically fortified chamber deep beneath the University, staring up at the time-frozen form of Aspen locked in mid-transformation.

“This new body,” Tellwyrn mused, “you said it exhibited no signs of transforming?”

“And I studied her carefully with more than just my eyes, yes. Whatever Khadizroth did, it brought her back in a default state.”

“I wonder why you didn’t just do that in the first place.”

“First,” Kuriwa said with faint annoyance, “because stabilizing her emotionally was necessary before that was safe, and we are the beneficiaries of great good fortune that that process had gone far enough to be successful when Ingvar blundered across her. And second, it honestly did not occur to me that such was possible. I’ve added it to the ever-lengthening list of things I intend to discuss with Khadizroth when the opportunity presents itself.”

“Well, we’re procrastinating, here, and we both know it,” Tellwyrn said somewhat brusquely. “I’d advise retreating a couple of steps. Presuming what you just let loose in Viridill is the real and only Aspen and not some kind of clone, this thing might just slump over dead, or it may be savage, mindless, and predatory. And there is absolutely no guessing what Naiya will think of us dispatching it.”

“In the worst case scenario,” Kuriwa said calmly, “you can always re-freeze it, no?”

“Right,” Tellwyrn grumbled, “because this is exactly the kind of nicknack I want cluttering up my basement for all eternity. Stand back.”

She gave no more warning beyond a curt gesture of her hands, and without any visible magical effect, the partially-transformed dryad continued the motion she had been in the middle of, which was a very aggressive step forward.

A low groaning sound echoed from within her snarling face, and she staggered forward another step; neither elf backed up further, Tellwyrn keeping her hands up and ready to cast again. Aspen’s body swayed drunkenly to one side, then slowly toppled forward.

She hit the stone floor and completely collapsed. Five seconds later they were looking down at a pile of sticks and golden aspen leaves, only the spray of grass stalks that had been her hair serving to hint at a humanoid form.

“Well.” Tellwyrn shook her head, and folded her arms. “Well. I suppose that was the absolutely ideal outcome.”

“Yes.”

“I’m always mistrustful when those happen.”

“Yes.”

“Should we check outside and see if the world is ending?”

“We are underground, Arachne. Naiya’s domain is more than plants and animals; if she thought us guilty of slaying one of her daughters, we would be hearing about it already.” Kuriwa shook her head. “No, I believe we can consider this matter satisfactorily concluded. Aspen is, really and truly, safe and free.”

“And,” Tellwyrn drawled, “running around Viridill with some Huntsman, that smirking weasel Darling and Joseph Jenkins, who I rather like. I was hoping to persuade him to attend my school in a few years; I’ll be very put out if you get him eaten, Kuriwa.”

“Someday, Arachne, we’re going to have a conversation which includes no exchange of threats, and both of us will be left with a great yawning void in our hearts.” The Crow turned and stepped toward the room’s only door. “Now, I believe I had better visit Sheyann and inform her of this. She will be rather disappointed that her work was thus interrupted; hopefully she finds this conclusion as satisfactory as we.”

“Kuriwa.”

The Crow paused at the tone of Tellwyrn’s voice and turned back to face her, raising an eyebrow.

The sorceress wore a frown, but it was a pensive and slightly worried expression. “Not to tell you your own business, but I really think you ought to go keep an eye on this group you set loose in Viridill.”

“Oh?”

“The events you describe down there, Khadizroth’s apparent involvement, and especially this hint that he’s answering to the Universal Church now… In the last few days, Justinian has been making hostile noises at my school, to the extent of riling up a continent-wide debate in the newspapers. I have had to seek out advice from gods of the Pantheon with regard to this, the Black Wreath has taken it as an opportunity to strike at his interests by ‘helping’ some of my kids…”

“That is an unsettling prospect.”

“Imperial Intelligence has likewise gotten involved… And the whole time, the big unanswered question has been what the Archpope thinks he can accomplish this way. He poses zero threat to me, and he knows it. Now this. Whatever else he’s done, this has done a bang-up job of fixing the world’s attention here. To the point that I, for one, had no idea anything so interesting as a rash of elemental attacks was taking place in Viridill. I think, Kuriwa, someone competent had better be on site there. Someone who knows to keep an eye out for Justinian’s sneaky fingers.”

“Hmm.” Now frowning herself, Kuriwa nodded slowly. “You raise an extremely valid point, Arachne. Yes, I believe I shall take your advice. Thank you.”

“I suppose wonders never cease.”

“If they did,” said the Crow, turning again to leave, “you would simply make your own. Which is a better prospect for the world than you becoming bored.”

Tellwyrn grinned down at the pile of leaves and twigs that had previously been a dryad’s body as the sound of small wings receded down the corridor behind her. “Said Elder Pot to Professor Kettle. Bah… Now, where does Stew keep the brooms?”


“Sorry I’m late,” said Basra, arriving in the command tent and helping herself to a position around the map table. “Have I missed anything significant?”

“No, and you’re hardly late, your Grace,” said Colonel Nintaumbi, nodding respectfully to her. “The only development since last night is that our scouts and scryers have confirmed the absence of any further reaction from Athan’Khar; there are no more monsters north of the river, or indeed north of the corrupted region. Scrying is ineffective beyond that point, I’m afraid.”

“My scouts,” Yrril said calmly, “have ventured to the edge of the corruption and found it calm. The denizens of Athan’Khar are howlingly mad, to the last. It is not in their nature to strategize, or lie in wait. It is safe to assume they are not planning another attack.” She had removed her helmet and carried it under one arm; in the light of day, her armor was revealed to be a form-fitting tunic and trousers of some densely woven material overlaid with strategic plates of metal. All of it, as well as the hilt of her saber, had been treated to prevent them shining even in the sunlight.

“That fits,” Basra agreed, nodding. “Our quarrel is with the elementalist currently hiding there, not with the spirits of Athan’Khar. What we faced last night were simply the specimens antagonized by Falaridjad’s stupidity. Where is she?”

“En route to Vrin Shai to be held pending arraignment,” said General Vaumann. “You and your other companions will naturally be called upon to testify, so the proceedings will have to wait until things are somewhat settled here. I did, on your recommendation, have a suicide watch placed on her, though if I may say so she doesn’t seem the type.”

“Good. Thank you.” Basra nodded deeply to her. “The type or not, I want no risk taken of that treasonous imbecile finding an easy way out of her mess.”

“The rest of your party are still resting,” Vaumann added. “After the night you’ve had, no one would blame you if you remained with them. What an interesting group, Captain Syrinx. A bard, a witch, a sole Legionnaire and a priestess of Izara. One might think you were trying to form an old-fashioned adventuring party.”

Colonel Nintaumbi cracked a grin at that; Yrril cocked her head infinitesimally to one side.

Basra drew in a deep breath through her nose and let it out slowly. “I have a feeling that was rather amusing, General. I may ask you to repeat it sometime when I’m not so fresh from shepherding that gaggle of misfits away from a mostly self-inflicted doom.”

“It’s a date,” Vaumann said with an amused smile.

“In any case,” Nintaumbi said more briskly, “the core of our strategy will rely on magical superiority. General Panissar has sent us two strike teams, and the last scroll I got said four more were requisitioned and on the way. In addition to that, we have no lack of battlemages, both those attached to the units already present and a detachment from the Azure Corps who arrived just an hour ago.”

“We have been assured by our fae specialists,” said General Vaumann, “that while this summoner’s ability to call up elementals at such a long range is impressive and dangerous, maintaining a fine control over them at that range is beyond the realm of possibility. Even if he is a competent general, which we have yet to see evidence for or against, his troops are more like animate weapons. Our objective will be to create controlled chaos on the battlefield and prevent any elementals which arrive from coordinating.”

“Makes sense,” Basra agreed, nodding.

“The Second Legion is going to take a primarily defensive stance,” Vaumann continued. “We’re backed by clerics, and I’ve had them hard at work since yesterday buffing and applying more than the standard blessings to weapons and armor. They’ll make a fine bulwark against anything operating on fae magic. The Imperial Army is going to take a more aggressive stance, using mages, staves and what mag artillery we can get into the field. Yrril’s troops are far more mobile than any of ours; Narisian infantry are quicker even than cavalry, as the Silver Legions have had cause to observe.” She gave Yrril a wry look, receiving a bow and a polite smile in reply. “They’ll form our primary means of controlling the field. The trick here is going to be avoiding any friendly fire incidents; the Legions should be adequately shielded against stray staff shots, and Colonel Nintaumbi is having full suites of grounding and shielding charms issued to the Narisians from the Army’s stores. Beyond that, it’ll be Army hammers and Legion anvils all the way down, with Narisian tongs to put our enemies in just the right spot.”

“Will you have problems fighting in the sun, Yrril?” Basra asked, turning to the drow.

“We have means of dealing with it,” she replied.

“In fact,” Nintaumbi added, “we have reversed variants of the same charms to enable our troops to operate in the dark. We intend to draw up plans for a counter-attack at night. Drow are known to have an advantage in the darkness, but the hope is that human forces moving at night will take them by surprise.”

“As long as this character hides in Athan’Khar,” Basra said grimly, “we’re at a stalemate. Surely you don’t plan to cross the river in force.”

Vaumann shook her head. “The hope is that if we can decisively crush a full complement of whatever he or she fields, it will put our enemy in a more conciliatory frame of mind and we can try diplomacy again.”

Basra grunted. “If he wants Falaridjad, I fully endorse handing her over.”

“I’ll make a note of that,” Vaumann said dryly. “Now, with regard to the immediate—”

“General!” A runner dashed up to the tent, saluting as she came to a stop. “Ma’am, we’ve had a… It’s hard to describe. Some people just arrived on our northern flank, insisting on speaking with whoever’s in charge. They got here with some kind of fae fast-travel effect; they say they just crossed the whole province in the last two hours. On foot.”

Nintaumbi frowned deeply; Yrril raised an eyebrow.

“’Some people?’” Vaumann repeated. “Can you offer a little more detail, Corporal?”

“Very little, ma’am, but it’s a weird group. A woman dressed as a Huntsman of Shaath, a boy about sixteen, a woman who appears to be a dryad, and a man claiming to be the Eserite Bishop.”

“What?” Basra straightened up.

“Did you say a dryad?” Nintaumbi exclaimed. “Are you sure?”

“No…sir,” the Legionnaire said, glancing between him and General Vaumann. “She has green hair and an odd complexion. She’s under-dressed and, um, somewhat lacking in social skills. I was ordered to alert the General, not interrogate them. Ma’am, the Eserite says they have important information about the elemental summoner.”

Vaumann drew in a deep breath and let it out in a huff. “Well. This is peculiar enough, and suggestive enough, that I think it’s worth investigating. Any disagreements?”

Yrril shook her head. “I concur.”

“If we’re going to talk to this lot, let’s go to them,” Nintaumbi said firmly. “If that is a dryad, apart from wanting to know what the hell is going on, I don’t want her in the middle of my troops.”

“Good thinking,” said Basra. “I’ll come along, if I may. I know the Eserite Bishop quite well; if this is an impostor I’ll be able to alert you.”

“Splendid,” said Vaumann. “Lead the way, Corporal.”

The defenses across the southwestern border of Viridill consisted of a line of fortresses, jointly staffed by the Imperial Army and the Silver Legions, marching between the Tiraan Gulf and the southernmost tip of the Stalrange, where the Viridill hills merged with the younger, craggier mountains. The land stretching between them was heavily patrolled, but the fortresses themselves were not large, serving primarily as platforms for mag artillery. They lacked the space to house the much larger than usual forces being assembled along the border, and as such, most of the troops were currently encamped in tents.

One reason the joint operation had gone so well thus far was that the three commanders of the coalition forces got along very well, sharing, among other things, a preference for leading from the front. They had a command center set up in Fort Naveen, which stood right on the coast, but had preferred to move themselves to the middle of their assembled army during the day.

It was a fairly short walk to the point where their mysterious visitors had arrived, and they saw their destination long before getting there. Imperial troops, both on and off duty, were clustered around the region, craning their necks to see what was up ahead and generally preventing the arriving commanders from doing so. A few bellowed words from Nintaumbi scattered them back to their own business, leaving the visitors guarded only by the Silver Legionnaires who were actually supposed to be present.

They were at a staffed checkpoint, either having gone for it directly or been brought there by the soldiers. Legionnaires saluted General Vaumann upon her arrival, stepping aside to grant, finally, a view of the mysterious party.

They were very much as the runner had described: a youth in a sharp suit, a beardless and uncomfortable-looking individual wearing the ceremonial gear of the Huntsmen of Shaath, a sullen-faced young woman with green hair wearing a black leather duster and clearly nothing underneath (as she couldn’t be bothered to hold it closed), and…

“Bas!” Antonio Darling crowed, throwing wide his arms and beaming at her.

“Antonio, what do you think you’re doing here?” she demanded, stalking toward him and ignoring the Legionnaires who moved to intercept her before being called back by a gesture from Vaumann.

“Straight to the point!” he cried, grinning from ear to ear. “Hah, just like old times. I’ve missed you!”

“I gather this actually is him, then?” Vaumann said dryly.

Basra sighed heavily through her nose. “Antonio, these are General Vaumann, Colonel Nintaumbi, and Yrril nur Syvreithe d’zin An’sadarr, the joint commanders of the force assembled here. Ladies and gentleman, may I present Bishop Darling, of the Thieves’ Guild and the Universal Church. And the rest of this I am just dying to hear.”

“Of course, of course,” Darling said gaily, gesturing to his companions. “Meet my very good friends, Brother Ingvar of the Huntsmen, Joseph P. Jenkins of Sarasio…”

“Pleasure,” said Jenkins, tugging the brim of his hat.

“…and of course, Aspen, daughter of Naiya.”

The dryad just folded her arms and grunted sullenly.

“She’s had a trying morning,” Darling confided. “Tree spirits aren’t usually much for cross-country running, and then on top of that we made her wear clothes.”

“You didn’t make me do anything,” Aspen snapped. “I agreed to.”

“What she said,” Darling said equably.

“Excuse me,” said Nintaumbi, “But…the Joseph Jenkins?”

“I’m afraid so, sir,” Jenkins replied.

“What a fascinating story this must be,” said General Vaumann, her eyes roving across the group. “I was told you had information for us?”

“Of course, of course,” said Darling, cheerful as ever. “Might there be someplace a tad more comfortable where we can sit and chat?”

“With the greatest possible respect,” said Nintaumbi, “there are Imperial laws governing dryads.”

“Excuse me?” Aspen exclaimed. “How dare you?”

She stilled instantly when Ingvar took her by the elbow, leaning forward to murmur softly in her ear. The dryad’s expression fell and she lowered her eyes, abashed. Whatever the Huntsman said was too quiet for most of them to hear, though Yrril raised an eyebrow at it.

“I understand your concern,” said Darling, “but Aspen is a friend. We’ll vouch for her.”

“Oh?” Basra folded her arms. “And who’ll vouch for you?”

He gave her a sardonic look. “Oh, come on now, Bas.”

The two Bishops stared at each other for a long moment, then she shook her head. “All right, fine. I cannot say that Bishop Darling doesn’t generally know what he’s doing. If he says Aspen is safe, I’m inclined to believe him.”

“It’s not necessarily that simple,” Nintaumbi said, frowning.

“Perhaps,” Yrril said, “we should consider whether, in an unprecedented situation such as this, codes and regulations are as important as the needs of the moment.”

“I have to agree with that,” said General Vaumann. “Very well; Captain Syrinx, why don’t you escort our very interesting new friends to the command tent? We’ll join you momentarily; I would like a quick word with my fellow commanders.”

“Of course, General,” Basra said with a sigh. “Silly me, hoping I could for a few hours escape the menagerie of oddballs and…adventurers.”

“You do seem to have a knack for finding them, don’t you?” Vaumann agreed.

“I haven’t found a damn one of them,” Basra grumbled, “they keep getting dropped on me. Except Covrin, who I’ll note is the only one who doesn’t add to my headaches. All right, Antonio, bring your friends this way, please. And…try not to touch anything.”


The Universal Church of the Pantheon did not host worship services as such, at least not in the sense that individual cults did. Its smaller chapels, in less-populated areas, often did so, where there were only a few followers of each faith and no space or budget to build a temple for everybody. A Church service tended to be general to the point of generic, lacking the specific flavor of any one deity. The Church’s sanctuaries were built along a plan that encouraged people to sit with their attention focused on a single speaker in the front, as they served as general meeting places in many parts of the Empire and the world, even when not being put to use as houses of worship.

Exactly how much activity the great sanctuary of the Grand Cathedral in Tiraas saw depended very much on the inclinations of whoever was currently Archpope. The sanctuary area was always open, but most often served as a quiet place for prayer and contemplation. Some Archpopes had held prayer meetings multiple times a week, while others did not see fit to call any assembly except in times of great tragedy or celebration.

Justinian’s presence before the public was carefully measured, as was everything he did. Prayer meetings at the Grand Cathedral were regular but not frequent; he sponsored smaller services once a week on average, conducted by a rotating roster of clerics, but himself led a sermon only on a monthly basis. It served to keep him present and memorable in the minds of the public, while always keeping the appetites of the faithful whetted for more of their Archpope’s sparing attention.

This was his first public address since the beginning of the newspaper-driven controversy surrounding the University at Last Rock, and his Holiness was playing to a bigger crowd even than usual; the Grand Cathedral was packed to the point that Holy Legionaries had finally stopped more people from entering, so many were standing along the walls. Thus far, his sermon had been fairly typical, but when he shifted to the topic everyone most wanted to hear about, the hundreds present stilled so fully that their collectively indrawn breath was plainly audible.

“I know that many of you have been concerned with reports from Last Rock,” the Archpope stated, gazing out across the crowd with a solemn frown, his hands resting on the edges of his pulpit. “The matter has been argued over so much in recent days that I think this issue has become somewhat muddied. At its core, it seems to me that this is a controversy over nothing less than the role of adventurers in our society. Whether they are still part of the modern world… Whether they should be.

“It speaks well of our people, I think, that so many have opinions on this, and care enough to discuss them. We were once an adventuring society; wandering heroes have done much to shape our history, and the destinies of nations…and Empires. This is a question of who we once were, who we shall become, and who we are. A society will only flourish while its members care about such questions.”

He paused, then smiled with a careful touch of ruefulness. “If you hoped to hear me endorse or rebuke Arachne Tellwyrn for teaching a generation of young adventurers to follow the old ways, I must disappoint you. It is important for an Archpope, more even than most spiritual leaders, to remember his or her place, and to cultivate a measure of humility. I am here to intercede, to mediate—not to direct.

“This, though, I will say: it is my fervent hope that in the days to come, while this matter is discussed and debated, you will all remember the importance of solidarity.” He raised his arms in a gesture of benediction, smiling kindly down on the assembled faithful. “Everything that brings us together here is rooted in the concepts of togetherness, and oneness. We are many nations under one Empire. We are many faiths under one Church. Even the very gods we follow have led the way and set this example: they are many deities, gathered in one Pantheon. It is a universal truth that people are stronger together than when they are split asunder. Please, remember this as you contemplate the role of adventurers, of this University, of any matter that engenders strong feeling. Anyone who would divide you from one another seeks only to control or destroy; look to those who bring togetherness. Only together do we continue to grow toward the bright destiny to which the gods have called us.”

“I am glad to hear you say so.”

Gasps rose all around as her voice echoed through the cathedral. She appeared at the opposite end of the central aisle from the Archpope behind his pulpit, just inside the great open doors without having passed the Holy Legionaries guarding them.

She was a young woman rather shorter than average and not much to look at—but she was also a towering figure, her head brushing the peaked roof high above, and her presence filling the vast chamber. Her voice was soft and unprepossessing, yet powerful enough to echo through the ears and souls of every person present as if she stood right beside them. Nothing changed upon her arrival, and it it was as if the cathedral were filled with brilliant sunlight, with the smell of flowers…or at least, the sense of such things.

Izara paced slowly forward, smiling calmly to the left and right as she came. Shocked worshipers belatedly fell to their knees as she passed, as did the armored Legionaries posted throughout the sanctuary.

“The Pantheon have talked about this among ourselves,” said the goddess as she strolled forward. “The nature of the world today, the needs of our people. And, specifically, the University at Last Rock, its students and graduates. Its…eccentric…founder and leader.” She shook her head, slowly, and it was as if sunbeams shifted throughout the room, the scents of different flowers changing rapidly as though carried on playful currents of wind. “Arachne Tellwyrn… What a difficult individual. We have long observed her, and dealt with her. We know her faults, and they are many.

“But we know her virtues as well, and those are also many. Ultimately… Arachne is someone we know, and who knows us. Someone who cares for the world and the people in it, though her unique way of being can obscure that fact. She has earned a measure of trust.”

Izara continued forward, having crossed most of the sanctuary by now; the Archpope had stepped around from behind his pulpit to meet her. He did not kneel, but bowed to the goddess, and held that uncomfortable position as she came.

“Your Archpope has spoken truly. This question is one of adventurers, of heroes, of whether they are necessary, and what form they should take. I have discussed this with my brothers and sisters, and this I will tell you: we were once adventurers, and heroes. Taking up the mantle of godhood was necessary in those dark times. It is a fate I would not wish upon anyone for whom I cared, but it was what had to be done.

“And that is all a hero is: someone who does what is necessary. You may think, when you hear the word, of rangers and wizards, rogues and bards, embarking on a quest for gold and glory. It applies just as well to the man who rushes into a burning building to rescue a child. To the woman who seeks a public office to represent the needs of common people who have been too long ignored. To a priest who prays for you, and with you, and helps you through your darkest hours, no matter how exhausted he may be in his own soul. Heroes are all around you.”

The goddess reached the end of the great chamber and turned to face them, her back to the Archpope and pulpit. She was far too short to obscure the crowd’s view of the dais; her awesome, towering presence blotted out everything but herself.

“One thing a hero must be is prepared, and that means there must be those dedicated to preparing them. Perhaps someday, this shall be a peaceful world. A world where all of nature is in harmony, where no wars rage and no diseases ravage. A world in which every government and every church has no aim except the well-being of those who look to them.” Slowly, mournfully, Izara shook her head again. “It is not such a world yet. And in addition to those mundane problems that have always plagued humanity, it is a world complicated by magic and still haunted by surviving memories of the bitter times that gave birth to the Pantheon. I will say this to you: it is not time for the age of heroes to end. Not yet.

“They must change, though. The old ways don’t work in the new world. No one understands this better than we. My sisters and brothers called no paladins for three decades while we considered the state of the world, and those called since have each been of a new pattern, selected to address new needs. A new kind of hero is needed.”

She paused, her eyes moving across the kneeling crowd, then smiled. “I trust Arachne to teach a new generation how to fill that need. Remember what your Archpope has told you today: it is togetherness that will save us all. Arachne cannot do this alone, and should not be expected to. I agree with the criticism of some that she ought not be the sole arbiter of what youths become powerful and successful, but that does not mean she should be condemned for stepping up to fill a need. More must rise. It is up to you to shape the destiny of your world, and to decide what kind of life you will leave for your children. Love one another always, and you will find the heroes among you who are needed.”

The goddess smiled, and everyone present felt suddenly alive as never before, giddily joyful and yet solemn. Then, just as quickly, her expression sobered.

“On a personal note, I would clarify that Branwen Snowe does not speak for me, or my faith. Remember love, my friends. Care for each other as yourselves.”

And she was gone.

The stillness left by her absence was stunning; the hundreds of souls kneeling in the Cathedral stared, awestruck, at the place where the goddess had stood.

Archpope Justinian, fittingly, was the first to recover his poise.

“We have been blessed beyond measure,” he said, his normally controlled voice slightly rough with emotion. He stepped back behind the pulpit, gazing fervently down upon his people. “Remember this day, my friends; it is only rarely, and never for nothing, that the gods speak to us in person. Remember what you have been told. Love one another as yourselves. Each of you must carry this forward in your hearts, and decide what it means for your lives. For now, I believe a prayer of thanks for this blessing is called for.”

Somewhat shakily, the parishoners rose to slide back into pews, following along as the Archpope led them in a devotion of gratitude and humility before their gods. All the while, he remained a living picture of perfect serenity.

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9 – 38

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“So naturally, you brought it here,” Tellwyrn said in exasperation.

“She,” Toby said firmly. “Come on, Professor. That’s a person you’re talking about.”

“Hello,” Scorn offered, apparently noticing that attention was focused on her.

“What,” Tellwyrn demanded, “do you think I’m going to do with a Rhaazke? I’m not even going to bother being taken aback that you kids managed to get one. Somehow it’s always you lot!”

“Point of order!” Fross chimed. “We didn’t get her! A stupid man was trying to summon a succubus and fell afoul of an unpredictable chaos effect. So, really, it wasn’t even his fault, though it’s very tempting to blame him because he was really dumb and also a great big creep. But still. These things just happen.”

Professor Yornhaldt burst out laughing, earning a glare from Tellwyrn. Her office was rather crowded with the entire sophomore class present, plus Tellwyrn behind her desk, and Yornhaldt and Rafe in chairs against one of her bookcases. Scorn stood in the corner nearest the door, hunching somewhat awkwardly to keep her horns from brushing the ceiling.

“Maybe what you do with any of us?” Ruda suggested. “I mean, let’s face it, the student body here is probably the biggest collection of weirdos on this continent, if not the planet.”

“This is not a hostel,” Tellwyrn said acidly. “We don’t take in strays just because they have no place better to be!”

“Where would you suggest sending her, then?” Trissiny asked quietly. “What else could we have done?”

“BEHOLD!” Scorn shouted.

Tellwyrn buried her face in her hands, displacing her glasses. Rafe howled with laughter.

“If I may?” Shaeine said with customary serenity. “Scorn is a daughter of nobility in her own realm; her principal problem seems to be unfamiliarity with the mortal plane. The speed with which she is picking up Tanglish suggests a capable intellect, and she certainly meets the qualification you set out for us in our very first class last year. She is too dangerous to be allowed to wander around untrained. All in all, she would appear to be the very model of an Unseen University student.”

“I know it’s unusual to enroll a student at this point in the academic year, Arachne,” Yornhaldt added, “but really. These are unusual circumstances, and what is this if not an unusual place?”

“She’s completely clueless about every detail of life on this plane,” Tellwyrn grated. “Can you lot even begin to imagine the havoc that could ensue from her mingling with the student body? Or worse, the general populace. What would she do if sent out on one of your field assignments? And the curriculum here is not designed to hand-hold people who have no concept what anything in the world is. The closest parallels to this case in the University’s entire history are Juniper and Fross, and they at least speak the language!”

“Well, we have to put her somewhere,” said Gabriel. “I mean, it’s not like you can just kill her.”

“Oh, really,” Tellwyrn said flatly.

“Yeah, really,” he replied, meeting her eyes unflinchingly. “Just. I said you can’t just kill her. You can no doubt do that or anything else you want, but not until you’ve plowed through every one of us first.”

“Whoah, guys,” Juniper said soothingly. “Of course she’s irate, we just dropped a Rhaazke demon in her lap. Professor Tellwyrn’s only that mean to people who’ve done something to deserve it. C’mon, let’s everybody calm down, okay?”

“Excellent advice,” Shaeine agreed.

“All right,” said Tellwyrn, drumming her fingers on the desk and staring at Scorn, who peered quizzically back. “All right. This is what we’ll do. I am not enrolling this walking disaster in your or any class at this juncture. Don’t start, Caine, I am not done talking! She can stay with the girls in Clarke Tower; it has a basement space that should be big enough to be fairly comfortable for her. If she’s going to be on the campus, she’s not to leave it; I refuse to have to explain this to the Sheriff. You lot, since you had the bright idea to bring her here, will be responsible for bringing her up to speed on life in the world. Teach her Tanglish, local customs, the political realities of the Empire, the cults… You know, all the stuff none of you bother to think about because you’ve known it for years.”

“I bother to think about it,” said Fross.

“Me, too,” Juniper added.

“Good, that’ll make you perfect tutors, then. We’ll revisit this issue next semester, and if I judge her prepared, she may join the class of 1183 at that time. If not… She can take that semester and the summer for further familiarity, though frankly I will consider it a big black mark if she hasn’t the wits to get her claws under her in the next few months. If she is still not ready or willing to be University material at the start of next fall’s semester, that’s it. No more chances. Then I’ll have to figure out what to do with her, which I frankly do not suspect anybody will like.”

“That’s fair,” Trissiny said quickly. “She’s smart. I’m sure she’ll be good to go by this spring.”

“Not kill?” Scorn inquired.

“Sadly, no,” Ruda said while Tellwyrn leaned far back in her chair, letting her head loll against it to stare at the ceiling.

“Well, anyway,” Rafe said brightly, “you’ll get my detailed report later, Arachne, but the kids did a damn fine job. Not at all their fault that the Church butted in at the last moment—they were right on the cusp of getting to the bottom of Veilgrad’s problem, and I have to say their investigation was deftly handled. A much better showing than the Golden Sea expedition!”

“Aw, we can’t take too much credit,” Ruda said sweetly. “Professor Rafe helped a lot by fucking around in Malivette’s house with her concubines instead of sticking his clumsy fingers into our business. Like in the Golden Sea expedition.”

“HAH! Straightforward, on-target sass, Punaji! Ten points—”

“Admestus, shut your yap,” Tellwyrn snapped. “I am in no mood. For the time being, pending a full report, you kids can consider your grade for this assignment in good shape. All right, all of you get lost. Go settle in, get some rest; you’ve got assignments waiting in your rooms. Classes are tomorrow as usual. Have fun explaining this to Janis,” she added, flapping a hand disparagingly at Scorn.

“Pointing is for no,” the demon said severely. “Rude. Social skills!”

“Malivette is scary even when she’s not here,” Fross whispered.

“Hell, Janis loves having people to mother,” Ruda said, grinning. “I bet Scorn’s never had muffins. C’mon, big girl.”

“I’m a little nervous how she’ll react to the tower,” Teal said as they began filing out the door. “Any sane person is unnerved by that tower at first glance.”

“Welp, I’ll just get on with my paperwork, then, shall I?” Rafe said, rising and following them.

“How industrious of you, Admestus,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “What did you do this time?”

He grinned insanely. “Wait, learn, and be amazed.”

“Get the hell out.”

“Aye aye, fearless leader!”

Fross hesitated in the top of the door after everyone else departed. “It’s good to see you back, Professor Yornhaldt!”

“Thank you, Fross,” he said, smiling. “I’m quite glad to see all of you again, as well!”

The pixie shut the door with a careful push of elemental air, leaving them alone.

Tellwyrn set her glasses on the desk, massaging the brim of her nose. “Those kids are going to be the graduating class that brings me the most pride and satisfaction if they don’t burn the whole goddamn place down, first.”

“That’s not entirely fair, Arachne,” Yornhaldt protested. “They are pretty obviously not the ones who opened the hellgate. And they were, after all, instrumental in closing it.”

“You know exactly what I mean.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” he said with a sigh. “But this is business as usual, Arachne, just more of it. Some of those kids have fearfully direct connections to significant powers, but in the end, we’ve been training up heroes and villains for half a century now, and sending them out to face their destiny.”

“There are no such things as heroes or villains,” she grunted. “Or destiny.”

Yornhaldt smiled, folding his thick hands over his midsection. “I disagree, as you well know.”

“Yes, yes, let’s not get in that argument again.” She put her spectacles back on and gave him a more serious look. “You were in the middle of telling me of your adventures when Admestus barged in with the goslings.”

“Actually, I had just finished telling you of my adventures. Although I had a rather interesting time procuring a new suit with most of my money having walked off during—ah, but I gather you don’t care to hear about that.”

“Naturally I’ll reimburse you for any expenses,” she said. “But the research, Alaric. It’s really a dead end?”

Yornhaldt frowned in thought, gazing at the far wall but seeing nothing. “I cannot accept that it’s a dead end, but I may be forced to accept that continuing down this particular path is beyond me. It’s an alignment, Arachne, I’m sure of it. But an alignment of what is the question. I am certain there are astronomical factors, but this is unique in that the stars and bodies coming into position are beyond our current society’s capacity to detect. That much I can say with certainty; a few of the surviving sources were of a scientific mindset and blessedly plainspoken. There must have been means for such long-distance viewing during the time of the Elder Gods, but right now, we simply cannot see the distant galaxies which must be taken into account.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” she said, frowning heavily. “On the cosmic scale you’re talking about, eight thousand of this planet’s years is nothing. An eyeblink—it’s one tenth of one percent of a fart. There wouldn’t be significant deviation from their positions relative to us eight millennia prior. And that’s not even addressing the question of how such distant objects even could influence matters on this world. You know as well as I the upper limits of magical influence. It’s not constrained by the lightspeed constant, but it’s far from infinite.”

“Just so,” he agreed, nodding. “Which brings me to the other issue: I am convinced that what is being aligned is planar as well as physical. Perhaps more so. There are factors relating to the positions of the infernal, divine and elemental planes relative to this one. Unfortunately,” he added with a scowl, “most of this information seems to have been recorded by bards. Or at least, individuals who thought a poetic turn of phrase was a useful addition to the historical record. Considering that this work requires finding the few sources that have even survived, translating them out of dead languages… We’re in the realm of lore, now, Arachne. I have a hankering to continue the project, but I also need to acknowledge that I’m not the best person for it. If you can help me work out a means of measuring and scrying on things in other galaxies, that I’ll do with a will. This… We need a historian. Preferably a somewhat spoony one.”

“I should think a less spoony mindset would be more useful in untangling those records,” she said dryly.

Yornhaldt grimaced. “I consider myself as unspoony as they come, and I mostly found the work frustrating.”

Tellwyrn sighed and drummed her fingers on the desk again. “Well. Based on the speed with which actual events are unfolding, we have at least a year. Likely more; apocalypses like this don’t just drop from the trees like pinecones. If the alignment does lead to another apotheosis, as everything seems to suggest, the gods will be taking action, as will those closest to them, before it actually hits. For now,” she went on with a smile, “I’m damned glad to see you home safe, Alaric.”

“I have to confess I am as well,” he replied, grinning.

“Unfortunately, I can’t put you back at a lectern just yet. I promised Kaisa the year; I don’t even know whether she wants the full year, but the issue is it was promised to her. The last thing I need on top of everything else is an offended kitsune tearing up my campus.”

“Arachne, I’m sure I have no idea what you are going on about,” Yornhaldt replied, folding his hands behind his head and leaning back against the books. “Teach classes? You forget, I am on sabbatical.”


 

“It is a great relief to see you all back unharmed,” Archpope Justinian said with a beneficent smile. “Your mission brought you into conflict with some very dangerous individuals.”

“Yep,” the Jackal replied lazily. “Since apparently that was the entire and only point of the whole exercise, it sure did happen.”

“None of us are shy about conflict, your Holiness,” Shook said tightly. “Being jerked around, lied to and sent into big, pointless surprises is another thing. You want someone killed? We’ll do it. I don’t appreciate being told to dig in the desert for weeks for damn well nothing. As bait.”

Kheshiri gently slipped her arm through his and he broke off. A tense silence hung over the room for a long moment.

Their assigned quarters in the sub-level of the Dawnchapel temple in Tiraas were actually quite luxurious. Private rooms branched off from a broad, circular chamber with a sunken floor in the center. This had originally been some kind of training complex, probably for the martial arts for which the temple’s original Omnist owners were famous. Now, the area was tastefully but expensively furnished, the chamber serving as a lounge, dining room, and meeting area.

The five members of the team were arrayed in an uneven arc, their focus on the Archpope, who stood with Colonel Ravoud at his shoulder. The Colonel looked tense and ready to go for his wand, but if Justinian was at all perturbed by the destructive capacity arranged against him, he showed no hint of it.

“I understand this assignment has been the source of several surprises for you,” he said calmly. “For me, as well. I found your choice of strategy extremely intriguing, Khadizroth. Did I not know better, I might conclude your decision to attack Imperial interests was designed to draw their interest to your own activities. You must forgive me; dealing with as many politics as I do, I tend to see ulterior motives where they may not exist.”

“I believe we have been over this,” Khadizroth replied in a bored tone. “It was necessary to deal with McGraw, Jenkins, and the rest—indeed, it turns out that was the sole reason we were out there. At the time, depriving them of their secure base of operations seemed the best strategy.”

“And yet, neither you nor they suffered any permanent casualties,” Justinian said. “How fortuitous. Surely the gods must have been watching over you.”

“Would it be disrespectful to snort derisively?” Kheshiri stage-whispered to Shook, who grinned. She was in human guise, as always on temple grounds. The original consecration on the place had been lifted to allow her to function here.

“I think you could stand to consider who you’re dealing with, here, your Archness,” said the Jackal, folding his arms. “Really, now. We’ve all got a sense of honor, or at least professionalism. None of us mind doing the work. But is this really a group of people it’s wise to jerk around?”

“None of you are prisoners,” Justinian said serenely. “If at any time you wish to discontinue our association, you may do so without fear of reprisal from me. Indeed, I’m forced to confess I might find some relief in it; our relationship does place a strain upon my conscience at times. Due to my position, I am beholden to the Sisters of Avei, the Thieves’ Guild, and other organizations which are eager to know about the movements of most of you. It would assuage my qualms to be able to be more forthright with them.”

Shook tightened his fists until they fairly vibrated; Khadizroth blinked his eyes languidly. The others only stared at Justinian, who gazed beatifically back. Ravoud’s eyes darted across the group, clearly trying to anticipate from which direction the attack would come.

“For the time being, however,” said the Archpope after a strained pause, “I encourage you all to rest after your travels. Unless you decide otherwise, I shall have more work for you very soon. Welcome home, my friends.”

With a final nod and smile, he turned and swept out of the chamber, Ravoud on his heels. The Colonel glanced back at them once before shutting the doors to their suite.

Shook began cursing monotonously.

“Well said!” the Jackal said brightly.

Khadizroth stepped backward away from the group and turned his head, studying the outlines of the room. “Vannae, assist me?”

The elf nodded, raising his hands to the side as the dragon did the same. A whisper of wind rose, swirling around the perimeter of the chamber, and the light changed to pale, golden green. The shadows of tree branches swayed against the walls.

“I attempted to insulate any loose fae energy,” Khadizroth said, lowering his arms. “Kheshiri, are you aversely affected?”

The succubus pressed herself close to Shook’s side; he tightened his arm around her. “Not really. Doesn’t feel good, but I’m not harmed.”

“Splendid.” The dragon smiled. “This will ensure our privacy, since we were not able to catch up before returning here. How did your…adventure go?”

She glanced up at Shook, who nodded to her, before answering. “Everything went smoothly—I’m good at what I do. You were right, K. Svenheim was a trap.”

“You’re certain?” Khadizroth narrowed his eyes.

“Not enough that I’d stake my life on it,” she admitted. “But the Church is an active presence in the city, and I observed some very close interactions between its agents and curators at the Royal Museum.”

“I knew that fucking dwarf was gonna backstab us,” Shook growled.

“Not necessarily,” Khadizroth mused. “Svarveld may have been a double agent, or he may have been as betrayed as we. The point ended up being moot, anyway. We will simply have to remember this, and not underestimate Justinian again.”

“Why would he bother with that, though?” the Jackal asked. “He knew the skull wasn’t even in circulation. We were never going to acquire it, much less send it to Svenheim instead of Tiraas.”

Khadizroth shook his head. “Unknowable. I suspect there are currents to this that flow deeper than we imagine. Did you have time to tend to the other task I asked of you, Kheshiri?”

“Easy,” she replied, her tail waving behind her. “I swung by Tiraas on my way back; only took a few hours.”

“What’s this?” the Jackal demanded. “I thought we were sending the demon to Svenheim to snoop. How did you even get across the continent and back?”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Kheshiri said sweetly, producing a twisted shadow-jumping talisman from behind her back and tossing it to her. “You shouldn’t leave your things lying around.”

The assassin rolled his eyes, catching it deftly. “That’s right, let’s have a ‘who’s sneakier’ pissing contest. I’m sure there’s no way that’ll backfire.”

“Quite,” Khadizroth said sharply. “Kindly show your teammates a little more respect, Kheshiri. This group is primed to dissolve into infighting anyway; we cannot afford such games.”

“Of course,” she said sincerely. “My apologies. But in any case, your message was received and acknowledged. No response as yet.”

“Give it time,” he murmured.

“Message?” Vannae inquired.

“Indeed.” The dragon smiled thinly. “Justinian is not the only one with dangerous connections.”


 

“Busy?” Rizlith sang, sliding into the room.

Zanzayed looked up, beaming. “Riz! Never too busy for my favorite distraction. He’s got me doing paperwork. Help!”

“Aw, poor baby,” the succubus cooed, sashaying forward. “I bet I can take your mind off it.”

“I should never have introduced you,” Razzavinax muttered, straightening up from where he had been bent over the desk, studying documents. “Zanza, Riz…don’t encourage each other.”

“Well, joshing aside, there’s been a development I think you’ll urgently want to hear,” Rizlith said, folding her wings neatly and seating herself on one corner of the desk.

“A development?” Razzavinax said sharply. “Do we need to revisit that tedious conversation about you leaving the embassy?”

“Oh, relax, I’ve been safely cooped up in here the whole time,” she said sullenly. “No, the development came to me. And by the way, if you’re just now hearing of this, your wards need some fine-tuning. I had a visit from one of my sisters.”

“Sisters?” Zanzayed inquired. “Like…an actual sister, or is that just demon-speak for another of your kind?”

“You do know we’re not an actual species, right?” Rizlith turned to Razzavinax. “You’ve explained it to him, haven’t you?”

“Never mind that,” the Red said curtly. “Children of Vanislaas are not sociable with each other as a rule, Zanzayed; developments like this are always alarming.”

“Oh, quite so,” the succubus said with fiendish glee. “But Kheshiri brought me the most fascinating gossip!”

“Kheshiri,” Razzavinax muttered. “That’s a name I’m afraid I know. How bad is it?”

“That depends.” Rizlith grinned broadly, swaying slightly back and forth; her tail lashed as if she could barely contain herself. “Weren’t you guys looking for Khadizroth the Green a while back?”


 

Even strolling down the sidewalk in civilian attire, Nora did not allow herself to lose focus. She had been trained too long and too deeply to be unaware of her surroundings. When four people near her suddenly slumped sideways as if drunk, it wasn’t that fact alone so much as her reaction to it that told her something was badly wrong. She paused in her own walk, noting distantly that this was peculiar, and well below the level of her consciousness, training kicked in. It was much more than peculiar; her mind was not operating as it should.

Nora blinked her eyes, focusing on that tiny movement and the interruptions it caused in her vision. Mental influence—fairly mild, and clearly concentrated on an area of effect, not just targeting her. That meant the solution was to keep moving…

Then she was grabbed, her arms bound roughly behind her, and tossed into the back of a carriage that had pulled up next to the curb.

She hadn’t even seen anyone approach. Hadn’t noticed the delivery carriage pull up. How humiliating. It began moving, however, and the effect subsided with distance, enabling her to focus again on her surroundings.

It was a delivery truck, or had been originally; basically a large box with a loading door on the back built atop an enchanted carriage chassis. The runes tracing the walls indicated silencing charms, as did the lack of street noise once the doors were shut. One bench was built against the front wall of the compartment, with a single dim fairy lamp hanging in on corner, swaying slightly with the motions of the carriage.

The space was crowded. Four men stood around Nora, one with a hand knotted in her hair to keep her upright—she only belatedly realized that she had landed on her knees on the floor. On the bench opposite sat a thin man with glasses, who had a briefcase open on his lap, positioned to hid its contents from her. Against the wall on the other end of the bench perched a woman Nora recognized from a recent mission briefing.

“Good morning, Marshal Avelea,” Grip said pleasantly. “Thanks for joining us, I realize this was short notice.”

“I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t get dressed up,” Nora said flatly.

The thief grinned. “Saucy, aren’t we? Just like a hero out of a bard’s story. I thought you Imperial professionals were supposed to clam up when captured.”

“Would that make you happier?”

“I’m not here to be happy,” Grip said, her smile fading. “I get a certain satisfaction from my work, sure, but it’s not as if breaking people’s joints makes me happy, per se.”

“I don’t think you’ve considered the implications of this,” said Nora. “I’m an agent of Imperial Intelligence. If you intend—”

“Now, see, that attitude is why you are in this situation, missy. People seem to forget that we are a faith, not a cartel. This isn’t about intimidation—because no, the Imps don’t really experience that, do they? But when you start boasting about how your organization is too powerful to stand for this, well…” Grip leaned forward, staring icily down at her captive. “Then you make beating your ass an absolute moral necessity, rather than just a satisfying diversion.

“Besides, it’s all part of the cost of doing business. Your training means you won’t be excessively traumatized by anything that happens here, and your superiors will accept this as the inevitable consequence of their blundering and not push it further. You may not know, but I guarantee Lord Vex does, that the Empire is not a bigger fish than Eserion. At least one sitting Empress found herself unemployed as a result of pushing back too hard when we expressed an opinion. So this right here is a compromise! We’ll discuss the matter of you attempting to kill a member of our cult, Vex will be especially respectful for a while, and we can all avoid addressing the much more serious matter that you, apparently, are not afraid of the Thieves’ Guild.”

Grip very slowly raised on eyebrow. “Because believe you me, Marshal, I can fix that. But then there really would be trouble. So, let’s just attend to business and go our separate ways, shall we?”

“Fine, whatever,” Nora said disdainfully. “Could you stop talking and be about it already? Some of us have plans for this evening.”

Grip sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t say such things,” she complained. “Now this is going to suck up my whole afternoon. Toybox, start with that nervous system stimulating thingy of yours. When I’m satisfied the bravado is genuinely regretted, the lads can move on to the more traditional means.”


 

“This is on me,” Darling said, scowling.

“You’re awful eager to take credit for someone who wasn’t there,” Billie remarked, puffing lazily at one of McGraw’s cigarillos.

Darling shook his head. “Weaver, want to explain why she’s mistaken?”

“Always a pleasure,” said the bard, who sat crookedly in the armchair with one arm thrown over the back. “First rule of being in charge: everything is your fault. Being the man with the plan, he takes responsibility for any fucking up that occurs. More specifically, he sent us out without doing some very basic research that could’ve spared us all this.”

“Knew I could count on you,” Darling said dryly.

“Acknowledging that I am not generally eager to let you off the hook, Mr. Darling,” said Joe with a frown, “realistically, how could you have known the skull wasn’t in the Badlands?”

“Known? No.” Darling sighed, slouching back in his own chair. “But Weaver’s right. I found a trail and followed it without doing any further research. Hell, I knew about the werewolf issue in Veilgrad—we even discussed it, briefly. All I had to do was check with my contacts in the Imperial government for signs of possible chaos effects. Too late to say what difference it would have made—we might have decided to go for the Badlands anyway, as the Veilgrad case wasn’t a confirmed chaos incident until mere days ago—but it would’ve been something. Instead I got tunnel vision, bit Justinian’s bait and risked all your lives for damn well nothing. Somehow, ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t really cut the mustard this time.”

“You know better than this, Antonio,” Mary said calmly. “Learn the lesson and apply it next time. Recrimination is not a constructive use of our time.”

“Right you are,” he said dourly. “Regardless, I feel I owe you all something for this. The oracles settled down when the skull was secured, so the projects I’m pursuing on you behalf are again proceeding. It’s hard to tell, but I’ve a hunch that I’m close to an answer for you, at least, Mary.” He grimaced. “Unless the trend of the responses I’ve been getting reverses, I’m starting to fear it’s an answer you won’t like.”

“I do not go through life expecting to like everything,” she said calmly.

“Wise,” he agreed. “Anyway, it’s Weaver’s question that I think will be the toughest. I get the impression they’re actively fighting me on that. It may be my imagination, and the general difficulty of working with oracular sources, but still…”

“Wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest,” Weaver muttered.

“If nothin’ else,” said McGraw, “this wasn’t wasted time. We’ve learned some interesting things about our opponents.”

“And about ourselves,” Weaver added caustically. “Such as that Billie’s too theatrical to just kill an assassin when she has him helpless, rather than painting him with a stealth-penetrating effect.”

“Aye, now ye mention it that would’ve been more efficient,” Billie mused. “Hm. I’m well equipped for big bangs, but it occurs t’me I’ve got little that’d straight-up off a single target at close range. Funny, innit? I’ll have to augment me arsenal. I love doin’ that!”

“You said that green fire came out of a bottle?” said Joe. “That’d be a remarkable achievement if it was just a spell. How in tarnation did you manage to do it alchemically?”

“Oh, aye, that’s a point,” Billie said seriously. “Don’t let me forget, I owe Admestus Rafe either a really expensive bottle o’ wine or a blowjob.”

Weaver groaned loudly and clapped a hand over his eyes.

“Can’t help ya,” Joe said, his cheeks darkening. “I’m gonna be hard at work forgetting that starting immediately.”

“How do you plan to proceed?” Mary asked Darling. “It would appear that waiting for Justinian to take the initiative is a losing strategy.”

“You’re right about that,” the Bishop agreed. “And I do believe that some of what you’ve brought back is immediately relevant. For example, that he is harboring a fugitive from the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Is it wise to act on that point?” McGraw inquired. “Shook bein’ on his team is part o’ that game of intelligence chicken you’n Justinian are playin’, right? The one you’re not s’posed to acknowledge knowin’ about.”

“Some day I’m gonna hold you and Jenkins at wandpoint until you both prove you can pronounce the letter G,” Weaver grumbled.

“Oh, I’m sure Justinian will know exactly how the Guild learned of this,” Darling said with a grim smile. “If he didn’t want to play that game, he shouldn’t have made the first move. I’m not waiting for him to make the next one.”


 

“I’m sorry this business didn’t work out the way you hoped, your Holiness,” Ravoud said as the two men arrived in the small, glass-walled enclosure atop the ziggurat behind the Dawnchapel.

“On the contrary,” Justinian said, gazing out over the city, “this has been an extremely successful field test. We now have an idea of the effectiveness of Khadizroth’s group against Darling’s, which was the purpose of the exercise.”

“They seem pretty evenly matched…”

“Power for power, yes, but we knew that to begin with. And power is not so simply measured.” Justinian tilted his head backward, studying the cloudy sky. “Considering the violence all those people are capable of, their total lack of casualties indicates a mutual disinclination to inflict them. That is the most important thing we have learned. Using adventurers to winnow each other down will only work if they do not comprehend where their true best interests lie. These, clearly, do. Another strategy will be necessary.”

“I suppose this proves we can’t expect loyalty out of that group,” Ravoud said, scowling. “Hardly a surprise.”

“Indeed,” Justinian agreed with a smile. “Khadizroth deems himself above me, Vannae is loyal only to him, and the rest of them are simply monsters of one kind or another. Loyalty was never on the table. What is interesting to me is how quickly and openly Khadizroth set about undermining me. He is more than patient and far-sighted enough to play a longer, more careful game. Holding back from killing their opponents, attracting the Empire’s attention, that ploy to have the skull sent to Svenheim… To take such risks, he must perceive an urgency that I do not. That must be investigated more closely. It will also be important to learn whether the other party is operating on the same principles, or has developed an actual loyalty to Antonio. They are a more level-headed group, generally, and he is quite persuasive.”

“Forgive me for questioning you, your Holiness,” said Ravoud, carefully schooling his features, “but it is beyond my understanding why you tolerate that man. You know he’s plotting against you, and there’s not much that’s more dangerous than an Eserite with an ax to grind.”

“Antonio Darling is one of my most treasured servants,” the Archpope said softly, still gazing into the distance. “I will not have him harmed, nor deprive myself of his skills. Matters are tense now, because I cannot yet reveal everything to everyone. He has no cause to trust, and thus I have to arrange these diversions to keep him from investigating things he is not yet ready to know. When the full truth can be revealed, he of all people will find my cause the best way to advance his own principles and goals.”

“As you say, your Holiness,” Ravoud murmured. “Did… Do you intend to make some use of the skull?”

“Objects like that are not to be used,” Justinian said severely, turning to face him. “I fear I have abused my authority by making it a part of my plans at all. Frankly, my predecessor was unwise to have the Church take custody of that thing; it is far better off in the hands of the Salyrites. The goddess of magic can keep it safe better than anyone.” He sighed heavily. “My attempts to compensate for the risk seem to have backfired. We are still gathering intelligence from Veilgrad, but indications are the charms and blessings I designed to protect the people from the skull’s effects enabled those cultists to remain lucid enough to do significant harm, rather than blindly lashing out as chaos cultists always have. In addition to the damage to Veilgrad and its people, that has drawn the attention of the Empire.”

“That, though, could be useful by itself,” Rouvad said slowly. “If those same blessings can be used for agents of the Church… If there is ever another major chaos incident, they could protect our people, keep them functional.”

“Perhaps,” Justinian mused. “Regardless, I will have to meditate at length on a proper penance for myself; I have unquestionably caused harm to innocents with this. I badly misjudged the risks involved. Still… From all these events I feel I have learned something of great value.”

He turned again to gaze out through the glass wall over the rooftops of Tiraas. “In Veilgrad, a class from the University at Last Rock were hard at work interfering with my plans. And I note that one of the first actions undertaken by Darling’s group was to visit Last Rock itself. Everywhere I turn, Arachne Tellwyrn’s fingers dabble in my affairs. Just as they nearly upended Lor’naris last year, and Sarasio months before.”

“That’s…sort of a fact of life, isn’t it, your Holiness?” Rouvad said carefully. “There’s just not much that can be done about Tellwyrn. That’s the whole point of her.”

“No power is absolute, Nassir,” Justinian said softly. “Be they archmages, gods, or empires. They only have the appearance of absolute power because the people agree that they do. Such individuals live in fear of the masses discovering that they do not need to tolerate their overlords. Every tyrant can be brought down.

“I was always going to have to deal with Tellywrn sooner or later. We cannot rid the world of its last destructive adventurers when she is spewing out another score of them every year—to say nothing of her specifically elitist methods of recruitment. She targets those already most powerful and dangerous and equips them to be even worse. No… Arachne Tellwyrn must be dealt with.”

He nodded slowly to himself, staring into the distant sky. “If she insists on making herself a more urgent priority… So be it.”

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