Tag Archives: Ariel

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As afternoon faded into early evening, the overall light in Tiraas did not diminish, even in this relatively dingy district, though it changed in character with the transition from gloomy, cloud-obscured sunlight to the sharp golden glow of the fairy lamps lining the streets. Given the typical weather in the region, nightfall often had the ironic effect of enlivening the colors of everything the light touched. At any rate, the approach of dusk did little to diminish the activity in the street. This particular district was a fairly quiet one most of the time, not rich by any means, but with several temples and regular patrols by the military police; it was a safe enough place to stand outside, observing passersby.

That was fortunate for the man currently calling himself Danny, as he lounged against a corner, simply watching the people as they went about their business. City folk were not terribly ebullient with strangers as a rule, but he received and returned a few polite greetings, nonetheless. One pair of patrolling soldiers slowed slightly as they passed him, but a smile and cordial greeting, coupled with his calm demeanor, apparently assuaged their concerns. People did much stranger things than stand around doing nothing in the city, and those up to no good either avoided troops or were with the Thieves’ Guild, which in either case was encouragement not to bother him.

When not greeting someone, though, he tended to let his expression lapse into a near-frown, more pensive than unhappy. He was normally quite adept at concealing his thoughts; here, he was nobody worth looking at twice, and being able to let his guard down just a little was a luxury.

Three young men approached, immediately standing out. They were moving faster than the average passerby, they had come out of an alley across the street rather than down the main avenue, and they went right toward him with obvious intent. All three drew up on the sidewalk next to him, looking nervous and generally shifty, and he suppressed a sigh. This would draw far more attention than anything he’d been doing.

“Your, uh,” the red-haired one stammered, “I mean mister—I mean, um…”

“My friends call me Danny,” he said mildly. “For the time being, that is. Are we friends?”

“We would never presume,” said the only one with an obviously military bearing, his tone as stiff as his spine. “It would be entirely inappropriate—”

“Yes, we most certainly are friends of yours,” interrupted the third, the only ethnic Tiraan in the group and with an impressive enough habitual slouch to make up for his companion’s posture. “Have been for a good long time. Look, uh, Danny, you don’t know us, so I get that you’ve got no reason to trust us here, but—”

“If I am not mistaken,” he said with a smile, “Privates Finchley, Rook, and Moriarty, yes?”

They all gaped at him.

“You know us?” Finchley croaked at last. “I mean—you—but that’s—”

“You lads have had a rather interesting couple of years, so I understand,” Danny said lightly. “You might be surprised how many people are aware of you. Just as I am surprised to find you, of all places, here. I’m sure this is quite a story.”

“We’re here to escort you to safety, y-your…” Moriarty swallowed hard. “…Danny.”

“It is quite a story, but he’s right,” Rook added. “This probably isn’t the best time. We’re working with Ms. Darnassy, whom I trust you also know?”

At that, Danny straightened up. “That’s…very interesting. Last I heard, she was fully occupied with matters that didn’t include my immediate safety. How you three factor into it is quite the puzzle.”

“The short version is, by accident,” Finchley said hurriedly, glancing around in a way that would be sure to draw the attention of any patrolling soldiers, had any been nearby. “The, uh…the…men…who are a little…”

“I have some friends who are presently under the weather, yes,” Danny said mildly. “Milanda was working on that. Please, continue.”

“Uh, right. Well, one was at the college where we were…um, attending, and he caused…some trouble.”

“Yadda yadda, some stuff happened,” Rook continued airily, “our mutual friend Quentin found us and pointed us at the lovely and talented Ms. Darnassy, and when he heard you lost the couch you were crashing on, we got tapped to lead you to a new one. So, speaking of that, shall we? This is all very, y’know…terrifyingly exposed.”

“Hmm.” Danny considered them thoughtfully for a long moment, not minding their obvious signs of anxiety. A trap? That, he decided, was very unlikely. They knew who he was, and the core of all their recent problems was that they had more personal loyalty to him than sense or talent; that made them the worst possible choice of agents to mean him harm. Plus, this would be just like Vex. The spymaster had not been happy in the least with his plan, and this way he could put a token watch around him and be able to argue later that as incompetent as these three were, they didn’t count as real guards. In fact, it was sort of perfect. “Very well, I appreciate you going out of your way, gentlemen.”

“It is no trouble, sir,” Finchley said fervently. “So, uh, this way, if you please.”

“Now, now, wait up,” Danny said smoothly as they all three took a step up the street. He paused to straighten the lapels of his suit. “It’s such a fine evening, isn’t it? There’s no hurry. I so rarely get to stroll the streets; no need to set such a pace.”

He actually passed them, at a leisurely amble, while they gaped at him as if wondering if he were insane and not daring to say so. He recognized that specific expression; it was directed at him with fair frequency.

“Um,” Rook said finally, “with all due respect…there kind of is a hurry. Because you’re…pretty vulnerable here, y’know, and if something happens to you, it’s not just you who’s gonna suffer for it. Danny.”

“Relax,” Danny said, turning to grin at him. “I know what I’m doing. Coming?”

There was another pause while they hastened to catch up and fell into an obvious formation behind him, looking nervous. He repressed another sigh; attracting certain kinds of attention was, after all, part of the plan, but this was going to get random soldiers or Silver Legionnaires involved. Did the Legions even patrol this district?

“As I understand it,” Finchley said, clearly choosing his words with extreme care, “the plan involves…our friends who are unwell. Yes? Maybe they aren’t the most reliable of…friends…right now? Kind of by definition?”

“I’m not expecting much from them except trouble, truth be told,” Danny agreed. “If they end up showing up tonight, the trick will be making sure it’s trouble for the right people, but I’m reasonably confident I can arrange that. No, gentlemen, I’m counting on other parties to become involved in this.”

Even with all three of them behind and thus out of his line of sight, he could practically hear them exchanging dubious looks.

“Who?” Moriarty finally asked.

“Let me pose you a hypothetical question,” said Danny. “Suppose you were trying to outmaneuver someone who is adept at manipulating events from a safe distance, someone who works with exacting precision and never takes a risk unless he’s certain he has control over the whole environment. Suppose that a major part of your long-term plan in this regard involves gaining the allegiance of his opposites: individuals who thrive on adapting on the fly to chaotic situations, and who have been stubbornly refusing to take a side. In that situation, what would you do?”

“I suppose,” Rook said slowly, but without pausing, “in that purely hypothetical scenario, I would create some goddamn chaos.”

“Watch your language!” Moriarty barked.

“It’s fine,” Danny said with a grin. “And quite so, Mr. Rook. That is, indeed, the plan.”

“Which means,” Rook continued sourly, “you’re gambling that you can control the chaos when it breaks out.”

“Unlike the antagonist I referred to, I don’t bother to wait until everything is certain before acting. Adaptation is crucial. That doesn’t mean I don’t hedge my bets, however. It’s a critical mistake to gamble without an ace or three up one’s sleeve, gentlemen.”

“Oh, gods,” Finchley muttered. “Please tell me he doesn’t mean us.”

Danny laughed.


“Now, who the hell is that?” Sweet muttered, leaning over the rooftop’s edge to frown at the four men proceeding up the street below. “Those three resemble some individuals I know by description, but there’s no possible way it’s them.”

“Actually, we know them,” said Flora.

“Yeah,” Fauna agreed, “they were with Professor Tellwyrn and her students in Lor’naris last year.”

“They wore Army uniforms then, but she treated ’em like bellboys.”

“Which, to be fair, could just be Tellwyrn being Tellwyrn.”

“If I were a lesser man,” he complained, “I would need to sit down. What the fuck is going on here? With everything I learn, this makes less and less sense. C’mon.”

He stepped back from the ledge and strode up the fortunately gently angled slate roof beside them, swiftly cresting it and proceeding with more care down the other side. At the base of that, they had to vault across a narrow alley to the flat roof opposite in order to keep pace with their quarry.

“According to what they said to him,” Flora reported, “Vex and Darnassy sent them here.”

“Darnassy,” Sweet muttered. “That one keeps popping up lately—and suddenly. She’s been an Imperial mistress for a few years now and never made a peep about wanting to do more than warm Sharidan’s bed until this week. I don’t like unknown quantities butting into my already messy job…”

“Is this a job, though?” Fauna asked. “Do we really need to keep doing this? Maybe the best thing is to back off and let the Imps deal with their own crap.”

“You have a point,” he said, “and yet, you aren’t right. Think back: you said you overheard about the Hands being able to teleport by lurking above an open window, yes?” He paused to look at them, waiting to get nods of acknowledgment before proceeding. “Doesn’t it strike you as odd that seasoned Intelligence operatives on a mission of no less importance than keeping watch over the Emperor himself would chatter about sensitive mission details right next to an open window? They do know we like to use the rooftops. Did you take any special steps to make sure you weren’t seen?”

“No,” Flora said, frowning in thought. “You’re saying they leaked it to us on purpose?”

“But why?” Fauna asked. “That would just set the Guild against Intelligence. Which it did.”

“Not exactly,” he said. “Everything that happened after that might as well have been scripted. Based on the roles we play, I pretty much had to go down to Vex’s house and make a show of being able to kick his ass—a ranking Guild priest who’s been given the runaround by Intelligence has little other option. He knows this. Not only did he play along, with an aggression I’ve never seen from him before, he actually threatened me to the point I had to hurt one of his people to avoid breaking character.”

“You’re saying he forced you to act that way?”

“You know better than that, Flora,” he reproached. “Force is the least effective of all kinds of coercion, and Vex knows that as well as any Eserite loremaster. No, he told…a story. Laid out a neat narrative that I had to follow unless I wanted to break character, and doubled down on it to make sure I followed along. I had the option not to comply, but would pay for it by signaling that my allegiance is elsewhere than with the Guild—which is not true, and considering where else I’ve got strings tied, would have created complications for me and the Guild’s business. It was neatly done, actually. The point is, it’s unusual for him to be even that pushy. The only reason he would even try to back me into a corner like that is if something big were on the table, either something he hoped to gain for the Empire, or an unexpected threat he had to move against.”

“Like the Hands?”

“That’s the thing,” Sweet mused. “Any other time, I’d think he was just trying to make me take a side and declare allegiance. But he’s never shown interest in pressing that issue before, and this is the worst possible time. The whole government should be in damage control mode as long as the Hands are off-kilter, and with Danny running around down there, the stakes are far too high for Vex to be playing games like that with me, of all people. None of this makes any goddamn sense, and that means we don’t know what’s really going on. And that means we need to learn, fast, given how involved we already are.”

“That kinda goes back to the original question,” Flora pointed out. “Couldn’t we…disengage?”

“Isolation is death,” he said severely. “There is no safety; a fortress is a trap. We’re already engaged, and whatever’s happening has already proved it’s going to seek us out. This strategy is already as conservative and hands-off as I’m willing to go; we urgently have to figure out what the hell is going on here.”

All three paused at the hoarse cawing of a crow, turning to look in the direction of the noise. Darling nodded at Fauna, who nodded back, and then produced a few notes of a starling’s call. Flora paced along the edge of the roof, keeping an eye on the torturously slow progress of their targets, while the other two waited tensely.

They didn’t have to wait long. A woman in a long coat hoisted herself over the opposite edge of the roof and strode toward them, scowling.

“That bad, huh?” Sweet asked.

“Dunno from bad, but it’s weird,” she said. “You were right, Sweet, they’ve all started moving. I’m late to report in because we’ve had to wait to make sure of what we were seeing. You sure that guy down there is important to the Imps? You made it sound like they’d wanna protect him.”

“Spit it out, Duster,” he said tersely.

“They’re bugging out,” she replied. “All across the neighborhood. And not in one direction; they’re fanning out like they’re fleeing a fire. Intelligence is abandoning the whole district.”

Slowly, his expression crumpled into a thunderous scowl. “What the hell?”

“You tell me,” she said, folding her arms.

“You’re sure of—no, never mind, you already said so. Hn… Seen any signs of…special agents?”

“Seen, no,” the enforcer said with a shrug. “Sure, Intelligence has assets we wouldn’t be able to spot, but by definition, how the hell would I know if they’re hovering around?”

“You’re right, of course,” he agreed, clapping her on the shoulder. “Sorry, Duster, I wasn’t snapping at you. This whole thing is just balls-out crazy. Good work; have everybody pull carefully to this area. Not clustered all together, but I want us to be able to react in concert to anything that goes down in this vicinity.”

“You got it,” she said, nodding, then turned and dashed away. Reaching the edge of the roof, she vaulted over, causing a metallic thump as she hit the fire escape below.

“Vex,” Darling whispered, turning to stare down at the Emperor of Tiraas, walking the streets accompanied only by three of the worst soldiers in the Empire, “have you lost your mind?”


Gabriel was still shrugging into his coat as he entered the town hall, but just inside the door he stopped, staring at the standoff which had developed. “Uh…what’s this, now?”

“Ah, welcome back,” said Toby. “You heard about the demons?”

“Vestrel warned me before one of Vengnat’s friends got there, yeah. What’s this doing here?” he demanded, pointing at the gray-robed Black Wreath warlock.

“That is the subject of some discussion, Mr. Arquin,” Matriarch Ashaele said.

“They’ve offered to help,” Teal added. “Nobody’s happy about this, but we may not be able to afford to turn them down.”

“They? Them?” Gabe exclaimed. “There’s more?”

“Any time you see one Wreath, you can assume there are more,” Toby said grimly. “This didn’t get really awkward until she spilled the beans about him.”

“Let me just point out, again,” said Inspector Fedora with a long-suffering sigh, “that I am the only person here with legitimate government credentials.”

“Hey,” the Sheriff protested.

“And he’s hardly the first child of Vanislaas to get those,” the warlock said cheerfully. “This is supposed to be a secret, but one of his ilk was governor of Mathenon for over a month a few decades back. It’s never a smart idea to let them weasel into positions of power.”

“Very much the same can be said about you,” Toby snapped. “Fedora, what are you even doing here? I thought you were up on the campus.”

“I have made careful arrangements to know when and where demons are being summoned in the whole region around Last Rock, for obvious reasons,” the Inspector replied. “That’s here, and so here I am.”

“Speakin’ of which, I’ve got demons in and around my town, apparently,” Mayor Cleese said tersely. “I don’t think we’ve got time for this, people. I recognize this is literally makin’ deals with devils, but if it keeps Last Rock from bein’ overrun with hellspawn, I’m prepared to take whatever help presents itself.”

“I’ll leave this to wiser heads than mine to settle,” Sanders added. “But for the record, if the order that comes down is ‘shoot ’em both,’ I ain’t gonna complain.”

“I am not excessively worried about lesser warlocks such as the Elilinists,” Ashaele said smoothly. “She is correct about the incubus, however.”

“Now, I realize you don’t much care for me, friendly neighborhood paladins,” Fedora said with a grin, “but you both know my credentials are legitimate, and my superiors know who and what I am. Turning on a duly appointed agent of Imperial Intelligence will create trouble none of you want.”

“And now he’s threatening us,” Teal said, scowling.

“Hey!” Gabriel shouted, earning surprised silence. “The only person here making a lick of sense is the Mayor. We do not have time for this! Am I correct about those robes? Are there two priestesses of Themynra in this room?”

“You are indeed,” one of the drow women he indicated replied with a thin smile.

“Fine,” he said firmly. “I’m not much of a theologian, but some of us here should remember what we’ve learned from Shaeine. If the ladies will oblige us, a simple blessing by the goddess of, among other things, judgment, will reveal who is and is not trying to screw us over.”

“It is not quite so simple,” the other Themynrite cleric said. “A simple blessing will not reveal agendas or plots. However, it will burn any who are aligned with evil against Themynra’s objectives, which appears to be the fundamental question here. I’m sure the goddess will not consider this a frivolous use of her power.”

“Well spotted, Gabriel,” Ashaele said, smiling.

“Themynra, huh,” Fedora mused. “You know, I’ve never actually had a divine blessing on me that wasn’t used as an attack. By all means, go for it. This oughtta be interesting.”

“Whatever,” the warlock said irritably. “If that’s what it will take to get some action taken here, I’ve no objection.”

“And aren’t they gracious,” Sanders muttered.

Toby gently nudged Gabriel out of the doorway and toward one corner of the town hall, where Juniper was hovering with her sister Ash. “Nicely done,” he murmured. “Though for the record, you just insulted a room full of important people, including the Matriarch.”

“I—wait, what? No, I didn’t!”

“You kinda did, though,” Juniper observed. “I mean, if the mayor’s the only one making sense, it implies…”

“Aw, fuck,” he muttered. “I mean, that is. Um. I’m sure Shaeine has mentioned to her mother that I tend to have my foot in my mouth. And any of the drow who were at the picnic can attest I’m a big fan of the lady.”

At the other side of the noisy room, Ashaele shifted her head slightly to look at him and very deliberately smiled, before returning her attention to the front, where Fedora and the warlock were being limned with silver light by the two priestesses. In keeping with their previous attitudes, the incubus seemed fascinated by the whole procedure, while the warlock had her arms folded and extended one leg so her foot peeked out from beneath the hem of their robes, just to make sure everyone could see her tapping it. Neither appeared to be burning.

“Smooth, kid,” Ash said with a grin.

He sighed. “Thanks, I try. Has anybody else turned up? Ruda and Fross would be handy to have around about now, or any of the remaining freshman girls…”

“No sign of our classmates,” said Toby. “I haven’t heard anything about Szith, but actually Maureen and Iris were in town. From what I’ve been told, they were the first to spot a demon, and got a warning to the drow. Then apparently they retreated into the prairie to avoid sparking off a fight, and that’s the last we heard—”

“What?!” Fedora’s insouciant demeanor instantly collapsed, and he lunged across the room toward them, prompting Sanders and three of Ashaele’s bodyguards to level weapons, all of which he ignored. “You idiots! What are you standing around here for?!”

“Um, excuse me,” Juniper said, frowning, “but I think we were just discussing—”

“You know the Sleeper likes to create distractions to herd people off and strike them alone! You’ve got two classmates who’ve isolated themselves out there away from help, and that wasn’t your first priority?”

There was a second of shocked silence.

“I hate to acknowledge it, but the hellspawn is right,” Ariel observed. “You’re idiots.”

“Come on!” Gabriel barked, spinning and bolting for the door.

“You cannot just run out there without a plan,” Ashaele said firmly, coming after him with a swiftness which did nothing to diminish the smoothness of her glide.

“I don’t intend to, ma’am,” he said. The Matriarch actually pushed ahead of Toby and Juniper, following him outside. Gabriel bounded down from the town hall’s steps, put two fingers to his lips, and whistled.

Several nearby townsfolk yelped and dashed away at the explosion of smoke and shadow which erupted from the ground in the middle of the street. Whisper lunged out, prancing to a stop near Gabriel and pawing one of her invisible hooves at the ground in eagerness.

“It’s not a complex plan,” Gabriel continued, placing a hand on his steed’s neck, “but it’ll work. I need to go after them. I have the fastest mount, my valkyries can conduct a search pattern at very high speed, which’ll be the most reliable way of finding the girls, and I’m hardly defenseless. Nobody else has the same combination of advantages.”

“I see your point,” Ashaele acknowledged, though not without a faint frown.

“I can still help,” Teal disagreed, stepping out of the town hall. “Vadrieny is faster than Whisper, and there’s not a thing the Sleeper can do to us. Let’s be realistic, Gabe, we don’t know if you being a half-demon has any effect on that curse. What if you get sleeped out there on the prairie? We’d never find you.”

“Keep in mind I’m the Hand of a god,” he said with a grim little smile, nodding at Toby. “Trissiny clued us in about this, remember? You do something magical enough to a Hand, particularly if it’s demonic in nature, and you’re begging for their patron’s direct attention. We can only hope the Sleeper’s dumb enough to want a face-to-face chat with Vidius. I kinda doubt he is.”

“Gabriel is correct,” said Ashaele, placing a hand on Teal’s shoulder. “He is the best suited for this. And while you are also correct, daughter, there are other factors to consider. The town is still in immediate danger, and Vadrieny is one of our most potent combat assets. There are more people than your friends who will need protection; he can help two, but it will take every pair of hands we have to look after the whole town.”

“I’ll be quick as I can,” Gabe said with a roguish grin, then took a step back from Whisper, got a brief running start, and vaulted onto her back.

He landed awkwardly and she whinnied in protest, prancing and pivoting about to give him a reproachful look. Gabe yelped, snatching ineffectually at her mane as he tumbled off the other side.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Ariel, “he remembered to mount from the left. Believe it or not, this represents marked progress in the Hand of Vidius’s horsemanship.”

Standing in the door of the town hall, Fedora folded his arms and heaved a sigh. “Ohh, yeah. We’re all boned.”

 

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12 – 52

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“This was a good idea,” Gabriel murmured, looking around the square.

“Course it was!” Professor Rafe replied breezily. “It was Matriarch Ashaele’s—good ideas are the only kind that lady has! Reassure the townies, mend some fences or bridges or what-have-you that needs mending, give everybody some very much needed opportunity to unwind. You don’t get to be literally the most senior diplomat on the planet without picking up a trick or two!”

The event set up on the square next to the Rail platform had arisen quickly enough to pass for impromptu, but it had been organized with flawless efficiency that suggested considerable planning. Striped awnings had been erected around the periphery of the space along two sides, with tables and chairs borrowed from the A&W in front of the tavern itself; people were congregating quietly at the tables, partaking of food laid out on stands under the shade. There were tin plates, cups, and utensils, and in fact all the necessary details had been thought of, even those that would seem counter-intuitive to subterranean dwellers, such as pest-repelling charms. Everything was free for all, and had been purchased from local businesses, right down to the farrier’s son playing the guitar over by the telescroll office.

As parties went, it was rather subdued, the space being at least half occupied by drow, who were naturally quieter in their manners than Last Rock was used to. After Ashaele’s initial arrival, which bodyguards and priestesses, a second caravan had arrived with civilian personnel from House Awarrion, who had done the lion’s share of the organizing for this event. Though the townspeople in attendance largely seemed somewhat wary of their new guests, it was a polite wariness, escalating to downright friendliness in many cases. Most of the conversations taking place around the square were between Narisians and Imperials. Nonetheless, the Sheriff and Ox were both visibly present, holding themselves aloof and keeping a careful watch. As were several stony-faced armored drow bearing sabers.

“Looking for trouble?” Gabriel asked, still in a low tone and giving Toby an inquisitive look. His fellow paladin had, for the second time in as many minutes, panned his gaze around the square, wearing a faint frown.

“Trouble, no,” Toby replied. “Szith said Iris came down here earlier. Before the picnic was set up, even… I’m a little worried, about her and Maureen. Those two are pretty sensitive, and their dorm’s been hit especially hard by all this…stuff.”

“Look at you, everybody’s dad,” Gabe said with a grin, patting him on the shoulder.

Toby sighed. “Yeah, yeah, I’m sure it’s nothing. There are other things to do in town, and not everybody likes crowds.”

“I’m a little surprised not to see Szith here, now you mention it,” Juniper added.

“Szith has responsibilities,” Professor Yornhaldt rumbled. “And, being the exceedingly conscientious young lady she is, feels responsible for far more than she actually is. The presence of so many Narisians might be a factor.”

“Poor kid,” Juniper said, frowning.

“Your concern speaks well of you, Juniper,” Yornhaldt said with a smile. “I’m sure she would appreciate a kind word when you see her next.”

He and Rafe were watching the event as closely as the Sheriff and the Awarrion House guards, though their mandate was limited to making sure none of the students in attendance partook of the free beer available—despite the fact that both professors had mugs of it in hand. The three sophomores had gravitated toward them on one edge of the square after a few minutes of aimless circulation, and now the small group simply stood aside, watching, while Juniper sipped from a cup of punch and Gabriel intermittently gnawed a drumstick.

“Okay, so,” Gabriel said after a pause, in an even softer tone than before. “This may be an inappropriate thing to say, considering the circumstances…”

“Have you considered not doing so, for once?” Ariel suggested.

He slapped her hilt lightly. “I gotta be me. Really, though. Did you guys notice that Shaeine’s mom is impossibly gorgeous? Even for an elf.”

Toby sighed again. “Gabriel.”

“Oh, yeah,” Juniper agreed, nodding. “You’re very correct. About both parts. Not really the time, Gabe.”

“The dryad is criticizing your sense of social propriety. You have officially reached peak Arquin.”

“Shut up, Ariel,” he said sullenly. “It’s not like I was talking loudly.”

“Gabriel, my man, I’m a little disappointed that I need to point this out,” Rafe said archly. “Drow. Elves. The ears. Nothing you say out loud is gonna go unnoticed on the other side of the square.”

Gabriel’s cheeks darkened slightly and he ducked his head for a second, before catching himself and straightening up defiantly. “Yeah…well… Narisians. They’re very respectful of private conversations. You’ve heard Shaeine talk about it.”

“Mm hm,” Yornhaldt grunted. “Now if only everyone would be respectful of their feelings.”

“No offense was taken, I assure you.”

All five looked up in surprise at being addressed. A drow woman with short hair had approached them, wearing a simple lizard-scale breastplate over a dark red tunic, rather than the full armor of the guards; she carried a long knife at her belt instead of a saber. She stopped a respectful conversational distance away and bowed courteously.

“I am Vengnat eyr Vrainess n’dur Awarrion, subcommander in the lower House guard, off-duty for this excursion. It is an honor and a distinct pleasure.”

She bowed again, though less deeply, at each of their introductions, the whole time wearing a polite little smile such as Shaeine often did.

“I wonder, Mr. Arquin,” she said when everyone was introduced, “if you are familiar with the particulars of the House system of Tar’naris?”

“I…am aware that it exists,” he said hesitantly. “Sorry, but to be honest, I have my hands full understanding Imperial politics most of the time. Despite Shaeine’s noble efforts, the details of Narisian government are mostly over my head.”

Vengnat’s smile widened fractionally. “Please don’t feel bad—we are not all diplomats, after all. Well, to put it simply, we are drow. We have our Houses and our intrigues, our jockeying for advantage; it is, in many ways, intrinsic to our kind. However, the governance of Tar’naris is far more civilized than that of our deeper-dwelling Scyllithene cousins. Queen Arkasia devised the current House system to end infighting.”

“Oh, yeah! That much I know,” he said, nodding. “Every House has a particular role in the running of the city, so attacking another House damages the city itself. Any infighting would be outright treason, so it doesn’t happen.”

“It very rarely happens,” she corrected, still smiling. “Very rarely indeed, and that largely because we have found other outlets for our competitive impulses, which is as valuable in heading off conflict as punishing transgressors. Specifically, rather than for power, advantage, or wealth, the Houses of Tar’naris compete vigorously for prestige.”

“How so?” Juniper asked.

“Mr. Arquin’s observation was a perfect example,” Vengnat explained. “Matriarch Ashaele is widely acknowledged as one of the most beautiful women in Tar’naris. It is a trait with virtually no practical application, contributes nothing to the running of the House…but it’s a point of pride. That is the kind of thing around which our little intrigues are built in this era. So, while we are accustomed to hearing our Matriarch praised in somewhat more gracious terms, the observation itself supports a minor point of honor for us. And after all, those of us present were made aware that plain speech is a trait of the plains dwellers in which they take pride.” She bowed to Gabriel, her smile widening another hair. “On behalf of House Awarrion, I accept and thank you for the compliment in the spirit in which it was intended.”

A few yards away, one of the gray-robed priestesses looked in Gabriel’s direction and deliberately smiled.

“Oh,” he said awkwardly. “I, uh, that’s… Well, you know. Um.”

“Perhaps you should take the opportunity to learn about diplomacy from these drow, Gabriel. Though it is very fortunate that you have a career already established.”

“Ah, yes,” he said sourly, “I forgot to introduce Ariel, whose constant commentary on my social skills is a never ending source of irony.”

“What an intriguing weapon,” Vengnat said, studying the sword. “The design is clearly elvish, though it is surprising that elves would conduct the kind of rituals which are necessary to create a talking sword.”

“Drow would,” Ariel replied. “Hands off.”

“Hey!” Gabriel snapped. “I put up with your sass, but do not insult visiting diplomats!”

“Oh, not to worry,” Vengnat assured him. “I am, as I said, not on duty for this trip. Any conversations I have are strictly personal and I am not properly a diplomat in any case. Besides, I do know a bit about weapons such as Ariel, here; certain allowances must be made for their conduct.”

“You’re off duty for the whole trip?” Toby asked curiously. “Forgive me, but…”

“What am I doing here?” If anything, Vengnat seemed even more amused. “The Matriarch’s second daughter requested off-duty personnel from a variety of specializations to attend in a strictly social capacity, to circulate politely with the residents.” She nodded toward Nahil, who was holding court in the opposite corner of the square, having surrounded herself with most of Last Rock’s more well-to-do women. “I am a House guard by profession, but we are all expected to develop some skill in diplomacy, and I was particularly interested in the opportunity to mingle with Tiraan in their own environment. It’s a chance I rarely have at home.”

“I dunno if this qualifies as the average Tiraan environment,” Rafe mused. “Still and all, we’re damn glad to have you!”

“I’m impressed,” Toby added with a smile. “For someone who’s not even a diplomat by focus, your Tanglish is amazingly fluent. You barely have an accent!”

“Not to mention a better vocabulary than some of our classmates,” Juniper added.

“I appreciate that very much,” Vengnat said, bowing to each of them. “The language is rather counter-intuitive for me; it’s gratifying that my efforts have paid off. And I am, of course, honored to serve my House in the capacity in which I was trained, but I aspire to a more varied life than a simple soldier’s.”

“Hey, I’m glad some good came of all this,” Gabriel added, smiling at her. “Always good to make new friends! Maybe we could show you around while you’re here.”

She turned a much more direct look on him, and took one step closer. “I’m very glad you suggested that, Gabriel. Nothing would please me more.”

“Oh, yeah,” Rafe snorted. “Be sure to get a good look at the saloon, and the Rail platform, and the scrolltower before you leave the town. Whoop, there we go! Tour over.”

Yornhaldt heaved a sigh. “Admestus.”

“What? It’s a nice little town, but let’s face it. Everything interesting’s up on the campus.”

“I would not dream of disturbing Professor Tellwyrn’s school,” Vengnat said smoothly, her eyes still on Gabriel’s. “And you may find Last Rock provincial, but to me, everything is new and endlessly fascinating. For instance, I have at some personal expense secured a private room in that establishment just yonder—considering the number of my colleagues present, it required calling in a few favors, but it was a worthwhile investment. Everything is made of wood. I can’t tell you how much that fascinates me, we so rarely see it in Tar’naris.”

“Huh,” Gabriel said, grinning. “It’s funny, how you don’t think of things like that until confronted with them. The simplest stuff is radically different in other places.”

“Precisely,” Vengnat said with a smile which was downright warm. “Wood furniture, cotton fabrics. The bed alone is a work of art, to my eyes. Why don’t you let me show it to you? At length,” she added, her voice dropping to a subtly huskier register, “and in detail. I have the whole evening free.”

Gabriel gaped at her; his chicken leg fell from suddenly limp fingers. Juniper grinned, seemingly on the verge of bursting into laughter, while Rafe and Yornhaldt exchanged a long look. Toby sighed softly through his nose, though his expression was amused. Vengnat kept her crimson eyes fixed on Gabriel’s, one graceful white eyebrow slightly arched in invitation.

“Um,” Gabriel said carefully after a long pause. “I, uh, am…let’s just say, not the most perceptive person. You know, socially. Forgive me if I misunderstand, but…”

“All is forgiven,” Vengnat said smoothly, smiling up at him again. “Forgive me, but concessions to local culture aside, there are certain things I’m simply not accustomed to saying any more…explicitly.”

“Ah. Yes. Well, then. I would be honored to…show you around. Not to mention delighted, of course.” He bowed politely to her, then turned to the others. “Well! Sorry to abandon you, guys, but I can hardly neglect a guest in our lands. If you’ll excuse me…”

“No extra credit for stuff that just falls into your lap,” Professor Rafe said severely, then extended his arm, hand clenched. “I am, however, obligated to offer you a manly fist bump.”

“That was real classy, Professor,” Toby said a few moments later, as they all watched Gabriel and the drow stroll toward the tavern, arm in arm. “Maybe I’m being paranoid, but that was kinda…sudden. Is there maybe another agenda at play, here?”

“Pff, nothing paranoid about it,” Rafe said glibly. “Drow culture being what it is, her ulterior motive’s pretty obvious. So long as Gabe has the sense to swallow the contraceptive I just slipped him, nothing’ll come of it. Really, though,” he added with a sudden frown. “This is verging on ridiculous. How does that kid keep stumbling ass-backward into the most exquisite piece of ass on display wherever he happens to be?”

“Why, thank you, Professor!” Juniper beamed.

“I’m serious! The chase is meant to be just that—you’ve gotta have a challenge to appreciate the conquest properly! He’s gonna come away with some pretty messed up ideas about women if this keeps up, ‘specially with Trissiny not here to kick his butt for him.”

Yornhaldt grunted into his beer. “Hmph. Hard to imagine where he’s learning it from, Admestus.”

“I kinda do wish Trissiny was here,” Juniper said with a sudden frown.

Toby sighed. “Yeah. Not that I think she cares how Gabe spends his time, but with this Sleeper thing going on…”

“That’s more what I mean, Triss is the one who knows about military strategy. I bet she’d understand what that means immediately.”

“What?” He straightened up, following her pointing finger.

“All the Narisian guards just suddenly moved while we were talking,” said Juniper. “See, three are covering Shaeine’s sister, over there, and the rest went up the street. Isn’t the Matriarch up at the town hall, with Teal and the mayor?”

Yornhaldt frowned deeply, turning to set his half-empty pint on a nearby table. “Well spotted, Juniper. Adventuring rule of thumb, students: if anything is happening, the elves will hear it first. I suggest we keep alert and prepare ourselves. Something…interesting…may be coming.”


“Y’know, you don’t have to settle all this right now,” Iris suggested gently. “Today, even. I’m not trying to rush you, Maureen, don’t worry. But maybe come back at this when you’re not so upset?”

“I…actually don’t feel upset, really, anymore,” Maureen said, kicking her legs in the empty space between them and the ground, and gazing at the horizon. “I really appreciate ye stayin’ with me, Iris. You were right, it helps a lot to have somebody listen. Anyhow,” she added with a sigh, “I reckon I have decided. Lettin’ fear make me choices, leavin’ me friends behind in danger… That’d make me not just a bad gnome, but a bad person. I’m not goin’.”

Iris nodded, and squeezed her shoulder. “Okay. I’m glad to hear it.”

“…d’ye mind if I stick around ‘ere for a while, though?”

“Of course not. Whatever you need.”

“I don’t really feel up to much company,” Maureen said, giving her a quick little smile, then jerked her head at the platform and square across the Rail some yards behind them. “But it sounds like they’ve got a full-on picnic goin’, up there. If you wanna go, I won’t be upset. You’ve helped me a lot just by stickin’ around this long.”

“Oh, well.” Iris shrugged, kicking her own legs—which, being much longer, resulted in her shoes scraping through the dirt. “I’m…not much for parties, generally. I pretty much get my fill of crowds in class and in the cafeteria.”

“Aye, I get that.” A sly glint appeared in the gnome’s eye, and she winked. “But you know… Gabriel might be there. I bet he’s the sort who loves gatherings.”

Iris heaved a deep sigh. “Ugh. I’m starting to think I should just forget the whole thing, stay away from him. If I can’t muster the guts to just…” She shrugged helplessly. “I don’t even know what.”

“Well, it can’t hurt ta hang around with ‘im a bit more! These things ‘ave a way of comin’ up on their own, if ye give ’em an opportunity.”

“Oh, come on, what would I do? Just walk up and proposition him?” Iris snorted. “He’d never go for that. Probably think I was some kind of a…a hussy.”

Maureen tilted her head, giving the human a long, thoughtful look. “…y’don’t actually know all that much about boys, do ye?”

“Oh, what would you—”

Turning toward her, Iris broke off abruptly, going rigid and grabbing Maureen by the shoulder.

“What? What’s the…” The gnome turned to follow her gaze, and gasped, scrambling up onto the bench.

“Easy!” Iris hissed. “Be calm, don’t do anything sudden.”

“What is that?!”

The creature was proportioned like a monkey and the size of a large goat, with a wedge-shaped head and jagged spines running down its back. Its eyes were sunken pits, the sides of its lips seeming to form its teeth—in fact, the thing looked like its whole hide was made of bone, rigid and the color of old ivory. It had an ugly, wasp-like stinger protruding from its bony rump, and enormous claws on each fingertip. As they watched, it snuffled around the base of the footbridge nearby, butting its head against the ground as if trying to bury itself.

“That’s a rozzk’shnid,” Iris said very quietly.

“Th’feck…” Maureen gulped audibly. “Seein’ as that’s a word made o’ sneezes an’ phonetic insanity, I assume it’s a demon?”

“Yes. Don’t worry—they’re stone deaf, and practically blind in sunlight. I don’t know what kind of idiot warlock would summon such a thing onto the prairie in the afternoon, but it’s easily dealt with.” Moving slowly and carefully, she stood and took a step to the side, positioning herself with a clear line of sight at the demon.

“Wait!” Maureen hopped off the bench after her, rushing over to grasp Iris’s leg. “Wait. Yer a witch—didja sense anything bein’ summoned?”

Iris had raised her hands, preparing to cast something, and now lowered them slightly, frowning. “No. Not a thing.”

“Aye. An’ I don’t ‘ear an outcry, from any o’ the students or drow priestesses right up there on the platform, so it was summoned subtle-like. That’s a good warlock, not one who’d pluck the wrong demon fer the wrong job.”

“The Sleeper,” Iris growled.

“Likely, aye,” Maureen said, still watching the rozzk’shnid, which seemed more interested in finding a patch of shade for its eyes than anything going on around it. “The Sleeper lays traps. He knows us. We can’t afford t’do the obvious thing—which’d be to attack that critter. It’s a trick somehow, I know it.”

“Well, what do you suggest?” Iris hissed.

Maureen swallowed. “Back away fer now.”

“I don’t run from demons!”

“There’s a difference between runnin’ away and retreat! Take it from somebody who was about t’do the bad one a wee bit ago. One’s an act o’ cowardice; the other’s a strategy. Look, we’re a gnome an’ a witch; we’re safer’n anybody out on the prairie. Heck, if we get to the Golden Sea, we’re home free. Somethin’ tells me the town’s about to get real interesting.”

“We can’t just go,” Iris insisted. “We have to warn everyone, at the very least!”

“Iris, that square’s full o’ drow,” Maureen said with a grim little smile. “I know the range of elvish hearing, trust me. Lemme just reiterate fer clarity that there’s a feckin’ demon sniffin’ around the square, an’ likely others, almost certainly summoned by an arsehole warlock who loves ‘is schemes an’ everybody needs ta deal with this as careful an’ quiet as they can. Nobody go off alone, or lash out rashly. There, everybody’s warned.”

Iris’s fingers actually twitched, as if desperate to begin hurling magic. “Maureen…”

“This is personal for you, isn’t it?” Maureen whispered. “Not just the Sleeper, but…demons. Warlocks.”

The human bared her teeth. “They live only to destroy. It should be personal for everyone. You need to listen to Trissiny on this subject, when she comes back.”

“Well, talkin’ o’ Trissiny, she’s a strategist. She’d never endorse lungin’ into a trap or doin’ the reckless thing. We’re not gonna let him win, Iris, an’ that means not doin’ what he wants. Come on. Step back, an’ we’ll come at this from another angle. One ‘e won’t expect.”

Iris hissed in pure frustration, but allowed the gnome to tug her gently away from the shelter and deeper into the tallgrass, leaving behind the demon at the edge of a crowded square, on which the drow were already quietly surging into motion.

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12 – 18

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“Sorry I’m late!”

Teal tossed something to Ruda as she entered the spell lab before crossing to join Shaeine by the wall. The two shared a reserved smile, shifting their hands to briefly touch the backs against each other, while Juniper looked on with a sappy smile.

“You’re not even the last one here, and holy hell, did you drive?” Ruda was examining the object Teal had thrown her: a set of control runes for an enchanted carriage, their engraved sigils putting off a fierce blue glow, attached to a small bronze fob.

“Nah, that’s my tardy note,” Teal said, grinning. “I was helping Maureen with our project; we got hung up applying the control enchantment, and kept at it because if you leave that half done, you pretty much have to start over. Jokes on us, cos we flubbed it somehow and have to start over anyway. Those are the runes we were trying to use.”

“Oooh, yeah, they’re not supposed to glow like that,” Fross commented, fluttering closer. “Huh, that’s really peculiar. What went wrong?”

“I actually don’t know,” Teal confessed. “Neither does Maureen. But when it comes to enchanting, I pretty much just know theory and she was following along from the book…”

“Are they gonna blow up?” Ruda asked, showing no alarm at the prospect of holding a potentially explosive spell misfire.

“Nah, there’s not enough juice in those to make a good firecracker,” said Teal. “They’ll probably just glow until they burn through their stored power. Don’t toss ’em in a spell circle or anything, though. Mis-enchanted gadgets can be unpredictable if you add them to half-finished spells.”

“Hell, I wouldn’t be going near something like that anyway,” Ruda said, carefully tucking the fob into one of the buttonholes on her coat, where the glowing runes hung to just above her belt. “Thanks, T! Cheap, tacky and potentially dangerous. Best jewelry I’ve ever gotten!”

“I figured you’d like it,” Teal said, winking. “Speaking of which, Fross, d’you think you could give us a hand alter when we try to apply control enchantments again? I think it’ll go better with an actual enchanter on hand.”

“I would be glad to help, however!” Fross darted back and forth in midair as she often did to punctuate a point. “I would suggest you ask Gabe first. He’s a specialized enchanter while I’m a more general arcanist, and also he really likes being included and having his skills acknowledged, which, y’know, everybody does, but personally I don’t feel I need the validation and Gabe’s still working through some stuff.”

“That is very perceptive, Fross,” Shaeine said with a warm little smile, “and very kind.”

“Thank you! I try to be both of those things!”

“It’s a good idea,” Teal agreed, again brushing Shaeine’s hand with hers. “Thank you, Fross, I’ll mention it to him.”

“After the meeting, if you please,” Ruda said. “We’re already running a bit behind, and I prefer to get this business out of the way as soon as possible. That is, if the rest of our—well, it’s about fucking time.”

The lab door opened again, and Gabriel himself entered, followed closely by Toby. Gabe paused in the doorway, his gaze zeroing in on the glowing control runes hanging just over Ruda’s belt buckle. After a moment, he grinned broadly.

“Yarr! It’s drivin’ me nuts!”

“Arquin, so fucking help me—”

“Whuh?” Juniper blinked. “I don’t get it.”

“Old joke,” Gabriel explained. “So a pirate walks into a bar, and there’s a ship’s wheel hanging from his belt buckle—”

He broke off and ducked, Ruda having yanked a bottle of beer from within her coat and hurled it at his head. The bottle came to a stop midair before reaching him, however.

“Hey, don’t make a mess in the spell lab,” Fross said reproachfully, levitating the bottle gently to the floor. “We’ll have to clean it up before we leave.”

“Silly as always, I see,” Scorn grumbled, stepping in after Toby and as usual having to duck to get her horns under the door frame.

“Oh…hi, Scorn,” Ruda said, frowning up at her. “Wasn’t expecting you to come.”

“I invited her,” Toby said firmly. “Considering what you wanted to discuss, I think she could contribute very well. And besides, we could stand to make more of an effort to spend time with her.”

“You know what they say,” Gabriel agreed, nudging Scorn with an elbow, which barely reached up to the base of her ribs. “You bust it out of a psycho holy sex dungeon, you buy it!”

The Rhaazke looked down her nose at him, nostrils flaring once in a silent snort of irritation. “Are you lot going to be like this the whole time, again? Always jokes and prodding each other when you should be focusing?”

“Hey, don’t knock it,” Ruda said easily. “Bickering helps us concentrate.”

“It’s a bonding exercise!” Fross proclaimed. “I was uncertain at first too but as long as everybody knows each other and trusts there’s no malice it’s actually pretty fun! You should feel free to join in!”

“Except don’t pick on Shaeine,” Gabriel said solemnly. “She’s classy. Everybody else is fair game.”

Scorn grunted. “If you say so. Fine, then. You are short and not good with women.”

“Ehhh…” Gabriel made a waffling motion with his hand. “A decent effort. Ruda, care to critique?”

“Points for being on the nose,” Ruda said seriously. “That was a good hit; Arquin’s manly ego makes a splendid target. It’s all about context, though. You’re meant to fire one off at the appropriate moment in the conversation, not just out of the blue like that.”

“Sounds unnecessarily complicated,” Scorn huffed.

“Nah, you’ll get there,” Ruda said, grinning. “Stick with us, we’ll have you bantering like a pro in no time.”

“I’m even less sure I want to stick with you now,” Scorn grunted.

“And there you go!” Gabriel crowed. “She comes back with a splendid riposte!” The Rhaazke just looked at him in confusion.

Shaeine cleared her throat loudly.

“Yes, right, we’re actually here for a reason, for once,” Ruda said in a much less jocular tone. “I’m sure you lot were wondering why I wanted to talk in one of the spell labs. The reason is this is probably the most secured and private place on campus available to us aside from our dorms, and we can’t have the whole group in either of those, unless we slip Gabe and Toby sex change potions first.”

“That’s actually a lot more complex than a simple potion! There’s a whole course of alchemical treatment involved, which takes days if not weeks, and it should really only be undertaken with the supervision of an expert alchemist and a healer, preferably a fae practitioner—”

“Fross.”

“…aaaand I’m being pedantic and going off on a tangent. Sorry.” The pixie drifted a few feet lower, her glow dimming bashfully. Ruda gave her a grin before continuing.

“Tellwyrn, in her dubious wisdom, has asked us to keep an eye on the campus while she fucks off to Sifan, and ideally nab this Sleeper asshole. We need to talk strategy.”

“Wait, Tellwyrn what?” Scorn exclaimed.

“It’s actually really unexpected,” Juniper said, nodding. “I’m still surprised. And intimidated, and kind of honored.”

“We may jabber and fool around, but we get stuff done,” Gabriel said to Scorn. “That, or we get chased by centaurs or tricked by the Black Wreath. Y’know, six of one…”

“And this raises another point,” Ruda said, fixing her gaze on the Rhaazke. “Scorn, on reflection I think Toby has a good point: you’ve earned our trust, you’re smart and powerful, and I think you’re an asset here. So, you know, welcome to the gang. With that said, this is the kind of thing which should not leave this room, hence us talking in a magically sealed space that can’t be eavesdropped on.”

“Easily,” Shaeine corrected in a quiet tone. “Most of our fellow students could not penetrate the defenses on one of Tellwyrn’s spell labs. It would be a mistake to make assumptions about what the Sleeper can or cannot do.”

“Point,” Ruda agreed, nodding at her.

“I’m glad you’re doing well at making friends,” Toby added to Scorn, “but with something like this, Ravana Madouri in particular…”

“There is good sense in that,” Scorn grunted. “Ravana is very clever. Very clever. But she is the kind of clever that tricks itself as often as others. I think she would agree, anyway. I have noticed her best trait is she does not lie about what she is, even to herself.”

“And this is no time for people to be playing politics, which is what Ravana would fucking do even if she decided to help, and we all know it,” Ruda said firmly. “So, glad we’re all on the same page, there. Now, Fross and June and I have been talking and we’ve got an idea.”

“Yes!” Fross chimed, shooting straight up to the ceiling in excitement. “Okay, so, remember when we were chasing spectral demons and I set up a hybrid arcane/divine detection grid over the town?”

“I remember that not turning out so well,” Scorn commented.

“Yes, true, but not really germane to the point; the grid worked perfectly, and in fact accidentally enabled me to dig up some more detail on something it found than I expected. So I’ve been refining that and I think I’ve improved on it in a way we can use to catch the Sleeper!”

“A detection grid over the campus?” Gabriel asked, his interest clearly raised. “No offense, Fross, but what do you think you can do that Tellwyrn hasn’t? She’s got the ley lines rigged so she can temporally scry, and there’s a very powerful fairy geas active…”

“But we have something Tellwyrn doesn’t!” Fross chimed excitedly.

“An excessively high opinion of ourselves?” Gabriel asked, grinning.

“A tendency to wreck things?” Toby added wryly.

“Really great hair!” Ruda chortled.

“Tellwyrn has all that,” Scorn pointed out.

“We have a dryad,” Juniper said smugly.

“Uh, point of order?” Teal raised a hand. “Tellwyrn also has a dryad. The same one. I mean, wouldn’t she have already asked you to help, Juno?”

“She did,” Ruda pointed out.

“I mean, specifically, if there was a way she in particular could.”

“That Tellwyrn didn’t think of a way does not mean one does not exist,” Shaeine observed. “Your idea, Juniper?”

Juniper sighed. “The thing is…the last time she let me help, I made a mess of it. I think that’s probably made her a little wand-shy. Besides, Tellwyrn is a mage; she doesn’t think in terms of mixing schools, or using different ones. Fross and I have worked something out that should let us… Well, Fross is better at explaining it.”

“Okay, so!” the pixie resumed. “First of all, we’re reasonably sure the Sleeper is a warlock.”

“Why?” Scorn demanded.

“Sure might be overstating it, but there’s evidence,” said Ruda, beginning to tick points off on her fingers. “First, some asshole inexplicably opens a hellgate—a major infernal accomplishment. Then, Tellwyrn hires a kitsune, pretty much the most dangerous and powerful kind of fairy there is, to teach at the campus. Then, nothing at all happens; not a peep from any hypothetical warlock. Then, the kitsune storms off in a huff, and immediately this Sleeper bullshit starts up. So, no, we can’t prove anything, but the sequence of events strongly suggests this is a warlock, and the same one who pried that hellgate open.”

“Hmm.” Scorn narrowed her eyes, but nodded after a moment. “Logical. Okay, go on, pixie.”

“Right, so detection networks,” Fross continued. “Do you guys know anything about dryad attunements?”

A round of blank glances was exchanged around the room.

“It’s hard to put into words,” Juniper said, frowning thoughtfully, “because the whole experience is beyond words; I think that’s a large part of the point of it. But it’s something we can do, a way of sensing our surroundings, and especially magic and other fairies. I’m connected to it at all times, but not always actively; it takes focus to consciously sense what’s happening around me. I don’t usually do it, because my range covers pretty much the whole mountain, and other fairies kind of find it disruptive.”

“It’s, uh, sort of like suddenly having an extra sense,” Fross added, “and immediately using it to detect some massive, powerful creature standing right next to you. A little disconcerting.”

“Sorry,” Juniper said, wincing. “But…massive? Really?”

“I mean, uh, your magical profile! Not physically.”

“Massive, no,” Scorn said, suddenly grinning. “They are pretty hefty, but let’s be reasonable.”

Gabriel and Ruda dissolved in laughter; Teal covered her eyes with a hand. Juniper just shook her head.

“Anyway,” Toby said loudly.

“Right, yes,” Fross went on. “Since, as you know, it turns out I myself am basically a small fragment of a dryad’s consciousness given independent agency, I can connect to this attunement with Juniper’s help. What’s more important, I am an anomaly. Fairies are simply not supposed to be able to use arcane magic. I know Jacaranda wouldn’t have deliberately made me that way, and frankly if she’d wanted to, there’s no way she would know how. Even Tellwyrn doesn’t fully understand how it works; I sure don’t.”

“Which means,” Juniper said with a satisfied smile, “it’s an effect that can’t be predicted or countered.”

“How does that help us?” asked Shaeine.

“What I’m gonna do,” Fross said eagerly, “is work on a spell with Juniper that’ll let me broadcast a very small but steady amount of arcane magic through the fairy attunement!”

“Now, I’m not in the magic studies program,” said Toby, “but I do know my Circles. That sounds like a great way to blast everything off the top of the mountain.”

“We’ve tested this on a smaller scale before bringing it up with you guys,” said Juniper. “It works. Fross intuitively blends the arcane and fae; she can extend the effect. And even if that didn’t work, it’s a very small amount of arcane power. If the came into conflict, the fae would just snuff it out. The attunement is powerful.”

“To what end, though?” Gabriel asked.

“We know the Sleeper and his curse are effectively undetectable,” said Ruda. “We also know that the Sleeper was willing to tangle aggressively with November, but fled from Tellwyrn. That’s the profile of someone who relies on stealth, but can be overpowered if caught. And we, my fellow magnificent bastards, have the juice to beat the hell out of just about anybody we can manage to pin down.”

“I’m not talking about blazing with random arcane energy,” Fross added. “Since we can’t detect the Sleeper directly, I’m gonna make a way to catch him. The spell I mean to use will be a tiny, trace amount of arcane magic spread across the whole mountain, small enough nobody should be able to perceive it except me, since I’m the source. More importantly, I will have it rigged to be immediately consumed by any infernal magic it encounters, as per the Circles of Interaction. Even that way, it’s so small the infernal caster in question shouldn’t be able to sense it; it won’t be enough power to actually do anything.”

“So,” Gabriel said, comprehension dawning on his face, “if anybody uses infernal magic anywhere on the mountaintop…”

“It will burn a hole in Fross’s field,” Scorn interrupted eagerly, “where she can know it but he cannot.”

“And so,” Juniper said with smug satisfaction, “it won’t matter how invisible the Sleeper is. We’ll know he’s there, and we’ll land on him.”

“Ingenious,” Teal marveled.

“I see only one downside,” Shaeine said quietly. “This plan hinges on someone else being a victim of the Sleeper’s attack.”

“Not necessarily,” Toby mused. “Wherever he or she is getting this power, the Sleeper’s a very potent warlock—and as a student, someone quite young. I bet you anything they’ll be experimenting; that’s probably the whole point of this sleeping curse, or at least part of it. There’s no reason they wouldn’t be, if they can hide it completely, even from Tellwyrn.”

“Exactly,” Ruda said, nodding. “The pattern of events suggests they were afraid of Ekoi; their activities were probably suspended while she was here. They’ll be branching out now, trying stuff to see what they can pull off.”

“And even if she does curse someone else,” Scorn said with an unpleasant grin, “then we will have her. And then she will tell us how to fix them. Or if not us, she will very much tell Tellwyrn when she is back.”

“Solid points, all,” Shaeine agreed, nodding. “Very well. I think this is a good plan.”

“And the rest is boilerplate,” Roda said briskly. “Fross and June will have to handle the magic; what we need to put together is a plan of attack. We’ll have to be on site from wherever we are pretty much immediately once Fross sounds the alarm.”

“Hm…that presents a logistical muddle,” Teal mused, rubbing her chin. “Also, we’ll need to be very careful it’s the actual Sleeper we’re jumping on. None of the other students are openly warlocks, but several in the magic program use small amounts of infernal energy for various experiments…”

“If I may?”

They all pushed back against the walls with a series of surprised shouts, Ruda and Gabriel both drawing weapons. Inspector Fedora grinned unrepentantly at them, seemingly not in the least perturbed by the show of force. He had just appeared there, standing against one wall, without the door having opened.

“Really, kids, settle down. And future reference? If you’re gonna be up to this kind of duggering of skulls, you need to get in the habit of thoroughly sweeping your meeting places. Before you get to the actual meeting.”

“What are you doing in here?” Scorn snarled, balling her fists.

“Easy now!” Fedora held up a hand, palm out. “I was eavesdropping, obviously. That’s a good plan, I think it’s got every chance of working. And I believe I can help you with that last bit.”

“Why the hell would we trust you?” Ruda demanded, still holding her rapier pointed at him.

“I really can’t advise strongly enough that you don’t do that,” Fedora replied, grinning. “Trust is earned, kids; I haven’t had time to earn it, and full disclosure? Not planning to. But you can work with people you don’t trust. Hell, if anything, trust is a handicap. You’re much better off dealing with people on the basis of clearheaded knowledge of what they want and how they think, rather than some emotional attachment to the idea of them being on your side.”

“How did you just appear there?” Teal snapped.

“He was invisible, obviously,” said Ariel, her runes flickering. Gabriel held her also pointed at the Inspector.

“It’s a neat trick,” Toby said.

“It’s an entirely standard part of their repertory, in fact,” the sword said; Fedora watched her with an evidently delighted grin, offering no interruption as she continued. “The Imperial government may of course employ whoever it wishes. The same goes for Professor Tellwyrn, though quite frankly I am disappointed that she would allow this foolishness to continue. The rest of you, however, should think long and carefully before agreeing to cooperate with an incubus.”

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10 – 33

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The land stretching south of Fersis seemed to be a sprawling transition between the Great Plains to the north and the forest that climbed steadily from the horizon as they approached. The town itself had been small and unmemorable, barely of a size to afford itself a Rail station, and that likely only because this was as close as the Empire could plant a transportation hub to the nearest elven grove. Unlike the neighbors of Sarasio, these elves clearly cherished their privacy and didn’t encourage visitors. To the other side of their forest lay Viridill, and apparently the nearest town in that direction was also most of a day’s hike away.

It was, so far, unmistakably a prairie, though one which bore little resemblance to the Golden Sea. The tallgrass was of a different species than its northern cousin, shorter, leafier and in varying shades of green and brown rather than the uniform gold. Other plant life was in evidence, as well, from towering ferns to various thorny shrubs, and even the occasional tree, most bent southward by years of steady wind. Even the geography was more varied; during the course of the day they had passed several streams and ponds, and here and there the prairie rolled upward into little hillocks (often with clumps of brush sheltered on their southern sides) or downward in shallow bowls.

According to Ingvar, there were also more animals about than in the Golden Sea. While the local tallgrass mostly grew no higher than mid-chest, it was apparently enough to camouflage these creatures; at any rate, Darling and Joe perceived no sign of them.

By midafternoon, they had made enough progress that Fersis was an invisible memory behind them, and the Green Belt loomed ahead, with beyond it a haze on the horizon that was the rolling mountain range of Viridill.

“Never thought I’d hear myself say this,” Darling sighed, “but I miss the Stalrange.”

“I never thought to hear you say that, either,” Invar remarked, glancing back at him with a faint smile. “You didn’t seem to fit in with the locals.”

“Oh, I thought the Rangers were very nice,” the thief said lightly. “But no, I meant the landscape. If we must traipse about on interminable nature hikes, that was a friendlier place to do it.”

“Seriously?” Joe asked. None of them were out of breath, even after walking most of the day with only a short break every hour. “That was much more vertical country. This is almost literally a walk in the park, next to the Stalrange. Almost reminds me of home.”

“Ah, but the cool mountain air,” Darling said, squinting up at the cloudless sky. “The scent of pines… The shade of pines. Whoof, I think I’ve had my yearly allotment of sunshine today.”

Ingvar had to grin at that. “And suddenly, your general pastiness makes a great deal more sense.”

“Hey, gimme a break,” Darling protested. “You live in Tiraas, you know what it’s like! In my hometown, the sky is frequently an upside-down swamp. This much sunshine can’t be healthy.”

“Hm…that’s actually a point, there,” Joe remarked, then plucked the wide-brimmed hat from his head and held it out toward Darling. “Here, put this on.”

“Oh, cut it out, it’s not that bad. I used the same sun oil you two did…”

“Uh huh,” said the Kid, unimpressed. “An’ what else do you notice? Ingvar’s got himself a proper tan, on account of this not bein’ his first nature hike by a long shot. And as for me…” He grinned, pointing at his face, which was a shade darker in complexion than either of theirs. “We may all three be of Stalweiss stock originally, but I wear the legacy of my Punaji grandmother an’ my ma’s grandpa from Onkawa. Ah, the joys of bein’ a mutt. You, blondie, are gonna fry like a hotcake before we ever reach the trees. Wear the hat.”

“Actually, dusk will fall before we arrive at the forest at this pace,” said Ingvar. “Keep your eyes peeled for serviceable campsites; while I do enjoy making good time, if a particularly promising one arises, we may wish to take advantage and rest for the remainder of the day. This close to an elven forest, there are likely to be well-used spots. Hidden, but not to the point of being secret. Watch the copses and hilltops.”

“Maybe we’ll run into some of the elves before then,” Darling suggested, now with Joe’s black hat perched incongruously atop his blonde locks, where it did not at all go with his outfit. Black theoretically matched everything, but the man seemed to have designed his suits to clash with everything.

“Elves have senses far keener than ours,” said Ingvar, “as you well know, and they will be in the habit of having scouts patrol their borders regularly. And that only concerns the mundane; their shamans will surely cast regular divinations to watch for intruders. If they even need to take such measures. For any very old practitioners of the Mother’s ways, especially elves, the land and the wind begin to speak as old friends. I would be amazed if they are not already aware of our presence.”

“I see a distinct lack of greeting parties, then,” Darling noted wryly.

“Don’t make assumptions about whether elves are around based on whether you see them,” Joe said with a grin. “Anyhow, even if we aren’t bein’ stalked by their scouts, it ain’t in their nature to roll out the welcome mat for uninvited guests. Elves like their privacy, an’ these folk ’round here are right on the edges of Imperial civilization. The elves near my hometown were fairly sociable by comparison, but I wouldn’t be surprised if these have a particularly bad taste in their mouths about clumsy humans bumblin’ around in their lands.”

“Indeed,” said Ingvar. “There are doubtless some still living who remember being slowly pushed out of what is now Calderaas by expanding human populations. Long ago, the Tira Valley and the lands west of the Wyrnrange were acknowledged human territory, while everything from the Green Belt north to the Dwarnskolds was the domain of the elves.”

“I didn’t realize you were a student of history, Ingvar,” Darling commented.

“Certain aspects of history. I think it would surprise you, what Huntsmen are called upon to know.”

“I’m willing to believe it would. Ah, well,” he said, removing Joe’s hat for a moment to fan himself with it. “Hopefully Mary came ahead to smooth the way. As I understand it, she’s not terribly well liked among the tribes, but is at least listened to. If we have to just bumble into a crowd of strange elves, I’m not certain even my sweet-talking skills are up to the task of getting access to…whatever it is we’re here to see.”

“I reckon she probably did,” Joe mused, “though I’ve noticed it ain’t sound policy to make assumptions about what Mary has or hasn’t done.”

“I would have assumed that even before meeting her,” said Ingvar.

“Gods aside,” Darling said thoughtfully after a moment of quiet walking, “this trip has already been a chance to stretch my wings, and not just because of all the exposure to the great outdoors. Dealing with people’s always been my strong suit, but…I’m just starting to realize what a narrow conception of people I’ve had. Living in the great melting pot of Tiraas, you don’t think of the people there as ‘narrow,’ and yet here I am, out of my element.”

“Were the people in Veilgrad so very different?” Ingvar asked.

“Veilgrad, no. The mountains outside Veilgrad are another matter. And…elves. Honestly, I have absolutely no idea how to proceed, here, which is an unusual feeling for me. There are some cultures where my kind of charm is nothing more than annoying.”

“I bet there are more a’ those’n you realize,” Joe muttered.

“You are at least somewhat acquainted with elves, are you not?” Ingvar inquired, glancing back at him. “After all, your apprentices are elves.”

“Plains elves,” said Darling. “No kin at all to the tribe we’re about to drop in on uninvited. And anyway, Flora and Fauna are in the process of learning how to be Eserite and Imperial; we don’t spend a lot of time discussing their home customs. Any time, really. In fact, now that I think about it, basically all the elves I know are pretty well assimilated and almost as Tiraan as anyone else, from the new Avenist Bishop to the drow of Lor’naris.” He grinned, stepping to the side as they walked to get a view around Joe of the forest ahead. “This will be…different. It’s been a good while since I had a chance to meet people who’re a complete mystery to me.”

“In fact, I vividly recall your last such chance,” Invar said dryly, looking back at him again. “Maybe you had better let me do the talking when we arrive.”

“How the tables have turned,” Darling muttered.

“So,” Joe drawled, “you find yourself out in the unknown, your skills and your very understanding of the world useless, and facing the very real chance that any action you take will be the wrong one. Bein’ unaccustomed to not knowin’ your footing, you feel even more helpless than you maybe actually are. Sound about right?”

“I think that might be overstating it just a little,” Darling protested.

“Y’know, a real smart fella once gave me a piece of good advice about just such a situation.”

Joe came to a stop, turning to face him and tucking his hands in his pockets, a sly little smile on his lips.

“Grow up.”

He held the startled Bishop’s gaze for a long moment, Ingvar also pausing to watch them curiously. Then Joe turned without a word to resume their trek.

They continued onward toward the grove, Darling still bringing up the rear, and for some reason laughing as if he’d just heard the best joke of his life.


Though it had been cleverly designed to maximize its use of space and seem expansive in its proportions, the small size of the Vidian temple beneath Last Rock was extremely evident with the entire Vidian population of the town present. They were less than thirty, but it really was a small temple; the room was almost uncomfortably warm with so many bodies present, and even their muted voices created a constant babble that seemed to fill the space, given how excited the undercurrent of conversation was.

Exactly two native townspeople had been practicing Vidians before this academic year, for a given value of “practicing.” Everyone else present had been drawn by the calling of Gabriel Arquin as paladin, and this was actually a lesser population than had been in the town only a few months before. Now, the remaining hangers-on had integrated themselves somewhat, either finding (usually intermittent) employment in Last Rock or subsisting on personal savings and creating custom for the local innkeepers.

In all that time, very few of them had managed to have a conversation with their paladin, who seemed to go out of his way to be reclusive. Val Tarvadegh, the temple’s official presiding priest and the only one who was actually supposed to be there, tended to monopolize the time Arquin spent on the premises. Since this was at the specific assignment of Lady Gwenfaer herself, no one quite dared complain; the faith’s mortal leader wasn’t known to be heavy-handed, but she was known to be sly even by Vidian standards, and one never knew what whispers might find their way to her ears. They did indulge in complaining about their inability to seek Arquin out on the University campus, since Professor Tellwyrn quite famously didn’t give a damn what anyone had to say about her.

Now, for the first time, the Hand of Vidius himself had called an assembly of every member of the faith in Last Rock. It was very short notice, but every one of them had dropped their other business and come running.

It wasn’t quite so crowded that people had to stand; the aisle was clear, as were the nooks between the columns that supported the sides of the temple. Marking a space between the temple grounds and the dirt outside them, these zones were considered sacred, as were all boundaries in the faith. The small dais at the back of the chapel was also clear, with only Val Tarvadegh and the other, newer priest, Lorelin Reich, standing calmly at its edge, awaiting the arrival of the guest of honor.

Most of the attention of those assembled was on the other guests. Three Tiraan soldiers stood at attention near the stairs leading up to the ground floor above—and not the three who lived on the campus and could often be seen about town. They were clustered to one side of the door, stiffly ignoring the assembled citizens. On the other side stood a woman with the black hair and tilted eyes of the Sifanese and related peoples, wearing the silver gryphon badge of an Imperial Marshal.

The anticipation was almost a physical presence. It hung so heavy over the little chapel that the sudden arrival of the paladin who had called the meeting brought an instant and total hush, unmarred even by expressions of shock at his abrupt appearance. No one had heard the upper door opening, but they of all people knew the tricks of misperception that ranking members of the faith could perform.

Arquin stood silently in the doorway for a few long moments, an intense young man with tousled dark hair, wearing a Punaji-style greatcoat of green corduroy in a shade so deep it was nearly black. At his waist hung a black-hilted saber of elven design; there was no sign of his god-given weapon on his person. He clutched his left wrist with his right hand, hard enough to rumple the fabric of his coat, and his expression was intent, but unreadable. In silence, he swept his dark eyes over the assembly, resting them for a moment on each of the two priests standing in the back.

“You all seem like nice people,” he said suddenly. “Thanks for coming, I know this was sudden. Sorry you haven’t seen much of me before today, but quite frankly I’m not at this University or on this earth to be gawked at, and most of you have no actual business here.”

There was a faint, awkward stir at that. The Marshal stood in silence to his left, her eyes perpetually scanning the room.

Arquin inhaled softly and let the breath out in a faint huff, then stepped forward a few paces till he was nearly abreast of the nearest row of benches.

“That’s now how you’re used to being spoken to in a temple of Vidius, is it? Yes, believe me, I know the customs. I’ve been studying them pretty, uh, intensively. False faces. A mask for every occasion.” His jaw tightened momentarily before he continued. “Everybody means well, more or less, but with doctrines like that… You pretty much can’t not have a thousand agendas for every hundred people, can you? Canniness and misdirection just make for a good Vidian, after all. I have to say, I’ve learned to greatly appreciate our doctrines of integrity. If not for that, the sense of truth to oneself and to the faith that’s emphasized so heavily to us, I figure the main difference between us and a bunch of Eserites would be their ability to get things done.”

There was another stir, this time with a few soft protests. They quickly fell silent as Arquin swept the room with his eyes again, now frowning in clear displeasure.

“I’ve been giving some thought,” he said, “to why Vidius would call a paladin from outside the faith. It’s been done before, of course. What was her name, that Hand of Avei? Val?”

By the dais in the back, Val Tarvadegh cleared his throat. “Laressa of Anteraas.”

“Yes, right! That’s the one, the Peacemaker. A few others. There was always a specific purpose for that when it happened. I know you’ve all been wondering what purpose Vidius had in pulling this…funny little trick on all of us. Well, I have too. And I recently was given some insight by the new priestess among us. Hey, Ms. Reich, would you join us up here?”

He beckoned with his left hand, at the same time drawing the black sword with his right. Lorelin Reich, having started to step forward immediately on being called, hesitated for a moment at this, her eyes flicking to the weapon, before continuing down the aisle toward him.

“I’m not sure I understand, Lord Gabriel,” she said in a rich contralto that was clearly accustomed to public speaking. “In fact, I haven’t yet had the pleasure of a conversation with you.”

“You could say I was inspired by your example,” said Arquin, staring at her with an intensity that bordered on ferocity. He flexed the fingers of his left hand almost convulsively before slipping it into the pocket of his coat.

“Well…in that case, consider me honored to have been of any service,” Reich said smoothly, gliding to a stop a few feet distant and bowing to him.

“Mm,” Arquin said noncommittally, eyes fixed on her face as if he were trying to memorize it. “You’re a good Vidian, aren’t you, Lorelin? Mind if I call you Lorelin?”

“Not at all, milord,” she said. “And I certainly try, though of course we all serve in our own way, according to our gifts. No one is a sufficient judge of their own—”

“Knock it off,” he said curtly, causing her to blink in startlement and several of the onlookers to gasp. “That is what I mean, Lorelin. There you are with a ready handful of doublespeak for anything I say. A mask for every occasion, right? Just like a good Vidian.”

She hesitated, staring at him, before replying. “Well… I am not sure what to reply to that, milord. Have I done something to offend you?”

“Oh, we’ll get to that in a moment,” he said coldly. “Everyone, I have come to a conclusion with regard to my calling. The faith of Vidius does not need a moral example, like a Hand of Omnu. You don’t need a battle leader, like the Hand of Avei. You know your business just fine. Unfortunately, your business encourages you to be more clever than is necessarily good for you. By and large, maybe that’s fine… But these aren’t by and large times. In case you haven’t noticed, the world is… Well, it’s changing, and I’m not just talking about social, political, economic issues. You all know about that. There’s something big happening. A great doom is coming. You need to be preparing for that. Preparing to help Vidius meet whatever threat comes. What you need is a taskmaster. Someone to keep you all on point.”

He withdrew his hand from his pocket; in it was the gnarled black wand given to him by their god. Quite a few pairs of eyes fixed on the weapon.

Lorelin Reich smiled and dipped her head in a semi-bow. “How can we be of service—”

“Shut your clever mouth,” Gabriel snarled.

The silence was immediate, total, and stunned.

“Among the things I cannot have you people doing,” the paladin continued, his face clenching in an expression of near fury, “is placing your own political agendas above not only the needs of the faith, but the safety and welfare of those around you. Like, for example, by deliberately casting a shroud of passions over an entire town, to make them susceptible to manipulation.”

“What?” someone exclaimed in a quavering voice from near the back.

“What are you talking about?” Lorelin demanded, staring at him in an expression of alarm. “Who would do such a thing?”

She tried to jerk back at the sudden motion of his left arm, but not fast enough. The wand morphed in his hand, extending instantly into a roughly-shaped black scythe, its curved blade apparently marred by rust, but its cutting edge gleaming wickedly. Gabriel whipped it around to hook the blade behind Lorelin Reich’s head, cutting off her retreat. She froze as the edge of the weapon came to rest against the back of her neck.

“It’s time to remove the mask, Lorelin,” Gabriel said in a voice like ice.

Behind him, the Marshal cleared her throat and stepped forward.

“Lorelin Reich, you are under arrest in the name of the Emperor for two hundred forty-six counts of unlawful magical influence.”

“You had better have a great deal more than this boy’s say-so,” Reich said furiously, her clenched fists quivering at her side. “Paladin or no, that is nothing but—”

Screams rang out and a mad scramble ensued as everyone tried to scoot or step away from the edges of the room. In every alcove along the walls, and all over the dais in the back, suddenly stood wavery figures, indistinct as if viewed through water. They were clear enough, though, to be clearly women garbed in dark armor, with black wings folded behind them, each carrying a scythe.

“Lesson number one,” said Arquin flatly. “Never assume the Hand of Vidius does not know your secrets. My eyes can look beneath any mask.”

“That’s…you can’t…” Reich swallowed convulsively. “A valkyrie’s testimony is not admissible in a court of law!”

“Oh, you just made that up,” the Marshal said lazily. “There’s no precedent for it, sure, but…”

“In order for a valkyrie to testify,” said Arquin, “the trial would have to be held on Vidian holy ground. There is a precedent for that; I checked.” He began slowly lowering his arm, pulling the blade of the scythe forward and forcing Reich to step closer to him or risk learning exactly how sharp it was. She opted not to test it, taking grudging little steps toward him. “They can, as you see here, appear where the land is consecrated to their god. For them to actually speak, an additional blessing would be required. And hey, guess what I just learned how to do!”

He suddenly raised his sword, pressing its tip against Reich’s sternum; she gulped audibly, her eyes cutting down to it. Arquin continued to slowly pull forward with the scythe, forcing her to bend forward in a bowing position and hold it.

“But let’s not make me go to all that trouble, shall we, Lorelin? Tell you what… You be a good girl and cooperate with the nice Marshal, and the good folks in Imperial Intelligence who’ll want to ask you some questions. Then they’ll be inclined to be nicer to you…” His voice hardened still further. “And I will refrain from telling my good friend Juniper how your scheme involved hurting her pet bunny.”

“I did nothing of the kind!” Reich said shrilly, her whole body swaying and trembling in place as she fought to keep her balance in the awkward position.

“I can see how the sudden change of topic might have confused you,” Gabriel growled. “A dryad isn’t an Imperial magistrate. I don’t have to prove to Juniper beyond a reasonable doubt that you molested her pet; I just have to tell her you did.”

A golden shield flashed into place around Reich’s bent form. It had absolutely no effect on the scythe behind her; a sparkling haze lit up around the black saber, previously invisible blue runes flaring to life along its blade. Neither weapon wavered.

“That is not helping your case, Lorelin,” Arquin said with a very cold smile. “Cut it out. Now.”

She held the shield for a moment before letting it drop, emitting a strangled sob. Terrified silence hung over the chapel now, all those assembled staring either at the furious paladin or the looming reapers.

“Now then,” Arquin said in a tight voice, “you’re going to be cooperative, correct? And don’t worry, I’ll have valkyries continue to watch you and make sure the Empire doesn’t handle you too roughly. You’re still a member of the faith, after all. At least until Lady Gwenfaer decides that selling us out to the Archpope’s political agenda and publicly embarrassing the entire cult is worth excommunication. You understand?”

“Yes,” she choked, teetering desperately between the two blades.

“Splendid,” he said curtly, suddenly whipping the sword away and giving her a gentle nudge with the haft of the scythe. Reich collapsed to the side, where she curled up around herself on the floor, crying quietly.

“As for the rest of you,” Arquin said frostily, lifting his eyes to drag a fierce stare around the room. “Find something more constructive to do with yourselves. Unless you have a legitimate reason to be in Last Rock—which means an employer and a landlord who’ll vouch for you—I want you out of town by sunset tomorrow. This is not a vacation spot, and I am not a tour guide. A great doom is coming, and your god needs you. Get to work.”

He turned abruptly to go, then paused, and glanced back over his shoulder at them.

“And do not make me come tell you again. So help me, I will whip this cult into shape to face what’s coming. You don’t want to be the one I have to start on. The Hand of Death doesn’t bother with masks.”

Finally, he strode forward onto the staircase, quickly vanishing into the shadows above. The Marshal made a quick motion, spurring the soldiers forward to collect Reich, then turned to follow him.

At last, the valkyries faded back into invisibility.

Standing by the dais in the back of the chapel, Val Tarvadegh stared wide-eyed after his departed paladin, his hands clutched together before him as if in prayer.


They stood a few yards distant, near the point where one of Last Rock’s streets opened onto the Golden Sea and the nearby Vidian temple, watching the soldiers usher a very subdued Lorelin Reich into a waiting carriage with barred windows. Another uniformed officer sat in the driver’s seat.

Gabriel waited until Reich was secured within before letting out a low hiss. He jerked his left sleeve back, revealing a braided cord wrapped around his wrist, which he quickly but clumsily clawed off and stuffed into his coat pocket, muttering furiously to himself the whole time. With the bracelet stowed away, he stood there grimacing and alternately rubbing his wrist where it had been and dry-washing the fingers of his right hand against his coat.

Marshal Avelea watched this performance with raised eyebrows, but apparently decided to let it pass without comment.

“Having a valkyrie monitor our proceedings isn’t necessary, just for the record. We don’t abuse potentially useful prisoners anyway.”

“That was for her benefit, not yours,” Gabriel said, still wincing and rubbing his wrist. “You’re probably aware that Vidian clerics have…certain skills. Misdirection, stealth… I’m sure Imperial Intelligence has the ability to counter that, but I thought it’d be less trouble for everybody if she knew not to try it.”

“Ah.” The Marshal nodded, smiling faintly. “Well. If I may say so, that shows both your lack of experience and your good instincts. Lorelin Reich is a political creature; as of now, her focus will be on damage control, and trying to salvage as much of her life from this as possible. I expect her to be eagerly cooperative once she’s had the chance to regain her poise; she’ll fall over herself to sell out the Archpope in exchange for leniency. The last thing she’ll want to do is become a fugitive from Imperial justice.”

“Oh,” he said grimacing. “I guess…yeah.”

“I must say,” she continued, “you handled that…surprisingly well. Given what I was briefed on your history, I expected you to be rather more nervous, giving a speech like that.”

“Yeah, well.” Gabe shrugged and rubbed his wrist again. “I asked Professor Rafe for something to help keep me calm and focused.”

“I see,” she said, her lips thinning faintly in disapproval. “Well, whatever works. As a matter of general policy, though, I would not get in the habit of depending on drugs to help you function.”

“Yeah, that’s what Rafe said. Anyway, it wasn’t drugs so much as a hemp bracelet impregnated with a special formulation of katzil venom that caused constant pain but no damage. Apparently the outward symptoms of pain look almost exactly like those of righteous outrage. I wasn’t so sure, but damn if it didn’t work.” He drew in a deep breath and let it out in one blast, glancing back at the door to the subterranean temple. “Good thing, too. I may still need to go home and throw up…”

“Ah.” Avelea nodded, a smile spreading slowly over her features. “Well. That’s another matter, but…similar. Best to develop the ability to handle such situations unaided.”

“Right, agreed. But that’s an ability I haven’t developed before now, and I’ll practice on my own time, with lower stakes. When things matter, I’m gonna use every trick I have available.”

“Also a wise policy. You mind if I have a look at that? I’ve actually never heard about such a formula.”

“Oh, uh… I guess I should specify it causes pain but no harm to me. You’d be better off keeping your non-hethelax hands to yourself. Sorry.”

“Right. Quite so.” She nodded again, her smile widening. “Well, Mr. Arquin… Much to my surprise, I find it has been a pleasure to work with you. Next time you’re in Tiraas, do look me up; my office will know where I am.”

“I, uh, appreciate that,” he said carefully. “But with the greatest possible respect, and please don’t take this the wrong way, but… Honestly I would prefer not to be dealing with Intelligence any more than I absolutely have to.”

Avelea’s smile extended still further. “I didn’t say Intelligence. I said look me up.” She held his startled gaze for a long moment, then deliberately winked, before turning away to stroll to the carriage. “Take care, Gabriel.”

The Marshal climbed up onto the driver’s seat beside the soldier, and the other troopers took up positions on small platforms at the corners of the vehicle. The carriage purred to life, and rolled off toward the Rail platform, where a special carrier car was standing by for it.

Gabriel stood alone on the plain, smiling vaguely and still absentmindedly rubbing at his wrist.

“Hopefully I don’t need to remind you,” said Ariel, “that that woman is a professional spy, who is cultivating a relationship with you for tactical advantage and not out of personal interest.”

He sighed heavily, his pleased expression vanishing. “Can you just for once let me enjoy something?”

“Fine. You may enjoy it for two minutes, and then we need to resume dealing with reality.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, turning to head back up the mountain. “I have a feeling I just kicked a whole hornet’s nest of reality…”

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10 – 23

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“That’s…heavy stuff,” Gabriel said slowly, frowning into the distance. “And by the way, am I the only one noticing a pattern here? Deities seem unusually interested in our social circle.”

“I had the same thought,” Teal agreed. “And…honestly, it’s a little unnerving. I mean, not that we haven’t all been treated well by various gods, but in the stories…”

“In the stories,” Ruda finished, “when the gods start paying undue attention to you, it’s usually either the cause or the effect of you being utterly fucked.”

“So that’s true in Punaji stories, too?” Teal asked.

Ruda grinned. “Gods are gods, Teal. It’s been eight thousand fuckin’ years. People everywhere have pretty much figured out to stay outta their damn business.”

The group was nominally moving, but at a pace more conducive to conversation than getting anywhere. They had paused in a bench-lined alcove sheltered by oak trees, most of them consumed by curiosity over Teal’s late arrival to class and what had caused it. Now, with that story told, the students were occupied with digesting and discussing the details of her encounter, and only incidentally making their way toward their next class.

“Well,” Juniper mused. “The last one made a new paladin. So…maybe that’s what he wants from you, Teal!”

Teal groaned, covering her eyes with a hand.

“I think, with all respect to everyone present,” Shaeine said softly, “I would not prefer that outcome, either.”

“There’s never been a Vesker paladin before,” Fross chimed, fluttering slowly about their heads. “On the other hand… There’s never been a Vidian paladin till now, either. And when Vidius came to the campus this spring, he kind of implied he wasn’t the only god looking to expand his repertory, didn’t he?”

“That’s not the first time I’ve heard something like that,” Toby added. “When Omnu called me, he stated outright that the Pantheon had all been reconsidering the state of the world, and that was why they’d held off calling paladins for thirty years.”

“Avei said the same at my calling,” Trissiny said, frowning thoughtfully.

“I really don’t think that’s it,” Teal said fervently, “and I’m fairly sure that’s not just the voice of wishful thinking. Honestly, he seemed more critical of the way I’ve been doing than anything else.”

“It’s kinda funny a god would show up out of nowhere just to nitpick,” Juniper pointed out. “I mean, the paladin thing makes some sense, right? Also, sorry if I’m being dense, but I’m not sure I get why you’re so down on the idea. It seems to come with a lot of advantages.”

“Paladins tend not to live very long,” Trissiny said in an extremely neutral tone.

“Well, but she’s got Vadrieny!” Juniper said brightly. “So, hey, maybe that’s the whole point. An un-killable paladin!”

“Nothing’s un-killable,” Gabriel said rather darkly.

“Hell yes!” Ruda crowed, brandishing a bottle of scotch. “Paladins all around! Everybody gets a divine calling! Fuck yeah, I can be the new Hand of Naphthene!”

“Um, excuse me,” Gabriel said, “but isn’t she the one who doesn’t like anybody, doesn’t give a shit about anything, sometimes sinks ships even when they’ve made the right offerings, smites people for praying to her, and cursed your entire family?”

“Exactly!” Ruda replied, grinning madly. “It’s perfect for me!”

“I don’t really think so,” he said, regarding her pensively. “That’s just chaotic dickery. You’re an invested, goal-directed asshole. It seems like a basically different kind of a thing.”

“Anyway!” Teal said firmly. “Seriously, why ever Vesk has decided to take an interest in me, I really don’t think that’s it. Especially with my situation with Vadrieny. Vesk is not impressed by brute force; that’s the whole point of being a bard. He, uh, didn’t sound very impressed by my ability to do without brute force, either…”

“The more we contemplate this,” said Shaeine, “the more obscure his intentions appear. I am reminded that it is generally so, when discussing the plans of the gods. For the time being, perhaps it would be more productive to simply consider Vesk’s advice, and act upon it insofar as it is possible. You have our full support in this, Teal,” she added more softly.

“Hell yeah,” Ruda agreed. “All joking and theorizing aside, we’ve got your back.”

“In theory,” Juniper said thoughtfully. “I mean… Based on what it seems he was talking about, I, uh, kinda suck at that, too.”

“Now, that is a potential reason Vesk might take a firm interest in our resident bard,” Trissiny suggested. “If you consider us as an adventuring party in one of his stories… There are three paladins, a cleric and a demigoddess among us—we’re a group who might reasonably attract the interest of any deity. And subtlety has not exactly been our strong suit.”

“Ballroom dancing isn’t our strong suit, Shiny Boots,” Ruda said cheerfully. “Subtlety is the realm in which we have collectively set new standards of failure and ineptitude.”

“Right, so it’s something we can work on,” Gabriel said seriously. “As a starting point, perhaps we could all refrain from fucking stabbing each other.”

“Arquin,” Ruda said sardonically, “if you’re gonna keep trotting that old thing out, I might just have to arrange for it to be fresh and applicable again.”

Toby sighed.

“Hey, Teal!”

They all straggled to a stop as Scorn came stomping up the path, waving. It had taken a few weeks of getting to know the demon before people stopped being alarmed by that approach, but despite the appearance that she was trying to punish the earth with her claws, she was probably not walking that way out of anger. It was just her gait.

“Hi, Scorn,” Teal replied, waving back. “What’s up?”

The Rhaazke came to a stop in the path in front of them, wearing an uncharacteristically pensive frown. “Where you were just now? You have a class, yes? Right before now?”

“Yes, magic with Professor Ekoi,” Teal said slowly. “I was late, though, because… Well, that’s a long story. Why, were you looking for me?”

Scorn shook her head impatiently. “You are always in this class, this time of day? It’s known?”

“Well, the schedule’s public,” Teal said. “Why do you ask?”

The demon let out a short breath through her nose, looking off to the side, then narrowed her eyes. “Tell me… Hellhound breath. The hounds, they are from my place—very hard to get here, yes? Almost impossible, like me?”

“Uh, yeah,” said Gabriel. “Did…you want a pet? I mean, I can see how a reminder of home would be nice…”

“Ooh!” Fross bobbed up and down in excitement. “Melaxyna has two down in the Crawl! They’re crazy strained for resources down there, I bet we could get her to trade for something!”

“I rather suspect that Professor Tellwyrn has already ruled that out,” Shaeine said calmly, “considering the value of those creatures, and the fact that several of our fellow students are appallingly mercenary.”

“No, no!” Scorn waved a hand impatiently. “I don’t need, I am asking about the breath. Hard to get here, yes? It is expensive?”

“Hellhound breath is illegal to possess or trade in the Empire due to its use in high-level necromancy and the necessity of category one demonic trafficking to obtain it,” Fross recited. “The substance has unparalleled powers of awakening, and aside from its necromantic utility has—”

“I know what is the breath,” Scorn exclaimed in exasperation. “I have four at home! They are stay in their kennel at night so I can have sleep. I am asking, it is rare here? Very rare? Very expensive?”

“Oh, sorry, I guess you would know that,” Fross said, chagrined. “Um, yes, then. It’s rare, and expensive.”

“How expensive?” Scorn pressed. “Say, amount in a bottle the size of a pea. This costs what? You could buy a building with?”

“Um…sorry,” the pixie replied somewhat awkwardly. “I do like to diversify my studies, but the economics of magical contraband isn’t something I’ve found a need to investigate.”

“Scorn, what’s going on?” Toby asked. “Why do you need hellhound breath?”

“I don’t need,” Scorn said brusquely, turning her attention back to Teal. “You do not like Ravana Madouri, right?”

Teal drew in a slow breath and let it out in a sigh. “Ah. This is all beginning to make more sense.”

“Glad you are having sense made,” Scorn said in visible annoyance. “Meanwhile, I am asking question which is not answered!”

“Scorn,” Trissiny said pointedly, “calm. We talked about this.”

“Yes, when you will not take me to town,” the demon shot back, scowling at her. “Your talk is boring, Trissiny.”

“Having you leave the mountain requires special permission from Professor Tellwyrn,” Shaeine said, “which she would not give if you approached her in a state of anger. The attempt would likely set back your progress in gaining her trust. This was all explained.”

“Well, I am understand a few things better now,” Scorn said. “I leave the mountain today, just now.”

“What?” Teal shouted, almost overwhelmed by similar outbursts from several of the others.

“Not very far off,” Scorn said quickly, making a dismissive gesture with her hand. “Not into the town. There is a spot at the bottom of the mountain, yes? Sort of still on it, I guess, actually. There is a nice hill and shady trees and boulders and stuff.”

“Wait, you went down to the make-out spot?” Gabriel said, his eyebrows climbing abruptly. “I am suddenly very alarmed, and oddly intrigued.”

“If you act on either of those feelings, I may be forced to emulate Princess Zaruda with regard to your foot.”

“Shut up, Ariel!” several people chorused, including Scorn.

“What were you doing down there?” Toby demanded. “Scorn, you know the rules, and the risks. If you aggravate Professor Tellwyrn we may not be able to protect you!”

“I am not need protected!” Scorn shot back, baring her teeth.

“Enough.” Teal’s voice was firm, but flat, and cut through the argument like a shut door. “I have a feeling I know, generally, where this is headed. Were you with Ravana, Scorn?”

“Ravana, yes, and Iris. I am not say her last name; not sure I can do it right. Anyway, I was asking.” She frowned again, gazing at Teal’s face. “You do not like Ravana. She is say… Um, well, I am not sure how much I trust what she says. She has ideas that are make me think. But you I trust, Teal, and Lady Vadrieny. I am concerned to know why you dislike her.”

“Ravana,” Teal said in a slow, careful tone, her eyes never leaving Scorn’s, “is extremely devious, highly intelligent, highly driven and ambitious, and… I don’t think she really has any moral scruples. At all. She definitely doesn’t regard other people with much personal feeling. She’s a very dangerous person.”

“Wait, really?” Gabriel said. “Ravana, the cute little blonde one?”

Trissiny turned very slowly to stare at him.

“Oh, don’t give me that look,” he huffed. “That is neither the dumbest nor the most offensive thing I’ve ever said.”

“This week, even,” Toby said dryly.

“Thanks for chiming in, there, bro.”

“And for all that,” Teal said in a softer tone, now frowning at the ground, “I don’t think I’ve been entirely fair to her. We…met under extremely stressful circumstances. It’s entirely possible part of what I feel toward her is based on that, rather than on her.”

Shaeine stepped closer, shifting her hand to press the back of it against Teal’s.

“Do you think,” Scorn said thoughtfully, “she would lie to harm me?”

Teal ruminated for a moment, then shook her head. “I think…that’s the wrong question, Scorn. Yes, she’s capable of harming you, or anyone else, but what’s more important is why. In my opinion, the way she acts toward people is not based on any personal feeling for them, but…cold logic. A calculation of what she feels is most in her best interests.”

“Hm,” the demon said, nodding contemplatively. “That is not really honorable. But maybe is not dishonorable, depends how it is done with.”

“That’s actually a pretty damn salient analysis,” Ruda commented. “An’ I think you’re right, based on my own conversations with the girl. Ravana Madouri is a born stateswoman. She’s not gonna hurt anybody for no reason, but if she has a reason, she won’t hesitate for an instant.”

“I thought she seemed sweet,” Gabriel mumbled.

“Of course she fucking did, Arquin,” Ruda said scathingly. “That’s what they do.”

“Scorn,” Teal said, “what does hellhound breath have to do with me being in class and you talking with Ravana just now?”

“There is class for younger scholars,” Scorn replied. “Alchemy with Admestus. Ravana is bribe him to cancel, so she can talk with me—hellhound breath in a bottle, size of a pea, she says. And I am thinking, what is worth to her to talk with me in one time she knows you will not be there? So I want to know how much is hellhound breath worth.”

“Holy shit,” Gabriel muttered. “I mean, I don’t know black market economics any better than Fross, but hellhound breath is one of the rarest magical reagents there is. I’m pretty sure a pea-sized bottle of hellhound breath is worth more than a pumpkin-sized ball of platinum. That stuff’s right up there with mithril.”

“I have to say it’s somewhat alarming she’d consider it that important to get her hooks into Scorn without us around,” Trissiny said, scowling and absently fingering her sword.

“Bear in mind,” said Shaeine, “that a thing’s value is a function of various factors. Its rarity and utility, yes, but also the facility with which it can be traded—which in this case, I gather, is not easy. A House as ancient and wealthy as Madouri is likely to have unimaginable treasures in its vaults. If Ravana already owned such a substance and had no intention of performing necromancy, she might not consider it as severe a loss.”

“That’s reasonable and probably true,” said Juniper, “but it’s also just speculation.”

“Quite right,” Shaeine agreed, nodding to her. “I was merely pointing out that we do not know her means, motivations…anything, really. There is also the fact that she stands to gain by cultivating Professor Rafe’s favor, both during her academic career and afterward. He is one of the world’s foremost alchemists.”

“Hm,” Scorn said, folding her arms and tapping one clawed foot. “Ravana wants to be friends with me. She says she can teach me to…um. Behave better. More like is supposed to do on this planet.”

“I thought we were doing that,” Trissiny said, sounding slightly affronted.

“I’m not sure I can say how well we were doin’ it,” Ruda said dryly.

“Also, I thought you were from the same planet on a different dimensional resonance?” Fross added.

“Augh!” Scorn exclaimed, grabbing her horns dramatically. “Again! Always you do this, all the time! You people are never just having a talk on the subject, it always goes around with arguing and jokes till I am not remember what I was talk about!”

“Annoying, isn’t it?” Ariel agreed.

“Well, I think they’ve got us there, guys,” Fross chimed.

“I am talk about Ravana,” Scorn said insistently. “I am ask what you think, because you have my trust. It is…safe? I should take her advice?”

“Hmm,” Teal murmured.

“Yes,” Ruda said, catching her eye, then turning to Scorn with a decisive nod. “Yeah, I think a lot of what you can learn from Ravana Madouri would help you hugely with what you need to know about the world. But.” She pointed a warning finger at the demon. “You keep it firmly in mind at all times that anything that girl does, she does because she sees an advantage in it for herself.”

“In fact,” Teal said, raising her gaze to meet Scorn’s, “I agree. And I think I will join you, Scorn. We both have a lot we could learn from a scheming noblewoman. She clearly wants to teach, for whatever reason… And I think we’ll be a lot better off not letting her separate us to do it.”


“Home again, home again!” Embras said cheerily, strolling up to the broad door of the barn. The shadow of the mountain kept Last Rock relatively cool at this time in the afternoon, but this one structure, out beyond the edge of town, was half in direct sunlight. It was also, despite being clearly repaired and stocked with hay, currently disused and apparently unoccupied.

“Yes, looks cozy,” Vanessa said absently. “Embras, exactly how heavy a deflection did you lay over this barn? Quite apart from that damned kitsune, it’s not smart to make assumptions about what Tellwyrn can or can’t pick up on.”

“Relax, I am a constant work in progress,” he replied, turning his head to wink at her. “Each day I pick up new tricks. In this case, I spent the morning sniffing around that shiny new Vidian temple. The deflection over this spot currently looks exactly like their method—augmented with our own particular brand of misdirection till I bet Vidius himself would think his people did it.”

“I’m not sure it’s to our advantage to have Vidius sniffing around here to see why his priests are hiding barns,” she muttered. Embras patted her on the shoulder.

“It doesn’t have to hold long, Nessa. In fact, it specifically needs to be penetrable in a few hours. And as I’ve said before, I have plans in place for Tellwyrn’s intervention.”

She sighed, but offered no further complaint as he slid the door open.

“Ah, good timing,” Bradshaw announced inside, straightening up from the spell circle he had just finished inscribing in the middle of the dirt floor. “Nessa! How’re you holding up?”

“Well,” she said, limping in as Embras stepped aside, gallantly gesturing her forward. “Tired, but satisfied. Calderaas is under control—we’ve inevitably lost some political capital, and I had to spend some rather more literal capital to wrangle some irate acquaintances, but I judge the city safe to move in again. A little more time to rebuild our connections the organic way and it’ll be almost as good as new. How about you guys? I gather from our fearless leader, here, that the trip to Puna Shankur was productive.”

“Quite,” Bradshaw agreed, pacing in a slow circle around his spell diagram and peering down at it. “Hiroshi sends his regards. Yes, it went well once we were out of Mathenon, where Embras felt the need to further detour what was already a detour so he could grouse about the Vernisites.”

“Excuse me, that was hardly a detour,” Embras said haughtily. “Hiroshi asked as we were passing. It cost us not a second to have a discussion while walking.”

“Oh, you and those Vernisites,” Vanessa said with wry fondness. “What were they doing this time?”

“Trading stocks,” Bradshaw replied.

“Embras, that’s been going on for centuries,” she said in exasperation.

At that, Bradshaw lifted his head, frowning. “It has?”

“Sure, among themselves,” Embras snorted. “Behind closed doors, with their cronies, their bankers and guilded merchants. Now they’re peddling stocks in special exchanges, involving the general public, who have no idea what they’re dabbling in.”

“Yes,” she said, deadpan. “The temerity, expanding the ability of the common people to participate in and profit from the wider economy. Those fiends.”

“People profit from participating in what they understand,” he shot back. “Do you think the average, cobbler, farmer or factory worker knows a damn thing about stock trading? How to analyze a company for risks and reward? Pah! All they’re doing by opening that up to the public is promising people the prospect of big winnings and raking in the dough because they’re the only ones who know how the system truly works! It’s exactly like that casino the Eserites run, except they at least are only picking on the wealthy and corrupt. Those Vernisites milk the whole economy—they cheat everyone, even those who don’t play their games. You mark my words, by the end of the century they’ll be replacing coins with bank notes so they can artificially inflate the value of the currency itself!”

“Really, Embras?” Bradshaw said wearily. “Are we so lacking in problems that you have to spin conspiracy theories?”

“Well, you’ve certainly got a point there,” Embras agreed. “Best to keep our minds on the task at hand. How close to prepared are we, Bradshaw?”

“This has been done, theoretically, for half an hour,” the warlock replied, now walking around the circle in the other direction. “I have been double, triple and quadruple checking it. This is not simple spellcraft we’re talking about, here.”

“By all means,” Embras said, “be certain. I trust your expertise implicitly—we don’t proceed if you’re not confident the spell will work.”

“Oh, I’m confident,” Bradshaw said, sighing. “At least, I can’t find any errors in my casting. It’s just…this plan.”

“Yeah,” Vanessa said softly. “We are talking about tweaking the nose of a demigoddess arch-fae, under the nose of a grouchy archmage.”

“We’re not tweaking anything,” Embras said patiently. “Assuming Bradshaw has arranged this thing to my specifications—which I don’t doubt he has—I think she’ll be rather flattered by the attention.”

“Just…don’t forget the risks,” Vanessa murmured.

“Never.”

“You have the item?” Bradshaw asked, straightening again.

“Right here.” Embras produced an envelope from within his jacket, its seal of black wax embossed in the shape of a spiky wreath. “Do you need to add it yourself?”

“No, there’s no great ceremony involved,” Bradshaw demurred. “And it’ll be better with your personal touch. As long as you place it at the proper time. If you’re certain you wish to be the focus of the attention you’re drawing…”

“Very good, then,” Embras said. “That being the case, I believe we’re just putting off the inevitable, now.”

Vanessa heaved another sigh and shuffled back a few steps to position herself by the door.

“All right,” Bradshaw said, nodding. “Stay alert, then. As complex as this is, it’s not going to take long to execute. Your part shouldn’t require very specific timing, so long as you don’t jump in too soon, but keep in mind aspects of that stage of the spell are designed to degrade gradually. No point stretching things out.”

“Of course. On your lead, then.”

“All right,” he repeated, visibly steeling himself. “Here we go.”

Bradshaw made no apparent physical move at the spell circle; for a warlock of his caliber, a pointed thought was enough.

At first, only the six lesser circles inscribed around its outer edge lit up, the lines forming them gleaming white. Inner rings from each rose bodily off the ground to rise into the air, where they hovered about four feet up. Below, the six small circles shifted in color to an eerie purple, and the first demonic forms began to emerge.

The katzils hissed in displeasure, as they were prone to do—these were wild creatures called straight from Hell, not tamed pets trained to behave. As they were forced upward through the invisible columns marked by their little summoning circles, the glowing rings above narrowed. At the moment when each katzil’s head passed through one, it snapped into place around the demon’s neck, solidifying into a black collar of gleaming metal, richly inscribed with spell runes in elaborate demonic script.

It took only a few moments for all six demons to emerge. As soon as all were caught and collared, the runes around the lesser circles physically shifted, and shadows rose up from nowhere—rather a disorienting sight, happening as it did in the middle of a glowing spell diagram—swallowing up the demons. A moment later, there was no sign that they had ever been there.

“That’s incredible,” Vanessa murmured. “Just that you can do that much, for one thing. If you could summon and control a demon with one spell…”

“Those won’t hold them long,” Bradshaw said absently, watching his spell circle closely as the inner ring slowly glowed to life, its own binding runes altering into a new pattern and the outer summoning circles melting away entirely. “Those collars will, in fact, kill the beasts within a few hours.”

“But the controls on them!”

“Yes, they’ll keep them from harming anyone, and the shadow-jumps will direct them away from people. Each will be impelled to sniff around a different type of bait; at least one is bound to catch the kitsune’s nose. But they’ll leave six trails back here, and we know she can follow shadow-jumps. All right, the remaining circle is re-configured. Embras, you’re up.”

“Right you are,” Embras said, stepping forward and extending the envelope. His sleeve shimmered as he thrust his hand into the area defined by the spell circle, but it caused him no evident discomfort. When he had the envelope positioned in the center of the space above the circle, he paused, standing utterly still and gazing in silence at it for a long moment.

“I’m exhausted,” he said finally, his voice suddenly soft and every bit as weary as his words claimed. “The last year has been a constant chain of screw-ups. The last four years, but it’s been escalating badly. Ever since the summoning of the archdemons was intercepted, and we lost them… All those years of planning gone up in smoke, to say nothing of the Lady’s heartbreak. We’re the Wreath; we lay our strategies in advance and act when we have control of the board. Since that day, we’ve been forced to react, to adapt, and it shows. We are not doing well. It was bad before, but since Tiraas this spring… I very much fear that was the deathblow for us. We’ve been running, fighting, making do with guerrilla tactics when we should have been moving pieces into place to dominate our endgame. It’s been centuries since the Black Wreath suffered so many failures and setbacks in such swift succession. Each day I find new reasons to be proud of our people, but I cannot escape the fear that now, after eight thousand years, I will be the one to let the Lady down when she needs us the most.”

In the aching silence which followed, the nigh-inaudible hum of magic at work was barely discernible at the edge of hearing.

Then, all at once, Embras released the envelope and stepped back away from the spell circle, briskly dusting off his hands.

It hung there, suspended in midair, while the circle morphed again, first shifting to a deep red, then re-configuring its runes till it was nothing but a single ring of crimson light. Finally, the circle shrank inward upon itself, vanishing into a coin-sized spot, and winked out entirely. Above it, the envelope melted from view, leaving the barn looking empty and totally mundane.

“Embras,” Vanessa said softly, gazing at him with a pained expression.

“I… I thought you were just going to…invite her,” Bradshaw said hesitantly.

“Nonsense,” Embras said brightly, his tone as light as ever now, as though his last speech had never occurred. “That spell wasn’t designed to carry a verbal message, merely the sense of one to a creature with fae gifts of perception. You both know that school of magic is the best at parsing and representing emotions. Well, she’ll notice the katzils, follow the shadow-jumps back here, decode the vanished circle as she did the last one and find our written invitation, ready and waiting! No sense adding another request for her presence. Fairies rarely do what they’re asked, and never what they’re told. A gift of real emotion, though?” He turned to them and winked, grinning. “A sensation of vulnerability, from a master of shifting facades such as myself? That will get her attention, and sweeten the offer to the point she won’t be able to resist. If you’re dealing with a foe clever enough to see through any trap you can lay, the quality of the bait is of paramount importance.”

“Is it truly that bad?” Vanessa asked quietly.

Embras’s expression sobered slightly. “You know better than most how bad it is. Both of you. But we’re still who we are, and we still have assets not yet brought to bear. It’s far from hopeless—and remember, this is not over until we have the gods of the Pantheon in chains at the Lady’s feet.”

They both nodded, expressions resolute, and Embras nodded back.

“For now, my friends, time we move out. Remember, no shadow-jumping till we’re a safe distance away—don’t want her following us. Until our invitation is delivered…there’s nothing to do but wait.”

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10 – 13

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“All right, hear ye and all that shit,” Ruda proclaimed as soon as everyone was seated. “I’m callin’ this meeting of the Class of 1182 to order.”

“And Schkhurrankh,” Scorn added, raising a hand.

“Right, yes,” Ruda agreed. “Class of 1182 and their sidekick, Phlegm the Mighty.”

Suddenly scowling thunderously, Scorn started to rise from her chair.

“Vrash’khai nkh thrimpf,” Teal said softly. The Rhaazke paused, glancing at her guiltily, then sank back down. Teal turned to Ruda, scowling herself, now. “Will you please not mock her? She’s working to adjust.”

“Fuck yes I’m gonna mock her,” Ruda said bluntly. “I mock everybody. She’s supposed to be learning how to get along on this plane, right? Well, she can’t be flying off the handle at anybody who looks at her crosswise.”

“That actually is true, and important to learn,” Gabriel said more quietly, directing himself to Scorn. “Being demon-blooded on this plane means trying extra hard not to make waves. A lot of people barely need an excuse to attack you to begin with.”

“Let them,” Scorn huffed, folding her arms. “I collect they faces!”

“Who has been teaching her words?” Juniper asked, frowning at Ruda.

“I think we need to have a few conversations about this later,” Toby murmured.

“Anyfuckingway!” Ruda shouted. “Before this digressed into a discussion of demon social skills, we were gathered here for a reason!”

“A reason in addition to lunch?” Gabriel asked, picking up his sandwich.

“Arquin, by Naphthene’s pendulous teats, I swear—”

“Yes, yes, fucking stabbed, I know,” he said around a mouthful.

There were several spots around campus with picnic tables, all isolated from each other and most somewhat shaded by trees or buildings. No space had been provided for the entire student body to move an organized meal outside the cafeteria, unless they wanted to lay it out on the lawn, but the outdoor tables represented opportunities for smaller groups to gather for food or study sessions. The sophomores had, at Ruda’s insistent urging, collected lunch from the cafeteria as usual and made their way to a nook close to the alchemy building near the campus’s east wall. Actually, the table here had appeared only a few weeks ago; previously the spot had only held a few trees, one of which had been altered somehow during the first week of classes to look almost anthropomorphic.

When asked about this, Professor Tellwyrn had only said cryptically that anyone seeking to torture classmates should do it their damn selves and not involve innocent shrubbery.

“Here’s the issue,” Ruda said, laying her hands down flat on both sides of her plate and panning a stare around the table. “Trissiny keeps sensing demons.”

“It was just twice,” Trissiny said hastily. “It’s the circumstances that are strange.”

“Right,” said Ruda, nodding. “Both times, other people present who should have been perceptive to a demon felt nothing. The first time, though, Scorn did feel it, and could even identify it by species.”

“Vanislaas child, yes, I remember,” said Scorn, looking bored and still somewhat annoyed. “But that is one time. Last night, you interrupt my sleep for nothing.”

“Right, that’s what I was coming to,” said Ruda. “The difference is, the first time Scorn was right there, while the second, she was five floors down.”

“For stealthy species of demon, such as Vanislaads,” said Shaeine, “that distance would make all the difference in whether a sensitive individual would detect its presence.”

Gabriel raised his hand. “I am being invisibly harangued to insist that there is not and hasn’t been a Vanislaad demon on this campus, and Vestrel is beginning to be insulted at the lack of faith being expressed.”

“Hard to have faith in something you can’t see,” Juniper murmured, absently lowering her hand to pat her jackalope, who was back at Clarke Tower. He had been banned from the cafeteria after charging at Mrs. Oak and demolishing a rack of glasses.

“Isn’t that what faith…is?” Fross chimed.

“Right!” Ruda said loudly, slapping the table for emphasis. “Fuck’s sake, people, I’m starting to empathize with Tellwryn, and that pisses me off. Can’t you lot keep your focus for thirty seconds at a time?”

“Is food time,” Scorn mumbled around an unnecessarily visible mouthful. Everyone averted their eyes. “Better things to do than watch you speech.”

“I see two basic possibilities here,” Ruda went on, ignoring her. “One, to get it out of the way, is that Trissiny’s losing her mind.”

Trissiny sighed.

“Uh,” said Gabriel. “I don’t think…”

“Yeah, I’ve honestly ruled that out immediately,” Ruda continued. “And not just out of personal attachment. If the Hand of Avei were suffering mental disturbances…well, that would create notice. Anything from the Sisterhood discreetly sending people here to collect her to Avei coming down and putting a stop to it. You can’t have your soul hooked up to a deity and them not take note when shit’s seriously wrong with you.”

“That’s more correct than you may realize,” Toby added. “Paladins don’t go insane—there have been observations written on this for centuries. It’s another reason paladins are used as front-line defenders in the case of chaos incidents. That kind of direct mental connection to a deity protects the mind from severe damage.”

“Right,” said Ruda, nodding. “So, unless anybody can think of something I haven’t, we’d best assume that Trissiny and her ‘sense evil’ thingamajig are functioning as intended.”

“What’s your actual idea, then?” Teal asked after a moment, in which there was no sound except chewing.

“Assuming that her senses are working correctly isn’t the same as assuming what they’re sensing is true,” said Ruda. “Senses can be fooled. We’ve got two other paladins to contradict Trissiny’s impressions, and especially Gabe’s valkyries. I get the idea they’re kind of specialized anti-incubus agents. Right?”

“Anti-undead would be more accurate,” Gabriel replied, setting down his sandwich. “Remember that Vanislaads are demonic undead, not true demons. But yes, their extra-dimensional origin makes them especially visible to valkyries, who themselves exist multi-dimensionally. Vanislaad stealth and shape-shifting absolutely do not work against soul reapers.”

“You are suggesting that someone is deliberately sending false positive demon signals to Trissiny?” Shaeine asked, frowning faintly.

“Nothing else makes sense to me,” Ruda replied. “That just leaves the questions of who and why.”

“I should think the how is also a significant concern,” said Ariel.

Ruda sighed. “Arquin, do you have to bring that thing with you everywhere?”

“Funny. I was going to ask Trissiny the same thing, but it turns out this meeting was your idea.”

“She always has a helpful perspective on magical matters,” said Gabriel, “you just have to learn to tune out the other commentary. Speaking of which, Ariel, you have any insight on this? And kindly refrain from irrelevant personal observations.”

“If you would refrain from associating with irrelevant persons, I would have none to make. To answer the question, however, the key issue here is that two other paladins in proximity to Trissiny were not alerted during the first incident. Sending out signals to trigger senses of that kind is rather simple magic, and would not be noticeable to valkyries; Fross could probably do it.”

“Aw, thanks!” Fross chimed. “I don’t actually know a spell for that, but now that you mention it, it seems pretty easy to reverse-enchant from the description…”

“At issue,” Ariel continued, “is that sending such a signal in such a way that it triggered only one specific person’s senses while avoiding others is inordinately complex magic. I can extrapolate arcane, infernal and fae methods of doing such a thing, but all would require significant energy reserves and a highly sophisticated casting. I frankly do not know what to make of the fact that the demon perceived the same signal. Data on Rhaazke is generally lacking on this plane of existence.”

Everyone turned to look at Scorn, who was busily licking the napkins in which she had carried her sandwich, and eying Toby’s half-eaten one. He nudged it away from her.

“Well, the sword’s not wrong,” Ruda admitted. “How is indeed a concern. But to backtrack, I think who and why are still things we should discuss, since we seem to be at a dead end there.”

“The who would explain the why if we knew it, I think,” Teal mused. “Any number of people might want to take potshots at the Hand of Avei. Most of those have motivations built right into their affiliations.”

“Something about that troubles me,” said Shaeine. “In Tar’naris we have a saying: ‘Evil yields only to a greater evil.’”

“Well, that’s grim,” Gabriel commented.

“I believe I understand what she’s getting at, though,” said Trissiny, nodding. “The Avenist proverb is ‘if the wicked feared the righteous, they would be righteous themselves.’ Assuming this is the work of someone with an established enmity to me… I don’t have any personal nemeses, that I know of. And if it’s someone opposed to Avei, it is very strange that they would attack me here.”

“Uh, here’s where you are, though,” Juniper said.

“Perhaps I muddied the issue with my choice of words,” said Shaeine. “My apologies. ‘Evil’ is a somewhat naïve concept most often used to dismiss foreign perspectives. My point, and Trissiny’s if I am not mistaken, is that any of the parties who would be inclined to assault Avei’s interests would also tend to shy away from antagonizing Professor Tellwyrn. Between her and Avei, I would hesitate to guess whose wrath is more fierce, but Tellwyrn’s is indisputably more indiscriminate.”

“This who becomes an increasingly interesting question,” Ruda mused.

“Well, one prospect springs right to mind,” said Gabriel. “I assume you all remember that asshole in the white suit from Veilgrad. He played us all like fiddles—if Malivette hadn’t jumped into that, the whole thing would’ve been a clean Black Wreath victory. Here, we don’t have a vampire backing us up, and even then she pulled it off through sheer element of surprise.”

“That is a significant point,” Shaeine agreed, nodding. “Professor Tellwyrn is, at present, a somewhat static entity, and it has been observed before that she can be maneuvered around. These particular tactics suggest discretion of exactly that kind.”

“And the Black Wreath are excellent candidates for someone looking to start trouble for the Hand of Avei,” said Toby. “What’s curious is that they specifically avoided doing the same to me and Gabe. Seems like they should have just as much of a problem with us.”

“Maybe not,” said Trissiny. “I mean no offense, but Omnu and Vidius aren’t usually represented on the front lines against the Wreath. Avei’s forces are.”

“Hn,” Ruda grunted. “If anything, this makes the motive more obscure, not less. It’s fine and dandy to call this general Black Wreath fuckery, but remember their defining characteristic is they don’t do shit without a plan in place. What do they gain from ruffling Trissiny’s hair?”

“Provocation?” Shaeine suggested.

“I could see them maybe wanting to goad her into making a mistake,” Gabriel said, frowning, “but I can’t see how this leads to that. If I were the Wreath, aimlessly pissing off the Hand of Avei would not be on my agenda. Stop me if I’m wrong, Trissiny, but based on the crash courses Tarvadegh’s been feeding me, the Wreath’s strength is its cunning. In a straight-up fight, hardly any warlock is a match for a paladin, especially one of Avei’s. If it’s them, there’s gotta be something more going on.”

“We don’t have any actual info on that yet,” Ruda cautioned, “but you’re right, Gabe. We’d best be on the alert for something further to develop. Anyhow, while this is a productive theory, remember we haven’t established for a fact that this is the Wreath’s doing.”

“Who else?” asked Teal.

Ruda drummed her fingers once on the picnic table. “Well. There’s one other prospect…maybe. Ravana has a theory.”

Teal stiffened. “When were you talking with Ravana about this?”

“Ravana’s the little blonde one, right?” said Gabriel. “Of the new froshes I’ve only really talked to Iris.”

“Let me backtrack a bit,” said Ruda. “This started with the revival, and Bishop Snowe’s very un-Izarite shot across Tellwyrn’s bow. Then, after the cults packed up and left, there were two extra priests left over—an Avenist and a Vidian.”

“There’s a new Vidian priest?” Gabriel said, straightening up. “I haven’t been really involved at the temple since this weekend…”

“Sister Takli isn’t assigned to the Silver Mission in any official capacity,” Trissiny added. “But she’s staying in Last Rock for awhile, and wanted to volunteer while she’s around. That seemed perfectly admirable to me.”

“Has there ever been a priestess of Avei who randomly moved to town before?” Ruda said pointedly.

“The Mission wasn’t here before,” Trissiny replied. “Neither was I. I thought it was odd, but nothing about it seems sinister. I’m not sure where you’re going with this, Ruda.”

“Well,” Ruda continued, “yesterday there was the play, and the impromptu picnic, where Juniper’s bunny caused a scene, remember? Well, that new Vidian was there, right before, and immediately got involved.”

“What’s your point?” Gabriel asked, frowning.

“I’m repeating a theory, not proposing it,” Ruda replied. “Ravana found the sequence of events suspicious—she wanted to come to the paladins with this, but I asked her not to. That’s just something I prefer to do myself. Honestly, I’ve seen that girl’s type, and she’s trouble; it remains to be seen whether she’s trouble for us or someone else.”

“You have no idea how right you are,” Teal said grimly. Shaeine reached to hold her hand under the table.

“But her theory is that Archpope Justinian is using proxies to move against the University. Agitating the townsfolk, that kinda thing. Remember how Jack suddenly lunged at that guy from a standstill?” Ruda turned to Gabriel. “Arquin, hypothetically speaking, how possible would it be for a Vidian cleric to use a little spark of divine magic to flick a rabbit’s ear, and more cult-specific gifts to make sure no onlookers noticed it?”

“What?” Juniper sat bolt upright in her seat.

“Easy, there,” Toby murmured, patting her arm.

“Hypothetically speaking?” Gabriel pursed his lips, frowning at the table. “It’s the divine spark bit that would be tricky, there, but it could be done with a very small shielding spell. That’s possible, Ruda, but this whole thing seems really tenuous to me.”

“What?” Juniper snarled, rising from her seat. “Are you saying that woman hurt my bunny?!”

“Whoah!” Toby and Teal immediately lunged from both sides, taking her by the shoulders. Not that they were physically strong enough to hold the dryad down, but she at least stopped while Toby continued. “Nobody’s saying that, June. Gabe’s right, the idea is seriously a stretch. Why would a priest do such a thing?”

“Now who is fly off the handle?” Scorn commented, smirking.

“I thought something was wrong!” Juniper growled. “Jack doesn’t just freak out like that for no reason!”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Ruda exclaimed. “He does that all the damn time!”

“He really does, June,” said Toby. “Everyone’s noticed it. Haven’t you seen how people leave the area when you bring him around?”

“I hate to have to tell you this,” Gabriel added, “but that rabbit’s a menace.”

“He’s not a rabbit,” Juniper said sullenly, finally letting herself be nudged back into her seat. “He’s a jackalope. There’s a difference. They’re excitable. It’s not his fault!”

“That is correct,” Ariel observed. “Since wild animals cannot be expected to train themselves, it is clearly your fault.”

Gabriel silently stood up, unbuckled the sword from his belt, laid her on the bench and sat on her.

“Thank you,” Ruda said to him.

“I believe I follow Ravana’s line of thinking,” said Shaeine. “If her theory is correct, this priestess’s actions would be consistent—assuming she actually committed such an action instead of simply being present while Jack exhibited perfectly characteristic behavior. Agitating the bunny to create a scene between students and citizens would advance this hypothetical goal. However, that scenario is constructed almost entirely of unverified assumptions.”

“Ravana’s a sly little snake,” added Teal. “If there are political machinations afoot, then it’d be a very good idea to listen to her—she’s probably more of an expert on that than anyone our age has a right to be. But the other side of that is I think she’ll be pretty likely to see hidden motives where they don’t actually exist.”

“Why on earth would the Archpope want to attack the University?” Trissiny exclaimed. “How could he possibly gain from that?”

“I dunno,” Gabriel mused. “Snowe did make that speech—we all saw it. And what she did afterward, or tried to. Plus, Tarvadegh’s warned me to be careful about the Universal Church; Justinian has a reputation for being a smooth operator.”

“He seems pretty popular with the general public,” Teal said, frowning.

“You do understand what a smooth operator is, right?” Ruda said dryly.

“Mother Narny and Commander Rouvad have both said similar things to me, now that you mention it,” Trissiny mused, her expression growing thoughtful.

“No one’s said anything like that to me,” Toby objected.

“It stands to reason that the various cults would have different attitudes toward the Universal Church,” suggested Shaeine. “A defining trait of Omnists seems to be their inclination to get along with everyone. By contrast, Avenists are constitutionally more combative, and Vidians more…subtle.”

“You can say it,” Gabriel said with a grin. “’Two-faced’ isn’t even taken as an insult in the faith.”

“Guys, I think this is wandering off the point,” Fross chimed. “Remember where we started from? Are you seriously going to suggest that the Universal Church is trying to antagonize Trissiny with false fragments of demon aura?”

A short silence fell across the table.

“Yeah, I’m inclined to agree with Fross, here,” said Ruda, nodding slowly. “Figured I should mention Ravana’s ideas; if there’s underhanded fuckery afoot, they’re worth considering. But this kind of shit in particular seems a lot more characteristic of the Black Wreath than the Universal Church. Pretty much by definition.”

“I’m not entirely convinced this Church thing has anything to it,” Teal added. “Though…I may be biased. Ravana Madouri really makes me nervous.”

“At some point, Teal,” said Gabriel, “I think we’re gonna need to hear the story behind that.”

“Regardless of that, she has a point,” said Toby. “Even if Justinian’s as much of a politician as you’re suggesting, and even considering Bishop Snowe’s behavior—which was extremely creepy at minimum, I’ll agree—I can’t see any possible motivation for the Archpope to try to start trouble with the University.”

“You children should make more of an effort to keep up with the news,” Professor Ekoi said brightly. Everyone jumped, staring; she was standing at the head of the table, smiling benignly, and had definitely not been a moment before. The kitsune laid a short stack of newspapers on the end of the picnic table. “There are fascinating things in the headlines today, quite relevant to your discussion. I happened to pick up the fresh editions in Calderaas this morning.”

“What were you doing in Calderaas?” Gabriel demanded.

Ekoi fixed her eyes on him, her smile widening to show her long canines. “On the subject of invasive personal questions, Mr. Arquin, why are your undershorts flying from a flagpole on the main lawn?”

“What?” he exclaimed. “There’s not a flagpole on the lawn. I don’t even know what you’re talking oh gods please tell me you didn’t.”

Ruda collapsed in laughter, nearly sliding off the bench.

“Remember, Mr. Arquin,” Ekoi said solemnly, “manners are miniature morals. You kids may keep those—I think you will find them enlightening. I shall see you in class.”

She turned and sauntered away, tail waving languidly behind her.

“I disavow any knowledge of anything flying from any flagpoles,” Gabriel announced. “On an unrelated subject, you guys know if there’s a shop in Last Rock where you can get clothes on the cheap?”

“Don’t buy cheap clothes,” Teal said, lips twitching. “They just need to be replaced faster.”

“Uh, guys?” Juniper said, holding up the topmost newspaper so they could all see the headline.

“Snowe vs. Tellwyrn?” Teal read aloud. “How does anyone think that’s even a contest?”

“Are they all like that?” Trissiny asked, reaching for the remaining stack.

Ruda grabbed it first, spreading them across the table amidst the remains of their sandwiches. “Looks like…yup. Wow, I wouldn’t have expected one Bishop’s speech to generate this much interest in the newspapers. Was it really that newsworthy?”

“I…guess?” Teal said uncertainly.

“Or,” Shaeine murmured, “someone has exerted influence on the papers to make this happen.”

Another brief silence fell.

“So,” Ruda said, drumming her fingers on top of one of the newspapers, “the Church or the Wreath. Well, they both have a motive, though I still can’t tell what the Church’s is. They clearly are taking aim at the University, though.”

“Is this something we should be worried about?” Fross asked nervously. “I have to admit I’ve sorta skipped politics in my reading. I mean, apart from what we’ve been over in Professor Tellwyrn’s class, which isn’t exactly…current.”

“This is something for Professor Tellwyrn to worry about,” Toby said firmly. “Someone targeting Trissiny is our business.”

“And hers,” Gabriel pointed out. “Come on, you know that’s exactly what she’d say. Don’t you guys think we ought to take this to her?”

“I’m not sure I want to approach her, with the mood she’ll be in when she sees this,” Juniper muttered, still reading the paper.

“We’re not gonna have Tellwyrn’s skirts to hide behind forever,” Ruda snapped. “And we will have many of these same problems. We know the Wreath is after Vadrieny, and from what you guys said about what happened in Veilgrad, that guy seemed weirdly interested in the paladins. It stands to reason the Archpope would have similar interests, whatever it is he’s doin’ here. No, we deal with this.”

“How?” Teal asked.

“Well,” Ruda said thoughtfully, leaning backward and staring absently at the scattered newspapers, “we’re gonna need more information, first. Which of our prospects is actually behind the demon shit getting thrown at Triss?”

“Wreath,” Scorn snorted. “Is obvious. You are stupid?”

“Teal, I’m gonna stab your demon in a minute,” Ruda growled.

“Why is it obvious?” Teal asked Scorn.

The Rhaazke shrugged. “Sword say the hard part being the hiding, yes? Easy spell, but hard to make Trissiny only sense the aura? Well, I sense it too, so is Wreath hiding.”

“What?” Gabriel frowned. “What did she say?”

“Why does that mean it’s a Wreath spell?” Trissiny demanded.

Scorn looked incredulously around the table at them. “I am Rhaazke.”

“Yep,” Ruda said. “Gonna stab her.”

“Scorn,” Gabriel said irritably, “pretend for a moment that you’re from a completely different plane of existence with different rules, and nobody here knows what the hell you are talking about!”

“If I understand correctly,” Shaeine said before Scorn could react to that, “you are saying that the Wreath’s gift of stealth does not work against Rhaazke?”

“How’d you get that outta that word salad?” Ruda exclaimed. “And that’s another thing, Tanglish isn’t demonic. You can’t just mix words together at fucking random!”

“That’s what I thought she said,” Fross chimed.

Scorn sighed dramatically. “You know nothing. Fine, I explain. The goddess, she does not trust demons. They are made by Scyllith, and made to be hard for control. Also some still being loyal to Scyllith. Rhaazke are different; Scyllith throws us out, very long ago. So in Hell, when Elilial takes command, she does not trust demons to be in charge. Her highest…um… What is word?” She turned to Teal. “Servants in charge?”

“Lieutenants?” Teal suggested.

“Llllluuuutennn…” Scorn drawled out the word and gave up halfway through, shaking her head. “You all complain my language is silly.”

“Anyway,” Gabriel prompted.

“Yes, fine, going on. Highest… People being in charge under the goddess, they are the archdemons,” she nodded to Teal, “and some others she makes herself. Very unique beings, not like the demon races. Prince Vanislaas, the Shroudwraith, Kelvreth of the Eyes… Others like them. Not being of Hell’s races, they are loyal to her. Well, our queen, Srkhankhvrithz, she is one of these highest leewww…in charge. But the other Rhaazke, we serve a little lower, but still over the demons. Hell is not our home, we have always hated Scyllith, and the Lady Elilial gives us everything, so we are trusted servants,” she said proudly.

“So…Rhaazke are middleman administrators in Hell?” Ruda said, frowning. “What’s that got to do with you being able to sense through Wreath fuckery?”

Scorn shrugged irritably. “Obviously, we have powers given to do our tasks, yes? We served the Lady before the Wreath was made, and we stand closer to her. Humans are not permitted in Hell, but humans are also not trusted. Some try things, even some Wreath. Rhaazke must be able to hunt through their tricks, yes?” She grinned. “Not all Rhaazke have as many gifts, but I am noble bloodline, being trained for high service. This stealth the Black Wreath has, it is the Lady’s gift, and she decides where it does not work.”

“Fascinating,” said Ariel, slightly muffled under Gabriel.

“If that’s true,” Trissiny said slowly, “we have a perfect counter to the Black Wreath’s greatest weapon.”

“It also means Scorn’s right,” added Toby. “That would explain perfectly why the spell aimed at Trissiny caught her as well. If the concealment was a Wreath stealth that doesn’t work on her… It has to be them.”

“It also means we can beat them,” said Gabriel, grinning fiercely.

“Yes!” Scorn said, smiling back.

“Hang on,” Ruda interrupted. “Scorn, does the Wreath know Rhaazke can do this?”

“Not for them to know,” Scorn said haughtily. “If they know, they can sneak around it, yes? Then is pointless.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” Juniper asked.

“She literally just explained it,” said Ruda in exasperation. “After Veilgrad the Wreath know we’ve got a Rhaazke. If they knew their concealment doesn’t work on her, they could compensate. But if Scorn is right, they don’t.”

“Which means,” said Trissiny, her eyes widening, “we have exactly what we need to outmaneuver them.”

“Yes!” Scorn cried, grinning broadly.

“Um,” Toby said, “you do realize that in order to capitalize on this advantage, you’re going to have to keep Scorn near you and…wait for them to strike again?”

“Oh,” Trissiny said, frowning.

“Yes!” Scorn repeated. “We will have fun! We go to classes and visit the town and when the Wreath moves again, we crush them!”

“…great,” Trissiny said weakly.

“Whoah, now, stop,” Ruda interjected. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, we need a plan. First, this advantage has to be protected; we can’t let the Wreath learn that Scorn can see through their defenses.”

“Yes, very true,” Scorn said, deflating. “This is secret—Wreath is not to learn.”

“Also,” Teal added, “it’s not clear to me exactly how we can capitalize on this. If the Wreath is just making Trissiny sense the presence of demons that aren’t there, having Scorn sense them too changes…what?”

“Right,” Ruda said, nodding. “We need to come up with a plan.”

“To begin with,” Fross chimed, “I may be able to work out a spell to augment Trissiny’s senses—there has to be a way to track those signals more precisely, rather than just perceiving them. It’ll be really tricky for me to work with divine magic, though…”

“I know a spell for that,” Ariel said from under Gabriel. “Trissiny will have to cast it herself, but I can walk her through the process. After a few weeks of basic schooling in divine spellwork, she hopefully possesses the basic competence.”

“That sounds like a skill I would be interested in learning anyway,” Trissiny agreed.

While they carried on talking, Gabriel surreptitiously shifted, pulling Ariel out from under himself and gripping her by the hilt. Her scabbard hid the patterns of faint blue light that flickered along her blade as he ignited a charm they had worked out previously.

“Vestrel,” his voice echoed from the sword, silently but resonating through the dimensional medium in which the valkyries dwelt.

Invisible to the others, a black-clad figure approached him from behind, spreading one ebon wing protectively over him as she leaned forward. “Something on your mind, little brother?”

He glanced fleetingly up at her with a small smile, quickly enough that his classmates did not notice, absorbed in their discussion. “What do you know about this new cleric in town?”

“Nothing, really. We don’t keep track of them all. Why?”

“There’s something going on. It’s too perfect, more priests arriving just as Bishop Snowe starts trouble with Tellwryn and the newspapers start carrying these tales. Are the girls too busy to do me a favor?”

“Never,” Vestrel said with a grin, affectionately brushing him with her pinions. They didn’t physically connect, of course. “We can spare the time to see what the new priestess gets up to when she thinks no one is looking. The Avenist, too?”

His eyes flickered at Trissiny, who was paying attention to what Toby was saying. “I don’t know… That seems wise, but also like it’d be stepping on Triss’s toes.”

“What she doesn’t know hurts nothing. And if a cleric of her faith is indeed trying to manipulate her…”

“Point taken. If you would, then.”

“Oh, this sounds like it’ll be fun!”

“Stop, back up,” Ruda said sharply in response to Juniper’s last objection. “Nothing just happens without context—just because we’re pretty sure the Wreath is behind these specific events does not mean we can just ignore whatever the hell the Church is up to.”

“Indeed,” Shaeine agreed. “Even if the Wreath are not responsible for the trouble presently being stirred up, trouble can be taken advantage of by anyone. We must not develop blind spots—everything going on here deserves our attention.”

“I’m still lost as to why the Church would attack the University, though,” Toby said, shaking his head. “I just don’t see any benefit in that. And in its own way, the Church is almost as inscrutable as the Wreath; Triss, Gabe and I can probably get some information from them, but you can be sure they’ll stonewall us about anything they’re doing with regard to the University we all attend.”

“Maybe not, though!” Fross chimed. “Can it hurt to ask?”

“Fuck yes it can,” Ruda said firmly. “If they’re playing games with us, letting them know we’re onto them will only make it worse. I can’t see the Universal fucking Church backing down from a challenge.”

“Well,” Gabriel said mildly, “keep in mind that just because we don’t know everything now doesn’t mean we won’t learn more.”

“How exactly are we going to learn more?” Ruda asked, exasperated.

He shrugged. “I’m pretty sure something will come up.”

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“I kinda miss having Fross along,” Ruda commented. “No offense, but you guys are a little… I dunno, glaring.”

Trissiny and Toby both glanced at her, saying nothing; up ahead, Gabriel sighed but did not turn around.

“It’s just that she’s got this pleasant blue-white thing going on; it’s soothing. It’d be a nice way to improve the fuckin’ scenery down here, what there is of it. All this yellow is puttin’ me on edge.”

“We’re pursuing necromancers toward a source of pure chaos,” Toby said. “If you weren’t on edge, I would be worried for your mental health.”

“And the light is usually referred to as ‘gold,’” Trissiny added dourly. Ruda just laughed.

All three were glowing subtly, which was the only source of illumination in the tunnels beneath the cathedral. In fact, it had been the only source of illumination in the old church’s basement, but in these much more cramped corners, the light felt even more precious, regardless of Ruda’s commentary. The group could probably have seen where they were going by the light of only one aura. Pushing back against the darkness made them all feel slightly better.

Nothing about the catacombs was visually surprising: the tunnels were cramped, dusty, and dark. A blend of natural caves and man-made structures, they passed without apparent pattern through exposed dirt, carefully dressed stone, crumbling old brick and living rock, both carved out and naturally worn by aeons of water. Water, too, they passed twice and had to step over once. Though small galleries opened off here and there, so far the group had only been able to follow a single tunnel, just barely wide enough for three of them to walk abreast if they squeezed in.

Most of those side galleries had held coffins. All were now empty.

Bones were everywhere, so thick in places that the students had to pick their way carefully over piles, and in some cases wade through them. Even Ruda had not offered a joke about this; they were all working hard at ignoring it as much as possible. At least the trail of felled undead told them they were headed in the right direction.

Until they passed through a doorway and had to stop, staring.

The chamber ahead, barely lit by Gabriel’s aura, seemed to be a cylindrical natural cavern, like an underground tower. A bridge (without railing, of course) extended from the door in which they stood to a platform in the middle, part of an island which jutted out from the wall to their right and had clearly been flattened for this purpose. There were two doors in the wall adjacent, and three more narrow bridges leading to openings around the rim of the cavern. Below, the darkness fell away to seemingly infinite depths, the bottom completely out of view.

Bones littered the whole area indiscriminately. One of the other bridges was clear of them; aside from that, every path before them was marked by the same gruesome trail they’d been following.

Ruda craned her neck to peer over Gabriel’s shoulder. “Aw, fuck.”

“That’s your answer to everything,” Gabriel said, glancing back at her with a smile, then pointed at the far door on the ledge. “It’s that way.”

“What are you seeing that we don’t?” Trissiny asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “But I’ve got scouts ahead. Oh, that reminds me, the Army search teams are all back topside; they’ve got some wounded but didn’t lose anyone. But yeah, my friends are all back. Vestrel’s giving me directions.”

“They found the source of chaos?” Toby said sharply.

“They think so,” Gabriel replied, stepping forward—very, very carefully—across the stone footbridge. “They don’t want to get too close, which I fully support. It’s causing some kind of dimensional issue, and being phased out the way they are, they could be vulnerable to that. But Vestrel says that from a distance, it looks like some kind of artifact, not a dimensional rift.”

“That’s…unexpected. And unusual.” Trissiny spoke thoughtfully as she followed the others across to the platform. “But not without precedent. Maybe it’s for the best—if it’s not an actual rift we have a better chance of dealing with it. Artifacts can be destroyed.”

“Just for the record, soul reapers are scared of this fucking thing and we’re walking right toward it,” Ruda said. “I can’t help thinking this is not the smartest thing we’ve ever done, guys. And let’s face it, we have done some pretty dumb shit.”

“Yes,” Trissiny said archly, “because you didn’t listen to my advice and I had to fight the centaurs on my own. What did we learn, Ruda?”

“Oh, fuck you.”

“And they’re not afraid,” Gabriel said testily. “They’re cautious. The difference is important.”

“Look at you, bein’ all protective,” Ruda said, shoving him lightly in the shoulder from behind. They were passing through the indicated doorway into another tunnel, so this was much less dangerous than it would have been in the tower chamber. Even so, he stumbled over a skull and shot her an annoyed look. “Aw, don’t make that face, it’s cute!”

“In any case,” said Ariel, “we are approaching with the active attention of the three primary gods of the Pantheon. It is well within the Trinity’s power to subdue chaos radiation, particularly if the source is a tainted object and not a planar rift. I presume that you are all staying in touch with your patrons?”

“Yeah,” Toby said, nodding.

“And as I’ve mentioned before,” Trissiny said, “’patron’ is a specifically gendered word and not—”

“I have never said this to a living being, Trissiny Avelea, nor imagined that I ever would, but it is my professional opinion that you need in the worst way to get laid.”

Ruda laughed so hard she nearly fell over.

Toby cleared his throat loudly and raised his voice to be heard over her. “Gabe, please be sure to thank Vestrel and the others for us.”

“She’s the invisible one, man,” Gabriel replied, grinning back at him. “She can hear you just fine. Says you’re welcome. Triss, don’t grind your teeth. And Ariel, if you don’t quit being an ass to my fellow Hand I’m gonna let her whack you with the sword of Avei and see which breaks first.”

It was another half hour’s walk through cramped darkness. The path the valkyries indicated led them through more tunnels, now branching out enough that the group could easily have become totally lost without their aid. At one point they passed close enough to a massive subterranean waterfall to be dampened by its spray; the flowing water which had done the initial work of carving out the corridors beneath Veilgrad was still very much in evidence. It was only in dry chambers distant from it that they passed evidence of bodies having been deliberately interred, which was sensible.

The farther they went, the fewer bones they encountered, until the entire place appeared to have been picked clean. Clearly, every corpse down here had gotten up and rushed to the surface; they had descended well past the level at which the skeletons had fully cleared out.

Gabriel stopped in a small square antechamber decorated by a bust of a Stalweiss chieftain set in a wall niche.

“This is it, guys. Another fifty yards or so straight down: this corridor angles upward slightly and terminates right in the relic room where the problem is.”

“What are we walking into, exactly?” Trissiny asked.

He paused for a moment, frowning at a point near the wall where no one visible was standing, before speaking. “It’s… Okay, this is all starting to make a little more sense. They were able to scout it from above. We’re in the mountains outside the city now. Seems the chamber in question is very close to the surface, and there was a cave-in. The relic had been bound in some kind of container that kept the chaos from leaking out, but part of the ceiling landed on it and broke it. That’s probably what kicked all this off in the first place.”

“Duly noted,” said Toby, glancing around at the others. “All right, guys, from here on, active prayers at all times. Ruda, I know it’s your least favorite position, but maybe you’d better walk in the back. In fact, if it’s a straight shot from here, let’s have Trissiny take point; she’s best at both attack and defense, and infernal radiation aside, there’s no telling what this may spit out at us.”

“Chaos isn’t sentient, is it?” Gabriel said, frowning as Trissiny moved past him into the tunnel.

“Unknowable,” Ariel replied. “It has nothing we would recognize as a mind, which is very far from saying it has no mind.”

“And on that cheery note, here we go,” Ruda said fatalistically. “I suppose I could add a few prayers to the goddess I grew up knowing, but I assure you Naphthene doesn’t give a shit.”

Trissiny had her shield up before her as she led the way—her physical shield, in addition to the divine one. They walked in grim silence, not dragging their feet but in no hurry to meet what lay ahead.

There was light at the end of this tunnel; as Gabriel had said, the ceiling had collapsed and daylight been allowed to stream in. The group paused at the door to the relic chamber before Trissiny stepped forward, allowing the others to exit the corridor and fan out to both sides of her.

What this room had once looked like was impossible to tell now. It had clearly been large and roughly circular, but the walls and much of the floor were obscured. Apparently the entire ceiling had come down, leaving them in a broad island of sunlight completely buried under chunks of fallen stone so broken that it was impossible to tell whether the original roof had been natural or carved.

They had been cleared away at certain key points, though. The door was clear, as was a path to the reliquary in the center. This was the only sign anyone had been present since the collapse; clearly the chaos cultists must have spent considerable time in this chamber, but they had either been careful to leave no traces or something that removed them after the fact.

In the center lay what could have been a sarcophagus meant to house a man twelve feet tall and correspondingly broad. It had been an elaborate thing, once, banded in silver and engraved with runes both arcane and divine. Now, it lay broken. The pieces of its shattered lid and walls had been carefully set aside, revealing what lay beneath. Though the stone of both the ceiling and sarcophagus must have fallen on the object within, it had not been so much as scratched.

The skull was enormous, easily big enough that the dragon could have swallowed a person whole when alive. Unlike the other bones they had seen on the way here, this was coal black and glossy as if lovingly polished.

Silence stretched out while they stared, until Gabriel finally spoke.

“Vestrel says this whole area was…tainted, sort of, until we got close and our auras pushed it back. Don’t let up for a second, guys, we do not want to be near that thing at its full power. I… It’s been a good long while since I listened to old fairy tales. That can’t possibly be what I think it is, can it?”

“The details are lost to history,” Trissiny said softly, “but we do know it happened. That was no fairy tale. This is… It has to be. The skull of Belosiphon the Black.”

“Who the fucking what?” Ruda exclaimed.

“He was a chaos-tainted dragon who served Scyllith before the Elder War,” said Toby. “Which… Well, I guess this was as good a place as any for it, though I can’t imagine what could have been holding its power in check all this time. Whatever it was must’ve been worked into that big stone coffin, and broke when it did. So…what do we do with it now?”

“I don’t advise you attempting to do anything personally,” said Ariel. “This is something for the gods to handle. By the look of those runes, they did so last time. Salyrene is personally invoked multiple times in those charms; she does not generally permit people to do that.”

A shadow fell over the sky above, and they all jumped, staring upward.

“What is that?” Trissiny demanded, dropping into a battle stance. “Something the skull is doing?”

“No,” Gabriel replied, frowning. “It’s… According to Vestrel it’s a zeppelin. Has Imperial Army markings. And…it’s stopping, right overhead.”

“I desperately want to think this is good news,” said Ruda, “but I’m not quite that dumb.”

“Stand ready,” Ariel said urgently. “There are multiple arcane transfer signatures forming on this site—”

A series of sharp pops and crackles sounded, accompanied by flashes of blue light, and half a dozen people materialized in the space. Three wore the blue robes of Salyrite clerics, two were in improbably elaborate crimson-and-gold armor over white surcoats, and the last was dressed in a pristine white longcoat; they could see no more, as he had landed with his back to them.

“Quickly,” the man in the coat barked, unnecessarily. The priests had already begun furling a large length of iridescent cloth over the dragon’s skull. Both guards turned to level their impractical gilded polearms at the students. “Chaos will be in abeyance in the paladins’ presence, but that doesn’t make it safe. How long?”

“One minute, at the most,” the woman farthest from them said tersely, beginning to carefully fold the edges of the shimmering blue fabric under the skull.

“Step away from that!” Trissiny ordered. “Who do you think you are? What are you doing?”

“We are with the Universal Church,” he replied, “answerable directly to his Holiness the Archpope. We are securing this incredibly dangerous artifact before it has the chance to cause any more harm to Veilgrad. So, the same thing I expect you came here to do.” He finally turned to give them an extremely flat look. “Hello, kids.”

Gabriel blinked in astonishment. “Captain Rouvad?”

“It’s Ravoud,” he said testily, “and it’s Colonel.”

“You work with the Church now?” Toby asked.

“I am blessed to have been offered employment,” Ravoud said curtly. “My last job was abruptly terminated about the time these two ladies killed my best friend. You may recall something of the incident.”

“We wrote you a letter of commendation,” Trissiny protested.

“Yes, thank you. That made it all better.”

“Package secure,” the priestess said crisply. “The dimensional weave is operating exactly as tested. Chaos energies will be contained for transport, but this will decay rapidly. We have less than one day to get it securely to its new resting spot.”

“Wait a second,” Trissiny exclaimed.

“Seconds are precious, as you just heard.” Rouvad nodded curtly to them. “Thank you for your invaluable assistance, ladies and gentlemen. You have my word this thing will trouble Veilgrad no more. Take us out, Sister.”

Another series of flashes and pops followed, and then they were gone, leaving an empty, broken sarcophagus where the skull had lain.

Above, a distant thrum sounded as the zeppelin powered up its elemental thrusters. In only a few moments more, the shadow receded, allowing bright sunlight to pour unimpeded into the chamber once again.

“Well,” Toby said at last, “I guess that’s…that.”


 

“Major, thank the gods,” the soldier said fervently as Razsha strode up to him, the rest of her strike team following in the standard diamond formation. Seven troopers had formed a perimeter around one corner of the old guild complex, staves aimed at what lay near the wall. “She beat the werewolf unconscious and then dragged it in here. The Colonel said to keep her secured, but… I mean, how? We saw that fight. I don’t think we could…”

“You did fine, soldier,” Razsha said, patting him on the shoulder. “That particular demon has…a degree of trust. Three paladins are taking responsibility for her. When did the werewolf transform back?”

“Less than five minutes ago, ma’am. About the time the skeletons collapsed. Does that mean it’s over?”

The Major made no response, staring through narrowed eyes at Scorn, who was seated upon an unconscious man dressed in the shredded remains of what had been a formal suit. Demon and man alike were bruised and scratched virtually all over, but that did not seem to have diminished the Rhaazke’s spirits.

“Hello!” she called cheerily, then roughly patted her captive on the head. “Not kill!”

“I’m glad to hear that, I suppose,” Razsha said.

“Well, that’s…something,” Simmons offered. “It’s not a bad grasp of Tanglish considering she’s only been practicing a couple days.”

“I’m more concerned that that’s one of the first things they felt the need to teach her,” Tieris muttered.

“I can’t believe it,” Durst whispered, staring. “I just can’t. An actual, live Rhaazke. Here! What I wouldn’t give to—”

“Durst,” Razsha interrupted, “you did say this is a sentient demon, right?”

“What? Well, I mean, of course. They’re the dominant culture in their dimension.”

“Then let’s assume she enjoys being gawked at like a zoo animal about as much as you would and keep that to a minimum. She’s holding that werewolf down, and isn’t hostile. That’ll do, until the paladins get back here and take her off our hands.”

“How long will that take?” Simmons wondered aloud. “And I don’t think she’s all that skittish. She doesn’t seem to mind having battlestaves pointed at her.”

“I doubt she knows what they are,” said Durst. “A bunch of humans with sticks aren’t going to impress her.”

“Hypothetically,” Razsha mused, “would a staff shot put her down?”

“Hypothetically?” Durst grimaced. “There’s no data. Nobody’s shot one that I ever heard of. Um, they are very powerful demons, though. There’s a good chance it would just piss her off.”

Scorn ruffled the unconscious werewolf’s hair and waved at them with her other hand. “BEHOLD!”

Major Razsha sighed. “Those kids had better get back here fast.”


 

“Wait, the Church?” Teal exclaimed. “Captain Ravoud? This is… I don’t even know what to think.”

“That is far too many coincidences in far too short a time for my comfort,” Shaeine said.

“Hit the nail on the head,” Ruda agreed. “Come on, the timing alone. We clear a path to the big bogey and that’s the moment they show up to whisk it away? There is some serious behind-the-scenes fuckery going on. I think we blundered across the tip of a very big iceberg, guys.”

“Belosiphon the Black,” Teal murmured. “Incredible.”

“It kind of explains it, though,” said Fross.

Trissiny heaved a sigh, sweeping her gaze around the church. Fross’s ice had been removed, but not without leaving some signs of water damage to the pews. There was also the broken window and the fact that most of the sanctuary was piled knee-deep in bones. Altogether the cathedral had seen better days. “Well, for the moment it’s over. I agree, though, Ruda. There’s something more to this. I don’t think we can just leave it alone in good conscience.”

“Well…our actual assignment here is done, though, right?” said Juniper. “Which…shoot. We weren’t the ones who actually solved the problem, were we? I hope that doesn’t affect our grade. It wasn’t our fault the Church stepped in.”

“Your priorities are on point as always, Juniper.”

“Cut it out,” Gabriel said curtly, smacking Ariel’s hilt. “What’s been happening up here, guys?”

“The whole city got quieter,” Fross reported. “The Army’s been fanning out, cleaning up and helping people. Colonel Adjavegh sent Timms to check on us.”

“We reported the cathedral currently clear of both hostiles and civilians,” said Shaeine. “We felt, though, it was best we remained here to secure your exit. Timms apparently agreed; at least, we have heard nothing further from them.”

“We tried to clean up a bit in here,” Fross added glumly. “It’s gonna be a long haul, though. I feel really bad about the church.”

“Oh, don’t worry your pretty little head about it,” Embras Mogul said cheerfully from the dais behind them. “The Church does not lack for resources. They’ll have everything shipshape in no time.”

All of them whirled on him, most drawing weapons; Vadrieny burst forth, flexing her claws.

No one attacked, though. Seven robed warlocks stood on the dais with Mogul. Each of them was carrying a crystal-tipped divine disruptor, including the ones the students had collected from the cathedral itself.

“How dare you show your face in front of me,” Vadrieny snarled. “You tricked and assaulted my friends, and now you steal from us!”

“Your pardon, lady, but I believe that’s a bit unfair,” Mogul replied evenly, tipping his hat to her. “You were dealing with chaos cultists in possession of Imperial weaponry capable of neutralizing a paladin. They had laid traps for you. I’m still stuck on how those crazy buggers managed to plan all this; it was an altogether respectable operation, and all done by people who couldn’t string two coherent sentences together. Something’s fishy as all get-out, here. Regardless! Caine, Arquin and Avelea would have found themselves de-powered and at the mercy of insane necromancers with ample undead slaves had we not stepped in.”

“Stepped in and put us at your mercy!” Trissiny growled, brandishing her sword.

“Why, yes,” Mogul replied mildly. “While more than half of these weapons were still in hostile hands, I went out of my way to secure you three where you would be safe until the disruptors could be rounded up. I’ve dealt too much with Pantheon worshipers to expect gratitude for such a paltry favor as saving your lives, of course. Seeing you safe and hale is reward enough.”

“That’s a load of bullshit,” Gabriel snapped. “We’re the Hands of the gods. Whatever you think of Vadrieny, I don’t believe for a second you would go out of your way to protect us.”

“Don’t you?” Mogul replied, tilting his head like an inquisitive bird. “There is, as you say, the matter of Lady Vadrieny’s high regard for you—that’s far from nothing in my estimation. But no indeed, I make it a point never to do anything that serves only one purpose. I do have an ulterior motive. Y’see, kids, if you kill a paladin, all that happens is another one gets called—by a deity who makes you the new one’s first order of business.”

“Better to play with them, I suppose,” Juniper said quietly.

“Well, now, a daughter of Naiya would know all about batting her prey around before delivering the final mercy, I bet!” Mogul replied, grinning. Juniper dropped her gaze, shoulders slumping. “But no, kids. That’s logic for more stable times. A great doom is coming, and secrets are unraveling on all sides. Dead paladins are worth nothing to anybody, but paladins who know the truth?” His grin broadened; with his head angled so the brim of his hat hid his eyes, the effect was deeply creepy. “Paladins who are in on the secret their gods are trying to hide? That’s a thing that’s never been seen. I do believe I want to let that unfold. The Black Wreath, you see, has always been on the side of truth. And now, that means we have a vested interest in your welfare.”

“What truth?” Fross demanded.

“Ah, ah, ah.” Mogul wagged a chiding finger at her. “That’s the downside of having a reputation as terrible as ours: we can’t tell the truth, or it becomes tainted by association. No, you have to find it out yourselves. We have to content ourselves with unraveling the Pantheon’s secrecy from a safe distance. Pursuant to that, I believe you kids are acquainted with a certain Joseph Jenkins?”

“What about Joe?” Gabriel demanded, taking aim with his wand. Instantly the other warlocks on the dais pointed their disruptors at him.

“Joe,” said Mogul smugly, “is or is about to be in possession of some extremely interesting information that sheds light on what’s been happening here in Veilgrad. One might say that you and his group of friends each hold half the pieces to this puzzle. You’ll want to drop him a line at your earliest opportunity. He can be found in Tiraas these days; if he’s not gotten around to listing his address, Bishop Antonio Darling will know how to reach him. That’s yet another name familiar to you, I believe!”

They all stared at him in silence.

“Well!” Mogul said briskly. “Time waits for no man. No one, I should say; my apologies, General Avelea. We must be off, then. These devices need a new home—”

Silver mist shot in through the broken window at a steep angle, slamming into the floor of the cathedral midway between the students and the warlocks. It swirled upward in a twisting pillar, then resolved itself into the lean figure of Malivette Dufresne.

“Embras!” she squealed, throwing wide her arms. “How just perfectly lovely to see you!”

“…Lady Malivette,” Mogul replied, suddenly looking wary. “I must say, this is unexpected.”

“Why, yes, of course,” the vampire said cheerfully. “Because everyone knows Malivette is hiding in her manor while the kids are here. She’s afraid of the valkyries, you see! Y’know, the ones right now crawling all over this building.”

“They’re not going to harm you,” Gabriel said carefully. “It’s, uh, nice to meet you, by the way.”

“Good heavens, boy, I know that,” Malivette said, turning to wink at him. “Right back atcha, by the way. And frankly I wouldn’t much care if they did. It’s not like I so very much enjoy existing.”

“Well,” said Mogul, shaking his head. “Well, well, well. If there is one thing I respect, it’s a well-executed ploy. My hat is off to you, madame.” He suited the words with actions, lifting his straw hat to reveal a shiny bald head and bowing to her. “If you’ll forgive me a prying question, how did you even know we would be here?”

“My, someone thinks a lot of himself!” Malivette tittered, turning back to the warlocks, who edged back away from her. “No, Embras, actually I was hoping to catch whoever was behind all the crap afflicting my city, but…you’ll do. Yes indeed, this is quite fortuitous! It seems you’re in possession of some very exciting items belonging to the Empire!”

Abruptly the cheer melted from her features, and she stared coldly up at Mogul.

“Give them to me.”

He cleared his throat. “Ah. Perhaps you would care to discuss—”

The vampire moved with such speed that not even a blur was visible. One moment she was standing on the floor of the sanctuary; the next, she was in the midst of the Wreath’s formation, arms wrapped around Vanessa, one hand tangled in the warlock’s hair, wrenching her head back to expose the side of her neck.

Shadows swelled around Vanessa and Malivetted, then instantly dissipated.

“No, no, dearest,” the vampire cooed, “none of that. It’s rude to leave a party before the guest of honor has even had a drink.”

Vanessa emitted a thin keening sound of pure panic.

“Nessa, easy,” Embras said urgently. “She’s just making a point; if she wanted you dead, you would be. Don’t rile her! Lady Dufresne, if you want a hostage, I’m more valuable.”

“But you care about this one,” Malivette said sibilantly. “I know your great secret, Embras Mogul. Everyone is afraid of the big bad Wreath; afraid of your eeeevil, baby-sacrificing ways. I know a thing or two about being a monster, and I know about faith. You just might care more about the world and each other than any of the other cults.”

“Stop this,” Toby said urgently. “All of you! Malivette, please—”

Vanessa was crying openly now, practically vibrating with tension.

“Do you know what it’s like,” Malivette continued softly, her crimson eyes fixed on Mogul, “being hungry all the time? Never getting your fill? Worse, living in a world inhabited by delicious walking steak dinners? The smell alone… I never take more than the bare minimum I must to survive. It’s been so long since I just…drained someone.” Slowly, she leaned in, pressing her nose to the side of Vanessa’s neck, and inhaled deeply. “Mmmfffnn… Warlocks are so spicy. And best of all, nobody would miss one.”

Vanessa squeezed her eyes shut, whimpering.

“Enough,” Mogul snapped, tossing the disruptor to the ground at the foot of the dais. “You win. Everyone, give them up.”

“But Embras—” a man in gray robes started to protest.

“Do it!” Mogul barked. “Enchantments are replaceable—people aren’t!”

The rest followed suit, tossing down their weapons, and backed away.

“Let go of her,” Mogul said, glaring at Malivette. “You have no idea the harm you’re doing. You know what the Church did to her just this summer?”

“You know how many of those disruptors there are, Embras?” Malivette replied in a hiss. “Because I do. Please don’t lie to me. It makes me peckish.”

She drew her upper lip back, leaned in, and pressed the tips of her fangs to the nape of Vanessa’s neck.

The warlock fainted.

Mogul held out his hand to one side, glaring mutely at the vampire. Seconds later, another robed figure flickered into visibility and placed one last divine disruptor in his outstretched hand. He tossed it onto the pile with the others.

“Attaboy!” Malivette said, suddenly all sweetness and light again. She knelt, gently lowering Vanessa to the ground and somehow managing to make the awkward movement look graceful. “Don’t you worry, kids, I will ensure that most of these find their way back into the Army’s hands.”

“Most?” Toby said sharply.

“Well, yeah,” she replied, winking at him. “Like I told you once before, I’m patriotic enough. I think it’s a grand idea for my government to have the best and newest weapons available! But no government needs to be the only entity with access to any weapon. Or so I hear from some Eserites I’m acquainted with, who I bet will know just how to disseminate these shiny new enchantments into the world. All right, this was fun, but I gotta go get a drink now before I accidentally kill a whole bunch’a people. See you at home, kids!”

She dissolved abruptly into mist, which flowed down the steps and over the pile of disruptors, then vanished. The weapons disappeared along with it.

Embras Mogul stepped over to Vanessa as soon as the vampire was gone, kneeling to gently gather her into his arms.

“And with that, it’s official,” he said grimly. “Now no one is pleased with the outcome of this, except the blood-sucking undead. Y’know, they say you can tell a lot about a person based on the company they keep; what interesting friends you’ve got. I’ll be seeing you kids again soon.”

Shadows swelled up over them, and then the Wreath were all gone.

For several moments they could only stand in stunned silence.

“Um,” Juniper said at last, “how come warlocks and vampires can just do whatever they want in a church? Aren’t these places supposed to be consecrated? Cos…I’m not feeling de-powered either, now that I think of it.”

Gabriel rubbed at his eyes. “Yeah. Well. Crisis over. The chaos is gone, the Wreath is gone, the Army’s even getting their weapons back.”

“Most of them, apparently,” said Shaine.

“Right.” He sighed. “So why do I feel like we didn’t win here?”

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