Tag Archives: Ariel

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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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“We’re with the Silver Legions,” Principia called to the two golems. “If you can understand me—”

She received an answer in the form of two staff blasts that rocked herself and Ephanie back a half-step, making their formation quaver. An acrid smell rose over the lightning-induced tang of ozone in the air, the sign of a shield charm nearing the point of burnout. Those things hit much harder than the wandshots fired by the protestors.

“Retreat!” she barked, and the squad began backing away as quickly as they could, considering they were climbing damp stairs backwards. The golems remained where they were, not attempting to follow, but kept their staves trained on the Legionnaires. They did not fire again, however.

“That’s a defensive posture,” said Ephanie. “They’re blocking access to that landing, not trying to kill us.”

“Sarge,” Casey warned, glancing over her shoulder, “we are back in range of that cannon. It’s still aiming at us!”

“Veth’na alaue,” Principia muttered, turning to look. At their current height on the staircase, their heads and shoulders were visible above the top, just enough to put them in view of the artillery emplacement. It was indeed still trained on their position. For a moment she held onto the hope that it had been left there and abandoned, but even as she peered up at the mag cannon, its barrel began to glow. This time, it appeared to be building up a significant charge rather than firing right away. “Shit, there’s no cover.”

“Cannons would need to have this platform in their range of fire to clear away attackers,” Ephanie said crisply. “Sarge, I think we have a better chance taking on the golems.”

“No,” said Principia. “Break ranks and get to the far corner over there, just on the other side of the opposite gate. Go.”

She led the way, the others following; they bounded up the last few steps and dashed diagonally across the platform, huddling into the very far corner between the city wall and the stone balustrade. The active mag cannon swiveled to track them, but it couldn’t turn as fast as they could run, and ultimately didn’t manage to turn all the way. Its rotation stopped short of giving it full coverage of the platform.

“Okay, that’s something,” said Merry, who was sandwiched between Farah and the wall. “We’re still in range of the artillery on this side, though.”

“Nobody attacked us from east gatehouse,” said Principia. “Avelea, are they connected?”

“Not directly,” Ephanie replied, “but they could cross the battlements above to reach it.”

“Still no sign of movement from over here,” Principia murmured, her eyes sweeping the scene. “Keep your shields up and attention on the arrow loops; if anybody fires from there, return fire. Sing out immediately if one of these cannons starts to move. Time’s on our side; the Army has to be back in place sooner than later.”

“But we don’t know what kind of timetable that is,” Farah said tremulously.

“Right, which is why we’re not gonna sit here and wait for rescue,” Principia replied. “Listen up: once we start moving we’ll be back in range of the cannon, so we’ll need to work fast. When I give the word, fall into wedge formation facing that mag cannon and rake it. Avelea, how badly can we damage it?”

“With five staff-equivalent weapons, easily enough to take it out of commission, assuming five direct hits—and assuming whoever’s up there doesn’t know to activate its shields. Sarge, you remember our accuracy when we drilled with these things. And that cannon is still charging; the second we’re in its line of sight it’ll fire.”

Prin nodded, scowling at the mag cannon. It was partly hidden from view by the slight protrusion of the gatehouse, but they could see most of it from their position. “Scratch that, then. Avelea, Lang, you’re the best shots. Take position against the wall here and start peppering it. See if you can put it out of action. As soon as that thing is down, we form up and concentrate fire on this door. I want us off this ledge and back inside the walls ASAP.”

“Pretty sure attacking the city defenses is technically treason,” Merry muttered, kneeling with her shoulder against the wall while Ephanie took aim above her head. They fired simultaneously, then kept up a steady barrage, pausing only long enough between shots to keep their weapons from overheating.

Lightning scored black rents in the stonework near the mag cannon, but most of their shots hit it directly. The blue flash of heavy-duty shielding charms signaled that this would not be that easy, but no charm had an infinite charge, heavy or not.

Whoever was at the cannon’s controls clearly agreed; after a few seconds of taking fire, it retaliated. This time, it was fully charged.

The whole squad mashed themselves flat against the wall, raising shields in front of themselves, and even so, it was barely enough. The blast of white light that roared past them barely a yard from their faces was accompanied by a corona of ferocious static electricity; their shield charms flared almost opaque, whining in protest, and Casey’s shattered in a cascade of sparks. A cart-sized chunk of the platform adjacent to them was smashed to rubble.

“Elwick!” Principia shouted a second later, blinking the glare from her eyes. “Report!”

“Singed, not hurt, ma’am,” Casey said, still huddled behind her shield. “Sarge, my charm’s broken! If that fires again—”

“It’s not gonna fire again,” Principia said grimly. “Hold your position. If this doesn’t work, Avelea’s in command.”

She darted out into the open, crossing the platform in seconds and dropping her shield and lance on the way. The elf launched herself into a running jump, landing at the edge of the far balustrade and kicking off it; she spun in midair to kick off the very narrow protrusion of stonework that sheltered the gate, soaring higher in the direction of open space, but caught herself on the edge of an arrow loop. Dangling from it by both hands, she swung her body to the left, and then back to the right, actually running along the wall at a steep angle till she hit the narrow rim of stone again and kicked off, getting a grip on the next loop up.

A figure leaned out of a nearby arrow loop, aiming a wand at her; he was instantly struck by shots from Ephanie and Merry, and fell forward without a scream to lie smoking on the platform below.

“Now that’s interesting,” Merry muttered. “I thought Legion training for elves meant they weren’t that agile anymore…”

Principia was in the middle of another improbable leap when a figure peeked out from behind the battlements shielding the mag cannon, taking aim at her with a wand. Ephanie and Merry immediately fired on him, but the cannon’s defenses absorbed the bolts, leaving him with a clear shot at the sergeant.

A shadow fell across the platform.

The man at the cannon turned to look, then let out a squeal and dived back into cover; Principia paused, dangling from the bottom of an arrow loop and twisting her neck to see what was happening.

Though he landed with as much gentleness as possible, the beat of his massive wings was nearly enough to jar her loose from the wall. Bracing his hind legs on the platform, Ampophrenon the Gold grasped the upper battlements of the gatehouse with his right hand and laid the other on the mag cannon that had been harassing Squad One. With obvious care, he very gingerly turned it to face out to sea.

The cannon’s mounting rent asunder in a shower of sparks, leaving the dragon holding the broken weapon.

“Ah,” he rumbled, staring at the cannon in his hand with an abashed expression that was astonishing on his reptilian face. “Well, drat.”

Setting the cannon down on its ledge, he placed his hand under Principia’s dangling feet. “If I may, Sergeant?”

She gave him a long, considering look before letting go, dropping lightly into his palm. Ampophrenon lowered her carefully to the ground outside the gates.

A yelp cut through the air, and a figure emerged from the battlements above, drifting out into space. Dragonsbane, in her distinctive mask and wing cloak, squirmed as she was levitated above the gates, flailing about wildly with her saber. Behind her, another figure in lavish blue robes appeared, standing lightly on the battlements themselves.

“This isn’t over!” the woman ranted, shaking the weapon at him. “You can kill me, you can kill all of us, but one day—”

“I’m sorry to cut off what’s shaping up to be a really good monologue,” Zanzayed called out, “but you might want to save that one for another occasion, Marshal. The rest of your cohorts are all under a sleeping charm; nobody can hear you but us.”

Dragonsbane halted her gyrations, then very deliberately twisted herself to peer pointedly downward at Principia and the rest of her squad.

“Oh, don’t mind us,” said Merry. “This just got very interesting.”

“I believe the sun has set on this particular bit of subterfuge,” Ampophrenon rumbled, rearing up and spreading his wings. Moments later, he had shrunk down to his humanoid form and stepped off the balustrade onto the platform. “I said from the beginning that we should have been up front with Locke instead of trying to manipulate her, Zanzayed. All this chaos is what results from attempting to play such games with notoriously clever people.”

“You just hate fun, that’s all,” Zanzayed replied gaily, as he and Dragonsbane slowly drifted to the ground.

Ampophrenon grimaced at him, then turned to Dragonsbane and bowed. “I apologize for damaging the cannon, Marshal. Needless to say, I will be financially responsible for that and all damage to Imperial property incurred here.”

“That’s generous of you, m’lord,” she said carefully, “but there is really no way to arrange that without revealing your complicity in this. I’m sure the Imperial treasury can absorb it.”

“Shut up,” Principia said, bending to pick up her lance. “I don’t know what this is, and right now I am past giving a shit. You’re all under arrest.”

Ampophrenon blinked his luminous eyes at her. “Ah… Forgive me, Sergeant Locke, but I don’t think you understand—”

“Here’s what I understand,” she short back, leveling the lance at Dragonsbane and fingering the trigger charm that parted its blades to reveal the firing crystal. “I want all of you on your knees, weapons on the ground and hands on your heads before I have time to repeat my instructions.”

Before any of them could respond to that—which was perhaps fortunate, given Zanzayed’s gleeful expression—the side gate through which they had originally come opened, and a well-dressed man in his middle years stepped out. He glanced once at the scene—the two dragons, the Legionnaires, the improbably-dressed woman in the mask—and cleared his throat.

“Thank you for your commitment to civil order, Sergeant, but that won’t be necessary. My name is Quentin Vex; I head Imperial Intelligence. Perhaps it’s time we had a talk.”


 

Wide slashes were the opposite of proper rapier technique, but Ruda had quickly discovered that whatever magic animated the skeletons ran very thin in each individual specimen; it didn’t agree at all with mithril. The merest touch of her sword sufficed to reduce them to inanimate bone. Thus, she swept the blade around herself in wide, scything arcs, carving a path through the horde of undead and so far avoiding injury at their skeletal hands.

Which was not to say this was a winning strategy; the sheer numbers of skeletons were turning the tide gradually against her and her classmates. It would have been a significant challenge to keep up with them even if they crumbled to dust on each hit, but she was accumulating drifts of fallen bones all around herself, forcing her to constantly retreat in order to retain her footing. And still they came on, no matter how many she felled.

Another of those peculiar golden blasts hit her in the side; there was some pressure to it, but despite what it had done to Shaeine (which had caused her to formulate a theory), it had had no other effect on Ruda, and she had decided not to worry about it.

“Would you quit doing that?” Juniper exclaimed off to her right upon being shot with another of them. The dryad turned and stalked toward the cultist who had fired on her, evidently having had enough. She had been bulling through the undead by sheer brute force; the ones she smashed had a tendency to keep moving, just in smaller pieces.

On Ruda’s other side, Vadrieny screamed in fury at a knot of onrushing skeletons, which fazed them not in the least. In the next second she was being swarmed by them—not taking any discernible damage, but being crawled over by human-sized enemies was enough to hamper even her strength.

“For fuck’s sake, Vadge, they’re not afraid of you!” Ruda exclaimed, cutting down another swath of undead. “Teal, tell your demon to just kill the bastards!”

The cultist shrieked in panic as Juniper got her hands on him. Wrenching the augmented staff out of his grasp, she hurled it to the side, then picked the man up and tossed him into the air. The dryad caught him by the ankle, and proceeded to swing him bodily around, using him as a grisly flail against the summoned undead.

Vadrieny hurled off the last of the skeletons swarming her and pumped her wings once to leap across the sanctuary to Ruda’s side, where she swiped half the undead attacking the pirate into shards. Standing back-to-back halved the area each had to control and made their task suddenly a great deal easier.

“Don’t ever call me that again,” the archdemon ordered.

“Yeah,” Ruda agreed. “Didn’t really think that one through before I opened my mouth.”

One of the remaining cultists was clipped by a skeleton thrown by Juniper in the act of firing his weapon at Vadrieny; the shot went wild, smashing one of the cathedral’s stained glass windows. Apparently they had that much force, at least.

A silver streak zipped in through the open door and discharged a blast of wind at him, followed by a splatter of sleet.

“THIS BUILDING IS A HISTORICAL TREASURE, YOU DEGENERATE POLTROON!” Fross roared, lashing out on all sides with ice—and notably avoiding the use of any of her more destructive spells. Restrained or not, it worked. Even undead had trouble moving with their feet frozen to the floor, and those that got loose were deprived of traction.

“Finally, some fucking progress,” Ruda growled as she and Vadrieny began edging sideways toward the dais where the remaining two cultists stood, now firing persistently at them. In that concentration, the mild blows of the golden shots were enough to impede their advance, though not by much.

Then, the skeletons began to die.

It started in the front corner of the room, with those which had gotten past the students and neared the front doors. They simply collapsed en masse, and a wave of destruction flashed through their ranks. Undead fell to pieces in a long trail as if something invisible were cleaving through them.

Within seconds the phenomenon had ripped across the entire cathedral, then those still pouring out of the doors behind the dais fell as whatever it was passed within to finish the job.

The sudden quiet was astonishing. Juniper halted amid a heap of fallen skeletons, blinking, then looked down at the man in her hand. Blood splattered her, the bones and everything in her vicinity; he was limp and seemed to bend in far too many places.

“Uh oh,” the dryad said sheepishly. “I broke mine, guys.”

The doors, which Vadrieny had shut after putting Shaeine outside, swung open, and all three paladins stalked into the sanctuary, shoulder to shoulder.

“Ah,” said Ruda. “Valkyries. That explains it. Coulda used some of those before. Welcome back, guys!”

She and Vadrieny were slightly off to the side, leaving a clear path between the doors and the dais, along which the cultists and paladins now locked eyes.

“Do your worst!” the man in the center screeched, taking aim with his staff. “A million shall fall, a million shall rise, and all comes to naught! Chaos cannot die!”

Gabriel stepped in front of Trissiny, drawing Ariel and glaring. He pulled back his arm and hurled the sword forward. It was a somewhat awkward throw, exhibiting all of his usual athleticism, but the blade flared blue in midair and zipped across the entire length of the sanctuary, spinning end over end.

The cultist staggered back as Ariel slammed into his chest, impaling him cleanly through the ribs.

Gabriel held out his left hand and made a grasping motion; a phantasmal glove of arcane blue flickered momentarily around Ariel’s hilt, and suddenly the sword wrenched slightly to the side, lodging herself firmly in the man’s ribs and eliciting a gasp of agony from him. Then Ariel jerked backward, sailing across the room to her master and dragging the impaled cultist along.

They came to a clean halt less than a yard from Gabriel, who calmly grasped Ariel’s hilt with his left hand and stepped forward, bringing his face to within inches of the man’s filthy, matted beard. With his other, he grabbed the augmented staff, which the cultist still clutched.

The Hand of Vidius sneered and spoke in a growl that resonated throughout the church.

“Nothing. Doesn’t. Die.”

Gabriel ripped Ariel out sideways and yanked the staff away simultaneously, brandishing both weapons out to the sides. Suddenly unsupported, the cultist staggered, then sank to his knees, whispering something under his breath, before finally falling to the ground. After a few weak twitches, he lay still.

In the silence that followed, they could actually hear the buzzing of Fross’s wings.

“Badass is a weird look on you, Arquin,” Ruda said finally. “Quick, say something dumb before I lose all faith in reality.”

Seemingly galvanized by her voice, the last robed cultist took aim at Gabriel. In the next moment, Vadrieny landed next to him, casually ripping the staff out of his hands and tossing it away, then grabbed him about the neck with one clawed hand and hauled him back to the students.

“You will tell us the source of the chaos,” the archdemon said matter-of-factly, roughly pulling back the cultist’s hood.

This one, thus revealed, was actually a woman. She was as filthy as the others, her face smeared with a grime of blended sweat, dust and caked skin oil, her hair matted and filled with the grunge of the catacombs. Eyes wide and rolling, she stared blankly at a point above Trissiny’s head as the paladin stepped up in front of her.

“The source, there is no source, everything is the source. You don’t see—you should see. You will see, but too late. It shines, but it’s darkness. It’s all. Everything that’s not is is illusion, because it’s illusion. It is and it’s not, you understand?”

“Just like the ones at the prison,” Toby murmured.

“Chaos is very unhealthy to be around,” Trissiny said grimly. “It was a good thought, Vadrieny, but I’m afraid trying to get information out of her is pointless. She’s not even resisting; she just can’t think in terms that would be useful.”

“Unless it’s an act,” Ruda said skeptically.

“Possible, but this is consistent with the observed behavior of chaos victims,” Ariel commented as Gabriel wiped her blade clean with a handkerchief.

“I dunno, they managed to plan and execute all this,” Gabriel said.

“Chaos cultists are known to exhibit a certain animal cunning,” said Trissiny. “It’s the higher functions of intelligence that suffer from chaos exposure; they still have instinct. That’s arguably all they have. Also, let’s keep in mind that the Black Wreath is present and active and has betrayed us once today. I don’t believe for a moment that they are as innocent in all this as Vanessa claimed.”

“They did what?” Vadrieny demanded, turning on her.

“The summoners were a trap,” said Gabriel. “The Wreath was already there, with weapons like these. They claimed to have taken them from the chaos cult, but they used ’em on us and tried to hold us prisoner.” He held up the staff in his hand, studying it with a distasteful grimace.

“What the fuck do those even do?” Ruda demanded.

“These are what the Empire was making,” said Trissiny. “They block divine magic. A cleric shot by one is temporarily unable to cast. Or a paladin, as we discovered.”

“That was the theory I developed,” said Shaeine, striding toward them from the door. “You did say temporarily?”

“Yeah, actually,” said Toby, stepping toward her, “and it turns out Omnu is inclined to override the effect. Shaeine, I’m not certain if this’ll work for you—you’re not a Pantheon cleric. But I don’t see any way it could hurt…”

“Please,” Shaeine said with barely restrained intensity, “try.”

Toby reached out, his aura flaring gold, and laid a hand on her shoulder. Vadrieny stepped up to Shaeine’s other side, squinting against the glow but not backing away.

After a moment, Toby let his light subside. “There. I… That’s it, Shaeine. Any more and we might both burn.”

Shaeine closed her eyes, and a halo of pure silver rose about her. She let out a deep sigh, the obvious relief on her features jarring considering her usual composure. Vadrieny wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulders.

“Thank you,” the drow said feelingly to Toby, who grinned back.

“That’s one fear addressed, then,” said Ruda, poking gingerly at the still-babbling cultist with the tip of her sword. When Vadrieny had released her, the woman had just slumped to her knees, making no move to either flee or attack. It was starting to look more and more as if her mind was simply gone. “Now what the hell are we supposed to do with this?”

“She’s no use to us,” Toby said firmly as the cultist continued muttering under her breath. “She’ll have to go into prison with the others. Despite everything, she’s as much a victim in this as anyone.”

Juniper wrinkled her nose. “Are you serious?”

“Yes,” Trissiny said firmly. “She’s not even mentally competent to stand trial. No one sets out to do things like this, Juniper; chaos damages the mind if you get too close to it. There are established legal precedents, here. She is to be considered insane and treated accordingly.”

“That leaves us back at square one, then,” said Gabriel. “With a city-wide disaster on top of everything else.”

“Not quite,” Ruda replied. “Think, guys. Undead coming up everywhere, sure. But this is the only place we’ve seen multiple cultists. They all came pouring out of the catacomb access right under this cathedral.”

“You think the source must be nearby,” said Fross.

“It’s as good a theory as any,” Toby agreed, nodding.

“And we’d better move our asses before the trail gets any colder,” Ruda added. “The chaos-whatsit may be close. We’ve got valkyries, three paladins, and my friend, here.” She held up the rapier. “And one of our paladins knows a thing or two about magic.”

“It’s possible he knows as many as three things,” said Ariel.

“I agree,” Trissiny said, drawing her sword. “Fross, Juniper, Shaeine and Vadrieny, please try to help the Army and the citizens outside. Those of us less vulnerable to chaos had better head below. If there’s a chance we can finish this, we have to take it.”

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9 – 31

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“How many fucking skeletons have they got?” Ruda demanded, taking aim with her borrowed staff. She didn’t fire, however, nor did Timms, the Colonel, or anyone else nearby. They were mostly holding staves for personal comfort; the trickle of undead out of the trapdoor was nothing like the previous flood, and so far only two of the search teams had made it out. They rest would be coming from that opening, and thus pouring on an indiscriminate storm of lightning was not an option. Six soldiers knelt behind improvised cover in a semicircle around the opening, blasting undead as they emerged. Carefully.

“The catacomb system is enormous, and has been used as a burial site since long before the Imperial era,” Timms said, her usual calm somewhat diminished by tension. “There are two thousand years’ worth of bodies down there, at least. The answer to your question, Princess, is ‘as many as they could possibly need.’ The good news is that they seem to have used up all the fresher dead during their various uprisings over the last few months. These are all…just bones. Pretty rickety, from what we’ve seen so far. Really only dangerous in aggregation.”

“That’s excellent news!” Fross chimed, swooping back and forth above them. “This doesn’t bear the signs of an actual plague of undeath, just a mass raising. Like mundane plagues, that needs a biological medium to survive and spread. It’s the fresher, wetter zombies that tend to turn people. Skeletons aren’t contagious.”

“Thank the gods for small blessings,” Adjavegh grunted. “No reports so far of people turning, even those who’ve been attacked.”

“Team six is nearing the exit,” the battlemage at the runic array reported from behind him. “They’re meeting heavy resistance.”

The Colonel glanced rapidly around. “Timms, how wide are those tunnels?”

“I recommend against sending anyone else down unless they request it, sir,” she said crisply. “They’re very cramped. Our men and the Huntsmen know what they’re doing. As we were just mentioning, these undead don’t stand up to staff fire.”

“Zeppelin coming in, sir!” called a soldier from the edge of the courtyard. “From the southwest.”

“Hmp,” Adjavegh grunted. “Razsha sent back to Tiraas for scryers… Well, they’re going to be under-utilized here. I need warm bodies holding weapons, not spooks.”

“Sir,” Timms said, frowning, “Major Razsha never sent her request. By the time she’d drafted a report of her needs, the students brought us word of the catacomb situation. There are no Army shipments or personnel transfers scheduled.”

“Well, whoever they are, I intend to put them to work the second they land,” he said shortly. “Soldiers are soldiers, and we need ’em.”

Another soldier dashed up and saluted. “Citizens still trickling in, sir,” he said. “We’re settling them into the compartments farthest from the catacomb access, as ordered. A good half have gone across to the cathedral to hole up with the priest—”

“What?” Timms barked before the Colonel could respond. “No! Who told you to do that?!”

The soldier glanced wide-eyed from her to Adjavegh and back. “I—that—sir, we weren’t given authorization to forcibly move civilians! They can hear the staff fire; a lot of them don’t want to be anywhere near—”

“Colonel!” Timms said, turning to him. “The old cathedral’s sub-levels open directly onto the catacombs! They’ve been closed off since the Church began moving its people out, but there are hundreds of bodies down in those vaults. If this was a mass raising throughout the city…”

“Ohhh, crap,” Juniper whispered.

Ruda drew her sword. “We’ll—”

“Go,” Colonel Adjavegh snapped. “Get those people out of there and back here, and bring whatever priests are still on duty. You have my permission to use whatever force is reasonable.”

She whirled and was dashing out into the courtyard the second he finished. Shaeine and Juniper came hard on her heels, Fross zipping ahead of them; Teal skidded out into the courtyard, shifted, and then Vadrieny was soaring across the square toward the old cathedral. They ducked around several frightened civilians being herded into disused loading bays and a much smaller number of Imperial soldiers supervising them, none of whom attempted to impede them.

The cathedral of Veilgrad was dwarfed by its counterpart in Tiraas, but was far older, and still an impressive building. Tall, with a sloping, gabled roof and an ankh-topped spire ascending from its highest point, it was a landmark visible even above the walls of the city. Now, despite the crisis at hand, the square outside it was eerily empty. Bells still rang out and smoke rose from several directions, but no one seemed to be nearby.

Ahead of them, Vadrieny landed atop the narrow ledge situated over the front doors of the church, waiting for them. Fross joined her a second later; the land-bound students were the last to arrive, but Ruda carried on through the doors without pausing.

“Who’s in charge here?” she bellowed, striding into the sanctuary. People were huddled in the pews and against the walls, some clutching meager belongings; several children were crying, but softly. Aside from that, the refugees were mostly quiet, at least until the students arrived. Juniper and Shaeine were undisguised, and their sudden appearance brought gasps and muted outcries from nearby.

Near the dais at the far end of the sanctuary, a balding, middle-aged man with the beginnings of paunch stretching his black Universal Church robe, rose from where he had been kneeling beside a weeping woman and came toward them.

“I’m Father Rusveldt,” he said, frowning at the trio, then blinking at Fross, who darted in to hover above them. Vadrieny, wisely, had remained outside. “If you need shelter, the church is open—”

“The church is now closed,” Ruda interrupted. “We need to get these people out of here and across the square to the old guild hall. The Army is taking people in and providing protection.”

“Young woman,” the priest began.

“Listen, father, I prefer to treat clergy with respect but none of us have time for this shit right now,” Ruda said. “What’s happening in this city is a mass raising of undead. Wherever people are buried, bodies are rising and attacking. Unless somebody had the foresight to remove all the bodies buried under this church, everybody needs to get out now.”

“Every body in the—” Rusveldt broke off and swallowed heavily. Continuing, he had to raise his voice over the cries of alarm that began to sound from those nearby. “It’s… The vaults are sealed, and have been for weeks.”

“This seal,” said Shaeine. “Is it divine? Does it have a magical component which will turn back undead?”

“I—by sealed, I meant closed off,” the priest hemmed. “The doors are bolted; they’re quite sturdy, I assure you.”

“That’s it, we’re leaving,” Ruda announced, raising her voice. “Everybody out! Across the square to the trading hall. The Army will—”

“There’s access to the catacombs under the old hall, too!” a nearby man shouted belligerently. “That’s no better!”

“It’s a damn sight better,” Ruda shot back, still projecting well enough to be heard throughout the sanctuary. “Yes, there are undead coming through the hold, but there are also soldiers. Most of the Army that’s in Veilgrad is there, keeping that contained. All you’ve got between you and a mob of ravening skeletons here is apparently a fucking lock. Why is this even a dilemma?”

The man blinked at her, glanced at the wide-eyed woman beside him, then gulped. “Um. We’ll follow you.”

Screams rang out at the sudden appearance of Vadrieny in the doorway. She withdrew immediately, leaving only Teal, but people nevertheless scrambled back away from her. The bard ignored this, making a beeline for Ruda.

“We’ve got a situation outside,” she said in a low voice. “I don’t think you can bring people across the square right now. You’d better come have a look.”

“Oh, what the fuck now,” Ruda groaned. “You! Father Priestman! Where’s the access to the vaults in this building?”

“I—the doors just behind the dais, there,” he said, blinking. “You’re surely not planning to go down there?”

“Fuck no I’m not. Shaeine, stay here and keep an eye on those doors; if anything comes out of ’em, shield them off.”

“Done,” the drow said, gliding past her toward the dais.

“Let’s go have a look-see at the fresh bullshit,” Ruda growled, following Teal back to the front doors of the church.

The square was as deserted as before, with the exception of one figure creeping slowly out of one of the streets feeding into it. A gray-furred, seven foot tall figure wearing the shredded remains of what had been a cheap suit stretched across its barrel chest. The werewolf hunched, claws dangling, and stepped carefully forward toward the fountain in the center, sniffing the air.

“Well, of course,” Ruda said fatalistically. “Why the fuck not?”

“Uh oh,” said Fross. “The soldiers have seen him.”

“Oh, hell,” the pirate spat, and darted out into the open, clutching her rapier. She was across the square in seconds, Juniper and Teal right behind her. “Stop, hold your fire! That’s a person, it’s not his fault!”

“Kid, we know what a werewolf is,” the nearest soldier retorted, his eyes on the creature in question. “And we don’t have restraint gear or casters on hand. If it goes for somebody—aw, hell.”

The werwolf drew back its lips, snarling at Ruda, who was now out in the open and within its line of sight. It crouched, ears flattening back and preparing to spring.

“It’s okay, I gotcha,” Juniper said grimly, striding forward. “I’ll try not to let him—”

Before she could finish the sentence, the monster sprang. Its leap was an incredible thing to behold; it shot forward easily twenty yards, and would have made the jump to them from the opposite side of the square had another form not slammed into it in midair.

Both went down in a whirling tumble of fur and skin, landing against the base of the fountain, where the new attacker sprang backward.

The werewolf bounded nimbly to its feet, opening its mouth to unleash a chilling howl.

Scorn bared her fangs and roared right back at it.

The monster rushed her; she met it head-on, and they tumbled to the side in a furious melee of blows. The demon finally got a grip on the wolf’s upper arm and whirled in a circle, hurling it off balance and finally throwing it bodily away; the werewolf slammed into the fountain, collapsing half of it and tumbling into the water.

“Scorn!” Ruda shouted. “Be careful, that’s a person!”

“Yes, yes,” the demon said impatiently. “Not kill, hello!”

She lunged forward, landing upon the werewolf even as it surged out of the water. A moment later they were rolling across the square toward the far avenue, roaring and howling and leaving trails of shed fur and blood in their wake.

“I hate this fucking city,” one of the soldiers announced.

“What is she even doing here?” Juniper asked.

“Dunno,” Ruda grunted. “I’m worrying about shit in the order of how hard it’s trying to kill me. Damn, though. She’s pickin’ up the language pretty quick. Hm… Mithril neutralizes magic. I wonder if I could break the curse with my sword?”

“Silver also breaks the werewolf curse,” Fross said pointedly, “and you know how that ends up. It’d be a shame to kill that poor fellow after you’ve just told two other people not to.”

“You can’t just go stabbing people, Ruda,” Juniper added. “It makes them die.”

“Right. Fross, can you help out here?”

“I think that would just make Scorn angry. I think I can keep ’em away from any people, though!”

“Okay.” Ruda turned and stalked back toward the church. “Now I get to herd a gaggle of terrified bumpkins across a square, carefully avoiding the werewolf-demon brawl going down on the other end of it.” She glanced over at the brawl in question as the wolf picked Scorn up bodily and used her to smash a parked haycart. The demon bounded right back out, brandishing an axle with one wheel still attached. “I wonder if Scorn would agree to trade jobs…”


 

Painfully twisting her torso, Trissiny managed to get one hand onto her belt. She paused, catching her breath—this had been the result of several minutes of effort—and considering her options. She had access to three belt pouches on that side, if she could use her fingertips to twist the belt around. In those pouches… Her belt knife was on the other side. She did have the folding multi-tool knife Shaeine had given her in this one. None of those tools would break a chain, though.

On the subject of gifts, Kuriwa’s ocarina was also on this side, in the same pouch as the small book Raichlin had given her. This would be an excellent time to call for the shaman’s help… But even if she could extract the ocarina, she could never play it with her arms pinned to her sides this way.

Also, she didn’t know how to play it, anyway.

The chains tightened again as they were tugged from the other side of the tree.

“Arjen, stop it,” she ordered. “You’ll just hurt yourself.”

He snorted unhappily, clomping back around to her and gently nuzzling her forehead.

Trissiny leaned into his soft nose, feeling the hot breath on her face, and sighed. “I’m sorry. I probably shouldn’t have sent you away… Maybe if you’d been here to help me fight I wouldn’t be in this mess.”

He snorted again, which was almost deafening at that range, and bumped her head reproachfully.

“Can you go check on Frind, please? Maybe you can wake him up?”

The horse lifted his head, whickered softly, and turned to step toward the fallen Shadow Hunter. He carefully nosed at Frind, failing to elicit a response, then whinnied back at Trissiny.

“I guess that was too much to ask,” she muttered, clinging desperately to what remained of her calm. “Goddess, please…”

Help is coming, Trissiny.

Avei didn’t speak to her often, at least not directly, but it had been often enough that she knew the voice. Trissiny barely choked back a sob of sheer relief, slumping forward against the chains. Her magic was still dampened by the disruptor, but at least she wasn’t cut off from the goddess. In hindsight, she supposed that had been a silly thing to be afraid of. No enchanted gimmick was a match for the will of Avei.

More hoofbeats sounded. These were clearly approaching from a distance; Trissiny raised her head again and schooled her features, determined to meet whatever approached with such poise as she could muster in her position.

The horse that trotted into the cemetery was a lean, almost delicate creature clearly bred for racing, which was far from its most notable characteristic. It was coal black, at least except for its legs, which faded into transparency, the hooves all but invisible. Its mane and tail were made of black mist, streaming off it and leaving ephemeral trails in its wake. Most striking of all were its eyes, which glowed a sullen orange, as though lit from within by fire.

Altogether it would have been a very alarming sight, except that Gabriel was riding it.

“Gabe!” she shouted before she could catch herself. He had paused to frown at the riderless Arjen, who neighed a greeting; at her shout, he zeroed in on her, and in the next moment was cantering to a stop beside her.

“I didn’t know you could ride,” Trissiny said, grinning in spite of herself.

“Well, I never tried before,” he said reasonably. “To be fair, I doubt I could ride anything other than Whisper, here, unless whoah what whoah!”

The shadow horse sidestepped away as its rider tumbled gracelessly to the ground.

“Mount and dismount from the left, Gabriel,” Ariel instructed.

“Duly noted,” he grumbled, straightening and brushing off his coat. “All right, let’s have a look at this… Are these chains magical?”

“I don’t know if they’re magical,” Trissiny replied, “but they were put there by magic. Grabbed me like tentacles.”

“Ew.” He grimaced and knelt next to her, drawing Ariel. “Hum…oh, yeah, these are at least half magic. I bet they’d fall apart completely if cut. Ariel, can you…”

“Give me a moment to examine the spells. This is infernal work—I am designed for arcane, which is the worst possible choice to counter it.”

“Right.”

“So you got your mount,” Trissiny said while he held Ariel’s hilt against the chains at her shoulder.

“Yeah,” Gabriel said, grinning somewhat awkwardly and looking up at Whisper, who nickered and nudged him with her nose. “Just as I made it out of the graveyard, actually. It was a risk, moving out—that asshole in the white suit said you and Toby were being held hostage. But I’ve got a few tricks of my own for avoiding attention. See how those Wreath bastards like a taste of their own medicine. I left two warlocks guarding an empty spot.”

“They didn’t notice you were leaving?” she asked incredulously.

“That’s the whole point,” he said with a grin. “I can’t do invisible, but I can make people not notice me.”

“I see.” Trissiny lowered her gaze from his, clearing her throat. It was altogether awkward, being chained to a tree while he knelt next to her. “So, um… You named her Whisper?”

“Oh, I didn’t—that’s her name. Wrynhild told me.”

“Who?”

“Oh, right. Uh, the valkyries I sent into the catacombs are still there, or so I assume, but Wrynhild just arrived. She’s shadowing me. They’ve got other things to do besides keep me company, but considering the volume of undead rising here, more are on their way.”

“There’s nothing I can do about this,” Ariel stated abruptly. “Maybe if you were a far more adept mage, Gabriel, but I would need a lot more power and expertise to unravel these.”

“Shit,” he said feelingly. Trissiny very nearly echoed him.

“In this case, I suggest a brute force approach. Have either of you regained your divine magic?”

There was a pause while they both narrowed their eyes in concentration, then exchanged a dispirited look.

“I see. Gabriel, does your wand still transform into its other form?”

“That’s an idea,” he said, stepping back and reaching into his coat.

“My sword is right there,” she said, nodding at the blade thrust point-down into the soil before her.

Gabriel grimaced. “You’ll forgive me if I’m not eager to lay my hands on that thing. Hah!” He had pulled out his wand as he spoke, and it extended smoothly into a scythe.

“Splendid. That weapon weaves together multiple types of magic; I highly doubt those chains will stand up to it.”

“Right,” he said, drawing back the scythe. “Here we go!”

Trissiny cringed and ducked her head. “Please be careful!”

“You don’t say,” he retorted, and brought the scythe down against the chains on the opposite side of the tree. The blade bit deep into the wood, slicing through chains as if they weren’t there. Instantly, they dissolved entirely into ashes and Trissiny slumped forward, barely catching herself from taking a faceplant into the soil.

“Oh, thank the goddess,” she gasped, straightening. “And thank you.”

“I’d say you got those in the right order,” Gabriel said with a grin, giving her a hand up.

“Mogul said he was leaving a warlock to watch me,” she said, picking up her sword and peering around suspiciously.

“A warlock who probably does not want to engage two paladins, one of whom has working magic.”

“Still, won’t hurt to be careful,” said Gabriel. “I had to leave my Shadow Hunters behind with the Wreath; I owe them an apology. Hope they’re okay. Where’s your guy?”

“Frind,” she said urgently, grabbing her shield and dashing toward the fallen hunter. In seconds, she and Gabriel were both kneeling next to him.

He appeared to be simply unconscious; his breathing and pulse were even, and there was no visible damage to him.

“He appears to have been struck by a category two shadow bolt,” Ariel announced. “That should leave no lingering effects even for a person of average health, but this man is bolstered by a small amount of fae craft. He will likely be conscious within half an hour at most. If weapons such as that are going to be coming into use, it might serve you both to start carrying healing potions.”

“I think that’s a good idea,” Trissiny said. “What about Frind, though? Surely we can’t just leave him here…”

Gabriel scratched his head. “I…don’t have any ideas, Triss. I still can’t feel the light, and my enchanting is basically useless for healing.”

“Right now it seems tactically more important to rescue Mr. Caine and return to Veilgrad. The hunter will likely remain unharmed, and if not, losses must be accepted in an engagement like this.”

“Ariel,” Gabriel said flatly, “I appreciate your magical help, but Trissiny is the tactical expert here, and I really don’t care to hear your thoughts on ethics.”

“Whatever you say.”

“Much as it galls me,” Trissiny growled, “she’s not wrong. We have to get Toby and get back to Veilgrad. I…actually don’t think Frind’s in any danger, or likely the others, either. The Wreath was very careful not to actually hurt any of us. They’re still trying to court Vadrieny’s favor.”

He snorted. “I wonder how they plan to explain this horseshit.”

“I don’t doubt they’ve got a story ready and waiting,” she said grimly. “But we can’t worry about that right now. Come on, we’d better get moving.”

With a final, remorseful glance at Frind, she bounded into Arjen’s saddle and watched Gabriel approach Whisper. The shadow horse had no saddle or tack; she wondered how he controlled her without reins. A skilled rider could direct a horse with just their knees, but Gabriel…

“From the left,” she reminded him.

“Right!”

Finally, he was mounted and trotting toward the gate beside her.

“Gabe,” she said suddenly.

“Mm?”

“The place I left you was about equidistant between Toby’s spot and here. If you had to choose one of us to rescue… Why’d you pick me?”

Gabriel didn’t look at her, keeping his face on the trail ahead with a grim stare. “It’s… Tactics. The trick I played on the Wreath won’t hold with me out of their range. By the time I got to either of you, they’d be reacting. Whoever I wasn’t there to help would have to hold out until the both of us could reach him…or her.” He shrugged, a short, jerky motion. “You can both take care of yourselves. Since I was gonna find my last friend probably in dire straits… I wanted to be coming in with somebody who I know will go for the kill.”

Trissiny nodded. “That…was good thinking.”

“I do manage it from time to time,” he said with a faint smile.

She urged Arjen into a gallop, and he followed a moment later. They pounded down the mountain trail, making straight for a warlock who was about to have a very bad day.

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