Tag Archives: Ariel

13 – 15

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“I realize it’s difficult to plan when walking into an unknown, but we need to have some kind of strategy ready for this,” Toby said, following Fross into the outskirts of the city. Puna Dara’s buildings did not grow smaller or more sparse as they climbed; flanked as it was by craggy mountains on all sides, the city had long since filled up all the available space, but the streets grew steadily steeper as they climbed toward the limits of its confines.

“I think Gabe had the right of it before,” Juniper replied. “This is a lot less delicate than our previous assignments. All we have to do is wipe out the Rust, and the problem is basically solved. Doing it in their hidey-hole outside town where nobody else will get hurt is just an added benefit.”

“First of all,” Teal said sharply, “mass slaughter is never an acceptable solution to anything. And second, we’re making a sweeping assumption if we go in there thinking we can just take them all out.”

“That, exactly,” Gabriel agreed. “Let’s keep in mind these guys vanquished an entire Silver Legion without apparently being there. I know we’re used to out-classing enemies in a straight-up fight, but like they say, there’s always a bigger fish. Seems like a bad idea to face everybody just blithely assuming we can take ’em.”

“What did happen to the Legion, exactly?” Toby asked. “I know it was a magical plague of some kind, but we seem to have missed out some important details…”

“That would have been an excellent subject to study in detail before embarking on a mission to engage these Rust in battle.”

“Gabriel,” Teal said tersely, “does your sword have to say something snotty at the most inopportune time?”

“I am designed for precision and analysis, not social interaction.”

“You seem plenty designed for snark,” Juniper observed.

“Snark is merely the byproduct of being constantly surrounded by lesser intellects.”

“Shut up, Ariel,” Gabriel said wearily. “We had enough of a hassle getting out of the Rock and convincing Ruda not to come, I think missing some details is forgivable. Anyway, the plague…”

“Its symptoms are weakness and lethargy to the point of making basic movement difficult,” Fross chimed at the head of the group. “It appears to have been designed to be non-lethal, though several Legionnaires did perish, as is to be expected of any large group subjected to such an effect. Whether this was meant to be compassionate or to saddle the Rust’s enemies with the burden of providing for several hundred incapacitated soldiers is a matter of debate. Its cause and nature have not been identified last I heard; they’ve been evacuated to Rodvenheim where the dwarves and the Salyrites have been working on this.”

“Bless you, Fross,” Toby said.

“Thank you!”

“So what are we going to do, if the plan’s not to go in wands blazing?” Juniper asked.

“First, diplomacy,” Toby said firmly. “In fact, this whole situation reminds me of a worthwhile lesson in negotiating I got from Trissiny before she left.”

“Oh, good, it’s almost like old times,” Teal muttered. “Usually she has to be here to turn everything into a fight.”

Gabriel and Juniper both looked at her sidelong with slight frowns. Up ahead, Toby turned around to give her a deeper one.

“One thing we could all stand to learn from Trissiny,” he said, “is to recognize when our own education has left us blind spots and work to correct them. That is what she’s off doing right now, and I respect her a lot for it. No, I wouldn’t generally take the approach she recommends for diplomacy, but what she did say that I’ve taken to heart is that it’s always better to negotiate from a position of strength.” He finally turned to watch ahead while they walked; the road continued on up into the mountains, but the end of Puna Dara’s structures was fast approaching. “Omnists do not think in those terms, as a rule. But the truth is the Rust must be quite confident in their power, if they have presented enough of a threat to keep Blackbeard from moving on them directly. It will look different if we, who represent more of a physical threat than the Fourth Silver Legion did, show up in their base which they thought was secret. Hopefully, we can get them to come to terms.”

“And what’s plan B?” Juniper asked.

Toby shook his head. “Well…still to talk. Even if they won’t meet us halfway, talking will buy us time to look around and hopefully learn. The problem is how little we know. Plan B may have to be concocted on the fly.”

Gabriel cleared his throat. “If they are using Elder God stuff, once we get a look at what they’ve got in there, I may be able to do something. Vestrel is familiar with the magic they used; she says a lot of it came from or through machines, which fits with the mechanical parts these people have. She can give directions…assuming whatever they’ve got in there is set up in a way she recognizes, of course.”

“How is Vestrel so familiar with this?” Teal asked, frowning.

“Valkyries are also daughters of Naiya,” Juniper said softly. “I’ve…looked into this. It seemed relevant, especially after how they terrorized Aspen. The Elder Gods banished them from reality, and Vidius saved them from being destroyed completely. That’s how he won Mother over to the Pantheon’s side. But yeah…Vestrel would have been around when the Elders were in power.”

“Now, that’s definitely something,” Toby said, turning his head again to look at Gabriel while he walked. “Not to put too much on her shoulders, Gabe, but does she know anything else about the Elder Gods’ magic that might help?”

Gabriel shook his head. “I asked. Without seeing what the Rust have in there, we can’t predict how much she’ll recognize. Anyway…most of them don’t think fondly of the Elders, as you can imagine. There was one valkyrie who remained interested in their stuff, and loved to study history and tell anybody who’d listen about it, but she was lost a long time ago.”

“Lost, how?” Juniper asked. “I thought I understood valkyries are basically untouchable in the chaos dimension.”

“I didn’t ask,” he said shortly. “Maybe drop it? Vestrel can hear us, June, and she’d have offered any information that would have been useful. If something happened to one of your sisters that could be described as ‘lost,’ you probably wouldn’t care to have it brought up, either.”

“Gabe,” Teal said quietly, “that is one of her sisters you’re talking about.”

His face immediately turned two shades darker. “Oh. Gods… Juniper, I’m sorry, I didn’t…”

The dryad shifted a little closer and reached out to take his hand, giving him a smile. “It’s okay, Gabe. Remember that time I broke your shoulder? I figure that buys you a whole bunch of thoughtless comments.”

“The way I heard it, thoughtless comments were what led to his shoulder being broken.”

“Shut up, Ariel!” Gabriel and Juniper exclaimed in unison.

“I keep forgetting about your invisible friends, Gabriel,” Teal added. “Can they maybe scout ahead, get a sense of what we’re walking into?”

“It’s actually just Vestrel here at the moment,” he said apologetically. “She’s the only one really assigned to accompany me; the others like to hang around because I’m interesting to them, but they have jobs, too. Right now, most of them are off dealing with something in Sifan.”

Toby came to a stop, turning to face him with a wary expression. “…do we need to know?”

Gabriel grimaced. “One of the orcish clans opened some kind of portal into Athan’Khar.”

“Ooh, ouch,” Juniper said, cringing.

“Yeah,” Gabriel nodded. “But apparently everything living in Athan’Khar is both technically undead and partially phased out of this dimension, so they are vulnerable to to valkyries. The girls are holding the line while the clan and a blue dragon seal that thing back up. They’re trying to get it done before the kitsune become involved. Kitsune, as you likely recall from Professor Ekoi, are only amused by their own jokes. Other people making a mess on their lawn…”

“Say no more,” Toby said, shaking his head and turning around again. “The valkyries are busy, got it. But as for Vestrel scouting ahead…?”

“She offered.” Gabriel wore a frown now. “Honestly…I asked her to hold back a bit. When we’re closer, she can keep an eye on our perimeter, but I’m wary of sending her alone into that. These guys probably are using Elder God stuff, which is also probably one of the very few things that could detect and even harm her.”

“Mm,” Teal said thoughtfully. “But if they did do something to Vestrel, wouldn’t that get Vidius involved? I mean, that’s one way to put a swift end to this.”

Now Gabriel stopped walking, rounding on her in shock. “Teal!”

She froze as well, suddenly looking stricken. “Oh. I didn’t mean… I mean, I was just…I didn’t…”

“Okay, whoah,” Toby said soothingly, coming back to them. “I’m sure Teal didn’t intend that the way it sounded. We all know very well she’s not at all heartless.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Gabriel said, giving Teal a smile. “The phrasing just, uh, took me by surprise.”

“Sorry,” Teal said, still cringing.

Fross chimed softly, fluttering over. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, Gabe, but intentionally or not, she had a point. Sending out scouts always involves a risk to them, but it’s important to do anyway. And if anything, Vestrel is less vulnerable than any other prospect, not to mention vastly stealthier.”

“Ah, yeah,” he said with a wince, looking up the road ahead, where the mountains rose up to blot out the night sky. “As for that…”

“While you kids were chattering about your feelings,” Ariel reported, “Vestrel delivered some succinct and insightful commentary about being lectured on how to do her job by twenty-year-olds, and departed to scout the Rust’s base.”

“Right,” Gabriel said irritably, grasping her hilt. “So, that’s that done, I guess. We may not want to be in a hurry, here. If we give her time to look around and come back, we’ll be better off.”

“Incoming,” Teal said, looking back down the road toward the city. Everyone turned to follow her gaze.

Brother Ermon did not seem out of breath, despite having run what must have been a long way. He slowed as he approached, coming to a stop just a few yards distant, and bowed, only a faint sheen of sweat on his forehead betraying his exertion.

“I’m glad I caught up with you,” the Huntsman said. “Tracking in the city is never easy, but the royal seneschal had a good idea which route you had taken.”

“Evening, Brother Ermon,” Toby said, nodding. “Has something happened?”

“I fear so,” Ermon said gravely. “I’ve come to join your hunt, if I am welcome.”

They exchanged a few glances.

“It isn’t that you’re not,” Teal said carefully, “but each of us are…well, extremely durable, in our own ways. We are walking into a confrontation with people whose power we don’t understand, and hoping we can end this with just words. But…”

“I imagine it was very difficult to persuade Princess Zaruda to remain in safety at the Rock,” Ermon replied, with a faint crinkling at his eyes hinting at a smile his beard otherwise hid.

“Gods, you have no idea,” Juniper muttered.

“And I imagine, further, that what persuaded her was the awareness of her duty, and importance to her people,” the Huntsman continued, his gaze growing serious again. “It is duty that brings me here. As Mr. Caine and Juniper told us, Brother Arlund followed the Rust cultist you met at the Omnist temple, seeking to find their base. As of my departure from the Rock less than an hour ago, he has not returned.”

Toby covered his mouth with a hand, eyes widening. “Oh, my… I didn’t even think. Ermon, I cannot apologize enough—”

“Please.” The Huntsman held up a hand. “Arlund is a brother Huntsman and as such I will act to aid him as best I possibly can, now that I see the need. That does not mean I’m unaware of his…personality. I hardly expect anyone else in this city to make such an effort.”

“I appreciate that, but it was still inexcusable,” Toby said, his expression truly haunted. “At the very least I should have remembered.”

“We both should have,” Juniper agreed. “I think we owe Arlund a big apology. And that’s after getting him out of there.”

Toby drew in a deep, calming breath. “Omnu send that we still have that option.”

“Let’s not jump to conclusions, though,” Gabriel warned. “He might not have come back because he’s still following that guy around who knows where. Or anything else.”

“The man just had his arm torn off,” Ermon said grimly. “A wounded animal returns to its den. Arlund may, indeed, still be studying the area rather than captured, but you are right, Mr. Arquin; it is best, at this stage, to assume nothing. I foresee your objections,” he added. “Yes, I understand the danger. These Rust neutralized a Legion, I have been briefed. Duty demands my presence. Death and suffering are facts of life, and are not to be feared. What a man should fear is that his pain or his death may be without purpose. The best way to ward off that fate is never to shrink from duty.”

“Well put,” Teal said. “If you’re sure, I don’t think we can turn afford to down an ally.”

“On the contrary. You do, of course, have the option of forbidding him to help,” Ariel pointed out, “especially as this effectively means you’re going to have to watch out for him in addition to dealing with the Rust.”

“Ariel,” Gabriel said with barely-restrained aggravation, “be silent. Huntsmen of Shaath are the most expert trackers and marksmen in the world, and you are not daft enough to fail to see the utility in his presence. Stop being an ass!”

“I see utility chiefly in magic, for the record, but if you say so.”

“You flatter me,” Ermon said, visibly amused. “If I may assist in scouting the enemy’s den before we approach, please put me to work.”

“Ah, well, actually,” Toby replied, “funny you mention scouting. We were only just—”

He broke off as Juniper abruptly spun to face the city, shifting her feet to a ready stance. She flexed her fingers, shifting her head to study the buildings behind them carefully.

“What is it?” Teal asked in alarm.

“It’s…nothing, I guess.” Slowly, the dryad straightened up, still wearing a puzzled frown. “I must have imagined…”

“June, I have never seen you go on point like that without a good reason,” Gabe said.

“Not to mention that you don’t have the imagination to concoct flights of fancy.”

“Ariel, I am going to throw you in the harbor!” he exclaimed.

“No, you aren’t. The dryad has very keen senses, and I stand by my previous observation. If she sensed something, she sensed something.”

“Instinct should not be allowed to make your decisions for you,” Ermon added, “but it should never be disregarded.”

Juniper shook her head, still peering at the city behind them. “It’s…there is nothing there, I’m certain of it now. I reached through the attunement as well, and…nothing. But for just a moment… I thought I smelled dryads.”

This time, the look which bounced between the rest of them was wary.

“All right,” Toby said at last. “I agree…that is probably not nothing. If there’s one thing I’d expect you to pick up on, June, it’s that. But if you can’t sense them clearly, it may not have been what it seemed.”

“Yeah, I can’t imagine there’s another dryad in Puna Dara,” Teal added. “They tend to make a stir. Which raises the tricky question of what would feel like one to a real dryad.”

“Vestrel?” Toby suggested.

Gabriel shook his head. “We know from long experience Juniper can’t perceive them directly, and the last time I saw a dryad who could see valkyries, they threw her into a panic. Okay, how about this. We’d best keep it in mind, but with nothing more to go on, I think we’d better get back to the mission at hand. When we come back, tomorrow we’ll get in touch with the local Thieves’ Guild, since Locke said they’re such rumor-mongers, and see if they’ve heard anything about a cannibal serial killer or something like that in Puna Dara. For now…”

“For now,” Juniper said slowly, with a grudging nod, “you’re right. Focus on the now. I think that’s a good plan, Gabe. C’mon, let’s get this done as quick as possible. I’ve got a feeling it’s not going to be an easy night.”

She finally turned her back on the city and started walking again, the others falling into step alongside. They had this last stretch of street to themselves; there were still structures lining it, but no one else was out at this hour, and only a few had lights in their windows. There were, this far out, no street lamps. Only the darkness of the trail up the mountain loomed ahead of them.


Milanda lay flat against the rooftop, counting breaths and staring up at the stars without seeing them. After waiting two full minutes, she very carefully wiggled forward to the edge of the roof, and craned her neck to peek over it sidelong, not sticking the top of her head up. Just the way Lord Vex had taught her, and despite the discomfort, she well understood the utility of the maneuver.

The students from Last Rock, now with that Huntsman in tow, were once again on the move. With her heightened senses, a gift of her elevation by the dryads, she could still make them out, but they had moved beyond the glow of the city, climbing the old trail that led up to the mines.

She rolled over and wriggled forward to watch them from a slightly more comfortable position. “Walker… I’ve never heard about Hands of the Emperor encountering dryads in the wild. They’re usually sent to deal with sensitive, mostly human threats, in settled territory. How probable is it that a dryad could sense me because of my…connection?”

“That’s impossible to say for sure, for the very reason you just stated,” Walker’s voice replied in her ear. “Your situation isn’t exactly that of the other Hands, either, and the only dryads you’ve met since the change were the ones who did it to you. I’ll ask the girls next chance I get, but I wouldn’t count on them being able to say.”

Milanda nodded, mostly to herself as Walker of course couldn’t see the gesture. “I wonder whether it might just be Juniper.”

There came a short silence before the reply. “According to the Empire’s notes, Juniper is the youngest dryad. She’s also the most acclimated to human society apart from Ash, who as you mentioned recently is actually associated with Imperial Intelligence. Also, during the periods when classes are out at ULR, she goes to study druidism with a tribe of wood elves. Based on that alone, I think it’s quite likely she can perceive things her sisters may not.”

“Lovely,” Milanda grumbled, finally rising to her knees. “As if following them around in the dark wasn’t going to be enough of a challenge…”

“Milanda, this is getting ridiculous. Those kids are here, you don’t really have any means of getting them un-involved. That Huntsmen, likewise. You have days at most before some of the Avenists the High Commander sent reach Puna Dara, and you know they’ll go to the Rock and link up with them as well. Eserites are already present, and likely the source of whatever lead the students are following. It is worse than nonsensical for you to be running around trying to do this yourself while so much talent is being moved into place. Even if you don’t accidentally get yourself killed by one of these should-be allies, you’re going to mess up their work just as they’re interfering with yours. The only people who profit from this standoffishness are the Rust.”

“And I know the Emperor’s political concerns don’t matter to you,” Milanda replied quietly, adding a soft grunt as she landed lightly in an alley, having dropped the three stories straight to the ground. “But they matter to me. It’s not that I don’t see the sense in what you say, and I’ll probably end up offering them my help. I’ll probably have to, just to keep from creating a worst-case scenario like you just described. But not until all other options are exhausted.” She slipped past the last of the buildings, a little bit distant from the road, and stopped to finish conversing; once she started actually tracking the students and their Huntsman friend through the dark, it would have to be in silence. “If nothing else, Blackbeard doesn’t want Imperial help, and as soon as he knows I’m Imperial help, he’ll forbid me to get involved. Anything I do after that point will have diplomatic repercussions.”

There was another silence, and Milanda had just taken a step into the darkness when Walker spoke again. “If I’m not mistaken, this Left Hand of the Emperor business hasn’t been announced. Right?”

“Right,” Milanda said slowly, frowning into the night. “The idea is not to stifle it, but to let rumors grow. Hands are already boogeymen to an extent; with something even more—”

“Yes, yes,” Walker interrupted impatiently. “And every previous Hand of the Emperor has been a man, correct? So why would you need to tell anybody who you are, or who you represent?”

“A mysterious woman in black with awesome physical prowess will arouse questions,” Milanda said thoughtfully. “Especially one who may or may not smell like dryads.”

“Sure, but where are they going to get answers? Come on, you are acting in the capacity of a spy here, Milanda. Why was announcing yourself ever part of your plans?”

“Huh,” she grunted. In hindsight, it did seem rather self-evident…

Walker’s tone took on a heavy hint of irritating smugness. “And to think, you complain about my speeches. How ever did you get along without me to point out obvious facts for you?”

“Well,” she drawled, “shortly before I met you, my most important consideration was how much Sharidan liked it when I used my—”

“All right, enough, stop!”

“You know, on his—”

“Please! I give already!”

Grinning, Milanda raised the mask dangling from her neck to cover the lower half of her face, adjusted her hood, and set out into the night.

 

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13 – 12

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“By that,” Toby said slowly, “do you mean its enchantments are still active?”

Fross chimed in annoyance. “They are, but no, if I had meant that I would have said that. I always try to be precise! What I mean is, I think this object is both artificially constructed and a living organism.”

“Okay,” he said. “Sorry, no offense meant.”

The pixie zoomed over to buzz affectionately around his head once. “I know, Toby, I’m sorry for getting irked. I’m in analytical mode, it makes me impatient.”

“Now, hang on!” Juniper exclaimed. “Something cannot be artificially made and still a living thing!”

“That is a fallacy,” Ariel’s voice interjected. “Such beings do not occur in nature, but there are ample specimens from the annals of magical history.”

“What the hell was that?” Merry exclaimed in alarm.

“Ariel.” Gabriel drew the black sword and held her up; her runes flickered a dull blue in the light. “She’s very particular about magical matters. Helpful, too, most of the time.”

“Young man,” Nandi said very evenly, “do you know where talking swords come from?”

He sighed and sheathed Ariel again. “Yes, I do, and nobody here had a hand in making her. We found her in the Crawl. Fross, you were telling us about that arm?”

“Yes, thank you!” the pixie exclaimed. “If everyone’s listening now? Okay, so I’ve analyzed this thing as carefully as possible in this timeframe and with this equipment and what I’ve discovered is that it is clearly a machine, it was not built by anybody who thinks the way any modern enchanter or engineer does, and as I said, its nature is more organic than mechanical despite being mechanical and made of minerals.”

“Yeah, can we focus on that part first?” Juniper suggested. “Because that doesn’t make a lick of sense to—”

Fross rose two feet toward the ceiling, her glow brightening significantly on the way, and emitted a wordless arpeggio of sheer irritation.

“Uh…” Juniper actually took a step back from the examining table. “Actually…why don’t you just go over it in…y’know, whatever order makes sense to you.”

“Thank you, Juniper,” Fross replied, drifting back down toward the subject of her research. “Anyway. First of all, the device itself is not enchanted, exactly. Its interior structure is a series of pretty simple cables and pulleys which stand in for muscles, ligaments, all that stuff. There are no inner bones, since of course the outer structure is rigid metal, so it’s organized differently. The enchantments are contained in tiny crystals affixed to each joint.”

“Forgive me for interrupting,” Gabriel said hesitantly. “But does that mean there’s no central enchantment at all?”

“Exactly!” Fross said, clearly growing excited again. “That’s the beauty of it! See, Juniper tore this one off at the elbow, which is probably why I can’t find an enchantment that makes it interface with the human body. The little crystals only govern each mechanism individually; that interface charm was probably on the piece attached right to the human. But! These enchantments are incredibly efficient compared to ours because they have no power component! They only carry instructions for the machine parts; the energy is conducted through a series of metal filaments encased in a rubber-like non-conductive medium. It runs on electricity, not magic!”

“I thought electricity was pretty much only good for weapons,” Casey said, leaning forward on her chair.

“It is good for weapons,” Farah replied, “but actually, the nervous systems of all living things run on tiny electrical charges. That’s why lightning wands tend to cause nerve damage and sometimes even brain disorders.”

“Exactly!” Fross said eagerly, swooping around the table in erratic circles. “These appear to draw their power directly from the body! Except it takes more energy to move metal than flesh simply because of its weight, so that wouldn’t exactly work, which makes me think there must be a power source of some kind with some much more sophisticated enchantments connected to the host body. But! In addition to being very alien in design, this thing is made of components that aren’t like anything I’ve ever seen. The different alloys used for the casing, the moving parts, the metal wires… I can’t even identify any of them. Likewise the insulating material; it’s like rubber, but obviously synthetic. And these enchantment crystals most of all! It’s like… This kind of enchantment does exist now, but modern data crystals are new and pretty rare, and also not nearly as efficient. These ones aren’t much bigger than grains of sand and anything I could make to do their job would be about the size of an average lightning wand’s power crystal.”

“So, it’s magic more sophisticated than anything known,” Anjal said, frowning. “With every new revelation I get more nervous about this Elder God business. Naphthene’s tits, these bastards are all over the city!”

“Well, it’s hard to compare that kind of sophistication directly,” Fross cautioned. “Compared to the state of modern industrial enchantment, yes. But that itself is very new; individual archmages throughout history were known to make stuff like this. Well, I mean, not like this necessarily, but things so amazing modern enchanters still don’t understand how they work. Magic mirrors, for instance. We even understand those, but they’re fiendishly hard and we haven’t yet cracked mass-production of them.”

“Or talking swords, for example,” Nandi said.

Gabriel turned to give her a flat look. “Is this going to become a problem?”

“I dearly hope not,” she replied, expressionless.

“Anyway!” Fross continued more loudly. “The really, really interesting part is the organic part! Yes, Juniper, I’m coming to it. Okay, so, one thing that jumped out at me is there’s nothing in there except the devices that make it move. The thing about anything with moving parts is that moving them wears them down; they require repair and maintenance. With engineered machines, you have to get into ’em and do it manually; biological organisms have built-in systems for maintenance, which is obviously more efficient and exactly why those organisms are so much more complex than any machine. So! What’s interesting here is that this device is clearly not designed to be dismantled! The pieces are solid, and even the ones that move connect firmly in a way that clearly isn’t meant to be disconnected. Therefore, since it has no way to access it internally to perform repairs, there has to be a built-in mechanism for that!”

“What if they don’t repair them?” Casey suggested. “Just…take ’em off and throw ’em away when they wear out.”

Fross shot upward in indignation. “Excuse me, but I refuse to believe any intelligence capable of creating a machine like this would make a design choice so inefficient, wasteful, and catastrophically stupid.”

“Sorry,” Casey said, holding up her hands in surrender. “You’re the boss.”

“It’s pronounced Fross, actually,” Ruda said with a grin.

“So,” the pixie continued, “I went looking for traces of this mechanism and guess what I found!”

“Or,” Toby said quickly when several people opened their mouths, “just tell us? For efficiency’s sake, if nothing else.”

Fross appeared not to hear him, carrying on at a rapid clip while bouncing up and down in midair. “While I was doing exploratory divinations, I actually caught the damaged edges of the metal casing rebuilding itself, filling in scratches and trying to extend toward the part that’s broken off! And, and! That prompted me to take a closer structural look at the metal itself, and it was clearly not molded, cast, or worked using any known means. It was built up one atom at a time, like the way mollusks grow shells, but on an even smaller scale somehow adding up to a finished product on a much greater scale than any clam! Isn’t that amazing?”

Everyone stared at the apparently inert metal arm for a moment of silence, Merry and Casey standing up to see better.

“Amazing is a word,” Ruda said at last. “The one that springs to my mind is ‘creepy.’ With some adjectives. You all know my favorite ones, I think.”

“But…you couldn’t find any standing enchantment that’s doing that?” Gabriel asked.

“No, I couldn’t!”

“So,” Teal said, “we still don’t understand what force animates this thing, but now we know it’s still active and doing so right now.”

“If I may make a recommendation,” said Ariel, “it may be too late in this case but for future reference, it would be wise to handle any such objects as if they presented a threat of contagion.”

“Holy shit,” Gabriel muttered, “we’ve got the queen and the princess in this room… All right, everybody! We’re gonna do a thorough cleansing and general healing.”

“Do you really think that’s necessary, boy?” Anjal asked dryly, folding her arms.

“I have no idea,” he replied, “but none of us have any idea about anything, here, and I don’t think we can afford to take risks.”

“He’s right,” Toby said, placing a hand on Gabriel’s shoulder. “About the risks and sensible countermeasures, not so much the part where he started barking orders at the aforementioned queen and princess.”

“Oh.” Gabriel’s cheeks colored. “I, uh…sorry, I didn’t mean…”

“It’s all right, Arquin, we’re used to you,” Ruda said, slugging his other shoulder and grinning. “Future reference, don’t get pushy with Punaji women unless you’re lookin’ to get your ass married and/or stabbed.”

“And/or?” Ephanie muttered.

“Seriously, though, let’s please just do this,” Gabriel said a little nervously. “Uh… Juniper’s the tricky one. Either divine healing or the cleansing charms I can do will hurt her.”

“I’m not sure I need it,” the dryad said, folding her arms. “I’m pretty impervious in the first place, and anyway, I have my own means.”

“Okay, but…wouldja humor me, Juno? Whatever you’ve got to check for and cleanse any kind of corruption… I know you’re a dryad, but remember you don’t have Naiya to rely on now and there’s no telling what these guys are capable of…”

“Yeah, I see your point,” she said with a sigh. “Okay, I’m just gonna go to that corner over there and concentrate. Can you try to keep your divine magic in the other side of the room?”

“Can do!” Gabriel said, saluting. “Now, uh… Toby, you’re much better at healing than I am. I think you’d better take point, here.”

“Sure,” Toby said, peering at him. “Did I hear you say you can do cleansing charms? That’s impressive stuff, Gabe, I had no idea you were that advanced.”

“Gabriel is very good at enchanting!” Fross chimed. “I’m a much more general-purpose arcanist, and I frequently ask his help with passive enchantment work! And we worked hard on getting those cleansing charms right for our semester project. See, the trick is including the right modifiers so they only identify and purge hostile elements from the body and not the symbiotic bacteria that aid digestion! We made a lot of poor rats very sick…”

“You keep your fuckin’ finger wiggling away from me,” Ruda ordered Gabriel, taking a step back.

Nandi cleared her throat, stepping forward. “I am a priestess. Less innately powerful than Mr. Caine, obviously, but with five centuries of experience in several fields of healing. I would be glad to help.”

“You would be very welcome,” Toby said emphatically. “My thanks, Corporal Shahai. Now, let’s please organize everybody into a line over here, we’ll want to give everybody our full attention, not just fling magic around. Corporal, would you walk us through the recommended procedure, please?”

While Nandi began instructing the students, Merry glanced sidelong at Juniper, who had just passed them and was now sitting in the corner with her eyes closed, then leaned forward and lowered her voice to a bare whisper, nodding in Teal’s direction. “So, uh… What’s the deal with that one?”

“She’s possessed,” Principia replied in the same quiet tone. “Bonded with the archdemon Vadrieny.” Farah swallowed loudly, staring at Teal with wide eyes.

“You’ve…heard of that particular demon?” Merry asked her.

“Archdemon,” Farah whispered. “Daughter of Elilial. Demonic demigoddess, technically. Vadrieny has killed…well, a lot.”

“We always make the neatest friends,” Casey murmured. Everyone shifted to stare at her; neither her expression nor tone revealed whether she was being sarcastic.

“And you,” Merry finally said, prodding Principia in the shoulder, “drugged her to get her out of your way. Some balls on you, woman. Not an iota of sense, but still.”

“It seemed worthwhile at the time,” Principia said with a sigh. “Okay, Lang, that’s as good as an opening as you’re likely to get. Planning to make with the barrage of screeching and questions, now? Quite frankly, the anticipation has been worse than what your voice does to my ears when you get in one of your episodes.”

“I do not have ‘episodes,’” Merry said sullenly. “Anyhow…no. Oh, I was gonna, but I spent the awkward silence while we were getting frog-marched here thinking—shut your mouth, Elwick!—and it actually makes perfect sense, like the princess said. Obviously, if Rouvad was gonna let you in the Legions, it would be with a huge list of stipulations about what you can’t say to whom. So, no, LT, I don’t take being kept in the dark personally, this one time.”

“I can’t tell you what a load off my mind that is,” Principia said sweetly.

Merry grinned right back. “Yeah, well. After the way she lit into you, I figured you two have enough issues without me picking at it.”

Ephanie sighed. “And still, you had to bring that up. You were almost considerate for a moment there, Lang.”

Merry just smiled. “I assume Shahai knew about this, too? She’s got Rouvad’s ear on everything.”

“I knew,” Casey said quietly, then shrugged when the others turned to stare at her again. “Locke pretty deliberately left the breadcrumbs. You just had to follow ’em.”

“Of course she did,” Ephanie said, turning to Principia in exasperation. “Locke, have you ever been given an order you didn’t feel an immediate need to weasel around?”

“No,” Prin said immediately, grinning. “Not once. But I have many times received orders I didn’t actually weasel around. If I just went and did everything I felt a need to, I’d have had a much more interesting sex life. And also would be dead by now.”

“I would prefer not to hear any more about either of those prospects, please,” said Merry.

Their conversation, and Nandi’s instruction of Toby, was interrupted by a rap at the door. A second later, it opened, revealing the royal seneschal.

“Bad news, Akhatrya!” Ruda said merrily. “You’re infected, now! Join the line!”

“Zari, my rules about you hassling the staff don’t change just because you’re halfway to college-educated,” Anjal snapped, whisking her hat off and swatting Ruda over the head with it. “What is it, Akhatrya?”

“Your pardon, Majesty, Princess, honored guests,” the tall, bearded man said, bowing deeply. “There is an unexpected visitor in the palace seeking an audience with both the Crown and with Lieutenant Locke.” He turned another, shallower bow specifically upon Principia. “A representative from the local Thieves’ Guild.”

Anjal narrowed her eyes. “I see. And this visitor is not meeting with the King because…?”

Akhatrya’s face betrayed no expression. “His Majesty the King feels that since you are both together, it is the most efficient course of action for you to meet Miss Lagrande.”

“Lagrande?” Principia’s eyebrows shot upward. “Quinn Lagrande? She’s still alive?”

“One hopes so, Lieutenant,” Akhatrya said placidly. “She was moments ago. If she is otherwise now, we shall have most interesting conversations with the Guild in the days to come.”

“Great,” Anjal muttered. “You win this time, husband, but there will be a reckoning. Oh, yes, there will. Well, Akhatrya, I’m afraid our little Zari wasn’t wrong. Join the line, please. This Quinn Lagrande will just have to wait a few minutes longer.”


Ox Whippoorwill stepped into the Ale & Wenches and paused just inside, exchanging nods with a couple of citizens. Most didn’t notice him, being too absorbed in their conversations. Everything about the scene was…off. It was far too crowded for the early afternoon, and almost all those present were Rockies, while the A&W primarily catered to out-of-towners. Its usual clientele were present in small numbers; they were identifiable as the few people sitting at tables by themselves, looking somewhat bemused by what was going on around them.

What was going on was just conversation, so far. They were intense conversations, though, and not all of them quiet. Ox stood for a handful of heartbeats, soaking it in—just long enough to hear a few key words. Then he moved out of the door and began making his way around the perimeter of the room toward the only man present aside from the bartender who wasn’t sitting.

“Deputy,” Fedora said, nodding at Ox’s approach. He was blatantly lurking, just beside the stairs, and just as blatantly watching the room. More than a few of those gathered kept casting pointed glances his direction. So far, at least, nobody was staring.

“Inspector,” Ox rumbled in reply. “An’ it’s just Ox. Titles are for when I gotta get official with somebody.”

“Very well, same goes,” Fedora said, momentary amusement cracking his pensive expression. He took a sip of the pint of beer in his hand. It was almost full, clearly being used as a prop to justify his presence to the proprietor.

“Oh? I figured Inspectors kept the right to the title even after they retired. Like military ranks, or professors.”

“I actually would have to look up the rules on that,” Fedora murmured, again staring across the bar. “Regardless, I’m not in with the Empire any longer. That was a good job and I’m glad to have held it, but it’s best not to dwell on the past, I find.”

“Mm.” Ox took a position next to him and folded his arms, feeling no need to bother getting a drink. He wanted his head clear, and since being officially deputized he had no need of an excuse to stand around in a public place.

For a few minutes, they stood in silence. Watching, and listening.

“Is it like this all over town?” Fedora asked finally, then took another tiny sip.

“A mite calmer,” Ox replied. “Folk meetin’ on the street, havin’ little chats. In shops an’ behind shops… Nothin’ else is as boisterous as this right here. ‘Swhy I came to keep an eye on this crowd. Even the Saloon’s not as packed, or as…intense. Jonas won’t stand for no funny business in his place, either.”

Fedora nodded very slowly. “Tell me…are you seeing the same thing wrong with this picture I am?”

“It’s too damn fast,” Ox said immediately, keeping his voice low. With the hubbub in the room, it wasn’t hard to be discreet. “Not that it’s a small thing, exactly, the University sponsorin’ some kinda demon-summonin’ project, but… I know this town. I know the rhythms an’ the balance of opinions. There ain’t enough folks suspicious of the school to create this kinda hubbub this quick. Even if there was… The announcement was just posted, after lunch. Normally, folks’d only just be hearin’ the first rumors. This is all over. An’ you can plainly see how tense it’s gettin’.”

Again, that very slow nod. Fedora let his eyes wander across the crowded tavern, having another sip that barely wet his lips. “The Sheriff know about this?”

“I came right here when this started up, ain’t talked with him yet. Sam’s got ears, though. He knows his job, an’ he knows this town.”

“Hm.”

“Reminds me of a while back,” Ox continued after a pause. “We damn near had an honest-to-gods riot in this town, an’ it turns it there was a rogue Vidian priestess doin’ some kinda hoodoo, makin’ people more susceptible. You don’t suppose…”

This time, Fedora shook his head negatively, and with more energy. “I don’t know Last Rock as well as you, Ox, but I know people, and I know trouble. You’re right: this is too quick. Much too quick a result. And your instinct is equally right. I’m never willing to trust that out-of-the-ordinary behavior happens on this scale without being made to. But look at the pattern.” He gestured slowly around the room with his nearly-full glass. “Look at the different expressions. There are people nervous, people pissed off… But most uncertain, and just as many peacemakers as agitators. Folks speaking up on Tellwyrn’s behalf. If there was a magical effect in place to agitate people, like in your example, we wouldn’t see all these people standing back and listening, waiting to form their own opinions. If there was some kind of more aggressive control trying to turn people against Tellwyrn, same goes and she wouldn’t have this many defenders.” Again, he shook his head, and took a sip. “No need to assume some grandiose, cosmic effect in place. Just somebody stirring up shit. Someone skillful, well-connected in this town. Someone who knows the social landscape well enough to launch a very effective rumor campaign.”

“You’re sayin’ it’s one o’ my neighbors,” Ox growled.

“Maybe,” Fedora said noncommittally. “It would take more than one to do this so efficiently, but don’t jump to any conclusions. There are a lot of new faces in Last Rock lately, some who’ve been here long enough to have learned what they’d need to do this, assuming they had the right skills to begin with. This used to be a town where everybody knew everybody else; now, suddenly, it’s not anymore. You couldn’t ask for an easier target for infiltration.”

Ox heaved a deep sigh, his breath ruffling his mustache. “Omnu’s balls. You know who’s doin’ this, Fedora?”

“Not yet,” the erstwhile Inspector replied, a predatory glint rising in his eyes. “That…will take a little work. I’m going to have a long stroll around town, Ox. Chat with some people, listen in. You and the Sheriff have no objection, I trust?”

“Respect the law,” Ox rumbled, “respect the people, an’ don’t stir up no more trouble. Aside from that, ain’t my business or the Sheriff’s what you do.”

“Oh, I don’t intend to stir the pot, you can count on that,” Fedora said, straightening up and casting a weird little smile around the room. “But I am going to find out who’s got their hands on the spoon.”

 

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12 – 54

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They all gaped at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?” Moriarty finally asked.

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

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

“Watch your language!” Moriarty barked.

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

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

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

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

Danny laughed.


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

“Actually, we know them,” said Flora.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like the Hands?”

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

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

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

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

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

“That bad, huh?” Sweet asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey,” the Sheriff protested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I—wait, what? No, I didn’t!”

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

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

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

“Smooth, kid,” Ash said with a grin.

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

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

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

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

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

There was a second of shocked silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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12 – 52

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Poor kid,” Juniper said, frowning.

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

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

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

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

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

Toby sighed again. “Gabriel.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No offense was taken, I assure you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How so?” Juniper asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yornhaldt heaved a sigh. “Admestus.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Of course not. Whatever you need.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, what would you—”

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

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

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

“What is that?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Sleeper,” Iris growled.

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

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

Maureen swallowed. “Back away fer now.”

“I don’t run from demons!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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12 – 18

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“Sorry I’m late!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yarr! It’s drivin’ me nuts!”

“Arquin, so fucking help me—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds unnecessarily complicated,” Scorn huffed.

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

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

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

Shaeine cleared her throat loudly.

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

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

“Fross.”

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

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

“Wait, Tellwyrn what?” Scorn exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

“Point,” Ruda agreed, nodding at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really great hair!” Ruda chortled.

“Tellwyrn has all that,” Scorn pointed out.

“We have a dryad,” Juniper said smugly.

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

“She did,” Ruda pointed out.

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

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

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

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

“Why?” Scorn demanded.

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

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

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

A round of blank glances was exchanged around the room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anyway,” Toby said loudly.

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

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

“How does that help us?” asked Shaeine.

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

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

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

“To what end, though?” Gabriel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Ingenious,” Teal marveled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If I may?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a neat trick,” Toby said.

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

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10 – 33

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How the tables have turned,” Darling muttered.

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

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

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

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

“Grow up.”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut your clever mouth,” Gabriel snarled.

The silence was immediate, total, and stunned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At last, the valkyries faded back into invisibility.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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10 – 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teal groaned, covering her eyes with a hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toby sighed.

“Hey, Teal!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trissiny turned very slowly to stare at him.

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

“This week, even,” Toby said dryly.

“Thanks for chiming in, there, bro.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought she seemed sweet,” Gabriel mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Annoying, isn’t it?” Ariel agreed.

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

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

“Hmm,” Teal murmured.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Trading stocks,” Bradshaw replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Never.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course. On your lead, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But the controls on them!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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