Tag Archives: Ayuvesh

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The darkness receded and he was released, immediately spinning away from his captor. The elf took a step back from him, grinning and raising both hands—not a greatly reassuring gesture, as one still held that stiletto and the other the shadow-jumping talisman.

“Welcome.”

Ayuvesh whirled to behold a tall, robed figure approaching him from the corridor ahead. Finding himself apparently not under attack, for the moment, he chanced a glance around at his surroundings. There wasn’t much to see; he stood in a small, perfectly square chamber, unadorned except for a single wrought iron stand in one corner containing a modern fairy lamp which provided the only illumination. The walls, floor, and ceiling appeared to be all of one piece.

He did not know the name of the material, but he had seen it before. It had a grainy texture like rough stone, but reflected light like metal, and was impervious to every tool or weapon he had tested against it. Only the Infinite Order of old had built with this substance.

The figure approaching him reached up and lowered his hood, revealing an angular elfish face with eyes of solid emerald green. His long hair and neat little goatee were the same color.

“We have met before,” the dragon said, “but I regret that circumstances at the time did not permit a proper introduction. I am Khadizroth the Green. You have already met the Jackal. I apologize for the drama; it was an unfortunate necessity. I hope he did not indulge overmuch in…theatrics. He does have that tendency.”

“Yeah, I’m a real stinker,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “But, hey, least I’ve never assembled a child harem out of genocide survivors. Everybody’s gotta draw the line somewhere!”

Khadizroth’s head shifted minutely; Ayuvesh had the expression he was glancing at the elf, but without visible pupils or irises the movement of his eyes was impossible to track. The dragon’s expression did not alter, in any case.

“Where are we?” he asked with all the poise he could muster. “And, if you will indulge me in a second question, why have you brought me here?”

Khadizroth bowed slightly to him. “This is the most secure location I know. I used it as a lair centuries ago, before it was found by an adventurer. This individual and I had an understanding and he never returned here, nor revealed its secret, but nonetheless I moved elsewhere once a single uninvited soul knew of it. That is a dragon’s way. I have kept…an eye, so to speak, on this spot, in case I one day required absolute security, and I can attest it has not been breached since. It is quite safe and quite empty now, I assure you, but it was originally made by the Elder Gods. There is no possibility of scrying or communicating through its walls, except at my instigation from within. Only one who has been here before can shadow-jump inside, and arcane teleportation in and out is quite impossible. That is why your escort paused to engage in that pantomime of murder. He observed, during our previous visit to Puna Dara, that you seem able to communicate with your fellows, likely via those machine augmentations of yours. Once here, that is no longer possible. But now they, like the Punaji authorities, will believe you dead. I apologize for the distress this must cause.”

He bowed again, more deeply.

“I see,” Ayuvesh said slowly. It was, he supposed, a good sign that his abductors were being so forthcoming—at least, so far. “And as for the why…?”

“You’re dead!” the Jackal crowed. “Sorry, kid, nothing personal. Archpope’s orders.”

Ayuvesh turned to examine the grinning elf, not bothering to suppress his disdainful expression. The Jackal pursed his lips and made kissing noises at him.

“This entire situation requires some explanation,” Khadizroth said with much more courtesy. “I will, of course, help you understand everything I may. If you would accompany me?”

He stepped to the side, politely gesturing Ayuvesh forward through the square corridor.

Well, it wasn’t as if there was anywhere else he could go. He nodded back to the dragon with equal courtesy and paced forward as indicated. When he drew abreast of Khadizroth, the dragon fell into step beside him.

“There is, in terms of space, not much to see,” Khadizroth said, sounding oddly apologetic. “The cavern has six small outlying chambers, identical to the one we just left—which has been set aside for shadow-jumping in and out. Another is serving for sanitation. In a vault which is as thoroughly sealed as this one, that involves a convoluted arrangement of portable holes and water conjuration devices which requires no small amount of power crystals.”

“How creative,” Ayuvesh said neutrally, reasoning it was safest and wisest not to irritate his host with all the questions racing through his mind.

“The rest we mean to set aside for individuals, as a matter of privacy. When those run out, we will be reduced to erecting barriers to subdivide the main space. Which you now see before you.”

They had just emerged from the corridor onto a wide chamber which was mostly lost in darkness. A ledge of the stone-metal ran along one of its narrow ends; more square corridors opened off this. At intervals were set up iron stands holding fairy lamps, their glow lighting the ledge adequately but not penetrating far into the vast darkness spreading off in the other direction. Ayuvesh stepped forward to peer down; the ledge was about nine feet tall. Off to his left a set of wooden stairs descended do the chamber floor.

“Everything is in a very early state, as you can see,” the dragon explained. “With time and effort it will become much more comfortable. At the moment, however, quarters are unavoidably somewhat spartan.”

“It looks like a vehicle hangar,” Ayuvesh commented. His voice created a faint echo, now that they were standing in the huge main chamber. “Which suggests the main entrance is at the other end; the entire wall would open. I assume it is too buried in a rockslide or some such to function, otherwise all this would have been found ages ago.”

“You are a surprisingly educated man,” Khadizroth observed.

“In a few highly specific areas, I suppose so,” Ayuvesh replied, nodding graciously. “When might I be permitted to rejoin my followers, if it’s not too much to ask?”

The dragon nodded slowly, turning to gaze out into the dark, empty space. To Ayuvesh’s minor discomfiture, the Jackal had followed them out of the corridor and now lounged against the wall nearby, trimming his fingernails with his stiletto and grinning that unsettling grin.

“I cannot give you a definitive answer to that at this time,” Khadizroth said, “though I hope the final answer is not ‘never.’ We must all be prepared for the potential worst-case scenario.”

“Which is?”

“That, I am still trying to determine.” The dragon grimaced bitterly. “You are here, Ayuvesh, because Archpope Justinian has commanded your death.”

Ayuvesh glanced over at the Jackal, who winked. “So I hear.”

“Therefore, you must remain dead, so long is he is aware—and his web stretches far indeed. The only way to ensure that Justinian is kept in the dark is to ensure that the world itself is.”

“The bomb may have been overplaying your hand, in that case,” Ayuvesh opined. “Such a measure is needless overkill for assassination; such a clever man as your Archpope will suspect it was meant to conceal a disappearance.”

“Oh, the bomb was his Holiness’s idea!” the Jackal said brightly. “He doesn’t want the Punaji thinking anybody knew or cared enough about you to send someone into their secure rooms and open your throat. But who knows what’s in all that hardware you’ve got strapped to your chassis, eh? Lacking any other explanation they may conclude you just malfunctioned and blew the hell up!”

“Anyone who thinks that is not giving Rajakhan nearly enough credit.”

“Hey, take it from an old pro.” The Jackal bowed deeply, flourishing his non-knife-holding hand out behind him. “Sometimes it’s just not possible to fully cover your tracks, in which case creating ambiguity and confusion is the next best measure.”

“We, as I presume you have surmised by now, serve the Archpope in a less than open capacity,” Khadizroth said. “Carrying out those of his orders which he does not wish connected to him. Some of such, anyway; he has many hands, most unknown to each other. We do this for two reasons: the Archpope is holding something over each of us, and more importantly, because we prefer to be close to him rather than hiding away in the hope that what he is planning simply fizzles out. Only by remaining active and nearby do we have any chance of creating an opportunity to thwart him.”

“And…” Ayuvesh slowly tilted his head. “What is the good Archpope planning?”

“That,” Khadizroth replied with a deep frown, “is a question which troubles me greatly. A person in his position, pursuing designs of the scale and complexity that he is, should be trying to simplify them. Consolidating power, eliminating rivals, controlling the situation. Justinian, in many ways, seems determined to do the opposite. Most prominently a cornerstone of his strategy appears to be keeping as many of his enemies alive and in positions to pester him as possible. He has repeatedly passed over opportunities to finish off a disadvantaged foe, and even arranged for some to receive much needed strokes of luck after suffering major setbacks. The only blood he seems willing to spill is that of his own agents, when their usefulness has ended.”

“And guess who gets to do the spilling,” the Jackal smirked.

“The heart of the problem with Justinian is that I cannot tell what he is attempting to do,” Khadizroth continued. “His machinations are too careful and too precise to be directed at stirring up simple chaos… But I fail, thus far, to see what other end result they could possibly have. He appears to want as many factions and powers in play as possible, in a state of maximum conflict with one another. Even his efforts to deflect their attention from him appear…begrudging, undertaken only when one becomes a true threat.”

“It looks a lot like he wants the whole world at his throat,” the Jackal mused, tossing his knife in the air and catching it. “Not right now, but at some point in the future. Fuck me if I can see why, though.”

“And so, here you are,” Ayuvesh mused, “tired of taking increasingly nonsensical orders, naturally wondering when it will be your turn upon the chopping block, and beginning to set up the pieces for an act of rebellion.”

Khadizroth nodded to him. “You are as perceptive as your reputation suggests, Ayuvesh.”

“I am as perceptive as any man who still has one working eye,” he replied sardonically. “Nothing about this situation is particularly subtle, now that I am in the middle of it. Let me ask you this: what was the Archpope trying to accomplish by manipulating my cult—and, I presume, the Punaji Crown?”

“The recent events in Puna Dara were only half that story, I’m afraid.” Ayuvesh turned at the new voice, finding himself approached by a man in a neat suit, with a neat beard, who had a Stalweiss complexion but spoke with a Tiraan accent. “A simultaneous debacle unfolded in Last Rock; I had the honor of a much closer vantage than I would have liked for that.”

“Ayuvesh, may I present Willard Tanenbaum, our first new recruit,” Khadizroth said politely. “A scholar of the Topaz College, and recently one of Justinian’s trusted, until he apparently outlived his usefulness and was slated for sacrifice.”

“Along with a great many of my fellows,” Tanenbaum said bitterly. “To answer your question, sir, his Holiness had recently come very close to open conflict with the Silver Throne. He has since been arranging opportunities to work alongside its agents. Purging the ‘corrupt’ from the Pantheon’s cults—specifically, those more loyal to himself than their gods, and no longer necessary to his plans. Setting up your Rust for a fall in order to have his agents build bridges with the Empire and, apparently, the Punaji.”

“All that carnage,” Ayuvesh whispered. “My friends, slain. My nation, brought to the edge of collapse. For a distraction.”

“So, yeah,” the Jackal drawled. “There’s a reason Justinian’s favorite pawns are pretty willing to turn on him.”

Slowly, Ayuvesh shook his head. “I certainly sympathize with your aims, gentlemen, but… I fear I have very little to offer you. These…” He held up his mechanical arm and pinged the nail of his other index finger against its hard surface. “…are now deprived of the essential power that maintains them. They will seize up, and cease to work. I do not know how soon, but it’s more than my arm and leg that are controlled by these machines. When those which replaced my heart fail, so will I. Little time have I left, and for every minute of it I will grow gradually less functional.”

“I am a green dragon,” Khadizroth said gravely. “Regeneration is within my power. It will not be quick, Ayuvesh. It will not be simple, nor easy. But your body can be restored. Your true body, the flesh and bone nature gave you. And indeed…with this done, you will find yourself much less confined. After all, you are very distinctive in appearance. I rather think people will not recall where they have seen you before, if they see you without those modifications.”

Ayuvesh stared at him. Tanenbaum simply raised an eyebrow, while the Jackal balanced the stiletto on his finger by its tip, wearing a manic grin.

“You said Mr. Tanenbaum was the first new recruit,” he said at last. “And I?”

“The second,” Khadizroth replied. “More will come.”

“And what will we do?”

“At this time, I cannot yet tell,” the dragon said patiently. “As I’ve said, it remains a mystery what our devious benefactor is doing, himself. But the longer it goes on, the more difficult it will become for him. Eventually—in fact, soon, I believe—a point will come…a fulcrum. One spot upon which all will hinge, and a swift, unexpected action will bring him to the ruin he has brought upon so many others. What I propose is that we take steps to ensure that when this happens, we are ready.”

“Ready. Yes. After all…” Ayuvesh nodded. “One can always become more.”


“So that’s the Tellwyrn.”

“Ugh.” Trissiny grimaced. “Please don’t give her a the, her ego is out of control as it is.”

“Well, of all the people on this world, I figure she is entitled,” Darius said, stepping up beside her on the wall. The Rock was awake by that hour of the morning, and her friends had begun to trickle out of their rooms in ones and twos, but whole groups had not assembled yet. They were poking about on their own, processing the events of the last few days in their own way. She was surprised to see Darius of all people up here; strolling the battlements seemed more a way for her to orient herself than he. Nonetheless, here he was.

They stood in comfortable silence for a few moments, watching Tellwyrn, Ruda, and Anjal have a conversation across the courtyard below, near the damaged front door of the Rock itself.

“So,” Darius said finally, “I guess you’ll be going back with the Last Rock people, huh.”

“Oh…not necessarily,” she replied lightly. “I took the whole semester off, so there’s really not much for me to do there. It’s been good to see everyone again, but I’ll see them in the fall. Don’t worry, I still plan to come back to Tiraas with you guys. I need to thank Glory and say goodb—”

“You need to go back where you came from.”

She broke off in surprise, turning to face him. Darius was still gazing down below, his expression empty.

“People like me, like us,” he said quietly, “people who aren’t paladins, or dryads, or witches, or half-demons, or… We get killed for being too close to you lot, and the kind of shit that follows you.”

“That isn’t fair,” she whispered.

“Course it isn’t,” he agreed, shaking his head. “It’s not fair, and it certainly isn’t your fault. It just…is what it is. I read all the same bard stories you did, growing up, I bet. Paladins always have companions, and the companions always die. Because that is what happens when you’re a squishy nobody who gets in the line of fire. That kind of fire. I learned something, yesterday, about how brave I am, and how brave I’m not.” He raised his head and turned to meet her eyes, unflinching. “If it was just me? Right now I’d be asking you to take me with you, wherever the hell you’re off to next. I am quite willing to die from getting into paladin shit I had no business going near. Hell, that’d be a nobler end than anything I’ve got planned for my life. But… It turns out I am not willing to watch that happen to any more of my friends. And definitely not to my little sister.”

He reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder. She hadn’t put on her armor this morning, nor even her leather coat as a concession to Puna Dara’s climate, and felt his grip clearly through her shirt.

“There’ll always be people willing to die for the cause, Trissiny. Just…do me a favor? Make sure the next guy that happens to knows what he was signing up for, before it happens.”

She flinched.

“Thank you, for everything…Thorn. You’re my hero, and that’s not an exaggeration.” Darius squeezed her shoulder, and gave her an affectionate little jostle. A tiny, sad smile flickered across his features. “Now go home.”

He released her, turned and walked away along the wall, unhurried, jamming his hands into his pockets.

Trissiny stared after him in something like shock. With her head turned to follow him leaving, she didn’t see Tellwyrn look up at her and sigh softly before returning to her own conversation.


Night always fell early on Mathenon, thanks to the Stalrange rising in the west. On this particular night, a storm had come with it—the kind that was all wind, occasional lightning, and no rain. The way weather behaved around the edge of the Great Plains, this wasn’t unusual, either. Nothing was really unusual. Sometimes it hailed in midsummer; the Golden Sea made a mess of air currents. Prairie folk had learned to put their heads down and endure.

All this made it a perfect night to while away in the pub with the gang, drinking and talking, as the sky howled outside.

The Fallen Arms stood in a somewhat rough part of the city, but it wasn’t a rough establishment. Neither boisterous nor dull, it had a dedicated clientele of hard-working men and women who liked to stop in and unwind after a day’s work; they liked stiff drinks, friendly conversation, and not having to deal with any foolishness. In Mathenon, “working class” most often meant accountants, House servants, or fancy private guards. The regulars at the Fallen Arms were a different breed; they worked with calloused hands and strong backs, and it was well within their ability to insist on some damn peace and quiet if some pushy lout wandered in and tried to start something. The proprietor encouraged them to do so.

“Now, don’t go puttin’ words in my mouth,” Roy said with mounting exasperation, pointing an accusing finger with the hand still holding his beer. “I didn’t say anything about joining the Huntsmen, I’ve already got a job. What kinda fool you take me for?”

“All right, fair,” Elsa replied agreeably. “But suppose your boy wanted to run off and join a lodge. What would you say to that, since you like ’em so much?”

“I dunno why you’re rarin’ to start a fight tonight,” Roy grumbled. “All I said was, they got their virtues, see? They ain’t totally without a point. How’d you get to me liking ’em so much from that?”

“I’ve got tits, that’s how,” she retorted. “Every time those pelt-wearing asshats come through town I have to deal with ’em talking down to me in a way you never have to worry about. This ain’t a theoretical exercise to me, Roy, or any woman, it’s you talkin’ out of your ass about stuff you don’t understand.”

“Now, I never said they didn’t have their bad sides, either!” he said, his voice rising defensively in pitch. “Come on, Elsa, you know me better’n that. All I’m saying is, some of that they have to say ain’t completely stupid. They’re all about self-reliance, an’ having respect for nature. What’s the matter with any of that?”

“What’s the matter is the bullshit it comes with!”

“Omnu’s balls, there’s no talking to you tonight,” Roy grunted. “Hey, Jonathan! Settle an argument.”

“No.”

“Yeah, Jon, set this asshole straight,” Elsa chimed in, leaning around Roy to grin at the man seated on his other side at the bar, nursing a beer. “You’re the most level-headed guy here.”

He sighed, and rolled his eyes. “How many times do you think I’m gonna fall for that?”

“Oh, let’s not do this,” Elsa said dismissively. “You love playing the wise old man.”

“What do you mean, old?” he demanded, and she snorted a laugh in response. He had to grin back, despite his efforts to look offended.

Gods, he’d missed this.

Jonathan Arquin regretted none of the decisions he had made in life, even though they had made his lot hard in some ways. Now, though, things were looking brighter. The Church had relocated him out here to Mathenon for his protection, and had arranged a monthly stipend on which he could live very comfortably indeed, and never have to work.

He donated it every month to an Omnist shelter for the poor. Had to funnel it through a Vernisite temple in order to do so anonymously, which meant the Vernisites took a cut—six percent, the bloodsuckers—but that was a small price to pay for not having to explain why and how a man of his humble bearing could make such a generous gift on the regular. And whatever else could be said about bankers, they were admirably discreet people, particularly the religious ones. Meanwhile, he’d gone out and gotten a job.

A man was meant to work, otherwise, what was he good for? Work rooted him in the world, in society, kept him strong and centered and useful. And as an added bonus, it brought him this again, the kinship of other people who labored for a living. People who didn’t know about the demon and the child he’d had with her.

“Yeah, shut her up for me, Jon,” Roy added. “You don’t think the Huntsmen are totally bad, do you?”

Jonathan took a judicious sip of his beer before answering. “I can’t see anybody as totally bad, Roy, and that’s not a point for your argument. Not being an irredeemable monster is the baseline, not something a person gets praised for. Let’s face it, Huntsmen of Shaath are fanatical weirdos on their best day. Nobody who treats women the way they do is worth crossing the street to spit on, you ask me.”

“Thank you!” Elsa exclaimed, while Roy grumbled something and took a swig of his beer. He then sputtered on a mouthful of foam when she smacked him a little too hard on the shoulder. Jonathan almost missed the sound of the door opening in the ensuing playful scuffle, occurring as it did right in his ear.

The spreading silence was what warned him. Though they weren’t loud, or boisterous, the patrons of the Fallen Arms talked, and laughed, and drank. It was a place where people went for good company and good conversation. When the noise faded away, once table at a time, it meant something was up.

He raised his head, turning to examine the new arrival, and found himself staring like everyone else.

Mathenon was a city of merchants, and those who supported them; positioned on the single most important trade route between the inner provinces of the Empire and the mountain paths to Svenheim and Stavulheim, it was mostly inhabited by humans but saw its fair share of dwarves. It didn’t see many drow, however.

She paced slowly across the floorboards, the gnarled ebony staff in her hand making a rhythmic thunk each time she set it down, deep red eyes scanning the room as if searching for something. Dressed in pure black, both her leather trench coat and the robe underneath it, she cut a dark swath through the rustic ambiance the Arms cultivated. Her hair, though, had a streak of livid green dyed down the center, marring the white.

By the time she reached the bar, total silence had fallen upon the tavern, every eye fixed upon the drow woman, which she gave no sign of noticing. Slowly, she glided along the row of stools, feet soundless and only the butt of her staff making noise to mark her passing. She stepped past Jonathan, past Roy, then paused.

Elsa stiffened, but the dark elf turned and went back a few steps, this time stopping right behind Jonathan, who had turned around on his stool to study her direction.

She gave him a slow, insolent once-over, then nodded as if deciding on something.

“You,” the drow ordered. “Buy me a drink.”

Jonathan tore his gaze from her crimson eyes to glance at Roy, who shrugged helplessly.

He cleared his throat. “Lost your wallet, have you?”

One corner of her lips twitched upward. “This isn’t my first visit to the Empire. I know the custom in bars like this. The man buys the woman a drink. Or are you refusing me?”

She raised one snowy eyebrow, the expression somehow challenging.

Jonathan studied her right back, with the same measured impertinence. She was, it occurred to him, quite pretty. But hell, she was an elf; they were all pretty. He hadn’t known a lot of elves, and even fewer drow, certainly not enough to make a mental comparison. It was unnerving, having no idea how old she was. By her looks, she could’ve been barely out of her teens…which meant she was just as likely to be as old as the Empire. What might a creature like this have seen in her life?

“No offense,” he said at last, “but lady… You’re kind of scary.”

The drow tilted her head to one side in an inquisitive gesture, still maintaining eye contact. After another beat of silence, she smiled.

“Perhaps. But you still haven’t refused, I notice. Maybe you like that in a woman?”

He narrowed his eyes very slightly.

She did the same.

“Hey, Eliott,” Jonathan said at last, still looking at the dark elf and not the bartender he was now addressing. “Pour something…sweet, fruity, and pink. With a little paper umbrella if you’ve got any.”

“Sure, Jon,” Eliott said, deadpan. “And for the lady?”

A few chuckles from around the room broke the tension, and the drow herself grinned broadly in mischievous delight. The expression transformed her entire face.

Grinning back at her, Jonathan Arquin experienced the familiar feeling that he was about to make an excellent series of mistakes.

 

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13 – 52

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They watched him pacing in the monitors from the security hub which now served as the headquarters for the entire Hand program. There were, of course, two Hands present; they had, without comment, implemented a policy of never leaving the Emperor unattended when he was in a room with the kitsune. In addition to Sharidan, Milanda, and Akane standing in front of the monitor, the three resident dryads were huddled around another screen some distance away, reading something. They liked to be nearby when people gathered, but didn’t seem to have the attention span for prolonged discussions. In two smaller screens flanking the one showing the prisoner were displayed the images of the Avatar and Walker, the latter observing this through a similar two-screen setup down in her home in the GIC. The Avatar, of course, could see whatever the computers did. Making a visible face was just a courtesy he extended. Altogether it was rather more crowded than usual in the hub.

On the monitor, the damaged Hand of the Emperor, his clothing still stained and ragged from his travails at Last Rock, paced like a caged animal—which wasn’t far from the reality. They had secured him in one of the cells lining the access corridor. Not the one in which Walker had been kept for years; that one was now a sort of reading nook, permanently set aside with books and a small fountain. The dryads enjoyed congregating there.

“Tactically, it’s interesting,” the Emperor mused. “They weren’t able to destroy him—but they did fight him to a standstill. And those were a handful of miscellaneous leftovers after most of the University’s faculty and students were secured out of his reach. This is the closest we have ever been, or likely will be again, to testing the Hands’ on-the-ground combat capability against what are effectively the adventurer teams of the modern age.”

Everyone nodded, and no one commented. While Tellwyrn and her school were ostensibly allies of the Silver Throne, it was important to know how dangerous one’s allies were. In case one needed to call on them…or in case they suddenly changed their minds.

“Avatar,” Akane said, “how long until your scan of him is complete?”

“I estimate less than an hour, and apologize that I cannot be more precise. I am using the general trascension field sensor program Walker and Milanda established during the recent crisis, which is slower than this facility’s original detector functions. We could perform a full analysis almost instantly by employing the transcension matrix which forms the updated Hand system, but there is a risk of contamination if he is connected to it in his current state.”

“You can’t use it to gather information without hooking him into it?” Sharidan asked, interested.

“At that level of transcension activity, your Majesty, observation and interaction are the same.”

“Yes,” Walker added, nodding in the viewscreen, “that’s one of the principles of quantum mechanics which informs the core ideas—”

“Yes, Yrsa, we know,” Akane interrupted, one ear twitching impatiently. “If you must lecture, please spare us that Infinite Order quantum mystic drivel. We can, of course, establish barriers that would enable us to analyze a connected Hand while keeping him contained from the system…in theory. When I redesigned the structure I did not have that function in mind, and so it is not equipped.” She inclined her head politely to the Emperor, as close to a bow as the kitsune ever came—and a courtesy which she extended to no one else. “At this point, your Majesty, our next act depends upon your priorities.”

“Can you elaborate, Akane-sama?” he replied with equal politeness. It would not do for a sitting Emperor to show actual deference, but he always treated Akane with grave courtesy. The two of them got along surprisingly well.

“The most efficient action, here,” she said, “would be to sever him fully from the magic empowering him. That might be more complicated than doing so to one of our currently linked Hands, as… I am not exactly certain what’s empowering him at this point. He appears to be linked to the corrupted network, which of course no longer exists. I am confident I can brute-force a way around it in the worst-case scenario, since the more elegant option involves bringing Tellwyrn here to explain the nature of that dimensional cage of hers which caused this. I gather that is not on the table.”

“I want Tellwyrn in here even less than she wants to reveal her secrets,” Sharidan said with some amusement.

Akane nodded agreement. “That done, and after we have ascertained that his mind was not permanently damaged by this experience, we can simply re-initiate him the usual way.”

“Who’s we?” Mimosa asked from behind them. “You’re not the one who has to get all physical with the guy.”

“If you object, ladies,” the Emperor began, but Apple grinned and interrupted.

“No, we don’t object, she’s just being difficult. We like all the Hands. I’ll do him this time; I feel bad about all the trouble he’s been through.”

“The other possibility,” Akane continued with a long-suffering sigh, “is to take this opportunity to re-work the system once again, with him included this time. If there are further modifications you wish to make, your Majesty, it is a good moment to discuss them.”

“That would involve temporarily disabling the entire thing, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes,” Walker said before Akane could answer. “Just like before. The Hands would be incapacitated for the duration.”

“Interesting,” he mused. “That, it seems to me, is a good idea to pursue at another date, when we have time to plan for it. For the time being, I would prefer the more efficient solution with the least disruptive ramifications.”

“Wise,” she agreed. “Then our only other potential crisis is your Left Hand’s little episode in Puna Dara.” She turned a supercilious expression on Milanda, who continued to stare blankly at the pacing Hand in the screen. “Obviously, we cannot have you melting down like that in a crisis situation. Now, I have outlined a training program which you can undertake with the Avatar and the dryads, which—”

“Shut up, Akane.”

It was Milanda who twitched, for an instant fearing it was she who had spoken. But Akane turned her glare on the right-hand monitor, her ears lying flat against her skull. In the screen, Walker was glaring right back.

“What did you say to me?” the kitsune hissed.

“You heard me,” Walker said bluntly. “Mouth shut. You’re being an ass, and it is beneath you.”

“How dare—”

“My brightest memories,” Walker said, raising her voice, “are of you extending a hand to me when our own mother would not. You were kind, and wise enough to know exactly how to ease a troubled young person’s unhappiness. But that was before thousands of years of only interacting with people who have been terrorized by generations of kitsune tyranny into dancing to your tune atrophied your social skills almost to nothing, Akane. And now here you are, barking orders at a trauma victim. Frankly I think spending time around here will come to do you a world of good, but in the meantime, here’s a rule of thumb: if you can’t be nice, button your yap and go away.”

For once, Akane seemed too stunned to say anything imperious. Her ears remained swiveled fully backward, tail rigid and puffed up, but she only stared at Walker’s face in silence.

“She makes a good point, there,” Hawthorn observed after a momentary pause. “Nobody likes you, Akane.”

“You’re mean,” Mimosa added, nodding emphatically. “We’d much rather spend time with Walker. That really says something, cos she’s a terrifyingly wrong thing who makes my hair stand on end just being in a room with her. Not to mention the most boring person I ever met.”

“Hey!” Walker protested.

“Well,” Apple said reasonably, “you do go on and on and on about things nobody cares about. But really, that’s no more annoying than these two,” she waved a hand absently at her sisters, both of whom stuck out tongues at her, “and you obviously care. It’s kinda good hanging around with you even when you’re making long speeches about nothing, cos you at least act like a sister.”

“Unlike this one,” Hawthorn added, pointing accusingly at the flabbergasted kitsune. “I’ll be honest, Akane, the only reason none of us has punched you yet is Walker keeps saying how nice you are at heart and to give you a chance and you’ll surprise us eventually.”

“Still waiting on that, by the way,” Mimosa said with a yawn.

“Now, girls,” the Avatar began soothingly, but Akane whirled and stalked to the door without another word. It hissed open and then shut behind her, leaving an a strained silence in her wake.

The two attending Hands glanced at each other sidelong, which was possibly the greatest loss of composure they had ever displayed when not malfunctioning.

Sharidan drew in a slow breath and let it out in a sigh, stepping closer to Milanda and wrapping an arm around her. She leaned gratefully against him.

“I am removing you from active duty, though,” he murmured.

She mutely nodded, rubbing her cheek against his shoulder.

“I have never ordered you to do anything, Milanda, but this time I have to. You will begin attending sessions with Counselor Saatri, as Lord Vex tells me he advised you to do weeks ago. I will not have you back in the field until she clears you for duty.”

“Okay.” That was perhaps not the correct way to acknowledge a command from her Emperor, but he pulled her closer in response and rested his chin atop her head. It would do, for now.


“I hope neither of us is in trouble for showing up late to the big climactic battle,” Teal murmured while constructing a sandwich of flatbread and curried fish. “Guess I wouldn’t blame anybody for being mad at us…”

“Nobody who matters will be,” Trissiny replied, pausing to sip her cup of cold tea. “I was warned shortly after Avei called me that there’d always be someone demanding to know where the hell I’ve been. Because something terrible is always happening somewhere, and a person can only be in one place at a time. The balance we have to strike is in learning to live with that, without becoming jaded over it. What?” she asked quizzically, as Teal had been staring at her in apparent shock for the last half of her reply.

The bard laughed softly, as much in surprise as humor, and resumed piling up fish. “I…sorry. I just never heard you curse before. Those Eserites really are as bad an influence as everyone says.”

“Oh. Well.” Trissiny grinned, idly swirling her half-empty teacup. “Mother Narny always said profanity was the self-expression of a weak mind. The Eserites taught me to use every weapon available, and favor the ones that make an impression without having to draw blood. If you think about it, a curse word doesn’t hurt anybody, it’s just a word. Its power comes from the taboo. And breaking a taboo creates an impact. A stronger one if you don’t do it often; nobody bats an eye when Ruda curses, after all.”

“Wow, they taught you linguistics,” Teal said. Having finished making her breakfast sandwich, she set it down on the plate and made no move to take a bite. “That’s a surprising detail. I’d expect you to pick that up if you’d been apprenticing with the Veskers, but…”

“Everybody has a past. Eserites come from all over; they’re mostly people who feel a need to right wrongs in the world, and don’t trust the systems to help.” Trissiny’s expression turned somber, and she stared absently at the distance. “The guy who told me about strategic cursing had been a bard, before being a Guild apprentice.”

Teal nodded slowly, also staring at nothing, her sandwich apparently forgotten. They sat in companionable silence, letting the banquet hall stir idly around them with sporadic activity.

Punaji parties being as they were, the great hall of the Rock had not been cleaned up from the feast of the night before, and more than a handful of attendees were asleep in various positions around the room. There had been plenty of food and drink, and enough was left to make a serviceable breakfast for the early risers now coming through. Most of those were castle staff, minor bureaucrats and the odd guest of indeterminate origin. Thus far, Teal and Trissiny were the only members of the student or apprentice groups up and about—or at least, the only ones who had come down to eat. Principia and her squad had been through early and departed to meet the first of the Silver Legion special forces who were meant to help them settle the Rust crisis; Principia had looked fiendishly gleeful at the prospect of bringing them up to speed.

Teal never did pick up her breakfast again, though after a few silent minutes she looked over at Trissiny once more, and her lips quirked up in a smile. “You really need to fix your hair, though. It never occurred to me how well the blonde suited you until I saw you without it.”

“Everyone is so concerned about my hair,” Trissiny grumbled. “Mother Narny said women outside Viridill were obsessed with cosmetic details, but until very recently I’d come to think she was exaggerating. Anyway, you’re one to talk, Shaggy. I’m sure you’ll look very pretty when you finish growing it out, but the short cut suited you perfectly.”

“Ah…well.” Teal lowered her eyes, her expression fading back to wistfulness. “There’s a story behind that.”

“I noticed the robes, too.”

“Yeah… I may not be much of a Narisian, but—”

“Ah!” They both looked up at the satisfied exclamation, and found Professor Tellwyrn just inside the front door of the banquet hall, already making a beeline for them. “Perfect timing, for once—exactly who I wanted to see! Plus Trissiny, for some damn reason. I would ask what the hell you’re doing here, young lady, but I’ve known too many paladins over the years to be actually surprised.”

“Morning, Professor,” Teal said, waving. “Please let everybody wake up naturally before you teleport us all back to the mountain. We had a long night.”

“So I see,” Tellwyrn said, planting her fists on her hips and sweeping an expressive stare around at the ruins of last night’s shindig. “Anyway, no, Falconer. I’ll hear everyone’s oral report later today. But I thought you would appreciate me making an early stop, first.”

“Me? What did—”

She broke off as a tiny black shape came bouncing into the hall from the front door, yapping exuberantly and heading right for a half-eaten platter of roast boar which for reasons pertaining to a lot of people having been drunk the night before was resting on a bench rather than a table.

“F’thaan, come back here this instant.”

Teal shot to her feet at the voice; Trissiny rose more slowly beside her. Tellwyrn, grinning, stepped aside to clear a path between them and the door, turning to watch.

The puppy skidded to a halt with a plaintive whine, but obediently turned his back on the pork and went gamboling back toward the front of the hall. Shaeine entered in a stately glide, snapped her fingers, and pointed at the ground by her feet. Even as F’thaan came to sit where directed, her garnet colored eyes were already locked on the figure beside Trissiny.

Teal actually vaulted over the table behind which she was sitting. Barely catching her balance on the landing, she staggered briefly before dashing pell-mell across the banquet hall, robes fluttering behind her, bounding over the sleeping form of one of last night’s revelers. She skidded to a stop only a few feet from Shaeine, at the last moment seeming to remember the Narisian composure she was supposed to be practicing.

They both made the last few steps in unison, Shaeine’s face a mask of formal calm, Teal doing an admirable job of imitating one. The human reached out with both hands, and the drow took them gently, gazing up at her eyes.

“I…” Teal paused, then tried again, her voice less rough. “I am very glad to see you.”

Shaeine looked up at her in silence for a moment. Then a broad, totally uncontrolled grin spread across her face, transforming her entire aspect.

“Hello, wife,” she said, then surged forward, wrapping her arms around Teal and insistently tugging her face down to meet her in a triumphant kiss. The two of them whirled around in a full circle, F’thaan yapping excitedly and bouncing in rings around them. Both ignored the encouraging whoops that came from two of the more lucid occupants of the banquet hall.

“What’s all this?” Shaeine demanded finally, somewhat out of breath, running her fingers through Teal’s shoulder-length hair. “And the robe, too? You look so dashing in those suits of yours!”

“Ah, well…” Teal had given up all pretense of Narisian rectitude by that point, and her goofy grin didn’t go at all with the formal robes. “I was the last representative of House Awarrion left on the campus, after all. I figured, you know… If you’re going to play a part, you should embrace the costume.”

“Oh, beloved.” Shaeine tugged her close again, resting her cheek on Teal’s shoulder. “If that’s truly what you want, I support you absolutely. But if this is my mother and sisters trying to mold you, I won’t have it. I introduced you to Mother because I believed you would be an asset to House Awarrion, not because I thought I could turn you into one. Those were the terms on which she accepted you. No one is going to change my Teal.”

Teal squeezed her nearly to the point of pain, though the petite drow made not a peep of protest. “I missed you so much,” she whispered hoarsely into her white hair. “We missed you.” Then, after a pause: “Also, why have you got a baby hellhound?”

“Ah, well…” Shaeine drew back slightly, just enough to gaze up at her with a distinctly impish expression. “Why don’t you show me to your room? We have…things on which to catch up.”

Teal big her lip eagerly in an answering grin. Reluctantly pulling free, she kept a grip on one of Shaeine’s hands, and led her urgently toward a side door, F’thaan bouncing eagerly along behind them and yapping without cease. They slipped out into the corridor, a last startled yelp from Teal echoing behind them.

“Are my eyes starting to go,” Trissiny asked incredulously, “or did Shaeine just goose her? In public?”

“Shaeine has a diplomat’s instinct for adapting to local customs,” Tellwyrn intoned, strolling around to join her on the other side of the table. “Apparently, somewhere midway between Narisian and Punaji is grabbing your wife’s bum if you’ve not had the opportunity for a few weeks. So, what are we having?”

“Whatever’s lying around,” Trissiny replied, and the Professor plopped down next to her, picking up Teal’s untouched fish sandwich.

“Gods, I needed to see that,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh, still gazing in the direction of the side hall with a faint smile. “There’s been far too much ugliness lately. This wasn’t even my first stop of the day; the last order of business wasn’t nearly so pleasant.”

“Oh?”

She took a bite of the sandwich and continued talking, enunciating with surprising clarity even as she chewed. “Had to deal with the Duchess of House Dalkhaan, she who had the goddamn temerity to send her House troops to attack my University.”

Trissiny raised an eyebrow. “I presume that ended poorly for them.”

“A lot more survived than you would think, but yes, they accomplished a sum total of nothing. Still, politics. I cannot have the aristocratic class of the Empire thinking they can so much as sneer in my direction without suffering consequences, nor can our political allies. House Dalkhaan, as of this morning, is dissolved and stricken from the rolls of the nobility, by decree of the Silver Throne. All its lands and property are seized and given to me in compensation for insults and offenses given, by command of the Sultana of Calderaas.” She swallowed, then frowned down at the sandwich still held in both her hands. “I got to deliver these edicts to the Duchess my very own self, and remove her from her ancestral home—which is now my property. I let her keep the clothes she was wearing.”

“That was gracious of you,” Trissiny said in a carefully neutral tone.

Tellwyrn’s frown deepened. “She immediately went at her own throat with a letter opener. I put a stop to that, and teleported her to the nearest Omnist homeless shelter. Not until I’d made a production of it for the Imperial observers, though. It was quite the sadistic little speech. ‘Die by any means you wish, but you’ll do it among the rest of the lowborn nothings, where you belong.’ I can’t take credit, the line’s from a play I used to like which hasn’t been performed in about eight hundred years.”

“You look…oddly disquieted,” Trissiny observed. “That’s surprising. I thought you loved delivering fools their comeuppance.”

“I love it when I don’t have to deal with fools at all. Anything else is a grudging compromise.” Tellwyrn shook her head and put down the sandwich, her appetite apparently gone. “I won’t deny there’s a lot of satisfaction in hurling bombast in every direction until the people I want to leave me alone do so, tails between their legs and all. But… I don’t know, Trissiny. Deliberate, targeted, subtle viciousness just isn’t in my character. I could’ve reduced the old bat to atoms with a wave of my hand and that might have felt like a victory. The situation demanded that I hurt her, though. Right in the heart and spirit, in a way that no physical violence could have done. A way that’ll put the fear in the rest of her social class so none of them even thinks of trying such a thing again. Having looked in someone’s eyes at that moment… I suddenly find I don’t have a taste for it.”

“Hm.” Trissiny took a sip of her remaining tea, staring thoughtfully at the far wall now. “Professor Yornhaldt told me you once maimed and blinded a Huntsman of Shaath, and put him in the care of the Sisterhood. That sounds like highly targeted cruelty.”

“Oh, that.” Tellwyrn actually grinned. “Yeah, I threatened some idiot with that in front of Alaric once. Heh, I didn’t realize until just now I never got around to telling him that whole incident was a lie. I thought up the scenario while slogging through a swamp in a bad mood one day, back when I was roaming around the Deep Wild. Quite frankly, Trissiny, I find that anyone who deserves that kind of suffering isn’t worth going to the trouble of inflicting it on them. Or at least, that was my position until I had to start making accommodations with this subtle new century in which we live.” She shrugged, and sighed. “Best get used to it, I guess.”

“It’s not a fun lesson to absorb, is it?”

“I had a feeling you’d be sympathetic. It hasn’t escaped my notice that what I’m describing is thinking like an Eserite. If you’re going to scare the bastards into behaving, you have to make a truly chilling object lesson out of somebody.”

Slowly, Trissiny nodded. Her eyes were fixed on a point in the far distance, the cup hanging forgotten from her fingertips. “Not long ago, a very smart, very evil, not very sane person told me that we hurt people because some people need to be hurt. I…resent having to acknowledge how right she was.”

“Yeah. Well.” Tellwyrn held out a hand to one side, and a half-empty bottle of rum lifted off a nearby table, floating straight into her grasp. She raised it up to the morning light peeking through the hall’s upper windows. “Here’s to the age of progress. Fuck it and the horse it rode in on.”

Trissiny clinked her teacup against the bottle, and they both drank in silence.


The Punaji codes of war being what they were, the Rock did not have a proper dungeon. It did have a wing of “guest rooms” with barred windows, doors that only locked from the outside, and constant guard patrols in addition to domestic servants. It was a core tenet of the Punaji philosophy of life that if you deprived a person of their freedom, no matter how good the reason, you owed them all care and consideration, and that cruelty toward a defeated person in your power was the ultimate evil.

Confinement aside, Ayuvesh wasn’t finding his imprisonment arduous at all. True, his breakfast had been delivered through a slot in the door, but that was half an hour after a servant had politely asked him what he would like. The bed was comfortable, there was a shelf of books provided to relieve the tedium—all classics and raggedly secondhand chapbooks, but it was something—and there was even a painting on the wall. A cheap watercolor of a cliché pastoral scene, of course, though he was no art critic. The toilet was tucked in an alcove without a privacy door or even a curtain, but it was a toilet, which flushed and everything, and even came with a sink providing running water. He had never been in jail before, and was surprised at finding better than a bucket in the corner.

Not that his captors were soft, though. Even after just one night, he had heard the guards tromp past his door enough times to realize they did so at irregular intervals, preventing prisoners from memorizing their patrol patterns. Fortunately for him, he had no plans to escape. The King and Queen had shown themselves willing to extend consideration so long as they got it in return. He well understood that politics as well as basic sense prohibited them giving him the run of the palace. If it meant securing as much comfort and protection for his remaining followers as possible, some time spent locked in a room was a very light price to pay. Especially if, by working with the royals, he could help protect Puna Dara from its enemies, both seen and unseen.

Though caged, and marking time until the inevitable failure of his artificial limbs, he still had a mind, and a will, and that was all a person needed. The universe would bend, so long as he kept his mind strong enough.

Ayuvesh was pacing absently in front of his cell door when an odd shadow passed over the barred window. He turned to see what it could be; that window overlooked a side courtyard of the Rock. Surely no one would attempt to climb up…

“Catch!”

By pure reflex, he snagged the object tossed to him, even as the darkness receded. The shadow had not come from outside; someone had just shadow-jumped into his cell.

It was, of all things, an elf wearing an alarmingly wide grin and a neat, pinstriped suit.

The next thing Ayuvesh realized was that the thing he was holding was ticking softly in his hands. It consisted of a dwarven clockwork device, complete with a tiny watch face, linking two terrifyingly fragile-looking jars of softly glowing alchemical substances of different colors. Primitive indeed, compared with the Infinite Order’s nanite-built machinery, but he had been around enough mechanical construction in the last few years to tell how this worked at a glance: once the clock wound down to zero, the two potions would mix, and then…

He twisted this way and that, looking frantically for a place to throw the bomb. It wouldn’t fit through the cell bars. The toilet? No, not big enough, and even water might—

The combination of his distraction and elvish speed was enough to give the intruder the drop on him. The elf surged around behind Ayuvesh and with one adroit move, place the tip of a stiletto against his throat while rapping the bomb out of his grasp with its pommel. Ayuvesh’s breath seized in momentary terror, but the device landed safely upon his blessedly plush pillow.

At the tiniest exertion of pressure against the un-armored portion of his neck, right atop his vulnerable jugular, a drop of blood welled. That blade was viciously sharp. Out the corner of his good eye, he saw the elf’s other hand hold out a palm-sized metal object, like two twisted vines laid atop each other so that their thorns clicked together when they were turned. He had never seen a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman in person, but knew it by description.

The elf’s breath was hot against his one ear.

“Warmest regards from his Holiness the Archpope.”

The explosion, when it came, blasted the cell door clear across the hall.

 

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13 – 49

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“Is he going to be all right?” Raolo asked worriedly, hovering around Oak and the small tanuki cradled in her arms. “I mean, if he made those dents in the brickwork that was a hell of an impact. Should we have moved him? I know if someone has spinal damage it’s very risky—”

“He is a fairy,” the dryad grunted, her irritated tone belying the gentleness with which she had handled Maru. “He’s made of magic, even more than you are, elf. Any physical injuries he gets will mend if given the chance.”

Maru stirred, grimaced, and grasped his head with his paws. “Eeeee-teteteteh…”

“Well, now he’s…ticking,” Addiwyn observed, walking on Oak’s other side. “I’ve no idea if that’s good or bad.”

“I’m glad to see you awake, Maru,” Ravana said from the front of the group. She did not stop walking, but turned her head to speak. “Your aid against that Hand was tremendously appreciated. I am terribly sorry to have left you behind; it was a strategic decision, not a personal one, rest assured. I consider that I owe you for it.”

“Hai, hai,” Maru mumbled, waving vaguely at her. He yawned hugely, displaying rows of needle-sharp teeth, then rolled over in Oak’s arms and snuggled himself into the bemused dryad’s bosom.

“Well,” Addiwyn said with a faint smirk, “and here I’d always heard the Sifanese were famously polite.”

“Tanuki are fairies, after all,” Shaeine replied, absently scratching behind F’thaan’s ears while she walked. “They are polite in the presence of a bigger, more dangerous fairy, and that is about it. With no kitsune on the campus…”

Abruptly, someone materialized on the path in front of them with a shimmer of blue light.

Natchua yelled and hurled a shadowbolt; it impacted empty space in front of the new arrival, the blow causing a spherical arcane shield to become momentarily visible.

“Whoah, cease fire!” the man said, holding up his hands, palms out. He wore an Imperial Army uniform with a Strike Corps insignia in blue. “Friendly! You’re students here, right? Is everyone okay?”

The group paused, studying him warily.

“We are unharmed,” Ravana said after a moment, stepping forward and inclining her head slightly. “With the exception of our tanuki friend, who apparently just needs rest. He is campus staff, as is the lady carrying him; the rest of us are, indeed, students. Please forgive my classmate’s reaction. We have had very bad luck, recently, with uniformed individuals claiming to be acting on orders from the Throne.”

“So I’ve been given to understand,” he said, still holding his hands up. “We’re here to help. Rest assured, my team is acting on the orders of the Throne. The Emperor himself sent us. Major Tavathi of his Majesty’s Strike Corps, at your service.”

“A pleasure, Major,” she replied. “I am Ravana, Duchess of House Madouri.”

“Your Grace.” At her introduction, Tavathi straightened up and saluted. “It’s a relief to find you unharmed—and awake! Can you tell me your situation, please?”

“Can we trust this guy?” Natchua asked, flexing her fingers. “Just because he’s a mage and is wearing a uniform…”

“A fair concern,” Major Tavathi. “Would the rest of my team serve as valid credentials in your eyes?”

“That would be quite adequate, Major,” Ravana said quickly, before Natchua could interject.

Tavathi pointed one finger straight up, and a pulse of blue light shot from its tip, rising twenty yards into the air, where it erupted like a firework.

“What the hell does that prove?” Natchua hissed, rounding on Ravana. “Just because he’s got more people who you just let him signal—”

“There are no analogues for an Imperial strike team,” Ravana said smoothly, “at least not on this continent. The Silver Throne is not gentle in discouraging imitation. And if they are not an Imperial strike team, they will be well within our capacity to demolish.”

At that, Tavathi smiled in clear amusement, but offered no comment.

The group edged backward at the sudden, large swelling of shadow out of nowhere nearby. It receded immediately, revealing three more uniformed soldiers with Strike Corps insignia—in gold, orange, and green, respectively—as well as four men in House Dalkhaan uniforms. One of these fainted on arrival.

“Hey—you can’t just do that!” another squawked. “We’re acting on orders from a bloody Hand of the Emperor! It’s not our fault if—”

“Yes, we know,” the woman with the gold badge said loudly. “Your position is understood, gentlemen. You are not in trouble.”

The team’s warlock shook his head. “Is it mission critical that they not be in trouble? Because unless somebody silences the excuses—”

“Nix the chatter, Weiss,” Tavathi ordered. “I’ve found us what looks like a prime LZ in addition to these locals. Scan and secure this area. Is this satisfactory, your Grace?” he added much more politely to Ravana.

“I believe that will suffice, yes,” she said, having studied the rest of his team while they were talking. “To answer your—”

“Hey!” the boldest of the Dalkhaan guardsmen blustered, stomping forward. “I demand—”

“Shut up,” Tavathi barked at him. The man blinked and actually stepped backward. “My apologies, your Grace. Please, continue.”

“To answer your question,” Ravana repeated, her poise unruffled, “most of the campus’s population is in the Crawl, seeking sanctuary in the Grim Visage. The campus seems to have been under attack by these gentlemen, led by a Hand of the Emperor who appears to have gone renegade.”

“Nonsense!” the Dalkhaan soldier interrupted. “These kids are just…”

Shaeine slipped forward and touched him lightly on the forehead before he could react. The man’s eyes rolled up and he slumped to the ground, unconscious. One of his fellows let out a whimper.

“Thank you!” Weiss exclaimed. Shaeine nodded at him.

“We recently fended off the Hand,” Ravana continued calmly, “and have not seen any soldiers on the uppermost level except those you just brought. There was a Vidian priestess helping him as well. It appears they have all gone to the Crawl to try to extract our classmates.”

“Thank you, your Grace,” Tavathi said, saluting her again. “Team, report.”

“No demonic presence nearby,” Weiss said crisply.

“There’s a dryad and a tanuki in this group, of all things,” the woman with the green insignia added, “but no faeries or fae effects in the vicinity.”

“The region is divine-neutral,” the priestess said. “It seems almost like it as deliberately prepared for a teleportation platform. Given Tellwyrn, that’s not improbable.”

“Very good.” Tavathi pulled what appeared to be a pocket watch from inside his coat and flipped it open; it produced a faint blue glow, though the watch face was hidden from the students by his hand. “Azure One, this is ST39 in the field. LZ secured, ready to port on your signal.”

“Understood, Team 39,” a faintly distorted voice replied from the watch. “Azure One is ready to port, standing by.”

“Incoming.” Tavathi closed his eyes, forehead creasing in concentration. His team moved without orders like precisely engineered dwarven clockwork: the priestess began to glow subtly, directing a gentle stream of divine energy toward Tavathi, where it soaked into the blue spell circle that had spread across the grass from his feet, transmuting divine into arcane power to boost whatever he was doing. The witch and warlock, meanwhile, took up positions flanking them, facing outward and each raising their right hand in preparation to hurl a spell at any threat which might appear.

“Is that a handheld magic mirror?” Addiwyn asked, staring. “I thought that was impossible!”

“Not impossible,” Raolo replied, “just really, really unlikely. You don’t see magic mirrors often because no one’s figured out how to mass-enchant them; they still have to be individually hand-crafted by master enchanters. And they’re fragile because you can’t add any strengthening charms to the glass. So it doesn’t make sense to try to carry one around. But I guess if you’re in the Strike Corps, you’ve got the resources for equipment anybody else could only fantasize about.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty great,” Weiss said cheerfully without looking at them.

“Well, at the least, I guess that’s more evidence they really are Imperial,” Addiwyn said, smirking at Natchua, who just gave her an irritated look.

A faint, crackling hum rose in the air around them, and the group edged away from a spot nearby on the lawn as sparkles of blue light began to manifest there. It was almost half a minute before Tavathi’s spell finished, but finally there came a sharp crackle of displaced air and six Azure Corps battlemages materialized on the campus lawn.

“Tellwyrn is not going to be greatly enthused about this,” Addiwyn murmured, watching them immediately leap into efficient action.

Four of them spread out, defining a region of the lawn which encompassed the groups already present and an adjacent area of empty grass. These were surrounded by faint auras of light, clearly maintaining active shields; rather than watching where they were going, all four had their attention focused upon handheld scrying devices. Once in position at the corners of the space they had claimed, they each faced outward, apparently keeping watch. Meanwhile, the other two set down the hefty backpacks they had holstered and began extracting lengths of metal, crystal, and glass, and quickly fixing them together.

While this was going on, there came another swelling of shadow and a second strike team materialized in the spot where Tavathi had summoned the battlemages. Not wasting a moment on pleasantries, the four of them strode off, keeping in a pristine diamond formation, and began pacing around the outside of the Azure Corps’ perimeter.

“Are we being invaded?” Natchua asked pointedly. “Because I have to tell you, Tellwyrn’s already going to be mad enough…”

“We have our orders,” Tavathi said almost apologetically. Almost. “I can’t say this is going to make Tellwyrn happy, but no, we’re here to help clean up, not take over the campus or anything. I’m not the one in charge here—she’s coming shortly—but as I understand it the plan is to have Imperial interests off the campus and out of everyone’s hair as quickly as can feasibly be done.”

“Hm,” Natchua grunted, folding her arms.

Shaeine had set F’thaan down to romp around her feet during the preceding chatter, but now picked him up again when he set off toward the apparatus the mages were building. The puppy squirmed and yipped excitedly in her arms, but she held him close, whispering soothingly in elvish while watching the Corps work. F’thaan calmed quickly, and even seemed to follow her gaze. It was obvious, by that point, what they were building: a gate. The mages finished attaching the last large power crystals and one tapped a code into the runic console appended to one of its upright pylons.

Light swirled in the center of the doorway, then coalesced into a flat, glowing sheet. Barely a second later, two men in the black uniforms and long coats of the Imperial Guard rushed through, each with a battlestaff in hand and at the ready. Both immediately stepped to the side and took up flanking positions around the gate. They were followed by two more, who joined them, and then a further four who spread out, positioning themselves as far distant in the Azure Corps perimeter as they could go while remaining inside it; once this last four had spread themselves evenly around the edges, they began a steady counter-clockwise patrol of it, moving in the opposite direction as the strike team patrolling outside.

Next came two Hands of the Emperor, wearing familiar black coats; their outfits were identical to the uniforms of the Imperial Guard except they lacked insignia, decoration, or even color of any kind. They were also not visibly armed, not that that meant anything. Both Hands stepped smoothly to the sides, joining the Guards now watching over the gate.

Yet a third strike team emerged through the gate now, in single file with the cleric in front, maintaining a golden shield as soon as he was clear of the arcane portal. They stepped forward and stationed themselves in a square, holding a small region just beyond the gate itself.

“Omnu’s breath,” Raolo muttered, staring at the multiple concentric rings of the Empire’s finest securing a single patch of the cafeteria lawn. “What the hell do you people need all this for? Who’s coming, the Emperor?”

“No,” Tavathi said, now with a grin. “Not quite.”

He and his team all snapped to attention and saluted, and not a moment too soon: seconds later, Empress Eleanora stepped out of the gate and stopped within the third strike team’s space, slowly turning her head to survey the campus with a faintly upraised eyebrow.

Ravana and Shaeine immediately bowed; belatedly, Addiwyn dropped to one knee. Raolo made an astonished gagging noise, and one of the Dalkhaan guards whimpered again.

“Who’s that?” Oak asked. At some point in the last minute, Maru had vanished from her arms and was now nowhere to be seen.

“Report,” the Empress ordered curtly.

“We have secured those of the local troops we found, your Majesty,” Major Tavathi said. “According to these students, they engaged the renegade and he retreated. The rest of the campus’s population is hiding in the Crawl and they believe he has gone there, along with any other personnel he brought. They mentioned a priestess of Vidius.”

“So, Reich is still here,” Eleanora said, narrowing her eyes. “Very good, Major. You two,” she gestured to the nearby Hands of the Emperor, “take Strike Team 34 into the Crawl, find the renegade, and secure him. That is priority one. If possible, safely extract Lorelin Reich, and order any more House Dalkhaan soldiers and anyone else with him to report back here. Team 37.” She paused only momentarily for them to assemble; the strike team pacing around outside the perimeter shadow-jumped all of ten yards to stand in front of her, saluting. “Search the campus and locate any remaining soldiers, and bring them to this location. They are not to be treated as hostile; they believed they were following legitimate orders from the Throne. But if any resist, do keep in mind that Duchess Dalkhaan is not in the Throne’s good graces at the moment.”

The team saluted again, turned, and jogged off down the path deeper into the campus. The two Hands and the other team had already vanished in a crackle of arcane light.

Finally, the Empress turned to the students, and nodded acknowledgment. “Please, rise. It’s a relief to see all of you well, to say nothing of up and about.”

“It is a relief to be so, your Majesty,” Ravana replied. She and Shaeine only straightened when so bid; likewise, Addiwyn had not risen from her kneel until given permission. A round of bemused glances passed between Oak, Natchua, and Raolo.

After all that, the arrival of Arachne Tellwyrn was downright anticlimactic. She appeared in her usual barely-perceptible puff of displaced air, and tilted her head to stare around at the scene over the rims of her spectacles, ignoring the profusion of spells and battlestaves which were suddenly raised in her direction.

“Well. I knew I’d have a mess to clean up when I got back here, but this specific one is a surprise. Madouri, you insufferable little asp, shall I assume from context that my cafeteria has also been half-demolished?”

“No, just my kitchen,” Oak snorted. “Hi, Arachne.”

“Now, why would you assume I—”

“Miss Madouri, you are welcome to think you’re smarter than I am,” Tellwyrn snapped, “but if you speak to me as if you think that, we are going to have a long discussion about manners which you won’t enjoy at all.”

“Enough.” The Empress’s voice was not raised or given emphasis, but it stifled the discussion like a wet blanket over a campfire. She raised one hand in a casual gesture, and only then did the last strike team and Imperial Guard stand down, lowering the weapons they’d aimed at Tellwyrn. Eleanora’s flat stare had never left the archmage. “The situation here is currently under control, no thanks to you, Arachne.”

“Now, listen here—”

“No. For once, you will listen. We are going to have a conversation about these events, right now. Your office.”

“I have—”

“I. Said. Now.”


Peace was famously the central essence of Omnu’s character. In the aftermath of his touch upon the Rock, it continued to hold sway even as the awe of the god’s visit via his paladin began to give way to the practical necessity of cleaning up the aftermath. It wasn’t that the situation lacked any tension; all the parties present had very recently been in a pitched battle, after all. But calm persisted, and not only due to divine intervention. The leaders of the main factions had made themselves present and set a firm example.

Ayuvesh’s deportment around the King and Queen was downright demure, and that, as much as his firm orders to the remaining Rust cultists, ensured their compliance with the Punaji. By the same token, Rajakhan had made it emphatically plain that the conflict was over and no abuse of prisoners would be tolerated. At first, Anjal herself had paced among the soldiers carefully disarming and securing cultists while the King and Ayuvesh watched from a distance, but after some minutes and no outbreaks of tension, she had rejoined them, followed by Ruda.

There were other watchers, anyway. The very Hand of Avei was present with a small squad of Legionnaires. And while it had been made known that the three scruffy young people accompanying her were from the Thieves’ Guild, no one had bothered to mention that they were all just apprentices. Avei and Eserion were the two gods likely to react the most vehemently to any abuse of power; their simple, observant presence was more of a deterrent than any over threat could have been.

Schwartz had occupied himself with Fross; even after the pixie had recovered her glow, she saw fit to perch on his hand, engaging in an animated conversation with her new friend and Gabriel. They made an odd little tableu in one corner of the courtyard, even Ariel being somehow balanced on her tip, blue runes occasionally flickering as she added to the discussion, which had quickly grown both magical and technical.

Vadrieny was perched like a gargoyle atop the gatehouse, along with both Huntsmen of Shaath. The archdemon had made it plain she was watching them, though she didn’t bother to upbraid Arlund for his performance. Brother Ermon seemed to be doing an adequate job of that.

“And now,” Ayuvesh said finally, breaking a long pause, “this has unfolded the way it must, and we should consider the future.” He turned to Ruda, and bowed deeply. “Princess, I beg that you restore the Elixir.”

She raised her eyebrows. “The what?”

“It is…the source. Of all this.” He raised his mechanical hand and pointed to it with his opposite one. “I brought it out of the ancient factory of the Infinite Order in the vessel provided, but after that it was able to reproduce and expand itself. Tiny traces of the Elixir suffuse us, our workings, the technology that keeps us upright. It was your incursion into that old temple which caused it to abruptly cease working today, and forced me to take this drastic action. We might not even have noticed, immediately, but the machines spoke a warning.”

“Oh.” She sighed softly. “That’d be the nanites. Do you even understand what those were?”

“Yes. Tiny machines, each the size of a molecule, working perfectly in concert.” He managed a wry little smile. “We are a religious order, after all; such institutions lend themselves to a certain…grandiosity of speech. That doesn’t mean I do not know what my elegant terms refer to. We need them, your Highness.”

Ruda glanced at her parents, who watched in silence, then back at him. “Well, I’m afraid I can’t help you. They’re gone now, for good.”

“I…understand your reluctance to extend trust,” he said carefully. “Nothing is more sensible. But please, Princess, understand our position. The Elixir was not merely a source of power and a weapon. We need it. It is the thing which animates our very bodies. Without it, these limbs and attached machines will function for a while…but there is nothing sustaining them, maintaining them. They will break down, and die. The lucky among us will be left merely without working limbs. Some of my people are kept alive by this technology; it serves in place of hearts and lungs, not just arms and eyes. I will accept whatever provisions you must impose as a fair price, but please, we must have the Elixir. Without it, more will die.”

Ruda closed her eyes for a moment, but when she opened them again, her gaze was resolute. “Then I’m sorry, Ayuvesh, but there’s nothing anyone can do. I wasn’t refusing to help; I am telling you that I can’t. We didn’t destroy anything in that facility, just the opposite. We found the machine intelligence the Elder Gods left behind to watch over it, the one your people tormented till he was too crazy to stop you from taking the nanites in the first place. And we repaired him. You understand what that means? The first thing he did when he was awake and lucid again was shut down your…Elixir. But he didn’t tell us that; he said he wouldn’t do it for us unless we helped repair more of his stuff. So we did, and then he admitted he’d tricked us, and said because of the way he’d been treated he had no more trust for mortals and was going to shut all the doors permanently. Then he teleported us to the surface. That guy, or thing, was the only thing that could have restored your nanites, and thanks to you, he is entirely done with people. I don’t think anybody’s ever going to see him again.”

Ayuvesh stared at her for a long, silent moment. Finally, he bowed his head. “I see.”

“I think it would be a mistake to take ancient Elder God thinking machines at their word,” Rajakhan said thoughtfully. “Especially one with a history of insanity. We will, at the very least, send scouts through the tunnels to the entrance and verify that it is closed.”

“Yeah,” Ruda agreed, nodding. “And we can leverage what little knowledge we have of the Elders’ technology to see if we can get it open again—without pissing the Avatar off any further, that is. I wouldn’t put it past that asshole to flood the whole place if he gets any more unwanted visitors. We had to ditch that Imperial spook who was the expert on Infinite Order stuff, and I’ve got a feeling we won’t be seeing her again, either. But Locke knows a bit about it, too.”

“Lieutenant Locke’s mandate is pretty much fulfilled,” Anjal pointed out. “She and her squad will be heading back to Tiraas soon.”

Ruda grinned. “If Locke isn’t feeling helpful, we can have Trissiny lean on her. I bet she’d love to make pointy ears jump through a few hoops.”

“I will, it goes without saying, lend any expertise I and my people have to this endeavor.” Ayuvesh bowed, deeply, to all three of them in turn. “I am very grateful that you would extend this much consideration to me and mine, after all that has happened.”

“You are our prisoners,” Blackbeard rumbled. “The Punaji do not abuse those in their power. Besides, the points you made to us were valid. We have common foes, it is clear.”

“The screamlances are not run by nanites,” Ayuvesh said, meeting the King’s gaze with a slight frown. “I don’t know how long they will function, but they won’t break down nearly as quickly as our more…complex parts. I urge you, your Majesty, to hide them away, and let it be widely known that they have been destroyed. They may provide Puna Dara an edge, some day, when she needs it most. But if Tiraas knows that you are keeping such things…”

“If nothing else,” Rajakhan said thoughtfully, “you will make a perceptive advisor.”

“I will be glad to be of service to my country in whatever way I still can.” Ayuvesh shifted his gaze to watch the Punaji soldiers politely guiding the bedraggled remnants of his cult into the fortress. “For whatever time I may have left.”


“You didn’t come directly here from the zeppelin crash,” the Empress stated once they were alone in the Professor’s office.

“Oh?” Tellwyrn’s tone was disinterested. She strolled around behind her desk and flopped down in her chair with a sigh. “And you think that because…?”

“Timing. Just before I left Tiraas, I received a report that Zanzayed the Blue had teleported himself directly into the main Omnist hospital in the city with nine burn victims in tow. The rest was not hard to piece together, especially in light of his and your rather dramatic departure some hours previously.”

“Zanza did that?” Tellwyrn actually chuckled softly. “Well, well. The old lizard’s getting positively soft-hearted.”

“I guess that makes one of you,” Eleanora said pointedly. “In any case, with the immediate crisis over, we can move on to…supplementary business.”

“Do you plan for this to be a long conversation?” Tellwyrn asked, raising an eyebrow. “Because I’m not absolutely positive it is over. I make a point never to take a thing like that on faith until—”

“Spare me, Arachne. The very fact that you found other business before coming back here goes to show you are, if anything, more confident of this resolution even than I. Would you care, for transparency’s sake, to enlighten me as to what you were up to?”

“Is that an official request, or a personal one?” she asked sweetly.

Eleanora stared down at her without expression.

“Oh, fine,” Tellwyrn said after a pause, again adopting a vague smile. “Actually I did teleport straight here from the zeppelin…just not here here. I checked in on matters in the Crawl first.”

“It is supposedly impossible to teleport in or out of there,” Eleanora said with a sigh. “Though it doesn’t really surprise me to find yet another rule that seems not to apply to you.”

“Quite,” Tellwyrn said smugly. “But…yes, things down there are even stranger than they are up here. Strange, but well in hand. Your agents will find their renegade neatly trussed for pickup and most of his lackeys conveniently on hand to come along.”

“Most?”

At that, Tellwyrn frowned. “There was a warlock helping him, who seems to have vanished. It’s easy enough for them to do, of course, but shadow-jumping out of the Crawl also should not be possible, at least for one not properly attuned. But the Crawl is…under new management, so to speak. Its normal security may have gaps. I will be plugging those quickly, but it seems to have given that one all the opportunity he needed. Anyway, I presume you’ll just be chucking this rogue of yours into an incinerator? After all, there’s not much you can—”

“You really are a monster,” Eleanora said disdainfully. “That rogue of ours has been a devoted and priceless servant of the Throne for years. The trouble he’s caused is due to an attack upon the Hands themselves, from which the Throne failed to protect him. We bear a responsibility.”

“Ah,” Tellwyrn smirked. “In that case—”

“In that case.” Eleanora planted her fists on the desk, leaning over it to glare at her. “The Throne has a responsibility, but the fault for this lies with whoever whisked him away behind some kind of dimensional barrier which prevented him from being restored along with the rest of the Hands! I don’t suppose you’d care to offer any insight into who that was?”

Tellwyrn opened her mouth, then shut it. “Oh. Well, I—”

“You went swaggering around, dealing with the problem right in front of you with the maximum force at your disposal, and giving no thought to the long-term consequences. For a change,” she added with blistering sarcasm.

The elf schooled her expression, folding her hands atop the desk. “I have the sudden feeling we are no longer just talking about the current situation.”

“I did harbor a lot of bitterness for a lot of years, Arachne,” Eleanora said in a lower voice. “I’m sure the whole thing was nothing to you, just a way to amuse yourself and indirectly threaten my father.”

“Your father was the one foolish enough to try to make a political point of attacking my school—”

“And so you picked on his child?”

“Nonsense,” Tellwyrn snapped, suddenly straightening up and bringing their faces much closer together. “I showed up uninvited to his fancy party and was a model guest. For someone who was just castigating me for throwing force around, I should think you’d appreciate the tactic!”

“Oh, quite, you very handily made your point about how little ground he had to stand on. And I’m sure the opportunity to expose and humiliate his confused daughter was just icing on the cake. I am deeply ashamed of how much time I wasted wondering whether you were actually interested, or just planning to use me against him. Or what might have happened if you’d stayed to talk the way you offered to. In fact, I rather owe you thanks for breaking into my rooms the other day; it gave me a minor epiphany. It doesn’t matter what you might have done if you’d stayed, or why you bothered at all.” She leaned forward further, eyes narrowing to slits. “Because I was seventeen, you abominable creep.”

Slowly, Tellwyrn eased back in the chair, and let out a soft sigh. She did not lower her eyes, though. “It was just a little harmless flirting, Eleanora. If I hadn’t been called away, that’s all it was ever going to be. Because you were an adolescent, and I’m an asshole, not an ephebophile. It honestly didn’t occur to me how big a deal it would have been to you…”

“I’m sure,” Eleanora said icily.

Tellwyrn shook her head. “Not that I don’t understand in hindsight. That’s a hell of a vulnerable age… Well, regardless. I am sorry.”

Eleanora tilted her head slowly, studying the elf’s face. “You actually are, aren’t you?”

“Not a good look on me, is it?” the Professor said bitterly. “I suppose it doesn’t matter, anyway.”

“Of course it matters. How much, I can’t say… But it matters. And you aren’t wrong. It was a little harmless flirting, a long time ago. A very minor infraction in the grand scheme of things, which I blew far out of proportion for far too long. It’s left you…a ghost, so to speak, that I need to exorcise.”

Tellwyrn leaned back further in her chair, eyes widening in startlement, as Eleanora smoothly continued forward, actually climbing on top of the desk and bearing down on her with a distinctly predatory glint in her eye.

“Uh…excuse me?” she said incredulously as the Empress rested one hand on the arm of her chair for balance, and boldly grabbed the collar of her vest with the other. She made no move to retreat or push her off, however, just staring in disbelief. “I don’t care what throne you sit on, nobody—”

“If we’re going to discuss the adventures of nobody,” Eleanora said, her voice suddenly falling to a murmur, “I’ve one to add. Nobody turns me down, Arachne.”

“Young woman,” Tellwyrn replied, still not moving, “years of co-ruling the mightiest nation in the world have gone right to your head.”

“It isn’t about power, you blustering fool.” The Empress slid her fingertips along Tellwyrn’s throat, her full lips curling up in satisfaction at the sharp little breath the gesture elicited. Slowly, she slipped her hand around to grasp the back of the elf’s neck. “On the contrary, it’s about knowing who you’re dealing with. No one says ‘no’ to me because I only approach people…who simply aren’t going to.”

Before Tellwyrn could conjure another objection, Eleanora pulled her forward, leaning down to find her lips, and put an end to the conversation.

 

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13 – 48

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“We finally have a bit of luck,” the captain in charge of the guardhouse said while one of his subordinates carried on untying the remainder of their compatriots. “These people don’t think like soldiers; they all just charged off to answer that threat without leaving a rear guard. They don’t even have the sense to keep watch on prisoners. That gives us an opening, and may give us more if we can take advantage.”

Several of the troops were still dazed and the room smelled unpleasantly of vomit; the sonic weapons which had incapacitated them had taken their toll. Fortunately, those had just been used as an initial measure, and then the cultists had methodically gone through and tied them up. Or, rather, one cultist in particular had, with apologies and pauses to make sure no one had suffered unduly from the screamer bomb his compatriots set off.

“How so, sir?” a sergeant asked, flexing her recently unbound wrists.

“That remains to be seen. We must be alert for opportunities, but these yokels don’t know a thing about fighting; all they have are superior weapons. To begin with, I won’t reproduce their mistake. Get staves aimed at the walltop door; I want that stairwell filled with lightning at the first sign of hostile—”

He broke off, spinning to face the grinding noise of wood being scraped against stone. Tallie, who had rescued the two soldiers from the armory below and brought them up to the barracks, had picked up one of the short benches from the tables and was now dragging it across the floor.

“Kid, what the fuck are you doing?” a soldier demanded.

Meesie scampered out of the neck of Tallie’s shirt to perch atop her head, then pointed at him and squeaked furiously.

“Man,” someone whispered. “Even the rodents sass you, Ankhar.”

Meanwhile, not responding to them, Tallie kicked the door to the upper stairwell shut, hauled the bench up against it and propped it at an angle against the latch. She worked it securely into place, tugged at the door to make sure it wouldn’t budge, then turned back to them with a satisfied expression, dusting off her hands.

“There! Door secured, cap’n, sir. Now if you guys’ll show me how to open the actual gate, we can bring in my reinforcements.”

“You’re asking me to take a lot on faith, young lady,” the captain said grimly.

“First, I am a thief, so let’s have no more of that ‘lady’ talk. And second, yes, I damn well am. You can either take it on faith or hunker down here and wait for a miracle. I mean, another miracle, in addition to the one you’d be refusing to let in through the gates to save your castle.”

“Well, sir,” a lieutenant pointed out, “there wouldn’t be much point in her untying us if she wasn’t on our side. And if this is some kind of convoluted backstab, we can always shoot her.”

“That’s logic I can’t refute,” the captain said with a sigh. “All right, get that gate open, and let’s hope the next insanity that comes charging in here is on our side.”

“You know, I like you guys,” Tallie commented, following the two soldiers who turned and headed for the rear stairs at the captain’s order—the same two who’d been stationed down below. “If I survive tonight I’m gonna have to visit Puna Dara again. How’s the food here?”

“Depends,” one of her new companions said, voice fading from the barracks as they descended the stairwell. “You like curry and fish?”


Mandip frowned, walked, and listened. Holding up his screamlance in his only hand, he fired at the end of the hall up ahead. The lightning bolts stopped, and he picked up his pace slightly.

Sure enough, rounding the corner, he found a palace servant slumped against the wall, retching and clutching her head. The screamlances weren’t terribly accurate weapons, but that had its advantages when you didn’t know exactly where an enemy was. This looked to be a maid, someone not accustomed to physical hardship, and the weapon’s effect had done a number on her even with an indirect hit. She had even dropped her wand, which Mandip kicked away.

At his arrival, she snatched a curved dagger from her belt and swung at him. Woozy and disoriented, the woman didn’t actually get near him, but he shot her again anyway. At that range, the screamlance caused her to fall completely over to lie on her back. She barely managed to roll to one side before emptying her stomach.

“I’m sorry,” Mandip said mechanically. “It will pass soon. Try not to move until your head stops spinning.”

He moved on, weapon up, leaving her there. It was the same shallow platitude, word for word, he’d offered to every palace defender he had shot thus far. None of them had seemed appreciative, not that he cared what they thought. Ayuvesh had explained that taking them down without doing harm was essential to the plan, setting up their next step after he reached an accommodation with the Crown, and Mandip had accepted his reasoning.

That didn’t mean he gave a damn about these rich people in their cozy palace, or that he didn’t feel satisfaction in leaving them slumped on the ground in pain. Well, not so much the servants, but still; their lives were easier than they’d ever appreciated. A little suffering would do them good.

On he went, listening to the voices in his built-in communicator. Something was going wrong on the walls; they were under attack. Probably the adventurers who had somehow destroyed the Elixir. Time was short… If those meddling monsters broke through before Ayuvesh could reach a deal with the King, it would all be over. Fortunately, everyone on the network could hear that, too, and it seemed to be going well.

Nothing he could do about it. He kept walking, looking for more people to incapacitate. He was in a richer wing of the palace now, the kind of place he could have fed the Order for weeks by looting for five minutes, but Ayuvesh’s orders were clear and his plan sensible. Not that Mandip had a hand to spare, anyway. Nor would again, unless they could restore the Elixir. His arm had begun to grow back where the dryad had torn it off, but it had stopped, of course, the new metal extensions coming well short of forming another hand.

Well, maybe he could meet some actually rich people and shoot them. Servants and soldiers might be better off than he had been, growing up, but it still didn’t bring any real satisfaction to strike them down. At least they worked, they did something, even if it was just propping up rich bastards. The halls continued to be deserted, though.

Mandip paused next to a door, hearing a sound from within. Someone hiding? His shield was holding just fine, but it would probably be better not to be ambushed from behind. He tucked his screamlance under his stub of an arm awkwardly to grasp the latch and pushed the door open.

This looked like a guest room of some kind. There was nobody present—no one human, anyway. Apparently the noise had been caused by the animal, which was sitting atop the upturned ottoman it had seemingly knocked over. In fact, half the furnishings in the room were overturned. This creature did not appear to be properly housebroken…

Actually, what was that thing? Mandip frowned, leaning into the room to stare. It looked like an overlarge rabbit…with antlers.

It also moved very fast. He didn’t have enough warning to even take his screamlance back in hand, let alone fire it, before the beast lunged across the room and those antlers drove right into his chest.


“I kinda like it when she’s glowy,” Darius huffed, raindrops spraying with each breath. “Makes ‘er easy to find in bad weather.”

Trissiny was no longer trailing golden wings, nor projecting a divine shield, but a residual aura of light still hung around her, making her stand out in the dimness of the storm. She had arrived at the north gate before them, which wasn’t really surprising given the fact that she was mounted.

“Are you guys all right?” she called as Darius, Schwartz, and Layla came running up. Layla skidded in a rain puddle, staring at the new arrivals rather than watching her footing, and Darius barely caught her in time to prevent a fall. “Any word from inside?”

“Good timing!” Schwartz said, waving. His glasses were completely fogged over, but strangely enough he didn’t seem to be having trouble getting around. “Looks like everything’s on schedule, expect that my diversion just finished crumbling. But Tallie and Meesie have rescued all the soldiers, blocked off the upper exit and are getting that gate open. Uh, I gather the south gatehouse is…under control?”

The two groups finished trailing to a stop, eyeing one another speculatively.

“You brought Hershel? Good thinking.” For that being a compliment, Principia’s tone was oddly cool. Her expression was flat, as well.

“Who’re these?” Ruda demanded bluntly. “And what are they good for?”

“They are friends, so keep a civil tongue in your head,” Trissiny replied. “Layla and Darius Sakhavenid are Guild—smart and good in a tight spot. Schwartz is a witch of the Emerald College, he’s our magical support. Well, more of it, I guess. I was not expecting to find you guys here.”

“Jeepers, a dryad!” Schwartz squeaked.

The object of his fascination wasn’t paying him any attention. “Something’s wrong,” Juniper murmured, her voice almost drowned out by the rain. She had turned to stare at the gate. “I can feel…”

“Yeah, a lot’s wrong,” Principia said, patting her on the shoulder. “We’re dealing with it, hun.”

“Oh, my,” Layla breathed, staring up at Gabriel, who sat astride his shadowy horse with scythe in hand, turning his head constantly to scan the surrounding streets. A number of Punaji citizens, not much deterred by the storm, had begun to gather and watch, but so far nobody seemed inclined to intervene.

Darius looked from Layla to Gabriel and back, and then placed a heavy hand on top of her head, forcibly turning her gaze away from the Hand of Vidius.

“No,” he stated. “Absolutely not. You wipe that look off your face, missy. I will drown you in a mud puddle before I—oof!”

“Next one’s going to be below the belt,” Layla snapped, backing up and rubbing her knuckles, much as her brother was now rubbing his solar plexus. “You just worry about your own business.”

Ruda rolled her eyes and strode toward the closed gates. “Naphthene’s bouncing bazooms, Shiny Boots, how the hell did you dig up more bickering adventurers? Till I met these assholes I always thought that was a myth spawned by chapbooks.”

“Paladins attract them,” Principia observed.

The creaking of the gates cut through the conversation and the noise of the rain as they began to swing outward.

“All right,” Ruda said sharply, raising her voice. “We do this smart, people—remember your lessons from the Crawl. Uh, new folks, that means squishy thieves and finger-wigglers stay in the back. We’re going in hard and fast, heavy hitters up—hey!”

Ignoring her, Juniper had pushed through the crack in the gates the second it was wide enough to accommodate her frame, and dashed off across the courtyard toward the fortress. There almost immediately came a scream, the sound of someone being punched—loud enough to be audible from outside—and the peculiar whining of the Rust’s sonic weapons being fired.

Ruda threw her hands up. “Or, just charge the fuck in, I guess! Paladins to the front, ride down anything June leaves standing. Where the fuck is she in such a hurry to get, anyway?”


Their “improved” shields came with quite a downside: they stood up better than any arcane charm to wandfire, but did not block solid objects. A category which included giant devil-rabbits.

Mandip was driven bodily back into the hall by the force of the impact, then staggered further, wheeling all the way across it to slump against the opposite wall, where he stumbled to the ground in shock.

The rabbit had fallen, too, and now turned to glare at him with one evil pink eye while he gaped in astonishment, belatedly becoming aware of the pain in his chest. The tips of the thing’s antlers were bloody.

Mandip cautiously prodded at the wounds with a finger. Blood seeped out, staining his shirt; those antlers weren’t sharp, but given the force with which they’d hit, they had crushed as much a pierced. At least they hadn’t penetrated far.

The rabbit turned toward him, and with a yell, he threw himself sideways. The beast hit the wall directly above him, antlers first, and tumbled down, apparently stunned. It landed partially across Mandip’s legs, and he kicked it off, scrambling away.

His eye caught the glint of something white. There, by the door, lay his dropped screamlance. This little monster had very long ears; if anything would put it out of commission…

It started moving again, getting its feet under it, and Mandip tried to stand up, immediately faceplanting as he had unconsciously attempted to brace himself with his missing arm. Scrambling awkwardly, he managed to lay his hand on the screamlance’s handle and turn to aim it just as the rabbit hopped upright and faced him again.

He fired, point-blank.

And the beast went completely berserk.


Rust had assembled in the courtyard; they were currently in disarray, Juniper having bowled right through their group. Of the eight present, one lay dazed to the side with another helping him up, the rest mostly turned to fire screamlances after the departing dryad. She was wearing one of the Avatar’s earplugs, though, and didn’t appear even to notice. In fact, she showed no interest in them at all, and was in the process of dashing into the fortress itself when her compatriots streamed in through the opened gate.

At their arrival, the cultists whirled, raising weapons. Trissiny and Gabriel reined in their mounts, weapons in hand; Arjen stood stock-still, practically radiating discipline, while Whisper pranced and tugged impatiently at the bit. The pair of them were like contrasting bookends, light and shadow bracketing the princess who strode up to stand between them, rapier unsheathed.

Weapons were aimed, but as the paladins had stopped, the Rust did not yet fire. More of them began to appear from the fortress, coming around from side doors, though two staggered out of the main entry, looking dazed. They had probably encountered Juniper in passing.

Layla and Darius obediently held back, but Schwartz stepped up next to Trissiny. Principia cut off to the side, where the south gatehouse’s lower door had burst open, to join those now emerging. Punaji soldiers and Silver Legionnaires streamed in—a small group, but enough to form a significant flank. As if at this signal, the small inner door of the other gatehouse opened as well, and its complement of soldiers marched out, weapons at the ready.

With them, all but unnoticed in the rain and tumult, came Meesie, scampering across the courtyard to climb Schwartz and take her place upon his shoulder. Fross, meanwhile, zipped over to hover next to Gabriel.

The Rust were visibly frightened, over a dozen of them now in the courtyard; with weapons up, they continued to draw together.

“That’s your mistake,” Ruda said, her voice booming across the open space. “I have major spellcasters here, and troops flanking you from both sides; with you clustering together like that you’ve positioned yourself to get raked by fire from all angles while we’re in no danger of a crossfire. I’m well within my rights, here, to order you all slaughtered like sheep, but you’re still Punaji, even if you are traitorous little shits. And I’m tired of seeing my people die. You surrender now, I will guarantee you get fair treatment.”

They stopped moving immediately, leaving them in a disorganized, staggered formation across the courtyard.

“You’re wrong, Princess,” one cultist near the center said, stepping forward. She was holding a screamlance, but conspicuously pointed it at the ground. “Your weapons are useless against our shields—oh, yes, they work in the rain, unlike arcane shielding charms. You have no defense against our weapons, either. Don’t make this a battle. You will not win it.”

“Bitch, I’m not gonna have a pissing contest with you,” Ruda snapped. “We were just in your secret cavern. We just shut off your little nanite toys, permanently. The Avatar you tortured into insanity was very inclined to be helpful; believe me when I say you don’t have the advantage against me and mine that you did against this fortress’s defenders. If you came here to go out in a blaze of glory, take the first shot. Otherwise, drop them. I’m not asking again.”

“Stop!”

Everyone twisted about, craning their necks, as a fiery streak cut through the rain overhead. Vadrieny arced over the walls, crying out as she ignored the drama unfolding below and made a beeline for one of the other towers, and the lone figure which had risen from behind its battlements.

“Stop! Don’t do it—”

Ignoring the archdemon’s pleas as he did her approach, Brother Arlund loosed the arrow he had drawn back.

The cultist who had addressed Ruda had positioned herself ahead of the group, giving him a clear shot. The shaft pierced cleanly through her neck.

The Rust began shouting in fury even as they fired in all directions. In the next instant, answering fire came from the Punaji soldiers fanned out to either flank of the adventurers, and the courtyard was lit by the glare of lightning upon energy shields.


Mandip had quickly given up trying to fire at the accursed creature; it just kept coming. In less than a minute, he had become a mass of bruises and bleeding gouges, and the psychotic rabbit had thrashed about, bouncing off the walls and ramming him over and over with those pronged antlers. He quit trying to shoot it again and resorted to bludgeoning the beast with his screamlance, which wasn’t having much effect.

Especially not when it got tangled in the jackalope’s horns and wrenched from his grasp.

He’d already tried to flee, and it had chased him. With nothing left but his hand, he grabbed at it frantically on its next lunge. Rather to his own surprise, Mandip got a grip on one of the antlers as it was buried a few inches into his side.

Of course, the little monster thrashed and twisted, threatening to wrench free from his grip. With one one hand to hold, it was obvious he wouldn’t be able to for long.

In pure desperation, he swung it furiously against the wall. Then again, and again.

It was the blood, his own blood, slickening his grasp on the antler that finally slipped it loose, and he staggered back, hunched over in pain, bleeding from dozens of wounds, gasping for breath. The rabbit, though, finally lay still where he had dropped it. Dazed? No… It was bent nearly double in the middle, its back clearly broken.

Mandip drew a ragged breath of relief and stumbled backward. In the act, he lifted his head, and suddenly discovered he was not alone.

The dryad stood barely two yards away. She was not looking at him, though, but at his erstwhile opponent.

“My bunny.”


“There we go,” Toby said, helping the two of them into the gatehouse through its lower door, which was still unlocked. Just off the narrow hall onto which it opened was a small armory, and he carefully maneuvered both his patients inside and toward chairs. In addition to the woman who had fallen from the wall, he had paused to assist the man lifted from his mount by Gabriel’s charge. The scythe’s blade had not so much as nicked him—very luckily, or there would have been nothing even a Hand of Omnu could do—but the man had effectively been hit with a lance in the center of his chest and hurled to the pavement. Toby had fixed the internal bleeding and soothed away his shock, but his ribs would require more specialized seeing to.

“What…now?” the woman asked weakly once she was seated. “We can’t… After this, there’s nothing left for us. They’ll hang us all…”

“All of us,” Toby said, laying a hand on her shoulder, “are going to have to face responsibility for the things we’ve done here today. I have no authority over the Punaji government, but my experience has been that its King and Queen are fair-minded, and I know their daughter is. You have my word, I will do everything I can to ensure you’re treated well. The Crown doesn’t answer to me, but it will at least listen.”

“Thank you,” the man said weakly. He was still hunched forward, arms wrapped around himself.

Toby nodded, reaching out to touch his shoulder and passing a tiny glow of light into him. “Are you in very much pain?”

“Mostly…discomfort,” he gasped. “Long as I don’t move, it’s not too bad. Or breathe too much,” he added with a wince.

“All right. I’ll get a healer out here when I can, a proper one. It sounds like an all-out battle is unfolding out there, though. I don’t know how long this will be. You both seem stable for now. Please stay here; when the soldiers come back in, tell them you surrender and they shouldn’t harm you. The Punaji codes of war mean they’ll bring healers to take care of injured prisoners.”

“Not like we have much choice,” the woman said, not without bitterness.

“Everybody has choices,” Toby said, turning and taking a step toward the door. “I need to go deal with some of them.”

“And our…friends?” the man whispered. “You’ll have to kill them, too…”

Toby glanced back at him, his eyes already glowing. Light rose in the room, not so much as if emanating from the paladin, but seeming to rise from everywhere at once.

“No, I don’t. I have accepted too many compromises recently; that is my error to atone for. I’ve had enough. This is ending, now.”


“Stop! Stop! You must put down your weapons, we have surrendered! That was the plan, you—”

“What is happening?” Anjal demanded. “Can you talk to them, or can’t you?”

“They’re not listening,” Ayuvesh said. For the first time since he had cornered them, he was visibly shaken, even frightened. “I can give orders but unless they obey…”

“If you cannot control your people,” Rajakhan grated, “what good are you? What are your assurances worth?”

Ayuvesh whirled to face him, prompting the two Punaji soldiers and Akhatrya to surge forward. As did the two Rust cultists who had accompanied their leader, but Ayuvesh moved no further and fortunately a brawl did not break out.

“We can all hear one another,” he said sharply. “They can hear my orders, yes, but they are right now being pounded by your daughter’s cavalcade of monster friends, and listening to one of our own being apparently torn apart! Would you lay down your weapons under such conditions? Would your soldiers? Could you make them?”

“Zari,” Rajakhan grunted, then strode forward, pushing past Ayuvesh and ignoring his companions. “Come. Perhaps we can still salvage this.”


The initial rounds of the battle were an exercise in futility; the Punaji’s salvo did nothing except ignite shields around the Rust, while their counter-fire knocked the soldiers out immediately, every one of whom had only just recovered from previously being struck down by sonic weapons. In seconds, they and the Legionnaires were down, wiping out the defenders’ numerical advantage and leaving the Rust facing only the adventurer group.

At that point, the engagement immediately turned against them.

Fross didn’t bother firing lightning bolts, having learned from the example of the Punaji, but simply sprayed the Rust with elemental ice. It steamed violently in the tropical air, but the solid mass was not deterred by their peculiar shields any more than the rain was, and served to knock them down, freeze them momentarily in place, and deprive them of footing.

On the other side of the group, Schwartz began pelting the enemy with fireballs, which were ineffective, and chunks of rock torn up from the very pavement, which did much better. At least until someone nailed him with a sonic shot and he topped over backward, crying out and clutching his ears.

Meesie, however, burst into the form of a pony-sized lion with a roar of fury and hurled herself bodily into the main cluster of Rust. Trissiny charged a split-second behind her, not even bringing her sword into play but simply using Arjen’s bulk to smash the group apart and keep them off-balance. Gabriel spurred Whisper into a run belatedly, but rather than trying to trample anyone, he cantered off to the side, swinging his weapon (which had a much longer reach than Trissiny’s sword) against the cultists as he passed them. The divine scythe was deflected by their shields, apparently counting as energy to whatever function governed them, but it also did far more damage than staff fire, making them spark and flicker, and in several cases collapse entirely.

All the while, more Rust continued to trickle out of the palace, throwing themselves into the fray.

And once the first of them gave up on Ayuvesh’s order to use only the screamlances, the rest swiftly followed suit. Several were carrying weapons that were decidedly more lethal.

An explosion hurled Trissiny from her saddle, some kind of thrown bomb knocking Arjen bodily off his hooves. The man who had tossed it was immediately set upon by Meesie. Trissiny rolled to her feet, finding herself in the middle of a melee, and a blade of some kind attached to someone’s mechanical arm raked her divine shield, causing it to flicker badly. She countered the next one with her sword, the weapons sparking where they connected—that thing was clearly more than just steel.

Punaji soldiers, trying to get up and find targets again in the tumult, were struck by thrown blades, and another bomb went off, apparently hurled at Gabriel but missing and exploding harmlessly in empty space. The next, however, was far too close to the re-forming Legionnaires as they tried to get back into formation, bowling them over and causing someone to scream in pain.

Principia came sliding past them, snatched up a fallen lance, and hurled it with elvish accuracy, striking down the man who’d thrown the bomb. Another turned and raised a screamlance in her direction, and a Huntsman’s arrow struck him right through the arm.

Vadrieny shot across the courtyard, skimming over the battle and skidding to a stop on the ground, where she bodily swept Darius, Layla, and Tallie up into a knot, folding her impervious wings around them. To judge by the ensuing shouts, they were none of them reassured by this, but the archdemon suffered nothing from the theives’ attempts to beat her off, and began slowly but implacably herding them away from the unfolding brawl.

Suddenly, the clouds parted.

From a single gap in the storm cover above came a beam of concentrated sunlight, illuminating the small side door to the north gatehouse, from which Toby had just stepped. His eyes were like pools of light, and gold raced across the ground through the cracks between paving stones from his feet, as if carried by the rainwater.

Light rose further, seeming to climb up from the ground like mist. It almost had a tangible presence; it thickened the very air, bringing stillness, and gradually a distant tone began to pierce through the sounds of battle. Like a flute, or a bell, high and sweet, it hovered just beyond the range of hearing.

All around them, the fighting stilled. People slowly stumbled to a halt, their movements growing sluggish and their gazes unfocused. Within moments, everyone present was standing still, staring in amazement at the Hand of Omnu.

He walked slowly across the courtyard like a living sun. The rain had ceased; above, the blue sky reemerged from behind increasingly wispy clouds as what had been a furious storm cover moments ago burned away as rapidly and unnaturally as it had risen. Light blazed from Toby, covering the courtyard, intense enough it should have been painful to look upon. But there was no pain.

In fact, wounds had already begun to knit together. As everyone stared in shock, arrows and fragments of metal were gently dislodged from flesh, which healed without scarring behind them. Bones realigned, lightning burns evaporated, pierced organs were restored. The only injury which struggled momentarily against the glow was a black gash rent in a man’s chest by Gabriel’s scythe; his flesh had been in the process of crumbling to dust, and the power of death did not easily relinquish its claim. Under so great a concentration of Omnu’s light, however, it finally receded.

There were dead, still lying where they had fallen, but anyone in whom the faintest spark of life had still flickered was now left fully restored.

For a single moment, it seemed as if someone else stood behind Toby, or around and above him; someone whose presence was like the sun itself, powerful enough to drive lesser minds into paralysis simply by being near them. It was a fleeting moment, though, and passed quickly. With it went the overwhelming rush of magic.

It was sunny and balmy in the courtyard in its passing; steam rose from rainwater and pixie ice as it rapidly dissolved under the sun. Everyone simply stood in awed silence, staring at Toby.

“Some of you are defending your homes, or the people you love,” he said, not raising his voice but projecting easily into every corner of the courtyard. “Others were abused and abandoned, just trying to make something of your lives, and trusted the wrong people. Everyone present has made mistakes, but there are no monsters here. That’s enough fighting. Enough.”

Nobody found anything to say, just watching as he stepped across the courtyard and knelt to pick something up.

“Fross,” Toby said more quietly, “I am so, so sorry.”

“Wooooow,” the pixie said weakly. “That was a loooooot of divine power. Way impressive, man. Also, I’d kind of appreciate a warning next time.”

For the first time since they’d known her, her glowing aura was entirely extinguished, leaving only her fuzzy little body lying in his hand. Big black eyes blinked owlishly up at Toby from a little moth’s face; her antennae drooped listlessly, and even her crystalline wings seemed too weak to flutter.

“I didn’t exactly plan the way that went,” he said, eyebrows drawing together worriedly. “Are you okay?”

“Aw, sure, jus’ drained,” the pixie said, weakly lifting a tiny arm to wave. “I am a bottomless well of power! Bottomless, I tell you. But you burn off enough of the top, an’ it takes a while to refill.”

“Thank goodness. Here—you’re a witch, aren’t you?”

Schwartz blinked at being suddenly addressed. “I, uh…yes? How’d you know?”

Very carefully, Toby held out his hand, cradling Fross. “Would you please hold my friend until she can fly again? Hopefully it won’t take long.”

“I—that—why, sure, I’d be honored.” Just as gingerly, Schwartz carefully accepted the little burden. Meesie, having returned to her normal form and normal perch, climbed down his arm to peer closely at Fross.

“Hey, uh… Where are you going?” Ruda asked as Toby turned and strode toward the castle.

“You know better than I what needs to be done here,” he said. “I have more healing to do.”


He didn’t have to search. In that unexpected moment of total communion with Omnu’s presence, he had been shown exactly where to go.

Juniper knelt in the hallway, Jack’s broken body laid across her lap, one hand slowly moving over his fur. All around her lay the ruins of what had been a human being. Blood practically painted the whole area, interspersed with scraps of flesh, bone, organs, and a few pieces of twisted metal.

Toby stepped through it without reaction, ignoring the smell and the squishing under his shoes. He simply walked up to Juniper and squatted on his heels, bringing his face down to the level of hers.

“Wasn’t really fair of me,” she whispered. “It wasn’t…really his fault. You know what Jack was like. There’s a difference between killing somebody and murder, isn’t there?”

“There can be,” Toby replied.

“Understanding why it’s wrong,” she said tonelessly. “And then doing it anyway. Because I wanted him to hurt, and then die. I don’t know what to think, Toby. I don’t feel bad about killing him. I don’t. I do not. He killed my Jack. But…I feel very bad about not feeling bad. It’s stupid. I used to think developing a conscience was just a burden, but now? I think mine doesn’t work right.”

“No.” He reached out and lay his hand atop hers on Jack’s fur. “That sounds about right, June.”

“It doesn’t make it right, does it.”

“No.”

“But…is it at least…understandable?”

He nodded. “Very.”

She closed her eyes. “I can’t do this, Toby.”

“You’ve proven you can,” he insisted softly.

“No, not like this. Is this what it’s going to be like to love something? People are defined by their attachments, by what they love, I keep noticing that. And when one is ripped away like that they break so completely that…everything breaks. I swore I would never kill anybody again. And it just…doesn’t matter now.”

Leaves had begun to sprout in her hair. As she spoke in a dull monotone, tiny tendrils of roots appeared, branching out from beneath her and squirming through the blood.

“I love you all, my friends. And you’ll all die. And it will destroy me. I can’t feel like this anymore, Toby. I’m not strong enough.”

He leaned forward, leaned his weight upon her, wrapped his arms around her shoulders. Then he began to glow.

Juniper gasped sharply. In the divine light, the leaves vanished from her crown, the tiny roots retracting into nothingness. “Stop it, Toby.”

“I can barely understand how hard this must be for you,” he whispered. “Humans, all the rest of us… We learn about loss earlier on. We grow up with it, and we learn that as much as it hurts, we are strong enough.

“No, I’m not,” she said weakly, slumping against him. “It makes me a monster, Toby. I threw away everything I’ve learned… It makes me a killer. I was so stupid to think mortals are weak. You’re stronger than I could ever be. Please let me go. I’m too dangerous.”

“So am I,” he said. “We’re all dangerous, June. Everyone has the power to kill and destroy.”

“Not like me.”

“Not like you,” he agreed, “but still. It’s about choice, and mastering yourself. Something we’ve all been learning how to do for years, and you’ve only just started trying. But we’re all just learning, Juniper.”

“Stop it,” she whispered. “I don’t want to feel better. I just killed somebody. It’s supposed to hurt.”

“Yes, it is. Killing should hurt. Losing Jack should hurt. I’m not trying to make you feel better, June. It needs to hurt; if it doesn’t hurt, it’ll never heal. But it can heal, and you can still do better.”

“I can’t put a life back into the world.”

“That’s right, he’s gone, and it’s your fault, and you will have to deal with that. But you can still do good in the world. Something you loved is gone, but you will still love. I don’t want to take away your pain, June; you need it. I just want you to understand that this moment, this pain, is not the whole world. Leaving the world behind won’t get rid of the pain, or the guilt, it’ll just cut you off from the good you can still do. The happiness you’ll go on to feel.”

“But it’ll make me stop feeling this,” she said plaintively.

“You can’t destroy pain, is the problem. You can only spread it around. If you go, June, then everyone who loves you will feel the way you’re feeling right now.” He shifted, moving his hands to cradle her face and pulling back enough to rest his forehead against hers. Brown eyes met brown eyes from the distance of a soul’s breath. “You don’t want to do that to us. I’m not some sage, June. I’m just a guy who’s been trying to figure this stuff out for a little bit longer than you have. I want to keep figuring it out with you. I just…I don’t want to lose my friend.”

Slowly, he let the light fade, then wink out.

They knelt there in silence. Her transformation, once driven back, did not begin again.

Tears welled in her eyes, began to pour down her face, and the barren emptiness of her expression crumpled into agony.

“I’m so sorry, Toby. I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

“I m-miss my b-bunny.”

He pulled her close again, and didn’t let go.

 

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13 – 47

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The mounted cultist turned to see what was bearing down on him, hesitated for a bare instant, then sent his giant mechanical rooster stomping in the other direction as fast as it would go. It immediately encountered an ice slick, lost footing, and skidded across the plaza in a painful-looking tangle of metal limbs, leaving his still-sparking lance to lie on the ground behind him.

“Nice, Fross!” Gabriel shouted, even as Whisper erupted from a burst of shadow and smoke on the wall behind him.

Trissiny didn’t bother to pursue the fallen rider, adjusting the angle of Arjen’s charge to head for the second cultist.

This one was made of sterner stuff.

The cobblestone elemental continued methodically backing up for another charge at the gates, incidentally opening a path between them, and the mechanical insect lunged forward to meet the charging paladin head-on.

Arjen was taller and bigger, but the cultist’s weapon had a longer reach. By accident or design, he rammed its sparking tip into the horse’s chest as they impacted. Arjen bellowed in pain, staggering and barely keeping his footing on the rain-slick pavement; the force of the impact sent him off-course, enough that Trissiny’s futile sword swipe at the spider-rider in passing went nowhere near him.

Both riders arced about as they recovered, wheeling to face one another again. Whatever damage had been done to Arjen he seemed to have shrugged off—no surprise, given the divine energy blazing from his rider. The cultist’s weapon had been bent by the collision, and was now emitting constant sparks from the two spots where it had warped in addition to arcs of electricity from its tip, all of them creating a staticky haze in the rain. He seemed undeterred, however, leveling his crumpled lance and surging forward again.

It was at that point that the Rust holding the battlements above the gatehouse managed to draw a bead on Trissiny.

Immediately she pitched sideways in her saddle, keeping enough of a grip on the reins and with her knees to avoid tumbling off, but slowing Arjen’s loop as he responded to his rider’s distress. The noise of the sonic weapons was oddly muted to those at whom they were not directed, but their shrill whine rose above the voice of the wind and receding thunder.

Even as she struggled to stay mounted, Trissiny’s aura brightened, hardening into an extra layer of divine shielding encompassing both her and Arjen, and the golden wings still unfurled behind her actually extended several feet as Avei’s hand upon her intensified. She was hunched over in clear distress, but tried to straighten Arjen’s course and meet the enemy’s six-legged charge. It was an awkward recovery, though, and even with his bent lance, the cultist had more speed and a more direct angle at their exposed flank.

The goddess’s attention seemingly spared Trissiny the worst of the sonic weapon’s effect, but whatever Avei’s reason, she did not intervene decisively to end the battle.

Fortunately, she was not the only one in a position to do so.

A bolt of black light ripped through the downpour, striking the Rust rider straight in the chest and nearly unseating him. His lance jerked off-target, but his mount did not slacken its speed. Whisper was galloping faster than Arjen, her invisible hooves having no trouble on the slickened pavement, and Gabriel passed Trissiny to meet the attacker in a proper joust, scythe leveled before him.

The man’s life was saved by the fact that the wicked blade did not strike him with its cutting edge; instead, the cap of its pole lifted him clear out of the seat and hurled him several yards backward in an impact that had to have crushed ribs at the very least.

He brought Whisper around in an impossibly nimble pivot; where Arjen had greater strength and endurance than a flesh-and-blood horse, she was more agile than a mountain goat. Trissiny had recovered enough to guide her steed out of the path of the runaway mechanical spider, which clattered past on a course that would eventually lead it to crash into the wall. It was probably gratuitous, then, for Gabriel to chase it down, but he did.

“Fross!” Ruda barked, pointing her rapier at the battlements. Some of the Rust had switched targets, but Gabriel was wearing one of the Avatar’s earplugs and didn’t even seem to notice that he was being fired upon.

“On it!” The pixie streaked upward just as Gabriel slammed the blade of his scythe into the middle of the fleeing mechanical, causing it to immediately burst apart in a profusion of suddenly rusted-out parts, but she slowed in confusion when the attacking cultists abruptly tumbled forward over the ramparts.


The reduced Squad One moved as quickly as they could without making noise that would give away their position, which was quicker than almost any other phalanx in the Legions thanks to the silencing charms Locke had laid on their boots. Even so, with Shahai remaining behind with two of the Punaji troopers who hadn’t recovered enough to be fit, in Lieutenant Laghari’s assessment, for combat, they made a pitifully short line.

Ephanie took a position on the left flank, where she would be able (hopefully) to break away and deal with a cultist who was separated somewhat from their group, firing at whoever was attacking the gate below. Behind the Legionnaires, Laghari led his troops from the front, peeking up over the edge of the trapdoor down into the gatehouse. He wasn’t being rained on directly due to a column-supported roof covering this section of the walls, and the water still blowing through the area didn’t impede visibility too much.

There were six Rust atop this gatehouse, all lined against the battlements with their weapons aimed below, and unaware of what was happening behind them—their last information being that the defending soldiers were incapacitated below.

Unfortunately, someone had warned the north gatehouse, and four more armed Rust were coming. Squad One had barely got into formation when they began shouting warnings to their fellows.

“CHARGE!” Ephanie roared.

Shields up and lances forward, the Legionnaires pounded across two yards of rooftop and slammed into the cultists from behind, just as they began to turn.

Almost the whole group immediately went over the walls, Merry losing her grip on her lance as it was stuck through someone’s midsection. Ephanie broke formation and rushed the outlier barely in time to prevent her from bringing her sonic weapon to bear. Slamming her shield into the woman’s body, she shoved as hard as she could, driving her back against the battlements.

Behind her, the chaos of battle erupted, Merry and Farah going down with shrieks of pain as the Rust’s reinforcements fired sonic weapons into their formation, and then the roar of staff fire as Laghari and his troops burst out of the stairwell, ripping into the intruders with a torrent of lightning bolts. Ephanie couldn’t see the outcome; if the Rust’s shields operated like standard arcane ones, they wouldn’t function in the rain. If not… One way or the other, this was about to be decisively over.

She had to focus on her own fight.

The cultist before her had a metal plate covering one eye with a gap in it, in which a green crystal was set. This did nothing to disguise her furious snarl. Ephanie got her shoulder into the shield and rammed her even harder against the battlements, the position of her body preventing the cultist from getting the sound-thrower aimed at her. It also made it impossible to bring her lance into place, however, so she dropped it and drew her short sword.

Her attempted stab was caught. Of course that would be the side on which her enemy had the metal hand. They struggled for position and for control of the blade, unable to use weapons and reduced to an ugly contest of brute strength. Ephanie was taller and stronger than the average woman, than the average Legionnaire, even, but her foe was part machine, and she was not gaining ground.

The fact that none of her squad had already intervened was a bad sign.

“Um, scuze me, sorry ’bout this…”

She barely had a moment to process the squeaky little voice which sounded from close by, and then she was bodily picked up and moved backward through the air, supported by apparently nothing.

The cultist staggered forward, or started do, and then a little ball of silver light darted in between them and hit the machine-augmented woman in the chest with a tiny bolt of lightning. That was enough to drive her back against the battlements; a second sent her tumbling over to join her fellows.

“Fross!” Ephanie gasped. “Good timing!”

“Thanks, I do what I can!”

She finally could turn to assess the situation, and found it dramatically improved from minutes ago. All three of her women were apparently all right, the two who’d been hit again sitting against the battlements with Nandi making a beeline for them, already glowing. Lightning burns marred the walltop around the Rust who had tried to come from the other gatehouse, every one of whom now lay unmoving in the rain.

“THE STORM CARES NOT!” Laghari bellowed, brandishing his staff overhead. His soldiers roared defiantly in response, and he turned to speak more calmly to his new allies. “Damn glad you ladies were along for this! But there’s no time to rest on our laurels. The bastards are in the Rock—we have to go protect the King and Queen!”

Fross chimed loudly for attention. “I realize that’s your duty and all, but considering what’s about to shake loose down there, you guys may wanna sit this one out.”


“Why the fuck are you brunette?”

Trissiny brought Arjen to a stop, grinning down at Ruda. “Really? That’s the first thing you have to say to me?”

“It looks wrong, and I demand you change it back immediately, and also I am damn glad to see you, Shiny Boots.” Ruda’s return grin was huge, and she punched Trissiny’s booted foot, causing Arjen to snort in annoyance and twist his neck around to give her a look. “This doesn’t look much like you learning to be sneaky in Tiraas with the Eserites, but I can’t say you haven’t got some damn good timing!”

“Triss!” Gabriel barely got Whisper to stop, and she still pranced in place, whinnying excitedly in the rain. “I never thought I would say this, but I wanna hug you! Wait, why are you a brunette?”

“Thanks for the assist, Gabe,” she replied, saluting him with her sword. “I see somebody’s taught you to actually ride instead of let Whisper haul you around like a plough. Is the whole class here?” she added, frowning around as the rest of them came forward. “I don’t see some people I would expect… And one I didn’t.”

“You will never be rid of me, young lady,” Principia said grandly. “I’m like a soulbinder hex, an Imperial tax assessor and a case of the crabs in one svelte, dashing package! Also, you need to dye your hair back the way it was ASAP. You’re starting to look like my mother, and that’s just fucking disturbing.”

“Button your yap, Serg—Lieutenant, before I kick it buttoned.” Trissiny ruined the threat with a broad grin.

“All right, big reunion, lots of stories to catch up, but later,” Ruda interjected. “We’re at war here. Boots, I don’t suppose you know who’s conjured the cobblestones to knock on my front door and how quick that’ll get us into the fortress?”

“Actually, yes, I brought a witch who’s doing that,” Trissiny said, “and our attack on this gate was a diversion. I’ve got Guild people quietly getting into the north gate as we speak.”

“Even better! Let’s haul ass, people, time’s wasting.” Ruda immediately set off around the Rock’s corner tower at a run, the rest of them swiftly falling in behind her. In fact, the two mounted paladins outpaced her swiftly, as did Principia, leaving Toby and Juniper to bring up the rear.

The dryad was the last of them to round the corner, but Toby trailed to a halt after going only a few feet, then turned to stare back at the scene before the gates.

The bedraggled pavement elemental was still beating itself against the wood, but after the damage the Rust had done, it wasn’t making any further progress. In fact, each hit now dislodged more cobblestones than splinters; it was staggering unevenly on each charge, and at this rate would shake itself to pieces long before breaking the gates down.

Two mechanical mounts lay broken on the plaza, which Toby ignored. As he stared at the handful of cultists who had fallen from the walls, one moved weakly.

The Hand of Omnu turned resolutely and strode back to them.

He knelt beside the first person he came to for only a moment, touching the man’s neck with two fingers, then straightened and moved on to the next. Toby moved swiftly down the row, checking for breath, for pulses, and finding nothing until he got to the very last, the one who had fallen off the wall at the farthest edge of their formation.

She tried feebly to push at him with her working hand. The other arm, a metal one, had been bent to the point of uselessness beneath her. Toby gently caught her attempted shove, a faint light rising around him and causing the falling rain in their vicinity to glitter gold.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, the golden glow intensifying in his eyes. “Can you turn your head to the side? If not, try to breathe through your nose. You can choke on rainwater in this position.”

“Wh—why…” she rasped, then coughed, spraying raindrops. He quickly ran his hands over her, palms glowing, and closed his eyes in concentration.

“All right,” Toby said, opening them to look at her seriously. “Looks like you landed on the machine parts. There’s not a thing I can do to fix those, sorry. You haven’t broken your spine or your head, miraculously, but when you hit the ground this…chassis bit that’s connecting the metal arm to your rib cage got shoved into the wrong place, and it’s pressing on your vertebrae and lungs. I’m going to have to move it back before I heal anything. Do you understand?”

“Why…help me?” she whispered.

He just shook his head. “This is going to hurt, a lot. I need you to try to stay focused, all right? It’s okay to yell. Keep your head turned if you can so you don’t choke on rain. Are you ready?”

She stared at him with one frightened eye and a cracked green crystal.

Gently, Toby took her good hand and curled his fingers around hers. “I’m not going to force anything on you, not even healing. You need to know that if we don’t do this now, you’re going to die, and not quickly. You are bleeding a lot. I have to put bones and metal bones in the right place before healing or it will kill you. But if you don’t want me to, I won’t. Understand? It’s your body and your life. You’re in charge here.”

Almost infinitesimally, still holding his gaze, she nodded.

He nodded back. “Ready, then?”

She squeezed her eye shut. “Do it.”

She did a lot more than merely yell, thrashing so badly that he had to pause in his work to hold her down until she could control herself. The woman had a metal collarbone which arced around to cover most of her back, and she had landed on it. Her machine arm was crushed into uselessness and the thick metal brace had been shoved against her spinal column, tearing muscle and skin and threatening to dislodge a lung, and possibly her heart. Forcing it back into an approximation of its proper position was absolutely brutal work.

He finished it as quickly as he was able, though. Toby had crimson stains on his shirt and flecks of blood as far-flung as his face, just beginning to be rinsed away by the rain, by the time he could move on to healing the actual damage. That, he did as rapidly as possible, using precise and careful jets of golden light to knit ligaments, bones, and muscle back together. Simply suffusing her with divine power could have congealed the mess of her torso into a lethal knot.

She lay sobbing through most of it, even as the pain receded under all the divine light. By the time he was done, though, she had stilled, just breathing heavily.

“All right,” he said at last. “You’re going to live. That’s the best I can give you; I’m sorry. I can’t do anything to fix the machines, but fortunately none of them are running your vital organs. Divine light should stave off infection, but you have lost a lot of blood. You need to get food down quickly, and you’ll have to rest a lot. First we’ve gotta get you in out of this rain. They said the other gatehouse was open; there will be medical supplies in there. C’mon, you can lean on me.”

He rose from his knees and started to help her upright, but she caught his hand again, with more strength this time, and made no move to stand, instead staring up at him.

“Why?” she asked a third time.

The golden halo dimmed from around Toby, and he let out a soft sigh.

“…because I live in a world where that’s a reasonable question. Because that won’t change unless someone changes it. Because…I seem to be the only one here.”

She nodded, weakly, and began shifting to rise. He slipped an arm under her shoulders, drenching the sleeve in a mix of rainwater and blood.

“You want to remake the universe,” the woman grunted as they carefully stood. She had to cling to him. “Make your vision reality. I…relate.”

“And what’s your vision?” he asked.

She offered no reply. They simply hobbled off through the rain, toward the gatehouse. Above them, the sky was starting to lighten, and the thunder had all but faded. Water still pounded the city, but the storm was passing.


“Now, we can concoct a story between us how you defeated me,” Ayuvesh said while they stared at him, nonplussed. “Of course I’ll value your input, but I like the sound of you pressing forward against my scream-weapon through sheer force of will. That will greatly impress the palace guards who have been incapacitated by it, and rumors of your inhuman strength will spread through the city! We want you to come out of this securely in power, after all. But I do have a fondness for the old stories of improbable heroics and mighty champions—it’s a known weakness. What do you think, too implausible?”

The King and Queen exchanged a married look.

“It’s a trick, clearly,” Anjal said, folding her arms. “I just can’t spot the snare.”

“Oh, I assure your Majesties it is a trick,” the leader of the Rust replied, his charming smile belying that he was still on his knees with his hands in the air. “I am not playing it on you, however, but rather inviting you to join me in it. I could win this battle, yes…but not the war which would follow. You were never my enemy. That we have been pushed to fight one another tells me the true threat has yet to be revealed.”

“Mm.” Rajakhan grunted, nodding slowly. “You do see it, then, the doom that would befall you if you seized the Rock.”

“Befall me and all of Puna Dara, and soon enough the other Punaji cities,” Ayuvesh said, his expression sobering. “I am not blind, Blackbeard. If my fellows and I took the government… It remains an open question whether we could hold the Rock even against the outrage of the city itself, and the other players who desire the Crown. And if I managed that, what then? Tiraas would never permit this. To prod at that dragon would spell the end of the Punaji as a free people. Whatever else you think of me, believe that I want that outcome no more than you.”

“I usually love hearing traitors spout patriotism when on their knees,” Anjal remarked. “Less so from one who might get up at any moment.”

Ayuvesh did not get up, nor even lower his hands, but his expression hardened. “You created this situation. Never once did I or any of my people even hint at disrupting the order of society or interfering in your rule. I knew where that would lead! We are both leaders, your Majesty, and we are both Punaji. Once a challenge was made, withdrawal was impossible; the only outcome was escalation. You have advanced it faster by unleashing your daughter’s adventurer friends upon us, but this began when you brought that Silver Legion to occupy the streets and stifle our activities. Had you not, my Order would never have made a move against you!”

“That’s a very easy thing to claim now, when you come asking for trust,” Anjal said skeptically. “If we do take your word on that, it means…what? That you only intended to overthrow our culture, not the government, and install yourselves as a religious authority?”

“I preach that each man and woman is their own authority,” he said patiently. “And an overthrown culture usually ends up in ruins; the process of absorbing a new idea, of incorporating it safely, takes generations. That is our aim—permanence. It will not be achieved by toppling what is in place, but by adding to it. And who knows? Perhaps our will would not have been strong enough. If our ideas did not have merit enough to stand upon their own, then by those same ideas, they would have faded away in time. None of that matters now. The truth of this moment is that no, I am not asking for trust.”

Both drew swords and took a step back as he slowly stood up, lowering his hands, but Ayuvesh kept his movements even and calm, and made no further motion once he was back on his feet. His screamlance lay against the wall, apparently forgotten.

“We are a practical people, aren’t we? And so I’ve demonstrated that I can kill you and take your crown at a whim, because simply telling you so would achieve nothing. If you so despise me that you are willing to exchange your lives and the freedom of the Punaji people for assurance that I will be destroyed within the year, well, you have the power to choose that. If not, I offer to place myself and my people at your mercy… Because that is the only way I see for my Order and my nation to survive.” He lifted his chin, staring calmly at them. “Bending the knee is a very small price to pay for that. I know my worth, my value as a living, thinking person. It does me no harm to show humility, if that is what it takes.”

“I see the logic in what you say,” Rajakhan rumbled, lowering his sword. “All of it. It has a reversal, though. Your sham of a surrender would put you in the Rock, with the capability of overthrowing us at any moment. What you are trying to do is install yourself as the power behind the Crown.”

Ayuvesh held up one finger. “A power in addition to the Crown, answerable to it. Have you troubled to learn anything of our teachings, Rajakhan? I think you will find little there to which any Punaji would object. Regardless, I know nothing of running a nation or contending with political struggles. Overthrowing you by subterfuge would be as futile as doing so by force. Puna Dara is blessed to have a good King in these turbulent times. If you will accept the surrender and service of the Infinite Order, you will find us undemanding and, I think, quite useful.”

“How?” The Queen could pack a tremendous weight of cynicism into one word.

“For example,” Ayuvesh said to her, his mouth quirking wryly to one side, “I came out tonight planning to cut my way through the Rock’s gates, and enduring the inevitable losses we would suffer from their defenders. Instead, imagine my surprise at finding myself suddenly approached by a mysterious partner offering to open the gatehouse for us. They were strange people; it was a succubus who slipped in and unlocked the door. Answering to a hooded man who, so far as I know, thinks I could not tell he was a dragon. A green dragon, not a red, and thus a most incongruous leash-holder for a child of Vanislaas. And I have been asking myself, as I’ve made my way through your fortress.” He spread his hands in an eloquent shrug. “What was it that prompted my King to invite a Silver Legion here to lean upon us? What had we ever done to so offend him? And now I wonder what little voice has been whispering in your ear, as well as mine.”

Anjal suddenly bared her teeth; Ayuvesh took a step back as she swung her sword, but the blade clanged uselessly against the corridor’s stone wall.

“Naphthene’s barnacled twat, I told you it was fishy for the Avenists to suddenly offer us intelligence and military support!”

“Don’t blunt your blade, woman, are you a fishmonger’s son playing with his first knife?” Rajakhan, for his part, sheathed his own sword in a decisive gesture. “I told you at the time, the Sisterhood has never in its thousands of years of history tried to steal anyone’s territory or seize temporal power outside of Viridill, and we haven’t done any of the things that have provoked them to overthrow other kingdoms. But!” He held up a hand, forestalling her angry retort. “I think, now, I should have listened to you better.”

“No matter how many times you have that realization, the next time it always comes as a surprise to your wooden head!”

“It’s well that you persist, regardless. Surely you don’t think I keep you around for your charming disposition, dear heart.” The King turned his stare back on a somewhat bemused Ayuvesh, not reacting when his wife slapped the back of his legs with the flat of her blade. “If the Sisterhood has one weakness, it is that they are themselves vulnerable to manipulation. Half the other cults are always running rings around them. Especially the Black Wreath. Who have been astonishingly helpful, of late.”

“Now, that is interesting information,” Ayuvesh said, raising his one eyebrow. “I cannot imagine a green dragon working for or even with Elilial’s servants… But Wreath or not, it’s clear to me that we have an enemy. One who benefits from a weakening of Puna Dara by using me and mine as a weapon against the Crown. The more time we waste, testing our wills against one another, the more they profit. But.” He bowed to them. “If we combine our wills together, in the very act that our enemy must fear most, the universe will bend before us. If you will let me join you.”

 

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13 – 46

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“All right. Caine, heal who you can,” Ruda said, breaking the stunned silence. “Arquin, help him.”

“Um…”

“Yes, I know you suck at it, which is why you’re following his lead. Juniper…do something about that.” She pointed at the huddled form of Milady, turning to her next targets as Toby and Gabriel headed toward the nearest source of pained groans. “Locke, Fross, I need intel. Check at the doors and windows, see what you can see without getting lost in that mess. And that leaves…”

She abruptly bounded onto the crate serving as steps to the improvised dais and from there to the platform itself, prompting a startled squeal from the man now lying flat upon it with his arms over his head.

Ruda bent to seize him by the collar and dragged him bodily to his knees, idly resting the tip of her rapier against the crates in conspicuous view.

“Hi there,” she said with a grin that was far too broad to be sincere. “While my friends try to salvage what they can of your friends, I’m gonna need you to tell me where your other friends toddled off to.”

The man stared up at her, mouth moving convulsively for a moment until he closed it to swallow.

“The ones with the metal appendages,” she prompted, deliberately flexing her wrist and scraping the tip of her sword along the wood near him. “I’m sure you must’ve noticed them.”

“I…” He swallowed again before continuing hoarsely, staring at a point past her shoulder. “I was… They helped me, don’t you see? I was nothing, but they taught me…”

“They picked up a loser at his low point, yes, I understand how religions work.” Ruda gave him a firm shake. “Where are the metal people?”

“My boat sank,” he said mechanically, “my son ran away to Tiraas, I had nothing…”

“HEY.” She hiked him up higher till his face was inches from hers, and his attention focused back on her. “I am not your fucking biographer. Where the fuck did your leaders go? Spit it out!”

This was fortuitously punctuated by a shriek from behind her as Toby set someone’s dislocated shoulder. The flash of golden healing light which followed only served to cast her face in ominous shadow.

Ruda’s prisoner drew a shuddering breath, but then his eyes seemed to come more into focus and he made a small shift which might have been a squaring of the shoulders had he been held in a less awkward position.

“I…can’t,” he said more quietly. “Do what you want. I have many weaknesses, but I’m no traitor.”

“Well, I respect that,” she replied, drawing back her sword arm to lift its tip till it rested against his thigh. “But it makes this really fuckin’ hard, so—”

“Hey!” Principia slipped back in from the side door through which she had departed, leaving it to bang in the wind behind her. “We’re about a block from the palace. It’s hard to hear clearly in this storm but I’m pretty sure the Rock is under attack.”

“It’s bad, Ruda!” Fross chimed, zooming in from one of the upper windows. “She’s right, the castle’s under seige—and I think for the second time! There’s Rust cultists with metal pieces holding the ramparts and someone else is attacking the south gate, I didn’t get a good look at who or what, but somebody is channeling lightning bolts at the Rust on the battlements!”

Ruda drew in a hissing breath through her teeth, then abruptly dropped the cultist. “Congrats, you are now redundant, have a nice life. We’ve gotta move, people. What’s our situation?”

“There’s…not a lot of these people I can still do anything for,” Toby reported somberly. “The good news is nobody who survived had any immediately life-threatening damage, but some of these lightning burns are going to require more complicated treatment than—”

“That’s their problem, then. There’s a hospital four streets away; if you’ve done the triage, we’re done here. Juniper? Is she going to be any use at all?”

“I…have no idea what’s wrong,” Juniper said helplessly, straightening up. She had been kneeling next to Milady, trying to get a response, but the woman had fallen into repetitive rocking and a haunted stare into space. “I can’t find any injury or curse or anything and all the magic in her makes it hard to sniff out… I mean, she smells kinda like me. She’s just gone completely bonkers, it looks like.”

“Battle shock,” Principia said curtly, striding over and squatting on her heels to peer at Milady. The woman in black didn’t seem to notice. “She just slaughtered a room full of people, after all; nobody normal can go through something like that without some kind of reaction. More to the point, the only humans I’ve seen move that way are Butlers. You can’t lose a fight, can you?”

This last was in a lower tone, directed at Milady. She made no reply except to squeeze her eyes shut and begin whispering frantic apologies to no one.

“Excuse me, what?” Ruda exclaimed.

“I think she’s got a fairy curse of some kind,” Principia said, still studying Milady. “It’d explain why she smells like dryads. I knew a guy once who had something similar; he was cursed never to lose a battle.”

“How is that a curse?” Gabriel asked.

“Boy, look at this, and look at that.” Principia pointed first at Milady and then at a stretch of the floor upon which seven dead people were strewn in a mixed swamp of their own blood. “Imagine being forced to retaliate with all your full lethality whenever anybody came at you, and having no control over it. What a nightmare.”

“Well, we’ll have to leave her, then,” Ruda stated, heading toward the front door.

“We can’t do that,” Toby retorted. “Especially not here! She’s helpless, and surrounded by—”

“Aside from being the Princess here,” Principia interrupted, standing, “Punaji is right. She’s a liability. She has been a liability from the beginning, the whole time she was accompanying us into unknown danger with this hanging over her and no word of warning. Bitch could’ve had the effect triggered by anything and slaughtered half of us before we knew what was happening. Leave her, we’ve gotta move.”

“Nobody is not worth helping,” Toby said stubbornly.

“Caine, either come help save my family or fuck off. I don’t have time for this.” Ruda hauled open one of the big front doors, grabbed her hat as a gust of wind immediately tried to rip it away, and stalked out into the storm without another backward look. Principia went right on her heels, and Fross darted after them, Juniper following more slowly and with several uncertain glances back at Milady.

“You can’t tell me this is right,” Toby said, turning to Gabriel. “She just saved our—”

“Toby, you were there. She started that fight, because of that…whatever it was that went off, which she never warned us about. Locke has a point, that’s murderously irresponsible at best. It could’ve killed us all down there; it’s actually a miracle it didn’t.” He glanced down at Milady, then shook his head and turned resolutely toward the door. “No, it isn’t right. It’s not. Sifa’s going to stay and watch over her, but that’s all I can spare. Sometimes you have to choose who to save, Toby. I’m choosing Ruda’s family.”

He rested a hand on Toby’s shoulder for a moment, glanced a last time down at the huddled woman, then turned and followed the others out into the storm.

Toby was the last to go, but go he did.

The group had only been out of sight for a minute, and the surviving Rust were starting to creep toward Milady, when a new figure appeared in the door, sending them fleeing toward the side entrance with a chorus of screams.

The sylph paced across the warehouse with his peculiar gait that was both a stork’s prancing and a snake’s slither, and slowly coiled his long shape around her, huge talons squelching softly in the drying blood underfoot. She didn’t respond.

“Poor, stubborn little hero,” Aradeus murmured, arching a wing protectively over her. “Mmm. You smell of pain buried not deep enough, and good advice not obeyed. You should have gone to see the healer. Always go to see the healer. Well.” He subtly tightened around her, disturbing her balance; she slumped against his silvery body, and he rested his chin atop her head. “Mmm. Great adventures will unfold tonight, but there is no evil to destroy, so I will not fight. I will observe. This is as good a place as any other, hmmm? We will watch this storm pass together.”


The gatehouse’s tiny side door was thick enough to constitute a fortress wall on its own, aside from being the narrowest door she had ever seen. Its odd proportions made it interesting to slip through and get it shut behind her against the howling storm without attracting attention. Tallie paused just inside, letting the water stream off her (it wouldn’t give her away since the whole hallway was likewise wet) and listening.

A faint rustle sounded from the room to her right, but apart from that, nothing. Once she was fairly sure no one had heard, she crept forward.

It was a narrow hall, terminating directly ahead in a stairwell that ascended to, according to Trissiny, a barracks. That would be full of Rust cultists. Though the gatehouse had a matching small door to the interior of the fortress, of course there was no convenient path from that portal to this one, which made sense defensively speaking. If anybody penetrated this entrance they would have to navigate a deliberately illogical route full of corners, stairs, and ideally soldiers, many of the halls in question lined with apertures in the ceiling and upper walls through which the Rock’s defenders could rain punishment on any intruder.

This hall had an ominous profusion of those. Hopefully the Rust hadn’t already found a use for them.

Midway down it along the right wall was a door into what Trissiny had said would be a small armory. Apparently somebody was in there, to judge by the faint scuffling she heard.

Tallie slipped up to the edge of the door, paused for a moment in thought, and then jumped. The narrowness of the hall was her ally; it gave her the perfect amount of space to brace herself across its width. Clambering up to the ceiling, she grabbed the inside of one of the dark holes meant to pour boiling oil or whatever on her, extended her body fully along the ceiling and braced her toes in another, and gingerly lowered her head to peek in through the upper edge of the doorway.

It was a cat burglar’s constant salvation: nobody ever looked up.

The armory was in pretty good order, with no signs of a struggle. That was odd, considering there were two Punaji soldiers and one half-machine man who had to have been one of these Rust characters present. One of the Punaji was bound hand and foot, lying on his side facing the door. The other lay oriented in the opposite direction, with the machine cultist kneeling between him and the entrance, apparently tying off a matching set of bindings.

Tallie hesitated, then lowered her head more fully into the room, enough to be noticeable. Sure enough, the bound soldier’s gaze shifted to her and his eyes widened.

She lowered her free hand, holding herself in place with one hand on an oil loop, one foot in another and the other braced across the hall, and held a finger to her lips. The man stared up at her, but did not otherwise react.

Two friendly soldiers present, and an enemy with his back to the door. Surely she wasn’t going to encounter any situation so fortuitous again. But how to take advantage? Tallie wasn’t a fighter even when accounting for people who weren’t partially made of metal.

Dithering nearly cost her dearly; Tallie snapped her head up at the unmistakable sound of feet running down the stairwell.

The armory had rafters across the ceiling. Trusting the architect not to have been a complete obfuscatory asshole, Tallie shifted herself forward and down at an angle, grabbing the lintel of the door frame with both hands, and swung her whole body feet-first into the room, vaulting straight upward.

Yes, rafters in the right place! She had to shift her angle of attack in mid-swing, but even so got her legs wrapped around a beam with a deftness that pleased her, then swung the rest of the way up to land atop it, out of view of both the door and the cultist below.

She could’ve made that jump by the age of eleven, but the very training that honed her body into a limber showpiece had left her with some habits the Guild had had to laboriously beat from her. Training had paid off, though, and she made her movements economical and silent. The fallen soldier’s eyes tracked her, but the cultist gave no sign he’d heard a thing.

That was all the time she had before the approaching footsteps finished approaching. Another cultist, likewise with a whole limb that looked like some crazy dwarven contraption, but this one a woman.

“Rasul!” she said breathlessly. “Are you still—what are you doing? Just drop a screambell and leave them!”

At the woman’s entrance the soldier who had noticed Tallie shifted his glare to her and did not glance upward, giving no sign of her presence. Eserites weren’t big on prayer, but she offered a silent thanks for meeting friendlies who weren’t complete and utter rubes.

“You’ve heard the sound those things make,” Rasul replied calmly, finishing binding the second soldier’s arms behind his back. “It’s painful, and you can’t tell me it won’t cause permanent damage to the ears if you just leave it on someone. We didn’t come here to be cruel.”

“Well, we don’t have time to be kind,” she snapped. “Somebody is assaulting the south gate—somebody with magic. There’s lightning bolts coming from the sky and some kind of a thing trying to ram the gate down, and the screamlances aren’t doing a thing to it. We have to hold them off until Ayuvesh can finish his work!”

“I see.” Rasul straightened, the joints in his legs—both metal starting from above the knees—clicking oddly, then again as he bowed to the two fallen soldiers. “I’m sorry about this, brothers. You should be all right here; it won’t be long.”

With no more word, he strode out after his comrade, who had already bolted back up the hallway. The man moved with amazing smoothness for somebody whose legs were clockwork.

Tallie listened for the sound of his heavy steps to recede up the stairs before dropping lightly to the floor. Whipping out her belt knife, she knelt next to the second soldier, just because his bound hands were facing her.

She took the precaution of reaching her free hand around to cover his mouth, and a good thing, too, as the sudden contact prompted a yell. The other trooper started to pull himself upright, struggling against his bonds, as Tallie approached his compatriot with a knife.

“Hush up, rubes!” she hissed. “I’m gonna cut you loose, hold still a minute.”

“Not that I’m ungrateful but who the hell are you?” the first man demanded. It was a fair enough question; she obviously wasn’t Rust, but equally obviously wasn’t military or even Punaji.

“I’m with the Thieves’ Guild,” she said quietly, sawing through the just-tied cord as rapidly as she could. “I’ve got more thieves, a Salyrite witch and the Hand of damn well Avei coming to help, but I need to get them inside before they can be much use.”

“Well, fuck me running,” the man she was untying said in amazement.

“Later, sailor,” Tallie grunted. “Business before pleasure. You guys know the layout; I need to get that gate open so my people can hit these assholes from behind. What’s—”

“Uh, first things first,” interrupted the first man she’d seen, his eyes now fixed on a spot at which men had an annoying tendency to stare. “Why’ve you got a glowing rat in your cleavage?”


“This is taking too long. Is it taking too long?” Layla altered her pacing pattern, beginning to orbit the rest of the group instead of stalking up and down in front of them. “How long does it take to break into an impregnable fortress? I should have gone with her, I can move almost as quietly… You’d know if something happened to her, right, Schwartz? You’d tell us?”

“Oy.” As she passed, Darius reached out and seized his sister by the back of her neck. “You can’t possibly think that’s helping him concentrate.”

“It’s all right,” Schwartz said without opening his eyes. “Concentration is as much emotional as intellectual. As long as you lot are squabbling, I know the world is still in order.”

Darius snorted a laugh at that, but Layla just shook him off with a glare and resumed pacing, now chewing her bottom lip.

Schwartz hadn’t bothered with any kind of ritual circle for this, though off to his right was another small improvised altar made from cobblestones pried up out of the streets themselves, this one with a handful of loose crystals of various colors on its top. He was sitting cross-legged, his spine straight and eyes closed, with elbows braced against his sides and both arms extended palm-up. His right hand appeared to be on fire; in his left rested another cobblestone which constantly trembled and twitched as if he were bouncing it, though his hand was not moving.

“Waiting is part of any heist,” Trissiny said calmly, “as well as any military campaign. This is a bit of both. Trust our friend like she does us; we all know what we’re doing.”

“If it was you in there I’d be less worried,” Layla muttered, not slowing. “Or Schwartz. The rest of us are just apprentices.”

“None of you are just anything,” Trissiny said automatically, then let out a soft sigh when Layla scowled at her. “All right, I take your point, but still. Tallie is good. We wouldn’t have let her do this if she wasn’t good enough.”

“Wait—there’s trouble.”

Schwartz suddenly opened his eyes, and Darius winced looking at him. Behind his spectacles, they glowed orange-red, the same shade as Meesie’s fur.

“Trouble where?” Trissiny asked, instinctively grasping her sword. “Do we need to pull her out?”

“Tallie’s okay,” the witch reported. “She’s rescued a couple of soldiers, and the Rust have been drawn off by our diversion; Meesie can’t hear any strange noise weapons nearby. The problem is at the other gate.” He suddenly grimaced and had to close his hands over the cobblestone, which was suddenly trying to jerk fully away from him. “I’m—they’ve—okay, those sound weapons aren’t bothering the elemental but it turns out they’ve got more mundane methods…”

“Stay here and be ready to help Tallie if she needs it,” Trissiny ordered the siblings, drawing her blade. “Sounds like this is my cue.”


The group pulled back together as they neared the fortress. The storm appeared to be on the wane, Naphthene’s fury ebbing off as quickly as it had come; the wind had slackened notably and the lightning was both less frequent and more distant. There was no relief from the downpour, however, and they were all drenched from the moment of stepping outside.

Fross, as usual, darted ahead, shooting around the corner that led their current street onto the open square before the Rock’s south gate. Principia was the first after her, but the rest were not far behind. They all piled to an immediate stop, though, trying to make sense of what they were seeing.

Something was trying to smash the gates like a living battering ram, a low-slung creature about the shape of a crocodile but apparently covered in a shell of stone. Or stones, more correctly, thickly clustered over it like scales. In fact, it was hard to tell details through the rain, but they appeared to be exactly the same color and texture as the cobblestone plaza over which it was charging again.

The weird creature was clearly trying to bash the gate itself in; even as they watched, it backed up and charged forward once more, its blunt head crashing against the outer gates. There was no telling how long it had been at this, but there was already a sizable splintered dent around the spot where the gates met, evidence of repeated pounding. However, the stone monster’s efforts were no longer going so smoothly.

It appeared to be trying to ignore the Rust harassing it and focus on its task, but that was clearly growing more difficult by the moment. A person sitting astride some kind of mechanical mount and carrying a long lance was hassling it relentlessly. The machine he was riding resembled an ostrich with a long tail for balance and a steering stick like an enchanted carriage’s where its head should be. It made an awful clatter as he maneuvered it one-handed, piston-legs pounding into the cobblestones and its joints clacking and emitting gouts of steam.

Its rider swooped around in a wide arc to charge at the stone beast again even as his target backed up for another run at the gate. He lowered his lance and its head sparked alight with arcs of electricity that made an uncontrolled nimbus in the rain. It impacted the side of the creature with enough force to shove it off-balance. The impact was enough to bring the mechanical running-bird up short, and the rider only kept his grip on the lance because it was attached to his metal arm.

Another Rust cultist was nearby on foot, wielding another shock lance with which he continually jabbed and bludgeoned the stone creature. Lacking the speed and weight of the birdlike mount, his blows hadn’t enough inertia to shift it, but that electrified lance head still did damage, each blow causing a spray of stone chips and sometimes dislodging an entire chunk of rock.

While they stared, another mechanical thing suddenly arrived, charging out of a side street to join the fray. This one was like a gigantic insect, six legs clattering noisily as it came. Rather than slamming into the stone beast as it first appeared to be about to do, it skidded to a stop nearby and this second Rust cultist leaped into its seat.

“Okay, these guys and their contraptions are old news,” Ruda said above the noise, “but what the fuck is that thing?”

“There’s a lot of fae magic in that,” Juniper said, squinting through the rain. “Like…it’s mostly fae magic.”

“It’s an elemental,” Principia said slowly. “A pavement elemental. Well, that’s a new one, I’ve gotta say.”

“What’s your call, Princess?” Gabriel asked, turning to Ruda. “Taking down the Rust is a safe bet, but we don’t know whose side the elemental’s on, except that they don’t like it. Is this an enemy-of-my-enemy thing, or do we come down on anyone who’s attacking the Rock?”

Ruda frowned at the scene in silence for a bare moment before responding. “Fuck it, we’ve gotta get in, and it looks like they’ve got control of the gates. My parents are in danger right now, we don’t have time to sort this out. Take down the Rust, and unless that thing attacks us help it get the gates—”

A deep, bellowing whinny cut through the storm and her orders, and yet another bulky figure came charging into the square from a side street. This one came from almost straight ahead, originating off the north side of the fortress’s corner and approaching at an angle that would barely skirt the tower and plow head-on into the melee.

It was a horse—an armored horse, though clearly not mechanical, and ridden by an armored figure. That was all they could perceive through the downpour, until it burst alight. Golden wings flared out from the rider, and her sword blazed with pure divine power as she leveled it at the nearest mounted cultist.

“YEEAAAAAH!” Fross screamed, shooting straight upward and erupting in a burst of silver glitter like a firework. “YOU FUCKERS ARE DONE!”


The Rock was a surpassingly resilient bastion, defensible both within and without. Punaji history being rife with coups and revolutions, those occupying its seat of power made no assumptions about their safety. Even in its deepest interior, the Rock’s corridors abounded with blind turns, choke points, doors as hard to break as the outer gates of some lesser fortresses, and more than a handful of booby traps.

It was also, of course, fully staffed both by soldiers and by civilian Punaji who not only carried weapons but didn’t need much prompting to use them. The joke on the wharves was that a Punaji scullery maid was roughly a match for a Sheng infantryman.

Unfortunately for the current royal family, all these defenses were useless against a foe who cleaved through them without even a proper fight.

What unfolded as the handful of Rust swept through the Rock could not have been called a battle. Punaji defenders were swiftly felled by sonic weapons, collapsing in pain and disorientation usually without even squeezing off a shot. The few who managed to fire on their attackers achieved nothing, wand and staff bolts sparking harmlessly against energy shields which were far more durable than the arcane charms with which they were familiar. Nor did the Rust tie down their vastly inferior numbers by trying to seize and hold any ground; they simply neutralized anyone who got in their way and swept on, making equally short work of any physical barriers in their path with blades extended from their machine arms—blades whose edges glowed as if hot, and which sliced through dense wood faster and cleaner than any saw, slowed only slightly when they encountered metal.

The Rust were clearly not here to capture the Rock. They were searching for something. As scattered and disoriented defenders slowly recovered in their passing, they quickly figured out what.

So did the King and Queen, and as such, they were not caught in any corner or defensible position, clearly having learned better from the example of what befell their troops. This communication suggested the presence of tactical scryers, but that did not matter in the end. Ayuvesh had his own means.

He had directed his people to fan through the fortress in a pincer movement as best they could given its maze of corridors, encircling the Rock and closing in. So it was that he finally snared his targets in a long hallway as they attempted to retreat, doubtless to some secret exit from the Rock itself.

Rajakhan and Anjal were accompanied only by their seneschal and two soldiers, and the latter had been neatly felled by sonic shots from the cultist who appeared at the end of the hall down which they fled. The royal couple turned to retreat while Akhatrya tried (fruitlessly) to hamper the attacker, but it was Ayuvesh himself who met them coming the other way. Through the reports of his people scattered through the fortress, he had been tracking them for some time already.

He had left one of his followers behind at the other end of the corridor to ensure they were not interrupted. Finally, he had his moment.

Both King and Queen bared steel at him, standing shoulder-to-shoulder and glaring without a hint of fear.

“Your Majesties,” he said grandly, gesticulating with his metal hand. “I will not waste our time with insincere pleasantries. My people rage unimpeded through your fortress, completely unhindered by the best you can throw against them. You know by now that your weapons will not prevail against me. I have you cornered and at my mercy. This chase, it would appear, is well and truly over.”

“Do what you came to, but spare me your juvenile gloating,” Blackbeard growled. “The Punaji will not—”

“Forgive me,” Ayuvesh said, holding up his other hand, “for interrupting what I’m sure would have been a memorable speech, but once you have learned what I came for I think you will be glad not to have wasted it upon my unworthy self.”

“Speak, then,” Anjal snapped.

“I mistrust words,” he replied with a smile. “Deeds are what matters in life. Action, and the will to take it. And so!”

He tossed aside his screamlance, to their visible surprise. Their expressions of confusion only deepened when Ayuvesh carefully knelt upon the stone floor, and raised both his hands, metal and flesh, in the air. He bowed his head to them, speaking only two more words.

“I surrender.”

 

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13 – 40

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Darius had to help Trissiny tug the warehouse door shut; it opened outward in exactly the wrong direction, and the wind had immediately seized and slammed it against the wall. By the time they had wrestled it closed, both were utterly drenched.

“The Archmage was not kidding about this storm!” he said cheerfully, shaking water from his hands. “Raining sideways is right. So what’re we gonna do, then? Right now all we know is there are renegade cultists, and the Archpope is probably behind ’em.”

“It would seem the most obvious course would be to wait out the weather,” Layla said, opening the unfastened lid of a nearby crate. “It’s not as if we can scout in this… Ah, textiles! Splendid, something you two can towel off with.”

“Get outta there,” Tallie ordered. “That’s somebody’s livelihood you’re screwing around with.”

“Tallie, we’re thieves,” Layla said, giving her a long look. “And we’re already breaking and entering.”

“Nah, Bossypants is right,” Darius interjected. “We’re Eserites, not bandits; don’t take stuff from people we don’t know deserve it. A little water won’t kill us.”

“I’m not sure how long we can afford to wait, either,” Trissiny added. “If what’s happening here is urgent, the storm actually provides excellent cover to begin moving. Punaji like storms, but even most of them won’t be out in the streets in a blow-down like this. By the same token, our enemy may also be acting under cover of the weather.”

“That still leaves us with the problem of gathering info in that racket,” Darius replied, and was punctuated by a helpful thunderclap.

“I think Schwartz has an idea?” Tallie pointed out.

The group had materialized in a half-filled warehouse that was dim almost to the point of darkness, with little natural light thanks to the storm and no lit fairy lamps. A small light had appeared now, though, courtesy of Schwartz, who had evidently begun work as soon as they’d arrived. He had constructed a tiny altar in the cleared space in the middle of the floor, consisting of little more than a piece of stone upon which he had set and now carefully lit a small candle. The group edged closer, leaning forward to stare at the witch’s work without crowding him. Schwartz gave a handful of feathers to Meesie, who set about scampering around the altar laying them down in a careful arrangement forming a kind of spell circle, while Schwartz himself sat back on his haunches, busily scribbling on a narrow strip of parchment with an incongruously modern fountain pen.

“Amazing all the stuff he’s got in those robes,” Darius stage whispered.

“Shh!” Layla elbowed him, then grimaced and rubbed at the wet patch created on her own arm.

Ignoring them for the moment, Schwartz finished his writing just as Meesie completed her feather diagram and scurried back up him to her customary perch on his shoulder. The witch carefully held his parchment over the candle flame, dipping just the corner into the tiny fire.

Immediately, the whole thing went up in a rush of sparks, causing him to jerk his fingers back. The candle was snuffed out by the reaction, the plume of smoke this caused mingling with the ashes of the parchment and rising upward far more energetically than was normal. They all tilted their heads back to watch the small cloud separate into streamers above them, each of which zipped away toward the windows lining the walls just below the ceiling, where they slipped out into the storm through tiny cracks where the panes didn’t fit exactly.

“Well?” Darius said pointedly. “We’re in suspense, here, buddy.”

“A while back I got some really good advice,” Schwartz said, beginning to pick up the feathers and tuck them inside one of his wide sleeves. “A smart old lady told me, among other things, to start equipping myself with aggressive kinds of magic. I’ve always been a bit of a bookworm, you see. More into research than adventure.”

“Surely you jest,” Layla said sweetly, earning annoyed glances from Tallie and Trissiny (and Meesie). Schwartz just continued, unperturbed.

“Well, I got to thinking, and it seems the Avenists are always harping on about war being ninety percent strategy and ten percent actual violence, right?”

“Avenist doctrine doesn’t break it into percents,” Trissiny said dryly, “but the sentiment is close enough.”

“Right. It put me in mind of a time in Vrin Shai where I… Where my group was stuck basically twiddling their thumbs while I tried to gather information from, y’know, oracular sources. The general way fae magic is good for. It took an awful long time and it was terribly imprecise… So! Since then I’ve set about working on that blind spot! That’s the thing that drew me to the fae craft in the first place—my dad was an arcanist, you know. But in witchcraft, it’s all connections and friendships with fairy beings. Power’s about who you know and how much they like you. It rewards being nice.”

“Nice people and good people are two very distinct categories,” Layla said quietly.

“Yeah, I discovered that pretty early on.” Schwartz had finished gathering and putting away his reagents, and now straightened up a little stiffly. “But anyway. In the last few months I’ve been working on getting on good terms with a fairy whom I’ve just called for help. He’s really good with information, if he wants to be. We’re not exactly close, yet, and this is the first time I’ve actually asked him for anything, so I guess we’ll see… But I have a feeling he’ll help us! This is a textbook adventure we’re in, and sylphs love those.”

“Whoah, whoah!” Darius exclaimed backing away. “I’m not the witch here, but aren’t sylphs sort of… Notoriously dangerous?”

“Oh, yes, extremely,” Schwartz replied, while Meesie nodded earnest agreement. “So for heaven’s sake be polite to—”

One of the upper windows shattered, admitting a blast of wind and rain, and a streak of silver feathers and fangs that dived straight for Schwartz with a chilling scream.


Nandi bolted straight up out of her chair, turning to face the staircase up to the battlements. The surrounding Punaji all swiveled to stare in bemusement at the sudden motion, but her squadmates came to their feet in unison, drawing weapons.

“Shahai?” Ephanie demanded.

“The walls are under attack!” Nandi declared, her eyebrows drawing together in concentration. “I hear fighting above—no, not fighting, voices and people falling… They’re coming this way!”

“Who is?” Lieutenant Laghari asked, picking up a battlestaff from the nearest weapons rack. This was a barracks, not an armory, but the troopers present kept their personal armaments close at hand.

“I don’t know, but the wall guards are falling quickly,” Nandi said urgently. “With very little struggle, which means magic at work. People are—they’re in the stairwell!”

Laghari and Ephanie both barked orders at once. Squad One snatched up shields and lances and planted themselves in a defensive line across the center of the room while the Punaji soldiers swiftly tipped up tables to create improvised barricades, grabbing firearms and huddling behind them.

In the resulting tumult, the sound of something bouncing down the stairs was totally obscured, but with everyone’s attention on the entrance, the small object’s arrival was immediately seen. Spinning to fast to be studied closely, it was white and about the size of an apple; the thing ricocheted off the edge of the doorway and tumbled straight for the hastily-erected defenses.

“Bomb!” one of the Punaji shouted, and they all ducked behind their tables while the Legionnaires dropped to their knees, huddling as much behind their shields as possible. Nandi, the only priest among them threw up a wall of golden light across the room in front of them. Stretched so thin, it would assuredly crumble under the first blow, but that was still standard procedure against explosive attack; even a fragile shield could blunt the initial blast enough to save the troops behind it.

And had the thing been a bomb, it might have worked.

It didn’t explode or even flash; only the faintest distortion appeared in the air around it as it arced toward Nandi’s shield, as if it were suddenly putting off great heat. An instant before it struck the wall of light, a thin, piercing whine spiked straight through everyone’s eardrums, completely uninhibited by the shield.

Soldiers collapsed, most crying out and several vomiting, behind their wooden barriers. Two staves were accidentally discharged, the ordinarily deafening sound of lightning in an enclosed space going unnoticed around the noise bearing everyone to the ground.

The Legionnaires fared no better, their shield wall collapsing instantly. Nandi screamed in anguish, dropping her lance and shield to pitch over backward, clutching at her head. Everyone in the room was brought down by sheer pain. The few who bore up against it well enough to retain some spine had little better luck. Laghari and Ephanie both caught themselves before falling completely prone, and tried to call for order, immediately discovering that their voices were completely silent, even to themselves. Nothing could be heard except the excruciating whine.

In addition to the pain, it caused disorientation and nausea that made several of the victims present empty their stomachs and prevented any of them from so much as straightening up. Ephanie tried and staggered drunkenly, barely catching herself on the edge of the nearest table.

Farah keeled over backward, then rolled on top of Nandi and took her hands away from her own head to help cover the elf’s ears; Nandi had curled herself into a ball and was twitching with silent sobs. Merry, losing her lance, had got her hands on someone’s dropped battlestaff and managed to flop down atop her own shield with the weapon aiming in the general direction of the door. The dizziness was not lessened by being stretched out on the floor, and it was all she could do to line up a shot at that general end of the room.

At the first flicker of movement she fired, the lightning bolt seeming soundless to them and blasting a futile crater in the wall a full yard distant from the door itself. All she accomplished was to warn the person coming in.

None of them were coherent enough to get a close look at the object which peeked around the corner at about chest height before it fired in Merry’s general direction.


They were not quite fast enough to prevent an alarm from sounding. Quickly silenced as it was, the damage was done, and soldiers upon the upper towers of the Rock itself leveled staves and opened fire upon the cyborgs emerging from the north gatehouse.

Ayuvesh strode, unconcerned, out into the rain pounding the courtyard. Lightning flashed, gouging rents in the flagstones and sparking harmlessly against his personal shield and those of his comrades. Let them burn through their power crystals; these deflectors were of a make like nothing the Punaji had ever seen. If they were expecting to wear them down with continuous fire as one could a standard arcane shield charm, they would be frustrated.

The counter-fire did not last long, anyway, as each sparking battlestaff only presented a target. Members of the Order took aim with blasters and the air was filled with the shrill whine of the sonic weapons—harmless to their wielders, thanks to enhancements he had been certain to make to all of their installed machine systems. The effect of sonic blasters would be inhibited by the solid stone walls of the Rock, but battlements and arrow loops would offer little protection from sound waves. One by one, the firing staves halted as their owners were incapacitated.

Fortunate that his foresight had demanded they all install the protection against sonics before the Infinite Elixir had suddenly dried up, forcing him to make this extremely risky gambit. But no, he corrected himself inwardly, there was no fortune. There was only will, and his was stronger.

“South gatehouse is contained,” one of his comrades reported, the voice sounding in Ayuvesh’s artificial ear. “They actually got into fighting position, but didn’t stand up to the blasters.”

“Don’t get careless,” another warned. “There’ll be more troops below, out of range of the weapons.”

Ayuvesh turned to face Shankri, and tilted his head back toward the southern gatehouse. “Try to get inside from the ground floor and sweep upward with your group; meet in the middle. You mustn’t let them secure a position inside the gatehouse.”

“Yes, Leader,” she replied, bowing, then turned and dashed for the small door at the side. The four assigned to accompany her, having heard, followed without comment, all carrying sonic blasters.

Of all the Order present, only Ayuvesh himself was without one.

“Come,” he ordered, striding forward toward the inner gates of the Rock itself. “We must not give them time to organize.”

Staff fire had completely ceased by then; at his side, Gupter switched his arm attachment from a standard hand to a cutting tool, against which the fortress door would hold for seconds at the most.

“Spread out when we are inside,” Ayuvesh ordered. “Fan as widely as you can, neutralize everyone you see. No looting, and do not harm fallen foes. Keep moving through the fortress in small groups and stay in touch. Notify me at once when you find the King. Only then will we be able to end this.”

It was one thing for a person to test his will against the universe itself. Tonight, the will of the Infinite Order would come against that of a king and a nation.

And what would be, would be.


“Wait, wait, wait!” Schwartz cried shrilly—to Trissiny, who had burst alight with a golden glow and whipped out her sword. He didn’t seem at all perturbed about the great sinuous beast which had coiled itself around him. While she had taken a threatening step forward, the other apprentices had judiciously retreated. Atop Schwartz’s head, Meesie mimicked his posture, frantically holding up her tiny palms and squeaking at Trissiny. “It’s all right! He’s a friend! Everything’s fine.”

“You’re…sure,” she said warily, but lowered her sword. Schwartz was fully encased in serpentine coils, but not constricted—and in fact, as she took a careful step back, the sylph continued moving, loosening his encirclement to give Schwartz more space and fixing a stare on the paladin.

“I’m quite sure, trust me. That was a heck of an entrance, Rad,” he added, the sylph having unwound himself to a position bringing his head adjacent to Schwartz’s. “You scared everybody half to death.”

“Mmm. Just half? All is well, then.” The voice might have been human, albeit rather high-pitched for a male.

“Everyone, this is my friend, Aradeus the Noble.” Schwartz actually reached out to pat the sylph’s neck, smiling reassuringly. “Rad, these are my other friends. Layla and Darius Sakhavenid, Tallie… I’m sorry, I don’t know your last name.”

“That’s how I like it,” she replied warily, eyes still on the sylph.

“And, of course, Trissiny Avelea, the Hand of Avei.”

“An honor!” Aradeus gracefully slid out from around Schwartz, spread his wings, and executed a strangely courtly bow, dipping his head and tucking one foot momentarily behind the other.

He was the strangest combination of snake, bird, and dog in appearance. Fully twelve feet long from nose to tail, his whole body was sinuous and lean, covered in silvery fur which ruffled constantly, more than the wind blowing in from the window he’d broken could account for. His wings were feathered, the plumes oddly crystalline in appearance, and banded in bright colors like a macaws; directly below them he had two long, stork-like legs, ending in huge, glittering talons. The sylph’s head looked canine, though tipped with two birdlike nostrils instead of a wet little nose, and he had blade-shaped ears twice the length of his skull.

Aradeus smiled at them, which may have been intended as a pleasant expression. His long rows of needle-sharp silver teeth just made it unnerving.

“Let’s see,” the sylph mused, turning and stepping over toward Layla with a mincing gait that suited a wading bird. He paused when Darius edged in front of her, and folded his wings back along his sinuous body. “Mmm, young nobles. Of House Sakhavenid! You are a long way from home.”

“You’re aware of our House?” Layla asked in surprise, peeking around Darius’s shoulder.

“Not until just now.” Aradeus seemed to have lost interest already, turning and approaching Tallie, who held her ground. For the most part he kept his neck—or at least the long portion of his body between his wings and head—arched upright to bring his eyes to about human level, but he lowered it now to sniff at her midsection.

“Excuse you?” she exclaimed.

“Now, Tallie,” Schwartz said nervously.

“Mmmm. Circus folk. An acrobat? How excellent!” Aradeus straightened up to grin at her. “I like performers. Such a sense of fun!”

“Well, thanks, I guess…”

The sylph had moved on by then. Trissiny carefully slid her sword back into its sheath, watching quizzically as Aradeus stepped over and sniffed all up and down her form.

“Find what you were looking for?” she finally asked after the third round of this.

“Mmm, how fascinating!” He straightened again, showing her all his teeth. “Avenist, Eserite, human, elf. And what diverse friends you have! Avei is branching out, it seems. Herschel, you didn’t tell me you—” Twisting his head around to look at Schwartz, he suddenly broke off. “Oh. Oh, I see. You don’t know, yet.”

“Omnu’s balls,” Darius interjected. “Is there something else you need to tell us, Trissiny?”

“No, no, no secrets,” Aradeus assured him, twisting his neck fully into a position that looked very uncomfortable. “She doesn’t know yet, either. Not my place to say, you’ll find out in time, no doubt. Or perhaps not. Mmmm. And you call me here without an offering, Herschel? Presumptuous.” The sylph straightened his neck, turning to prance back toward Schwartz and lowering his head as he came. “You have always been so well-mannered, too.”

Meesie sat upright in Schwartz’s hair, waving and squeaking brightly. Aradeus paused in his approach to grin up at her.

“Hey, there, cutie. I missed you, too.”

“I am sorry to call so abruptly, Rad,” Schwartz said, himself wearing a grin now. Oddly enough, in the presence of one of the most infamously unpredictable and violent types of fairy, he seemed more at ease than ever. “But I thought you might get a kick out of this, and we could definitely use your help. The short version is we’re chasing renegades from various cults of the Universal Church, and all we know is they’re attacking Puna Dara. Which would be interesting enough on its own, but right now the city’s being pounded by a sudden storm sent specifically by Naphthene. What do you think?” His grin widened. “Sound like fun?”

“Mmmmmmmmmm.” Aradeus emitted a long hum, tilting his head and twitching both his ears. Though apparently rigid along their length, they swiveled where they attached to the skull, and he used them as expressively as a horse. “It’s a very good storm. Hers are always the best ones. Interesting, I’ll give you that. It’s not running from Athan’Khar monsters, but you do keep yourself entertained, don’t you?”

“You actually did that?” Darius scoffed.

Schwartz shrugged and rolled his eyes heavenward. “Why doesn’t anyone believe me about that?”

“Mmm. I will not fight, here, I think,” Aradeus mused. Turning away from Schwartz, he began pacing in a circle, head upraised, sniffing the air steadily as he went. “There is no evil here…just humans struggling over human concerns. Not my business. There was a succubus, quite recently. She’s gone, though. Alas, no evil is left to chase.”

“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?” Layla said. “The last thing we need to deal with is a succubus.”

“Oh, but they’re such fun!” the sylph crooned, swiveling his head to grin directly at her. “So clever! Excellent hunting.”

“And it’s not necessarily good that she’s gone,” Trissiny added, frowning. “If a Vanislaad has been here and left, that usually means they’ve accomplished whatever they were trying to do. Which is always trouble of the worst kind.”

“Oh, yes!” Aradeus turned his eyes on her, grinning widely. “Oh, yes. Mmmm. Yes, I don’t mind helping you, this is a most entertaining hunt. There are no Pantheon cultists here for you to chase, oh no. Very different cultists, men and women of machine and ancient lore. They do not answer to your enemy, but have been manipulated by him. Encouraged, and used. The succubus let them into the palace, the Rock. Even now, they close upon the Crown.” He raised his head, sniffing the air again. “Mmmm. A most curious battle. They fight with…sound, yes. Weapons that strike the ear. Painful, but not lethal. A strangely bloodless coup. The Punaji have no defense against this.”

“Shit fire,” Darius whispered.

“How can you tell all this?” Tallie demanded.

“Sylphs can smell anything,” Schwartz said, stepping up and patting Aradeus on the back of the neck. Humming softly in pleasure, the sylph arched into the touch, and the witch ruffled his fur affectionately. “It’s not like elves, who just have more acute senses. Aradeus can scent whatever the wind has witnessed. If he says he smells sound weapons, then that’s what it is.”

“This succubus,” Trissiny said, narrowing her eyes. “Does she work for the Archpope?”

“For now.” Aradeus gave her a small grin, the faint light glittering along his silver teeth. “Under duress, of course. A succubus, elves…a dragon. What an interesting Archpope, this one. Mmm. Strange company, for such as him to keep.”

“Well, that answers the question of timing, anyway,” Trissiny stated, turning to the others. “The King is under attack now. We have to move.”

“How?” Layla asked skeptically. “How are we going to fight sound-based weapons that apparently took out the whole Punaji army?”

“You’re not a soldier,” Tallie said. “Don’t try to think like one. You’re a thief. Weapons are no use if they never even get pointed at you. We’ve got a paladin and a witch to draw their attention. We operate best in the shadows.”

“Okay,” Trissiny said, nodding. “I like it so far. What’s your idea, Tallie?”

Suddenly put on the spot, Tallie froze for a moment. Just a moment, though, then she swallowed. “Uh, well… Okay. What is it we need to accomplish, here? We’re saving the Punaji government, right?”

“That seems more or less the sum of it,” Schwartz agreed. “We came here to oppose whatever Justinian has set in motion. If he wants Rajakhan to fall, we want him to win.”

“Right. Then… There’s the military solution, where we take out the people attacking them.”

“Unlikely,” Aradeus commented. “Mmmm. Forty- three of them, spreading through the palace. Humans augmented with machine parts, carrying shields and weapons of ancient design. Mmm. Hershel and Trissiny, either, are more than a match for a handful at a time. But hunting them down would take you too long. And if you got them all to gather… Even a Hand of Avei might be pressed.”

“You are a very helpful fairy,” Tallie told him.

“Yes, I am. And you are a very interesting human!”

“Thanks, I try. Well, that leaves the other solution: we get the King out of the palace, somehow. Finding and extracting someone isn’t exactly a thiefly skill, but it’s closer to up our alley.”

“There is more help coming,” Aradeus said suddenly, raising his nose to the air again and inhaling. “Mmm… Yes. Help. Good help… Enough to crush the metal men!”

Tallie threw up her hands. “Okay, never mind! Back to Plan A, I guess.”

“No, wait a moment,” Trissiny said slowly. “Aradeus, do the invaders have control of the fortress gates?”

“Mmm, well spotted. Yes, they have. One they used to enter, the other they overtook. Stopping the soldiers inside from helping their king, mmm.”

“How many gates are there?” Layla asked.

“Two,” said Trissiny, “at right angles, flanking the western corner tower.”

“I thought you’d never been here before,” said Darius, frowning at her.

“I haven’t, but the Rock is one of the most impregnable fortresses on this continent; you’d better believe they made me study it back in Viridill. Tallie’s plan is still our best bet. We hit the gates; Schwartz and I will draw their attention while you get the doors open.”

“How.” Tallie’s voice dripped with so much skepticism it was barely a question.

Trissiny actually grinned at her. “Each gatehouse has a side door, just the kind of thing a thief can breach. I’ll walk you through it on the way.”

“Mmmm. They entered through the north gatehouse,” Aradeus added, again sniffing the air. “Mm. Yes. That door is not secured…yet. These are not military people, nor planning to hold the fortress; they are after the King. Not expecting to be attacked from behind, and overconfident in their weapons. You can get in the same way they did.”

“And once you’ve opened the gates,” Trissiny said, nodding, “the rest of these reinforcements will aid us in taking back the fortress. Who, exactly, is coming?” she added, turning to Aradeus.

“Mmmm, that is the best part,” he said, giving her a huge grin. “People you know… Know very well. But you will need to hold that gate open for them, Trissiny, Hand of Avei. Mmm, yes. They are going to be delayed.”


The appeared in a harbor warehouse, with the storm pounding against its walls and the windows rattling under its fury. The Avatar had teleported them so abruptly the group lost seconds to sheer disorientation. Then, they reflexively clustered together, even Fross darting to hover above the center of their formation.

They were not alone.

This particular warehouse was clearly serving as a living space; there were rows of beds and other furniture marking of a sleeping area to one side, as well as other sections delineated by cheap wooden dividers or simply the furniture within to indicate its purpose. A makeshift kitchen and armory were apparent at a glance, but the group didn’t bother to study the rest in more detail, being more concerned with the people present.

The warehouse was packed with people sheltering from the storm. A surprising number of them were armed, with swords, wands and staves. Milady, Principia, and the students landed right in the center of the space, directly in front of a makeshift dais made by stacked crates, upon which a man had been clearly in the middle of giving a speech. He gaped at them, arms still upraised in an interrupted gesticulation.

After a shocked moment, every weapon in the place was pointed at them.

“Identify yourselves!” the man on the platform finally commanded, regathering his poise.

“Uh…how ’bout you first?” Gabriel suggested.

“This is our home, and you are the intruders, here.” The speaker was regaining equilibrium by the moment, and now leveled a finger at them dramatically. “You trespass upon the domain of the Infinite Order!”

A short silence fell.

“You cannot be serious,” Milady finally said with a sigh.

“So help me,” Ruda growled, “I am going to find a way to get back down there and kill that fucking purple glowshroom.”

 

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