Tag Archives: Bishop Shahai

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“It’s a standard strategy,” Vex explained, folding his hands on the table in front of him. Only he and Zanzayed had seated themselves; the rest stood around the rim of the conference room, with Squad One clustered against the wall opposite Vex. He, of course, sat at the table’s head. “In fact, this particular ploy deserves a great deal of credit for the Tirasian Dynasty’s reconstruction of the Empire in an era when anti-Imperial sentiment was rampant. Resistance movements and terrorist organizations exist even today, and Imperial Intelligence has a hand in all of them. We started a good many, wherever there lay a dangerous degree of citizen unease with no outlet. For the rest, we are the primary provider of funding. Obviously, they are all unaware of this.”

“Why the dragons?” Principia asked. “Surely they had little to fear from general dislike to begin with.”

Vex glanced at Ampophrenon, a clear invitation to speak. The dragon nodded to him before turning to Principia. “It is not that we feared for our own welfare. Our kind have always been rather unpopular among many peoples—I fear, not without reason. One of the Conclave’s aims is to remedy this, but that will likely be the work of generations. What we wished to ward off was an organized movement that would damage that work. Normalizing relations would be much more difficult with substantial public opposition in place.”

“And it is not the Empire’s policy to squash protest movements,” Vex added. “The temptation to do so has brought down many a kingdom; one can only repress the people’s will for so long. The Empire prefers more elegant methods of managing its citizens.”

“You’re being remarkably forthright,” Casey observed, eyes narrowed.

Vex smiled languidly; he seemed almost half-asleep. “The facts of Imperial strategy and tactics aren’t classified. Some of the details of these specific events are, of course, but it’s known, generally, how we do things. What have we to fear from exposure? Whatever its aims, the Empire’s policies result in a public that can generally do what they like. Oddly, they rarely seem to object.”

“The handling of this concern,” Ampophrenon went on, “was an early sticking point in our negotiations with the Empire. Rather than dwell upon it, we mutually decided that making a joint operation would help bind us together, and hopefully smooth over further points of difficulty.” He cast an unreadable look at Zanzayed, who grinned. “Thus, this has all turned out to be a rather more elaborate operation than, frankly, it strictly needed to be. More than half the point was to have the Conclave and the Empire working closely together. After seeing the number of people interested in joining this movement, however, I begin to worry we have created a problem where one did not exist.”

“The method is one we borrowed from the Black Wreath, Lord Ampophrenon,” the marshal said. Her outfit was still rather theatrical, with its black leather and red corset, but without the grisly wing-cloak and skull mask she was otherwise a much less impressive-looking woman, younger than middle age and with the dark hair and tilted eyes common to Sifan. “A wide net of recruitment brings in any remotely interested parties, most of whom want little more than to feel subversive. That attitude is particularly common among the wealthier classes. From there, we carefully weed out the truly motivated for more specific tasks, and a higher degree of trust. It’s a very effective strategy; there’s a reason the Wreath has relied on it for centuries.”

“Allow me to interrupt this self-congratulatory back-patting,” said Zanzayed. “The fact is I blatantly misused my rather tenuous connection to you, Principia, to make you a peripheral cog in this machine. You have my sincere apologies.”

“Only because you’re afraid of the Crow,” Principia said smugly.

His faint smile vanished. “I am not afraid of the Crow,” Zanzayed said testily. “I would rather not have another drawn-out exchange with her, though. Those are time-consuming and costly. In any case, you were never supposed to be in any danger. All of this was quite carefully planned; shining a bright light on you was merely a recruitment method to help us identify anybody who took the bait as a potential target. It was our assumption that a Legion-trained veteran Guild thief could deftly handle any such annoyances; we went to great lengths to keep you out of any real danger.”

“Which brings us to an extremely pertinent point on which I require information,” said Vex, steepling his fingers in front of his face. “We went to considerable trouble to have you and the Guild investigating a harmless gathering far from this fortress. And yet, here you are, and I confess I am without a clue as to how you learned of this. We have reliable reports placing your squad and a group of Guild enforcers en route to your intended target. What are you doing here, Sergeant Locke?”

Principia raised an eyebrow. “I already explained that to your agent, here.”

Vex turned his head, fixing the Marshal with an inquisitive look.

She cleared her throat. “Locke claimed to have been sent here by Vesk, sir.”

Vex simply looked back at Principia, showing no reaction to that news. “Interesting. That is the story you intend to stick with?”

“Believe what suits you,” she said with a shrug. “It’s possible it wasn’t Vesk, but a man matching his description materialized out of nowhere with none of the usual hallmarks of arcane or infernal rapid transit, possessing information there is—you yourself claim—no realistic way he could have, not to mention an aura which was absolutely blinding at that proximity. You probably already know this, but they don’t reveal their auras to elves unless they specifically wish to be recognized. If it wasn’t Vesk, it was another god masquerading as him, which… For our purposes and probably yours, comes out to the same thing.”

“Hmm,” Vex mused. “Lord Ampophrenon, I believe you are the resident expert on the gods. Have you any idea why he would take an interest in this matter?”

“With Lord Vesk, it is even more than usually difficult to say,” the dragon replied with a thoughtful frown. “He is capable of acting toward specific ends through quite elaborate means, just as they all are. There are records of him having done so. On the other hand, he also tends to intervene just because he thinks the outcome thus modified will make for a better story.” He glanced apologetically at Squad One. “If we consider Sergeant Locke and her troops as the likely protagonists here, that would seem to be the case. As I’m sure you can guess, those two motives provide excellent cover for each other. Vesk is a trickster god and less predictable in his motivations than even gods in general. It is an open question. I doubt that another deity would impersonate him, though. Only Elilial would show such disrespect, and I rather think she would find the prospect extremely insulting.”

Vex heaved a sigh. “Well…such is the world. All blasphemy aside, it seems sometimes that the gods only step in when they see a chance to cause more trouble.”

“Sounds like a fair observation to me,” Zanzayed said cheerfully. “Don’t make that face, Puff, it’ll freeze that way.”

“And so you set Saduko up to misdirect the Guild and the Sisterhood,” said Principia. “Exactly how many cults are you trying to antagonize?”

“I can only offer you my inadequate apologies, ladies,” Ampophrenon said, bowing. “We really did attempt to prevent you from being in a dangerous position. Lord Vesk’s intervention was unforeseeable.”

“Do you have some connection to Saduko, Marshal?” Farah inquired.

The marshal raised one eyebrow. “Right. By your apparent reasoning, Privates Avelea and Elwick must be long-lost sisters, being both of apparently Stalweiss descent.”

Farah flushed slightly. “I didn’t mean it like that. Was just a thought…”

“I am an Imperial citizen, born and raised,” the marshal said flatly. “And for your edification, my ancestors were Sheng, not Sifanese.”

“Anyway,” Farah said hastily, “if you weren’t expecting us to be there, how were you planning to bluff your followers? It looked a lot like you were actually trying to kill us.”

A grim silence fell over the room. The marshal stared expressionlessly at Farah.

“Because,” Farah said more hesitantly, “I mean, surely an Imperial agent wouldn’t—”

“Presented with an unforeseen situation with no good outcome,” Vex interrupted, “an Imperial agent keeps her eye on the broader situation and acts to complete her mission. Sometimes, our work necessitates extremely regrettable actions.”

“I believe I was clear on the subject of Locke and her crew being harmed,” Zanzayed remarked in a deceptively mild tone. “It’s fortunate they had a few surprises of their own handy, or you might have found your definition of ‘regrettable’ expanded.”

“While I am certain that you know your business, Lord Vex,” Ampophrenon added, “our honor was at stake in this matter as well. The Conclave would prefer that your agents remember to keep that in consideration when acting on any joint operation, henceforth.”

“I will definitely make a point of that to all operatives involved in Conclave-relevant assignments,” Vex said politely. “I am, of course, very grateful for your timely intervention; you seem to have saved us all a great deal of unpleasantness.”

“Some more than others,” Merry said coldly.

“Quite,” Vex replied, watching the squad through half-lidded eyes. “And you have my apologies as well, ladies. To reiterate, we did make a substantial effort to avoid placing you in harm’s way, but nonetheless, it is regrettable that your involvement put you at risk. Obviously, the Tiraan Empire wishes no harm to the Silver Legions.”

“Oh, obviously,” Principia said wryly.

“I must emphasize, Sergeant, ladies,” Vex replied in a subtly firmer tone, “that you are all Imperial citizens, and thus have a duty to the Silver Throne. You have my word that I shall personally see to arranging remuneration for your hardships. All these affairs, however, are strictly classified.”

“Noted,” said Principia in perfect calm. “I will be sure to include that in my report to the High Commander.”

Vex cleared his throat. “Perhaps you don’t take my meaning, Sergeant Locke…”

“Oh, I understand you just fine. I’m pretty good with subtext.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Casey said, barely above a whisper.

“I thought we’d already established that the unpleasantness was at an end?” said Zanzayed mildly.

“I’m sure you understand the necessity of security in this matter, Lord Zanzayed,” Vex replied, his eyes still on Principia. “With all respect, I would suggest that you speak with Lord Razzavinax before deciding on any courses of action.”

“I think you’d better think carefully about courses of action, Lord Vex,” Casey said sharply. “You’re not just dealing with the Sisters of Avei, here. Locke is still a member in good standing of the Thieves’ Guild. You know what they do to—”

“Elwick, enough,” Principia said quietly.

The marshal smiled sardonically. “I can’t possibly emphasize enough that Imperial Intelligence is not afraid of the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Marshal,” Vex said sharply, and she fell silent. “Sergeant, there is no need for this hostile tone. Rather than exchanging threats, let’s see if we can reach a middle ground.”

“No, I think I’m pretty content exchanging threats, my lord,” Principia said calmly. “Bargaining is an action for people in a weaker position.”

“Ah, yes,” Vex said with a very faint smile. “Your sense of humor is all part of your legend. You are in Tiraas, Locke. Even on the other side of the planet you would not be beyond the reach of Imperial Intelligence. We are merely asking for a little consideration and respect—”

“Such as your agent showed by attempting to murder us,” Principia replied. “I am giving you considerably kinder treatment in return. Keeping secrets from my chain of command is not on the table. Zanzayed!” she said more loudly when Vex opened his mouth again. “What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”

The blue dragon raised an eyebrow. “Really, Prin? You want to chat now? Anyway, I thought we’d established that the matter was a ruse.”

“Sure,” she said equably, “but considering your goal was drawing attention to me and publicly making a connection, the ideal result was if I had agreed to a sit-down, and thus you’d have been prepared with a story if I went for it. You said it was family business, yes? I’ve been turning over and over in my mind just what business you could possibly have with my family, and all I can come up with is your several well-documented brawls with Mary the Crow.”

“She really is the most disagreeable person,” Zanzayed complained to Ampophrenon. “You have no idea.”

“I have met her,” the gold replied mildly. “I found her rather personable, in fact.”

“But beat-downs like that are rather out of character for her,” Principia continued, glancing at Vex, who remained silent. “Against someone like a dragon? If the Crow really considered you an enemy, she’d have carefully arranged for you to be dead, not torn up half the countryside boxing your scaly ears. Three times, that I know of. That is more like what she does with members of the bloodline who…disappoint her.”

“So we can assume she’s boxed your ears a time or two?” Merry suggested.

“The Crow doesn’t play too roughly with family who are too fragile for one of her legendary beatings,” Principia replied, glancing at her. “You asked me once, Lang, why I never pursued true mastery of arcane magic? That’s why. The more I think about this, though, the more I realize the only thing that would surprise me is if one of my aunts or grandmothers hadn’t carried on with a dragon at some point. A lot of them have done weirder things by far. So, Lord Vex, I do believe if you intended to threaten harm to me or anyone under my protection, you have placed yourself in a small room with the wrong dragon. Isn’t that right, cousin?” she asked Zanzayed.

He sighed. “Damn it, that was going to be my big reveal. Has anyone ever told you you suck the fun out of everything, Prin?”

“Nonsense, I am a non-stop barrel of laughs. At least, with people who aren’t involved in plots to murder me.”

“Regardless,” Zanzayed stated in a bored tone, “yes, she’s quite right. I feel the need to take this matter somewhat personally.”

“Zanzayed speaks not only for himself,” Ampophrenon added. “A dragon’s kin are considered sacred to all of us. The Conclave would take exception to any harm brought on Principia by the Empire.”

“You really shouldn’t stir up the Crowbloods anyway,” said Zanzayed with a grimace. “The only reason anybody gets any peace is they mostly don’t like each other, and they all have grudges with the Crow herself. You get two or more pointed in the same direction and you’re about to have a very bad day. Take it from someone who knows firsthand.”

“This is very fascinating information,” Vex said with a calm smile. “I would very much prefer to have known some of it before agreeing to involve Locke in this operation in the first place.”

“Family business is none of yours,” Zanzayed replied with a toothy grin.

“I hope we can consider the issue resolved now?” Ampophrenon asked. “To make our position unequivocally clear, it is not reasonable to suggest that Principia Locke or her troops should try to conceal these events from the Sisterhood of Avei. Any reprisal against them for making a full report will damage the Empire’s relationship with the Conclave of the Winds.”

“What he means,” said Zanzayed, his smile widening alarmingly, “is that Eleanora will be tetchy after I have personally dropped you in the center of the ocean.”

“Zanzayed,” Ampophrenon said reprovingly.

“I have told you over and over, Puff, that it’s necessary to be polite and considerate of mortals if you mean to get on their good side. Which is true. The other half of that equation, though, is that it tends to make some of them forget they are addressing a being who can unmake their entire world with a sneeze. Once in a while, a gentle reminder is constructive.”

“Well, it sounds like you lads have things to discuss,” Principia said. “We’ll be going, then.” Shouldering her lance, she turned and strode past her squad to the conference room’s nearest door.

“I’ll be in touch, cuz!” Zanzayed said brightly, waving from his chair. “Since we’re both living in town now, we’ve gotta get together!”

“Ugh,” she muttered, pulling the door open and stepping through. The squad filed out after her, Farah shutting it behind and sealing in the remainder of Lord Vex’s conversation with the dragons.

Soldiers were about in the fortress as if nothing had ever happened; they were walking, chatting, cleaning, standing guard and doing all the things troops on duty in a boring position in peacetime tended to do. Nothing about the scene was unfamiliar or eerie to Squad One. The Imperial troops gave them curious looks, several respectful greetings and even a salute or two, but they were not stopped. There was nowhere the merest hint that this vital fortification had been completely deserted an hour ago.

They kept quiet until they had descended from the upper conference room to the ground floor and finally emerged into the street. The fog was lifting, though the sky remained overcast, and Tiraas was altogether livelier and brighter than when they had come this way in the first place.

“I can’t believe you tried to arrest them,” Merry said once they were a block distant from the gates. “Did you really think that would work?”

“Of course not,” Principia said without breaking stride.

“Why do it, then?” Ephanie asked. “All due respect, Sarge, trying to assert authority you don’t have just makes you look weak.”

Principia’s eyes darted swiftly about, taking in the nearby scenery without betraying her glance with a move of the head. It was still early in the day, and they weren’t drawing much attention. Still, she turned sharply, taking them off the city’s central avenue and down a quieter side street before answering in a low tone.

“Because a god was involved. Where one is working, it’s a virtual guarantee that others are at least paying attention. I’ve been a faithful servant of Eserion for longer than you four have collectively been alive. I’ve also had no shortage of brushes with Avei—not personally, but I’ve had my hands on a number of sacred objects and rubbed shoulders with her priestesses. I’ve more recent reason to believe she is aware of me. More to the point, girls, those specific two gods, the ones with the greatest likelihood of noticing what was happening here, were the ones most likely to take an interest. Here we have powerful men behind locked doors abusing people for their own benefit. I gave them the chance to submit to justice, and they blew me off. If Eserion or Avei were paying attention, they are now pissed.” She finally glanced back at the others, all of whom were watching her raptly. “If I’m going to have the Conclave of the Winds and Imperial goddamn Intelligence batting at my tail, I would rather have deities take an interest in teaching them humility than have to deal with it myself.”

“Do you think that’ll work?” Farah asked.

Principia shrugged. “You never can tell with gods. It was worth the attempt, anyway.”

“You didn’t invoke Avei’s name,” Casey pointed out. “Wouldn’t that have helped?”

“A sergeant in the Silver Legions doesn’t have that right,” said Ephanie. “It takes more than a little rank in the actual clergy to speak on Avei’s behalf. If the goddess was watching, she would have been offended at the presumption. That’s taking her name in vain.”

“What’s done is done,” Principia said. “Keep the pace up, ladies; I have a feeling our next appointment is going to be even less fun than the last one.”


 

Commander Rouvad paced slowly along the length of the table that had been set up in the underground gymnasium Squad One had used to practice, examining the armor and weapons laid out upon it. Off to one side stood Captain Dijanerad, her expression grim, and a much more serene Bishop Shahai. Also present was General Tagheved, the commander of the Third Legion. A silver-haired woman whose frame was corded with muscle and not diminished in the slightest by age, she watched the proceedings with an unreadable expression.

Squad One stood at a respectful distance, at attention. They were still in full armor, with the exception of Principia, who was dressed only in her white regulation tunic and trousers. It was her armor currently laid out for examination.

“Shielding charms,” Commander Rouvad said at last, reaching out to slide a fingertip along Principia’s breastplate. “Do you know why the Army doesn’t rely on them, Sergeant Locke?”

“For three reasons, Commander,” Principia said crisply. “Because it is always better policy to avoid spellfire than to try to repel it, because Imperial infantry prioritizes mobility above defense, and because the portable charms they are able to carry are serviceable against wandfire but unable to stand up to heavier weapons, like staves. Large metallic objects hold enchantments much better than light uniforms, and armor takes defensive charms very well due to sympathetic principles.”

“Mm,” Rouvad mused, slowly rounding the head of the table and pacing down its other side, her eyes still on its contents. “What other augmentations did you make?”

“Silencing and tracking concealment charms on the boots,” Principia reported. “Much heavier defensive charms on the shields, including a feature whereby the phalanx’s shields magnetically lock together to share a single defensive barrier. They are also equipped to disperse incoming magical energy into the ground, which requires a sizable metallic apparatus to function. This wasn’t tested today, but if it works it should enable a squad to stand up to much heavier fire at the cost of mobility. Charms on the helmet enhance night vision while protecting the wearer from excessive light and sound.”

“Risky,” Tagheved grunted. “You impede your senses in battle, you die.”

Principia stood silently at attention. Rouvad finally raised her head to glance at her.

“Answer her, Sergeant.”

“Yes, ma’am. Modern enchanting is much more precise than that, ma’am. The light-filtering charms are specifically designed to keep a soldier’s visibility at optimum level; it is resistant to flares and improves vision in darkness. I wasn’t able to work it to penetrate smoke, but I’m confident that is achievable. The sonic dampener only activates at a level of sound which is injurious to hearing; in the presence of such noise, soldiers would communicate by hand signals anyway.”

“Mm,” Taghaved said noncommittally.

The High Commander picked up Principia’s lance and held it to the light, peering at the subtly positioned switch on the haft.

“Will this thing fire if I press the button, Locke?”

“Negative, ma’am. That switch releases the firing mechanism. It can’t fire until you’ve pressed the button.”

Rouvad did so, and a narrow vertical slice of the shaft slid inward, a staff-sized clicker mechanism sliding out in its place. At the same time, the spearhead parted down the center, revealing the firing crystal.

“This would have to be partially hollow, then,” Rouvad mused. “That would seriously impair the structural strength of your weapon. Right?”

“Negative, ma’am. It is designed like a standard battlestaff, which means a hollow core of alchemically augmented metal to hold the engravements channeling the firing charge. It’s actually stronger than our steel-cored wooden lances.”

The Commander tilted the lance, studying the parted spearhead. “You can’t tell me this doesn’t utterly gut the physical integrity of the blade.”

“Correct, ma’am. The blade is enchanted to compensate, but that is sub-optimal. It’s a basic rule of enchantment not to do through magic what is more easily done physically. The use of a crystal firing surface is also not ideal; they burn and crack after prolonged use. That weapon is a prototype; it has substantial room for improvement. I was working on a tight schedule.”

“Incredible,” Rouvad murmured, poking at the base of the parted spearhead with a fingertip. “I can’t even see the hinges. I didn’t know you were a metalsmith on top of your numerous other talents, Locke.”

“The physical design was done by a Svennish engineer working in the city, ma’am. He has thoughts on how to improve it, but again… I had to rush them into service.”

“And I press the button again to return it to spear form?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Rouvad thumbed the release, and the clicker slid back into the haft, the spearhead snapping back together. “Awfully close to the clicker when it’s out. In a combat situation you could accidentally disarm your weapon.”

“Yes, ma’am, I noticed that. I plan to rotate the release switch forty-five degrees along the haft and position it several inches forward to reduce that risk. In the next iteration.”

“Why,” Rouvad asked, carefully setting the lance down, “did you feel the need to do this, Locke?”

Principia hesitated, glancing over at the other officers present. Shahai and Tagheved remained impassive, but Dijanerad scowled at her. “Permission to speak freely, Commander?”

“Oh, this should be absolutely priceless,” Rouvad said with a heavy sigh. “Permission granted.”

“Ma’am, the Silver Legions are totally unprepared for combat in this century. We are coasting on the goodwill of the Tiraan Empire and the historically naïve presumption that large-scale military resistance to Avei’s aims will never be faced again. Right now, one for one, any Tiraan and most other military organizations would obliterate a Silver Legion unit of corresponding size in any open confrontation. We are not trained, equipped or prepared for combat with energy weapons. We aren’t prepared to contend with teleporting battlemages, zeppelin air support, mag artillery or tactical scrying. We have nothing that could even begin to stand up to an Imperial strike team, with the possible exception of a Hand of Avei—and frankly the nature of strike teams makes them powerful counters to any magic user, no matter how potent. Commander, if the Silver Legions go to war—any war—as we are, we will be utterly destroyed.”

Deafening silence weighed on the room.

“And of course,” Rouvad said finally, “you believe you are the only person in all of Avei’s legions to have thought of any of this, Sergeant Locke.”

Again, Principia hesitated. “With the greatest respect, High Commander, I have been aware of the Silver Legions longer than you have been alive. They have not changed in that time. What anyone has thought is unknown to me; I only see that nothing has been done.”

“Right,” Rouvad said in a dangerously soft tone. “Because from the exalted rank of sergeant, you are positioned to see everything being done in every Legion on every continent.”

Principia remained silent.

“You enabled her to do this, Shahai?” Rouvad said, turning to stare at the Bishop.

“I arranged this space in which Sergeant Locke could drill her squad,” Shahai said in perfect equanimity. “I was unaware of the specifics of her plans, though I guessed the general sense of it. In hindsight, I stand by that decision. This is good work. A good start, at least.”

“A good start undertaken without authorization, without her commanding officer even knowing of it,” Rouvad grated.

“Remind me, Nandi,” Dijanerad said flatly. “When did I interfere in the running of your command?”

“Enough, Captain,” General Tagheved said.

“I’m sorry if you felt stepped upon, Shahdi,” Shahai replied calmly. “I was given provisional authority over this squad for the duration of my mission. I judged this to be mission-relevant. Indeed, it appears to have saved their lives during the course of this duty. Not only have we not lost five valuable soldiers today, but they have come home with extremely pertinent intelligence.” She gave Rouvad a pointed look.

“I don’t know how many times it is worth bothering to lecture you about the chain of command, Locke,” Rouvad grated. “You do not just run off and do things. You are a sergeant; your decision-making prerogatives are specific and limited, and have been thoroughly explained to you. Major undertakings such as this are to go through the chain of command. You have no idea what is happening at the level above you—any of those numerous levels! Running off to completely alter your squad’s method of operation without your commanding officer’s consent or even knowledge could get good women killed in a crisis.”

“Understood, ma’am.”

“No, Locke,” Rouvad said, and suddenly her tone was purely weary. “You don’t understand. I can go on and on about it, but you’ll only ever think of authority as something you have to circumvent. You are such an utter Eserite at heart… Well, despite what you persist in believing, in the military it is not easier to seek forgiveness than permission. The difference is you might get permission.”

She picked up the lance again, tapping its point against the table. “This is good work, Locke. If you had come up with a proposal for this, I would have cleared it. Your squad’s whole purpose is to explore new methods of operation for the Legions. I would have funded it! And now, since you can’t seem to demonstrate your competence without undercutting your credibility, I have to drag the source of one of the most promising developments I’ve seen in years over the coals before you go down in flames and take your entire squad down with you!”

“What you need to do,” Shahai said calmly, “is give Locke a slap on the wrist and a pat on the head. And then a research budget.”

“I didn’t ask your opinion, Captain Shahai,” Rouvad snapped.

“You’re getting it for free,” Shahai replied. “You badly need to stop trying to browbeat these women into place, Farzida.”

The High Commander rounded on her. “You will not speak to me in that manner in front of soldiers I am in the process of disciplining!”

“Or what?” the Bishop shot back, a sharp edge to her own voice now. “You’ll fire me? Do it, Farzida. I have plenty of hobbies I can pursue until the next High Commander realizes I’m too valuable to leave collecting dust in Viridill. You brought me into this to serve as a liason, to be a calmer voice where you can’t afford to; well, that is exactly what I am doing.

“Soldiers fight and die for each other. You know this. They’ll do the same for a commander who is one of them. Respect is earned, not commanded; you know that as well as any soldier and better than many. Have you thought at all about this squad’s experience in the Legions and how it would affect them? They have been singled out, persecuted, forced to circumvent the chain of command to ensure their very survival, and finally had to watch as the quite frankly unhinged agent who did all this to them was given a pittance of punishment and a promise that she will be back! And now you upbraid them for assuming their officers can’t be trusted? Honestly, Farzida, would you trust you?

“The problem,” she went on fervently, “is that you have to be the Commander with them. They don’t have the privilege of seeing how you agonize over this, how you grieve for soldiers under your command mistreated by others, how it grinds on you having to keep a creature like Basra Syrinx on the rolls because her particular brand of viciousness is something we can’t function without in this tangled modern world. What makes you such a good leader, Farzida—one of the things—is that you hurt the same as your troops hurt, whenever they do. But these women here have never seen that. You’ve never let them; I understand why you cannot afford to. You’ve shown them a cold bureaucrat who seems bent on getting them killed.

“Each of these women are in this Legion because they have nowhere else to go. Well, the Legion has formed them into a unit. Now we badly need to make them understand that they need the Legion as much as the Legion needs them before they start to realize that as a unit, they could go anywhere, do anything they like, and handle anything thrown at them. Because we do need them. Badly. You know and I know how right Locke is; we’re in no way prepared for what we all know will have to come eventually. Right here are represented the talents and the mindset that can help bring the Legions and the Sisterhood forward and ensure our very survival.

“You and Locke have got to start respecting each other on a personal level, and if that’s not good for the chain of command, so be it. For the goddess’s sake, you two would get along swimmingly if you didn’t have so bloody much in common!”

Captain Dijanerad looked shocked by the time Shahai’s speech came to an end, but General Tagheved only watched the elf with an expression of mild amusement. Rouvad stared at her, utterly blank-faced.

The silence stretched out, and none of Squad One dared disturb it with so much as an injudicious breath.

“Sergeant Locke,” the High Commander said suddenly, turning to stare at her. “You will personally scrub every inch of your cabin with your own two hands until it is in new condition. The rest of your squad, since not a one of them had the thought to go over your head when you decided to spit on the chain of command, can do the same with your cohort’s parade ground. Quit doing crap like this, Principia. I have all my future gray hairs carefully planned and have none to waste on you. And…” She set down the lance. “This is damn fine work, Locke. Starting tomorrow, I want you to submit material and budgetary estimates to Captain Dijanerad for the continuation of this research. Squad Three Nine One will continue to have access to this facility for drilling; your mission statement is now expanded to include research and development of modern weaponry and defenses suitable for incorporation into Silver Legion equipment and the necessary techniques to use them.”

She paused, glanced around at all the women present, then sighed and shook her head. “And now I have to go contend with the Thieves’ Guild and Imperial Intelligence. Fortunately, I’ll probably have the Guild on my side for this, disconcerting as that is. General, if you’ve anything further to say to this lot, they’re all yours.”

The High Commander turned and strode off toward the far door, leaving them behind.

General Tagheved watched her go, then turned a contemplative expression on Squad One.

“You’re a poor excuse for a soldier, Locke,” she said thoughtfully. “But you’re the kind of poor soldier who sometimes makes a priceless officer in tumultuous times. You watch your step. Dismissed, ladies.”

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9 – 28

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“Why is it,” demanded the Colonel, “that every time I see you kids, some fresh damn havoc is unfolding?”

“Correlation is not causation,” said Fross, “just for the record.”

“We are bringing you valuable intelligence,” Trissiny said sharply. “It’s not as if we put cultists in the tunnels.”

“Yes, fine, you’re right,” Adjavegh replied. He leaned back in his chair with a heavy sigh. “I do appreciate that. Interesting to finally meet all of you, too.”

“This may very well be exactly the break we need,” Major Razsha said, frowning pensively. “The catacombs, hm. Naturally, we’ve done sweeps of them, but the tunnel systems are plenty large enough to hide in, if somebody were really determined to do so.”

“We’ve not seen any indication we’re dealing with a foe who has that kind of capability,” Adjavegh said, scowling. “At least until very recently. Anyone who could launch a raid on this barracks could evade our admittedly cursory search of the catacombs. And on the subject of which, it seems to me the most likely culprits of that are the Black Wreath, since they seem to be active in the city and admittedly launched an operation against us.”

“I agree,” said Trissiny.

“I’m not sure I do,” Razsha mused. “That Wreath agent’s story is remarkably unconvincing. An organization like that made an admitted attempt on the barracks, and claim they were driven off by chaos cultists? It doesn’t add up.”

“One of us must be getting old, Major,” Adjavegh said sardonically. “You seem to be implying that the Wreath must be innocent because they are obviously lying.”

“I am implying that they may be innocent because their story appears to be a lie. The Wreath are deceivers, and very good ones. If they wanted to tell us a story, it would be a believable and compelling one. I’m not proposing to trust them, obviously… But they do have reason to defer to Vadrieny—and her host—and if they’re as much in the dark as we, it would explain why they don’t have a ready answer to who actually attacked the barracks.”

“Unless that’s what they want us to think,” said Gabriel. “Sorry, Teal—I’ve not dealt with the Wreath, to my knowledge, but I’ve had one good brush with an opportunistic warlock. They’re capable of anything.”

“If they know that we know that they know…” Shaeine shook her head. “That path is a spiral into deeper and deeper confusion. I concur with the Major’s reasoning; the Wreath would be able to point us in the direction they chose, rather than admitting weakness and a lack of information.”

“Hmph,” Colonel Adjavegh muttered. “If this is true, it explains much. The chaos cults have been popping up regularly, and have been strangely consistent in their methodology. If they are all part of the same cult… And operating from the catacombs would account for how they’ve avoided us.”

“It could also explain the apparently greater capability of these chaos agents,” Razsha added. “None of the necromancers we’ve seen so far could do more than raise skeletons. These apparently had an elaborate necromantic construct, and are operating at a higher level of sophistication. They could have been sending up their most erratic offshoots as a distraction while building toward something bigger. Something like attacking the Army.”

A brief silence fell while they all considered this. The meeting was an unbalanced reflection of the three paladins’ earlier session in this office: Adjavegh behind his desk, Corporal Timms discreetly at his shoulder and Razsha standing off to the side. The full group of students made for a crowded space, however, and the rest of Razsha’s strike team was not present this time.

“About those weapons,” Toby began.

“That is classified,” Adjavegh snapped, “and that is all that will be said on the matter.” Major Razsha raised an eyebrow, but offered no comment as the Colonel continued. “Obviously, our next step must be a much more thorough search of the catacombs. Timms, start drawing up shift assignments. I want a sweep-and-harry pattern; if we start at the top and push down, blocking every path out, they’ll have nowhere to run. We’ll find them if they’re down there.”

“Sir,” said Timms, “that isn’t possible.”

“Excuse me?” the Colonel said dangerously, turning to glare at her.

“We simply do not have the manpower, sir,” she said. “Even if all the wounded from the attack were cleared for duty, we wouldn’t. The catacomb system is far too large and complicated, and even we don’t have comprehensive maps. We don’t know where all the exits are, but there are a good many into private residences and businesses.”

“There’s another matter,” said Razsha. “If this is indeed the source of our troubles, it stands to reason the chaos rift is down there somewhere. Going into that… Our soldiers are trained to fight with staves, which are magical. Firing them too close to a chaos rift could be disastrous.”

Trissiny coughed discreetly. “Colonel, the Third Silver Legion is stationed in Tiraas; I can have them here by Rail tomorrow. That would considerably bolster your forces, and Legionnaires are trained for hand-to-hand engagements without magical weapons.”

“I appreciate that, Avelea,” Adjavegh said, frowning into space, “but I’ll have to consider it a last resort. Marching a Silver Legion into Veilgrad would signal something serious is afoot at the very least—it’ll rile the populace and send our quarry deeper into hiding. There’s enough Shaathist sympathy in this city that it may very well cause us additional trouble. Omnu’s breath, Timms, stop that throat-clearing! If you have an idea, spit it out.”

“Yes, sir,” the corporal said. “The local Huntsmen of Shaath have numbers and are experienced fighters with non-magical weapons, both hand-to-hand and at range. They are also likely to be more familiar with the catacomb system than any of our personnel, being local.”

“Shaathist weapons have elemental blessings,” said Toby. “Fae and divine magic, both. Could be risky, going up against chaos.”

“Their weapons can be switched out for non-magical ones,” Razsha mused. “That’d be a hard sell, but probably the only difficult part of involving them. Huntsmen love chasing difficult prey.”

“If we coordinate with the lodge,” said Timms, “and approach this as a seek-and-capture operation, I think it has a much better chance of succeeding, sir.”

“Very well,” Adjavegh said with a sigh. “Contact the Master and brief him. Politely; I do not need that strutting rooster adding to my headaches.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now, as for these constructs,” the Colonel continued. “I gather we can expect more. Arquin, can’t you do anything about undead?”

“Not that kind,” said Gabriel, shaking his head. “That was… Well, basically a golem made from body parts. Most of the simpler kinds of necromancy work by establishing a link between the body and the spirit, either of its original soul or another. That can be severed instantly. If they come at us with zombies, skeletons…no problem.”

“But the bigger things you can’t do anything about,” Adjavegh said sarcastically. “How inconvenient.”

“I can do plenty about them, Colonel,” Gabriel retorted. “Can’t turn them off as easy as flipping a switch, but anything breaks if you blast it hard enough.” Ruda chuckled.

“We should consider the possibility of meeting stiffer resistance down there,” said Razsha. “I recommend holding our high-value assets in reserve and using signal runes to enable the search teams to call for help. Between my strike team and the students, we have some very heavy-hitters on hand. Shame to waste them wandering around in random tunnels.”

“I agree with that, as far as it goes,” said Adjavegh, “but all of these assets are magical, which brings us right back to the chaos problem.”

“Our anti-chaos assets include one mithril rapier and three paladins,” said Ariel. “Mithril will not interfere with chaos directly, but any misfired spells caused by it are still magical and can still be neutralized by the metal.”

“Who is that talking?” Adjavegh demanded, sitting bolt upright and glaring around.

“This is Ariel,” Gabriel explained, drawing the sword and holding it up. “She’s a…kind of magical assistant. A little difficult, but it’s wise to listen to her advice.”

Adjavegh’s glare deepened. “Boy, do you know how talking swords are made?”

“I didn’t make her,” Gabriel said flatly.

“If I might continue with information germane to the issue?” Ariel said pointedly. “Thank you. A paladin’s powers are also magical, but they flow directly from a deity, which is consciously aware of their use and can compensate for chaos-induced misfires. Paladins have been instrumental in sealing chaos rifts in previous encounters. The opposite is true for the two fairies; I strongly advise keeping them as far back as possible. If their inherent magic is disrupted they could be destroyed outright.”

Juniper made a small squeak.

“That applies to you, too, Ariel,” Ruda pointed out.

“Indeed. If Gabriel is going to face the rift directly, I don’t object to being carried by someone else for a brief period. Preferably not the dryad.”

“What does that mean?” Juniper demanded.

“I’m not certain whether that applies to Vadrieny’s demon form, or the opposite,” Ariel continued. “It is a spell effect, but it stems directly from a goddess. The nature of her connection to Elilial is uncertain, given the imperfect fusion of archdemon and human. She might be as impervious as the paladins or as vulnerable as the fairies.”

“We need to minimize variables like that in contact with the rift,” Adjavegh said firmly. “And since we’re dealing with an unavoidably porous perimeter, we’ll need to keep tactical assets topside, as well. Paladins will stand by to be called when the rift or other significant resistance is located. Major, your team and the rest of the adventurers will remain up here to deal with any undead or cultists that make it out of other tunnels. That’ll free up more of our personnel to sweep the catacombs.”

“That’s a good strategy, sir,” Razsha agreed, nodding.

“I’m glad you approve,” he said sardonically.

“What about Malivette?” Fross suggested. “I bet she’d help.”

“I want that vampire nowhere near a chaos rift!” Adjavegh exclaimed. “She’s a good enough citizen now, but there’s no telling what would happen if something messed up her curse. All right, people you have your orders. Keep this quiet until we’re ready to move; we don’t want to spook our quarry. Timms, get to the lodge and talk to the Master; the rest of you, be back here at eight hundred hours. We move first thing in the morning.”

“You really think you can set all this up in one night, Colonel?” Toby asked.

“Son,” said Adjavegh, “this is the Imperial Army. We do what we have to, and find out afterward that we could.”


 

McGraw waved as they approached, leaning on his staff. “There y’are! I wasn’t sure you’d get the message.”

“The whole damn town got the message,” Weaver growled. “As communications go, bright blue signal flares are somewhat less than subtle.”

“Wasn’t goin’ for subtle,” the old wizard said, peering around Weaver’s shoulder at the town in the near distance behind them. “You came alone? I expected some of those Army folks to respond, as well…”

“Lieutenant Taash came partway,” said Joe, “but once we saw it was you, she went back to the station. I think the soldiers are tryin’ not to get mixed up with elves. It’s probably political. Afternoon, ma’am,” he added, tipping his hat to Raea, who smiled in return. The two elves behind her exchanged glances, but said nothing.

“Well, ‘ere we all are, then,” Billie said cheerily. “What’s the good word, Elias?”

“Just been bringin’ our friends up to speed,” said McGraw. “They didn’t see anyone leave the town.”

“So he’s still in the town, then?” Weaver said, glancing over his shoulder. “Fuck a duck, he could be anywhere.”

“No, he left,” said Raea, folding her arms. “We just didn’t see him. Once Elias alerted me, I consulted a spirit companion, who picked up his trail, heading off toward Risk. It was definitely a shaman. Aside from the fact that he is clearly using a quick-travel blessing to boost his speed, no one else could have made it past us undetected.”

“What, shamans can go invisible?” Weaver exclaimed. “Since when?”

“I’m pretty sure the plural of ‘shaman’ is—”

“Shut up, Joe!”

“There are a number of techniques we can use to deflect attention,” Raea said. “I can penetrate most of them myself—if I know to be on the lookout. I’m afraid a shaman who does not wish to be detected usually isn’t, even by other elves, unless said elves are specifically trying. His trail, too, is concealed, but I saw through that easily enough once I knew what to look for. We do not operate from a standard catalog of spells, like wizards,” she added, glancing at McGraw. “Each shaman’s capabilities depend on their alliances, on what they have learned, their sources of power.”

“It’s definitely Vannae, then,” Joe mused, “not the Jackal.”

“Him we would have spotted,” snorted one of the other elves. Like the rest of Raea’s band, he had not bothered to introduce himself. So far, they appeared content to let Raea be the sole point of contact with the adventurers.

“As I understand it,” said Weaver, “not getting spotted is a big part of what he does.”

“Not getting spotted by the likes of you,” the elf said disdainfully. “The Jackal does not prey on his own kind, and not out of any respect for us.”

“You’re pretty confident, for a watchman who just got blazed past in his sleep.”

The elf turned to face Weaver directly, throwing back his shoulders. “Listen carefully, you snub-eared—”

“Friend, don’t,” Joe interrupted. “Just don’t. He’s an aggravating jerk and a lot less killable than he looks; reacting to him won’t do anything but drive up your blood pressure. Ignore him and move on.”

Weaver grinned unpleasantly at the elf, who glared right back.

“Do you boys need to go find a tree to piss against?” Raea asked dryly. The elf snorted, but turned back to the group, giving Weaver a cold shoulder. The bard looked about ready to burst out laughing, but fortunately didn’t.

“The immediate thing is figurin’ out what we’re gonna do,” said McGraw. “From a cursory look, it appears to me like Khadizroth an’ his crew are aimin’ to set up a long game of sniping back and forth at each other. That bein’ the case, it’s probably best to nip this in the bud.”

“I dunno, though,” said Billie. “That daft prick just attacked two Imperial installations. Seems t’me all we gotta do is sit back an’ let nature take its course—K an’ the rest of his cronies’ll be taken care of within the week.”

“That, if anything, increases the urgency of this matter,” Raea said quietly.

“I agree,” Joe said, nodding. “If the Empire descends on them in force…they’ll also get whatever progress they’ve made toward finding the skull. One of the very first things we established in this business is that the Empire does not need to have that skull. I’m inclined to agree with Khadizroth on one point: while it’s best to keep it out of Svenheim’s hands as well, better them than the Empire.”

“You’re cute when you’re treasonous,” Billie said, grinning. Joe flushed and ducked his head momentarily before regathering his composure.

“Treason is when you deliberately sabotage your government’s operations,” said Weaver. “Keeping something dangerous out of circulation and just incidentally out of the Silver Throne’s greedy hands is another matter—or so a good enough lawyer could argue, if it comes to that. Anyhow, the kid’s got the right of it this time. Anybody disagree?”

“Definitely not,” said McGraw. “The original plan stands. We get the skull, we give it to Tellwyrn.” The other elf snorted, but subsided at a glance from Raea.

“Then Khadizroth has substantially accelerated the timetable,” Raea said. “I cannot help but suspect that was his intention; he is too old and too wise to flail about blindly in a situation like this. You did say that Vannae works for him directly, not simply as another of the Archpope’s lackeys?”

“The nature of their relationship is over our heads,” McGraw replied, “but Vannae was with him before the Archpope got his hands on Khadizroth. An’ I concur with your reasoning, Raea. As I see it, his actions here make sense only in the presence of two other facts: Khadizroth thinks the skull is nearly in his hands, an’ he thinks he can take us in a straight-up fight.”

“How d’ye figure?” Billie asked, scratching behind one of her ears.

“Forcin’ us to move up our timetable might make sense if he wanted to knock us out of the game before goin’ back to lookin’ for the skull,” McGraw explained, “but the way he did it, tweakin’ the Empire’s nose like that, started the hourglass running for all of us. The Empire’s patience with all this hogwash just got a lot shorter; both our groups have in common that we need to have this done and that artifact taken off the table before Tiraan agents get fully involved. That means we gotta act now.”

“And that,” said Weaver, “means the dragon is confident of his chances in a straightforward fight against us, considering that he just provoked one.”

Billie sighed. “Shit. All right, then, what’re we lookin’ at? Khadizroth himself won’t be as dangerous as when we last faced ‘im, not with ‘is powers bound. But he’s still a feckin’ dragon, not somethin’ ta take lightly. An’ the Jackal’s gonna be a right pain in the arse any way ye slice it.”

“The Jackal has the advantage if he has room and time to maneuver,” said Joe. “We fare best against him by striking fast and hard; face to face, he likely isn’t a match for us. What puzzles me is this guy Shook.”

“Thieves’ Guild enforcer,” said McGraw. “What he’s doin’ with this group is doubtless a hell of a tale; the man’s capable of putting together and acting on a good strategy in a tense situation, but at the end of the day, he’s a thug with wands. He’s frankly out of his league with this group.”

“Our watchers have observed him interacting closely with the succubus,” said Raea. “I believe they are connected.”

“That…just raises more questions,” McGraw mused.

“The demon is a non-issue,” said Weaver. “Neither her stealth nor her shapeshifting will fool Yngrid; she so much as shows her face anywhere in the vicinity, she goes straight back to Hell. Considering her absence from the meeting, I suspect she’s aware of that.”

“Who?” Joe frowned. Weaver gave him a scathing look.

“His valkyrie, innit?” said Billie. “Anyhow, I’m inclined to agree. Either the demon’s under control, in which case they won’t waste an asset like that by lettin’ her near a reaper, or she’s not, in which case she’ll protect her own hide by buggin’ out.”

“So,” Raea mused. “The dragon, the shaman, the wandfighter, the assassin… And their dwarven allies. This will not be an easy engagement.”

“How soon should we move?” Joe asked. “They’re clearly baiting us to strike quickly…”

“I’m afraid it’s bait we’re better off takin’,” McGraw said grimly. “The more time they have to position themselves, the harder this’ll be.”

“We can be there by dawn,” said Raea. “The blessings I can lay on you all will enable you to make the distance that quickly, and arrive untired. And my people, of course, are already in shape to make the run and fight at the end of it.” She smiled at the elf who had nearly started an altercation with Weaver; he nodded grimly back.

“This’d be a really good time fer Mary ta come back from wherever she’s gallivanted off to,” Billie sighed.

“Darling knows to send her our way if she turns up back in Tiraas,” said McGraw. “No point wastin’ effort on wishful thinkin’. We’d best get our butts on the move.”

“I can’t shake the feeling this is a mistake,” Joe muttered.

“It may well be,” Raea agreed solemnly. “We are certainly being manipulated. But there are some mistakes, Joseph, that simply must be made—and if you must do a thing, it is best to do it quickly.”

“Well, that’s a hell of a pep talk,” Weaver snorted. “I like the classic line better: let’s go kick some ass.”


 

“Ah, there you are!”

Bishop Shahai intercepted the squad as they were trooping back toward their cabin. They halted and turned to her, saluting.

“Ma’am,” said Principia. “Everything all right?”

“You look…rather tired,” Shahai observed, coming to a stop and studying them. Indeed, all five of them were sweaty and somewhat disheveled. “I trust the facilities I arranged were satisfactory?”

“Quite so, your Grace,” said Princpia. “And thank you again for doing it. I’m impressed how quickly you managed that.”

“Getting things done is simple enough in a well-run organization,” Shahai said with a smile. “How did your…practice go?”

“I think we’ll have something impressive to show the High Commander very soon,” Principia said slowly. “Excuse me, ma’am, but all of us could use a turn in the baths. Did you need us for something?”

“I’ll keep it brief,” the Bishop said, her smile fading. “You had a visitor while you were below, Locke.”

“Why does Locke get all the visitors?” Merry muttered.

“Considering the kind of people who come looking for her, I’m content being less popular,” Farah replied.

“Hush,” Ephanie said curtly. “Sorry, your Grace.”

Shahai smiled at her and continued. “Our friend Saduko came around—through the front door, this time—asking to speak with you. She seemed pressed for time; at any rate, when told you were busy and unavailable, she was willing to convey her message to me.”

“Message?” Principia narrowed her eyes.

“Saduko hinted as heavily as she could without saying it outright that she was giving this information without Zanzayed’s orders and possibly against his wishes,” Shahai said. “It was a tip. There is a meeting of this anti-dragon society taking place tomorrow morning. The Conclave is aware of it, but not able to move against them for obvious political reasons.”

“Yes, them laying one scaly finger on Imperial citizens in Tiraas would pretty much explode their talks with the Throne,” Principia murmured. “Well, this is all astonishingly convenient, isn’t it?”

“Indeed,” Shahai said gravely. “The High Commander hasn’t been able to see me since I finished talking with Saduko—which has been only a few minutes—but I do have authority in this matter, and I believe this is an appropriate time to send your squad out. You will interrupt the meeting in question and attempt to apprehend some or all of the activists.”

“What happened to using us as bait, ma’am?” Principia asked.

“This is a variant on the same plan, Locke. When we last spoke, we hadn’t so much as a hint of when or where we might find these people gathered. Now…”

“Excuse me, your Grace,” said Casey, “but…with all due respect…this could not more obviously be a trap.”

“Well, that is an interesting consideration,” Shahai said, nodding. “Locke, Saduko strongly implied her motives were pursuant to your shared membership in the Thieves’ Guild, and her personal feeling that she owed you some help for the trouble she has caused you. Any thoughts on that?”

“It’s…plausible,” Principia said slowly. “Saduko hasn’t done anything harmful to me, exactly; if she did, she’d be in big trouble with the Guild. Eserites are encouraged to con and prank each other, but there are limits. You don’t get a fellow Guild member into trouble with outside forces. Still, that’s a slender thread to hang all this on.”

“Quite so,” Shahai agreed. “Saduko is a woman of complex and perhaps contradictory loyalties, from what we have learned from Bishop Darling, and whatever attachment she claims toward you, the Sisterhood is an organization toward which her fondness must be at its thinnest. It would be a critical mistake, I think, to take her at face value. As such, I’m going to try to make this a joint operation with the Guild.”

Merry began grinding her teeth.

“By…tomorrow morning, ma’am?” Ephanie asked hesitantly. “Is that…feasible?”

“That’s the question, is it not?” Shahai replied briskly. “I need to head to the Cathedral and try to locate Darling; if he’s not there, it may be challenging to track him down. I understand he likes to remain highly mobile in the city. Considering the timetable, if Darling is not at the Cathedral I will likely proceed directly to the Imperial Casino and try to get an audience with Boss Tricks.”

Casey let out a low whistle.

“Don’t eat or drink anything they give you,” Principia advised. “They won’t hurt you, but embarrassing you would be another matter.”

“I have dealt with Eserites before, Locke,” Shahai said dryly. “In any case, I came to bring you into the loop; now, you’ll be wanting your baths, and I have an errand to see to, myself. I’ll speak with you again tonight with more detailed orders.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said, saluting again. The rest of her squad followed suit.

The Bishop nodded deeply to them. “Be wary, ladies. All of this, as I’ve said before, is developing far too fast. Populist movements simply do not assemble so quickly, much less organize themselves as effectively as this one has. I strongly suspect these activists are being manipulated by an outside force—one which may be more willing than the average citizen to harm Legionnaires. You are the bait in this trap, but if I cannot gain the aid of the Guild, the operation is off. I’m not sending you into this alone, not when we know so little. I’ll speak with you again soon.”

She turned and glided away toward the front of the complex, leaving Squad One staring worriedly after her.

“Sarge?” Farah asked hesitantly.

“Inside,” Principia said curtly, turning and leading the way into their cabin.

Once they were all in and Principia had shut the door and double-checked the charms she had placed on every window, she turned to them with a grim expression.

“I’ll be blunt, girls: Nandi Shahai is probably my favorite of the people we’ve had in charge of us since coming here. She reminds me a lot of myself, and that is what warns me not to trust her absolutely.”

“You think the Bishop has it in for us?” Casey exclaimed.

“Not that one, no,” Principia replied, shaking her head. “In fact, I think she’s willing to have our backs, to a great extent. However, I also think she has different ideas than we about what constitute acceptable losses. If it comes down to the mission or us, we may very well find ourselves the more expendable side of that equation. We’ll follow our orders, and her lead…but with every ace we can cram up our sleeves. Shahai is right that all this makes no sense. Everyone is lying to everyone else, and we’re the ones putting our necks on the line. When we assemble tomorrow for the mission, I want you in the new equipment I provided.”

“What?” Merry exclaimed. “We just started practicing with that! We’ve had one set of drills, for barely an hour!”

“And we will do our best not to be in a position where we need to use any of it,” Principia said firmly, “but let’s be honest: that’s out of our hands, and always was. It’s like the Bishop said: every step of this is coming too fast. Everything that’s happened has been way ahead of any reasonable kind of schedule. The fact that tomorrow’s events should not escalate into something truly dangerous at this stage of the game is what makes me suspect they may.”

“Bloody hell,” Merry spat.

“Well said,” Principia said dryly.

“Are we ready for this, Locke?” Ephanie asked quietly.

“We’re going to be as ready as we possibly can,” Prin replied. “For anything. All right; everyone gear off and head toward the baths. I want you to get as much rest as you can tonight. Tomorrow is gonna be…interesting.”

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9 – 25

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Vadrieny sighed, peering around. Morning sun blazed from a gap in the passing clouds; the mountain air was fresh and bracing, the manor grounds quiet but enlivened by birdsong from outside the walls.

There was a total lack of warlocks or demons.

“Well, fine,” the archdemon said in exasperation. “It’s for the best; I feel ridiculous, shouting into thin air.”

“The woman merely said to call,” Shaeine said calmly, not for the first time. “She seemed quite eager to gain your favor; as Trissiny has explained, they have ample reason to be. If there were more to it, she would have said so.”

“And yet, here we are,” Vadrieny said, folding her arms. “Really, I think this is for the best. Trissiny was right about getting involved with the Wreath, and anyway, this just means they’re not listening. I’m more comfortable knowing I’m not being scryed on.”

“Arcane scrying would not be a practical way for them to be notified if you reached out,” Shaeine said, gently placing a hand on the back of Vadrieny’s shoulder. “Your voice is powerfully magical, Vadrieny; it’s far more likely the Wreath can pick up on that.”

“I don’t think I like that better,” Vadrieny replied, frowning deeply.

“You didn’t expect ’em to just pop up right away, didja?” Ruda inquired from her perch on the manor’s steps, pausing to swig from her bottle of rum. “They’ve gotta check out the situation before doing anything. On the subject of which, this whole idea is pointless on account of the Black fucking Wreath aren’t careless.”

“Be that as it may,” said Shaeine, “if Trissiny’s idea does not pan out, communicating with them may still be—”

She broke off at the sudden appearance of a spell circle on the gravel path in front of them. Vadrieny moved between Shaeine and the circle, subtly flexing her claws and spreading her fiery wings. It was a small circle, though, and simple in design, glowing sickly green and marked only with a sparse few runes.

In the next moment, a puff of smoke erupted from it, reeking of sulfur. It cleared swiftly in the light breeze, revealing an imp, which immediately fell to its knees and prostrated itself face-down on the ground.

“Oh, great, wise, talented and undeniably attractive lady!” the imp wailed in a thin, scratchy voice. “It is the greatest honor inflicted upon this humble servant to have the opportunity to humbly service you! Speak your command and it shall be done, preferably not in a fashion that gets me killed!”

Vadrieny blinked her blazing eyes, glancing at Shaeine before returning her gaze to the imp. It was a gangly little creature, rather like a monkey with some features of a goat: horns, hooves, and an elongated face. The fur with which it was covered was greasy and matted into clumps, and the smell that clung to it was of worse than sulfur. Altogether it couldn’t have been more than a foot tall, standing upright.

“You are supposed to help me?” Vadrieny demanded. “This is the assistance the Wreath promised?”

“Not exactly, oh euphonious one!” the imp declaimed. “Your humble servicer’s task is to learn what you need and carry this information back to your legion of warlocks just waiting on tenterhooks to fulfill their duty to your exalted person. Oh, yes, and I’m also supposed to tell you something from them.” He scrambled to his feet and drew himself up as if at attention, tucking on hand behind his back and discreetly coughing into the other. “Ahem. I am to say hello to your paladin and fairy friends and your vampire hostess and express with the greatest respect that no, we will not be charging headlong into an insultingly obvious trap. Honestly, is babysitting the little thug going to be like this every time? Why couldn’t Arvanzideen have been the one who survived?” He trailed off, blinked his beady eyes once, then swallowed heavily and began folding himself back down into a crouch. “I, uh… It just occurred to me I wasn’t supposed to repeat the whole thing verbatim…”

Ruda howled with laughter. “Ah, man, that is priceless. Since saying ‘I told you so’ is gauche and cliché, I’ll have to upgrade my contribution to ‘I fucking told you so!’”

Vadrienly flexed her claws once, very deliberately; the imp let out a shrill squeak and huddled into a ball.

“Very well,” the archdemon said stiffly, reaching out one leg to prod him with a single talon. “That’s fair. I need two things from the Wreath. First, I want to know if they attacked the Imperial barracks in Veilgrad, and if so, what they took.”

“I can do that!” the imp said, peeking up and nodding vigorously. “Yes indeed, I’m your hellspawn, oh wise and mellifluous, not to mention devastatingly good-looking purveyor of all that is—”

“Please stop!” Vadrieny exclaimed. “Second, we have a Rhaazke demon here who needs a way home. I want to know if the Wreath can help with that.”

“You’ve got a what?” Seeming to forget his terror, the imp unfolded himself, blinking owlishly up at her. “What’re you doing with a Rhaazke? We are on the mortal plane, right? How did you do that?”

“Never you mind!” she barked. “Just get me the answers I asked for. Is that clear?”

He snapped to attention again and saluted. “Yes, ma’am, my greatest and most beneficent—“

“And stop that! Simple answers only, please!”

The imp froze, blinked, worked his mouth slowly as if rolling something around his tongue, and finally spoke hesitantly. “Okay.”

“Now, what information are you supposed to get me?” Vadrieny said sharply.

The imp frowned reproachfully. “You wanna know whether the Wreath attacked the Imperial barracks, and how to send a Rhaazke home. Honestly, lady, you don’t gotta be condescending. I’m not stupid. I was given the task of charging headlong into an insultingly obvious trap just to speak with you! I’m somebody trusted!”

Vadrieny snorted musically. “That, or they don’t care if you die.”

“That…well…I…oh.” His posture slowly deflated until he slouched with a hangdog expression. “I guess I’ll just go…deliver your message, then. Bye.”

With another puff of foul-smelling smoke, the demon vanished. A moment later, the tiny summoning circle faded out.

Vadrieny clapped a clawed hand to her face. “Augh. Why do I feel guilty about that?!”

“Because it was mean,” Shaeine said quietly, patting her shoulder again. “And because you are a good person, if a trifle impatient.”

The crunch of feet on gravel announced the arrival of the others from behind Malivette’s vine-encrusted tool shed.

“I liked him,” Juniper announced with a beaming smile. “He was adorable! We didn’t really get to spend any time with the imps in Melaxyna’s place.”

“Imps,” Trissiny said disapprovingly, “are among the better-behaved but less stable species of sentient demons. They tend to leak infernal radiation wherever they are.”

“Actually, that’s debated among scholars,” Fross chimed. “There’s usually a lot of infernal residue where imps have been, but in most such cases there are lots of dead imps where imps have been, and all magical creatures release energy upon expiring. They’re kind of careless, as I understand it.”

“Either way,” said Trissiny, “I am going to bless this space before—”

“Here’s an idea,” Toby interrupted. “Let’s ask our undead hostess if she minds having blessings laid on her property before we do anything. Malivette has already been more patient with us than we have any right to expect. I really don’t think it would be nice of us to create a patch of her front drive that she can’t walk over.”

“Oh. Right.” Trissiny looked abashed. “Right, that’s a good point.”

“Anyway!” Ruda ambled toward them, casually tossing her bottle from hand to hand. “There’s that much out of the way. The day’s still young, and we’re still up shit creek without a clue. Do what you need to with Vette and the driveway, and then let’s go collect Gabe and get on with the next stage of the plan.”


 

“Captain!”

Dijanerad dismissed Lieutenant Vriss with a pat on the shoulder before turning to face the elf stalking across the parade ground toward her, brandishing a piece of parchment. The rest of Squad One trailed after their sergeant in precise formation, with carefully blank expressions.

“Good morning, Locke,” said the captain. “You know, you get increasingly witty the madder you are. Sometimes I feel tempted to tick you off on purpose, just to enjoy the comedy that follows.”

Principia halted a few yards distant, frowning. “Well…thank you?”

“It wasn’t a random comment,” Dijanerad said dryly. “I’ve learned to associate that observation with the expression on your face right now. Let me just ask for formality’s sake: what’s on your mind?”

“May I be allowed to know why my squad is being punished?” Principia demanded, holding out the paper accusingly.

“If you are, nobody informed me,” Dijanerad said calmly. “In which case I am going to scrub my bathtub with someone’s scalp. Yes, yes, fine, I know. I did sign off on those orders, which are not a punishment. It was at the request of your current—ah, what perfect timing. As always, your Grace.”

She saluted the approaching Bishop Shahai, who nodded to her with a smile. “Oh, stop that, Shahdi; we hold the same rank.”

“Until Syrinx comes back, if she does.”

Shahai rolled her eyes. “At ease, then. Do you mind if I borrow Locke and company? It seems I owe them an explanation.”

“I am perfectly willing for someone other than me to endure this conversation, yes,” Dijanerad said with a grin. “As you were, ladies.”

“First,” said Shahai as the captain departed, “I apologize for the fact that you did not hear this firsthand from me. I prefer, of course, for any such disruptive orders to come with an explanation if possible. It’s been an interesting morning; I had to send the message out before I had liberty to join you.”

“Confined to the Temple grounds?” Principia said sharply. “I assumed this was a punishment of some kind, your Grace, because otherwise it smacks of attempting to protect us. As if someone, somewhere, had mistaken a squad of Silver Legionnaires for a gaggle of simpering schoolgirls.”

“It is an attempt to protect you,” Shahai replied calmly. “Nor is that a denigration of your abilities.” She glanced around the parade grounds; the cohort’s other squads were trailing out toward their assigned duties. “The facts as we know them are that you were recently the target of a campaign by Zanzayed the Blue, which seems to have been meant to draw attention to you. As of today, we are reasonably sure it worked.”

“Worked?” Principia said sharply. “How?”

“Individuals have been watching the Legion fortress’s gates,” Shahai said, still in perfect calm. “That is unusual, but not criminal, and by itself not necessarily suspicious. We do not accost people for just hanging around. They fled when approached, which is much more suspicious. However…” She sighed softly, her expression tightening. “First thing this morning a request was delivered to me at the Cathedral by Bishop Ferdowsi for Silver Legion guards, which as you know is somewhat unusual for Nemitites. Someone he described as ‘suspicious and creepy’ was at the Steppe Library yesterday evening, making pointed inquiries after Private Szaravid.”

Farah’s eyes widened and she clutched her lance tighter, trembling faintly in place.

“I assure you,” Shahai said quickly, “all relevant steps have been taken. Lang, I know you don’t speak with your parents, but the main temple in Calderaas was telescrolled anyway; they will be discreetly watched. Steps were taken to protect all of your families, including Avelea’s ex-husband.” She pursed her lips. “Since attempting to post a guard on a Huntsman would have been tantamount to instigating a brawl, I was forced to explain the situation to Bishop Varanus, and endure his subsequent commentary. And, of course, Legionnaires were posted at the Steppe Library as requested.”

“I am going to stab that dragon right in the nuts,” Principia announced. “With his own jawbone.”

“It does appear Zanzayed’s campaign was effective,” Shahai agreed sardonically. “He has managed to publicly mark you, Locke, as a person of interest to him. While we are still without useful leads as to the identities of this anti-dragon organization, this does reveal they have some organizational capability and the capacity for more forethought than their paint-throwing suggested. They’ve identified members of your squad and begun investigating them. Locke, you are jealous of your privacy, I know, but if there is anyone you would like to have protected, you need only ask.”

Principia snorted. “Who? The Thieves’ Guild? My parents’ grove? The Legions? Seriously, I hope these idiots try to attack any of my past associates. That’ll solve this whole problem neatly.”

“Indeed,” Shahai said with a faint smile. “I fear we are not so lucky as to have such foolish foes. For now, Squad One is confined to the Temple grounds, partly for its direct protection, but mostly as a means to control the situation. You are trusted to take care of yourselves, ladies, and that trust will be acted upon soon. In fact, you are now the perfect bait to draw these dragon-haters out. We know they want you. However, this will occur at a time and place of our choosing—a trap laid by the Sisterhood, not an ambush sprung by our opponents. And until we have more information with which to work, that means you must be kept out of sight and inaccessible.”

“This is is totally unacceptable,” Ephanie said tightly. “For the Conclave to use us this way…”

Shahai sighed and shook her head. “Yes. Part of me hates to be so mercenary, but the fact is that we gain immense political capital from this. Such an action by the Conclave, or any member thereof, places them significantly in our debt. And not even dragons will wish to be on the cult of Avei’s bad side on a permanent basis. Hands of Avei and Silver Legions have brought them down in the past.”

“Your Grace,” Principia said icily, “I had training planned for my squad which required access to carefully prepared facilities, which I set up. At my own expense.”

“I can see that you are compensated, of course,” Shahai said.

Principia shook her head. “It’s only money. Not important.”

“Can I have your wages, then?” Merry muttered.

The sergeant gave her a warning glance, but continued. “The training was what mattered. It was…necessary. I need to be able to drill my squad.”

“Is there something wrong with the parade ground here?” Shahai asked mildly.

“I need to be able to drill my squad in private,” Principia clarified, holding her gaze.

“I see.” The Bishop studied her carefully, then glanced across the assembled Squad One. “Considering the nature of Tiraas, I assume this was a prepared indoor space.”

“Yes, your Grace.”

“For what you had in mind, would you need anything other than the space itself?”

Principia hesitated before responding. “Practice dummies. Imperial Army grade, preferably, with shielding charms.”

“Is there something you would like to tell me, Sergeant?” Shahai asked quietly.

Principia drew in a deep breath. “I assure you, your Grace, we are not up to anything against regulations or the Legion code of conduct.”

“But something you don’t wish to be seen doing.”

“There are things beyond regulations and codes binding the Legions,” Principia said evenly. “I might even say strangling them. I think the High Commander will approve of what we’ll have to show her—if I am allowed to conduct the training needed.”

“And you cannot just ask her because…”

“Because,” Principia said stiffly, “I’m reasonably sure she won’t let us do it.”

Shahai studied them all again. The squad stood rigidly at attention, eyes straight ahead, except for Princpia’s, which rested on the Bishop’s face.

“I will secure one of the subterranean gymnasiums for you,” Shahai said abruptly. “You are extending trust to me in this, Locke, so I shall do likewise. You have earned some confidence in your judgment. Please do keep in mind that the outcome of your…experiment…will reflect on me.”

“You will not be disappointed, your Grace.”

“I don’t worry about being disappointed,” Shahai murmured, turning back toward the temple. “Disappointment I can live with. I worry about the things I can’t. Dismissed, ladies.”


“Okay, I’ll admit it,” Gabriel said, “I’m impressed. And a little puzzled. Seriously, how did you know to come here? Are you sure you’ve never been to Veilgrad before?”

“For about ten minutes at a time, on the way to and from Puna Dara.” Ruda snorted. “It’s a city—I know how cities work. Punaji royalty don’t get raised in a palace. People who grow up in palaces have no concept of how actual people live, and that is a recipe for a bad fucking leader.” She shrugged, gesturing expansively around at the shabby, shadowed back street into which they had stepped. “I’ve been watching the city while we’ve wandered through it. Every city has something like this—one any bigger would have several. You just keep an eye on the street layout, check the quality and size of buildings and their state of repair, and watch the movements of people, see where the shabby and/or sneaky ones drift toward.”

“You’ve observed all that just from passing through the city a few times over two days?” Trissiny said. “Well, I’m… Floored, honestly. That’s sort of amazing.”

Ruda turned to wink at her. “You were trained to lead troops, Boots; I was trained to lead everyone else. Neither of you two pay much attention to people, you know that? Anyhow… Since I like you, I’m comfortable admitting that we lucked out, here. The kind of signs I was looking for could just as well lead to an industrial area, or a foreigner-town like Lor’naris. Or several other things.”

At a very superficial glance, Rose Street was just another shopping neighborhood, lined with stores and stalls and wavering very slightly in its course; in contrast to the ordered grid of Tiraas, Veilgrad had meandering streets that had clearly been allowed to grow organically. It was a shadier avenue than most in the literal sense, sheltered by the city wall on one side and the towering bulk of warehouses and factories on the other, its smaller storefronts sandwiched into a space that had probably been a mandated gap between the wall and the town proper long ago, in more militaristic times.

It wasn’t that everything was in particularly bad repair, either. In fact, a few of the storefronts they passed were clean and formed of ostentatiously carved wood, with gilded signs and broad glass windows graced by velvet curtains. Others were shabby, and this variety of shops here mixed together in a way that rich and poor rarely did in most places. The signs were subtler, but unmistakeable once noticed. Rough-looking, unsmiling people loitered in alleys and in front of the pricier shops, staring flatly at everyone who passed, and making up for the total lack of actual constables. Well more than half of the stores, despite being clearly open, had boarded windows, no signs and generally no indication of what sort of business they did. There was a disproportionate number of weapon and magic stores, and far too many all-purpose pawn shops with discreet signage. Nearly every window had bars, either permanently in place or fixed to be latched onto storefront displays once business hours ended. A good number of places that were too clean and well-repaired to be abandoned were closed and shuttered, their own business hours clearly occurring after dark.

“This is exactly the kind of neighborhood my father warned me to stay out of,” Gabriel murmured.

“Oh, c’mon, what’s going to happen to you?” Ruda asked breezily. “You’re practically invulnerable. Yes, Arquin, fucking stabbed you, and so on. You need some new fucking material.”

“I wasn’t going to say that,” he replied, “and it loses emphasis when said by someone who uses ‘fucking’ as punctuation. Anyhow, it’s not about physical vulnerability. If a mob had jumped me and any of them got so much as a broken nail, the story would be how the half-demon mauled a bunch of upstanding citizens. Even assuming a magistrate enforced the actual laws, every incident like that brings me closer to a headsman with a blessed ax. Brought, I guess,” he added. “I don’t think I’ll ever be used to being someone…significant.”

“We don’t seem to be making any friends, here,” Trissiny murmured. “Why is everyone just staring? If they’d run, or attack, or… I can’t figure out what to expect.”

Indeed, their passage down the street brought most activity nearby to a stop, with thugs, passersby and shopkeepers pausing to gaze flatly at them.

“Normal people don’t flee or attack strangers, Trissiny, that’s just you,” Ruda said cheerfully. “Here we have three teenagers, very well-dressed and with needlessly expensive weapons. One, however, is in armor that clearly means serious fucking business even if you haven’t read enough books to know what a Hand of Avei looks like. We’re clearly marks, but also possibly not to be fucked with, so they don’t know what to think. Usually the presence of the Thieves’ Guild determines how the rough element behaves, but if that soldier told you the truth, they aren’t around anymore. That leaves a gray area in everyone’s expectations.”

“Hmp,” Trissiny grunted disapprovingly, glaring at a brawny man in a sleeveless vest. He blinked once, then nodded respectfully at her and eased backward into the shadows of an alley. “What do all these people do if there’s no Guild? They can’t all be criminals, or the Guild would come back to stomp on them. They like to talk about bringing down the powerful, but what they really don’t tolerate is competition.”

Ruda shrugged. “Probably just folk doing business in less-than-socially-acceptable materials, mostly. Maybe some light smuggling, a little gambling, harmless stuff like that. I guarantee the local shroom farms are in basements on this street.”

“Wait, back up. I look expensive?” Ariel asked, sounding mildly surprised.

“To someone who knows weapons, you’re clearly elven and old,” said Ruda. “That automatically means expensive, if you can find the right buyer.”

“So…what is our plan, here?” Gabriel asked. “So far, this seems about as useful a day as Toby and the fairies are probably having.”

“They might still get something out of the cultist prisoners,” Trissiny murmured.

“Yeah, but we aren’t getting anything out of the local rough element,” Gabe retorted. “I thought the big idea was to see if we can find information about dangerous business in town.” He frowned, glancing up and down the street. “Actually…hasn’t everyone been telling us the citizens of Veilgrad have been more aggressive than usual lately? This seems too quiet…”

“Well, obviously, you learn things by talking to people.” Ruda paused, turned to look at them critically, then continued. “Okay, you two hang out here for a bit while I go talk to someone.”

“Why?” Trissiny demanded.

“Because,” the pirate said with a grin, “neither of you has the slightest concept how to have the kind of conversation I’m about to have, and you will fuck it up.”

“She’s almost certainly right,” Ariel noted.

“Thanks,” Gabriel said sourly.

“Be right back,” Ruda said, and strolled off toward a stall selling bread and sausage in front of a moneylender’s store with iron bars over its windows. No less than five scruffy, muscular, well-armed men loitered around the front of the building.

Ruda walked right up to the stand and leaned on it, conversing with the stout woman behind it, who looked wary but gradually seemed to un-tense as the pirate spoke. A moment later, she was smiling and deftly slicing a tough little bun with a knife, forming a kind of pocket into which she stuffed a hot sausage and a helping of sauerkraut. The whole time, Ruda chattered on aimlessly.

“None of that seems too difficult,” Trissiny muttered.

“Yeah,” Gabe agreed. “And do you notice how she’s not ordering any food for us?”

“I’m not hungry anyway. What, doesn’t Grusser feed you?”

“That’s not the point,” he huffed. “It’s rude.”

“Then analyze the message,” Ariel suggested. “Unlike you, Princess Zaruda is rude for specific purpose, not due to a lack of social skills.”

“Yeah?” he said irritably. “What’s your excuse?”

“I was designed for magical assistance, not social interaction. It’s my nature to render straightforward opinion, which is helpful toward my primary purpose but, I have noticed, often counterproductive when people’s feelings come into play.”

“You could refrain from sharing all your opinions?” Trissiny suggested.

“I do. You have never heard me observe, for example, that that dryad of yours desperately needs to be muzzled and leashed. Sometimes, however, personal observations are imminently relevant to the situation at hand.”

Trissiny started to speak again, but fell still, staring at the action around the stall.

One of the toughs watching over the moneylender’s building had straightened from his lounging position at the corner, swaggered over to Ruda and leaned forward to say something inaudible at that distance, leering. His compatriots were staring at this expressionlessly, making no move to get involved.

Ruda glanced up at the man, said something curt, and turned her attention back to the sausage vendor, who now also looked nervous.

Scowling, the thug grabbed Ruda by the shoulder, attempting to spin her around.

Her rapier formed a silver arc as she whipped it out of its sheath and stabbed him through the foot.

“Wait,” Gabriel said urgently, grabbing Trissiny’s pauldron as she started forward. “Just wait. Ruda knows what she’s doing; if the others get involved, we’ll go help.”

They didn’t, though. One of the tough’s fellows rolled his eyes and another burst out laughing, but no one made a move to help him. He hopped backward, flailing for balance and cursing loudly, which lasted until Ruda landed a vicious kick between his legs.

She came strolling back to her friend, munching on her sausage roll and leaving the man huddled in a ball on the sidewalk. The sausage vendor gave him a pitiless look and snorted; one of his friends finally stepped forward to help him up, while another called “Nice kick!” after Ruda.

“Hey, you didn’t butt in,” Ruda said cheerfully. “You’re finally learnin’ some discretion, Shiny Boots!”

“Gabriel stopped her,” Ariel said. “Even more impressive, he is finally learning some discretion.”

“Shut up, Ariel,” the paladins said in unison.

“Did you gain anything from that besides a second breakfast?” Trissiny added.

Ruda chewed, swallowed, and grinned. “Yup. Some insight into where the creepy shit in this town tends to come from and congregate. Did you know there are catacombs?”

“No, but of course there are catacombs,” Gabriel groaned. “There are always catacombs.”

“Tiraas doesn’t have catacombs,” Trissiny pointed out. “And honestly, how many places have you been to that did?”

“Come on, that’s quibbling over terminology. Tiraas has a network of unusually large sewer tunnels, and the University has the Crawl. There’s always something nasty underground, where the nasty things go to hide.” He sighed. “And we have to go down there, don’t we?”

“What, us? Just like that, at the first sign of the existence of such a thing?” Ruda snorted, took a bite of her sandwich and carried on talking around it. “Try not to be such a towering fucknut, Arquin. You need to read some comics; doin’ shit like that is exactly what always gets the heroes into trouble. No, if we’re going into any goddamn catacombs, we’re bringin’ the whole group. We handled the Crawl, nothing under this town’s gonna take on the ten of us.” She paused to swallow. “But. Before we bring the others in, let’s get some more information. The nice lady told me where the nearest entrance is—it’s under a Universal Church chapel, so should be safe enough. And by the way, this stuff is awesome. I can’t believe I never had sauerkraut before. Gotta import some of this back home.”

“Ew.” Gabriel wrinkled his nose. “That crap tastes like pissed-on feet.”

“People are eating here, you fucking cretin. Mind your goddamn language.”

“A chapel sounds good,” Trissiny agreed. “We can ask the priests there about the catacombs.”

“Yeah, except there aren’t any,” said Ruda. “My new friend back there said the Universal Church has been pulling out of the city since early summer. Only their central cathedral still has any staff at all, and it’s down to a skeleton crew.”

“Oh, so it’s an abandoned church,” Gabriel groaned. “That’s good and creepy.”

“Less creepy than roomin’ with a vampire,” Ruda said, grinning, which was a horrible sight given the tendency of sauerkraut and sausage to stick in the teeth. “C’mon, whiner, she said it was just up the street a ways.”

“Odd that the Universal Church would have a chapel in this neighborhood,” Trissiny said, frowning. They moved off down Rose Street, following Ruda.

“Probably just seems that way because you’re an elitist, Boots. If you’re running any kind of organization that does charity, you go where the people who need charity are. Isn’t that the whole point of your Silver Missions?”

“Yes, you’re right,” Trissiny said thoughtfully. “In fact, now that you bring that up, this is an excellent place to put one, especially if the local church has closed up. I’ll send a scroll to the Temple next chance I get.”

“I thought the Avenists stayed out of Veilgrad because it was full of Shaathists?” Gabriel said.

“At no point in all of history have the Sisters of Avei permitted the Huntsmen to push us around,” she said frostily. “There’s not a significant Sisterhood facility in Veilgrad because there aren’t enough Avenists worshipers to make it worthwhile, and we don’t proselytize as a rule.”

“Okay, okay,” he said, raising his hands. “No need to snap.”

“Gabriel, for your own well-being and general peace of mind, refrain from telling irate feminists to mind their tone.”

Ruda howled with laughter, spraying flecks of her sandwich. Luckily she was facing away from them, but that still served as enough of a distraction to end the discussion.

Most of Rose Street was much the same as the parts they had already seen. They did, at one point, pass a stone building which stood out from its mostly wooden counterparts; its only sign advertised free meals for the poor, and there was a discreet sunburst of Omnu painted above the door. Another block or so beyond that, not long after Ruda finished her sandwich, they finally came to the old chapel.

It was a typical representation of the Church’s preferred style: stone, rectangular and with tall windows. None were stained glass, and all were behind iron bars; encouragingly, none had been broken. The place was still and silent, an accumulation of dead leaves and other minor debris on its steps and sills attesting to its disused state, though it had clearly not been abandoned long enough for any real decay to set in. As far as could be observed from the street, the chapel had suffered no actual damage.

“So,” Gabriel drawled, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “Do we…knock?”

“Do I have to do everything around here?” Ruda said, rolling her eyes. “You two are fucking paladins. I’m pretty sure you’ve got the right to go in a Universal Church chapel if you want. Hell, I doubt anybody would bitch too much if you broke in the door.”

“Ruda,” Trissiny said, turning to gaze evenly at her.

“What?”

Trissiny held her gaze for a long, silent moment, until Ruda sighed and shuffled her boots, looking actually uncomfortable. “All right, fine, sorry. I doubt anybody would complain if you broke the door. Better?”

“Yes, thank you,” Trissiny said with a smile.

“Well, there’s always the traditional approach to try before that,” Gabriel said, bounding up the two steps leading to the doors. “It’d be a shame to damage these.” Indeed, they were of the local dark hardwood, once well-polished, though their sheen was quite dull now, and ornately carved to form a large ankh split down the middle where the double doors opened. He grasped the handle and pulled.

The hinges squealed in complaint at their long disuse, but the door opened easily. Gabriel froze, blinking, then turned to stare down at the others.

“Is it just me, or is that…ominous?”

“It’s a little ominous, yeah,” Ruda agreed. “Unless the Church had gotten too bureaucratic for its own good, someone should’ve thought to at least lock it.”

“Well, actually,” said Trissiny with a slight smile, “according to—”

“I’m sorry to interrupt this charming banter,” said Ariel, “but you should be aware there is magic active in that building, and not of the divine nature one would expect on a chapel. In fact, its normal blessings have been eroded far more than a few months of disuse would account for. Someone did that deliberately.”

“What kind of magic?” Trissiny demanded, frowning. “I don’t sense anything…evil.”

“It is vague and extremely difficult for me to pin down,” the sword replied. “Which, in conjunction with your own failure to identify a magical signature, suggests what I am perceiving is some kind of ward intended to obscure what is happening within.”

The three of them exchanged a round of looks, frowning, then turned as one to peer up at the silent chapel. The street around them was even quieter than normal, it seemed.

“We’d better have a look,” Gabriel said finally. “And I’m not just saying that because I’d feel ridiculous running away from something just because it’s kind of creepy. If we’re going to go get the others in on this, we should have something actually useful to tell them.”

“Agreed,” said Trissiny, stepping up to join him. “A quick look.”

They filed inside, Gabriel leaving the door standing open, and paused, letting their eyes grow accustomed to the dimness. The interior was laid out on a standard plan, with a wall right in front of them serving to divide the main sanctuary from its entryway. It covered only the center of the space, leaving gaps to either side into the chapel proper. After a moment, Trissiny drew her sword, nodding pointedly to the others, who followed suit. Gabriel pulled his wand out, somewhat awkwardly drawing Ariel left-handed.

“I sense something now,” Trissiny murmured. “Faint, obscured, but…it makes me a little edgy. Be wary.”

They stepped around the corner into the sanctuary, and froze.

The sanctuary was a wreck. Its pews were demolished, scattered about as little more than kindling, leaving a wide plowed track running erratically through the debris instead of the orderly central aisle there would have been before. The entire pulpit was destroyed, the very dais on which it had stood ripped up, floorboards and flagstones alike. All this had been piled in the choir loft, leaving a gaping hole in the floor where the pastor would have stood to give sermons.

More immediately, the room was occupied.

The man standing to the right of the hole was tall and hunched, wearing a hooded robe that had been blood red before getting as filthy as it was; it served handily to conceal his appearance. The students gave him, the destruction and the hole into the underground only a passing look before focusing on the other creature present.

At least nine feet tall, it was made of bones—apparently human bones, though its own form was not at all human. A rough melange of ribcages and pelvises formed its lower body, which was laid out roughly like a horse’s, with four bowed limbs cobbled together from multiple long bones supporting it. In fact, it was proportioned like a centaur, a secondary torso (also stitched together from pieces of skeletons) rising from the front of its lower body. Four spindly arms extended from this, at uneven intervals, seemingly attached wherever a suitable end of a collarbone happened to jut from its asymmetrical construction. On the top of the towering monstrosity perched an incongruously normal-sized human skull, banded with iron, marked with runes and lit from within by eerie green fire. The whole construct was bound together with a combination of metal joints and supports, and networks of black, oozing tissue serving as ligaments. All of its fingers, of which it had an uneven number on each hand, were tipped in iron claws; its four feet were huge iron horseshoes, each connected to its legs by the bones of three distinct human feet.

“Well,” Ruda said after a moment, “do you fucking sense that?”

“Fools and interlopers,” the bent man hissed, dry-washing his hands in front of his filthy robe. The ragged ends of a graying brown beard emerged from the deep hollow of his hood, all that could be seen of his features. “Running around, trying to spoil everything. Try, little bugs, just try. More fun in the end.”

“Oh, gods,” Gabriel muttered. “He’s one of those.”

“Enjoy your last moments!” the man suddenly shrieked, and skittered toward the hole with an oddly spider-like gait. He vanished into the darkness below, deranged laughter echoing after him.

The bone construct took a deliberate step forward, a wet rumble sounding from within one of its chests. Framed by rib bones, there were several pulsing organs that might have been hearts, lungs, or something comparable.

“We can take this thing, right?” Gabriel muttered tersely.

“Standard necromancy, not chaos,” Ariel reported. “It is safe to use magic against it.”

“Hang on,” said Trissiny. She stepped forward and raised her voice. “Hey, you! Can you understand me? Do you talk?”

The construct halted its slow advance, peering down at her. “Khhrrr?”

“I’ll take that for a yes,” she said. “We surrender.”

It leaned forward; there was no interpreting any expression on its fleshless face, but it lowered its arms to a slightly less menacing position. “Surrrr?”

“What?” Ruda hissed. “What the fuck are you doing?”

“Here, see?” Trissiny carefully reversed the grip on her sword, holding it point-down. “All yours. Close your eyes,” she added in a much lower tone, and tossed the sword forward, straight at one of the construct’s hands.

Apparently by reflex, it caught the weapon by its hilt.

The chapel filled with a deafening roar and an obliterating blaze of white light.

“Motherfucker!” Gabriel squawked, staggering to one side and furiously rubbing his eyes.

“She warned you.”

“Oh, shut up!”

“She did, though,” said Ruda, lowering her hands from her own eyes to survey the damage.

Just like that, the towering abomination was gone. Not so much as a splinter of bone remained, though its four smoldering horseshoes still rested on the floor amid the debris. None of the wooden scraps had been burned, despite the flecks of ash drifting on the air.

Trissiny’s sword rested on the ground, its point improbably driven into the floorboards. She stepped forward and picked it up, looking smug.

“That was pretty damn underhanded,” Ruda noted with approval. “Good to see you branching out your tactics and all, Triss, but isn’t using surrender as a cover for attack pretty damn well frowned upon? That doesn’t seem very Avenist.”

“I didn’t attack it,” Trissiny replied, sliding her sword back into its scabbard. “Anyone picking up this sword is inviting Avei’s direct attention. She surely wouldn’t smite someone for catching something I threw at them, but by someone, I refer to an actual person. A necromantic abomination of the worst kind is an entirely different matter.”

“Sounds to me like you’re splitting hairs,” Ruda said skeptically.

“Mm. You may have a point.” Trissiny frowned thoughtfully. “I will pray on that later.”

“Meanwhile!” Gabriel snapped, still blinking his eyes. “Needless to say, we are not going down that hole. This seems like exactly the kind of intel we should bring back to the others so we can form a plan and act on it.”

“Yeah,” Ruda agreed. “I feel even worse about Toby, Juniper and Fross being sent off to the prison, now. They’re obviously wasting their time.” She glanced at the ragged tunnel leading underground, into which the robed man had fled. “No point interrogating the chaos cultists dumb enough to get caught, when we should be worried about the ones still loose.”

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9 – 23

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The first secret passage was in the upstairs hallway, behind a grandfather clock. The door itself was a pretty tight squeeze for most of them—especially Trissiny, who despite being slimmer than most found her armor ill-suited to cramped spaces—and the dark spiraling stairwell behind it not much better.

It opened at the bottom, after enough turns to be well below ground level, onto some sort of makeshift museum. The long basement room was illuminated by dim fairy lamps which cast it into a maze of shadows, many of its contents reduced to blurs. They could see a variety of statuary, though, as well as several racks of armor, weapons and tapestries hung on the walls, a few bookcases and multiple free-standing displays, showing an assortment of objects on cushions behind glass. Malivette glided straight through this, not giving them time to examine anything, and opened the second secret passage. This was behind a tapestry, and involved pressing a certain brick to cause the wall behind it to swing inward with a coarse rasp of stone on stone.

“You are extending a great deal of trust,” Shaeine observed as they followed the vampire into the dark passage beyond. “I would never have expected to be shown the secrets of your manor in this fashion. Particularly after we intruded upon you so abruptly.”

“There, you see?” Malivette said, grinning over her shoulder at Trissiny. “That is how you express suspicion politely. The prospect that I’m leading you into a dark hole to murder you all is obliquely touched upon without hurting my feelings.”

“You’re not going to murder us,” Trissiny said flatly. “We may or may not be a match for you, but nothing you do will substantially harm Juniper or Vadrieny. Or, possibly, the rest of us. Speaking of discussing things obliquely, I assumed it didn’t need to be said that nobody here wanted to start an unwinnable fight.”

“There are fights, and then there are fights,” Malivette mused, turning her head back to face the darkness before them. The passageway was long and slowly spiraled downward, illuminated only by magical lights spaced so widely that they were just barely within sight of each other around the curve. They weren’t modern fairy lamps, but classical magefire torches: blue, silent and emitting no heat. “You think I’m afraid to die? I’d regret abandoning my girls, but…existence isn’t such a great deal in my circumstances. It’s how one dies that one should consider. You know how Professor Tellwyrn convinced me to come out of my house and attend the University?”

“We weren’t told the story,” Toby said after the silence began to stretch out.

“We made a deal,” said their hostess. “She hunted down the vampire who attacked my family and turned me, and brought me his head. I was almost offended at how quickly she managed it; I’d devoted every effort to the task myself, and nothing. Took her two days. Hmph.”

“Well, that’s…interesting,” said Fross. “You’re probably the only University initiate who was enrolled in exchange for a killing.”

“I’m not prepared to assume that,” Teal muttered.

“Oh, she didn’t kill him,” Malivette said softly.

“Uh…wait, you said she brought his head?” Toby asked hesitantly. “Isn’t that…how you kill a vampire?”

“You have to destroy the head,” Trissiny said, staring at Malivette’s slender back.

“I have him in a jar,” the vampire said cheerfully. “Actually, in the relic room we just passed through. He’s thinking about what he did.”

“Oh, I see,” Fross said thoughtfully. “That’s extravagantly horrible.”

Teal swallowed heavily.

“The point being,” Malivette continued in the same bright tone, “no one who has any idea what they’re doing starts a fight with Tellwyrn. That means not assaulting her students. I assure you, goslings, you are perfectly safe with me. I flatter myself that I am rather an effective menace in my own right—perhaps comparable to your class, come to think of it. I won’t let any harm come to you. That’s a promise. If you don’t believe it, though, believe I know who Professor Tellwyrn is and I don’t want her coming after my head.”

“Fair enough, I suppose,” Trissiny murmured.

Malivette glanced back at her again, smiling in amusement. Her eyes gleamed faintly in the dimness—not lit from within, but reflecting more light than seemed normal, yet without the off-color sheen of a cat’s. “I assume you kids have seen this before. She gets rather aggressive around demons or undead or the like, yes?”

“Ah,” Teal said carefully, “how to put this diplomatically…”

“Yes,” said Shaeine.

The vampire chuckled. “Have you bothered to explain the instinct to them, Trissiny?”

“What’s to explain?” she snapped.

Malivette’s expression grew more thoughtful. “You’ve never… Has anyone explained it to you?”

“Again, what’s to explain? I’m a paladin. It’s my calling to seek out and destroy evil.”

“You’re a paladin of Avei,” Malivette corrected. “You’ll find the Hands of Omnu, Salyrene and others mostly have a more defensive mindset. It’s not just doctrine, Trissiny. Did the Sisters truly never tell you about this? You have instincts. You are a predator. In the presence of the unnatural, you’ll be driven to strike. We’re a lot alike, you and I.”

“What?”

“You’re compelled to hunt and destroy monsters,” Malivette murmured. “I, to hunt and consume people. We both restrain ourselves for a similar blend of ethical and practical reasons. It’s a lonely life, one even the people closest to you will never truly understand. You’ll always have that empty place inside you, the craving, the need for self-control. I can relate to you a lot more than you may be willing to believe.”

“I don’t… You’re talking nonsense,” Trissiny said, though her voice was less certain than her words. “There’s no reason to reach for some metaphysical justification. I have the training…”

“And the indoctrination!” Fross chimed.

“And the personality,” Juniper added.

“Let me ask you this, then,” said Malivette. “What were you like before being called? Would you have described yourself as an aggressive person?”

Silence fell over the group as they descended, and weighed down ever more heavily the longer it stretched out. Malivette kept her back to them, leading the way down into darkness; Trissiny stared blankly ahead, her brow furrowed.

“I can’t imagine any reason the Sisters would have deliberately failed to tell you what you need to know about your calling,” the vampire murmured at last. “Perhaps they don’t remember. There was a long gap between paladins, and they’d been dwindling for many years before that. Even as mortals accumulate knowledge across generations, things do slip through the cracks of memory, and the gods are powerfully disinclined to explain themselves, even to their faithful.”

“Have…you ever heard of the Silver Huntresses?” Trissiny asked quietly.

Malivette glanced back at her. “I’ve read about the Silver Huntresses. I think it has been a very long time since anyone heard about them. Ah, here we are.”

Indeed, the spiraling corridor ended abruptly in a flat wall, in which was set a heavy door of undressed oak timbers bound in thick bands of iron. Malivette produced a key apparently out of her sleeve and unlocked it, then tugged the door open and turned to wink at them.

“Mind your feet, my dears. The first step’s a doozy.”

So saying, she darted through, leaving them to follow more carefully.

The room below was cavernous, large enough to swallow the average village church. Despite being cut into perfectly rectangular dimensions, it had clearly been carved out of the living stone of the mountain. In a few places, uneven sections of the wall where natural fissures existed were filled in with neatly mortared stonework. Brilliant fairy lamps lined the walls, casting the space in gleaming brightness. Beyond that, the room’s features were exceedingly peculiar.

The door stood at least a story off the ground, with a brief metal platform extending into space and a chain-link ladder hanging from it to the floor. Suspended from the ceiling were half a dozen large tanks, held in place by enormous bands of steel bolted securely into the rock above. Most interestingly, there was a pattern of metal set into the floor, forming three concentric rectangles on the ground. The room outside them was empty; in the center sat what appeared to be a very elaborate alchemy lab, with cages filled with squeaking rats and barrels and crates of storage off to one side.

“Welcome to my little science project!” Malivette said proudly, throwing wide her arms in a gesture reminiscent of Professor Rafe. She barely waited until they had all descended the ladder before setting off for the lab in the middle of the room. “I will have to insist that you remain outside the yellow lines, both for operational security and your own safety ow ow ow!”

As the vampire stepped across the first band of gold in the floor, steam erupted from her skin and she cringed in apparent pain. Despite this, she continued on over the next two.

“Three barriers might ow ow ow seem excessive, but once I’ve explained ow ow ow what we’re doing down here, I think you’ll agree that too way much security is probably the right amount. You see, those bands of gold in the floor form divine barriers calibrated specifically to destroy undead. Now, I’m not much harmed by them for the same basic reason Juniper wouldn’t be much weakened—I’m a very high class of undead. But they suffice as security for what we’ve got in here. There’s more, too! See those tanks?”

Mutely, they craned their necks back to follow her pointing finger, studying the tanks bolted to the ceiling. “Those are part of a failsafe—they are filled with holy water! If one of our experimental subjects escapes—even just one—they’ll burst and flood the whole room.”

“Um, should you be standing there, then?” Juniper asked nervously.

Malivette waved a hand airily. “They’re very unlikely to misfire, and anyway, I believe I’ve already mentioned my thoughts on my own death. There are also metal plates set into the walls all around this room on all sides. Teleported directly into the living stone! The enchantments on them provide a variety of extra barriers, as well as the detection spells that keep the security measures in here functioning correctly, and others that will notify my Imperial sponsors if something truly bad happens down here.”

“This…is sponsored by the Empire?” Trissiny asked, slowly peering around.

“Well, of course! Do you know how much all this cost?” Malivette grinned, pointing at the metal bands in the floor. “That’s gold. I mean, I’ve got family money and some existing business interests, but come on. It takes a government to just drop this kind of cash into a research project that may or may not bear fruit. House Madouri could do it; House Dufresne has to be a great deal more conservative.”

“What are you doing, precisely?” Shaeine inquired, studying the alchemy lab.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Fross chimed. “She’s researching a cure for vampirism!”

“Well done!” Malivette crowed. “They said you were a smart pixie!”

“Aw, shucks.”

“That explains the necromantic materials,” Trissiny said slowly.

“Indeed!” Malivette preened, crossing over to the cages. “To cure a disease, you need test subjects, and the use of animals for experiments is established protocol. So of course, the tricky part is creating a safe environment in which to do the research. In this case, that means an environment guaranteed to destroy the test subjects if they even think too hard about getting out. Obviously, letting rats carrying the vampire curse loose is an absolutely unacceptable prospect, so security must be absolute.” She unfastened a cage, reached inside and pulled out a squirming, squealing rat. “Like so.”

The vampire hurled the creature directly at them. As one the group shied back, Trissiny’s aura flaring alight, but the rat never reached them. It burst into flames as it crossed over the first of the lines in the floor; by the time it reached the air above the third, there weren’t even ashes left.

They slowly eased back, staring at Malivette, who stood beaming proudly over her lab.

“How did you figure out she was studying a cure, Fross?” Toby asked after a long moment.

“Well, I mean, it’s obvious she was researching necromancy, and it’s not like the Empire would support her in making more vampires. Or worse ones.”

“Oh, yes they would,” Malivette said in a much grimmer tone. “The hardest part of getting all this set up was arranging it so that I had loopholes around Imperial security. So that I could share the results of my research without getting charged with high treason. Well, they may charge me anyway, but I’ve got the best lawyers in existence; it won’t even go to trial.”

“Why would the Empire want to keep this secret?” Teal asked. “If you could cure vampirism…that’d be fantastic news. For everyone!”

“Governments,” Shaeine said quietly, “want power.”

“Bingo.” Malivette pointed at the drow. “If you could make a vampire, then unmake it… If you could effectively make temporary vampires, why, as long as you held a monopoly on that power, you would have the best soldiers, the best agents in existence. Vampires in our native state are apex predators; governments have tried to control my kind before, with disastrous results. Imagine what a caged lion would do to its captors if it could bend steel, turn to mist, tear people in half bare-handed…” She stopped, drew in a deep breath and let it out, visibly composing herself. “Well. I consider myself as patriotic as the next accursed social pariah in a position of unmerited political power, but with all respect to his Majesty, no government needs that kind of power. What the world needs to to be free of vampires, permanently. Finding a cure and spreading it to the four winds…that is my life’s work. Unlife. Whatever.”

“I’m sorry,” Trissiny said quietly. “I…misjudged you. Badly.”

“No, you didn’t,” Malivette said kindly. “To misjudge someone, Trissiny, you have to exercise judgment, and you didn’t quite get to that step. Those instincts of yours will serve you well, provided you keep them firmly under control. Work on that, kiddo. In any case, apology accepted.”

Toby laughed suddenly, then looked sheepish when they all turned to stare incredulously at them. “Ah…sorry, I just had a random thought. The nobility in this town is really fond of building divine prisons in their basements.”


 

Outside the embassy, Bishop Shahai surprised them by hailing a cab.

“To the Temple of Avei, please,” she said politely to the uncertain-looking cabbie as Principia and the rest of the squad filed into the vehicle.

“Ah…beggin’ yer pardon, ma’am,” he said respectfully, “but this carriage is only barely meant to seat six passengers, and not designed with armored troops in mind. It’s, er, gonna be a slowish trip. If I strain the charms…”

“That’s quite all right,” Shahai said kindly. “We are not in a rush.”

She climbed in last, and turned to slide shut the window separating the interior from the cabbie’s seat up front, gently enough to avoid the semblance of slamming it in his face. Almost immediately, the vehicle started moving. True to the driver’s word, it didn’t go as fast as the surrounding traffic (to the audible annoyance of other drivers), and there was a subtle, gravelly undertone to the low arcane hum that sounded from its wheel enchantments.

“Sergeant,” said Shahai, “I understand you are an enchanter?”

“Of quite minimal skill, ma’am.”

“Are you able to lay a silencing spell on the windows of this vehicle?”

Principia frowned pensively. “Not a strong one, not without enchanting dusts and some tools… I could make one that works partially for several hours or one that works well for a few minutes.”

“A few minutes should suffice; I would prefer greater security.”

“Do you need quiet, your Grace, or just don’t want to be overheard? Or both?”

Shahai tilted her head. “It matters?”

“Somewhat. A simple spell can block sound going one way; it’s not much more complicated to block it both ways, but there’s no point in wasting the energy if you don’t need to.”

“Ah. Then no, arrange it so we will not be overheard. In fact, I would prefer to be able to hear what goes on outside.”

“On it,” said Principia, leaning forward to press her palm against the window. She closed her eyes and fell still.

“Y’know, Sarge,” Merry commented when Principia turned to repeat the procedure on one of the side doors, “for as long as you’ve lived, I’m surprised you have only minimal competence at…well, anything.”

“It’s all about motivation, Lang,” Principia replied a moment later as she crossed to do the opposite door. “Arcane magic is practically taboo to elves. I really only took it up to piss off my mother; when it comes down to it, there are other skills I’d rather use.”

She repeated the brief exercise with the rear window before re-settling herself in her seat. “All secure, ma’am. The carriage is soundproof.”

“Good,” Shahai said serenely. “I would rather not tip off our driver. We will, obviously, need to kill him.”

For a moment, there was stunned quiet inside the carriage, broken only by the noise of traffic from outside. Shahai turned her head to watch the driver through the front window; everyone else gaped at her.

“W-w-what?” Farah stuttered after a moment.

“It was a test,” Casey said tersely. “She’s seeing if he can hear us. At least, I devoutly hope so,” she added under her breath.

“Quite right, Elwick,” Shahai said, giving her a smile. “And indeed, Sergeant Locke’s work appears to be satisfactory. We must have a brief discussion, ladies, before reaching the temple, and it must not be overheard. The Temple of Avei is not designed with such security in mind, and considering the subject matter, I choose to err on the side of paranoia. At issue is what we saw in the Conclave’s embassy.”

“What did we see, ma’am?” Ephanie asked.

“Several important things,” said Shahai, “but the most urgent is the presence of that succubus. You have studied Vanislaads briefly during your training, but let me reiterate that those creatures are incalculably dangerous. Not physically or even magically, but as agents of chaos and destruction. The existence of one openly in the city changes many equations. I will brief the High Commander on this, of course, in private. Apart from that, it is to be kept an absolute secret. You will not discuss the matter even amongst yourselves. Is that clear?”

She waited to receive verbal confirmation from all of them before continuing. “Red dragons are by a wide margin the safest and most reliable practitioners of infernal magic. The demon is clearly in the custody of Razzavinax the Red; this is the only circumstance in which I am willing to consider the situation even theoretically contained. We will need more information, however. Further, there is the complex issue of how this impacts our own mission.” She leaned back in her seat, staring pensively at the ceiling. “The dragons extended an unexpected amount of trust by allowing us to see that… And I can’t imagine that they’re keeping it from the Empire. The Sisterhood will have to make some kind of response, but it must be a measured one. There is an opportunity here, a potentially great one. It may be one we cannot separate from an unacceptable risk, however…”

“Um…” Farah raised her hand tentatively. “Sarge, why didn’t you just ask Zanzayed what he wanted? I thought that was the whole point of the visit.”

“Not time for that yet,” Principia replied, watching Shahai.

“Indeed,” the Bishop nodded. “This is not that kind of game. Not yet, at least. We extracted a concession from Zanzayed and ended the meeting on those terms. Later, we will ask for information from him in a carefully arranged context that does not cede any further ground. The Conclave already has too many advantages.”

Farah sighed. “It just seems to me… With matters this important being up in the air, is it really the time for games like this? Wouldn’t it be better if everybody just talked? Openly and honestly.”

“Most politicians would call you naïve for expressing such a sentiment,” Shahai said with a smile. “Not without a good point, either, but that does not change the fact that you are entirely correct. Open, honest communication would be better. For that to work, though, everyone involved would have to act in good faith and with mutual trust, and the reality is that many…won’t. The risk of offering such trust where it is not earned is simply too great. And so, we play our games.”

“This looks like a game everybody could lose,” Merry said. “Hard.”

“Yes,” Shahai agreed. “We must be certain that we do not lose.” She rubbed her chin with a finger, still frowning into the distance in thought. “If possible, we should protect as many others as we can…”

“Some people don’t deserve protecting,” Principia observed.

Shahai shook her head. “Don’t bother dealing in what people deserve, Locke. In the best case scenario, you’ll only shine a light on the question of what you deserve. Do you want people digging into that?”

Only silence answered her.


 

It was an equally long walk back to the main floors of the manor, and a harder one as it was all uphill; the group was not only pensive, but quite tired by the time they trooped back into the entrance hall. Between that unplanned excursion and the morning’s trouble at the barracks, weariness was starting to wear down on them.

They emerged into the wide front room alone, Malivette having bid them a cheery farewell at the door to her own room. The students weren’t alone for long, however.

“Ah, there you are,” said Jade, waving to them from the floor below. “Good timing. You have a visitor, kids.”

“Us?” Trissiny stepped up to the head of the stairs and frowned down at the other figure standing just inside the door. “Corporal Timms?”

“Aw, how’d you recognize me?” the soldier said cheerily, shrugging off her heavy cloak.

“I don’t think that disguise is going to fool anyone, Corporal,” said Toby, beginning to descend the stairs.

“Oh, let me have my fun,” she replied. “Listen, this isn’t a social call. I wanted to bring you kids into the loop about what happened at the barracks today.”

“We’re listening,” said Trissiny, coming down the steps after Toby. The others followed more slowly.

Timms glanced curiously across the group before continuing. “First off, I want to clarify where I stand. I’m not averse to bending a regulation here or there if it’s a matter of principle, but I am a soldier in the Emperor’s service, and I have a very high opinion of Colonel Adjavegh. So don’t expect anything from me that contradicts either of those loyalties.”

“So noted,” said Toby, smiling. “We’d never ask it of you anyway.”

“With that said,” she continued, “the Colonel is a very by-the-book leader. He was brought in to Veilgrad for that specific reason; the base here got a little weird before he came and straightened things out. We’re in a scenario the book doesn’t cover, though, and that means…unconventional measures. If you need help with that kind of thing, best advice I can give is to get in touch with Major Razsha.”

“I’d already developed that impression,” said Trissiny. “You said Veilgrad was weird before all this. How so?”

“I said the base was weird. The fortress here has always been a research post—in fact, the whole town has. There are multiple Imperial facilities in the city, working on multiple projects. Civilian personnel, mostly, though several of them do have soldiers posted. That ties in to what I came here to warn you about.” Timms frowned in pure displeasure, folding her arms. “The fire was no accident. That was an attack.”

“We had that impression,” said Shaeine.

“And it was a successful attack,” Timms carried on. “It’s only thanks to your intervention that we didn’t lose lives in that. It was messy, and… Well, you know, you were there. Whoever firebombed the infirmary wing was after the research lab directly under it. They were developing experimental weapons, and the lot of them were stolen.”

They digested this in silence for a moment.

“Uh, what kind of weapons?” Fross asked.

“I am not privy to classified details,” the Corporal said sanctimoniously. “I have very carefully avoided becoming privy to classified details so as to exploit a loophole that has stood up in court before: I can tell you what little I do know without running afoul of security regulations. Just from scuttlebutt around the base, I can tell you they were developing magical weapons based on the Circles of Interaction, trying to equip common soldiers to be able to counter spellcasters. The goal was to make something as portable and easy to use as a standard battlestaff.”

“What kind of casters are they meant to work against?” Trissiny demanded. “How many are there? How complete are they? Do they work?”

Timms shrugged expressively. “Like I said, General Avelea, what I know, I just told you. I’m not generally going to come running to you with sensitive information, but this seemed urgent. You lot are obviously planning to keep poking around Veilgrad; you need to know that someone else is active in the city. Someone capable of raiding an Imperial Army fortress, and now with…whatever it was they took. I know it’s not much, but I didn’t want you to be completely blindsided.”

“We greatly appreciate that,” said Shaeine.

“Who could do something like that?” Juniper wondered. “I mean…it’s the Army. They mostly know what they’re doing, right?”

“Oh, the speeches I could give on that,” Timms said dryly. “But yeah, that is the big question. I wasn’t aware of any single group in Veilgrad that had this kind of capability.”

“It sounded like a fairly simple plan, though, right?” said Fross. “Make a distraction and then steal the weapons? Simple plans are usually best.”

“I don’t yet know the full details of how the attack was carried out, and I may not have the clearance to learn what is known,” said Timms. “It’s all classified, anyway.”

“Could the Thieves’ Guild do this?” Trissiny asked, narrowing her eyes. “I suppose you’re the person to ask: who heads the Guild in Veilgrad?”

Corporal Timms grinned and raised a hand. “Yo.”

“I…” Trissiny blinked. “You?”

“Look more shocked, wouldja? Yeah, I understand where you’re coming from, but trust me when I said the Guild was nowhere near this. It’s not our style, it’s way against our policies, and more immediately, we don’t have the means. The Thieves’ Guild in Veilgrad is four people who meet for drinks once a week. Being in charge mostly means I have to cover everyone’s tab. Our old headquarters is currently being leased to the Omnists, who are running a soup kitchen out of it. The cult of Eserion in this town is only barely still a thing.”

“Wait, four?” Teal exclaimed. “I’m sorry, but… Veilgrad is a pretty wealthy town for its size. There’s lots of trade, mining, logging…”

“It’s not about having,” said Timms, looking more serious. “It’s about taking. The Guild exists to humble the arrogant elite, not to just grab whatever isn’t nailed down. Yeah, we’ve been a big presence in Veilgrad in times past; the period between the fall of House Dufresne and the fall of House Leduc was very busy for us. We had dozens of people here, working almost non-stop; the Leducs were the kind of assholes who always needed a comeuppance. But these days…” She shrugged. “Grusser’s both competent and a decent fellow, and our only remaining nobility both keep to themselves. Sherwin doesn’t even have anything worth taking these days, and stealing from Malivette just isn’t any fun.”

“Fun,” Trissiny said flatly.

Timms grinned. “We hit a few of her warehouses; she took to leaving tea and cookies out for us. Not even drugged or anything, just being hospitable. The gall. And then, the last person who tried to hit Dufresne Manor itself ended up, well…” She raised an eyebrow, turning to one side. “How are you doing these days, Jade? Been a while since we spoke.”

“Tip top, Cassidy,” Jade said with a smile. “Thanks for asking.”

“Anyway, we dwindled,” Timms said, turning back to Trissiny. “Folks trickled off in search of greener pastures. There are enough rich abusers in the city to keep a bare handful of us busy and profitable, but only just. As the local underboss, let me just go on record that if you can find whoever’s causing all this bullshit, my people will be there to help take ’em down. All four of us.”

Teal cleared her throat. “Um, there’s something else. This might be a little sensitive…”

“No,” said Trissiny, nodding to her. “She shared information; we should do the same. They have an immediate need to know, anyway.” She turned back to Corporal Timms. “There’s someone else now active in Veilgrad who definitely could assault the Army and get away with it, and probably could learn enough about classified programs to know where to strike.”

“I’m not gonna like this, am I,” Timms said resignedly.

Trissiny shook her head. “The Black Wreath is here.”

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9 – 22

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“She needs a minecart,” Teal said as they emerged into the cellar of Dufresne Manor.

“A what?” Trissiny asked distractedly.

“You know! A little box on wheels, set on tracks, to go back and forth. I mean, that’s a long walk in the dark.”

“Mm,” Trissiny said noncommittally, heading for the stairs up to the kitchen. “Let me do the talking.”

“What a good idea,” Shaeine said serenely. “Then Toby and I can handle the punching, and Juniper can go chop down a tree so we have something with which to stake our hostess through the heart.”

“I would never!” Juniper exclaimed in horror.

“I think that’s the joke,” Fross stage whispered.

Trissiny had stopped and turned to stare incredulously at Shaeine.

“Triss,” the priestess said in a gentler tone, “we are all taking this seriously, but you are not the most diplomatic person here.”

“Actually,” Fross said, “since Ruda stayed in town with Gabe she may be the least diplomatic person here!”

“Thanks, Fross,” Toby said resignedly.

“No problem!”

“That was exactly my point,” Trissiny said sharply. “Sometimes you need diplomacy. Sometimes you need to make a stand and demand answers.”

“It has been my considerable experience, and that of my House over many centuries of practicing and perfecting that very art, that getting answers—or anything in general—is easiest when one doesn’t make demands.” Shaeine shook her head. “We know Malivette practices some necromancy; we all saw the horses. We utilized them, in fact. She is trusted by Tellwyrn and Rafe, and has been kind to us. We will approach her calmly.”

“I have every intention of being calm,” Trissiny said stiffly. “Did you forget the commonality in every chaos cult that’s sprung up in Veilgrad lately? They all turned to necromancy.”

“So we’ll ask for answers,” Toby said. “And if she doesn’t want to give answers…”

“We’ll ask more assertively,” Trissiny said, nodding. “Fine, we’ll try it your way first.”

“And if it comes to being assertive,” Teal said firmly, “no stabbing, please.”

“Assaulting Malivette is not even on the table,” Trissiny said with a sigh, turning back to the stairs. “Frankly I’m not positive the lot of us could take her. If, and I am not suggesting that it’s going to happen, but if we end up needing to fight her for any reason, we’ll retreat and get Gabriel. Let the valkyries do their jobs.”

“I foresee that this will not be a negotiation about which I will tell my mother with pride,” Shaeine murmured, following Trissiny up the steps.

They paused at the top, the others having to gently push Trissiny forward, to take in the scene.

Pearl stood with her back to them, washing her hands in the sink. Professor Rafe lounged in a chair beside the fireplace; he grinned at the students as soon as they entered. At the center island, Schkhurrankh the Rhaazke demon stood wearing an apron at least two sizes too small over a dress that had clearly been hastily constructed from what seemed to be curtains, chopping onions.

She paused, staring at the students.

“BEHOLD!” Rafe shouted. At the sink, Pearl jumped and whirled, finally catching sight of them.

“Hello,” said Schkhurrankh.

“W—you speak Tanglish now?” Trissiny exclaimed.

The demon blinked and tilted her head. “Khhhhhello?”

“Oh. Right.”

“We’ve been having lessons!” Rafe proclaimed. “Rather one-sided conversations, but upon my honor, progress was made!”

“I’m surprised that conversation had any sides,” Teal said, frowning.

“Hah! Oil of Understanding, baby!” Rafe grinned, rocking his chair back and forth and ignoring Pearl’s disapproving look. “Of course, that only works on me, and me understanding her growling and snarling was only half the battle. A lot of alchemy is buggered up by demons, we’ve been over that in class. Actually, though! I can make a brew that’ll work for her, too, but for that I need a blood or tissue sample.” He paused, glancing speculatively at the demon. “I, uh, figured we’d wait till Vadrieny was here to translate before having that conversation. Not sure what’d happen if I came at her with a mithril scalpel, but I don’t reckon it’d leave anybody happy.”

Schkhurrankh grinned and casually tossed a handful of raw diced onion into her mouth, crunching happily.

“Save them for the roast,” Pearl said firmly. The demon stopped chewing, looking actually guilty, and hastily spat the mouthful back onto the pile. Pearl sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Thank you, Scorn.”

“Hello,” she said sheepishly.

Teal blinked rapidly. “W—Scorn? How did that happen?”

“Very carefully,” Pearl said, shaking her head and turning back to the sink.

“So it’s a mortal insult if you pronounce her name wrong,” Trissiny said, frowning, “but she’s okay with a nickname?”

“Well, not at first,” Rafe admitted. “But with much pantomime, we were able to express to her what it means. And now she likes it.”

Schkhurrankh—Scorn—grinned again. “Hello!”

“Vrackdish khnavai?” Teal asked.

Scorn blinked at her twice, then began snickering.

“I really need to practice that language,” Teal muttered. Shaeine patted her gently on the back.

“Shkhalvrik, d’min sklacth,” the demon said, still grinning.

“Well, she seems to be having fun, anyway,” Teal said. “Do you have any garlic?”

Pearl turned to frown at her. “…is that a joke?”

“Oh!” The bard clapped a hand to her face. “Oh, gods, I’m sorry, I didn’t even think… I mean, um, turnips or anything like that? She’ll really enjoy starchy things like roots, and strong flavors. If you set her to chopping onions she’ll probably just eat them unless you give her something else to snack on.”

“Ah. That’s not a bad idea,” Pearl said with a smile. “Thank you. Yes, we have garlic; I’ll get her a few cloves.”

“Hello!” Scorn said brightly.

“Wait, you do have garlic?” Toby asked.

“It’s not actually harmful to vampires,” Trissiny said. “That’s a myth. Come on, we can catch up with Shl—Scorn later. I want to speak with Malivette before it gets any closer to dark.”

“It’s not much past noon,” Juniper pointed out.

“The mistress is resting at the moment,” Pearl said, giving Trissiny a narrow look. “Between chaperoning your demon friend and contracting repairs to the manor, it has been an eventful morning.”

“That was a broad hint,” Professor Rafe explained. “Pearl is suggesting you should refrain from stirring up any further shit, being that you’ve already been less than ideal houseguests, what with all the nonsense and whatnot. She didn’t come out and say that because she’s super nice.”

“Thank you, Professor,” Pearl said, shaking her head as she strode over to a cupboard.

“I live to serve!”

“We will try to keep this conversation brief, then,” Trissiny said, turning and striding out of the room before anyone could say anything else. The others followed more slowly.

“Uh, how do you know where you’re going?” Teal asked as they ascended the stairs in the main entrance hall.

“Sense evil,” Toby murmured. “Whether or not she’s actually evil, she…registers. I could point her out exactly anywhere on the grounds.”

“Excuse me,” said Sapphire, frowning at them as they stepped into the upstairs hallway. “I know it can be easy to get turned around in here. Your rooms are in the other wing.”

“We need a word with Malivette,” Trissiny said, not slowing. “Now.”

“She is taking some time to herself,” Sapphire said more sharply, stepping in front of the paladin. “Can this wait?”

“It’s about necromancy and Veilgrad,” Trissiny replied, staring evenly at her. “Excuse me.”

“That can wait, then,” Sapphire replied, not moving an inch. “You should perhaps take some time to freshen up. Pearl will have lunch ready soon; you can talk to Malivette this evening.”

“We can also talk to her now,” Trissiny said, taking a step forward. “When it is broad daylight and we have someplace to go if Malivette doesn’t like the direction of our discussion.”

“Trissiny,” Shaeine said firmly. “You are being provocative, and very nearly rude.”

“Young lady,” Sapphire said, staring the paladin down, “it is exceedingly bad manners to impose upon your hostess in this fashion.”

“I’m sorry for that,” Trissiny replied inexorably, “truly. But this won’t wait.”

“We are perilously close to having a disagreement,” Sapphire said quietly.

“Whoah, now,” Teal exclaimed. “Peace, please! Triss…”

“Yes, I know exactly what your capabilities are,” Trissiny said, her eyes locked on Sapphire’s. “You are no threat to me, and I am no threat to Malivette, and I think you know both those things. So we’re going to go speak with her, and nobody needs to get needlessly upset.”

“Trissiny,” Toby said sharply. “Stop. We are the guests here—don’t talk to her like that.”

“Fine,” Sapphire said curtly, abruptly stepping backward. “I see war and justice leave little room for social skills. You apparently know where you’re going, then.”

“Thank you,” Trissiny said politely, nodding deeply to her. Sapphire folded her arms and wrinkled her nose disdainfully.

“Sorry,” Fross whispered loudly. “Really. She has the best intentions, I promise, she just gets worked up when things are evil.”

“There is nothing evil here,” Sapphire said bitterly, directing it at the paladin’s back rather than the pixie.

Trissiny, ignoring her, pushed open a set of double doors and stepped into the cavernous bedroom beyond. Its furnishings were carved of dark-stained wood, sparse in number and simple in design, though elaborate and clearly expensive rugs littered the floor haphazardly and the large four-poster bed was strewn with rumpled sheets of crimson satin. There were no wall decorations aside from the sconces of fairy lamps, currently unlit.

She didn’t pause, turning and striding toward another door along the wall, the others trailing along after her.

“Hang on, wait a second,” Toby said, hurrying to catch up. “I really don’t think you should burst in on—”

Ignoring him, Trissiny grasped the latch and yanked the door open, revealing a brightly-lit bathroom with brass and marble accents.

Malivette stood at the sink, wearing a bright pink bathrobe of some impossibly fluffy material. On her feet were whimsical slippers shaped like rabbits, also pink. She stood with one hand in the robe’s pocket, the other holding the end of the toothbrush currently in her mouth. Minty foam was bubbled up around her lips. The vampire stared at them quizzically, her crimson eyes wide and surprised.

“If fher a profful?” she inquired.

“Vette,” Sapphire said anxiously from behind the students, “I’m so sorry, I tried to stop them, but this pushy girl insisted…”

“If fife erfay, uffee,” Malivette said kindly. “Un fife f’gheff.”

“Can we speak to you, please?” Trissiny asked, finally looking uncertain.

Malivette finally withdrew her hand from her pocket, holding up one finger. “Uff a momum, phleef.”

While they stared, she resumed scrubbing her teeth, humming softly to herself. It went on for easily another minute; she was quite thorough. The vampire turned her back to spit in the sink and rinse her mouth.

“There!” she said brightly, turning to face them again. “Ah, much better. Let me tell you, nothing drives home the importance of oral hygiene like having to subsist on blood. Even if you like the stuff, once it starts getting all congealed…blech. And that happening between your teeth! Blargh. Bleugh! Bleughrer!”

“Why are you collecting materials and equipment for necromancy?” Trissiny demanded loudly.

“What makes you think I am?” Malivette asked pleasantly. “I mean, I’m not even going to consider the idea that you’ve been rummaging about in my personal possessions.”

“We are exceedingly sorry to impose like this,” said Shaeine, looking pointedly at Trissiny. “There are surely any number of reasons you might have need of necromantic arts, not least of which are the horses. Perhaps this conversation could have waited for a more convenient moment.”

“Yes, I suppose this may be rather jarring to you,” the vampire said, smiling with a hint of mischief. “It doesn’t really make it into the bards’ songs, for whatever reason, does it? They’re like terriers going after rats.”

“Uh, what?” Juniper asked. “Who is?”

“The Hands of Omnu are a conservative lot,” Malivette went on, nodding to Toby, “always have been. It’s all about healing and blessing wherever they happen to be. Hands of Avei have this compulsion, though. It goes well beyond just sensing evil. If there’s something nasty occurring, they go right for it, every time. Often without fully realizing what they’re doing. It’s instinct, see? You kids should listen to your friend more, especially when she seems irrationally aggressive. The obvious reason Trissiny is worked up about necromancy is I’m doing horrible, dangerous and utterly depraved necromantic experiments on the grounds.” She grinned broadly, showing off her fangs. “Wanna see?”

“Uh,” said Fross.

“Hang on a tick, lemme just change into something less comfortable.” Malivette suddenly erupted into a cloud of mist and shrieking bats; all of them stumbled reflexively back from the door, Trissiny drawing her sword. She re-formed in seconds, now wearing her customary slinky black dress. “Well, c’mon, this way!” she said brightly.

She dissolved again into silver mist, flowing like water through their legs and taking form again behind them, standing in the door and beckoning eagerly. “Come along, now! I think you’ll like this. Follow me!”

The vampire turned and skipped into the hallway, her fluffy pink bunny slippers peeking out from below the hem of her gown.


The Conclave’s embassy had not changed much in the short time since Bishop Shahai and Squad One had last visited, except with regard to personnel. The building was the same, and still guarded by Imperial soldiers; there were still petitioners in the entrance hall, and lining up outside. Now, however, there were more humans present who had clearly aligned themselves with the Conclave. They had no livery as such, at least not yet, but several of those in attendance wore badges like that sported by the man who had accosted Principia in the old spice market.

They were a disparate lot, having in common only that they were relatively young, none yet into middle years, and all physically fit. Their attire varied widely, though none seemed shabby or excessively casual. Aside from the badges, what marked them out was their bearing. These few men and women were proud, alert, and taking their jobs very, very seriously. Considering their jobs seemed so far to consist of standing around the embassy looking officious and chaperoning the various petitioners, it was an open question how long they could keep that up.

The Avenist delegation paused in the middle of the floor, conversations trailing off and eyes turning toward them. Principia looked questioningly at the Bishop, who nodded deeply to her and took a step back. Principia saluted and turned, making a beeline for the nearest individual with a Conclave badge, her squad at her heels.

“I will speak with Zanzayed the Blue,” she said sharply, coming to a halt in front of the young man. “Now. I have a personal grievance to discuss with him.”

The fellow blinked, then glanced to the side at another nearby dragonsworn, who only shrugged helplessly. He was the youngest-looking individual among their ranks, of blond Stalweiss stock, tall and broad-shouldered. Despite this, he seemed somewhat cowed by the aggressive elf before him, despite the fact that he dwarfed her, armor and all.

“Ah… I can add your name to the list,” he offered. “Of course, there are many people who wish an audience with the exalted delegates. You, um, are likely to be accorded special consideration—”

“Not good enough,” she snapped. “I’m not negotiating with you, young man. If you can’t get me to Zanzayed, get me to someone who can. You have sixty seconds.”

He finally seemed to locate his backbone, straightening up and frowning disapprovingly down at her. “Now, see here, miss—uh, Ms… Uh, soldier—”

“Sergeant,” she said caustically.

“Suppose you tell me the nature of your grievance,” he continued doggedly, “and I will convey the message. You surely can’t expect to just walk in here and talk with a dragon.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Principia said coldly, her voice even by carrying through the marble hall. “This is what you can tell Zanzayed: I am Principia Locke, of the line of the Crow, favored agent of Eserion and soldier of Avei. Zanzayed the Blue is going to answer to me, to my face, for his recent transgressions. If I’m not in front of him within five minutes, I will leave, and when I come back it’ll be with a mix of backup from those various sources I just named. And I promise you, boy, I will make very certain you are present to learn firsthand who and what a dragon does not want to challenge.”

“Uh,” he said frantically, his aplomb now disintegrating in rising panic. “I, uh—”

“That is a new approach,” purred a more musical voice. Principia stepped back from the flummoxed young dragonsworn, turning to the speaker. Gliding toward the assembled soldiers was a strikingly beautiful young woman, pale and dark-haired, wearing a flowing gown of blood-red silk. “Few people would approach dragons with threats. My congratulations, Sergeant Locke; you are the first since we came to Tiraas. I had rather expected such would come from the Empire, not…well. What’s Zanza done to you?”

“Well met,” Principia said flatly. “Whom have I the pleasure of addressing?”

“Of course, my apologies. How rude of me.” The woman curtsied, gracefully but not deeply. “I am Maiyenn, consort of Razzavinax the Red. If you will kindly leave off badgering my household staff, I will be only too glad to escort you directly to Zanzayed. It sounds as if you have very serious business indeed.” She smiled languidly, her eyes half-lidded. “I ask your pardon for the reception. Niels is actually a most admirable young man, but we are still in the process of training all our people. If you will follow me?” She gestured at the curving marble stairs, the motion smooth and elegant.

“My thanks, Lady,” Principia replied, bowing. “Lead on.”

“Oh, my,” Maiyenn said, smiling more broadly. “You actually do know some draconic etiquette. What fascinating stories you must have! I believe I shall enjoy observing this conversation.”

She led them up the stairs and down a side hall branching off from the upper landing. Bishop Shahai stepped forward to walk alongside Principia, the rest of Squad One marching on their heels. Behind them, the group left a thunderous silence; only when they passed the threshold into the corridor did muted conversations begin to rise again in the entry hall.

It was somewhat less awkward to follow Maiyenn once they were off the stairs, and her waist no longer at their eye level. The woman walked with an entirely gratuitous sway in her hips.

Their guide led them the full length of the hallway, ignoring the doors they passed. At the end, rather than terminating in a wall or a room, the hall widened into a small sitting area occupying what was clearly a tower; the space was circular, and instead of walls had paneled windows braced between gracefully fluted columns. Above, more glass panes were set into the domed roof, creating a kind of greenhouse. Fittingly, there were large potted ferns at the bases of columns, and one dwarf fig tree, with settees and chairs casually laid out between these.

There was also, incongruously, a crib on wheels pushed against one window. Maiyenn went directly to this, after giving her guests a final mysterious smile, bending over to coo softly at what lay within. The Legionnaires spared her scarcely a glance, their attention on the other individuals present.

The dragons, to judge by their eyes and hair, could be none other than Zanzayed the Blue and Razzavinax the Red. Upon Maiyenn’s arrival, Razzavinax rose from his seat to join her over the crib, giving the visitors a brief, inquisitive look in passing. He place a hand on Maiyenn’s lower back, his expression softening as he peered down at his infant child.

Even they didn’t command the soldiers’ full attention. The other person present, who had stepped away from the crib to make room for the proud parents, was a striking young woman with milky pale skin, deep black hair and peculiar crystalline eyes in an unlikely shade of aquamarine. She also had spiny bat wings and a spaded tail.

“Easy, now,” Zanzayed cautioned them, grinning idly. He made no move to rise from the settee on which he was lounging. “Rizlith is a friend.”

“Demons make poor friends,” Bishop Shahai said quietly.

“And Avenists make poor guests,” the succubus retorted. Her eyes flicked across the group, coming to rest on Ephanie, and a sultry smile unfolded across her lovely face. “As we are all poor together, why can’t we…get along?”

“Riz,” the red dragon said reprovingly. “Please don’t taunt Silver Legionnaires. In fact, don’t do anything with them. If you’re bored, I can find entertainments for you.”

“I am anything but bored, Razz,” she said idly, taking two steps back and draping her wings about her shoulders like a cloak. The demon leaned backward against the window behind her and folded her arms under her impressive bosom, deliberately emphasizing it. “This all looks to be exceedingly fascinating. You may have to send me away after all, but give a girl a chance, hmmm?”

“I assume you must know a little something of demonology,” Razzavinax said apologetically to the Bishop. “One must make allowances for the children of Vanislaas. I assure you, Rizlith is no threat to you, or to anyone here.”

“At this time,” Rizlith crooned to no one in particular.

“One must make allowances for one’s hosts,” Bishop Shahai replied smoothly, keeping her eyes on the dragon and ignoring the demon. “If you are confident you have the creature under control, no more need be said about it.”

“Well!” Zanzayed said brightly, straightening up to a sitting position and rubbing his hands together, his numerous jeweled rings flashing in the light. “Before this devolves any further, let me just say how delighted I am that you’ve accepted my invitation, Principia! I guess you found something to say to me after all!”

“Yes, I did,” she said acidly. “Quit sending people to pester me, you swaggering jackass!”

“He set himself up for that one,” Maiyenn murmured.

“He did it deliberately,” Razzavinax replied, sliding an arm around her shoulders. “Zanza has peculiar ideas about fun.”

“All right, so maybe I was a tad overbearing,” the blue acknowledged, grinning unrepentantly. “But…here you are! Can’t really fault my strategy, then, can you?”

“Your strategy,” Principia said flatly. “How many women have you had, Zanzayed?”

“Oh, my!” he said, placing his fingertips against his lips in an expression of mock horror. “You surely wouldn’t ask a gentleman to kiss and tell! And in front of these fine upstanding soldiers, no less!”

“You are old enough to have carried out some great seductions,” Principia continued unrelentingly. “Any dragon more than two centuries along has, and you’re at least as old as Arachne.”

“Older,” he said idly.

“So you understand how the game is played. So do I.”

“Why, Principia,” Zanzayed exclaimed, grinning. “How many women have you had?”

“More’n you, I bet,” she shot back. “And we both know that this is not the way to do it. You don’t gain someone’s attention or their favor by drowning them in aggressive, unfriendly solicitations. That is harassment, Zanzayed, and I’ll not stand for it.”

“Are you going to let her talk to me like that?” he asked Bishop Shahai.

“If it comes down to it,” she said mildly, “I’m going to let her punch you.” Maiyenn laughed in pure delight.

“Prin, my dear, you’ve got me all wrong,” Zanzayed protested, spreading his hands innocently. “As I told you before, this is a simple matter of family concern. I have nothing but the highest regard for your bloodline, and you’re a particularly famous example of it! How could I do anything but extend to you every possible courtesy?”

“I am not blind to the fact that there are anti-dragon activists at work in Tiraas,” Principia said coldly.

“Anti-dragon activists,” Maiyenn repeated, her voice oozing disdain. “More correctly called ash stains in training.” Rizlith giggled.

“And I am not dumb enough to fail to see what you’re doing,” Prin continued. “Painting a target for them on my head is an extremely hostile act, Zanzayed.”

“You seem absolutely determined to ascribe the worst possible motivations to me, no matter what I say,” he replied in a mournful tone. “I’m starting to wonder if I have been mistaken. It doesn’t look like we’re going to have a productive discussion, here.”

“On the subject of my bloodline,” she replied with a cold smile, “Mary the Crow is in Tiraas.”

“No, she isn’t,” he shot back, with the same expression. “She was in Tiraas.”

“Want to know how quickly I can find her?”

“Exactly as quickly as everyone else can,” he replied, grinning. “If anything, less. Look, Principia, you’ve clearly got this all worked up in your mind so that I’m out to get you, and just as clearly you’ve brought your friends, here, on board.”

“I am guided by my own reasoning,” Bishop Shahai said serenely. “I have chosen to allow Principia to make this a personal issue because that will cause far less trouble than what will occur if I’m forced to address your treatment of a Legionnaire under my command in an official capacity.”

“They do bluster, don’t they?” Maiyenn mused.

“And here I thought these Legionnaires would be boring,” Rizlith said, her tail waving excitedly. “Elves aside, this is statistically the straightest group of Avenist women I’ve ever seen together in a room. They must have the faith’s officially dullest barracks.”

“Both of you, cease,” Razzavinax ordered, his voice quiet but firm. “Zanzayed is capable of being more than provocative enough for all of us.”

“Well, I’m gonna have to let you down, then, Razz.” The blue finally stood, and bowed extravagantly to Principia. “I give you my word, upon my honor, Principia Locke: I mean no ill to you or yours. I will not harm you, nor suffer you to be harmed if it is up to me to prevent it. Does that satisfy you?”

She pursed her lips. “Is there a single reason it should?”

Zanzayed’s monochrome eyes made it impossible to tell when he was rolling them, so he threw his entire head backward melodramatically, letting out a long groan. “You just can’t win with some people!”

“You want to make progress here?” Principia said coldly. “Quit sending people out to pester me.”

“Is that really all you want?” he said with a sigh. “All right, fine. Done. Is there anything else I can do for you, while you’re here?”

She stared at him in silence for a long moment, then turned and looked inquisitively at the Bishop.

“If you’ve no further business, Sergeant, I am content with this, for now.” Shahai smiled languidly. “This has been an extremely instructive meeting.”

Aside from the other members of Squad One, who remained woodenly stiff at attention, all those present smiled at one another with eyes like daggers.

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9 – 19

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“I appreciate your patience,” said Bishop Shahai, entering the room. “At ease.”

The squad relaxed on command, at least a little bit. They had been holed up in this spartan office for half an hour, waiting for someone to come collect them. It was a space containing nothing but a desk, chairs, wall-mounted fairy lamps and a currently empty bookcase; for decoration there was only a golden eagle sigil painted on the wall, somewhat in need of touching up. The downside of the Bishop’s accessible and friendly choice of office space was that they were relegated to unused back rooms like this one when anything requiring privacy was to be discussed.

“All part of the service, ma’am,” Principia said cheerfully.

Shahai gave her a wry glance as she glided around the desk to seat herself behind it. “Yes, yes, just because your patience was required does not mean I don’t appreciate it. Despite how it probably seemed cooped up in this dusty attic space, I have managed to expedite matters considerably.” She set the folder she had been carrying down on the desk and flipped it open. “I’ve read your reports of this morning’s events, as well as the preliminary results of the interrogations.”

“They’re already interrogating the suspects? Ma’am,” Farah added belatedly, flushing.

“That is the technical term being used, but no, I wouldn’t really call it that,” replied Shahai with a small smile. “All three are being left to think about their possible futures for a few more hours before the real questioning starts, as is standard procedure. The man, though, seems eager to tell anybody in his company everything he knows. Which, unfortunately, is little; his girlfriend is the one who dragged them all into this affair, and she is not yet feeling talkative. His comments do, however, indicate an organized third party behind the attack.

“Also,” she added, glancing at the door, which she had left open, “I’ve requested the presence of another expert for this meeting, so let us refrain from any further discussion along those lines for now. The long and the short of it is this: we seem to have organized anti-dragon activists in the city.”

She let that digest for a moment.

Frowning, Ephanie spoke up. “Excuse me, ma’am, but…how? Even the dragonsworn are barely organized at this point; they’re still lining up at the embassy trying to get in with the Conclave. Who could possibly…”

“That is one of the matters to be discussed with the other party I invited, whose confirmation suggested he would be here…well, soon. Busy men are difficult to pin down more precisely than that. I was fortunate to be able to get a message to him on such short notice.”

“What expert is this?” Principia asked.

Shahai smiled coyly at them. “I have it on good authority that all of you are acquainted with Bishop Darling.”

Merry’s left eyelid began twitching uncontrollably.

“I’m…not sure I understand, ma’am,” said Casey.

“This goes beyond the issue of Saduko a.k.a. Gimmick’s involvement,” said Shahai, steepling her fingers. “The Sisterhood is woefully unprepared to engage in espionage and counter-intelligence, particularly in the city, which is exactly what this business has become. This is one of the duties for which your squad is being groomed, but I think you will have to acknowledge that said grooming is still in a preliminary state. We had one expert in such maneuvering, who is currently banished to the Abbey for…well, you of all people know what she did. It just goes to show the foolishness of having only one expert on hand. Until the five of you are more experienced, positioned and connected, we need help with things like this. Additionally, the High Commander is interested in increasing interfaith cooperation outside the aegis of the Church—both in general and with the Thieves’ Guild in particular. Thus, including Darling addresses two needs, with the added bonus that he is also involved in the Imperial government and can help steer us away from missteps in that direction. The last thing we need on top of everything else is to offend Imperial Intelligence.”

“Do you trust Darling, your Grace?” Casey asked quietly.

“I trust him to behave in a manner consistent with his nature, his interests and his established patterns,” said Shahai, still with a slight smile. “I have taken pains to know what these are. You raise a good point, Elwick; allies are not necessarily friends, and mutual reliance is not necessarily trust. Darling has no motive to play us false in this and many reasons to be cooperative, but don’t let him worm into your affections.”

“He is very good at that,” Principia noted.

“Ah, your Grace, ma’am?” Farah asked timidly, raising her hand. At Shahai’s nod, she continued. “Um, why does the High Commander want to increase cooperation with the Thieves’ Guild? Aren’t we…well, not enemies, but almost the next best thing?”

“The Guild and the Sisterhood have always had a complicated and often adversarial relationship,” the Bishop mused. “As for Commander Rouvad’s specific motives, I’m sure she would tell you if she wished you to know. In general, I feel comfortable in saying that the world is growing increasingly complicated, matters in this city are getting tricky even faster, and it’s generally more useful to have the Guild as a friend than an enemy.”

“If nothing else,” Ephanie said slowly, “if we build up some goodwill they’re one less thing to worry about.”

“You should never not worry about the Guild,” Principia advised. “They aren’t generally aggressive toward other cults, but if they decide someone is corrupt or abusive in a position of power…”

“They didn’t do anything about Basra Syrinx,” Casey muttered. “In fact, I think Darling tried to protect her.”

“Complicated,” Shahai said quietly.

A rather morose silence descended upon the room, during which each of them in turn glanced at the half-open door.

“Well,” said Shahai after a long moment, straightening in her chair, “there is little point in discussing anti-draconic activity or the Guild’s involvement until Darling arrives, as we’ll just have to go over anything covered twice. I don’t expect that to be a long conversation, anyway. In the meantime, is there anything else you would like to know about our assignment? I encourage questions; the more you know, the better prepared you are.”

“Actually…” Casey cleared her throat. “I don’t know how relevant it is to anything, but I’ve been wondering about the colors on the Conclave’s, um, symbol. I thought there were only four dragon colors, but they have black and gray, and you mentioned it to Zanzayed in a way that implied there was some significance there… I guess it’s not very relevant, though,” she added.

“Nonsense,” Shahai said briskly. “It is, indeed, a rather obscure piece of lore, but you’ve touched upon an important subject, Elwick. The five of you are being asked to deal, in one way or another, with dragons. Anything you can add to your knowledge of dragons will be helpful; please don’t hesitate if you have questions. In fact, I may have to look up some additional reading for you…”

“Oh!” Farah perked up, her expression brightening. “I can help with that.”

“Oh. Good.” Merry’s face and tone were completely impassive.

Shahai grinned at her. “Well, for those who find reading a little dry, I can try my hand at storytelling. To begin with, Elwick, you can’t really tell from looking at the Conclave’s device, but that represents silver, not gray. There are, in fact, six known draconic colors, though black and silver dragons are extremely rare, and have not been seen in centuries. Let me see, where to start…”

She let her gaze drift toward the ceiling, slowly drumming the fingers of one hand on the desk in thought.

“Back at the very beginning, I suppose,” the Bishop murmured at last. “I’d thought to keep the matter as immediately relevant as possible, but there are some things that simply can’t be fully understood outside their context. Before the Elder Wars, everything was different. There were no Circles of Interaction, as each god provided their own system of magic to the world, to be used by their own followers. It was a much more chaotic arrangement, and this will become significant to our discussion momentarily. The other thing you need to know about the Elders is that they shepherded the mortal—and immortal—races very much like we do with domestic animals today, and for many of the same reasons.

“We know from surviving information, of which there is sadly little, that the Elders had a hand in the development of humans, dwarves and elves as they exist now. They created the gnomes, goblins and lizardfolk from whole cloth, so to speak. Other various offshoots, such as the demon and faerie species, have their origins in the same period, from the manipulations of various Elder Gods, which explains the state of sentient life today: many diverse races, but clearly arising from common stock, and most still capable of interbreeding. Of all the intelligent races the Elders made to serve them, the rarest and most powerful by far were the dragons.”

“Oh!” Farah’s eyes widened in realization. “Is that why dragons are always male? It would be a way to control their breeding and population!”

“That’s a fairly common theory, yes,” Shahai said with a hint of amusement.

“Let’s let the Bishop tell her story, Szaravid,” Principia said pointedly.

“Oh.” Farah wilted slightly. “Um, sorry, your Grace. Please go on.”

“Dragons,” Shahai continued, “were designed to be vessels of enormous quantities of magic. Their entire beings are expressions of that power, which is why they change colors to express the system of magic they choose to embody. The four colors we have today are dragons at their basic level: in their youth most of them dabble in all systems, focusing on one by the time they reach maturity and coming to express it almost exclusively. Most dragons are able to cast some spells from outside their own specialization, but for the most part that specialization seems integral to their very being and identity. They do sometimes change their colors and focus, but I know no accounts of a dragon attempting to express more than one school of magic equally at the same time. This is the usual state of a dragon, but there is another, rarer one beyond that. As the Elders originally designed them, particularly favored dragons could be imbued by their patron god with a far greater degree of power, becoming…something more.”

She paused, frowning in thought, before continuing. “It’s…hard to say what makes the difference, exactly. Records from that time are few and partial at best. Dragons, of course, do not discuss their business with others, and there are limits to what one can learn merely by observing. What we know is that for a dragon to ascend to this second level of their being requires the specific blessing and empowerment of whatever deity controls the source of of their own magic, and that when this is done, they become creatures of immense power, something very close to the level of gods themselves.

“The silver and black dragons,” she continued, “are those final, higher expressions of the divine and infernal systems of magic, respectively. A gold or red dragon who secures the favor of their deific patron can become a silver or black, and all the power that implies. It should go without saying that the world is very fortunate this is a rarity.”

“But…why?” Casey asked, tilting her head. “Wouldn’t it serve the gods’ interest to have powerful servants like that?”

Shahai shrugged. “Gods, Elwick, are even more inscrutable in their motives than dragons. I can tell you from a simple study of history that the Pantheon has empowered silver dragons only to serve as a counter to a black dragon when Elilial has empowered one—which she has done only three times. The last such case was Ilvassirnil the Silver, who perished in the act of destroying Semathlidon the Black, which he accepted as the consequence and indeed the purpose of his elevation. So the initiative is clearly Elilial’s, and she seems generally disinclined to trust a dragon with that degree of power. She has ample reason, too: even Scyllith apparently swore off the practice. She elevated no black dragons for over two thousand years before her own fall, after Belosiphon the Black dabbled in forbidden powers and turned against her. She was forced to call on an alliance of other dragons to destroy him.”

“You are very well-read about this, ma’am,” Ephanie noted.

“It’s a hobby,” Shahai said modestly, “and one which has been useful in the past. Generally it’s wise not to involve oneself in the affairs of dragons if it can be avoided—but when it can’t, more knowledge is always better than less. Pertaining to that, I will tell you something of more immediate relevance.” She folded her arms atop the desk, staring intently at them. “I strongly advise you not to bring this up in conversation with or near him, but it is an open secret that Ampophrenon the Gold’s fondest ambition is to be elevated as a silver dragon.”

“He…craves power?” Merry asked.

“No more than any dragon, and in fact, probably less,” said Shahai. “Ampophrenon’s convictions are quite sincere; I believe he simply desires to be the greatest servant of the light he can possibly be. Whatever the reason, it is likely a forlorn hope.”

“I guess there’s not much we could do with that knowledge anyway,” Farah mused. “I mean, we, meaning the Sisterhood in general. Even if Avei wanted to elevate him, it takes the whole Pantheon, right? I mean, you didn’t say that, your Grace, but I got that implication.”

“Your inference is correct,” said Shahai, nodding. “Infernal and fae magic still answer to their original creators, but the divine is the gift of the entire Pantheon, forged from the energy left over after the rest of the Elders were destroyed. Without the blessing of the Pantheon, or at least a quorum thereof, there will be no more silver dragons. We should hope that there never are, for that would mean another black dragon. There is nothing the world needs less than one of those.”

“But…that’s only elevated forms of two kinds of dragons,” Casey protested. “What about blue or green ones?”

“Well,” said Shahai with a smile, “presumably, in theory, there could be elevated forms of those, but it has never been seen. Naiya has no apparent interest, which suits her personality perfectly. She likes her strongest servants unquestionably subordinate to her, and anyway has little interest in taking an active role in the world. Thus, there are no elevated green dragons. As for the blues… Many scholars theorize that there must be a deity associated with arcane magic, but if such a being exists, it has never made itself known, and certainly never empowered a draconic champion.”

She broke off, her eyes moving to the doorway, and Squad One shifted to follow her gaze.

“Well, don’t stop now,” said Bishop Darling, leaning against the door frame and smiling disarmingly. “I didn’t know any of that. Fascinating stuff, and quite possibly useful now we’ve got a city full of dragons!”

“Not to worry,” said Shahai, rising and smiling at him. “I had conveniently come to a stopping point, anyway. Please, Antonio, come in. I understand you’re acquainted with Squad One.”

“Of course,” he said, nodding to them. “And congratulations on your promotion, ladies. Sergeant,” he added, bowing gallantly to Principia.

“This is difficult,” she mused. “There’s Legion protocol concerning the address of Bishops, but as a good Eserite I’m practically obligated to sass you in the harshest terms.”

“Perhaps we can skip such formalities,” Shahai said, giving Principia a look that was just a hair shy of warning. “Have a seat, and thank you very much for coming so quickly. I realize this must be an imposition to you.”

“That’s no fault of yours,” he said, his expression sobering as he positioned himself in one of the chairs across from her desk and angled it to include the Legionnaires in the conversation. “It’s an imposition, yes, but we are all together in being imposed upon. Such is life these days. Can you bring me up to speed, Nandi?”

“Gladly.” She folded her hands atop the open folder. “I told you what little I knew of Saduko’s involvement in the attack this morning—she left here upset but unharmed, but I think can be considered the primary victim. At the least, she suffered by far the greatest paint coverage. Beyond that, preliminary disclosures from our three suspects suggest some kind of organized movement reacting to the Conclave of the Winds, specifically against it. We have nothing further, yet. Certainly nothing provable or definitive.”

“Indeed.” Darling slouched slightly in his chair, frowning into the distance in thought. “This is… The word I keep coming back to is ‘weird.’”

“Agreed,” Shahai said with a smile.

“Well!” He straightened up again and panned a look across the soldiers. “To begin with, Principia and company, I’ve raised the issue of Saduko’s involvement with the Boss.”

“I’m sure I can guess how that went,” Prin said dryly.

Darling grinned. “I’m sure you can. She’s not working for the Guild on this matter, which means she’s not violating your neutrality. Saduko is a free agent; she can work for whomever she wants and talk to whomever she wants as long as she doesn’t violate any of the Guild’s codes, which she’s not. If she cons or attacks you, that’s another matter, but talking isn’t something Tricks is interested in doing anything about.”

“She did sneak onto the Third Legion’s grounds,” Ephanie pointed out, scowling.

“So I hear,” Darling said gravely. “It’s a fairly minor offense, but one the Boss could act upon if he felt a need. Tricks’s opinion of this matter is that if there’s one person who does not need her hand held, it’s Principia Locke. So long as Saduko maintains her current level of respect, you’re on your own in that department.”

“Aw, how flattering!” Principia said, beaming. “I didn’t know he thought so well of me.”

“Yes, well, that was the heavily edited version. The original was about sixty percent cussing.”

“For the time being, I think it best suits us to leave Saduko alone,” said Shahai. “Her presence is non-threatening, and is a potentially useful link to the Conclave. That being said, I would like to know as much about her as possible. I dislike all the blind spots in this affair. She is foreign, that much I can tell. What do we know of her?”

“She…froze,” said Principia with a frown. “It struck me as odd. When the carriage came around the corner I immediately adopted a defensive posture in a doorway, which startled her. And she just stood there. Didn’t react until it was close enough to be obviously dangerous, and even then she couldn’t think of anything better than backing against the wall. Which, if that thing had been trying to ram us, would have gotten her killed.”

“So she’s not too bright, then?” Merry suggested.

Principia shook her head. “It’s just…peculiar, for a Guild member. Oh, there are blockheads among Eserites, just as there are in any group of people, but even thieves without much native intelligence are generally trained to have better instincts than that. And she actually struck me as quite perspicacious in conversation.”

“That tracks with what relatively little I know of her,” said Darling. “She is a new arrival on the continent; the news I have comes from her involvement in a mess in Onkawa last year, but this is consistent with everyone’s observations. Saduko’s central weakness is an inability to improvise. She’s a good planner—a specialist in magical security systems, both creating and cracking. She follows orders well and seems to be a good actress when she has a script to read from. But surprises throw her off pretty easily. You’re right, Locke, that’s not an ideal trait in a Guild member; she’d never have passed her apprenticeship like that in Tiraas, but the Guild chapter in Kiyosan is in a different situation, and has different priorities.”

“Can you get records from them?” Farah asked.

He winced. “In…theory. The Boss would have to decide it’s important, which I don’t see happening. That would take weeks at best and…well, without getting into a long digression on Sifanese culture and politics, the Guild over there has concerns that are foreign to Tiraan sensibilities. These are tricky waters to navigate.”

“Still, this is useful information,” Shahai mused. “A security specialist who is known to be poor at improvising—an odd choice for the task of approaching Principia.”

“An odd choice for the task of approaching Zanzayed,” Darling said, looking significantly at her.

“Bishop Shahai brought me up to speed on Webs and his involvement,” Principia said, scowling. “Do we know if this has anything to do with Shook?”

“There’s no way it doesn’t, but we’ve no provable link at this time,” said Darling. “Whatever the connection, it’s remote. I suggest we focus on more immediate concerns for the moment. The impression I get is that Saduko is being used in these schemes because she was the most convenient piece to be moved, not because she was the best for the job.”

“And a pawn being sacrificed may be persuaded to shift her loyalties,” Shahai said with a faint smile. “It is worth bearing in mind as things progress. For now, the progression of things must be our immediate concern, I think.”

“I agree,” said Darling, nodding. “I have one overriding impression about all of this: it’s happening so fast.”

“Yeah,” said Principia with a bitter twist of her mouth. “The dragons come to town, and within two days there’s an organized counter-dragon group which is far enough along in its development to be attacking its perceived enemies? The whole thing reeks.”

“What are you suggesting?” Farah asked somewhat tremulously.

“At this time, merely that this is all adding up far quicker than it naturally should,” said Shahai. “In addition to the improbable speed with which this anti-dragon group has apparently developed, there is the matter of its choice of target. Splashing paint is a time-honored expression of disapproval and usually fairly harmless, but under the law it is considered assault. And assault, even if only of a technical variety, is a very peculiar manner in which to approach the Silver Legions.”

“I agree,” Darling said emphatically, nodding. “Even if somebody felt aggrieved enough to be molesting soldiers, the Silver Legions are respected in a way that even the Imperial Army isn’t. This kind of aggression is almost as jarring as the pace of these developments. We’ve got a political movement taking shape far too quickly to be natural, and its agents acting in an irrationally hostile way. People do dumb things in the name of causes all the time, but this combination of factors says to me that someone with deep pockets is deliberately arranging this.”

Casey cleared her throat. “Or, it was three kooks with a carriage and too much free time who only got caught because Principia can throw a lance better than any Legionnaire I’ve ever seen. And it’s not hard to imagine that guy is just spinning stories to try to keep himself and his girlfriend out of trouble.”

“That brings us back to the strikingly odd fact that they attacked a Silver Legionnaire on active duty,” Shahai mused, “but you are correct, Elwick; we don’t yet know enough to draw firm conclusions, and one of the possibilities still extant is that this is all just…nothing. Coincidence, random events. I would consider that possibility remote, however, and growing more so all the time. Another piece of the puzzle is Zanzayed’s oddly persistent interest in Principia, which we tested yesterday. Saduko isn’t the only person he keeps sending after her.”

“So,” Darling mused, “Zanzayed is moving very quickly and very fixedly on his goal of Principia. Someone opposed to dragons is doing the same. If you take those things in the context of one another…”

“That bastard is making me a target!” Principia burst out. “Veth’na alaue, all this drilling and saluting is turning my brain to porridge! How did I not see that earlier?!”

“It’s a pretty standard trick, if one has hidden enemies,” said Casey. “Put up a strawman for them to beat on.”

“With that,” Shahai said, smiling grimly, “these events begin to make a certain kind of sense. I caution everyone against premature conclusions, but this, at least, presents a general shape of things which merits further pursuit, I think.”

Principia drew in a deep breath and let it out in a growl. “And, of course, the only logical method of pursuing this line of inquiry is to go talk to bloody Zanzayed!”

“I agree,” Shahai said mildly. “Needless to say, Locke, I will need to be present for that conversation.”

“I would prefer to bring the whole squad, ma’am,” Principia said stiffly.

“Good,” the Bishop nodded. “I believe we can construct a very suitable little drama out of these roles. The Legionnaires forming chorus and backdrop, your very justifiable ire at the position he has placed you in, and myself as the voice of calm.”

“Good guard, bad guard, but with extras,” said Darling. “Zanzayed may be a noted fool and reprobate among dragons, but he is still a dragon. In fact, he’s one of the more social ones. I think you’ll have to consider the prospect of him seeing through this.”

“Yes, of course,” said Bishop Shahai with a coy little smile. “But Antonio, this is not the sort of game in which we are attempting to deceive one another. Right now, everyone is playing everyone else, and everyone knows it. At question is how well we play. I think that impressing Zanzayed the Blue with the level of our game will be an excellent starting point.”


 

Some minutes later, Principia waited until Squad One were safely ensconced in their cabin with the door shut before speaking.

“Well, I hate to say it, ladies, but our own schedule just got bumped forward a good bit. That extra project is no longer a long-term plan. Be ready to get working on it immediately.”

“You think that’s necessary, Sarge?” Ephanie asked, staring intently at her. “I thought we had time, yet.”

“I don’t know whether it’s necessary,” Principia admitted. “But it’s looking increasingly like it might be. You heard the Bishops: the overall theme of this assorted bullshit is that it’s all coming together too fast. Whatever’s coming at us, I want to be ready to meet it head-on.”

“Aren’t you always telling us that the roundabout way is usually better than the straightforward one?” Merry asked dryly, folding her arms.

“I am, and it is,” Principia said, nodding. “But that’s just it, Lang. When things are rushing at your face, would you rather trust your ability to dodge, or…” She reached over and tapped Merry sharply between the eyebrows. “Wear a helmet?”

“Get out of my face,” Merry said sullenly, leaning away from her.

“Is it… I mean, you said you were gonna have a lot of work to do to get this together,” Farah said worriedly. “Can you?”

“My contacts have put together the raw materials for me,” Principia replied. “I’ve been working as I had time. I’ll have to pull an all-nighter to finish it up, but I can have the stuff ready by tomorrow. Then it’s just a matter of practice.”

“Drilling,” Casey said fatalistically. “More drilling. Ugh…this is gonna mean more coffee, isn’t it.”

“For me, for one day, yes,” Principia said firmly. “I can take it; your health I wanna be more careful with. Drugs are not a substitute for sleep, girls. I’m really sorry to have to do this, but… This is gonna have to come out of your personal time.”

A glum silence fell, broken after a moment by a derisive snort from Merry.

“Well, what the hell,” she said. “It’s not as if any of us has a life, anyway.”

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9 – 15

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Price would never have admitted how much she enjoyed dressing up the apprentices, and Darling would certainly never press her, but the results spoke for themselves. They got looks, of course, as they always did in the Cathedral, but so far as he could tell the looks were entirely due to their ears and not their attire or mannerisms. Flora and Fauna followed him demurely, clad in conservative but graceful frocks of dark blue and gray respectively, and had so far played the role of clerical students so well that even he could find no flaw in their performance. Of course, he still wouldn’t attempt this kind of test of their skills without his supervision. No one was going to interfere with a Bishop’s retinue, but elves alone in the Cathedral might otherwise not get ten paces without being stopped and questioned.

Or so he was idly reflecting, debating whether the innate injustice of it was something he ought to (or even could) address, when his theory was contradicted.

“Your pardon, Bishop Darling?”

He halted immediately, turning with careful smoothness—the Bishop’s mannerisms were more poised and languid than Sweet’s, and with all the various action lately the two roles had started to blend more than he liked. He seized upon every opportunity to emphasize the difference.

Of course, he recognized the person approaching him. There were relatively few elves in service to Pantheon cults, scarcely any in the employ of the Universal Church, and exactly one entitled to the uniform of a Bishop.

“Please, it’s just Antonio,” he said with a beatifically Bishoply smile. “I must endure far too much tedious formality as it is, without demanding it from equals.”

“Antonio, then,” Nandi Shahai replied with a nearly identical smile, and he immediately began to suspect that this one was trouble. Basra Syrinx’s absence had, needless to say, shaken up many people’s plans and routines, and her replacement was discreet enough to make it a challenge for anybody to get a good read on her. She had virtually no reputation outside the Sisterhood, who had nothing to say to any of his rumor-gatherers. “I wonder if I might requisition a few moments of your time?”

“You need only ask,” he replied, widening his smile by a very precise increment. Hers shifted equally precisely to match. Oh, yes, she was dangerous. He had seen the calm control of the older elves; seeing the calm control of a modern politician on an elf raised frightening prospects. “These are my apprentices, Flora and Fauna. Is this to be a private matter, or do you mind if they observe? My schedule affords me sadly few opportunities to show them the more ecclesiastical side of my work.”

He kept his expression open and solicitous, very much just a colleague dutifully concerned for the proprieties. Shahai once again shifted her own to mirror it in the most exact nuance, which confirmed his assessment that she was a skilled operator and made him begin to wonder whether she was subtly poking fun.

Darling made a mental note to grill the girls extensively later for their opinions of the new Bishop of Avei.

“The matter is no secret, at least not to me,” she said serenely, nodding to Flora and Fauna, who bowed in return. “I will leave it to you to judge whether it is sensitive—it concerns a member of the Thieves’ Guild with whom the Sisterhood may have a burgeoning problem.”

“Oh?” he said, allowing his gaze to sharpen. This was in line with his official duties and his numerous less-than-official ones, as she assuredly knew. Moreover, it was a disturbing prospect. Eserites who went sufficiently rogue to cause trouble for other cults tended to be big trouble for everyone before being finally reined in. “Please go on, you have my undivided attention.”

“Thank you,” Shahai said politely. “I shall try not to take up too much of your time. The individual in question is a Sifanese woman with the given name Saduko, who has claimed the Guild tag Gimmick. Her only distinguishing feature is a husky voice that suggests an old throat injury. To begin with, aside from the voice, we have only her word on any of that. I am not considering it confirmed that she isn’t simply someone using those names as cover.”

Darling, of course, was too professional to betray the sudden chill that ran down his spine, or so he hoped. One never knew what elvish senses could pick up; Flora and Fauna claimed that public spaces were usually too noisy for them to distinguish the speed of individual heartbeats.

“I am aware of a person matching that description, in fact,” he said, affecting a slightly worried wrinkle between his eyebrows. “The Saduko of whom I’ve been told is a model Guild member and an admirably discreet young woman. What has she done to antagonize the Sisterhood?”

“It is most puzzling,” Shahai said solemnly. “First, she appears to have entered the employ of the Conclave of the Winds, or at least of one member thereof. It is on behalf of Zanzayed the Blue that she intruded on the Third Silver Legion’s grounds and attempted to secure an unsolicited meeting with Sergeant Locke.”

So many new connections spontaneously formed in the web of intrigues he carried around in his head that he could swore he felt his ears pop. Saduko and Zanzayed meant Webs—Webs was a link to Thumper, who was after Keys, who hung precariously between the Guild and the Sisterhood and had dangerous ties to both Tellwyrn and Trissiny Avelea. Saduko had been sent to undermine and sabotage Webs; was she operating with or against him now? That assignment had long since expired, which made either possibility troubling. Could he really have nothing to do with this? No; she, Webs, Thumper, Zanzayed and Tellwyrn—and bloody Kheshiri—had all been present at that disaster in Onkawa. Darling didn’t believe in coincidence…

“That is most troubling,” he murmured, frowning thoughtfully into the distance beyond Shahai’s shoulder. For once it was a totally unfeigned expression, as his natural response suited the role he had to play. That was always good; a successful liar had to be as natural as possible.

“Forgive the change of subject,” Shahai said, watching his face intently, “but I believe you worked closely with Bishp Syrinx, did you not?”

Oh, what was she up to now? Had that whole affair been a feint?

“A few of his Holiness’s initiatives put us side by side, yes,” he replied, controlling his expression again.

“These are interesting shoes I am left to fill,” she said with an inscrutable little smile. “I wonder, what did you think of her?”

“Basra’s ability to get results has been missed by several of us around here,” he said frankly. “She is quite skilled. One must be, to get away with being so difficult to work with.”

Shahai’s answering smile was a few degrees warmer and more genuine. “I see. I apologize for derailing the conversation. You seemed so concerned, it put me in mind of the many snipped threads which I am left to grasp here and weave back together. I fear Captain Syrinx did not leave detailed notes on most of her projects with the Church. Could this issue be related to one of them?”

“I would be astonished if so,” he said slowly. Of course, he knew well that a good way to get a moment of honesty out of someone was by forcing them to abruptly change focus. And she surely would know that he knew that… Just how old was this woman? She carried herself with the classic aloof calm of the older elves, but hell, he had taught Flora and Fauna to do that in the course of a week. Shahai could be younger than he, or older than the Empire. There was no telling how much skill and experience he was contending with here, and now she wanted to stick her nose into…

Well, why not? He’d had unexpectedly good results in the last year from extending unasked trust and honesty. Perhaps this was a good opportunity to build on that.

“Pardon my slowness,” he said with a self-deprecating little smile. “There is a whole tangled web of priorities and agendas you’ve just brought up, Bishop Shahai, and I almost didn’t know where to start.”

“Please,” she said pleasantly, “it’s just Nandi. I am but a temporary replacement.”

“Of course,” he replied in the same tone. “Ultimately, though, we have a cult member in common, and her safety must come first.”

Shahai’s gaze sharpened. “Safety?”

“Girls,” he said, angling his head to include his apprentices in the conversation, “go to my office and retrieve the blue folder in the top right corner of my desk, please.”

“You locked your office, your Grace,” Fauna noted.

“Oh, it’s not merely locked,” he said with a hint of a properly mischievous Eserite grin, mostly for Shahai’s benefit. Let her chew on that. “Fetch me the folder, and when I inspect the office afterward, if I can find no other traces of your retrieval, you both get two days off from training.”

At that, they both smiled right back, their delight unfeigned, but its presentation still well controlled. Oh, they were coming along nicely.

“Consider it done,” Flora said with rransparently feigned solemnity, and they turned in unison and glided back up the broad hall down which he had just led them.

“Nandi,” he said, turning back to his fellow Bishop and letting his own face grow serious again, “I wonder if we could step into your office? I’ll need to pass the information you gave me on to Boss Tricks, but first there are a few things you, Commander Rouvad and especially Principia need to know.”


 

A short succession of raps sounded on the office door, and then it was pushed open. Shook stepped inside, nodding to Khadizroth and then to Svarveld. “Am I interrupting?”

“Just tedious progress reports,” the dwarf said with a tight little smile. “Made ever more tedious as well as irritating by the lack of any progress to speak of.”

“You mustn’t be so negative, Mr. Svarveld,” Khadizroth said with a patrician smile. “Every dead end your crews explore in the old mines rules out a threat and furthers our progress. I am only sorry that your team must shoulder the tedium themselves.”

“Well, the lack of actual retrieval is unusual and tad disheartening,” the foreman said, relaxing so far as to smile at the dragon, “but it’s not as if mucking around in tunnels isn’t our favorite thing to do. And I must say this surveying work is far quicker than actual digging.”

“Nonetheless,” Khadizroth replied, “if there is anything any of us can do to make your jobs easier, please don’t hesitate to come to me. This isn’t a pleasant task for any of us; I don’t want anyone to suffer unduly.”

“Oh, we’re all right,” Svarveld demurred quickly. “As I said, we’re all professionals. I may want to talk to you in a few more days about shift schedules, though. We’re getting far enough out from the town that the space we need to cover spreads us pretty thin. If those elves get any more aggressive, that could be a problem.”

“That,” said Shook with a cold half-smirk, “could finally relieve the tedium for the rest of us. I just did a sweep of the town’s outskirts, K, and Shiri’s off scouting Raea’s band from the air. And yes, before you ask, from a very safe distance. I know my girl; she doesn’t take unnecessary risks.”

“I appreciate your diligence, Jeremiah,” said Khadizroth, leaning back in his chair. Aside from his smooth emerald eyes and green hair, he looked simply like a wood elf, right down to his preferred attire. That made his surroundings seem peculiar; wood elves, or indeed elves in general, were rarely found seated in plush chairs behind heavy desks.

“Well, I may be a thief, but I’m not dishonest enough to accept unearned praise,” Shook said, shrugging. “Truth is, I am bored to the ragged edge of insanity, here. We all are, and I’m frankly beginning to worry about what’ll happen if Jack doesn’t find some outlet for his…himself. If those elves don’t start getting aggressive, I might suggest we move first.”

Svarveld coughed discreetly. “Well. Security’s over my head, gentlemen. Unless you want my input, Mr. K?”

“Your input is always valued,” Khadizroth said, nodding deeply to him. “But your skills are best used directing your miners, Mr. Svarveld. I won’t keep you from your work any longer.”

“Till next report, then, sir,” the dwarf replied, bowing. He paused in the act of turning away to give Shook an exceedingly blank look, then crossed to the door, stepping widely around the enforcer, and slipped out, shutting it quietly behind him.

“If I were a more paranoid person,” Shook said dryly, “I might be tempted to think he doesn’t like me.”

“He has, in fact, passed along to me a few complaints regarding you, Jeremiah, from several of his crew,” Khadizroth said. His tone remained soft and mild as usual; his blank green eyes were annoyingly hard to read, but the dragon’s expression was merely thoughtful.

Shook snorted, crossing to one of the other chairs in the office—the one near the bar—and pouring himself a drink even as he sat down. A drink of water, of course. Risk had no standing bodies of water, but boasted no fewer than three wells, and was well equipped to supply its current occupants. Shook had taken to enforcing a limit on hard drinks on himself: one, after dinner, period. It grated, but as dull as it was around here, he knew very well he would drink himself comatose before noon every day unless he maintained serious self-discipline.

He had scarcely exaggerated. The boredom was weighing heavily on their whole party. He had nothing to do with his time except patrol the town, inspect the miners, screw Kheshiri and play cards with the Jackal and Vannae—gods knew the elves were no good for conversation. He was also seriously concerned about what the Jackal might do if he grew too bored. Shook had been around enough men who enjoyed killing and hurting to recognize the type. If you couldn’t get rid of them, keeping them entertained was a high priority.

Not that he’d mentioned it to Khadizroth, nor would, but Kheshiri’s growing boredom was also making her an ever-increasing hassle to deal with. He knew little about the psychology of succubi, but the Jackal had mockingly disclosed enough of that lore to make him suspect he had underestimated the volume of trouble he was taking on in keeping her on a longer leash. Well, if worse came to worst, he could always put her back in the reliquary. That would be a shame, though; he very much liked having physical access to her.

“You seem unsurprised,” Khadizroth prompted, and Shook realized he had drifted off in thought.

He grunted and took a sip of water. “Feh. Dwarves. In their culture, thieving is a greater crime than murder.”

“That is a slight exaggeration,” said the dragon with an amused little smile.

“A very slight one,” Shook snorted. “The long and the short of it is, I’m hardly surprised that dwarves wouldn’t take to me. Fortunately, I do not give one single shit what they think. Makes my life a lot easier.”

“In the short term, I suppose it would,” Khadizroth murmured, folding his hands atop the desk and staring across the office at his pool. Not for the first time, Shook pondered how calm, how approachable the dragon was. Stories about them made much of their aura of majesty, the tendency they had to command awe and obedience simply by their presence. Khadizroth was, if anything, humble. Despite everything, Shook couldn’t help liking him a bit.

He liked the office, anyway; the dragon had simple but expensive tastes, and the magic on hand to indulge them even out here in the frayed end of the sticks. It was a pleasingly masculine space, paneled in dark wood, with a plush maroon carpet and old weapons displayed on the walls. Old weapons, bladed ones, nothing magical or modern, and all of them not only of quality make but bearing the marks of long use. Despite the generally low level of light, the dragon grew plants in large pots in each corner. Cacti, succulents and stands of field grasses, not floofy flowery plants like some ladies’ teahouse. Opposite his desk he had constructed a stone semi-circle which contained a pool of water, complete with two lazy carp and floating lily pads.

“Specifically,” the dragon went on after a long moment, “Svarveld says your inspections of his delving operations do more harm than good.”

“Yeah. Well.” Shook took a drink of water, averting his gaze. “Quite frankly, I’ll have to own that. I know precisely fuck all about mining; I only go down in those holes to get away from the rest of our delightful crew and keep myself occupied. Sorry; I’ll give ’em some space. Not like I was doing any good down there anyhow.”

“They don’t seem to much mind having their shoulders looked over,” Khadizroth said mildly. “The miners take great pride in their work, justifiably. But several have complained that you bother the women in the crews.”

Shook snorted loudly. “Oh, please. What the hell are women doing in a mining crew anyway? I don’t know whether they’re being indulged by rich daddies or are there to provide comfort to the real workers and dwarves are just too cagey to admit it in front of tall folk. Either way, the whole idea is ridiculous. Anyhow, they’ve got nothing to complain about. I’ve not laid a hand on a one of them, nor given ’em a cross word.”

“You might be surprised how much you can convey merely by looking.”

Shook grinned. “Then again, I might not. I’m an enforcer, K; you can’t effectively enforce by breaking everybody’s kneecaps. Mostly, people just need to be afraid of you. Break one or two kneecaps and get real good at glaring, that’s how it’s done.”

“If any of the female members of Svarveld’s crew are afraid of you, they’ve not mentioned it,” said the dragon with a thin smile. “I don’t believe they are intimidated by much, in fact; dwarves are a famously stalwart and hardy people. They have seemed to me offended, annoyed, in some cases even disgusted. But no, not afraid.”

“You sure seem to have done a lot of listening to these women’s opinions,” Shook said, scowling.

“As you yourself pointed out, my friend, there is a lack of much of anything to do, with our dwarven allies shouldering most of the actual work. I find that listening to everyone’s input fills my day quite satisfyingly.”

“Yeah, well, take ’em with a pinch of salt. Half of what a woman tells you is drama, a third is lies, ten percent is useful pertinent information, and the rest random noise.”

“What specific figures,” Khadizroth said, gazing calmly at him. “You’ve expressed similar views before, Jeremiah. I wonder what makes you think this? You are, after all, talking about half of all sentient species.”

“Not dragons, I note. And aren’t you the biggest, baddest, most powerful race there is? And not a female amongst you. I think my point stands.”

“There are roughly as many dryads as dragons in the world,” Khadizroth said wryly, “if not more. In any case, pardon my curiosity. I am simply interested in the reason for your antipathy. Such hostility is never without some root cause, in my experience.”

Shook made an involuntary twisting expression with his lips; even he couldn’t have said whether it was a grin or a sneer. “Root cause? I trust the evidence of my senses, that’s all.”

“Really?” Khadizroth suddenly leaned forward, staring intently at Shook as though his attention were captivated. “You do? Why is that?”

Shook stared back at him. “…are you kidding? What else can you do?”

“I wonder if you would indulge me in a little experiment,” Khadizroth said with a smile.

“Sounds creepy,” Shook said warily.

“I suppose anything can be, if looked at askance,” the dragon replied. “But I think you’ll find this instructive. Close your eyes for a moment.”

Shook squinted at him suspiciously, but Khadizroth only gazed calmly back at him. After a few seconds, moved more by idle curiosity than anything else, he complied.

“Good,” said the dragon. “What do you see?”

“Are you serious?”

“Well, eyelids are very slightly translucent, of course. Can you see the outline of the window behind me?”

Shook frowned. “Nope. Just black.”

“Very good. Now raise your right hand and wave it back and forth in front of your face.”

“…are you just trying to make me look stupid? You must be as bored as the rest of us.”

“I’ve seen the rise and fall of nations, Jeremiah,” the dragon said wryly. “I am not so easily entertained. Trust me—just try it.”

Shook sighed, but finally did so, lifting his hand and waving it rapidly in front of his closed eyes. A moment later he frowned, and did so again more slowly.

“What do you see?”

“It’s… Just a shadow. A faint image of… Well, that’s a neat trick, I guess, but like you said, eyelids are slightly dah!”

He yelped embarrassingly and jerked backward in his chair nearly hard enough to tip it over. He had opened his eyes to find Khadizroth’s face inches from his own, the glow of his eyes dominating his view.

“Clearly not,” the dragon said with a measure of satisfaction, straightening up and backing away a few steps. “Why, then, were you able to see the shadow of your hand through your closed eyelids?”

“That’s a rhetorical question, right?” Shook growled, clenching his hands on the arms of the chair and clinging to his self-control. He did not appreciate pranks like that. Approachable or not, though, Khadizroth was still a dragon, and not someone to whom it would be smart to show his temper. “This reeks of a lesson.”

“It’s a simple trick of the mind,” Khadizroth said, turning and pacing back around behind his desk. “Your brain knows where your extremities are. Even when you cannot actually see, it constructs an appropriate image. Especially when you cannot see, in fact; when you actually can, it has no need to. That is not the only thing about your vision which is counterintuitive. Due to the specific anatomy of the human eyeball, the picture you have of the world is upside-down and has a blank spot in the center. The brain corrects for both of those deficiencies.”

“That’s…interesting,” Shook said carefully.

“You don’t believe me,” Khadizroth replied with a smile, seating himself again.

“All due respect, K, if you’re gonna tell tales like that, you can’t fairly expect to be taken at face value.”

“You are a trained follower of Eserion, Jeremiah; you know how lies work. If I were going to lie, would I not tell a believable story?” He gave that a pause to let it sink in before continuing. “A less believable tale isn’t necessarily true, of course. In this matter, though, are you willing to acknowledge that my knowledge widely exceeds yours, and that I have no motive to trick you?”

“I…suppose,” Shook said grudgingly.

The dragons folded his hands in his lap, leaning back. “In any case, those interesting facts only serve to demonstrate my true point. Everything we see, hear, and touch…everything we know about the world…is filtered and processed through very imperfect mechanisms. We do not interact with reality itself, Jeremiah, but only with the vague shadows our senses tell us, reconstructed by our flawed minds.”

“What’s your point?” Shook demanded.

Khadizroth shrugged. “You say you trust the evidence of your senses? I don’t. It’s a lesson I have learned painfully.”

“What can you trust, then?” Shook exclaimed. “I don’t get what you’re driving at. Do you stagger around blind?”

“No,” the dragon mused. “Obviously you cannot function without placing a great deal of faith in these flawed perceptions. One must, however, keep in mind that those perceptions do have flaws, and potentially great ones. Believing without question in what you see is a path to self-deception. Over time, I have learned that the only true wisdom is in knowing that you are a fool.”

“I don’t much appreciate being called a fool,” Shook said, clutching the chair even harder.

“I was referring to myself, actually,” Khadizroth replied, his tone mild as ever. “Though the point applies to anyone. I have been dramatically wrong about many things, Jeremiah. I have made great, terrible mistakes. Rather recently, in fact.”

“Well,” Shook said, beginning to relax slightly, “I don’t get the impression anyone who lacks some flaws of character ends up in a merry little band like ours.”

“Indeed,” Khadizroth said with a wry smile. “Ultimately, I think, it is about power.”

“Power?” he repeated cautiously.

Khadizroth nodded. “One tends to blame others for one’s misfortunes—it is natural and instinctive. The mind reacts to protect its self-image. Obviously, whatever unpleasant thing befalls us is someone else’s fault, because we are each of us the hero of our own story. We cannot be in the wrong, or the world just doesn’t make sense!” He sighed. “I am embarrassed at how long I had to live to get over that gut reaction. I have seen so many others brought to ruin by it. In the end, it robs you of your power. So long as I am at fault for the ills of my life, so long as I accept the responsibility and the blame, I remain the one in command of my destiny. If I am the architect of my failures, I can be the architect of my successes. If they are imposed upon me, however, I become a victim. Weak, helpless…at the mercy of others.”

“This…is all pretty roundabout,” Shook said, frowning. “You’re starting to lose me.”

“Yes, forgive me, I do tend to natter on. One of those faults I was telling you about.” The dragon shook his head, smiling self-deprecatingly. “I suppose my point is that it’s unwise to place too much faith in yourself. Embrace being wrong, my young friend. It’s the only path I’ve found, in all my years, to eventually being right.”

“How did we get onto this from discussing women, of all things?”

“Well, it is a general observation,” Khadizroth mused, “but it did not come out of the blue. I suppose we are all wrong about certain things in particular.”

Blessedly, Shook was spared having to find a safe and useful response to that by the abrupt opening of the door.

“Is—master!” Kheshiri skittered in, sliding across the floor to kneel beside Shook’s chair. She was grinning hugely, her tail waving in eagerness.

“Whoah, girl,” he said with an indulgent smile, fondly resting a hand on her head. “What are you, a puppy? Rein it in. What’s got you so worked up?”

“Apparently she has news,” the Jackal drawled, strolling in after the succubus. “Wouldn’t give poor old me the time of day until she’d checked in with her dearest, darlingest master.”

“As is proper,” said Shook, smirking faintly. “What’s the big idea, Shiri?”

“Raea has friends,” the demon said, grinning savagely. “Three new arrivals are meeting with her little band now—three whose descriptions I recognize. An old man, a Westerner, in a ragged coat with a wizard’s staff. Younger man in a dark suit, ponytail and goatee. Gnome chick with far too many pockets.”

At that, a similar grin spread across the Jackal’s narrow features. “Well, finally. I was starting to think those lazy bastards would never get here. It’s just rude, making us wait around like this.”

“You are extremely fortunate, Kheshiri, to have made it back here safely,” Khadizroth said grimly. “The necromancer Weaver travels with a soul reaper.”

Kheshiri suddenly went deadly still, staring up at the dragon with a frozen expression.

“Excuse me, a fucking what?” Shook demanded.

“A complication,” said the Jackal, grinning even more widely. “An invisible death spirit which can send your little pet there straight back to Hell with a touch. My, this does make our job more interesting! Looks like you’re not gonna be with us much longer, pretty bird,” he added, leering down at the succubus. She gave him a disdainful look.

“We’ll not squander any of our number in the pursuit of foolishness,” Khadizroth said firmly. “If those three are meeting with Raea, we must assume the others are nearby, or on the way. Kheshiri, let’s hear as many details as you managed to gather.” He leaned back slowly in his chair, raising his green eyes to study the ceiling, and allowing himself a faint smile. “It does not do to act without information. Since we are about to have such important company, we must be certain to greet them properly.”

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