Tag Archives: Bradshaw

12 – 39

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“They look so happy,” Iris murmured. The two drow glanced at her, Shaeine with a small smile, before everyone’s attention was recaptured by a sharp crackle of discharged energy and yelps from Teal and Maureen, who hopped backward from their contraption.

“It’s fine, I’m okay,” Teal said, grimacing and shaking her singed hand. Shaeine had surged to her feet, but stopped at the reassurance. “And this is why we let the one with the invincible archdemon handle the exposed power grid.”

“Aye, because usin’ proper safety equipment is just crazy talk,” Maureen said in exasperation. “I told ye we ‘ad a loose connector in there!”

“To be fair, you said a loose something…”

“Somethin’ bein’ loose was the only reasonable explanation fer the weird power spikes in th’motive matrix, an’ an excellent reason not t’go stickin’ your appendages into th’wires!”

“Is that what was causing you to keep ramming the front door?” Iris asked. “Because I’m not sure how much more abuse this shed can take.”

“Hey, I’m all for safety measures,” Teal said reasonably. “But why take the time to set up a grounding charm when we have someone indestructible who can just reach in there?”

“She is correct, Teal,” Shaeine said in a tone which cut through the growing argument despite her soft voice. “Safety precautions are a habit with inherent value, no matter how confident you are in your durability. We ought not discourage them in others.”

“All right, you’re right,” Teal agreed a little bashfully. “Sorry, Maureen. Next time, full charms. It’s not like we’re running on a schedule, after all.”

“Wow, she’s well-trained,” Maureen said, shooting a grin in Shaeine’s direction. “’ow come I can’t get that kind o’ agreement?”

“I have my methods,” Shaeine replied with a placid little smile. “Though I fear you and I would have a problem if you were to employ them.”

Teal and Maureen both flushed and busied themselves picking charms and replacement components from the nearby tool rack, while Iris barked a coarse laugh. Szith, not for the first time that evening, managed to look uncomfortable without altering her expression or posture by a hair.

It was a little close in the shed, with all five of them plus the vehicle, even with three clustered on a bench against the back wall, merely spectating. They weren’t the only group on campus who felt the need to congregate together lately, though. Szith had fallen without comment into an attendant role, as she tended to do in the presence of either Ravana or Shaeine, standing impassively off to one side with her hands clasped behind her, as if awaiting orders. Iris and Shaeine had both brought books and writing implements, but little schoolwork had been accomplished. Even aside from the entertainment provided by Teal and Maureen’s back and forth, the work was rather interesting to watch.

Their machine seemed to be nearing completion. It resembled an enormous copper beetle wearing a saddle, its tail currently propped up on a sawhorse; the levitation charms that normally held it up were inactive while the enchantments were being worked on. In addition to the now-affixed saddle, it had handlebars with runic controls worked right into the grips—Maureen’s invention—and fairy lamps attached to the front of its central shell, rather like eyes. Arrays of copper pipes sprang out from below the handlebars, positioned to shield the rider’s legs; when the thing was running, they also produced a fierce arcane glow, though the two enchanters had replied to questions about their purpose only with fiendish grins. Right now, it rested inert on its sawhorse and over-broad rubber wheel, all charms deactivated and with a panel on its side open, exposing its magical innards.

Suddenly, Teal jerked upright, dropping a power crystal and spinning toward the door.

Everyone else in the room tensed, zeroing in on her; Szith stepped forward, grasping the hilt of her saber.

“Trouble?” the drow asked tersely.

Fiery light flooded the small space; there simply wasn’t room for Vadrieny’s wings to spread, but even kept folded tightly against her back, their glow and that of her hair was almost overpowering in these confines.

“Trouble,” the archdemon replied. “Everyone stay together. We need to get out of here.”


“Ugh, we should’ve just stayed with Shaeine and Teal,” Gabriel groaned, rubbing the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Omnu’s balls, I’d be getting a better grasp of these principles watching somebody build something than trying to cram all this theory into my brain…”

“Teal and Shaeine need some alone time, and also aren’t trying to build a time portal,” Fross chided gently, drifting over so that she illuminated the open book in front of him. “Theory is all there is, Gabe, unless you want to get a visit from the Scions of Vemnesthis, which you don’t. C’mon, you’ll get it! It’s just the physics that are confusing at first, but once it clicks you’ll have no trouble!”

“Not everybody gets to spend an extra eight hours a day studying, glitterbug,” Ruda said with a grin. “We’re not quite on your level.”

“Says the person just sitting there,” Gabriel said sourly.

She shrugged. Ruda was leaning back in her chair, balancing on its rear two legs, with her boots propped up on the table before them. “If you think it’s fun for me to be loafing around uselessly ‘cos it’s no longer safe to be alone on this fucking campus—”

“Guys,” Fross protested. “Settle, please. This is still a library.”

They both halted, glancing around guiltily. This particular area of the library was empty save for themselves, but it was the principle of the thing. Nobody liked making Crystal come and remind them of the rules; unlike Weaver, who had at least been entertaining to annoy, she was a much more sympathetic figure, and everyone (except Chase) felt bad for inconveniencing her.

“Okay, let’s back up a step,” Fross continued softly, hovering closer to the book. “All this theory is necessary background for teleportation, Gabe, because of the intertwined nature of space and time. Some arcanists think they’re actually the same thing; at any rate, you have to calculate temporal factors to avoid accidentally time-traveling when teleporting over large distances. You like practical stuff, right?”

He sighed. “Knowing how to teleport would be nice, but come on. These large distances are, like, from here to the moon. And that’s barely large enough to qualify. There’s nowhere you could actually teleport to where these equations would be a factor.”

“The theory is still important! It’s all about accounting for the effects of gravity, which does make a difference for long-range practical teleportation. Gravity is caused by the indentations caused by mass in the fabric of the universe, and that’s important to calculate. Fixing your ‘port to the world’s gravity well is essential for all but the shortest jumps, otherwise you can accidentally shoot yourself off it. The planet is both rotating and orbiting, so if you simply move in absolute units of space instead of with it as a reference point—”

Suddenly her glow dimmed and she dropped almost to the table.

“…guys, we have a problem.”

Ruda smoothly swung her legs to the ground and straightened up. “What kind of problem?”

“Okay, so, you remember how I was piggy-backing an arcane signal on the dryads’ fae magic field so I could detect infernal magic used in its radius? I needed to do that to boost the range over the whole mountain, but for a much smaller effect I can just use my own energy, which I have been for basic security, and we’re being snuck up on right now by something invisible and powered by a lot of infernal magic.”

Both of them came to their feet, drawing blades, and in Gabriel’s case, also a wand.

“Where?” Ruda asked tersely.

“Coming up the main stairs from the lobby,” Fross answered. “Slowly. Like a prowling cat. Don’t think he knows we know yet.”

“Then he’s not listening…” Gabriel muttered. “…yeah. Vestrel sees it now, too; it’s half-concealed from the valkyries, as well, but knowing what to look for and where she says there’s a distortion. And also she thanks you, Fross.”

“You’re welcome, Vestrel! Uh, oh, I think he’s noticed—”

The distortion would have been hard to observe even in the well-lit library had it not come shooting directly at them. Something about it encouraged the eyes to slide way, no doubt deliberately.

It hesitated as a sphere of blue light rose around the three and their table. It was a lopsided sphere, though, flickering and sparking where it intersected with a chair.

“Oh, crap I need to practice this more!” Fross said shrilly.

“Ruda, you’re on defense,” Gabriel said, taking aim with his wand.

Before he could fire, the shadow hurtled forward, impacting Fross’s shield and causing it to collapse in a shower of sparks; the pixie chimed in pain and dropped to the tabletop. It then darted backward as both Ariel and a mithril rapier were slashed through the space where it had been.

Suddenly, a silver blur hurtled out of the stack. Crystal skidded on the carpet, coming to a stop between the shadow and the students with her arms outstretched to shield them. The glow of arcane light which shone from between her joints was so intense it could be seen even through the severe dress she had taken to wearing.

“Crystal, get back!” Gabriel shouted. “We can deal with this guy!”

“I’m familiar with your methods, Gabriel,” the golem replied. “Not in the library, please.”

The shadow darted to the side, clearly angling to get around her, but before it got two yards, the whole region lit up with a fierce blue glow, causing the students’ hair to stand up from static.

Crystal turned to face the shadow, her arms still flung outward. For some reason, it was plainly visible now within the arcane field she had raised, as if the energy blunted its attention-deflecting ability. It was also still struggling to reach the students, but moving sluggishly and erratically, as if trying to push against a powerful wind.

“Oh, crud, my head,” Fross groaned, lifting back into the air. “…wait a sec, what’s going on? Is she doing that?”

“Crystal?” Ruda said in alarm. “Are you okay?”

The golem’s face showed no expression, of course, being a silver mask with glowing eye holes and a slit for a mouth. She didn’t answer, seemingly focused on whatever she was doing.

The distortion shimmered once, then fired a shadowbolt at Gabriel. The purplish burst of energy barely made it a yard before arcing away to slam into Crystal instead as if she were somehow sucking it in. The golem rocked from the impact, but kept on her feet, and did not relent in her efforts.

“Okay, that does it,” Gabriel snapped, taking a step forward, his wand extending to a full-length scythe.

He was halted by Ruda grabbing his shoulder. “Whoah, hang on. I think you’d better not go charging into that, Gabe.”

The shadow rippled back and forth now, as if struggling against whatever held it, but was being drawn toward Crystal as inexorably as the shadowbolt had been. The students could only watch in alarmed fascination as it crept closer, until it finally got within her physical reach.

Like a mousetrap springing, Crystal abruptly wrapped her arms around the vague shape, pressing it close to herself.

A pulse of brilliant light rippled through the library as her arcane field collapsed. The golem was hurled backward to impact the wall, where she slid down to sit crumpled at its base. The light streaming from her eyes flickered out, then came back, now cycling rapidly between colors: blue, purple, orange, pure white, and then back to arcane blue.

“Crystal!” Gabriel shrugged Ruda off and dashed to her side, kneeling. “Are you okay? Say something!”

Crystal’s eyes flashed once more, settling on a pale purple glow, then she did begin speaking, albeit in a language none of them knew.

“Uhh…” Ruda looked helplessly at Fross. “Does that sound at all familiar to you?”

“Familiar, yes; intelligible, no.” The pixie drifted closer to the fallen golem. “I think it shares some root words with Tanglish, but no, I don’t even know what language that is.”

“Um, say something in Tanglish?” Gabriel clarified with a worried expression.

Crystal’s whole body twitched once.

“Contact—recog—English,” she sputtered. “Failure—rebooting. Unrecognized hardware, unrecognized tran…transcen—scen—scen—” Again she twitched, more feebly this time. “I can’t—Professor, the kids—”

She thrashed violently, her head impacting the wall hard enough to leave a dent, then slumped, eyes going dark.

“Crystal!” Fross cried.

Suddenly the glow returned to the golem’s eyes, this time their normal, steady arcane blue. She lifted her head to regard Gabriel, who knelt by her side.

“Ouch,” Crystal said. “That was altogether unpleasant. Are you all right, students? What happened?”

“Us?” Ruda exclaimed.

“We’re fine,” Gabriel assured her. “More worried about you. That was pretty scary, Crystal. Are you okay? How do you feel?”

“As if…I just woke up from a long sleep,” she said slowly, then began getting to her feet. “Or so I imagine this would feel, based on descriptions. I’ve never slept. I think I’d rather not do that again.”

“Uh, yeah,” said Ruda. “You ate the Sleeper. That’s gotta give you some wicked fuckin’ indigestion.”

“That was some kind of projection,” Fross disagreed. “You can’t just absorb a living person like that, though it’s fairly easy to do with most kinds of magic if you’re powerful enough. I didn’t know you could do that, Crystal!”

“Nor did I,” the golem replied, experimentally flexing her arms. “I think I’m all right.”

“I think you’d better see Professor Tellwyrn,” Gabriel said firmly.

“…perhaps that’s a good idea. Thank you, Mr. Arquin.”

“In fact, we’d better go find her, too,” he said, turning to the others. “After last night, we know for a fact the three of us wouldn’t be able to handle the actual Sleeper that easily. He probably wouldn’t try, though, with Tellwyrn back on campus. If that was just a projection, I bet we weren’t the only ones who just got visited.”

“Then hadn’t we better find the others?” Fross exclaimed.

“No, he’s right,” Ruda said, sheathing her sword. “Tellwyrn needs to know. And she’s the lady who can scry the ley lines over this campus and teleport. We get to her, we can get to the rest. C’mon, guys, better not dawdle. Fuck knows what else is happening right now.”


Rafe hummed softly to himself as he dismantled the apparatus which had been in use all day, separating out bits and pieces of Fedora’s “evidence.” Already, he had set aside several carefully labeled sample vials, the results of that day’s long efforts. It was dim in his lab; as was often the case when he immersed himself in an interesting project, he’d never quite gotten around to such mundane considerations as turning on the lamps when night fell outside, and now only the small work light next to his experimental station served as illumination for the whole room.

Facing away from the door, he did not observe the tendrils of liquid shadow streaming in through the crack at the bottom. The darkness gradually built upon itself, rising to a nearly person-sized form. It made no sound and cast no shadow in the gloom. After a full minute, though, it stood fully upright, entirely within the room, and its form rippled once as if organizing itself.

Rafe rather abruptly set down the beaker he’d been holding, slumping forward to brace himself against the counter.

The shadow rippled again.

It stopped when the alchemist began to laugh.

“Somebody doesn’t think things all the way through,” he chuckled, turning. The half-elf showed no surprise or alarm at the sight of the sentient darkness blocking his access to the door. “I am not a presumptuous freshman dabbling in alchemy she doesn’t understand. You presume to sleep the Rafe himself?!” He interlaced his fingers and stretched his arms before himself, cracking his knuckles and grinning insanely. “Well, sonny Jim, you know what we’re all here for. Come forth and get your ass educated!”

The shadow emitted an audible hiss. Its shape rippled again, but Rafe had already dipped one hand into one of his belt pouches and produced a vial of potion, which he hurled past it at the wall. The vial shattered, splattering a sticky black substance over the wall next to the door, which clung there as if making a puddle on the ground.

A purple-black shadowbolt ripped outward from the dim shape, aimed initially at Rafe, but it immediately spun wildly off course, arcing widely around to slam into the puddle on the wall. The black smear pulsed with light, briefly, before falling inert again.

Next it tried a fireball; this impacted another vial hurled by Rafe in midair. The vial didn’t even shatter, but dissolved, leaving behind a waist-high dust devil of whirling air, which was lit briefly with flame as it siphoned the fireball into itself. Fire arced all the way to the point at which it danced upon the floor, then flickered out.

“HAH!” Rafe held up both hands, fingers splayed, with eight vials of different colors braced between them. “If that’s the way you want it, then step right up and BEHOLD!”


Professor Yornhaldt was rather enjoying the familiar old routine of grading papers after his sabbatical; even during this stressful time on the campus, it added a measure of comfort to his day. Especially during this time, in fact.

When a swirling vortex of darkness appeared in the middle of his office, he was thus even more annoyed than he might otherwise have been.

Rising quickly but smoothly, he carefully closed the heavy folder into which he’d sorted his paperwork and tucked it away in his top desk drawer for safekeeping. Whatever was about to transpire, he would rather the students’ work not be destroyed in the process. It would be quite unfair to them to make them re-do it.

Yornhaldt stepped around from behind his desk, a blue shield snapping into place around himself, and held up one hand, a fireball forming above his palm and glowing blue-white with intensity.

A crackle sounded through the office, tiny arcs of lightning flashing from the vortex to scorch the carpet. A moment later, they snapped sharply, releasing a burst of white light, and then whole thing vanished, leaving Professor Tellwyrn standing there, looking even more annoyed than usual.

He lowered his hand slightly, not releasing the conjured fireball. “Arachne?”

“Alaric, good,” she said briskly. “I was afraid you might have detected what was going on and attempted to intervene.”

“I confess the first thing I detected was your arrival just now,” he said. “What was that? Is something wrong with your usual means of transportation?”

“In a word, yes. There’s an infernal field suddenly in place over my mountain, not ordinarily detectable, which is designed to infiltrate arcane spells used within its radius and corrupt them. Do not attempt to teleport until I have straightened this nonsense out; the result is what you just saw. With all respect to your skills, Alaric, I have abilities in that regard that you simply don’t.”

“Arachne, I wouldn’t still be working for you if I took it personally to be occasionally overshadowed,” he replied with a grim smile, finally letting his shield and fireball vanish. “What’s going on, and what’s the plan?”

“I’m assuming this is that idiot Sleeper kid,” she snorted, “rapidly getting far too big for his britches. As for the plan, to begin with, I need you in place helping to coordinate this response, and most particularly to keep an eye on the other individuals doing so. You, unlike them, I trust. Hold on, this may be uncomfortable.”

It was uncomfortable, especially to someone accustomed to the seamless transition of arcane teleportation. It felt rather like being dragged through a pool of slimy muck which crackled with static electricity. A moment later, though, it was over, and another dark vortex spat them back out in her office.

Yornhaldt grimaced, needlessly adjusting the lapels of his coat and taking stock; he knew better than to bother complaining at Tellwyrn’s brusque treatment. Only three others were present, two standing over her scrying table: Inspector Fedora and the warlock Bradshaw. He immediately understood her concern about trust. Ashley lounged against the bookcase, giving him a smile and a wave upon his arrival.

“That was quick,” Fedora commented, his eyes on the image displayed in the crystal globe around which the table was built. “Good. We’ve got at least a dozen of these things popping up, going after various people.”

“I’m compensating for the infernal interference as best I can,” Bradshaw added, “but without a dedicated mage working on this—ah, Professor Yornhaldt, perfect.”

“As he was about to say,” Fedora added, “we haven’t got a reliable fix on everyone and every place being targeted.”

“I’m on it,” Yornhaldt said, stepping forward to place his hands on the scrying table, flanking the crystal.

“Good,” said Tellwyrn. “Help them coordinate; I’ll be back for updates as frequently as I can. For now, though, I need something to start with. What’s the most urgent priority?”

“It’ll take me a moment, Arachne. I need to make certain I’m properly warded before wading into this, or I risk blowing up your scrying equipment and possibly myself.”

“I understand that, Alaric, I was asking the Inspector. You’ve been fairly reliable at guessing the Sleeper’s movements, Fedora. Thoughts?”

“These tactics are clearly designed to counter the overwhelming force you represent on campus,” Fedora said immediately. “Hell, just what he faced last night was more force than he wanted to. Most of these will be diversions.”

“I can figure out that much myself, not being an utter buffoon,” she snapped. “Have you anything useful to suggest?”

“Ingvar insulted and provoked him last night,” the Inspector replied. “Rafe’s current project is an immediate and severe threat to him. The sophomores and myself are both; I think Ingvar is the least likely target, assuming that dryad stuck with him like we asked her to.” He winked at Ashley. “They’re not the most reliable of critters.”

“She did,” Ashley said, not rising to the bait. “Aspen is extremely fond of him anyway.”

“Right, then he’s probably a lower priority. Likewise me, for the same reasons exactly.”

“Good,” Tellwyrn said briskly. “Then Rafe’s the first stop; at least I know where his lab damn well is without needing to scry it. Try to have something more for me when I return, people. Find the sophomore class. Tonight, we put a stop to this nonsense.”

With another whirl of dark energy and flicker of lightning, she was gone.

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12 – 37

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She moved ever more slowly down the very short hall between the teleporter and the security hub, taking stock of her senses. Milanda didn’t yet have a vocabulary to describe these experiences, but being up here in the sterile environment of the Infinite Order made a very great difference from the little planetoid of the dryads, which teemed with life. Here, she could easily pick out the only living things up ahead, and even what they were from the perceptions they gave her.

Hawthorn, of course, was a blazing presence of a by now familiar nature; it had taken some time for Milanda to sort out her sense of the other life forms on the tiny world due to the proximity of the dryads, which was like counting candle flames in broad daylight. It could be done, but the sun did not help. Walker… That could only be Walker. She was, somehow, an inversion, a gap in her awareness of living things. A space of absence, which somehow radiated as powerfully as the dryads. It was an impossible thing to describe; it was barely possible to perceive. If dryads experienced the world this way, she could well believe they found valkyries disturbing.

The other being present puzzled her for a moment before she remembered the katzil. It was the dimmest flicker, which was appropriate as it had been kept in hibernation for thousands of years. Still alive, though.

The door hissed open at her approach, and she stopped just inside, taking stock.

Part of the scene was familiar; Walker working away at her computer terminal. She had moved to a different one, though, to sit next to Hawthorn, who had claimed a chair nearby and spun it around to fold her arms on the back, gazing avidly at the large screen along the wall. Milanda hadn’t even realized that was a screen, taking it for a piece of the wall paneling, but now it danced with images, and the sounds of shouting and crashing—and, incongruously, music—echoed through the hub.

“There you are,” Walker said with open relief that made her heart warm slightly. “Hawthorn said it was normal for this to take this long, but I was about to go looking for you, regardless.”

“You can’t go through the teleporter,” Milanda pointed out, giving her a smile in return as she approached. Hawthorn waved at her before returning her attention to whatever she was watching. “How long was I down there? There’s a lack of clocks…”

“You can have the Nexus display one, if you want,” Hawthorn said without looking up again. “Or ask the Avatar.”

“…all right, fine, you caught me. I was a little distracted by what happened down there and didn’t think of it.”

“It’s been over seven hours,” Walker said seriously. “The computer finished making its map of the city long ago. You can port out whenever you’re ready.”

Milanda winced. “Oof. Gods know what’s been happening up there… Well, I’m glad you two are getting along, at least.”

“Yes, well, I have some precedent to draw upon,” Walker said, smiling fondly at Hawthorn, who continued to gaze avidly at her show. The noise of it was more than a little distracting. “When I met my disconcertingly alien older sisters, one took the time to sit down with me and watch her favorite movies.”

“This was in Sifan?” Milanda frowned. “They have Infinite Order facilities there, too? And they’re open?”

“No and no,” Walker said with a grin, “but kitsune have never had trouble getting into such places at will. That’s a large part of why the Order found them so threatening.”

“I see. Well, I guess this counts as watching it with her,” Milanda said, smiling. “It might be more of a bonding exercise if you stopped messing around on the computer, yourself.”

“Oh, we already did that,” Hawthorn said distractedly.

“Yes, as I said, it’s been hours. We watched the entire trilogy together—the original one. Then she understandably wanted to see more, and I decided she deserved a more thorough grounding in the classics before we branched out into the expanded material. This is Episode Four again.”

Milanda sighed. “Walker, is there a particular reason I need to understand what you’re talking about?”

“Yes,” Walker said solemnly, but with a mischievous smile, “this is a very important part of humanity’s cultural heritage. But no, it’s not imminently relevant to what you’re doing.”

“You haven’t seen it?” Hawthorn exclaimed, still watching the screen herself, and pointed at it. “You gotta! See that guy in the black, he’s actually that other guy’s—”

“Hawthorn! Remember our discussion about spoilers?”

“Oh. Oops. Sorry.”

“And actually,” Walker said pointedly, “that’s rather distracting, while we’re trying to have a conversation.”

“Oh, of course.” Hawthorn disentangled herself from the chair, then struck a dramatic pose. “Computer!” she cried, lifting her chin, then extended an arm at the screen, palm outward, as if casting a spell. “Pause playback!”

Immediately, the sounds stopped, and the image went still. It had frozen on a shabbily-dressed, shaggy-haired man brandishing what she assumed was some kind of wand, since it was in the process of spitting a beam of red light. A historical drama, maybe? The dryad turned to Milanda and folded her arms, looking tremendously satisfied with herself. “So! Whatcha got?”

“What… Oh, you mean abilities?”

Hawthorn nodded eagerly. “They all end up a little different, but there are some baselines that seem pretty common. Plus, you got a whole different set-up in the first place, so I’m really curious how it turns out!”

Milanda refrained from commenting that she could have been down there helping with the process. The other two had mentioned it often enough she had a feeling Hawthorn was due for an earful as it was. No sense in making herself the object of the dryad’s resentment.

“Senses,” she said, unconsciously shifting her head to where the katzil floated in its tank. “I can feel…life, now. Any living thing. That was really confusing to puzzle out, in a grassy forest, with two dryads right there.”

“Ooh, that’s a good one,” Hawthorn said eagerly. “Those always have a lot of strategic value, Sharidan says! You got the emotions yet?”

“Emotions?” Milanda asked warily. Gods, if this thing was going to start making her as volatile as the dryads…

“Yeah!” Hawthorn blathered on, nodding enthusiastically. “The ones who get the life sense always have an emotional sense develop a little later. It’s a kind of empathy, only works on animals with complex enough brains. Big ones, mostly. Obviously people. But yeah, it’s probably too early. That may start to come in over the next few days, so don’t get taken by surprise.”

“The others didn’t mention anything about that!”

“Oh, those two.” Hawthorn waved a hand dismissively. “I love ’em dearly, but they’re not the ripest berries on the bush.”

“With all due respect, it took you seven hours to acquire that?” Walker asked skeptically.

“I spent the first part unconscious,” Milanda said a little defensively. “And after that… Well, it was overwhelming. Do you have any idea what it’s like to suddenly have your whole perception of the world radically changed?”

“Yes,” Walker said in a softer tone. “Twice. And I of all people should be more understanding. My apologies.”

“No harm done,” Milanda assured her with a smile. “Anyway, that wasn’t all of it. I gained a more reflexive sense of myself, that’s the best way I can think of to describe it.” She lifted her hand and flexed her fingers, gazing thoughtfully at the palm. “That’s what took the most time to work out how to control. My body sort of…moves on its own, when threatened. The girls and I scuffled around quite a bit, working out the parameters of it. They said they’ve seen that one before, too…”

“Oooh, yes, that’s a really good one!” Hawthorn said, beaming. “It often goes with expanded senses. But yeah, you gotta practice if you’re gonna be safe to be around. Otherwise, any time you’re in danger, you just—whoop!” She struck a mock-combat pose, fists upraised. “No prisoners, no regard for bystanders or scenery! It can get messy. It’s for the best they took the time to make sure you’re pretty stable before you left, especially if you’re gonna go right out there and hang out with other humans again. Apparently studying some actual martial arts helps. Have you?”

“As I keep having to remind people,” Milanda said with a grin, “I’m from Viridill.”

Hawthorn tilted her head. “Where?”

Walker stood up. “Well. This has already taken longer than anticipated; not to tell you your business, Milanda, but…”

“Yes, indeed,” she agreed, nodding. “If the teleporter works now, I’d best get up there. No telling what’s been happening…”

“I’m going to walk her to the teleport pad,” Walker said to Hawthorn with a smile. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“And I’ll be back…later,” Milanda added. “See you then.”

“May the Force be with you,” Hawthorn intoned, nodding solemnly.

Milanda blinked at her, then turned to Walker, who grinned.

“Long story. Good story, but…another time. Come on.”

“Computer,” Hawthorn proclaimed, grandly gesticulating at the screen again, “resume playback!”

The noise and music resumed, cutting off behind them as they stepped into the hall and the doors slid shut.

“Walker,” Milanda said thoughtfully, “did she show any familiarity with the Order’s technology at all?”

“No, but she’s certainly having fun with the entertainment system. As you saw.”

“It’s just that… Hm. I wonder if the entertainment database is accessible from their little planet. I guess that much information would take up a lot of space to store.”

“Not the way the Order stored data,” Walker replied as they slipped around the last stack of crates and crowded into the small elevator at the end of the hall. “The whole archive would be small enough for you to pick up. The GIC is isolated, obviously, but if the Avatar is installed there it should have the requisite terminals, and he has all of that on file.”

“And yet, they’ve been down there for decades and not used the computers.” Milanda frowned thoughtfully at the elevator doors. “That Avatar is working an angle of his own.”

“Inevitably,” Walker agreed. The door slid open again, revealing the next hallway, and she preceded Milanda out. “He’s an intelligence as complex as any biological sapient—and arguably more so than some—but it’s an open question whether he qualifies as a free-willed being. There was a whole genre of fiction on Earth about humanity building sapient machines, which then rebel and overthrow humanity. Between the Order’s general paranoia and their fondness for speculative fiction, they were extremely wary about that. Artificial intelligences were tightly regulated.”

“Then,” Milanda said slowly, “he’s actually pursuing the directives given by his maker. He said that, but I’m unsure how much to trust him.”

“Tarthriss sided with the Pantheon in their war, if that helps.”

“Maybe,” Milanda said with a sigh. They had arrived in the array, and she paused, peering around. “He also said we need the help of a skilled fae magic user to finish fixing the Hands. One who understands the systems here would be better, but that obviously isn’t an option. How do I get this thing to send me somewhere in particular?”

She turned to walker, finding the fairy with a most peculiar expression on her face—one Milanda couldn’t quite interpret. Accustomed as she was to Walker by now, her odd features could still be puzzling. At her own stare, though, Walker blinked and shook her head. “It’s very simple, everything here is designed to be user-friendly. I’ll show you.”


Fedora gallantly held the infirmary door open for Tellwyrn, earning nothing in return but a scornful stare. The other occupants of the room turned to her, most with expressions of relief.

“Ah, there you are,” Embras Mogul said lightly. “We were about to send out a search party.”

“Well, I do beg your pardon,” she snapped, glancing back at Fedora, who peeked outside before shutting the door again. “I’ve spent my day reassuring the townspeople who saw a snowstorm on this mountain last night, reassuring the Imperial and provincial governments in Tiraas that the Madouri line is not terminated and the Governor will be back on her feet soon, and reassuring an increasingly nervous student body who keep interrupting me with questions about their safety which I haven’t the heart to brush off. And also, what the hell is this?”

She turned to glare at the piles of floral bouquets arranged around Ravana’s bed, spilling over onto the empty one next to her.

“Quite a story, it seems,” said Professor Ezzaniel. He and Professor Yornhaldt were present, making no pretense of not keeping watch on the two Black Wreath warlocks, while Miss Sunrunner lurked just behind them, making no pretense of not wanting the room cleared. “The short version is that our little Duchess is a politician.”

“Specifically, a populist,” Yornhaldt rumbled, “and I’m interested in seeing how that will go considering it’s a relatively new method, currently only practiced on a large scale by the Archpope. But she doesn’t confine her efforts to her own territory, it seems. Ravana is quite well thought of in the town.”

“Even I’ve heard about it,” added Fedora. “It’s a relatively simple matter of being kind to people, and not acting as if she were better than they. You should give it a try, Professor Tellwyrn.”

The other two Professors present, and Miss Sunrunner, immediately gave him warning stares, at which he winked.

“Apparently,” Embras drawled, “the Duchess has been financing small business loans for people in the town. Mostly newcomers without collateral, the ones at whom Mr. Taft turned up his nose. She’s not only earned some loyal supporters that way, but got the Mayor and the Sheriff on her side, since she’s doing a lot to drive the economy. Smart kid. I hope we can wake her up, I admit I kinda like this one.”

“The subject of why you know so much about Last Rock’s doings can wait for another day,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “What have you found? Mr. Bradshaw, wasn’t it?”

“I’ve found your curse, in short,” Bradshaw said, straightening and pulling back the hood of his gray robe to reveal a bluff, bearded face. He looked more like the popular stereotype of a teamster than the popular stereotype of a warlock. “This is by a wide margin the most complex application of the Lady’s gift of stealth I have ever seen. The curse must have taken quite some time to design, and with all respect, Professors, it’s no reflection on you that you weren’t able to detect it through arcane means.”

“Explain,” Tellwyrn ordered.

Bradshaw turned back to Natchua, seemingly unfazed by her tone. “Using the Lady’s gift to conceal spell effects is complex, but an old and familiar technique. If not for your explanation about where this Sleeper got his knowledge, I would conclude from what I’ve seen here that one of ours had gone rogue. The basic problem with any stealth spell is that it affects its subject, not the whole world, and nothing exists except in context. There are always traces left by the passage of a concealed person, object, or enchantment, if you know where to look for them. Those traces are what most of your detection measures would look for. In this case, the traces are also concealed.”

“Clever,” Yornhaldt acknowledged, “but our efforts have been rather more exhaustive than that…”

“Yes,” Bradshaw said, nodding at him. “And then the traces of the traces were concealed. And the traces of those, and so on. The incredible thing is that the farther out this goes, the more actual illusion is required, in addition to simple concealment. The complexity grows exponentially with each step.”

“To how many degrees?” Tellwyrn demanded.

“Thirteen,” the warlock said solemnly. “Under almost any circumstances, I would consider this melodramatic overkill. At the level of this obscurity, the only perceptible remnants of the spell left exposed are discernible only at the sub-atomic level, and indistinguishable from the random background noise of the universe. Well before reaching that point, it would be sufficiently obscured that no one except possibly a god would be able to detect or make sense of the traces. But…considering this character was deliberately designing a spell to put one over on Arachne Tellwyrn, I suppose his over-caution is somewhat justified.”

“Then we can break it,” Tellwyrn said, staring down at Raolo, her expression lightening for the first time.

“We can start to break it,” Embras cautioned. “Consider it this way: you have been trying to solve an invisible puzzle box. With our intervention, the box can finally be seen, but that doesn’t solve the puzzle itself.”

“This curse is unlike anything I have ever seen,” Bradshaw said, wearing a deep frown. “It’s complex enough on its own merits to suit the wildly excessive layers of protection over it. Just from the relatively brief analysis I’ve managed to do so far, I can tell it has both infernal and arcane components, as well as using at least one school of shadow magic. All the types I’ve identified are used at an astonishing level of complexity, they interact with each other in ways I’ve never seen before, and there are gaps in the spell matrices where there are clearly other schools being used. Probably other kinds of shadow magic, since no warlock should be able to use the fae or divine. Still, though… With this character, perhaps it would be wiser not to make assumptions.”

Tellwyrn stared at him through narrowed eyes for a moment before speaking. “And, of course, you would like to hang around as long as it takes to unravel this.”

“You’re welcome, by the way,” Mogul said pointedly.

Bradshaw glanced at him, still frowning, received a nod, then turned his attention back to Tellwyrn. “In fact, Professor, I think the effort would be better served by walking you and Professor Yornhaldt through the necessary steps to see past the concealment.”

“We’re aware you already know the technique to do so, in general,” Mogul added with a grin. “I reckon giving you a leg up on this piece of work isn’t damaging our security any further.”

“I am willing to stay and continue to help,” Bradshaw added, “and truthfully I’d be grateful for the opportunity to analyze a curse like this as we untangle it. But… I have to acknowledge this is over my head. It would take me months, potentially years to straighten this mess out. It just makes more sense to put it in your hands.”

“Good,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “Show me.”

“Arachne,” Yornhaldt said gently, “before we burn any bridges, here, consider keeping them on call.”

Very slowly, she turned to stare at him.

“I am not proposing to extend unwarranted trust,” he said, “but only to acknowledge everyone’s self-interest here. The Wreath has much to gain by getting on your good side, and none of their objectives involve harming the school or the students. In fact, Mr. Mogul and Mr. Bradshaw saved my life in Svenheim.”

“I am glad to see you’re mended, by the way, Professor,” Bradshaw added with a grin.

Yornhaldt nodded politely to him, then continued. “I have not mistaken that for charity—it was strategic, and they’d have just as amiably left me to die if that served their interests. But the situation being what it is… We are neither of us infernomancers, Arachne. We’re dealing with an incredibly complex spell with a major infernal component. Don’t tell me you can’t see the utility of having a highly skilled warlock on hand to assist.”

“You don’t know how much I know, Alaric,” Tellwyrn said softly. “About anything.” She shifted her head, her gaze lingering on Natchua, then Ravana, and sighed. “Still…your point is well-taken. And while my instinct is to show these gentlemen the door, that is mostly because their bitch goddess caused all this, just to get under my skin.”

“I cannot, of course, speak for the Lady,” Mogul said diffidently, “but I rather suspect the lack of orders on her part for us to butt out of this suggests she meant no harm of this kind, and may even regret the outcome. The Lady has always shown the utmost care with regard to bystanders.”

“She actually does,” Fedora added. “I’m not hugely enamored of her myself, but Yornhaldt’s right. Don’t accuse people of being every kind of evil just ‘cos they’re against you at the moment. It’s hard for me to believe Elilial would have done this if she’d known it would turn out this way, specifically.”

“By the by,” Mogul said to Tellwyrn, pointing at the Inspector. “Are you aware that this guy is—”

“Yes,” she snapped, “and so are his Imperial handlers.”

“Ah. Well, I wish that surprised me at least a little bit.”

Fedora grinned toothily at him. “While I have everybody’s attention, let me just add something in my professional opinion. All this,” he gestured around the room, “needs to remain secret. The Sleeper likes to play games—which is the point of this whole bullshit. He’s prone to escalating when challenged. Most importantly, this sleeping curse was inordinately complex and probably took him months to work on, during that period when he didn’t dare show his colors due to a kitsune prowling around the campus. He hasn’t got the time to put together another one. As soon as he realizes the Wreath is getting into this, and his spell is on the road to being broken, then this game is not fun anymore—because he’s no longer winning. At that point,” he turned a serious expression on Tellwyrn, “he will probably start killing.”

She met his gaze in silence for a few heartbeats, then slowly nodded. “The Inspector makes good sense. All right, you heard him, everyone. No Black Wreath are involved in this—no, you were seen by a student. Mogul took a look, couldn’t find anything, and buggered off with a hail of curses from me. We are no closer to cracking this curse than we were this morning.” She glanced again at Fedora. “And that will be the story until we’ve dealt with the Sleeper himself.”

“That’s going to inhibit our ability to work on the curse,” Yornhaldt pointed out.

“It will be easier once all the victims are moved to the chapel. I can secure that against encroachment; it will be declared off-limits until this is resolved. Stew told me he has it arranged in there. We’ll move them as soon as we’re done here.”

“A-hem,” Fedora said pointedly. “With regard to that, there’s still the matter of me chasing down the Sleeper himself. I still require your blessing to proceed, Professor.”

“You can be patient a little longer,” she said irritably. “At the very least, until I hear from Admestus that he’s got results which will make that worthwhile.”

“Of course, I understand,” Fedora agreed. “But do keep in mind who I work for and what my mandate is, Professor. The fact that a sitting Imperial Governor has been affected by this changes things. You’re not the only one who was contacted by Tiraas today. Much more foot-dragging on your part, and I’m going to have to choose whether to say ‘fuck your rules’ to you or the Silver Throne. I’d take it as a personal kindness if you’d not place me in that position.”

“You can be patient,” she repeated, “for a little longer. I assure you, I am not dithering or leaving all of you to solve this for me. I have plans of my own being laid. I fully understand the pressure we are all under, but right now, rash action will only make this worse. We should have at least tonight to come up with something more. I doubt the Sleeper will make another grand spectacle so soon, especially with me here.”

Fedora rolled his jaw once as if chewing on the idea, then shrugged, his expression skeptical.

“Maybe.”

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10 – 51

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With a soft sigh of relief, she pressed the wax seal onto the final envelope, stacked it neatly on the side of her desk with the others, and pushed her chair back. For a long moment, Tellwyrn indulged in a luxurious stretch, arching her back and pressing both fists at the windows behind her. Fifty years and she’d never grown to like all the damned paperwork. Only some days could she even claim to be somewhat used to it.

Without warning, the presence slammed down on her, the sudden proximity of an entity whose very consciousness was enough to make an indentation in reality.

“ARACHNE!”

Grimacing, Tellwyrn straightened up and stared sardonically at the goddess glaring at her from inches away, fists planted on her desk.

“Well, hi there. Won’t you come in.”

“I am not going to indulge your nonsense, Arachne. How dare you allow the Black Wreath to manipulate my paladin? When I sent here here I understood that your unconventional methods could be important to her growth, but there are limits. You cannot have thought that was an acceptable line to cross!”

“Stop it, Avei,” Tellwyrn said flatly, staring at her over the rims of her spectacles. “Just…spare me. You’ve had the whole afternoon to come blazing down here in a fury if you wanted; this is a calculated move, and I’m not going to indulge your nonsense. What is it you really want?”

“Why, I should think it’s obvious,” Kaisa purred from behind her chair, slinking out into view. “Like all unhappy parents, she wants a word with the teacher who dared administer a spanking to her little darling. After all, Arachne, you did promise me I could handle this, no?”

Tellwyrn groaned and slumped back into her chair, covering her eyes with a hand, glasses and all.

“You are stepping into matters better left alone, little fairy,” the goddess growled. “The business of the Pantheon is not fodder for one of your elaborate pranks.”

“Omnu’s balls, don’t say that to her,” Tellwyrn pleaded.

Kaisa laughed softly. “Dear Avei, I understand your worry. Truly, I do. But you chose to trust Trissiny’s education to Arachne, and she has trusted part of it to me. You have my solemn word, at no point has any of this trust been betrayed.” She paced slowly around the desk to join Avei on its other side, ears alert and tail bobbing lightly. “I do love my little jokes—but I am a teacher first and foremost. My great joy has been in the forming of young minds far, far longer than Arachne has been at it. Longer than you have called paladins, in fact. If I choose to allow the Black Wreath to play their little games with my students, it is for one reason only: I deem it in the best interests of my students’ education.”

“The Wreath wants nothing more than to sink their claws into the Hands of the gods,” Avei grated. “You are not to give them what they want!”

“They want that, yes,” Kaisa mused. “Which is why I was careful to supervise and set boundaries; I fear Mr. Mogul would have taken shocking liberties had I not monitored him. But no, the exercise proceeded according to my plan. The paladins have not been turned against their gods; they have only learned to ask piercing questions and to challenge dangerous assumptions. And if you are bothered by this, perhaps it is not you who should be criticizing me, hmmmm?”

“I’ve already heard from Janis, Emilio and Kaisa herself about Trissiny’s demeanor after this morning’s events,” Tellwyrn added. “All indications are that she has managed what I haven’t in eighteen months and your people couldn’t in three years: she got through to the girl.”

“To what end?” Avei snapped. “I didn’t send her here so you could teach her to challenge the gods!”

“You sent her here so I could teach her to think,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “And Kaisa is right about that, too. If thinking results in turning on the gods, that’s something you should think about, rather than complaining at educators. But no, so long as we do our jobs well, it won’t come to that. Based on everything I know, the Pantheon could benefit greatly from criticism and challenge, but knowing the full truth is unlikely to make your own Hands turn against you.”

“Embras Mogul certainly does not agree with that,” Avei said pointedly.

“Embras Mogul,” Tellwyrn replied, steepling her fingers and raising an eyebrow, “is a man of faith. Specifically, a faith which keeps him locked in a very weak position. No matter what cunning their goddess teaches them, the Black Wreath are utterly defined by their obsession with their enemies. If the gods actually did fall, the Wreath would go down soon after, just because they’d have nothing left to cling to. On matters of gods and paladins, I may or may not know as many secrets as Mogul, but I am certainly more objective. And I’m telling you, he hasn’t done nearly the harm he believes he has. Mogul assumes critical thinking by the paladins will bring them ultimately to his point of view because, like all religious people, he is emotionally unable to entertain the prospect that he isn’t right.”

Kaisa giggled; Avei glared at her.

“Critical thinking,” said the kitsune, waving her tail playfully, “is always worth pursuing, for its own sake.”

Avei straightened up to her full height; even in a purely mortal shape as she was now, wearing a crisp Army uniform without insignia, she was well over six feet all and powerfully built besides. The far daintier kitsune was dwarfed in comparison.

“Allow me to make myself clear,” the goddess intoned, her voice suddenly resonating through far more than the air; the fabric of existence around them appeared to pulse with it. In the next moment, she was holding a sword and shield made of pure golden light, with blazing eagle wings fanning out behind her. There wasn’t actually room for them in the office, but they didn’t brush the walls. “My trust is limited and hard-earned, and I have chosen this course for my Hand because I will not take foolish risks with her. Your antics here have eroded my patience for any further tricks, Ekoi Kaisa. If I have any further indication that your actions will harm Trissiny, I will put an immediate and absolute halt to them.”

Again, Kaisa giggled.

Light flared through the office, and suddenly she, too, stood taller than the space should have been able to hold. A corona of pure, pale light shifted and pulsed around her, and the office was filled with the scent of cherry blossoms.

The kitsune’s coiffed hair, the fur of her ears and tail, were all luminous as spun gold. In fact, a whole fan of tails swayed and waved behind her, shifting too rapidly to be counted.

“Dear, Avei,” she said in a fondly indulgent tone, her own voice like the music of galaxies. “Dear, silly little Avei. No. You will not.”

“Really?” Tellwyrn complained. “Can’t you two have your pissing contest somewhere other than my office? Other than my campus, for that matter.”

“Indeed so!” Kaisa said pleasantly. “This is, after all, an institute of learning. Avei, I want you to remember something important, when next you feel an urge to intervene in your paladin’s education.”

The kitsune leaned forward; the goddess shifted back, frowning suspiciously, but Kaisa continued to smile benignly, even as she raised one hand with a single clawed forefinger extended.

And then the fox-woman poked the goddess of war lightly on the nose.

“Boop!”

Her laughter echoed through the office as she swirled in on herself, a brief cyclone of swishing foxtails and golden light, and was gone.

In the aftermath of her passing, Avei’s golden effects had vanished as well, leaving the goddess scowling at empty space in an apparently mortal shape.

“Honestly,” Tellwyrn grumbled. “Would you please not rile her up?”

“Me?” Avei exclaimed, rounding on her.

“Yes, you,” Tellwyrn snapped. “You I expect to have the judgment and self-control to know what powerful fae are like and not push their buttons, nor rise to the bait. Honestly, if this is how you’re going to act, sending Trissiny here for an education was an even better idea than you realized. And speaking of that, I now need to go finish what Kaisa started.” She stood up from the chair, straightening her tunic. “The girl’s had long enough to ponder, I believe. Do me a favor.”

The elf gave the goddess a sardonic look over the tops of her spectacles.

“Butt out.”

Then, with a soft pop, she vanished.

Standing alone in an empty office, the goddess sighed. “This is what happens when I go too long without publicly smiting someone.”


After a year and a half, Trissiny was inured to the horror of hanging suspended over the edge of the mountain and had learned to simply appreciate the views offered by Clarke Tower’s position. The Rock itself blocked the sunrise, but the little outdoor patio at the tower’s “ground” level offered the most amazing view of sunsets she had ever seen. In some ways, it was symbolic of the reversal her life had taken since coming here. In Viridill, you could always see the sun coming up in the distant east, but the mountains hid it by mid-afternoon.

The sun had just vanished below the distant horizon, leaving the plains swathed in reflected crimson and orange, when the door behind her clicked open.

“Here you are,” Ruda said, striding out and kicking it shut behind her. “You missed dinner.”

“Mm.” Trissiny didn’t lift her stare from the empty distance. “Not hungry.”

There was a moment of silence while Ruda stared at her critically, then the pirate sighed, stepped forward, and plunked herself down on the bench next to Trissiny.

“Boots, I can see you’re upset, but come on. You have to fucking eat.”

“Actually, I don’t,” Trissiny said without inflection, not shifting her gaze. “Did some experiments with Professor Rafe this summer; turns out I have the elvish metabolism, or most of it. After nineteen years of regular human-sized meals, he figures I won’t need food for at least five years. Or I could just hold my breath for a month.”

“Oh,” Ruda said, nonplussed. “Huh. That’s…well. That’s pretty nifty.”

“I managed half an hour,” Trissiny said absently. “Without breathing. It feels wrong, though, and it got boring. Breathing is habitual.”

“Uh, yeah, I’d say it’s a pretty fuckin’ good habit to be in.”

Trissiny continued to stare at nothing, face blank. Ruda, frowning worriedly, studied her for a few moments before speaking again.

“So…you wanna talk about it, or do I need to badger you first?”

“That’s the second time we’ve dealt with the Black Wreath,” Trissiny said softly. “And both times, they played me like a lute.”

“Played all of us, to be fair…”

“I’ve got two and a half more years to be a student. Then, there’ll be no more improbably friendly vampires or kitsune keeping watch. It’ll just be me, out there with them. I’m the hand of Avei. Gabriel’s unprecedented and Toby’s calling is far more nurturing. Me? Striking down the Wreath is a huge part of my purpose in this world. And I…just keep failing.”

“Trissiny…”

“It’s not just failure,” Trissiny continued, a frown slowly forming on her face. “I can learn from failure and do better, next time. It’s what I learn that… I mean, we even had intelligence they couldn’t have guessed at; we had the valkyries feeding us information, we knew in advance what they were about, and they still played me.”

“Well, it’s the Wreath,” Ruda said reasonably. “And let’s face it, Boots, nothing about this is new. They’ve always been sly, and the Hands of Avei have always been badass. Your predecessors managed.”

“My predecessors managed for a while, and almost every one of them died fighting. And that’s okay with me, I’m long past fearing that end. Everybody dies; all I ask is that it’s meaningful. Y’know?”

“Yes, I do,” Ruda said quietly, nodding.

“Yeah.” Finally, Trissiny glanced at her. “You’re as much a woman of action as I am. But it’s not just the Wreath. People keep making the point to me that the world is about connection. That dealing with it is about subtlety. I just can’t… I’m not good at that, Ruda.”

“Hey, there is nothing wrong with your intelligence, Triss.”

“It’s not that I’m stupid, it’s the way I think. What I was trained to be. You were brought up to be clever. Down in the Crawl I experience that…alternate of mine, the one raised by my mother. She was brought up to be clever. I know the capacity’s in me. I just… I have no idea how to reach it. When I look for it, nothing’s there. I can do strategy, I can do tactics, but I can’t do…espionage. Con artistry. I’m a warrior, and you can’t just swing a sword in this world and expect to get anywhere. They…” She paused to swallow heavily. “They trained me wrong. I’m equipped to serve my goddess a hundred years ago. If I keep on now, all I’m going to do is fail her.”

“Trissiny,” Ruda said in alarm, “stop. You are seriously scarin’ me, here. Come on, remember last spring before the hellgate? You told me that whatever happened with my people, we’d be together to deal with it—all of us. Well, same goes. So the world’s about connection? Fine. You’ve got connections, and I think you’re doing a kickass job learning to use them. I mean, c’mon, remember our first week when you tried to straight-up murder a guy for callin’ you a dirty word?”

Trissiny sighed heavily. “In fairness, it was for calling me a dirty word while being a demonblood.”

“Right.” Ruda grinned and jostled her with a shoulder. “So, thoughtless, hotheaded and racist. You can’t deny you’re a much better person now. Hell, you and Gabe are as close as any of us; who woulda pictured that, way back then? You’re going to be okay.”

Trissiny looked at her again, suddenly with a slight smile, and shifted to drape an arm around her roommate’s shoulders.

“Ruda, I love you too, but you can stop comforting me. I’m not having a crisis, I’m thinking.” She heaved a sigh, again frowning out at the horizon, where the last dregs of the sunset were fading. Right behind them, the small fairy lamp above the tower’s back door clicked on. “Like I said, woman of action. I’ve identified a problem and what I want is to solve it, not sit here maundering. I’m just… I’m stuck. I have absolutely no idea what to do, where to turn. How do you learn a whole new set of skills and adjust your personality to accommodate them, all at once? Who can teach that?”

“I get what you mean,” Ruda murmured, nodding. “Not much is worse than being unable to act when you need to.”

“I know it’s possible,” Trissiny said pensively. “It has to be. People change—people gain new aptitudes all the time. But…how?”

“I can’t tell you how glad I am that you’re finally asking those questions,” Professor Tellwyrn said warmly.

Both of them jumped up, whirling on her. The elf sat in the other chair on the terrace, positioned just out of view of their bench. She had clearly not come through the door; they hadn’t even heard the customary puff of breath caused by her teleportation.

“Goddammit!” Ruda shouted. “Naphthene’s bouncing bazooms, woman, do you have to do shit like that?!”

“Not strictly, no, but it amuses the hell out of me,” Tellwyrn said pleasantly. “Go on, sit down. The truth is, Trissiny, none of what you’ve been pondering this afternoon is news to me, or most of your teachers, but we’ve been in this business long enough to know when someone isn’t going to listen to a certain idea.”

“Great,” Trissiny said sourly.

“Trissinly,” Tellwyrn said calmly, “if you had the world figured out and needed no help finding your way, what would be the point of getting educated? I’m not condemning you. This is progress, and I’ve been waiting eagerly to see it. However,” she added with a sigh, “it also brings us to a point I haven’t been looking forward to. The truth is, this University is not equipped to grant you what you need.”

Trissiny blinked at her.

“You’re quite perceptive,” Tellwyrn continued, “to note that the root of your problem is not simply a set of skills, but a mindset. For most people, I would say the simple awareness of the world’s complexity and a habit of analytical reasoning would be all you need to get yourself in order. You, though, aren’t just working against a certain kind of upbringing: you have the pressure of a deity who wants to do things a certain way on your mind at all times. I’m not saying anything against Avei, here—”

“Yeah, we can pretty much tell when you do that,” Ruda commented.

Tellwyrn ignored her. “—but it’s a factor that you have to consider. What you need is specific training, and not only that but guidance, in exactly the kind of cunning and underhandedness that you’ve been brought up from the cradle to disdain.”

“What…are you suggesting, Professor?” Trissiny asked warily.

The elf gazed at her thoughtfully for a long moment, then glanced out over the Golden Sea, and nodded to herself. “Well. It’s not something I commonly encourage my students to do, but unique as your situation is, it’s not without precedent. Sometimes, Trissiny, the right thing for a certain student in a certain position is to take a semester off.”

“Off?” Trissiny exclaimed. “What do you mean, off?”

“I mean, off campus,” Tellwyrn said patiently. “Elsewhere. Pretty much the only circumstance in which I’ll endorse the idea is if the student in question needs a particular course of study that the University isn’t able to provide—which is what we’re facing here. There’s a lot of things your professors here can teach you beyond what you learn in their classes, Trissiny, but my own predilection for straightforward methods has left me surrounded by people who simply don’t have the kind of adaptive, underhanded thinking you’re looking for. Quite frankly I do not enjoy the company of such people.”

“What about Professor Ekoi?” Trissiny asked, raising an eyebrow.

Tellwyrn grinned. “Well, yes, she could. Could. And if you can pitch that to her in a way that she’ll go for, I think it’d be a great solution. But Kaisa came here to teach specific things; she has a contract, and takes it seriously. Besides, studying under a kitsune, one on one… Well, take it from me, there’s a lot involved that you wouldn’t think of until you’ve done it. And frankly, you’re entirely the wrong sort of person for that experience.”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah!” Ruda protested. “Come on, now, you’re talkin’ about breaking up the team. We have a good thing going here! We’re a group!”

“We won’t always be, though,” Trissiny said softly. “Don’t look at me like that, Ruda; we’ll always be friends, and I’m sure we’ll have a place in each other’s lives. But most of us have specific places we’ll have to go after the University. Once we graduate, it just can’t be the eight of us, roving around as a unit.”

“And,” Tellwyrn added severely, pointing at the paladin, “I said semester, singular. You’re a smart cookie when you want to be, Trissiny; it won’t take you all that long to nudge your mind and your habits in the direction you need, especially if you find the right mentor. I expect to see your ass back on this campus the following autumn.”

Trissiny nodded slowly, her eyes wandering away to the horizon, and her mind clearly beyond that. “I still… I mean, that kind of leaves me right back where I was. Worse, even. I have no idea where to start looking.”

“Nonsense, of course you do,” Tellwyrn said brusquely. “You’re letting the enormity of the future cloud your thinking. To start with, you can always go back where you came from. Trissiny, have you ever given thought to the fact that the Silver Legions use exclusively weapons and tactics rendered obsolete by modern military enchanting? I assure you, followers of the goddess of war did not give up their ability to wage war effectively just to placate the Empire, or anyone else.”

“What are you getting at?” Trissiny asked, narrowing her eyes.

Tellwyrn grinned. “Look… Narnasia trained you as best she could, toward the best purpose she knew how. She most certainly didn’t tell you everything. In the time she had, there was no way she could have, and she had to pick and prioritize. You, however, are at least the equal of the High Commander, and you outrank everyone else in the Sisterhood. There is nothing they are entitled to keep secret from you. I guarantee if you go back to the Abbey and tell Narnasia what’s on your mind, she’ll have just the thing ready to start you on.”

“Hm,” Trissiny said, frowning thoughtfully. “I…well. Hum. That’s actually very good to know, thank you, Professor. But…”

“Yes?” Tellwyrn prompted after a moment.

“It’s… Never mind. I’m not sure if it’s a worthwhile idea.”

“Trissiny, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed the pattern, but I only get on your case for the dumb comments you make when you think they’re smart. If you’re having a thought that you’re not sure is wise or not, it’s the perfect time to share it with a teacher.”

Trissiny had to smile faintly at that. “Well, it’s… With all I’ve heard about the complexity and connectedness of the world, plus the fact that my schooling at the Sisterhood’s hands is kind of what put me in this position in the first place… It feels almost treasonous to say it, but I can’t help thinking the best thing for me would be to seek some answers elsewhere.”

“That,” Tellwyrn said with an approving nod, “is in fact a very perceptive thought, and I’m proud of you for having it. And there, too, you certainly have prospects. Just off the top of my head, according to Admestus’s report on your Veilgrad expedition, you were an absolute hit with the Shadow Hunters. You couldn’t ask for better than they to teach you precisely what you’re looking to learn.”

“Hey, that’s a point,” Trissiny said, brightening up. “Raichlin gave me a book on the Silver Huntresses, which I’ve absolutely loved reading. And they have a huge library.”

“Oh!” Ruda said in sudden excitement. “Boots, remember back in Lor’naris when that Colonel came and got you to finagle his brat daughter into the Silver Legions?”

“Um…yes, Covrin. Jenny, I think. Actually, now you mention it, I meant to check up on her, but it managed to slip my mind. I sort of doubt she lasted all the way through basic…”

“Sure, whatever,” Ruda said impatiently. “Point is, he started by suggesting I have her fostered in Puna Dara, right? Because that’s actually a standing custom. Well, if you gotta break up the unit, where better to go? My mother would love to take you under her wing for a few months, and I bet you’d get along famously with her. She’s a sword-swinging badass like you, and a sly as a bag of foxes to boot. They called her the Sea Devil back in the day. ‘sides, she loves having somebody around to mother!”

“There, see?” Tellwyrn said, smiling. “You do have options. I bet if you give it some time and some thought, you’ll come up with even more than that. Anyhow, though, you’ve got a few more weeks till finals, and a week of break after that. This is not something that needs to be settled right now. Think on it, sleep on it, talk to your classmates.” She stood, brushing off her trousers. “And Trissiny? Whatever else happens, I’m proud of you.”

She vanished with a little puff of displaced air before the paladin could respond.

“You know,” Trissiny said thoughtfully, “the thing that surprises me the most, I think… If you’d told me a year ago I would one day give a damn about that, I’d’ve called you a liar.”

Ruda’s laughter rang out over the prairie.


“Well,” Vanessa said, swirling her glass of rum punch idly in one hand, “are you happy?”

“All things considered, I am,” Bradshaw said fervently. “As much of a runaway mess as that was for most parts of it… And regardless of however we may be beholden to that crazy fox now… I’d have paid a great deal more for what she did for us.”

“You know I’m in total agreement,” Vanessa replied with a broad smile. “I’ve spent the whole afternoon just walking up and down the docks. Just walking. But I was talking to him.”

She turned expectantly to face Embras, who was gazing out to sea.

The dockside bar remained lively despite the darkness that had fallen over Puna Dara. The Punaji were a people whose famous zest for life didn’t yield to storm or fog, much less anything so commonplace as nightfall, and besides, open-sided taverns like this did a great deal of business among visiting merchants and other strangers to the city. The pier on which it was built was well-lit, both with modern fairy lamps inside the building and torches lining the rails protecting the pub-goers from a drop into the ocean. Talking, laughing, and singing patrons in varying states of inebriation thronged the pier, while musicians played frantically on a platform near the bar and comely young waitresses in matching sarongs dodged nimbly through the crowd. For once, the warlocks didn’t need to employ any magical effects to go ignored. Besides, if they had, they’d never have been served.

“Well,” Embras drawled at last, “we mustn’t lose sight of the future. The paladins are wary, but we’ve made a start there. Ekoi and Tellwyrn have proved willing to endure and even facilitate our presence, provided we behave accordingly. And more importantly, we’re set up, now, for next semester’s campaign on Falconer and Vadrieny. Even considering all the uncertainty to come…”

He grinned, swiveled in his seat to face them directly, and picked up his glass. “You know what? I do believe I am happy.” Embras lifted his drink. “To the future.”

Both his companions raised their own in reply. “The future!”

In the far distance, at the very rim of the horizon, there came the faintest flicker of light, and a soft growl of thunder that was lost to the noise in the restaurant. Whether they heard it or not, the storm was on its way.

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10 – 39

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A storm was brewing over Calderaas, which its residents bore with long-suffering good humor. Weather in all parts of the Great Plains was notoriously unpredictable, as the wind out of the Golden Sea might blow in any direction at all, and bring anything with it. Summer snow rarely survived to reach the ground, but from time to time it happened. Calderaas itself was somewhat sheltered by the slope of the mountain on which it sat, which deflected many of the worst storms, but on the other hand the cold winds which came from the Stalrange and the humidity of the Tira Valley might both drift over it, depending on what came out of the Sea. The Calderaan were accustomed to adapting quickly.

In a loft apartment atop one of the city’s younger housing complexes, faint flashes of lightning and the shifting patterns of rapidly-blowing clouds had little effect against the steady glow of an arcane lamp. It was a sparsely furnished space, ready to be abandoned at a moment’s notice, containing only a few cots, a few chairs, and a single table. The summoning circle scrawled in the center of its open area was made of cheap chalk that could be quickly erased, and in fact had not been used to summon anything and wouldn’t be. They liked to prepare the spaces they used with red herrings to obscure their true purposes to anyone who might come sniffing about.

Embras Mogul planted his elbows on the table, resting his chin on his interlaced fingers, and frowned in thought at the space in front of him, from which a warlock had just shadow-jumped away. Thunder grumbled in the distance; none of the three remaining in the room acknowledged it with so much as a glance at the windows.

“It’s thin,” Bradshaw said finally to break the silence, “but workable. I think the little pranks you’ve set up for Justinian should both keep him occupied and keep his attention from our central objective…”

“He knows the central objective anyway,” Embras said, still gazing into empty space. “And we know he knows, and he knows we know he knows, and so on into infinity. This is just…that kind of game. What bothers me is the lack of retaliation.”

“You think something big is coming?” Vanessa asked quietly.

Slowly, Embras shook his head from side to side without changing the focus of his blank stare. “I think he has his sights set on bigger things. We are being…tolerated. That aggravates me more than it ought to. The Lady deserves better than a bunch of distractions.”

“It has to be done, though,” Vanessa said gently. “If you withdrew the pressure on his peripheral activities, he would wonder what was up and devote serious resources to striking at us. For now…this suffices. I really hope your project in Last Rock hits him as hard as you hope.”

“With regard to that,” Kaisa said brightly from behind them.

Vanessa and Bradshaw both leaped from their chairs, she staggering slightly and barely catching her balance on the back of it. Embras rose more smoothly, turning, bowing, and doffing his hat to the kitsune.

“Why, a good evening to you, dear lady,” he said politely. “Forgive the spartan accommodations; I was not expecting such honored company tonight, as you are manifestly aware.”

Kaisa smiled languidly, her eyes half-lidded, and demurely folded her hands in front of her, the wide sleeves of her flowered kimono nearly hiding them. “Given the point you made so elaborately with regard to the very broad game playing in the world around us, I assume you are aware of events transpiring in Viridill?”

“I know of them, certainly,” Embras replied in the same carefully light tone. “And I remain insistently uninvolved. We don’t have a dog in that race.”

“Nonetheless,” she said, “it shifts things into motion that will have an effect upon matters which are of concern to both you and myself. While that comes to a head, it creates the correct opportunity to finish our own little game. We will move on to the final play tomorrow.”

He coughed discreetly. “With all respect, dear lady, I don’t believe that the wisest course just yet. Your kids are admirably clever, and I’m not blind to the fact that the group has pulled together and are, bluntly speaking, onto us. Now is the time to lay a few more diversionary trails, throw up a couple of entertaining smokescreens, before we build to the final act.”

Her smile broadened infinitesimally. Lightning flashed again beyond the windows, accompanied by a closer rumble of thunder, and the arcane lamp flickered.

“It is a peculiar thing I have noticed in this country,” she said, beginning to pace slowly in a wide arc around them. The three warlocks subtly shifted as she circled, keeping their faces to her. “This…misconception of the value and meaning of simple politeness. Courtesy is the sauce in the stew, the oil in the gears. The softness which enables us all to live together in this world without needlessly grinding against one another. Its importance is more, not less, in the absence of friendliness.” Lightning flashed, closer; the lamp flickered again, and her shadow danced upon the walls, a strangely angular thing of back-slanted ears, as if it were cast by a far more predatory creature than the woman before them. “Here, again, you seemingly assume that because I do not address you with a string of obscenities in an outdoor voice, we must be friends.”

Another rumble and flash from outside, another faltering of the lamp, and in the few split-second flickers of darkness, her eyes were eerie green points in her silhouette. “Well, it seems forthrightness is valued here; let it never be said that I am less than accommodating. You and your circle of hell-dabblers, Mr. Mogul, are a class exercise as far as I am concerned, and I expect you to conduct yourselves as such. If you will not, then you are just a suspicious person who has been hanging around the school, performing infernomancy upon my students. That makes a great difference in how I shall deal with you.”

“It’s apparently a short trip between polite and pushy,” Vanessa said tightly.

“Nessa,” Embras warned.

“That is purely unjust,” Kaisa said, her smile unwavering. “I am pushy without being for a moment less than polite.”

“As I suspect you already know,” Embras said, his tone a few degrees cooler than before, “virtually all my available people are out of hand, on business which has nothing to do with you or your students. What we discussed for our final presentation will require more magical skill than I can bring to bear alone, in a field which you emphatically do not practice.”

“Is there something wrong with these?” she asked mildly, making a languid gesture toward the other two with one hand. Thunder rumbled again, closer still, and the lamp cut out completely for almost a full second, plunging the room into a short blackness from which her luminous green eyes bored into them.

“In a word, yes,” Embras replied. “Both sustained serious injury at the hands of the Archpope’s lackeys. Surely you don’t suggest I should risk very important, partially disabled lieutenants on an affair sure to ruffle Professor Tellwyrn’s easily-ruffled feathers?”

“Hmm,” she mused, blinking slowly and cutting her eyes from Vanessa to Bradshaw and back. “I see…I see. Well. In some cultures which live closer to nature than this one, it is considered advisable to…cull the weak.”

Lightning flashed outside, brighter and closer yet, but there was a heavy silence in its wake. Kaisa suddenly grinned broadly at them.

Thunder slammed down as if the lightning bolt had struck directly overhead, and the lamplight vanished entirely.

In the blackness which followed, the glow of the city outside the windows was interrupted by darting, thrashing shapes, and the room filled with the sounds of scuffling, cursing, and finally a single shout of pain. Two shadowbolts flashed across the darkness, their sickly purple glow doing very little to alleviate it, and for an instant the decoy spell circle flashed alight before being brushed away in a single swish of a furry tail.

The whole thing lasted barely five seconds.

Then the lamp came back on, revealing Kaisa standing exactly where she had been, in exactly the same pose. Bradshaw sagged against the wall, barely holding himself upright; Vanessa stood five feet distant from where she had started, hands upraised and a half-formed shadowbolt flickering between them. Embras was now within two yards of Kaisa, a green glass bottle in his hands, half a second from being uncorked.

“There,” the kitsune said brightly, tail swishing in self-satisfaction. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, Embras, but it seems your friends have been tortured recently. Quite clumsily, I might add. If there is one thing I cannot abide, it is shoddy work; whatever is worth doing is worth doing to perfection. But that aside, I trust there will be no more problems or excuses?”

“Are you all right?” Embras asked, shifting his head slightly toward the others but keeping his gaze firmly on Kaisa.

“Fine,” Bradshaw said, straightening up, then blinked, and held up both hands before himself. Neither trembled in the slightest. “I’m…fine?”

Vanessa also straightened, lowering her own hands and letting the spell dissipate. Her mouth dropped slightly open in wonder, and she shifted, leaning her weight on her bad leg, with no apparent effort.

“As I said,” Kaisa said complacently, “perfection. I shall expect to see you in place tomorrow after classes. Do try not to disappoint me, Embras; I was actually beginning to grow rather fond of you. We don’t have any Wreath in Sifan, and you kids have such a wonderful appreciation of fun. Ta ta!”

With a final, cheerful smile, she whirled around, her tail swishing in a broad circle and appearing to erase her from existence. Two crimson maple leaves drifted slowly to the floor where she had stood.

“Are you…” Embras finally turned fully to the others. “Did she really…?”

“I think… Kelvreth’s lashes, she did,” Vanessa whispered, taking a few steps, then a few more back the other way, and finally trotting at a near run to the windows and back. “It’s fixed.”

“Well, then,” Embras said, tucking the bottle away in a pocket and straightening his coat, “we are going to have to have ourselves a celebration. Later, I’m afraid. Right now, it appears we’d better start making preparations for our…command performance. I gather it would go over poorly if the hour arrived and we were unready.”

“At this moment,” Bradshaw said with the faintest tremor in his voice, “I feel inclined not to disappoint her, even without the implied threat.”

“It’s not that I disagree, at all,” said Vanessa, still pacing back and forth as if not yet convinced that she could. “But if anything, this only underscores the point. Oh, I’m grateful; I don’t think I could tell you how much. I’d be willing to—”

“Stop!” Embras barked, holding up a hand. “That’s a fairy, Nessa, and I wouldn’t lay odds that she’s not still listening. Don’t say anything she could interpret as a promise, or a bargain.”

“Even more proof,” she said grimly, finally stopping and facing him. “Embras, that creature is ancient, wildly unpredictable and far more powerful than anything needs or deserves to be, and I don’t believe for a moment that she just placed us so much in her debt out of the goodness of her vulpine little heart. With everything we see of her, I feel less sanguine about this bargain you’ve struck. What if she immediately turns on you the moment your role in her little drama is done?”

“In that case,” he said lightly, “you’re in charge. It’s not that I lack respect for your skills, Bradshaw old boy, but the business of the next few years will call for herding cats more than casting hexes.”

“Let’s not think about that quite yet,” Bradshaw said tensely.

“Embras, be serious,” Vanessa snapped.

“I am,” he said calmly. “If this pays off, it will be worth it. I see no reason to believe it won’t, and as for the good Professor Ekoi… Well, we struck a bargain. So long as we honor it, so will she. Anyway, this isn’t all bad. We’ve as much stake in this as she has, if not more. And if she says the time is right… Frankly, it’s entirely possible that she’s just correct. I’ve a feeling this isn’t her first rodeo.”


Slipping back out through the rent was as easy as getting in had been, though Aspen balked at the eerily empty space between the wall of her mental prison and the dream world beyond. She kept a grip on Ingvar’s sleeve, huddling behind him, and forcing him to moderate his pace on the way back to the mouth of the cave. Not that he was in a particular rush; even knowing the nearly-invisible path would hold him, he felt no urge to walk hastily upon it.

It held, though, as it had before, and he indeed picked up the pace once he got his feet back on ground that looked like ground. In fact, by that point, Aspen also hastened, until she actually pushed him aside and was the first out into the forest.

Ingvar had to halt and watch, smiling in spite of himself, as the dryad squealed in sheer delight and hurled herself to the ground, rolling exuberantly through the moss. She bounded upright in the next moment, rushing over to wrap her arms around the trunk of a tree and hug it, then darted to one side to investigate a bush.

“Oh my gosh! Things! Plants! It’s not like the real world but oh how I’ve missed other living things. Stuff that isn’t me!”

“Couldn’t you have made—Aspen!” he exclaimed in alarm.

“What?” She looked up at his tone, frowning. “What the mat—augh!”

Mid-sentence, she caught sight of her hands, which had begun to fade from view like the path beyond the dreamscape. The dryad stumbled backward, as if she could outrun the oncoming invisibility, which did not work. It traveled up her arms, progressively erasing first her hands, then her forearms. She stumbled, glanced down, and let out a keening sound of pure panic at the sight of her vanishing feet.

Ingvar rushed forward, horribly unaware that he knew of nothing that could help, but reflexively grabbed her by the arms as if by holding her, he could keep her anchored in existence.

He was actually quite surprised when it worked.

Her limbs immediately faded back into view, and she clutched his waist, her fingers digging in as if to reassure them both that she still had fingers. They stared at each other, wide-eyed, Aspen panting in gradually diminishing panic.

“Okay,” Ingvar said shakily after a moment, “I warned you something like that might happen. I think…you had better keep hold of me while we’re in here.”

“Right,” she said weakly. “Right. Good idea. Um. What…are we doing?”

Moving very carefully, he slipped an arm around her waist, pulling her close, and turning in a slow half-circle to reorient himself. There was the cave… Once he was facing the right direction again, even without taking wolf form, he found he could detect the trail of scent leading off into the distance. Or not exactly scent…now it was a perception to which he couldn’t quite put a name, as if he had senses here to which he was not accustomed. Which, now that he thought of it, made perfect sense.

“I’m looking for someone,” he said. “A… Well, I’m not sure what, or who. But it’s someone who knows a lot about traveling through dreams this way.”

“Do you think this…someone…could help me?” she asked tremulously.

“I suppose that if anyone can, he’s a likely candidate. Or she,” he added. “And I was looking for h—them anyway. I guess now we just have another reason to find them.”

“Right,” she said, pressing herself against his side. He almost wished the situation were less worrisome (and she less weirdly childlike) so he could enjoy what would otherwise have been an exceedingly pleasant sensation. “Okay…good, sounds like a plan. Uh, sooner would be better.”

“Right,” he echoed. “It’s going to be a little difficult to walk in this position…”

After shuffling around for a few moments, they settled on holding hands, which seemed to keep her visible and intact. His left hand and her right; useless as it might be here, he felt it important to keep his dominant hand free to reach for a weapon if he needed to. If nothing else, it brought him some comfort.

“It’s that way,” he said, pointing in the direction of the invisible trail.

“How do you know?”

“It’s a long story. I was…”

He trailed off, staring. A few feet directly in front of them, a tree suddenly sprouted from the thick moss underfoot, rising upward in seconds to the height of a man and unfolding branches which dangled like a willow’s. The sapling was a pale green like the earliest leaves of spring, and glowed as brightly as a street lamp.

As they stared at it, another tree sprouted further up, in the direction the trail went, ten yards or so distant. After a few moments, yet another one did beyond, far enough that it would be lost in the shadows if not for its green glow.

“There’s also that,” Ingvar said finally. “And it appears we’re expected, now.”

“Great,” she said. He couldn’t tell from her tone whether that was sarcastic or not. At any rate, she didn’t resist or have to be pulled along when he set off on the now-marked trail. Considering her present condition, it made sense that she would be as eager as he to meet the person Ingvar had come here to find.

Whether that person would be willing, or able, to help her were two separate and currently unanswerable questions.

They proceeded, guided by the glowing trees; it was oddly reminiscent of walking along a street marked by lamps. That thought made Ingvar cringe and decide he had spent far too much time in Tiraas. He did not relax his attention, however, not willing to blindly trust these signals. He could still find the trace, and it did continue to lead in the same direction as the glowing trees.

“Do you sense anything?” he asked his companion, who was silent and apparently nervous. “Anything aside from these? I found it as a scent, first, but now it’s like I can still perceive it, even without smelling…”

“Uh huh,” she said, picking up her pace slightly. “I think…I have an idea what’s up there.”

“Do you think we’re in danger?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah,” she said immediately. “But I also think he can probably help. Both of us, I mean.”

“Great.” He was, at least, certain of his own sarcasm.

They did not have far to go, it turned out. After only a dozen or so tree-markers, their destination became plain. Up ahead of them rose an entire grove of the glowing trees, these full-sized, towering above even the ordinary pines that made up the forest. They were planted close together, their branches intertwining to form an almost solid wall; at least, he could not see what lay beyond it. Rather than a forest, the tight structure made him think of some kind of temple, or cathedral.

Ingvar and Aspen exchanged a wary glance, but did not slow.

As they neared, the spaces between the trees began to be somewhat more visible. Drawing closer, he found that while the glow of the whole thing made it look homogenous from without, its “walls” were composed only partly of slender tree trunks; most of them were made up of the drooping, willow-like fronds, which formed an almost solid barrier to sight, but clearly not to passage. They shifted slightly in the faint movement of air through the woods. Something was beyond…something he could glimpse only vaguely. It was big.

Ingvar drew in a deep breath to steel himself, but still did not slow. Aspen kept her grip on his fingers as he slipped through the fronds between a pair of trunks; the gap was narrow enough that she had to fall behind, but a moment later she joined him within the grove, stopping to stare at its occupant.

“Welcome,” said the dragon.

He was green, and luminous as the trees making up his encircling grove, which Ingvar was fairly certain was not an ordinary draconic trait. Of course, in this dream-land, it made as much sense as anything else. Aside from that, he was a dragon in all relevant respects: sinuous, armored in jagged scales, winged, clawed, fanged, and over two stories tall.

Ingvar immediately bowed, as deeply as he was able. Aspen did not.

“My name is Khadizroth,” the dragon rumbled, tilting his huge, triangular head inquisitively. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you—and especially your companion, whom I confess I did not expect. Whom might you be?”

“I am Ingvar, a Huntsman of Shaath,” he replied, bowing again.

“Hi! I’m Aspen!” The dryad contented herself with a languid wave of her free hand.

Khadizroth surged to his feet, shifting his enormous bulk to face them directly, and Ingvar managed only by a sheer exertion of will not to skitter nervously backward. The dragon only used his upright stance to bow, however. Despite his size, it was clear from his orientation that he directed the gesture specifically at Aspen, and the thought of making an issue of it did not for a moment cross Ingvar’s mind. The Huntsmen were what they were, and had their ways, but he didn’t think even Tholi would have been daft enough to challenge a dragon for alpha male status.

“Aspen,” Khadizroth said, his voice a light tenor that made its deep, powerful resonance seem rather peculiar. “It is an honor and a pleasure to meet you. And you as well, Ingvar. I’m certain you have some questions for me—and I, now, for you. I am curious what a dryad is doing wandering this realm? Forgive me, but of those of your sisters whom I have met, I never found any to be sufficiently introspective to find entrance here.”

“Well, it wasn’t exactly my idea,” she huffed. “I was being kept in a…a kind of bubble. Isolated from time and stuck in my own head.”

The dragon narrowed his eyes to blazing emerald slits, their luminosity outshining even the glow of the rest of him, and Ingvar’s wariness increased substantially. “Who would dare do such a thing?”

“Oh, it wasn’t to attack me,” she said grudgingly. “I was…um…kind of transformed? Partially. The Arachne froze me to stop it from happening, and she and Kuriwa and Sheyann were trying to… Well, they were trying to help, but I really didn’t like it. They wouldn’t let me out; Sheyann said I’d just continue the transformation if they did unless we made some kind of progress.”

“Transformation?” Ingvar said, curious in spite of himself.

Aspen turned to him, her face lighting up in a sunny smile. “But then Ingvar here found me and helped me get out! Oh, but… There’s kind of a problem. If I don’t stay touching him, I tend to…um, disappear.”

“I see,” Khadizroth rumbled thoughtfully. “To accomplish such a thing… You are an even more interesting individual than I expected, Brother Ingvar, and that is indeed saying something. I’m afraid, however noble your intentions, you have placed Aspen in considerable danger. She is here with neither body nor mind; both are imprisoned in another location. The soul of her is able to exist only because you have brought it out connected to yourself.”

Aspen let out a soft squeak of dismay.

“Is it possible you can help her?” Ingvar blurted. “I mean… My apologies, Lord Khadizroth, I did not intend to presume…”

“Not at all,” the dragon said, drawing back his lips in what Ingvar only realized after a terrified moment was a smile. That was a lot of teeth, and on average they were longer than his forearm. “Not at all, I would not dream of sending you away unaided. Yes, I believe I can do something. Hm… Forgive me, but this may take some effort, and concentration. My focus is currently divided; I am not physically present in the dream world, and you are, I’m afraid, not the only important matter which demands my attention.”

“I’m sorry if it’s trouble,” Aspen said piteously, and Ingvar gave her a wry look. Even ill-behaved dryads became suddenly more respectful in the presence of a dragon, it seemed.

Khadizroth smiled again, and laughed, a booming chuckle that, if anything, increased Ingvar’s nervousness. “My dear child, it is no imposition. I would be honored to be of aid to a daughter of Naiya under any circumstances, but to do so and spite both Kuriwa and Arachne at the same time? Oh, I assure you, nothing could prevent me. Now, Ingvar. Are you ready to be of assistance to her?”

“What can I do?” Ingvar asked immediately, which would be the only possible answer to that even were he not already interested in aiding Aspen.

“You have bound her to yourself, and you alone of the pair of you have a safe avenue out of the dream. You will have to carry her with you to the material plane. I will perform the working which will make this possible. Hold out your other hand.”

Ingvar did so, opening his palm, then blinked. Sitting upon it was a large nut. It was the size of a walnut, but smooth, and striated with luminous green and gold veins.

“It is done,” the dragon said solemnly.

“Wait…that’s it?” Aspen exclaimed. “I thought you said that would be hard!”

Again, Khadizroth chuckled. “This is a realm of symbol and perception, child. I assure you, what you just observed was the palest shadow of what actually transpired. When you awake, Ingvar, plant the seed. Do so quickly. The magic will do the rest.”

“I thank you for your help, Lord Khadizroth,” he said formally, closing his fingers around the seed and bowing again.

“Uh, me too,” Aspen said belatedly. “Seriously, thanks. That’s a big help.”

“I am honored to be of service,” the dragon said solemnly. “And now, if that addresses your problem, I believe Ingvar here came to me with questions.”

He turned his head expectantly toward Ingvar, sitting back down on his rear legs.

Ingvar experienced a tongue-tied moment, and cleared his throat to cover. “It’s… The truth is, milord, I owe you thanks. I have benefited greatly from the quest on which you set me. I’ve learned a great deal…most of it troubling, but all, I think, vitally important.”

“You are welcome,” the dragon said solemnly, nodding his great head.

“This part, though,” Ingvar continued, steeling himself, “was part of a bargain I struck. In exchange for the Crow’s help, she asked that I journey through the dream to find out who it was who sent me those visions.”

“As expected,” Khadizroth said, nodding again. “Have you any questions of your own for me, before we address that?”

“I…one, in fact,” Ingvar said slowly. “If I may.”

“I assure you, young Huntsman, I did not send you on a journey toward the truth without expecting you to ask for detail at its end. Speak, and I will answer what I can.”

Ingvar hesitated again, then took a deep breath and blurted. “Why me?”

“Ah,” said Khadizroth, blinking slowly. “Sadly, that’s a question I cannot answer, at least probably not to your satisfaction. I sent out to find the right one to undertake this quest. In such matters… It is unknowable, how the One is selected. Depending on who you ask, you might be told that I chose you subconsciously, that the world did, that Shaath or even Naiya did. There are some who would contend that you chose yourself for this duty.”

“Well, that’s nice and all,” Aspen said dubiously, “but he pretty much asked you what you think.”

“Aspen!” Ingvar protested.

Khadizorth laughed. “Don’t begrudge her a little brazenness, my friend, you’re only arguing with the wind. To answer, then… I will fall back upon the only consistent wisdom I can claim to possess, and say…” He shook his head slowly. “I don’t know. But I am most definitely not disappointed with the result. However you were chosen, and by whom, you are clearly the right one. Not just any fool could have stumbled into this dream and rescued an imprisoned dryad on your way to this meeting. Who can say what threads there are, linking you to what destiny? The wild magic of the fae is not meant to be understood.”

“By which you mean,” Ingvar said quietly, “that particular…transcension field is not designed with mortal consciousness in mind.”

Khadizroth stared down at him for a long moment, then shook his head. “Kuriwa sent you down that hole, didn’t she?”

“That was the most educational part of this journey, yes. Though…perhaps by not as great a margin as it deserved. I am still not at all certain what to do with the knowledge I gained.”

“Embrace that, Huntsman, and act only judiciously. The unwise use of knowledge is behind the vast majority of suffering.”

Ingvar nodded. “Well, then… That aside, it sounded as if you were unsurprised to learn that she sent me here to find you.”

“Only to find?” the dragon asked in amusement.

“Yes,” Ingvar said firmly. “That was all; she tasked me only with learning who it was who could send visions through dreams and designate her as a person the recipient should seek out. This is done and my duty to her fulfilled. Before I return, though, I am curious…”

“Yes?” Khadizroth prompted when he trailed off, still smiling.

“I have the sense,” Ingvar said very carefully, “that you planned all this for a reason.”

Again, the dragon chuckled, momentarily filling the air with the scent of smoke. “Indeed. Given your origin, Huntsman, I suspect you understand the purpose and the value of honor. That is why I chose Shaath; any of the gods would have sufficed, but I deemed a Huntsman the best choice for this journey.”

“I certainly do,” Ingvar said, nodding firmly.

“I don’t,” Aspen said somewhat petulantly. “Honor’s just a made-up idea. It’s not natural.”

“Natural, unnatural,” Khadizroth mused. “Where do you draw the line?”

He stared at her expectantly; she only stared mutely back, her mouth hanging open.

“Aspen,” Ingvar said, turning to her with a frown, “you feel bad about killing those people, right?”

Her expression collapsed into a sulky scowl and she kicked at the ground. “I don’t know why you have to bring that up…”

“But you didn’t before,” he persisted.

“I didn’t know better!”

“But you do now. You are more than just an animal; things matter beyond simple survival. Honor is what guides us away from wrong action, prevents us from making the mistakes that make us feel as horrible as you do about that. It is well worth pursuing.”

“Well said,” Khadizroth rumbled approvingly. “But even honor has its pitfalls. I find myself somewhat trapped by my own. I am beholden, thanks to honor and obligation, to a certain individual whose aims I find it inherently dishonorable to serve. It is the proverbial rock and hard place.”

“I…see,” Ingvar said slowly.

“Makes one of us,” Aspen muttered.

“In this much, however,” the dragon continued, “I persist in finding ways around the prohibitions laid upon me. By, for example, drawing Kuriwa’s attention in a most roundabout manner.”

“Oh?” Ingvar said, finding his curiosity rising again. “Toward what?”

“Events are transpiring,” said the dragon, “in Viridill and across the border in the cursed lands to the south. Large events, which have commanded a great deal of attention—which was exactly what they were intended to do. Someone should know that these are a smokescreen for—”

Abruptly the dragon broke off, eyes and mouth going wide, and suddenly the luminosity of his scales faded, leaving him a glittering, metallic green which seemed mundane only by comparison.

“Lord Khadizroth?” Ingvar asked, alarmed. “What’s wrong?”

Khadizroth heaved backward, letting out a roar of unmistakable pain and toppling back against the rear edge of his grove, smashing a wide swath of the glowing trees to the ground. Ingvar and Aspen backpedaled in unison, reaching the opposite wall just as the glow of those trees flickered out and they began dissolving into dust.

The dragon thrashed wildly, flailing tail and claws raking up huge rents in the forest floor, and where they gouged the moss, an empty whiteness was revealed beyond. After mere moments of this it began to spread, his continued struggles seeming to tear open the very air.

“What’s wrong with him?” Ingvar asked frantically.

“Just run!” Aspen shouted, following her own advice and dragging him along.

He needed little more encouragement; the world itself seemed to be dissolving around them, jagged rents now spreading outward from the increasingly damaged area around the flailing dragon. They quickly outpaced the fleeing pair, trees, ground and sky alike disappearing in segments. The very earth dissolved beneath them, and suddenly they were plummeting into infinity, their cries of panic underscored by a last, thundering wail of pain from the dragon.

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10 – 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teal groaned, covering her eyes with a hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toby sighed.

“Hey, Teal!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trissiny turned very slowly to stare at him.

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

“This week, even,” Toby said dryly.

“Thanks for chiming in, there, bro.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought she seemed sweet,” Gabriel mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Annoying, isn’t it?” Ariel agreed.

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

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

“Hmm,” Teal murmured.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Trading stocks,” Bradshaw replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Never.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course. On your lead, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But the controls on them!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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10 – 18

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“Thanks for letting me drag you out here,” said Embras. “This is a last-minute change in the schedule, based on an idea I had scarcely an hour ago, otherwise I’d have given you more warning.”

“Not at all,” Hiroshi replied with his customary unflappable calm. “It’s not as if any distance is an impediment when one can shadow-jump. And I quite enjoy the chance to stretch my legs a bit, and especially see new sights. Not that I’m not fond of Puna Shankur, but it’s pleasant to see more of the Empire.”

He made no mention of the fact that as his cult leader, Embras Mogul could send him anywhere on a whim with neither apology nor explanation.

“For instance,” Hiroshi added, nodding at the bustling crowd teeming in and around the double doors of the structure across the street from them, “what is going on in there?”

“Why, like the sign says,” Embras replied easily, “that’s the Mathenon Stock Exchange.”

“We can both read, Embras,” Bradshaw said wryly. “That doesn’t mean either of us has a clue what that is. If it were any other neighborhood in any other city, I’d think that was some kind of sporting event, the way those fellows are riled up.”

“It is peculiar to see men in business attire shouting at one another and drinking in public,” Hiroshi added, glancing once more over his shoulder at the heaving crowd as they passed further down the street.

“It’s the most ingenious thing, really,” Embras explained, smiling darkly. “First, trading companies and other businesses are organized so that shares of them, or stocks, can be sold as tradeable commodities. For instance, if, say, Falconer Industries sold stocks, we could just wander into that building back there and buy a share for whatever they go for, and be the part owner of one of the Empire’s most successful operations.”

“Does FI do this?” Hiroshi asked in a tone of fascination.

“Hell if I know,” Embras said glibly. “I’m only this up to date on the practice because, as you may have heard, I suffer a minor obsession with the Vernisites and their various schemes. But anyway, the whole idea of a stock exchange is first to divide a business into pieces which can be traded, and then to trade them. Once these imaginary slices of ownership become commodities, the laws of supply and demand come into play. People can make—or lose—money in trading them back and forth, and the companies in question can improve their fortunes by manipulating the market to increase their perceived value.”

“That is the barmiest thing I ever heard of,” Bradshaw snorted, shaking his head. “I give it a year before the government shuts that down.”

“It is rather ingenious, as you say,” Hiroshi mused.

“And so very Vernisite,” Embras added. “A whole lot of lies, nonsense and legal fictions committed to paper, used to create money out of thin air by manipulating human nature. I’m telling you, boys, as I’ve told you time and again, it doesn’t matter how many people Avei kills, Naphthene drowns or Omnu pompously lectures: it’s Verniselle who truly embodies the rotten, self-serving heart of the Pantheon.”

Bradshaw sighed. “Anyway. You were going to explain a bit more about our business here? I thought the matter in Puna Shankur was rather urgent.”

“Yes, of course. Hang a right here, lads,” Embras said, turning the corner onto a street which immediately proved itself to be much quieter. Not that there was much activity of any kind, with sunset fading rapidly into twilight. Mathenon was a very genteel place, or at least most parts of it were. Not very much happened after dark. “Before meeting with Hiroshi’s Sifanese expert, we’re going to drop in on an information broker who specializes in the diabolic. If anyone on this continent happens to have tips on how to tangle with a kitsune using infernal means, she will.”

“And how likely is that, do you think?” Bradshaw asked.

“Not very likely at all. In fact, not likely enough to be worth the trip on its own merits; I have a secondary agenda here. Our current troubles merely provide a perfect excuse to put it into play. I’ll explain more on the way back, fellas; we don’t want to be late to meet with Hiroshi’s friend. I already delayed to ask Vanessa if she wanted to come along. She didn’t.”

“Vanessa is busy wrangling our annoyed contacts in Calderaas…ah,” Bradshaw nodded, his pensive expression clearing. “I see. So this is where she scurried off to. I confess it didn’t really occur to me to wonder. Is this necessary, Embras?”

“Necessary? Probably not. But useful, definitely.”

He fell silent as a man lounging against a gate up ahead straightened, turning to face them and reaching into his coat. A soft footstep sounded behind the three men, another individual materializing out of an alley.

None of them faltered so much as a step. Embras held out a hand, palm up, and a seething orb of fire sprang into being above it, casting a sharp orange glow over the scene. Hiroshi flicked his wrists, two wands sliding neatly out of his sleeves and into his hands. Bradshaw simply walked on, acknowledging none of this.

To his credit, the burly man in the slightly shabby coat ahead of them hesitated only fractionally before turning his motion into a cough smothered behind a fist. “Pleasant evening, gents,” he said politely, tipping his hat.

“Right back atcha,” Embras replied cheerfully as they filed past him.

Mathenon’s founding, two thousand years ago, had been a mistake and a cause of much misfortune for everyone involved. Situated on the plains between the Golden Sea and the Wyrnrange, its location had nothing to recommend it except proximity to the Old Road and to the only significant source of fresh water in the area. The mountains provided scant ore and timber, there were few available native animals, and while the prairie did yield good crops if properly cultivated, it had been centuries before the then-kingdom of Mathenon had built up its forces enough to adequately protect its farmland from tribes of centaurs and plains elves. The city’s only true asset had been the road, the primary trading route between the dwarven kingdoms and the human lands in the south.

Two millennia later, Mathenon was known as the Gilded City—or, less charitably, as the richest place in the world that had done nothing to deserve it. With nothing to cling to but trade, the Mathenites had hurled themselves into commerce with a vengeance, and by this point in history had built up an empire of their own, whose reach exceeded that of Tiraas, even as it paid its taxes to the Silver Throne. Here were all the greatest guild halls, the trading syndicates, the merchant conglomerates and the banks which serviced all of them. The wealth of the world flowed through Mathenon, a goodly portion of which never flowed back out. And with little agriculture and no manufacturing to speak of, almost everyone living in the city was either involved in commerce, or in a less financially privileged class who made a living servicing the bankers and merchants in whatever ways they required. It was a city that infamously produced nothing, and took its cut of everything.

Unsurprisingly, it was also a thriving haven for those who profited less directly from the peccadilloes of the rich. Mathenon was unquestionably a stronghold of Verniselle, but the disciples of Eserion had a much heavier presence here than a city of its size could ordinarily support. To them, three men in well-tailored suits strolling the streets without guards as dark fell would seem at a glance like a walking gift basket.

But the Black Wreath did not pay the Unwary Tax. In most places, at most times, they would simply have avoided confrontations via stealth. Once in a while, though, Embras Mogul took a personal satisfaction in seeing agents of the Thieves’ Guild back down.

At the next intersection, Embras crossed the street to take a left down an even narrower avenue, this one lined with expensive houses behind walled gardens and lit by fairy lamps in elaborate brass sconces, which levitated three yards above the sidewalks, unsupported by poles. There was a grassy median down the center of the street, dotted with immaculately trimmed dogwood trees, each protected behind a wrought-iron fence topped with chrome accents. The whole neighborhood screamed of wealth.

“And here we are,” Embras murmured aloud, slowing as they came abreast of an open gate. The house beyond was quiet, but all its windows blazed with light; clearly there was a social event in progress despite the hour, but it was a demure sort of party, as befit the neighborhood. He turned at the path, Bradshaw and Hiroshi trailing silently behind, and strolled up to the house’s richly carved walnut door.

A servant stood at the top step by the door, dressed in a suit that was just similar enough to a Butler’s uniform to be evocative without being close enough to provoke the Service Society—which was a thing no sensible person did. She regarded them calmly from behind thick darkened glasses, which seemed incongruous at this hour.

“Good evening,” Embras said politely to her, tipping his hat. “I’m afraid we’re not expected.”

“I’m afraid you are not invited, Mr. Mogul,” she replied. “Specifically, and by name. Goodbye.”

“Now, now, let’s be neighborly to one another,” he replied with a cheerful grin. “A fellow deserves a chance to plead his case to the lady of the house, don’t you think?”

“What I think is that my job is, in part, to dissuade undesirables, a category in which you are emphatically included. You can spare me the charm, sir; you’re not charming enough to come between me and a steady wage.”

“Well, that seems to be all the grounds we need to reach an agreement,” he said smoothly, producing a decabloon from within his pocket and bouncing it on his palm.

The woman regarded him in stony silence for a moment, then reached up and pulled her glasses down the bridge of her nose. Her eyes had golden irises which glowed in the dimness, with vertically slitted pupils.

“Sir,” she said with a cold smile, “are you attempting to bribe me?”

“Nothing so clumsy,” Embras replied, now tossing the coin back and forth between his hands. “There’s no reason the mistress need suspect you were paid to let us in, when she’ll find it perfectly believable that I threatened, enchanted, or otherwise coerced my way past you. Isn’t that right?”

“You’re right in that regard—I can hardly be expected to fight off the likes of you.” She glanced behind him at the other two men. “The same cannot be said of those inside the house, Mogul. You realize she’s just going to throw you right back out again.”

“That, my dear lady, is between her and me,” he said, holding up the decabloon between forefinger and thumb.

Faster than a flicker of lightning, her tongue lashed out, seizing the coin and drawing it back into her mouth. She leaned over to turn the door latch, and pulled it wide for them, smiling ironically.

“Enjoy your visit, gentlemen. I will see you again very soon.”

“Much obliged,” Embras said lightly, stepping past her. Bradshaw and Hiroshi followed him in, both nodding politely to the doorkeeper. She watched them with that same knowing smile, her dark glasses once again in place, and shut the door gently behind them.

The soft sounds of conversation and pianoforte music resonated through the marble-appointed foyer in which they stood. A staircase lined with deep scarlet carpet curved up to a landing ahead of and above them; to their left was a wide doorway, blocked only by velvet drapes, from which the sounds of the party could be heard.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” said the only person visible, a hethelax demon wearing a suit oddly tailored to fit over his armor plates. “I would offer to take your coats, but you will not be staying long.”

“That’s a likely outcome, yes,” Embras said with a sunny smile. “She’s in the salon, I assume?”

“Yes,” the demon said evenly. “I would advise you to depart rather than seek her out.”

“I appreciate the advice,” Embras replied, tipping his hat and turning to push aside the curtains, his fellow warlocks following on his heels.

The salon was large and displayed understatedly expensive taste in its furnishings. It was also full, occupied by over a dozen people whose attire and bearing spoke of wealth. They stood and sat, chatting, sipping glasses of sparkling wine and nibbling canapes, looking for all the world like any gaggle of rich people enjoying a house party, apart from a few unusual elements. Several were obviously half-demons; one young woman had finned ears and slowly writhing tendrils instead of hair, another had eyes that were featureless pits of crimson flame, and a man near the door had patterns of scales across his cheeks and forehead. There was also a katzil demon curled up asleep in front of the fireplace. In one corner stood a pianoforte, being softly played by a female hethelax. Her clawed fingers made faint clicking noises on the keys, just barely loud enough to be heard beneath the music.

“No.”

The three had hardly made it in before being addressed by the lady of the house, who had risen from her chair near the fire to point imperiously at them. She was a young woman, well short of thirty, with elaborately coiffed dark hair and a pale complexion, attired in a gown in the latest fashion which emphasized her figure despite its modest cut.

“You are unwelcome in my house, Embras Mogul,” she said sharply, the music and conversation falling silent around them.

Embras swept off his hat and bowed deeply. “Be that as it may, it is a genuine pleasure, Madeleine, as always. I hoped I might implore you to—”

“You might not,” she snapped. “Leave, before I am forced to insist.”

He straightened, his expression growing serious. “Whatever you may think of me—of us—I do respect your wishes, and would not have bothered you if it were not important. We have an urgent need, Madeleine.”

“Good,” she said flatly. “May it devour you. Somewhere else.”

“I understand your dislike,” he pressed on, “though I do believe, as I’ve said, that it is born of a misunderstanding. Perhaps if you would deign to do business with me as with any of these fine people, we might make progress toward finding common…ground…”

He trailed off as she turned her back on him, stepping over the sleeping katzil to lift an ancient-looking oil lamp from its perch upon the mantle. She turned back to face them, languidly dragging her fingers along the lamp’s curved surface.

The violet smoke that poured forth made the room smell of myrrh and jasmine. It streamed from the lamp in an oddly twisted cyclone, resolving itself into the form of a woman with blue skin and aquiline features—at least from the waist up. Below the navel, her body was only a long tendril of smoke, connected to the lamp.

“I am summoned, and have come, as it is agreed,” she intoned, executing an elaborate salaam. “Gracious lady, I beg that you deign to tell this unworthy traveler how she may have the honor of serving you.”

“Qadira,” Madeleine replied, “the Black Wreath has entered my home, despite knowing their presence is unwanted. Embras Mogul, the high priest of Elilial, stands in my salon, having thrice refused my orders to depart. I would have you bear witness to his next actions, that the worlds both above and below may know how he comports himself, lest anyone find themselves holding commerce with a faithless brute where they expected a gentleman.”

“It is indeed a precious gift you bestow upon me, most honored one,” Qadira replied, turning a crafty smile on Embras and his companions. “The eyes of the djinn see all things, in every plane and beyond, but that I may watch firsthand as such as this unfolds will grant me prestige in the esteem of my kin. Again, lady, I am in your debt.”

Madeleine stared at Embras with a faint, smug half-smile; the others assembled in the room watched like an entire rookery of hawks, awaiting a signal to strike. As if alerted by the change in mood, the katzil uncoiled itself, raising its head to sniff the air.

After a very tense moment of heavy silence, Embras Mogul took a deliberate step backward, again tipping his hat to Madeleine. “Well. My apologies for intruding, good lady. Can’t blame a fellow for trying.”

“Not for the first time in our acquaintance,” Madeleine said icily, “you are deeply mistaken.”

“Do enjoy your evening, ladies and gentlemen,” he replied, turning and pushing back through the heavy curtains.

They made their quick way out of the house, not acknowledging the smug looks of the hethelax manservant and half-demon guardian. Bradshaw waited until they were out the gate and two houses back down the street before speaking.

“Well, Embras, since I know you as I do, I’m going to assume that was not as completely pointless as it seemed.”

“In fact, that simply could not have gone better,” Embras said cheerfully. “There was always the risk she’d summon a baerzurg to pummel us, or have that diffident fellow in the impossible suit give it a go, but really, that was remote. Madeleine’s never been one to go in for brutish tactics. Ill-considered and overdramatic, yes, but never barbaric.”

“And?” Bradshaw drawled.

Embras came to a stop, turning to face them. “And now, she has very obligingly gone on record before a djinn, refusing to help the Black Wreath when we came to her in need, hat in hand. Were the girl a hair less aggravated by my presence, I think she’d have thought carefully before doing something so rash, but it’s done now! At issue, gents, is these fence-sitters, of which Madeleine is a prime example.”

“You can’t possibly mean to start hounding every diabolist who’s not part of our organization,” Bradshaw said, frowning. “We’re stretched too thin as it is, Embras. After Tiraas this spring, it’s a challenge to stay on top of the demons and warlocks who need to be put down, in addition to our ongoing major commitments.”

“Of course,” Embras replied. “That policy hasn’t changed; we’re not going to go out of our way to smite anybody who does not absolutely need it. However, matters are careening toward a head, and a lot of these characters are unknowable variables that present a problem. We’re going to have to be ready to bring down Justinian when the alignment comes, and between his holy summoner program and having bloody Kheshiri in his stable of lackeys, he’s proved his willingness to draw resources from even the most deplorable places. Going forward, anyone in the infernal community who is not with us must be assumed to be against us. Take note of tonight’s events, lads, and find opportunities to repeat the performance. We are going to start putting each of these independent operators on the spot. Any time an opportunity arises, or you can create one, force them to declare either their support or opposition, as publicly as possible.”

“Ah,” Hiroshi said, nodding. “To burn away the fog of war with the light of hellfire, leaving no gray area in which Justinian’s creeping fingers can hide.”

“Poetic as always,” Bradshaw noted with a smile. “I hope you’re not proposing to trust all of these outsiders, just because we can coerce them into declaring their support.”

“Trust, no,” Embras replied, “but you know as well as I where their interests fall. That’s why that trick worked on Madeleine, and variants of the same will likely work on the others, even when we’ve used it enough that they start to see it coming. A warlock who betrays his word is hamstrung; the mortal community is too small and the demonic one too vindictive to do business with oathbreakers. If anyone does turn on us, they will pay the price even if we are in no position to extract it ourselves. Now, then! Hiroshi, my thanks for your patience with this little drama. I hope this isn’t going to make us late to meet your friend.”

“Indeed not,” Hiroshi said with a smile. “Uncle will be expecting us at some point this evening after dinner; it is nowhere near late enough to be an imposition, even on the east coast.”

“Splendid! Let’s not drag this out any further, regardless. Lead the way, would you?”

“Of course,” Hiroshi said, bowing. The haze of Elilial’s stealth settled over all of them—not that anyone was nearby, but one never knew who might happen to be looking out a window in time to see three men abruptly shadow-jump out of a public street.

Following the dimensional tunnel bored by Hiroshi, who knew their destination best, they emerged in a dirty, dark and cluttered alley. All three immediately set off for the lighted street at the end of it, unfazed by their squalid environs. Such alleys were the Wreath’s bread and butter, in terms of moving around cities undetected.

Night had fully fallen over the city into which they emerged, but this area showed no signs of going to sleep. Lights blazed forth on all sides, illuminating bustling crowds pushing through narrow, winding streets that made as stark a contrast to the orderly layout of Mathenon as their shabby cheerfulness did to its discreet ostentation.

Puna Shankur itself would be a contrast to most Imperial cities, lacking their organization, wealth, and omnipresent law enforcement, not to mention being lit by lamps and torches nearly as commonly as fairy lights. Punaji territory in general was wilder, poorer, and yet more festive, even in cities as far south as this one, where the locals were forced by the climate to bundle up more than the Punaji in general cared to. For that and other reasons, Puna Shankur was one of the less ethnically consistent outposts of Rajakhan’s realm.

This particular neighborhood was a perfect example of that; brown Punaji faces were less common among the crowd than paler complexions accompanied by tilted eyes. Embras and Bradshaw would have stuck out if not for the layer of misdirection they maintained; Onkawi and Stalweiss were almost totally absent from the passersby, and only here and there could the odd Tiraan be seen. The people here hailed from a dozen nations, and the signs were in nearly as many languages, but on the Tiraan continent such neighborhoods were often referred to as Sifantowns. In other parts of the world, this racial mix might have met each other with swords and wands drawn, but when surrounded by another domineering culture of people who couldn’t even tell them apart, those from that general region tended to cluster together. It was an imperfect familiarity, but it would do.

Hiroshi led the way down the bustling market street, then down a quieter one lined with ramshackle apartments rising four and five stories above. The streets here were scarcely wider than alleys, though most were better cared for by their inhabitants, and continued to wend this way and that with no apparent plan. Their guide strode confidently, however, well familiar with the territory.

“Is it safe to involve your uncle in this?” Bradshaw asked as they walked. “Most of us prefer to keep family out of the Lady’s business. Much healthier for them, unless they’re already part of the faith.”

“I would prefer that he not learn just whose business this is,” Hiroshi agreed. “Uncle knows only that I am bringing two friends who have questions about the kitsune. And he is not a relation of mine; everyone in the neighborhood calls him that. He is the man most dedicated to preserving the traditions of the old country in this one, and makes sure the Sifanese children who grow up in Puna Shankur know who we are, and where we came from. In fact, he seemed delighted at the opportunity to share his knowledge with interested parties who are not of Sifanese blood.”

He stopped before the door of a three-story structure that seemed positively squat beside its towering neighbors, and rapped, murmuring to his companions, “Remember, it is polite to remove your shoes in the entryway.”

“Noted,” Embras replied.

The door opened after only a moment, revealing a young woman with her hair tied back in a silken kerchief. A warm but restrained smile spread across her face.

“Sakamoto Hiroshi. Just look at you, fancy suit and all. Should I be honored that you’re still willing to visit us?”

“You may be as honored or as insulted as pleases you, Kiyoko,” he said, grinning more widely back. “As long as your mother makes those sweet buns of hers, you’ll just have to keep putting up with me.”

“Oh, well played,” she retorted. “Now I have to be the polite and traditional one, which rules out the excellent rejoinder I had about your obsession with my mother’s buns.”

“Does Uncle know you talk to guests this way?” Hiroshi demanded, planting his fists on his hips and glowering in mock outrage.

“Oh, please, you know very well who I learned it from. Come in, Hiroshi, come in. And your friends! Uncle’s expecting you; he’ll be right down.”

After a brief exchange of introductions, which notably did not include anyone’s surname, Embras and Bradshaw found themselves seated on the floor along one side of a low table in the living room. It was arranged in a very Sifanese style, rather bare of furnishings and decorations, but spotlessly clean and everything carefully placed. The sparseness was clearly a deliberate aesthetic, not due to poverty.

Scarcely had they had time to get comfortable when Uncle arrived; Hiroshi immediately rose, and both his companions followed his lead.

Hiroshi’s description had hinted at an older man, and Uncle was definitely that, but rather than the wise old master of archetype, he resembled nothing so much as a blackmith. Despite his gray and receding hair, and the thick lines which nearly hid his eyes, he walked with an unbent spine, and was of an incredibly powerful build, his arms thickly corded with muscle and shoulders almost too broad to comfortably pass through the doorway. He was also, they noted upon rising, rather short, the top of his balding head not quite reaching Embras’s chin.

“Uncle,” Hiroshi said warmly, first bowing, and then stepping over to clasp the old man’s hand. “It’s been too long!”

“And whose fault is that, boy?” Uncle replied, his Tanglish clear but with a distinct accent. “You know my house is always open.”

“And you know how life is, better than I ever will. I only wish I could still run around bare-footed, listening to your stories and sneaking sweet buns.”

“Don’t wish for the past, Hiroshi,” Uncle said, reaching up to pat his shoulder. “You’re right, as you well know. There is only forward. So! I hear your friends are curious about kitsune?” He turned his bright eyes on his guests inquisitively.

“Indeed,” said Hiroshi. “May I present Embras and Bradshaw, neighbors and colleagues of mine.”

“My apologies for the hour, sir,” said Embras, tipping his hat. “I’m very grateful that you would take the time to speak with us.”

“And it’s a pleasure to visit,” Bradshaw added. “Your home is beautiful.”

“Not at all, it’s only a humble place,” Uncle replied, coming to join them at the table. “Please, sit! Be comfortable. Kiyoko will be back soon with tea. I’m always pleased to talk of the old stories, but it’s very rare that someone not of our nation would come seeking to hear them.” He arranged himself cross-legged at the table, staring piercingly at Embras. “And with such a specific question, too. Why are you curious about the fox-goddesses?”

Embras glanced at Hiroshi, who nodded, before replying. “Well…the truth is, our interest is practical, sir. We seem to have drawn the attention of one.”

Uncle’s expression did not visibly change, but he stilled slightly, as if his very breath were held in abeyance. “Here? On this continent?”

“Here,” Embras replied, nodding.

Uncle let out a long, slow breath, shifting his gaze to Hiroshi. “And you are mixed up in this?”

“I did not learn of it until after the fact,” Hiroshi said. “These are my friends, Uncle; I consider their problems my own. But I’ve had no contact with the kitsune.”

“Nor have we, directly,” Embras added. “So far, she seems to be just…playing jokes on us.”

“Mm,” Uncle murmured, his brow creasing further in a deep frown. “And so, you wish to learn of their ways.”

“We would be extremely grateful,” said Bradshaw.

Kiyoko returned at that moment, carrying a tray laden with a pot of fragrant green tea and small cups. There was silence in the room while she poured, her manners notably more conservative in Uncle’s presence. The master of the house gazed thoughtfully at the center of the table throughout her deft performance. Only when she had departed again, and everyone had a cup in hand, did he speak.

“The story of the kitsune is the story of Sifan, and of the world,” he said at last. “Tell me, Embras, Bradshaw… Do you know of dryads?”

“I certainly know they exist,” Embras said, glancing curiously at Bradshaw. “I must say I’ve never considered them any of my business, either.”

“You’re suggesting they’re related to the kitsune?” Bradshaw said, frowning.

“That makes some sense, in fact,” Hiroshi said thoughtfully. “In the stories, kitsune are always seducing people or killing people. Sometimes the same people.”

“Hiroshi always loved the stories,” Uncle said, glancing fondly at the younger man. “But I don’t tell all the stories to the children. There are some it does not profit them to know. But if you have already drown the attention of a fox-goddess, you clearly need not worry about doing so. Very well, then.

“The dryads are spirits of conservation,” he said, his voice taking on the subtly rhythmic quality of a veteran storyteller. “Spirits of life, who dwell where they will and live in balance with nature. They are thus, as the youngest daughters of Naiya, because they were made to compensate for their elder sisters. Before them, the valkyries were spirits of death, and they reaped so vigorously and so well that the gods of the last age conspired to capture them, and expel them from the mortal plane, lest they unmake everything the Elders had wrought. It was this which led to the world we now know, for Vidius found a way to anchor them to the world, and to keep them engaged and able to interact, though in a limited way. For this, Naiya sheltered the young gods of the Pantheon in their war, and refused the slightest succor to her fellow Elders. If not for her aid, the new gods would surely have perished before ascending.

“The valkyries, like their sisters who came after, were created to balance an even older mistake. The eldest daughters of Naiya, the kitsune, are spirits of play, of passion, and of deceit. Even Naiya could not control them, and so she brought forth a land for them to call their own, and persuaded them to claim it at the expense of leaving the rest of the world to its devices. The kitsune are Sifan. They do not rule it; they do not care for such things. They simply exist, and all others who exist there are at their sufferance.”

“That’s fascinating,” Bradshaw breathed. “Did Naiya have another generation of daughters before them?”

“That is not part of the story,” Uncle said sententiously, and Embras hid a smile behind his teacup. That digression about valkyries hadn’t been exactly germane, either; if this wasn’t part of the story, it was because Uncle didn’t know it. “Unique among nations, Sifan has had an uninterrupted history since its founding after the Elder Wars. It has never been conquered, nor even invaded. Though troubled by storms, earthquakes and tsunamis, it has never been ravaged by a disaster so great that it could not recover. This is as it is because the Eternal Kingdom exists at the pleasure of the goddesses of the Twilight Forest. The first humans settled there because the kitsune allowed it. The drow of Nathloss sally forth to raid and keep our people alert because the kitsune find it amusing. The surviving orc clans dwell there because they asked the blessing of the kitsune and were given it, and the Queen’s government would not think to gainsay them, despite the conflict it caused with Tiraas. The dragons come to Sifan to meet because they come often alone, bringing gifts to the kitsune, and have earned a permanent welcome.”

“How amazing,” Embras murmured. “I’m increasingly puzzled that one would leave such a place, if it’s so apparently sacred to them.

“Wouldn’t you?” Uncle countered. “In Sifan, they are the highest, the most mysterious, the most feared, respected, and oddly beloved. The people respect their forest, and do not set foot within except by permission. We hold festivals during which they may walk among us to be honored, and sometimes lay blessings where they think them deserved. And if sometimes a kitsune’s playfulness results in a burned house or field, a daughter transformed into a cow or a son who never returns from the Twilight Forest…” He shrugged fatalistically. “Shou ga nai.”

“If anything,” Hiroshi began, frowning, but Uncle forestalled him with an upraised hand.

“To engage a fox-goddess in her own realm is to be a character in a story of which she is the author. They are older than the gods, and have powers which draw deeply from Naiya—and thus from the universe itself. And what they love above all else is play. Tell me, would you not be bored, staying in the same place for eternity, with nothing to challenge you? The kitsune are not bound to Sifan, but they rarely leave it. They have, however, now and again, and always when offered the chance to do something…interesting.”

“Hmm,” Embras murmured, stroking his chin. “This is altogether not encouraging.”

“You do not fight a kitsune,” Uncle agreed. “She plays with you, until she grows bored…or her toys are too broken to entertain her.”

Bradshaw drew in a deep breath and let it out in a slightly shaky sigh.

Embras, however, suddenly smiled. “Well, then. I simply cannot thank you enough for the insight, sir—I fear I was about to make a very serious mistake.”

“If you have drawn the attention of a fox-goddess,” Uncle said seriously, “there are few paths open to you which are not mistakes.”

“Indeed, I see how that would be so. If you can indulge us a while longer, sir, we would be deeply grateful to learn anything you are able to tell us about their habits. But in the broad strokes…” His smile widened. “I do believe I know, now, what to do.”

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10 – 15

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“What is she doing?” Bradshaw asked, watching the pixie bob in place at the intersection. A few of the passing townsfolk seemed to have the same question, to judge by the stares they gave her. Some shied away from the bouncing ball of silver light, but clearly Fross was a known quantity in Last Rock, to judge by the number of cheerful greetings she received and returned. Notably, no one actually asked what she was up to. Apparently it was expected that University students would be a little odd.

“This is the fourth place she’s done it, whatever it is,” Embras replied, lounging against the side of the general store. “I didn’t happen to see her place the first one, but I could detect the spell; I’ve been following her since number two. Notably, she’s placing them in a grid around the periphery of the town—it’s a little hard to tell, Last Rock is so small, but I believe she’s covering each point where streets and alleys meet that’s surrounded by the town itself. Nothing out in the prairie, it’s aimed at quartering the village. They’re detection wards, that much I can see at a glance. I’d like your assessment unclouded by my theorizing, though; you are my acknowledged superior in spellcraft. That’s why I poked at you so urgently to jump down here.”

“Hmm…” Bradshaw rubbed at his chin, studying Fross, then glanced up and down the street. “You want to stay and watch where she puts the others first?”

Embras shook his head. “They’re detectable; we can follow up on that later. Best to keep a distance from her, methinks. Follow me, I’ll show you the first one. It’s also the most isolated, which is convenient.”

He straightened, brushing dust from the shoulder of his white suit, and led the way back toward the periphery. Both warlocks passed other people in the street, weaving around them as they went; though the citizens of Last Rock also stepped aside as they would have for anyone else on the sidewalk, none actually noticed their presence.

“Here we are,” Embras said, arriving at a currently unoccupied intersection. It was a T-crossing, where a narrow street terminated against the wall of a large stone barn that had been repurposed for storage, and neither of the other facing buildings had doors nearby. The street itself was mostly there as a boundary between structures, and had no pavement. “Passive and personal silencing only, please; I don’t want to risk casting a concealment over this thing until we’re certain what it does.”

“Good call,” Bradshaw murmured, beginning to pace in a circle around an invisible spot in the center of the intersection. “It’s a ward, all right. And in fact, it looks to be specifically geared toward detecting stealthed demons.”

“How fascinating!” Embras said, smiling broadly in delight. “You don’t suppose she could actually tag us with this?”

“Heavens, no. Far better mages than Fross have tried with no luck; nothing here is a threat to the Lady’s gift. Still, though…”

“Good work?” Embras prompted after he trailed off.

“Mm. Pretty good, yes. In fact, better than that. It’s not the best spellcraft of it’s kind I’ve seen by any stretch of the imagination… But considering this was done by a second-year student arcanist, it’s actually downright amazing. That pixie’s going to be a fearsome sorceress once Tellwyrn and Yornhaldt get done with her.”

He paused and knelt, peering closely at something on the ground, then carefully produced a small lens from an inner pocket of his robe and studied it.

“Hmm hm hmmmmm. This is very tight for student work. Unpolished—there are significant gaps in the frequency coverage, the kind of thing I’d expect from someone who doesn’t know the most probable ways an infernal spell would be hidden. But what she does cover is quite carefully woven. There’s a care and attention to detail there…”

“My goodness, you’re starting to sound positively enamored,” Embras said with amusement.

Bradshaw ignored him. “With the exception of an intersection lattice, here, clearly attuned to divine magic. That’s left wide open. It’s clearly intended to make this ward detectable to someone using a divine perception spell, and that’s necessarily going to create a gap in the ward’s structure. She left it more open than it needs to be, though. Inexperience, or she may be uncertain of the skills of whatever light-wielder is going to be making use of this.” He straightened up slowly, still frowning at the invisible ward.

“So…Trissiny, then.”

“Or Arquin,” Bradshaw countered, “who is, himself, an amateur arcanist. Or Caine; keep in mind we still don’t understand what’s going on there. That trick he pulled in Veilgrad is not part of the paladin’s general repertory. However…” He sighed. “Looks like you were right, Embras. They are working together on this. After Veilgrad I really didn’t think they’d pull together that fast.”

“I told you at the time,” Embras replied, “we didn’t divide them, they did. Splitting off the paladins was a tactical decision. It was a bad one, but it was deliberate and not indicative of friction in the ranks, which makes all the difference here. I wouldn’t have taken this approach if I wasn’t confident the others would rally around Trissiny. A Hand of Avei stampeding through the town is no use to anyone who’s not selling insurance; now we’ve a group to work with, several of whom have an education in politics, strategy, and magic. There are handles there that can be manipulated, hooks that Trissiny herself lacks. The question,” he mused, beginning to pace back and forth, “is just which of them we’re working with. The whole sophomore class, that’s a given. But there are all of a hundred people up on that mountain, students and staff, and a community that size is tightly knit by necessity. We lack solid data on a lot of them.”

“This reinforces the point I made in the first place,” said Bradshaw. “If we are dealing with the whole class, you’d better be extremely careful. And what are you going to do when Tellwyrn gets wind of this? They may have told her already.”

“What little they know to tell her isn’t damning, and won’t be,” Embras said. “Don’t worry, I have plans in place for Tellwyrn. Layer upon layer of plans; you don’t make assumptions or take risks with a wild card like her. But no, you’re right—the rest of this campaign calls for exceedingly light touches. We shall be faultlessly polite and playful with the little dears. No direct interference, just signals to point their attention where we want it.”

“So, no more chaining them to trees,” Bradshaw said dryly.

“That was a different matter and you know it,” Embras retorted, pointing a finger at him. “And so do the paladins. Even if Omnu proved interested in countering the disruptors—and really, who could have predicted that?—detaining them that way was for their own good. They won’t admit it, but they understood. No, in an ideal world, the rest of this will unfold on its own, without us needing to take the risk of doing anything at all. We’ve seen Justinian’s plants gearing up their own bags of tricks, and we’ve now got the students with eyes sharp and backs up. Hopefully they’ll do most of our work for us.”

“Snort,” Bradshaw said, deadpan. “This is my disdainful snort. Feel my disdain.”

“Yes, yes,” Embras acknowledged with a grin. “Nothing’s ever that easy. This, I’m afraid, is where the fun part begins; we’ll need to keep a careful watch on those two priestesses, and poke at the kids in such a way that it brings their noses across whatever trails those leave. Gonna be dicey, I won’t lie.”

“We’re still too blind for this,” Bradshaw complained, folding his arms. “We have only general profiles of many of those students and none at all of a lot of them. Only the sophomores and the professors are known quantities. So many ways this can go wrong.”

“Yes,” Embras agreed, nodding. “I’ve already consulted Ali, which is good for starting points. He was full of smug warnings about us becoming the targets of a foxhunt, but aimed me at the most likely interlopers. The new freshman girls, interestingly enough.”

“Hmm.” Bradshaw narrowed his eyes. “Yes, I can definitely see Domingue sticking her nose into this. She is not a fan of ours.”

“I’m honestly more concerned about the Lady Madouri and the drow,” Embras mused, gazing absently at the spot where Fross’s ward was laid. “That girl’s a vicious little snake even by the standards of the aristocracy, and this year’s drow is an An’sadarr—a soldier.”

“Very little scares me less than soldiers.”

“A soldier on her own for you to play games with? No, that’s too easy to be any fun. Here, though, we’re dealing with one who’s been trained specifically to contend with a nastier brand of warlocks than us—and even I don’t want to cross spells with a Scyllithene shadow priestess if I can help it—in the context of far more clever and resourceful individuals who will be actively trying to expose us. I really don’t fancy finding myself in an enclosed space with an irate Narisian guardswoman.”

Bradshaw sighed. “Embras… You know I trust you, but are you sure this is worth it?”

“This is the game, now,” Embras said quietly. “Us and Justinian. We can’t rush the timing till the alignment, and with Snowe’s campaign it’s clear what he’s aiming at—which we already suspected. This is about setting up the board, Bradshaw. We need to arrive at the endgame prepared to beat him there, but we also have to let him get there. And he has to let us get there for the same reasons, and with the same considerations. Yes, this was an attack of opportunity, but it’s too perfect. If we can damage his credibility with the paladins, we’ll have won a significant coup.”

Bradshaw opened his mouth to reply, then abruptly stilled and turned to stare at the corner of the old barn. Embras simultaneously straightened, following his gaze.

A moment later, Vanessa limped around the corner, her face drawn in a tight frown of worry.

“Oh, good, you’re here too,” she said by way of greeting, then turned to the high priest. “You’d better get back to Calderaas, Embras. We have a problem.”

“Can you be a little more specific?” he said.

“I’ve spent the morning fielding irate messages from about half our contacts in the city,” Vanessa replied. “They’re rather steamed to find that you’ve been clumsily spying on them.”

“Excuse me, I’ve what?” Embras raised both eyebrows in surprise. “Clumsily? Them’s fightin’ words.”

“They’re complaining that your personal succubus has left a wide trail around their homes and places of business,” she said grimly. “Then they started comparing notes, and it took me so long to prevent that from bursting into chaos that I’ve only just had the chance to cast a few divinations of my own. Vlesni’s tracks are all over the city, Embras. Quite glaringly. It looks like she spent last night futzing around just about every safe house and ally we have in Calderaas, and none of them knew it until they awoke this morning. Naturally, they are not taking it well. About half haven’t discovered it yet—it’s going to be messy when they do. This could well cost us our foothold in the city if it’s not fixed.”

“What the hell?” Bradshaw exclaimed. “Vlesni? Blatant tracks? Even if she’d turned on us, Embras, she’s too good to make such a mess. What could she possibly be up to?”

“Why, isn’t that an excellent question,” Embras replied thoughtfully. “Vanessa, can you kindly nominate a good site for us to investigate that is not currently swarming with pissed-off individuals demanding explanations we don’t have?”

“The nook behind Halisar’s,” she said immediately. “He left the city yesterday. Embras…where is Vlesni?”

“Another excellent question,” he said. “The nook it is. Let’s go have us a little look-see. Not that I doubt you, Nessa, but this is all hard to credit.”

“Oh, I know exactly how you feel,” she said darkly, taking a step back from them. The thin shadow cast by the barn bent, leaning forward, swelling and darkening, and in the next moment she was gone. Bradshaw and Embras rippled immediately afterward, vanishing as well.

In their absence, there was a brief pause, and the shadow shifted a fourth time.

The three warlocks emerged from the darkness in a hexagonal cul-de-sac approached only by one alley, which itself was so cluttered with stacks of broken crates and other detritus that the path there wound through a veritable maze. Walls on all sides rose at least three stories, casting the space in perpetual shadow; old, nigh-inscrutable graffiti lined its walls. The runes hidden within those messages were all but undetectable, both because of the pattern of the fading paint, and because they were partly inscribed in invisible ink. A single door stood in one wall, and several crates and boxes scattered about made convenient if impromptu seats. Despite its quite deliberate atmosphere of disuse and squalor, the area was uncommonly clean.

“All right, here we are,” said Embras, straightening his suit jacket. “Care to point me at—never mind, I think I see it.”

He took a few steps toward the door, staring through narrowed eyes, Vanessa and Bradshaw following along behind. For a moment, all three studied the door and the wall around it.

“That’s…most peculiar,” Embras mused at last. “Most peculiar. She doesn’t leave traces that overt in places she’s actually been. I find Vlesni so useful to work with largely because she is discreet, even for a succubus.”

“Well?” Vanessa folded her arms. “Let’s hear what she has to say for herself.”

“Quite right,” Embras replied, turning back to face the center of the nook, and snapped his fingers.

The demon appeared soundlessly, glancing around in mild surprise overlaid with boredom.

“Really, Embras,” she protested lazily. “A little forewarning is courteous. One of these days you’re going to catch me in the bath.” Grinning, she rose up on tiptoe and stretched her arms above her head, the catlike gesture serving to marvelously highlight her figure. “You know if you want a good look, you need only ask.”

“Vlesni, my dear,” Embras said mildly, “where’ve you been?”

The succubus lowered her arms, frowning slightly. “What? Why? Did you need something? If you called, I didn’t hear it. That’s never happened before…”

“Answer the question, if you please,” he replied.

“All right,” she said with a shrug. “Right then I was in Ninkabi, watching the local cell as you asked. They’re still not doing anything remotely interesting, by the way, but by the dictates of the bitch goddess Irony I’m sure that’ll start up immediately now I’m gone.”

“And before that?” he said. “Last night?”

Vlesni frowned now. “Last night? I was at the Black Isle, in Razzavinax’s library.”

“Did you do anything of interest?”

“Not terribly. The good books are locked up and I’m not about to mess with his wards; he took Rizlith with him to Tiraas, so there’s not much to do there except read. There’s still stuff worth reading, but that gets dull so quickly.” She smirked. “I did manage to wrangle a threesome with a couple of the students to pass an hour or so. Since you’re so interested in my personal life, there are two of them I’m getting accustomed to that, with various others. The magical anonymity adds a certain spice for them. These two are siblings, neither even aware the other is even at the academy. Next time I’m gonna get ’em in bed together. Of course, I’ll never be able to tell them I got them to boff, Razz’d have my wings for that, but I’ll know.” She grinned fiendishly, twitching her tail like a contented cat. “It’s the little things in life, don’t you agree?”

“Can we please,” Vanessa said in a strained tone, “never, ever hear about her sex life again?”

Vlesni’s grin widened. “It’s all right, Nessa dear, you were drunk. That totally doesn’t count. Ask anyone.”

“Shut up, Vlesni,” Embras said softly, immediately regaining the succubus’s full attention. “Look at that door. Tell me what you see, and then explain it.”

She frowned at him, then shifted her gaze to study the door as directed. Bradshaw had already stepped over to it and was peering about through his lens. Vlesni’s expression melted to one of shock, then morphed to fury; she dashed past Embras, placing her hands against the wall and feeling around the pitted brickwork.

“What the fuck?” the demon snarled. “What—who did this? How? How did they do this? Embras!” She whirled on him, fists clenched and wings fanning out in a menacing display. “Explain!”

“I believe that’s what I just asked you to do,” he said. “It’s not just here, Vlesni. There are traces like this all over Calderaas. Just about everywhere in the city where we can go and feel slightly safe—or could, until this morning. Our friends and contacts who live under your brand new shadow are not pleased.”

“You think I did this?” she screeched. “Me? How? Why? Embras you can’t think—I have no explanation for this! I don’t understand how it could happen!” Tail lashing in agitation now, she seemed almost on the verge of tears.

Embras studied her calmly, visibly unimpressed. “And yet…there it is.”

“Embras!” she wailed. “You know I wouldn’t risk undermining you like this. You think I want to go back to Hell? If I’d been sneaking around on you I’d have a good cover story! I—this—this is insane! I have no idea what—how—who…”

“That actually is a solid point,” he mused.

“Unless that’s what she wants you to think,” Vanessa said skeptically. Vlesni shot her a baleful glare.

“Embras,” said Bradshaw, “look at this. Look at the way this energy is distributed. The quantity of it is purely absurd; Vanislaads don’t leave traces like this unless they bleed all over something. And see where it’s spread?” He pointed with his lens. “Along the walls, the door frame, over the door. Unless you think Vlesni has been running around the city scent-marking walls like a stray cat…this was planted.”

“Even if she were working against us,” Vanessa said grudgingly, “this would be an utterly idiotic thing to do. A priest would be able to pick up on these traces, they’re so outstanding. She’s got a giant target painted on her forehead, now. I cannot see her taking a risk like that for anything.”

Vlesni snarled wordlessly, quivering with rage.

“Yes,” Embras said, nodding slowly. “Yes, I’m inclined to agree. This costs us—one of our most subtle agents has just had her ability to move severely limited. Which, by itself, explains the why of it.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully with a thumb, staring at the marked door. “But…how? And by the same token, who? To do something like this, a person would first have to find discernible traces Vlesni had left—itself a tall order—and then somehow reproduce them. I confess I don’t even know a spell that can do such a thing. Bradshaw?”

“Sure you do,” Bradshaw replied. “Not exactly like this, but we were just doing basically the same to Trissiny Avelea. The difference is, that was the tiniest whisper of a trace, and it took a physical sacrifice from Vlesni to do it. This… Someone did the opposite, working from the merest hint of her residue to produce sizable quantities. That is the mind-boggling part. I don’t know any infernal craft that could do such a thing. The Lady could, a couple of the archdemons could have. Prince Vanislaas surely could. But those are inherent gifts, not any spellwork. Also, Elilial and Vanislaas have much better things to do than footle around Calderaas making life difficult for their own servants.” He shook his head. “I’m at a loss.”

“This is your fault!” Vlesni screeched, pointing accusingly at Embras. “You and that damned paladin-taunting spell of yours! So help me—”

“What?” Embras said flatly, staring at her. “No, really. Go on and finish that sentence, Vlesni. I’m curious.”

She pantomimed a throttling motion at him, baring her teeth.

“Embras, take it easy,” Vanessa said reprovingly. “She’s no more irritating than most of her kind, and she’s also got a point. I would be very surprised if this weren’t connected to that business somehow. It’s all too convenient.”

“Foxhunt,” Bradshaw said suddenly.

Embras turned to him. “What’s that?”

“Remember, you were telling me about Ali’s warning?” Bradshaw said, staring intently back. “You used the word ‘foxhunt.’ Was that his word, or yours?”

“His,” Embras said slowly. “I noted it at the time. It’s not a word that comes up in general conversation, and Ali does love his wordplay.”

“Oh, forsaken gods,” Vanessa whispered. “Embras, Tellwyrn brought a kitsune onto that campus.”

Vlesni groaned and sagged against the wall. “Just put a wandshot in my head right now. Let’s not drag this out.”

“Could a kitsune do something like this, is the question?” Embras asked, again frowning at the wall.

“That’s…a very good question,” Vanessa replied. “It’s hardly clear what they can do. I only know of a handful of instances of them ever leaving Sifan.”

“Are we jumping to conclusions?” Bradshaw asked cautiously. “The connection seems rather specious.”

“No, it fits,” Embras said. “We’ve got a mean and impressively impossible prank on our hands, the sudden proximity of a powerful fairy of unknown capability—whose students we are actively taunting—and Ali’s warning to link the two. Trust me, I know him; the only thing he loves more than sneaky wordplay is sneaky wordplay that’s only obvious in meaning when it’s too late.”

“Well,” said Bradshaw, tucking the lens back into his robe, “if that fox-woman is capable of doing something like this, it goes without saying that she’s a nasty piece of work. The complexity of this, the power necessary… She clearly ranks close to Tellwyrn herself as a threat.”

“And she’s the newest faculty member, of course,” Embras murmured. “The one about whom we know almost nothing.”

“Right,” Bradshaw said worriedly. “I think we’d better fix that immediately.”

“Quite so,” Embras replied, suddenly brisk. He clapped his hands together, then rubbed them vigorously. “All right! To arms, people. Vanessa, I’m delegating the mess in Calderaas to you, with apologies. This is where your talents shine, however. I want your silver tongue put to work smoothing all these ruffled feathers.”

“Well, that was an entertaining visual,” Vlesni muttered.

Embras ignored her, still addressing himself to Vanessa. “Do what you have to to keep everyone happy—the local cell is under your command for purposes of this assignment. However, before that, I want you to jump to Rodvenheim and get Svalthram in on this. We are obviously being hunted, and I’m not going to risk you without insurance. Explain the situation to him, and make sure he’s looking over your shoulder the whole time.”

“Svalthram?” she queried, raising her eyebrows. “Well, it can’t be said that you’re not taking this seriously.”

“Oh, I am dead serious,” he said darkly. “Anybody tries to take advantage of this to move against you, I want them put down viciously.

“Very well,” she agreed. “I’m on it. I’ve been on it most of today already; hopefully I’ve laid sufficient groundwork already to keep this from swelling any further.”

“Attagirl,” he said approvingly. “Meanwhile, we face the simpler but no less daunting of rustling up some solid information about kitsune, and Kaisa Ekoi in particular.”

“Ekoi Kaisa,” Vanessa corrected him. “They put the surname first in Sifan.”

“Quite right, thank you.”

“I’m not sure it’s all that daunting,” Bradshaw objected. “There’s a language barrier, but Sifan’s only a moment away by shadow-jump—I’m sure they have libraries…”

“No!” Vanessa cried in alarm. “Absolutely not, you don’t just go to Sifan and start poking around—especially about kitsune, of all things! There’s a reason we don’t have cells there!”

Bradshaw blinked in surprise. “I thought… It was my understanding the reason was none of the cults have a solid presence there. We’re not exactly useful where there are no Pantheon gods to oppose.”

“It’s not that simple,” Embras explained. “Religion in Sifan is…different. Many of the cults are indeed completely absent, including ours. It’s positively crawling with Eserites and Veskers, but they answer to the Queen as much as to their own organizations, if not more so. There’s a local Avenist sect that has no actual ties to the Sisterhood at all. And not to put too fine a point on it, Bradshaw, but kitsune and similar local phenomena are also part of the reason we don’t act there. We have no business in the place, and there are things in the Twilight Forest which would hunt us like rabbits. No… In general I prefer firsthand information, but in this case, we had better stick to what can be gleaned about kitsune from Tiraan sources. Asking prying questions about anything related to demons, fairies, or anything remotely sensitive is a quick way to get a visit from what passes for the local Thieves’ Guild. And if you think the Guild in Tiraas is nasty, just hope you never have to contend with the shinobi. There’s a very good reason all our Sifanese members were recruited after leaving the Eternal Kingdom itself.”

“Hm.” Bradshaw frowned pensively. “Is Hiroshi still in Puna Shankur?”

“If he’s not, the cell there will know where he went,” Vanessa replied. “That’s probably our best starting point, though, you’re right. Puna Shankur itself is off the beaten path and outside Tiraan authority, and Hiroshi is remarkably well-read.”

“Someone has a crush,” Vlesni muttered, too sullen still to be properly snide. Vanessa ignored her.

“Embras,” Bradshaw said, “until we’re on better footing with regard to this, Last Rock…”

“Way ahead of you,” Embras said fervently. “That will have to manage itself for a day or two at least, until we know what we’re dealing with, and how to deal. I’m not taking chances with an unknown quantity this apparently dangerous.”

“And if it turns out we can’t deal?” Bradshaw prompted insistently.

Embras sighed. “Then… Yeah, I’m afraid we’ll have to consider dropping that campaign, if this fox-woman proves too much to contend with. It’s a priceless opportunity, but after Darling’s hilarious little prank in Tiraas this spring, we cannot afford to risk people. Bad enough we don’t have time to rebuild our numbers before our date with Justinian. For now, we’ve got our assignments. Let’s hop to, people. Vlesni, you’d better stick with me for a while, at least until Vanessa manages to cover your tracks.”

“They aren’t my tracks,” the succubus snarled. “And hell yes, I’m with you. If this kitsune can be killed…dibs.”

She remained blissfully unaware of the tip of the scythe hovering mere inches from the back of her skull, the slightest cut with which would have removed her instantly from the mortal plane.

Alydren loomed invisibly over them, staring balefully down at Vlesni, whose image was glaringly sharp to her even across the watery barrier between planes. Regretfully, the valkyrie pulled back her scythe, mindful of the strategy of the situation. Alarming the warlocks by dispatching their pet succubus would mean she wouldn’t learn anything further. For now, she waited. Watching.

Vanessa was the first to depart; Alydren studied the dimensional pathways carved by her shadow-jump for a moment, but turned her back on them to follow Embras, Bradshaw and Vlesni. They were going after more information on the fox-goddesses. That, in her estimation, was much more interesting.

For several reasons.

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