Tag Archives: Bradshaw

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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“This is too soon.”

“Bradshaw, you are turning into a regular old nanny,” Embras replied, not looking up from the diagram he was scrawling on the ground.

“Let me remind you what happened to us the last time you decided to get too aggressive,” Bradshaw said sharply, nodding at Vanessa, who just folded her arms. “I’m not blaming you, Embras, but keep in mind you’re working with people who have earned some caution.”

At that, Embras did raise his head, his expression serious. “I wasn’t being condescending when I suggested you two sit this out, you know. Lady knows, you’ve gone above and beyond the call lately. And frankly, aside from having earned a break, there’s the matter of it being in the best interests of the organization to have you fully rested and recuperated…”

“We’re both still in fighting shape,” Vanessa said tersely. “For a given value of ‘fighting,’ anyway.”

“The kind we usually do,” Bradshaw added. “Which doesn’t involve the sort of bear-poking you’re doing right now. But leaving that aside, Embras, I’m not just being conservative or cautious. Speaking as a fellow strategist, I believe this is too soon. I’d leave her alone for a bit—at least a day or two—to let this morning’s event settle to the back of her mind. The next one will have more impact that way.”

“Well, you aren’t wrong,” Embras acknowledged, kneeling again in the flattened tallgrass to resume work. He was using nothing more than his finger now, the enchanting dusts, sigils and charms all having been laid; a thin stream of bruise-purple energy was slowly scoring lines where he pointed it, adding to the already considerable complexity of the circle. “Under other circumstances, that’s exactly the approach I would take, too. However, we haven’t the luxury of a luxurious, drawn-out game this time. There’s a timetable here, and I’m not sure exactly where the numbers lie just yet. I want the girl good and spooked now, before she can convince herself it was her imagination, so she stays that way. We’ll have to adjust the schedule on the fly as things develop. Not ideal, I know, but we make do. All right, I think this is done. Nessa, Vlesni, kindly double-check my work?”

Vanessa silently limped over to him and began perusing the sigil through narrowed eyes, her head moving slowly as she studied each aspect of it in detail. The fourth member of their party sashayed forward to join her, unfurling her wings and re-folding them about her shoulders as a kind of cloak. Such little displays were as natural as breathing for the succubus, but were notably unaccompanied by comment this time. Vlesni had been unusually quiet all evening.

Bradshaw cast a grim look at the distant form of the mountain rising up from the flatness all around them. They were right at the edge of the effective range of the spell Mogul was crafting; the towering feature that gave Last Rock its name was a thumb-high blot on the horizon, both the town below it and the University at its peak invisible in the falling twilight.

“What kind of schedule?” Bradshaw asked, turning his attention back to Mogul, who was watching Vlesni pace slowly in a circle around the diagram.

“I’ve been thinking,” Embras said slowly.

“That could be good or very bad,” Vanessa commented without looking up. Not so long ago she’d have been moving around the circle like the succubus, but her leg didn’t appreciate unnecessary walking.

“Yes, yes,” Embras said. “Laugh it up. But seriously, now. We’ve been over the improbability of Justinian’s apparent plans, here. Turning Last Rock against Tellwyrn would barely inconvenience her. It makes a little more sense, though, if you consider it as the first step of a longer game. Turning the world against her might cause her annoyance, even impediment, but it won’t stop her operations. She’s just not the kind of personality or creature to care overmuch what people think, and unlike most governments and heads of institutions, has no need to concern herself with public opinion.”

“So that’s still wasted effort on Justinian’s part,” said Bradshaw.

Embras nodded. “And Justinian does not waste effort. However, one thing he could do by stirring up ill feeling that would hurt her greatly is turn the students against the University.”

Vanessa looked up at that, frowning. “Do you think he could?”

“Not the way he is so far,” Embras replied, “but it’s been established that these are obviously the opening moves of something more complex. That is both the dilemma and the solution, my friends. Not knowing the shape or nature of Justinian’s plans, we’re in the dark as to the schedule of events. But this creates an opportunity we cannot afford to waste. Whatever the exact details, the general form of his plan is clearly disharmony, division, and discord. Others can take advantage of that.”

“You surely don’t think you can turn the University students to our side,” Bradshaw protested.

“We could, but nah. There are nearly eighty of them; we could unquestionably gather up a few, but not the specific ones I want. Those are going to take some careful handling.”

“Again with the paladins,” Bradshaw grunted, folding his arms.

“Yes, the paladins,” Embras said implacably. “Think what Justinian must be after. Tellwyrn isn’t enough of a hazard to him that he would risk making her one unless he had a specific goal in mind. And there are some very interesting individuals on that campus with whom he already has fingerholds. Specifically, the same ones we are interested in. The paladins, and our dear Vadrieny.”

“The paladins are the least likely to give you so much as the time of day,” Vanessa scoffed. “And Vadrieny has made it plain she wants nothing to do with us. Amnesia clearly did wonders for her disposition, but it’s not made her any easier to handle.”

“And that, my dear, is our advantage,” Mogul said, raising a finger and grinning. “Those three owe much more to their own cults than the Church; he has to win their favor, and their loyalty, specifically to himself to get anywhere. He has to win—we just have to not lose.”

“I see,” Bradshaw said slowly, frowning. “Well, some of it. If you can discredit Justinian while putting us in a positive light… We don’t need to convert them to come out on top. I’m still not clear on how this leads to prodding at Avelea this way.”

“I don’t want to convert them,” said Embras. “Then their patrons would just kick them to the curb, and what use would they be after that? Even Vadrieny; the Lady has made it clear she wants the girl staying on campus and out of danger as long as possible. No, I want those kids questioning everyone. Us, the Church, their own gods. And the best part is, I cannot imagine Professor Tellwyrn objecting to that goal.”

“This looks good to me,” Vlesni said curtly, coming to stand next to him.

“Agreed,” said Vanessa, taking a few uneven steps back from the spell circle. “If you intend to do this, let’s get on with it.”

“Very good,” he said cheerfully, producing a heavy hunting knife out of thin air. Its pommel was hammered into the bronze wolf’s head that symbolized Shaath’s cult.

“I’m still waiting to hear the story behind that thing,” Bradshaw noted.

“Vlesni, my dear, you’re up,” Embras said, holding out a hand to her.

The succubus wrapped her arms and wings around herself, and looked away at the mountain on the horizon. “We’re too close to that place. I don’t do valkyries, not after last time. We had an agreement, Embras.”

“There are no valkyries here,” he said patiently. “I went well out of my way to chart the area from multiple dimensions. They don’t patrol the region, just come and go. Seems they like to visit their new Hand when they’ve nothing better to do, is all. And speaking of hands, dear, I’ll need yours.”

“I’m not so sure I like this,” Vlesni complained. “Why can’t you summon up someone else for these things? Last thing I want is that paladin getting the scent of my blood in her nose.”

“Vlesni,” Embras said, his tone just perceptibly harder. “You know I like to lead with a gentle hand, my dear, but that doesn’t mean you don’t obey. You get to run around on the mortal plane so long as you follow my rules, and make yourself useful. If that deal is no longer working for you, just say the word.”

For a bare instant, the succubus fixed him with a sly, calculating look. Then she sniffed dramatically and extended her hand, palm down and wrist limp, as if expecting a kiss on the knuckles.

“You don’t need to get all huffy,” she huffed, languidly raising one forefinger. The nail spontaneously grew till it curled a good three inches outward.

“That’s my girl,” Mogul said cheerfully, taking her hand and swiftly but carefully cutting free the overgrown nail with the fae-blessed Huntsman knife.

Mogul stepped over to the spell circle, knelt, and very carefully laid the demon’s fingernail in the center of one elaborately glyphed ring positioned at the edge of the overall design.

Instantly the entire thing glowed purple. Then, as if being sucked down a drain, the lines and glyphs began to crawl free of their place on the ground, inching toward the circle containing the severed nail. Only one spot seemed to resist: directly opposite that circle was a rendition of Avei’s eagle sigil, bound by another inscribed ring, which now began to glow a dull red and let off sparks in protest.

Its resistance finally gave, however, and the entire thing swirled into the point around Vlesni’s fingernail and vanished.

For an instant, all was silent.

The final discharge of the elaborate spell was an anticlimactic puff of purple smoke, which swirled into an off-center twister no bigger than a mule, and sailed off in the direction of Last Rock, vanishing from view as it did so.

“And that’s that!” Embras said brightly, clapping his hands. “All right, folks, let’s clean up the site—full scrub, no stone unturned, you know the drill. I’m sure you know better than to assume the Lady’s stealth works on Tellwyrn, especially after she got her hands on those materials Locke stole from us. I can’t imagine why she’d be sniffing around out here, but it pays not to make assumptions.”

“And while we’re going that,” Bradshaw said pointedly, then stopped, looking over at Vanessa. “No, you don’t, Nessa! Sit down, we’ll take care of this.”

“I am not an invalid,” she said sharply.

“You kind of are, though,” Vlesni commented. Embras snapped her fingers, and the demon obligingly fell silent, still wearing a placid smile.

“Bradshaw’s right,” said Embras. “All assets should go where they are most useful, and your skills at the moment don’t include repeatedly bending over. Vlesni, don’t you dare.”

“Oh, please,” the demon said scornfully. “Way too easy.”

“As I was saying,” Bradshaw continued, while kneeling to slowly run his palms over the apparently featureless dirt where the spell circle had been moments ago, “this would be a great time for you to explain how goosing Trissiny Avelea with pieces of Vanislaad aura leads to turning her against Justinian.”

“Well, now, just playing to type,” Mogul said innocently, bending to repeat Bradshaw’s motions on the other side of the erstwhile circle. “If you read the old epics, the really popular songs and stories about paladins, a sort of pattern emerges. It begins to seem that, whatever their stated goals, the purpose of a paladin’s enemies is always the same in the long run.” He grinned broadly as he worked. “To make her a hero.”


 

Veilgrad wasn’t much of a travel destination these days; the Empire had taken steps to prevent gawkers from impeding the repairs to the city. Said repairs seemed to mostly be done at this point, to judge by the condition of buildings they had passed today, and the number partially encased in scaffolding. Still, Ingvar suspected that Darling’s connections were a major reason they’d been able to secure a ticket to Veilgrad so quickly. On the upside, it was nice and quiet, particularly now, on the upper floor hallways of the inn in which they were staying.

Darling followed him past the door of the room he was sharing with Joe, and Ingvar, having already said his goodnights, steadfastly ignored him, opening his own door and stepping through in the hope that the Eserite was simply on his way back down to the common room for a nightcap.

“So!” Darling said, his chipper voice as usual dashing all of Ingvar’s hopes. “You know the chair trick, right?”

Ingvar stopped, turned, and stared at him. “The chair…trick?”

“Let me show you!”

Darling slipped past him into the room, and even as he bristled at the presumption, Ingvar had to respect the man’s physical adroitness. Not many people could maneuver around him so neatly—but then again, perhaps the could and simply didn’t try to. Most people gave Huntsmen a respectful berth.

The thief had already picked up the ladder-back chair which was one of the few items of furniture in Ingvar’s room. “C’mon, shut the door so I can demonstrate.”

Ingvar gave him a considering look before complying. Something about shutting himself in this small room with the man put him on edge.

Darling stepped past him, set the chair down on its back two legs and wedged it in so it was lodged directly under the door handle.

“There!” he said, giving the door a jiggle to demonstrate. “Snug as a bug. It’s damn near impossible to open a door from the other side with the chair in place like that—anybody who wants in that badly will pretty much have to break it down, and in pieces. Physics is a wonderful thing.”

“I see. Thanks for the tip,” Ingvar said tersely, only un-tensing slightly when Darling removed the chair. Being blocked in the room with the man had been even worse.

Rather than opening the door to leave, however, Darling turned to face him, his expression serious.

“It wasn’t a random suggestion. I’m pretty sure we were followed today.”

“Followed?” Ingvar tensed further, a hand straying toward his tomahawk. “By whom?”

Darling shook his head. “I didn’t get a good look.”

“Well…how many?”

“Not sure… It was just an impression I had. The sense of increasingly familiar shapes out of the corner of my eye, conveniently behind us whenever I happened to glance, and absent when I looked specifically.”

Ingvar was torn between the urges to laugh and to cuff him about the ears. “That’s it? Really, that’s all?”

“It’s instinct, Ingvar,” Darling said, seemingly unperturbed by his tone. “Instinct is just the summation of a thousand tiny observations and calculations you could never consciously do. You of all people should know to trust it. Or are you going to tell me that when you’re out hunting, you don’t have a grasp of the forest? Doesn’t nature talk to you at all, if you know how to read the signs?”

“You’re equating the hunt with this…premonition you had?” Ingvar said skeptically.

“They’re exactly the same thing,” Darling replied with a faint smile. “Cities are my woods, Ingvar, and stalking people through them was my bread and butter long before I got promoted into playing mind games with the powers that be. When I have a feeling that I’m being followed, I’ve learned it means I’m being followed. And when I can’t get a solid look at the person doing the following, that means they’re good.”

“Hm,” Ingvar grunted, frowning. With it all explained like that, it did make sense. He understood the value of instinct very well—better, he felt, than the Eserite, for he didn’t feel a need to explain it away as unconscious calculation. It had come as a surprise that Darling of all people would understand the instincts of hunter and prey, but there, too, he was right. Who better to know such dynamics in the city than a thief?

“I’m not going to rule out random pickpockets, or some unknown new party,” Darling continued, “but I can’t help thinking the only people we know expressed an interest in our group today were those three Huntsmen. And we know who they’re interested in.” He patted the back of the chair. “So…chair trick. May it serve you well.”

“I see,” Ingvar mused, then nodded. “Thank you. I’ll put that to good use. Will you two be okay?”

Darling grinned. “I almost hope I get to see someone try to sneak up on the Sarasio Kid on this trip. Sleep well, Ingvar.”

After he had finally slipped out, pulling the door shut behind him, Ingvar stared at it in thought for a long moment.

He propped the chair in place as Darling had shown him, then went to collect his satchel. Everything was packed exactly where he could lay hands on just what he needed; it was the work of moments to extract a few lengths of rawhide cord and small tin discs. Working them into a snare alarm took only a moment, the motions well-practiced. Arranging them on the window was only slightly trickier; its latch was designed to be minimally obtrusive, and Ingvar was used to setting this on convenient lengths of twig and branch, not angular surfaces against which they’d lie too flat to chime. He did get it rigged up, however, and tested his handwork to ensure that anyone opening the window would unavoidably cause the chimes to jangle loudly together. Perfect.

After a moment’s thought, he arranged a second such alarm on the chair propped against his door. He couldn’t see any way to open it from the outside, but considering who had told him to do that…

It never hurt to be sure.


 

The room filled with golden light; Ruda was on her feet before being fully awake, snatching up her sword from beside the bed and only belatedly pulling it from its scabbard. Trissiny was already up, naked blade in hand, glowing like the sun. The paladin turned this way and that as if looking for something. Barefoot, dressed only in the plain shift in which she slept and with her hair pillow-mussed, she was quite a sight.

“What is it?” Ruda finally demanded. “Boots? Say something, you are wigging me the fuck out, here.”

“Demon,” Trissiny said tersely.

Ruda tightened her grip on her sword. “Like before?”

“Just like before.” Trissiny turned in a slow circle, panning her gaze around the room. “It’s…gone. I only felt it for a moment… Hang on.”

She frowned in concentration, and the glow around her expanded gradually, until it filled the room.

“Hey, be careful with that,” Ruda chided. “If you incinerate yourself, they’re gonna say I murdered you. Triss? Seriously, stop. There’s nothing here.”

Trissiny sighed and nodded, relaxing slightly. The light around her diminished to the normal scale of her divine shield, then further, till she was barely glowing. “I didn’t imagine it.”

“Didn’t say you did.” Ruda padded across the room to the switch by the door, igniting the fairy lamp. “But after that display, we can be certain nothing’s in here. Or out in the hall, or in the bathroom. Unless that glowy shit is stopped by walls?”

“It isn’t,” Trissiny said tersely.

“Right, then.” Ruda glanced down at her own pajamas, then over at her hat hanging from the bedpost and scabbard lying against the wall where she had flung it. “So what happened?”

“I’m not crazy,” Trissiny muttered to herself. “I know I felt…”

“Boots, if you were crazy, Avei would damn well take notice. Whatever’s going on, that’s not it. Look…last time, Scorn felt it too.”

“Right,” Trissiny said vaguely, then her gaze focused. “Right. You’re right. Let’s go check on her.”

Ruda followed her out into the hall and down the stairs, their steps utterly silent on the luxuriant carpet.

Trissiny hesitated outside the fairies’ door, but continued past when no sound emerged from within. Fross didn’t actually sleep, but she used her nights to study, which Juniper claimed didn’t bother her. Since reshuffling the rooms after their first semester, they had developed a comfortable rhythm, which had taken time to re-establish after Jack was added to the picture. Everyone had been extra careful around that door this semester. The jackalope didn’t appreciate being awakened, and those antlers hurt.

The next door down opened as they neared it, however, and Shaeine slipped out, garbed in a black nightdress.

“What’s amiss?” she asked.

“I felt another demonic presence,” Trissiny replied. “I don’t suppose you…?”

“Nothing like that,” the drow replied with a faint frown. “I heard you two coming down, is all. At this hour and as fast as you are moving, it seemed unlikely to have been in search of a midnight snack. Are you going to wake Janis?”

“May not be much point in that,” Ruda said. “We’re gonna check with Scorn. Last time she had the same sense Trissiny did…”

“Good thinking,” Shaeine agreed, gently pulling her door shut.

“Uh…” Ruda glanced at it. “Just for the record, she listens to Teal…”

“She listens to each of us,” Shaeine said firmly. “I think it is best not to get her used to interacting politely only with one person. And Teal needs her sleep.”

“All right,” Trissiny agreed. “Come on.”

The stairwell terminated into the living room downstairs; getting to the basement from there meant creeping down the hallway past the kitchen and Janis’s door. There was no door blocking the steps that led down into the giant, hollowed-out floating stalactite on which Clarke tower perched, which meant Scorn lacked some of the privacy the tower’s other residents enjoyed, but she had never objected to that. Vadrieny had hinted that privacy was at a premium in her home dimension anyway.

The basement room, blessedly, had no windows. Aside from its leveled floor, it could have been a natural cave, the walls rough-hewn. Stored barrels and trunks had been rearranged to make a sleeping area for the Rhaazke; she was presently curled up in it, having chosen to construct a huge nest of quilts and pillows, propping the bed she’d been provided up on its end against one wall to serve as a rack for clothes and her large collection of cheap jewelry.

They continued to step quietly, but Scorn (as they had previously discovered) was apparently accustomed to being snuck up on, and rose as they filed into the room. Trissiny let her golden glow flicker out, leaving the room lit only by the small fairy lamp Scorn used as a nightlight. The demon had never given any indication of being afraid of the dark; she seemed to find it a sign of wealth and privilege to have a light on all the time while she slept.

Which she did in the nude. It didn’t bother her to be visited in that state, and after the initial surprise, no one but Teal was particularly flustered by it.

“What?” Scorn demanded irritably. “Is late. Am sleeping.”

“Did you feel a demon nearby just now?” Trissiny asked.

Scorn snorted. “I feel nobody in my bed. Boys not allowed, remember? Yes?”

“That’s not what I meant,” Trissiny said, her cheeks coloring slightly. “This morning, you sensed a demon when I did. I just had the same feeling—exactly the same. You didn’t sense anything?”

“No,” Scorn said with a huge yawn which showed off her jagged teeth alarmingly. “Why you were up to sense?”

“I…wasn’t,” Trissiny admitted. “It woke me up.”

The demon rolled her eyes. “You have a dream. Good night, let everyone else have some.”

“I really don’t think—”

“Night!” Scorn flopped back down on her pillows, face-first, and said something else which was too muffled to be understood.

“Well…thanks anyway,” Trissiny said with a sigh. Stifled but still ostentatious snoring began to emerge from the demon’s nest. Shaking her head, Trissiny turned back to the stairs. “I’m not crazy.”

“No, you aren’t,” Shaeine agreed. “No one has suggested otherwise.”

“They will, though,” Trissiny said glumly. “When you start sensing things no one else can…that’s just not a good sign. Maybe it was a dream. Feeling that…thing…out of nowhere this morning… Well, that’d give anybody nightmares.”

They had navigated back up to the darkened living room, where Ruda stopped. “That was no nightmare, Boots.”

Trissiny frowned at her. “How would you know? You have insight into my dreams, now?”

“Fuck yes I do,” Ruda retorted. “I’ve slept in the next bed over for a year and a half now. You get nightmares, you know that? They tend to wake me up. But never anything like that. That was pure, divinely inspired fight or flight. Something real happened up there.”

“Do you think we are in any danger?” Shaeine asked.

“I don’t…know,” Trissiny said, frowning. “Both times, it was just the sensation, quickly gone.”

“First,” said Ruda, “I can’t picture an actual demon getting past Tellwyrn’s wards unless invited, like Scorn or Vadrieny. Or Gabriel, even. Second, supposing one found herself in this tower—and it’d have to be a her, or the charm would keep it out—she’d be locked in with a crew of women who individually are a match for most things and collectively for damn near anything. No demon clever enough to penetrate the outer defenses would wanna be in that position. Nah…we’re not under attack.” She turned to look at Trissiny. “Both times this shit has been targeted at you, Boots.”

“You do believe me, then?” Trissiny seemed half grateful and half disbelieving.

“Triss, I’ve got a pretty firm handle on your flaws by now,” Ruda replied with a grin. “You’re judgmental and not the most socially adept person when it comes to people. When there’s battle or evil shit afoot, though, I trust your instincts. They’ve saved all our asses more than once.”

“I agree,” Shaeine said, nodding.

“This is what I don’t like,” Ruda continued, her features falling into a scowl. “If we accept that Trissiny’s reactions are real, and that this doesn’t seem to be a physical threat to us… The logical conclusion is that somebody is deliberately fucking with you.”

“Who would do something like that?” Trissiny demanded. “And why?”

“I think we had better devote some serious thought to those questions,” Shaeine said, her forehead infinitesimally creased in one of her faint frowns, an expression that indicated severe worry. Whether they had grown accustomed to her or she had begun to open up slightly, her classmates had become more perceptive of her subtle displays of emotion.

“Whoever it is,” Ruda growled, “they’re gonna fuckin’ quit it. First we find them, and then we explain it to ’em.”

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10 – 3

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Between wanting to have this over with and being unable to get back to sleep, Ingvar ended up at the temple very early. Dawn was well-risen, the sky a pale gray and fiery in the east, but on city time that meant the night dwellers had long since staggered home and most people were still asleep. The convenient thing about paying a visit to soldiers was that they could be relied upon to be up with the dawn and probably already working. On the other hand, it was a strangely early hour for visiting. Not to mention that soldiers probably didn’t appreciate having their work interrupted first thing—or maybe they did; Ingvar had little notion what soldiers even did in peaceful times.

Plus, there were the obvious pitfalls of coming here.

Though not wishing to be indecisive, especially after Hrathvin’s upbraiding the night before, he found himself pausing at the foot of the steps of the Temple of Avei, staring uncertainly up at it. He remembered the back entrance to the Silver Legion grounds, but walking into an Avenist military base dressed in his full Huntsman gear was a very different prospect alone than when he had been in the company of a Bishop, several brother Huntsmen, and a squad of actual Legionnaires. Oh, and the Eserites, whatever use they were. Generally, clerics were easier to approach than warriors. Hopefully.

He was galvanized into action, not by having reached a conclusion, but by the subtle shifts in posture of the Legionnaires guarding the temple’s entrance, making it plain they were watching him almost to the exclusion of all else.

Carefully keeping his hand away from his tomahawk, Ingvar mounted the steps, nodding respectfully to one of the armored women in passing. She continued turning her head to stare at him, making no gesture in reply. He could barely see the glint of eyes behind her helmet, but could not make out an expression. Didn’t they usually forgo helmets on city guard duty? It wasn’t as if he’d ever paid close attention to the Legions, but he recalled having heard that somewhere.

The temple’s main sanctuary was quiet, currently inhabited only by a handful of Legionnaires posted at regular intervals along the walls and a couple of priestesses at the back, near the great statue of Avei. A few other women in white, some robed, some wearing simple tunics, passed through, most giving him suspicious looks, which he ignored. He also tried to avoid looking at the statue, unable to shake the irrational impression that the goddess was glaring at him. It was bright and peaceful, though, illuminated by fairy lamps. Obviously, no major temple ever closed, but there had evidently been no great business of war or justice overnight, nor any female emergencies. Whatever those might entail.

Well, he was here, now. His half-formed idea of speaking with a priestess and seeking permission to approach the Legion grounds was apparently the one he was going with. That was probably for the best, anyway.

“Are you lost?”

One of the priestesses approached him, a rather diminutive woman of swarthy, sharp-featured Tiraan stock. Her expression was very, very neutral. Ingvar carefully repositioned himself to face her directly, showing full attention even though an Avenist was unlikely to understand or appreciate the gesture, and bowed.

“I don’t believe so. I wish to speak with a Silver Legionnaire. Have I come too early in the morning?”

The priestess raised her eyebrows in mild surprise, turning her head to look pointedly at one of the soldiers standing at attention at the base of a nearby column.

“A…specific Legionnaire,” Ingvar clarified, feeling rather foolish. “I’m sorry, I’m not aware of the Legion’s…visitation policies. I don’t wish to…violate any rules.”

He hated himself a little for the hesitant tone, but it was the simple truth; he didn’t know the rules here, and the fact that Avenists were champions of weird and socially destructive ideas didn’t mean he was obligated to spit in their faces. He certainly wouldn’t get anywhere with them that way.

“What is this about?” the cleric asked.

“It is a religious matter,” he said, then hastily continued when her eyebrows climbed still further. “She knows me. I simply have a question to ask; it won’t take long.”

“A religious matter,” the woman mused. “I assume you are aware that religious matters between Shaathists and Avenists are rarely amicable.”

“Yes,” he said as calmly as he could. “And some men—and women—of lesser character take that as an excuse for rudeness. I see no benefit in treating people disrespectfully.”

Her expression did not soften, precisely, but she looked slightly more interested at that. “I see.”

“Sister, if I may?” The priestess glanced aside at the armored Legionnaire who had approached while they were talking, and nodded. The soldier nodded back and turned to Ingvar. “Who are you looking for, Huntsman?”

For a moment, he was tongue-tied. He recognized this one, obviously: Ephanie, Feldren’s runaway wife. She was a distinctive beauty, and he vividly recalled escorting her squad with Brother Andros. That was the problem: it was inappropriate to speak so directly with another man’s wife in his absence and without his permission, and anyway, he ought not to acknowledge her at all until Feldren brought her to heel. This conversation had the potential to encompass multiple insults to his fellow Huntsman.

On the other hand, she knew Shaath’s ways, might even recognize him, and most importantly, was in the same squadron as Locke. He couldn’t possibly ask for a more useful person to run into. Well, his whole presence here was placing practicality above tradition—might as well continue in that vein while the opportunity was before him. These things didn’t just happen, and the fates tended not to hold out another hand if one disdained their first offer.

Barely a second had passed while he furiously deliberated. He could tell by Ephanie’s wry expression that she had marked the hesitation, but he turned to her and bowed politely before it could stretch out any further. “Ah, good morning. In fact I would like to speak with your squad mate, Principia Locke, if possible.”

Now it was Ephanie’s turn to raise her eyebrows in surprise. “Locke? Sorry, but what do you want with her?”

“It’s…” He glanced at the priestess again. “It is a spiritual matter, pertaining to a vision. I actually need to ask about a family connection of hers.”

Ephanie pursed her lips. “She won’t like that. Locke doesn’t get on with her family.”

“All right,” Ingvar said, struggling to keep his expression neutral and tone polite. “And she is under no obligation to talk to me, of course. But I would like to ask her, please. It’s important.”

“He’s a fairly respectful young…man,” the priestess said, glancing at Ingvar, and he fought back a sigh. “It’s not as if they are banned from the temple grounds. I’ll leave this to your judgment, private; she’s your sergeant.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Ephanie said respectfully, bowing to her. Ingvar took note of that. So they only saluted other Legionnaires, then? Weren’t the clergy above them? Such observations were just habit, of course; Shaath grant that the structure of the Sisterhood never became something he needed to pay attention to. Brother Andros had encouraged his political perceptiveness, and he tried to be in the habit of practicing it.

“It’s this way,” Ephanie said to him, half-turning toward the far end of the sanctuary. “This actually is a very good time for you to visit. Breakfast is about to be served, no one’s on duty yet, and we don’t have the day’s orders.”

“Good,” he said, then belatedly added, “My thanks.” She glanced back with a faint smile, and he simply followed her the rest of the way across the sanctuary and through the doors in the back corner. Eyes tracked them the whole way.

There weren’t many people about in the temple yet, but those they did pass gave him very sharp looks, several stopping to stare rudely. At least nobody accosted them, since he was clearly in the company of a Silver Legionnaire. Ingvar did his best to ignore them.

Of course, that left him with the problem of where to direct his eyes.

The Legion armor was modest, he had to give them that; he could see basically nothing of the shape of her body through it. As a downside, however, that left him staring at her most attractive visible feature: her rare, flame-red hair. That was hardly proper, nor respectful. It was a quandry, though, since his inability to actually see her rump or the curve of her waist didn’t make him comfortable casting his eyes in their general direction. Ingvar finally decided to study the interior of the temple as they passed, and lifted his gaze just in time to get a very hostile look from a priestess who had halted in a cross-hall, planting her hands on her hips.

Maybe he should have affected a less traditional style of dress for this visit, and foregone the weapons. On the other hand, so far, this was going about the way he had expected, and better than he had feared. If he was going to encounter opposition, better to do it honorably, without sneaking around.

“So…Locke made sergeant?” he offered, casting back to a brief mention from the sanctuary.

“Yes.” She glanced back at him again. “You can ask her all about it if you’re interested.”

He turned what wanted to be a sigh into a noncommittal little noise of politeness. Well, he’d tried.

Ephanie’s silence didn’t much bother him. It wasn’t really appropriate for them to be interacting at all, which of course she knew. Clearly she wasn’t holding to proper Shaathist behavior, now, but he’d been half-afraid she would swing in the other direction and go out of her way to spit on his standards, as some wildwomen did. Instead, she appeared to be conducting herself as a model soldier—which, errant as it was for a woman, was a better outcome for their interaction than he really could have hoped for.

It was not a short walk through the temple—they were traversing nearly its entire length, from the main hall in the front to the Silver Legion fortress at its rear, and the temple complex itself was massive. It was like a city, compared to the Shaathist lodge in Tiraas. Ingvar was keenly aware that the journey seemed longer because of his discomfort in this place, both inherent and caused by the glares and whispers that followed him.

Eventually, though, they did reach the fortress; built right into the temple complex itself, the transition was marked only by a checkpoint manned—womanned?—by bored-looking Legionnaires. They livened up considerably at the sight of a Huntsman in their midst, but did not challenge them, even verbally. He wondered at the significance of that; it seemed like lax security for a military installation, if all you needed to get in was the company of someone in uniform.

Crossing the parade ground he remembered from his previous visit to the fortress, they gathered more stares from other Legionnaires, who were trickling toward the temple in the opposite direction Ephanie was leading him. These, perhaps unsurprisingly, proved a less reserved group than the priestesses in the temple proper.

“Oy, Avelea!” one woman shouted in passing. “You got something stuck to your back!” A few of her fellow harridans cackled at this.

Ingvar stopped, turned very deliberately to face them, and bowed courteously before resuming his way, having to lengthen his stride to catch up with Ephanie, who hadn’t waited. The soldiers seemed surprised; the one who had catcalled jeered at him, but none of the others backed her up this time.

Simple courtesy. Much as he’d have liked to pin the lack of it on Avei’s degenerate ideas, he’d met far too many Huntsmen and people from all walks of life who seemed to think they could advance themselves by putting someone else down. Not once had he ever seen anyone improved by another person’s suffering.

They met the rest of Ephanie’s squad midway across the parade ground; apparently the others were among the last to head in for breakfast. They slowed and stopped as Ephanie led Ingvar up to them. Like his guide, they were in armor, with short swords buckled at the waist, but not wearing helmets nor carrying lances or shields. Principia, of course, he recognized immediately. The others didn’t leave much of an impression, except for the sandy-haired girl who hardly looked old enough to be away from her mother, much less enlisted in an army.

“Morning, Sarge,” said Ephanie, stepping over to join her squadmates and turning to gesture at Ingvar. “You’ve got a visitor.”

“I do?” Principia said incredulously, staring at Ingvar.

One of the other women, a dark-haired girl a little shorter than the elf, sighed dramatically. “Why is it always Locke?”

“He was in the sanctuary in front, talking with a Sister,” Ephanie explained. “I thought I’d better intervene.”

“What were you doing up there at this hour?” Principia asked her.

“Praying,” Ephanie said dryly. “In case it’s escaped your notice, Sarge, we live in a temple.”

“Oh,” the elf mused. “I didn’t realize you were…observant.”

“Yes, that’s correct. You know exactly as much about my spiritual life as I’ve cared to tell you.”

“All right, fair enough,” Principia said peaceably.

“Good morning, Sergeant,” Ingvar said courteously, bowing to Principia, who finally turned her attention to him. “My apologies for intruding. I hope I’m not keeping your squad from their duties.”

“My squad wouldn’t stop in their actual duties to chat with you,” she replied. “All we’re missing right now is breakfast. Which they could still be heading off to, if they wanted, though of course that won’t stop them from griping all day about missing it.”

She didn’t so much as glance at the others as she said this, but the youngest girl tugged at the arm of the last member of the squad, a tall, lean woman with skin a shade darker than the Tiraan average, and the two of them resumed walking toward the mess hall. Ephanie, Principia and the sharp-tongued one remained.

“Well, then,” said the elf. “It’s… Ingvar, yes? What can I do for you?”

He drew in a breath; this was it. “I need a little guidance. It has been said in the lore we keep of the elder races that all dark-haired wood elves are of a single family. Is that correct?”

Principia’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you ask?”

“I need to know how to contact Mary the Crow.”

Ephanie blinked; the other girl snorted derisively. Principia just stared at him.

“The smartest thing you could possibly do,” she said, “is stay as far away from Mary the Crow as you can manage. I’d say that to anyone, but in particular, she doesn’t have a high opinion of Shaathists.”

“What?” said the third girl. “I thought they didn’t hold elves to their bullshit double standard?”

“I really don’t feel like having a theological discussion before breakfast,” said Principia, turning to give her a sharp look, “and keep a civil tongue in your head while we have a guest, Private Lang. The Crow has her own issues with the Huntsmen.”

“Well, maybe this one would have better luck anyway,” Lang said, eying Ingvar up and down. “I’ve never seen a female Huntsman before.”

“Lang,” Ephanie said sharply, “shut up.”

Ingvar drew in a breath and let it out slowly. It was just to be expected; this one seemed particularly ignorant even by Avenist standards. It happened all the time; sooner or later he would just have to stop being bothered by it. Surely, someday.

“What is it you want with Mary the Crow?” Principia asked him.

He hesitated. Discussing spiritual matters with outsiders wasn’t smiled upon, and for good reason. On the other hand, he clearly wasn’t going to get any further here without explaining himself, at least somewhat. Give and take.

“It pertains to a vision,” he said finally, “and a quest. In a vision I was directed to seek guidance from a crow. It…could mean something else, but I believe Brother Andros and I encountered her previously, just before our last meeting. Visions are challenging,” he admitted. “I don’t know whether I am even tracking the right spoor, but this is the best idea I have.”

Lang rolled her eyes, but Principia nodded slowly, her expression more serious. “Well. Actually, that casts another color on this. You wouldn’t be the first; spend enough time being a big heap shaman and things like this start to happen. Mary has been the target of vision quests before, and she does take them seriously.”

Hope rose in him, mingled with unease. Progress was good, but a weak little part of him had wished for an excuse to give up on this whole venture. “Then you’ll help me?”

“Well…up to a point,” she said, shrugging. “I honestly have no idea where Mary is, nor do I wish to. I follow my own advice with regard to her. The less anybody interacts with the Crow, the happier they are.”

“I see,” he said, sighing. “Well. I thank you for your time, anyway. You have at least helped me see the path.”

“Now, wait a moment,” she said with a faint smile. “I can give you a little more help than that. If you want to get in touch with Mary the Crow, she has some kind of established relationship with the Eserite Bishop, Antonio Darling. Check with him; he probably can’t call her up either, but he may know more about how to reach her.”

Ingvar’s recently lifted hopes plummeted.

Oh, he remembered Darling. Much as he had to acknowledge some personal antipathy, due to the man’s generally foolish countenance and his failure to address Ingvar as a man, there were much better reasons to keep away from the Eserite. He remembered very well what had happened to Angner. It wasn’t even that he regretted any harm suffered by that Wreath traitor, but it was the way Darling had been. He’d heard very detailed accounts of it, how the man’s silly exterior hadn’t wavered through cold-blooded torture and shocking cruelty.

A man like that was… Scarcely human. A viper in a songbird’s plumage.

“You have a problem with Darling?” Principia said dryly, and Ingvar realized he’d done a poor job of marshaling his expression. “I must say that’s a first. His favorite thing in the world is making friends with everybody.”

“I’ll bet,” Ingvar muttered. “That man is… He’s just… Creepy.”

There was a moment’s silence, and then Principia and Lang burst out laughing in unison. Even Ephanie hid a smile behind her hand.

Brother Andros liked to say that women were to be experienced, not understood. Ingvar had questions about that logic, but this wasn’t the first time he’d had the thought that he was better off not bothering.


 

“Wilson,” Ox said wearily, “did your mama ever tell you the story of the boy who cried wolf?”

Wilson broke off his gesticulations to squint suspiciously at the bigger man. “What? Course I know that story, what of it?”

“I want you to consider that in light of this here situation,” Ox rumbled. “You carryin’ on about this, an’ the general lack of interest in what’s got you so worked up. Every time anything happens, here you are complainin’. When nothin’ happens, you complain about that.”

“What’s your point?” Wilson snapped.

“His point,” said Jonas idly, watching the progress of the various personnel breaking down the tents, “is that you’re the boy cryin’ wolf. You complainin’ an’ stirrin’ up trouble ain’t worth a prairie dog’s fart, you do it so damn much. Someday you’re gonna have an actual point, by accident, and ain’t nobody gonna pay you any mind then, either.”

Wilson swelled up like a bullfrog, leaning forward and planting his fists on the table between the other two men. “Y’all can be assholes all you like, that don’t mean I’m wrong! You heard the Bishop speak—I’m just embarrassed I never thought about what she said before, even after livin’ in this town my whole life!”

“Too busy havin’ thoughts about a bunch of other shit that ain’t none of your business either,” Ox said dryly.

“Yeah, you laugh it up, big man. I ain’t the only one who feels this way,” Wilson said stridently. “It ain’t fair, the way them kids lord it over us. What gives ’em the right?”

“I oughta just ignore him, I know it,” Jonas said to Ox, “but I got this allergy to people talkin’ out their asses about stuff I actually understand.”

“That there’s a serious condition,” Ox said gravely. “You should see the doc.”

“Omnu’s breath, Wilson,” Jonas said before Wilson could start up again, “sometimes I think if I put as much effort into anything as you do into bein’ wrong I’d be Emperor. Them kids are exactly like any bunch o’ kids anywhere. Yeah, some of ’em do look down their noses at us. Course some do; there’s assholes like that anywhere. An’ y’know what? Most don’t. Ain’t always the rich ones, neither. That Falconer girl’s just about the sweetest thing I ever did meet, an’ I remember young Lord Ravinaad who got his own hands dirty helpin’ me clean out the stables after a couple of ‘is friends got drunk an’ raised hell behind the Saloon. No complainin’, didn’t even offer, just rolled up his sleeves an’ got to work like a good neighbor.”

“Them kids ain’t anything but different,” Ox agreed. “All types, from all over the world, but in the end they’re basically just folk. If you’d pay attention, there’s a lesson in that.”

“So how come none of our kids are invited to the fancy education up on the mountaintop?” Wilson demanded.

“Why, Wilson,” said Ox, “an’ here I had no idea you were a father. Who’s the unlucky lady?” Jonas snorted a laugh.

“Oh, shut the hell up,” Wilson said irritably. “Not my kids, our kids. We got young folk of our own, just like any town anywhere. What do they grow up to? Learnin’ a trade, takin’ over the farm or the shop. Some go off an’ join the Army or some clergy.”

“Name to me one thing that’s wrong with any o’ that,” said Jonas.

“Not a damn thing an’ you know it,” Wilson pressed on. “It’s the comparison. You know what those kids up there on the hill become? Rich. They leave here knowin’ all about the world, havin’ skills none of us could even dream of. A graduate of that University can write their own damn ticket any place they feel like goin’. Most of ’em leave with connections that’ll get ’em into the highest levels of whatever part of society they want, an’ I know you two hicks ain’t backward enough not to realize it’s who you know that matters in life. Well, we know ’em. How come the children of Last Rock have nothin’ better to look forward to than takin’ over a saloon or a farm?”

A thoughtful silence settled over the table, Ox and Jonas holding their mugs of beer without raising them for a sip. Both stared out from the shade of the Saloon’s awning, wearing identically pensive frowns as they observed porters, pack animals and the odd enchanted carriage hauling folded tents and religious paraphernalia toward the Rail platform.

“Huh,” Jonas muttered at last. “Ox, I suddenly wonder if this ain’t that moment. With an actual goddamn wolf he’s hollerin’ about.”

Ox heaved a sigh, causing his thick mustache to flutter. “Some folks have the good stuff, some folks don’t. That’s the way of the world, every damn part of it. You set yourself up to fix that, and you’re gonna have a hard time. Professor Tellwyrn’s always done right by this town as I see it, an’ I got no problem with a lot more o’ those students than I have got one with. Dunno what more a man can reasonably ask for.”

“Oh, yeah, she’s always done right,” Wilson said sarcastically. “’cept when those little assholes are opening up hellgates right over our heads.”

“One time that happened,” Ox grunted.

“So fuckin’ what?” Wilson exclaimed. “It was a goddamn hellgate! Omnu’s balls, man, one is all it takes! An’ they never did figure out which of ’em even did it! What the hell is gonna be next, is what I wanna know!”

Again, they fell silent, and after a moment, Wilson straightened up, folding his arms across his chest and adopting a smug expression.

At the other end of the shady front porch of the Saloon, Embras Mogul pointed to the three men, turning to his companion. “Now, there, y’see? Isn’t that absolutely fascinating?”

“Not particularly,” Bradshaw grunted. “That was a pretty direct jab Bishop Snowe launched. It’s bound to set people talking. Talk is easy.”

“Talk is the first step to things which are less easy,” Embras replied, “either to do or to live through. And you just got here, old boy; take note of how quickly I managed to find a suitable target for us to eavesdrop upon. I’ve been hearing little chats like this all weekend, starting before our dear Bishop Snowe fired a shot across Tellwyrn’s nose.”

The three men started up their conversation again, taking no notice of the two at the other end of the porch. Neither did any of those passing by on the street, despite Mogul’s glaring white suit and Bradshaw’s ominous gray ritual robe.

“I hope you’re not leading in the direction I think you are, Embras,” said Bradshaw.

“Well, it’s not as if this is a particularly difficult trail to follow,” Embras mused, lounging against the pillar at the corner of the porch. “The pattern I’ve been observing throughout this…revival…is consistent enough, and surprising enough given the general state of things in this town, that I can see the hand behind it. We already know Snowe is little more than Justinian’s charming and attractive mouthpiece, and there’s nothing like a religious festival to give him an excuse to flood the town with agents spreading dissent.”

“There’s not enough town here to flood.”

“You are being needlessly argumentative,” Embras accused. “Face it, Bradshaw, the Archpope is trying to stir up Last Rock against Tellwyrn.”

Bradshaw shook his head. “I just can’t see it. Even if there’s evidence hinting in that direction, which I’ll admit, it’s just that. Hints. Come on, Embras, Justinian’s smarter than that. What could he possibly hope to achieve? Tellwyrn is…outside the social order. Stirring up resentment against her, even if successful, would barely inconvenience her. The gods aren’t about to step in to bring her down, the cults wouldn’t bother to, the Empire has an actual policy about Zero Twenties that hinges on not stirring them up. Any other agents who wanted Tellwyrn taken out would’ve done it long since, had any of them the capacity.” He snorted, shaking his head again. “It’s ridiculous. He can’t do anything but piss her off, which is not a winning move. Justinian’s not nearly dense enough to try something like this.”

“And there, my friend, you’ve hit the nail on the head,” Mogul said gleefully. “He wouldn’t try something so insane—and yet, clearly, he is. Therefore, this is not Justinian’s game, but only the smoke screen obscuring his true motives. As you rightly point out, he’s more than savvy enough to operate on multiple levels, and not about to throw effort after foolishness.”

“Hm,” Bradshaw grunted, stroking his chin and frowning at the arguing men at the other end of the porch. “All right…let’s run with that theory, then. Offhand, I can think of two possible goals for stirring up trouble with the University. First, he’s trying to provoke a reaction from Tellwyrn that’ll get someone else to step in and finish him off for her. I’m inclined to dismiss that, since pissing off the cranky archmage is how stupid people throughout history get themselves dramatically dead.”

“On the other hand,” Embras said, raising a cautionary finger, “if there’s one man in all the world who could take that risk, it’s a sitting Archpope. As long as he stays in that Cathedral and keeps on top of his prayers, she can’t bring him down by force. Dear Arachne might be on a level to challenge the gods individually, but the whole Pantheon would crush her if she provoked them to.”

“Which is the fatal flaw in this idea,” said Bradshaw, nodding. “Despite her reputation and reliance on blunt force, the woman isn’t in any way stupid. She wouldn’t take such a risk even if provoked, and honestly I would expect her to see through such a transparent trap. Which brings me to my other theory: this is an effort by Justinian to coax us out.”

“Seems rather roundabout, doesn’t it?” Embras mused. “Tellwyrn and the Lady have a sort of detente in place; it doesn’t mean we have any connection to her.”

“As you said, there are currents here we don’t yet see,” Bradshaw agreed, “but after Tiraas this spring, we know Justinian’s interested in drawing us out and thinning our numbers. And yes, I know that was Darling’s game, but he couldn’t have done that without the Archpope’s support. Seems to me the best course of action here is to butt out.”

“The safe way isn’t always the best way, my friend,” Embras said with a wide grin. “I see great potential, here, to advance the work I started in Veilgrad.”

Bradshaw groaned, lifting his trembling hand to cover his eyes. “You and those paladins…”

“Yes, those paladins,” Embras agreed. “Think of it, Bradshaw. What would happen if the Trinity’s paladins learned their great secret? Would they strike them down like they do everyone else? How would they cover that up, in this age of printing presses and telescrolls? And the other option is even more intriguing!”

“Yes, yes, I’ve heard this speech at least thrice this week.”

“Then you should see my point by now without all this naysaying,” Embras said with mock severity.

“And you should pay more mind to the Lady’s agreement with Tellwyrn. We are not to harm or interfere with her students. Chaining them to trees is hard to justify as anything other than interference, Embras!”

“I saved those wretched kids’ lives, and you know it.” Embras chuckled, shaking his head. “This is more of the same. Think of it! The Church against the University—those paladins are going to be caught right in the middle. They’ll be in just all kinds of trouble. What better opportunity to do them a few favors? And if we have to interfere with them a bit first, well… Eggs, omelets, you know how it goes.”

“The Lady may appreciate your hair-splitting,” Bradshaw warned. “Tellwyrn will not.”

“Indeed. That’s why we’ll have to be very careful to stay out of sight until we can produce evidence of just how useful we are. Do the kids a solid favor and vanish into the night before there’s any talk of reward—that’s the kind of thing that gets us in Tellwyrn’s good graces.”

“I don’t think she possesses any such thing as good graces.”

“Well, it’s how we get her to owe us a favor, then,” Embras said irrepressibly. “And the active immortals always respect a favor owed. That’s the currency that keeps them from killing each other off, after all.”

Bradshaw sighed, staring down the street. The square beside the Rail platform was visible in the distance, bustling with activity; more caravans had arrived and departed today, carrying Church and cult personnel and material, than the town saw in the average month.

Across the porch, Jonas rose and turned to enter his saloon, leaving Ox and Wilson to carry on their argument. The bartender’s expression was thoughtful, and troubled.

“I still think the odds are good this is a trap, and quite possibly one aimed at us,” Bradshaw grunted.

“But of course,” Embras said with a grim smile. “Spotting the trap is only the first step—next comes leading the hunter who laid it to step in it. And really, old friend, isn’t that the fun part?”

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