Tag Archives: Brother Ermon

13 – 6

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The Rock looked almost squat from a distance, due to its subtly sloping walls. In shape, it resembled the bottom third of a pyramid, built from the dark volcanic stone of the craggy mountains surrounding Puna Dara. The closer they drew, however, the more its size revealed itself. The palatial fortress was easily the largest structure in the city. Square in shape and perched right on the shore with half its bulk extending into the harbor, it was set at a forty-five degree angle from the shoreline, one corner extending out past all but the longest of the piers.

“Right into the teeth of the storm,” Ruda said as they came into the shadow of the huge fortress. “Nobles in Tiraas, Sifan, Shengdu, everywhere, they like to build their palaces up on the hills, out of the way of…whatever might come. Not the Punaji. There are no weak leaders in Puna Dara; never have been, never will be. When a storm hits the city, it hits the center of government first.”

“Is that why the fortress is positioned that way?” Fross chimed curiously. “It looks aerodynamic! Like the storm winds channeled into the harbor by the shape of the mountains would part around that leading edge out there instead of hitting a big wall head-on.”

“Well, sure,” Ruda said, grinning. “Just ‘cos you lead from the front doesn’t mean you’ve gotta be stupid about it. Quite the opposite, takes strategy to live that way.”

“I am not much for cities as a rule,” Brother Ermon said mildly, “but in just a few days I’ve come to rather like the Punaji.”

Everyone glanced at him silently. That comment stifled the conversation for now, a fact which didn’t seem to bother the Huntsman in the least.

The Rock’s battlements bristled with mag cannons on its sides facing seaward, though no such weapons were aimed west at the city, clearly indicating from where Puna Dara’s leadership expected to find threats. Its city gates stood open, as well, but for all that the fortress was hardly undefended. Broad streets ran alongside it and nothing was permitted to be built against its walls, offering no structure which could provide a path to the ramparts. At its westernmost corner, a huge plaza spread out from the tower where the walls intersected, lined with stores and stalls and filled with a throng of people. The open gates of the Rock were symbolic of the relationship of the Punaji to their King; watchful soldiers, however, not only stood in the gates themselves, but were positioned all around the plaza, a column marching through even as the party from Last Rock drew close.

Ruda moved to the head of the group, but she didn’t even have to open her mouth; upon her arrival, the entire squad manning the gate saluted and stepped aside.

“Psst.” Teal nudged Juniper. “Take off the ring.”

The dryad frowned at her in confusion. “What? But I’m not allowed to be in cities without…”

“That’s Imperial cities. I don’t actually know what laws they have about dryads here, but in Punaji culture it’s an insult and a threat to enter someone’s home with your identity concealed.”

“Oh.” Juniper chewed her lower lip, and began toying with the silver ring she wore. “I guess…”

“It’s fine, Juniper, take it off,” Professor Tellwyrn said. “You’re Ruda’s guest, and Teal is right. Respect the tradition.”

“Okay, if you say so,” Juniper said with clear relief, and pulled the ring off.

Several of the soldiers twitched and turned toward her when her hair suddenly turned green.

“She’s with me,” Ruda barked. “At ease, boys.”

“Is it just me,” Gabriel said in a low voice, leaning closer to Toby, “or has she started swaggering more in the last five minutes?”

“She’s nervous,” Toby replied, just as softly. “Overcompensating.”

“About what?” Toby just shook his head.

They were at the back of the group, though still within Tellwyrn’s easy hearing. She didn’t so much as glance back at them. Teal, however, half-turned her head to give Gabriel a pointed look from the corner of her eye.

The thickness of the walls was incredible; passing through the gate was like entering a tunnel. Soldiers in baggy trousers, scarlet vests and turbans saluted Ruda, all seeming to recognize her on sight, once they emerged into the Rock’s enormous front courtyard. It seemed the fortress itself was built right into its seaward walls, leaving a triangular space inside the wedge which protruded into the city.

“Were we…expected?” Teal asked uncertainly as they stepped back into sunlight. There was a double line of troops extending toward the main fortress, forming a corridor. “I thought this was a sort of impromptu trip?”

“Fortunately for you, not everyone shares your apparent inability to plan ahead,” Tellwyrn replied. “I made arrangements. Yes, you’ll be expected, though they haven’t had much time to prepare. I’m rather impressed at this much fanfare.”

“Well, we all know how the Punaji think on their feet, eh?” Gabriel said cheerfully. “Right, Ruda?”

She didn’t answer. They all turned to look where she was silently staring: at a lone figure emerging from the Rock, heading toward them between the rows of soldiers. After a pause, Ruda suddenly broke into a run.

The woman approaching did likewise, grinning broadly, and they collided near the first rank of troops, spinning around in a bundle of exuberant laughter.

“Mama!”

That close, the comparison was striking. The Queen of Puna Dara was exactly as tall as her daughter—which was to say, not very. Where Ruda was both muscular and curvy almost to the point of plumpness, though, Anjal Punaji was slim as a blade, making her look diminutive in comparison. She wore a blue longcoat trimmed in gold, with neither a weapon nor a hat, revealing the azure gem glittering between her eyebrows and the threads of silver in her black hair.

Anjal pulled back, holding Ruda by the shoulders and grinning. Abruptly, though, her demeanor changed, expression switching to a scowl, and she shook her daughter roughly.

“What do you mean by this, turning up out of nowhere? We don’t pay tuition at that crazy school for you to go haring off whenever the mood takes you!”

“I heard the—”

“So we have some troubles in the city and you think you have to come rescue your poor, helpless old parents? How do you think we ever managed before you came along, Princess? Everyone has their duty and yours is to be studying in Last Rock!”

“I don’t run or hide from trouble when my people need help!” Ruda shouted back, matching her mother’s glare, now. They still stood close enough to hug, clasping each other by the arms.

“Oh, we know that, don’t we? After you decided only you could handle a damned hellgate when everyone was ordered to evacuate!”

“You want I should abandon my friends to danger? Is that how you raised me?”

“I raised you to know your duty and to do it, you—”

“Well, not that this isn’t entertaining as hell,” Tellwyrn said loudly, “but it sounds like you might want to pick it up in more comfortable surroundings?” She looked pointedly at the students and Ermon, all of whom were staring in clear fascination.

The Queen gave the Professor an appraising look, then released Ruda and nodded to her. “Ah, yes. Welcome to Puna Dara! I believe I recognize everyone from Zari’s letters. We received your belongings just a little while ago, everything is in your rooms.”

“Our…belongings?” Toby said warily.

“Ah, so this is as much a surprise to you as to us?” Anjal raised an eyebrow. “You work quickly, Professor. I had a suspicion this trip wasn’t of your planning—or at least, not at first.”

“Sometimes it’s necessary to adapt to the circumstances,” Tellwyrn replied. “While it is possible to effectively imprison my students in order to make them behave, rare is the situation in which that is the best choice. This time… They actually can help, and it makes for a very worthwhile exercise.” She turned a grim stare on the sophomores. “And afterward, we will discuss their respect for my rules at considerable length.”

“Well enough, I suppose,” said the Queen, finally giving the rest of them a smile. “Brother Ermon, thank you for finding our guests.”

“Fortuitous happenstance, your Majesty,” he demurred, bowing slightly. “I take no credit. I suspect none of them needed any guidance.”

“Come on, all of you, I’ll show you to the rooms we’ve prepared,” Anjal continued, stepping toward the castle. “It’s no floating tower, but we take good care of our guests here.”

“I’m looking forward to it!” Juniper said brightly. “I know we’re not here to sight-see, but after everything Ruda’s told us it’s great to finally visit Puna Dara.”

Anjal had begun to lead them toward the fortress, but suddenly slammed to a halt. Slowly, she turned to face her daughter. “And who,” she demanded, both eyebrows rising sharply, “is Ruda?”

The princess heaved a sigh. “Mama…”

“When did this start? Never mind, don’t tell me. As soon as you were out of my sight, wasn’t it? You’re so embarrassed by where you come from you had to rename yourself?”

“Mama,” Ruda said in clear frustration.

Tellwyrn cleared her throat, stepping forward and patting the Queen on the shoulder. “I advise against taking it personally, Anjal. Kids leave home, they want to establish their own identity…take it from someone who knows, this is perfectly normal. I have a drow on the rolls right now who went so far with it her mother tried to call her home in disgrace. I assure you, Zaruda has been nothing but a credit to her upbringing.”

“Hmph.” Anjal fixed her daughter with another long look. “I can see we have a great many things to catch up on. Come along.”

She turned and headed off again. To either side, the lined soldiers stared straight ahead, earnestly pretending to have seen and heard nothing. Ruda sighed again, heavily, and pointed at Gabriel. “Not a fucking word, Arquin.”

“I?” he exclaimed, pressing a hand to his chest and adopting a look of shocked reproach. “Why, dearest classmate, what possible words could I speak that would besmirch your unimpeachable character? Except, I suppose, for possibly bringing up that time you fucking stabbed me.”

Ahead, Anjal stopped again, this time so quickly she actually skidded, and whirled to face them. “You what?!”


The stagecoach rumbled toward the gates of Puna Dara in darkness, though dawn had come long since. As they drew ever closer, the mountains rose higher all around, obscuring the sunrise in the east; now, they were actually in the ancient dwarven tunnel leading to the city itself. It was late enough in the morning for there to be traffic on the broad highway now passing under the mountains, despite the darkness. Their coach proceeded in the company of wagons, travelers both on foot and on horse, and several enchanted carriages, though they weren’t the preferred vehicle for long trips away from cities. Carriages reliable enough not to need repair on such journeys weren’t exactly new, but the public’s tastes hadn’t yet caught up with the state of modern enchantment.

“It would have been near here,” Nandi murmured in elvish. “Where the Fourth was struck down. Or back at the entrance to the tunnel.” Principia glanced at her, but made no comment.

They were on schedule to beat the rest of their squad by at least a day. She and Nandi had made it this far ahead by hopping the stagecoach; two elves materializing out of the wilderness and begging for a ride did not make a particularly outlandish sight, though without the benefit of Avenist armor, they’d been greeted with suspicion. Finally, after paying twice the normal carriage fare, they had been relegated to riding on top with the baggage, despite the fact that there was room in the coach itself. Neither were fazed by these insults; what mattered was that they were on the way, and did not resemble an official presence of the Sisterhood, both being garbed as plains elves. Principia had dyed her hair a more conventional blonde, and if any of the humans they met were familiar enough to recognize the shape of her ears, well, there were any number of reasons a wood elf might have become part of a plains tribe.

In the interest of avoiding notice, the human members of their squad were proceeding much more conventionally. Thanks to Principia’s connections in the Wizard’s Guild, they had been teleported as close as was feasible to Puna Dara, which in the case of herself and Nandi meant the highway not far outside it, but the humans had been sent to Desolation, the last stop on the Rail network. Bypassing even the Rails, the whole squad would probably be the first of the Silver Legionnaires sent by Rouvad to actually reach the city. Elves wandering out of the wilderness might be a typical sight, but four human women doing so would have drawn attention, so they had embarked from the usual carriage line. The squad was to rendezvous at the Mermaid’s Tail as soon as possible. For now, though, the elves were alone.

“This is oddly nostalgic,” Nandi said suddenly, pulling one of the arrows from her quiver and turning it over in her hands. It was authentic; the Sisterhood had surprising things in its armories. She carried a shortbow and arrows, Principia a tomahawk, and both hunting knives. “I honestly hadn’t expected to be dressed and armed like this again till…ever, really. It has been a very long time since I looked back at where I came from.”

Principia watched her face sidelong. The tunnels weren’t illuminated; some of the vehicles passing through them carried fairy lamps, but not their stagecoach. The dimness was no challenge to her eyes, though.

“I guess falling in love is one reason to leave home,” she said at last, also in elvish. “I wouldn’t know. Me, I just couldn’t stand anybody I was related to.”

Nandi smiled slightly, gazing ahead. The tunnel passed under most of a mountain, but they could both see the light in the distance, morning sun rising above the ocean. It would be a while yet before they drew close enough for the humans in their vehicle to make it out. “I didn’t find her until some time after I went wandering, actually. Odd as the idea may seem to you, we may not be so different. I really didn’t fit in among my tribe, either.”

Principia kept her face neutral. Since their early conversations when Nandi had been serving as interim Bishop, the other elf hadn’t seen fit to share anything about her past, and Prin had not inquired. If there was one thing she respected, it was the need to leave ancient history in the dust where it belonged. Still, the fact that Nandi had brought this up, seemingly out of nowhere, said she wanted to discuss it. And Nandi Shahai had never done anything without a reason.

“Not much of a traditionalist?” she asked after a short silence.

“Traditions exist for a reason,” Nandi said quietly, still gazing ahead. “Not necessarily a good reason, but not necessarily a bad one. It’s not that I’m rebellious…at least, not more than I could help. The Elders of my tribe simply found it frustrating that I only approached women as lovers.”

Principia blinked and straightened up. “Wait—they threw you out for that? I mean…I know plains tribes are more strict about some things, but where I’m from that would be an eccentricity, at worst. And where I’m from, Elders compete with each other to see who can be the most stuffy and hidebound.”

Nandi grinned, just faintly enough to show teeth. “Oh, no, I wasn’t chased out; leaving was entirely my own decision. Life is different in the Golden Sea than in the groves, Principia. I don’t begrudge the Elders their concern…exactly. A tribe’s quest for enough food is eternal, and life is dangerous. We would lose people more often than a forest tribe usually does, no matter what care we took. For those responsible for shepherding the tribe’s future… It is a matter of concern to the tribe if a healthy female, for any reason, will not produce children.” She shook her head. “Concern it all it was, not condemnation. But it never stopped. It quickly becomes exhausting and demoralizing, having well-intentioned people constantly try to fix you when you aren’t broken.”

“Hm.” Principia heaved a deep sigh and squirmed slightly, shuffling down to sit more comfortably among the bags and suitcases lashed to the roof. “Now there, I can relate.”

“I bet you can,” Nandi replied, her smile widening.

“No offense,” Principia said carefully, “but you’ve never struck me as eager to trade backstories before…”

“Oh, I’m not prying, don’t worry. It honestly didn’t cross my mind that you would care to talk about your own history.”

“Good, because I don’t,” she said wryly, “but that’s not that I meant. Is this an ‘eve before battle’ thing? Not to understate the danger, here, but I think if we were going to be preemptively struck dead, it would have happened before now. It seems to me we’ve made it in, knock wood.”

“Nothing so dramatic,” Nandi murmured. “I don’t know. Nostalgia, as I said… And having no one for company but another elf, which is a very unaccustomed situation for me. I haven’t made an effort to interact with my own kind in the last five centuries, nor to spend much time apart from the Sisterhood. We have elves, of course, gnomes, dwarves…everything but drow. It is mostly a human organization, though. This is just…I don’t know.”

“Now, that’s not terribly reassuring. I’ve grown to thinking of you as the most self-possessed, even-tempered person in my squad.”

Nandi cracked another grin. “Don’t worry, I am not about to become hysterical. Perhaps I’m just feeling more comfortable with you, is all. One downside to one’s entire social circle being so short-lived: after five hundred years, one grows hesitant to make close friends. Maybe I’d just like to have someone with whom to talk about these things.” She shifted to give Principia an amused look. “You don’t exactly project an aura of reliability or trustworthiness, Locke, but after all these months I feel I do have a sense of your virtues and flaws. And you are a good friend.”

“Well,” Principia said airily, “thank you for not having this discussion in front of the squad.” Nandi laughed obligingly. The silence which followed was comfortable, and lasted until they emerged into the tropical warmth of the city.


She stood at the end of the pier, shading her eyes with a hand. Even so, staring more or less at the sunrise was more than she could handle, and after only a moment she had to turn away, grimacing.

“You’re closer,” buzzed the voice in her ear. “Still not enough that I can get anything directly from the facility from your position, though I can tell it’s a good two hundred meters below your level, as well as almost five hundred meters east by southeast. Can you get closer?”

“Walker, if I get any closer I’ll be swimming,” Milanda said quietly, touching her earpiece. No ships were currently docked nearby, and she had the area mostly to herself, but still, it was generally better not to be seen chattering with oneself in public.

“Hm… So it’s underwater, then, not just underground.”

“Is it possible the whole thing’s just flooded?” she asked.

“Very unlikely. The Fabrication Plant’s facilities could pump out water and secure itself with force fields in a crisis, but frankly, the physical material from which it is made…”

“Mithril, like the spaceport,” Milanda sighed, turning again to peer out at the harbor. She knew, approximately, what a meter was, but didn’t have an intuitive sense of how far that would be in feet or miles. Broadly speaking, though, it would be somewhere in the middle of the harbor.

“Besides,” Walker continued, “if your description of the Rust cultists is accurate, they did not acquire that technology from any contemporary source. Somehow, there is an access to the facility, and they either control it or know where it is.”

“Well, that’s almost a relief,” Milanda murmured, turning and heading back toward Puna Dara. “I wasn’t looking forward to chartering a boat.”

“I doubt very much you could make significant progress that way.”

“Exactly. But if it comes to getting my hands on this cult and getting answers from them?” The Left Hand of the Emperor indulged herself in a smug smile. “That, I am pretty confident I can do.”

 

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13 – 5

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“You are more!”

The Rust cultist had chosen a good spot, right at a broad intersection where a street running perpendicular to the wharves was crossed by another leading into the city in one direction and onto Kapadia’s pier on the other. It was broad enough that the street preacher could not be justifiably shooed away by the city guard for blocking traffic, though the two standing nearby would dearly have liked to, judging by their scowls. She had indeed drawn a crowd, some dozen loitering about out of the path of vehicles and pedestrians, few looking particularly taken in by the ongoing speech. Their expressions ranged from amused to skeptical to, at best, thoughtful. The preacher seemed not the least dissuaded by this lack of enthusiasm.

“So much of life, of the things which surround us, are nothing more than illusion—in fact, the bars of a cage!” She was really into her sermon now, actually pacing up and down a small stretch of the path, gesticulating with her artificial arm. “The things which bind us to what we think of as our place: our roles in society, our lack of resources, our obligations, these are only excuses! The truth, the only real, ultimate truth, is in here!” She paused, facing her audience directly, and tapped at her temple with one fingertip. A metal fingertip, which produced an audible ping against the piece of metal running along the side of her head. “These things bind us because—and only so long as—we accept them! The true work of life is to decide our own reality. To decide what life we wish, and then to decide that is our life—and by deciding, make it so. In the end, it is nothing but our own thoughts with determine what our reality is.”

She was a Punaji woman in her later middle years, her face lined and hair entirely gray, though in movement she was vigorous as a much younger person. Attired in the traditional baggy pants, cloth wrap wound around her chest, and sailcloth greatcoat, her only unusual aspect of costume was that the left sleeve had been torn off her coat to display the metal arm.

It was clear, from this, where the Rust got their name, assuming all the others looked similar. The type of metal was hard to place; its color was coppery from a distance, but in a flat matte tone which did not gleam under the tropical sun. It was the color of rust, though smoothly even, without the variation in hue that actual rust tended to have. And whatever it was made of, the arm was clearly quite functional, moving smoothly and without so much as a squeak. Her metal shoulder was hidden by the ragged edge of the greatcoat’s torn sleeve, but the elbow was a simple hinge with a rotating socket below that, the wrist similar; a set of taut wired like extended tendons attached controlled the movement of her fingers. In the center of her metal palm was a circular hole in which a red metal frame like a jewelry setting held a wide disc of blue glass. She had a similar but smaller blue piece set between her eyebrows, in the same place where Ruda wore her tiny jewel, though the street preacher’s was attached to a strip of metal which ran from that point to somewhere behind her ear, where it was lost in her hair.

“It can be a painful thing,” she continued, pacing again, “a frightening thing, to acknowledge and accept responsibility—to accept the role each of us has played in creating our own disappointments. But in that responsibility is freedom! When you realize that nothing has been forced upon you, that you have created the reality in which you live, when you truly realize that, then you realize that you alone have the power to make your world anew!”

“This is nothing but arcane mysticism,” Fross muttered in annoyance. The group standing off to one side of the intersection had drawn almost as many odd looks at the Rust street preacher, though with Juniper wearing her disguise ring only Tellwyrn and Fross seemed truly outlandish; Ruda was the only one who was clearly Punaji, and the contrast with everyone else on the docks made it clear from her attire that she was a rich Punaji. “That’s just disappointing. I thought at least they’d have something interesting to say.”

“It’s what, now?” Juniper asked in the same soft tone.

“Oh, I guess Professor Yornhaldt hasn’t really gone into that in the intro to magic classes… Well, if you take a lot of his electives like I do you’ll hear him complain about this. Arcane mysticism, that’s what she’s talking about. The idea that thoughts influence reality, because of stuff that only works on the sub-atomic level. You know, wave functions collapsing when they’re observed, all that.”

Juniper tilted her head inquisitively. “Isn’t that just…magic?”

“Yes!” Fross chimed irritably, raising her voice slightly, though not enough to compete with the preacher who continued to rant. “It’s a description of how magic works, but for it to be valid, you need actual magic. That’s what magic is; that’s the whole point of it! Without magic, you have zero interaction with anything pertaining to arcane physics. Thinking happy thoughts does absolutely nothing to change the world! The world has lots of inertia; thoughts have none at all.”

Tellwyrn grinned, glancing at the pixie. “I’m glad to see you’re not going to go through an arcane mysticism phase, Fross. A lot of magic majors do, the first year or two. There’s a reason Alaric is so annoyed by it.”

“You mean, magic majors at our school?” Fross sounded downright offended. “Oh, now that’s really disappointing.”

“Hey, yeah, question!” Before any of them could stop him, Gabriel raised his hand and stepped out into the intersection. Instantly, he caught the attention of most of the onlookers, and also the preacher, who paused mid-speech to peer at him. “How come you guys attacked the Silver Legion?”

A murmur ran through the crowd. Toby sighed heavily and rubbed at the bridge of his nose.

“Real fuckin’ subtle, Arquin,” Ruda muttered, jamming her hands in her pockets. She didn’t intervene, however. Tellwyrn just watched this unfold with an eyebrow slightly cocked.

“You aren’t from around here, are you, my young friend?” the preacher asked, smiling indulgently at Gabriel.

In fact, having black hair and a dark complexion for a Tiraan, he could almost have passed for Punaji, especially in the Punaji-style coat he wore. He didn’t even look as rich as Ruda, aside from his belt from which Ariel and his wand hung: both were clearly expensive. All hope of that vanished as soon as he opened his mouth and displayed an Imperial accent, however.

“Are you?” Gabriel shot back. “I mean, sure, the Punaji have been wearing enchantments longer than almost anyone. These coats would be idiotic in this climate without their weatherproof charms. That metalwork, though, that’s some freaky stuff. Something tells me you didn’t pick that up at a local blacksmith. Does that have something to do with what you hit the Legion with?”

The murmurs intensified, but the street preacher did not betray unease even by glancing around at her audience.

“And why,” she asked, “would you cast blame for such a thing at me?”

Gabriel shrugged. “Who else?”

She shook her head. “That question has countless answers. The one I asked is better: Why do you feel the need to blame me, in particular?” Her kind smile never wavered as she continued. “I have found that people who are eager to cast blame are struggling to create a sense of order in their own lives. If you can identify an enemy, it grants a feeling of control. That is an illusion, though, and a dangerous one. To define oneself in relation to an enemy is to give up all power in one’s own life. Trust me, my friend, you will not find your answers in designating villains—they are in you. Everything you need, you already have, and already know! All you require is to master yourself!”

“Okay,” he said, grinning. “But if I think you guys are the ones who attacked the Legions, doesn’t that make it so?”

At this, a good number of the onlookers laughed outright, and some started drifting away. The preacher showed no hint of unease, however, smiling more broadly still.

“From blame to mockery—you are running down the list of the desperate gambits I’ve seen in everyone struggling to find meaning in life. Farther down that list comes real hardship, friend. If you would like to talk over what is really troubling you, perhaps I can help?”

“Another time, maybe,” Gabriel said noncommittally, turning and sauntering back to the others.

“Well handled,” said a new voice, prompting the students to turn to the spot to Tellwyrn’s right, where Kapadia had been before he’d gone back to oversee his business.

Though he did not wear the traditional furs, which would have been suicidal in Puna Dara’s heat, they didn’t need to see the bronze wolf’s head pinned to the shoulder of his light tunic to recognize the man as a Huntsman of Shaath. He wore his hair long and his beard untrimmed, the former tied back with a simple length of leather and the latter in apparent need of brushing. From his heavy belt hung a tomahawk and quiver bursting with arrows; he carried his longbow in one hand, and had an enormous hunting knife, almost large enough to pass for a short sword, lashed to one boot.

“Thanks,” Gabriel said, while behind him the preacher resumed exhorting the passersby to think their way out of their problems. “I was kinda gambling she wouldn’t hex me or whatever in front of all those people. She doesn’t seem to be making much headway, though. Nobody seems really interested; the only ones watching seem to think this is a comedy show.”

The Huntsman shook his head. “They do not need to believe, they just need to listen. We are seeing only part of the strategy here; elsewhere, others of the Rust will be deliberately seeking out the vulnerable. People down on their luck, adrift from the familiar, people in need of a friendly ear. Those are ripe for recruitment into cults. This one is serving to spread their philosophy so that it does not seem as alien when it is encountered more intimately.”

“And you know a thing or two about this strategy, do you?” Teal said flatly, folding her arms.

The Huntsman turned to her and bowed; his beard made it hard to tell, but by the shifting lines next to his eyes, he seemed to be smiling slightly. “Among our duties is to seek out whose who are called by Shaath and guide them to his path. I have often found myself in this role, being less uncomfortable in cities than some of my brother Huntsmen. We, however, do not…preach.” He glanced sidelong at the gesticulating Rust cultist, who appeared to be paying them no attention now. “Some faiths want every soul they can gather in; Shaath only needs those who are truly called to his side. Not for nothing are we the smallest of the Pantheon cults.”

Ruda cleared her throat. “Apropos of nothing, why do I have the feeling you bein’ here isn’t a coincidence?”

He glanced again at the cultist, then lowered his voice slightly and took a step closer. “I had the same thought. Forgive me, Professor Tellwyrn, but you are distinctive, and your habit of bringing groups of your students into crises is known. When I saw you here, amid the troubles assailing Puna Dara and watching an example of their source, accompanied by a group of somewhat exotic young people…” He smiled up at Fross. “Well, I made an assumption. I am Brother Ermon. Well met to you all.”

“Interesting,” Tellwyrn mused. “The Huntsmen aren’t generally interventionist. Why take an interest in this?”

Ermon’s expression fell into a frown, and he again glanced at the Rust preacher. “It’s no secret that my religion and Avei’s agree on virtually nothing. In the end, though, they are sister servants of the gods, however misguided. The cults stand united against such as the Wreath…and I fear this may be something similar. When so many are so brazenly attacked, even the lodges must take notice, and take action. I understand that several of the cults are sending people to Puna Dara. After what befell the Fourth Legion and their Salyrite companions, though, they are doing so less openly.”

“Oh, perfect,” Ruda groaned, rubbing at her eyes with both fists. “That is just absolutely fuckin’ gorgeous. That’s exactly what this city needs right now, half a dozen surreptitious crusades.”

“I think we’d better get a handle on this as quickly as possible,” Toby said seriously.

“No shit,” Ruda growled. “It was real nice meetin’ you, Mr. Ermon, but if you’ll excuse us, we gotta get to the Rock.”

“Wait, we’re going where?” Juniper asked.

“That’s the name of the Punaji palace,” Teal explained.

“Just Ermon is fine,” the Huntsman said, smiling again. “And of course, I quite understand. I will walk you there.”

“Yeah, I know the way, but thanks,” Ruda said wryly.

“Oh, I don’t doubt it! This is clearly your city, after all. But it’s no inconvenience—a brother Huntsman and I have the honor of being guests of the King, as well. Shall we go?”


All this skulking in alleys offended Ildrin’s sense of propriety, particularly since she was on the side of right, here. Realistically, though, she had already resigned herself to having to do more of it in the future. Especially once Syrinx had finished dragging her name through the mud, it might be some time before she could do much of anything openly again. Events and the need to act wouldn’t wait for that, though, so…here she was.

It was a very discreet house in a very discreet neighborhood, to the point that coming around back to the servant’s entrance, hidden by a tall garden wall and the house itself, seemed almost excessive. Her business here was that sensitive, though, and still not as sensitive as that of the house’s occupant. She could not afford to take risks.

And so, as she’d been directed to do in the case of emergency, she had come here, ignored the kitchen door, and carefully twisted the housing of the fairy lamp next to it in a full circle. Several minutes ago, in fact, and yet here she still stood, her increasingly irritated breath misting on the air. Ildrin shuffled her feet, regretting having chosen to use a warming charm instead of a scarf or hat; it kept her head warm enough, but the little gusts of wind were still almost painful on her ears. Twisting the sconce had caused no immediately evident reaction; she debated doing it again, but still hesitated. If it was anything like a doorbell, standing there and doing it repeatedly would be rude. Still…she had been assured that if she needed to avail herself of this approach, it would always be answered.

She had just given up and was lifting her hand to try a second time when a section of the wall next to her shifted. The seams had not been apparent, being cunningly worked into the pattern of the mortar between the bricks, but now a whole door-sized piece moved soundlessly outward till there was a hairline gap between the edges of the bricks and the wall. Then it swung fully open, revealing the hidden hinges affixed to one side.

Ildrin stood there in affronted silence, glaring down at the figure on the other side of the secret door.

It stood no taller than her knee, apparently some creepy combination of a lizard, monkey, and rat, covered with rough black scales and occasional tufts of wiry fur. It was wearing, preposterously, a tuxedo coat, and staring up at her with gleaming red eyes beneath the brim of a tiny top hat.

After a long pause, she spoke, stiffly. “I need to see Mr. Tanenbaum.”

The imp’s tiny shoulders shifted in a sigh. “Uh…is this really important? The boss is…doing something. This isn’t a great time.”

“I wouldn’t be here, using this entrance, if it weren’t urgent,” she snapped, bitterly resenting having to speak with demon filth, even such a tiny specimen. “I was assured that if I came here…”

“Yeah, I know, them’s the rules,” the imp said with ill grace. “All right, well…you better come on in, then. But you can’t interrupt the boss, okay? He can talk with you when he’s done, which should be pretty soon, but what he’s doing…well, interrupting would be bad.”

“I don’t doubt it,” she said stiffly, striding inside. In fact, she stepped over the imp, not waiting for him to get out of the way. To judge by his barely audible mutters, he didn’t miss the implied insult.

She paused inside the cramped little hallway while the imp clambered up the wall, spider-like, to pull a lever at doorknob height, which caused the hidden panel to swing closed again. It was dim in the hall, lit only by a tiny fairy lamp, and there was only one way to go; stairs leading down into darkness.

This time, she waited for the imp to lead the way.

At the bottom it was practically pitch black; Ildrin was still making her way down the staircase, groping carefully for each step, when a scrabble announced the little demon was climbing a wall again, followed by the click of another switch being activated. To her relief, another door swung open, revealing a room lit by the warm glow of oil lamps.

She stepped through quickly, glancing around. It was clearly a study, with a desk on one side and the walls lined with bookcases. Fully lined, in fact; one swung shut behind them to conceal the stairwell. It could have passed for any intellectual’s small private library, if not for the cleared spot in the center of the floor in which the summoning circle had been placed.

There were two occupants already there: a middle-aged man in tweed with a neatly trimmed beard sitting behind the desk, facing a stunningly beautiful woman who stood in the middle of the circle. A woman with alabaster skin, violet-tinged hair, crystalline topaz eyes, spiny wings and a spaded tail. She wore only a crude leather wrap around her waist.

Both the warlock and demon looked up at Ildrin and the imp upon their arrival; the man nodded politely to her, while the succubus sneered, and then they focused once more on each other.

“Forgive the interruption,” he said courteously. “We were discussing your qualifications. Now, of course, I well understand your reason for desiring the position; you needn’t go to further detail on that. Tell me, what would you say is your greatest asset?”

“Well, that’s something I don’t get asked every day,” the demon purred. She cocked her hip to one side, languidly dragging her fingertips down the side of her body in a motion which exaggerated its inherent curve. “If they’re not to your liking, I can, of course, make…adjustments.”

Her heated smile widened slightly, and her body shifted, the curve of her waist drawing inward an inch, her bare breasts swelling. Ildrin repressed the urge to make a disgusted noise, folding her arms and scowling.

The man behind the desk cleared his throat. “Yes, I am of course aware of your innate gifts, my dear, no need to reiterate the basics. There is, however, only the one position, and many prospects who might fill it. I wonder why you, in comparison to other children of Vanislaas I might summon, are uniquely qualified to form a pact?”

“Oh, come now,” she said coyly. “If you’re familiar with my kind, you must know that versatility is what we do. The question isn’t what I’m like, but what you would like me to be like. You’ve already cast the summons; you have me here, ready…and waiting.” She licked her lips slowly, and Ildrin just barely managed not to retch. “Tell me what you want, and that is what I’ll be…master.”

The warlock sighed, shook his head, and closed the book open in front of him on the desk, shifting a sheet of parchment to lie on top of it. From her angle, Ildrin could make out that it appeared to be a list of names, several with lines drawn through them.

“Well,” he said, “I believe that concludes our business here. Thank you for coming, Jezrathin. It appears that you’re not what I am looking for in a familiar at this time, but I will keep your details on file for future needs, and of course I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. Hixlpik, the honorarium? Ah, thank you.”

The imp had skittered over to a cabinet beneath a bookcase and pulled out a vial of glittering powder, apparently enchanting dust. Though it was almost as big as his torso, he had no trouble handling it, and in fact easily tossed it through the air into the summoning circle, where the nonplussed succubus caught it apparently by reflex.

“I realize it is an inconvenience to be so abruptly summoned in this manner,” the man said politely, “so consider that a small token of my thanks and apology for the imposition. It’s a sample of very basic arcane enchanting dust, quite versatile for someone who practices the craft, and of course easily transmutable to infernal power. Even if you don’t personally use magic, it will be quite valuable in Hell to those who do. Thank you for coming by.”

The succubus stared at the vial in her hand, then up at the warlock, her previous sultriness giving way to clear frustration. “What are you, some kind of idiot?”

He coughed softly. “Far be it from me to tell you your business, Jezrathin, but as a word of friendly advice, I believe you’ll find that a more professional demeanor opens more opportunities to you. Now, I must bid you good day.”

He gestured almost dismissively with one hand, and the runes on the circle pulsed once with orange light. The demon immediately began fading from view—and from sound, fortunately, as she left them with a string of curses in at least three languages that seemed to linger on the air even after she had vanished entirely. Finally, though, the circle went fully dark. And silent.

The warlock sighed, picked up a pen, and carefully drew a line through another name on his list, then turned to Ildrin and stood.

“Well! Thank you for waiting, I apologize for keeping you. As you can imagine, it is best not to dawdle in these matters, and especially not to discuss sensitive business in front of a child of Vanislaas.”

“That…looked more like a job interview than a summoning,” Ildrin said, intrigued in spite of herself.

“Of course.” Willard Tanenbaum smiled benignly at her. “They are individuals, you know. If one must deal with a Vanislaad, it pays to do all due diligence and select one with the utmost care.”

“And must you deal with them?” she asked skeptically.

“Apparently,” he said with a pensive frown, “the Archpope himself has one on his personal staff. He asked me to find…another. Either as a replacement or to counteract his current Vanislaad, who seems to be growing difficult to manage—as they inevitably do. I strongly doubt the wisdom of bringing another into the equation, but I have observed that his Holiness’s plans always seem to succeed, even when I cannot imagine that they would. It does not pay, I find, to challenge intellects so apparently superior to my own. So! Welcome, Sister Ildrin. Since I was expecting the usual anonymous delivery of reagents, and instead I find you, empty-handed and calling upon my emergency door, I gather something unfortunate has transpired?”

“I’m afraid so,” she said. “Your source of reagents has been cut off. A group of Eserites stuck their noses in, made off with the lot, and then swiped enough paperwork to reveal the whole method of appropriation and put it in the hands of both Avenist and Salyrite leadership. I was able to protect my Legionnaires and your name doesn’t appear anywhere, but by the time the two cults get through digging into this, both Carruthers and I are likely to find ourselves unable to act within them for some time. Maybe ever.”

“That is a serious problem,” he said, frowning heavily. “Poor Carruthers…the Collegium is his whole life. Well, I will be able to continue the Archpope’s special projects for a while, at least. I can’t use the Topaz College’s resources, as those must be rigorously accounted for, but I have some personal stocks. They will not last long, however.”

“Of course, we’ll find a new source of supplies, and can see about reimbursing you…”

“Not at all necessary,” he demurred, holding up a hand. “Nothing I might do with them is more important than the Church’s work. I simply want to make it clear that my assets are limited.”

“Understood. I’ll pass it along.”

“Eserites, hm.” Tanenbaum stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Do we have any allies in the Guild?”

“We don’t,” she said grimly, “and here is the thing: these were apprentices. They were not supposed to be sticking their noses into other cults’ business, and in fact I understand Boss Tricks is about ready to string them up. That doesn’t help us, though, because Basra bloody Syrinx snatched them from me before I could question them in detail.”

“Leaving,” he said slowly, “the extremely troubling question of where a group of apprentice thieves happened upon enough detail to know of our business.”

Ildrin nodded. “It has to be through one or the other cult, if not both. Since my name is about to be mud in the Sisterhood, I’ve had to delegate Raathi to try to hunt down a possible leak on the Avenist side. That kind of work really is not her strong suit, however. I’m hoping you’ll have a better way to get information from the Collegium.”

“I fear I’m a bit of a recluse these days,” he said ruefully. “Such inquiries would not likely lead me far. However! I think I have just the thing to help us find such a lead, wherever it may lie. Hixlpik, please clean up the circle and lay down a standard djinn containment.”

“On it, boss!” the imp said cheerfully, opening the cabinet again. He produced a handheld duster, which for him was ludicrously oversized, and scampered over to the circle, where he began picking up crystals and candles preparatory to sweeping away the burned-out enchanting dust which made up most of the design.

“You’re keeping a djinn in your house?” Ildrin demanded in horror.

“Ah, I’m afraid that is a misconception,” Tanenbaum replied with an indulgent smile. He stepped over to one of the bookcases and carefully pulled out a single volume. With a soft click, the upper half of the case swung outward, and he selected a single, tall brass bottle from the variety of objects concealed in the hidden compartment behind. “One does not, as such, keep them. Djinn are not contained in the bottles, lamps, and other paraphernalia which are used to contact them, you see. There are but thirteen of the lesser djinn, nowhere near enough for every warlock to summon his or her own. They were once warlocks themselves, a circle who operated in Calderaas centuries ago. They attempted to summon something they should not, and…this is their punishment. Like Vanislaads, they are not proper demons, but human souls bound to Hell. Unlike Vanislaads, they can never leave it. These summonings enable them to interact intangibly with the mortal plane; their ethereal nature gives them vast access to information that way. They seem to pluck it out of the warp and weft of magic itself!”

“What did they try to summon?” Ildrin asked, unable to repress her curiosity.

He grimaced, carefully holding the bottle in both hands. “What we now call a greater djinn. A true djinn. A type of demon which should never be summoned by mortals; they have the power to grant actual wishes, which is what prompts people to try, but they are impossible to coerce or control. The Thirteen came closer than anyone, and…you know, now, what happened to them. I suspect I am preaching to the choir, here, but I’ll remind you that any creature of Hell who does not manifest physical mutation must be interacted with only with the greatest of care. They have the aggression inherent to the infernally corrupted, and express it through manipulation, seeking to create strife on this plane. That is the risk in turning to a djinn for information: they know things that neither fae oracles nor arcane scrying can reveal, but they parcel it out in such a way as to deliberately cause the greatest chaos they can. Ah, thank you, Hixlpik.”

“My pleasure, boss!”

The imp was remarkably efficient; he had swept away the old summoning circle and inscribed one which Ildrin, even with her very basic magical education, could tell was meant not to contain something within, but to block outside influences. At least, she was fairly sure that was what it meant that there was a single ring with all the runes on the outside. Well, presumably Tanenbaum knew what he was about.

Hopefully…

The warlock carefully set the bottle upright in the center of the circle, then gently pulled out the stopper. It came loose with an ease she found vaguely troubling.

Mist immediately billowed forth, quickly resolving itself into the form of a man from the waist up, a quiet cyclone of smoke terminating in the bottle’s mouth serving in place of his legs. He bowed deeply, which was a very odd sight.

“Ah, once again you honor me!” the djinn intoned. “Most esteemed practitioner of the arts, it pleases me more than my paltry words can express that I am graced once again by your company. To be a guest in your exalted home, to be granted an audience with a companion in your quests—these are joys the hope of which sustains me through my isolation in the dark realms below. Tell me, most honored one, how may Ali al-Famibad be of service to you and yours?”

“It is pleasant to see you again, as well, Ali,” Tanenbaum replied, his tone perfectly polite but the greeting seeming almost curt in comparison to the effusive djinn’s. “I have summoned you in accordance with our contract; this guest in my home is an observer to this conversation, but not a participant.”

“But of course,” the djinn replied with an ingratiating smile, bowing again, “nothing gives me greater satisfaction than to assist you, unless it is to do so while upholding my part in a bargain fairly struck.”

Ildrin kept quiet. Part of her bridled at being excluded, but she well understood the point; interacting with this creature, as Tanenbaum had just explained, was inherently dangerous. Much better it be left to a professional.

“I seek information,” the warlock said. “A group of young thieves have intervened in my business. You know the ones, of course.”

“Oh, but of course,” Ali replied, smiling widely. Too widely. How did he already know… Oh, right; warp and weft of magic, and so on. “Most interesting, most interesting indeed. I can tell you little of them, I regret to say. A powerful hand indeed lays heavy upon this affair, one at whose fingers the likes of myself should not pluck.”

“I see,” Tanenbaum mused. “Well, actually, I had not meant to inquire about them directly, but only at their connections. I must learn how they discovered our activities—the source of their information.”

“Ah, the things I could tell you!” Ali exclaimed in tones of dramatic woe. “Alas, ours is a very strict contract, a testament to your most admirable caution. Of course, if you were to relax the terms only a—”

“Quite out of the question, I’m afraid,” Tanenbaum said pleasantly, but with iron firmness.

“Indeed, I greatly respect your wisdom in this,” Ali said solicitously. “Then with my most effusive apologies, honored practitioner, I must be vague.”

“That will be satisfactory,” the warlock replied, nodding.

“I see, indeed, an agent within the house of most noble Salyrene, through whom information flows to these playful young thieves. I see a young man, a man of books and letters more than adventures, a man who nonetheless shies from nothing if pressed. A man who is used to the ways of other faiths. A man who travels with a friendly fireball upon his shoulder.”

A pause ensued, in which Tanenbaum apparently waited for more detail. The djinn only grinned at him, though.

“And that is all you can tell me?” the warlock asked at last.

“Oh, but such things I could tell you!” Ali lamented. “Yet, we have our contract. I must not do less than uphold my part.”

“Tall?” Ildrin said suddenly, frowning. “Dishwater blonde hair, glasses, has a little fire elemental for a familiar?”

“A friendly fireball,” Tanenbaum mused. “Is that description accurate, Ali?”

“Indeed, indeed!” Disturbingly, the djinn appeared inordinately pleased by this turn of events. “Sometimes, I am able to aid my cherished friends even beyond the scope of our formal dealings, simply by connecting one source of information with another. Your compatriot has all she needs to proceed, I believe.”

Ildrin drew in a deep breath, and let it out slowly, frowning into the distance even as Tanenbaum turned an inquisitive gaze on her.

“Schwartz.”

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