Tag Archives: Brother Ermon

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The apparent leader of the Rust was a more visibly impressive specimen than most. Fully half his face was covered by a coppery mask, accented by wires which appeared to be brass; his left eye was a blue glass orb which gleamed from within. Though he had no beard, the half-mask did not extend over his scalp, and he sported a full head of luxurious hair trailing down his back, once black and beginning to shift toward gray. He wore only a kilt, serving to accentuate both his lean physique and especially the reddish metal which covered him. His entire right arm was of machinery, except, somehow, the flesh-and-blood hand attached beneath some kind of cloth wrapping which obscured the junction. It was a more elaborate arm than the rest of his followers sported, physically bulkier as if housing additional machinery, and attached to a shoulder mount which extended partway across his chest. A green glass disc was situated above his heart, emitting dull flickers of what looked like contained lightning. Below the kilt, his left calf and foot were machine, the right human but with odd patches of metalwork and protruding wires, as if he had machinery implanted beneath the skin.

The supreme confidence of his smile was somehow more unnerving than his collection of unnatural attachments.

Gabriel finally broke the silence. “Yeah, well, if you’re expecting to do anything about us, mister, you may be taking too many things for granted.”

“So I may,” the cultist replied, then suddenly hopped across the gap between his giant mechanical mount and the door platform, causing the lot of them to reflexively shift backward. Seeming not to notice their reaction, the man swept a deep bow. “I am called Ayuvesh, speaker for the Infinite Order. And already, it seems I have spoken out of turn. After all, it is protocol in many places to attend to old business before raising new, is it not? Mandip!” This last was spoken in a sharper tone, the cultist turning his head to direct himself back at the throng of his followers below.

A man stepped forward from the group, and Toby drew in a deep breath. The cultist stared up at them through narrowed eyes, and made an abortive move as if to fold his arms, which did not work as he had only one. The other was metal from the shoulder to the elbow, where it ended in a small profusion of tiny coppery struts and wires, almost like a miniature scaffold. At that distance, whatever was inside it was hidden from them.

Mandip continued forward; as he stepped upon a growth of lichen-like machine parts which had crawled across the stone floor, a column pistoned up out of the ground beside him, bringing a small panel of buttons to chest height. On the wrong side, forcing him to twist awkwardly to push three keys. That done, he continued on with incredible aplomb as a series of hinged struts and pulleys manifested from various pieces of the surrounding machine overgrowth. They swung swiftly and precisely into place for each of his footsteps, forming an impromptu staircase whose every step withdrew behind him, some re-positioning themselves to assist him upward. In moments, he stood upon the platform with them and Ayuvesh.

Then, to their surprise, Mandip bowed deeply.

“I owe an apology,” he said in a stiff tone. “It is not the way of the Infinite Order to push, provoke, or defy. I should have departed the Omnist compound once asked to by the monk. For that, I am sorry.”

An incredulous silence hung for a moment before Toby cleared his throat. “Well. On behalf of the faith of Omnu, apology accepted. And perhaps one is owed to you, as well?” He turned a pointed look on Juniper.

She frowned back at him. When Toby did not back down, the dryad sighed softly and shrugged. “Yes, well…you were right. You had no business inserting yourself there when they told you to go, but…yeah, I guess I may have reacted a little more harshly than was…necessary.”

Mandip had straightened, and now stared at her through slitted eyes which belied his polite tone. “Perhaps a little.”

“Well, then, I’m sorry, too,” Juniper said, folding her arms. Mandip’s nostrils flared once.

“There!” Ayuvesh proclaimed grandly with a broad gesture of his metal arm. “All friends again! And perhaps, if you are so inclined, honored guests, the return of Mandip’s arm would be a conciliatory gesture.”

Toby glanced at the others, receiving shrugs from Gabriel and Teal; Juniper was still watching Mandip as though expecting him to spring, a gaze he returned in equal measure.

“I can’t exactly promise that, at this point,” Toby finally answered. “It’s in the possession of the Crown. But we have a little pull with the King and Queen, and I can’t think of any use they’d have for it. Yes, that’s fair. You have my word I will attempt to secure its return for you.”

“Mm.” Ayuvesh folded his arms, lightly drumming his flesh fingers against a metal forearm. “Yes, I suppose by now you’ll have learned all you can from it.”

“Nobody’s ever learned all they can,” Fross opined.

“How very wise!” Ayuvesh said, grinning broadly.

Ermon cleared his throat. “There is other old business to attend.”

He was gazing down below, where another figure had appeared from a side passage, this one familiar and accompanied by a female Rust cultist who strode on two mechanical legs with digitigrade feet like a dog’s.

“Ah, yes!” Ayuvesh said, turning to follow Ermon’s look. “Brother Arlund, thank you for joining us. I believe your friends would like to be reassured as to your status!”

“I am well,” Arlund said curtly, his voice projecting easily through the cavern. “I cannot say whether I am a prisoner, as I have not yet tried to leave. My invitation to come inside was polite, but…insistent.”

Ermon’s eyes flicked to the Rust’s leader, then back to his fellow Huntsman. “You are unharmed, though?”

Arlund’s mustache shifted enough that his sneer was evident even from a distance. “These machines are an unholy abomination, and the dogma I’ve been forced to listen to is the most asinine drivel I have ever imagined. But I cannot fault their hospitality,” he added in an openly grudging tone.

The cultist with him cracked a sly smile at that, and bowed; Arlund just gave her a sidelong look and set off for the stairs which followed the wall up to the door platform. Nobody volunteered to trigger a moving mechanical staircase for him, which was probably for the best.

“So!” Ayuvesh turned back to the students, now wearing a patrician smile, and folded his hands behind his back. “That is the past, attended to. Let us now discuss the present.”


Due to Walker’s probing of the whole region via magic—transcension field, as she irritably corrected Milanda when thanked—they had a complete three-dimensional map of the mining tunnels. It was the work of only minutes for Milanda, following Walker’s guidance, to slip through a series of turns to a dark little dead end, where she planted herself on the ground with her back to the wall, the detached viewscreen laid across her lap. Its dimensions made this slightly awkward; the thing seemed not to have been designed for human use, unlike the highly ergonomic Infinite Order computers with which she was familiar.

“Only one risk I can think of,” Walker buzzed in her ear. “Gabriel Arquin is a Hand of Vidius, and while there is no precedent for what that means I’d be astonished if he doesn’t have at least one of my sisters hanging around him at all times. Probably Yngrid, she was always a little boy-crazy. I also don’t have a basis for comparison between a valkyrie’s extradimensional senses and the modern enchanting that keeps you invisible. So it’s not impossible that you’re being watched.”

Despite herself, Milanda raised her eyes to glance around the tunnel. It wasn’t quite pitch-black, there being a faint glow from the piece of technology she held, but even so it took all of her dryad-augmented senses plus the enchantments on her hood to give her a clear view of the apparently empty corridor. A normal human would be all but blind down here.

“As long as none of the physical ones followed me,” she replied. “Valkyries can’t touch anything on this plane, right?”

“Only on Vidian holy ground or where dimensional barriers are abraded for other reasons. Again, though, there are unknowns. It was Infininte Order technology that cast us to the dimensional insulation layer in the first place, and it does not appear that these Rust people understand what they’re fooling with. I can’t say what might have resulted from all their button-pushing.”

“Mm. I’m going to consider that a remote possibility, all the same.”

“Probably for the best. Just don’t get complacent.”

“What, me? Complacent? You jest.”

“You sure didn’t go out of your way to befriend those adventurers.”

Milanda ignored that, studying the screen again. She had selected this one for the indicators that it had its own attached power source and transcension field connection, icons which Walker had coached her on how to recognize. Unfortunately, it was also the largest of the screens which had been attached to the walls by the gate; between that and its peculiar shape, it was awkward to hold the thing with one hand while navigating the touch screen with the other. Still, at least it was working.

“These menus are all different from the ones in the spaceport,” she muttered, flicking and tapping with one fingertip. “I mean, it’s clearly the product of the same intelligence. Same…what did you call it? Operating system. But it doesn’t do any of the same stuff. Everything’s set up differently.”

“Hm. Touch screens are a fallback for when holographic interfaces are turned off; if it’s set to some kind of minimal settings, you can try closing every active window. If there’s a base desktop below them, it may have labeled icons to identify any installed programs.”

Milanda paused, raising her eyes to frown into empty space. “What are holographic interfaces, and why don’t we have them back home?”

“It’s a long story, and because the Avatar apparently disabled them when setting up his system with Theasia. I couldn’t say why, except that voice commands and touch screens are simpler for novice users. Anything?”

“Yes, actually.” She hadn’t been able to close the active programs running, but had managed to move them into a neat stack onto one side, exposing the screen’s base layer. There were, indeed, icons. “I can’t read them, though.”

“Oh…it’s probably set to Esperanto. That makes me wonder how the Rust are interfacing with the computers if they’re not set in a language they recognize. Tap the background twice on a spot that’s away from any icons. A menu will appear; you want to touch the line that says ‘Settings.’”

Milanda did this, rolled her eyes, and sighed. “None of them say that. None of them are in Tanglish.”

“…oh. Right. Try ‘Agordoj.’”

“That’s the goofiest word I ever heard,” she muttered, touching the appropriate line. At least Esperanto apparently used the same alphabet, more or less.

With Milanda guiding and translating, she managed to switch the machine to Tanglish—or English, as it was labeled.

“There we go,” she said in satisfaction as the labels beneath the icons changed. “Now, these are more sensible. Network, hardware… What is Silverfox?”

“Silverfox? That’s Druroth’s personal web browser. What a weird thing to find on… I mean, it can’t possibly still work, Naiya disabled the transcension field the Order’s systems used to communicate with each other. Unless they’ve piggybacked it on one of the others, like we did…”

“It just says there’s no connection when I pull it up.”

“Well, that tells us a bit. The Rust clearly don’t have much control; they may not even be using the software themselves. Which, of course, just raises more questions. If has to be connecting to something if it’s working, otherwise it would be a mass of error messages. Maybe tachyon or radio transmission…”

“Nanite control,” Milanda muttered. “Walker, what does ‘nanite’ mean?”

“I have no idea. I’ve never heard the word. You’re sure it’s in the right language?”

“Yes, I’m sure!”

“English and Tanglish are maybe ninety percent identical, there are bound to be some words that don’t translate exactly. Hang on, let me call the Avatar and ask him.”

Milanda nodded absentmindedly, forgetting that Walker couldn’t see her, and touched the icon.


“And we’re back to us getting dealt with,” Gabriel said bluntly.

“I wonder,” Ayuvesh mused, “how aware you are of the circumstances into which you have stepped?”

“You’re effectively holding Puna Dara hostage,” said Teal. “Behaving barely enough to avoid provoking the King to clamp down, while trying to undercut his authority.”

“Oh?” He grinned. “Tell me, what have I done to undercut his authority?”

“Attacking and disabling a Silver Legion is an inherently hostile act,” Fross charmed. “The ruling monarch of the country in which you did it can’t help but interpret that as a threat!”

“Just so,” Ayuvesh replied, nodding graciously. “Let us follow that line of thought, then. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Infinite Order are behind the fate of the Fourth Legion, clearly we would have the power to overthrow the government in Puna Dara. And yet, we have not. If we are not behind it, this whole subject is moot.” He spread his hands disarmingly. “By your logic, my actions would seem to make no sense!”

“Perhaps you could elucidate for us?” Toby suggested. “Your perspective on these events is one thing we do not have. I was very much hoping we could learn more about it.”

“Ah, so you are here to learn.” Ayuvesh’s smile broadened slightly. “And so naturally, you chose as your delegation two paladins, a Huntsman of Shaath, and an unstoppable archdemon in the thrall of the Universal Church.”

“Excuse me?” Teal exclaimed. “I am in no one’s thrall.”

“The Narisian robes are an interesting touch,” Ayuvesh acknowledged, pointing at her chest. “You clearly have complex allegiances. I am mostly interested in that fascinating pin you wear.”

She raised her hand to touch her Talisman of Absolution, the icon bearing the holy sigils of Omnu, Avei, and Vidius, and marking her an ally of the gods despite Vadrieny’s nature.

“Interesting,” Gabriel said, stroking Ariel’s hilt. “That sounded like a threat assessment, but no mention of Juniper, who you already know can physically tear your machine men apart.”

Ayuvesh again folded his hands behind himself, and this time turned to stare at the walking contraption he’d ridden up to the platform. “We are heirs to a truly ancient legacy. The Infinite Order, as we call ourselves, were first a group of scientists and philosophers from another world, who came here to pursue the greatest of all possible goals: the unlocking of humanity’s full potential, and the ascension of the universe itself to its next higher state.”

“They have gone on and on about this,” Arlund grunted, folding his arms. “The prattle about empowerment and being beyond limits isn’t just for personal appeal. Apparently, they think the universe is trying to evolve and consciousness is one of its means of doing so.”

“I thought the Infinite Order meant the Elder Gods,” Fross chimed. “That doesn’t sound like what you’re describing.”

Ayuvesh’s long hair shifted as he nodded slowly. “Indeed. The Order…lost their way. Their means of seeking that most noble of goals was to attain godhood for themselves, which ended every bit as badly as history tells us. Absolute power is extremely unhealthy for mortals. They descended into vile selfishness and cruelty, and were rightly brought down by rebellion from within.” He glanced back at them, his faint smile visible in profile. “Naiya, of course, aided the Pantheon’s revolt. Scyllith helped passively by refusing to take sides—a grave loss for the Order, as she commanded their greatest destructive powers. Tarthriss, however, was the one who truly planted the seeds for the salvation of the Order’s vision.”

Toby frowned. “Who?”

“He is sadly forgotten by this world,” Ayuvesh said softly, again staring out over the cavern. “The greatest of them; the greatest god, in fact, who ever lived. He aided the Pantheon in bringing down his comrades, even sacrificing himself in the process. More importantly, he left all this behind.” He held his arms wide, as if to embrace the chaos of crawling machinery which had overgrown the huge chamber. “And the records of the Order’s original purpose. So you see why we may have a problem with agents of the Pantheon today.”

The cultist suddenly turned to face them again, grinning, and executed a mocking little bow. “While we seek only peace in which to practice our faith and pursue our vision, the Infinite Order and the Pantheon are still in a state of declared war, eight thousand years in abeyance only because the Order was thought crushed and its survivors weakened or contained. And worse, we have been brought into modern politics not of our choosing. You see, children and Huntsmen, we are not the only souls to have unearthed fragments of the Elder Gods’ power. Both the Tiraan Empire and the Universal Church possess such artifacts. Possess…and use.” He tilted his head inquisitively. “Perhaps you, as Hands of two of the greatest gods, know something of this?”

Gabriel and Toby exchanged a puzzled glance.

“I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about,” Juniper said bluntly.

“Don’t you?” Ayuvesh raised his only eyebrow. “Well, whether you do or not, I shall give the benefit of the doubt and explain. Both activated and used their respective systems against one another in a shadow war which, inevitably, exploded into real violence. And this, students, upset the delicate political balance in Tiraas. The Throne and the Church cannot be openly in conflict; the Enchanter Wars are too recent and vivid a memory for that to be a palatable option. So they sought out a scapegoat. A patsy.” His grin took on a distinctly hostile cast. “Someone possessing and using the machines left behind by the Elders, who could be falsely blamed for having intervened and caused the infraction.”

“I realize you have no reason to trust us,” Toby said slowly, “but upon my word, I know nothing about any of that. I can do my best to find out, but…if it was the Church and the Throne, even my cult may not know. It will take time to make those inquiries, however.”

“While you are taking time,” Ayurvesh said, folding his arms, “consider our position. Unjustly condemned by Sharidan and Justinian for their misdeeds, we are forced to be wary of Pantheon or Imperial agents. And the sudden arrival of an entire Silver Legion, with backing of Salyrite casters from all four Colleges… Well. That demands more than simple wariness, does it not?”

“I can see,” Teal said slowly, “how the arrival of paladins and Huntsmen and maybe even me would look to you in that case…”

“The particular means of your arrival, I have to say, do not assuage my concerns,” he replied.

Toby drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “All right… Let me ask you this, then. Whatever you did to the Fourth Legion has kept them incapacitated. Can you lift that…curse, or whatever it is?”

Ayuvesh raised his eyebrow again. “I? When have I acknowledged responsibility for such a thing? A convenient event for us, to be sure, but still tragic. I wish no ill upon anyone who wishes none upon me and mine.”

“Oh, you smug little—”

“Juniper,” Toby snapped, cutting her off with a warning look.

“We, if left alone, are a threat to none,” Ayuvesh said. “Not the Empire, not the Church, or their gods, and certainly not the Crown of Puna Dara. Rajakhan is a good King, and I do not desire the chaos that will erupt in my city if his government is overthrown.”

“You have to understand that it’s no longer that simple,” Toby replied. “After what befell the Legion.”

“Of course,” Ayuvesh said, nodding deeply. “But so it is with all the great powers of the world; they respect one another out of fear that war between them will be more destructive than profitable. Those with no claws to bare are snapped up or crushed. All we desire is to be left in peace, and sadly, that requires that we demonstrate the means to insist upon it.”

“Then maybe we have grounds to begin reaching a compromise,” said Toby. “If your story is true, than you are victims in this. We have little pull with the Empire, but Gabriel and I can command at least some action within the Church. The Archpope has no obligation to listen to us, but we have influence to wield.”

“And you will do this for me, out of the goodness of your divine hearts?” he replied pleasantly. “How noble.”

“Don’t be unnecessarily difficult, man,” Gabriel retorted. “If it comes down to claws, as you put it, you might not survive the night.”

“Gabriel!” Toby exclaimed.

“But!” Gabriel held up a hand. “We’re in the same position as you, basically. It would be for the best if everybody backs off and no one further gets hurt. So, what we want is for you to release whatever hold you’ve got on the Fourth Legion and provide some assurances that you aren’t going to upend Puna Dara. What you want is assurance that the Empire, the Church, and the Punaji aren’t going to land on you. Yes?”

“Succinctly stated,” Ayuvesh agreed, nodding again.

“It strikes me,” said Ermon, “that those are a very difficult set of goals for anyone here to attain.”

“Yes, they are,” Toby agreed, his eyes on Ayuvesh. “But not inconceivable… And even in them, I see potential for common ground. After all, it best serves us if the Church and the Throne are both prevented from underhanded shenanigans. We can start with small gestures. For instance, Mandip’s and Juniper’s apologies, and Arlund’s safe return. We can procure and return Mandip’s arm to complete the cycle. Little things, in the grand scheme, but they at least show good faith. It’s something on which to build.”

“And in the meantime,” Teal added, “perhaps we can all work on…deescalating. The Punaji are just about up in arms; I believe we can persuade the King to show further restraint, if he’s provided with a reason.”

“You have something in mind?” Ayuvesh asked mildly.

“Several of the Legionnaires have already died,” Toby said. “I understand the curse on them seems designed not to kill, but anyone that weak is vulnerable to other maladies. If there were a way to lessen—”

Abruptly the light in the huge chamber changed to a deep red, and a cacophonous series of whistles and sirens began shrilling from dozens of points among the machines crawling across the walls.

“What is that?” Juniper exclaimed.

“That,” Ayurvesh replied, bracing his feet in a wide stance and baring teeth, “is the sound of saboteurs being caught.”


“He wouldn’t say!” Walker’s voice when she abruptly returned to the line was excited. “The Avatar refused to answer questions about nanites, which means they’re a classified Order technology. That has to be the Rust’s weapon!”

“I know!” Milanda replied in the same tone, fingers working furiously at the screen. “This thing is showing me a map of nanite distribution on its front page—they’re all over Puna Dara, but concentrated here in the mines, in a spot out under the harbor, and in a big knot up in Rodvenheim! This is what we’re looking for!”

“I’m searching the sub-OS for information,” Walker said. “It won’t tell me anything directly but there may be mentions of them among other literature. Anything might help me extrapolate in general what we’re dealing with…”

“I bet this thing’ll tell me a lot more,” Milanda said, pulling the screen closer to her face. “Hum… There’s a list of processes. What does that mean?”

“Assuming it means the same as in computer terms, those are tasks the nanites are performing.”

“There’s a red warning, here…insufficient resources. There are more processes pending than being executed. Walker, does that mean what I think it means?”

“It means these things are a finite resource, and they’re being stretched way beyond what the Rust want to do. Which means we officially know their first weakness.”

“Finally, some good news,” Milanda said with a vindictive grin. “I wonder if I can make their problems even bigger…”

“Step very carefully,” Walker cautioned. “We still have no idea what these things are. Why are they invisible and undetectable? Learn details before trying to make changes.”

“Right, you’re right. Let’s see if it’ll tell me more.” She touched one of the pending processes, choosing it for the only term she immediately recognized: Fabrication Plant One. The line of text indicated maintenance and repair. That line immediately shifted forward at her tap and grew to cover the middle of the screen, but changed color from pale blue to yellow, and additional text appeared above it. “Huh. Walker, what does ‘retinal scan’ mean?”

“That’s a secur—Milanda! Don’t look at the screen!”

Too late; the whole display flashed, and a new line of bright red script informed Milanda that this access was unauthorized.

“Um,” she said warily, “now it’s telling me that this activity has been logged and reported…”

“Oh, no.”

Her entire screen turned red, and began emitting a shrill tone. Not shrill enough that she couldn’t also detect similar noises echoing through the tunnels from a much louder source deeper in.

Milanda cringed behind her mask. “That…is not good, is it.”


Gabriel clapped a hand to his forehead. “The woman in black. I told you.”

“Aw, nuts, she took one of those shiny thingies,” Fross fretted, darting back and forth. “The one that controlled the door and who knows what else…”

“A woman in black,” Ayuvesh said grimly. “How mysterious.”

“She’s the one who opened the gate,” Toby said quickly. “She wouldn’t speak to us and as soon as she’d got it open, ripped off a piece of your machinery and fled. We don’t know who she is or what she was doing there, but she knows something about these machines of yours, obviously.”

“Oh, obviously,” he said flatly. “And somehow, has gone undetected. We perceived you approaching before you even entered the mine, but not this enigmatic woman in black.”

“I realize how this sounds,” Toby began.

“Oh, please,” Arlund scoffed. “That is not believable enough to be a lie. A woman?”

“You should not talk anymore,” Juniper informed him.

“Please listen to me,” Toby said urgently, but Ayuvesh held up his hand to forestall him.

“I will indeed listen, Hand of Omnu. And in fact, I am still willing to negotiate. But we must have parity, don’t you think?”

Before they could react, he whirled and bounded back to the top of his machine, his agility astonishing considering how much he had to weigh with all that metal in his body. Ayuvesh whirled lightly into the seat, placing his hands on control panels affixed to its arms.

“You have aided your negotiating position with a show of force,” the Rust’s leader said with a broad grin. “Well done! I salute your brinkmanship. Now, allow me to reply in kind!”

 

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13 – 16

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“Well, hey there, li’l lady! Need a hand with that?”

Maureen sighed, coming to a stop, and turned to face the man approaching. “Thank you, no, I have it well in hand.”

Chase sauntered up, hands in his pockets and grinning his customarily cheerful grin. Despite the fact that he’d never harmed anyone (that she’d heard), Maureen felt instinctively unsettled at being approached by him in a dark alley. She knew from her childhood coaching to listen to those instincts, and also to avoid showing any unease. A certain kind of person responded to any perceived weakness with outlandish aggression.

“Aw, don’t be like that, shorty,” he said easily. “What kid of gentleman would I be if I let a girl like you haul a basket of…” He came to a stop, looming over her, and craned his neck to peer down. For once, she didn’t have the impression he was trying to look down her blouse, and somehow that wasn’t reassuring. “…scrap metal? You’ve got interesting hobbies. Anyhow, what kind of gentleman would—”

“I feel obliged to point out that a gentleman wouldn’t make fun of a person’s stature, nor push when he’s been politely invited to sod off.”

He laughed, and stepped back, pulling his hands from his pockets to hold them up disarmingly. “All right, all right, fair enough. So what’re you doing skulking around in the back alleys? That’s not like you.”

“I could ask you the same,” she said tersely.

That got another laugh, and a roguish wink. “Maureen… It’s me, Chase. You wonder what I’m doing skulking in alleys?”

She rolled her eyes and turned to resume walking. “Aye, fair enough.”

To her annoyance—but not surprise—he strolled alongside her, moving at a leisurely amble that kept pace neatly with her bustling stride, given the difference in the length of their legs. That same difference meant running away from him was an unlikely prospect.

“You, though,” Chase continued merrily. “You’re such a fine, upstanding citizen. Heading back to campus, then? Cos there’s no storefronts back here…”

“An’ what makes y’think I’m headin’ ta campus?”

“And there goes the accent,” he observed. “I can never figure out if that means you’re more or less happy. Anyhow, this arc’ll lead you through the back ways of the old part of town by the least-traveled path, where there is absolutely nothing until you come out right at the base of the mountain, a good few dozen yards from the stairs.” He looked down at her and winked again. “I may have had cause to slip through Last Rock without attracting notice. Y’know, once or twice. A day. For three years.”

She sighed, and shook her head. “Town’s funny t’night…all riled up, innit? I passed the A&W on the way in, an’ the noise was like a full-blown party. Seem t’be knots o’ people chatterin’ in the streets, too, but lookin’ nervous about something. Not like usual. Even with all the new construction, Last Rock’s a sleepy sorta place.”

“Yeah, I noticed the same.” For a wonder, the vacuous grin faded from his features. Maureen chanced a glance up at the human, finding him looking ahead with a thoughtful expression. It made a surprising difference in his aspect; that smile was unnerving, but now he just seemed like one of her classmates, mulling a question. “I also veered close enough to overhear a few snatches of those conversations. You know, purely by accident,” he added solemnly.

“Oh, aye. Of course.”

“Folks seem to be tetchy about the University in particular this evening,” Chase continued. “Apparently Tellwyrn posted an announcement about the first major research project she’s funding, and it’s to do with summoning demons. All the yokels are worked up something fierce.”

“Huh,” she grunted noncommittally, shifting her basket to her left hand. Not actually planning to drop it on his foot, but making that prospect more available.

“So, you may have had the right idea,” he said, that grin returning. “Perhaps this isn’t the best night for casual encounters with the Rockies, eh?” When she didn’t reply, he went merrily on. “So, I’m sure you won’t mind if I keep you company on the way back! After all, you’re probably downright starved for company these days. The Well must be feeling pretty empty, huh?”

Maureen stared straight ahead at the distant gap where the alley opened out below the mountain, concentrating on keeping her breath even. One ear twitched, but not because of him; there was a swell of noise in the near distance, as a crowd of men passed through the street, talking loudly. Shouting, actually… She couldn’t make out many individual words, but the anger was obvious.

“Everyone’s been assuming we’ll wake the Sleeper’s victims just cos I woke up,” Chase said suddenly, after she failed to respond to his last comment. “I wonder if they’re really just asleep, though? I mean… There are ways to keep the body alive, even when the mind and soul passes on. It’d be a ridiculously cruel thing to do, but hell, who can say how this asshole thinks? That’d be a kick in the pants, if Tellwyrn finally cracks the curse and it turns out they’re all just dead after all.”

“What is wrong with you?!” Maureen exploded, rounding on him and hopping backward, her ears shifting back in agitation. “You are the most—why are you like this? How can any person not want anything outta life except t’just make an arse of ‘imself? Haven’t you one bloody thing better to do than scamper around irritating everybody?”

Chase, somewhat to her surprise, didn’t pounce now that his needling had finally provoked a reaction. In fact, he turned to face her, tilting his head quizzically, and regarded her in silence for a moment before speaking. “Heh. Y’know, you’re actually the first person to ask me that since I came here? Even at the lodge they’d given that up long before I left, and Tellwyrn never bothered.”

“Aye, well, at least you’re aware you’re a horse’s arse!”

“I’m aware of a lot,” he said cheerfully, turning and sauntering off in the direction of the mountain. Maureen let him pull ahead a few steps before following slowly, keeping a distance between them. “Let me put it this way: I’ve heard it said that the thing which separates sentient beings from the animals is our capacity to be more. A wolf or bison or prairie dog just does what it does, but a human or elf or gnome creates things, improves themselves beyond what biology intended.”

“Sapient,” she said automatically.

He glanced back over his shoulder at her. “Hm?”

“Wolves an’ bison an’ prairie dogs are all sentient. They sense an’ interact with their surroundings. You mean sapient beings.”

Chase chuckled, shaking his head. “Well, maybe I don’t. Because I’ve done a lot of people-watching, and I’ve noticed that the happiest people are reliably the dumbest ones. The key to bliss is not having a thought in your head. Everything that’s good in life—food, sex, sleep, humor—it’s all basic, animal instinct. Being more is just a pointless pain in the ass.”

“Humor, is it?” she asked, intrigued in spite of herself. Maureen had never expected to hear Chase Masterson’s philosophy on life; until that moment it had never occurred to her that he might have one. “That seems like a pretty sapient thing.”

“Ever played tug-of-war with a dog? Or watched a bluejay tease a cat? Or how about wild pigs who sniff out glittershrooms to get high?” Chase laughed lightly, jamming his hands back in his pockets. “Not to mention that everything has sex, and you’re never gonna convince me it’s because all those animals think it over and decide what they really need is to be responsible for a smaller version of themselves for a while. Fun is the only true universal good, my dear little friend. All the rest is just bullshit people make up to feel more important than they are.”

He emerged into the open air, with the mountain looming above, and stopped. Maureen was still a few steps behind; by the time she caught up, Chase had turned to their right to peer in the direction of the main street. She peeked around the corner, following his gaze.

A crowd of men and women were milling around, several carrying lamps and one or two actual torches. The buzz of conversation which hovered over them was distinctly angry, and loud enough it seemed it might burst into shouting at any moment.

“Well, that’s different,” he mused. “I heard there was an actual mob in Last Rock a while back, but honestly I was never willing to believe these folks that that much initiative. Or organizational skills.”

“A mob doesn’t take much in the way o’ skill, ‘specially not of the organizational kind,” she replied, frowning at the townspeople.

Chase just laughed. “Oh, I know my townies, trust me.”

His bark of amusement attracted notice. A few people turned to face them, and then to Maureen’s horror, they erupted in shouting and imprecations. The group started toward them with long, aggressive strides, beginning with those nearest but the rest quickly catching up, as if the whole crowd were some sort of huge amoeba sensing prey. It was dark, but the lights they carried were enough for Maureen to make out scowls and snarls on far too many faces.

As she stood, gaping, one man in the lead broke into a trot, quickly followed by several others.

“Oh, my,” Chase observed in a fascinated tone, then turned to her with a cheerful grin. “Hey, here’s a crazy idea! I think we should run.”


The mineshaft was mostly horizontal for the first leg of its journey; only after turning sharply to the left did it begin descending. Nowhere around its periphery were there any obvious signs of activity, though Ermon said that tracks in the dust showed the whole area saw regular foot traffic. Now, the group was descending gradually along a seemingly endless shaft, which occasionally branched off to the sides or opened into disused chambers, some containing the wreckage of old crates and tools. There was no light except Fross’s silver glow.

“I can’t make out any sounds,” Juniper muttered. “The echoes down here are weird… Plus, there’s this…thing.”

“Thing?” Teal’s voice was a little strained. “What kind of a thing?”

“I don’t know,” the dryad said, frowning and shaking her head.

“Phrasing, June,” Gabriel said. “The atmosphere’s pretty tense already without us suddenly being told there’s a thing.”

“Let’s not make it worse by picking at each other,” Toby said soothingly. “Can you describe it, Juniper?”

“Mm…sort of like…bees,” she said pensively.

“Bees?!” Teal’s voice rose half an octave.

“The buzzing, I mean,” Juniper hastily clarified. “There’s this low hum, at the very edge of my hearing. All I can tell is it’s coming from deeper below, and that only because it’s been getting louder as we go down. Like I said…echoes. It’s a mess to try to track anything in here.”

“It certainly is that,” Ermon agreed. He had placed himself at the head of the group, off to one side and behind only Fross, where he studied the floor, walls, and ceiling in detail as they passed through. “I can make out only traces; this ground does not like to leave tracks. It does see traffic, though, both coming and going. And I have seen no signs of any kind of struggle in the distance we’ve come.”

“Well, let’s consider that a hopeful sign,” said Toby.

“I’d caution against excessive optimism,” the Huntsman replied. “I’m sure you have reason to be confident in your power, but following prey into its own den is always a highly risky venture.”

“Vadrieny wonders if we’d rather she take over from me, here,” said Teal.

Toby glanced back at her. “I appreciate the offer. Remember, though, our first plan is to talk. Vadrieny is, let’s face it, pretty intimidating. Having her out might seem hostile in and of itself.”

“Yeah,” Gabriel added, touching Teal’s shoulder momentarily. “And if this does come down to trouble, best we hold something in reserve. If they get aggressive, maybe we can prevent a throw down by suddenly showing we’ve got bigger fangs than they thought.”

“Okay,” she said with no further comment.

“I can feel arcane magic up ahead,” Fross added, “but…well, the distance is an impediment, but there’s not much. Assuming the rest of what the Rust does is like that arm, it might employ small arcane charms here and there but whatever it runs on is its own thing. I haven’t figured out a way to detect it directly. Ariel, anything?”

“I perceive nothing. My senses are designed for precision of analysis, not range. I will have little to add until we are much closer, if the conventional enchantments involved are as minor as you say.”

They continued on in silence for a few more minutes, which seemed longer than they were owing to being spent creeping through oppressive darkness. When Gabriel suddenly stopped, shifting his head as if watching something invisible, the rest of the group halted as well, turning to look at him.

“Vestrel’s back,” he reported with a grin of clear relief, which slowly faded as he continued, speaking with a halting cadence indicating he was repeating observations as they were given to him. “Okay…up ahead they tunnel opens out into a very large chamber, a natural cave that’s had mineshafts carved out of it in multiple directions, and that’s where the Rust has all their stuff. People, and machines…” He hesitated. “Vestrel recognizes some elements of what they’ve built, but it’s way different from the Elder God—okay, fine, Infinite Order stuff she remembers. Also…she says the machines are…weird.” He paused again, then sighed. “…apparently we’ll have to see them ourselves to understand.”

“How helpful,” Ariel commented. Everyone ignored her.

“Oh!” Gabriel brightened, turning to Ermon. “Arlund is here! I mean, down there. She wasn’t sure about his situation; he hasn’t been harmed and doesn’t seem to be restrained, but he looks angry.”

“I’m not sure how significant that is, in and of itself,” Ermon replied ruefully. “But I thank you, Vestrel, for the information.”

“And they’ve built some kind of…gate, across the tunnel,” Gabe continued, turning again to stare into empty space where the valkyrie apparently stood. “A pretty solid one, made of that reddish metal of theirs and a bunch of cobbled-together junk that resembles their artificial limbs. Vestrel can pass through most objects, but no idea how we’re going to get past it. The good news is all the Rust cultists are beyond it, in their big cavern. There’s nobody between us and the gate.”

“Okay,” Toby said, nodding. “That’s something. If we can’t figure out how to get it open, we can always try to force it. I very much doubt any gate will stop Juniper and Vadrieny.”

“Uh, I thought the idea was to try the friendly approach first?” said Fross. “If the thing is locked, maybe our first move should be to just knock.”

Toby hesitated, then chuckled. “Well, I can’t argue with that, can I? All right, guys, on we go. Gabe, any details while we walk? How far we are, how many cultists up ahead?”

“Only a couple dozen. Vestrel didn’t get a precise headcount because they were all milling around, doing something. She couldn’t tell what. And…apparently we’re closer to the gate than we are to the entrance of the tunnel, now.”

“I wonder,” Teal mused. “They can’t do much back-and-forth from here to the city. It’s a hellishly inconvenient approach, and somebody would have noticed that kind of traffic going in and out of the mountains.”

“We’ve already passed a lot of side tunnels,” Juniper pointed out, “and Vestrel said there are more below, from their actual lair. The mine entrance was just the one the Thieves’ Guild found. I bet they’ve got a more direct path into Puna Dara. Probably more than one, actually.”

“We’ll see what we see,” Toby murmured, and they fell silent again.

It was another few minutes of walking before they reached the gate Vestrel had told them of, which also revealed what she meant about the weirdness of the machines.

The tunnel was blocked off by a ring of steel, in which stood an obvious door of the same metal, split down the middle in an asymmetrical pattern unlike any standard doorway. Thick bars were set vertically into the metal in front of it, spaced too closely for a human to slip through, even had there been anywhere beyond it to go. The whole thing was set in a most peculiar melange of metallic parts. They were mostly of the reddish alloy that characterized the Rust, unlike the steel door and bars, though there were a number of small lights set in various places, some glowing steadily, others blinking in repeating patterns. Obvious machine parts were in evidence, from simple struts and braces to exposed gears, some actually moving. Pipes crisscrossed the entire thing at intervals, a few with valves which produces periodic little spurts of steam. In several places scattered throughout were oddly-shaped surfaces which glowed in the darkness and depicted peculiar systems of glyphs and markings; some of these held steady, while others changed continuously.

Most alarming of all was the way it was all constructed. Machines were usually logical, even mathematical in their design, featuring a lot of straight lines and right angles. By comparison, the gate’s housing was just crazy. Though they all connected together, pipes, gears, metal supports and blinking screens were layered around the walls haphazardly, in wild angles, as if they’d been laid down erratically and built up to cover the whole tunnel. Miscellaneous bits of inscrutable purpose extended out from the structure to crawl along the walls toward the distant exit like the questing roots of a tree.

“If a spider spun machine parts instead of silk,” Gabriel said after they had stood regarding this in silence for a few moments, “the result would look like this.”

Teal sighed. “Spiders, and bees. I never had an aversion to bugs until just now…”

“What if there is some kind of huge mechanical spider in there?” Juniper suggested. “That could explain this. Well, not explain it, but it’d make a little more sense…”

“Great,” Teal said sourly. “That’s a lovely thought.”

“Well, at least we figured out where that hum you talked about is coming from,” Toby said. Actually, though it clearly emerged from the peculiar machine, this close it seemed to be a number of different hums. Parts of it emitted periodic soft beeps and chimes, the pipes thrummed with some hydraulic force, gears clicked and whirred together, and several segments of the construction put off sharp electrical buzzing. From a distance, it all did blur together to resemble the tone of a beehive.

Juniper suddenly whirled, shifting her feel to a braced stance, and stared back up the tunnel. “There it is again!”

“The bees?” Teal asked.

“No. The smell. If I couldn’t feel the lack of any through attunement I would swear there was a dryad heading this way!”

All of them turned, Ermon drawing his tomahawk and hunting knife. Gabriel eased out the wand that morphed into his scythe, but did not activate it yet, and placed a hand on Ariel’s hilt without drawing her.

“I think you should know,” she said into the tense silence which ensued, “that there is a very sophisticated invisibility spell attached to something moving this way down the tunnel.”

“How close?” Gabriel asked tersely.

“Presuming standard human hearing, close enough to be aware of this conversation. I believe I recently pointed out that my senses are not designed for great distances.”

“Is someone there?” Toby called, staring ahead into the darkness. Fross fluttered back to hover above their heads, casting silver light on the tunnel walls around them.

Several of them twitched, Teal emitting a muffled noise of surprise, when a figure suddenly appeared seemingly out of thin air right in front of them. The person who had arrived was garbed entirely in black, and manifested in the process of lowering the hood of a black cloak. Beneath it was another hood, attached to her fitted jacket, and inside that a mask which obscured the lower half of her face, leaving only her eyes exposed. Her black attire was mostly of supple leather, and fit closely enough to reveal this was a woman.

“Oh, invisibility cloak,” Gabriel said after a tense silence. “Nifty. You don’t see those often.”

“Greetings,” Toby said to the mysterious woman. “Friend, or foe?”

She tilted her head minutely to one side, eyes flickering across them. Then she took a step forward. When everyone tensed, she paused again, and held up one finger, which she then pointed at the contorted apparatus around the gate behind them.

“Hello?” Juniper said sharply. “Yes? No? Anybody home?”

“That mask has a silencing spell attached,” Ariel announced. “If she spoke, you wouldn’t hear. There are a good number of impressive enchantments on this person’s equipment. She is either a skilled enchanter or exceedingly wealthy.”

“That’s interesting,” Juniper said bluntly. “And why do you smell like dryads?”

“And couldja maybe take the mask off and talk to us?” Fross suggested.

Ermon shook his head. “People who don masks are rarely willing to remove them upon meeting someone new.”

The woman watched this conversation inscrutably, but at that, pointed at Ermon. Then she stepped forward again, angling to pass between Teal and Juniper on her way to the gate.

“Hey!” Juniper moved to bar her path, scowling. “You don’t just show up out of nowhere in a place like this, at a time like this, and refuse to explain yourself!”

“Enchantments aside,” Ariel interjected, “the magic roiling off this person is extremely potent and extremely confusing. I detect all four schools, heavily favoring the fae, with additional branches of shadow magic, all intertwined in ways I have never seen and whose purpose I cannot discern. In terms of raw power, she is on a level with most of you. I advise against starting an altercation.”

The woman’s dark eyes shifted right to Ariel—itself interesting, as few people who heard her voice immediately suspected the sword—and then back to Juniper. She held the dryad’s gaze for a moment, then carefully shifted to edge past her again. This time, though she kept her stare locked onto the interloper, Juniper did not move, and allowed her past; Teal even edged back out of the way.

The woman in black squeezed by, then headed straight for one of the tunnel walls which was covered by the overgrowth of machinery, holding up another finger in their direction as if cautioning them to wait. She carefully pored over the exposed pieces as if searching for something, pausing at each of the display screens. Several she touched with her fingers; two responded by changing their contents, but the woman seemed unimpressed by the results and moved on.

Finally, she came to a roughly hexagonal screen attached to the mess by only a single length of pipe, extending out from the wall not far from the gate itself. This time, she hunched over it, quickly working at it with her gloved fingertips. Sigils and pictograms shifted at her touch, accompanied by soft chirps and whirrs.

“I suppose there’s no point in asking how you know how to do that,” Gabe said irritably, shifting closer and craning his neck to watch.

She raised her head to look at him, and winked, then returned to what she was doing.

The group jumped again when the gate suddenly moved. The entire circular steel housing rotated a hundred and eighty degrees, causing the bars to spin fully around. Once it stopped, there came a loud thunk from somewhere deep inside the machinery, and the bars suddenly retracted into what was now the floor. Then, with a deep rumble, an inner section of the circle began rotating in the opposite direction. When the door itself had been turned fully upside down—or right side up?—it parted smoothly, both doors sliding into the walls to either side. Another set of bars were revealed beyond it, which now slowly rotated back in the first direction, and then retracted just as their cousins had.

“There is really no reason for that to have been so elaborate,” Ariel opined.

“Well, thank you for the help,” Toby said to the woman, who after glancing into the now-open gate had resumed studying the screen. “I gather you’re a person who values her secrets, but I’m sure you understand if we—”

She abruptly grabbed the metal edges of the extended screen, and with a strength clearly beyond the human, ripped it clean off the wall, leaving its broken mount trailing a few sparking ends of wire.

“Hey!” Gabriel shouted. Orange light suffused the tunnel as Vadrieny emerged, but they hardly had time to react beyond that.

The woman in black moved like an elf, darting past them and actually running up the wall for a few paces as she dashed by. Ermon spun and nocked an arrow, drawing a bead on her as she raced back up the tunnel, but with her free hand she whipped up the hood of her invisibility cloak and vanished entirely into the darkness.

Once she did, not even the sound of footsteps betrayed her presence.

“So,” Gabriel said irritably after they had all stared after the mysterious figure for a moment. “Carrying a bunch of pricey enchantments, made of a weird combination of all magic, smells like a dryad, somehow knows how to use weird-ass Elder God magic machines even better than Vestrel. And, best of all, showed up in the middle of all this. Yeah, there’s no way in hell we’ve seen the last of her. I will bet you a semester’s tuition her next appearance is going to be even more annoying.”

“No bet,” said Vadrieny. Ermon turned at the sound of her voice, peering at the archdemon with clear wariness.

“I could’ve frozen her to the ground,” Fross said apologetically, “but based on what Ariel said and what I sensed I wasn’t sure it’d be a good idea to poke that bear. There was a lot of magic in that lady, and I couldn’t tell what basically any of it did, and this seems like a really, really bad place to start an unnecessary fight.”

“I think you’re right,” Toby said with a heavy sigh. “No worries, Fross. For now, we’ve got a mission we’d better stick to, but we should also follow up on this as soon as we’re back in the city. See what the King and the Guild and maybe the Avenists and monks have seen.”

“For now, though, onward,” Vadrieny agreed, then faded away to leave Teal among them again.

The tunnel beyond the gate was much shorter, and horizontally level. It was also made entirely of smooth metal—apparently steel, once they stepped beyond the crawling clutter of machine parts that housed the gate apparatus itself. The group clustered together as they emerged from its mouth onto a platform overlooking a vast cavern.

The whole scene was a study in contrast between organic and angular forms. Large, glaring fairy lamps were almost blinding after the dimness behind them, but at least they exposed everything—which in this case meant a clearly natural cavern which had been both cut and built up with stone bricks to form even floors, walls, and platforms that had once served the mining operation in some capacity. In the ceiling and in the walls of sections not adapted for human use, the smooth natural curves left by eons of erosion were still evident. Remnants of wood and stone construction remained, but all of it had been partially covered by reddish metal growths which seemed to have spread over everything like crawling lichen.

There were Rust cultists present, as well, roughly two dozen as Vestrel had advised. Every single one present had at least one metal limb, some two or more, and several were partially augmented with further metallic pieces of uncertain purpose. Now, however, they were not milling about engaged in any task. All of them stood all but motionless, scattered around the chamber and staring flatly at the group which emerged into their midst.

A chilling silence hung between them, until a large piece of the machinery occupying the back wall began detaching itself.

When housed against a huge overgrowth of metallic parts it had been just another inscrutable piece of the morass, but as it pulled free and stepped closer its shape immediately became clear. The thing walked on two enormous legs, had a round torso with what appeared to be a circular eye of green glass occupying most of its front, and two metal arms extending from the upper edge of that. Despite its lack of a head, it stood nearly twenty feet tall. Each of its footfalls echoed through the chamber with a crash.

“Giant mechanical spider,” Juniper muttered. “Well, I wasn’t too far off…”

The Rust cultists stood still, keeping their attention on the intruders and paying the huge construct no mind—not even the two it had to step directly over on its way toward them. The group edged backward toward the tunnel mouth as it came, but it stopped a few yards distant.

With a hiss and several bursts of steam, the round glass face came loose and tipped slightly forward. Another metal piece on its top shifted up like a trap door. Whirring sounded from within the metal beast, and slowly a man rose into view from inside it, seated in a chair installed on a platform which now climbed upward. He stood up when it came to the top, which put him almost perfectly on a level with the group.

If the Rust cultists were given more mechanical parts as they rose through the ranks, this man must be their leader; he seemed at least as much machine as human. Enough of his flesh and blood face remained, however, to smile broadly at them, and he held his arms wide.

“Welcome, honored guests!” he boomed in a voice clearly accustomed to public speaking. “Honored indeed, even if not invited. And now, we will have to decide just what to do with you.”

 

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13 – 15

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“I realize it’s difficult to plan when walking into an unknown, but we need to have some kind of strategy ready for this,” Toby said, following Fross into the outskirts of the city. Puna Dara’s buildings did not grow smaller or more sparse as they climbed; flanked as it was by craggy mountains on all sides, the city had long since filled up all the available space, but the streets grew steadily steeper as they climbed toward the limits of its confines.

“I think Gabe had the right of it before,” Juniper replied. “This is a lot less delicate than our previous assignments. All we have to do is wipe out the Rust, and the problem is basically solved. Doing it in their hidey-hole outside town where nobody else will get hurt is just an added benefit.”

“First of all,” Teal said sharply, “mass slaughter is never an acceptable solution to anything. And second, we’re making a sweeping assumption if we go in there thinking we can just take them all out.”

“That, exactly,” Gabriel agreed. “Let’s keep in mind these guys vanquished an entire Silver Legion without apparently being there. I know we’re used to out-classing enemies in a straight-up fight, but like they say, there’s always a bigger fish. Seems like a bad idea to face everybody just blithely assuming we can take ’em.”

“What did happen to the Legion, exactly?” Toby asked. “I know it was a magical plague of some kind, but we seem to have missed out some important details…”

“That would have been an excellent subject to study in detail before embarking on a mission to engage these Rust in battle.”

“Gabriel,” Teal said tersely, “does your sword have to say something snotty at the most inopportune time?”

“I am designed for precision and analysis, not social interaction.”

“You seem plenty designed for snark,” Juniper observed.

“Snark is merely the byproduct of being constantly surrounded by lesser intellects.”

“Shut up, Ariel,” Gabriel said wearily. “We had enough of a hassle getting out of the Rock and convincing Ruda not to come, I think missing some details is forgivable. Anyway, the plague…”

“Its symptoms are weakness and lethargy to the point of making basic movement difficult,” Fross chimed at the head of the group. “It appears to have been designed to be non-lethal, though several Legionnaires did perish, as is to be expected of any large group subjected to such an effect. Whether this was meant to be compassionate or to saddle the Rust’s enemies with the burden of providing for several hundred incapacitated soldiers is a matter of debate. Its cause and nature have not been identified last I heard; they’ve been evacuated to Rodvenheim where the dwarves and the Salyrites have been working on this.”

“Bless you, Fross,” Toby said.

“Thank you!”

“So what are we going to do, if the plan’s not to go in wands blazing?” Juniper asked.

“First, diplomacy,” Toby said firmly. “In fact, this whole situation reminds me of a worthwhile lesson in negotiating I got from Trissiny before she left.”

“Oh, good, it’s almost like old times,” Teal muttered. “Usually she has to be here to turn everything into a fight.”

Gabriel and Juniper both looked at her sidelong with slight frowns. Up ahead, Toby turned around to give her a deeper one.

“One thing we could all stand to learn from Trissiny,” he said, “is to recognize when our own education has left us blind spots and work to correct them. That is what she’s off doing right now, and I respect her a lot for it. No, I wouldn’t generally take the approach she recommends for diplomacy, but what she did say that I’ve taken to heart is that it’s always better to negotiate from a position of strength.” He finally turned to watch ahead while they walked; the road continued on up into the mountains, but the end of Puna Dara’s structures was fast approaching. “Omnists do not think in those terms, as a rule. But the truth is the Rust must be quite confident in their power, if they have presented enough of a threat to keep Blackbeard from moving on them directly. It will look different if we, who represent more of a physical threat than the Fourth Silver Legion did, show up in their base which they thought was secret. Hopefully, we can get them to come to terms.”

“And what’s plan B?” Juniper asked.

Toby shook his head. “Well…still to talk. Even if they won’t meet us halfway, talking will buy us time to look around and hopefully learn. The problem is how little we know. Plan B may have to be concocted on the fly.”

Gabriel cleared his throat. “If they are using Elder God stuff, once we get a look at what they’ve got in there, I may be able to do something. Vestrel is familiar with the magic they used; she says a lot of it came from or through machines, which fits with the mechanical parts these people have. She can give directions…assuming whatever they’ve got in there is set up in a way she recognizes, of course.”

“How is Vestrel so familiar with this?” Teal asked, frowning.

“Valkyries are also daughters of Naiya,” Juniper said softly. “I’ve…looked into this. It seemed relevant, especially after how they terrorized Aspen. The Elder Gods banished them from reality, and Vidius saved them from being destroyed completely. That’s how he won Mother over to the Pantheon’s side. But yeah…Vestrel would have been around when the Elders were in power.”

“Now, that’s definitely something,” Toby said, turning his head again to look at Gabriel while he walked. “Not to put too much on her shoulders, Gabe, but does she know anything else about the Elder Gods’ magic that might help?”

Gabriel shook his head. “I asked. Without seeing what the Rust have in there, we can’t predict how much she’ll recognize. Anyway…most of them don’t think fondly of the Elders, as you can imagine. There was one valkyrie who remained interested in their stuff, and loved to study history and tell anybody who’d listen about it, but she was lost a long time ago.”

“Lost, how?” Juniper asked. “I thought I understood valkyries are basically untouchable in the chaos dimension.”

“I didn’t ask,” he said shortly. “Maybe drop it? Vestrel can hear us, June, and she’d have offered any information that would have been useful. If something happened to one of your sisters that could be described as ‘lost,’ you probably wouldn’t care to have it brought up, either.”

“Gabe,” Teal said quietly, “that is one of her sisters you’re talking about.”

His face immediately turned two shades darker. “Oh. Gods… Juniper, I’m sorry, I didn’t…”

The dryad shifted a little closer and reached out to take his hand, giving him a smile. “It’s okay, Gabe. Remember that time I broke your shoulder? I figure that buys you a whole bunch of thoughtless comments.”

“The way I heard it, thoughtless comments were what led to his shoulder being broken.”

“Shut up, Ariel!” Gabriel and Juniper exclaimed in unison.

“I keep forgetting about your invisible friends, Gabriel,” Teal added. “Can they maybe scout ahead, get a sense of what we’re walking into?”

“It’s actually just Vestrel here at the moment,” he said apologetically. “She’s the only one really assigned to accompany me; the others like to hang around because I’m interesting to them, but they have jobs, too. Right now, most of them are off dealing with something in Sifan.”

Toby came to a stop, turning to face him with a wary expression. “…do we need to know?”

Gabriel grimaced. “One of the orcish clans opened some kind of portal into Athan’Khar.”

“Ooh, ouch,” Juniper said, cringing.

“Yeah,” Gabriel nodded. “But apparently everything living in Athan’Khar is both technically undead and partially phased out of this dimension, so they are vulnerable to to valkyries. The girls are holding the line while the clan and a blue dragon seal that thing back up. They’re trying to get it done before the kitsune become involved. Kitsune, as you likely recall from Professor Ekoi, are only amused by their own jokes. Other people making a mess on their lawn…”

“Say no more,” Toby said, shaking his head and turning around again. “The valkyries are busy, got it. But as for Vestrel scouting ahead…?”

“She offered.” Gabriel wore a frown now. “Honestly…I asked her to hold back a bit. When we’re closer, she can keep an eye on our perimeter, but I’m wary of sending her alone into that. These guys probably are using Elder God stuff, which is also probably one of the very few things that could detect and even harm her.”

“Mm,” Teal said thoughtfully. “But if they did do something to Vestrel, wouldn’t that get Vidius involved? I mean, that’s one way to put a swift end to this.”

Now Gabriel stopped walking, rounding on her in shock. “Teal!”

She froze as well, suddenly looking stricken. “Oh. I didn’t mean… I mean, I was just…I didn’t…”

“Okay, whoah,” Toby said soothingly, coming back to them. “I’m sure Teal didn’t intend that the way it sounded. We all know very well she’s not at all heartless.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Gabriel said, giving Teal a smile. “The phrasing just, uh, took me by surprise.”

“Sorry,” Teal said, still cringing.

Fross chimed softly, fluttering over. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, Gabe, but intentionally or not, she had a point. Sending out scouts always involves a risk to them, but it’s important to do anyway. And if anything, Vestrel is less vulnerable than any other prospect, not to mention vastly stealthier.”

“Ah, yeah,” he said with a wince, looking up the road ahead, where the mountains rose up to blot out the night sky. “As for that…”

“While you kids were chattering about your feelings,” Ariel reported, “Vestrel delivered some succinct and insightful commentary about being lectured on how to do her job by twenty-year-olds, and departed to scout the Rust’s base.”

“Right,” Gabriel said irritably, grasping her hilt. “So, that’s that done, I guess. We may not want to be in a hurry, here. If we give her time to look around and come back, we’ll be better off.”

“Incoming,” Teal said, looking back down the road toward the city. Everyone turned to follow her gaze.

Brother Ermon did not seem out of breath, despite having run what must have been a long way. He slowed as he approached, coming to a stop just a few yards distant, and bowed, only a faint sheen of sweat on his forehead betraying his exertion.

“I’m glad I caught up with you,” the Huntsman said. “Tracking in the city is never easy, but the royal seneschal had a good idea which route you had taken.”

“Evening, Brother Ermon,” Toby said, nodding. “Has something happened?”

“I fear so,” Ermon said gravely. “I’ve come to join your hunt, if I am welcome.”

They exchanged a few glances.

“It isn’t that you’re not,” Teal said carefully, “but each of us are…well, extremely durable, in our own ways. We are walking into a confrontation with people whose power we don’t understand, and hoping we can end this with just words. But…”

“I imagine it was very difficult to persuade Princess Zaruda to remain in safety at the Rock,” Ermon replied, with a faint crinkling at his eyes hinting at a smile his beard otherwise hid.

“Gods, you have no idea,” Juniper muttered.

“And I imagine, further, that what persuaded her was the awareness of her duty, and importance to her people,” the Huntsman continued, his gaze growing serious again. “It is duty that brings me here. As Mr. Caine and Juniper told us, Brother Arlund followed the Rust cultist you met at the Omnist temple, seeking to find their base. As of my departure from the Rock less than an hour ago, he has not returned.”

Toby covered his mouth with a hand, eyes widening. “Oh, my… I didn’t even think. Ermon, I cannot apologize enough—”

“Please.” The Huntsman held up a hand. “Arlund is a brother Huntsman and as such I will act to aid him as best I possibly can, now that I see the need. That does not mean I’m unaware of his…personality. I hardly expect anyone else in this city to make such an effort.”

“I appreciate that, but it was still inexcusable,” Toby said, his expression truly haunted. “At the very least I should have remembered.”

“We both should have,” Juniper agreed. “I think we owe Arlund a big apology. And that’s after getting him out of there.”

Toby drew in a deep, calming breath. “Omnu send that we still have that option.”

“Let’s not jump to conclusions, though,” Gabriel warned. “He might not have come back because he’s still following that guy around who knows where. Or anything else.”

“The man just had his arm torn off,” Ermon said grimly. “A wounded animal returns to its den. Arlund may, indeed, still be studying the area rather than captured, but you are right, Mr. Arquin; it is best, at this stage, to assume nothing. I foresee your objections,” he added. “Yes, I understand the danger. These Rust neutralized a Legion, I have been briefed. Duty demands my presence. Death and suffering are facts of life, and are not to be feared. What a man should fear is that his pain or his death may be without purpose. The best way to ward off that fate is never to shrink from duty.”

“Well put,” Teal said. “If you’re sure, I don’t think we can turn afford to down an ally.”

“On the contrary. You do, of course, have the option of forbidding him to help,” Ariel pointed out, “especially as this effectively means you’re going to have to watch out for him in addition to dealing with the Rust.”

“Ariel,” Gabriel said with barely-restrained aggravation, “be silent. Huntsmen of Shaath are the most expert trackers and marksmen in the world, and you are not daft enough to fail to see the utility in his presence. Stop being an ass!”

“I see utility chiefly in magic, for the record, but if you say so.”

“You flatter me,” Ermon said, visibly amused. “If I may assist in scouting the enemy’s den before we approach, please put me to work.”

“Ah, well, actually,” Toby replied, “funny you mention scouting. We were only just—”

He broke off as Juniper abruptly spun to face the city, shifting her feet to a ready stance. She flexed her fingers, shifting her head to study the buildings behind them carefully.

“What is it?” Teal asked in alarm.

“It’s…nothing, I guess.” Slowly, the dryad straightened up, still wearing a puzzled frown. “I must have imagined…”

“June, I have never seen you go on point like that without a good reason,” Gabe said.

“Not to mention that you don’t have the imagination to concoct flights of fancy.”

“Ariel, I am going to throw you in the harbor!” he exclaimed.

“No, you aren’t. The dryad has very keen senses, and I stand by my previous observation. If she sensed something, she sensed something.”

“Instinct should not be allowed to make your decisions for you,” Ermon added, “but it should never be disregarded.”

Juniper shook her head, still peering at the city behind them. “It’s…there is nothing there, I’m certain of it now. I reached through the attunement as well, and…nothing. But for just a moment… I thought I smelled dryads.”

This time, the look which bounced between the rest of them was wary.

“All right,” Toby said at last. “I agree…that is probably not nothing. If there’s one thing I’d expect you to pick up on, June, it’s that. But if you can’t sense them clearly, it may not have been what it seemed.”

“Yeah, I can’t imagine there’s another dryad in Puna Dara,” Teal added. “They tend to make a stir. Which raises the tricky question of what would feel like one to a real dryad.”

“Vestrel?” Toby suggested.

Gabriel shook his head. “We know from long experience Juniper can’t perceive them directly, and the last time I saw a dryad who could see valkyries, they threw her into a panic. Okay, how about this. We’d best keep it in mind, but with nothing more to go on, I think we’d better get back to the mission at hand. When we come back, tomorrow we’ll get in touch with the local Thieves’ Guild, since Locke said they’re such rumor-mongers, and see if they’ve heard anything about a cannibal serial killer or something like that in Puna Dara. For now…”

“For now,” Juniper said slowly, with a grudging nod, “you’re right. Focus on the now. I think that’s a good plan, Gabe. C’mon, let’s get this done as quick as possible. I’ve got a feeling it’s not going to be an easy night.”

She finally turned her back on the city and started walking again, the others falling into step alongside. They had this last stretch of street to themselves; there were still structures lining it, but no one else was out at this hour, and only a few had lights in their windows. There were, this far out, no street lamps. Only the darkness of the trail up the mountain loomed ahead of them.


Milanda lay flat against the rooftop, counting breaths and staring up at the stars without seeing them. After waiting two full minutes, she very carefully wiggled forward to the edge of the roof, and craned her neck to peek over it sidelong, not sticking the top of her head up. Just the way Lord Vex had taught her, and despite the discomfort, she well understood the utility of the maneuver.

The students from Last Rock, now with that Huntsman in tow, were once again on the move. With her heightened senses, a gift of her elevation by the dryads, she could still make them out, but they had moved beyond the glow of the city, climbing the old trail that led up to the mines.

She rolled over and wriggled forward to watch them from a slightly more comfortable position. “Walker… I’ve never heard about Hands of the Emperor encountering dryads in the wild. They’re usually sent to deal with sensitive, mostly human threats, in settled territory. How probable is it that a dryad could sense me because of my…connection?”

“That’s impossible to say for sure, for the very reason you just stated,” Walker’s voice replied in her ear. “Your situation isn’t exactly that of the other Hands, either, and the only dryads you’ve met since the change were the ones who did it to you. I’ll ask the girls next chance I get, but I wouldn’t count on them being able to say.”

Milanda nodded, mostly to herself as Walker of course couldn’t see the gesture. “I wonder whether it might just be Juniper.”

There came a short silence before the reply. “According to the Empire’s notes, Juniper is the youngest dryad. She’s also the most acclimated to human society apart from Ash, who as you mentioned recently is actually associated with Imperial Intelligence. Also, during the periods when classes are out at ULR, she goes to study druidism with a tribe of wood elves. Based on that alone, I think it’s quite likely she can perceive things her sisters may not.”

“Lovely,” Milanda grumbled, finally rising to her knees. “As if following them around in the dark wasn’t going to be enough of a challenge…”

“Milanda, this is getting ridiculous. Those kids are here, you don’t really have any means of getting them un-involved. That Huntsmen, likewise. You have days at most before some of the Avenists the High Commander sent reach Puna Dara, and you know they’ll go to the Rock and link up with them as well. Eserites are already present, and likely the source of whatever lead the students are following. It is worse than nonsensical for you to be running around trying to do this yourself while so much talent is being moved into place. Even if you don’t accidentally get yourself killed by one of these should-be allies, you’re going to mess up their work just as they’re interfering with yours. The only people who profit from this standoffishness are the Rust.”

“And I know the Emperor’s political concerns don’t matter to you,” Milanda replied quietly, adding a soft grunt as she landed lightly in an alley, having dropped the three stories straight to the ground. “But they matter to me. It’s not that I don’t see the sense in what you say, and I’ll probably end up offering them my help. I’ll probably have to, just to keep from creating a worst-case scenario like you just described. But not until all other options are exhausted.” She slipped past the last of the buildings, a little bit distant from the road, and stopped to finish conversing; once she started actually tracking the students and their Huntsman friend through the dark, it would have to be in silence. “If nothing else, Blackbeard doesn’t want Imperial help, and as soon as he knows I’m Imperial help, he’ll forbid me to get involved. Anything I do after that point will have diplomatic repercussions.”

There was another silence, and Milanda had just taken a step into the darkness when Walker spoke again. “If I’m not mistaken, this Left Hand of the Emperor business hasn’t been announced. Right?”

“Right,” Milanda said slowly, frowning into the night. “The idea is not to stifle it, but to let rumors grow. Hands are already boogeymen to an extent; with something even more—”

“Yes, yes,” Walker interrupted impatiently. “And every previous Hand of the Emperor has been a man, correct? So why would you need to tell anybody who you are, or who you represent?”

“A mysterious woman in black with awesome physical prowess will arouse questions,” Milanda said thoughtfully. “Especially one who may or may not smell like dryads.”

“Sure, but where are they going to get answers? Come on, you are acting in the capacity of a spy here, Milanda. Why was announcing yourself ever part of your plans?”

“Huh,” she grunted. In hindsight, it did seem rather self-evident…

Walker’s tone took on a heavy hint of irritating smugness. “And to think, you complain about my speeches. How ever did you get along without me to point out obvious facts for you?”

“Well,” she drawled, “shortly before I met you, my most important consideration was how much Sharidan liked it when I used my—”

“All right, enough, stop!”

“You know, on his—”

“Please! I give already!”

Grinning, Milanda raised the mask dangling from her neck to cover the lower half of her face, adjusted her hood, and set out into the night.

 

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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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