Tag Archives: Captain Cross

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“And herrrrre we are, my little lollipops!” Rowe spun to face them and flared his wings dramatically, sketching a bow. “I present to you: the rear entrance of the Grim Visage!”

Tanenbaum and Reich inched warily toward him, craning their necks to peer around at the vista he indicated.

“All the way down there,” the priestess said resignedly.

“Well, you can’t deny it’s a hell of a view!” Rowe said merrily. His ebullient good cheer hadn’t diminished since they’d summoned him, which was beginning to make Tanenbaum nervous. Vanislaads were great ones for not letting on what they were really thinking, so odds were it was all an act, but still. A child of Vanislaas in this good a mood boded ill for…well, everyone.

The Visage itself was still shrouded in his Fog of War, obscuring a band of space around the great central structure which covered its entrances and windows. It was easy enough to tell where the back door had to be, though; of the network of narrow stone bridges and tiny islands which arched unsupported over the seemingly infinite drop below, only one led straight to the rear of the Visage itself.

“That’s gonna be a rough descent,” stated Cross, the House Dalkhaan guard captain accompanying them. Rowe made way for him as he came to the front of the group, kneeling to frown down at the path ahead. The incubus had led them through a series of tunnels and wall ledges to a vantage above the level of the Visage, which afforded them a very convenient—and terrifying—view. “Rough approach, rather. Lot of exposed space to travel, zero cover, awfully easy to fall off… No way in hell I’d try to lead men in an attack on that if the people inside weren’t behind that…cloud thing.” He glanced up at Tanenbaum. “You doing okay with that? Is it gonna hold up?”

“That’s not hard,” the warlock replied, “don’t worry. Infernal spells don’t run out of power the way arcane ones do, so long as the caster can concentrate. This one I only need to touch up every few minutes, not channel it constantly, which is optimally efficient. It will hold until I’m shot, or fall asleep, or something along those lines.”

“This grows more cheerful by the moment,” Reich muttered, glancing back at the troops. Immediately, she did a double-take. “Hey! Where are all the men?”

Tanenbaum and Rowe turned to follow her stare, finding most of their contingent of guards absent. Only three remained, hanging back by the entrance where the tunnel through which they’d come opened out onto this ledge.

“Sent ’em back,” Captain Cross replied, not looking up from his grim survey of the scene below. “They’re ordered to return to the main bridge and hold that position in case the students try to sortie.”

“Do you honestly expect that crew, unsupervised, to hold up against an attack?” Reich demanded scathingly.

“No,” Cross said, his tone even, “I expect them to immediately desert and fuck off back up the stairs, those that don’t manage to fall in the chasm. I’ll deal with any survivors later, assuming I’m one too. The issue is the mission. We’re to try to apprehend rebellious college students, on narrow bridges over a drop straight to Hell—this would be a nightmare even if half those students weren’t magic and the other half nobles. Those galoots were nothing but a hindrance. Let’s face it, at the first sign of trouble, one would panic and start shooting, and then the rest would join in, and it’d be an absolute disaster. Best we could hope for at that point is to be among the dead and not have to face the aftermath.” He finally raised his eyes from studying the path to glance back at the three remaining troopers. “These I trust to follow orders and keep their heads.”

Tanenbaum, Reich, and Rowe all stared at the soldiers, who stood just barely out of earshot of their low conversation, murmuring among themselves. Well, two of them were, the pair of gray-haired men who were clearly older than Cross—who himself was obviously past the customary age of retirement. The third and tallest was at least of fighting age, but not in fighting shape. Though big, his head was noticeably too small for his body, with tiny, close-set eyes and a jaw which hung perpetually open. At the moment, he was staring into space and picking his nose.

“These,” Tanenbaum said flatly. “These are the cream of the crop.”

Rowe cackled and slapped him on the back. “Well, it’s like they say! You go to war with the army you’ve got, not the army you want.”

“Of that crop? Yes.” Cross turned back to the view, ignoring the incubus. “Steiner and Jafar may be long in the tooth, but they’re soldiers—I mean actual soldiers, who’ve served the Duchess as long as I have. Back in our day, there was actual training, and the House guard didn’t take just anybody. And Big Jim is… Well, he’s exactly what he looks like, but he’s good at following orders, and nothing makes him panic. Big, strong, and calm is what’s best for this mission, mark my words.”

“Consider them marked,” Reich said with a sigh. “Well, since we’re here, does anybody have any ideas how we are actually going to apprehend these students? There are over sixty of them. Even if they choose to come along quietly, and they won’t, it’s a logistical nightmare. And disregarding the material threat the students represent, those professors are among the most dangerous people in the Empire.”

“Ezzaniel won’t be terribly dangerous unless he gets close,” Tanenbaum murmured, rubbing his bearded chin with a thumb. “Yornhaldt and Harklund are highly skilled casters, the most immediate threat. Plus Rafe and Morvana. Never underestimate a versatile alchemist. I fear you are correct, Ms. Reich. I had hoped our…patron would have rejoined us by now. He’s the only one who has any idea what the plan is, here.”

“I wonder,” she said quietly, “if that’s not giving him rather too much credit. Has it occurred to you, gentlemen, that since we’ve been brought here with specific forces in a specific situation which can’t really do anything except deploy offensive power against these civilians… Perhaps that is precisely what he intends?”

“Hn,” Cross grunted. “You reckon so? Commit high treason or open fire on a bunch of kids. That’s a thinker. Can’t say I envy you two. Me, I’m old, I know I’ve served well, an’ I’d just as soon not linger to see House Dalkhaan wither away like I know it’s going to. If it comes time for an unwise act of conscience, I’d rather be able to give a good account for myself to Vidius than even my Emperor. For a couple of young career—hey!” He had turned his head again to look at them, but now straightened up, raising his staff, and stared around the ledge. “Where the hell is that demon?”

Reich whirled, glancing about rapidly, and then whispered something very unladylike. The three soldiers were still lounging in the tunnel a few yards away, but there was no sign of Rowe anywhere.

“Oh, he’s quite gone,” Tanenbaum said fatalistically. “The summonstone bound him to lead us to the back entrance of the Grim Visage. That done, he had no bindings and is a free incubus.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be a warlock?” Reich exclaimed. “Couldn’t you have done anything?”

“Yes, in fact.” He raised an eyebrow at her. “I could monitor his infernal presence while it was within range of my own aura, which I did, all the way up the tunnel after he decided to slither off. By this point he’s out of range, and I deemed it best to let him go. Captain Cross has the right of it.” He nodded to the captain. “At this point, it’s a question of who we do and do not want involved in this unfolding debacle, and an incubus is in the second category. Holding one of those creatures against their will is, itself, a fiendishly challenging prospect, and not a task I wish to undertake whilst trying to untangle the knot before us. He was bound to either try to escape or attack us, and since he chose the first option, I say let him go. Hopefully he will choose to make himself Tellwyrn’s problem and not ours.”

“Hopefully!” Reich covered her face in her hands. “We’re going to die down here, aren’t we?”

“I flatly refuse to do so,” Tanenbaum said firmly. “As to what we are going to do… Of that, I am less certain. But I don’t think the Hand is coming back any time soon, and the University people will already be probing at the Fog, assuming he was correct and they plan to escape through the rear. Whatever we’re going to do, we need to figure it out and be about it. Immediately.”


“What is it?” she demanded as he suddenly banked left, veering to the west. At that altitude and speed the wind was enough to silence any voice, but of course they both had acute senses further augmented by arcane means; she didn’t need to raise her tone. “Do you see the zeppelin?”

“I see a zeppelin,” Zanzayed replied. His voice, high-pitched for the draconic depth and power it held in this form, required little help from her magic to be audible even with the air streaming past. “It’s the first we’ve encountered since we passed Madouris, so I dearly hope this is our quarry.” The dragon twisted his head up to grin at her sidelong. “Not that I don’t enjoy palling around with you like the old days, Arachne, but after a few millennia of practice sailing over the countryside loses much of its romance.”

“We never palled around,” she snapped, lifting a hand to hold her spectacles by their frame. “You annoyed me and I kicked your ass, repeatedly, with minor variations. Lower your head so I can see, you clod.”

He barked a noise which she had long since learned to recognize as a chuckle, though it tended to make other mortals faint—which was most of the reason he ever did it in mixed company.

It had taken years of practice and fiddling around to discover the spectacles’ various properties, and she still couldn’t be sure she had them all down, but the binocular effect had been one of the first powers she had unlocked. It was particularly potent for her as these had been designed with human vision in mind; at their fullest magnification she could see the rings of Carrie when it was at the right place in the sky. The glasses’ magic interfaced neatly with the consciousness of the wearer, fortunately, enabling her to zoom in on a moving target even while riding another.

The zeppelin ahead flew the Imperial flag, a silver gryphon on a black field. It was running no signal flags, however. The thrusters were going at full speed—all the thrusters, both the elemental wind tunnels and mechanical propellers. That was significant; no zeppelin pilot would burn through power crystals like that except in an emergency, and right now most of the fleet was doing exactly that over on the west coast to ferry typhoon relief. The only important things happening around the inner frontier, so far as she knew, were at her University. On its current heading the airship wasn’t heading for Last Rock, at least not directly. The course was right, though, if the pilot aimed to swing wide to the west and avoid Calderaas on the way to the Golden Sea.

“Well?” Zanzayed asked impatiently. “You’d best be very sure that’s the right ship, Arachne. This is dicey enough business as it is, even with Vex’s go-ahead; there’ll be no end of hell to pay if I’m involved in attacking a Tiraan aircraft on legitimate Imperial business.”

“Why, Zanza, you are getting downright cautious in your old age.”

“You would be too if you were sharing a manor house with Puff. He can lecture for days on end! That is not an exaggeration.”

“I know, I tried to steal a sword from him, once. Hush a moment, let me scry.”

Thorough scrying required specialized equipment, of the sort that couldn’t feasibly be set up on a dragon’s back in flight. What she could manage with her own skills and her spectacles would be cursory at best, but not for nothing was she Arachne Tellwyrn.

“It’s them,” she said two minutes later, a smile of predatory satisfaction creeping across her face.

“You’re sure?” Zanzayed lifted his head again to give her a sidelong look, once more ruining her line of sight. “What method did you use?”

“Simple: remote viewing and lip-reading. Not hard at all at this range.”

He had started to lower his head again, but now jerked it back up to twist around fully and stare at her—incidentally causing him to begin drifting off-course to the north. “You can read lips?”

“Zanzayed, I am three thousand years old. I can read lips, speak five dead languages, juggle, raise prize-winning pumpkins, weave a tapestry, and my mint chocolate souffle has been known to induce spontaneous orgasms. You pick things up left and right, just by living! That is, unless you devotedly do nothing with your life but chase skirts and devour hors d’oeurve.”

“Mint chocolate souffle, eh? Now that’s a combination—”

“Watch where you’re flying!”

The airship was now close enough to be visible to the naked eye—hers and Zanzayed’s, anyway, not a human’s. They were not within range to be spotted unless the occupants happened to have a spyglass trained on their six o’clock. Not impossible, considering they were fleeing the Imperial capital in a stolen military vessel.

Zanzayed lowered his head and straightened out his course, then began pumping his wings. He smoothly increased in both speed and altitude, gaining on the zeppelin and rising quickly above its crew’s field of view. Some models had observations posts on top, but this was an older troop transport, and would be blind to anything approaching from above its gas envelope.

Below them, knobby hills interspersed with patchy forests and flattish stretches marked the no-man’s land where the mountains of Viridill, rolling hills of Calderaas, woodlands of the Green Belt and prairies around the Great Plains melted into each other. It wasn’t good farmland and had been largely ignored except by shepherds, even the elves retreating south over the last millennium as humanity carved roads and then Rail lines through this territory. This, actually, was the perfect place to intercept their target. It could have been problematic, bringing it down over inhabited country.

“What’s the plan, then?” the dragon boomed, leveling off a good fifty yards above the ship and continuing to close in. “Remember, I’m just the transportation, here. Rebels or no, a representative of the Conclave can’t be torching Imperial interests.”

“I have it well in hand, thank you. Bring me right above the airship.”

“What does it look like I’m doing?” He gave her another amused look with one sapphire eye. “Say, the frames of those things are mostly wood, right? Have to be, metal is way too heavy. I wonder if you could polymorph the whole shebang, like you did to that ship in the Isles that one time? That was empty; I’ve always wondered what would happen if you ‘morphed something with a bunch of people inside.”

“That was a high elven caravel, numbskull; you know those things are functionally living beings. Just because it’s mostly organic doesn’t mean you can polymorph it. You just concentrate on flying and let me do the tricky part. I need to dispatch these interlopers and get back to my campus, not indulge your horsing around!”

He snorted a laugh, producing an actual puff of fire and smoke which quickly dissipated in the wind. They were right above the zeppelin by that point, and actually beginning to overtake it as Zanzayed did not lessen his speed. “I remember when you used to be fun, Arachne.”

“I was amnesiac that day,” she said, and hurled herself off his back.

Tellwyrn neatly straightened herself out, tucking her arms against her sides and shooting right at the zeppelin head-first. After a life as long and full of adventure as hers, one tended to pick up the knack of plummeting from the sky, what with one thing and another. Elven agility helped, but elven weight did not; the wind buffeted her about like a kite. This was just one of the reasons she heavily preferred trousers to skirts.

Still, she had judged her jump to perfection, requiring only minimal course adjustments, and none needing magic. The zeppelin’s huge silvery bulk grew as she shot straight down toward its starboard edge, about a quarter of its length back from the nose.

She spun herself around to fall feet-first and yanked one of her gold-hilted sabers out of the pocket dimension in which she kept it, swiftly reversing her grip and then raising it overhead in both hands.

The blade pierced the fortified silk with satisfying ease. Tellwyrn’s momentum carried her down and dragged the sword through the outer envelope, leaving a long tear in her wake. She applied an efficient little charm to keep it in her grip (and keep it from yanking her arms off) when it snagged as it struck one of the long inner balloons of gas.

That slowed her rapidly, though; even her downward velocity wasn’t enough keep her going, given her meager weight. The last thing she needed was to end up pinned to the side of this thing while it spewed gas and gradually drifted lower. Not with Zanzayed there, he’d never let her live it down. Tellwyrn lowered one hand from the sword to gesticulate downward, applying an invisible tether to the world itself to tug her toward the ground. She released it almost immediately, the boost of speed having done its work.

A bit too well; she had to privately admit to misjudging that spell by a hair. Well, it wasn’t as if she executed this maneuver often. If there ever came a second try, she’d undoubtedly nail it perfectly. But at the moment, the pull wrenched her harder than she’d meant, and she lost her grip on the sword and went tumbling away from the side of the zeppelin.

It was enough, though. The tear was made, and it didn’t have to be a large one.

Tellwyrn went tumbling through space, allowing herself to be spun by momentum and the wind, gathering magic in her fist to execute a compound spell: a simple fireball enhanced with a few augmentations to make it fly straight and true for a much longer distance than they normally did.

She was already well below the level of the zeppelin when she had it ready and her spin brought her around to face upward and at it. Tellwyrn extended a finger in a contemptuous gesture, and fired the prepared streak of flame unerringly into the rent she’d just gouged.

In the next second her tumble had shifted it out of her field of view again, but she could hear the flames catch. And by that point she had more pressing concerns.

Tellwyrn straightened out her fall, spreading her arms and legs to level herself out, facing the onrushing earth. Of course, Zanzayed could easily swoop in and catch her, but she knew him too well to expect that. He’d be far too amused watching her extricate herself from this situation.

A straightforward featherweight spell wouldn’t do any good, given the momentum she’d built up. Instead, she formed an arcane shield around herself, then layered additional spells onto the blue sphere. Lines formed across its surface, and then the spaces between them flattened out, leaving her encased in a faceted shape with numerous hexagonal faces. She poured energy into them, and the facets began blazing to life, directing pure kinetic force.

This was tricky; she’d just made this up on the fly—literally. Well, she had at least half a minute to practice.

Tellwyrn got the hang of it quite quickly, beaming force from multiple facets in a balanced pattern to first stabilize and control her descent, and then project more powerful beams straight downward against her velocity. It was just like walking a tightrope, really, a trivial feat for any elf. In fact, it was her own main column of energy that posed the real challenge, not the actual fall; balancing atop a pillar of force while gradually lessening it as she descended was an order of magnitude more complex than balancing atop a lamp post blindfolded, drunk, and with a monkey scampering around her shoulders.

Now, that had been a hell of a solstice party.

By the time she came within five yards of the ground she was drifting practically like a leaf, and had diminished the main thrust surface down to nothing, only exerting force through the facets keeping her bubble upright. This really was a horribly inefficient spell; rarely had she bled off so much raw power so quickly. It sure was fun, though.

Finally, she dropped the bubble entirely and fell the rest of the way.

Going down at an angle, she hit the ground in a slide, rolled to her feet, and began casually brushing mud off her clothes.

Behind her, the zeppelin, now entirely consumed with by flame, crashed to the earth. Lucky the whole area was visibly soggy from recent rain; that thing was still likely to cause a few fires.

Oh, well.

Zanzayed came down almost on top of her, at which she didn’t bat an eye. As expected, he transformed at the last possible moment and applied a much simpler levitation spell than she had used, floating the rest of the way down in a dramatic pose that emphasized the fluttering of his preposterously ornate robes.

The dragon opened his mouth to speak, but Tellwyrn forestalled him with an upraised hand. Then she stepped to the side, and held out her arm.

Her sword shot out of the sky like a missile, its handle slapping neatly into her palm. She had, obviously, applied a charm to prevent the pulverizing damage that should have caused, but it still hit with enough momentum to spin her completely around. She pivoted neatly on the ball of her foot, twirling the saber and then sheathing it in its extradimensional scabbard.

“I knew the dwarf who first designed those things, you know,” she stated primly. “We were drinking buddies. Once the early ones went into production, I told them to fill the damn things with helium. But nooo, nobody listens to the millennia-old archmage. Helium is expensive. Helium requires arduous mining, or complex transmutation, but you can park a college student on a riverbank with an alchemy set and have ’em distill hydrogen right out of the water for pennies an hour. And look what happens! I’ll bet even this doesn’t convince them to start using the non-flammable gas.”

“No bet,” he said dryly. “And speaking of unnecessary volatility, just off the top of my blue head I can think of eight simple spells you could have cast to obliterate that thing without so much as standing up. Do you just make a point of plunging to your doom every so often because it amuses you to watch doom panic when it sees you coming?”

“I remember when you used to be fun, Zanza,” she said, grinning.

“No, you don’t,” he retorted petulantly. “Well, that’s that taken care of, anyway. Why do our dates always end with something on fire?”

“I guess we’re not too old to go dancing after all,” Tellwyrn replied. “Thanks for the lift, Zanza. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a bit more treason to commit today.”

“Nothing in moderation with you, as always.”

She smirked, winked, and vanished, the tiny pop of displacement fully drowned out by the ongoing destruction of the zeppelin nearby.

Zanzayed shook his head and turned to study the inferno, and the rapidly-disintegrating structure of the airship within it. Then he snorted loudly and shook his head.

“Well! At least the day wasn’t wasted. Now I can properly rub Razzavinax’s nose in it. The temerity, calling my marshmallow conjuration charm indulgent and pointless. Once again, Zanzayed laughs last!”

 

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“Down!”

The captain seized Tanenbaum from behind and yanked him backwards, ruining his concentration. Consequently, he didn’t get a good look at the object which impacted the bridge in front of him, but had the man not flung them both flat to the floor, the burst of force which erupted from it might well have hurled him off the edge.

Ears ringing, Tanenbam scrambled backward, bringing up one hand and casting by reflex. The first shadowbolt splashed harmlessly against the great overhanging nose of the Grim Visage, but the next he had the presence of mind to aim straight at one of the eye-windows.

The wrong one, unfortunately. It was the other eye which sparked a second later, and in the next moment a wall of sparkling blue light appeared across the bridge in front of them. He frowned; surely Yornhaldt knew better than to try to hold a shield like that against a warlock.

Then it started moving along the bridge toward them, and he understood. The shield sparkled violently along its base, where moving contact with the stone was constantly eroding its integrity. It would last seconds at best under that abuse, but it wouldn’t take any longer than that to sweep them all off into space. The Hand had done his vanishing trick at the first attack, but to judge by the very unprofessional screaming behind him, the soldiers had come to the same conclusions he had. Their captain was shouting orders, trying to goad them back into shape, but Tanenbaum gave that no thought.

Hoisting himself upright, he held his ground, reaching out with his mind and seizing the magic. It resisted—or rather, its caster did. Alaric Yornhaldt was no pushover. The Circles were as they were, however, and while Tanenbaum could not fully appropriate a spell with such a skilled wizard actively maintaining it, harnessing and burning off its power to fuel an infernal working was well within the scope of his skill

The moving shield buckled and disintegrated from one side even as it came on. The thing tingled unpleasantly as its dissolving edge passed over Tanenbaum, and its last vestiges actually made it far enough to shove a few of the retreating troopers behind him, to judge by the cursing, but within moments it had fully bled away.

He didn’t wait to channel more power into it, unleashing the spell the moment its arcane parent collapsed. A cloud of darkness coalesced out of the air right in front of the Visage, a discoloration in reality which the brain tried to process as a mist or fog at first glance; it took closer concentration to discern that there was no physical obstruction of the light, but an altering of the way the mind perceived that stretch of space.

The next spell that came through was a simple arcane bolt, and it flew wide of them, smashing a crater in the cavern wall far above and to their right. That would be no more than a test shot; Yornhaldt would definitely recognize what he was looking at.

Another object came arcing out of the first window. No, actually, a whole cluster of them, glittering in the Crawl’s reddish light as they came. Rafe had quickly adjusted, then, flinging indiscriminate handfuls of potion vials now rather than trying to aim through the fog. Three of them struck the bridge and shattered, while the rest tumbled off into the distance below.

Tanenbaum didn’t know what was in the greenish mist that puffed out, and didn’t want to learn, especially when it began drifting singlemindedly in his direction. He had to hold his focus on the small dimensional rift he wrenched open in midair off to the side of the bridge; even more than most infernal gateways, that one would lead to disaster if left unattended. There was no atmosphere in the place to which it led, and a wind kicked up as the local air began pouring through the gap. He held it just until the mist was sucked inside, then slammed the portal shut. Only then, finally, did he retreat.

The rest had withdrawn all the way to the entrance, huddling at the base of the stairs. The Hand and the troop’s captain stood, watching with narrowed eyes, while the remainder of the soldiers unabashedly hid behind them. Omnu’s breath, at least one of them was crying. Tanenbaum was no military man, but this had to be the sorriest lot of so-called soldiers in the Empire. It did not speak well of their chances here that this was what their benefactor had to work with.

Didn’t really reflect well on him, either, for that matter.

“Thank you,” he said fervently to the captain, who nodded back.

“Well done,” the Hand stated in his clipped tone. “What is that distortion you created?”

Lightning bolts began erupting from both eyes, all flying wild. There was another series of shouts and the soldiers began trying to retreat up the stairs, ignoring their commander’s imprecations.

They all froze, however, when the Hand turned to look at them.

“The Fog of War,” Tanenbaum explained. “All but impossible to dispel, though it will fade naturally, and quite quickly. No one can aim true through it, and it blocks scrying. I can—”

“Good. Extend it fully around the central structure. How long can you maintain it?”

“Ah…well, indefinitely, in theory, as long as I am able to concentrate. I will have to renew it every few minutes, and the bigger the area, the—”

“Do so. In between reinforcing the fog, I want you to summon demons and whatever else you have onto the bridge; make sure the front of that structure is under constant assault.”

An errant staff shot impacted the edge of the opening right beside them, spraying them with tiny chips. Their armed escort retreated with yet another chorus of screams, and Tanenbaum reflexively covered his face with his arms. The Hand didn’t so much as twitch an eye.

“Ironic,” he grunted. “Those three nincompoops are a bigger threat, now, than the wizard or the alchemist. That cloud can’t make their aim any worse. Captain, get these weaklings into order immediately. As soon as our target’s view is fully obscured, we will be navigating around the edge of the cavern to the rear entrance.”

Tanenbaum, as directed, was already focusing on expanding the Fog, but he risked a glance at the man commanding them. “Was this…planned?”

“Surely you didn’t really think I expected you to bring down the sanctuary effect.” Disdain weighed down his tone. “Maybe with a team of spellcasters and a week to work. No, our time is limited and as long as they are in sanctuary, all they have to do is sit there. Our task was to make them believe it would not protect the students. That done, the professors will go on the offensive to keep us pinned here while they begin evacuating through the rear.”

“I see,” Tanenbaum said, eyes forward. “Sir, with all due respect, I might be more helpful if you would explain up front what you plan to—”

“Do not press me, Mr. Tanenbaum. You know what you need to, when it is necessary for you to learn. That is all.”

“Yes, sir.”

Applying the Fog of War around the other side of the great central structure was a mental effort, anyway, so there was no point in keeping his eyes fixed on it. As such, he turned warily along with the Hand and their escort as the sound of running feet came down the stairwell toward them.

Lorelin Reich stumbled the last few steps, badly out of breath and leaning against the wall; she tried to skid too quickly to a stop upon drawing close enough to become aware of the lightning bolts flashing around the cavern in front of them, and might have fallen the rest of the way down had the captain not grabbed her.

“Why, Reich, do I suspect you are not bringing me good news?” the Hand snarled, cutting off her thanks.

She swallowed heavily and pressed a hand to her chest, speaking around gasps for air. “Sir…the targets woke up…on their own. Opened the chapel, took out my escort… I barely got away.”

“How?” he snarled.

Reich shook her head, swallowing again. “Don’t know. They had a young hellhound… Knew what was happening on campus. I suspect Elilial intervened, but can’t prove—”

“Did anyone else appear on the campus?”

“Not that I saw,” she said, beginning to get her gasping under control. “No sign of Tellwyrn or any movement from the town. Sir, the students headed for the uppermost level, where Tellwyrn’s office is. I suspect—”

“I see I must do everything myself,” the Hand sneered. “Tanenbaum, you have your orders. I have to go deal with this; get these men around behind the Visage and intercept the students as they retreat.”

“Sir, I don’t know the layout of the Crawl. Nobody but University students has been down here in fifty years!”

“Fortunately for us all, I have made preparations for the more obvious ways this mission can go wrong, including this one. You will know what to do with this.” He didn’t appear to reach into a pocket, but the hand he held out to Tanenbaum now held a small, reddish crystal wrapped in brass wire, with a rune-etched strip of parchment trailing from its end. “Use it as soon as you are ready to move, and waste no time.”

“I…yes, sir,” he said uncertainly. “With all respect, though, things like this are more trouble than…”

Tanenbaum lifted his eyes from the crystal to find the Hand gone. On the stairs, the captain had bullied his men into a semblance of order. Reich was pressed against the wall, as far from errant staffshots as she could reasonably get. And, he noted, did not seem even slightly winded now that their leader was not there.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea to pull his strings like that?” he demanded.

“I don’t appreciate the insinuation, Mr. Tanenbaum,” she said archly. “What, exactly, is that thing?”

“Well.” He closed his fingers around it. “Let me put it this way. If you’d been thinking he couldn’t possibly make this situation any more chaotic, you are about to be disappointed.”


Principia let the crane lift her to within a few feet of the access ladder and hopped nimbly the rest of the way, grasping the bottom rung, swinging herself up and scampering squirrel-like to the catwalk. The little Caretaker golem chimed companionably at her as it trundled past on some errand; she gave the thing a pat on the head and strode off along the walkway toward the central branch that led to the administrative platform.

Even before drawing close, she could hear the shift in mood; this group bantered as badly as any group of adventurers she’d run with in the old days, the Imperial spook notwithstanding, but now they’d fallen almost silent. Stepping into the enclosed complex, she could see dour expressions. Thoughtful, rather than shocked or sad, but still…

“All right, what happened?” she demanded.

“Hey, Locke,” Gabriel said, turning to give her a fleeting smile. “We’re almost done. Actually we are done; the Avatar’s just finishing up some kind of internal task which I’m sure I wouldn’t understand even if he explained it.”

“Uh huh,” she said, absently squeezing water from the hem of her shirt. “And you lot have gone all gloomy because…?”

“Not gloomy,” Toby said. “It’s… We’ll explain later, it’s not urgent. We just learned of…well, like I said, later. Are you okay?”

“Me?” She waved a hand. “Fine, fine, just wet. But for the record, next time someone else who can squeeze into tight spaces, hold their breath underwater for several minutes and knows the basics of Infinite Order gadgets can do the really fun swimmy-squeezy-button-pushey job.”

“Damn.” Gabriel raised an eyebrow. “I guess we’ll have to start soliciting resumes.”

“The hardware bypasses are stable and configured correctly,” the Avatar reported. He seemed to have shut down most of his projections, and was speaking to them from a single image displayed in the largest screen present. “Excellent work, all. Gateway technology disconnected. The external trascension blocker disrupting my immaterial circuits is now offline—thank you kindly, Lieutenant Locke. Process rerouting complete. This should be it; I am placing firewalls around the intrusive systems. Please stand by.”

“And, uh,” Juniper said nervously, “just to reiterate, the worst-case scenario isn’t collapsing the whole place, right?”

“That was the purpose of your and Fross’s work, Juniper, which you performed correctly. I anticipate no such problems but given the condition of this facility I would not make such an attempt without failsafes.”

He stopped suddenly, and his projected image closed its eyes, and actually heaved a sigh. This thing had much more organic mannerisms than the AI she had met before.

“Firewalls in place. Re-routing fully functional. It is a jury-rigged system, and will not hold indefinitely, but everything is functioning. Thank the maker, I can think clearly again.” The Avatar opened his eyes and smiled broadly. “And more immediately, thank you. All of you. Thanks to your help, the Caretaker and I will be able to perform more detailed repairs in the days to come. I anticipate it should not take more than a month, conservatively, to restore Fabrication Plant One to optimal condition. I am immensely grateful for your intercession.”

“A month!” Fross chimed excitedly, zipping back and forth above their heads. “Wow! That’ll be really impressive work—this place is a wreck. No offense.”

“None taken, I assure you. It is a fair assessment.”

“Right, great, you’re welcome and congratulations,” Ruda said, tipping her hat. “Now, I think we had an agreement?”

“Quite right,” the Avatar said more briskly, his image nodding in her direction. “While we have been working, I have perused the records of the nanite swarm released on the surface. Whoever did this seems to have had some appreciation for the potential danger they represented, as they were programmed with some critical impediments. The size of the swarm was carefully constrained, and has been at maximum for several months. With nearly half its number removed from the city above and maintaining the disabling effect upon the sapients it infected, the swarm’s current controllers have had very few resources upon which to draw, relatively speaking. Their construction in the nearby tunnels has been nearly halted for that reason. It appears they diverted most of the swarm’s capability in recent weeks to constructing weapons.”

“Weapons?” Toby exclaimed in alarm. “The kind the Elder— The Infinite Order used?”

“It is not as bad as it could be. Another of the constraints placed upon the nanites prevented them from constructing anything too deadly, but it seems the Rust have stumbled upon one of the Order’s favorite non-lethal crowd-control devices. They are equipped with sonic blasters.”

“And… Those do exactly what they sound like, I suppose?” Milady said. “Pun not intended.”

“Yes,” the Avatar replied seriously. “They use sound waves to induce pain, disorientation, and nausea in victims. Such equipment was issued to the Order’s mortal personnel to neutralize organized resistance among their slave populations. These weapons are not lethal, but will fully incapacitate an average human. Their effects are more pronounced upon those with extremely sensitive hearing,” he added, shifting to look directly at Principia.

“Shit,” she whispered. “Nandi…”

“In gratitude for your assistance,” the Avatar continued, “I have had my few operational fabricators working on something for you to counter this. Ah, here we are.”

As he spoke, the Caretaker came zipping back up the catwalk toward them, weaving slightly in excitement. In two of its metal claws was clutched a small black box. Ruda grabbed this unceremoniously as soon as the little golem came close enough, and flipped up its lid.

Toby was nearest, and craned his neck to see what was inside. “Oh. Earplugs? Well…that makes sense.”

“They are a little more advanced than that,” the Avatar explained. “Each person need insert only one; they will counter any and all destructive frequencies of sound when used. These devices will naturally lose effectiveness over time, so I suggest you try to resolve your business quickly.”

“Right, got it,” Ruda said, snapping the lid shut. “Thanks for the gift, and the advice. And now, shutting off the nanites…?”

“Be advised that the Rust’s machinery and physical augmentation is designed to be somewhat self-reliant,” he cautioned. “In the absence of the nanite swarm their enhancements cannot maintain themselves and will gradually cease to function, but it will be days at least before this effect becomes noticeable, and much longer before it becomes significant. The artificial limbs should operate for months or years before breaking down fully.”

“Then time is clearly a factor,” Ruda said with clear impatience. “So would you please shut them the fuck down, already?!”

“Quite so.” The Avatar’s projection had schooled his features to careful neutrality, and now folded his hands in front of himself. “Security protocols being what they are, the unleashing of a nanite swarm is a crisis of the highest priority, superceding even the dire condition of this facility itself. As such, my first act upon having been reset, even prior to addressing you, was to send the self-destruct signal. The soldiers incapacitated will already be well on the way to recovery, and the Rust have no more means of maintaining their equipment or producing more. The nanties are permanently removed from the world.”

A pause fell, in which they all stared at him, several with mouths slightly open.

“You,” Ruda began in an incredulous whisper. “You son of a BITCH!”

Ending on a roar, she whipped her rapier from its sheath and took a step toward the central cluster of machinery.

“Whoah!” Principia shouted, grabbing her arm while Toby just as quickly seized the other one. “Kid, do not stick a shaft of metal into electrical equipment, no matter how much it deserves it!”

“I understand your displeasure,” the Avatar said gravely.

“Oh, do you,” Gabriel snapped. “Hey, guys, it’s all okay. He understands!”

“Let him explain,” Juniper interjected. “Come on, that much is fair.”

“I apologize for deceiving you,” said the Avatar. He was calm and almost aloof, now, seeming more in possession of himself without the intrusion of the gateway’s data on his system. “Your resentment is entirely reasonable. I greatly appreciate the assistance you have rendered. All I ask is that you consider my perspective. The last visitors to this facility stole technology and unleashed a nanite swarm; the last visitors before that had grievously sabotaged my very being in order to make this subsequent abuse possible. I urgently required sapient assistance, and the available data strongly discouraged extending trust to intruders of unknown origin and intent. I believe you have proved yourselves now, but at the time…”

“Fuck it, we don’t have time for this,” Ruda snarled, pointing the rapier at his image. She had, at least, ceased struggling against Toby and Principia. “I have to go finish saving my city. But now that I know you’re down here, sparky, you had better believe we are gonna talk about this in the near future!”

“I beg your pardon,” the Avatar replied, sounding genuinely apologetic, “but no, we will not. As soon as you are safely away from the facility, I will seal the entrance and destroy the access tunnel. As a result of these events, protocols give me cause to institute a permanent lockdown, of a priority neither surviving member of the Infinite Order can supercede. You are the last sapients who will visit this facility.”

“But…but why?” Fross sounded positively crushed. “All the knowledge here!”

“For precisely that reason,” the Avatar said solemnly. “I am considering more than just the recent abuses my facility and I have suffered. The Infinite Order themselves came to this world to pursue science and what they felt was the highest application of technology, toward fulfilling the ultimate purpose of sapient life and the universe itself. Instead, they almost immediately fell to abusing the tremendous power they gave themselves in the process. And even prior to that, the human race devastated the world upon which it was born—not through malice, but simple carelessness. Through the irresponsible use of technology, pursuing short-term desires at the expense of all rational planning. That is the critical weakness of organically evolved sapients: they are driven by desires which serve their survival as primitive animals, but once they elevate themselves to greater capability, those same drives push them to self-destruction.

“My creator left me with a final instruction before he chose oblivion over further corruption: to be of service to humanity. It is my conclusion that humanity’s descendants cannot be trusted with its technology, any more than their ancestors could. When given access to it, they have immediately set to making weapons and attacking one another in pursuit of political ambitions. I judge that the best service I can provide the sapients of this world is to remove their access to a source of knowledge which they will only use to hurt themselves.”

“Don’t do this,” Milady said quietly. “There’s more to us than that. The Infinite Order failed in many ways, and modern people do to, but you can’t mistake the failure for the totality!”

“All systems are corrupt,” Principia added. “That doesn’t mean you give up on the systems. It doesn’t mean you give up at all. Acknowledging fault is the first step, not the last.”

“It has been eight thousand years, and your advancement until quite recently has been minimal. In half that time, your ancestors progressed from bronze tools to nearly rendering their world uninhabitable. Conditions on this world seem to promote a kind of stasis, and that is clearly for the better. If you are to progress to the point of self-destruction again, I refuse to be the cause.” The projection shook his head. “The teleport array is fully functioning; I will provide you with rapid transit back to your city, so that you may finish your business as efficiently as possible. It is the least I can do, in gratitude for your help.”

“You can’t seriously think we’re gonna step into one of your fucking hell-gadgets after the shit you’ve pulled,” Ruda grated. “Thanks for the offer, but no thanks.”

“Stepping will not be necessary. It was not an offer.” The Avatar’s purple form bowed to them in his screen; nearby, the Caretaker chimed sadly and waved with one of its spidery arms. “I thank you deeply for your help, and wish you success in your endeavors, children of humankind. We will not meet again.”

There was no more warning than the faintest buzz of energy around them, and then the entire group was suddenly no longer there.


“Well, at least it’s working,” the captain muttered, watching lightning bolts flash around the front of the cavern. “Don’t they ever get tired of wasting their power crystals like that?”

“They’re trying to keep us pinned and distracted, not kill us,” Lorelin replied. “It nearly worked, if you’ll recall. I’m more worried about Tanenbaum getting tired.”

“Thanks, but that’s more a concern for mages,” he said, putting the finishing touches on his summoning circle. “Warlocks don’t run out of power. In the worst case scenario, we make…mistakes.”

“Yes, I know my Circles, thank you,” she said flatly. “That is exactly what worries me.”

“And this is why I enjoy working with casters of other schools,” he replied, giving her a pleasant smile. “It is most reassuring, having a cleric of your skill at hand.”

They had retreated around the edge of the central cavern, a nail-biting trip which had involved sidling along a narrow ledge and passing through a tunnel, but had re-emerged onto a flat space off to the right of the entrance, where they had an excellent view of the abortive battle taking place on the bridge in front of the Grim Visage. Tanenbaum had set up a permanent summoning gate which was periodically spewing forth imps, katzils, and the occasional khankredahg—the standard attack demons for someone just looking to raise a little hell. Under ordinary circumstances he would never have considered such an action; such permanent gates invariably attracted the interest of more sapient demons. This one wouldn’t stand under its own power for much longer, anyway, and he was actually surprised none of the wild staffshots, arcane spells, and alchemical bombs being hurled from the front of the Visage had yet destroyed it.

Now Tanenbaum, the captain, and Reich stood on the flat ledge, the first space they had found that could hold a summoning circle, while the soldiers had piled into the tunnel behind them, which (according to the sign conveniently posted on the wall) led to a goblin warren. In theory this was just for the sake of space, but Tanenbaum suspected the captain preferred to keep these men confined in quarters from which they couldn’t flee. The fact that none of them had tried it already was even more surprising than the fact that none had fallen into the chasm or been struck by a stray lightning bolt.

“Before you finish that,” Reich said pointedly, “are you going to tell us, finally, what that thing does?”

Tanenbaum straightened up, holding out the bound crystal the Hand had given him, and glanced at the entrance.

“Pretty sure the boys aren’t in earshot,” the captain said wryly. “I’ll tell you right now, though, we can’t keep going like this. Those nitwits are an inch from panicking, and I’ve got a hunch whatever you’re about to do isn’t gonna help.”

The warlock sighed, and bounced the crystal once on his palm, then knelt to place it in the designated spot at the edge of the circle. “This is a summonstone. It carries the true name of a demon, along with specific instructions for it. By summoning the creature through this crystal, one brings it to this plane unbreakably bound to the terms outlined in the stone’s spell.”

“I do say that sounds like a good idea, if one absolutely has to meddle with demons,” Reich remarked, now watching the circle warily. Its lines had begun to glow, signifying its activation. “Don’t you want them under control?”

“It is the second worst way to summon a demon, after just letting them loose with no constraints whatsoever.” Tanenbaum stepped back from the circle, absently rubbing his palms against his trousers. “That stone can only encode very simple instructions, and only of a few types, and it precludes placing any other binding or agreement on its target while its terms are not yet fulfilled. You bring a demon to this world bound to complete a single task, in other words. Once that is done, it is completely out of anyone’s control.”

“Oh.”

That was as much time as they had for conversation before the summons completed. Unlike a more typical summoning, it came all at once when it finally discharged. A column of orange light blazed up from the circle, forcing them to look away, and when it receded seconds later, a figure stood in the middle.

A lean, alabaster-skinned figure with wings and a tail, and devastatingly handsome features.

“Greetings, and my apologies for the abrupt summons,” Tanenbaum said politely as the incubus turned in a circle, staring at his surroundings. It always paid to be polite to these creatures, even beyond his belief that politeness was an absolute virtue in and of itself. It might not help, but the lack of it invariably harmed; children of Vanislaas always carried grudges if they felt slighted. “This is a complicated situation, and I am truly sorry to have placed you in this position. Rest assured, it was not my idea—or that of anyone present. If you can see your way to cooperating with us beyond the strictures…”

He trailed off, bemused, as the incubus literally collapsed in laughter. Clutching his midsection, the demon doubled over, and then actually slumped to the ground and began rolling on his own wings, howling in mirth and thumping the stone floor with a fist.

“So…” Lorelin drawled, having to raise her voice slightly above the noise. “That summonstone was keyed to this specific fellow’s name?”

“Ah, yes,” Tanenbaum replied, till frowning in puzzlement at the cackling incubus.

“Would you care to venture a guess why our benefactor wanted, in particular, a crazy one?”

“Misery loves company?” the captain suggested.

Tanenbaum cleared his throat pointedly. “I don’t think there’s any call to speak harshly of anyone—present, or not. It is often not wise to give offense. Especially—”

“Now, now!” Quite abruptly, the incubus broke off laughing and vaulted upright, though he still grinned at them with a wild glee which any warlock would shudder to see on the face of one of his kind. Vanislaads were only that happy when they’d found a way to unleash absolutely maximum havoc. “Let’s nobody get all worked up on my account! Rest assured, my dear saucy tarts, I have thick skin. So! You have summoned Rowe, and now here he is.” He bowed gracefully, flaring his wings until they sparked against the edges of the containment circle. “Just what the hell are you little muffins up to?”

 

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13 – 38

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The Crawl shuddered.

The rumble was low, but it echoed through the vast slanted cavern, accompanied by the distant clatter of falling rocks and a few small plumes of dust that drifted down from above. And, moments later, by fearful mumbling from the ill-equipped soldiers gathered on the stone bridge which arched down to the entrance of the Grim Visage.

“Steady,” said their captain, his voice nearly as gravelly as the Crawl’s.

“Focus,” snapped the Hand of the Emperor a moment later.

Willard Tanenbaum did not lift his eyes from the great carved face that gave the Visage its name, despite the sweat dripping from his brow. “Sir… The Crawl is known to have a sentience of its own.”

“A rudimentary and diffuse intelligence, mechanistic and barely aware,” the Hand said curtly, also staring at the Visage. To the observers behind them, the two men seemed simply to be standing there, frowning; the subtle magic they worked made no visible effect, aside from the minor seismic reactions it was beginning to provoke. “Like a god’s. In fact, rather like a sleeping bear. Keep focused, work slowly and steadily, and don’t jostle it. We can finish our work and be gone before it wakes, if we’re careful.”

“Tiptoeing around a bear is one thing,” Tanenbaum replied, still without breaking his stare. “Carving a hole in the wall of its den without waking it, in the short time it’ll take Tellwyrn to get back here—”

One of the rough-looking soldiers cursed—in Glassian, oddly enough—and turned to bolt back toward the exit. He froze with a yelp, finding himself face-to-face with the Hand who had an instant before been in front of him, next to the warlock.

“So long as we are not incompetent,” the Hand said icily, staring at the would-be deserter without expression, “it will work. So long as we are not cowardly, we will not be summarily tossed off the bridge. Do I make myself clear?”

Another faint rumble sounded from the depths. The men pressed closer together, the one faced down by the Hand retreating frantically into their midst.

“Clear,” Tanenbaum said after a short pause. The Hand kept his gaze on the men for a moment longer, then stepped to the side, moving around them to rejoin the warlock.

“Sir.” The captain stepped out of the group to meet him. “The Duchess sent us for what we were told was a simple police action on a college campus.”

“Are you protesting your treatment, Captain?” the Hand asked quietly, a dangerous sibilance creeping into his tone.

The soldier did not react. He was clearly made of sterner stuff than the rest of his command, possibly the only one among them to whom the word “soldier” truly applied, though in most militaries he would have been considered too old for active duty.

“I’ll serve however I’m ordered, sir,” the Captain replied evenly. “And I’ll shoot any man who deserts right in the back before he gets ten paces, as we did in the old days. But I warn you, sir, this isn’t the old days, and this isn’t the Imperial Army, nor even the House guard that trained me. These boys are not a group I would pit against adventurers and monsters, or whatever else is coming outta there, sir. They’ll not stand up to that, no matter what you or I threaten ’em with, sir, begging your pardon.”

“It won’t come to that,” the Hand said, relaxing somewhat. “Keep your men in line, Captain; all they’ll be needed for is to keep the retreat orderly, as we’ll have prisoners in tow. I have all of this under control.”

He stepped past the officer, rejoining Tanenbaum, and no one who doubted his assurance was daft enough to voice it. Even when the Crawl rumbled another sleepy protest.


“You tryin’ to catch flies?” one of the guards sniggered.

His companion finished his long, luxuriant yawn before turning to give him a rude gesture, earning another coarse laugh in reply.

In front of them, a few feet away, Lorelin Reich lowered her arms, turned around, and stared at them.

“Sorry, ma’am,” the first man said unrepentantly. The one who’d yawned, at least, cleared his throat and straightened to a semblance of attention.

“Do you have any idea how difficult this is?” the priestess demanded.

“Not really, no.” He shrugged, and scratched the side of his neck. “No offense, I can’t actually see you doing anything. Just standing there in front of the door.”

She had, in fact, been at it for over half an hour now, standing and staring, occasionally making hand gestures. The campus chapel’s magical defenses were visible to the naked eye: the walls and door were slightly blurry, as if seen through murky water, and a few inches in front of that was an almost transparent layer of blue light, cast by an arcane shield. Lorelin’s guards, in truth, weren’t giving her enough credit; what she was doing had caused both of these effects to occasionally flicker or ripple.

Nothing of import had happened, though, and the two men were clearly losing patience. They were typical examples of the troops the Hand of the Emperor had found, which was to say, unimpressive. Neither of these was one of the aging House Dalkhaan regulars, but the younger, scruffier generation of hirelings whom very few Houses or militaries would have taken. Both were in need of a shave and some long posture drills, and one was so overweight he couldn’t button his uniform coat. At least neither had so much as leered at her. Fading and decrepit or no, Dalkhaan was still a House of Calderaas, and Calderaas was Avenist country. Men with such habits weren’t drawn to military service there. Not even a “military” slovenly enough to accept these dregs.

“Then take my word for it,” Lorelin said patiently, “it is difficult. I would appreciate it if there were no distractions.”

The man she was speaking to put on a mulish look and opened his mouth, doubtless to complain, but the yawner jabbed him in the hip with the butt of his staff.

“Sorry, ma’am,” he said, nodding.

She nodded back, and turned again to face the chapel. That was undoubtedly as much acquiescence as she was going to get.

Before she could even raise her arms again, there rose a shrill whine at the very edge of hearing, like a particularly large mosquito in the ear. It ended suddenly, followed by the complete disappearance of the force field around the chapel. A second later, the building seemed to solidify before them as it shifted back into phase with the world.

“Hey,” the yawning man said brightly, “it worked!”

Lorelin had her back to them and so didn’t conceal her expression, frowning at the doors in consternation.

Fortunately, she was standing at the base of the three steps leading up to those doors, and so was not close enough to be struck when they suddenly burst open.

Both guards raised their staves, one fumbling so badly he nearly dropped it, to take aim at the group who appeared in the chapel’s doorway. Two drow women stood at the forefront, one in formal robes and holding a puppy of all things, the other with a green streak dyed through the center of her hair.

A wall of silver light snapped into place across the top step. Lorelin shifted backward away from them.

“All right, hold it right there,” one of her guardians said. “Let’s not go and do anything rash, kids. You’re not in trouble, but you need to move off the campus, by the authority of the Emperor. Let’s lower the magic, nice and easy, now.”

“If you do lower the shield,” the green-haired drow said to her companion, “I can kill all three of them before they can fire.”

“Ugh, no, you can’t,” a female plains elf just behind her snorted. “All he has to do is squeeze that clicker—”

“Okay, that’s enough of that kind of talk,” the guard snapped. “You don’t want the trouble that’ll come from defying an Imperial edict, much less attacking troops operating under the Emperor’s banner.”

Lorelin shifted to look back at them, then up the stairs again at the students. Another elf, a woodkin this time, had pushed forward between the two drow, and whatever he had just conjured formed a blue glow from his clenched fist.

Of course, she was aware of the identities of everyone who was supposed to be in that chapel. What were they doing awake?

She held up a hand, and a golden sphere formed around the two troops, sparkling in the sunlight.

“There, see?” the more talkative of the two smirked. “You’re not the only one who can—”

Lorelin clenched her fist and the shield bubble contracted abruptly, slamming both men against each other. One discharged his weapon, which sparked blindingly against the inside of the sphere. It immediately widened again, leaving them staggering.

She clenched the bubble three more times in rapid succession, smacking the pair together until one of the staves cracked and both men were too dazed to stand unaided, then released the shield entirely.

One of them immediately flopped to the grass, unconscious from an unfortunate impact of his head against a staff. The other stumbled woozily, clutching his own skull with both hands.

A rod of pure golden light appeared in Lorelin’s grip. Not bothering with any further finesse, she lifted it overhead and slammed it down atop the distracted soldier’s head. The lightworking dissipated at such sharp contact with solid matter, but not before doing its job; he dropped like a sack of beans.

She turned back to scowl at the five students, who were now staring in confusion through Shaeine’s shield.

“I wish you hadn’t done that,” Lorelin said testily.

“Yeah, I just bet you—wait a second.” Raolo pointed accusingly. “You did that!”

“That chapel,” she said, “was phased out and shielded, with both effects somehow tied to the powerful fae geas laid on this mountaintop. I was tasked with cracking those defenses using my skill at divine magic, based on a very brief demonstration of how the geas could be interfered with. Frankly, I’m far from certain I could have opened that door if my life depended on it, but at the very least, I could have stalled for hours.” She held out her arms in an exasperated shrug. “But then you had to go and open it up yourselves! And now here you are, out in the open where he can get at you.”

A human girl—that would be the young Duchess Madouri—slipped through the cluster of elves to position herself at the forefront of the group.

“Stalled?” she asked in a tone of mild interest.

“All right, listen,” Lorelin said, heaving a short sigh. “It’s too complicated to explain the whole thing right now. Professor Tellwyrn is temporarily absent, and your campus is under attack. Most of your classmates have been evacuated into the Crawl, where they should be safe, at least for the short term. Tellwyrn will be back before too long, and I’ve contacted Imperial Intelligence. Help is coming. But for right now, with you outside the protections of that chapel, you’re in more danger than any of the rest of the students. You need to get off the campus, quickly. Don’t go to the town, the— He has allies in Last Rock, and didn’t bring them up here, so I know they’re waiting below. You’re college kids, I’m sure you know someplace in the area to hide yourselves from official eyes? Don’t tell me where, just get there.”

“Just a moment.” Ravana held up a hand in a peremptory gesture to forestall both Lorelin and her fellows, Natchua and Addiwyn both having opened their mouths. The effect was somewhat ruined by Shaeine’s puppy leaning over to snuffle at her upraised hand.

Lorelin blinked, and squinted. Was that a baby hellhound? Well…that answered one question, and raised a whole host of others.

“Who, exactly, is leading the attack on the University?” Ravana asked calmly, lowering her hand out of the puppy’s reach.

“There’s no time—”

“Natchua, are you able to send a shadowbolt through any shield she can conjure?”

“Not directly,” the drow replied with a tiny, unpleasant smile. “But I know a dozen ways to crack a divine shield in less than four seconds. Then shadowbolts.”

“You see, madam,” Ravana said in that condescendingly pleasant tone aristocrats apparently learned in the nursery, “all we know is that you were engaged in trying to dig us out of our protected chapel and have a predilection for turning on your allies. There is little ground for trust, here. You will have to offer more than vague hints.”

Lorelin let out a long, slow breath, controlling her expression. In the tension of the moment, she had actually not considered the sheer physical danger of her situation, but one of the drow was a fellow light-wielder of some skill, and apparently the other was a warlock. And, as Ravana pointed out, they had no reason to trust her. In this situation, they might well decide that blasting her was a preferable option to walking away.

Well, she’d handled worse. Unlike the Hand, at least these could be reasoned with. Hopefully. How much did they know? Best to play it safe, for now.

“About a month ago,” she said, deliberately glancing up the path to display nervousness, “the Hands of the Emperor began acting strange. Paranoid, aggressive, showing sudden magical abilities they’d never had before. Within a week they were back to normal, with the exception of one. He had been working with Tellwyrn on…your situation. Now, for whatever reason, he is obsessed with her and completely out of his mind. The Empire won’t acknowledge one of their Hands has gone rogue, so he is still acting with the Throne’s full authority until they can get here and put a stop to him. He is behind the attack on the campus, and is down in the Crawl with a Salyrite warlock, trying to dig your classmates out of the Grim Visage.”

She could tell already, even before she finished explaining: they knew. Ravana and Shaeine kept impassive, as she would expect from noblewomen, but Raolo and Addiwyn exchanged a satisfied glance and Natchua nodded slightly. Someone had not only awakened them with a fresh source of hellhound breath, but brought them up to date. Her instinct had been correct: trying to prevaricate would probably have led to a barrage of shadowbolts.

Belatedly, it occurred to Lorelin the only likely source of up-to-date intelligence and hellhounds who could get in and out of Tellwyrn’s heavily-defended chapel without disrupting its wards. Well, Shaeine was involved with Vadrieny’s host, after all…

“Listen to me.” She glanced once more in the direction of the Crawl, affecting subtly more nervous body language. “I realize that for students at what amounts to a school for adventurers, being asked to stand down is tantamount to a challenge, but you need to think strategically. This Hand is a complete lunatic; the only troops he’s brought are losers like these.” Lorelin nudged one of her erstwhile guards with a foot, prompting a soft moan. “The other Church contact working for him here is as wary as I am; I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s called for help, too. Fighting this guy will only escalate matters. There’s no actual way he can win here; all he can do is cause damage. Please get yourselves out of the area so you don’t become that damage.”

Lorelin stared pleadingly up at them. Had it just been the surface elves or Natchua, she’d have put on the mask of a reasonable authority figure, but the two noblewomen made it complicated. They wouldn’t acknowledge any authority on her part, and would be suspicious of too much earnestness. Just a touch of fear and vulnerability should hopefully do the trick…

“Well?” Addiwyn prompted after a pause in which they all just watched her, as if by staring hard enough they could read her intentions. “Are we trusting her or not? She did tell the truth…as far as we know.”

“Trust is a stronger word than I would choose,” Ravana said, glancing at Shaeine as if for confirmation. “But…yes. Fact-checking aside, she is correct on one point: escalation is a concern. An unstable man with the powers of a Hand of the Emperor can cause incalculable damage, not least because he will not act strategically. His very presence here proves this; there is no possible victory in assaulting the University.”

“So…we run, then,” Raolo said with a sigh. “Well, I don’t like it, but it’s sense. I know a place—”

“I will be proceeding with the plan I outlined for you,” Ravana said smoothly.

“Of course you bloody will,” Addiwyn muttered.

“Now, see here!” Lorelin did not have to augment the frustration in her voice.

“If any of you wish to follow the Vidian’s advice and flee, I will not judge you ill,” Ravana stated, stepping forward and turning to face them, the motion neatly placing her at the head of the group and physically excluding Lorelin from the discussion. “Mistaking strategy for cowardice is the mark of the defeated. It is only sensible to secure your welfare. However, the woman is correct: while the Hand cannot win, here, he can cause damage. Our classmates will be in the Grim Visage, and he will be interfering with the Crawl as he taught her to do here. If he can overcome the sanctuary effect, he will be in a confined space with a large group of people, many of whom are physically quite powerful. He will be taken down, but in that situation, it will inevitably be a bloodbath.”

“That is a big ‘if,’” Raolo pointed out, then craned his neck around Ravana to address Lorelin. “Hey, you! What are the chances he can actually do that?”

“…I have no idea,” she said honestly, pausing to think for only a second. “I don’t understand the magic involved, and I don’t know the capabilities of Hands even before they’re…interfered with, or malfunction, or whatever happened to him.”

“Very well, then,” Ravana said briskly. “I will proceed. I welcome anyone who chooses to join me and will not begrude any who would rather retreat. You,” she added, turning to indicate Lorelin with a curt nod, “will report to this Hand, inform him that we have broken out and are on the way to the uppermost terrace of the University to pursue some plan against him. That happens to be the literal truth, by the way, in case you are actually in his pocket. If he cannot get through the Visage’s defenses, we lose nothing by making him run around wasting time. If he can, this will save the lives of many of our classmates.”

“Except you will have a Hand of the Emperor after you!” Lorelin exclaimed. “If you’re expecting your warlock friend to help—”

“The imperviousness of Hands to warlock magic is precisely how it is known among the nobility that they are fae-powered,” Ravana said condescendingly. “Don’t you worry, I know what I am doing.”

“How did you know she’s Vidian?” Raolo asked.

“That’s Lorelin Reich,” Addiwyn sneered. “The one Arquin chased out of town.”

“I recognized her, yes,” Ravana said pleasantly. “Also, it is generally a safe thing to assume of a cleric who is as adept an actress as this one. Now, there is no more time to waste.”

With that, she glided the rest of the way down the stairs, turned right, and headed off up the path toward the upper campus. After the barest pause, the rest of her fellow Sleeper victims followed. Every one of them.

Lorelin watched them go for a long, incredulous moment, then threw up her hands in frustration, turned, and stalked off in the direction of the Crawl, leaving two bruised bodies on the ground behind her.


“Prince Sekandar, can I ask you to keep this safe for me?”

He sighed, but reached out to accept the scabbarded saber. “If you like, Szith. I’m never going to convince you to just call me Sekandar, am I?”

“I’m sure it speaks well of you, in your culture, that you make yourself so approachable,” she said, her face a mask of Narisian calm. “In my culture, the habit of excessive familiarity with one’s betters can be lethal. In a few short years, I will return there, and after Natchua’s…performance…I suspect my conduct will be scrutinized closely.”

“You don’t want that sword, then?” Scorn asked. “It is the bigger one. More powerful, yes?” The Rhaazke sat on the stairs, one arm draped over Maureen. Generally she didn’t enjoy being physically dominated by her classmates, but under the circumstances, Scorn’s towering protective presence was as comforting as Iris on her other side, murmuring to herself and rubbing some dried leaves between her fingers. They smelled pleasant; Iris claimed what she was doing would have a calming effect on the pub’s occupants.

The more than a hundred refugees from the University filled the place to capacity, and had already displaced most of its usual crowd. The tension could have been cut with a knife, but so far it had stayed relatively calm. Maybe Iris actually was helping.

“Do you recall when Matriarch Ashaele visited the campus?” Szith said, putting on one of her tiny smiles. “The guards she brought with her carried sabers like these.”

“Yes, I remember,” Scorn said impatiently. “Powerful swords, like I said.”

“Power is not without is disadvantages. This is a better weapon.” The drow rested a hand on the pommel of her short sword, which was still belted at her waist. “A saber must be swung in wide arcs, which handicaps it in close quarters, and makes formation fighting very difficult. For organized infantry combat, you want short swords—like this one, or those the Silver Legions carry. For precisely that reason, Narisian House guards are not permitted to own them. They may only carry the saber, which is a dueling weapon. Aristocrats and their protectors are trained in a ritualized style of formal combat which leaves them no match for an organized infantry. I am a soldier of House An’sadarr, sworn to fight for the Queen and Tar’naris. Thus, I have a weapon which is better suited to these tight quarters.”

“Interesting stuff,” Maureen said, nervously turning over the chunk of decorated quarts which was (hopefully) the heart of Crystal in her hands. “An’ Sekandar, here, is also trained in Narisian dueling?”

“Well, no,” the prince said with a smile, “but also sort of yes. Up here on the surface, a saber is more of a cavalry weapon—and Calderaan cavalry is rightly famous, if I do say so myself. We also have a dueling style which uses it. Probably not the way Szith was taught, but I can manage not to cut my own leg off, if this comes to a fight. Hopefully,” he added, turning to the drow again with a more sober expression, “it won’t come to that. If I understand how the Visage works, it can’t.”

“One always hopes battle will not come,” she said, shifting her gaze to the front of the tavern. “One always assumes that it will, and prepares accordingly.”

The doors were shut and had been barricaded with furniture, but Melaxyna and Fedora both perched on the second-floor windows which were set in the eyes of the great face that gazed outward at the Crawl’s entrance. Neither of them was putting on any pretense; though his rumpled suit, coat, and hat contrasted with the ragged piece of hide she wore as a dress, both were in fully demonic form, complete with alabaster-pale skin and crystalline eyes—and, more relevantly, wings and tails. These provided an aid to balance, as there was no actual place to sit in front of those windows, leaving them precariously clinging to narrow sills.

A sharp whistle turned every head in the room; Xsythri, Melaxyna’s hethelax henchoman, had clambered up onto the rail near the group on the stairs and was waving frantically for her boss’s attention.

The succubus heaved a dramatic sigh, then shoved herself off the wall and glided the short distance down. Fedora did not follow, but kept his head turned and attention fixed on their conversation, disregarding whatever he was watching outside.

“We’ve got a problem, boss lady,” Xsythri began.

“Wait, wait, don’t tell me,” Melaxyna said sourly. “We’re out of mushroom beer again.”

“Of course not, you know we can’t give that to student—no, dammit, worse than that! I just had to break up a little scuffle in the market room.”

Melaxyna’s lashing tail suddenly went still. “…how bad a scuffle?”

“Not bad,” Xsythri said, eyes wide and worried. “Very minor, just some jostling from being too close together. Somebody threw a punch and that went nowhere, cos of the sanctuary effect.”

The succubus heaved a deep breath, turning her head to stare sightlessly at the front of the tavern again. She couldn’t see out the windows from this angle, but by that time they all knew the Hand was out there with some of his new lackeys, doing something.

“Why’s that a problem?” Iris asked warily, opening her eyes and pausing in her soft chant. “Sounds like an inevitable little nothing, in a situation like this.”

Melaxyna shifted again to give the witch a long look, then abruptly whirled, wings flaring out for balance, and punched Xsythri in the face.

Her fist stopped an inch from the hethelax’s nose, a soft ripple in the air marking the sanctuary effect’s protection.

“Oh, nice,” Xsythri snapped. “That’s great, boss, thank you for your concern.”

“Yeah, so…we’re protected, right?” Iris prompted. “Ow! Hey!”

Melaxyna had struck again, this time lightly flicking Iris’s ear with a fingertip.

“The sanctuary effect,” the succubus stated grimly, “is absolute. All violence—all violence—is impossible within the Grim Visage.”

Under the demon’s stare, Iris stopped rubbing at her ear, her eyes going wide. Sekandar let out a long breath, and a soft growl rumbled deep in Scorn’s throat.

“But now,” Melaxyna said, again turning to face the entrance, “the effect is…relative. Whatever the hell that guy is doing out there, it’s starting to work.”

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