Tag Archives: Captain Dijanerad

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“Yeah!” Tallie jeered, rattling the cell door again. “Not so tough when somebody actually stands up to you, huh? Somebody oughta—”

While she spoke, Locke rapped her lance sharply with one boot to make it bounce on the stone floor, then deftly slipped a toe under it and kicked it upward into her hand, whereupon she set the tip against the cell door and raked it across the bars, making them ring obnoxiously. And vibrate, to judge by the way Tallie yelped and jerked backward, shaking her fingers.

“Here’s the situation in which you kids find yourselves,” the Sergeant said in a grimmer tone, raking her stare across them. “You flubbed a job and got nabbed. The Sisterhood has no interest in prosecuting illegal arms dealers—in fact, it’s a mystery to me why the Third Legion bothered to raid that meet in the first place. That means your next stop, according to standard operating procedures, is the military police, who are interested in illegal arms dealers.” She let that loom over them for a moment before continuing. “Now, you know and I know that you bumpkins don’t have anything worthwhile to tell them and you’re guilty of, at most, being accessories to whatever crimes were actually committed. It’s honestly a toss-up whether they’d bother to press charges, but they will work you over in the process of verifying that you’re just hapless know-nothing apprentice goobers.”

“That’s a little strong,” Rasha complained.

“But,” Locke said loudly. “I also know a lot about the type of people who seek to join the Thieves’ Guild, and what’s involved in the process. Unless your family’s Guild, you almost certainly are struggling with demons of your own—and I know none of you chuckleheads are legacies, or you’d be sponsored and not getting ditched in a warehouse by the only clown who’d take you on a job. Some of you, if not most of you, if not all of you, are going by assumed names.” She glanced rapidly from Jasmine to Ross to Tallie. “It’s a safe bet you all have good reason not to want the Empire digging into your business—and you’d better believe they would dig, for something like this. Dangerous or no, weapons traffic is a matter of connections. If you’re the only links they’ve got in that chain, they will find out whatever else you’re linked to. And then, once you got out of that, you would have to explain all this to Style. You know what a kind, understanding cream puff she is. I can’t say how much rep any of you kids have, but if you happen to be already in the doghouse, or just without enough established cred, being the reason Imperial Intelligence pays the Guild a visit would be enough by itself to get your butts bounced out into the street.”

The Sergeant fell silent, raised one eyebrow, and studied each of them in turn.

“What’s the alternative?” Darius asked in an uncharacteristically quiet voice.

“Be with you in a moment,” she said, suddenly sounding cheerful again. “You just ruminate on that whilst I deal with some other business. So!” Locke paced slowly down the bars, coming to a stop near the end and turning to face Schwartz, who stood near the wall of the cell with his arms folded, scowling. “What’s your story?”

“I am Herschel Schwartz,” he announced, “fellow in good standing of the Emerald Collegium of the College of Salyrene. I have not broken any laws, my only interactions with the Silver Legions prior to tonight were rendering them aid, and I am exceedingly irate!”

“You tell ‘er!” Tallie crowed.

“SHUT UP!” everyone else shouted at her. She gaped around at them, blinking in awe.

“Herschel Schwartz.” Locke studied him closely, wearing a faint frown. “By that description, you sound like a rather upstanding fellow.”

“Thank you, I try.” Meesie, squeaking pompously, bounced from his shoulder to his head where she stood upright and folded her tiny arms.

“Would you care to explain,” Sergeant Locke asked mildly, “just what you were doing attending an illegal arms swap meet, Mr. Schwartz?”

He jutted his chin out mulishly, now refusing to meet her gaze. “…you’d laugh at me.”

“Schwartz,” Locke said pointedly, “you are in a cell. You are implicated in crimes of the sort that makes Imperial Intelligence open dossiers on people, and keep abreast of their movements for years thereafter. If you get out of this with nothing worse than being laughed at, you’ll be making out very well indeed.”

“Yes, I see your point,” he said sourly. “All right, fine. I was looking to meet and make connections with Eserites.”

“Well, it’s a right pleasure to meetcha!” Tallie said cheerfully. Meesie chittered amicably back at her.

Darius cleared his throat. “Is it too late to deny knowing her? In fact, I’m increasingly willing to testify that this whole thing was Tallie’s idea.”

“I don’t think that’d work,” Jasmine said, deadpan. “She’s met Tallie.”

“Oh, whose side are you on?” Tallie snapped.

“Children,” Locke said firmly. “Hush. And as for you, Schwartz. Any reason in particular you were wanting to connect with the Thieves’ Guild?”

He shrugged, again not meeting her stare. “Well, it’s not as if I’m the sort of person who ordinarily has such connections, is it? Honestly, I have no interest in weapons, illegal or otherwise—except, well, some of those modified wands were rather intriguing, even if arcane work isn’t my field of specialization… Ah, yes, but anyway. That meetup was the only thing I was able to find out about that I could attend, and I was sort of warned against just walking into the Imperial Casino and trying to chat people up. I was willing to buy a staff or something if that’s what it took to make friends, but fortunately for my pocketbook, the Legion interceded.”

“That’s all very interesting,” Locke said, “but it’s not really what I asked you, is it?”

“No, I suppose it’s not.” Finally he raised his eyes to hers, now staring challengingly. “But I do know that socializing with Eserites is not a crime, and in fact cannot be considered evidence of a crime according to established legal precedent. So unless you intend to see me charged with weapons trafficking, which you know won’t stick, I would like to leave now, please.”

“Hm,” Locke mused, and then shrugged. “Welp! You’re not wrong. And as I have been given discretion with regard to what’s done with you kittens, it seems I have the authority to release you.”

“Can you stop with the diminutive nicknames?” Rasha snapped.

“You’re free to go,” Locke continued to Schwartz, ignoring the Punaji boy. “I’ll ask your patience a few moments longer, with apologies; you’re all leaving that cell in just a few moments, toward one destination or another, and I’d just as soon not deal with the rigamarole of extracting one person while corralling the rest. After you’re out of there, though, I’d appreciate it if you’d stick around for a few minutes, Mr. Schwartz. I’d like to have a word with you in private.”

He sighed dramatically. “I’ve told you everything I know about all this, which is practically nothing. I don’t see what else you can possibly want from me!”

“Oh, no,” she said with amusement, “I don’t suspect you of anything but being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I meant a personal conversation.”

“Then I understand even less,” he replied, frowning. “I’m pretty sure we’ve not met before—I’d remember a dark-haired elf.”

“We haven’t, no,” Locke said, now grinning openly. “But I’d like to chat a bit about another Mr. Schwartz I know, of whom you are the spitting image, minus about twenty years.”

He blinked. “You knew my father?”

Locke’s grin melted away. “…knew?”

“Oh.” Schwartz sighed. “Yes. He passed on six years ago. A carriage accident. Of all the ridiculous ways to go, after all he did in his life…”

“Hey, can you two maybe talk this out after—”

Darius broke off with a muffled curse as Ross swatted him upside the back of his head, sending him stumbling forward into the bars.

“Have some respect,” Ross grumbled disapprovingly.

“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you,” Schwartz said awkwardly.

“No. No, I’m sorry.” Locke shook her head. “If I took better care of my relationships I wouldn’t be finding out about lost friends years after the fact… And this isn’t the first time, either. But yes, anyway, I do need to deal with the rest of these first, but…”

“Sure,” Schwartz agreed, looking generally more amenable now. “And yes, I’ll hang around a bit after you’re done.”

“Smashing. So!” Locke turned to the others, raising her eyebrows. “Thoughts?”

“You’re not accustomed to holding prisoners,” Jasmine said critically. “Keeping us in suspense is cheap drama, and the threat isn’t ominous enough to even make it effective. Do you just enjoy wasting everyone’s time?”

“Okay, not with her, either,” Darius announced. “In fact, I disavow any knowledge of all of these fuckers.”

“My, kitten’s got some claws on her,” Locke said dryly to Jasmine. “I bet all the other girls back in finishing school lived in absolute dread of you.”

Jasmine narrowed her eyes to slits.

Rasha cleared his throat. “So, anyway, you were menacing us with threats of Intelligence and whoever Style is. Was there a better alternative?”

Locke boggled at him. “Whoever Style is?!”

Tallie cleared her throat. “He’s new. As in, first night. Hasn’t even got a bunk yet.”

“I’m having an interesting day,” Rasha grumbled.

“You poor bastard,” Locke said, shaking her head. “All right, here’s the deal. There are times when being caught between my various responsibilities is a hardship—but then there are times, like this one, where they all line up perfectly.” She began to pace slowly up and down in front of the bars. “I have a responsibility to the law, which is the least of my concerns here, because we all know you lot aren’t a threat to anyone except possibly yourselves. You might, it is true, become a threat one day if you stick with the Guild, but nobody rational prosecutes potential. I have a responsibility to the Silver Legions to do something with a gaggle of fairly-caught criminals. I could maybe just let you all go as an interfaith gesture of goodwill and justify that to my captain as part of my squad’s mandate—”

“Yes!” Tallie said, gripping the bars again and nodding eagerly. “Embrace the mandate!”

“But,” Locke continued, ignoring her, “there is also my responsibility as a member of the Thieves’ Guild to do something with a gaggle of fairly-caught screwups. So! I believe I know of a happy medium. One which meets all those objectives and gives you a valuable life lesson besides!”

“I hate valuable life lessons,” Tallie grumbled.

Locke stepped to one side and turned to regard those behind her with a sunny smile. The rest of her squad had been standing silently this whole time at parade rest; the Avenist cleric who’d accompanied them in watched the proceedings with interest from the sidelines, as did the sole Legionnaire who’d been left to guard the room.

“I asked your gracious host, Sister Tianne, if there was any significant work that needed doing around this facility—”

“Oh, come on!” Darius groaned.

“—and wouldn’t you know it! This temple has an attached stable, which is slated for renovation to house enchanted carriages rather than horses, the times being what they are. The budget being what it is, no actual workers have yet been contracted to do this, and as this particular temple is mostly a dedicated training facility and waypoint for the Legions on city duty, there aren’t enough permanent staff here to undertake a renovation themselves. So guess what!”

“I hate you,” Darius informed her.

Jasmine shrugged. “It sounds like honest work to me. And a fair enough consequence for tonight’s mess. Considering how this could have gone, I don’t see what your complaint is.”

“Jasmine,” he said in exasperation, “I did not join up with the bloody Thieves’ Guild because I wanted to do honest work!”

“You think thieves don’t work?” Ross asked.

“Everybody works,” Rasha added. “Don’t work, don’t eat.”

“Some of you,” Locke said with visible approval, “have a future in your chosen organization.”

“But it’s the middle of the night!” Tallie protested, again rattling the cell door.

“Oh, you’ve got some pressing appointment? A hot date?” Sergeant Locke arched an eyebrow. “Very well, it’s up to you. Since, if you’d rather not help the good Sister thoroughly clean out the stables, your next meeting will be with the military police. After all, nobody wants to keep them waiting.”

Tallie groaned and slumped forward, clonking her forehead against the bars.

“So,” Locke continued, “once you’re out of there, you’re out. You’ll answer to Sister Tianne until she is satisfied with your results—and Sister, be so kind as to be satisfied only when that place is spotless.”

“It goes without saying,” Tianne agreed.

“And in case any of you are thinking of bolting prematurely, let me just inform you that she will be sending me a full report of your performance, and if I find any complaints in it, they’ll go right to Style.”

“You don’t even know our names,” Darius huffed.

The Sergeant pointed to each of them in turn. “Gangly but hot wiseass, tiny Punaji, handsome yet poorly-dressed meathead, walking wall, deceptively dainty bruiser. Anybody wanna lay odds Style can’t figure out who you are?” She let them consider that for a moment before going on. “Come to a decision quickly, please, kids. I know you’re all eager to put this whole episode behind you, and poor Mr. Schwartz has been cooped up in there quite long enough.”

“Well, I can’t say this hasn’t been rather interesting,” Schwartz commented.

Tallie sighed and turned to face the others. “Well, whaddaya think, guys? Should we make a show of pretending to consider it to save face, or just go ahead and ask where the brooms are?”

“Oh, we’ll get to the brooms before the end of the night,” Sister Tianne said with a benign smile. “You’ll need to start with shovels.”

“I think,” said Rasha, “I’ve made some poor decisions recently.”


Casey was practically vibrating with eagerness as the downcast Eserite apprentices filed through the small temple’s courtyard en route to its attached stables.

“Are we going to stay and supervise this, Sarge?” Ephanie asked.

“No.” Principia shook her head. “They’re on the honor system now.”

“They’re Eserites,” Merry pointed out disdainfully.

“One,” said Principia, “they barely are. Two, they know the consequences of screwing this up; the point of the honor system in this case is to teach them some honor. And three, Lang, shut your hate hole, you dismal termagant, you. Avelea, keep everybody in line, please; the rest of you, stand in the courtyard here looking official until I’m back. You have my apologies for leaving you on the hook while I see to personal business, ladies. I’ll buy you all cocoa tomorrow.”

“That makes it all worth it!” Farah said with a broad smile.

“Sarge!” Casey finally burst out, the last of the apprentices having vanished into the stable. “That girl, the one with the dark hair—”

Principa’s finger was suddenly in her face. “No, Elwick.”

“But Farah and I met her, I’m sure it’s—”

“No, Elwick!” Principia repeated more loudly. “Drop it.”

“But I could see you recognized—”

“Elwick,” the sergeant snapped, “as soon as we’re back at base you will give me five laps of the parade ground at full run before removing your gear.” She took a step closer to the suddenly silent private, glaring. “And nothing that uninteresting, completely random Guild apprentice chooses to do is any of your business until and unless she tells you otherwise. I will not have to repeat any of this to you. Ever. Am I understood?”

Casey swallowed heavily. “Yes, ma’am.”

Principia held her gaze for a moment before withdrawing. “Good. Now I’m going to go have a quick word with Mr. Schwartz, and then we can be on our way back home.”

She nodded once to them, then turned and strode off into the temple proper, through the door Schwartz had earlier been shown by a resident priestess.

“Asking what the deal is with that apprentice is just gonna get me added to the shit list, isn’t it,” Merry said wryly.

Nandi Shahai glanced at her from behind her helmet, then at the door to the stables, and then after Principia, remaining silent.


Jasmine took the opportunity to glance at the sky as she pushed a wheelbarrow filled with the sludge and unspeakable smells of countless horses out to the courtyard, where she had been instructed to pile the refuse to be collected later and transported out of the city, there being ordinances about what could and could not be just tossed away in Tiraas. The island city had to regulate some things with exceeding care, lest people find themselves wading ankle-deep in pollution. It was hard to tell through the city’s omnipresent glow, but the sky didn’t appear to be lightening. What with one thing and another, she had completely lost track of time, but it was surely past midnight by now.

Straightening up after tipping the barrow over, she paused to scrub a sleeve over her sweaty forehead and glanced around the courtyard. Squad 391 were still present, lounging around at ease; clearly they didn’t find the apprentices to be much of a hazard or a responsibility. Not that she could blame them. In fact, one was leaning against the wall quite close by, which drew a second glance from her. The woman had her helmet off, revealing she was an elf. A blonde elf with horizontal ears, not another dark-haired wood elf, but still. There weren’t so many elves in the Legions altogether. It was quite odd to find two in such a small unit.

“Don’t take it as a rejection,” the elven Legionnaire said suddenly as Jasmine turned to push her wheelbarrow back inside for another load. “Locke’s enlistment was under the specific condition that she not go near you except at your invitation. She’s not overly fond of rules in general, but she can toe the line when necessary.”

Jasmine had paused, hands on her burden, to peer at the woman sidelong without turning to face her. “I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Of course. My mistake.”

She pushed the barrow another foot and a half before letting it come to a stop. “Your sergeant claims to be a member of the Guild.”

“It’s not a claim,” the soldier—a corporal, by her insignia—said with a smile. “The Legion knows her history and credentials quite well.”

“Are you sure she’s trustworthy?”

She cocked her head to the side in thought. “Complicated question, isn’t it? The chain of command seems to mostly find her a nuisance…but her own soldiers are quite loyal to her. I would say fiercely so, in some cases. That’s a particular type of officer who bears watching. In war and other dangerous times they have a way of saving us all; in more peaceful times, they cause the most horrendous trouble.”

Jasmine frowned slightly, then opened her mouth to speak again.

“Oi!” Tallie bellowed from within the stable. “Having a nice break out there?”

With a sigh, she picked up the wheelbarrow’s handles and pushed back into the stable.


Schwartz’s rented room wasn’t quite dark anymore by the time he got back to it. Not fully light, either—it was still before dawn—but even without flipping on the fairy lamp, he could see clearly by the pale glow of the windows. Well, good; one less thing to do. He was so tired…

He stepped in, shut and locked the door behind himself, and turned to make his way for the bed. He could afford an actual apartment but considered it wasteful; this small loft had all the space he needed for his books and magical supplies, and keeping a bed tucked into a far corner suited him just fine. Only halfway there did he realize someone was present, lounging in his armchair.

“Oh!” he said, stopping and blinking in surprise. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you…”

“Good morning, Herschel,” Ami said sweetly. “How was your evening?”

“Ah, well, you know. Long. I don’t mean to be inhospitable, but it’s so late it’s early and I’m really—”

“WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN?!”

Despite her usually dulcet tones, Ami Talaari’s voice had been trained for power as well as precision; she could project at a porcelain-cracking volume in an enclosed space. He actually staggered backward, Meesie squealing and puffing up in alarm.

“Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been?” the bard raged, surging to her feet and stalking toward him. “The last thing I heard, you’d gone haring off to some godawful hole full of all manner of thugs, to make friends, of all the ludicrous things! And then you don’t come home all night? I thought you were dead! I pictured you being tortured! I feared you were in jail!”

“I was!” he protested.

Ami halted her advance, and blinked once, slowly. “Run that by me again?”

“Well, I’m not sure if it was jail in a legal sense,” he said. “The Silver Legion raided the warehouse and rounded up everybody who couldn’t escape—which was just me and some poor Eserite apprentices who hardly seemed to know what was happening. And they let me out, obviously, once things were sorted out, but… Yes, that did take up the bulk of the night, I’m afraid. Sorry, I didn’t know you’d be waiting up. Um…you don’t usually visit at…this hour. How long have you been sitting here?”

She waved that away. “Well, I suppose I can’t entirely blame that on you, then. Did you at least gain any contacts within the Guild?”

Schwartz stepped slowly forward and pulled over one of the chairs at the table, sinking down into it. “Well… Actually, it’s kind of a funny story.”

Ami arched an eyebrow superciliously, crossing her arms under her bosom, and Schwartz was pleased that he neither blushed nor lost eye contact; he must be getting used to her. It wasn’t even that he thought of her that way, really, but she did have a most impressive bust. And she accented it regularly and, he was sure, quite deliberately.

“I’m all ears.”

“You wouldn’t rather wait till later in the day?”

Somehow, that eyebrow rose even higher.

“Yes, right,” he sighed. “Well. It turns out the Legion sergeant in charge of all this is also a member of the Thieves’ Guild. And she knew my father. She said he helped her once with something important and she owed him, and since he’s gone now, she considered it her duty to help me out.”

“Wait. Stop.” Ami held up one hand peremptorily. “Did you really just tell me this Silver Legion sergeant is in the Thieves’ Guild? Is that allowed? Is it even possible?”

“I was rather curious about that, too,” he said frankly. “So were the apprentices. But she had a handful of troops following her, as well as the priestess in residence at the Avenist facility where they took us, and nobody contradicted her. And honestly, if anybody could’ve found the one Eserite Legionnaire in all the world to strike up a friendship with, it would’ve been my dad.”

Meesie squeaked rather mournfully, patting his ear. He reached up to scratch her head with a fingertip. She had only known Anton Schwartz briefly, but the elder Schwartz had been quite fond of the little elemental.

“So,” he went on, shrugging, “in a way, this ended up being a more perfect result than we could’ve hoped for. And now I am really indescribably tired…”

“Hmm.” Ami turned to frown out the window, placing herself in profile relative to him, and he sighed and shifted his own eyes to stare stubbornly at a bookcase. There was no way she didn’t do this on purpose. “Yes, that does sound good, doesn’t it? But also risky. If she’s in the Legion… That’s awfully close to Basra.”

“Yes,” he said wearily, “which is why it’s perfect as opposed to merely great.”

“You know,” she mused, a smile growing over her features, “I do believe you’re right. Very well, then! I shall forgive you for making me worry. We had better get planning on…”

She trailed off, having turned to face him. Schwartz was slumped forward in his chair, emitting a soft buzzing noise from his nose. Meesie climbed up onto his head and squeaked once, pointing one paw warningly at Ami.

The bard sighed and shook her head, but permitted herself a small, fond smile. “All right, then. Tomorrow. There’s time.”


“Good morning, Locke!”

Principia sighed, pausing to salute, the rest of her squad straggling to a halt to emulate her. They were ragged—not that it had been a particularly grueling night, just a very long one. She and Nandi were faring well, but drawing from stores of energy in the event of sleeplessness was an elven skill they weren’t able to share with the squad.

“Morning, Captain,” she said as Dijanerad approached. “You’re up early.”

“No, I’m not,” the captain replied with a smile. “On army time, this is business as usual. You’re out late.”

“Wasn’t my idea, ma’am,” Principia replied. “But it ended up being a good night’s work.”

“And I’m afraid it’s not done yet,” Dijanerad said, her expression growing grimmer. “The High Commander wants you, Locke. Soon as you were back, which is now.”

Principia drew in a deep breath and let it out through her nose. “What could she possibly need at this hour?”

“Well, gee, Locke, I don’t know. I bet if you ask her that, in exactly that tone, it’ll make a perfect ice-breaker.”

“I don’t know if I mention it often enough, Cap, but you’re my favorite.”

“That’s because I’m far too tolerant of your horseshit, and no, you don’t. Best get cracking, Locke. Patience is among Commander Rouvad’s many virtues, but…not so much with you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said, saluting again, and turned back to her squad. “Go get some rest, ladies. Except you, Elwick. Five laps. Move it.”

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9 – 37

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“It’s a standard strategy,” Vex explained, folding his hands on the table in front of him. Only he and Zanzayed had seated themselves; the rest stood around the rim of the conference room, with Squad One clustered against the wall opposite Vex. He, of course, sat at the table’s head. “In fact, this particular ploy deserves a great deal of credit for the Tirasian Dynasty’s reconstruction of the Empire in an era when anti-Imperial sentiment was rampant. Resistance movements and terrorist organizations exist even today, and Imperial Intelligence has a hand in all of them. We started a good many, wherever there lay a dangerous degree of citizen unease with no outlet. For the rest, we are the primary provider of funding. Obviously, they are all unaware of this.”

“Why the dragons?” Principia asked. “Surely they had little to fear from general dislike to begin with.”

Vex glanced at Ampophrenon, a clear invitation to speak. The dragon nodded to him before turning to Principia. “It is not that we feared for our own welfare. Our kind have always been rather unpopular among many peoples—I fear, not without reason. One of the Conclave’s aims is to remedy this, but that will likely be the work of generations. What we wished to ward off was an organized movement that would damage that work. Normalizing relations would be much more difficult with substantial public opposition in place.”

“And it is not the Empire’s policy to squash protest movements,” Vex added. “The temptation to do so has brought down many a kingdom; one can only repress the people’s will for so long. The Empire prefers more elegant methods of managing its citizens.”

“You’re being remarkably forthright,” Casey observed, eyes narrowed.

Vex smiled languidly; he seemed almost half-asleep. “The facts of Imperial strategy and tactics aren’t classified. Some of the details of these specific events are, of course, but it’s known, generally, how we do things. What have we to fear from exposure? Whatever its aims, the Empire’s policies result in a public that can generally do what they like. Oddly, they rarely seem to object.”

“The handling of this concern,” Ampophrenon went on, “was an early sticking point in our negotiations with the Empire. Rather than dwell upon it, we mutually decided that making a joint operation would help bind us together, and hopefully smooth over further points of difficulty.” He cast an unreadable look at Zanzayed, who grinned. “Thus, this has all turned out to be a rather more elaborate operation than, frankly, it strictly needed to be. More than half the point was to have the Conclave and the Empire working closely together. After seeing the number of people interested in joining this movement, however, I begin to worry we have created a problem where one did not exist.”

“The method is one we borrowed from the Black Wreath, Lord Ampophrenon,” the marshal said. Her outfit was still rather theatrical, with its black leather and red corset, but without the grisly wing-cloak and skull mask she was otherwise a much less impressive-looking woman, younger than middle age and with the dark hair and tilted eyes common to Sifan. “A wide net of recruitment brings in any remotely interested parties, most of whom want little more than to feel subversive. That attitude is particularly common among the wealthier classes. From there, we carefully weed out the truly motivated for more specific tasks, and a higher degree of trust. It’s a very effective strategy; there’s a reason the Wreath has relied on it for centuries.”

“Allow me to interrupt this self-congratulatory back-patting,” said Zanzayed. “The fact is I blatantly misused my rather tenuous connection to you, Principia, to make you a peripheral cog in this machine. You have my sincere apologies.”

“Only because you’re afraid of the Crow,” Principia said smugly.

His faint smile vanished. “I am not afraid of the Crow,” Zanzayed said testily. “I would rather not have another drawn-out exchange with her, though. Those are time-consuming and costly. In any case, you were never supposed to be in any danger. All of this was quite carefully planned; shining a bright light on you was merely a recruitment method to help us identify anybody who took the bait as a potential target. It was our assumption that a Legion-trained veteran Guild thief could deftly handle any such annoyances; we went to great lengths to keep you out of any real danger.”

“Which brings us to an extremely pertinent point on which I require information,” said Vex, steepling his fingers in front of his face. “We went to considerable trouble to have you and the Guild investigating a harmless gathering far from this fortress. And yet, here you are, and I confess I am without a clue as to how you learned of this. We have reliable reports placing your squad and a group of Guild enforcers en route to your intended target. What are you doing here, Sergeant Locke?”

Principia raised an eyebrow. “I already explained that to your agent, here.”

Vex turned his head, fixing the Marshal with an inquisitive look.

She cleared her throat. “Locke claimed to have been sent here by Vesk, sir.”

Vex simply looked back at Principia, showing no reaction to that news. “Interesting. That is the story you intend to stick with?”

“Believe what suits you,” she said with a shrug. “It’s possible it wasn’t Vesk, but a man matching his description materialized out of nowhere with none of the usual hallmarks of arcane or infernal rapid transit, possessing information there is—you yourself claim—no realistic way he could have, not to mention an aura which was absolutely blinding at that proximity. You probably already know this, but they don’t reveal their auras to elves unless they specifically wish to be recognized. If it wasn’t Vesk, it was another god masquerading as him, which… For our purposes and probably yours, comes out to the same thing.”

“Hmm,” Vex mused. “Lord Ampophrenon, I believe you are the resident expert on the gods. Have you any idea why he would take an interest in this matter?”

“With Lord Vesk, it is even more than usually difficult to say,” the dragon replied with a thoughtful frown. “He is capable of acting toward specific ends through quite elaborate means, just as they all are. There are records of him having done so. On the other hand, he also tends to intervene just because he thinks the outcome thus modified will make for a better story.” He glanced apologetically at Squad One. “If we consider Sergeant Locke and her troops as the likely protagonists here, that would seem to be the case. As I’m sure you can guess, those two motives provide excellent cover for each other. Vesk is a trickster god and less predictable in his motivations than even gods in general. It is an open question. I doubt that another deity would impersonate him, though. Only Elilial would show such disrespect, and I rather think she would find the prospect extremely insulting.”

Vex heaved a sigh. “Well…such is the world. All blasphemy aside, it seems sometimes that the gods only step in when they see a chance to cause more trouble.”

“Sounds like a fair observation to me,” Zanzayed said cheerfully. “Don’t make that face, Puff, it’ll freeze that way.”

“And so you set Saduko up to misdirect the Guild and the Sisterhood,” said Principia. “Exactly how many cults are you trying to antagonize?”

“I can only offer you my inadequate apologies, ladies,” Ampophrenon said, bowing. “We really did attempt to prevent you from being in a dangerous position. Lord Vesk’s intervention was unforeseeable.”

“Do you have some connection to Saduko, Marshal?” Farah inquired.

The marshal raised one eyebrow. “Right. By your apparent reasoning, Privates Avelea and Elwick must be long-lost sisters, being both of apparently Stalweiss descent.”

Farah flushed slightly. “I didn’t mean it like that. Was just a thought…”

“I am an Imperial citizen, born and raised,” the marshal said flatly. “And for your edification, my ancestors were Sheng, not Sifanese.”

“Anyway,” Farah said hastily, “if you weren’t expecting us to be there, how were you planning to bluff your followers? It looked a lot like you were actually trying to kill us.”

A grim silence fell over the room. The marshal stared expressionlessly at Farah.

“Because,” Farah said more hesitantly, “I mean, surely an Imperial agent wouldn’t—”

“Presented with an unforeseen situation with no good outcome,” Vex interrupted, “an Imperial agent keeps her eye on the broader situation and acts to complete her mission. Sometimes, our work necessitates extremely regrettable actions.”

“I believe I was clear on the subject of Locke and her crew being harmed,” Zanzayed remarked in a deceptively mild tone. “It’s fortunate they had a few surprises of their own handy, or you might have found your definition of ‘regrettable’ expanded.”

“While I am certain that you know your business, Lord Vex,” Ampophrenon added, “our honor was at stake in this matter as well. The Conclave would prefer that your agents remember to keep that in consideration when acting on any joint operation, henceforth.”

“I will definitely make a point of that to all operatives involved in Conclave-relevant assignments,” Vex said politely. “I am, of course, very grateful for your timely intervention; you seem to have saved us all a great deal of unpleasantness.”

“Some more than others,” Merry said coldly.

“Quite,” Vex replied, watching the squad through half-lidded eyes. “And you have my apologies as well, ladies. To reiterate, we did make a substantial effort to avoid placing you in harm’s way, but nonetheless, it is regrettable that your involvement put you at risk. Obviously, the Tiraan Empire wishes no harm to the Silver Legions.”

“Oh, obviously,” Principia said wryly.

“I must emphasize, Sergeant, ladies,” Vex replied in a subtly firmer tone, “that you are all Imperial citizens, and thus have a duty to the Silver Throne. You have my word that I shall personally see to arranging remuneration for your hardships. All these affairs, however, are strictly classified.”

“Noted,” said Principia in perfect calm. “I will be sure to include that in my report to the High Commander.”

Vex cleared his throat. “Perhaps you don’t take my meaning, Sergeant Locke…”

“Oh, I understand you just fine. I’m pretty good with subtext.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Casey said, barely above a whisper.

“I thought we’d already established that the unpleasantness was at an end?” said Zanzayed mildly.

“I’m sure you understand the necessity of security in this matter, Lord Zanzayed,” Vex replied, his eyes still on Principia. “With all respect, I would suggest that you speak with Lord Razzavinax before deciding on any courses of action.”

“I think you’d better think carefully about courses of action, Lord Vex,” Casey said sharply. “You’re not just dealing with the Sisters of Avei, here. Locke is still a member in good standing of the Thieves’ Guild. You know what they do to—”

“Elwick, enough,” Principia said quietly.

The marshal smiled sardonically. “I can’t possibly emphasize enough that Imperial Intelligence is not afraid of the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Marshal,” Vex said sharply, and she fell silent. “Sergeant, there is no need for this hostile tone. Rather than exchanging threats, let’s see if we can reach a middle ground.”

“No, I think I’m pretty content exchanging threats, my lord,” Principia said calmly. “Bargaining is an action for people in a weaker position.”

“Ah, yes,” Vex said with a very faint smile. “Your sense of humor is all part of your legend. You are in Tiraas, Locke. Even on the other side of the planet you would not be beyond the reach of Imperial Intelligence. We are merely asking for a little consideration and respect—”

“Such as your agent showed by attempting to murder us,” Principia replied. “I am giving you considerably kinder treatment in return. Keeping secrets from my chain of command is not on the table. Zanzayed!” she said more loudly when Vex opened his mouth again. “What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”

The blue dragon raised an eyebrow. “Really, Prin? You want to chat now? Anyway, I thought we’d established that the matter was a ruse.”

“Sure,” she said equably, “but considering your goal was drawing attention to me and publicly making a connection, the ideal result was if I had agreed to a sit-down, and thus you’d have been prepared with a story if I went for it. You said it was family business, yes? I’ve been turning over and over in my mind just what business you could possibly have with my family, and all I can come up with is your several well-documented brawls with Mary the Crow.”

“She really is the most disagreeable person,” Zanzayed complained to Ampophrenon. “You have no idea.”

“I have met her,” the gold replied mildly. “I found her rather personable, in fact.”

“But beat-downs like that are rather out of character for her,” Principia continued, glancing at Vex, who remained silent. “Against someone like a dragon? If the Crow really considered you an enemy, she’d have carefully arranged for you to be dead, not torn up half the countryside boxing your scaly ears. Three times, that I know of. That is more like what she does with members of the bloodline who…disappoint her.”

“So we can assume she’s boxed your ears a time or two?” Merry suggested.

“The Crow doesn’t play too roughly with family who are too fragile for one of her legendary beatings,” Principia replied, glancing at her. “You asked me once, Lang, why I never pursued true mastery of arcane magic? That’s why. The more I think about this, though, the more I realize the only thing that would surprise me is if one of my aunts or grandmothers hadn’t carried on with a dragon at some point. A lot of them have done weirder things by far. So, Lord Vex, I do believe if you intended to threaten harm to me or anyone under my protection, you have placed yourself in a small room with the wrong dragon. Isn’t that right, cousin?” she asked Zanzayed.

He sighed. “Damn it, that was going to be my big reveal. Has anyone ever told you you suck the fun out of everything, Prin?”

“Nonsense, I am a non-stop barrel of laughs. At least, with people who aren’t involved in plots to murder me.”

“Regardless,” Zanzayed stated in a bored tone, “yes, she’s quite right. I feel the need to take this matter somewhat personally.”

“Zanzayed speaks not only for himself,” Ampophrenon added. “A dragon’s kin are considered sacred to all of us. The Conclave would take exception to any harm brought on Principia by the Empire.”

“You really shouldn’t stir up the Crowbloods anyway,” said Zanzayed with a grimace. “The only reason anybody gets any peace is they mostly don’t like each other, and they all have grudges with the Crow herself. You get two or more pointed in the same direction and you’re about to have a very bad day. Take it from someone who knows firsthand.”

“This is very fascinating information,” Vex said with a calm smile. “I would very much prefer to have known some of it before agreeing to involve Locke in this operation in the first place.”

“Family business is none of yours,” Zanzayed replied with a toothy grin.

“I hope we can consider the issue resolved now?” Ampophrenon asked. “To make our position unequivocally clear, it is not reasonable to suggest that Principia Locke or her troops should try to conceal these events from the Sisterhood of Avei. Any reprisal against them for making a full report will damage the Empire’s relationship with the Conclave of the Winds.”

“What he means,” said Zanzayed, his smile widening alarmingly, “is that Eleanora will be tetchy after I have personally dropped you in the center of the ocean.”

“Zanzayed,” Ampophrenon said reprovingly.

“I have told you over and over, Puff, that it’s necessary to be polite and considerate of mortals if you mean to get on their good side. Which is true. The other half of that equation, though, is that it tends to make some of them forget they are addressing a being who can unmake their entire world with a sneeze. Once in a while, a gentle reminder is constructive.”

“Well, it sounds like you lads have things to discuss,” Principia said. “We’ll be going, then.” Shouldering her lance, she turned and strode past her squad to the conference room’s nearest door.

“I’ll be in touch, cuz!” Zanzayed said brightly, waving from his chair. “Since we’re both living in town now, we’ve gotta get together!”

“Ugh,” she muttered, pulling the door open and stepping through. The squad filed out after her, Farah shutting it behind and sealing in the remainder of Lord Vex’s conversation with the dragons.

Soldiers were about in the fortress as if nothing had ever happened; they were walking, chatting, cleaning, standing guard and doing all the things troops on duty in a boring position in peacetime tended to do. Nothing about the scene was unfamiliar or eerie to Squad One. The Imperial troops gave them curious looks, several respectful greetings and even a salute or two, but they were not stopped. There was nowhere the merest hint that this vital fortification had been completely deserted an hour ago.

They kept quiet until they had descended from the upper conference room to the ground floor and finally emerged into the street. The fog was lifting, though the sky remained overcast, and Tiraas was altogether livelier and brighter than when they had come this way in the first place.

“I can’t believe you tried to arrest them,” Merry said once they were a block distant from the gates. “Did you really think that would work?”

“Of course not,” Principia said without breaking stride.

“Why do it, then?” Ephanie asked. “All due respect, Sarge, trying to assert authority you don’t have just makes you look weak.”

Principia’s eyes darted swiftly about, taking in the nearby scenery without betraying her glance with a move of the head. It was still early in the day, and they weren’t drawing much attention. Still, she turned sharply, taking them off the city’s central avenue and down a quieter side street before answering in a low tone.

“Because a god was involved. Where one is working, it’s a virtual guarantee that others are at least paying attention. I’ve been a faithful servant of Eserion for longer than you four have collectively been alive. I’ve also had no shortage of brushes with Avei—not personally, but I’ve had my hands on a number of sacred objects and rubbed shoulders with her priestesses. I’ve more recent reason to believe she is aware of me. More to the point, girls, those specific two gods, the ones with the greatest likelihood of noticing what was happening here, were the ones most likely to take an interest. Here we have powerful men behind locked doors abusing people for their own benefit. I gave them the chance to submit to justice, and they blew me off. If Eserion or Avei were paying attention, they are now pissed.” She finally glanced back at the others, all of whom were watching her raptly. “If I’m going to have the Conclave of the Winds and Imperial goddamn Intelligence batting at my tail, I would rather have deities take an interest in teaching them humility than have to deal with it myself.”

“Do you think that’ll work?” Farah asked.

Principia shrugged. “You never can tell with gods. It was worth the attempt, anyway.”

“You didn’t invoke Avei’s name,” Casey pointed out. “Wouldn’t that have helped?”

“A sergeant in the Silver Legions doesn’t have that right,” said Ephanie. “It takes more than a little rank in the actual clergy to speak on Avei’s behalf. If the goddess was watching, she would have been offended at the presumption. That’s taking her name in vain.”

“What’s done is done,” Principia said. “Keep the pace up, ladies; I have a feeling our next appointment is going to be even less fun than the last one.”


 

Commander Rouvad paced slowly along the length of the table that had been set up in the underground gymnasium Squad One had used to practice, examining the armor and weapons laid out upon it. Off to one side stood Captain Dijanerad, her expression grim, and a much more serene Bishop Shahai. Also present was General Tagheved, the commander of the Third Legion. A silver-haired woman whose frame was corded with muscle and not diminished in the slightest by age, she watched the proceedings with an unreadable expression.

Squad One stood at a respectful distance, at attention. They were still in full armor, with the exception of Principia, who was dressed only in her white regulation tunic and trousers. It was her armor currently laid out for examination.

“Shielding charms,” Commander Rouvad said at last, reaching out to slide a fingertip along Principia’s breastplate. “Do you know why the Army doesn’t rely on them, Sergeant Locke?”

“For three reasons, Commander,” Principia said crisply. “Because it is always better policy to avoid spellfire than to try to repel it, because Imperial infantry prioritizes mobility above defense, and because the portable charms they are able to carry are serviceable against wandfire but unable to stand up to heavier weapons, like staves. Large metallic objects hold enchantments much better than light uniforms, and armor takes defensive charms very well due to sympathetic principles.”

“Mm,” Rouvad mused, slowly rounding the head of the table and pacing down its other side, her eyes still on its contents. “What other augmentations did you make?”

“Silencing and tracking concealment charms on the boots,” Principia reported. “Much heavier defensive charms on the shields, including a feature whereby the phalanx’s shields magnetically lock together to share a single defensive barrier. They are also equipped to disperse incoming magical energy into the ground, which requires a sizable metallic apparatus to function. This wasn’t tested today, but if it works it should enable a squad to stand up to much heavier fire at the cost of mobility. Charms on the helmet enhance night vision while protecting the wearer from excessive light and sound.”

“Risky,” Tagheved grunted. “You impede your senses in battle, you die.”

Principia stood silently at attention. Rouvad finally raised her head to glance at her.

“Answer her, Sergeant.”

“Yes, ma’am. Modern enchanting is much more precise than that, ma’am. The light-filtering charms are specifically designed to keep a soldier’s visibility at optimum level; it is resistant to flares and improves vision in darkness. I wasn’t able to work it to penetrate smoke, but I’m confident that is achievable. The sonic dampener only activates at a level of sound which is injurious to hearing; in the presence of such noise, soldiers would communicate by hand signals anyway.”

“Mm,” Taghaved said noncommittally.

The High Commander picked up Principia’s lance and held it to the light, peering at the subtly positioned switch on the haft.

“Will this thing fire if I press the button, Locke?”

“Negative, ma’am. That switch releases the firing mechanism. It can’t fire until you’ve pressed the button.”

Rouvad did so, and a narrow vertical slice of the shaft slid inward, a staff-sized clicker mechanism sliding out in its place. At the same time, the spearhead parted down the center, revealing the firing crystal.

“This would have to be partially hollow, then,” Rouvad mused. “That would seriously impair the structural strength of your weapon. Right?”

“Negative, ma’am. It is designed like a standard battlestaff, which means a hollow core of alchemically augmented metal to hold the engravements channeling the firing charge. It’s actually stronger than our steel-cored wooden lances.”

The Commander tilted the lance, studying the parted spearhead. “You can’t tell me this doesn’t utterly gut the physical integrity of the blade.”

“Correct, ma’am. The blade is enchanted to compensate, but that is sub-optimal. It’s a basic rule of enchantment not to do through magic what is more easily done physically. The use of a crystal firing surface is also not ideal; they burn and crack after prolonged use. That weapon is a prototype; it has substantial room for improvement. I was working on a tight schedule.”

“Incredible,” Rouvad murmured, poking at the base of the parted spearhead with a fingertip. “I can’t even see the hinges. I didn’t know you were a metalsmith on top of your numerous other talents, Locke.”

“The physical design was done by a Svennish engineer working in the city, ma’am. He has thoughts on how to improve it, but again… I had to rush them into service.”

“And I press the button again to return it to spear form?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Rouvad thumbed the release, and the clicker slid back into the haft, the spearhead snapping back together. “Awfully close to the clicker when it’s out. In a combat situation you could accidentally disarm your weapon.”

“Yes, ma’am, I noticed that. I plan to rotate the release switch forty-five degrees along the haft and position it several inches forward to reduce that risk. In the next iteration.”

“Why,” Rouvad asked, carefully setting the lance down, “did you feel the need to do this, Locke?”

Principia hesitated, glancing over at the other officers present. Shahai and Tagheved remained impassive, but Dijanerad scowled at her. “Permission to speak freely, Commander?”

“Oh, this should be absolutely priceless,” Rouvad said with a heavy sigh. “Permission granted.”

“Ma’am, the Silver Legions are totally unprepared for combat in this century. We are coasting on the goodwill of the Tiraan Empire and the historically naïve presumption that large-scale military resistance to Avei’s aims will never be faced again. Right now, one for one, any Tiraan and most other military organizations would obliterate a Silver Legion unit of corresponding size in any open confrontation. We are not trained, equipped or prepared for combat with energy weapons. We aren’t prepared to contend with teleporting battlemages, zeppelin air support, mag artillery or tactical scrying. We have nothing that could even begin to stand up to an Imperial strike team, with the possible exception of a Hand of Avei—and frankly the nature of strike teams makes them powerful counters to any magic user, no matter how potent. Commander, if the Silver Legions go to war—any war—as we are, we will be utterly destroyed.”

Deafening silence weighed on the room.

“And of course,” Rouvad said finally, “you believe you are the only person in all of Avei’s legions to have thought of any of this, Sergeant Locke.”

Again, Principia hesitated. “With the greatest respect, High Commander, I have been aware of the Silver Legions longer than you have been alive. They have not changed in that time. What anyone has thought is unknown to me; I only see that nothing has been done.”

“Right,” Rouvad said in a dangerously soft tone. “Because from the exalted rank of sergeant, you are positioned to see everything being done in every Legion on every continent.”

Principia remained silent.

“You enabled her to do this, Shahai?” Rouvad said, turning to stare at the Bishop.

“I arranged this space in which Sergeant Locke could drill her squad,” Shahai said in perfect equanimity. “I was unaware of the specifics of her plans, though I guessed the general sense of it. In hindsight, I stand by that decision. This is good work. A good start, at least.”

“A good start undertaken without authorization, without her commanding officer even knowing of it,” Rouvad grated.

“Remind me, Nandi,” Dijanerad said flatly. “When did I interfere in the running of your command?”

“Enough, Captain,” General Tagheved said.

“I’m sorry if you felt stepped upon, Shahdi,” Shahai replied calmly. “I was given provisional authority over this squad for the duration of my mission. I judged this to be mission-relevant. Indeed, it appears to have saved their lives during the course of this duty. Not only have we not lost five valuable soldiers today, but they have come home with extremely pertinent intelligence.” She gave Rouvad a pointed look.

“I don’t know how many times it is worth bothering to lecture you about the chain of command, Locke,” Rouvad grated. “You do not just run off and do things. You are a sergeant; your decision-making prerogatives are specific and limited, and have been thoroughly explained to you. Major undertakings such as this are to go through the chain of command. You have no idea what is happening at the level above you—any of those numerous levels! Running off to completely alter your squad’s method of operation without your commanding officer’s consent or even knowledge could get good women killed in a crisis.”

“Understood, ma’am.”

“No, Locke,” Rouvad said, and suddenly her tone was purely weary. “You don’t understand. I can go on and on about it, but you’ll only ever think of authority as something you have to circumvent. You are such an utter Eserite at heart… Well, despite what you persist in believing, in the military it is not easier to seek forgiveness than permission. The difference is you might get permission.”

She picked up the lance again, tapping its point against the table. “This is good work, Locke. If you had come up with a proposal for this, I would have cleared it. Your squad’s whole purpose is to explore new methods of operation for the Legions. I would have funded it! And now, since you can’t seem to demonstrate your competence without undercutting your credibility, I have to drag the source of one of the most promising developments I’ve seen in years over the coals before you go down in flames and take your entire squad down with you!”

“What you need to do,” Shahai said calmly, “is give Locke a slap on the wrist and a pat on the head. And then a research budget.”

“I didn’t ask your opinion, Captain Shahai,” Rouvad snapped.

“You’re getting it for free,” Shahai replied. “You badly need to stop trying to browbeat these women into place, Farzida.”

The High Commander rounded on her. “You will not speak to me in that manner in front of soldiers I am in the process of disciplining!”

“Or what?” the Bishop shot back, a sharp edge to her own voice now. “You’ll fire me? Do it, Farzida. I have plenty of hobbies I can pursue until the next High Commander realizes I’m too valuable to leave collecting dust in Viridill. You brought me into this to serve as a liason, to be a calmer voice where you can’t afford to; well, that is exactly what I am doing.

“Soldiers fight and die for each other. You know this. They’ll do the same for a commander who is one of them. Respect is earned, not commanded; you know that as well as any soldier and better than many. Have you thought at all about this squad’s experience in the Legions and how it would affect them? They have been singled out, persecuted, forced to circumvent the chain of command to ensure their very survival, and finally had to watch as the quite frankly unhinged agent who did all this to them was given a pittance of punishment and a promise that she will be back! And now you upbraid them for assuming their officers can’t be trusted? Honestly, Farzida, would you trust you?

“The problem,” she went on fervently, “is that you have to be the Commander with them. They don’t have the privilege of seeing how you agonize over this, how you grieve for soldiers under your command mistreated by others, how it grinds on you having to keep a creature like Basra Syrinx on the rolls because her particular brand of viciousness is something we can’t function without in this tangled modern world. What makes you such a good leader, Farzida—one of the things—is that you hurt the same as your troops hurt, whenever they do. But these women here have never seen that. You’ve never let them; I understand why you cannot afford to. You’ve shown them a cold bureaucrat who seems bent on getting them killed.

“Each of these women are in this Legion because they have nowhere else to go. Well, the Legion has formed them into a unit. Now we badly need to make them understand that they need the Legion as much as the Legion needs them before they start to realize that as a unit, they could go anywhere, do anything they like, and handle anything thrown at them. Because we do need them. Badly. You know and I know how right Locke is; we’re in no way prepared for what we all know will have to come eventually. Right here are represented the talents and the mindset that can help bring the Legions and the Sisterhood forward and ensure our very survival.

“You and Locke have got to start respecting each other on a personal level, and if that’s not good for the chain of command, so be it. For the goddess’s sake, you two would get along swimmingly if you didn’t have so bloody much in common!”

Captain Dijanerad looked shocked by the time Shahai’s speech came to an end, but General Tagheved only watched the elf with an expression of mild amusement. Rouvad stared at her, utterly blank-faced.

The silence stretched out, and none of Squad One dared disturb it with so much as an injudicious breath.

“Sergeant Locke,” the High Commander said suddenly, turning to stare at her. “You will personally scrub every inch of your cabin with your own two hands until it is in new condition. The rest of your squad, since not a one of them had the thought to go over your head when you decided to spit on the chain of command, can do the same with your cohort’s parade ground. Quit doing crap like this, Principia. I have all my future gray hairs carefully planned and have none to waste on you. And…” She set down the lance. “This is damn fine work, Locke. Starting tomorrow, I want you to submit material and budgetary estimates to Captain Dijanerad for the continuation of this research. Squad Three Nine One will continue to have access to this facility for drilling; your mission statement is now expanded to include research and development of modern weaponry and defenses suitable for incorporation into Silver Legion equipment and the necessary techniques to use them.”

She paused, glanced around at all the women present, then sighed and shook her head. “And now I have to go contend with the Thieves’ Guild and Imperial Intelligence. Fortunately, I’ll probably have the Guild on my side for this, disconcerting as that is. General, if you’ve anything further to say to this lot, they’re all yours.”

The High Commander turned and strode off toward the far door, leaving them behind.

General Tagheved watched her go, then turned a contemplative expression on Squad One.

“You’re a poor excuse for a soldier, Locke,” she said thoughtfully. “But you’re the kind of poor soldier who sometimes makes a priceless officer in tumultuous times. You watch your step. Dismissed, ladies.”

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Vadrieny sighed, peering around. Morning sun blazed from a gap in the passing clouds; the mountain air was fresh and bracing, the manor grounds quiet but enlivened by birdsong from outside the walls.

There was a total lack of warlocks or demons.

“Well, fine,” the archdemon said in exasperation. “It’s for the best; I feel ridiculous, shouting into thin air.”

“The woman merely said to call,” Shaeine said calmly, not for the first time. “She seemed quite eager to gain your favor; as Trissiny has explained, they have ample reason to be. If there were more to it, she would have said so.”

“And yet, here we are,” Vadrieny said, folding her arms. “Really, I think this is for the best. Trissiny was right about getting involved with the Wreath, and anyway, this just means they’re not listening. I’m more comfortable knowing I’m not being scryed on.”

“Arcane scrying would not be a practical way for them to be notified if you reached out,” Shaeine said, gently placing a hand on the back of Vadrieny’s shoulder. “Your voice is powerfully magical, Vadrieny; it’s far more likely the Wreath can pick up on that.”

“I don’t think I like that better,” Vadrieny replied, frowning deeply.

“You didn’t expect ’em to just pop up right away, didja?” Ruda inquired from her perch on the manor’s steps, pausing to swig from her bottle of rum. “They’ve gotta check out the situation before doing anything. On the subject of which, this whole idea is pointless on account of the Black fucking Wreath aren’t careless.”

“Be that as it may,” said Shaeine, “if Trissiny’s idea does not pan out, communicating with them may still be—”

She broke off at the sudden appearance of a spell circle on the gravel path in front of them. Vadrieny moved between Shaeine and the circle, subtly flexing her claws and spreading her fiery wings. It was a small circle, though, and simple in design, glowing sickly green and marked only with a sparse few runes.

In the next moment, a puff of smoke erupted from it, reeking of sulfur. It cleared swiftly in the light breeze, revealing an imp, which immediately fell to its knees and prostrated itself face-down on the ground.

“Oh, great, wise, talented and undeniably attractive lady!” the imp wailed in a thin, scratchy voice. “It is the greatest honor inflicted upon this humble servant to have the opportunity to humbly service you! Speak your command and it shall be done, preferably not in a fashion that gets me killed!”

Vadrieny blinked her blazing eyes, glancing at Shaeine before returning her gaze to the imp. It was a gangly little creature, rather like a monkey with some features of a goat: horns, hooves, and an elongated face. The fur with which it was covered was greasy and matted into clumps, and the smell that clung to it was of worse than sulfur. Altogether it couldn’t have been more than a foot tall, standing upright.

“You are supposed to help me?” Vadrieny demanded. “This is the assistance the Wreath promised?”

“Not exactly, oh euphonious one!” the imp declaimed. “Your humble servicer’s task is to learn what you need and carry this information back to your legion of warlocks just waiting on tenterhooks to fulfill their duty to your exalted person. Oh, yes, and I’m also supposed to tell you something from them.” He scrambled to his feet and drew himself up as if at attention, tucking on hand behind his back and discreetly coughing into the other. “Ahem. I am to say hello to your paladin and fairy friends and your vampire hostess and express with the greatest respect that no, we will not be charging headlong into an insultingly obvious trap. Honestly, is babysitting the little thug going to be like this every time? Why couldn’t Arvanzideen have been the one who survived?” He trailed off, blinked his beady eyes once, then swallowed heavily and began folding himself back down into a crouch. “I, uh… It just occurred to me I wasn’t supposed to repeat the whole thing verbatim…”

Ruda howled with laughter. “Ah, man, that is priceless. Since saying ‘I told you so’ is gauche and cliché, I’ll have to upgrade my contribution to ‘I fucking told you so!’”

Vadrienly flexed her claws once, very deliberately; the imp let out a shrill squeak and huddled into a ball.

“Very well,” the archdemon said stiffly, reaching out one leg to prod him with a single talon. “That’s fair. I need two things from the Wreath. First, I want to know if they attacked the Imperial barracks in Veilgrad, and if so, what they took.”

“I can do that!” the imp said, peeking up and nodding vigorously. “Yes indeed, I’m your hellspawn, oh wise and mellifluous, not to mention devastatingly good-looking purveyor of all that is—”

“Please stop!” Vadrieny exclaimed. “Second, we have a Rhaazke demon here who needs a way home. I want to know if the Wreath can help with that.”

“You’ve got a what?” Seeming to forget his terror, the imp unfolded himself, blinking owlishly up at her. “What’re you doing with a Rhaazke? We are on the mortal plane, right? How did you do that?”

“Never you mind!” she barked. “Just get me the answers I asked for. Is that clear?”

He snapped to attention again and saluted. “Yes, ma’am, my greatest and most beneficent—“

“And stop that! Simple answers only, please!”

The imp froze, blinked, worked his mouth slowly as if rolling something around his tongue, and finally spoke hesitantly. “Okay.”

“Now, what information are you supposed to get me?” Vadrieny said sharply.

The imp frowned reproachfully. “You wanna know whether the Wreath attacked the Imperial barracks, and how to send a Rhaazke home. Honestly, lady, you don’t gotta be condescending. I’m not stupid. I was given the task of charging headlong into an insultingly obvious trap just to speak with you! I’m somebody trusted!”

Vadrieny snorted musically. “That, or they don’t care if you die.”

“That…well…I…oh.” His posture slowly deflated until he slouched with a hangdog expression. “I guess I’ll just go…deliver your message, then. Bye.”

With another puff of foul-smelling smoke, the demon vanished. A moment later, the tiny summoning circle faded out.

Vadrieny clapped a clawed hand to her face. “Augh. Why do I feel guilty about that?!”

“Because it was mean,” Shaeine said quietly, patting her shoulder again. “And because you are a good person, if a trifle impatient.”

The crunch of feet on gravel announced the arrival of the others from behind Malivette’s vine-encrusted tool shed.

“I liked him,” Juniper announced with a beaming smile. “He was adorable! We didn’t really get to spend any time with the imps in Melaxyna’s place.”

“Imps,” Trissiny said disapprovingly, “are among the better-behaved but less stable species of sentient demons. They tend to leak infernal radiation wherever they are.”

“Actually, that’s debated among scholars,” Fross chimed. “There’s usually a lot of infernal residue where imps have been, but in most such cases there are lots of dead imps where imps have been, and all magical creatures release energy upon expiring. They’re kind of careless, as I understand it.”

“Either way,” said Trissiny, “I am going to bless this space before—”

“Here’s an idea,” Toby interrupted. “Let’s ask our undead hostess if she minds having blessings laid on her property before we do anything. Malivette has already been more patient with us than we have any right to expect. I really don’t think it would be nice of us to create a patch of her front drive that she can’t walk over.”

“Oh. Right.” Trissiny looked abashed. “Right, that’s a good point.”

“Anyway!” Ruda ambled toward them, casually tossing her bottle from hand to hand. “There’s that much out of the way. The day’s still young, and we’re still up shit creek without a clue. Do what you need to with Vette and the driveway, and then let’s go collect Gabe and get on with the next stage of the plan.”


 

“Captain!”

Dijanerad dismissed Lieutenant Vriss with a pat on the shoulder before turning to face the elf stalking across the parade ground toward her, brandishing a piece of parchment. The rest of Squad One trailed after their sergeant in precise formation, with carefully blank expressions.

“Good morning, Locke,” said the captain. “You know, you get increasingly witty the madder you are. Sometimes I feel tempted to tick you off on purpose, just to enjoy the comedy that follows.”

Principia halted a few yards distant, frowning. “Well…thank you?”

“It wasn’t a random comment,” Dijanerad said dryly. “I’ve learned to associate that observation with the expression on your face right now. Let me just ask for formality’s sake: what’s on your mind?”

“May I be allowed to know why my squad is being punished?” Principia demanded, holding out the paper accusingly.

“If you are, nobody informed me,” Dijanerad said calmly. “In which case I am going to scrub my bathtub with someone’s scalp. Yes, yes, fine, I know. I did sign off on those orders, which are not a punishment. It was at the request of your current—ah, what perfect timing. As always, your Grace.”

She saluted the approaching Bishop Shahai, who nodded to her with a smile. “Oh, stop that, Shahdi; we hold the same rank.”

“Until Syrinx comes back, if she does.”

Shahai rolled her eyes. “At ease, then. Do you mind if I borrow Locke and company? It seems I owe them an explanation.”

“I am perfectly willing for someone other than me to endure this conversation, yes,” Dijanerad said with a grin. “As you were, ladies.”

“First,” said Shahai as the captain departed, “I apologize for the fact that you did not hear this firsthand from me. I prefer, of course, for any such disruptive orders to come with an explanation if possible. It’s been an interesting morning; I had to send the message out before I had liberty to join you.”

“Confined to the Temple grounds?” Principia said sharply. “I assumed this was a punishment of some kind, your Grace, because otherwise it smacks of attempting to protect us. As if someone, somewhere, had mistaken a squad of Silver Legionnaires for a gaggle of simpering schoolgirls.”

“It is an attempt to protect you,” Shahai replied calmly. “Nor is that a denigration of your abilities.” She glanced around the parade grounds; the cohort’s other squads were trailing out toward their assigned duties. “The facts as we know them are that you were recently the target of a campaign by Zanzayed the Blue, which seems to have been meant to draw attention to you. As of today, we are reasonably sure it worked.”

“Worked?” Principia said sharply. “How?”

“Individuals have been watching the Legion fortress’s gates,” Shahai said, still in perfect calm. “That is unusual, but not criminal, and by itself not necessarily suspicious. We do not accost people for just hanging around. They fled when approached, which is much more suspicious. However…” She sighed softly, her expression tightening. “First thing this morning a request was delivered to me at the Cathedral by Bishop Ferdowsi for Silver Legion guards, which as you know is somewhat unusual for Nemitites. Someone he described as ‘suspicious and creepy’ was at the Steppe Library yesterday evening, making pointed inquiries after Private Szaravid.”

Farah’s eyes widened and she clutched her lance tighter, trembling faintly in place.

“I assure you,” Shahai said quickly, “all relevant steps have been taken. Lang, I know you don’t speak with your parents, but the main temple in Calderaas was telescrolled anyway; they will be discreetly watched. Steps were taken to protect all of your families, including Avelea’s ex-husband.” She pursed her lips. “Since attempting to post a guard on a Huntsman would have been tantamount to instigating a brawl, I was forced to explain the situation to Bishop Varanus, and endure his subsequent commentary. And, of course, Legionnaires were posted at the Steppe Library as requested.”

“I am going to stab that dragon right in the nuts,” Principia announced. “With his own jawbone.”

“It does appear Zanzayed’s campaign was effective,” Shahai agreed sardonically. “He has managed to publicly mark you, Locke, as a person of interest to him. While we are still without useful leads as to the identities of this anti-dragon organization, this does reveal they have some organizational capability and the capacity for more forethought than their paint-throwing suggested. They’ve identified members of your squad and begun investigating them. Locke, you are jealous of your privacy, I know, but if there is anyone you would like to have protected, you need only ask.”

Principia snorted. “Who? The Thieves’ Guild? My parents’ grove? The Legions? Seriously, I hope these idiots try to attack any of my past associates. That’ll solve this whole problem neatly.”

“Indeed,” Shahai said with a faint smile. “I fear we are not so lucky as to have such foolish foes. For now, Squad One is confined to the Temple grounds, partly for its direct protection, but mostly as a means to control the situation. You are trusted to take care of yourselves, ladies, and that trust will be acted upon soon. In fact, you are now the perfect bait to draw these dragon-haters out. We know they want you. However, this will occur at a time and place of our choosing—a trap laid by the Sisterhood, not an ambush sprung by our opponents. And until we have more information with which to work, that means you must be kept out of sight and inaccessible.”

“This is is totally unacceptable,” Ephanie said tightly. “For the Conclave to use us this way…”

Shahai sighed and shook her head. “Yes. Part of me hates to be so mercenary, but the fact is that we gain immense political capital from this. Such an action by the Conclave, or any member thereof, places them significantly in our debt. And not even dragons will wish to be on the cult of Avei’s bad side on a permanent basis. Hands of Avei and Silver Legions have brought them down in the past.”

“Your Grace,” Principia said icily, “I had training planned for my squad which required access to carefully prepared facilities, which I set up. At my own expense.”

“I can see that you are compensated, of course,” Shahai said.

Principia shook her head. “It’s only money. Not important.”

“Can I have your wages, then?” Merry muttered.

The sergeant gave her a warning glance, but continued. “The training was what mattered. It was…necessary. I need to be able to drill my squad.”

“Is there something wrong with the parade ground here?” Shahai asked mildly.

“I need to be able to drill my squad in private,” Principia clarified, holding her gaze.

“I see.” The Bishop studied her carefully, then glanced across the assembled Squad One. “Considering the nature of Tiraas, I assume this was a prepared indoor space.”

“Yes, your Grace.”

“For what you had in mind, would you need anything other than the space itself?”

Principia hesitated before responding. “Practice dummies. Imperial Army grade, preferably, with shielding charms.”

“Is there something you would like to tell me, Sergeant?” Shahai asked quietly.

Principia drew in a deep breath. “I assure you, your Grace, we are not up to anything against regulations or the Legion code of conduct.”

“But something you don’t wish to be seen doing.”

“There are things beyond regulations and codes binding the Legions,” Principia said evenly. “I might even say strangling them. I think the High Commander will approve of what we’ll have to show her—if I am allowed to conduct the training needed.”

“And you cannot just ask her because…”

“Because,” Principia said stiffly, “I’m reasonably sure she won’t let us do it.”

Shahai studied them all again. The squad stood rigidly at attention, eyes straight ahead, except for Princpia’s, which rested on the Bishop’s face.

“I will secure one of the subterranean gymnasiums for you,” Shahai said abruptly. “You are extending trust to me in this, Locke, so I shall do likewise. You have earned some confidence in your judgment. Please do keep in mind that the outcome of your…experiment…will reflect on me.”

“You will not be disappointed, your Grace.”

“I don’t worry about being disappointed,” Shahai murmured, turning back toward the temple. “Disappointment I can live with. I worry about the things I can’t. Dismissed, ladies.”


“Okay, I’ll admit it,” Gabriel said, “I’m impressed. And a little puzzled. Seriously, how did you know to come here? Are you sure you’ve never been to Veilgrad before?”

“For about ten minutes at a time, on the way to and from Puna Dara.” Ruda snorted. “It’s a city—I know how cities work. Punaji royalty don’t get raised in a palace. People who grow up in palaces have no concept of how actual people live, and that is a recipe for a bad fucking leader.” She shrugged, gesturing expansively around at the shabby, shadowed back street into which they had stepped. “I’ve been watching the city while we’ve wandered through it. Every city has something like this—one any bigger would have several. You just keep an eye on the street layout, check the quality and size of buildings and their state of repair, and watch the movements of people, see where the shabby and/or sneaky ones drift toward.”

“You’ve observed all that just from passing through the city a few times over two days?” Trissiny said. “Well, I’m… Floored, honestly. That’s sort of amazing.”

Ruda turned to wink at her. “You were trained to lead troops, Boots; I was trained to lead everyone else. Neither of you two pay much attention to people, you know that? Anyhow… Since I like you, I’m comfortable admitting that we lucked out, here. The kind of signs I was looking for could just as well lead to an industrial area, or a foreigner-town like Lor’naris. Or several other things.”

At a very superficial glance, Rose Street was just another shopping neighborhood, lined with stores and stalls and wavering very slightly in its course; in contrast to the ordered grid of Tiraas, Veilgrad had meandering streets that had clearly been allowed to grow organically. It was a shadier avenue than most in the literal sense, sheltered by the city wall on one side and the towering bulk of warehouses and factories on the other, its smaller storefronts sandwiched into a space that had probably been a mandated gap between the wall and the town proper long ago, in more militaristic times.

It wasn’t that everything was in particularly bad repair, either. In fact, a few of the storefronts they passed were clean and formed of ostentatiously carved wood, with gilded signs and broad glass windows graced by velvet curtains. Others were shabby, and this variety of shops here mixed together in a way that rich and poor rarely did in most places. The signs were subtler, but unmistakeable once noticed. Rough-looking, unsmiling people loitered in alleys and in front of the pricier shops, staring flatly at everyone who passed, and making up for the total lack of actual constables. Well more than half of the stores, despite being clearly open, had boarded windows, no signs and generally no indication of what sort of business they did. There was a disproportionate number of weapon and magic stores, and far too many all-purpose pawn shops with discreet signage. Nearly every window had bars, either permanently in place or fixed to be latched onto storefront displays once business hours ended. A good number of places that were too clean and well-repaired to be abandoned were closed and shuttered, their own business hours clearly occurring after dark.

“This is exactly the kind of neighborhood my father warned me to stay out of,” Gabriel murmured.

“Oh, c’mon, what’s going to happen to you?” Ruda asked breezily. “You’re practically invulnerable. Yes, Arquin, fucking stabbed you, and so on. You need some new fucking material.”

“I wasn’t going to say that,” he replied, “and it loses emphasis when said by someone who uses ‘fucking’ as punctuation. Anyhow, it’s not about physical vulnerability. If a mob had jumped me and any of them got so much as a broken nail, the story would be how the half-demon mauled a bunch of upstanding citizens. Even assuming a magistrate enforced the actual laws, every incident like that brings me closer to a headsman with a blessed ax. Brought, I guess,” he added. “I don’t think I’ll ever be used to being someone…significant.”

“We don’t seem to be making any friends, here,” Trissiny murmured. “Why is everyone just staring? If they’d run, or attack, or… I can’t figure out what to expect.”

Indeed, their passage down the street brought most activity nearby to a stop, with thugs, passersby and shopkeepers pausing to gaze flatly at them.

“Normal people don’t flee or attack strangers, Trissiny, that’s just you,” Ruda said cheerfully. “Here we have three teenagers, very well-dressed and with needlessly expensive weapons. One, however, is in armor that clearly means serious fucking business even if you haven’t read enough books to know what a Hand of Avei looks like. We’re clearly marks, but also possibly not to be fucked with, so they don’t know what to think. Usually the presence of the Thieves’ Guild determines how the rough element behaves, but if that soldier told you the truth, they aren’t around anymore. That leaves a gray area in everyone’s expectations.”

“Hmp,” Trissiny grunted disapprovingly, glaring at a brawny man in a sleeveless vest. He blinked once, then nodded respectfully at her and eased backward into the shadows of an alley. “What do all these people do if there’s no Guild? They can’t all be criminals, or the Guild would come back to stomp on them. They like to talk about bringing down the powerful, but what they really don’t tolerate is competition.”

Ruda shrugged. “Probably just folk doing business in less-than-socially-acceptable materials, mostly. Maybe some light smuggling, a little gambling, harmless stuff like that. I guarantee the local shroom farms are in basements on this street.”

“Wait, back up. I look expensive?” Ariel asked, sounding mildly surprised.

“To someone who knows weapons, you’re clearly elven and old,” said Ruda. “That automatically means expensive, if you can find the right buyer.”

“So…what is our plan, here?” Gabriel asked. “So far, this seems about as useful a day as Toby and the fairies are probably having.”

“They might still get something out of the cultist prisoners,” Trissiny murmured.

“Yeah, but we aren’t getting anything out of the local rough element,” Gabe retorted. “I thought the big idea was to see if we can find information about dangerous business in town.” He frowned, glancing up and down the street. “Actually…hasn’t everyone been telling us the citizens of Veilgrad have been more aggressive than usual lately? This seems too quiet…”

“Well, obviously, you learn things by talking to people.” Ruda paused, turned to look at them critically, then continued. “Okay, you two hang out here for a bit while I go talk to someone.”

“Why?” Trissiny demanded.

“Because,” the pirate said with a grin, “neither of you has the slightest concept how to have the kind of conversation I’m about to have, and you will fuck it up.”

“She’s almost certainly right,” Ariel noted.

“Thanks,” Gabriel said sourly.

“Be right back,” Ruda said, and strolled off toward a stall selling bread and sausage in front of a moneylender’s store with iron bars over its windows. No less than five scruffy, muscular, well-armed men loitered around the front of the building.

Ruda walked right up to the stand and leaned on it, conversing with the stout woman behind it, who looked wary but gradually seemed to un-tense as the pirate spoke. A moment later, she was smiling and deftly slicing a tough little bun with a knife, forming a kind of pocket into which she stuffed a hot sausage and a helping of sauerkraut. The whole time, Ruda chattered on aimlessly.

“None of that seems too difficult,” Trissiny muttered.

“Yeah,” Gabe agreed. “And do you notice how she’s not ordering any food for us?”

“I’m not hungry anyway. What, doesn’t Grusser feed you?”

“That’s not the point,” he huffed. “It’s rude.”

“Then analyze the message,” Ariel suggested. “Unlike you, Princess Zaruda is rude for specific purpose, not due to a lack of social skills.”

“Yeah?” he said irritably. “What’s your excuse?”

“I was designed for magical assistance, not social interaction. It’s my nature to render straightforward opinion, which is helpful toward my primary purpose but, I have noticed, often counterproductive when people’s feelings come into play.”

“You could refrain from sharing all your opinions?” Trissiny suggested.

“I do. You have never heard me observe, for example, that that dryad of yours desperately needs to be muzzled and leashed. Sometimes, however, personal observations are imminently relevant to the situation at hand.”

Trissiny started to speak again, but fell still, staring at the action around the stall.

One of the toughs watching over the moneylender’s building had straightened from his lounging position at the corner, swaggered over to Ruda and leaned forward to say something inaudible at that distance, leering. His compatriots were staring at this expressionlessly, making no move to get involved.

Ruda glanced up at the man, said something curt, and turned her attention back to the sausage vendor, who now also looked nervous.

Scowling, the thug grabbed Ruda by the shoulder, attempting to spin her around.

Her rapier formed a silver arc as she whipped it out of its sheath and stabbed him through the foot.

“Wait,” Gabriel said urgently, grabbing Trissiny’s pauldron as she started forward. “Just wait. Ruda knows what she’s doing; if the others get involved, we’ll go help.”

They didn’t, though. One of the tough’s fellows rolled his eyes and another burst out laughing, but no one made a move to help him. He hopped backward, flailing for balance and cursing loudly, which lasted until Ruda landed a vicious kick between his legs.

She came strolling back to her friend, munching on her sausage roll and leaving the man huddled in a ball on the sidewalk. The sausage vendor gave him a pitiless look and snorted; one of his friends finally stepped forward to help him up, while another called “Nice kick!” after Ruda.

“Hey, you didn’t butt in,” Ruda said cheerfully. “You’re finally learnin’ some discretion, Shiny Boots!”

“Gabriel stopped her,” Ariel said. “Even more impressive, he is finally learning some discretion.”

“Shut up, Ariel,” the paladins said in unison.

“Did you gain anything from that besides a second breakfast?” Trissiny added.

Ruda chewed, swallowed, and grinned. “Yup. Some insight into where the creepy shit in this town tends to come from and congregate. Did you know there are catacombs?”

“No, but of course there are catacombs,” Gabriel groaned. “There are always catacombs.”

“Tiraas doesn’t have catacombs,” Trissiny pointed out. “And honestly, how many places have you been to that did?”

“Come on, that’s quibbling over terminology. Tiraas has a network of unusually large sewer tunnels, and the University has the Crawl. There’s always something nasty underground, where the nasty things go to hide.” He sighed. “And we have to go down there, don’t we?”

“What, us? Just like that, at the first sign of the existence of such a thing?” Ruda snorted, took a bite of her sandwich and carried on talking around it. “Try not to be such a towering fucknut, Arquin. You need to read some comics; doin’ shit like that is exactly what always gets the heroes into trouble. No, if we’re going into any goddamn catacombs, we’re bringin’ the whole group. We handled the Crawl, nothing under this town’s gonna take on the ten of us.” She paused to swallow. “But. Before we bring the others in, let’s get some more information. The nice lady told me where the nearest entrance is—it’s under a Universal Church chapel, so should be safe enough. And by the way, this stuff is awesome. I can’t believe I never had sauerkraut before. Gotta import some of this back home.”

“Ew.” Gabriel wrinkled his nose. “That crap tastes like pissed-on feet.”

“People are eating here, you fucking cretin. Mind your goddamn language.”

“A chapel sounds good,” Trissiny agreed. “We can ask the priests there about the catacombs.”

“Yeah, except there aren’t any,” said Ruda. “My new friend back there said the Universal Church has been pulling out of the city since early summer. Only their central cathedral still has any staff at all, and it’s down to a skeleton crew.”

“Oh, so it’s an abandoned church,” Gabriel groaned. “That’s good and creepy.”

“Less creepy than roomin’ with a vampire,” Ruda said, grinning, which was a horrible sight given the tendency of sauerkraut and sausage to stick in the teeth. “C’mon, whiner, she said it was just up the street a ways.”

“Odd that the Universal Church would have a chapel in this neighborhood,” Trissiny said, frowning. They moved off down Rose Street, following Ruda.

“Probably just seems that way because you’re an elitist, Boots. If you’re running any kind of organization that does charity, you go where the people who need charity are. Isn’t that the whole point of your Silver Missions?”

“Yes, you’re right,” Trissiny said thoughtfully. “In fact, now that you bring that up, this is an excellent place to put one, especially if the local church has closed up. I’ll send a scroll to the Temple next chance I get.”

“I thought the Avenists stayed out of Veilgrad because it was full of Shaathists?” Gabriel said.

“At no point in all of history have the Sisters of Avei permitted the Huntsmen to push us around,” she said frostily. “There’s not a significant Sisterhood facility in Veilgrad because there aren’t enough Avenists worshipers to make it worthwhile, and we don’t proselytize as a rule.”

“Okay, okay,” he said, raising his hands. “No need to snap.”

“Gabriel, for your own well-being and general peace of mind, refrain from telling irate feminists to mind their tone.”

Ruda howled with laughter, spraying flecks of her sandwich. Luckily she was facing away from them, but that still served as enough of a distraction to end the discussion.

Most of Rose Street was much the same as the parts they had already seen. They did, at one point, pass a stone building which stood out from its mostly wooden counterparts; its only sign advertised free meals for the poor, and there was a discreet sunburst of Omnu painted above the door. Another block or so beyond that, not long after Ruda finished her sandwich, they finally came to the old chapel.

It was a typical representation of the Church’s preferred style: stone, rectangular and with tall windows. None were stained glass, and all were behind iron bars; encouragingly, none had been broken. The place was still and silent, an accumulation of dead leaves and other minor debris on its steps and sills attesting to its disused state, though it had clearly not been abandoned long enough for any real decay to set in. As far as could be observed from the street, the chapel had suffered no actual damage.

“So,” Gabriel drawled, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “Do we…knock?”

“Do I have to do everything around here?” Ruda said, rolling her eyes. “You two are fucking paladins. I’m pretty sure you’ve got the right to go in a Universal Church chapel if you want. Hell, I doubt anybody would bitch too much if you broke in the door.”

“Ruda,” Trissiny said, turning to gaze evenly at her.

“What?”

Trissiny held her gaze for a long, silent moment, until Ruda sighed and shuffled her boots, looking actually uncomfortable. “All right, fine, sorry. I doubt anybody would complain if you broke the door. Better?”

“Yes, thank you,” Trissiny said with a smile.

“Well, there’s always the traditional approach to try before that,” Gabriel said, bounding up the two steps leading to the doors. “It’d be a shame to damage these.” Indeed, they were of the local dark hardwood, once well-polished, though their sheen was quite dull now, and ornately carved to form a large ankh split down the middle where the double doors opened. He grasped the handle and pulled.

The hinges squealed in complaint at their long disuse, but the door opened easily. Gabriel froze, blinking, then turned to stare down at the others.

“Is it just me, or is that…ominous?”

“It’s a little ominous, yeah,” Ruda agreed. “Unless the Church had gotten too bureaucratic for its own good, someone should’ve thought to at least lock it.”

“Well, actually,” said Trissiny with a slight smile, “according to—”

“I’m sorry to interrupt this charming banter,” said Ariel, “but you should be aware there is magic active in that building, and not of the divine nature one would expect on a chapel. In fact, its normal blessings have been eroded far more than a few months of disuse would account for. Someone did that deliberately.”

“What kind of magic?” Trissiny demanded, frowning. “I don’t sense anything…evil.”

“It is vague and extremely difficult for me to pin down,” the sword replied. “Which, in conjunction with your own failure to identify a magical signature, suggests what I am perceiving is some kind of ward intended to obscure what is happening within.”

The three of them exchanged a round of looks, frowning, then turned as one to peer up at the silent chapel. The street around them was even quieter than normal, it seemed.

“We’d better have a look,” Gabriel said finally. “And I’m not just saying that because I’d feel ridiculous running away from something just because it’s kind of creepy. If we’re going to go get the others in on this, we should have something actually useful to tell them.”

“Agreed,” said Trissiny, stepping up to join him. “A quick look.”

They filed inside, Gabriel leaving the door standing open, and paused, letting their eyes grow accustomed to the dimness. The interior was laid out on a standard plan, with a wall right in front of them serving to divide the main sanctuary from its entryway. It covered only the center of the space, leaving gaps to either side into the chapel proper. After a moment, Trissiny drew her sword, nodding pointedly to the others, who followed suit. Gabriel pulled his wand out, somewhat awkwardly drawing Ariel left-handed.

“I sense something now,” Trissiny murmured. “Faint, obscured, but…it makes me a little edgy. Be wary.”

They stepped around the corner into the sanctuary, and froze.

The sanctuary was a wreck. Its pews were demolished, scattered about as little more than kindling, leaving a wide plowed track running erratically through the debris instead of the orderly central aisle there would have been before. The entire pulpit was destroyed, the very dais on which it had stood ripped up, floorboards and flagstones alike. All this had been piled in the choir loft, leaving a gaping hole in the floor where the pastor would have stood to give sermons.

More immediately, the room was occupied.

The man standing to the right of the hole was tall and hunched, wearing a hooded robe that had been blood red before getting as filthy as it was; it served handily to conceal his appearance. The students gave him, the destruction and the hole into the underground only a passing look before focusing on the other creature present.

At least nine feet tall, it was made of bones—apparently human bones, though its own form was not at all human. A rough melange of ribcages and pelvises formed its lower body, which was laid out roughly like a horse’s, with four bowed limbs cobbled together from multiple long bones supporting it. In fact, it was proportioned like a centaur, a secondary torso (also stitched together from pieces of skeletons) rising from the front of its lower body. Four spindly arms extended from this, at uneven intervals, seemingly attached wherever a suitable end of a collarbone happened to jut from its asymmetrical construction. On the top of the towering monstrosity perched an incongruously normal-sized human skull, banded with iron, marked with runes and lit from within by eerie green fire. The whole construct was bound together with a combination of metal joints and supports, and networks of black, oozing tissue serving as ligaments. All of its fingers, of which it had an uneven number on each hand, were tipped in iron claws; its four feet were huge iron horseshoes, each connected to its legs by the bones of three distinct human feet.

“Well,” Ruda said after a moment, “do you fucking sense that?”

“Fools and interlopers,” the bent man hissed, dry-washing his hands in front of his filthy robe. The ragged ends of a graying brown beard emerged from the deep hollow of his hood, all that could be seen of his features. “Running around, trying to spoil everything. Try, little bugs, just try. More fun in the end.”

“Oh, gods,” Gabriel muttered. “He’s one of those.”

“Enjoy your last moments!” the man suddenly shrieked, and skittered toward the hole with an oddly spider-like gait. He vanished into the darkness below, deranged laughter echoing after him.

The bone construct took a deliberate step forward, a wet rumble sounding from within one of its chests. Framed by rib bones, there were several pulsing organs that might have been hearts, lungs, or something comparable.

“We can take this thing, right?” Gabriel muttered tersely.

“Standard necromancy, not chaos,” Ariel reported. “It is safe to use magic against it.”

“Hang on,” said Trissiny. She stepped forward and raised her voice. “Hey, you! Can you understand me? Do you talk?”

The construct halted its slow advance, peering down at her. “Khhrrr?”

“I’ll take that for a yes,” she said. “We surrender.”

It leaned forward; there was no interpreting any expression on its fleshless face, but it lowered its arms to a slightly less menacing position. “Surrrr?”

“What?” Ruda hissed. “What the fuck are you doing?”

“Here, see?” Trissiny carefully reversed the grip on her sword, holding it point-down. “All yours. Close your eyes,” she added in a much lower tone, and tossed the sword forward, straight at one of the construct’s hands.

Apparently by reflex, it caught the weapon by its hilt.

The chapel filled with a deafening roar and an obliterating blaze of white light.

“Motherfucker!” Gabriel squawked, staggering to one side and furiously rubbing his eyes.

“She warned you.”

“Oh, shut up!”

“She did, though,” said Ruda, lowering her hands from her own eyes to survey the damage.

Just like that, the towering abomination was gone. Not so much as a splinter of bone remained, though its four smoldering horseshoes still rested on the floor amid the debris. None of the wooden scraps had been burned, despite the flecks of ash drifting on the air.

Trissiny’s sword rested on the ground, its point improbably driven into the floorboards. She stepped forward and picked it up, looking smug.

“That was pretty damn underhanded,” Ruda noted with approval. “Good to see you branching out your tactics and all, Triss, but isn’t using surrender as a cover for attack pretty damn well frowned upon? That doesn’t seem very Avenist.”

“I didn’t attack it,” Trissiny replied, sliding her sword back into its scabbard. “Anyone picking up this sword is inviting Avei’s direct attention. She surely wouldn’t smite someone for catching something I threw at them, but by someone, I refer to an actual person. A necromantic abomination of the worst kind is an entirely different matter.”

“Sounds to me like you’re splitting hairs,” Ruda said skeptically.

“Mm. You may have a point.” Trissiny frowned thoughtfully. “I will pray on that later.”

“Meanwhile!” Gabriel snapped, still blinking his eyes. “Needless to say, we are not going down that hole. This seems like exactly the kind of intel we should bring back to the others so we can form a plan and act on it.”

“Yeah,” Ruda agreed. “I feel even worse about Toby, Juniper and Fross being sent off to the prison, now. They’re obviously wasting their time.” She glanced at the ragged tunnel leading underground, into which the robed man had fled. “No point interrogating the chaos cultists dumb enough to get caught, when we should be worried about the ones still loose.”

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“Well, at least we didn’t have to have coffee,” Merry said.

“Are you still going on about this?” Ephanie exclaimed. “You lost a few hours of sleep. By tomorrow, it will be like it never happened.”

“Now, Avelea, keep in mind your squadron duties,” Principia said solemnly. “Lang is the designated complainer. She can’t do her job if you’re going to be all reasonable about stuff.”

Merry rolled her eyes. “I can do my job just fine, unless you take a vow of silence, Sarge.”

“Indoor voice, Lang,” Principia replied calmly. “You know I like to keep things casual, but you can’t be flouting the chain of command in public.”

Merry hesitated at that, glancing back at the parade ground from which they had just retreated. Most of the other squads were also trickling back to their cabins, though Squad Three were on cleanup duty. None appeared to be in earshot. Not human earshot, anyway.

“Sorry, ma’am,” Merry said anyway. She didn’t quite manage a tone of authentic contrition, but also didn’t sound sarcastic or bitter, for once. Principia gave her a sly half-smile which brought a scowl in return. A silent scowl.

“Goddess bless LQ,” Farah groaned, setting her helmet down on the bench set up outside their cabin and pouring herself a glass from the pitcher of water laid out waiting for them. Beads of condensation wreathed it, testifying to its temperature. Though the weather wasn’t hot by any means, chilled water was a treasured luxury after their drill, and until the recent shakeup in the cohort’s leadership, would have been an undreamed one.

Their new quartermaster, one of the lieutenants Dijanerad had brought in, was indeed a gift from the goddess, or so the soldiers saw her. She was clever enough to obtain things like ice that would normally not be part of their budget, thoughtful enough to do so and efficient enough to have things like this ready and waiting, leaving no other sign of her passing. The Ninth Cohort, being city-stationed and still somewhat under strength, was far from the best-equipped in the Legion, but they got remarkable mileage from what they did have.

“Mm hm,” Principia agreed, standing to one side and studying the corner of their cabin in silence. Casey gave her an odd look in passing, before joining the others around the bench. In addition to chilled water, there were towels—slightly threadbare, which probably explained how LQ had obtained them—a welcome touch as they wouldn’t have time to bathe properly before mess. “Can I help you with something?”

The others paused, looking up at her uncertainly; she was still watching the edge of the building, rather than them.

Then someone stepped around the corner and bowed.

“Forgive me,” she said smoothly. It was a very distinctive voice, cultured, accented and slightly raspy. “I of course did not wish to disrupt your practice. Though I am no judge, it is very impressive to see you at work. Your unit is like a finely-tuned machine.”

“Are you lost?” Principia asked mildly. “The temple complex, where you’ll find the priestesses, is immediately reached from Imperial Square. That’s also where you’d go first to enlist. Sorry, I’m at a loss what else a person might want in the Legion’s grounds.”

“Actually, my business is personal,” the young woman said with a calm smile. She kept her hands folded demurely in front of her, a picture of nonthreatening goodwill, but the rest of Squad One slowly straightened up nonetheless, putting down towels and cups. Each still had a lance in hand, due to the lack of a place to set them and the presence on the grounds of Captain Dijanerad, who had vivid opinions on the subject of weapons casually lying around like toys. “Lord Zanzayed is most eager to speak further with you, Ms. Locke.”

“Not to quibble,” Principia said, “but under the circumstances it would customarily be Sergeant Locke.”

“Of course, of course, forgive me,” the woman replied smoothly. “It is difficult to know, in an unfamiliar situation, which of a person’s aliases they wish to use, is it not? I thought perhaps I would gain Keys’s attention faster than the Sergeant’s, but decided upon a middle ground.”

“And…you are?” Principia asked, staring her down.

She bowed again. “My name is Saduko. I am both pleased and honored to make your acquaintance.”

“Yes, sure,” Principia said, raising an eyebrow. “But who are you?”

The young Sifanese woman smiled, and this time there was something subtly gleeful in the expression beneath the courtesy. “Well. The word translates poorly, but on this continent, they call me Gimmick.”

“And now you’re carrying messages for the dragons,” Principia mused.

“For one dragon,” Saduko said modestly. “I do not presume to reach above my station.”

“You work fast,” Principia noted. “This is quite a promotion from serving canapes.”

“Ah, so you did notice me,” she replied demurely. “How very flattering. I am merely a humble messenger, however. It is Lord Zanzayed who craves the honor of your company.”

“Lord Zanzayed knows how to reach Bishop Shahai, I’m sure. In fact, there are numerous official channels to her. That would be a great deal easier than getting someone in here to talk to me.”

“It is not for me to ponder the motives or desires of my employers,” Saduko said with a self-effacing smile. “But perhaps his lordship has not sought out the Bishop because he wishes, specifically, to speak with you. I understand why, if I may say so. You have…quite the reputation, in various quarters.”

“Form and stand!” Principia barked. Immediately, her squad made a line extending from her left, standing at attention, lances in hand and planted on the ground. Saduko reflexively stepped back from them, only the faintest flicker of uncertainty passing across her expression, quickly mastered.

“Who let you in here?” Principia asked quietly.

“I’m not sure I understand…Sergeant,” Saduko replied, her calm smile returning. “The gates are not closed.”

“The gates are attended, and the guards do not admit just anyone to a military facility. They would definitely not have sent you here to give a personal message to a non-commissioned officer who is on duty. So, Gimmick, did you gain entry to these grounds on false pretenses, or did you just sneak in?”

“That, with all respect, is poor form, Keys,” Saduko replied. Her polite smile was still in place, but her tone had become noticeably cooler. In fact, it seemed to worsen the slight rasp in her voice. “One does not interrogate a fellow professional as to her methods. You have surely lived long enough by the Big Guy’s example to know better.”

“You are, depending on what you think is going on here, either failing to respect my cover or maliciously interfering with my personal life,” Principia barked. “You see these armed, unamused-looking women? They are shortly going to expel you from the grounds, and let me assure you, Saduko, this is the kinder approach from where I’m standing. I can believe Zanzayed might have told you to do this, in which case someone is going to correct his manners in due time, but I know damn well the Guild didn’t send you. In fact, considering their arrangements with the Sisterhood concerning individuals involved in both cults, I also know they aren’t aware you are doing this, and if I really wanted to harm you, I would tell them. I don’t, so I won’t. At this time.”

“I see.” Saduko’s smile had faded, though her expression was still calm. “I apologize, Sergeant, for my misstep; I had honestly hoped we would get along better. There is no need for weapons; I can find my own way out.”

“You can find it faster with help,” Prin said flatly. “Squad, escort this young lady—politely—to the exterior gate.”

All four saluted crisply and moved forward, forming a four-point formation around Saduko. They stood a touch too close to be mistaken for an honor guard.

“This way, if you please,” Ephanie said firmly to their uninvited guest.

Saduko paused to bow deeply to Principia. “I look forward to seeing you again, Sergeant, under more congenial circumstances. Is there a message I may carry back to Lord Zanzayed?”

“If his mother didn’t teach him manners, it’s certainly not your job or mine,” Principia said dryly. “Forward march.”

Saduko didn’t force Squad One to subject her to the indignity of a manhandling; she began moving when they did, though the first few steps were backward as she kept an appraising stare on Principia. She turned, though, and strode calmly along with her head high. By her manner, one might have thought the four soldiers were an honor guard.

Principia let out a sigh as they retreated toward the gate, finally turning around and saluting Captain Dijanerad, who stood a few yards distant.

“Why,” the Captain asked, “Locke, is it always you?”

“I am a very interesting person, Captain,” Prin replied. “If you’ll forgive my absence from the mess, I think I had better go report this posthaste.”

“Bishop Shahai is dining with the High Commander, as it happens,” said Dijanerad. “Do you think this is important enough to interrupt their lunch?”

“I’ve got a dragon apparently interested in me, ma’am,” Principia replied. “It’s at least important enough to go stand outside until they’re done.”

“I can’t really argue with that,” the Captain said with a faint smile. “Your squad knows how to attend their duties in your absence?”

“That hurts, Captain,” Prin said reproachfully. “Really. I thought we were friends.”

Dijanerad’s lips twitched in poorly suppressed amusement. “Dismissed, Locke. And don’t joke with the High Commander. I believe you know her opinion of your sense of humor.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said solemnly, saluting again and turning to stride off toward the temple. She waited until she was well out of earshot of the parade grounds to indulge in a scowl and mutter to herself. “Got me barking orders and having Eserites thrown out… Omnu’s breath, these bloody women are turning me into one of ’em.”


 

It wasn’t a large square, nor was it in a central location, being skewed far toward the northwest wall of the city, but this was by far the most crowded and lively place they had yet seen in Veilgrad. Much of that, of course, was due to the thriving market taking place here. Stalls ringed the buildings facing the square itself, wooden affairs sheltered only by canvas awnings, but despite their lack of walls none of them appeared to be temporary structures. Their posts and boards are as sturdy as anything else in town, and many were as carefully polished and carved. Several had stovepipes running from cast iron stoves which, though not now lit, would become very important when winter rolled down from the Stalrange.

Aside from the economic value of Stosshlein Square, the place clearly had cultural value. The buildings framing it were tall stone structures ringed by battlements, one of which was topped with floors in a more decorative style—like the central keep in which Grusser lived, it resembled a sprawling cottage planted atop a fortress. The other two were just fortresses. They were actually guild halls now, each hosting several craft and trading houses, but had originally been made for war. From the very center of the square rose a tall column atop which sat a statue of a man in armor astride a rearing horse. To judge by the style of his armor, this commemorated a Tiraan warrior, though they had seen other memorials to Stalweiss heroes as they passed through the city. Veilgrad clearly honored every part of its complex history.

It was easy to appreciate Stosshlein Square from their current vantage; not only did they have a fantastic view, but they were distanced from the press of people going about their daily business. The larger, more complex of the structures bordering the square had a pub on its upper floor which had a wide terrace looming over the square itself. It was a lovely day to sit outdoors and enjoy a cup of tea, sunny and with a slight wind.

“Trissiny, I have a question and I’m concerned it’ll make me sound conceited,” Fross confessed in a low tone, hovering close to Trissiny’s ear. At some point she had finally learned to control her volume.

“Well, go ahead and ask,” the paladin said with a smile. “I know you well enough to know you aren’t actually conceited.”

“Thanks! Well, it’s… I mean, everywhere we go, people kinda make a big deal of us, don’t they?”

Trissiny nodded, keeping her gaze on the view over the battlements and the square below. “Yes, I’ve noticed. I think I see where this is going.”

“It’s just that…we’re a paladin and a pixie. I mean, those are both unusual sights, right? And it’s pretty crowded around here. Does it seem weird to you that no one’s come over to talk to us?”

Deliberately, but unhurriedly, Trissiny turned slightly in her chair, glancing back at the pub. Its front wall was an ingenious structure of wooden panels on hinges attached to tracks in the floor and ceiling; it could be folded back entirely to made a single open space leading from within to the balcony. Now, at her gaze, over a dozen people abruptly turned away, devoting themselves intently to their own drinks and conversations. None of the tables immediately adjacent to the one they’d chosen were occupied.

“I think,” Trissiny said softly, “it’s common knowledge where we are staying.”

“Yeah…I had a feeling that might be it,” Fross said. “Well…shoot. I hope this isn’t going to cause us trouble later.”

“Me, too.”

The pixie swooped over the table once, seemingly just for something to do, before coming back to hover near Trissiny again. “Well, anyway, do you think it’s good or bad that we’re the first ones back?”

“I think we’ll really only be able to tell in comparison,” Trissiny said, idly turning her teacup in a circle on the table. “Objectively our meeting went pretty well. I’m not sure what to make of everything the Colonel said, but at least we have tacit permission to proceed.”

“Yeah, this would be pretty difficult if the Empire told us not to. Oh! Hey!”

She shot upward and then darted out into the pub, buzzing around Toby and Juniper, who had just emerged from the stairwell. Both smiled as they greeted Fross, the dryad waving at Trissiny. She was wearing the enchanted ring Tellwyrn had given her last winter, altering her coloration to a Tiraan standard, though this time she was also in one of her customary sundresses and with bare feet. Juniper wasn’t exactly a secret, but everyone (including the dryad herself) agreed that it was probably wisest not to flaunt her presence in the city.

“Wow, I’m a little surprised,” Toby said lightly, coming over and pulling out a chair. “I was actually expecting we’d be the first ones back. Good news or bad?”

“Good…ish. Neutral news,” Trissiny replied with a smile. “Basically, Imperial Intelligence was already aware of us and doesn’t mind us working.”

“I had the impression they were glad to see us!” Fross reported. “Well, some of them, anyway.”

“Yeah, that’s the other bit,” Trissiny said, frowning thoughtfully. “There was a bit of a difference of opinion… Well. How about we wait for the others before making a full report?”

“Sure, makes sense,” Toby said agreeably, reaching for the teapot. “Probably best to go over things when all eight—uh, nine—I mean, ten, of us are here. Mind if I…?”

“Oh, sure, help yourself! I got a pot for everybody, but we can get more if it runs low. And…ten?”

Juniper rolled her eyes. “He means Ariel.”

“Oh,” Trissiny said, grimacing. Juniper laughed.

“Ariel is very smart!” Fross chimed.

“I think she is, yes,” Toby said solemnly, pouring himself a cup of tea.

“She’s also a jerk, though. In the long run, it all balances out.”

Juniper began laughing outright; both paladins had to grin.

“Yes, I tend to agree,” Toby said. “Well, anyway. I don’t mind telling you how our visit went. I can repeat the whole report when the others are back, because it’s quite simple: we got nothing.”

“We made some friends,” Juniper said, shrugging. “That’s not quite nothing. I thought they were very nice.”

“Yes, they were,” Toby agreed. “Omnists in general are inclined to be friendly and kind to guests. Also, you’re basically a fertility idol to them. Juniper was a celebrity,” he added to the others, winking.

“Eventually,” the dryad said, reaching for a teacup. “Once everyone was confident I wasn’t going to… Um, hurt anybody.” She fell quiet, eyes on her cup as she poured, expression carefully neutral.

“Point being,” Toby continued, “they just aren’t involved in anything. They certainly aren’t going to impede us—I was never worried about that, anyway—but they also don’t know anything useful. The friar who greeted us didn’t even seem to know that Veilgrad was having problems. They weren’t all that oblivious, just not…”

“Not tactically helpful?” Trissiny prompted.

“Yeah, that sums it up.” He nodded. “I have to admit it’s a running weakness of Omnists. Being a monastic order, and being positioned so that people who need our services come to us, rather than vice versa… Well, there’s a kind of perpetual lack of involvement in the world.”

“But you study martial arts!” Fross protested. “I mean, famously! The Sun Style is serious business!”

“As an exercise form,” Toby said, “and in extreme situations, for self-defense. This is why Omnu has a history of calling Hands, I think. Not just to keep himself active in the world, but to keep the whole faith active. We have a tendency to retreat behind our walls and just tend our gardens if nobody shakes us up from time to time.”

“There are worse ways to live,” Trissiny mused, gazing out over the square. Toby blinked, looking over at her in surprise.

“I know we’re waiting for the others, but could we get some food?” Juniper asked. “I have a little money…”

“My treat,” Trissiny said with a smile. “I opened up a tab. It seems likely we’ll be coming back here, and… Okay, I’ll say it. The less we stay in that manor, the better.”

“It’ll be important to stay in circulation!” Fross agreed.

“Exactly,” Trissiny said, nodding.

“And also, you don’t like Malivette.”

“Exactly,” Trissiny repeated in a grimmer tone.

“Is there a waiter?” Juniper asked, peering around. “Or do we go to the bar?”

“There are waitresses, but I have a feeling we’re going to have a hard time getting their attention,” Trissiny said dryly. “At least, we have so far. I had to chase one down to get a pot of tea.”

“Oh. Uh, Toby, would you mind?” Juniper asked. “I hate to impose, but… I mean, all these people, it’s a little…”

“Say no more,” he replied with a smile, setting down his teacup and standing up. “What would you like?”

“Oh, whatever’s handy! Nothing too heavy, though, I think we should be polite and wait for the others before having an actual meal. Just something to snack on.”

“I’ll go see what they’ve got warmed up and ready,” he said, smiling. “Back in two shakes.”

“Trissiny,” Juniper asked thoughtfully as Toby retreated into the noisy pub, “how much do you know about Omnism?”

“The basics. My education covered that much of all the Pantheon cults. I don’t have any real spiritual insight into their practices or dogma, or anything.” She tilted her head curiously. “Why do you ask?”

“It’s just that…well, at the temple, with all the monks and…um, monkesses?”

“Nuns, technically,” said Fross, “though in that cult they’re also called monks.”

“Oh. Right, well… I mean, before today I’d been thinking it was just Toby, but I have never been around a bunch of people so sexually repressed. It was almost painful. Is…is there a reason they’re like that?”

Trissiny coughed, her cheeks coloring. “I, uh… I really don’t… If you’re that curious, June, you’d probably be better off asking an Izarite.”

“I guess,” Juniper said, settling backward in her chair and frowning. The chair, which was a sturdy wooden affair that looked like it could be used as a battering ram, creaked slightly with the motion. Juniper sometimes forgot to moderate her weight when she was distracted.

“So, uh…” Fross did a slow figure eight above the teapot. “Should we be…worried? About the others? I mean… I don’t know how long these things should take.”

“I’m sure they’re fine,” Trissiny said quickly. “Huntsmen aren’t animals, despite what they seem to think. Gabriel and Ruda are both important enough people to be greeted at the lodge with all courtesy, no matter how awkward or rude they are.”

“Ruda isn’t generally rude to important people,” Juniper said, “and I kinda don’t think they’re the ones we should be worried about.”

“I know,” Trissiny said with a sigh. “But honestly… I wouldn’t have agreed on Teal and Shaeine taking that task if I thought they wouldn’t be fine. The worst case scenario is basically Vadrieny having to introduce herself. Reclusive warlock or no, this Lord Leduc can’t possibly be crazy enough to start trouble up with her. I doubt he’d try to hex two visitors, anyway; he’s apparently the one member of his family who had enough restraint to survive their…hobbies.”

“That is good reasoning and you’re probably correct,” Fross chimed, bobbing in the air above her head. “But, y’know, that’s reasoning. On a strictly emotional level… I’m a little worried.”

Trissiny nodded slowly, staring out over the square. “Yeah. I know.”


 

Yornhaldt retained the presence of mind not to whistle—it was a library, after all, but he couldn’t fully restrain the spring in his step as he made his way through the halls back toward the exit. It was one of the more remote repositories of knowledge in Svenheim, and he had been in one of its most distant wings; he had a good long hike to get back to, well, anywhere.

Not that he minded. His brain was seething with possibilities, implications, and more than a fair share of jubilation at the puzzle he had cracked. Now, the foremost question was whether he should extend his stay in Svenheim or head back to Last Rock and share his finding with Arachne. In truth, this was an excellent stopping point. The lore he had dug up and connected presented a puzzle with no immediate solution, one which required thought and planning before a solution could be approached. It was a good opportunity to add her insight to the mix. Well, anyone’s insight, really, but Arachne was the only one he trusted to help him with this particular puzzle. But research was calling to him. There was more knowledge out there, just begging to be uncovered… What to do?

Anyhow, that could be decided that evening, over a celebratory scotch in his suite. For now, he had his thoughts and the walk to occupy him. Long as it was, the journey was hardly onerous. Others were about, and the halls of the Drassynvardt Archive were pleasingly quiet and orderly. Just the thing after his months of research. Well, part of the thing; he was also looking forward to that scotch.

Yornhaldt’s tenure as an adventurer had been brief. Just a couple of years, really, accompanying Arachne to the locations of several treasure troves she knew. The wealth buried in old dungeons and the hidden places of the world was staggering, and she was aware of an awful lot of it, having left most where it was because, as she put it, “what the hell would I buy?” It had taken them a few years to round up enough capital to found the University, and she had insisted the whole time that it wasn’t proper adventuring, lacking mystery. Still, it had been an adventuring career, and he hadn’t come through it without developing a few instincts.

They not only gave him warning but gave him a rudimentary plan of action. Finally noticing the unpleasant prickling on the back of his neck, Yornhaldt brought his focus back to the present and mentally reviewed the last few minutes, which he had been too distracted by his own thoughts to fully experience as he was going through them. He was walking through a long hall, illuminated by slightly flickering electric lamps, the Drassynvardt curators disdaining Tiraan enchantments on a point of principle. Only the tunnels were carved out of the rock, the actual library chambers being situated in natural caves, which resulted in a very sprawling floor plan with long hikes like this one between areas. Someone was following him—a dwarf, male, neatly groomed and avuncular, just the sort of academic who was a perfect fit for the environment. What was tweaking Yornhaldt’s instincts, then?

It was, he realized, the man’s behavior. He walked in silence, and hadn’t been behind Yornhaldt the whole way. The man had been there while he had navigated his way down the iron stairs and balconies ringing the library chamber in which he’d been studying, and had been watching Yornhaldt specifically and unflinchingly. Just staring, his focus on the dwarf, not the books.

He was being stalked.

Up ahead loomed a side passage; Yornhaldt altered his course, going left rather than straight on back to the central archive and its path to the city.

The footsteps behind him continued, taking the same turn.

Well, he’d been certain enough the man was following him—now, at least, he was less likely to be heading into an ambush. What the blazes did the fellow want? Someone who’d been watching him closely might have an inkling what he was researching, but who would even do that?

The parties that might bother to watch him and might object to the nature of his studies made a short, disturbing list.

Yornhaldt stepped to his right as he emerged into another small cavern filled with shelves of books, lit by a single flickering chandelier hanging from above. Really, this was no larger than his classroom back at Last Rock. That could be good, or bad.

He planted himself a few feet from the door to the right, just out of easy reach, facing it. Sure enough, in seconds his pursuer appeared, clearly having picked up his pace to keep Yornhaldt in view. Finding his quarry clearly waiting, he slammed to a halt, rearing back in obvious surprise.

“Pardon me, friend,” Yornhaldt said politely, “I seem to have turned myself around somehow. Do you know the way back to the main archive?”

For a moment, they simply stared at each other in silence.

Then suddenly the other dwarf burst alight. Golden radiance flared out from him, solidifying in the next moment into a divine shield.

A similar sphere formed around Yornhaldt, in arcane blue.

“Something the matter?” he asked pleasantly. “Are we in danger?”

The man simply glared at him, not deigning to answer. He held out his hand to one side, pointing at the ground; a golden circle formed, and Yornhaldt sensed a rush of infernal energies as a dimensional barrier was perforated.

A holy summoner. Well, that told him nothing; in human lands, there were only a few cults (and more recently, the Universal Church) which did that, but they had first learned the art from the dwarves. Being able to access divine magic without the need of a god’s blessing, their race had found that if demons were needed, it was best to call upon them using divine means. It was a roundabout method which lacked both the power and the fine control attained by true warlocks, but one greatly reduced one’s chances of spontaneously combusting or contracting terrible degenerative diseases.

Yornhaldt kept one eye on the summoning circle, most of his attention on his opponent. This close, he could feel the relative strengths of their shields. The arcane neutralized the divine, in theory, though it was the weakest interaction on the Circle, and he could tell this chap was powerful enough that simply overwhelming him would be time-consuming and difficult. The addition of a demon leveled the field considerably. Light above, if he was calling up something sentient, Yornhaldt could be in real trouble. Spellcasting demons could wrench arcane energies away and channel them into their own infernal spells.

He formed an exploratory burst of raw arcane power, refined enough to be controlled rather than just flung, poured it into his shield and then mentally directed it to be extruded from the outside. His opponent glanced over at his ongoing summons, doubtless expecting Yornhaldt to try to disrupt that—a logical move, and thus one for which the summoner would have countermeasures prepared. Instead, Yornhaldt was playing a hunch.

The amorphous flow of magic came free of the shield and he dropped it to the ground, then forward at the man’s feet, where he deliberately destabilized it, causing an explosion.

The summoner cried out in surprise and pain as he was flung off his feet and sent careening against the shelves, shoes smoking. Yornhaldt permitted himself a satisfied smile.

Those spherical shields had that weakness: what did you do where your sphere intersected the ground beneath you? Paladins and such were drawing power directly from a god, who handled such details; Yornhaldt took advantage of the nature of the arcane to phase it slightly so that it continued under the ground without disrupting that. A fellow mage could seize upon that phasing and use it to penetrate the bubble (he had countermeasures ready for that, of course), but it was sturdy enough against the other schools of magic. You couldn’t do that with a divine shield, though; the divine light, once made solid, was unyielding. This fellow had left himself the tiniest gap to stand on. A tiny gap had been all Yornhaldt had needed.

Unfortunately, he was a hair too slow, and the thing being summoned burst forth, shooting upward and spiraling around the ceiling.

Well, it wasn’t as bad as it could be. Just a katzil demon, very like an enormous snake that flew and could spit fire. A problem to deal with, but not something that could counteract his defenses.

Yornhaldt threw a cage of arcane currents around the creature, designed to impede its movement without forming solid barriers. Making hard objects used a lot of power, but these free-floating spells where more efficient; it would hurt and interfere with the demon proactively, and also react to contain any fire it tried to exhale.

His enemy, meanwhile, had rolled back to his feet, apparently not minding his scorched and still steaming shoes, snarling now at Yornhaldt. He flung out a hand and Yornhaldt felt disruption ripple through the energies around him. A simple banishment? Please. A moment’s concentration, and the divine spell was neutralized and absorbed, its energy boosting his own shield. Clearly this fellow had expected to take him by surprise. He wasn’t prepared for a real fight.

He revised his opinion a moment later when the spell cage he’d put over the katzil collapsed, destroyed by a second divine banishment while he’d focused on the first. Those simple disruptive charms were a cleric’s main counter to a mage; not surprising the summoner would make use of them. More to the point, he had cast two simultaneously, and with the presence of mind to make a dramatic gesture calling attention to one while sneaking in the second.

It occurred to Yornhaldt that he might be in real danger here.

The katzil dived at him, hissing in fury—it had not liked that cage. Greenish flames splashed harmlessly against his shield, and Yornhald directed a wall of pure force at it, knocking the demon off balance and sending it reeling away, then projected another at the summoner. He staggered backward, his divine shield protecting him from the worst of it, and Yornhaldt followed that up with a simple arcane bolt. The shield held against that, too, but flickered, and he called up another one.

This time, the katzil attacked his shield bodily, fangs scraping across its surface and its coils striking the sphere hard enough to imperil Yornhaldt’s balance. He released the spell rather than risking it flying off in a random direction, painfully aware they were having this confrontation surrounded by precious books.

Another attempted banishment rippled through his shields; he gathered it up into another arcane bolt, chiding himself for having nothing to use here but exchanges of brute force. He was sadly out of practice at this. Teleporting away was an option, of course, but he held that in reserve in case this went badly. Far better to neutralize his enemy and find out who was after him, and why.

The bolt smashed the divine shield, and the katzil dived at him again, this time spraying flames in a wide arc over him.

“Not the books!” Yornhaldt bellowed, desperately throwing up a wall of solid light between the gout of fire and the shelves. “Damn your eyes, control that beast!”

Suddenly his shield flickered; in that moment when he was distracted forming the wall, something had seized onto his aura. Reaching out with his mind, Yornhaldt belatedly realized he was standing in a summoning circle, stealthily placed around his feet while he had been busy with the fight. It wasn’t calling anything up, per se, but forming a channel of infernal energy, which was disrupting his workings.

Ingenious, really. He had to admire the technique, and the strategy.

Unfortunately, it meant the next banishment caused his shield to collapse.

His retaliatory bolt was far more powerful, collecting a great deal of loose energy as it went, and upon its impact his rival’s shield also imploded and the caster was sent hurtling backward to slam against the bookshelves. He slumped to the ground, stunned.

And then the katzil sank its fangs into Yornhaldt’s shoulder.

It had only a split second to worry at him like a hound before he nailed it point-blank with another arcane bolt; the unfortunate demon perished, fragments of flesh turning to dust and charcoal before they’d been flung far enough to hit anything.

Yornhaldt staggered, clutching his wounded arm and taking stock. Demon destroyed, summoner temporarily down. He’d better deal with the man more permanently…somehow… That bite was really throbbing. Also burning. His sleeve was rapidly becoming soaked through with blood.

It occurred to him belatedly that katzils were venomous. Not one of the worst poisons out there, but any venom of infernal origin was going to be very bad.

It was bad enough he almost didn’t notice the prick in his other shoulder. In fact, he became really aware of it a second or two after it had occurred, and looked over to find a small brass-bound hypodermic syringe stuck into his arm, plunger fully depressed. Blinking his eyes against suddenly blurry vision, Yornhaldt lifted his gaze to behold a figure—tall, human, and swathed in an ash-gray robe.

“Oh, drat,” he mumbled.

“I believe that’s enough exertion, old fellow,” the man said, amusement in his voice. “You just relax, now.”

Yornhaldt was only dimly aware that he was falling, aware that his senses were diminishing into unconsciousness. This was a disaster. He had to get back to Arachne with what he’d learned.

Had to…

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9 – 2

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The Rail caravans slowed dramatically as they approached the interchange at Veilgrad. It was a complex system; the town was not overly large, but it was a hub, connecting Rail lines that extended west to Calderaas, southwest toward the Tira Valley and the capital, north into the Badlands and eventually the border of the dwarven kingdom of Vjarstadt, and northeast into the Stalrange itself. The interchanges between these lines demanded such precision that speed limits were considerably reduced for miles out from the station, and by the time caravans reached the town itself they were traveling no faster than the average horse-drawn stagecoach.

There had never been a collision between two caravans since the founding of the Rail network; its enchanters went to enormous lengths to ensure this. Though the fact was not widely known outside the Imperial bureau that administered the Rails, the device from which they had been developed was originally an experimental weapon. Using them as transportation had been a stroke of insight initially laughed at, its designers conceiving only one purpose for any object moving that fast.

Unlike the Wyrnrange far to the west, which rose gradually out of the plains by way of rolling hills growing ever steeper as they approached the peaks, the Stalrange ascended abruptly out of the flat territory at its edge. Eons ago, it had bordered an inland sea, and slightly less distantly in the past, a deep swamp. The Great Plains were formed of sediment from beneath those long-ago bodies of water. This fact, plus the unusual geographic feature on which it sat, had made Veilgrad a place of great strategic import for the entirety of recorded history. The town stood atop a long peninsular outcropping of stone extending into the plain and towering twenty yards above it. Once its walls had been completed, the ancient fortress city of Veilgrad had been considered nigh-impregnable, one of the best-defended locations on the continent.

That was then; this was now.

The city had long since outgrown its walls, and roads now tracked up into the surrounding mountainside, where little pockets of construction were visible amid the surviving stands of Stalrange pines, overlooking the old city from above. More spread out from the base of the peninsula, patches of younger urban sprawl slowly creeping across the plain. The Rail platform was surrounded by the largest of these, due west of the farthest tip of Veilgrad and facing its ancient main gate.

The caravan eased to a halt, its hatches hissed open, and Professor Rafe bounded nimbly forth, planting his feet widely on the flagstones of the large platform as if he expected to be blown down by an errant gust of wind. He placed his fists on his hips and drew in a deep breath, his thin chest swelling.

“Don’t do it!” Toby exclaimed, dragging himself out of the hatch with a little less grace, still off-kilter from the Rail ride. “Don’t—”

“BEHOLD!” the Professor roared, throwing wide his arms to embrace the Rail platform, the looming shape of Veilgrad beyond, and the several dozen people crossing the area. Nearly all of them stopped, turning to stare.

Veilgrad was an important city, but not a large one, and was so far from the center of Tiraan civilization that its name was a euphemism for distant, unsettled places. These were not cosmopolitan urbanites to be unfazed by the eccentric professor, as their stares indicated.

“You stand upon the precipice of Veilgrad,” Rafe boomed, turning his back to the onlookers and brandishing a fist at his disembarking students with a melodramatic grimace. “The most eeeevil place in the Tiraan Empire! Step carefully, my children, for you shall never again see such a wretched hive of… Oh, what’s the expression I’m looking for…”

“Scum and villainy?” Gabriel suggested, rubbing his lower back.

“Arquin!” Rafe exclaimed in horror. “You can’t just say that about a place, all these people can hear you! Honestly, boy, were you raised in a barn?”

Gabriel stared at him. “…this is gonna be the trip where I finally shoot you, isn’t it.”

“You have been brought here,” the Professor intoned, “to uncover the putrid perfidy at the very heart of the—oh, hey, our ride’s here! Form a line, kids, let’s be civilized about this.”

Most of the onlookers had already backed away or gone on about their business, but several were still watching the University party, none with friendly expressions. The students drifted together in a knot as they followed their professor toward the edge of the platform.

A matched pair of stagecoaches were just pulling up at the side of the road running past the outdoor Rail terminal. They were glossy, ostentatious things, lacquered a gleaming black with a crest embossed in a lighter shade of black—or a very dark gray—on their doors, barely visible and that only because it was a matte interruption in the gleaming finish. The device was a heavily stylized letter M, bracketed by laurels bristling with overlarge thorns. Each coach was drawn by two matched horses, all four coal-black and all groomed to a glossy shine. Altogether the vehicles were a portrait of wealth and grandeur straight out of the last century.

Each was driven by a lovely young woman perched on the driver’s seat, reins in hand. They didn’t look alike enough to be related, but both were clearly of the local Stalweiss stock, being tall, pale and fair-haired. Both were attired in expensive-looking gowns with high collars, which appeared to be of identical cut, though the one in front was red while her counterpart wore dark green. They smiled in unison at Professor Rafe as he approached, the woman in red lifting a hand to wave.

Trissiny, however, had come to a stop, staring at the coaches. Beside her, Toby did the same; Gabriel squinted as if unsure what he was looking at.

“What’s the matter?” Teal asked.

“Something’s weird about those horses…” Gabriel muttered, frowning. “I’m not sure… They give me this feeling.”

“Congratulations,” Trissiny said tersely. “Apparently paladins of Vidius have the ability to sense evil.”

“I sense no evil,” Shaeine said serenely. “Your reactions suggest, however, that they are somehow in opposition to your gods. Are they perhaps demonic?”

“Well, they aren’t moving,” Ruda noted. “They just stand. Real horses look…alive. Those could be stuffed.”

“Not demonic,” said the driver in the lead coach, smiling languidly down at them. “Undead. Don’t worry, students, they are entirely harmless; there is no contagious element in their condition, and they’re quite docile. Kindly refrain from throwing divine magic at them. They would be difficult to replace.” Her smile faded slightly as she finished the admonition, and she fixed her stare on Gabriel.

“Professor,” Trissiny said tersely, “what have you gotten us into?”

“Now, there you go, being rude again,” Rafe admonished. “And here we’ve only just arrived! Honestly, I can’t decide whether you kids needed more spankings or more hugs growing up. Ruby! Jade! It’s such a delight to see your lovely faces again! Ladies, it has been far too long, and for once I’m not referring to anything of mine.”

“Good morning, Professor Rafe,” the woman in green said with a smile that appeared quite genuine. “It’s good to see you again, too. The Mistress will be anxious to catch up.”

“All right, little ducklings, in you go,” Rafe said briskly, clapping his hands and rubbing them together. “Sort yourselves as you will; they’ll be a little roomy with just four each, but we can’t all crowd into one. Gabe, your coach isn’t here yet. You want us to wait and see you off?”

“Nah, you guys go on ahead,” Gabriel said absently, still staring at the chillingly immobile horses. An enormous horsefly had landed on the ear of one, eliciting not a twitch. Moments later, the insect tumbled off, lifeless.

“Whoah, hang on, what’s this?” Ruda demanded. “Why’s Arquin not coming with us?”

“A stipulation of our hostess, I’m afraid,” Rafe said solemnly. “You are all welcome in her house, with the specific exception of Gabriel. Did I not know better, I might think she’d met him at some point.”

Toby folded his arms. “Then I don’t believe we are welcome there, either. Or…I’m sorry, guys, I shouldn’t speak for you. But for my part—”

“Guys, guys!” Gabriel said, finally turning from his study of the horses to hold up both hands calmingly. “It’s okay. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you this; Tellwyrn’s orders. This isn’t a demonblood prejudice thing, the person we’re meeting actually has a pretty solid reason not to want me around. I… Ugh, I hate keeping you in the dark, but Tellwyrn was, you know, emphatic. As only she can be. You’re not supposed to hear about it till you get there.”

“Well, this is increasingly bullshit,” Ruda said acidly.

“I have a bad feeling about it,” Teal said, frowning. “Gabe…are you sure? If you know what’s going on, are we walking into a trap?”

“What utter nonsense,” Rafe huffed. “Our hostess is an alumnus of the University; she would never harm you. Would never have reason to, and even if she did, she knows firsthand what Arachne would do about it. You’ll be safe as houses!”

“The manor is one of the most secure and defensible structures in the entire province,” said the woman in red, presumably Ruby. “And the Mistress’s hospitality is second to none. We apologize for Mr. Arquin’s exclusion.”

“I don’t think I want to stay with someone whom one of our friends has to be afraid of,” Trissiny said flatly.

“That’s not it,” Fross said. “She’s afraid of him.”

There was a beat of silence, all of them turning to stare up at the pixie. Rafe rolled his eyes dramatically.

“Put it together, guys,” Fross continued. “She’s got undead horses and doesn’t want the Hand of the god of death on her property. It’s pretty obvious, right? This Mistress is undead herself. Haven’t several of the professors mentioned a vampire who was once a student at the University?”

“That does it,” Trissiny announced, folding her arms. “I believe I will stay wherever Gabriel is staying.”

“And this is exactly why you were not to be informed until you got there,” Rafe said in exasperation. “Honestly, kids, Malivette is just about the most cuddly person I know. Isn’t she, girls?”

“The cuddliest,” Jade said solemnly, her eyes sparkling with repressed mirth.

“But,” Rafe continued, scowling at Trissiny, “some of you are just bound to be on the defensive about her little condition. Because some of you are thoughtless and prone to making inappropriate snap judgments.”

“Hey,” Toby said, his voice quiet but firm. “Don’t glare at her; any of us with any sense would object to this. You are asking us to stay in the home of a vampire. Someone who, whatever her intentions, thinks of the lot of us as food. This trip is supposed to be at least a week, right? We’re expected to sleep in that place?”

“Um, point of order,” Fross chimed. “Ruda’s the only one who’s in the slightest danger from a vampire.”

“Everyone is in danger from a vampire!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“Well, not really, no,” the pixie said reasonably. “They can’t eat elves or half-elves, the inherent fae magic reacts badly with them. They can’t eat clerics or paladins; even trying would result in an automatic smiting from their patron gods. And they definitely can’t eat dryads or pixies.”

“Ain’t it a thrill to be me,” Ruda said fatalistically.

“Congratulations,” Gabriel said solemnly. “You now are in possession of the slightest glimpse of what my life is like. If you want to get even more insight, I could fucking stab you.”

“Children!” Rafe bellowed. “Enough! We are going to stay in the home of my dear friend and former student Malivette, for a variety of excellent reasons which I will explain when we’re no longer out in public creating a scene!”

“He’s getting onto us about creating a scene?” Juniper muttered.

“And if you fail to comply with this directive,” Rafe continued ominously, “I will toss my ass right back in that caravan, return to Last Rock and complain to Arachne that you little buggers are being difficult.”

“She’d make fun of you for that for the next ten years,” Teal pointed out.

“Yeah?” the Professor said smugly, folding his arms and smirking. “I’m sure that’ll make you feel better while she’s kicking your asses up and down the mountainside.”

“I hate every part of this,” Trissiny muttered, unconsciously gripping her sword.

“And if you didn’t make a point of hating half the crap you encounter, Avelea, somebody might care about that,” Rafe said, grinning.

“Guys,” Gabriel said soothingly. “I promise you, it is okay. Tellwyrn wouldn’t send us to someone who can’t be trusted, and I fully understand this Malivette’s concern, all right? All it would take is one little poke from a valkyrie’s scythe and she’d be dust; she’d never even see it coming. Wouldn’t you be worried about that?”

“I note,” Shaeine observed, “that it is you and not she who is being asked to extend trust in that regard.”

He shrugged. “That’s true, but come on. Is it really that unfair? She’s the one with the manor she’s letting us use, and an established life here. Well, unlife. Whatever.”

“Are you sure you’ll be okay on your own?” Toby said worriedly. “I mean…leaving you completely alone out here…”

“Oh, that’s very nice, thank you,” Ariel commented.

“Yes, yes, you’re great company,” Gabriel said soothingly, patting her pommel. “Particularly when you don’t talk. Anyhow, guys, you don’t need to worry about me.” He grinned smugly. “In fact, I might be the only one who’s gonna be put in better digs than you guys.”


 

“But why dragons?”

“There are several acceptable responses to receiving orders, Sergeant,” Captain Dijanerad said mildly, not slowing her pace. “None of them contain the word why.”

“Captain,” Principia said in a tone barely above a growl, “I have spent the last month vigorously drilling and training my squad as ordered. In keeping with our mandate we have been extensively studying the Church and its member cults so as to serve in a diplomatic capacity with other faiths. My girls have done a damn fine job, too, considering how little time they’ve had to work on it; I have every confidence that the High Commander will be pleased with our results. Or at least I would if we got to put that into practice. Instead, we’re apparently going to deal with dragons! Nobody knows how to do that! Why are we any better than any random squad?”

“Yes, yes,” Dijanerad said with a grin. “You’ve trained specifically in one field and are now being sent off to do a random task that has no bearing on your specialization. Welcome to the military, Locke.”

“Captain, permission to kvetch!”

“Denied. I think.” The Captain glanced curiously at her. “What is that, orcish?”

“Not exactly,” Principia muttered.

Dijanerad came to a stop, forcing Principia to follow suit. They were in an out-of-the-way intersection of the Temple’s halls, not far from the exit to the rear parade grounds around which the Ninth Cohort were bunked.

“Squad One has drawn this assignment,” the Captain said, “because I recommended you for it. I have, in fact, seen the way you’ve been training your squad, Sergeant Locke, and taken notice of your results. To be frank there was some initial disagreement among the cohort’s officers about whether you would take your position at all seriously, but that, at least, you’ve put to bed. Now it only remains to be seen how well the results will stack up in a real-world situation.”

“So we’re being sent into a real-world situation that has nothing to do with what we’ve trained for?”

“Locke, shut up. I’ve also taken note of the way you and your girls have been repairing your relations with the rest of the cohort, which is no small thing considering you went overnight from being the resident punchlines to having the much-coveted designation One. You can do diplomacy. The basic principles are the same whoever you’re dealing with, be they fellow soldiers, priests, or yes, dragons. I recommended you because I am confident that you can do this. The High Commander either things so as well or places a lot more value on my opinion than I thought, and frankly I suspect it’s the former.”

Principia drew in a deep breath and shook her head. “Veth’na alaue…”

“Watch it,” Dijanerad warned. “I’m a career soldier, Locke; I speak only Tanglish but I can cuss fluently in every dialect used on this continent. That is approaching a type and degree of obscenity I’d have to reprimand you for.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said tersely. “Captain…with apologies for using the word again…why are Legionnaires being sent to deal with this at all?”

“They aren’t,” Dijanerad said, resuming her walk, “at least not officially or directly. The city’s only just come down from a state of alert; our word of what the dragons want is less than a hour old. We don’t know enough to make any detailed plans. But the bones of it is they’re establishing some kind of government and want to open diplomatic relations with the Empire. If that’s what they’re doing, the cult of Avei has an immediate interest in making similar contact.”

“I have a very hard time picturing dragons converting to Avenism, Captain.”

“There’s a lot more an organized religion can do with people than convert them, Locke. Besides, the Sisterhood is both a civil and military organization; we don’t have the option of ignoring the formation of what is sure to be another major world power. It makes sense to get on good terms with them if possible; the alternative would be a nightmare. And that’s all I have to say on the subject, because your specific orders are to present yourselves to Bishop Shahai, who will be heading up this effort, and my analysis of the situation is irrelevant. Hers is what you need to care about. Officially, on the books, you are to be merely her bodyguards; unofficially, she requested women who could be called upon to do more than a soldier’s duty in dicey political circumstances. That’s how you, in particular, ended up nominated for this.”

“Interim Bishop Shahai,” the elf murmured.

“You know very well how she is to be addressed while she’s doing the job, and once again you are flirting with insubordination. Bat one more eyelash in its direction and I’ll be obligated to rip it off your face and feed it to you, is that clear?”

“Clear, ma’am. They aren’t ready for this,” Principia said more quietly. “I don’t mean to sound insubordinate; I’m concerned for the state of the mission if it’s given to us. I have the highest opinion of the women in my squad, and of their skills, but the fact is we don’t have the experience for something of this magnitude. These stakes. Are there no more seasoned units available?”

“Yes,” Dijanerad replied, “but they have not been given this assignment. You have. These are your orders, Sergeant, and I have discussed them with you as much as I intend to, and this much only because your unique situation demands greater understanding than an average soldier needs to do her job. You need to not be in the habit of questioning orders this way, Locke; keep that firmly in mind next time you’re given a mission. You will assemble your squad and report to Bishop Shahai’s office at fourteen hundred hours; she will inform you of what she expects. For the duration of this assignment, which means until I tell you otherwise, I am placing you directly under the Bishop’s command.”

“Captain—”

“That will be all, Locke. Dismissed.”

They emerged into the courtyard, finally, and Dijanerad stopped and gave the sergeant a flat look. Principia saluted and said the only thing she could.

“Yes, ma’am.”

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8 – 23

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High Commander Rouvad made the lot of them wait in the hall outside her office for ten minutes while she conferred with Captain Dijanerad, doubtless about the documents the captain had just received from the Eserites. It was, to say the least, a tense handful of minutes.

Squad Thirteen held themselves at attention, which wasn’t comfortable, but was not especially onerous given their training. Far worse was the attention of the other two present, who stood off to the other side of Rouvad’s door. Private Covrin stood at ease, glaring suspiciously at everyone from behind Syrinx’s shoulder. The Bishop, for her part, seemed not particularly stressed. In fact, she regarded the assembled privates with a faintly smug expression. She did not taunt or try to provoke them, nor speak to them at all, but kept panning her stare slowly across the group.

Eventually, Principia turned her head slightly to catch Basra’s eye, and winked.

The Bishop’s stare hardened noticeably, and remained on Prin for the rest of their wait. The elf gave her no further reaction.

Fortunately, the door opened before this could progress further. Captain Dijanerad stepped out, her hand still on the knob, and jerked her head expressively toward the open doorway.

Syrinx nodded to her, expression faintly amused, and strode through, Covrin still on her heels.

“Do you need something, Private Covrin?” Dijanerad said pointedly.

Covrin slammed to a stop, eyes widening, and swallowed. “Ah, no, ma’am,” she stammered, glancing through the door at the Bishop.

“Then I’m sure you can find something to do,” Dijanerad said firmly.

“Wait for me in the hall, Covrin,” Syrinx said from within.

“Yes, ma’am,” Covring replied with evident relief, backing up to the far wall. Dijanerad watched her expressionlessly while Squad Thirteen filed past her into the office, then finally followed, shutting the door behind them.

High Commander Rouvad was leafing slowly through the contents of the Thieves’ Guild folder, and continued to do so, apparently ignoring her guests while they situated themselves. Basra planted herself in one corner, folding her arms; Dijanerad stood in front of the door, and Squad Thirteen arrayed themselves in a line on the opposite side of the room.

“I confess there’s an element of relief in this,” the Commander said at last, still reading. “It’s always disappointing, having to call down soldiers from whom I don’t expect misbehavior. But now, here’s almost the entire roster of everyone I fully anticipated having to chew out this week, right on schedule. It’s very nearly…gratifying.”

She finally shut the folder, pushed it aside, and raised her eyes. Her face was calm, but those eyes were iron-hard.

“Bishop Syrinx,” she said, “do you understand why you’re here?”

“Not precisely,” Syrinx replied, her tone unconcerned. “From the presence of this tragically underperforming squad I gather you have an objection to my handling of them?”

“Well, that’s as good a starting point as any,” said Rouvad, her eyes boring into the Bishop. “You have been given enormous leeway with the handling of the Ninth Cohort, above the objections of its Captain, and as of this moment I am bitterly disappointed with almost every aspect of your management, beginning with Squad Thirteen. Before we even discuss your handling of them, I want to hear an explanation for its formation and composition, which was entirely by your design. Not only is this squad unacceptably under strength, it is stacked entirely with undesirable recruits in defiance of all regulation and policy.”

“I was told,” Syrinx said flatly, “that I would be encouraged to produce agents from this cohort to train for interfaith and political operations. Everything I have done here has been in pursuit of that goal.”

“And so,” Rouvad replied, “when Legion policy is and has always been to disperse potentially disruptive elements through the ranks, so that their fellow soldiers could provide an example at best and at the least a counterpoint to any trouble they might cause, you not only clustered every yellow-flagged name on the roster into one unit, you then bent regulations even further in order to deprive them of positive influences. This looks very much like it was calculated to cause this squad to entirely self-destruct.”

“The use of pressure as a teaching tool is hardly my own invention,” Syrinx said, raising an eyebrow. “I understand there is some slight precedent in the history of military training.”

“Pressure,” Rouvad said flatly, pointing a finger at Merry. “And to pressure this group, you started with our resident ex-convict, here, and surrounded her…” She slowly moved her finger, indicating Principia, Farah, Ephanie and Casey in sequence. “…with refugees from the cults of Eserion, Nemitoth, Shaath—”

“Ma’am, please,” Casey whispered.

“—and Elilial,” Rouvad finished inexorably. A slight but distinct shudder rippled through the rank of Squad Thirteen, Farah, Ephanie and Merry all turning their heads to stare at Casey, who dropped her own gaze to the floor. Principia just raised one eyebrow.

“Attention,” Captain Dijanerad said curtly. The five of them instantly snapped back into position.

“Why them, your Grace?” Rouvad asked, her tone deceptively mild.

“I am surprised it even needs to be explained,” Syrinx retorted. “Their backgrounds have clearly predisposed the group toward maneuvering of the sort—”

“Two of them,” Rouvad snapped, “at most. The former would-be adventurer convicted of civil disturbance, vandalism and assault? The former Shaathist housewife? The librarian?”

“In my judgment—”

“Your judgment is very much on trial here,” Rouvad interrupted. “Let’s discuss what you did after gathering these miscellaneous reprobates into one apparently doomed unit. You spent an absurd amount of time chasing down Locke, even going so far as to try to put her loyalties in conflict, and frankly I can see no point to any of that except trying to get a rise out of her, which ought to be so far beneath you as to be beyond consideration. That is merely troubling.” She pulled the folder back in front of herself, placing a hand upon it, and stared coldly at the Bishop. “What I’ve just learned about the methods you were using to stalk Locke and the rest of this squad is a whole level beyond—and yes, Basra, I was aware of your borderline insubordinate manipulation of the Legion’s bureaucracy to move regulations and paperwork around. And now come the events of tonight.”

Rouvad drummed her fingers once on the folder, her stare growing ever more angry. “There is nothing—nothing—which excuses you sending Squad Thirteen into deliberate conflict with a group of Huntsmen of Shaath. You endangered everyone involved, beginning with a squad of soldiers whose safety was your responsibility. You intentionally disrupted an approved religious ceremony of another cult of the Pantheon. You employed a Vesker apprentice to do this, also placing her in danger—and without informing her of said danger. You abused your position in the Universal Church to first learn where the Shaathists would be operating and then do all of the above. And your eventual goal here was…what? To embarrass Private Avelea? I can’t imagine you actually thought I would allow her to be court martialed over this, any more than Locke would have been because of your similar antics toward her.”

“As I said,” Syrinx replied with some annoyance, “everything I have done with this squad was intended to train them toward the stated goals of this cohort. Despite their insubordination, they’ve done fairly well. I think some credit is due my methods, Commander.”

“Some credit is due to the fact that I now owe apologies to my two least favorite cults,” Rouvad snapped, “not to mention the Veskers. That is the sum total of your accomplishment with this squad. And honestly, Basra, you’ve been leaving a trail of destruction for the last week. Did you think I wouldn’t notice you manipulating the bureaucracy toward your own ends? Or that I was allowing it because I approved of this nonsense?”

Syrinx raised her eyebrows. “Of course. Why else would you allow it, Commander? Silence gives assent.”

“You watch your sly tongue, Basra,” Rouvad said icily. “For your information, I have been monitoring you since you first formed this cockamamie squad. You have been under examination as much as they. Do you imagine I am in any way pleased with what I’ve learned?”

“The Shaathists and Eserites will get over it,” Syrinx said with a shrug. “I don’t know why you’re concerned with their opinions anyway; we’re speaking of a gaggle of religious thugs. Squad Thirteen has learned quickly, thanks to the pressure I put on them, how to handle themselves in various crises. This looks like a successful series of tests to me.”

“I’ll tell you what’s been a successful test. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that I accept you were actually trying to train these women and not squeeze them out of the Legion as every piece of evidence indicates. What I have learned from watching this unfold is that you, Syrinx, will sink your teeth into any foe who successfully resists your machinations and worry at them like a dog until you manage to break them. In so doing you completely lose sight of all surrounding considerations: regulations, ethics, you own well-being. Your penchant for obsessive behavior has been remarked on by everyone who’s worked with or trained you starting from your own first enlistment, but you began your career by making good progress at self-control. It seems too much power and privilege has undone all that work, Basra. And that leaves me needing to do something about it.”

“You could leave me to do my job,” Syrinx suggested sarcastically.

“The whole point of trying experimental training methods with this cohort was to produce women who can help the Sisterhood deal with the ever-escalating intrigues in this city, and beyond,” Rouvad said. “The situation grows more tense and more complex all the time. In this political environment, I cannot have my top operative acting like a rabid dog. It’s clear to me you need some remedial training of your own.”

The Commander folded her arms atop the desk, staring flatly at the Bishop. “There is a situation in Viridill with which I require your unique talents, Bishop Syrinx. You will report to Abbess Darnassy as soon as you can make travel arrangements, and remain at the Abbey for the duration of the problem.”

“What problem?” Syrinx demanded, her own stare sharpening.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Rouvad said with a tiny, humorless smile. “I will think of something by the time the paperwork needs to be filed. For the moment, I am assigning Captain Shahai to administer your duties to the Church in your absence.”

“You can’t do that,” Syrinx snapped. “Bishops can’t just be replaced on a whim. The Archpope has to approve—”

“Yes, and if I were demoting you, that would be a problem,” Rouvad said, still smiling. “Interestingly, Church law provides for situations where a Bishop is incapacitated, on leave, or otherwise engaged. Cult leaders may unilaterally appoint an interim Bishop, who does not require the Archpope’s or anyone else’s approval, for up to one hundred and twenty days. That is how long, Basra, you have to convince Abbess Darnassy that you’re still a good soldier who can do her job without haring off on a sadistic personal crusade. If, at the end of this period, Narnasia is satisfied with your progress…” Her smile widened slightly. “And if his Holiness hasn’t decided he likes your replacement just fine, you may return here and resume your duties. I suggest you put your nose to the grindstone, Basra. Narnasia does not share my lenient attitude toward unconventional behavior.”

Basra was fairly vibrating with tension now, fists clenched at her sides and her face a thunderhead. Commander Rouvad held her stare for a long, silent moment, then abruptly turned to regard the wide-eyed members of Squad Thirteen.

“With that addressed, let’s talk to the other individuals who have added to my headaches recently. I understand that was quite a performance you put on down in the courtyard, Private Locke. Now, under most circumstances, a raw recruit reaming out the Bishop would be headed right for the stockade, but I’m interested in the details of this situation. It defies belief that the great Principia Locke, master thief of two centuries’ experience, who doesn’t so much as twitch an eyebrow except in pursuit of three separate plans, would lose composure that way. I would like to hear exactly, in detail, what you were trying to accomplish with that little speech.” She narrowed her eyes slightly. “This is a good time for you to be honest, Locke, not clever. I advise you not to make any assumptions concerning what I do or do not understand, either.”

Principia cleared her throat. “Yes, ma’am. It was first a diversionary tactic. As I explained to Bishop Syrinx at some length, I am not particularly concerned with anything she attempts to do to me, but she was going for Avelea. I will not have her sinking her teeth into my squad.”

“How interesting,” Rouvad said expressionlessly. “Go on.”

“Additionally,” Principia continued obediently, keeping her own face blank, “there were multiple representatives present of the two cults who had been severely antagonized by the Bishop’s actions. I ordinarily would not show Legion internal division to outsiders, but in that situation where Bishop Syrinx’s affronts were unavoidably obvious, a display of opposition to her from within the ranks was necessary for the Legion to regain face. My words were calculated to appeal to Eserite and Shaathist sensibilities as much as possible, and leave those representatives to understand that Syrinx’s abuses were not acceptable to us and would not be tolerated. I apologize for overstepping my prerogatives, Commander. Aside from the benefit of taking that action immediately, I believe it gained considerable credibility coming as it was from a low-ranking soldier who was clearly taking a risk by speaking out, rather than a high-ranking one whose reassurances could be dismissed as politics.”

Rouvad gazed at her in silence for a long moment after she finished speaking. “Is that all, Private Locke?”

Principia drew in a short breath. “In…addition…there was the consideration that any public punishment which befell me after the fact would have undercut the credibility I regained on behalf of the Legion by speaking out.”

“Oh, you noticed that too, did you,” Rouvad said, deadpan. “Well, Private, that’s a lot of complex effects to have achieved with a two-minute speech. Quite impressive by the priorities of Eserites, I would presume. As it happens, I concur with your assessments. I’m even a little impressed with your results. Considering the training aims of your cohort, I’m actually somewhat pleased, and inclined to let the matter stand so as to be further leveraged in the future. So no, in this case, you have not forced my hand.” Abruptly, her tone was hard and cold as a polar ice sheet, and her stare furious. “And if you ever attempt to do so again, Locke, as Avei is my witness you will beg for treatment as gentle as exile to Viridill before I am done with you. Is that understood?”

“Perfectly, Commander. It won’t happen again.”

Rouvad held her stare for a long moment before relaxing slightly and speaking again. “Needless to say, Bishop Syrinx’s role in this cohort’s management is over, and the experiment in question scrapped. Captain Dijanerad, how much damage do you believe has been done to your cohort by all this?”

“Minimal, Commander,” the captain said immediately, “and fixable. I’ll need officers and a schedule of more reasonable duty shifts, but it’s only been a week. That much more time without this nonsense going on should straighten out any problems. Not many have had time to form properly, yet.”

“Good,” said Rouvad, nodding. “I’ll assign you three more lieutenants to lighten Vriss’s workload. I won’t transfer anyone against their will, but you may have your pick of any candidates willing to take the job. Have their names on my desk in forty-eight hours, or I’ll pick some for you.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Will you need additional sergeants?”

“My squads were promised promotion from within, ma’am. No squads, in my opinion, lack a suitable officer candidate. I believe depriving them of that on top of this week’s events would be a serious blow to morale.”

“Very well, put forward your own choices’ names along with the lieutenants’.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“With regard to this group,” Rouvad continued, returning her stare to the assembled privates, “whether by accident or design, Bishop Syrinx’s campaign of ‘educational’ pressure has yielded some results. The five of you do appear to function well as a unit. You even show some promise in the direction toward which your training theoretically aimed. As such, I’m not willing to discard the only possibly successful result of this debacle out of hand.”

She leaned back in her chair, which creaked with the motion. The High Commander’s expression was impassive now, her eyes slowly moving across the squad.

“Squad Thirteen is hereby disbanded,” she said abruptly. “It will be re-formed to bring your cohort up to full strength in the days ahead, Captain. You will be assigned new graduates from the cadet program, as well as several more seasoned soldiers, just so you have a few to work with.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Dijanerad said crisply.

“These five women,” Rouvad continued, “are to be re-assigned together under the designation of Squad One.”

Despite their being ordered to stand at attention, there came a sharp indrawn breath from the privates.

In the Silver Legions, “One” was the designation of irregulars and special forces. Depending on the unit in question, it could be a great honor, or a punishment duty. The Second Legion’s First Cohort consisted entirely of magic users of a variety of specializations—all except warlocks, in fact. Its Squad One actually had three holy summoners, and was overall considered equivalent to an Imperial strike team in versatility and combat effectiveness. The Third Legion’s First Cohort were scouts and rangers of great renown, and the only part of the Legion that had remained fully intact during its recent reorganization. By contrast, the Fifth Legion’s First Cohort consisted of diplomats, statisticians and other paper jockeys. Though these were necessary functions (or they wouldn’t have been kept around), it was widely understood that that unit was a dumping ground for women who had nominally useful skills which did not include forming a competent phalanx.

Officially, there was no First Silver Legion. Rumors had abounded for years that such an organization existed off the books, working Avei’s will in places where the Sisterhood could not openly show its hand.

“It’s for good and specific reason I permitted you girls to witness the dressing down of the Bishop,” Rouvad continued calmly. “Considering what’s in store for you, I want you to understand some things. There is room for all sorts in Avei’s service. Basra Syrinx is a mean, vindictive, duplicitous snake, and we all know it. So long as she’s one who acts in accordance with Avei’s aims, I can work with that. I can even extend some tolerance toward antics which strain tradition and procedure. There is, however, a limit: go off on your own with that kind of behavior and I will shut it down. You keep both of those things firmly in mind.”

“Yes, ma’am!” they chorused.

“And with apologies to Captain Dijanerad for usurping her prerogative,” Rouvad continued, quirking an eyebrow, “I am going to go ahead and make the obvious choice for your new squad’s leader. Congratulations, Sergeant Locke.”

There was a beat of silence, in which Basra’s right eyelid began twitching uncontrollably.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” Principia said respectfully, “but it’s pronounced ‘Avelea.’ Common mistake.”

Rouvad held her gaze, blank-faced. “Locke, have I ever told you how much I enjoy your sense of humor?”

A few more seconds of silence stretched out before Principia was certain the Commander actually wanted a response to this.

“I don’t believe so, ma’am.”

“There is a reason for that.”

“Understood, Commander.”

“This is because you are the most appropriate candidate for the job,” Rouvad continued coldly, “which says more about the available talent pool than about your abilities. Let me be frank, Locke: you are not being rewarded. I am giving you the opportunity to fail, and I more than half expect you to take full advantage. In that event, I can rid my Legions of five disruptive losers and be done with it. Or, alternatively, you might surprise me and prove that this squad can be a considerable asset. I win either way; only the five of you have a stake in the outcome.

“Because, make no mistake, after the events of this week, you girls have proved not only your potential in the political and diplomatic arts, but your willingness to play fast and loose with regulations to achieve it. Much like the good Bishop, here. The difference is that she has given Avei years of dedicated and effective service, and you lot have done nothing to earn a fraction of that regard. If any of you went as badly off the Rail as she just did, I’d have you flogged. Am I clear?”

“Yes, ma’am!” all five shouted.

“Those are your alternatives, Squad One. You will either succeed beyond anyone’s expectations and prove your utility to the Silver Legions, or be drummed out of them. Mediocrity is not an option available to you. Clear?”

“Yes, ma’am!”

Rouvad studied them silently for a few moments more, then turned her head and nodded to Captain Dijanerad. “All right. Make me proud, ladies. That is an order. Dismissed, all of you.”

Once again, Basra was first out of the office, this time stalking like an offended cat and still practically quivering with fury. The rest followed her in stupefied silence, with the exception of Captain Dijanerad, who actually looked vaguely amused.

Covrin was still waiting in the hall, as ordered; she took one look at Basra’s expression and paled. The Bishop strode past her, snapping her fingers and pointing to the floor at her side. Covrin swallowed and came to heel like a well-trained dog.

Just as the Captain pulled the office door shut behind them, Principia paused, holding up a hand to halt her squad, and spoke.

“Just a moment, Covrin.”

“I don’t have time for you, Locke.”

“That’s Sergeant Locke,” the elf shot back. “Do not walk away from me, Private.”

Covrin came to a halt, as did Syrinx just ahead of her. Slowly, the private turned, staring at Principia for just a moment too long. Then she came to attention and saluted.

“My squad has the assigned duty of politics and diplomacy,” Principia said, staring into Covrin’s eyes. “And we’re under strength. I need clever, motivated women who possess a certain aptitude for, shall we say, lateral thinking. I’d like you to join up.”

Covrin stared at her for a moment, then half-turned her head, glancing at Bishop Syrinx out of the corner of her eye. The Bishop was watching without expression.

“She just got her butt served up on a platter and is being shipped off to cool her heels in Viridill,” Principia said quietly, still gazing hard at Covrin. “Basra Syrinx is in as weak a position as you have ever seen her, Jenell. Right now, she can’t touch you if you choose not to allow it. This is the best chance you’ll have to get away from her.”

“Permission to speak freely, Sergeant?” Covrin said stiffly.

Slowly, Principia nodded. “Granted.”

“I still don’t have time for you, Locke. May I be dismissed?”

Prin sighed softly. “Dismissed.”

Covrin turned on her heel and stalked back toward Basra. The Bishop paused only to smile coldly at Principia before continuing on her own way with Covrin trailing after her. They were gone around the corner in moments.

Captain Dijanerad clasped Principia on the shoulder as she passed down the hall in the opposite direction. “Good try, Locke, but you can’t do a thing for someone who won’t be helped. Get some rest, ladies.”

Moments later, she, too, was gone, leaving Squad One standing alone in the hallway.

“What just happened?” Ephanie asked of no one in particular.

“Dunno, but I do believe,” Merry said thoughtfully, “that I have never been this tired.”

“Never thought I’d miss that little dump of a cottage,” Farah agreed, “but I wanna go back there right now and make love to my pillow.”

“Gross,” Casey muttered.

“Well, that’s too bad, girls,” said Principia, rolling her shoulders and straightening her spine, “because we’ve a ways to go yet before we sleep. Fall in, Squad One; there’s one more thing we need to do tonight.”

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8 – 21

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Everything slowed down at night, but Tiraas never truly slept, nor slackened its pace to any great degree. Different kinds of business were done after dark in the Imperial city, but not much less business. Obviously, the more rural areas surrounding the city were a great deal sleepier once the sun was down, removed as they were from the capital’s omnipresent modern lights, but even there, human activity continued at all hours.

Consequently, while there wasn’t a great deal of traffic through the city gates at the late hour at which the mixed party of Huntsmen and Legionnaires finally reached them, the gates themselves were opened and manned. That, in fact, caused them a very minor delay.

The soldier standing on the right side of the road at the huge outer gate stepped forward, lowering his staff casually to extend in front of him—not blocking their way, but tacitly signaling for a stop. “Everything all right, ladies?” he inquired politely, pointedly ignoring the ring of Huntsmen and directing himself to Ephanie, who was the nearest Legionnaire to him.

“Everything is fine, soldier,” Andros rumbled, pausing and folding his arms. The uniformed man glanced at him momentarily, then returned his gaze to Ephanie. It was indeed a peculiar mix of people to the eyes of anyone who knew anything about either cult, but there was also the unmistakable fact that the Huntsmen had arranged themselves in an escort formation around the Legionnaires. In the absence of other cues, that could be taken as a sign of honor, or one of hostility. Altogether they made a strange enough sight to invite comment.

“Couldn’t be better!” Principia chirped. “These gentlemen were just guiding us back from a field exercise. You can’t ask for a better escort in the woods than a Huntsman, after all.”

The soldier eased back, slight but noticeable tension fading from him. “All right, then, Blessings, ladies, gentlemen.”

They passed through the gates into the wide square beyond, several nodding to the guards as they went.

“Arrogant pup,” Tholi grumbled. “You should’ve just told him who you were, Brother Andros.”

“Throwing force around is seldom the smart solution to a problem, Tholi,” the Bishop replied. “That is true socially as well as physically.”

The little towns at the foot of each bridge to the city were clustered around a fortification protecting the road itself. Inside the walls was a broad square, lined with shops and offices (now closed), and beyond that, the foot of the bridge itself.

Their mixed party had to reorganize itself somewhat upon reaching the bridge; most of its width was marked off for vehicles, and though there was comparatively little traffic at this hour, spilling out of the pedestrian lanes would have been grounds for a citation even if nobody was run over. In any case, there were stone barriers between the two, and the foot lanes were raised a good three feet higher, looking over the edges of the bridge itself. The view this afforded of the huge canyon with its churning river far below was both stunning and terrifying. They were protected from the drop by low stone walls surmounted by much taller iron fencing; people did still fall off, occasionally, but not by accident, and indeed it took some doing. The soldiers who regularly patrolled the bridges were on the lookout for would-be jumpers more than any criminals or threat to the city itself. Somehow, after reshuffling themselves into a space where no more than five could walk abreast, Principia wound up in the front rank with Andros and Ingvar, with Tholi and the rest of Squad Thirteen right behind, the remainder of the Huntsmen bringing up the rear.

Tiraas, approached this way, was a sight worthy to compete with the view over the chasm. Its walls were lit deliberately, powerful directed lights illuminating every inch of their exterior, their towers blazing from every window. Beyond that, structures rose into the distance, many also alight, with the crackling of factory antennae and pulsing of scrolltower orbs topping off the ambient glow of the city itself. As the group proceeded, a Rail caravan flashed past them down the fenced-off center lane of the bridge with a roar and a wash of blue radiance. It vanished into a tunnel leading below the main level of the bridge above, where the Rail line would come out in the terminal a few streets removed from the main gate.

The bridges themselves arched over a hundred yards of empty space, supported by nothing. Modern architecture and enchantment could reproduce such a feat, but when they had first been built, the bridges of Tiraas had been a wonder of the world. Their modification to accommodate present-day traffic had been a major project.

“What exactly is the plan, your Grace, if I might ask?” Principia inquired as they set out on the long bridge.

“I intend to speak with High Commander Rouvad about this day’s events immediately upon reaching the Temple of Avei,” Andros rumbled.

“Think she’ll see you?” Ingvar asked mildly.

“In the old days, clerics of Shaath and Avei might have refused to speak to one another. Not so long ago, they might conceivably have insisted any such contact go through the Church. It is too political an age now, however. The High Commander will not snub a Bishop. This one will not, at least; she is more intelligent than some of her predecessors. Insisting upon an audience with her will not gain the Huntsmen any sympathy with the Sisterhood, but I cannot imagine she would refuse outright.”

“Hard to imagine the Huntsmen gaining any sympathy with the Sisterhood anyway,” Tholi muttered. “Or caring.”

“You think Rouvad will call down Syrinx based on your say-so alone?” Ingvar asked. “With respect to our guests, here, we have only their assertion that Syrinx is even responsible for this.”

“First of all,” Andros said, turning his head to glance over his shoulder at the group and raising his voice, “that is not to be repeated in front of the Avenists or anyone else. Brother Ingvar is correct; it is an unproven claim, the repetition of which could be taken as slander. Do not add any arrows to Syrinx’s quiver. With that said, the point is not to have her punished for this on the spot, but to register our complaint immediately and personally, as far over her head as can be reached.”

“Seems the Archpope is even higher,” said Tholi, “not to mention more accessible to you.”

“I will be speaking to him as well,” Andros rumbled. “Consider, Tholi, the fact that I am taking these girls at their word, despite not knowing them, nor having any reason to trust them. When I am told that a snake has been hissing and slithering, I feel no need to be skeptical. Apart from the fact that Basra Syrinx is vicious, underhanded termagant who is more than capable of such as this, there are the facts of the situation. The forests around Tiraas are used by multiple cults for a variety of purposes, and one of the tasks of the Universal Church is to prevent embarrassing and possibly dangerous encounters such as occurred today. Such outings are arranged through the Church, as was your rite, Tholi.”

“I should’ve thought of that,” Principia said, grimacing. “Of course a Bishop would know where we could be sent to stumble across Huntsmen.”

“Apart from that,” Andros added, scowling darkly, “a Bishop would know what the Huntsmen were doing in that region. Even assuming these ‘reports’ of wife-stealing actually occurred, a quick check with the Church, via your cult’s Bishop, would have been the Sisterhood’s first action. It would have ruled out the specific area you were sent to search.”

“Finally,” Merry growled. “Got her dead to rights.”

“I doubt it’ll be that simple, somehow,” Principia murmured.

“It will not,” Andros agreed. “The Syrinx woman is clever enough to have prepared counters to the obvious means by which she would be caught, which is why I am proceeding directly to Rouvad. Those means relate to the Church bureaucracy; I will be very surprised if Syrinx has managed to arrange for interference to be run with her own High Commander. Also, my presence and Ingvar’s will have been a surprise to her. No one outside our lodge was informed of our hunt.”

“How did you happen across us, Brother Andros?” Tholi asked.

“It did not just happen,” Andros rumbled, glancing aside at Principia. “It seems you have an ally against Syrinx, girl. A little black bird led us to your rescue.”

“You have got to be shitting me,” Principia growled.

“What?” Farah asked. “Black bird? What’s he talking about?”

“It is the nature of family to look out for one another,” Andros intoned, looking down his nose at Prin. “Do not spit upon necessary help, whatever tension there is between you.”

“And why does he only talk to Locke?” Farah muttered.

“According to Shaathist dogma,” Ephanie said quietly, “the fae races are of different stock and the laws of the Wild not as applicable to them. We are borderline unholy, being women soldiers, but Locke can do whatever she likes.”

“Story of her life,” Merry said fatalistically.

More soldiers were on duty at the inner gate, of course, but while they gave the peculiar party odd looks (as did everyone they passed), they did not move to impede them. The group crossed into the city proper at a brisk walk; the broad street rose ahead, climbing gently toward the city center, where stood their destination, the Temple of Avei. It was a reminder to all of how tired they were. Legionnaires and Huntsmen alike were in excellent shape, but all of them had been out all day. Of course, none were willing to display the slightest weakness in front of the other group. There were no sighs or complaints, but it was hardly a jovial party.

They also didn’t get far before being ambushed.

Barely were they out of sight of the gate guards when half a dozen armed people in nondescript dark clothing materialized around the group. Their appearance was swift and professional—they stepped smoothly out of alleys before and behind the party, two hopping out of a carriage parked alongside the curb and one even jumping down from a second-story window.

Immediately, Huntsmen and Legionnaires alike dropped into ready stances, hefting weapons. The street around them was hardly deserted, even at this hour; at the obvious signs of an armed clash about to break out, people yelped and bolted, while some less intelligent others stopped to watch avidly.

“Whoah, whoah, keep ’em in your pants,” said a hatchet-faced blonde woman, holding up her hands in a peaceable gesture, but grinning fiendishly. She was the one who’d bounded down from above, and now swaggered forward to plant herself right in front of Andros and Principia. “We’re all friends here, aye? Let’s have a quick chat. You can call me Grip.”

“Speak your piece, woman,” Andros growled.

“You’re Grip?” Principia asked, raising her eyebrows. “Damn. By your rep, I’d picture someone twice the size, with a lot more scars.”

“And by yours I’d picture someone less armored and more smug, Keys,” Grip replied, lowering her hands and adopting a cocky posture. “Anyhow, we’re not here to interfere with you.”

“Then you’ve chosen a strange way to introduce yourselves,” Andros snorted.

“Well, you know how it is. We each have our little dramas to keep up.” Grip produced a shiny new doubloon from inside her sleeve and began rolling it across the backs of her fingers. “In fact, you might say we’ve come to join your hunt.”

“No way,” Principia breathed. “That fast? It’s barely been a day.”

“That fast,” Grip replied, raising an eyebrow. “Apparently Tricks places a high value upon rescuing your perky little butt. Hell if I know why; last I heard, the orders were to haul you back to explain the shit you’ve been up to, posthaste. But what do I know? I’m just a grunt; I go where I’m kicked.”

“We can relate,” Merry remarked.

“You speak in riddles and nonsense,” Andros barked. “Explain yourself!”

Grip eyed him up and down, then pointedly turned to Principia. “Are we explaining ourselves to this guy?”

“This is Bishop Varanus of the Universal Church,” Prin replied. “He is helping us out; kindly be nice.”

“Ah. Good to meet you, your Grace,” the enforcer said, turning back to Andros with just the faintest whiff of respect now in her expression. “I’ll give you the short version, then: when Bishop Darling learned what Bishop Syinx has been doing to this little squad, here, he passed the word along to the Boss, who then demanded to know which followers of Eserion had been helping her do it. One guy came forward immediately; Link is an information man, a professional fixer-upper and greaser of wheels. He identified the back-alley mage Syrinx had employed to scry on this group. We only just got our hands on him, as he’d been out of the city until this afternoon, but that worked out as what he was out doing was setting up the trap you fell into today.”

“A mage decided to accommodate a bunch of ruffians?” Tholi asked scornfully.

“A mage, like anyone sensible, does not want to be the object of the Thieves’ Guild’s ire,” said Ingvar. “Nor should you. Hush.”

“So,” Grip continued with an unpleasant grin, “we’ve got that guy, and subsequently we have a certain Ami Talaari, a Vesker apprentice who was under the impression she’d been hired to participate in a Silver Legion training exercise. She was quite alarmed to learn she had instead been used to goad your squad into a trap.”

A burly man standing silently behind Grip’s shoulder held out a thick leather folder, which she accepted, and produced a sheet of parchment from within, extending it forward. Andros moved to take it; Grip pointedly jerked it out of his reach, handing it to Principia. Prin, with a sigh, accepted and glanced over the letter before handing it off to the Bishop.

“That looks authentic enough as far as I can see,” she said. “Forgery’s not really my thing, but I bet it is. I don’t recognize this officer’s signature, though. I wouldn’t necessarily know whoever would hire a bard, but…”

“Syrinx is not daft enough to place her own seal upon any such document,” Andros growled, handing the letter back to Grip.

“And by the way,” Principia added sharply, “I trust you’re not being too rough with Miss Talaari.”

“Ms,” Casey murmured. Everyone ignored her.

“Oh, she’s being treated like a princess, I assure you,” Grip said dryly. “Annoying one bard is good fun; annoying all the bards leads to unending nightmares. We’re not about to get rough with a Vesker apprentice. No, once we explained to Miss Talaari why it’s in her best interests to cooperate, she’s been an absolute dream to work with. We’ve got signed testimonials from her and the mage, receipts for work done, and,” she added with relish, hefting the folder, “a strongly-worded letter from Boss Tricks to High Commander Rouvad concerning this mess. Our boy in robes already had your scent, Keys…or whatever the magical equivalent is…so we’ve been watching for you to re-enter the city. Scrying doesn’t provide sound on the level he does it, so we weren’t sure what was going on, with all this.” She raised an eyebrow, looking pointedly around at the Huntsmen.

“Had my Huntsmen been the ones to catch that girl desecrating a wilderbag, she might not have fared so well,” Tholi said, scowling.

“Indeed,” Andros nodded. “Syrinx’s actions placed an apprentice of Vesk in immediate danger. That makes three cults she has abused her position within the Church to mortally offend in the space of one day.”

“Holy hell,” Merry breathed. “If we can actually stick this to her, her ass is grass.”

“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” Casey advised.

“She’s a slimy one,” Principia mused, “but she lacks foresight. Bishop Varanus and the Guild are two factors I doubt she expected to intervene, here. His Grace is right; if we take all of this to Rouvad now, Syrinx won’t have much time to weasel out of it.”

“Then time is of the essence,” Andros declared. “Onward we go.”

The Guild enforcers fell into step alongside them as they set off again for the Temple, making the party even odder yet. The Guild had no uniform as such, but six heavily-armed, expensively-dressed thugs prowling along with the leonine grace of professional knuckledusters made a distinctive sight that most in the city would recognize. Their inclusion in a mixed group of Huntsmen and Silver Legionnaires made possibly the oddest religious procession that had ever passed through the streets of Tiraas.

Odd, but apparently not overtly suspicious; at least, they weren’t directly challenged by any of the city patrol soldiers they passed, even the two who arrived at the tail end of their conversation, no doubt in response to reports from some of the civilians who had fled the enforcers’ initial arrival.

It was a mostly silent walk the rest of the way to the temple. They were less than a block from the rear annex of the Silver Legion complex attached to the temple itself when Grip spoke again.

“By the way,” she said lightly, once again playing with a doubloon, “we had Syrinx’s pet mage carry on reporting as usual—with a few provisos. Expect to be greeted when we get there.”

“What does she know?” Andros growled.

Grip grinned unpleasantly. “That Squad Thirteen will be returning in the company of Huntsmen. The presence of Enforcers and Bishops will be news to her.”

“Oh, I am almost looking forward to this,” Merry said. Ephanie just shook her head.

The towering battlements of the fortress hove into view above them. For the third time that evening, they approached an armed checkpoint, this one staffed by Silver Legionnaires. The armored women guarding the rearmost gate into the compound’s parade grounds straightened up at their approach, their expressions mostly hidden behind their helmets. That was probably fortunate.

Principia stepped into the lead as the group reached the gates, saluting. “Squad Thirteen of the Ninth Cohort returning from maneuvers, with guests.”

“Guests,” said the guard, her helmet moving slowly as she studied the assembled group. “Right. And what business do they have here?”

“This is Bishop Varanus of the Universal Church,” Principia reported impassively, “and an emissary from Boss Tricks of the Thieves’ Guild, with their respective entourages. Both have urgent messages for High Commander Rouvad.”

“Well,” the gate guard said slowly, “you’d better go on through, then.”

Principia saluted again, then led the way through.

It was nearing midnight; there were Legionnaires patrolling the walls, but the parade ground of the Camp itself was all but deserted, illuminated only by a few fairy lights attached to the cabins. True to Grip’s predictions, a familiar dark-haired figure was cutting across the courtyard toward them even as the disparate group reached the middle of the parade ground, the armored form of Private Covrin right on her heels.

“I trust there is an incredible explanation for this,” Bishop Syrinx stated, stomping to a halt in front of the party. Her gaze panned across the assembled Legionnaires, Huntsmen and enforcers; if she was at all surprised by the group’s composition, no sign of it showed on her face.

Andros folded his brawny arms across his chest. “I will speak with High Commander Rouvad, Basra. Now.”

“About what, Andros?” she demanded.

“That I will discuss with her.”

“You’re a Bishop; you can make arrangements through the Church,” she retorted. “If you intend to bypass the bureaucracy, that can probably be arranged, but I’m going to need more than your say-so first.”

He stepped forward once, glaring down at her; she met his gaze coolly.

“I will speak to the High Commander,” he growled, “about the squad of Silver Legionnaires that was sent bumbling into a holy rite of the Huntsmen of Shaath today.”

Basra pursed her lips, turning after a moment to fix the fives Legionnaires with a flat stare. “And what, exactly, were you girls supposed to be doing?”

“Investigating reports of Shaathist activity, ma’am,” Ephanie said crisply.

Basra scowled. “And you couldn’t do that without interfering with their religious practices? If I’m not mistaken, this cohort is supposed to be training to handle relations with other faiths. Would anyone care to explain this staggering failure?”

“I have little patience for your internal quibbles,” Andros growled. “Are you going to take me to Rouvad, or am I going to wait right here with my Huntsmen until someone more competent comes to address us?”

“We know very well this was all your doing!” Tholi added with a sneer.

Ingvar sighed and shook his head.

“Tholi!” Andros barked. “Silence.”

“Oh, really,” Basra said, her voice deadly quiet. Slowly, she panned her gaze over Squad Thirteen again, this time fixing it upon Ephanie. “And so, having caused an interfaith embarrassment, you decided to weasel out of trouble by pinning the blame on your Bishop? That’s very interesting.” She took a step forward, her eyes boring into Ephanie’s. “And I don’t have to ask which of you little twerps would have the bright idea of siding with the Huntsmen against your own Legion, now do I. Not when there’s someone present with a history of that.”

“That is not what happened, your Grace,” Ephanie said evenly.

“You can explain yourself fully at your court martial, Private Avelea,” Basra shot back.

“Leave her alone,” Principia said quietly.

“Shut up, Locke,” the Bishop spat. “For once, your nonsense is not the center of attention. Avelea, you are to hand over your gear and report to the stockade—”

“You will look me in the eye when I am speaking to you!” Principia roared, stalking forward until Basra had to physically step back from her to avoid being stepped on.

“How dare you—”

“Shut the hell up, you pathetic little bully,” the elf snarled, ripping off her helmet and tossing it aside. “I have had exactly as much of your bullshit as I intend to tolerate, Syrinx. This is over. You are done, is that clear?”

“I’ll have you—”

“Button it!” Principia stepped forward again, physically bumping into Basra and jostling her backward. “You have absolutely no comprehension what you are messing with, Basra. Do you think I let you push me around and talk down to me because there’s something forcing my hand? I tolerate you, y’little punk, because I choose to. Because you are so far from being a threat that your pretensions in that direction are a constant source of amusement to me. I was playing this game when your grandparents were in swaddling, and I’ll be playing when everyone who remembered you is dust. I am so far out of your league your only hope of anything resembling success in the long run is if you manage to annoy me enough to warrant a footnote in my memoirs, and I have to tell you, Bas, you’re not there yet. The fact that you are inconveniencing me yet again is a cosmic insult.

“And let me spell this situation out for you,” she went on in a hiss, pressing forward again; Syrinx gave ground, staring at her with wide, expressionless eyes. “You have utterly failed to understand the long-term consequences of your horseshit, Basra. Nothing you have the capacity to dish out is a serious threat to my well-being. To get rid of me, you’d have to kill me, and you’re simply too weak, too slow, and too stupid to make that happen. You best-case scenario is to get me booted out of the Legions, and believe me, you don’t want that. Because the moment I no longer have to play nicely, the hourglass begins running out for you. Is that perfectly clear? Now pipe down, grow up and start picking on someone your own size, you insignificant little bitch.”

Dead silence fell. The other four members of Squad Thirteen gaped with identical expressions of shock. By contrast, the Huntsmen and Guild enforcers all wore huge grins.

Then, after a long moment, a slow smile crept across Basra’s face.

“I dearly hope you enjoyed that, private,” she whispered.

“Bishop Syrinx.”

Everyone turned at Captain Dijanerad’s voice. She stood off to one side; Grip was next to her, and the folder of Guild papers was in the captain’s hands. She kept her expressionless gaze fixed on Basra.

“You and Squad Thirteen are to report to the High Commander’s office immediately. She wants a word with all of you.”

“I require a few minutes of her time, as well,” Andros rumbled.

Dijanerad looked up at him, her expression not altering. “This may take some time, your Grace. I’m sure she would be glad to set up an appointment for you first thing tomorrow.”

“I will speak with her as soon as she is finished with these,” he declared. “I can wait.”

“Very well,” the captain said noncommittally. “Private Covrin, see that some accommodations are found for our guests, along with whatever they require. Within reason.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Covrin said crisply.

“I believe you can count us out,” Grip said lazily, already strolling back toward the gate. “Just get that stuff into her hands, and our job here is done. The Boss will be eagerly awaiting the Commander’s response. Toodleoo, boys and girls.”

The rest of the enforcers fell into step behind her, making their way languidly out of the courtyard.

“As for the rest of you,” Dijanerad said grimly, dragging her stare across Squad Thirteen to fix it on Basra, “forward march.”

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