Tag Archives: Captain Ravoud

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“As of now, this unit is reduced to one man,” Ravoud reported, his tone tight with compressed emotion. “Two, once Rossiter is cleared from observation for her head injury. She would have been already, but our medical staff is stretched to the limit.”

“I gave orders that you should reach beyond the Legion’s medics for this,” said Justinian, frowning. “If there is one thing the Universal Church does not lack, it’s healers.”

“Yes, your Holiness, but this isn’t a situation that can be solved with more healing. If not for Khadizroth and Vannae, we would have lost a lot more men last night. The remaining injuries, though… That weapon seared what it cut, sir. Re-attachment of the limbs simply isn’t an option. The good news is it prevented them from bleeding out on the spot; most of our medics’ initial work was in preventing infection. Now, they are trying to keep the men with internal injuries stabilized. There, again, Khadizroth has been invaluable. For now, the work is better served by having a few skilled people doing their best than a lot of outsiders slinging magic around.”

“Very well,” Justinian replied, heaving a sigh. “I trust your judgment in this, Nassir. The offer stands, though; if you can use any further resources or personnel, requisition them immediately. I’ve made it known you speak with my authority in this matter, at least for the time being.”

“Thank you, your Holiness,” Ravoud said, bowing. “There is also the matter of security…”

“Yes, always. We will prioritize, however,” said the Archpope. “Right now, our highest concern is the welfare of our men—whatever we can still ensure. There are so many for whom we can do nothing.”

“Yes,” Ravoud said, and his voice echoed with the hollowness he had kept leashed all day through sheer professionalism. “Your Holiness… It’s as I said. This is half the functional core of the Legion, just…gone. And each of them was hand-picked from the available troops. Sir, unless we either recruit more aggressively or considerably relax our standards, it’s going to take far longer to rebuild the Legion than it did to build it in the first place. Even re-assigning troops from First Unit…”

“Either of those will compromise security,” Justinian murmured. “We’ll hold off on the decision for now, Nassir. For the moment, as I said, we focus on healing. I will get fae healers to see about tissue regeneration. At the very least, hopefully we can save those who suffered cuts to the torso from that weapon. It may be that we can restore severed limbs for the rest.”

“Regenerating limbs is atrociously expensive,” Ravoud said quietly. Despite his gaunt pallor, his eyes remained focused and alert behind their reddened rims. “It’s not a problem which can be solved by throwing the Church’s treasury at it, either. The Salyrites can only do so much without burning up very rare reagents. Even the Empire doesn’t offer such treatments to its personnel except in very special cases.”

“I am aware. If nothing else, we can reach out to the elves—which, of course, raises its own set of problems. You are right about security, Nassir. We will attend to this first and foremost, and then, when we are able to take stock and see how badly we’ve been forced to reveal our hand, the issue of recruitment can be revisited.”

“Of course, your Holiness. I see your point.”

They paused, both turning, to stare up the wide central hallway. It had had only a cursory cleaning, and was now free of bloodstains and severed body parts, but there were scorch marks on the golden stone in multiple places.

“What was it?” Ravoud whispered. “Only Rasevaan seems to have seen the thing and not been cut by it; she said the assassin threatened her, but then destroyed the warding arrays rather than attacking. She described a beam of light that made a sound like a giant wasp. Some of the men… Some of them have been talking, through the painkillers. They’ve said similar. What kind of new weapon are we facing?”

“Not a new weapon,” Justinian said with another sigh. “A very old one. Artifacts of the Elder Gods; the Church has three in its vaults. I will let you inspect one, if you wish. There are others in the possession of the Imperial Treasury; the Royal Museum in Svenheim has one actually on display. By this point in history, most of them which are going to be found probably have been, and have made their way into the hands of institutions with the sense to secure them away from use. It’s rare enough even to see one, but nearly unheard of to see one wielded in combat. I had believed anyone who might possess such a thing would be too intelligent to wave it around.”

“There’s a curse on them?” Ravoud asked. “That would be just like the Elder Gods…”

Justinian shook his head, managing a weary smile. “It was a weightless blade which cuts anything and burns as it touches, Nassir. It hardly needs a curse to be impossibly dangerous to handle. This raises very troubling questions.”

“Indeed.”

Both turned to greet Khadizroth, who now approached from the central chambers where he and the others lived. The dragon nodded to them before continuing.

“I’ve examined such devices myself; several of my kind possess such treasures in their hoards. I agree with your assessment, your Holiness. It has been a long span of years since one fell into the hands of anyone fool enough to use it. Few relics of the Elder Gods are safe to handle at all. Regardless, I have done what I can for now to stabilize the three survivors

suffering organ damage from that…thing. I am confident, however. They are in a deep sleep; give me the night to gather my strength and some resources from the planes, and I will finish their healing on the morrow. This process is very involved; I will not risk a subject’s health by approaching it unprepared.”

“Your aid is greatly appreciated, Khadizroth,” Justinian stated, inclining his head deeply.

The dragon nodded in return, to exactly the same degree, then shifted his gaze to Ravoud.

“After that, Colonel, I will begin regenerating the less life-threatening injuries suffered by the others. You should know that this will take time. I can do it without dipping into stockpiles of priceless components as most human witches would need to, but you were correct that the process is a great challenge. It is worse in this case.” The corners of his mouth turned down in disapproval. “That accursed implement cauterized what it cut. Life-saving in the immediate term, in some cases, but it makes the procedure more invasive than it might otherwise be. I will need to cut again, to have an open wound with which to work, and draw forth new flesh from there. It’s doubtful I can attend to more than one limb in a day, and there will be pain involved. While I don’t expect any of the soldiers will decline, they deserve to know, in advance, what to expect. If any does refuse, I must respect his wishes.”

Ravoud turned to him directly and bowed deeply. “I cannot tell you how grateful I am for this, Lord Khadizroth,” he said, his voice finally quavering. He had held up stolidly during the long night and morning with the strength of character Justinian had come to expect from him, but Nassir Ravoud would much rather have lost an arm of his own than have to watch soldiers he had hand-picked and trained suffer through what they had last night.

“Indeed,” the Archpope agreed gravely. “We are truly blessed to have you with us. This is a debt I doubt we can repay.”

“There is no debt,” Khadizroth said immediately, waving one hand. “I am only sorry I failed to save more lives. I was attempting to track the interloper, and underestimated the carnage she had wrought until I saw it firsthand.”

“The generosity of dragons is justly legendary,” said Justinian with another deep nod. Khadizroth returned the gesture again, neither of them commenting on the other half of that old proverb: the greed of dragons was just as legendary. The Archpope had not missed Ravoud’s formal address of him; never before had he called him Lord Khadizroth, nor shown any inclination to interact with him at all unless required. It was worth remembering that this dragon, even more than most, was dangerous for his canniness and proficiency at recruiting followers more than for his innate power, especially bound as he was. Not for the first time lately, Justinian wondered if the Crow’s curse was adequate to keep this creature safely housebroken.

“If it is not too sensitive a question,” Khadizroth continued, “what do we know about the attacker? I have spoken with the others; she fended off Kheshiri and the Jackal quite deftly, which is…surprising.”

“Little progress on that front,” Justinian admitted. “Our focus has been on preserving what life we still can. I assure you, I would have made time to track this villain, but there is simply nothing to go on. Sister Rasevaan has determined that she teleported in and out with the skills of a highly advanced mage, someone able to penetrate even the wards on this temple, but the attacker herself showed no arcane talent—nothing but skill at hand-to-hand combat. All we can be sure of, then, is that she did not work alone.”

“Your Holiness,” said Ravoud, now frowning in thought, “I meant to discuss this with you, anyway. I don’t believe this was meant as an attack.”

“Oh?” Justinian raised an eyebrow, as he and Khadizroth both turned to the Colonel.

“The only two uninjured soldiers were Alsadi and Rossiter,” Ravoud explained. “Relatively uninjured, at least; Rossiter was struck in the head, but they were the first to encounter her, and the intent was clearly to neutralize them non-fatally. An interesting choice, considering the intruder’s…later pattern. In fact, she choked Alsadi unconscious, and then left him on the floor. He doesn’t know how long he was out, obviously, but it can’t have been more than a minute.”

“Unconsciousness from oxygen deprivation simply doesn’t last that long,” Khadizroth agreed, nodding.

“Then,” Ravoud continued, “she entered the adventurers’ compound, under a stealth effect, where Kheshiri caught and intercepted her. She put down the succubus, the assassin, and the enforcer—all quite deftly, but again, without killing, which had to have been a deliberate choice. Given the armament we know she had, lethal force would have been easier, if anything. She fled from Lord Khadizroth upon his appearance, however.”

He paused, swallowing heavily, before continuing.

“Thereafter, she began using increasingly deadly force as she fled toward an exit, the wards having been tightened once the alarm was raised. Based on this sequence of events, the picture that emerges isn’t an intended assault, otherwise it would make no sense to avoid killing our higher-value assets when she had them at a clear disadvantage. Likewise, she apparently wasn’t expecting to find a dragon here.”

“You think this was a scout?” Khadizroth asked.

Ravoud’s frown deepened. “It’s not so simple. A trained spy would have dealt with Rossiter and Alsadi more definitively, and hidden them somewhere they wouldn’t quickly be found and raise an alarm. And there’s the final chapter of the debacle; Rasevaan said the attacker didn’t speak, but clearly threatened her. We know she could easily have killed her, but apparently…didn’t want to.” He turned directly to the Archpope. “Strange as it sounds, I think what we had was a combat asset, not an intelligence one, attempting to fulfill the wrong role, and not wanting to cause harm. Faced with overwhelming force and not knowing how to evade or deflect it, she retaliated when confronted. But it seems she was just trying to look around, and get out. The damage she caused…it begins to seem more like panic than malice.”

The dragon’s eyes had narrowed to emerald slits. “How curious. I follow your logic, Colonel, but… If that is the case, why send a warrior to do a spy’s job—and do it so poorly? Who could have the resources to train such a person to such a dangerous level of skill, equip her with such weaponry, and then nearly squander her on a mission so ill-suited? Surely not the Empire. Many complaints I have against the Silver Throne, but its competence I have learned to respect. At least, in its current incarnation. Likewise, the Black Wreath is neither so brash nor so inept. Who else would dare assault this temple?”

“In fact,” Justinian said smoothly, “this raises a thought which dovetails neatly with one of my own. Walk with me, please, gentlemen. I would like to continue this discussion in a place less…open.”


“Despite your loss of situational control, I have to consider this mission an overall success,” Lord Vex assured her. Milanda wasn’t yet clear on what arrangement allowed her three compatriots to reach the Imperial spymaster so quickly, but here he was in their shabby safe house, only a few hours after her escape from Dawnchapel.

Hours in which she had not slept.

“The Holy Legion’s true nature is hardly a secret,” Vex continued. “Justinian can keep a project like that out of the general public’s view, but we’ve known what he was about from the beginning. We know their numbers, and simply based on what you describe, you utterly decimated them. That damage alone undoes long months of his work, and sets back his military ambitions vastly.”

Milanda closed her eyes, and didn’t speak for a moment, until she could be certain her voice would be relatively even. It was raspy with lack of sleep, but fairly satisfactory, all things considered.

“It can’t have been more than a couple dozen men. How much damage could that be?”

“Understand the stage at which he stands in building his army,” said Vex. “The elite core of the Holy Legion as it was before last night was no threat to the Empire—but it was a core of carefully-selected, highly trained, fanatically loyal soldiers. From such a seed is an army sprouted. He still can grow that army, but his options now are either to grow one from lesser stock, or start again. Either is satisfactory, from our perspective. In any case, the intelligence you found was nearly as valuable.” He narrowed his eyes. “Forgive me, but you are certain the name you heard was Kheshiri?”

“I realize I didn’t perform to your standards as an Intelligence agent,” Milanda said wearily, “but I am a courtier, Lord Vex. Remembering unusual names is a skill I have practiced. You sound as if you recognize it.”

He nodded. “That one is dangerous, even by Vanislaad standards.”

“What makes her so dangerous?”

Vex gave her one of his sleepy smiles. “Well, we have a number of less-reliable reports which are positively hair-raising, but for example…the most interesting tidbit from her known exploits is that the succubus Kheshiri ran the Black Wreath for several weeks during the Enchanter Wars. She assassinated and replaced Elilial’s own high priest. From what we pieced together after the fact, the Wreath themselves never even caught on; the goddess herself had to step in. Kheshiri is a major problem, especially in Justinian’s hands. Hm… That means the other man you describe was likely Jeremiah ‘Thumper’ Shook, renegade Thieves’ Guild enforcer. He is many orders of magnitude below her pay grade, but he’s been missing for over a year, and connected with Kheshiri at her last sighting. We’ve yet to puzzle out the nature of his connection with her, but I suspect there’s a link there to how she got loose in the first place. The Wreath had her imprisoned as recently as two years ago. The others you describe are known, as well.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Who were they?”

“Of course, any elf can wear a suit, for all that they rarely do, but between the description and his demeanor, that elf was likely the Jackal, a professional assassin also linked recently to Justinian’s plots. And…there is the dragon.”

“If the Archpope is in league with the Conclave,” she began quietly.

Vex shook his head. “That much I don’t fear. Only a gold would mess around with the Church. There are few enough of those, and only Ampophrenon here in Tiraas—and he is still the head of the Order of Light, whose relationship with the Church has been carefully watched and is still notably frosty. No, the Conclave’s missing dragon has also been connected with the Archpope recently, albeit tentatively.” A thin smile flickered across his face. “Less tentatively now, it seems.”

Milanda frowned. “I thought the Conclave spoke for all the dragons. At least on this continent.”

“That is what they claim,” the spymaster said with a shrug, “and I for one and not inclined to call them liars, even when I know they are. I strongly suspect wanting to find and control Khadizroth the Green was one of their central motivations—for coming here, if not for forming in the first place. Khadizroth, too, would have little regard for a human institution like the Church. Justinian has some manner of hold on him. If we can find that, and break it…” His smile expanded to almost genuine proportions. “We are on good terms with the Conclave to begin with. Setting them against the Church would be…so very, very interesting.”

Milanda nodded mutely, her gaze wandering.

After a moment, Vex reached out to touch her shoulder. She snapped her eyes to the invading hand, then to his face. His expression was…attentive, and strangely gentle, which made her instantly suspicious.

“I have a cleric on my core staff—an Izarite, but trusted and loyal, with the highest clearance. He’s necessary for my ministry’s operation, and especially the health of many of my most important personnel. I’m going to make him available to you, Milanda. I’d like you to make an appointment. You can be assured anything you say to him will remain private, even from me.”

“Thank you, but I don’t need healing,” she said tonelessly.

Vex stared down at her for a moment, then shook his head. “Ms. Darnassy, I train spies. You know what one of the biggest hurdles is for them to overcome? All the technique of the craft can be learned, just like any trade. But for spies and soldiers alike, the constant problem we have in training our people is that human beings in their right mind simply do not want to kill. We must learn to do so, for the greater good. And…even with training, many retain a strong reluctance. That is why I keep a mental healer on staff. All too often, my people come back with damaged minds and hearts. And they tend to suffer more for the things I order them to do, than for what is done to them.” He glanced aside for a moment before meeting her eyes again. “I’ve made use of his services myself. If I found myself not needing them, I would have to question my fitness for duty.”

“I’m fine, thank you,” she said with a tight smile.

“Don’t bother,” he retorted, his tone too kind for the brusque words. “You have an excellent poker face, but remember who you’re talking to. I started in this business by seeing through nobles and courtiers when they tried to hide their intentions. Milanda… If you were under my command, I would remove you from active duty until you had been cleared by a mental healer to return to it. As it is…” He sighed softly. “I can only recommend, strongly, that you see one. If not mine…whoever you can trust to keep the secrets that must be kept. I’m sure you have contacts of your own. But do not underestimate the seriousness of this, please. You would be dangerously unhinged if you could unexpectedly kill or maim that many people without suffering for it, and you can become dangerously unhinged if you leave this unaddressed. Injuries to the mind are not less severe than those to the body. Either can leave you unable to do your job.”

“Thank you,” she repeated. He stared at her. After a moment, she averted her gaze, and spoke more softly. “I…really, thank you. I will…think about what you said. You’re probably not wrong.”

Vex nodded. “In the meantime… Try to get some sleep, at least. I can tell you haven’t, yet, and it’s a start. For now, we’ve a space in which to breathe before making another step, and you should be well rested before you plan one. The enemy is reeling and has no means to retaliate directly. Oh!” He smiled again, like a lazy, well-fed cat. “And I have some good news.”


“A pattern emerges,” Justinian said, turning to face them and folding his hands at his waist. His expression was precise—serious, concerned, with only the faintest knowing hint in the cast of his eyes and lips. Khadizroth would perceive it, but the effect on Ravoud would be subconscious. “Information at this point is too sketchy to be certain, but I have learned to trust my intuition in these matters. Khadizroth, I hate to prevail upon you when you are already exerting yourself so greatly on behalf of our fallen, but I must ask a favor.”

“I’ll take no offense at the asking,” the dragon said mildly. “There are things I cannot do, of course, and things I will not.”

“It goes without saying,” Justinian acknowledged, as Ravoud stepped over to them after securing the door of the small office. “And I will emphasize that while this matter is time-sensitive, the restoration of our people is of course of greater importance. If it can be only one or the other, I will prioritize the care of our injured.”

Khadizroth nodded.

“I need,” Justinian went on pensively, “to request your aid with a fae divination.”

The dragon’s eyebrows shifted upward fractionally. “Oh? I am, of course, aware that the Archpopes have control of the majority of oracular resources left in the world.”

“Ah, but not so,” Justinian said with a faint, careful smile. “The Church, it is true, owns as many divinatory objects as it has been able to secure—but their use by a layperson such as myself is a very different matter from the personal answers which can be garnered by a master of fae craft.”

“True,” the dragon agreed. “But I am certain you have made use of those tools, and as such will be aware that oracular prophecy is…less than helpful when it comes to specific, tactical information.”

“Of course. But I believe there are certain types of questions which lend themselves more readily to the voice of oracles, is it not so? Yes or no questions, the finding of lost things…”

Khadizroth nodded again. “Go on…”

“As I said, I see the beginnings of a pattern.” Justinian began to pace back and forth—very slowly, not sacrificing the dignity of his carefully-cultivated presence, or giving the impression of frenetic movement. “The timing of this, for one. I cannot ignore the fact that one of my secret projects recently brushed against one of the Empire’s. I of course immediately extended an olive branch, but I would not expect the Throne to take any such at face value.”

“That would explain the presence of an agent, poking around,” Ravoud said softly. “But…not why they would poke here, or send someone so clearly unsuited to the task. The Empire has plenty of people skilled at such work. The very best.”

“The Empire also would not equip an agent with a beam sword,” Khadizroth added, his lips quirking again in disapproval. Justinian made a note of that. An affectation, meant to build rapport, and perhaps strengthen the connection he was deliberately forging with Ravoud? Or did the dragon have some personal antipathy toward those weapons?

“Indeed,” he said aloud. “But there is more. Our Emperor and Empress have succeeded in part by, effectively, dividing the roles Theasia played between them. The old Empress was generally well thought of, but had a reputation for unpredictability and vindictiveness. These two… Sharidan plays the politician very well, and has devoted much effort to cultivating the goodwill of the people at large, as well as various specific parties. Nobles, trade guilds, the like. Eleanora, by contrast, is the iron hand in his velvet glove. She is known to directly control Lord Vex, and to be the actor behind the Silver Throne’s most vicious pursuit of its interior enemies. The loved, and the feared. And I have never before heard any suggestion that they are in anything but perfect accord.”

“Go on,” Khadizroth urged, frowning now.

Justinian stopped his pacing, turning to them again and putting on an intent, earnest expression. “The Emperor has not been seen in public for several days. When I went to see him, urgently, in the middle of the night, he did not appear—I had an audience with the Empress, Lord Vex, and most interestingly, Milanda Darnassy.”

The dragon quirked an eyebrow. “Who?”

“One of his Majesty’s mistresses,” Ravoud explained.

“Hm.”

“Very odd indeed,” Justinian agreed. “I wasn’t aware that she had any role in politics—nor was Bishop Darling, who accompanied me, and he takes great pains to know such details. And while neither of them harbors much love for my humble self, it is very much against Sharidan’s nature to snub a sitting Archpope by refusing an urgent request for a meeting.”

“I think,” Khadizroth said slowly, “I begin to see the direction of your thoughts, your Holiness.”

Justinian nodded, assuming a grim little smile. “While last night’s assault wouldn’t be characteristic of the Empire as a whole, or at least of the Tirasian Dynasty, I have no trouble imagining Empress Eleanora ordering such a thing—if, that is, she were for some reason operating without her husband’s moderating influence. And that brings me to my question. One which is very important on its own merits, but which I’ve a hunch may reflect upon our problems here.” He spread his arms in a gesture that was half benediction, half shrug. “Where is the Emperor?”

Justinian watched them consider it, and permitted himself the luxury of a knowing smile, since it would only add to the impression he sought to create here. It might be nothing—but who knew what the damage Rector had wrought upon the Hands might have done? And if Sharidan were out of pocket, for whatever reason… Well. If Khadizroth the Green were the one to find him, then if something unfortunate befell the Emperor soon after that, the dragon would make a very convenient chew toy for Eleanora. And just when he was beginning to think Khadizroth was become more trouble than he was worth.

There were no setbacks in the great game. Only changes on the board.

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Prologue – Volume 4

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Ravoud was always precisely punctual, which aided the Archpope tremendously in timing his appearances. It was a small thing, but great things were only aggregates of smaller ones, and image was both his weapon and his battlefield. When people looked at him, they saw what he wished them to see, and it was the entire foundation of his power.

He stood, straight-backed and calm, with his hands folded behind his back, gazing through the windows of his office at the city, a view he could have painted from memory. Though his face was not visible from the door at this angle, he kept it schooled in an expression of thought. A scene was constructed of many pieces of scenery, and just because the audience did not see the work of the stagehands did not make it any less important.

“Enter,” he said calmly at the sharp knock on his door, his voice projected just enough to be audible without.

The office door swung open, then shut, and then came the footfalls on his floor, approaching him; he had learned to recognize Ravoud’s step even among those of his soldiers, whom he trained to mimic his precise gait.

Justinian turned exactly as the Colonel was kneeling behind him, giving the man a perfect view of the very moment when his expression transitioned from a contemplative frown to a kind smile at the sight of his subordinate, a split second before he lowered his own eyes.

Small things, in aggregation, made up all the world.

“Rise, my friend,” he said as Ravoud kissed his proffered ring. The Colonel straightened up smoothly, saluting—which Justinian had made it clear he did not need to do, but he valued the man’s sense of protocol and proper respect too much to insist on the point.

“Your guests have assembled, your Holiness,” Ravoud reported, “in the conference room as directed.”

“Then by all means, let us join them,” the Archpope replied, setting off for the door.

In the hall, the two Holy Legionaries bracketing his office door saluted, but at Ravoud’s gesture remained in place rather than following. Justinian liked to use these walks through the less-populated upper halls of the Cathedral to hold discussions to which he preferred there not be an audience.

“And how are the Bishops, in your estimation?” he asked as soon as they had rounded the corner.

Ravoud kept his eyes ahead, but his brows lowered in a thoughtful frown. “In most respects, much the same as always. Bishop Varanus is the only one of the four I feel comfortable turning my back to.”

Justinian smiled warmly. “Do not underestimate Andros’s cleverness. But yes, you judge him well. The man’s sense of honor is his greatest driving force. Most respects, though?”

Ravoud nodded. “There is more tension between them than before, since Syrinx’s return. And beyond her presence, I believe I’ve only just realized why.”

“Oh?”

“Most of the time, Snowe and Darling are a moderating factor. The other two have strong and mutually hostile personalities, and the Eserite and Izarite deliberately keep the peace. Suddenly, though, they are not. In the conversations I’ve seen, Darling appears suddenly more neutral—not as if he is courting trouble, but more as if he wants to watch the others to see what happens. And there is a specific tension between Syrinx and Snowe, now. I suspect that is what caught his interest. I suspect he noticed it long before I.”

“How fascinating,” Justinian murmured. “And what do you make of this?”

“I think,” Ravoud said with the slower diction of a man carefully choosing his words, “Snowe has done something to antagonize Syrinx. A couple of times, when she thought no one was looking, I caught Syrinx giving her a look which frankly I think will keep me up at night. As a rule, any new tension between them I would attribute to Snowe; Syrinx is the aggressive one, and more hostility from her would change nothing. If the usual peacekeeper turned to bite her, though…”

“Nassir,” he said warmly, “I continually marvel at your perceptiveness when it comes to the motivations of others. Well beyond your military and organizational skills, it makes you a priceless asset to me.”

“I merely apply lessons I’ve learned from leading people, your Holiness,” Ravoud replied, inclining his head modestly. “Soldiers are trained to follow orders and procedures, but even in the military, I find you get the best results from others by paying attention to their needs and strengths.”

“Indeed, that very observation is the cornerstone of my own leadership strategy. Hmm. I trust Branwen’s loyalty absolutely, but it could become problematic if she begins taking the wrong sort of initiative on my behalf. She could damage carefully laid plans by stepping into them unawares. Goading Basra would be exactly that kind of misdirected initiative…” Justinian came to a halt, tilting his head back and gazing upward as he often did in public to indicate he was thinking. Ravoud stopped beside him, folding his hands behind his back and waiting with no hint of impatience for the Archpope’s next pronouncement.

Justinian made him wait only a few moments before delivering it. “I believe I shall change my schedule somewhat, Nassir.”

“Oh?”

“There is another errand I had intended to make after meeting with the Bishops, which instead I shall do now.” He turned to regard Ravoud directly, nodding once as if to indicate he had settled upon an idea. “Please inform them of the unfortunate and unexpected events when demand my attention; I expect I shall be with them in less than an hour. In that time, I would like you to observe them carefully, please. I shall be keenly interested in your analysis of what is revealed by having the four of them cooped up in a room together for a little while.”

The corner of Ravoud’s lips twitched once to the left, the only tiny sign of approbation he permitted to breach his professional reserve, and he bowed. “Yes, your Holiness.”

“I want you to know, Nassir,” Justinian said, laying a hand upon his shoulder, “that I appreciate your willingness to aid me in these many little ways that you do. You have provided exemplary service well beyond that for which you were contracted.”

“It is my honor to serve in any way I can, your Holiness,” Ravoud replied, his voice firm with conviction.

“Even so, it is appreciated, and you deserve to know that.” Justinian smiled and squeezed his shoulder once before letting his hand fall and stepping back. “Go, then. I shall not keep you waiting long.”

The Colonel saluted him crisply before continuing on in the direction they had been walking, at a far more brisk pace than the Archpope’s customary leisurely glide. Justinian watched him go for a moment before following more slowly, and turned down the first side corridor he reached, leaving Ravoud to vanish into the distance of the Cathedral’s hallways.

As he moved into more heavily-trafficked areas, he encountered more people—clerics, guards and servants he knew, as well as various visitors to the Cathedral. All of them stopped in their own tasks to bow deeply, and all of them got a smile and a nod from their Archpope. He was careful to vary his expression by small degrees, with the tiniest changes of the muscles around his mouth and eyes, as he made eye contact with each person. Just enough to create the expression that that smile was for them, for each of them in particular, and not a fixed expression he simply carried on his face. Another time he might have stopped to talk with several, inquiring after details of their lives about which he was careful to stay informed. Indeed, today he made silent mental calculations over how often he had done so with each recently; it wouldn’t do to become overly chatty with everyone, and create the impression that anybody could demand a slice of his time on a whim, but he thrived on the perception they had of him as a man who saw each of them individually, and not as the faceless masses many leaders saw in their servants. Not today, though; he had places to be, and without too much delay.

Near ground level in a wing which provided guest quarters for visitors to the Cathedral, he arrived in a quiet hallway and strode unerringly to a door whose location he remembered without need to consult any notes. A soft knock was followed by the rustling of activity within—immediate rustling, suggesting the suite’s occupant had been waiting for that knock, though it was several seconds before the door opened, so she had not been sitting eagerly beside it. About as he expected.

In the second between the door opening and the woman behind it recognizing him, he took note of her expression: intent and slightly tense, far too carefully neutral to belong on a happy person. That was only to be expected, considering the last few weeks.

“Your Holiness!” she gasped, immediately bending to kneel.

“Please, Ildrin, stand,” he said, reaching out to grasp her by one shoulder—on the side, not the top, making the gesture supportive rather than patronizing. “You have had a trying enough time without being expected to bow and scrape. I promise you, I shall never demand that of you.”

“I wouldn’t complain,” Ildrin Falaridjad replied, not entirely keeping the bitterness from her tone. “I’ve made enough of a mess of things…”

“You have done quite well with the resources and the situation you were given,” he said firmly. “Never think otherwise. I am told by the healers that you have been certified free of any lingering effects of mental tampering.”

“But,” she said, her face twitching with the effort to repress anger, “such tampering occurred. I… Even now I can’t believe…” The priestess had to pause and physically swallow down emotion before continuing, gazing intently up at him. “Do they…know who, or what, or how…?”

“I assure you,” he said gravely, “I am pursuing what avenues of investigation I can, but they are limited. And considering the circumstances in Athan’Khar, you must be prepared to be disappointed. It is very likely that your opponent in that situation was responsible, if not another completely undetected third party. Or fourth, or fifth party,” he added ruefully.

Ildrin heaved a heavy sigh, some of the tension leaking from her shoulders. “Well. I understand that both the Bishops have returned.” Once again, she didn’t quite manage to keep the ire from her face.

“Yes,” he said simply, granting her an encouraging smile. “They are here, in fact. At my request, Bishop Syrinx’s pursuit of your affairs has ceased.”

“Thank you,” she said fervently.

Justinian sighed softly and shook his head. “I find Basra a very valuable agent—there are few more skilled at accomplishing the right type of tasks. She is not, however, a people person. Of course, I cannot advise High Commander Rouvad on the disposition of her assets, but personally, I would never have placed Basra in charge of others in the field. Well, what’s done is done. On the subject of Rouvad’s policies, it seems it will take some time yet to terminate the case the Sisterhood has laid against you. They are congenitally less inclined to accept our explanations about mental influence; the evidence seems not strong enough to meet Avei’s admirably high standards. Do not despair, I am more than confident we can smooth all this over, but it is likely to take more time.”

“I see,” she said, bitterness once more creeping into her tone, then took a deep breath and bowed to him. “Your Holiness, I greatly appreciate the effort you are expending on my behalf. I can’t imagine what I’ve done to deserve it.”

Justinian smiled, tilting his head infinitesimally and regarding her pensively for a moment before answering. “I will tell you a secret, Ildrin. One which I’ve never voiced to an Avenist before, as I fear it runs counter to their doctrine. It has been my experience that no good comes from giving people what they deserve. I treat people according to the potential I see within them, to help them grow into it as best I am able. Never once have I been disappointed by the results of this policy. I foresee great things for you.”

He allowed her to stammer wordlessly in overawed gratitude for a careful space of seconds before continuing in a more serious tone.

“In point of fact, I would not inflict idleness upon you; I know you to be a woman of action. For the time being, necessity demands you remain my guest, beyond the direct reach of your sisters. If you are willing, I have a request to make of you.”

“Anything!” she said, eyes shining with fervor.

“I must warn you,” he said more seriously still, “this is an extremely sensitive matter. I believe the situation calls for your skills exactly, but your involvement will be…experimental. It may not work out, and I don’t want you to push yourself beyond your comfort if the job is not a good fit. Regardless of how the matter ends, it is a project which I insist must remain secret for the time being, until I tell you otherwise.”

“Your Holiness, I will not let you down in even the slightest way,” she promised avidly, nodding with almost childlike eagerness.

He gave her a gentle smile. “You haven’t yet. If you are interested, then, please come with me. There is something I would show you.”

Ildrin remained on point as he led her through the Cathedral, clearly eager to ask questions, but containing herself. Justinian held his peace for the remainder of the walk, taking in observations as they progressed deeper into the sub-levels below the Cathedral itself, through ever thicker doors with larger locks. Ildrin was self-disciplined and did not ask or push beyond what she saw as her place, but on the other hand hadn’t much of a poker face.

That, perhaps, was just as well.

He led her along corridors, down stairwells, and through increasingly secure doors, occasionally passing other personnel who stepped back and bowed to him, but for the most part they were more alone the deeper they went. She either had an excellent sense of direction or hadn’t considered that she would need help to make her way back out of here, he decided, based on her obvious interest untarnished by any sign of unease. Finally, Justinian stopped before a door made of actual steel, and turned to her.

“Remember,” he cautioned, “absolute secrecy.”

“I swear,” she promised, “I will do credit to the trust you’re placing in me, your Holiness.”

He smiled at her, then placed his hand against the metal door frame. Ildrin looked suitably impressed when, a moment later, the metal door—six inches thick—swung silently inward. He would, of course, have to explain how the enchantments worked, but that could wait.

Inside was another, much shorter corridor, terminating in another door, this one whitewashed wood and looking for all the world like the front entry of some country cottage. Justinian strode forward, Ildrin falling behind as she jumped and turned to suspiciously eye the metal door when it swung shut behind them.

He rapped once with his knuckles, then opened the door and stepped through, beckoning to Ildrin.

The room beyond matched the expectations set up by its entrance: it could have been anyone’s living room. Comfortable, just slightly shabby, yet clean. Ildrin blinked, peering around.

A woman had been sitting in a worn easy chair by the fireplace; upon their arrival, she rose smoothly, stepping forward with a broad smile. “Your Holiness!”

“Delilah,” he said warmly, coming to meet her and taking her hands in his own. “And how are you faring?”

“Quite well, thank you,” she replied. “As always, I would love a nap, but generally speaking I am well. Just taking a short breather; he’s fully occupied making little adjustments. Actually, your Holiness, I think you have good timing. We appear to be close to another attempt.”

“How fortuitous!” he said. “And how is our guest of honor?”

“Very much the same,” Delilah said with a sigh, releasing the Archpope’s hands and stepping back. “I do the best I can, but… Well, you know, of course.”

“Indeed I do.”

She glanced past him at Ildrin, her expression openly curious. Delilah was a pale, dark-haired woman in her early thirties; she wore a simple shirt and trousers that didn’t look clerical in the least, but had a pink lotus badge pinned at the shoulder.

“Delilah Raine,” Justinian said, stepping smoothly aside to gesture between them, “Ildrin Falaridjad.”

“Charmed!”

“Pleasure.”

“Ildrin,” he continued, “is here to try assisting you.”

“Oh?” Delilah’s expression grew markedly happier. “That is wonderful news!”

“Delilah,” Justinian said to Ildrin, “is, for want of a better term, a caretaker. Beyond here, the primary occupant of this suite is…well, you’ll be introduced to him momentarily. He is a truly brilliant man, but…somewhat difficult. Delilah’s nurturing approach to looking after him has yielded great results, but I’m afraid it keeps her rather tired; this is a full-time job. In addition to lightening her workload, I would like to explore the possibility of trying another approach. He was quite irascible when he first came to us; now, after some months of progress under Delilah’s care, I believe it is an appropriate time to branch out. Ildrin,” he added, turning to Delilah now, “has ample experience as a novice trainer and interfaith mediator; she is well prepared to offer the sensitivity and understanding our friend needs, but in general is known for a sterner approach than is the Izarite way. It is my hope this can help not only hasten his work, but move him toward better adjusting to looking after himself. I will caution you both,” he added seriously, “that this is an experiment. Our friend is somewhat delicate, Ildrin, as you shall see, and not everyone is able to form a connection with him. It is entirely possible that this will not work out, through no fault of yours. You must be prepared for surprises, and disappointments.”

“I will, of course, do my best,” Ildrin replied, now looking somewhat nervous. “Just…who is this person?”

“Well, why don’t we introduce you?”

“I would recommend against that,” Delilah said, frowning. “At least, at the moment. He is in a working frame of mind right now. But this would be a good opportunity for Ildrin to see what that looks like.”

“Quite so,” Justinian agreed. “If you would lead the way?”

She dipped her body slightly in a curtsy which looked a little odd, considering she wasn’t wearing skirts, then turned and led them through the door at the back of the room.

Beyond that was a kitchen, with what could have been a back door set into a side wall. Delilah opened this and stepped out onto a neat little rear deck.

Instead of extending over a yard or garden, though, the back of the ‘house’ opened onto a cavern that was clearly natural, though parts of it had been carved to make it more habitable. The floor was even, and numerous fairly lamps hung from the walls, casting the stone chamber in bright illumination. The entire space was filled to bursting with machinery and enchanting paraphernalia, ranging from enormous structures of glowing glass rods and copper wires to miscellaneous drifts of partially-inscribed spell parchment and casually strewn bottles of enchanting dust.

Ildrin stepped forward to join the others at the rail, gazing about in awe.

In the center, a space had been cleared around another apparatus, which seemed to consist of a large magic mirror in the old style, surrounded by banks of various crystals, tubes, wires, and plates of stone and metal engraved with runes, some glowing. The mirror itself had been wired directly into a stand containing four sizable power crystals—the three-foot-long industrial kind that held charges for major factory machinery.

Laboring over this with a wrench in one hand and a feather quill in the other was a man in a ragged, dirty coat, with gray hair forming a wild nimbus about his head. He muttered continually to himself, making minute adjustments to his peculiar device.

“Very close,” Delilah murmured. “I’ve seen this many times. Fine-tuning before an attempted activation.” She sighed. “And of course, I’ll be needed for what comes next.”

“Who knows?” said the Archpope. “This might be the attempt that works.”

She shook her head. “I’m almost afraid to wonder how to look after him if that happens. At least I know how to handle his failures.”

“There are no failures, Delilah, only steps in the process.” The priestess just shook her head again.

The man abruptly barked a laugh and stood back, planting his fists on his hips and breaking his quill in the process. He set off on a slow circuit around the device, studying it closely from every angle and incidentally giving his audience a better view of himself. He had a receding hairline,and a wildly unkempt beard beneath a hooklike nose, with piercing dark eyes which flickered rapidly across the structure he had assembled. His build was generally lean, though he had a noticeable paunch—the body of a man who did all his work with his fingers and brain. Despite the position giving him a clear view of the porch, he did not seem to notice them there.

“Ildrin, this is Rector,” the Archpope murmured. “One of the most brilliant enchanters alive today.”

“He won’t make eye contact when speaking to you,” Delilah said softly, “so don’t be offended by that. And he does not like to be touched. When he gets lost in his work this way, he’ll tend to think of nothing else until he reaches a stopping point, at which time it’s my job to make sure he does stop, to eat, bathe, and sleep. He hasn’t done any of those in four days. At other times, when he’s not in this state, you’ll find him fastidiously clean and actually quite devoted to his daily schedule. There are numerous other nuances. I’ll acquaint you with them as best I can as we go.”

“I see,” Ildrin said thoughtfully. Justinian took it as a very positive sign that she seemed intrigued and contemplative, not disgusted or even startled, as some tended to be when meeting Rector in one of his moods.

The enchanter came back to the front of his device, rolled his shoulders once forward and once backward, and began systematically cracking his knuckles. One joint at a time, at precisely one-second intervals.

“This is the pre-attempt ritual,” said Delilah. “Here it comes…”

The attempt, when it came, was almost disappointingly simple after all that buildup: Rector simply grabbed a lever attached to the side of the rack of large crystals and pulled it downward.

A low hum of magic at work filled the air. A powerful hum; even one of those crystals could have powered a mag cannon. Runes and glass tubes at various points along the apparatus blazed to life, and finally, the surface of the magic mirror itself did.

Its silver face flickered once, then turned stark black, and a peculiar symbol appeared in its center, rotating slowly. A circle formed around it, then broke at the top to make a partial ring and began slowly disappearing along one side, like a fuse burning down. No, given its pattern, more like a clock ticking down.

Rector dry-washed his hands, gazing avidly at the mirror and absently shifting his weight back and forth.

When the “clock” reached zero, the circle completely consuming itself and vanishing, the mirror flashed once more, and a figure appeared.

It was a man—purple, translucent, bald, and strangely dressed. His image flickered and wavered erratically.

“YES!” Rector crowed in a reedy voice, pumping both fists in the air.

The purple figure moved its mouth; a half-second later, out of sync, words sounded from the mirror, the voice strangely resonant when it wasn’t stuttering and halting.

“Av-av-avatar temmmmmmmmmmmplate lo-lo-loaded. Wa-wa-warning: critically in-in-insufficient processing power detec-tec-tec-tec-tected. Advise—warning, critical—cri-cri-cri— System fail—”

The mirror flashed once more and went dead, again nothing more than a simple reflective surface. An array of rune-engraved spell plates connected to it by wires and glass tubes began to smoke faintly. The hum of arcane magic faded rapidly, the slight glow of the power crystals cutting off.

“NOOOOO!” Rector howled, falling to his knees and clutching his hair with both hands. “So close—SO CLOSE! WHY won’t you just WORK!” He doubled over, sobbing and pounding at the floor with his fists.

Delilah had already stepped down from the porch and went to him, circling around front where he could see her approach and making no move to touch him.

“Rector,” she said firmly, kneeling.

At the sound of her voice, he bounded abruptly upright again. “Yes! Right, you’re right, no time for carrying on, I think I know what went wrong. I know what to try, I just—”

“Rector,” Delilah said, kindly but implacably, “it’s time to take a break.”

As she had said, he didn’t even look at her, bounding over to a nearby table laden with scrawled diagrams, power crystals, and vials of faintly luminescent enchanting dust. “No, no time, I can take a break later, I have an idea…”

“We talked about this,” Delilah insisted, moving around to the other side of the table so she was in his field of view again. “The mind and body are machines, too, Rector; you have to maintain them. Yours are far too valuable to risk being damaged from neglect.”

He froze at that, staring down at his table, but doing nothing with the pen and paper he had picked up. “I…yes, I know. But my work. I’m close!”

“You will still be close after some food and sleep,” she said gently. “You’ll be able to work better then, too. Isn’t this too important to approach it at less than your best?”

She was clearly adept at handling him; his recalcitrance slowly but surely melted as Justinian and Ildrin watched from above.

“And so you see,” said the Archpope gravely. “This is a peculiar task I’m asking you to undertake, Ildrin, and not an easy one. There will be no recrimination if you decline to take it on.”

“No,” she said thoughtfully. “I think…I can do this. I want to repay your kindness, but… I actually think I can do this. He certainly seems more difficult than anyone I’ve worked with before, but I’m not a stranger to difficult personalities.” She snorted softly. “Quite frankly I think this will not be as bad as working under Bishop Syrinx.”

Justinian allowed himself a wry smile at that, even though Ildrin wasn’t looking at him. She did, however, look up to frown at him after a long moment.

“Your Holiness… What, exactly, is he building?”

The Archpope nodded slowly, keeping a sage smile in place.

“The future.”

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“So naturally, you brought it here,” Tellwyrn said in exasperation.

“She,” Toby said firmly. “Come on, Professor. That’s a person you’re talking about.”

“Hello,” Scorn offered, apparently noticing that attention was focused on her.

“What,” Tellwyrn demanded, “do you think I’m going to do with a Rhaazke? I’m not even going to bother being taken aback that you kids managed to get one. Somehow it’s always you lot!”

“Point of order!” Fross chimed. “We didn’t get her! A stupid man was trying to summon a succubus and fell afoul of an unpredictable chaos effect. So, really, it wasn’t even his fault, though it’s very tempting to blame him because he was really dumb and also a great big creep. But still. These things just happen.”

Professor Yornhaldt burst out laughing, earning a glare from Tellwyrn. Her office was rather crowded with the entire sophomore class present, plus Tellwyrn behind her desk, and Yornhaldt and Rafe in chairs against one of her bookcases. Scorn stood in the corner nearest the door, hunching somewhat awkwardly to keep her horns from brushing the ceiling.

“Maybe what you do with any of us?” Ruda suggested. “I mean, let’s face it, the student body here is probably the biggest collection of weirdos on this continent, if not the planet.”

“This is not a hostel,” Tellwyrn said acidly. “We don’t take in strays just because they have no place better to be!”

“Where would you suggest sending her, then?” Trissiny asked quietly. “What else could we have done?”

“BEHOLD!” Scorn shouted.

Tellwyrn buried her face in her hands, displacing her glasses. Rafe howled with laughter.

“If I may?” Shaeine said with customary serenity. “Scorn is a daughter of nobility in her own realm; her principal problem seems to be unfamiliarity with the mortal plane. The speed with which she is picking up Tanglish suggests a capable intellect, and she certainly meets the qualification you set out for us in our very first class last year. She is too dangerous to be allowed to wander around untrained. All in all, she would appear to be the very model of an Unseen University student.”

“I know it’s unusual to enroll a student at this point in the academic year, Arachne,” Yornhaldt added, “but really. These are unusual circumstances, and what is this if not an unusual place?”

“She’s completely clueless about every detail of life on this plane,” Tellwyrn grated. “Can you lot even begin to imagine the havoc that could ensue from her mingling with the student body? Or worse, the general populace. What would she do if sent out on one of your field assignments? And the curriculum here is not designed to hand-hold people who have no concept what anything in the world is. The closest parallels to this case in the University’s entire history are Juniper and Fross, and they at least speak the language!”

“Well, we have to put her somewhere,” said Gabriel. “I mean, it’s not like you can just kill her.”

“Oh, really,” Tellwyrn said flatly.

“Yeah, really,” he replied, meeting her eyes unflinchingly. “Just. I said you can’t just kill her. You can no doubt do that or anything else you want, but not until you’ve plowed through every one of us first.”

“Whoah, guys,” Juniper said soothingly. “Of course she’s irate, we just dropped a Rhaazke demon in her lap. Professor Tellwyrn’s only that mean to people who’ve done something to deserve it. C’mon, let’s everybody calm down, okay?”

“Excellent advice,” Shaeine agreed.

“All right,” said Tellwyrn, drumming her fingers on the desk and staring at Scorn, who peered quizzically back. “All right. This is what we’ll do. I am not enrolling this walking disaster in your or any class at this juncture. Don’t start, Caine, I am not done talking! She can stay with the girls in Clarke Tower; it has a basement space that should be big enough to be fairly comfortable for her. If she’s going to be on the campus, she’s not to leave it; I refuse to have to explain this to the Sheriff. You lot, since you had the bright idea to bring her here, will be responsible for bringing her up to speed on life in the world. Teach her Tanglish, local customs, the political realities of the Empire, the cults… You know, all the stuff none of you bother to think about because you’ve known it for years.”

“I bother to think about it,” said Fross.

“Me, too,” Juniper added.

“Good, that’ll make you perfect tutors, then. We’ll revisit this issue next semester, and if I judge her prepared, she may join the class of 1183 at that time. If not… She can take that semester and the summer for further familiarity, though frankly I will consider it a big black mark if she hasn’t the wits to get her claws under her in the next few months. If she is still not ready or willing to be University material at the start of next fall’s semester, that’s it. No more chances. Then I’ll have to figure out what to do with her, which I frankly do not suspect anybody will like.”

“That’s fair,” Trissiny said quickly. “She’s smart. I’m sure she’ll be good to go by this spring.”

“Not kill?” Scorn inquired.

“Sadly, no,” Ruda said while Tellwyrn leaned far back in her chair, letting her head loll against it to stare at the ceiling.

“Well, anyway,” Rafe said brightly, “you’ll get my detailed report later, Arachne, but the kids did a damn fine job. Not at all their fault that the Church butted in at the last moment—they were right on the cusp of getting to the bottom of Veilgrad’s problem, and I have to say their investigation was deftly handled. A much better showing than the Golden Sea expedition!”

“Aw, we can’t take too much credit,” Ruda said sweetly. “Professor Rafe helped a lot by fucking around in Malivette’s house with her concubines instead of sticking his clumsy fingers into our business. Like in the Golden Sea expedition.”

“HAH! Straightforward, on-target sass, Punaji! Ten points—”

“Admestus, shut your yap,” Tellwyrn snapped. “I am in no mood. For the time being, pending a full report, you kids can consider your grade for this assignment in good shape. All right, all of you get lost. Go settle in, get some rest; you’ve got assignments waiting in your rooms. Classes are tomorrow as usual. Have fun explaining this to Janis,” she added, flapping a hand disparagingly at Scorn.

“Pointing is for no,” the demon said severely. “Rude. Social skills!”

“Malivette is scary even when she’s not here,” Fross whispered.

“Hell, Janis loves having people to mother,” Ruda said, grinning. “I bet Scorn’s never had muffins. C’mon, big girl.”

“I’m a little nervous how she’ll react to the tower,” Teal said as they began filing out the door. “Any sane person is unnerved by that tower at first glance.”

“Welp, I’ll just get on with my paperwork, then, shall I?” Rafe said, rising and following them.

“How industrious of you, Admestus,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “What did you do this time?”

He grinned insanely. “Wait, learn, and be amazed.”

“Get the hell out.”

“Aye aye, fearless leader!”

Fross hesitated in the top of the door after everyone else departed. “It’s good to see you back, Professor Yornhaldt!”

“Thank you, Fross,” he said, smiling. “I’m quite glad to see all of you again, as well!”

The pixie shut the door with a careful push of elemental air, leaving them alone.

Tellwyrn set her glasses on the desk, massaging the brim of her nose. “Those kids are going to be the graduating class that brings me the most pride and satisfaction if they don’t burn the whole goddamn place down, first.”

“That’s not entirely fair, Arachne,” Yornhaldt protested. “They are pretty obviously not the ones who opened the hellgate. And they were, after all, instrumental in closing it.”

“You know exactly what I mean.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” he said with a sigh. “But this is business as usual, Arachne, just more of it. Some of those kids have fearfully direct connections to significant powers, but in the end, we’ve been training up heroes and villains for half a century now, and sending them out to face their destiny.”

“There are no such things as heroes or villains,” she grunted. “Or destiny.”

Yornhaldt smiled, folding his thick hands over his midsection. “I disagree, as you well know.”

“Yes, yes, let’s not get in that argument again.” She put her spectacles back on and gave him a more serious look. “You were in the middle of telling me of your adventures when Admestus barged in with the goslings.”

“Actually, I had just finished telling you of my adventures. Although I had a rather interesting time procuring a new suit with most of my money having walked off during—ah, but I gather you don’t care to hear about that.”

“Naturally I’ll reimburse you for any expenses,” she said. “But the research, Alaric. It’s really a dead end?”

Yornhaldt frowned in thought, gazing at the far wall but seeing nothing. “I cannot accept that it’s a dead end, but I may be forced to accept that continuing down this particular path is beyond me. It’s an alignment, Arachne, I’m sure of it. But an alignment of what is the question. I am certain there are astronomical factors, but this is unique in that the stars and bodies coming into position are beyond our current society’s capacity to detect. That much I can say with certainty; a few of the surviving sources were of a scientific mindset and blessedly plainspoken. There must have been means for such long-distance viewing during the time of the Elder Gods, but right now, we simply cannot see the distant galaxies which must be taken into account.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” she said, frowning heavily. “On the cosmic scale you’re talking about, eight thousand of this planet’s years is nothing. An eyeblink—it’s one tenth of one percent of a fart. There wouldn’t be significant deviation from their positions relative to us eight millennia prior. And that’s not even addressing the question of how such distant objects even could influence matters on this world. You know as well as I the upper limits of magical influence. It’s not constrained by the lightspeed constant, but it’s far from infinite.”

“Just so,” he agreed, nodding. “Which brings me to the other issue: I am convinced that what is being aligned is planar as well as physical. Perhaps more so. There are factors relating to the positions of the infernal, divine and elemental planes relative to this one. Unfortunately,” he added with a scowl, “most of this information seems to have been recorded by bards. Or at least, individuals who thought a poetic turn of phrase was a useful addition to the historical record. Considering that this work requires finding the few sources that have even survived, translating them out of dead languages… We’re in the realm of lore, now, Arachne. I have a hankering to continue the project, but I also need to acknowledge that I’m not the best person for it. If you can help me work out a means of measuring and scrying on things in other galaxies, that I’ll do with a will. This… We need a historian. Preferably a somewhat spoony one.”

“I should think a less spoony mindset would be more useful in untangling those records,” she said dryly.

Yornhaldt grimaced. “I consider myself as unspoony as they come, and I mostly found the work frustrating.”

Tellwyrn sighed and drummed her fingers on the desk again. “Well. Based on the speed with which actual events are unfolding, we have at least a year. Likely more; apocalypses like this don’t just drop from the trees like pinecones. If the alignment does lead to another apotheosis, as everything seems to suggest, the gods will be taking action, as will those closest to them, before it actually hits. For now,” she went on with a smile, “I’m damned glad to see you home safe, Alaric.”

“I have to confess I am as well,” he replied, grinning.

“Unfortunately, I can’t put you back at a lectern just yet. I promised Kaisa the year; I don’t even know whether she wants the full year, but the issue is it was promised to her. The last thing I need on top of everything else is an offended kitsune tearing up my campus.”

“Arachne, I’m sure I have no idea what you are going on about,” Yornhaldt replied, folding his hands behind his head and leaning back against the books. “Teach classes? You forget, I am on sabbatical.”


 

“It is a great relief to see you all back unharmed,” Archpope Justinian said with a beneficent smile. “Your mission brought you into conflict with some very dangerous individuals.”

“Yep,” the Jackal replied lazily. “Since apparently that was the entire and only point of the whole exercise, it sure did happen.”

“None of us are shy about conflict, your Holiness,” Shook said tightly. “Being jerked around, lied to and sent into big, pointless surprises is another thing. You want someone killed? We’ll do it. I don’t appreciate being told to dig in the desert for weeks for damn well nothing. As bait.”

Kheshiri gently slipped her arm through his and he broke off. A tense silence hung over the room for a long moment.

Their assigned quarters in the sub-level of the Dawnchapel temple in Tiraas were actually quite luxurious. Private rooms branched off from a broad, circular chamber with a sunken floor in the center. This had originally been some kind of training complex, probably for the martial arts for which the temple’s original Omnist owners were famous. Now, the area was tastefully but expensively furnished, the chamber serving as a lounge, dining room, and meeting area.

The five members of the team were arrayed in an uneven arc, their focus on the Archpope, who stood with Colonel Ravoud at his shoulder. The Colonel looked tense and ready to go for his wand, but if Justinian was at all perturbed by the destructive capacity arranged against him, he showed no hint of it.

“I understand this assignment has been the source of several surprises for you,” he said calmly. “For me, as well. I found your choice of strategy extremely intriguing, Khadizroth. Did I not know better, I might conclude your decision to attack Imperial interests was designed to draw their interest to your own activities. You must forgive me; dealing with as many politics as I do, I tend to see ulterior motives where they may not exist.”

“I believe we have been over this,” Khadizroth replied in a bored tone. “It was necessary to deal with McGraw, Jenkins, and the rest—indeed, it turns out that was the sole reason we were out there. At the time, depriving them of their secure base of operations seemed the best strategy.”

“And yet, neither you nor they suffered any permanent casualties,” Justinian said. “How fortuitous. Surely the gods must have been watching over you.”

“Would it be disrespectful to snort derisively?” Kheshiri stage-whispered to Shook, who grinned. She was in human guise, as always on temple grounds. The original consecration on the place had been lifted to allow her to function here.

“I think you could stand to consider who you’re dealing with, here, your Archness,” said the Jackal, folding his arms. “Really, now. We’ve all got a sense of honor, or at least professionalism. None of us mind doing the work. But is this really a group of people it’s wise to jerk around?”

“None of you are prisoners,” Justinian said serenely. “If at any time you wish to discontinue our association, you may do so without fear of reprisal from me. Indeed, I’m forced to confess I might find some relief in it; our relationship does place a strain upon my conscience at times. Due to my position, I am beholden to the Sisters of Avei, the Thieves’ Guild, and other organizations which are eager to know about the movements of most of you. It would assuage my qualms to be able to be more forthright with them.”

Shook tightened his fists until they fairly vibrated; Khadizroth blinked his eyes languidly. The others only stared at Justinian, who gazed beatifically back. Ravoud’s eyes darted across the group, clearly trying to anticipate from which direction the attack would come.

“For the time being, however,” said the Archpope after a strained pause, “I encourage you all to rest after your travels. Unless you decide otherwise, I shall have more work for you very soon. Welcome home, my friends.”

With a final nod and smile, he turned and swept out of the chamber, Ravoud on his heels. The Colonel glanced back at them once before shutting the doors to their suite.

Shook began cursing monotonously.

“Well said!” the Jackal said brightly.

Khadizroth stepped backward away from the group and turned his head, studying the outlines of the room. “Vannae, assist me?”

The elf nodded, raising his hands to the side as the dragon did the same. A whisper of wind rose, swirling around the perimeter of the chamber, and the light changed to pale, golden green. The shadows of tree branches swayed against the walls.

“I attempted to insulate any loose fae energy,” Khadizroth said, lowering his arms. “Kheshiri, are you aversely affected?”

The succubus pressed herself close to Shook’s side; he tightened his arm around her. “Not really. Doesn’t feel good, but I’m not harmed.”

“Splendid.” The dragon smiled. “This will ensure our privacy, since we were not able to catch up before returning here. How did your…adventure go?”

She glanced up at Shook, who nodded to her, before answering. “Everything went smoothly—I’m good at what I do. You were right, K. Svenheim was a trap.”

“You’re certain?” Khadizroth narrowed his eyes.

“Not enough that I’d stake my life on it,” she admitted. “But the Church is an active presence in the city, and I observed some very close interactions between its agents and curators at the Royal Museum.”

“I knew that fucking dwarf was gonna backstab us,” Shook growled.

“Not necessarily,” Khadizroth mused. “Svarveld may have been a double agent, or he may have been as betrayed as we. The point ended up being moot, anyway. We will simply have to remember this, and not underestimate Justinian again.”

“Why would he bother with that, though?” the Jackal asked. “He knew the skull wasn’t even in circulation. We were never going to acquire it, much less send it to Svenheim instead of Tiraas.”

Khadizroth shook his head. “Unknowable. I suspect there are currents to this that flow deeper than we imagine. Did you have time to tend to the other task I asked of you, Kheshiri?”

“Easy,” she replied, her tail waving behind her. “I swung by Tiraas on my way back; only took a few hours.”

“What’s this?” the Jackal demanded. “I thought we were sending the demon to Svenheim to snoop. How did you even get across the continent and back?”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Kheshiri said sweetly, producing a twisted shadow-jumping talisman from behind her back and tossing it to her. “You shouldn’t leave your things lying around.”

The assassin rolled his eyes, catching it deftly. “That’s right, let’s have a ‘who’s sneakier’ pissing contest. I’m sure there’s no way that’ll backfire.”

“Quite,” Khadizroth said sharply. “Kindly show your teammates a little more respect, Kheshiri. This group is primed to dissolve into infighting anyway; we cannot afford such games.”

“Of course,” she said sincerely. “My apologies. But in any case, your message was received and acknowledged. No response as yet.”

“Give it time,” he murmured.

“Message?” Vannae inquired.

“Indeed.” The dragon smiled thinly. “Justinian is not the only one with dangerous connections.”


 

“Busy?” Rizlith sang, sliding into the room.

Zanzayed looked up, beaming. “Riz! Never too busy for my favorite distraction. He’s got me doing paperwork. Help!”

“Aw, poor baby,” the succubus cooed, sashaying forward. “I bet I can take your mind off it.”

“I should never have introduced you,” Razzavinax muttered, straightening up from where he had been bent over the desk, studying documents. “Zanza, Riz…don’t encourage each other.”

“Well, joshing aside, there’s been a development I think you’ll urgently want to hear,” Rizlith said, folding her wings neatly and seating herself on one corner of the desk.

“A development?” Razzavinax said sharply. “Do we need to revisit that tedious conversation about you leaving the embassy?”

“Oh, relax, I’ve been safely cooped up in here the whole time,” she said sullenly. “No, the development came to me. And by the way, if you’re just now hearing of this, your wards need some fine-tuning. I had a visit from one of my sisters.”

“Sisters?” Zanzayed inquired. “Like…an actual sister, or is that just demon-speak for another of your kind?”

“You do know we’re not an actual species, right?” Rizlith turned to Razzavinax. “You’ve explained it to him, haven’t you?”

“Never mind that,” the Red said curtly. “Children of Vanislaas are not sociable with each other as a rule, Zanzayed; developments like this are always alarming.”

“Oh, quite so,” the succubus said with fiendish glee. “But Kheshiri brought me the most fascinating gossip!”

“Kheshiri,” Razzavinax muttered. “That’s a name I’m afraid I know. How bad is it?”

“That depends.” Rizlith grinned broadly, swaying slightly back and forth; her tail lashed as if she could barely contain herself. “Weren’t you guys looking for Khadizroth the Green a while back?”


 

Even strolling down the sidewalk in civilian attire, Nora did not allow herself to lose focus. She had been trained too long and too deeply to be unaware of her surroundings. When four people near her suddenly slumped sideways as if drunk, it wasn’t that fact alone so much as her reaction to it that told her something was badly wrong. She paused in her own walk, noting distantly that this was peculiar, and well below the level of her consciousness, training kicked in. It was much more than peculiar; her mind was not operating as it should.

Nora blinked her eyes, focusing on that tiny movement and the interruptions it caused in her vision. Mental influence—fairly mild, and clearly concentrated on an area of effect, not just targeting her. That meant the solution was to keep moving…

Then she was grabbed, her arms bound roughly behind her, and tossed into the back of a carriage that had pulled up next to the curb.

She hadn’t even seen anyone approach. Hadn’t noticed the delivery carriage pull up. How humiliating. It began moving, however, and the effect subsided with distance, enabling her to focus again on her surroundings.

It was a delivery truck, or had been originally; basically a large box with a loading door on the back built atop an enchanted carriage chassis. The runes tracing the walls indicated silencing charms, as did the lack of street noise once the doors were shut. One bench was built against the front wall of the compartment, with a single dim fairy lamp hanging in on corner, swaying slightly with the motions of the carriage.

The space was crowded. Four men stood around Nora, one with a hand knotted in her hair to keep her upright—she only belatedly realized that she had landed on her knees on the floor. On the bench opposite sat a thin man with glasses, who had a briefcase open on his lap, positioned to hid its contents from her. Against the wall on the other end of the bench perched a woman Nora recognized from a recent mission briefing.

“Good morning, Marshal Avelea,” Grip said pleasantly. “Thanks for joining us, I realize this was short notice.”

“I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t get dressed up,” Nora said flatly.

The thief grinned. “Saucy, aren’t we? Just like a hero out of a bard’s story. I thought you Imperial professionals were supposed to clam up when captured.”

“Would that make you happier?”

“I’m not here to be happy,” Grip said, her smile fading. “I get a certain satisfaction from my work, sure, but it’s not as if breaking people’s joints makes me happy, per se.”

“I don’t think you’ve considered the implications of this,” said Nora. “I’m an agent of Imperial Intelligence. If you intend—”

“Now, see, that attitude is why you are in this situation, missy. People seem to forget that we are a faith, not a cartel. This isn’t about intimidation—because no, the Imps don’t really experience that, do they? But when you start boasting about how your organization is too powerful to stand for this, well…” Grip leaned forward, staring icily down at her captive. “Then you make beating your ass an absolute moral necessity, rather than just a satisfying diversion.

“Besides, it’s all part of the cost of doing business. Your training means you won’t be excessively traumatized by anything that happens here, and your superiors will accept this as the inevitable consequence of their blundering and not push it further. You may not know, but I guarantee Lord Vex does, that the Empire is not a bigger fish than Eserion. At least one sitting Empress found herself unemployed as a result of pushing back too hard when we expressed an opinion. So this right here is a compromise! We’ll discuss the matter of you attempting to kill a member of our cult, Vex will be especially respectful for a while, and we can all avoid addressing the much more serious matter that you, apparently, are not afraid of the Thieves’ Guild.”

Grip very slowly raised on eyebrow. “Because believe you me, Marshal, I can fix that. But then there really would be trouble. So, let’s just attend to business and go our separate ways, shall we?”

“Fine, whatever,” Nora said disdainfully. “Could you stop talking and be about it already? Some of us have plans for this evening.”

Grip sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t say such things,” she complained. “Now this is going to suck up my whole afternoon. Toybox, start with that nervous system stimulating thingy of yours. When I’m satisfied the bravado is genuinely regretted, the lads can move on to the more traditional means.”


 

“This is on me,” Darling said, scowling.

“You’re awful eager to take credit for someone who wasn’t there,” Billie remarked, puffing lazily at one of McGraw’s cigarillos.

Darling shook his head. “Weaver, want to explain why she’s mistaken?”

“Always a pleasure,” said the bard, who sat crookedly in the armchair with one arm thrown over the back. “First rule of being in charge: everything is your fault. Being the man with the plan, he takes responsibility for any fucking up that occurs. More specifically, he sent us out without doing some very basic research that could’ve spared us all this.”

“Knew I could count on you,” Darling said dryly.

“Acknowledging that I am not generally eager to let you off the hook, Mr. Darling,” said Joe with a frown, “realistically, how could you have known the skull wasn’t in the Badlands?”

“Known? No.” Darling sighed, slouching back in his own chair. “But Weaver’s right. I found a trail and followed it without doing any further research. Hell, I knew about the werewolf issue in Veilgrad—we even discussed it, briefly. All I had to do was check with my contacts in the Imperial government for signs of possible chaos effects. Too late to say what difference it would have made—we might have decided to go for the Badlands anyway, as the Veilgrad case wasn’t a confirmed chaos incident until mere days ago—but it would’ve been something. Instead I got tunnel vision, bit Justinian’s bait and risked all your lives for damn well nothing. Somehow, ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t really cut the mustard this time.”

“You know better than this, Antonio,” Mary said calmly. “Learn the lesson and apply it next time. Recrimination is not a constructive use of our time.”

“Right you are,” he said dourly. “Regardless, I feel I owe you all something for this. The oracles settled down when the skull was secured, so the projects I’m pursuing on you behalf are again proceeding. It’s hard to tell, but I’ve a hunch that I’m close to an answer for you, at least, Mary.” He grimaced. “Unless the trend of the responses I’ve been getting reverses, I’m starting to fear it’s an answer you won’t like.”

“I do not go through life expecting to like everything,” she said calmly.

“Wise,” he agreed. “Anyway, it’s Weaver’s question that I think will be the toughest. I get the impression they’re actively fighting me on that. It may be my imagination, and the general difficulty of working with oracular sources, but still…”

“Wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest,” Weaver muttered.

“If nothin’ else,” said McGraw, “this wasn’t wasted time. We’ve learned some interesting things about our opponents.”

“And about ourselves,” Weaver added caustically. “Such as that Billie’s too theatrical to just kill an assassin when she has him helpless, rather than painting him with a stealth-penetrating effect.”

“Aye, now ye mention it that would’ve been more efficient,” Billie mused. “Hm. I’m well equipped for big bangs, but it occurs t’me I’ve got little that’d straight-up off a single target at close range. Funny, innit? I’ll have to augment me arsenal. I love doin’ that!”

“You said that green fire came out of a bottle?” said Joe. “That’d be a remarkable achievement if it was just a spell. How in tarnation did you manage to do it alchemically?”

“Oh, aye, that’s a point,” Billie said seriously. “Don’t let me forget, I owe Admestus Rafe either a really expensive bottle o’ wine or a blowjob.”

Weaver groaned loudly and clapped a hand over his eyes.

“Can’t help ya,” Joe said, his cheeks darkening. “I’m gonna be hard at work forgetting that starting immediately.”

“How do you plan to proceed?” Mary asked Darling. “It would appear that waiting for Justinian to take the initiative is a losing strategy.”

“You’re right about that,” the Bishop agreed. “And I do believe that some of what you’ve brought back is immediately relevant. For example, that he is harboring a fugitive from the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Is it wise to act on that point?” McGraw inquired. “Shook bein’ on his team is part o’ that game of intelligence chicken you’n Justinian are playin’, right? The one you’re not s’posed to acknowledge knowin’ about.”

“Some day I’m gonna hold you and Jenkins at wandpoint until you both prove you can pronounce the letter G,” Weaver grumbled.

“Oh, I’m sure Justinian will know exactly how the Guild learned of this,” Darling said with a grim smile. “If he didn’t want to play that game, he shouldn’t have made the first move. I’m not waiting for him to make the next one.”


 

“I’m sorry this business didn’t work out the way you hoped, your Holiness,” Ravoud said as the two men arrived in the small, glass-walled enclosure atop the ziggurat behind the Dawnchapel.

“On the contrary,” Justinian said, gazing out over the city, “this has been an extremely successful field test. We now have an idea of the effectiveness of Khadizroth’s group against Darling’s, which was the purpose of the exercise.”

“They seem pretty evenly matched…”

“Power for power, yes, but we knew that to begin with. And power is not so simply measured.” Justinian tilted his head backward, studying the cloudy sky. “Considering the violence all those people are capable of, their total lack of casualties indicates a mutual disinclination to inflict them. That is the most important thing we have learned. Using adventurers to winnow each other down will only work if they do not comprehend where their true best interests lie. These, clearly, do. Another strategy will be necessary.”

“I suppose this proves we can’t expect loyalty out of that group,” Ravoud said, scowling. “Hardly a surprise.”

“Indeed,” Justinian agreed with a smile. “Khadizroth deems himself above me, Vannae is loyal only to him, and the rest of them are simply monsters of one kind or another. Loyalty was never on the table. What is interesting to me is how quickly and openly Khadizroth set about undermining me. He is more than patient and far-sighted enough to play a longer, more careful game. Holding back from killing their opponents, attracting the Empire’s attention, that ploy to have the skull sent to Svenheim… To take such risks, he must perceive an urgency that I do not. That must be investigated more closely. It will also be important to learn whether the other party is operating on the same principles, or has developed an actual loyalty to Antonio. They are a more level-headed group, generally, and he is quite persuasive.”

“Forgive me for questioning you, your Holiness,” said Ravoud, carefully schooling his features, “but it is beyond my understanding why you tolerate that man. You know he’s plotting against you, and there’s not much that’s more dangerous than an Eserite with an ax to grind.”

“Antonio Darling is one of my most treasured servants,” the Archpope said softly, still gazing into the distance. “I will not have him harmed, nor deprive myself of his skills. Matters are tense now, because I cannot yet reveal everything to everyone. He has no cause to trust, and thus I have to arrange these diversions to keep him from investigating things he is not yet ready to know. When the full truth can be revealed, he of all people will find my cause the best way to advance his own principles and goals.”

“As you say, your Holiness,” Ravoud murmured. “Did… Do you intend to make some use of the skull?”

“Objects like that are not to be used,” Justinian said severely, turning to face him. “I fear I have abused my authority by making it a part of my plans at all. Frankly, my predecessor was unwise to have the Church take custody of that thing; it is far better off in the hands of the Salyrites. The goddess of magic can keep it safe better than anyone.” He sighed heavily. “My attempts to compensate for the risk seem to have backfired. We are still gathering intelligence from Veilgrad, but indications are the charms and blessings I designed to protect the people from the skull’s effects enabled those cultists to remain lucid enough to do significant harm, rather than blindly lashing out as chaos cultists always have. In addition to the damage to Veilgrad and its people, that has drawn the attention of the Empire.”

“That, though, could be useful by itself,” Rouvad said slowly. “If those same blessings can be used for agents of the Church… If there is ever another major chaos incident, they could protect our people, keep them functional.”

“Perhaps,” Justinian mused. “Regardless, I will have to meditate at length on a proper penance for myself; I have unquestionably caused harm to innocents with this. I badly misjudged the risks involved. Still… From all these events I feel I have learned something of great value.”

He turned again to gaze out through the glass wall over the rooftops of Tiraas. “In Veilgrad, a class from the University at Last Rock were hard at work interfering with my plans. And I note that one of the first actions undertaken by Darling’s group was to visit Last Rock itself. Everywhere I turn, Arachne Tellwyrn’s fingers dabble in my affairs. Just as they nearly upended Lor’naris last year, and Sarasio months before.”

“That’s…sort of a fact of life, isn’t it, your Holiness?” Rouvad said carefully. “There’s just not much that can be done about Tellwyrn. That’s the whole point of her.”

“No power is absolute, Nassir,” Justinian said softly. “Be they archmages, gods, or empires. They only have the appearance of absolute power because the people agree that they do. Such individuals live in fear of the masses discovering that they do not need to tolerate their overlords. Every tyrant can be brought down.

“I was always going to have to deal with Tellywrn sooner or later. We cannot rid the world of its last destructive adventurers when she is spewing out another score of them every year—to say nothing of her specifically elitist methods of recruitment. She targets those already most powerful and dangerous and equips them to be even worse. No… Arachne Tellwyrn must be dealt with.”

He nodded slowly to himself, staring into the distant sky. “If she insists on making herself a more urgent priority… So be it.”

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“I kinda miss having Fross along,” Ruda commented. “No offense, but you guys are a little… I dunno, glaring.”

Trissiny and Toby both glanced at her, saying nothing; up ahead, Gabriel sighed but did not turn around.

“It’s just that she’s got this pleasant blue-white thing going on; it’s soothing. It’d be a nice way to improve the fuckin’ scenery down here, what there is of it. All this yellow is puttin’ me on edge.”

“We’re pursuing necromancers toward a source of pure chaos,” Toby said. “If you weren’t on edge, I would be worried for your mental health.”

“And the light is usually referred to as ‘gold,’” Trissiny added dourly. Ruda just laughed.

All three were glowing subtly, which was the only source of illumination in the tunnels beneath the cathedral. In fact, it had been the only source of illumination in the old church’s basement, but in these much more cramped corners, the light felt even more precious, regardless of Ruda’s commentary. The group could probably have seen where they were going by the light of only one aura. Pushing back against the darkness made them all feel slightly better.

Nothing about the catacombs was visually surprising: the tunnels were cramped, dusty, and dark. A blend of natural caves and man-made structures, they passed without apparent pattern through exposed dirt, carefully dressed stone, crumbling old brick and living rock, both carved out and naturally worn by aeons of water. Water, too, they passed twice and had to step over once. Though small galleries opened off here and there, so far the group had only been able to follow a single tunnel, just barely wide enough for three of them to walk abreast if they squeezed in.

Most of those side galleries had held coffins. All were now empty.

Bones were everywhere, so thick in places that the students had to pick their way carefully over piles, and in some cases wade through them. Even Ruda had not offered a joke about this; they were all working hard at ignoring it as much as possible. At least the trail of felled undead told them they were headed in the right direction.

Until they passed through a doorway and had to stop, staring.

The chamber ahead, barely lit by Gabriel’s aura, seemed to be a cylindrical natural cavern, like an underground tower. A bridge (without railing, of course) extended from the door in which they stood to a platform in the middle, part of an island which jutted out from the wall to their right and had clearly been flattened for this purpose. There were two doors in the wall adjacent, and three more narrow bridges leading to openings around the rim of the cavern. Below, the darkness fell away to seemingly infinite depths, the bottom completely out of view.

Bones littered the whole area indiscriminately. One of the other bridges was clear of them; aside from that, every path before them was marked by the same gruesome trail they’d been following.

Ruda craned her neck to peer over Gabriel’s shoulder. “Aw, fuck.”

“That’s your answer to everything,” Gabriel said, glancing back at her with a smile, then pointed at the far door on the ledge. “It’s that way.”

“What are you seeing that we don’t?” Trissiny asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “But I’ve got scouts ahead. Oh, that reminds me, the Army search teams are all back topside; they’ve got some wounded but didn’t lose anyone. But yeah, my friends are all back. Vestrel’s giving me directions.”

“They found the source of chaos?” Toby said sharply.

“They think so,” Gabriel replied, stepping forward—very, very carefully—across the stone footbridge. “They don’t want to get too close, which I fully support. It’s causing some kind of dimensional issue, and being phased out the way they are, they could be vulnerable to that. But Vestrel says that from a distance, it looks like some kind of artifact, not a dimensional rift.”

“That’s…unexpected. And unusual.” Trissiny spoke thoughtfully as she followed the others across to the platform. “But not without precedent. Maybe it’s for the best—if it’s not an actual rift we have a better chance of dealing with it. Artifacts can be destroyed.”

“Just for the record, soul reapers are scared of this fucking thing and we’re walking right toward it,” Ruda said. “I can’t help thinking this is not the smartest thing we’ve ever done, guys. And let’s face it, we have done some pretty dumb shit.”

“Yes,” Trissiny said archly, “because you didn’t listen to my advice and I had to fight the centaurs on my own. What did we learn, Ruda?”

“Oh, fuck you.”

“And they’re not afraid,” Gabriel said testily. “They’re cautious. The difference is important.”

“Look at you, bein’ all protective,” Ruda said, shoving him lightly in the shoulder from behind. They were passing through the indicated doorway into another tunnel, so this was much less dangerous than it would have been in the tower chamber. Even so, he stumbled over a skull and shot her an annoyed look. “Aw, don’t make that face, it’s cute!”

“In any case,” said Ariel, “we are approaching with the active attention of the three primary gods of the Pantheon. It is well within the Trinity’s power to subdue chaos radiation, particularly if the source is a tainted object and not a planar rift. I presume that you are all staying in touch with your patrons?”

“Yeah,” Toby said, nodding.

“And as I’ve mentioned before,” Trissiny said, “’patron’ is a specifically gendered word and not—”

“I have never said this to a living being, Trissiny Avelea, nor imagined that I ever would, but it is my professional opinion that you need in the worst way to get laid.”

Ruda laughed so hard she nearly fell over.

Toby cleared his throat loudly and raised his voice to be heard over her. “Gabe, please be sure to thank Vestrel and the others for us.”

“She’s the invisible one, man,” Gabriel replied, grinning back at him. “She can hear you just fine. Says you’re welcome. Triss, don’t grind your teeth. And Ariel, if you don’t quit being an ass to my fellow Hand I’m gonna let her whack you with the sword of Avei and see which breaks first.”

It was another half hour’s walk through cramped darkness. The path the valkyries indicated led them through more tunnels, now branching out enough that the group could easily have become totally lost without their aid. At one point they passed close enough to a massive subterranean waterfall to be dampened by its spray; the flowing water which had done the initial work of carving out the corridors beneath Veilgrad was still very much in evidence. It was only in dry chambers distant from it that they passed evidence of bodies having been deliberately interred, which was sensible.

The farther they went, the fewer bones they encountered, until the entire place appeared to have been picked clean. Clearly, every corpse down here had gotten up and rushed to the surface; they had descended well past the level at which the skeletons had fully cleared out.

Gabriel stopped in a small square antechamber decorated by a bust of a Stalweiss chieftain set in a wall niche.

“This is it, guys. Another fifty yards or so straight down: this corridor angles upward slightly and terminates right in the relic room where the problem is.”

“What are we walking into, exactly?” Trissiny asked.

He paused for a moment, frowning at a point near the wall where no one visible was standing, before speaking. “It’s… Okay, this is all starting to make a little more sense. They were able to scout it from above. We’re in the mountains outside the city now. Seems the chamber in question is very close to the surface, and there was a cave-in. The relic had been bound in some kind of container that kept the chaos from leaking out, but part of the ceiling landed on it and broke it. That’s probably what kicked all this off in the first place.”

“Duly noted,” said Toby, glancing around at the others. “All right, guys, from here on, active prayers at all times. Ruda, I know it’s your least favorite position, but maybe you’d better walk in the back. In fact, if it’s a straight shot from here, let’s have Trissiny take point; she’s best at both attack and defense, and infernal radiation aside, there’s no telling what this may spit out at us.”

“Chaos isn’t sentient, is it?” Gabriel said, frowning as Trissiny moved past him into the tunnel.

“Unknowable,” Ariel replied. “It has nothing we would recognize as a mind, which is very far from saying it has no mind.”

“And on that cheery note, here we go,” Ruda said fatalistically. “I suppose I could add a few prayers to the goddess I grew up knowing, but I assure you Naphthene doesn’t give a shit.”

Trissiny had her shield up before her as she led the way—her physical shield, in addition to the divine one. They walked in grim silence, not dragging their feet but in no hurry to meet what lay ahead.

There was light at the end of this tunnel; as Gabriel had said, the ceiling had collapsed and daylight been allowed to stream in. The group paused at the door to the relic chamber before Trissiny stepped forward, allowing the others to exit the corridor and fan out to both sides of her.

What this room had once looked like was impossible to tell now. It had clearly been large and roughly circular, but the walls and much of the floor were obscured. Apparently the entire ceiling had come down, leaving them in a broad island of sunlight completely buried under chunks of fallen stone so broken that it was impossible to tell whether the original roof had been natural or carved.

They had been cleared away at certain key points, though. The door was clear, as was a path to the reliquary in the center. This was the only sign anyone had been present since the collapse; clearly the chaos cultists must have spent considerable time in this chamber, but they had either been careful to leave no traces or something that removed them after the fact.

In the center lay what could have been a sarcophagus meant to house a man twelve feet tall and correspondingly broad. It had been an elaborate thing, once, banded in silver and engraved with runes both arcane and divine. Now, it lay broken. The pieces of its shattered lid and walls had been carefully set aside, revealing what lay beneath. Though the stone of both the ceiling and sarcophagus must have fallen on the object within, it had not been so much as scratched.

The skull was enormous, easily big enough that the dragon could have swallowed a person whole when alive. Unlike the other bones they had seen on the way here, this was coal black and glossy as if lovingly polished.

Silence stretched out while they stared, until Gabriel finally spoke.

“Vestrel says this whole area was…tainted, sort of, until we got close and our auras pushed it back. Don’t let up for a second, guys, we do not want to be near that thing at its full power. I… It’s been a good long while since I listened to old fairy tales. That can’t possibly be what I think it is, can it?”

“The details are lost to history,” Trissiny said softly, “but we do know it happened. That was no fairy tale. This is… It has to be. The skull of Belosiphon the Black.”

“Who the fucking what?” Ruda exclaimed.

“He was a chaos-tainted dragon who served Scyllith before the Elder War,” said Toby. “Which… Well, I guess this was as good a place as any for it, though I can’t imagine what could have been holding its power in check all this time. Whatever it was must’ve been worked into that big stone coffin, and broke when it did. So…what do we do with it now?”

“I don’t advise you attempting to do anything personally,” said Ariel. “This is something for the gods to handle. By the look of those runes, they did so last time. Salyrene is personally invoked multiple times in those charms; she does not generally permit people to do that.”

A shadow fell over the sky above, and they all jumped, staring upward.

“What is that?” Trissiny demanded, dropping into a battle stance. “Something the skull is doing?”

“No,” Gabriel replied, frowning. “It’s… According to Vestrel it’s a zeppelin. Has Imperial Army markings. And…it’s stopping, right overhead.”

“I desperately want to think this is good news,” said Ruda, “but I’m not quite that dumb.”

“Stand ready,” Ariel said urgently. “There are multiple arcane transfer signatures forming on this site—”

A series of sharp pops and crackles sounded, accompanied by flashes of blue light, and half a dozen people materialized in the space. Three wore the blue robes of Salyrite clerics, two were in improbably elaborate crimson-and-gold armor over white surcoats, and the last was dressed in a pristine white longcoat; they could see no more, as he had landed with his back to them.

“Quickly,” the man in the coat barked, unnecessarily. The priests had already begun furling a large length of iridescent cloth over the dragon’s skull. Both guards turned to level their impractical gilded polearms at the students. “Chaos will be in abeyance in the paladins’ presence, but that doesn’t make it safe. How long?”

“One minute, at the most,” the woman farthest from them said tersely, beginning to carefully fold the edges of the shimmering blue fabric under the skull.

“Step away from that!” Trissiny ordered. “Who do you think you are? What are you doing?”

“We are with the Universal Church,” he replied, “answerable directly to his Holiness the Archpope. We are securing this incredibly dangerous artifact before it has the chance to cause any more harm to Veilgrad. So, the same thing I expect you came here to do.” He finally turned to give them an extremely flat look. “Hello, kids.”

Gabriel blinked in astonishment. “Captain Rouvad?”

“It’s Ravoud,” he said testily, “and it’s Colonel.”

“You work with the Church now?” Toby asked.

“I am blessed to have been offered employment,” Ravoud said curtly. “My last job was abruptly terminated about the time these two ladies killed my best friend. You may recall something of the incident.”

“We wrote you a letter of commendation,” Trissiny protested.

“Yes, thank you. That made it all better.”

“Package secure,” the priestess said crisply. “The dimensional weave is operating exactly as tested. Chaos energies will be contained for transport, but this will decay rapidly. We have less than one day to get it securely to its new resting spot.”

“Wait a second,” Trissiny exclaimed.

“Seconds are precious, as you just heard.” Rouvad nodded curtly to them. “Thank you for your invaluable assistance, ladies and gentlemen. You have my word this thing will trouble Veilgrad no more. Take us out, Sister.”

Another series of flashes and pops followed, and then they were gone, leaving an empty, broken sarcophagus where the skull had lain.

Above, a distant thrum sounded as the zeppelin powered up its elemental thrusters. In only a few moments more, the shadow receded, allowing bright sunlight to pour unimpeded into the chamber once again.

“Well,” Toby said at last, “I guess that’s…that.”


 

“Major, thank the gods,” the soldier said fervently as Razsha strode up to him, the rest of her strike team following in the standard diamond formation. Seven troopers had formed a perimeter around one corner of the old guild complex, staves aimed at what lay near the wall. “She beat the werewolf unconscious and then dragged it in here. The Colonel said to keep her secured, but… I mean, how? We saw that fight. I don’t think we could…”

“You did fine, soldier,” Razsha said, patting him on the shoulder. “That particular demon has…a degree of trust. Three paladins are taking responsibility for her. When did the werewolf transform back?”

“Less than five minutes ago, ma’am. About the time the skeletons collapsed. Does that mean it’s over?”

The Major made no response, staring through narrowed eyes at Scorn, who was seated upon an unconscious man dressed in the shredded remains of what had been a formal suit. Demon and man alike were bruised and scratched virtually all over, but that did not seem to have diminished the Rhaazke’s spirits.

“Hello!” she called cheerily, then roughly patted her captive on the head. “Not kill!”

“I’m glad to hear that, I suppose,” Razsha said.

“Well, that’s…something,” Simmons offered. “It’s not a bad grasp of Tanglish considering she’s only been practicing a couple days.”

“I’m more concerned that that’s one of the first things they felt the need to teach her,” Tieris muttered.

“I can’t believe it,” Durst whispered, staring. “I just can’t. An actual, live Rhaazke. Here! What I wouldn’t give to—”

“Durst,” Razsha interrupted, “you did say this is a sentient demon, right?”

“What? Well, I mean, of course. They’re the dominant culture in their dimension.”

“Then let’s assume she enjoys being gawked at like a zoo animal about as much as you would and keep that to a minimum. She’s holding that werewolf down, and isn’t hostile. That’ll do, until the paladins get back here and take her off our hands.”

“How long will that take?” Simmons wondered aloud. “And I don’t think she’s all that skittish. She doesn’t seem to mind having battlestaves pointed at her.”

“I doubt she knows what they are,” said Durst. “A bunch of humans with sticks aren’t going to impress her.”

“Hypothetically,” Razsha mused, “would a staff shot put her down?”

“Hypothetically?” Durst grimaced. “There’s no data. Nobody’s shot one that I ever heard of. Um, they are very powerful demons, though. There’s a good chance it would just piss her off.”

Scorn ruffled the unconscious werewolf’s hair and waved at them with her other hand. “BEHOLD!”

Major Razsha sighed. “Those kids had better get back here fast.”


 

“Wait, the Church?” Teal exclaimed. “Captain Ravoud? This is… I don’t even know what to think.”

“That is far too many coincidences in far too short a time for my comfort,” Shaeine said.

“Hit the nail on the head,” Ruda agreed. “Come on, the timing alone. We clear a path to the big bogey and that’s the moment they show up to whisk it away? There is some serious behind-the-scenes fuckery going on. I think we blundered across the tip of a very big iceberg, guys.”

“Belosiphon the Black,” Teal murmured. “Incredible.”

“It kind of explains it, though,” said Fross.

Trissiny heaved a sigh, sweeping her gaze around the church. Fross’s ice had been removed, but not without leaving some signs of water damage to the pews. There was also the broken window and the fact that most of the sanctuary was piled knee-deep in bones. Altogether the cathedral had seen better days. “Well, for the moment it’s over. I agree, though, Ruda. There’s something more to this. I don’t think we can just leave it alone in good conscience.”

“Well…our actual assignment here is done, though, right?” said Juniper. “Which…shoot. We weren’t the ones who actually solved the problem, were we? I hope that doesn’t affect our grade. It wasn’t our fault the Church stepped in.”

“Your priorities are on point as always, Juniper.”

“Cut it out,” Gabriel said curtly, smacking Ariel’s hilt. “What’s been happening up here, guys?”

“The whole city got quieter,” Fross reported. “The Army’s been fanning out, cleaning up and helping people. Colonel Adjavegh sent Timms to check on us.”

“We reported the cathedral currently clear of both hostiles and civilians,” said Shaeine. “We felt, though, it was best we remained here to secure your exit. Timms apparently agreed; at least, we have heard nothing further from them.”

“We tried to clean up a bit in here,” Fross added glumly. “It’s gonna be a long haul, though. I feel really bad about the church.”

“Oh, don’t worry your pretty little head about it,” Embras Mogul said cheerfully from the dais behind them. “The Church does not lack for resources. They’ll have everything shipshape in no time.”

All of them whirled on him, most drawing weapons; Vadrieny burst forth, flexing her claws.

No one attacked, though. Seven robed warlocks stood on the dais with Mogul. Each of them was carrying a crystal-tipped divine disruptor, including the ones the students had collected from the cathedral itself.

“How dare you show your face in front of me,” Vadrieny snarled. “You tricked and assaulted my friends, and now you steal from us!”

“Your pardon, lady, but I believe that’s a bit unfair,” Mogul replied evenly, tipping his hat to her. “You were dealing with chaos cultists in possession of Imperial weaponry capable of neutralizing a paladin. They had laid traps for you. I’m still stuck on how those crazy buggers managed to plan all this; it was an altogether respectable operation, and all done by people who couldn’t string two coherent sentences together. Something’s fishy as all get-out, here. Regardless! Caine, Arquin and Avelea would have found themselves de-powered and at the mercy of insane necromancers with ample undead slaves had we not stepped in.”

“Stepped in and put us at your mercy!” Trissiny growled, brandishing her sword.

“Why, yes,” Mogul replied mildly. “While more than half of these weapons were still in hostile hands, I went out of my way to secure you three where you would be safe until the disruptors could be rounded up. I’ve dealt too much with Pantheon worshipers to expect gratitude for such a paltry favor as saving your lives, of course. Seeing you safe and hale is reward enough.”

“That’s a load of bullshit,” Gabriel snapped. “We’re the Hands of the gods. Whatever you think of Vadrieny, I don’t believe for a second you would go out of your way to protect us.”

“Don’t you?” Mogul replied, tilting his head like an inquisitive bird. “There is, as you say, the matter of Lady Vadrieny’s high regard for you—that’s far from nothing in my estimation. But no indeed, I make it a point never to do anything that serves only one purpose. I do have an ulterior motive. Y’see, kids, if you kill a paladin, all that happens is another one gets called—by a deity who makes you the new one’s first order of business.”

“Better to play with them, I suppose,” Juniper said quietly.

“Well, now, a daughter of Naiya would know all about batting her prey around before delivering the final mercy, I bet!” Mogul replied, grinning. Juniper dropped her gaze, shoulders slumping. “But no, kids. That’s logic for more stable times. A great doom is coming, and secrets are unraveling on all sides. Dead paladins are worth nothing to anybody, but paladins who know the truth?” His grin broadened; with his head angled so the brim of his hat hid his eyes, the effect was deeply creepy. “Paladins who are in on the secret their gods are trying to hide? That’s a thing that’s never been seen. I do believe I want to let that unfold. The Black Wreath, you see, has always been on the side of truth. And now, that means we have a vested interest in your welfare.”

“What truth?” Fross demanded.

“Ah, ah, ah.” Mogul wagged a chiding finger at her. “That’s the downside of having a reputation as terrible as ours: we can’t tell the truth, or it becomes tainted by association. No, you have to find it out yourselves. We have to content ourselves with unraveling the Pantheon’s secrecy from a safe distance. Pursuant to that, I believe you kids are acquainted with a certain Joseph Jenkins?”

“What about Joe?” Gabriel demanded, taking aim with his wand. Instantly the other warlocks on the dais pointed their disruptors at him.

“Joe,” said Mogul smugly, “is or is about to be in possession of some extremely interesting information that sheds light on what’s been happening here in Veilgrad. One might say that you and his group of friends each hold half the pieces to this puzzle. You’ll want to drop him a line at your earliest opportunity. He can be found in Tiraas these days; if he’s not gotten around to listing his address, Bishop Antonio Darling will know how to reach him. That’s yet another name familiar to you, I believe!”

They all stared at him in silence.

“Well!” Mogul said briskly. “Time waits for no man. No one, I should say; my apologies, General Avelea. We must be off, then. These devices need a new home—”

Silver mist shot in through the broken window at a steep angle, slamming into the floor of the cathedral midway between the students and the warlocks. It swirled upward in a twisting pillar, then resolved itself into the lean figure of Malivette Dufresne.

“Embras!” she squealed, throwing wide her arms. “How just perfectly lovely to see you!”

“…Lady Malivette,” Mogul replied, suddenly looking wary. “I must say, this is unexpected.”

“Why, yes, of course,” the vampire said cheerfully. “Because everyone knows Malivette is hiding in her manor while the kids are here. She’s afraid of the valkyries, you see! Y’know, the ones right now crawling all over this building.”

“They’re not going to harm you,” Gabriel said carefully. “It’s, uh, nice to meet you, by the way.”

“Good heavens, boy, I know that,” Malivette said, turning to wink at him. “Right back atcha, by the way. And frankly I wouldn’t much care if they did. It’s not like I so very much enjoy existing.”

“Well,” said Mogul, shaking his head. “Well, well, well. If there is one thing I respect, it’s a well-executed ploy. My hat is off to you, madame.” He suited the words with actions, lifting his straw hat to reveal a shiny bald head and bowing to her. “If you’ll forgive me a prying question, how did you even know we would be here?”

“My, someone thinks a lot of himself!” Malivette tittered, turning back to the warlocks, who edged back away from her. “No, Embras, actually I was hoping to catch whoever was behind all the crap afflicting my city, but…you’ll do. Yes indeed, this is quite fortuitous! It seems you’re in possession of some very exciting items belonging to the Empire!”

Abruptly the cheer melted from her features, and she stared coldly up at Mogul.

“Give them to me.”

He cleared his throat. “Ah. Perhaps you would care to discuss—”

The vampire moved with such speed that not even a blur was visible. One moment she was standing on the floor of the sanctuary; the next, she was in the midst of the Wreath’s formation, arms wrapped around Vanessa, one hand tangled in the warlock’s hair, wrenching her head back to expose the side of her neck.

Shadows swelled around Vanessa and Malivetted, then instantly dissipated.

“No, no, dearest,” the vampire cooed, “none of that. It’s rude to leave a party before the guest of honor has even had a drink.”

Vanessa emitted a thin keening sound of pure panic.

“Nessa, easy,” Embras said urgently. “She’s just making a point; if she wanted you dead, you would be. Don’t rile her! Lady Dufresne, if you want a hostage, I’m more valuable.”

“But you care about this one,” Malivette said sibilantly. “I know your great secret, Embras Mogul. Everyone is afraid of the big bad Wreath; afraid of your eeeevil, baby-sacrificing ways. I know a thing or two about being a monster, and I know about faith. You just might care more about the world and each other than any of the other cults.”

“Stop this,” Toby said urgently. “All of you! Malivette, please—”

Vanessa was crying openly now, practically vibrating with tension.

“Do you know what it’s like,” Malivette continued softly, her crimson eyes fixed on Mogul, “being hungry all the time? Never getting your fill? Worse, living in a world inhabited by delicious walking steak dinners? The smell alone… I never take more than the bare minimum I must to survive. It’s been so long since I just…drained someone.” Slowly, she leaned in, pressing her nose to the side of Vanessa’s neck, and inhaled deeply. “Mmmfffnn… Warlocks are so spicy. And best of all, nobody would miss one.”

Vanessa squeezed her eyes shut, whimpering.

“Enough,” Mogul snapped, tossing the disruptor to the ground at the foot of the dais. “You win. Everyone, give them up.”

“But Embras—” a man in gray robes started to protest.

“Do it!” Mogul barked. “Enchantments are replaceable—people aren’t!”

The rest followed suit, tossing down their weapons, and backed away.

“Let go of her,” Mogul said, glaring at Malivette. “You have no idea the harm you’re doing. You know what the Church did to her just this summer?”

“You know how many of those disruptors there are, Embras?” Malivette replied in a hiss. “Because I do. Please don’t lie to me. It makes me peckish.”

She drew her upper lip back, leaned in, and pressed the tips of her fangs to the nape of Vanessa’s neck.

The warlock fainted.

Mogul held out his hand to one side, glaring mutely at the vampire. Seconds later, another robed figure flickered into visibility and placed one last divine disruptor in his outstretched hand. He tossed it onto the pile with the others.

“Attaboy!” Malivette said, suddenly all sweetness and light again. She knelt, gently lowering Vanessa to the ground and somehow managing to make the awkward movement look graceful. “Don’t you worry, kids, I will ensure that most of these find their way back into the Army’s hands.”

“Most?” Toby said sharply.

“Well, yeah,” she replied, winking at him. “Like I told you once before, I’m patriotic enough. I think it’s a grand idea for my government to have the best and newest weapons available! But no government needs to be the only entity with access to any weapon. Or so I hear from some Eserites I’m acquainted with, who I bet will know just how to disseminate these shiny new enchantments into the world. All right, this was fun, but I gotta go get a drink now before I accidentally kill a whole bunch’a people. See you at home, kids!”

She dissolved abruptly into mist, which flowed down the steps and over the pile of disruptors, then vanished. The weapons disappeared along with it.

Embras Mogul stepped over to Vanessa as soon as the vampire was gone, kneeling to gently gather her into his arms.

“And with that, it’s official,” he said grimly. “Now no one is pleased with the outcome of this, except the blood-sucking undead. Y’know, they say you can tell a lot about a person based on the company they keep; what interesting friends you’ve got. I’ll be seeing you kids again soon.”

Shadows swelled up over them, and then the Wreath were all gone.

For several moments they could only stand in stunned silence.

“Um,” Juniper said at last, “how come warlocks and vampires can just do whatever they want in a church? Aren’t these places supposed to be consecrated? Cos…I’m not feeling de-powered either, now that I think of it.”

Gabriel rubbed at his eyes. “Yeah. Well. Crisis over. The chaos is gone, the Wreath is gone, the Army’s even getting their weapons back.”

“Most of them, apparently,” said Shaine.

“Right.” He sighed. “So why do I feel like we didn’t win here?”

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6 – 5

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Having some time to himself, in hindsight, had been too much to hope for. Not just because he was up to his ears at the best of times between Imperial business, Church business, Guild business and the various games he had to play to pit those interests against each other and keep them from tipping out of balance—or smashing him for being the meddling interloper he was.

It was a lovely day, the first such in quite some time, the sky clear and the air warm enough to dispense with scarves and gloves, though still with plenty of bite. Spring always came late to Tiraas. As such, it seemed everyone who didn’t have a good and specific reason to be indoors was out enjoying the relative warmth. Couples, families and miscellaneous individuals strolled the streets with the lackadaisical gait of people on no particular business.

Not that Sweet minded the crowd, aside from the added difficulty of navigating through them, but as an inveterate people-watcher, it was a challenge to get from one point to another without being distracted. The Guild mostly ran his spy network these days; it wasn’t as if going on his city rounds could truly count as business anymore. He kept himself in circulation through the city because he loved doing it, because it was personally satisfying and made him feel grounded. Today, though, he found himself caught up watching a hundred little tableaus in passing, rather than making his way to any of his stops with any kind of efficiency. After an hour or so, he gave up and just strolled like everyone else was, enjoying the humanity as much as the sunshine.

And maybe, subconsciously, he knew it would be his last opportunity for a while; there was just too much going on. Some people—most people—who had recently been targeted by Black Wreath assassins might have feared to be out in public alone, but in truth, Sweet was more at home on the streets than in the fancy townhouse which he regarded as little but a prop in his role as the Bishop. Just let anyone try to take him on in his own streets. It was nearly a disappointment that not even a hint of such hostility emerged.

It was a nice hour, while it lasted, but then the world caught up with him. So much for his day off.

He sighted the disturbance from a block away, being closely attuned to the currents of the city. Sweet turned down the street in question, making his way toward the fuss without hurry. It didn’t seem like the kind of thing that required hurry, anyway. Not much was evident from that distance except for a forming crowd and raised voices, but he could clearly see the steeple, topped with an ankh, of a Universal Church chapel right at the thick of things.

As Sweet approached the upraised voices gradually became clearer, though he couldn’t make much sense of what they were saying. The last few feet he had to actually push through onlookers, which he did as gently as possible, with smiles and murmured apologies; soon enough he was standing at the very edge of the cleared space surrounding the disturbance.

There, he had to stop and just stare, his normal aplomb fleeing.

“What…the…hell.”

The demonstrators wore black robes—cheap ones, apparently dyed sackcloth. Somebody had thrown those together at the last minute, clearly. They contrasted starkly with the masks, which were identical and clearly well-made: each person wore the plaster face of a woman with red skin, surmounted by twisting horns. They carried signs with a variety of slogans: SHAME; ONE EMPEROR IS ENOUGH, JUSTINIAN!; BETTER THE WREATH THAN THE WRATH; MORTAL WORLD FOR MORTAL RACES. The seven people present appeared to be trying to chant, but weren’t making much of a go at it, each spouting their various phrases and tripping over each other’s lines.

“How long has this been going on?” he asked aloud.

“Less than ten minutes,” said a voice at his elbow. Sweet was too old a pro to visibly startle at being addressed, however much it surprised him. He half-turned to regard the speaker from beneath an upraised eyebrow.

“Grip. Dare I ask what you’re doing in the thick of this?”

“I’m not in the thick of it,” the half-elf said dryly. “I’m on the outskirts, where it’s safe. To answer your question, virtually every enforcer in the city is hunting Wreath after they came knocking on your door. I was staking out a magic shop known for peddling diabolist supplies when these ducklings came along.”

“Are they…Wreath?” he asked carefully.

Grip snorted. “Cavorting in the street like that? Hell, no. I’d dearly like to know who they are and where they came from, but the actual Black Wreath doesn’t do shit like this, as I should think you know. It evidently organizes shit like this, however. These clowns were at the shop collecting those robes, masks and signs.”

“Hmm.” Darling stroked his chin, studying the protestors through narrowed eyes. They certainly weren’t garnering any sympathy from the crowd; the onlookers were watching this display with expressions of revulsion and derision, some beginning to be openly hostile. Even as he watched, a thickset man shouted at the demonstrators to crawl back in their holes, quickly echoed by another voice.

Behind them, a Universal Church chaplain was standing on the steps of the chapel being protested against, looking more puzzled than alarmed. Darling couldn’t blame him. As Grip had pointed out, the Black Wreath just didn’t do things like this.

The enforcer cleared her throat softly and tugged his sleeve. “I suggest we get a more appropriate vantage, yeah?”

“Good idea.”

They slipped carefully back through the crowd; it required more pushing, as thick as it had grown, but the spectacle was arresting enough that nobody bothered with them. From there, it was the work of moments to slip into an alley, up piles of refuse, drain pipes, and window shutters to land on the flat roof of the shop across the street from the chapel. A wall kick was necessary to make it all the way up; thankfully he didn’t stumble in front of Grip, but Sweet had to reflect ruefully, as he caught his breath, that he was getting to be out of practice at this.

“This can’t go on much longer,” he said. “If they’re not Wreath, they’re clearly sympathetic to them. I’m amazed the whole lot haven’t been rounded up by soldiers already.”

“As to that, I have a theory,” Grip murmured. She planted a foot on the short parapet and leaned on her knee to look down, but was peering in both directions up the street rather than at the robed protestors. As usual, she wore striking black, with prominently displayed knives strapped to her in various places and a cudgel hanging at her belt. Most Eserite thieves would have rightly disdained such ostentation, but Grip’s line of work was about inflicting fear more than inflicting pain. You couldn’t be an enforcer without breaking fingers and kneecaps as needed, but the scarier you were, the less you had to do it. A trail of rumors was much more efficient than a trail of blood; tails of blood were useful only because they started rumors. “It’s the reason I followed these guys rather than busting up the shopkeeper who was supplying them per the Boss’s orders. Call it a hunch, but I suspect a parallel between… And there we go. My timing is as flawless as always, it seems.”

Sweet followed her pointing finger to the opposite end of the street, where an entire phalanx in bronze armor had rounded the corner and positioned themselves to completely wall off the avenue. Grip then pointed the opposite way, to a second phalanx taking position.

“No,” Sweet breathed, staring at the Silver Legionnaires. “They wouldn’t…”

They were, and they did. The spears didn’t come up, but the two walls of shieldmaidens began to sparkle as divine shields formed over the front ranks, cast by the priestesses embedded in their formations, and they started closing in on each other. Seeing them come, people turned and tried to flee, including one of the black-robed figures.

“No, no, no!” he said in agitation, clenching his fists as he watched panicked city dwellers rebound off the phalanx, finding no place to slip through. “Not against civilians! And not just the Wreath, they’re hitting everyone! Rouvad, what are you thinking?!”

“They’re not hitting anyone,” Grip murmured, watching closely. “No weapons, see? They’re just…oop, I’m wrong.”

Another robed protestor had tried to flee, pressing himself against the wall of a storefront in an attempt to slip past the phalanx. The Legionnaire on the edge had broken formation momentarily to slam him against the wall with her shield. Sweet couldn’t hear the crunch from up there, but he winced, feeling it. Moments later, the front line had passed them, and two more Legionnaires gathered up the fallen man, none too gently.

They were not being so rough with the townspeople caught up in their trap, but they also weren’t letting them through the formation. People began forcing their way into shop doors and alleys to escape the press; Sweet clearly heard a window being broken. Two Legionnaires, one from each side, had slipped through the phalanxes from behind and now were taking position across from the robed protestors with shields and lances out, pushing them back as they attempted to bolt to an alley across the street.

From there, it was over in a few seconds. Abandoning their signs, two of the robed demonstrators fled up the short path into the very chapel they’d been agitating in front of; the black-robed priest stepped aside to allow them in. The rest surrendered and were quickly rounded up by Legionnaires. The phalanxes broke up, soldiers assuming guard formations, and the priestesses fanned out. In moments the street was lighting up in flashes as they administered divine healing to people injured in the scuffle—including to one of the protestors.

“And that’s why the guards didn’t come,” Grip said in a satisfied tone. “Imperial duty or not, most soldiers are at least nominal Avenists. If the Legions want to claim a prerogative, a watch commander will find reasons to delay dispatching his troops. As I thought, our cult wasn’t the only one that felt insulted by the Wreath’s roughhousing.”

“Oh, gods,” Sweet whispered, understanding dawning on him. Not the full details, of course; there was too much about this that made absolutely no sense. But the shape of it… “It’s another provocation.”

“Another?” Grip turned to him, raising an eyebrow.

“None of the Bishops were hit with anything nearly strong enough to take us out. The Wreath is playing a longer game. They’re trying to stir something up.”

“Mm.” She turned back to watch the soldiers securing the street, ushering the remaining civilians out of the way. “This is a bigger something than they usually go for.”

“A great doom is coming,” he murmured, then pointed at the chapel, where the priest was arguing vehemently with two Avenists, a woman in bronze armor and one in simple white robes. “What’s going on there?”

Grip laughed bitingly. Like most halfbloods she didn’t much care to be reminded of her heritage, but those ears were too useful in their line of work to be ignored. “Apparently those two assholes have claimed sanctuary in the chapel, and he’s choosing to honor it. Gotta admire the man’s pluck if not his judgment. Well, legally he has the right of… Yup, there they go.”

The Legionnaire and priestess had turned and retreated, looking so disgusted that Sweet could clearly read their expressions even from this distance. Not that he had the attention to spare for them.

“They’re actually trying to incite the population against the gods,” he marveled.

“That’s a new one,” Grip commented. “I can’t imagine they’ll get far with it.”

“In the long run? Hell, no, the Pantheon’s worshipers are far too entrenched. But if they play it right, they can stir up enough trouble over a short span of time to accomplish…”

“What?” she asked after he trailed off.

Sweet scowled, shaking his head. “If I knew, I’d be out putting a stop to it. Bloody hell, though, they’re doing it well. Rouvad must be mad to have allowed this; the Legions are usually a lot more careful around civilians.”

“Hnh,” she grunted. “Makes you wonder what the Huntsmen are out doing. Bet it makes this look like a Sunday picnic.”

“Makes me wonder what pins the Wreath set up for them to knock down,” Sweet muttered. “Clearly, the demonstrations were not the point. They’re creating just enough agitation that the offended cults have easy targets on which to vent their ire, in just the right places where innocents will be caught in the…” He stopped, his eyes widening. “Grip, did you say you were watching a shop?”

“I did,” she said slowly. “I mean, I was…”

“Tricks sent enforcers throughout the city, targeting known Wreath locations?”

“Well, we don’t know any actual Wreath locations, or we’d have beaten them down a long time ago. But there are all kinds of suspected contacts in the city…”

“You mean to tell me that right now, all over Tiraas, Thieves’ Guild enforcers are out smashing limbs and property of people who might have some connection to the Black Wreath? Some of whom—most of whom—assuredly don’t?”

She looked up at him, the blood draining from her face, then down at the scene in the street. “Oh, shit fire.”

“Get back to the Guild,” he said, already moving back toward the alleyway from which they’d ascended. “Get in to see Tricks, use my name and break whoever’s leg you have to if he claims not to have time for you. Get him to put a stop to this.”

“He can’t!” Grip protested, following him. They paused at the edge of the roof. “Sweet, everyone’s already in motion. All over. This was a massive strike, sent out to crush every fingerhold the Black Wreath has in the city. It’ll take every warm body left in the Guild to even get to all the targeted locations… If there’s anybody left at the Guild who actually knows where everyone went, it’ll be too late to stop it all, and—”

“Damn it, woman, we don’t have time for this!” he shouted. “Go try! I have to get to the Cathedral to try to stop the rest of the cults from playing into the Wreath’s hands!”

She obeyed without another word, slinging herself over the edge, bouncing off the wall below and catching a grip on a drainpipe, which shook with the impact but held. Sweet followed with a little more care, his brain churning so hard it threatened to damage his concentration on the task of climbing.

The Guild was, right at that moment, sending a very strong message to exactly the wrong people, which the Wreath had assuredly already made preparations to spin into the narrative they were going to sell to the general public. Doubtless there were more demonstrations like this being set up to bait the Sisters into making similar blunders, all over the city. The gods only knew what the Huntsmen were doing. And what about the Izarites? A more harmless group of people had surely never existed, but if there were a way for them to be manipulated into making a mistake, the Black Wreath were the ones to do it.

And what was Justinian doing?


“There is little I can do,” the Archpope said gravely. “Captain Ravoud, take a message to High Commander Rouvad; inform her of these developments and Bishop Darling’s theory. She, at least, has the communication networks in place to call back her Legions before they make this situation any worse. Have someone dispatch a similar message to Grandmaster Veisroi. See to it personally, Captain.”

“Immediately, your Holiness,” Ravoud said crisply, saluting, then turned and dashed off back down the hall. The Archpope, at this time of day, was busy; Darling had actually called him out of a prayer meeting for this. It was a rather sensitive discussion to be having openly in the halls of the Cathedral, but he had chosen to value speed over secrecy in this case.

Ravoud was a name he remembered from recent events in Lor’naris. The man now wore his Imperial Army uniform with insignia removed and the coat left unbuttoned, which was common enough for ex-soldiers. Clearly he was working for the Archpope now, though he wasn’t in Holy Legion armor. Darling filed away this piece of whatever puzzle it was to be worked at later.

“That, unfortunately, is the extent of my immediate power here,” Justinian said ruefully, his face a mask of patrician concern. “It is only the structure and nature of the Avenists that makes even that much possible; the cults of Eserion and Shaath are far more proactive. Commander Rouvad can, at least, rein in her people.”

“I’ve sent a runner to the Boss with the same warning,” said Darling, “but I’m afraid it’s not going to be in time to accomplish anything.”

Justinian nodded. “And even if we could reach them in time… As I have mentioned, I cannot actually require any of the Church’s member cults to do anything. At most, I can intercede with their deities to ask that the cult leaders be overruled, but… That takes time and considerable effort, will have far-reaching consequences and may not even be necessary.”

“In most cases, I don’t think it would be,” Darling said with a frown. “The Shaathists might consider their vendetta more important than the strategic realities of the situation…”

“I’ve heard Shaathists and Avenists alike say similar things about Eserites,” Branwen noted, smiling and placing a hand on Darling’s arm to soften any sting in the words. She had, fortuitously, been with the Archpope when he had arrived; they now had the hall to themselves, aside from the two Holy Legionnaires who escorted Justinian everywhere.

“Let us not start that debate, please,” Justinian said firmly. “At present we don’t know what the Huntsmen may have done or will do. Veisroi, though as devoted to the principles of the wild as any Shaathist, has proven amenable to compromise in the past. He will listen to my messenger.”

Darling drew in a deep breath and let it out in a rush. “Which leaves only whatever his cult has already done. I can’t escape the feeling the Wreath has manipulated each of us from within, too. It’d be the only reliable way to ensure the cults reacted the way they wanted. We’ve always taken it as given that our cults have been infiltrated. Those Legionnaires… That operation just didn’t seem characteristic of them.” He turned to Branwen. “This may be a little out of line, for which I’m sorry, but is there any chance the priests of Izara might do something…rash?”

“Such as what, for example?” she asked archly.

He shook his head. “I don’t know, Bran. All I’m sure of is that we’ve all been played.”

“It is a fair objection,” said the Archpope, “but also a fair question. I will send a messenger to High Priestess Delaine. Whether or not she has taken any action, she deserves to be kept in the loop. I think we can consider the disciples of Izara a lower concern, however; it is not in their nature to offer aggression of any kind.”

“We’ve lost this one, haven’t we?” Branwen asked glumly.

“Second in a row,” Darling added, surprised by the bitterness in his own tone.

“Despair is a sin, my friends,” the Archpope said firmly. “To presume that hope is lost is to presume knowledge of the future that we mortals cannot possess. Trust in the gods. More importantly, trust in the better aspects of our own nature. The Wreath’s nihilism may cause untold damage in the short term, but in the long, I truly believe that humanity is better at the heart than they would make us out to be.” He came to a stop, turning to face them. “You are right, Branwen; we must consider this engagement lost. Steel yourselves to face further losses in the immediate future; the Wreath has planned deeply and prepared well, and we must assume they will be prepared for our next logical moves. Therefore, we shall place our focus upon a depth of future action beyond what they can foresee. Branwen.” He placed a hand gently on her shoulder, gazing solemnly down at the much shorter woman. “I have a plan, which will require me to lean heavily upon you in the coming days. I know your wounds are still raw. If you do not feel yourself up to this task, there will be no recrimination of any kind… But I must know now. Once it is begun, it will be too late to change course.”

“You can count on me for whatever you need, your Holiness,” she replied, meeting his gaze with uncharacteristic steel in her own. “I won’t let you down. And I will not let them win, or escape consequences.”

“Good,” Justinian said with a grim smile of his own. He nodded to Darling. “If you would, Antonio, please stay at the Cathedral for the time being, at least until we know what is happening with the other cults and can bring the immediate situation under control. There will be subtler currents moving; I will be counting on your mind to spot them and form appropriate plans.”

“Of course, your Holiness,” he said. “Anything I can do.”

Justinian nodded again, releasing Branwen. “Come, then, we’ll retire to my study to lay plans. I must also summon Basra and Andros; in the immediate days, I will be relying on each of you to interface with your own cults.”

He continued talking, setting out ideas as they walked; Darling listened enough to be aware, but did not give the Archpope his undivided attention. It wasn’t even that he had strategies or questions distracting him. It was still too early in the game for those to have taken a meaningful degree of form, for all the uncertainties that surrounded them.

No, what tugged at his mind was excitement. The Wreath, finally, was making their play. Elilial was making her play. While she lurked in the background, there was little he could do but wait.

Now, after all his years of seeing to what the Church wanted and the Empire wanted and the Guild wanted, and his recent days of managing what his team of adventurers wanted, to say nothing of rogue elements like Tellwyrn and her gang of teenage meddlers, he could finally see about getting what he wanted.

Elilial was the goddess of cunning, after all. He had to wonder if she would see him coming.

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5 – 31

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Mercifully, the sun was finally slipping toward the sea in the west, but it was still more than warm on the rocky plains outside Onkawa. He trudged along through the scraggly bushes and lone patches of stubborn tallgrass, coat thrown over his shoulder and only a pilfered straw hat to protect him from the rays. At least he was alone. The distant city had been built on the cliffs above the sea, along the tributaries of the river, deriving scant resources from its rocky environs. Onkawa’s livelihood was trade and fishing; no one attempted to use this land for anything else.

Shook stopped as he came to an old dirt road running north to south, looking warily up and down it. Beyond that lay the mountains toward which he was headed; this was the first sign of civilization he had encountered since fleeing the city, and anxious as he was to avoid anyone who might be pursuing him, it brought him up short. Still, the road was empty. There was no other sign of life except for an enormous monitor lizard sprawled on a nearby outcropping of rock, still soaking up the heat trapped in the stone even after the sun had faded away.

The creature half turned its head toward him and flicked its tongue out, tasting the air. It looked to be nearly as long as he was tall.

“Don’t even fucking think about it,” Shook growled, reaching for a wand with the hand not holding up his coat.

The monitor flicked its tongue again, blinking both sets of eyelids.

He was contemplating shooting it on general principles when movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention. Shook swiftly sidestepped, repositioning himself to keep both the lizard (probably harmless, but he was well past the point of making assumptions) and the approaching figure in view. As the airborne dot grew close enough to become more distinct, however, he relaxed slightly.

Kheshiri swooped down and came to a graceful landing a few feet away, beating her wings once to slow her momentum. The quick breeze it caused was extremely welcome, even if it did knock his hat off. It was a stupid hat anyway.

“Master,” she said, looking tense but relieved. “I was worried. Did you get use out of the supplies I—”

“I have spent the whole goddamn day plodding across this goddamn desert, and I’m not dead of dehydration or heatstroke. Yes, I made good use of the supplies; the potions should be enough to last us till the mountains, if you’re sure you don’t need any.”

She shook her head, watching him warily. His voice was a subdued monotone, and contained an uncharacteristic lack of threats and bluster. “I don’t have many physical needs. I’m just glad you didn’t get chased down. I didn’t want to leave—”

“What’d you find out?” he asked curtly.

Kheshiri pursed her lips, then sighed. “It’s not good, master. Saduko lived. Vandro’s calling in special healers to make sure she has a full recovery. Amanika’s fine, and apparently on a fast track to heading up the local Guild chapter house. Vandro is upgrading his security system.”

He just nodded. His expression was blank, exhausted; there was something empty in his eyes.

Kheshiri sidled closer, lower her voice to a gentle murmur. “We’re gonna be fine, master. You’re smart and tough as hell, and you’ve got me. We’ll get them all for this, I promise.” She tried to cuddle up under his arm, but he pushed her away, not nearly as roughly as he usually did.

“Took you that many hours to find that much out?”

“Most of it was travel time,” the succubus said, suppressing irritation. “And…I saw an opportunity to take Vandro out of the picture, so I went for it. It…didn’t pan out.”

He glared. “You tried to… Goddamn it, you stupid wench, he has a Butler. The man is never out of earshot. It’s a miracle you aren’t dead! It’d serve you right, doing a stupid thing like that.”

“Yes, he has a Butler,” she said in exasperation. “A servant! How was I supposed to know he’s some kind of martial arts genius?”

“It’s a fucking Butler!” Shook shouted. “How can you not know what a Butler is?!”

“How would I?” she shot back. “Last time I was on this plane of existence, a butler was a guy in a suit who served tea and looked fancy! Maybe I could be more useful to you if you’d explain these things instead of making fun of me!”

She broke off, breathing heavily. Shook just stared at her. Any moment now would come the tirade, possibly with a punch in the jaw for emphasis.

Any moment.

He sighed and turned away. “Ask questions, Kheshiri. We were in that house plenty long enough for you to start wondering. You don’t understand something, you ask.”

“Yes, master,” she said meekly. While his back was turned, she permitted herself a fleeting expression of gleeful triumphant. Oh, he was all but broken. Clay to be reshaped. “I’m…sorry, master,” she added hesitantly. “I messed that whole thing up. I smelled a rat from the beginning, but… I thought it was Amanika who’d turn on us. Vandro took me by complete surprise. Luckily my precautions were of some use.”

He opened his mouth to reply, then turned his head sharply, looking up the road. A carriage was trundling along the dirt track in their direction. Shook swiftly peered around them, shoulders tensing.

“No cover,” Kheshiri said tersely, shifting silently into her local girl appearance. “It’s okay. We’re just two people out…”

“For a romantic stroll through the howling goddamn wilderness at sunset?” He gave her a disparaging look.

“…we can play the lost travelers angle, maybe bum a ride?”

“Look at that old jalopy, Kheshiri,” he said, staring at it. “Needs painting, broken head lamp…scruffy and busted.”

“I don’t think we’re in a position to be picky, master…”

“Shut up. Look at it, but listen to it. Damn near silent. That’s not some farmer’s raggedy-ass old carriage, it’s a well-maintained modern rig running the best Falconer enchantments, made up to look like a farmer’s old carriage.”

He really wasn’t stupid. Fantastically dense on certain subjects, emotional and easily manipulated, sure, but once in a while he’d abruptly remind her that he was fully trained by the Thieves’ Guild.

“Think they’re here after us?”

“Be ready for a fight,” he said as the carriage drew close. “Maybe they’re passing by on the way to some other… Oh, god damn it. Why should we get any luck?” he added in a growl as the vehicle began to slow and then pulled over to the opposite side of the road. This close, they could see that it was driven by an elf in traditional forest attire, with the addition of a pair of tinted goggles protecting his eyes from road dust.

“Shift back,” Shook said quietly.

“Master, I—”

“We’re past the point of pretenses, here. Let’s make ’em think carefully about whether they wanna fuck with us.”

“Yes, master,” she said grimly, fading back to her true form and stretching her wings menacingly. They weren’t all that useful in a fight, but they made for fantastic dramatic effect. The monitor lizard, apparently unimpressed by the carriage, recognized a traditional “puffing up” display and shifted a few feet away from them on its rock, tasting the air again.

“Now, now, there’s no need for that,” said a voice from within the carriage, and another elf emerged, stepping down into the road. He wore a pinstriped suit and an obnoxious grin. “We come in peace! I have a business proposal, if you’d like to put down those—”

Shook fired a bolt of white light into the ground right in front of his feet, cutting him off.

“I have exactly no patience for whatever bullshit this is,” he growled. “Next thing you say had better be a damn good reason for me not to shoot your ass.”

“Okay,” the elf said, his smile widening. “I’m the Jackal.”

Shook eyed him up and down. “Bullshit.”

“What’s a jackal?” Kheshiri stage-whispered.

“Look at it this way,” the elf said brightly. “I’m either the Jackal or some idiot who’s going to get killed for walking around using his professional moniker. Which do you think is more likely to intercept you on a deserted road in Buttfuck, Onkawa Province?”

“…god damn it, I hate today,” Shook muttered. “That sounds like a pretty good reason to shoot you, frankly.”

“You’d have done it if you were going to,” the Jackal said merrily. “Still could, but… I’ll tell you up front, others have made that mistake. None twice, though.”

“Who is this guy?” Kheshiri demanded, an edge to her voice.

“An assassin,” Shook said curtly.

“Oh, good,” she purred, waving her tail languidly behind her. “I love killing assassins. They appreciate the irony so much better than average shmoes.”

The Jackal laughed. “And this must be the charming Miss Kheshiri! Delighted, my dear, simply delighted. Driving our humble conveyance is my good friend Vannae, and allow me to introduce your other new friend…”

Out of the shadows of the carriage’s interior stepped another elf, this one with flowing green hair, a thin strip of beard… And eyes like luminous, smooth-cut emeralds.

“Khadizroth the Green,” finished the Jackal.

“I hate my life,” Shook corrected himself.

Khadizroth studied him over, then directed a distinctly contemptuous look at Kheshiri before turning to the Jackal. “These are the people with whom you insisted on meeting? Very well. I am patient, but not infinitely. Speak your piece, please.”

“Right then!” the Jackal said with relish, rubbing his hands together. “Quite so, quite so, you’ve been more than patient. I have brought us all together to present a fairly simple opportunity.” He spread his arms, smiling like a salesman. “How’d you all like to work for the Archpope of the Universal Church?”

In the silence that followed, the monitor tasted the air again.

“I think he’s making fun of us,” Kheshiri said, sounding offended. “Let’s kill him.”

“Now, hear me out,” the Jackal said, laughing again. “Archpope Justinian has embarked on a bold new project to rally the world’s remaining adventurers under his own thumb. Eventually, the plan is to have what amounts to a Church-controlled army of people very talented in the fine art of causing destruction.”

“First of all, adventurers are washed-up losers,” said Shook.

“Commonly, yeah,” the Jackal replied cheerfully. “I’m referring to the couple dozen or so individuals who aren’t. And, not coincidentally, don’t call themselves—ourselves—adventurers in this day and age. But the reality is the same. Three hundred years ago, we’d have been wandering, campaigning, dungeon-looting heroes, all of us.”

“Not all,” Khadizroth said quietly. “Some of us would have been targets of the rest.”

“Okay, leaving all that aside,” Shook snapped, “this is the dumbest fucking idea I’ve ever heard.”

“You are young,” the dragon said dryly.

“More to the point, this is not something I think I like the idea of the Archpope doing. So no, you can count me the fuck out.”

“Oh, honestly, Thumper, do you think I want him doing this?” the Jackal asked condescendingly. “It’d be an unmitigated disaster. Nobody needs to have power of that kind, and if anybody does, it’s definitely not the Church. Gods, no, this has to be prevented at all bloody costs.”

“And yet, you’re recruiting for him?” Shook demanded.

“That’s right.” The Jackal tucked his thumbs into his belt and rocked back on his heels, grinning broadly. “I am.”

“What the fuck—”

“It’s because he doesn’t think he can kill Justinian,” Kheshiri said quietly.

The Jackal pointed a finger at her. “Bingo!”

Shook narrowed his eyes. “What?”

“Killing the Archpope is the most logical solution to this…problem,” the succubus continued, studying the assassin through narrowed eyes. “Failing that… To oppose him directly would be suicide. The Church probably has more resources than the Empire, considering it’s stretched across the whole planet. The only workable strategy for stopping this is to go along with it. Earn trust, get placed close to Justinian, then watch for or create an opportunity to sabotage it.”

“Hm,” Khadizroth said thoughtfully.

“The lady is dead on, and proving that I was right in picking you two,” the elf said, still as cheerful as if discussing the sunny weather. “I am, to be quite honest, the best there is at what I do, and I will tell you that killing a sitting Archpope is simply not in the cards. There are limits to what Justinian can do with his power, but the gods are watching over him. I don’t mean that as the passe benediction it usually is; the actual gods keep their actual eyes on him, at least to the point of protecting him from harm. It’s part of the pact that led to the Church’s formation. No, he’s here to stay. All that’s left to do is to unwork his plans before he can complete them.”

“And you chose us?” Shook looked expressively around at the little group. “You’ve got interesting taste.”

“He’s completely insane, is what,” Kheshiri said disdainfully. “I am, in case it slipped your notice, a demon. Me going near the Church is a death sentence.”

“It might interest you to know,” the Jackal replied with a sunny smile, “that while I proposed this roster of talents, each of you was personally approved by His Holiness.” He paused, letting that sink in for a moment. “Justinian is a very forward-thinking chap.”

“Indeed, this new Archpope seems quite permissive,” Khadizroth noted, “considering we were brought here by a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman.”

“The skills represented by this group are plenty impressive enough to warrant recruitment,” the Jackal declaimed. “There’s me, of course, and Khadizroth here is… Well, I’m sure I don’t have to delve into his resume to impress you. Kheshiri is a noted conniver and corrupter even by succubus standards, and our boy Thumper is a veteran of security at the central office of the Thieves’ Guild. He’s the lad they send to break kneecaps when the kneecaps in question are attached to someone most people don’t want to mess with.”

“What’s his story?” Shook asked, nodding at the elf perched in the driver’s seat.

“Oh, he comes with the dragon,” the Jackal said offhandedly. Vannae tightened his mouth, but remained silent. “Even better, each of us has a hook. Justinian likes to deal with people he can control—or thinks he can. Kheshiri is bound to a kind of soul jar. Shook is currently on the outs and on the run from his own Guild. Khadizroth has been placed under a curse that severely limits his options, magically speaking. And me, well, I’ve spent the last couple of years laboriously building up the impression for Justinian’s sake that he has me on a leash. So that’s why he approves the lot of you for his venture. What’s far more interesting is what’s in it for us.”

“Go on,” Khadizroth prompted.

“We four displaced villains have enemies in common,” the Jackal continued, his smile turning grim. “There’s Justinian’s own scheme, of course, but we’ve all suffered from the attentions of one man: Bishop Antonio Darling.”

“Wait just a goddamn minute,” Shook said. “I have no quarrel with Sweet. He’s always been straight with me. Helpful, even.”

“Oh, Thumper, open your eyes,” the assassin said disdainfully. “Think about what’s happened to you. You had one little difference of opinion with an errant member of your Guild, which stemmed from you being sent by them to bring her to heel because she was out of line. Next thing you know, you’re wanted and on the run, and Principia is welcomed back with open arms. Do you even know why?”

“How do you know about any of that?” Shook demanded.

“Oh, I have my ways; that’s not important. What matters is that Darling was the one who sent Principia to Last Rock in the first place. As I understand it, you were sent by the Boss of the Guild to take her to task and she turned outright traitor, yes? Then the Boss sent you out again to drag her back.” He smirked. “Next thing you knew, the Guild wanted your ass on a platter. What you don’t know is what happened in between, in Tiraas. Someone with the power to lean on the Boss of the Guild, and with a pre-existing tendency to favor Principia, stuck his fingers in. Do the bloody math, Thumper.”

Shook had slowly stiffened as the elf spoke, and by this point had clenched his fists so hard around his wands that they vibrated. His expression was a portrait of barely-held control.

“And so, here we are,” the Jackal continued. “United in threefold purpose: We need to cozy up to Archpope Justinian to undercut his plans, we need to find ways to dismantle the various shackles placed upon each of us, and we most especially need to administer some long-overdue comeuppance to Antonio Darling and his various lackeys. As a professional courtesy to one another, I think we can find time to deal with the two friends of his who have caused us the most grief: Mary the Crow and Principia Locke.”

“And what’s to stop you from stabbing us in the back?” Shook asked tightly. “You’re not exactly a trustworthy figure, and I note this whole damn thing is your idea.”

“Alternatively,” Khadizroth suggested, “Any of us could turn on you. Or each other. I see little, if any, cause for trust here.”

“Okay, let’s think that through,” the Jackal suggested brightly. “Say you gang up, kill me and run back to Justinian with the story of how I was setting up a scheme against him. Curry a little favor, remove some competition, right? Then whoever was left would be in exactly the same position: needing to secure their freedom and revenge, and with one less ally.” He shook his head, still smiling. “It just doesn’t make any sense. We’re all professionals, and we all know where our best interests lie; in this case, that’ll suffice in place of genuine trust between us. Hell, I’d venture to say it’s the closest thing to real trust anybody ever gets in this life.”

Another silence fell; the thief, the demon and the dragon regarded each other speculatively.

“I’ve gotten us started with a little good-faith effort,” the Jackal continued smoothly. “I recently helped our buddy Khadizroth here out of a jam caused by Darling’s little hit squad. Interestingly enough, Darling is officially in charge of the Church’s adventurer recruitment program, but Justinian apparently doesn’t trust him completely. Can’t imagine why, heh. So I was dispatched with orders not to let it be known who I was, since Darling and the Crow both know who I work for.” He smirked smugly. “I may have failed to execute that as carefully as I might. By which I mean, I made damn sure two of the would-be dragonslayers got a good look at me.”

“How in the hell is that a good faith effort?” Shook growled. “That’s helping Darling.”

“Sure is,” the Jackal said cheerily. “Specifically, it’s helping him see who his real enemy is: Archpope Justinian. It’s helping to place our two groups of enemies at each other’s throats. Let them wear one another down with schemes and counterschemes while we position ourselves. By the time they’re done with that, whoever’s left over will be ripe for the picking.”

“I find this entire affair distasteful, for countless reasons,” Khadizroth said, frowning. “…however, your logic is compelling.”

Shook nodded slowly.

“I don’t trust this, master,” Kheshiri said tersely.

“Good,” Shook replied. “You’d be a fool to. But…the enemy of my enemy.”

“That never works out in the long run.”

“Oh, I’m making no promises about the long run,” said the Jackal with a grin. “Right now, we’re at the point of making sure there is a long run for any of us. We are each other’s best bet of doing so.”

“I will join you,” Khadizroth said solemnly.

Shook sighed. “Hell with it. We’re in. Not like we have any better options.” Kheshiri lashed her tail furiously, but kept silent.

“Excellent,” the Jackal purred. “Pile in, then, my friends, and let’s get out of this dump. We could all do with some rest and a good meal. And in some cases, a bath.”

Full dark fell as the carriage, loaded with its new passengers, whirred smoothly off on its way down the road. The monitor lizard watched it go, flicking out its tongue to sense the air. It made no reaction to the departing carriage, nor to the disturbance that developed in the air nearby once the vehicle was nearly out of sight.

The air shifted, twisted and rippled, as though reality itself were putty being stretched and mashed in a child’s hands. Out of the distortion stepped a stately figure in absurdly ornate blue robes, allowing the illusion effect to fade behind him.

“Now, you see that?” Zanzayed the Blue asked the monitor. “I swear, every time I see him, Khadizroth has minions. He doesn’t even try. He’s just always got some bloody mortal to fetch and carry for him, even while he’s apparently cursed, blackmailed and guilty of a ridiculously villainous plot to overthrow the Empire through organized miscegenation. It’s just not fair.”

He sighed moodily. “Now, if I had minions to talk to instead of you, little cousin, I could get some real feedback here. They’d say, ‘Zanza,’—they’d call me Zanza, I run a pretty loose hypothetical ship—’Zanza,’ they’d say, ‘you’ve tried to keep mortal followers too, and you always lose interest after a few years and forget about them. Remember the time you left four girls in a tower and forgot to feed them for thirty years? That was just gruesome, that was.’ And I’d have to shrug bashfully and admit they’re right.” He huffed in annoyance. “Of course, the alternative is this thing right here, where I’m standing alone in the wilderness talking to myself. Maybe I should give it another try. Whatever, I blame Khadizroth. Thanks to him and his idiocy, now I have to go do actual work. Bah.”

In the falling darkness, he shifted, swelling, his luminous blue eyes rising skyward, first with the revelation of his greater form, and then as he beat his massive wings and took off.

The lizard, unimpressed by travelers, carriages, impromptu conferences and dramatic magical effects, was nonetheless very impressed by finding itself in the company of the ultimate apex predator. It whirled and scuttled away with astonishing speed.

Zanzayed, though, was already halfway toward the mountains, paying it no more mind.


Captain Ravoud couldn’t help being awed. He had been to the Grand Cathedral, of course, but never beyond the public spaces dedicated to worship. Its inner halls were stately, opulent, almost perfectly designed to make him feel glaringly out of place in his stark uniform.

The soldiers of the Holy Legion who escorted him only added to the effect. Resplendent with their decorative armor and elaborate polearms, they were stern and aloof, more rigid in their bearing than the Imperial soldiers whose company he was used to. Even Ravoud’s certainty that his troops would vastly overmatch this lot in any real action did nothing to assuage the intimidation he felt. These were an honor guard, a ceremonial unit. They existed for psychological effect. It was no more than natural that he felt it in their presence, or so he told himself.

It was almost a shock when they came to what was apparently the right door; it had begun to seem he would wander this extravagant maze forever, as if trapped in a dream. His escorts, however, smoothly shifted formation (with needless but well-choreographed stomping that made their armor clank in unison), two of them moving to flank the polished oak door. One knocked.

“Enter,” said a slightly muffled voice from within. The guard turned the knob, stepped aside and saluted Ravoud. The captain returned the salute (the other man did it wrong) and stepped through. The door was pulled shut behind him, separating him from his erstwhile guards.

This space was smaller, and impressively managed to seem somewhat cozy, despite being made of the same carved white marble as the rest of the Cathedral, illuminated by towering stained glass windows as well as modern fairy lamps. The furnishings were of very dark-stained wood, bookcases laden with old leatherbound volumes, overstuffed armchairs upholstered in deep burgundy, small cabinets and stands scattered in a profusion that seemed almost cluttered. A comfortable fire labored against the winter chill in an ostentatious hearth on the far wall. The whole effect conspired to seem comfortable, habitable, offsetting the grandeur of the office itself.

Ravoud gave it all scarcely a glance, immediately falling to one knee as the Archpope of the Universal Church himself approached him.

“Your Holiness,” he murmured, kissing the proffered ring.

“Captain Ravoud,” Justinian said with a beatific smile, and withdrew his hand. “Thank you for joining me so swiftly. Rise, my son.”

He obeyed slowly. “I…was surprised by your summons, your Holiness. I confess I’m not at all sure what it is I can do for you…”

“Well, we can discuss that presently,” said he Archpope, turning to face the far end of the long office, near the fire. “First, there is someone where whom I think you should meet.”

Ravoud turned, and instantly froze, the blood draining from his face.

She stood in front of an armchair, an afghan sprawled on the floor beside her where it had clearly fallen from her lap when she abruptly rose. She was thinner than he remembered, her hair longer, but there could be no mistaking that face. It had haunted his dreams long enough.

“Alia?” he whispered.

“Nassir?” he little sister replied hesitantly, stepping convulsively forward once, then stopping as if unsure of herself.

“Alia!” he cried, completely forgetting the exalted company in which he stood and rushing forward. She ran to meet him, bursting into tears, and in the next moment she was in his arms. She wept—they both wept, rocking slowly, wrapped around each other.

“I thought you were lost forever,” he whispered finally, when enough of his breath and mental faculties recovered to form words. “I was… I tried, Alia, I tried so hard to reach you, but they blocked me at every turn. I was so close to giving up…”

“I missed you,” she sniffled, nuzzling at his shoulder. “Oh, gods, Nassir, you have no idea. I thought if I could just see you again…”

“Have you seen Papa yet? Oh, Alia, he hasn’t been the same since we lost you.”

“Not yet, I’ve only been here in the Cathedral.” She drew back slightly to smile up at him. “Papa’s still okay?”

“He will be now,” Ravoud promised, cupping her face in his hands.

“Thank the gods,” she said, tears still brimming in her eyes. “It’ll be so good to see him before I go back.”

He froze. “…go back?”

“I’m not supposed to be out,” she said, suddenly nervous. “I’m going to be in so much trouble…”

“Alia, that’s all over,” he soothed. “You’re safe now, in Tiraas. We’re not going to let any drow get to you.”

She was shaking her head before he even finished. “You don’t understand… It’s not my place, Nassir. I know where I belong. Mistress is going to be so disappointed… I’ve got to make it all right, I didn’t want to come, but they made me…”

“Alia, what are you talking about?” he demanded, his blood chilling.

“This has been an extremely trying time for all of us,” the Archpope said smoothly, stepping up next to them. “We must take the time to discuss these matters fully; it needn’t all be done tonight. Miss Ravoud, of course you should reconnect with your family. Your mistress will understand a brief delay.”

“I…” She bit her lip, glancing between Justinian and Nassir. “I guess… I don’t have permission, is what worries me…”

“All will be well,” the Archpope promised, smiling gently at her. “You are very tired, I know; it’s been a long day. I need to have a few words with your brother, my dear, and then you two will have all the time you need to talk. Branwen, would you kindly take Miss Ravoud into the sitting room and see that she’s comfortable? I’ll send the Captain in momentarily to join her.”

“Of course, your Holiness,” said a new voice, and Ravoud only then realized there was another woman present. It was a testament to the distractions occurring that he hadn’t; she was exactly the kind of woman he usually spotted right off. Short, yes, but pretty, curvy, and with striking hair of a deep red. She smiled warmly, taking Alia by the hand and gently pulling her away. “Come along, honey, let’s let your brother deal with his business as quickly as possible, so you two have all the time you need to talk.”

“All right,” Alia said, reluctantly letting herself be drawn away. “Don’t take too long, though, Nassir? I really want to talk with you, and, and, I can’t be gone too much longer.”

He only managed to nod, trying for a smile. A lump of congealed horror in his throat blocked all efforts at speech.

“Oh, but maybe you can meet mistress!” she said brightly, her face lighting up at the idea. “I just know you’ll love her. Everyone loves her.”

He couldn’t even nod. Alia didn’t seem to notice. She let Branwen escort her to a side door near the fireplace, and then through.

The moment it clicked shut, he rounded on the Archpope.

“What is wrong with her?! A spell?”

Justinian shook his head, his expression grave. “Narisian drow do not waste energy on such effects when more mundane methods will do. The crude term is ‘brainwashing.’ There is a hidden compliment to your sister in this; she would not have been so dramatically…worked upon, were she not unusually resistant to them in the first place. The mind, Captain, is always growing, ever adapting. The essence of the technique, as I understand it, is to introduce the subject to sufficiently severe trauma that they are forced to adapt new ways of thinking to survive, and then guide that adaptation in directions that serve your purposes.”

Ravoud was barely conscious of being ushered over to a large desk and gently pushed into a chair in front of it. He bit his fist, gazing emptily into the distance in shock. “Can… You can undo it?”

“There is no going back, I’m afraid. Only forward. That is how the mind works, Captain; you cannot change what has been done.” Justinian placed a glass of brandy on the desk in front of Ravoud, who hadn’t even seen him pour it. He went on more gently, a calm smile wreathing his face. “But we will put her right. It will be many times easier than having so distorted her in the first place. She already knows how to be a free, independent person, and has memories of the habits and patterns that will enable her to do so. It is simply a matter of bringing them back to the forefront, giving her time to heal, and to forget the behavior modifications that were forced upon her. It is a process, Captain; you must understand this. There is no magic incantation. It will take time and expert guidance. Luckily, we have the best. A man named Orthilon, once a Narisian slave trainer and now a resident of Lor’naris. There is no better expert on their methods.”

“More drow,” Ravoud said bitterly, closing his hand around the glass. He didn’t lift it to his mouth.

“Some disdain to use the tools and weapons of the enemy,” Justinian said mildly. “Personally, I find there is no more elegant victory for the righteous than to unmake the wicked upon their own depravities. Orthilon is trustworthy and diligent; I will personally vouch for your sister’s care. I am also,” he continued, turning and pacing over to gaze out the window at the arcane-lit city, “working to extract Tamra Faroud, who I understand was engaged to your late friend Corporal Khalivour. This is taking time and substantial energy, but I am confident it will be done. Unfortunately, so doing will expend the last of my resources in Tar’naris; I likely will not be able to rescue any more of the enslaved unfortunates there. The drow city is in the grip of a pagan goddess. It is possibly the place where my influence is thinnest.”

Ravoud swallowed the lump in his throat. “I… I can never thank you enough, your Holiness. What have I done to deserve this favor?”

Justinian turned to face him, his expression calm, thoughtful. “Let me ask you a question in return, Captain. What do you think of my Holy Legion?”

Ravoud carefully removed his fingers from the glass of untouched brandy. “They are…very impressive, your Holiness. Very dramatic. Stylish.”

“Anyone could tell me that,” Justinian said with a faint smile. “I am asking you not as a casual observer, but as a military man.” When Ravoud hesitated, he added more gently, “I beg you to speak honestly, Captain. I can assure you that nothing you have to say will offend me.”

“Well,” Ravoud said slowly. “From a strictly military standpoint… I don’t see any use for them. At all. Almost no one fights with armor and bladed weapons anymore, and of those who do… Honestly, those men wouldn’t stand a chance against the Silver Legions. I just… Your Holiness, I assumed they were meant to be strictly ceremonial. You can’t send those men against any significant threat. They’d be slaughtered.”

He trailed off, afraid he’d gone too far, but the Archpope only smiled warmly. “You have the right of it, Captain. I fear I had to engage in distasteful maneuvering and expend a great deal of political capital to gain authorization for the Church to build a military force within the Empire’s borders. Making that force an obviously ceremonial token army with little practical value has been a necessary step in soothing the feathers that were ruffled in this process.”

Justinian folded his arms behind his back, his expression growing distant. “The world, alas, is not so blessedly simple as to let me carry on in such a fashion. The fate of your sister is an example of a persistent problem the Empire faces: all too often, the Emperor is constrained by politics and unable to act…or perhaps, simply lacks the will to do so. I would not presume to judge his heart; I can only analyze his actions. Then, more recently, events in Lor’naris have reaffirmed the concerns which prompted me to form the Holy Legion in the first place. The shadowy forces at work in that debacle prove the need for the Church to strike directly against evil when it arises. It is a capacity we must develop.”

“Are you… Your Holiness, have you managed to learn anything about the people who were trying to organize that uprising? The Army’s investigation hit an immediate wall.”

“Suffice it to say, Captain, that you will hear no more from the individuals responsible,” the Archpope said with a smile. “I can assure you of that personally. I do, you see, have some ability to act where needed. As these events prove, however, more direct and forceful action is often necessary. You may not have heard of it yet, but the Black Wreath is rising, the fae in the wild places are growing restless, and in all corners of the world are whispers that a great doom is coming. Where the Empire cannot or will not act, the Church must. And to that end… While those who would oppose us are calmed by my extremely pretty, entirely useless guards, I have a mind to put together a smaller but considerably more effective force to act on my behalf.” He paused, studying Ravoud thoughtfully. “I will need someone to lead it. Someone trained in modern military tactics, experienced in leading men… And, while loyal to our Empire, someone very personally aware that governments cannot always be counted on to act where action is necessary. The more I learn of you, Captain Ravoud, the more I begin to think I have found that man. I understand you have been offered the chance to resign your commission in the Imperial Army due to the recent events in Lor’naris. While this may have seemed a punishment to you at the time… Often, the gods have a greater plan for us.”

Ravoud barely waited for him to finish speaking. He practically lunged up from his chair, starting at the Archpope and nearly trembling with fervor as he replied.

“Your Holiness, I am your man. To the death.”

Justinian smiled kindly, reached out and squeezed his shoulder.

“I know.”


The Imperial Rail station in Tiraas never truly closed. Despite the end of standard running hours, there was often a need for various persons on Imperial or other urgent business to charter private caravans. One of these was just now departing a platform, laden with agents of Imperial Intelligence on some clandestine night mission. In the relatively quiet hours of the night, though the doors remained open and the lights on, the station was protected from loiterers, vagrants and vandals by a light but steady presence of soldiers.

By and large, they let people be. Various night owls wandered through the station on no particular business; it was also a popular spot for all sorts of assignations, being clean, well-lit and safe. By the very nature of the traits that made it attractive, the Rail station was not prone to hosting any gatherings that were illicit or illegal, so the soldiers patrolling its platforms rarely interfered with anyone who did not give them specific cause.

The guards certainly didn’t bother three men in Imperial Army uniforms, standing on a platform next to a station trolley loaded with an assortment of backpacks and small satchels, rather like the light luggage of maybe a dozen people or less. After the men had been there for well over an hour, though, just standing, one of the guards finally approached them.

“Evenin’, lads,” he greeted his fellow soldiers, finally getting close enough to note their faces. One looked amused, one furious, the third merely perplexed. “Need any help?”

“Brother,” said Rook with a grin, “you have no idea.”

“They can’t possibly have just forgotten us!” Moriarty burst out.

Finchley sighed heavily, turning to the mystified station guard. “Do you happen to know if there’s a telescroll office open this late?”

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5 – 28

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“Sir,” Wilberforce murmured, leaning close to Vandro’s ear. He already had his employer’s undivided attention, having arrived far more quickly than his usual efficient but decorous pace. Unusual behavior from Wilberforce was a cardinal sign that something had gone wrong. “We have visitors from the Thieves’ Guild in significant numbers. I have taken the liberty of activating the golems; if you move now, you may be in time to greet them at the gates.”

Vandro nodded, turning back to his erstwhile conversation partner with a rueful smile. “Terribly sorry, m’lord, but it seems I have to go put out a fire. The perils of hosting, you know how it is.”

“Indeed,” the aristocrat replied with a lofted eyebrow, looking somewhat bemused. It always came as a surprise to his type that lowly commoners found something more important than themselves on which to focus.

Thanks to Wilberforce’s warning, Vandro made it to the broad, well-lit pathway between the gates and the house that formed the party’s center of mass just before the Guild made their entrance. He wasn’t quite in time to pose front and center and be waiting languidly for their arrival, but it would have to do. Pacing and presentation mattered in these affairs.

Six entered first, fanning out to either side of the path in a reverse arrowhead formation. Though swift and coordinated, no one would have mistaken the ragged bunch for soldiers; they wore clothing in dark colors and advanced states of scruffiness, ostentatiously displayed clubs and knives, and menacing expressions. The guests drew back from them, conversation disintegrating into nervous whispered all over the gardens, followed by chilly silence as the thieves took up positions, apparently if not actually controlling the estate’s entrance.

Of course, all that was for show, as well. Most of these people dressed comfortably and casually when at their real work, and quite a few slept on silk. A good thief was someone who did not stand out in a crowd; they usually had to go out of their way to properly menace the normals, including dramatic changes in costume and demeanor.

Vandro narrowed his eyes slightly at the next wave to enter, but carefully held his neutral posture. Four more Guildmembers came forward, pushing a pair of bound prisoners before them. They stopped a few yards into the estate, ignoring the gasps of the onlookers, and forced the captives to their knees. Jeremiah Shook merely looked furious, if somewhat rumpled; Amanika had clearly been worked over. Her clothes were torn and stained with both dirt and blood, one of her eyes was swollen shut and a dried trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth still decorated her chin. She slumped to the ground, head lolling.

Finally, another pair entered with the last three armed thieves behind them. The well-dressed man, a dark-featured Onkawa local, was slim, tall and stately, wearing an intolerably self-satisfied smirk. On his arm, looking stupefied and as tense as a plucked guitar string, was Saduko.

“Forgive the overly dramatic entrance, Webs,” he said airily. “It seems someone forgot to deliver my invitation.”

“Why, that’d have been me, Toss,” Vandro replied easily. “I confess I plumb forgot to want you at my party. Things start to slip the mind, when you get to my age.”

Toss, the leader of the local Guild’s chapter, grinned at the frisson of nervous conversation that swept through Vandro’s crowd of well-heeled guests at the sound of his tag. He was known in the city.

“Ah, but how could I let this occasion pass unremarked? I confess I’ve had cause to be worried about your loyalties of late, but our dear Gimmick, here, has put my mind to rest.” He patted Saduko’s hand where it lay on his arm; she flinched. “And to think we thought she was spying on you. Instead, you have oh-so-deftly rooted out the subversive elements within our local chapter and delivered them into our hands. Along with the fugitive Thumper! Truly, this is a great night for the followers of Eserion, and we owe all this success to you, Webs. Bravo,” he said, drawing out the last word in a silky drawl.

Vandro studied Saduko idly, his mind whirling. Her, Guild? Possibly. He’d checked out her credentials, but those were so very fakeable, especially coming from overseas as they did. He had also studied how she thought and acted while his guest, and found her generally self-contained and a skilled walking poker face as long as she had time to prepare, but easy to rattle and throw off her game. Right now she looked good and rattled, and clinging to her equilibrium by a ragged fingernail.

That was one plot uncovered, then; Saduko had been sent to observe and possibly interfere with his and Amanika’s undercutting of the Guild, but she was either a far more advanced player than he believed, or her own scheme had come unraveled. There was no reason to assume the former when he knew the latter could be explained by yet another actor whose full play had yet to be revealed.

Kheshiri. What could she hope to gain by all this?

“Son of a bitch,” Shook spat, his voice soft. Vandro gave him a warning look, and was met with a venomous glare. He suppressed a sigh. Jerry was a good kid, when he used his head, but that damn temper of his reliably made him stop using it, exactly when he needed it most.

“Seems you’ve been a little rough with our friends, there,” Vandro said mildly. “I mean, if you’re gonna work someone over, sure. Dragging valuable prisoners all over the city, though, letting one apparently bleed herself half to death? Truly, the complexity of your plots is over my head.”

Amanika lifted her face a fraction, and the look she gave Vandro was fleeting, but icily calculating. Not so dazed and beleaguered as she appeared, then, and apparently not taking this turn of events at face value. Good girl; if only she’d been a trifle less homely he’d have looked for reasons to have her around more often.

“I think the time has come for a clearing of the air,” Toss proclaimed, smiling with immense self-satisfaction. “There has been too much suspicion and discord, do you not think so? Let all of Onkawa see that the Thieves’ Guild stands united. Let them see what befalls those who seek to undermine Eserion’s people.”

Vandro shrugged and took a sip of his cocktail. “Your funeral.”

Toss’s smile did not diminish in the slightest. “Why, Webs, I could very nearly take that as a threat. And on the heels of your very valuable assistance to your Guild, too! Surely you cannot have meant that the way it sounded.”

He made a swift motion with his free hand and the six thieves forming his advance guard began moving slowly forward, their gazes coldly intent upon Vandro.

Then Wilberforce glided forth out of the crowd to stand at Vandro’s shoulder. The enforcers instantly halted in their tracks, staring at the Butler. Two glanced uncertainly back at Toss; the rest were studying Wilberforce, clearly mentally calculating whether they could take him on.

They couldn’t, which was beside the point as far as Vandro was concerned. He couldn’t afford to let this come to blows. To say nothing of the risk to his guests, it was blindingly obvious that Toss wanted a confrontation. Whether or not he believed that Vandro was behind the ensnaring of Shook and Amanika (he hadn’t got that from Saduko; why would Kheshiri promote that particular notion?), he knew a rival when he saw one. If Vandro fought the Guild openly, whether he won or lost the battle would be irrelevant in the long run.

“This is why I don’t invite you to parties, Toss,” he said genially. “Nor do I intend to stand here all night bantering with you. Honestly, I don’t give you a thought when you’re not right in front of my face. No point, really; you’re not gonna be in charge long.”

Toss’s smile became a hungry grin. “Oh, I think you’ve grown a little too flushed with your recent success, Alan Vandro. You challenge me openly? In front of all these—”

He tried gamely to keep on talking, but the sheer volume of Vandro’s booming laugh made it pointless. Vandro had practiced that laugh, honed it for that very effect.

“Challenge you?” he chortled, wiping at his eyes. “You silly, sad little man. If I were to challenge you, in the best case scenario I’d end up having to do your tedious job. Nah, what could I possibly gain by going to the trouble? I mean, look around you. Look at this!” He indicated them all, the enforcers, the prisoners, with a contemptuous flick of his wrist. “This very public display of force, this airing of Guild laundry in the faces of all the finest folk in the city? This just isn’t how we do business, Toss, and it’s inconceivable to me that a chapter house head hasn’t figured that out at by this stage in his career.”

“Don’t you point at my—”

“And that’s another thing,” Vandro went on merrily. “This here thing you’re doing, this attempt to use social pressure to force me to either confront you or bend knee? Well, Toss, this is just plain clumsy. I almost hate to tell you, my boy, but you suck at this game. Challenge you? Please. Tell you what I’m gonna do. Since I’m retired and all, I’m gonna sit here in my villa, enjoying the ill-gotten fruit of my lifetime of labor, throwing ridiculous parties and hobnobbing with all my fancy friends, and generally ignore you. I don’t have to challenge you, y’moron. Hell, I don’t think I could save you if my own life depended on it. It’s a damn miracle you’ve lasted this long.”

Toss’s grin had become a decidedly less controlled baring of his teeth; his grip on Saduko’s arm was clearly hard enough to bruise, now, though, she bore it without complaint. “You are one more careless word from—”

“All systems are corrupt,” Vandro said, projecting from the diaphragm and completely overwhelming Toss’s growling delivery. Tragic, how few thieves studied public speaking; it was a priceless skill in their line of work. “We all know the catechism, Toss. You didn’t have to go so far out of your way to prove it.”

The enforcers were all watching Toss, now, their expressions a lot more thoughtful. Vandro knew most of them personally, knew there was nothing personal against him in their presence here, merely the execution of what they saw as their duty. A duty he’d just called into question by turning Toss’s attempted trap around on him.

He glanced at the prisoners; Amanika was smiling, keeping her face angled downward to mostly hide it. Shook still glared at Vandro, his expression a mask of betrayal. Hopefully he could calm the boy down long enough to explain…

In that moment, he understood Kheshiri’s plan. All this had been arranged, his plans subverted, Saduko’s deception turned against her, Toss’s ambition and cruelty manipulated, to create this scene, where Vandro was accused of betraying Shook, and couldn’t afford to deny it. Amanika could read between the lines well enough, but Shook and Toss were thugs who’d made good through hard work and judicious brutality. Shook had heard Vandro tacitly admit having set him up for a fall and the reward, and wouldn’t look beyond that. Unless he could separate Shook from Toss’s custody now, the boy’s trust in him would be completely severed. Leaving him alone in the world with the Guild and the law after him, no one he could trust…except his demon.

He also realized that his understanding had come a moment too late. Because that was the moment, and he was totally unprepared to take advantage of it.

Vandro opened his mouth to press his case, to begin working around to a demand that Shook and Amanika be released to his custody, knowing he wasn’t going to have enough time.

Sure enough, the winged form melted out of nothing right behind Toss, reached around with a large knife and slashed Saduko across the throat.

The screams and panic that followed broke what remaining order there was among the Guild enforcers. Toss stared at the woman now dangling limply from his arm, convulsing as she helplessly pressed a hand to her neck, completely failing to stifle the gushing of her blood. The three enforcers at the rear rushed forward, their swings missing the demon as she went aloft with one powerful beat of her wings. One of them actually struck Toss, sending him and Saduko crashing to the ground.

Kheshiri descended on the two men holding Shook, stomping directly on the head of one and launching herself off again, swooping about them as all four guards abandoned their charges to swipe at her. Released, Amanika turned and struggled frantically over to Saduko as best she could with her arms bound behind her, already glowing with healing light.

In the confusion, the succubus slashed through Shook’s bindings; he rolled forward, coming nimbly to his feet, and bared his teeth in a snarl at Vandro, reaching into his coat. Did he still somehow have his wands? Toss, that damned idiot…

“Jerry, my boy,” Vandro began.

“Save it!” Shook spat, bringing out his weapons. He glanced at Wilberforce and very deliberately did not point them at Vandro.

“Protocol: activate!” Vandro’s voice boomed across the garden, considerably louder than a human throat could actually have spoken. Unsurprising, as it came from Kheshiri, who was now perched atop a palm tree. “Execute program: great escape!”

They unfolded on all sides: benches, wastebins, pieces of decorative statuary, picnic tables. The various heavy stone accents decorating Vandro’s garden slid apart in pieces, revealing their interior metal frames and the blue glow of the arcane magic that made the golems run. Re-sorting themselves swiftly into more or less humanoid shapes, they took form and stepped forward, raising the wands that had been concealed within them.

Vandro sighed. His own security commands prevented them from revealing those weapons except in a case of utmost emergency. Outfitting golems with wands was extremely illegal; this was gonna cost him a fortune in bribes.

“Now, when did you find time to do that?” he asked, a note of admiration in his tone.

Kheshiri smirked down at him. “I suggest you all listen carefully,” she said, still boomingly loud, but in her own voice. Silence fell at her command, the guests and Guild enforcers staring up at her in horror. In that tense moment, the only sounds were the canned music still playing throughout the garden and Amanika’s furiously whispered prayers as she attempted to heal Saduko without the use of her hands. “The program these golems are acting on means they’ll destroy anyone who attempts to interfere with my master or myself as we make our departure. It also locks you out from issuing further commands, Alan, so don’t bother.”

“Simple, but effective,” he said, nodding. “As a professional courtesy, I hope you’ll leave me the counter-code to discover after you’re safely away.”

“Oh, there’s no counter-code,” she said sweetly. “You’ll have to shut them down the hard way. Whatever that may be.”

“Those were expensive, Shiri.”

“You can get more golems, Alan. I only have one master.”

Vandro sighed, turning his gaze to Shook. “Jerry, my boy, think this over carefully. You are being played, here.”

“How stupid do you think I am, Alan?” he snarled, convulsively raising his wands.

Wilberforce tried to step in front of Vandro; Vandro gently pushed him aside. “Watch it, boy,” he said firmly. “Right now, that question has an answer.”

“Master, run,” Kheshiri urged. “I’ll stay here and make sure nobody tries anything.”

“Just think on it, first chance you get,” Vandro said firmly, his eyes boring into Shooks, willing him to understand. Damn it, boy, think!

Shook stared back at him, and beneath the raw fury in his expression, Vandro saw the hurt. Hurt, he knew, was at the bottom of all rage. This was going to damage the boy, maybe beyond what could be fixed.

“Go, master. Please.”

Shook steeled himself, directing his eyes upward at his thrall. “Right. I’ll meet you at—”

“Don’t say it! Don’t give them any clues. Just go, be safe, hide. I can find you anywhere.”

Shook turned without another word, and set off for the gates at a run. In seconds he was out of view around the corner.

“Now then,” Kheshiri purred, turning back to grin down at Vandro. “Since we’ll be together for a while, I see no reason for the party to end here. How about you give us a little jig, Vandro.”

“You can’t be serious,” he said dryly.

“Can’t I?” She grinned with near maniacal glee. “I own your golems, Alan. I can demolish these Guild lackeys and your own security with a word. That means I own you. So…dance for me. Now.”

“You played a good game, Shiri,” Vandro said. “I respect skill. If you’d been willing to be professional, I’d have let you leave here safely. You need to learn when to quit, girl. Wilberforce, power up.”

None of the onlookers could see Wilberforce apply his thumb to the master control rune in his pocket. They only saw the entire estate explode.

Only the magical appliances therein, of course, but in a fully tricked-out modern rich man’s home like Alan Vandro’s estate, that might as well have been the whole thing. Every reserve power crystal in storage spontaneously poured its full load of energy into all the active devices; suddenly channeling several orders of magnitude more power than they were designed to contain, every apparatus on the grounds that used arcane energy burst apart in a series of booms and flashes. The whole house was lit up, windows blazing as if lightning had struck within; the gardens hosted a ferocious shower of sparks and explosions as light fixtures, music boxes, food fresheners and security golems disintegrated, flinging sparks and fragments in all directions.

The screams trailed off a few seconds after the explosions, leaving behind shocked quiet. It was darker, but not totally dark; the levitating party lights operated under their own power, and cast shifting, eerie patches of colored illumination in the absence of the estate’s main lighting. The smell of smoke and ozone hung heavily over everything. Small fires flickered in dozens of places.

The golems slumped, inert and smoking, emitting small sparks and most missing pieces.

“What say we play a different game?” Vandro suggested cheerfully. He lifted high his cocktail glass in Kheshiri’s direction as if toasting her. “Friends and neighbors, servants and gatecrashers, fellow acolytes of Eserion! For one night only, I’ll be paying the sum of one hundred decabloons to whoever brings me that demon’s corpse!”

Kheshiri took one look at the sheer number of those present who turned out to be carrying wands, and vanished.


 

Snow had begun falling, a soft counterpoint to the ominous quiet that filled the street.

The soldiers were hard-eyed, but disciplined, holding their ranks as they marched into the district. The full regiment seemed to have come; they filled the entire avenue, offering no path of escape past them.

Opposite them, residents of Tar’aris, bundled against the cold, had begun melting out of doors and alleys, staring equally hard-eyed at the approaching troops. Quite a few of them were openly carrying wands. They began to form a loose crowd blocking off the street as well.

Silver Legionnaires in their concealing winter gear stood at attention at intervals, several patrols having stopped and positioned themselves along the sidelines between the two groups. They stood firm and rigid, offering no move in either direction.

The students of the University wormed their way out of the crowd, where they had been trying to talk with various members of the community. Teal and Shaeine parted from Avrith, Bob and the small knot of citizens they had accompanied, stepping forward to meet the others in the middle. Ruda appeared out of an alley, Fross darting about above her head. Trissiny, Toby and Gabriel arrived in more of a hurry, having had a longer walk from the inn; they were accompanied by two Legionnaires and Bishop Darling. The latter was leaning close to Trissiny as they walked, whispering urgently into her ear. The paladin appeared to be listening closely, deep in thought.

A startled motion rippled through the watching crowd as Juniper arrived from a nearby rooftop, hitting the ground with a solid thud that left cracks in the pavement. She straightened up, brushing at her ill-fitting dress, and stepped up to join her classmates.

Darling peeled off and Trissiny directed the Legionnaires away with a simple hand motion. The rest of the students gathered with them, placing themselves between the soldiers and the citizens. The eight students—nine, including Vadrieny—represented enough offensive power to seriously damage that regiment, if not to smash through it entirely. Fortunately, they didn’t look like it; the soldiers didn’t see the threat, and thus didn’t react as if threatened. At least, not so far.

The man marching in the lead held up a hand. “Halt!” Behind him, the troops came to a stop in unison, their boots thundering once upon the pavement.

For a few moments, all was still. The groups stared at one another across the uncomfortably small open space in the street between them.

It was Captain Ravoud who finally spoke up.

“I see a lot of Silver Legionnaires in this district, General Avelea. May I ask what your intentions here are?”

Trissiny glanced at Darling; he nodded encouragingly at her.

“There has been serious misconduct on the part of a few of your troops, Captain,” she said firmly, her voice echoing in the silent street. Several soldiers shifted at her words. “That has given rise to a lot of rumor and ill feeling. Silver Legionnaires are known to be women of good character, also trained to understand military actions, and to see and report accurately on tactical details. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know they are here to observe.” She paused, then added more pointedly. “Whatever transpires here, there will be no unjust accusations of misconduct against your soldiers. We’ll see to that.”

Ravoud stared at her for a long moment, then nodded slowly. “I appreciate that, General.”

She nodded back, then began stepping backward toward the sidewalk. Toby was the next to move, widening his arms and silently ushering the rest of the students along with them. Ruda snorted disdainfully, but let herself be herded. As a group, they shifted out of the way, taking position at the edge of the street and clearing a direct path between the soldiers of Barracks Four and the citizens of Lor’naris.

Ravoud squared his shoulders and took one step forward. Two figures emerged from the crowd; Bob and Avrith paced forward to come nearly within arms’ distance of him.

“Corporal Robert Hollander,” Ravoud said, his voice pitched loud enough to be clearly audible to all present. “And… Avrith, isn’t it?”

“You may call me Mrs. Hollander, Captain, if it makes you more comfortable.”

Ravoud’s lips thinned. “I thought it was the women of your kind who determined the family name.”

“As a rule, yes,” she said, her voice mild. “My family, however, do not care for me to use their name so long as I choose to bind myself to a human. Bob’s family are my family, his home my home. His country my own.”

“Be that as it may,” Ravoud said firmly, “I have received intelligence that there is an armed insurrection forming in this district. You will immediately surrender any weapons being gathered for the purpose of rebellion against His Majesty the Emperor and submit any persons responsible for this action to Imperial custody.”

“Yep,” Bob said laconically, pulling a wand out of his pocket and holding it out to Ravoud, butt first. “Here you go.”

The Captain stared at him, open-mouthed.

“This has only been going on the last day or so,” Bob went on. “Folk none of us knew, making very pointed suggestions in taverns and the like. Several of us got together and decided on a course of action: we took to meetin’ with these chumps, tried to encourage them along a bit. I wish I had better to tell you, but we got nothing out of ’em but these gifts. If I have some of my friends come forward carrying arms to turn in, Captain, will you kindly refrain from having them shot?”

Ravoud blinked twice, then visibly steeled himself. “If… As long as they approach slowly, with hands in plain view and those weapons held pointed down.”

“All right, you heard the man,” Bob said more loudly, half-turning to address those behind him. “Slow and polite. Let’s not make the lads any more nervous than they already are.

A dozen people melted out of the crowd. Drow and human, male and female, they all held wands by the hafts, hands nowhere near the clickers, tips aimed at the pavement below their feet. Ravoud watched them approach warily, then turned his head to issue an order of his own. Two soldiers stepped forward and began collecting the wands, looking somewhat bemused.

“We have examined those weapons and unfortunately found nothing that seems useful,” said Avrith. “They are mass-produced and of middling quality. Perhaps the resources of the Empire can find out more about them than we, but I fear they were meant to be untraceable.”

“Everyone you see here was personally present at a meeting with at least one of these agitators,” Bob added. “Well, I mean, those of use stepped forward, here. The rest of those folk back there are just curious about the commotion, I think. We’re all happy to recount everything we saw and heard.”

“The men in question took pains to be anonymous,” said Avrith. “I cannot prove the use of disguise charms, but it would not surprise me. They offered no names and refused to reveal any patron, or the source of those weapons. However, several of us are soldiers, of both Tiraan and Narisian extraction, and two of the witnesses are trained diplomats. We met with them with the specific intention of gathering information. It is my hope that some of our recollections will prove useful to you in tracking them down and putting a stop to this.”

Ravoud just continued to stare at her, seeming at a total loss for words.

“Tiraas is our home, Captain,” Avrith said more softly. “This city has offered us a place when our own would not. We will protect and serve it in any way we can, as fervently as any other citizen. All of us.” Bob took her gloved hand in his.

“I…” Ravoud trailed off, then swallowed, squaring his shoulders. “I…thank you for your cooperation, citizen.”

“Great,” said Bob wryly. “D’you mind if we have the rest of this discussion someplace a bit warmer? We can go to your barracks, if you’d like, or there are spots closer where we can set up and do interviews.”

“None of us have any appointments,” Avrith added. “Consider us all at your disposal.” There were agreeing nods from the rest of the individuals standing alongside her.

“I…think a local place would do fine,” Ravoud said slowly. “No need to drag this out any more than it must be.”

Trissiny cleared her throat, stepping forward. “Captain, the Third has set up a command post in an unoccupied shop nearby. You may consider that at your disposal.”

“Thank you, General,” he said, nodding respectfully to her. “In fact, that would be perfect. Your Legionnaires can continue to…observe.”

“Of course. Soldier, show him where it is.”

The nearest Legionnaire saluted her before stepping over to Ravoud. She patiently stood by while he turned and issued orders to his men; shortly, the bulk of the regiment had turned and were marching back out of the district. Quite a few looked mystified, but they kept their ranks and their discipline. A small detachment of Imperial soldiers remained with the Captain and the citizens who had stepped forward to be interviewed, and in short order they, too, were departing, led by the woman in armor toward the Legion’s command center.

Darling drew in a deep breath and blew it out dramatically as the street finally began to clear of onlookers. “All praise be to whoever the hell is watching over us and willing to take credit for that. And I mean that in my official, ecclesiastical capacity.”

“Wait, so…that’s it?” Ruda demanded. “All that work, all that skullduggery and gathering tension, and it all ends like that? Just a few words and everybody’s friends again?”

“It is a little anticlimactic,” Fross agreed.

“Yes, Ruda, that’s it,” Toby said firmly. “And I, for one, will be spending a great deal of the rest of the night giving prayers of thanks. This is the best ending to all this we could possibly have hoped for.”

“I don’t know how much credit any of us can take,” Trissiny added grimly.

“Cheer up, kid,” said Darling, patting her on the back. “You’ve just successfully refrained from igniting a civil war. It was a good day.”

“Great,” she muttered.

“And no, Princess, everyone’s not friends,” he added more seriously. “There’s a long way yet to go… But the going has begun, and will continue. The hard part was always getting us through this confrontation.”

“But…we didn’t do anything,” said Gabriel.

The Bishop grinned at him. “No, you didn’t, did you? If you remember nothing else about this mess, Mr. Arquin, remember that. Good people taking care of their own affairs are always a force to be reckoned with. Sometimes, people need saving, that’s true. Most of the time, though, a hero is just somebody who reminds everyone at large to be their own best.”

“Aw,” said Fross. “Now, that’s uplifting! How come Professor Tellwyrn never gives us lessons like that?”

“Combination of complex factors,” said Ruda. “Mostly stemming from the fact that Tellwyrn’s a rotten bitch on her best day.”

They began drifting back in the direction of their inn, letting off tension in the form of good-natured bickering as they went.

Behind them, leaning against the wall of an alley, Professor Tellwyrn stood in silence, wearing a calm smile. She simply watched until the students were nearly out of sight around the curve of the street, then straightened, brushed off her tunic, and vanished with a soft pop that barely disturbed the falling snow.

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