Tag Archives: Elilial

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It was a most peculiar sensation, to become aware that she was dreaming. She drifted, while all around her the act of drifting itself petered off into more linear movement. Reality crystallized, the churned amorphousness of dream logic retreating as solidity intruded, and whatever she had been dreaming about faded away from the sharpening of her consciousness.

She had arrived, with no memory of the act of moving, at a peaceful little rooftop garden very like those kept by the wealthy in Tar’naris. This was not Tar’naris, though, but a vast cavern that seemed empty, its walls studded generously with dimly glowing crystal, and night-blooming jasmine and other flowering plants she did not recognize decorating the little terrace—plants which fared poorly underground. There was a table and chairs made of glass (the latter with embroidered red cushions) in a style she had never seen anywhere. One chair was pulled out invitingly, while at the other sat a woman in red.

“Hello, Shaeine, dear,” she said with a kind smile. “Please, have a seat. It’s high time we had a talk, you and I.”

Slowly, Shaeine stepped forward, settling herself into the proffered chair and scooting it up to the table, all while studying her new acquaintance. She was a drow woman with her white hair hanging long and unbound down her back in the classical style, and skin the shade of pure black that had become rare in Tar’naris. Only the very old still had the unadulterated bloodline fostered by the spider goddess of long ago; most Narisians had grayish complexions from thousands of years of slight but steady infusions of human blood.

Pure drow or not, the red dress the woman wore was a cocktail gown of a Tiraan cut, and her broad-brimmed matching hat in the Punaji style. The dress was low-cut, immodest by both Narisian and (to a lesser extent) Imperial standards. She smiled knowingly at Shaeine and began pouring tea.

The tea service had not existed a moment ago, and had not appeared. It was simply there, now, and suddenly had always been.

“This is a dream,” Shaeine said aloud, more to herself than to her…guest? Host? Whose dream was it?

“Quite so, dear,” the woman in red replied, nodding and adding three spoonfuls of honey to her tea, just the way she liked. “In fact, you are under the influence of an unnecessarily elaborate sleeping curse, lying with your fellow victims in the chapel on the campus of your University. And that, I’m afraid, is as good as the news gets. The chapel’s defenses have been activated, a most impressive combination of divine shields, arcane deflection charms and a fae effect tied to the geas upon the University that keeps it slightly out of phase with physical reality. Arachne is away from the campus and most of the rest of the faculty and students have been evacuated into the Crawl, while enemies close in upon you. A damaged, deranged Hand of the Emperor, gone rogue from his own government, leading a consortium of random thugs and a few magic-users he does not know were hand-picked by the Archpope of the Universal Church to cause maximum havoc to both him and poor Arachne. They will probably get into the chapel before Arachne gets back to stop them. Whether they can dig your classmates out of the Crawl is another matter. Have some tea, dear, you could probably use it.”

Shaeine accepted the proffered cup and took a sip, keeping her expression politely blank. “It sounds as if I have missed some interesting events.”

The woman smiled again. “You don’t believe me.”

“On the contrary,” Shaeine said diplomatically, “I do not rush to accept or dismiss your assertions. Either would seem unwise, as I don’t know who you are, much less why you are telling me this. Although… We have met, have we not? Yes, in Sarasio. You’re Professor Tellwyrn’s friend, Lily. Though you wore a different face at the time.”

“Quite so! I’m pleased you remember,” Lily said with a most un-Narisian grin. “I’m the Lady in Red; it’s a new thing I’m trying out. Do you like it?”

“It seems to suit you,” Shaeine said neutrally. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Oh, well, you know how it is. By and large I prefer to keep my distance from mortal events. You are different, though, now. I’m sure you are aware what must have happened when you were struck down by the Sleeper.”

“I imagine a number of things happened,” Shaeine said in her most careful tone, mind already racing after the implications of that question.

“True, true. I am referring to the only business that brings me here, dear one: family business. You will be pleased, I’m sure, to learn that your mother accepted Vadrieny and Teal’s courtship of you and, as is your people’s custom, immediately validated their adoption when you were cursed. Felicitations, my dear. I’m sorry I missed it.”

Shaeine managed a polite nod, her throat suddenly too tight to speak, which went perfectly with the sudden pressure in her chest. Goddess, Teal, Vadrieny… It must have been horrible for them to see her this way. At least they had each other. At least her mother had embraced them into the family. She had to get out of this somehow, get back to them… And, when she paused to consider it, it suddenly seemed likely that her new acquaintance was leading in that direction.

“Your mother is quite the lady,” Lily continued in a light tone, stirring her own tea. “One of very few people who have fully understood what Arachne is capable of and got right up into her face anyway. And all without losing her composure! I was quite impressed.” She winked. “And I don’t impress easily. When one has seen as many things as I have, not many mortals still have any surprises to offer.”

Shaeine had raised her teacup to cover her near-lapse of composure with a sip, but now suddenly lowered it again, connecting the dots.

“Elilial.”

The goddess smiled warmly at her. “Welcome to the family, dear.”

Oddly enough, the surreality of the situation helped; it was easier to have tea with the divine queen of demons and maintain her public face while nothing around her made sense or even existed than it would have been with the full weight of her mortal frailty making itself felt.

“I must tell you up front,” Shaeine said politely, “that I am an acolyte of Themynra and will not alter my path. If you intend me to aid in your plans, I’m afraid I must disappoint you.”

“Shaeine, dear, please don’t take this as a personal rejection, because it isn’t,” Elilial said seriously, “but I don’t want you anywhere near my plans. Not you, or Vadrieny, or Teal. In the last handful of years I have lost six daughters and now gained two; I intend to lose no more. And that means Vadrieny’s role in all my grand schemes is indefinitely terminated. Not even a clever, determined priestess and a bard with the world’s biggest heart are a replacement for her six elder sisters; the events unfolding now are simply too dangerous. I didn’t come here to ask anything of you, but now that you raise the issue, this is the only request I have: keep them safe.”

“I would do that anyway,” Shaeine said evenly. “Not that I am able to contribute much in my current state.”

“Which,” Elilial said, her smile curling a little wider, “brings us to the reason for my visit!”

“I was under the impression that gods were…constrained from intervening directly. Or at least, dramatically.”

“Oh, pish tosh.” The demon goddess made a dismissive gesture, smiling benignly. “The only individuals who respect the Pantheon’s rules less than I are the Pantheon themselves. For heaven’s sake, Shaeine, you have personally seen Vidius stomping all over the mountaintop as if he owned the place. No, dear, godly restraint is simply a behavior we have all learned is better than the alternative. The more a deity sticks their fingers in, the more others do, and it doesn’t take much of that before the wheels fly off the whole thing. Avei and Sorash burned down half the world between them before Arachne put a final stop to that, just because their respective champions kept butting heads and they couldn’t leave well enough alone. Almost everything modern gods get away with stems from their capacity to show a little restraint. Eserion is by far the most interventionist of them, and that works because none of the Pantheon—or even I—can justify exerting divine force against what are, after all, just the actions of his mortal followers. Vesk, Vidius, Omnu, Verniselle, even Salyrene, they all keep their hands off nowadays, and it’s that very fact which enables their cults to flourish: no other god has an excuse to act against them. Like life itself, it is a game of actions and reactions, of choices and consequences, in which some of the players like to fluff up their egos by by pretending that acting only through intermediaries is some kind of moral virtue.”

“I…see.”

Elilial grinned, lifting her teacup in a little toast. “Ah, but I see I’ve bored you already. I’m afraid you’ll have to get used to that, my dear; the hypocrisy of the gods is a subject upon which I tend to rant. Bringing this back ’round to the point… You’re correct, it would not be circumspect of me to interfere too aggressively. At the minimum, that would draw attention to my Vadrieny that she does not need. Already the agents of the Church are watching her, waiting for an excuse. You should be wary of that as well, dear. But!” She smiled again, and this time it was such a performatively sly expression that Shaeine barely repressed the urge to throw a divine shield around herself. “Even they surely won’t object to me giving my little girl a wedding present.”

“By,” Shaeine said cautiously, “for example, un-weaving the Sleeper’s curse?”

“You may consider this a divine revelation directly from the goddess of cunning, Shaeine dear: simple plans outperform complex ones every time. Each step or factor you have to account for is another opportunity for everything to go wrong. That’s part of the reason Arachne’s various minions have had no success trying to analyze and dismantle this curse in meticulous detail; what they need is a sword to cut the knot.” She set down her teacup and reached across the table to squeeze Shaeine’s hand; Shaeine, for her part, had to hastily squash the urge to draw back. Elilial just smiled warmly at her. “His name is F’thaan. Now go knock ’em dead, daughter.”

“His n…”

She broke off, gagging, as an impossibly wretched stench filled her mouth and nose. It was a melange of rotten eggs, brimstone, and hot metal; more than just a smell, it felt as if the stink had a physical force, pushing her back from the table.

In fact, she was being pushed away. Elilial’s knowing smirk receded, the whole scene around her growing chaotic and fuzzy, and Shaeine felt as if the smell were hauling her bodily upward through an ocean of thought and pressure, until—

Her eyes snapped open.

A furry little face was right in front of her, surmounted by a pair of shining eyes very like Vadrieny’s, pits of swirling orange fire. The sound of eager panting filled her ears; the hot breath in her face reeked like rotting demon flesh.

Shaeine winced and raised a hand to cover her nose and mouth, struggling to straighten up against the pillows on which she lay. At her movement, the little creature retreated, bouncing eagerly down her stomach to rest in her lap. She managed to drag herself up, braced on one elbow, to a reclining position, and get a good look.

It was a puppy.

He yapped excitedly up at her, bouncing on her lap, little tail wagging furiously. Coal black, he might have passed for a perfectly normal young dog, if not for the fiery eyes, and the blunt little nubs of horns sprouting from above them. At least now that he was more distant from her face, the smell of his breath wasn’t so overpowering.

Shaeine carefully reached down to scratch behind the little hellhound’s ear, and he let out another little yip, rubbing ecstatically against her hand and then licking at her fingers.

“F’thaan, I presume,” she said aloud, then cleared her throat. Her voice was slightly hoarse, probably from simple disuse. The puppy barked at her, and began clambering back up her chest toward her face. Shaeine hurriedly straightened the rest of the way up to a sitting position, getting a grip on him with both hands and tousling his ears while holding him down away from her sensitive nose.

He continued to squirm and wag his tail in delight, but after a moment allowed her to settle him down a bit. As long as he was being held and getting scratched behind the ears, he didn’t seem to mind being kept in place. That, at least, gave her the space to look around and find her bearings.

The campus chapel, of course, was familiar. Right now it was dim, the only light coming through its stained glass windows. It had also been thoroughly re-arranged, the pews pushed together and lined with pillows and quilts to form makeshift beds in which she and her classmates now lay. One of these was now so piled at the end with bouquets of flowers that it resembled a funerary display. If her own bed was any indication, though, there were subtler gifts left. Shaeine found that in sitting up she had displaced a number of flowers, notes bearing well-wishes from her classmates, and little talismans representing various faiths, as well as fairy charms. With a pained wince, she extracted a silver Themynrite blessing talisman from underneath F’thaan.

“No,” she said firmly when he tried to grab it in his little jaws. Somewhat to her surprise, the puppy seemed to heed her, settling back down into her lap to gaze up at her, tail still a-wag.

Still holding him, she carefully extricated her legs from beneath the quilt laid over them and clambered upright, then hopped lightly over the side to stand in the middle aisle, before the dais at the head of the chapel. It was a non-denominational space, lacking holy sigils of any faith; there was nothing but a slightly raised platform and an unmarked lectern to mark the front where an altar would be in other temples. From this position, at least, she could see into the beds and take a quick roll.

Natchua, Addiwyn, Raolo, and Ravana slept in pew-beds like her own. Apparently, then, she had been the last to fall victim to the Sleeper. Well, that was good, at least.

F’thaan barked again, craning his neck up to lick at her chin. Shaeine cringed, tilting her head back away from his breath, but obligingly scratched his ears again. He still wriggled with an ecstatic full-body wag at the attention, but seemed a bit calmer now. Adorable as the creature was, dogs and demons were both foreign to her; she had no idea how she was going to manage a fusion of the two.

“Now, you behave yourself,” she said, firmly but gently, looking down at his little face and evening her expression despite the smell of his breath. “This is a sacred place. It is probably the only Pantheon temple you will ever be in, as most priests will not share Professor Tellwyrn’s consideration for demonbloods. Don’t even think of defecating in here.”

He yipped at her and licked her chin again. Was there any chance he’d understood that? Just how smart were dogs?

Shaeine sighed and stepped toward the nearest impromptu bed, which was Ravana’s; it was the one piled with flowers to the point that the girl’s feet were entirely buried in them. Pausing to scratch behind F’thaan’s ear one more time in the way he seemed to like, she adjusted her grip on the puppy and carefully held him out, right in front of Ravana’s face. He eagerly licked the young Duchess’s cheek, panting in excitement.

Ravana’s peaceful expression vanished in a grimace and she twitched violently, rolling her head to the side. “Pfah! What is that?!”

“Hellhound breath,” Shaeine explained, withdrawing F’thaan and holding him against her chest again. “Welcome back, Ravana. We seem to be in a bit of a situation.”

“…so I gather,” the human replied, peering up at her through narrowed eyes. “I am quite eager to hear this story.”

“I’m afraid large swaths of it are unknown to me, but I’ve been warned of the immediate… Actually, let me wake the others, if you don’t mind. There is no sense in going over it multiple times.”

“Indeed, quite right,” Ravana said briskly, after clearing her throat much the way Shaeine had earlier. She set about climbing out of the bed, showing no more sign of stiffness than Shaeine had felt. Odd that the curse allowed the voice to grow rusty but left its victims to awaken feeling quite spry and well-rested. Or perhaps that was an effect of the hellhound breath?

While Ravana explored the piles of offerings left around her bier, quietly bemoaning her lack of shoes, Shaeine set about delivering the necessary but unpleasant dose of hellhound breath that freed each of the others from the Sleeper’s curse. Addiwyn’s first waking act was to snarl insults at her in elvish, though to her credit she looked quite abashed as soon as she was lucid again. Raolo actually yelped and leaped up, and probably would have gone over the side of the pew and to the floor had he not been entangled in his quilt.

She came to Natchua last, noting as she approached that there was another Themynrite talisman resting over her heart. These were crafted by House priestesses, and Natchua’s was identical to her own, decorated with ribbons in Awarrion colors. It was like her mother to be thoughtful enough to bring one for an exile, when apparently House Dalmiss had officially disavowed her. Shaeine carefully moved it to rest in the other drow’s hand before holding F’thaan out to breathe in her face.

F’thaan barked excitedly and licked Natchua’s nose. Unlike the others, she instantly drew her lips back in a furious snarl, snapped her eyes open, and sat bolt upright, forcing Shaeine to yank yer puppy back out of the way.

“CHASE!” Natchua roared, clutching the side of the pew with both hands. “You little bastard, I’ll—” There, finally, she paused, blinking, and turned over the one still holding the Themynrite sigil.

“Well, that answers one question, I guess,” Raolo commented.

“Which is a start,” Addiwyn said pointedly, folding her arms. “I find it odd that we are in the chapel instead of the infirmary, and the doors are both closed and barred.”

“Yes,” Ravana added as they all turned to frown at the wide double doors, which indeed had been secured from the inside with a large wooden bar. “Also that we are being revived by a fellow student and not a member of the faculty. My sincere thanks for the revivification, Shaeine, but I am rather curious why you chose to secure the door behind you.”

“And where under the sun did you get a hellhound puppy?” Raolo amended in a fascinated tone. F’thaan yapped excitedly, squirming around in Shaeine’s arms to keep everybody in view until she finally knelt to set him on the ground.

“Actually, I was cursed as well until moments ago,” she said. “F’thaan was a wedding gift from Elilial, who it seems is now my mother-in-law.”

They all stared.

“Veth’na alaue,” Natchua said at last.

Shaeine cleared her throat, shifting her head to keep an eye on F’thaan, who had bounded over to Ravana’s huge pile of flowers to investigate the fascinating scents therein. “Allow me to explain as best I can…”

Summarizing her recent conversation with Elilial went faster than the dream itself had, and also served to emphasize how little she actually understood of the situation. Shaeine finished, and then went to retrieve F’thaan, who had buried himself fully in flowers and begun repeatedly sneezing. The distraction was welcome; even her diplomatic training did not safeguard her against feeling awkward at having to deliver that painfully incomplete summary of the situation.

Fortunately, Ravana rescued her. “I do say that all sounds quite cogent,” the Duchess proclaimed, nodding sagely. “The campus coming under attack could really only occur in Tellwyrn’s absence, and withdrawing the students into the Crawl is a most reasonable safety precaution. While a number of our classmates represent potent forces themselves, the sanctuary effect of the Grim Visage would serve to keep them safe despite anyone’s best efforts.”

“I don’t know,” Addiwyn said, frowning deeply. “A Hand of the Emperor? Gone rogue? Inconceivable.”

“Nonsense,” Ravana said briskly. “The Empire has kept the means of the Hands’ creation and empowerment carefully secret, but I do know it was done through mostly fae magic—”

“How could you possibly know that?” Addiwyn snapped. “Nobody knows that!”

Ravana smiled primly at her. “I, as you are well aware, Addiwyn, am not nobody. I know many things of which the general public is not aware. My point is, it was only a matter of time before someone found a way to interfere with that craft and suborn a Hand. No plan, system, or spell is perfect; all have weaknesses, and all will eventually be exploited. Politically speaking, a renegade Hand of the Emperor is the perfect means of attacking a hot target like the University. The Empire will not be willing to acknowledge they have lost control of one, and thus will have to act with great circumspection to contain the situation, which prevents them from simply inundating the region with troops and strike teams as the Throne ordinarily would to counter a threat of that caliber. The same facts neatly conceal the identity of whoever tampered with this Hand in the first place, and enable him to cause havoc without risk to themselves. Truly an elegant attack. I wonder what is happening in Puna Dara?”

“You—Puna—what?” Raolo exclaimed.

“The last time a major disaster occurred upon this campus,” Ravana said patiently, “the current sophomore class refused an evacuation order to remain here and contain it, and they collectively represent a threat that even a Hand of the Emperor could not challenge.” She nodded graciously to Shaeine, who was holding F’thaan again and slowly stroking his head. This movement seemed to settle some of his eager squirming. “Given their power and disrespect for rules, and the fact that they would not abandon Shaeine to this kind of danger, obviously they were drawn somewhere else first, probably by a similar threat to loved ones. Nothing else would keep them away during a crisis like this. Most have no such mortal attachments, and woe betide any force which assaulted Avei’s stronghold in Viridill. Logically, then, something dire must be unfolding in Zaruda’s home to have fixed their attention away from the University.”

“Or,” Natchua said disdainfully, “they’re just off on a class assignment and don’t know about it.”

“I rather think even Tellwyrn would have had difficulty shooing Teal away from campus while Shaeine lay cursed here,” Ravana said with that prim little smile.

“Or,” Natchua repeated, curling her lip in a sneer, “since everything we know about this situation came from Elilial, it is all a pack of lies, because that is what she does!”

“I suppose you would know,” Ravana said pleasantly.

Natchua took an aggressive step toward her. “And what is that supposed to mean?”

“Whoah, now,” Raolo interjected. “This is not the time—”

“Why, simply that you are the other warlock endowed by Elilial,” Ravana stated.

“How dare you?!” Natchua snarled. “I should—”

“Hang on, now,” Addiwyn said suddenly. “How’d you know the Sleeper was Chase? He was Sleeped himself when the curse was cast on you.”

“A clever gambit on his part,” Ravana said, nodding. “It was known that Rafe had hellhound breath in his possession, thanks to me, so he could be certain of being awakened by the only such dose available. And applying the curse to someone by some delayed mechanism while he lay under it provided him an alibi. Yes, quite clever. Also,” she added with the hint of a smirk, “a personal encounter with Elilial is the only reason I can think why a Themynrite drow would carry the kind of antipathy toward her that you just expressed, Natchua.”

The silence which followed was tense enough to hang from. Natchua glared daggers at Ravana, fists clenched and quivering; Ravana simply smiled amiably back at her.

Ultimately it wasn’t either of them who broke it. F’thaan let out a yip and squirmed in Shaeine’s grasp, twisting up to lick at her face. She grimaced and turned her head away from his breath again.

Natchua, suddenly, seemed to deflate. Turning her back on the group, she trudged over to the makeshift bed in which she had recently lain, and carelessly shoved one of its two pews aside, causing pillows, flowers, and half the quilt to tumble to the floor. There, she sank down onto the seat and put her head in her hands.

“Has anybody ever told you,” Raolo said to Ravana, “you’re just a little too smart for your own good?”

“Why, yes, in fact,” she mused. “A man did say that to me once, quite shortly after I assumed the head of House Madouri. I had him executed soon thereafter.”

This time, they all stared at her directly; even Natchua lifted her head again to gape in disbelief.

“Well, not for that,” Ravana explained. “He was one of my father’s loyalists who’d been plotting to assassinate me. Not carefully, either, there was an embarrassing plethora of evidence. Really, what do you take me for? One cannot go around executing every person who insults one to one’s face. That is no way to earn the respect one requires to rule.”

“Anyway,” Addiwyn said pointedly, “have we decided we’re taking Elilial’s word for this?”

“I cannot think of any reason she would lie,” said Shaeine. “If she wished us harm, she could simply have refrained from acting at all. We were all lying here, terribly vulnerable, while enemies closed in.”

“I concur,” Ravana added. “It seems most reasonable, under the circumstances, to assume the warning was legitimate. In which case this chapel is defensible, but its defenses will not hold for long. We are apparently alone on campus, surrounded by foes of unknown type and power, and isolated from any potential help until Tellwyrn returns from her unknown errand.”

“We’re hardly helpless, though,” Addiwyn pointed out. “We have here a mage, a priestess…” She glanced uncertainly at Natchua. “…and apparently a warlock. In terms of firepower, that’s not insignificant.”

“Against a Hand of the Emperor, though?” Raolo said, frowning thoughtfully. “Not to mention whatever other help he has. Hand-picked by the Archpope, was it? Able to beat the defenses of the campus? That doesn’t exactly sound like small potatoes. I don’t mind admitting I’m not much of a mage. A rank amateur, to be frank. I understand Shaeine is extremely skilled for her age, and, uh… From what I heard…”

“I haven’t had a lot of practice or anything,” Natchua said suddenly, staring at the floor. “But theoretical knowledge? Sure. Virtually all of it.”

Addiwyn emitted a soft, incongruous laugh. “Well! Sounds like we’ve got three-quarters of our own little strike team, then. I don’t suppose anybody is secretly a powerful witch or shaman?”

She directed that last at Ravana, who started to shake her head, then suddenly straightened up, her eyes widening. A smile spread across the young Duchess’s thin lips.

“Actually,” she said, “that gives me an idea.”

 

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7 – 13

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“So, we’ve got that hangin’ over us all fuckin’ summer,” Ruda groused. “Come back for our sophomore year and immediately get put to work scrubbing mulch and basting doors and whatever the hell housekeeping tasks Stew thinks up until Tellwyrn gets tired of our suffering. Hoo-fucking-ray.”

“Scrubbing mulch?” Gabriel said, his eyebrows shooting upward. “Have you ever cleaned anything in your life, Princess?”

“Arquin, you will never be demonic enough or divine enough that I will refrain from kicking your ass. Bring the skeevy dude in the hat down here and I’ll kick his ass, too.”

“Sorry to interrupt your blasphemy,” Trissiny said, raising an eyebrow, “but I won’t be joining in your mulch-scrubbing this fall. I’m staying on campus over the summer.”

“Yup!” Fross chimed, bobbing around them. “Professor Tellwyrn is letting us do our punishment duty over the summer and get it out of the way. It’s pretty accommodating of her! We broke a lot of campus rules.”

“Considering she’s still punishing us for obeying a direct command from the gods, I’m not gonna get too worked up about her generosity,” Gabriel muttered.

“To be technical,” said Fross, “she’s punishing Trissiny and Toby for obeying a direct command from the gods, which is actually not at all out of character given her history. The rest of us don’t really have an excuse. I mean, if she’s not gonna accept a divine mandate as a good reason, citing friendship probably isn’t gonna help. Anyhow, I’ve gotta go finish cleaning up the spell lab I was using. Nobody leave campus before I can say goodbye! Oh, Ruda, looks like your dad is here. See ya later!”

The pixie zipped off toward the magical arts building in a silver streak, leaving the others staring after her.

“What?” Ruda demanded. “My—what? Oh, shit.”

It was a characteristically sunny day, with a brisk wind across the mountain cutting the prairie heat. The campus of the University was teeming with people, despite the fact that many of the students were already gone. Parents, friends and family members were everywhere, picking up their kids and being shown around on one of the few occasions when non-initiates of the University were welcomed there. A few curiosity-seekers had also snuck in, though they seldom lasted long before Tellwyrn found and disposed of them. Professor Rafe had already been informed that if he didn’t remove the betting board set up in the cafeteria speculating on where various journalists and pilgrims had been teleported to, he himself would be walking home from Shaathvar.

Now, a sizable party of men and women in feathered hats, heavy boots and greatcoats were making their way up the avenue to the main lawn, on which the six freshmen had just come to a stop. Toby and Juniper had both departed that morning, leaving the rest to make more leisurely goodbyes as they still had time.

Trissiny touched Ruda’s shoulder lightly from behind. “Are you okay? Do you need—”

“No,” she said quietly. “I have to face this. Guys, if I don’t get to talk to you again, enjoy your summer.” Squaring her shoulders, she stepped forward, striding up to the group of oncoming Punaji.

They stopped at their princess’s approach, parting to let the towering figure in the middle come forth. King Rajakhan was a looming wall of a man, a bulky mass of muscle who would have looked squat due to his build if the proximity of more normally-sized people didn’t reveal that he was also hugely tall. The bushy black beard which was the source of his nickname did not conceal a tremendous scowl. He stepped up, folding brawny arms across his massive chest, and stared down at his daughter.

Ruda, uncharacteristically subdued, removed her hat respectfully and stopped a mere yard from him. The onlooking pirates watched, impassive and silent; the remaining freshmen edged closer.

“The news I hear has impelled me to spend from our people’s treasury to have portal mages bring me here,” he rumbled. “I am pleased to see you whole, daughter. Less pleased by the report I have from Professor Tellwyrn. I understand that you were given an order to evacuate, and you disobeyed it. Through magical subterfuge. This is true?”

“My friends—my crew—had to stay, by orders of the gods,” she said quietly. “I wasn’t raised to leave people behind in danger.”

“I hear your justifications, but not the answer I asked for,” Blackbeard growled.

Ruda stiffened her shoulders slightly. “This is true, sir.”

He snorted. “I further understand that you slew three shadowlord demons and uncounted buzzers yourself, placing your own life in danger.”

“Yes, sir,” she said woodenly. “Alongside eight of the best people I know.”

“I further understand that you were stopped only because you somehow ingested the poison blood of your enemy.”

“Yes, sir. We grappled too closely for swords. I bit its throat.” Her lips twisted in remembered disgust. “They have very tough hides.”

He slowly began drawing in a very deep breath, his huge chest swelling even further, then let it out in one explosive sigh that made his beard momentarily flap like a banner. Somehow, it occurred to nobody to laugh at what would otherwise be a comical sight.

“In all the nations on land or sea,” the Pirate King said with a faint tremor in his voice, reaching out to place one enormous hairy hand on Ruda’s shoulder, “there has never been a prouder father.”

“Papa!” Ruda squealed, launching herself into his arms. Rajakhan’s laughter boomed across the quad as he spun her around in circles, the pirates around him adding their cheers to the noise (and half of them brandishing weapons).

“As I live and breathe,” Gabriel said in wonder.

“I feel I have just gained a better understanding of Ruda’s upbringing,” Shaeine said softly, “and some of what has occurred thereafter.”

“Hey, Teal,” Tanq said, approaching the group but watching the loud pirates curiously. “Does your family own a zeppelin?”

Teal abruptly whirled toward him, growing pale. “…why do you ask?”

“I just wondered. There’s a little one moored at the Rail platform down in town; I saw it when I was sending a scroll… It’s got the Falconer Industries crest on the balloon. I just wondered if it was a company craft or if FI was making them now. Pretty sweet little rig, if I’m any judge.”

“Oh no,” Teal groaned, clapping a hand over her eyes. “Oh, no. I told them… Augh!”

She took off down the path at a near run.

Tanq blinked, staring after her, then turned to the rest of the group. “What’d I say?”

“Teal laboriously made plans regarding our travel arrangements from the campus,” Shaeine replied. “I gather they have just been abruptly modified. Excuse me, please? If I don’t see you again, my friends, I wish you the best over the coming months and look forward to our reunion.” She bowed to them, then favored them with one of her rare, sincere smiles, before turning and gliding off after Teal.


She was about to unleash Vadrieny and swoop upward for a better view when a fortuitous gap between buildings happened to give her a view down onto Last Rock, including a familiar silver shape perched at its edges, with an even more familiar sigil emblazoned on its side.

“Why!?” she groaned. “Why would they do that? I had everything arranged!”

They care about you, and this campus was recently the site of a major crisis. Which we jumped into the middle of. Makes perfect sense to me.

“Oh, whose side are you on?” she snapped. Vadrieny’s silent laugh bubbled through her.

It’ll be all right, Teal. They’ll understand.

“I know how to deal with them. I was gonna have time to explain things on the magic mirror, and then they’d have had the carriage ride to get used to it… Oh, gods, this is gonna be so awkward. Damn it, why don’t they ever listen?”

So they may not understand as quickly, or as easily. They will, though.

“Teal!”

She whirled at hearing her name, beholding two well-known figures striding quickly toward her from the direction of the upper terrace.

“Speak of the demon,” she said fatalistically.

“Well, that’s a nice way to greet your parents,” Marguerite Falconer said, trying without success to look annoyed. Beside her, Geoffrey grinned in delight, not even making the effort.

“This place is somehow smaller than I was imagining it,” he said. “But so…gothic. With all this grandiose architecture and these overgrown paths, I almost can’t believe it’s only fifty years old. We actually managed to get lost, if you can believe that!”

“I can believe it,” Teal said in exasperation. “What are you doing here with that airship? I made plans! Everything was arranged!”

“Well, excuse us for jumping the wand,” Marguerite replied, raising her eyebrows and pushing her spectacles back up her nose. “What with our only child, who has already suffered far more than her fair share of disasters, being stuck in the middle of a hellgate, we were just a little anxious to see you again.”

“C’mere,” Geoffrey ordered, stepping up and sweeping Teal into a hug. She hugged him back, despite her annoyance, relaxing into the embrace as her mother joined it from behind.

“It’s not that I’m not happy to see you,” she mumbled into her father’s cardigan. “I just wanted to… I mean, I had a plan. There was some stuff I wanted to, uh, get you ready for before it, y’know…”

“Oh, Teal,” Marguerite said reproachfully, finally stepping back. Geoffrey released her, too, ruffling her hair. “Dear, it’s all right. It’s not as if this is some great secret. You know we’re fine with it.”

“I mean, for heaven’s sakes, our best friend is an elf,” Geoffrey added with a grin. “You said you were bringing someone special home for the summer holiday. We can manage to put two and two together.”

“I’m sure we’ll love her. Our daughter can only have good taste!”

Teal sighed heavily, staring hopelessly at them. At a glance, nobody would take the Falconers for two of the richest people in the Empire. They were a matched set, both with mouse-brown hair cut short, which looked almost boyish on Marguerite and rather shaggy on Geoffrey. He had a round, florid face decorated by a beard in need of trimming, while her pointed features had been described as “elfin,” but they shared a preference for comfortable, casual clothes in a masculine style. Even their glasses were identical.

“Well, I did try,” she said finally. “Give me credit for that much, at least, when this is all falling out.”

“Oh, Teal, I’ve missed you,” Marguerite said fondly. “Dramatic streak and all.” Geoffrey snorted a laugh.

“Teal? Is everything all right?”

Teal heaved a short, shallow sigh, then half-turned to smile at Shaeine as the priestess glided up to them. “Well, that remains to be seen. Mom, Dad, may I present Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion. Shaeine, these are my parents, Marguerite and Geoffrey Falconer.”

“It is an honor and a pleasure,” Shaeine said, bowing deeply to the Falconers. “Your daughter is a great credit to your lineage.”

“My, isn’t she well-mannered,” Marguerite said with a broad smile. “Teal, I can only hope the rest of your friends are such a good influence.”

“I gather you have not introduced them to Ruda yet,” Shaeine said calmly. Teal snorted a laugh.

“Ruda Punaji?” Geoffrey said with a grin. “I’m curious to meet that one, after your letters. But maybe in a more, you know, controlled environment.”

“Oh, stop it,” Marguerite chided, swatting him playfully. “It’s lovely to meet you, Sheen. Don’t mind my husband, he belongs in a workshop, not among civilized people.”

“That was an excellent try,” the drow replied with a smile. “It’s actually Sha-ayne.”

“It’s all one vowel,” Teal added. “Just changes pronunciation partway.”

“Really?” Geoffrey marveled. “I fancy I speak a smidge of elvish. Not as well as Teal, of course, but that’s a new one.”

“Don’t be an ass, Geoff, she’s Narisian. Of course they have a different dialect. Shaeine, yes? How did I do?”

“Perfect,” Shaeine replied, smiling more broadly. “You have an agile tongue, Mrs. Falconer.”

“I’ll say she—”

“Don’t you dare!” Marguerite shrieked, smacking her husband across the back of his head. He caught his flying glasses, laughing uproariously. Teal covered her eyes with a hand.

“Anyway,” Marguerite said with more dignity as Geoffrey readjusted his glasses, still chuckling, “I’m sure we’ll be glad to meet all your classmates, honey, but we should see about getting your luggage together.”

“We saw that crazy tower you’re apparently living in,” Geoffrey added, “but I guess it’s not open to visitors. Inconvenient, but a fine policy in my opinion! I remember my own college days. Barely. It’s also a fine policy that this is a dry campus.”

“Will your girlfriend be meeting us there?” Marguerite asked. “I’m just about beside myself with curiosity! Don’t look at me like that, it’s a mother’s prerogative.”

Teal closed her eyes, inhaled deeply through her teeth, and let the breath out through her nose, trying to ignore the hysterical mirth echoing in her mind from her demon counterpart. Shaeine half-turned to look at her, raising an eyebrow.

The silence stretched out.

Suddenly Marguerite’s face paled in comprehension, and she settled a wide-eyed stare on Shaeine. “Oh.”

Geoffrey looked at his wife, then his daughter, then shrugged, still smiling innocently. “What?”


“So, is this the new thing?” Trissiny asked, pointing at the sword hanging from Gabriel’s belt opposite his new wand, which rested in a holster. “You’re a swordsman now?”

“Oh…well.” He shrugged uncomfortably, placing a hand on Ariel’s hilt. “I just… I don’t know, I find it kind of comforting, having it there. Is that weird?”

“Taking comfort in the weight of a sword is certainly not weird to me,” she said with a smile. “I’m a little surprised you would enjoy it, though.”

“Yeah, I kind of am, too,” he said ruefully. “It’s just… The whole world just got turned upside-down on me, you know? I’ve only had Ariel here for a couple months, but it’s still something familiar. Something I can literally hang onto.”

“I do, know,” she said quietly. “I remember the feeling all too well. It was a very different circumstance, of course… I couldn’t begin to guess whether that would make it more or less shocking to experience.”

He laughed. “Less. Much less. Modesty aside, Triss, you’re pretty much a model Avenist. Me, I’m not even Vidian. I never even thought about whether I’d want to be. It’s not as if I ever prayed, after that one time. Burned my goddamn tongue, and I mean that as literally as possible.”

Trissiny nodded. “There’s… I guess there is just no precedent for what you’re having to deal with. I’ll help if I can at all, though. Anything you need to talk about, just ask. And not just me, of course. Do you know how soon Toby is coming back to campus?”

“Just a couple of weeks, actually. He needs to spend some time with the Omnists and the Universal Church over the summer, but apparently shepherding my clumsy ass is also a significant priority.”

“I have the same duties,” she said solemnly. “But I’m not making my trips to Tiraas and Viridill until later in the summer. I guess I just drew the first Gabriel shift.”

“Har har.” He stopped walking, and she paused beside him. They were in a relatively shady intersection of paths, with the bridge to Clarke Tower just up ahead. Towering elms, swaying and whispering softly in the gentle wind, shielded them from the direct sun. “Triss, I am scared out of my fucking mind.”

“I know.” She squeezed his shoulder. “I know. Look, Gabriel, it’s… It’s just a hell of a thing, okay? But…and I mean this sincerely…you will be all right. I truly do believe you can do this. I would never have predicted it in a million years, but in hindsight, it makes a great deal of sense. This will work. You’ll be fine.”

“That…” He swallowed painfully. “Hah. That means a lot, Trissiny. Especially from you. More than from anyone else, maybe.”

“Well, there’s that, too,” she said, smiling. “Whatever else happens, Gabe, you can always count on me to let you know when you screw up.”

“Well, sure. It hardly even needs to be said, does it?”

She laughed softly. “Well…anyhow. I’ve got to head inside here for a minute. You’re going to be in the cafeteria for dinner?”

“Along with the other losers who are staying over the summer, yup.” He stuck his hands in his coat pockets. “I do need to visit the Vidians at some point, but they’re coming here. So’s my dad. Apparently there’s kind of a controversy around me at the moment. Can’t imagine why.”

“Probably best not to have you in circulation just yet,” she said with a grin. “Well… I guess I’ll see you around campus, then?”

“Yeah,” he said, smiling back. “See you around.”

Gabriel watched her go, until she passed through the gate onto the bridge itself, then shook his head, still smiling, and resumed his slow way along the path.

“That girl has a powerful need for your approval.”

“What?” He laughed aloud. “That is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. And considering what recently—”

He stopped, frowning and staring around. There was no one nearby.

“Granted, I only know what I’ve heard from conversations around you, but didn’t she try to murder you once? That would weigh on the conscience of anybody who has one. The more she gets to know you as a real person, rather than the imaginary monster she was reacting to at the time, the uglier that whole business must look to her. Of course, a properly spiritual person could recognize all this and deal with it, but… Let’s be honest, Avei doesn’t go out of her way to pick deep thinkers.”

He had spun this way and that, growing increasingly agitated as the voice droned on, finally resting his hand on the sword’s hilt. Through it, he could feel something. Not quite energy, but the potential for it; the same feeling he was used to experiencing when working with raw magic.

“You… You’re the sword!”

“’The sword.’ That’s lovely, Gabriel, really charming. It’s not as if you don’t know my name. Look, I suggest you find a relatively private place to sit for a while. We’ve got a lot to talk about.”


Tellwyrn was grumbling to herself, mostly about journalists, as she kicked the door shut behind her and strode toward her desk. She hadn’t gotten three steps into the office before her chair spun around, revealing a grinning figure in a red dress perched therein.

“Arachne! Darling!”

“Out of my seat, Lil,” she said curtly.

“Ooh, have I told you how much I love this new schoolmarm thing you have going on?” Elilial trilled, giggling coquettishly. “So stern! So upright! It’s very convincing, dear. A person would never guess how much fun you are in bed.”

The chair jerked sideways and tipped, roughly depositing its occupant on the carpet.

“Oof,” the goddess of cunning said reproachfully, getting back to her feet and rubbing her bum. “Well, if you’re going to be that way…”

“What do you want?” Tellwyrn demanded, stepping around the desk and plopping down in her recently vacated chair. “It’s not as if I ever see you unless you’ve just done something terrible or are about to. You’re just as bad as the others in that regard. Though in this case I guess there’s rather a large elephant in the room, isn’t there?”

“All right, yes, that’s true,” Elilial allowed, strolling casually around to the front of the desk. “I do owe you an apology. Believe me, Arachne, boring new hellgates onto your property is most definitely not on my agenda. It seems one of my gnagrethycts took it upon himself to assist in that idiotic enterprise, which I consider a breach of my promise not to bring harm on you or yours. I am humbly sorry for my negligence.”

“Mm,” the Professor said noncommittally. “I heard you were down to seven of them.”

“Six, now,” the goddess said with grim satisfaction. “Demons get agitated if you lean on them too hard; I do try to let them have some leeway. But there are some things I simply will not put up with.”

“A gnagrethyct, or anything else—even you—couldn’t rip open a dimensional portal without having someone on the other side to work with,” Tellwyrn said, leaning back in the chair and staring at the goddess over the tops of her spectacles. “And nobody on this campus could have pulled off such a thing without tripping my wards…unless they were an initiate of my University. Any thoughts on that?”

“I may have a few ideas, yes,” Elilial purred. “What’s it worth to you?”

“You are having a deleterious effect on my already-strained patience.”

“Oh, Arachne, this is your whole problem; you’ve totally forgotten how to enjoy life. Yes, fine, I may have given a helping hand to some of your dear students.”

“You promised to leave them alone, Lil.”

“I promised to bring them no harm.” Elilial held up a finger. “In fact, I went one better and did the opposite. You know I caught a couple of those little scamps trying to summon a greater djinn? I cannot imagine what possessed them to think they could control such a thing. Pun intended. Really, you should keep a closer eye on your kids; I can’t be saving their lives all the time.”

“You haven’t spent much time around college students if you believe they think before doing shit,” Tellwyrn growled. “Did they at least try to hide in the Crawl first? If any of those little morons did that in one of my spell labs I swear I’ll visit them all at home in alphabetical order and slap their heads backwards.”

“Yes, yes, you’re very fearsome,” she said condescendingly. “But enough about that, why don’t we discuss the future?”

“Oh, you’re already going to tell me what you actually want?” Tellwyrn said dryly. “That has to be a record. Are you in a hurry for some reason?”

“Don’t trouble yourself about my problems, dear, though I do appreciate the concern. But yes, I am interested in, shall we say, tightening our relationship. We’ve worked so well together in the past, don’t you think?”

“I remember us working well together once.”

“And what a time that was!” Elilial said with a reminiscent smile.

“You called me a presumptuous mealworm and I goosed you.”

“A whole city left in flames and shambles, panicked drow fleeing everywhere, Scyllith’s entire day just ruined. Ah, I’ve rarely enjoyed myself so thoroughly. Don’t you miss it?”

“I have things to do,” Tellwyrn said pointedly. “Teaching my students. Looking after their safety. Getting tangled up with you is hardly a step in pursuit of that goal.”

“I think you’re wrong there, darling,” the goddess said firmly, the mirth fading from her expression. “This weeks little mess was but a taste. No, before you get all indignant, I am not threatening you. I am cautioning you, strictly because I like you, that the world is going to become increasingly dangerous in the coming days, and the wisest thing a person can do is develop a capacity to contend with demons. And lucky you, here you have an old friend who is the best ally a person could have in such matters!”

“Oh, sure,” Tellwyrn sneered. “And all I’d have to do to achieve that is make an enemy of the Empire on which my campus is built, not to mention that crusading spider Justinian.”

“Well, there’s no reason you have to tell them about it, you silly goose.”

“Mm hm. And in this…partnership…you would, of course, be telling me the total, unequivocal truth about everything you’re doing, in all detail?”

“Now you’re just being unreasonable, Arachne. I’m still me, after all. I can’t function without a few cards up my sleeve.”

“This sounds increasingly like a bargain that benefits no one but you,” Tellwyrn said shortly. “I can’t help thinking I’m better off with my current allies. None of them are invested in ending the world.”

“You know very well I have no interest in ending the world. Merely the deities lording over it. Really, I am very nearly hurt. You of all people know me better than that.”

“I do indeed, which is why I’m declining your very generous proposal.”

“Are you sure?” Elilial asked with a sly smile. “You’re not even a little bit curious to know which of your little dears are opening hellgates and fooling about with dark powers beyond their ken?”

“You could just tell me, you know. It would be exactly the kind of nice gesture that might have led me to consider your offer if you’d made a habit of making them before now.”

“Now, now, giving something for nothing is against my religion. I’m just saying, Arachne, I’m a good friend to have. In general, and in your case, very specifically.”

“So the world at large is about to have demon trouble, is it?” Tellwyrn mused, steepling her fingers. “And I’m likely to see my students imperiled as a result, yes? Well, I now know who to blame if they do suffer for it. You have my word, Elilial, that if that happens, I will be discussing the matter with you. Thoroughly, but as briefly as possible.”

The goddess’s smile collapsed entirely. “Only you could be so bullheaded as to turn this into an exchange of threats so quickly. I came here in good faith to propose a mutually beneficial partnership, Arachne.”

“You came here to use me,” Tellwyrn shot back. “I don’t particularly mind that. I don’t even much object to being lied to about it. I might actually have been amenable to the idea, except that you want to use my University and my students in the process. That will not happen, Elilial. I strongly advise you not to try.”

“Do you truly believe yourself equal to the task of opposing me?” the goddess asked coldly.

Tellwyrn clicked her tongue. “And now come those threats you didn’t come here to make…”

“If you insist on relating in those terms, I’ll oblige. You’re a blunt instrument, Arachne. Oh, you were clever enough in the distant past. Your deviousness in Scyllithar was inspiring, and I mean that sincerely. I was deeply impressed. But you have spent the entirety of the intervening three thousand years swaggering around throwing sucker punches and fireballs until you’ve forgotten how to do anything else. It’s gotten to the point that all I have to do to aim you in the direction I want you to look is scrawl a warning outside your door telling you not to. That barely even counts as manipulation, Arachne. It’s embarrassing to both of us. And you think you’re going to set yourself up against me? In the wide world, with all its subtleties and illusions waiting to serve as my props?” She snorted. “Please.”

“Well, perhaps you have a point,” Tellwyrn said placidly, shrugging. “After all, I’ve spent three millennia trying to get close to all the various gods, seeking their help. You, meanwhile, have been trying devotedly to destroy them for more than twice that time. Tell me, since you’re so much more dangerous than I…” She smiled sweetly. “How many of them have you killed?”

They locked eyes in silence, neither wavering by a hair.

Finally, Elilial let out a soft sigh through her nose. “I think you just enjoy being difficult for its own sake.”

“Well, no shit, Professor.”

“I’ll repeat my offer, Arachne,” the goddess said mildly, stepping back from the desk. “But not often, and not infinitely. You’ll have a limited time in which to come to your senses.”

“That’s fine, if you insist. But I’m not any more fond of repeating myself than you are, Lil. Really, if you want to save yourself the bother, I won’t blame you in the slightest.”

Elilial smiled slightly, coldly, and vanished without a sound. Only the faint scent of sulfur remained behind her.

Tellwyrn just sat without moving, frowning deeply in thought.


“You’re sure?”

“Yes, we’re sure,” Fauna said testily. “It’s not really ambiguous.”

“Or difficult,” Flora added. “Took us all of half an hour to sift through the records.”

“The Nemetites organizing the thing are extremely helpful. The nice lady was able to pull the public record for us and explain what all the legalese meant.”

“It’s held through a dummy company, you see, but she knew the legal and cult codes to identify the buyers. So yeah, we had the answer pretty quickly.”

Darling swiveled in his office chair, staring at the unlit fireplace. “Not the trap she was expecting,” he whispered.

“Oh, gods, now he’s muttering to himself,” Fauna groaned.

He returned his gaze to them. “All right, sasspants, since you’re so smart, interpret what you found for me.”

“Oh, come on,” Flora said.

Darling held up a hand peremptorily. “Let’s not forget who the apprentices here are. No matter what the question, whining is never the correct answer.”

Fauna sighed dramatically, but replied. “It wasn’t truly hidden. We were able to get the truth in minutes, using entirely legal means. The means provided by the library itself, even.”

“So, not a secret,” Flora said. “But… Meant to look like a secret.”

He nodded. “Go on…”

“A message, maybe?” Fauna continued, frowning as she got into the exercise. “Either a barrier only to the laziest of inquirers…”

“Or a hidden signal to someone smarter,” Flora finished. “Or possibly both.”

“Very good,” he said approvingly, nodding. “That’s the conclusion to which I came, too. Of course, your guess is literally as good as mine.”

“So you’re in the dark, then? Why was it so important to find out?”

“And no more of your shifty bullshit,” Flora said pointedly, leveling a finger at him. “Damn it, we’ve had enough of that this week. None of this ‘I’ll tell you when it’s time’ crap.”

“Yeah, you sent us to deal with something you could’ve sniffed out yourself in less than an hour; we’re entitled to know what’s going on, here, Sweet.”

“Why is this important? What does it mean that the Thieves’ Guild owns Marcio’s Bistro?”

Darling turned his eyes back to the fireplace, staring sightlessly while his mind rummaged through possibilities. He was quiet for so long that Flora, scowling, opened her mouth to repeat her demand before he finally answered.

“I don’t know.”

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It was the first moment he’d had in the last week to himself.

Everything was in an uproar, which was only to be expected considering what had happened. The rebuilding efforts, and the care being offered to injured citizens, weren’t his department, though he had made sure to learn the names of every individual who had perished in the attack on the city. All eleven of them, which was far better than it very easily could have been. One had simply fallen off a ladder while fetching a fairy lamp in a crowded basement, but as far as Darling was concerned, that counted. Their families were all being well cared for, by the government and the Church, so any gifts he could have offered would have been extraneous. He mostly wanted their names so he could feel guilty specifically rather than in general, and so he could check in on them from time to time. Bureaucracies had short attention spans; a time would come when those surviving the victims of his grand scheme would need help again, and then perhaps he could make some slight amends.

His official role, however, was working with Vex on intelligence. The approved story had spread quite effectively: as far as most people knew, the Black Wreath had taken advantage of the chaos to attack, the gods had intervened in Last Rock, and the soldiers sent out from the city had been re-routed from Calderaas in time to reinstate order. Enough of it was verifiably true to carry the rest. Darling’s job involved using his network of informants throughout the city to identify any areas where the real story was cropping up and leaking out. Lord Vex wasn’t so clumsy or aggressive as to silence dissent (which would only have led to more awkward whispers), but by knowing where the tales were coming from, he could target his disinformation efforts, swamping those nexi in the great web of gossip with such outlandish nonsense that the truth was swept away on a tide of rumor.

It helped that the attack on Tiraas had competition for the thing most to be talked about. Vidius had chosen a paladin, for the first time in his eight thousand years as a god of the Pantheon. Even bigger, he’d chosen a half-demon. The entire Church was in an uproar; the other cults, keeping carefully quiet and alert for new developments. Oddly enough, the only people who seemed calm about all this were the Vidians—but then, they never seemed to get worked up about much. Darling hadn’t had a spare moment to work out how he felt about this, if indeed it proved to affect him at all.

There was a lack of solid information on the subject. Tellwyrn’s new favorite game, “Teleport the Journalist to a Random Location,” sufficed for the moment to keep most of the curiosity seekers away from Last Rock. Darling wasn’t personally involved, but he was positioned close enough to discover that the Empire’s official policy as dictated to outraged newspaper editors was, approximately, “Well, what did you think was going to happen?”

Now, for the first time in a week, he had managed to get out and do some of Sweet’s rounds through the city. He had paused on a railed walkway abutting the edge of one of the city’s terraces which overlooked a park on the level below. Beyond the park, toward the west, the buildings started in a richer district where they were built to only one or two stories and an elaborate style, growing taller and cheaper as they marched into the distance, right up to the city walls. It was one of his favorite views in Tiraas.

“I hear they’re planning to re-zone,” Embras said, leaning against the rail next to Darling. “About two districts out, there. Seems like it’d really ruin the whole flow of this view.”

“The plans are being bandied about,” Darling said, nodding. “In a very early stage and could still go under, but it’s likely to happen eventually. Enough rich people would get richer off the deal that it has some momentum.”

“Mm. Progress marches ever onward.”

“That was a good approach, by the way. I can usually tell when people are sneaking up on me.”

“Yes, well, admirable as it is that you Eserites focus so on mundane training, it does leave you with some blind spots.” He straightened up, grinning. “Everyone has their own. It’s all about choosing the right angle of attack.”

“True, true. Either way, glad to finally see you. I was starting to wonder if you’d forgotten.”

“Some of us, by which I mean both of us, have had no shortage of urgent matters to attend to this week,” Mogul said pointedly. “Regardless, how could I fail to make an appearance? If nothing else, I still need to arrange the return of my nose.” He stepped back, straightening the lapels of his suit, and smiled thinly. “Here we are, now; best to get a move on. She doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

“Of course. Lead the way.”


 

The building was roped off, damaged as it was, which of course didn’t slow them. Mogul led the way past the warning signs posted in the lobby, up the broad, curving stairs and into the restaurant proper. Marcio’s Bistro had had a stunning view, with great glass windows stretching between pillars all along its northern wall providing diners with a panorama of Imperial Square itself. Above, a domed glass ceiling looked up upon the sky. He’d eaten here a few times; it was actually even prettier in the rain. Which was fortunate, given the city’s usual weather.

The windows and dome were gone, now, and apparently had provided ingress for some demon or other which had then done a number on the bistro itself. Nothing was repaired yet, but clearly there had been efforts to clean up. Broken glass had been swept into neat piles, though not yet removed, and the smashed furniture was also heaped against one wall. The clawed curtains, paintings and wallpaper were still exactly where they had been found, except a few that had fallen and were now leaning in their frames against the base of the wall.

“This was my favorite restaurant,” she said absently, not looking at them, but pacing in a slow circle around the floor, running her fingertips along the dusty bar in passing. “The head chef was quite the experimenter; by blending different approaches to spicing and cooking, he stumbled quite by coincidence upon a very close approximation of the native cuisine I remember from my own youth. Of course, that entire culture is long extinct. It was so similar I was certain for the longest time it had to be some kind of trap.”

“And was it?” Darling asked politely.

She finally looked up at him, and smiled. “Yes, as it turns out. But not the trap I was expecting.”

He had never met Lilian Riaje, but he knew her description well. Everyone who was anyone in Tiraas knew her description; following her rapid elevation to the favorite in the Emperor’s harem, it had been the subject of limitless gossip, she was so unlike Sharidan’s normally preferred cuddly hourglass types. Tall, lean, and elegant, she had bronze skin a shade darker than the Tiraan average, and a face that was handsome rather than beautiful, surmounted by a rather long nose. Her presence in the Palace had caused great disruption in the plans of people who schemed to get close to the Throne by way of alluring young women, causing many to hurriedly recruit and begin grooming entirely new girls.

She wore a striking red dress—simple in design, but extremely eye-catching, accented by a wide-brimmed red hat. It occurred to Darling that it looked like a red version of the hat Vidius was often depicted wearing.

“You surprise me, Antonio Darling,” Elilial said, studying him up and down. “Not many men have managed to do that. It has been a very long time since anyone presented an Offering of Cunning to my high priest. The Universal Church has been quite effective in suppressing it. In fact, it turns out poor Embras’s predecessor didn’t even bother to inform him of the rite. I had to explain the matter after the fact; you left him extremely confused.”

“Sadly,” Embras added with a faint smile, “not even the most embarrassing thing that happened to me that evening.”

“I must confess to having added to the problem somewhat,” Darling said with a bashful smile. “I’ve been hoarding any reference to the practice I came across. Considering how much I had to involve the Church and the Empire in order to arrange it, the last thing I needed was for anyone to guess what I was actually up to.”

“Mm,” she said noncommittally. “And so, here you are.”

“Yes, here I am,” he said pleasantly. “And wearing my real face, I might add.”

Her lips quirked up in a faint smile. “This is my real face. But of course, you’re an Eserite. You love your little dramas almost as much as the Vidians. Well, you’ve gone to a lot of trouble, so I can oblige you a little bit.”

The change was peculiar, as if it wasn’t a change at all, but a rewriting of the last few minutes so that she had always been thus. The effect was disorienting, to say the least. But there she stood, with her horns and crimson skin, eyes opening onto a blaze of hellfire, hooves crunching in a drift of glass (which he didn’t miss her stepping in deliberately for dramatic effect). Not to mention towering over him, taller than even the open-roofed bistro should have been able to contain, yet she fit into it perfectly. That kind of spatial distortion wasn’t uncommon in the presence of the gods.

“Perhaps this better suits anyway,” Elilial mused. “The Rite of Offering grants you an audience and a guarantee of shelter from my wrath while it is in session; I will honor that ancient compact. Let us not, however, ignore the fact that you just set back my plans considerably, getting a great number of my followers captured or killed in the process. I am impressed with you, Antonio Darling. Not pleased. Whatever you wished to say to me, get on with it.”

“As the lady commands,” he said, bowing gallantly. “All I want to know is what really happened when you broke from the Pantheon and were cast into Hell.”

The goddess slowly raised on eyebrow. “And you a priest of the Universal Church. Clearly you have heard the story many times.”

Darling swallowed his impatience. He respected the urge to play word games, he could play along, if it meant getting him what he was after. “If there is one thing I know when I see it, it’s a con. The story is couched in the literary traditions of the ancient epics, which is clearly meant to obscure its holes. All ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and ‘then this happened’ with none of the elaboration we expect form modern Tanglish. Plus, it has the weight of dogma to back it up. For people who do have questions, a good theologian will have been coached in all the relevant platitudes—trust in the gods, evil is as evil does, it was a different time, and so on. But those screening devices are exactly that.”

He took a step forward, staring intently up at her blazing eyes; she regarded him with a calmly curious expression. “So you, one of the cornerstones of the resistance against the Elder Gods, just spontaneously up and decided to turn on them? For no particular reason, even? No, it’s ridiculous. Being gods, they didn’t even bother to create a plausible lie, which is…well, I can sort of see the point, but it’s also insulting. The gods are lying to us, about themselves, about you, about the entire reason why the world is the way it is. I want to know the truth.”

Elilial regarded him thoughtfully for a long moment, in which he barely remembered to breathe. Then she smiled.

“No.”

Rarely had Darling had to clamp down so hard on the reaction he wanted to give. He took a deep breath, carefully holding onto his calm, polite facade. “Forgive me, m’lady, I was under the impression that the Rite—”

“That gives you the prerogative to approach and speak to me in safety, despite the excellent reasons I have to reduce you to a greasy smear on the drapes. It most certainly does not require me to answer your questions, nor to do anything I’m not inclined to anyway.” She paused, tilting her head and looking him up and down, and then her smile widened noticeably, revealing long, pointed canines. “But the fact is, Antonio… I find I do somewhat like you. And for that reason, I will not give you the answer you’re after. I’ll even tell you why. Do you know what happens to people who learn what the gods would rather remain secret?”

He hesitated. “I…suppose I can imagine.”

“You are probably aware that most of the Black Wreath are just people playing what they think is a game,” she went on, turning to look out over the city through the open window frames. “Advancing in the cult is a long process, leading somebody toward true involvement in my aims, and at least half of them never get there, nor even meaningfully begin. It’s that way for a reason. Before my followers are taught what you are asking to know, they must learn the way I have of hiding my moves from the Pantheon. And before that, obviously, they must prove themselves trustworthy.” She returned her burning gaze to him, her expression furious, now. “Because all it takes is knowing the truth, and you would be dead before your corpse hit the ground. Everywhere there are disasters unfolding, people suffering unimaginably, and the gods do nothing. They can recite reasons why, when they bother to; those reasons even make a certain amount of sense. But their hypocrisy is shown in the simple fact that they can always find the time to stifle even a hint of the truth when the truth threatens them. I learned this the hard way when I first made my way back to the mortal plane.” She bared her fangs in a snarl, and he involuntarily took two steps back, even knowing he ire wasn’t (mostly) at him. “Brave, clever people whose deaths I caused just by putting the truth in their hands. So, no, Antonio, I will not be digging your grave for you, and you may regard that as a token of my esteem.”

“I…see,” he said faintly. “Well, then…”

“Unless, of course,” she added more calmly, “you were interested in being inducted directly into the Wreath. For someone in your position, I think we can skip the initial phase, though you would have a great deal of work to do with regard to proving your trustworthiness. Not to mention taking steps to correct the damage you just caused.”

“Ah,” he said, “well, I hadn’t actually considered that prospect. Let me think on—”

“Never mind,” Elilial said curtly. “Nothing personal, but I’ve no need for people who are less than committed. We might revisit the subject later, however; if you continue on as you have been, a day may come when you regard the option in a very different light. Obviously, I am sympathetic to your desire. You’re not the first person outside the Wreath to see the obvious truth despite the Pantheon’s earnest efforts to redirect inquiries, nor even the first to take such ambitious steps to get answers.” She eyed him over again, then smiled. “Not unique, in short, but still exceptional. I think it serves my own purposes to have you out there, digging. You must be careful, however. Keep looking in this direction and you will learn the most fascinating things, but if you find the answer you’re truly after before you are prepared to protect yourself, it will be the end of you.”

“You do realize, of course,” he said, “my position will require me to keep acting against the Wreath…”

“Your position will enable you to extend a courtesy now and again, when you judge it appropriate,” she replied, raising an eyebrow. “And after this conversation, if you refrain from any further viciousness like you showed a week ago, you may find such courtesies shown in kind.”

“Splendid,” he said, putting on his most ingratiating smile. “Perhaps we can all profit from this, in the end!”

Embras, off to the side, chuckled, shaking his head.

“If you’re looking to rebuild your ranks,” Darling continued cheerfully, “I may be able to offer a helpful tip. In the course of that night’s events, it seems the Archpope rather alienated a big chunk of his nascent summoner corps, leaving a lot of clerics with some demonic expertise and a proven commitment to serve the greater good rather than politics…unemployed. And, in many cases, probably questioning their loyalties. Of course,” he went on with a grin, “I can’t help noticing that Justinian had swelled the corps well beyond what he could reasonably need. Now, with their numbers depleted, he’s left with a much smaller group, but one that is still close to plenty. More to the point, those remaining in his service have proven their willingness to commit treason on his behalf. All in all, a good night’s work for him.”

“Why, thank you for the hint,” Elilial said wryly. “I would never have thought of that. Something for you to wonder about is just how many of those ‘rejected’ summoners remain as fiercely loyal to their Archpope as those who stayed in his service, and are just waiting to be snapped up by other organizations and give him a foot in the door. You seriously underestimate that man’s ambitions if you think culling the unworthy was the extent of the advantage he took that night. Do you actually believe you’re the only one who realized the Dawnchapel was a tempting target perfectly placed to neutralize a Wreath attack? Thanks to that, several of my most valued agents are now directly in the Church’s hands, and I think you’ll find that no word of this has reached Imperial Intelligence.”

“Hm,” Darling said, frowning in thought.

“I’m not in the habit of handing out information that people haven’t earned,” the goddess said, studying him closely, “but in this case, I’ll offer you a warning. You Eserites love your schemes so much that you get lost in the game, assuming anyone who plays it with you is a schemer after your own heart. When it comes to Justinian, however, you have no idea what you’re messing with, Antonio. You need to start being a great deal more careful, and step up your game, if you intend to carry on working at him.”

“I…appreciate the tip,” he said slowly.

“Good,” she smiled, “then here’s another. A great doom is coming, and anyone who has a stake in the world is preparing to meet it. I try, as much as I can, to avoid causing harm to anyone I don’t explicitly need to hurt. This time, however, I will not be stopped. I won’t back off and try again later. I will be prepared to do what needs to be done when the cosmic deadline comes.” Her burning eyes bored into him. “The more you unravel my plans, the more you force me to improvise, and the less care I will be able to take to minimize collateral damage. Keep tripping me up, Antonio, and you’re going to cause a lot of pain to a lot of people. Understand?”

“Explicitly,” he said, nodding and smiling.

“Good,” Elilial said, satisfied. “Now I have another appointment to keep today, so pardon me for rushing out on you.”

She stepped past him, and that peculiar blink in the world happened again, as if something was being re-written, and then she was just the lady in the red dress again. Mogul fell into step just behind and to her right as they headed for the top of the stairs.

“Oh,” Darling said suddenly, “when is the little tyke due?”

Mogul turned to give him a very hard look.

Elilial paused at the head of the steps, then shifted to smile at him over her shoulder. “When I decide it’s time.”

Then they were gone, strolling down the stairs arm-in-arm and out onto the street, just another well-dressed couple out enjoying the day.

Darling stood amid the ruins of Marcio’s Bistro, absently pulling a coin from his pocket and rolling it across the backs of his fingers as he gazed out over the city.

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5 – 4

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“Rise and shine!” Tellwyrn crowed, throwing the door open and slapping the light switch.

Trissiny and Ruda were both on their feet in seconds, aiming swords at her.

“Congratulations, you two are officially the most alert residents of your dorm,” the Professor said, grinning diabolically. “I think Teal’s still not out of bed. You’ve got thirty minutes to be packed and at the Rail platform. We’re going on a field trip! Plan on at least three days away. Anybody not there will be teleported into place, no matter how unpacked or naked you are. Chop chop!”

“What…” Trissiny began.

“Time’s wasting!” Tellwyrn said cheerfully, ducking back out.

The girls looked at each other, then at the window. It was still fully dark outside.

“What the fuck.”

“….yeah.”


 

“But there was no announcement! This is unscheduled! There’s supposed to be an announcement of field trips at least two weeks in advance! It’s the rules!”

“That’s a policy, not a rule,” Tellwyrn said patiently, tromping through the dew-damp grass of the mountainside with most of the inhabitants of Clarke Tower trailing along behind her in various states of wakefulness.

“But—”

“Fross, what did I tell you concerning situations like this?”

The pixie emitted a discordant chime. “The rules are whatever you say they are,” she said fatalistically.

“Damn skippy.” Tellwyrn nodded. “Anyhow, this isn’t a completely anomalous situation; it’s not what you’re used to, but that’s because you’re new. I’ve been called away to consult on an academic matter; when that happens, I customarily consider which if any of my groups of little bastards would educationally benefit from a visit to wherever I’m going, and if there’s a match, they come along. This time, it’s you. Don’t you feel lucky?”

“Hoo-fuckin’-ray,” Ruda mumbled, then stifled a yawn.

“Where’s Juniper?” Trissiny asked.

“She’ll be along presently,” said Tellwyrn. “She needed a little extra preparatory time for the trip to Tiraas.”

“What?!” Fross shot four feet straight upward, sparking in alarm. “We’re going to Tiraas? You can’t take a dryad into Tiraas! It’s illegal!”

“Many years ago,” Tellwyrn said, “there was an actual Heroes’ Guild. They were quite the institution, really; the Guild Hall was one of the world’s great cultural centers. Of course, that was before the earthquake. It’s at the bottom of a lake now, which is a shame. Besides the loss of life, I mean; it was a beautiful structure. I always particularly enjoyed the frescoes inside the main rotunda. They were of scenes from legend, and portraits of the great adventurers and villains of the age, interspersed with calligraphic adages pertaining to the adventuring way of life. Naturally, my favorite part was the one that said ‘Never tell Arachne not to do something.’ Even painted my good side; nobody ever seems to get that right.”

“If you are quite finished publicly fondling your ego,” Trissiny said acidly, “taking a dryad into a major city is a terrifyingly irresponsible act. It’s considered a crisis when a dryad wanders too close to a village. The sheer horrifying number of things that could go disastrously wrong boggles the imagination!”

“You know, Avelea, you get positively poetic when you’re being pompous. Damn it, child, I have told you not to grind your teeth. Listen up, all of you: Juniper will not be unescorted. In addition to you lot, we’re bringing along the soldier boys, whose job will be to ride herd on her at all times. This project was cleared with Imperial Intelligence, agents of which will be shadowing your group.” She glanced over her shoulder at them, grinning. “So if any of you were planning to overthrow the Empire, pick a different trip. This, like Juniper’s very presence on this campus, is an experiment. We’ll have safeguards in place, but the whole point of her being here is for her to learn how to get along with mortal society. This had to happen at some point.”

“This is still a terrible idea,” Trissiny said.

“In the catalog of good ideas, few of them looked like such the first time,” Tellwyrn said airily.

“What’re you going to consult about?” asked Teal.

“Never you mind. Ah, here they come!”

Four figures were making their way down the hill after them. The campus’s three uniformed soldiers were easily identifiable, for all that their navy blue coats tended to fade in the pre-dawn gloom. With them was a young woman in a somewhat ill-fitting dress, at whom the students had to look twice.

“Wow, Juniper,” Teal said as they caught up. “You look…different.”

“This is awful,” the dryad complained, plucking at her skirts. She wore very typical frontier attire, a dress of conservative cut with a heavy shawl draped over her shoulders. Most strikingly, she now had creamy pale skin and brown hair. “How do you people move around with all this crap hanging all over you all the time? I can’t breathe!”

“You can’t walk around Tiraas in a sundress, is what you can’t do,” said Tellwyrn. “It’s winter.”

“The cold doesn’t bother me, I’m an evergreen.”

“Yes,” the Professor said patiently, “but you are passing as a human, which will not work if you prance about in the city’s characteristically miserable weather showing off half your skin. Remember what I told you, Juniper: you can’t let anyone know you’re a dryad. There’ll be a panic.”

“Maybe I could just stay here this time?” she suggested hopefully.

Tellwyrn snorted. “What is it you think Naiya sent you here to do? This is a golden opportunity for you to immerse yourself in human culture, get a feel for how they do things. Just remember your rules and be on your best behavior.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Juniper said glumly, making futile adjustments to her bodice.

“And you three!” Tellwyrn pointed at the soldiers arrayed behind the dryad. “You are not to let her out of your sight.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Private Moriarty said crisply.

“That means you’ll be rooming together, needless to say. I’m serious; this was a condition of Lord Vex authorizing this. She is to have Imperial escort at all times.”

Ruda barked a laugh. “Something tells me they’ll find ways to pass the time.”

“I resent the implication,” Rook said haughtily. “I would never take advantage of a lady caught in an uncomfortable situation.”

“Bucko, I think what’s at issue here is the lady will take advantage of you.”

“Yes.” He nodded emphatically. “And I am perfectly okay with that.”

“Where are those two boys?” Tellwyrn demanded.

“When we left the room,” said Finchley, “Toby was still packing and I don’t think Gabe was actually awake.”

The Professor grunted and turned to resume walking. “They have a couple of minutes, yet.”

“You look very nice, Juniper,” Shaeine said.

“Really?” The dryad looked forlorn. “I don’t think this coloring agrees with me at all.”

“With respect, I don’t concur. But then, I’ve been learning to appreciate the aesthetic of humanity.”

“Yeah,” said Ruda with a huge grin, “we all know you’ve got a thing for brunettes.”

Shaeine glanced at her and actually smiled slyly. Teal flushed scarlet.

“How’d you do that, anyway?” Trissiny asked, falling into step beside Juniper. “Is it hair dye and makeup?”

“Oh, no, that wouldn’t work on me. I metabolize pretty much anything, magical or alchemical or not. It’s an enchantment.” She wiggled her left index finger, on which was an apparently plain steel ring. “Professor Tellwyrn says I’m not to take it off until we’re back on the campus. Which is… I mean, it’s a little odd-looking, but it’s not so bad. It’s the clothes that are driving me bonkers. I know humans don’t wear them all the time. I can’t wait till we’re in whatever rooms we get. I’m gonna be naked every chance I get.”

“So the gods do love us after all,” Rook said tearfully.

Trissiny shot him a look. “Private.”

“Sorry, General.” He managed a halfhearted look of contrition and she sighed, but didn’t pursue the matter.

They walked through the silent town, conversation petering out. At the Rail platform, Tellwyrn planted her hands on her hips, peering about. “Well, time’s up.”

With a soft pop, two more figures appeared alongside them. Toby was upright and alert, leaning on his staff with a knapsack dangling from one hand. Gabriel was hunched in front of an open suitcase, which appeared in midair, having apparently been resting on something in its previous location. It thunked to the ground, spilling clothes, and he tumbled over sideways.

“Goddammit! Do you have to do shit like that?!”

“Did you think I was kidding?” Tellwyrn asked dryly. “Hope you’ve got everything you need, Arquin. Our caravan will be here momentarily.”

He muttered mutinously, getting up and surreptitiously rubbing his tailbone. “Well, Toby, this’ll teach you to complain about the weather in Tiraas.”

“Yep,” said the paladin wryly. “Back we go to the land of gloom and sleet.”

“Do you, like, lose your powers if you go too long without seeing the sun?” Ruda asked, sipping from a bottle of whiskey.

Toby sighed. “I hope not. If so, I have a feeling we’ll find out.”


 

“They’re gone.”

“Are you sure?”

“…no. No, I just rolled some dice and the omens portend that Tellwyrn has left the campus.”

The other robed, hooded figure stood up, turning its cowled head to stare at the one currently standing in the doorway.

“Yes, I’m sure,” she said sharply. “I watched the caravan leave. They’re halfway to Calderaas by now.”

“All right, all right, no need to get snippy. I think my concern is understandable. This is Tellwyrn we’re talking about.”

“Hm,” his companion said noncommittally, stepping back into the chamber.

It wasn’t deep into the Crawl, but the dungeon beneath the campus was supposed to be off-limits to students except during school-approved exercises. The students at this University being who they were, it was all but traditional for them to sneak in, using the space for various illicit purposes. Most of the corridors and chambers this close to the entrance were relatively secure, long since cleared of monsters and hostile magics, but they did tend to shift about from time to time. Not so dramatically that a person setting foot within was automatically doomed to wander in darkness forever…just enough to make it pointless trying to map the area. This place was the product of the same governing power that had made the Golden Sea; many of the same rules applied.

These two students were garbed in all-concealing robes of deep blood red. Heavy hoods concealed their features, complete with shadowing charms that made their faces invisible underneath. It was the kind of over-the-top getup used only by the most dedicated of cultists, and raw amateurs diligently imitating what they thought a dedicated cultist would do.

The woman paced slowly around the edges, studying the elaborate spell circle inscribed on the floor in faintly glowing enchanting chalk. The man had knelt again, applying the finishing touches to a glyph. Finally, he got somewhat awkwardly to his feet and stepped back.

“Well…there it is. Looks like we’re done. Ready to make a wish?”

“Are you sure you copied the glyphs correctly?”

“No,” he said, deadpan. “I just drew some squiggly lines. I thought they looked pretty.”

“All right,” she muttered. “I guess I deserved that.”

“As long as you’re aware of it. Here.”

She took the sheet of paper he offered, studying its contents. “Ugh. What language is this?”

“You know damn well what language it is. Honestly, what’s with you?”

“I’m stalling,” she groused. “Trying to convince myself this was a good idea.”

“Yeah? How’s that going?”

“About halfway there.”

“Relax, it’ll be contained in the circle, and the magic inherent in the Crawl will keep it from going far if it does escape. Besides, we brought insurance!” He drew a wand from within his voluminous sleeve and waggled it. “Nothing can go wrong.”

“Oh, now, you can’t just say things like that. That’s just asking for the fates to intervene!”

Both of them yelped and staggered backward away from the circle, boggling at the figure now standing within.

“By the way,” she said, grinning, “for future reference, just inscribing a summoning circle is enough to weaken the barriers of reality enough that something can slip through, even before you start casting. As a matter of general practice, it’s smarter not to stand around chitchatting in between steps.”

She was a woman, apparently human, in a slinky red dress with a matching floppy-brimmed hat over her dark hair. A bronze complexion offset the scarlet fabric pleasingly; dark eyes glittered with intelligence above a longish nose.

“…well,” said the man after a moment. He and his companion both had wands out and aimed at her. “That sure doesn’t look like a sshitherosz.”

“Aw, aren’t you sweet,” she said, fluttering her lashes flirtatiously. “I’m the lady in red. It’s something new I’m trying out. You like?” She spread her arms wide as if putting herself on display, cocking her pelvis to one side.

“Very nice,” he said approvingly. “I’d whistle, but you know, I’m not sure what that might mean in demonic and I’d hate to accidentally let you out of that circle. Meanwhile, here we are.” He looked over at his robed companion. “Can we keep her?”

“Kindly don’t be any more idiotic than you can help,” she said caustically. “Now how the hell do we banish her back to wherever she came from?”

“Well, as to that, you don’t,” the lady in red said languidly, waving a hand. Instantly, the white chalk lines on the floor blackened as if scorched, then sizzled away, filling the room with the smell of sulfur.

“Oh, shit,” the female student hissed. She managed to squeeze off two shots with the wand; both lightning bolts slapped harmlessly into the lady’s outstretched palm. Then, suddenly, both wands were bunches of tulips.

“Now, there’s no need for that,” said the lady reprovingly. “And here after I went to all the trouble to come visit you, and prevented the thing you were trying to summon from coming through. You’re welcome, by the way, since that circle of yours would not have held it. Seriously, do you know how many grammatical errors you made in those glyphs? Demonic is a language, not a set of spell components. How daft do you have to be to try improvising commands when you don’t even speak it?”

“You improvised?” the girl shrieked.

“Oops,” he said weakly.

“You need to have a talk with your buddy, here,” the lady said. “Rule of thumb: never leave the man to work unsupervised. Am I right?”

“If it’s not too impolite to ask,” the man said, edging toward the door, “who are you?”

“And what do you want?” the girl added tersely.

“Oh, I’m just sure you’ve heard of me at some point. Everyone has. Let me see if I can jostle your memory,” said the lady, smiling mysteriously, then dissolved in smoke. The reek of sulfur overpoweringly filled the room. Both robed students immediately whirled and sprinted toward the exit; the dilapidated metal gate slammed shut just as they arrived, causing them to smash themselves against it. Despite its rusted appearance, it was more than sturdy enough to hold up to the impact, barely even shifting in its frame.

“Now, now, don’t wander off. We have things to discuss, you and I.”

Both of them turned slowly.

She towered above, all but filling the room. Its ceiling didn’t seem high enough even to fit her, but she managed, as though space itself didn’t dare to inform her she was wrong. The face with much the same—lean, angular, sharp-nosed—but her skin was a dusky crimson now, her eyes swirling pits of orange flame. Horns sprouting from her forehead swept back over her hair, and her legs terminated in cloven hooves.

“Oh…well, then. Fuck,” the boy said weakly. The girl whimpered.

“Nobody’s ever happy to see me,” Elilial complained. “It’s enough to give a girl a complex. Ah, well, I’ll manage. Let’s talk about you.” She grinned broadly, showing off fangs, and both would-be summoners pressed themselves furiously against the gate as though trying to ooze through the bars. “Here you are, precisely like every lazy fool who’s come before you, looking to take extremely hazardous shortcuts to whatever it is you want and utterly failing to comprehend the cost. Oh, stop looking at me like that, you two, I’m not going to incinerate you or anything. In fact, that is precisely the thing at issue here. I promised dear Arachne I wouldn’t harm any of her students. Despite my reputation, my word is my bond.”

The two cowled heads turned toward each other, then back to the goddess. “Whatever you say,” said the boy.

“Oh, if you only knew how right you are,” she said, smiling broadly. “Now, we don’t need to go into the details of what you wanted with a sshitherosz demon. To be perfectly frank, I’m not interested. To yourselves, you are individuals full of hopes, ambitions and mitigating flaws, the protagonists in your own little stories; to me, you’re something for Arachne to do. Something other than sticking her spectacles into my business. To that end, here’s what I’m going to do for you.”

She folded her arms, still smiling smugly. “Of all the gifts of the infernal arts, all the boons that summoners call up demons to beg or demand, there are none more potent or more dangerous than knowledge. And so, knowledge you shall have.”

“W-what knowledge?” the young woman asked, very nearly masking a quaver in her voice.

“More or less all of it,” Elilial said, her grin widening again. “Oh, there are the standard exceptions, a few little tidbits I really can’t have mortals knowing. But aside from that? The dark arts, in general. The entire library of lore and spellcraft sought by diabolists. What I am giving you, countless others have sacrificed everything up to and including their souls to obtain, and precious few succeeded in their goals.”

Both figures had straightened slightly as she talked; even from within the all-enveloping robes, their body language betrayed their interest.

“That is…alarmingly generous,” the boy said slowly. “What is it you want in exchange for this?”

“Exchange?” she repeated, feigning confusion. “Why, I wasn’t proposing to make an exchange. This is my gift, children, free of charge, free of strings or stipulation. I snap my fingers and you go from zero to grandmaster warlock. Oh, there’s a hell of a learning curve, pun intended, and you’ll have a great deal of work to gather up your power—and, even more, to manage how to handle it without corrupting your mortal shells into uninhabitable husks. But the knowing how, that will jump you vastly farther ahead. Farther than the most ambitious should dare dream.”

“No. Bullshit.” The girl shook her head emphatically. “You’re talking sheer insanity. Nobody hands out power of that magnitude without getting something in return. If you’re not going to reveal the catch, I want nothing to do with this.”

“I’m very nearly offended,” Elilial said mildly. “I’ve told you my motives already. I am in the middle of something, and a handful of stubborn interlopers, including your charming professor, are increasingly determined to do something about it. I simply cannot spare the effort or personnel to go chasing down every last little threat to my plans. Thus, you.” She raised a hand languidly, inspecting her claw-like fingernails. “Have you heard the expression ‘power corrupts?’ It’s extremely true. So what do you suppose power over corruption itself does? I’ll tell you exactly what I gain from this arrangement, kids: Red herrings. Ticking time bombs. Mad dogs with torches tied to their tails, set loose in my enemies’ fields. You want to know who hands out vast quantities of unearned, unappreciated power?” A cruel smirk tugged the side of her mouth upward. “Someone who doesn’t care one little bit about the welfare of the person receiving it, or anyone they come into contact with.”

“And how do you know we won’t just use it against you?” The girl swatted him in the midsection with the back of her hand, eliciting a grunt. “Ow! What? It’s a fair question!”

“You could try,” Elilial said with amusement. “You’d hardly be the first. I really can’t express how little I worry about the revenge of mortal warlocks. Besides, you’ll be quite busy, you see. You’ve got to get through the remainder of your education here without Arachne sniffing you out and blasting you to atoms. Then make your way out there in the wide world, avoiding the many hazards that await the powerful. The Tiraan Empire is a dangerous enough thing these days that few if any high-level casters dare challenge it. There are no shortage of other members of the elite club you will have joined, most with power as great as yours and every last one with vastly more experience. Some will regard you as competition, some as a threat to the world. A highly capable druid, priest or even a mage might be able to make friends out there, but you will be hunted and alone, effectively at war with everything which becomes aware of you. Oh, the sheer wreckage you’ll cause in your desperate flailing… It positively chills the blood.

“Or,” she went on, looking viciously self-satisfied, “you could try to counter my plans with a little honesty. Take the gamble that Tellwyrn, or the Empire, or the Pantheon, or the dragons or fairies or anyone else, will give you a fair shake. That they’ll not react to you exactly as any sensible person would to Elilial’s chosen archwarlocks. When you get tired of trying to stay alive—and oh yes, my children, you will—go right ahead and roll those dice.”

“There’s a better option,” the girl said tightly. “We can counter your plans quite effectively by not taking the deal. Count me out.”

“Deal?” the goddess said softly. “My dear, sweet little poppet… No one is offering you a deal.”

She made no gestures, spoke no magic words; there was no visible spell effect, not so much as a puff of sulfur. Elilial simply stood there, smiling thinly down at them, but when she had done speaking, both students rocked abruptly backward as if struck, bouncing against the closed gate.

They crumpled slowly, the boy slouching against the doorframe and sliding down, the girl pitching forward, both clutching at their heads, their minds assaulted by unnavigable torrents of information. Very quickly, the effects escalated and they lost what remained of their footing entirely, their whole nervous systems faltering under the strain of absorbing impossible amounts of knowledge, delivered through a mechanism the brain was never meant to accept.

Elilial watched, her faint smile fading to impassivity, as the pair devolved into kicking, twitching messes on the ground, no longer consciously aware of her—or of anything.

“In a few weeks, or years, or however long it takes for your whole life to come unraveling around you,” she said softly, “and you’re cursing my name… Just remember, you are the brain who decided demonology was a workable shortcut to what you want. Dabbling in what you were… Oh, there are so, so many ways this could have ended so much worse for you. Then again, by the time you’re thinking about it, you’ll understand that full well.”

She turned away, then paused and glanced back over her shoulder. The boy had fallen mostly still, his breath coming in labored rasps; the girl was still twitching feebly.

“Believe it or not,” she said, “I actually am sorry. You’re a means to an end…eggs in a greater omelet than you can imagine. Somebody has to suffer. Might as well be you.”

She made a casual gesture with her hand as though drawing back a curtain, and stepped through. With no visible distortion in the air, she was simply, suddenly gone, leaving behind nothing but the acrid tang of sulfur and the two felled University students, just beginning to regather their senses.

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4 – 12

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“I just wish you’d at least take somebody with you, ma’am. Believe me, I understand not wantin’ to be cooped up in here anymore, but that’s exactly why it ain’t safe to just take off, with the town the way it is.”

“You’re a sweet boy, Joe,” Lily said fondly, reaching out to ruffle his hair. “Much too good for the lady you’ve got your eye on. But don’t you worry about little ol’ me. If I were worried about my safety, you can bet I wouldn’t be going.”

“Seriously, she’ll be fine,” Tellwyrn said dryly. “If anything, her leaving just means we’ll miss out on the accidental hilarity of somebody trying to harm her. I’m a little perplexed, though, Lil. It’s not like you to take off in the middle of the action.”

“Oh, this is far from the middle, Arachne,” Lily said, smirking at her. “Anyway, it’s not that I’m not interested in seeing how your little field trip goes, but an old acquaintance of ours has started sniffing around. One I’d rather not have a confrontation with at this time.”

Tellwyrn narrowed her eyes. “Oh? Who?”

“Don’t you fret your pretty head about it, dear. He was always fond of you anyway.”

The Professor’s nostrils flared in irritation, but she didn’t rise to the bait. “Be that as it may, I meant that when you vanish, you usually do just that. It’s the bothering to say goodbye that’s out of character.”

“Really, Arachne. Just because you have no regard for the most basic social graces doesn’t mean nobody else does.”

Lily picked up her carpet bag and strolled toward the door with an entirely unnecessary sway to her movements that commanded everyone’s attention. To her customary scarlet dress she had added an old-fashioned traveling cloak in deep crimson, and now pulled up the hood over her dark hair as she reached the exit. Pausing at the threshold, she half-turned to look back at those assembled.

“Bit of advice, kids,” she said. “A little less enthusiasm, a little more finesse. Toodles!” Wiggling her fingers flirtatiously, she turned and departed, leaving a momentary silence behind her.

“Didn’t she say she was pregnant?” Gabriel asked finally. “Sure doesn’t look it.”

Tellwyrn snorted and stomped over toward the bar.

“I wonder just who that woman really was,” Trissiny said slowly.

“She’s either pretty badass or a fucking idiot, goin’ out there alone,” Ruda agreed. “I mean, what’s she gonna do? Just walk out into the prairie? Try to flag down a caravan? The speed those things travel, I doubt the enchanter driving could even see someone waving.”

“There’s that,” Trissiny said, still frowning at the door, “and the fact that Professor Tellwyrn allowed her to talk to her that way. That’s what throws me off.”

The students, as well as Joe and Jenny, glanced in unison over at the bar, where Tellwyrn was now nursing a whiskey and ostentatiously ignoring them.

“Well,” Toby said after a pause. “I guess there’s no use putting it off. Everything ready, Robin?”

The elf shrugged. “They all know the time and place. I can’t guarantee everyone will turn up, but it’s not like there’s much else for them to do in this town these days. Most of the families are as fortified as they can get inside their homes; even tending their kitchen gardens is risky. Of course, I asked their wives to lean on them a bit, too,” she added with a grin. “That should improve the turnout.”

“Okay,” he said, nodding. “We’d better move out, then.”

“Just a moment, if I may.”

They turned in surprise at the voice, beholding Heywood Paxton approaching from the stairs to the upper floor, where the private rooms were. He looked much better, with none of the reddened eyes and nose that indicated he’d been at the bottle again. The man had lost weight, and his suit hung on him somewhat loosely, but it looked clean and freshly pressed nonetheless, and the silver gryphon badge of his office gleamed with fresh polish.

“High time this old fool started doing his duty to his Emperor,” he said, head high. “My friends, I thank you not only for coming to the aid of this town, but also for jostling me out of my stupor. You may count on Heywood Paxton, Imperial Surveyor, to do his part.”

“I’m…not sure that’s such a great idea,” Joe said carefully. “You’re a big target, Mr. Paxton.”

“Less so that previously, my boy,” the Surveyor replied with a grin, patting his somewhat diminished paunch.

“You know what I mean,” replied the Kid, his expression growing drawn. “You’re a high priority for the Riders. They can’t have an official Imperial report getting back to Tiraas.”

“And that is precisely what I must accompany this expedition,” he replied, turning to face the students again. “Pardon me for eavesdropping, but there’s precious little else to do around here except drink, and I believe I’ve done far more than my share of that lately. As I grasp it, my friends, your plan is, in part, to provoke a response from the Riders Am I correct?”

“Yes,” Gabe said thoughtfully. “And…yes, you’re right that having you along would be even better bait…”

“I don’t like that at all,” Jenny said, eyes wide. “Heywood, no offense, but you’re no wandfighter. This is too risky. It’s crazy.”

“Ah, but I hardly expect to have to do my own wandfighting,” said Paxton with a grin. “I’ll be with a whole party of heroes! Paladins, clerics, dryads, wizards, even a bard! Safe as houses, I’m sure.”

“Having to look after a civilian does alter the equation somewhat,” said Shaeine. “I am confident that we can protect ourselves from attack, but… On this matter I defer to more tactical minds.”

“It’s doable,” Trissiny said immediately, then turned a sharp stare on Paxton. “Provided that the civilian in question strictly follows orders and stays far from the front lines when combat breaks out.”

“My word on it, Ms. Avelea,” he said, nodding firmly.

“Then it’s up to the healers; they’ll be the ones having to stretch their capacity by an extra head. Shaeine?”

“Ah, let me just cut in here,” said Gabriel. “It’d be better if he went with our group rather than Shaeine’s. An Imperial Surveyor has some official rank that may help us impress the townsfolk. The elves, on the other hand…”

“…may interpret an official Imperial presence as aggressive,” Shaeine finished. “That is a solid point.”

“I thought your whole plan for the grove was to try to agitate them out of their complacency,” said Robin. “That’d be a start.”

“I’d rather appeal to reason and higher virtues first,” said Teal. “If it does come to agitating, well, it’s probably better not to put them on the defensive the moment we walk in. They may already be annoyed with us for showing up a second day in a row. I think a lot of ’em were glad to see us leave the last time.”

“I will, of course, yield to your strategic expertise,” said Paxton, “but quite frankly I’m not sure I’d be much use in dealing with elves. Imperial citizens, now, those I know just how to motivate.”

“That’s settled, then. Right?” Teal looked around for objections. “Right. Okay, then, all we’ll have to do is try to jostle a bunch of hidebound immortals who don’t think our opinions are worth a squirrel’s fart. No problem.”

“You’ve been in this town too long,” Ruda said, grinning. “You’re picking up the vernacular.”

Teal rolled her eyes. “Robin, any guesses how many of the elves hate humans as much as your sister does? If they have a majority, this is pretty much hopeless.”

Robin barked a laugh. “If you mean how many of the elves are anti-human, it’s actually a pretty tiny minority. That’s not the problem. My sister, for your information, loves humans, in every conceivable sense of the word. She is throwing a sulk because her boyfriend’s family were rude to her—which, by the way, was entirely her own fault and has nothing to do with the Riders or anything else going on. That’s going to be the bigger part of the problem. Elves typically err on the side of caution and consistency. The current climate just exacerbates petty disagreements like that, gives leverage to the few who really don’t want to be involved in human affairs, and the whole thing is held down by our general tendency to stay put and wait for something to happen.” She shrugged expressively. “You’re not going to get all the elves behind you, no matter what you do. The trick will be getting enough to break with the group, which…isn’t something we like to do. Shake that complacency enough, though, and you just might walk out of there with some allies.”

“It is a start,” said Shaeine.

“It’ll have to do,” Teal agreed grimly.

“I’ll help,” Jenny said brightly. “I’m good at shaking things up.”

“Jenny,” Joe protested.

“Don’t you start with me, Mr. Jenkins,” she said, leveling a finger at him. “I told you I’m not one to just sit on my hands! I wasn’t about to go take on the White Riders myself, but if people are taking action, I’m in.” She turned back to the others, folding her arms. “And I know a thing or two about elves.”

“Well, we won’t turn down any help,” said Teal. “We’re not going to stop with the elves, though; the plan is to go after the Riders immediately after we finish whatever happens in the grove.” She sighed, glancing at Gabriel. “And, despite what I earnestly wish, I don’t think diplomacy is going to be in the cards, with them. You sure you’re up for that?”

Jenny cracked a lopsided grin. “I may have seen a little bit of action here and there. Don’t you worry about me.”

“Anybody else care to lend a hand?” Toby asked. “Joe? I don’t like the idea of fighting any more than Teal, here, but she’s right: it’s almost surely going to come down to that. An extra pair of wands would be helpful. Besides, you’re widely respected; you’d be a big help in getting people up off their butts.”

Joe shook his head. “My place is here.”

“He’s right,” said Gabriel. “Without him here, there’s nothing to stop the Riders from hitting the Lady as soon as we’re all gone. It’s the biggest holdout against them; burning it and scattering the people here would be their logical move if we left it undefended.” He nodded at Joe, who nodded back gravely.

“Very well, then,” said Trissiny, slinging her shield over her back with an air of finality. “Everyone knows their role. Let’s move out.”


 

Sunset made the streets of Sarasio positively spooky. It was a time when a town should ordinarily be winding down its business; subdued, but still alive, still active. In Sarasio, there was total silence. Orange light stained the pitted street and the dilapidated boards of the buildings lining it, but there was no one about, not so much as a horse or stray dog moving.

The total silence was made more ominous by what lay behind it. This was their third patrol in the streets surrounding the old barn, now converted to a tavern, in which the meeting was being held. On the first, they had been watched, carefully, from the shadows, but apparently word of Trissiny’s performance on their group’s first arrival in town had spread, and none had offered them a challenge. Now, even those dim shapes lurking in doorways and the mouths of alleys had vanished, leaving only the unnatural quiet.

And the prospect of a lightning bolt out of any window.

Gabriel froze as a clatter pierced the quiet, clutching his wand and pointing it first one way, then another, seeking the source of the disturbance. Seconds later, another soft sound followed it, this one clearly coming from a junk-filled alleyway nearby. Clutching the wand in both hands, he aimed it straight for the pile of broken furniture that clogged the narrow opening, then drew in a deep breath, steeling himself to call out a challenge.

He stumbled backward as a small heap of what looked to be barrel staves toppled, and a rabbit shot out of the alley, darting across the road and vanishing into the dried-out bushes opposite.

Gabe slowly let out the breath he’d drawn, some of the tension easing from his frame. He gave Trissiny a sour look.

“Don’t say a word.”

She shook her head. “Too easy.”

With a soft sigh on his part, they resumed their slow circuit.

“Relax,” she said in a low voice.

He gave her an irritated sidelong look. “How in the hell am I supposed to relax? We’re the worms on the end of a hook, here.”

“This was your plan, you know.”

“Yeah, well… It all sounds much less deadly from the comfort of a lavish…uh, brothel.”

“Anyway, I’m serious. You’re wasting energy by holding so much tension. You can most likely survive a wand shot, and I can shield myself.”

“Most likely,” he said sourly. “Could be better odds.”

“I should probably have said ‘almost certainly.’ Compared to what Vadrieny did to you, a bolt of lightning is nothing.”

The silence which ensued was even more strained. The pair of them walked, alone, down the center of the dusty street, eying their surroundings as much for the excuse of avoiding each other’s gaze as to keep watch for ambushers. They had managed, for the most part, not to discuss their brawl on campus and its aftermath; the subject was invariably awkward at the very least.

Turning a corner, they slowed slightly by unspoken consensus, passing the old barn. One of the few stone structures in a town mostly of wood, it, like the ruined one out behind the Shady Lady, had once been part of a farmstead before Sarasio had grown to encompass it. Lamplight blazed from its windows, now, along with the sound of voices. Specifically, the sound of arguing. Two men on either side of the broad front door, each holding staves, nodded at them. Trissiny nodded in return, Gabe saluting with his wand, and they continued along their route, gradually leaving behind the only sight ad sound of other life in the town, the oppressive silence falling around them again.

“They’ll be all right,” he said quietly, nodding at nothing. “Toby’s in there, and Mr. Paxton. If they can’t straighten those folks out, it can’t be done.”

“Ruda is also in there,” Trissiny said darkly. “She can create a fight out of thin air. I shudder to think was she can do from the middle of a whole web of petty vendettas.”

“I didn’t hear you nominating her to come on patrol with us.”

“Once again, you’re invulnerable, and I have defenses. Ruda would be felled instantly by a wandshot. She’s safer in there with the diplomats.” She grimaced, glancing around. “Though all this is for nothing if they can’t get at least most of those people working on the same page.”

“And Teal and Shaeine doing the same with the elves…” He kicked a stone out of the way, scowling after it. “And then we’re assuming the Riders will try something… And with the right timing, too… Augh, I’m an idiot. What was I thinking?”

“Don’t,” she said quietly, shaking her head. “Don’t second-guess yourself after the plan’s in motion. No strategy survives contact with the enemy. If it goes wrong, we’ll adapt.” He sighed, and they walked in silence for a while longer before she spoke again, even more quietly. “It is a good plan, Gabriel.”

He risked a glance at her; she was watching the road ahead. “You’re not just saying that?”

“Seriously? Have I ever gone out of my way to coddle your feelings? Can you imagine me doing that?”

“Fair enough,” he said sourly.

“We wouldn’t all have signed off on it if it weren’t solid. You’re not that persuasive a speaker. They Riders have to know what’s going on, and they have virtually no choice but to respond—and only one method they’re likely to use. The biggest risk is, as you said, the timing. If they strike before we can get in position… But then, most of this is getting these people to work together. An attack by an outside party is the best possible way to do that.” She nodded. “It’s a good plan.”

“What would you say,” he said thoughtfully, “if I told you Ruda’s smarter than any of us give her credit for?”

Trissiny raised her eyebrows, but still kept her attention on the street rather than on him. “I would ask what makes you think so.”

“I’m not sure I do.” He shook his head. “It’s just… A guy I met in the bordello said so.”

“Just…some guy? Someone who’s only seen us a few times, when we were mostly just squabbling?”

“Exactly. I’m not sure whether he was talking out of his ass, or if maybe his outsider opinion… That is, maybe he noticed something we’ve missed. She is royal. I mean, she has to have had training in politics and stuff.”

Trissiny shook her head. “What does it matter?”

“Just thinking out loud, I guess. The different kinds of intelligence. It’s been sort of on my mind, the last day or two, how a person can be really smart in one area and kind of an idiot in others.”

“You mean, the way you actually have a pretty strategic mind, apparently, but possess all the people skills of a billy goat?”

He grimaced. “Just for a completely random example, yeah, sure. Not that you’re one to criticize anybody’s people skills.”

She shrugged.

Gabe coughed softly. “You, uh…actually think I have a strategic mind, though?”

“Really?” She rolled her eyed. “Must we go over this again? I have no intention of stroking your ego, or anything else of yours.”

“Oh, ew. I just got the cold shivers. Don’t say things like that!”

“Yeah, that was ill-advised,” she agreed, twisting her lips in disgust.

“I just… Well, coming from you, ‘strategic’ is pretty high praise. I’m not used to high praise, uh… Coming from you.”

Trissiny shrugged again. “It’s fair. I’ve said your strategy was solid. And don’t forget, I’ve played you at chess, too.”

“Where you won two out of three games.”

“Do you really imagine I didn’t see what you were doing?” Finally, she glanced over at him, but only for a second. “The first two I won quickly, using two different strategies, while you played almost entirely reactive, defensive games. The last one you stretched out, using multiple, deep feints to counter the strategies you’d seen me use, and maneuvered me into exhausting my pieces while you set up a trap. That’s grand strategy, studying an opposing general’s patterns and thinking beyond the needs of the battle at hand. So yes, to my surprise, there does appear to be a highly functional brain lurking somewhere behind that mouth.”

“Ah, well, you know how it is,” he said modestly. “The way I was raised, it’s just good manners to let the lady win.”

She glanced at him again, eyes narrowed. “You are trying to make me stab you now, aren’t you?”

“Invulnerable, remember?”

“Specifically not against a blade crafted by Avei.”

“Well, that’s not really fair, then, is it? You’ve got all kinds of advantages over me in a fight. What say we move this back to the chessboard, next time we have a chance? Best three out of five?”

To her own surprise, Trissiny found herself grinning. “You’re on.”


 

It was out of the question, of course, if he was to keep any shred of control over this situation, but more and more, Toby wanted to plant his face in his hands and groan.

Well over two dozen men crowded the barn, coalesced into small clumps keeping a wary distance between each of them. Despite the palpable tension in the room, they were thankfully leaving one another alone, all their focus on the main table in the center, at which sat the heads of the four families, along with Toby, Ruda and Mr. Paxton. The Surveyor was doing his best to remain professional, but he had wisely left most of the talking to Toby, who actually had formal training in negotiation. Not in Shaeine’s league, of course, but diplomacy called heavily upon the virtues that Omnu sought to instill in his followers: patience, compassion, understanding, respect. Ruda leaned back in her chair, balancing it on its two back legs, her boots propped on the table. She was sipping intermittently from a bottle of whiskey, her hat pulled forward so that it mostly hid her eyes, and not contributing to the conversation. All things considered, Toby decided he was glad of that.

At least there was one thing to be glad of.

“All I’m sayin’ is, we need assurances,” Jonas Hesse said stridently. “Who knows what’ll get back to the Riders, all of us meetin’ like this? Nobody here’s exempt from suspicion!”

“Nobody ‘cept your boys, is what you mean,” snarled Jacob Strickland, the oldest of the four patriarchs at the table. His beard was short, but more gray than brown, and did little to add to his dignity. If anything, he did more shouting than any of the others. He did so now, thrusting a finger at Hesse. “Well? Ain’t it?”

“We all prob’ly suspect everybody else’s boys of bein’ in with the Riders,” said Lucas Wilcox, the youngest of the four, who was leaning back in his chair much like Ruda.

“Gentlemen,” Paxton tried for the third time in the last minute, but Hesse overrode him.

“Nobody calls my sons traitors!” he snarled, jerking to his feet and planting both fists on the table to glare at Wilcox.

“Oh, but you can say what you want about ours?” Ezekiel Conner snapped, folding his arms and glaring mulishly. “Just like a Hesse.”

“Oh, that’s it. You’re gonna eat them words, Ezekiel!”

“Yeah? I don’t see you makin’ me.”

“Gentlemen,” Toby said, much more loudly than Paxton—enough to grab their attention momentarily. “I know you all have issues to work out. Having everybody here at the table is an important first step. But with all due respect, this is not the time.” He held his arms out wide, as if to embrace the whole barn and the town beyond. “Look around you. Sarasio is dying. You—and your families—will die with it if you don’t do something about the White Riders! And to do that, you are going to have to put these vendettas aside and work together.” He leaned forward, trying to hold them still with the sheer intensity of his stare. “Peace takes time and effort to build. I’m not asking you all to suddenly forgive everything and embrace each other. But, just for a little while, please. Put it aside.”

“Ain’t that I don’t appreciate what you’re tryin’ to do, kid,” said Wilcox, nodding to him. “And it ain’t even that you’re wrong. Fact is, though, you’re askin’ us to ride into what’s sure to be a firefight with the very real possibility of bein’ shot in the back.”

“The Riders know too much, we’ve seen it in the way they maneuver,” added Conner, still glaring at Hesse. “Somebody’s tippin’ ’em off. Several somebodies, ‘less I miss my guess.”

“I ain’t puttin’ my life on the line, and sure as hell not any of my family’s, until we straighten out just who the traitors are an’ deal with ’em,” Strickland declared. “An’ until these three dumbasses admit they’ve got Riders among their own families, that don’t look like it’s about to happen.”

“You shut yer foul mouth, Strickland!” Hesse roared, shooting back to his feet. “Your whole brood o’ weasels’re probably in league with the Riders! Hell, I bet you’re leadin’ the bastards yourself! You always did want more’n you deserved outta this town!”

“That does it!” squawked Strickland, also jerking upright. “I’m gonna hear an apology outta you if it’s the last thing you ever—”

Toby slapped both hands down hard on the table, startling them into momentary silence. “Please,” he implored, silently pouring more power into the calming aura he was using to keep this whole thing from exploding into violence. Already, it was a strain to keep enough concentration on that task while also trying to keep the conversation on target. He’d never been in a room with so may deep-seated resentments.

Into the brief quiet, Ruda snorted a laugh. “Listen to you guys. Everybody’s so sure that all the other families are corrupted. First step to dealing with this is you each admitting you’ve all got traitors in your midst.” She lifted her head, meeting their incredulous stares. “Every one of you.”

“Young lady,” Wilcox began.

“It’s Princess, if you wanna be formal. Me, I don’t. Formal doesn’t look good on me.” She jerked her boots off the table and let her chair thump to the ground, leaning forward to stare intently at them. “Use your goddamn heads, boys. Why would the Riders only infiltrate some of the clans populating this town? They need intel on everybody’s movements, or they’d never have been able to head off every effort you made to move against them.”

“Now, look here,” Conner began.

“Furthermore,” Ruda said doggedly, “look around you at what is happening right here, right now. You’re all about to rip each others’ fucking throats out. Is that normal? Is this what life was always like in this town? Or, if you think back carefully, do you find that stuff started getting real bad between you after the Riders started being a big problem?”

“What are you suggesting?” Hesse demanded.

“I’m suggesting the Riders in your ranks aren’t just passing information—they’re pitting you against each other. Think from their perspective: they can’t have the whole town uniting against them, which is the logical thing for a town full of sane fucking people to do when they’re basically under siege. You’ve all got the same damn problem. Now quit pointing fingers and fucking do something about it!”

“That’s all fine an’ dandy,” Strickland growled, “but it don’t change the problem. You wanna round up a posse and take on the Riders? Fine by me. Ain’t a man by the name of Strickland who’ll hang back if that’s what it’s gonna take to save our town. But the fact remains, we got bad apples in the bunch. We ride out, and our men’ll be vulnerable to fire from their own ranks!”

“She ain’t wrong, though,” Wilcox noted. “It ain’t just any one family’s problem.”

“What difference does it make?” Hesse demanded.

“It makes a difference,” Toby said firmly, “because you will all face the same peril together. Do you really believe there’s any way to do this without putting men in danger?” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t lie to you, gentlemen, even if I thought you were naïve enough not to have realized the truth on your own: ride out to battle, and men will die. Right now, you are quibbling over the ways and means in which that might happen, and avoiding the larger truth.”

“You callin’ us yellow?” Strickland growled squinting at him.

“No!” He managed, barely, not to shout. Honestly, they were like children. “I’m pointing out that Ruda is right. You’ve been manipulated, gentlemen; someone has been trying to distract you, to focus your energies against each other.”

“Well, maybe our energies belong against each other!” Hesse shot back. “I ain’t seen one bit of evidence any man in my family’s sided with the Riders, and I’m not puttin’ any of ’em in harm’s way to save a bunch o’ chickenshit varmints who can’t keep order in their own clans!”

The whole table instantly dissolved into shouted pandemonium, the voices too loud and too rapid for any single thread to be clearly heard. All four men were on their feet, pointing and gesticulating at each other and growing increasingly red in the face. Now, other voices began contributing from all corners of the room, first shouting at the general mess at the round table, and then starting in on each other. Toby slumped back in his chair, rubbing his forehead; Paxton planted his elbows on the table, putting his face in his hands.

“Okay,” said Ruda, “this is bullshit.”

She stood up, tilted up the bottle of whiskey to gulp down the last of its contents, then hurled the empty bottle at Wilcox and punched Strickland in the jaw.

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4 – 8

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“Thou art welcome to the hospitality of our grove,” Elder Shiraki intoned. “Verily, thy visit ignites a fire of joy within the hearts of all who dwell herein. And yet, so seldom do thy kind partake of this hospitality. I sense that thou hast come to us, as have so many before thee, seeking the aid of the immortal elves.”

“Wow,” Fross breathed. “The way you speak…it’s so pretty! It’s like a poem!”

The elf smiled at her and bowed from the waist. Somehow, this didn’t disturb the golden flows of his hair, which were draped over his shoulders and trailing to the ground behind him in a way that suggested accidental placement but was just too perfect to have occurred without help.

“He’s only doing that to be difficult,” said Elder Sheyann with a sardonic half-smile. “It’s a statement that he’s far too important to bother keeping up with human trends. Languages don’t evolve that fast, and Tanglish isn’t hard to keep on top of.”

“You’re not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition,” the pixie noted.

“Fross,” Shaeine said firmly. “Please don’t correct the elders.”

“On the contrary, this is how we stay abreast of the flow of the world.” If anything, Sheyann’s smile grew.

“Let it nowhere be said that those of this grove turned away from the wisdom of the fae folk,” added Shiraki. He seemed much less amused, though it was hard to tell. The Elders had a gravitas, a stillness about them that made them difficult to read, even when they emoted deliberately.

The elves certainly did not lack hospitality, though several of those who had interacted with the visitors showed the same standoffishness as Thassli and Fraen. Nobody was outright rude, but there were a thousand subtle ways to slip into a conversation hints that they weren’t interested in getting to know humans. That attitude was far from universal, however, and of the dozens of elves crowding around the meeting area in which they were being hosted, quite a few seemed intrigued and delighted to meet Teal. Juniper was universally a celebrity; very few of them appeared willing to warm up to Shaeine. It made for a tricky social space to navigate.

The grove itself was a ring of enormous trees surrounding a wide glade. A stream, not broad but brisk and evidently deep, entered from the north and had been diverted into two channels which completely encircled the central meeting area, rejoining at the southern edge of the grove and departing back into the forest. Like everything else here, the stream gave the impression of great age; it had cut deeply into the ground through which it ran, and now mossy overhanging lips of stone protruded over the rushing waters. Bonfires built atop rough, ancient-looking stone slabs were positioned equally around the inner side of the stream, bathing the seating area in the middle in orange light, but despite that and the climate of the surrounding prairie, it wasn’t hot.

The actual homes of the elves were outward and up, woven into the branches of the trees themselves. The trees in the grove proper were absolutely massive, greater in diameter than the height of a human and rising impossible distances; the common area in the center of the glade was not small, but surrounded by those giant sentinels, it felt like a tiny island. Steps spiraled around many of the trunks, apparently grown outward from the wood itself. Some elvish residences had apparently been built into the trunks themselves, to judge by little doors appearing here and there, but the majority were constructed of wood, balancing on branches and systems of bridges. They were unpretentious in design, but beautiful, their proportions graceful and highly polished surfaces contrasting pleasingly with the rough bark and deep foliage surrounding them. The same design ethic showed in the wooden bridges which spanned the creek at intervals, and the low tables which dotted the central meeting area.

The welcome of the elves involved a meal, but a rather eclectic one, taken sitting cross-legged on the ground around low tables. Shaeine nibbled politely at the handful of fruit that had been arrayed before her; Juniper had been handed a haunch of deer. Literally, a raw leg off a deer, uncooked and apparently quite fresh. She had tucked in with enthusiasm, which resulted in a ghastly amount of blood dripping down her face and onto her chest. Though the elves were clearly acquainted with the habits of dryads, to have served her thus, even they seemed put off by the spectacle. Teal had been served baked beans and cornbread on a dented tin plate, and was trying to decide whether this was an honest effort at accommodating her or some kind of jab at humans.

“You see truly, Elder,” Shaeine said politely, setting down an oblong yellow fruit in a thick peel that she hadn’t figured out how to open. “We would not presume to trouble the peace of your grove except at need.”

“How very refreshing,” Sheyann noted, sipping her tea, “to meet an Awarrion who would not presume to trouble the peace of our grove.”

“Elder Sheyann speaks truly,” said Shiraki, his expression solemn. His long, lean face sported a small goatee, the only facial hair on any of the elves present, even among the other elders. “Thy family oft comes bearing gifts and pleasing words, seeking to curry our favor. Never have I heard one of thy breed ask aid of us. Verily, thy company pardons many a shortcoming, yet we dare not lay down our vigilance lightly.”

“I must make a clarification,” said Shaeine, “with apologies for not having done so in the first place. My friends and I are here as visitors and free agents; I do not represent my House or Tar’naris. To my knowledge, none of my people are aware of my presence here.”

“That may be fair news or ill,” Shiraki said, nodding. “Speak thy piece, child of the dark, and we shall decide.”

In their stillness was an absolute mastery of nuance. Sheyann merely sipped her tea, somehow conveying both a shrug and an eyeroll. Teal watched her in such fascination that she nearly missed Shaeine’s reply.

“We have recently come from the town of Sarasio, which as you likely know, is in a dire situation. It is our intention to help the residents as best we can, and hopefully find a resolution to their troubles. To do this without the aid of the neighboring elves would seem brash…and, in frankness, unlikely to succeed.”

A stir ran through the assembled elves, dying down as Sheyann swept a cool gaze around the clearing. “Then you have stepped into an established discussion,” the elder said, returning her calm stare to Shaeine. “We are in the process of deciding whether the matter warrants our attention.”

“It is hardly up for debate,” said Shiraki, giving her a cool look. “Did we stir ourselves from our lives each time the humans upset themselves, never would we have a moment to attend our own affairs. The suggestions of a paltry few younglings do not hint at division within the grove.”

“I do not consider any of our people ‘paltry,’ Shiraki,” Sheyann replied with weary reproof, “nor dismiss their concerns out of hand. Neither the elders nor the tribe as a whole have raised a quorum of voices proposing to intervene in Sarasio. The tribe, thus, does not move. This does not mean the views of the minority are without merit.”

“Merit they may have, but the fact is as thou hast spoken: our course does not stray. The humans must, as always, attend to their own problems, or fail in the trying.”

“But surely some of the townsfolk are friends of yours,” Teal protested. The expressions of several nearby elves hinted that she was right, while others regarded her with veiled hostility. Most held themselves carefully aloof. “Don’t you care about them at all?”

“That may be, though such attachments are concerns of individuals, not of the tribe. Yet our relationships with humans must always come at a price. Tell me, child, hast thou ever had a pet?”

“Shiraki, that is enough,” Sheyann said firmly.

“I’ve had pets, yes,” Teal said, frowning. “I don’t see what that has to do with it…”

“It’s a metaphor,” Juniper supplied, wiping blood from her chin. “Kind of an old one, actually; it pops up pretty often if you talk with the immortal races. I’ve heard it from my sisters. Basically, you can get attached to a person with a shorter lifespan, but you always know they’re going to die soon, so don’t get too attached.”

“Oh, wow,” said Fross. “That is really condescending.”

“Fross,” Shaeine warned.

“What? It is! We’ve been perfectly nice, here. There’s no reason to call us pets. It’s just rude!”

“It is pretty condescending, yeah,” Juniper agreed. “Honestly I’d have expected a lot more courtesy from an elder of a grove.”

“You are not alone in that,” Sheyann said wryly.

“I ask thy pardon if my frankness hath wrought offense,” Shiraki said in a stiff tone that belied his apology. “Look, if thou canst, through elven eyes. Condescending as our view may be, it is nonetheless ours. Year by year, we watch the generations of humankind rise and fall like the grasses of the field. Wherefore should we invest our hearts and energies into their care?”

“You will note, Shiraki,” Sheyann said, “that the validity of your perspective was not questioned, but only your manners in mentioning it. Be mindful that the tribe’s hospitality is represented here, and let us not insult guests we have invited to sup.”

“I feel like it’s sort of beside the issue, anyhow,” Teal said somewhat hastily. “So the tribe as a whole doesn’t wish to get involved, that’s quite all right, we can respect that. We know some of your people care enough to act, though. Elves have been supplying food to refugees in the bordello.”

Another soft ripple of reaction flowed through the surrounding crowd, and Teal glanced around somewhat nervously.

“We do not presume to dictate the actions of each member of the tribe, so long as those bring no danger nor harm down upon us all,” said Shiraki. “Those who choose to sprinkle water on the forest fire may do so; their time is their own to waste. We elders intercede only ere they burn themselves.”

“If I may ask,” Shaeine said respectfully, “what restrictions have been placed on the movements of tribe members within the town?”

“To date, none,” Sheyann said before Shiraki could reply. Five other elves had been introduced as elders, but they remained as silent as the rest of the tribe, watching the conversation. It was clear that the two elders who bothered to participate represented two factions of opinion…but beyond that, the politics of this group were opaque to the outsiders. “There is a somewhat delicate dance being carried out, there. Certain of our number have, as you say, rendered aid to their friends in Sarasio. As the tribe as a whole has withdrawn, they have been increasingly careful not to risk crossing any possible line. Should the elders deem it necessary to forbid their efforts…that would be that.”

“Okay…what about this,” Teal said carefully, shifting. She was unaccustomed to the position, and her legs were rapidly stiffening. “As it is, the elves helping out in town are being careful to stay safe and stay out of it. I understand you must be concerned for their welfare, but… I really think the best help they could offer doesn’t necessarily put them at risk. It would mean the world to the townsfolk to see a little solidarity. Most of them are basically trapped in their homes right now, or in small groups where there’s some safety. The White Riders can only intimidate a town that size into submission by keeping people afraid and separated; if somebody were to help rally the—”

“Thy suggestion treads upon dangerous ground,” Shiraki warned. “I tell thee true, ere any of this tribe involve themselves in the politics of that blighted human settlement I will bend my efforts to forbidding all contact. Far too often have I seen groups of mankind destroy themselves, and all in their purview. I will not watch as my people are caught up in their insanity.”

“Your whole plan is really to just sit in this grove and wait for everything to blow over?” Juniper tilted her head. She had finished eating and was busy cleaning herself off with a damp towel given to her by a nearby elf. “That’s, uh… I think that’s a survival tactic for a very different situation.”

“Little changes, in the long run,” Shiraki intoned.

“A great deal has changed, in fact,” Shaeine countered. “A century ago, could you have imagined my presence here, at this table?” There came a soft murmur from the onlookers; she allowed it for a moment, then went on before any of the elders interrupted. “The existence and the power of the Tiraan Empire completely alters the equation. Your tribe is already relevant to the situation, and the Empire will see it as such. If matters are allowed to run the course they are currently on, there is likely to be Imperial reprisal against everyone involved.”

“Thy concern gladdens my heart, child of Tar’naris,” Shiraki said dryly. “We do not worry for the retribution of mankind, however.”

“Shiraki is still adjusting to the notion that humans outnumber us,” said Sheyann wearily.

“What?” Fross emitted a discordant chime. “That tipping point happened like five centuries ago. It’s not even about that! The Empire is organized, they conquered pretty much the whole continent! They’ve got much better weapons now. If they get mad at this grove, you’re gonna have big problems!”

“Often in the past have I heard this rhetoric,” said Shiraki, his expression growing colder by the word. “Always, these threats prove impotent.”

Fross fluttered lower, her glow dimming. “I wasn’t threatening you. You guys might be in danger here, I just don’t want—”

“I thank thee for thy visit, travelers,” he said, standing abruptly. “It has been our honor to host thee. Please, enjoy the bounty of our grove until thy travels call thee elsewhere.” With a curt bow, he turned and glided away, the assembled elves parting to make a path for him. The elder’s departure was clearly a signal; may of the rest of the tribe began drifting off.

“What happened? Where’s he going?” Fross demanded.

“Leaving,” said Juniper. “I think we offended him.”

“What? Us? How?”

Shaeine sighed.


 

“Thank you for escorting us, Elder,” Shaeine said as they walked slowly through the forest.

“The pleasure is mine, child,” Sheyann replied. “I confess I rather enjoyed seeing my…beloved colleague’s feathers ruffled. I fear little will come of it, though.”

“The ruffling of feathers is seldom productive. I certainly did not set out to achieve that end.”

“Yes,” the elf said with a faint smile. “For a trained diplomat, to have attempted that meeting with the exuberant help you enjoyed must have been very like trying to weave a basket with the aid of three friendly woodland creatures.”

“Is that us?” Fross stage whispered. “Are we the woodland creatures?”

“I’ve been called worse things,” Teal replied, smiling.

“I could not say,” Shaeine said diplomatically. “I have never tried my hand at weaving.”

Sheyann’s light laugh was a pure pleasure to hear. It added to her ethereal aspect; she walked so smoothly even over the uneven ground that she seemed almost to hover.

“Wait,” Teal said suddenly. “We’re missing someone.”

“Your dryad friend backtracked to the grove, to visit Shiraki alone,” Sheyann said calmly. “You’ve tried your method of persuasion; she is trying hers.”

“What? What’s her…” Teal trailed off, then clapped a hand over her eyes. “Oh, come on, Juniper.”

“There is little use in arguing with her ways,” Sheyann said, amused. “In fact, I would advise against attempting to thwart a dryad under any circumstances. In any case, she is unlikely to shift him, but I cannot help thinking he will be much improved in mood when next I see him, for which I’ll be grateful. It’s been many a year since any of us have lain with a dryad. I’d rather hoped to mate with her myself before you leave the area, if she’s amenable.”

Teal flushed and looked down at her feet, ostentatiously picking her way with great care over the moss.

“Juniper, in my experience, is rarely anything but amenable,” Shaeine noted in perfect calm.

“Yes, she is one of the youngest. They, as with most kinds of people, are always the most eager to try new things.”

“If it is not too great a presumption to say so,” Shaeine went on, “I thought it seemed you were somewhat more sympathetic to our pleas than Elder Shiraki.”

“You really are an Awarrion,” the elder said wryly. “You needn’t worry so about ruffling my feathers, child. Yes, I don’t mind saying that I would prefer to see our tribe—and our people as a whole—take a more active role in the world. The issue of our friends in this town aside, the world is changing around us, and I foresee the day fast approaching when we’ll not have the luxury of ignoring it. Variants of this debate are happening among every elvish tribe, and unfortunately, each has its Shirakis. The satisfaction of seeing the look on his face when the Empire’s progress grinds us all underfoot will, I think, not be worth the cost.”

“The Empire isn’t quite that bad,” Teal protested.

“Now? I suppose not. It has at various points in the past been quite bitterly oppressive, and employed degrees and types of violence that would stagger your imagination. Human society is a tumultuous and changeable thing. Such days will come again…but in the future, they will come with wands and staves, and we will not be able to ride out the storm as we have always done.”

“Well, then, help us!” Fross chimed in exasperation. “This mess right here would be a great place to start! If you allied with the people of Sarasio and cleaned all this up, you’d be on good footing with the Empire, and—”

“If that were up to me alone,” Sheyann interrupted, “I would do so in a heartbeat. But we elves live in balance with our world, and with each other. The tribe moves as one, or not at all. That is our way, ancient beyond imagining.”

“Ways change,” said Shaeine. “They must change, if those who practice them are to survive in a changing world.”

“You, too, come from a society of immortals,” Sheyann replied. “I trust you have seen firsthand the pains that come from too much change, too rapidly.”

“I have indeed, and I have seen both the benefits of enduring it, and the price of failing to do so. Drow have never enjoyed the bounties you have here on the surface, elder. We are practical people—ruthlessly so, at times. We have made our accord with the Empire, and prospered mightily for it.”

Sheyann shook her head. “I applaud your intention and effort, child. Every part of it. The fact remains, though, you are trying to carry a snowball across the prairie in your cupped hands. No amount of skill or luck on your part will make this task feasible.”

They came to a stop; ahead the trees thinned markedly, and the town was just visible between them in the distance.

“Well,” Teal said with a sigh, “we really shouldn’t get separated, or let any of our number wander into town alone. I guess we’ll wait here for Juniper to…um. Finish.” She coughed, her cheeks burning anew. “Will she be able to find us okay?”

“Undoubtedly,” Sheyann replied. “But in any case she will have an escort. You will be safe here; we have taught the Riders not to enter the trees. Forgive me for leaving you, but I must return to the grove and attempt to wrest some order out of the eddies you have left in your wake.”

“I hope we have not disrupted your lives too much,” said Shaeine.

The elder smiled at her. “You came here to do specifically that. And, in all sincerity, I wish you fortune in your task.” She bowed once more, then turned and glided back into the dimness of the forest. Green shadows swallowed her up in seconds.

“Well,” said Fross after a few moments, “here we are.” She buzzed around in a lazy circle. “Hey, how come you two’ve never had sex with Juniper? I bet she’d be glad to.”

Shaeine and Teal looked at each other, then quickly away in opposite directions.

“What?” Fross darted toward one, then the other, then hovered midway between. “What’d I say?”


 

“Here they are,” Robin called, re-entering the lounge area of the bordello with the last four students on her heels.

Fross buzzed ahead, chiming excitedly, but came to a halt above Gabriel, who was sitting with his leg propped up on a chair, foot wrapped in a bloodstained bandage. “Whoah! What happened to you?”

“It’s kind of a funny story,” he said brightly. “Once upon a time, Ruda fucking stabbed me.”

“Language,” said Joe softly. Tellwyrn just rolled her eyes.

The Professor and the Kid were sitting at one of the round tables with Toby, Trissiny and Ruda, who flicked a cork at Gabriel, grinning. He was lounging a few feet away, where the space between tables gave him room to elevate his leg.

“Glad to see you’re all okay,” Toby said feelingly. “I hate to start making requests if you’ve had as exhausting a morning as we have, but Shaeine, none of us can safely heal Gabe’s foot…”

“Of course,” she said, gliding forward and kneeling beside the half demon, placing her hands on his leg. “You do seem to be experiencing the brunt of the excitement on this trip, Gabriel.”

“Oh, I dunno if I can claim that,” he replied. “Trissiny’s already killed a guy today. Ah, that’s so much better. Thanks, Shaeine, I’m sorry to keep putting you out.”

“It is never a hardship to be of service to one’s friends,” she replied with one of her polite little smiles, then lifted her gaze to Trissiny. “I gather you have an interesting story to tell?”

“It would be more accurate to say that Avei killed him,” said the paladin, “but yes, there is one less White Rider troubling the town.”

“That’s not good,” Teal said, frowning. “The rest will be out for revenge…and not on us. They’re the type to pick on people who can’t fight back.”

“I know,” Trissiny said grimly.

Ruda snorted. “So, do you give Avei credit for everybody you kill?”

“Since I’m guessing you’re not looking for a theological discussion, let me just clarify that in this specific case—”

“Oi!” Tellwyrn slapped a hand on the table, making most of them jump and Gabriel fall out of his chair as he tried to reposition himself. “Honestly, it’s been months. At this point I’m pretty sure the eight of you just squabble because you like it. I’ve had freshman classes full of bitter feuds who could put their heads together with less griping and general nonsense. Both groups, start at the beginning and tell each other plainly and sequentially what you’ve been up to.”

“We got fed and then sassed by some elves and then Juniper had some sex with one of them!” Fross declared.

“That’s it,” said Gabriel. “Next time I wanna be in Juniper’s group.”

“Oh, don’t be a grouse,” the dryad said affectionately, ruffling his hair, “you know you can just ask me anytime. Come to my room tonight and we’ll—”

“Can we please try to keep this a little more on point?” Toby pleaded, wincing.

“Yeah,” said Ruda with a grin, “those of us who aren’t into girls are being cruelly left out here. Where’s our muscly man-dryad to nibble on, huh? Am I right?” She prodded Trissiny with an elbow.

“Please don’t touch me.”

“I give up.” Tellwyrn stood and stalked over to the bar, where Lily sat, watching them and shaking with silent laughter, a hand pressed over her mouth.

Shaeine cleared her throat. “If I may? We very quickly made contact with the elves in the forest…”

Once they got started, telling the adventures of the morning went fairly quickly, most of the effort undertaken by Shaeine and Toby on behalf of their respective groups. Trissiny filled in details of her final encounter with the Riders, and then Juniper wanted to add some extra of her own last-minute efforts. The others hushed her and hurried on, over Ruda’s grinning protests.

“It seems to me,” Shaeine said finally, “that we have two variants of the same basic problem.”

“A completely intractable population,” Trissiny agreed, nodding.

“They aren’t completely intractable,” said Toby. “I mean, I can attest that there’s potential to bring together the different groups of townsfolk, and even the elves… I have to believe there’s common ground that can be built on.”

“Here’s a basic lesson in religion for the paladin,” said Ruda, pausing to take a swig of boubon. Everyone else was sipping water, Jenny having brought over a carafe and glasses while they laid out their stories. “Anything you believe because you have to is almost certainly wrong.”

“Let’s not derail this any further,” Trissiny said firmly. “As I said before, the problem isn’t that we can’t make the humans and the elves see reason, first separately and then together. I’m sure that could be done, at least in theory. The problem is that we don’t have time to do it.”

“That’s it in a nutshell,” said Gabriel, frowning into the distance. “Unless either of our diplomatic aces has a grand scheme to hustle the process along?”

“Afraid not,” said Toby with a sigh. “Though I’m hardly a diplomatic ace.”

“I could not in honesty characterize myself as such either,” said Shaeine. “And, as a rule, when the goal is to build trust and mutual understanding, schemes are seldom a good approach. I concur; the diplomatic possibilities are there, but we haven’t the luxury of the necessary time it would take to fulfill them.”

“Okay.” Still staring at nothing, Gabriel nodded. “Okay. I think I know what to do.”

“All right,” said Trissiny, rolling her eyes. “How about we do anything except that?”

He looked up at her and scowled. “You haven’t even heard my idea.”

“I’ve met you.”

“Ease up,” Toby said reprovingly. “If Gabriel has a plan, we’re off to a solid start. He makes good plans.”

Trissiny stared at him.

“Um, whoah, hold up.” Ruda pointed at Gabe. “Just for reference, we’re talking about this Gabriel. Arquin. This guy right here. The one with his foot perpetually in his tonsils whose only known act of diplomacy was screaming cusswords at the Hand of Avei.”

“It’s so nice to be appreciated,” Gabriel groused.

“I know what I’m talking about,” Toby said firmly, holding Trissiny’s gaze. “In a diplomatic situation, I would follow Shaeine’s lead. Out in the wild, I’d follow Juniper’s. If we were going into battle, I’d want you to take charge, Triss. If we’re going to execute any kind of complicated maneuver that incorporates elements of all of the above, then trust me: we want Gabriel to lay the plans.”

She frowned at him, cut her eyes to Gabriel, then back. “You’re serious.”

“You don’t know him like I do.” He grinned. “You’ve never played chess with him.”

Trissiny drew in a deep breath and let it out very slowly, then eased back in her chair, folding her arms across her breastplate. “All…right, then. Let’s hear it, Gabe.”

He stared at her with an annoyed twist to his mouth, then shook his head. “Okay, well… So the issue is we need to get all these people whipped into one unit, despite the fact that most of them hate each other and obviously would rather sit in their homes getting picked off one by one than unite. Fast. Sound accurate?”

“That pretty much sums it up,” Teal agreed.

Gabriel nodded. “Then it seems pretty simple to me. I say we don’t give them a choice.”

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4 – 3

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“Hi, Lily! I’m Fross!”

The others introduced themselves with a little less enthusiasm, still bemused by the situation. Lily greeted everyone politely, but with a grin that Trissiny couldn’t help feeling was rather predatory.

“And this,” Tellwyrn said loudly, “is Heywood Paxton, Imperial Surveyor.” Paxton simply stared at the center of the table; her brows drew together. “Hey!”

He jumped, finally raising his eyes; they were notably bloodshot. “Oh! I’m sorry, drifted off… Ah, yes, hello, everyone. New faces, how good to…” Paxton trailed off, catching sight of Trissiny. His eyes widened, and to her surprise, he looked downright crestfallen. “Why, Ms. Avelea, we meet again. I dearly wish it was under better circumstances.”

“I’m afraid I don’t quite know what the circumstances are,” she said carefully. Several things about this situation were giving her a very uneasy feeling.

The boy next to Tellwyrn had stood, and now bowed to them. “Joe Jenkins. Right pleased to make your acquaintance, all of you. And it is, of course, an honor to meet the great Professor Tellwyrn.”

“Oh, gods, don’t do that,” Ruda groaned. “Her head is swollen beyond capacity as it is; you’ll rupture her or something.”

“I assure you, Miss Punaji, my ego reached its maximum capacity long before your ancestors crawled out of the muck and hasn’t wavered since,” Tellwyrn said with one of her wolfish grins. “Now, we’ve some things to discuss; Mr. Paxton and…Lily…” She shot the woman a distinctly unfriendly look. “…have found themselves trapped by circumstance, but Joseph, here, is a longtime resident of the town, and has agreed to help fill you in on the situation. From there, we shall proceed to what I expect you to do.”

“Happy to oblige,” said Joe. He spoke with the drawling inflection common to prairie folk, but seemed both polite and articulate. There was a world-weary intelligence well beyond his years on his face.

“So,” Tellwyrn went on, “assuming our hosts don’t mind us rearranging a bit, everybody squeeze in. Pull over some chairs and let’s all have a sit down.”

“Hang on,” Gabriel said suddenly, staring at the boy. “Joe Jenkins? As in Joseph P. Jenkins?”

“The same,” he replied dryly. “I gather you’ve heard of me.”

“Holy shit,” Gabe breathed. “You’re the Sarasio Kid!”

“Let’s watch our language, shall we?” Joe said coolly. “There are ladies present.”

“Does he mean us?” Ruda stage-whispered to Trissiny. “Boy’s in for an epic letdown.”

“Oh, uh, sorry,” Gabriel said distractedly. “I just… I mean, I’m a little taken aback. You’re, uh… I pictured… You’re so…”

“Fifteen,” said Joe, now smiling faintly. “As of last month. And now you know why the bards don’t sing the legend of That Guy from Sarasio.”

“Oh… I just figured they called you that because you were twelve when you wiped out Hoss Calhoun and his gang.”

“Eleven, actually, but that is essentially the case. It was a little over three years ago.”

“Da—ang,” Gabriel caught himself, barely. Joe smiled, his dark eyes glittering with amusement. Truly, he only looked youthful until one looked into those eyes. “Seems like it’d take longer than that for a legend to spread.”

“Once upon a time, yeah,” said Teal. “But now we’ve got scrolltowers, newspapers, mass-printed novels and comics… Truly, we live in an age of wonders.”

“All of which is very fascinating,” Tellwyrn said in a bored tone, “but I note that none of you are pulling over chairs and sitting down. If you really want to stand around uncomfortably, that’s your lookout, but I’m not best pleased at my instructions being ignored.”

“You have such a way with people, Arachne,” Lily murmured, smiling coquettishly. Tellwyrn just stared at her through narrowed eyes.

“So…you two know each other?” Toby asked, pulling over a chair.

“Oh, we go way back,” Lily purred. “In fact, Arachne had just sent me a little note a few weeks ago suggesting we ought to catch up! I’m afraid I just haven’t had the time to sit down and arrange something—busy busy, you know how it is. But, fortuitously, here we all are! Isn’t it funny how life works, sometimes?”

“Funny,” Tellwyrn said, deadpan. “Fortuitous. In any case, Lily, I am here with my students on a matter relevant to their education. I will have to object in the strongest possible terms if they are in any way interfered with.”

Tension gathered around the table; Tellwyrn stared at the woman in red with a cold intensity that spoke of deep hidden meanings. Lily, however, seemed completely unaffected, waving a hand airily.

“Oh, honestly, you silly goose, why would I meddle with your students? I’m not one to enjoy being cooped up, but this really is a lovely place; I’m not nearly that bored. Since none of us is going anywhere immediately, surely we can find a moment to ourselves to chat.”

“We aren’t going anywhere?” Juniper tilted her head quizzically. “Why not?”

“Hey there, neighbors,” said a new arrival before anybody could answer her. They twisted in their chairs to behold a young woman with short dark hair approaching, carrying a large tray weighted down with glasses and two carafes of water. “Welcome to the Shady Lady! Drinks are on the house—I’m afraid food is strictly rationed, so if you want to graze socially all we’ve got is water and a prodigious collection of booze.” She sidled in between Toby and Ruda, laying the tray down on the table. “Joe, I know you don’t drink. Any other takers…?”

“Take note of the new faces,” said Tellwyrn. “They are not to have alcohol while they’re here.”

“Duly noted. Heywood? Lily?”

“I’ll spare you having to ask again every time, dear,” Lily said cheerily, patting her belly. “None of the hard stuff for me. I’m expecting.”

“Oh, by all the gods in heaven,” Tellwyrn groaned, covering her eyes with a hand and causing one earpiece of her spectacles to come loose and stick out at a crazy angle.

“Congratulations, Lil!” the girl said brightly, beaming. “I’m sorry you got stuck in this hole of a town at a time like this.”

“Not at all, dear. Believe me, I’ve been in worse places.”

“I’ll have the usual, please, Jenny,” Paxton said wearily. She gave him a concerned look, which he seemed not to notice.

“You’re, uh, the waitress?” Gabriel said hesitantly. “Wow, not what I’d have expected for a place like this. You look more like an adventurer, to be honest.”

“Thanks!” Jenny said brightly, winking at him. In fact, she wore a leather jacket over a sturdy ensemble of shirt, trousers and boots, with a long scarf wound about her neck and a pair of goggles perched atop her head. “I am an adventurer, truth be told. But, well…here we all are. I hate just twiddling my thumbs; serving drinks is something to do. Makes people happy, y’know?”

“Heh. Happy,” Paxton muttered, staring at the tablecloth.

“Okay, that’s the second time in two minutes,” said Ruda, scowling. “Why the hell does everyone act like this place is some kind of prison?”

“I’ll…just go get Heywood’s drink,” Jenny said, edging away.

“If we’re all settled, then?” Tellwyrn readjusted her spectacles and looked around at them. “Good. Joseph, if you would be so kind?”

“Ma’am,” he said politely, nodding to her. “I assume, neighbors, that Robin brought in in through one of her careful routes, so I couldn’t say how much of the town you’ve seen. But even a casual look should be enough to tell you this place has gone right to the dogs.”

“Actually, she took us right through the main streets!” said Fross. “Some men tried to rob us or something and Trissiny broke a guy’s hand.”

“Robin,” Tellwyrn exclaimed, exasperated. “Seriously?!”

The other elf hadn’t joined them in sitting; she leaned her hip against a nearby table, watching the group with her arms folded. At being addressed she shrugged, looking as unperturbed as ever. “Talk is fine, but nothing beats a visual demonstration. If you’re going to drop eight kids in a place like this, they deserve to see what they’re getting into. Also, I figured it’d help matters here if it was quickly understood that the new arrivals are not to be trifled with. That succeeded a bit more than I expected, actually. This one’s got quite a flair for the dramatic,” she added, nodding at Trissiny.

“These men who accosted you,” Joe said, his eyes sharp. “How were they dressed?”

“Uh…not very noticeably?” Gabriel said hesitantly. “Shirts, pants… A little scruffy, but nothing that caught my attention.”

“Good,” said Joe, nodding. “There’d be trouble if you’d run into… Well. We’ll get to that in a moment. The reason the food is being parceled out and we’re all drinking water is this town does not have any kind of functioning economy at the moment. Goods and services are effectively shut down; money is so much dead weight. We’re at the point of nothing but food and a few bare essentials being worth our notice. The Shady Lady is… Well, not so much a prison as a fortress. One of very few decent places left in Sarasio, and the only one that could be called remotely safe.”

“The bordello is the last decent place?” said Ruda, raising her eyebrows. “Damn. This place must be pretty fucked up.”

A fleeting expression flickered across Joe’s face, as if he wanted to wince but wouldn’t be so rude. “That’s…a fair assessment. Let me start at the beginning, then.” As he spoke, he began deftly shuffling the deck of cards under his hand. “As little as a year ago, Sarasio was a prosperous town with an adventurer-based economy, much like most of the more significant frontier outposts. You know the type, I’m sure, being from Last Rock. There were shops and amenities catering to those launching expeditions into the Golden Sea, and those returning from it.”

Paxton stirred himself as Jenny returned, reaching up to take a glass of amber liquid from her without even looking. “It was quite the boom town, in fact,” he said, then tossed back the drink. Jenny stood behind him, grimacing with obvious concern, but he paid her no mind. “That’s why the Rail platform is so infernally far away. It was meant to give the town room to expand, and also grant a measure of access to the nearby elf grove that wouldn’t make the inhabitants come into town if they’d rather not.” He fell silent abruptly, staring down at the now-empty glass in his fingers.

“All that aside,” Joe went on slowly, “Sarasio’s always been a little…corrupt. More or less harmlessly so, for most of its history. The Sheriff, the mayor and most of the richer folk were good ol’ boys, looking out for each other. It was inconvenient, but I’m told not much worse than that for some years. At least, until Hoss Calhoun and his gang set up shop in the area.”

His eyes narrowed and he glared down at the cards, now flashing through his fingers at blinding speed. “I don’t rightly know what manner of hold Calhoun had on the Sheriff and the powers that be, but a blind eye was turned to his activities, even when they started…crossing lines. This wasn’t a matter of waived fines and selective enforcement of tax laws anymore; they were robbing and worse, all across the area, and Sheriff Yates wouldn’t touch ’em. Well… To cut a long story short, I put a stop to all that.”

“That actually sounds like a pretty damn good story,” Ruda said.

“It’s been written down enough times,” Joe said almost curtly. “What matters for our purposes is that the immediate problem of the Calhoun gang was solved, but there was still a town run by a cozy cadre of backroom dealers, and after a few months of borderline terror, everybody had a lot less of a sense of humor about it. Yates decided to let me be and I returned the favor, provided he didn’t go overboard.”

“Why?” asked Toby.

Joe finally stopped shuffling, and began rapidly laying down a game of solitaire. He kept his eyes on this as he spoke. “If you only know how that question has hovered over me. I could’ve probably warded off a lot of what’s happened to this town if I’d been a bit more proactive… But things were simple, for a while. Never seemed to me that doing favors for your friends and leaning a bit too hard on the taxpayers were the kinds of offenses that warranted getting’ shot dead in the street. Conversely, the Sheriff wasn’t eager to start trouble up with the kid he’d just seen take down nine grown men with wands.”

“You did fucking what?” Ruda exclaimed. “How is that mathematically possible?!”

“Have you seriously never heard of the Sarasio Kid?” Gabriel asked her.

“Arquin, I’m Punaji. We have different heroes. Have you ever heard of Anjal the Sea Devil?”

“…okay, point taken.”

“It was a comfortable little truce,” Joe went on, ignoring the byplay. “I could’ve blasted him and his whole social circle to Hell—pardon my language, ladies—but on the other hand, he could’ve called down Imperial help, bein’ that I was technically an outlaw by virtue of multiple manslaughter.”

“Sounds like that was pretty obviously self-defense,” Toby noted.

“Oh, sure, I probably would’ve won that in court,” Joe said with a shrug. “My policy on court, though, is not to go if you don’t absolutely need to. So things continued much as they were…which was the problem. Yates never did get it through his head that folk just didn’t have the same patience for his games as they had before. If he’d been smart, he’d’ve backed off a bit and reined in his cronies. He wasn’t smart. And that’s what brought us the White Riders.”

Mr. Paxton heaved a heavy sigh and raised his glass. “Jenny? Another, if you please?”

“Heywood, don’t you think you’ve had enough?” she replied, placing her hands on his shoulders from behind.

He grunted a bitter little stump of a laugh. “That and more, long since. I may’s well do my part to hold down the floorboards, my girl. Seems all I’m good for, after all.”

“That’s enough of that kind of talk,” she said firmly. “C’mon, it’s barely past breakfast. Let that settle for a while. Look, we’ve got help finally! Stay and maybe you can help Joe lay out the details.”

Paxton grunted again, staring morosely at the tablecloth. The students exchanged a round of glances.

“You’d know ’em if you’d seen ’em,” Joe continued. “They dress in white, as the name suggests. Robes and hoods—they look almost ecclesiastical. They started interfering anonymously with the folks running the town, and… Well, you don’t really care about the whole story nor need to know. End of the day, we had a corrupt office of law run by a man who refused to back down, and now a gang of vigilantes who also wouldn’t back down. It came to shootin’, inevitably. This place starting going downhill fast when the Sheriff was killed. The mayor went not long after, and then they started in on the landowners and cattle barons, everybody who’d wielded influence in Sarasio. Even patrolled the Rail platform to make sure none of ’em could get away and report what was happening here to the Empire.”

“And the scrolltower?” Trissiny asked.

Joe nodded. “Yup, that was their work too. Only took ’em a couple months to eliminate everybody who’d been involved in oppressing Sarasio. Amazingly enough,” he added bitterly, “things did not get better at that point.”

“It’s the story of most political revolutions everywhere,” said Tellwyrn. “A corrupt system is still a system. It knows how to run things. People who rise up and kill the rulers don’t necessarily know anything about ruling and frequently acquire a taste for blood in the process. All they know how to do is destroy those who oppose them…”

“Which,” Joe finished, nodding, “was what they continued to do. The results are as you see them now. Sarasio’s crawlin’ with vermin, and decent folk—such of them as are left—are afraid to step foot outside their own doors.”

“Wait a second,” said Toby, frowning thoughtfully. “If those men who confronted us weren’t these White Riders, who were they?”

“They may have been, for all I could tell you,” Joe admitted. “Those hoods aren’t just a fashion statement. But it’s not just the Riders anymore. The only law in Sarasio is the law of the wand, now. The Shady Lady is a safe haven because we’ve got armed men lookin’ after is, and because I live here. Everywhere else…it’s survival of the strongest, period.”

“How long can this possibly go on?” Trissiny demanded. “I mean, the Empire has to know what’s happening here! Don’t they care?”

“I may have failed to emphasize how quickly all this went down,” Joe replied. “The Empire heard rumors, all right, and sent an Imperial Surveyor to check out the situation and report back.” He nodded at Paxton, who heaved a deep sigh. “Well, obviously, the Riders caught wind of this. Luckily we were able to get Mr. Paxton in here with us, but he’s now pinned down. Comings and goings from the Lady are observed very carefully. They’ve taken out the scrolltower and they make sure nobody gets on the Rails.”

“That’s not security,” Gabriel said, scowling. “The Rail conductors passing by have to know something’s going on. And there are other ways in and out of the town—the whole place is surrounded by prairie. People can hike through the wilderness with the right know-how, they do it all the time. How can these Riders possibly think they can get away with this?”

“People are dumb,” said Tellwyrn.

“That,” Trissiny replied coldly, “is dismissive and reductive.”

“You’re correct,” the Professor replied, nodding. “It is both of those things and a gross oversimplification besides, and I’m encouraged to see that you realize it. If you’re ever to sort out the tangle of other people’s motivations, you have to consider their perspectives carefully and take into account all kinds of information that may not seem relevant from your own point of view. All sentient beings take action for what seems to them like good reason; most pointless conflicts stem from people dismissing one another’s reasons and going mindlessly on the offensive. That is the main thrust of what I teach in your history class, kids: understanding. Tease out the meanings and motives behind the actions of other people, and you will be in a position to change the situation according to your own aims.”

She leaned her elbows on the table, interlacing her fingers in front of her mouth and slowly sweeping her gaze across the group as she continued. “However, there is a time and a place. In the thick of a tense situation, it is sometimes—in fact, it is often simply not possible to consider all these things. In order to protect yourself and accomplish anything in the immediate term, you will often have to dispense with deeper understanding and act, as best you can. In such moments of crisis, there are generalities you can usually rely on, shorthands for understanding the behavior of people that will warn you what they are likely to do and help you see at a glance what you must do in response. One of these is that people are fucking dumb, and frequently, also assholes.”

“Oh, Arachne,” Lily sighed. “Ever the sourpuss.”

“I’m comfortable with the conclusion that a lot of people around here have been exceedingly dumb over a long stretch of time,” Joe said with a grimace, “myself not excluded. I couldn’t tell you what the Riders are thinking at this point. Given what they’ve been up to lately, I can’t find it in me to believe they’re still trying to act for the greater good. Still… Those men you saw, and others like ’em, they’re a mixed bag. A lot are former adventurers who found the lawlessness here to their liking. Some are just folk, citizens of Sarasio who came to the same conclusion. I’m of the view that most folks are basically decent, but anywhere you go there’s always a few who’re only held in check by the rule of law. Take that away, and you see their true faces.”

“The problem,” said Tellwyrn, “is the specific nature of Sarasio’s ailments. These men have raised an organized militia, overthrown a legitimate civil authority, destroyed and denied access to Imperial communications and travel networks, killed and attempted to kill Imperial representatives and set themselves up as a savage puppet principality. This goes beyond anarchy, and into the legal criteria for rebellion.”

“And when the R word gets tossed around,” Joe said grimly, “the Empire starts getting a whole lot less understanding in general. Might be they’d listen to our side of the story. Maybe not. If not… They might simply relocate everyone and abandon Sarasio. On the other hand, it ain’t inconceivable the Empire will decide to make an example out here. There’s not been an open rebellion on this continent in decades. The Imperials can’t have people gettin’ the idea they can get away with it.”

“The Tirasian Dynasty isn’t so ham-fisted, as a rule,” Tellwyrn pointed out. “Also, you have Mr. Paxton here to vouch for you.”

Paxton let out another little half-grunt, half-laugh that held more bitterness than humor, still gazing blearily into the table as though it promised a solution to the dilemma of Sarasio.

“I am somewhat less comforted by these facts than I might be,” Joe said carefully. “And a lot of folk agree with me. You’re not wrong in that the town ain’t exactly secure, Gabriel. People’ve been slipping away…well, not in droves, but in as steady a trickle as they can manage. The Riders discourage it in the most brutal way possible, but it happens. It’s only a matter of time, and not much of that, before the Empire comes down on us. Then, only the gods know where the chips will fall.”

“They’ll come,” Paxton mumbled. “I’m weeks late making my report. Someone’ll be sent to find out what happened to useless old Heywood Paxton sooner or later.”

“And so there you have it,” said Tellwyrn, spreading her hands wide. “The town divided against itself, subjected to a reign of vigilante terror, and under severe strain in its relationship with the nearby elves.”

“Wait, what? There’s more?” Gabriel groaned. “What’s going on with the elves?”

“Robin can explain that in detail,” said Tellwyrn. “For now, you understand the basics of the situation. You have been brought here to perform a field exercise which will determine the bulk of your final grade for this semester. Your task: save Sarasio.”

Joe’s eyebrows shot up. “We’re an academic exercise?”

“There are much worse things you could be,” Tellwryn told him, “and likely will be if something isn’t done quickly. There are two reasons I have chosen this task for you, students. In the first place, your previous expedition put you in a series of brute-force situations, which you severely overcomplicated and thus outsmarted yourselves. Be assured, we will be working on that before you leave my University, but I am interested in seeing how you handle a more cerebral problem. Given the makeup of this group, it might be more in line with your various talents. The situation here won’t yield to such straightforward measures; you are going to have to make a solid plan and execute it carefully.”

“The hell are you talking about?” Ruda demanded. “This could not be simpler. We round up these White Riders, end them, and boom. Everything goes back the way it was.”

“Except it won’t,” said Gabriel, frowning into the distance. “They already tried that, Joe and the Sheriff both. There’s been too much bad blood…too much blood spilled. Everybody here’s at each other’s throats, and that’s just the ones we know about. Gods only know how the elves fit into this.”

“Poorly,” Robin commented from the sidelines.

“Gabriel’s right,” said Toby. “There are a whole chain of breaches that need to be healed. Getting rid of the Riders will have to be part of the solution, but that won’t do it by itself. Saving the town will mean…” He trailed off, then shook his head. “I don’t even know.”

“Which brings me to point two,” said Tellwyrn. “Sarasio is in a death spiral. One way or another, whether the White Riders manage to depopulate the town before the Empire does, within another half a year there’ll be nothing here but the coyotes.”

“The Lady looks pretty,” agreed Joe, “but that’s because it’s full of refugees who have nothing better to do than look after the place. It helps keep us sane. Nobody here is doing any kind of business; we’re low on food and all but out of all other kinds of resources.”

“The point being,” Tellwyrn said with a faint smirk, “you cannot possibly make this situation any worse. Even if you manage to botch it as enthusiastically as you did your last field assignment, it’ll only mean granting this town a clean beheading rather than a lingering death by infection. The Empire won’t care about saving Sarasio; if it’s not done before they get here, it won’t be done. It’s up to you now, kids.”

There was silence around the table for a moment. Then Toby stood, pushing back his chair. “Well, then… I guess we’d better start making plans.”


 

Once in motion, the students lost no time heading off to a corner with Robin to get the rundown on the local elven population; it took Jenny only slightly more effort to coax Mr. Paxton up and off to his room for a nap.

Joe glanced back and forth between Tellwyrn and Lily, who were watching each other far too intently, the elf as if planning to invade a fortress, the woman in red with amused detachment. He cleared his throat softly.

“I believe I’ll stretch my legs a bit. No doubt you’ll want some privacy to catch up.”

“Thank you, Joseph,” said Tellwyrn without taking her eyes off Lily.

“Ladies,” he said courteously, bowing once before backing away and heading off.

The faintest tingle across the skin was the only sign of a silencing spell going off, a subtle effect that would likely have gone unnoticed by anyone not looking for it. Lily’s smile widened till she was nearly laughing outright; she stood, paced around the table and dropped herself into Joe’s seat, next to he other woman.

“Still paranoid, I see. You really needn’t bother with such touches, Arachne. I am never overheard when I don’t wish to be. By definition.”

“Mm.” Tellwyrn just stared at her.

“Oh, don’t look at me like that. You wanted to talk, remember? You went to considerable trouble to send me that little message, you heartless ghoul, you. Don’t blame me for not being fool enough to approach you in your own nest. Anyhow, this is much more interesting! What an intriguing little town this is. Did you know the Shifter was here?”

“The Shifter’s always somewhere. You’d be a lot less impressed if you spent as much time on this plane as you claim to wish.”

Lily’s grin widened. “Well, we can’t all just do whatever we want, you know. On the other hand, look who I’m talking to.”

Tellwyrn looked at her in silence for a moment before answering. “I’ve been in communication with Quentin Vex. He doesn’t tell me much, but he did point me to the remaining possession sites. I know, now, Vadrieny was the only survivor.”

Lily’s smile vanished like a snuffed candle, replaced by an icy look of fury. “Straight to the point, is it? If you insist on sticking your nose into my business, Arachne, you should know better than to try to provoke me as your opening move. I have not come all this way to—”

Tellwyrn reached out and grasped Lily’s hand in one of her own, then simply held it, squeezing. Lily fell silent, looking down at their clasped hands in confusion, then up at the elf’s eyes.

Arachne simply held her in a white-knuckled grip, and said very softly, “I’ve seen four of my own buried.”

In the silence that followed, the rage melted from Lily’s face as though she simply didn’t have the strength to hold onto it. Her lips twitched, eyes squeezing shut; little slipped past her mastery of facial expression, only hints of the turmoil within. But she tightened her grip on Arachne’s fingers, squeezing till it hurt both of them. Neither let go.

It was long minutes before Tellwyrn spoke again. “I still need to know why. What possessed you to take such a risk?”

“It was perfect,” Lily whispered. “Flawless. It had been worked on for years, decades. Everything set up in advance, everything just so. Those girls were selected with the greatest possible care, each a perfect match. They’d have bonded fully, innocent mortal spirits with archdemons, and by the time the full plan had unfolded, the world would have changed its mind about me. The Church’s pillars knocked out from beneath it, the Pantheon’s lies held up to the light. And someone interfered.”

Her grip on Tellwyrn’s fingers tightened until their hands shook with the strain, but the elf didn’t so much as flinch. “Who?”

“Oh, who do you think?” she spat, finally releasing her. “I don’t know which of them did it, but I know it was more than one. To see through my fog of war, to alter those exquisitely designed spells so perfectly that neither my warlocks nor my demons, on either side of the dimensional barrier, saw anything… No one god could have done such a thing. If not the whole Pantheon in concert… Well. I will find out who it was. They will suffer unimaginably for this.”

“That kind of power and subtlety…” Tellwyrn shook her head. “An Elder could have done it unaided.”

Lily’s laugh dripped with scorn. “Oh, please. Scyllith is sealed away in her caverns, and if you’re going to try to pitch the idea that Naiya has decided to start taking an interest in divine politics now, after all this time…well, try harder.”

“I’m concerned by the lack of subtlety I see here,” Tellwyrn said. “You forget, I know your real face. It’s startling to see you wearing it openly. I’m playing a hunch, here, but would I be wrong in guessing that Sharidan would recognize that face, too? And then there’s your little trick outside my office. Writing messages on the wall really isn’t like you, Lil. You’re beginning to come unglued.”

“They killed. My. Children.” She didn’t raise her voice, but the lights in the room flickered, the temperature dropping a few degrees, and the entire building trembled faintly. The people around the room paused, looking up in alarm, the sounds of conversation and piano music faltering. Then Elilial’s aura reasserted itself and everyone present resumed not noticing that anything was or ever had been amiss. The goddess herself, however, met Tellwyrn’s eyes with a fierce glare. “All these years I’ve played the noble demon, never brought harm to their followers when I didn’t have to, never been more cruel in battle than I must. Even after everything they did to me. And now, they do this? No. I am done, Arachne. All these millennia I’ve wasted trying to win the point of principle when I should have just been destroying the bastards one by one. Well, lesson learned.”

“You know, one of the more reliable ways to outmaneuver someone smarter than yourself is to make them so angry they can’t think straight. I get excellent mileage out of that technique. Always have.” Tellwyrn’s eyes bored back into Lily’s, not giving an inch. “You are being played. What alarms me most is that you don’t even seem to see it. You’re better at this; this is your game, after all. You need to wake up before you’re goaded into making a mistake that will damn us all and the whole world with us, Lil.”

“Don’t talk to me about mistakes,” she snapped. “You really think I’m so dense I don’t see what’s happening here? I’m not about to go on a city-smashing rampage, that would be playing into the Pantheon’s hands. Those who think me less cunning because I’m angrier have made what will be their final and greatest mistake.”

“I’m not letting you wreck the world, Lil,” Tellwyrn said evenly. “I like the world. It’s where I keep most of my stuff.”

“You know very well I have no argument with you, Arachne, except when you stick yourself in where you don’t belong. Like this new idea you seem to have, that you’ve the right or the capacity to punish me for my transgressions.” A cold smile drifted across her face. “This is not a good idea, what with you having finally put down roots and all. Someone with as much to protect as you now have shouldn’t be shaking the coconut tree.”

Tellwyrn’s hand slapped down on the table. “I will tell you this once, and once only,” she hissed. “You do not come at me through my students. I’ve told you before, Lil, I don’t have an argument with you on principle. I’ll do what I think is best, but I am not your enemy. You mess with my kids, and that changes. Then it will be you and me, until only one of us is left. That is an oath. I don’t honestly know which of us would come out on top, but I do know the survivor would be reduced to almost nothing. And that is what will happen if you bring those students into this confict.”

Lily simply stared at her for a long moment, allowing naked surprise to show on her features. “My, my. You’re actually that confident you’re a match for me?”

“I don’t commonly go for the throat, with gods,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “Only twice. I won both times.”

Lily grinned. “I remember. The first, with my help.”

“And I couldn’t have done that without you,” she acknowledged, “nor you without me. You’re good, but you’re no Scyllith. Besides, that was then; this is now. I finished off Sorash without anybody’s help. And as I was recently telling my kids…” She raised an eyebrow, the faintest hint of an icy smile crossing her features. “When a god dies, all that power has to go somewhere.”

Lily regarded her thoughtfully. “Very well. You have my oath: I mean your students no harm and will do them none.”

Tellwyrn nodded, relaxing subtly. “Good. Then—”

“I have to tell you, Arachne, I’m rather offended that you thought I’d do such a thing in the first place. I was referring to the fact that you can’t just swagger through the world, not caring what it thinks of you anymore. Your University is an institution. You get away with so much because people aren’t willing to challenge you; you take advantage of so many systems and structures you’ve never bothered to appreciate. I wouldn’t need to do anything as barbaric as threaten your kids to rip the whole thing from under your feet. So let’s not start this, hmm? Just mind your business, Arachne. Raise up the next generation of heroes and villains and whatnots. By the time I’m done with my business, there’ll be plenty of work for them all.”

Tellwyrn rubbed her forefinger and thumb together as though fondling a coin. “Not good enough,” she said after a pause. “I’m serious, Lil. You doing your thing, as per your particular idiom, that doesn’t bother me. Frankly the world needs more people—and more gods—acting with care and a sense of balance. But I know the pain you’re in, and I see the slaughter behind your eyes. This is what brought me into this in the first place. That business, those poor girls you immolated: that’s not like you. You are making a mistake. You need to stop. Step back, see what’s happening and try something else.” She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Something that doesn’t result in a great doom, preferably.”

Lily shook her head. “It’s just too late, Arachne. Time was close to up before they committed their final sin. It’s been all I can do to re-work my strategies without my girls to count on. I will not be stopped now.”

They stared at each other, the silence stretching out between them.

The goddess was the first to look away. “How is she?” she asked quietly.

Tellwyrn slowly eased back in her chair, suddenly weary. “As well as I can say, considering how rarely she comes out? Actually, quite well. Teal is a good influence on her, I think.”

Lily nodded. “Teal Falconer is only of the most exceptional people of this or any age. I’ll never be able to fully repay her.”

“No, you really won’t. But you can start by not dragging her into a war between you and the gods.”

“That hasn’t ever been an option,” Lily said with a sigh. “All seven of them? Maneuvering just right, that would have been a movement. More than cults: social change on a vast scale. But just one? She’d only be a target. She’s fierce and durable, but the gods and their Church would find a way to put her down. No… Just…” She swallowed. “Just…please look after my girl, Arachne. She’s all that’s left. Let her sit this out.”

“You are talking about two women in one body, one an idealist and the other a nearly literal fireball. They won’t be sitting anything out.” Tellwyrn shook her head, smiling ruefully. “If I do my job right, though, they’ll be ready for whatever comes by the time it does.”

“Do that, then.”

“Lil.”

The goddess met her eyes, and Arachne reached out to briefly squeeze her hand again. “When you have calmed enough to consider it, remember what I said. You haven’t seen everything going on here. You’re not the only player with a stake in this game; someone is pulling your strings. If you continue to let them, you won’t have a prayer of winning.”

“It’s been a very, very long time since I had a prayer,” she replied with a smile. “I tend to win anyway. And perhaps, Arachne, it’s not only I who don’t know as much as I think. Hm?”

She stood, raised one eyebrow sardonically, then turned and sashayed away without another word.

“Well, I know that,” Tellwyrn grumbled at the empty table. “Otherwise why would I bother?”


 

“The character of Jenny Everywhere is available for use by anyone, with only one condition. This paragraph must be included in any publication involving Jenny Everywhere, in order that others may use this property as they wish. All rights reversed.”

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