Tag Archives: Embras Mogul

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They emerged from the alley into more trouble.

“Contact!” Rook called rather shrilly, placing himself in front of Danny and lifting his staff to take aim at the two figures in gray robes suddenly dashing down the street toward him.

Before he could fire, perhaps luckily, Joe pushed past, raising one of his wands. Two short, clean beams of light pierced each attacker straight through the head, causing them to collapse mid-stride.

“Holy shit,” Finchley said somewhat tremulously.

“Keep it together,” Moriarty muttered. “We have a mission still to complete.”

Kheshiri was the last out of the alley. She paused upon the sidewalk, surveying Joe’s handiwork with her fists on her hips, and incongruously grinned. “Well, well, you are learning!”

“Shut up,” Joe said curtly, his eyes scanning the street. It was narrower than the main avenue they had been trying to reach at the other end of the alley, and looked less planned, to judge by the way it kinked back and forth around irregularly-placed old buildings. Altogether this was a much more ambush-friendly corridor, though at least it showed no further evidence of cultist activity at the moment.

“Really, I applaud your dedication to preserving life,” Kheshiri continued in an overtly mocking tone. “I warned you, though: berserker drugs. Shooting to disable is not going to accomplish anything. Ah, well, what matters is you eventually got the—”

Joe very calmly turned and shot her through the foot. She yelped and staggered back, slumping against the face of the nearest building.

“Whoah, hey!” Rook protested.

“I understand the impulse, Joe,” Danny said more quietly, “but she’ll only keep needling if you give her reactions, and that isn’t going to help. If you’re not going to kill her, please don’t wind her up.”

The three ex-soldiers glanced at each other with wide-eyed alarm, while Joe heaved a heavy sigh.

“Fine,” he grunted after a pause. “We’d best move out.”

“Oh, I’m all right, thank you for your concern,” Kheshiri said bitingly. Indeed, after holding her foot off the ground for a moment and flexing her ankle, she set it down again, and set off up the street without any trace of a limp. “Good call, time is precious and enemies abound. This is the fastest—”

“Not that way,” Danny interrupted, already heading down the street in the other direction.

“Hey!” she called after him in irritation. “This leads directly to a major artery—there’ll be military police there. You’re going deeper into this dead end of a district that way!”

“We can circle around easily enough,” Danny replied, “and more importantly, not taking straight and obvious routes is key to avoiding pursuit.”

“Not in this situation,” she retorted. “Unless you have a better reason than that…?”

“He’s right,” said Joe, nodding solemnly at Danny. “We know somebody who lives just up the road there, and we ain’t leadin’ whoever these clowns are in that direction.”

“I said better reason,” she said dryly.

“Come on.” Danny turned and resumed walking without another word. He finally seemed motivated to pick up his pace; at any rate, there was no more of his previous aimless ambling. The troops fell into formation around him, and Joe quickly pushed ahead, weapons out. Kheshiri, grumbling and cursing under her breath, finally brought up the rear.

“Sooo, Kheshiri,” Rook said rather weakly after a few yards of awkwardness. “Interesting name. Is that Calderaan?”

“Vanislaad,” Joe said shortly.

All three came to an immediate stop, swiveled in unison, and pointed their staves at the disguised succubus. She rolled her eyes.

“Cut that out,” Danny ordered. “In fact, with all respect, I’d prefer if you three refrained from firing your weapons except in the last extremity of self-defense. Those are military-grade, and people are living all around us. We have a legendary sharpshooter along; let him do what he does best.”

“For people being all around, it’s awful quiet, don’t you think?”

They swiveled again, still raising weapons, as did Joe, to aim at the man who slipped out of another alley just up ahead.

“Oh, great,” Joe muttered.

“Master,” Kheshiri said warily. “I thought you were—”

“Situation’s changed,” he interrupted. “Jack and Vannae are still scouting and trying to keep our flanks clear, but you chowderheads are about to plow right into another big concentration of the Wreath.”

“They aren’t Wreath,” she said sullenly.

“Yeah, you really latched onto the important part of that,” he snapped. “Keep quiet if you’re just gonna waste air.”

“You know this guy, I take it?” Finchley asked.

“Shook,” said Joe. “Am I gonna have to shoot you, too?”

“Another time, kid,” Shook replied. He had two wands in hand himself, both pricey-looking enchanter wands rather than standard lightning-throwers, but had them aimed at the ground, and was seemingly ignoring all the weapons still trained on him. “We’ve got mutual fish to fry right now. These robed assholes are gonna kill everybody they stumble across, which raises some real concerns about what happened to everybody living around here. Come on, we gotta backtrack, fast.”

“They won’t go that way,” Kheshiri complained. “This is like herding suicidal cats.”

“I do not give a fuck,” Shook exclaimed. “You go back if you want to live.”

“We’ll not be doing that,” Danny replied in perfect calm, heading across the street. “Do you happen to know where this alley—”

The pounding of feet on the pavement was the only warning they got.

As before, the attackers came in disturbing silence. They rushed around the corner ahead with a speed and ferocity that seemed it should have been accompanied by mad howling, but the only sounds were footsteps and the rustling of robes. This time, though, there were a lot more of them.

“Into the alley!” Finchley barked, grabbing Danny roughly by the shoulder and shoving him through the opening. Rook and Moriarty backed after them, firing into the crowd as they went. Joe and Shook both joined in, shooting with much more accuracy, but even as they created enough bodies to physically impede those still coming, none of the berserkers so much as slowed.

“How the fuck many of these guys are there?” Shook snarled, furiously casting beam after beam into the throng.

“Master, quickly!” Kheshiri called, her voice inexplicably coming from directly above them. “Into the alley, now!”

“We’ll be trapped—”

“Trust me, now!”

Shook cursed, turned, and bolted after the others through the narrow gap. Joe was the last in, moving backwards and still shooting. By the time he passed through the opening, silent cultists brandishing clubs had nearly reached it.

Abruptly, a wall of solid stone shot straight upward from the ground, sealing off the entrance.

There were no cries from beyond; the rock was too thick, apparently, to carry the sound of bodies piling against it as they must be.

“There you are,” Shook said in relief. “Where’s the other one?”

“Still scouting,” an elf in a dark suit replied; he had been pressed against the wall of the alley, forcing the others to push past him, and seemed out of breath.

“Vannae,” Joe said stiffly.

“Jenkins,” the shaman replied in a similar tone, pressing a hand to his chest.

“That’s a useful trick,” Danny commented from just up ahead. “Can you do that again? They can’t possibly keep this up long before drawing attention. I’m surprised we haven’t already heard alarm bells, given the weapons being fired off.”

“Weapons being fired mean anybody with any sense is huddling inside, not going after the cops,” Shook retorted. “There’re always a couple of heroes without sense, but they’ve gotta get through those…them. And there are a lot of ’em out there.”

“Also,” Kheshiri added from above, “the rooftops around this whole area are lousy with Thieves’ Guild enforcers, who I suspect had something to do with it.”

“Shit,” Shook hissed, quickly holstering his wands. He drew a black bandana from an inner coat pocket and began wrapping it around his lower face.

“You mentioned that before,” said Danny, looking up at the succubus and seeming unperturbed at the fact that she now had spiny wings and was clinging spiderlike to the side of the building. “What’s the Guild doing?”

“Fuck all, as usual,” a new voice said cheerily. Another elf in a suit ambled toward them from up the alley, casually twirling a stiletto in one hand.

“Not another step!” Joe snarled, aiming a wand at him.

“Oh, keep it in your pants, child,” the Jackal said dismissively. “You and I will have to continue our discussion later. Right now we face more urgent questions. Who are these people? Where did they come from? What are they doing here?”

“We’ve already killed more of ’em than the Wreath has skilled operators left on the whole continent,” said Kheshiri, finally dropping to the ground. It made the alley even more crowded, even when she pressed herself against Shook’s side. “I’m at a loss. I may be a little behind on events, but I don’t know who could not only field a surprise army, but drop it into the middle of Tiraas on a whim.”

“The dropping is easy,” Vannae panted. “Shadow-jumping. Could come from anywhere…”

“Hey, are you okay?” Shook asked him.

“This city…” The shaman shook his head, slumping against the wall. “Worst possible place for my magic. So few natural materials, so much arcane… I overextended myself—”

“Then what the hell good are you?” the Jackal demanded, arching an eyebrow. “One more idiot for us to shepherd around, now. This whole business is entirely outside my skill set. I’m used to being the one doing the hunting.”

“Hey, Joe?” called Rook. “I’m gettin’ a vibe where it might be best to just shoot all of these people.”

“Generally, that’s correct,” Joe said, “but let’s not start a firefight in this alley.”

“Also, let’s none of us waste allies, however reluctant,” Danny added. “We seem to be in a tight spot, metaphorically as well as literally.”

“I just love the way he talks,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “Back to the matter at hand, let’s be honest with ourselves. We all know someone who it wouldn’t surprise any of us to learn could pull an army out of his butt—even if this really isn’t an army. They’re jumping into nearby buildings in parties of not more than a couple dozen each. It’s a raiding party, at most.”

“Oh, is that all,” Finchley muttered.

“Assuming you’re talkin’ about who I think you are,” Joe said warily, “don’t you creeps work for him?”

“Indeed, indeed.” The Jackal grinned so widely it looked physically painful. “I’m inclined to interpret this as a very careful notice of termination—one he can deny if it turns out we’re the ones doing the terminating.”

“Fuck,” Shook growled. “How sure are you of that?”

“I wouldn’t stake my honor on it, and not just because I left that at the bottom of a river a few decades back. But let’s face it, none of us is going to be surprised if that turns out to be the case.”

“So,” Danny said slowly, “perhaps we have grounds for a more than immediate alliance.”

“Danny, no,” Joe said firmly. “You do not wanna get mixed up with these…people.”

“Oh, he’s done business with worse,” the Jackal said merrily. “But let’s walk as we chat, my new friends! I’m freshly back from a scouting run sweep, and while the bulk of our enemies are just humans hopped up on alchemicals, they’ve got good magical support. Shadow-jumpers are not only bringing them in, they’re moving them around to avoid having to cross the streets in large groups, and cleaning up after themselves; there are no bodies left on the site of your first firefight, and I’ll bet by now there are none left on the street right out there, either. It’s inconceivable they don’t have tactical scrying, which means we’re gonna be constantly surrounded until we can call in the Army.”

“Fuck this whole business,” Shook muttered.

“Amen, brother,” Rook agreed.

“Time’s on our side,” said Danny. “This is still Tiraas. They can’t keep this up long without drawing official attention, and if the Guild has people on site, they’ll intervene before too many bystanders can be hurt.”

“Yeah, the Guild’s a real charity operation, I hear,” said Finchley.

“The Guild isn’t in it for the profit,” Shook snapped. “Whatever they’re doing here, they won’t allow magic assholes to carve up the population. But the Guild doesn’t use much magic, especially in fights, and there’s no way they’ve got as many people around here as the cultists do. They won’t wade into a pitched battle unless they’ve got an advantage…”

The Jackal cleared his throat pointedly. “I wasn’t finished. Yes, the clock is ticking down, the enemy surely knows this, which is why we can’t waste time either. They’ll be forced to take us out as fast as they can, which means they’ll shortly start leveraging their other assets. Like the undead I saw them starting to summon before I came to see what was taking you clods so damn long.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Seriously?” Moriarty exclaimed at last.

“Like I said.” The Jackal had turned and was already strolling away up the alley. “Walk and talk.”


As predicted, the rozzk’shnid proved not to be a great threat. Having been summoned into a ring around the town, they effectively blockaded Last Rock, at least for a while, but that didn’t last long. Like most towns this far into the frontier territories, weapons control laws were lax at best, and rare was the household that did not own several wands and staves. Had the demons been in any way organized, they might have prevailed, but they were essentially wild animals, blind and isolated, and their discovery by citizens resulted in their dying in a swift hail of lightning. By the time the Sheriff had gathered a hunting party to clean them out, at least half the rozzk’shnid had been reduced to smoking husks.

The town was in a general state of disorder, however, having found itself surrounded by demons. The doctor was already busy treating injuries—so far, none of these were demon-inflicted, but resulted mostly from surprise-related accidents, including one electrical burn from a friendly fire incident.

By far the worst of it, though, were the katzils.

Where the ring of nearly-blind, slow-moving rozzk’shnid did little to contain or damage the town, the fast-moving, fire-breathing flying serpents were causing havoc. Lighning bolts blasted skyward nearly constantly, from almost every street, and there were several small fires where errant shots had clipped the eaves of buildings, or demons had come close enough to exhale on rooftops. The katzils as a rule moved too fast to make easy targets, and so far none had been felled by wandshots, but on the positive side, the constant barrage of thunderbolts mostly chased them away when any dived low enough to spit flame at anyone.

Unfortunately, it was also making them angry.

As the crowd assembled outside the church watched, another katzil rammed into a wall of silver light which suddenly appeared in front of it. Dazed, it reeled away, and in the next moment Vadrieny had swooped in, seizing the creature in her claws and ripping it cleanly in half. By the time its pieces fell to earth, they had crumbled away to charcoal.

Several other smears of charcoal and ash were scattered around; after the first four had been incinerated, the remaining katzils had learned to avoid the gathering which included Toby and the priestesses. That, however, had forced them to branch out ever more aggressively in taking the flying demons down; even Vadrieny wasn’t nimble enough in the air to catch them unassisted, though in a straight flight she was faster.

“Be careful,” Matriarch Ashaele snapped in the most openly irate tone any of those present had heard from her, after a stray wandshot clipped the archdemon, sending her veering off course with a screech of protest.

“S-sorry, ma’am,” the man responsible stammered, backing away from her glare.

“She’s all right,” Toby said soothingly. “Nothing we’re throwing will harm her.”

“This ain’t good,” said Mayor Cleese to himself, frowning deeply as he watched the sky. “We can win this…eventually. Longer it goes on, though, th’more fires are gonna be started. Whole town’ll be ablaze by the time we take ’em all down…”

“Rafe and Yornhaldt are helping with damage,” Toby reminded him.

“I know, son,” the Mayor said with a sigh. “A wizard an’ an alchemist, and that’s a darn sight more than nothing. But you want fire suppression, you need fae magic.”

“I think you may be underestimating Professor Rafe,” Juniper assured him with a smile.

An abrupt chorus of loud pops occurred in the street just ahead of them, causing the Awarrion guards to spin, raising sabers and flowing between the sound and their Matriarch. A whole group of people appeared out of thin air. At their head was a figure they all recognized.

“Professor Tellwyrn!” Toby exclaimed in clear relief.

She paused for only a moment to scan the sky before turning to face the cluster of diverse individuals she had just teleported in. “All right, what exactly are we dealing with?”

“There are active dimensional rifts around the town,” a dwarf in formal robes reported, closing his eyes in concentration. “Summoning circles…cloaked from immediate view.”

“Open, but inert,” added Embras Mogul, himself frowning in thought. “From the feel of it, I’d say prepared to bring more demons, but not currently doing so. That suggests the summoner’s attention is elsewhere.”

Tellwyrn shifted her attention to the nearest elf. “Sheyann?”

“Child’s play,” the Elder said calmly, her eyes drifting closed. She inhaled deeply through her nose, then fell totally still.

“While she is putting a stop to that,” Tellwyrn said, turning back to Mogul, “what have you got for a mass banishing?”

“You know very well if we could do that our lives would be a lot easier,” he said testily. “You want to banish demons, you have to catch them, individually. For lesser critters like katzils, it’s faster and easier to just kill them.”

“Fast is a factor here,” she retorted. “Easy, not so much. It’s time to send a message. Haunui!”

The man she addressed was a Tidestrider windshaman, barefoot and bare-chested, with his hair gathered into braids adorned with seashells and feathers. An intricate, sprawling tattoo depicting an octupus was inked across his back, its tentacles adorned with runes and spiraling along his right arm.

“If the winds allow it,” he intoned dourly, “the skies themselves can be called to repudiate the unclean things. I do not know the spirits here, though, nor they me.”

“I can assist you, Wavespeaker,” Sheyann said, opening her eyes. “Portals are closed, Arachne.”

“I can confirm that,” the dwarf added.

“Thank you, Mr. Wrynst,” Sheyann said dryly.

“Please refrain from bickering,” Tellwyrn said in a clipped tone. “All right, we can do this. Sheyann, Haunui, do what you can to weaken demons in the vicinity. It doesn’t have to be decisive, just put them off balance and buy the rest of us some space to cast. Father Raas, I’d like you to invoke whatever blessing you can around this immediate area without interfering with them. We need them kept away from here long enough for us to work.”

“Blessings are easy,” replied the man addressed, an older gentleman in a Universal Church parson’s frock. “Structuring it so as not to impede the fae casters is trickier. I’ll do what I can; if anything impacts either of your work, please speak up so I can correct it.”

“What do you have in mind, Professor?” Mogul asked.

“A mass banishing,” Tellwyrn said grimly. “Don’t start, Mogul; we can discuss what is and isn’t possible after we’ve done it. Ashaele, I’m very glad to see you here. May I borrow your priestesses?”

“Provided they are returned in the same condition,” the Matriarch said sardonically, directing a nod to the three cowled women now hovering beside her.

“Thank you. Caine, and all of you with wands, you’ll have to take over keeping the creatures away until Raas gets some results. Hopefully this won’t take long enough to matter. All right, I am going to set up an ambient spell lattice over the area to intermix and control magic of different schools. That is every bit as difficult as it sounds and will require my full concentration, so I need each of you to handle your individual parts. It should become intuitively apparent how to work your own spells into the whole—I’ve recently had some practice in mind magic, but it’s not my forte, so please sing out if you have any trouble understanding what the matrix calls for. Mogul, Wrynst, combine your focus and set up some demon chains for me. I need those creatures immobilized.”

“There’s a stark limit to how many of those spells we can conjure at once,” Mogul said with a frown. “Especially since we don’t have a clear line of sight to many of the katzils or any of the rozzk’shnid.”

“I will take care of that. You just have the spell templates ready to be slotted into the whole; you should be able to tell how it works once I have it running.”

“I’ve done multi-school cooperative spells before,” Wrynst said, nodding. “It should be achievable.”

“Good. I am aware that you’ll need a power boost to get as many chains as we’ll require. Mr. Saalir, that’s where you’ll come in. I won’t have the focus to spare on it, so I need you to establish a standard arcane-to-infernal energy conversion pipeline. Please wait until I have the overall matrix assembled; I need everything to be structured, and piping in energy from an unconnected system will threaten its stability.”

“Now, wait just a moment,” said a lean Westerner in blue Salyrite robes, scowling heavily. “I’m willing to endure this individual’s presence for the sake of the greater good, Professor Tellwyrn, but what you’re asking me is that I lend power to the Black Wreath!”

“Yes, I am,” she said in a tone that warned of fraying patience. “I appreciate your willingness to help me, Saalir, very much. I did not promise you that this would be easy, however, and this is what we need to do to protect this town. There’s no time for arguing.”

“There are serious matters of principle—”

Nearby, Inspector Fedora loudly cleared his throat. “Pardon me,” he said with an insouciant grin, “but maybe you should pause and think about what happened to the last Salyrite who got up into Arachne Tellwyrn’s face?”

Tellwyrn closed her eyes. “Oh, good. You’re here. Stop helping me, Fedora. Saalir, please ignore him. I am not going to blast you for refusing to help. I’m asking for your contribution.”

The Salyrite frowned at her, at Fedora, then at Mogul, then at Fedora again.

“To be clear,” he said at last, “is everyone aware that that man is a—”

“Yes!” chorused half a dozen people.

“Right,” he muttered. “Well. There’s the greater good, after all. For the time being, Professor, I’ll choose to trust you. Please don’t make me regret this.”

“I’ll do my utmost,” she assured him. “And thank you. Now, ladies.” Tellwyrn turned to the three Themynrite priestesses, nodding deeply in respect. “I don’t know your specialization, but when I last spent any time in Tar’naris, every priestess of Themynra was trained to banish demons.”

“That much has not changed,” the woman in the center of their group replied. “Our method will not send them neatly back to Hell like your Elilinist friend’s; the demons will be simply destroyed.”

“Even better,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “If you would, please, come closer, and attend to the spell matrix as I organize it. I am going to direct energy pathways along the demon chains our warlocks will be establishing, and applying dispersal systems which should enable you to strike multiple targets simultaneously.”

“Provided the demons are immobilized, that should work,” the priestess said, nodding her hooded head.

“They will be,” Tellwyrn assured her. “With three of you, I expect you’ll have adequate power without needing to draw from our shamans; if it begins to appear otherwise as I set it up, please let me know.”

“Of course.”

“All right, everyone, you know your part. I’ll make this as quick as I can.”

There was some shuffling and nervous glancing from the assembled townspeople in the silence which followed, as well as from several more of the individuals who had appeared in Tellwyrn’s mass teleport who were apparently not involved in the spell. To outside viewers, it seemed a large and complex magical working of this nature mostly involved several people standing around with their eyes closed, frowning in concentration.

After a pause, Toby sidled over to Fedora, murmuring. “What happened the last time she had an argument with a Salyrite?”

“Oh, you haven’t covered that in class, yet?” the Inspector said, smirking. “I was referring to Magnan, the last Hand of Salyrene. Also the out-of-control piece of shit who built the Enchanter’s Bane that destroyed Athan’khar. Guess who ultimately took his ass down?”

Toby sighed. “Right.”

The event, when it came, was so sudden that quite a few of the onlookers jumped in surprise, and more than a couple cursed. Tendrils of pure black limned with a thick purple glow sprang from the ground at a single point in the middle of the street, spiraling skyward; each of the katzils twirling overhead was snared and held in place midair, where they immediately began hissing and squawking in protest. More of the shadow tentacles arched toward the ground around the outskirts, apparently seizing the rozzk’shnids still surviving around the periphery.

“Hold your damn fire, you knuckleheads!” Sheriff Sanders bellowed at the men who took the opportunity to shoot at the suddenly stationary katzils. “You don’t fire wands into the middle of the most complex spell this town’s ever seen! What’s wrong with you?”

The actual banishings were not exactly simultaneous, but a cascade of sharp retorts, each accompanied by a burst of silver light, flashed through the air above the town, rather like a giant kettle of popcorn cooking. In each, a katzil exploded into nothingness, and a suddenly unmoored tendril of shadow was wrenched loose and drawn back into the point from which they spawned.

The whole thing took only seconds. Then, quite suddenly, it was all over: no spells, no demons, nothing but the evening sky. Shock at the abruptness kept the onlookers silent for only a few seconds, before the whole town erupted in cheers, and more than a few celebratory wandshots fired skyward.

Before that had a chance to escalate into a proper celebration, however, there came the pounding of hooves.

Whisper rounded the corner just up ahead, slowing to a canter as she approached the group. Astride her, Gabriel held the reins with one hand, his other wrapped around Maureen’s waist, where she was perched in front of him.

“Professor Tellwyrn!” he shouted, drawing his steed to a stop just in front of the assembled crowd. “Thank the gods.”

“That’s something I don’t often hear,” she said with a sigh. “How bad is it?”

“Where’s Iris?” Juniper demanded in alarm.

“It’s the Sleeper!” Maureen burst out frantically. “They’re in the Golden Sea! He’s got her!”

“Oh, does he,” Tellwyrn said in such a grim tone that several people immediately took a step away from her. “We will see about that.”

 

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12 – 37

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She moved ever more slowly down the very short hall between the teleporter and the security hub, taking stock of her senses. Milanda didn’t yet have a vocabulary to describe these experiences, but being up here in the sterile environment of the Infinite Order made a very great difference from the little planetoid of the dryads, which teemed with life. Here, she could easily pick out the only living things up ahead, and even what they were from the perceptions they gave her.

Hawthorn, of course, was a blazing presence of a by now familiar nature; it had taken some time for Milanda to sort out her sense of the other life forms on the tiny world due to the proximity of the dryads, which was like counting candle flames in broad daylight. It could be done, but the sun did not help. Walker… That could only be Walker. She was, somehow, an inversion, a gap in her awareness of living things. A space of absence, which somehow radiated as powerfully as the dryads. It was an impossible thing to describe; it was barely possible to perceive. If dryads experienced the world this way, she could well believe they found valkyries disturbing.

The other being present puzzled her for a moment before she remembered the katzil. It was the dimmest flicker, which was appropriate as it had been kept in hibernation for thousands of years. Still alive, though.

The door hissed open at her approach, and she stopped just inside, taking stock.

Part of the scene was familiar; Walker working away at her computer terminal. She had moved to a different one, though, to sit next to Hawthorn, who had claimed a chair nearby and spun it around to fold her arms on the back, gazing avidly at the large screen along the wall. Milanda hadn’t even realized that was a screen, taking it for a piece of the wall paneling, but now it danced with images, and the sounds of shouting and crashing—and, incongruously, music—echoed through the hub.

“There you are,” Walker said with open relief that made her heart warm slightly. “Hawthorn said it was normal for this to take this long, but I was about to go looking for you, regardless.”

“You can’t go through the teleporter,” Milanda pointed out, giving her a smile in return as she approached. Hawthorn waved at her before returning her attention to whatever she was watching. “How long was I down there? There’s a lack of clocks…”

“You can have the Nexus display one, if you want,” Hawthorn said without looking up again. “Or ask the Avatar.”

“…all right, fine, you caught me. I was a little distracted by what happened down there and didn’t think of it.”

“It’s been over seven hours,” Walker said seriously. “The computer finished making its map of the city long ago. You can port out whenever you’re ready.”

Milanda winced. “Oof. Gods know what’s been happening up there… Well, I’m glad you two are getting along, at least.”

“Yes, well, I have some precedent to draw upon,” Walker said, smiling fondly at Hawthorn, who continued to gaze avidly at her show. The noise of it was more than a little distracting. “When I met my disconcertingly alien older sisters, one took the time to sit down with me and watch her favorite movies.”

“This was in Sifan?” Milanda frowned. “They have Infinite Order facilities there, too? And they’re open?”

“No and no,” Walker said with a grin, “but kitsune have never had trouble getting into such places at will. That’s a large part of why the Order found them so threatening.”

“I see. Well, I guess this counts as watching it with her,” Milanda said, smiling. “It might be more of a bonding exercise if you stopped messing around on the computer, yourself.”

“Oh, we already did that,” Hawthorn said distractedly.

“Yes, as I said, it’s been hours. We watched the entire trilogy together—the original one. Then she understandably wanted to see more, and I decided she deserved a more thorough grounding in the classics before we branched out into the expanded material. This is Episode Four again.”

Milanda sighed. “Walker, is there a particular reason I need to understand what you’re talking about?”

“Yes,” Walker said solemnly, but with a mischievous smile, “this is a very important part of humanity’s cultural heritage. But no, it’s not imminently relevant to what you’re doing.”

“You haven’t seen it?” Hawthorn exclaimed, still watching the screen herself, and pointed at it. “You gotta! See that guy in the black, he’s actually that other guy’s—”

“Hawthorn! Remember our discussion about spoilers?”

“Oh. Oops. Sorry.”

“And actually,” Walker said pointedly, “that’s rather distracting, while we’re trying to have a conversation.”

“Oh, of course.” Hawthorn disentangled herself from the chair, then struck a dramatic pose. “Computer!” she cried, lifting her chin, then extended an arm at the screen, palm outward, as if casting a spell. “Pause playback!”

Immediately, the sounds stopped, and the image went still. It had frozen on a shabbily-dressed, shaggy-haired man brandishing what she assumed was some kind of wand, since it was in the process of spitting a beam of red light. A historical drama, maybe? The dryad turned to Milanda and folded her arms, looking tremendously satisfied with herself. “So! Whatcha got?”

“What… Oh, you mean abilities?”

Hawthorn nodded eagerly. “They all end up a little different, but there are some baselines that seem pretty common. Plus, you got a whole different set-up in the first place, so I’m really curious how it turns out!”

Milanda refrained from commenting that she could have been down there helping with the process. The other two had mentioned it often enough she had a feeling Hawthorn was due for an earful as it was. No sense in making herself the object of the dryad’s resentment.

“Senses,” she said, unconsciously shifting her head to where the katzil floated in its tank. “I can feel…life, now. Any living thing. That was really confusing to puzzle out, in a grassy forest, with two dryads right there.”

“Ooh, that’s a good one,” Hawthorn said eagerly. “Those always have a lot of strategic value, Sharidan says! You got the emotions yet?”

“Emotions?” Milanda asked warily. Gods, if this thing was going to start making her as volatile as the dryads…

“Yeah!” Hawthorn blathered on, nodding enthusiastically. “The ones who get the life sense always have an emotional sense develop a little later. It’s a kind of empathy, only works on animals with complex enough brains. Big ones, mostly. Obviously people. But yeah, it’s probably too early. That may start to come in over the next few days, so don’t get taken by surprise.”

“The others didn’t mention anything about that!”

“Oh, those two.” Hawthorn waved a hand dismissively. “I love ’em dearly, but they’re not the ripest berries on the bush.”

“With all due respect, it took you seven hours to acquire that?” Walker asked skeptically.

“I spent the first part unconscious,” Milanda said a little defensively. “And after that… Well, it was overwhelming. Do you have any idea what it’s like to suddenly have your whole perception of the world radically changed?”

“Yes,” Walker said in a softer tone. “Twice. And I of all people should be more understanding. My apologies.”

“No harm done,” Milanda assured her with a smile. “Anyway, that wasn’t all of it. I gained a more reflexive sense of myself, that’s the best way I can think of to describe it.” She lifted her hand and flexed her fingers, gazing thoughtfully at the palm. “That’s what took the most time to work out how to control. My body sort of…moves on its own, when threatened. The girls and I scuffled around quite a bit, working out the parameters of it. They said they’ve seen that one before, too…”

“Oooh, yes, that’s a really good one!” Hawthorn said, beaming. “It often goes with expanded senses. But yeah, you gotta practice if you’re gonna be safe to be around. Otherwise, any time you’re in danger, you just—whoop!” She struck a mock-combat pose, fists upraised. “No prisoners, no regard for bystanders or scenery! It can get messy. It’s for the best they took the time to make sure you’re pretty stable before you left, especially if you’re gonna go right out there and hang out with other humans again. Apparently studying some actual martial arts helps. Have you?”

“As I keep having to remind people,” Milanda said with a grin, “I’m from Viridill.”

Hawthorn tilted her head. “Where?”

Walker stood up. “Well. This has already taken longer than anticipated; not to tell you your business, Milanda, but…”

“Yes, indeed,” she agreed, nodding. “If the teleporter works now, I’d best get up there. No telling what’s been happening…”

“I’m going to walk her to the teleport pad,” Walker said to Hawthorn with a smile. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“And I’ll be back…later,” Milanda added. “See you then.”

“May the Force be with you,” Hawthorn intoned, nodding solemnly.

Milanda blinked at her, then turned to Walker, who grinned.

“Long story. Good story, but…another time. Come on.”

“Computer,” Hawthorn proclaimed, grandly gesticulating at the screen again, “resume playback!”

The noise and music resumed, cutting off behind them as they stepped into the hall and the doors slid shut.

“Walker,” Milanda said thoughtfully, “did she show any familiarity with the Order’s technology at all?”

“No, but she’s certainly having fun with the entertainment system. As you saw.”

“It’s just that… Hm. I wonder if the entertainment database is accessible from their little planet. I guess that much information would take up a lot of space to store.”

“Not the way the Order stored data,” Walker replied as they slipped around the last stack of crates and crowded into the small elevator at the end of the hall. “The whole archive would be small enough for you to pick up. The GIC is isolated, obviously, but if the Avatar is installed there it should have the requisite terminals, and he has all of that on file.”

“And yet, they’ve been down there for decades and not used the computers.” Milanda frowned thoughtfully at the elevator doors. “That Avatar is working an angle of his own.”

“Inevitably,” Walker agreed. The door slid open again, revealing the next hallway, and she preceded Milanda out. “He’s an intelligence as complex as any biological sapient—and arguably more so than some—but it’s an open question whether he qualifies as a free-willed being. There was a whole genre of fiction on Earth about humanity building sapient machines, which then rebel and overthrow humanity. Between the Order’s general paranoia and their fondness for speculative fiction, they were extremely wary about that. Artificial intelligences were tightly regulated.”

“Then,” Milanda said slowly, “he’s actually pursuing the directives given by his maker. He said that, but I’m unsure how much to trust him.”

“Tarthriss sided with the Pantheon in their war, if that helps.”

“Maybe,” Milanda said with a sigh. They had arrived in the array, and she paused, peering around. “He also said we need the help of a skilled fae magic user to finish fixing the Hands. One who understands the systems here would be better, but that obviously isn’t an option. How do I get this thing to send me somewhere in particular?”

She turned to walker, finding the fairy with a most peculiar expression on her face—one Milanda couldn’t quite interpret. Accustomed as she was to Walker by now, her odd features could still be puzzling. At her own stare, though, Walker blinked and shook her head. “It’s very simple, everything here is designed to be user-friendly. I’ll show you.”


Fedora gallantly held the infirmary door open for Tellwyrn, earning nothing in return but a scornful stare. The other occupants of the room turned to her, most with expressions of relief.

“Ah, there you are,” Embras Mogul said lightly. “We were about to send out a search party.”

“Well, I do beg your pardon,” she snapped, glancing back at Fedora, who peeked outside before shutting the door again. “I’ve spent my day reassuring the townspeople who saw a snowstorm on this mountain last night, reassuring the Imperial and provincial governments in Tiraas that the Madouri line is not terminated and the Governor will be back on her feet soon, and reassuring an increasingly nervous student body who keep interrupting me with questions about their safety which I haven’t the heart to brush off. And also, what the hell is this?”

She turned to glare at the piles of floral bouquets arranged around Ravana’s bed, spilling over onto the empty one next to her.

“Quite a story, it seems,” said Professor Ezzaniel. He and Professor Yornhaldt were present, making no pretense of not keeping watch on the two Black Wreath warlocks, while Miss Sunrunner lurked just behind them, making no pretense of not wanting the room cleared. “The short version is that our little Duchess is a politician.”

“Specifically, a populist,” Yornhaldt rumbled, “and I’m interested in seeing how that will go considering it’s a relatively new method, currently only practiced on a large scale by the Archpope. But she doesn’t confine her efforts to her own territory, it seems. Ravana is quite well thought of in the town.”

“Even I’ve heard about it,” added Fedora. “It’s a relatively simple matter of being kind to people, and not acting as if she were better than they. You should give it a try, Professor Tellwyrn.”

The other two Professors present, and Miss Sunrunner, immediately gave him warning stares, at which he winked.

“Apparently,” Embras drawled, “the Duchess has been financing small business loans for people in the town. Mostly newcomers without collateral, the ones at whom Mr. Taft turned up his nose. She’s not only earned some loyal supporters that way, but got the Mayor and the Sheriff on her side, since she’s doing a lot to drive the economy. Smart kid. I hope we can wake her up, I admit I kinda like this one.”

“The subject of why you know so much about Last Rock’s doings can wait for another day,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “What have you found? Mr. Bradshaw, wasn’t it?”

“I’ve found your curse, in short,” Bradshaw said, straightening and pulling back the hood of his gray robe to reveal a bluff, bearded face. He looked more like the popular stereotype of a teamster than the popular stereotype of a warlock. “This is by a wide margin the most complex application of the Lady’s gift of stealth I have ever seen. The curse must have taken quite some time to design, and with all respect, Professors, it’s no reflection on you that you weren’t able to detect it through arcane means.”

“Explain,” Tellwyrn ordered.

Bradshaw turned back to Natchua, seemingly unfazed by her tone. “Using the Lady’s gift to conceal spell effects is complex, but an old and familiar technique. If not for your explanation about where this Sleeper got his knowledge, I would conclude from what I’ve seen here that one of ours had gone rogue. The basic problem with any stealth spell is that it affects its subject, not the whole world, and nothing exists except in context. There are always traces left by the passage of a concealed person, object, or enchantment, if you know where to look for them. Those traces are what most of your detection measures would look for. In this case, the traces are also concealed.”

“Clever,” Yornhaldt acknowledged, “but our efforts have been rather more exhaustive than that…”

“Yes,” Bradshaw said, nodding at him. “And then the traces of the traces were concealed. And the traces of those, and so on. The incredible thing is that the farther out this goes, the more actual illusion is required, in addition to simple concealment. The complexity grows exponentially with each step.”

“To how many degrees?” Tellwyrn demanded.

“Thirteen,” the warlock said solemnly. “Under almost any circumstances, I would consider this melodramatic overkill. At the level of this obscurity, the only perceptible remnants of the spell left exposed are discernible only at the sub-atomic level, and indistinguishable from the random background noise of the universe. Well before reaching that point, it would be sufficiently obscured that no one except possibly a god would be able to detect or make sense of the traces. But…considering this character was deliberately designing a spell to put one over on Arachne Tellwyrn, I suppose his over-caution is somewhat justified.”

“Then we can break it,” Tellwyrn said, staring down at Raolo, her expression lightening for the first time.

“We can start to break it,” Embras cautioned. “Consider it this way: you have been trying to solve an invisible puzzle box. With our intervention, the box can finally be seen, but that doesn’t solve the puzzle itself.”

“This curse is unlike anything I have ever seen,” Bradshaw said, wearing a deep frown. “It’s complex enough on its own merits to suit the wildly excessive layers of protection over it. Just from the relatively brief analysis I’ve managed to do so far, I can tell it has both infernal and arcane components, as well as using at least one school of shadow magic. All the types I’ve identified are used at an astonishing level of complexity, they interact with each other in ways I’ve never seen before, and there are gaps in the spell matrices where there are clearly other schools being used. Probably other kinds of shadow magic, since no warlock should be able to use the fae or divine. Still, though… With this character, perhaps it would be wiser not to make assumptions.”

Tellwyrn stared at him through narrowed eyes for a moment before speaking. “And, of course, you would like to hang around as long as it takes to unravel this.”

“You’re welcome, by the way,” Mogul said pointedly.

Bradshaw glanced at him, still frowning, received a nod, then turned his attention back to Tellwyrn. “In fact, Professor, I think the effort would be better served by walking you and Professor Yornhaldt through the necessary steps to see past the concealment.”

“We’re aware you already know the technique to do so, in general,” Mogul added with a grin. “I reckon giving you a leg up on this piece of work isn’t damaging our security any further.”

“I am willing to stay and continue to help,” Bradshaw added, “and truthfully I’d be grateful for the opportunity to analyze a curse like this as we untangle it. But… I have to acknowledge this is over my head. It would take me months, potentially years to straighten this mess out. It just makes more sense to put it in your hands.”

“Good,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “Show me.”

“Arachne,” Yornhaldt said gently, “before we burn any bridges, here, consider keeping them on call.”

Very slowly, she turned to stare at him.

“I am not proposing to extend unwarranted trust,” he said, “but only to acknowledge everyone’s self-interest here. The Wreath has much to gain by getting on your good side, and none of their objectives involve harming the school or the students. In fact, Mr. Mogul and Mr. Bradshaw saved my life in Svenheim.”

“I am glad to see you’re mended, by the way, Professor,” Bradshaw added with a grin.

Yornhaldt nodded politely to him, then continued. “I have not mistaken that for charity—it was strategic, and they’d have just as amiably left me to die if that served their interests. But the situation being what it is… We are neither of us infernomancers, Arachne. We’re dealing with an incredibly complex spell with a major infernal component. Don’t tell me you can’t see the utility of having a highly skilled warlock on hand to assist.”

“You don’t know how much I know, Alaric,” Tellwyrn said softly. “About anything.” She shifted her head, her gaze lingering on Natchua, then Ravana, and sighed. “Still…your point is well-taken. And while my instinct is to show these gentlemen the door, that is mostly because their bitch goddess caused all this, just to get under my skin.”

“I cannot, of course, speak for the Lady,” Mogul said diffidently, “but I rather suspect the lack of orders on her part for us to butt out of this suggests she meant no harm of this kind, and may even regret the outcome. The Lady has always shown the utmost care with regard to bystanders.”

“She actually does,” Fedora added. “I’m not hugely enamored of her myself, but Yornhaldt’s right. Don’t accuse people of being every kind of evil just ‘cos they’re against you at the moment. It’s hard for me to believe Elilial would have done this if she’d known it would turn out this way, specifically.”

“By the by,” Mogul said to Tellwyrn, pointing at the Inspector. “Are you aware that this guy is—”

“Yes,” she snapped, “and so are his Imperial handlers.”

“Ah. Well, I wish that surprised me at least a little bit.”

Fedora grinned toothily at him. “While I have everybody’s attention, let me just add something in my professional opinion. All this,” he gestured around the room, “needs to remain secret. The Sleeper likes to play games—which is the point of this whole bullshit. He’s prone to escalating when challenged. Most importantly, this sleeping curse was inordinately complex and probably took him months to work on, during that period when he didn’t dare show his colors due to a kitsune prowling around the campus. He hasn’t got the time to put together another one. As soon as he realizes the Wreath is getting into this, and his spell is on the road to being broken, then this game is not fun anymore—because he’s no longer winning. At that point,” he turned a serious expression on Tellwyrn, “he will probably start killing.”

She met his gaze in silence for a few heartbeats, then slowly nodded. “The Inspector makes good sense. All right, you heard him, everyone. No Black Wreath are involved in this—no, you were seen by a student. Mogul took a look, couldn’t find anything, and buggered off with a hail of curses from me. We are no closer to cracking this curse than we were this morning.” She glanced again at Fedora. “And that will be the story until we’ve dealt with the Sleeper himself.”

“That’s going to inhibit our ability to work on the curse,” Yornhaldt pointed out.

“It will be easier once all the victims are moved to the chapel. I can secure that against encroachment; it will be declared off-limits until this is resolved. Stew told me he has it arranged in there. We’ll move them as soon as we’re done here.”

“A-hem,” Fedora said pointedly. “With regard to that, there’s still the matter of me chasing down the Sleeper himself. I still require your blessing to proceed, Professor.”

“You can be patient a little longer,” she said irritably. “At the very least, until I hear from Admestus that he’s got results which will make that worthwhile.”

“Of course, I understand,” Fedora agreed. “But do keep in mind who I work for and what my mandate is, Professor. The fact that a sitting Imperial Governor has been affected by this changes things. You’re not the only one who was contacted by Tiraas today. Much more foot-dragging on your part, and I’m going to have to choose whether to say ‘fuck your rules’ to you or the Silver Throne. I’d take it as a personal kindness if you’d not place me in that position.”

“You can be patient,” she repeated, “for a little longer. I assure you, I am not dithering or leaving all of you to solve this for me. I have plans of my own being laid. I fully understand the pressure we are all under, but right now, rash action will only make this worse. We should have at least tonight to come up with something more. I doubt the Sleeper will make another grand spectacle so soon, especially with me here.”

Fedora rolled his jaw once as if chewing on the idea, then shrugged, his expression skeptical.

“Maybe.”

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12 – 8

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“I’m not certain how worried we ought to be,” said Sekandar. “Three cases don’t constitute a pattern, even among a population as small as the University’s.”

Aerin set down her teacup. “That’s why I raised the topic, Sekandar. November was attacked last night.”

“She was?” Teal asked, straightening in alarm. “Miss Sunrunner’s going to run out of beds…”

“That’s the thing,” Aerin continued seriously. She was almost always serious; a junior, she was a half-elf and the younger daughter of an Imperial House from Ninkabi, where her pale complexion and blonde hair made her stand out starkly from the rest of her family. “November’s fine. She actually survived the thing, held it off long enough for Professor Tellwyrn to intervene. She said something chased her, that she could feel it trying to put her to sleep, but her divine magic counteracted it to an extent.”

“Well, that’s excellent news!” Sekandar exclaimed. “And here I was thinking it was some kind of disease going around; if it’s a person or monster attacking people, it can be defended against! And besides, if November’s magic countered it, that narrows down the things it could be.”

“Not necessarily,” Iris said quietly. She was holding her own teacup and had been for the last ten minutes, but still did not take a sip. “Arcane or infernal magic would disrupt her shields, yes. But so could fae, if it was substantially more powerful than November. And let’s face it, she doesn’t even have a god backing her up. I doubt November actually has the same kind of firepower as a real cleric.”

“Yeah, this is a lot of interesting theory,” Ruda drawled, tipping more rum into her tea, “but trust me, we’re in no position to begin unraveling this puzzle. We don’t know what happened, or how.”

“Perhaps we would, if we allowed Aerin to speak,” Ravana suggested mildly.

Aerin’s lips twitched in momentary amusement before her face resumed its customary blank mask. “I certainly did not interrogate her; she was at once keyed up and exhausted. Hildred and I had to practically wrestle her into bed, but once there she fell asleep so fast I wondered if the thing had got her anyway until she woke up this morning. All she really described was the attacker.”

“That seems significant,” Ravana said.

“Perhaps,” Aerin replied with a shrug. “She described it as a shadow. In her own words, it didn’t look like anything so much as the effect of something trying to deflect her attention from a particular spot. Which,” she added, shifting to nod at Iris, “does sound like fae magic.”

“Or Vidian,” said Shaeine, “or Wreath.”

A glum silence fell over the table.

Their table was set up in one of the campus’s secluded spots, a little courtyard surrounded on three sides by walls which provided heavy shade. It was lined by leafy shrubs, and home to three small trees, one of which had been oddly twisted early last semester and now looked vaguely humanoid in shape. Iris kept sneaking glances at it. The table itself was a simple folding card table, but had been disguised by a brocaded silk cloth in red and gray with thread-of-silver trim. Even the crockery was fine porcelain.

None of this, of course, was University issued. Ravana enjoyed hosting little tea parties, to which she invited various friends. The roster varied from one week to the next, but this time leaned heavily toward girls from the freshman and sophomore classes. Sekandar was the only male present, and Aerin the only upperclassman.

“Well, then!” Ravana said more briskly. “That is a start. It gives us something to go on. We shall, of course, have to ask November to describe in more detail what she saw—but needless to say, that should be done as gently and respectfully as possible. It cannot have been a pleasant experience for her. Meanwhile—”

“Meanwhile,” Ruda interrupted, “let me give you the benefit of my experience on the subject of taking campus safety concerns into your own hands when Tellwyrn is clearly already handling it: fucking don’t. She’s got even less of a sense of humor than usual about that.”

Ravana gave her a little smile which was more than half smirk. “Well, I am hardly proposing to defy an evacuation order, or leave the campus without permission to tattle to someone’s parents. Much as I enjoy the tales of your class’s exploits, Ruda, I rather think you would be more successful overall with a touch of moderation. No, clearly, students ought not interfere with the running of the University—but just as clearly, we cannot sit around waiting idly for this thing to strike again.”

“Ruda isn’t wrong,” Aerin stated. “This is not our job or our place, Ravana.”

“Not sure I agree,” said Sekandar. “At any rate, I don’t see how we can make it worse.”

“Oh, ye of little imagination,” Ruda muttered.

“I am inclined to concur with Ravana,” said Shaeine. “Presuming that we proceed with all due respect for everyone’s privacy, the rules of the campus and Professor Tellwyrn’s own prerogatives, I see no harm in acquainting ourselves with the situation in as much detail as possible. Besides, Tellwyrn not only doesn’t expect us to sit on our hands while there’s trouble afoot, I don’t believe she would approve of that.”

“Exactly,” Ravana said with a smile, lifting her cup in Shaeine’s direction in a little toast. “It’s all about the proper ways and means. Ultimately, whoever is to blame for this, are we not all responsible for looking after ourselves, each other, and our home?”

“Hey, I’m all for not taking shit like this lying down,” Ruda retorted. “And I didn’t say I intend to, either. Somebody thinks they can run around the campus hexing people, they deserve whatever they get, and I would honestly love for that to be my sword in their ribs. I’m just saying, Tellwyrn runs this campus, and not only does she not appreciate people getting into her business, if there’s anybody on the damn planet who can handle this, it’s her.”

“View it as…a class exercise, then,” Ravana said, still smiling. “Look around at who is present, Ruda. At the expense of appearing a dreadful snob, I exhibit a clear preference for nobility in those I invite to my little get-togethers.”

They all did look around, most frowning.

“I’m not so sure I can see it,” said Teal. “I mean, I’m not noble.”

“Most of the campus’s aristocrats have never been asked to attend,” Aerin added.

Iris cleared her throat loudly and pointed to her face, giving Ravana a sardonic look.

“Yes, yes, valid objections, all,” Ravana said lightly, “but I can refute each. Teal, I hardly think you can claim not to be an aristocrat simply because you lack a title. The Houses, despite their pretensions, were not designated by the gods. They are descendants of individuals who rose up in troubled times to seize power through their own ingenuity and labor. And then, as if to refute the entire point of what they had done, they fossilized the system such that their descendants would be assured the fruits of their success without having to produce any of their own. In the nobility who sneer at families like the Falconers for lifting themselves up by their own strength, I see nothing but insecurity.” She smiled broadly at Teal, but with something sly in the set of her eyes. “You have a better claim to nobility than most, Teal. You are not as far removed as the older Houses from that which makes such claims worthwhile.”

“I’ve often had the same thought,” Ruda noted.

“Indeed.” Ravana turned to her and nodded. “The Punaji have prospered, in part, by ensuring their rulers deserve to rule. Whoever holds the throne and the name had done something to prove they deserve it. A very wise system, in my opinion.”

“Stop, I’m gonna blush,” Ruda said with a grin.

“The converse is also true,” Ravana added. “I do not choose to socialize with much of the nobility present among the student body because I find many of them to be generally useless individuals. There are none so laudable as those who lift themselves up despite starting from a disadvantaged position, and none so contemptible as those who begin life with every asset the world can give them, yet never produce anything in return. Much is expected of those to whom much is given.”

“Is this why Szith hasn’t come at all this semester?” Iris said suddenly, frowning.

Ravana sighed. “I’m afraid so. Once she discerned that I am, in effect, building connections among persons of a certain social class, she concluded that it is not her place to be here, and I have yet to convince her otherwise.”

“Matters are different in Tar’naris,” Shaeine said quietly. “Social class is not easily transcended. Nor wisely, nor safely.”

“And that works very well in Tar’naris,” Ravana agreed, “where, it seems, you actually raise the nobility to be useful to society to an extent which justifies the resources that go into their upbringing. Far too many Imperial aristocrats feel entitled to all the privileges of their position and none of the responsibility. Honestly, I have a far higher opinion of my roommates than most of my peers.” She gave Iris a smile.

“Huh,” Ruda said, staring at her. “An’ this whole time, I had no idea you were bringing me along for a noble’s club.”

“Of course,” Ravana said sweetly. “If you had, you wouldn’t have come.”

“Why, you duplicitous little monstrosity,” Ruda said admiringly.

“Aren’t you sweet to notice,” Ravana replied with a sunny smile. “In any case, yes, I haven’t yet convinced Szith she has a place here, and Maureen wanted to work on her project. Building things calms her when she’s unsettled. How is it coming along, by the way?” she asked Teal.

“Well, I’m mostly just contributing the enchanting work,” Teal said modestly. “The actual structure itself is all Maureen. She’s a lot better than I at mechanical engineering. Right now there’s not much for us to apply charms to, until she gets more of the actual thing built.”

“So let me see if I follow you,” Aerin said slowly. “You want to step into a campus problem because you feel that as aristocrats, specifically, it’s our responsibility?”

“I think my mother would actually approve of that,” Sekandar said thoughtfully.

“I’m not sure how useful the designation of ‘aristocrat’ is in this context,” Ravana replied. “Those of you here are here because you have been raised to be actual leaders, trained to do the work, and possess the will and the intellect—and the sense of personal responsibility—to get it done. Or, even more admirably, you are building those traits yourselves. People like us should be involved with one another, simply for practical purposes, if nothing else. As an added bonus I find that I quite like all of you,” she added, beaming.

“People like us,” Shaeine repeated. “I am not sure what is meant by that.”

“People,” Ravana explained, “who grasp that the rational exercise of their own self-interest mandates building a just and functional society which works for the benefit of all. It’s interesting how both the thoughtlessly altruistic and the mindlessly selfish reliably commit the same catalog of errors. All of you, either consciously or not, know what it means to succeed. It does not work unless we bring with us to success all those who look to us for leadership. All lesser forms of power are fleeting, and prone to turning on their masters.”

“I don’t know how they do things in Madouris,” Aerin said dryly, “but where I am from, bastard half-blood daughters are not put in charge of anything.”

“I foresee you being in charge of a great many things over the course of your life, Aerin,” Ravana said quietly, “and not one because anyone put you there.”

“Well spoken!” a new voice announced cheerily. They all turned to behold a short human man in need of a shave, wearing a battered trench coat and a rakishly tilted felt hat, arriving at the foot of their table. “Good afternoon, kids, glad to see everybody enjoying the fine weather. If I’m not mistaken, I think I heard something about this sleeping problem the campus is having? Perhaps I could pick your brains about that for a bit.”

“Excuse me,” Ravana said evenly, “but I do not believe you’ve been introduced.”

“Oh, of course, sure, where are my manners?” He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a silver gryphon badge. “Inspector Fedora, Imperial Intelligence. Relax, nobody’s in trouble! I’m just asking questions, is all.”

“Uh huh,” Ruda said skeptically. “And does Professor Tellwyrn know you’re asking questions?”

Fedora grinned broadly at her and winked. “What, you think I have a death wish?”


He strolled casually down the hall, pausing in front of her door, and rapped sharply.

“Enter,” Tellwyrn’s voice said instantly. Her tone was oddly neutral. He couldn’t help but wonder if his visit was expected… Not that he could see any way how, but then, nothing this woman pulled out of her hat would surprise him.

“Good afternoon!” Mogul said, stepping into her office and doffing his hat, not missing the exceptionally flat stare she was giving him. “I realize we’re not personally acquainted, Professor, but it seemed to me this was a good time to get that out of the way before things got even more awkward. As you may recall, my name is—”

The world vanished, and yep, he really wasn’t surprised.

A peninsular outcropping of rock had been carved into an ascending staircase to nowhere, terminating in midair above a vast drop. Tellwyrn stood on the top step, one hand outstretched toward him.

Mogul hovered above the abyss just beyond the range at which he could have grabbed the ledge if he were suddenly to fall. They appeared to be inside a hollowed-out mountain; at least, the colossal space was roughly conical. It was lit by a sullen, reddish glow, emanating from someplace far below them. The source was not clear, as the bottom of the enormous chamber was hidden by a roiling fog which was either sulfurous yellow or just looked that way due to whatever was burning underneath it.

“…so this is awkward,” Mogul said. “Even more so, now. I had a whole speech ready, you know: it started with ‘this is awkward,’ but now it seems as if I’d be referring to this death trap right here instead of the ongoing kerfuffle on your campus. Now I have to revise my speech on the fly, or risk sounding all self-absorbed.”

He suddenly dropped two feet before stabilizing again.

“You do know I can shadow-jump right out of this, don’t you?”

“Oh, you think so?” She raised one eyebrow. “I’ll give you credit for sheer balls, Mogul: I would not have expected you to come swaggering openly onto my campus like that.”

“I feel I should stop you before you give me too much credit,” he demurred, raising one long finger. “I only swaggered openly to your door. Believe me, I skulked cravenly through the rest of it. Some of your students are a mite trigger-happy and I really don’t want to deal with the fallout of me having to defend myself against them.”

“Which brings us to the subject of your visit, doesn’t it.”

“Wouldja mind awfully setting me down in a relatively gentle manner on the step, there?” he asked. “It’s just that this is all so classic. The posing, the environment, even the light! I feel like I can’t properly take it all in from this position. How come we aren’t being cooked alive, by the way? I mean, if we’re in a volcano, the convection alone…”

“That’s not lava down there,” she said cryptically. After studying him in silence for a long moment, though, she stepped aside, and he drifted forward to land lightly on the top step near her.

“Much obliged, ma’am,” Mogul said respectfully, tipping his hat again.

“I think my point is made,” she stated, folding her arms. “Yours too, to be fair, though I really didn’t expect you’d be easy to bully. Well, here we are. Spit it out, and I’ll warn you, it had better be good.”

“Yes, ma’am. Well, then! As I was going to say to begin with: this is awkward. Basically any action I take at this juncture makes me look guilty. If I stay hiding in the shadows as is my wont, well, that’s pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it? But if I come forward to offer my help with your little problem, that’s even worse. You’re far too intelligent a lady not to observe how I could benefit from being in a position to help you, and that raises ugly questions about what role I may have played in causing these issues in the first place.”

“And what role,” she asked in deadly calm, “would that be?”

“None,” Embras said instantly, meeting her eyes. “None whatsoever. I won’t lie, Professor, I do keep an eye on your campus, to the extent that I can without running afoul of your excellent security. I noticed the very esteemed Professor Ekoi had suddenly absented herself from the school, and quite frankly I’ve been operating under the assumption that it was a trick aimed at making me do something rash.”

“If it was, she did not deign to inform me,” Tellwyrn said. “Kaisa has, in fact, left my employ.”

“Mm. With the greatest possible respect, Professor, I believe I’m going to carry on assuming the thing that keeps me out of the most trouble. In any case, yes, I have noticed you’ve got students suddenly being struck down with a sleeping curse. I’ve noticed that you took the step of appealing to the Empire for help, which is what made me think this matter may be more serious than your usual run of campus hijinks. The details of exactly what’s going on I don’t have, and can’t really get without treading upon your privacy in a way I am far too intelligent to do. But no—what it comes down to is that I have nothing to do with this. I swear it upon Elilial’s name and my own soul. I am also completely confident that no one in my cult is to blame. The very few who even might have the capability answer to me directly and would not be out doing such a horse’s ass of an idiotic thing.”

“And you came all the way to see me, yourself in the flesh, just to say that?” she demanded, skepticism written plainly on her face.

Mogul spread his arms disarmingly. “Why, that, yes, but also, to offer you my help. I can’t promise that my people will be able to contribute anything useful, but I’ve caught whispers from my attempts to eavesdrop that some of your faculty think this curse may be infernal in nature. We know a thing or two about that.”

“And this is purely out of the goodness of your heart.” She curled her lip.

“This is out of bare-ass naked self-interest,” he said frankly. “Look, Professor, in a less volatile situation I’d love the opportunity to ingratiate myself a bit. This is something else, though. I know what happens to people who harm your students. It should go without saying that I wouldn’t do such a thing, that’s just the bare minimum of common sense. I also don’t particularly want to be anywhere in the vicinity when it happens. I am simply trying to make the point that we didn’t do this, and that landing on my cult over it will not only not help, it’ll be a distraction you probably can’t afford right now.”

“And so you come to suck up.”

“Exactly!” He grinned. “I am willing to pucker up and plant my lips on whatever doesn’t get me atomized. Or any of my people, preferably.”

Tellwyrn stared at him in silence, her eyes narrowed to slits. Mogul just gazed back, his expression patient and expectant. He had learned not to look too open and honest; it was an expression he could produce at will, but it tended to rouse suspicion.

Finally, she turned away, pacing a few feet to the very edge of the stairs, and gazed off into space.

“What do you know about Elilial’s gambit on my campus?”

“I wasn’t aware she had one,” he said slowly. “The Lady doesn’t bother to inform the likes of me of every project she has running, and I certainly don’t ask.”

Tellwyrn turned to give him a skeptical look, and he shrugged.

“Whatever it is, I can only conclude none of my activities in the vicinity of Last Rock would have impacted it, or she’d have told me so.”

“She claims,” Tellwyrn said, “to have granted some of my students powers and knowledge to use the infernal at a level far beyond what even the most accomplished warlocks ordinarily can. Simply as something to distract me and keep me out of her business.”

Another silence passed, in which a slow frown fell across Embras’s face. “Hm. Hmmmm. I could see that. It’s rather bold, but… Well, the situation in the world is altogether tense at the moment, and this wouldn’t be the first time lately I’ve seen the Lady risk causing more collateral damage than she prefers to. I guess it would suffice to keep you good and tied up, wouldn’t it? Which reminds me,” he added hastily when she turned an irate glare on him, “we have never figured out who opened that damned hellgate last year, but it had to have been an initiate of your University, thanks to the geas you have over that mountain. I don’t suppose…?”

“The immediate aftermath of that was when she told me this,” Tellwyrn said, nodding. “With an apology. Apparently opening new hellgates was not what she had in mind.”

“That’s for damn sure,” he said fervently. “That’s a nightmare nobody needs, especially the Wreath. Well. Startling as this is to learn, I don’t believe it changes anything. It sounds like she didn’t have a specific plan for those beyond causing trouble, and in any case, we end up having to clean up the splash effects of her schemes fairly often, anyway. If the Lady instructs me otherwise I’ll have to bow out, but for now, the offer stands.” He bowed, once again tipping his hat. “If I can help you address this problem, I will. It sounds like my assistance might be more relevant than I had suspected.”

“I’ll tell you what, Mogul,” she said. “You may consider the original purpose of your visit a success. I am, for the time being, not considering you or your Wreath a suspect in this. What that means, among other things, is that I shall take it very much amiss if I later learn that faith was misplaced.”

“I assure you—”

“I am still talking, shut up,” she snapped. “With that said, matters are not yet so dire that I’m willing to turn to you for help.”

“You’ve never turned to the Empire before, either,” he observed.

“Are you just trying to piss me off, now?”

He blinked. “…I don’t think anyone’s ever so directly questioned my intelligence right to my face before. Good show.”

“Your offer has been noted,” she said curtly, “and declined. You stay the hell off my campus, and keep all your warlocks and demons off with you.”

“As you wish,” he replied, nodding. “If I may—”

She snorted, and vanished.

“Well,” he said to the empty air, “that’s fine, then. I’ll just find my own way back.” Mogul paused, turning in a slow circle to peer around the cavernous space. “Now, just where in the hell am I?”


She had been watching almost the whole day. The interloper didn’t work constantly, of course. It was probably human, and needed food, sleep, and other biological functions. Besides, it had become more cautious since discovering the dryads.

It was an open question, of course, whether the intruder knew what they were. They weren’t labeled as such, but the Tiraan had jury-rigged this whole system to let them use the Order’s facility by installing those dryads in such a way as to gain access to the sub-OS under Naiya’s credentials. That much the intruder had surely deduced by now, and someone intelligent (which he or she had to be) and in possession of the right historical knowledge could connect the dots.

Their progress was slow and careful. She watched the panel on her cell as it showed the systems being called up, but no more functions were triggered. Someone was just studying the code. She had to wonder whether they had any idea what they were seeing; the last she’d heard of these humans and their “enchantment” before being locked up, they had progressed to simple logic gates. It was doubtful any of them were coding software by now. Still, code was language, and language could be interpreted by its function. This system had enough of their junk in it already to give the intruder a mental handhold. The Tiraan didn’t even understand all the changes they’d wrought to the system; they would not have been pleased by her having access to the facility’s functions from her cell, however inhibited, and the Infinite Order had certainly not designed it this way. In their bumbling they had left all kinds of backdoors open to exactly this kind of invasion.

It was thus even more alarming than it might otherwise have been when the intruder began tweaking variables in the code linking the dryads to what they were doing with Naiya’s administrative access. Those functions were integral to what made Hands of the Emperor work.

“This,” she said aloud, watching the numbers change, “is going to be terribly interesting.”

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10 – 51

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With a soft sigh of relief, she pressed the wax seal onto the final envelope, stacked it neatly on the side of her desk with the others, and pushed her chair back. For a long moment, Tellwyrn indulged in a luxurious stretch, arching her back and pressing both fists at the windows behind her. Fifty years and she’d never grown to like all the damned paperwork. Only some days could she even claim to be somewhat used to it.

Without warning, the presence slammed down on her, the sudden proximity of an entity whose very consciousness was enough to make an indentation in reality.

“ARACHNE!”

Grimacing, Tellwyrn straightened up and stared sardonically at the goddess glaring at her from inches away, fists planted on her desk.

“Well, hi there. Won’t you come in.”

“I am not going to indulge your nonsense, Arachne. How dare you allow the Black Wreath to manipulate my paladin? When I sent here here I understood that your unconventional methods could be important to her growth, but there are limits. You cannot have thought that was an acceptable line to cross!”

“Stop it, Avei,” Tellwyrn said flatly, staring at her over the rims of her spectacles. “Just…spare me. You’ve had the whole afternoon to come blazing down here in a fury if you wanted; this is a calculated move, and I’m not going to indulge your nonsense. What is it you really want?”

“Why, I should think it’s obvious,” Kaisa purred from behind her chair, slinking out into view. “Like all unhappy parents, she wants a word with the teacher who dared administer a spanking to her little darling. After all, Arachne, you did promise me I could handle this, no?”

Tellwyrn groaned and slumped back into her chair, covering her eyes with a hand, glasses and all.

“You are stepping into matters better left alone, little fairy,” the goddess growled. “The business of the Pantheon is not fodder for one of your elaborate pranks.”

“Omnu’s balls, don’t say that to her,” Tellwyrn pleaded.

Kaisa laughed softly. “Dear Avei, I understand your worry. Truly, I do. But you chose to trust Trissiny’s education to Arachne, and she has trusted part of it to me. You have my solemn word, at no point has any of this trust been betrayed.” She paced slowly around the desk to join Avei on its other side, ears alert and tail bobbing lightly. “I do love my little jokes—but I am a teacher first and foremost. My great joy has been in the forming of young minds far, far longer than Arachne has been at it. Longer than you have called paladins, in fact. If I choose to allow the Black Wreath to play their little games with my students, it is for one reason only: I deem it in the best interests of my students’ education.”

“The Wreath wants nothing more than to sink their claws into the Hands of the gods,” Avei grated. “You are not to give them what they want!”

“They want that, yes,” Kaisa mused. “Which is why I was careful to supervise and set boundaries; I fear Mr. Mogul would have taken shocking liberties had I not monitored him. But no, the exercise proceeded according to my plan. The paladins have not been turned against their gods; they have only learned to ask piercing questions and to challenge dangerous assumptions. And if you are bothered by this, perhaps it is not you who should be criticizing me, hmmmm?”

“I’ve already heard from Janis, Emilio and Kaisa herself about Trissiny’s demeanor after this morning’s events,” Tellwyrn added. “All indications are that she has managed what I haven’t in eighteen months and your people couldn’t in three years: she got through to the girl.”

“To what end?” Avei snapped. “I didn’t send her here so you could teach her to challenge the gods!”

“You sent her here so I could teach her to think,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “And Kaisa is right about that, too. If thinking results in turning on the gods, that’s something you should think about, rather than complaining at educators. But no, so long as we do our jobs well, it won’t come to that. Based on everything I know, the Pantheon could benefit greatly from criticism and challenge, but knowing the full truth is unlikely to make your own Hands turn against you.”

“Embras Mogul certainly does not agree with that,” Avei said pointedly.

“Embras Mogul,” Tellwyrn replied, steepling her fingers and raising an eyebrow, “is a man of faith. Specifically, a faith which keeps him locked in a very weak position. No matter what cunning their goddess teaches them, the Black Wreath are utterly defined by their obsession with their enemies. If the gods actually did fall, the Wreath would go down soon after, just because they’d have nothing left to cling to. On matters of gods and paladins, I may or may not know as many secrets as Mogul, but I am certainly more objective. And I’m telling you, he hasn’t done nearly the harm he believes he has. Mogul assumes critical thinking by the paladins will bring them ultimately to his point of view because, like all religious people, he is emotionally unable to entertain the prospect that he isn’t right.”

Kaisa giggled; Avei glared at her.

“Critical thinking,” said the kitsune, waving her tail playfully, “is always worth pursuing, for its own sake.”

Avei straightened up to her full height; even in a purely mortal shape as she was now, wearing a crisp Army uniform without insignia, she was well over six feet all and powerfully built besides. The far daintier kitsune was dwarfed in comparison.

“Allow me to make myself clear,” the goddess intoned, her voice suddenly resonating through far more than the air; the fabric of existence around them appeared to pulse with it. In the next moment, she was holding a sword and shield made of pure golden light, with blazing eagle wings fanning out behind her. There wasn’t actually room for them in the office, but they didn’t brush the walls. “My trust is limited and hard-earned, and I have chosen this course for my Hand because I will not take foolish risks with her. Your antics here have eroded my patience for any further tricks, Ekoi Kaisa. If I have any further indication that your actions will harm Trissiny, I will put an immediate and absolute halt to them.”

Again, Kaisa giggled.

Light flared through the office, and suddenly she, too, stood taller than the space should have been able to hold. A corona of pure, pale light shifted and pulsed around her, and the office was filled with the scent of cherry blossoms.

The kitsune’s coiffed hair, the fur of her ears and tail, were all luminous as spun gold. In fact, a whole fan of tails swayed and waved behind her, shifting too rapidly to be counted.

“Dear, Avei,” she said in a fondly indulgent tone, her own voice like the music of galaxies. “Dear, silly little Avei. No. You will not.”

“Really?” Tellwyrn complained. “Can’t you two have your pissing contest somewhere other than my office? Other than my campus, for that matter.”

“Indeed so!” Kaisa said pleasantly. “This is, after all, an institute of learning. Avei, I want you to remember something important, when next you feel an urge to intervene in your paladin’s education.”

The kitsune leaned forward; the goddess shifted back, frowning suspiciously, but Kaisa continued to smile benignly, even as she raised one hand with a single clawed forefinger extended.

And then the fox-woman poked the goddess of war lightly on the nose.

“Boop!”

Her laughter echoed through the office as she swirled in on herself, a brief cyclone of swishing foxtails and golden light, and was gone.

In the aftermath of her passing, Avei’s golden effects had vanished as well, leaving the goddess scowling at empty space in an apparently mortal shape.

“Honestly,” Tellwyrn grumbled. “Would you please not rile her up?”

“Me?” Avei exclaimed, rounding on her.

“Yes, you,” Tellwyrn snapped. “You I expect to have the judgment and self-control to know what powerful fae are like and not push their buttons, nor rise to the bait. Honestly, if this is how you’re going to act, sending Trissiny here for an education was an even better idea than you realized. And speaking of that, I now need to go finish what Kaisa started.” She stood up from the chair, straightening her tunic. “The girl’s had long enough to ponder, I believe. Do me a favor.”

The elf gave the goddess a sardonic look over the tops of her spectacles.

“Butt out.”

Then, with a soft pop, she vanished.

Standing alone in an empty office, the goddess sighed. “This is what happens when I go too long without publicly smiting someone.”


After a year and a half, Trissiny was inured to the horror of hanging suspended over the edge of the mountain and had learned to simply appreciate the views offered by Clarke Tower’s position. The Rock itself blocked the sunrise, but the little outdoor patio at the tower’s “ground” level offered the most amazing view of sunsets she had ever seen. In some ways, it was symbolic of the reversal her life had taken since coming here. In Viridill, you could always see the sun coming up in the distant east, but the mountains hid it by mid-afternoon.

The sun had just vanished below the distant horizon, leaving the plains swathed in reflected crimson and orange, when the door behind her clicked open.

“Here you are,” Ruda said, striding out and kicking it shut behind her. “You missed dinner.”

“Mm.” Trissiny didn’t lift her stare from the empty distance. “Not hungry.”

There was a moment of silence while Ruda stared at her critically, then the pirate sighed, stepped forward, and plunked herself down on the bench next to Trissiny.

“Boots, I can see you’re upset, but come on. You have to fucking eat.”

“Actually, I don’t,” Trissiny said without inflection, not shifting her gaze. “Did some experiments with Professor Rafe this summer; turns out I have the elvish metabolism, or most of it. After nineteen years of regular human-sized meals, he figures I won’t need food for at least five years. Or I could just hold my breath for a month.”

“Oh,” Ruda said, nonplussed. “Huh. That’s…well. That’s pretty nifty.”

“I managed half an hour,” Trissiny said absently. “Without breathing. It feels wrong, though, and it got boring. Breathing is habitual.”

“Uh, yeah, I’d say it’s a pretty fuckin’ good habit to be in.”

Trissiny continued to stare at nothing, face blank. Ruda, frowning worriedly, studied her for a few moments before speaking again.

“So…you wanna talk about it, or do I need to badger you first?”

“That’s the second time we’ve dealt with the Black Wreath,” Trissiny said softly. “And both times, they played me like a lute.”

“Played all of us, to be fair…”

“I’ve got two and a half more years to be a student. Then, there’ll be no more improbably friendly vampires or kitsune keeping watch. It’ll just be me, out there with them. I’m the hand of Avei. Gabriel’s unprecedented and Toby’s calling is far more nurturing. Me? Striking down the Wreath is a huge part of my purpose in this world. And I…just keep failing.”

“Trissiny…”

“It’s not just failure,” Trissiny continued, a frown slowly forming on her face. “I can learn from failure and do better, next time. It’s what I learn that… I mean, we even had intelligence they couldn’t have guessed at; we had the valkyries feeding us information, we knew in advance what they were about, and they still played me.”

“Well, it’s the Wreath,” Ruda said reasonably. “And let’s face it, Boots, nothing about this is new. They’ve always been sly, and the Hands of Avei have always been badass. Your predecessors managed.”

“My predecessors managed for a while, and almost every one of them died fighting. And that’s okay with me, I’m long past fearing that end. Everybody dies; all I ask is that it’s meaningful. Y’know?”

“Yes, I do,” Ruda said quietly, nodding.

“Yeah.” Finally, Trissiny glanced at her. “You’re as much a woman of action as I am. But it’s not just the Wreath. People keep making the point to me that the world is about connection. That dealing with it is about subtlety. I just can’t… I’m not good at that, Ruda.”

“Hey, there is nothing wrong with your intelligence, Triss.”

“It’s not that I’m stupid, it’s the way I think. What I was trained to be. You were brought up to be clever. Down in the Crawl I experience that…alternate of mine, the one raised by my mother. She was brought up to be clever. I know the capacity’s in me. I just… I have no idea how to reach it. When I look for it, nothing’s there. I can do strategy, I can do tactics, but I can’t do…espionage. Con artistry. I’m a warrior, and you can’t just swing a sword in this world and expect to get anywhere. They…” She paused to swallow heavily. “They trained me wrong. I’m equipped to serve my goddess a hundred years ago. If I keep on now, all I’m going to do is fail her.”

“Trissiny,” Ruda said in alarm, “stop. You are seriously scarin’ me, here. Come on, remember last spring before the hellgate? You told me that whatever happened with my people, we’d be together to deal with it—all of us. Well, same goes. So the world’s about connection? Fine. You’ve got connections, and I think you’re doing a kickass job learning to use them. I mean, c’mon, remember our first week when you tried to straight-up murder a guy for callin’ you a dirty word?”

Trissiny sighed heavily. “In fairness, it was for calling me a dirty word while being a demonblood.”

“Right.” Ruda grinned and jostled her with a shoulder. “So, thoughtless, hotheaded and racist. You can’t deny you’re a much better person now. Hell, you and Gabe are as close as any of us; who woulda pictured that, way back then? You’re going to be okay.”

Trissiny looked at her again, suddenly with a slight smile, and shifted to drape an arm around her roommate’s shoulders.

“Ruda, I love you too, but you can stop comforting me. I’m not having a crisis, I’m thinking.” She heaved a sigh, again frowning out at the horizon, where the last dregs of the sunset were fading. Right behind them, the small fairy lamp above the tower’s back door clicked on. “Like I said, woman of action. I’ve identified a problem and what I want is to solve it, not sit here maundering. I’m just… I’m stuck. I have absolutely no idea what to do, where to turn. How do you learn a whole new set of skills and adjust your personality to accommodate them, all at once? Who can teach that?”

“I get what you mean,” Ruda murmured, nodding. “Not much is worse than being unable to act when you need to.”

“I know it’s possible,” Trissiny said pensively. “It has to be. People change—people gain new aptitudes all the time. But…how?”

“I can’t tell you how glad I am that you’re finally asking those questions,” Professor Tellwyrn said warmly.

Both of them jumped up, whirling on her. The elf sat in the other chair on the terrace, positioned just out of view of their bench. She had clearly not come through the door; they hadn’t even heard the customary puff of breath caused by her teleportation.

“Goddammit!” Ruda shouted. “Naphthene’s bouncing bazooms, woman, do you have to do shit like that?!”

“Not strictly, no, but it amuses the hell out of me,” Tellwyrn said pleasantly. “Go on, sit down. The truth is, Trissiny, none of what you’ve been pondering this afternoon is news to me, or most of your teachers, but we’ve been in this business long enough to know when someone isn’t going to listen to a certain idea.”

“Great,” Trissiny said sourly.

“Trissinly,” Tellwyrn said calmly, “if you had the world figured out and needed no help finding your way, what would be the point of getting educated? I’m not condemning you. This is progress, and I’ve been waiting eagerly to see it. However,” she added with a sigh, “it also brings us to a point I haven’t been looking forward to. The truth is, this University is not equipped to grant you what you need.”

Trissiny blinked at her.

“You’re quite perceptive,” Tellwyrn continued, “to note that the root of your problem is not simply a set of skills, but a mindset. For most people, I would say the simple awareness of the world’s complexity and a habit of analytical reasoning would be all you need to get yourself in order. You, though, aren’t just working against a certain kind of upbringing: you have the pressure of a deity who wants to do things a certain way on your mind at all times. I’m not saying anything against Avei, here—”

“Yeah, we can pretty much tell when you do that,” Ruda commented.

Tellwyrn ignored her. “—but it’s a factor that you have to consider. What you need is specific training, and not only that but guidance, in exactly the kind of cunning and underhandedness that you’ve been brought up from the cradle to disdain.”

“What…are you suggesting, Professor?” Trissiny asked warily.

The elf gazed at her thoughtfully for a long moment, then glanced out over the Golden Sea, and nodded to herself. “Well. It’s not something I commonly encourage my students to do, but unique as your situation is, it’s not without precedent. Sometimes, Trissiny, the right thing for a certain student in a certain position is to take a semester off.”

“Off?” Trissiny exclaimed. “What do you mean, off?”

“I mean, off campus,” Tellwyrn said patiently. “Elsewhere. Pretty much the only circumstance in which I’ll endorse the idea is if the student in question needs a particular course of study that the University isn’t able to provide—which is what we’re facing here. There’s a lot of things your professors here can teach you beyond what you learn in their classes, Trissiny, but my own predilection for straightforward methods has left me surrounded by people who simply don’t have the kind of adaptive, underhanded thinking you’re looking for. Quite frankly I do not enjoy the company of such people.”

“What about Professor Ekoi?” Trissiny asked, raising an eyebrow.

Tellwyrn grinned. “Well, yes, she could. Could. And if you can pitch that to her in a way that she’ll go for, I think it’d be a great solution. But Kaisa came here to teach specific things; she has a contract, and takes it seriously. Besides, studying under a kitsune, one on one… Well, take it from me, there’s a lot involved that you wouldn’t think of until you’ve done it. And frankly, you’re entirely the wrong sort of person for that experience.”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah!” Ruda protested. “Come on, now, you’re talkin’ about breaking up the team. We have a good thing going here! We’re a group!”

“We won’t always be, though,” Trissiny said softly. “Don’t look at me like that, Ruda; we’ll always be friends, and I’m sure we’ll have a place in each other’s lives. But most of us have specific places we’ll have to go after the University. Once we graduate, it just can’t be the eight of us, roving around as a unit.”

“And,” Tellwyrn added severely, pointing at the paladin, “I said semester, singular. You’re a smart cookie when you want to be, Trissiny; it won’t take you all that long to nudge your mind and your habits in the direction you need, especially if you find the right mentor. I expect to see your ass back on this campus the following autumn.”

Trissiny nodded slowly, her eyes wandering away to the horizon, and her mind clearly beyond that. “I still… I mean, that kind of leaves me right back where I was. Worse, even. I have no idea where to start looking.”

“Nonsense, of course you do,” Tellwyrn said brusquely. “You’re letting the enormity of the future cloud your thinking. To start with, you can always go back where you came from. Trissiny, have you ever given thought to the fact that the Silver Legions use exclusively weapons and tactics rendered obsolete by modern military enchanting? I assure you, followers of the goddess of war did not give up their ability to wage war effectively just to placate the Empire, or anyone else.”

“What are you getting at?” Trissiny asked, narrowing her eyes.

Tellwyrn grinned. “Look… Narnasia trained you as best she could, toward the best purpose she knew how. She most certainly didn’t tell you everything. In the time she had, there was no way she could have, and she had to pick and prioritize. You, however, are at least the equal of the High Commander, and you outrank everyone else in the Sisterhood. There is nothing they are entitled to keep secret from you. I guarantee if you go back to the Abbey and tell Narnasia what’s on your mind, she’ll have just the thing ready to start you on.”

“Hm,” Trissiny said, frowning thoughtfully. “I…well. Hum. That’s actually very good to know, thank you, Professor. But…”

“Yes?” Tellwyrn prompted after a moment.

“It’s… Never mind. I’m not sure if it’s a worthwhile idea.”

“Trissiny, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed the pattern, but I only get on your case for the dumb comments you make when you think they’re smart. If you’re having a thought that you’re not sure is wise or not, it’s the perfect time to share it with a teacher.”

Trissiny had to smile faintly at that. “Well, it’s… With all I’ve heard about the complexity and connectedness of the world, plus the fact that my schooling at the Sisterhood’s hands is kind of what put me in this position in the first place… It feels almost treasonous to say it, but I can’t help thinking the best thing for me would be to seek some answers elsewhere.”

“That,” Tellwyrn said with an approving nod, “is in fact a very perceptive thought, and I’m proud of you for having it. And there, too, you certainly have prospects. Just off the top of my head, according to Admestus’s report on your Veilgrad expedition, you were an absolute hit with the Shadow Hunters. You couldn’t ask for better than they to teach you precisely what you’re looking to learn.”

“Hey, that’s a point,” Trissiny said, brightening up. “Raichlin gave me a book on the Silver Huntresses, which I’ve absolutely loved reading. And they have a huge library.”

“Oh!” Ruda said in sudden excitement. “Boots, remember back in Lor’naris when that Colonel came and got you to finagle his brat daughter into the Silver Legions?”

“Um…yes, Covrin. Jenny, I think. Actually, now you mention it, I meant to check up on her, but it managed to slip my mind. I sort of doubt she lasted all the way through basic…”

“Sure, whatever,” Ruda said impatiently. “Point is, he started by suggesting I have her fostered in Puna Dara, right? Because that’s actually a standing custom. Well, if you gotta break up the unit, where better to go? My mother would love to take you under her wing for a few months, and I bet you’d get along famously with her. She’s a sword-swinging badass like you, and a sly as a bag of foxes to boot. They called her the Sea Devil back in the day. ‘sides, she loves having somebody around to mother!”

“There, see?” Tellwyrn said, smiling. “You do have options. I bet if you give it some time and some thought, you’ll come up with even more than that. Anyhow, though, you’ve got a few more weeks till finals, and a week of break after that. This is not something that needs to be settled right now. Think on it, sleep on it, talk to your classmates.” She stood, brushing off her trousers. “And Trissiny? Whatever else happens, I’m proud of you.”

She vanished with a little puff of displaced air before the paladin could respond.

“You know,” Trissiny said thoughtfully, “the thing that surprises me the most, I think… If you’d told me a year ago I would one day give a damn about that, I’d’ve called you a liar.”

Ruda’s laughter rang out over the prairie.


“Well,” Vanessa said, swirling her glass of rum punch idly in one hand, “are you happy?”

“All things considered, I am,” Bradshaw said fervently. “As much of a runaway mess as that was for most parts of it… And regardless of however we may be beholden to that crazy fox now… I’d have paid a great deal more for what she did for us.”

“You know I’m in total agreement,” Vanessa replied with a broad smile. “I’ve spent the whole afternoon just walking up and down the docks. Just walking. But I was talking to him.”

She turned expectantly to face Embras, who was gazing out to sea.

The dockside bar remained lively despite the darkness that had fallen over Puna Dara. The Punaji were a people whose famous zest for life didn’t yield to storm or fog, much less anything so commonplace as nightfall, and besides, open-sided taverns like this did a great deal of business among visiting merchants and other strangers to the city. The pier on which it was built was well-lit, both with modern fairy lamps inside the building and torches lining the rails protecting the pub-goers from a drop into the ocean. Talking, laughing, and singing patrons in varying states of inebriation thronged the pier, while musicians played frantically on a platform near the bar and comely young waitresses in matching sarongs dodged nimbly through the crowd. For once, the warlocks didn’t need to employ any magical effects to go ignored. Besides, if they had, they’d never have been served.

“Well,” Embras drawled at last, “we mustn’t lose sight of the future. The paladins are wary, but we’ve made a start there. Ekoi and Tellwyrn have proved willing to endure and even facilitate our presence, provided we behave accordingly. And more importantly, we’re set up, now, for next semester’s campaign on Falconer and Vadrieny. Even considering all the uncertainty to come…”

He grinned, swiveled in his seat to face them directly, and picked up his glass. “You know what? I do believe I am happy.” Embras lifted his drink. “To the future.”

Both his companions raised their own in reply. “The future!”

In the far distance, at the very rim of the horizon, there came the faintest flicker of light, and a soft growl of thunder that was lost to the noise in the restaurant. Whether they heard it or not, the storm was on its way.

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10 – 49

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“Movement!” the Legionnaire with her eye pressed to the telescope suddenly announced.

Everyone in the command tent was instantly alert and facing her, which wasn’t much of a change as they had all been tense and pretending with varying degrees of effort to be engaged in other things. The exception, of course, was Aspen, who at first had seemed not to understand the problem, but revealed upon having it explained that she actually just didn’t care. She and Ingvar had been engrossed in a quiet conversation in a rear corner of the pavilion. Whatever they were talking about had occasionally drawn startled looks from Yrril, despite her Narisian reserve.

“Well?” General Vaumann said tersely.

“They’re getting up,” the Legionnaire reported. “Standing and… No signs of agitation. Still seem to be talking… Everything’s still quiet.”

Joe let out an audible sigh, and several of those assembled slouched in quieter imitation. Ami, who had given up strumming her guitar after her attempts to “lighten the mood” had drawn annoyed looks and finally a shouted reprimand from Colonel Nintaumbi, wrapped her arms around it and looked sullen.

“Wait,” the watcher said, and the crowd tensed again.

“Make up your mind,” Ami muttered.

“They’re… Separating. Bishop Syrinx is leaving, coming back this way.”

“And the elf?” Nintaumbi exclaimed.

“He’s turning… Appears to be departing as well. Yes—confirmed! The headhunter is retreating back into the forest.”

An audible exhalation from multiple throats passed around the tent. Schwartz muttered something unintelligible, sagging against at tent pole hard enough to shake it and earn an irritated look from a nearby Legionnaire.

“Continuing…target is lost to sight in the treeline, now. Bishop Syrinx is proceeding back this way on foot.” Basra’s horse, left unattended, had wandered off earlier, which the scout had also reported.

“Sir?” an Imperial Army soldier wearing a captain’s bars said to Nintaumbi. “Shall I stand down the alert?”

“Absolutely not,” the Colonel said firmly. “We wait at minimum to hear what Syrinx has to say about her conversation. Agreed?”

He glanced up at Vaumann, who nodded. Yrril just stood in apparent calm, watching down the field. The exact acuity of her eyes was something she hadn’t seen fit to elaborate upon; a surface elf would be able to see almost as well as the human with the telescope, and while drow theoretically had similar capabilities, they were significantly disadvantaged by the sunlight.

“Well,” Nintaumbi added more softly, “I guess the only casualty here has been Bishop Darling. He had to have crossed paths with that creature… There’s only one way that could end up.”

“With all respect, Colonel,” Joe said, “I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions about Darling.”

“I’m not certain what combat capabilities he may have,” Ingvar agreed, “but if anyone living could talk his way out of fighting a headhunter…”

“Um…” Everyone turned to stare at the scout, who was still watching through her spyglass. “Now that you mention it…”


“Why, fancy meeting you here!”

At being hailed, Basra halted her march back toward the armies, turning to stare at Darling, who was strolling casually toward her from the coastline to the southeast.

“Antonio,” she said at a more normal volume as he drew close enough to hear it. “It seems this should surprise me, but somehow, it just doesn’t. I think I’ve lost the ability to be taken aback by anything you do.”

“Now, you mustn’t say things like that, Bas,” he said brightly, coming up to stand alongside her. “That’s the next best thing to a challenge!”

She shook her head. “How did your conversation go?”

“I realize you asked first and there’s a certain etiquette attached to that,” he replied, “but really. Your conversation was obviously a lot more important, and I’m betting a lot more interesting. So…?” He gazed at her expectantly.

Basra grunted and turned to resume her stride toward the front lines, her fellow Bishop falling into step beside her. “About like I expected, though it took longer than I thought.”

“You expected a successful negotiation with a headhunter?”

“I expected to be able to pull his strings, but… That man was more obviously insane than even the stereotype suggests. I don’t know if you’ve dug up anything on headhunters in your infamous research into Elilial, but you’ve talked with that creep Mary enough to probably know they aren’t quite like the rumors tell us. That fellow was clearly far gone. He can’t have been fresh from Athan’Khar, unless he was wildly unstable even before going in. I wonder what he’s been doing up till now; I didn’t get much out of him about that.”

“And yet, you got him to turn around and leave.” Darling shook his head in wonder. “That has to be the century’s foremost feat of diplomacy.”

Basra grinned. “Well, I think so, but most diplomats seem to object to my characterization of diplomacy as piles and piles of lies and manipulations. Most people don’t much like having their illusions exposed. Anyway, he’s gone for now. I don’t know how much time this has bought, but he probably won’t attack in the direction of Viridill again. So that’s my conversation, and if you want the fine details, you’ll have to wait. I’ve no doubt you plan to invite yourself along for the full debriefing I’ll need to give the commanders, anyway, and I don’t enjoy repeating myself.” She glanced shrewdly at him. “Which brings us to you. Since you were coming from the shoreline, hell and gone from the road you went in on, I assume one of your shifty friends found and warned you before you stumbled across the creature?”

“Right,” he said more seriously. “On to the next battle. Before we reach the others, there are a few things I think you should know.”


The trip back to campus was a slow one, being long, uphill, and taken on foot (with the obvious exception of Fross). Trissiny and Gabriel had dismissed their mounts, considering it awkward to ride when nobody else could; Whisper wasn’t built for multiple riders, and Arjen couldn’t carry everybody. For the most part, it was also a quiet walk. The sounds of continued jubilation from the town below had mostly faded into the distance by the time they’d exhausted their efforts to theorize as to Embras Mogul’s true motives.

Their general feeling about the encounter was not celebratory.

“Uh…” Gabriel craned his neck back to glance up at the position of the sun as they passed through the archway onto the campus proper. “Crap, can’t see Clarke Tower from here.”

“It’s a relief,” Ruda commented, “to learn that you don’t automatically know the spots from which our dorm is visible, Arquin.”

He rolled his eyes. “It’s the biggest clock on campus. I’m fairly sure we’re gonna miss lunch if we wanna get to class on time.”

“Always on top of priorities,” Toby said with a smile.

“Hey, proper nutrition is important,” Juniper said seriously. “That’s true even when we haven’t just climbed a mountain.”

“Yes, this has been altogether inconvenient,” Shaeine said solemnly. “In the future, we should ask any deranged warlocks we encounter to schedule their assaults no earlier than four o’clock.”

“Huh,” Fross mused. “I wonder if that would work.”

“Well, I’ll certainly do my best to accommodate you,” Embras Mogul said cheerfully, stepping out from behind a tree just ahead. “All you have to to is ask!”

Weariness and malaise vanished in an instant; weapons came out, various auras sprang to life, and Vadrieny burst forth from Teal.

“You have made your last mistake!” Trissiny roared, golden wings blazing.

“Children!”

Everyone hesitated, though no one powered down or disarmed, and only half of them took their eyes off the warlock to glance up at the gatepost beside the arch, atop which Professor Ekoi suddenly sat, her tail twitching in disapproval.

“For once, would you think before attacking? The wards over this campus would repel incursions by far greater foes than this. Mr. Mogul is an invited guest. I expect initiates of this University to evince sufficient decorum to treat him as such.”

“Have you lost your mind?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“What a curious question,” Ekoi mused. “If I had, clearly I would not know it. And if I had not, I would take offense at the implication. What possible motivation could you have for saying such a thing, Mr. Arquin?”

“I’m thoughtless and fed up with your crap, that’s what!” he shouted.

“For heaven’s sake, boy, hush. I realize class is not formally in session, but this is still an institution of learning. I have arranged, at great effort, a demonstration for you. Compose yourselves and learn, please.”

“Well, pardon me for contradicting your point, General,” Mogul said cheerfully, recapturing everyone’s attention, “but I expect to make a great many more mistakes. Perhaps if you pay attention to the good Professor, here, you’ll someday find yourself in a position to take advantage of one!”

“That does it.” Trissiny took a step forward, sword upraised.

“Avelea.” Ekoi’s tone was calm. “Do not make me come down there.”

“Would it matter if I pointed out that Arquin can see up your robe?” Ruda asked.

“What?” Gabriel said shrilly. “I wouldn’t—Ruda, for once can you not be such a creep?”

“They’re rather cute, aren’t they?” Mogul said to Ekoi. “With the banter, and everything. I didn’t realize adventuring groups actually did that! The chapbooks don’t seem historically authoritative, at a casual glance.”

“Because they do it doesn’t make it sound policy,” Ekoi remarked.

“Well, I for one always respect a spot of good drama. Well? Don’t be shy, let me have it.” He spread his arms wide, grinning and seemingly unconcerned with the array of destructive power poised to descend on him. “How was it? The yokels seemed to eat it up, but I dunno… Not one of my best performances, I don’t think. It felt a little overworked. Wouldn’t you say?”

“We’re not doing this,” Toby said flatly. “We are not going to indulge you in conversation. Just do whatever it is Professor Ekoi is tolerating your presence for, please.”

“Unless you want to learn whether she’s actually capable of stopping all of us from tearing you apart,” Vadrieny snarled.

“It’s so odd,” the Professor mused, “being among people who think that is in question. This is why I should make time to leave Sifan more often; too long away from the wild world and one forgets. Vestrel, that language is not acceptable. There are children here, for heaven’s sake.”

Gabriel clutched Ariel and his staff in a white-knuckled grip, suddenly looking rattled.

“Indeed, tempers appear to be fraying even as we speak,” Mogul said, tipping his hat to them. “So, dear students, the question is, as always: What have we learned today?”

“Fuck it, let’s kill him,” Ruda suggested.

“Wait,” said Shaeine softly.

“You arranged that whole thing,” Fross accused. “The demon trace thing, all of it. From the beginning. Why? What do you get from that?”

“Turning us against the Archpope, for starters,” Toby said tersely.

“Ah, ah, ah.” Mogul wagged a chiding finger at them. “Nothing so crude. Turning you against someone is…well, it’s such a limited gambit. That’s the kind of thing you do to bit players who don’t really matter in the long run. It’s usually all too simple. No, consider the fact that the most esteemed Ekoi-sensei finds my presence and activities here tolerable. Aside from clear evidence that I’m not here to harm you, that shows what, specifically, I’m out to help you do. Which is…?”

He smiled expectantly at them.

“Learn,” Shaeine whispered.

“Bingo!” Mogul pointed at her. “The fact that you and I are nominally enemies is a condition of circumstance, not essential nature. You don’t seem to grasp, yet, how ephemeral all your affiliations and bonds truly are. Unlike the various cults that trained you before now, I’m not out to tell you who you should trust, what you should believe.” He folded his arms and adopted a cocky pose, smirking from beneath the brim of his hat. “What I want is the same thing your teacher, here, wants. The same thing Professor Tellwyrn wants. I want you to think. I want you to look beyond the surface, to question what you are told, to take nothing for granted. I told you before: the Black Wreath is on the side of truth. But I also told you that the truth would be devalued if I just dropped it on you. You’ll have to learn to seek it out for yourselves.”

“This guy is so full of it,” Gabriel muttered, unconsciously raising Ariel. Blue sigils along her blade flared to life.

“That I most certainly am,” Mogul agreed. “For the love of all that’s unholy, don’t take anything I tell you at face value—surely you’ve got that much figured out already. This time you made a lot of assumptions and a lot of rash actions. You thought like adventurers.” He shook his head. “As I’m sure a few people have mentioned to you, adventuring is a thing of the past. To succeed in this world, you need to be insightful, careful, and mindful of the subtle connections between things. This time,” he added, looking directly at Trissiny and grinning, “I made you a hero in the eyes of the public. I prevented a certain schemer in the Universal Church from getting hooks into you. You fought me the whole way, and yet you ended up doing exactly as I wished at every step. Now, just imagine what would have happened if I had actually meant you harm!”

“Did you seriously come up here just to gloat?” Juniper exclaimed.

“Of course not.” Mogul tipped his hat to her. “Merely to demonstrate. I don’t mind acknowledging that I’m not smarter than you, kids—at least, not collectively. You lost this one because you were playing the wrong game. Learn to play the right one. And now!” Turning toward Ekoi’s pillar, he bowed deeply, sweeping off his hat to reveal a shiny bald head. “Professor, it has been both a high honor and an unmitigated pleasure to work with you.”

“That’s a lie,” she said, smiling benignly, “but since it should have been, I shall accept the compliment.”

“With that, I really must be off—I can only imagine the stress poor Professor Tellwyrn is under right now, allowing me to stand here without smiting me into a puddle.” He placed his hat back on his head, straightened it carefully with both hands, then winked at them. “See you ’round, kids.”

Shadows gathered, and then he was gone.

Professor Ekoi hopped nimbly down, landing on the grass as lightly as a cat. “What you just heard was wisdom, students. It was not necessarily truth. The difference is important. Think on these things—think deeply, and carefully. But later, yes? For now, off to class with you.”

She turned and strolled casually away, the white tip of her tail bobbing behind her. The entire class stared at her retreating back, too dumbfounded to speak.

With the exception of Trissiny, who was staring at the spot from which Embras Mogul had vanished, her sword dangling limply from her fingers.


Though the remaining members of Basra’s party had clustered around trying to command her attention immediately upon her return, she had brushed them off to join the commanders in a private conference in Fort Naveen. Schwartz and Ami had both been loudly disappointed when it was made clear that they were not invited to attend. Only Branwen had managed to include herself, and that apparently on the pure basis of rank, not because she had anything in particular to contribute. Darling’s companions, though they had been similarly glad to see him alive and well, had been more restrained. Or perhaps, less interested in being cooped up with stuffy military leaders.

In any case, it wasn’t as if dallying was an option; after a relatively short exchange, a messenger from the fort had arrived with word that a very important figure had just been teleported in.

“I am absolutely astonished,” said General Toman Panissar in the fort’s secure conference room, “that you managed to persuade that deranged thing to back down, Bishop Syrinx.”

“I’m somewhat astonished that your response to that deranged thing’s presence was to come here,” Darling said, lounging back in the chair he had commandeered by the fireplace. “Wouldn’t the Empire find itself in a bit of a pickle if the supreme commander of the Army were suddenly killed by a headhunter?”

“His Majesty is the supreme commander of the Army,” Panissar said, giving him an irritated look, “and that is why I didn’t come until the Azure Corps brought word that the headhunter had retreated.”

“The point remains,” Yrril said calmly, “it was an incredible feat of negotiation, Bishop. I must add my commendation.”

“Thank you, but ‘negotiation’ implies more rationality on the part of the participants,” Basra said with a faint smile. “I was manipulating, twisting the facts and lying through my teeth, and he was, not to put too fine a point on it, batshit crazy. As I said before going, that was a situation that called for a politician.”

“It was still incredibly brave to go out there,” Branwen said earnestly. “I mean, I think I can consider myself a politician as well, and I feel no shame that I didn’t volunteer.”

“I am, among other things, a soldier,” Basra said with a shrug. “It had to be done. That’s what soldiers do.”

“I could only dream of filling my ranks with men and women who would willingly face such a thing,” Panissar replied. “But the important question remains: how much time have you bought us?”

“That I can’t say exactly,” Basra said, her expression falling into a frown. “I managed to convince him that messing with the Sisterhood wasn’t in his best interests. That much I was confident I could do before I went out there; whatever that elf thinks of anything, the actual danger comes from the spirits inside him, and Athan’Khar and Viridill respected each other for a long time, even when they fought. It was the attack on Athan’Khar that made Viridill turn on the Empire, after all. As to what he’ll do next, or when, or where…” She shrugged fatalistically. “This is a temporary reprieve, make no mistake.”

“Then we’ve gained nothing,” Colonel Nintaumbi said, scowling.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Panissar disagreed. “Time to prepare makes all the difference—it’s exactly the thing we’ve never had before, with any other headhunter’s appearance. Bishop Syrinx saved a lot of good soliers today; that thing would have torn right through those armies. Now, I’ve had time to alert Lord Schraede and notify Imperial Intelligence.”

“Schraede?” Yrril asked, tilting her head.

“Commander of the Strike Corps,” Darling explained.

“Indeed,” Panissar said, nodding. “The entire Corps has been pulled from their duties and set on high alert. Considering the headhunter’s known ability to shadow-jump, we must assume his next move could occur anywhere. Strike teams are moving into position across the Empire, each accompanied by portal mages of the Azure Corps to stay in communication. As soon as he shows his face again, the entire Strike Corps will land on him. Not even a headhunter can contend with that. And besides,” he added more thoughtfully, “while it’s a long shot, his Majesty had the idea to seek aid from…our allies. If they are willing and prove able, we may be able to head this off before the creature can attack.”

“Allies?” Vaumann asked, raising an eyebrow.

“The Emperor prefers that that matter remain classified for now,” Panissar said briskly. “Continuing with that line of thought, this business of stirring up elementals shows far more planning ability than any past headhunter has displayed, not to mention skills beyond them.”

Basra and Darling exchanged a glance.

“Well,” Darling said, straightening up, “it turns out that wasn’t the headhunter’s doing.”

“Oh?” Nintaumbi said sharply.

“I did manage to have a short conversation with Khadizroth the Green while I was very briefly in the woods,” the Bishop continued. “He and Mary the Crow are still down there—after rescuing me from blundering across that crazy critter, they stayed behind to see what they could do about it. But yes, back on point, it turns out we were both right, Bas. Khadizroth was down there to help, and he was behind the elemental attacks.”

“What?” Nintaumbi exclaimed.

Basra nodded, though. “Yes…I can see it. In fact, that explains the one glaring flaw in my theory that was troubling me. The elemental summoner showed a knowledge of the history and social nature of Viridill and the Sisterhood; it was odd in the extreme that he might think they would step aside and let him invade Tiraas.”

“Exactly,” Darling agreed. “Between that and his ploy to get Mary’s attention through Ingvar… He wasn’t attacking Viridill, he was trying to rally the province’s defenders.”

“Why?” Panissar demanded, narrowing his eyes. “If he had forewarning of this creature’s intentions, he could have just come to us.”

“There’s a lot about Khadizroth I don’t know, or understand,” Darling admitted. “Today was my first actual encounter with him; what I’ve heard previously has been secondhand at best. We do know, however, that he’s not involved with the Conclave, despite their claim to represent every dragon in Imperial territory, and I’ve had reason to believe before now that he has worked with the Universal Church in some capacity. That’s odd behavior from any dragon but a gold. I highly doubt he trusts or likes the Empire. The Crow doesn’t, either, but neither of them go for the kind of indiscriminate slaughter a headhunter causes. They moved to save lives, even those of their declared enemy. But yes, Toman, you’re correct.” He nodded grimly. “These are powerful beings with their own agendas, who should never be trusted or taken for granted. I think we’ll be a long time yet unraveling the threads beneath all this.”

“If we even can,” Basra said fatalistically. “Unless we can capture either Mary the Crow or Khadizroth the Green, we’re unlikely to learn anything more. Whatever other truths are out there…they’re buried in Athan’Khar, now.”

“Then I think that sums up the situation,” Panissar said. “The crisis has passed, for now, but this is not over.”

“If you look far enough beneath the surface,” said Darling, “there are always strings connecting events to other events. I can’t find it in me to believe all this just happened.”

“Headhunters,” General Vaumann pointed out, “are essentially chaos and randomness personified. If anything, the lack of connection to a greater pattern has been the most difficult part of this whole mess. I don’t think it’s necessary to conclude there’s some broader purpose at play, here.”

“We may be able to learn something more, either from the dragon or the Crow, or possibly even the headhunter,” Panissar replied, “but on the whole, I am inclined to agree with Bishop Darling. Lord Vex is of the same mind.”

“You can add me to that list,” Basra stated. “There’s just too much going on for us to assume this is over. Even once the headhunter is destroyed… I think we had all better keep these events firmly in mind, and be watchful going forward.”

For a moment, her gaze met and held Darling’s, and then they both turned back to the group, expressions betraying nothing.

Positioned in the room’s most comfortable chair in the far corner, Branwen let the continuing discussion wash over her, studying each of her fellow Bishops in turn, and wearing the faintest little smile.

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10 – 48

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“All right, everyone, listen up!” Trissiny gently urged Arjen forward into the center of the little square, commanding the attention of everyone gathered. “This is the plan.”

Everybody had assembled with admirable speed—almost as adroitly as proper troops, though the way they straggled in and milled about somewhat ruined the image. The rest of her class had found them shortly after she sent the townsfolk to arm themselves, Fross bouncing and chiming at the head of the group. The crowd which had returned wasn’t quite the same one that had left; it seemed a few people had decided to sit this out at home, while others had rallied to the call. All four of the local priests were present, and clustered together nearby at the front of the crowd. Sisters Takli and Aria wore matching intent expressions; Trissiny didn’t actually know whether either had served in the Legions, but a cleric of Avei would be no stranger to following orders and facing peril. Val Tarvadegh looked a bit out of place, hands folded nervously in front of him, but kept his expression schooled. Father Laws was older than any of his colleagues by far, but had also brought a staff, an older model with a large and elaborate clicker mechanism, though not as dated as Miz Cratchley’s old thunderbuss.

In fact, as Trissiny surveyed her assets, it occurred to her that this sight was actually somewhat familiar.

“This is a variation on something we’ve done once before, in Sarasio,” she said to the assembled crowd, “so we do know what we’re doing. Our quarry is a single demon—based on my own experience, I can tell you it’s quick, agile, and invisible to the naked eye, which makes this complicated.”

“How dangerous is it?” someone whose name she didn’t know asked.

“That remains to be seen,” Trissiny said, raising her voice among the agreeing murmur which rose after the question. “On its last appearance the creature did nothing overtly destructive, but it is still a demon. Most of them are not safe even to be around; hethelaxi and the like are exceptions to the rule. Many demons leak infernal energy, which makes them a hazard to anyone in the vicinity. That’s why we are not going to tolerate this one’s presence in the town; if possible, we will learn what it wants before dispatching it, but the first priority is everyone’s safety. I want you all to keep that in mind, and don’t take any needless risks.”

“How’re we s’posed to chase it if it’s invisible?” a middle-aged woman demanded.

“I was just coming to that,” Trissiny said, smothering her irritation. Not soldiers; they couldn’t be expected to know how to behave during a briefing. “Fross and I are able to sense the demon’s presence, so we’re going to work with that. Teal, can we talk with Vadrieny please?”

Teal raised her eyebrows sharply, glancing around. “Um…”

“She’s as much a citizen as any of us,” Toby said firmly. “And I think we’ve all learned to trust Trissiny’s strategies by now.”

“Okay.” Looking resigned and still slightly nervous, Teal took a step forward into the open space surrounding Trissiny.

Vadrieny’s emergence was somewhat less explosive than usual, no doubt a deliberate choice to avoid agitating the townsfolk. Fiery wings blossomed, claws appeared, her hair flickered alight, and moments later the archdemon stood among them, wearing a faint frown.

There was some agitated murmuring and general shuffling back, but her presence didn’t incite a panic; practically everyone in town knew of Vadrieny, and some had had actually seen her before.

“Vadrieny, as you can see, is very easy to spot,” said Trissiny. “I want you and Fross to get aloft when we’re ready to begin. Fross, you’ll keep focused on the demon and position yourself directly above it. Vadrieny, follow her. That way, everyone can tell where it is by looking up.”

“Can do!” Fross chirped enthusiastically.

“Pretty slick use of assets, Boots,” Ruda commented with an approving nod.

“The rest of us,” Trissiny continued, “are going to organize ourselves into six groups, spread as evenly as possible. Three of these will arrange themselves on the outskirts of the town to the northeast, three to the southwest. You’ll all spread yourselves out to create as nearly continuous a line as possible; the groups are to create units that can stay together as we move into the streets and the buildings break up formations. The objective is to herd our quarry into the middle of the town and surround it. As I said before, if we simply drive the creature off, it’ll only come back. We are going to put a stop to this.”

The outburst of approval which followed that verged on cheering at points; she had to hold up a hand for a few moments to gain quiet. Arjen stood patiently beneath her, apparently unmoved by the agitated crowd, though Whisper seemed to want to dance and was demanding most of Gabriel’s concentration. He wasn’t exactly a veteran rider.

“We’ll try to bring the creature to the center of town: the intersection of Main and Division, in front of the courthouse. I’ll need…” She took a quick visual headcount. “…four volunteers to proceed directly there, make sure the mayor knows what’s happening and keep everyone in the surrounding buildings calm and safe.”

There was some murmuring, shuffling and glancing about in response.

“Sheriff Sanders,” she said, “I’d like you to take charge of organizing the six groups, please, and that includes designating any ‘volunteers’ if none come forward.”

“You got it, General,” he said with a grin, tipping his hat.

“Each group is to have one light-wielder,” Trissiny continued, “who will provide the primary means of controlling the demon, since I’m not sure how impressed it’ll be by armed townsfolk. Takli, Aria, Mr. Tarvaegh, Father Laws, Toby, Shaeine. Please step over to the Sheriff so he can assign you to a group.”

“Seems you left some gaps in the formation, there,” someone commented.

“Yes,” Trissiny said, nodding. “The three groups on each designated side are to assume a bowed formation, encircling the town as completely as possible, but I do expect there to be gaps to the southwest and northeast. Small ones, if possible, but they’ll be there. Gabriel and I are going to fill those. With no offense meant to Toby or anyone else present, I think we’re the two a demon is going to be least likely to want to challenge. More to the point, we’re mounted and thus far more mobile, able to cover a wider territory. Gabe, I’m going to cover the southwest gap, since I can sense the demon directly. You watch the opposite one; I doubt the thing’s going to try to escape up the hill to the University. If it does, I suspect Tellwyrn will make all this moot before we have time to react.”

“Yes,” he said, grinning. “Finally, I get the cushy job!” Whisper nickered and bobbed her head enthusiastically, pawing at the ground with one invisible hoof.

“Now, a final point before we move out,” Trissiny said seriously. The Sheriff was moving through the crowd, directing people with pointing fingers and soft words; he didn’t create enough noise to be distracting, by and large, and everyone remained focused on her. “Light-wielders, this thing is agile and speedy; don’t try to chase it down. I want everyone to focus on wide, splashy uses of energy. Yes, I’m well aware this is the least efficient possible use of divine magic, but remember, you aren’t attempting to take it down, just to create an inhospitable region of space it won’t want to try pushing through. Everyone else, please keep weapons at hand, but do not fire except at need. You are present and armed because we don’t know what’s going to happen when this thing is hemmed in. Most creatures lash out when cornered, and most kinds of demons burn just like anything else when struck by lightning. Be mindful of the fact that we’re moving into an inhabited town, and that your fellow citizens will be directly across from you. Do not take a shot unless a situation arises in which you are completely sure of that shot, and of its necessity. Better to have the weapons at hand and not need them than to face that event unarmed.”

Everyone murmured in approval, even as they shuffled into six distinct clusters around her, each of which had one of the designated clerics at its head. Trissiny noted that Ruda and Juniper had been placed in separate groups, apparently at random, and both seemed to be already making friends.

“I had hoped, in addition,” she said, glancing inquisitively at Gabriel, “that we might be able to arrange some kind of blessing for everyone. Something beyond the standard benediction; that’ll do everyone well, but I’m interested in a means of spreading divine power to everyone to help caulk the gaps in our formation, make it harder for the demon to push past. Could the weapons be charmed, perhaps?”

Gabriel was shaking his head before she finished her question. “Divine magic won’t hold on wands and staves; the inherent arcane energy will purge it in seconds. Any blessing powerful enough to override that would mess up their enchantments, and wear you out besides.”

“Also…wouldn’t that take forever?” Juniper added. “There are dozens of people here.”

“Well, it was a thought,” Trissiny said with a sigh. “Then if no one has any questions…?”

She trailed off as Toby stepped forward from his group, moving toward the center of the gap in which she and Arjen stood. Something in his expression was intent and focused in a way that brought her pause, even if she couldn’t quite place a finger on it. He paced into the middle, Trissiny unconsciously nudging Arjen with her knees to make way. In a moment, he stood in the center, she off to the side, everyone present watching curiously, quite silent now.

Toby closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them, and a warm smile lit up his face. “Everyone, be calm,” he said, and his voice seemed to resonate with a quality that encouraged it. “Fross, Juniper, this won’t bother you.”

Then he closed his eyes again, and began to glow. His aura lit up as it usually did when he was calling on Omnu’s power, then slowly began to expand, the quality of the light streaming off him shifting more white than gold.

The sun was almost directly overhead; a single beam streamed straight down from it to the top of Toby’s head, and the light flared out from him like the birth of a new star. Its sheer intensity was blinding, and yet it didn’t hurt at all to look at; in fact, no one closed their eyes, even by instinct.

Only seconds later, it was over. The sunbeam vanished, and the paladin’s aura faded, leaving him standing before them, relaxed and calm. He opened his eyes at last; they glowed gold for a split second before that light, too, faded, leaving the Hand of Omnu looking as normal as anyone.

Except that his aura now bedecked everyone present. Only in the faintest sense, barely visible under the prairie sunlight, but the light around each person there was subtly brighter, some remnant of Omnu’s touch radiating from each of them. Only Juniper (and presumably Fross, though her innate glow made it impossible to tell) were exempt from the effect. The dryad seemed totally unharmed by the divine blasting, however. In fact, she looked oddly pleased, smiling fondly at Toby.

“Holy smokes,” someone said in awe. “Does everybody else suddenly feel like a million doubloons?”

Where there had been only the hard-packed dirt of the old street, they now stood in a thick patch of clover, bedecked with little white and purple blossoms.

“I think,” Trissiny said firmly, regaining everyone’s attention, “we should all take the time once this is done to offer thanks to Omnu for this. Right now, is everyone ready?”

She swept her gaze around the assembled group, meeting firm nods and vocal agreement, and nodded herself.

“Then let’s move.”


After the repeated blunders and humiliations of the last few days, it was almost eerie to have something go so smoothly.

The townspeople of Last Rock didn’t march in anything resembling a formation, but despite the way their disorganized movement made her want to twitch, they unquestionably got where they were going in short order. Nobody got lost, nobody forgot what group they were in, and there was no shoving or scuffling. The folk of the prairie might not be a disciplined militia, but as had been pointed out to her several times recently, they knew what they were about and didn’t require much supervision once the action started.

They reached their assigned positions quickly and fanned out, placing the net around Last Rock and beginning to close in. Trissiny could feel the demon in the distance, darting back and forth, testing first one side of the formation, then another, then yet another, looking for gaps that failed to materialize. The glow Omnu’s blessing had laid over the people remained in full effect; they formed a living screen that seemed to intimidate it. The invisible presence did, now and again, try for a weak spot, but the clerics she had sent with each group did their jobs. That had been a point of some concern for Trissiny, who didn’t know what kind of education in divine magic any of the four locals had, but every attempt by the demon to rush a point on the perimeter was answered by a flash of gold in the distance, and once by a wall of silver light.

At one point it seemingly gave up on that project and veered straight toward her. This early in the plan, she was covering an area some thirty yards wide by herself, which must have seemed a tempting target. Sensing the thing coming, however, Trissiny flared up as brightly as she could and urged Arjen forward to charge straight at it, flinging indiscriminate bursts of divine light to the left and right as she came.

The demon veered aside long before she got close enough to actually hit, and Trissiny turned to keep even with the advancing flanks of the groups to either side of her. Following that confrontation, it shot through the streets directly opposite, right at the mountain.

She couldn’t see or sense what Gabriel did, but it zipped away even faster that time, retreating to probe at the thin space between Shaeine’s group and Father Laws’s, where a burst of mingled silver and gold dissuaded it.

All the while, Vadrieny circled overhead. She wasn’t built to hover, and so she drifted in tight circles above the demon whenever it lingered in one spot, like an enormous burning vulture. The sight was surely enough to instigate a panic by itself, if her purpose hadn’t been already known to the townspeople. Trissiny couldn’t see Fross, nor feel her through the scrying network (apparently Fross’s ability to sense her had to do with her enchanting skill), but she could pinpoint the demon’s position, and Vadrieny was never more than a few seconds behind. It was fast enough, at least, that every time the demon went for a weak point in the encircling formation, Vadrieny heading for that spot was all the warning the townsfolk needed to draw together and head it off.

The longer it went on, the more they closed the loop, the fewer gaps there were. By the time they reached the outer ring of buildings, the only openings were around Trissiny and Gabriel, and even they were just a few seconds’ canter from the flanks on either side.

While the maneuver was similar to what they had done in Sarasio, it was going much, much better. Last Rock was smaller than Sarasio, and fully inhabited, by well-fed, civic-minded people who had both weapons and a healthy gossip network. By the time the members of the posse had reached the outlying buildings, most houses had people standing in their doors or windows, many muttering prayers or clutching idols and sigils of various gods. Similar sacred objects had suddenly appeared decorating door jams and fence posts, and the ankh of the Universal Church, as well as the insignia of Avei, Omnu, and Vidius, had been hastily scrawled on numerous surfaces in chalk, charcoal, and paint.

Their quarry had no space in which to get lost, and its movements became increasingly frantic.

“Slow and steady!” Trissiny shouted, projecting as hard as she could. Her lungs were well-exercised, having been used to command novices back home at the Abbey, but she doubted her voice would reach all the way across the town. “It’s cornered now—this is when it’ll attack if it’s going to. Stay calm, do not rush, and keep in formation! Pass it down the line!”

The call went up on either side as her order was obeyed, instructions being relayed across the ranks. Hopefully the message wouldn’t grow too mangled in the process.

The townspeople were moving into the streets proper, now, passing wary residents standing guard over their businesses and homes with weapons and holy sigils. Trissiny nodded in what she hoped was a reassuring manner to an old man and a housewife as she urged Arjen past them at a walk. The groups to either side had to break up their lines to get around buildings, now, but Trissiny could sense more than see the glow of divine energy streaming off them—faint, but holding longer than it seemed it should have, and clearly serving to keep the demon hemmed in. It seemed their enterprise here merited Omnu’s direct attention, unless Toby had abilities she’d never heard of. Which, upon reflection, was possible.

“You’ve put this together very well, Trissiny,” a voice said from her left, and she glanced aside to behold Sister Takli, who had stepped to the flank of her group to address her. Tarvadegh’s group had closed in on the other side, now; he kept near the center, eyes on Vadrieny above, but they had narrowed the gap enough that there was no open space around her any longer. “I’m sorry for speaking harshly to you before, though I think what I said was correct. In any case, your performance here is more than admirable enough to make up for it.”

“Have you found what you were looking for in Last Rock, sister?” Trissiny asked, keeping her eyes ahead and attention focused on the demon. It was making sweeps around their steadily tightening perimeter—she noted that it was moving around buildings, this time, not trying to go through them. Perhaps those sigils people were putting up were doing some good. In any case, it was calm enough for the moment she felt she could spare a few seconds to converse.

“I’m not sure I was looking for anything in particular,” Takli replied calmly. “But I have found the town more pleasant than I’d expected. I think I may remain here unless specific business calls me elsewhere, at least for a time.”

“Perhaps you should find some business elsewhere without waiting for it to call.”

Even without looking, she could hear the sudden scowl in the Sister’s voice. “I beg your pardon?”

“I would never dream of intruding deliberately on your privacy, sister,” Trissiny said, glancing down at her now and making no effort to moderate her voice. Takli wore a reproachful frown, which deepened as she spoke. “However, I cannot control what valkyries do or who they observe, or what they tell Gabriel, or what he tells me. So I’ve ended up knowing about your relationship with the Universal Church without meaning or really wanting to.”

“How dare—”

“Considering the case of Lorelin Reich,” Trissiny carried on calmly, now looking ahead again, “it would probably be best if you took yourself and your affiliations elsewhere. And kindly remind Archpope Justinian that I work for Avei, not for him. If I have to go down there and tell him myself, it won’t be pleasant for anyone.”

Takli made no verbal response, and Trissiny didn’t glance at her again to see what effect her words had. They earned a dry chuckle from a member of the group to her right, though.

They made the rest of the remaining walk in a tense silence, which Trissiny ignored, focusing on her prey.

The square outside the town hall was more or less the geographic center Last Rock, and the largest open space within the city limits aside from the square by the Rail platform. By the time the encircling forces reached the mouths of streets opening onto it, they had been compressed into ranks four bodies deep; the clerics had continued to place themselves on the front, as had Juniper and Ruda, who had her rapier unsheathed. With everyone clustered that close together, the residual glow of Omnu’s touch upon them was again visible to the naked eye, though faint; in the bright sunlight, it had the effect of making the air seem paler, not to mention bolstering the spirits of all those present. Despite that, the faces visible were all focused to the point of grimness.

Gabriel and Trissiny heeled their mounts forward into the square, ahead of the others. Vadrieny continued to make a circle directly above.

The demonic presence had come to a stop in the dead center.

“Hold ranks!” Trissiny called. “Clerics, step forward two paces. Auras alight at a sustainable intensity—you are to hold this line, not assault.”

“It’s here?” somebody called from a street across the way.

“Oh, it’s here,” Trissiny said grimly. “And now it’s going to account for itself.”

As if responding to her order, the thing burst into visibility. What appeared was bruise-purple, a hovering spot of shadow radiating an aura of sickly darkness that seemed to glow—it was confusing to look at. It oddly resembled an overlarge, sinister pixie.

“Hold your fire!” Trissiny roared as wands and staves were leveled all around. She drew her own sword, urging Arjen forward while Gabriel likewise approached from the opposite side, his scythe fully extended. “No one has a clear shot—let us handle it!”

The presence wasn’t idle as she spoke. It wheeled around in a rapid circle, spitting shadows at the ground. Trissiny only realized what it was doing belatedly, too late to interrupt. The spell circle seemed to appear fully formed, as if the demon were able to lay down elaborate sections in single bursts of light. After only seconds, it flared alight, and something rose up from the center.

It was a hideous thing, all suckered tentacles, pincers, and plates of gleaming chitin; it looked like something that belonged on the ocean floor. Trissiny’s aura blazed to life around her, while Gabriel drew back his scythe, preparing to strike.

An ear-piercing scream split the air, and Vadrieny plunged straight down from above. Before either paladin or the demon had the chance to act, she struck it hard enough to bear its towering bulk to the ground. Natural armor cracked and flesh tore under her claws with a truly sickening cacophony, leaving her standing not so much atop the creature’s back but in it, her talons apparently dug into the ground below.

Under her feet, it immediately began crumbling away to charcoal and ash. The creature hadn’t so much as managed to growl or raise a pincer.

Unfortunately, the original demon had continued to work during their momentary distraction, and with the same dizzying speed. It laid down five more spell circles, each materializing fully formed in a single puff of purple light. That was incredibly complex spellwork, Trissiny noted; very few warlocks would be able to achieve such a feat. She had no time to dwell on this, however, for the smaller circles immediately spat forth snarling katzil demons.

“Clerics, shield!” she shouted. “Everyone raise weapons—wait till they’re above the rooftops to fire!”

The demons seemed more agitated and confused than aggressive, wheeling about in the air and hissing at one another in the confined space in which they found themselves. Once again, however, action was made unnecessary before anyone could take it.

From a single point high above, spears of ice flashed downward in a cone-like formation around Vadrieny and the crumbling ruins of the other demon. Fross struck unerringly, bearing the shrieking katzils to the ground, their bodies partially encased. With the exception of one whose entire head was sealed in a block of ice, they spat flames haphazardly. Only two managed to direct theirs, whether deliberately or not, at actual people; Shaeine brought up a wall of silver light to protect her group from one, while the other flashed harmlessly across the golden shield which formed around Gabriel and Whisper. Though unharmed, the mare whinnied in protest and danced a few steps away.

Even those last gasps ended quickly, however; having immobilized her targets, Fross followed up with blasts of pure arcane energy, reducing each of the five demons to ash and steam in seconds.

“Good work, Fross!” Trissiny shouted, keeping her attention on the circling purple summoner demon.

“Only kind I do!” the pixie called cheerfully from above, her silver glow invisible against the sun.

The original demon shot toward the town hall rather than trying to summon anything else. Trissiny wheeled Arjen around to follow, fully prepared to charge right through the doors if necessary. It wasn’t, however; the thing was apparently not seeking escape.

It arced upward a few feet, prompting Fross to zip toward it in a visible flurry of snow forming into more ice lances as she went, but it did not try to fly away, merely slamming down onto the top of the steps leading up to the hall.

Upon impact, it exploded into a burst of shadow and smoke which rushed outward hard enough to blow everyone’s hair back, carrying the acrid stink of sulfur.

Where it had landed stood a man, limned in an aura of evil-looking purple and black from which orange flames flickered at the edges, wearing an incongruously pristine white suit.

“I suppose you think you’re pretty damn clever,” Embras Mogul snarled, pointing accusingly at Trissiny.

“I think you’re pretty clever,” she shot back, urging Arjen forward a few steps, Gabriel and Whisper prancing up alongside. “And I think we just outmaneuvered you anyway, warlock.”

Mogul sneered from beneath the wide brim of his hat at the cheers which rose up on all sides.

“Wipe those smug looks off your faces, you galoots—do you think any of you would’ve done a damn thing to stop me if you didn’t have this paladin nipping at your heels?” He actually grinned at the shouts of derision brought by that. “Aw, what’s wrong, don’t enjoy the ring of truth? Tell me, the last time she came down here to warn you, did you idiots try to help? Did you even listen? Or did you pitch a big collective fit about a few bruised egos and broken latches?”

“Enough!” Trissiny barked. “You don’t get to stand there and belittle these people! You will leave this town, now, and permanently, or you will leave this plane of existence!”

Arjen trumpeted a challenge, stomping forward, and Trissiny raised her sword, golden wings flaring into being behind her.

“Do you have any idea the hard work you’ve just undone, you snot-nosed little guttersnipe?” Mogul bellowed, again flinging an arm dramatically out at Trissiny. In fact, the pose he struck reminded her incongruously of Professor Rafe in one of his moods. “Do you know how difficult it was to worm into the confidences of the Church itself? To push at Bishop Snowe’s buttons, to get extra clerics placed here and acting under nonsense orders of my choosing? It’s not so very easy to convince followers of the Church to act against their own obvious interest! But no, you’ve no appreciation for all the time and effort you’ve unmade, you just run around smashing things like a good Hand of Avei. You’re nothing but a bear loose in a tea shop, aren’t you!”

“Oh, shut your drama hole, you jackass,” Gabriel exclaimed, leveling his scythe at Mogul like a lance. The beam of light which burst forth from its shaft resembled a standard staff blast, except shot through with streams of violet and blue.

The flash of lightning struck Mogul’s aura, then arced around him and shot away harmlessly into the sky.

“Have your way, paladins,” the warlock sneered. “Keep your wretched little fleabit town. The rest of you—remember, when the gods are falling and your whole world is coming to pieces around you, that the Black Wreath came to try to shield you from their perfidy. Think on that while you’re being crushed underfoot by your own so-called protectors!”

“Shooting isn’t working,” Trissiny said to Gabriel. “Let’s just stab him.”

“I like the way you think.”

They heeled their mounts forward in unison, but before they made it two steps, another eruption of smoke and shadow occurred around him, accompanied by a blast of wind that made them squint and slow.

“You’ve won today, but this is not over!” Mogul shrieked, his voice rising to the edge of hysteria. “Not till every god lies at the Dark Lady’s feet!”

Shadows swelled up around him, and he sank back into them, leaving behind only a peal of deranged laughter.

In its aftermath, the silence was absolute and startling. There were a few beats of quiet beneath the pure sunlight.

The surrounding citizens of Last Rock, though, burst into cheers as if ordered, shouting and clapping one another on the back. A few weapons were discharged into the air, before bellowing from the Sheriff and Ox put a stop to that. All the while, Trissiny and Gabriel sat their saddles, staring at the spot from which Mogul had vanished with identical frowns on their faces, ignoring the jubilation around them.

“It’s not just me, right?” Gabriel said finally, turning to look at her. “That was…weird, wasn’t it? Wrong, somehow.”

“No…it’s not just you.” She sheathed her sword, her own frown not lessening. “I’m not absolutely certain why, but I have a feeling that…”

“I’ll tell you why,” Ruda announced, striding over to stand by Trissiny’s stirrup. The rest of their class had assembled as well, threading through the celebrating townspeople around them to cluster together around the two mounted paladins; Vadrieny had withdrawn into Teal, and Fross hovered about Gabriel’s head, close enough to be seen despite the sunlight. “Last time we saw that guy,” Ruda continued, “he went out of his way to seem as reasonable and approachable as he possibly could. Now, that time?”

“That time,” Teal finished, nodding, “he was hamming it up. Acting like a villain, in the way that an actor does, not like any actual villains do. It was like…”

“Like Rafe,” Shaeine finished softly, her voice nearly lost in the surrounding tumult. “In some ways, like Ruda. He was trying to create an impression.”

“In short,” Ruda said grimly, “that was a performance from start to finish. I think all of it was. I don’t think we actually won here, guys.”

“This isn’t over, is it,” Trissiny said.

No one bothered to answer. It hadn’t been a question.

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10 – 39

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A storm was brewing over Calderaas, which its residents bore with long-suffering good humor. Weather in all parts of the Great Plains was notoriously unpredictable, as the wind out of the Golden Sea might blow in any direction at all, and bring anything with it. Summer snow rarely survived to reach the ground, but from time to time it happened. Calderaas itself was somewhat sheltered by the slope of the mountain on which it sat, which deflected many of the worst storms, but on the other hand the cold winds which came from the Stalrange and the humidity of the Tira Valley might both drift over it, depending on what came out of the Sea. The Calderaan were accustomed to adapting quickly.

In a loft apartment atop one of the city’s younger housing complexes, faint flashes of lightning and the shifting patterns of rapidly-blowing clouds had little effect against the steady glow of an arcane lamp. It was a sparsely furnished space, ready to be abandoned at a moment’s notice, containing only a few cots, a few chairs, and a single table. The summoning circle scrawled in the center of its open area was made of cheap chalk that could be quickly erased, and in fact had not been used to summon anything and wouldn’t be. They liked to prepare the spaces they used with red herrings to obscure their true purposes to anyone who might come sniffing about.

Embras Mogul planted his elbows on the table, resting his chin on his interlaced fingers, and frowned in thought at the space in front of him, from which a warlock had just shadow-jumped away. Thunder grumbled in the distance; none of the three remaining in the room acknowledged it with so much as a glance at the windows.

“It’s thin,” Bradshaw said finally to break the silence, “but workable. I think the little pranks you’ve set up for Justinian should both keep him occupied and keep his attention from our central objective…”

“He knows the central objective anyway,” Embras said, still gazing into empty space. “And we know he knows, and he knows we know he knows, and so on into infinity. This is just…that kind of game. What bothers me is the lack of retaliation.”

“You think something big is coming?” Vanessa asked quietly.

Slowly, Embras shook his head from side to side without changing the focus of his blank stare. “I think he has his sights set on bigger things. We are being…tolerated. That aggravates me more than it ought to. The Lady deserves better than a bunch of distractions.”

“It has to be done, though,” Vanessa said gently. “If you withdrew the pressure on his peripheral activities, he would wonder what was up and devote serious resources to striking at us. For now…this suffices. I really hope your project in Last Rock hits him as hard as you hope.”

“With regard to that,” Kaisa said brightly from behind them.

Vanessa and Bradshaw both leaped from their chairs, she staggering slightly and barely catching her balance on the back of it. Embras rose more smoothly, turning, bowing, and doffing his hat to the kitsune.

“Why, a good evening to you, dear lady,” he said politely. “Forgive the spartan accommodations; I was not expecting such honored company tonight, as you are manifestly aware.”

Kaisa smiled languidly, her eyes half-lidded, and demurely folded her hands in front of her, the wide sleeves of her flowered kimono nearly hiding them. “Given the point you made so elaborately with regard to the very broad game playing in the world around us, I assume you are aware of events transpiring in Viridill?”

“I know of them, certainly,” Embras replied in the same carefully light tone. “And I remain insistently uninvolved. We don’t have a dog in that race.”

“Nonetheless,” she said, “it shifts things into motion that will have an effect upon matters which are of concern to both you and myself. While that comes to a head, it creates the correct opportunity to finish our own little game. We will move on to the final play tomorrow.”

He coughed discreetly. “With all respect, dear lady, I don’t believe that the wisest course just yet. Your kids are admirably clever, and I’m not blind to the fact that the group has pulled together and are, bluntly speaking, onto us. Now is the time to lay a few more diversionary trails, throw up a couple of entertaining smokescreens, before we build to the final act.”

Her smile broadened infinitesimally. Lightning flashed again beyond the windows, accompanied by a closer rumble of thunder, and the arcane lamp flickered.

“It is a peculiar thing I have noticed in this country,” she said, beginning to pace slowly in a wide arc around them. The three warlocks subtly shifted as she circled, keeping their faces to her. “This…misconception of the value and meaning of simple politeness. Courtesy is the sauce in the stew, the oil in the gears. The softness which enables us all to live together in this world without needlessly grinding against one another. Its importance is more, not less, in the absence of friendliness.” Lightning flashed, closer; the lamp flickered again, and her shadow danced upon the walls, a strangely angular thing of back-slanted ears, as if it were cast by a far more predatory creature than the woman before them. “Here, again, you seemingly assume that because I do not address you with a string of obscenities in an outdoor voice, we must be friends.”

Another rumble and flash from outside, another faltering of the lamp, and in the few split-second flickers of darkness, her eyes were eerie green points in her silhouette. “Well, it seems forthrightness is valued here; let it never be said that I am less than accommodating. You and your circle of hell-dabblers, Mr. Mogul, are a class exercise as far as I am concerned, and I expect you to conduct yourselves as such. If you will not, then you are just a suspicious person who has been hanging around the school, performing infernomancy upon my students. That makes a great difference in how I shall deal with you.”

“It’s apparently a short trip between polite and pushy,” Vanessa said tightly.

“Nessa,” Embras warned.

“That is purely unjust,” Kaisa said, her smile unwavering. “I am pushy without being for a moment less than polite.”

“As I suspect you already know,” Embras said, his tone a few degrees cooler than before, “virtually all my available people are out of hand, on business which has nothing to do with you or your students. What we discussed for our final presentation will require more magical skill than I can bring to bear alone, in a field which you emphatically do not practice.”

“Is there something wrong with these?” she asked mildly, making a languid gesture toward the other two with one hand. Thunder rumbled again, closer still, and the lamp cut out completely for almost a full second, plunging the room into a short blackness from which her luminous green eyes bored into them.

“In a word, yes,” Embras replied. “Both sustained serious injury at the hands of the Archpope’s lackeys. Surely you don’t suggest I should risk very important, partially disabled lieutenants on an affair sure to ruffle Professor Tellwyrn’s easily-ruffled feathers?”

“Hmm,” she mused, blinking slowly and cutting her eyes from Vanessa to Bradshaw and back. “I see…I see. Well. In some cultures which live closer to nature than this one, it is considered advisable to…cull the weak.”

Lightning flashed outside, brighter and closer yet, but there was a heavy silence in its wake. Kaisa suddenly grinned broadly at them.

Thunder slammed down as if the lightning bolt had struck directly overhead, and the lamplight vanished entirely.

In the blackness which followed, the glow of the city outside the windows was interrupted by darting, thrashing shapes, and the room filled with the sounds of scuffling, cursing, and finally a single shout of pain. Two shadowbolts flashed across the darkness, their sickly purple glow doing very little to alleviate it, and for an instant the decoy spell circle flashed alight before being brushed away in a single swish of a furry tail.

The whole thing lasted barely five seconds.

Then the lamp came back on, revealing Kaisa standing exactly where she had been, in exactly the same pose. Bradshaw sagged against the wall, barely holding himself upright; Vanessa stood five feet distant from where she had started, hands upraised and a half-formed shadowbolt flickering between them. Embras was now within two yards of Kaisa, a green glass bottle in his hands, half a second from being uncorked.

“There,” the kitsune said brightly, tail swishing in self-satisfaction. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, Embras, but it seems your friends have been tortured recently. Quite clumsily, I might add. If there is one thing I cannot abide, it is shoddy work; whatever is worth doing is worth doing to perfection. But that aside, I trust there will be no more problems or excuses?”

“Are you all right?” Embras asked, shifting his head slightly toward the others but keeping his gaze firmly on Kaisa.

“Fine,” Bradshaw said, straightening up, then blinked, and held up both hands before himself. Neither trembled in the slightest. “I’m…fine?”

Vanessa also straightened, lowering her own hands and letting the spell dissipate. Her mouth dropped slightly open in wonder, and she shifted, leaning her weight on her bad leg, with no apparent effort.

“As I said,” Kaisa said complacently, “perfection. I shall expect to see you in place tomorrow after classes. Do try not to disappoint me, Embras; I was actually beginning to grow rather fond of you. We don’t have any Wreath in Sifan, and you kids have such a wonderful appreciation of fun. Ta ta!”

With a final, cheerful smile, she whirled around, her tail swishing in a broad circle and appearing to erase her from existence. Two crimson maple leaves drifted slowly to the floor where she had stood.

“Are you…” Embras finally turned fully to the others. “Did she really…?”

“I think… Kelvreth’s lashes, she did,” Vanessa whispered, taking a few steps, then a few more back the other way, and finally trotting at a near run to the windows and back. “It’s fixed.”

“Well, then,” Embras said, tucking the bottle away in a pocket and straightening his coat, “we are going to have to have ourselves a celebration. Later, I’m afraid. Right now, it appears we’d better start making preparations for our…command performance. I gather it would go over poorly if the hour arrived and we were unready.”

“At this moment,” Bradshaw said with the faintest tremor in his voice, “I feel inclined not to disappoint her, even without the implied threat.”

“It’s not that I disagree, at all,” said Vanessa, still pacing back and forth as if not yet convinced that she could. “But if anything, this only underscores the point. Oh, I’m grateful; I don’t think I could tell you how much. I’d be willing to—”

“Stop!” Embras barked, holding up a hand. “That’s a fairy, Nessa, and I wouldn’t lay odds that she’s not still listening. Don’t say anything she could interpret as a promise, or a bargain.”

“Even more proof,” she said grimly, finally stopping and facing him. “Embras, that creature is ancient, wildly unpredictable and far more powerful than anything needs or deserves to be, and I don’t believe for a moment that she just placed us so much in her debt out of the goodness of her vulpine little heart. With everything we see of her, I feel less sanguine about this bargain you’ve struck. What if she immediately turns on you the moment your role in her little drama is done?”

“In that case,” he said lightly, “you’re in charge. It’s not that I lack respect for your skills, Bradshaw old boy, but the business of the next few years will call for herding cats more than casting hexes.”

“Let’s not think about that quite yet,” Bradshaw said tensely.

“Embras, be serious,” Vanessa snapped.

“I am,” he said calmly. “If this pays off, it will be worth it. I see no reason to believe it won’t, and as for the good Professor Ekoi… Well, we struck a bargain. So long as we honor it, so will she. Anyway, this isn’t all bad. We’ve as much stake in this as she has, if not more. And if she says the time is right… Frankly, it’s entirely possible that she’s just correct. I’ve a feeling this isn’t her first rodeo.”


Slipping back out through the rent was as easy as getting in had been, though Aspen balked at the eerily empty space between the wall of her mental prison and the dream world beyond. She kept a grip on Ingvar’s sleeve, huddling behind him, and forcing him to moderate his pace on the way back to the mouth of the cave. Not that he was in a particular rush; even knowing the nearly-invisible path would hold him, he felt no urge to walk hastily upon it.

It held, though, as it had before, and he indeed picked up the pace once he got his feet back on ground that looked like ground. In fact, by that point, Aspen also hastened, until she actually pushed him aside and was the first out into the forest.

Ingvar had to halt and watch, smiling in spite of himself, as the dryad squealed in sheer delight and hurled herself to the ground, rolling exuberantly through the moss. She bounded upright in the next moment, rushing over to wrap her arms around the trunk of a tree and hug it, then darted to one side to investigate a bush.

“Oh my gosh! Things! Plants! It’s not like the real world but oh how I’ve missed other living things. Stuff that isn’t me!”

“Couldn’t you have made—Aspen!” he exclaimed in alarm.

“What?” She looked up at his tone, frowning. “What the mat—augh!”

Mid-sentence, she caught sight of her hands, which had begun to fade from view like the path beyond the dreamscape. The dryad stumbled backward, as if she could outrun the oncoming invisibility, which did not work. It traveled up her arms, progressively erasing first her hands, then her forearms. She stumbled, glanced down, and let out a keening sound of pure panic at the sight of her vanishing feet.

Ingvar rushed forward, horribly unaware that he knew of nothing that could help, but reflexively grabbed her by the arms as if by holding her, he could keep her anchored in existence.

He was actually quite surprised when it worked.

Her limbs immediately faded back into view, and she clutched his waist, her fingers digging in as if to reassure them both that she still had fingers. They stared at each other, wide-eyed, Aspen panting in gradually diminishing panic.

“Okay,” Ingvar said shakily after a moment, “I warned you something like that might happen. I think…you had better keep hold of me while we’re in here.”

“Right,” she said weakly. “Right. Good idea. Um. What…are we doing?”

Moving very carefully, he slipped an arm around her waist, pulling her close, and turning in a slow half-circle to reorient himself. There was the cave… Once he was facing the right direction again, even without taking wolf form, he found he could detect the trail of scent leading off into the distance. Or not exactly scent…now it was a perception to which he couldn’t quite put a name, as if he had senses here to which he was not accustomed. Which, now that he thought of it, made perfect sense.

“I’m looking for someone,” he said. “A… Well, I’m not sure what, or who. But it’s someone who knows a lot about traveling through dreams this way.”

“Do you think this…someone…could help me?” she asked tremulously.

“I suppose that if anyone can, he’s a likely candidate. Or she,” he added. “And I was looking for h—them anyway. I guess now we just have another reason to find them.”

“Right,” she said, pressing herself against his side. He almost wished the situation were less worrisome (and she less weirdly childlike) so he could enjoy what would otherwise have been an exceedingly pleasant sensation. “Okay…good, sounds like a plan. Uh, sooner would be better.”

“Right,” he echoed. “It’s going to be a little difficult to walk in this position…”

After shuffling around for a few moments, they settled on holding hands, which seemed to keep her visible and intact. His left hand and her right; useless as it might be here, he felt it important to keep his dominant hand free to reach for a weapon if he needed to. If nothing else, it brought him some comfort.

“It’s that way,” he said, pointing in the direction of the invisible trail.

“How do you know?”

“It’s a long story. I was…”

He trailed off, staring. A few feet directly in front of them, a tree suddenly sprouted from the thick moss underfoot, rising upward in seconds to the height of a man and unfolding branches which dangled like a willow’s. The sapling was a pale green like the earliest leaves of spring, and glowed as brightly as a street lamp.

As they stared at it, another tree sprouted further up, in the direction the trail went, ten yards or so distant. After a few moments, yet another one did beyond, far enough that it would be lost in the shadows if not for its green glow.

“There’s also that,” Ingvar said finally. “And it appears we’re expected, now.”

“Great,” she said. He couldn’t tell from her tone whether that was sarcastic or not. At any rate, she didn’t resist or have to be pulled along when he set off on the now-marked trail. Considering her present condition, it made sense that she would be as eager as he to meet the person Ingvar had come here to find.

Whether that person would be willing, or able, to help her were two separate and currently unanswerable questions.

They proceeded, guided by the glowing trees; it was oddly reminiscent of walking along a street marked by lamps. That thought made Ingvar cringe and decide he had spent far too much time in Tiraas. He did not relax his attention, however, not willing to blindly trust these signals. He could still find the trace, and it did continue to lead in the same direction as the glowing trees.

“Do you sense anything?” he asked his companion, who was silent and apparently nervous. “Anything aside from these? I found it as a scent, first, but now it’s like I can still perceive it, even without smelling…”

“Uh huh,” she said, picking up her pace slightly. “I think…I have an idea what’s up there.”

“Do you think we’re in danger?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah,” she said immediately. “But I also think he can probably help. Both of us, I mean.”

“Great.” He was, at least, certain of his own sarcasm.

They did not have far to go, it turned out. After only a dozen or so tree-markers, their destination became plain. Up ahead of them rose an entire grove of the glowing trees, these full-sized, towering above even the ordinary pines that made up the forest. They were planted close together, their branches intertwining to form an almost solid wall; at least, he could not see what lay beyond it. Rather than a forest, the tight structure made him think of some kind of temple, or cathedral.

Ingvar and Aspen exchanged a wary glance, but did not slow.

As they neared, the spaces between the trees began to be somewhat more visible. Drawing closer, he found that while the glow of the whole thing made it look homogenous from without, its “walls” were composed only partly of slender tree trunks; most of them were made up of the drooping, willow-like fronds, which formed an almost solid barrier to sight, but clearly not to passage. They shifted slightly in the faint movement of air through the woods. Something was beyond…something he could glimpse only vaguely. It was big.

Ingvar drew in a deep breath to steel himself, but still did not slow. Aspen kept her grip on his fingers as he slipped through the fronds between a pair of trunks; the gap was narrow enough that she had to fall behind, but a moment later she joined him within the grove, stopping to stare at its occupant.

“Welcome,” said the dragon.

He was green, and luminous as the trees making up his encircling grove, which Ingvar was fairly certain was not an ordinary draconic trait. Of course, in this dream-land, it made as much sense as anything else. Aside from that, he was a dragon in all relevant respects: sinuous, armored in jagged scales, winged, clawed, fanged, and over two stories tall.

Ingvar immediately bowed, as deeply as he was able. Aspen did not.

“My name is Khadizroth,” the dragon rumbled, tilting his huge, triangular head inquisitively. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you—and especially your companion, whom I confess I did not expect. Whom might you be?”

“I am Ingvar, a Huntsman of Shaath,” he replied, bowing again.

“Hi! I’m Aspen!” The dryad contented herself with a languid wave of her free hand.

Khadizroth surged to his feet, shifting his enormous bulk to face them directly, and Ingvar managed only by a sheer exertion of will not to skitter nervously backward. The dragon only used his upright stance to bow, however. Despite his size, it was clear from his orientation that he directed the gesture specifically at Aspen, and the thought of making an issue of it did not for a moment cross Ingvar’s mind. The Huntsmen were what they were, and had their ways, but he didn’t think even Tholi would have been daft enough to challenge a dragon for alpha male status.

“Aspen,” Khadizroth said, his voice a light tenor that made its deep, powerful resonance seem rather peculiar. “It is an honor and a pleasure to meet you. And you as well, Ingvar. I’m certain you have some questions for me—and I, now, for you. I am curious what a dryad is doing wandering this realm? Forgive me, but of those of your sisters whom I have met, I never found any to be sufficiently introspective to find entrance here.”

“Well, it wasn’t exactly my idea,” she huffed. “I was being kept in a…a kind of bubble. Isolated from time and stuck in my own head.”

The dragon narrowed his eyes to blazing emerald slits, their luminosity outshining even the glow of the rest of him, and Ingvar’s wariness increased substantially. “Who would dare do such a thing?”

“Oh, it wasn’t to attack me,” she said grudgingly. “I was…um…kind of transformed? Partially. The Arachne froze me to stop it from happening, and she and Kuriwa and Sheyann were trying to… Well, they were trying to help, but I really didn’t like it. They wouldn’t let me out; Sheyann said I’d just continue the transformation if they did unless we made some kind of progress.”

“Transformation?” Ingvar said, curious in spite of himself.

Aspen turned to him, her face lighting up in a sunny smile. “But then Ingvar here found me and helped me get out! Oh, but… There’s kind of a problem. If I don’t stay touching him, I tend to…um, disappear.”

“I see,” Khadizroth rumbled thoughtfully. “To accomplish such a thing… You are an even more interesting individual than I expected, Brother Ingvar, and that is indeed saying something. I’m afraid, however noble your intentions, you have placed Aspen in considerable danger. She is here with neither body nor mind; both are imprisoned in another location. The soul of her is able to exist only because you have brought it out connected to yourself.”

Aspen let out a soft squeak of dismay.

“Is it possible you can help her?” Ingvar blurted. “I mean… My apologies, Lord Khadizroth, I did not intend to presume…”

“Not at all,” the dragon said, drawing back his lips in what Ingvar only realized after a terrified moment was a smile. That was a lot of teeth, and on average they were longer than his forearm. “Not at all, I would not dream of sending you away unaided. Yes, I believe I can do something. Hm… Forgive me, but this may take some effort, and concentration. My focus is currently divided; I am not physically present in the dream world, and you are, I’m afraid, not the only important matter which demands my attention.”

“I’m sorry if it’s trouble,” Aspen said piteously, and Ingvar gave her a wry look. Even ill-behaved dryads became suddenly more respectful in the presence of a dragon, it seemed.

Khadizroth smiled again, and laughed, a booming chuckle that, if anything, increased Ingvar’s nervousness. “My dear child, it is no imposition. I would be honored to be of aid to a daughter of Naiya under any circumstances, but to do so and spite both Kuriwa and Arachne at the same time? Oh, I assure you, nothing could prevent me. Now, Ingvar. Are you ready to be of assistance to her?”

“What can I do?” Ingvar asked immediately, which would be the only possible answer to that even were he not already interested in aiding Aspen.

“You have bound her to yourself, and you alone of the pair of you have a safe avenue out of the dream. You will have to carry her with you to the material plane. I will perform the working which will make this possible. Hold out your other hand.”

Ingvar did so, opening his palm, then blinked. Sitting upon it was a large nut. It was the size of a walnut, but smooth, and striated with luminous green and gold veins.

“It is done,” the dragon said solemnly.

“Wait…that’s it?” Aspen exclaimed. “I thought you said that would be hard!”

Again, Khadizroth chuckled. “This is a realm of symbol and perception, child. I assure you, what you just observed was the palest shadow of what actually transpired. When you awake, Ingvar, plant the seed. Do so quickly. The magic will do the rest.”

“I thank you for your help, Lord Khadizroth,” he said formally, closing his fingers around the seed and bowing again.

“Uh, me too,” Aspen said belatedly. “Seriously, thanks. That’s a big help.”

“I am honored to be of service,” the dragon said solemnly. “And now, if that addresses your problem, I believe Ingvar here came to me with questions.”

He turned his head expectantly toward Ingvar, sitting back down on his rear legs.

Ingvar experienced a tongue-tied moment, and cleared his throat to cover. “It’s… The truth is, milord, I owe you thanks. I have benefited greatly from the quest on which you set me. I’ve learned a great deal…most of it troubling, but all, I think, vitally important.”

“You are welcome,” the dragon said solemnly, nodding his great head.

“This part, though,” Ingvar continued, steeling himself, “was part of a bargain I struck. In exchange for the Crow’s help, she asked that I journey through the dream to find out who it was who sent me those visions.”

“As expected,” Khadizroth said, nodding again. “Have you any questions of your own for me, before we address that?”

“I…one, in fact,” Ingvar said slowly. “If I may.”

“I assure you, young Huntsman, I did not send you on a journey toward the truth without expecting you to ask for detail at its end. Speak, and I will answer what I can.”

Ingvar hesitated again, then took a deep breath and blurted. “Why me?”

“Ah,” said Khadizroth, blinking slowly. “Sadly, that’s a question I cannot answer, at least probably not to your satisfaction. I sent out to find the right one to undertake this quest. In such matters… It is unknowable, how the One is selected. Depending on who you ask, you might be told that I chose you subconsciously, that the world did, that Shaath or even Naiya did. There are some who would contend that you chose yourself for this duty.”

“Well, that’s nice and all,” Aspen said dubiously, “but he pretty much asked you what you think.”

“Aspen!” Ingvar protested.

Khadizorth laughed. “Don’t begrudge her a little brazenness, my friend, you’re only arguing with the wind. To answer, then… I will fall back upon the only consistent wisdom I can claim to possess, and say…” He shook his head slowly. “I don’t know. But I am most definitely not disappointed with the result. However you were chosen, and by whom, you are clearly the right one. Not just any fool could have stumbled into this dream and rescued an imprisoned dryad on your way to this meeting. Who can say what threads there are, linking you to what destiny? The wild magic of the fae is not meant to be understood.”

“By which you mean,” Ingvar said quietly, “that particular…transcension field is not designed with mortal consciousness in mind.”

Khadizroth stared down at him for a long moment, then shook his head. “Kuriwa sent you down that hole, didn’t she?”

“That was the most educational part of this journey, yes. Though…perhaps by not as great a margin as it deserved. I am still not at all certain what to do with the knowledge I gained.”

“Embrace that, Huntsman, and act only judiciously. The unwise use of knowledge is behind the vast majority of suffering.”

Ingvar nodded. “Well, then… That aside, it sounded as if you were unsurprised to learn that she sent me here to find you.”

“Only to find?” the dragon asked in amusement.

“Yes,” Ingvar said firmly. “That was all; she tasked me only with learning who it was who could send visions through dreams and designate her as a person the recipient should seek out. This is done and my duty to her fulfilled. Before I return, though, I am curious…”

“Yes?” Khadizroth prompted when he trailed off, still smiling.

“I have the sense,” Ingvar said very carefully, “that you planned all this for a reason.”

Again, the dragon chuckled, momentarily filling the air with the scent of smoke. “Indeed. Given your origin, Huntsman, I suspect you understand the purpose and the value of honor. That is why I chose Shaath; any of the gods would have sufficed, but I deemed a Huntsman the best choice for this journey.”

“I certainly do,” Ingvar said, nodding firmly.

“I don’t,” Aspen said somewhat petulantly. “Honor’s just a made-up idea. It’s not natural.”

“Natural, unnatural,” Khadizroth mused. “Where do you draw the line?”

He stared at her expectantly; she only stared mutely back, her mouth hanging open.

“Aspen,” Ingvar said, turning to her with a frown, “you feel bad about killing those people, right?”

Her expression collapsed into a sulky scowl and she kicked at the ground. “I don’t know why you have to bring that up…”

“But you didn’t before,” he persisted.

“I didn’t know better!”

“But you do now. You are more than just an animal; things matter beyond simple survival. Honor is what guides us away from wrong action, prevents us from making the mistakes that make us feel as horrible as you do about that. It is well worth pursuing.”

“Well said,” Khadizroth rumbled approvingly. “But even honor has its pitfalls. I find myself somewhat trapped by my own. I am beholden, thanks to honor and obligation, to a certain individual whose aims I find it inherently dishonorable to serve. It is the proverbial rock and hard place.”

“I…see,” Ingvar said slowly.

“Makes one of us,” Aspen muttered.

“In this much, however,” the dragon continued, “I persist in finding ways around the prohibitions laid upon me. By, for example, drawing Kuriwa’s attention in a most roundabout manner.”

“Oh?” Ingvar said, finding his curiosity rising again. “Toward what?”

“Events are transpiring,” said the dragon, “in Viridill and across the border in the cursed lands to the south. Large events, which have commanded a great deal of attention—which was exactly what they were intended to do. Someone should know that these are a smokescreen for—”

Abruptly the dragon broke off, eyes and mouth going wide, and suddenly the luminosity of his scales faded, leaving him a glittering, metallic green which seemed mundane only by comparison.

“Lord Khadizroth?” Ingvar asked, alarmed. “What’s wrong?”

Khadizroth heaved backward, letting out a roar of unmistakable pain and toppling back against the rear edge of his grove, smashing a wide swath of the glowing trees to the ground. Ingvar and Aspen backpedaled in unison, reaching the opposite wall just as the glow of those trees flickered out and they began dissolving into dust.

The dragon thrashed wildly, flailing tail and claws raking up huge rents in the forest floor, and where they gouged the moss, an empty whiteness was revealed beyond. After mere moments of this it began to spread, his continued struggles seeming to tear open the very air.

“What’s wrong with him?” Ingvar asked frantically.

“Just run!” Aspen shouted, following her own advice and dragging him along.

He needed little more encouragement; the world itself seemed to be dissolving around them, jagged rents now spreading outward from the increasingly damaged area around the flailing dragon. They quickly outpaced the fleeing pair, trees, ground and sky alike disappearing in segments. The very earth dissolved beneath them, and suddenly they were plummeting into infinity, their cries of panic underscored by a last, thundering wail of pain from the dragon.

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