Tag Archives: Farah Szaravid

Epilogue – Vol. 4

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The High Commander’s office was deep enough in the temple that the sound of thunder penetrated it, but even the fiercest rain was muted by intervening walls. It was not thundering now, and the dreary patter of Tiraas’s usual weather made no sound within—at least, not to the humans. Commander Rouvad and Squad One were left in silence.

She had not directed them to stand at ease, or in fact said anything since their arrival. For over a full minute, Rouvad just studied them with a quizzical little frown, as if struggling to figure out what she was looking at. For such a famously self-possessed woman, it was an unusual expression. Almost alarmingly so.

“Well,” the High Commander said at last. “Another mission completed, and with a nearly optimal outcome. I had a secondary reason for sending you there and placing you in charge, Lieutenant Locke. My intention was to give you the chance to become familiar with the other special forces squadrons, and get them accustomed to you. And, more specifically, to taking orders from you. Yet, all other squads have nothing to report of your interactions except that they arrived in Puna Dara to find you there, looking insufferably pleased with yourself, and reporting that the entire matter was settled.”

She paused again, her mouth twisting to one side in a sardonic half-grimace that was far more characteristic of her.

“Anything to add to that, Lieutenant?”

Principia cleared her throat. “I am extremely pleased with the performance of my squad, Commander, but the situation placed us entirely in a supplementary role. I believe our assistance was useful, but ultimately it was adventurers who settled the crisis in Puna Dara. I cannot take credit, individually or on behalf of my unit. And I am always insufferably pleased with myself, ma’am, it wasn’t situationally specific. If I’ve done something to offend any of the other squad leaders, I’ll owe them an apology.”

“You may be the most irritating presence in all my Legions, Locke, but you’re far from the only large personality, particularly among the special forces. Had you given offense, I’m sure I would be hearing about it. No, they are simply left in the same position they were to begin with: wondering just who and what you are and why I would put you in command. And as usual, you’ve managed to make a wreck of my careful planning without seeming to realize you were, and while fulfilling the letter of your orders to perfection. It’s an incredible talent you have, Locke.”

She inhaled deeply, shoulders rising, and let out the breath in a heavy sigh.

“You once had the gall to take me to task about the state of the Silver Legions’ combat readiness. You were not entirely incorrect, either. I certainly have not failed to notice that we are trained and equipped to fight the wars of two centuries ago. Nobody has, Locke; you weren’t clever for pointing it out. If anything, you underestimated the issue. The Silver Legions have not stagnated since the Enchanter Wars, we have regressed. The Legions which beat the Imperial Army at the borders of Viridill fought with battlestaves and magical artillery—primitive compared to those of today, but still. They also made heavy use of what, in any other organization, would be called adventurers. The last, lingering remnants of the Silver Huntresses and the old League of Avei. Those are truly gone, now, their only heirs the Legion special forces you didn’t get the chance to work with in Puna Dara recently.

“Today’s Silver Legions serve a different purpose than did those of a hundred years ago. When we are sent to fight, it is against the same universal evils we always have. Demon infestations, renegade warlocks, necromancers, the odd outbreak of aggressive fae… The methods of wars past still work against them, as do our corps of priestesses wielding Avei’s light. In some ways, these events are relics of a world that is slipping further into the past every day. Apart from that, the Legions remain a calming influence, a reminder of Avei’s presence. It assuages the fears of many, and dissuades others, like the Huntsmen of Shaath, from becoming too aggressive in areas where we maintain a presence. In the century since the Enchanter Wars, we have specialized in very specific kinds of war—and they do not include grand interstate conflicts. The Silver Legions have not, since that time, acted against any mortal government by force of arms. And because of that, we are welcomed nearly everywhere…despite the memory of the war in which we were instrumental in bringing down the world’s mightiest empire. The nations of the earth permit our presence because we bring stability, and do not threaten their power. And so we are a universal force without having to fight for an inch of the ground we hold. Politics: the continuation of war by other means.”

She paused, frowning slightly, then inhaled a slow breath as if steeling herself for something. “This was not a strategy instigated by any High Commander. It was a command directly from Avei.”

Rouvad stood, suddenly, and paced out from behind her desk to stand in front of it, studying each of them in turn as she continued.

“Avei’s orders were that this measure must be unequivocally genuine. No surreptitious preparations or great secrets: the draw-down of the Silver Legions was to occur in exactly the manner it appeared on the surface. Naturally rumors arose at first that this was a ploy, but they have faded with time. No hint has ever emerged that the Silver Legions are engaged in any hidden program to suddenly bring forth unexpected power, because no such program has existed. The only way to guarantee that a thing will not be found is to guarantee that it is not to be found.

“You have all heard rumors of the First Silver Legion?”

She paused, watching them. One by one, they nodded, as it became clear the Commander was actually waiting for a response.

“That rumor persists throughout the Legions,” Nandi said finally. “It always has.”

“It is a real thing,” said Rouvad, turning her back on them to stare at the wall behind her desk, on which was hung a map of the continent. “But not in the manner people suppose. Avei commanded the designation of First Legion be reserved, as we do for first cohorts within each Legion and first squadrons within each cohort, for special forces. The First is to serve as a military force that can actually take on any known opponent and win. And it does not exist. The First Legion is not training in secret; it is waiting to be called, at the goddess’s command.”

Rouvad’s tight braid shifted slightly back and forth as she shook her head infinitesimally, still looking away from them.

“Gods don’t commonly speak to their followers, and ours is no exception. I have rarely had orders directly from Avei during my tenure. One concerned you, Locke, as you know but I presume your squadron does not. Do they?”

“If so,” Principia said carefully, “they didn’t hear it from me. You ordered me not to reveal that, ma’am.”

“So I did. You do generally stop short of open disobedience, don’t you? Well, ladies, for your edification, when this one showed up here with her rap sheet longer than the history of some nations, transparently angling to get close to her estranged paladin daughter, my inclination was naturally to toss her out on her dainty ear. It was at Avei’s direct order that she was allowed to enlist.”

The entire rest of the squad turned their heads to stare at Principia in disbelief.

“Attention,” she snapped. Five pairs of eyes immediately faced front again.

Rouvad turned, looking across their line with faint amusement on her features. It faded immediately.

“The goddess has given orders again. What I am about to tell you is, until further notice, a secret of the highest order. You will reveal it to no one. So far as the Third Legion’s chain of command is to know, your squad will be answering to me directly in pursuit of a classified project, which is true, and your status is not otherwise changed. That project is the creation of a secret military unit within the Silver Legions capable of contending with and defeating any rival force which exists upon this planet. Avei’s orders come with a warning: a great doom is coming. She anticipates it will be less than two years before this force must be put to the test. That is how long you have, Locke.

“For the time being you will remain ostensibly assigned as you presently are. Known only to yourselves and to me, however is your new designation: Squad 111. The First Legion is raised, ladies. Whatever is coming…it is nearly upon us.” She shook her head again. “May the goddess watch over us all. Any questions? Locke?”

“You…that…” For once, it appeared Principia had nothing to say. She swallowed heavily and tried again. “To clarify… You expect me to bring the Silver Legions forward a hundred years? In less than two? In secret?”

“I frankly don’t know what to expect,” Rouvad replied, with open bitterness. “Do you imagine this fills me with confidence, Locke? Do you really think I would choose to place this burden on your scrawny shoulders? But I am overruled. Here’s a great secret for you, perhaps more secret to some than to others: the gods are not always right. But they unquestionably know a great deal that we do not. And I trust Avei. Not merely as a divine being, but as an individual. From my survey of history and my personal experience with our goddess, I believe she knows what she is doing, even when no one else does. Let me tell you, this tests that belief. Tests, but does not break or even bend it.

“You will answer directly to me in this, Locke. I am not advancing you to the rank of General, that would be ridiculous. I expect you to continue showing the proper decorum and respect toward your superior officers—the fact that you technically command a Legion now does nothing to change that expectation. Whatever and whoever you need, if it’s within my power, is yours. Everything goes through me, you are not to go off on your own or cut me out of the loop. But you will have my unconditional support, and are entitled to every resource I can muster for your project. Beyond that… The means by which this shall be done is left entirely to you. Understand?”

“This is impossible,” Principia breathed.

“No, Locke, you are impossible,” Rouvad said sourly. “This is merely the ludicrous, pestilential millstone round the neck you have been to countless souls over the last two and a half centuries. I bet it surprises you as much as me to learn that your career has been actually leading up to something. Regardless, you will doubtless have questions and require clarification, but I believe you had better take time to compose yourself before bringing them, otherwise they are unlikely to be pertinent. For now, dismissed.”

They stood there, Principia with her mouth half-open in a totally uncharacteristic expression of baffled shock. The rest of her squad were varying degrees of stunned and alarmed; all had shifted their heads slightly to look at her sidelong.

“You are dismissed, ladies!” Rouvad barked.

Principia jumped physically, then sketched a salute. Ephanie, at the other end of the line, turned to open the door. They filed out in silence, the weight of the High Commander’s stare seeming to push them physically from the office. It didn’t let up until Ephanie shut the door behind them.

The hall, fortunately, was deserted for the moment.

“Sooo.” It was Merry who finally broke the silence. “Szaravid, you’re the historian here. On a scale of the Enchanter Wars to the Second Hellwar, how boned would you say we are, exactly?”

“The Second Hellwar didn’t leave a single functioning kingdom anywhere on the continent,” Farah said faintly. “It won’t be anywhere near that bad. I mean, it can’t. Surely?”

“Cut the chatter,” Ephanie ordered. “The LT is scheming.”

They turned their attention on Principia, who was indeed staring into space, but not with the lost look she’d worn moments before. Her eyes were slightly narrowed, darting this way and that as if studying a large, complex diagram none of them could see. Noting positions, charting connections, extrapolating…

“Okay,” she said, and nodded slowly. “All right. I have an idea.”


By now, the Archpope’s seclusions were a known habit, and his personnel knew better than to try to dig him out when he was sequestered in prayer. He actually did sequester himself in prayer, at least enough to be seen doing it and preserve the legitimacy of the claim. But the habit served most importantly to earn him time to vanish into the catacombs beneath the Grand Cathedral and pursue the various projects which demanded his personal attention. Those no one else could be allowed to see.

On this occasion, he passed through the labyrinthine passages and numerous barriers by rote, knowing every turn, every combination, every step to avoid setting off a trap, and came before a simple metal doorway with a small glass panel set into one of its upright columns. The maze Justinian had created beneath the Cathedral would have been a very irresponsible thing to leave for his successor, did he not specifically plan that there would not be another Archpope after him.

The panel blazed alight at his touch, emitting a soft white glow. He submitted his palmprint, traced a pattern with his fingertip, tapped one corner in a specific rhythm, entered a fourteen-digit alphanumeric code, and played three bars of a melody on the one-octave piano keypad which appeared at the final stage. Only after all that did the door truly come alive, filling with a luminous panel of inscrutable blue light.

Time was precious. Justinian stepped through it without pausing even a moment, despite the enormity of the step he was taking. He had grown accustomed to this particular miracle.

That was related to the matter which so troubled him now.

He emerged on a walkway of spotless, gleaming metal, extending hundreds of feet ahead and broad as a city avenue, lined with a waist-high balustrade along which softly glowing panels were spaced, providing gentle illumination. In fact, the path was curved, but on such a scale that it appeared perfectly straight from the perspective of any person standing upon it. Ahead, it terminated against a coliseum-sized structure which extended downward, like a massive, inverted tower. He did not step to the side to look over the edge; aside from being a disturbing view, he knew what he would see.

Nothing, straight down, for countless miles until far below, at the center of the moon, was the mass shadow engine—now more a phenomenon than a structure. The awesome power source which provided not only the energy that had once ignited magic itself on the world, but the gravity which governed the very tides.

He did pause to look upward, as he always did, at the transparent panel which formed the ceiling over this walkway. Above it stretched infinite space. It was good timing; at the moment, he could also see the world of his birth and all his careful plans, half-hidden by the moon’s shadow.

There seemed no specific sound, save for the soft yet omnipresent ambient hum of powerful machines functioning at low power—unusual, in this century, but distinctive to those who knew it—yet mere seconds after Justinian’s arrival a whirring began. From the huge complex at the other end of the path, a small form rounded the corner of its open doorway and came whizzing toward him on nimble little wheels. It veered from side to side in excitement as it approached, emitting a pleasant series of chimes and brandishing its multiple insectoid arms in the air.

Justinian smiled as he paced forward to meet it with a measured step, pausing when the Caretaker unit intercepted him. It wheeled around him in a full orbit in its glee before stopping, and he placed a hand atop its upper protrusion.

“Hello, CT-16. It’s good to see you again. I am afraid the pace of events keeps me from visiting often, but it is always pleasant to meet you.”

The little golem chimed happily back, ducking out from under his hand to whirl around him once more, then fell in beside him as he continued forward toward the huge structure.

Justinian allowed the smile to melt from his features as he walked beside the Caretaker.

“It has been bad, recently,” he said, staring ahead at the complex they approached. “This last week… My plans continue to develop apace, with no further major upheavals. It seems I have even gained some ground. The price, though, is bitter. Many who have seen the value of my ideas and shown loyalty to me because of them…sacrificed. Apprehended by the government and their lives and careers greatly disrupted. And those are the more fortunate. Others have perished…in unfortunate events when the Empire came for them, in violence at the hands of that creature Tellwyrn…”

He sighed softly, and closed his eyes for a moment without slowing his pace. The Caretaker made a whirring little series of chimes and produced a brush on one of its arm tips, and gently stroked his sleeve in a comforting gesture.

“And poor Ildrin,” Justinian whispered. “Loyal, trusted Ildrin, who has served me with such diligence. I killed her, CT. Oh, I was nowhere nearby. But I maneuvered her into a desperate position, orchestrated the systematic loss of all her support, left her isolated and vulnerable, knowing just how this would act upon her psyche… And then stranded her in a situation with a group of angry Eserites and a vengeful paladin. The outcome was mathematical. It doesn’t matter who held the blade, the blood of a faithful friend is on my hands.” For just a moment, his normally controlled features twisted in disgust. “Because she was no longer useful. Because knowing as much as she did made her a liability. Because it was…strategic.”

He slowed, swerving to the side, and finally come to a stop, planting his hands on the rail and leaning over it, head hanging. The Caretaker sidled up beside him, chiming questioningly in concern.

“I feel it coming on,” Justinain said, opening his eyes and gazing down into empty space. Before him was a perspective the human mind had not evolved to see; it was dizzying, disorienting. The infinite abyss extended down to a swirling mass of light and shadow, the size of a continent and which his mind wanted to believe couldn’t be anything like that in scope. All around, more complexes extended downward from the outer crust of Luna Station, which curved away in all directions.

“I was so passionate when I began this,” he said into the void. “So full of indignation at what the gods have done to us. I have learned…sympathy. For them, for their choices, even for the costs they have inflicted on the world in the name of protecting their power. They were hopeless rebels who rose up to oppose omnipotent beings—just as I am now. And it begins so easily. One compromise, then another, and so on, and each makes the next easier. The cost not so painful. The guilt…more distant. Already I have reached the point where it does not hurt…enough. Not enough, CT. All this, Ildrin alone, this should make me weep. Yet I see only the place it served in the larger plan. This is the sign that I should stop. I am no longer the pure-hearted idealist who began this. I no longer trust myself with the work.

“And yet…and yet, I have no choice. There is no one else who can take up the task. If I leave it now, it will all have been for nothing. The work still needs doing; all these sacrifices cannot have been wasted. The best I can do, anymore, is loathe what it is making me.”

Surreptitiously, the Caretaker grasped his robe firmly with two of its arms.

Justinian smiled, reaching around to pat the golem’s top again, and straightened up, away from the drop before him. “Thank you, my friend, but you needn’t worry. I don’t desire to rest. I do not deserve peace. No…there is only the work, now. But I’m afraid, CT. I am so very terrified that by the time I come to the end of this, even if I succeed… That I will have become a monster who absolutely cannot be allowed to have the power it will grant me. And this hideous cycle will only begin again.”

He stepped back, and raised his head further, again looking up at the arch of space ahead. The world had risen, its edge now clipped by the rim of the skylight. In minutes more it would pass out of view.

“I wonder,” he whispered, “if they ever reached this point? If they faced the knowledge that they needed to stop…but could not afford to?”

Man and golem stood that way, silent, for long moments of contemplation.

At last, Justinian began walking again, resuming his course, and the Caretaker came with him, finally releasing his robe.

“I appreciate you, my little friend,” he said. “Confession is very healing; it is no accident it plays a role in Izara’s faith, and several others. There is simply no one else to whom I can unburden myself, anymore.” He patted the Caretaker again. “Few and fleeting as these meetings of ours are, they are precious to me. If I could not admit to someone how much all this troubles me… I believe I would be lost already if not for you. Thank you.”

The golem chimed pleasantly in reply, again reaching up to gently grasp his sleeve in one of its metal appendages.

“I shall do my utmost,” Justinian said gravely, “to make the outcome of my labors worthy of your trust. I know you waited alone for a very long time. Your first masters began in pursuit of science and the ultimate truth of the universe, and fell to vicious insanity. The Pantheon sought justice, freedom, and a new hope for all the people of this world…and look what they immediately did. The cycle must break, CT. I hope against hope I shall be the one to do it. That you will not have to be disappointed yet again.”

The Caretaker just chimed soothingly, and stroked his arm again with the brush.

They were silent until they reached the broad opening into the complex, the massive round tower of metal descending into a spire that aimed at the moon’s terrible core.

“More immediately,” Justinian said in a thoughtful tone as they descended a long ramp, “I find that I have made fundamental errors which I must now correct. I underestimated how difficult it will be to keep all these various factions and foes stirring for the time it will take, without allowing them to destroy me. They are more capable than I anticipated, this is true. But more significantly, I failed to account for so many sharing information. Far too many are starting to realize who sits behind all their troubles. I blame Vesk,” he added wryly. “In the bardic epics, fairy tales, even the modern chapbooks and comics, enemies never talk to each other—at least, not openly. And now I find myself greatly threatened because so many of my opponents have simply had conversations, like adults. Foolish of me, unforgivably foolish.”

They rounded a curve, the ramp switching back down; this part of the complex had been built to be navigable by wheeled servants like CT-16. Ahead, an opening appeared at the end of the arched passageway.

“That can be dealt with,” Justinian said, frowning deeply now. “At the cost of causing more stains on my soul, and more pain and havoc for who knows how many other souls who have done nothing to deserve it. But…I cannot see any other way. They must all turn on me in the end, but not yet. It isn’t time yet, and I can be easily overthrown, still. If I am to postpone this reckoning until the right moment, I must give the heroes and villains and meddlers in general something else upon which to focus for a time.”

They emerged from the tunnel onto a balcony which ringed a circular space with no floor; below was only the infinite drop. From the dome arching overhead extended machines which projected suspensor fields holding up the object in the center of the open space. The thing itself was fully encased in a rectangular brick of transparent material, almost as clear as the air and visible only by its corners, but incredibly hard and a disruptor of transcension field energy besides. Not despite but because of its open plan, this spot was the most secure space in the solar system to keep a highly dangerous object. If the suspensors shut off for just a second, the thing they held would plummet straight down to the annihilating force of the mass shadow event, which nothing could survive.

“And so,” Justinian said grimly, stepping forward to grasp the rail before him and stare at the thing he had secreted away here, “I will regret that there is no one left in a position to forgive me for this. I must…unleash something upon them all.”

Within the clear block, the long skull, larger than he was, seemed carved of ebony. Justinian stared at the huge, empty eye sockets, meeting without flinching the knowing grin of Belosiphon the Black.

“Something great. Something terrible.”

 

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13 – 47

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The mounted cultist turned to see what was bearing down on him, hesitated for a bare instant, then sent his giant mechanical rooster stomping in the other direction as fast as it would go. It immediately encountered an ice slick, lost footing, and skidded across the plaza in a painful-looking tangle of metal limbs, leaving his still-sparking lance to lie on the ground behind him.

“Nice, Fross!” Gabriel shouted, even as Whisper erupted from a burst of shadow and smoke on the wall behind him.

Trissiny didn’t bother to pursue the fallen rider, adjusting the angle of Arjen’s charge to head for the second cultist.

This one was made of sterner stuff.

The cobblestone elemental continued methodically backing up for another charge at the gates, incidentally opening a path between them, and the mechanical insect lunged forward to meet the charging paladin head-on.

Arjen was taller and bigger, but the cultist’s weapon had a longer reach. By accident or design, he rammed its sparking tip into the horse’s chest as they impacted. Arjen bellowed in pain, staggering and barely keeping his footing on the rain-slick pavement; the force of the impact sent him off-course, enough that Trissiny’s futile sword swipe at the spider-rider in passing went nowhere near him.

Both riders arced about as they recovered, wheeling to face one another again. Whatever damage had been done to Arjen he seemed to have shrugged off—no surprise, given the divine energy blazing from his rider. The cultist’s weapon had been bent by the collision, and was now emitting constant sparks from the two spots where it had warped in addition to arcs of electricity from its tip, all of them creating a staticky haze in the rain. He seemed undeterred, however, leveling his crumpled lance and surging forward again.

It was at that point that the Rust holding the battlements above the gatehouse managed to draw a bead on Trissiny.

Immediately she pitched sideways in her saddle, keeping enough of a grip on the reins and with her knees to avoid tumbling off, but slowing Arjen’s loop as he responded to his rider’s distress. The noise of the sonic weapons was oddly muted to those at whom they were not directed, but their shrill whine rose above the voice of the wind and receding thunder.

Even as she struggled to stay mounted, Trissiny’s aura brightened, hardening into an extra layer of divine shielding encompassing both her and Arjen, and the golden wings still unfurled behind her actually extended several feet as Avei’s hand upon her intensified. She was hunched over in clear distress, but tried to straighten Arjen’s course and meet the enemy’s six-legged charge. It was an awkward recovery, though, and even with his bent lance, the cultist had more speed and a more direct angle at their exposed flank.

The goddess’s attention seemingly spared Trissiny the worst of the sonic weapon’s effect, but whatever Avei’s reason, she did not intervene decisively to end the battle.

Fortunately, she was not the only one in a position to do so.

A bolt of black light ripped through the downpour, striking the Rust rider straight in the chest and nearly unseating him. His lance jerked off-target, but his mount did not slacken its speed. Whisper was galloping faster than Arjen, her invisible hooves having no trouble on the slickened pavement, and Gabriel passed Trissiny to meet the attacker in a proper joust, scythe leveled before him.

The man’s life was saved by the fact that the wicked blade did not strike him with its cutting edge; instead, the cap of its pole lifted him clear out of the seat and hurled him several yards backward in an impact that had to have crushed ribs at the very least.

He brought Whisper around in an impossibly nimble pivot; where Arjen had greater strength and endurance than a flesh-and-blood horse, she was more agile than a mountain goat. Trissiny had recovered enough to guide her steed out of the path of the runaway mechanical spider, which clattered past on a course that would eventually lead it to crash into the wall. It was probably gratuitous, then, for Gabriel to chase it down, but he did.

“Fross!” Ruda barked, pointing her rapier at the battlements. Some of the Rust had switched targets, but Gabriel was wearing one of the Avatar’s earplugs and didn’t even seem to notice that he was being fired upon.

“On it!” The pixie streaked upward just as Gabriel slammed the blade of his scythe into the middle of the fleeing mechanical, causing it to immediately burst apart in a profusion of suddenly rusted-out parts, but she slowed in confusion when the attacking cultists abruptly tumbled forward over the ramparts.


The reduced Squad One moved as quickly as they could without making noise that would give away their position, which was quicker than almost any other phalanx in the Legions thanks to the silencing charms Locke had laid on their boots. Even so, with Shahai remaining behind with two of the Punaji troopers who hadn’t recovered enough to be fit, in Lieutenant Laghari’s assessment, for combat, they made a pitifully short line.

Ephanie took a position on the left flank, where she would be able (hopefully) to break away and deal with a cultist who was separated somewhat from their group, firing at whoever was attacking the gate below. Behind the Legionnaires, Laghari led his troops from the front, peeking up over the edge of the trapdoor down into the gatehouse. He wasn’t being rained on directly due to a column-supported roof covering this section of the walls, and the water still blowing through the area didn’t impede visibility too much.

There were six Rust atop this gatehouse, all lined against the battlements with their weapons aimed below, and unaware of what was happening behind them—their last information being that the defending soldiers were incapacitated below.

Unfortunately, someone had warned the north gatehouse, and four more armed Rust were coming. Squad One had barely got into formation when they began shouting warnings to their fellows.

“CHARGE!” Ephanie roared.

Shields up and lances forward, the Legionnaires pounded across two yards of rooftop and slammed into the cultists from behind, just as they began to turn.

Almost the whole group immediately went over the walls, Merry losing her grip on her lance as it was stuck through someone’s midsection. Ephanie broke formation and rushed the outlier barely in time to prevent her from bringing her sonic weapon to bear. Slamming her shield into the woman’s body, she shoved as hard as she could, driving her back against the battlements.

Behind her, the chaos of battle erupted, Merry and Farah going down with shrieks of pain as the Rust’s reinforcements fired sonic weapons into their formation, and then the roar of staff fire as Laghari and his troops burst out of the stairwell, ripping into the intruders with a torrent of lightning bolts. Ephanie couldn’t see the outcome; if the Rust’s shields operated like standard arcane ones, they wouldn’t function in the rain. If not… One way or the other, this was about to be decisively over.

She had to focus on her own fight.

The cultist before her had a metal plate covering one eye with a gap in it, in which a green crystal was set. This did nothing to disguise her furious snarl. Ephanie got her shoulder into the shield and rammed her even harder against the battlements, the position of her body preventing the cultist from getting the sound-thrower aimed at her. It also made it impossible to bring her lance into place, however, so she dropped it and drew her short sword.

Her attempted stab was caught. Of course that would be the side on which her enemy had the metal hand. They struggled for position and for control of the blade, unable to use weapons and reduced to an ugly contest of brute strength. Ephanie was taller and stronger than the average woman, than the average Legionnaire, even, but her foe was part machine, and she was not gaining ground.

The fact that none of her squad had already intervened was a bad sign.

“Um, scuze me, sorry ’bout this…”

She barely had a moment to process the squeaky little voice which sounded from close by, and then she was bodily picked up and moved backward through the air, supported by apparently nothing.

The cultist staggered forward, or started do, and then a little ball of silver light darted in between them and hit the machine-augmented woman in the chest with a tiny bolt of lightning. That was enough to drive her back against the battlements; a second sent her tumbling over to join her fellows.

“Fross!” Ephanie gasped. “Good timing!”

“Thanks, I do what I can!”

She finally could turn to assess the situation, and found it dramatically improved from minutes ago. All three of her women were apparently all right, the two who’d been hit again sitting against the battlements with Nandi making a beeline for them, already glowing. Lightning burns marred the walltop around the Rust who had tried to come from the other gatehouse, every one of whom now lay unmoving in the rain.

“THE STORM CARES NOT!” Laghari bellowed, brandishing his staff overhead. His soldiers roared defiantly in response, and he turned to speak more calmly to his new allies. “Damn glad you ladies were along for this! But there’s no time to rest on our laurels. The bastards are in the Rock—we have to go protect the King and Queen!”

Fross chimed loudly for attention. “I realize that’s your duty and all, but considering what’s about to shake loose down there, you guys may wanna sit this one out.”


“Why the fuck are you brunette?”

Trissiny brought Arjen to a stop, grinning down at Ruda. “Really? That’s the first thing you have to say to me?”

“It looks wrong, and I demand you change it back immediately, and also I am damn glad to see you, Shiny Boots.” Ruda’s return grin was huge, and she punched Trissiny’s booted foot, causing Arjen to snort in annoyance and twist his neck around to give her a look. “This doesn’t look much like you learning to be sneaky in Tiraas with the Eserites, but I can’t say you haven’t got some damn good timing!”

“Triss!” Gabriel barely got Whisper to stop, and she still pranced in place, whinnying excitedly in the rain. “I never thought I would say this, but I wanna hug you! Wait, why are you a brunette?”

“Thanks for the assist, Gabe,” she replied, saluting him with her sword. “I see somebody’s taught you to actually ride instead of let Whisper haul you around like a plough. Is the whole class here?” she added, frowning around as the rest of them came forward. “I don’t see some people I would expect… And one I didn’t.”

“You will never be rid of me, young lady,” Principia said grandly. “I’m like a soulbinder hex, an Imperial tax assessor and a case of the crabs in one svelte, dashing package! Also, you need to dye your hair back the way it was ASAP. You’re starting to look like my mother, and that’s just fucking disturbing.”

“Button your yap, Serg—Lieutenant, before I kick it buttoned.” Trissiny ruined the threat with a broad grin.

“All right, big reunion, lots of stories to catch up, but later,” Ruda interjected. “We’re at war here. Boots, I don’t suppose you know who’s conjured the cobblestones to knock on my front door and how quick that’ll get us into the fortress?”

“Actually, yes, I brought a witch who’s doing that,” Trissiny said, “and our attack on this gate was a diversion. I’ve got Guild people quietly getting into the north gate as we speak.”

“Even better! Let’s haul ass, people, time’s wasting.” Ruda immediately set off around the Rock’s corner tower at a run, the rest of them swiftly falling in behind her. In fact, the two mounted paladins outpaced her swiftly, as did Principia, leaving Toby and Juniper to bring up the rear.

The dryad was the last of them to round the corner, but Toby trailed to a halt after going only a few feet, then turned to stare back at the scene before the gates.

The bedraggled pavement elemental was still beating itself against the wood, but after the damage the Rust had done, it wasn’t making any further progress. In fact, each hit now dislodged more cobblestones than splinters; it was staggering unevenly on each charge, and at this rate would shake itself to pieces long before breaking the gates down.

Two mechanical mounts lay broken on the plaza, which Toby ignored. As he stared at the handful of cultists who had fallen from the walls, one moved weakly.

The Hand of Omnu turned resolutely and strode back to them.

He knelt beside the first person he came to for only a moment, touching the man’s neck with two fingers, then straightened and moved on to the next. Toby moved swiftly down the row, checking for breath, for pulses, and finding nothing until he got to the very last, the one who had fallen off the wall at the farthest edge of their formation.

She tried feebly to push at him with her working hand. The other arm, a metal one, had been bent to the point of uselessness beneath her. Toby gently caught her attempted shove, a faint light rising around him and causing the falling rain in their vicinity to glitter gold.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, the golden glow intensifying in his eyes. “Can you turn your head to the side? If not, try to breathe through your nose. You can choke on rainwater in this position.”

“Wh—why…” she rasped, then coughed, spraying raindrops. He quickly ran his hands over her, palms glowing, and closed his eyes in concentration.

“All right,” Toby said, opening them to look at her seriously. “Looks like you landed on the machine parts. There’s not a thing I can do to fix those, sorry. You haven’t broken your spine or your head, miraculously, but when you hit the ground this…chassis bit that’s connecting the metal arm to your rib cage got shoved into the wrong place, and it’s pressing on your vertebrae and lungs. I’m going to have to move it back before I heal anything. Do you understand?”

“Why…help me?” she whispered.

He just shook his head. “This is going to hurt, a lot. I need you to try to stay focused, all right? It’s okay to yell. Keep your head turned if you can so you don’t choke on rain. Are you ready?”

She stared at him with one frightened eye and a cracked green crystal.

Gently, Toby took her good hand and curled his fingers around hers. “I’m not going to force anything on you, not even healing. You need to know that if we don’t do this now, you’re going to die, and not quickly. You are bleeding a lot. I have to put bones and metal bones in the right place before healing or it will kill you. But if you don’t want me to, I won’t. Understand? It’s your body and your life. You’re in charge here.”

Almost infinitesimally, still holding his gaze, she nodded.

He nodded back. “Ready, then?”

She squeezed her eye shut. “Do it.”

She did a lot more than merely yell, thrashing so badly that he had to pause in his work to hold her down until she could control herself. The woman had a metal collarbone which arced around to cover most of her back, and she had landed on it. Her machine arm was crushed into uselessness and the thick metal brace had been shoved against her spinal column, tearing muscle and skin and threatening to dislodge a lung, and possibly her heart. Forcing it back into an approximation of its proper position was absolutely brutal work.

He finished it as quickly as he was able, though. Toby had crimson stains on his shirt and flecks of blood as far-flung as his face, just beginning to be rinsed away by the rain, by the time he could move on to healing the actual damage. That, he did as rapidly as possible, using precise and careful jets of golden light to knit ligaments, bones, and muscle back together. Simply suffusing her with divine power could have congealed the mess of her torso into a lethal knot.

She lay sobbing through most of it, even as the pain receded under all the divine light. By the time he was done, though, she had stilled, just breathing heavily.

“All right,” he said at last. “You’re going to live. That’s the best I can give you; I’m sorry. I can’t do anything to fix the machines, but fortunately none of them are running your vital organs. Divine light should stave off infection, but you have lost a lot of blood. You need to get food down quickly, and you’ll have to rest a lot. First we’ve gotta get you in out of this rain. They said the other gatehouse was open; there will be medical supplies in there. C’mon, you can lean on me.”

He rose from his knees and started to help her upright, but she caught his hand again, with more strength this time, and made no move to stand, instead staring up at him.

“Why?” she asked a third time.

The golden halo dimmed from around Toby, and he let out a soft sigh.

“…because I live in a world where that’s a reasonable question. Because that won’t change unless someone changes it. Because…I seem to be the only one here.”

She nodded, weakly, and began shifting to rise. He slipped an arm under her shoulders, drenching the sleeve in a mix of rainwater and blood.

“You want to remake the universe,” the woman grunted as they carefully stood. She had to cling to him. “Make your vision reality. I…relate.”

“And what’s your vision?” he asked.

She offered no reply. They simply hobbled off through the rain, toward the gatehouse. Above them, the sky was starting to lighten, and the thunder had all but faded. Water still pounded the city, but the storm was passing.


“Now, we can concoct a story between us how you defeated me,” Ayuvesh said while they stared at him, nonplussed. “Of course I’ll value your input, but I like the sound of you pressing forward against my scream-weapon through sheer force of will. That will greatly impress the palace guards who have been incapacitated by it, and rumors of your inhuman strength will spread through the city! We want you to come out of this securely in power, after all. But I do have a fondness for the old stories of improbable heroics and mighty champions—it’s a known weakness. What do you think, too implausible?”

The King and Queen exchanged a married look.

“It’s a trick, clearly,” Anjal said, folding her arms. “I just can’t spot the snare.”

“Oh, I assure your Majesties it is a trick,” the leader of the Rust replied, his charming smile belying that he was still on his knees with his hands in the air. “I am not playing it on you, however, but rather inviting you to join me in it. I could win this battle, yes…but not the war which would follow. You were never my enemy. That we have been pushed to fight one another tells me the true threat has yet to be revealed.”

“Mm.” Rajakhan grunted, nodding slowly. “You do see it, then, the doom that would befall you if you seized the Rock.”

“Befall me and all of Puna Dara, and soon enough the other Punaji cities,” Ayuvesh said, his expression sobering. “I am not blind, Blackbeard. If my fellows and I took the government… It remains an open question whether we could hold the Rock even against the outrage of the city itself, and the other players who desire the Crown. And if I managed that, what then? Tiraas would never permit this. To prod at that dragon would spell the end of the Punaji as a free people. Whatever else you think of me, believe that I want that outcome no more than you.”

“I usually love hearing traitors spout patriotism when on their knees,” Anjal remarked. “Less so from one who might get up at any moment.”

Ayuvesh did not get up, nor even lower his hands, but his expression hardened. “You created this situation. Never once did I or any of my people even hint at disrupting the order of society or interfering in your rule. I knew where that would lead! We are both leaders, your Majesty, and we are both Punaji. Once a challenge was made, withdrawal was impossible; the only outcome was escalation. You have advanced it faster by unleashing your daughter’s adventurer friends upon us, but this began when you brought that Silver Legion to occupy the streets and stifle our activities. Had you not, my Order would never have made a move against you!”

“That’s a very easy thing to claim now, when you come asking for trust,” Anjal said skeptically. “If we do take your word on that, it means…what? That you only intended to overthrow our culture, not the government, and install yourselves as a religious authority?”

“I preach that each man and woman is their own authority,” he said patiently. “And an overthrown culture usually ends up in ruins; the process of absorbing a new idea, of incorporating it safely, takes generations. That is our aim—permanence. It will not be achieved by toppling what is in place, but by adding to it. And who knows? Perhaps our will would not have been strong enough. If our ideas did not have merit enough to stand upon their own, then by those same ideas, they would have faded away in time. None of that matters now. The truth of this moment is that no, I am not asking for trust.”

Both drew swords and took a step back as he slowly stood up, lowering his hands, but Ayuvesh kept his movements even and calm, and made no further motion once he was back on his feet. His screamlance lay against the wall, apparently forgotten.

“We are a practical people, aren’t we? And so I’ve demonstrated that I can kill you and take your crown at a whim, because simply telling you so would achieve nothing. If you so despise me that you are willing to exchange your lives and the freedom of the Punaji people for assurance that I will be destroyed within the year, well, you have the power to choose that. If not, I offer to place myself and my people at your mercy… Because that is the only way I see for my Order and my nation to survive.” He lifted his chin, staring calmly at them. “Bending the knee is a very small price to pay for that. I know my worth, my value as a living, thinking person. It does me no harm to show humility, if that is what it takes.”

“I see the logic in what you say,” Rajakhan rumbled, lowering his sword. “All of it. It has a reversal, though. Your sham of a surrender would put you in the Rock, with the capability of overthrowing us at any moment. What you are trying to do is install yourself as the power behind the Crown.”

Ayuvesh held up one finger. “A power in addition to the Crown, answerable to it. Have you troubled to learn anything of our teachings, Rajakhan? I think you will find little there to which any Punaji would object. Regardless, I know nothing of running a nation or contending with political struggles. Overthrowing you by subterfuge would be as futile as doing so by force. Puna Dara is blessed to have a good King in these turbulent times. If you will accept the surrender and service of the Infinite Order, you will find us undemanding and, I think, quite useful.”

“How?” The Queen could pack a tremendous weight of cynicism into one word.

“For example,” Ayuvesh said to her, his mouth quirking wryly to one side, “I came out tonight planning to cut my way through the Rock’s gates, and enduring the inevitable losses we would suffer from their defenders. Instead, imagine my surprise at finding myself suddenly approached by a mysterious partner offering to open the gatehouse for us. They were strange people; it was a succubus who slipped in and unlocked the door. Answering to a hooded man who, so far as I know, thinks I could not tell he was a dragon. A green dragon, not a red, and thus a most incongruous leash-holder for a child of Vanislaas. And I have been asking myself, as I’ve made my way through your fortress.” He spread his hands in an eloquent shrug. “What was it that prompted my King to invite a Silver Legion here to lean upon us? What had we ever done to so offend him? And now I wonder what little voice has been whispering in your ear, as well as mine.”

Anjal suddenly bared her teeth; Ayuvesh took a step back as she swung her sword, but the blade clanged uselessly against the corridor’s stone wall.

“Naphthene’s barnacled twat, I told you it was fishy for the Avenists to suddenly offer us intelligence and military support!”

“Don’t blunt your blade, woman, are you a fishmonger’s son playing with his first knife?” Rajakhan, for his part, sheathed his own sword in a decisive gesture. “I told you at the time, the Sisterhood has never in its thousands of years of history tried to steal anyone’s territory or seize temporal power outside of Viridill, and we haven’t done any of the things that have provoked them to overthrow other kingdoms. But!” He held up a hand, forestalling her angry retort. “I think, now, I should have listened to you better.”

“No matter how many times you have that realization, the next time it always comes as a surprise to your wooden head!”

“It’s well that you persist, regardless. Surely you don’t think I keep you around for your charming disposition, dear heart.” The King turned his stare back on a somewhat bemused Ayuvesh, not reacting when his wife slapped the back of his legs with the flat of her blade. “If the Sisterhood has one weakness, it is that they are themselves vulnerable to manipulation. Half the other cults are always running rings around them. Especially the Black Wreath. Who have been astonishingly helpful, of late.”

“Now, that is interesting information,” Ayuvesh said, raising his one eyebrow. “I cannot imagine a green dragon working for or even with Elilial’s servants… But Wreath or not, it’s clear to me that we have an enemy. One who benefits from a weakening of Puna Dara by using me and mine as a weapon against the Crown. The more time we waste, testing our wills against one another, the more they profit. But.” He bowed to them. “If we combine our wills together, in the very act that our enemy must fear most, the universe will bend before us. If you will let me join you.”

 

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13 – 42

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The whine of the device was barely even a sound; it was more a thing that snuffed out all other sounds. Like a constant high bell tone somewhere deeper inside her skull than her ears, it blocked anything from the range of normal hearing. To say nothing of what it did to her; the constant pressure in her head kept her dizzy and disoriented. The room seemed to be tilting this way and that, like the deck of a ship in a storm.

Casey had landed on her back, and now laboriously rolled over to her side—where she immediately had to stop, squeezing her eyes shut and concentrating on not vomiting. She could discern by smell alone that several others had lost that battle, which didn’t help hers at all, but after long seconds, she forced the sensation down again. At least, far enough down that she felt she could risk opening her eyes.

The room continued to spin and sway in that awful, piercing silence, but she focused through it. Two of the machine-people were now present; one was holding up that white sphere which had been bounced down the stairs and started all this. They were talking—at least, they were facing each other and their mouths were moving. Insultingly, they seemed to have no interest at all in the Legionnaires and Punaji soldiers. Well, the arrogance was not unwarranted; their evil little gadget did its work exceptionally well.

One of them was holding…a weapon? It had to be, that thing had been poked into the room and fired at Merry—who was now curled up in a fetal position, twitching. Nothing had visibly emerged from it, but if it used sound like the scream grenade… She couldn’t tell what it was made of, the surface being white and glossy like porcelain, which would be absurd. It had a handle and odd little protrusions, and Casey’s vision swam too much to pick out more details than that.

Her arm hurt. Somehow, she’d got it pinned under her shield, which she had just rolled the rest of her weight onto. Oddly enough, the pain helped her focus. One of the Punaji troopers had fallen across her legs and was moving feebly. That had to have been after she rolled over, but she hadn’t noticed it happening. It was so hard to think.

Someone had to do something. None of them could act, though; they couldn’t even move.

Casey blinked, twice, then squeezed her eyes shut. Then opened them, fixing her stare on the white sound-bomb. She focused as hard as she was able, ignoring the heaving of the barracks around her. Yes… It had a black stripe around the middle and a blinking green light in that. Staring at a fixed point, she could calm the heaving of her stomach and brain. But what good was that? She still couldn’t move, or it would all start again.

And there was only one way to fight back without moving.


The smell in the sickroom was horrific, a melange of sweat, human waste, strong soap, and pure rot, complicated but not at all suppressed by the scent of the flowers and herbs placed there to counter it. Both of the Elwick children were held by their father, one of his strong hands firmly upon each of their shoulders. He hadn’t grabbed Casey until she had made an abortive move for the door; Andy he had held even before they entered, and his grip was the only thing keeping him.

“That’s what cancer looks like,” their father said quietly, inexorably. “Close to the end, now. Once it gets into the bones…there’s not a thing any healer in the world can do. Not one thing. Your own body just eats itself. Ain’t any more painful way to die. It’s like being burned alive, ‘cept it takes years instead of seconds.”

“Papa,” Andy whimpered, “I wanna go home. I don’t want to be here.”

Casey said nothing. She knew better.

Sheldon Johns lay on the room’s sole bed, little more than a skeleton of a man at this point,his skin stretched thin as paper and still somehow loose on his bones, lesions spotting it here and there. Though he had been dosed heavily with laudanum, the man groaned softly in his sleep, his face pinched with agony.

“Papa, please,” Andy begged.

His father only tightened his grip. “You have to know, son. You have to know. All it takes is one mistake. Just one. Sheldon doesn’t even remember when it happened, the slip-up that let it in. This is what infernal magic does to you if you cannot control it. One little mistake, and you die in such agony that Hell’s a relief when you get there. If you’re gonna touch the power, you can’t make a mistake. Not one. Ever.”

Tears began to pour down Andy’s cheeks. Casey reached up to grasp the big hand holding her by the shoulder. Not to push it off, but just to hold on.


Eyes fixed on the sonic weapon in the Rust cultist’s hand, Casey had to grip her shield and the floor for dear life as he moved it slightly, sending fresh waves of dizziness through her. He was holding it up, though, somehow maintaining its piercing, impossible noise. At least that kept it relatively steady. This was going to be hard enough, keeping focused despite the nausea and the pain in her head.

Eyes on the target, focus on the target, reach out with the mind.

It was there. It was always there. Every child of the Black Wreath was taught how to find it—not to use it, but how to recognize the power so they could avoid it. So they never stumbled into it by accident, or let it creep up on them. That was how you died—burned to charred bones where you stood, if you were lucky.

Just beyond the veil of reality, once her attention acknowledged its presence, it roared, beckoned, begged. It was a colossal torrent of sheer fury, like brushing the surface of the sun, except sweet, and cloying. It promised power beyond her dreams, the power to stand astride the world, a god in her own right. The magic whispered seductively even as it screamed in rage, pleading and promising, yearning to be used, igniting a yearning in reply.

She knew better.


“It’s outsider ignorance, thinking the Wreath are all warlocks,” her father said, tossing another stick in the fire. They didn’t discuss these things in town; the walls were too thin. These camping trips made the perfect opportunity for Elwick to teach his children. They were a full two days hike into the prairie from Hamlet, in the opposite direction from the elven grove, with no one to overhear them but the coyotes whose howling livened the night. “The Wreath has warlocks, yes, but no more than one in twelve of us. There’s plenty of work for the Dark Lady that doesn’t involve magic. Most of the work, in fact, the less flashy stuff that keeps us going, and keeps us hidden. The warlocks are the first line of attack and last line of defense, yes. They get all the drama and excitement. And if there’s death and pain to be suffered, it’s the warlocks who suffer it. Don’t you be swayed by any stories of adventure, kids. It ain’t like that. If your path is to serve the Lady as a warlock, so be it. But if it’s not, I’ll be happier.”

“But you’re a warlock, Pa,” Andy protested.

Elwick nodded slowly, staring into the flames. “And you listen to you father, boy. I know what I’m talking about, and I wouldn’t wish this on my children. You’re smart enough to understand me when I say that. And you’re old enough.” His gaze flicked to Casey; sitting where he was, the campfire divided his line of sight between his two children. “Both of you. You’re old enough to know, and you need to know. So…now I’m gonna ask you the question.

“Are you ready to learn how to handle the infernal?”

Andy nodded, his expression solemn. “I’m ready, Pa.”

Casey could only stare at her father for almost a full minute. He stared back, not pushing her even when Andy began to shift restlessly.

Finally, she shook her head. “No, sir. No, I’m not ready. I… I don’t think I’m ever gonna be ready, Pa. I don’t wanna do it.”

Elwick smiled at his daughter, his eyes shining in the firelight. “That’s my good girl. Smart girl.” Slowly, the smile drained away from his features. “But that ain’t an option, Casey. You have to learn; you can’t be allowed not to know. Now’s the time.”


Doing anything finely-tuned, or incredibly specific, with infernal magic was well beyond her skill. All she knew was how to brush against it, and bring a tiny quantity to this world, without killing or corrupting herself.

Hopefully.

Ironically, the mental demands of handling the torrent of sheer rage helped push back the pain of the Rust’s weapon. Her tight focus determined the target. Casey stared at the white orb, tried to stare through it. Into it. The constant piercing noise was messing with her sense of spatial relationships, but her eyes knew where it was. That would have to be enough.

A proper warlock could call up infernal power, handle it safely, shape it to achieve their ends; all she could do was brush it with her mind, letting its howling entreaties, its rage and seduction, slide past her without acknowledgment, letting just the tiniest bit be disturbed by the contact of her consciousness. Not clinging to her, but drifting loose from the torrent and into the world. The power was a river, she a passing gust of wind that kicked up a tiny spray of mist from its surface.

And then came the really difficult part.


“There’s a reason we call them shadowbolts and shadow-jumping,” Elwick said, holding up a hand. Under the bright morning sun, the stream of blackness with its bruise-purple aura that he called into being was particularly striking; it flashed away from him, slamming into the ground. Where it struck, the tallgrass shook violently, then faded to a darker, browner shade and drooped slightly.

He turned a faint smirk on the kids, and then darkness welled up out of thin air around him. It receded immediately, and when it was gone, so was he.

“You know about the four schools and the Circles of Interaction,” their father said, now a few feet behind them.

“Sure, Pa,” Andy replied quickly, spinning around. “I read the books you gave me.” Casey just turned and nodded.

Their father nodded in return. “Those four are the bulk of all magic; everything that’s left is referred to as shadow magic, and it ain’t all of one type. It’s just remnants, shadows of somethin’ greater. Most scholars reckon they were the powers of the Elder Gods who the Pantheon and the Dark Lady struck down, but we’ll never know for sure. What we do know is that they make it a little safer to dip into the power of the infernal—and you can use the infernal to dip into them, in ways that other schools can’t. And that’s why these are our basic tricks. Shadowbolts to attack, because casting an actual infernal spell in any situation that’s stressful enough for you to be fighting in is likely to end with you accidentally corrupted. Shadow-jumping is using another type of faded old magic to pull two pieces of creation together; it’s just the tiniest touch of the infernal that bores a hole through ’em that you can step across.

“The principle’s the same in both cases. A little touch of infernal magic erodes the barriers. That’s what it does; it burns things. You know why most demons are bigger, stronger, so covered with claws and fangs and armor plates? Those adaptations are what infernal magic does to living things, those that somehow survive it. The infernal both enhances and destroys; it empowers you even while killing you. That’s also the effect it has on reality itself. The smallest amount, in just the right way, applied to these forgotten bits of shadow magic, both pushes energy into them to make ’em stronger than they are without it, and burns away at the barriers holding them back. Then, once you’re holding onto the shadows, you can wrap ’em around Scyllith’s power to make it a little easier to handle.”

He paused, looking at each of them as if to be certain they were following his lecture. Both nodded, Andy eager, Casey with a slower and solemn motion. Their father nodded back.

“All right, I’m gonna show you how it works.”


The infernal and the arcane were vast, bottomless oceans of power; no one could ever drink fully of them. A spellcaster’s only limits were internal, in how much infernal magic they could safely channel, or how much arcane they could store. Casey had no ability to touch either the divine or fae, as those did not inherently respond to humans and required the auspices of other beings to touch. Beings which would not give the time of day to such as her. She knew it was the same in theory, though. All four schools of the Circle were functionally infinite, fathomless.

Shadow magic was trickier.

She was able to find it because she knew it, and because of the tiny “spray” of hellfire she had brushed loose into creation; the barriers singed, the faintest tremor rippled through existence, and in the disturbance she could find them.

The intensity of concentration had banished the heaving of her guts, but her head still throbbed as if it were being forcibly inflated from within. Her shield dug excruciatingly into her arm, and the world in her peripheral vision wavered as if she were drunk; only the white weapon was fixed and firm in her vision. Her eyes burned from having stared at it so long without blinking, and sweat was dripping from her brows. She couldn’t give up, though.

The first shadow was the cool, dim presence whose touch on her mind was like dipping fingers into molasses; it slowed, soothed, calmed, suppressed. Casey had always felt that whatever long-dead god had designed it had intended it for healing, though some of the books she’d read insisted its purpose had been to steal wills and keep slaves in line, as the Elder Gods were known to have done that. Somehow, it overall felt like the color purple.

Faint and weak as it was, the tiny puff of loose infernal power she had dislodged made her whole perception of it quiver, and for a moment of terror she was sure it was going to collapse. She did not have the strength to do this a second time; it could not fail.

It didn’t. In her outer perceptions, hellfire caught in the murky shadow like burning embers floating in viscous darkness. She didn’t rest, couldn’t afford to yet.

The second shadow was like brushing through cobwebs, a thing of connections and strands; it was as if it were made of strings linking every atom in the universe to every other. They were thin and fragile things, weak with long disuse. Casey had always felt, when touching this almost-forgotten power, that it seemed dusty; she was sure, without knowing how, that those infinite strands would have been firm as woven silk had they been fully empowered. Something in them carried that memory of what they were supposed to be.

She was able to catch and use them, gathering the strings to create a shape. Wrapping up the darkness and the smidgeon of hellfire into a single, tiny seed.

Casey’s whole body trembled with the exertion of focus, as she finally planted that seed. Right in the middle of the Rust’s sonic bomb.

At last, she collapsed, gasping, then heaving and barely able to keep, again, from spilling the contents of her stomach. It had worked, though. Even with her concentration having broken, she could sense the little thing she’d done with her mind. It couldn’t be called a spell, just a little fragment of sheer infernal power, unfocused and barely held in check by a thin layer of shadow. It had left her trembling with exhaustion, and burning with shame at having dabbled in what she’d sworn she would never again touch. But it was done.

Casey lifted her eyes again. The two machine-people had stopped their conversation; one was staring at the bomb in his hand, wearing a frown. Then he shifted his gaze, one eye a blue glass orb lit from within, to look directly at Casey.

She reached out again with her will, and ripped away the fragile barrier of shadow.

The weapon was obliterated so quickly and totally it couldn’t even be said to have exploded. Its solid matter simply burned away, leaving its owner holding a ball of fire with a will to seize, consume, and corrupt.

That horrible, unreal keening vanished, letting sound crash back down like a physical force—the roaring of the storm outside, groaning from all the soldiers in the room, and now the shrieking of the Rust. Casey slumped to the floor again, but managed to keep her head up enough to watch as fire raced up the man’s arm. He seized his compatriot in panic, dooming them both.

She finally lowered her eyes, and began working her way loose. Her right arm was completely numb, and began tingling as soon as she’s pulled her weight off the shield and lifted it from the indentation it had made in her bicep. All around her, Punaji troops and her squadmates began gathering themselves in a muted cacophony of whimpers, moans, and scuffling.

Nandi was still down, clutching her head and breathing in a series of heavy rasps; Farah stayed hunched over her, whispering softly and gently stroking her golden hair. Ephanie was the first person back upright, grabbing the edge of one of the tipped-over tables that had served as improved barriers and hauling herself to her feet. Lieutenant Laghari followed suit.

Both officers had torn their attention from their fallen troops to stare at the two cultists.

“What the fuck,” Laghari whispered.

The stink of burned flesh and hot metal filled the barracks, which did not help the residual nausea left from the sonic bomb. Casey pushed herself up to her knees with one arm, lifting her head to make herself see her handiwork.

What exposed skin she could see was badly charred. At least the second cultist was only burned to death; the one who’d been holding the bomb had been twisted. Ironically, the arm which had actually been holding it, a flesh and blood arm, wasn’t burned at all, but now covered with reptilian scales, its fingers tipped with heavy claws. Exposed flesh on the rest of him had been warped until it tore loose from his mechanical additions. His very skull was the wrong shape, now and had warped too abruptly to keep up with its own transmutation; part of his jawbone was hanging loose from a fringe of seared skin, and his organic eye socket had been pulled so wide that the eyeball would have fallen out, had it still been more than a half-boiled soup now dripping down his face.

One of the Punaji had straightened up enough to get a good look at this, and immediately doubled over again, heaving. Fortunately, it seemed he’d already lost the entire contents of his stomach, leaving nothing else to come up.

“Obviously an infernal event.” Ephanie’s voice was shaky, but it steadied quickly as she spoke. “Awfully close. Everyone here will need a thorough healing and cleansing, as soon as we all survive…whatever’s going on out there.”

“Yeah. Agreed.” Laghari nodded, turning his back on the scene of destruction and bending to give one of his soldiers a hand upright. “Our windshaman are adept at infernal cleansing; I’ll see you’re included, ladies.”

“But what happened?” one of the Punaji asked weakly. “Did…a warlock help us?”

Casey opened her mouth, and Merry “accidentally” dropped a shield on her foot.

“I don’t see any warlock,” Merry said, bending to retrieve her shield. “Who knows what the hell those gadgets run on? I bet they just tampered with something they can’t control. We’d best be on the lookout with the next batch we come to.”

“Yeah. You heard her, boys and girls.” Laghari was quickly coming back into his own; though pale and hollow-eyed, his voice had regained its firmness along with his spine. “The Rock is under attack, and we don’t have time to screw around. Rajapta, Sindi, you look solid enough. Get me a careful look at what’s happening on the battlements. Go around; hug the walls and don’t step near those bodies, there’s still infernal fuckery afoot. Shakhar, Dukha, same goes—scout our rear. If you see any sign they’re coming up from the lower floor as well, fall back here and help us get a barricade over the stairway door, hopefully that’ll impair those noise weapons. If not, warn whoever’s still down there. Sit down, Ayit, falling and cracking your skull open won’t get you back in shape any faster. Be soldiers, not heroes; if you’re too fucked up by that to fight, get over by the hearth and try to get your heads back together.”

While the designated scouts slipped out and Laghari moved among his troops, helping them back into order, Squad One staggered to their feet, Farah helping Nandi upright.

“Report, Shahai,” Ephanie ordered quietly. “That hit you harder than any of us. Will you be okay?”

Nandi held up one hand momentarily, swallowing and squeezing her eyes shut. Her aura flickered alight, the golden glow guttering like a small flame in a wind for a moment before steadying. She let out a long breath, and opened her eyes, letting the light drop.

“Still hurts in my head, XO, but…I’ll make do. I don’t think any of us have the luxury of sitting this one out.”

Ephanie reached out to squeeze her upper arm. “Like the man said, don’t be a hero. How are you doing?”

“I’m…in no shape to stand in a phalanx, ma’am,” Nandi said, rubbing her forehead. “Skull’s still throbbing and I’m weak all over. This is going to need a better healer to address, one who didn’t just have her brains scrambled. I’m not useless, though. Permission to give healing to the Punaji?”

“Granted, but do not over-exert yourself. We’re up a creek here and nobody can afford to get any more burned out than we already are.”

Nandi straightened up and managed a salute, then turned to limp toward the Punaji, Farah still half-supporting her. While the Legionnaires had been in the center of the formation initially, by this time their hosts had gathered to one side of the barracks, leaving them with some space to themselves.

“Shit, that thing was bad enough for us,” Merry said weakly. “For an elf’s ears… Avelea, I don’t suppose you have any idea what we’re facing?”

Ephanie shook her head, but had already fixed a hard stare on Casey, who swallowed heavily.

“Ma’am, I…” She paused to clear her throat, then lowered her voice. “That was a violation of the conditions of my enlistment. Once we’re out of this I will report for court mar—”

Ephanie seized her by the face, her gauntlet covering Casey’s mouth and digging metal edges painfully into her skin. She had her back to the other side of the room, hiding this scene from the Punaji with her body.

“My report,” she said quietly, “will indicate that, as Private Lang observed, we don’t understand the Rust well enough to guess what they were doing or what went wrong. As such, your quick thinking and ability to function under terrible pressure will go unrecognized and unrewarded. You have my thanks for our lives, Elwick, and I’m afraid you’ll have to be content with that.”

Casey started to speak, but Ephanie dug her fingers in harder and tugged her forward by the jaw, until their faces were inches apart. Her next words were a low growl.

“Never again, Elwick. Never. If the options are that or we all die, then we will die with our souls uncorrupted. Is that clear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” she mumbled into the corporal’s gauntlet. Ephanie held her gaze, and her face, for a moment longer before releasing her. Then, incongruously, patted her on the shoulder.

“You’re a better woman than you are a soldier, Elwick. Far as I’m concerned, that means this particular squad is damn lucky to have you, and I know the LT will back me all the way on that.”

“Thank you, Corporal.” Casey managed a watery smile.

“D’awww.” Merry gave them her biggest shit-eating grin. “Now kiss!”

“XO, permission to stab Private Lang?”

“I expect we’ll need her for a human shield very soon.”

“Request withdrawn.”

“You know you love me,” Merry said, then raised her voice to be audible beyond their small circle. “By the way, has that thunder started sounding awfully regular in the last minute or so?”

As if on cue, the two soldiers Laghari had sent up to the battlements dashed back in from the stairs, soaked with rain.

“Sir!” the first said urgently. “Rust have control of the walls and the other gatehouse, the fortress’s inner door has been breached and the interior defenders are down.”

Laghari drew in a breath, and visibly stiffened his spine. “All right. The bastards are not taking down the King, not while I draw breath. Can it!” he bellowed over the roar of agreement that rose at this pronouncement. “We charge in after them, we’ll be knocked down again like we were just now. We need some way to counter that sound weapon; that can’t have been the only one they brought. Ladies, any thoughts?”

He turned toward Ephanie, but it was Nandi who spoke. The elf had lifted her head and tilted it as if she were having trouble hearing, her brow still creased with lingering pain.

“That is not thunder. Something is ramming the gate!”

“Yes, sir!” the drenched scout said frantically. “Sir, the Rust have the inside, but someone is assaulting the fortress from outside! We couldn’t get a good look with all of them on the ramparts, but—”

A particularly loud thunderbolt cut him off. The barracks trembled with impact; the thunder had come concurrently with the flash of lightning through its narrow windows.

“That struck the gatehouse!” Nandi exclaimed. “The lightning rods should have deflected that, unless they were destroyed somehow.”

“Magically cast lightning doesn’t always follow the path of least resistance,” Farah said, her eyes wide.

“Form up, lads and lasses,” Laghari said grimly, bending to pick up a fallen battlestaff. “It sounds like this party’s barely started.”

 

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13 – 40

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Darius had to help Trissiny tug the warehouse door shut; it opened outward in exactly the wrong direction, and the wind had immediately seized and slammed it against the wall. By the time they had wrestled it closed, both were utterly drenched.

“The Archmage was not kidding about this storm!” he said cheerfully, shaking water from his hands. “Raining sideways is right. So what’re we gonna do, then? Right now all we know is there are renegade cultists, and the Archpope is probably behind ’em.”

“It would seem the most obvious course would be to wait out the weather,” Layla said, opening the unfastened lid of a nearby crate. “It’s not as if we can scout in this… Ah, textiles! Splendid, something you two can towel off with.”

“Get outta there,” Tallie ordered. “That’s somebody’s livelihood you’re screwing around with.”

“Tallie, we’re thieves,” Layla said, giving her a long look. “And we’re already breaking and entering.”

“Nah, Bossypants is right,” Darius interjected. “We’re Eserites, not bandits; don’t take stuff from people we don’t know deserve it. A little water won’t kill us.”

“I’m not sure how long we can afford to wait, either,” Trissiny added. “If what’s happening here is urgent, the storm actually provides excellent cover to begin moving. Punaji like storms, but even most of them won’t be out in the streets in a blow-down like this. By the same token, our enemy may also be acting under cover of the weather.”

“That still leaves us with the problem of gathering info in that racket,” Darius replied, and was punctuated by a helpful thunderclap.

“I think Schwartz has an idea?” Tallie pointed out.

The group had materialized in a half-filled warehouse that was dim almost to the point of darkness, with little natural light thanks to the storm and no lit fairy lamps. A small light had appeared now, though, courtesy of Schwartz, who had evidently begun work as soon as they’d arrived. He had constructed a tiny altar in the cleared space in the middle of the floor, consisting of little more than a piece of stone upon which he had set and now carefully lit a small candle. The group edged closer, leaning forward to stare at the witch’s work without crowding him. Schwartz gave a handful of feathers to Meesie, who set about scampering around the altar laying them down in a careful arrangement forming a kind of spell circle, while Schwartz himself sat back on his haunches, busily scribbling on a narrow strip of parchment with an incongruously modern fountain pen.

“Amazing all the stuff he’s got in those robes,” Darius stage whispered.

“Shh!” Layla elbowed him, then grimaced and rubbed at the wet patch created on her own arm.

Ignoring them for the moment, Schwartz finished his writing just as Meesie completed her feather diagram and scurried back up him to her customary perch on his shoulder. The witch carefully held his parchment over the candle flame, dipping just the corner into the tiny fire.

Immediately, the whole thing went up in a rush of sparks, causing him to jerk his fingers back. The candle was snuffed out by the reaction, the plume of smoke this caused mingling with the ashes of the parchment and rising upward far more energetically than was normal. They all tilted their heads back to watch the small cloud separate into streamers above them, each of which zipped away toward the windows lining the walls just below the ceiling, where they slipped out into the storm through tiny cracks where the panes didn’t fit exactly.

“Well?” Darius said pointedly. “We’re in suspense, here, buddy.”

“A while back I got some really good advice,” Schwartz said, beginning to pick up the feathers and tuck them inside one of his wide sleeves. “A smart old lady told me, among other things, to start equipping myself with aggressive kinds of magic. I’ve always been a bit of a bookworm, you see. More into research than adventure.”

“Surely you jest,” Layla said sweetly, earning annoyed glances from Tallie and Trissiny (and Meesie). Schwartz just continued, unperturbed.

“Well, I got to thinking, and it seems the Avenists are always harping on about war being ninety percent strategy and ten percent actual violence, right?”

“Avenist doctrine doesn’t break it into percents,” Trissiny said dryly, “but the sentiment is close enough.”

“Right. It put me in mind of a time in Vrin Shai where I… Where my group was stuck basically twiddling their thumbs while I tried to gather information from, y’know, oracular sources. The general way fae magic is good for. It took an awful long time and it was terribly imprecise… So! Since then I’ve set about working on that blind spot! That’s the thing that drew me to the fae craft in the first place—my dad was an arcanist, you know. But in witchcraft, it’s all connections and friendships with fairy beings. Power’s about who you know and how much they like you. It rewards being nice.”

“Nice people and good people are two very distinct categories,” Layla said quietly.

“Yeah, I discovered that pretty early on.” Schwartz had finished gathering and putting away his reagents, and now straightened up a little stiffly. “But anyway. In the last few months I’ve been working on getting on good terms with a fairy whom I’ve just called for help. He’s really good with information, if he wants to be. We’re not exactly close, yet, and this is the first time I’ve actually asked him for anything, so I guess we’ll see… But I have a feeling he’ll help us! This is a textbook adventure we’re in, and sylphs love those.”

“Whoah, whoah!” Darius exclaimed backing away. “I’m not the witch here, but aren’t sylphs sort of… Notoriously dangerous?”

“Oh, yes, extremely,” Schwartz replied, while Meesie nodded earnest agreement. “So for heaven’s sake be polite to—”

One of the upper windows shattered, admitting a blast of wind and rain, and a streak of silver feathers and fangs that dived straight for Schwartz with a chilling scream.


Nandi bolted straight up out of her chair, turning to face the staircase up to the battlements. The surrounding Punaji all swiveled to stare in bemusement at the sudden motion, but her squadmates came to their feet in unison, drawing weapons.

“Shahai?” Ephanie demanded.

“The walls are under attack!” Nandi declared, her eyebrows drawing together in concentration. “I hear fighting above—no, not fighting, voices and people falling… They’re coming this way!”

“Who is?” Lieutenant Laghari asked, picking up a battlestaff from the nearest weapons rack. This was a barracks, not an armory, but the troopers present kept their personal armaments close at hand.

“I don’t know, but the wall guards are falling quickly,” Nandi said urgently. “With very little struggle, which means magic at work. People are—they’re in the stairwell!”

Laghari and Ephanie both barked orders at once. Squad One snatched up shields and lances and planted themselves in a defensive line across the center of the room while the Punaji soldiers swiftly tipped up tables to create improvised barricades, grabbing firearms and huddling behind them.

In the resulting tumult, the sound of something bouncing down the stairs was totally obscured, but with everyone’s attention on the entrance, the small object’s arrival was immediately seen. Spinning to fast to be studied closely, it was white and about the size of an apple; the thing ricocheted off the edge of the doorway and tumbled straight for the hastily-erected defenses.

“Bomb!” one of the Punaji shouted, and they all ducked behind their tables while the Legionnaires dropped to their knees, huddling as much behind their shields as possible. Nandi, the only priest among them threw up a wall of golden light across the room in front of them. Stretched so thin, it would assuredly crumble under the first blow, but that was still standard procedure against explosive attack; even a fragile shield could blunt the initial blast enough to save the troops behind it.

And had the thing been a bomb, it might have worked.

It didn’t explode or even flash; only the faintest distortion appeared in the air around it as it arced toward Nandi’s shield, as if it were suddenly putting off great heat. An instant before it struck the wall of light, a thin, piercing whine spiked straight through everyone’s eardrums, completely uninhibited by the shield.

Soldiers collapsed, most crying out and several vomiting, behind their wooden barriers. Two staves were accidentally discharged, the ordinarily deafening sound of lightning in an enclosed space going unnoticed around the noise bearing everyone to the ground.

The Legionnaires fared no better, their shield wall collapsing instantly. Nandi screamed in anguish, dropping her lance and shield to pitch over backward, clutching at her head. Everyone in the room was brought down by sheer pain. The few who bore up against it well enough to retain some spine had little better luck. Laghari and Ephanie both caught themselves before falling completely prone, and tried to call for order, immediately discovering that their voices were completely silent, even to themselves. Nothing could be heard except the excruciating whine.

In addition to the pain, it caused disorientation and nausea that made several of the victims present empty their stomachs and prevented any of them from so much as straightening up. Ephanie tried and staggered drunkenly, barely catching herself on the edge of the nearest table.

Farah keeled over backward, then rolled on top of Nandi and took her hands away from her own head to help cover the elf’s ears; Nandi had curled herself into a ball and was twitching with silent sobs. Merry, losing her lance, had got her hands on someone’s dropped battlestaff and managed to flop down atop her own shield with the weapon aiming in the general direction of the door. The dizziness was not lessened by being stretched out on the floor, and it was all she could do to line up a shot at that general end of the room.

At the first flicker of movement she fired, the lightning bolt seeming soundless to them and blasting a futile crater in the wall a full yard distant from the door itself. All she accomplished was to warn the person coming in.

None of them were coherent enough to get a close look at the object which peeked around the corner at about chest height before it fired in Merry’s general direction.


They were not quite fast enough to prevent an alarm from sounding. Quickly silenced as it was, the damage was done, and soldiers upon the upper towers of the Rock itself leveled staves and opened fire upon the cyborgs emerging from the north gatehouse.

Ayuvesh strode, unconcerned, out into the rain pounding the courtyard. Lightning flashed, gouging rents in the flagstones and sparking harmlessly against his personal shield and those of his comrades. Let them burn through their power crystals; these deflectors were of a make like nothing the Punaji had ever seen. If they were expecting to wear them down with continuous fire as one could a standard arcane shield charm, they would be frustrated.

The counter-fire did not last long, anyway, as each sparking battlestaff only presented a target. Members of the Order took aim with blasters and the air was filled with the shrill whine of the sonic weapons—harmless to their wielders, thanks to enhancements he had been certain to make to all of their installed machine systems. The effect of sonic blasters would be inhibited by the solid stone walls of the Rock, but battlements and arrow loops would offer little protection from sound waves. One by one, the firing staves halted as their owners were incapacitated.

Fortunate that his foresight had demanded they all install the protection against sonics before the Infinite Elixir had suddenly dried up, forcing him to make this extremely risky gambit. But no, he corrected himself inwardly, there was no fortune. There was only will, and his was stronger.

“South gatehouse is contained,” one of his comrades reported, the voice sounding in Ayuvesh’s artificial ear. “They actually got into fighting position, but didn’t stand up to the blasters.”

“Don’t get careless,” another warned. “There’ll be more troops below, out of range of the weapons.”

Ayuvesh turned to face Shankri, and tilted his head back toward the southern gatehouse. “Try to get inside from the ground floor and sweep upward with your group; meet in the middle. You mustn’t let them secure a position inside the gatehouse.”

“Yes, Leader,” she replied, bowing, then turned and dashed for the small door at the side. The four assigned to accompany her, having heard, followed without comment, all carrying sonic blasters.

Of all the Order present, only Ayuvesh himself was without one.

“Come,” he ordered, striding forward toward the inner gates of the Rock itself. “We must not give them time to organize.”

Staff fire had completely ceased by then; at his side, Gupter switched his arm attachment from a standard hand to a cutting tool, against which the fortress door would hold for seconds at the most.

“Spread out when we are inside,” Ayuvesh ordered. “Fan as widely as you can, neutralize everyone you see. No looting, and do not harm fallen foes. Keep moving through the fortress in small groups and stay in touch. Notify me at once when you find the King. Only then will we be able to end this.”

It was one thing for a person to test his will against the universe itself. Tonight, the will of the Infinite Order would come against that of a king and a nation.

And what would be, would be.


“Wait, wait, wait!” Schwartz cried shrilly—to Trissiny, who had burst alight with a golden glow and whipped out her sword. He didn’t seem at all perturbed about the great sinuous beast which had coiled itself around him. While she had taken a threatening step forward, the other apprentices had judiciously retreated. Atop Schwartz’s head, Meesie mimicked his posture, frantically holding up her tiny palms and squeaking at Trissiny. “It’s all right! He’s a friend! Everything’s fine.”

“You’re…sure,” she said warily, but lowered her sword. Schwartz was fully encased in serpentine coils, but not constricted—and in fact, as she took a careful step back, the sylph continued moving, loosening his encirclement to give Schwartz more space and fixing a stare on the paladin.

“I’m quite sure, trust me. That was a heck of an entrance, Rad,” he added, the sylph having unwound himself to a position bringing his head adjacent to Schwartz’s. “You scared everybody half to death.”

“Mmm. Just half? All is well, then.” The voice might have been human, albeit rather high-pitched for a male.

“Everyone, this is my friend, Aradeus the Noble.” Schwartz actually reached out to pat the sylph’s neck, smiling reassuringly. “Rad, these are my other friends. Layla and Darius Sakhavenid, Tallie… I’m sorry, I don’t know your last name.”

“That’s how I like it,” she replied warily, eyes still on the sylph.

“And, of course, Trissiny Avelea, the Hand of Avei.”

“An honor!” Aradeus gracefully slid out from around Schwartz, spread his wings, and executed a strangely courtly bow, dipping his head and tucking one foot momentarily behind the other.

He was the strangest combination of snake, bird, and dog in appearance. Fully twelve feet long from nose to tail, his whole body was sinuous and lean, covered in silvery fur which ruffled constantly, more than the wind blowing in from the window he’d broken could account for. His wings were feathered, the plumes oddly crystalline in appearance, and banded in bright colors like a macaws; directly below them he had two long, stork-like legs, ending in huge, glittering talons. The sylph’s head looked canine, though tipped with two birdlike nostrils instead of a wet little nose, and he had blade-shaped ears twice the length of his skull.

Aradeus smiled at them, which may have been intended as a pleasant expression. His long rows of needle-sharp silver teeth just made it unnerving.

“Let’s see,” the sylph mused, turning and stepping over toward Layla with a mincing gait that suited a wading bird. He paused when Darius edged in front of her, and folded his wings back along his sinuous body. “Mmm, young nobles. Of House Sakhavenid! You are a long way from home.”

“You’re aware of our House?” Layla asked in surprise, peeking around Darius’s shoulder.

“Not until just now.” Aradeus seemed to have lost interest already, turning and approaching Tallie, who held her ground. For the most part he kept his neck—or at least the long portion of his body between his wings and head—arched upright to bring his eyes to about human level, but he lowered it now to sniff at her midsection.

“Excuse you?” she exclaimed.

“Now, Tallie,” Schwartz said nervously.

“Mmmm. Circus folk. An acrobat? How excellent!” Aradeus straightened up to grin at her. “I like performers. Such a sense of fun!”

“Well, thanks, I guess…”

The sylph had moved on by then. Trissiny carefully slid her sword back into its sheath, watching quizzically as Aradeus stepped over and sniffed all up and down her form.

“Find what you were looking for?” she finally asked after the third round of this.

“Mmm, how fascinating!” He straightened again, showing her all his teeth. “Avenist, Eserite, human, elf. And what diverse friends you have! Avei is branching out, it seems. Herschel, you didn’t tell me you—” Twisting his head around to look at Schwartz, he suddenly broke off. “Oh. Oh, I see. You don’t know, yet.”

“Omnu’s balls,” Darius interjected. “Is there something else you need to tell us, Trissiny?”

“No, no, no secrets,” Aradeus assured him, twisting his neck fully into a position that looked very uncomfortable. “She doesn’t know yet, either. Not my place to say, you’ll find out in time, no doubt. Or perhaps not. Mmmm. And you call me here without an offering, Herschel? Presumptuous.” The sylph straightened his neck, turning to prance back toward Schwartz and lowering his head as he came. “You have always been so well-mannered, too.”

Meesie sat upright in Schwartz’s hair, waving and squeaking brightly. Aradeus paused in his approach to grin up at her.

“Hey, there, cutie. I missed you, too.”

“I am sorry to call so abruptly, Rad,” Schwartz said, himself wearing a grin now. Oddly enough, in the presence of one of the most infamously unpredictable and violent types of fairy, he seemed more at ease than ever. “But I thought you might get a kick out of this, and we could definitely use your help. The short version is we’re chasing renegades from various cults of the Universal Church, and all we know is they’re attacking Puna Dara. Which would be interesting enough on its own, but right now the city’s being pounded by a sudden storm sent specifically by Naphthene. What do you think?” His grin widened. “Sound like fun?”

“Mmmmmmmmmm.” Aradeus emitted a long hum, tilting his head and twitching both his ears. Though apparently rigid along their length, they swiveled where they attached to the skull, and he used them as expressively as a horse. “It’s a very good storm. Hers are always the best ones. Interesting, I’ll give you that. It’s not running from Athan’Khar monsters, but you do keep yourself entertained, don’t you?”

“You actually did that?” Darius scoffed.

Schwartz shrugged and rolled his eyes heavenward. “Why doesn’t anyone believe me about that?”

“Mmm. I will not fight, here, I think,” Aradeus mused. Turning away from Schwartz, he began pacing in a circle, head upraised, sniffing the air steadily as he went. “There is no evil here…just humans struggling over human concerns. Not my business. There was a succubus, quite recently. She’s gone, though. Alas, no evil is left to chase.”

“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?” Layla said. “The last thing we need to deal with is a succubus.”

“Oh, but they’re such fun!” the sylph crooned, swiveling his head to grin directly at her. “So clever! Excellent hunting.”

“And it’s not necessarily good that she’s gone,” Trissiny added, frowning. “If a Vanislaad has been here and left, that usually means they’ve accomplished whatever they were trying to do. Which is always trouble of the worst kind.”

“Oh, yes!” Aradeus turned his eyes on her, grinning widely. “Oh, yes. Mmmm. Yes, I don’t mind helping you, this is a most entertaining hunt. There are no Pantheon cultists here for you to chase, oh no. Very different cultists, men and women of machine and ancient lore. They do not answer to your enemy, but have been manipulated by him. Encouraged, and used. The succubus let them into the palace, the Rock. Even now, they close upon the Crown.” He raised his head, sniffing the air again. “Mmmm. A most curious battle. They fight with…sound, yes. Weapons that strike the ear. Painful, but not lethal. A strangely bloodless coup. The Punaji have no defense against this.”

“Shit fire,” Darius whispered.

“How can you tell all this?” Tallie demanded.

“Sylphs can smell anything,” Schwartz said, stepping up and patting Aradeus on the back of the neck. Humming softly in pleasure, the sylph arched into the touch, and the witch ruffled his fur affectionately. “It’s not like elves, who just have more acute senses. Aradeus can scent whatever the wind has witnessed. If he says he smells sound weapons, then that’s what it is.”

“This succubus,” Trissiny said, narrowing her eyes. “Does she work for the Archpope?”

“For now.” Aradeus gave her a small grin, the faint light glittering along his silver teeth. “Under duress, of course. A succubus, elves…a dragon. What an interesting Archpope, this one. Mmm. Strange company, for such as him to keep.”

“Well, that answers the question of timing, anyway,” Trissiny stated, turning to the others. “The King is under attack now. We have to move.”

“How?” Layla asked skeptically. “How are we going to fight sound-based weapons that apparently took out the whole Punaji army?”

“You’re not a soldier,” Tallie said. “Don’t try to think like one. You’re a thief. Weapons are no use if they never even get pointed at you. We’ve got a paladin and a witch to draw their attention. We operate best in the shadows.”

“Okay,” Trissiny said, nodding. “I like it so far. What’s your idea, Tallie?”

Suddenly put on the spot, Tallie froze for a moment. Just a moment, though, then she swallowed. “Uh, well… Okay. What is it we need to accomplish, here? We’re saving the Punaji government, right?”

“That seems more or less the sum of it,” Schwartz agreed. “We came here to oppose whatever Justinian has set in motion. If he wants Rajakhan to fall, we want him to win.”

“Right. Then… There’s the military solution, where we take out the people attacking them.”

“Unlikely,” Aradeus commented. “Mmmm. Forty- three of them, spreading through the palace. Humans augmented with machine parts, carrying shields and weapons of ancient design. Mmm. Hershel and Trissiny, either, are more than a match for a handful at a time. But hunting them down would take you too long. And if you got them all to gather… Even a Hand of Avei might be pressed.”

“You are a very helpful fairy,” Tallie told him.

“Yes, I am. And you are a very interesting human!”

“Thanks, I try. Well, that leaves the other solution: we get the King out of the palace, somehow. Finding and extracting someone isn’t exactly a thiefly skill, but it’s closer to up our alley.”

“There is more help coming,” Aradeus said suddenly, raising his nose to the air again and inhaling. “Mmm… Yes. Help. Good help… Enough to crush the metal men!”

Tallie threw up her hands. “Okay, never mind! Back to Plan A, I guess.”

“No, wait a moment,” Trissiny said slowly. “Aradeus, do the invaders have control of the fortress gates?”

“Mmm, well spotted. Yes, they have. One they used to enter, the other they overtook. Stopping the soldiers inside from helping their king, mmm.”

“How many gates are there?” Layla asked.

“Two,” said Trissiny, “at right angles, flanking the western corner tower.”

“I thought you’d never been here before,” said Darius, frowning at her.

“I haven’t, but the Rock is one of the most impregnable fortresses on this continent; you’d better believe they made me study it back in Viridill. Tallie’s plan is still our best bet. We hit the gates; Schwartz and I will draw their attention while you get the doors open.”

“How.” Tallie’s voice dripped with so much skepticism it was barely a question.

Trissiny actually grinned at her. “Each gatehouse has a side door, just the kind of thing a thief can breach. I’ll walk you through it on the way.”

“Mmmm. They entered through the north gatehouse,” Aradeus added, again sniffing the air. “Mm. Yes. That door is not secured…yet. These are not military people, nor planning to hold the fortress; they are after the King. Not expecting to be attacked from behind, and overconfident in their weapons. You can get in the same way they did.”

“And once you’ve opened the gates,” Trissiny said, nodding, “the rest of these reinforcements will aid us in taking back the fortress. Who, exactly, is coming?” she added, turning to Aradeus.

“Mmmm, that is the best part,” he said, giving her a huge grin. “People you know… Know very well. But you will need to hold that gate open for them, Trissiny, Hand of Avei. Mmm, yes. They are going to be delayed.”


The appeared in a harbor warehouse, with the storm pounding against its walls and the windows rattling under its fury. The Avatar had teleported them so abruptly the group lost seconds to sheer disorientation. Then, they reflexively clustered together, even Fross darting to hover above the center of their formation.

They were not alone.

This particular warehouse was clearly serving as a living space; there were rows of beds and other furniture marking of a sleeping area to one side, as well as other sections delineated by cheap wooden dividers or simply the furniture within to indicate its purpose. A makeshift kitchen and armory were apparent at a glance, but the group didn’t bother to study the rest in more detail, being more concerned with the people present.

The warehouse was packed with people sheltering from the storm. A surprising number of them were armed, with swords, wands and staves. Milady, Principia, and the students landed right in the center of the space, directly in front of a makeshift dais made by stacked crates, upon which a man had been clearly in the middle of giving a speech. He gaped at them, arms still upraised in an interrupted gesticulation.

After a shocked moment, every weapon in the place was pointed at them.

“Identify yourselves!” the man on the platform finally commanded, regathering his poise.

“Uh…how ’bout you first?” Gabriel suggested.

“This is our home, and you are the intruders, here.” The speaker was regaining equilibrium by the moment, and now leveled a finger at them dramatically. “You trespass upon the domain of the Infinite Order!”

A short silence fell.

“You cannot be serious,” Milady finally said with a sigh.

“So help me,” Ruda growled, “I am going to find a way to get back down there and kill that fucking purple glowshroom.”

 

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13 – 12

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“By that,” Toby said slowly, “do you mean its enchantments are still active?”

Fross chimed in annoyance. “They are, but no, if I had meant that I would have said that. I always try to be precise! What I mean is, I think this object is both artificially constructed and a living organism.”

“Okay,” he said. “Sorry, no offense meant.”

The pixie zoomed over to buzz affectionately around his head once. “I know, Toby, I’m sorry for getting irked. I’m in analytical mode, it makes me impatient.”

“Now, hang on!” Juniper exclaimed. “Something cannot be artificially made and still a living thing!”

“That is a fallacy,” Ariel’s voice interjected. “Such beings do not occur in nature, but there are ample specimens from the annals of magical history.”

“What the hell was that?” Merry exclaimed in alarm.

“Ariel.” Gabriel drew the black sword and held her up; her runes flickered a dull blue in the light. “She’s very particular about magical matters. Helpful, too, most of the time.”

“Young man,” Nandi said very evenly, “do you know where talking swords come from?”

He sighed and sheathed Ariel again. “Yes, I do, and nobody here had a hand in making her. We found her in the Crawl. Fross, you were telling us about that arm?”

“Yes, thank you!” the pixie exclaimed. “If everyone’s listening now? Okay, so I’ve analyzed this thing as carefully as possible in this timeframe and with this equipment and what I’ve discovered is that it is clearly a machine, it was not built by anybody who thinks the way any modern enchanter or engineer does, and as I said, its nature is more organic than mechanical despite being mechanical and made of minerals.”

“Yeah, can we focus on that part first?” Juniper suggested. “Because that doesn’t make a lick of sense to—”

Fross rose two feet toward the ceiling, her glow brightening significantly on the way, and emitted a wordless arpeggio of sheer irritation.

“Uh…” Juniper actually took a step back from the examining table. “Actually…why don’t you just go over it in…y’know, whatever order makes sense to you.”

“Thank you, Juniper,” Fross replied, drifting back down toward the subject of her research. “Anyway. First of all, the device itself is not enchanted, exactly. Its interior structure is a series of pretty simple cables and pulleys which stand in for muscles, ligaments, all that stuff. There are no inner bones, since of course the outer structure is rigid metal, so it’s organized differently. The enchantments are contained in tiny crystals affixed to each joint.”

“Forgive me for interrupting,” Gabriel said hesitantly. “But does that mean there’s no central enchantment at all?”

“Exactly!” Fross said, clearly growing excited again. “That’s the beauty of it! See, Juniper tore this one off at the elbow, which is probably why I can’t find an enchantment that makes it interface with the human body. The little crystals only govern each mechanism individually; that interface charm was probably on the piece attached right to the human. But! These enchantments are incredibly efficient compared to ours because they have no power component! They only carry instructions for the machine parts; the energy is conducted through a series of metal filaments encased in a rubber-like non-conductive medium. It runs on electricity, not magic!”

“I thought electricity was pretty much only good for weapons,” Casey said, leaning forward on her chair.

“It is good for weapons,” Farah replied, “but actually, the nervous systems of all living things run on tiny electrical charges. That’s why lightning wands tend to cause nerve damage and sometimes even brain disorders.”

“Exactly!” Fross said eagerly, swooping around the table in erratic circles. “These appear to draw their power directly from the body! Except it takes more energy to move metal than flesh simply because of its weight, so that wouldn’t exactly work, which makes me think there must be a power source of some kind with some much more sophisticated enchantments connected to the host body. But! In addition to being very alien in design, this thing is made of components that aren’t like anything I’ve ever seen. The different alloys used for the casing, the moving parts, the metal wires… I can’t even identify any of them. Likewise the insulating material; it’s like rubber, but obviously synthetic. And these enchantment crystals most of all! It’s like… This kind of enchantment does exist now, but modern data crystals are new and pretty rare, and also not nearly as efficient. These ones aren’t much bigger than grains of sand and anything I could make to do their job would be about the size of an average lightning wand’s power crystal.”

“So, it’s magic more sophisticated than anything known,” Anjal said, frowning. “With every new revelation I get more nervous about this Elder God business. Naphthene’s tits, these bastards are all over the city!”

“Well, it’s hard to compare that kind of sophistication directly,” Fross cautioned. “Compared to the state of modern industrial enchantment, yes. But that itself is very new; individual archmages throughout history were known to make stuff like this. Well, I mean, not like this necessarily, but things so amazing modern enchanters still don’t understand how they work. Magic mirrors, for instance. We even understand those, but they’re fiendishly hard and we haven’t yet cracked mass-production of them.”

“Or talking swords, for example,” Nandi said.

Gabriel turned to give her a flat look. “Is this going to become a problem?”

“I dearly hope not,” she replied, expressionless.

“Anyway!” Fross continued more loudly. “The really, really interesting part is the organic part! Yes, Juniper, I’m coming to it. Okay, so, one thing that jumped out at me is there’s nothing in there except the devices that make it move. The thing about anything with moving parts is that moving them wears them down; they require repair and maintenance. With engineered machines, you have to get into ’em and do it manually; biological organisms have built-in systems for maintenance, which is obviously more efficient and exactly why those organisms are so much more complex than any machine. So! What’s interesting here is that this device is clearly not designed to be dismantled! The pieces are solid, and even the ones that move connect firmly in a way that clearly isn’t meant to be disconnected. Therefore, since it has no way to access it internally to perform repairs, there has to be a built-in mechanism for that!”

“What if they don’t repair them?” Casey suggested. “Just…take ’em off and throw ’em away when they wear out.”

Fross shot upward in indignation. “Excuse me, but I refuse to believe any intelligence capable of creating a machine like this would make a design choice so inefficient, wasteful, and catastrophically stupid.”

“Sorry,” Casey said, holding up her hands in surrender. “You’re the boss.”

“It’s pronounced Fross, actually,” Ruda said with a grin.

“So,” the pixie continued, “I went looking for traces of this mechanism and guess what I found!”

“Or,” Toby said quickly when several people opened their mouths, “just tell us? For efficiency’s sake, if nothing else.”

Fross appeared not to hear him, carrying on at a rapid clip while bouncing up and down in midair. “While I was doing exploratory divinations, I actually caught the damaged edges of the metal casing rebuilding itself, filling in scratches and trying to extend toward the part that’s broken off! And, and! That prompted me to take a closer structural look at the metal itself, and it was clearly not molded, cast, or worked using any known means. It was built up one atom at a time, like the way mollusks grow shells, but on an even smaller scale somehow adding up to a finished product on a much greater scale than any clam! Isn’t that amazing?”

Everyone stared at the apparently inert metal arm for a moment of silence, Merry and Casey standing up to see better.

“Amazing is a word,” Ruda said at last. “The one that springs to my mind is ‘creepy.’ With some adjectives. You all know my favorite ones, I think.”

“But…you couldn’t find any standing enchantment that’s doing that?” Gabriel asked.

“No, I couldn’t!”

“So,” Teal said, “we still don’t understand what force animates this thing, but now we know it’s still active and doing so right now.”

“If I may make a recommendation,” said Ariel, “it may be too late in this case but for future reference, it would be wise to handle any such objects as if they presented a threat of contagion.”

“Holy shit,” Gabriel muttered, “we’ve got the queen and the princess in this room… All right, everybody! We’re gonna do a thorough cleansing and general healing.”

“Do you really think that’s necessary, boy?” Anjal asked dryly, folding her arms.

“I have no idea,” he replied, “but none of us have any idea about anything, here, and I don’t think we can afford to take risks.”

“He’s right,” Toby said, placing a hand on Gabriel’s shoulder. “About the risks and sensible countermeasures, not so much the part where he started barking orders at the aforementioned queen and princess.”

“Oh.” Gabriel’s cheeks colored. “I, uh…sorry, I didn’t mean…”

“It’s all right, Arquin, we’re used to you,” Ruda said, slugging his other shoulder and grinning. “Future reference, don’t get pushy with Punaji women unless you’re lookin’ to get your ass married and/or stabbed.”

“And/or?” Ephanie muttered.

“Seriously, though, let’s please just do this,” Gabriel said a little nervously. “Uh… Juniper’s the tricky one. Either divine healing or the cleansing charms I can do will hurt her.”

“I’m not sure I need it,” the dryad said, folding her arms. “I’m pretty impervious in the first place, and anyway, I have my own means.”

“Okay, but…wouldja humor me, Juno? Whatever you’ve got to check for and cleanse any kind of corruption… I know you’re a dryad, but remember you don’t have Naiya to rely on now and there’s no telling what these guys are capable of…”

“Yeah, I see your point,” she said with a sigh. “Okay, I’m just gonna go to that corner over there and concentrate. Can you try to keep your divine magic in the other side of the room?”

“Can do!” Gabriel said, saluting. “Now, uh… Toby, you’re much better at healing than I am. I think you’d better take point, here.”

“Sure,” Toby said, peering at him. “Did I hear you say you can do cleansing charms? That’s impressive stuff, Gabe, I had no idea you were that advanced.”

“Gabriel is very good at enchanting!” Fross chimed. “I’m a much more general-purpose arcanist, and I frequently ask his help with passive enchantment work! And we worked hard on getting those cleansing charms right for our semester project. See, the trick is including the right modifiers so they only identify and purge hostile elements from the body and not the symbiotic bacteria that aid digestion! We made a lot of poor rats very sick…”

“You keep your fuckin’ finger wiggling away from me,” Ruda ordered Gabriel, taking a step back.

Nandi cleared her throat, stepping forward. “I am a priestess. Less innately powerful than Mr. Caine, obviously, but with five centuries of experience in several fields of healing. I would be glad to help.”

“You would be very welcome,” Toby said emphatically. “My thanks, Corporal Shahai. Now, let’s please organize everybody into a line over here, we’ll want to give everybody our full attention, not just fling magic around. Corporal, would you walk us through the recommended procedure, please?”

While Nandi began instructing the students, Merry glanced sidelong at Juniper, who had just passed them and was now sitting in the corner with her eyes closed, then leaned forward and lowered her voice to a bare whisper, nodding in Teal’s direction. “So, uh… What’s the deal with that one?”

“She’s possessed,” Principia replied in the same quiet tone. “Bonded with the archdemon Vadrieny.” Farah swallowed loudly, staring at Teal with wide eyes.

“You’ve…heard of that particular demon?” Merry asked her.

“Archdemon,” Farah whispered. “Daughter of Elilial. Demonic demigoddess, technically. Vadrieny has killed…well, a lot.”

“We always make the neatest friends,” Casey murmured. Everyone shifted to stare at her; neither her expression nor tone revealed whether she was being sarcastic.

“And you,” Merry finally said, prodding Principia in the shoulder, “drugged her to get her out of your way. Some balls on you, woman. Not an iota of sense, but still.”

“It seemed worthwhile at the time,” Principia said with a sigh. “Okay, Lang, that’s as good as an opening as you’re likely to get. Planning to make with the barrage of screeching and questions, now? Quite frankly, the anticipation has been worse than what your voice does to my ears when you get in one of your episodes.”

“I do not have ‘episodes,’” Merry said sullenly. “Anyhow…no. Oh, I was gonna, but I spent the awkward silence while we were getting frog-marched here thinking—shut your mouth, Elwick!—and it actually makes perfect sense, like the princess said. Obviously, if Rouvad was gonna let you in the Legions, it would be with a huge list of stipulations about what you can’t say to whom. So, no, LT, I don’t take being kept in the dark personally, this one time.”

“I can’t tell you what a load off my mind that is,” Principia said sweetly.

Merry grinned right back. “Yeah, well. After the way she lit into you, I figured you two have enough issues without me picking at it.”

Ephanie sighed. “And still, you had to bring that up. You were almost considerate for a moment there, Lang.”

Merry just smiled. “I assume Shahai knew about this, too? She’s got Rouvad’s ear on everything.”

“I knew,” Casey said quietly, then shrugged when the others turned to stare at her again. “Locke pretty deliberately left the breadcrumbs. You just had to follow ’em.”

“Of course she did,” Ephanie said, turning to Principia in exasperation. “Locke, have you ever been given an order you didn’t feel an immediate need to weasel around?”

“No,” Prin said immediately, grinning. “Not once. But I have many times received orders I didn’t actually weasel around. If I just went and did everything I felt a need to, I’d have had a much more interesting sex life. And also would be dead by now.”

“I would prefer not to hear any more about either of those prospects, please,” said Merry.

Their conversation, and Nandi’s instruction of Toby, was interrupted by a rap at the door. A second later, it opened, revealing the royal seneschal.

“Bad news, Akhatrya!” Ruda said merrily. “You’re infected, now! Join the line!”

“Zari, my rules about you hassling the staff don’t change just because you’re halfway to college-educated,” Anjal snapped, whisking her hat off and swatting Ruda over the head with it. “What is it, Akhatrya?”

“Your pardon, Majesty, Princess, honored guests,” the tall, bearded man said, bowing deeply. “There is an unexpected visitor in the palace seeking an audience with both the Crown and with Lieutenant Locke.” He turned another, shallower bow specifically upon Principia. “A representative from the local Thieves’ Guild.”

Anjal narrowed her eyes. “I see. And this visitor is not meeting with the King because…?”

Akhatrya’s face betrayed no expression. “His Majesty the King feels that since you are both together, it is the most efficient course of action for you to meet Miss Lagrande.”

“Lagrande?” Principia’s eyebrows shot upward. “Quinn Lagrande? She’s still alive?”

“One hopes so, Lieutenant,” Akhatrya said placidly. “She was moments ago. If she is otherwise now, we shall have most interesting conversations with the Guild in the days to come.”

“Great,” Anjal muttered. “You win this time, husband, but there will be a reckoning. Oh, yes, there will. Well, Akhatrya, I’m afraid our little Zari wasn’t wrong. Join the line, please. This Quinn Lagrande will just have to wait a few minutes longer.”


Ox Whippoorwill stepped into the Ale & Wenches and paused just inside, exchanging nods with a couple of citizens. Most didn’t notice him, being too absorbed in their conversations. Everything about the scene was…off. It was far too crowded for the early afternoon, and almost all those present were Rockies, while the A&W primarily catered to out-of-towners. Its usual clientele were present in small numbers; they were identifiable as the few people sitting at tables by themselves, looking somewhat bemused by what was going on around them.

What was going on was just conversation, so far. They were intense conversations, though, and not all of them quiet. Ox stood for a handful of heartbeats, soaking it in—just long enough to hear a few key words. Then he moved out of the door and began making his way around the perimeter of the room toward the only man present aside from the bartender who wasn’t sitting.

“Deputy,” Fedora said, nodding at Ox’s approach. He was blatantly lurking, just beside the stairs, and just as blatantly watching the room. More than a few of those gathered kept casting pointed glances his direction. So far, at least, nobody was staring.

“Inspector,” Ox rumbled in reply. “An’ it’s just Ox. Titles are for when I gotta get official with somebody.”

“Very well, same goes,” Fedora said, momentary amusement cracking his pensive expression. He took a sip of the pint of beer in his hand. It was almost full, clearly being used as a prop to justify his presence to the proprietor.

“Oh? I figured Inspectors kept the right to the title even after they retired. Like military ranks, or professors.”

“I actually would have to look up the rules on that,” Fedora murmured, again staring across the bar. “Regardless, I’m not in with the Empire any longer. That was a good job and I’m glad to have held it, but it’s best not to dwell on the past, I find.”

“Mm.” Ox took a position next to him and folded his arms, feeling no need to bother getting a drink. He wanted his head clear, and since being officially deputized he had no need of an excuse to stand around in a public place.

For a few minutes, they stood in silence. Watching, and listening.

“Is it like this all over town?” Fedora asked finally, then took another tiny sip.

“A mite calmer,” Ox replied. “Folk meetin’ on the street, havin’ little chats. In shops an’ behind shops… Nothin’ else is as boisterous as this right here. ‘Swhy I came to keep an eye on this crowd. Even the Saloon’s not as packed, or as…intense. Jonas won’t stand for no funny business in his place, either.”

Fedora nodded very slowly. “Tell me…are you seeing the same thing wrong with this picture I am?”

“It’s too damn fast,” Ox said immediately, keeping his voice low. With the hubbub in the room, it wasn’t hard to be discreet. “Not that it’s a small thing, exactly, the University sponsorin’ some kinda demon-summonin’ project, but… I know this town. I know the rhythms an’ the balance of opinions. There ain’t enough folks suspicious of the school to create this kinda hubbub this quick. Even if there was… The announcement was just posted, after lunch. Normally, folks’d only just be hearin’ the first rumors. This is all over. An’ you can plainly see how tense it’s gettin’.”

Again, that very slow nod. Fedora let his eyes wander across the crowded tavern, having another sip that barely wet his lips. “The Sheriff know about this?”

“I came right here when this started up, ain’t talked with him yet. Sam’s got ears, though. He knows his job, an’ he knows this town.”

“Hm.”

“Reminds me of a while back,” Ox continued after a pause. “We damn near had an honest-to-gods riot in this town, an’ it turns it there was a rogue Vidian priestess doin’ some kinda hoodoo, makin’ people more susceptible. You don’t suppose…”

This time, Fedora shook his head negatively, and with more energy. “I don’t know Last Rock as well as you, Ox, but I know people, and I know trouble. You’re right: this is too quick. Much too quick a result. And your instinct is equally right. I’m never willing to trust that out-of-the-ordinary behavior happens on this scale without being made to. But look at the pattern.” He gestured slowly around the room with his nearly-full glass. “Look at the different expressions. There are people nervous, people pissed off… But most uncertain, and just as many peacemakers as agitators. Folks speaking up on Tellwyrn’s behalf. If there was a magical effect in place to agitate people, like in your example, we wouldn’t see all these people standing back and listening, waiting to form their own opinions. If there was some kind of more aggressive control trying to turn people against Tellwyrn, same goes and she wouldn’t have this many defenders.” Again, he shook his head, and took a sip. “No need to assume some grandiose, cosmic effect in place. Just somebody stirring up shit. Someone skillful, well-connected in this town. Someone who knows the social landscape well enough to launch a very effective rumor campaign.”

“You’re sayin’ it’s one o’ my neighbors,” Ox growled.

“Maybe,” Fedora said noncommittally. “It would take more than one to do this so efficiently, but don’t jump to any conclusions. There are a lot of new faces in Last Rock lately, some who’ve been here long enough to have learned what they’d need to do this, assuming they had the right skills to begin with. This used to be a town where everybody knew everybody else; now, suddenly, it’s not anymore. You couldn’t ask for an easier target for infiltration.”

Ox heaved a deep sigh, his breath ruffling his mustache. “Omnu’s balls. You know who’s doin’ this, Fedora?”

“Not yet,” the erstwhile Inspector replied, a predatory glint rising in his eyes. “That…will take a little work. I’m going to have a long stroll around town, Ox. Chat with some people, listen in. You and the Sheriff have no objection, I trust?”

“Respect the law,” Ox rumbled, “respect the people, an’ don’t stir up no more trouble. Aside from that, ain’t my business or the Sheriff’s what you do.”

“Oh, I don’t intend to stir the pot, you can count on that,” Fedora said, straightening up and casting a weird little smile around the room. “But I am going to find out who’s got their hands on the spoon.”

 

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13 – 11

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“And so, you have come to me.” Ami Talaari smirked, folded her arms strategically under her bosom, and leaned against the frame of her apartment door. After having swept a disdainful look around at his entourage of junior Eserites, she had seemingly dismissed them from consideration and focused her gaze upon Schwartz. “Really, Herschel, you ought to have done so in the first place. Who else do you know who has her finger upon the city’s pulse?”

“Yo.” Darius, at the back of the little crowd outside her apartment door, raised his hand. Everyone ignored him.

“Aha, well, yes,” Schwartz said self-consciously, managing a weak grin. “It really hasn’t been all that long, Ami. I went to get these guys first because I thought they might be in immediate danger… But you’re the first person we’ve come to!” Meesie nodded vigorously, bounding from his shoulder to the top of his head and adding a squeak of affirmation.

“Because you’re being hunted?” She finally looked past him again, studying the apprentices with a bit more interest. “These are the Eserites you know, yes? Why not go to the Guild for help? I’m certainly not shy about my talents, but that seems, if anything, a better source of intelligence on movements in the city. Not that I can’t help, of course,” she added with a smug little smile. “Just…curious.”

“Well, the thing is…” Schwartz cleared his throat. “We’re not sure who to trust or where we can go at the moment, and even my rooms at the Collegium have been spied on, so that’s possibly not safe…”

“Yeeeessss?” Ami’s smile widened. “I’ll warn you I have little direct access to the Collegium except through you, Herschel. But give me a few hours and I’m sure I can turn up something.”

“Um.” He cleared his throat again. “Actually, we just need to borrow your apartment for a little bit. I need a secure space to cast some divination, so we can figure out where to go next.”

Her smile instantly vanished. Ami stared at Schwartz in silence for two heartbeats, then took a step backward, grabbed the door, and swung it shut.

“Waitwaitwaitwait!” Schwartz squawked, sticking a foot in the doorway to block it. “It’s not just that, Syrinx is involved!”

She stopped trying to kick his foot out of the doorway, and pulled it a few inches back open, her eyes now narrowed in suspicion. “How?”

“That’s just it, I don’t know yet, and believe me all this is terrifying enough without her snooping around the periphery after the gods know what!” He surreptitiously wrapped his fingers around the edge of the door frame, seemingly unconcerned with the danger to them should she manage to shove his foot out of the gap. It at least gave Meesie the opportunity to scamper down his arm and add her earnest squeaks to his plea. “She’s not the only old familiar face that’s suddenly showing up in connection with this. Ildrin Falaridjad is involved; she tried to have Jasmine, Tallie and Layla thrown in jail so she could interrogate them!”

“Ildrin?” Ami’s eyebrows shot upward. “Why in the name of Boslin’s flute is she not in jail?”

“Being neck deep in a powerful conspiracy’s probably handy for that,” Tallie remarked.

“And,” Schwartz continued doggedly, “it was Syrinx who intercepted her and bailed them out. I know those two have a mutual grudge but I can’t help being very suspicious when Basra shows up being helpful.”

Ami heaved a deep sigh—very deep, and accompanied by a subtle shift of her shoulders and back that made her chest swell, prompting Darius and Ross to shift their gaze momentarily. Schwartz, at least, was apparently used to her enough to maintain eye contact. “Oh, very well,” she said with poor grace. “I suppose you’d better come in, then.”

“You are a lifesaver,” Schwartz said emphatically, following her inside as she stepped back and let the door swing wide.

“Yes, well, I suppose someone has to rescue you, since your good friend Principia is out of pocket.”

He paused, prompting an annoyed throat-clearing from Darius, and then shifted aside to let the rest of them in. “How’d you know about that?”

“Forget to keep me in the loop, did you?” Ami positioned herself in front of the window and folded her arms dramatically, tilting her chin up. “Just because that elf is nominally friendly toward us doesn’t absolve her of being one of the most suspicious people we know. Believe me, I take great pains to be notified of any change in her routine. For example, her whole squad not showing up at any of their usual posts for a day and a half.”

“That is a wise policy,” Jasmine murmured.

“Holy crap, this place is nice,” Tallie said, adding a whistle as she peered around the apartment. “And you’re…a bard?”

“You were going to say just a bard, weren’t you.” Ami smiled smugly. “In much the way that you’re just a thief. We all have backstories, my dear. Touch that instrument and whatever problems you are having, they will increase by an order of magnitude.”

She hadn’t even been looking in the direction of Layla, whose fingertips were inches from the guitar propped upright on a reading chair, but Layla froze anyway.

“Uh, yeah,” Ross rumbled, gently taking Layla by the shoulders and pulling her back a few steps. “You don’t mess with a bard’s instrument. Ever.”

“My apologies,” Layla said, uncharacteristically demure.

“In case it doesn’t go without saying, now that my home is full of Eserites, I would prefer that there be no casual appropriation of any of my possessions.”

“Ami, there’s no need to get hostile,” Scwhartz reproved. “We appreciate your help very much, but you know quite well that Eserites don’t just grab whatever’s not nailed down.”

She just shook her head. “So! You are being stalked, apparently, by the Church loyalists, who by implication have become much more organized recently. I’m still lost on the point where the lot of you didn’t approach your own Guild first for help.”

There was a silence, in which even Meesie did not squeak.

“Wait, who?” Jasmine said at last. “Church loyalists?”

“Oh, really,” Ami said disdainfully. “Surely you didn’t think all this began in response to you.”

“I like her,” Tallie said in her driest tone. “She’s a sweetie.”

“Perhaps it’s best, after all, that you came to an accredited bard,” Ami said with a sigh, and turned to gaze out the window. She had a lovely view of a nearby park, surrounded by historic townhouses. “All of this descends directly from the Enchanter Wars; you lot and your troubles are only the latest manifestation of this conflict.”

While her back was turned, Darius carefully nudged Ross with his elbow, and then held both hands up in a cupping motion a good distance from his chest, waggling his eyebrows. Ross just shook his head, but Jasmine, Tallie, and Layla all swatted him simultaneously from behind. Despite her seemingly inhuman sense for fingers in the vicinity of her guitar, Ami did not respond to or appear to notice the chorus of slaps, continuing with her spiel.

“The Silver Throne and the Universal Church have been jockeying for influence for the last century, all because of the way the Enchanter Wars were ultimately settled. Before that, the Church was little but a formality, a kind of interfaith negotiating service. But then, Archpope Sipasian contributed to the outbreak of war by taking sides in the Salyrite schism, persecuting witches, and ultimately making enemies of the Sisters of Avei, the Thieves’ Guild, and the Veskers.” She clicked her tongue as if chiding the long-ago pontiff. “So immediately, when Archpope Vyara took over, she tried to scale back the Church’s power to avoid more infighting. But then she also participated in a scheme to place a new dynasty on the Silver Throne, under the control of the Church and a couple of the dominant Houses. Then it turned out they’d backed the wrong horse entirely; Sarsamon slipped his leash and positioned himself as Emperor in truth. So the Church was left with a mandate to avoid assuming direct control over society, but also organized in such a way as to surreptitiously do so, and without the mechanism for which that organization was designed. Which has led to a push and pull within the Church, and between it and the cults, ever since.”

“This is real interesting and all,” Darius began.

“This is important.” Ami half-turned, placing herself in profile against the window, and several pairs of eyes shifted again. Including Tallie’s, which were rolled heavenward. “This is what you’ve blundered into; not some circumstantial thing that’s just popped up like your nonsense with those dwarves a few weeks ago, but a struggle that has been ongoing for a hundred years! I’m flabbergasted that you’re only just hearing about this. What do they teach you in that Guild?”

“Hey,” Ross protested. “We’re apprentices. None of us’ve been learning more’n a couple months.”

She snorted, managing to make even that musical. “As someone who is already acquainted with Ildrin Falaridjad, let me assure you she is a known partisan in this business, and has been for years. Basra Syrinx also has a reputation for being friendly toward the Church, even more than most Bishops, which makes it interesting that she’s siding against them now.”

“Basra never does anything without wanting something,” Schwartz murmured, stroking Meesie with his fingers. “Also, she really hates Ildrin…”

“The point is,” Ami said patiently, “those two are hardly the only people involved in this matter. Given a little time, I could get you a list of names of people who would almost certainly be involved, based on their known reputations.”

“That would help tremendously,” Jasmine said fervently.

Ami held up a hand. “Two important points. First of all, I assume you have more to go on than just Ildrin acting up? Because I have seen her using a stolen Izarite shatterstone to interrupt diplomatic proceedings by assaulting one of the participants. Just because she of all people is disregarding basic rules of decent conduct is not inherently newsworthy.”

“What’s a shatterstone?” Darius asked.

“An artifact kept in most Izarite temples for defense from attack,” Schwartz explains. “If you do any non-divine magic in its vicinity, it lets out a sort of pulse that neutralizes magic in the area and incapacitates all magic users except Izarite clerics. Well, briefly, anyway.”

“A typically Izarite notion of defense,” Jasmine said contemptuously. “Passive, indiscriminate, and easy to circumvent with a basic application of strategy.”

Ami cleared her throat loudly.

“Yes, right,” Schwartz said hastily. “Well, the thieves, here, did an operation to bust up some kind of extortion ring within the Sisterhood and the Collegium. I helped them get info from the inside…”

“You’re mixing up your crimes, Herschel,” Layla chided. “That was embezzlement, not extortion.”

“Yes, anyway,” he said irritably. “It’s in at least two cults and probably more, which was why we were uncertain about involving the Guild. Also, someone was scrying on my rooms, which means I specifically am being watched, and to get through the Emerald College’s wards they are either a very powerful mage or also a Salyrite. Probably both.”

“Ah,” Ami said, turning to face them again and nodding once. “Well, that brings me to my second point: You should have gone to the Guild immediately.”

“Once again,” Layla began.

“As I told you,” Ami said, “this is a new, more aggressive outgrowth from an existing matter. It’s about Church loyalists—people within the cults who believe strongly in the Universal Church, sometimes even more so than their own cults, at least according to rumor. Activity of that kind has increased markedly in the last ten years, though Archpope Justinian is always above anything tying him directly to such…antics. But we are still talking about people choosing to side with centralized power, at the expense of other loyalties.” She loftily arched one eyebrow. “And you really think the Guild is in on this? I assure you, in the entire century such activity has been waxing and waning, no Eserite has ever been involved. Other cults have wiggle room for attachments, but such goes against the most fundamental teachings of Eserion. Honestly,” she added acerbically, “it is incredible that I should have to explain this to you, of all people.”

“It’s really impressive how I wanna slap her even while she’s helping us out a lot,” Tallie said thoughtfully.

“Yes, Ami is very gifted,” Schwartz said with a sigh.

The bard, fortunately, seemed amused by this observation. “I seem to recall from Herschel’s description that you lot had help from one Alan Vandro?”

“Ugh,” said Jasmine, Tallie, and Layla in unison.

“Yeah,” Ross grunted. “What do you know about Vandro?”

“Only his reputation,” Ami said, grinning, “which includes the ugh factor. But also that he is an Eserite purist of the kind that annoys even other Eserites. If anyone could be relied upon not only to have no involvement in a Church loyalist campaign, but to do everything in his power to thwart one, it would be he.”

Jasmine drew in a long breath through her teeth. “Well…there’s that, I suppose. Personally, I think we’re better off dealing with the Guild directly, if it’s safe…”

“What about Glory?” Layla said. “Tamisin Sharvineh?”

Ami shrugged. “She, of course, is much more connected with circles of power, but again, still Eserite. Honestly, she is likely to more know about the ins and outs of this group if they are indeed beginning to organize something, as you imply.”

“They are definitely organizing something,” Jasmine said, frowning heavily. “I’d been thinking this was just a few opportunistic individuals, but if it’s instead a suddenly more orderly pattern of behavior by a long-standing group… Them skimming resources and money from two cults suddenly takes on a whole different aspect. That’s not just crime, it’s an insurgency strategy.”

“And further reason to turn to the Guild,” Ami added, again folding her arms. “The Thieves’ Guild’s intolerance for other people committing crime, especially organized crime, has always played a part in preventing rebel movements from funding themselves. It’s one of the reasons governments are so tolerant of Eserite activities.”

“So,” Darius said slowly, “if these people are suddenly ramping up their activities… They’re not just stealing money or liking the Church anymore. They’re planning to do something.”

“And,” Layla added, “the reaction to us suggests we came closer than we realized to finding out something they don’t want known.”

“Thank you very much, Ami,” Jasmine said. “You’ve helped us tremendously already.”

“You mean, by making you think about what you already knew?” Amy swept a grandiose bow. “A bard’s work is never done.”


Upon her return to the Rock, the royal family’s seneschal directed Teal to a chamber deep in the fortress, which he called an armory. There were, indeed, weapons along the walls, but it currently seemed to be serving as a combination laboratory and gathering place. Several more people were present than she’d expected to find when asking where her classmates were, one of them in the middle of a story when she entered.

“—two harpoon launchers, but mine were attached to treated cables that wouldn’t burn or cut under anything less than dragonfire or a mag cannon, and the heads discharged a spray of modified yggdryl sap which basically encased them and whatever they struck in a layer of rock. The release mechanism was in the launcher. So of course using ’em was expensive every time, but when I hooked another ship, they damn well stayed hooked, until I decided they could go again. The wonders of modern alchemy!”

Anjal Punaji was animatedly narrating, standing near an examining table on which were laid out a variety of arcane scrying tools along one side, while Fross flittered about over a bent metal arm that had clearly been taken from a Rust cultist. Ruda, Toby, Gabriel and Juniper were all standing nearby, listening to the pirate queen with varying degrees of interest.

“Told you,” Ruda grunted when her mother paused for breath. “Woman is fuckin’ obsessed with gadgets. You leave this thing in her sight and she’ll be trying to build her own cultist by nightfall.”

“So I’d let them herd me closer to the vortex, see?” Anjal continued, mostly directing herself to Gabriel, who was clearly the most wrapped up in her story. “So we snared her with both harpoons, and then dropped all sail, which basically made the Quarrel an anchor dragging the Sheng warship down with us. They immediately did everything they could to pull away, but with the weight of both ships and the vortex pulling at us, they had no chance. We stayed that way till we were both past the point of no return, then I released the cables and raised sail again.” She grinned savagely. “But my ship was outfitted with Imperial zeppelin thrusters below the water line. It was touchy for a bit there, but we pulled out of the vortex and left the Sheng to drown, and good bloody riddance to ’em.”

“Whoah, hold up,” Gabriel protested. “Zeppelin thrusters? Do those even work underwater?”

“I assure you, they do,” Anjal said with a wink.

“Cos I’m no sailor, but I’m pretty sure those things would shake a wooden ship to pieces.”

“Oh, that they would, which was precisely why mine was the only ship on the sea that had ’em. The Quarrel was a high elven caravel; toughest little girl I ever saw, and the wood healed itself after being damaged. You’re not wrong, she sprouted a dozen leaks after that abuse, but we bailed our asses off for the next day and a half and she gradually put herself right.” Anjal heaved a reminiscent sigh. “Gods, I miss that ship.”

Gabriel was frowning now. “I thought high elves were a myth.”

“Yeah, well, you’re better off. It’s for the best for everybody that they keep to themselves. They were real bloody curious what I was doing with one of their ships in the first place. By far the biggest pain in the ass I ever dealt with, and that’s including having half the Punaji privateers chasing me from Acarnia to Glassiere.”

“What is she doing here?” Teal demanded suddenly, glaring.

“Uh.” Juniper blinked. “She…lives here. This is kinda her house.”

“I don’t think she’s talkin’ about Mama,” Ruda said wryly.

“Oh. Right.”

Six other women were gathered on benches against the far wall, watching with wide eyes—including two elves, one of whom Teal recognized.

“Hi there,” Principia said diffidently. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

Teal braced her feet, and emitted a low growl—a sound that clearly was not the produce of any human voicebox. Flickers of orange fire sparked across her eyes. All six women pressed themselves backward against the walls.

“Whoah, whoah, easy there, hon,” Ruda said soothingly, rushing to her side and laying a hand on Teal’s shoulder. “Short version is, she’s helping. This is Lieutenant Locke of the Third Silver Legion. They’re expected; after the Fourth got wiped out, High Commander Rouvad sent us some special forces units, much more discreetly. These are the first to arrive.”

“This woman, in the Silver Legions?” Teal said contemptuously. “And you believed that?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” Ruda countered. When Teal turned a glare on her, she shrugged. “Think about it. The one thing we know she wants is access to Trissiny. This crazy bitch was willing to piss off all of us, not to mention the various world powers we’re connected to, plus fucking Tellwyrn, just to get a two-minute conversation with Shiny Boots. Her signing up with the Silver Legions after that is such an obvious next step I’m a little embarrassed it didn’t occur to me at the time. Besides,” she added, turning a wry look on Principia, “I’m no High Commander, but if I was crazy enough to let this walking sack of pickled assholes into my Legions, I’d definitely route her into the special forces. She’d make a shitty-ass soldier under any other circumstances.”

“She really does know you,” Merry said, nudging Prin with an elbow.

Principia sighed and stood up. “Well! Now that everybody’s here that’s coming I can say it: I’m sorry.”

“I’m sure you are,” Teal snapped.

“Well, I am,” the elf said quietly. “The fact is, I was thinking of nothing but myself. All of you were just things in my way, as far as I cared. I have no excuse. It was unpardonable asshole behavior on my part, and I truly am sorry. That doesn’t change anything, I know, but there it is.”

“That was less than two years ago,” Teal exclaimed. “And now she’s calling herself a Lieutenant? That’s not even believable!”

Suddenly, warm arms were wrapped around Teal from behind, and Juniper pulled her close, resting her chin on Teal’s shoulder.

“She’ll wake up,” the dryad murmured. “She will be fine, Teal. And she wouldn’t want you to be so angry, or so sad.”

“She’s got a story to explain that, too,” Anjal interjected. “And we checked with the local Avenist temple, which has been kept in the loop. This actually is Squad 391, and Locke is who she claims. They’re an interesting bunch, aren’t they?”

“Thank you, your Majesty,” Farah said politely.

“Girl, I’m Punaji,” Anjal replied. “There are no Majesties here.”

Principia cleared her throat again. “Well. Now that we’re all assembled, I’ve got something more relevant to the mission to bring up. Unless I’m wrong, which I kind of hope I am, did I hear you refer to the Rust as the Infinite Order a few minutes ago?”

Ruda narrowed her eyes. “Our intelligence says that’s their own name for themselves. What of it?”

Principia ran a hand over her hair, letting out a long sigh. “Oy vey… All right. Have you guys had the chance to eavesdrop on any of their sermons?”

“A couple of times now,” Toby said, nodding. “It’s all mind over matter, self-empowerment humanist stuff.”

“Jibbering nonsense, is what it is,” Casey added disdainfully.

“I wish it was that simple,” Principia replied. “Okay, without going into excessive detail, let me just remind everyone that I was an adventuring thief for two hundred years, back when ‘adventure’ was a respectable career path and not a punchline. I have been places people should not go and seen shit that’s better left forgotten. Such as, specifically, a number of relics of the Elder Gods. Rather…instructive ones.”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about where this is heading,” Gabriel muttered.

“Infinite Order,” Principia said grimly, “was what they called themselves. The name of their organization, like how our gods are the Pantheon. And this stuff the Rust are spouting, this self-empowerment piffle… That was their religion.”

“Okay, hang on a fuckin’ second,” Ruda said, holding up a hand. “Let’s say for the sake of argument I believe you know this. Why would the Elder Gods need a religion? Wouldn’t they each have their own?”

“They weren’t gods like our Pantheon,” Principia explained. “They had a totally different relationship to their own power, and the people of this world. Our gods are each a god of something; the Elder Gods were just beings of incredible, nearly infinite power. Everything they did was calculated to protect that power, including the religion they preached and enforced. Like, the system of measurements we still use? That was a very old one which was long discredited by the time they arose. They used a system based on tens, each unit derived from some physical constant.”

“Like the dwarves use!” Gabriel said.

“Maybe the same one; it wouldn’t surprise me if the dwarves had dug up Elder God relics themselves. My point is, everything the Infinite Order did was designed to suppress people. They gave our ancestors food that barely nourished them, prohibited things like libraries and museums, insisted on a system of measurements that made any kind of science harder to do and mandated a religion based on nonsense and circular reasoning, all to inhibit people from rising to power the way they had.”

“So,” Toby said slowly, “this unprecedented cult with inexplicable powers…is actually some kind of direct continuation of the Elder Gods themselves.”

Gabriel let out a low whistle. “Oh, fuck, that’s bad.”

“It may not be as bad as that,” Principia cautioned. “The Elder Gods left all kinds of junk. Most of it’s been destroyed or locked away by now, but I suspect there’ll always be bits and bobs left for somebody to stumble across once in a while. Whoever leads the Rust may have just got his hands on some records and/or artifacts.”

“Sounds to me like we’d better be prepared for the worst, though,” Anjal said flatly. “Records and artifacts don’t wipe out Silver Legions.”

“Uh, yeah, about that,” Fross chimed, finally drifting away from the arm she’d been examining. “I would be more worried about whatever source of knowledge or power the Rust has being able to propagate itself somehow. Cos I’ve triple checked to be sure about this and right now I’m about ninety-five percent certain this hunk of metal is alive.”

 

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13 – 10

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“Athan’Khar?” Tallie exclaimed. “Are you serious?”

“It’s not something I’d joke about,” Schwartz said distractedly, frowning into the distance ahead as he had been since they’d found the others. “And…it’s not as if we went into the country. That’s pretty much suicide. Camping on the border and getting chased away by monsters was close enough, thank you.”

“There’s a great deal more to you than there appears, isn’t there, Herschel?” Layla said, giving him a warm smile. Darius shot her a look through narrowed eyes, then switched it to Schwartz, who didn’t notice. Meesie bounded onto Schwartz’s head and cheeped smugly.

“I think that’s true of everyone,” the witch muttered, still frowning in thought.

Fortune had been with them for once; Layla and Darius were together, in the main floor of the casino, which was quiet at that hour, and both dressed far more fashionably than was their custom these days. When asked about this, he had just glowered and she had looked smug. Ross, too, had been easily accessible, perched on the casino’s front steps playing a flute. It was hard to say what seemed more incongruous: the delicate little instrument in his beefy hands, or the sweet tone and precise notes he produced. Altogether it was easier to gather the group than Jasmine and Tallie had feared—especially so, since they didn’t even need to descend to the depths of the Guild proper, which would have necessitated leaving Schwartz behind.

Things were slowing down, however.

“Hey, man, step lively,” Darius reproved, falling back to nudge Schwartz with an elbow and earning a shrill scolding from Meesie, which he ignored. “We’re on a deadline, remember?”

“Oh, and what deadline is that, Darius?” Layla asked archly.

“The deadline that we don’t know who’s after us or what they can do,” he snapped. “For-fuckin’-give me if I’m a little nervous about this. Even the dwarves were just spies. This time it’s magic people. Real wizards, apparently, not hired enchanters. Plus whatever priests…and we still don’t know how deep this thing goes or into how many cults. Future reference,” he added, turning to address the rest of the group, “I have learned my lesson and am henceforth with Style. From now on, we stay the hell out of interfaith business.”

“Sorry,” Schwartz muttered a little belatedly, lengthening his stride. Meesie hopped from atop his head down to his shoulder, patting his cheek and squeaking in concern. Uncharacteristically, he appeared not to notice her, staring head with his forehead creased.

“Hey.” Suddenly, Ross came to a stop, reaching out to grasp Schwartz by the shoulder and holding him up as well. The others trailed to a halt, staring at Ross in puzzlement; Schwartz blinked, confused, and seemed to take a moment to focus his eyes on the burly apprentice. “You wanna tell us what bothers you so much about this Bishop we’re goin’ to see?”

“Ah.” Schwartz blinked, adjusted his glasses, and swallowed heavily. “Yes, well, um. Let’s, uh, have that discussion someplace a little less, you know…”

They were on a busy sidewalk in the district which housed the Imperial Casino; at this hour not long before noon, the traffic was plentiful. And as per the usual disinterest of city dwellers for other people’s business, what Eserite technique classified as the “don’t see” kind of invisibility, nobody was paying the gathering of somewhat scruffy young people any attention. Meesie garnered a few curious looks, but no one stopped, or even slowed.

“Sorry, didn’t express that right,” Ross grunted. “Wasn’t askin’ you to explain. I’m asking, Schwartz, if you want to tell us about it. Cos if you don’t, that’s also okay.”

Schwartz blinked twice. Meesie stood upright, placed on paw on his cheekbone, and nodded, squeaking insistently.

“I would sort of…rather not, actually,” Schwartz said at last. “It’s not that…”

“Don’t need to explain,” Ross said, nodding, then shifted his head to look at the others. “Kay, so, we’re not doin’ that. What other options we got?”

“Now, wait a second,” Darius exclaimed.

“We don’t have a lot in the way of options,” Tallie agreed, frowning. “Look, Schwartz, I dunno what’s up with you and Syrinx, but we’ve got your back—”

“HEY.” Everyone shut up immediately at Ross’s bark; he had a bard’s lungs and could project at startling volume. All around the street, people paused, turning to look at the group. Ross glanced sidelong at this, frowning in annoyance, then turned and curtly tugged Schwartz toward the nearest alley. The witch followed him, unprotesting, and the others trailed along behind after a moment.

A few yards in, sheltered from the sight of the street, Ross turned, and gently shook Schwartz by the grip he still had on his shoulder—for a given value of gently. The witch nearly lost his balance and Meesie chattered a stern reproof.

“This is our boy Schwartz,” Ross said firmly, glaring at the others. “Smartest guy we know, badass spellcaster, and doesn’t scare easy. We knew that before this Athan’Khar business came up, even. He saved all our butts on that ride outta the city. So when he’s spooked enough by something to be this nervous, that’s all we need to know. Guild or not, you gotta trust your crew.”

Darius frowned. “I don’t think—”

“Oh, you don’t think at all,” Layla scoffed. “Ross is entirely correct, and I for one am embarrassed to have to be reminded of it. Quite frankly, that woman gave me the creeps. Even while she was clearly helping us, on both occasions, something about her makes my hackles rise.”

“Schwartz,” Jasmine said quietly, “I’m not arguing or judging, here, just asking. Are you sure about this?”

“I can’t say how sure I am about anything that might happen,” Schwartz replied with more poise. He met her gaze evenly, though, and nodded. “I can tell you that it’s an informed opinion backed by experience when I say nothing good will result from involving Basra Syrinx. Even if she can help, she’ll use that to tie strings to us. And that is something I promise we’ll all regret.”

Jasmine nodded slowly. “Then…I’m on board with this decision. I haven’t seen what Schwartz apparently has, but even within Avenist circles, I’ve heard warnings about Syrinx.”

“I have no idea what you lot are going on about,” Darius said irritably, then held up a hand when both Tallie and Layla rounded on him. “But! I trust you guys. Ross is right, after all; if you can’t trust your crew, you’re fucked anyway. So, if Syrinx is out as a prospect, what’s that leave us?” He shrugged helplessly, looking around at them. “Cos it’s not like we don’t have friends. The whole reason none of us have got proper sponsors is we have so many ties to upper Guild members it makes people nervous. But that does us no fucking good when we have to wonder if they’re involved in whatever horseshit is going on!”

“The original issue is we can find that out,” said Jasmine, “but it’ll take some time and room to maneuver. We need a secure space from which to operate, at least briefly, and protection by someone who can offer it would be nice.”

“Glory’d be perfect if we could trust her,” Ross added. “Gotta say I can’t see her bein’ in on this.”

“I think likely she is not,” Layla agreed, frowning and chewing her bottom lip in thought. “Rasha certainly wouldn’t be. But Glory hears bits of everything worthwhile happening in the city; don’t forget we got some of our initial tips on this from Rasha, who heard rumors via Glory’s connections. There are so many reasons someone might scheme from within the cults, not all of them bad. If she thought they had the right idea and didn’t yet know they were trying to falsely imprison us…”

“By the same token,” Tallie added dryly, “let me be the first to say I don’t think we should involve Webs in this. And I’m not just saying that because he stares at my chest and Layla’s butt.”

“He what?!” Layla and Darius chorused in matching outrage.

“I’ve noticed that too,” Jasmine said, scowling. “But strategically, I think you’re right. My feeling is with a little information we can clear Glory of involvement in this and be able to ask her for help. I have a very strong feeling, though, that if we go looking into Webs’s doings, we’re likely to find him knee-deep in this business. We know he’s suspicious of Tricks and the Guild’s current leadership. Who better to be involved in a conspiracy to suborn the cults from within?”

“What about that woman with the absurd suit?” Schwartz suggested. “I realize we didn’t part on the best of terms, but the way you describe it, she’s sort of ancillary to the Guild. If you’re worried the Guild is compromised…”

“Ironeye?” Tallie’s eyes widened, and she began waving her hands in front of herself. “Nonononono.”

“Uh, yeah, let’s call that Plan D,” Darius said with a wince. “She didn’t explicitly say our asses were hers if we ever showed ’em in Glass Alley again, but…”

“That was the subtext,” Ross said, nodding. “Wasn’t subtle about it, either.”

“It occurs to me our method of making friends seems to involve making enemies in equal measure.” Jasmine sighed, running a hand over her hair. “Well, that pretty much just leaves…Pick.”

Tallie snorted. “Credit where it’s due, he’s had our back ever since we helped rescue him from the dwarves, but he’s got nothing to offer but small-time stuff. Pick’s not only the biggest asshole I know, he’s also not the sharpest tool in the shed. I don’t see anything worthwhile coming of involving him.”

“There’s Grip,” Darius said.

Everyone turned to stare at him.

“Yeah, I know,” he muttered, and heaved a heavy sigh.

“Oh!” Tallie turned to Jasmine. “I realize you’ve got a complicated relationship with her, Jas, but let’s not forget Sergeant Locke and her squad. They came through for us once.”

“Uh, no good, I’m afraid,” Schwartz chimed, grimacing. “I got a note from Principia last night to…well, stay out of trouble. She and her squad are out of the city on some classified maneuver or other.”

“They’re trusting Locke with classified operations?” Jasmine exclaimed, her eyebrows shooting upward. The next moment, they fell into a frown. “Wait, why is she worried about you getting into trouble?”

“Syrinx,” he said sullenly.

“Oh. Right.”

“What about you, man?” Darius asked, turning to Schwartz. “I know the Collegium seems to be compromised, but do you have any particular friends in there who you trust?”

“Some,” Schwartz said with a pensive frown, while Meesie chittered softly as if debating possibilities with herself. “Sister Leraine is all the way in Viridill, though… I have worked with Bishop Throale enough that I think he would listen to me, but we aren’t close.”

“Bishops, hm,” Ross grunted. “If we’re sure Syrinx isn’t in on this, maybe that’s a sign our cults’ Bishops could be trusted?”

“I would not assume that based just on rank,” Jasmine said, shaking her head. “Darling and Throale would both be excellent prospects for any kind of conspiracy to recruit, whereas Syrinx is unstable and cruel enough that handling her might seem like more trouble than it’s worth. I’ve said before I don’t think High Commander Rouvad has her nearly as much in hand as she believes.”

“In short,” Layla said with open exasperation, “everyone we know either hates us or can’t be trusted in a pinch. I feel this is the sort of revelation which ought to prompt some soul-searching.”

“And would,” Tallie agreed gravely, “if any of us had souls. No offense, Schwartz. Ooh!” She suddenly straightened up, grinning, and pointed at him. “Now, stop me if I’m wrong, everything I know about fairy magic I learned from you an hour ago, but the way you were talking about divination… Can you get some answers for us about who can and can’t be trusted?”

“Hm.” He frowned deeply. “Hmmmmm.” Meesie sat upright on her haunches, twisting her head to peer up at him, in silence for once. “Wellll…”

“Is this how divination works?” Darius asked sardonically. “Are you doing it right now?” Layla struck him in the stomach with the back of her fist, which he pretended not to feel.

“The tricky thing is…well, it’s tricky,” he said slowly, folding an arm across his midsection to prop his other elbow on it and stroke his chin in deep thought. Meesie mimicked the pose on his shoulder, squeaking once in agreement. “Fae divination is as much about politics and interpersonal relations as magical technique. It comes through the agency of intelligent spirits, which all have their own personalities and agendas. Some points generally in common, though. They don’t like yes or no questions, as a rule.”

“Sounds like they just enjoy being difficult,” Layla observed, arching an eyebrow.

“That is…not incorrect,” Schwartz said with a sigh. “The more specific you try to be, the more vague the answers will be, as a rule of thumb. Humm…there are possibilities, though, workarounds. Connection is a powerful thing in witchcraft, as are emotional states. If we’re dealing with questions about people to whom we are already linked, and whether they mean us well or ill…” His eyes came back into focus, actually beginning to look a little eager. “You know, I think I might be able to work something up! I won’t promise anything terribly detailed, of course. There is always the risk when trying to maneuver around spirits’ recalcitrance that you will trigger a backlash. Do that the wrong way and a practitioner can seriously damage the relationships they have built with totem spirits and thus permanently impair their craft.”

“Well, let’s not do that,” Darius said. “You’re no good to us de-magicked.”

Layla hit him again.

“And,” he added, scowling at her, “obviously we care whether you get your magic screwed up. I was assuming that went without saying.”

“From Ross, it would,” Jasmine said pleasantly. “You need to clarify.”

“I hate you all.”

“No, ya don’t,” Tallie said, grinning and leaning an elbow on his shoulder.

“I think I can do this, though, yes,” Schwartz said in mounting excitement, ignoring their byplay. “I mean, as I said, I won’t swear to the results, but… Well, for a start, I believe we’re taking it as given that we trust Glory and just need some independent verification? Because if that’s the only level of certainty I have to shoot for… Yes, I’m almost positive I can do that!”

“If you can, that would give us a perfect starting point,” Jasmine said with a broad smile, catching some of his enthusiasm. “Glory is amazingly well-connected in the city, as we were discussing. With her help we may be able to find out everything else we need without having to trouble your spirits.”

“Oh, but…” Schwartz deflated abruptly. “What we’re talking about is not a simple, standard consultation. I could do one of those right here, in this alley, if you guys didn’t mind standing guard for half an hour or so. But this will need some rather more serious preparation… I will need both space and time, which means a spot we can consider safe. And without safe access to my rooms at the Collegium…”

“We’re right back to where we started,” Tallie said. “Well, fuck.”

Darius cleared his throat and raised a hand. “Okay, don’t everybody pile on me for this, but… To revisit an earlier topic, how off the table is Bishop Syrinx? Because she’s a dangerous hardass, she’s the only major player we know isn’t in with this conspiracy, and sure, maybe she’s a vicious asshole, but we’ve just spent the last ten minutes figuring out that describes pretty much everybody we could possibly turn to.”

Meesie began tugging at Schwartz’s earlobe, squeaking insistently. When he turned his head to look at her, she hopped to the very edge of his shoulder, stood up on her tiptoes, and struck a pose folding one tiny arm across her chest while brandishing the other in the air. She raised her head and let out a single long, shrill note.

“You trained your mouse to do opera?” Darius exclaimed, wincing and raising fingertips to his own ears. “Well, that’s the single most impressive thing I’ve ever seen that has no conceivable use. Also, please make it stop.”

“Oh!” Schwartz’s expression suddenly brightened, and he reached up to scratch between Meesie’s ears. “That’s right, I do know someone! Someone who can find information for us the slow way and provide a safe place for me to cast!”

“Well, why didn’t you suggest that first?” Tallie asked irritably.

Schwartz winced. “I, uh, didn’t think of it. And also there’s the fact that she is not going to like this. Any part of it.”


The Mermaid’s Tail was as close to “upscale” as establishments on the wharves of Puna Dara came. There was often music, broken furniture was repaired or replaced quickly, the food and drinks were both good, the serving girls were pretty, and the consequences for pawing at them included broken bones and an unplanned swim. The place was never truly quiet; even just before the lunch hour, it was busy enough to be difficult to find a table for six people.

For that reason, Squad 391 had chosen not to stay there after meeting up.

In appearance they had mostly reverted to type rather than attempting an actual disguise, with the possible exceptions of Principia and Nandi. Neither personally favored the traditional elvish attire they now wore, but it served as the best deflectors of attention. Elves were rare in Puna Dara, and had a less savage reputation than in the Imperial provinces, so they were met with less suspicion and hostility, but just as much curiosity; wearing obviously human clothes would have made them more curious to behold, which they preferred to avoid.

Of the others, Casey was in a simple skirt and blouse suitable for her prairie childhood. Ephanie and Merry both wore sturdy boots, trousers and shirts that didn’t look too out of place on the wharves, reflecting in one case a pragmatic Avenist upbringing and in the other both a working-class background and frontier adventurer sensibilities. Farah, meanwhile, was regretting her choice of a stiff, high-collared conservative dress. Such garments much better suited the climate of Tiraas than Puna Dara, as the sweat dampening her temples affirmed.

“Okay, first thing we’ve gotta do is get you into more suitable clothes, Farah,” Principia said, grinning but not without sympathy.

“I don’t want to be a bother,” Farah panted, vigorously fanning herself with a Sheng style hand fan for which she had paid far too much from a vendor. “Sorry, Sar—Lieu—Prin. I didn’t think well enough ahead.”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Merry said easily. “If any of us had thought far enough ahead, we’d have warned you.”

“Oh, indeed, this one has no business criticizing anybody’s choices in wardrobe,” Principia said merrily.

They were walking along the waterfront between piers; Merry actually stumbled half a step, and shot the elf a warning look. “Locke.”

“You should have seen the costume I first met her in!” Principia continued, grinning from ear to ear. “It was like she’d gone to the most overpriced leatherworker she could find and asked for the most stereotypical adventurer gear they had—”

“Locke, so help me—”

“—but instead of ‘adventurer’ the guy thought she said ‘prostitute,’ so she had to improvise places to keep two dozen unnecessary throwing knives—”

“Bitch, I will not hesitate to shove your ass into the harbor!”

“I’m guessing you’ve never tried to shove an elf anywhere, Tazlith,” Prin retorted, her grin truly insane in proportion now.

“And let’s refrain from the gendered insults, please,” Ephanie said wearily.

Merry rounded on her. “Oy, don’t you start spouting off about regs while we’re out here—”

“Correct, they’re not as applicable while we’re being discreet, and speaking of which keep your voice down,” Ephanie retorted bitingly. “Consider that a personal request. Keep it up and first I’ll lecture you about basic feminist philosophy, which I know you’ve already heard, and then throw you in the harbor.”

“Wait, Tazlith?” Farah said, still fanning herself but now cocking her head quizzically. “As in…arrow? I can see how you’d get that from the elvish glyphs but I was sure it was pronounced ‘tasleef.’”

Merry ground the heels of both her hands into her eye sockets. “AAAUUGH!”

“Yeah, that’s a great way to avoid notice,” Casey muttered.

“Take it easy,” Principia said lightly. “I’m watching and listening, as is Nandi. Nobody’s paying us any mind.”

The area was, indeed, busy to the point of boisterousness. Puna Dara being a major port city, the amount of activity that went on around the docks near midday bordered on deafening. Even Merry’s outburst hadn’t garnered them so much as a glance; there was no shortage of shouting resounding from all sides, most of it a lot more meaningful. The group passed in front of a long warehouse which seemed to be built partially over the harbor, briefly cutting off their view of the sea.

“Speaking of which, to business,” Nandi said softly enough that the non-elves had to cluster closer to her to hear. The group’s pace slowed somewhat. “We haven’t been idle while waiting for you, but we have learned little, I’m afraid.”

“First and most important, I think, is that there are limits to what they can watch, or at least watch for,” Principia agreed, nodding. “You four made it here unimpeded. They aren’t omniscient. None of the other Legion groups have made it here yet; we’ve checked at the temple of Avei. They’re expecting the group of healers tomorrow, and that will be the next test of the Rust’s capabilities and inclinations. We know they can hit an entire Silver Legion; the question is whether they’ll find a contingent of Avenist medical staff a threat.”

“A grim thing to contemplate,” Ephanie said gravely.

Principia nodded. “As for the other cults… Local gossip places two Huntsmen in the Rock. That’s the fortress there in the harbor which houses the Punaji government; apparently they’re guests of Blackbeard himself.”

“Two?” Merry said disdainfully. “That’s helpful.”

“It is helpful,” Ephanie replied. “Two is not nothing, and Huntsmen are not Legionnaires. Without the backing of a lodge master or official like Bishop Varanus, it can be difficult to mobilize them, especially into a city.”

“Haven’t had time to check up on the other cults yet,” Principia went on quietly. “There’s a Vidian temple, of course, and an Omnist one, but…well, those are Vidians and Omnists. There’s a limit to how useful they’re likely to be. No word from any delegations from other faiths; it’s going to be interesting trying to track them down if they’re all trickling in from various directions the way we did.”

“What about the local Thieves’ Guild?” Casey asked. “If anything, I’d think Eserites would be the most helpful.”

“That was going to be my next stop after we linked up with you lot,” Principia agreed. “They’ll be instrumental in keeping us in touch with the word on the street. But…let me just moderate your expectations before they soar too high. The Guild in Puna Dara is… Well, to be quite frank, it’s basically the Eserite rest home.”

“What?” Merry exclaimed after a baffled pause.

Principia sighed. “Eserites are pretty much redundant in Punaji cities; the whole culture here shares their values.”

“I would think that’d make them more likely to set up shop,” Merry muttered.

“For other cults, maybe, but not the way Eserites think,” Casey replied. “They like to slink around in shadows and challenge corrupt centers of power. In a whole society that believes the way they do, the first part of that is unnecessary and the second part would have a hard time taking hold.”

“Exactly.” Principia glanced back at her and nodded. “So basically, the Guild here is half a dozen retirees who find the local climate good for their bones, and a couple of apprentices, mostly their kids and grandkids, who can’t wait for an opportunity to bugger off to someplace like Tiraas or Shengdu.”

“Fuck a duck,” Merry muttered.

“It’s not so bad,” Principia said cheerfully. “Without—”

She came to an abrupt stop, prompting the rest of the group to do likewise; a young Punaji woman in a broad-brimmed hat with a lot more feathers than seemed usual had suddenly whipped around the corner ahead to block their path, one hand resting suggestively on the bejeweled hilt of the rapier which hung at her belt. The girl, who was a head shorter than any of them, tilted her head back to study Principia’s face closely.

“Yuuuuup,” she drawled, “thought so. I like the hair. Blonde looks better on you.”

“Excuse me,” Principia said politely, “I think you may have me mistaken for someone else.”

“Ah, yes, of course, right.” The girl grinned. “Because elves all look alike and humans have such poor eyesight. Fross, identity confirmed.”

“Okay!” A silver streak of light zipped out from behind the warehouse, pausing right in front of them. “Hi! Sorry about this!”

“Wh—”

That was as far as Prin got before a blast of gale force wind sent the rest of the squad bowling over and a wall of sheer kinetic energy slammed her against the front of the warehouse. Four lightning-swift bursts of magic from the pixie encased her hands and feet, neatly pinning her against the brickwork.

The wind had been almost surgically precise; the human girl hadn’t lost a single feather from her hat. She now lazily dragged her rapier from its sheath and pressed the tip against Principia’s throat.

“So! If it isn’t the great Principia Locke. What the fuck are you doin’ in my city, you smirking little ferret?”

“STAND DOWN!” Prin roared. “No weapons! Don’t even think about it!”

“I beg your goddamn fucking pardon?” the Punaji girl said dangerously, pressing slightly with the sword. “According to what twisty-ass logic do you think you’re in a position to make demands?”

“Sorry,” Principia said earnestly, putting on a pleasant smile. “Wasn’t talking to you.”

Slowly, she turned to study the rest of the squad, all of whom were now on their feet and brandishing the long knives—and in Merry’s case, a cudgel—which they’d hidden among their clothes, visibly preparing to charge. At Principia’s order, they’d all stopped, but were glaring at the woman and her pixie companion. With the exception of Nandi, who wore a tiny smile.

Another figure strolled around the corner, this one in a green corduroy coat, and with a black-hilted elvish saber hanging from his belt. He stopped and surveyed the scene with a raised eyebrow.

“Well, Ruda, it’s your town and all, but unless you know something I don’t, these ladies don’t look awfully Rusty. There a particular reason we’re picking a fight with them?”

“Hn,” Ruda grunted, lowering her sword slightly. “No, I don’t actually suspect this one or her friends of being in with the Rust. But I don’t like coincidences with all this shit going on, and the sudden appearance of walking trouble this big makes me take notice. Bare minimum, we’re looking at a headache we do not fucking need. This is, as I just said, Principia fucking Locke, the elf with a penchant for breaking into dormitories and drugging our classmates.”

“Oh,” the young man said, turning an interested look on the imprisoned elf. “This is Trissiny’s mom?”

“Wait, you did what?” Farah exclaimed.

“D-did he just say Trissiny’s mom?” Merry screeched, at least an octave above her normal speaking register.

Principia heaved a heavy sigh. “Well, all righty, then, I guess I owe a few explanations. Would you mind awfully letting me down from here? My fingers are numb.”

Ruda grinned unpleasantly and tapped her lightly on the tip of her nose with the rapier’s point. “That, cupcake, depends on how good you explain. And how fast.”

 

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