Tag Archives: Fauna

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“All right,” Inspector Jaahri said in a weary tone, “one more time, then. Miss Sakhavenid found—”

“With all respect, Inspector,” Glory said, finally with open sharpness, “we have been over this six times now. It is neither a long nor a complex story.”

“I find that repetition helps weed out accidental little falsehoods that tend to creep into any narrative,” the Inspector replied, matching Glory’s stare flatly. “Or do you imagine yourself to be an expert on Imperial investigative procedure?”

“It is not procedure for you to have dismissed the entire house full of guests,” Jasmine interjected.

“Quiet, girl,” Jaahri snapped, shooting her a sidelong look.

“Each of those,” she pressed on, “was a potential witness and suspect, and I know you did not have time to interview them all in detail—”

“Sergeant,” the Inspector said loudly, “if that young woman interrupts me again, take her into custody.”

The tension in the room increased significantly, and it had not been slight to begin with. Glory and her staff for the evening had been gathered in the downstairs parlor at the insistence of the Inspector, along with Schwartz and Ami. The rest of the house had been cleared out, at Jaahri’s insistence, leaving them alone with eight Imperial soldiers, who had positioned themselves in a ring around the civilians. Their demeanor was cold almost to the point of aggression; they stared balefully at the gathered Eserites (and Vesker and Salyrite) as if expecting to have to break out wands at any moment. A rather peculiar attitude for soldiers to have toward a group of young servants whom they had not been informed were Guild apprentices.

Smythe was gliding smoothly around the chamber, offering tea to each soldier in turn, and being irritably rebuffed every time. Which, of course, did not ruffle his equanimity in the slightest.

“Why are your men not investigating the house, or the crime scene?” Glory asked, her tone again deceptively mild.

“Madam,” Jaahri said impatiently, folding his arms, “I will ask the questions, if you don’t mind—”

“I mind,” she interrupted. “In fact, I have had just about enough of this. It beggars belief that you would dismiss an entire house full of suspects only to sit here grilling those least likely to have been implicated in this crime.”

“Don’t presume that I know nothing of this matter except what I’ve learned here tonight,” the Inspector retorted. “I already have my suspects, Ms. Sharvineh, thank you for your concern. For instance, the late Mr. Treadwell was not a social creature, and in particular was last seen in seclusion due to an embarrassing misstep within his own cult. Someone exerted significant pressure to bring him out to this event…at which he was subsequently murdered. And as luck would have it, I happen to know already who did so.”

“You accuse me of this?” She raised one eyebrow, her expression artfully skeptical.

“I am not yet ready to make accusations,” Jaahri replied, tucking his notebook away in an inner pocket of his coat. “But I am well aware, Ms. Sharvineh, that there is an ongoing matter here, and that you have attempted to conceal the connection from me. This group of young people very closely matches the description of a group of Thieves’ Guild apprentices who were involved in the burglary of a temple of Avei, an event connected to Mr. Treadwell being reprimanded by his superiors in the Collegium. Now, it would seem he has been silenced.”

“Now, that’s real interesting,” Tallie snapped. “Since Schwartz and Ami weren’t part of—”

“Hzzt!” Ross grunted, driving an elbow into her side nearly hard enough to knock her over. Glory glanced over at Tallie, letting out a soft sigh.

“And that is an admission,” Jaahri said with grim satisfaction. “I believe you had all better accompany me to the barracks to discuss this further, in more detail.”

“She is right, though,” Glory said thoughtfully, holding up a hand to forestall Darius, who had straightened up and unfolded his arms at the Inspector’s last comment. “Mr. Schwartz and Ms. Talaari are not involved in that. Why would you see fit to detain them? Herschel is a guest this evening—the only one you did not dismiss. And I cannot fathom what connection you think my paid musician might have to the murder.”

“The fact that you know less than I is the reason this will be quickly solved,” Inspector Jaahri stated. “Sergeant, start gathering these people up, all of—damn it, will you go away?” he snapped at Smythe, who had offered him a canape. The Butler bowed in silence and retreated to stand by the door. Jasmine glanced at him once, pressing her lips together; Smythe’s act had effectively removed him from the soldiers’ consideration except as a buzzing nuisance, and now he had placed himself in control of the room’s primary exit, holding a tray which would serve as either weapon or shield. Clearly, these troops were not accustomed to dealing with Butlers.

“Hershel,” Glory said calmly, “what do you have for neutralizing enemies in a crowd?”

“You are on thin ice, Sharvineh,” Jaahri warned.

“In fact I’ve got just the thing!” Schwartz replied, while Meesie bristled on his shoulder, chattering at the Inspector. “Cooked it up after our last go-round. You know, the one where we trounced a contingent of Svennish intelligence agents?” He cast a pointed look at Jaahri, who hesitated in the act of opening his mouth again. “Controlled chain lightning. I can cast it to arc only to targets I designate; a quick and clean way to clear out a room of mixed hostiles and friendlies. I’d sort of rather not, though. Lightning has a tendency to be lethal.”

“Are you aware that threatening a duly appointed agent of the Silver Throne is a crime, Mr. Schwartz?” the Inspector grated.

“Are you aware of the penalty for corruption for officers of the Emperor’s law?” Jasmine asked quietly.

“That does it,” Jaahri snapped, pointing at her. “Sergeant, arrest that one. Now.”

A man wearing sergeant’s stripes glanced at Jasmine, then at Schwartz, and swallowed. “Sir…”

“Did I stutter?” the Inspector asked incredulously, rounding on him.

“A thought occurs to me,” Glory said idly, inspecting her flawlessly manicured nails. “We know that poor Mr. Treadwell was involved in a conspiracy which has been pursuing these apprentices. All of us had been operating on the assumption, however, that this was strictly a matter among the cults. I confess it simply did not occur to me that there would be enemy agents among the Imperial Army. And yet, I am stymied as to why else you would choose to dismiss most of the possible suspects from investigation, Inspector, or how you would know to include Mr. Schwartz and the bard in this…net, of yours. Tell me, what do you think will happen when I bring my own influence to bear upon you?” A feline smile uncoiled itself across her lips. “I am not, as I suspect you know, without powerful friends.”

“You have managed to say the worst possible thing available to you in this circumstance, Sharvineh,” Jaahri said. “You are all under arrest, and I strongly suggest you comply voluntarily. Resisting his Majesty’s—”

Smythe interrupted him by clearing his throat loudly; the Butler, in fact, was in the process of slipping back into the room, having ducked out while everyone was distracted. Jaahri whirled on him, reaching into a pocket of his coat, and one of the soldiers actually drew a wand. Smythe ignored all of them, directing himself to a point in midair near the center of the parlor.

“Bishops Darling and Syrinx to see you, madam,” he intoned, stepping aside.

They paced inside in lockstep, both wearing their formal Church robes and tabards, but both moved with the graceful stride of a pair of leopards, their eyes snapping to Inspector Jaahri as soon as they entered the room. Even the ecclesiastical uniforms did not detract from the effect; these were plainly here as Eserite and Avenist, not Church officials.

“Oh, now, don’t let us interrupt you, Inspector,” Darling said in an uncharacteristically flat tone.

Behind them, three more women strode into the parlor, immediately fanning out to assert full control of the exit; Flora, Fauna, and Jenell Covrin also stared coldly, making a point of watching the assembled soldiers.

“Yes, by all means,” Syrinx growled, fondling the ornate hilt of her sword. “Finish your thought.”


Akhatrya rapped on the wooden door frame even as he stepped into the room without waiting to be invited; the palace seneschal enjoyed certain privileges as well as responsibilities, and being on hand to assist the royal family whether they sought him out or not involved some blending of the two. It was late, and this wasn’t strictly his responsibility—any number of lesser servants could have seen to it—but he made a point of keeping an eye on any of the family who were under unusual stress, or acting out of the ordinary.

Both conditions applied to Princess Zaruda this evening.

She did not commonly choose to spend time in her father’s office, or any place predominated by papers and books. Neither did the King, but Rajakhan never shirked his duties, no matter how tedious he found them. It was a safe bet, however, that when the King did not need to be actively poring over documents, he would be elsewhere, and so Ruda had had the office to herself all night. She’d spent the evening having clerks bring her a variety of textbooks, financial records and copies of several treaties. Now, Akhatrya entered to find her hunched over an open volume of conversion tables, muttering to herself and tracing one fingertip across a page as she read.

“Would you like anything, your Highness?” he asked diffidently.

“Think I got everything I wanted, thanks,” Ruda muttered without looking up.

The seneschal smiled faintly. “Good. I meant more in the way of food or drink, however. Perhaps a pillow?”

“It isn’t that late,” she said, finally lifting her eyes to frown at him. The office had two narrow windows looking out across the battlements at the harbor, which showed nothing but darkness at this hour. It was not dim, thanks to the fairy lamps.

“Very good, your Highness,” Akhatrya said, bowing. “I am, of course, at your disposal, should you have questions about anything you read.”

She was already frowning at the book again, and absently shook her head. The seneschal waited another moment before bowing again, despite the fact she was no longer looking at him, and turning to go.

“Hey, Akhatrya, wait a second.”

“Your Highness?” He turned back to face her, folding his hands in front of himself.

Ruda almost grudgingly tore her gaze away from the columns of figures she was studying. “Let me pose you a hypothetical.”

“I am at your service.”

“Suppose you worked for a King or Queen who wanted to change the standard of measurements we use from the common system to the dwarven system. How would you advise them to go about implementing that?”

He hesitated for a moment, thinking. “Well… In honesty, Princess, my first recommendation would be not to.”

She drummed her fingers once on another book, staring at him. When she said nothing further, he continued.

“Forcing changes in people’s way of life from the position of the Crown is always tricky, Princess, and should be done as sparingly as possible. This is true for all rulers, but most especially for those governing a people as free-spirited and prone to defiance as the Punaji. Any hint of heavy-handed action without a clear and specific purpose will agitate the populace. That, in particular, would impose costs upon everyone, most especially merchants. Converting from one system—any kind of system—to another is always a difficult transition.”

She let out a soft huff, and turned her head to scowl at the dark windows. “If there’s one thing I would expect of Punaji, it’s not to carry on following a mindless tradition when there are better, more effective ways. Especially a tradition that it turns out was created by the Elder Gods for the specific fucking purpose of holding people back and making our lives difficult. Akhatrya, have you ever looked at the tables of dwarven measurements? It’s all so…efficient. Everything’s derived from a base measurement designed to be specifically useful. Everything scales in neat increments of ten—no figuring or fumbling involved, if you can damn well count you can do shit it takes a trained accountant to handle now. No wonder the dwarves switched over. If they can do it, why the hell can’t anyone else? Why not the Punaji? What the economy alone would save in the long run is more than worth the hassle of converting!”

“If only people saw life in terms of neat costs and rewards,” he said wryly. “Your Highness, I have not been party to your political education. Are you aware of the systems of government used by the dwarves?”

“Mm, not in much detail,” she admitted. “I could probably tell you more about Tiraan or Sifanese or Arkanian politics than the Five Kingdoms. They’re pretty insular an’ they bend over backwards to accommodate us whenever we do business; I’ve mostly learned how to show ’em proper manners when they visit and leave their inner workings alone. Hell, even the Sifanese are less standoffish about people getting into their internal business.”

“I see,” Akhatrya said thoughtfully. “Are you acquainted with the concept of socialism?”

“No, but I like it already,” she replied, grinning. “Sounds cuddly.”

“It’s an idea which is implemented, in one form or another, in the governing policies of each of the Five Kingdoms,” he explained. “Basically, the core contention of socialism is that nothing which is necessary for life should be the subject of personal profit, for anyone. Food, lodgings, and medical care, for example, are all provided to all citizens equally by the state. The different dwarven nations have varying standards of what is necessary; by and large, they are all more highly organized at the state level than any human nation, and their governments provide a very wide range of services compared to ours. They have elaborate public education, for example, all the way through the university level, and state-sponsored arts, museums, scientific research, loans of business capital… Obviously, this necessitates a very high level of government involvement in all aspects of life, and is funded by a heavy income tax, levied progressively according to individual wealth.”

Ruda stared at him in blank silence for a long moment.

“Well,” she said at last, “that’s not quite the dumbest fucking idea I’ve ever heard, but I respect it for trying.”

Akhatrya grinned. “Consider this, though. Even with most of their economies in shambles and gross domestic products flatlined at best for the last ten years, the Five Kingdoms have universally low crime, almost no unemployment, and zero homelessness. Most societies in the state of economic vulnerability they currently suffer succumb to further related maladies, notably outbreaks of disease. No such thing has happened in the Dwarnskolds. They suffer some privation, but they do so equally. The strong do not prey upon the weak, and society itself endures without leaning upon its most vulnerable members.”

“Akhatrya, it sounds like you like this cockamamie scheme,” she exclaimed. “You can’t possibly be thinking of trying something like that in fucking Puna Dara! We’d have a revolution within five fucking minutes!”

“And that,” he said, nodding, “is exactly my point. I heartily approve of you studying the ways of our neighbors to learn from their strengths, Princess. But never forget that we are not dwarves. We are not even Imperials. We are Punaji, and not every useful idea that exists in the world would be useful to us. Some, though they might indeed prove to be assets, are simply too far from the core of who we are. The people will not tolerate anything they see as an attack upon the spirit of our nation.”

She turned again to frown at the window, but this time the expression was more thoughtful than disgruntled.

“The spirit of our nation,” Ruda said quietly, “is already under attack. A long, slow one that we can’t seem to do anything to halt. There’s no room for a pirate nation in the world as it’s shaping up. We already depend on the Empire’s goodwill to prevent one of the other naval powers of the Azure Sea from invading us, and isn’t that a constant fucking insult. Sooner or later, we have to either change who we are, or…give up. Forget who we are, be absorbed by Tiraas like the Calderaan and the Stalweiss and the Onkawi and…” She trailed off, and swallowed heavily. “Gods. I hope Mama and Papa are gone before it comes to that. I don’t want them to have to see it.”

After a moment, Akhatrya stepped quietly over to the desk, and reached out to lay a hand upon her shoulder. It was not strictly appropriate, but the Rock was probably the least formal of the government palaces in all the world. They were, after all, Punaji.

Ruda heaved a sigh and cleared her throat, turning back to regard him with a freshly incisive expression, and he let his hand fall, stepping back.

“We’re already the Five Kingdoms’ biggest trading partner, though,” she said. “Everything they make and wanna sell overseas comes through Puna Dara. Since the Narisian Treaty they’ve vastly increased the business they do that way instead of selling to the Empire, too. There is no possible way Punaji merchants aren’t already familiar with dwarven systems of weights and measures.”

“That is true,” he allowed. “Most have found it profitable to endure our neighbors’ little peculiarities. And if the systems are indeed as superior as you say, there may well be some who already favor them.”

“So, getting back to my original question.” Ruda leaned back in her father’s chair, staring at the far wall, and propped her (thankfully clean) boots up on a copy of a tariff agreement with the Kingdom of Stavulheim. “How to implement that, while still respecting the independent spirit of the Punaji. Since the precedent’s already there, I think we could begin by encouraging the use of dwarven standards without mandating them. Go slow, go careful, gradually get the population more acquainted with ’em an’ make sure there’s widespread acceptance before starting to switch actual government practice. Hnh, I much prefer to get shit done, but I guess you’ve gotta take your time when dealing with the egos of tens of thousands of people.”

“The safe way is the slow way, as a rule,” he agreed, smiling again.

Ruda looked back up at him, grinning. “So! You like my general strategy, then? Anything you’d add?”

“Well,” Akhatrya said, “you asked me what I would do, hypothetically, if I served a monarch who insisted on pursuing such a course. In that situation…yes, I think I would proceed much as you describe. And I also would offer thanks to the gods that my people were in the hands of a wise Queen.”

Her smile actually faltered, and the princess cleared her throat, averting her eyes. “Ah… Yeah, well, I guess—”

Both of them stiffened as an alarm bell began tolling outside the fortress, quickly followed by a second, and then more.

Ruda swung her legs back to the floor and bounded up, crossing to the window, where she pressed her face against the glass, peering out at the darkened harbor.

“What the fuck?” she exclaimed after a brief moment, then whirled and dashed for the door.


“THINK!” Ayuvesh thundered, his voice booming from the walls of the cavern.

The group actually hesitated, which was just as well for the sake of diplomacy; Vadrieny had already burst forth, both Huntsmen had bows drawn, Gabriel was brandishing both scythe and saber, and even Toby had shifted to a ready stance.

“You servants of the Pantheon are always so quick to turn to violence,” the leader of the Rust continued, bestowing on them a mocking smile from his perch atop the walking machine. At the touch of his fingers upon the chair controls, it took a lumbering step backward, then shifted, awkwardly turning itself to face them at an angle. “Really, it’s not as if I don’t know who the lot of you are. Would I actually want to start a fight with you, here, in our own sanctum? Knowing it would cost the lives of many of my comrades, and incalculable damage to our home and resources? No, no, children, rest assured, I was not challenging you to battle.”

“Y’know, for a guy who talks so much about how put-upon he is,” Fross chimed irritably, “you spout a lot of what are really easy to take as threats.”

“This is a misunderstanding,” Toby said firmly. “I honestly have no idea what’s happening, and I have no qualms at all about telling you anything you want to know about the woman who stole the screen off your gateway. I can’t even say for sure if she’s the reason for this—”

“I would be willing to put money on that,” Gabriel growled.

Toby shot him a quelling look. “But we certainly have no attachment to her. Her behavior was not exactly friendly.”

Ayuvesh regarded him sardonically while he spoke, then lowered his gaze to study something set amid the controls on the arm of his mount’s seat. “Hummm. And yet, I find no indication of someone apart from you lot creeping around…” He paused, frowning. “And yet. A screen was remotely activated, and its position is currently unknown. So…perhaps.”

“Perhaps is a starting point,” Toby said soothingly, holding up both hands. “Look, we’ve already established that none of us here wants anything to get more violent than it already has.”

“Ah, yes, so we should now lay our cards on the table,” Ayuvesh said bitterly. “As you did when you mentioned this mysterious woman as soon as you entered.”

“Honestly, man, what would you have said?” Gabriel asked in exasperation.

Vadrieny turned on him with the same tone. “Are you under the impression that you’re helping, Gabe?”

“Not usually,” he muttered.

“Let me lay out for you some other things we have established,” Ayuvesh continued, again manipulating his controls. The walker retreated further, even as the other members of the Rust scattered to man various pieces of machinery, or disappear into side tunnels. “None of us are eager to volunteer information—perhaps understandably. You kids have a tendency to perceive threats in every little thing, and respond with the promise of your considerable capacity for brute force. I, on the other hand, respond to threats by…rearranging the playing field. The best way, I find, to avoid getting into a pitched battle is to make the process so uninviting that no one seeks to offer you violence.”

“Like you did to the Silver Legions,” said Juniper.

“You seem to think that was an extreme response,” Ayuvesh said grimly. “What’s more reasonable, when presented with a large, threatening force, than to remove that force from the board, as gently as possible? But you lot aren’t a Silver Legion. You have a lot more firepower, a lot less restraint, and not half the logistical hurdles involved in doing anything. Carefully incapacitating you isn’t really a prospect, I suppose. So I must, if we are to continue these discussions, somehow ensure your good behavior. I wish I could think of a less regrettable way to do so. Truly, I do.”

He pushed a lever and the walker turned to face one of the walls, which was already shifting into motion, its innumerable machine parts whirring and shuffling like a colossal swarm of ants. Metal arms extended from dozens of points, each bearing view screens of various sizes, and began fitting them together into a single, huge display, its image clear despite the lines of connection running across it and its wildly uneven edges.

The cobbled-together screen showed them an image of the city harbor under the moonlight. As they watched, the waters began to stir.

“I expect you kids to be respectful, henceforth,” Ayuvesh chided, “for the sake of Puna Dara.”


Ruda burst out of the fortress doors onto the battlements, racing for the foremost tower which extended into the harbor with Akhatrya right on her heels. It was chaos, but organized chaos; soldiers dashed alongside them, moving themselves into proper order, as more assembled in ranks in the Rock’s main courtyard below.

The princess and the seneschal reached the tower, troops hustling out of their way, and tore up its steps to the platform on top, where Ruda pressed herself against the crenelated wall, staring incredulously out over the harbor.

Ships were moored, but there was fortunately no active traffic at this hour, and thus no vessels were lost in the disturbance. The spot near the center of the bay, which alternately bubbled as if pressed upon from below and descended into a whirlpool, abruptly exploded, spraying water as far as the docks.

The thing that rose up from within was titanic, a thick, sinuous shape plated in irregular metal over its coiled scales. A row of metallic spikes ran along its spine, with lengths of wire connecting them and giving off sparks and arcs of lightning which danced across the surface of the water. Most of the massive sea serpent’s head was original flesh and bone, but its wedge-like lower jaw was entirely metal, and its right eye had been covered over with a huge patch connected to the plates and spikes climbing up its back. Into this was set a tremendous green fairy lamp which cast a sickly glow across the whole harbor.

Giant sea serpents did not come this close to the shore, they very rarely breached the surface and definitely did not vocalize. The augmented monstrosity finished showing that it did not respect any of these rules by throwing back its head and emitting a mighty roar which had a distinct undertone of metal scraping against metal.

“Are you fucking kidding me?!” Ruda roared right back, turning to Akhatrya and pointing accusingly out at the beast. “Look at this! This is what happens when I leave those assholes unsupervised!”

 

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12 – 58

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“I need someone to say how quiet it is,” the Jackal murmured, easing back into the alley from having peeked around the corner. He turned to grin at the rest of them. “You know. So I can make the obvious rejoinder.”

He was met by a cluster of unimpressed expressions.

“It’s too quiet,” he clarified, seeming on the verge of bursting into laughter.

“You see what I have to deal with?” Shook muttered to Joe. “Every day with this crap.”

“My heart bleeds,” Joe retorted. “Although, to be fair, that was just the once.”

They all ducked at the sudden gust of wind that swooped into the alley. Seconds later, a stack of old crates a few yards back shook slightly, and Kheshiri popped back into view atop it, wings still spread from her glide.

“Well?” Shook demanded.

“It’s a trap,” the succubus reported.

“Didn’t we already know that?” Rook stage whispered. Moriarty nudged him with the butt of his staff, scowling.

“No, no, this is good news,” Kheshiri continued, grinning, as she folded her wings against her back. “It was supposed to be a trap, but it’s been neutered. The guy in charge is gonna try to ambush us right out there on the street, he’s got his people positioned packed into alleys and a couple ground-floor rooms in the surrounding area. But! The Thieves’ Guild have finally got off their butts and been moving, too, and they do quick and quiet a lot better than these guys. They’ve ambushed several of the shadow-jumpers and have been blocking doors. I don’t think they’ll be able to contain the whole horde, there are still at least a couple scores of ’em, but Mr. Big Shot out there is gonna be very underwhelmed when he tries to spring his ambush.”

“How, exactly, do you know this guy’s in charge?” Joe demanded.

“Because he’s the only one I can sense,” she said condescendingly. “I told you the others are on drugs—all I get from them is…fuzz. They’re like a sea, not like individuals. The ones using magic, though, and this guy, they’re alert and focused. And this one’s standing still, not shadow-jumping around, which makes him in charge. We take him out—”

“You can read minds?” Finchley blurted out in horror.

“Not quite,” Danny murmured. “Children of Vanislaas can sense desires, though. It’s an intuitive thing. I never heard of one making such tactical use of the skill, though…”

“I’m a piece of work,” Kheshiri said smugly. “Right, master?”

“That’s my girl,” Shook said, then snapped his fingers and pointed to the ground by his feet. The demon obediently hopped down from her crate and went to heel with an unnecessarily slinky gait, deliberately turning to brush her bust against Finchley’s chest as she squeezed past and causing him to turn nearly scarlet.

“As a point of general reference,” said Joe, “you guys trust the demon because…?”

“People make such a fuss about trust,” the Jackal mused, shaking his head woefully. “We work as a group because we all know what we want and what we’re like. And Kheshiri will be in deep shit if anything excessively bad happens to her precious master, there. Considering we’re not only in mortal danger but surrounded by Guild enforcers who specifically want to haul his ass away in chains, she’ll behave herself. And she’s right; if we’ve identified the leader, and he thinks he has the upper hand but doesn’t, this is our chance to finish this.”

“Undead,” Vannae said weakly. He had regained some of the color in his cheeks, but was still having trouble breathing, apparently.

“Ah, yes,” the Jackal said, “that. When I said ‘undead,’ I didn’t mean skeletons and zombies. He’s got some real nastiness waiting in the wings. Soon as his trap fails to go off, he’ll drop that hammer, so we’ve gotta finish this fast.”

“Vampires?” Finchley squeaked.

“Kid, if there was a vampire after us, most of this group would be dead already,” the Jackal said disdainfully. “Constructs. Big ones. Constructed undead are pretty fragile, but they hit hard. Better by far if we put a stop to this before they come into play.”

Rook cleared his throat. “Uh, doesn’t it seem likely the thieves will attack him once that starts? Him and possibly us, since we’re with Shook?”

“Fuck my life,” Shook muttered. Kheshiri snuggled against his side, and he absentmindedly patted her rear.

“Yep,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “Well, what’re you jokers all standing around for? This beehive ain’t gonna kick itself!”


“Here?”

“I—I don’t know!” Maureen said frantically, clearly on the verge of tears. “I wasn’t—it all looks the same, it’s just grass and I can’t see over it—”

Sheyann stepped over to the horse and reached up to lay a hand gently on Maureen’s leg. The gnome broke off, choking back a sob, then blinked down at the elf.

“One breath at a time,” the Elder said, radiating calm. Maureen nodded, hiccuping again, and squeezed her eyes shut, clearly reaching for self-control. Sheyann shifted her attention to Whisper’s other rider. “Gabriel, did you happen to take note of your surroundings?”

“’Fraid I have the same problem, uh, Elder,” he said, frowning around at the horizon. “I was distracted trying to find the girls, and…this all looks the same to me. I came north toward the Sea, so it’s this general area…”

“It’s here,” said Wyrnst, who was barely visible through the tallgrass, being a foot shorter than its average height. “It’s fading fast, but…there’s a characteristic smell about this, so to speak. Infernal magic was used…not quite here, but across the dimensional barrier from this spot. I’ve encountered similar in the aftermath of major summonings. From what I know of how the Golden Sea works, it could cause the same residue. Can you sense anything?”

“Agitation,” Haunui murmured, gazing out across the tallgrass. “The wind speaks of its anger. They call this a sea?”

“We know that’s how centaurs navigate,” said Tellwyrn, striding forward to join Sheyann. “Shift the Darklands, cause a corresponding shift on this side of the barrier, at least until the tension builds up and the whole system randomizes itself. But that’s within the Sea, and we’re a good half a mile from the border. Sheyann, you’re older than I; have you ever heard of someone reaching out of the Sea to suck someone in like this?”

The Elder shook her head, patting Maureen’s leg one last time and then taking a step north, toward the endless horizon, where the last red light of sunset was fading. “Centaurs are not ambitious warlocks; I doubt any would think to try such a thing. I do feel it, now that I focus…but it’s strange. It’s not what I… Give me a moment, please. I must concentrate.”

She folded her legs under herself right where she stood, sinking smoothly down to kneel and consequently all but vanishing into the tallgrass. Gabriel gently nudged Whisper away, giving the Elder a respectful space in which to work.

Haunui glanced down at her, then up again at the horizon. “I will help if I can, but I do not understand this land. Nor the depth of your craft.”

“There are few elemental spirits anywhere on this continent that don’t know Sheyann,” Tellwyrn said briskly, “and few people anywhere who are more skilled at what they do. If she wants to try something, we’ll probably get the best results by leaving her to it.”

“She’s out there,” Maureen whimpered.

“And we will find her,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “Sheyann is, as usual, right. Right now the best thing you can do is take care of yourself, Maureen. Try to find some calm.”

“Should…I go back for some of the others?” Gabriel asked uncertainly. “I mean, since Whisper and I have the speed, here.”

“To retrace the Sleeper’s steps, we need infernomancy and shamanism,” Tellwyrn replied. “That’s who I brought along, Arquin—and before you suggest it, Embras Mogul is already more involved in this whole business than I like.”

“Wasn’t gonna,” he muttered.

“Mr. Wrynst,” Tellwyrn said, turning to the dwarf, “I realize this is out of your element, but can you detect anything else?”

Wrynst stroked his chin ruminatively. He was clean-shaven and altogether looked the part of the modern dwarf; his formal robes were well-tailored, suggesting a business suit in their style and cut to accentuate rather than conceal the blocky shape of his physique.

“Not without more to go on,” he said at last. “As I said, the traces are fading rapidly, even while we stand here. The problem is that there wasn’t actually a rift opened. I can track a shadow-jump or dimensional transfer if I can get at it, but this accursed mirroring effect obscures the traces I’d need to read. The real action happened in Hell, not here. If either of our shaman can coax the Sea to oblige us, that’ll be another matter. Rifts are even easier to follow in the context of other nearby rifts, so long as you’ve a head for the math—and have the right tools. I have both, of course! The Golden Sea makes the ultimate sextant in that regard; most theorize there is a massive dimensional nexus of some kind at its center, which both causes the instability in the region and is the reason the Sea doesn’t let anybody get at its heart. But, again, that’s little help because the shifting we’re trying to follow is merely a reflection of something that happened in another universe, and I’ve neither the senses nor the instruments to perceive something like that in the necessary detail.”

“The winds are angry,” Haunui repeated morosely. “I expect no help from them.”

“Thanks for that,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh.

“The Sea will help us,” Sheyann said suddenly, opening her eyes and standing. “I must remain here, to keep communication open. The mind of the Sea is normally unreadable…but it seems Iris reached it.”

“She said please,” Maureen whispered. “Over and over. I didn’t know who she was begging…”

“The child will be a truly remarkable witch, in the fullness of time,” Sheyann said gravely, “provided we are able to rescue her. She touched the Sea itself, its consciousness, something no shaman I have ever known has been able to do.”

“Iris has gifts apart from her craft,” Tellwyrn said tersely. “I don’t invite just any teenage witch to my school. You have an expression that says there’s a downside, Sheyann.”

“The consciousness of the Golden Sea is…rather like a god, in some respects,” Sheyann explained, nodding. “It is a consciousness, but not like ours. In the way it is approached, it’s like a machine, responding predictably to a few narrow stimuli and ignoring most others. While gods will sometimes make their thoughts known, however, the Sea never has that I know of. Iris left traces that I can follow. However…”

“Here it comes,” Tellwyrn muttered.

Sheyann gave her an irritated look without pausing. “This is delicate. I sense compliance toward Iris, as well as resentment at the Sleeper. I don’t understand what Iris did, exactly, and cannot reproduce it; the Sea will not comply with me. To do this, I will have to skirt the line between cajoling the Sea’s distant mind in the wake of Iris’s touch, and coercing it to cooperate, as the centaurs do. One false step will backfire catastrophically.”

Tellwyrn drew in a breath, and let it out in a short sigh. “I know your skill, Sheyann. If anyone can do it…”

“I would not suggest such a risk if I didn’t think I could,” the Elder replied gravely. “That is not the problem. I must maintain a reflection, in Mr. Wrynst’s words, of what was done before.”

“What’s that mean?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“The Sleeper’s passage was separate, and invisible to me,” Sheyann said. “I can retrace the grip that seized Iris and Maureen. But two were taken, and only two can follow.”

“Sometimes,” Tellwyrn growled, “I honestly hate magic.”


Immediately upon exiting the alley, they put together the best formation they could. Shook and Kheshiri stepped to one side of the opening, the Jackal and Vannae to the other, while Joe paced out in the center, wands in hand. Behind him, Danny emerged, and the three soldiers swiftly clustered around him as soon as they had space to do so, brandishing staves at the empty street.

“Fuckin’ creepy,” Shook muttered. “Haven’t even heard any alarm bells…”

They all whirled to face the shadows which swelled in the center of the street ahead. The darkness receded, revealing three figures in gray robes which obscured their faces.

“Grandiose,” Kheshiri said skeptically. “You only needed one caster to shadow-jump. You’re sacrificing strategic value for—”

“We are the rising tide,” a gravely voice interrupted her.

“Which one’s talking?” Finchley whispered.

“I will bet you a year’s pay it’s the one in the middle,” Rook muttered back.

The Jackal barked a laugh. “No bet.”

“We will sweep away the unworthy,” the voice continued, and finally the figure in the middle stepped forward to raise his arms skyward. “The very stones are worn away by the tide!”

“Fascinating,” said Danny, craning his neck to peer over Moriarty’s shoulder. “Excuse me, but what god are you with? I don’t recognize that rhetoric.”

“You cannot stop the—”

The cultist’s proclamation was cut short by a lightning bolt. It was an imperfect shot, coming at an awkward angle; the electric discharge struck the figure to his left indirectly, arcing to graze him. He toppled backward to the street with a squeal, while his compatriot fell silently, robe smoking. The other cultist jumped backward, and vanished in an abrupt swell of shadow.

The rest of them had whirled to face the direction from which the shot had come, with the exception of the Jackal, who flung his arms wide in a gesture of frustration.

“Oh, come on! I was gonna murder that guy! Goddammit, I never get to kill anybody anymore…”

Sweet hopped down from the second-floor fire escape, landing in a deep crouch, then straightened, still aiming a wand.

“Still alive?” he said to the fallen cult leader, who was emitting shrill moans of pain. “Splendid, I have some friends who’re looking forward to kicking your ass in meticulous detail. Flora! Fauna! Why do I not hear—ah, there we go.”

A bell began tolling not far away, followed by another, and then a third more distantly, the city’s chain of alarm bells finally coming to life to signal the emergency.

“Sorry, boss!” shouted a feminine voice from the roofs above the street. “We’re not miracle workers, you know!”

“Flesh and blood can only move so fast,” another added.

“Yeah, yeah,” the thief muttered, sweeping his gaze across the group. “Joe, you picked a perfect time to show up. Everybody all right?”

“Quite well, thank you,” Danny said pleasantly.

“Well indeed,” the Jackal said, grinning. “The man himself! It’s been a while.”

“It’s gonna go much worse for you than the last time if you attempt any of the bullshit you’re contemplating,” Sweet said curtly, striding over to the fallen cultists. He kicked the leader, eliciting another cry of pain. “You. I don’t know who you fuckers are, but you are going to explain, and then have things explained to you. You do not do this horseshit in my city. By the time I finish—”

He jumped back at the resurgent rise of shadows. Six more robed figures had appeared on either side of the street from the cluster of people present, arranged in a pair of matching triangles.

“Summoning formations!” Joe barked, snapping his wands up. He dropped the three on their right with a round of blindingly fast shots.

Shadow-jumping was an extremely rapid process, though, and by the time he’d turned to the other cluster, they had done their work. The shadows which swelled up obscured that entire half of the street momentarily. When they receded, the three cultists had vanished with them. What remained behind was at least twelve feet tall.

“Oh, by the way,” the Jackal said helpfully. “Undead.”

It was proportioned like a centaur, with a humanoid torso rising from a four-legged base, and made from bones. Not that it was a skeleton; it had been built from haphazardly-collected bones forming a lopsided structure, held together with bolted lengths of iron and pulsating greenish strands of tissue rather like misplaced ligaments. Atop its torso was a single, normal-sized human skull. If not for the overall horror of the thing, its tiny head might have looked comical.

The accompanying smell was truly unspeakable.

Rook squeaked, Finchley retched, and Moriarty shot it. He actually hit it, too, the blast of lightning sending charred bone fragments flying and causing electricity to crackle visibly along the iron pieces lining its structure. The only tangible result of this was to catch the construct’s attention. It turned far more smoothly than such an awkward-looking thing had any right to, facing them directly.

Joe dispatched a rapid series of shots, burning hole after hole through the thing’s tiny head until the skull finally dissolved completely in broken fragments.

This accomplished nothing. The construct ignored him entirely, charging at the group with the speed of an angry bull.

The three soldiers shoved Danny back into the alley, leaving the rest of the group to dive out of the way. It crashed against the side of the building with an awful clatter, breaking chunks of masonry and sending large pieces of bone and iron to the sidewalk.

“Look how fragile it is!” Kheshiri shouted from above. “We can wear it down!”

Joe, Sweet, and the elves had gotten out of the way, Vannae moving far more deftly than his previous show of weakness had suggested he could. Shook was slower, and got accidentally kicked in the monstrosity’s charge and sent skidding across the pavement. Kheshiri dived to the ground, landing over him with her wings protectively spread.

Lightning blasted out of the alley’s mouth; with the construct pressed against the opening, there was no way they could miss, and bolts of energy ripped pieces of it loose. They broke off firing as the thing adjusted itself to reach into the alley with one enormous arm. It was thankfully too big to fit inside, but it had a long enough reach that they were forced to retreat to avoid being grabbed.

Sweet and Joe fled to the opposite side of the street, where the thief let fly with indiscriminate shots from his wand, raking more and more pieces off the monster, while the Kid surgically shot out metal joints one at a time. After just a few seconds of this, the monster sagged slightly to one side, beginning to lose some of its structural integrity. It stumbled further when the Jackal darted up and slammed a long blade into the knee of one of its back legs, wrenching it loose and causing it to slump sideways, that leg disabled.

Moving less adroitly now, the construct shifted to face the rest of them, just in time to take another barrage of lightning out of the alley to its central mass.

“Hold your fire!” Kheshiri shouted. The succubus dived straight down from the sky, striking the monster’s shoulder with both feet and all her weight, then bouncing off and gliding away. The impact knocked its arm loose entirely, leaving it with just the one reaching into the alley.

“Shit!” Shook yelped from up the street. “Shit shit!”

They turned, barely catching the end of another swell of shadows from that direction as the cultists jumped back out, leaving behind a second construct built along the same lines as the first.

“What?” Sweet protested. “How? Where were they keeping them?”

“With multiple shadow-jumpers, coulda been in Sheng-la for all the difference it makes,” Joe said grimly, swiveling and unleashing a barrage of wandfire at the thing as it came barreling up the street at them. “Gotta catch the—look out!”

They had to dive out of the way again, back toward the first monster, which was still trying to move, but able to do little but thrash now, all of its limbs having been disabled by the various adventurers. The new arrival slammed against the apartment building opposite, shattering windows and demolishing a set of decorative eaves; Joe and Sweet barely got out of its way in time to avoid being crushed.

A figure swathed in black plummeted from the roof above, cloak billowing behind her.

“Flora, no!” Sweet shouted.

“Flora, yes,” the elf snapped from right next to him, grabbing his arm and tugging him away. “You let the heavy-hitters deal with this crap.” Fauna planted herself between him and the second monster, brandishing long knives in both hands.

“Wait a sec,” Sweet protested, though he didn’t struggle against her tugging. “If you’re—who is that? Who else wears a cloak?!”

The black figure whirled and swarmed across the construct’s massive body like a temporally accelerated monkey, moving with speed and deftness that even an elf could not match—not to mention strength. Striking with hands and feet, it swiftly and precisely knocked loose strategic pieces of iron while clambering over the monster and evading its grasp. In barely ten seconds, it accomplished what a gaggle of armed fighters hadn’t managed to do to the first construct, which was still feebly wriggling, now lying across the street itself after the last barrage of staff fire had knocked it away from the alley. The new construct, however, collapsed to the pavement in pieces. Something fundamental in its body had clearly been destroyed; it entirely disintegrated, none of its components even attempting to move.

There was a momentary pause in which the only sound was the ongoing alarm bells, followed by another massive swell of shadows out of nowhere, immediately pierced by three beams from Joe’s wand. The shadow abruptly dissipated, leaving three robed figures lying dead in their wake.

“That is enough a’ that,” Joe growled.

Kicking aside a piece of arm as long as she was tall and lowering her hood, the figure in black turned to face the rest of the street. On the ground and stationary, she was revealed as a pretty young woman with dark hair.

Across the way, Shook, Kheshiri, the Jackal, and Vannae, who had just attacked an undead monstrosity five times their collective size without flinching, shouted in panic and scrambled away toward the nearest open alley.

Face set in a predatory glower, the woman shot after them, fast as a pouncing lion.

“STOP!”

Roughly pushing aside Finchley, who was trying to hold him back, Danny emerged from their hiding place, giving the still-twitching necromantic construct a wide berth, but showing no sign of unease. On the contrary, his voice and bearing radiated a command which, surprisingly, stopped everyone in their tracks. The woman skidded to a halt, whirling to stare at him, and the four she’d been pursuing hesitated in spite of themselves.

“We’ve won here,” Danny said firmly. “No more. No turning on each other, and no revenge. Let them be, Milanda. I owe them.”

She let out a short breath, then charged at him, cloak flaring behind her.

Moriarty whipped up his staff at her and Danny punched him in the face, and then she was on him, wrapping her arms around him and burying her head against his chest.

Feet came pounding up the street, and Joe whirled to aim wands, which he immediately lowered.

Five soldiers skidded to a halt, weapons raised, staring around incredulously.

“What in the goddamn hell?” demanded the sergeant at the head of the group. “Weapons down! NOW!”

“Coulda used you gentlemen ’bout ten minutes ago,” Joe muttered, holstering his wands.

“Officers,” Sweet said pleasantly, obligingly dropping his wand and raising his hands over his head. “This is…” He paused, glancing around at the dead bodies, the damaged walls, multiple lightning burns, and shattered remnants of two giant constructs of bone, one still trying to get up. “Well! This is probably more or less exactly whatever the hell it looks like.”

 

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“Oh, you asshole,” Sweet murmured, grinning down at the spectacle below. “Look, he’s looping ’em back now.”

“Before you go giving anybody too much credit,” said Fauna, “he could just be lost.”

“He of all people knows how not to get lost in Tiraas,” Sweet disagreed, proceeding along the edge of the rooftop at a pace which matched the slow amble of Danny and his increasingly twitchy entourage. “Especially since they’re supposed to be heading toward the Palace. Just go uphill. Nope, he’s deliberately leading them in circles, after picking the most switchbacking route through alleys he could find so they don’t immediately notice.”

“I’m a little surprised somebody who lives in the Palace would even know how to do that,” said Flora.

“I was just getting started late in Theasia’s reign, but even then there were persistent rumors about how Sharidan liked to sneak out of the Palace and have little adventures. I dunno what a crown prince would have wanted in a neighborhood like this, but I also wouldn’t assume he doesn’t know his way around the city.”

“That’s actually kind of a good thing, isn’t it?” Fauna mused.

“Yeah,” Flora agreed, nodding. “Better to have a ruler who’s at least been in touch with the people.”

“Course, based on that one’s rep, could’ve just been a lot of being in touch with the pretty people’s butts in bars.”

“Doubtful,” said Sweet. “He likes his women, but he likes them eagerly willing. I’ve never once heard a suggestion the Emperor has so much as pinched a chambermaid. But back to the matter at hand, I still don’t understand what I’m seeing here. Why’s he want to ramble around the city with nobody but those clowns to watch his back? Sharidan is less cautious than either Eleanora or Vex, but this is just bull-goose reckless, and that doesn’t fit his pattern at all…”

All three lifted their heads at the hoarse cawing of a crow. They listened till the pattern completed itself, then Sweet nodded once, and Flora mimicked a starling call in reply.

“Why crows for this job?” Fauna muttered. “Every damn time, I half think it’s gonna be her until the whole code is complete…”

“She wouldn’t announce herself,” Flora said, grinning.

“Because crows are easy to mimic,” Sweet replied, again watching the foursome they were tracking below, “because I let Duster set the ground rules since she’s in charge on the ground this time and she can do a crow, and because apprentices who aren’t given something to bitch and whine about get bored and do stupid things. Everybody wins.”

“You’re a jerk,” Fauna said affectionately, patting him on the back.

A shape swung nimbly up the nearby edge of the roof, moving more like a circus acrobat than someone who should be concentrating on their stealth.

“What’s the word, Bounce?” Sweet asked.

Despite his characteristically ebullient way of moving, the lanky man wore a frown. “The word is trouble, Sweet. Duster’s pulled Rake, Chesty and Grimoire back to keep an eye; we got a big group of Black Wreath forming up.”

Sweet straightened up fully, frowning at him. “Excuse me, a who?”

“So far, least twenty,” Bounce said. “Clearly staging for something. People in those gray robes, being shadow-jumped into an empty apartment one at a time. Your guy an’ his pals are gonna pass not too far from ’em, at this rate.”

“Bullshit,” Sweet said bluntly. “The Wreath has nothing to gain and way too much to lose.”

“Hey, did I say I’d personally analyzed the situation?” Bounce asked irritably. “I see robes, I see shadow-jumping, Duster tells me go warn Sweet the Wreath’s here, my job is done. She figured you’d wanna get a look before they do…whatever.”

“Damn right,” Sweet said, now frowning deeply. “Girls…stay on our target. And remember.” He leveled a stern finger at them. “Whatever else is going on here, eyes are on us, including probably those of Imperial Intelligence. Best. Behavior.”

“Sir, yes, sir!” they chorused, snapping to attention and saluting.

Sweet shook his head. “All right, lead on, Bounce. Double-time.”

“You’re spending too much time at that Church, man,” Bounce complained even as he vaulted over the ledge onto a balcony below. “Starting to talk like an Avenist…”

“Being shadow-jumped, he said,” Flora murmured. “Don’t all the Wreath know shadow-jumping?”

“Remember, most of the Wreath is just dilettantes, they only recruit trusted people for actual missions.”

“You know what I meant.”

“Yeah…they wouldn’t need to be shadow-jumped anywhere, and shadow-jumping means they don’t have to group up before staging an attack.”

“And, of course, any bunch of assholes can put on gray robes. You remember—oh ho, what have we here?”

They both leaped across the next alley, then crouched by the edge of the roof, peering over at the scene below.

“What timing,” Fauna muttered. “Sweet had to take off right before someone he’d definitely wanna see happens along…”


“Why, hello! Fancy meeting you here!”

“Danny,” the youth replied, returning his wave with a quizzical frown. “Fancy meeting you out. Something happened?”

“Ah, yeah, you might say that,” Danny said ruefully. “I’m moving to new accommodations.”

“Are Lakshmi and Sanjay all right?”

“Yes. Safe, unharmed, and…rather annoyed, I’m afraid. It was my fault, and for now, I’ll have to leave it at that; we can have the whole sorry story later. Ah, but forgive me! Joe, this is Andrew, Thomas, and Jacob. Guys, this is Joe.”

“Pleasure,” Moriarty said curtly.

“Did we tell him our first names?” Rook asked, nudging Finchley with an elbow.

“Shh.”

“Wait, your name’s Andrew?”

“Shut up!”

“Is…everything all right?” Joe asked warily.

“We’re in a bit of a hurry,” Moriarty said stiffly. “Your—My—Mr—”

“Danny,” Rook prompted.

Moriarty gritted his teeth. “Is this boy trustworthy?”

Danny gave him an amused look. “More than most people. This is quite fortuitous, though, Joe; I imagine I can guess what would bring you to this neighborhood, but this particular back alley?”

“Wait, back alley?” Finchley demanded. “You said this was a street to—oh, for crap’s sake, you’re leading us in circles, aren’t you.”

“Behave yourself!” Moriarty hissed, turning to glare at him. “A little respect!”

“Yeah, that much ain’t a coincidence,” Joe replied, still wearing a pensive frown. “It’s barely dark an’ the neighborhood is quiet. That’s far enough from normal to make me feel suddenly curious. I was headin’ to drop in on the Sanjakars before they turned in, but instead I’ve been wanderin’ around, havin’ myself a listen.”

“Hear anything good?” Rook asked sardonically.

“Mostly just quiet,” Joe said, shaking his head. “It doesn’t figure. You wouldn’t know anything about this, Danny?”

“Anything about what?” Moriarty demanded in exasperation. “Just because it’s quiet doesn’t mean…anything. Does it?”

“Did you notice anything in particular, Joe?” Danny asked, all jocularity gone from his tone now. “I realize you’re an exceptionally gifted young man…”

“I don’t hear like an elf, if that’s what you’re askin’,” Joe said with a wry half-smile. “An’ the movements of groups of people ain’t exactly my strong suit—just the opposite, you might say. But I’ve gotten used to this city enough to notice when there’s not the same activity there oughtta be. So, that’s my answer, an’ I note I’m still waitin’ on yours.”

“He doesn’t have to tell you anything,” Moriarty snapped, stepping in front of Danny.

He was immediately pushed aside—gently, but insistently, but a hand on the shoulder. “Jacob, please,” Danny said calmly, “Joe is a friend. And he’s right; this is an odd situation. Anybody would be curious.”

“More pertinently,” Joe said, “I remember you bein’ on the run from somethin’. Now, it occurs to me that one thing that could quiet a neighborhood is word goin’ around that folk would be better off goin’ inside. Places like this, I know the Thieves’ Guild can clear the streets pretty quick, for example.”

“We should be so lucky,” Danny muttered. “The Guild has no quarrel with… Ah, forgive me, Joe, I’m not trying to put you off. No, I don’t know what’s happening, but…it’s not impossible that it has to do with me.”

“That being the case,” Finchley gritted, “perhaps we should resume moving toward Imperial Square? Without detours this time, perhaps.”

“Mind if I tag along?” Joe asked with deceptive mildness.

“Actually, that would be fantastic, if you don’t mind,” Danny said smoothly. “Andrew’s right—if this is about me, best I remove myself from a residential area where others might be caught up in it. And if not, it’s none of our business and we don’t need to be caught up in it.”

“Good idea,” Rook grunted, gently nudging him from behind. “Forward march, if you please, sir.”

“I’m thinkin’ this might be a good time to break the traditional urban reserve,” Joe said, falling into step beside them as they proceeded up the alley toward the street ahead. “I ain’t troubled any o’ the few people I’ve passed, but next one, I reckon I’ll stop an’ ask what’s up.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Moriarty grumbled.

“It’s not a bad one, Joe,” Danny said. “Trust your instincts.”

“I trust my skills an’ my brain,” Joe replied. “Instinct’ll get you killed.”

“Some nice wands you got there,” Finchley said rather skeptically. “Can you use ’em?”

Joe grinned at him. “I get by.”

They emerged into the street proper, and paused. It wasn’t merely quiet; it was almost deserted. As Joe had said, that was eerily abnormal for a city the size of Tiraas, at this hour. They were now standing on one of the curving avenues which orbited the city’s heart; in the distance in both directions there was the sound of traffic from one of the larger radial streets between Imperial Square and the outer walls, but the arc of this street hid that from view. Nearby, though, it was virtually silent. Doors were closed, windows shuttered, and the only person out was a well-dressed woman gliding up the sidewalk toward them.

“Ma’am,” Moriarty said politely, even as he shifted his grip on his staff.

They made a most peculiar group: three men in nondescript clothes, carrying weapons; one man in a cheap suit; one armed teenager in a clearly expensive suit. If she found any of this odd, however, she made no sign, merely giving Moriarty a polite little smile in reply.

“Good evening, gentlemen.” Her bearing and inflection matched her expensive dress and fox-trimmed coat, marking her a woman of wealth, if not aristocracy.

Joe subtly moved one hand near a wand. “Pardon me, miss, but would you happen to know if anything…unusual is goin’ on in this neighborhood?”

At that, she paused, arching one eyebrow superciliously. “Young man, do I look as if I reside in a place like this?”

“With the greatest respect, ma’am, you do not,” he replied, in a carefully polite tone. “As such, it’s a mite peculiar to see a lady of your obvious quality alone, in a place like this, at this hour.”

She glanced quickly at each of them in turn. “Oh, dear. Are you planning to mug or assault me?”

“Of course not!” Moriarty exclaimed.

“Now look, Joe, you went and scared her,” Rook said reproachfully. “Shame on you.”

The woman’s eyes fixed on Danny’s; he regarded her right back, face impassive. Despite her question, she seemed perfectly at ease, and in fact, now smiled coquettishly.

“Boys,” Joe said quietly, “circle up. This ain’t right.”

“Correct as usual, Joseph,” she said, stepping forward again. “In your analysis, not your plan. Keep moving, boys, we need to be out of here.”

“Okay, whoah,” said Rook, frowning and tightening his own grip on his staff. “Just who are you? Friend or foe?”

“Dicey question,” she said with a smile. “Enemy, temporarily on your side. You are about to be attacked; keep in a group around…” Her eyes flicked up and down Danny’s form, and her smile stretched into an outright grin. “…your friend, here. And seriously, keep moving. There’s going to be a big mess; our best bet is to get to a busier street where there’s law enforcement.”

“Who are you?” Joe demanded, drawing a wand.

“If I told you, you’d just shoot me,” she said in exasperation. “And seriously, move! Are you all—”

She broke off, whirling at the sound of running feet. A figure in a gray robe had burst out of a nearby shop door and now dashed toward them, brandishing a knife.

Moriarty and Finchley both fired their staves, mostly by reflex, managing to destroy a street lamp and seriously damage a parked carriage with lightning bolts. The robed figure made it another three yards closer before Joe put a clean beam of light through his head.

“That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen,” the woman said, deadpan. “Electricity arcs toward conductive bodies. How the hell did you miss at that range?”

“Lamp posts are metal,” Moriarty said sullenly.

“Aw, shit—move!” Rook barked, now rudely shoving Danny back into the alley. More people in ash-gray robes suddenly began streaming out of the open door, all charging right toward them and brandishing a collection of knives and clubs. Aside from the pounding of their feet, they moved in eerie silence.

“Not in there!” the woman shouted fruitlessly. “Go toward the—oh, for hell’s sake!”

She followed Rook, rudely shoving past Finchley and Moriarty, who had turned to fire at the oncoming mob. They managed to hit the crowd, at least, but aside from tripping over the bodies, none of their attackers seemed fazed by the fact they were charging into a barrage of electric death. Joe backed up after the woman, leveling much more careful shots.

It was over with shocking suddenness; where there had been a charging mob, there was abruptly just a street littered with smoking corpses. At least a score of them, the nearest of which had almost reached the alley.

“What the fuck,” Finchley demanded in a tremulous voice. “The Black Wreath?”

“This is not the Wreath,” the woman said firmly. “The Wreath is competent and quiet. They make convenient villains, though; lots of people like to frame them, especially since it’s as easy as throwing on a cheap robe before committing crimes. I don’t know who these clowns are, but they’re hopped up on some kind of berserker drug, if the one I knifed earlier is any indication. Look, boys, that light show will draw official attention fast, which means whoever planned this has got something bigger to play. I don’t know who can pull an army out of their butt like this, in Tiraas no less, but they wouldn’t do so just to waste it. We’ve gotta get your boy into the arms of Imperial protection now.”

“Or,” said Rook, still with a protective hand on Danny’s shoulder, “we sit tight and wait for that Imperial protection to show.”

“Use your head,” she snapped. “Our enemy knows the situation just as well. We were herded in here. This is where the real blow will fall, and it will fall quickly before the soldiers arrive, so will you fucking move already?!”

“She’s right,” Joe said tersely, “we gotta get movin’, back up the street toward Imperial Square. And while we are movin’, you can explain just who the hell you are, an’ how you know me.”

“Oh, we’ve heard a lot about one another’s exploits,” she said with a broad grin, and winked at him. “Now come along, boys, before—”

“Too late,” said Finchley, backing up into the alley.

“More,” Moriarty reported, following suit. “…lots more. Oh, hell. The whole street—”

“Gods fucking damn it,” the well-dressed lady hissed incongruously. “And we continue to be herded! This is what I get for working with groups. Well, go if you’re going! Too risky to fight our way out through a crowd, head back the other way.”

Joe pushed ahead of them, leading the way back up the alley, which kinked and curved in several places to accommodate the neighborhood’s idiosyncratic architecture. Rook stayed behind him, with the other two men and their new companion bringing up the rear.

“Somebody had better start explaining to me just what the hell is going on,” Rook growled as they scampered back toward the next nearby street.

“I have to say, this is not what I expected,” Danny remarked. “Your pardon, madam, but I don’t believe we caught your name?”

“She said Joe would shoot her if she told it,” said Finchley. “I take it you two have met?”

“Oh, not in person,” she said with a throaty little chuckle. “We’re aware of each other, though. Mutual friends. You know how it is.”

“Sadly, that doesn’t narrow it down much,” Joe grumbled. “I can’t think of anybody I’d wanna shoot on sight, ‘cept—”

Suddenly, he skidded to a halt, whirling, and leveled a wand at her face.

“Whoah!” Rook exclaimed. “Being chased, here, I don’t think we have time for this!”

“Aw, he guessed it. Truce,” she said, raising her hands. “All right?”

“Your word ain’t worth a thing,” Joe said coldly.

“That, bucko, is for damn sure,” she said with a smirk. “However, I am here on business, not pleasure. Today’s business is to get your buddy there back safely home.”

“Are you alone?” he demanded.

“Course not, you think the big boss would send me out unsupervised? My team’s nearby, trying to contain this. The Thieves’ Guild outsmarted themselves, as usual; clearing people away from the streets kept most of the resident rabble safe, but it’s also cut way down on official response time. Gods only know how long it’ll take somebody to run for the Imps, because the Eserites sure as hell aren’t going to.”

“The Guild is here?” Danny asked.

“Uh, someone is coming up this alley,” Finchley said nervously.

“I’ve got my boys fully occupied trying to prevent us from being flanked,” she continued. “Shoot me, and at least one of them is going to assume the truce is dropped. So, if you don’t actually care about your friend here getting home alive and don’t mind the thought of Jack and Jerry springing out at you from the shadows, I guess, knock yourself out, kid.”

Joe’s eyes cut momentarily to Danny. “If we get outta this alive, I’m gonna insist on findin’ out why you’re so damn important, Danny.”

“Oh, that is just priceless,” she breathed. “You don’t know? If this whole thing wasn’t just a complete clusterfuck I’d be loving the hell out of this…”

“Why are we not moving?” Finchley demanded.

“Fair point,” Joe snapped. “New formation, though. She goes in front, an’ the second I give the word, or you think it’s appropriate, or you get so much as a hunch, blast her.”

“A gal could take this personally,” the lady said with clear amusement.

“I don’t overmuch care how you take it,” Joe replied flatly, keeping his wand trained on her. “Move, please, an’ no funny stuff, Kheshiri.”

 

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12 – 54

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As afternoon faded into early evening, the overall light in Tiraas did not diminish, even in this relatively dingy district, though it changed in character with the transition from gloomy, cloud-obscured sunlight to the sharp golden glow of the fairy lamps lining the streets. Given the typical weather in the region, nightfall often had the ironic effect of enlivening the colors of everything the light touched. At any rate, the approach of dusk did little to diminish the activity in the street. This particular district was a fairly quiet one most of the time, not rich by any means, but with several temples and regular patrols by the military police; it was a safe enough place to stand outside, observing passersby.

That was fortunate for the man currently calling himself Danny, as he lounged against a corner, simply watching the people as they went about their business. City folk were not terribly ebullient with strangers as a rule, but he received and returned a few polite greetings, nonetheless. One pair of patrolling soldiers slowed slightly as they passed him, but a smile and cordial greeting, coupled with his calm demeanor, apparently assuaged their concerns. People did much stranger things than stand around doing nothing in the city, and those up to no good either avoided troops or were with the Thieves’ Guild, which in either case was encouragement not to bother him.

When not greeting someone, though, he tended to let his expression lapse into a near-frown, more pensive than unhappy. He was normally quite adept at concealing his thoughts; here, he was nobody worth looking at twice, and being able to let his guard down just a little was a luxury.

Three young men approached, immediately standing out. They were moving faster than the average passerby, they had come out of an alley across the street rather than down the main avenue, and they went right toward him with obvious intent. All three drew up on the sidewalk next to him, looking nervous and generally shifty, and he suppressed a sigh. This would draw far more attention than anything he’d been doing.

“Your, uh,” the red-haired one stammered, “I mean mister—I mean, um…”

“My friends call me Danny,” he said mildly. “For the time being, that is. Are we friends?”

“We would never presume,” said the only one with an obviously military bearing, his tone as stiff as his spine. “It would be entirely inappropriate—”

“Yes, we most certainly are friends of yours,” interrupted the third, the only ethnic Tiraan in the group and with an impressive enough habitual slouch to make up for his companion’s posture. “Have been for a good long time. Look, uh, Danny, you don’t know us, so I get that you’ve got no reason to trust us here, but—”

“If I am not mistaken,” he said with a smile, “Privates Finchley, Rook, and Moriarty, yes?”

They all gaped at him.

“You know us?” Finchley croaked at last. “I mean—you—but that’s—”

“You lads have had a rather interesting couple of years, so I understand,” Danny said lightly. “You might be surprised how many people are aware of you. Just as I am surprised to find you, of all places, here. I’m sure this is quite a story.”

“We’re here to escort you to safety, y-your…” Moriarty swallowed hard. “…Danny.”

“It is quite a story, but he’s right,” Rook added. “This probably isn’t the best time. We’re working with Ms. Darnassy, whom I trust you also know?”

At that, Danny straightened up. “That’s…very interesting. Last I heard, she was fully occupied with matters that didn’t include my immediate safety. How you three factor into it is quite the puzzle.”

“The short version is, by accident,” Finchley said hurriedly, glancing around in a way that would be sure to draw the attention of any patrolling soldiers, had any been nearby. “The, uh…the…men…who are a little…”

“I have some friends who are presently under the weather, yes,” Danny said mildly. “Milanda was working on that. Please, continue.”

“Uh, right. Well, one was at the college where we were…um, attending, and he caused…some trouble.”

“Yadda yadda, some stuff happened,” Rook continued airily, “our mutual friend Quentin found us and pointed us at the lovely and talented Ms. Darnassy, and when he heard you lost the couch you were crashing on, we got tapped to lead you to a new one. So, speaking of that, shall we? This is all very, y’know…terrifyingly exposed.”

“Hmm.” Danny considered them thoughtfully for a long moment, not minding their obvious signs of anxiety. A trap? That, he decided, was very unlikely. They knew who he was, and the core of all their recent problems was that they had more personal loyalty to him than sense or talent; that made them the worst possible choice of agents to mean him harm. Plus, this would be just like Vex. The spymaster had not been happy in the least with his plan, and this way he could put a token watch around him and be able to argue later that as incompetent as these three were, they didn’t count as real guards. In fact, it was sort of perfect. “Very well, I appreciate you going out of your way, gentlemen.”

“It is no trouble, sir,” Finchley said fervently. “So, uh, this way, if you please.”

“Now, now, wait up,” Danny said smoothly as they all three took a step up the street. He paused to straighten the lapels of his suit. “It’s such a fine evening, isn’t it? There’s no hurry. I so rarely get to stroll the streets; no need to set such a pace.”

He actually passed them, at a leisurely amble, while they gaped at him as if wondering if he were insane and not daring to say so. He recognized that specific expression; it was directed at him with fair frequency.

“Um,” Rook said finally, “with all due respect…there kind of is a hurry. Because you’re…pretty vulnerable here, y’know, and if something happens to you, it’s not just you who’s gonna suffer for it. Danny.”

“Relax,” Danny said, turning to grin at him. “I know what I’m doing. Coming?”

There was another pause while they hastened to catch up and fell into an obvious formation behind him, looking nervous. He repressed another sigh; attracting certain kinds of attention was, after all, part of the plan, but this was going to get random soldiers or Silver Legionnaires involved. Did the Legions even patrol this district?

“As I understand it,” Finchley said, clearly choosing his words with extreme care, “the plan involves…our friends who are unwell. Yes? Maybe they aren’t the most reliable of…friends…right now? Kind of by definition?”

“I’m not expecting much from them except trouble, truth be told,” Danny agreed. “If they end up showing up tonight, the trick will be making sure it’s trouble for the right people, but I’m reasonably confident I can arrange that. No, gentlemen, I’m counting on other parties to become involved in this.”

Even with all three of them behind and thus out of his line of sight, he could practically hear them exchanging dubious looks.

“Who?” Moriarty finally asked.

“Let me pose you a hypothetical question,” said Danny. “Suppose you were trying to outmaneuver someone who is adept at manipulating events from a safe distance, someone who works with exacting precision and never takes a risk unless he’s certain he has control over the whole environment. Suppose that a major part of your long-term plan in this regard involves gaining the allegiance of his opposites: individuals who thrive on adapting on the fly to chaotic situations, and who have been stubbornly refusing to take a side. In that situation, what would you do?”

“I suppose,” Rook said slowly, but without pausing, “in that purely hypothetical scenario, I would create some goddamn chaos.”

“Watch your language!” Moriarty barked.

“It’s fine,” Danny said with a grin. “And quite so, Mr. Rook. That is, indeed, the plan.”

“Which means,” Rook continued sourly, “you’re gambling that you can control the chaos when it breaks out.”

“Unlike the antagonist I referred to, I don’t bother to wait until everything is certain before acting. Adaptation is crucial. That doesn’t mean I don’t hedge my bets, however. It’s a critical mistake to gamble without an ace or three up one’s sleeve, gentlemen.”

“Oh, gods,” Finchley muttered. “Please tell me he doesn’t mean us.”

Danny laughed.


“Now, who the hell is that?” Sweet muttered, leaning over the rooftop’s edge to frown at the four men proceeding up the street below. “Those three resemble some individuals I know by description, but there’s no possible way it’s them.”

“Actually, we know them,” said Flora.

“Yeah,” Fauna agreed, “they were with Professor Tellwyrn and her students in Lor’naris last year.”

“They wore Army uniforms then, but she treated ’em like bellboys.”

“Which, to be fair, could just be Tellwyrn being Tellwyrn.”

“If I were a lesser man,” he complained, “I would need to sit down. What the fuck is going on here? With everything I learn, this makes less and less sense. C’mon.”

He stepped back from the ledge and strode up the fortunately gently angled slate roof beside them, swiftly cresting it and proceeding with more care down the other side. At the base of that, they had to vault across a narrow alley to the flat roof opposite in order to keep pace with their quarry.

“According to what they said to him,” Flora reported, “Vex and Darnassy sent them here.”

“Darnassy,” Sweet muttered. “That one keeps popping up lately—and suddenly. She’s been an Imperial mistress for a few years now and never made a peep about wanting to do more than warm Sharidan’s bed until this week. I don’t like unknown quantities butting into my already messy job…”

“Is this a job, though?” Fauna asked. “Do we really need to keep doing this? Maybe the best thing is to back off and let the Imps deal with their own crap.”

“You have a point,” he said, “and yet, you aren’t right. Think back: you said you overheard about the Hands being able to teleport by lurking above an open window, yes?” He paused to look at them, waiting to get nods of acknowledgment before proceeding. “Doesn’t it strike you as odd that seasoned Intelligence operatives on a mission of no less importance than keeping watch over the Emperor himself would chatter about sensitive mission details right next to an open window? They do know we like to use the rooftops. Did you take any special steps to make sure you weren’t seen?”

“No,” Flora said, frowning in thought. “You’re saying they leaked it to us on purpose?”

“But why?” Fauna asked. “That would just set the Guild against Intelligence. Which it did.”

“Not exactly,” he said. “Everything that happened after that might as well have been scripted. Based on the roles we play, I pretty much had to go down to Vex’s house and make a show of being able to kick his ass—a ranking Guild priest who’s been given the runaround by Intelligence has little other option. He knows this. Not only did he play along, with an aggression I’ve never seen from him before, he actually threatened me to the point I had to hurt one of his people to avoid breaking character.”

“You’re saying he forced you to act that way?”

“You know better than that, Flora,” he reproached. “Force is the least effective of all kinds of coercion, and Vex knows that as well as any Eserite loremaster. No, he told…a story. Laid out a neat narrative that I had to follow unless I wanted to break character, and doubled down on it to make sure I followed along. I had the option not to comply, but would pay for it by signaling that my allegiance is elsewhere than with the Guild—which is not true, and considering where else I’ve got strings tied, would have created complications for me and the Guild’s business. It was neatly done, actually. The point is, it’s unusual for him to be even that pushy. The only reason he would even try to back me into a corner like that is if something big were on the table, either something he hoped to gain for the Empire, or an unexpected threat he had to move against.”

“Like the Hands?”

“That’s the thing,” Sweet mused. “Any other time, I’d think he was just trying to make me take a side and declare allegiance. But he’s never shown interest in pressing that issue before, and this is the worst possible time. The whole government should be in damage control mode as long as the Hands are off-kilter, and with Danny running around down there, the stakes are far too high for Vex to be playing games like that with me, of all people. None of this makes any goddamn sense, and that means we don’t know what’s really going on. And that means we need to learn, fast, given how involved we already are.”

“That kinda goes back to the original question,” Flora pointed out. “Couldn’t we…disengage?”

“Isolation is death,” he said severely. “There is no safety; a fortress is a trap. We’re already engaged, and whatever’s happening has already proved it’s going to seek us out. This strategy is already as conservative and hands-off as I’m willing to go; we urgently have to figure out what the hell is going on here.”

All three paused at the hoarse cawing of a crow, turning to look in the direction of the noise. Darling nodded at Fauna, who nodded back, and then produced a few notes of a starling’s call. Flora paced along the edge of the roof, keeping an eye on the torturously slow progress of their targets, while the other two waited tensely.

They didn’t have to wait long. A woman in a long coat hoisted herself over the opposite edge of the roof and strode toward them, scowling.

“That bad, huh?” Sweet asked.

“Dunno from bad, but it’s weird,” she said. “You were right, Sweet, they’ve all started moving. I’m late to report in because we’ve had to wait to make sure of what we were seeing. You sure that guy down there is important to the Imps? You made it sound like they’d wanna protect him.”

“Spit it out, Duster,” he said tersely.

“They’re bugging out,” she replied. “All across the neighborhood. And not in one direction; they’re fanning out like they’re fleeing a fire. Intelligence is abandoning the whole district.”

Slowly, his expression crumpled into a thunderous scowl. “What the hell?”

“You tell me,” she said, folding her arms.

“You’re sure of—no, never mind, you already said so. Hn… Seen any signs of…special agents?”

“Seen, no,” the enforcer said with a shrug. “Sure, Intelligence has assets we wouldn’t be able to spot, but by definition, how the hell would I know if they’re hovering around?”

“You’re right, of course,” he agreed, clapping her on the shoulder. “Sorry, Duster, I wasn’t snapping at you. This whole thing is just balls-out crazy. Good work; have everybody pull carefully to this area. Not clustered all together, but I want us to be able to react in concert to anything that goes down in this vicinity.”

“You got it,” she said, nodding, then turned and dashed away. Reaching the edge of the roof, she vaulted over, causing a metallic thump as she hit the fire escape below.

“Vex,” Darling whispered, turning to stare down at the Emperor of Tiraas, walking the streets accompanied only by three of the worst soldiers in the Empire, “have you lost your mind?”


Gabriel was still shrugging into his coat as he entered the town hall, but just inside the door he stopped, staring at the standoff which had developed. “Uh…what’s this, now?”

“Ah, welcome back,” said Toby. “You heard about the demons?”

“Vestrel warned me before one of Vengnat’s friends got there, yeah. What’s this doing here?” he demanded, pointing at the gray-robed Black Wreath warlock.

“That is the subject of some discussion, Mr. Arquin,” Matriarch Ashaele said.

“They’ve offered to help,” Teal added. “Nobody’s happy about this, but we may not be able to afford to turn them down.”

“They? Them?” Gabe exclaimed. “There’s more?”

“Any time you see one Wreath, you can assume there are more,” Toby said grimly. “This didn’t get really awkward until she spilled the beans about him.”

“Let me just point out, again,” said Inspector Fedora with a long-suffering sigh, “that I am the only person here with legitimate government credentials.”

“Hey,” the Sheriff protested.

“And he’s hardly the first child of Vanislaas to get those,” the warlock said cheerfully. “This is supposed to be a secret, but one of his ilk was governor of Mathenon for over a month a few decades back. It’s never a smart idea to let them weasel into positions of power.”

“Very much the same can be said about you,” Toby snapped. “Fedora, what are you even doing here? I thought you were up on the campus.”

“I have made careful arrangements to know when and where demons are being summoned in the whole region around Last Rock, for obvious reasons,” the Inspector replied. “That’s here, and so here I am.”

“Speakin’ of which, I’ve got demons in and around my town, apparently,” Mayor Cleese said tersely. “I don’t think we’ve got time for this, people. I recognize this is literally makin’ deals with devils, but if it keeps Last Rock from bein’ overrun with hellspawn, I’m prepared to take whatever help presents itself.”

“I’ll leave this to wiser heads than mine to settle,” Sanders added. “But for the record, if the order that comes down is ‘shoot ’em both,’ I ain’t gonna complain.”

“I am not excessively worried about lesser warlocks such as the Elilinists,” Ashaele said smoothly. “She is correct about the incubus, however.”

“Now, I realize you don’t much care for me, friendly neighborhood paladins,” Fedora said with a grin, “but you both know my credentials are legitimate, and my superiors know who and what I am. Turning on a duly appointed agent of Imperial Intelligence will create trouble none of you want.”

“And now he’s threatening us,” Teal said, scowling.

“Hey!” Gabriel shouted, earning surprised silence. “The only person here making a lick of sense is the Mayor. We do not have time for this! Am I correct about those robes? Are there two priestesses of Themynra in this room?”

“You are indeed,” one of the drow women he indicated replied with a thin smile.

“Fine,” he said firmly. “I’m not much of a theologian, but some of us here should remember what we’ve learned from Shaeine. If the ladies will oblige us, a simple blessing by the goddess of, among other things, judgment, will reveal who is and is not trying to screw us over.”

“It is not quite so simple,” the other Themynrite cleric said. “A simple blessing will not reveal agendas or plots. However, it will burn any who are aligned with evil against Themynra’s objectives, which appears to be the fundamental question here. I’m sure the goddess will not consider this a frivolous use of her power.”

“Well spotted, Gabriel,” Ashaele said, smiling.

“Themynra, huh,” Fedora mused. “You know, I’ve never actually had a divine blessing on me that wasn’t used as an attack. By all means, go for it. This oughtta be interesting.”

“Whatever,” the warlock said irritably. “If that’s what it will take to get some action taken here, I’ve no objection.”

“And aren’t they gracious,” Sanders muttered.

Toby gently nudged Gabriel out of the doorway and toward one corner of the town hall, where Juniper was hovering with her sister Ash. “Nicely done,” he murmured. “Though for the record, you just insulted a room full of important people, including the Matriarch.”

“I—wait, what? No, I didn’t!”

“You kinda did, though,” Juniper observed. “I mean, if the mayor’s the only one making sense, it implies…”

“Aw, fuck,” he muttered. “I mean, that is. Um. I’m sure Shaeine has mentioned to her mother that I tend to have my foot in my mouth. And any of the drow who were at the picnic can attest I’m a big fan of the lady.”

At the other side of the noisy room, Ashaele shifted her head slightly to look at him and very deliberately smiled, before returning her attention to the front, where Fedora and the warlock were being limned with silver light by the two priestesses. In keeping with their previous attitudes, the incubus seemed fascinated by the whole procedure, while the warlock had her arms folded and extended one leg so her foot peeked out from beneath the hem of their robes, just to make sure everyone could see her tapping it. Neither appeared to be burning.

“Smooth, kid,” Ash said with a grin.

He sighed. “Thanks, I try. Has anybody else turned up? Ruda and Fross would be handy to have around about now, or any of the remaining freshman girls…”

“No sign of our classmates,” said Toby. “I haven’t heard anything about Szith, but actually Maureen and Iris were in town. From what I’ve been told, they were the first to spot a demon, and got a warning to the drow. Then apparently they retreated into the prairie to avoid sparking off a fight, and that’s the last we heard—”

“What?!” Fedora’s insouciant demeanor instantly collapsed, and he lunged across the room toward them, prompting Sanders and three of Ashaele’s bodyguards to level weapons, all of which he ignored. “You idiots! What are you standing around here for?!”

“Um, excuse me,” Juniper said, frowning, “but I think we were just discussing—”

“You know the Sleeper likes to create distractions to herd people off and strike them alone! You’ve got two classmates who’ve isolated themselves out there away from help, and that wasn’t your first priority?”

There was a second of shocked silence.

“I hate to acknowledge it, but the hellspawn is right,” Ariel observed. “You’re idiots.”

“Come on!” Gabriel barked, spinning and bolting for the door.

“You cannot just run out there without a plan,” Ashaele said firmly, coming after him with a swiftness which did nothing to diminish the smoothness of her glide.

“I don’t intend to, ma’am,” he said. The Matriarch actually pushed ahead of Toby and Juniper, following him outside. Gabriel bounded down from the town hall’s steps, put two fingers to his lips, and whistled.

Several nearby townsfolk yelped and dashed away at the explosion of smoke and shadow which erupted from the ground in the middle of the street. Whisper lunged out, prancing to a stop near Gabriel and pawing one of her invisible hooves at the ground in eagerness.

“It’s not a complex plan,” Gabriel continued, placing a hand on his steed’s neck, “but it’ll work. I need to go after them. I have the fastest mount, my valkyries can conduct a search pattern at very high speed, which’ll be the most reliable way of finding the girls, and I’m hardly defenseless. Nobody else has the same combination of advantages.”

“I see your point,” Ashaele acknowledged, though not without a faint frown.

“I can still help,” Teal disagreed, stepping out of the town hall. “Vadrieny is faster than Whisper, and there’s not a thing the Sleeper can do to us. Let’s be realistic, Gabe, we don’t know if you being a half-demon has any effect on that curse. What if you get sleeped out there on the prairie? We’d never find you.”

“Keep in mind I’m the Hand of a god,” he said with a grim little smile, nodding at Toby. “Trissiny clued us in about this, remember? You do something magical enough to a Hand, particularly if it’s demonic in nature, and you’re begging for their patron’s direct attention. We can only hope the Sleeper’s dumb enough to want a face-to-face chat with Vidius. I kinda doubt he is.”

“Gabriel is correct,” said Ashaele, placing a hand on Teal’s shoulder. “He is the best suited for this. And while you are also correct, daughter, there are other factors to consider. The town is still in immediate danger, and Vadrieny is one of our most potent combat assets. There are more people than your friends who will need protection; he can help two, but it will take every pair of hands we have to look after the whole town.”

“I’ll be quick as I can,” Gabe said with a roguish grin, then took a step back from Whisper, got a brief running start, and vaulted onto her back.

He landed awkwardly and she whinnied in protest, prancing and pivoting about to give him a reproachful look. Gabe yelped, snatching ineffectually at her mane as he tumbled off the other side.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Ariel, “he remembered to mount from the left. Believe it or not, this represents marked progress in the Hand of Vidius’s horsemanship.”

Standing in the door of the town hall, Fedora folded his arms and heaved a sigh. “Ohh, yeah. We’re all boned.”

 

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12 – 48

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Milanda didn’t fly reflexively into action, either to attack or flee, which she took as a good sign. So far, her augmented reflexes had proved they could both kill whatever threat could be killed and run from one that couldn’t, all without her conscious input. The fact that the kitsune’s statement didn’t provoke a response from her suggested she wasn’t entirely serious.

“I’ve missed your penchant for the dramatic,” Walker said with a smile, further bearing out this assumption. “Would you release her, please? Dryads are not accustomed to being manhandled.”

Akane shifted to give Hawthorn a contemptuous look; the dryad was snarling and whining, while trying to yank the hand free from her ear, without success.

“Perhaps the experience would be beneficial to her in the long run,” Akane suggested, but after a deliberate moment, probably just to prove her point, she let go. Hawthorn immediately skittered backward, clutching her ear and glaring accusingly.

“You are a big jerk!”

Akane turned a cold shoulder to her, focusing her attention back on Walker. “I hope you can explain the condition of this place, Yrsa. It appears to have been upended by some kind of cyclonic toddler, whether before or after these Tiraan managed to disable the Avatar, I cannot begin to guess. Everything I have seen so far suggests to me that these people absolutely do not need to be left in custody of this facility!”

“Come on, Akane, you know better than that,” Walker replied. “No current humans would be able to shut down an active Avatar.”

“I should think you, of all people, would be familiar enough with the adventuring breed not to make assumptions regarding what humans can or cannot do,” Akane said haughtily, folding her arms. “I have learned the hard way that humans require careful shepherding—for their own good, not to mention everyone else’s.”

“Be that as it may,” Walker said, still in a deliberately calm tone, “the Avatar is fine. He’s been pulled from the main network here and installed in the gravitational isolation chamber. He did this, himself, willingly, and you can go talk to him if you wish. I’m sure he’d be glad to see you.”

“How about you stay away from there!” Hawthorn said shrilly. Everyone ignored her.

“Assuming you are correct,” Akane sniffed, “that doesn’t explain everything going on here. Why are the Tiraan keeping three dryads prisoner, to say nothing of you?”

“Nobody here’s a prisoner!” Hawthorn snapped. “Everybody but you is invited!”

Walker sighed softly. “I…sort of am a prisoner, Hawthorn. But!” She held up a hand to forestall Akane, the tip of whose tail had begun twitching in suppressed agitation. “As much as I don’t enjoy being kept underground, I’m also not inclined to fight it—not because the Imperials intimidate me, but because this is for the best.” She turned her full focus on the kitsune, her expression intent, almost pleading. “I don’t know if you’re aware of what I’ve been…like, since I was brought back to this plane.”

“I have heard…whispers,” Akane acknowledged quietly. “Troubling ones.”

Walker nodded. “As long as I’m down here, nobody dies from being near me. I consider it…a fair deal. I hate being a…walking hazard, Akane. Being a houseplant isn’t ideal, but it beats the hell out of the alternative.”

The kitsune shot Milanda a look. “I see. And…this? Standing here, clearly brimming with stolen power?”

“Given,” Hawthorn interjected before Milanda could speak, “not stolen. Milanda is very nice to us, unlike some uninvited visitors to this place!”

“I hardly even know where to begin with what the Empire is doing with all these children of Naiya,” Akane snapped. “Just the mere fact that they are in possession of this facility and have had the temerity to alter it is disturbing enough. I take some slender comfort in the evidence that they haven’t penetrated far.”

“Not even as far as we have,” Walker interjected. “The Imperials can only get into the access hall, out there, and the GIC.”

“Regardless,” Akane barreled on, “there are dangers in here which the Tiraan Empire unequivocally does not needs to get its hands upon! Yrsa, do you realize there’s an entire cache of anthropomorphs in suspended animation in this port?” She curled her lip disdainfully. “All females, in stasis chambers bearing Druroth’s personal seal, and you know very well what that means. Disgusting. It would be kinder to terminate their life support before the Tiraan find them. Those creatures have suffered enough without being unleashed in a barbaric cluster of mud huts like what’s—”

“You are not killing anyone!” Milanda snapped.

Total silence fell, even over Hawthorn. Akane turned a piercing stare directly on Milanda. Her eyes flicked over her once, and her right ear twitched.

“And,” she finally said, the full weight of her disdain filling her voice, “you are…?”

Despite the fatigue still pressing down on her, and the tension of the moment, Milanda had a sudden realization. Her outburst had been born of her own weariness and frustration, yes—some deferred horror from the death she herself had recently caused. But in its aftermath, the pressure of having to adapt and talk her way around this frighteningly powerful being, something snapped into place in her mind.

“Someone,” she said quietly, “who needs your help.”

Akane favored her with a scornful little smile. “Child, I give you credit for brazenness—whatever little credit that deserves. Why in the world do you imagine I would want to help you? I thought I made it plain I am a hair’s breadth from wiping your civilization clean like the stain I consider it to be.”

Walker had just mentioned that Akane had a fondness of drama, but it didn’t seem wise to make a point of that. “I really don’t think you mean that, Akane-sama.” The kitsune lifted her eyebrows fractionally at the formal address, but an instant later the corners of her mouth also tilted up almost imperceptibly. Encouraged, Milanda pressed on. “I understand all this must be shocking and an unpleasant reminder, but I can’t see you as unreasonable enough to take it out on so many uninvolved people. An entire culture.” It verged on fawning, but considering what this creature was capable of, that didn’t seem inappropriate. Hopefully, Milanda was reading Walker’s cues correctly, and her assessment of Akane’s temperament wasn’t too far off…

“An entire culture,” the kitsune said disdainfully. “You are down here, and acquainted with Yrsa; do I infer that you know something of the true history of this world? Something more than people at large have remembered?”

“We’ve had some very good conversations about history, yes,” Milanda said neutrally. “Obviously, I can’t say how much I may not yet understand…”

“Not much, I bet,” Hawthorn muttered. “We should think about calling her Talker instead of Walker.”

“One of my sisters and I are conducting a continuous go tournament,” Akane said, “which has run longer than your entire civilization. I am presently up ninety-three thousand four hundred thirty two games to ninety-three thousand four hundred twenty nine. Child, you are addressing the heir and custodian of the longest uninterrupted cultural lineage in existence. The kitsune have watched over and shaped the continuous prosperity of a society which stretches back long before the settling of this world—a society which was one of the noblest and most graceful cultures to exist on humanity’s birthplace. And you talk to me about culture? You’re a collection of primitives, jabbering in a borrowed language and pantomiming a hodgepodge of long-dead traditions, shaped by forces whose very existence you don’t even imagine. If Tiraas were wiped out this instant, the world would recover and be none the worse for the event in what history would come to record as an eyeblink.”

“Uninterrupted is really stretching it,” Walker said suddenly.

Akane turned a frown on her. “What?”

“Mother turned her back on her own society,” Walker said, “just as all her Order did. She later repented and revived its memories, but that’s definitely an interruption.”

“Pedantry does not suit you, Yrsa,” Akane said irritably. “My point stands.”

“More importantly,” Walker insisted, “there is no possible way an entire culture could survive completely intact after passing through the bottleneck of one woman’s recollections, goddess or no. I know you and the others did your own research in the Order’s files to piece together other fragments, but still—”

“Just who is this girl, Yrsa,” Akane interrupted with a faint smile, “that you’re so concerned for her welfare as to deliberately irritate me in order to draw my focus from her?”

Walker hesitated, glanced at Milanda, then turned her stare back on Akane.

“I have sisters,” she said quietly. “Many lost to me now…some few I can again speak to. And I owe that to Milanda’s intervention. But in all the universe, I have exactly one friend.” She shot Milanda another look, this one with a trace of asperity. “And it’s all I can do to keep her from getting herself killed, without you helping.”

The kitsune actually grinned at her, then turned her head to examine Milanda with more interest, now, and some amusement. “Very well, I’ll consider myself caught. You are correct, young lady—I am not shy about my occasional capriciousness, but genocide is something I would much rather threaten than carry out. Still, my original question remains.” She tilted her head back, her expression aloof now; her ears, though, were alert and swiveled forward, which Milanda interpreted as a positive sign. “Why should I help you? And to do what?”

This called for words to be chosen with great care. If only she were a little better rested for this confrontation…

“If you’ve been investigating the computers here,” she said, “I suspect you have some idea, at least, what this facility does now.”

“Yes, your little…project,” Akane sniffed, pursing her lips in disapproval. “I applaud the ingenuity, at least, but I take a very dim view of your Empire using the Order’s technology for its own benefit.”

“They didn’t just do that, however,” Milanda said firmly. “The Tiraan who first found this place couldn’t have forced the Avatar to move—he chose to cooperate, and to set up this system for them. And now it needs help to be repaired.”

“A curious fact, if true,” the kitsune said with a shade too much disinterest to be believable, “but I am still waiting to learn what this has to do with me.”

“The Avatar isn’t loyal to the Empire,” Milanda said, watching her reactions closely. “He’s following the last directive left to him by Tarthriss: to be of service to the survivors of the human race.” This was what she had just finally figured out, the thing that explained the Avatar’s recent machinations, as well as his entire presence here and willingness to work for the Silver Throne. It was amazing, in hindsight, that she hadn’t put it all together before. “He is doing this because he considers the Tiraan Empire to be good for humanity. At least,” she added pointedly, “in its present form. And that’s the really important thing, here. A government is not its governor; even a benign leader will be succeeded, and eventually a less competent and/or more malevolent one will rise. Having a system like the Hands of the Emperor does a great deal to secure the safety of the Silver Throne while the system works—and while its operator judges that the Throne deserves it. But if he decides it doesn’t, then he has…leverage.”

“What you are suggesting,” Akane mused, still studying her quizzically, “is that I, of all people, should be placed in a position to have that…leverage. I take it you, yourself, are skeptical of this Empire’s beneficence?”

“My loyalty is to the Emperor,” Milanda said quietly. “He tasked me with restoring the Hands to their proper state. But in the end… His loyalty is to the Empire, and to its people. He may not have realized that the Hands were placed in part as a measure to keep the Empire on the right track, but I know him, and I believe he would approve. One lever does not control the Throne, after all. This whole situation has proved the Emperor and the Empire can survive with minimal disruption without them. Even if you don’t trust or care for the Empire, having the ability to neutralize the Hands does not make you a crippling threat to it. But it does make you—and Walker, and the Avatar, and whoever else is involved—a party who can insist on being listened to.”

There was a beat of silence, in which they all regarded each other—most thoughtfully, Hawthorn with a blend of confusion and mounting alarm.

“This is a compromise,” Milanda finally added. “It’s not the ideal outcome I would have wanted. It is, of course, an imposition to ask it of you, Akane-sama. Keeping Walker here is certainly an imperfect balance of her own interests, and even the dryads infer both costs and benefits from their involvement. But I believe this is the best thing for everyone. For us, for the Empire, for the world.”

“I believe you are getting ahead of yourself,” Akane said loftily. “You are correct that I have little care for the Empire. I’m puzzled by your conclusion that I should care for the world itself. I have my sisters and our nation to consider. Nothing more.”

“However,” Milanda countered with a smile, “I am also talking to a being who can erase me with a flick of her tail—but I note that’s not the point you emphasized when challenged. You talked of culture, tradition. Yes, I am gambling, and perhaps I’m wrong… But something tells me you do care about the world. Maybe more than you’ve ever allowed yourself to express.”

Akane stared at her in silence, one ear twitching.

“The Infinite Order are gone,” Milanda said, meeting her gaze. “Whatever promises you made to Naiya to stay on your island… We both know she has not been herself for far longer than Tiraas has existed. She sent you there for your own protection, from threats that no longer exist. It’s not just that, though. The fact is, Akane-sama, you might not find it within your power to wipe out the Imperial capital now. Oh, you’re a threat which could cause unprecedented damage, but… In the century since the Enchanter Wars, the Empire has become something that can neither be ignored, nor unilaterally destroyed, by any other power remaining in the world. Even the dragons have found themselves compelled to come to terms with this. I’m not asking for a pure favor; this is a chance for you to take a hand in the shaping of the world.”

Akane continued to stare for a long moment. Then, unexpectedly, she smiled. “You sound very much like Kaisa.”

“I see,” Milanda said carefully. “Is that…a compliment?”

“Yes and no,” the kitsune said offhandedly. “She is someone whom I dearly love, who frustrates me to no end with her wild notions. You may consider me, for now…tentatively interested. Let us go see what Avatar 01 has to say. This should be quite revelatory; it’s been a very long time since I spoke with him last.”

“Now wait just a minute!” Hawthorn shouted. “This crazy jackass with the tail is not coming to our home! I live there, dang it—my sisters are there! What the crap do you people think you’re—”

She fell very abruptly silent as Akane surged forward, drawing herself up to her full height. Their proximity emphasized that the kitsune actually wasn’t terribly tall, which seemed incongruous, given the way her personality filled the whole room. Physically, though, she needed the extra few inches added by her ears to stand over Hawthorn. Even so, the dryad backed away, staring at her in alarm.

“And just what do you mean,” Akane said in a dangerously quiet tone, “by expressing yourself like a common tavern wench, to say nothing of cavorting about in the nude? The sheer disgrace. You are a child of Naiya, heir to a legacy whose importance you can’t even begin to grasp. Very well, I see we have a great deal of work to do—here, to say nothing of these humans and their little pet project. Henceforth, I shall expect better of you.”

“I—what the—hey!” Hawthorn finally drew herself up to her own full eight, crossing her arms and trying for a haughty expression, which only managed to appear childishly sullen next to Akane’s far more expert poise. “I am a dryad. I do what I do, and I don’t need to explain myself to anybody! Just who do you think you are?”

This time, Akane moved so fast she didn’t appear to move at all. Suddenly, she was just there, her nose inches from Hawthorn’s, without seeming to have crossed the intervening space. The dryad froze, eyes widening; the kitsune smiled, and something in the expression was far more alarming than her previous anger.

“You,” she said in a tone of silken steel, “may call me onee-san.”

Hawthorn stared at her. Then, very slowly, she leaned to the side to peer around Akane at the others. “Walkeeerrrrrrr?”

“It’s out of my hands now, kid,” Walker said with clear amusement. “’Fraid you’re on your own.”

“Enough of this,” Akane said decisively. “We will go discuss these matters with the Avatar—and then, depending in part on what I find there, we shall proceed…” She swept a piercing stare across the room, Milanda, and finally Hawthorn. “…with whatever needs doing.”


In a perfectly nondescript apartment in a lower-class but not too rough neighborhood of Tiraas, an unremarkable-looking man in an uninteresting, inexpensive suit sat beside an open window, a newspaper held in front of his face. Its angle did not obscure his view out the window, or through the windows of the apartment across the street and one story down.

At the sound of footsteps in the hall, he coughed discreetly, lifting one hand to his mouth and making a fist to cover it. The steps, muffled slightly by the carpet, shuffled slightly as their occupant carefully stepped over the stack of newspapers in the hall which had toppled over and partially blocked the way—providing the pretext for her to step in the prearranged pattern. It was the right sequence of steps and pauses, but even so, the man by the window did not lower his hand until she had entered the room and he recognized her face. Only then did he let his arm come to rest on the end table next to his reading chair, removing his fingers from the handle of the wand concealed up his sleeve.

“Evening, Rex,” the woman said cheerfully to the man, whose name of course was not Rex. “How’s the birdwatching?”

“Blessedly dull,” he replied with a bland smile. “The eagle hasn’t left the nest—gods send this is all that’ll happen until this whole business is resolved.”

“Nothing definitive from back at the office on that,” she replied, settling herself into the other chair facing his and positioned next to the room’s other window, “but indications are things are settling down. Whoever’s working on the problem seems to be getting results. The Hands are stabilizing, causing fewer ruffled feathers. Still suddenly popping up where they can’t be, though.”

“Mm. If they can just work out how to keep that new teleporting without having it coupled with them being unstable, that’ll be the bee’s knees,” Rex grunted, tossing his paper down next to the chair and getting to his feet. “Thanks for being early, by the way.”

“No worries—I know you pulled a double. No sense in any of us getting too run-down,” she said, smiling, but not looking at him. Her attention was also not on the book she had picked up and opened, but at the apartment across the way, watched through her peripheral vision. “Grab a few winks, I’ll hold this down.”

“Cheers.”

He strode from the room, betraying none of the stiffness that should be expected of a man who had not moved in four hours. The woman hummed softly to herself, and turned a page. She hadn’t read a single line, of course.

Outside the open window and a few feet straight up, two figures dressed in black were perched on the eaves. Flora and Fauna exchanged a long, loaded look, then in unison turned and bounded away over the rooftops, silent as falling leaves.

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11 – 21

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None of them were totally surprised to be ambushed as soon as they returned to the Guild. Once inside the subterranean passage complex, but long before they reached the Pit, two blonde figures materialized out of a side corridor as if by magic.

“So!” Flora said, raising her eyebrows archly. “We hear you’ve had quite an afternoon.”

“Oh, come on,” Darius protested. “Were you guys just waiting here for us to get back?”

“Oh, please,” Fauna said disdainfully. “You think we have nothing better to do with our time?”

“The ears are decorative,” Flora added, winking, “but not only decorative.”

“We heard you coming as soon as you hit the casino.”

“All right, that’s just ridiculous,” Tallie scoffed. “How sharp can elven hearing possibly be?”

“It’s not the sharpness of the blade, but the skill with which it is wielded,” Flora said sententiously. “Also, you’re ducking the question.”

“You didn’t ask a question,” said Jasmine. “But on the subject of them, what exactly have you heard?”

The elves exchanged a wry glance.

“Well, she’s got us there,” Fauna admitted.

“The word going around,” said Flora, “is that you lot went to Glass Alley, got in a fight with Ironeye’s people, and then somehow fell in with Webs and his little faction.”

“Wait, faction?” Rasha exclaimed. “And who is Webs?”

“Vandro,” Fauna replied. “So…is that not true, or did he just not mention his tag?”

“’strue,” Ross grunted. “What faction?”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s infighting,” Flora said, frowning, “but Alan Vandro is of a theological mindset that puts him at odds with the Boss on many subjects. This is dangerous ground for apprentices to stumble into, guys.”

“With regard to that,” Darius said sharply, “you two were right there when Covrin told us to go find that magic shop. Since you know so damn much about this, a word of warning would have been nice!”

Again, the elves glanced at each other.

“Okay, seriously now,” said Fauna sardonically. “The tip was to go to Glass Alley, find the Finder’s Fee, and ask Sparkler about how dwarves might be tracking you.”

“It’s a big leap from that to getting into an altercation with Vanda Frost and her cell!” Flora added pointedly.

“And quite frankly we’d love to hear that story because how in the hell did you manage that?”

“And why?”

“If you guys have some kind of collective death wish, there are cleaner ways!”

“It wasn’t anything like that,” Tallie said wearily. “Stuff just…happened.”

“Uh huh,” Flora said skeptically. “Well, if you’re gonna be a thief, you can’t be the kind of person stuff just happens to.”

“What nonsense is that?” Jasmine demanded, scowling. “Things happen to everyone. The world is just like that.”

“An Eserite,” said Fauna, “is in control. We cultivate our skills, but more importantly, the mindset to use those skills.”

“You can’t just careen around reacting to stuff,” Flora continued. “You need to have a plan, and the ability to make a plan and enact it quickly, under pressure.”

“If you had been planning, I’m pretty sure you would not have ended up on Vanda Frost’s shit list after one encounter.”

“We’re crediting you with a certain amount of basic common sense, there, but hey, if we’re wrong…”

“Isn’t it cute how they can be assholes even when they’re been helpful and commiserative,” Darius said wryly.

“Kind of an Eserite thing, innit?” Ross grumbled.

“Well, look, anyway,” said Fauna, “we’ll wanna hear this whole story straight from the source, as it were, but you’d better not put off facing the music.”

“Style is gonna have things to say to you,” Flora said ominously. “It’ll be that much worse if you make it seem like you’re avoiding her or trying to weasel out of it.”

“Go right up to her, take your lumps, and don’t complain.”

“For the gods’ sake, don’t act submissive or meek, she’ll really tear into you if you show that kind of weakness.”

“But if you just take responsibility like grown-ups and don’t make excuses, Style won’t be any harder on you than she feels she has to be.”

“She’s ham-fisted and has zero patience for bullshit, but she is fair, and all the stuff she puts apprentices through has a purpose.”

“That’s why she’s given such an active role in apprentice training. That’s not a traditional duty for the head enforcer.”

“Hm,” Jasmine mused. “I’ve noticed that about really good teachers.”

“Like alchemy teachers, for example?” Tallie said sourly.

Darius cleared his throat. “Yeah, well… Much as I’m sure you ladies would love to stand around bickering, I say we respect the wisdom of elves. In all the stories, people who don’t listen to elves end up royally screwed. Right, Ross?”

“Wisdom of elves,” Ross grunted. “Plain common sense, more like.”

“That’s the spirit,” Flora said with a grin, patting Rasha on the shoulder.

“To the gallows with head held high!” Fauna crowed, saluting them.

“That’s extremely helpful, thank you,” Jasmine grumbled as the group filed past them, continuing on their way to the center of the complex.

Despite the apprehension which hung over them, the sounds of the Pit were pretty much the same as always for the time of evening. It was semi-quiet, a good number of the apprentices being in the dining hall, whose open doors contributed most of the ambient noise. There were people training, though, as was nearly always the case. And, as usual, a handful of Guild members were about, either passing through on some business of their own or loitering to watch the apprentices.

Several glanced at the five of them as they approached, and one even offered a nod of greeting, but their expressions were disinterested. If any of them had heard any rumor regarding this one group of apprentices, they gave no sign.

“I guess that’s positive,” Rasha mumbled as they filed down the steps to the base of the Pit. “I half expected everybody to be anticipating our demise.”

“What a delightful turn of phrase you have, Rasha,” Darius said with a sigh.

“No reason they’d all show it overtly,” said Tallie. “Weren’t you listening to the elves? Eserites are supposed to be controlled and careful.”

“Eserites are frequently assholes,” Rasha countered, “if you haven’t noticed. Somebody would be gloating if there was reason to.”

“Yep,” Ross agreed. “Wasn’t really our fault, anyway. Maybe it won’t be so bad.”

“WELL WELL WELL.”

No sooner had they reached the bottom than Style appeared at the top of the stairs opposite, glowering at them, and began stomping down. She was attired today in an actual chain mail tunic, with heavy leather gauntlets and boots, her belt bristling with pouches, weapons, and tools; it was an obvious nod to the wandering adventurers of yesteryear, floppy hat and all. Her expression, however, did as much as her booming voice to bring a halt to all conversation and activity in the Pit.

“And just when I was thinking my brand-new ass-kicking boots haven’t had a chance to be properly broken in,” she said loudly, stalking across the floor toward them, “lo and behold, I’ve got a gaggle of apprentices trying for the intramural stumbling fuckwit championship. Truly, the gods are goddamn beneficent!”

“You jinxed us,” Darius hissed, jabbing Ross with an elbow. “You, of all people!”

“There are certain formalities to be observed,” Style said, coming to a stop right in front of them and folding her brawny arms. She was taller than any of them, even Jasmine, and more powerfully built than any but Ross; the sheer physicality of her presence would have been intimidating even were it not for her glare, which looked like it could shatter glass. “Before we get to the yelling and smacking that we all know is coming, I’m going to offer you a chance to spin your side of this. Just in case it turns out you don’t all deserve to get your bells rung, and because none of you little bastards are crafty enough to weasel your way out of this with wordplay. So?” Her glower intensified by an order of magnitude. “Explain.”

“Uh…” Darius winced, and glanced aside at the others. “What have you heard?”

Style’s bulky physique made it seem she should only have been able to move slowly; this was clearly not at all the case. She clapped Darius hard on the side of the head with an open-handed swat that sent him staggering before it seemed possible for her to have un-folded her arms.

“I’d really hoped it was obvious from context,” Style growled, “but this is not the time for you to be getting clever. I’m not gonna repeat myself; if you don’t have a masterful fucking explanation for this towering cock-up, we’re gonna proceed straight to the entertaining portion of the evening.”

“We went to Glass Alley,” Tallie said quickly, “following a tip from a Silver Legionnaire that the magic shop there could provide some insight into how a group of dwarves has been following us around. Just about as soon as we got there, we met a friend of ours, Schwartz, who’s a Salyrite…um, fae user. He was getting attacked by some, uh, local residents.”

“Go on,” Style said grimly.

“Well, we were gonna jump into that,” Tallie continued, “but…it sort of became unnecessary. Ironeye showed up with her entourage and kicked everybody’s ass. And we talked to her briefly and since we weren’t doing anything wrong, she let it go without even saying much of anything to us, so, you know, we figured that was pretty much that.”

She paused, glancing at Rasha, who looked like he was preventing himself from shrinking into his own pockets by sheer force of will. “And then Rasha asked her for directions to the Finder’s Fee.”

“You asked,” Style enunciated carefully, turning the full weight of her baleful stare on Rasha, “Ironeye. For directions.”

“…seemed like she’d know the district,” he said hoarsely.

Style smiled thinly without actually diminishing the strength of her frown, which was a terrifying thing to behold. “Rasha, there’s a point to be made here about common goddamn sense, but I have to say, this is evidence that you do not lack for balls. Quite frankly I was beginning to be concerned about that. Irrespective of any other destruction I have to heap on you, here…kudos for that.”

“Well…great,” he muttered.

“Anyway.” Style turned her attention back to Tallie. “Since you’ve designated yourself the narrator, continue. You asked Ironeye for directions.”

“Right,” Tallie said, nodding. “And then she sent us into a fucking trap. We got locked in a room. So…we broke out of it. And Rumor and Gimmick were right outside, and we left with Gimmick.”

“Hmmm.” Style dragged out the grunt until it was nearly a hum. “All right, well. This is why I ask questions before cracking heads together—take note, those of you who’re going into the enforcement business. What I’ve heard is from Rumor, which was a deliberately incriminating pile of hints and vagueness about you causing trouble in Glass Alley. Nothing that actually contradicts this account, she merely implied otherwise—which was kind of what she does. If your story is true, for Ironeye to throw you in a cell just for being on her lawn was way over-the-top, and I’m gonna have fucking words with her about the treatment of other people’s apprentices. If I have to go down there and find out that this story is not true, the world of hurt you little shits are in for will make what I planned for tonight look like the gentle fondling of your virgin true love. So, with that established…” She tilted her head back, staring down her nose at them. “Would you like to modify your story any?”

“That’s what happened,” Tallie said stubbornly, clenching her fists. “Ask her. If she tells you otherwise, ask Gimmick.”

“And Herschel Schwartz,” Jasmine added quickly. “You can find him through the College of Salyrene pretty easily, I bet.”

“Mm hm,” Style said, still staring down at Tallie. “And is there anything you, in particular, would like to add?”

“Oh.” Tallie winced. “Well, uh, you know. When we got out, Rumor was, um, standing around outside the place where we’d been locked up. And I sort of punched her.”

They were reminded of the presence of multiple onlookers by a general in-drawing of breath and one low whistle. It was a startling reminder, to judge by the way Rasha jumped; Style had a way of dominating the scene to the exclusion of all else.

“Uh huh,” Style replied in a very even tone which was far more terrifying than her previous shouting. “Wanna explain your thought process, there?”

“Well,” Tallie said defensively, folding her arms, “by that point I was sick of getting the runaround from assholes, and she was continuing to be a smug, aggravating pain in the ass.”

“And that,” Style said calmly, “in your mind, is grounds for a sucker-punching.”

“She was party to what you admitted was abusive behavior toward us,” Tallie said, her voice climbing half an octave. “Aren’t we supposed to not take shit from people abusing their power? That’s the whole point of this cult, isn’t it?”

“Child,” said Style, “as an enforcer I am, among other things, a student of human behavior. Your posture and tone show me very clearly that you know you’re in the wrong, here; indignation over unjust treatment looks very different. Since you’ve been here less than two weeks, I’m not gonna call you down for your sad fucking lack of a poker face. However, keep in mind that I am a highly-ranked officer in this cult. Now, do you really think standing in front of me and twisting Eserion’s sacred principles around in a way that gets you off the hook for your own dumbfuckery is a smart thing to do?”

“Uh.” Tallie outright cringed. “Well—”

Again, Style unfolded herself almost too fast to observe. Her fist slammed into Tallie’s midsection, doubling the girl over and sending her staggering backward, where she would probably have fallen had Jasmine not caught her. Before Jasmine could get a good grip, however, Style seized a handful of Tallie’s hair and hauled her away from the group, unceremoniously tossing her toward the open center of the Pit.

Tallie staggered, wheezing and bent over with both arms wrapped around her middle, but she kept on her feet.

“I’d have hoped most of this was obvious, but since I was clearly wrong, I’m gonna explain,” Style growled, stalking toward her. “In detail. First, revenge is a science, which you will be expected to understand and master before you’re done getting trained.”

Tallie tried to straighten up, at which moment Style jabbed her hard in the collarbone with the heel of her hand, sending her staggering again.

“The purpose of retaliation,” the enforcer continued, “is to influence the future behavior of someone, and not necessarily the person being retaliated against. That means you need to approach it strategically: set out your goals, form a plan, and enact it carefully. Lashing out at someone who’s offended you is inbred orc behavior, not at all befitting a member of the Thieves’ Guild.”

This time, Tallie had enough wind back and the presence of mind to raise her forearm to try to block the slap Style aimed at her head. With lightning precision, the larger woman switched to her other hand, clapping Tallie across the ear and sending her crashing to the ground with a yelp.

“Second, if you have a problem with the way a Guild member corrects your behavior, you come to me. If you’re whining and wasting my time, you’ll suffer for that, but if you have been legitimately abused, they will. I’ll not have assholes mistreating my apprentices. That is my prerogative.”

She folded her arms again, staring coldly down at Tallie, who huddled on the floor, seemingly afraid to try getting up again. “And finally, you do not assault members of this Guild who outrank you. Once you’re initiated and tagged, you have a lot of free reign in this cult. We’re not big on ranks in general. Your dipshit little friend Pick could walk up to the Boss himself and ream him out, and while that kind of numbnuttery has consequences, there’s no official protocol or mandatory ritual punishment. But that’s for people who have earned their way into Eserion’s Guild. You are just some kid. We’re seeing if you’re worth elevating to membership, but right now? You have no privileges here. You will treat Guild members with respect…”

She unfolded her arms and began stalking forward. “Or I will treat you like a fucking kickball!”

And suddenly, Jasmine was between them.

“That’s enough.”

Style halted, staring almost quizzically at her. “Kid. I am disciplining an apprentice, here. Only one person present gets to decide when it’s enough. You wanna venture a guess who that is?”

“This isn’t discipline,” Jasmine said flatly. “This is you picking on someone weaker than yourself who can’t fight back.”

“This is the consequences of her insubordination, thoughtlessness, assault, and general wasting of my time,” Style replied in the same tone. “And you are getting some leeway here because standing up to power and supporting your fellow thieves are things we want to encourage, but you had better think about what the consequences will be for you if you fail to butt out.”

“I keep hearing Eserites talk a big game about standing up to bullies,” Jasmine spat. “But I keep seeing Eserites being the biggest bullies themselves! From Pick treating apprentices like poorly-trained dogs to Ironeye using magical ordnance on impoverished—”

“That’s your problem, Jasmine,” Style interrupted calmly. “You fail to discern the difference between those things—and whatever other examples you’re about to spit out, including this situation right here. Pick is a smug fuckhead who will be disciplined for his behavior. Ironeye has earned credibility and the benefit of the doubt, and even not knowing the story I know her well enough to be certain whatever she did was deserved by whoever she did it to. Your new best friend Webs doesn’t sharpen his claws on people who don’t have it coming, either, and believe me you’ve no idea the cruelty that man is capable of. We do what’s necessary, and when we fuck up, we get held accountable. Just like you’re about to be.”

“Necessary,” Jasmine sneered. “It’s funny how it’s always necessary for you to throw your weight around, isn’t it?”

“Jas, don’t,” Tallie whispered, reaching up to grasp her leg.

“You’re smarter than this,” Style said evenly. “I get that you came here to work through some of your own stuff, but I expected you to know better than this. You’re picking a fight you don’t need, girl. This is not the place for cries for help. Now get out of my way, Jasmine.”

“It’s okay,” Tallie wheezed, dragging herself back to her feet. “It was my fuckup, I’ll take it. C’mon, don’t make this an issue…”

“Don’t do that,” Jasmine said, turning her head to give Tallie a sidelong look. “You deserved that first punch, Tallie, not this. Don’t make excuses for someone who outranks you to kick you while you’re down. That wouldn’t make you much of an Eserite, would it?”

“Child,” Style said almost sadly, shaking her head, “you don’t know what ‘down’ is. I was really hoping I wouldn’t have to be the one to show you. You and me are gonna talk about this, Jasmine, and that’s not a euphemism. This shit needs to be worked through, and I’ve got time and the ears to lend you. But right now you need to back off.”

“Then,” Jasmine said, turning back to face her fully and shifting to a more balanced stance, “you need to back me off.”

The silence in the Pit was absolute; no one even breathed. Even the cafeteria had gone still, apprentices clustering in the door to stare out at the scene unfolding.

Style sighed heavily. “Aw, kid… You just had to.”

She lunged with the same impossible speed, but Jasmine was not Tallie. Lacking Style’s size and muscle, she didn’t try to deflect the punch fully, instead stepping inside the reach of Style’s arm with the same blinding agility, pushing the attacking hand just slightly off-course and launching a counter-jab at Style’s throat.

Style seized her wrist and swiftly spun in a full circle, tearing Jasmine out of her balanced stance and finally hurling her aside. Apprentices scattered out of the way as Jasmine careened into the wall by the pickpocketing dummies. Despite the disorientation she’d been subjected to, though, she remained adroit on her feet, instantly regaining her poise and actually kicking off the wall to lunge back at Style.

In the intervening second, though, Style had continued forward and met Jasmine head-on with a haymaker which the smaller woman barely avoided taking full in the face. Style’s fist grazed her skull, but even as she staggered past, she managed a knife-handed jab directly into the enforcer’s armpit. It was an excellent strike, the kind of blow that could possibly have rendered her right arm temporarily numb and useless, had Style not happened to be wearing chain mail.

It was Jasmine who let out a yelp of pain.

She retreated as Style came relentlessly after her, deflecting another jab and aiming a kick at Style’s knee. The enforcer merely shifted just enough that Jasmine’s boot struck her on the thigh instead, which didn’t slow her a whit.

Her next punch caught Jasmine hard on the jaw. She reeled, her martial skill suddenly useless in a blind daze, but Style didn’t give her even those seconds to regain her equilibrium. Grabbing Jasmine by the hair with her left hand, she hauled her around and past herself, at the same time bringing her other fist up in a vicious uppercut that landed square on Jasmine’s solar plexus. The air went fully out of her in a hoarse croak, and she dropped.

The whole exchange had taken less than ten seconds.

“You assume a lot of things,” Style said coldly to the girl kneeling at her feet, presently unable to breathe. “For example, that I’m in my position for reasons other than my ability to kick ass. You’re good, kid—amazing, even. I am better. This was not the way you should’ve learned it.”

She grabbed Jasmine’s hair again, hauling her upright, and once again slammed a fist into her belly, then hurled her to the stone floor.

“Stop it!” Tallie shouted fruitlessly.

Jasmine was too dazed even to catch herself, hitting the floor in a disjointed heap. She was only there for a moment before Style’s boot impacted her ribs, flipping her fully over.

“I legitimately hate this,” Style snarled. “Beating down some fucker who deserves it? Oh, that’s satisfying. But you, kid, you just had to push me, in public, in the worst way. This is all so fucking pointless.”

At the final word, Style stomped hard on Jasmine’s upper back, slamming her down into the floor just as she’d been trying feebly to rise. Jasmine let out a croaking sound and spat a mouthful of blood.

Tallie arrived in a clumsy slide, hurling herself bodily over her fallen friend.

“Enough!” she shrieked. “What’s wrong with you?! You’re killing her!”

“No.”

Everyone’s gaze shifted at the speaker, a new arrival on the scene.

Tricks, the Boss of the Thieves’ Guild and high priest of Eserion, was descending the steps into the Pit. He was a diminutive and plainly-dressed man who’d not have garnered a second look from any random passerby on the street, but those present knew who he was.

“Style is too good at her job to kill someone who doesn’t need it,” he said calmly, striding over toward his chief enforcer. “Or to hurt them one bit more than she intends.”

He came to a stop, gazing down at Jasmine and Tallie. Jasmine coughed, spraying a few more droplets of blood onto the stone floor, and the Boss sighed, then lifted his head to pan his gaze around at the silent apprentices standing on all sides.

“So. Who can tell me what our Miss Jasmine did wrong, here?”

More silence followed. Style folded her arms again, her expression pinched and unhappy.

“She challenged Style,” said Darius, his voice startling against the quiet. He was pale and looked shocked, but his tone remained even. “Publicly, in front of the people whose respect she has to keep. Against the chief enforcer, who can’t be seen as soft. And she refused multiple offers to back down.”

“Well done,” Tricks said with an approving nod, pointing at him. “We are thieves, my apprentices, but not just thieves. What we do is for a purpose, and we cannot achieve that purpose merely by redistributing wealth. That’s been tried, and it simply never goes anywhere. Eserion’s cult is about understanding what moves people, and using that understanding to move them. We’re as heavily invested in social comprehension as the Izarites or Veskers. As such, you cannot afford to act rashly. You must identify a need to act, form a plan, and proceed toward its completion with a cool head. Otherwise…”

He sighed sadly, again turning to gaze down at Jasmine, who had been helped to her hands and knees by Tallie and seemed not to have the strength or wind to rise further. “Quite apart from failing your god, you will very often find yourself bleeding on the floor.”

Tricks let the lesson sink in for another second before continuing.

“Tallie, take her to the doc. And the rest of you,” he added, turning to where Rasha, Ross, and Darius were clustered at the foot of a staircase, “go with them. I’ll be wanting to speak with you kids before you turn in tonight. Style, I’ll talk to you in a bit. I need to tend to something before finishing this.”

He patted the towering woman on the upper arm; she gave him a curt nod, then resumed watching Tallie help Jasmine slowly to her feet. The enforcer’s expression was unreadable, but her broad shoulders shifted gently in a sad sigh.

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11 – 16

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“Will you relax?” Tallie said with open amusement. “You look like you’re walking to your execution.”

“Sorry,” Rasha said automatically, not relaxing. It wasn’t as if he could just do so on command.

“Hey, man, your personal welfare aside, there’s a strategic issue at play, here,” Darius remarked. “You go walking up to a potential mark looking like you’re terrified of getting arrested, and what do you think is gonna happen?”

“Well, I’m sorry!” he snapped. “I’ll get used to it; this is my first time out, after all. It’s not like I’ve ever stolen anything before!”

“Stolen?” The two elves were walking at the head of the group; Fauna turned to raise an eyebrow at them. “You’re not about to steal anything, either.”

“Uh, what?” Tallie asked. “I thought were were gonna be out practicing.”

“Practicing, yes, but not stealing,” said Flora. “Picking a pocket is the smallest kind of job, but it’s still a job.”

“And nobody here is a fully ranked member of the Thieves’ Guild,” added Fauna.

“Which means us pulling an actual job is asking for an ass-kicking.”

“You don’t do jobs without the supervision of an actual Guild member. I’m positive you guys have been told that.”

“Well, yeah,” said Darius, “but I thought that’s the reason we were out with you, who are actually just apprentices like us so now I get it and I feel pretty dumb. It’s a warm, comfortable feeling.”

“Good,” said Tallie kindly. “The first step in solving your problems is admitting that you’re dumb.”

“I only said it so you couldn’t,” he retorted with a grin. “Seriously, though, what are we doing out here if we’re not gonna be actually stealing anything? Practicing what, I guess is the question.”

“There’s a lot that goes into rifling pockets beyond the actual doing,” Flora replied. “You’ve got teachers, fellow apprentices, and pocket dummies back at the Guild to practice that; we’re going to be experiencing the factors that involve being out in the environment.”

“Putting them together,” Fauna added, “will, as we said, be done under the proper supervision.”

“To begin with,” said Flora, “target acquisition. Here we are.”

They came to a stop and moved adroitly to the side around a corner, where both elves leaned casually against the nearby wall. It was a smooth and well-practiced maneuver, and would probably have been quite unobtrusive had they not been elves, not to mention one being garbed in ostentatious black leather and the other in a dramatic cloak. Still, the other three apprentices clustered together on the sidewalk corner, doubtless looking even more consciously out of place.

The street they had been following was a minor one, but a straight avenue which formed one of the “spokes” radiating out from the center of the city toward the walls (though that particular street didn’t happen to connect with either). Only a few of the buildings they had passed had doors or storefronts facing it; for the most part, it was used as a route between other streets. Its traffic thus moved more swiftly than that on the street onto which they now stepped, but it was altogether less crowded. This street curved away toward the northwest, vanishing out of sight a few dozen yards ahead, and was thronged by pedestrians, the only vehicles in sight being enchanted carriages parked and serving as stalls or food trucks. In fact, even the storefronts here were partly obscured in many cases by vendor stands. This was a shopping district—and, to judge by the general shabbiness of both the stores and shoppers, a far from upscale one.

“First step in finding a target,” Fauna murmured just loudly enough for them to hear, “is to go where they are. Places like this are good starting points when you’re new.”

“Your more upscale shopping districts have richer marks and better hunting,” said Flora, “but that’s a higher-stakes game. Those folks have a general attitude that they shouldn’t have to suffer inconveniences such as thieves, and the police tend to support that view.”

“On the other hand,” Fauna continued, “poorer districts have the opposite problem. Easy pickings, but often not even worth the picking.”

“Do they always do this?” Rasha muttered. “It’s like watching a vaudeville show.”

“Nah,” Tallie said easily. “Vaudeville’s more fast-paced, and both of ’em would’ve fallen down by this point. Tandem-talk is just a schtick. Positively Vesker, even Vidian.”

The elves chose to ignore the byplay. “Once you’ve settled on your hunting grounds,” said Flora, “then you start looking for targets. Take your time, stroll around, browse. It is not a race.”

“Haste makes you clumsy.”

“Clumsy gets your ass nabbed.”

“Slow and easy, breathe deeply, make yourself relax.”

“If you’re too stressed, you’re going to make the kinds of mistakes you can’t afford.”

Tallie and Darius turned and looked pointedly at Rasha, who sighed.

“Look around,” Fauna urged. “Who jumps out at you first?”

There was a pause, in which the three apprentices edged closer to the wall, beside the senior two, getting out of the way of foot traffic while they studied their surroundings. The group drew pointed looks from passersby, and all but the most distracted made a deliberate effort to keep out of arm’s reach of them. A couple even crossed the street after eyeballing them once. Whether anyone suspected them of being thieves was an open question, but at the very least, they were a gang of somewhat scruffy-looking youths, led by two oddly-dressed elves. Any city-dweller would instinctively avoid them.

The very avoidance gave them a good vantage from which to study people, though.

“There—” Rasha started to point as he spoke, but broke off when Flora slapped his hand down.

“Don’t do that, dumbass,” she said in an affectionately amused tone that took some of the sting out of the words. “When you’re stalking or just looking for a mark, don’t ever, ever let on that you’re paying them any attention.”

“Uh, right,” he said sheepishly, rubbing his wrist. “That’s…basic common sense, sorry.”

“You’re new,” Fauna said kindly. “Sometime we’ll have to tell you some of the dumbshit moves we pulled in our first week of training.”

“Let’s not,” Flora demurred, grimacing. “Who were you looking at, Rasha?”

“Well—look, he’s almost out of sight now. The guy in the nice coat, holding the package, see? Looks like he already has money, and he’s been shopping. Might have better stuff in his pockets than just coin.”

“Hey, well spotted,” Fauna said approvingly.

“I saw him too,” Darius said with ostentatious hauteur. “I just wanted to give you the chance to speak up.”

“Shut up, Darius,” Flora ordered without heat. “However, Rasha, don’t try to steal from that guy. That’s Lacquer, one of the best at this particular business. Some Guild thieves will generously take the time to break your fingers if you try robbing ’em. That one will simply report you to Style.”

All five of them winced in unison.

“Wait, so he’s Guild?” Tallie said in tones of fascination. “Huh. He looks so posh!”

“Voices low,” Fauna reminded her. “This is somebody’s cover we’re talking about; that’s the next best thing to sacred. Professional courtesy, at the very least.”

“And yes,” Flora added, “I trust you can imagine why looking a little fancier than the general run of the crowd would be useful in this game?”

“Nobody’s gonna be watching for him to be after their purse,” Rasha mused, nodding.

“It’d make you a mark for other pickpockets,” Darius added, “but then again, if any who may be operating know you…”

“The package is a nice touch,” Tallie said, grinning. “Wonder what he bought.”

“Guys like that serve a purpose beyond making their own rent money,” said Fauna. “Non-Guild thieves do exist, and places like this are where they’re most likely to start out. A big part of why the Guild is tolerated by polite society is that we keep a firm lid on that shit. Lacquer does cut purse strings, yes, but he’s also a kind of patrolling enforcer.”

“And so the marks come to him,” Darius noted with a grin. “Damn, that’s a good racket.”

“Man knows his business,” Flora agreed. “Anyhow, Rasha shows good instincts. You’ll get to know faces and tags with time, kids; don’t stress about that too much at this juncture. For now, signs of wealth are a good first indication.”

“There are others,” said Fauna. “You’ll be doing a fair amount of people-watching on excursions like this, and you’ll develop instincts concerning who can and should be targeted. People’s body language can tell you a lot.”

“Such as?” Rasha asked.

“How alert they may be,” Flora replied. “Whether they’re likely to fight, or call for help.”

“But ‘go for the rich ones’ sounds like a generally good plan to me,” Darius said blithely. “They’re the assholes who deserve it, aside from having the money.”

Flora and Fauna exchanged a long look.

“What?” Darius asked, peering back and forth between them.

“Yeah, what?” Tallie added a little belligerently. “Is he wrong?”

“Yes,” Fauna replied firmly. “The short answer is ‘yes.’”

“The longer answer,” added Flora, “is that you’re skating close to some thin ice with that kind of talk.”

“The Guild’s philosophies do predispose us to target people with wealth and power, because those are often the ones who need to be taken down.”

“But ‘often’ isn’t ‘necessarily.’ Start to think the rich invariably deserve a takedown because they’re rich, and you’re in the realm of class warfare. That gets…messy.”

“Have you two had a lot of interactions with rich people?” Tallie demanded, folding her arms. “Because growing up as I did, those were always the ones who picked on little guys like us. And got away with it.”

“In point of fact, we have,” said Fauna. “Working under Sweet, we get to meet all kinds of people.”

“That’s our bias, by the way,” Flora added. “Apprenticing under a sponsor inevitably means you get heavily trained in their methods, and pick up at least some of their worldview. Sweet’s view on the rich is that they’re exactly as likely to be abusive toward others as anyone else, but having resources just means a greater chance of pulling it off without repercussions.”

“Wealth,” Fauna said firmly, “is not evil. Correlation is not causation.”

“The best advice we can share is that you should never get caught up in what other people deserve. There’s really no way you can know; that’s a very big question.”

“Jobs are jobs, and the Guild isn’t in the business of crusading. When we go after someone to administer much-needed humility, it’s for a specific reason, owing to something they’ve done.”

“Not something they are, or have.”

“Hnh,” Tallie grunted, looking dissatisfied.

“Well, how’s about you go first,” Fauna suggested with a sly little grin. She shifted, scanning the slowly passing crowd. It was nearing the lunch hour, and business in the market street was increasingly brisk, to the point that even their little bubble of privacy was diminishing as the press of people meant no one had time to give them especial attention. “All right, don’t stare. Across the street, about six yards north. Guy in a suit and a coat more appropriate for a typical Tiraan winter than what’s actually happening.”

“I see him,” Tallie said, leaning back against the building and stuffing her hands in her pockets. Her eyes cut sideways to fix on the target Fauna designated, though she kept her head shifted slightly the other way.

“All right, first trial,” Flora said in a lightly conversational tone. “You’re to go up—boys, stop gawking at the mark!—go up and touch his coat, just above the pocket.”

“Just touch,” added Fauna, “without drawing his attention. Don’t put your fingers in, and above all do not take anything.”

“Really, that’s it?” Tallie said condescendingly. “You call that a trial?”

“Crawl before you run, kid,” Flora retorted in the same tone. “Go on, get moving. He’s getting away.”

The designated mark, indeed, had finished acquiring a portable meat pastry from the stall and was heading off up the street. Tallie paused only to wink at her group before setting off at a long-legged lope. A few yards up, she crossed the avenue to the other side, and began closing in on her target from behind.

The two elves straightened up and started moving, leaving the boys to trail along in their wake; they kept to an idle, dawdling pace, seemingly peering at stalls and window displays as they passed, and only glancing at Tallie’s progress occasionally and surreptitiously. Rasha and Darius, after exchanging a look, tried to follow their example. To judge by some of the looks shopkeepers gave them, they weren’t entirely successful.

Tallie had begun rooting around in her pockets as she approached her mark, muttering to herself and scowling. Making a show of clear distraction, she brushed against the man in passing by. He halted in bringing the pastry to his mouth to give her an annoyed look; she offered a quick apology and a little smile before pushing on ahead.

A few more yards up the street, sighing loudly in frustration, she stopped in the mouth of an alley and took off her jacket, growling and carefully going through its pockets. The mark gave her a disdainful look as he passed.

Just after he did, Tallie “found” what she’d been looking for—a comb—and paused to straighten out her hair, which didn’t particularly need it. Then she continued on her way at a much more languorous pace.

Another half-block along, she stopped in the mouth of another alley, where the rest crossed the street to meet her.

“Not bad!” Fauna said, clapping her on the back. “Good routine! Most people on their first try don’t think to have a cover; getting close to someone is much easier if you provide a reason they won’t question.”

“I note nobody mentioned that before sending her off,” Darius commented.

“Well, the point is to see what you kids know,” Flora replied with a unrepentant grin. “What’s the use in just telling you beforehand?”

“Yeah, well,” Tallie said with clearly false modesty, “I can’t say I’ve ever tried stealing before, but I know a thing or two about looking more harmless than I am.”

“Ahh,” Darius said sagely. “So only half the things I’ve heard about circus folk are true.”

“Darius, one of these days I’m gonna stab you right in the nuts.”

“You know, honeybunch, you don’t have to keep making up these violent pretexts. If you wanna get your hands on my nuts, all you’ve gotta do is ask nicely.”

“Shh,” Fauna said curtly. “Trouble.” She and Flora had both gone suddenly, rigidly alert.

Before the junior apprentices could get a good start at looking around, the man in the expensive coat came stomping right up to them, pastry dangling forgotten from his hand.

“All right, what did you take?!” he demanded, glaring at Tallie.

Her eyebrows shot upward. “Excuse you?”

“I know what you did!” he snapped. “You’d better hand it over before I go for the guards!”

“Whoah, now, wait a second,” Darius said nervously. “There’s no need for—”

“No, no, this is fine,” Tallie said, folding her arms and glaring at her erstwhile mark. “I don’t know what crawled up your butt today, but check your pockets. Go on, check thoroughly. If you come up with anything missing, I’ll let you search mine. Otherwise, I’m gonna want an apology.”

“Don’t give me that,” he retorted. “You kids are thieves!”

“You accuse everybody you meet of being thieves?” Rasha demanded. He glanced quickly at the two elves; oddly, only the three human apprentices seemed to be trying to deflect their accuser. Flora and Fauna were standing like statues against the wall.

“Is there a problem here, ladies and gentlemen?”

All of them turned to face the new arrival, a man wearing an Imperial Army uniform and a no-nonsense expession.

“Yes!” barked the man with the pastry. “This little wench stole my—um—”

“As I was about to say, officer,” Tallie drawled, “this character just walked up and started throwing around wild accusations. I’ve yet to hear exactly what it is he thinks I stole.”

“I see,” said the guard, turning to study the man in question. “Sir, are you missing any possessions?”

“I—she brushed up against me! She did it quite deliberately!”

“That’s as may be, sir, but it’s not what I asked you,” the guard replied. “If something of yours has been stolen, we can address that. If you’re just going to complain about people brushing against you close to noon in a crowded shopping district, I’ll have to ask you to stop creating a scene.”

That brought the complainer up short. There was an extended silence while they all watched him shuffle awkwardly through his own pockets, keeping the grease-stained fingers of his left hand well out of it. After checking and finding his coin purse and a few other personal items, he finally stopped, looking sheepish.

“I…well, I guess I was mistaken.”

“Uh huh,” Tallie said pointedly. “Now, about that apology?”

The guard cleared his throat. “If there’s nothing else, sir, please move along.”

“Hey,” Tallie protested, while the well-dressed man hurried away up the street with his head down. “I wasn’t done with that guy!”

“Yes, you were,” the guard retorted firmly. “Are you kids apprentices with the Thieves’ Guild?”

They all froze, looking to the two elves for guidance. Flora and Fauna were both watching a point across the street.

“What if we are?”

“You can’t prove that!”

“There’s no law against—”

All three of them tried to answer at once, then broke off, wincing.

“I see,” the guard said dryly.

“Don’t avoid that question,” Flora ordered. “Being in the Guild is not illegal, and denying it is just suspicious.”

“Sorry,” Fauna added to the guard. “They’re new.”

“Uh huh,” he said, plainly unamused. “Regardless, I think you should move along, now. You’ve had enough fun here for one day.”

“Hey,” Rasha snapped, balling his fists. “We weren’t doing—”

“Shut it!” Flora barked. “We’ll continue this conversation later.”

“As soon as the guards are involved, playtime is over,” Fauna said just as firmly. “Don’t argue with them, and there is zero valid reason for you to be making fists in a policeman’s presence. Simmer down.”

“Come on,” Flora ordered, straightening up and beckoning them curtly. “Do as the nice man says.”

The patrolman continued to watch them closely as the elves led them away up the street; this time, they were also followed by the gazes of nearly everyone in earshot. Fair or no, it appeared their practice had indeed been cut short, and not because the guard had told them so.

“Okay, what the hell just happened?” Tallie hissed. “I know that guy didn’t feel me touch his coat—he’d have said something at the time if he did!”

“You’re right,” Fauna said curtly. “You did fine. But we heard someone tell him that we were Guild—same voice that fetched the guard while that guy was approaching us.”

“And systematically informed every shopkeeper in a ring around us while we were dealing with that,” said Flora. “And there he is.”

This time, she made no bones about blatantly pointing.

Directly across the street from them stood a dwarf with a neatly-trimmed reddish beard, wearing a dapper suit. Seeing the elf pointing, he turned to face them directly, offered a knowing smile and politely tipped his hat to them. Then he turned and strolled away up a nearby alley.

“Follow him!” Fauna barked.

Instantly, both elves took off at a run, which carried them out of the way nearly before an outcry could develop at the sight—and aside from the inherent spectacle of elves moving at high speed, Flora’s billowing cloak tended to catch attention. They were swiftly gone, however, each vanishing into another small alley up and down the street, respectively.

“Oh, hell yes,” Tallie growled, stalking off after the dwarf as directed. Darius and Rasha followed, equally grim-faced.

Their quarry was not far away. Despite having a head start on them, he had been stopped just a few yards up the alley. Flora and Fauna had already converged there, but were hanging back; it was not they who had intercepted the dwarf and held his attention.

“Excuse me,” he said politely, his Svennish accent faint but distinct. “You appear to be blocking the path.”

“Yes,” the Silver Legionnaire standing in front of him said curtly. “And you appear to be meddling in things that don’t concern you.”

Flora and Fauna, standing behind the Legionnaire, exchanged a look, their expressions openly confused.

“Young lady, I haven’t the slightest idea what—”

He broke off as she raised her lance, aiming the tip directly at his face.

“We could play that game, but you’d win,” the young woman snapped, “so I’m not going to. You are making life difficult for these apprentices in an effort to put pressure on them to comply with your demands. You then led them into this alley and allowed them to intercept you so you could make your demands in privacy.”

“That’s quite a tale,” he said calmly. “I don’t suppose you have anything resembling evidence to back that up?”

“Shut up,” she retorted. “We’re not doing this. You are going to back down, and think carefully about how I intercepted both them and you on such short notice. You must be pretty confident to risk the ire of the Thieves’ Guild, but no matter who you work for, you don’t want to have both the Guild and the Sisterhood after you. The last political entity to get caught between them was the Tiraan Empire, in a little tiff called the Enchanter Wars. I assume you know how that ended?”

“Are you threatening me?” The dwarf sounded merely curious.

“I wasn’t,” she replied, stepping forward and forcing him to retreat, or get poked in the nose with her weapon. “Now I am. Clear your ass out of here while it’s only got one hole in it.”

“I hardly think this conduct is befitting a Silver Legionnaire,” the dwarf said, moving no further. “I wonder what your superiors would say?”

At that, the soldier grinned, broadly and very unpleasantly. “Well, don’t wonder. Go learn for yourself. I’m Private Covrin, personal aide to Bishop Syrinx. Right now I’m going to let you leave here and drop this little gambit, but if you push me, I’ll go right to the Bishop with this. And by this time tomorrow, you’ll have the full strength of the Guild, the Sisterhood, and Imperial Intelligence pursuing every aspect of your business. Possibly the Veskers, Salyrites, and whoever else owes her Grace a favor, just for shits and giggles. Is that what you want? All those people…examining you?”

They locked eyes, both ignoring the thieves standing around looking on.

Then, oddly, the dwarf cracked a smile. He took another step back, then bowed slightly to her, doffing his hat. “Well. What an intriguing day this has turned out to be. I’ll bid you all good afternoon, then.” He turned and made his way back toward the alley entrance, having to stop after only three steps. “Excuse me, please.”

Tallie, standing at the head of the trio, folded her arms and stared down her nose at him.

“Let him through,” Flora said quietly.

Tallie sneered, but edged aside. Darius snorted and leaned against the alley wall, out of the way; Rasha just curled his lip and refused to budge, forcing the dwarf to edge around him.

Silence reigned until he was out of the alley and around the corner.

“Well, this just gets more and more interesting,” Fauna said pointedly, staring at Covrin. “Not that we don’t appreciate the help, but…”

“But you’ll be wanting to know what the hell is going on here,” the soldier replied distractedly, her attention on the other three. “This group is missing some people.”

“So, uh.” Tallie cocked her head to one side. “You’re with Locke’s squad, then?”

“No,” Covrin said heatedly, then moderated her tone. “No. Let’s put aside the question of me for a moment. In your position, I’d be wondering just how that dwarf managed to be on you so quickly. You haven’t been away from the Casino that long; the Guild is heavily warded against arcane scrying, and it patrols its environs too well for anyone to safely set up watchers at its entrances. So how’d he find you?”

“How did you?” Rasha demanded.

“The same way, I expect,” Covrin replied with a cold little smile. “In Glass Alley there’s a magic shop called the Finder’s Fee. The answers you need most immediately are there; look for a Guild member with the tag Sparkler who works there. I suggest you gather the rest of your group, first, and maybe don’t wander off by yourselves any further. I don’t know who those dwarves are, exactly, but they’re a capable group. You don’t need them picking you off one by one.”

“Why the hell do you kids have dwarves after you?!” Flora exclaimed.

“It’s, uh…” Tallie winced, glancing aside at the boys. “Complicated.”

“Well, no shit,” Fauna said acidly.

“Right now,” said Rasha, “I’m most curious about how you come into this, Private Covrin.”

“Any organization the size of the Sisterhood of Avei,” she replied, “has factions, agendas, schisms… People mistreating power and undercutting each other. All systems are corrupt, or so I hear.” She gave that a moment to sink in before continuing. “Whatever other problems you guys have, you’ve had the bad luck to be caught up in an internal Sisterhood power struggle. Locke is a shifty one who never does anything with only one agenda. And Bishop Syrinx is dangerous in a way that even your trainers probably don’t want to cross. I’ve got a feeling you two may know a little bit about that already,” she added, turning toward Flora and Fauna.

The elves folded their arms and narrowed their eyes at her in perfect unison.

“Still waiting to hear your part in this,” Tallie prompted.

Covrin turned back to face them, her eyes intent and suddenly almost fervent. “I can help you know what’s going on, who’s attempting what, and why. Right now you’re acting blind. If you know who the players are, though, you can play them. Or at least, keep them from playing you. Which you’d better believe they are doing right now.”

“And what do you get out of this?” Darius asked with uncharacteristic seriousness.

“Later,” Covrin said curtly. “Get your friends, go to Glass Alley, find out how you’re being tracked. That’s my offer of good faith. When you know I’m good for it… Maybe I’ll have a favor to ask in return. But don’t take too long about this. None of you are any use to me if you get knifed in alley or carried off by dwarves.”

She turned, paused at the sight of the two elves, then shoved roughly between them. Neither made any attempt to inhibit her, just turning to watch her go with eyes still narrowed suspiciously.

Covrin did not turn to look back as she vanished into the dimness beyond, but her voice carried nonetheless.

“Watch your backs.”

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