Tag Archives: Finchley

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She bolted left. It was no dilemma, really; soldiers she could deal with, at need, but not a dragon. Milanda was far from sanguine about the way the dryads’ “gift” completely took control from her, but whatever intelligence governed the change clearly believed she was not prepared to take on a dragon, and she was inclined to agree.

The doorway was a momentary setback, with both her hands full as they were, but luckily the double doors didn’t latch. She hooked the wand through one of the handles, tugged it open, and slipped through.

Inward-opening doors, she noted. The mess hall wasn’t intended to be a defensible fallback in case of attack, which might be worth remembering if she had to flee back in this direction. On the other hand, this had been an Omnist temple, and who knew how much the Archpope had redecorated…

But that was all the time she could allot to introspection, because her escape had brought her right into an oncoming group of soldiers.

Four of them, all with staves. They had already been on the way to investigate the noise she’d made, which was to her benefit as their weapons had the longer range—they were close enough to the doors that her situation wasn’t automatically hopeless. Less to her benefit was that these were clearly well-trained fighters, in contrast to the armored Holy Legion who patrolled the Grand Cathedral, which Intelligence had reported were easily flustered and unprepared for real combat. These troops hesitated barely a fraction of a second at the sight of a masked, cloaked figure bursting out of their mess hall before bringing up their weapons.

Once again, Milanda sprang, unwilled, into action, dragged along for the ride by her own body.

Augmented as she was, her hand was faster than theirs. Two quick bursts from her wand took down the soldiers in the lead, the pair who had a clear line of fire at her. Uncannily precise shots, in fact, the beams piercing one through the upper arm and the other through the shoulder, in both cases swiftly eliminating their ability to aim. The second man squeezed his trigger even as he staggered, a lightning bolt scoring the wall and floor as his staff swung wildly from his suddenly limp grasp.

For a moment, she dared to hope these new enhanced reflexes knew the meaning of restraint. They had been designed for bodyguards, after all…

But then she was moving again. Milanda dashed toward them, leaped into the air and kicked off the wall, vaulting over the troops at a wild angle. The second pair stumbled back from her even as they tried to bring their own weapons to bear; one actually fired, though in his haste the shot went nowhere near her.

Unbidden, her thumb flicked the switch on the Infinite Order sword, and she slashed it in a single neat movement before deactivating it again, prompting a yelp of surprise—and pain?—from one of the soldiers.

Milanda landed behind them and continued up the hall at a dead run, leaving confusion in her wake. Her body was still aimed forward; she was helpless even to turn her head to inspect the results of her work. Maybe…hopefully that slash had just been to wound.

She whipped around the corner, barely in time. Behind her, an explosion powerful enough to make the stone walls shiver ripped through the hallway, sending a gout of smoke and a shockwave across the intersection.

There hadn’t even been a scream. There hadn’t been time.

“What was that?” Walker demanded.

“I don’t—something blew up!” Apparently she was out of immediate danger, because Milanda’s augmentation shut itself off so suddenly she staggered. She quickly caught herself and kept running. This hall was straight; she was now moving away from the central complex where the “high-value assets” lived. Life signs left and rear of her. There were more above, but they were likely to be civilian Church personnel. If Walker didn’t come up with directions to that mage, perhaps she should try for a more mundane exit.

“Things don’t just blow up,” Walker snapped. “Milanda, if someone down there has explosive ordnance, it’s immediately relevant to your safety. What happened?”

“I don’t know! This—this enhancement just takes over. My body moves and I can’t control it, I don’t even know what it’s thinking!” At least it worked, she added silently. At least twice already tonight she’d have been swiftly killed had she been working only with her own reflexes.

“Think.” Walker’s tone was more even, now, and Milanda found to her own surprise that it helped ground her. “Did a trap spring? Did a soldier throw something? What was the sequence of events?”

She passed another side hall and skidded to peer down it. Damned reflexes clearly didn’t help her find a path… After a second’s deliberation, Milanda continued on the way she had been going. It was taking her father from the center, which meant it was leading toward the edge. That would be a logical place to find stairs.

“Four soldiers intercepted me,” she recited as she ran, not even slightly out of breath. “I shot two before they could fire, jumped over the group. Turned on the sword and swung it once, didn’t see what it hit. Two of them fired back, missed me. I hit the ground and kept running, and when I got around the corner, something behind me blew up.”

“Uh, excuse me,” said Finchley’s voice, “but am I correctly guessing from context that this sword you’re talking about is a magic item? Something that can cut through walls?”

“Yes,” Walker said curtly, “and unless you have something constructive to offer—”

“Actually I think I do, ma’am. If you cut off part of the staff’s firing length, that would mess up its runic engravings. Attempting to fire it after that would cause unpredictable results. One possibility is the whole power source could blow.”

Milanda swallowed heavily. “Hell… I was sort of hoping these gifts would try to minimize harm. They clearly shot the first two to disable their shooting arms, not kill.”

“A lightning wand may completely destroy its target,” Moriarty recited in a clipped tone, “but a more precise one such as you’re using inflicts pinpoint wounds. A soldier pierced through a vital organ could still fire straight, possibly several times, before falling. Hitting the arms is more tactically sound.”

“Oh,” she muttered.

“All right, good,” Walker said calmly. “They’re not using bombs. I have a fix on your mage, Milanda. You’re running away from him. He’s back toward the center of the complex.”

“Of course he is,” Milanda spat. “Can you still see the layout of this place?”

“Not in real time, but I very much doubt they can change the architecture on the fly. I have a map.”

“Good.” She slid to a stop in a T-intersection, glancing left and right. “I’m in what I think is an outer hall. Can you just direct me to an exit? I can probably get through whatever token guard’s above more easily than a mage.”

There was a moment’s hesitation before Walker answered. “Milanda, there’s only one stairwell out of the underground complex. It leads to the sub-level of the ziggurat, which leads back to the main temple floor. The exit is very nearly on the opposite side of the whole place from your position. You are considerably closer to the mage. He or she is in a much more central location.”

Milanda glared at the wall for a moment, then peevishly flicked on the sword and gouged a smoldering rent in it.

“Please don’t do that. The ship has probably sailed, but the less evidence of that thing you leave behind, the better.”

“How can you hear it?” she growled, tucking the again-inert weapon into her belt and turning to pelt back the way she had come. “You can’t hear people talking, but that—”

“Produces a distinctive and deliberately augmented electromagnetic buzz which is rather distracting when I am trying to listen to your voice. The quickest path to your mage is to take a left at the next intersection.”

She stopped in the intersection in question. “No good. Dragon’s in that general direction. Get me an indirect path.”

Another brief pause. “Very well. Continue straight, then go right.”

Milanda did so, noting glumly that she was moving right toward a sizable clump of troops. Several of them were heading in her direction as well. It was hard to tell, viewed from this angle, with these senses, but it seemed they were executing a pretty orderly search pattern.

And the dragon had changed direction. He was moving in no great hurry, but clearly moving, and despite the zig-zagging of his course mandated by the halls, he was clearly heading right for her. How did he… But of course, if she could sense him, the reverse was almost certainly true. She was blindly fumbling to grasp the very school of magic he had spent countless years mastering. Why did it have to be a green dragon?

“If I’m correctly guessing based on context,” said Moriarty’s voice, “are you using some kind of combat-enhancing alchemy with which you aren’t familiar? Because that’s incredibly dang—”

He broke off with a grunt, followed by a brief, muted scuffle.

“Sorry about that,” Rook said cheerfully. “You’ll be glad to know I have confiscated the pedant’s talky-thing. He can have it back when he learns some basic goddamn social skills.”

Milanda paid no attention to them, nor to Walker’s scathing rebuke. Gods, she’d just killed four men…

She ruthlessly squashed the queasiness that tried to well up at the thought. Estranged or not, she was a daughter of Viridill, practically raised in a temple of Avei. This was war; it was kill or die. She’d known what she was risking by coming here.

“Left here. Left! Milanda, you missed the turn!”

“Major concentration of troops to the left,” she said curtly. “Lucky I got past without—”

“Halt!”

“Damn it,” she spat, at both the interception and the increasingly familiar loss of bodily control which followed it.

Without breaking stride, she spun in a complete circle, squeezing off two wandshots back the way she had come, then continued forward. There was a long groan from behind her, but she kept running, not bothering to glance back.

“Next left feels more clear,” she said. “Will that do?”

“It’s a start, but you’re letting them herd you away from your objective. Milanda, they probably think you’re making for the stairs, and these troops don’t seem to be amateurs. You won’t be able to avoid fighting.”

She wasn’t afraid to fight. She wasn’t even afraid to die, though she worried about leaving her business unfinished, the Hands still corrupted and Sharidan vulnerable. But she was rapidly becoming sick of this new gift of hers. Being forced to passively watch herself go on murderous sprees was a kind of horror she’d been totally unprepared to deal with.

“I suggest you aim for a smaller patrol, if you can sense them that acutely,” Walker advised. “Between your equipment and your enhancements, you can probably—wait. There’s a disruption in the wards in that hall, Milanda. Heading for you!”

Once again, she didn’t sense it immediately, needing Walker’s prompt to heighten her alertness and reach out with her mind. When she did, though, she felt the approach—too late. A weight landed on her back scarcely an instant after she felt the distortion closing in on her; an arm wrapped around her throat.

Milanda reflexively spun and bucked, but even as precisely as she moved, the creature now on her had advantages she did not. A spade-tipped tail coiled around her leg, yanking her off balance, and the beat of powerful wings filled the hallway. There wasn’t room to fly, and her weight would probably have prevented it anyway, but the succubus had enough lift to neatly deprive her of footing, which eliminated the lion’s share of what she could do about someone clutching her from behind.

She tried to throw the creature off, tried to reach behind and grasp her, but the demon was apparently as agile as she, even enhanced as she was. She squirmed and evaded every attempted grab. Not nearly as strong—Milanda was already prying her arm away one-handed—but strength wasn’t everything.

“I really don’t like it when people shoot me,” Kheshiri hissed next to her head, and plunged Milanda’s own throwing knife into her midsection.

She grunted with the blow; the tunic’s ironweave enchantment held, at least to the extent of preventing the blade from penetrating, but it was still a sharp point driven into her stomach. Had her abdominal muscles not been already clenched right then with the effort to dislodge her attacker, that hit might have driven the breath from her. It still hurt, and worse, no enchantment could make cloth as good as armor. Repeated blows to the same area would penetrate, possibly as soon as the second one.

“Then you’re really going to hate this,” Milanda snapped, grabbing the sword from her belt.

Even using herself as a yardstick, the succubus’s reflexes were freakishly fast. No sooner had she ignited the glowing blade than the weight vanished, one pump of those spiny wings sending the demon shooting away from her up the hall. Milanda spun and fired three times with her wand; Kheshiri was invisible again, but she could sense her location well enough to aim generally. She wasn’t nearly as close as she’d been in the central chamber, though, and “generally” apparently wasn’t good enough at this range. Focusing as she was, she could sense the fiend’s invisible retreat for a few more yards until distance blunted her senses. Enough to know she’d gotten away cleanly.

Damn it all. Couldn’t one thing go right?

“What happened?” Walker demanded. “Are you all right?”

“Fine,” she grunted, putting the sword away again. “Succubus jumped me. I swear I shot her through the chest earlier. How fast can they heal?”

“Not that fast,” Walker muttered. “Could there be more than one down there?”

“Ugh…at this point, nothing would surprise me. Here, left, right? I mean, correct?”

“Yes. And remember, the mask you’re wearing is enchanted to make you inaudible except to nearby co-agents wearing its siblings. Trash-talking your opponents will be a complete waste of time. I mean, more than it already is. They can’t hear you.”

“Right,” she mumbled grimly, racing up another hallway.

She was now heading for the soldiers. Not right for the biggest concentration, but a group that felt like at least a dozen was moving to link up with the smaller group directly in her path. She kept going; Walker was right. The longer she let them maneuver her around, the closer she came to disaster, and there were much worse things than troops down here. If she was here much longer, either the dragon would catch up—he had adjusted course again and was moving for her once more—or that succubus would get in a lucky shot. Milanda didn’t believe for a moment that the demon had been scared away for good.

The hall ended in a door, which she slammed into without bothering to turn the latch. The impact barely stung her shoulder; thanks to the dryads’ gifts, the door itself was no impediment at all, bursting right off its hinges.

Thanks to those gifts, breaking the door down was the last conscious control she had.

The space beyond was clearly an armory; racks of wands, staves, and swords lined the walls, as well as cases filled with neatly stacked charms. Five soldiers were present, all holding staves, three of which were in the process of being assembled after having their power crystals checked. That meant three of the hostiles were obviously no threat.

Milanda’s reflexes obviously did not give a damn.

She fired the wand as she rushed them, taking down both armed soldiers—lethal shots, throat and heart—before she closed with them, by which point she had ignited the blade again.

Cutting those men down was like swinging it through the air, for all the impediment they were to the sword. It didn’t matter even whether it moved through the soft points of anatomy or bones that would have stalled a metal blade.

One swipe cleaved a man diagonally across the chest, separating his arms even as it bisected his torso; he fell without a scream, having no lungs with which to draw breath. The last edge of that slash neatly removed the next soldier’s left arm, and he did scream, which Milanda could not ignore the way her body did. The last man had just enough time to register what was coming and try to back away before she slashed the sword through him vertically. Not quite in half; he fell apart as he fell, but his torso was still connected near the hip.

It would be a very long time before she stopped hearing the sounds he made in her head.

The sword hadn’t so much as tugged in her hand. Flesh, stone, air, it was all nothing.

Wide double doors stood at the other end of the room. Milanda was still moving under the power of her augmentation rather than her own will, still sensing the larger cluster of troops heading her way. She neatly flicked the tip of the blade through the latch and burst through the doors.

This was a wider hallway, a main thoroughfare. In fact, she had circled a full quarter of the way around the complex, and found herself in one of the central access halls that led directly to the big central chamber. By going straight, she could lose herself in the corridors again, but coming at her from the left were the soldiers.

Please…

“No no no!” she said fruitlessly as she neatly turned on a toe and lunged right into their formation.

Three staves were discharged, one in a clearly panicked misfire that scorched the ceiling. One shot was more professional, but still missed her, the weapon’s owner having a bad angle. The third hit directly, and would have been a killing blow—she highly doubted the defensive charms on her clothing could stand up to a weapon of that caliber at this range—had she not brought the blade up to intercept it.

Milanda had barely a moment to boggle at the absurdity of deflecting a lightning bolt with a sword. This hit hard enough to be a real concern, but her new reflexes adapted. She pivoted with the blow, preventing the weapon from being ripped out of her hand by spinning in three full circles as she continued to come, dispersing the kinetic energy and also ensuring that she hit their formation in a blinding whirl of unstoppable destruction.

She was fast, methodical, and thorough. Men screamed and died, mostly in far too many pieces. The width of the hall and the panic induced by her attack meant some managed to get out of her way to the sides; those she shot with the wand in passing. It took only seconds to cleave through the entire group of a dozen, but that was enough time for the last man in the formation to turn and flee. He had made it a few yards back up the hall, shouting for help, before Milanda deftly kicked someone’s arm after him at just the right angle to trip and fell him, and then experienced the very peculiar sensation of her enhanced reflexes bodily preventing her from vomiting into her own mask.

He stumbled to the ground, presenting a perfect target. She shot him in the back.

And only then regained control.

Milanda stumbled to a halt, numb. Not everyone behind her was dead; not everyone had lost the ability to scream. Someone was, and others were moaning. She couldn’t force herself to turn and look. There had been no blood. The horrible thing seared as it struck, cauterizing instantly. No one bled, they just…came apart. As easily as tissue paper.

A smell appallingly like fried pork hung in the air.

In her hand, the sword was still activated, glowing fiercely and filling the space with its powerful hum. The sound, now, struck her as hungry. As if it would never have its fill of carnage.

Her vision blurred as she glared at it in pure hate.

Belatedly, Milanda realized the sound in her ear was Walker frantically asking if she was all right. Even more belatedly, she realized she was weeping.

“I’m here,” she croaked, rubbing an arm—her wand arm—across her eyes. “I’m fi—I’m still alive. Gods, Walker, they just… I. I just… It’s like they weren’t even there, it’s…”

“Milanda.” Reassured that she wasn’t wounded, Walker’s tone reverted back to a deliberate calm. “Milanda, you need to keep moving. You are not out of danger.”

Milanda drew a shaky breath, nodded at no one, and finally pressed the switch. The sword hissed angrily at its dismissal, but the silence which followed was like a physical weight being lifted from her. She set off running again, fleeing the sounds of her victims.

“Good, you’re closer now. Keep going, you’re looking for a smaller hall on your right, two crossings up.”

She kept silent, simply following directions. Behind her, life signs gradually flickered out in a cluster in the central hall. Farther still, the dragon kept coming.

He reached the aftermath of her slaughter, and stopped.

It was only another minute before Walker announced that the door in front of her was the one. Milanda made one brief, abortive movement with the sword, then lowered it again and shot the latch. Had it even been locked? The roaring in her head was interfering with her ability to think…

This was clearly a ward control center. Arcane equipment stood all along the walls and in stands in the center of the rectangular room; the walls themselves were laid out with maps, as well as vertical spell circles. Static hung heavily in the air, as did the soft hum of magic in use; the whole space was lit by a gentle blue glow, needing no fairy lamps.

That hum, that glow, reminded her far too keenly of the detestable thing in her hand.

In front of her stood a middle-aged woman in a white uniform, her hair graying and face faintly lined, staring at Milanda in shock. After a moment’s hesitation, a blue shield flashed into place around her.

“No closer!” she barked, holding out a hand.

Milanda gritted her teeth, pressed the switch. The mage’s eyes flashed to the ignited blade, widening in disbelief.

“Y-you are under arrest!” the wizard stammered unconvincingly. Why didn’t she just attack?

Of course. She was actively maintaining a ward over the whole complex, and now a personal shield as well. It would take an archmage to add combat magic to that without suffering an aneurysm.

“Drop the wards,” Milanda ordered, pointing the blade at her. “Now.”

“Milanda,” Walker said.

“Do it!” she shouted, taking a step forward. The mage retreated, her shield bumping against a construct of brass pipes and glass filaments, causing a shower of sparks. “Remove the wards! Gods, please, no more. Don’t make me do this!”

“Milanda,” Walker said gently. “He can’t hear you. And you mustn’t remove the mask. If he sees your face…”

“She,” Milanda whispered.

Walker hesitated only a moment. “It doesn’t matter. You can’t—”

She let out a scream of wild, helpless fury, and slashed the hateful blade through the nearest object. It shrieked like a boiling lobster, propelling fragments of glass in all direction and only miraculously not costing her an eye. She spun, flailing wildly with the sword, cutting her way through anything she could see that glowed. Sparks and arcs of free electricity flashed—

And then she was gone. Everything was gone. Milanda careened to a stop, her eyes darting around.

She was standing in the teleport array, in the Infinite Order spaceport.

“Whatever you just did, the mage dropped the wards,” Walker said in her ear. “Hold on, I’ll be there as quickly as I can.”

Milanda nodded, despite the futility of the gesture. She had fallen still, and stared down at the glowing, humming blade hanging numbly from her hand.

She was still staring at it however many minutes later Walker arrived.

The fairy approached her carefully, placing one hand on her shoulder. When Milanda didn’t respond, she very gently reached out to take the sword from her, and pressed the switch.

Silence thundered around them.

“Could…” Milanda cleared her throat, tugged the mask down. “Could you. Um. Do something with that. Please? I…don’t want to see it again. Ever.”

Walker gazed at her quietly for a moment, then tossed the silver hilt over her shoulder. It landed with a clatter and skidded into a corner, which they both ignored.

“I’ll get it later,” Walker said quietly, then drew her into an embrace.

Milanda let herself be pulled, and after a moment, relaxed into the hug, her arms hanging limply at her sides.

“I killed them all.”

Walker stroked her hair.

“It was…so easy. Too easy. It should never, ever be that easy.”

“You need to rest,” Walker stated. “Come on. Let’s go back to the barracks.”

“I can’t sleep. Not…not for…”

“Come on.” Gently, but inexorably, the fairy pulled her toward the steps down to the lower level.

“How…” Milanda swallowed painfully. “How did…you deal with it? All the killing you’ve had to do?”

“It has taken a long time,” Walker replied. “I was alone, though. You aren’t.”

“You were right. I should never have taken that thing.”

“It probably saved your life. Yes, Milanda, I know. We’ll leave it behind, and be more careful from now on. But for now… Come on. Eat, bathe, and we’ll talk.”

Unresisting, she allowed herself to be led from the room.


The teleport array was silent behind them for a moment. Before the motion-activated lights had had a chance to shut off, though, a shape stepped out of the air on one of the inactive transport pads.

Kimono swishing softly, triangular ears laid back in disapproval, she glided across the pad and down the steps, then toward a corner of the room, where she bent and picked up the inert saber, her bushy tail twitching irritably.

“Silly children.”

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12 – 40

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“And that’s the perimeter secure,” Rossiter said, heaving a sigh. “On we go.”

“Don’t look so glum,” Alsadi replied as they rounded the corner into the interior halls. “It’s probably nothing, same as always.”

“I’ll look glum if I wanna,” she said without ire. “’Sides…”

He echoed her sigh. “Yeah, yeah. I know.”

Everything and everyone in this sub-level below Dawnchapel was a secret of the highest order, but at least the soldiers of the Holy Legion—the true Holy Legion, veterans trained by Colonel Ravoud, not the shiny-armored popinjays who served to attract attention in the Cathedral—could take off their white uniforms and visit home. They were all fully devoted to the Archpope and his cause, and thus far there had been no breaches of security from them. The others down here, though, were either too distinctive, or too hunted, to show their faces outside except on assignment. There had been no assignments for far too long a span of weeks, and several of them were growing increasingly restive. Mostly the ones whose personalities hadn’t been much to speak of in the first place. Which was most of them.

No sooner had they entered the ring of halls circling the central underground complex than Rossiter’s worst fears were born out.

“Lot of running hither and yon all of a sudden,” Jeremiah Shook commented idly, lounging against the wall with his hands in his pockets. Had he encountered such a man on the street, Alsadi would have gripped his weapon and increased his pace—or, if he’d been on duty, stopped to demand an explanation for his presence. Everything about the guy screamed thug, which was an aspect Shook cultivated deliberately and with skill. Not that it did him much good down here. “What’s got you lot so stirred up, hm?”

He addressed himself directly to Rossiter, allowing his eyes to flick below her collar for a moment, though at least he had the restraint not to give her the full once-over. This time.

“An irregularity in the wards, sir,” Rossiter replied with admirable composure. “There’s a possibility of incursion. The squad is doing a full sweep.”

At that, Shook straightened up, his leer vanishing. “What? Intruders? Why wasn’t I told?”

“It’s almost certainly nothing,” said Rossiter. “This has happened before, usually caused by a telescroll passing overhead in just the wrong way, or a nearby factory firing up new equipment. It’s common; wards are finicky in a city with this much active enchantment. You and the high-value assets are safe, rest assured.”

Not, Alsadi noted, you and the other high-value assets. Rossiter had spoken completely deadpan, but he knew her well enough to know the omission was deliberate. His own face betrayed a smile, though, which made him the focus of Shook’s glare. The man tensed up, bunching his fists and flushing, as if somebody had just insulted his mother. What a charmer.

“We need to continue our sweep and report in, sir,” Alsadi said politely, saluting. “Good evening.”

He and Rossiter turned and marched off down the hall. He had half-expected Shook to follow and try to make something of it—which wouldn’t have been the first time—but there was no sound of footsteps from behind them, thankfully.

“Gods, I hate that guy,” Rossiter growled once they’d rounded the corner. “What’s he even doing down here? The others I understand, but he’s just some sleazy…”

Alsadi gave her a sympathetic look. She was the only woman in the unit attached to Dawnchapel, which, Shook being Shook, made her the frequent focus of his attention. The Holy Legion suffered the same imbalance as the Imperial Army, but far worse: most women who wanted to be soldiers enlisted in the Silver Legions. The Army was barely forty percent female, and the Holy Legion less than one in ten, since women who were of both martial and religious inclination especially preferred the Silver Legions.

“At least the succubus leaves you alone,” he offered. “She’s tried to get in everybody else’s pants. I don’t think she even wants to, really. She’s just bored.”

“I never thought I would hear myself say this,” she grumbled, “but I don’t have a problem with the demon. At least she keeps him busy. Anyway, she can probably tell I don’t go for girls; I think they have special senses for—”

Alsadi barely registered the black blur that sped at them from behind, crashing into the side of Rossiter’s head and sending her careening off the wall, before an arm was wrapped around his throat, cutting off his airflow and clamping down. He gripped it desperately, but his attacker had the strength of an ogre. Not the weight, though; he was able to shift, trying to throw the assailant, but they moved with astonishing deftness, compensating for his every motion. Not they, she—pressed against his back as she was, he could tell that much, though all he could see was the tip of the elbow clutching his neck. Frantically, he tried to shift his staff to aim behind at her feet, and it was deftly wrenched from his grasp and tossed away. As sparks and darkness encroached on his vision, he scrabbled for his sidearm, only to find his wrist pinned. Gods, she was strong…


Milanda released the soldier, letting him slump to the floor. White uniforms…this was new. They had an understated ankh insignia at the breast, so she was clearly looking at Universal Church personnel.

“Did you hear any of that?” she asked softly, trusting the mask to muffle her voice. Vex had issued them four; the black wrap which concealed everything below her eyes was enchanted so that anything spoken into it could be heard only by someone wearing one of its siblings. Between that and her Infinite Order earpiece, she was audible to the rest of her team and no one else. In theory.

“Uh…maybe a scuffle of some kind?” Finchley’s voice offered. “You okay?”

“As I’ve mentioned, the earpieces are designed to obscure anything but your voice,” Walker replied with her customary calm. “Not perfectly, but… What happened?”

“I overheard some soldiers talking,” Milanda replied, moving lightly back up the hallway in the direction from which they had come. “There’s a succubus down here.”

“Holy shit,” Rook muttered. “On the list of the top ten things an Archpope should not be screwing around with, that’s gotta be numbers two through six!”

“Seems your hunch was right, then,” Finchley added.

“Clear this channel, please,” Walker said curtly. “Milanda, think about disengaging. The only thing you know about that facility is that what’s down there crushed the core of the Black Wreath when they invaded it. Just the intelligence you’ve gathered so far is important. I can have you out the moment you give the word.”

“That’s what makes the difference,” Milanda murmured. “The Wreath couldn’t escape; their shadow-jumping was blocked at the time. Vex says this is where Justinian’s keeping his dark project, and it’s darker than we imagined. Be ready to teleport me out, Walker, but I want to learn more if I can. And possibly break some things.”

“Need backup?” Moriarty offered.

She grimaced behind the mask. The thought of those three loose down here was not comforting. So far, she hadn’t come up with an actual plan for them, though they’d already proved useful to her in keeping in contact with Vex while she visited the old spaceport for supplies.

“Not at the moment,” she said aloud, creeping up to the corner and peering around. No sign of whoever the two soldiers had been talking to. There were living beings present, though, including one which felt remarkably similar to the dryads; she had to get a look at that, at bare minimum. Milanda could have pointed to them in a straight line, but there were walls intervening, and she didn’t know the layout down here.

She had minutes, at most, before this got very exciting. There were two unconscious soldiers lying behind her in the hall, while the facility was apparently in the middle of a security sweep. The only question was whether they’d wake before they were discovered.

Milanda padded swiftly up the hall, silent on enchanted boots. Vex had provided absolutely top of the line charms on all the gear, including actual invisibility cloaks, though ironically she hadn’t been able to bring one of those as the rest of the enchantments she was wearing messed up its function. The cloak she did have on was a more limited version, bearing a chameleon charm; so long as she stood completely still, she would blend into the background, but in motion she became visible again. That was one of the problems with over-reliance on enchantment. The more powerful they were, the more likely to interfere with each other.

She came to a broad doorway, its double doors standing open, and paused for a moment to let the chameleon charm activate before carefully peeking around the frame. Moving slowly enough made her a barely-visible blur; if someone were looking right at the door, they might still spot her, but it was better than nothing.

Beyond lay a very wide circular chamber, its center slightly lowered. It looked like a stadium, actually, which made sense as the Dawnchapel had once been an Omnist temple. Now, though, it had clearly been retrofitted as living quarters, with furniture and decorations scattered about. Doors branched off from multiple sides, with wide double ones in each of the four cardinal directions and smaller ones in between. She sensed living beings behind several of the small ones. So…broad doors leading to outer halls, narrow doors to attached rooms or suites, most likely.

A man in a suit stood next to a bar/kitchen arrangement with his back to her, in the process of mixing a cocktail.

Milanda took stock of this for a bare moment, then slipped inside, moving slowly to remain partially obscured, and dividing her attention between the man with the slicked-back hair and her sense of the lives around. She headed toward the door behind which lay the blazing beacon of fae power; she very much needed to learn what that was. If Justinian had a dryad of his own, her situation with Hawthorn and the others could become complicated.

The shortest path there took her uncomfortably close to the man in the suit, but she kept to it for the sake of speed, watching him closely and prepared to freeze instantly if he turned. It was odd, considering the danger she was in, how calm she felt. One of the gifts of her new status, maybe?

She was so focused on her objective and the surrounding threats that she very nearly missed the other presence in the room.

It was different—subtle, too, difficult to notice, and not life so much as…its inversion. Not like Walker, though. It was its movement that gave it away, and Milanda paused, not turning her head, but focusing her attention. Something off-kilter and wavery was creeping through her perceptions right toward her.

The succubus.

Grimacing behind her mask, she considered her options. The demon clearly knew she was there, and was coming in for a stealth attack. By the same token, the succubus apparently didn’t realize she’d perceived her. Milanda had the element of surprise and was physically more than a match for the creature, she was sure. But engaging would draw attention… Could she get to her objective first? No, the demon was too close, and drawing closer. If there was a fight, the object of her focus might come out to investigate anyway… But if it was something related to dryads or comparably powerful, having it come after her was a very different proposition than sneaking up to peek at it.

Bollocks. Well, any dead demon was progress on behalf of the world, especially if this one was important to Justinian.

Among her equipment was a variety of weapons. Milanda considered them for a moment before deciding to try for one last hope of subtlety.

Knife-throwing wasn’t favored in Viridill, being associated with rogues and ruffians rather than honorable warriors, which was exactly why she had practiced it in her rebellious youth.

Augmented as she was by the craft which made the Hands of the Emperor, the act of snatching a knife from behind her belt and hurling it was so fast even an elf would have been hard-pressed to dodge the attack. That, however, was the extent of the good news. The rapid movement collapsed her stealth, snapping her back into visibility—just as the guy in the suit turned to bring her into his field of view. The succubus, also, was no elf, and while Milanda had never read that children of Vanislaas were noted combatants, her presence in Milanda’s ethereal senses rippled and shifted, and the knife flashed harmlessly past.

“What the fuck!” the man snarled, and despite his phrasing, it was not a question.

Then he dropped his freshly-mixed drink and whipped out a wand, and Milanda lost all control of her body.

Without deciding to move, she was moving, hurtling toward him in a flying leap and spinning about in midair, causing her cloak to whirl dramatically about her. Two wandshots—clean white beams of light, not lightning bolts—flashed at her, but she had successfully distorted her appearance with her approach, and neither connected. Not with her, anyway; both pierced the cloak, and Milanda heard the soft but distinctive crackle of enchantments being disrupted.

So much for stealth.

She landed on him, neatly grabbing him by the wand arm and whipping herself around in a kind of reverse throw, hurling her body instead of his, so that she landed behind him with his arm still in her grip. With, in fact, her hand covering his, and squeezing his finger on the trigger.

Milanda, far stronger than he, shifted minutely, firing the wand at midair. The succubus dodged again, but beams of light were not so easily evaded as thrown knives. With a shriek, she popped into visibility as she spun around, pierced right through the chest.

Would that kill her? Did they even have organs? She was sadly unfamiliar with demonology.

“Kheshiri!” Milanda’s captive shouted. “You fucking who—”

The rest of his imprecation was lost as she shifted her grip, spinning in place, and hurling him forward over her shoulder. He impacted the wall back-first, upside down, and slid down to land on his head before collapsing in an ungainly heap.

Finally, she froze, staring about in near-panic. She could never have moved like that. No one could move like that. Scuffling with the dryads had been one thing; this was a total loss of control. Her body just reacted. It had surely saved her life, but it was not an experience she had enjoyed.

Her moment of frantic introspection cost her.

One of the doors burst open, catching Milanda’s attention and bringing her focus back to the other life signs nearby.

An elf stood there, wearing an incongruous pinstriped suit and regarding the scene with an expression of mild surprise. Milanda, cloaked and masked all in dramatic black, standing over the unconscious shooter and with the succubus groaning on the ground nearby. Not dead, curse it all. How did you kill a Vanislaad?

Then the elf smiled, and despite her lack of fear for her physical safety, the expression sent a chill down her spine.

“Now you,” he said cheerfully, “are exactly what I was looking for. Finally, a little fun!”

With that, he vanished from view.

Once again, Milanda was overtaken by the “gifts” of the dryads. She could still sense the now-invisible elf, making a beeline toward her with the speed only his race possessed, and while her instincts wanted her to flee, her body stood in place, swiveling to peer about in an pantomime of disorientation. Only belatedly did she realize what she was doing.

The invisible elf lunged from opposite the direction she was currently looking. Without turning her head, Milanda grabbed him in mid-leap. She felt the bones of his arm break in her grip an instant before she whipped him through the air above her head and slammed him onto the bar.

He yelped, wheezed, and tumbled gracelessly to the ground, again visible.

“I’m fairly certain that was a wandshot,” Walker said in her ear, “and I’m positive I hear scuffling. What’s your status, Milanda?”

“Fine,” she said a little numbly, shaken more by her own loss of control than the violence. “Three hostiles down. How do you kill a succubus?”

To her credit, Walker hesitated only for a moment. “They don’t have biological weak points. Magic weapons, if you brought any, or catastrophic physical damage. Removing the head or destroying at least fifty percent of the torso should suffice.”

At that moment, another door opened. The one toward which she’d been heading in the fist place.

Milanda locked eyes with the new arrival for a bare moment, before she and her newfound battle reflexes found themselves in agreement. Which was to the good, because she might have wasted precious seconds staring in shock before fleeing. As it was, she made it out the door and around the corner before a blast of fire roared after her, splashing against the wall.

So. Not a dryad, then.

“A dragon,” she gasped, pelting down the hall at full tilt. “There is a green dragon down here!”

“Holy fuck!” Rook squeaked. “Lady, get out of there!”

“Agreed! Walker!”

Silence. Milanda carried on down the hall, reaching out with her senses. The dragon had hesitated in the central chamber, probably examining his downed allies. Unfortunately, the path she was taking away from that door was bringing her closer to a large cluster of human life signs. Troops, probably.

“Walker!” she shouted. “Pull me out!”

“There’s a problem,” Walker said in a strained voice. “The wards have been cycled—wait, no. These aren’t passive wards anymore, someone is actively maintaining them. This is real trouble, Milanda. This equipment can outsmart any enchantments currently made, but an actual wizard is another matter.”

“Standard procedure in the event of an incursion like this,” Moriarty said, and oddly enough, his clipped delivery was somehow reassuring. “At least, in the Imperial Army. It stands to reason these soldiers will have similar policies and regulations.”

“All right, give me a minute,” Walker said quickly. “Keep moving and stay alive, Milanda. I’m going to zero in on the wizard, then I’ll direct you to him. Take him out, the wards will lift, and I’ll be able to extract you.”

“Got it,” Milanda said grimly. She skidded to a halt next to the first door she came to; people were running in the halls now, closing on her from multiple directions. Yanking the door open, she dived through, pulling it shut quickly and then holding it at the last instant to avoid a slam.

She very gently finished closing it a second before she sensed the first soldier moving into the hall behind her. There was, blessedly, a lock, which she slid softly home. Only then did she turn to discover the bad news.

“So much for keeping moving,” she muttered.

“What?” Walker demanded.

“I’m in a room with only one exit,” Milanda said irritably. An office of some kind; desks, papers, nothing that looked useful in her situation. “Soldiers in the hall behind me.”

“Hey, uh,” Rook said hesitantly, “can you get us into there? Maybe we can help her…”

“Not with that wizard working!” Walker snapped. “Be quiet, let me concentrate!”

Milanda stood in place, focusing. Soldiers were now moving in the halls behind her… But not on the other side of the wall opposite the door. In fact, there was no one in the immediate vicinity on that side. Was she strong enough to punch through a wall, now? Not quickly or cleanly—that would take time and draw attention.

The dragon was moving, now. Could he sense her this way, or similarly? Who knew what a green dragon could do?

“I need another exit,” she said aloud.

“I can’t help you there,” Walker said somewhat plaintively. “I’m working, Milanda! Soon as I have something, I’ll direct you, but you’ll have to find your own way through the soldiers.”

“You’ve got this, ma’am!” Finchley said encouragingly. “You faced down a succubus and whatever else, you can do it!”

She wasn’t listening. Milanda had reached into the largest pouch attached to her belt, and with some difficulty extracted the object she’d stowed there earlier. Finally she had to jerk it free. It hadn’t wanted to fit in the first place; this wasn’t part of the kit Vex had issued her.

A quick press of the switch, and the room lit up a pale, arcane blue, suddenly filled with a deep buzzing.

“What was that?” Walker said sharply.

“Oh, that you heard,” Milanda muttered, then crossed the small room in two strides and pressed the glowing blade against the wall.

It sank through as if she were cutting cheese. Sparks flew from the masonry, flames flickered along the scorched edges of wood paneling, but the weapon carved neatly through. She began drawing a vertical line, attending to the motions of people around her. Still nobody in the space beyond, but there was movement on the periphery… Nothing else for it now; it would likely only be moments before they thought to check this door.

“Milanda,” Walker said shrilly, “that sound had better not be what I think it is!”

She pulled the blade free from the wall, and began carving a vertical line to form the top of her improvised door. “I’m afraid it is.”

“You—how could you!? Did I not emphasize how dangerous those—put that fool contraption down before you kill yourself!”

“I know what I’m doing, thank you.”

“Uh, what’s going on?” Rook asked nervously.

“You shut up!” Walker barked. “Milanda, put that thing away! Aside from the risk to you, what do you think will happen if anybody sees the saber? You might as well advertise where you got it in the papers!”

Milanda paused before starting on the other vertical cut. “If anybody sees the what?”

“The weapon!”

She frowned at the straight, glowing blade. “This is clearly not a saber. If anything, it’s a longsword.”

The buzz and crackle of the sword going back into the wall was augmented this time by a repeated, muffled thumping from her earpiece.

“Walker, don’t hit your head on things. That equipment is ancient.”

Finally, she withdrew the blade again and switched it off, though she kept it in her hand rather than trying to cram it back in the ill-fitting pouch. Her improvised doorway smoldered and put off acrid smoke. It also wasn’t particularly even, but it would do.

She stepped back, shifted position, and slammed her foot against it.

Ordinary human strength probably wouldn’t have sufficed, but the cut section of wall cracked and buckled at its base, then toppled outward into the space beyond. Milanda immediately stepped after it.

She was now in what appeared to be a mess hall—long tables and benches, broad doors at either end. Oh, just perfect. Thankfully the soldiers were still chasing her around, rather than occupying their own living quarters, and clearly didn’t expect to find her here of all places. Perhaps their section of the facility down here wasn’t connected to the space where the serious assets were kept.

But no such luck.

“What was that?” a man’s voice shouted from beyond the door to her left.

Milanda paused to concentrate on her senses. No… If anything, she’d managed to pin herself even more thoroughly. Humans were clustered in the space to the left side. Worse…

The dragon was approaching. Not quickly, but exiting the right-hand doors would bring her in his direction.

“Shit,” she muttered.

“Well said!” Walker snarled.

Milanda glanced rapidly back and forth, then drew a wand from its holster at her belt with her other hand. Wand and sword at the ready, she made her choice and flew into motion.

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12 – 38

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She opened the door and stepped out to find Lord Vex staring at her. Seeing the unflappable spymaster visibly startled was quite satisfying, but Milanda kept her expression fully under control, calmly pushing the door shut behind her.

“Ah, good,” she said. “This is the right address, after all. I was a tad uncertain; this method of travel is still rather unfamiliar to me.”

“I can imagine,” Vex replied. “That was…quite an entrance.”

Milanda gave him an innocent smile. “What? Stepping through the door? I did say I would meet you here. I hope I’ve not kept you waiting long; I had to return to the base and gather a few supplies.”

“That,” he said with the ghost of a smile in reply, “is a closet, as I’m sure you noticed. When you said you had a more discreet way of entering, I assumed you were planning to use the kitchen door in the rear. Ah, well, whatever it is you did, this is undoubtedly better. None of the neighbors should have reason to recognize you or mark anyone’s comings and goings, but the more secrets we can keep, the better.”

His gaze flicked momentarily to the device attached to her ear, and then the box she was carrying, but just as quickly returned to her eyes, betraying no emotion now that he was over the initial surprise. As expected from such a man.

“Quite,” she agreed. “With regard to that, I hope you don’t object to me keeping you in the dark…”

She trailed off as he held up a hand to forestall her explanation. “Unnecessary, Ms. Darnassy. In this matter, I think it best that no one be told anything they do not absolutely need to know, given the risks involved. Should you or any of your new assistants fall into the hands of the Church, or anyone else, it’s best they have nothing to reveal under coercion. You, in particular, given your access to the secrets of the Hands. I trust you will keep this in mind when conversing with the associates I have found for you.”

“Of course.” Milanda glanced around the room. It was sparsely furnished, with only a few rustic-looking wooden chairs scattered about and a threadbare rug covering the floorboards, but this could have been an upper parlor in any mid-sized urban home. The wallpaper was peeling slightly and the floor was liberally marked by dents and scuffs; this was clearly not a well-off neighborhood. “I take it this place is secure, then.”

“Relatively,” he said with a shrug.

She snapped her attention back to his face, frowning. “Relatively? Lord Vex…”

“I assure you, I have taken no unnecessary risks,” he said, again with that vague smile. “Absolute security does not exist, Ms. Darnassy. The world is made of connections; there is always some thread that can be followed. The current situation is that our enemies have reason to fear action against them but none to expect it specifically, and especially not from you. This house was acquired via means not in the portfolio of my agency’s assets, which leaves no paper trail the Hands can easily access. Under the circumstances, it is adequate.”

“I see. If I may ask…?”

“Considering you are being asked to operate from here, that’s reasonable,” he said nodding. “This is a Thieves’ Guild safehouse, arranged for us by Bishop Darling.”

Her frown deepened. “Darling? Lord Vex, he was with the Archpope!”

At that, Vex grinned outright. “On the contrary, Antonio Darling is with no one. His agenda is his own, and all his allegiances—to the Church, the Throne, the Guild, whoever—are rivals he plays against each other for his own purposes. I am not absolutely certain what he ultimately wants; possibly only the thrill of the game. His strongest sympathies are with the Guild’s rather libertarian philosophy, however, and in this matter in particular he is already in our confidence. It may be best if you keep your own interactions with him to a minimum, but I anticipate no betrayal from that direction.”

“I see,” she said warily. “Well, then. And these…assistants?”

Vex made a face, half smile, half grimace. “Ah, yes. No sense putting that off any longer, I suppose. Come, I’ll introduce you.”

“Well, doesn’t that just fill me with confidence,” she muttered, but followed him into an upstairs hall and then down a staircase.

This terminated in a pretty typical living room, furnished in a comfortable but shabby style with clearly secondhand accouterments. The front door stood not far from the foot of the stairs, and a lit fireplace opposite, with cords of wood stacked nearby; there was no sign of an arcane heating range. Apparently, the Guild didn’t bother to keep its personnel in excessive comfort. A selection of charms and folded articles of clothing—all in black—were laid out on a low table before the patched sofa. Most immediately interesting to Milanda, though, were the three men present.

“Gentlemen,” Vex said, “meet Milanda, from whom you will take orders for the duration of this mission. Milanda, may I present Andrew Finchley, Thomas Rook, and Jacob Moriarty, most recently of the Imperial Army.”

All three had whirled upon her arrival from poking through the things on the table; Moriarty reflexively came to attention and saluted. Her first thought was that it was almost poetic: she was looking at a cross-section of the Empire itself. Rook was an ethnic Tiraan, his black hair too long to have been recently in the Army (assuming he cared a whit for regulations), and so tousled he’d either just awakened or was one of those guys who deliberately kept it that way. Finchley was a pale Stalweiss, with rare reddish hair and a smattering of freckles across his cheeks. Moriarty, who now relaxed, looking self-conscious, was a dark-skinned Westerner, taller than the other two and more strongly built…but then again, that might have been an illusion caused by their lack of his good posture. To judge by their names, though, they all three came from frontier families.

“Glad to meet you,” she said politely, dipping her head.

“The honor is ours, ma’am!” Moriarty practically shouted, then clamped his mouth shut.

“Sorry about him, ma’am, he’s not good at improvising,” Rook said with a grin. “Omnu’s balls, man, we’re not in the Army anymore. You can give it a rest.”

“I actually don’t think he can,” Finchley said. Moriarty shot them both a sullen glare.

“I should let you know,” Vex said in a distinctly dry tone, “these men were discharged at the rank of private, and all three are rated as Class D troopers.”

“Oh?” Milanda turned to look at him again, raising her eyebrows. “Forgive me, but I’m not familiar with the Army’s terminology. Class D signifies…?”

“You’re aware of the letter grading system commonly used in academia?”

“Of course.”

“It’s like that.”

She shifted her attention back to the three ex-soldiers, two of whom looked abashed, though Rook was grinning as if someone had just told a joke. “…ah.”

“What they are,” Vex continued, “is trusted. These three have been privy to state secrets at the highest level and amply proved their discretion, as well as their loyalty to the Throne. They are, additionally, already connected to our basic problem, albeit tangentally. They are currently in hiding from a Hand of the Emperor who means them harm.”

Milanda frowned. Trusted, but not reliable. That was not ideal, but still better than the opposite combination. Aloud, she said, “How so? What did you do to provoke him?”

“Nothing,” Finchley said with a sigh.

“Eh, wrong place, wrong time,” Rook said airily. “We were nearby when he went crazy.”

Moriarty cleared his throat. “If I may, ma’am? He was trying to use us as leverage against Professor Tellwyrn. We were most recently stationed at Last Rock, you see. The Hand threatened harm to us if she didn’t comply with him.”

It did not escape Milanda’s memory that much of this had been kicked off by Tellwyrn’s unexpected visit to the Empress. “You’re that close to the Professor?”

“Nope,” Rook chuckled. “Also, she was already trying to do what he wanted. I cannot emphasize enough that the man went absolutely batshit crazy.”

“Uh, ma’am? Lord Vex?” Finchley, at least, had the sense to look worried. “You said this was related… Do you understand why it is the Hand was acting so…unstable?”

She glanced at Vex, who nodded gravely to her.

“That’s as good a lead-in as any,” Milanda said. “I trust it has been emphasized to you how very secret this matter is?”

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

“National security,” Rook added with a wink. “Treason, trials and beheadings if we blab. All in a day’s work!”

“They use hanging, not beheading,” Moriarty muttered.

“We, uh, were also told this was possibly going to be very dangerous,” Finchley said, still a little nervously. “Honestly, after the hellgate, I don’t know how much worse it can be, but life has a way of surprising me.”

Rook snorted. “Which hellgate? Oh, wait…” He glanced at Vex. “Are we allowed to tell her about that?”

Milanda also looked at Vex. “How did these three end up being privy to state secrets, by the way?”

“Ma’am,” Rook said grandly, “you have the pleasure of being assisted by the three unluckiest sons of bitches in this blessed Empire!”

“No, previously classified materials are still classified,” Vex said, exasperation beginning to peek through his reserve. “Especially matters you were warned were Sealed to the Throne. Breaking that seal will draw the attention of the Hands, which is absolutely the last thing this mission needs. As you will understand if you will allow the woman to proceed.”

“Thank you,” Milanda said with what dignity she could muster. “With that established, then, this is the situation. Right now, the magical system empowering the Hands of the Emperor has been tampered with by hostile forces, which is causing them to behave irrationally, while also developing new powers.”

“Holy shit,” Rook whispered, the levity abruptly vanishing from his face. Finchley gulped loudly.

“Additionally,” Milanda went on in a grim tone, “the same hostile actors have been responsible, through the same means, for the lack of an heir to the Silver Throne being born. The specific perpetrators of these assaults have been stymied, for the moment, and their ability to take such action destroyed. We’re working on reversing the damage. Most immediately of concern to us, this was all done at the command of Archpope Justinian of the Universal Church.”

There was a beat of silence while they pondered that.

“Why, though?” Moriarty asked, frowning. “The Church can’t just take over the Throne. I don’t see how destabilizing the Empire helps Justinian.”

“The Church is one thing,” said Vex. “Justinian, specifically, is another. He is deeply ambitious and quite interested in gaining political power. I note that you did not seem surprised to learn he would do such a thing, Mr. Moriarty, only curious about his endgame. The Universal Church holds sway all over the world, and within the Empire it is the most concentrated single power aside from the Throne itself. In fact, the Church was, for a time, poised to take over political control of the Empire after the Enchanter Wars. Under pressure from several cults and Houses, it participated in the creation of the Tirasian Dynasty instead. The precedent does exist, though. There are many potential scenarios in which a sitting Archpope could put himself forward as a political leader if the need for one should suddenly arise.”

“Well, you’re right that he’d totally do something like that,” Rook said thoughtfully. “He was starting in on Professor Tellwyrn last year. I never did figure out how that helped him, either. I think the man just plain doesn’t like anybody who might have more power than him.”

“If it’s not another secret, what’s the source of this information?” Finchley asked.

“That is the core of the problem, and the reason for this mission,” said Milanda. “I am the source of this information, and more than that I can’t tell you, at least on that subject. That is because all the means through which it was acquired are extremely sensitive state secrets, which absolutely cannot be revealed. This means the government has no evidence to bring against Justinian, and any action taken against the Church by the Empire will, to all appearances, be unprovoked hostility.”

“Which,” said Vex, “considering his established aims, Justinian could easily use to justify efforts to further weaken the Throne and usurp its authority.”

“Crap,” Finchley muttered.

“So,” said Milanda, “he has placed the Silver Throne in such a position that it cannot openly retaliate against his attempts upon it, nor even exercise overt self-defense.”

“And so,” Rook said with a broad grin, “that leaves less-than-open means!”

“Exactly,” said Milanda, smiling in return.

“I need to make something explicitly clear,” Vex said seriously. “In this matter, despite the various ties each of us has to the Imperial government, we are not officially acting on its behalf. This mission is undertaken by private citizens, without Imperial sponsorship. That means that if you run into any trouble, no matter how severe, the Empire will not and cannot come to your aid. No one in the Empire, even in Intelligence, knows this is going on, and if they did, they would be legally unable to intervene. Legally, what we’re going to do will be the actions of vigilantes, and the Empire itself will be obligated to take punitive action against you if you are caught.” He smiled languidly. “Do please try very hard not to get caught.”

This time, all three men swallowed.

“You have, at least, been provided with tools,” Vex continued, gesturing at the table, “which I see you have already taken the liberty of investigating. These are charms and enchanted equipment of beyond state of the art quality. There are few organizations which could provide them, of which the Throne is, of course, one. This operation being unsanctioned, all of these were acquired strictly off the books and can’t be traced back to any Imperial department—at least not directly—but their presence will be suggestive, at the last. You should try not to let them be observed, and definitely not captured, by any enemy. The collective value of those materials, gentlemen, is greater than the sum total of the resources that have gone into your upkeep and training from birth until now.”

Finchley very carefully laid the shielding charm with which he had been toying back on the table.

“I will confess,” said Vex with a frown, “all this leaves me…concerned. It is a critical mistake to rely on fancy equipment above skill. I’ve sent agents to their deaths before, but only for the sake of missions of the utmost importance in which no other alternative existed. I am unaccustomed to squandering lives the way I very much fear I am, with you.” He glanced at Milanda. “The specifics of your operations will not be up to me, and it’s best I know as little about them as possible. I do suggest, however, that you try to avoid combat situations.”

She nodded.

“Understood,” Moriarty said, saluting again. “We will exercise the utmost care! And I’ll begin studying the manuals of this equipment immediately.”

Vex actually blinked. “Manuals?”

Moriarty hesitated, looking uncertain. “I…yes, sir. Per policy of Imperial Command, all enchanted equipment is to be issued with full documentation.”

“Omnu’s balls, you goober,” Rook exclaimed. “The man just got finished explaining how off the books this whole thing is. There’s no documentation!”

“But…” Moriarty was beginning to look increasingly alarmed. “…but…we need to be acquainted with any tools to be used before—”

“It’s like talking to a brick wall,” Rook said to Finchley.

“It’s more like talking to Moriarty.”

“Actually, now you mention that, it’s a little like talking to Tellwyrn.”

Vex drew in a deep breath. “I can acquire documentation for you. That is probably a better idea than leaving you to figure out how to use these on the fly, as it were.”

“We would be tremendously grateful, my Lord,” Moriarty said smartly, already looking relieved.

Milanda cleared her throat. “And on that subject, I have a little something for you as well.” Vex glanced at her, betraying no surprise, as she held up the metal box she carried and opened it. “I trust you lads noticed my…jewelry?”

“It’s quite fetching!” Rook said gallantly. “Unconventional, I like it. Elvish?”

“Not exactly,” she said with a smile, holding the box so they could see its contents: within lay three more earpieces, identical to the one she wore. “I brought one along for each of you. Help yourselves. Please go ahead and put them on; they fit over the ear, like mine.”

The three men reached forward to take the proffered devices with clear uncertainty. Moriarty fumbled a little to get his affixed in his ear, Rook pausing to critically examine his before doing so.

“Feels weird,” Finchley said with a grimace, prodding at the device now hooked over his ear. Vex watched all this with aloof disinterest, despite the acute attention Milanda knew he must be paying.

“Oh, I dunno, I bet it makes us look dashing!” said Rook, once again grinning like a fool. “Well, maybe not you two, but in my case—”

“Hello, boys.”

All three yelled in surprise, clapping hands to their ears; Moriarty leaped sideways as if he could get away from the voice suddenly sounding in his head. Vex raised an eyebrow, glancing at Milanda.

“Gentlemen,” she said, not hiding her own amusement, “meet Walker. Since you’ll be based in this house for the duration, and I will need to come and go on a separate schedule, we need a way to stay in contact. These gadgets will provide it. You can keep in touch with me and with each other this way, as well as Walker, who is helping to oversee this operation from another—more secured—location.”

“Walker, that’s an unusual name for a girl,” Rook muttered, poking at his earpiece.

“Really, that’s the part of this you’re hung up on?” Finchley said dryly.

“He has a point,” Walker said, audibly amused. “What an interesting group of helpers you’ve found, Milanda.”

She refrained from pointing out that she hadn’t found them.

“This is incredible!” Moriarty enthused. “Instantaneous two-way communication—and with such small devices! Why, the smallest magic mirrors are bigger than dinner plates, and those are the masterworks of significantly powerful mages. This really is beyond state of the art!”

Vex shot her a sidelong look, but continued to withhold comment.

“So, uh, is there anyone else we can expect to meet, here?” Finchley asked, uncomfortably twisting his earpiece.

“Hopefully not,” Milanda assured him. “At least for now.” Gods, it wasn’t as if she had anybody else to inflict on them except for ancient artificial intelligences and dryads. Based on what she’d seen so far, the thought of these three meeting a dryad was almost as troubling as the thought of a dryad getting involved in this in the first place.

“Whichever of you is playing with your earpiece, kindly cut it out,” said Walker. “Those devices are designed to muffle irrelevant feedback. If you’re rubbing hard enough to make the noise I’m hearing, you are going to wear a hole in your epidermis.”

“In my what?” Rook exclaimed, but jerked his hand away from his ear.

“Well, then,” Finchley said, folding his arms in a clear attempt to keep his hands away from his ear. Milanda sympathized; she wasn’t used to the sensation of something hanging over and partially in her ear, herself, though her life at court had equipped her with enough restraint not to fidget with the thing. “What, exactly, is it we will be doing, ma’am?”

She hesitated. What, indeed? Milanda had plans, but rather general ones at the moment—more general than five minutes ago, adjusted for having become acquainted with her “staff.” Just what to do with these three was a real question. Loyal, trustworthy…clearly not very competent. Vex was right: it would be a miracle if they got through this without anybody getting killed.

“Our first mission, tonight, I will be going on alone,” she finally said. “As we’ve just demonstrated, you’ll at least be able to keep in touch. What I learn will help determine our next steps, which will enable me to form more coherent plans. Right now, all this is in a very early phase. The long and the short of it, gentlemen, is that the Church has highly secret programs which have been used to harm Imperial interests. Just as the Throne itself cannot afford to reveal its hand by taking direct action, the Church will have to disavow its own secret operations if they are exposed or damaged. And that means we have a measure of impunity with which to damage them. In short…” She smiled. “We are going to stir up the waters, and see what fish we can catch.”

Lord Vex cleared his throat. “And with that, I must take my leave. Milanda, if I might have a word with you before I depart?”

“Of course, milord,” she said politely. “I’ll be right back, boys.”

“We’ll be right here,” Finchley said somewhat fatalistically.

Milanda followed Vex into the kitchen, where he headed straight for the rear door. He paused before reaching for the knob, turning to her.

“You seem to have this well enough in hand,” said the spymaster, “and as I emphasized, the less I know about the details from here on out, the better. I can be questioned by Hands of the Emperor at any time. There is one thing, though.”

“Yes?”

He was studying her closely, now, with enough intensity that the degree of his interest was clear despite his customary reserve. “I find myself suddenly reminded of an old incident report I studied. Years ago, during the reign of Empress Theasia, it was recorded that the Hands of the Empress captured and detained an extremely dangerous fairy known as the Dark Walker. I have no further knowledge of the creature, which means they kept her in one of the very few—perhaps the only—facility which is totally outside my purview.”

“My, you really do have thorough records,” Milanda said pleasantly.

Vex stared at her in silence for a moment, then shook his head. “Ms. Darnassy… Please, be extremely careful.”

“I assure you,” she said in a more serious tone, “I am taking every possible precaution, and some I very recently would not have thought possible. This is no time for needless risks. Beyond that, however, I believe we should stick to our established rule. No information shared beyond what is absolutely necessary.”

“Quite,” he said with a sigh. “I dearly hope you know what you’re doing, for all our sakes. No one else can.”

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12 – 14

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Despite the late hour, Darling was alert and energetic even without the aid of strong tea, much less coffee. The sense of a new and interesting game suddenly afoot did wonders for his personal motivation. Price claimed his addiction to intrigues was worse than anything he could eat, drink, or smoke. If it kept him upright, moving, and sharp close to midnight after a long day, though, he wasn’t going to complain. Particularly as his current adventure was a response to an urgent summons by Imperial Intelligence. Whatever this was, he didn’t want to go into it at less than his best.

The neighborhood through which he strode was quiet at this hour, and in fact quite safe, being an upscale place occupied chiefly by pricier businesses and thus heavily patrolled. He was probably the scruffiest person it had seen all day, attired presently as Sweet the thief rather than the Bishop, but luckily there were no soldiers immediately in sight to question him. Not that he couldn’t talk his way out of that, but it didn’t do to keep the Imps waiting.

His steps slowed briefly as he passed through an intersection, glancing down the side avenue, only a few blocks into which he had twice found the Elysium.

Nah.

The address he had been given was an Imperial safe house, which of course he knew despite no such explanation being included in the message summoning him. In fact, this was one of the safe houses he wasn’t supposed to know about, not that he planned to enlighten whoever he met. Darling liked Vex well enough and meant no ill toward his department or the regime it served, but just coexisting with a man like Vex necessarily meant hoarding whatever advantage he could secure.

He stepped into a back alley, which was actually clean; the space had been designed as a service entrance for the three buildings clustered around it, and rich folks had their standards. The good ones applied the same standards to spaces occupied by their servants. He strode smoothly past the first two doors, well aware that his approach had to be observed, and grasped the handle on the third without bothering to knock.

The door opened instantly and silently, and he slipped through, pulling it shut behind him. There was no one present to greet him, leaving him to choose between going down a darkened hallway and descending a narrow flight of stairs. Light and faint voices came from the bottom of the steps, so that way he went.

It occurred to him in passing that this would be a fantastic place for an ambush. His message had come from an Imperial functionary he knew, though, and Vex had no reason to pull a stunt like that. Still and all, he tucked his fingertips into his sleeves, where he had throwing knives concealed.

A moment later, he removed them, upon stepping into the room at the bottom of the stairs and seeing who awaited him. Quentin Vex himself was present, lounging against the wall; General Panissar stood near the door in full uniform. The third man was dressed casually, in a suit that had seen no wear and was of good quality but clearly not tailored for him; it had probably been procured from some department store particularly for this exercise. Sharidan Julios Adolphus Tirasian, Emperor of Tiraas, assuredly did not have any such garments in his own wardrobe.

“Please don’t,” the Emperor said quickly when Darling started to kneel. “The formalities have their place, Darling, but there’s nobody here to impress. Let’s not bog this down with ceremony, shall we?”

“As you wish, your Majesty,” he said diplomatically, straightening up and adjusting his lapels. He glanced at Vex, then Panissar, then back at the Emperor. “Well, here we are, then! I didn’t even know what to expect and I’m still alarmed. Shall I assume the Emperor isn’t nearly as unprotected here as he looks?”

“Obviously,” Panissar said with disdain. “I’d feel better if I could have brought a few Imperial Guards, but the situation being what it is…”

“My people are keeping watch,” Vex said with a yawn. “My best people. Blanketing the district with them would risk drawing eyes, which is exactly what we don’t want. A handful of my top operatives represent more effective power than a platoon, anyway.”

“Are you gonna let him talk to you like that?” Darling asked Panissar, who snorted derisively. “Sorry, I don’t know a better way to lighten the atmosphere of impending doom. What’s going on, how bad is it, and how can I help?”

“To begin with,” Sharidan said seriously, “anything and everything discussed here is Sealed to the Throne.”

He paused for acknowledgment, and Darling nodded deeply in a gesture that verged on a bow.

“The situation is this,” the Emperor continued. “Something has interfered with the Hands of the Emperor. All of them are exhibiting mental instability, coupled with the sudden possession of powers they never had before.”

“Holy shit,” Darling whispered. “Ah…excuse me.”

Sharidan actually smiled. “Not at all; I’d say that is the correct reaction.”

“We are working to contain this situation,” said Vex. “Intelligence and the Army are both shifting assets to strengthen protection of the Imperial family, and monitor any ongoing projects in which Hands are participating. As discreetly as possible, of course; as effectively as can be done without informing the assets in question of the nature of the problem. It may not prove feasible, but ideally we can resolve this before it turns into a crisis.”

“Hang on,” said Darling. “The Hand who usually sits on the council with us. Is he still at Last Rock?”

Vex gave him a sleepy, mirthless little smile. “Indeed. Verification of the problem has come from that quarter; we’re aware of the potential for escalation, there, and watching it carefully.”

“Professor Tellwyrn has been helpful and surprisingly restrained,” Sharidan agreed.

“Excuse me,” Panissar growled, “but in the version of events I was told, the woman broke into the Imperial Palace, assaulted one of the Empress’s companions and vandalized her bedroom.”

“In the course of delivering a friendly warning, yes,” Sharidan replied, smiling. “Which, for her, was helpful and surprisingly restrained. She bypassed an annoying bureaucracy in order to deliver a message, and I can’t say I don’t sympathize with the impulse, irksome as her methods are. Last Rock isn’t the worry, here; I am. The Hands surround and follow their Emperor above all else. Their current instability is a grave threat; one has already tried to arrest Eleanora. It has been decided,” he continued with clear displeasure, “that the best response in this situation is to remove me from a position where I can do anything to help.”

“Your Majesty knows why,” Vex replied calmly, “and clearly are in agreement. It’s not as if we could force you to comply, nor would.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Sharidan said with a sigh. “I do know. I don’t have to like it, though. For the time being, in any case, the Empress will maintain the government.”

“You need a place to hide,” Darling guessed.

“Exactly.” The Emperor nodded. “Which is why we asked you here, your Grace.”

He frowned. “Don’t you have safe houses?”

“Many. All of them, however, are known to the Hands,” Sharidan replied. “They will be able to find me anyway, given the need, but not as easily as if I am in a place unknown to them. Each Hand can sense my direction and approximate distance from their position, but that’s it. Getting to me will take time, and involve figuring out a route, gauging the situation…”

“And if one or more start moving in his direction, we’ll know,” Vex added. “This operation will involve me posting agents to watch both his Majesty and the Palace, and any other Hands in circulation. As soon as one makes a move at the Emperor, we’ll intervene to extract him. Unfortunately, Hands have unrestricted access to all of Imperial Intelligence’s assets, including the power to give orders to my personnel with the Emperor’s own authority. They can find any of our bolt-holes nearly as easily as they can the Throne’s own.”

“We are addressing this as best we can,” said the Emperor, “by keeping the agents in question in the field with orders not to report back until they are told otherwise. The Hands, meanwhile, have been informed that all of this is a gambit on my part to flush out a conspiracy. Which is roughly true; they simply weren’t told they were its target. The downside of needing to keep them pacified is that I cannot curtail their authority while we work. This should suffice for a while to keep them away, but if the emotional instability they’ve begun to demonstrate worsens, one or more is likely to make an irrational move.”

“This whole situation is disastrously unstable,” said Darling. “I trust something is being done to rectify the root problem?”

The Emperor sighed. “Clearly, something has interfered with the magic powering the Hands. Unfortunately, there are no specialists on that particular…arrangement. I have sent someone I trust to attempt to address it, but… It may not be possible.”

“I hope you have a longer-term plan in that case, your Majesty,” Darling said.

Sharidan nodded. “She is to attempt a repair if it can be done; if not, her instructions are to destroy the entire system.”

“Can that be done?”

“Anything can be destroyed,” the Emperor said softly. “Whether that proves feasible in this instance is another matter. She will do what she can, and we have other plans ready to be activated if she fails, which are not germane to our discussion here.”

“What you need,” Darling said slowly, “is someone who can hide you in the city, using resources and personnel not known to the Imperial government, close enough to the Palace but also far enough that you can either return to it or flee it on very short notice.”

“Exactly,” Panissar grunted. “Hence you. Despite your known tendency to play all ends against the middle.”

“I won’t waste anyone’s time denying that, but in a case like this…” He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.I’d say this is no time for games. Far, far too much would come unraveled if something happened to the Emperor. Speaking of which, first things first: you gentlemen have probably already decided this and were maybe about to make a point of it to me, but under no circumstances can any Thieves’ Guild or other personnel be told who he is, much less why he’s hiding.”

“We are firmly in agreement,” Panissar snorted.

Darling nodded. “With that established… Yes, this shouldn’t actually be too hard. Any number of people either owe me favors or would love to do me one, and for Eserites, someone needing a no-questions place to crash where they’re encouraged to stay away from the windows isn’t an odd circumstance at all. I’ll have to winnow it down to people who can be both trusted and relied on. To do that, I’ll need to put my ear to the ground for a bit, find out who is or is not currently in a bad situation we don’t want to be near. Also not unusual for Eserites. What’s our timetable, here?”

“That will ultimately be determined by his Majesty’s agent,” said Vex. “The base situation will be resolved when she does so, one way or another. I will say, however, that having a bunch of physically overpowering, highly-ranked government officials slowly growing more and more unhinged will escalate this into either a massive crisis or a cluster of smaller ones, sooner than later. I give this no more than a week before it devolves into a disaster we will be hard-pressed to contain. Current problems aside, if the Emperor is out of sight for longer than that, political tensions will begin to form which could impair the government’s function on their own. Coupled with the Hands…”

“A week.” Darling rubbed his chin in thought. “This is gonna be a no-sleep night for me, then. Let me head back to the Guild and rule out some options; I want to be sure what we’re stepping into before we take the Emperor near it.”

“Is your Guild involved in a lot of things that physically dangerous in the city?” Panissar demanded.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Darling said with a shrug. “But a lot of what the Guild is involved in could be instantly escalated into a dangerous mess by putting the Emperor and Vex’s watchers anywhere near it. The underworld functions on a delicate balance, gentlemen; that’s what keeps it from affecting the lives of most citizens who don’t seek it out. If we’re going to do anything to affect that balance, we’ll do it carefully, especially given the stakes. This, I assume, is one of those spots the Hands know about?”

“Indeed,” Sharidan said, nodding. “And in theory should be safe; all of this is an added precaution, because we expect more than fear that some of them will act rashly, in spite of my orders. It should suffice for a while, though.”

“All right,” Darling replied. “A while is all I need. I’ll have something more permanent for you by morning.”


The entrance to the Wells was an unassuming sight, disguised as a small shed. Still, when the door opened, all three leaped to attention and saluted, Rook after twitching as if stung by a wasp.

Ravana stepped out, looking calm and composed as usual, if inquisitive, and swept a curious look across them. Behind her, two of her classmates followed, Scorn having to duck to get through the doorway and make room for Szith.

“Gentlemen,” Ravana said mildly. “Good evening. When Afritia said I had visitors, I confess I rather expected some of my classmates.”

“Your Grace!” Moriarty practically shouted. “We humbly thank you for taking the time to speak with us an apologize profusely for this imposition and the late hour!”

“At ease,” Ravana said with clear amusement. “All the way at ease, Private Moriarty. We’ve known each other only briefly, but it has been enough for me to be certain you would not trouble me were the matter not important.”

Behind her and to either side, the drow and demon mutely folded their arms in an eerily identical posture, framing the diminutive Duchess with the subtlest hint of menace.

Rook cleared his throat, dropping his salute. “Thanks, Duchess Madouri. And, uh, all due respect, but you can probably expect a little more bowing and scraping, ‘cos the plain truth is we came to ask a favor of you and you probably can’t even imagine how uncomfortable that is, oh gods I’m really sorry to bother you.”

She actually laughed softly. “Perhaps you’d better blurt it out before Moriarty suffers a cardiac event, then. Mr. Finchley, I have several times had the thought that your porridge is neither too hot nor too cold. Would you care to take over?”

Finchley froze, blinking. “P-porridge, your Grace?”

“An old Stalweiss fable,” she said ruefully. “My apologies, I do have something of a predilection for esoteric allusions.”

He cleared his throat. “Ah, yes, well, I’m sure it’s just one of your many charming—”

“What do you want?!” Scorn barked, making all three jump backward.

“Scorn, please,” Ravana said in the same tone of mild amusement. The demon just grunted. Szith raised one eyebrow.

Finchley took a deep breath, clearly steeling himself. “Your Grace, we would like to ask your help in acquiring legal counsel.”

“Interesting,” Ravana mused. “For what purpose?”

“Getting early discharge from the Army!” Rook blurted.

“Under circumstances which are, in the best possible interpretation, highly suspicious,” Moriarty added.

Ravana stood silently for a few seconds, taking the time to examine each of their faces in detail, before speaking. “I do say that is unexpected. Forgive me if I presume, gentlemen, but it has been my observation, in the course of our admittedly brief interactions, that all three of you find great pride and satisfaction in serving in his Majesty’s army, even if politics beyond your control have relegated you to an irrelevant backcountry nonsense post which negates any possibility of career advancement.”

“Oh, there were never any hard feelings about that,” Rook chuckled. “It’s not like any of us was gonna have career advancement anyhow. Moriarty’s the only one who even knows any regulations, and he literally cannot shoot the broad side of a barn. Funny story, we tested that.”

“After you got me drunk,” Moriarty snarled, “and let us not waste the Duchess’s time!”

“Here’s the thing, your Grace,” Finchley said. “There’s a Hand of the Emperor on campus, and the short version is, he’s gone crazy. Even Professor Tellwyrn is alarmed by how he’s been acting. But he’s a man with absolute authority. At the end of the week, if she hasn’t fixed this Sleeper problem to his satisfaction, he’s going to try to punish her by…disappearing us.”

“He used the actual words ‘never seen again,’” Rook added, gulping.

“Forgive me,” said Szith, “but…how would that punish Professor Tellwyrn?”

“It wouldn’t,” Moriarty replied, “in any way, shape, or form.”

“Finchley wasn’t kidding,” Rook added. “The man is completely off his nut.”

“So that’s our predicament,” said Finchley. “The ultimatum is probably impossible for Professor Tellwyrn to meet—she’s doing her best about it anyway, so what was even the point? And when it doesn’t happen, well… I mean, theoretically, he could just be reassigning us…”

“Our posting here is a political matter, though,” Moriarty said glumly. “We’re supposed to be out of the way. Us being stationed in the capital might have…um, repercussions.”

“Plus,” said Rook, “not to harp on this, but this guy is seriously unhinged. There is absolutely no telling what he’ll do with us. And legally? He can do any damn thing he wants.”

“How does a lawyer help you, then?” asked Szith.

“That is simple enough,” said Ravana. “The Empire is not an oligarchy, despite constant attempts by families such as mine to make it so. In a society of laws, the law can be used to challenge power on its own terms. In this case, by pressing suit over their treatment and securing early discharge on the grounds of abusive treatment by superiors, they create records, and attention. A threat like this would have to be carried out quietly; by making that impossible, they pull at least a few of its teeth. His only counter would be to declare this a matter of national security, which would bring the eyes of Imperial Intelligence onto his own misconduct. Seeking legal counsel of the kind I could connect you with is actually a very good idea, gentlemen, as it would take more than the common run of lawyer to pull this off. I am more concerned by your allegation that a Hand of the Emperor has become unstable. The implications are positively staggering.”

“Even I find it hard to believe,” Szith agreed. “The Hands are legendary. Their position and stability seems immutable.”

“A society is basically a collection of things we agree to believe,” Finchley said quietly. “It’s…a shape we give to what would otherwise be chaos. These things seem immutable until the moment they come crashing down, and we have to face the fact they only ever existed because everybody said so.”

Ravana cocked her head to the right, regarding him with a suddenly thoughtful expression. “Very insightful, Mr. Finchley.”

Finchley coughed awkwardly, flushing. “I, ah, well… My dad’s in the Wizard’s Guild. I grew up listening to wise old educated people chatting about life over tea.”

“I do believe my House attorneys could do what you wish,” she mused. “The first step would be to file injunctions protecting you from reprisal while you physically remove yourselves from the clutches of your superiors.”

“You can get permission to go AWOL?” Rook said in apparent delight.

Ravana gave him a vulpine smile. “With the right lawyer, Mr. Rook, one can do whatever one likes, and acquire permission retroactively. That isn’t even much of a trial, as it is within both the letter and the spirit of several laws aimed at protecting soldiers from exactly this sort of abuse. The real challenge would be contesting the orders of a Hand, which are the same as those of the Emperor, for all intents and purposes. That command cannot be gainsaid. It would have to be…interfered with, misdirected, undermined, sabotaged. Which, of course, is also within the purview of a truly good lawyer.” Her smile widened. “By which, of course, I mean a truly evil one.”

Finchley drew in a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “Your Grace, I know this is a vast imposition, but we’re desperate. Could you…?”

“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid it’s totally out of the question,” she replied, and continued when they all visibly deflated. “Not for lack of willingness to help on my part, gentlemen, but my House is still in hot water with the Silver Throne as it is. I have made progress during the last half year, but I am far from the point where I can afford to have my House attorney’s spit in a Hand of the Emperor’s eye.”

“I see,” Finchley said morosely. “Well. Again, your Grace, we’re sorry to have bothered you.”

“Now, just a moment.” Ravana held up a hand, again smiling very faintly. “I cannot afford to have my House attorneys step into this, which is exactly why I cultivate contact with highly effective, highly disreputable legal firms in both Tiraas and Madouris. One never knows when an inconvenience such as this will arise. I can put you in touch with the perfect person by telescroll. However,” she said quickly as all three perked up and Rook opened his mouth, “no one fitting that description can be simply approached from the street, as it were. Such a firm will require an introduction from an established client, and proof that their rather significant remuneration is assured.”

Rook blew out a sigh. “Welp, there’s that. Like the man said, m’lady, we’re sorry for bothering you.”

“You three have quite the penchant for getting ahead of yourselves,” Ravana said with amusement. “I’ll take care of everything. The telescroll office is closed, but I can have orders dispatched and funds procured by noon tomorrow. By dinner, we can have you on a caravan to the capital, out of this Hand’s immediate reach, and with the support of a powerful ally.”

“Your Grace, we cannot ask you to do that,” Moriarty said firmly.

“Man, we literally just asked her to do that,” Rook retorted, jabbing him with an elbow.

Moriarty stepped away from him, setting his jaw. “Asking for help from her personal lawyers is asking for a big favor—that’s bad enough. Asking her to pay for some lawyer in Tiraas… That’s asking for money. A lot of money. It’s out of the question!”

“We are, of course, deeply grateful for the offer, your Grace,” Finchley said, making a shushing motion at them. “I have to tell you, though, the three of us combined have basically no prospect of ever being able to pay you back.”

“I’m not in the habit of loaning money,” Ravana replied, “except after negotiating a suitable interest rate and securing collateral. You may consider this a gift, gentlemen. A favor for friends, if you will.”

“I…see,” Finchley said slowly. “I’m… Forgive me, I don’t wish to be rude, but I wouldn’t have thought you’d care about us all that—”

“Finchley!” Moriarty shouted, aghast. “Do not insult the Duchess!”

Ravana actually laughed. “Oh, not at all, Private Moriarty. I’d suggest a little more circumspection when speaking to nobles in the future, Mr. Finchley, but your point is well taken indeed. It is rare that powerful aristocrats pause their own business to grant expensive favors to passing acquaintances. When you see that, you should always look for the hidden agenda.”

“I, uh…oh.” Rook looked over at the others. “Um, can you guys think of anything safe to say to that? Because I got nothin’.”

“In this case, you may be assured it is nothing that will bode ill for you,” Ravana said, smiling. “Scorn, you are developing a decent mind for politics. Can you see the advantage for me in this?”

“I really, really can’t,” Scorn admitted, scowling. “These boys, I like them well enough, but they aren’t good for much.”

“And that’s our epitaph right there,” Rook said, grinning.

“This situation with the Hand,” Szith said softly, “cuts to the very heart of the Imperial government. Something of great import must be happening in Tiraas, something which will cause ripples of change. If you ignore it, it will wash over you, and perhaps push you under. If you pick a side, you run the risk of being wrong. But if you intervene subtly, you can deny involvement if ends badly, but take credit if it ends well.”

“Bravo, Szith,” Ravana said approvingly. “You have good political instincts, yourself.”

“In Tar’naris, one needs those to survive,” the drow replied, face as impassive as always. “The mighty are often not careful where they place their feet. One must be adroit to avoid being stepped on.”

“Yes,” Ravana agreed, turning her sly little smile on the three baffled-looking soldiers, “indeed one must.”

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12 – 12

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“Ladies,” Gabriel said in greeting as the two groups met at the stairs to Helion Hall’s second floor. “Wow, this makes everybody. You also got a summons from her Majesty, then?”

“Yeah,” said Teal. “And I have to admit the thing that bothers me most is how little it bothers me to have imperious notes spontaneously appear in the room where I sleep. After all the times Tellwyrn’s surprise-teleported us places, it just doesn’t seem as invasive anymore.”

“We’re being fuckin’ trained,” Ruda said fatalistically, leading the way up the steps. “Which, granted, is the point of a college education, but my papa isn’t paying to have me turned into a goddamn show pony.”

“Toby, are you all right?” Shaeine asked gently. Gabriel’s eyes cut back to his friend, full of concern.

Toby sighed softly, his dour expression not lightening. “Just got back from taking Raolo to the infirmary,” he said tersely.

“Oh, no!” Juniper said, eyes widening. “Is he okay? What happened?”

“Like the others,” Toby answered, eyes ahead as they topped the stairs and entered the hallway. “He seems fine. Just asleep.”

“Fuck,” Ruda spat, turning to give him a look of commiseration.

“This is getting out of hand!” Fross chimed. Patterns of white light shifted along the walls as she zipped spastically back and forth above their heads. “People are getting really worried, and frankly I think they’re right to! How much longer can this possibly go on?!”

“Hey,” Teal said gently, squeezing Toby’s shoulder. “If you need—”

“Thanks,” he said sharply, then immediately sighed again and gave her an apologetic look, which she answered with a smile. “Thanks…but this isn’t suddenly worse because it’s affected a personal friend of mine. If anything, the lesson here is how I should’ve been more concerned with it from the beginning.”

“Caine, enough,” Ruda said flatly. “It is suddenly worse because it affects someone you know. Sounds harsh, but that’s just how people think. Paladin or no, you’re a person.”

“I’m a person called to serve others,” he retorted. “A paladin is expected to do better. And this is not about me!”

“What happened to Raolo isn’t about you,” she said. “The whole Sleeper bullshit isn’t about you. But this, how you feel? That is. You’re allowed to have feelings and flaws—what the hell would gods need paladins for if they didn’t want a human perspective? Let your friends care about you, dumbass.”

Gabriel patted him on the back. “As usual, she’s not wrong and it’s annoying as hell. Look, man, despite what we all know Tellwyrn will think, maybe it’s time we look into doing something ourselves.”

“Such as?” Teal said wryly.

Juniper cleared her throat. “Uh, assuming Tellwyrn’s in her office, which seems likely since she told us all to go there, we’re probably within her earshot here.”

“Yeah, well, Tellwyrn’s also smart enough to see this coming,” Gabriel replied.

They turned at the sound of feet on the stairs, beholding the craggy-face balding man in the long black coat leading the campus’s three resident soldiers up to the hall.

“Move,” the Hand spat, shouldering roughly past Ruda.

“Excuse you?” she said incredulously.

“Sorry,” Rook muttered in passing. Finchley gave her a look of desperate apology; Moriarty seemed occupied with worrisome thoughts of his own.

“The hell’s that about?” Gabriel asked aloud, watching the group fast-march down the hall toward Tellwyrn’s office.

“Dunno,” Ruda said shortly, “but let’s go have a look-see.”

Ahead, the Hand simply opened Tellwyrn’s office door without knocking and barged right in, prompting winces from all three of his followers and several of the pursuing students. They picked up their own pace to join him around the now-open door, but did not attempt to enter themselves. They weren’t the only ones.

“Get in here!” the man said in clear exasperation to the three soldiers, who were hanging back outside the doorway.

“Why, how lovely to see you again,” Tellwyrn said from inside. She was seated behind her desk, regarding him with a sardonic expression. “Still hanging around, are we? Please, won’t you come in. Make yourself right at home.”

“I have observed,” he said curtly, “that you are keeping Imperial personnel in a state of useless idleness on your campus.”

“What, these three?” Tellwyrn said incredulously, glancing past him at the troops, who had entered the office as ordered, but clustered nervously right inside the door. She could also see the sophomores gathered outside, but didn’t acknowledge them yet. “Are you seriously going to get on my case about that? They were stationed on my campus by order from Imperial Command, quartered at my expense, without my permission. Honestly, they don’t eat much and the scruffy one in the middle there is actually mildly amusing. I’ve even known them to be occasionally useful, to the extent of reaching tall shelves, opening stuck jars, that sort of thing. The fact that I don’t find this intrusion by your regime to be onerous is hardly evidence that all this is some sort of plot on my part.”

“I am reassigning them,” he said bluntly. “I’m dissatisfied with the progress you are making on our mutual problem, Tellwyrn, and particularly with your attitude when pressed about it.”

“My heart weeps for your dissatisfaction,” she replied, deadpan.

“You know what your problem is?”

“Yes. But do go on, I’m curious what you think it is.”

“You are of the opinion that you are an unmatched power in this world,” he said, scowling at her. “That rules do not apply to you. That no one can impose consequences upon you. About this, you are mistaken, and since you choose not to apply yourself to the protection of your students, it is high time this was made inescapably clear to you.”

“Literally every single thing you just said is incorrect.”

“At the end of the week,” he stated, ignoring her, “I’m having these three reassigned to Tiraas, and that will be the last you ever hear of them. Unless, perhaps, I see a dramatic improvement in your conduct, and some manner of concrete result. Am I understood?”

Very slowly, she tilted her head to one side. “In all seriousness… Are you feeling all right?”

“I’ve made myself clear,” he snapped. “That is all.”

Suddenly, he just wasn’t there anymore. Gabriel bit back a curse.

“Okay, what the fuck,” Ruda exclaimed. “Was that guy a Hand of the Emperor? What the hell’s he doing here?”

“Kids, get in here,” Tellwyrn said irritably, taking off her spectacles and setting them on the desk.

“Um?” Rook tremulously raised a hand. “Was that ‘last you ever hear of them’ line as pants-shittingly terrifying as it sounded to me?”

“Kinda, yeah,” Gabriel agreed.

“Seriously,” Ruda said, marching up to the desk. “Could you hear what happened out there? The fucker practically shoved me out of his way!”

“I don’t think that’s the most important thing happening here, Ruda,” Teal said.

“You might be wrong about that,” Ruda retorted, turning to scowl at her. “Legally, a Hand of the Emperor speaks on his behalf. I don’t give a shit about people being rude to me, personally, but for a Tiraan representative of the highest possible rank to treat the princess of Puna Dara like a misbehaving chambermaid, there would be consequences.”

“Whoah, now,” Gabriel soothed. “Maybe this isn’t the time to be prideful…”

“Don’t fucking talk to me about pride, Arquin,” she snapped. “Remind me, which of us picked a screaming fight with a volatile paladin on week one, here?”

He scowled. “For the record, I deserved a smack on the head for that, not having a sword drawn on me. And she, at least, didn’t succeed in fucking stabbing me.”

“That’s not the point, either!” Ruda barked. “This isn’t personal. The pride of nations is a very real and important thing. The Punaji can stomach living in the shadow of the Empire because the Silver Throne has always treated us with respect. Nobody has any illusions about who’s the greater power, but we’re allies, not slaves. If that changes…”

“Zaruda,” Tellwyrn said firmly, “while you’re correct in everything you just said, I’m going to ask you to please hold your peace about this for the time being. Don’t make it more of an incident than it already is, and don’t assume anything that particular Hand says is representative of his government, legality or no. Something is wrong with that guy.”

“Uh, yeah,” Finchley piped up. “I mean… He was threatening you with taking us away. Seriously, how can he possibly think that’s even a threat? I can’t imagine anyone thinking we’re that important, especially someone as savvy as he ought to be. It makes no sense.”

“I’m a little bothered by how readily I have to accept your reasoning,” Moriarty muttered.

“It makes a little bit of sense,” Tellwyrn said, grimacing. “It’s a personal attack. You three aren’t exactly a strategic asset, no, but you’ve become a fixture on the campus. You’re liked around here. Still, you’re right. He seemed to think he was holding a much more significant loss than this is over me, which underscores my point. I’ve been dealing with that man for a few days now, and for most of it, he was exactly as professional as every Hand I’ve seen in the past. Suddenly, he’s been absurdly aggressive, and between this scheme and nearly causing a diplomatic incident just now, he’s clearly operating with badly impaired judgment.”

“But…he’s a Hand,” Rook said, aghast. “Of the Emperor. He can’t get impaired!”

“The magic powering the Hands is something way above and beyond what’s widely known to the world,” Tellwyrn said seriously. “I don’t grasp the ins and outs of it myself, but just from the basics I do know, I can assure you it’s without precedent—and risky. Frankly, I find myself surprised it’s taken this long for something to go wrong with one of them. Boys, whatever else you do, I strongly advise you not to seal yourselves in a Rail caravan or any other enclosed space with that guy.”

“He’s a Hand of the Emperor!” Finchley said shrilly. “If he gives us an order—”

“Whoah.” Tellwyrn held up a hand of her own. “I sympathize more than you might think. Even I can’t afford to deny him right to his face—or do you believe I let most unhinged assholes talk to me like that? If I were you, I would start considering my options, and if there aren’t any good ones available, look into creating new ones. In fact, that’s what I plan to do, anyway. You just may face more urgency about it, is all.”

“Fuckin’ lovely,” Rook muttered.

“For now,” she said in a gentler tone, “move along, if you would. I need to have a word with the kids, in private.”

Moriarty saluted; the others just turned and shuffled toward the door in glum silence, the students shifting out of their way.

“And boys,” Tellwyrn said softly, prompting them to pause and look back. “However you end up leaving the campus, be sure to say goodbye before you do. I can’t afford to challenge the Throne openly, like I said. But if you can arrange for it not to be an act of open treason on my part, you’ll have a home here, should you need one.”

“I can’t even begin to imagine how the hell we could arrange that,” Finchley said bitterly.

“You can’t,” she replied with a faint smile. “Totally beyond your power. However, you numbskulls, think carefully about where you are, and who you know. What I said about creating new options? There’s no shame in asking for help. I am not the only person on this mountaintop who can make things happen.”

They paused, glancing at one another speculatively, and then Finchley nodded.

“Thanks, Professor.”

“Yep,” she said, nodding back. “Now go on. Scoot.”

She waited until they were gone and the door shut behind them before speaking again.

“Well, here we are. Thanks for coming relatively promptly, by what passes for your standards.”

“Thanks for not just grabbing and porting us all here in our underwear, for once,” Ruda said bluntly. “Also, are we really done talking about that? There’s a crazy Hand of the Emperor hanging around campus. That’s not a small fuckin’ problem.”

“No,” Tellwyrn said evenly, “and it’s an even less small problem if he’s not the only one. I spent a good chunk of my day in Tiraas making sure the Throne itself is aware of this. That, unfortunately, is the most I can do about it at the moment. Anything I do to that character directly constitutes assault against the Imperial person, which would stir up more trouble than even I can stomp down.”

“Wait, by the Throne itself, you mean…” Gabriel blinked in realization. “Holy shit, you went to see the Emperor? What’s he like?”

Tellwyrn rubbed at her eyes. “Arquin, please shut up.”

“Oh, hey, speaking of that guy and me not doing what you say, Vestrel’s insisting you hear about this,” he said, suddenly frowning. “That wasn’t shadow-jumping or teleporting he just did.”

“What?” Tellwryn straightened, frowning at him. “What do you mean?”

“Apparently,” he said, glancing at an empty spot in the room, “he moved through the place where valkyries are. She says Hands aren’t supposed to be able to do that. Hardly anybody is.”

“Hm,” she grunted, her frown deepening. “Hmmmm. Actually…it makes more sense than shadow-jumping. There are a variety of ways into chaos space, but the most reliable is through powerful fae magic. In fact, I know a certain annoying shaman who is inordinately fond of that trick.”

“Fae magic?” Juniper folded her arms. “I thought that guy smelled familiar!”

“Which is neither here nor there,” Tellwyrn said, suddenly brisk. “Thank you for telling me, Gabriel. And Vestrel. That may be significant. For now, though, I asked you here for a reason, and he wasn’t it.” She sighed. “I just heard about Raolo. Taowi had a note for me waiting, but I only got back to my office a short time ago.”

“Professor?” Fross chimed tentatively. “Is this… Um, what I mean is, is it as bad as it seems like it could be?”

“Well, that’s as good a lead-in as any,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “The first half of what I wanted to tell you is a warning. According to that character from Imperial Intelligence who’s helping with this—the Inspector, not the Hand—the Sleeper is exhibiting an escalating pattern. He started with Chase, who has no significant magical or martial abilities, and was probably a test case. Then came Natchua and Addiwyn, and ambushing elves is hard, even for other elves. The attack on November failed, but she’s a caster of not-insignificant strength—specifically a divine caster, which seems to be a relevant counter to the Sleeper’s magic. Raolo, now, is not only an elf, but an arcanist, an unusual and very potent combination.”

“She is selecting increasingly challenging targets,” Shaeine said suddenly. “Testing herself.”

Tellwyrn nodded. “That’s Fedora’s theory, and it seems to make sense to me.”

“Wait, she?” Gabriel blinked, looking back and forth between them. “Uh, who? Are we talking about November?”

“About the Sleeper,” said Shaeine.

Teal cleared her throat. “It’s called ‘common gender,’ Gabe. It’s a linguistic convention in languages that lack genderless pronouns, like Tanglish and elvish. Which gender is the assumed default basically depends on the culture; in the Empire, that’s male, in Tar’naris, it’s female.”

“Yes, forgive me,” Shaeine added. “I did not mean to cause confusion.”

Tellwyrn cleared her throat pointedly. “Fascinating as this is, I’m not making idle conversation. The Sleeper is running through the list of interesting but relatively soft targets, and running out of them. Fedora specifically mentioned, as the next likely victims, the faculty, and you kids.”

“What?” Juniper exclaimed. “Us?! Why?”

“Think about it,” Toby said wearily. “How many people now have told us what a bunch of powerhouses we are? Paladins, demigods, archdemons…”

“That’s part of it,” Tellwyrn agreed. “The other part is that you kids are much more close-knit than other classes. In part because there are so few of you, I suspect, but you also seem to be simply…compatible. I admit I was rather pessimistic after your first week on campus last year, but your group has formed into more of a cohesive unit than basically any class I’ve ever had. Use that. From now on, I want you watching each other’s backs at all times. Fross, Juniper and Vadrieny may be impervious to the Sleeper’s curse; we cannot be absolutely sure yet that infernal magic is the vector for its transmission, but the evidence points very strongly toward that. Which means Gabriel, Toby and Shaeine also have potent defenses against it.”

“Y’know what, just insert a long string of curses here,” Ruda said sourly. “You’ve all heard me, you know what to imagine. I’m suddenly feeling too pissed off and depressed even to bother.”

“Self-pity does not become you, Zaruda,” Tellwyrn said sternly. “Despite lacking a lot of the magical advantages of your classmates, in a year and a half you’ve never once showed a problem keeping up with them, and that is damn well incredible. However, in this particular case, it does mean you are uniquely vulnerable, and you can’t afford to ignore that. I’m sorry to invade your personal life like this, but I have to put my foot down. I want you moved out of your room in Clarke Tower; until further notice, you’re to stay with Juniper and Fross. At no point are you to be off on your own.”

“Figures,” she said with a wry grin. “No sooner do I finally get my own room…”

“We’ve got plenty of space!” Fross chimed, zipping around her head. “I’m very small and I don’t even use my bed! It’ll be fun!”

“It’s not supposed to be fun.” At Tellwyrn’s soft, weary tone, they all stilled, turning to look at her again. “As I said, kids, that was half the reason I asked you here. The other…” She sighed heavily, leaning back in her chair, and again rubbed at her eyes with both hands. “What I’m about to say is totally without precedent in the history of this University. As bad as things are right now, I need to leave the campus for a little while.”

“Where are you going?” Toby asked quietly.

Tellwyrn grimaced. “Sifan.”

“You think Professor Ekoi can stop this,” Teal said.

“I think her sudden absence is what’s caused this,” the Professor said bitterly. “And furthermore, she had to have known that. In case you kids haven’t put it together yourselves, this Sleeper is almost certainly the same asshole who opened that hellgate last year, and if he’s a warlock, there’s excellent reason he stayed quiet while there was a kitsune on the campus. So yes, I am going to go find Kaisa, get an explanation for her actions, and try to convince her to come back. And that, kids, places me well outside my realm of expertise. Navigating the Twilight Forest is a potentially nightmarish prospect, even for the likes of me. I may be a match, power for power, for one kitsune, but I absolutely don’t want to find out. Going to where all the kitsune are, in their own home, it is going to take time just to get around, and that’s before I ever start to work persuading Kaisa to come back and help. Obviously, I’m going to hurry as much as I can, but…this is not a small prospect. There’s no way I’d leave the University in these straits if I didn’t think this was the best and only option to straighten all this out.”

“Well…okay,” Ruda said, shrugging. “Why’s that so unprecedented, and what’s it got to do with us?”

“What’s unprecedented,” said Tellwyrn, “is me involving students the way I’m about to. Kids… I want you to look after the place.”

“I’m…not sure I understand,” Juniper admitted, frowning.

“As we’ve been over,” Tellwyrn said evenly, “you’re an individually very powerful bunch, and you function extremely well as a unit. Honestly, assembled in this room is both more firepower and more coordination than the rest of the faculty. And, several false starts aside…you’re good. You all care about other people, and matters beyond yourselves. You’re driven by principle. And you exhibit the one trait I learned to associate with the very best of adventurers during my own long career, the one which exemplified the few I came to call heroes: you have a knack for succeeding in situations where, quite frankly, you should not. So… Please protect my campus. I do not want you hunting the Sleeper; don’t do anything that’ll spark a witch hunt, you know very well from my class how horrific those can be, especially in an enclosed social environment like this one. Fedora’s still around and working, and while that guy is his own bag of horrors, he seems competent; let him do the job. But please be ready. There’s a very good chance you will be targeted, yourselves. In that event…” She paused to clamp her lips into a tight, unhappy line. “In that event, fellow student or not, know that the Sleeper has by now completely worn out his or her right to my protection. If you get the chance, put them down. As finally as is feasible and necessary.”

A silence fell over the room, and hovered while the students stared at her in wide-eyed uncertainty. It was Shaeine who finally broke it.

“Understood,” she said, bowing to the Professor. “We shall do our utmost not to disappoint.”

“Professor Tellwyrn?” Fross said hesitantly. “I know I already asked, but… This is, um… It’s really bad, isn’t it? I mean… The Sleeper, the Hand, everything.”

“Stay away from that Hand,” Tellwyrn ordered. “It’s not practical to expel him from the campus; just keep your distance, and if he tries to mess with you, disengage. But yes, Fross. This is bad. You all know the kind of dangers this University uses for training exercises; the campus has seen significant threats beyond even those in the past. But the Sleeper…between this rash of cursing and the hellgate, this is as bad as it has ever been. This person is an enemy, plain and simple, not a misguided student in need of correction. Add to that the Hand, the Wreath still sniffing around, and who knows what else… Yes. Be aware how serious this matter is.”

She leaned forward, folding her arms on the desk, and gazed at them with uncharacteristic earnestness.

“And I wouldn’t ask this of you, or even discuss it with you, if I didn’t have faith in you. Whether you kids can solve this in my absence I wouldn’t say. Frankly, I’d find that rather surprising. But you’re a good group. You’re competent, and you’re good people. You can at least help. Please do.”

“We will,” Toby assured her quietly.

“Thank you.” Tellwyrn blew out a heavy sigh, slumping in her chair. “All right… Classes aren’t canceled, you’ll have a substitute, but I intend to be gone by tomorrow morning. Hopefully this won’t take more than a few days—if it’s going to be more than that, I’ll give up and come right back. In the best case scenario, I’ll be back sooner, and with help. Whatever else happens, hold the line. For now, go get some rest. You’re probably gonna need it soon.

They remained silent and tensely contemplative all the way back outside, none of them speaking up until they were in the hall and the office door shut behind them.

Fross’s sigh was a descending arpeggio of tiny bells.

“I wish Trissiny was here.”

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12 – 11

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It had already been a long day, and the afternoon had barely begun. Eleanora had managed to arrange a short break for herself, Sharidan being trapped in a working lunch with ambassadors from the Five Kingdoms pursuant to the ongoing negotiations; she was very much looking forward to a light meal of fruit in the privacy of her room. And to having Isolde rub her shoulders. The woman’s fingers were positively magical, and nothing else was going to suffice to nix the gathering tension headache she felt coming on.

Stepping into her chamber, she paused for a moment.

Arachne Tellwyrn was sitting on her bed. The frontier adventure novel Eleanora had hidden under her mattress was open in the elf’s hands; the box of Svennish chocolates she kept in her nightstand sat on the sheets, open and now half-empty, surrounded by crumpled wrappers. A bottle of Glassian red wine she had been saving now sat on the nightstand, also half-empty.

“There you are,” Tellwyrn exclaimed. “I thought you’d never come back.”

The pause had been as much of a rise as she was going to get—Eleanora was far too self-contained to reveal any more of her feelings to this interloper. She cycled rapidly through all the obvious questions and dismissed them as things Tellwyrn would either refuse to answer or probably intended to anyway, and continued briskly into her room. Calling for the guards would be antagonistic and likely pointless; it was doubtful even a Hand of the Emperor could deal with the archmage. And after yesterday…

“What have you done with my chambermaid?” she demanded.

“Assuming you’re referring to that bosomy blonde number with the legs up to her neck, she is secured in the bathroom, completely unharmed, albeit rather miffed.” Tellwyrn smirked. “Does your consort know you call her a chambermaid? I have a hard time imagining she’d appreciate that. She seems…scrappy. By the way, your chocolates are poisoned.”

To Eleanora’s supreme annoyance, that made her pause again.

“Forgive me, that might have been a little overdramatic,” Tellwyrn mused, holding up a half-eaten chocolate and peering at it critically. “A better word might be ‘tainted.’ What’s in these won’t harm anybody who doesn’t have an extremely unlikely allergy, and honestly, you’d probably have to be an elf to detect the flavor. It’s distinctive, though. Especially in the presence of sugar, sylphreed makes this bitter, citrusy aftertaste…”

“Sylphreed,” Eleanora said with long-suffering patience, “does not exist.” Mentally, she was already counting down the elf’s allotment of seconds before she gave up on humoring her and summoned the Imperial Guard.

“Yes, yes,” Tellwyrn said, waving airily with the piece of candy. “The plant was a foolproof contraceptive and a reliable treatment for several common venereal diseases, so naturally humanity harvested it into extinction. Equally naturally, the elven groves which still cultivate it don’t let it be known that they do. I’m not kidding about the flavor; wood elves use it as a seasoning.”

“You use contraceptives for flavor?”

“They,” Tellwyrn said with a hint of annoyance for which Eleanora felt zero sympathy, “not we. I don’t move in those circles. And yes, elves are not prone to accidental pregnancy and even less in a hurry to have one. The stuff is easy enough to avoid when somebody wants a child. All of which is neither here nor there; his Majesty has yet to produce an heir, hmm? Now there’s this, and I don’t believe in coincidence. Someone, it seems, is resourceful enough to penetrate your security, connected enough to have access to elven secrets, and clueless enough to feed you contraceptives. That’s a truly horrifying combination.”

“And causes one name to spring immediately to mind,” the Empress said acidly.

Tellwyrn snorted and popped the rest of the piece into her mouth, speaking around it. “I wouldn’t know where to begin finding sylphreed; any place I might try would probably just lead to a fight with the local Elders. I certainly don’t mean your government any harm, and honestly, would I tell you about this if I were behind it?”

“That’s a common enough ploy…”

“To establish trust,” the elf said with a mirthless grin. “When performed by people who give a rat’s ass whether you trust them, yes.”

“That’s a fair enough point, I suppose. If you’ve only just discovered this, it’s not the thing which prompted this intrusion, I gather.”

“Indeed.” Tellwyrn set the book down on the bed and straightened to a more upright posture, shifting to face Eleanora directly with a serious expression. “There is a Hand of the Emperor at Last Rock who appears to be coming unglued.”

Having had the whole conversation thus far to steel herself, Eleanora did not betray even a hint of the sudden unease she felt, merely affecting a disdainful lift of her eyebrow. “Quite an accusation. Or it would be, were it less vague. Can you offer useful details, or have you come specifically to waste my time?”

Tellwyrn made no response to her open asperity. “How much do you know about the situation right now?”

“The situation at Last Rock? The broad strokes. Sleeping curses, your general inability to control your students, a likely connection to last year’s hellgate crisis—and by the way, thank you for that—and the aid of Imperial Intelligence in hunting down your perpetrator, which you should have sought immediately after the resolution of the last disaster when you failed to apprehend the guilty party.”

“All those years of charm school were a wise investment, I see,” Tellwyrn said dryly. “The Hand originally came to feel me out of his own volition, and I decided if the Throne was going to fart around on my lawn anyway it could make itself useful. That is why I’m only now accepting government help, not because I came begging for it, but I am about ready to change my mind.”

“Yes, yes,” Eleanora said impatiently. “What specifically is he doing that has you in such a tizzy?”

The Professor raised an eyebrow of her own, but answered. “Today his behavior suddenly altered. Dramatically. He was rude, pushy, aggressive, and deliberately provocative.”

“Is that really all?” the Empress said disdainfully.

“I have dealt with Hands of the Emperor since they were of the Empress, Eleanora. The moment I came back to society and found Theasia had begun screwing around with dryads, I made damn well sure to understand what to expect from them. Their conduct has never been anything but uniform. They are icily calm, collected, even laudably diplomatic. Now? Even that diabolical thing from Intelligence agrees his behavior was unprecedented and alarming. No, I don’t panic every time a government official acts out of character. Hands of the Emperor are another matter. Something is wrong. And aside from the host of issues this raises for you, it’s going wrong on my campus. If this guy loses it like he seemed close to doing today and I have to deal with that, legally I’ll have assaulted the Emperor. So here’s me, making an overture before that point arrives. I want it understood that I have dealt with the Throne’s representative in good faith and anything which follows will only be whatever is necessary to protect my students.”

Eleanora was still mulling points from earlier in that speech when it came to an end. Dryads? She now embraced a conclusion she’d begun considering yesterday: despite Sharidan’s explanations about her plausible deniability and his mother’s secrets, he was going to explain some things about those Hands of his.

“Diabolical thing from Intelligence?” she said aloud. “They sent Fedora out there? Well, I suppose that makes sense. He’d better have at least one of his handlers on site, too.”

“You seem to have latched onto the least relevant part of that,” Tellwyrn said irritably.

“You and I have very different standards of relevance, Arachne, and no, I didn’t miss anything you said. Mood swings—”

“And shadow-jumping.”

That brought her up short. “…you saw this?”

“He appeared out of nowhere and vanished the same way, and it wasn’t arcane teleportation. If it was mere illusion or stealth, it was enough to fool both my own senses and these,” she tapped the rim of her golden spectacles, “which is not a small thing. More to the point, it’s something the Hands have never had before. Have you been altering them?”

“Surely it goes without saying that I am not going to discuss business of that nature with you.”

“Well, if you have, the side effects include emotional instability, which, if you’ll excuse me for telling you your own business, is a bad trait in extremely powerful people who are always hovering around the Emperor.”

“Your concern is appreciated,” Eleanora said tonelessly.

“All right, fine.” Tellwyrn set the box of chocolates aside and rose, dusting off her hands. “I’ve brought you into the loop, that’s my moral responsibility taken care of. I haven’t made any secret of my self-interest, here, but this also is a matter of concern to the Throne. But if your personal antipathy is more important—”

“Don’t you dare,” Eleanora hissed, assuming a mask of icy rage. The emotion was quite genuine, but she was fully in control, now; her emotions were possessions which served her needs, not wild things which controlled her. She stalked toward the bed, backing the elf up against it. “You have intruded here by force, assaulted someone important to me and made a show of disrespecting my possessions—my personal ones, not the expensive trappings of my rank. You will not stand in my home and act like the aggrieved party trying to be reasonable. This was all the same ploy you always use with everyone: making a show of how unpredictable and dangerous you are, to cow the audience into giving you your way. I know your power, Arachne, but I do not bend my neck to bullies. I didn’t before I sat on a throne. If you plan to push me one inch farther, you’d better just kill me. Otherwise, you are going to learn just how different this Silver Throne is from the one you brought down in the Enchanter Wars.”

Tellwyrn met her furious stare with her eyebrows upraised in surprise. After a long moment, she nodded slowly and sidled away, extricating herself from between the Empress and the bed. “Well…all right. That’s pretty fair, the whole thing. Excuse me, then.”

She made it halfway to the door before pausing and half-turning.

“I’m sorry, by the way, for running out on you like that. No, this is not an attempt to curry favor, or regain any moral high ground. I actually just wanted to apologize; it’s overdue. I left so suddenly because of a call for help. In fact, I lost a good friend that night, which I’m afraid drove everything else right out of my mind. And then you were getting deeper and deeper into politics, and it seemed like a good idea to leave you alone, especially after you tied yourself to the Throne. But…there it is. If I hurt you, I didn’t mean to.”

Eleanora folded her arms, her face once again stonily impassive. “And is that finally all?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Tellwyrn said with a wry twist of her lips, turning back toward the door. “Look after yourself. I mean that very sincerely. Unless I’m badly overreacting to this Hand thing, you could be in real danger, Eleanora.”

She strolled out into the hall as casually as if she owned the place. Eleanora didn’t watch her leave; she suddenly had much more important matters to consider. First, though, she made a beeline for the bathroom. If Isolde had so much as a bruise or scraped knee, she was going to have a fortress built at Last Rock, and a battalion stationed there. With strike teams.


“I’m not arguing the moral point, Moriarty,” Finchley said wearily. “Just the practical one. What, exactly, do you think we could’ve done to protect the students from being attacked by an apparently invisible, un-trackable enemy who in all probability is one of them?”

“Hell, I’ll argue the moral point,” Rook said with a grin. “The Sleeper’s gotta be one of the little bastards, and they can all demonstrably take care of themselves better than we can. We don’t get sent into the Golden Sea and the Crawl every year just to see what happens, and thank the flippin’ gods for that, because what would happen would be us getting our asses killed. And that’d be a damn shame after we were within groping distance of Elilial and walked away, even if we can’t tell the story. Just anticlimactic, is all. Nah. There’s ‘not our fucking job,’ and then there’s this.”

“You are both missing the point,” Moriarty grated, “practically and morally, and you’ll note the total lack of surprise in my expression. It doesn’t matter what we do or don’t have the physical power to do. I hate that we’re sitting here, safe and comfortable, while civilians are being attacked. We’re soldiers! We are supposed to protect the people of this Empire!”

“Y’know, a good chunk of the student body aren’t even Imperial,” Rook said reasonably.

Moriarty clapped a hand over his eyes. “It’s like talking to a wall. A slovenly, lazy, undisciplined, insubordinate—

“Ease up,” Finchley said with a grin. “It’s not likely we’ll find ourselves in a position to help, but come on. All three of us would step in if we had the opportunity and the means. Surely we’ve proved that much to each other by now.”

Moriarty let out an irritated huff, turning to glare at the windows, which showed the prairie far below, stained orange with the beginnings of sunset. “I might feel better if the Sleeper targeted us next.”

“That is because you’re a fuckin’ idiot,” Rook grunted.

“Or a masochist,” said Finchley.

“Which,” Rook replied, “is a sub-species of fuckin’ idiot.”

“Me,” Moriarty said woodenly, “to appease my conscience, and you two because you deserve it!”

“Indefinite enforced bed rest?” Rook said, grinning insanely. “I haven’t been nearly good enough to deserve that! But hell, I’ll take it.”

“Attention.”

They managed, with some scrambling; Moriarty whipped around and snapped to attention immediately, Finchley a second later, Rook only after falling off the bed and leaping to his feet.

The resident Hand of the Emperor stood in the dorm they shared with Gabriel and Toby, studying them coldly. None of them had heard the door open. He paced slowly down the short rank they formed, then back, turning his head to keep his flat stare on them. Finally he stopped and grunted.

“At least one of you gets credit for good intentions—which, needless to say, are worth nothing. You men will pack your gear and be ready to move out upon my order. You have wasted quite enough time loafing about here; it’s time for you to act like soldiers, assuming you can remember how. But first.” He paused, then nodded. His expression was not a smile, but something in it hinted at satisfaction, and even a small degree of pleasure. “First, you are going, finally, to be useful to your Emperor.”


She opened and closed the door when passing through it, loud enough that from any other elf it might have been pointed. In Tellwyrn’s case, though, it probably meant nothing. She wasn’t prone to subtlety in any of her actions.

“Hey, Arachne,” Rafe said with a grin, turning from organizing his tools. “You missed dinner. Want a bit to nosh? I always keep some snacks on hand.”

“No, thanks, I filled up on candy and contraceptives,” she said, surveying the room with a raised eyebrow. “And I’m not just saying that because you offered me food while cleaning your alchemy lab.”

“Excuse you, my lab is a shining beacon of spotless perfection as always, and anyway I’m almost done.” He set the two beakers he’d been holding on their shelf, shut the cabinet and latched it, then turned and held his arms wide, grinning. “See? Done. It’s rather late in the day, Arachne, classes are long over with. What’ve you been out doing all afternoon?”

“State visits,” she said cryptically. “Admestus, I was just prompted today to take a closer look at something which is obvious in hindsight, but sailed right under my nose at the time.”

“Damn, and it’s not even Tuesday,” he said lightly. “Something I can help with, I gather? If you just wanted to think out loud, you usually roust Alaric for that.”

“Mm.” She was studying him closely over the rims of her spectacles, her eyebrows creased in a faint frown. “Kaisa overreacted.”

“Hsst!” He dropped to a crouch, looking rapidly back and forth in alarm. “Don’t speak ill of the creature! She can probably hear you!”

“From Sifan?” Tellwyrn said dryly.

“I am not going to rule that out! Other things I’m not going to rule out include her not actually being gone, because I do not understand why Ekoi Kaisa does anything and I don’t wanna get turned into a frog. She actually has done that, Arachne. Took great pleasure in telling me the story. It ended with soup.”

“She did overreact, though,” Tellwyrn mused, wandering idly into the lab and picking up a sealed jar of tiny eyeballs. She examined this abstractly, not seeming to really see it. “Played the perfect ‘volatile kitsune’ angle. She is prickly about being shown proper respect; most of her sisters are. Kaisa, though, likes to play that angle, and I can’t believe I let her make me forget it. I’ve seen her do it before, act offended and crazy in order to get the reaction she wants, or just to deflect attention. That business, though…that was more affront than your little prank warranted. Also, while I have known her to storm off in a huff, it was never over somebody playing a joke on her. That should have brought retaliation.”

He groaned. “Well, isn’t that just peachy.”

“And then there’s you.” Tellwyrn set down the eyeballs, turning to stare very flatly at him. “You do the same thing. I’m not the kids, Admestus, don’t even try to pull the wool over my eyes. I’ve no issue with your methods of deflecting, except when you take it too far—and I don’t even mind, all that much, cleaning up when you do. This, though.”

“This is all beginning to sound rather accusatory,” he said, folding his arms. “Also, it’s not like you to beat around the bush this way, Arachne. What’s on your mind?”

“Yes, all sorts of people are acting out of character lately,” she said. “Kaisa, flipping out and storming off over a little joke which, honestly, she would have thought was funny, and then got you back. Twice over. You, a person evincing a very healthy fear of irate kitsune—and by the way, take nothing I say here as discouragement of that, because you should fear them if you ever meet another one—who for some reason decided to play a highly aggressive prank on one. How many years has it been, Admestus? I do know you. I know the kind of jokes you like, the kind of targets you prefer and exactly what you get out of tweaking their noses.”

“Am I so transparent?” he asked mournfully.

“To me? Yes. I’m betting to several of your colleagues, as well. Alaric pretends to find you so annoying because he knows you enjoy it. This, though. I was so distracted by Kaisa’s antics and then this Sleeper crap I never paused to consider how very out of character it would be for you to deliberately provoke her that way.”

“Hah!” He struck a pose, planting his fists on his hips. “For the sake of my art, I will endure any travail!”

Tellwyrn folded her arms and stared at him over the rims of her glasses.

It was only a moment longer before Rafe visibly deflated. “Oh, all right, fine. I didn’t slip Kaisa an anti-magic potion—honestly, how would that even work? I’m pretty sure she’s got entire senses for people playing pranks. Drugging a kitsune probably isn’t even possible. She asked me to play along, Arachne. Which I did, for the two very excellent reasons that she scares the hell out of me, and I didn’t see any harm in it. If she was going to mess with the kids or with you, I’d have come to you. I thought she was just bored with teaching and wanted an excuse to quit, and it cost me nothing to make myself useful. I mean, Alaric was back and all…”

“No.” Tellwyrn shook her head, turning to frown at a rack of bottled reagents. “Kaisa does not get bored with teaching. I asked her to come teach because it’s what she does. Her one great joy in life. If she decided to walk out in the middle of her contract, she’s got good and specific reasons.”

“Hey…” His expression sobered. “Do you think this has anything to do with the Sleeper? I’m not an idiot, it did occur to me… But I couldn’t see her doing something like that. I mean, I can’t say I know her well, but she always seemed to care about the kids, in her way. And if nothing else, she respects you.”

“I think you’re right about that,” Tellwyrn mused. “I don’t believe in coincidence. This started up right when she left—but the connection there is obvious enough without weaving conspiracies out of cobwebs. What we’re dealing with is almost certainly a very powerful diabolist, but no diabolist is anything more than prey for a kitsune. However… Now I have to wonder what angle Kaisa is playing. I don’t have it in me to believe she was blind to the results of her departure. I’ve never known her to act without full knowledge of every repercussion her actions would have.”

“Hey, uh, look,” he said awkwardly, scratching behind one of his ears, “you know I wouldn’t…”

“Relax, Admestus,” Tellwyrn said, giving him a fondly exasperated look. “You’re not in trouble. You were right about both your points: defying Kaisa if she asked for your help wouldn’t have been wise, and helping her wasn’t any kind of betrayal of me. I do trust her, and you, and I don’t suspect either of meaning harm to the campus.”

“D’aww.” He beamed. “I’m all warm and fuzzy!”

“Yeah, well, you enjoy that luxury.” Tellwyrn turned back toward the door. “I now have to go and do something about this.”


“Sorry for being late,” Toby said, sliding onto the bench in the little reading alcove. “You were right, I think I may have over-committed myself a bit this semester. I’m gonna give it another week to hit a rhythm before I start paring anything down, so don’t worry, I’m still up for studying.”

Raolo didn’t raise his eyes from the spellbook open in his lap. Toby gave him a long look, then sighed.

“Oh, the silent treatment again? That’s not as entertaining as you think it is, Rao. I’m not that late. And who was it who decided to set up in the back corner over here instead of our usual table? You’re lucky Crystal saw you heading this way or I’d still be looking.”

He grinned and nudged the elf in the shoulder with his fist.

Raolo immediately slumped bonelessly in the other direction, the book sliding from his lap. Toby’s reflexes snapped into action; he grabbed the freshman before he could fall far.

“Raolo?” Gold light flashed into being around them; somewhat awkwardly, given their side-by-side position on the wall bench, Toby wrestled the elf around to face him, tilting his head back. The younger boy didn’t respond in the slightest to the manipulation, even when Toby had to grip his hair to hold his head up, and thumbed his eyelid open. He was breathing; his pulse was steady. He wasn’t an accomplished diagnostician by any means, but between his classes and some of Omnu’s innate gifts, he could sense enough to know Raolo was, more or less, healthy.

Just asleep.

“Oh, no.”

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10 – 29

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A constant background noise of angry mutters filled the square, but for a moment at least, it was still. Wilson cowered under the glow of active battlestaves, the townspeople held position, and the students stood as if frozen in place.

“Teal,” Sekandar said very quietly, “this would be a good time to show your other face, I think.”

Vadrieny shifted her head, fixing Scorn with a fiery stare, and said softly, “Be still.” In the next moment, however, she withdrew, flaming wings and claws vanishing to leave Teal still holding the towering Rhaazke by one arm. Scorn looked unhappy, her jaw clenched, but she obeyed the archdemon’s last command.

A man stepped to the side from the thick of the crowd, seizing the young boy by the arm and bodily tugging him backward, scowling and mouthing an obvious reprimand that was inaudible to the students from beneath the constant babble. Rook drew in a deep breath and let it out explosively, keeping his grip on his staff but sagging physically in relief to the point that the weapon drifted down to aim at the ground.

In that moment of comparative calm, Ravana cleared her throat and stepped forward, attempting to push between Finchley and Rook. When neither man budged and she failed to exhibit the necessary physical strength to force them to, she cleared her throat again, more loudly, and spoke in a well-practiced, resonating voice that projected across the square despite the angry buzzing of the townsfolk opposite.

“Gentlemen, if you will not lower your weapons, kindly power them down, at least? It’s clear to me that we are suffering from a series of misunderstandings. I have no intention of bringing any formal charges against Mr. Wilson. We do not punish people for having opinions.”

Rook and Finchley paused, glancing at each other, but Moriarty immediately relaxed his grip on his staff’s clicker, causing the electric glow limning its business end to fade. Rook followed suit a moment later, and all three shifted their grips to aim the weapons skyward.

The square grew quieter; while the crowd kept up a low, disaffected murmur, the shouting ceased. More people continued to trickle in through side alleys, but they all slowed and peered around on arrival, the additional numbers seeming not to add to the overall tension.

“Very good,” Ravana said with an approving smile. “Now—”

At that second, Trissiny and Gabriel dashed into the square from the direction of the town’s edge, both skidding to a stop and staring at the scene.

Immediately, shouting resumed, louder and angrier than before.

“There she is!”

“What the hell’s wrong with you, girl?!”

“You know how—”

“Repent!”

“Goddammit, Carl!”

“All y’all, settle, let ‘er explain—”

“Please!” Trissiny shouted, raising her hands—which was not as calming a gesture as she seemed to mean it, since she was still holding her sword. “Everyone, please! Is anybody hurt? Did anyone notice something alarming or odd tonight?”

“Y’mean, aside from you?” a woman shouted derisively, prompting a chorus of agreement.

“Triss,” Gabriel said, “I don’t think…”

“Listen to me!” she shouted. “There was a demon in this town tonight! It’s very important that everyone make sure they and their neighbors are unharmed and unaffected.” This had a slight calming effect on the crowd, but angry mutters continued. “If you feel at all unwell or out of the ordinary, please go to the church or the Vidian temple to speak with a priest; symptoms of infernal attack can be—”

“Is that why you broke down the Saloon’s door, you hooligan?” barked an older man in a ragged hat.

Trissiny visibly gritted her teeth. “I was trying—”

“You can’t just warn people about danger, you gotta run around scarin’ folks half to death an’ breakin’ down doors?!”

“Listen to me—”

“You knocked over my front fence! Who’s gonna fix that?”

“Stop,” Szith ordered, thrusting a fist in front of Sekandar when he tried to push forward. “Defending her will only make this worse. We need to disengage, all of us.”

Indeed, Gabriel appeared to be trying to persuade Trissiny to back away, though his muttered pleas were swamped by the slowly increasing roar of the crowd.

“That. Is. ENOUGH!”

Gabriel and Trissiny both jumped apart, whirling to face the stooped figure that emerged from the alley behind them. Finally, actual quiet descended on the scene, broken only by scattered murmurs. She hobbled forward, dragging herself along on two canes, and a veritable chorus of sighs rose from the citizens of Last Rock, accompanied by many rolled eyes and shaken heads.

“Evenin’, Miz Cratchley,” someone said in a tone of ostentatious resignation, earning a few titters.

“I never saw such a sad display,” Mabel Cratchley declared, pulling herself to a stop just inside the square and glaring furiously. “What’s got into you people? Where are the good, solid folk who who’ve weathered prairie storms and elf raids since before that mountain had anything on it but flowers? A hundred years and more Last Rock has stood here, since before the Empire bothered to extend its protection over us, and we’ve stood our ground on our land just the same. We’ve relied on nothing but each other and the gods, and lived to remember it. We earned our lives out here, through work, faith, and god-given skill. And now…now, I find y’all standing around, fixing to throw a fit because of a few bruises and broken fence latches? What, you got shoved and shouted at, and now you have to whip up a mob?” She pointed one cane at the prone form of Wilson, teetering momentarily on the other. “I expect such from fools such as that. I thought better of the rest of you!

“What would make you happy?” the old woman continued, taking another shaky step into the square. The now-quiet crowd actually pressed backward, as if physically driven by the force of her outrage. “There was a demon in our town. A demon! And you’re all pitching a fit because someone rushed down here to warn you, and chase it off? Have every last one of you lost your minds? We have the incredible blessing of a paladin in our midst to protect us, a Hand of a goddess herself, and you’re all complaining? You’d like it better if she left you to see your children corrupted and strangled in their beds, is that what I’m hearing?”

She planted both canes firmly in the dirt, then laboriously straightened her spine, drawing herself up to a surprisingly considerable height to glare at the silent throng. “I’ve no shortage of complaints with that woman and her school. You’ve all heard them. I’ve argued with many of you, and I have never been shy to criticize those who needed it, be they honest Last Rock folk, the Calderaan governors, the Empire, the University, whoever! Yes, I’ve known my share of grievances. But in my eighty-six years until this night, I have never been ashamed of my neighbors.”

The silence was crushing.

Every person in Last Rock had heard Mabel Cratchley complain, and more than otherwise had felt the swat of one of her canes on their backsides while growing up, and been prodded by them many times since. But not a soul present had ever before heard her voice quavering on the edge of tears as it was tonight.

“I can’t even look at you.” The old woman drew in a deep, shaking breath, sinking back down into her customary stoop, then laboriously began turning back the way she had come. “Ms. Trissiny, if the gods have any regard for the opinion of one old woman, then by the time I’ve finished my prayers this night, Avei will know there is one soul in Last Rock who is grateful that she watches over us.”

“Here.” Trissiny sheathed her blade and stepped quickly over to Ms. Cratchley’s side. “Let me help you home, ma’am. It’s late.”

“Bless you, child, but I know my way. You’ve better to do than waste your time on the likes of me.”

“The demon’s gone.” Trissiny’s voice was low and calm, but in the silence left by Ms. Cratchley’s speech, it echoed across the square. “And a paladin is not more important than anyone else. We serve, that’s all.”

The old woman started to speak, then simply cleared her throat and nodded mutely, allowing Trissiny to take her by one arm.

Everyone watched in silence as they retreated back down the alley, till they were lost in the shadows and the soft shuffling of Ms. Cratchley’s feet faded away.

Then Ravana took advantage of her escorts’ distraction to slip between them and out into the square.

“Well, then,” she said briskly, “I understand there was some incidental damage done during Trissiny’s ride through the town? Doors, fences, the like? Why don’t we see if we can help set things straight?”

“Aw, now, you don’t need to trouble yourselves,” a man at the front of the crowd said, doffing his hat, while others shuffled and muttered awkwardly behind him.

“Nonsense,” said Sekandar, pushing his way forward with a smile. “It’s late, and everyone will be wanting to get to bed as quickly as possible; best to get these things squared away.”

“Aye!” Maureen agreed brightly, stepping forward and tugging Iris by the hand; Rook gave up on trying to hold the students back and moved aside, making a wry face. “That’s what neighbors do fer each other, after all!”

The students began shifting forward in unspoken agreement, with the exception of Shaeine, who caught Scorn’s hand and leaned up to murmur to the demon. The townsfolk continued mumbling and shuffling, but without hostility now. Their ranks opened up, letting the students move among them, where Ravana and Sekandar led the way in asking for directions to any property damaged during Trissiny’s ride.

“S-so,” Wilson said tremulously, “that’s that, then? I, uh, reckon I oughtta go apologize to the young lady. Don’t rightly know what got into me…”

“Same as always, isn’t it?” Finchley said rather archly. His expression softened when Wilson slumped his shoulders, lowering his gaze to the ground. “We on for poker as usual on Wednesday?”

“Don’t see why not!” the older man agreed quickly, nodding in eagerness. “Lemme just see if I can get the lady’s attention real quick—”

“You’ll have to do that another time, Wilson,” Moriarty said firmly. “Right now, we’re going to the Sheriff’s.”

“What?” Wilson gaped at him. “B-but she said—”

“She said she would not press charges,” Moriarty replied. “She did not direct us to rescind arrest, and there remains the matter of you interfering with a soldier of the Empire in the protection of an Imperial governor by means of physical assault.”

“Omnu’s balls, Wilson, you’re lucky we know you,” Finchley said in exasperation. “You don’t grab a soldier’s weapon. Ever.”

“Any other trooper in the Empire woulda shot your ass dead in the street,” Rook agreed, “and the inevitable inquest would’ve backed them up. Now, c’mon, let’s go explain to Sam why you’re a towering dumbass. That’s pretty much his usual Monday night, anyway.”

They led the shamefaced man off toward the town center, while the now-blended group of citizens and students dispersed through the side streets.

Behind them all, Scorn scowled heavily at nothing in particular. After a long moment of sulking, she childishly stomped one clawed foot on the ground before turning to stalk back in the direction of the University campus.


“All right,” Basra said, planting her fists on her hips. “This was not what I was expecting.”

There were two Silver Legions currently based in Viridill, the Second on constant patrol through the province and the Fourth encamped in Vrin Shai itself. Soldiers of the Fourth were now spread through the city, forming cordons around each of its multiple canals. So far, though, they were only standing there, enforcing a safe distance between what was in those canals and the citizens who had come out to gawk at it.

Water elementals were clearly visible, amorphous beings formed of the canal water itself, changing shape as they jumped about on the surface and seeming to vanish entirely when they submerged beneath it. They spent an awful lot of time up in the air, though, most splashing each other and shooting jets of water here and there, and occasionally at any people they happened to catch sight of. A few of the onlookers were still soaked from such incidents during the elementals’ first appearance, but by this point, most of those targeted were Legionnaires now standing resignedly in wet armor.

In addition to the near-constant noise of splashing, the elementals had voices which were now audible almost everywhere in the city. They were high-pitched, unearthly, and spoke in no language anyone understood, but they were also unmistakably laughing. Or, more often, giggling.

It seemed all they wanted to do was play.

Basra and her party had edged up to the perimeter enforced by the soldiers, studying the scene, with the exception of Ami, who was keeping a respectful distance and a protective grip on her guitar. A sudden squirt of water shot out of the canal, scattering against the golden shield that flashed into place around Basra and incidentally spraying Schwartz, who squealed rather girlishly and skittered backward.

“Is it possible we were mistaken about the elemental at the house?” Ildrin asked. “I mean…we started in on it almost before it could do anything. These seem harmless enough… Maybe it just wanted to talk.”

“That thing was eight feet tall and built like an ogre,” Ami said from behind them. “It clearly had the brute force to be a danger, and the subtlety to penetrate our defenses without effort. The choice of messenger was the message. Specifically, a threat.”

“Exactly,” said Basra. “Schwartz, you’re certain there are no other elementals called up in the city? Just these…things?”

“I was twenty minutes ago,” he said, wiping off his glasses on the sleeve of his robe. “My divination spread is back at the house… But no, this was what I detected arriving, this and the one specimen that, ah, visited us.”

“The situation is tentatively considered under control,” said the Legionnaire wearing a captain’s insignia who stood nearby, having been grabbed and quickly interrogated by Basra upon their arrival. “At the moment we’re awaiting the arrival of sisters from the temple; General Ralavideh has ordered something called a…frog-in-a-pot maneuver.”

“What does that mean?” Basra demanded.

“I’ve no idea, your Grace,” the captain said with long-suffering patience. This was far from the first very pointed question the Bishop had shot at her. “I’m not a cleric.”

“It’s a reference to the old metaphor,” said Schwartz, now soothingly stroking Meesie, who seemed agitated by all the wetness in the vicinity. “You know, how you can boil a living frog slowly if you increase the heat in its pot by increments, but it’ll jump out if you try to do it all at once? Same applies to using divine magic to neutralize elementals. If you just flare up at them, they’ll be able to tell you’re weakening them, and react to that. If you start very gently, though, and gradually increase the power, you can progressively weaken them until they just…fall apart.”

“Hm,” said Branwen, chewing her lower lip and frowning at the occupied canal. “Offhand I can think of several problems with that plan…”

“Yeah,” Schwartz agreed, nodding. “With all respect to the general and the Sisterhood, I don’t think that’s going to work. For one thing, these are all over the whole city. You’d need an army of priests to cover the whole space to do it all at once; if you did it sequentially, canal by canal, it’d take days. And that’s assuming the elementals stayed gone once banished—what’s happened here is there were charms evoked in the water itself, which means they’re likely to reappear once it’s not being actively channeled at.”

“You could compensate for that by blessing the canals,” Ildrin offered.

“Yes,” Schwartz agreed, “theoretically. But there’s another problem; doing this maneuver requires divine casters to call up and hold a constant stream of energy. You pretty much can’t not do that without risking serious burnout. I, uh…honestly, this sounds to me like something to do when you lack better options.”

“We have our orders,” the captain said stiffly. “I’m sure the general has everything under control.”

“The canals are full of water elementals,” Basra snapped. “Whether or not they’re presenting an active threat, this whole city is very much not under control. Schwartz, are these things as harmless as they seem?”

“You mean potentially?” He shrugged helplessly. “I mean, if they all attacked, that’d be a big problem. And I don’t see what’s stopping them… But, like, tactically speaking, if they were going to do that, wouldn’t they have done it at first, when they had the element of surprise?”

“Maybe this shaman really isn’t trying to start a fight,” Jenell mused.

“The other elemental incidents throughout the province were definitely hostile,” said Basra. “Not nearly as violent as they could have been—in fact, they did seem to specifically avoid causing unnecessary harm. But still hostile. This is a departure.”

“And, again,” Ami added, “that rock elemental was not a friendly thing to send us, whether or not it was planning to bash all our brains in.”

Before anyone could respond to that, another Legionnaire in soaking wet armor came dashing up, saluting. “Captain Veiss! New orders from the general.”

“Ah, good,” the captain said, pointedly turning her back on Basra, whose increasingly sharp questions she’d been enduring with steadily diminishing patience. “We’re ready to begin?”

“No, ma’am,” the soldier replied. “The operation is suspended; new orders will be coming shortly. You’re to hold position, keep the civilians away from the elementals. Bishop Syrinx,” she added, turning to Basra. “That’s…you, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Basra replied. “Ralavideh has orders for me, as well?”

“A request, ma’am,” the messenger said diplomatically. “She would like you to join her to discuss new developments in this situation as soon as possible.”

“Excellent,” Basra said with clear satisfaction. “At the temple?”

“No, ma’am, she’s set up a field command post at a square in a more central location in the city. I’ll guide you.”

“Lead on,” the Bishop replied, glancing aside at the rest of her party with a wry lift of one eyebrow. “Well, fall in, troops. It seems we’re going visiting.”

They had gone right to the nearest canal from their house, which fortunately was, itself, not far from the center of the city. To reach General Ralavideh’s temporary headquarters, they only had to travel a few blocks and descend one tier. It was a mostly uneventful trip, though it required some navigating around rubbernecking residents. So far, no curfew had been declared, and nothing was preventing curious citizens from standing around gawking at the unusual sights; the Legionnaires seemed to mostly be keeping them away from the canals by sheer presence. Silver Legionnaires were very much respected in Vrin Shai.

There was a brief delay when they had to cross a canal and their guide warned them that anyone traversing the bridges could expect to be liberally splashed. Basra had quickly vetoed the use of divine shields, lest it agitate the elementals, but then Ami had flatly (and dramatically) refused to risk getting her guitar wet. Ultimately they had trooped across, Branwen holding a compact little shield over their bard, while the rest of them got soaked. For the remainder of the trip, Schwartz worked some of his own magic to dry them (and their grateful escort) off, while everyone rather irritably gave Ami a cold shoulder.

A market square just beyond the bridge had been overtaken by the Fourth Legion; their guide led them past an outer perimeter of soldiers into an orderly beehive of activity, making straight for a cluster of folding tables which seemed to be the center of the whole operation. As they approached, Basra lengthened her stride, passing their escort and striding right up to the General.

Ralavideh was a Tiraan woman in her fifties, short and stocky in her armor, with graying hair trimmed close to her head. She was surrounded by a dozen people, a mix of senior officers, priestesses of Avei, and off to one side a small knot of civilians in diverse attire. She turned away from a cleric upon Basra’s arrival, nodding in greeting.

“Ah, Captain Syrinx—good, I was hoping one of my messengers would find you.”

“Thank you for including me, General,” Basra replied. “I’m long since discharged, though, you needn’t address me by rank. What’s the situation?”

“At this moment,” said Ralavideh, “we have an unprecedented annoyance in Vrin Shai, but the situation appears not to be dangerous. That doesn’t mean we intend to leave it as is; the Governor agrees with me that these beings need to be removed as swiftly as possible. Right now our focus is on doing so without escalating the situation. Have you anything to contribute to our knowledge of the, for want of a better word, enemy?”

“Not of these specifically,” Basra said, nodding to Schwartz. “My elemental specialist, here, had detection wards over the city and hasn’t identified any other incursions, though we were visited by a large rock elemental at our temporary base.”

“Hm,” the General mused, frowning down at a map of Vrin Shai on the table before her. “Then I’m not the only one who knows the Abbess set you on the hunt for this elementalist. Well! In addition to wanting your perspective, we have unexpected help who also asked to see you as soon as possible.”

Indeed, as she was speaking, a man with a familiar bearded face stepped forward, trailed by the other assorted civilians who had been clustered together at one corner of Ralivedeh’s command post. “Your Grace! Good to see you again!”

“Mr. Hargrave,” Basra replied, nodding. “I confess I hadn’t expected to meet again so soon.”

“Yes, I’ve made…well, it’s a long story,” he said seriously. “These are some of the people I went to speak with. Over a dozen have come to Vrin Shai with me; Abbess Darnassy said we could find you here.”

“You brought Viridill’s witches here?” Basra asked, her eyebrows rising in surprise.

“Well, not all of them, by any means,” Hargrave clarified hastily. “You see, it’s—”

General Ralivedeh cleared her throat pointedly.

“Right,” Hargrave said quickly. “Priorities. They were going to try neutralizing the elementals with priestesses, which would have been quite risky and probably ineffective. Now that we’re here, the rest of my friends have fanned out through the city to begin laying preparations, and we’re going to deal with this matter first of all. Barring any further upsets, I believe we can have all this cleared away in a few hours. Tomorrow, though, I’d like to have a lengthy conversation about what we’ve learned.”

“Excellent,” she said emphatically. “Can you use another caster? Schwartz, make yourself useful.”

“Glad to!” the Salyrite said cheerfully, stepping forward. “Actually, I may have some fresh data to add to your findings—I had a good, solid ward network overlaying the city before all this started up, and I was able to detect…”

He melted into Hargrave’s gaggle of witches and they drifted off toward the canal in the near distance, talking among themselves.

“That’s been the theme of the evening,” Ralavedeh said with an annoyed twist of her mouth. “I’m glad they came along, but you know what it’s like working with civilians. Takes a constant effort to know what they’re doing and make sure they don’t screw up my chain of command.”

“I do know,” Basra agreed. “Well, for the time being it seems I’m a little superfluous, here…”

“Actually,” said the General, “since you brought your whole group, I wonder if I could borrow them for a bit?” She turned, nodding to the others. “I understand Bishop Snowe and a trained bard have joined you—we’ve a use for talents exactly like that.”

“Oh?” Basra raised an eyebrow. “Whatever for?”

“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?” Ami asked dryly. “Or do you intend to just leave this mob to its own devices?”

Beyond the perimeter marked by the Legionnaires, a noisy and energetic crowd were circulating, talking and gesticulating eagerly. No one seemed particularly agitated, though, and while their general noise didn’t yield any specific conversational threads at this distance, it didn’t sound angry.

“I would hardly call that a mob,” Basra began.

“Well, that doesn’t mean you just ignore them,” Branwen said in mild exasperation. “This is what you wanted us for, General?”

“If you’re able and willing,” Ralavedeh replied, nodding. “Citizens of Vrin Shai are a respectful people as a rule, and they trust the Legions, but you simply cannot drop an event like this on top of thousands of civilians and expect it to stay calm indefinitely. Fortunately this happened at dusk; provided we can get it squared away before business hours begin tomorrow, we can hopefully avoid any serious unrest. For now, I would like any help possible in keeping a lid on this.”

“Hm,” Ami mused, absently tuning her guitar and frowning at the onlookers. “That’s hardly the whole population of the city. Nor even a significant percentage…”

“It’s a start, though,” Branwen said with a smile. “Come, Bas, let’s see if we can’t put people’s minds at ease.”

She glided off toward the edge of the square opposite the bridge without waiting for anyone’s approval, apparently not seeing the scowl Basra directed at her back. Ildrin, Ami, and Jenell, who had seen it, followed at a more circumspect distance.

At the other end, the plaza terminated on a broad staircase only four steps tall. It was a short enough drop that they could plainly see the people milling around below it, built mostly for decoration and to prevent wheeled vehicles from entering the market square. Legionnaires were guarding the staircase, however, keeping the civilians isolated in the wide street below.

The crowd focused its attention on the top of the stairs as Branwen arrived, taking a position near the center between two soldiers, who looked quizzically at her and then at a nearby officer. Apparently having been told what to expect, the lieutenant gestured them away, and they shifted to the very edges of the staircase, distancing themselves from the Izarite Bishop. By that point, a few scattered cheers had broken out and people surged forward eagerly, smiling up at Branwen.

“Well, what a night this is!” she said, her light voice projecting skillfully out over the crowd, and earned a laugh from her audience. “I’m a guest here, myself, so please don’t take anything I say as an official pronouncement. General Ralavedeh has very kindly allowed me to speak to you—which works out well for everyone, as I’m sure you know how much I love to hear myself talk.”

During the laugh which followed this, Ami mused aloud, coincidentally having placed herself close enough to Basra to be audible to her, “My, she’s actually rather good at extemporizing, isn’t she? Somehow, I’d though all her speeches were the work of Church handlers.”

“What I can tell you,” Branwen continued as soon as it was quiet enough again, “is that the Sisterhood of Avei has matters well in hand. At this point, it’s not yet certain what is happening or why, but there is no indication that anyone is in any danger. And should these…peculiar visitors take a turn toward hostility… Well, in that event, I find I am still not overly concerned. This is Vrin Shai, after all!”

She beamed proudly down at them, waiting for the cheers to subside before continuing. “It’s hardly a secret that the cults of the Pantheon don’t all see eye-to-eye, and indeed, my faith has its frictions with Avei’s. If I must be surrounded by an invasion of strange elementals, though, I can honestly say there is no one among whom I would rather find myself. Yes, the Sisters of Avei are indeed fearsome in battle, and the presence of all these Legionnaires makes me feel much safer. But there’s far more to it than that! Avei is a goddess who places great trust in people. For all of the Sisterhood’s history, she has encouraged people to find their own courage, to hone their skills, and the result is what you see around you! An invincible city, filled with an unconquerable people, living under the aegis of a goddess who has led them to be the most they can be!”

More cheers, this time slower to subside. Branwen nodded and smiled encouragingly, but before she opened her mouth to speak again, there came a shout from near the front of the crowd. The speaker hadn’t waited for silence, and so most of the words were lost, but the Bishop was apparently close enough to make them out clearly. All that was clearly audible from Basra’s position behind her was “Last Rock.”

Apparently, Branwen was not the only one who’d heard the words. The crowd’s voice faltered into confusion, cheers and applause continuing from various quarters, while others who had been close enough to hear broke off their adulation, murmuring.

“It’s hardly kind to cast aspersion on the people of the frontier,” Branwen said with an artful hint of reproach. “In fact, I was in Last Rock very recently, and I found them to be a most admirable folk as well. They have had a different journey through history than you, and were shaped by different pressures, but I rather think they would cope well with a situation such as this, too. The prairie breeds hardy and adaptive folk.

“If anything, the comparison should only encourage you! For all their strengths, the folk of Last Rock lack a great gift that Avei has bestowed on you: leadership and examples which come from within, not from above. You live with and among the Sisterhood—the Legionnaires rise from within your own families, proving the potential of a whole population. No one sits high atop a mountain, grooming rogue adventurers and denying you a place among them.”

She paused for more reaction again, but this time the result was clearly not as she expected. The onlookers frowned, glancing at one another in apparent confusion—at least, some of them. Quite a few tittered, and open laughs sounded from several direction. Branwen hesitated, for the first time betraying uncertainty.

“So, your Grace,” called a male voice from near the front, the same voice which had shouted about Last Rock. “I take it you haven’t seen today’s papers?”

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