Tag Archives: Flora

11 – 21

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The elves exchanged a wry glance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, the elves glanced at each other.

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

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

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

“And why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“WELL WELL WELL.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go on,” Style said grimly.

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

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

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

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

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

“Well…great,” he muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And suddenly, Jasmine was between them.

“That’s enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was Jasmine who let out a yelp of pain.

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

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

The whole exchange had taken less than ten seconds.

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

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

“Stop it!” Tallie shouted fruitlessly.

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

11 – 16

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Haste makes you clumsy.”

“Clumsy gets your ass nabbed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, well spotted,” Fauna said approvingly.

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

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

All five of them winced in unison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Such as?” Rasha asked.

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

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

Flora and Fauna exchanged a long look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not something they are, or have.”

“Hnh,” Tallie grunted, looking dissatisfied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyebrows shot upward. “Excuse you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I…well, I guess I was mistaken.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What if we are?”

“You can’t prove that!”

“There’s no law against—”

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

“I see,” the guard said dryly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This time, she made no bones about blatantly pointing.

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

“Follow him!” Fauna barked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let him through,” Flora said quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did you?” Rasha demanded.

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

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

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

“Well, no shit,” Fauna said acidly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Watch your backs.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

11 – 15

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

The layout of the Thieves’ Guild underground headquarters was, unsurprisingly, confusing. Aside from the central complex around the Pit, where things were mostly laid out in a sensible fashion, the whole network was a confusion of oddly-angled tunnels, stairwells, meandering halls, hidden nooks, side rooms, and obfuscatory features in general. No room except the smallest and some not open to the public had only one entry, and there were abundant quiet spots for assignations of all kinds. It was all very useful for many of the purposes of its inhabitants. On the downside, for those not yet used to the place, it was very easy to get lost.

At least it provided means of avoiding the more crowded areas, if one were so inclined. Thus, it was an even nastier shock than it would otherwise have been when Jasmine emerged from the less-used back entrance to the dormitory toilets to find Grip lounging against the wall right outside.

“Morning!” the enforcer said with a bright smile.

Jasmine forced herself to relax, aware that her instinctively combative pose had given away her tension. With that out of the bag, she didn’t attempt to feign disinterest, folding her arms and scowling.

“Well. You’re up early.”

“Yes, I was,” Grip agreed, idly tossing a dagger in the air and catching it, “but that was hours ago. It’s past breakfast.”

“Somehow I assumed you’d be the type to be out all night and asleep—oh, excuse me, mysteriously absent till afternoon.”

“Then we’ve learned something about making assumptions, haven’t we?” Grip replied, grinning.

Jasmine narrowed her eyes. “What are you doing out here?”

“It’s the Guild,” she said with a shrug. “I’m a thief. I’m allowed.”

“You know what I mean,” Jasmine snapped. “And now you’re just trying to irritate me.”

“Yes, I am, and it’s working.” She pointed the dagger at her, expression now serious. “Don’t just experience the encounter, examine it. What exactly am I doing that gets under your skin? Why is it working? How can you counter this next time? What’s my motivation, here?”

“Let’s start simpler. What are you doing lurking outside the apprentices’ toilets?”

“Enforcement is about control, and control is about manipulation. You can’t maintain control through brute force, you’d be drowning in enemies before you could build a power base. It’s little things, theatrical touches and ways of getting under people’s skin that does the trick. Keeping people off-balance is more effective than keeping them afraid. For instance.” She smirked, lifting one eyebrow. “One of the most powerful things you can do to emphasize to someone that you are the one in control is to just show up in places where they think you won’t. Places where they feel safe, that should be out of bounds.”

“And so, toilets,” Jasmine said sourly.

“Toilets, hospital rooms, workplaces… For all the stories about leg-breaking—and we enforcers spread most of those ourselves—we get much better mileage out of embarrassment. Somebody owes money? Threaten them, and they may panic, or just do something dumb. But having shady characters like me turn up at their office, or finding me sitting in their kitchen making polite conversation with the little missus when they get home, or sitting next to them at temple services….? That is how you lean on someone.”

“Hm,” Jasmine said noncommittally. “Well, since you’re here, I have questions.”

Grip straightened up, twirling the dagger to rest with its blade against her forearm, and made it vanish inside her jacket with alarming deftness. “Shoot.”

“What happened with you and Randy?”

“What have you heard?”

“That you tossed him out for shaking down shopkeepers.”

“That’s the long and the short of it, yes,” Grip said, her expression openly annoyed for the first time. “He also got caught doing it by Sweet’s apprentices, which was humiliating—as much for me as for him. Insult upon injury. Was that all you wanted to know?”

“Of course not. I have a personal interest in understanding what you look for in an apprentice. I don’t really see the connection between myself and him. And if there is one, well, that’s a little distressing.”

The enforcer smiled, briefly, but in real amusement, before her expression sobered again. “Randy had—has, rather—hunger. The drive to make more of himself, to succeed, to fight the world. It’s a very Eserite thing. He’s one of those who’s always felt wronged, shortchanged; the world owes him something and he means to collect.” She shook her head, grimacing bitterly. “That we can’t have, it makes people do the most appalling bullshit. Prompted in the right way, though, it can be refined into a less narcissistic, more reasonable drive, the thing good Eserites need. A lust to equalize, turn the tables, bring the mighty down to our level and look them in the eye when they realize what’s happened. And I thought I was making progress with him, I really did. He was… Well. What his personal hobbies revealed was that he was playing me. Playing along, acting like he was absorbing the philosophies along with my tactics and know-how.” Her eyes narrowed to furious slits. “I’m not some thug, nor do I associate with riffraff, and I sure as hell don’t train that kind of scum. Eserion gives us a purpose, and it’s not to line our pockets. I failed Randy, apparently. Worse, he proved he wasn’t going to change. After that, aside from the insult to me, I could never trust that I was training an Eserite, and not just a thief. That was it for him.”

“I see,” Jasmine said slowly.

“Anyway, don’t worry too much about the resemblance,” Grip said, suddenly much more nonchalant. “I don’t have a type. I rarely pick a protege, and only when I spot somebody who I think needs my personal coaching. You have very little in common with Randy.”

“Glad to hear that, anyway.”

“Don’t be,” Grip said flatly. “It was a neutral statement, not a compliment or insult. He’s him, and you’re you. He failed. You still might. Do not get cocky.”

Jasmine tilted her head back, meeting the enforcer’s stare without hesitation. “I have advantages he definitely lacks.”

Grip smiled humorlessly. “And this is why you need me, in part.”

“That’s the other thing I was going to ask. What in the world do you want with me?”

The thief tilted her head, permitting herself a small smile which even looked deliberate. “If you understood my reasons, you wouldn’t need my help. If you were yet in a position to understand, I’d explain it. Some things you have to learn through experience.”

“Uh huh,” Jasmine said skeptically. “Well, this has been interesting—”

“You are on a schedule, you know,” Grip said pointedly.

“Yes, I am,” she retorted. “Right now I have to go deal with Glory again, followed by other things which are no business of yours. And in the slightly longer term, between all that and you I am reconsidering this whole project. You can threaten me with exposure if you like; while I’m debating whether I actually need to be here, that’s nothing more than helping me make up my mind. If I do decide to stay, we’ll talk. But not right now.”

“I’ll tell you what, kid,” the enforcer said, smiling again. “I’m going to grant you a few days’ leeway, because this right here is a valuable lesson. Learning how to weasel out of pursuit and delay the inevitable is a crucial skill for a thief, but not as much as learning the limits of how long you can get away with that. So here you go: learn the limits.” She winked. “And thus, you’re studying under me, whether you want to or not. Think about what I did, and try it yourself. Talk to you real soon, Jasmine.”

She turned and strolled away, leaving Jasmine standing alone in the corridor, staring after her.

After another moment’s contemplation, Jasmine turned and cut back through the toilets and the barracks into the Pit. The route she had started to take was roundabout and three times as long, and…well, there was no point, now.

“Heeeey, there she is!” called the first person she particularly wanted to see, after she’d exchanged nods with a few other apprentices. Tallie waved with her customary exuberance. “Missed you at breakfast, Jas!”

“Oddly enough I don’t have much of an appetite,” she replied, strolling over to join Tallie and Rasha by the pickpocketing dummies. “What’s the plan for today, guys?”

“Ross left early, too,” Rasha said quietly. “Apparently he’s got a lesson and some personal time with an actual Guild member.”

“Stands to reason, he’s been here twice as long as us,” Tallie said airily. “Good on him! We’re just waiting for oh look here he comes now.”

“Discussing who you’d all like to shag?” Darius asked, swaggering up to the group. “Don’t worry, I get that a lot. Morning, ladies.” He grinned broadly at Rasha, who narrowed his eyes.

“You need a new routine, Darius,” Tallie retorted. “That smug cocky guy schtick of yours is way overplayed. Try something original, something your own! Like the friggin’ pox.”

“Hey, don’t joke,” Darius said solemnly. “My uncle died of the frigginpox.”

“Are you sure?” Rasha snapped. “Maybe it was just embarrassment at being related to you.”

“Ooh, and the littlest Punaji tries his best!” Darius grinned down at him. “Not at your quickest first thing in the morning, are you?”

“Before this devolves any further,” Jasmine said pointedly, “you made it sound like you’ve got a plan for today?”

“Hell yeah!” Tallie crowed. “We’re meeting the elf twins preeeeetty much any time now, I dunno where they are. But they’re taking us out actually pickpocketing!”

“In…a group?” Jasmine raised her eyebrows. “That sounds like a good way to court far too much attention.”

“Hey, Fauna and Flora know what they’re doing, generally speaking,” Darius said with a shrug.

“And it’s Flora and Fauna,” Tallie corrected. “How many times I gotta tell you?”

“As many as it takes before that starts making a difference, you daffy bimbo.”

“Anyhow,” Rasha added, “we’re getting a chance to practice what we learned yesterday.”

“Oh…that sounds pretty good, actually,” said Jasmine with a sigh. “Wish I could come, but I’ve got to go dance to Glory’s tune again. It’s less of an honor this time, since I’ve been forewarned that this is the let-down speech.”

“Oh, ouch,” Tallie said, wincing sympathetically. “Not her type after all, huh?”

“And that’s just the start of the day,” Jasmine said dourly.

“Well, hey, don’t feel bad,” Darius replied cheerfully, slapping her on the shoulder. “You weren’t around to get the teaching, so it’s not like you could’ve come, anyway!”

“My, aren’t you a charmer,” Tallie said, scowling at him. “We could teach her what we know on the spot, y’know, and I bet the elves know a lot more than any of us, anyhow. No need to be a dick.”

“It’s a having a dick thing,” Darius said seriously. “Rasha, tell her.”

“Whoah!” Rasha protested. “I have and want nothing to do with you and dicks!”

“Hmm.” Darius made a show of stroking his chin in thought. “I feel I should be able to run with that. There’s a good burn in there, I can sense it, but there are hazards. A lot of the directions I could take it would make me sound pretty gay.”

“How about—” Tallie broke off as Rasha’s finger was thrust into her face.

“Don’t help him! And if you don’t want to sound gay, Darius, try talking a little bit less about dicks.”

“And he recovers from his earlier fumble!” Darius crowed, beaming. “Anyhow, where the hell are those girls? Just like a pair of elves to be shiftless and unreliable. Boom!” He whirled, pointing both fingers behind him. Another passing apprentice, finding herself in his sights, paused to give him a contemptuous once-over before continuing on her way. Darius sighed and turned back to them. “Well, shit, I thought for sure they’d be right behind me if I started bad-mouthing ’em.”

“Nice, boy,” said Flora from directly above them. “Real attractive.”

“And it might’ve worked, if only you were apprenticing with the Veskers,” Fauna added archly.

Both elves were perched nimbly on the edge of the Pit. Half of it was railed, a fairly new addition which had apparently been abandoned partway through, leaving the rest of its surface borders as a constant falling hazard. Flora and Fauna, doubtless to emphasize their agility, had chosen to balance on the iron bannister, sitting as casually as if in easy chairs.

“Ladies!” Darius cried, waving exuberantly up at them. “May I just say you’re looking extra svelte today? And not just because I have a perfect view of your legs from here.”

“Do we really wanna help him?” Flora asked her counterpart.

“Eh, he might as well come along,” Fauna replied with a shrug. “I kinda like the others.”

As if on some inaudible cue, both hopped forward plummeting down to land nimbly beside the other apprentices. Flora’s characteristic cloak billowed very dramatically at her descent.

“So, you coming along today, Jasmine?” Flora asked with a broad grin.

“I’m afraid I have to go oh what am I doing, I know you heard our whole conversation.”

“Dammit!” Fauna huffed irritably, flipping a doubloon to Flora, who caught it with a gleeful cackle. “You had to pick today to start learning?”

“Yeah, I’m increasingly okay with how this has panned out,” Jasmine said dryly.

“Well, cats and kittens, we are burning daylight,” Tallie added. “C’mon, ladies and Rasha, let’s get a move on. See you this afternoon, Jas?”

“Or tonight. It depends on how long I get tied up today.”

“Try not to do that,” Flora advised.

“And if you do, make sure you establish a safe word,” Fauna added.

Jasmine blinked. “…what?”

“Isn’t she precious?” Flora cackled, turning to go with a wide sweep of her cloak.

“I swear, one of these days you’re gonna hit somebody important with that damn thing…”

“Didja see what I did there?” Tallie asked Darius, grinning and prodding him on the shoulder. “Ladies and Rasha, I said. See, the implication—”

“Yes, yes, thank you for defending my honor, Tallie,” Rasha said, rolling his eyes. “C’mon, they’re leaving us behind. Bye, Jasmine.”


The records room at the Silver Legion’s complex in the Temple of Avei was a fairly public space; one needed reason and at least a minimal level of clearance to be there, but such reasons did occur consistently in the normal course of the day. Ordinarily, women would be coming and going through the well-lit archives to retrieve, deposit, or copy files on a regular basis.

It was quiet, now, and empty, and she had to force herself not to rush in her efforts, as rushing led to sloppiness. She was keenly aware, however, that her presence was the reason no one else was in here. She hadn’t left orders not to be disturbed, but had had to identify herself in order to gain access, and…apparently, one thing had led to another.

An hour into her search, though, she was at least making progress. Hopefully the disruption her presence must be causing the Legion’s ordinary functions was minor and easily remedied. Surely if anything important came up that necessitated access to the files, whoever needed it wouldn’t hesitate?

She looked up in mild surprise when the door to the long filing room finally opened, then straightened fully, setting down her folder and blinking. “Oh! Commander! I’m sorry, I hope I’m not disturbing you…”

High Commander Rouvad smiled faintly, pulling the door shut behind her. “Not in the least, I’m glad of the excuse to take a break. Disconcerting, isn’t it?”

“Pardon?”

“Not having to salute,” Rouvad said, her smile widening as she approached. “You’ve got a look I recognize, not knowing quite what to do with your hands. It was awkward enough for me, and I got to this position after long years of making smaller steps. Don’t repeat this, but I still feel uncomfortable, not saluting a General. Somehow I never quite imagined myself as the woman in charge; it still feels like I’m watching somebody else play a role, some days.”

“I…um, I see.” Awkwardly, she relaxed her tense posture. “For the record, I didn’t tell them not to disturb me in here.”

“Yes, I know,” Rouvad said, shaking her head ruefully. “That would be Sergeant Pinitar’s work. A stickler for respect toward the faith’s persons of importance, and quite a fan of yours, incidentally. Don’t worry, you’re not disrupting the Sisterhood’s affairs unduly. I did leave orders that we not be disturbed, though. If it’s not something extremely personal, I can probably help you find what you’re looking for a lot quicker, Trissiny.”

For a moment, she considered insisting on the name. Principia hadn’t been the first to emphasize that while she was Jasmine, she was Jasmine; a convincing deception began with deceiving oneself, on some level. It had been a favorite theme of Tricks’s, when he was initially coaching her in this role. Just for a moment, though. That conversation would be, at best, a distraction, and probably achieve nothing productive.

“I spoke with Principia Locke recently,” she said instead.

Rouvad nodded. “I just learned of that this morning, in fact. Sergeant Locke credits your help with much of her progress on her current mission.”

She drummed her fingers once on the file atop the cabinet directly in front of her. “I’m not trying to get her or her squad in trouble, here.”

“Allow me to lay that worry to rest,” Rouvad said seriously. “A certain amount of politicking is inevitable in any organization the size of the Sisterhood. I have no choice but to engage in it, myself. But among my personal priorities as a commander is to protect my troops from that as much as possible. If Locke has done something that deserves reprimand, she’ll get it. If not, I will not see her put upon in service to anyone’s agenda. I’m afraid,” she added with a sigh, “I have not always managed to shield Squad 391 from that as well as I should have; Locke and her soldiers are already more suspicious of the chain of command than I like to see in a unit, but I can’t blame them for it. Restoring that trust is something of a priority right now.”

“I see,” Jasmine murmured. “Well, perhaps that’s a good lead-in for what I was looking for. When we talked, Locke mentioned someone highly placed in the Sisterhood trying to murder her, and apparently her whole squad.”

“Oh, did she,” Rouvad said flatly. “Might I ask how that came up in conversation?”

“I asked her to see me to gain her insights on my own project; she certainly knows a great deal about being Eserite, and apparently has managed to learn something about integrating the two faiths without dissonance. We were discussing that, and I expressed an opinion that the Guild was inherently somewhat more corruptible than the Sisterhood. That was part of her rejoinder.”

“Hm.” Rouvad turned to lean backward against the file cabinet, folding her arms. “For what it’s worth, her point is well-taken. The Sisterhood is more corruptible by nature, just because it is more structured. Predatory people can exist in almost any environment, and they tend to thrive in the military. Where there are rules, those rules can be exploited. The comparative chaos of the Guild’s structure counters that to a point. Coupled, of course, with its inherent opposition to the abuse of structures.”

“All systems are corrupt,” Jasmine muttered.

“Yes, so they tell me,” Rouvad said dryly. “You know, Locke is a Legionnaire, now. Anything Legion-relevant that you want her to tell you, you can order her to.”

“Yes, I know. As does she. She asked me not to, said she doesn’t want to stir up more politics.” Jasmine shook her head. “And yes, I am aware that she fed me just enough information to help me find what I need, especially since it’s an accusation I can’t just let go. All while covering her own butt. I’m not blind.”

“Avei wouldn’t have picked you if you were obtuse,” Rouvad stated, “despite what I suspect some of those thieves have been telling you. And don’t underestimate Locke. It wasn’t just a matter of protecting herself; by making you dig up your own information, she arranged for you to be more invested in it. That’s a vitally important piece of mortal nature you need to be aware of, Trissiny. It’s why organizations have intense initiation rites, part of why basic training in any military is so brutal. People value something much more if they’ve had to work for it.”

Jasmine sighed. “Forgive me, Commander, but I’ve just come from a singularly unpleasant encounter with a person who breaks elbows for a living and seems to want to teach me to follow the same path. I’m a little sour on the subject of manipulating people at the moment.”

Rouvad cracked a faint, wry grin. “I know that feeling, too. I’m sorry to have to say this, General Avelea, but you’d better get over it. These are the methods by which you keep your troops in order.”

“I know, I know. I’m coping. I was always taught that Avei disapproves of lies, though.”

“That’s Narnasia’s voice talking, not Avei’s. War is deception.”

“Yes, I’m getting quite the education in that as we speak. But since you’re here and offered…?”

The Commander clenched her jaw for a moment, looking away. “Well. Loath as I am to drag you into politics, that’s probably just wishful thinking on my part. Locke may have exaggerated slightly; it wasn’t a murder attempt, so much as a plot to discredit her squad which could have resulted in their injury or death. I have to acknowledge that from their perspective, the difference is just quibbling.”

“She also claimed the person responsible is still in a position of authority,” Jasmine said, hearing her own voice climb in incredulous disapproval. “This really happened? And that’s true?”

Rouvad nodded slowly, turning her head again to meet her eyes. “Yes, Bishop Syrinx is now reinstated to her position.”

For a moment, she could only stare. “…the Bishop?”

“Have you met Basra Syrinx, Trissiny?”

“Once. It was… Well, surprising. She struck me as quite clever.”

“Oh, isn’t that the truth,” Rouvad said in a surprisingly sour tone.

“I don’t mean to be pushy, Commander, but I think I need to insist on a full explanation of this.”

“It’s not pushy,” Rouvad replied immediately. “You’re entitled to know, by virtue of rank alone. I wasn’t keeping it from you, Trissiny, but by default I don’t inform you of the Legions’ doings unless you are specifically involved. But, yes, since you are, now… Well, to begin with, have you ever heard the phrase ‘social pathology?’”

She narrowed her eyes. “I… Actually, I think I have, but only in passing. During one of Professor Tellwyrn’s lectures, I think. I can’t recall specifically what the context was.”

“Well, by that description it could refer to almost anything, but that’s the term used by dwarven mind-scholars. Actually, the elves have a word for it as well, but personally I find the dwarven perspective more useful. Admirably scientific people, the dwarves; their research is all conducted very rationally and well-documented. Social pathology is a condition from which Basra Syrinx suffers.”

“It certainly doesn’t sound pleasant,” Jasmine said pointedly. “I doubt it would even if I didn’t know it was relevant to her attacking her own soldiers.”

“It’s a congenital disorder of the brain,” Rouvad continued. “It causes the victim to have a very limited range of emotions and predisposes them toward certain characteristic traits: egotism, obsessiveness, aggression. The most important fact of it, though, is that it leaves the sufferer unable to form emotional connections to other people—to anything, really.” She paused, frowning at the wall and clearly not seeing it. “How to put this… Well, to you and I, a person, a puppy, and a chair are three qualitatively different kinds of things. They demand different responses and types of treatment. Syrinx lives in a world inhabited entirely by chairs…some of which cut in front of her in line and chew up her shoes.”

Jasmine stared at her in dawning horror, her mind racing ahead to being grasping the full implications. “And…this…person… Is the Bishop of our faith?!”

Again, the Commander heaved a heavy sigh. “This is where it gets difficult, Trissiny—especially for me. It’s another thing you really should have been made aware of before now, as both militaries and the Thieves’ Guild attract people like this. It’s not a common condition, but the studies I’ve read from Svenheim estimate as many as one in a hundred humans and elves have it, and only slightly fewer dwarves. Personally, I would love to throw Basra bloody Syrinx out of the Legions and the cult entirely; dealing with her is a constant strain on my patience and belief in the basic good of the world.”

“And yet she’s still Bishop.”

Rouvad nodded, grim-faced. “Because… For what, exactly, would we be punishing her? You can’t condemn someone for being mad, you can only deal with their actions as necessary. It’s a disease, and it’s not her fault she has it. Understand how someone with a brain like that sees the world, Trissiny. It’s not remarkable that she turned on a squad who personally irritated her, so much that she doesn’t do such things every day. Yes, we have to hold Syrinx accountable for her actions, but punishment is simply not effective on her. She is by all evidence an upstanding citizen and a highly productive member of the Sisterhood, all without being capable of anything you or I would understand as morality.”

“How is that even possible?”

“Because she’s found her own way to live by the dictates of our faith, and society at large. Basra isn’t able to love, or truly to care, but she understands cause and effect and has a sense of her own self-interest. However she does it, she toes the line. When she steps out of line I have to deal with that—but I have to do so keeping in mind what causes her to act as she does, and what methods are necessary to rein her in. They are rarely the same ones that would work on a normal person. Honestly, I’m never sure how well I do at managing her. It’s uncharitable of me, but I can never shake the suspicion that she’s up to things out of my sight far worse than anything she’s ever been accused of.”

“Like trying to murder a squad of Legionnaires?” Jasmine snapped.

“The files on that are classified,” Rouvad replied, “and thus not here. However, I’m going to have them pulled and copied and made available to you. You deserve to know all the facts. I handled that as best I could, Trissiny, but it wasn’t so simple as Locke doubtless made it sound. Do me the favor of knowing everything you can before taking a side.”

“That’s…fair,” she said somewhat grudgingly.

“There is also the matter to consider that Basra Syrinx is a priestess of Avei,” Rouvad added pointedly. “It’s the single greatest reason I extend to her as much tolerance as I do, followed shortly by the fact that her very disability makes her a shrewd and extremely valuable political agent. But in order to call upon Avei’s power, she requires the goddess’s approval.”

“Clerics have acted poorly in the past,” Jasmine pointed out.

“Indeed, yes, but there is always a line which, when crossed, cuts you off from a deity’s auspices. They don’t watch everything all the time, Trissiny, but they see when their power is called upon. So long as Basra has continued access to the light of the gods…I extend to her a little trust. Because I am trusting in Avei.”

A momentary silence fell. Jasmine nodded slowly in comprehension, and reluctant acceptance.

Rouvad studied her face thoughtfully, then sighed again. “Well, that is as good a segue as any. On a very similar note, I want Principia Locke in my Legions about as much as I want Basra Syrinx, and I tolerate her for similar reason. When she applied to enlist, I was inclined to show her the door.” She shook her head. “I was overruled.”

“Overruled? But you’re the High Commander, who could—” She broke off, eyes widening.

Rouvad nodded. “Locke is here because, for whatever reason, Avei wants her. I think you should know that, if you’re going to try dealing with the woman.”

Jasmine bit her lip. “Commander… What do you think of Principia?”

“She’s trouble,” Rouvad said immediately. “But… And I’m surprised to find myself saying this… Not more trouble than she’s worth. She is a lousy soldier and probably always will be…but I have never been able to fault her effort, or her apparent care for the women she leads. And they have the highest opinion of her, including one whose opinion I, personally, value highly. For now… Just as with Syrinx, I’m trusting that Avei knows what she is doing.”

The Commander and the paladin sat in silence for another moment, and then Jasmine heaved a sigh. “Well. I guess I should be glad somebody does.”

Rouvad grinned. “It’s the only thing that keeps me going.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

10 – 47

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >

“Can you make anything out?” Darling asked quietly, settling down against the back of the little hollow in the dunes in which they had hidden themselves. The beaches of Viridill consisted mostly of thickly clumped sand carved into rough shapes by wind and surf, many topped with tough, scraggly tufts of grass that helped keep them intact. It hadn’t been hard to find an out-of-the-way hole in which to crouch that nonetheless afforded them a view of the action going on at the edge of the forest. In fact, the girls had shadow-jumped right into it; they had clearly scouted the area previously.

“Too far,” said Flora, shaking her head. “Which is good, because he can’t hear us, either.”

“And we have the surf at our backs,” Fauna pointed out.

“I’m aware,” Darling said patiently. “I was just hoping you might be able to see something useful.”

“They’re in profile relative to us,” Flora murmured, squinting into the distance. “Worst possible position for lip-reading.”

“A word, here and there, when they shift their heads,” Fauna added. “So far, things seem calm. Can’t put together a conversational thread beyond that.”

He nodded, sighing softly. At this distance, he could just barely see Basra and the headhunter; the assembled armies were a formless mass off to their right. While Mary and Khadizroth had gone off to do…whatever they could do, he and the girls had assembled themselves to keep an eye on developments, such as they could.

The Bishop and the headhunter were just sitting there, having a conversation.

“Have to give her credit for balls,” Flora observed.

“Lack of fear isn’t courage,” said Fauna.

“I didn’t say courage. I said balls.”

“That’s a woman, you know.”

“So the balls are internal.”

“Aren’t they all, technically?”

“I wonder,” said Darling, “if it’s possible to roll my eyes hard enough to be audible to you two. Am I close enough for that?”

They both turned to smile at him.

“Seriously, though,” Flora said, her expression sobering, “that exchange with Khadizroth…it kind of pointed something out to me.”

“Both of us, I think,” Fauna said, glancing at her with a hint of question in the tilt of her head.

“It was the part about you actually teaching us Eserite philosophy,” Flora continued, directing herself to both of them. “The skills we’ve learned are fantastic, but…”

“Yes, that’s what I was thinking, too,” Fauna added, nodding. “A change in mindset takes time to develop; that was a moment when we could look back and really see it.”

“We appreciate it,” Flora said quietly.

He smiled in return before answering. “And…any other changes? How’s it been, this close to Athan’Khar?”

They glanced ruefully at each other.

“You actually noticed that?” said Fauna. “Impressive.”

“I noticed hints. Under the tension of the moment, you were awfully controlled, considering the proximity. And I know you’re both quite deft at controlling your expressions by now, but I know you well enough to get a feeling when there’s something extra afoot.”

“Yeah,” Flora said, nodding and turning back to watch the distant conversation. “It’s…definitely different.”

“Before there was a kind of oneness,” said Fauna. “The spirits in us, the ones in the land… Like water, ready to mix back together.”

“And there’s skill a recognition, a kind of kinship…”

“But distinction, as well. That sense that Athan’Khar might reach out to absorb us…it’s not there.”

“I’m not sure what to make of this, to be honest. Like the Crow said, we’re kind of unprecedented.”

“But I can’t help thinking it’s a good development,” Fauna finished very softly. Flora looked at her, nodding agreement.

“I suppose spirits are living things, even murder-crazy ones,” Darling mused. “Living things grow, and change.”

“Then that’s just one more thing we owe you, Sweet,” Flora said, smiling broadly at him.

“I doubt any of us could have predicted how much we’d gain from studying under you,” Fauna agreed.

“I mean, I guess the Guild would teach us how to manage anyway…”

“But it still wouldn’t be…you. Y’know?”

They both smiled warmly at him.

“Well,” he said dryly, “that’s some top-notch kissing up. On point, not too heavy-handed, just subtle enough to pass notice without failing to make the point. Well done.” He leaned forward, staring flatly. “Now knock it off, both of you. Your ass is still grass.”

Both their faces fell, shoulders slumping in resignation.

“Do you have any idea,” he said grimly, “the havoc you caused in Veilgrad? The whole city—the whole province was in an uproar when I left. I doubt it’s settled down much even by now.” He glanced past them at the pair still talking in the distance, careful not to raise his voice. The wind was on their side, blowing from the headhunter toward them, but one could never be too careful about elves. “What could you possibly have been thinking? I’m aghast, girls. You’re usually so much more sensible than this. Did something seriously go that wrong?”

Flora sighed heavily. “It’s… It was starting to get closer, anyway. The spirits were still mostly quiet, but we knew they’d be wanting satiation soon…”

“And then we found out you were coming to Viridill. Which is far too close to Athan’Khar.”

“It wasn’t like we had a lot of time to react, either; we were trying not to get close enough to the Crow to let her know we were there.”

“Not that we can be sure that worked anyway…but eavesdropping has practical limits, as you know. By the time we knew your destination, we had all of one night to deal with it before you’d have to set out the next day.”

“And being hungry close to Athan’Khar is a very bad idea. Especially since it turned out we had to go right up to it!”

“So in hindsight it all worked out well, right?”

Fauna ventured a tentative smile, which vanished under his stare.

“And that led to summoning and killing an incubus right outside a heavily fortified Imperial city?”

“It wasn’t right outside,” Flora said defensively. “We went at least half a mile out into the prairie.”

“And we couldn’t kill it right there, obviously,” Fauna added. “That would hardly have done anything for the spirits at all. It had to be a chase.”

“Before we get into what’s wrong with that,” he said, “I’d like to hear how you so dramatically failed to clean up after yourselves.”

They winced, exchanging a pained glance. “We, uh, underestimated the Imps’ response time,” Flora said.

“We certainly planned to scrub everything clean,” Fauna assured him, “but they were all over it almost as soon as we were done. If we hadn’t booked…”

“I figured that was probably it,” Darling sighed. “All right. Please tell me you at least did a thorough job of confusing your trail after that point…”

“Absolutely,” Flora said, nodding eagerly.

“Multiple shadow-jumps and teleportations…”

“Splitting up, laying false trails…”

“All over the continent and to other places besides.”

“The Crow or Tellwyrn couldn’t have followed us—nothing short of a god. We watched for the Imperials to try, and nothing came of it.”

“So that much is clear, at least!”

“At least.” He shook his head, glancing once more at Basra and the headhunter off in the distance. Not that he could see much from here, but they still appeared to just be sitting. Well, they hadn’t been talking long. “Do you understand what your mistake was?”

Flora sighed, looking downward. “Half a mile wasn’t far enough.”

“You’re damn right it wasn’t,” he said darkly. “That city was recovering from a massive magical catastrophe. The entire province is under regular scrying sweeps; Veilgrad itself is fortified by the best the Azure Corps can provide, not to mention strike teams and probably at least one Hand of the Emperor hidden away somewhere. And you summoned an incubus. A half mile from the city walls.”

He let the silence hang for a moment, watching them sit there and look miserable.

“I realize you were adapting on the fly,” he continued in a more moderate tone, “but that was a very serious blunder, girls. You have to be able to make good decisions under pressure and with very little time; that was not a good decision. People make mistakes. You will make more. But that was the kind of mistake that limits the kind and the number of mistakes you can get away with in the future, you understand? Even if they couldn’t follow a trail right to you, an event like that will leave the Empire curious. It’s an open mystery, existing in a situation where they’re under pressure to provide answers. The best case scenario is that this languishes in a cold case file, just waiting to be cross-referenced the next time Imperial Intelligence catches a whiff of your trail.

“A good thief is careful. Your power means you have to be more careful, not less.”

“Sorry,” Fauna whispered, not meeting his eyes.

Darling let it hang a moment longer, then sighed and rose to kneel, shifting forward toward them in the little hollow. He draped an arm around each of their shoulders and gave them an affectionate jostle. “As your sponsor and principal trainer I suppose I really ought to box your ears for this, but some fuck-ups I have to think are their own punishment. This can’t happen again, girls. No headhunter shit anywhere near a place where the Empire might pick up on it. That means we’re not using the sewers anymore. In fact… If you have to do this in the future, shadow-jump off the continent, okay? Find a desert or something in Araknia or Glassiere.”

Flora sniffled once, but smiled weakly. “You do know there aren’t any deserts in Glassiere, right?”

“Come on, half the country’s ice and snow,” he retorted. “It’s not a conventional desert, but nothing grows or lives there. Totally counts.”

They hugged him back for a moment, and then the three separated, settling back to more comfortable positions from which to watch the action.

If “action” was the right word.

“She might actually pull this off,” Darling mused after some minutes had passed.

“And then…” Fauna glanced at him. “We’re actually doing it the way you decided?”

“It feels like a defeat,” Flora murmured.

“Well, it would be, from a certain point of view,” he said. “It’d be Basra playing the hero, giving Justinian what he arranged all this for. Irrespective of anything else going on here, her handling that creature will unquestionably save a lot of soldiers if she pulls it off, not to mention a wide swath of the civilians behind them. Big heap display of courage and skill. If that happens, the fact that it’s not the disaster Justinian planned would be just an ironic but insignificant twist of fate. Rouvad would hardly be able to keep her on the shit list at that point.”

“So…it’s like Justinia forming his Holy Legion all over again,” Fauna said grimly.

“Just so,” he replied, nodding. “We have to consider the next battle, and position ourselves to fare better, which means not burning any bridges. Entertaining as it may be to bring the whole Empire and the Sisterhood and whoever else down on Khadizroth, the fact is he’s close to Justinian and not happy about it, which makes him too useful to discard. Protecting that asset means shielding him from blame.” He frowned, narrowing his eyes as he stared at the distant figures sitting on the grass just beyond the forest’s edge. “Whatever the headhunter tells anyone else, his testimony will be easy to contradict; the Empire thinks of them as wild and unreasoning. And Basra’s clever enough to follow my lead if I can catch her in time. That way we can present Khadizroth as an ally who was trying to help against the elementals.”

“And if you can’t?” Flora asked.

“Or she’s not?” Fauna added.

“Then,” he said with a sigh, “we’ll just have to leave things vague. In the absence of other factors, headhunters do make excellent scapegoats, as you well know. I don’t foresee a problem, though. Even if Basra comes right out and says the headhunter denied being behind the elemental attacks…well, like I said, nothing he said will be taken too seriously. Besides, she’s hardly going to thoroughly debrief right there in front of everybody as soon as she gets back. No, I should be able to arrange it, one way or another.”

Flora shook her head. “Almost makes me hope she fails.”

“That woman really, really needs to be dead,” Fauna agreed. “And we obviously wouldn’t mourn Khadizroth.”

“If she fails,” Darling said pointedly, “it comes to a fight. A very, very bad fight. The kind that has only survivors, not winners. If that.”

“They’ve been moving mag cannons into position,” Flora pointed out. “Both on the field and on the battlements of the two nearest forts.”

“If those things can hit, it’s over,” said Fauna. “We couldn’t stand up to a direct shot from one, either. He definitely can’t.”

“If someone fired a mag cannon at you,” he said dryly, “what would you do?”

They glanced at each other, and both grimaced. “Evade.”

“Teleportation or shadow-jumping.”

Darling nodding. “If Nintaumbi blankets the whole area in mag beams…maybe. But then the cannons will be slagged and their crews dead before they have time to re-charge. And don’t forget, the fact that we’re dealing with a headhunter instead of elementals means Aspen’s presence is a huge risk instead of an asset. If something hurts her, this whole place is going under. The best case scenario is that Mary and Khadizroth can subdue him, which sounds iffy, the way they describe it. And for that to work ideally, the Army and Legion will have to recognize they’re trying to help and not attack. Which I’d describe as fifty-fifty.” He shook his head and sighed. “No…we have to hope for a win for Justinian this time.”

“We could take him,” Flora muttered.

“We’re the same thing he is, but twice as much.”

Darling held up one finger. “First, you would be guaranteed to reveal yourselves to the Empire that way, and second…” He held up another, staring them down. “Can you honestly, positively be certain your spirits will let you fight his? Development or no, they don’t want to fight other headhunters; they’ll want to kill all the Imperials massed just over there.”

He patted them each on the shoulder as they slumped in defeat. “No, girls…now we simply endure the worst part of any job. Watching, and waiting.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

10 – 46

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >

Birds chirped with incongruous cheer, oblivious to the tension lying over the ruined fort.

Khadizroth sighed very softly through his nose. “Perhaps it is time, at that. Speak, then.”

“Do you have any idea,” Flora said tightly, “what you put us through?”

“Can you even imagine?” Fauna said. “Are you capable of feeling what it was like?”

“Being that vulnerable, that dependent…”

“On someone who planned to ultimately use you.”

“For an abhorrently disgusting purpose…”

“That would eventually make the world suffer?”

“It’s not as if we don’t know what you did for our tribe.”

“We haven’t forgotten that you saved all our lives, and gave us a life again.”

“Taking care of the wounded and young.”

“Do you remember how grateful we were, that first time you came to us?”

“That’s what made it all so awful, Khadizroth.”

“Even after all you did for us…”

“Even still, having to loathe you for what you planned.”

“That is how repugnant the situation you created was.”

“You don’t get to call us ungrateful.”

“You have to answer for being so vile it overwrote that gratitude.”

They finally fell silent, glaring, both practically vibrating with tension now, fists clenched and feet braced. Khadizroth’s eyes had progressively widened as they spoke, till he was practically gaping at the two elves. For long moments, there was only the sunlight and the birdsong, mocking the mood.

Then he turned to stare incredulously at Darling.

“They talk…in tandem, now. Is this your doing, thief?”

“Hey, hey.” Darling held up a hand. “I’m just here to facilitate this meeting. You can direct yourself to the elves, please.”

“And make it good,” Flora snapped as the dragon turned back to them.

“We’ve waited a long time to hear you account for yourself,” Fauna said implacably.

Again, Khadizroth sighed. “Shinaue, Lianwe… You know everything. My reasoning, my intention, my unease with the whole project. I never deceived you or withheld truth.”

“You brazenly manipulated us, all of us!”

“Do you comprehend the kind of damage that does to a young mind?”

“Sometime you should speak to the Elders at the groves that took in the younger ones.”

“You ought to know exactly how you messed them up!”

“Fine,” he said wearily, spreading his hands. “Here you are, here I am. Weakened by Kuriwa’s curse and you with the source of your extremely ill-considered power only a breath away. Unleash your vengeance and let’s be done with it. I would not much mourn the chance to rest.”

In unison, they shook their heads.

“Revenge is a tool, Khadizroth; it has specific uses, and only damages the work when applied wrongly.”

“The point of revenge is to manage reputation, to prevent further attacks.”

“No one but us even knows about this…”

“…and it’s not as if you would change your behavior just because we have the power to hurt you.”

“There’s no point at all. This isn’t about revenge.”

“It’s just,” Fauna finished softly, “about closure.”

“That…is Eserite philosophy,” Khadizroth said slowly. Again, he turned to glance back at Darling. “You have actually taught them. In all honesty, I’d believed you were using them for your own ends.”

“Course I am,” Darling said with a shrug. “Everyone uses everyone else. That has nothing to do with how people feel about each other. I can put someone to work in my plans and still care deeply for their welfare. Really, K, have you ever had a friend in your life?”

“Many,” the dragon said wryly.

“Not that it was necessarily easy to get to this point,” Flora said with asperity.

“As we mentioned, you did a number on us,” Fauna continued. “It was a hard thing to get over.”

“But hating someone is like stabbing yourself and hoping they bleed to death.”

“Letting go is necessary; it’s just sense and self-management, not morals.”

“So, yes, Khadizroth… We’ve forgiven you.”

“For our sake, not yours.”

“But you are still,” Flora said sharply, clenching her fists, “going to explain yourself.”

“Right. Damn. Now.” Fauna leveled an unrelenting stare at him.

He sighed heavily, then turned and walked a few steps away, breaking up the symmetry of their formation. Darling remained on the opposite side of the cold campsite, watching curiously, as Khadizroth took up a position to one side of the gates, gestured at the ground, and pulled forth a sawn-off stump from the dirt. He turned and sat down on this, facing the elves, and folded his hands in his lap.

“It should go without saying that I was furious,” the dragon stated, gazing at them in earnest calm. “I felt betrayed, to say the least. I was aggrieved by the loss of those whom I had come to hold dear, and yes, by the destruction of all my careful plans. There was not time, by that point, to start over. I feared already that I had left it too long, put off by the distasteful nature of the idea. It was all moot by the time you had finished spiriting the others away; the power of Tiraas is too concentrated, now. To hear the mortal politicians speak of it, the Silver Throne has never regained the authority it had before the Enchanter Wars, but they see power only as a means to exercise force. The truth is, the Tirasian Dynasty has been wiser than most of its forebears. The Empire has focused, in the last century, on infrastructure, on social development, on the advancement of knowledge. Despite the proliferation of factions within it, the fragmenting of authority, the Tiraan Empire as a civilization is stronger right now than it has ever been, far more potent than the corrupt government which laid waste to Athan’Khar. This continent, this ancient, sacred land, belongs to the humans, now. The groves and the dwarven kingdoms may hold out while they can, but in the end, it will be Tiraas which decides the fate of all souls on the continent, and throughout much of the world beyond.”

Khadizroth shook his head slowly, his expression purely weary. “And all indications are that that fate will be a grim one indeed. I tried, children. I did the only thing I could think of that I believed had a chance of working. Thanks to you, that opportunity is lost.”

“Are you actually going to sit there and blame—”

“Please.” He held up a hand. “I listened to you speak. Will you hear me out?”

They narrowed their eyes, then glanced at each other.

“Go on,” Fauna said curtly, folding her arms.

“Like you,” he said, “it has taken me time to work through this. It is not a simple matter and my feelings about it were likewise complex. But time has elapsed, I have thought on it, and as everything stands now… When I look on you and think on the turns our relationship has taken, I find that my resentment is a distant thing. More than anything else, I feel…grateful.”

In perfect unison, both sharply raised their eyebrows, and blinked.

“It’s not as if I didn’t know how repellent the whole thing was,” Khadizroth said with a grimace, looking down at the ground. “I have no rebuttal for that. For any of it. You are right in all particulars. As I said at the time and said ever since, I did not do that because it was right…I did it because I believed it necessary. And I can only hope for your sake that you never have to choose between those two things. What you did, girls, by destroying my scheme, was to rescue me from the burden. I besmirched my honor by carrying it as far as it went, but in the end, the real horror of it never had the chance to materialize, and the opportunity will not come again. You obviated the need. Whatever happens to me, now, I will face with the knowledge that I could not prevent it. What remains of my integrity is mine to keep. Thanks to you.”

He stood, slowly, turned to face them directly, and bowed deeply.

“I thank you. And for what little it may be worth… I am sorry. For everything.”

Both were watching him warily now, their expressions almost uncertain.

“Do you feel,” Khadizroth said somewhat wryly, straightening up, “that you have gained your closure?”

“Actually…” Flora glanced at Fauna. “Actually, yes.”

“Somewhat to our surprise.”

“Good.” He nodded. “Somewhat to my surprise, I do as well. I has been…very good, very good indeed, being able to talk. I had thought that if we ever met again it would inevitably come to bloodshed.”

“We’re not going to rule that out,” Flora said grimly.

“But it’ll be over whatever happens at that time,” Fauna added, “not over the past.”

He nodded. “That is both fair, and rather prescient. And now.” The dragon shifted to look at Darling. “I believe we still have more current matters to discuss?”

“Yes, well, one more bit about the past.” Darling shrugged nonchalantly. “You’ll tell Vannae I’m sorry for roughing him up that time, won’t you? It was undiplomatic, I’ll warrant, but the little prick was talking about my girls like they were a pair of stolen dogs he could just come and collect. That kind of thing is very hard not to take personally.”

“Indeed,” the dragon said with a wry half-grimace. “I’ll convey the message, but I guarantee no acceptance on his part. Vannae is a somewhat more emotional creature than I.”

“Ugh, you have no idea,” Flora muttered, rolling her eyes.

“And for my part, I choose to disregard that insult,” Khadizroth added more gravely to Darling. “I think, going forward, we would all do well to emulate Joseph’s example and address one another with courtesy when we have the chance to speak, even if it necessarily comes to violence in the next breath.”

“Agreed,” Darling said, nodding. “With all that out of the way… Just what is going on with these elementals?”

“To speak plainly, then,” the dragon said, folding his hands, “I am here on the orders of Archpope Justinian, using these elementals to forment a crisis in Viridill of a specific nature that Bishop Syrinx should be able to solve. I am to manage the event carefully such that she emerges the unquestioned hero of the day. This was going rather well,” he added sardonically, “until one of her associates bungled it up last night. I’m afraid I outsmarted myself; managing two remote presences, having two separate conversations—one in the dream plane—left me vulnerable. That rather minor magical device inflicted more harm than it otherwise would have, and prevented me from explaining the full situation to Ingvar, as I intended.” He sighed, shaking his head. “It was a long and careful plan that brought the Huntsman and the Crow here, and just like that, wasted. I’m growing sadly accustomed to the sensation.”

“Well, once again, it’s the Thieves’ Guild to the rescue,” Darling said cheerfully. “I have to say, though, I’m left a tad perplexed that Justinian cares enough about Basra to want her back that badly.”

“I have learned that questioning his motives is wasted breath,” said the dragon. “While I am beholden to him, I carry out his orders. He has not seen fit to preclude conversations such as this, at least. I know little more of Syrinx than that Justinian thinks she would disapprove of this plan—at any rate, he insisted that she not be brought in on it.”

“The woman is anth’auwa,” Fauna said darkly.

“She’s also a highly skilled politician,” Darling mused, “and one of the best swordswomen in the Sisterhood today.”

“I see.” Khadizroth frowned. “I didn’t know any of that. I had been operating under the general principle that what Justinian wants, he should not have. Now, I believe he should quite specifically not regain an asset of that quality.”

“So the question becomes,” said Darling, “what to do about it now?”

“I am not in a position to turn on the Archpope directly,” the dragon cautioned, “and in any case I deem it more valuable to remain close enough to observe his plans and interfere with them.”

“I work for him under pretty much that exact logic.”

“So I had assumed. Therefore, I will have to continue my campaign…but it is possible that between us we can arrange—”

He broke off at a sudden, frantic squawking from above. A crow dived into the courtyard with uncharacteristic speed, plummeting beak-first at the ground.

Mary landed in a crouch, whirling to face Darling.

“Antonio. You are unharmed?”

“Me?” He put a hand to his chest, blinking in surprise. “Is there a particular reason I wouldn’t be? If you’re worried about Big K, here, turns out this has all been one big kooky misunderstanding. He’s a total sweetheart!”

“Shut up,” she said curtly, turning her head slowly with her nose upraised as if sniffing the wind. “You are human… I fear that neither the dragon nor these two would be an adequate defense… No, it has passed by. You have been unfathomably fortunate just now, Antonio.”

“My patience for you is nil to begin with, Kuriwa,” Khadizroth growled. He had assumed a more aggressive posture upon her arrival, as well as a deep scowl. “You will explain yourself swiftly and in detail.”

The Crow turned to stare flatly at him. “It is a very fortunate thing I decided to return here in haste; I expected to find more of Justinian’s schemes to unravel. Instead, the situation has abruptly changed. Very much for the worse.”


“What is going on?” Basra demanded, striding up to the command tent, which for the last five minutes had been buzzing like a kicked beehive. Behind her, the rest of her party clustered together, watching nervously.

“Watchers with telescopes on Fort Naveen just reported someone walking out of the forest,” Colonel Nintaumbi said curtly, handing a slip of paper to a soldier who saluted and dashed off. “Moments later, the watchers on Fort Tarissed confirmed the report.”

“My scouts are unable to verify,” Yrril said, unflappable as ever. “My colleagues, here, are trying to insist that my forces withdraw.”

“Yrril, we can’t abandon the lines,” General Vaumann exclaimed in exasperation, clearly having already gone over this. “It would only provoke him, even if it weren’t unacceptable to cede this position in the first place. Please don’t turn this into a diplomatic disaster on top of all the other kinds of disaster it’s about to become. Get your people out of here!”

“Disaster?” Basra snapped. “What? Who came out of the forest? It’s far too soon for Antonio to have returned with anything useful; he hasn’t even had time to reach Varansis.”

“Bishop Darling is almost certainly dead,” Nintaumbi said grimly. “An elf came out of the forest, Bishop Syrinx. A lone, male elf, dressed in filthy rags. Coming straight at us from Athan’Khar.”

“Confirmed!” barked the Legionnaire who had her eye pressed to the telescope that had been hastily set up on a tripod just outside the tent. “Target has been observed using obviously infernal, divine and arcane magic.”

“Where the hell are my strike teams!” Nintaumbi roared.

“In position, sir!” shouted an Imperial soldier, skidding to a stop just under the awning and tossing off a salute.

“We have two strike teams,” Vaumann said tonelessly. “That’s about the number who usually die in the first engagement against a headhunter. If we deploy them before the other four get here from Tiraas it’ll be in vain. Yrril, nothing we or you have will stand against that creature, do you understand? Nothing. This is our land; we cannot yield it to a mad thing that only wants destruction. For the goddess’s sake, take your people and pull back!”

“What is the headhunter doing?” Basra asked in icy calm.

“He appears to be dismantling the wards placed in front of the forest, ma’am,” the Legionnaire at the telescope reported. “Systematically, showing no signs of agitation or aggression. He hasn’t moved toward the front lines.”

“Why would he want those wards dismantled?” Yrril asked, making no response to Vaumann’s entreaties. “I understood they were simply detection devices, surely no threat to him.”

“Archcommander, this creature is by definition insane,” Nintaumbi said with a sigh. “Looking for logic in his actions is pointless. It’s a rabid dog with the power to cleave through our lines like they’re nothing.”

“How long until he finishes off the wards?” Basra demanded.

“Unknowable, ma’am,” said the watcher. “His pace is uneven. He keeps pausing to just…look around.”

“And we can’t assume he’s going to do a thorough job of it anyway,” Vaumann added darkly. “He could lose interest any moment. I repeat my recommendation that my troops move to the fore, Colonel. Avenists are slightly less inherently provocative to a headhunter than Imperial soldiers.”

“And my people least provocative of all,” Yrril pointed out. “That elf may dislike drow, as most do, but the spirits of Athan’Khar have no reason to hold an opinion about us.”

“That’s right, talk amongst yourselves,” Basra said curtly. “Soldier, fetch me a horse. Now. I’m going out there.”


“We have to help them!”

“Let’s go!”

“Stop!” Mary barked, pointing at Flora and Fauna, who appeared poised to lunge into action. “Will you think before leaping? You two are creatures without precedent already, both for your relationship to each other and the mental stability you have retained. That is an eldei alai’shi of the old breed—unreasoning and completely lost to the voices. He seems to have been even more weak-minded than most, to judge by his laughing and talking to himself as he passed. You cannot know what will happen if you approach him. What if the spirits within you try to fuse with those in him?”

They both froze, expressions agonized.

“I suppose,” Khadizroth said, frowning deeply, “you and I could try to intervene, Kuriwa… But I fear the outcome of that would be similarly random. I’m forced to admit I am not a sure match for that creature, unless you see fit to lift your curse.”

“For a situation like this, I honestly would,” she replied, “but the undoing would take more time than we have.”

“Good to know,” he murmured.

“The both of us together might be able to dissuade him,” she added, “but the Imperial troops would almost certainly attack us, as well.”

“Surely you’re not suggesting we just leave this?” Flora exclaimed.

“We have to do something, damn it!” Fauna shouted.

“We have to act carefully,” said Darling, and his calm voice seemed to ground them both. “We have friends out there; we’re not just going to ignore this. Come on, girls, this is just the kind of exercise you’re trained for. Brute force and frontal assaults won’t work. We have to find a way around—we have to be clever.” He turned to Mary. “I’m open to suggestions.”

“This must begin with observation,” she replied. “I will return to the edge of the forest; he will be there by now. If there is anything to be learned, I will learn it. But it will leave precious little time to act upon that knowledge before many lives are lost.”

“Wait,” said Khadizroth, holding up a hand. “I will go, too; aside from the obvious need to intercede, this dovetails with my mandate from Justinian. But consider, Kuriwa, the staggeringly improbable timing of this.”

“If you’re about to suggest Justinian sent that thing here, you can forget it,” Darling scoffed. “He doesn’t have that kind of power.”

“Are you saying that because you know it,” the dragon asked, arching an eyebrow, “or because you would prefer to believe it?”

“Khadizroth, if Justinian could summon and deploy headhunters, most of what he’s done up till now would be redundant and pointless. I don’t trust coincidences, either, but Justinian is not the shadow lurking in every corner.”

“Exactly.” The dragon nodded and turned to Mary again. “Kuriwa, attend.”

All of them shifted back as the color of the light changed, taking on a greenish tint, and the air pressure sharply dropped.

“Khadizroth,” Mary warned.

“This is not meant to harm you,” the dragon said, reaching out a hand toward her. “You can feel what I am doing quite well.”

“Thinning boundaries like this is a terrifyingly bad idea so close to Athan’Khar,” she snapped. “Release it!”

“Calling up the aspect of the dream,” he said calmly, “is necessary to illustrate—ah. There it is.”

The dragon laid his fingers on something invisible in midair, pinched them together, and plucked.

Strands of gossamer were momentarily visible where they vibrated, thin streamers of spider web linking all five of them and stretching away into the distance in multiple directions. A moment later they faded completely, and a moment after that, Khadizroth released his effect, allowing the world to shift back to its normal hue.

“Justinian,” the dragon said grimly, “is not the only spider who can spin a web. Since young Ingvar’s visit, I have been pondering…this. We will go observe the headhunter and take what action we can, but before doing so, I think we must decide upon a plan for what comes next.”


“Have one of your mages teleport to Vrin Shai with these orders,” Basra instructed Colonel Nintaumbi as she climbed into the saddle, continuing to ignore his protests. “The Sisterhood’s scryers are always able to pinpoint my position; get one to the topmost mag cannon above the city. That one should have a clear field of fire all the way to the border. I want it aimed right at me. You keep watch on what happens down there, and if that thing kills me, send another mage with the order to fire. Headhunters are dangerous for their versatility; their magical strength isn’t necessarily all that great, and no personal shield, divine or arcane, will stand up to that weapon. The beam will come in at a shallow angle at this distance, so you may need to shift troops out of the way. Your own artillery teams can do the trigonometry to tell you where the danger zones are.”

“This is insane, Syrinx.” Vaumann’s calm voice seemed to catch Basra’s attention where all of Nintaumbi’s imprecations did not. “You cannot reason with that creature.”

“Of course not,” Basra said. “One doesn’t reason with crazy—but one can manipulate it. This job calls for a politician. Hold the line, people, and have that cannon ready. But please be sure not to fire unless I’m already too late to help.”

She turned her mount, placing her back to the protests still rising, and trotted off down the field to face the headhunter alone.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

10 – 44

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                       Next  Chapter >

The atmosphere in the command tent was tense and growing tenser. Basra’s party had begun to wake an go in search of her, which had only helped partially; Branwen and Jenell had both turned up as they were arriving, and while Branwen, at least, was giddily eager to see Darling again, Jenell simply made another person to stand around in uncomfortable silence while the two Bishops chattered.

She was also the least awkward Legionnaire present. There had been a shift change while Basra and the commanders had gone to the checkpoint, and the Imperial guards had been replaced by soldiers of the Second Legion, all of whom were directing stares at Ingvar. Their expressions ranged from outright baleful to merely puzzled; he studiously ignored them, wearing a wry grimace.

“ATTENTION!”

All six Legionnaires (seven including Covrin, who hadn’t even been doing anything) snapped upright, redirecting their stares ahead into space. So did Joe, who then immediately flushed and sat back down on the stool he’d appropriated by one of the tent poles.

The commanders strode back into the shade of the awning, Vaumann, sweeping a scowl around at her soldiers which promised further discussion on this later, but made no further comment to them, instead nodding again to Darling.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” she said in a far calmer tone.

“What were you guys talking about?” Aspen asked.

“Aspen, that’s not polite,” Ingvar said quietly.

“What?” The dryad turned a scowl on him. “Why not? I want to know!”

“People’s business is theirs,” he replied calmly. “Prying into it shows a lack of respect. If someone wants you to know what they were doing, they’ll tell you.”

“Sides,” Joe added with a grin, “I reckon anybody’d have a few words to exchange if this gaggle of weirdos showed up on their doorstep.”

“I am not a weirdo,” Aspen snapped, stomping her bare foot. “Ingvar, tell him!”

“Tell him what?” Ingvar said dryly.

“Aspen, my dear, you are as normal as any of us,” Darling said gallantly.

“Thank you!” she said, pointing at him.

Basra cleared her throat loudly. “Anyway.”

“Right, yes,” Darling said in a more serious tone. “To business. I mentioned we uncovered something relevant to your engagement here.”

“Which, I’m sure, is quite a story,” Colonel Nintaumbi said flatly.

“A long one, most of which would be of little interest to you.” Darling nodded to his companions. “I’ll try to summarize, but chime in if I forget anything that seems significant. Especially you, Ingvar, you’re the one who saw the relevant part firsthand.”

“And me,” Aspen said haughtily.

“Of course,” Darling said, smiling kindly at her. “Anyhow. We’ve been off on a quest of Ingvar’s—Shaathist business which Joe and I happened to be along to help with. This culminated last night with a vision quest of sorts that involved Ingvar entering a kind of dream world, while we kept watch.”

“Dream world?” the Colonel said skeptically.

“I know of this,” said Yrril, nodding. “Themynra’s followers do not enter it deliberately, but some rites of the faith involve journeying within. Stepping into the dreams of others, or the space connecting them, is considered a risk against which acolytes are cautioned. This is very dangerous,” she added directly to Ingvar. “You entered it deliberately? I assume you had the guidance of a priest of your people.”

“An elvish shaman, actually,” the Huntsman replied. “Mary the Crow.”

Basra’s lips thinned, but any response she might have made was overrun by Colonel Nintaumbi.

“What?” he exploded. “The Crow?”

“She’s been pulling strings from the back of this business,” said Joe. “Uh, Ingvar’s business, not yours. Seemed she was as surprised as the rest of us to learn there was any connection.”

“Fraternizing with the Crow is an extremely serious matter,” Nintaumbi grated. “The woman is a highly dangerous individual and a self-declared enemy of the Tiraan Empire!”

“What?” Darling gasped, his eyes widening. “She is? All this time…? And I…” He turned his back to them, shoulders quivering, and said tremulously. “I just feel so used.”

An identical look passed between Joe, Ingvar and Basra; Branwen rolled her eyes. Nintaumbi and Vaumann stared, nonplussed, at Darling’s back, while Yrril raised an eyebrow.

“Antonio,” Basra warned.

“Yes, yes, fine,” he said, turning back to face them with a grin. “You can’t just let me have my fun?”

“No,” she said curtly. “This position could be under attack literally any moment. No one has time for your customary goofing around.”

“All right, Colonel,” Darling continued, “if you feel the need to report this, go right ahead, but I can assure you that my association with the Crow is long-standing and known to both Archpope Justinian and Quentin Vex. I’ve not spoken personally with his Majesty on the subject, but it’s my assumption that he knows what Vex knows. All of us feel it’s best to have someone who can talk civilly with her, rather than being completely in the dark concerning what she’s up to.”

“I suppose that will have to do, for now,” Nintaumbi said with a deep frown. “So long as you’re aware she is using you.”

“Yes, and she’s aware that I’m using her. Mutuality is the foundation of all stable relationships, don’t you think?”

“Actually,” Branwen began.

“Anyway!” Basra shouted.

“Anyway, Mary is only tangentally related to this,” Darling continued. “In this dream-quest of Ingvar’s, he encountered a green dragon by the name of Khadizroth, who warned him of events happening in Viridill and that there was trickery afoot.”

“Khadizroth,” Vaumann said, narrowing her eyes.

“So,” Nintaumbi said grimly, “it seems we have our summoner.”

“Not necessarily,” Darling demurred.

The Colonel snorted. “We’ve been looking for a highly powerful and presumably immortal fae magician; green dragons have been specifically mentioned as likely culprits. Khadizroth the Green is a known figure who is not on the roster of the Conclave’s membership. When I hear hoofbeats, your Grace, I think of horses, not zebras.”

“Seriously,” Basra exclaimed, “what is a zebra?”

“There’s more to it than that, Colonel,” Darling said, frowning himself now. “The timing is suggestive. Ingvar, would you mind relating exactly what passed between you and Khadizroth? I’m sure you remember it better than I.”

“Of course,” said the Huntsman, nodding. “In the dreamscape, I first found Aspen, and then the dragon. We spoke with Khadizroth at some length; he rendered insight into Aspen’s situation and gave us magical aid for her, and then we discussed my visions and my quest. Which,” he added with a sudden frown, “I don’t think are pertinent here…”

“Go on,” General Vaumann said, nodding.

“In the end,” Ingvar continued, “Khadizroth said that he was beholden to someone he didn’t particularly like assisting, and had sent out visions in order to call for attention and help. He spoke of events in Viridill and Athan’Khar—not by name, but he referred to cursed lands to the south, and that can hardly mean anything else. His last comment was that someone should know that what was happening here was a smokescreen. And then…”

“Yes?” Nintaumbi said impatiently.

“I think,” Ingvar said slowly, “he was attacked.”

“Attacked?” Basra said, scowling.

“He broke off mid-sentence,” Ingvar replied, “and thrashed and cried out in obvious pain. His flailing was so severe that it seemed to damage the dream-scape, and forced my vision to an abrupt end.”

“So,” said Darling, “to summarize, Khadizroth knows something about what’s happening here, and was trying to summon help in a sufficiently roundabout method that it wouldn’t catch the attention of…well, we don’t know who, unfortunately. After a perfectly lovely conversation with Ingvar and Aspen, he tried to deliver that warning, and that was the point at which he came under attack. Obviously, there are any number of possible interpretations of this, and yes, one is that he’s somehow behind these events. But another, and more likely it seems to me, is that he’s down there trying to help, and the actual summoner just acted to put a stop to it.”

A grim silence fell over the tent, all those present staring around at one another with pensive and unhappy expressions.

“I’m not sure whether this has helped us or not,” Nintaumbi said finally.

“It is more information,” said Yrril. “In war, information is a commander’s lifeblood.” Vaumann nodded approvingly at her.

“But if anything, the waters are muddied even further,” the Colonel growled. “Now we have another player, and an obvious suspect for complicity if not outright responsibility in these attacks, and yet we’re still not certain if he’s doing this, or why.”

“One thing is obvious,” said Darling. “Assuming Khadizroth’s account was true, there is another player involved, one who has some kind of hold on him. It could be someone who’s fighting against him, or who sent him down there to help, or anything else.”

“Let’s not forget this dragon has an established relationship with the Archpope,” said Joe.

“What?” Vaumann exclaimed, while Basra and Darling turned identically inscrutable expressions on the Kid.

“It’s come up, when I’ve crossed wands with him,” Joe replied, glancing at Darling. “What kind of relationship I couldn’t tell ya, but it’s something.”

“Crossed wands…” Nintaumbi stared at him. “You’ve fought this dragon?”

“Twice,” said Joe, nodding.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Sarasio Kid,” Darling said grandly.

“So I can’t say I’m exactly his bosom buddy,” Joe continued, “but we’ve managed a couple of fairly civil conversations in and around the shootin’, an’ I’d have to say that of all the things I’d suspect Khadizroth of doin’, lying ain’t one. He’s a little obsessed with honor an’ integrity.”

“Boy, isn’t that the truth,” Aspen grumbled. “We were talking with him for all of five minutes and he managed to make half of it about that.”

“It wasn’t that much,” Ingvar said, patting her on the shoulder, “and he was not wrong.”

“Which puts us right back where we started,” Nintaumbi exclaimed.

“Indeed,” said Vaumann, nodding thoughtfully. “It seems the great tragedy here is that whatever struck him did so before he could reveal what he intended to.”

“When was this?” Basra asked, narrowing her eyes.

“Last night,” said Darling. “We stopped to rest and eat before coming, but even with that we made great time. Mary sent us off with some kind of fairy hoodoo to make the trip only a couple hours—this was from the elven grove on the north of the province. For some reason,” he added, grinning at Nintaumbi, “she wasn’t interested in coming along to chitchat with the Army.”

“What time last night?” Basra pressed.

Darling and Ingvar glanced at each other uncertainly.

“After midnight,” the Huntsman said after a moment. “There were no clocks in the grove, obviously. We could not see the position of the moon through the trees, and I for one was in a trance which tended to distort the passage of time.”

“Hm,” Basra mused. “I wonder what an Izarite shatterstone would do to a green dragon.”

“Very little,” said Branwen. “Those are only meant to be defensive; they react when magical entities invade the temples in which they are placed, transforming their inherent magic into the divine. It’s meant to critically weaken fairies and cause demons to burn. But a dragon is far too powerful a being to be severely affected by such an effect. Besides, the greens are not actually fairy creatures; they only use fae magic, and normally have spells of all four schools on hand besides.”

“Things work differently when used incorrectly, by definition,” Basra replied. “The fact that a shatterstone is meant to be a passive thing suggests it might cause entirely different effects when hurled at an enemy.”

“Sounds like you’ve had an interesting night, as well,” Darling remarked.

“All of this is speculation, and not particularly helpful,” said Vaumann. “Unless we can somehow arrange another conversation with this dragon, whatever he knows is lost to us. You said your people know rituals similar to this dream thing, Yrril?”

“I fear that is a null line of inquiry,” Yrril replied. “The priestesses I have brought with me are highly specialized in shielding and healing magic. By the time I sent to Tar’naris for a suitable specialist, battle is likely to be joined and the point moot. Besides, as I said, deliberately walking through the dream to connect to others is not part of Themynrite practice. Even if a priestess were willing to help, she would be improvising. Are we that desperate, yet?”

“Seems like an elvish shaman would be a better bet anyway,” Nintambi mused, “since they seem to do this on purpose.”

“Same problem applies,” said Basra. “It’d take a week to convince a woodkin shaman to leave their precious grove, and that’s assuming we could get one to listen at all. The elves up north were standoffishly sympathetic to our problem when I talked to them, but they’re still elves, and that would be asking a lot. I don’t suppose you have any idea where your friend Mary is now,” she added dryly.

Darling shrugged. “Generally speaking, you find out where Mary is when she feels like telling you.”

“What of the Viridill witches?” Vaumann suggested. “None came to the front with us, but there are still several in Vrin Shai.”

“I have no idea what any of them would even know about this,” said Basra, then frowned. “Wait, what? None came here? What the blazes do we need them for, if they’re not going to help with the elementals?”

“After Vrin Shai,” Vaumann said very dryly, “we determined they were better used as reserves to mop up individual events behind the lines while the military handled the main confrontation. They seem even less amenable to doing what they are told, when, and how, than the average run of civilians. Unless someone has another idea, then, I suppose that’s that. The information is appreciated, but it seems we’ll have to proceed as we were, without Khadizroth’s input.”

“Oh, all right,” Darling said with a cheerfully long-suffering expression. “I’ll go talk to him.”

Basra sighed. “Antonio…”

“In all seriousness, though,” he said, “he’s very likely in Athan’Khar, or near the border, right? I’ll head down there and have a word.”

“Are you off your nut?” Joe exclaimed.

“Okay, it’s like this,” said Darling, his expression sobering. “I’m a Bishop of the Universal Church, a ranking agent of the Thieves’ Guild and the former Boss thereof. I sit on the Imperial Security Council. I am the keeper of just all kinds of secrets, most of which I couldn’t share with you even if I were so inclined, because they aren’t mine, and there would be severe consequences if I blabbed. So, I’m sorry, but we’ve come to a point where I know things that you don’t and, with apologies, I can’t enlighten you.”

“But?” Vaumann prompted.

“But,” he said, “I have every reason to believe that if I approach, alone, Khadizroth will seek me out and hear me out.”

“That is absolute blithering madness,” Basra said bluntly. “Quite apart from the issue that this is a dragon we’re talking about, and one whose uncertain motives are the whole dilemma here… Antonio, that forest is going to spew forth hostile elementals at any time. If you go near it, you’re digging your own grave.”

“Well,” he said cheerfully, “you just gonna nitpick, or will you be useful and lend me a shovel?”

“Covrin,” she said, staring at him, “go punch Bishop Darling in the gut.”

“I—uh…” Jenell glanced, wide-eyed, between Basra and Darling, and took an uncertain half-step. “Yes…ma’am?”

“Stand at attention, Private Covrin,” General Vaumann said flatly.

“Yes, ma’am,” Jenell repeated, this time with obvious relief.

“Look, it’s like this,” said Darling. “I never go anywhere without a whole deck of aces up my sleeve, and I definitely don’t risk my own precious hide unless I am extremely confident in what I’m doing.”

“What are you doing, exactly?” Branwen asked, frowning worriedly.

“I am absolutely confident,” he said, “that I can approach the border, get Khadizroth to talk to me, and get away from him unmolested. That much I am certain of. What I’m not sure about is what the useful result of that conversation would be, so I definitely don’t suggest you put any of your plans on hold while you wait for me.”

“I assure you, your Grace,” Nintaumbi said woodenly, “no one was about to suspend operations based on…this.”

Darling grinned at him. “Just so. But in the end, what it comes down to is that I don’t answer to you. Unless somebody wants to scroll Boss Tricks in Tiraas and take a gamble that he cares enough to send me orders, you can’t stop me from going.”

“Oh, I think you’ll find there’s a lot we can do to prevent a civilian from wandering blithely into our combat zone,” Basra said, folding her arms.

Vaumann raised an eyebrow, looking in the direction of Basra and Branwen. “Your Graces are acquainted with your fellow Bishop; what do you think?”

“I won’t lie,” said Branwen, frowning, “this sounds like incredibly dangerous nonsense to me. But…Antonio has always known what he’s doing, ever since I’ve known him.”

“Yes,” Basra said somewhat grudgingly. “I believe I made mention of that in the first place. And he definitely knows the value of his own skin. If he says he can do this, he probably can.”

“Very well, then,” said Vaumann, glancing at Yrril and then Nintaumbi. “Unless someone else has an objection, you have my blessing, your Grace.”

“So long as it’s understood,” Nintaumbi said firmly, “that this will not lessen the firepower currently trained on what is about to be your position, Bishop Darling. For your sake, I dearly hope you do know what you’re doing.”

“Always do, Colonel,” he said cheerfully.

“I’d offer to go with you,” Joe added, scowling, “but me an’ Khadizroth…”

“I appreciate it, Joe.” Darling laid a hand on his shoulder. “You’re right, though; the history there would only make this harder. Heck, Ingvar or Aspen would be more likely to get his attention positively, but in this case my chances are best if I’m alone.”

“Ingvar and Aspen didn’t offer,” the dryad said pointedly.

“Anyway,” the Huntsman added, placing a hand on her upper back, “Aspen will be more valuable here.”

“Excuse me?” Nintaumbi exclaimed.

“That is actually a good point,” Vaumann said thoughtfully. “If Aspen is willing to help, her presence could work to put an end to hostilities. Elementals won’t attack a dryad.”

“Sure, that’s part of why I came,” Aspen said agreeably, shrugging.

“I do trust that you know what you’re doing,” Ingvar added directly to Darling. “And I have no trouble believing you know things you haven’t shared with us. All the same…be extremely careful. You court great danger.”

“Story of my life, believe it or not,” Darling said lightly. “Watch your back, too.”

“Always do.”

“If you intend to do this, your Grace,” Vaumann said pointedly, “it’s a walk of several hours to the border. I can arrange to have a rider carry you to the front lines, but beyond that point, you’ll be on your own.”

“Much appreciated, General!”

“Holy smokes.”

Everyone turned at the outburst to behold Schwartz, hair sleep-rumpled and with a steaming cup of tea in hand, staring at them from a few yards away. “Is that a dryad?!”

“Oh, look,” Aspen said acidly. “A gangly nitwit.”

To the shock of everyone present, Basra burst out laughing.


The sun had climbed barely to the apex of the sky when a very slight swelling of the shadows occurred near the fallen gates of Fort Varansis. It was a spot cast largely in shade anyway, due to the combination of the leaning, broken masonry and a twisted pine tree standing very close by.

Darling strolled out of the little nook a moment later, straightening his suit and peering about as if he hadn’t a care in the world beyond enjoying his stroll. He wandered into the crumbling courtyard of the old fortress, examining the remains of the previous night’s campsite. The fire had long since gone out, but the tracks everywhere were fresh, and abandoned bedrolls still lay there, with cooking utensils and a scattering of personal items nearby. He paced in an idle circle, examining all this, before bending to pick up a book.

“So you’re a warlock, now? I cannot say this surprises me.”

Darling straightened up, turned, and put on a broad grin. “Well, hello there! I don’t know whether to be delighted or disappointed. I had this whole routine worked out—you’d start by sending one of those elemental servants you seem to like so much, and then I’d say—”

“Following recent events,” Khadizroth interrupted, “my patience for these games has somewhat frayed. I am quite aware that you would not venture here without laying some kind of trap for me—as you must be aware that I would not approach you without making ample preparations of my own. I confess I did not expect to see you shadow-jumping, but as I said, on reflection it is oddly appropriate.”

“Oh, now, I can’t claim to be a master of the art,” Darling said brightly, resuming his slow circuit of the abandoned campsite. “Those Black Wreath talismans are always available to a fellow as resourceful as I.”

“Mm.” Khadizorth matched his slow circuit in the opposite direction, keeping the rough circle of sleeping rolls between them. The dragon, of course, wore the humanoid form to which he had been bound, as well as a distinctly skeptical expression. “At last, then, we meet. I must say I pictured this…differently.”

“Life’s like that, isn’t it?”

“Quite so. You are here, I gather, with regard to the business in Viridill?”

“I’ve been traveling with Brother Ingvar, in fact. We only recently learned of this.”

“Have you.” The dragon’s smooth emerald eyes narrowed further. “What is your interest in Ingvar?”

“He’s a friend.”

“Do you really have friends, your Grace? Or only pieces in your game to whom you smile as you move them about?”

“That’s your problem in a nutshell, K,” the thief countered. “You think those things are mutually exclusive. Eserite honor may not be the same kind you’re famous for preaching about—but on the other hand, nobody I call a friend has ever carried off vulnerable adolescents to form their own harem.”

“I see the civil portion of this dialog is at an end,” Khadizroth said bitingly. “Speak your piece, then, thief. I can only assume it contains whatever warning you have prepared that will persuade me not to obliterate you for your several insults and offenses against me.”

“Well, with regard to that,” Darling said, coming to a stop. He had placed himself opposite the entrance; the dragon likewise halted, turning to face him, framed by the open gate beyond. “We do need to talk about Viridill. And Ingvar, and most especially Justinian, and a variety of related topics. All of that’s new business, though, relatively speaking. Since you’ve been so generous with your time and didn’t make me argue with messengers before getting to you, we should have ample time for some old business to have a crack at you first.”

Khadizroth stared at him, frowning slightly for a moment, before his eyes widened infinitesimally in realization. Then he closed them, an expression of resignation falling across his features.

“I may have lied about that shadow-jumping talisman,” Darling confessed, folding his hands behind his back and smiling beatifically.

Slowly, Khadizroth turned around, opening his eyes to gaze at the two blonde, black-clad figures standing between him and the exit.

“Hello, girls,” he said softly.

“Hello, Khadizroth,” said Flora tonelessly.

“It’s time,” said Fauna, “we had a conversation.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next  Chapter >

10 – 35

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter >

The trees reared up ahead of them, less than an hour’s walk away, due southwest. The sun was just peeking over the horizon behind them; early morning mist still clung to the ground in a few places, and the green blades of tallgrass were flecked with dew.

The three had exchanged little conversation as they had a quick breakfast of travel rations and packed away what little gear they’d brought; their campsite had obviously seen much use for that very purpose, with a firepit ready and a half dozen sleeping spots already lined with a leafy type of dried grass which was surprisingly soft. Aside from Ingvar’s observation as they set out that they should reach the grove within an hour, they’d been quiet, enjoying the cool morning and the way the exercise worked away the night’s stiffness.

When six elves arrived around them, it was abrupt as if by magic, yet so smoothly natural it seemed as if they had always been there. They simply melted out of the tallgrass around the party, moving along at their own even pace as if they’d been calmly walking beside them the whole way. This was doubly impressive, the grass being nowhere more than chest-high, and usually a foot lower than that.

Joe let out a muffled yelp, reflexively reaching for his wands; even Ingvar jerked slightly as he came to a stop, laying one hand on his tomahawk.

“Morning!” Darling said brightly, waving to the nearest elf, a man with unbound waist-length hair like spun gold, leaning on a gnarled walking stick. “Lovely day for it, eh? Y’know, truth be told, I wasn’t too sure about all this nature walking. Just yesterday I had a little gripe about all the sun around here. I’ve gotta say, though, it’s growing on me. Not that I’d wanna leave the city on any kind of long-term basis, of course, but this is…I dunno, invigorating! Something about the freshness of the air, I guess. I feel five years younger! But hey, look who I’m telling.”

He came to a stop because Joe and Ingvar had, and the elves did likewise, regarding them with impassive faces. They were a mix of men and women, dressed in practical forest style, with soft fabrics and leathers of green and brown.

“Do you always chatter on this way to conceal nervousness?” asked the one with the staff.

“Do you always assume people who chatter are nervous?” Darling retorted instantly, still wearing his cheerful smile.

“Honestly,” said Joe, tipping his hat, “him jabberin’ like some kinda nitwit just means he’s gettin’ enough airflow. Good morning to you, ladies an’ gentlemen. Name’s Joseph P. Jenkins. These’re Bishop Antonio Darling an’ Brother Ingvar.”

“Yes, we know,” the apparent leader of the scouts replied, glancing at each of them in turn. “Your arrival was…foretold.”

“I’ve been wondering about that,” Darling said, brightly as ever. “Is she as pushy and condescending to you guys as she is to us short-lived folk?”

The elf with the staff studied his face closely for a moment, then finally smiled. “Even more so, I rather expect. My name is Adimel; welcome to our lands. I am here to guide you to your destination.”

“Much obliged,” Joe said politely. Ingvar bowed to them, holding his peace.

“I hope you will not take offense if those in the tribe seem less than eager to have guests,” Adimel said, starting out toward the treeline with no more ado and compelling them to walk with him or be left behind. “The grove is already stirred up with human business thanks to events transpiring in Viridill. Kuriwa’s arrival and…characteristic barking of orders has not done any favors to the Elders’ aplomb. What she asked, furthermore, is a significant imposition.” He gave them a hard glance without slowing. “I hope you understand how very rare it is that this would be shown to outsiders. Any outsiders, much less humans, and Tiraan.”

“Actually,” said Joe, “we have no idea what it is we’re here to see. We’re only following directions.”

“Who’s Kuriwa?” Ingvar asked, frowning.

“Oh, c’mon, you didn’t think her real name was Mary?” Darling asked lightly. “Don’t look at me like that, I’d never heard the name before, either. I know it was her, though, by the account. People being ordered around and not even told what they’re doing; who else could it be?”

Adimel sighed.


Unlike the even-footed forest near Sarasio, this grove rested atop rolling ground which made its deep green shadows somehow more complex. In addition to the gentle swells and valleys of the earth itself, there were frequent outcroppings of rock—old and smoothed by the elements, but tumbled in artful disarray. Several of these contained the mouths of small springs, with splashed down the rocks into pools that then fed meandering streams which traced paths through the lowest levels of the forest.

The trees were without exception ancient, and huge; though there tended to be wide spaces between them, no younger saplings grew, only some low ground-crawling shrubs. Often they rose up from the ground on systems of roots that were themselves as thick as any branch; their wide canopies mostly blotted out the sky, except where they permitted golden streamers of sunlight.

It was quiet, mostly, except for the soft music of songbirds and running water. The air smelled of loam, moss, flowers and fruit. In countenance, the forest resembled a park, thanks to the obvious artistry of its arrangement; clearly every aspect of this land had been carefully shaped over countless years. And yet, for all that, there was an ineffable wildness to it.

In short, it was an elven grove.

They were not taken to the grove proper, at least not to any location where elves kept their homes. The party had been met in a clearing by a single woman who introduced herself as Elder Linsheh; she had stood, waiting patiently, in a single shaft of golden sunlight which made her hair seem to glow. Elves clearly did not lack a sense of drama.

For an elf to be called Elder indicated both respect and a life of at least a thousand years, which was somewhat disconcerting when applied to a woman who could have been barely out of her teens, physically. She had a stillness and gravitas, however, that supported her title.

And, as Adimel had warned, Linsheh was apparently not particularly pleased to meet them.

The group now counted five, the Elder and Adimel continuing along with them while the rest of the scouts melted back into the trees. There were no paths, as such, but Linsheh led them along a course that avoided the taller hills, thicker underbrush and dips into water. It was no harder to walk than the average park.

“We can go in a straight line, if you want,” Darling suggested. “Makes me feel guilty for slowing you down this way. I mean, I’m sure you folks don’t stick to the easy paths when you’re on your own.”

“You know so much of the ways of elves?” Linsheh asked mildly, glancing back at them. Again, her voice and expression were apparently calm, but totally devoid of friendliness.

“Well, you’ve got me there,” Darling said easily. “Here I go, making assumptions. I guess I assumed you wouldn’t go for the easy path, because I find that’s generally true of people whom I respect.”

Adimel chuckled, shaking his head.

“Kuriwa said you were a smooth talker, Bishop Darling,” the Elder commented.

“And did she also say that I talk smoothly in utter sincerity?” he replied. “It’s policy. Just practical, really; smart people are annoyed by flattery, and stupid people are rarely worth impressing.”

She glanced back again, finally permitting herself a small smile. “It seems strange to know you are an Eserite; you remind me strikingly of almost every bard I have ever met. Then again, the silver-tongued thief is also an archetype that exists for good reason.”

“Oh, you like archetypes?” he said cheerfully. “That suggests you’ve met quite a few bards.”

“I have met quite a few of everything, nearly,” she said.

“I guess they all start to blend together, then,” Joe said.

The Elder glanced at him, smiling again. “At first. The beginning of wisdom is learning to see the uniqueness in each repetition of a familiar pattern.”

“Well, now I’m in an awkward position,” said Darling. “Because I’ve frequently had that thought myself, as I grow older, but saying it makes it sound like I consider myself as wise as an elven Elder. That’s just pompous, is what it is.”

“I have never known that to stop you,” Ingvar noted.

“Fair point!” Darling pointed at him, grinning. “Well, that settles it! Whew, for a moment I was concerned.”

Linsheh stopped, turning to face them. She wore a faint smile now, and bowed slightly; Ingvar and Joe both returned the gesture (more deeply) out of reflex. “I feel I should apologize; it is customary for guests in our land to be met with more…enthusiasm. You have come to us at what was a tense moment to begin with, even before the Crow’s request. Kuriwa’s arrival and insistence upon this significant breach of tradition has had a disturbing effect upon us all. Yet, for all that she tends to irritate, she also tends not to be wrong. If she deems it necessary that you be shown these secrets…the Elders have decided to trust that it is so.”

“Honestly, she’d be less annoying if she were wrong more often, I think,” Darling said ruminatively.

“Adimel mentioned trouble, too,” Joe said, frowning. “What’s going on in Viridill?”

“I will bring you up to date on the news if you wish,” Linsheh said calmly, “but it was my understanding you would be eager to seek answers…?”

“Yes, please,” Ingvar replied, giving the other two a quelling glance. “We appreciate your patience very much, Elder. We can learn about human affairs from human sources later, without wasting more of your time.”

“Where is it we’re going?” Darling asked, looking around at the forest.

“Here,” said Elder Linsheh. “We have arrived. Come along, please.”

They were standing upon a flattened patch of ground next to a truly massive tree, its root system rising from a small hill which seemed to have been broken in multiple places to reveal a rocky interior. The Elder slipped into the shadows behind a root, vanishing swiftly into the darkness. The three human visitors paused, glancing uncertainly at each other, before Ingvar squared his shoulders and followed her. The others came along behind, Adimel bringing up the rear.

The shadows of roots and rocks concealed a natural passage into the hill, not narrow but cunningly disguised by its surroundings. Beyond a low opening was a tunnel that descended in a slight curve, its bottom worked into worn old steps.

At the bottom of these, just around the corner from the entrance, was a small grotto, where a burbling spring fed a pool and a stream that meandered through the center of the space before vanishing down a hole in the far wall. Surprisingly, it was not dark; there were several small openings in the roof above through which streams of sunlight penetrated. Streamers of hanging moss dangled from the exposed tree roots above them, and lichens climbed the stone walls. For the most part, it looked quite natural, with the sole exception of a few very conveniently placed stepping stones crossing the stream.

Linsheh had already stepped across these and stopped just on the other side; behind her loomed another dark passageway, descending still deeper.

“What you have come to see,” she said in a serious tone that bordered on the grim, “is something we have guarded carefully far longer than human civilization in its current form has existed. When you have learned what you came here to learn, you may find yourself…resentful. It is a thing of enormous significance that the Elders and people of this tribe keep carefully from the eyes of humans, and of other outsiders. Only shamans on their training quests, and adventuring gnomes, do we allow within. I will ask, when you have seen what lies below, that you consider our reasoning—which I believe you are intelligent enough to perceive without having it explained to you. These secrets contain hints at terrible possibilities; this knowledge offers little that can uplift the peoples of this world, and much that could threaten us all in the wrong hands.”

“This is…” Ingvar frowned deeply. “My quest, Elder, is to seek knowledge of my god, and his situation. We have no interest in weapons or dangerous secrets.”

“Believe me,” she replied, “that was discussed at length when Kuriwa appeared, suggesting that we permit you within.” Her eyes traveled slowly across their small group. “It would be unusual enough to allow a Huntsman within, but for one on a quest such as yours, not necessarily impossible. And Joseph Jenkins is known to be a friend of elves.”

“I am?” Joe asked in surprise. “I mean… I always respected the people near my hometown, but it wasn’t as if I had a lot of contact with ’em.”

“Respect, sincerely felt and simply expressed, is something we notice when we see it,” Linsheh replied, giving him a little smile.

“Why do I suspect I’m the holdout, here?” Darling asked dryly.

The Elder’s smile faded as she leveled a direct stare at him. “When I speak of the wrong hands in which to place dangerous secrets, a ranking thief-priest might as well be exactly what I describe. Kuriwa, however, believes you have something to offer the world that will be to its advantage, and that this will help you, as well. After some discussion, we have agreed to trust her.”

“Huh,” he said, nonplussed. “And here I thought I was just along for the ride.”

“She suggested both of us for this expedition,” Joe pointed out. “I don’t think that lady does anything just for the heck of it.”

“She does seem to enjoy ruffling other people’s feathers,” Adimel commented. “Maybe toward greater purpose, but I suspect there’s a fair amount of ‘just for the heck of it’ involved.”

Linsheh sighed. “Well. I have delayed this enough with talk. What you have come to learn is below.” She stepped to the side, indicating the dark opening behind her. “There is nothing more to be gained by waiting.”

“My thanks, Elder,” Ingvar said respectfully, bowing to her, then stepped forward and approached the gap.

One by one, they passed within, pausing only to nod politely to Linsheh before they vanished into the darkness below, leaving the two elves gazing pensively after them.


“You need to leave.”

Seven armed scouts rose up out of the tallgrass around their little camp, all with weapons in their hands, but not yet lifted in preparation for violence.

“Let me ask you something,” Flora said calmly, smiling at the man who had spoken. “Did you really believe you snuck up on us?”

“Or,” Fauna added, “that we didn’t intend to be spotted here?”

They were perched atop a small hill in the grassy plain outside the grove, where they had cleared away the tallgrass to set up two folding stools and a small arcane camping stove, on which a pot of tea was currently brewing.

“That’s neither here nor there,” the head scout said curtly. “We know what you are—”

“Bet you don’t,” Flora muttered.

“—and you know very well you are not wanted in this or any grove.”

“We are not in the grove,” Fauna said sweetly.

He gritted his teeth. “If I am forced to insist…”

Both girls burst out laughing, then kept laughing, past the point where their would-be ambushers began to look distinctly annoyed. Fauna actually tumbled off her stool and rolled on the ground in a mockery of elvish grace.

Altogether, they made a very stark contrast to the other elves. Aside from having the horizontal ears of the plains folk, both were dressed in dramatic black (which hardly any sensible person did under the prairie sun), Flora with her anachronistic cloak. They might as well have been from a whole other world than the increasingly miffed forest kin in their traditional attire.

“Okay, look,” Flora said, wiping away a tear and grinning broadly. “You don’t own the world, friend, and we aren’t here to challenge your grove.”

“Like I said,” Fauna added, “we’re not in the grove, and don’t plan on entering the grove.”

“This is still far closer to our home than we like to see eldei alai’shi,” the lead scout said grimly.

“Well, that’s just too damn bad, ain’t it?” Flora replied, switching to Tanglish.

“Our friends just went into the trees,” Fauna continued. “They were invited and escorted.”

“We, acknowledging that the Elders would have kittens if we tried to follow, didn’t do so.”

“We’re just gonna wait out here for them to do what they came to do and come out.”

“At which point we’ll depart along with them, and you won’t have to worry about us any more.”

“All this,” Fauna explained, gesturing to the stools and stove, “is a little peace offering. We are not skulking about, or doing anything shady or aggressive.”

“So you have the opportunity to come say hello—it’s nice to meet you too, by the way—and now you can go tell the Elders that we’re not bothering anybody and won’t stay long.”

He frowned, looking at another of his troop as if for confirmation; she shook her head almost imperceptibly. “And if the Elders choose to insist that you leave?”

“They won’t,” Fauna said simply.

“No Elders anywhere would want to provoke that kind of confrontation where they didn’t need to.” Flora added with a smile.

The scout drew in a deep breath through his teeth and let it out in a sigh. “I will…inform the Elders of your…position.”

“You do that,” Fauna replied cheerfully, getting up and brushing off her leather trousers. “Meanwhile, would any of those you’re leaving to guard us like some tea?”


The tunnel seemed to be little more than a grandiose mole hole through dirt for a large part of its length, raising disturbing questions about what prevented it from collapsing. It didn’t, though, and as they continued, the occasional rocks supporting its sides grew more and more frequent, until they were passing almost entirely through stone.

“We must be on the edge of the continental shelf, here,” Ingvar observed.

“The what, now?” asked Joe from up ahead. The elves had not provided them with any sources of light; he could make the tips of his wands glow cleanly, however, and had thus found himself leading the way.

“The Great Plains at the center of this continent were an inland sea, eons ago,” said Ingvar. “And then, as it slowly dried up, a swamp. That’s why that ground is so fertile. But under the ground, it’s an enormous and deep basin of nothing but soil; very few rocky areas, and thus very few caves. Oddities like Last Rock were mostly created by the Elder Gods, long ago.”

“The things you know,” Darling marveled. “What do Huntsmen need with geological history?”

“To know the land,” Ingvar said simply. “We come to know it firsthand, with our senses and our hearts—that is of paramount importance. But there are many ways to know a thing, and more knowledge is always better than less.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Joe agreed.

They had been walking for over half an hour, now, at least. Time seemed to dilate oddly in that dark, lonely environment; it was hard to guess how far they had come or how long they’d been down there. The tunnel proceeded consistently downward, weaving slowly back and forth as it went. At least there were no branches or side passages, and thus no opportunities to get lost. Still, it was an unnervingly claustrophobic space, offering room for them to walk only single-file, and barely tall enough that none of them had to stoop.

Rounding an unusually sharp curve, the tunnel came to an end quite suddenly, and Joe halted, forcing the others to crowd in behind him, peering over his shoulders at what lay ahead.

Their tunnel emerged into the side of an enormous underground chasm, stretching away into infinite darkness to the left and right. The wandlight just barely illuminated its cracked ceiling; the floor was lost to distance and dimness far below, at least as far as they could tell. The view downward was blocked directly in front of them by the bridge which stretched from the foot of the tunnel’s mouth to the opposite side of the canyon.

It was this at which they stared in awe, nearly ignoring the mighty cavern around them.

In contrast to the purely natural surroundings through which they had been passing, the bridge and the door beyond it were so glaringly artificial they seemed almost to have been placed here by accident. The bridge was much wider than the tunnel, broad enough they could all three have walked side by side and been unable to reach the rails to either side. And it was made of metal. It appeared to be steel, gleaming smoothly in the light of Joe’s wand. Despite being down here in the empty darkness, not a single scratch or spot of rust marred it. There didn’t even appear to be any dust or cobwebs.

At the opposite side of the bridge, another large expanse of metal stood in the wall, the size and roughly the shape of the front of a church. Two columns of what appeared to be violet glass flanked an obvious door, a steel portal with a vertical crack down its center, engraved with an elaborate sigil none of them recognized.

After a few moments of silent staring, Joe extinguished the glow of his wand.

Light remained, an eerie purple luminescence put off by the columns, which were glowing just brightly enough to create an island of light in the darkness. In the sudden absence of wandlight, previously hidden lights sprang to life along the rails lining the bridge, as well; they were also sigils, and emitted a pure white radiance to mark the path.

“Huh,” said Joe.

“Yup,” Darling agreed.

“Well,” Ingvar said somewhat impatiently, “we are learning nothing by standing here.”

Joe finally stepped forward, gingerly placing his feet on the steel bridge as if uncertain it would hold his weight. It was fine, though, every bit as solid as it looked. They walked slowly, peering around, but there was really nothing more to be seen than they had observed from the tunnel’s mouth. Only the dark cavern, the glowing door, and the bridge.

In moments, despite the slowness of their approach, they stood before the door.

“Well,” Darling observed, “I don’t see a knob…”

“Perhaps this sign tells us what to do,” Ingvar suggested, raising a hand toward the symbol engraved on the steel door. “If only any of us could read it. Does it remind either of you of anything you have—”

The instant his fingertips brushed the steel, it suddenly parted, causing them all to jump a foot backward. The door shifted to the sides a few inches, opening along its center crack with a soft hiss that suggested the air within had been sealed, then slid almost silently downward into the frame below it, leaving open a passage.

Beyond it was a hallway, made of metal and lined with more lights, both dim purple glass columns decorating its walls and brighter, more utilitarian white glow-spots marching along its ceiling. It terminated a dozen yards or so distant in an apparently round room with a statue in its center.

“Anybody else as inexplicably terrified as I am?” Joe asked, swallowing heavily as if for emphasis.

“Yes,” said Ingvar, and stepped forward through the door.

It hissed shut once they were all through, causing them to jump again and spin around. Darling immediately placed a hand on it, at which it opened again. They tested this twice more to verify that they could get out before proceeding.

At the end of the hall, a broad room opened up, oval in shape, with a statue in its center. Still, everything appeared to be made of glossy steel, including the statue, which was heavily stylized in form but showed a man and a woman standing back-to-back, their hands upraised toward the ceiling over a hundred feet above. This was a dome, deep blue in color, and decorated by an enormous star chart. Both stars and notations in a language none of them recognized glowed an even white. More white lights rimmed the edges of the walls, about halfway up, and there were more decorative columns of glowing purple. Here, too, benches lined the perimeter, made of glossy steel and set with thin cushions of some sleek black material that was surprisingly soft to the touch. Darling tested it first with a hand, and then his rump.

“The thing that troubles me most,” said Ingvar, “is the lack of dust.”

“The thing that troubles me is the noise,” Joe said tensely.

It barely qualified as noise, being only the faintest hum at the very edge of hearing, but it was almost constant. Though less invasive, it sounded like the thrum of powerful arcane energy at work.

As they stood there peering around and listening, there came another whirring sound from one of the hallways branching off from the oval room. All three whirled to face it, Joe and Ingvar raising weapons.

The thing that emerged was wholly bizarre and oddly…cute.

A squat cylinder in shape, it proceeded on three stubby legs, each ending in two thick wheels; its top was a sort of sheared-off dome with one flat face. Though most of the object was metal, bronze in color, the flat part of its “head” was a panel of faintly glowing white with odd little marks upon it. Eight folding, spider-like limbs protruded from around the upper part of its cylindrical body, each tipped in various implements.

In fact, it was pushing a broom. A metal broom whose head had some kind of glowing apparatus attached to it, but nonetheless obviously a broom.

The thing came to a stop just inside, its dome-top rotating to put the glowing panel toward them directly, and emitted a pleasant series of musical chimes.

“Uh,” said Ingvar.

“Please tell me you guys see it too,” Darling said nervously.

“As I live and breathe,” Joe said in awe. “It’s…that’s a golem!”

“That doesn’t look like any golem I’ve ever seen,” Ingvar protested.

“It’s an obviously autonomous self-powered magical machine,” said Joe. “It’s a golem, all right. An’ altogether the last thing I’d’ve expected to find in a secret tunnel under an elven grove.”

“I think that description applies to basically all of this,” Darling replied.

All three shied backward when the golem approached them, chiming eagerly and waving several of its appendages about. Only when it had come within two yards did they realize that the markings on its glowing front panel formed a stylized face, nothing but two round purple dots for eyes and a slash below representing a mouth.

It was, at least, a smiling face.

“Hi there,” said Joe, uncertainly waving the hand not holding his wand. “Uh…what’s your name?”

The golem pivoted about on its whirring wheels and zoomed partway around the statue, pausing a few yards distant to swivel its face back to them. It gestured with two of its peculiar arms, clearly beckoning them forward.

“I think it’s trying to communicate,” Darling observed.

“Yes, obviously,” Ingvar said, giving him an irritated glance. “The question is…do we trust it?”

“Elder Linsheh didn’t suggest anything down here was dangerous,” said Joe. “And…well, Mary did send us here, after all. I say we follow the golem. Ain’t like we’ve got any better ideas, unless one o’ you boys wants to surprise me.”

Ingvar heaved a sigh, but hitched up his quiver and set off after the little golem.

It let out another series of pleasant chimes, apparently excited, and continued on its way.

The golem led them all the way around the statue and to another broad door on the opposite side of the room, directly across from the way they had come in. This seemed to be identical to the outer door of the complex, including in the way it parted upon being touched by one of the little golem’s metal arms.

Beyond was another room, spacious but smaller than the last one, and rectangular in shape. Its walls were entirely lined with peculiar shapes; they seemed like shelves of some matte black substance, each filled with small glowing cylinders of purple glass, none more than a foot in height. In fact, altogether it resembled a library, with luminous tubes instead of books. In the center of the room was a single sheet of colorless glass, positioned facing the door, extending from floor to ceiling.

They came to a stop inside, peering around, as the golem rolled over to the edge of the broad glass panel and continued chiming in excitement.

“Well,” Darling said after a moment. “Here we are. So…where are we?”

All three men jumped backward yet again when a figure suddenly appeared in the glass panel.

It was a man, bald-headed and clean-shaven, wearing a sleek suit of totally unfamiliar design. He was translucent and purple, as if he were nothing but a reflection in the glass.

“You are in Data Vault Three, established by Tarthriss of the Infinite Order,” said a voice from all around them. It was a pleasant tenor, and carried a peculiar resonance that clearly did not come from any human throat. Though the glass man’s mouth moved along with the words, the voice itself definitely came from the walls, not from him directly. “It has been several solar cycles since this facility has had visitors. I am Avatar Zero Three, and very pleased to make your acquaintance. How may I assist you?”

“Uh,” Joe said intelligently. “Uh, the…what? The who? Who are the Infinite Order?”

“The Infinite Order,” said the Avatar, smiling benignly, “are an organization of scientists and engineers who embrace the philosophy that reason and science hold the keys to the purpose of both the sapient life and the universe itself. They journeyed to this solar system and established this planet as a research and development facility dedicated to the fulfillment of the Ascension Project.”

“Oh…kay,” Joe said, frowning. “But…who are the Infinite Order?”

The Avatar’s ghostly face smiled again, but it seemed almost sad, this time. “Compiling current roster and status of the Infinite Order. Scyllith: active. Naiya: active. Araneid: …uncertain. Infriss: unknown. Druroth: unknown. Vel Hreyd: unknown.” He hesitated, his expression growing distinctly solemn, before continuing. “All other members of the Infinite Order are confirmed deceased…including my maker, Tarthriss.”

“Sorry t’hear that,” Joe said reflexively, removing his hat.

“That’s…you’re talking about the Elder Gods,” Ingvar breathed.

“Tarthriss preferred to refrain from the use of such terminology, deeming it both causative and symptomatic of the Infinite Order’s systemic breakdown,” said Avatar 03. “Out of respect for him, I do not refer to ascended beings as ‘gods,’ but based upon my comprehension of both this language and the current state of such beings, it is not necessarily inaccurate.”

“Are you…all alone down here?” Joe asked, frowning.

“This facility has very occasional visitors,” the Avatar replied. “For the most part, however, Caretaker Seven is my only company. You have already met him, I see.”

The golem chimed enthusiastically, waving several of its arms, its stylized little face beaming in goodwill.

“What brings you to this Data Vault?” inquired the Avatar.

“I am on a quest,” Ingvar blurted out, pausing to regather his poise. “That is, I am seeking information concerning the state of my god, Shaath, and how he might be helped. Tell me…is it possible for a god to be imprisoned?”

“There are many ways the status of an ascended being could be interfered with,” Avatar 03 replied. “A great deal depends upon the specifics. I shall be glad to convey what information I can; if you can provide more detail as to the unique situation of Shaath I may be able to render a more helpful analysis. Alternatively, if you would like access to broader data on the nature and origin of the ascended beings on this planet, I can give a full account of the Ascension Project.” The ghostly figure smiled benignly, and appeared to bow; such physical gestures looked rather odd, with him being clearly a projection in the glass screen. “It depends on how much time, patience, and interest you have. If you are willing, I would be delighted to explain everything.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >