Tag Archives: Fred Carson

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Much as the children of Vanislaas favored the subtle approach, there was a time and a place. With a renegade Hand of the Emperor bounding toward him at impossible speed, Fedora dropped all camouflage and shot skyward. No one was close enough to see the revealed bone-white perfection of his skin, his crystalline irises or blue-tinged hair, but the wings and tail would have made quite a stir, had anyone been watching. He ascended as fast as those wings could propel him—not specifically to avoid notice, though it would be a nice perk. He had more urgent matters on his mind.

The Hand, however, moved with equally unnatural velocity. Even as Fedora rocketed off the steeple, he landed on the roof of the general store and instantly bounced in a high arc toward the church. The Hand impacted the side of the steeple near its peak, almost exactly where the incubus had been standing, and kicked off again, pushing himself skyward in a wide parabola that would send him crashing back to the outskirts of town from a horrifying height, and stood no realistic chance of catching the airborne demon.

He flung one hand forward and up as he ascended, though, aiming right at Fedora’s rapidly-vanishing tail.

The wash of magic that burst forth was invisible, and mostly fae in nature. It quickly dissipated in the air; Hands of the Emperor were phenomenally deadly in close combat, but had little in the way of flashy magic to throw around. That fistful of raw energy was too unfocused even to qualify as a spell, and barely reached Fedora before flickering out into nothingness. What it did have, however, was sheer power, and “barely” was enough.

Vanislaad were limited to human-like forms in their shapeshifting, and one of the drawbacks of a human form was that nature had never intended it to fly. Fedora’s flight was far more magical than aerodynamic—enough so that when a wash of unfocused fae magic rushed over him, temporarily suppressing the power of his demonic nature, his wings abruptly discovered that they were trying to hold aloft a creature far too heavy and entirely the wrong shape for soaring through the sky.

He tumbled and flopped midair, cursing and frantically flapping his beleaguered wings like a singed moth. Fedora managed, after some struggle, to right himself and get rearranged into an awkward glide, but the fact remained he was going nowhere but down. At least he had enough wingspan to manage a descent that would put him down out of range of the town, and without forming a crater upon impact.

The effort so absorbed him, however, that he failed to realize his position relative to his pursuer.

Just as Fedora was leveling out his fall, the Hand came arcing back down from the apex of his final leap. The incubus’s midair struggles had shoved him far to the side of his descent, inevitably, but he craned his head as he fell, studying the angles.

Then he vanished as though slipping through a crack in midair. Instantly he reappeared, still falling and at exactly the same angle and speed, but now directly above the gliding Inspector. It wasn’t a precise hit—given the forces and speeds involved, that would have been truly uncanny—but it put him close enough to reach out and, as he passed, grab Fedora’s extended tail just above its spaded tip.

The demon let out another aggravated yelp as he was abruptly yanked downward. “Oh, how are you possibly—”

The Hand of the Emperor, not in a conversational mood, swung him around in a complete circle as they plummeted, releasing at exactly the right moment to send him hurtling downward at far greater than terminal velocity.

This time Fedora managed to right himself faster, largely through luck, and snapped his wings back out to their full extent. There was no possibility of another saving glide, however; he was heading down far too fast and at far too steep an angle. Curling himself into a defensive ball with the exception of the wings, outstretched in a desperate makeshift parachute, he came slamming down onto the roof of the barn which stood on the outskirts of Last Rock.

Onto, and through.

The incubus crashed through the timbers, bounced off the edge of the hayloft and hit the ground in an agonized heap, trailing bedraggled wings which flopped over him in a mess of snapped bones and ripped sails.

It took priceless moments for the pain to recede enough for him to think. The Vanislaad were among the least physically powerful demons, but hardy in their way; what did not immediately kill him would right itself in time, and far faster than humans healed. Not fast enough to get him out of the present danger, however.

What broke him from his reverie was a second impact, which caused the entire barn to shake and one corner to partially collapse as something hit it. Timbers and planks fell, luckily far enough from him not to add further injury, but the noise galvanized his attention enough to take inventory.

Broken…lots of things broken. An arm, a leg—no, both legs—wings completely out of commission. Ribs, apparently most of them. Not his spine, good; that wouldn’t paralyze him the way it could a human, but there was only so much muscle and tendon could do around a fractured core. Even luckier, he had avoided hitting anything skull-first. Fortunately none of his internal organs actually did anything—except, less fortunately, ache and bleed when subjected to this caliber of abuse.

After a momentary pause, the wreckage of the corner of the barn began shifting insistently, causing the whole structure to groan in protest. Hands of the Emperor were nothing if not physically hardy. That fall wouldn’t be good for anybody, but the bastard had assuredly been damaged less than Fedora, and would heal much faster.

Marshaling himself, he faded into invisibility and began scuttling away to hide behind a stack of straw bales. With one arm and two legs broken, this was utterly excruciating, but having pushed through the initial shock, he managed to embrace the sensation, forced it to sharpen his mind rather than fogging it. Pain wasn’t preferable to pleasure—at least, not to him, though he’d known incubi and even the odd mortal who felt otherwise—but children of Vanislaas sought out extreme sensations as a matter of course. If they went too long without feeding the itch, whatever stimulated the nerves could provide partial relief.

He managed to conceal himself behind both his native shroud of invisibility and the physical obstruction of the straw, which would hopefully buy a few seconds; he was sure the Hands had extra senses, though of what nature he did not know. Fedora carefully rummaged in the inner pocket of his trench coat with his un-broken hand. The bag-of-holding spell had, of course, shielded the contents from damage and yielded up exactly what he was reaching for. Bless modern enchantment; this situation would’ve been an immediate death sentence fifty years ago.

He reflected wryly, as he flicked off the cork and downed a vial of healing potion imbued with pure infernal magic, that he might have outsmarted himself here. All this ruckus would’ve already been resolved had he not persuaded Tellwyrn to hang back and watch rather than “saving” the day as per her distinctive idiom. Well, it had been the right call, and he’d outmaneuvered the Hand’s gambit. Now he just had to survive the son of a bitch long enough to tell her what she was up against.

Fedora took some tiny satisfaction from the groans that accompanied the Hand’s self-extrication. Precious seconds ticked by, in which they both rapidly improved in condition. The Hand’s innate magic straightening out the comparatively minor injuries he’d suffered, Fedora’s potion working far more rapidly on him. Rapidly or not, though, it was working on much greater damage to a much more fragile vessel. He’d no immediately useful basis of comparison to the Hand’s condition, but best to assume the man would be in better shape than he by the time he couldn’t afford to stall any longer.

That time was fast approaching.

Teeth gritted against the urge to gasp—luckily he did not actually have to breathe—while several bones shifted excruciatingly back into position, he took stock of his surroundings. No exits in the back half of the barn, of course. To reach either the front or side doors he’d have to go back out in the open. Was he faster than a Hand of the Emperor? In this condition, no. In his optimal shape…based on what he’d seen tonight, also no.

He’d just have to be smarter, then.

Easier said than done; brains couldn’t do much without usable options. Fedora quickly discarded extraneous details, fixing upon two of immediate importance: invisible or no, his crawl back here would have left a trail in the dust which the Hand would find sooner than later, and there was exactly one discreet exit from this position.

His arm and leg bones were in their right configuration but still somewhat fractured, which meant that while he could haul himself up the steep ladder into the hayloft, he could not do so in silence. Bracing himself on it and trusting his invisibility, he pulled his battered body upright, peeking over the strawbales and watching the Hand for his moment, already reaching once more into his coat pocket.

As he’d thought, the Hand paused in his pacing, bending over to watch the trail Fedora had left on the ground. That put him seconds at most from pursuing, but also gave the incubus his opening.

He withdrew his hand and hurled the vial he’d just grabbed over the man’s bent head, straight into the wrecked corner of the barn.

It was one of his favorite alchemical explosives: not terribly powerful, but extraordinarily clean. No fire, no light, not even heat or a puff of smoke, just a burst of pure kinetic energy when the vial broke and the solution encountered air. The blast sent broken planks tumbling again, and caused the whole barn to creak ominously. More importantly, it made the Hand whirl to face this new threat, giving Fedora time to scuttle up the ladder with the speed of a spooked squirrel.

He had barely enough mental wherewithal to collapse as gently and silently as possible when he reached the top. Kelvreth’s lashes, that had fucking hurt. Yep, the broken arm was well and truly broken again—and now the effects of his infernal healing potion were fading, so it was gonna stay that way for the immediate term. He didn’t dare take another vial; just the amount he’d already used was risky in the presence of a fae-attuned creature like the Hand. His legs, fortunately, just hurt. Like Hell itself, he thought authoritatively, but at least they were somewhat functional again.

Fedora lay stretched out, wings awkwardly flopping beside him while they continued stitching slowly back together—he might manage one more awkward glide tonight, but he wasn’t flying anywhere—and concentrated on listening and not breathing. The potion helped a bit but he still felt weakened by fae exposure. Or maybe it was just pain. The barn shuddered again due to something the Hand did, but the man was already on the prowl again. Also, there were sounds from within the town, rapidly approaching: footsteps and voices. Whether anybody had noticed them soaring through the air was unknowable at this point, but thanks the the Hand’s efforts at stirring up a mob, plenty of people were out and about to hear two man-sized projectiles plummet to the ground, and the state of this barn would quickly reveal where they had landed.

He lifted his head, again taking stock. Good, he was slightly less cornered now. There was a wide loading window up here, with a sturdy bar extending outward conveniently lined with rope. Why the hell would—oh, lifting hay bales into the loft, of course. If he was going to stay out here in the sticks he needed to familiarize himself better with prairie life. More immediately important, that provided a neat exit. He could also go over the front edge of the hayloft, back to the floor and out one of the exits; the Hand would soon find his trail again, which would lead to the ladder, which would keep him facing away from the front of the barn.

That would require split-second timing, speed he wasn’t sure his battered legs were up to, and would put him out facing the town, right in time for whatever crowd was coming to get here—depending on how Maru was doing, possibly under the effect of mob-maddening Vidian jiggery pokery.

Yeah, that really was not a choice.

Moving as fast as he could without compromising stealth, he stood and crept to the window. Its bottom was even with the floor, which luckily meant one less thing to climb. More importantly, the coast was clear. Fedora grasped the rope with his good arm and hopped out.

Only instinct honed by centuries of cat-and-mouse games like this one saved him.

Before he had consciously processed the noise below him, he’d reflexively yanked upward, hauling his feet and tail out of range of the Hand’s grasp as the man hopped from below. Fedora swung all the way up and landed atop the beam in a crouch; both legs screamed in agony, but they held. For the moment. One was quavering, though, and he knew another maneuver like that was going to send him to the ground.

He peered over the side of the beam; the Hand of the Emperor glared up at him. Clever bastard hadn’t followed his trail at all. To get out here he’d have needed to exit the barn from the side and circle all the way around…which meant he had anticipated Fedora’s reactions and plans in detail, right in the moment.

Well, that was good and fucking ominous.

They stared at one another in silence for a moment, and Fedora was again pleased with himself for cultivating such a disheveled appearance; it neatly concealed the fact that he himself was physically a wreck. The Hand wasn’t so lucky, his usually pristine black coat being torn half off him. Even the fringe of hair surrounding his bald head was sticking out in all directions like a bird’s nest.

Fedora thought as fast as he’d ever thought in his life. Then, powering through the howling pain, he first straightened up and darted forward along the beam, then instantly pivoted and shot back the other way, bounding onto the roof of the barn.

He had a clear shot to the mountainside from the barn’s rear, but that would put him in the position of trying to outrun the Hand on open ground, which he was in no shape to do; his wings weren’t up to flying again, either. This way set him back facing Last Rock and all its hazards, but the poorly-planned little town made a neat obstacle course even before all the construction going up on multiple sides.

Of course, that unwise maneuver immediately caused one of his legs to buckle, exactly as he’d feared it would. Fedora managed to land on the sloping roof, barely, and it was all his frantic scrabbling could do to stop a calamitous slide right over the side. He managed to land on top of his right wing, further ensuring its uselessness—and adding to the pain, of course, though that was a drop in the bucket at this point.

Gritting his teeth, he forced himself upright, stepping carefully on legs which blazed with agony at every step, turning to make for the front of the roof and the town. Maybe he could jump as far as a nearby rooftop, and probably break his leg again, but he had to do something and there’d be only seconds before—

Fedora stopped, staring. The Hand was already standing on the roof, right at the front edge, straddling the very peak.

“Y’know what?” the incubus said aloud. “Just, fuck you, that’s all.”

“Treason,” the Hand said flatly, taking a measured step forward, “applies to citizens of his Majesty’s realm. Despite the fact that you are absent without leave from your sworn duties and in league with an enemy of the Empire…” His lip curled in a contemptuous sneer. “Well, no one should really be surprised, should they?”

Fedora shuffled along the edge of the roof, making slowly for the peak even as the Hand made slowly for him. He couldn’t betray his intentions by glancing down—the moment he moved with any speed, the man would be on him like a pouncing cougar—but if he got to the center of the roof it would be a straight drop back to the protruding beam below. And probably more broken bones, and then he’d still have to make it to the ground and somehow away…

Well, at this point, his every desperate gambit was just to survive a few more seconds. Chain enough of those successes together and he’d be golden.

“Intelligence, of course, anticipated this when they brought you in,” the Hand continued, pacing toward him. “It was not merely expected, but planned. Eventually, when you were no longer worth keeping, it would be necessary to put you down. I suppose Lord Vex will be disappointed that he doesn’t get the satisfaction himself, but that’s what he gets for failing to keep you under control in the first place.”

He was at the peak. Tallest point of the roof, making the drop even worse; in hindsight, maybe he’d have been better off just dropping straight to the ground from a lower height. Orange lamplight illuminated the far edge of the barn and the Hand’s silhouette, signaling the arrival of Last Rock’s citizens.

Maybe the Hand would refrain from physically tearing him apart in public? No, a Hand could legally do anything he liked, and with Fedora’s wings still on display they wouldn’t even object… He tried to shapeshift, which brought nothing but another spike of pain. Probably the combination of fae magic, physical trauma and infernal medicine, in that order.

Would Tellwyrn bother to summon him back from Hell? That wasn’t in his contract… He had a suspicion she didn’t value his services nearly that much just yet, especially not after how displeased she’d been with this night’s work.

The Hand was almost close enough to grab now, and smirking, which was somehow the worst thing tonight. It was bad enough getting outmaneuvered, without the asshole rubbing it in.

“You probably thought you were going to get away with it, didn’t you?” The man twisted his mouth, baring teeth in a truly unsettling expression; there was a grin in there, but also a sneer, and still that smirk, all beneath eyes too wide and with pupils too narrow. The insanity could practically be smelled at this distance. “Now you know otherwise. Nothing defeats the Tiraan Empire.”

“In the Enchanter Wars, pretty much everybody did,” Fedora said sweetly, and “accidentally” twisted his foot on the edge of the roof, flailing his arms for effect as he plummeted. Well, if this was how it ended, at least he got the last word.

The Hand lunged for the edge, then immediately skidded to a stop, staring in disbelief as Fedora bounced right back up, still spinning and flailing. It was an open question which of them was more startled.

Then the big, soft thing he’d impacted ascended above the rooftop, and the Hand actually stepped back, glaring in consternation. Fedora came down again, bouncing once more, but the next time on his descent he managed to catch one of the blimp’s ears on his way toward the ground, and clung there, dangling and trying to ignore the blistering pain in his shoulder.

The blimp’s…ears?

It wasn’t even the size of the smallest zeppelins, but the huge balloon could have lifted a carriage easily. More distinctively, it had four tiny paws along its rim, a fluffy striped tail hanging from the rear…and an enormous grin facing the Hand, which Fedora was now dangling close enough to see up close.

Maru opened his mouth, puckered his giant lips, and blew possibly the biggest, wettest raspberry anyone had ever heard.

Exactly like a rubber balloon with the air being let out, it produced a blast of wind which sent the Hand of the Emperor tumbling all the way back across the barn’s roof, and the tanuki balloon with its battered passenger shooting away in the opposite direction on a crazy course that bounced them what felt like halfway across the sky and back.

Given Fedora’s condition by that point, it was hardly a surprise that he lost his grip.

“ARE YOU KIDDING ME WITH THIS?!” he shouted more at the universe than at Maru as he found himself plummeting out of the air for the second time in the last few minutes, this time without the benefit of working wings.

Then he was grabbed again—by the collar, now, rather than any portion of his anatomy. Awkward as that was, it was still a step up from his recent treatment.

Fedora craned his neck to peer upward, finding Maru grinning down at him. Back in his normal-sized raccoon form, now, and hanging from what appeared to be a bamboo-and-paper parasol painted with Sifanese calligraphy, which somehow kept them both floating aloft.

“If you find this excessively uncomfortable,” the tanuki suggested, “I could return you below to try the diplomatic approach. Your new friend could greatly benefit from the lesson you just learned about premature monologues.”

“I know what you’re doing,” Fedora accused. “You think you’re too cute for anybody to get pissed at you.”

“Oh, is that what I’m doing?” Maru’s grin widened. He had an awful lot of white, needle-like teeth. “What baffles me the most in all this is how your hat is still on your head.”

Fedora grinned back, reached up, and carefully extracted a long hatpin, holding it aloft for him to see.

“Ah. A fashionable ladies’ accoutrement, is it not?”

“Also a serviceable improvised weapon, and two make a decent set of lockpicks. Never underestimate a fashionable lady, bub.”

“A shame you did not get the chance to use it on our associate down there!”

“And don’t think I wasn’t gonna! If he’d—”

It said something about the night he was having that the sudden disappearance of the entire world was far from the most shocking transition he’d experienced recently. The empty sky vanished from around them, replaced with the domed roof of Helion Hall, and Fedora found himself unceremoniously dumped to the floor, where he lay in a disgruntled heap. Maru lit neatly atop the little table which made the centerpiece of Professor Tellwyrn’s personal little patio, accessible only by teleportation.

“I sincerely hope you two are pleased with yourselves,” she grated. “That way somebody is!”

“Now, now, give the fuzzball a break,” Fedora suggested, raising his least injured arm to hold a finger aloft. Gods in bloomers, he hurt everywhere. “This is a college town, and a magical one at that. I’m sure Maru’s performance will just go down as the new student prank to beat. Hell, Chase Masterson was in town, I have no doubt he’ll take credit when nobody else steps forward.”

She took two steps to loom over him, leaning over to accomplish the feat of staring at him over the rims of her spectacles—not easy to do, given their respective positions. “And what do you have to say about your perching atop the bloody church like a self-important gargoyle?”

He found a new reason to wince. “Ah. So you were watching.”

“In fairness to Murgatroyd,” Maru said diffidently, “that is somewhat redundant, is it not? Gargoyles by nature, almost by definition—”

“Urusai!” she barked. Maru subsided, a satisfied little smile lingering on his sharp muzzle.

“So it wasn’t as clean as anybody woulda liked,” Fedora grunted, finally forcing himself into a sitting position. “Aaaiee—yow, that hurts! Fuck, I feel like the china shop after the bull got through…”

“You engaged a Hand of the Emperor in hand-to-hand combat,” Maru observed, “and are not dead. Nor even dismembered! All things being equal, I believe that counts as a resounding success.”

“What he said!” Fedora agreed quickly, pointing at Maru but keeping his eyes on Tellwyrn. “Look, Prof, this was messier than I hoped and I know it goes against your grain to hang back while other people do the heavy lifting, but we won tonight! The kids are home safe, the enemy didn’t get to make a spectacle of you, which had to’ve been the bulk of what he was after, and we succeeded in turning the scheme around on him. Now he’s got nothing to show for it, you haven’t shown your hand, and we know who our enemy is!”

“A Hand of the Emperor,” she said more quietly.

“The same one from before,” he replied, nodding. “My official connections with Intelligence are cut off, but I keep my ear to the ground. There was plenty of rumor about the Hands going wonky a few weeks back, but it’s widely known they’re stable again. Except…they seem to have missed a spot. That guy was not playin’ with a full deck.”

“Even I know Hands are famed for their discretion and efficiency,” Maru added. “This one cost himself a victory by engaging Murgatroyd in a futile display of wordplay. Really, standing around on the cusp of his victory and making a speech instead of finishing the job. Can you imagine anyone being so unutterably foolish? Not to mention cliché.”

“I know where you sleep, fuzzball,” Fedora warned.

The tanuki turned to him and bowed. “I am very flattered, but you are too tall for me. Also, Tellwyrn-sensei, there is more. This Hand is working with a Vidian priestess, Lorelin Reich. It was she who used her arts to stir up the town against the students.”

Tellwyrn drew in a deep breath through her nose. “Reich. Back in Last Rock. Well, well. Just when I could actually use Arquin for once, and I’ve sent him off to Puna Dara.”

“It might not hurt to let yourself trust the kids a little more,” Fedora said, starting to rise. He changed plans halfway through, easing himself into the little chair she kept by the table with a wince. “Nnnnf… But yeah. Szith made a damn fine show of herself tonight. I tolja she would. That girl’s been training to be a noble’s bodyguard since she was big enough to pick up a sword. If there’s one person up on this mountain who can be relied on to extract somebody from a mob—”

“All right, point taken,” Tellwyrn said impatiently. “Not unconditionally agreed, but you can stop harping on it. We had better deal with what’s coming next.”

“Yeah,” Fedora said, frowning. “Yeah… There’s a downside to victory. It narrows the enemy’s options, forces them to move faster. I’m afraid we may not have as much time to prepare, now. Now that we know who he is, whatever that Hand does next, he’s gonna have to do soon.”


“Sir, I’ll take responsibility for this,” Lorelin said formally, folding her hands behind her back. “When that creature engaged us, I instructed Mr. Carson to hold it at bay while I kept concentrating on my own task. That was a mistake; it was far too much for him to handle. Maybe if I’d dealt with it, I could have resumed focusing the crowd and prevented it from intercepting you later.”

The Hand gazed at her in chilly silence for a moment, then transferred his look to Fred Carson, who flinched. He hadn’t fared nearly as badly as the Hand himself, whose clothes were still in tatters; Fred’s coat was a mass of scrapes and rents from the creature’s tiny claws, though Lorelin’s healing had washed away his actual wounds and hopefully neutralized any fae nonsense that might have lingered on him. Even she was somewhat disheveled after scuffling about in the toolshed. The sole fairy lamp in the basement in which they met was an older model, and cast a flickering light that did none of them any favors.

“Do you know what that thing was, Reich?” the Hand asked finally.

Slowly, she shook her head. “No, sir, I don’t. Some manner of fairy. I’ve never heard of one that looked like an overlarge raccoon.”

“Carson?”

Fred swallowed heavily. “N-no, sir. That is t’say… I mean, I ain’t seen it myself, but I’ve heard from my trips up the mountain that Tellwyrn’s got a critter like that workin’ for her. I…shoulda thought of it. Plumb didn’t occur to me till after it’d left us. S-sorry.”

The Hand finally shook his head. “This was not your fault, Carson. Nor yours, Reich. We were simply…outmaneuvered. It happens.” He reached forward to lay a hand on Fred’s shoulder, ignoring the flinch the gesture prompted, and gave him a light squeeze. “You have served your Emperor well, never fear; sometimes, we simply don’t win. What matters is learning from defeat and applying the lesson. Next time it will be different. For now, Carson, go home, get some rest. I will need to call upon you again soon.”

Fred’s departure was accompanied by much bowing and stammering. He had barely shut the cellar door behind him before Lorelin turned to the Hand and spoke.

“Sir, I have to ask. By designating the gnome as the primary target, were you trying to avoid setting off a major confrontation?”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “What are you talking about?”

“I mean…a dangerous one. Something that could have caused major damage to the town and not involved Tellwyrn.”

“Talk sense, Reich,” he snapped. “That Masterson boy is possibly the least dangerous thing on that mountain, and not even the most annoying.”

She stared, her Vidian mask of control slipping slightly to permit surprise to peek through. “You…don’t know…?”

“What?”

Lorelin swallowed. “I assumed you were… Well. I have no up to date word from my contacts in Intelligence, as you ordered, but I was briefed on the situation unfolding in Last Rock. Your first mission here, and Fedora’s, in response to the Sleeper outbreak. Sir… There is something you should know about Chase Masterson.”

 

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13 – 17

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Jasmine allowed herself a sigh of relief as she set the empty canape tray down on the kitchen counter. None of the others were present; given the sudden availability of free “help,” Glory had not troubled to bring in staff for this event. Ami and Schwartz were circulating among the guests (with differing degrees of skill), but the lady of the house had not hesitated to put the Guild apprentices to work. That left Smythe to handle the cooking, a skill none of the rest of them possessed.

“Well, this hasn’t been nearly as bad as I’d feared,” she said aloud, adjusting the collar of her still jacket. Actually the livery the Butler had found for them didn’t bother her; it reminded her of dress uniform. Layla and Darius, likewise, seemed to find it hilarious to be dressing as servants, but Tallie in particular was not enjoying the role. As usual, it was hard to tell what Ross thought.

“Do not mistake caution for virtue,” Smythe advised, glancing at her with a faint smile but not turning from the sauce he was stirring. He manned the stove without the benefit of an apron, but his uniform was, of course, spotless. Butlers did not make mistakes. “Many of those men and several of the women have fondled waitresses in other venues. No one invited to one of Tamisin Sharvineh’s events, however, would be foolish enough to mistreat working-class people in the home of a prominent Eserite.”

“I hadn’t even thought of that,” Jasmine said, frowning. “I just meant that I’m not as terrible at this as I could be. It’s my first time serving appetizers at a society party. Believe it or not,” she added dryly.

The Butler gave her another glance; his expression relaxed subtly, conveying the aspect of a calm smile without actually moving his lips. It was incredible what the man could communicate with his face. “A military upbringing confers many traits which are crucial in domestic service, notably punctuality, discretion, good posture, and the capacity to behave deferentially toward worthless people. Alone among your friends, I would gladly provide you references toward another position.”

“I have other plans, but I appreciate that,” she said with amusement. He nodded, turning back to his sauce. “Will you need me to take another tray?”

“Not yet. Your compatriots have that in hand. There is a rhythm and a balance to social events; madame prefers her hospitality to seem generous but not excessive. It is a subtle reminder to the powerful individuals present that on Eserion’s ground, even they may go hungry.”

“That’s slightly terrifying,” she observed. “But I’m amazed how you can be so aware of the situation from back here in the kitchen.”

“I am a Butler,” he explained. “It might be wise for you to circulate, however. Ostensibly to see if a guest needs anything, but more significantly to keep an eye on the house. With so many present, opportunities for mischief abound.”

Jasmine frowned. “You don’t think the conspirators would attempt something here, surely? Even the Svennish intelligence service didn’t dare attack this house.”

“The Svennish intelligence service are professionals. Your adversaries have thus far abducted Eserite apprentices practically from the Guild’s doorstep, attempted to unlawfully imprison the same under the very nose of the Sisterhood, and employed intrusive scrying spells on a witch sufficiently powerful to detect and counter them. Reckless or incompetent foes present their own dangers, Jasmine. They may be more easily beaten once confronted, but a person unburdened by strategic sense might attempt almost anything.”

“I see your point,” she said, then deliberately smoothed her expression. “I’ll make the rounds, then.”

Smythe shifted to give her another nod before going back to his stirring, and she slipped back out.

It was odd, she reflected while navigating the busy townhouse, how none of the guests appeared to notice her. When she was carrying food, they would select bites without acknowledging her, as though an unattended tray were floating past. Smythe had lectured the group about the invisibility of servants (she really hoped Tallie’s resentment toward nobles wasn’t already bubbling over), but to Jasmine’s mind the Guild’s doctrine had more to teach about this phenomenon. She wondered, while climbing the servant’s stairs in the back, whether this qualified as “don’t see” or “won’t see.” A bit of both, she decided; for the most part, ignoring servants simply seemed the thing to do, and they had no trouble detecting the canapes and cocktails. But then, after overhearing snippets of conversation, she was starting to suspect that some of these people didn’t regard those below their station as actual people.

And these were Glory’s guests? It was downright horrifying to imagine what must be going on in the houses of the city’s nobility. This party had done more to impart a good Eserite’s resentment of those in power than weeks of Lore’s lectures.

Apparently no one wanted anything, and most of the guests were fully occupied with one another, or clustered in the central salon where Glory was holding court; at any rate, she was not stopped on her way around the lower floor. She did pass Ross holding a tray of drinks, and received a blank-faced nod from him. Technically a breach of Smyth’s rules of servant conduct, but she wasn’t about to rat him out. Her rounds were uninterrupted until she passed the bathroom door on the second floor rear hallway, not far from the servant’s stairs.

It opened so abruptly she had to take a step back to avoid being struck, but did not swing wide. Layla squeezed through the crack and instantly pushed it shut behind her.

“Jasmine,” she hissed. “Thank the gods. That guest this is all about, Carruthers Treadwell? He’s a gnome, right?”

Jasmine tilted her head curiously. “Treadwell? Yes, Schwartz said he was.”

“A little paunchy?” Layla continued in a furious whisper, glancing surreptitiously about in exactly the way Style had told them not to do. “White hair, big mustache…?”

“That I can’t tell you; Glory’s been monopolizing him and I haven’t met the man yet. Apparently he didn’t want to come and she had to apply persuasion, and just winked when I asked what that…” Jasmine trailed off, suddenly frowning. “Why? Did he corner you in the bathroom or something? Layla, even if we need his help you do not have to put up with—”

Layla grabbed her arm, and Jasmine focused on her face, suddenly paying closer attention. The girl had always had an aristocrat’s composure even before the Guild’s coaching in the fine art of lying, but she was two shades paler than normal, her eyes wide and lips pressed into a stressed line. She glanced up and down the empty hall once more, then stepped aside, pulled the door open just a crack, and jerked her head urgently toward it.

Taking the hint, Jasmine shut her mouth and immediately slipped inside, making room for Layla to follow. By the time the younger girl had pulled the door shut behind them, she had already forgotten she was there.

The gnome sat against the wall next to the ornately cast porcelain toilet, eyes staring vacantly at a point near the ceiling. His black tuxedo jacket did not reveal stains, but the white shirt beneath was now more crimson than white, and the blood spreading from around him had rendered the carpet a total loss.

They stared in stunned silence before Layla managed to speak in a thin, tight voice.

“It’s surreal. The one thought I cannot get out of my head is it does not seem there could physically be that much blood inside a gnome. Isn’t that surreal?”

Jasmine blinked, swallowed, shook her head once, and straightened her spine. “Right. Right. Okay. Layla, get Glory. No!” She shook her head, closing her eyes momentarily in thought. “You can’t push through that crowd to get her attention, that’ll kick the beehive for sure. Go to the kitchen, get Smythe. He will get Glory and she’ll direct our next steps. I’ll stay here and make sure nobody else finds…this.”

“Right. Yes. I’m on my way.” Layla seemed energized at having direction, and grasped the door handle again.

“And be careful,” Jasmine added, turning to her suddenly. “This can’t possibly be a coincidence.”

“Yes, I know,” Layla said, drawing a deep breath. “Whoever’s after us is in this house, and now we know how far they’re willing to go. And that they can get around Glory’s wards. I’ll be quick.”

No sooner had they slipped back into the hall than Layla shot off toward the rear staircase at the fastest pace that would not draw attention. Jasmine planted herself in front of the door, falling automatically into parade rest.

Layla had only been gone a minute before a well-dressed man strolled up, drink in hand, and paused to give her an inquisitive look. “Excuse me?”

“I’m terribly sorry, sir,” she said with a deferential little smile. “This one is out of order.”


They went for the slope itself, Maureen stubbornly clinging to her basket of metal—she was not about to relinquish her haul to whatever nonsense this was—but made it only a few feet up the slope before the roar of the crowd abruptly ceased. Naturally, she didn’t slow. When fleeing a pursuer, it was a fatal mistake to sacrifice footing and control to look back; any gnome knew that.

Unfortunately, Chase Masterson had not had the benefit of a gnomish education.

He immediately skidded to a stop, turning in the process to see what made the change, which proved to be a more complex maneuver than he could handle while running up a steep slope. Or, knowing him, probably at all. He slipped on the grass, one ankle twisting out from under him, and went tumbling to the ground, immediately rolling downhill.

Even more unfortunately, a great towering human-sized lummox rolling down the mountain at her from barely more than her height ahead proved an obstacle Maureen could neither vault over nor dodge around. The impact bowled her right over, causing her to lose her grip finally. The basket went tumbling away, strewing scrap metal across the grass.

Being knocked down and rolled upon did not phase her, but for that, she punched him as hard as she could manage in whatever piece of the big oaf it was that currently blocked her vision.

“Ow! My kidney!” Chase scrambled away, but stopped before rising back to his feet, staring back down at the town. “…huh. What the hell’s got into them now?”

The erstwhile mob seemed to have abruptly lost its impetus. Suddenly, it had ceased to be a seething organism and had become a dozen or so prairie townspeople, standing around and staring at each other in confusion, as if unsure what they were doing or why. Silence gradually gave way to subdued muttering.

“Dunno,” Maureen grunted, hopping nimbly back to her feet. “Their problem, an’ I’m out before it becomes ours again. An’ you owe me a basket o’ metal bits, y’great clodhoppin’ galoot!”

“Oh, sure, blame me,” he said cheerfully, scrambling back upright and following her into a dash. They set off up the slope at an angle this time, heading for the stone stairs and their more certain footing. “Surely you don’t think I caused a mob?”

Maureen didn’t spare him a glance. “I dunno, Chase. Did you cause a mob?”

“Well, not that I know of!” he replied with an exuberant laugh. “But let’s face it, if there’s an angry mob and I’m in the same town, there’s at least even odds that somehow—”

“Just bloody well run!”


“Hey!” Fred protested as the shed door was yanked open, whirling to face the intruder. He had to lower his gaze; whoever had interrupted them was about half his height.

“What’s this? What’s all this, now?” wheezed a reedy little voice. “What’re y’all doin’ in my garden shed?”

“Your…” Fred stared, blinking in astonishment. The voice was an old man’s, one he didn’t immediately recognize. “Your… Mister, I think you’re a mite turned around.”

“Don’t you lecture me, sonny boy!” the intruder said shrilly, and Fred stumbled at a sharp jab to his thigh. A moment later he stumbled back again, throwing up a hand to protect his eyes against the brilliance that had suddenly erupted. The tiny old man lifted an old-fashioned oil lamp to illuminate the interior of the shed. Even without the hunch that bent him nearly double, he was short, his head entirely bald with incongruously huge tufts of white hair erupting from his ears, face so lost in wrinkles that his eyes were completely obscured beneath bushy brows. He jabbed at Fred again with a gnarled cane, though this time Fred held his ground; if he backed up any further he’d stumble over Lorelin, who was still seated in meditation. The old man prodded him once more, shaking his lamp aggressively. “This here’s my tool shed, an’ I don’t take kindly to trespassers, nosirree I don’t!”

“You said garden shed,” Fred said dumbly.

That was apparently the wrong answer, and earned him a whack on the hip. For such an apparently frail old fellow, he could swing that cane hard.

“Don’t you correct me, y’little hoodlum! I know my rights! Eighty-seventeen years I’ve worked this farm, an’ I know every inch of it! This here’s my garden toolshed, sure as my name’s Cletus Custer Indominus Boomerang McGee! My poor wife’s buried right behind it, an’ my dog too, Vidius rest both their souls! But not the cat, little bastard never did an honest day’s work in his furry life.”

Rubbing his thigh, Fred snuck a glance back at the priestess, who did not react to the invocation of her god, either. She was still concentrating; his job, after all, was to see she wasn’t interrupted. He shifted position, planting himself between the old man and Lorelin. “Now see here, mister, this here shed’s in an alley behind the Saloon, there ain’t no way…” He trailed off, frowning, then leaned forward. “Hang on. Do I know you? I ain’t never seen you ’round town…”

He really should have expected the ensuing whack to the skull, he reflected when he could think again. In hindsight, it was obvious. When his ears stopped ringing, he found he’d barely caught himself against the wall of the shed. That and…oh, no.

Lorelin grunted, almost sending Fred entirely to the ground in the process of crawling out from under him. The old man was still ranting, shaking his lantern at them.

“…never heard such disrespect, in my day, young ‘uns had a proper regard for their elders, yes sir they did! Why, when I fought off the elves with my trusty lightnin’ staff, even they wasn’t so rude! Elves got proper respect for their elders, yes they do! ‘Mr. McGee,’ they said t’me, ‘beggin’ yer pardon but we’re here to pillage yer farm, if y’please.’ An’ I served ’em tea before I shot ’em all in the face in alphabetical order with lightning, cos in my day we had us a little thing called manners!”

“I’m unsurprised you don’t recognize him, Mr. Carson,” Lorelin said, straightening and brushing off her shirt. “This creature is some kind of fairy.”

“You’re some kinda fairy!” McGee shouted, whacking Fred again. “I never heard o’ such—”

The light that blazed from behind Fred was by a wide margin more blinding than the lamp, and made him distinctly grateful he wasn’t looking in its direction. The pure golden glow of divine magic pulsed outward, and at its impact, Cletus Custer Indominus Boomerang McGee seemed to blow away as if made of dust, leaving behind a shape that made even less sense.

Fred locked eyes with the four-foot-tall raccoon dressed in robes for a moment. Then the creature had the temerity to giggle.

Then it darted forward, dropped to the ground, and bit him on the ankle.

Fred yelled and stumbled over backward, once again collapsing atop Lorelin. This time he bore them both fully to the ground, again breaking her concentration. The light vanished, plunging them once more into oppressive darkness.

“I’m sorry!” he stammered, scrambling off her and accidentally kicking her in the process. “Gods, I didn’t mean—”

“Don’t worry about it, Carson.” Her voice, oddly enough, seemed amused. “It seems this may not be as easy as we were expecting.”

“What the hell is that thing?!”

“I’ve no idea; fairies are over my head.” His vision was gradually adjusting; he could make out a shifting shadow as she altered her position. “But we have our mission, and it looks like yours is no longer the easy part. Do your best to keep him off me, if you please.”

She fell still, and silent, apparently sinking back into meditation. In the ensuing silence, Fred heaved himself upright, lurched over to the door, and swung it shut, pressing himself against it.

The distinct scrabbling of little clawed feet scampered across the roof above them, followed by a shrill and distinctly insane giggle. And then a whimper, which Fred only belatedly realized had been himself.


Whatever caused the lull lasted only moments, and then with a roar, the crowd was after them again.

“Bloody ‘ell, are they gaining?” Maureen protested just as they reached the stairs.

“Well, yeah, their legs alone are taller than you,” Chase pointed out, a little breathless. He had pulled ahead, and now paused, turning back to her. “I could’ve left you behind, but Tellwyrn would turn me into an entire new dumbass-leather wardrobe. Her words, not mine. Oh, fine, I guess I have to do everything around here.”

“Don’t you dare!” she squawked, smacking him and jumping away as he bent and reached for her.

“Ow! You pint-sized idjit, do you want to get torn apart by a mob? Come here!”

“You can barely carry yer own weight, the way yer gaspin’!” Maureen skittered wide, departing the staircase to circle around him outside his reach. The distraction had cost them; she chanced a glance down the mountain, and the inexplicably enraged humans were rapidly gaining.

“Dammit to hell and back in a handbasket,” he complained, huffing as he followed her and lacking the sense to shut up when he was clearly not in good enough shape to be running up mountains in the first place. “This better actually be my fault somehow! If I get killed and it’s not because of something I did, everybody I care about is gonna lose the pool I have going. Best thing I could leave for ’em, not like I’ve got anything worth putting in a will…”

Only when he trailed off for breath did she note the sound. She had never heard it so distantly before, but Maureen knew that sound.

“No,” she breathed.

The lights came into view ahead and above them, a sharp blue glow that descended the mountain right at them at a frightening speed, the noise growing louder. It was a hum both deep and shrill, that seemed to exist somewhere on the boundaries of hearing.

“What the fuck now?” Chase demanded. “I really hope that’s help. Is that help? It doesn’t look like help. Doesn’t sound like help, either…”

“No, no, no!” Maureen wailed, putting on a burst of speed. “No, she’s not ready yet! She’s not done! Aye, she runs but I’ve the whole stabilizing matrix to install!”

“Who’s not ready?” he demanded.

Then the thing drew close enough to come into focus.

It angled away from the staircase, swerving wide to avoid striking them, and immediately began wobbling, which caused Maureen to cry out in panic. No surprise; stabilizing matrix or no, there was nobody alive who had any practice at driving that thing at all, much less down a mountainside at breakneck speed.

Even without practice, Szith’s natural elven balance and agility made a world of difference. She turned the machine entirely sideways till it was sliding horizontally down the slope, its single wide wheel ripping up and spewing a veritable fountain of grass and sod. The arcane blue fairy lamps mounted to its round bronze shell flashed as their beams swept across the two astonished students, then the angle changed, leaving the vehicle backlit by the glow of the levitation charms holding its tapering tail aloft. Szith leaned upslope in its saddle, planting one booted foot on the ground and ripping up another streak of grass as she manually slowed and controlled the descent.

It was unfair, Maureen reflected, how elves were just naturally good at everything. She knew for a fact the drow had never even ridden a horse, much less a…well, she hadn’t quite got around to naming it yet.

The arcane rider’s approach made even the mob trail to a halt, gaping in astonishment. The wheeled vehicle wobbled violently as Szith fought for control, and for a horrifying moment Maureen was certain the whole thing was going to flip over and roll the rest of the way down the mountainside. The drow (and the levitation charm) prevailed, however, and the whine of its motive charms surged as she gave it a boost of power. More dirt flew and it surged back into motion, getting its wheel firmly under itself. Having slid all the way past them now, she angled it back uphill and came after them.

Szith actually leaned out of the saddle, holding one arm out and scooping Maureen up into her lap even as she squeezed the brakes, skidding to a halt. And nearly toppling over again as the vehicle wobbled and swerved in the process.

“Gently!” Maureen squawked. “Ya gotta guide ‘er gently, she’s not got the balance fer this stop-an’-go!”

“On!” Szith barked, pulling to a halt next to Chase.

“Oh, hell yes!” he crowed, vaulting onto the saddle behind her and wrapping his arms around her waist.

“Gently!” Maureen wailed, to no avail. Szith shifted her grip on the handlebars, relaxing the brakes and twisting the throttle forward, sending Marueen’s project into another skid as she poured far too much power far too fast into their acceleration, causing the gnome to regret showing her how the controls worked even though this was very likely saving her life.

But it stabilized quickly, and they shot upward far faster than Maureen had ever climbed this mountain, rhythmically bouncing as the big wheel crossed over the switchbacking paved path. In just moments, the University gates hove into view.

“I WANT ONE!” Chase bellowed, and Maureen really wished she was in a position to push him off.


“Gotcha,” Fedora whispered savagely, peering through the spyglass. Even in a form which lacked his wings and tail for balance, even perched at the top of the church’s steeple in the stiff prairie breeze, he held his stance easily, quite enjoying the dramatic way his trench coat billowed behind him. Up ahead and far below, a single figure in a black coat stood at a distance from both the town and the now-puzzled mob which had staggered to an impotent halt a scant few dozen yards up the mountain.

The Inspector ignored them as he had the pulse of divine light which had briefly illuminated the alley behind the Saloon. Maru had done his job, and nothing Lorelin Reich had in her bag of tricks was going to more than inconvenience the tanuki. For that matter, Fedora had probably better go collect him before her efforts made that game too much fun. Fairies tended to lose themselves in the hunt, and all the University needed right now was for Tellwyrn’s personal secretary to turn somebody into a tree stump.

“It was a good play,” he said aloud into the wind as the Hand of the Emperor shifted to glare at his defeated lynch mob, bringing his familiar profile into focus. “Create a ruckus, threaten students, bring Tellwyrn down here to intervene. If you did your job well enough, she might go overboard, give you an excuse to rile the town further. At the very least, you’d test her, see how she reacted to being poked. But you didn’t count on a dashing, demonic voice of reason to summon student help and persuade the boss lady to butt out, now didja. And now it is Fedora who has seen the face of the enemy! You lose this round, cupcake. What shall we play next?”

His triumphant grin vanished as the Hand of the Emperor abruptly turned to stare directly at him.

“No,” Fedora muttered, lowering the spyglass. It was dark, there was a good quarter of a mile between them. Even an elf could barely have made him out, perched on the steeple. “There’s no way…”

The Hand vanished momentarily from view as he suddenly sped back into the shadow of Last Rock’s buildings. Then he reappeared even more dramatically, having vaulted from the ground onto a rooftop. He proceeded onward, leaping from roof to roof faster than a jungle cat, and making straight for the church.

“Oh, shit.”

 

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13 – 14

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The hum filled the air, powerful enough to make her bones resonate sympathetically, but not loud enough to drown out the screams. She tore through the corridors, a prisoner behind her own eyes, unable even to scream as she carved away lives.

Palace guards tried to shoot her, but she effortlessly swatted lightning bolts aside with the burning shaft of light in her hand. It pulled her onward, hungry for revenge, and she slashed two soldiers into shrieking fragments with one wide swing. The smell of seared meat competed with the sharp tang of ozone in the air.

She did not stop, pulled forward by the sword. Cutting down servants, clerks, more guards, everyone who came within range of her swing. Faces of people she knew, frozen in horror and betrayal as she ended them. The sword didn’t care; it only needed blood.

Somehow, she had made it to the harem wing, and Isolde was ahead of her, fleeing in panic. Fruitlessly, of course; she ran the other consort down and impaled her through the heart from behind, and Isolde fell, screaming a question for which she had no answer.

Around the next corner, Empress Eleanora had barely a moment to give her a shocked look before the blade whipped through her body in a swift Z formation, reducing her to chunks, and still she pushed forward. Beyond the Empress was what the sword wanted.

Sharidan watched her come, wide-eyed. She could hear nothing but the powerful buzz of the weapon, but saw him mouth her name in disbelief as the blade came down.

The screams finally tore past whatever force silenced them, and everything vanished in confused panic. It took her a few seconds to understand where she was and stop shrieking. There was no angrily humming Infinite Order weapon; she was alone in a shabby little room in Puna Dara, entangled in the thin blanket that came with her rented cot, and one of her neighbors was pounding on the wall, shouting imprecations. Also, there was a frightened voice in her ear.

“Milanda! What happened? Are you all right? Say something!”

“Sorry, Walker,” she rasped, then paused, working her mouth to wet it a bit. “Just…a nightmare. I’m fine.”

Walker hesitated. “You’re…alone?”

Milanda paused in extricating herself from the blanket to give the room’s wall a wry look. “Now that the noise has stopped, nobody cares. I chose this neighborhood for a reason; the odd scream here and there won’t draw a response.”

“So these dreams are now determining your choice of where to stay?”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” Milanda muttered, rising and going to the basin of water to splash her face. “You know why I’m here; the Punaji will not work with Imperial agents on this. They won’t even allow me to work if they find me, and once I’ve been explicitly told to butt out by Rajakhan’s government, my presence becomes a serious provocation. Nobody will look for me here.”

It was a sign of Walker’s concern that she didn’t allow herself to be baited into a long-winded discussion of the situation. “You never did see that mental healer, did you?”

“I haven’t had time,” Milanda said shortly, “and I don’t really care to discuss it.”

“Too bad. Milanda, this is like trying to operate with a high fever or a broken leg. Mental injuries are not less serious because they’re invisible!”

“What time is it?” Milanda asked. Her third-floor shack of a room was luxurious by the neighborhood’s standards for having an attached toilet; a window was not among its amenities.

Walker hesitated, as if about to argue, but then answered the question. “Almost twenty hours. Actually, I was about to wake you anyway. Hope you got some rest; this may be a long night.”

“Why? What’s happened?” The slight tingle of alarm was enough to banish the last of the sleep cobwebs from her brain, and she paused in the middle of the floor, just listening.

“The Avatar wasn’t able to improve the data gain from the transcension field by much, so we’re operating at a very low sensor capacity, but you carrying that receiver in your ear around Puna Dara has helped. We’ve finished mapping the cave systems around the city and found more than one that lead to an obviously artificial shaft which terminates at Fabrication Plant One. One of these, an old mineshaft outside the city, has Infinite Order tech operating at low levels. We weren’t able to interface with any of it to see what it’s doing.”

“That’ll be where the Rust have their base, then,” Milanda said, running a hand over her hair. She probably looked like a mess, but that was a lesser consideration right now. “I’ll have a look before deciding our next steps. Point the way, Walker.”

“Wait,” Walker advised. “The rest of the news isn’t good. Our system was able to identify the technology the Rust cultists are using.”

“Really?” Milanda couldn’t restrain a grin of excited satisfaction. “What is it?”

“I don’t know, and that is the bad part,” Walker said grimly. “It came up as classified. Even the Avatar refused to discuss it. He was very apologetic, but said it’s an absolute rule. He can’t act against his programming.”

Milanda’s smile melted into a frown. “…I thought our whole rigged-up system was logged into the Order’s tech under Naiya’s credentials. Why would anything be classified to her?”

“There are several things that would be; technologies and information that the Order as a whole agreed never, ever to use, or even discuss. Long before their fall they had devolved to infighting of the worst kind. The only thing that brought them all to the table was a weapon or technology which scared them so much they were all willing to permanently give up access to it as long as it meant none of the others could have it either. And these are the people who were screwing around with time travel and solar system-sized spatial distortion fields.”

Milanda drew in a deep breath and blew it out slowly.

“Yeah,” Walker said in response to the sound.

“That’s really bad.”

“Potentially. It also raises very troubling questions. How did these yokels defeat the Infinite Order’s highest security? The Avatar in Fabrication Plant One would never have allowed anyone to access classified technology, and if they somehow disabled him, there should be no way to access it. Only an Avatar governing intelligence is able to extract sealed data from the computers.”

“Hm.” Milanda had been conducting a quick check while Walker was talking; she’d been napping in her clothes and already had everything she needed at hand. Stepping out of the room and shutting the door behind her, she lowered her voice. A young woman walking around muttering to herself was far from the strangest thing to happen in this neighborhood, but still. “Maybe they interfered with the Avatar somehow? Altered him?” The rickety exterior steps creaked woefully as she descended. Milanda had suspicions about the quality of carpentry that had been done after the last hurricane.

“That would almost have to be it, but I can’t see how. Remember that our altered system only works because Empress Theasia convinced the Avatar to help set it up that way in the first place. As nervous as the Order were about AI, they’re supposed to be impervious to tampering. Anyway, I wanted you to be aware of the level of danger you’re walking into—and repeat my objection that you shouldn’t be doing this alone.”

“This is the whole point,” Milanda muttered, tucking her chin down as she reached the street. Nobody was paying her any attention; dark had fallen, but the city was still lively at this hour. “The Archpope is trying to rally everybody under one banner to prevent the Throne from turning on him, and I don’t buy for a second that he didn’t knowingly penetrate our system in the first place. I’ll buy that the Rust are a serious threat, but I also don’t want to let him scapegoat them. If I can deal with this quietly, without involving the Punaji or the cults…”

“Let me remind you that I do not work for the Empire, nor does Akane or the Avatar or the dryads. You’re the only party here who has an opinion on the Silver Throne’s political goals. What matters to the rest of us is that some humans are messing with the most dangerous technology the Infinite Order possessed and have already shown themselves willing to weaponize it somehow.”

“Noted,” Milanda said with a sigh.

“And even that wasn’t why I wanted to wake you. While doing those scans, the system identified someone it recognized moving through Puna Dara, and according to what I’m tracking toward the Rust-infested mineshaft I just mentioned.”

Milanda frowned, picking up her pace, then came to a stop, realizing she didn’t know where she was going. “Which way, Walker? And who is it? I thought those sensors weren’t acute enough for that kind of detail at this range.”

“If you’re determined to stick your nose into this, head to the southern edge of the city and toward the mountains, and I’ll guide you further from there. And no, they generally aren’t, but the presence it picked up resonates very strongly through the specific transcension field it’s using. It identified them as Administrator Naiya with thirty percent certainty.”

“Wait… That means—”

“One of her avatars, yes,” Walker said. “This system knows what kitsune and valkyries are; it’s able to accept our girls as having Mother’s clearance specifically because it doesn’t recognize dryads as a specific, separate thing. That, in fact, is how it identifies them: as Naiya, but without complete certainty.”

Milanda ran a hand roughly over her face. “Omnu’s balls… Walker, I need a favor.”

“It’ll cost you,” Walker said solemnly.

She almost missed a step, then smiled ruefully and picked up her pace. “Uh huh, good one. Has the Emperor made his nightly visit yet?”

“I don’t know, Milanda. It’s not as if he comes down to my hidey-hole.”

“Right. Well…any way you can, please try to get in touch with Lord Vex.”

Walker hummed thoughtfully into the headset. “You understand the handicap we’re under with regard to getting anybody’s attention up top? Everyone down here either physically can’t get to the surface, or really, really shouldn’t.”

Milanda made a mental note to see about having a Hand of the Emperor stationed down there at all times. Waste of talent for what amounted to a pageboy’s job, but given how Hands were made, she doubted they’d begrudge the chance to loiter with the dryads. Akane, though, was another matter…

“I understand. Whatever you can do, please. It’s very unlikely that this is just some random dryad wandering through. That would have created a major incident by now.”

“I’ve already checked the Empire’s reports on dryad activity, which Sharidan so helpfully brought us last week,” Walker replied. “Banana roams up and down the Punaji Coast, but in two centuries she’s never shown the slightest interest in approaching human settlements. Seems more standoffish than most of her generation.”

“Right. Which leaves two possibilities that I’m aware of. Either this is Ash, who works for Lord Vex, in which case he is meddling in my mission without my knowledge and I am going to have words with him… Or, unfortunately more likely, the sophomore class of Last Rock U has showed up to…help.”

“If they have,” Walker suggested, “let them. You’re in over your head, Milanda. If you absolutely insist on not involving any of the cult assets that have been moving into the city, those kids at least don’t have political ties to the Empire.”

Milanda did not bother to address that erroneous statement. “I’m more concerned with their particular manner of help. They shot Sarasio to hell, almost started a riot in Tiraas and burned half of Veilgrad. I’m just going to hope I’ll have to yell at Vex—or maybe deal with a rogue dryad. The last thing I need right now is those meddling kids.”


Fred kept his head down, hurrying on through the gathering darkness toward his destination. Last Rock wasn’t as sleepy a town as it had been not long ago, but even so, it was notably less active than in daylight. Also dimmer, lacking an organized system of street lamps. The mayor had been talking about adding just such a thing, what with all the new construction going on. Privately, Fred somewhat resented these changes in his comfortable life, but at the same time, he knew that for the silliness it was. Progress happened. All a man could do was buckle down and do his best.

“All right there, Mr. Carson?”

He came to a stop a bit too abruptly, so much so that he staggered and nearly fell, but that beat the alternative. Even so, Maureen backed away in alarm, clutching her basket of metal parts and staring up at him with wide eyes.

“Omnu’s—I’m so sorry, missy!” Fred blurted, snatching off his hat. “I plumb wasn’t looking. Didn’t step on you, did I?”

“Not so much as a toenail, don’t you worry,” the gnome assured him, smiling now. “I’m pretty quick on me feet; even the tall folk who keep a lookout can’t always spot me in the dark. Really, though, are ye doin’ all right? Y’look a wee bit under th’weather.”

In fact, he was suddenly feeling even worse, but plastered on a smile, gamely trying to conceal his unease. “Oh, pardon me, miss. Not to worry, just rushin’ to finish off errands I should’ve managed earlier. One o’ those days, y’know the kind.”

“Aye, that I do,” she agreed, nodding.

“Can I, uh, offer you a hand?” he asked politely.

“Oh, that’s all right, it ain’t as heavy as it looks,” she said cheerfully. “Just pickin’ up some scrap fer me pet project. I won’t keep ye any longer. Sorry fer almost trippin’ ye!”

“My fault entirely, Miss Willowick,” he said, tipping his hat again. “You have a good evenin’, now.”

“Same t’you!”

Once he was past her, Fred allowed himself to cringe. That…that was absolutely the last thing he’d wanted to see…

His path took him through the back ways of the old town, along dark alleys that just barely deserved the name. As Last Rock grew, it was developing such features in truth, but in the oldest parts of the village the spaces between the backs of buildings had never been used for much; it had barely had enough streets for such alleys even to exist. Fred stepped carefully in the darkness, mindful of old rubbish tossed back here, and even despite all his efforts stumbled repeatedly over unseen obstacles, having to bite his lip to keep from cursing aloud.

He found the shed without difficulty, though. Annoyance and discomfort, but not difficulty. It had been there his whole life, the storage shed behind the Saloon, tucked into a little nook left by the odd shape of the alchemy shop which had been constructed closer to the mountain and the students who had always been its main custom. In Fred’s youth the Crete’s tool shed had been kept locked and chained shut, but Jonas Crete’s fixation on magical gizmos had resulted in him moving all his stuff into the convenience of extradimensional storage inside the Saloon itself. Thus, the shed was empty, and had been for years.

And tonight, was occupied.

He slipped inside and carefully pulled the door shut behind him, turning to face those present. It was even darker, obviously, though the slits between loose boards admitted faint moonlight, enough to discern two dim figures, and the faint glint of their eyes. Fred couldn’t tell which was which, and so bowed deeply in the general direction of the space between them. Obviously, this wasn’t going to get any better; those same gaps would light the whole shed up like a beacon if they ignited a lamp. All it would take was one person glancing down the alley to see that something improper was happening in the old Crete toolshed.

“Carson,” said the Hand of the Emperor’s voice from the figure to his left. “Well?”

Fred cleared his throat self-consciously, tugging his hat off and kneading it in both hands in front of his body. “Well, sir, like you said, I found a student. Um, students, that is, here in town. The Masterson boy is just across the other side of the square down there, around the A&W.” He paused; the other dark figure had shifted as if turning to stare at the Hand.

“And?” the Hand prompted in a sharper tone. “You said students. There are more?”

Fred swallowed against the lump in his throat. “Th-there’s one other. As I was comin’ to meet you I ran across young Miss Willowick, comin’ out of the blacksmith’s. I dunno what Chase is up to, but she’ll be headin’ up the mountain toward campus. Maureen’s a good girl.”

“Mm. Even better,” the Hand said quietly. “Then we have our target. Reich, focus your ability on the crowd in the Saloon; rile up everyone amenable and target them at the gnome.”

“Oh, but sir!” Fred burst out, forgetting himself. “She’s the sweetest little thing, ain’t never said boo to a goose! Nobody cares what happens to Chase, that boy’s a prick. Couldn’t we—”

“That is precisely the point,” the Hand said in a dangerous tone. “The more sympathetic the target, the stronger the reaction.”

“But—”

“Carson, I want you to keep two things in mind. First, I am always aware of details you are not, and my plans extend well beyond you; what may seem a cruel action from one perspective may lead to ultimately benign results. Second, I speak for the Emperor. I must balance complex needs and make hard choices—and, if need be, sacrifices for the greater good. Any harm that results will be on my head, not yours. You have served your Emperor well. Do it, Reich.”

“I will,” the voice of Lorelin Reich replied from the other dark figure, “but I want it noted that I am doing this under severe protest.”

The Hand spun on her so abruptly that Fred staggered back against the closed door.

“Why is it,” the Hand grated, “that just now, when I am finally moving to enact all the planning we have done, I find myself surrounded by disloyalty?”

Fred opened his mouth to protest that he wasn’t disloyal, immediately thought better of that, and shut it again, grateful his lapse had been invisible in the dark.

“I know my duty,” Reich replied, her tone perfectly calm as far as Fred could tell. “I will serve my Emperor’s will without hesitation. But I have just spent a great deal of time being reprimanded by my cult, by an Imperial Grand Magistrate, and by Imperial Intelligence that exerting this kind of influence on unsuspecting citizens is a repulsive abuse of my abilities. I took those lessons to heart, sir. I will obey, and trust that a greater good is being served. But for the record, I consider this action vile, and am in a better position than most to know.”

“Your objections have been noted,” the Hand snapped, “and in the future, you will register them after the moment to act is not rapidly escaping us. Do it, Reich! Thanks to you two, I now have to go pull other strings to slow down our quarry, or this will all be for nothing. Carson, make sure she’s not disturbed.”

He shoved brusquely past Fred, who almost literally fell over himself to get out of the way, then vanished through the door into the night.

They stood in frozen silence for two heartbeats before Reich spoke in a soft tone.

“Carson, I think we have a smilodon by the tail, here.”

“W-what’s a smilodon?” he stammered.

Her shadow shifted incrementally as she shook her head. “Something agile enough to kill you no matter where you grab it.”

With that cheerful observation, she sank down into a lotus position to concentrate her magic on whipping up maximum carnage among the people of Last Rock.


As the black-coated figure of the Hand slipped away down the alley, moving silently in the dimness and with none of the tripping that had plagued Fred, a much smaller, chubbier shape reared upright on the roof of the little shed. After watching, whiskers a-twitch, until the Hand had vanished into a nearby cellar, the raccoon scampered to the edge of the roof and then climbed down one corner of the shed, its claws inaudible against the old wood.

Moving with impressive speed despite its waddling gait, the raccoon skittered off the other way up the alley, then rounded a corner and across the backyard of a small house, around to its front porch. There, an old woman in a heavy shawl sat in a rocking chair, creaking steadily while knitting a pair of socks by the light of a single oil lamp. The raccoon scrambled up the porch rail and shuffled rapidly along till it stood right beside her.

Quite unlike the usual prairie-dweller’s response to the sudden presence of a disease-carrying wild animal, she leaned subtly toward it while the raccoon stood on its haunches, craning its neck forward to chitter softly in her ear.

Moments later, she dropped her knitting and rose from the chair with astounding speed and agility. Fortunately no one was in the nearby street to see as the incredibly spry granny vanished entirely from sight in the act of vaulting over the porch rail. There came a rush of air from the beat of invisible wings, and then a figure flickered into view high above, shooting upward toward the distant campus.

The raccoon waddled over to the oil lamp, neatly opened its shutter, and blew it out. In the ensuing darkness, it scampered back into the town, in the direction of the old shed behind the Saloon.

No one was close enough to hear it giggling.

 

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13 – 4

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Captain Leingardt wasn’t destined for a career in politics; her expression clearly showed the normal reaction of a military officer to having her post invaded by a ranking politician. She managed to speak politely, however.

“Your Grace, what an unexpected…surprise. To what do we owe this…honor?”

The look Syrinx gave her was openly amused, but the Bishop chose not to make anything of it. “Just doing my job, Captain. No need to worry, I mean to do it as quickly as possible and be out of your hair, taking all this baggage with me. So! It seems we have a ‘she said, they said’ dilemma here.” She turned her gaze briefly on Sister Falaridjad, showing the tips of her teeth in a strange little grin, before shifting her focus to the apprentices. “As it happens, I am personally acquainted with all the players in this little drama, and I can attest from experience that these kids are sneaky, unscrupulous troublemakers who evince no care for the repercussions of their antics, nor regard for anyone outside their immediate circle.”

“Now, see here,” Layla began, but Syrinx simply raised her voice and continued.

“And, that being the case, if this were nothing but their word against Ildrin Falaridjad’s, I would still be more inclined to believe them.”

“This is none of your business, Syrinx,” Falaridjad said, practically vibrating with tension.

“As usual, Ildrin, you are cataclysmically wrong,” the Bishop replied, granting her a syrupy smile. “I have spent my morning dealing with this mess in particular—because that is literally my job. We have a tangle of Eserites and Salyrites having created a mess in an Avenist temple, precisely the kind of interfaith issue the Bishops exist to address. As such, Ildrin, I happen to know exactly what transpired on every level of this.” She turned to Captain Leingardt, who was now watching all this unfold without expression. “I have the full reports on the incident at the temple, and no, there was no assault. Of any kind. The only remotely physical altercation was between these two.” She pointed at Jasmine and Layla. “And since they are clearly in league, I rather doubt either intends to press any sort of charge. Further, I made it here so rapidly on their heels because Ildrin, showing her customary lack of basic sense, saw fit to forcibly remove three apprentices of the Thieves’ Guild from the region they most heavily monitor, and was followed all the way here by enforcers.”

Ildrin actually bared her teeth. “That doesn’t explain why you—”

“You will be quiet or you will be punched quiet,” Basra said curtly.

“That is crossing a line, your Grace,” the Captain interjected.

Basra ignored this, continuing. “To answer the question, I was nearby, in the process of being updated by the Eserite Bishop on these very events, and learning the most fascinating things. For example: this was an unsanctioned operation, and Boss Tricks is furious at these little know-nothings for sticking their fingers where they had no business being. However they did, no doubt by accident, manage to accomplish something worthwhile. You see, Captain, the goods they stole were voluntarily returned to the Collegium, along with stolen documentation from both the Salyrite and Avenist sides of some kind of interfaith embezzlement scheme.” She shifted her gaze back to Ildrin, and grinned broadly. “Copies also found their way to Commander Rouvad. And guess whose name featured prominently in this report!”

Slowly, Captain Leingardt turned to regard Sister Falaridjad, and raised one eyebrow. Ildrin herself held silent, glaring at Basra with her fists clenched. The four Legionnaires and three apprentices kept perfectly still, watching all this unfold with wide eyes.

“Well, that was unquestionably a robbery,” Syrinx said, turning back to the Captain. “But it seems their intentions were good, no harm was ultimately done, and in fact both the Sisterhood and the Collegium have benefited. At this point, my own concern is to soothe the ruffled feathers these brats have caused by acting out of line. It’s your call, of course, Captain, but in my official capacity as Bishop I highly recommend, and ask, that you leave the disciplining here to be handled internally by the Thieves’ Guild.”

“You don’t even have to ask, your Grace,” Leingardt replied, nodding. “I reached the same conclusion before you were done explaining. You three can go.” Narrowing her eyes, she looked at Falaridjad again. “I suppose I ought to have this one taken into custody, considering…”

The priestess folded her arms defiantly, but addressed herself to Syrinx, not Leingradt. “You have no cause or authority to do such a thing. I promise you would regret the attempt.”

“The testimony from someone of Bishop Syrinx’s rank, especially backed by documents, is adequate probable cause,” Jasmine said.

The Bishop, priestess, and Captain all turned to glare at her.

“Well,” Tallie drawled, stuffing her hands in her pockets, “as people keep pointing out, if there’s one thing we Eserites understand, it’s the process of getting arrested.”

“You lot were told to shove off,” Syrinx said curtly. “Be about it. And as for you.” She fixed another stare on Ildrin, again wearing a small, predatory grin. “Your last trick involved burglarizing a temple of Izara, nearly killing two Bishops, and almost starting a war. I can’t fathom how your buddies at the Universal Church managed to get you out of that one, but I’m willing to bet there aren’t a lot of strings left for them to pull. So I’ll tell you what, Ildrin, for old time’s sake.” She took one step closer; Ildrin stood her ground, fists actually quivering with repressed fury now. “How much trouble you decide to cause me from here out will determine whether I lean on the High Commander with every ounce of influence I have to throw the book at you…” She took another step, her smile widening. “…or lean on her to cut you loose entirely, and notify the Guild you were trying to frame and abduct some of their apprentices. Since you have so little regard for Avei’s justice, perhaps you would find a taste of Eserion’s version…enlightening.”

“You,” Ildrin said tensely, “are a monster.”

Syrinx winked. “And you are just pathetic, Falaridjad. If there’s any justice in the world, I will be there when you learn how very sad you truly are.”

“All right, that’s enough,” Captain Leingardt interjected. “I don’t know what’s going on between you two, but it’s clearly more personal than this business warrants. Your Grace, I would appreciate it if you didn’t bring political vendettas into my post.”

“For the record, I’m clearly not the one who brought anything here,” Basra said with a placid smile, “but your point is taken. Your cooperation is much appreciated, Captain Leingardt. I’ll leave you to your business.”

She nodded politely to the Captain, turned her back on Falaridjad, and strolled over to the apprentices, where she paused.

“Well? Planning to stand around in here all day?” The Bishop arched an eyebrow at them, then continued on to the doors.

They watched her go, then looked at each other, then back at the rest. Leingardt was already in the process of upbraiding Falaridjad’s four escorting Legionnaires while the priestess glared venom at them. In unspoken unison, they turned and hurried to the doors.

Bishop Syrinx was waiting for them right outside, her breath misting softly in the winter air.

“So! After being hounded very nearly to death by the Svennish secret service, the next thing you decided to do was body-slam your way into dicey interfaith politics you clearly don’t understand. Interesting choice.”

“Hardly the next thing,” Tallie protested. “That was over a month ago.”

“Oh, yes, a whole month.” Syrinx raised an eyebrow. “You kids aren’t the most luminous beacons in the firmament, are you? Well, if for some reason you insist on making enemies, Ildrin Falaridjad is a good place to start. She’s devious, pathologically self-involved, and also a fumbling imbecile.”

“Thanks for the advice,” Tallie said dryly, “and the save.”

“If I’d done you a favor you’d better believe I would hold it over you, but it’s as I said: all this is no more or less than my job. Presumptuous neophytes meddling where they shouldn’t make it more interesting, but smoothing over incidents like this is why the cults bother to have Bishops and the Universal Church itself. Now if you will excuse me, I have to go home and supervise the decorators.” She gave Jasmine in particular a vulpine smile. “There was a small fire at my house recently, with the upshot that I’m getting it completely redone for free. Well, free to me, I suppose technically it’s being paid for by everyone who does business with Tallithi Mutual. A Vernisite could explain insurance in detail; I just sign the forms. You know, the police said there were signs of arson. Clearly not by anyone who had thought through the ramifications of that action.”

“Oh, why ever would anyone want to set you on fire, your Grace?” Layla asked sweetly.

Basra grinned at her. “Perhaps the sort of person I could easily make wait to speak with me simply by telling them to leave? I’m so accustomed to dealing with the sharks of Tiraas’s politics; once in a while it’s downright refreshing to toy with presumptuous guppies.”

She let the silence hang for a moment while all three stared at her, Tallie with her mouth slightly open.

“I suggest you kids cast your lines more carefully in the future,” Syrinx finally said, in a flat tone. “You are not ready to sail these waters. Listen to your teachers, and leave the politics to those who understand them.”

With that, and a final superciliously arched eyebrow, she turned and strolled away up the street, tucking her hands in the pockets of her fur-lined coat.

“What a singularly unpleasant woman,” Layla observed, unconsciously gripping her shopping bag in front of herself.

“Yeah,” Tallie agreed, nodding. “She’s kind of awesome, though.”

Jasmine stared after the Bishop in silence, her mouth pressed into a thin line.


“Hey, Mr. Carson! What’d you bring us?”

“Nothin’ more interesting than usual, Hildred,” Fred said, pausing to give her a smile. “Now, don’t go pressin’ me for special treatment. You know how Mrs. Oak likes to keep it a surprise.”

She was clearly going somewhere, carrying an armful of books, and so Fred wasn’t bothered when she just laughed and continued on her way. He went back to his, pushing the empty cart through the gate.

Well, the old gate.

He didn’t stop himself from peering around curiously as he continued on down the path, this stretch of which was longer than it used to be. The land shaping for the campus extension had been finished two weeks ago, rendering this section of the mountain’s slope into terraces like the old campus, and now the main thoroughfare zigzagged a bit, navigating ramps, rather than being the straight staircase that ran down the rest of the mountain. Fred always took the long, back-and-forth path when pushing his full produce cart uphill, but on the way down it was light enough to just drag down the stairs. Thanks to the levitation charms which made it easy for a single person to haul, it didn’t even bounce much on the steps. For the Saturday weekly delivery, of course, he brought the much larger mule cart up, but the daily shipment of fresh produce to the kitchens required only his magically lightened push cart.

Construction had begun on the buildings just a week ago, and there were a few in partially finished states, interspersed around twice their number of still-vacant lots. Fred had actually seen Tellwyrn herself working on one in passing, summoning enormous slabs of marble apparently from thin air and levitating them into place. There were now a few people around in the near distance, hunching over diagram-laden tables rather than doing any construction work. Apparently the archmage chose to tend to that part herself, but just because she could conjure and move parts of buildings with just her big brain did not mean she was qualified to design them, or so Fred had gleaned from the gossip on campus. Architects and surveyors were at work planning the new additions, still, as well as extra magical types who would be working on the additional protections the new research facilities needed. Fred hadn’t approached them personally, but had heard they included both Salyrites from the Sapphire College and secular mages from the Wizard’s Guild, and even that snooty fellow from Syralon who figured himself too good to do business in Last Rock.

Only the new exterior wall was finished, and notably was a lot more serious than the old one—taller, thicker, with a hefty manned gatehouse and actual battlements. As usual, Fred silently chewed on the implications of this as he passed through the open gates, noting the man asleep at the guard post, slumped in his chair with a hat tugged down over his eyes.

“AH HAH!” Rook bellowed suddenly, bounding upright, and Fred yelped and shied away, losing his grip on the cart.

“Omnu’s balls, Tom! What the hell?!”

“Thought I was sleeping, didn’t’cha?” Rook replied, grinning insanely. He still wore his old Army jacket, even after having been discharged, though he had torn off the sleeves. “That’s right, nothing gets past campus security!”

“Does Tellwyrn know you’re pulling that shit on honest tradesmen?”

“Nah, but my immediate boss does. In fact, Fedora’s running a pool on who I can make squeal like a girl. You just cost me five doubloons, by the way.”

Fred snorted, taking up the handles of his cart again. “Any other man I’d pick up the next round as compensation, but I’ve seen how you bet. If he didn’t take your money, somebody was gonna.”

Rook grinned and flopped back down onto the chair. “Yeah, yeah. Take it easy, Fred. See you tomorrow.”

“Don’t work too hard,” Fred said dryly as he continued on his way. Behind him, Rook practically bawled with laughter.

He let his expression grow solemn with contemplation as he began the long trek down the mountain. Aside from keeping his legs in top shape, his daily trips up and down gave him plenty of time to think. He had a lot to think about, these days.

Fred liked the people on the campus. Most of the students were good kids. There were one or two troublemakers, but those existed everywhere; even the noble ones, though clearly stuck up, weren’t usually rude. He liked those of the faculty with whom he’d had conversations. He actually liked the groundskeeper, Stew, who despite being an altogether weird kind of a thing struck him as a regular guy, hard-working and amiable. Horns, hooves, and all. The person with whom he had the most direct commerce, Mrs. Oak, was one of the least personable individuals he’d ever met, but he didn’t hold that against her. She wasn’t nasty, just wanted to be about her work with a minimum of chitchat. Fred knew a couple like that in town, too, introverted types who meant no harm but preferred to be left alone.

He even liked Professor Tellwyrn, for all that the likes of him seldom encountered her directly, and despite also being quite reasonably terrified of her. What Fred knew about magic would fit in a thimble; he’d heard somewhere that eating too much conjured food was unhealthy somehow, but even so, it was no stretch to realize that a woman who could summon whole buildings out of her own mind did not need to buy produce from the merchants in town to keep her campus fed. And yet, she did, which was the lion’s share of the reason he made a living. Some folks muttered about it being condescending, mostly perennial malcontents like Wilson who were just never going to be happy about anything. For Fred’s part, he saw it as a sign of respect on the Professor’s part for the little people who dwelled around her feet. Some folks in this world were just bigger and mightier, and it didn’t pay to take that personally, especially when they made an effort not to rub it in.

All this had been the backdrop of existence in Last Rock for his whole life. Lately, he’d had cause to dwell on it pretty heavily, and not very happily.

Fred made it back down and into town on the force of sheer habit, absently returning greetings from his neighbors as he returned to the store and packed away the cart. No shipments today; tomorrow would be busy, due to several scheduled deliveries in town and a fresh load due via Rail from Calderaas. For the moment, though, Rick was manning the front of the store, leaving him more or less at liberty.

He brought his mind back to the business at hand as he folded back the rug in the smaller storeroom, carefully undid the three locks on the trapdoor, lifted it and passed through, then pulled it back down after himself. It was a pricey rug for one tucked away in the storeroom, not because it was pretty but because of its straightening charm. The enchantment was designed to make life a little easier for housewives, but it also served to neatly cover up the trapdoor once somebody had vanished under it.

Fred descended the wooden steps cautiously, hearing voices below. Calm voices, including the one he recognized, so hopefully there was no trouble… Maybe he should’ve checked in with Rick before coming down. Nobody would’ve got through the trapdoor without Rick knowing it.

At the bottom of the stairwell, he rounded the corner into the basement room and paused. The basement’s current resident was there, of course, along with someone Fred recognized and had never expected to see again.

“Ah, Carlson,” the Hand of the Emperor said calmly. “Please, rise. I understand you may be acquainted with Ms. Reich?”

Fred had started to kneel, and straightened as ordered. “Uh…not personally, sir, but I saw her ’round town. Before. Welcome back, ma’am,” he added carefully.

Lorelin Reich gave him one of those Vidian smiles he found so unsettling, all placid good manners on the surface and layers of meaning at which he couldn’t even guess below that. He didn’t know how she did it…but then, maybe it was all in his own head. Last he’d heard of her, after all, she had been hauled away by Imperial Intelligence after being exposed by Gabriel Arquin. Exposed, specifically, for having cast some kind of agitation charm over the whole town. She was not someone he was particularly happy to see back in Last Rock.

“I understand your unease,” the Hand said in his brusque manner, which Fred was only lately starting to realize was just his way and didn’t mean anything personal.

“Oh, uh, I…”

“It’s all right,” Reich said, still smiling. “I’ve certainly earned some mistrust around here; I won’t begrudge you that. All I can do is try to atone for my mistakes, and be careful not to become so caught up again that I lose sight of my judgment, and ethics, in the same way.”

“Her presence here would cause some agitation in the town, obviously,” said the Hand, folding his hands behind his back, “and as such will remain secret for the time being. Understood?”

“Yes, sir,” Fred replied, nodding.

The Hand nodded curtly back. “Very good. You are back from your daily campus visit, then? If you are here, I assume you learned something?”

“Nothing solid, sir, but there are rumors now that I think you’ll want to know.” Fred paused, glancing uncertainly at the Vidian priestess.

“Ms. Reich is assisting me, just as you are,” the Hand said impatiently. “You may speak in front of her.”

“Uh, yes, sir. Well, like I said, no official confirmation, but the whole campus is buzzing about Tellwyrn having approved the first major research project. Apparently it just happened this morning.”

The Hand narrowed his eyes. “And have you any idea what the project is?”

“Just conjecture, sir, but here’s the thing: three of the people who presented the proposal to Tellwyrn were warlocks. One from the Wreath and that dwarf from Rodvenheim. Plus! The Salyrite representative, and in fact they actually called back their mage and sent a warlock from the Topaz college, apparently specially for this. Also, that Syralon guy. So…it’s almost certainly some kind of infernal thing, something to do with demons. I mean, I don’t have it confirmed, but why else so many warlocks?”

“I see,” the Hand said, scowling. “Excellent work, Carson, I commend you.”

“Just doin’ my part, sir,” Fred replied modestly, ducking his head. “For the Emperor.”

Turning to Reich, the Hand raised an eyebrow. “What do you think?”

“Forewarned is forearmed,” she said. “I am at your disposal, of course, but there are significant risks if I were to try to investigate personally. I doubt my methods of stealth would beat Tellwyrn’s perceptions. Besides, I have ample proof they are not a match for Arquin, or his valkyrie friends.”

“Arquin has left the campus as of this morning, along with his classmates,” the Hand stated. Fred perked up; that much he hadn’t known. How many people were bringing the Hand information? “I am curious whether that means those valkyries went with him. Can you find out?”

“Hmm.” Reich frowned in thought. “Yes, I believe I can, though it will have to be done with the utmost care. They hang around him, specifically; none would be left stationed at the campus unless he asked it of them. And I am very curious how they are getting along with that incubus Tellwyrn is keeping up there now.”

“This is why I brought you here,” the Hand replied. “Find out what you can.”

She bowed. “Immediately, sir.”

“Carson, you look troubled.”

Fred jumped slightly; he hadn’t been aware that his thought were showing on his face, or that the Hand was watching him. “Oh, uh…it’s nothin’, sir. Just, um, the usual.”

The Hand raised one eyebrow in silence.

Fred swallowed. “I’m just…Tellwyrn’s always done right by the town. I’m with you, sir, don’t worry none about that. It’s just a hell of a thing, is all. I hate to think of her havin’ turned on the Emperor like this.”

“Don’t fall into the trap of considering Tellwyrn either a monster or a saint,” the Hand said firmly. “She is a self-interested individual doing what she deems best to secure her interests. That has long involved protecting Last Rock to a degree, and now, apparently, working against the interests of the Empire. Our task is to protect his Majesty, without hesitation, and without any unnecessary brutality. Don’t waste your time loathing her or feeling betrayed, Carson. Just go about the work.”

“Yes, sir,” he said, bowing his head again.

It still didn’t feel right. But what else was he to do? Fred Carson was the Emperor’s man, right down to his bones. If that meant he had to work against the University that provided his own livelihood… Well, the gods weren’t always kind. A man had to do what was right, whether he felt like it or not.


Raathi caught up with her less than an hour later at the prearranged spot. Ildrin did not enjoy loitering in alleys like some Eserite thug, but they had to be extra cautious at a time like this.

“Sergeant,” she said with relief at the Legionnaire’s approach. “Are you all right? The others?”

“We’re fine, no trouble,” Sergeant Raathi replied. “They’re back on patrol; I have to join them quickly. Leingardt grilled us, but our excuse is solid. This was your operation, ma’am, and Legionnaires don’t get punished for following a priestess’s directives in good faith. I’m sorry, Sister. I didn’t enjoy having to throw you under the wheels like that…”

“No,” Ildrin said firmly, “that was exactly the right thing. Leingardt was already after me, thanks to Syrinx. No sense in damaging anyone else’s cover.” She heaved a sigh, producing a brief white cloud, and ran a hand over her hair. “What a mess. I could kill that woman.”

“The Bishop didn’t seem to like those kids much, ma’am…”

“The Bishop doesn’t like anyone,” Ildrin said curtly. “And I need you to be extra careful. Now that we’ve lost the opportunity to interrogate them directly, we’re going to have to ask around to figure out what they know and who they learned it from, which I don’t have to tell you is risky. Probing for information tends to draw the Guild’s attention, and in this case maybe Syrinx’s, which is worse. She’s just as cruel as the Guild at their worst, and often for less reason.”

Raathi nodded. “What’s the plan, then?”

“We have to assume we have a leak,” Ildrin said, frowning. “Those apprentices didn’t do this at random, it was much too targeted. We have no friends in the Guild, so someone either in the Sisterhood or the Collegium had to have tipped them off. Probably not someone highly placed, or they’d have contacted the right authorities and not some random Eserite know-nothings. I’m going to have to keep my head down for a while once this gets out, which means finding their link in the Sisterhood will fall to you. If there is one.”

The Sergeant nodded again. “And the Collegium?”

“I’ll have to reach out to some of our allies for that. Beyond plugging leaks, Sergeant… Find out anything you can without risking your cover about who these kids are. Why are they so connected outside their own cult? Why does Syrinx of all people know them?”

“This is getting riskier by the minute, Sister…”

“I know,” Ildrin said grimly. “You must be prepared for the worst. Not only for danger to us, but for the possibility that we are going to have to silence someone.”

Raathi sighed, but nodded resolutely. “Whatever it takes, Sister.”

“Whatever it takes.”

 

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