Tag Archives: Fross

Prologue – Volume 5

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After everything, it was strangely pleasing just to be out in nature.

He walked at a moderate pace, being in no hurry. Golden tallgrass stretched away in all directions, a sight familiar from the border of the Golden Sea, though this was subtly different country. The ground here rolled and undulated slightly, the grass helping to conceal little valleys and subtle hillocks; it was the kind of terrain that could easily have tripped him up had he tried to rush through it, city boy that he was. This grass, too, seemed a shorter variant than what lived around the Great Plains. Its upper fronds rose barely to the level of his chin, not obscuring his view the way the tallgrass of the Golden Sea did. It was darker in color, too, closer to amber.

The sun was arcing toward its zenith and beating down from a cloudless sky, the kind of weather that threatened to burn exposed skin, were his skin vulnerable to that. He found the heat a little tiring, but also not unpleasant. Cicadas, invisible in the grass all around, provided a constant music underscored by a faint, refreshing breeze and the rustling it caused among the stalks. Once in a while there came the cry of a distant hawk.

On he walked, toward the line of trees in the distance. Though he hardly needed the support, he had his scythe out, held in one hand near the blade, and used it as a walking stick. Occasionally a strand of tallgrass would be nicked in passing and immediately wither, but luckily the weapon was long enough that few reached it. It was a good few miles from the nearest town—not a small hike. He had time, though. He’d never been an outdoorsy person, really, but something about the peace and quiet made him begin to appreciate some of Juniper’s speeches.

He tilted his head slightly, glancing to the side and listening to a voice not physically audible. After a few moments, he came to a stop, planting the butt of the scythe’s haft on the ground and slowly peering about. As far as the eye could see, he was totally alone out here on the rolling plain, still a long walk from the forest and already beyond sight of the town.

“Well, I appreciate not being shot,” he said aloud. “How close were you planning to let me get before saying anything?”

There was no sign of any response for another few moments. After pausing, he shrugged and took another step.

The elf seemed to materialize right out of the tallgrass, holding a staff and garbed in a robe dyed in patterns of white and bronze that blended perfectly with the plants. He inclined his head, expression remaining impassive. Three more popped up, one carrying a bow, two with tomahawks in hand. Though armed, they kept their weapons at their sides and their stances free of aggression, staring flatly at the person they had surrounded.

“Well met,” the man with the staff said. “I am Adimel. What brings you?”

“I’m Gabriel Arquin,” he replied, carefully nodding his head back to precisely the same degree.

“The Hand of Vidius.”

“Oh!” Gabriel blinked. “You know about that, then.”

“We live in a grove,” Adimel replied dryly, “not the underside of a rock.”

“Uh, sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it,” Gabriel said, wincing. “I’m not used to being…known. It’s barely been a year and I was kind of a nobody before. It’s eerie that word’s traveled all the way out… Y’know, that’s neither here nor there. First of all, I’m not looking to bring trouble, don’t worry.”

“Most of the trouble brought to the groves of woodkin has come packaged in good intentions,” Adimel said evenly. “I intend no disrespect. To answer your question, we have been studying you, and considering. An uninvited human would have been intercepted already, but you present…a puzzle.”

“I get that a lot,” he said solemnly.

“You smell of demon blood and divine magic. You have a soul reaper following you, which could be a great character reference or the opposite. You carry a weapon of the gods, but also…” Drawing his lips into a thin line, Adimel pointed at Ariel. “That.”

“I didn’t make Ariel, if that’s what you’re concerned about,” Gabriel said, placing his free hand on her hilt. “I don’t know who did. She’s helpful, if not exactly personable…”

“That wasn’t the worry at all; no one your age would know such craft. And…Ariel?” The elf raised an eyebrow. “You couldn’t find one called Jane?”

“What does everyone think that’s so very clever?” Ariel asked aloud.

“Shh.” Gabriel patted her scabbard. “Look, I know elves like your privacy, and I’m sorry to just show up like this. It isn’t my intention to be disruptive; I just need to ask your Elders for help with something.”

“What do you need, paladin?” Adimel asked in a neutral tone. “Your status as Hand trumps most other considerations, in the end. The grove would ordinarily be glad to host you, but this is an awkward time. If your request is important, the Elders will still hear it, at the least.”

Gabriel hesitated, glancing to the side; the elf followed his eyes, clearly somehow able to perceive Vestrel even if he couldn’t actually see her.

“I would like to speak with the Avatar.”

The cicadas sang over the wind in the silence which followed.

“I encountered one in an old Elder God complex under Puna Dara,” Gabriel explained when it became clear none of the elves intended to say anything. “That facility is, uh…no longer accessible. Vestrel said there are only two others still open on this continent, and the other one’s under Tiraas and being used by the Imperial government. I sort of figured the grove Elders would be more reasonable to talk to than the Emperor.”

“Why,” Adimel said slowly, “do you want to speak with another Avatar?”

“I have questions. About where the world comes from, how it ended up this way. About the gods, in particular.”

“Some of those answers may be dangerous to acquire,” the elf warned.

Gabriel nodded. “Vidius also has questions. He called me because of that. Because he thinks the gods have been wrong about some important things, and fears what might happen if they don’t adapt. The Pantheon is shifting all over; the new Hand of Avei is a half-elf who’s been trained by Eserites. My whole purpose is going to involve changing things. And… It’s dangerous to introduce change into a system you don’t understand. I’d think elves would know something about that.”

Adimel glanced at each of his comrades in turn; none of them spoke, but stared back with subtle changes of expression which seemed to communicate something to him.

“Well.” The shaman thumped the butt of his staff against the earth once. “At the very least, the Elders will wish to hear your request, Gabriel Arquin. If nothing else, it is news to us that there are accessible Elder God systems available to the Tiraan and Punaji. I will not make you a promise on the Elders’ behalf, but I believe that if you are willing to share information, they will respond in fairness.”

“Well, that sounds good to me,” Gabriel said with a broad grin. “Fairness is pretty much the best anybody can hope for, right?”

“Indeed,” Adimel said gravely, inclining his head again. “If they are very lucky.”


“I don’t know,” Aspen said worriedly. “This place… It’s not safe for humans. I mean, with us he’s fine, but if you want to leave him out here…”

“All of that,” Kaisa said severely, “would have been worth considering before you insisted on dragging him along, girl.”

“If you really thought I was gonna just leave him behind,” the dryad flared.

“Please.” Ingvar nodded to the kitsune, reaching over to touch Aspen’s cheek. “I am very honored to have been included this far. No Huntsman has ever journeyed so far into the Deep Wild. If I can go no farther, it’s not as if I’ve a right to complain. This is family business, after all. And if Ekoi-sensei says the protection she has left will be enough, I see no reason at all to doubt her. Has she misled us yet?”

“She was pretty much a butthole to me in Last Rock,” Aspen grumbled, folding her arms.

“No offense, sis, but you kinda brought that on yourself,” Juniper pointed out.

“I was worried about you!”

“Yeah, I know. And I love you for it. But that, and then what happened to you right after…” Juniper shook her head, turning to Kaisa. “That’s really what all this is about, isn’t it? Maybe it’s just the two of us so far, but dryads are starting to interact with the mortal world. And we can’t keep doing it the way we have. It just gets people hurt.”

“That is the heart of it, Juniper,” Kaisa replied. “The world is changing. The daughters of Naiya must change, as well, and change is an inherently difficult thing for us to face—but no less important for that. I have done everything I can to make my own sisters see this, and by and large they simply will not. Perhaps we can still salvage something of your generation, however. I allowed you to bring your young man on this journey which is manifestly none of his business, Aspen, because I deem him an extremely positive influence on you. I strongly advise you to listen when he speaks. And for that alone, you can be certain I won’t allow him to come to harm.”

“Go see to your sister,” Ingvar said gently, squeezing Aspen’s hand once. Then he stepped back, beneath the branches of the cherry tree Kaisa had just caused to sprout from nothing. It now fanned overhead to a great height, heavily laden with pink blossoms which continually drifted downward, already having laid down a plush carpet over its roots, delineating a circle of protection. “I will be here when you return.”

“Stay safe, Ingvar,” Fross chimed, zipping around him once in a quick pixie hug before returning to the others.

Kaisa led the way into the deeper, darker grove, Fross hovering along right behind her and casting a silver glow upon the shadowy underbrush. Aspen brought up the rear, constantly turning to look back until Ingvar was out of sight through the trees. He stood calmly, with his longbow in hand, gazing out at the jungle of the Deep Wild.

Within the forested crater of Jacaranda’s grove it was both cooler and darker, with moisture in the air as well as resounding through the stillness in the form of numerous streams trickling down toward the deep pool in the center. Tiny flickers of light and color were visible in the near distance, but none of the pixies were brave enough to approach the group.

“You’re unusually quiet, Fross,” Juniper observed softly as the procession picked their way steadily downward.

“Yeah, sorry. It’s just…memories, you know? This place seemed a lot bigger in my mind than it looks now. And scarier. Now it’s just…trees.”

“It’s called growing up,” Kaisa said from the head of the group, not glancing back at them. Amusement faintly laced her voice. “By and large, Fross, you have done well at it. The price for wisdom is innocence, but that is life’s best bargain. The only value of innocence is that which it persuades you it has—which is a lie.”

“Um, Professor Ekoi?” Fross chimed, drifting forward to flutter along beside the kitsune.

“It’s very unlikely I will be returning to Arachne’s school, Fross,” she replied, glancing at the pixie with a smile. “At least, not as a teacher. Since there is only family business between us now, you should call me Kaisa.”

“I, uh…okay. It’s just… Do you really think we can help her?”

A faint frown settled on Kaisa’s features, and one of her triangular ears twitched sideways twice. “A basic rule of life is that you cannot help a person who refuses to be helped. This entire situation…is tricky. Jacaranda’s predicament is not entirely her own fault. Any more than Juniper or Aspen’s is. Or yours. Or mine.” She shook her head. “Our mother scarcely deserves to be called by the word; we are all abandoned in one way or another, and none of you were taught anything you need to know before being hurled from the nest. This kind of intervention carries risk and no promise of success. But we must act on the presumption that any sister of ours is worth the effort. Jacaranda will not thank us for what we’re about to do…at least, not any time soon. But in the fullness of time, she yet may.”

“…okay.” Fross chimed a soft descending arpeggio.

“And Fross, purge irritating non-communication like ‘uh’ and ‘um’ from your speech. A wise person who has nothing to say says nothing; fools fill the air with meaningless noise. You are the daughter of a goddess, even if once removed, and the heir of a cultural legacy older than life on this world. Act like it.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“Welcome to the family,” Aspen muttered from the back of the line.

The pool was visible before they reached it, and the thick clustering of multicolored pixies around it apparent long before that; their chiming was audible form halfway up the sides of the crater, even with the intervening trees and underbrush to soak up noise. Activity over Jacaranda’s pool itself was a lot more fervent than normal. Clearly, the Pixie Queen had been warned of their arrival.

“How dare you come here?” she shrieked as they lined up at the edge of her pool. She had gone so far as to rise from her usual reclining position, and now hovered upright above her little island in the center of the water, gossamer wings buzzing furiously. “I will not have dryads in my realm! Vile creatures, begone with you!”

“Good to see you, too, Jackie,” Aspen said dryly, lounging against a tree trunk and folding her arms. “How’ve you been?”

“DON’T YOU CALL ME THAT!” Jacaranda screamed, turning vivid pink with rage. “Pixies! I want these invaders gone. Get rid of them, my little ones!”

“Fross?” Juniper said warily as the hundreds of glittering lights around began to swirl menacingly, raising a cacophony of shrill little voices and buzzing wings.

Fross hovered forward, putting herself in front of Kaisa; in this proximity to so many of her kind, it was immediately obvious that she had a much brighter glow and larger aura. The surrounding pixies surged forward at the four on the bank of the pool.

Fross emitted a single pulse of pure arcane magic. A blue corona rippled out from her, instantly disorienting and stunning their attackers. Little voices switched from threats to shocked outcries as pixies tumbled from the air all around them, or drifted off-kilter in confusion.

After the first blast, Fross maintained a steadier, more subtle arcane current; not enough to do anything, but plenty to create an unpleasant reaction with the fae magic which absolutely saturated the heart of Jacaranda’s little kingdom. An abrasive whine of protest rose from the air itself, a sound that was thicker than sound, that crawled across the skin.

“Stop that!” Jacaranda wailed, planting her hands over her ears. “Stop it, stop it! No, wait—where are you going? Come back! Don’t leave me!”

All around, the pixies were fleeing, shooting desperately away from the noise and disruption despite their queen’s pleas. Aspen and Juniper were wincing and Kaisa had laid her ears flat against her skull, but none of them seemed nearly as badly affected.

Once they were all gone, Fross let the effect drop. After it, the silence was somehow even louder.

“Hello, my queen,” Fross chimed quietly. “I don’t suppose you even remember me.”

“Remember… You. Fross.” Jacaranda lowered her hands slowly from her ears, her face twisting into a snarl. “How dare you betray your queen? I gave you everything—your very existence! You’re mine, do you understand? I made you. I own you! You will bring the rest of my pixies back here right this second!”

“My queen,” Fross replied evenly. “…mother. It’s time we had a talk.”


“This is unexpected, of course,” Ravana said as she led him through the halls of her ancestral home. “When I submitted my application to the Service Society, it was with the presumption that I would not have an honored place on the waiting list. To be frank, I had not expected to interview a prospect for several years.”

“The Society takes great care to match a Butler with any prospective client with the utmost caution, your Grace,” Yancey said diffidently, following her at a perfectly discreet pace which called no attention to how much longer his legs were than hers. “It is a matter of compatibility rather than seniority. Clients are obliged to wait until a suitable match is made, irrespective of how long it takes.”

“Of course,” she agreed, “a wise system. I understand the relationship is considered quite intimate—though, naturally, my data is all secondhand. I applaud your regard for custom, Yancey; I am something of a traditionalist, myself. Still, Grace is a somewhat archaic form of address for my rank—technically correct, but more commonly associated with Bishops these days. I am phasing it out, along with the rest of my father’s ponderous pomposities.”

“Very good, my lady.”

“I understand,” she said thoughtfully, “you were previously Butler to Duchess Inara of House Tiradegh.”

“I had that honor, my lady.”

Nodding pensively, Ravana paused while Yancey slipped ahead of her to open the door at the end of the hall. He held it for her, bowing, and she glided through.

“I do not wish to seem indelicate.”

“I beg that you speak your mind, my lady. A Butler does not take offense, and the aim of our discussion is to assess honestly our suitability to form a contract.”

“Very well,” she said, eyes forward and voice contained. “Part of a Butler’s function is, of course, as a bodyguard. Rumors abound concerning the late Duchess’s passing, but the official and most credible account is that she was murdered. I wonder how it came to be that you were unable to prevent this.”

“A most reasonable concern, my lady. Please take no insult at the question, but may I presume that anything said between us will go no further?”

“You may rely on my discretion.” He walked at her side, a half-step behind, positioned just forward enough to discern her very faint smile though she didn’t turn to look at him. “I realize trust between us is not yet earned; for the moment, rest assured that I am not fool enough to antagonize the Service Society by betraying a confidence.”

“More than adequate assurance, my lady. Her Grace the Duchess left this world at a time and in a manner of her own choosing, in the pursuit of her own goals. I would have considered it a rank betrayal of our relationship to intervene, however her passing grieved me.”

“Ah. Then Lord Daraspian did not kill her?”

“He did, my lady. She arranged it with the utmost care.”

“Thus disgracing House Daraspian,” Ravana murmured, eyes narrowing infinitesimally in thought, “and further bringing down the scrutiny of the Empire, effectively cutting off its largely illicit sources of funds. And thereby assuring the future of its principal rival, House Tiradegh. What a fearless and fiendishly elegant maneuver. If there is one thing we aristocrats consistently fail to anticipate in one another, it is a willingness to embrace sacrifice.”

“Just so, my lady.”

They had arrived at another set of doors, and again he stepped ahead to open them and bow her through. Ravana emerged onto a balcony, Yancey following and closing the door behind them.

After a thousand years of rule, the manor of House Madouri was a huge complex completely encompassing the rocky hill upon which the city of Madouris had originally been built. The manor itself was a relatively small structure at the apex of the miniature mountain, itself palatial in size but dwarfed by the sprawl of gardens, lawns, fortifications, and other structures which made the complex a self-contained little city within Madouris and the most heavily fortified House position in the Empire.

Madouris itself stretched out in three directions; the towering outcrop of the manor abutted the canyon through which the River Tira coursed far below. It was a sizable city, rivaling Tiraas in scope, though not nearly so tightly packed. Madouris didn’t have much heavy industry compared to its neighbors, and thus had preserved more of its traditional architecture than Calderaas or Tiraas; the scrolltowers were concentrated at a central location for efficiency’s sake rather than spread across multiple offices over the city, and there were relatively few factories. The huge bulk of Falconer Industries rose ominously past the city walls to the northwest, fairly bristling with lightning-wreathed antennae. It, like much of the newer construction, had grown up outside the old walls. The age of fortifications had ended with the Enchanter Wars, according to conventional military wisdom.

The manor had the best view in the province, and this, Ravana’s balcony, had the best view in the manor.

“I am…dithering,” she said pensively, gazing out across the city her ancestors had ruled for a millennium. “The prospect of retaining a Butler may weigh my decisions in one direction or another. Classes resume in a few weeks, and I must decide before then whether to return to Last Rock, or take my education in a different direction altogether. If I do return to the University, having a Butler along would present difficulties. I rather think Professor Tellwyrn would make them even more difficult than necessary. She vividly disapproves of what she considers presumption in her students.”

“I will keep this under consideration, my lady. We are, of course, only in the earliest stages of our acquaintance. It is yet too early to commit to a relationship.”

“Of course, of course. I simply want you to be aware of my situation.”

“I appreciate your candor, my lady.”

“So. You have come to meet me, because you perused my application and felt we might have some compatibility.”

“Just so, my lady.”

“Knowing what I do of Duchess Inara Tiradegh, I take that as high praise indeed. What is it, Yancey, that attracts you to the prospect of my service?”

The Butler’s posture remained exquisitely poised, his expression neutral and speech perfectly diffident. “You remind me of her, my lady, both by reputation and by the details you yourself provided in your application.”

“House Madouri is not presently in nearly so secure a position as House Tiradegh, it pains me to admit. We are older, wealthier, more powerful by any measure, that is a fact. But secure… In truth, my position is precarious indeed. Thanks to my father, many of our old alliances have been squandered to nothing. The Silver Throne is tentatively well-disposed toward me, but entirely out of patience with the Madouri name. I have just barely salvaged a relationship with the Falconers, and I fear I rather traumatized Teal in the process. And after my recent illness in Last Rock, any confidence my people had in me is shaken. You should know that any number of potential calamities might sweep me from power at any moment.”

“Yes, my lady.”

She turned to give him a cool look. “This appraisal does not surprise you, Yancey?”

“I made certain to be aware of it, my lady. It is part of what drew me to you.”

She raised one eyebrow mutely.

“I cannot say what the future holds for you or for House Madouri, my lady. But I can say with certainty that you will continue to face your trials as you have already: with cunning, ferocity, and to the great surprise of your enemies. I confess I am drawn to the prospect of seeing it firsthand.”

Ravana considered him for a moment, then gazed south, toward Tiraas; the capital was just barely too distant to be seen from Madouris, close enough that the two cities had viewed one another as severe threats before the Imperial era. Then she turned, directing her eyes north. Calderaas lay many miles in that direction, well beyond the horizon. And still further beyond that lay Last Rock, at the edge of the Golden Sea.

“Let me pose you a hypothetical question, Yancey,” she said at last, eyes still on the endless distance. “Say that you had it on good authority, from a source so trusted that you must take it as given despite the poetic melodrama of the very claim, that…a great doom is coming. How would you recommend proceeding?”

“I would advise, my lady, that you make yourself a greater doom, and lie in wait for it.”

Slowly, a smile curled her thin lips.

“Yancey… I have a very good feeling about this.”

 

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13 – 48

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“We finally have a bit of luck,” the captain in charge of the guardhouse said while one of his subordinates carried on untying the remainder of their compatriots. “These people don’t think like soldiers; they all just charged off to answer that threat without leaving a rear guard. They don’t even have the sense to keep watch on prisoners. That gives us an opening, and may give us more if we can take advantage.”

Several of the troops were still dazed and the room smelled unpleasantly of vomit; the sonic weapons which had incapacitated them had taken their toll. Fortunately, those had just been used as an initial measure, and then the cultists had methodically gone through and tied them up. Or, rather, one cultist in particular had, with apologies and pauses to make sure no one had suffered unduly from the screamer bomb his compatriots set off.

“How so, sir?” a sergeant asked, flexing her recently unbound wrists.

“That remains to be seen. We must be alert for opportunities, but these yokels don’t know a thing about fighting; all they have are superior weapons. To begin with, I won’t reproduce their mistake. Get staves aimed at the walltop door; I want that stairwell filled with lightning at the first sign of hostile—”

He broke off, spinning to face the grinding noise of wood being scraped against stone. Tallie, who had rescued the two soldiers from the armory below and brought them up to the barracks, had picked up one of the short benches from the tables and was now dragging it across the floor.

“Kid, what the fuck are you doing?” a soldier demanded.

Meesie scampered out of the neck of Tallie’s shirt to perch atop her head, then pointed at him and squeaked furiously.

“Man,” someone whispered. “Even the rodents sass you, Ankhar.”

Meanwhile, not responding to them, Tallie kicked the door to the upper stairwell shut, hauled the bench up against it and propped it at an angle against the latch. She worked it securely into place, tugged at the door to make sure it wouldn’t budge, then turned back to them with a satisfied expression, dusting off her hands.

“There! Door secured, cap’n, sir. Now if you guys’ll show me how to open the actual gate, we can bring in my reinforcements.”

“You’re asking me to take a lot on faith, young lady,” the captain said grimly.

“First, I am a thief, so let’s have no more of that ‘lady’ talk. And second, yes, I damn well am. You can either take it on faith or hunker down here and wait for a miracle. I mean, another miracle, in addition to the one you’d be refusing to let in through the gates to save your castle.”

“Well, sir,” a lieutenant pointed out, “there wouldn’t be much point in her untying us if she wasn’t on our side. And if this is some kind of convoluted backstab, we can always shoot her.”

“That’s logic I can’t refute,” the captain said with a sigh. “All right, get that gate open, and let’s hope the next insanity that comes charging in here is on our side.”

“You know, I like you guys,” Tallie commented, following the two soldiers who turned and headed for the rear stairs at the captain’s order—the same two who’d been stationed down below. “If I survive tonight I’m gonna have to visit Puna Dara again. How’s the food here?”

“Depends,” one of her new companions said, voice fading from the barracks as they descended the stairwell. “You like curry and fish?”


Mandip frowned, walked, and listened. Holding up his screamlance in his only hand, he fired at the end of the hall up ahead. The lightning bolts stopped, and he picked up his pace slightly.

Sure enough, rounding the corner, he found a palace servant slumped against the wall, retching and clutching her head. The screamlances weren’t terribly accurate weapons, but that had its advantages when you didn’t know exactly where an enemy was. This looked to be a maid, someone not accustomed to physical hardship, and the weapon’s effect had done a number on her even with an indirect hit. She had even dropped her wand, which Mandip kicked away.

At his arrival, she snatched a curved dagger from her belt and swung at him. Woozy and disoriented, the woman didn’t actually get near him, but he shot her again anyway. At that range, the screamlance caused her to fall completely over to lie on her back. She barely managed to roll to one side before emptying her stomach.

“I’m sorry,” Mandip said mechanically. “It will pass soon. Try not to move until your head stops spinning.”

He moved on, weapon up, leaving her there. It was the same shallow platitude, word for word, he’d offered to every palace defender he had shot thus far. None of them had seemed appreciative, not that he cared what they thought. Ayuvesh had explained that taking them down without doing harm was essential to the plan, setting up their next step after he reached an accommodation with the Crown, and Mandip had accepted his reasoning.

That didn’t mean he gave a damn about these rich people in their cozy palace, or that he didn’t feel satisfaction in leaving them slumped on the ground in pain. Well, not so much the servants, but still; their lives were easier than they’d ever appreciated. A little suffering would do them good.

On he went, listening to the voices in his built-in communicator. Something was going wrong on the walls; they were under attack. Probably the adventurers who had somehow destroyed the Elixir. Time was short… If those meddling monsters broke through before Ayuvesh could reach a deal with the King, it would all be over. Fortunately, everyone on the network could hear that, too, and it seemed to be going well.

Nothing he could do about it. He kept walking, looking for more people to incapacitate. He was in a richer wing of the palace now, the kind of place he could have fed the Order for weeks by looting for five minutes, but Ayuvesh’s orders were clear and his plan sensible. Not that Mandip had a hand to spare, anyway. Nor would again, unless they could restore the Elixir. His arm had begun to grow back where the dryad had torn it off, but it had stopped, of course, the new metal extensions coming well short of forming another hand.

Well, maybe he could meet some actually rich people and shoot them. Servants and soldiers might be better off than he had been, growing up, but it still didn’t bring any real satisfaction to strike them down. At least they worked, they did something, even if it was just propping up rich bastards. The halls continued to be deserted, though.

Mandip paused next to a door, hearing a sound from within. Someone hiding? His shield was holding just fine, but it would probably be better not to be ambushed from behind. He tucked his screamlance under his stub of an arm awkwardly to grasp the latch and pushed the door open.

This looked like a guest room of some kind. There was nobody present—no one human, anyway. Apparently the noise had been caused by the animal, which was sitting atop the upturned ottoman it had seemingly knocked over. In fact, half the furnishings in the room were overturned. This creature did not appear to be properly housebroken…

Actually, what was that thing? Mandip frowned, leaning into the room to stare. It looked like an overlarge rabbit…with antlers.

It also moved very fast. He didn’t have enough warning to even take his screamlance back in hand, let alone fire it, before the beast lunged across the room and those antlers drove right into his chest.


“I kinda like it when she’s glowy,” Darius huffed, raindrops spraying with each breath. “Makes ‘er easy to find in bad weather.”

Trissiny was no longer trailing golden wings, nor projecting a divine shield, but a residual aura of light still hung around her, making her stand out in the dimness of the storm. She had arrived at the north gate before them, which wasn’t really surprising given the fact that she was mounted.

“Are you guys all right?” she called as Darius, Schwartz, and Layla came running up. Layla skidded in a rain puddle, staring at the new arrivals rather than watching her footing, and Darius barely caught her in time to prevent a fall. “Any word from inside?”

“Good timing!” Schwartz said, waving. His glasses were completely fogged over, but strangely enough he didn’t seem to be having trouble getting around. “Looks like everything’s on schedule, expect that my diversion just finished crumbling. But Tallie and Meesie have rescued all the soldiers, blocked off the upper exit and are getting that gate open. Uh, I gather the south gatehouse is…under control?”

The two groups finished trailing to a stop, eyeing one another speculatively.

“You brought Hershel? Good thinking.” For that being a compliment, Principia’s tone was oddly cool. Her expression was flat, as well.

“Who’re these?” Ruda demanded bluntly. “And what are they good for?”

“They are friends, so keep a civil tongue in your head,” Trissiny replied. “Layla and Darius Sakhavenid are Guild—smart and good in a tight spot. Schwartz is a witch of the Emerald College, he’s our magical support. Well, more of it, I guess. I was not expecting to find you guys here.”

“Jeepers, a dryad!” Schwartz squeaked.

The object of his fascination wasn’t paying him any attention. “Something’s wrong,” Juniper murmured, her voice almost drowned out by the rain. She had turned to stare at the gate. “I can feel…”

“Yeah, a lot’s wrong,” Principia said, patting her on the shoulder. “We’re dealing with it, hun.”

“Oh, my,” Layla breathed, staring up at Gabriel, who sat astride his shadowy horse with scythe in hand, turning his head constantly to scan the surrounding streets. A number of Punaji citizens, not much deterred by the storm, had begun to gather and watch, but so far nobody seemed inclined to intervene.

Darius looked from Layla to Gabriel and back, and then placed a heavy hand on top of her head, forcibly turning her gaze away from the Hand of Vidius.

“No,” he stated. “Absolutely not. You wipe that look off your face, missy. I will drown you in a mud puddle before I—oof!”

“Next one’s going to be below the belt,” Layla snapped, backing up and rubbing her knuckles, much as her brother was now rubbing his solar plexus. “You just worry about your own business.”

Ruda rolled her eyes and strode toward the closed gates. “Naphthene’s bouncing bazooms, Shiny Boots, how the hell did you dig up more bickering adventurers? Till I met these assholes I always thought that was a myth spawned by chapbooks.”

“Paladins attract them,” Principia observed.

The creaking of the gates cut through the conversation and the noise of the rain as they began to swing outward.

“All right,” Ruda said sharply, raising her voice. “We do this smart, people—remember your lessons from the Crawl. Uh, new folks, that means squishy thieves and finger-wigglers stay in the back. We’re going in hard and fast, heavy hitters up—hey!”

Ignoring her, Juniper had pushed through the crack in the gates the second it was wide enough to accommodate her frame, and dashed off across the courtyard toward the fortress. There almost immediately came a scream, the sound of someone being punched—loud enough to be audible from outside—and the peculiar whining of the Rust’s sonic weapons being fired.

Ruda threw her hands up. “Or, just charge the fuck in, I guess! Paladins to the front, ride down anything June leaves standing. Where the fuck is she in such a hurry to get, anyway?”


Their “improved” shields came with quite a downside: they stood up better than any arcane charm to wandfire, but did not block solid objects. A category which included giant devil-rabbits.

Mandip was driven bodily back into the hall by the force of the impact, then staggered further, wheeling all the way across it to slump against the opposite wall, where he stumbled to the ground in shock.

The rabbit had fallen, too, and now turned to glare at him with one evil pink eye while he gaped in astonishment, belatedly becoming aware of the pain in his chest. The tips of the thing’s antlers were bloody.

Mandip cautiously prodded at the wounds with a finger. Blood seeped out, staining his shirt; those antlers weren’t sharp, but given the force with which they’d hit, they had crushed as much a pierced. At least they hadn’t penetrated far.

The rabbit turned toward him, and with a yell, he threw himself sideways. The beast hit the wall directly above him, antlers first, and tumbled down, apparently stunned. It landed partially across Mandip’s legs, and he kicked it off, scrambling away.

His eye caught the glint of something white. There, by the door, lay his dropped screamlance. This little monster had very long ears; if anything would put it out of commission…

It started moving again, getting its feet under it, and Mandip tried to stand up, immediately faceplanting as he had unconsciously attempted to brace himself with his missing arm. Scrambling awkwardly, he managed to lay his hand on the screamlance’s handle and turn to aim it just as the rabbit hopped upright and faced him again.

He fired, point-blank.

And the beast went completely berserk.


Rust had assembled in the courtyard; they were currently in disarray, Juniper having bowled right through their group. Of the eight present, one lay dazed to the side with another helping him up, the rest mostly turned to fire screamlances after the departing dryad. She was wearing one of the Avatar’s earplugs, though, and didn’t appear even to notice. In fact, she showed no interest in them at all, and was in the process of dashing into the fortress itself when her compatriots streamed in through the opened gate.

At their arrival, the cultists whirled, raising weapons. Trissiny and Gabriel reined in their mounts, weapons in hand; Arjen stood stock-still, practically radiating discipline, while Whisper pranced and tugged impatiently at the bit. The pair of them were like contrasting bookends, light and shadow bracketing the princess who strode up to stand between them, rapier unsheathed.

Weapons were aimed, but as the paladins had stopped, the Rust did not yet fire. More of them began to appear from the fortress, coming around from side doors, though two staggered out of the main entry, looking dazed. They had probably encountered Juniper in passing.

Layla and Darius obediently held back, but Schwartz stepped up next to Trissiny. Principia cut off to the side, where the south gatehouse’s lower door had burst open, to join those now emerging. Punaji soldiers and Silver Legionnaires streamed in—a small group, but enough to form a significant flank. As if at this signal, the small inner door of the other gatehouse opened as well, and its complement of soldiers marched out, weapons at the ready.

With them, all but unnoticed in the rain and tumult, came Meesie, scampering across the courtyard to climb Schwartz and take her place upon his shoulder. Fross, meanwhile, zipped over to hover next to Gabriel.

The Rust were visibly frightened, over a dozen of them now in the courtyard; with weapons up, they continued to draw together.

“That’s your mistake,” Ruda said, her voice booming across the open space. “I have major spellcasters here, and troops flanking you from both sides; with you clustering together like that you’ve positioned yourself to get raked by fire from all angles while we’re in no danger of a crossfire. I’m well within my rights, here, to order you all slaughtered like sheep, but you’re still Punaji, even if you are traitorous little shits. And I’m tired of seeing my people die. You surrender now, I will guarantee you get fair treatment.”

They stopped moving immediately, leaving them in a disorganized, staggered formation across the courtyard.

“You’re wrong, Princess,” one cultist near the center said, stepping forward. She was holding a screamlance, but conspicuously pointed it at the ground. “Your weapons are useless against our shields—oh, yes, they work in the rain, unlike arcane shielding charms. You have no defense against our weapons, either. Don’t make this a battle. You will not win it.”

“Bitch, I’m not gonna have a pissing contest with you,” Ruda snapped. “We were just in your secret cavern. We just shut off your little nanite toys, permanently. The Avatar you tortured into insanity was very inclined to be helpful; believe me when I say you don’t have the advantage against me and mine that you did against this fortress’s defenders. If you came here to go out in a blaze of glory, take the first shot. Otherwise, drop them. I’m not asking again.”

“Stop!”

Everyone twisted about, craning their necks, as a fiery streak cut through the rain overhead. Vadrieny arced over the walls, crying out as she ignored the drama unfolding below and made a beeline for one of the other towers, and the lone figure which had risen from behind its battlements.

“Stop! Don’t do it—”

Ignoring the archdemon’s pleas as he did her approach, Brother Arlund loosed the arrow he had drawn back.

The cultist who had addressed Ruda had positioned herself ahead of the group, giving him a clear shot. The shaft pierced cleanly through her neck.

The Rust began shouting in fury even as they fired in all directions. In the next instant, answering fire came from the Punaji soldiers fanned out to either flank of the adventurers, and the courtyard was lit by the glare of lightning upon energy shields.


Mandip had quickly given up trying to fire at the accursed creature; it just kept coming. In less than a minute, he had become a mass of bruises and bleeding gouges, and the psychotic rabbit had thrashed about, bouncing off the walls and ramming him over and over with those pronged antlers. He quit trying to shoot it again and resorted to bludgeoning the beast with his screamlance, which wasn’t having much effect.

Especially not when it got tangled in the jackalope’s horns and wrenched from his grasp.

He’d already tried to flee, and it had chased him. With nothing left but his hand, he grabbed at it frantically on its next lunge. Rather to his own surprise, Mandip got a grip on one of the antlers as it was buried a few inches into his side.

Of course, the little monster thrashed and twisted, threatening to wrench free from his grip. With one one hand to hold, it was obvious he wouldn’t be able to for long.

In pure desperation, he swung it furiously against the wall. Then again, and again.

It was the blood, his own blood, slickening his grasp on the antler that finally slipped it loose, and he staggered back, hunched over in pain, bleeding from dozens of wounds, gasping for breath. The rabbit, though, finally lay still where he had dropped it. Dazed? No… It was bent nearly double in the middle, its back clearly broken.

Mandip drew a ragged breath of relief and stumbled backward. In the act, he lifted his head, and suddenly discovered he was not alone.

The dryad stood barely two yards away. She was not looking at him, though, but at his erstwhile opponent.

“My bunny.”


“There we go,” Toby said, helping the two of them into the gatehouse through its lower door, which was still unlocked. Just off the narrow hall onto which it opened was a small armory, and he carefully maneuvered both his patients inside and toward chairs. In addition to the woman who had fallen from the wall, he had paused to assist the man lifted from his mount by Gabriel’s charge. The scythe’s blade had not so much as nicked him—very luckily, or there would have been nothing even a Hand of Omnu could do—but the man had effectively been hit with a lance in the center of his chest and hurled to the pavement. Toby had fixed the internal bleeding and soothed away his shock, but his ribs would require more specialized seeing to.

“What…now?” the woman asked weakly once she was seated. “We can’t… After this, there’s nothing left for us. They’ll hang us all…”

“All of us,” Toby said, laying a hand on her shoulder, “are going to have to face responsibility for the things we’ve done here today. I have no authority over the Punaji government, but my experience has been that its King and Queen are fair-minded, and I know their daughter is. You have my word, I will do everything I can to ensure you’re treated well. The Crown doesn’t answer to me, but it will at least listen.”

“Thank you,” the man said weakly. He was still hunched forward, arms wrapped around himself.

Toby nodded, reaching out to touch his shoulder and passing a tiny glow of light into him. “Are you in very much pain?”

“Mostly…discomfort,” he gasped. “Long as I don’t move, it’s not too bad. Or breathe too much,” he added with a wince.

“All right. I’ll get a healer out here when I can, a proper one. It sounds like an all-out battle is unfolding out there, though. I don’t know how long this will be. You both seem stable for now. Please stay here; when the soldiers come back in, tell them you surrender and they shouldn’t harm you. The Punaji codes of war mean they’ll bring healers to take care of injured prisoners.”

“Not like we have much choice,” the woman said, not without bitterness.

“Everybody has choices,” Toby said, turning and taking a step toward the door. “I need to go deal with some of them.”

“And our…friends?” the man whispered. “You’ll have to kill them, too…”

Toby glanced back at him, his eyes already glowing. Light rose in the room, not so much as if emanating from the paladin, but seeming to rise from everywhere at once.

“No, I don’t. I have accepted too many compromises recently; that is my error to atone for. I’ve had enough. This is ending, now.”


“Stop! Stop! You must put down your weapons, we have surrendered! That was the plan, you—”

“What is happening?” Anjal demanded. “Can you talk to them, or can’t you?”

“They’re not listening,” Ayuvesh said. For the first time since he had cornered them, he was visibly shaken, even frightened. “I can give orders but unless they obey…”

“If you cannot control your people,” Rajakhan grated, “what good are you? What are your assurances worth?”

Ayuvesh whirled to face him, prompting the two Punaji soldiers and Akhatrya to surge forward. As did the two Rust cultists who had accompanied their leader, but Ayuvesh moved no further and fortunately a brawl did not break out.

“We can all hear one another,” he said sharply. “They can hear my orders, yes, but they are right now being pounded by your daughter’s cavalcade of monster friends, and listening to one of our own being apparently torn apart! Would you lay down your weapons under such conditions? Would your soldiers? Could you make them?”

“Zari,” Rajakhan grunted, then strode forward, pushing past Ayuvesh and ignoring his companions. “Come. Perhaps we can still salvage this.”


The initial rounds of the battle were an exercise in futility; the Punaji’s salvo did nothing except ignite shields around the Rust, while their counter-fire knocked the soldiers out immediately, every one of whom had only just recovered from previously being struck down by sonic weapons. In seconds, they and the Legionnaires were down, wiping out the defenders’ numerical advantage and leaving the Rust facing only the adventurer group.

At that point, the engagement immediately turned against them.

Fross didn’t bother firing lightning bolts, having learned from the example of the Punaji, but simply sprayed the Rust with elemental ice. It steamed violently in the tropical air, but the solid mass was not deterred by their peculiar shields any more than the rain was, and served to knock them down, freeze them momentarily in place, and deprive them of footing.

On the other side of the group, Schwartz began pelting the enemy with fireballs, which were ineffective, and chunks of rock torn up from the very pavement, which did much better. At least until someone nailed him with a sonic shot and he topped over backward, crying out and clutching his ears.

Meesie, however, burst into the form of a pony-sized lion with a roar of fury and hurled herself bodily into the main cluster of Rust. Trissiny charged a split-second behind her, not even bringing her sword into play but simply using Arjen’s bulk to smash the group apart and keep them off-balance. Gabriel spurred Whisper into a run belatedly, but rather than trying to trample anyone, he cantered off to the side, swinging his weapon (which had a much longer reach than Trissiny’s sword) against the cultists as he passed them. The divine scythe was deflected by their shields, apparently counting as energy to whatever function governed them, but it also did far more damage than staff fire, making them spark and flicker, and in several cases collapse entirely.

All the while, more Rust continued to trickle out of the palace, throwing themselves into the fray.

And once the first of them gave up on Ayuvesh’s order to use only the screamlances, the rest swiftly followed suit. Several were carrying weapons that were decidedly more lethal.

An explosion hurled Trissiny from her saddle, some kind of thrown bomb knocking Arjen bodily off his hooves. The man who had tossed it was immediately set upon by Meesie. Trissiny rolled to her feet, finding herself in the middle of a melee, and a blade of some kind attached to someone’s mechanical arm raked her divine shield, causing it to flicker badly. She countered the next one with her sword, the weapons sparking where they connected—that thing was clearly more than just steel.

Punaji soldiers, trying to get up and find targets again in the tumult, were struck by thrown blades, and another bomb went off, apparently hurled at Gabriel but missing and exploding harmlessly in empty space. The next, however, was far too close to the re-forming Legionnaires as they tried to get back into formation, bowling them over and causing someone to scream in pain.

Principia came sliding past them, snatched up a fallen lance, and hurled it with elvish accuracy, striking down the man who’d thrown the bomb. Another turned and raised a screamlance in her direction, and a Huntsman’s arrow struck him right through the arm.

Vadrieny shot across the courtyard, skimming over the battle and skidding to a stop on the ground, where she bodily swept Darius, Layla, and Tallie up into a knot, folding her impervious wings around them. To judge by the ensuing shouts, they were none of them reassured by this, but the archdemon suffered nothing from the theives’ attempts to beat her off, and began slowly but implacably herding them away from the unfolding brawl.

Suddenly, the clouds parted.

From a single gap in the storm cover above came a beam of concentrated sunlight, illuminating the small side door to the north gatehouse, from which Toby had just stepped. His eyes were like pools of light, and gold raced across the ground through the cracks between paving stones from his feet, as if carried by the rainwater.

Light rose further, seeming to climb up from the ground like mist. It almost had a tangible presence; it thickened the very air, bringing stillness, and gradually a distant tone began to pierce through the sounds of battle. Like a flute, or a bell, high and sweet, it hovered just beyond the range of hearing.

All around them, the fighting stilled. People slowly stumbled to a halt, their movements growing sluggish and their gazes unfocused. Within moments, everyone present was standing still, staring in amazement at the Hand of Omnu.

He walked slowly across the courtyard like a living sun. The rain had ceased; above, the blue sky reemerged from behind increasingly wispy clouds as what had been a furious storm cover moments ago burned away as rapidly and unnaturally as it had risen. Light blazed from Toby, covering the courtyard, intense enough it should have been painful to look upon. But there was no pain.

In fact, wounds had already begun to knit together. As everyone stared in shock, arrows and fragments of metal were gently dislodged from flesh, which healed without scarring behind them. Bones realigned, lightning burns evaporated, pierced organs were restored. The only injury which struggled momentarily against the glow was a black gash rent in a man’s chest by Gabriel’s scythe; his flesh had been in the process of crumbling to dust, and the power of death did not easily relinquish its claim. Under so great a concentration of Omnu’s light, however, it finally receded.

There were dead, still lying where they had fallen, but anyone in whom the faintest spark of life had still flickered was now left fully restored.

For a single moment, it seemed as if someone else stood behind Toby, or around and above him; someone whose presence was like the sun itself, powerful enough to drive lesser minds into paralysis simply by being near them. It was a fleeting moment, though, and passed quickly. With it went the overwhelming rush of magic.

It was sunny and balmy in the courtyard in its passing; steam rose from rainwater and pixie ice as it rapidly dissolved under the sun. Everyone simply stood in awed silence, staring at Toby.

“Some of you are defending your homes, or the people you love,” he said, not raising his voice but projecting easily into every corner of the courtyard. “Others were abused and abandoned, just trying to make something of your lives, and trusted the wrong people. Everyone present has made mistakes, but there are no monsters here. That’s enough fighting. Enough.”

Nobody found anything to say, just watching as he stepped across the courtyard and knelt to pick something up.

“Fross,” Toby said more quietly, “I am so, so sorry.”

“Wooooow,” the pixie said weakly. “That was a loooooot of divine power. Way impressive, man. Also, I’d kind of appreciate a warning next time.”

For the first time since they’d known her, her glowing aura was entirely extinguished, leaving only her fuzzy little body lying in his hand. Big black eyes blinked owlishly up at Toby from a little moth’s face; her antennae drooped listlessly, and even her crystalline wings seemed too weak to flutter.

“I didn’t exactly plan the way that went,” he said, eyebrows drawing together worriedly. “Are you okay?”

“Aw, sure, jus’ drained,” the pixie said, weakly lifting a tiny arm to wave. “I am a bottomless well of power! Bottomless, I tell you. But you burn off enough of the top, an’ it takes a while to refill.”

“Thank goodness. Here—you’re a witch, aren’t you?”

Schwartz blinked at being suddenly addressed. “I, uh…yes? How’d you know?”

Very carefully, Toby held out his hand, cradling Fross. “Would you please hold my friend until she can fly again? Hopefully it won’t take long.”

“I—that—why, sure, I’d be honored.” Just as gingerly, Schwartz carefully accepted the little burden. Meesie, having returned to her normal form and normal perch, climbed down his arm to peer closely at Fross.

“Hey, uh… Where are you going?” Ruda asked as Toby turned and strode toward the castle.

“You know better than I what needs to be done here,” he said. “I have more healing to do.”


He didn’t have to search. In that unexpected moment of total communion with Omnu’s presence, he had been shown exactly where to go.

Juniper knelt in the hallway, Jack’s broken body laid across her lap, one hand slowly moving over his fur. All around her lay the ruins of what had been a human being. Blood practically painted the whole area, interspersed with scraps of flesh, bone, organs, and a few pieces of twisted metal.

Toby stepped through it without reaction, ignoring the smell and the squishing under his shoes. He simply walked up to Juniper and squatted on his heels, bringing his face down to the level of hers.

“Wasn’t really fair of me,” she whispered. “It wasn’t…really his fault. You know what Jack was like. There’s a difference between killing somebody and murder, isn’t there?”

“There can be,” Toby replied.

“Understanding why it’s wrong,” she said tonelessly. “And then doing it anyway. Because I wanted him to hurt, and then die. I don’t know what to think, Toby. I don’t feel bad about killing him. I don’t. I do not. He killed my Jack. But…I feel very bad about not feeling bad. It’s stupid. I used to think developing a conscience was just a burden, but now? I think mine doesn’t work right.”

“No.” He reached out and lay his hand atop hers on Jack’s fur. “That sounds about right, June.”

“It doesn’t make it right, does it.”

“No.”

“But…is it at least…understandable?”

He nodded. “Very.”

She closed her eyes. “I can’t do this, Toby.”

“You’ve proven you can,” he insisted softly.

“No, not like this. Is this what it’s going to be like to love something? People are defined by their attachments, by what they love, I keep noticing that. And when one is ripped away like that they break so completely that…everything breaks. I swore I would never kill anybody again. And it just…doesn’t matter now.”

Leaves had begun to sprout in her hair. As she spoke in a dull monotone, tiny tendrils of roots appeared, branching out from beneath her and squirming through the blood.

“I love you all, my friends. And you’ll all die. And it will destroy me. I can’t feel like this anymore, Toby. I’m not strong enough.”

He leaned forward, leaned his weight upon her, wrapped his arms around her shoulders. Then he began to glow.

Juniper gasped sharply. In the divine light, the leaves vanished from her crown, the tiny roots retracting into nothingness. “Stop it, Toby.”

“I can barely understand how hard this must be for you,” he whispered. “Humans, all the rest of us… We learn about loss earlier on. We grow up with it, and we learn that as much as it hurts, we are strong enough.

“No, I’m not,” she said weakly, slumping against him. “It makes me a monster, Toby. I threw away everything I’ve learned… It makes me a killer. I was so stupid to think mortals are weak. You’re stronger than I could ever be. Please let me go. I’m too dangerous.”

“So am I,” he said. “We’re all dangerous, June. Everyone has the power to kill and destroy.”

“Not like me.”

“Not like you,” he agreed, “but still. It’s about choice, and mastering yourself. Something we’ve all been learning how to do for years, and you’ve only just started trying. But we’re all just learning, Juniper.”

“Stop it,” she whispered. “I don’t want to feel better. I just killed somebody. It’s supposed to hurt.”

“Yes, it is. Killing should hurt. Losing Jack should hurt. I’m not trying to make you feel better, June. It needs to hurt; if it doesn’t hurt, it’ll never heal. But it can heal, and you can still do better.”

“I can’t put a life back into the world.”

“That’s right, he’s gone, and it’s your fault, and you will have to deal with that. But you can still do good in the world. Something you loved is gone, but you will still love. I don’t want to take away your pain, June; you need it. I just want you to understand that this moment, this pain, is not the whole world. Leaving the world behind won’t get rid of the pain, or the guilt, it’ll just cut you off from the good you can still do. The happiness you’ll go on to feel.”

“But it’ll make me stop feeling this,” she said plaintively.

“You can’t destroy pain, is the problem. You can only spread it around. If you go, June, then everyone who loves you will feel the way you’re feeling right now.” He shifted, moving his hands to cradle her face and pulling back enough to rest his forehead against hers. Brown eyes met brown eyes from the distance of a soul’s breath. “You don’t want to do that to us. I’m not some sage, June. I’m just a guy who’s been trying to figure this stuff out for a little bit longer than you have. I want to keep figuring it out with you. I just…I don’t want to lose my friend.”

Slowly, he let the light fade, then wink out.

They knelt there in silence. Her transformation, once driven back, did not begin again.

Tears welled in her eyes, began to pour down her face, and the barren emptiness of her expression crumpled into agony.

“I’m so sorry, Toby. I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

“I m-miss my b-bunny.”

He pulled her close again, and didn’t let go.

 

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13 – 47

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

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

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

This one was made of sterner stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“CHARGE!” Ephanie roared.

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

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

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

She had to focus on her own fight.

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

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

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

“Um, scuze me, sorry ’bout this…”

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

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

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

“Thanks, I do what I can!”

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

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

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


“Why the fuck are you brunette?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why…help me?” she whispered.

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

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

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

Almost infinitesimally, still holding his gaze, she nodded.

He nodded back. “Ready, then?”

She squeezed her eye shut. “Do it.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” she asked a third time.

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

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

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

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

“And what’s your vision?” he asked.

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


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

The King and Queen exchanged a married look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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13 – 46

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“All right. Caine, heal who you can,” Ruda said, breaking the stunned silence. “Arquin, help him.”

“Um…”

“Yes, I know you suck at it, which is why you’re following his lead. Juniper…do something about that.” She pointed at the huddled form of Milady, turning to her next targets as Toby and Gabriel headed toward the nearest source of pained groans. “Locke, Fross, I need intel. Check at the doors and windows, see what you can see without getting lost in that mess. And that leaves…”

She abruptly bounded onto the crate serving as steps to the improvised dais and from there to the platform itself, prompting a startled squeal from the man now lying flat upon it with his arms over his head.

Ruda bent to seize him by the collar and dragged him bodily to his knees, idly resting the tip of her rapier against the crates in conspicuous view.

“Hi there,” she said with a grin that was far too broad to be sincere. “While my friends try to salvage what they can of your friends, I’m gonna need you to tell me where your other friends toddled off to.”

The man stared up at her, mouth moving convulsively for a moment until he closed it to swallow.

“The ones with the metal appendages,” she prompted, deliberately flexing her wrist and scraping the tip of her sword along the wood near him. “I’m sure you must’ve noticed them.”

“I…” He swallowed again before continuing hoarsely, staring at a point past her shoulder. “I was… They helped me, don’t you see? I was nothing, but they taught me…”

“They picked up a loser at his low point, yes, I understand how religions work.” Ruda gave him a firm shake. “Where are the metal people?”

“My boat sank,” he said mechanically, “my son ran away to Tiraas, I had nothing…”

“HEY.” She hiked him up higher till his face was inches from hers, and his attention focused back on her. “I am not your fucking biographer. Where the fuck did your leaders go? Spit it out!”

This was fortuitously punctuated by a shriek from behind her as Toby set someone’s dislocated shoulder. The flash of golden healing light which followed only served to cast her face in ominous shadow.

Ruda’s prisoner drew a shuddering breath, but then his eyes seemed to come more into focus and he made a small shift which might have been a squaring of the shoulders had he been held in a less awkward position.

“I…can’t,” he said more quietly. “Do what you want. I have many weaknesses, but I’m no traitor.”

“Well, I respect that,” she replied, drawing back her sword arm to lift its tip till it rested against his thigh. “But it makes this really fuckin’ hard, so—”

“Hey!” Principia slipped back in from the side door through which she had departed, leaving it to bang in the wind behind her. “We’re about a block from the palace. It’s hard to hear clearly in this storm but I’m pretty sure the Rock is under attack.”

“It’s bad, Ruda!” Fross chimed, zooming in from one of the upper windows. “She’s right, the castle’s under seige—and I think for the second time! There’s Rust cultists with metal pieces holding the ramparts and someone else is attacking the south gate, I didn’t get a good look at who or what, but somebody is channeling lightning bolts at the Rust on the battlements!”

Ruda drew in a hissing breath through her teeth, then abruptly dropped the cultist. “Congrats, you are now redundant, have a nice life. We’ve gotta move, people. What’s our situation?”

“There’s…not a lot of these people I can still do anything for,” Toby reported somberly. “The good news is nobody who survived had any immediately life-threatening damage, but some of these lightning burns are going to require more complicated treatment than—”

“That’s their problem, then. There’s a hospital four streets away; if you’ve done the triage, we’re done here. Juniper? Is she going to be any use at all?”

“I…have no idea what’s wrong,” Juniper said helplessly, straightening up. She had been kneeling next to Milady, trying to get a response, but the woman had fallen into repetitive rocking and a haunted stare into space. “I can’t find any injury or curse or anything and all the magic in her makes it hard to sniff out… I mean, she smells kinda like me. She’s just gone completely bonkers, it looks like.”

“Battle shock,” Principia said curtly, striding over and squatting on her heels to peer at Milady. The woman in black didn’t seem to notice. “She just slaughtered a room full of people, after all; nobody normal can go through something like that without some kind of reaction. More to the point, the only humans I’ve seen move that way are Butlers. You can’t lose a fight, can you?”

This last was in a lower tone, directed at Milady. She made no reply except to squeeze her eyes shut and begin whispering frantic apologies to no one.

“Excuse me, what?” Ruda exclaimed.

“I think she’s got a fairy curse of some kind,” Principia said, still studying Milady. “It’d explain why she smells like dryads. I knew a guy once who had something similar; he was cursed never to lose a battle.”

“How is that a curse?” Gabriel asked.

“Boy, look at this, and look at that.” Principia pointed first at Milady and then at a stretch of the floor upon which seven dead people were strewn in a mixed swamp of their own blood. “Imagine being forced to retaliate with all your full lethality whenever anybody came at you, and having no control over it. What a nightmare.”

“Well, we’ll have to leave her, then,” Ruda stated, heading toward the front door.

“We can’t do that,” Toby retorted. “Especially not here! She’s helpless, and surrounded by—”

“Aside from being the Princess here,” Principia interrupted, standing, “Punaji is right. She’s a liability. She has been a liability from the beginning, the whole time she was accompanying us into unknown danger with this hanging over her and no word of warning. Bitch could’ve had the effect triggered by anything and slaughtered half of us before we knew what was happening. Leave her, we’ve gotta move.”

“Nobody is not worth helping,” Toby said stubbornly.

“Caine, either come help save my family or fuck off. I don’t have time for this.” Ruda hauled open one of the big front doors, grabbed her hat as a gust of wind immediately tried to rip it away, and stalked out into the storm without another backward look. Principia went right on her heels, and Fross darted after them, Juniper following more slowly and with several uncertain glances back at Milady.

“You can’t tell me this is right,” Toby said, turning to Gabriel. “She just saved our—”

“Toby, you were there. She started that fight, because of that…whatever it was that went off, which she never warned us about. Locke has a point, that’s murderously irresponsible at best. It could’ve killed us all down there; it’s actually a miracle it didn’t.” He glanced down at Milady, then shook his head and turned resolutely toward the door. “No, it isn’t right. It’s not. Sifa’s going to stay and watch over her, but that’s all I can spare. Sometimes you have to choose who to save, Toby. I’m choosing Ruda’s family.”

He rested a hand on Toby’s shoulder for a moment, glanced a last time down at the huddled woman, then turned and followed the others out into the storm.

Toby was the last to go, but go he did.

The group had only been out of sight for a minute, and the surviving Rust were starting to creep toward Milady, when a new figure appeared in the door, sending them fleeing toward the side entrance with a chorus of screams.

The sylph paced across the warehouse with his peculiar gait that was both a stork’s prancing and a snake’s slither, and slowly coiled his long shape around her, huge talons squelching softly in the drying blood underfoot. She didn’t respond.

“Poor, stubborn little hero,” Aradeus murmured, arching a wing protectively over her. “Mmm. You smell of pain buried not deep enough, and good advice not obeyed. You should have gone to see the healer. Always go to see the healer. Well.” He subtly tightened around her, disturbing her balance; she slumped against his silvery body, and he rested his chin atop her head. “Mmm. Great adventures will unfold tonight, but there is no evil to destroy, so I will not fight. I will observe. This is as good a place as any other, hmmm? We will watch this storm pass together.”


The gatehouse’s tiny side door was thick enough to constitute a fortress wall on its own, aside from being the narrowest door she had ever seen. Its odd proportions made it interesting to slip through and get it shut behind her against the howling storm without attracting attention. Tallie paused just inside, letting the water stream off her (it wouldn’t give her away since the whole hallway was likewise wet) and listening.

A faint rustle sounded from the room to her right, but apart from that, nothing. Once she was fairly sure no one had heard, she crept forward.

It was a narrow hall, terminating directly ahead in a stairwell that ascended to, according to Trissiny, a barracks. That would be full of Rust cultists. Though the gatehouse had a matching small door to the interior of the fortress, of course there was no convenient path from that portal to this one, which made sense defensively speaking. If anybody penetrated this entrance they would have to navigate a deliberately illogical route full of corners, stairs, and ideally soldiers, many of the halls in question lined with apertures in the ceiling and upper walls through which the Rock’s defenders could rain punishment on any intruder.

This hall had an ominous profusion of those. Hopefully the Rust hadn’t already found a use for them.

Midway down it along the right wall was a door into what Trissiny had said would be a small armory. Apparently somebody was in there, to judge by the faint scuffling she heard.

Tallie slipped up to the edge of the door, paused for a moment in thought, and then jumped. The narrowness of the hall was her ally; it gave her the perfect amount of space to brace herself across its width. Clambering up to the ceiling, she grabbed the inside of one of the dark holes meant to pour boiling oil or whatever on her, extended her body fully along the ceiling and braced her toes in another, and gingerly lowered her head to peek in through the upper edge of the doorway.

It was a cat burglar’s constant salvation: nobody ever looked up.

The armory was in pretty good order, with no signs of a struggle. That was odd, considering there were two Punaji soldiers and one half-machine man who had to have been one of these Rust characters present. One of the Punaji was bound hand and foot, lying on his side facing the door. The other lay oriented in the opposite direction, with the machine cultist kneeling between him and the entrance, apparently tying off a matching set of bindings.

Tallie hesitated, then lowered her head more fully into the room, enough to be noticeable. Sure enough, the bound soldier’s gaze shifted to her and his eyes widened.

She lowered her free hand, holding herself in place with one hand on an oil loop, one foot in another and the other braced across the hall, and held a finger to her lips. The man stared up at her, but did not otherwise react.

Two friendly soldiers present, and an enemy with his back to the door. Surely she wasn’t going to encounter any situation so fortuitous again. But how to take advantage? Tallie wasn’t a fighter even when accounting for people who weren’t partially made of metal.

Dithering nearly cost her dearly; Tallie snapped her head up at the unmistakable sound of feet running down the stairwell.

The armory had rafters across the ceiling. Trusting the architect not to have been a complete obfuscatory asshole, Tallie shifted herself forward and down at an angle, grabbing the lintel of the door frame with both hands, and swung her whole body feet-first into the room, vaulting straight upward.

Yes, rafters in the right place! She had to shift her angle of attack in mid-swing, but even so got her legs wrapped around a beam with a deftness that pleased her, then swung the rest of the way up to land atop it, out of view of both the door and the cultist below.

She could’ve made that jump by the age of eleven, but the very training that honed her body into a limber showpiece had left her with some habits the Guild had had to laboriously beat from her. Training had paid off, though, and she made her movements economical and silent. The fallen soldier’s eyes tracked her, but the cultist gave no sign he’d heard a thing.

That was all the time she had before the approaching footsteps finished approaching. Another cultist, likewise with a whole limb that looked like some crazy dwarven contraption, but this one a woman.

“Rasul!” she said breathlessly. “Are you still—what are you doing? Just drop a screambell and leave them!”

At the woman’s entrance the soldier who had noticed Tallie shifted his glare to her and did not glance upward, giving no sign of her presence. Eserites weren’t big on prayer, but she offered a silent thanks for meeting friendlies who weren’t complete and utter rubes.

“You’ve heard the sound those things make,” Rasul replied calmly, finishing binding the second soldier’s arms behind his back. “It’s painful, and you can’t tell me it won’t cause permanent damage to the ears if you just leave it on someone. We didn’t come here to be cruel.”

“Well, we don’t have time to be kind,” she snapped. “Somebody is assaulting the south gate—somebody with magic. There’s lightning bolts coming from the sky and some kind of a thing trying to ram the gate down, and the screamlances aren’t doing a thing to it. We have to hold them off until Ayuvesh can finish his work!”

“I see.” Rasul straightened, the joints in his legs—both metal starting from above the knees—clicking oddly, then again as he bowed to the two fallen soldiers. “I’m sorry about this, brothers. You should be all right here; it won’t be long.”

With no more word, he strode out after his comrade, who had already bolted back up the hallway. The man moved with amazing smoothness for somebody whose legs were clockwork.

Tallie listened for the sound of his heavy steps to recede up the stairs before dropping lightly to the floor. Whipping out her belt knife, she knelt next to the second soldier, just because his bound hands were facing her.

She took the precaution of reaching her free hand around to cover his mouth, and a good thing, too, as the sudden contact prompted a yell. The other trooper started to pull himself upright, struggling against his bonds, as Tallie approached his compatriot with a knife.

“Hush up, rubes!” she hissed. “I’m gonna cut you loose, hold still a minute.”

“Not that I’m ungrateful but who the hell are you?” the first man demanded. It was a fair enough question; she obviously wasn’t Rust, but equally obviously wasn’t military or even Punaji.

“I’m with the Thieves’ Guild,” she said quietly, sawing through the just-tied cord as rapidly as she could. “I’ve got more thieves, a Salyrite witch and the Hand of damn well Avei coming to help, but I need to get them inside before they can be much use.”

“Well, fuck me running,” the man she was untying said in amazement.

“Later, sailor,” Tallie grunted. “Business before pleasure. You guys know the layout; I need to get that gate open so my people can hit these assholes from behind. What’s—”

“Uh, first things first,” interrupted the first man she’d seen, his eyes now fixed on a spot at which men had an annoying tendency to stare. “Why’ve you got a glowing rat in your cleavage?”


“This is taking too long. Is it taking too long?” Layla altered her pacing pattern, beginning to orbit the rest of the group instead of stalking up and down in front of them. “How long does it take to break into an impregnable fortress? I should have gone with her, I can move almost as quietly… You’d know if something happened to her, right, Schwartz? You’d tell us?”

“Oy.” As she passed, Darius reached out and seized his sister by the back of her neck. “You can’t possibly think that’s helping him concentrate.”

“It’s all right,” Schwartz said without opening his eyes. “Concentration is as much emotional as intellectual. As long as you lot are squabbling, I know the world is still in order.”

Darius snorted a laugh at that, but Layla just shook him off with a glare and resumed pacing, now chewing her bottom lip.

Schwartz hadn’t bothered with any kind of ritual circle for this, though off to his right was another small improvised altar made from cobblestones pried up out of the streets themselves, this one with a handful of loose crystals of various colors on its top. He was sitting cross-legged, his spine straight and eyes closed, with elbows braced against his sides and both arms extended palm-up. His right hand appeared to be on fire; in his left rested another cobblestone which constantly trembled and twitched as if he were bouncing it, though his hand was not moving.

“Waiting is part of any heist,” Trissiny said calmly, “as well as any military campaign. This is a bit of both. Trust our friend like she does us; we all know what we’re doing.”

“If it was you in there I’d be less worried,” Layla muttered, not slowing. “Or Schwartz. The rest of us are just apprentices.”

“None of you are just anything,” Trissiny said automatically, then let out a soft sigh when Layla scowled at her. “All right, I take your point, but still. Tallie is good. We wouldn’t have let her do this if she wasn’t good enough.”

“Wait—there’s trouble.”

Schwartz suddenly opened his eyes, and Darius winced looking at him. Behind his spectacles, they glowed orange-red, the same shade as Meesie’s fur.

“Trouble where?” Trissiny asked, instinctively grasping her sword. “Do we need to pull her out?”

“Tallie’s okay,” the witch reported. “She’s rescued a couple of soldiers, and the Rust have been drawn off by our diversion; Meesie can’t hear any strange noise weapons nearby. The problem is at the other gate.” He suddenly grimaced and had to close his hands over the cobblestone, which was suddenly trying to jerk fully away from him. “I’m—they’ve—okay, those sound weapons aren’t bothering the elemental but it turns out they’ve got more mundane methods…”

“Stay here and be ready to help Tallie if she needs it,” Trissiny ordered the siblings, drawing her blade. “Sounds like this is my cue.”


The group pulled back together as they neared the fortress. The storm appeared to be on the wane, Naphthene’s fury ebbing off as quickly as it had come; the wind had slackened notably and the lightning was both less frequent and more distant. There was no relief from the downpour, however, and they were all drenched from the moment of stepping outside.

Fross, as usual, darted ahead, shooting around the corner that led their current street onto the open square before the Rock’s south gate. Principia was the first after her, but the rest were not far behind. They all piled to an immediate stop, though, trying to make sense of what they were seeing.

Something was trying to smash the gates like a living battering ram, a low-slung creature about the shape of a crocodile but apparently covered in a shell of stone. Or stones, more correctly, thickly clustered over it like scales. In fact, it was hard to tell details through the rain, but they appeared to be exactly the same color and texture as the cobblestone plaza over which it was charging again.

The weird creature was clearly trying to bash the gate itself in; even as they watched, it backed up and charged forward once more, its blunt head crashing against the outer gates. There was no telling how long it had been at this, but there was already a sizable splintered dent around the spot where the gates met, evidence of repeated pounding. However, the stone monster’s efforts were no longer going so smoothly.

It appeared to be trying to ignore the Rust harassing it and focus on its task, but that was clearly growing more difficult by the moment. A person sitting astride some kind of mechanical mount and carrying a long lance was hassling it relentlessly. The machine he was riding resembled an ostrich with a long tail for balance and a steering stick like an enchanted carriage’s where its head should be. It made an awful clatter as he maneuvered it one-handed, piston-legs pounding into the cobblestones and its joints clacking and emitting gouts of steam.

Its rider swooped around in a wide arc to charge at the stone beast again even as his target backed up for another run at the gate. He lowered his lance and its head sparked alight with arcs of electricity that made an uncontrolled nimbus in the rain. It impacted the side of the creature with enough force to shove it off-balance. The impact was enough to bring the mechanical running-bird up short, and the rider only kept his grip on the lance because it was attached to his metal arm.

Another Rust cultist was nearby on foot, wielding another shock lance with which he continually jabbed and bludgeoned the stone creature. Lacking the speed and weight of the birdlike mount, his blows hadn’t enough inertia to shift it, but that electrified lance head still did damage, each blow causing a spray of stone chips and sometimes dislodging an entire chunk of rock.

While they stared, another mechanical thing suddenly arrived, charging out of a side street to join the fray. This one was like a gigantic insect, six legs clattering noisily as it came. Rather than slamming into the stone beast as it first appeared to be about to do, it skidded to a stop nearby and this second Rust cultist leaped into its seat.

“Okay, these guys and their contraptions are old news,” Ruda said above the noise, “but what the fuck is that thing?”

“There’s a lot of fae magic in that,” Juniper said, squinting through the rain. “Like…it’s mostly fae magic.”

“It’s an elemental,” Principia said slowly. “A pavement elemental. Well, that’s a new one, I’ve gotta say.”

“What’s your call, Princess?” Gabriel asked, turning to Ruda. “Taking down the Rust is a safe bet, but we don’t know whose side the elemental’s on, except that they don’t like it. Is this an enemy-of-my-enemy thing, or do we come down on anyone who’s attacking the Rock?”

Ruda frowned at the scene in silence for a bare moment before responding. “Fuck it, we’ve gotta get in, and it looks like they’ve got control of the gates. My parents are in danger right now, we don’t have time to sort this out. Take down the Rust, and unless that thing attacks us help it get the gates—”

A deep, bellowing whinny cut through the storm and her orders, and yet another bulky figure came charging into the square from a side street. This one came from almost straight ahead, originating off the north side of the fortress’s corner and approaching at an angle that would barely skirt the tower and plow head-on into the melee.

It was a horse—an armored horse, though clearly not mechanical, and ridden by an armored figure. That was all they could perceive through the downpour, until it burst alight. Golden wings flared out from the rider, and her sword blazed with pure divine power as she leveled it at the nearest mounted cultist.

“YEEAAAAAH!” Fross screamed, shooting straight upward and erupting in a burst of silver glitter like a firework. “YOU FUCKERS ARE DONE!”


The Rock was a surpassingly resilient bastion, defensible both within and without. Punaji history being rife with coups and revolutions, those occupying its seat of power made no assumptions about their safety. Even in its deepest interior, the Rock’s corridors abounded with blind turns, choke points, doors as hard to break as the outer gates of some lesser fortresses, and more than a handful of booby traps.

It was also, of course, fully staffed both by soldiers and by civilian Punaji who not only carried weapons but didn’t need much prompting to use them. The joke on the wharves was that a Punaji scullery maid was roughly a match for a Sheng infantryman.

Unfortunately for the current royal family, all these defenses were useless against a foe who cleaved through them without even a proper fight.

What unfolded as the handful of Rust swept through the Rock could not have been called a battle. Punaji defenders were swiftly felled by sonic weapons, collapsing in pain and disorientation usually without even squeezing off a shot. The few who managed to fire on their attackers achieved nothing, wand and staff bolts sparking harmlessly against energy shields which were far more durable than the arcane charms with which they were familiar. Nor did the Rust tie down their vastly inferior numbers by trying to seize and hold any ground; they simply neutralized anyone who got in their way and swept on, making equally short work of any physical barriers in their path with blades extended from their machine arms—blades whose edges glowed as if hot, and which sliced through dense wood faster and cleaner than any saw, slowed only slightly when they encountered metal.

The Rust were clearly not here to capture the Rock. They were searching for something. As scattered and disoriented defenders slowly recovered in their passing, they quickly figured out what.

So did the King and Queen, and as such, they were not caught in any corner or defensible position, clearly having learned better from the example of what befell their troops. This communication suggested the presence of tactical scryers, but that did not matter in the end. Ayuvesh had his own means.

He had directed his people to fan through the fortress in a pincer movement as best they could given its maze of corridors, encircling the Rock and closing in. So it was that he finally snared his targets in a long hallway as they attempted to retreat, doubtless to some secret exit from the Rock itself.

Rajakhan and Anjal were accompanied only by their seneschal and two soldiers, and the latter had been neatly felled by sonic shots from the cultist who appeared at the end of the hall down which they fled. The royal couple turned to retreat while Akhatrya tried (fruitlessly) to hamper the attacker, but it was Ayuvesh himself who met them coming the other way. Through the reports of his people scattered through the fortress, he had been tracking them for some time already.

He had left one of his followers behind at the other end of the corridor to ensure they were not interrupted. Finally, he had his moment.

Both King and Queen bared steel at him, standing shoulder-to-shoulder and glaring without a hint of fear.

“Your Majesties,” he said grandly, gesticulating with his metal hand. “I will not waste our time with insincere pleasantries. My people rage unimpeded through your fortress, completely unhindered by the best you can throw against them. You know by now that your weapons will not prevail against me. I have you cornered and at my mercy. This chase, it would appear, is well and truly over.”

“Do what you came to, but spare me your juvenile gloating,” Blackbeard growled. “The Punaji will not—”

“Forgive me,” Ayuvesh said, holding up his other hand, “for interrupting what I’m sure would have been a memorable speech, but once you have learned what I came for I think you will be glad not to have wasted it upon my unworthy self.”

“Speak, then,” Anjal snapped.

“I mistrust words,” he replied with a smile. “Deeds are what matters in life. Action, and the will to take it. And so!”

He tossed aside his screamlance, to their visible surprise. Their expressions of confusion only deepened when Ayuvesh carefully knelt upon the stone floor, and raised both his hands, metal and flesh, in the air. He bowed his head to them, speaking only two more words.

“I surrender.”

 

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13 – 43

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“I warn you,” the man on the crates said, his voice rising, “we will defend ourselves if need be! Lay down your weapons and state who you are, and what you’re doing here!”

Ruda grasped the hilt of her rapier, but Toby placed his own hand on the pommel before she could draw it.

“We were teleported here against our will,” he stated, his voice not upraised but projected well enough to be audible to all the armed onlookers. “Sorry for intruding like this, but you probably know it’s dangerous to ‘port someone into a storm. I guess we should be grateful that purple guy bothered to find us an indoor space at all.”

The speaker lowered his arms fractionally, squinting down at them. None of the surrounding people lowered their own weapons.

“Purple…guy?” he said after a momentary pause.

“Oh, man is it a long story,” Gabriel chimed in. “Seriously, you wouldn’t believe most of it anyhow. Didn’t you say you guys were the Infinite Order? As in, the Rust people?”

“That…is not a name we prefer,” replied the speaker. His tone seemed calmer now, at least. “For the last time, put those weapons down. If you truly mean no harm, you’ll come to none here. We always offer shelter during storms to those in need. But you can’t just teleport in here, heavily armed!”

“Everyone else is armed,” Fross pointed out.

“I don’t know you people, and—is that a pixie?”

“Yes, I am a pixie, and I prefer not to be referred to as ‘that,’” she said irritably.

“My name’s Toby.” His voice was the same: calm, low, but spoken from the diaphragm with a strength that cut through the burgeoning argument. “These are my friends, and we actually don’t have any business with you. If you’d kindly just make a path to the nearest door, we’ll be out of your hair.”

“Daksh?” said someone from the surrounding crowd. “Maybe we ought to let them out. If they’re here by accident, letting ’em leave solves the problem.”

This earned a few mutters of agreement, but another voice piped up in response. “You can’t be serious! Tonight of all nights, you’re gonna let armed adventurers just wander off?”

“Peace, Sayur,” the man on the improvised dais said quellingly, but his critic didn’t so much as pause.

“What if they’re out to interfere? I say we disarm them and hold them!”

The mutters this time were louder, and several people on the front of the crowd pressed forward. The whole throng began moving; the group had landed in a clear space between them and the dais, but now people at the edges started creeping forward on the sides to fully surround them.

“Don’t,” Milady said sharply. “Please, stop.”

“Hey, you guys with the staves might wanna refrain,” Principia added in a more aloof tone. “You don’t encircle someone with ranged weapons in close quarters, guys. You’re just setting up a crossfire that’ll kill your friends.”

“Is that a threat?” someone from the crowd snapped.

“Enough!” Daksh shouted. “All of you, cut it out. The elf is correct, back up with those things. You lot, I’m afraid this has already gone too far. You will now be disarmed.”

“Uh, Daksh?” someone else said warily. “I don’t know. I think that’s a dryad.”

“Yes, I am,” Juniper said, raising her hand.

“Question!” Ruda lifted her own. “What makes tonight special? And a follow-up, if I may: if you guys are the Rust, where’s all the people with the metal pieces?”

Silence fell, all mutterings cut off. Wind howled around the building, and a flicker of lightning through the windows cast a brief, eerie illumination over the scene. Now the faces around them had gone grim. Grips on weapons were adjusted, and no one moved to retreat by an inch.

On the dais, Daksh sighed. “I suppose that tears it. If you truly are here by accident and not to interfere with us, I will owe you all an apology. But for now, we must be certain. Vishal, collect their weapons.”

“Don’t do it,” Milady warned, her eyes wide with obvious fear. “Please, you need to step back.”

This only made the man who came forward focus on her first. He was an unremarkable-looking Punaji man, in a somewhat threadbare greatcoat over a workman’s clothes, and holding a wand which he now trained on her.

“I apologize, miss,” he said in a deep voice, “but with garments like that, I will need to search you. I will have a woman do it if you prefer, but right now I need you to place your hands on top of your head.”

“Don’t,” she repeated shrilly.

“Hey, easy,” Principia murmured, touching the back of her cloak.

“She’s got a point, though,” Ruda snorted. “I’m already tired of pretending to indulge these yahoos.”

“When we stop pretending to indulge them,” Toby said in a low tone, “a lot will inevitably die. I would rather have as little blood on my hands as possible. Rebellious or not, these are your people, Ruda.”

“Now, please,” Vishal said in a louder tone, straightening his wand arm. “I have to insist. Hands on your heads, all of you. I do not want blood on my hands, either.”

“Don’t point that at me,” Milady hissed. “Put it down.”

“You are making it impossible to believe your good intentions,” the man replied. “I will not ask you again.”

In a tiny movement almost impossible to notice in the dim warehouse, his index finger moved to rest on the clicker.

Milady surged forward with nearly elven speed. Vishal fired the wand by sheer reflex, and the impact of the lightning bolt on her shield charm at that range overloaded it in one hit, causing a blue flash that momentarily blinded everyone nearby.

Toby’s reflexes were only a hair slower; even as he blinked away the aftereffects of that arcane pulse, he brought down a golden hemisphere over the group. Over most of them, at any rate; Milady was already outside its radius.

Somehow, during the second they had all been blinded, Vishal had ended up on the floor with his head twisted the wrong way, and Milady had flung herself bodily into the crowd, where she immediately began proving Principia’s warning. The suddenly panicking Rust sympathizers tried to turn on the whirling dervish in their midst, swinging swords and discharging firearms, and haplessly destroying each other while she darted, untouched, through them.

Immediately, the warehouse was full of screams and lightning bolts, creating a havoc which drowned out even the storm.

Toby gritted his teach, squeezing his eyes shut in concentration. The divine shield over them continued to ripple and spark as it was repeatedly struck by arcs of electricity.

“Fross,” he grated, falling to one knee, “help.”

“Helping!” the pixie shouted, and zipped straight upward. Her silver glow flickered, let out a pulse of light, and somehow she phased through the shield to hover above it, where she immediately began spraying arcs of pure ice in a circle. Her work was frequently interrupted by the need to replace pieces of the growing wall as they were pulverized by staff shots, but within moments she had them encased in most of an igloo.

“What the hell was she thinking?” Ruda exclaimed, trying to peek through a hole blasted in the ice wall before Fross quickly refilled it. The pixie had stopped building the wall a few feet above head height, to focus on repairing the damage caused by all the violence going on.

“That looked like a panic reaction,” Juniper said, then hurriedly jumped away as a body slammed into the wall next to her. Between the ice and the golden shield, it was nothing but a vague shadow.

“I don’t think so,” Principia started to add, cutting off at another explosion of lightning and ice near her head.

“Can I help, Toby?” Gabriel asked. “I can barely make a divine shield over myself, but I think I can feed you more energy?”

“Thanks, I think we’ve got it,” Toby replied, his voice much less strained. “I’ve been practicing, but I’m still not Shaeine. Fross is doing most of the work now; I’m just keeping this up in case two shots hit in the same spot before she can patch it.”

“Okay, well, Milady’s ass is dead,” Ruda said bluntly. “In a couple more seconds this is gonna stop and any of the Rust who’re still alive will not be in a surrendering mood. Arquin, since that staff of yours is so much more destructive than any of us realized until an hour ago, how wide can you swing it?”

“This is a divine weapon, Ruda,” he retorted. “Just because it can murder people in large numbers doesn’t mean it’s going to. Do you know what happens when paladins abuse their god-given powers? Because I’ve had that made extremely clear to me, and trust me, you don’t wanna be standing nearby.”

“Goddammit, Arquin, do you think I wanna see all these tax-paying assholes reduced to chum right in front of me? I don’t have time for your squeamishness, those machine fuckers are off doing something right now, and—”

“Kids!” Principia said sharply. “Shush.”

In fact, relative quiet had descended. The storm still raged, but the only lightning was from outside, now. Wind and water were blowing into the warehouse through multiple holes shot in its walls, but it seemed the violence was over.

“Uh, guys?” Fross said quietly from above them. “I think you can come out now. This is… You’ve gotta see this yourselves.”

They glanced at each other warily, but Toby finally let the shield drop. Gabriel raised his wand overhead, fully extending it into scythe form, then lightly brought it down to tap the upper edge of the ice wall. Immediately the entire thing crumbled to fragments, many no bigger than snowflakes. No one bothered to focus on this display, however, as they all stared around the warehouse.

It was in ruins, obviously, thanks to all the wild shooting. The smells of ozone, burning wood and scorched flesh hung heavy in the air, as did the groans of the wounded. Those of the cultists not dead were huddled around the edges of the room, sheltering behind any piece of furniture they could find. There was no telling how many had managed to hide, but at least twenty were dead or dying.

In the middle of the floor, Milady was curled up into a ball with arms around her knees, rocking back and forth on her heels, heedless of the blood squelching under her, and sobbing quietly.

“What,” Ruda whispered, “the fuck.”


The action on the bridge had calmed considerably. The warlock’s fog still hung over the Grim Visage, but his summoning installations had all been destroyed by stray staff fire or petered out by now, and with the lack of anything to shoot at, the soldiers perched in the great face’s eye-windows seemed to have grown tired of wearing down their power crystals. Between the fog and the patchy layer of charcoal littering the bridge attesting to all the minor demons which had died there, the scene was even creepier than the Crawl ordinarily had to be.

But at least, for the moment, it was calmer.

“All right, fuck this, I’m out,” proclaimed one of the Dalkhaan House guards clustered nervously at the base of the stairs. Shouldering his staff, he turned and began climbing.

“Where the hell do you think you’re going, Carsten?” another snarled. “The fuck I’m sittin’ here while you fuck off to—”

“Then quit your bellyachin’ and come with, Faisal,” the first man snapped, pausing and half-turning to glare down at him. “This is bullshit. We were told we’d be chivvying some disobedient college kids into order, breaking up a protest or some piddly crap like that. I never signed up for demons and warlocks and adventurers and fucking dungeon delving. This shit gets guys like us killed! And that Hand of the Emperor is so fucking crazy you can smell it on him. No, fuck this. I am out.”

He turned again and began stomping off up the staircase once more. Amid the nervous muttering from the soldiers left behind, a couple more shifted in the direction of the opening above.

All froze, however, when Captain Cross suddenly stepped around the corner ledge. Without saying a word, he snatched the staff held by the nearest soldier, planted himself at the base and took aim up the staircase.

“Carsten!” one of the men shouted.

Before Carsten could even turn again, Cross shot him in the back.

At that range, the firepower of a battlestaff was inescapably deadly. Carsten was flung about five more steps upward by the impact, losing his grip on his own weapon. Upon landing, though, he began rolling back down the steps.

Men pressed and shuffled out of the way, making no move to intercept the body that came tumbling down. Carsten’s corpse finally slid to a stop at the bottom, right before Cross’s boots. His staff bounced a couple of times before rolling the rest of the way, and came to a rest with one end atop its erstwhile owner.

Cross neatly transferred his weapon to one hand, nudged a toe under Carsten’s battlestaff, kicked up upward and caught it.

“Well?” he said grimly. “Anybody else wanna take a walk?”

Shocked silence answered him. A moment later, the assembled men flinched back as a couple more lightning bolts blasted outward from the Visage, those within apparently having heard the staff fire. Passing through the Fog of War, none of them went near the bridge. Even so, the troops huddled backward away from the noise, with the exception of Cross. With his back to the incoming fire, he did not appear even to have noticed it.

“All right, then,” the Captain drawled after a sufficient pause. “New orders, boys: across the bridge and into the building.”

“Now, wait just a goddamn—” The man who’d spoken fell silent as Cross leveled one of the staves at him.

“I get where you’re coming from,” Cross said flatly. “Really, boys, I do. You’re a sorry lot of assholes on your best day, and I don’t tell you that enough. This is over your pay grade, and not what you signed up for. Well, tough titties, ladies. This is the shit we’re all in up to our necks. If we’re dumb enough to run, we’re traitors to the Throne itself, and there’s nowhere in the Empire for us to run to. So let’s have no more of that.” He disdainfully nudged Carsten’s body with one foot. “You get the urge to bolt, you just keep in mind that what you’d be running toward is a lot worse than what you’re running from.

“But here’s the good news, lollipops! The big muckety-mucks that Hand stuck us with want us across the bridge and in that building to hold the doors. That’s because that jiggery-pokery they were doing before was to convince the people inside that the sanctuary effect is broken—but it’s not. Serious violence is still impossible in the Grim Visage. So! You stay here, you might get hit by a stray shot, or whatever the hell crawls up out of the depths. You try to leave, you’ll have that Hand hunting you down and it’ll be a miracle if you live long enough to regret it. Right now, boys, the only safe place for us is right where we’re ordered to be: in the sanctuary zone, forming a wall of bodies preventing the students from coming through those doors. Once we’re inside, it doesn’t matter who those kids are or what powers they have: there’s not a thing they can do.”

He let that hang for a moment, then smiled thinly, raising his chin.

“So if you want to be certain of living through this, girls, get your asses moving.”

Another moment stretched out, while the men stared uncertainly at him, at the Fog, at each other.

Cross let out a heavy sigh, and fired one of his staves into the air. “MARCH! MOVE MOVE MOVE! DOUBLE-TIME IT, YOU MAGGOTS!”

At that, finally, they stumbled into motion, heading straight up the bridge toward the Visage. It was at a pace far short of double time, but at least they were going. Most of them cast wary glances at their captain in passing, but Cross ignored them, except to toss his borrowed staff back to the man from whom he’d taken it, just hanging on to Carsten’s.

“Never heard you cuss that much at one time, Captain,” a boy hardly out of his teens offered as he passed. “I think I like you better like this.”

“Son, I don’t give a damn. Move your ass and don’t you eyeball me!” With the last of them finally on the bridge and heading toward the door, he stepped onto the path behind them, chivvying them along. “Eyes front, you daisy-pickers! First man who so much as looks back at me gets one right in the butt! And I don’t mean like you do back in the barracks!”

Trailing along at the end of the loose straggle which no officer in any military would have deigned to call a formation, he allowed himself a wide, gleeful, borderline psychotic grin before schooling his features back into the more staid expression customary for Captain Cross.


“Shaeine, you will have to be our primary point of both defense and attack,” Ravana lectured briskly as they climbed the stairs to the uppermost terrace. “Of all of us, your magic alone poses a potential impediment to a Hand of the Emperor. Remember, we need not incapacitate him on our own, but if he arrives before we reach our destination—”

“I understand,” Shaeine said, adjusting her grip on F’thaan, who it seemed was growing tired of being carried. “With respect, Ravana, I don’t believe I require coaching on how to best apply my only combat specialty.”

“Quite right,” Ravana said lightly. “Natchua, you represent our most destructive form of offensive power, but do keep in mind that you are uniquely disadvantaged against this foe.”

“Yes, I know,” the drow snapped.

“I am aware that you do,” Ravana replied. “I don’t want you to think you are useless, however. If we are caught in a pitched engagement with this enemy, remember that our goal is to buy time and keep moving, and the capacity to destroy the landscape can be very helpful in that regard. Any disruptions or barriers you can create may tip the balance. Under the circumstances, I believe Professor Tellwyrn will forgive us for any property damage. If not, I will compensate her.”

“I see,” Natchua said, apparently mollified.

“Raolo, the same goes. You may feel your arcane skills less developed, but sorcery is very useful for creating barriers.”

“I will do my best to keep it in mind, your Ladyship,” he said gravely. Ravana half-turned while walking to give him a coy little smile.

“Addiwyn, feel free to use your tongue.”

“I beg your pardon?” Addiwyn drawled.

“You and I may lack magic, but keep in mind that our aim is to delay and befuddle, not destroy. If circumstances so dictate, that wicked little shiv between your lips may prove a useful weapon indeed.”

“You needn’t patronize me, Ravana,” the elf said dryly. “In this particular situation I’m fairly happy not to be included.”

“I have patronized you enough times, Addiwyn, that I would expect you to know the difference by now.”

“Okay, but this whole plan,” Raolo interjected. “I don’t know. You’re making some big assumptions…”

“I know things you do not,” Ravana replied, eyes forward. “Trust that I wouldn’t risk my own life on an uncertain gambit. You had the opportunity to flee; the time for questioning is past.”

They were on the wide lawn on the uppermost terrace by now, the space bordered by Helion Hall, the cafeteria building, and the astronomy tower. It was commonly used by students as a gathering place, and sometimes by faculty to hold public addresses. Coincidentally, it was at this spot last year that the class ahead of them had made their stand against the hellgate.

The walk here from the chapel ordinarily took minutes, but Ravana had led them on a circuitous route through the campus, avoiding the main walkways and relying on the elven hearing of her companions to evade contact with patrolling guards. It was hard to tell how many troops were present; she insisted that House Dalkhaan was tiny and couldn’t possibly have that many guardsmen, much less be able to spare enough levies for a venture like this to really pose a threat, but they kept having to duck behind or through buildings.

Natchua had suggested simply attacking any invading soldiers they encountered, but was overruled.

Since they’d not only left injured enemies behind at the chapel, but sent Reich specifically to get the Hand’s attention, it was reasonable to conclude they were now being actively hunted. This development had unfolded much faster than any of them had anticipated, though.

Now, there was no more room for sneaking; the stairways to the uppermost terrace were all out in the open, and they would have to cross the broad lawn to reach their destination. Ravana had not slowed by a hair, striding boldly across the green without glancing to the left or right.

She had to stop very suddenly when the Hand of the Emperor appeared right in front of them.

His arrival was like no shadow-jumping or arcane teleportation any of them had ever seen. Indeed, it didn’t appear that he actually arrived; in a way, it was as if he had always been standing there, and they had only suddenly noticed his presence.

They had to slam to a halt nearly within arm’s reach of the man, with an abruptness that might have sent most of their classmates reeling. They, however, were four elves and Ravana Madouri. They simply stopped, without loss of poise.

“Ah,” Ravana said mildly. “We were just discussing you.”

The Hand studied her closely, his eyes slightly narrowed but otherwise without expression. He was the same indeed who had come to visit Professor Tellwyrn in the days before most of them had been cursed, a man of ordinary olive Tiraan complexion, with craggy features and a balding head. Like all Hands of the Emperor, though, he had previously been silent discretion personified. Now, his very stance practically vibrated with tension. There was an intensity to his very presence that could not be taken as anything but a threat.

“You have been incapacitated,” the Hand said abruptly after considering them in silence. “I will not condemn any of you for what you do not know. Arachne Tellwyrn is guilty of treason against the Tiraan Empire—”

“Arachne Tellwyrn is not a citizen of the Tiraan Empire,” Ravana said smoothly. “She is roughly thrice its age.”

The Hand stared daggers at her, getting a placid little smile in reply.

“…and this University is to be seized in the name of His Majesty the Emperor and closed,” he continued finally. “Students are directed to vacate the premises. Unless you intend not to comply peaceably with this order, there is no reason you need be in trouble here.”

“It was Tellwyrn herself who once pointed out to me a thing which had escaped my notice before,” Ravana said mildly. “The foundation of all statehood is a monopoly upon violence. A state which cannot exercise the sole prerogative of force is not a state. By issuing a proclamation and orders which you do not have the power to enforce, you have struck a grievous blow to the legitimacy of the Silver Throne. For shame.”

By this point, his eyes were slits, and the tension in his frame had somehow increased further. Addiwyn and Raolo both took judicious half-steps backward, but the two drow simply stood flanking Ravana and staring flatly back. F’thaan had stopped wriggling in Shaeine’s grip, but growled at the Hand.

Ravana’s pleasant little smile did not falter for an instant.

“Your actions here will reflect upon more than yourself,” the Hand stated. “As representatives of the sovereign city-state of Tar’naris, and of the House of Madouri, there will be repercussions if you intend to defy the orders of the Emperor upon territory held by Tiraas.”

“Let me see this order,” Ravana replied. “I will obey a legal edict from the Silver Throne. Which, as I’m sure I need not remind you, are always to be available in written form when presented to a Head of House, such as myself.”

“I am a Hand of the Emperor,” he grated. “I speak with his Majesty’s voice! And I have spoken.”

“House Madouri stands with the Silver Throne,” she replied, smile suddenly gone. “Unequivocally. It is clear to me that you do not. I name you traitor, and I will not permit you to harm the interests of my Emperor.”

He held her gaze, boring down upon her with the full weight of his power, which seemed to hang about him like an aura. Ravana simply stared back—cold, haughty, supremely confident in her will, as if she were lecturing a disobedient housemaid. After a long pause, the Hand finally inclined his head.

“So be it.”

 

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13 – 40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Shahai?” Ephanie demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what would be, would be.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse you?” she exclaimed.

“Now, Tallie,” Schwartz said nervously.

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

“Well, thanks, I guess…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You actually did that?” Darius scoffed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit fire,” Darius whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How many gates are there?” Layla asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

They were not alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A short silence fell.

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

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

 

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13 – 39

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“Down!”

The captain seized Tanenbaum from behind and yanked him backwards, ruining his concentration. Consequently, he didn’t get a good look at the object which impacted the bridge in front of him, but had the man not flung them both flat to the floor, the burst of force which erupted from it might well have hurled him off the edge.

Ears ringing, Tanenbam scrambled backward, bringing up one hand and casting by reflex. The first shadowbolt splashed harmlessly against the great overhanging nose of the Grim Visage, but the next he had the presence of mind to aim straight at one of the eye-windows.

The wrong one, unfortunately. It was the other eye which sparked a second later, and in the next moment a wall of sparkling blue light appeared across the bridge in front of them. He frowned; surely Yornhaldt knew better than to try to hold a shield like that against a warlock.

Then it started moving along the bridge toward them, and he understood. The shield sparkled violently along its base, where moving contact with the stone was constantly eroding its integrity. It would last seconds at best under that abuse, but it wouldn’t take any longer than that to sweep them all off into space. The Hand had done his vanishing trick at the first attack, but to judge by the very unprofessional screaming behind him, the soldiers had come to the same conclusions he had. Their captain was shouting orders, trying to goad them back into shape, but Tanenbaum gave that no thought.

Hoisting himself upright, he held his ground, reaching out with his mind and seizing the magic. It resisted—or rather, its caster did. Alaric Yornhaldt was no pushover. The Circles were as they were, however, and while Tanenbaum could not fully appropriate a spell with such a skilled wizard actively maintaining it, harnessing and burning off its power to fuel an infernal working was well within the scope of his skill

The moving shield buckled and disintegrated from one side even as it came on. The thing tingled unpleasantly as its dissolving edge passed over Tanenbaum, and its last vestiges actually made it far enough to shove a few of the retreating troopers behind him, to judge by the cursing, but within moments it had fully bled away.

He didn’t wait to channel more power into it, unleashing the spell the moment its arcane parent collapsed. A cloud of darkness coalesced out of the air right in front of the Visage, a discoloration in reality which the brain tried to process as a mist or fog at first glance; it took closer concentration to discern that there was no physical obstruction of the light, but an altering of the way the mind perceived that stretch of space.

The next spell that came through was a simple arcane bolt, and it flew wide of them, smashing a crater in the cavern wall far above and to their right. That would be no more than a test shot; Yornhaldt would definitely recognize what he was looking at.

Another object came arcing out of the first window. No, actually, a whole cluster of them, glittering in the Crawl’s reddish light as they came. Rafe had quickly adjusted, then, flinging indiscriminate handfuls of potion vials now rather than trying to aim through the fog. Three of them struck the bridge and shattered, while the rest tumbled off into the distance below.

Tanenbaum didn’t know what was in the greenish mist that puffed out, and didn’t want to learn, especially when it began drifting singlemindedly in his direction. He had to hold his focus on the small dimensional rift he wrenched open in midair off to the side of the bridge; even more than most infernal gateways, that one would lead to disaster if left unattended. There was no atmosphere in the place to which it led, and a wind kicked up as the local air began pouring through the gap. He held it just until the mist was sucked inside, then slammed the portal shut. Only then, finally, did he retreat.

The rest had withdrawn all the way to the entrance, huddling at the base of the stairs. The Hand and the troop’s captain stood, watching with narrowed eyes, while the remainder of the soldiers unabashedly hid behind them. Omnu’s breath, at least one of them was crying. Tanenbaum was no military man, but this had to be the sorriest lot of so-called soldiers in the Empire. It did not speak well of their chances here that this was what their benefactor had to work with.

Didn’t really reflect well on him, either, for that matter.

“Thank you,” he said fervently to the captain, who nodded back.

“Well done,” the Hand stated in his clipped tone. “What is that distortion you created?”

Lightning bolts began erupting from both eyes, all flying wild. There was another series of shouts and the soldiers began trying to retreat up the stairs, ignoring their commander’s imprecations.

They all froze, however, when the Hand turned to look at them.

“The Fog of War,” Tanenbaum explained. “All but impossible to dispel, though it will fade naturally, and quite quickly. No one can aim true through it, and it blocks scrying. I can—”

“Good. Extend it fully around the central structure. How long can you maintain it?”

“Ah…well, indefinitely, in theory, as long as I am able to concentrate. I will have to renew it every few minutes, and the bigger the area, the—”

“Do so. In between reinforcing the fog, I want you to summon demons and whatever else you have onto the bridge; make sure the front of that structure is under constant assault.”

An errant staff shot impacted the edge of the opening right beside them, spraying them with tiny chips. Their armed escort retreated with yet another chorus of screams, and Tanenbaum reflexively covered his face with his arms. The Hand didn’t so much as twitch an eye.

“Ironic,” he grunted. “Those three nincompoops are a bigger threat, now, than the wizard or the alchemist. That cloud can’t make their aim any worse. Captain, get these weaklings into order immediately. As soon as our target’s view is fully obscured, we will be navigating around the edge of the cavern to the rear entrance.”

Tanenbaum, as directed, was already focusing on expanding the Fog, but he risked a glance at the man commanding them. “Was this…planned?”

“Surely you didn’t really think I expected you to bring down the sanctuary effect.” Disdain weighed down his tone. “Maybe with a team of spellcasters and a week to work. No, our time is limited and as long as they are in sanctuary, all they have to do is sit there. Our task was to make them believe it would not protect the students. That done, the professors will go on the offensive to keep us pinned here while they begin evacuating through the rear.”

“I see,” Tanenbaum said, eyes forward. “Sir, with all due respect, I might be more helpful if you would explain up front what you plan to—”

“Do not press me, Mr. Tanenbaum. You know what you need to, when it is necessary for you to learn. That is all.”

“Yes, sir.”

Applying the Fog of War around the other side of the great central structure was a mental effort, anyway, so there was no point in keeping his eyes fixed on it. As such, he turned warily along with the Hand and their escort as the sound of running feet came down the stairwell toward them.

Lorelin Reich stumbled the last few steps, badly out of breath and leaning against the wall; she tried to skid too quickly to a stop upon drawing close enough to become aware of the lightning bolts flashing around the cavern in front of them, and might have fallen the rest of the way down had the captain not grabbed her.

“Why, Reich, do I suspect you are not bringing me good news?” the Hand snarled, cutting off her thanks.

She swallowed heavily and pressed a hand to her chest, speaking around gasps for air. “Sir…the targets woke up…on their own. Opened the chapel, took out my escort… I barely got away.”

“How?” he snarled.

Reich shook her head, swallowing again. “Don’t know. They had a young hellhound… Knew what was happening on campus. I suspect Elilial intervened, but can’t prove—”

“Did anyone else appear on the campus?”

“Not that I saw,” she said, beginning to get her gasping under control. “No sign of Tellwyrn or any movement from the town. Sir, the students headed for the uppermost level, where Tellwyrn’s office is. I suspect—”

“I see I must do everything myself,” the Hand sneered. “Tanenbaum, you have your orders. I have to go deal with this; get these men around behind the Visage and intercept the students as they retreat.”

“Sir, I don’t know the layout of the Crawl. Nobody but University students has been down here in fifty years!”

“Fortunately for us all, I have made preparations for the more obvious ways this mission can go wrong, including this one. You will know what to do with this.” He didn’t appear to reach into a pocket, but the hand he held out to Tanenbaum now held a small, reddish crystal wrapped in brass wire, with a rune-etched strip of parchment trailing from its end. “Use it as soon as you are ready to move, and waste no time.”

“I…yes, sir,” he said uncertainly. “With all respect, though, things like this are more trouble than…”

Tanenbaum lifted his eyes from the crystal to find the Hand gone. On the stairs, the captain had bullied his men into a semblance of order. Reich was pressed against the wall, as far from errant staffshots as she could reasonably get. And, he noted, did not seem even slightly winded now that their leader was not there.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea to pull his strings like that?” he demanded.

“I don’t appreciate the insinuation, Mr. Tanenbaum,” she said archly. “What, exactly, is that thing?”

“Well.” He closed his fingers around it. “Let me put it this way. If you’d been thinking he couldn’t possibly make this situation any more chaotic, you are about to be disappointed.”


Principia let the crane lift her to within a few feet of the access ladder and hopped nimbly the rest of the way, grasping the bottom rung, swinging herself up and scampering squirrel-like to the catwalk. The little Caretaker golem chimed companionably at her as it trundled past on some errand; she gave the thing a pat on the head and strode off along the walkway toward the central branch that led to the administrative platform.

Even before drawing close, she could hear the shift in mood; this group bantered as badly as any group of adventurers she’d run with in the old days, the Imperial spook notwithstanding, but now they’d fallen almost silent. Stepping into the enclosed complex, she could see dour expressions. Thoughtful, rather than shocked or sad, but still…

“All right, what happened?” she demanded.

“Hey, Locke,” Gabriel said, turning to give her a fleeting smile. “We’re almost done. Actually we are done; the Avatar’s just finishing up some kind of internal task which I’m sure I wouldn’t understand even if he explained it.”

“Uh huh,” she said, absently squeezing water from the hem of her shirt. “And you lot have gone all gloomy because…?”

“Not gloomy,” Toby said. “It’s… We’ll explain later, it’s not urgent. We just learned of…well, like I said, later. Are you okay?”

“Me?” She waved a hand. “Fine, fine, just wet. But for the record, next time someone else who can squeeze into tight spaces, hold their breath underwater for several minutes and knows the basics of Infinite Order gadgets can do the really fun swimmy-squeezy-button-pushey job.”

“Damn.” Gabriel raised an eyebrow. “I guess we’ll have to start soliciting resumes.”

“The hardware bypasses are stable and configured correctly,” the Avatar reported. He seemed to have shut down most of his projections, and was speaking to them from a single image displayed in the largest screen present. “Excellent work, all. Gateway technology disconnected. The external trascension blocker disrupting my immaterial circuits is now offline—thank you kindly, Lieutenant Locke. Process rerouting complete. This should be it; I am placing firewalls around the intrusive systems. Please stand by.”

“And, uh,” Juniper said nervously, “just to reiterate, the worst-case scenario isn’t collapsing the whole place, right?”

“That was the purpose of your and Fross’s work, Juniper, which you performed correctly. I anticipate no such problems but given the condition of this facility I would not make such an attempt without failsafes.”

He stopped suddenly, and his projected image closed its eyes, and actually heaved a sigh. This thing had much more organic mannerisms than the AI she had met before.

“Firewalls in place. Re-routing fully functional. It is a jury-rigged system, and will not hold indefinitely, but everything is functioning. Thank the maker, I can think clearly again.” The Avatar opened his eyes and smiled broadly. “And more immediately, thank you. All of you. Thanks to your help, the Caretaker and I will be able to perform more detailed repairs in the days to come. I anticipate it should not take more than a month, conservatively, to restore Fabrication Plant One to optimal condition. I am immensely grateful for your intercession.”

“A month!” Fross chimed excitedly, zipping back and forth above their heads. “Wow! That’ll be really impressive work—this place is a wreck. No offense.”

“None taken, I assure you. It is a fair assessment.”

“Right, great, you’re welcome and congratulations,” Ruda said, tipping her hat. “Now, I think we had an agreement?”

“Quite right,” the Avatar said more briskly, his image nodding in her direction. “While we have been working, I have perused the records of the nanite swarm released on the surface. Whoever did this seems to have had some appreciation for the potential danger they represented, as they were programmed with some critical impediments. The size of the swarm was carefully constrained, and has been at maximum for several months. With nearly half its number removed from the city above and maintaining the disabling effect upon the sapients it infected, the swarm’s current controllers have had very few resources upon which to draw, relatively speaking. Their construction in the nearby tunnels has been nearly halted for that reason. It appears they diverted most of the swarm’s capability in recent weeks to constructing weapons.”

“Weapons?” Toby exclaimed in alarm. “The kind the Elder— The Infinite Order used?”

“It is not as bad as it could be. Another of the constraints placed upon the nanites prevented them from constructing anything too deadly, but it seems the Rust have stumbled upon one of the Order’s favorite non-lethal crowd-control devices. They are equipped with sonic blasters.”

“And… Those do exactly what they sound like, I suppose?” Milady said. “Pun not intended.”

“Yes,” the Avatar replied seriously. “They use sound waves to induce pain, disorientation, and nausea in victims. Such equipment was issued to the Order’s mortal personnel to neutralize organized resistance among their slave populations. These weapons are not lethal, but will fully incapacitate an average human. Their effects are more pronounced upon those with extremely sensitive hearing,” he added, shifting to look directly at Principia.

“Shit,” she whispered. “Nandi…”

“In gratitude for your assistance,” the Avatar continued, “I have had my few operational fabricators working on something for you to counter this. Ah, here we are.”

As he spoke, the Caretaker came zipping back up the catwalk toward them, weaving slightly in excitement. In two of its metal claws was clutched a small black box. Ruda grabbed this unceremoniously as soon as the little golem came close enough, and flipped up its lid.

Toby was nearest, and craned his neck to see what was inside. “Oh. Earplugs? Well…that makes sense.”

“They are a little more advanced than that,” the Avatar explained. “Each person need insert only one; they will counter any and all destructive frequencies of sound when used. These devices will naturally lose effectiveness over time, so I suggest you try to resolve your business quickly.”

“Right, got it,” Ruda said, snapping the lid shut. “Thanks for the gift, and the advice. And now, shutting off the nanites…?”

“Be advised that the Rust’s machinery and physical augmentation is designed to be somewhat self-reliant,” he cautioned. “In the absence of the nanite swarm their enhancements cannot maintain themselves and will gradually cease to function, but it will be days at least before this effect becomes noticeable, and much longer before it becomes significant. The artificial limbs should operate for months or years before breaking down fully.”

“Then time is clearly a factor,” Ruda said with clear impatience. “So would you please shut them the fuck down, already?!”

“Quite so.” The Avatar’s projection had schooled his features to careful neutrality, and now folded his hands in front of himself. “Security protocols being what they are, the unleashing of a nanite swarm is a crisis of the highest priority, superceding even the dire condition of this facility itself. As such, my first act upon having been reset, even prior to addressing you, was to send the self-destruct signal. The soldiers incapacitated will already be well on the way to recovery, and the Rust have no more means of maintaining their equipment or producing more. The nanties are permanently removed from the world.”

A pause fell, in which they all stared at him, several with mouths slightly open.

“You,” Ruda began in an incredulous whisper. “You son of a BITCH!”

Ending on a roar, she whipped her rapier from its sheath and took a step toward the central cluster of machinery.

“Whoah!” Principia shouted, grabbing her arm while Toby just as quickly seized the other one. “Kid, do not stick a shaft of metal into electrical equipment, no matter how much it deserves it!”

“I understand your displeasure,” the Avatar said gravely.

“Oh, do you,” Gabriel snapped. “Hey, guys, it’s all okay. He understands!”

“Let him explain,” Juniper interjected. “Come on, that much is fair.”

“I apologize for deceiving you,” said the Avatar. He was calm and almost aloof, now, seeming more in possession of himself without the intrusion of the gateway’s data on his system. “Your resentment is entirely reasonable. I greatly appreciate the assistance you have rendered. All I ask is that you consider my perspective. The last visitors to this facility stole technology and unleashed a nanite swarm; the last visitors before that had grievously sabotaged my very being in order to make this subsequent abuse possible. I urgently required sapient assistance, and the available data strongly discouraged extending trust to intruders of unknown origin and intent. I believe you have proved yourselves now, but at the time…”

“Fuck it, we don’t have time for this,” Ruda snarled, pointing the rapier at his image. She had, at least, ceased struggling against Toby and Principia. “I have to go finish saving my city. But now that I know you’re down here, sparky, you had better believe we are gonna talk about this in the near future!”

“I beg your pardon,” the Avatar replied, sounding genuinely apologetic, “but no, we will not. As soon as you are safely away from the facility, I will seal the entrance and destroy the access tunnel. As a result of these events, protocols give me cause to institute a permanent lockdown, of a priority neither surviving member of the Infinite Order can supercede. You are the last sapients who will visit this facility.”

“But…but why?” Fross sounded positively crushed. “All the knowledge here!”

“For precisely that reason,” the Avatar said solemnly. “I am considering more than just the recent abuses my facility and I have suffered. The Infinite Order themselves came to this world to pursue science and what they felt was the highest application of technology, toward fulfilling the ultimate purpose of sapient life and the universe itself. Instead, they almost immediately fell to abusing the tremendous power they gave themselves in the process. And even prior to that, the human race devastated the world upon which it was born—not through malice, but simple carelessness. Through the irresponsible use of technology, pursuing short-term desires at the expense of all rational planning. That is the critical weakness of organically evolved sapients: they are driven by desires which serve their survival as primitive animals, but once they elevate themselves to greater capability, those same drives push them to self-destruction.

“My creator left me with a final instruction before he chose oblivion over further corruption: to be of service to humanity. It is my conclusion that humanity’s descendants cannot be trusted with its technology, any more than their ancestors could. When given access to it, they have immediately set to making weapons and attacking one another in pursuit of political ambitions. I judge that the best service I can provide the sapients of this world is to remove their access to a source of knowledge which they will only use to hurt themselves.”

“Don’t do this,” Milady said quietly. “There’s more to us than that. The Infinite Order failed in many ways, and modern people do to, but you can’t mistake the failure for the totality!”

“All systems are corrupt,” Principia added. “That doesn’t mean you give up on the systems. It doesn’t mean you give up at all. Acknowledging fault is the first step, not the last.”

“It has been eight thousand years, and your advancement until quite recently has been minimal. In half that time, your ancestors progressed from bronze tools to nearly rendering their world uninhabitable. Conditions on this world seem to promote a kind of stasis, and that is clearly for the better. If you are to progress to the point of self-destruction again, I refuse to be the cause.” The projection shook his head. “The teleport array is fully functioning; I will provide you with rapid transit back to your city, so that you may finish your business as efficiently as possible. It is the least I can do, in gratitude for your help.”

“You can’t seriously think we’re gonna step into one of your fucking hell-gadgets after the shit you’ve pulled,” Ruda grated. “Thanks for the offer, but no thanks.”

“Stepping will not be necessary. It was not an offer.” The Avatar’s purple form bowed to them in his screen; nearby, the Caretaker chimed sadly and waved with one of its spidery arms. “I thank you deeply for your help, and wish you success in your endeavors, children of humankind. We will not meet again.”

There was no more warning than the faintest buzz of energy around them, and then the entire group was suddenly no longer there.


“Well, at least it’s working,” the captain muttered, watching lightning bolts flash around the front of the cavern. “Don’t they ever get tired of wasting their power crystals like that?”

“They’re trying to keep us pinned and distracted, not kill us,” Lorelin replied. “It nearly worked, if you’ll recall. I’m more worried about Tanenbaum getting tired.”

“Thanks, but that’s more a concern for mages,” he said, putting the finishing touches on his summoning circle. “Warlocks don’t run out of power. In the worst case scenario, we make…mistakes.”

“Yes, I know my Circles, thank you,” she said flatly. “That is exactly what worries me.”

“And this is why I enjoy working with casters of other schools,” he replied, giving her a pleasant smile. “It is most reassuring, having a cleric of your skill at hand.”

They had retreated around the edge of the central cavern, a nail-biting trip which had involved sidling along a narrow ledge and passing through a tunnel, but had re-emerged onto a flat space off to the right of the entrance, where they had an excellent view of the abortive battle taking place on the bridge in front of the Grim Visage. Tanenbaum had set up a permanent summoning gate which was periodically spewing forth imps, katzils, and the occasional khankredahg—the standard attack demons for someone just looking to raise a little hell. Under ordinary circumstances he would never have considered such an action; such permanent gates invariably attracted the interest of more sapient demons. This one wouldn’t stand under its own power for much longer, anyway, and he was actually surprised none of the wild staffshots, arcane spells, and alchemical bombs being hurled from the front of the Visage had yet destroyed it.

Now Tanenbaum, the captain, and Reich stood on the flat ledge, the first space they had found that could hold a summoning circle, while the soldiers had piled into the tunnel behind them, which (according to the sign conveniently posted on the wall) led to a goblin warren. In theory this was just for the sake of space, but Tanenbaum suspected the captain preferred to keep these men confined in quarters from which they couldn’t flee. The fact that none of them had tried it already was even more surprising than the fact that none had fallen into the chasm or been struck by a stray lightning bolt.

“Before you finish that,” Reich said pointedly, “are you going to tell us, finally, what that thing does?”

Tanenbaum straightened up, holding out the bound crystal the Hand had given him, and glanced at the entrance.

“Pretty sure the boys aren’t in earshot,” the captain said wryly. “I’ll tell you right now, though, we can’t keep going like this. Those nitwits are an inch from panicking, and I’ve got a hunch whatever you’re about to do isn’t gonna help.”

The warlock sighed, and bounced the crystal once on his palm, then knelt to place it in the designated spot at the edge of the circle. “This is a summonstone. It carries the true name of a demon, along with specific instructions for it. By summoning the creature through this crystal, one brings it to this plane unbreakably bound to the terms outlined in the stone’s spell.”

“I do say that sounds like a good idea, if one absolutely has to meddle with demons,” Reich remarked, now watching the circle warily. Its lines had begun to glow, signifying its activation. “Don’t you want them under control?”

“It is the second worst way to summon a demon, after just letting them loose with no constraints whatsoever.” Tanenbaum stepped back from the circle, absently rubbing his palms against his trousers. “That stone can only encode very simple instructions, and only of a few types, and it precludes placing any other binding or agreement on its target while its terms are not yet fulfilled. You bring a demon to this world bound to complete a single task, in other words. Once that is done, it is completely out of anyone’s control.”

“Oh.”

That was as much time as they had for conversation before the summons completed. Unlike a more typical summoning, it came all at once when it finally discharged. A column of orange light blazed up from the circle, forcing them to look away, and when it receded seconds later, a figure stood in the middle.

A lean, alabaster-skinned figure with wings and a tail, and devastatingly handsome features.

“Greetings, and my apologies for the abrupt summons,” Tanenbaum said politely as the incubus turned in a circle, staring at his surroundings. It always paid to be polite to these creatures, even beyond his belief that politeness was an absolute virtue in and of itself. It might not help, but the lack of it invariably harmed; children of Vanislaas always carried grudges if they felt slighted. “This is a complicated situation, and I am truly sorry to have placed you in this position. Rest assured, it was not my idea—or that of anyone present. If you can see your way to cooperating with us beyond the strictures…”

He trailed off, bemused, as the incubus literally collapsed in laughter. Clutching his midsection, the demon doubled over, and then actually slumped to the ground and began rolling on his own wings, howling in mirth and thumping the stone floor with a fist.

“So…” Lorelin drawled, having to raise her voice slightly above the noise. “That summonstone was keyed to this specific fellow’s name?”

“Ah, yes,” Tanenbaum replied, till frowning in puzzlement at the cackling incubus.

“Would you care to venture a guess why our benefactor wanted, in particular, a crazy one?”

“Misery loves company?” the captain suggested.

Tanenbaum cleared his throat pointedly. “I don’t think there’s any call to speak harshly of anyone—present, or not. It is often not wise to give offense. Especially—”

“Now, now!” Quite abruptly, the incubus broke off laughing and vaulted upright, though he still grinned at them with a wild glee which any warlock would shudder to see on the face of one of his kind. Vanislaads were only that happy when they’d found a way to unleash absolutely maximum havoc. “Let’s nobody get all worked up on my account! Rest assured, my dear saucy tarts, I have thick skin. So! You have summoned Rowe, and now here he is.” He bowed gracefully, flaring his wings until they sparked against the edges of the containment circle. “Just what the hell are you little muffins up to?”

 

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