Tag Archives: Inspector Fedora

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“You said Chase couldn’t be the Sleeper!” Rafe accused.

“What I said,” Fedora retorted testily, “is that it doesn’t make sense and is a complete departure from his personality and all established patterns. Masterson is all about trouble for trouble’s sake, sure, but he always stops short of challenging boundaries once he knows where they are. Furthermore, if he’s the Sleeper, it means he started by Sleeping himself, forcing you to expend the hellhound breath and establishing an alibi while some kind of delayed reaction cast the curse on Natchua. That would be a brilliant, devious action, and totally outside his wheelhouse.”

“I’ll vouch for that analysis,” Yornhaldt added, glancing at Tellwyrn. “If Chase had ever exhibited that kind of lateral thinking… Well, his grades would be an entirely other story.”

Standing by the office door, Ezzaniel cleared his throat. “Our conversations have been very instructive in the short time you’ve been here, Murgatroyd. I have learned a great deal about the children of Vanislaas, I feel. You’ve spoken of a compulsion to scheme and cause trouble. The manifestation of the aggressive nature that comes from infernal corruption, channeled into subtlety by Prince Vanislaas’s protection.”

Fedora stopped in his pacing, where he was already threatening to wear a groove in the carpet before Tellwyrn’s desk, and turned to frown at him. “The Sleeper’s a warlock, not an incubus.”

“Yes,” Ezzaniel agreed, folding his arms. “And as we all know, a warlock’s first and most important task is always to keep the corruption at bay. Using infernal magic without becoming tainted by it requires patience, restraint, and exactitude… Traits which Chase Masterson decisively lacks. To speak hypothetically, if Elilial appeared and gave him vast knowledge of the infernal, the very first thing he would do would be to cast something reckless and corrupt himself good and proper. And then, draw upon that knowledge to contain and conceal the taint, but if he could not excise it—which to my knowledge no warlock can… I could well imagine such methods having a similar effect to the blessing of Vanislaas. Warlocks historically tend to be as devious as they are belligerent, do they not?”

A hush fell on the office, Fedora frowning in thought. One by one, the assembled Professors turned to look at Tellwyrn, who was sitting behind her desk, elbows propped on its surface and chin resting on her interlaced fingers, staring into the distance. In the corner behind her, Maru stood holding a tray of teacups, which now rattled as he trembled slightly.

“It’s plausible,” Fedora finally said, almost grudgingly. “But one hundred percent wall-to-wall conjecture. It’s a critical mistake in criminal investigation to form theories before you’ve got facts. What we know, now, is that he’s been seen suddenly using infernal magic at a level of skill way beyond what a junior would know even if that were a course of study at this school. Professor.” He turned around to face Tellwyrn. “How certain are you that Masterson wasn’t dabbling in the dark arts before you brought him here?”

“Absolutely,” she replied tonelessly.

Fedora nodded. “Then this is academic. Chase is one of the kids the Dark Lady blessed; if he’s not the Sleeper, he knows who is. Either way, he’s our answer to the sleeping curse.”

“Alaric,” Tellwyrn said quietly, shifting her gaze to him, “how close are you to a cure?”

Yornhaldt heaved a heavy sigh. “Arachne… I am working with one of the greatest arrays of magical talent ever assembled to unravel what might well be the most excessively elaborate curse ever devised. There is simply no frame of reference for predicting something like this. We could have the key breakthrough literally any hour. Or it could take…potentially years.”

“And the Hand sent him off to Tiraas, knowing we’d have to go fetch him,” Rafe said in disgust. “Damn, but that’s some good bait.”

“It should go without saying he did this specifically to get you off the mountain,” Fedora said to Tellwyrn. “Obviously, he means to make a move of some kind as soon as you’re gone.”

“I have other warning of that already, yes,” she agreed. “He’s diverted the Imperial presence away from the research program. Is there any chance, do you think, that order came from a legitimate Imperial source?”

“My connections there are long-distance and a lot weaker than they were,” Fedora cautioned, “but I can’t see it. Vex was well pleased with the results he was getting from this partnership, and Sharidan listens to him. If you’ve gone and done something to piss off the Throne, that’s another matter, but if not… No, that was just this guy clearing the way. They won’t have canceled his rank or warned anybody about him; if they wouldn’t admit there was a problem when all the Hands were haywire, they won’t for this one guy. The Silver Throne can’t afford to look any weaker than it is.”

“Do you think, gentlemen,” she asked softly, “you could find and retrieve Chase if I sent you all to Tiraas after him?”

“If we could persuade him to come…perhaps,” Yornhaldt rumbled. “I am not absolutely sure that’s possible, nor would I really know how to do so. If you are talking about forcing him, Arachne, may I remind you the Sleeper fought the entire sophomore class to a standstill?”

“If we instigate something like that in Tiraas, it could mean the end of this school,” Ezzaniel added. “And Alaric’s right. We wouldn’t win, anyway.”

“And the other option,” she continued in the same quiet tone. “If I leave the mountain and you are left to protect it…can you?” This time, she fixed her gaze directly on Fedora, who shrugged helplessly.

“Pound for pound, against a disgraced Hand of the Emperor and whatever allies he’s cobbled together?” He grimaced. “Sure, absolutely we can take him. The faculty could, the new research fellows could…hell, the students probably could, even without the sophomores. But this guy’s nuts, Professor. I can’t diagnose his brain but the symptoms I observed were paranoia and blind aggression. There’s no predicting what the hell he’ll try, and the fact that he can’t win isn’t going to stop him. That’s a battle that will have casualties. As your head of security, I have to tell you we can’t guarantee the students’ safety if it comes to that.”

“Veth’na alaue,” Rafe muttered.

“All right.” She stood up abruptly, her tone suddenly filled with its characteristic iron. “Thank you, gentlemen, for helping me organize my thoughts; I believe I see the whole situation, now. I am going to Tiraas to retrieve Chase. Now, this is what you will do…”


“You have got some fucking nerve,” Ruda snarled, drawing her rapier.

“Honestly,” Embras Mogul said with a grin, adjusting his lapels and ignoring the soldiers who surged forward with staves leveled at him, “do you kids plan out your one-liners ahead of time? Concurrently?”

“And what is this now tracking mud on my floors?” Rajakhan rumbled. He seemed quite relaxed, lounging in his chair at the head of the long table, but his dark eyes were fixed piercingly on Mogul. At his side, Anjal practically vibrated with tension, a hand on the hilt of her saber.

“This, your Majesty,” Toby said quietly, “is the leader of the Black Wreath.”

“Ah,” the King rumbled. “Stand down, men.”

“Why, your Majesty, I am truly touched!” Mogul tipped his hat courteously. “I so rarely—”

“Don’t read a welcome into my refusal to waste lives trying to wrangle one of the world’s greatest warlocks,” Rajakhan said disdainfully. “If it turns out I need you dead, these preposterous young people will see to it. Explain your intrusion.”

Mogul had shadow-jumped straight into the conference chamber where they were tensely waiting for Teal to return. Now, as the guards lowered their weapons and grudgingly stepped back, he carefully settled the hat back on his bald head and took a discreet step back himself, placing a little more distance between him and the students.

“I’m here as a favor to Vadrieny,” he said, “with whom I just had a conversation. She regrets that she will not be accompanying you on your excursion; she’s gone to Tiraas to fetch the Sleeper.”

“The longer that sentence went on, the less sense it made,” Gabriel snorted. “You wanna try again?”

“That is how manipulators operate,” Toby warned. “The longer he talks, the more ground he gains…”

“Oh, honestly,” Embras exclaimed, throwing up his hands. “This whole mess is already enough of a debacle without me poking the bear. I’ll tell you frankly, Vadrieny heading off after the Sleeper is a mistake. She was baited into it specifically to make your job harder, now that you’ve gotta do it without her, and I told her not to go. I guess I can take some blame, there,” he added more thoughtfully. “Given a little effort I probably could’ve manipulated her into doing the smart thing and my say-so did have the opposite effect… In my defense, that girl is just irritating as hell to talk to.”

“I suggest you watch what you say about Teal in our presence,” Juniper growled.

“Oh, I was talking about Vadrieny,” he clarified, grinning again. “Truth be told, I’ve a rather high opinion of Miss Falconer. Somehow I doubt she’d appreciate hearing it, though.”

“And just what does the Sleeper have to do with Tiraas?” Gabriel demanded.

“Here’s what you need to know,” the warlock continued, his expression growing serious. “Your problems in Puna Dara are one chapter in a thicker book. There’s trouble going down in Tiraas and Last Rock, and our mutual opponent in this has just made a move designed to exacerbate and prolong these conflicts. The Sleeper was just exposed as Chase Masterson—” Here he paused for a moment until the cursing died down. “—who was then directed to flee to Tiraas and seek shelter working with the Imperial government. I doubt he’ll actually find any, but that’s not the point. The ploy was to get Tellwyrn out of Last Rock and Vadrieny out of Puna Dara, to make sure none of what’s about to happen in either place gets wrapped up too quickly.”

“That checks out,” Milady said suddenly. “Archpope Justinian’s whole gambit here is to try to forge an alliance between the Empire, the cults, and his Church, so he can evade the consequences for some of his recent antics. You kids are too close to cleaning this up and most of his people haven’t even got here yet; he needs this drawn out longer.”

“Well, then,” Anjal said dryly, “we would know exactly whom to thank for our recent troubles, if only any of the people talking where remotely trustworthy.”

“Hey,” Gabriel said reproachfully. “What’d I do?”

“Shut the fuck up, Arquin,” Ruda sighed. “Question is, are we gonna believe this guy?”

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” Mogul said airily, “you should never trust anybody. What you should do is know who you’re dealing with—know their personalities, their agendas, the situations in which you interact with them. Trust’ll just lead you into mistakes, but understanding helps you predict what someone will do.”

“Damn good advice,” Principia said approvingly. “And on that note, the Black Wreath will absolutely trick you into doing whatever gets you out of their way, but they don’t just wreck people’s lives for the fun of it, despite what the Church likes to preach. Most people who aren’t summoning random demons have nothing to fear from ’em, but the sheer concentration of paladins in this group means you kids had better step carefully around this guy.”

“Fuck that, I say we stab him,” Ruda snorted, taking a step toward Mogul.

He retreated, raising his hands. “Now, now. You remember what I said last time we talked?”

“I remember a lot of sniggering about stealing our divine disruptors,” Fross chimed, “and then a lot of whining when Malivette single-handedly kicked your butt.”

“There was no sniggering or whining,” Mogul said reproachfully. “Really, young lady, I expected you to gloss over the part where I saved your lives, but such casual slander is beneath you. No, I was referring to my ultimate goal. Beyond these little squabbles and adventures, the business in which my Lady and her faithful have been engaged for millennia. Your gods have lied to you.” He grinned broadly, tilting his head forward just enough that the wide brim of his hat concealed his eyes, leaving his smile a white gash in his dark face. “What I want is to see what shakes loose if their own precious paladins find out their secrets. I can think of no better shortcut to that goal than helping you kids get yourselves into one of the Elder Gods’ strongholds.”

“You know about that, do you,” Rajakhan said quietly.

“We know where all of them are,” Mogul replied. “Our mandate is to protect the mortal plane from demon incursions, and there are still more than a few demons who once bowed to Scyllith. Demons or modern warlocks getting their mitts on Elder God junk is a worst-case scenario. These Rust aren’t demonic and thus not our problem, but you’d better believe we noticed and have been watching them. Yeah, I know all about that thing under the harbor and I’ve taken pains to be up to date on what’s happening here. Justinian wants you slowed down, and Vadrieny is halfway to Tiraas by now. You’re looking at hours more to make your way through the old mining tunnels.”

“Hang on, halfway to Tiraas? There’s no way,” Gabriel snorted. “She’s not that fast.”

“Vadrieny’s flight has little respect for the laws of physics,” Mogul said, tilting his hat up to wink at them. “One of her sisters once circumnavigated the planet in two days, and that was on a wide zig-zagging course being chased by a Hand of Salyrene. How fast she goes is a function of how anxious she is to get somewhere. So yeah, from here to Tiraas? I’d say half an hour, tops. More importantly, I oppose whatever the Church desires. As I was just saying to your classmate, I’m starting to question whether Justinian’s agenda really lines up with the Pantheon’s, but after due consideration I’ve decided I don’t like the son of a bitch anyway. If he wants you wasting time, then I want you making progress. So!” He swept off his hat and executed a deep bow. “I’m not goin’ in there with you, but I can have you at the entrance in seconds.”

“Or,” Juniper said, folding her arms, “you could shadow-jump us to the bottom of the ocean, or into a volcano, or…”

“The Wreath is part of Tellwyrn’s new research initiative,” Fross pointed out. “It wouldn’t make sense for him to harm us. Or even to refuse to help us, not that we asked.”

“Full disclosure,” said Milady, “my agenda aligns with his on this one point. If Justinian is trying to slow down our progress, I’m all the more eager to get there faster. Remember, we have no idea what we’ll have to do down there, or how long it might take. I’m willing to risk working with him, if you are. I’ve dealt with scarier beings,” she added, giving Mogul a cool look.

“I don’t trust this, obviously,” Toby said. “And please don’t start lecturing about trust again. Ruda? This is your city, and we’re here explicitly to back you up. I’ll follow your judgment on this.”

Ruda drew in a breath and let it out slowly, looking at him, and then over at her parents.

“You know the risks, and you have a good mind, little minnow,” the King said, nodding gravely. “I share your friends’ misgivings. And their regard for your judgment. I have already declared this mission is yours.” Anjal took his hand, inclining her head once toward her daughter.

“Fuck it,” Ruda said, turning back to Mogul. “We passed the point of pussyfooting around when we let our bard spit in a goddess’s eye. Bunch up, everybody. We’re letting the asshole help.”

Gabriel cleared his throat. “Can I just remind everyone that last time he helped—”

“He saved your lives,” she interrupted, “did exactly what he promised, and also tried to further his agenda at our expense. I expect exactly the same shit this time, and it’s my judgment we can clean up whatever additional fuckery he causes after we put out the immediate fires. I’m not gonna force you, Arquin. Either you trust me or you don’t.”

“Aw, you know I’m with you, Zari,” he said with a grin. “If I was gonna break from the group I think it’d have been when you fucking stabbed me.”

Mogul cocked his head to one side. “You kids have some interesting stories, don’t you?”


“It’s not much of a plan, is all.”

“Well, Darius, you’ve got till we get there to come up with a better one,” Tallie said, striding along at the head of the group alongside Jasmine. Meesie hadn’t left the latter’s shoulder, and was their guide, pointing the way and squeaking urgently the whole time. They’d had to ignore a lot of passersby, many of whom stopped to stare at the little elemental. “I’m really, really hoping that Ross is following them, too, and didn’t also get captured. But if not…that’s what we got. Find ’em, get Schwartz back on his feet an’ let him make with the mojo.”

“It’s not that I mind charging into certain death,” Darius growled from behind them. “They’ve got our friends; that’s what you do. Certain death or no, you don’t leave people behind. But we’re dragging my baby sister along on this…”

“Yes, because gods forbid she make any decisions for herself,” Layla huffed.

“You are sixteen!”

“Really, Darius. Where do you see that argument leading? In what possible outcome does it end well for you?”

“How’ll you feel if I’m the one who gets hexed into ashes, hm?”

“Insert obligatory comment about peace and quiet,” she said lightly. A moment later, though, she shifted closer to him, and he draped an arm around her shoulders as they walked.

He could be forgiven for being on edge; even apart from the inherent tension of the situation, Layla had circumvented the need for Jasmine to round everyone up back at the house by emitting a blood-curdling shriek at a pitch and volume that had set dogs barking all through the neighborhood. It had also brought Darius crashing into the kitchen in a panic, half-dressed and hefting a candlestick in preparation to bash someone.

That was also when they had learned that Ross was absent, as well. He was ordinarily so quiet, there was no telling how long that might have taken to discover, had they tried to find him the old-fashioned way.

“It’s not that Darius is wrong, though,” Tallie said more softly. “Pretty scary enemies. Lot of unknowns.”

Jasmine nodded, glancing back and forth between Meesie and the sidewalk ahead of them. They had just emerged from Glory’s expensive residential neighborhood into an equally expensive shopping district; their plain clothes and shabby coats made them stand out somewhat, not that any of them cared.

Tallie looked at her sidelong and sighed, her breath misting on the air. “Look, I don’t wanna—”

All of them stopped and reflexively flattened themselves against the storefront they were passing when screams suddenly broke out along the street behind them. The four apprentices braced themselves for action, turning to face whatever was coming as the cries of shock and fear spread.

A streak of living fire had just crested the city walls, soaring toward them, even as the mag cannons spaced along the guard toward began clumsily turning, trying to track the intruder. Its form grew clearer as it approached; it was a person, held aloft on wings of pure flame. All of them except Jasmine ducked slightly when the creature arced directly over their street and banked, gliding away toward the center of the city.

“What the fuck,” Darius wheezed, pressing Layla against the wall with one arm. “What was that? A phoenix?”

“An archdemon,” Jasmine corrected, staring after the flying creature, which had vanished over a nearby rooftop. The cries around them were still ongoing, having changed in tone as the demon vanished from view but not begin to abate.

“A what?” Tallie exclaimed.

“A daughter of Elilial,” Jasmine clarified. “The last living one, actually. Vadrieny.”

“Oh, gods,” Layla whispered. “That has nothing to do with us… Please, please let that have nothing to do with us.”

“Is there any point in asking how you know this?” Tallie asked wearily.

“I’ve seen illustrations…” Jasmine trailed off, shrugging irritably when they all turned to stare at her. “And I’ve seen her in person before. She has a Talisman of Absolution; she’s not going to go around attacking people.”

“Well, that’s dandy, I suppose,” Darius snapped. “Any insight into what the fuck she’s doing in Tiraas?”

“Not a glimmer,” Jasmine admitted, then winced when Meesie began tugging violently on her ear, squealing shrilly and pointing ahead. “Walk and talk, guys. We’re still losing time.”

“Right.” Tallie once again took the lead, straightening up and setting off, and the others fell in. She let it rest for a moment before asking, “So, Jas… Is there anything you want to tell me?”

Jasmine sighed again. “I…”

“I don’t mean to put you on the spot.” Tallie kept her eyes forward as she walked. “I’ve been thinking, though. Remember when Style kicked your ass?”

“No, refresh me,” Jasmine said sourly. “How did it go?”

Tallie grinned, but her expression sobered again immediately. “The thing is… Quite apart from you being more physically dangerous than almost anyone else I know, the thing I’ve noticed about you is you don’t overestimate yourself. You know what you can do and don’t push it; your restraint has kept us out of a bunch of trouble. I’m sure you remember that business with the Vernisite caravan.”

“I’m still annoyed I even had to talk you clowns out of that. Boosting anything from the Vernisites is expressly against—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Tallie said impatiently. “What I’m getting at is… You rushed into that thinking you could win it. It’s the only time I’ve seen you screw up that bad, and I’ve been wondering about it, and why Grip was so hellbent on getting you as an apprentice. Why you were so adamant not to go along with her, too. I keep coming around to the idea that you’re used to having more to throw around in a fight than just your own muscles.” She snuck a glance at Jasmine, who was staring ahead as they walked. “I mean… You know an awful lot about alchemy and magic for somebody who doesn’t do them.”

Jasmine heaved a sigh. “Look…”

“When I asked if there was something you wanted to tell me,” Tallie said hastily, “I meant exactly that. It’s your life and we’re all runnin’ from something. You don’t need to share if you’re not ready to. But right now, this situation, we’re going up against Silver Legionnaires and Salyrite casters. People who have already killed. This is serious shit, and all we’ve got for a plan is ‘hopefully wake Schwartz up.’ We only know he’s not dead because Meesie’s still here.”

“When we were riding out of the city,” Layla said suddenly, “that night when we fought the dwarves, you started to suggest something, and Glory cut you off. She said something about not playing your trump card too soon.”

“I just wanna know,” said Tallie. “If it goes as bad in there as it might… Are we as fucked as it seems? Or is there something more we can count on?”

Jasmine was silent for a long moment. Even Meesie trailed off her constant squeaking, watching her in concern.

“Whatever they’ve got to throw at us,” Jasmine said finally, not turning to meet anyone’s gaze, “I’m certain I’ve faced scarier. And killed some of it. But there’s a big difference between being able to dish out pain, and being able to protect people. If this goes as badly as it could, that is still going to be very bad.” She looked over at Tallie, eyebrows drawing together in worry. “Let’s concentrate on Plan A. Schwartz is still our best bet.”

Tallie nodded, and they continued on in silence. After a moment, she reached over and tucked her arm through Jasmine’s.

“Seriously, though, that demon thing,” Darius said suddenly. “That’s not gonna get involved in this business, is it?”

Jasmine sighed. “We should be so lucky.”

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13 – 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onto, and through.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That time was fast approaching.

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

He’d just have to be smarter, then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, that really was not a choice.

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

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

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

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

Well, that was good and fucking ominous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The blimp’s…ears?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Carson?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

 

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13 – 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just bloody well run!”


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

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

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

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

“You said garden shed,” Fred said dumbly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the hell is that thing?!”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” she breathed.

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

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

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

“Who’s not ready?” he demanded.

Then the thing drew close enough to come into focus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, shit.”

 

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13 – 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walker hesitated. “You’re…alone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s really bad.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Noted,” Milanda said with a sigh.

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

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

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

“Wait… That means—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“All right there, Mr. Carson?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Same t’you!”

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

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

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

And tonight, was occupied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“W-what’s a smilodon?” he stammered.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

No one was close enough to hear it giggling.

 

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13 – 12

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“By that,” Toby said slowly, “do you mean its enchantments are still active?”

Fross chimed in annoyance. “They are, but no, if I had meant that I would have said that. I always try to be precise! What I mean is, I think this object is both artificially constructed and a living organism.”

“Okay,” he said. “Sorry, no offense meant.”

The pixie zoomed over to buzz affectionately around his head once. “I know, Toby, I’m sorry for getting irked. I’m in analytical mode, it makes me impatient.”

“Now, hang on!” Juniper exclaimed. “Something cannot be artificially made and still a living thing!”

“That is a fallacy,” Ariel’s voice interjected. “Such beings do not occur in nature, but there are ample specimens from the annals of magical history.”

“What the hell was that?” Merry exclaimed in alarm.

“Ariel.” Gabriel drew the black sword and held her up; her runes flickered a dull blue in the light. “She’s very particular about magical matters. Helpful, too, most of the time.”

“Young man,” Nandi said very evenly, “do you know where talking swords come from?”

He sighed and sheathed Ariel again. “Yes, I do, and nobody here had a hand in making her. We found her in the Crawl. Fross, you were telling us about that arm?”

“Yes, thank you!” the pixie exclaimed. “If everyone’s listening now? Okay, so I’ve analyzed this thing as carefully as possible in this timeframe and with this equipment and what I’ve discovered is that it is clearly a machine, it was not built by anybody who thinks the way any modern enchanter or engineer does, and as I said, its nature is more organic than mechanical despite being mechanical and made of minerals.”

“Yeah, can we focus on that part first?” Juniper suggested. “Because that doesn’t make a lick of sense to—”

Fross rose two feet toward the ceiling, her glow brightening significantly on the way, and emitted a wordless arpeggio of sheer irritation.

“Uh…” Juniper actually took a step back from the examining table. “Actually…why don’t you just go over it in…y’know, whatever order makes sense to you.”

“Thank you, Juniper,” Fross replied, drifting back down toward the subject of her research. “Anyway. First of all, the device itself is not enchanted, exactly. Its interior structure is a series of pretty simple cables and pulleys which stand in for muscles, ligaments, all that stuff. There are no inner bones, since of course the outer structure is rigid metal, so it’s organized differently. The enchantments are contained in tiny crystals affixed to each joint.”

“Forgive me for interrupting,” Gabriel said hesitantly. “But does that mean there’s no central enchantment at all?”

“Exactly!” Fross said, clearly growing excited again. “That’s the beauty of it! See, Juniper tore this one off at the elbow, which is probably why I can’t find an enchantment that makes it interface with the human body. The little crystals only govern each mechanism individually; that interface charm was probably on the piece attached right to the human. But! These enchantments are incredibly efficient compared to ours because they have no power component! They only carry instructions for the machine parts; the energy is conducted through a series of metal filaments encased in a rubber-like non-conductive medium. It runs on electricity, not magic!”

“I thought electricity was pretty much only good for weapons,” Casey said, leaning forward on her chair.

“It is good for weapons,” Farah replied, “but actually, the nervous systems of all living things run on tiny electrical charges. That’s why lightning wands tend to cause nerve damage and sometimes even brain disorders.”

“Exactly!” Fross said eagerly, swooping around the table in erratic circles. “These appear to draw their power directly from the body! Except it takes more energy to move metal than flesh simply because of its weight, so that wouldn’t exactly work, which makes me think there must be a power source of some kind with some much more sophisticated enchantments connected to the host body. But! In addition to being very alien in design, this thing is made of components that aren’t like anything I’ve ever seen. The different alloys used for the casing, the moving parts, the metal wires… I can’t even identify any of them. Likewise the insulating material; it’s like rubber, but obviously synthetic. And these enchantment crystals most of all! It’s like… This kind of enchantment does exist now, but modern data crystals are new and pretty rare, and also not nearly as efficient. These ones aren’t much bigger than grains of sand and anything I could make to do their job would be about the size of an average lightning wand’s power crystal.”

“So, it’s magic more sophisticated than anything known,” Anjal said, frowning. “With every new revelation I get more nervous about this Elder God business. Naphthene’s tits, these bastards are all over the city!”

“Well, it’s hard to compare that kind of sophistication directly,” Fross cautioned. “Compared to the state of modern industrial enchantment, yes. But that itself is very new; individual archmages throughout history were known to make stuff like this. Well, I mean, not like this necessarily, but things so amazing modern enchanters still don’t understand how they work. Magic mirrors, for instance. We even understand those, but they’re fiendishly hard and we haven’t yet cracked mass-production of them.”

“Or talking swords, for example,” Nandi said.

Gabriel turned to give her a flat look. “Is this going to become a problem?”

“I dearly hope not,” she replied, expressionless.

“Anyway!” Fross continued more loudly. “The really, really interesting part is the organic part! Yes, Juniper, I’m coming to it. Okay, so, one thing that jumped out at me is there’s nothing in there except the devices that make it move. The thing about anything with moving parts is that moving them wears them down; they require repair and maintenance. With engineered machines, you have to get into ’em and do it manually; biological organisms have built-in systems for maintenance, which is obviously more efficient and exactly why those organisms are so much more complex than any machine. So! What’s interesting here is that this device is clearly not designed to be dismantled! The pieces are solid, and even the ones that move connect firmly in a way that clearly isn’t meant to be disconnected. Therefore, since it has no way to access it internally to perform repairs, there has to be a built-in mechanism for that!”

“What if they don’t repair them?” Casey suggested. “Just…take ’em off and throw ’em away when they wear out.”

Fross shot upward in indignation. “Excuse me, but I refuse to believe any intelligence capable of creating a machine like this would make a design choice so inefficient, wasteful, and catastrophically stupid.”

“Sorry,” Casey said, holding up her hands in surrender. “You’re the boss.”

“It’s pronounced Fross, actually,” Ruda said with a grin.

“So,” the pixie continued, “I went looking for traces of this mechanism and guess what I found!”

“Or,” Toby said quickly when several people opened their mouths, “just tell us? For efficiency’s sake, if nothing else.”

Fross appeared not to hear him, carrying on at a rapid clip while bouncing up and down in midair. “While I was doing exploratory divinations, I actually caught the damaged edges of the metal casing rebuilding itself, filling in scratches and trying to extend toward the part that’s broken off! And, and! That prompted me to take a closer structural look at the metal itself, and it was clearly not molded, cast, or worked using any known means. It was built up one atom at a time, like the way mollusks grow shells, but on an even smaller scale somehow adding up to a finished product on a much greater scale than any clam! Isn’t that amazing?”

Everyone stared at the apparently inert metal arm for a moment of silence, Merry and Casey standing up to see better.

“Amazing is a word,” Ruda said at last. “The one that springs to my mind is ‘creepy.’ With some adjectives. You all know my favorite ones, I think.”

“But…you couldn’t find any standing enchantment that’s doing that?” Gabriel asked.

“No, I couldn’t!”

“So,” Teal said, “we still don’t understand what force animates this thing, but now we know it’s still active and doing so right now.”

“If I may make a recommendation,” said Ariel, “it may be too late in this case but for future reference, it would be wise to handle any such objects as if they presented a threat of contagion.”

“Holy shit,” Gabriel muttered, “we’ve got the queen and the princess in this room… All right, everybody! We’re gonna do a thorough cleansing and general healing.”

“Do you really think that’s necessary, boy?” Anjal asked dryly, folding her arms.

“I have no idea,” he replied, “but none of us have any idea about anything, here, and I don’t think we can afford to take risks.”

“He’s right,” Toby said, placing a hand on Gabriel’s shoulder. “About the risks and sensible countermeasures, not so much the part where he started barking orders at the aforementioned queen and princess.”

“Oh.” Gabriel’s cheeks colored. “I, uh…sorry, I didn’t mean…”

“It’s all right, Arquin, we’re used to you,” Ruda said, slugging his other shoulder and grinning. “Future reference, don’t get pushy with Punaji women unless you’re lookin’ to get your ass married and/or stabbed.”

“And/or?” Ephanie muttered.

“Seriously, though, let’s please just do this,” Gabriel said a little nervously. “Uh… Juniper’s the tricky one. Either divine healing or the cleansing charms I can do will hurt her.”

“I’m not sure I need it,” the dryad said, folding her arms. “I’m pretty impervious in the first place, and anyway, I have my own means.”

“Okay, but…wouldja humor me, Juno? Whatever you’ve got to check for and cleanse any kind of corruption… I know you’re a dryad, but remember you don’t have Naiya to rely on now and there’s no telling what these guys are capable of…”

“Yeah, I see your point,” she said with a sigh. “Okay, I’m just gonna go to that corner over there and concentrate. Can you try to keep your divine magic in the other side of the room?”

“Can do!” Gabriel said, saluting. “Now, uh… Toby, you’re much better at healing than I am. I think you’d better take point, here.”

“Sure,” Toby said, peering at him. “Did I hear you say you can do cleansing charms? That’s impressive stuff, Gabe, I had no idea you were that advanced.”

“Gabriel is very good at enchanting!” Fross chimed. “I’m a much more general-purpose arcanist, and I frequently ask his help with passive enchantment work! And we worked hard on getting those cleansing charms right for our semester project. See, the trick is including the right modifiers so they only identify and purge hostile elements from the body and not the symbiotic bacteria that aid digestion! We made a lot of poor rats very sick…”

“You keep your fuckin’ finger wiggling away from me,” Ruda ordered Gabriel, taking a step back.

Nandi cleared her throat, stepping forward. “I am a priestess. Less innately powerful than Mr. Caine, obviously, but with five centuries of experience in several fields of healing. I would be glad to help.”

“You would be very welcome,” Toby said emphatically. “My thanks, Corporal Shahai. Now, let’s please organize everybody into a line over here, we’ll want to give everybody our full attention, not just fling magic around. Corporal, would you walk us through the recommended procedure, please?”

While Nandi began instructing the students, Merry glanced sidelong at Juniper, who had just passed them and was now sitting in the corner with her eyes closed, then leaned forward and lowered her voice to a bare whisper, nodding in Teal’s direction. “So, uh… What’s the deal with that one?”

“She’s possessed,” Principia replied in the same quiet tone. “Bonded with the archdemon Vadrieny.” Farah swallowed loudly, staring at Teal with wide eyes.

“You’ve…heard of that particular demon?” Merry asked her.

“Archdemon,” Farah whispered. “Daughter of Elilial. Demonic demigoddess, technically. Vadrieny has killed…well, a lot.”

“We always make the neatest friends,” Casey murmured. Everyone shifted to stare at her; neither her expression nor tone revealed whether she was being sarcastic.

“And you,” Merry finally said, prodding Principia in the shoulder, “drugged her to get her out of your way. Some balls on you, woman. Not an iota of sense, but still.”

“It seemed worthwhile at the time,” Principia said with a sigh. “Okay, Lang, that’s as good as an opening as you’re likely to get. Planning to make with the barrage of screeching and questions, now? Quite frankly, the anticipation has been worse than what your voice does to my ears when you get in one of your episodes.”

“I do not have ‘episodes,’” Merry said sullenly. “Anyhow…no. Oh, I was gonna, but I spent the awkward silence while we were getting frog-marched here thinking—shut your mouth, Elwick!—and it actually makes perfect sense, like the princess said. Obviously, if Rouvad was gonna let you in the Legions, it would be with a huge list of stipulations about what you can’t say to whom. So, no, LT, I don’t take being kept in the dark personally, this one time.”

“I can’t tell you what a load off my mind that is,” Principia said sweetly.

Merry grinned right back. “Yeah, well. After the way she lit into you, I figured you two have enough issues without me picking at it.”

Ephanie sighed. “And still, you had to bring that up. You were almost considerate for a moment there, Lang.”

Merry just smiled. “I assume Shahai knew about this, too? She’s got Rouvad’s ear on everything.”

“I knew,” Casey said quietly, then shrugged when the others turned to stare at her again. “Locke pretty deliberately left the breadcrumbs. You just had to follow ’em.”

“Of course she did,” Ephanie said, turning to Principia in exasperation. “Locke, have you ever been given an order you didn’t feel an immediate need to weasel around?”

“No,” Prin said immediately, grinning. “Not once. But I have many times received orders I didn’t actually weasel around. If I just went and did everything I felt a need to, I’d have had a much more interesting sex life. And also would be dead by now.”

“I would prefer not to hear any more about either of those prospects, please,” said Merry.

Their conversation, and Nandi’s instruction of Toby, was interrupted by a rap at the door. A second later, it opened, revealing the royal seneschal.

“Bad news, Akhatrya!” Ruda said merrily. “You’re infected, now! Join the line!”

“Zari, my rules about you hassling the staff don’t change just because you’re halfway to college-educated,” Anjal snapped, whisking her hat off and swatting Ruda over the head with it. “What is it, Akhatrya?”

“Your pardon, Majesty, Princess, honored guests,” the tall, bearded man said, bowing deeply. “There is an unexpected visitor in the palace seeking an audience with both the Crown and with Lieutenant Locke.” He turned another, shallower bow specifically upon Principia. “A representative from the local Thieves’ Guild.”

Anjal narrowed her eyes. “I see. And this visitor is not meeting with the King because…?”

Akhatrya’s face betrayed no expression. “His Majesty the King feels that since you are both together, it is the most efficient course of action for you to meet Miss Lagrande.”

“Lagrande?” Principia’s eyebrows shot upward. “Quinn Lagrande? She’s still alive?”

“One hopes so, Lieutenant,” Akhatrya said placidly. “She was moments ago. If she is otherwise now, we shall have most interesting conversations with the Guild in the days to come.”

“Great,” Anjal muttered. “You win this time, husband, but there will be a reckoning. Oh, yes, there will. Well, Akhatrya, I’m afraid our little Zari wasn’t wrong. Join the line, please. This Quinn Lagrande will just have to wait a few minutes longer.”


Ox Whippoorwill stepped into the Ale & Wenches and paused just inside, exchanging nods with a couple of citizens. Most didn’t notice him, being too absorbed in their conversations. Everything about the scene was…off. It was far too crowded for the early afternoon, and almost all those present were Rockies, while the A&W primarily catered to out-of-towners. Its usual clientele were present in small numbers; they were identifiable as the few people sitting at tables by themselves, looking somewhat bemused by what was going on around them.

What was going on was just conversation, so far. They were intense conversations, though, and not all of them quiet. Ox stood for a handful of heartbeats, soaking it in—just long enough to hear a few key words. Then he moved out of the door and began making his way around the perimeter of the room toward the only man present aside from the bartender who wasn’t sitting.

“Deputy,” Fedora said, nodding at Ox’s approach. He was blatantly lurking, just beside the stairs, and just as blatantly watching the room. More than a few of those gathered kept casting pointed glances his direction. So far, at least, nobody was staring.

“Inspector,” Ox rumbled in reply. “An’ it’s just Ox. Titles are for when I gotta get official with somebody.”

“Very well, same goes,” Fedora said, momentary amusement cracking his pensive expression. He took a sip of the pint of beer in his hand. It was almost full, clearly being used as a prop to justify his presence to the proprietor.

“Oh? I figured Inspectors kept the right to the title even after they retired. Like military ranks, or professors.”

“I actually would have to look up the rules on that,” Fedora murmured, again staring across the bar. “Regardless, I’m not in with the Empire any longer. That was a good job and I’m glad to have held it, but it’s best not to dwell on the past, I find.”

“Mm.” Ox took a position next to him and folded his arms, feeling no need to bother getting a drink. He wanted his head clear, and since being officially deputized he had no need of an excuse to stand around in a public place.

For a few minutes, they stood in silence. Watching, and listening.

“Is it like this all over town?” Fedora asked finally, then took another tiny sip.

“A mite calmer,” Ox replied. “Folk meetin’ on the street, havin’ little chats. In shops an’ behind shops… Nothin’ else is as boisterous as this right here. ‘Swhy I came to keep an eye on this crowd. Even the Saloon’s not as packed, or as…intense. Jonas won’t stand for no funny business in his place, either.”

Fedora nodded very slowly. “Tell me…are you seeing the same thing wrong with this picture I am?”

“It’s too damn fast,” Ox said immediately, keeping his voice low. With the hubbub in the room, it wasn’t hard to be discreet. “Not that it’s a small thing, exactly, the University sponsorin’ some kinda demon-summonin’ project, but… I know this town. I know the rhythms an’ the balance of opinions. There ain’t enough folks suspicious of the school to create this kinda hubbub this quick. Even if there was… The announcement was just posted, after lunch. Normally, folks’d only just be hearin’ the first rumors. This is all over. An’ you can plainly see how tense it’s gettin’.”

Again, that very slow nod. Fedora let his eyes wander across the crowded tavern, having another sip that barely wet his lips. “The Sheriff know about this?”

“I came right here when this started up, ain’t talked with him yet. Sam’s got ears, though. He knows his job, an’ he knows this town.”

“Hm.”

“Reminds me of a while back,” Ox continued after a pause. “We damn near had an honest-to-gods riot in this town, an’ it turns it there was a rogue Vidian priestess doin’ some kinda hoodoo, makin’ people more susceptible. You don’t suppose…”

This time, Fedora shook his head negatively, and with more energy. “I don’t know Last Rock as well as you, Ox, but I know people, and I know trouble. You’re right: this is too quick. Much too quick a result. And your instinct is equally right. I’m never willing to trust that out-of-the-ordinary behavior happens on this scale without being made to. But look at the pattern.” He gestured slowly around the room with his nearly-full glass. “Look at the different expressions. There are people nervous, people pissed off… But most uncertain, and just as many peacemakers as agitators. Folks speaking up on Tellwyrn’s behalf. If there was a magical effect in place to agitate people, like in your example, we wouldn’t see all these people standing back and listening, waiting to form their own opinions. If there was some kind of more aggressive control trying to turn people against Tellwyrn, same goes and she wouldn’t have this many defenders.” Again, he shook his head, and took a sip. “No need to assume some grandiose, cosmic effect in place. Just somebody stirring up shit. Someone skillful, well-connected in this town. Someone who knows the social landscape well enough to launch a very effective rumor campaign.”

“You’re sayin’ it’s one o’ my neighbors,” Ox growled.

“Maybe,” Fedora said noncommittally. “It would take more than one to do this so efficiently, but don’t jump to any conclusions. There are a lot of new faces in Last Rock lately, some who’ve been here long enough to have learned what they’d need to do this, assuming they had the right skills to begin with. This used to be a town where everybody knew everybody else; now, suddenly, it’s not anymore. You couldn’t ask for an easier target for infiltration.”

Ox heaved a deep sigh, his breath ruffling his mustache. “Omnu’s balls. You know who’s doin’ this, Fedora?”

“Not yet,” the erstwhile Inspector replied, a predatory glint rising in his eyes. “That…will take a little work. I’m going to have a long stroll around town, Ox. Chat with some people, listen in. You and the Sheriff have no objection, I trust?”

“Respect the law,” Ox rumbled, “respect the people, an’ don’t stir up no more trouble. Aside from that, ain’t my business or the Sheriff’s what you do.”

“Oh, I don’t intend to stir the pot, you can count on that,” Fedora said, straightening up and casting a weird little smile around the room. “But I am going to find out who’s got their hands on the spoon.”

 

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13 – 7

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“It wasn’t much of a town, but it was what I had. After living in the capital, I actually let myself think things would be different out here. Quieter. More…decent, somehow. More fool, me. The truth follows you everywhere you go, the fact that people, all people, are exactly the same: no damn good. Human nature covers everything like a thin, greasy film of mold. Serves me right for thinkin’ I was safely out of the business.

“I knew the lady was gonna be trouble the second she walked in, and not just ‘cos I’ve developed a healthy skepticism toward pretty girls wearin’ gold ornaments. No, you survive in the dirty business as long as I have, you just know. Even before they open their mouths, even before they give you the chance to appreciate the sway in their walk, that little voice pipes up in the back of your head, warns you: ‘this one’s trouble.’

“You better believe I listen to that voice. I learned the hard way, it’s never wrong.”

“What the hell is he doing?” Tellwyrn demanded incredulously, turning to the desks at which the other two men present were seated.

“Oh, if you only knew how many times a day I ask myself that question,” Moriarty muttered, not looking up from whatever he was writing.

“He appears to be narrating,” Finchley said helpfully. He was lounging comfortably in his seat, currently in the process of folding a paper glider.

Fedora grinned insouciantly and swung his legs off his desk, bounding upright. “Hey, I gotta practice! I’m planning to write a novel. I was gonna write my memoirs, but I got to thinking and everything interesting I’ve ever done is actually classified, or would tip off some very annoyed people who to come hunting for. There’s totally a market for detective fiction, but everybody’s publishing frontier stories right now—”

“Don’t quit your day job,” Tellwyrn said brusquely, “and I’m not just saying that as the person who pays you to do it. Moriarty, no offense, but what are you writing?”

“Incident report. Nothing serious, Professor, just Chase putting glue on our office chairs. I wasn’t even going to suggest a punishment; in his case there doesn’t seem much point.” Moriarty finally looked up, blinking owlishly. “Wait. Why would I be offended?”

“Because what you’re doing is aimless busy work, and everybody but you can see it at a glance,” Fedora informed him. “I encourage this, Professor; if he doesn’t have something to do, he starts cleaning the place, and that actually does get in the way, unlike the paperwork. Besides, having records actually can come in very useful. You never know.”

She shook her head. “I’m almost afraid to ask, but…where’s Rook?”

“On gate duty,” Moriarty grumbled. “Which is to say, having a nice nap.”

Tellwyrn regarded him in silence for a long moment, which he did not notice, being absorbed in his writing again. Finchley paused in his folding, looking uncertainly up at her, while Fedora leaned against his desk, watching with an expectant little grin.

“It’s good to have you home, boys,” Tellwyrn said finally, cracking a small smile.

“Good to be back, Professor!” Finchley replied brightly.

“You.” She pointed at Fedora. “With me. I want a word.”

“I am yours to command!” he declared, bouncing upright. She snorted and brushed past him on the way to the stairs.

The guardhouse, in keeping with Tellwyrn’s somewhat gothic taste in architecture, came complete with a battlemented watchtower rising a full story above the rest of the structure. It was even with the top of the old campus wall, and afforded an excellent view of both the construction underway in the new extension, and down the mountain and across the prairie below Last Rock. Fedora followed her all the way up the winding stairs without comment, and leaned carelessly against the crenelated wall when they arrived, folding his arms and watching her expectantly.

“This is new,” Tellwyrn said, running her hand along the telescope mounted on the wall. “What exactly did you plan to do with it?”

“Give business to the lens grinder who the town blacksmith hired,” he said cheerfully. “And, more importantly, form a connection and be seen supporting local industry. Mission accomplished. I mean, it’s good for playing pirate and not much else; I figured you’d object if I had it mounted facing the campus.”

Tellwyrn turned to him and planted her fists on her hips. “I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t realize what you were up to until I had the kids safely in Puna Dara.”

“They all settled in, then?”

“They’re fine,” she said curtly. “More to the point, they’re collectively a force which held back a demon invasion. Even without Shaeine and Trissiny, those students are nothing to be taken lightly. Which means anyone looking to attack this campus in any way would have to deal with them first. Just because I acknowledge the reality, Fedora, does not mean I want you taking steps to encourage an assault on my University, especially without consulting me first!”

“That actually wasn’t the point,” he said, his tone and expression serious now. “My thinking was that anyone planning to attack the campus would need to remove them first, and with all respect to your teaching methods, that particular group doesn’t do subtle very well. The Sleeper outmaneuvered them; the kinds of forces we’re dealing with definitely could. Taking them off the campus removes the likelihood of something permanent being done to them before they can react. And more importantly, Professor, they aren’t the keystone of this campus: you are. So long as you’re around and in charge, nobody’s going to launch anything too aggressive.”

“But,” she said, narrowing her eyes, “getting them to launch something aggressive is what you say we want.”

He nodded. “When the time comes, however. When we’re ready. Getting the sophomores out of the way protects them and gives us the power to determine the timing of this future confrontation. Now, all we have to do to create an opening is send you off the campus.”

“Like we just did,” she snapped. “If you expect me to leave the defense of my students entirely to you—”

“Give me credit for a little basic sense!” he protested. “Hell, no. Depending on what might be coming at us, the last thing I want is to be dealing with it and not have you around for backup. The point is that we can fake them out. You can teleport across the world in an instant and I’m sure you have some measures for illusion and stealth in your arsenal. Bombastic bully or not, I can’t imagine you get to be called ‘archmage’ without having at least that much versatility. When the time comes, we let it be known that you’re away, the point being that you’ll be back to spring the trap.”

“Hm,” she grunted, folding her arms. “When the time comes…?”

“We’re nowhere near that point,” he said seriously. “I’m following the rumor mill in town; nothing but murmurs there, at the moment. No sign of unrest among the students, just concern for the Sleeper victims and ongoing efforts to wake them. I can’t get jack shit out of your new research fellows, which is to be expected considering most of them are career politicians, but we have to keep in mind that at least some of those are likely to be enemy agents. But nah, it’s far from time. I need to see a general shape for what’s coming before I can plan countermeasures. I’m still watching, Professor, don’t worry. I expect things to start moving fast once you officially announce that demon-summoning project.”

“Fair enough, I suppose,” she said grudgingly. “But with that said, Fedora, you are not to go over my head like this. If you make plans, I am to be included before they are enacted. Is that clear?”

“Now, hold on!” he objected, holding up a hand. “I wasn’t expecting the sophomores to move out that fast—if anything, I’m concerned about the timing. If they straighten out Puna Dara and get back here before we get our situation dealt with, we’re back at square one with additional complications. We were in front of some of the very people we don’t want knowing about this when I warned you they were moving, and you vanished before I could get you alone. I didn’t even know you were back on campus until you walked into my office just now. Believe me, Professor, I’m pretty comfortable working under somebody who comes and goes as she pleases, but if you expect me to keep you appraised of all of my movements, you’re gonna have to work with me here. It’s just not in my power to follow you zip-zap all over the continent at a whim.”

“I am still not getting you a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman,” she said flatly.

“I don’t know how much that would help in this instance,” he replied, “since you can’t shadow-jump to a person without being familiar with the landing spot, but for the record a number of my other projects would be a lot easier if—”

“No,” she snapped, then sighed and moderated her tone somewhat. “Still… Point taken. I can work to be a bit more accommodating, but so can you.” She pointed accusingly at him. “I know you didn’t go right from getting Raffi Chandrakeran drunk to that meeting; there was time for you to fill me in. If you’re planning anything that’s going to involve manipulating my students, I want to know about it as soon as the plans are somewhat formed. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am!” He came to attention and saluted. After a moment, under her stare, he sighed and resumed his habitual slouch. “I’m working against habit, there… In Imperial Intelligence, paperwork is such a fact of life it’s almost a given you do whatever you can get away with in order to get anything done. And needless to say, none of my previous employers…”

“You work for me now,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “This was your idea. You can either do it my way, or I can send you right back where you came from.”

“Oh, your way it is, no question,” he said, raising his hands in surrender. “I just have to overcome some old habits, is all. But don’t you worry, Prof. I am nothing if not adaptable!”


The Punaji royal family apparently had breakfast in the open air when the weather permitted; at least, that was where the palace servants directed the princess’s classmates as they wandered out of their rooms in the morning.

Juniper was the last to arrive, and she brought a surprise.

“Look!” the dryad squealed, entering the wide balcony bunny-first. She had a firm grip on Jack and held him out in front of herself, while the jackalope squirmed and kicked impotently, clearly displeased with this state of affairs.

“June,” Ruda said in a strained tone, “what the fuck is that fucking rabbit doing here?”

“That’s a rabbit?” Anjal asked, tilting her head and frowning. “It’s huge. Are those antlers?”

“He’s not a rabbit, and you know it,” Juniper said reproachfully, re-settling Jack into a more comfortable position in her arms and stroking him soothingly. He stopped attempting to flail, though his antlers continued to jab her in the cheek, which seemed not to bother her. “It wasn’t my idea, I just found him in my room last night along with a note from Tellwyrn that Stew has better things to do than take care of him.”

At the head of the table, the pirate king cleared his throat. Rajakhan “Blackbeard” Punaji was an enormous man: tall, powerfully muscular, and with a spreading middle-aged gut atop that. His bushy eyebrows and even bushier namesake beard added to his imposing aspect, the effect not in the least diminished by streaks of gray. His voice, even in a discreet cough, was like the growling of a bear.

“I seem to recall reading that jackalopes are notoriously ornery creatures,” he rumbled. “Would this happen to be related to my seneschal declaring first thing this morning that she refuses to have the staff clean that room? I thought she was just afraid of getting eaten by a dryad.”

“I don’t eat people,” Juniper said defensively, tightening her grip on Jack, which caused him to kick again. His powerful hind legs gouged at her chest hard enough to bruise and draw blood, had she been human; she didn’t appear even to notice. “And I’m sorry about that. Jack is my druidic familiar, my first one, and he’s pretty wild; I’m still training him. Don’t worry, I will be responsible and keep him out of trouble, and I can clean up my own room. We do back at Clarke Tower.”

“Glad to hear that,” Anjal grunted, casually seating herself on her husband’s knee. Not a large woman to begin with, the juxtaposition made her look positively tiny. “I worry about little Zari getting spoiled at that place.”

“I can honestly say that that isn’t one of the things you should worry about,” Gabriel assured her. Beside him, Teal heaved a sigh.

“Hm,” Rajakhan grunted, absently wrapping an arm around his wife while giving Gabriel a flat look. “This is the one Zari stabbed?”

Ruda sighed heavily and gazed up at the sky.

“That’s me, sir!” Gabriel said cheerfully.

“I thought it was fucking stabbed,” Fross added, hovering in front of him. “You usually make a big deal about that part.”

“Well, I’m in the middle of breakfast, here. One should never whine on an empty stomach.”

The king turned his baleful stare on his daughter. “I thought these people were your friends. You can’t play as roughly with shorelanders as you would with Punaji, Zari. And I wouldn’t want you stabbing one of our people, either.”

Ruda pursed her lips for a moment before replying. “Arquin is a half-demon, Papa. He’s practically invulnerable. Pain and surprise make him transform—or they did, before he went and got all paladinized. So yes, I put a blade in his foot to make him flare up and spook the White Riders’ horses to get rid of them.”

“I see.” Rajakhan’s dark brows lowered further. “And you couldn’t just fight these men because…?”

“Yes, we coulda taken them,” she snapped, banging a fist on the table. “Easily! It was me, Arquin, and two paladins. But we were standing right in front of occupied houses and they had wands. Bystanders woulda been shot, or at least had their homes burned. I got rid of the fuckers without causing collateral damage. And I apologized, and I bought him new shoes.”

“Fair’s fair,” Gabriel agreed with his mouth full. “I really like these boots, Ruda. Very comfy, now they’re all broken in.”

“Mm.” Rajakhan nodded, seeming mollified, while Anjal gazed up at him in clear amusement. “Very well, that sounds like a good maneuver. So why do you apparently always complain about it, boy?” He frowned at Gabriel, who blinked in surprise. “Sometimes a man has to take one for the crew. It’s nothing to whinge about.” He broke off as his wife stuck a forkful of fish into his mouth, and gave her a sour look, but chewed obediently.

“Oh, don’t get on Arquin’s case,” Ruda said, scowling. “He’s a good guy to have at your back. It’s a running joke, is all.”

The king swallowed, still frowning, and demanded, “And who is Ruda?”

She sighed heavily, shoved her plate away and thunked her forehead onto the table.

“Relax, Raja,” Anjal said lightly. “A girl goes off to college and wants to reinvent herself, it’s completely normal. It’s not as if she’s raising a flag of rebellion against the crown.” She affectionately tugged at his beard. “Or marrying the captain who did so.”

“I hear you two had quite the courtship,” Teal said with a smile, looking somewhat less wan than she usually did these days. “I’d love to hear that story right from the source.”

Rajakhan coughed heavily. “Well, regardless. According to Tellwyrn, you lot are here to help us solve our problems, which we apparently can’t be trusted to do on our own.”

Ruda raised her head. “Papa, I brought them with me. These are my friends, and every one of them is a badass. I know what I’m doing.”

“I also know what you’re doing,” he growled. “And just because Tellwyrn chose to save face by endorsing this project doesn’t mean you weren’t running away from your responsibilities and butting in.”

“Now, see here,” she snarled, beginning to rise from her chair.

“Actually, your Majesty,” Toby said quickly, “we were hoping to get your take on this Rust issue before we start doing anything. Prince Raffi was very concerned about what’s happening here, but he’d been away from Puna Dara for a few weeks by the time we talked to him.”

“You called my brother a prince?” Anjal asked with a distinctly malicious grin. “To his face? I’m sorry I missed that.”

“No, he didn’t,” Ruda said, sinking back into her chair.

“I did,” Gabriel added. “Only the once, though.”

Anjal winked at him. “I’ll bet.”

“The Rust are not the first to try this gambit,” Rajakhan growled, “and I doubt they will be the last. The Punaji respect strength and straightforwardness, and mistrust those with ambition toward power. Others, other cults and rich people and captains, have done this very thing: carefully gathered a base of support to make the crown seem weak while toeing the line and doing nothing that provides a reason to move against them. It’s a fool’s plan. Even those who have succeeded in seizing power this way did not hold it long. We are a people who do not tolerate leadership that would rather play politics than actually govern. We have strong and healthy traditions to ensure this.”

“What happened to the Fourth Silver Legion changes the matter,” Anjal added seriously, even as she folded fish and curried rice into a piece of warm flatbread. “There is no proof that the Rust did this, but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. It is known that the Legion was coming here to keep an eye on them. No one else had a motive to attack Avei’s soldiers this way, and with those machine parts some of them wear, the Rust are an obvious suspect in any magical attack that has no precedent. No one understand how they work.”

“Is the suspicion not enough to move against them?” Toby asked.

The king blew out a snort, ruffling his beard. “Exactly—that’s their scheme. I have all the reason I need to root them out, and yet they’ve shown themselves capable of striking down the finest soldiers in the world, invisibly, from a distance. How can I fight this? And yet, every day that goes by, I make the crown look weaker due to my inaction.” Anjal leaned against him, and he accepted the flatbread sandwich from her and took a bite, chewing with a grim expression.

“And that is exactly where we come in,” Ruda said firmly. “I don’t know what the Rust are capable of and I do not give a fuck: we can take ’em. We’ve stood against hellgates and zombie uprisings, centaurs, bandits, what-the-fuck-have-you. I’m the princess of this country, and you guys are with me. So long as we deal with this, it doesn’t undercut Papa’s rule. It shows Puna Dara has the means to deal with its enemies as hard as they deserve, whatever they throw at us.”

Despite her defiant countenance, both her parents looked pensive.

“I’ve been thinking about this myself,” Gabriel said, frowning and pushing his plate aside to lean on the table. “And I think we need to be real careful not to fall into old habits, here. Considering the other civilized places where we’ve been sent to help…well, this situation is very different on a basic level. Sarasio, Lor’naris, even Veilgrad, all had in common that their societies were beleaguered and the leadership was fragmented, incompetent, or non-existent. We had to step in, basically take over, and organize folks to be able to look after themselves once we were gone. That’s not the case here.” He nodded to the king and queen. “The Punaji have their shit together and I haven’t heard anything to suggest the government here is less than competent. This is dicey because we’re dealing with an enemy of unknown capability, and the big problem is we can’t afford to antagonize them in the wrong way because that risks destabilizing Puna Dara. But that’s the issue: Puna Dara is stable, and once the Rust is out of the way, it’ll stay stable. This is a lot more straightforward than out other adventures.”

“In fact,” Toby said slowly, “this seems more like classic adventurer stuff than what we’ve dealt with before. It’s just an enemy to defeat.”

“Um.” Fross bobbed in place above the table, chiming almost diffidently. “I don’t mean to alarm anyone, but the way you describe it, what we’ve gotta do is remove the Rust subtly and carefully with a minimum of noise and mess, and let’s be really honest with ourselves, guys… That is not exactly our strong suit.”

Juniper sighed heavily. “I really miss Shaeine right now.”

Teal had been staring at the table; at that, she suddenly lifted her head. “I need to visit the Narisian embassy.”

There was a pause while everyone stared at them.

“There’s a Narisian embassy here?” Gabriel asked finally.

“Of course,” Anjal said, raising an eyebrow. “Tar’naris is very interested in maritime trade, now that it’s suddenly a possibility for them. They have an embassy here and consulates in all our cities along the east coast, as well as a presence in Onkawa, Ninkabi, and Tidecall.”

“It’s just like Shaeine did when we went to Tiraas,” Teal continued softly. “I’m the Matriarch’s daughter; within House Awarrion, I outrank the ambassador here. In order to avoid causing a political problem for her, I just need to put in an appearance and make it plain I am at her service, so there will be no question who is in charge among the drow in the city.”

“Um,” Juniper said uncertainly, scratching behind Jack’s antlers, “well, that’s…”

“I wasn’t changing the subject,” Teal said firmly. “It’s the same thing. We came here with Ruda; we need to be seen, in public, making it clear we’re acting at her request. That way, anything that happens is clearly credited to her, and doesn’t look like there’s a random bunch of adventurers taking over in the city. Plus, as the princess, she has deniability; her actions will reflect on the king, but if it becomes necessary to distance the crown from anything we do, we’re not technically acting on his orders. It gives the royal family a little wiggle room, politically.”

“I appreciate the direction of your thoughts,” Rajakhan rumbled, “but it doesn’t quite work that way, here. If Zari causes trouble, that will reflect on me—the more so if I am seen as unable to control my own daughter.”

“I see,” Teal said, looking down at her lap.

“You’re not wrong, though,” Ruda said firmly, reaching over to squeeze her shoulder. “I do need you guys to publicly take my side. And, with apologies to everybody’s pride, let it be known that I’m calling the shots.”

“I don’t think anybody here is going to let their pride trip us up,” Toby said with a smile.

“So, then,” Anjal said, “what exactly are you planning to do?”

A pause ensued, in which they looked uncertainly at each other.

“I was afraid of that,” Rajakhan grumbled.

“Actually,” Fross chimed, “it seems sort of obvious to me. The core problem is we don’t know what these Rust are capable of and it’s too risky to antagonize the lot of them with an overt attack. So! What we need to do is secure a sample for study.”

“Whoah,” Toby exclaimed. “A sample? These are people, Fross. We can’t just abduct one and…and dissect them!”

“Excuse me,” said Ruda, raising a finger, “but just for the fuckin’ record we can entirely do that.”

“I wasn’t proposing to dissect anybody!” Fross exclaimed.

He sighed. “Well, thank goodness for that, I guess.”

“Exactly,” she chimed. “I mean, that would be creepy and unethical, and also probably not informative. Really, we just need to dissect the mechanical parts! If I can figure out what makes those work I bet I can learn a lot about their magic and how to counteract it!”

Toby heaved a long-suffering sigh and slumped down in his chair.

“So it’s a matter of strategy, then,” Gabriel said cheerfully. “How does one seize and dismantle a half-machine cultist? Maybe they’ll freeze up if we dunk one in the harbor? I figure they call themselves the Rust for a reason…”

“Actually, that’s a nickname that they’ve acquired in the city and not bothered to argue with,” said Anjal. “It’s not the actual name of their cult.”

“Oh?”

“They’re far too pretentious for that,” she said, curling her lip disdainfully, “though they at least have the basic discretion not to swagger too much where the public can see; Punaji would not be impressed by it. Their proper name is kept discreet, but we’ve made very certain to be kept informed of their doings. Among themselves, they are the Infinite Order.”

 

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13 – 2

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“YOU DO NOT FUCKING ROB THE FUCKING SISTERS OF FUCKING AVEI!”

“We didn’t,” Darius protested. “I mean, quite specifically, we did not rob them!”

“If anything, we un-robbed them!” Tallie added. “They were getting snookered and we—”

“Do not get cute with me,” Style snarled. “You entered their facilities under false pretenses and appropriated shit which was not yours. This is the fucking Thieves’ Guild, if you little wankstains haven’t noticed. I know what a fucking robbery is, and you just pulled one.” She stopped her pacing right in front of Tallie, and leaned in close. “ON THE GODDAMN SISTERHOOD OF FUCKING AVEI.”

“We’re not evading,” Jasmine said in perfect calm. “The matter just wasn’t as simple as you’re making it sound. We took things out of the temple, yes, but—”

“Let me see if I got the details,” the enforcer interrupted, straightening and turning to pace again. “You interrupted a Salyrite delivery of potions, reagents, magical shit in general, to a local temple of Avei. Jasmine, dressed in Legion armor, drags in Layla, pretending to be bringing her in as a prisoner. Scuffling ensues, everyone is distracted. Meanwhile, Tubby and Smarmy, here, drive a delivery truck up to the temple and accidentally block the Salyrite vehicle in.” She scowled at Ross and Darius in turn as she paced by them.

“How come the girls don’t get nicknames?” Ross muttered.

“While the scrawny one engages the Salyrite driver in an argument and generally adds to the confusion, the beefy one starts loading crates in and out of the place, and lifts the Salyrite shipment while they’re all distracted. And while this is going on, our little burgeoning cat burglar oozed first into the temple through an upper window and then the Salyrite truck to swipe documents.” Again, she stopped, folded her arms, and glared at them. “I miss anything?”

“After that,” Layla said primly, “we made copies of the documents from both cults, which prove that agents within the Sisterhood and the Collegium were massaging the figures of what had been delivered and how much paid to skim revenue and poach supplies from these transactions.”

“Which,” Tallie added with a grin, “we then had delivered to the central temples of Avei and Salyrene, along with giving the Salyrites their stuff back. So nobody lost any property, and both cults now know who in their ranks was screwing ’em over.”

“They’re welcome, incidentally,” Darius added.

Off to the side of the room, Lore chuckled, still lounging against the wall. “Not gonna lie, kids, that’s a pretty damn neat job. I’d expect full Guild members to do that kinda work, never mind apprentices on their first unsupervised heist. Only thing you forgot was how to get yourselves paid.”

“We are but lowly apprentices,” Jasmine said with a beatific smile. “Happy to work for the experience and prestige.”

“You, stop helping,” Style barked, pointing at Lore, then turned to glare at Jasmine. “And you. If you’re so insistent you didn’t actually rob the Sisterhood, wanna explain what the fuck you were doing with a set of Silver Legion armor in the first place?”

“I borrowed it,” Jasmine said blandly.

Style took two strides and leaned down directly into her face. “You wanna try again, squirt?”

Lore cleared his throat. “I’m not sure if any of your trainers have covered this explicitly, Jasmine, but the ‘borrowed’ defense isn’t regarded kindly around here. We’re thieves; we steal stuff. Taking without permission is theft, whether or not you bring the item back. Have some pride and don’t make excuses or beat around the bush.”

“Actually nobody had mentioned that, but thank you,” Jasmine said, glancing at him sidelong but keeping most of her attention on Style’s uncomfortably close glower. “Really, though, I wasn’t doing that. I did borrow it. Glory hooked me up with a dealer who had two almost-complete sets of armor. I helped him assemble them properly and showed him where to get the missing pieces, and he let me take one for the day as thanks.”

“I still say we should have borrowed both,” Layla huffed. “I would really have liked—”

“Layla,” Darius said in exasperation, “you couldn’t both be Legionnaires. If neither one was the prisoner, what the fuck would you have been doing there?”

“And if she was a prisoner,” Style growled at Jasmine, “how the fuck did you get out without her being in a cell?”

“The story we used was she was a runaway Legion cadet,” Jasmine replied, leaning subtly backward in her seat. “Which is breach of contract at the worst; it’s a legal gray area whether the Sisterhood has the authority to detain people for that. It made the perfect cover for her to kick up a fuss for half an hour and then still get to leave. Can I get some personal space, Style? I can taste what you had for lunch, here. Not everybody likes Punaji curry.”

Lore burst out laughing.

“Kid,” Style said, slowly straightening back up but not releasing Jasmine from her glare, “there are days when I think you were put on this world specifically to be a thorn in my ass.”

“I thought the expression was ‘thorn in my side?’” Tallie piped up.

“Thorn in the foot’s also used,” Ross grunted. “The ass thing is new.”

“Classic Style!” Darius chirped.

“Shut the fuck up,” Style ordered, and they immediately did; she had spoken calmly and flatly. Style cursed and yelled and threw things as part of her ordinary conversation. Everyone who survived a month of Guild apprenticeship knew to step very lightly, however, when she lowered her voice. “Lore, I can’t deal with this magnitude of horseshit. Explain their stupidity whilst I take a mental health break.”

She turned and stomped over to a cabinet against the far wall of the underground meeting room, from which she extracted a bottle of wine and took a long swig.

Lore coughed, suppressing his earlier laughter, and finally straightened up from the wall, stepping toward them. He was one of the Guild’s few actual priests, and its foremost specialist in Eserite philosophy and what little actual dogma the cult had. For the most part, that meant he stayed around the Guild’s headquarters, assisting the Boss and training apprentices.

“You kids have really stuck your collective foot in it,” he said more somberly. “You know our relations with the other cults can be dicey. There are long-standing tensions, such as the way we like Avenists more than they like us, and Vernisites like us more than we like them. In general, though, there’s a lot of widespread dislike of thieves. Lots of groups, religious and secular, have the attitude that Eserites are only tolerated because Eserion is a god of the Pantheon, and they resent having to tolerate us. And that, kids, is why any jobs pertaining to other cults are undertaken very carefully. Very carefully. Usually with the direct say-so of and organization by the Bishop and the Boss himself. Not a gaggle of out-of-control apprentices…you know, as a general rule.”

“Ohh,” Tallie said quietly, then swallowed. “Um…”

“In the time it took you to drive back to wherever you staged all this, transcribe those documents, arrange to have them delivered, and get back here, the beehive you kicked hasn’t stopped buzzing. Sweet has already had an earful from Bishops Throale and Syrinx. The Universal Church has gotten involved, trying to smooth things over, and the Boss has been fully occupied keeping some of our hotter heads in check, because all they can see is spellflingers and soldiers getting up in the Guild’s face apparently on their own initiative.”

“Oh, fuck,” Darius mumbled.

“WELL SAID,” Style thundered, slamming the bottle back onto a shelf and turning to glare at them. “Let’s have a little pop trivia! Who can tell me under what circumstances it is acceptable for the Boss of the Thieves’ Guild to have to clean up after a pack of goddamn apprentices?”

“Um…none?” Tallie ventured.

“Wrong! Who else wants to try?”

“Well,” Jasmine said carefully, “I suppose, theoretically, in a situation where the Boss himself was considered corrupt—”

“Jasmine, it’s a constant mystery to me how you can think so goddamn much and never about the right things. Anybody else got the answer I’m looking for?”

Ross hesitantly raised a hand. “…fucking none?”

“WINNER!” Style shouted, pointing at him.

Lore shook his head. “Look… How the hell did you kids find out about this in the first place? Shenanigans between elements in the Sisterhood and the Collegium aren’t the kind of thing into which random junior Eserites normally have insight.”

“Well, actually, that was just a right place, right time sort of deal,” Tallie said almost timidly. “See, our friend Schwartz is in the Emerald College, and he’s been involved in both interfaith relations and disseminating supplies. Apparently it was all part of his own plan to get to know Eserites, which, I guess, worked. But he mentioned he’d been seeing some funny activity…”

“And then there’s our other friend Rasha,” Darius added. “Who happens to have insight into some of the alchemical reagents the Avenists use, you know, cos he goes to them for—I mean, she—they… Dammit! I knew her all of a week the other way, why am I still not used to that?”

“Because you’re a clod,” Layla said fondly, ruffling his hair.

“Rasha,” Jasmine said quickly before Style could swell up any further, “has treatment sessions with the Sisterhood as part of transitioning. She’s not using alchemy yet because they do very thorough counseling before starting on that, but she talks with the sisters about the program, and they’ve mentioned there are unexplained shortfalls in some of their alchemical supplies.”

“Which was the other thing with which Glory helped,” Layla continued primly. “She really is the most fabulous source of gossip, and I enjoy very much being a guest at her salons. There, I heard rumors about some unexpected personnel changes in various cults; individuals who are known to favor the Universal Church have been maneuvering into positions where they serve as the intermediaries between cults. It’s all very subtle, and might never have been noticed at all except one has some kind of feud with the Avenist Bishop, who made noise about this particular priestess horning in on her territory, so to speak. Even so, only the sort of people with whom Glory associates follow these dealings. If not for our very fortuitous acquaintance, the likes of us would never have learned of this.”

“But we put that together, saw a pattern, and looked further,” Jasmine finished. “Black market dealings, places where those mislaid alchemical supplies might have been turned into untraceable cash. Pick’s connected to those, and he helped us out.”

“Surprisingly decent little prick, in his way,” Tallie added thoughtfully. “Prob’ly just cos he owes us for getting him away from those dwarves, but still.”

“Mm,” Lore grunted. “Well, you kids do impress. That was good work, spotting an opportunity and finding a way to exploit it. But what you should have done when you figured out something was fishy was go straight to Style with it. Apprentices have no business messing in other cults’ affairs.”

“But we were helping them!” Layla protested. “At least—”

“The man didn’t fucking stutter!” Style snarled. “Apprentices have no fucking business fucking around with other fucking cults’ business! You don’t help them, you don’t thwart them, you stay the hell out of their shit entirely! If you spot something fucked up going on in another Pantheon cult, or between two of them, you bring it to the Guild. The Boss will decide whether it’s something we need to intervene in, and if so, how. Not. You.”

“I realize we emphasize independence and distrust of structures,” Lore said much more gently. “It’s an understandable mistake; most of the time you’re expected not to bother the Boss, or rely excessively on the Guild. But for exactly that reason, in the few areas where the Guild does need to be involved, we take it very seriously when people go off on their own and create exactly these kinds of problems.”

“Sorry,” Ross mumbled.

Style snorted and threw up her hands, but Lore nodded gravely. “I believe you. Look… This was overall damn fine work, all right? You planned and executed an extremely neat job, and that after making excellent use of your connections and available resources. But you acted without considering the ramifications, or the role the Guild would have to play in this. That is what we can’t have.”

“And before you start getting big heads,” Style said, “he was warning you, not praising you. That’s a dangerous spot to be in, kids. If you’ve got the skills of Guild members and don’t grasp what it means to be Guild members, you’re a potential problem, if not a threat. People who land themselves in this position and don’t straighten the fuck out usually end up getting dealt with in other ways.”

Tallie swallowed heavily again. “Um…”

“No, I’m not threatening you,” Style said with a sigh. “If I thought you were gonna be that kind of problem, I’d be kicking your asses, not telling you about it. You’re students; I’m teaching. Now you understand where you went wrong. Fix your shit.”

“Understood,” Jasmine said quickly.

“I believe you,” Style replied. “Which just leaves the matter of putting this right. For now… Just leave it alone. Stay close to the Guild and wait for orders. Since you little shits are the ones with firsthand knowledge of what went down, you’re likely to be part of the process of smoothing it over, but first the Boss and the Bishop need to figure out what’s what and how to straighten it out. In the meantime, wait. And for fuck’s sake, behave yourselves.”

Jasmine cleared her throat. “Okay. And…since we’re not being punched, what’s it to be? Are we going to be scrubbing the kitchens again?”

“Jas, shut up,” Darius hissed.

Style rolled her eyes. “Punishment is for assholes; dumbasses get correction. You never have figured out the difference, Jasmine. No, when I said you were gonna make this right, that is what I meant. Now you understand how you fucked up; once you do your part to fix it, that’s that. Abusing you further isn’t gonna accomplish anything. All right, enough. Get outta here and stay in this district until I tell you otherwise. And I suggest you keep in mind that malice accounts for the lesser part of all fuckups. Trouble is much more often caused by stupidity. You wanna avoid getting in trouble, fucking think.”

“Surprisingly good advice,” Darius murmured as they filed hastily out of the room before Style could change her mind.

“Yeah,” Jasmine agreed as quietly. “Actually, it reminds me of another teacher of mine. She’s fond of saying much the same thing.”

“But with less cussing?” Tallie asked with a grin.

Jasmine sighed. “It…depends.”


“I know you’re well aware of the phenomena, Professor,” said Wrynst, the designated spokesman of the group. “Demons which bleed or otherwise dispense bodily fluids inflict infernal corruption on whatever the substance touches—yet when they are killed on this plane, the bodies dissolve into ash which leaves minimal corruption behind, and in some cases none. In order to be magically reactive, spell components harvested from demons must be taken while the demon was alive. Yet, sapient demons which can use infernal magic mostly leave behind intact bodies, which may or may not be infernally active, depending on the situation. Vanislaads in particular appear to leave behind a fully intact body, and the very same demon may return later to this plane in a new body, while their previous one might still exist here. Altogether the nature of demons’ connection to magic, to life, and to this plane is not understood. We have only lists of observed effects and no understanding of the underlying principles involved.”

“Yes, of course,” Tellwyrn said neutrally, interlacing her fingers and regarding him over them. “And of course, you know why that understanding is lacking, even after thousands of years.”

“Actually, Professor, for most of that period, infernal magic was considered far more dangerous to use than it is today, and understanding of its use was correspondingly lacking. Until as recently as the Hellwars, ‘warlock’ was considered synonymous with ‘servant of Elilial,’ because no one without that goddess’s specific protection could even touch the infernal and not combust or mutate on the spot. The word itself is said to mean ‘oathbreaker,’ as the only people to whom it applied had specifically betrayed the gods. Now, though, there are not only the Wreath, but also organized warlocks in the service of Salyrene and many national governments and other organizations, not to mention independent practitioners—all because of the advancement of knowledge.”

“And you propose,” she said slowly, “to advance it again.”

Wrynst nodded, stepped forward, and laid a thick folder down upon her desk. “Yes, Professor. The full details of our proposal are there for you to peruse at your leisure. In brief, however, we have outlined an experimental protocol which will involve the repeated summoning of and experimentation upon lesser non-sapient demons to study the nature of their dimensional connection to Hell, and thus the nature of infernal magic itself. Katzils, mostly, as they are the most manageable. At present, infernomancy is more an art than science; its safe use is largely intuitive, and therefore difficult to teach and fraught with peril. We propose to study and quantify it. If our program meets with any success, it would be a great leap forward in magical understanding, as well as taking much of the inherent danger out of infernal magic. This will make it not only safer to use, but help in devising methods of resisting demons and their masters.”

Tellwyrn glanced at the folder without moving to touch it, then across the small knot of people assembled before her desk. Behind Wrynst stood the representatives from the factions which were backing Rodvenheim’s proposal: a warlock from the Topaz College of Salyrene, a magelord of Syralon, a robed Black Wreath cultist, and a battlemage of the Empire’s Azure Corps.

Strange bedfellows, indeed.

“This is, of course, possibly the most dangerous research project ever undertaken.”

“Yes, Professor,” Wrynst said solemnly, not even quibbling with her obvious hyperbole. “We are well aware of the risks, and seek to take all possible steps to mitigate them. That fact is why this research has never been conducted before.”

“Oh, it’s been tried,” said Fedora, who was lounging against a bookcase off to the side. “By many a warlock throughout the years. In slow bits and bites over the millennia, they added gradually to the knowledge of the craft, while meeting a succession of swift and grisly fates.”

Tellwyrn shot him a brief, irritated glance, which was mirrored by each of the research delegates before her. “I’m sure this lays out your proposed containment methods. Leaving that aside, in brief, what do you intend to do about the dimensional effects of such repeated summonings?”

Wrynst coughed discreetly and glanced behind himself. At his look, Colonel Azhai nodded and stepped forward.

“In short, Professor, we intend to monitor them. This campus’s inherent protections, and the fae geas laid upon it, will do a great deal to mitigate the inherent dimensional thinning effect. Our containment protocols will do more. But as part of our research protocol, we will be closely observing the state of dimensional stability in the region. Our program calls for a cessation of summoning activity should signs of dimensional instability appear, and that only as an initial measure. You are of course aware of the methods of repairing such unintended rifts.”

“They aren’t easy,” Tellwyrn murmured.

“No, ma’am,” Azhai agreed. “Which is why our strategy emphasizes prevention. But we will be prepared to take whatever restorative action is necessary, should the need arise.”

Tellwyrn looked at Fedora and raised an eyebrow.

“I’ll want to read over their protective measures, just to be in the loop,” he said with a shrug. “Ultimately, though, you know a lot more about this hoodoo than I. Suggest having Yornhaldt and Harklund sign off on it, as well. Long as everyone’s confident, that’s that.” He cleared his throat and straightened up. “I do have an additional thought on this, which I’d prefer to share with you in private, Professor.”

“Of course,” Wrynst said hastily, bowing and taking a step back from the desk. “We can come back…”

“Oh, I don’t think that will be necessary,” said Tellwyrn. “Let’s not take up any more of your time than we must. If you will excuse us for just a moment?”

“Certainly!”

She nodded politely and gestured.

A distortion flickered across the office, as if a wall of frosted glass had appeared to separate Tellwyrn and Fedora from the guests. Behind it were revealed only vague shapes, and no sound penetrated.

“Well?” she asked, swiveling her chair to face him directly. “What do you think?”

“In short,” he said, “I think you have to go for it.”

She raised one eyebrow. “Oh, I have to, do I?”

“C’mon, don’t get all Tellwyrn on me,” he said with a grin. “You’ll do what you want, and we both know it. But in this case, with regard to your stated goals for this whole program? This is just too perfect to pass up. It’s dangerous and potentially incredibly valuable if it’s a success. It’s exactly the kind of research you launched this whole initiative to do. This is the first real test of the whole plan. If you’re not willing to take this on, it all becomes kind of…moot. This research hasn’t been done elsewhere because nobody was willing to touch it. If you’re not…what’s the point of the new research division?”

“Mm,” she grunted, glancing at the obscured shapes behind the barrier, which were now shifting slightly as they interacted with one another.

“There’s more,” Fedora said in a less jocular tone. “This is also the perfect opportunity to deal with the other thing I warned you about when you hired me. It’s not only incredibly dangerous, it deals with warlocks and demons—exactly the subject that gets people riled up and frightened. It is the ideal avenue of attack for your enemies to use against you.”

“And so,” she murmured, “by controlling the path my enemies take, I control their fates.”

He tilted his head. “Huh. I dunno why it should surprise me that you’ve read the Aveniad, but it does.”

“If anything it’s more surprising that you’ve read it,” she sighed.

“Some good, solid advice in there,” he replied, winking. “Take a little time to review the proposal in detail; that’ll give me a little time to make preparations for whoever’s gonna take advantage to try it. This is it, Professor. Make or break.”

“All right,” she said, suddenly brisk, and turned back to the desk. The barrier vanished, and the assembled magical specialists turned expectantly to her. “Very well, upon consultation with my head of campus security, I am strongly inclined to endorse this program. Obviously, I will need to review your proposal in detail; there may well be adjustments upon which I will have to insist.”

“Oh, of course,” Wrynst said quickly, nodding.

“But, barring some absolute dealbreaker in the fine print, I believe you have just become the proud progenitors of this University’s first major research project. Give me a few days to review in detail, consult with my faculty and make some arrangements. I shall try not to drag my feet about it.”

“Professor, we are glad to grant you whatever you need,” Wrynst assured her, glancing back at his compatriots and getting a chorus of affirmative nods. “After all, you are being more than generous with us.”

A soft chime sounded, and everyone shifted to look at Fedora, who pulled a large silver pocket watch from inside his coat and flipped it open.

“Ah,” he said in a tone of deep satisfaction. “Professor! You remember that thing you asked me to watch for yesterday? It’s happening.”

“What?” she exclaimed, shooting upright. “Already?”

“Yes, well,” Fedora said glibly, shutting the watch and putting it away again. “I may have encouraged it along a little bit.”

“I asked you,” she grated, “to watch for the sophomore class trying to sneak off campus, not to goad them into doing it!”

“I swear to you I’ve not said a word to them!” he replied, holding up his hands in surrender, but grinning unrepentantly. “I did, however, have a few selective words with Raffi at our poker game last night, on the assumption they’d find their way to Zaruda and onward from there. Sometimes, Professor, watching for bad behavior means strewing a few seeds. That’s how you find out which soil is the most fertile.” He winked at the delegates.

Tellwyrn growled wordlessly. “Mr. Wrynst, everyone, I’m sorry to cut this meeting short, but it appears I have something rather more urgent to attend to. If you will excuse me.”

“Not to worry, Professor, we…” Wrynst trailed off; Tellwyrn had vanished in the middle of his sentence.

“She does that a lot,” Fedora confided. “It’s all part of the charm.”

 

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