Tag Archives: Jenny Everywhere

4 – 19

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Only the faintest breath of wind broke the silence, one brief pause hanging delicately over the scene.

“What?” came the slightly muffled voice of a Rider at last. “Draw? Boy, everybody has wands out.”

“Yeah?” Joe mused. “Where are they pointed?”

Hands hanging at his sides, he flexed his fingers once, and smiled.

The Riders exchanged a round of glances, then several shifted, turning their aim to the Kid.

Joe moved so fast his hands were nearly invisible. A fraction of an instant later, his wands were out and had cut two arcs of white light around him, as though he were swinging luminous knives; a fan of slender rays lanced out in multiple directions, striking multiple targets. Unlike the percussive cracking of most wandshots, they made a hissing noise, quickly drowned out by a series of grunts and cries.

Nine men slumped or staggered, none killed, but every one struck square in the head by a beam. Wands were dropped; only one managed to keep a grip on Jenny’s arm, though with her other hand freed she immediately slugged him in the face. Already dazed, he went down, tugging her off-balance. Every Rider who had been covering a hostage was out of action.

“Damn,” Gabriel breathed.

“I could’ve taken him,” Jenny grumbled, shaking her hand.

“Everyone stand down,” Joe called into the stunned silence that followed. “Weapons away, and back up.”

“We don’t take orders from you, boy!” a Rider snarled. All of them shifted their aim, over a dozen wands now covering the Kid.

Joe grinned lopsidedly, the left corner of his mouth tugging upward. “No one’s talkin’ to you, boy.”

“Do as he says!” Strickland called hoarsely. “Back away!” Townsfolk shuffled backward, still gripping weapons; Toby eased back with them, but Ruda and Trissiny were left isolated in the street, both clutching swords in ready positions. Gabriel, standing in the shadows in the mouth of an alley, didn’t back up either, but hesitantly lowered his wand a fraction.

Several sharp commands were barked in elvish, and slender figures on the rooftops eased back, many slipping entirely out of sight.

“Men!” shouted the lead Rider. “Whatever happens, whatever you do, do not shoot the dryad!”

“Darn right,” Juniper growled, tugging along an erstwhile hostage who seemed to be in shock as she joined Gabriel. The rest had already bolted, most to the ranks of the townspeople, Jenny through the doors into the Shady Lady.

After three tense seconds had passed, the leader yelled again, exasperation audible even through the filter on his voice, “You can shoot him!”

Once again, Joe swung his arms in wide, impossibly rapid arcs, forward then back, shifting dramatically from side to side as he did so. It looked more like a sword dance than any kind of wand fighting; he didn’t even fire, though again a distinct hissing sound emerged from his weapons.

It was immediately drowned out as lightning filled the street. Every Rider present let loose at Joe, firing until some of their wands began to smoke. The staccato cracks of wandshots blended into a constant, deafening crackle; among all the onlookers, hair stood on end and fabric clung to skin, tugged by the massive amount of static unleashed. In seconds, the reek of ozone was overpowering.

Not one bolt struck its target. Lightning arced off course, zipping along tunnels of ionized air Joe had placed to either side of him, close enough to singe his sleeves but never hitting home. Sizzling bolts were redirected mostly into the hard-packed dirt street, though some ripped past and struck down Riders on the opposite side of the Kid.

“Stop!” The leader had to raise his voice to a near scream to be audible above the carnage. “Stop! CEASE FIRE! You’re killing each other, morons!”

Indeed, fully half their number were down, their white cloaks scorched by friendly fire, some actually burning. A low chorus of groans was audible from those who hadn’t been instantly slain. The remaining Riders shifted as one organism, stumbling backward from Joe, sudden panic evident in their body language despite their enveloping disguises.

Then the Kid attacked.

Angling his body and raising both arms, he aimed wands up and down the street and fired. His weapons now unleashed bolts of pure white light, straighter and more solid than the lightning of standard wands, the sharp noise they made notably higher in pitch. Fixing his gaze straight across the street and leaving only his peripheral vision to see both groups of foes, he made only minute corrections with his wrists, as if he were conducting an orchestra, and squeezing off a sharp volley of shots in each direction.

Every shot struck a White Rider. Not a one was a kill shot; he pierced arms and legs, sending wands tumbling from nerveless fingers and enemies sprawling in the street, their limbs unable to support them.

It was over in seconds. No more than half a minute had passed since he had first drawn his weapons.

Smoke and static hovered over the street, along with the sharp tang of ozone and muted sounds of pain from two dozen felled men. The onlookers had progressively shifted back, and had the sense to clear a path up and down the avenue; now the elves silently thronged the rooftops, while the residents of Sarasio lined the sidewalks, pressing themselves against buildings and as far out of the line of fire as they could get. Even Trissiny and Ruda had withdrawn during the onslaught, the paladin having dismounted and dismissed her steed. Only the Kid and the leader of the White Riders still stood in the street, both with weapons drawn.

“Holy shit.” Ruda didn’t raise her voice, but in the relative quiet she was clearly audible. “I just saw that and I don’t believe it.”

The last White Rider stood with his weapons held loosely, aiming at the ground. The Sarasio Kid still had his pointed up and down the street, their tips smoking faintly, but he was now staring straight at the Rider. Slowly, the Rider stepped over from off to the side, kicking one of his fallen men out of the way in passing, and came to stand in the center of the street.

Joe turned to face him, lowering his arms. All four wands were aimed at the dirt now, the two glaring at each other across a distance of some twelve yards.

“Forgive me for not applauding,” the Rider rasped. “Seems my hands are full.”

“I don’t find myself in a forgivin’ mood, for some reason.”

“Mm.” He nodded. “Seems a fellow of your talents could put a pretty clean end to this right now.”

“Well, that’s the difference between us.” Joe rolled his shoulders slowly. “I don’t do everything I could do.”

“Fair enough. I’ll remind you, even a housecat’ll only torment its prey for so long.”

“Depends on how bored it is. I’ve spent quite a span of weeks cooped up in there.”

The Rider’s derisive laughter was an almost painful thing to hear, the magic filter on his voice turning it into a hoarse, abrasive sound. “You didn’t have to hide away, kid. The time you’ve wasted can be measured in lives. This would’ve all been over weeks ago if you’d had the guts to come after me and end it, coward.”

Both whipped up their wands; Joe was the faster by a hair. The Rider staggered backward, struck in the chest by two bolts, his own return fire going wide and splashing against the eaves of a nearby roof. An elf fell to the ground with a strangled cry; two more dived after him and Toby came running, while the rest of the watchers on the roof skittered backward, farther from the line of fire.

The blue glow of a shielding charm pulsed around the Rider, though; he staggered, but didn’t fall. Regaining his aim, he unleashed a fierce volley at the Kid.

Joe held up both wands, lightly flicking one about as though mixing a bowl of batter, and the Rider’s shots veered away in all directions. With the other, he returned fire, blast after blast slamming into the Rider’s shield.

As a defensive strategy, Joe’s deflection proved more tenable than the Rider’s reliance on charm work. The Kid began to advance at a measured walk, still firing and and creating air tunnels to draw away lightning bolts. The Rider retreated before him, staggering as he was pushed back by the kinetic force of each bolt. The sphere of pale blue light around him was constantly ignited, now, and starting to grow hazy at the edges; the entire thing smoked faintly. Pressed as he was, his footing suffered; he began to miss, sending wild shots into storefronts, the sky and the ground.

The onlookers had already begun retreating further, vanishing deeper into the alleys and backward over the roofs. Most of the stragglers took the hint and bolted as the duel intensified and shots began to fly far afield, leaving just the brave and the exceptionally foolish lurking behind what minimal cover there was to watch. Only Vadrieny remained on the rooftop, now, observing the combat calmly with her arms folded. The rest of the students had assembled and also remained; Trissiny and Shaeine had planted themselves firmly in front of the others, protecting them behind golden and silver shields of light. The drow, in fact, had walled off the entire street and was protecting all the townsfolk beyond. Trissiny didn’t have that much range or power in her shield and had resorted to shoving Gabriel and Juniper behind her.

Then, with a flash and a puff of smoke, the Rider’s barrier went down. It shattered under a hit dead center by Joe’s wand, and the force of that plus the disorienting burst of light caused the White Rider to stumble backward. His shots ceased as he flailed his arms momentarily for balance.

Joe deftly aimed a shot straight between his legs. However he had tricked out his wands, this one also wasn’t a conventional lightning bolt: it hit the ground right behind the Rider with an explosion of dirt and fire, sending him staggering forward again, completely unbalanced now. In the next instant, Joe reversed his fall yet again with a shot to the shoulder, sending him spinning in a circle.

The Rider let out a cry of pain, dropping to one knee in the street. He lost his grip on one wand, and Joe sent it flying with a precise shot. He raised the other, however—but too slowly.

The Kid nailed his opponent’s wand dead on the tip as it fired, and the wand exploded. Only the energy of the lighting bolt currently being discharged erupted outward from the destroyed shaft; if the power crystal had gone, the blast would likely have demolished the street. As it was, it merely mangled the Rider’s hand.

“That’s for killing innocents in my town,” Joe said grimly, still stalking forward. He fired a beam of light into the ground at an angle in front of the kneeling Rider, burning a neat hole in the street. Then, with his other weapon, he discharged a burst of energy directly into the tiny shaft, and the ground directly under the Rider erupted, sending him reeling.

The Rider, amazingly, managed to regain his feet on the fly, but Joe nailed him in the other shoulder, spinning him around again. “That’s for provoking the Empire to demolish Sarasio…” A second hit to the opposite shoulder, already burned from a previous impact, spun him back the other way. “And for trying to murder an Imperial agent under my protection.”

Two simultaneous shots clipped the tops of the Rider’s shoulders on both sides, sending him tumbling backward to the street.

“That is for sending your goons after my home. And this—” Another neatly burned hole followed by an explosive bolt caused an eruption directly under the Rider’s upper body, catapulting him forward where he landed on his knees, barely catching himself with his good hand. “—is for shooting a girl who was no threat to you.”

The White Rider, after one brief cry of pain, managed to keep it in, but now his breath rasped so heavily it was audible up and down the street, sounding horrific with the spell altering his voice. Joe strode calmly toward him, his boots crunching on cinders and debris littering the ground.

“I could go on all night,” the Kid growled, coming to a stop before the kneeling, hooded figure. “But you wouldn’t last to appreciate it all, so this is for your general lack of civilized behavior.”

He drew back his foot and kicked the Rider right in the face, hard. The fallen man let out another weak cry, toppling over on his side to lie in the street.

“Honestly,” Joe said in disgust. “Wearing white after Remembrance Day? Our distance from the Imperial capital does not give you license to act like a savage.”

He turned and strode away, holstering his wands, leaving the last of the White Riders sprawling in the street. Joe navigated around fallen figures in white to stop before Trissiny, where he tipped his hat respectfully.

“Ma’am,” he said. “I surely do appreciate your help, you and all your friends. I dunno how this would’ve gone down without you, but I know we were just about out of hope ’round here before you came along. Sarasio owes you her life.”

“I think you deserve a fair share of the credit,” she said, finally letting her golden glow drop. Gabriel, who was cowering behind Juniper, let out a sigh of relief and straightened up, grimacing.

Ruda’s arrival was announced by the clomp of heavy boots and the rattle of her sword in its sheath. “May I just say,” she declared, “that was the single most amazing fucking thing I have ever seen, and before we leave town Imma tell you some stories about shit I’ve met on the open sea so you properly appreciate my perspective.”

“I told you this guy was a big deal,” Gabriel said, grinning.

“Anyhow, Shaeine, Triss, keep an ear up for calls for help,” Ruda went on, her expression sobering. “We’ve got a good number of wounded and more’n a handful of dead. The elves brought witches and they seem to have it all in hand; they’re letting Toby help, but I don’t think they want any more cooks stirrin’ the broth. Still’n all, you’ve both got the mojo, so they might need you.”

“Noted,” said Shaeine.

People were filtering back into the street, now, both elves and humans. Some milled around, seemingly at a loss, but there were more businesslike figures present who began checking the fallen Riders, separating the injured from the dead, removing hoods and checking wounds. The crowd were worn out and focused, but more than a few of the faces revealed brought outcries. It seemed the Riders were, indeed, people they knew and had trusted.

Trissiny’s blade came free of its scabbard with a silken rasp and burst alight. “Stop!” she barked, pointing it at a man who had leveled his wand at a fallen Rider, who was trying to scrabble backward away from him.

The man turned his attention to her, but didn’t back down. “Sister, you have any idea what these pieces of shit have put us through? I say we put every last goddamn one of ’em in the ground, now!”

An ugly rumble of agreement rose from many of those present. Most of the elves and more than a few human residents remained silent, frowning.

“How much carnage will be enough for you?” Trissiny demanded. “Can you really not see the pattern at work here? These men started out protecting you from those who abused you, because there was no law to do it. The brutal use of power only escalates itself; vengeance turns into more vengeance. It will just keep going until there is no one left to kill! It has to stop.”

“You’re better than this,” Toby agreed, approaching from up the street. He seemed almost to glide along in a serene counterpoint to Trissiny’s force of personality. The monk of Omnu and warrior of Avei operating in concert; even the loudest dissenters fell silent at the tableau they presented as he placed himself alongside her and turned to face them. “You must be better than this. We’ve fought because we had to, and we’ve won. Our victory isn’t complete until we end not only the Riders but what they stand for: the spirit of brutality.”

“What’ll we do with ’em, then?” someone called out.

“We give healing to those who can be healed,” Trissiny said firmly, “bind and imprison them, and then hand them over to the Empire to stand trial for what they have done.”

“And where was the Empire when our town was burning down around our ears?” someone else shouted, followed by angry cries of agreement.

“Worry about where the Empire will be, not where it was!” she shot back. “What are they going to find when they finally get here: carnage and destruction, a few survivors who know only how to keep fighting? Or a town full of loyal citizens who rose up to protect their homes and deliver their attackers to Imperial justice? The Empire isn’t a perfect thing by any means. If you lack faith in it, at least try to understand its nature. Give the Imperials something to show Sarasio is worth rebuilding and protecting.”

“This is why we need justice,” Toby added firmly, giving Trissiny a nod. “Justice comes from law, from order. It means everyone has rights and knows what to expect. Justice means you can have a place worth living in again. If you insist on having more vengeance, you need to acknowledge the price.”

“The cost of vengeance is everything,” said Trissiny.

There was quiet, townspeople exchanging uncertain glances. It wasn’t by a long shot the ardent agreement Trissiny would have hoped for, but at least the people weren’t offering them any further rebellion.

“All right, you heard the paladins,” Joe said firmly. “Let’s get these varmints rounded up, patched up and into cells. Somebody clear out whoever’s squatting in the Sheriff’s office, an’ get the smith over here to make sure the jail’s still serviceable. Anybody who needs healing or medicine, head to the Shady Lady, an’ we’ll have whatever help we can get standing by. Somebody find me Mr. Paxton, too. We’ll wanna get him back to Tiraas as quick as possible so he can spread the good word and get us some help out here.”

The townspeople may have been uncertain about Toby and Trissiny taking charge, but they sprang to follow Joe’s orders. Faces remained grim, but resistance seemed to melt away as everyone sprang into action, and in no time the movements around them took on a more focused pattern, people sorting themselves out, administering aid and rounding up fallen Riders, to be bound for imprisonment or laid out with their scorched cloaks over them.

Joe turned to the leader, who had begun to stir weakly. “All right,” he said grimly, “let’s answer the big question on everybody’s mind.” Grabbing the Rider by the clasp of his cloak, he threw back the white hood and ripped away the mask.

Then he just as suddenly let go, stumbling backward looking like he’d seen a ghost.

The leader of the White Riders was a woman. She looked to be in her fifties, with hair just beginning to go gray and a handsome, fine-boned face that had clearly been quite lovely once, despite the blackened eye, bruised forehead and bloody nose marring it now. She coughed once, then managed a weak smile.

“Mamie,” he choked.

“Hey, Joe.” She coughed again, and cleared her throat. “That was some damn fine shooting out there, boy. You did me proud.”

“…how long,” he said tersely, clenching his hands into fists at his sides.

Mamie heaved a sigh. “You wanna hear how I got roped into the Riders’ scheme and was trying to bring ’em down from the inside? Sorry, Joe. This has been my show from the beginning, from Calhoun on down. It did get a mite out of hand, I’ll grant you.”

“A mite out of hand?!” he said incredulously. “Why would you do this? You nearly destroyed the whole town!”

“Let me see that,” Toby said softly, kneeling beside her. He took her mangled hand in his own and lit up. She winced, averting her eyes, but gradually relaxed. The blood remained on her face, but the bruises faded away after a few seconds.

“Thanks, kid. Appreciate it.”

“That’s…the best I can do with this,” Toby said solemnly, still holding her hand. Two fingers were missing, the remainder twisted out of place. “Mana burns are awful things. You’re lucky the wand’s power source didn’t blow; I don’t think you would’ve survived that.”

“Wasn’t gonna happen,” she said with a hint of a grin. “My Joe’s the best damn shot I ever saw. Maybe the best ever to live. He know more ways to disable a wand than most people know ways to fire one.”

“Joseph,” Trissiny warned. The Kid, his face twisted in a furious snarl, had pulled out a wand and leveled it at Mamie.

“You—you—I should end you right here,” he choked.

She shook her head wearily. “Can’t be that way, Joe. It’s like the paladins said. This was rebellion; somebody’s gotta swing for it. When the Empire gets here, you give ’em the White Riders and especially the gang’s leader, neatly gift wrapped. Imps are very generous with folks who help ’em put down rebels, but if they don’t have somebody to pin this on, they will go out and find someone.”

“Why?!”

“You ain’t been alive long enough to’ve seen a Burning,” she replied. Mamie’s voice had a soft rasp that hadn’t cleared up under Toby’s healing; it sounded like the result of a lifelong smoking habit. “Every few decades, the forest gets a mite overgrown, so the elves just up and light the whole sucker on fire. Burns out the underbrush to give things a chance to grow again, and the ash nourishes the ground. If they didn’t, well… What a tangled mess that’d turn into. They work carefully so the trees themselves don’t catch, and in the end, the forest is cleaner and just alive as it was to begin with. More so, once it’s had a chance to heal.”

Activity around them had come to a stop, elves and townspeople alike staring and listening. Mamie panned her stare around at those assembled, then smiled wearily and shook her head. “Most of you wouldn’t see it, but this town has been dying for years. The Sheriff and the mayor took the spirit of law out of it; Hoss and his cronies made it worse. We could’ve come back from the brink any number of times, but that would’ve taken a leader stepping up and the mass of residents showing some sense. Nobody but me seemed inclined to try…” She laughed bitterly. “And the funny thing about being the old whore running the brothel is, no matter how much effort I put into taking care of this town and everyone in it, there’s not a chance y’all would’ve followed me if I’d tried to bring back order the right way. That only left me one option.

“Sometimes, the only way to clear out the damage is with an act of controlled destruction.”

She simply knelt there, looking up at them calmly while they stared.

“Lady,” Ruda said at last, “your control could use some serious fucking work.”

Mamie shrugged. “Can’t really argue with that, can I? This all went farther than I’d planned on. I really did figure Joe would’ve stepped up before it got nearly this bad.” She turned her gaze on Joe, expression unreadable. He turned his back, ramming his wand back into its holster. Mamie sighed and lowered her eyes. “Do y’all mind awfully if I stand up? Any whore my age has spent enough time on her knees, they start to protest at the treatment.”

Toby helped her gently to her feet, earning a nod of thanks. Trissiny accepted a coil of rope from a Sarasio resident who had been tying up Riders, and approached. “Hands out, please,” she said firmly. “I’m going to need to bind you.”

“You do that behind the captive, girl,” Mamie said with a grin, turning around and presenting her wrists. She turned her head to look at Trissiny sidelong over her shoulder. “Even a well-behaved prisoner might be planning something. Take it easy with the right one, if you don’t mind. All respect to your buddy’s work, but it’s a mite tender still.”

“Only one more thing to work out,” Trissiny said, lashing her wrists efficiently together. “We need to know what you did to disrupt the town and how to undo it.”

She stepped back and Mamie turned back around, frowning. “I, um…may have missed something. Here I was thinking this was all finally settled.”

“It’s been a long day,” Trissiny said sharply. “Nobody here has the patience for any more dissembling. We know you’ve dabbled in witchcraft, and we know how useful fairy magic is for manipulating emotional states. Whatever you’ve been doing to pit the citizens against each other, and all of them against the elves and vice versa. It needs to end. You are going to tell us how.”

Mame stared at her, and then, to Trissiny’s baffled annoyance, burst out laughing. “Oh,” she said, shaking with mirth, “oh, you poor kid. I haven’t done a damn thing to mess with anybody’s mind. Come on, there’s a whole forest full of elves right there. You think they wouldn’t have noticed that? Reclusive or not, they’d have sent shaman over to bust it up if I even tried.”

Trissiny frowned. “But…”

“Look around you, paladin,” Mamie said, still grinning, but there was a harsh edge to it, now. “All the suspicion, the hate, the pointless bickering for brutally high stakes? Unless they’ve really changed what paladins do in the last thirty years, this’ll be your life. The path to slaughtering people wholesale begins with trying to help them. Because that’s how you find out that they just aren’t damn well worth it. Given the choice, most folks’d rather cling to their delusions than save their own lives. Pfft, witchcraft. Humans, elves, or whatever-else-have-you, this is just what people are like. No. Damn. Good.”

She hung her head, still chuckling, while the onlookers stared in silence. Every eye rested on Mamie. It was as if the townsfolk and elves were afraid to meet each other’s gazes.

“Well handled,” said Professor Tellwyrn, stepping forward. The crowd parted silently to let her approach. “Well done indeed, I would say this redeems your lackluster performance in the Golden Sea. Everyone is in good shape to finish the semester. Now, for a little extra credit, recall the lists of classic logical fallacies you were supposed to learn by heart, and spot the ones you just heard.”

“Appeal to emotion,” said Shaeine evenly. “She seeks to impose her personal despair on everyone listening.”

“Special pleading,” added Toby. “Broad claims about the nature of all intelligent beings are almost never correct, you’d have to pretty much make your own examples to make that stick. Even this situation is more complex than she makes it sound.”

“Tenuous, but I’ll grant it,” Tellwyrn nodded. “Anyone else?”

“Fallacy of the slippery slope,” Trissiny said grimly. “Setting out to help people does not have to end this way. It doesn’t have to end any way in particular.”

“The, uh, genetic fallacy,” Gabriel chimed in. “Like Toby said. There’s no evidence to warrant that everybody just sucks.”

“That, in fact, is a more correct match for Mr. Caine’s argument,” Tellwyrn agreed.

“Pertaining to that, the black-or-white fallacy,” said Vadrieny, still perched on the roof above. “Nihilism like that grossly oversimplifies…anything.”

“So you are listening when Teal is in class,” Tellwyrn said, grinning. “I can’t always tell.”

“Oh! Oh!” Fross dived through the group, chiming in excitement. “The gambler’s fallacy, the composition/division fallacy, the anecdotal fallacy! Her whole argument is based on taking one scenario which may or may not even be hypothetical and applying it to all of life!”

“Very good, Fross.” Tellwyrn folded her hands, looking self-satisfied. Mamie was staring at her, flabbergasted. “There are any number of reasons why someone will try to bring you around to their worldview, but in the case of a vanquished opponent whose view is inherently nihilistic and has nothing concrete to gain by persuading you, it is almost always out of an emotional need for validation. In short, if they can convince you that everything is hopeless and meaningless, they can avoid facing the prospect that they have wasted their own lives on wrong ideas.

“People are as noble, as depraved or as pitiful as they choose to be. A situation is exactly as hopeless as you choose to let it be. I am pleased with your performance, students, because you didn’t just round up the bad guys and beat them down, though it was in your power. Helping this town meant reminding the people here that they can help themselves. Now, there’s every reason for us to believe they’ll be fine when we’re gone. That is the measure of a successful mission.”

She turned and strolled back toward the Shady Lady. “Good work, kids. We leave bright and early tomorrow; we’ll need to give Mr. Paxton a ride, after all.”

“So…yay!” said Fross. “We won!”

Joe looked at her, then at Mamie, who dropped her eyes from his gaze. He turned and trudged after Tellwyrn. Around them, people began moving back to their various tasks, though there was now a murmur of muted conversation from every direction.

“Yeah,” said Gabriel quietly. “We won.”

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4 – 18

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Trissiny led Arjen in a wide loop, charging directly at two mounted Riders who were approaching her column from the left flank. Two wand shots sparked off the shield of light surrounding her; when she didn’t so much as slow, both Riders peeled off and bolted for a nearby farmstead, just visible in the distance. Under the moonlight, flashes of lightning flickered among the buildings, and she spared a prayer for the residents and whatever elves were helping them. This was war, though, and strategy was strategy. She couldn’t afford to be diverted.

“I was afraid they were gonna go for the troops once they realized they weren’t making an impression on you,” Gabriel said as she trotted back to them.

“Better-trained soldiers might have,” she said, pushing down the urge to object to this disorganized chain of stragglers being called troops. “All right, men, form a line! Wands up at all times. Whatever happens, you will stay in step with the men to your left and right. You do not charge forward under any circumstances, and don’t retreat unless I call for it. Keep an ear out for orders to fire, but for the most part, I want you to fire at will! Don’t wait till you can see their eyes; we aim to herd them inward, not to cut them down here. I’ll be ranging ahead to scout and deal with problematic individuals. I am protected by Avei, but I would appreciate it if you’d try not to shoot me.”

She galloped Arjen up and down the line as she called orders, almost despairing at their slow, disorderly progress toward getting lined up, some of them chuckling nervously at her last comment. They got there, though, not as quickly as she’d hoped but faster than she’d feared, and their final line was suitably straight.

“Uh, ma’am?” called a man toward the right flank as she came abreast of him. “Does that mean you don’t want us to shoot to kill?”

“This is war,” she said grimly. “People die. The men who started the war have no right to complain. Don’t hesitate if you have a good shot, but no one is to break ranks and pursue. Is that clear?”

An uneven chorus of “Yes, ma’am!” sounded from up and down the line. Trissiny gritted her teeth, keeping her expression under control. They were not ready. This was war; people would die, and her soldiers—to use the word as loosely as possible—were terrifyingly vulnerable. No matter the situation was by no means her fault, their deaths would weigh on her.

“Goddess, grant us your favor,” she whispered, and not as a formality; if the goddess of war didn’t lend her support to this enterprise, it was not going to end well. Bringing Arjen around, she came to a stop in front of them, at the center of the line; directly ahead was the central street of Sarasio.

“The company will advance at a walk!”

Gripping weapons, they did so.


 

“All right, lads,” Ruda called out, stalking back and forth behind the line of men with her rapier in hand. She had declined the offer of a wand. “I could make a speech, but fuck it, we’ve got shit to do. You know what’s going on, and you know what’s at stake. We’re gonna stick to Trissiny’s plan, and that means you stay. In. Line. We move forward or not at all; we move together or not at all. You keep your wands up and if you get a bead on any asshole in a white cloak, you burn ’em down! This is the line of death for them; we want them to know that getting too close is a non-starter, because let’s be honest, this group is not gonna stand up to a cavalry charge. So we make sure no such charge happens! Nothing on horseback gets close enough to run us over without being a burned-out husk, is that clear?”

She exchanged a grim look with Toby while the men called out their agreement, then shouldered through the line, placing herself in front of them and looking into the town. Sounds of battle and flickers of lightning sparked at the edges of the outskirts, but at their approach, the two small groups of Riders harassing the nearest farmsteads had turned tail and run. They had a clear path into Sarasio.

Ruda looked over her shoulder at her troops, and grinned. They were staring forward, hard-faced, gripping weapons. Now this was a fine sight. These prairie folk were no Punaji, but once properly motivated, they weren’t going to take the Riders’ abuse lying down. She was born to lead men like this into battle.

“All right!” she called, brandishing her sword overhead and bringing it down in a flashing arc to point at the street. “Gentlemen: let’s fuck ’em up!”


 

The farmer averted his eyes from the discharge of lightning, grimacing, but when he raised the smoking tip of his staff, the horse was dead. It had been the only kindness they could offer the beast, which had broken two legs in the fall. Turning, he picked his way back toward the others, carefully avoiding the streaks of ice that marred the grass, one of which had brought the Rider to grief. It was plenty warm even at this late hour; the ice was steaming in the prairie air, already melting away. Good; the ground could use the water, and he limped hard enough without slipping on fairy magic in his own front yard.

Now, in addition to the talkative ball of light zipping around, there was an elf standing next to his daughter-in-law and granddaughter.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say the situation is under control,” the elf was saying as he rejoined them, leaning on the staff. “However, the prospects are optimistic. The Hand of Avei is executing a workable strategy which, if successful, will bring an end to the Riders in Sarasio.”

“What strategy?” the old man demanded, keeping his weight on the staff and off his aching hip as much as possible.

She turned and bowed to him. “The men who attended the meeting in town are dispersed at the northern and southern edges, sweeping inward and pushing the Riders before them. My people have fanned out along the flanks to prevent them escaping that way. We will surround them in the center of Sarasio and finish them here.”

“Hnh,” he grunted, rubbing his chin. “Sounds pretty solid.”

“It is!” chimed the pixie, bobbing up and down. “Trissiny is great with plans, she knows all about war!”

“Agreed,” said the elf solemnly.

“Welp, seems to be all settled here,” the old farmer said, straightening up. “You’ll need every warm body you can get to herd ’em up proper. Which way next?”

“Oh no you don’t, Gramps,” Lucy said firmly, keeping a grip on the toddler, who was gazing raptly at Fross and trying to grab the pixie. “There’s no way you’re goin’ out there on that bum leg.”

“Girl, I been protectin’ this land since before you was a gleam in your daddy’s eye! If the men are finishing off the Riders, I ain’t about to sit this out.”

“I fear it will not be possible for anyone to sit it out,” the elvish woman said, turning her big, serious eyes on him. “The operation is aimed at controlling chaos, but chaos has a way of escaping. For exactly that reason, it makes more tactical sense for you to remain with your farm, elder. You have demonstrated your prowess with that weapon; lacking mobility, you better serve the effort holding this ground.”

He growled, searching for a flaw in her argument, but Fross chimed in before he could speak.

“All right, well, I’m still pretty mobile! I’m gonna head upward and see where they need the most help. Be careful, everybody! I’ll try to come back if you run into trouble!”

She shot skyward with a soft chime, leaving the humans and lone elf staring after her.

“Friendly little glowbug,” the old man said, then looked over at the dissolving patches of ice. “Scary, though.”


 

“Here they come,” Gabriel noted unnecessarily, raising his wand alongside the rest of the men in line. Trissiny nodded, her eyes fixed on the five mounted figures which had burst out of a gap between buildings. The townsfolk had reached the outer edge of the city, almost coming to the point where she would have to rearrange their formation to get them through the streets—a logistical mess to which she was not looking forward. Now, the Riders wheeled down the central street straight at the line.

Several of the men in their path shied backward, but at Trissiny’s roar of “FIRE!” lightning flashed forward from a dozen wands and staves, striking one down, glancing off the flank of another’s horse and causing the panicked animal to bear him to the ground, and making a third wheel and bolt back into the town.

She mentally added “poor shots” to her list of reservations about the men she was leading.

Two still came, though. Identical as they looked in their hoods and cloaks, Trissiny knew the one in the lead was one she’d met before.

“HOLD FIRE!” she shouted, and urged Arjen forward.

At her approach, glowing like the sun, the fourth Rider wheeled around and galloped back into the town. The leader, though, kept coming right at her, controlling his mount with his knees and taking aim with both wands.

The light he shot at her was more intense and more direct than most of the lightning bolts she’d seen hurled about this night. Also, he used it with a lot more technique. One wand kept up a veritable spray, hitting her shield hard in a roughly circular area around her face, nearly blinding her; Trissiny felt the impacts as if in her own limbs, that region of the glowing shield weakening and drawing more power to compensate. Then it got worse: a much more powerful single bolt smashed right into the center of the targeted region. Then another.

He had fought light-wielders before, clearly. Over time, assuming she did nothing, the technique would wear through the shield until she took one of those hits directly. Matters were different, though, with the two of them barreling at each other at top speed. Arjen whinnied and tossed his head, clearly understanding the danger; Trissiny did a quick calculation in her mind. Her shield was failing. She was seconds from getting within sword range. Was it enough time?

No.

Arjen lowered his head, and Trissiny raised her metal shield as her divine one shattered under a last bruising wandshot. Raw energy struck; the impact physically rocked her, and she felt the shield grow warm, felt a moment of real fear. That shield was ancient, not made to stand up to modern energy weapons.

Then the shield itself glowed gold. It had been forged before mass-produced wands were even dreamed of, but a shield given to the Hands of Avei had been meant to withstand curses, dragonfire and all the perils of the Age of Adventures.

She closed with the Rider, and bashed him with the shield in passing. He tried to wheel his horse around; Arjen followed with astounding agility, but he was a huge creature built for power and the Rider’s leaner mount proved more agile. Trissiny managed to bring her sword into play, but only felt the slightest snag as its tip nicked the Rider’s shoulder in passing.

Then he was vanishing back into the warren of dirt streets. She watched after him for a moment before turning Arjen back to rejoin her troops, who greeted her with cheers and brandished weapons. A few wands were even fired skyward in celebration.

“If they’re spread as thinly as the elves have suggested,” she said, “they can’t have enough manpower concentrated in one place to do that too many times. Luckily they tried it here instead of against Ruda’s line.”

Gabriel grinned up at her. “I’ll refrain from telling her you said that.”

“Thanks.”


 

Teal panted slightly as she came padding up out of the darkness on bare feet. “How’re we doing?”

“Apparently we are meeting with some success,” Shaeine replied, nodding to the elf who had arrived moments before to deliver a terse report. “Both lines have entered the city proper, and been slowed considerably by the need to navigate the streets, which presents obvious challenges. Only two Riders have slipped through the blockade; one was brought down by elven warriors, and Fross is pursuing the other as we speak.”

“The Hand of Avei just broke a Rider charge aimed at her lines,” said another elf, arriving out of the darkness. “One Rider slain, another dismounted and apprehended by our scouts. We don’t find a similar concentration of them anywhere else in the town. They have evinced no signs that they are in communication; it’s not clear yet whether the entire group realizes what is happening.”

“Good,” growled one of the humans nearby. They were a mixed group, standing at the western edge of Sarasio: a small, constantly rotating roster of about half a dozen elves kept coming and going, relaying information before darting back out to gather more. About twice their number of townsfolk had been gathered, all armed; most of Sarasio’s men having gone to the meeting and now forming the main battle lines, these were the leftovers, those rescued from beleaguered outer farms. More than half were women, the rest a mix of elderly and adolescents of both sexes, all armed.

“I suggest we press forward,” said the elven warrior who had remained alongside Shaeine throughout the night. “The battle enters a new phase as it enters the town, and it will not do to be left behind.”

“Sounds good,” a middle-aged woman with a staff slung over her shoulder said, nodding. “C’mon, everybody. You see anything in a white cloak, blast it.”

The group moved forward in a loose formation, elves fanning out to scout ahead and cover the flanks, townsfolk forming a rough line behind them. Shaeine walked in the rear, Teal falling into step behind her.

“Have you seen Juniper?” Teal asked.

The drow shook her head. “Not since we parted ways at the edge of the forest. I confess I worry more for her than any of our other compatriots; she is resilient, but we have seen her vulnerability to lightning. I can only trust that she knows how to take care of herself.”

“I guess we’d hear about it if anything happened to her,” Teal agreed, nodding. “Naiya apparently isn’t the subtle type.”

“Indeed.”

They slowed slightly, the outer buildings of the town looming ahead.

“You approached on foot,” Shaeine noted.

“Ah…yeah, I figured it’d be best not to startle the locals any more than we can help. On that note, I see you’ve been sticking by the other elves.”

“It seemed wisest,” Shaeine agreed with a faint smile. “Though after the initial shock wears off, I have been offered no hostility as yet, once I show myself to be allied with them. These people are admirably pragmatic.”

“Yeah…” Teal swallowed. “I hate that it had to come to this.”

“As do I,” Shaeine said quietly.

“I just… I know sometimes you can’t talk things out. It just seems like fighting in the streets is a failure.”

“I think you’re right on both points. Many failures have led to this disaster… But the situation is what it is. It can no longer be solved with words. Our best hope is decisive action, to prevent the crisis from dragging itself out further.”

Teal nodded. “I guess I’m fairly well invincible, but… Still. I’ve never been in a… I mean, it’s still terrifying. The though of losing… Someone I’ve come to care about.”

Shaeine looked at her and smiled gently. “I know.”

They had come to a stop, the others moving ahead at a very careful pace now. Teal swallowed, and took one of Shaeine’s hands in her own. The drow glanced down in apparent surprise, then lifted her gaze with an inquisitive look. Teal took a short but deep breath and leaned in closer.

The first naked emotion she had ever seen on Shaeine’s face descended: shock. The drow jerked backward, pulling her hand away. “I think there has been a miscommunication.”

“Oh,” Teal said weakly, going deathly pale. “Oh, I… Oh. I’m sorry, I didn’t… I don’t…”

“It’s all right,” Shaeine said evenly, turning and gliding forward with her normal serenity firmly in place. Behind her, Teal gulped, allowing her own misery to show on her features for a moment before getting it back under control.

“I… Sorry, Shaeine, I don’t want—”

“It’s past,” she replied, her tone even and very nearly curt. “We needn’t discuss it.”

They reached the streets in silence.

At the rear of the group, Teal cleared her throat. “Seems quiet here. I’m gonna find where the trouble is and help.” There was a rush of flames the sound of beating wings, and then a fiery figure soared over them, vanishing beyond the rooftops.

One of the elves glanced over at Shaeine with a wry half-grin. “Smooth.”

She glided past him without response.


 

Toby straightened, helping a young man to his feet, the glow of healing around him subsiding.

“My thanks, friend,” the lad said with a smile. “Ah… I mean, sir. Mister. Your, uh, paladin-ness.”

“Toby’s fine,” he replied, grinning.

“Nice horse!” Ruda said cheerfully as two men calmed the rearing animal. Two others were roughly hog-tying the Rider who had been knocked from the saddle by a low-hanging sign he had tried to ride under to avoid their group after seeing all the wands pointing his way. “Maybe I should keep one a’ these. Course, I’d have to learn how to ride it…”

“We’re doing well,” said a voice from above. No matter how many times it happened, the soundless appearance of an elf made most of those present jump and aim their weapons. The slim woman now perched atop the general store sign continued, ignoring this. “Your pixie friend has brought down the last Rider to evade the blockade; all those still in action are within the town, being herded toward the center. Most are now dismounted; that flying demon has been chasing them down and scaring the horses into bucking them for the last fifteen minutes. She seems oddly reluctant to fight.”

“Yeah, that’s no surprise,” Ruda said, nodding. “Teal’d never forgive her for getting blood on her claws. How’s the formation overall?”

“Uneven and prone to buckling,” the elf said with a smile, “but impressively effective. Your friend Trissiny makes good plans.”

“I was afraid of that,” Ruda said sourly. “There’ll be no living with her now.”

Another form dropped from above, earning another round of curses, jumps and pointed weapons, but she similarly ignored this, making a beeline for the young man who had recently been injured.

He saw her at the same time. “Thassli!”

The two met in the middle of the alley and embraced, while the nearby men and elves averted their eyes, embarrassed, and Ruda grinned unabashedly.

“Hi, Jason,” Thassli said finally, pulling back enough to cup his face in both hands.

“I thought I’d never see you again,” he said.

“I told you, love, you just have to be patient.” Someone coughed.

“I can’t be patient anymore.” Taking both her hands in his own, he knelt before her in the dust. Behind him, Lucas Wilcox clenched his jaw, glaring. “Thassli, will you marry me?”

“What?” She laughed lightly. “Of course not, don’t be ridiculous.”

The silence that fell was awkward to the point of being physically painful. Ruda let out a low whistle.

“I,” he choked. “But…”

“Jason,” Thassli said with gentle reproof, ruffling his hair, “we’ve had fun. You’re a sweet boy, really. But, honestly, if I wanted to tie my heart to a hairy, overly exuberant creature who’ll die just when I’ve had time to get properly attached to him… Well, I could just get a dog, couldn’t I? Now c’mon.” She tugged the unresisting lad to his feet. “The night’s not over. I’ll come find you when we win this. Try not to get killed, eh?”

She blew him a kiss, then kicked off a nearby wall, grasped the overhanging roof opposite, heaved herself lightly up and vanished.

Ruda cleared her throat. “Yeah, well, anyway. On we go, stuff to do, assholes to shoot…”

“I did tell you, boy,” Wilcox said wearily, coming up to stand next to Jason.

“Yeah.” The boy sounded numb. “I heard you, pa. Always said that elf was trouble. I just figured…”

“You figured I had a problem with you carryin’ on with an elf,” Wilcox said, draping an arm around his son’s shoulders. “You don’t listen, boy. I said that elf was trouble.”

“Hell, I told you that,” Robin added from the roof above, causing another ripple of startlement among the men.

“Dammit, will y’all stop doin’ that!” somebody shouted.

“Here.” Grinning ruefully, Ruda handed Jason a bottle of whiskey. He took it in silence, pulled out the stopper with his teeth and took a long pull. “Now c’mon, boys. We’ve still got work to do.”

“Wait,” said Robin, her expression grim. “We’ve got a problem.”


 

“Hostages?” Trissiny said sharply.

The elven scout nodded, his eyes serious. “Four groups have managed to take them. They appear to have arrived at this plan independently, but as we’ve forced them into the middle of the town, more have met up and consolidated both their forces and their strategies.”

She drew in a long breath and let it out through her teeth. “You have archers?”

“Moving into position now,” he said. “But coordination is a problem. Our strikes would need to be simultaneous, and the Riders are adeptly making use of urban cover to prevent us from getting a clear shot.”

“All right,” she said, then raised her voice, turning to look back at the men following her. They had broken into multiple groups to push forward through the streets, and not all of those she’d set out with were present; those remaining were in a cluster rather than a line now. “Everyone, continue moving forward, but slowly, and do not fire on enemy targets until you are certain they have no hostages.”

“Ma’am?” one said, worry etched on his features. “What if they do? I mean… How’ll we get our people back?”

“If all else fails, we’ll negotiate,” she said flatly. “But before it comes to that, I’ll trust in the elves to pick them off. Now, move ahead.”

They didn’t have much farther to move before joining another group of townsfolk, followed by a third emerging from another alley. The noose had tightened significantly; they were not exactly in the center of the town, more like several streets to the east, but Trissiny sensed at once that they had reached the place where the endgame would play out.

Mostly because of the Riders who were there ahead of them.

She counted eight with a quick scan. Half their number were occupied with holding two young women by the arms, including one Trissiny recognized.

“Really?” Jenny was saying aloud as they approached. “Really? The damsel in distress? Oh, if you only knew how insulting this is.”

“Quiet,” growled one of the Riders, aiming a wand at her face. Jenny shut her mouth, glaring at him. To her credit, she didn’t seem much perturbed by her predicament, unlike the other hostage, who appeared to be on the verge of fainting.

“Not another step,” said the leader of the Riders, his distinctively eerie voice echoing through the street. He pointed one wand at Trissiny, and the other in the opposite direction down the street—where, she could see from her vantage atop Arjen, a large group of townsfolk with Ruda and Toby at their head had just rounded a corner into view. They were proceeding slowly and carefully, clearly having been warned of the situation just as she was, and came to a stop at the Rider’s warning.

More Riders arrived, drifting in from all directions, but now they pressed themselves against walls, under eaves; some kept their wands on hostages, of which there were now four, two more groups having arrived with victims in tow. The rest divided their focus between the two large groups of townspeople and students and keeping weapons trained on the rooftops. Obviously, they had managed to meet and compare notes, and were aware of the intervention of the elves.

Another Rider backed into view, keeping his wand aimed into the alley from which he’d come. A moment later, Juniper emerged, glaring at him. Trissiny’s momentary surge of hope died when two more Riders came right after her, also holding wands on her.

“I really don’t think you want to do that,” the dryad warned.

“Shut it, bitch!”

Trissiny unconsciously raised her sword.

“Enough,” said the leader. Just hearing his voice was like having wet burlap dragged over her ears. “Everyone stand down. Everyone. I want all weapons dropped.”

“And if we don’t?” Ruda called from the other end of the street.

“Don’t be disingenuous,” he replied, shifting his wand to aim at Juniper’s head.

“And then what?” Trissiny called. “Right now, you have a chance of being taken properly into custody and serving jail time. Play that card, and nothing I say or do will stop these men from tearing you to shreds. I may not be inclined to try.”

“I’m sure that will make you feel much better,” he replied mockingly. “Will it bring back the dead?”

Vadrienly landed on a nearby roof with a force that shook the building, slate tiles crunching under her talons.

“There are so many things,” she said, baring fangs down at the group, “that are so much worse than death.”

“I will not warn you again!” The leader raised his voice. “Drop your weapons! NOW!”

Occupied with the tense drama unfolding, Trissiny hadn’t realized what street they were on until the door of the Shady Lady opened and Joe Jenkins stepped out. Riders swiveled to aim wands at him; ignoring this, he calmly strolled across the sidewalk, stepped down into the street and paced forward till he stood at its center.

To his sharply-tailored suit he had added a knee-length leather duster with a matching black hat; he kept his head tilted forward at an angle that hid his eyes under its brim. The duster was belted at the waist, his holstered wands hanging at his sides. His hands hovered just above them.

He finally raised his head, staring directly at the leader of the White Riders.

“Gentlemen,” said the Kid. “Draw.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

4 – 13

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“I’m telling you, I can take us right there,” Juniper said petulantly. “Yes, Fross, I believe you about the wards. But I can smell them.”

“Exactly how sharp is your sense of smell?” Teal asked.

“Oh, whatever I need it to be,” the dryad said, waving a hand vaguely. “My senses are based on animals. Mostly I go with the norm for elves, that’s pretty sharp. You wouldn’t want to walk around smelling like a hound or seeing like an eagle all the time, you’d go nuts.”

“Dryads.” Jenny shook her head. “Little overpowered in this continuum…” She trailed off; Teal glanced at her curiously, but didn’t pry.

“The issue is not what you can do, Juniper,” Shaeine said quietly. “The elves do not appreciate unannounced visitors. No elves do; these have specifically shown us the seriousness with which they take their privacy. Bypassing their defenses would be an unequivocally hostile action.”

“And?” Juniper actually scowled.

“We are trying to talk with them,” Shaeine said gently.

“That didn’t seem to go over so great last time,” said Fross, buzzing along behind them. “It’s not so much that they’re difficult…”

“Some of them are difficult,” Juniper grumbled.

“Well, yeah, sure. But, y’know, if you pick up the clues about their culture and how they decide things… I don’t think we’re going to make any headway trying to persuade the tribe to get moving. It’d take years.”

“And that is why I don’t much care about their privacy or their defenses,” said Juniper crossly. “These guys really irritate me. Elves usually respect nature, most of them live very close to it. But this…this passiveness, that’s not natural.”

“Isn’t it?” Teal asked. “Nature is sort of…reactive, right? It adapts, it doesn’t charge in.”

“Exactly!” Juniper nodded eagerly. “It adapts. They’re not adapting! It’s not that they can’t, they just don’t want to, and it’s so…so silly!” She actually paused in walking to stomp her foot. “Elves should know better. They’re all gonna get killed from sheer stubbornness!”

“Harmony with nature is one thing,” said Shaeine. “Never underestimate an elf’s pride.”

“I’m still not clear on what we’re gonna do, anyway,” said Fross. “If they won’t be persuaded… You’re not thinking of attacking them, right?”

“What could we possibly gain by attacking them?” Jenny asked, amused.

“Well, see, that’s what I figured! But I dunno what the other options are, here.”

“We spoke with the leaders, before,” said Shaiene, calm and quiet as ever. “Perhaps they are not the only people worth talking to.”

“I suppose that’s something, at least,” said a voice from above.

The party came to a stop, looking upward. Two elves, both women, sat on a huge branch extending overhead. They were garbed in sturdy leathers patterned with camouflage and well-armed, carrying knives, tomahawks, bows and laden quivers. Clearly, these were scouts or warriors.

“It’s very reassuring that you’ve decided not to attack us,” said the second elf dryly. “I’m sure we’ll all sleep more soundly.”

“There you are,” said Juniper, planting her hands on her hips. “All right, fine, we found some elves. They can take us to the grove, and everybody will be happy.”

“Some elves found you. The distinction is important.”

“I’m not hearing a reason why we should take you anywhere.”

“Perhaps some time spent wandering around the forest will improve your disposition? You certainly don’t seem to be in a friendly frame of mind.”

“We do enjoy our peace and quiet.”

“Yeah, no, we’re not going to do that,” Juniper said firmly. “I am going to the grove. Shaeine doesn’t want me to just walk in, fine. I respect her opinion because she’s smart and she’s a friend, but she doesn’t get to tell me what to do. You don’t tell me what to do, either.” Her face drew into a scowl. “Only one person gives me orders, and I swear I am this close to complaining to her.”

The warriors exchanged an unreadable look. Then, quite suddenly, one rose to her feet and took off, bounding from one branch to another, and vanished quickly into the foliage. The other dropped to land lightly on the moss beside them, and bowed deeply to Juniper.

“We apologize for offending you, daughter of Naiya,” she said courteously. “My companion will see that a welcome is prepared in the grove. If you’ll follow me, please?”

“That’s more like it,” Juniper said with satisfaction, gesturing for the elf to go ahead.

They trooped along in her wake, quieter now that the matter was, for the moment, settled.

“Well,” Teal said softly, “I have a feeling this will be…interesting.”

Shaeine nodded. “I’m afraid so.”


“So quickly, thou hast returned to us,” Shiraki intoned. His expression was almost mournful, though it lightened somewhat when he turned and bowed to Juniper. “It gladdens my heart to see thee once again, child of Naiya.”

“I’m sure it does,” she said, winking. The old elf actually cracked a smile. Standing beside him, Sheyann rolled her eyes. Once again, most of the population of the grove seemed to be present, though they were less formally arranged now; the majority stood at a safe distance, unabashedly watching. The weight of their direct attention seemed greater, now that no one was occupied with dinner.

“Within hours, there is going to be a confrontation in Sarasio between the White Riders and the townspeople,” said Shaeine. Her voice was as calm as ever, but there was something very subtly different in her demeanor. She was businesslike, not quite brusque, but some of the gentleness of her previous address of the elves was gone. “It is too early to know the shape this will take, much less its outcome. The citizenry have a numerical advantage, but the Riders are more mobile and better positioned.”

“That,” Sheyann noted, “and the people of Sarasio are too divided and generally timid to take action.”

“Kinda like you guys,” said Jenny, folding her arms and raising an eyebrow. A faint stir swirled among the onlookers.

“That is being addressed as we speak,” Shaeine said evenly. “We have come to request the help of any elves who care enough for their human neighbors to lend it.”

“This matter has been settled,” Shiraki said, somewhat sharply. “The tribe will take no action that will bring the dangers of human barbarism into our midst.”

“Forgive me, elder, for my lack of respect, and my temerity,” Shaeine replied, bowing to him. “But I was not speaking to you.”

Dead silence fell. All around, dozens of elves watched, hawklike. The brook continued to gurgle softly on its way, making the only sound in the grove. Sheyann raised an eyebrow, her expression mildly interested. Shiraki, however, was close to scowling outright.

“We speak for the tribe,” he said firmly.

“Then the tribe need not act. Only the individuals who are willing.”

“The tribe acts as one, or not at all!” His voice climbed in volume, and very slightly in pitch. “That is our way, older than thou canst imagine.”

“Then,” Shaeine replied calmly, “it is time for your ways to change.”

Some of the onlookers drew in sharp breaths, enough to make a soft sound that filled the clearing.

“Thou reachest far, child of the underworld,” Shiraki said softly.

“Uh huh,” Juniper interjected, “and are you gonna explain why she’s wrong? Things change. The world changes. You either change with it, or you get left behind. Ten thousand years ago, this was a swamp. Would you try to live in that the way you do in a forest surrounded by prairie?”

“That is a slender and specious comparison.”

“No.” Sheyann shook her head. “It isn’t.”

“The situation is thus,” Shaine went on inexorably. “The White Riders have gone well beyond random violence and obstructionism. They are guilty of rebellion against the Tiraan Empire, and their efforts to prevent the Empire from learning of their actions were doomed from the start. Already, the duration of their success has pushed the bounds of likelihood. There will be Imperial reprisal soon, and this problem will be resolved.”

“And so should it be!” Shiraki snapped. “Let the humans solve their own problems.”

“At that time,” Shaeine continued, very nearly cutting him off, “the Empire will begin to look around at the surrounding situation. They will find a community of powerful immortals, situated in extreme proximity to a rebel group, who did nothing to inhibit this sedition. They will not ignore your involvement.”

“We are not involved!”

“To exist is to be involved. Your isolationism is a choice; it affects the course of events around you, and you will be held accountable for those effects.”

“Thy threats are as empty as they are ill-mannered,” he shot back. “We fear no human reprisal.”

“I do,” Sheyann said quietly.

“It has been more than three centuries since the Tiraan Empire directly engaged in combat with any group of forest elves,” Shaeine carried on, her stare boring into Shiraki. “This was before the use of wands and staves in battle, before zeppelin transport, tactical scrying and modern spellcaster protocols. All these methods were employed several years ago against the Cobalt Dawn tribe of plains elves, the last elven group to directly attack Imperial interests. That tribe no longer exists.” The reaction from the crowd to this was such that she had to raise her voice slightly as she continued. “The same measures sufficed for decades to decisively overmatch the armies of Tar’naris, whose military capabilities outstrip your own by a wide margin. The Cobalt Dawn were wiped out; Tar’naris allied itself with the Empire and has prospered greatly. Those are the two main possibilities before you. Ignoring the power of Tiraas will soon cease to be an option for anyone. The option will be taken from your tribe very soon.”

“That is enough,” Shiraki snarled. “Twice, thou hast abused our hospitality to threaten ruin. Thou shalt remove thyself from our grove, or be removed.”

Shaeine raised her voice further, turning from him to pan her gaze around the assembled elves. “The world is changing! Any of you who wish to continue living in it must change, too. You cannot ignore what is happening in Sarasio, any more than you could ignore a famine or tornado. Help us, for your own future is as much at stake as anyone’s!”

“I said ENOUGH!” Shiraki thundered, making a lifting gesture with his fingers stiffened into claws. Roots erupted from the ground around Shaeine’s feet, swelling to twine around her legs in seconds, entangling her robes and lifting her off the moss. She pinwheeled her arms frantically, struggling not to be toppled over.

“LET HER GO!”

Elves fled in all directions as Teal erupted in a cascade of flames and Vadrieny emerged, burning wings fully extended, her face twisted in a snarl that showed the full length of her murderous fangs.

The roots stopped growing the instant Juniper laid her hands on them; the dryad began carefully peeling them off the drow, while Vadrieny stalked toward Shiraki, her talons gouging deep rents in the moss. Jenny let out a yelp and jumped backward, barely managing to catch her balance before tumbling into the stream. She stared, open-mouthed, at Vadrieny.

All around them, elves drew weapons, aiming a variety of arrows, wands and tomahawks at the demon, but no one let fly. Vadrieny came to a stop after only three paces, staring in puzzlement at Shiraki, who did not react at all the way she had expected. The ancient elf scrambled backward so frantically that he actually tripped over his robes and fell, continuing to scuttle away awkwardly on his back. His face was a mask of horror, all the famous elven grace stripped from him.

“Invazradi!” he squealed. “No, no! You’re dead!”

“Yes, she’s dead,” Sheyann said calmly. She had produced a tomahawk from within the folds of her robe and slipped smoothly into a fighting stance, her eyes on the demon, but had not backed away an inch. Her expression was utterly cold. “That’s not her. Hello, Vadrieny.”

Vadrieny turned her eyes, narrowed to blazing slits, to the other elder. Sheyann still made no move to advance or retreat; the surrounding elves kept their weapons trained on Vadrieny, but for the moment, no one offered aggression. Juniper had quickly peeled away the roots entangling Shaeine, who was now carefully unwrapping her robes from them.

“Do I know you?” Vadrieny asked sharply.

Sheyann actually straightened up, surprise replacing her glare. “Do you know me?” she demanded. “Is this what passes for humor in Hell?”

“Vadrieny is without memory,” Shaeine said, stepping forward. She did not quite place herself between the elf and the demon, but interjected her presence. “As I keep having to repeat, a great deal has happened in the world while you’ve enjoyed the peace of your grove.”

“I see.” The two words held a great weight of hidden meaning. Sheyann didn’t lower her weapon, but slowly eased into a less aggressive posture. “…I did not even see you in the girl’s aura. You share a body with a human, now? Only discorporeal demons are capable of such.” A faint, very unpleasant smile tugged at her lips. “My, my. Something very bad has happened to you, hasn’t it?”

“How do you know me?” Vadrieny demanded, her musical voice echoing across the glade.

“How have you hidden yourself so thoroughly?” Sheyann countered. Shiraki was actually behind her now, having gotten to his feet. He wasn’t quite hiding, but very carefully kept his fellow elder between himself and the demon.

“Oh! Oh! Oh! She wasn’t hiding!” Fross buzzed around Vadrieny in a circle, seeming unperturbed by the flames wreathing her hair and feathers. “I’ve researched this! Warding spells are just about the most universal kind of magic, they function almost the same if they’re arcane or divine or whatever. You’re using fae magic, of course, but it’s still the basic ‘detect evil’ that clerics use! It didn’t ping when Vadrieny entered the glade, because she’s not evil.”

“Not evil?!” Shiraki said shrilly. “Are you utterly daft?”

Fross paused in her buzzing. “Oh, hey. You do speak modern Tanglish!”

“He does it in bed, too,” Juniper noted.

“It’d be different if you’d set it up to scan for demons, but it’s not efficient to have multiple wards for every possible kind of intruder, you’d have more wards than trees! So you’re using a fae spell that screens for aggressors,” the pixie continued, beginning to buzz in figure eights between the two groups. “Evil really isn’t a quantifiable state, but fae magic is good for emotional gradients, so you’re probably looking for malice as a magical state. That’s common to both demons and wild fae. Vadrieny doesn’t have any malice toward you, so, there you go! Didn’t ping the wards.”

“No malice?” Sheyann barked a bitter laugh. “Do you have any idea what that creature is?”

“First of all, she’s a who, not a what,” said Juniper. “And second, yes. She’s our friend.”

“I would like to hear what you know about me,” Vadrieny said sharply.

“Would you?” Sheyann’s icy smile widened, beginning to look somewhat like Tellwyrn in one of her moods. “Life is full of disappointments.”

Vadrieny drew back her lip in a sneer; Shiraki cowered behind Sheyann at the sight of the fangs thus displayed, but Sheyann herself finally lowered her weapon, straightening and effortlessly reclaiming her poise. As though this were a signal, much of the tension went out of the surrounding elves, but very few lowered their own arms, keeping the demon well covered.

“You’re going to look down your nose at me, elf?” she growled. Even that guttural tone sounded like music, joining the splash of the stream and resonating through the glade, seeming as natural as birdsong. “Let me tell you something about being swept along by the world: it’s more painful than you can imagine.”

“I can imagine more than you’d credit,” Sheyann retorted, narrowing her eyes. “I remember pain that you, apparently, do not.”

“Then you’re oddly eager to revisit it.” Vadrieny folded her wings, hunching them over her shoulders almost like a huge, luminous cloak. They were too large to fit precisely, but the effect was visually striking. “Bad enough you want to sit here and wait for reality to stomp over you—forcing the rest of your people to suffer the same fate is cruel beyond belief.”

“You would speak to me about cruelty?” Sheyann said softly.

“Feh.” Vadrieny turned her back on the elf, panning her burning gaze around the glade. Wide-eyed elves stared back; Jenny eased herself behind Juniper, while Shaeine simply folded her hands, listening. “I’m not going to bother threatening you. If I wished you harm, the easiest thing in the world would have been not to come. To let you sit on your hands and wait for the inevitable to happen. You think you can hide from the world? Please. By all means, try that. Sit here in your pretty orchard until the Tiraan or whoever else decides they want what you have, and comes to show you all the shiny new ways they’ve invented of taking it from you. Is this what all elves are like? There’ll be nothing left of your species but drow and Tellwyrn at this rate.”

“…Arachne,” Sheyann said, closing her eyes. “I should have known.”

“Yeah, you really should have.” Vadrieny turned to look over her shoulder at the elder, moving one wing gracefully aside to clear her view. “If anyone here had been paying the slightest attention to what was happening beyond the points of your ears, you’d have found her sitting right there in Sarasio. Ever wonder what else has crept up on you while you ignored it?”

She looked to the left, then the right, then sneered again. “You know what? I don’t even care. Just sit here and die, all of you. If this is how you want to live, the world will be rid of elves within the century. I hope a few of you survive to see how little difference it makes to anyone. Bah.”

Vadrieny pivoted on one clawed foot and stalked toward the edge of the clearing, right at a knot of armored elves. They raised bows and wands as she approached.

“Move!” the demon barked, not slowing.

“Let her out.” Sheyann sounded suddenly weary. The defenders parted, shying back from the burning wings as Vadrieny passed. Jenny and the other students fell into step behind her, eager to get away from the tense, armed elves surrounding them.

“Nice to see you all again!” Fross said politely before zipping off after her classmates.

“So, uh…” Jenny swallowed, keeping her eyes on Vadrieny’s back. “There’s more to you guys than meets the eye, huh?”


They walked in silence through the darkened forest. This time, the way was illuminated by Vadrieny’s orange glow in addition to Fross’s white one. The demon stalked at the head of the group, Shaeine right behind her, with Fross fluttering back and forth. Periodically she would dip close to someone and chime softly, but never got as far as speaking.

“Sorry,” Vadrieny said suddenly.

“For what?” Shaeine asked, her voice soft.

“For ruining that. I suppose that was pretty much the opposite of diplomacy.”

“It was, at that,” the drow replied slowly. “But…much as I am loath to acknowledge it…diplomacy has its limits, and I believe we had reached them. I cannot say whether your approach was the right one, but it was something. Now, what will be, will be.”

They all straggled to a halt, glancing around. There was no sign of any elf having followed them.

“You took a stand on principle,” Shaeine went on. “And you protected your friends. I cannot imagine Teal is upset with you.”

Slowly, Vadrieny shook her head. “That… A lot of that was Teal’s anger.”

Mutely, Shaeine raised her eyebrows.

“Hey, uh…we’re just gonna go on up ahead a little bit,” said Jenny, taking Juniper by the arm and gently tugging her forward. The dryad went without protest, though she paused to wink and give Shaeine a thumbs up behind Vadrieny’s back.

“Uh, is it wise to split up?”

“Come on, Fross.”

“Okay, okay! See you two in a bit, I guess…”

The pixie chimed softly in agitation as she followed the others out, leaving Shaeine and Vadrieny in a small clearing, lit by the demon’s fire.

“You ought to know.” Vadrieny’s low voice hummed through the darkened trees, harmonizing with the crickets and bullfrogs that sang in the night. “She’ll be mad at me for telling you, but… Teal’s parents have a very good friend who’s an elf. He was like an uncle, really, helped raise her. He’s the reason she speaks elvish. And he never said a word to her about sexuality.”

Shaeine tilted her head mutely to one side.

“Remember the night we went to Last Rock, and she played the guitar?”

“And you helped her sing.” The drow nodded. “Vividly, yes.”

“You mentioned that elves are normally attracted to both genders.”

“Gender isn’t exactly a polar—ah. Yes, I recall.”

Vadrieny sighed, fanning her wings once and sending a warm breeze through the nearby bushes. “It’s been weighing on her. How can he not have said anything? It was…brutal, growing up the way she is in Imperial society. She’s only managed this well because her family is too powerful to let her be abused too much, but she was still bullied. The one person who could have made a difference, who should have known better, said nothing.”

Slowly, finally, the glow faded. Wings and claws withdrew and the forest grew dark again, and only Teal stood there, one arm crossed awkwardly in front of her to grasp the opposite elbow. She stared at the ground.

“And the worst thing is, I never had to wonder for a moment why he didn’t. Elves. Balance, harmony, respect, tradition… He wouldn’t have wanted to rock the boat. I am just. So. Sick. Of elven bullshit.” She twisted her lips, clamping down on the emotion bubbling up. “…I’m sorry, Shaeine, I shouldn’t have let her dump all this on you. I know you don’t like to talk about emotions…”

She broke off with a soft gasp as Shaeine closed the gap and wrapped her arms around her. The drow was shorter by a good bit; her thick white hair effectively blocked Teal’s mouth.

“Not everything,” Shaeine said softly, “is about what I like.”

Slowly, hesitantly, Teal loosened her arms and hugged her back. Shaeine squeezed her once before pulling away.

“I am very uncomfortable with public displays of emotion,” she said. “But I am also your friend, and I greatly value your happiness. Should you wish to talk, we can do so anytime we have privacy.”

Teal let a tremulous smile flutter across her features. “I-I would like that.”

Shaeine smiled back, and more warmth illumined the expression than she usually showed in the course of a day, clear even in the shadows.

“Am I intruding?”

They both spun to face the figure slowly materializing out of the darkness. Elder Sheyann moved at a serene, unthreatening pace, hands folded before her. The tomahawk was not in evidence… But then, it hadn’t been before, either.

“What a fascinating group of young people you are,” she said, her gaze on Teal, and came to a stop a few yards from them. “You have certainly disrupted the tranquility of our existence.”

“Sorry,” Teal said curtly.

Sheyann smiled very faintly. “You owe me no apology…for that. Nothing you said was incorrect, though you were perhaps a bit pushy. I cannot say I was best pleased at having an archdemon brought into our home unannounced.”

“I prefer it if she stays unannounced, usually,” Teal said frankly, shifting her bare feet awkwardly on the moss. Her rubber sandals were no doubt back in the glade, ripped apart by the manifestation of Vadrieny’s talons.

Sheyann studied her in silence for a moment. “You certainly managed to keep a secret from me,” she said at last, “but I am rarely wrong in my assessment of a person’s character. You seem like such a… Forgive the banal description… Such a nice girl.”

“Teal Falconer is the best person I know,” Shaeine said evenly. Teal looked over at her, opening her mouth in surprise, but closed it silently after a moment.

“In that case,” Sheyann went on in a grimmer tone, “I strongly advise you to separate yourself from that creature as quickly as you possibly can, by whatever means are necessary.”

Teal shook her head. “The clerics at the Universal Church… Well, they said a lot, but one thing that stuck with me was the metaphor of applesauce.”

Sheyann raised an eyebrow.

“You can take two apples,” Teal explained, “mash them up, add spices, mix them together…y’know, make applesauce. But once you’ve done that, applesauce is all you have. Even if you could somehow strain out all the other ingredients, separate each particle into the two separate piles and put them all back exactly where they were… Both are still basically destroyed. There’s not enough left of either to make two whole apples again.”

“I see. I am sorry to hear it.” The elder sighed. “Be warned, then. Memories or no, that creature is what it is. Its nature will out, eventually.”

“What did she do to you?” Teal asked in a small voice.

The elf simply stared at her in silence for a very long stretch of moments, then shook her head again. “I must return to the grove and try to salvage some order among those of the tribe who are left.”

“Left?” Shaeine asked sharply.

Sheyann actually grinned at her, but it was a wry, almost bitter expression. “Oh, yes. Whatever your other flaws and virtues, the two of you… The three of you can put on quite a show.” She turned and glided back into the darkness, her voice echoing back to them. “Return to the town, and do what you can for it, children. You won’t be going alone.”

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4 – 12

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“I just wish you’d at least take somebody with you, ma’am. Believe me, I understand not wantin’ to be cooped up in here anymore, but that’s exactly why it ain’t safe to just take off, with the town the way it is.”

“You’re a sweet boy, Joe,” Lily said fondly, reaching out to ruffle his hair. “Much too good for the lady you’ve got your eye on. But don’t you worry about little ol’ me. If I were worried about my safety, you can bet I wouldn’t be going.”

“Seriously, she’ll be fine,” Tellwyrn said dryly. “If anything, her leaving just means we’ll miss out on the accidental hilarity of somebody trying to harm her. I’m a little perplexed, though, Lil. It’s not like you to take off in the middle of the action.”

“Oh, this is far from the middle, Arachne,” Lily said, smirking at her. “Anyway, it’s not that I’m not interested in seeing how your little field trip goes, but an old acquaintance of ours has started sniffing around. One I’d rather not have a confrontation with at this time.”

Tellwyrn narrowed her eyes. “Oh? Who?”

“Don’t you fret your pretty head about it, dear. He was always fond of you anyway.”

The Professor’s nostrils flared in irritation, but she didn’t rise to the bait. “Be that as it may, I meant that when you vanish, you usually do just that. It’s the bothering to say goodbye that’s out of character.”

“Really, Arachne. Just because you have no regard for the most basic social graces doesn’t mean nobody else does.”

Lily picked up her carpet bag and strolled toward the door with an entirely unnecessary sway to her movements that commanded everyone’s attention. To her customary scarlet dress she had added an old-fashioned traveling cloak in deep crimson, and now pulled up the hood over her dark hair as she reached the exit. Pausing at the threshold, she half-turned to look back at those assembled.

“Bit of advice, kids,” she said. “A little less enthusiasm, a little more finesse. Toodles!” Wiggling her fingers flirtatiously, she turned and departed, leaving a momentary silence behind her.

“Didn’t she say she was pregnant?” Gabriel asked finally. “Sure doesn’t look it.”

Tellwyrn snorted and stomped over toward the bar.

“I wonder just who that woman really was,” Trissiny said slowly.

“She’s either pretty badass or a fucking idiot, goin’ out there alone,” Ruda agreed. “I mean, what’s she gonna do? Just walk out into the prairie? Try to flag down a caravan? The speed those things travel, I doubt the enchanter driving could even see someone waving.”

“There’s that,” Trissiny said, still frowning at the door, “and the fact that Professor Tellwyrn allowed her to talk to her that way. That’s what throws me off.”

The students, as well as Joe and Jenny, glanced in unison over at the bar, where Tellwyrn was now nursing a whiskey and ostentatiously ignoring them.

“Well,” Toby said after a pause. “I guess there’s no use putting it off. Everything ready, Robin?”

The elf shrugged. “They all know the time and place. I can’t guarantee everyone will turn up, but it’s not like there’s much else for them to do in this town these days. Most of the families are as fortified as they can get inside their homes; even tending their kitchen gardens is risky. Of course, I asked their wives to lean on them a bit, too,” she added with a grin. “That should improve the turnout.”

“Okay,” he said, nodding. “We’d better move out, then.”

“Just a moment, if I may.”

They turned in surprise at the voice, beholding Heywood Paxton approaching from the stairs to the upper floor, where the private rooms were. He looked much better, with none of the reddened eyes and nose that indicated he’d been at the bottle again. The man had lost weight, and his suit hung on him somewhat loosely, but it looked clean and freshly pressed nonetheless, and the silver gryphon badge of his office gleamed with fresh polish.

“High time this old fool started doing his duty to his Emperor,” he said, head high. “My friends, I thank you not only for coming to the aid of this town, but also for jostling me out of my stupor. You may count on Heywood Paxton, Imperial Surveyor, to do his part.”

“I’m…not sure that’s such a great idea,” Joe said carefully. “You’re a big target, Mr. Paxton.”

“Less so that previously, my boy,” the Surveyor replied with a grin, patting his somewhat diminished paunch.

“You know what I mean,” replied the Kid, his expression growing drawn. “You’re a high priority for the Riders. They can’t have an official Imperial report getting back to Tiraas.”

“And that is precisely what I must accompany this expedition,” he replied, turning to face the students again. “Pardon me for eavesdropping, but there’s precious little else to do around here except drink, and I believe I’ve done far more than my share of that lately. As I grasp it, my friends, your plan is, in part, to provoke a response from the Riders Am I correct?”

“Yes,” Gabe said thoughtfully. “And…yes, you’re right that having you along would be even better bait…”

“I don’t like that at all,” Jenny said, eyes wide. “Heywood, no offense, but you’re no wandfighter. This is too risky. It’s crazy.”

“Ah, but I hardly expect to have to do my own wandfighting,” said Paxton with a grin. “I’ll be with a whole party of heroes! Paladins, clerics, dryads, wizards, even a bard! Safe as houses, I’m sure.”

“Having to look after a civilian does alter the equation somewhat,” said Shaeine. “I am confident that we can protect ourselves from attack, but… On this matter I defer to more tactical minds.”

“It’s doable,” Trissiny said immediately, then turned a sharp stare on Paxton. “Provided that the civilian in question strictly follows orders and stays far from the front lines when combat breaks out.”

“My word on it, Ms. Avelea,” he said, nodding firmly.

“Then it’s up to the healers; they’ll be the ones having to stretch their capacity by an extra head. Shaeine?”

“Ah, let me just cut in here,” said Gabriel. “It’d be better if he went with our group rather than Shaeine’s. An Imperial Surveyor has some official rank that may help us impress the townsfolk. The elves, on the other hand…”

“…may interpret an official Imperial presence as aggressive,” Shaeine finished. “That is a solid point.”

“I thought your whole plan for the grove was to try to agitate them out of their complacency,” said Robin. “That’d be a start.”

“I’d rather appeal to reason and higher virtues first,” said Teal. “If it does come to agitating, well, it’s probably better not to put them on the defensive the moment we walk in. They may already be annoyed with us for showing up a second day in a row. I think a lot of ’em were glad to see us leave the last time.”

“I will, of course, yield to your strategic expertise,” said Paxton, “but quite frankly I’m not sure I’d be much use in dealing with elves. Imperial citizens, now, those I know just how to motivate.”

“That’s settled, then. Right?” Teal looked around for objections. “Right. Okay, then, all we’ll have to do is try to jostle a bunch of hidebound immortals who don’t think our opinions are worth a squirrel’s fart. No problem.”

“You’ve been in this town too long,” Ruda said, grinning. “You’re picking up the vernacular.”

Teal rolled her eyes. “Robin, any guesses how many of the elves hate humans as much as your sister does? If they have a majority, this is pretty much hopeless.”

Robin barked a laugh. “If you mean how many of the elves are anti-human, it’s actually a pretty tiny minority. That’s not the problem. My sister, for your information, loves humans, in every conceivable sense of the word. She is throwing a sulk because her boyfriend’s family were rude to her—which, by the way, was entirely her own fault and has nothing to do with the Riders or anything else going on. That’s going to be the bigger part of the problem. Elves typically err on the side of caution and consistency. The current climate just exacerbates petty disagreements like that, gives leverage to the few who really don’t want to be involved in human affairs, and the whole thing is held down by our general tendency to stay put and wait for something to happen.” She shrugged expressively. “You’re not going to get all the elves behind you, no matter what you do. The trick will be getting enough to break with the group, which…isn’t something we like to do. Shake that complacency enough, though, and you just might walk out of there with some allies.”

“It is a start,” said Shaeine.

“It’ll have to do,” Teal agreed grimly.

“I’ll help,” Jenny said brightly. “I’m good at shaking things up.”

“Jenny,” Joe protested.

“Don’t you start with me, Mr. Jenkins,” she said, leveling a finger at him. “I told you I’m not one to just sit on my hands! I wasn’t about to go take on the White Riders myself, but if people are taking action, I’m in.” She turned back to the others, folding her arms. “And I know a thing or two about elves.”

“Well, we won’t turn down any help,” said Teal. “We’re not going to stop with the elves, though; the plan is to go after the Riders immediately after we finish whatever happens in the grove.” She sighed, glancing at Gabriel. “And, despite what I earnestly wish, I don’t think diplomacy is going to be in the cards, with them. You sure you’re up for that?”

Jenny cracked a lopsided grin. “I may have seen a little bit of action here and there. Don’t you worry about me.”

“Anybody else care to lend a hand?” Toby asked. “Joe? I don’t like the idea of fighting any more than Teal, here, but she’s right: it’s almost surely going to come down to that. An extra pair of wands would be helpful. Besides, you’re widely respected; you’d be a big help in getting people up off their butts.”

Joe shook his head. “My place is here.”

“He’s right,” said Gabriel. “Without him here, there’s nothing to stop the Riders from hitting the Lady as soon as we’re all gone. It’s the biggest holdout against them; burning it and scattering the people here would be their logical move if we left it undefended.” He nodded at Joe, who nodded back gravely.

“Very well, then,” said Trissiny, slinging her shield over her back with an air of finality. “Everyone knows their role. Let’s move out.”


 

Sunset made the streets of Sarasio positively spooky. It was a time when a town should ordinarily be winding down its business; subdued, but still alive, still active. In Sarasio, there was total silence. Orange light stained the pitted street and the dilapidated boards of the buildings lining it, but there was no one about, not so much as a horse or stray dog moving.

The total silence was made more ominous by what lay behind it. This was their third patrol in the streets surrounding the old barn, now converted to a tavern, in which the meeting was being held. On the first, they had been watched, carefully, from the shadows, but apparently word of Trissiny’s performance on their group’s first arrival in town had spread, and none had offered them a challenge. Now, even those dim shapes lurking in doorways and the mouths of alleys had vanished, leaving only the unnatural quiet.

And the prospect of a lightning bolt out of any window.

Gabriel froze as a clatter pierced the quiet, clutching his wand and pointing it first one way, then another, seeking the source of the disturbance. Seconds later, another soft sound followed it, this one clearly coming from a junk-filled alleyway nearby. Clutching the wand in both hands, he aimed it straight for the pile of broken furniture that clogged the narrow opening, then drew in a deep breath, steeling himself to call out a challenge.

He stumbled backward as a small heap of what looked to be barrel staves toppled, and a rabbit shot out of the alley, darting across the road and vanishing into the dried-out bushes opposite.

Gabe slowly let out the breath he’d drawn, some of the tension easing from his frame. He gave Trissiny a sour look.

“Don’t say a word.”

She shook her head. “Too easy.”

With a soft sigh on his part, they resumed their slow circuit.

“Relax,” she said in a low voice.

He gave her an irritated sidelong look. “How in the hell am I supposed to relax? We’re the worms on the end of a hook, here.”

“This was your plan, you know.”

“Yeah, well… It all sounds much less deadly from the comfort of a lavish…uh, brothel.”

“Anyway, I’m serious. You’re wasting energy by holding so much tension. You can most likely survive a wand shot, and I can shield myself.”

“Most likely,” he said sourly. “Could be better odds.”

“I should probably have said ‘almost certainly.’ Compared to what Vadrieny did to you, a bolt of lightning is nothing.”

The silence which ensued was even more strained. The pair of them walked, alone, down the center of the dusty street, eying their surroundings as much for the excuse of avoiding each other’s gaze as to keep watch for ambushers. They had managed, for the most part, not to discuss their brawl on campus and its aftermath; the subject was invariably awkward at the very least.

Turning a corner, they slowed slightly by unspoken consensus, passing the old barn. One of the few stone structures in a town mostly of wood, it, like the ruined one out behind the Shady Lady, had once been part of a farmstead before Sarasio had grown to encompass it. Lamplight blazed from its windows, now, along with the sound of voices. Specifically, the sound of arguing. Two men on either side of the broad front door, each holding staves, nodded at them. Trissiny nodded in return, Gabe saluting with his wand, and they continued along their route, gradually leaving behind the only sight ad sound of other life in the town, the oppressive silence falling around them again.

“They’ll be all right,” he said quietly, nodding at nothing. “Toby’s in there, and Mr. Paxton. If they can’t straighten those folks out, it can’t be done.”

“Ruda is also in there,” Trissiny said darkly. “She can create a fight out of thin air. I shudder to think was she can do from the middle of a whole web of petty vendettas.”

“I didn’t hear you nominating her to come on patrol with us.”

“Once again, you’re invulnerable, and I have defenses. Ruda would be felled instantly by a wandshot. She’s safer in there with the diplomats.” She grimaced, glancing around. “Though all this is for nothing if they can’t get at least most of those people working on the same page.”

“And Teal and Shaeine doing the same with the elves…” He kicked a stone out of the way, scowling after it. “And then we’re assuming the Riders will try something… And with the right timing, too… Augh, I’m an idiot. What was I thinking?”

“Don’t,” she said quietly, shaking her head. “Don’t second-guess yourself after the plan’s in motion. No strategy survives contact with the enemy. If it goes wrong, we’ll adapt.” He sighed, and they walked in silence for a while longer before she spoke again, even more quietly. “It is a good plan, Gabriel.”

He risked a glance at her; she was watching the road ahead. “You’re not just saying that?”

“Seriously? Have I ever gone out of my way to coddle your feelings? Can you imagine me doing that?”

“Fair enough,” he said sourly.

“We wouldn’t all have signed off on it if it weren’t solid. You’re not that persuasive a speaker. They Riders have to know what’s going on, and they have virtually no choice but to respond—and only one method they’re likely to use. The biggest risk is, as you said, the timing. If they strike before we can get in position… But then, most of this is getting these people to work together. An attack by an outside party is the best possible way to do that.” She nodded. “It’s a good plan.”

“What would you say,” he said thoughtfully, “if I told you Ruda’s smarter than any of us give her credit for?”

Trissiny raised her eyebrows, but still kept her attention on the street rather than on him. “I would ask what makes you think so.”

“I’m not sure I do.” He shook his head. “It’s just… A guy I met in the bordello said so.”

“Just…some guy? Someone who’s only seen us a few times, when we were mostly just squabbling?”

“Exactly. I’m not sure whether he was talking out of his ass, or if maybe his outsider opinion… That is, maybe he noticed something we’ve missed. She is royal. I mean, she has to have had training in politics and stuff.”

Trissiny shook her head. “What does it matter?”

“Just thinking out loud, I guess. The different kinds of intelligence. It’s been sort of on my mind, the last day or two, how a person can be really smart in one area and kind of an idiot in others.”

“You mean, the way you actually have a pretty strategic mind, apparently, but possess all the people skills of a billy goat?”

He grimaced. “Just for a completely random example, yeah, sure. Not that you’re one to criticize anybody’s people skills.”

She shrugged.

Gabe coughed softly. “You, uh…actually think I have a strategic mind, though?”

“Really?” She rolled her eyed. “Must we go over this again? I have no intention of stroking your ego, or anything else of yours.”

“Oh, ew. I just got the cold shivers. Don’t say things like that!”

“Yeah, that was ill-advised,” she agreed, twisting her lips in disgust.

“I just… Well, coming from you, ‘strategic’ is pretty high praise. I’m not used to high praise, uh… Coming from you.”

Trissiny shrugged again. “It’s fair. I’ve said your strategy was solid. And don’t forget, I’ve played you at chess, too.”

“Where you won two out of three games.”

“Do you really imagine I didn’t see what you were doing?” Finally, she glanced over at him, but only for a second. “The first two I won quickly, using two different strategies, while you played almost entirely reactive, defensive games. The last one you stretched out, using multiple, deep feints to counter the strategies you’d seen me use, and maneuvered me into exhausting my pieces while you set up a trap. That’s grand strategy, studying an opposing general’s patterns and thinking beyond the needs of the battle at hand. So yes, to my surprise, there does appear to be a highly functional brain lurking somewhere behind that mouth.”

“Ah, well, you know how it is,” he said modestly. “The way I was raised, it’s just good manners to let the lady win.”

She glanced at him again, eyes narrowed. “You are trying to make me stab you now, aren’t you?”

“Invulnerable, remember?”

“Specifically not against a blade crafted by Avei.”

“Well, that’s not really fair, then, is it? You’ve got all kinds of advantages over me in a fight. What say we move this back to the chessboard, next time we have a chance? Best three out of five?”

To her own surprise, Trissiny found herself grinning. “You’re on.”


 

It was out of the question, of course, if he was to keep any shred of control over this situation, but more and more, Toby wanted to plant his face in his hands and groan.

Well over two dozen men crowded the barn, coalesced into small clumps keeping a wary distance between each of them. Despite the palpable tension in the room, they were thankfully leaving one another alone, all their focus on the main table in the center, at which sat the heads of the four families, along with Toby, Ruda and Mr. Paxton. The Surveyor was doing his best to remain professional, but he had wisely left most of the talking to Toby, who actually had formal training in negotiation. Not in Shaeine’s league, of course, but diplomacy called heavily upon the virtues that Omnu sought to instill in his followers: patience, compassion, understanding, respect. Ruda leaned back in her chair, balancing it on its two back legs, her boots propped on the table. She was sipping intermittently from a bottle of whiskey, her hat pulled forward so that it mostly hid her eyes, and not contributing to the conversation. All things considered, Toby decided he was glad of that.

At least there was one thing to be glad of.

“All I’m sayin’ is, we need assurances,” Jonas Hesse said stridently. “Who knows what’ll get back to the Riders, all of us meetin’ like this? Nobody here’s exempt from suspicion!”

“Nobody ‘cept your boys, is what you mean,” snarled Jacob Strickland, the oldest of the four patriarchs at the table. His beard was short, but more gray than brown, and did little to add to his dignity. If anything, he did more shouting than any of the others. He did so now, thrusting a finger at Hesse. “Well? Ain’t it?”

“We all prob’ly suspect everybody else’s boys of bein’ in with the Riders,” said Lucas Wilcox, the youngest of the four, who was leaning back in his chair much like Ruda.

“Gentlemen,” Paxton tried for the third time in the last minute, but Hesse overrode him.

“Nobody calls my sons traitors!” he snarled, jerking to his feet and planting both fists on the table to glare at Wilcox.

“Oh, but you can say what you want about ours?” Ezekiel Conner snapped, folding his arms and glaring mulishly. “Just like a Hesse.”

“Oh, that’s it. You’re gonna eat them words, Ezekiel!”

“Yeah? I don’t see you makin’ me.”

“Gentlemen,” Toby said, much more loudly than Paxton—enough to grab their attention momentarily. “I know you all have issues to work out. Having everybody here at the table is an important first step. But with all due respect, this is not the time.” He held his arms out wide, as if to embrace the whole barn and the town beyond. “Look around you. Sarasio is dying. You—and your families—will die with it if you don’t do something about the White Riders! And to do that, you are going to have to put these vendettas aside and work together.” He leaned forward, trying to hold them still with the sheer intensity of his stare. “Peace takes time and effort to build. I’m not asking you all to suddenly forgive everything and embrace each other. But, just for a little while, please. Put it aside.”

“Ain’t that I don’t appreciate what you’re tryin’ to do, kid,” said Wilcox, nodding to him. “And it ain’t even that you’re wrong. Fact is, though, you’re askin’ us to ride into what’s sure to be a firefight with the very real possibility of bein’ shot in the back.”

“The Riders know too much, we’ve seen it in the way they maneuver,” added Conner, still glaring at Hesse. “Somebody’s tippin’ ’em off. Several somebodies, ‘less I miss my guess.”

“I ain’t puttin’ my life on the line, and sure as hell not any of my family’s, until we straighten out just who the traitors are an’ deal with ’em,” Strickland declared. “An’ until these three dumbasses admit they’ve got Riders among their own families, that don’t look like it’s about to happen.”

“You shut yer foul mouth, Strickland!” Hesse roared, shooting back to his feet. “Your whole brood o’ weasels’re probably in league with the Riders! Hell, I bet you’re leadin’ the bastards yourself! You always did want more’n you deserved outta this town!”

“That does it!” squawked Strickland, also jerking upright. “I’m gonna hear an apology outta you if it’s the last thing you ever—”

Toby slapped both hands down hard on the table, startling them into momentary silence. “Please,” he implored, silently pouring more power into the calming aura he was using to keep this whole thing from exploding into violence. Already, it was a strain to keep enough concentration on that task while also trying to keep the conversation on target. He’d never been in a room with so may deep-seated resentments.

Into the brief quiet, Ruda snorted a laugh. “Listen to you guys. Everybody’s so sure that all the other families are corrupted. First step to dealing with this is you each admitting you’ve all got traitors in your midst.” She lifted her head, meeting their incredulous stares. “Every one of you.”

“Young lady,” Wilcox began.

“It’s Princess, if you wanna be formal. Me, I don’t. Formal doesn’t look good on me.” She jerked her boots off the table and let her chair thump to the ground, leaning forward to stare intently at them. “Use your goddamn heads, boys. Why would the Riders only infiltrate some of the clans populating this town? They need intel on everybody’s movements, or they’d never have been able to head off every effort you made to move against them.”

“Now, look here,” Conner began.

“Furthermore,” Ruda said doggedly, “look around you at what is happening right here, right now. You’re all about to rip each others’ fucking throats out. Is that normal? Is this what life was always like in this town? Or, if you think back carefully, do you find that stuff started getting real bad between you after the Riders started being a big problem?”

“What are you suggesting?” Hesse demanded.

“I’m suggesting the Riders in your ranks aren’t just passing information—they’re pitting you against each other. Think from their perspective: they can’t have the whole town uniting against them, which is the logical thing for a town full of sane fucking people to do when they’re basically under siege. You’ve all got the same damn problem. Now quit pointing fingers and fucking do something about it!”

“That’s all fine an’ dandy,” Strickland growled, “but it don’t change the problem. You wanna round up a posse and take on the Riders? Fine by me. Ain’t a man by the name of Strickland who’ll hang back if that’s what it’s gonna take to save our town. But the fact remains, we got bad apples in the bunch. We ride out, and our men’ll be vulnerable to fire from their own ranks!”

“She ain’t wrong, though,” Wilcox noted. “It ain’t just any one family’s problem.”

“What difference does it make?” Hesse demanded.

“It makes a difference,” Toby said firmly, “because you will all face the same peril together. Do you really believe there’s any way to do this without putting men in danger?” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t lie to you, gentlemen, even if I thought you were naïve enough not to have realized the truth on your own: ride out to battle, and men will die. Right now, you are quibbling over the ways and means in which that might happen, and avoiding the larger truth.”

“You callin’ us yellow?” Strickland growled squinting at him.

“No!” He managed, barely, not to shout. Honestly, they were like children. “I’m pointing out that Ruda is right. You’ve been manipulated, gentlemen; someone has been trying to distract you, to focus your energies against each other.”

“Well, maybe our energies belong against each other!” Hesse shot back. “I ain’t seen one bit of evidence any man in my family’s sided with the Riders, and I’m not puttin’ any of ’em in harm’s way to save a bunch o’ chickenshit varmints who can’t keep order in their own clans!”

The whole table instantly dissolved into shouted pandemonium, the voices too loud and too rapid for any single thread to be clearly heard. All four men were on their feet, pointing and gesticulating at each other and growing increasingly red in the face. Now, other voices began contributing from all corners of the room, first shouting at the general mess at the round table, and then starting in on each other. Toby slumped back in his chair, rubbing his forehead; Paxton planted his elbows on the table, putting his face in his hands.

“Okay,” said Ruda, “this is bullshit.”

She stood up, tilted up the bottle of whiskey to gulp down the last of its contents, then hurled the empty bottle at Wilcox and punched Strickland in the jaw.

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4 – 3

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“Hi, Lily! I’m Fross!”

The others introduced themselves with a little less enthusiasm, still bemused by the situation. Lily greeted everyone politely, but with a grin that Trissiny couldn’t help feeling was rather predatory.

“And this,” Tellwyrn said loudly, “is Heywood Paxton, Imperial Surveyor.” Paxton simply stared at the center of the table; her brows drew together. “Hey!”

He jumped, finally raising his eyes; they were notably bloodshot. “Oh! I’m sorry, drifted off… Ah, yes, hello, everyone. New faces, how good to…” Paxton trailed off, catching sight of Trissiny. His eyes widened, and to her surprise, he looked downright crestfallen. “Why, Ms. Avelea, we meet again. I dearly wish it was under better circumstances.”

“I’m afraid I don’t quite know what the circumstances are,” she said carefully. Several things about this situation were giving her a very uneasy feeling.

The boy next to Tellwyrn had stood, and now bowed to them. “Joe Jenkins. Right pleased to make your acquaintance, all of you. And it is, of course, an honor to meet the great Professor Tellwyrn.”

“Oh, gods, don’t do that,” Ruda groaned. “Her head is swollen beyond capacity as it is; you’ll rupture her or something.”

“I assure you, Miss Punaji, my ego reached its maximum capacity long before your ancestors crawled out of the muck and hasn’t wavered since,” Tellwyrn said with one of her wolfish grins. “Now, we’ve some things to discuss; Mr. Paxton and…Lily…” She shot the woman a distinctly unfriendly look. “…have found themselves trapped by circumstance, but Joseph, here, is a longtime resident of the town, and has agreed to help fill you in on the situation. From there, we shall proceed to what I expect you to do.”

“Happy to oblige,” said Joe. He spoke with the drawling inflection common to prairie folk, but seemed both polite and articulate. There was a world-weary intelligence well beyond his years on his face.

“So,” Tellwyrn went on, “assuming our hosts don’t mind us rearranging a bit, everybody squeeze in. Pull over some chairs and let’s all have a sit down.”

“Hang on,” Gabriel said suddenly, staring at the boy. “Joe Jenkins? As in Joseph P. Jenkins?”

“The same,” he replied dryly. “I gather you’ve heard of me.”

“Holy shit,” Gabe breathed. “You’re the Sarasio Kid!”

“Let’s watch our language, shall we?” Joe said coolly. “There are ladies present.”

“Does he mean us?” Ruda stage-whispered to Trissiny. “Boy’s in for an epic letdown.”

“Oh, uh, sorry,” Gabriel said distractedly. “I just… I mean, I’m a little taken aback. You’re, uh… I pictured… You’re so…”

“Fifteen,” said Joe, now smiling faintly. “As of last month. And now you know why the bards don’t sing the legend of That Guy from Sarasio.”

“Oh… I just figured they called you that because you were twelve when you wiped out Hoss Calhoun and his gang.”

“Eleven, actually, but that is essentially the case. It was a little over three years ago.”

“Da—ang,” Gabriel caught himself, barely. Joe smiled, his dark eyes glittering with amusement. Truly, he only looked youthful until one looked into those eyes. “Seems like it’d take longer than that for a legend to spread.”

“Once upon a time, yeah,” said Teal. “But now we’ve got scrolltowers, newspapers, mass-printed novels and comics… Truly, we live in an age of wonders.”

“All of which is very fascinating,” Tellwyrn said in a bored tone, “but I note that none of you are pulling over chairs and sitting down. If you really want to stand around uncomfortably, that’s your lookout, but I’m not best pleased at my instructions being ignored.”

“You have such a way with people, Arachne,” Lily murmured, smiling coquettishly. Tellwyrn just stared at her through narrowed eyes.

“So…you two know each other?” Toby asked, pulling over a chair.

“Oh, we go way back,” Lily purred. “In fact, Arachne had just sent me a little note a few weeks ago suggesting we ought to catch up! I’m afraid I just haven’t had the time to sit down and arrange something—busy busy, you know how it is. But, fortuitously, here we all are! Isn’t it funny how life works, sometimes?”

“Funny,” Tellwyrn said, deadpan. “Fortuitous. In any case, Lily, I am here with my students on a matter relevant to their education. I will have to object in the strongest possible terms if they are in any way interfered with.”

Tension gathered around the table; Tellwyrn stared at the woman in red with a cold intensity that spoke of deep hidden meanings. Lily, however, seemed completely unaffected, waving a hand airily.

“Oh, honestly, you silly goose, why would I meddle with your students? I’m not one to enjoy being cooped up, but this really is a lovely place; I’m not nearly that bored. Since none of us is going anywhere immediately, surely we can find a moment to ourselves to chat.”

“We aren’t going anywhere?” Juniper tilted her head quizzically. “Why not?”

“Hey there, neighbors,” said a new arrival before anybody could answer her. They twisted in their chairs to behold a young woman with short dark hair approaching, carrying a large tray weighted down with glasses and two carafes of water. “Welcome to the Shady Lady! Drinks are on the house—I’m afraid food is strictly rationed, so if you want to graze socially all we’ve got is water and a prodigious collection of booze.” She sidled in between Toby and Ruda, laying the tray down on the table. “Joe, I know you don’t drink. Any other takers…?”

“Take note of the new faces,” said Tellwyrn. “They are not to have alcohol while they’re here.”

“Duly noted. Heywood? Lily?”

“I’ll spare you having to ask again every time, dear,” Lily said cheerily, patting her belly. “None of the hard stuff for me. I’m expecting.”

“Oh, by all the gods in heaven,” Tellwyrn groaned, covering her eyes with a hand and causing one earpiece of her spectacles to come loose and stick out at a crazy angle.

“Congratulations, Lil!” the girl said brightly, beaming. “I’m sorry you got stuck in this hole of a town at a time like this.”

“Not at all, dear. Believe me, I’ve been in worse places.”

“I’ll have the usual, please, Jenny,” Paxton said wearily. She gave him a concerned look, which he seemed not to notice.

“You’re, uh, the waitress?” Gabriel said hesitantly. “Wow, not what I’d have expected for a place like this. You look more like an adventurer, to be honest.”

“Thanks!” Jenny said brightly, winking at him. In fact, she wore a leather jacket over a sturdy ensemble of shirt, trousers and boots, with a long scarf wound about her neck and a pair of goggles perched atop her head. “I am an adventurer, truth be told. But, well…here we all are. I hate just twiddling my thumbs; serving drinks is something to do. Makes people happy, y’know?”

“Heh. Happy,” Paxton muttered, staring at the tablecloth.

“Okay, that’s the second time in two minutes,” said Ruda, scowling. “Why the hell does everyone act like this place is some kind of prison?”

“I’ll…just go get Heywood’s drink,” Jenny said, edging away.

“If we’re all settled, then?” Tellwyrn readjusted her spectacles and looked around at them. “Good. Joseph, if you would be so kind?”

“Ma’am,” he said politely, nodding to her. “I assume, neighbors, that Robin brought in in through one of her careful routes, so I couldn’t say how much of the town you’ve seen. But even a casual look should be enough to tell you this place has gone right to the dogs.”

“Actually, she took us right through the main streets!” said Fross. “Some men tried to rob us or something and Trissiny broke a guy’s hand.”

“Robin,” Tellwyrn exclaimed, exasperated. “Seriously?!”

The other elf hadn’t joined them in sitting; she leaned her hip against a nearby table, watching the group with her arms folded. At being addressed she shrugged, looking as unperturbed as ever. “Talk is fine, but nothing beats a visual demonstration. If you’re going to drop eight kids in a place like this, they deserve to see what they’re getting into. Also, I figured it’d help matters here if it was quickly understood that the new arrivals are not to be trifled with. That succeeded a bit more than I expected, actually. This one’s got quite a flair for the dramatic,” she added, nodding at Trissiny.

“These men who accosted you,” Joe said, his eyes sharp. “How were they dressed?”

“Uh…not very noticeably?” Gabriel said hesitantly. “Shirts, pants… A little scruffy, but nothing that caught my attention.”

“Good,” said Joe, nodding. “There’d be trouble if you’d run into… Well. We’ll get to that in a moment. The reason the food is being parceled out and we’re all drinking water is this town does not have any kind of functioning economy at the moment. Goods and services are effectively shut down; money is so much dead weight. We’re at the point of nothing but food and a few bare essentials being worth our notice. The Shady Lady is… Well, not so much a prison as a fortress. One of very few decent places left in Sarasio, and the only one that could be called remotely safe.”

“The bordello is the last decent place?” said Ruda, raising her eyebrows. “Damn. This place must be pretty fucked up.”

A fleeting expression flickered across Joe’s face, as if he wanted to wince but wouldn’t be so rude. “That’s…a fair assessment. Let me start at the beginning, then.” As he spoke, he began deftly shuffling the deck of cards under his hand. “As little as a year ago, Sarasio was a prosperous town with an adventurer-based economy, much like most of the more significant frontier outposts. You know the type, I’m sure, being from Last Rock. There were shops and amenities catering to those launching expeditions into the Golden Sea, and those returning from it.”

Paxton stirred himself as Jenny returned, reaching up to take a glass of amber liquid from her without even looking. “It was quite the boom town, in fact,” he said, then tossed back the drink. Jenny stood behind him, grimacing with obvious concern, but he paid her no mind. “That’s why the Rail platform is so infernally far away. It was meant to give the town room to expand, and also grant a measure of access to the nearby elf grove that wouldn’t make the inhabitants come into town if they’d rather not.” He fell silent abruptly, staring down at the now-empty glass in his fingers.

“All that aside,” Joe went on slowly, “Sarasio’s always been a little…corrupt. More or less harmlessly so, for most of its history. The Sheriff, the mayor and most of the richer folk were good ol’ boys, looking out for each other. It was inconvenient, but I’m told not much worse than that for some years. At least, until Hoss Calhoun and his gang set up shop in the area.”

His eyes narrowed and he glared down at the cards, now flashing through his fingers at blinding speed. “I don’t rightly know what manner of hold Calhoun had on the Sheriff and the powers that be, but a blind eye was turned to his activities, even when they started…crossing lines. This wasn’t a matter of waived fines and selective enforcement of tax laws anymore; they were robbing and worse, all across the area, and Sheriff Yates wouldn’t touch ’em. Well… To cut a long story short, I put a stop to all that.”

“That actually sounds like a pretty damn good story,” Ruda said.

“It’s been written down enough times,” Joe said almost curtly. “What matters for our purposes is that the immediate problem of the Calhoun gang was solved, but there was still a town run by a cozy cadre of backroom dealers, and after a few months of borderline terror, everybody had a lot less of a sense of humor about it. Yates decided to let me be and I returned the favor, provided he didn’t go overboard.”

“Why?” asked Toby.

Joe finally stopped shuffling, and began rapidly laying down a game of solitaire. He kept his eyes on this as he spoke. “If you only know how that question has hovered over me. I could’ve probably warded off a lot of what’s happened to this town if I’d been a bit more proactive… But things were simple, for a while. Never seemed to me that doing favors for your friends and leaning a bit too hard on the taxpayers were the kinds of offenses that warranted getting’ shot dead in the street. Conversely, the Sheriff wasn’t eager to start trouble up with the kid he’d just seen take down nine grown men with wands.”

“You did fucking what?” Ruda exclaimed. “How is that mathematically possible?!”

“Have you seriously never heard of the Sarasio Kid?” Gabriel asked her.

“Arquin, I’m Punaji. We have different heroes. Have you ever heard of Anjal the Sea Devil?”

“…okay, point taken.”

“It was a comfortable little truce,” Joe went on, ignoring the byplay. “I could’ve blasted him and his whole social circle to Hell—pardon my language, ladies—but on the other hand, he could’ve called down Imperial help, bein’ that I was technically an outlaw by virtue of multiple manslaughter.”

“Sounds like that was pretty obviously self-defense,” Toby noted.

“Oh, sure, I probably would’ve won that in court,” Joe said with a shrug. “My policy on court, though, is not to go if you don’t absolutely need to. So things continued much as they were…which was the problem. Yates never did get it through his head that folk just didn’t have the same patience for his games as they had before. If he’d been smart, he’d’ve backed off a bit and reined in his cronies. He wasn’t smart. And that’s what brought us the White Riders.”

Mr. Paxton heaved a heavy sigh and raised his glass. “Jenny? Another, if you please?”

“Heywood, don’t you think you’ve had enough?” she replied, placing her hands on his shoulders from behind.

He grunted a bitter little stump of a laugh. “That and more, long since. I may’s well do my part to hold down the floorboards, my girl. Seems all I’m good for, after all.”

“That’s enough of that kind of talk,” she said firmly. “C’mon, it’s barely past breakfast. Let that settle for a while. Look, we’ve got help finally! Stay and maybe you can help Joe lay out the details.”

Paxton grunted again, staring morosely at the tablecloth. The students exchanged a round of glances.

“You’d know ’em if you’d seen ’em,” Joe continued. “They dress in white, as the name suggests. Robes and hoods—they look almost ecclesiastical. They started interfering anonymously with the folks running the town, and… Well, you don’t really care about the whole story nor need to know. End of the day, we had a corrupt office of law run by a man who refused to back down, and now a gang of vigilantes who also wouldn’t back down. It came to shootin’, inevitably. This place starting going downhill fast when the Sheriff was killed. The mayor went not long after, and then they started in on the landowners and cattle barons, everybody who’d wielded influence in Sarasio. Even patrolled the Rail platform to make sure none of ’em could get away and report what was happening here to the Empire.”

“And the scrolltower?” Trissiny asked.

Joe nodded. “Yup, that was their work too. Only took ’em a couple months to eliminate everybody who’d been involved in oppressing Sarasio. Amazingly enough,” he added bitterly, “things did not get better at that point.”

“It’s the story of most political revolutions everywhere,” said Tellwyrn. “A corrupt system is still a system. It knows how to run things. People who rise up and kill the rulers don’t necessarily know anything about ruling and frequently acquire a taste for blood in the process. All they know how to do is destroy those who oppose them…”

“Which,” Joe finished, nodding, “was what they continued to do. The results are as you see them now. Sarasio’s crawlin’ with vermin, and decent folk—such of them as are left—are afraid to step foot outside their own doors.”

“Wait a second,” said Toby, frowning thoughtfully. “If those men who confronted us weren’t these White Riders, who were they?”

“They may have been, for all I could tell you,” Joe admitted. “Those hoods aren’t just a fashion statement. But it’s not just the Riders anymore. The only law in Sarasio is the law of the wand, now. The Shady Lady is a safe haven because we’ve got armed men lookin’ after is, and because I live here. Everywhere else…it’s survival of the strongest, period.”

“How long can this possibly go on?” Trissiny demanded. “I mean, the Empire has to know what’s happening here! Don’t they care?”

“I may have failed to emphasize how quickly all this went down,” Joe replied. “The Empire heard rumors, all right, and sent an Imperial Surveyor to check out the situation and report back.” He nodded at Paxton, who heaved a deep sigh. “Well, obviously, the Riders caught wind of this. Luckily we were able to get Mr. Paxton in here with us, but he’s now pinned down. Comings and goings from the Lady are observed very carefully. They’ve taken out the scrolltower and they make sure nobody gets on the Rails.”

“That’s not security,” Gabriel said, scowling. “The Rail conductors passing by have to know something’s going on. And there are other ways in and out of the town—the whole place is surrounded by prairie. People can hike through the wilderness with the right know-how, they do it all the time. How can these Riders possibly think they can get away with this?”

“People are dumb,” said Tellwyrn.

“That,” Trissiny replied coldly, “is dismissive and reductive.”

“You’re correct,” the Professor replied, nodding. “It is both of those things and a gross oversimplification besides, and I’m encouraged to see that you realize it. If you’re ever to sort out the tangle of other people’s motivations, you have to consider their perspectives carefully and take into account all kinds of information that may not seem relevant from your own point of view. All sentient beings take action for what seems to them like good reason; most pointless conflicts stem from people dismissing one another’s reasons and going mindlessly on the offensive. That is the main thrust of what I teach in your history class, kids: understanding. Tease out the meanings and motives behind the actions of other people, and you will be in a position to change the situation according to your own aims.”

She leaned her elbows on the table, interlacing her fingers in front of her mouth and slowly sweeping her gaze across the group as she continued. “However, there is a time and a place. In the thick of a tense situation, it is sometimes—in fact, it is often simply not possible to consider all these things. In order to protect yourself and accomplish anything in the immediate term, you will often have to dispense with deeper understanding and act, as best you can. In such moments of crisis, there are generalities you can usually rely on, shorthands for understanding the behavior of people that will warn you what they are likely to do and help you see at a glance what you must do in response. One of these is that people are fucking dumb, and frequently, also assholes.”

“Oh, Arachne,” Lily sighed. “Ever the sourpuss.”

“I’m comfortable with the conclusion that a lot of people around here have been exceedingly dumb over a long stretch of time,” Joe said with a grimace, “myself not excluded. I couldn’t tell you what the Riders are thinking at this point. Given what they’ve been up to lately, I can’t find it in me to believe they’re still trying to act for the greater good. Still… Those men you saw, and others like ’em, they’re a mixed bag. A lot are former adventurers who found the lawlessness here to their liking. Some are just folk, citizens of Sarasio who came to the same conclusion. I’m of the view that most folks are basically decent, but anywhere you go there’s always a few who’re only held in check by the rule of law. Take that away, and you see their true faces.”

“The problem,” said Tellwyrn, “is the specific nature of Sarasio’s ailments. These men have raised an organized militia, overthrown a legitimate civil authority, destroyed and denied access to Imperial communications and travel networks, killed and attempted to kill Imperial representatives and set themselves up as a savage puppet principality. This goes beyond anarchy, and into the legal criteria for rebellion.”

“And when the R word gets tossed around,” Joe said grimly, “the Empire starts getting a whole lot less understanding in general. Might be they’d listen to our side of the story. Maybe not. If not… They might simply relocate everyone and abandon Sarasio. On the other hand, it ain’t inconceivable the Empire will decide to make an example out here. There’s not been an open rebellion on this continent in decades. The Imperials can’t have people gettin’ the idea they can get away with it.”

“The Tirasian Dynasty isn’t so ham-fisted, as a rule,” Tellwyrn pointed out. “Also, you have Mr. Paxton here to vouch for you.”

Paxton let out another little half-grunt, half-laugh that held more bitterness than humor, still gazing blearily into the table as though it promised a solution to the dilemma of Sarasio.

“I am somewhat less comforted by these facts than I might be,” Joe said carefully. “And a lot of folk agree with me. You’re not wrong in that the town ain’t exactly secure, Gabriel. People’ve been slipping away…well, not in droves, but in as steady a trickle as they can manage. The Riders discourage it in the most brutal way possible, but it happens. It’s only a matter of time, and not much of that, before the Empire comes down on us. Then, only the gods know where the chips will fall.”

“They’ll come,” Paxton mumbled. “I’m weeks late making my report. Someone’ll be sent to find out what happened to useless old Heywood Paxton sooner or later.”

“And so there you have it,” said Tellwyrn, spreading her hands wide. “The town divided against itself, subjected to a reign of vigilante terror, and under severe strain in its relationship with the nearby elves.”

“Wait, what? There’s more?” Gabriel groaned. “What’s going on with the elves?”

“Robin can explain that in detail,” said Tellwyrn. “For now, you understand the basics of the situation. You have been brought here to perform a field exercise which will determine the bulk of your final grade for this semester. Your task: save Sarasio.”

Joe’s eyebrows shot up. “We’re an academic exercise?”

“There are much worse things you could be,” Tellwryn told him, “and likely will be if something isn’t done quickly. There are two reasons I have chosen this task for you, students. In the first place, your previous expedition put you in a series of brute-force situations, which you severely overcomplicated and thus outsmarted yourselves. Be assured, we will be working on that before you leave my University, but I am interested in seeing how you handle a more cerebral problem. Given the makeup of this group, it might be more in line with your various talents. The situation here won’t yield to such straightforward measures; you are going to have to make a solid plan and execute it carefully.”

“The hell are you talking about?” Ruda demanded. “This could not be simpler. We round up these White Riders, end them, and boom. Everything goes back the way it was.”

“Except it won’t,” said Gabriel, frowning into the distance. “They already tried that, Joe and the Sheriff both. There’s been too much bad blood…too much blood spilled. Everybody here’s at each other’s throats, and that’s just the ones we know about. Gods only know how the elves fit into this.”

“Poorly,” Robin commented from the sidelines.

“Gabriel’s right,” said Toby. “There are a whole chain of breaches that need to be healed. Getting rid of the Riders will have to be part of the solution, but that won’t do it by itself. Saving the town will mean…” He trailed off, then shook his head. “I don’t even know.”

“Which brings me to point two,” said Tellwyrn. “Sarasio is in a death spiral. One way or another, whether the White Riders manage to depopulate the town before the Empire does, within another half a year there’ll be nothing here but the coyotes.”

“The Lady looks pretty,” agreed Joe, “but that’s because it’s full of refugees who have nothing better to do than look after the place. It helps keep us sane. Nobody here is doing any kind of business; we’re low on food and all but out of all other kinds of resources.”

“The point being,” Tellwyrn said with a faint smirk, “you cannot possibly make this situation any worse. Even if you manage to botch it as enthusiastically as you did your last field assignment, it’ll only mean granting this town a clean beheading rather than a lingering death by infection. The Empire won’t care about saving Sarasio; if it’s not done before they get here, it won’t be done. It’s up to you now, kids.”

There was silence around the table for a moment. Then Toby stood, pushing back his chair. “Well, then… I guess we’d better start making plans.”


 

Once in motion, the students lost no time heading off to a corner with Robin to get the rundown on the local elven population; it took Jenny only slightly more effort to coax Mr. Paxton up and off to his room for a nap.

Joe glanced back and forth between Tellwyrn and Lily, who were watching each other far too intently, the elf as if planning to invade a fortress, the woman in red with amused detachment. He cleared his throat softly.

“I believe I’ll stretch my legs a bit. No doubt you’ll want some privacy to catch up.”

“Thank you, Joseph,” said Tellwyrn without taking her eyes off Lily.

“Ladies,” he said courteously, bowing once before backing away and heading off.

The faintest tingle across the skin was the only sign of a silencing spell going off, a subtle effect that would likely have gone unnoticed by anyone not looking for it. Lily’s smile widened till she was nearly laughing outright; she stood, paced around the table and dropped herself into Joe’s seat, next to he other woman.

“Still paranoid, I see. You really needn’t bother with such touches, Arachne. I am never overheard when I don’t wish to be. By definition.”

“Mm.” Tellwyrn just stared at her.

“Oh, don’t look at me like that. You wanted to talk, remember? You went to considerable trouble to send me that little message, you heartless ghoul, you. Don’t blame me for not being fool enough to approach you in your own nest. Anyhow, this is much more interesting! What an intriguing little town this is. Did you know the Shifter was here?”

“The Shifter’s always somewhere. You’d be a lot less impressed if you spent as much time on this plane as you claim to wish.”

Lily’s grin widened. “Well, we can’t all just do whatever we want, you know. On the other hand, look who I’m talking to.”

Tellwyrn looked at her in silence for a moment before answering. “I’ve been in communication with Quentin Vex. He doesn’t tell me much, but he did point me to the remaining possession sites. I know, now, Vadrieny was the only survivor.”

Lily’s smile vanished like a snuffed candle, replaced by an icy look of fury. “Straight to the point, is it? If you insist on sticking your nose into my business, Arachne, you should know better than to try to provoke me as your opening move. I have not come all this way to—”

Tellwyrn reached out and grasped Lily’s hand in one of her own, then simply held it, squeezing. Lily fell silent, looking down at their clasped hands in confusion, then up at the elf’s eyes.

Arachne simply held her in a white-knuckled grip, and said very softly, “I’ve seen four of my own buried.”

In the silence that followed, the rage melted from Lily’s face as though she simply didn’t have the strength to hold onto it. Her lips twitched, eyes squeezing shut; little slipped past her mastery of facial expression, only hints of the turmoil within. But she tightened her grip on Arachne’s fingers, squeezing till it hurt both of them. Neither let go.

It was long minutes before Tellwyrn spoke again. “I still need to know why. What possessed you to take such a risk?”

“It was perfect,” Lily whispered. “Flawless. It had been worked on for years, decades. Everything set up in advance, everything just so. Those girls were selected with the greatest possible care, each a perfect match. They’d have bonded fully, innocent mortal spirits with archdemons, and by the time the full plan had unfolded, the world would have changed its mind about me. The Church’s pillars knocked out from beneath it, the Pantheon’s lies held up to the light. And someone interfered.”

Her grip on Tellwyrn’s fingers tightened until their hands shook with the strain, but the elf didn’t so much as flinch. “Who?”

“Oh, who do you think?” she spat, finally releasing her. “I don’t know which of them did it, but I know it was more than one. To see through my fog of war, to alter those exquisitely designed spells so perfectly that neither my warlocks nor my demons, on either side of the dimensional barrier, saw anything… No one god could have done such a thing. If not the whole Pantheon in concert… Well. I will find out who it was. They will suffer unimaginably for this.”

“That kind of power and subtlety…” Tellwyrn shook her head. “An Elder could have done it unaided.”

Lily’s laugh dripped with scorn. “Oh, please. Scyllith is sealed away in her caverns, and if you’re going to try to pitch the idea that Naiya has decided to start taking an interest in divine politics now, after all this time…well, try harder.”

“I’m concerned by the lack of subtlety I see here,” Tellwyrn said. “You forget, I know your real face. It’s startling to see you wearing it openly. I’m playing a hunch, here, but would I be wrong in guessing that Sharidan would recognize that face, too? And then there’s your little trick outside my office. Writing messages on the wall really isn’t like you, Lil. You’re beginning to come unglued.”

“They killed. My. Children.” She didn’t raise her voice, but the lights in the room flickered, the temperature dropping a few degrees, and the entire building trembled faintly. The people around the room paused, looking up in alarm, the sounds of conversation and piano music faltering. Then Elilial’s aura reasserted itself and everyone present resumed not noticing that anything was or ever had been amiss. The goddess herself, however, met Tellwyrn’s eyes with a fierce glare. “All these years I’ve played the noble demon, never brought harm to their followers when I didn’t have to, never been more cruel in battle than I must. Even after everything they did to me. And now, they do this? No. I am done, Arachne. All these millennia I’ve wasted trying to win the point of principle when I should have just been destroying the bastards one by one. Well, lesson learned.”

“You know, one of the more reliable ways to outmaneuver someone smarter than yourself is to make them so angry they can’t think straight. I get excellent mileage out of that technique. Always have.” Tellwyrn’s eyes bored back into Lily’s, not giving an inch. “You are being played. What alarms me most is that you don’t even seem to see it. You’re better at this; this is your game, after all. You need to wake up before you’re goaded into making a mistake that will damn us all and the whole world with us, Lil.”

“Don’t talk to me about mistakes,” she snapped. “You really think I’m so dense I don’t see what’s happening here? I’m not about to go on a city-smashing rampage, that would be playing into the Pantheon’s hands. Those who think me less cunning because I’m angrier have made what will be their final and greatest mistake.”

“I’m not letting you wreck the world, Lil,” Tellwyrn said evenly. “I like the world. It’s where I keep most of my stuff.”

“You know very well I have no argument with you, Arachne, except when you stick yourself in where you don’t belong. Like this new idea you seem to have, that you’ve the right or the capacity to punish me for my transgressions.” A cold smile drifted across her face. “This is not a good idea, what with you having finally put down roots and all. Someone with as much to protect as you now have shouldn’t be shaking the coconut tree.”

Tellwyrn’s hand slapped down on the table. “I will tell you this once, and once only,” she hissed. “You do not come at me through my students. I’ve told you before, Lil, I don’t have an argument with you on principle. I’ll do what I think is best, but I am not your enemy. You mess with my kids, and that changes. Then it will be you and me, until only one of us is left. That is an oath. I don’t honestly know which of us would come out on top, but I do know the survivor would be reduced to almost nothing. And that is what will happen if you bring those students into this confict.”

Lily simply stared at her for a long moment, allowing naked surprise to show on her features. “My, my. You’re actually that confident you’re a match for me?”

“I don’t commonly go for the throat, with gods,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “Only twice. I won both times.”

Lily grinned. “I remember. The first, with my help.”

“And I couldn’t have done that without you,” she acknowledged, “nor you without me. You’re good, but you’re no Scyllith. Besides, that was then; this is now. I finished off Sorash without anybody’s help. And as I was recently telling my kids…” She raised an eyebrow, the faintest hint of an icy smile crossing her features. “When a god dies, all that power has to go somewhere.”

Lily regarded her thoughtfully. “Very well. You have my oath: I mean your students no harm and will do them none.”

Tellwyrn nodded, relaxing subtly. “Good. Then—”

“I have to tell you, Arachne, I’m rather offended that you thought I’d do such a thing in the first place. I was referring to the fact that you can’t just swagger through the world, not caring what it thinks of you anymore. Your University is an institution. You get away with so much because people aren’t willing to challenge you; you take advantage of so many systems and structures you’ve never bothered to appreciate. I wouldn’t need to do anything as barbaric as threaten your kids to rip the whole thing from under your feet. So let’s not start this, hmm? Just mind your business, Arachne. Raise up the next generation of heroes and villains and whatnots. By the time I’m done with my business, there’ll be plenty of work for them all.”

Tellwyrn rubbed her forefinger and thumb together as though fondling a coin. “Not good enough,” she said after a pause. “I’m serious, Lil. You doing your thing, as per your particular idiom, that doesn’t bother me. Frankly the world needs more people—and more gods—acting with care and a sense of balance. But I know the pain you’re in, and I see the slaughter behind your eyes. This is what brought me into this in the first place. That business, those poor girls you immolated: that’s not like you. You are making a mistake. You need to stop. Step back, see what’s happening and try something else.” She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Something that doesn’t result in a great doom, preferably.”

Lily shook her head. “It’s just too late, Arachne. Time was close to up before they committed their final sin. It’s been all I can do to re-work my strategies without my girls to count on. I will not be stopped now.”

They stared at each other, the silence stretching out between them.

The goddess was the first to look away. “How is she?” she asked quietly.

Tellwyrn slowly eased back in her chair, suddenly weary. “As well as I can say, considering how rarely she comes out? Actually, quite well. Teal is a good influence on her, I think.”

Lily nodded. “Teal Falconer is only of the most exceptional people of this or any age. I’ll never be able to fully repay her.”

“No, you really won’t. But you can start by not dragging her into a war between you and the gods.”

“That hasn’t ever been an option,” Lily said with a sigh. “All seven of them? Maneuvering just right, that would have been a movement. More than cults: social change on a vast scale. But just one? She’d only be a target. She’s fierce and durable, but the gods and their Church would find a way to put her down. No… Just…” She swallowed. “Just…please look after my girl, Arachne. She’s all that’s left. Let her sit this out.”

“You are talking about two women in one body, one an idealist and the other a nearly literal fireball. They won’t be sitting anything out.” Tellwyrn shook her head, smiling ruefully. “If I do my job right, though, they’ll be ready for whatever comes by the time it does.”

“Do that, then.”

“Lil.”

The goddess met her eyes, and Arachne reached out to briefly squeeze her hand again. “When you have calmed enough to consider it, remember what I said. You haven’t seen everything going on here. You’re not the only player with a stake in this game; someone is pulling your strings. If you continue to let them, you won’t have a prayer of winning.”

“It’s been a very, very long time since I had a prayer,” she replied with a smile. “I tend to win anyway. And perhaps, Arachne, it’s not only I who don’t know as much as I think. Hm?”

She stood, raised one eyebrow sardonically, then turned and sashayed away without another word.

“Well, I know that,” Tellwyrn grumbled at the empty table. “Otherwise why would I bother?”


 

“The character of Jenny Everywhere is available for use by anyone, with only one condition. This paragraph must be included in any publication involving Jenny Everywhere, in order that others may use this property as they wish. All rights reversed.”

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