Tag Archives: Khadizroth the Green

12 – 46

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“First things first.”

He shifted his enormous bulk, and Milanda instinctively tensed, preparing to bolt again—but didn’t, remembering how well it had worked last time. The dragon actually settled to the ground, though, folding his legs beneath himself remarkably like a cat, all while keeping his long, pointed head aimed right at her. His tail, she did not fail to note, swept around in a wide arc to nearly encircle her. At the moment, at least, he appeared more interested in talking than fighting. She allowed herself a moment of optimism.

Then he spoke again.

“You will be silent.”

The voice rumbled in the ground, in the air, in her very being. Milanda was poleaxed, locked rigidly in place. She felt as if all her bones, all her cells, were resonating with the sheer power of his words. It was like gripping an unsealed electrical charm. Her body ignored all her pleas to flee, to fight, to do something.

“You will not reveal me, any word I speak, any action I take, not by word, deed, or omission.”

Silence fell over the dreamscape. Milanda drew in a sharp breath, only belatedly becoming aware that she had stopped breathing at all. She felt…heavy. The sensation was fading rapidly, but it was clear and powerful. A weight, a pressure, as if something had coated her entire skin, pushing in on her from all sides. It drifted from her awareness, though, leaving her wondering…

“The great irony of fairy magic,” the dragon said, this time again in his normal voice, “is that mastery in it increases vulnerability to it, at least in certain forms. A person with no spark of fae power within her is virtually impossible to lay under a geas. By contrast, the more fae magic one commands, the more vulnerable one is to such a geas, if laid by a rival practitioner who knows a way around one’s defenses.” He paused, then snorted irritably, violently ruffling her hair. “Even a dragon may find himself bound by a shaman of sufficient skill…and arrogance. But then there is you. Positively coursing with Naiya’s power, holding no active control over it…not truly understanding it, if I am not mistaken.” He lowered his head slightly, grinning at her, and by this point in the speech Milanda found herself too furious to be as unnerved by the proximity of all those fangs as she had been moments before. “A wide gap in your defenses which it was most unwise to leave open. I surmise you either came by that power though less than honorable means, or the being who granted it to you is not overly concerned with your well-being.”

Anger could be a wonderful thing. Milanda stared coldly up at him, simmering in the outrage that kept her fear at bay, denying him the satisfaction of any display of feeling.

After a moment of silence, the dragon shifted his long neck, tilting his head subtly to one side. “The Archpope’s head of security believes you did not intend to cause harm in the temple. That you were cornered and reacted out of panic. Such a tragic reason for so much death and suffering.”

Damn it. He was certainly adept at whipping her around emotional corners at breakneck speed.

“You do not know me,” Milanda said in the flattest tone she could muster.

“Our acquaintance is, indeed, brief,” he acknowledged. “But you are here, in a realm organized by fae power—the magic of emotion, of states of mind and being. And I, unlike you, am its master. I needn’t read your expression to see the guilt and agony roiling in you.”

She considered, for a moment, just attacking him. A pointless and possibly suicidal gesture, but…

“I think somewhat better of you for it,” the dragon mused. “Not, I expect, that my opinion concerns you overmuch. In any case, we have more immediately practical matters to discuss.” He shifted slightly, drawing his head back—and upward, so that he peered down at her from a much greater height. “The fact that you left my companions unharmed—relatively—suggests you were not looking for them. I quite expect you may find yourself facing us again soon, in which case you ought o be prepared.

“I, of course, am out of your league. Circumstances allowing, I may be inclined to stay my hand when next we meet. It’s the other members of our party you ought to be aware of. You met Jeremiah Shook, whom I’ll ask you to leave be. On his own, he is not a significant power, and is quite easy to manipulate. He is present only because he has control of the succubus Kheshiri, through no merit of his own; without her, I doubt the Archpope will keep him around in any case. In that event, he may be extremely useful to whomever can catch him next. Kheshiri, however, I suggest you bend all your energies to destroying if possible.” The dragon snorted softly, ruffling her hair again. “You may be aware that it is standard practice to trap rather than kill the more dangerous children of Vanislaas, as shuffling them off the mortal coil only sends them back to Hell, doubtless to return later. Kheshiri is a crafty enough beast I would expect her to arrange a return rather quickly. It is my judgment that in the present situation, removing her from the board will suffice. Killing is always easier than entrapment, and she is sly enough that simply forcing her to adapt and re-start her own plans from the beginning is an adequate compromise, if the benefit is taking her out of the equation. If only temporarily.

“Likewise, you faced the Jackal and failed to execute him, which I predict you will live to regret.” Khadizroth shook his head. “That elf is insane in the worst possible way: intelligent, stable but erratic, and utterly devoid of empathy. He is the type of maniac to begin torturing small animals when he is bored. Bless Justinian’s foresight in keeping him well away from children. I control him as best I am able, as does the Archpope, but aside from the wisdom of depriving Justinian of the Jackal’s skills, he needs to be removed from the world.

“And them, of course,” the dragon continued in a softer tone, “there is another shaman in our group, Vannae, whom you did not face last night. Leave him be. He is mine—not loyal to the Archpope, but present only due to circumstance. Vannae serves my interests, not Justinian’s. Moreover,” he added, lowering his head again to stare at her from closer up, “he is my friend. I will repay any harm done to him in kind—as a beginning.”

There was silence again, while she digested this.

“Why?” Milanda asked finally.

Khadizroth smiled. “At present, I serve Justinian…nominally. He has leverage over me which you need not know, but more to the point, my ultimate motivation for placing myself under his authority is simply that I much rather have him where I can watch him, than be at large and know that he is going about his schemes without a check upon his ambitions.”

“There are plenty of checks on his ambitions,” Milanda disagreed.

“Surely, but effective ones? That is another matter. At the core of the problem is that no one truly understands Justinian’s ambitions. Not even I, and I have devoted much of my mental effort in the last year to unraveling them. For the most part, recently, he has used our group as leverage in a variety of small matters—busy work, calculated mostly to keep Kheshiri and the Jackal from going utterly stir-crazy and murdering us all. It’s been some time since we were last deployed to deal with anything of consequence. His pattern makes no sense. Justinian desires control above all else—of that much I am certain. But his method toward achieving it seems to be…cultivating chaos.”

“How do you mean?” Milanda asked warily, increasingly intrigued in spite of herself.

“His use of our group. Those of his other projects which I have managed to observe. The way he continually pits his various enemies against each other, and then intercedes rather than finishing them off. His habit of withholding a killing blow when he has foes at a severe disadvantage. Only last year, he had the entire upper echelon of the Black Wreath at his mercy, and let them go—letting them believe, in the process, that they had escaped and got the better of him. By all appearances, he is trying to cultivate controlled chaos; keeping as many factions in play and at each other’s throats as possible, without ever trying to finally secure his own interests.” The expression on the dragon’s angular face was necessarily hard to read, but even so, Milanda could tell that he looked troubled. “I have long been an opponent of your Empire, which I consider the greatest threat to the world I have seen in all my long years. But of late…I have come to view Archpope Justinian as a much greater hazard. His ambition is totally without limit, he hesitates at nothing to achieve it… And, in the end, I do not understand what he wants. It makes him impossible to predict, or counter. This cannot stand.”

“Then help me,” Milanda said urgently. “Justinian just struck at the heart of the Imperial government, and there will be retaliation. You don’t need to place curses on me to get my aid in this. Undo that, and we can—”

“Forgive me, but I must interrupt you before the rest of this unfolds as it predictably must,” Khadizroth said with dry amusement. “No, young lady, I will not extend trust to someone whose predominant skills are lack of control and mass murder. I will not ally with the Silver Throne, even against a mutual foe such as this, nor will I forget who must be my next enemy when this is addressed—if it can be addressed. The enemy of my enemy, as they say, is still my enemy, but I can work with him if need be. With apologies, the geas stays. It is a basic necessity for me to protect myself. But in the short term, we can make use of one another.”

“But—”

“This is what you need to know right now,” the dragon rumbled. “Wherever the Emperor is hiding, the Archpope now knows that he is not currently administering the government, and has set forces in motion to find them. Out of concern, so he professes, but you and I both know he holds no love for Sharidan, or the Throne. If he finds the Emperor, he will move against him. For the sake of covering his own assets, he will do so using forces which cannot be proved to answer to him.”

“Meaning you,” she said quietly.

“That is my suspicion,” Khadizroth replied. “In that event, you will have your opportunity to thin out the…dangerous elements I just brought to your attention.”

“Or perhaps other dangerous elements,” she retorted.

He grinned. “If you think you can. Do keep in mind the long-term prospects, however. Whatever his ultimate goal, the Archpope’s method heavily relies upon pitting all available parties against each other to keep them from his own throat. You are not the first enemy with whom I have made contact; a web is carefully being formed around Justinian that may snare him, should the opportunity appear for his various foes to turn on him in unison at a moment he does not expect. Do not squander—”

Khadizroth broke off abruptly, raising his head like a startled horse and peering into the distance. Milanda took the opportunity to begin stepping carefully back from him, freezing again when he shifted once more to fix her with those green eyes.

“What interesting company you keep,” the dragon said thoughtfully, and then, with the suddenness of a thunderclap, the dream vanished.


She opened her eyes, fully awake and alert, in her bunk in the barracks.

“You don’t know the half of it,” Milanda said aloud. “…I hope.”

Swinging her legs over the side of the bunk made her reconsider her state of alertness. Her body was leaden, and it felt as her eyeballs were nestled in cups of gravel. She groaned softly in protest.

“Computer, display the time.”

Numbers obligingly appeared on the nearest wall screen, seeming to float in front of the Hawaiian night sky. Well, she’d managed about two hours of sleep, at least. Indeed, she felt a little less exhausted than before, though it was an open question how restful that particular nap had been.

And there was no question of going back to sleep now.

Milanda stood and headed for the barracks doors. They hissed apart to reveal the security hub looking as it always did. The Order’s sterile aesthetic and perpetual brilliant lighting made the place almost disorienting; her body’s inner clock and sense of rhythms were not helped by not being able to see what was day and what was night. Especially given the peculiar hours she’d been keeping lately.

Surprisingly—or perhaps, on second thought, not—Hawthorn was still (or again) present, sitting near Walker by the central computer terminals. They were facing each other and bent forward, clearly in conversation, neither of them messing with any of the screens for once. Both looked up at her entry, the dryad giving her a wave and a smile which Milanda couldn’t help returning. Despite how generally irritating Hawthorn could be, she seemed to have mellowed considerably from their first interaction.

“I expected you to sleep longer,” Walker observed. “How are you feeling, Milanda?”

“What do you know about…” About fairy geases. About dragons.

About anything relevant, damn it!

It was like trying to speak around a mouthful of solidified air. Her half-formed question hung between them, her voice flatly refusing to cooperate. Khadizroth, unsurprisingly, knew what he was about. The resurgent outrage that bubbled up helped to further dispel the lingering fog of weariness, at least.

“Milanda?” Walker prompted, now frowning in concern.

“Never mind,” she said with a sigh. “I had a…weird dream.”

“That’s no surprise, considering. The fabricators can produce medicines which—”

“No,” she said sharply, then moderated her tone. “I mean, no, thank you. The last thing I need right now is to dull my senses with drugs.”

“Generally a wise policy,” Walker agreed. “If you’re awake anyway, Milanda, we seem to have another problem.”

“Oh, gods, how I wish I could be surprised to hear that,” she groaned, finally descending the steps and making her way over to them. “What now?”

“Well, you recall those recent accesses to the facility’s records I told you about?”

“Of course,” Milanda said, shooting Hawthorn a pointed look and getting a scowl in return.

“That’s the problem,” Walker said seriously, following her gaze. “Hawthorn says she didn’t do any of that.”

The dryad folded her arms and stuck out her tongue at Milanda.

“I see,” she said slowly. “And…you’re certain you believe her?”

“Oh come on,” Hawthorn protested. “Seriously? You do realize I’m in the room?”

“Hawthorn,” Walker said quellingly, “let’s keep in mind that Milanda is very tired, her rest having been interrupted by you, and that dryads in general have a well-earned reputation for being flighty. This is not a situation in which there’s any point in taking offense.”

“Yeah, I guess,” the dryad muttered. “Sorry, Milanda.”

“I’m sorry, too,” Milanda replied. “That was rather rude of me.”

“Apology accepted.”

Walker cleared her throat. “That leaves us with the likelihood of another infiltrator, Milanda.”

She sighed, running her fingers through her hair, and discovering that it could do with a wash. “All right. We destroyed the Church’s equipment… Who else might be able to do that?”

“I’ve checked the system records. All of these accesses were physical activations of terminals in the facility.” Walker’s expression was grim. “This is not another remote incursion. If the Avatar is encouraging the dryads to broaden their horizons, we—meaning you, since I can’t get in the teleporter—should go ask them if they’ve been poking around. Otherwise…”

“Otherwise,” Milanda said, a chill working its way up her spine, “we have someone else in here with us. The Hands?”

“Haven’t been down in the last few days, and besides, the doors are still programmed to conceal themselves from them.” Walker, surprisingly, glanced to the side, avoiding her gaze. “I… Milanda, if it turns out to be that, you should know that I—”

“Maybe it was her?” Hawthorn suggested.

They both looked up at her, then followed her pointing finger, then jumped up in unison.

Standing at the top of the stairs opposite the barracks door was a tall woman in a silk kimono. Her head was crowned by a pair of triangular ears, lined with reddish-brown fur which faded at the tips into tufts of black which matched her hair. Milanda had assuredly never been this close to a kitsune before, but by description, they were unmistakable.

The expression with which the fair gazed down at the three of them was imperious, and far from friendly.

“Akane,” Walker whispered.

The kitsune’s eyes snapped to her, and then narrowed.

“Milanda,” Walker said quietly, still watching their guest, “what I was going to say was that I took the liberty of using the teleporter to…broadcast a signal.”

“You can do that?” Milanda hissed.

“Not…exactly. I can’t personally enter them. But I was able to work around one enough to sort of…transmit a fragment of my own aura through the ether. I thought…somebody who knows me might have picked it up and answered. And…here we are.”

Milanda got as far as opening her mouth to ask the obvious question, then shut it in the face of the obvious answer. Walker hadn’t told her she was going to do this because, clearly, Milanda wouldn’t have let her. That was going to be a long conversation—but for another time.

Right now, the kitsune had started moving.

She descended the stairs so smoothly she might have been gliding, and crossed the floor in a few long strides. Milanda and Hawthorn instinctively edged away, but Walker stood her ground. It was to her, specifically, that the kitsune went, eyes fixed and expression unreadable, but intense.

She stopped, an arm’s length away, then reached out and gently placed her hands on Walker’s cheeks, staring at her as if trying to read her mind.

“Yrsa?”

Walker drew in a slightly ragged breath, then managed a smile. “Hello, Akane. It’s been a while, hasn’t—”

And then the kitsune had surged forward, wrapping her up in a tight hug.

“Aww,” Hawthorn cooed, beaming. “Everybody gets to hug Walker. I think she needed it!”

That was as far as she got before one of Akane’s hands snapped out, seizing her ear between thumb and forefinger—both of which were tipped with claws. Hawthorn screeched in protest, trying to pull away, to no effect.

“I assume this is both a very long story and a very good one,” Akane stated, pulling back enough to sweep her supercilious stare across the room and the others present. “Yrsa, be good enough to begin with a quick and compelling set of reasons why I should not immediately shut all of this off, get rid of these two, and reduce that infernal palace of interlopers above to shrapnel.”

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12 – 45

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“And how’s the wide world above?” Walker asked as Milanda stepped off the platform.

“Humming along,” she said wearily. “It took the lads a few hours to find Lord Vex and get him to the safehouse. Which makes perfect sense, considering they’re supposed to be out of sight and he’s the head of an entire Imperial ministry. Still, the communication network they set up seems to be working, and Vex thinks that’s a pretty reasonable turnaround. I’ll take his word for it; I’m not very up on spy stuff, myself.”

“Seems it could be faster if we gave him one of these,” Walker suggested, tapping her earpiece.

Milanda shook her head. “You know exactly why that’s not a good idea. Putting Infinite Order technology in the hands of a man like that is just asking for it to be all over the Empire by the end of the year.”

Walker fell into step beside her, and they walked in silence till they reached the corridor.

“Would that be so terrible?” Walker asked finally. “I mean, on a case by case basis; I’m not proposing to bring the Corps of Enchanters down here to poke around. But weapons aside, there’s a great deal technology can do to improve the lives of people. Convenience, transportation… Agriculture. Medicine.”

“Remind me again how the Order themselves ended up?”

“Dead of their own hubris, which had to do with their ascension rather than the technology which got them there in the first place. And anyway, that’s not really a consideration anymore. Thanks to the Pantheon’s interference, ascension is only even possible at intervals of a few thousand years. I don’t know when the next one is, but I suspect the current gods would prevent anyone from taking advantage.”

“I suspect they’d prevent anyone from doing anything too dramatic with these machines; putting them into wide circulation seems like asking for trouble.” She sighed. “Honestly, Walker, I don’t really think you’re wrong. And I don’t think you’re the only person who’s had this idea; the Avatar has been dropping hints about helping humanity. I suspect he’s got plans beyond the Empire and the Hands. But… I can’t help being leery. It seems like a bad idea to abruptly jump a civilization forward several steps. People don’t always do well handling the powers they have responsibly. Giving them things they haven’t built or earned…”

“Well, you may be more right than you know,” Walker acknowledged. “Humanity managed to turn its original home into a charred ruin without getting jumped forward that way; clearly, responsibility in use isn’t an integral part of a new technology’s development. When the Infinite Order left, the world governments were focused on repairing the Earth’s climate and ecosystems. Actually, it was contributing to that effort that earned the Order permission to claim this planet in the first place. Then again… Recorded history to that point was only three or four thousand years, and in that time they escalated from stone tools to spaceships. People here started well ahead of that, and in twice the time haven’t made it as far. Clearly the situations aren’t the same.”

“There weren’t gods on Earth, were there?” Milanda asked dryly.

“Oh, there were gods. Just not real ones.”

“Well, anyway… It’s something to consider, but we have more urgent concerns. Vex was overall pleased with the outcome of the…excursion. Some of the intel I gathered has already proved useful; he may be able to get the Conclave to lean on the Church. Of course, it’s too early to tell what the full repercussions are of my…misadventure.”

“In a way,” Walker mused, “that weapon may help us, there. Those things are known on the surface; they’ve been popping up, off and on, for thousands of years. Any bard’s story about a great warrior being undone by wielding a cursed sword? If it was a tale based on real event, it was probably one of those. An Archpope will either know what it was, or someone will be able to tell him, and that will raise the question of just who owns such a thing and was brazen enough to actually swing it at people. In fact, this may help deflect attention from the Empire. I can’t see anyone working for the Tirasian Dynasty authorizing that.”

Milanda had closed her eyes, and opened them again just in time to stumble into a stack of crates. Walker steadied her, and they threaded their way around, and then through the door to the security hub.

“When I was a girl,” she mused, edging away from that painful subject, “I remember one of my mother’s favorite tragedies was about a Hand of Avei called Ryndra, who took up a cursed sword…”

“Rendre,” Walker corrected, nodding. “Yep. My sisters and I got to see the aftermath of that battle firsthand. She did succeed in cutting through waves of undead to kill Narkroth the Summoner, who deserved just for that name, never mind all the murder. Rendre also cut her own party to shreds, trying to fight in close quarters with them, using that damn fool sword. The wounds that killed her were clearly caused by it, as well. No curse, Milanda, just absurd weapon design. What the bard’s story doesn’t tell is that the Black Wreath arranged for it to fall into her hands. I’ve always suspected Elilial herself dug it out of some Order vault for that purpose. The Sisterhood had the sense to lose it in a cellar somewhere after that.”

Milanda sighed heavily. “Lesson learned. In any case… Vex also had good news. It seems there have been no new outbursts from Hands of the Emperor in the last couple of days, and indications are their general pattern of aggressiveness is leveling off. Walker…is it possible the problem the Church’s agent caused could be self-correcting?”

“Possible,” Walker said immediately, “but I can’t recommend strongly enough that we not count on that. Remember, this system is made at least partially of fae magic. It’s an organic structure, and one thing organic systems have in common is they heal if you damage them. Not all wounds are alike, though. Sometimes leaving them alone is the best thing you can do. With things like cancer, though—or just a broken bone, for that matter—the worst possible thing is to leave it to carry on in its wrong configuration. No, I wouldn’t expect this to go back the way it was. In the best case scenario, it’ll stabilize into something its designers didn’t intend. Do you really want to gamble the Emperor will be better off that way?”

“No, of course not,” Milanda replied, rubbing at her eye with the heel of her hand, as if she could wipe away the fatigue. “Fixing it is still a priority, then… I don’t know how we’re going to find someone who can help. The Empress has this elf shaman who’s been working with her, but…”

“Milanda, I’ve—” Walker broke off abruptly, and Milanda turned to look at her in surprise, finding the fairy wearing a clearly uncomfortable expression. “Ah, never mind. An elder shaman is at least a starting point, as long as it’s someone the Empress trusts.”

“Right,” Milanda said slowly, staring at her. Something nagged at the back of her mind about this, some sense that she ought to pursue it…but she couldn’t quite catch the idea to pin it down. She was so tired… After last night, she hadn’t dared try to sleep, and the gifts the Avatar and the dryads had bestowed on her didn’t seem to be helping as much as last time. “Well. Anything to report from down here?”

Walker made an annoyed face. “Nothing significant. No more attempted incursions from without. I have been finding recent access to various things by someone who’s not me. Security cameras, mostly, records, inventory lists… No real pattern. I begin to wonder if showing Hawthorn how to use the computers was a good idea. Actually, I’m glad you brought it up, Milanda. The nature of your anti-Walker security program is that I can’t even query the program to see what’s allowed and what’s not, but I can already tell it isn’t intended to block dryads, since she can use the teleporter and I can’t. There’s nobody more childish than someone who has lived for centuries without any encouragement to grow up. Hawthorn herself could unleash who knows what havoc by blundering around in this facility, never mind if the other two start feeling exploratory. I’d suggest you talk with the Avatar about this. Locking them out might be safest… At the very least, someone should talk with them about what not to poke around it.”

“Great,” Milanda groaned, already picturing how that conversation would go. “Has she been into anything dangerous?”

“Not that I can tell. The only thing that looked like a real attempt to get around security was a rather persistent access of the lifesign readings on those humanoids in suspension down by the hangar. She hasn’t tried to open up any sealed chambers, at least so far.”

“Where is Hawthorn?”

Walker shrugged, glancing around the room. “I guess she went home. I’ve not seen her in a few hours. But…you see my point. I don’t know where she is, and one of the things I’m blocked from doing is setting up security alerts to let me know where people are in the facility.”

“Right, point taken,” Milanda said with a sigh. “All right, I’ll have a word with…her. And with the Avatar. And… I think I need a nap after…”

“First,” Walker said firmly. “Milanda, you are swaying. Go try to sleep.”

Milanda stared blearily at her for a moment. “I’m…a little afraid to.”

“You need to,” Walker said gently. “Humans function poorly without rest. You have plenty of reason to be upset, Milanda, but please don’t torture yourself on top of it.”

“Vex wants me to see a mental healer…” She hadn’t even intended to say that. Gods, if she was tired enough to just blurt such things out…

“That is excellent advice,” Walker agreed. “If you don’t trust anyone he suggests with the secrets you have to keep, which is reasonable…again, talk to the Avatar. He wasn’t programmed for therapy specifically, but he was designed for sapient interaction, and has access to the entire database of psychological science accumulated by the human race. And he’s been shepherding three dryads for decades.”

“That’s a point,” Milanda acknowledged. She hadn’t even thought of that. It would protect the spaceport’s secrecy… But how much could she trust the Avatar? He was definitely working his own angle. She’d already put herself repeatedly at his mercy… But not with the contents of her mind.

“Later, though,” Walker insisted. “Go sleep, Milanda. At least for a few hours.”

“I’m going, I’m going,” she muttered, turning and heading in the direction of the barracks. Luxurious as the Infinite Order’s accommodations could be, she was already feeling lonely for her bed in the Palace, the company of Sharidan and the other concubines. They were the closest friends she’d ever had; cultivating deep relationships within the harem was the only way they prevented anybody from exploding in jealousy. This was the longest she’d been alone in…

“I’ll be right out here if you need anything,” Walker promised, and Milanda paused, turning to smile at her.

“Thanks.”

No, not alone. Not quite.


At least she didn’t dream.

Milanda had more than expected to. If anything, she would have been surprised not to hear the screams and the humming of that damnable weapon, smell the ozone and seared flesh… But there was nothing. It was probably fatigue. She had no clear memory even of getting to her chosen bunk; Hawaiian Night was still playing, and the soothing sounds and breeze fell on her like a hammer. It had been all she could do to reach the bed before losing consciousness.

That lasted until the unspeakable noise roared through the room.

Milanda catapulted herself out of the bunk, landing in a combat stance with the preternatural grace of her new reflexes even before being fully awake. It took about two seconds for consciousness to reassert itself, and the situation to become clear.

One of the screens, across from her bunk at an angle, was displaying a flashing sequence of abstract images. And the noise…was music. Nothing she was familiar with, but that had clearly been a brass fanfare which had awakened her.

While she stared at the screen in disbelief, a male voice began speaking in a low monotone over the tune.

“I think it’s time to blow this scene, get everybody and the stuff together. Okay, three, two—”

“Computer, pause playback!” she exclaimed. Instantly the sounds stopped, and the screen stilled.

“Heeeeey. I was watching that!”

Milanda whirled to find Hawthorn sitting on the bottom bunk, the next row over from hers, looking put out.

“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?” she roared.

The dryad had been scowling and in the process of opening her mouth to deliver one of her characteristic acid comments; at Milanda’s bellow, she froze, eyes widening in alarm, and actually scooted backward against the wall.

“I—I was… It’s really good, Walker suggested it. I’ve only seen three episodes—”

“Hawthorn,” Milanda snapped in a somewhat milder tone, “what are you doing in here?”

“…am I not allowed in here or something? Cos you can’t tell me where—”

Milanda took one step toward her.

“I was sleeping!” the dryad squawked, skittering toward the other side of the bunk. “You get to, so why can’t I?”

“You were—Hawthorn, you have a bed. You have a home you can go back to, with your sisters. You’ve got your own personal world. Why are you not sleeping there?”

“Oh, those two,” she said crossly, folding her arms. “I went back and I was so excited to tell them about everything I’ve seen and they were all ‘where were you’ and ‘we had to do everything’ and just nothing but complaints and criticisms and I was not in the mood. So I came up here to sleep. There was a bunch of junk on all the beds, but you’d cleared one off so I did too. Walker said it would be fine as long as I didn’t bother you or wake you up and ohhhh. Oh. That was kinda loud, wasn’t it? I’m sorry, Milanda, that’s my fault. I wasn’t thinking.”

Milanda rubbed her eyes and turned blearily to examine the room. The tropical night scene was still playing in the wall screens (except the one), but the lights were on now. Also, while she had neatly stacked the room’s stored contents on the beds, the crates which had been on the bunk Hawthorn now occupied had been unceremoniously swept off and piled in the aisle, where they made a neat roadblock preventing access to the kitchen and bathroom.

The dryad at least had the grace to look properly abashed. Under Milanda’s silent stare, she hunched her shoulders. “I didn’t mean to. Um. I can watch it later. Let’s just go back to sleep.”

Milanda dragged a hand over her face. How long had she been out? Not enough to be much less exhausted, now that the adrenaline spike of her rude awakening was starting to abate.

“I think we need to have a talk about you messing around with the computers,” she said.

“I was just watching my show,” Hawthorn said defensively. “Walker said that was fine. It’s part of our cultural heritage! You should watch some more films. There’s great stuff in there! But, just…not while you’re sleeping. I am sorry, that was inconsiderate.”

“Inconsiderate, thoughtless, and dumb,” Milanda snapped. “And if that’s how you’re going to act, you cannot go messing around with the systems or going into sealed off rooms, Hawthorn. Not even opening up boxes. The Infinite Order were evil and completely crazy. There is dangerous stuff hidden in this place!”

“I didn’t do any of that,” the dryad protested, frowning now. “Look, I’m sorry for the noise, okay? But just cos I messed up doesn’t mean you get to accuse me of whatever passes through your head.”

She rubbed her eyes again. This, even more than most conversations with the dryads, was one she should probably have when she was more alert.

“Hawthorn, look,” she said, deliberately calming her tone. “Talk with Walker about that, would you? I am really too tired for this. But you could get hurt in here. Yes, even you. And if that happens, your mother will have a fit. Gods, that’s Tiraas right above us—the absolute last thing anybody needs is a dryad in distress anywhere on the property.”

“I wasn’t—”

“Talk to her,” Milanda insisted. “Will you please? Promise me.”

“Sounds boring,” Hawthorn said sullenly. She sighed heavily under Milanda’s stare. “…oh, all right, fine, I’ll talk to her. But maybe…after we get some sleep.”

“With regard to that,” Milanda continued, allowing her voice to sharpen again, “go home, Hawthorn.”

“But they’re being mean to me,” she whined.

“Deal with it,” Milanda said without sympathy. “If the interactions I saw down there were typical, you’re plenty mean to them. Also, they have some reason. They had to help me with these gifts, and apparently it would have been a lot easier with you there. Look, they’re your sisters, right? They love you, and you love them. Don’t you?”

“I guess so,” Hawthorn muttered.

“Then go talk to them, and work it out. If you care about someone, you have to address these things, not just run away. All right?”

The dryad sighed dramatically, but scooted forward and swung her feet off the bed. “Fine, fine, I’m going. You lecture even worse than the Avatar.”

Milanda folded her arms. “Mm hm. But am I wrong?”

Hawthorn paused in the act of standing up to give her a look, then actually cracked a smile. “Yeah, yeah, whatever. I bet you’ll be a really good mother, Milanda. You should have kids.”

Most of the time, she could have brushed that off—and had, more than once. Right now, though, she was sleep deprived, her emotions already stretched nearly to a breaking point, and the offhand comment fixed her in place as if she’d been nailed down.

“See you later, Milanda,” Hawthorn said at the barracks door, yawning and waving absently.

Milanda stood frozen in place even after it had hissed shut behind her.

“You have no idea how much I’ve wanted to,” she finally whispered at the empty air. Only the sound of jungle birds answered her.

Finally, she made herself move, settling back onto the edge of her bed. The room was still obnoxiously bright. And whatever Hawthorn had been watching was still on that one screen.

“Computer,” she said with more venom than it deserved, “turn that damn thing off.”

Immediately, the whole room plunged into blackness and silence.

Milanda rubbed at her face again. “No, not… Ugh, just the—put Hawaiian Night back on. Only that part!”

The walls obligingly lit up again, showing the tropical scene, and restoring the warm breeze and scent of flowers through the room. Amazing how relaxing that could be; someday, she would have to see if modern enchanting could replicate illusions like that. Sharidan probably wouldn’t like it very much, though. He was such a realist, always determined to stay grounded, even if he did love adding a little touch of whimsy to so many aspects of his personal life. Carefully grounded whimsy.

He would be a good father. She’d always thought so.

This time, it took her much longer to fall asleep again.


When she did finally dream, she knew that it was a dream, which was unusual for her. Still, she wasn’t about to complain. There was no reliving of the horrors she’d seen—and done—under Dawnchapel, just a tranquil forest scene.

Milanda turned slowly, gazing around her. She had never been to an elven grove, but this was more or less what she’d imagined one would be like. The floor was carpeted in lush moss, peppered with tiny flowers and the odd bush. Towering trees rose at wide intervals, their canopies spreading widely to permit only the occasional sunbeam, but the trunks bare and smooth, reddish in the green-tinted dimness. The air was redolent of loam and moss, and not far distant was the soft murmur of a stream.

Perhaps her poor mind had made something to give her a break from the stress of the last days. Perhaps that wasn’t necessarily a good sign. Perhaps Vex and Walker were right; she ought to talk to someone about all this…

Experimentally, she tried to will herself upward. She could often fly in dreams, though usually she didn’t realize that they were dreams, or that there was anything unusual about it. This time, though, nothing. The whole scene had an ethereal quality that was dreamlike, the sense that physical boundaries were not what they should be, but she remained firmly on the ground. Well, even still, it was a beautiful respite.

“Ah, welcome. We meet again.”

Milanda whirled and froze. The man before her was one she’d seen only once, and dream or no, did not want to be alone with. He wore a small smile—an apparently genuine one, which turned up not only his lips, but the corners of his eyes.

His solid emerald eyes.

She turned and bolted.

Milanda tore through the trees as lightly as a gazelle. It wasn’t flight, but she was definitely moving faster than normal. Perhaps—

He hadn’t been there a moment before, but suddenly she skidded to a stop, digging a rent in the moss with her feet, as the enormous, sinuous shape of the green dragon appeared directly in front of her. He swiveled his long neck to peer down at her.

“A moment of your time, if you please.”

The voice was exactly the same in this form as in the other. Not that that mattered to her; Milanda took off in a different direction.

Sometimes, in dreams, she could will herself awake. She tried it now. If it was as hopeless as her attempt to fly…

But for whatever reason, it was not. The world seemed to fray around her as she directed her will at it, and she felt an odd lifting sensation, despite not rising upward from the forest floor. It was as if everything around her, though unchanging, were growing thinner, insubstantial enough that she might burst right through…

Suddenly the world seemed to collapse, and she wasn’t awake, but somewhere…different.

Milanda tried to propel herself through a medium that was not empty space, and yet was—space as thick as syrup. She was entangled in strands of gossamer silk, one node in a vast spider web which stretched in all directions. She knew, despite not being able to see them, that every threat which branched out from her led to another person, each of them their own nexus in the vast pattern, all of them being pulled, suspended, shaped.

And she had the oddest sensation that the tension in the webs connecting to her was not trying to drag her down, but to pull her up.

Then something did drag her down, however. In the blur of the transition, she thought she saw a few strands of silk snap, and then she was back in the forest, her feet firmly on the moss.

Again, the dragon was in front of her.

“Enough,” he stated, leaning forward so that his wedge-shaped head hung only a yard from her own. The sheer force of his personality hung in the air like the sunlight itself, pinning her in place. “This power you carry… You did not gather it yourself. Granted, perhaps…or stolen.”

Horrifyingly, the dragon smiled, baring the most nightmarish collection of teeth she had ever imagined.

“Good. That makes this next part much easier.”

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12 – 44

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“As of now, this unit is reduced to one man,” Ravoud reported, his tone tight with compressed emotion. “Two, once Rossiter is cleared from observation for her head injury. She would have been already, but our medical staff is stretched to the limit.”

“I gave orders that you should reach beyond the Legion’s medics for this,” said Justinian, frowning. “If there is one thing the Universal Church does not lack, it’s healers.”

“Yes, your Holiness, but this isn’t a situation that can be solved with more healing. If not for Khadizroth and Vannae, we would have lost a lot more men last night. The remaining injuries, though… That weapon seared what it cut, sir. Re-attachment of the limbs simply isn’t an option. The good news is it prevented them from bleeding out on the spot; most of our medics’ initial work was in preventing infection. Now, they are trying to keep the men with internal injuries stabilized. There, again, Khadizroth has been invaluable. For now, the work is better served by having a few skilled people doing their best than a lot of outsiders slinging magic around.”

“Very well,” Justinian replied, heaving a sigh. “I trust your judgment in this, Nassir. The offer stands, though; if you can use any further resources or personnel, requisition them immediately. I’ve made it known you speak with my authority in this matter, at least for the time being.”

“Thank you, your Holiness,” Ravoud said, bowing. “There is also the matter of security…”

“Yes, always. We will prioritize, however,” said the Archpope. “Right now, our highest concern is the welfare of our men—whatever we can still ensure. There are so many for whom we can do nothing.”

“Yes,” Ravoud said, and his voice echoed with the hollowness he had kept leashed all day through sheer professionalism. “Your Holiness… It’s as I said. This is half the functional core of the Legion, just…gone. And each of them was hand-picked from the available troops. Sir, unless we either recruit more aggressively or considerably relax our standards, it’s going to take far longer to rebuild the Legion than it did to build it in the first place. Even re-assigning troops from First Unit…”

“Either of those will compromise security,” Justinian murmured. “We’ll hold off on the decision for now, Nassir. For the moment, as I said, we focus on healing. I will get fae healers to see about tissue regeneration. At the very least, hopefully we can save those who suffered cuts to the torso from that weapon. It may be that we can restore severed limbs for the rest.”

“Regenerating limbs is atrociously expensive,” Ravoud said quietly. Despite his gaunt pallor, his eyes remained focused and alert behind their reddened rims. “It’s not a problem which can be solved by throwing the Church’s treasury at it, either. The Salyrites can only do so much without burning up very rare reagents. Even the Empire doesn’t offer such treatments to its personnel except in very special cases.”

“I am aware. If nothing else, we can reach out to the elves—which, of course, raises its own set of problems. You are right about security, Nassir. We will attend to this first and foremost, and then, when we are able to take stock and see how badly we’ve been forced to reveal our hand, the issue of recruitment can be revisited.”

“Of course, your Holiness. I see your point.”

They paused, both turning, to stare up the wide central hallway. It had had only a cursory cleaning, and was now free of bloodstains and severed body parts, but there were scorch marks on the golden stone in multiple places.

“What was it?” Ravoud whispered. “Only Rasevaan seems to have seen the thing and not been cut by it; she said the assassin threatened her, but then destroyed the warding arrays rather than attacking. She described a beam of light that made a sound like a giant wasp. Some of the men… Some of them have been talking, through the painkillers. They’ve said similar. What kind of new weapon are we facing?”

“Not a new weapon,” Justinian said with another sigh. “A very old one. Artifacts of the Elder Gods; the Church has three in its vaults. I will let you inspect one, if you wish. There are others in the possession of the Imperial Treasury; the Royal Museum in Svenheim has one actually on display. By this point in history, most of them which are going to be found probably have been, and have made their way into the hands of institutions with the sense to secure them away from use. It’s rare enough even to see one, but nearly unheard of to see one wielded in combat. I had believed anyone who might possess such a thing would be too intelligent to wave it around.”

“There’s a curse on them?” Ravoud asked. “That would be just like the Elder Gods…”

Justinian shook his head, managing a weary smile. “It was a weightless blade which cuts anything and burns as it touches, Nassir. It hardly needs a curse to be impossibly dangerous to handle. This raises very troubling questions.”

“Indeed.”

Both turned to greet Khadizroth, who now approached from the central chambers where he and the others lived. The dragon nodded to them before continuing.

“I’ve examined such devices myself; several of my kind possess such treasures in their hoards. I agree with your assessment, your Holiness. It has been a long span of years since one fell into the hands of anyone fool enough to use it. Few relics of the Elder Gods are safe to handle at all. Regardless, I have done what I can for now to stabilize the three survivors

suffering organ damage from that…thing. I am confident, however. They are in a deep sleep; give me the night to gather my strength and some resources from the planes, and I will finish their healing on the morrow. This process is very involved; I will not risk a subject’s health by approaching it unprepared.”

“Your aid is greatly appreciated, Khadizroth,” Justinian stated, inclining his head deeply.

The dragon nodded in return, to exactly the same degree, then shifted his gaze to Ravoud.

“After that, Colonel, I will begin regenerating the less life-threatening injuries suffered by the others. You should know that this will take time. I can do it without dipping into stockpiles of priceless components as most human witches would need to, but you were correct that the process is a great challenge. It is worse in this case.” The corners of his mouth turned down in disapproval. “That accursed implement cauterized what it cut. Life-saving in the immediate term, in some cases, but it makes the procedure more invasive than it might otherwise be. I will need to cut again, to have an open wound with which to work, and draw forth new flesh from there. It’s doubtful I can attend to more than one limb in a day, and there will be pain involved. While I don’t expect any of the soldiers will decline, they deserve to know, in advance, what to expect. If any does refuse, I must respect his wishes.”

Ravoud turned to him directly and bowed deeply. “I cannot tell you how grateful I am for this, Lord Khadizroth,” he said, his voice finally quavering. He had held up stolidly during the long night and morning with the strength of character Justinian had come to expect from him, but Nassir Ravoud would much rather have lost an arm of his own than have to watch soldiers he had hand-picked and trained suffer through what they had last night.

“Indeed,” the Archpope agreed gravely. “We are truly blessed to have you with us. This is a debt I doubt we can repay.”

“There is no debt,” Khadizroth said immediately, waving one hand. “I am only sorry I failed to save more lives. I was attempting to track the interloper, and underestimated the carnage she had wrought until I saw it firsthand.”

“The generosity of dragons is justly legendary,” said Justinian with another deep nod. Khadizroth returned the gesture again, neither of them commenting on the other half of that old proverb: the greed of dragons was just as legendary. The Archpope had not missed Ravoud’s formal address of him; never before had he called him Lord Khadizroth, nor shown any inclination to interact with him at all unless required. It was worth remembering that this dragon, even more than most, was dangerous for his canniness and proficiency at recruiting followers more than for his innate power, especially bound as he was. Not for the first time lately, Justinian wondered if the Crow’s curse was adequate to keep this creature safely housebroken.

“If it is not too sensitive a question,” Khadizroth continued, “what do we know about the attacker? I have spoken with the others; she fended off Kheshiri and the Jackal quite deftly, which is…surprising.”

“Little progress on that front,” Justinian admitted. “Our focus has been on preserving what life we still can. I assure you, I would have made time to track this villain, but there is simply nothing to go on. Sister Rasevaan has determined that she teleported in and out with the skills of a highly advanced mage, someone able to penetrate even the wards on this temple, but the attacker herself showed no arcane talent—nothing but skill at hand-to-hand combat. All we can be sure of, then, is that she did not work alone.”

“Your Holiness,” said Ravoud, now frowning in thought, “I meant to discuss this with you, anyway. I don’t believe this was meant as an attack.”

“Oh?” Justinian raised an eyebrow, as he and Khadizroth both turned to the Colonel.

“The only two uninjured soldiers were Alsadi and Rossiter,” Ravoud explained. “Relatively uninjured, at least; Rossiter was struck in the head, but they were the first to encounter her, and the intent was clearly to neutralize them non-fatally. An interesting choice, considering the intruder’s…later pattern. In fact, she choked Alsadi unconscious, and then left him on the floor. He doesn’t know how long he was out, obviously, but it can’t have been more than a minute.”

“Unconsciousness from oxygen deprivation simply doesn’t last that long,” Khadizroth agreed, nodding.

“Then,” Ravoud continued, “she entered the adventurers’ compound, under a stealth effect, where Kheshiri caught and intercepted her. She put down the succubus, the assassin, and the enforcer—all quite deftly, but again, without killing, which had to have been a deliberate choice. Given the armament we know she had, lethal force would have been easier, if anything. She fled from Lord Khadizroth upon his appearance, however.”

He paused, swallowing heavily, before continuing.

“Thereafter, she began using increasingly deadly force as she fled toward an exit, the wards having been tightened once the alarm was raised. Based on this sequence of events, the picture that emerges isn’t an intended assault, otherwise it would make no sense to avoid killing our higher-value assets when she had them at a clear disadvantage. Likewise, she apparently wasn’t expecting to find a dragon here.”

“You think this was a scout?” Khadizroth asked.

Ravoud’s frown deepened. “It’s not so simple. A trained spy would have dealt with Rossiter and Alsadi more definitively, and hidden them somewhere they wouldn’t quickly be found and raise an alarm. And there’s the final chapter of the debacle; Rasevaan said the attacker didn’t speak, but clearly threatened her. We know she could easily have killed her, but apparently…didn’t want to.” He turned directly to the Archpope. “Strange as it sounds, I think what we had was a combat asset, not an intelligence one, attempting to fulfill the wrong role, and not wanting to cause harm. Faced with overwhelming force and not knowing how to evade or deflect it, she retaliated when confronted. But it seems she was just trying to look around, and get out. The damage she caused…it begins to seem more like panic than malice.”

The dragon’s eyes had narrowed to emerald slits. “How curious. I follow your logic, Colonel, but… If that is the case, why send a warrior to do a spy’s job—and do it so poorly? Who could have the resources to train such a person to such a dangerous level of skill, equip her with such weaponry, and then nearly squander her on a mission so ill-suited? Surely not the Empire. Many complaints I have against the Silver Throne, but its competence I have learned to respect. At least, in its current incarnation. Likewise, the Black Wreath is neither so brash nor so inept. Who else would dare assault this temple?”

“In fact,” Justinian said smoothly, “this raises a thought which dovetails neatly with one of my own. Walk with me, please, gentlemen. I would like to continue this discussion in a place less…open.”


“Despite your loss of situational control, I have to consider this mission an overall success,” Lord Vex assured her. Milanda wasn’t yet clear on what arrangement allowed her three compatriots to reach the Imperial spymaster so quickly, but here he was in their shabby safe house, only a few hours after her escape from Dawnchapel.

Hours in which she had not slept.

“The Holy Legion’s true nature is hardly a secret,” Vex continued. “Justinian can keep a project like that out of the general public’s view, but we’ve known what he was about from the beginning. We know their numbers, and simply based on what you describe, you utterly decimated them. That damage alone undoes long months of his work, and sets back his military ambitions vastly.”

Milanda closed her eyes, and didn’t speak for a moment, until she could be certain her voice would be relatively even. It was raspy with lack of sleep, but fairly satisfactory, all things considered.

“It can’t have been more than a couple dozen men. How much damage could that be?”

“Understand the stage at which he stands in building his army,” said Vex. “The elite core of the Holy Legion as it was before last night was no threat to the Empire—but it was a core of carefully-selected, highly trained, fanatically loyal soldiers. From such a seed is an army sprouted. He still can grow that army, but his options now are either to grow one from lesser stock, or start again. Either is satisfactory, from our perspective. In any case, the intelligence you found was nearly as valuable.” He narrowed his eyes. “Forgive me, but you are certain the name you heard was Kheshiri?”

“I realize I didn’t perform to your standards as an Intelligence agent,” Milanda said wearily, “but I am a courtier, Lord Vex. Remembering unusual names is a skill I have practiced. You sound as if you recognize it.”

He nodded. “That one is dangerous, even by Vanislaad standards.”

“What makes her so dangerous?”

Vex gave her one of his sleepy smiles. “Well, we have a number of less-reliable reports which are positively hair-raising, but for example…the most interesting tidbit from her known exploits is that the succubus Kheshiri ran the Black Wreath for several weeks during the Enchanter Wars. She assassinated and replaced Elilial’s own high priest. From what we pieced together after the fact, the Wreath themselves never even caught on; the goddess herself had to step in. Kheshiri is a major problem, especially in Justinian’s hands. Hm… That means the other man you describe was likely Jeremiah ‘Thumper’ Shook, renegade Thieves’ Guild enforcer. He is many orders of magnitude below her pay grade, but he’s been missing for over a year, and connected with Kheshiri at her last sighting. We’ve yet to puzzle out the nature of his connection with her, but I suspect there’s a link there to how she got loose in the first place. The Wreath had her imprisoned as recently as two years ago. The others you describe are known, as well.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Who were they?”

“Of course, any elf can wear a suit, for all that they rarely do, but between the description and his demeanor, that elf was likely the Jackal, a professional assassin also linked recently to Justinian’s plots. And…there is the dragon.”

“If the Archpope is in league with the Conclave,” she began quietly.

Vex shook his head. “That much I don’t fear. Only a gold would mess around with the Church. There are few enough of those, and only Ampophrenon here in Tiraas—and he is still the head of the Order of Light, whose relationship with the Church has been carefully watched and is still notably frosty. No, the Conclave’s missing dragon has also been connected with the Archpope recently, albeit tentatively.” A thin smile flickered across his face. “Less tentatively now, it seems.”

Milanda frowned. “I thought the Conclave spoke for all the dragons. At least on this continent.”

“That is what they claim,” the spymaster said with a shrug, “and I for one and not inclined to call them liars, even when I know they are. I strongly suspect wanting to find and control Khadizroth the Green was one of their central motivations—for coming here, if not for forming in the first place. Khadizroth, too, would have little regard for a human institution like the Church. Justinian has some manner of hold on him. If we can find that, and break it…” His smile expanded to almost genuine proportions. “We are on good terms with the Conclave to begin with. Setting them against the Church would be…so very, very interesting.”

Milanda nodded mutely, her gaze wandering.

After a moment, Vex reached out to touch her shoulder. She snapped her eyes to the invading hand, then to his face. His expression was…attentive, and strangely gentle, which made her instantly suspicious.

“I have a cleric on my core staff—an Izarite, but trusted and loyal, with the highest clearance. He’s necessary for my ministry’s operation, and especially the health of many of my most important personnel. I’m going to make him available to you, Milanda. I’d like you to make an appointment. You can be assured anything you say to him will remain private, even from me.”

“Thank you, but I don’t need healing,” she said tonelessly.

Vex stared down at her for a moment, then shook his head. “Ms. Darnassy, I train spies. You know what one of the biggest hurdles is for them to overcome? All the technique of the craft can be learned, just like any trade. But for spies and soldiers alike, the constant problem we have in training our people is that human beings in their right mind simply do not want to kill. We must learn to do so, for the greater good. And…even with training, many retain a strong reluctance. That is why I keep a mental healer on staff. All too often, my people come back with damaged minds and hearts. And they tend to suffer more for the things I order them to do, than for what is done to them.” He glanced aside for a moment before meeting her eyes again. “I’ve made use of his services myself. If I found myself not needing them, I would have to question my fitness for duty.”

“I’m fine, thank you,” she said with a tight smile.

“Don’t bother,” he retorted, his tone too kind for the brusque words. “You have an excellent poker face, but remember who you’re talking to. I started in this business by seeing through nobles and courtiers when they tried to hide their intentions. Milanda… If you were under my command, I would remove you from active duty until you had been cleared by a mental healer to return to it. As it is…” He sighed softly. “I can only recommend, strongly, that you see one. If not mine…whoever you can trust to keep the secrets that must be kept. I’m sure you have contacts of your own. But do not underestimate the seriousness of this, please. You would be dangerously unhinged if you could unexpectedly kill or maim that many people without suffering for it, and you can become dangerously unhinged if you leave this unaddressed. Injuries to the mind are not less severe than those to the body. Either can leave you unable to do your job.”

“Thank you,” she repeated. He stared at her. After a moment, she averted her gaze, and spoke more softly. “I…really, thank you. I will…think about what you said. You’re probably not wrong.”

Vex nodded. “In the meantime… Try to get some sleep, at least. I can tell you haven’t, yet, and it’s a start. For now, we’ve a space in which to breathe before making another step, and you should be well rested before you plan one. The enemy is reeling and has no means to retaliate directly. Oh!” He smiled again, like a lazy, well-fed cat. “And I have some good news.”


“A pattern emerges,” Justinian said, turning to face them and folding his hands at his waist. His expression was precise—serious, concerned, with only the faintest knowing hint in the cast of his eyes and lips. Khadizroth would perceive it, but the effect on Ravoud would be subconscious. “Information at this point is too sketchy to be certain, but I have learned to trust my intuition in these matters. Khadizroth, I hate to prevail upon you when you are already exerting yourself so greatly on behalf of our fallen, but I must ask a favor.”

“I’ll take no offense at the asking,” the dragon said mildly. “There are things I cannot do, of course, and things I will not.”

“It goes without saying,” Justinian acknowledged, as Ravoud stepped over to them after securing the door of the small office. “And I will emphasize that while this matter is time-sensitive, the restoration of our people is of course of greater importance. If it can be only one or the other, I will prioritize the care of our injured.”

Khadizroth nodded.

“I need,” Justinian went on pensively, “to request your aid with a fae divination.”

The dragon’s eyebrows shifted upward fractionally. “Oh? I am, of course, aware that the Archpopes have control of the majority of oracular resources left in the world.”

“Ah, but not so,” Justinian said with a faint, careful smile. “The Church, it is true, owns as many divinatory objects as it has been able to secure—but their use by a layperson such as myself is a very different matter from the personal answers which can be garnered by a master of fae craft.”

“True,” the dragon agreed. “But I am certain you have made use of those tools, and as such will be aware that oracular prophecy is…less than helpful when it comes to specific, tactical information.”

“Of course. But I believe there are certain types of questions which lend themselves more readily to the voice of oracles, is it not so? Yes or no questions, the finding of lost things…”

Khadizroth nodded again. “Go on…”

“As I said, I see the beginnings of a pattern.” Justinian began to pace back and forth—very slowly, not sacrificing the dignity of his carefully-cultivated presence, or giving the impression of frenetic movement. “The timing of this, for one. I cannot ignore the fact that one of my secret projects recently brushed against one of the Empire’s. I of course immediately extended an olive branch, but I would not expect the Throne to take any such at face value.”

“That would explain the presence of an agent, poking around,” Ravoud said softly. “But…not why they would poke here, or send someone so clearly unsuited to the task. The Empire has plenty of people skilled at such work. The very best.”

“The Empire also would not equip an agent with a beam sword,” Khadizroth added, his lips quirking again in disapproval. Justinian made a note of that. An affectation, meant to build rapport, and perhaps strengthen the connection he was deliberately forging with Ravoud? Or did the dragon have some personal antipathy toward those weapons?

“Indeed,” he said aloud. “But there is more. Our Emperor and Empress have succeeded in part by, effectively, dividing the roles Theasia played between them. The old Empress was generally well thought of, but had a reputation for unpredictability and vindictiveness. These two… Sharidan plays the politician very well, and has devoted much effort to cultivating the goodwill of the people at large, as well as various specific parties. Nobles, trade guilds, the like. Eleanora, by contrast, is the iron hand in his velvet glove. She is known to directly control Lord Vex, and to be the actor behind the Silver Throne’s most vicious pursuit of its interior enemies. The loved, and the feared. And I have never before heard any suggestion that they are in anything but perfect accord.”

“Go on,” Khadizroth urged, frowning now.

Justinian stopped his pacing, turning to them again and putting on an intent, earnest expression. “The Emperor has not been seen in public for several days. When I went to see him, urgently, in the middle of the night, he did not appear—I had an audience with the Empress, Lord Vex, and most interestingly, Milanda Darnassy.”

The dragon quirked an eyebrow. “Who?”

“One of his Majesty’s mistresses,” Ravoud explained.

“Hm.”

“Very odd indeed,” Justinian agreed. “I wasn’t aware that she had any role in politics—nor was Bishop Darling, who accompanied me, and he takes great pains to know such details. And while neither of them harbors much love for my humble self, it is very much against Sharidan’s nature to snub a sitting Archpope by refusing an urgent request for a meeting.”

“I think,” Khadizroth said slowly, “I begin to see the direction of your thoughts, your Holiness.”

Justinian nodded, assuming a grim little smile. “While last night’s assault wouldn’t be characteristic of the Empire as a whole, or at least of the Tirasian Dynasty, I have no trouble imagining Empress Eleanora ordering such a thing—if, that is, she were for some reason operating without her husband’s moderating influence. And that brings me to my question. One which is very important on its own merits, but which I’ve a hunch may reflect upon our problems here.” He spread his arms in a gesture that was half benediction, half shrug. “Where is the Emperor?”

Justinian watched them consider it, and permitted himself the luxury of a knowing smile, since it would only add to the impression he sought to create here. It might be nothing—but who knew what the damage Rector had wrought upon the Hands might have done? And if Sharidan were out of pocket, for whatever reason… Well. If Khadizroth the Green were the one to find him, then if something unfortunate befell the Emperor soon after that, the dragon would make a very convenient chew toy for Eleanora. And just when he was beginning to think Khadizroth was become more trouble than he was worth.

There were no setbacks in the great game. Only changes on the board.

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12 – 40

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“And that’s the perimeter secure,” Rossiter said, heaving a sigh. “On we go.”

“Don’t look so glum,” Alsadi replied as they rounded the corner into the interior halls. “It’s probably nothing, same as always.”

“I’ll look glum if I wanna,” she said without ire. “’Sides…”

He echoed her sigh. “Yeah, yeah. I know.”

Everything and everyone in this sub-level below Dawnchapel was a secret of the highest order, but at least the soldiers of the Holy Legion—the true Holy Legion, veterans trained by Colonel Ravoud, not the shiny-armored popinjays who served to attract attention in the Cathedral—could take off their white uniforms and visit home. They were all fully devoted to the Archpope and his cause, and thus far there had been no breaches of security from them. The others down here, though, were either too distinctive, or too hunted, to show their faces outside except on assignment. There had been no assignments for far too long a span of weeks, and several of them were growing increasingly restive. Mostly the ones whose personalities hadn’t been much to speak of in the first place. Which was most of them.

No sooner had they entered the ring of halls circling the central underground complex than Rossiter’s worst fears were born out.

“Lot of running hither and yon all of a sudden,” Jeremiah Shook commented idly, lounging against the wall with his hands in his pockets. Had he encountered such a man on the street, Alsadi would have gripped his weapon and increased his pace—or, if he’d been on duty, stopped to demand an explanation for his presence. Everything about the guy screamed thug, which was an aspect Shook cultivated deliberately and with skill. Not that it did him much good down here. “What’s got you lot so stirred up, hm?”

He addressed himself directly to Rossiter, allowing his eyes to flick below her collar for a moment, though at least he had the restraint not to give her the full once-over. This time.

“An irregularity in the wards, sir,” Rossiter replied with admirable composure. “There’s a possibility of incursion. The squad is doing a full sweep.”

At that, Shook straightened up, his leer vanishing. “What? Intruders? Why wasn’t I told?”

“It’s almost certainly nothing,” said Rossiter. “This has happened before, usually caused by a telescroll passing overhead in just the wrong way, or a nearby factory firing up new equipment. It’s common; wards are finicky in a city with this much active enchantment. You and the high-value assets are safe, rest assured.”

Not, Alsadi noted, you and the other high-value assets. Rossiter had spoken completely deadpan, but he knew her well enough to know the omission was deliberate. His own face betrayed a smile, though, which made him the focus of Shook’s glare. The man tensed up, bunching his fists and flushing, as if somebody had just insulted his mother. What a charmer.

“We need to continue our sweep and report in, sir,” Alsadi said politely, saluting. “Good evening.”

He and Rossiter turned and marched off down the hall. He had half-expected Shook to follow and try to make something of it—which wouldn’t have been the first time—but there was no sound of footsteps from behind them, thankfully.

“Gods, I hate that guy,” Rossiter growled once they’d rounded the corner. “What’s he even doing down here? The others I understand, but he’s just some sleazy…”

Alsadi gave her a sympathetic look. She was the only woman in the unit attached to Dawnchapel, which, Shook being Shook, made her the frequent focus of his attention. The Holy Legion suffered the same imbalance as the Imperial Army, but far worse: most women who wanted to be soldiers enlisted in the Silver Legions. The Army was barely forty percent female, and the Holy Legion less than one in ten, since women who were of both martial and religious inclination especially preferred the Silver Legions.

“At least the succubus leaves you alone,” he offered. “She’s tried to get in everybody else’s pants. I don’t think she even wants to, really. She’s just bored.”

“I never thought I would hear myself say this,” she grumbled, “but I don’t have a problem with the demon. At least she keeps him busy. Anyway, she can probably tell I don’t go for girls; I think they have special senses for—”

Alsadi barely registered the black blur that sped at them from behind, crashing into the side of Rossiter’s head and sending her careening off the wall, before an arm was wrapped around his throat, cutting off his airflow and clamping down. He gripped it desperately, but his attacker had the strength of an ogre. Not the weight, though; he was able to shift, trying to throw the assailant, but they moved with astonishing deftness, compensating for his every motion. Not they, she—pressed against his back as she was, he could tell that much, though all he could see was the tip of the elbow clutching his neck. Frantically, he tried to shift his staff to aim behind at her feet, and it was deftly wrenched from his grasp and tossed away. As sparks and darkness encroached on his vision, he scrabbled for his sidearm, only to find his wrist pinned. Gods, she was strong…


Milanda released the soldier, letting him slump to the floor. White uniforms…this was new. They had an understated ankh insignia at the breast, so she was clearly looking at Universal Church personnel.

“Did you hear any of that?” she asked softly, trusting the mask to muffle her voice. Vex had issued them four; the black wrap which concealed everything below her eyes was enchanted so that anything spoken into it could be heard only by someone wearing one of its siblings. Between that and her Infinite Order earpiece, she was audible to the rest of her team and no one else. In theory.

“Uh…maybe a scuffle of some kind?” Finchley’s voice offered. “You okay?”

“As I’ve mentioned, the earpieces are designed to obscure anything but your voice,” Walker replied with her customary calm. “Not perfectly, but… What happened?”

“I overheard some soldiers talking,” Milanda replied, moving lightly back up the hallway in the direction from which they had come. “There’s a succubus down here.”

“Holy shit,” Rook muttered. “On the list of the top ten things an Archpope should not be screwing around with, that’s gotta be numbers two through six!”

“Seems your hunch was right, then,” Finchley added.

“Clear this channel, please,” Walker said curtly. “Milanda, think about disengaging. The only thing you know about that facility is that what’s down there crushed the core of the Black Wreath when they invaded it. Just the intelligence you’ve gathered so far is important. I can have you out the moment you give the word.”

“That’s what makes the difference,” Milanda murmured. “The Wreath couldn’t escape; their shadow-jumping was blocked at the time. Vex says this is where Justinian’s keeping his dark project, and it’s darker than we imagined. Be ready to teleport me out, Walker, but I want to learn more if I can. And possibly break some things.”

“Need backup?” Moriarty offered.

She grimaced behind the mask. The thought of those three loose down here was not comforting. So far, she hadn’t come up with an actual plan for them, though they’d already proved useful to her in keeping in contact with Vex while she visited the old spaceport for supplies.

“Not at the moment,” she said aloud, creeping up to the corner and peering around. No sign of whoever the two soldiers had been talking to. There were living beings present, though, including one which felt remarkably similar to the dryads; she had to get a look at that, at bare minimum. Milanda could have pointed to them in a straight line, but there were walls intervening, and she didn’t know the layout down here.

She had minutes, at most, before this got very exciting. There were two unconscious soldiers lying behind her in the hall, while the facility was apparently in the middle of a security sweep. The only question was whether they’d wake before they were discovered.

Milanda padded swiftly up the hall, silent on enchanted boots. Vex had provided absolutely top of the line charms on all the gear, including actual invisibility cloaks, though ironically she hadn’t been able to bring one of those as the rest of the enchantments she was wearing messed up its function. The cloak she did have on was a more limited version, bearing a chameleon charm; so long as she stood completely still, she would blend into the background, but in motion she became visible again. That was one of the problems with over-reliance on enchantment. The more powerful they were, the more likely to interfere with each other.

She came to a broad doorway, its double doors standing open, and paused for a moment to let the chameleon charm activate before carefully peeking around the frame. Moving slowly enough made her a barely-visible blur; if someone were looking right at the door, they might still spot her, but it was better than nothing.

Beyond lay a very wide circular chamber, its center slightly lowered. It looked like a stadium, actually, which made sense as the Dawnchapel had once been an Omnist temple. Now, though, it had clearly been retrofitted as living quarters, with furniture and decorations scattered about. Doors branched off from multiple sides, with wide double ones in each of the four cardinal directions and smaller ones in between. She sensed living beings behind several of the small ones. So…broad doors leading to outer halls, narrow doors to attached rooms or suites, most likely.

A man in a suit stood next to a bar/kitchen arrangement with his back to her, in the process of mixing a cocktail.

Milanda took stock of this for a bare moment, then slipped inside, moving slowly to remain partially obscured, and dividing her attention between the man with the slicked-back hair and her sense of the lives around. She headed toward the door behind which lay the blazing beacon of fae power; she very much needed to learn what that was. If Justinian had a dryad of his own, her situation with Hawthorn and the others could become complicated.

The shortest path there took her uncomfortably close to the man in the suit, but she kept to it for the sake of speed, watching him closely and prepared to freeze instantly if he turned. It was odd, considering the danger she was in, how calm she felt. One of the gifts of her new status, maybe?

She was so focused on her objective and the surrounding threats that she very nearly missed the other presence in the room.

It was different—subtle, too, difficult to notice, and not life so much as…its inversion. Not like Walker, though. It was its movement that gave it away, and Milanda paused, not turning her head, but focusing her attention. Something off-kilter and wavery was creeping through her perceptions right toward her.

The succubus.

Grimacing behind her mask, she considered her options. The demon clearly knew she was there, and was coming in for a stealth attack. By the same token, the succubus apparently didn’t realize she’d perceived her. Milanda had the element of surprise and was physically more than a match for the creature, she was sure. But engaging would draw attention… Could she get to her objective first? No, the demon was too close, and drawing closer. If there was a fight, the object of her focus might come out to investigate anyway… But if it was something related to dryads or comparably powerful, having it come after her was a very different proposition than sneaking up to peek at it.

Bollocks. Well, any dead demon was progress on behalf of the world, especially if this one was important to Justinian.

Among her equipment was a variety of weapons. Milanda considered them for a moment before deciding to try for one last hope of subtlety.

Knife-throwing wasn’t favored in Viridill, being associated with rogues and ruffians rather than honorable warriors, which was exactly why she had practiced it in her rebellious youth.

Augmented as she was by the craft which made the Hands of the Emperor, the act of snatching a knife from behind her belt and hurling it was so fast even an elf would have been hard-pressed to dodge the attack. That, however, was the extent of the good news. The rapid movement collapsed her stealth, snapping her back into visibility—just as the guy in the suit turned to bring her into his field of view. The succubus, also, was no elf, and while Milanda had never read that children of Vanislaas were noted combatants, her presence in Milanda’s ethereal senses rippled and shifted, and the knife flashed harmlessly past.

“What the fuck!” the man snarled, and despite his phrasing, it was not a question.

Then he dropped his freshly-mixed drink and whipped out a wand, and Milanda lost all control of her body.

Without deciding to move, she was moving, hurtling toward him in a flying leap and spinning about in midair, causing her cloak to whirl dramatically about her. Two wandshots—clean white beams of light, not lightning bolts—flashed at her, but she had successfully distorted her appearance with her approach, and neither connected. Not with her, anyway; both pierced the cloak, and Milanda heard the soft but distinctive crackle of enchantments being disrupted.

So much for stealth.

She landed on him, neatly grabbing him by the wand arm and whipping herself around in a kind of reverse throw, hurling her body instead of his, so that she landed behind him with his arm still in her grip. With, in fact, her hand covering his, and squeezing his finger on the trigger.

Milanda, far stronger than he, shifted minutely, firing the wand at midair. The succubus dodged again, but beams of light were not so easily evaded as thrown knives. With a shriek, she popped into visibility as she spun around, pierced right through the chest.

Would that kill her? Did they even have organs? She was sadly unfamiliar with demonology.

“Kheshiri!” Milanda’s captive shouted. “You fucking who—”

The rest of his imprecation was lost as she shifted her grip, spinning in place, and hurling him forward over her shoulder. He impacted the wall back-first, upside down, and slid down to land on his head before collapsing in an ungainly heap.

Finally, she froze, staring about in near-panic. She could never have moved like that. No one could move like that. Scuffling with the dryads had been one thing; this was a total loss of control. Her body just reacted. It had surely saved her life, but it was not an experience she had enjoyed.

Her moment of frantic introspection cost her.

One of the doors burst open, catching Milanda’s attention and bringing her focus back to the other life signs nearby.

An elf stood there, wearing an incongruous pinstriped suit and regarding the scene with an expression of mild surprise. Milanda, cloaked and masked all in dramatic black, standing over the unconscious shooter and with the succubus groaning on the ground nearby. Not dead, curse it all. How did you kill a Vanislaad?

Then the elf smiled, and despite her lack of fear for her physical safety, the expression sent a chill down her spine.

“Now you,” he said cheerfully, “are exactly what I was looking for. Finally, a little fun!”

With that, he vanished from view.

Once again, Milanda was overtaken by the “gifts” of the dryads. She could still sense the now-invisible elf, making a beeline toward her with the speed only his race possessed, and while her instincts wanted her to flee, her body stood in place, swiveling to peer about in an pantomime of disorientation. Only belatedly did she realize what she was doing.

The invisible elf lunged from opposite the direction she was currently looking. Without turning her head, Milanda grabbed him in mid-leap. She felt the bones of his arm break in her grip an instant before she whipped him through the air above her head and slammed him onto the bar.

He yelped, wheezed, and tumbled gracelessly to the ground, again visible.

“I’m fairly certain that was a wandshot,” Walker said in her ear, “and I’m positive I hear scuffling. What’s your status, Milanda?”

“Fine,” she said a little numbly, shaken more by her own loss of control than the violence. “Three hostiles down. How do you kill a succubus?”

To her credit, Walker hesitated only for a moment. “They don’t have biological weak points. Magic weapons, if you brought any, or catastrophic physical damage. Removing the head or destroying at least fifty percent of the torso should suffice.”

At that moment, another door opened. The one toward which she’d been heading in the fist place.

Milanda locked eyes with the new arrival for a bare moment, before she and her newfound battle reflexes found themselves in agreement. Which was to the good, because she might have wasted precious seconds staring in shock before fleeing. As it was, she made it out the door and around the corner before a blast of fire roared after her, splashing against the wall.

So. Not a dryad, then.

“A dragon,” she gasped, pelting down the hall at full tilt. “There is a green dragon down here!”

“Holy fuck!” Rook squeaked. “Lady, get out of there!”

“Agreed! Walker!”

Silence. Milanda carried on down the hall, reaching out with her senses. The dragon had hesitated in the central chamber, probably examining his downed allies. Unfortunately, the path she was taking away from that door was bringing her closer to a large cluster of human life signs. Troops, probably.

“Walker!” she shouted. “Pull me out!”

“There’s a problem,” Walker said in a strained voice. “The wards have been cycled—wait, no. These aren’t passive wards anymore, someone is actively maintaining them. This is real trouble, Milanda. This equipment can outsmart any enchantments currently made, but an actual wizard is another matter.”

“Standard procedure in the event of an incursion like this,” Moriarty said, and oddly enough, his clipped delivery was somehow reassuring. “At least, in the Imperial Army. It stands to reason these soldiers will have similar policies and regulations.”

“All right, give me a minute,” Walker said quickly. “Keep moving and stay alive, Milanda. I’m going to zero in on the wizard, then I’ll direct you to him. Take him out, the wards will lift, and I’ll be able to extract you.”

“Got it,” Milanda said grimly. She skidded to a halt next to the first door she came to; people were running in the halls now, closing on her from multiple directions. Yanking the door open, she dived through, pulling it shut quickly and then holding it at the last instant to avoid a slam.

She very gently finished closing it a second before she sensed the first soldier moving into the hall behind her. There was, blessedly, a lock, which she slid softly home. Only then did she turn to discover the bad news.

“So much for keeping moving,” she muttered.

“What?” Walker demanded.

“I’m in a room with only one exit,” Milanda said irritably. An office of some kind; desks, papers, nothing that looked useful in her situation. “Soldiers in the hall behind me.”

“Hey, uh,” Rook said hesitantly, “can you get us into there? Maybe we can help her…”

“Not with that wizard working!” Walker snapped. “Be quiet, let me concentrate!”

Milanda stood in place, focusing. Soldiers were now moving in the halls behind her… But not on the other side of the wall opposite the door. In fact, there was no one in the immediate vicinity on that side. Was she strong enough to punch through a wall, now? Not quickly or cleanly—that would take time and draw attention.

The dragon was moving, now. Could he sense her this way, or similarly? Who knew what a green dragon could do?

“I need another exit,” she said aloud.

“I can’t help you there,” Walker said somewhat plaintively. “I’m working, Milanda! Soon as I have something, I’ll direct you, but you’ll have to find your own way through the soldiers.”

“You’ve got this, ma’am!” Finchley said encouragingly. “You faced down a succubus and whatever else, you can do it!”

She wasn’t listening. Milanda had reached into the largest pouch attached to her belt, and with some difficulty extracted the object she’d stowed there earlier. Finally she had to jerk it free. It hadn’t wanted to fit in the first place; this wasn’t part of the kit Vex had issued her.

A quick press of the switch, and the room lit up a pale, arcane blue, suddenly filled with a deep buzzing.

“What was that?” Walker said sharply.

“Oh, that you heard,” Milanda muttered, then crossed the small room in two strides and pressed the glowing blade against the wall.

It sank through as if she were cutting cheese. Sparks flew from the masonry, flames flickered along the scorched edges of wood paneling, but the weapon carved neatly through. She began drawing a vertical line, attending to the motions of people around her. Still nobody in the space beyond, but there was movement on the periphery… Nothing else for it now; it would likely only be moments before they thought to check this door.

“Milanda,” Walker said shrilly, “that sound had better not be what I think it is!”

She pulled the blade free from the wall, and began carving a vertical line to form the top of her improvised door. “I’m afraid it is.”

“You—how could you!? Did I not emphasize how dangerous those—put that fool contraption down before you kill yourself!”

“I know what I’m doing, thank you.”

“Uh, what’s going on?” Rook asked nervously.

“You shut up!” Walker barked. “Milanda, put that thing away! Aside from the risk to you, what do you think will happen if anybody sees the saber? You might as well advertise where you got it in the papers!”

Milanda paused before starting on the other vertical cut. “If anybody sees the what?”

“The weapon!”

She frowned at the straight, glowing blade. “This is clearly not a saber. If anything, it’s a longsword.”

The buzz and crackle of the sword going back into the wall was augmented this time by a repeated, muffled thumping from her earpiece.

“Walker, don’t hit your head on things. That equipment is ancient.”

Finally, she withdrew the blade again and switched it off, though she kept it in her hand rather than trying to cram it back in the ill-fitting pouch. Her improvised doorway smoldered and put off acrid smoke. It also wasn’t particularly even, but it would do.

She stepped back, shifted position, and slammed her foot against it.

Ordinary human strength probably wouldn’t have sufficed, but the cut section of wall cracked and buckled at its base, then toppled outward into the space beyond. Milanda immediately stepped after it.

She was now in what appeared to be a mess hall—long tables and benches, broad doors at either end. Oh, just perfect. Thankfully the soldiers were still chasing her around, rather than occupying their own living quarters, and clearly didn’t expect to find her here of all places. Perhaps their section of the facility down here wasn’t connected to the space where the serious assets were kept.

But no such luck.

“What was that?” a man’s voice shouted from beyond the door to her left.

Milanda paused to concentrate on her senses. No… If anything, she’d managed to pin herself even more thoroughly. Humans were clustered in the space to the left side. Worse…

The dragon was approaching. Not quickly, but exiting the right-hand doors would bring her in his direction.

“Shit,” she muttered.

“Well said!” Walker snarled.

Milanda glanced rapidly back and forth, then drew a wand from its holster at her belt with her other hand. Wand and sword at the ready, she made her choice and flew into motion.

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10 – 46

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

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

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

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

“Being that vulnerable, that dependent…”

“On someone who planned to ultimately use you.”

“For an abhorrently disgusting purpose…”

“That would eventually make the world suffer?”

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

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

“Taking care of the wounded and young.”

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

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

“Even after all you did for us…”

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

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

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

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

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

Then he turned to stare incredulously at Darling.

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

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

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

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

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

“You brazenly manipulated us, all of us!”

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

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

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

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

In unison, they shook their heads.

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

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

“No one but us even knows about this…”

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

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

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

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

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

“Many,” the dragon said wryly.

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

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

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

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

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

“For our sake, not yours.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They narrowed their eyes, then glanced at each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Somewhat to our surprise.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary landed in a crouch, whirling to face Darling.

“Antonio. You are unharmed?”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“We have to help them!”

“Let’s go!”

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

They both froze, expressions agonized.

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

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

“Good to know,” he murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Khadizroth,” Mary warned.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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10 – 44

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

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

“ATTENTION!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell him what?” Ingvar said dryly.

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

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

Basra cleared her throat loudly. “Anyway.”

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

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

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

“And me,” Aspen said haughtily.

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

“Dream world?” the Colonel said skeptically.

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

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

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

“What?” he exploded. “The Crow?”

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

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

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

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

“Antonio,” Basra warned.

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

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

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

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

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

“Actually,” Branwen began.

“Anyway!” Basra shouted.

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

“Khadizroth,” Vaumann said, narrowing her eyes.

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

“Not necessarily,” Darling demurred.

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

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

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

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

“Go on,” General Vaumann said, nodding.

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

“Yes?” Nintaumbi said impatiently.

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

“Attacked?” Basra said, scowling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Twice,” said Joe, nodding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What time last night?” Basra pressed.

Darling and Ingvar glanced at each other uncertainly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basra sighed. “Antonio…”

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

“Are you off your nut?” Joe exclaimed.

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

“But?” Vaumann prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Always do, Colonel,” he said cheerfully.

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?” Nintaumbi exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

“Always do.”

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

“Much appreciated, General!”

“Holy smokes.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Life’s like that, isn’t it?”

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

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

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

“He’s a friend.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello, girls,” he said softly.

“Hello, Khadizroth,” said Flora tonelessly.

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

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10 – 39

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A storm was brewing over Calderaas, which its residents bore with long-suffering good humor. Weather in all parts of the Great Plains was notoriously unpredictable, as the wind out of the Golden Sea might blow in any direction at all, and bring anything with it. Summer snow rarely survived to reach the ground, but from time to time it happened. Calderaas itself was somewhat sheltered by the slope of the mountain on which it sat, which deflected many of the worst storms, but on the other hand the cold winds which came from the Stalrange and the humidity of the Tira Valley might both drift over it, depending on what came out of the Sea. The Calderaan were accustomed to adapting quickly.

In a loft apartment atop one of the city’s younger housing complexes, faint flashes of lightning and the shifting patterns of rapidly-blowing clouds had little effect against the steady glow of an arcane lamp. It was a sparsely furnished space, ready to be abandoned at a moment’s notice, containing only a few cots, a few chairs, and a single table. The summoning circle scrawled in the center of its open area was made of cheap chalk that could be quickly erased, and in fact had not been used to summon anything and wouldn’t be. They liked to prepare the spaces they used with red herrings to obscure their true purposes to anyone who might come sniffing about.

Embras Mogul planted his elbows on the table, resting his chin on his interlaced fingers, and frowned in thought at the space in front of him, from which a warlock had just shadow-jumped away. Thunder grumbled in the distance; none of the three remaining in the room acknowledged it with so much as a glance at the windows.

“It’s thin,” Bradshaw said finally to break the silence, “but workable. I think the little pranks you’ve set up for Justinian should both keep him occupied and keep his attention from our central objective…”

“He knows the central objective anyway,” Embras said, still gazing into empty space. “And we know he knows, and he knows we know he knows, and so on into infinity. This is just…that kind of game. What bothers me is the lack of retaliation.”

“You think something big is coming?” Vanessa asked quietly.

Slowly, Embras shook his head from side to side without changing the focus of his blank stare. “I think he has his sights set on bigger things. We are being…tolerated. That aggravates me more than it ought to. The Lady deserves better than a bunch of distractions.”

“It has to be done, though,” Vanessa said gently. “If you withdrew the pressure on his peripheral activities, he would wonder what was up and devote serious resources to striking at us. For now…this suffices. I really hope your project in Last Rock hits him as hard as you hope.”

“With regard to that,” Kaisa said brightly from behind them.

Vanessa and Bradshaw both leaped from their chairs, she staggering slightly and barely catching her balance on the back of it. Embras rose more smoothly, turning, bowing, and doffing his hat to the kitsune.

“Why, a good evening to you, dear lady,” he said politely. “Forgive the spartan accommodations; I was not expecting such honored company tonight, as you are manifestly aware.”

Kaisa smiled languidly, her eyes half-lidded, and demurely folded her hands in front of her, the wide sleeves of her flowered kimono nearly hiding them. “Given the point you made so elaborately with regard to the very broad game playing in the world around us, I assume you are aware of events transpiring in Viridill?”

“I know of them, certainly,” Embras replied in the same carefully light tone. “And I remain insistently uninvolved. We don’t have a dog in that race.”

“Nonetheless,” she said, “it shifts things into motion that will have an effect upon matters which are of concern to both you and myself. While that comes to a head, it creates the correct opportunity to finish our own little game. We will move on to the final play tomorrow.”

He coughed discreetly. “With all respect, dear lady, I don’t believe that the wisest course just yet. Your kids are admirably clever, and I’m not blind to the fact that the group has pulled together and are, bluntly speaking, onto us. Now is the time to lay a few more diversionary trails, throw up a couple of entertaining smokescreens, before we build to the final act.”

Her smile broadened infinitesimally. Lightning flashed again beyond the windows, accompanied by a closer rumble of thunder, and the arcane lamp flickered.

“It is a peculiar thing I have noticed in this country,” she said, beginning to pace slowly in a wide arc around them. The three warlocks subtly shifted as she circled, keeping their faces to her. “This…misconception of the value and meaning of simple politeness. Courtesy is the sauce in the stew, the oil in the gears. The softness which enables us all to live together in this world without needlessly grinding against one another. Its importance is more, not less, in the absence of friendliness.” Lightning flashed, closer; the lamp flickered again, and her shadow danced upon the walls, a strangely angular thing of back-slanted ears, as if it were cast by a far more predatory creature than the woman before them. “Here, again, you seemingly assume that because I do not address you with a string of obscenities in an outdoor voice, we must be friends.”

Another rumble and flash from outside, another faltering of the lamp, and in the few split-second flickers of darkness, her eyes were eerie green points in her silhouette. “Well, it seems forthrightness is valued here; let it never be said that I am less than accommodating. You and your circle of hell-dabblers, Mr. Mogul, are a class exercise as far as I am concerned, and I expect you to conduct yourselves as such. If you will not, then you are just a suspicious person who has been hanging around the school, performing infernomancy upon my students. That makes a great difference in how I shall deal with you.”

“It’s apparently a short trip between polite and pushy,” Vanessa said tightly.

“Nessa,” Embras warned.

“That is purely unjust,” Kaisa said, her smile unwavering. “I am pushy without being for a moment less than polite.”

“As I suspect you already know,” Embras said, his tone a few degrees cooler than before, “virtually all my available people are out of hand, on business which has nothing to do with you or your students. What we discussed for our final presentation will require more magical skill than I can bring to bear alone, in a field which you emphatically do not practice.”

“Is there something wrong with these?” she asked mildly, making a languid gesture toward the other two with one hand. Thunder rumbled again, closer still, and the lamp cut out completely for almost a full second, plunging the room into a short blackness from which her luminous green eyes bored into them.

“In a word, yes,” Embras replied. “Both sustained serious injury at the hands of the Archpope’s lackeys. Surely you don’t suggest I should risk very important, partially disabled lieutenants on an affair sure to ruffle Professor Tellwyrn’s easily-ruffled feathers?”

“Hmm,” she mused, blinking slowly and cutting her eyes from Vanessa to Bradshaw and back. “I see…I see. Well. In some cultures which live closer to nature than this one, it is considered advisable to…cull the weak.”

Lightning flashed outside, brighter and closer yet, but there was a heavy silence in its wake. Kaisa suddenly grinned broadly at them.

Thunder slammed down as if the lightning bolt had struck directly overhead, and the lamplight vanished entirely.

In the blackness which followed, the glow of the city outside the windows was interrupted by darting, thrashing shapes, and the room filled with the sounds of scuffling, cursing, and finally a single shout of pain. Two shadowbolts flashed across the darkness, their sickly purple glow doing very little to alleviate it, and for an instant the decoy spell circle flashed alight before being brushed away in a single swish of a furry tail.

The whole thing lasted barely five seconds.

Then the lamp came back on, revealing Kaisa standing exactly where she had been, in exactly the same pose. Bradshaw sagged against the wall, barely holding himself upright; Vanessa stood five feet distant from where she had started, hands upraised and a half-formed shadowbolt flickering between them. Embras was now within two yards of Kaisa, a green glass bottle in his hands, half a second from being uncorked.

“There,” the kitsune said brightly, tail swishing in self-satisfaction. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, Embras, but it seems your friends have been tortured recently. Quite clumsily, I might add. If there is one thing I cannot abide, it is shoddy work; whatever is worth doing is worth doing to perfection. But that aside, I trust there will be no more problems or excuses?”

“Are you all right?” Embras asked, shifting his head slightly toward the others but keeping his gaze firmly on Kaisa.

“Fine,” Bradshaw said, straightening up, then blinked, and held up both hands before himself. Neither trembled in the slightest. “I’m…fine?”

Vanessa also straightened, lowering her own hands and letting the spell dissipate. Her mouth dropped slightly open in wonder, and she shifted, leaning her weight on her bad leg, with no apparent effort.

“As I said,” Kaisa said complacently, “perfection. I shall expect to see you in place tomorrow after classes. Do try not to disappoint me, Embras; I was actually beginning to grow rather fond of you. We don’t have any Wreath in Sifan, and you kids have such a wonderful appreciation of fun. Ta ta!”

With a final, cheerful smile, she whirled around, her tail swishing in a broad circle and appearing to erase her from existence. Two crimson maple leaves drifted slowly to the floor where she had stood.

“Are you…” Embras finally turned fully to the others. “Did she really…?”

“I think… Kelvreth’s lashes, she did,” Vanessa whispered, taking a few steps, then a few more back the other way, and finally trotting at a near run to the windows and back. “It’s fixed.”

“Well, then,” Embras said, tucking the bottle away in a pocket and straightening his coat, “we are going to have to have ourselves a celebration. Later, I’m afraid. Right now, it appears we’d better start making preparations for our…command performance. I gather it would go over poorly if the hour arrived and we were unready.”

“At this moment,” Bradshaw said with the faintest tremor in his voice, “I feel inclined not to disappoint her, even without the implied threat.”

“It’s not that I disagree, at all,” said Vanessa, still pacing back and forth as if not yet convinced that she could. “But if anything, this only underscores the point. Oh, I’m grateful; I don’t think I could tell you how much. I’d be willing to—”

“Stop!” Embras barked, holding up a hand. “That’s a fairy, Nessa, and I wouldn’t lay odds that she’s not still listening. Don’t say anything she could interpret as a promise, or a bargain.”

“Even more proof,” she said grimly, finally stopping and facing him. “Embras, that creature is ancient, wildly unpredictable and far more powerful than anything needs or deserves to be, and I don’t believe for a moment that she just placed us so much in her debt out of the goodness of her vulpine little heart. With everything we see of her, I feel less sanguine about this bargain you’ve struck. What if she immediately turns on you the moment your role in her little drama is done?”

“In that case,” he said lightly, “you’re in charge. It’s not that I lack respect for your skills, Bradshaw old boy, but the business of the next few years will call for herding cats more than casting hexes.”

“Let’s not think about that quite yet,” Bradshaw said tensely.

“Embras, be serious,” Vanessa snapped.

“I am,” he said calmly. “If this pays off, it will be worth it. I see no reason to believe it won’t, and as for the good Professor Ekoi… Well, we struck a bargain. So long as we honor it, so will she. Anyway, this isn’t all bad. We’ve as much stake in this as she has, if not more. And if she says the time is right… Frankly, it’s entirely possible that she’s just correct. I’ve a feeling this isn’t her first rodeo.”


Slipping back out through the rent was as easy as getting in had been, though Aspen balked at the eerily empty space between the wall of her mental prison and the dream world beyond. She kept a grip on Ingvar’s sleeve, huddling behind him, and forcing him to moderate his pace on the way back to the mouth of the cave. Not that he was in a particular rush; even knowing the nearly-invisible path would hold him, he felt no urge to walk hastily upon it.

It held, though, as it had before, and he indeed picked up the pace once he got his feet back on ground that looked like ground. In fact, by that point, Aspen also hastened, until she actually pushed him aside and was the first out into the forest.

Ingvar had to halt and watch, smiling in spite of himself, as the dryad squealed in sheer delight and hurled herself to the ground, rolling exuberantly through the moss. She bounded upright in the next moment, rushing over to wrap her arms around the trunk of a tree and hug it, then darted to one side to investigate a bush.

“Oh my gosh! Things! Plants! It’s not like the real world but oh how I’ve missed other living things. Stuff that isn’t me!”

“Couldn’t you have made—Aspen!” he exclaimed in alarm.

“What?” She looked up at his tone, frowning. “What the mat—augh!”

Mid-sentence, she caught sight of her hands, which had begun to fade from view like the path beyond the dreamscape. The dryad stumbled backward, as if she could outrun the oncoming invisibility, which did not work. It traveled up her arms, progressively erasing first her hands, then her forearms. She stumbled, glanced down, and let out a keening sound of pure panic at the sight of her vanishing feet.

Ingvar rushed forward, horribly unaware that he knew of nothing that could help, but reflexively grabbed her by the arms as if by holding her, he could keep her anchored in existence.

He was actually quite surprised when it worked.

Her limbs immediately faded back into view, and she clutched his waist, her fingers digging in as if to reassure them both that she still had fingers. They stared at each other, wide-eyed, Aspen panting in gradually diminishing panic.

“Okay,” Ingvar said shakily after a moment, “I warned you something like that might happen. I think…you had better keep hold of me while we’re in here.”

“Right,” she said weakly. “Right. Good idea. Um. What…are we doing?”

Moving very carefully, he slipped an arm around her waist, pulling her close, and turning in a slow half-circle to reorient himself. There was the cave… Once he was facing the right direction again, even without taking wolf form, he found he could detect the trail of scent leading off into the distance. Or not exactly scent…now it was a perception to which he couldn’t quite put a name, as if he had senses here to which he was not accustomed. Which, now that he thought of it, made perfect sense.

“I’m looking for someone,” he said. “A… Well, I’m not sure what, or who. But it’s someone who knows a lot about traveling through dreams this way.”

“Do you think this…someone…could help me?” she asked tremulously.

“I suppose that if anyone can, he’s a likely candidate. Or she,” he added. “And I was looking for h—them anyway. I guess now we just have another reason to find them.”

“Right,” she said, pressing herself against his side. He almost wished the situation were less worrisome (and she less weirdly childlike) so he could enjoy what would otherwise have been an exceedingly pleasant sensation. “Okay…good, sounds like a plan. Uh, sooner would be better.”

“Right,” he echoed. “It’s going to be a little difficult to walk in this position…”

After shuffling around for a few moments, they settled on holding hands, which seemed to keep her visible and intact. His left hand and her right; useless as it might be here, he felt it important to keep his dominant hand free to reach for a weapon if he needed to. If nothing else, it brought him some comfort.

“It’s that way,” he said, pointing in the direction of the invisible trail.

“How do you know?”

“It’s a long story. I was…”

He trailed off, staring. A few feet directly in front of them, a tree suddenly sprouted from the thick moss underfoot, rising upward in seconds to the height of a man and unfolding branches which dangled like a willow’s. The sapling was a pale green like the earliest leaves of spring, and glowed as brightly as a street lamp.

As they stared at it, another tree sprouted further up, in the direction the trail went, ten yards or so distant. After a few moments, yet another one did beyond, far enough that it would be lost in the shadows if not for its green glow.

“There’s also that,” Ingvar said finally. “And it appears we’re expected, now.”

“Great,” she said. He couldn’t tell from her tone whether that was sarcastic or not. At any rate, she didn’t resist or have to be pulled along when he set off on the now-marked trail. Considering her present condition, it made sense that she would be as eager as he to meet the person Ingvar had come here to find.

Whether that person would be willing, or able, to help her were two separate and currently unanswerable questions.

They proceeded, guided by the glowing trees; it was oddly reminiscent of walking along a street marked by lamps. That thought made Ingvar cringe and decide he had spent far too much time in Tiraas. He did not relax his attention, however, not willing to blindly trust these signals. He could still find the trace, and it did continue to lead in the same direction as the glowing trees.

“Do you sense anything?” he asked his companion, who was silent and apparently nervous. “Anything aside from these? I found it as a scent, first, but now it’s like I can still perceive it, even without smelling…”

“Uh huh,” she said, picking up her pace slightly. “I think…I have an idea what’s up there.”

“Do you think we’re in danger?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah,” she said immediately. “But I also think he can probably help. Both of us, I mean.”

“Great.” He was, at least, certain of his own sarcasm.

They did not have far to go, it turned out. After only a dozen or so tree-markers, their destination became plain. Up ahead of them rose an entire grove of the glowing trees, these full-sized, towering above even the ordinary pines that made up the forest. They were planted close together, their branches intertwining to form an almost solid wall; at least, he could not see what lay beyond it. Rather than a forest, the tight structure made him think of some kind of temple, or cathedral.

Ingvar and Aspen exchanged a wary glance, but did not slow.

As they neared, the spaces between the trees began to be somewhat more visible. Drawing closer, he found that while the glow of the whole thing made it look homogenous from without, its “walls” were composed only partly of slender tree trunks; most of them were made up of the drooping, willow-like fronds, which formed an almost solid barrier to sight, but clearly not to passage. They shifted slightly in the faint movement of air through the woods. Something was beyond…something he could glimpse only vaguely. It was big.

Ingvar drew in a deep breath to steel himself, but still did not slow. Aspen kept her grip on his fingers as he slipped through the fronds between a pair of trunks; the gap was narrow enough that she had to fall behind, but a moment later she joined him within the grove, stopping to stare at its occupant.

“Welcome,” said the dragon.

He was green, and luminous as the trees making up his encircling grove, which Ingvar was fairly certain was not an ordinary draconic trait. Of course, in this dream-land, it made as much sense as anything else. Aside from that, he was a dragon in all relevant respects: sinuous, armored in jagged scales, winged, clawed, fanged, and over two stories tall.

Ingvar immediately bowed, as deeply as he was able. Aspen did not.

“My name is Khadizroth,” the dragon rumbled, tilting his huge, triangular head inquisitively. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you—and especially your companion, whom I confess I did not expect. Whom might you be?”

“I am Ingvar, a Huntsman of Shaath,” he replied, bowing again.

“Hi! I’m Aspen!” The dryad contented herself with a languid wave of her free hand.

Khadizroth surged to his feet, shifting his enormous bulk to face them directly, and Ingvar managed only by a sheer exertion of will not to skitter nervously backward. The dragon only used his upright stance to bow, however. Despite his size, it was clear from his orientation that he directed the gesture specifically at Aspen, and the thought of making an issue of it did not for a moment cross Ingvar’s mind. The Huntsmen were what they were, and had their ways, but he didn’t think even Tholi would have been daft enough to challenge a dragon for alpha male status.

“Aspen,” Khadizroth said, his voice a light tenor that made its deep, powerful resonance seem rather peculiar. “It is an honor and a pleasure to meet you. And you as well, Ingvar. I’m certain you have some questions for me—and I, now, for you. I am curious what a dryad is doing wandering this realm? Forgive me, but of those of your sisters whom I have met, I never found any to be sufficiently introspective to find entrance here.”

“Well, it wasn’t exactly my idea,” she huffed. “I was being kept in a…a kind of bubble. Isolated from time and stuck in my own head.”

The dragon narrowed his eyes to blazing emerald slits, their luminosity outshining even the glow of the rest of him, and Ingvar’s wariness increased substantially. “Who would dare do such a thing?”

“Oh, it wasn’t to attack me,” she said grudgingly. “I was…um…kind of transformed? Partially. The Arachne froze me to stop it from happening, and she and Kuriwa and Sheyann were trying to… Well, they were trying to help, but I really didn’t like it. They wouldn’t let me out; Sheyann said I’d just continue the transformation if they did unless we made some kind of progress.”

“Transformation?” Ingvar said, curious in spite of himself.

Aspen turned to him, her face lighting up in a sunny smile. “But then Ingvar here found me and helped me get out! Oh, but… There’s kind of a problem. If I don’t stay touching him, I tend to…um, disappear.”

“I see,” Khadizroth rumbled thoughtfully. “To accomplish such a thing… You are an even more interesting individual than I expected, Brother Ingvar, and that is indeed saying something. I’m afraid, however noble your intentions, you have placed Aspen in considerable danger. She is here with neither body nor mind; both are imprisoned in another location. The soul of her is able to exist only because you have brought it out connected to yourself.”

Aspen let out a soft squeak of dismay.

“Is it possible you can help her?” Ingvar blurted. “I mean… My apologies, Lord Khadizroth, I did not intend to presume…”

“Not at all,” the dragon said, drawing back his lips in what Ingvar only realized after a terrified moment was a smile. That was a lot of teeth, and on average they were longer than his forearm. “Not at all, I would not dream of sending you away unaided. Yes, I believe I can do something. Hm… Forgive me, but this may take some effort, and concentration. My focus is currently divided; I am not physically present in the dream world, and you are, I’m afraid, not the only important matter which demands my attention.”

“I’m sorry if it’s trouble,” Aspen said piteously, and Ingvar gave her a wry look. Even ill-behaved dryads became suddenly more respectful in the presence of a dragon, it seemed.

Khadizroth smiled again, and laughed, a booming chuckle that, if anything, increased Ingvar’s nervousness. “My dear child, it is no imposition. I would be honored to be of aid to a daughter of Naiya under any circumstances, but to do so and spite both Kuriwa and Arachne at the same time? Oh, I assure you, nothing could prevent me. Now, Ingvar. Are you ready to be of assistance to her?”

“What can I do?” Ingvar asked immediately, which would be the only possible answer to that even were he not already interested in aiding Aspen.

“You have bound her to yourself, and you alone of the pair of you have a safe avenue out of the dream. You will have to carry her with you to the material plane. I will perform the working which will make this possible. Hold out your other hand.”

Ingvar did so, opening his palm, then blinked. Sitting upon it was a large nut. It was the size of a walnut, but smooth, and striated with luminous green and gold veins.

“It is done,” the dragon said solemnly.

“Wait…that’s it?” Aspen exclaimed. “I thought you said that would be hard!”

Again, Khadizroth chuckled. “This is a realm of symbol and perception, child. I assure you, what you just observed was the palest shadow of what actually transpired. When you awake, Ingvar, plant the seed. Do so quickly. The magic will do the rest.”

“I thank you for your help, Lord Khadizroth,” he said formally, closing his fingers around the seed and bowing again.

“Uh, me too,” Aspen said belatedly. “Seriously, thanks. That’s a big help.”

“I am honored to be of service,” the dragon said solemnly. “And now, if that addresses your problem, I believe Ingvar here came to me with questions.”

He turned his head expectantly toward Ingvar, sitting back down on his rear legs.

Ingvar experienced a tongue-tied moment, and cleared his throat to cover. “It’s… The truth is, milord, I owe you thanks. I have benefited greatly from the quest on which you set me. I’ve learned a great deal…most of it troubling, but all, I think, vitally important.”

“You are welcome,” the dragon said solemnly, nodding his great head.

“This part, though,” Ingvar continued, steeling himself, “was part of a bargain I struck. In exchange for the Crow’s help, she asked that I journey through the dream to find out who it was who sent me those visions.”

“As expected,” Khadizroth said, nodding again. “Have you any questions of your own for me, before we address that?”

“I…one, in fact,” Ingvar said slowly. “If I may.”

“I assure you, young Huntsman, I did not send you on a journey toward the truth without expecting you to ask for detail at its end. Speak, and I will answer what I can.”

Ingvar hesitated again, then took a deep breath and blurted. “Why me?”

“Ah,” said Khadizroth, blinking slowly. “Sadly, that’s a question I cannot answer, at least probably not to your satisfaction. I sent out to find the right one to undertake this quest. In such matters… It is unknowable, how the One is selected. Depending on who you ask, you might be told that I chose you subconsciously, that the world did, that Shaath or even Naiya did. There are some who would contend that you chose yourself for this duty.”

“Well, that’s nice and all,” Aspen said dubiously, “but he pretty much asked you what you think.”

“Aspen!” Ingvar protested.

Khadizorth laughed. “Don’t begrudge her a little brazenness, my friend, you’re only arguing with the wind. To answer, then… I will fall back upon the only consistent wisdom I can claim to possess, and say…” He shook his head slowly. “I don’t know. But I am most definitely not disappointed with the result. However you were chosen, and by whom, you are clearly the right one. Not just any fool could have stumbled into this dream and rescued an imprisoned dryad on your way to this meeting. Who can say what threads there are, linking you to what destiny? The wild magic of the fae is not meant to be understood.”

“By which you mean,” Ingvar said quietly, “that particular…transcension field is not designed with mortal consciousness in mind.”

Khadizroth stared down at him for a long moment, then shook his head. “Kuriwa sent you down that hole, didn’t she?”

“That was the most educational part of this journey, yes. Though…perhaps by not as great a margin as it deserved. I am still not at all certain what to do with the knowledge I gained.”

“Embrace that, Huntsman, and act only judiciously. The unwise use of knowledge is behind the vast majority of suffering.”

Ingvar nodded. “Well, then… That aside, it sounded as if you were unsurprised to learn that she sent me here to find you.”

“Only to find?” the dragon asked in amusement.

“Yes,” Ingvar said firmly. “That was all; she tasked me only with learning who it was who could send visions through dreams and designate her as a person the recipient should seek out. This is done and my duty to her fulfilled. Before I return, though, I am curious…”

“Yes?” Khadizroth prompted when he trailed off, still smiling.

“I have the sense,” Ingvar said very carefully, “that you planned all this for a reason.”

Again, the dragon chuckled, momentarily filling the air with the scent of smoke. “Indeed. Given your origin, Huntsman, I suspect you understand the purpose and the value of honor. That is why I chose Shaath; any of the gods would have sufficed, but I deemed a Huntsman the best choice for this journey.”

“I certainly do,” Ingvar said, nodding firmly.

“I don’t,” Aspen said somewhat petulantly. “Honor’s just a made-up idea. It’s not natural.”

“Natural, unnatural,” Khadizroth mused. “Where do you draw the line?”

He stared at her expectantly; she only stared mutely back, her mouth hanging open.

“Aspen,” Ingvar said, turning to her with a frown, “you feel bad about killing those people, right?”

Her expression collapsed into a sulky scowl and she kicked at the ground. “I don’t know why you have to bring that up…”

“But you didn’t before,” he persisted.

“I didn’t know better!”

“But you do now. You are more than just an animal; things matter beyond simple survival. Honor is what guides us away from wrong action, prevents us from making the mistakes that make us feel as horrible as you do about that. It is well worth pursuing.”

“Well said,” Khadizroth rumbled approvingly. “But even honor has its pitfalls. I find myself somewhat trapped by my own. I am beholden, thanks to honor and obligation, to a certain individual whose aims I find it inherently dishonorable to serve. It is the proverbial rock and hard place.”

“I…see,” Ingvar said slowly.

“Makes one of us,” Aspen muttered.

“In this much, however,” the dragon continued, “I persist in finding ways around the prohibitions laid upon me. By, for example, drawing Kuriwa’s attention in a most roundabout manner.”

“Oh?” Ingvar said, finding his curiosity rising again. “Toward what?”

“Events are transpiring,” said the dragon, “in Viridill and across the border in the cursed lands to the south. Large events, which have commanded a great deal of attention—which was exactly what they were intended to do. Someone should know that these are a smokescreen for—”

Abruptly the dragon broke off, eyes and mouth going wide, and suddenly the luminosity of his scales faded, leaving him a glittering, metallic green which seemed mundane only by comparison.

“Lord Khadizroth?” Ingvar asked, alarmed. “What’s wrong?”

Khadizroth heaved backward, letting out a roar of unmistakable pain and toppling back against the rear edge of his grove, smashing a wide swath of the glowing trees to the ground. Ingvar and Aspen backpedaled in unison, reaching the opposite wall just as the glow of those trees flickered out and they began dissolving into dust.

The dragon thrashed wildly, flailing tail and claws raking up huge rents in the forest floor, and where they gouged the moss, an empty whiteness was revealed beyond. After mere moments of this it began to spread, his continued struggles seeming to tear open the very air.

“What’s wrong with him?” Ingvar asked frantically.

“Just run!” Aspen shouted, following her own advice and dragging him along.

He needed little more encouragement; the world itself seemed to be dissolving around them, jagged rents now spreading outward from the increasingly damaged area around the flailing dragon. They quickly outpaced the fleeing pair, trees, ground and sky alike disappearing in segments. The very earth dissolved beneath them, and suddenly they were plummeting into infinity, their cries of panic underscored by a last, thundering wail of pain from the dragon.

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