Tag Archives: Khadizroth the Green

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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9 – 38

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“So naturally, you brought it here,” Tellwyrn said in exasperation.

“She,” Toby said firmly. “Come on, Professor. That’s a person you’re talking about.”

“Hello,” Scorn offered, apparently noticing that attention was focused on her.

“What,” Tellwyrn demanded, “do you think I’m going to do with a Rhaazke? I’m not even going to bother being taken aback that you kids managed to get one. Somehow it’s always you lot!”

“Point of order!” Fross chimed. “We didn’t get her! A stupid man was trying to summon a succubus and fell afoul of an unpredictable chaos effect. So, really, it wasn’t even his fault, though it’s very tempting to blame him because he was really dumb and also a great big creep. But still. These things just happen.”

Professor Yornhaldt burst out laughing, earning a glare from Tellwyrn. Her office was rather crowded with the entire sophomore class present, plus Tellwyrn behind her desk, and Yornhaldt and Rafe in chairs against one of her bookcases. Scorn stood in the corner nearest the door, hunching somewhat awkwardly to keep her horns from brushing the ceiling.

“Maybe what you do with any of us?” Ruda suggested. “I mean, let’s face it, the student body here is probably the biggest collection of weirdos on this continent, if not the planet.”

“This is not a hostel,” Tellwyrn said acidly. “We don’t take in strays just because they have no place better to be!”

“Where would you suggest sending her, then?” Trissiny asked quietly. “What else could we have done?”

“BEHOLD!” Scorn shouted.

Tellwyrn buried her face in her hands, displacing her glasses. Rafe howled with laughter.

“If I may?” Shaeine said with customary serenity. “Scorn is a daughter of nobility in her own realm; her principal problem seems to be unfamiliarity with the mortal plane. The speed with which she is picking up Tanglish suggests a capable intellect, and she certainly meets the qualification you set out for us in our very first class last year. She is too dangerous to be allowed to wander around untrained. All in all, she would appear to be the very model of an Unseen University student.”

“I know it’s unusual to enroll a student at this point in the academic year, Arachne,” Yornhaldt added, “but really. These are unusual circumstances, and what is this if not an unusual place?”

“She’s completely clueless about every detail of life on this plane,” Tellwyrn grated. “Can you lot even begin to imagine the havoc that could ensue from her mingling with the student body? Or worse, the general populace. What would she do if sent out on one of your field assignments? And the curriculum here is not designed to hand-hold people who have no concept what anything in the world is. The closest parallels to this case in the University’s entire history are Juniper and Fross, and they at least speak the language!”

“Well, we have to put her somewhere,” said Gabriel. “I mean, it’s not like you can just kill her.”

“Oh, really,” Tellwyrn said flatly.

“Yeah, really,” he replied, meeting her eyes unflinchingly. “Just. I said you can’t just kill her. You can no doubt do that or anything else you want, but not until you’ve plowed through every one of us first.”

“Whoah, guys,” Juniper said soothingly. “Of course she’s irate, we just dropped a Rhaazke demon in her lap. Professor Tellwyrn’s only that mean to people who’ve done something to deserve it. C’mon, let’s everybody calm down, okay?”

“Excellent advice,” Shaeine agreed.

“All right,” said Tellwyrn, drumming her fingers on the desk and staring at Scorn, who peered quizzically back. “All right. This is what we’ll do. I am not enrolling this walking disaster in your or any class at this juncture. Don’t start, Caine, I am not done talking! She can stay with the girls in Clarke Tower; it has a basement space that should be big enough to be fairly comfortable for her. If she’s going to be on the campus, she’s not to leave it; I refuse to have to explain this to the Sheriff. You lot, since you had the bright idea to bring her here, will be responsible for bringing her up to speed on life in the world. Teach her Tanglish, local customs, the political realities of the Empire, the cults… You know, all the stuff none of you bother to think about because you’ve known it for years.”

“I bother to think about it,” said Fross.

“Me, too,” Juniper added.

“Good, that’ll make you perfect tutors, then. We’ll revisit this issue next semester, and if I judge her prepared, she may join the class of 1183 at that time. If not… She can take that semester and the summer for further familiarity, though frankly I will consider it a big black mark if she hasn’t the wits to get her claws under her in the next few months. If she is still not ready or willing to be University material at the start of next fall’s semester, that’s it. No more chances. Then I’ll have to figure out what to do with her, which I frankly do not suspect anybody will like.”

“That’s fair,” Trissiny said quickly. “She’s smart. I’m sure she’ll be good to go by this spring.”

“Not kill?” Scorn inquired.

“Sadly, no,” Ruda said while Tellwyrn leaned far back in her chair, letting her head loll against it to stare at the ceiling.

“Well, anyway,” Rafe said brightly, “you’ll get my detailed report later, Arachne, but the kids did a damn fine job. Not at all their fault that the Church butted in at the last moment—they were right on the cusp of getting to the bottom of Veilgrad’s problem, and I have to say their investigation was deftly handled. A much better showing than the Golden Sea expedition!”

“Aw, we can’t take too much credit,” Ruda said sweetly. “Professor Rafe helped a lot by fucking around in Malivette’s house with her concubines instead of sticking his clumsy fingers into our business. Like in the Golden Sea expedition.”

“HAH! Straightforward, on-target sass, Punaji! Ten points—”

“Admestus, shut your yap,” Tellwyrn snapped. “I am in no mood. For the time being, pending a full report, you kids can consider your grade for this assignment in good shape. All right, all of you get lost. Go settle in, get some rest; you’ve got assignments waiting in your rooms. Classes are tomorrow as usual. Have fun explaining this to Janis,” she added, flapping a hand disparagingly at Scorn.

“Pointing is for no,” the demon said severely. “Rude. Social skills!”

“Malivette is scary even when she’s not here,” Fross whispered.

“Hell, Janis loves having people to mother,” Ruda said, grinning. “I bet Scorn’s never had muffins. C’mon, big girl.”

“I’m a little nervous how she’ll react to the tower,” Teal said as they began filing out the door. “Any sane person is unnerved by that tower at first glance.”

“Welp, I’ll just get on with my paperwork, then, shall I?” Rafe said, rising and following them.

“How industrious of you, Admestus,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “What did you do this time?”

He grinned insanely. “Wait, learn, and be amazed.”

“Get the hell out.”

“Aye aye, fearless leader!”

Fross hesitated in the top of the door after everyone else departed. “It’s good to see you back, Professor Yornhaldt!”

“Thank you, Fross,” he said, smiling. “I’m quite glad to see all of you again, as well!”

The pixie shut the door with a careful push of elemental air, leaving them alone.

Tellwyrn set her glasses on the desk, massaging the brim of her nose. “Those kids are going to be the graduating class that brings me the most pride and satisfaction if they don’t burn the whole goddamn place down, first.”

“That’s not entirely fair, Arachne,” Yornhaldt protested. “They are pretty obviously not the ones who opened the hellgate. And they were, after all, instrumental in closing it.”

“You know exactly what I mean.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” he said with a sigh. “But this is business as usual, Arachne, just more of it. Some of those kids have fearfully direct connections to significant powers, but in the end, we’ve been training up heroes and villains for half a century now, and sending them out to face their destiny.”

“There are no such things as heroes or villains,” she grunted. “Or destiny.”

Yornhaldt smiled, folding his thick hands over his midsection. “I disagree, as you well know.”

“Yes, yes, let’s not get in that argument again.” She put her spectacles back on and gave him a more serious look. “You were in the middle of telling me of your adventures when Admestus barged in with the goslings.”

“Actually, I had just finished telling you of my adventures. Although I had a rather interesting time procuring a new suit with most of my money having walked off during—ah, but I gather you don’t care to hear about that.”

“Naturally I’ll reimburse you for any expenses,” she said. “But the research, Alaric. It’s really a dead end?”

Yornhaldt frowned in thought, gazing at the far wall but seeing nothing. “I cannot accept that it’s a dead end, but I may be forced to accept that continuing down this particular path is beyond me. It’s an alignment, Arachne, I’m sure of it. But an alignment of what is the question. I am certain there are astronomical factors, but this is unique in that the stars and bodies coming into position are beyond our current society’s capacity to detect. That much I can say with certainty; a few of the surviving sources were of a scientific mindset and blessedly plainspoken. There must have been means for such long-distance viewing during the time of the Elder Gods, but right now, we simply cannot see the distant galaxies which must be taken into account.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” she said, frowning heavily. “On the cosmic scale you’re talking about, eight thousand of this planet’s years is nothing. An eyeblink—it’s one tenth of one percent of a fart. There wouldn’t be significant deviation from their positions relative to us eight millennia prior. And that’s not even addressing the question of how such distant objects even could influence matters on this world. You know as well as I the upper limits of magical influence. It’s not constrained by the lightspeed constant, but it’s far from infinite.”

“Just so,” he agreed, nodding. “Which brings me to the other issue: I am convinced that what is being aligned is planar as well as physical. Perhaps more so. There are factors relating to the positions of the infernal, divine and elemental planes relative to this one. Unfortunately,” he added with a scowl, “most of this information seems to have been recorded by bards. Or at least, individuals who thought a poetic turn of phrase was a useful addition to the historical record. Considering that this work requires finding the few sources that have even survived, translating them out of dead languages… We’re in the realm of lore, now, Arachne. I have a hankering to continue the project, but I also need to acknowledge that I’m not the best person for it. If you can help me work out a means of measuring and scrying on things in other galaxies, that I’ll do with a will. This… We need a historian. Preferably a somewhat spoony one.”

“I should think a less spoony mindset would be more useful in untangling those records,” she said dryly.

Yornhaldt grimaced. “I consider myself as unspoony as they come, and I mostly found the work frustrating.”

Tellwyrn sighed and drummed her fingers on the desk again. “Well. Based on the speed with which actual events are unfolding, we have at least a year. Likely more; apocalypses like this don’t just drop from the trees like pinecones. If the alignment does lead to another apotheosis, as everything seems to suggest, the gods will be taking action, as will those closest to them, before it actually hits. For now,” she went on with a smile, “I’m damned glad to see you home safe, Alaric.”

“I have to confess I am as well,” he replied, grinning.

“Unfortunately, I can’t put you back at a lectern just yet. I promised Kaisa the year; I don’t even know whether she wants the full year, but the issue is it was promised to her. The last thing I need on top of everything else is an offended kitsune tearing up my campus.”

“Arachne, I’m sure I have no idea what you are going on about,” Yornhaldt replied, folding his hands behind his head and leaning back against the books. “Teach classes? You forget, I am on sabbatical.”


 

“It is a great relief to see you all back unharmed,” Archpope Justinian said with a beneficent smile. “Your mission brought you into conflict with some very dangerous individuals.”

“Yep,” the Jackal replied lazily. “Since apparently that was the entire and only point of the whole exercise, it sure did happen.”

“None of us are shy about conflict, your Holiness,” Shook said tightly. “Being jerked around, lied to and sent into big, pointless surprises is another thing. You want someone killed? We’ll do it. I don’t appreciate being told to dig in the desert for weeks for damn well nothing. As bait.”

Kheshiri gently slipped her arm through his and he broke off. A tense silence hung over the room for a long moment.

Their assigned quarters in the sub-level of the Dawnchapel temple in Tiraas were actually quite luxurious. Private rooms branched off from a broad, circular chamber with a sunken floor in the center. This had originally been some kind of training complex, probably for the martial arts for which the temple’s original Omnist owners were famous. Now, the area was tastefully but expensively furnished, the chamber serving as a lounge, dining room, and meeting area.

The five members of the team were arrayed in an uneven arc, their focus on the Archpope, who stood with Colonel Ravoud at his shoulder. The Colonel looked tense and ready to go for his wand, but if Justinian was at all perturbed by the destructive capacity arranged against him, he showed no hint of it.

“I understand this assignment has been the source of several surprises for you,” he said calmly. “For me, as well. I found your choice of strategy extremely intriguing, Khadizroth. Did I not know better, I might conclude your decision to attack Imperial interests was designed to draw their interest to your own activities. You must forgive me; dealing with as many politics as I do, I tend to see ulterior motives where they may not exist.”

“I believe we have been over this,” Khadizroth replied in a bored tone. “It was necessary to deal with McGraw, Jenkins, and the rest—indeed, it turns out that was the sole reason we were out there. At the time, depriving them of their secure base of operations seemed the best strategy.”

“And yet, neither you nor they suffered any permanent casualties,” Justinian said. “How fortuitous. Surely the gods must have been watching over you.”

“Would it be disrespectful to snort derisively?” Kheshiri stage-whispered to Shook, who grinned. She was in human guise, as always on temple grounds. The original consecration on the place had been lifted to allow her to function here.

“I think you could stand to consider who you’re dealing with, here, your Archness,” said the Jackal, folding his arms. “Really, now. We’ve all got a sense of honor, or at least professionalism. None of us mind doing the work. But is this really a group of people it’s wise to jerk around?”

“None of you are prisoners,” Justinian said serenely. “If at any time you wish to discontinue our association, you may do so without fear of reprisal from me. Indeed, I’m forced to confess I might find some relief in it; our relationship does place a strain upon my conscience at times. Due to my position, I am beholden to the Sisters of Avei, the Thieves’ Guild, and other organizations which are eager to know about the movements of most of you. It would assuage my qualms to be able to be more forthright with them.”

Shook tightened his fists until they fairly vibrated; Khadizroth blinked his eyes languidly. The others only stared at Justinian, who gazed beatifically back. Ravoud’s eyes darted across the group, clearly trying to anticipate from which direction the attack would come.

“For the time being, however,” said the Archpope after a strained pause, “I encourage you all to rest after your travels. Unless you decide otherwise, I shall have more work for you very soon. Welcome home, my friends.”

With a final nod and smile, he turned and swept out of the chamber, Ravoud on his heels. The Colonel glanced back at them once before shutting the doors to their suite.

Shook began cursing monotonously.

“Well said!” the Jackal said brightly.

Khadizroth stepped backward away from the group and turned his head, studying the outlines of the room. “Vannae, assist me?”

The elf nodded, raising his hands to the side as the dragon did the same. A whisper of wind rose, swirling around the perimeter of the chamber, and the light changed to pale, golden green. The shadows of tree branches swayed against the walls.

“I attempted to insulate any loose fae energy,” Khadizroth said, lowering his arms. “Kheshiri, are you aversely affected?”

The succubus pressed herself close to Shook’s side; he tightened his arm around her. “Not really. Doesn’t feel good, but I’m not harmed.”

“Splendid.” The dragon smiled. “This will ensure our privacy, since we were not able to catch up before returning here. How did your…adventure go?”

She glanced up at Shook, who nodded to her, before answering. “Everything went smoothly—I’m good at what I do. You were right, K. Svenheim was a trap.”

“You’re certain?” Khadizroth narrowed his eyes.

“Not enough that I’d stake my life on it,” she admitted. “But the Church is an active presence in the city, and I observed some very close interactions between its agents and curators at the Royal Museum.”

“I knew that fucking dwarf was gonna backstab us,” Shook growled.

“Not necessarily,” Khadizroth mused. “Svarveld may have been a double agent, or he may have been as betrayed as we. The point ended up being moot, anyway. We will simply have to remember this, and not underestimate Justinian again.”

“Why would he bother with that, though?” the Jackal asked. “He knew the skull wasn’t even in circulation. We were never going to acquire it, much less send it to Svenheim instead of Tiraas.”

Khadizroth shook his head. “Unknowable. I suspect there are currents to this that flow deeper than we imagine. Did you have time to tend to the other task I asked of you, Kheshiri?”

“Easy,” she replied, her tail waving behind her. “I swung by Tiraas on my way back; only took a few hours.”

“What’s this?” the Jackal demanded. “I thought we were sending the demon to Svenheim to snoop. How did you even get across the continent and back?”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Kheshiri said sweetly, producing a twisted shadow-jumping talisman from behind her back and tossing it to her. “You shouldn’t leave your things lying around.”

The assassin rolled his eyes, catching it deftly. “That’s right, let’s have a ‘who’s sneakier’ pissing contest. I’m sure there’s no way that’ll backfire.”

“Quite,” Khadizroth said sharply. “Kindly show your teammates a little more respect, Kheshiri. This group is primed to dissolve into infighting anyway; we cannot afford such games.”

“Of course,” she said sincerely. “My apologies. But in any case, your message was received and acknowledged. No response as yet.”

“Give it time,” he murmured.

“Message?” Vannae inquired.

“Indeed.” The dragon smiled thinly. “Justinian is not the only one with dangerous connections.”


 

“Busy?” Rizlith sang, sliding into the room.

Zanzayed looked up, beaming. “Riz! Never too busy for my favorite distraction. He’s got me doing paperwork. Help!”

“Aw, poor baby,” the succubus cooed, sashaying forward. “I bet I can take your mind off it.”

“I should never have introduced you,” Razzavinax muttered, straightening up from where he had been bent over the desk, studying documents. “Zanza, Riz…don’t encourage each other.”

“Well, joshing aside, there’s been a development I think you’ll urgently want to hear,” Rizlith said, folding her wings neatly and seating herself on one corner of the desk.

“A development?” Razzavinax said sharply. “Do we need to revisit that tedious conversation about you leaving the embassy?”

“Oh, relax, I’ve been safely cooped up in here the whole time,” she said sullenly. “No, the development came to me. And by the way, if you’re just now hearing of this, your wards need some fine-tuning. I had a visit from one of my sisters.”

“Sisters?” Zanzayed inquired. “Like…an actual sister, or is that just demon-speak for another of your kind?”

“You do know we’re not an actual species, right?” Rizlith turned to Razzavinax. “You’ve explained it to him, haven’t you?”

“Never mind that,” the Red said curtly. “Children of Vanislaas are not sociable with each other as a rule, Zanzayed; developments like this are always alarming.”

“Oh, quite so,” the succubus said with fiendish glee. “But Kheshiri brought me the most fascinating gossip!”

“Kheshiri,” Razzavinax muttered. “That’s a name I’m afraid I know. How bad is it?”

“That depends.” Rizlith grinned broadly, swaying slightly back and forth; her tail lashed as if she could barely contain herself. “Weren’t you guys looking for Khadizroth the Green a while back?”


 

Even strolling down the sidewalk in civilian attire, Nora did not allow herself to lose focus. She had been trained too long and too deeply to be unaware of her surroundings. When four people near her suddenly slumped sideways as if drunk, it wasn’t that fact alone so much as her reaction to it that told her something was badly wrong. She paused in her own walk, noting distantly that this was peculiar, and well below the level of her consciousness, training kicked in. It was much more than peculiar; her mind was not operating as it should.

Nora blinked her eyes, focusing on that tiny movement and the interruptions it caused in her vision. Mental influence—fairly mild, and clearly concentrated on an area of effect, not just targeting her. That meant the solution was to keep moving…

Then she was grabbed, her arms bound roughly behind her, and tossed into the back of a carriage that had pulled up next to the curb.

She hadn’t even seen anyone approach. Hadn’t noticed the delivery carriage pull up. How humiliating. It began moving, however, and the effect subsided with distance, enabling her to focus again on her surroundings.

It was a delivery truck, or had been originally; basically a large box with a loading door on the back built atop an enchanted carriage chassis. The runes tracing the walls indicated silencing charms, as did the lack of street noise once the doors were shut. One bench was built against the front wall of the compartment, with a single dim fairy lamp hanging in on corner, swaying slightly with the motions of the carriage.

The space was crowded. Four men stood around Nora, one with a hand knotted in her hair to keep her upright—she only belatedly realized that she had landed on her knees on the floor. On the bench opposite sat a thin man with glasses, who had a briefcase open on his lap, positioned to hid its contents from her. Against the wall on the other end of the bench perched a woman Nora recognized from a recent mission briefing.

“Good morning, Marshal Avelea,” Grip said pleasantly. “Thanks for joining us, I realize this was short notice.”

“I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t get dressed up,” Nora said flatly.

The thief grinned. “Saucy, aren’t we? Just like a hero out of a bard’s story. I thought you Imperial professionals were supposed to clam up when captured.”

“Would that make you happier?”

“I’m not here to be happy,” Grip said, her smile fading. “I get a certain satisfaction from my work, sure, but it’s not as if breaking people’s joints makes me happy, per se.”

“I don’t think you’ve considered the implications of this,” said Nora. “I’m an agent of Imperial Intelligence. If you intend—”

“Now, see, that attitude is why you are in this situation, missy. People seem to forget that we are a faith, not a cartel. This isn’t about intimidation—because no, the Imps don’t really experience that, do they? But when you start boasting about how your organization is too powerful to stand for this, well…” Grip leaned forward, staring icily down at her captive. “Then you make beating your ass an absolute moral necessity, rather than just a satisfying diversion.

“Besides, it’s all part of the cost of doing business. Your training means you won’t be excessively traumatized by anything that happens here, and your superiors will accept this as the inevitable consequence of their blundering and not push it further. You may not know, but I guarantee Lord Vex does, that the Empire is not a bigger fish than Eserion. At least one sitting Empress found herself unemployed as a result of pushing back too hard when we expressed an opinion. So this right here is a compromise! We’ll discuss the matter of you attempting to kill a member of our cult, Vex will be especially respectful for a while, and we can all avoid addressing the much more serious matter that you, apparently, are not afraid of the Thieves’ Guild.”

Grip very slowly raised on eyebrow. “Because believe you me, Marshal, I can fix that. But then there really would be trouble. So, let’s just attend to business and go our separate ways, shall we?”

“Fine, whatever,” Nora said disdainfully. “Could you stop talking and be about it already? Some of us have plans for this evening.”

Grip sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t say such things,” she complained. “Now this is going to suck up my whole afternoon. Toybox, start with that nervous system stimulating thingy of yours. When I’m satisfied the bravado is genuinely regretted, the lads can move on to the more traditional means.”


 

“This is on me,” Darling said, scowling.

“You’re awful eager to take credit for someone who wasn’t there,” Billie remarked, puffing lazily at one of McGraw’s cigarillos.

Darling shook his head. “Weaver, want to explain why she’s mistaken?”

“Always a pleasure,” said the bard, who sat crookedly in the armchair with one arm thrown over the back. “First rule of being in charge: everything is your fault. Being the man with the plan, he takes responsibility for any fucking up that occurs. More specifically, he sent us out without doing some very basic research that could’ve spared us all this.”

“Knew I could count on you,” Darling said dryly.

“Acknowledging that I am not generally eager to let you off the hook, Mr. Darling,” said Joe with a frown, “realistically, how could you have known the skull wasn’t in the Badlands?”

“Known? No.” Darling sighed, slouching back in his own chair. “But Weaver’s right. I found a trail and followed it without doing any further research. Hell, I knew about the werewolf issue in Veilgrad—we even discussed it, briefly. All I had to do was check with my contacts in the Imperial government for signs of possible chaos effects. Too late to say what difference it would have made—we might have decided to go for the Badlands anyway, as the Veilgrad case wasn’t a confirmed chaos incident until mere days ago—but it would’ve been something. Instead I got tunnel vision, bit Justinian’s bait and risked all your lives for damn well nothing. Somehow, ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t really cut the mustard this time.”

“You know better than this, Antonio,” Mary said calmly. “Learn the lesson and apply it next time. Recrimination is not a constructive use of our time.”

“Right you are,” he said dourly. “Regardless, I feel I owe you all something for this. The oracles settled down when the skull was secured, so the projects I’m pursuing on you behalf are again proceeding. It’s hard to tell, but I’ve a hunch that I’m close to an answer for you, at least, Mary.” He grimaced. “Unless the trend of the responses I’ve been getting reverses, I’m starting to fear it’s an answer you won’t like.”

“I do not go through life expecting to like everything,” she said calmly.

“Wise,” he agreed. “Anyway, it’s Weaver’s question that I think will be the toughest. I get the impression they’re actively fighting me on that. It may be my imagination, and the general difficulty of working with oracular sources, but still…”

“Wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest,” Weaver muttered.

“If nothin’ else,” said McGraw, “this wasn’t wasted time. We’ve learned some interesting things about our opponents.”

“And about ourselves,” Weaver added caustically. “Such as that Billie’s too theatrical to just kill an assassin when she has him helpless, rather than painting him with a stealth-penetrating effect.”

“Aye, now ye mention it that would’ve been more efficient,” Billie mused. “Hm. I’m well equipped for big bangs, but it occurs t’me I’ve got little that’d straight-up off a single target at close range. Funny, innit? I’ll have to augment me arsenal. I love doin’ that!”

“You said that green fire came out of a bottle?” said Joe. “That’d be a remarkable achievement if it was just a spell. How in tarnation did you manage to do it alchemically?”

“Oh, aye, that’s a point,” Billie said seriously. “Don’t let me forget, I owe Admestus Rafe either a really expensive bottle o’ wine or a blowjob.”

Weaver groaned loudly and clapped a hand over his eyes.

“Can’t help ya,” Joe said, his cheeks darkening. “I’m gonna be hard at work forgetting that starting immediately.”

“How do you plan to proceed?” Mary asked Darling. “It would appear that waiting for Justinian to take the initiative is a losing strategy.”

“You’re right about that,” the Bishop agreed. “And I do believe that some of what you’ve brought back is immediately relevant. For example, that he is harboring a fugitive from the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Is it wise to act on that point?” McGraw inquired. “Shook bein’ on his team is part o’ that game of intelligence chicken you’n Justinian are playin’, right? The one you’re not s’posed to acknowledge knowin’ about.”

“Some day I’m gonna hold you and Jenkins at wandpoint until you both prove you can pronounce the letter G,” Weaver grumbled.

“Oh, I’m sure Justinian will know exactly how the Guild learned of this,” Darling said with a grim smile. “If he didn’t want to play that game, he shouldn’t have made the first move. I’m not waiting for him to make the next one.”


 

“I’m sorry this business didn’t work out the way you hoped, your Holiness,” Ravoud said as the two men arrived in the small, glass-walled enclosure atop the ziggurat behind the Dawnchapel.

“On the contrary,” Justinian said, gazing out over the city, “this has been an extremely successful field test. We now have an idea of the effectiveness of Khadizroth’s group against Darling’s, which was the purpose of the exercise.”

“They seem pretty evenly matched…”

“Power for power, yes, but we knew that to begin with. And power is not so simply measured.” Justinian tilted his head backward, studying the cloudy sky. “Considering the violence all those people are capable of, their total lack of casualties indicates a mutual disinclination to inflict them. That is the most important thing we have learned. Using adventurers to winnow each other down will only work if they do not comprehend where their true best interests lie. These, clearly, do. Another strategy will be necessary.”

“I suppose this proves we can’t expect loyalty out of that group,” Ravoud said, scowling. “Hardly a surprise.”

“Indeed,” Justinian agreed with a smile. “Khadizroth deems himself above me, Vannae is loyal only to him, and the rest of them are simply monsters of one kind or another. Loyalty was never on the table. What is interesting to me is how quickly and openly Khadizroth set about undermining me. He is more than patient and far-sighted enough to play a longer, more careful game. Holding back from killing their opponents, attracting the Empire’s attention, that ploy to have the skull sent to Svenheim… To take such risks, he must perceive an urgency that I do not. That must be investigated more closely. It will also be important to learn whether the other party is operating on the same principles, or has developed an actual loyalty to Antonio. They are a more level-headed group, generally, and he is quite persuasive.”

“Forgive me for questioning you, your Holiness,” said Ravoud, carefully schooling his features, “but it is beyond my understanding why you tolerate that man. You know he’s plotting against you, and there’s not much that’s more dangerous than an Eserite with an ax to grind.”

“Antonio Darling is one of my most treasured servants,” the Archpope said softly, still gazing into the distance. “I will not have him harmed, nor deprive myself of his skills. Matters are tense now, because I cannot yet reveal everything to everyone. He has no cause to trust, and thus I have to arrange these diversions to keep him from investigating things he is not yet ready to know. When the full truth can be revealed, he of all people will find my cause the best way to advance his own principles and goals.”

“As you say, your Holiness,” Ravoud murmured. “Did… Do you intend to make some use of the skull?”

“Objects like that are not to be used,” Justinian said severely, turning to face him. “I fear I have abused my authority by making it a part of my plans at all. Frankly, my predecessor was unwise to have the Church take custody of that thing; it is far better off in the hands of the Salyrites. The goddess of magic can keep it safe better than anyone.” He sighed heavily. “My attempts to compensate for the risk seem to have backfired. We are still gathering intelligence from Veilgrad, but indications are the charms and blessings I designed to protect the people from the skull’s effects enabled those cultists to remain lucid enough to do significant harm, rather than blindly lashing out as chaos cultists always have. In addition to the damage to Veilgrad and its people, that has drawn the attention of the Empire.”

“That, though, could be useful by itself,” Rouvad said slowly. “If those same blessings can be used for agents of the Church… If there is ever another major chaos incident, they could protect our people, keep them functional.”

“Perhaps,” Justinian mused. “Regardless, I will have to meditate at length on a proper penance for myself; I have unquestionably caused harm to innocents with this. I badly misjudged the risks involved. Still… From all these events I feel I have learned something of great value.”

He turned again to gaze out through the glass wall over the rooftops of Tiraas. “In Veilgrad, a class from the University at Last Rock were hard at work interfering with my plans. And I note that one of the first actions undertaken by Darling’s group was to visit Last Rock itself. Everywhere I turn, Arachne Tellwyrn’s fingers dabble in my affairs. Just as they nearly upended Lor’naris last year, and Sarasio months before.”

“That’s…sort of a fact of life, isn’t it, your Holiness?” Rouvad said carefully. “There’s just not much that can be done about Tellwyrn. That’s the whole point of her.”

“No power is absolute, Nassir,” Justinian said softly. “Be they archmages, gods, or empires. They only have the appearance of absolute power because the people agree that they do. Such individuals live in fear of the masses discovering that they do not need to tolerate their overlords. Every tyrant can be brought down.

“I was always going to have to deal with Tellywrn sooner or later. We cannot rid the world of its last destructive adventurers when she is spewing out another score of them every year—to say nothing of her specifically elitist methods of recruitment. She targets those already most powerful and dangerous and equips them to be even worse. No… Arachne Tellwyrn must be dealt with.”

He nodded slowly to himself, staring into the distant sky. “If she insists on making herself a more urgent priority… So be it.”

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Khadizroth physically swelled, drawing in a long breath, his face descending into a deep scowl. “You, Kuriwa, I had minimal patience for to begin with. If—”

“Truce,” Mary said calmly, holding up a hand, palm forward.

The dragon paused and narrowed his eyes. “Truce? Why?”

“Let me second that incredulous question,” added McGraw. “With you bein’ here, finally, this ruckus seems about to take a turn for the beneficial. For some of us, that is.”

“There are some things you should all know before pursuing this matter any further,” Mary said equably, lowering her hand. “If you will kindly give it a minute or two, let the others gather. I’ve had to send help for some myself, but—ah, here they come now.”

Now might have been overstating it for those without the benefit of elvish hearing. Vannae turned his head slightly toward the far end of the square, narrowing his eyes; Khadizroth glanced fleetingly in that direction before focusing his attention back on Mary.

“I am impressed, at the least, with your nerve. That you should presume to speak politely with me after our last encounter…”

“Khadizroth, I will not have this conversation if you plan to contend that your treatment was unwarranted,” Mary interrupted. “Existence is not fair, and people cannot be expected to be scrupulous in their judgment; we are not all Avei, nor Themynra. Your actions have consequences, and you knowingly took a substantial risk by launching a scheme which, frankly, was beneath you on multiple levels. If you wish to discuss the removal of my curse, we can. As soon as you are no longer attached to Justinian.”

“I see,” the dragon said evenly. Vannae scowled deeply at Mary and opened his mouth.

The sound of footsteps came from around the corner at the end of the square. The flaming green silhouette of the Jackal, eerily visible through intervening buildings, dashed toward the corner and whipped around, not slowing as he pelted straight for his compatriots. A second later, the huge panther rounded the corner, sliding on the dusty street, and lunged after him.

The Jackal unashamedly skittered behind Khadizroth; the panther skidded to a halt and glared at the group, tail lashing.

“Raea, please don’t play with that,” Mary said with a smile. “You have no idea where it’s been.”

“Look who decided to show up,” Raea shot back, her expression decidedly unfriendly. “After leaving this whole situation to devolve into carnage, here you are to clean everything up and take credit. As usual.”

“Petulance does not become you, child,” Mary chided gently. “If it makes you feel better, there will be very little credit here for anyone. If you will join us, we are going to have a chat shortly. I’ve had to send some help to escort the last few interested parties to this location.”

“Did you sign off on this?” the Jackal asked, peeking around from behind Khadizroth.

“Regardless of any outstanding personal business between myself and the Crow,” the dragon intoned, folding his arms, “it has been my long experience that it is worth listening when she speaks. I’ll grant a few minutes to hear this…revelation.”

“Oh, good,” said the assassin, brushing fruitlessly at the flames on his sleeves. “Can you do something about this?”

Khadizroth half-turned to glance over him. “Probably. Not here, in the presence of opportunistic hired thugs who I don’t trust not to take advantage of my distraction.”

“That’s a little rich,” Joe protested. “All’s fair in war, as they say. Now we’ve agreed to a truce.”

“This is the first time I have heard you voice such agreement,” Khadizroth replied. “Regardless, complex magics can wait.”

“Oh, sure, I’ll just wait,” the Jackal said sullenly as Raea came to stand next to McGraw, laying a hand on his shoulder. After a moment of no visible effect, the old wizard straightened up slightly and rolled his shoulders as if suddenly freed of stiffness, then smiled and tipped his hat to her.

Everyone shifted to stare at the mouth of a side street when a swirling cloud of dust emerged from it, moving far too slowly to be natural. The cloud slowed and arced back toward the street from which it had come, and for a moment during the shift a vaguely humanoid outline was visible in its form. Then it shifted again, drifting toward Mary, and rippled in an indecipherable series of gestures.

She smiled and bowed to the air elemental from a seated position. “En-shai da.”

The elemental swelled outward and dissipated, a few leftover streamers of dust drifting to the ground.

From the street behind it came Weaver, carrying Billie seated in the crook of his left arm; he had his wand in his other hand, pointed currently at the ground. The bard glanced rapidly around the growing assemblage in front of the well, but spoke to his passenger.

“Quit drinking those, you idiot. You of all people know what the effects of healing potion overdose are!”

“Ah, quit yer maunderin’,” Billie said with a grimace, tossing the vial she had just emptied to the ground. “All the worst times I ever had seem to’ve begun with somebody tellin’ me not ta drink somethin’.”

“And did you ever follow that advice?”

“Course not, what d’ye take me for?” She grinned at his ostentatious sigh, raising her voice to address the others. “Well, what’ve we got ‘ere? Back to talkin’, eh? You wankers had enough?”

“Hello, Billie,” said Mary, finally getting up from her perch and stepping over to them. As Weaver carefully lowered the gnome to the ground, she knelt and placed both hands on Billie’s cheeks.

Billie grimaced, then shuddered, staggering, and apparently would have fallen had Mary not held her up. “Ach! Blech, that tingles. Thanks, though. Feels a lot better.”

“He’s right, you know,” Mary said more severely. “One more vial of that and you’d have had much more serious problems than the internal bleeding. Remedying that was more difficult than what remained of your actual injuries.”

“Well, sorry, yer Crowness, but if you just turn up at the last second, don’t expect ta be handed the easy jobs!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Weaver said dismissively, glaring around the square. “Either someone explain to me why we’re not still killing these assholes, or let’s just resume.”

Khadizroth reached behind himself unerringly and planted a hand over the Jackal’s mouth, just as the assassin opened it. “We are as eager to learn the point of this as you, I’m sure, deathspeaker.”

“Just a moment, please,” said Mary calmly. “Our final guest is arriving.”

She stepped in front of McGraw, Joe, and Raea, crossing the space separating the two groups, and met a large figure emerging from another street.

It was easily eight feet tall and seemed made of stone, which made the silence of its movements deeply incongruous; only upon closer inspection was it apparent that the elemental was not made of solid rock, but slowly shifting sand. In its blocky arms was the unconscious form of Jeremiah Shook.

The sand elemental bent and carefully laid him out on the ground, where Mary knelt to touch his forehead. “Hm, he’s been healed recently. Your work, Vannae? Neatly done.”

“Mary,” Joe said tersely, “that man—”

“Is your diametric opposite in nearly every respect, Joseph, and altogether would have been a better choice for a first nemesis than a dragon.” Mary straightened up, turning her back on Shook, and strode serenely back to her perch on the rim of the well. The elemental, rather than rising again, slowly sank back into the dusty street, leaving no trace of its presence.

Shook twitched once, then sat bolt upright, groping at his belt where his wands should have been and not finding them. He fell still, staring at those gathered in the square through narrowed eyes.

“Come on, really?” the Jackal protested. “No one’s dead? Nobody? You guys suck at this.”

“Okaaaay,” said Shook, ignoring him. “What the hell now?”

“That is what we’re about to find out, apparently,” said Vannae, returning his attention to Mary.

“I have spent the last several days traveling widely,” Mary said, while Shook got to his feet and joined the other members of his party. “Much has been going on behind the scenes, and I’ve been working to determine what, and why, and at whose behest. I had some advance warning of these events, you see, thanks to my own divinations. When the oracles begin to warn of danger, there are always some of us who hear the alert first.”

“Thanks for keeping us in the loop,” Weaver snorted.

Mary raised an eyebrow. “I’ve worked toward the betterment of the world for a very long time before you came along, Weaver, though I would still have included you, had I any reason to believe you would act for the greater good when not being paid. Regardless, there is a point within your griping, whether you intended it or not. There is one secret I knew long beforehand, which I wish I had been present to share with you before you were sent off on this errand. It could have spared us all a great deal of needless fuss and bother.”

She folded her legs beneath herself and regarded them all solemnly. “You were sent here to obtain the skull of Belosiphon the Black—or more accurately, to fight over it. For the last eight hundred and twelve years, the skull has lain in a sealed barrow in the mountains outside Veilgrad, reachable through the city’s ancient catacombs.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Veilgrad?” Shook said incredulously. “Bullshit.”

“Veilgrad,” Mary continued, “has been the scene of all manner of catastrophe in the last few months. Necromancy, werewolf activity, multiple misfired spells. Chaos cultists.” She cocked her head to one side. “Exactly the sort of goings-on one would expect to see in the presence of a major chaos artifact, and which has not been seen here.”

“Well,” McGraw mused, “suddenly I feel a lot less intelligent than I did this morning.”

“So…what, this is a race to Veilgrad, now?” Joe asked. “Then I don’t see what’s different about this encounter. Stands to reason we’d be best advised to prevent each other from settin’ out first.”

“I suspect we are not done being surprised,” said Khadizroth.

“Indeed,” Mary said with a smile. “The skull is now secure, or will be very soon. An extraction team sent from the Universal Church, composed of members of the Holy Legion and spellcasters of multiple schools form the cult of Salyrene, were dispatched in a borrowed zeppelin. Their operation was exquisitely timed; I expect they either have the skull in their hands now, or will within the hour.

“Most interestingly, to me,” she went on, her expression growing more serious, “is the timing. That skull was inside a casket sealed by Salyrene herself. It has endured for centuries and in theory should have indefinitely. This summer, the roof over it was collapsed, cracking the seal—a most interesting development, considering the protections laid upon that place. I would venture to say such a thing could not happen unassisted. This caused the taint of chaos to flood Veilgrad, slowly growing until it became a severe enough threat to alarm the oracles, leading to…all of this.

“So Justinian sent you here,” Mary said, turning to nod at Khadizroth’s group. “Bishop Darling, to whom I spoke just yesterday, researched the oracles’ warnings on his own time, finding the Church’s records to indicate the Badlands as the skull’s resting place. There is no historical reason why they should.”

“Wait,” said McGraw, frowning. “There’s the matter of Imperial Intelligence. Darling looked through Imperial records too, and got the same info. And they’ve sure as hell been a presence in Desolation of late.”

“The inner workings of the Empire are frustratingly opaque to me,” Mary allowed. “Who has done what and why in the halls of Imperial Intelligence I cannot say. But I can interpret the events unfolding as I see them. The new Imperial presence and construction in Desolation, among its other aims, is directly targeted at extending the Rail network to Rodvenheim and Puna Dara—two sovereign states which have emphatically refused to give Tiraas a clear route to their front doors. Now, with adventurers brawling, plains elves prowling and rumors of a major chaos artifact flying about the desolate region where all their territories abut, I rather suspect both governments are under significant pressure, from both within and without, to join hands and impose mutual civilization on this last piece of wilderness.”

She paused to let her words sink in for a moment before driving them the rest of the way with a veritable hammer. “Of course, there is exactly one man who could arrange for the skull to be exposed, you four and your succubus companion to be sent here, and a trail of breadcrumbs laid exactly where Darling would look for it. Now, I’ve said my piece. We can resume this affair to its logical conclusion, which in any outcome involves massive damage, injury, and likely fatalities. Considering who has arranged all this, who is the only party who will benefit from both our groups weakening each other… Well, I find that I, for one, am disinclined to dance for his amusement. I am even less interested in helping the Tiraan Empire advance its foreign policy ambitions. My proposed truce has now seen its purpose fulfilled. I suggest that rather than continuing to fight… This is a good time for us all to walk away.”

The wind whistled emptily over the shattered rooftops of the town, carrying the scents of smoke and ozone. Both groups assembled in the square stared suspiciously at one another, at their own members, at Mary positioned neutrally apart from them.

Then Joe, moving slowly and very deliberately, slipped his wands back into their holsters.

“I said it to begin with,” the Jackal said, still swiping absently and fruitlessly at the green flames limning him. “Whatever problems we’ve got with each other, with Darling or anyone else—and you’d better believe there are going to be a series of reckonings on all those scores—at the end of the day, Justinian’s still the big spider in the middle of this web. And the son of a bitch went and made us forget that for a while.”

“Yes,” said Khadizroth softly. “A fitting reminder why he is dangerous.”

“You don’t have to answer to him,” said Joe.

“Someone does,” Khadizroth replied. “I like him better in my proximity than weaving his schemes behind my back.”

“Aye?” Billie snorted. “How’s that workin’ out for ye?”

Shook grunted. “Pains me to admit it, but the gnome makes a point. We have every fucking one of us just been played like a whole band of fiddles.”

“A veritable orchestra of dupes and patsies!” the Jackal said, grinning. Shook gave him a filthy look.

“Now, I might be mistaken,” said McGraw. “It wouldn’t be the first time. But all this talk seems to be leadin’ toward the conclusion the lot of us have more urgent matters in common than we have reason to fight.”

“You’re not completely right there,” Weaver replied. “The matters in common, yes. But every time we meet, this shit gets more and more personal.”

“I’m sure this has nothing to do with the proclivity of several of you to be gratuitously vicious toward each other,” Raea commented.

“The enemy of my enemy,” Vannae began, and was drowned out by a loud snort from Shook, a peal of hysterical laughter from the Jackal, and a theatrical groan from Weaver.

“Enough.” Khadizroth did not raise his voice, but it nonetheless cut off the noise. “You are all right. We have between us matters which must be settled. However… The Crow is also right. The matters need not be settled right now, and we have in common one figure who would presume to control or destroy all of us. We would be wise not to let ourselves forget that, when next we meet.”

“I can’t help but see the utility in havin’ one group in the Archpope’s camp and one outside it,” said Joe. “If we were willin’ to…compare notes, so to speak. Not to mention that, let’s face it, Darling ain’t a whole lot better. If he’s any better.”

“Darling is as duplicitous a player as the Archpope,” said Mary, “and I think has an even greater capacity for viciousness. The ultimate difference between them, however, is that Darling does not aspire to rule. He is Eserite to his core; his aim is to bring down those who would set themselves above others. That makes him useful, despite his…numerous annoying character traits.”

“Hm,” Shook muttered, frowning at nothing.

“I accept your recommendation, for now,” said Khadizroth, taking one deliberate step backward. “We will continue to play Justinian’s game because we must. Henceforth, however, we must be very careful not to find ourselves doing his dirty work.”

“Agreed,” Joe replied, nodding. The dragon nodded back.

There were a few more mutters and grunts from various persons, but with that, it seemed the main topic of conversation was exhausted. Mary stood and strolled calmly over to join her own group, as both parties began shuffling backward from each other. They eased away in reverse at first, keeping eyes on their rivals, but gradually, as they neared the edges of the square, everyone relaxed enough to turn around and slip into the streets on opposite sides.

The desolate wind whistled into the space left behind as both groups walked away.

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9 – 33

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A nimbus of arcane blue ignited around Shook, Joe’s first shot slamming into nothingness just above his heart. A split-second later, Shook had squeezed off two return shots, which sparked against shielding charms over Joe and McGraw, and then absorbed two more clean bolts of light from Joe’s wands and one flash of lightning from Weaver’s, forcing him backward.

Before the shoot-out had a chance to burn through anyone’s shielding charms, the Jackal hurled a tiny object to the ground at his feet, and with a burst of highly compressed air, a fog of dense gray smoke billowed out over the ruined street.

More wandshots flashed blindly through the sudden darkness, and the high-pitched, theatrical laughter of the Jackal faded rapidly into the distance.

“Circle up,” McGraw said urgently. “Don’t let the bastard flank anybody!”

Raea, again an elf, had called up another burst of wind to clear the smoke away from them, giving the group a clear view at least of each other. Following the old wizard’s directive, they swiftly arranged themselves back-to-back in a knot, with McGraw and Joe facing down the street at where their enemies stood.

In the next moment, the Jackal’s smoke was dissipated entirely by another burst of wind, this one conjured by Vannae. Shook still clutched his wands, and raised them once he had a view of McGraw’s team again. Of the Jackal there was no sign.

Before Shook could fire, Khadizroth stepped forward past him, placing himself at the front of the group. McGraw unleashed a bolt of pure arcane energy straight at him.

The dragon made a contemptuous swatting motion and the blast veered sideways, slamming into the half-collapsed front of what had long ago been a general store and completing its demolition. With his other hand, Khadizroth made a grasping motion in midair, then gestured sharply upward.

A conical spire of rock burst out of the ground in the dead center of their formation, hurling them in multiple directions. The formation was twelve feet high in seconds, the violence of its emergence tossing everyone away, and its ever-expanding base preventing them from regaining their footing—except Raea, who nimbly bounded up the rising tower.

She just as nimbly leaped away from it as the peak of the now twenty-foot outcropping exploded, emitting a burst of fire and superheated air. Blazing droplets of magma oozed over the edges of the tiny crater thus formed, adding considerably to the heat of the air and forcing the adventurers still further away. A few more wandshots from Shook and a couple of fireballs hurled by Vannae herded them farther away from each other, until the whole party was forced to split, each diving for whatever cover they could find.

“That was good advice,” Khadizroth said calmly. “Stay together, gentlemen; with the exception of our assassin friend, we are stronger as a group. Force them apart and pick them off one-by-one…” He broke off suddenly, frowning and swiveling his head to stare at a collapsed structure behind which one of their foes had taken shelter.

“My lord, what is it?” Vannae asked urgently.

“A pocket of fast time,” Khadizroth replied, narrowing his glowing eyes. “The sign of a mage who wants to cast something very complicated very quickly. Stay together and move back; whatever he is doing will—”

Again, he abruptly stopped talking, this time to turn and dash between Shook and Vannae, down the street in the opposite direction. Behind him came a veritable wall of air which picked up both men and dragged them along, Shook cursing vehemently.

Moments later, Khadizroth skidded to a stop over forty yards away, at the very outskirts of the town, and released the air spell that had gathered up his comrades, along with a great deal of dust and rubble. Vannae laded lightly on his feet, but Shook was hurled face-first to the street with a small drift of rubble dropped atop him. Having his face in the dirt stifled his obscene commentary for a moment.

Not wasting any time, Khadizroth gestured again, pulling up a wall of rock from the ground between them and the place where they had been standing. Not a moment too soon; an enormous fireball had come screaming out of the sky, slamming into the street where they had tried to form up and trailing a retinue of smaller objects which peppered the already-demolished town. The main impact shook the earth and threw up a shockwave of dust and heated air, which was mostly ablated by the dragon’s hurriedly-summoned wall.

Khadizroth pushed the wall back into the ground, its duty done, and called up another burst of wind, again dispelling the fog of dirt from the air.

“How did he do that?” the dragon demanded.

“What the fuck?!” Shook choked, dragging himself upright and immediately falling into a coughing fit.

“I see the portal magic,” Khadizroth murmured, peering intently back down the street at the brand new crater. Of their enemies there was no sign. “He… Ah. Temporal bubble, open a portal to the upper stratosphere and conjure a rock. I can only guess how he handled the trigonometry—the math involved is more than even I could do in my head. Truly, the man’s technique is inspiring. But the thing should have taken considerable time to fall this far—how did he shorten it? One can only twist time a very little bit before Vemnesthis intervenes.”

“How ’bout this,” Shook rasped, pausing to cough again. “Less admiring the fuckers and more killing them!”

“I suppose so,” the dragon mused, shaking his head. “Tis a shame—one always hates to destroy a true artist. First, though, we now have to find them.”


 

Billie plunked herself down atop the very highest point of the half-building, half-rubble pile that had previously housed Khadizroth’s office and began withdrawing components from her pockets.

“There y’are,” she murmured, squinting at the three figures well down the street even as she connected a sturdy tank of liquid to a metal charm containing impossibly pressurized elemental air with an extremely durable hose. “Don’t suppose I could get ye to stand still fer a bit? Aye, that’s even better,” she added with a predatory grin as the three began cautiously advancing back up the street. Screwing a wide spraying nozzle onto her nearly-finished apparatus, she glanced down the other side of the pile, where from this vantage she could see McGraw and Joe lurking behind cover across the street.

Suddenly the air around her seemed to thicken; several arcane charms pinned to her coat blazed to life, and a shockwave of pure force blasted outward from her in all directions.

Dropping the device she’d been crafting, Billie bounded to her feet, dipping one hand into a pocket and spinning around with the other outstretched. The indicator charm pinned to her cuff pointed her dead in the right direction; the instant she came to a stop, she pulled a rune-engraved cylinder from her pocket, slapped it into her other palm, then released it. The directional charm flashed brightly once more and propelled the object forward in a straight line.

She was quick, but not as quick as an elf. Even elves were subject to the laws of physics, however, and the Jackal’s agility and speed did not enable him to change direction in midair. The runic device struck him in the back before he touched the ground, still in the process of being hurled backward by the blast.

The charm flashed brightly once and tumbled to the ground, inert; the Jackal went the opposite direction, shooting three yards straight upward, where he hung, grasping at nothing.

“Joe mentioned that trick,” Billie said, gathering up her pump device and beginning to pick her leisurely way toward him. “Makin’ an entire suite o’ the best shielding charms available just up an’ collapse. Once I got to thinkin’ how such a thing might be done, it was child’s play slappin’ together a little countermeasure. Ach, what’m I sayin’? I don’t do little. Ironically enough.”

“A bard once told me,” the Jackal commented as she neared, “that if you find yourself delivering a monologue to a helpless foe, you are clearly the villain of the piece.”

“Now, now, lemme brag a bit. I’m very smart, an’ I want ye to appreciate it before ye die here in a minute.” She stopped, grinned, and aimed the pump at him; he was drifting rapidly lower, whatever magic she had used wearing off quickly. “Smile pretty, now.”

The Jackal hurled out a hand, propelling a cluster of small throwing knives at the gnome; they flashed against her shield charm and fell to the ground. In the same moment, she activated the pressurized air in her gadget and sprayed a gout of green fire directly at him.

The elf yowled and twisted about frantically in midair, unable to dodge; he was coated completely in flames. He continued to yell, thrashing and flailing, as Billie backed up a few paces and set down the pump.

“Oh, quit yer whinin’, ye big baby, it doesn’t hurt,” she said dismissively.

Indeed, the assassin quickly found that he was unharmed. He was on fire, completely coated in flickering green flames, but they weren’t even hot. They just didn’t come off, as he discovered upon trying to pat and brush at his sleeves and torso.

Billie, meanwhile, produced a palm-sized leather ball attached to a brass runic seal and hurled it. More prepared this time, the Jackal swatted it away, but the device activated upon impact with his hand, letting loose another blast of compressed air and sending him sailing off toward the edge of the town. The levitation charm gave up the ghost under that abuse, and he hit the ground gracelessly for an elf: bouncing once on his rump and only belatedly getting his feet under him.

The assassin glared up at the gnome, lunged to the side, and vanished.

While he disappeared from sight, the green flames clinging to him did not.

“Oi!” Billie shouted gleefully from above, waving with one hand and pulling out another grenade with the other. “That’s some right top-notch stealth magic ye got there! Be a shame if somebody went an’ made it completely useless!”

Hissing a curse, the Jackal changed course, dashing around the edge of the town and pressing himself close to a still-standing wall, placing some cover between himself and Billie.

There, he skidded to a halt, face-to-face with a giant panther.

She growled once, crouching to spring.

“Raea, my dear,” he said with great dignity, straightening up and adjusting the invisible lapels of his coat as if they weren’t on fire, “since this is our first real meeting and I may not have the chance later, I just want you to know something.” He smiled pleasantly. “Your mother pays dire wolves to fuck her in the—”

The panther lunged.


 

“That is a right disconcerting spectacle,” McGraw mused, staring at the figure of a slim man outlined in green fire. It was a good twenty yards away, and on the other side of a collapsed building and a standing one besides, but the flames were visible between it. According to Billie, they’d have been visible on the other side of the planet, if anybody there had eyesight keen enough to see it. He was correct; the ghostly image was deeply disconcerting, making the brain struggle to place it against its backdrop.

“Mm hm,” Joe murmured, jerking his head up the street, where Khadizroth and Vannae were approaching at a walk. “Can you occupy these two for a moment?”

“Reckon I can whip somethin’ up,” McGraw said idly, taking aim with his staff and unleashing a blast of pure, destructive arcane force.

Again, the dragon deflected it, then the second one, but he slowed under the onslaught as McGraw continued to pepper him with arcane bolts. Vannae ducked into a side alley behind his master.

“The other elf just went outta sight,” McGraw said tersely. “Watch your ass, Joe.”

“Damn,” the Kid hissed, lowering his wands, their tips smoking. Neat holes had been burned into the pile of rubble between them and the Jackal, but were quickly erased as the debris shifted. The Jackal, engaged in a fighting retreat from Raea, had moved out of the way of the shots, not that it mattered; powerful as Joe’s wands were, it was simply too much mass for him to shoot through. “I’m gonna—”

“Son, do not go off chasin’ him,” McGraw ordered. “We’ve taken his element of surprise; he’s not a match for Raea hand-to-hand. I could use your help here!”

Joe whipped around, baring his teeth, and stepped up next to the old wizard, adding a barrage of wandfire to McGraw’s assault.

At that, Khadizroth was finally forced to halt his advance, ducking into another alley. A final blast from McGraw collapsed the entrance after him.

“So,” the wizard said, breathing heavily, “he can deflect unfocused bursts of arcane power, but not wandshots. Interesting.”

“And good to know,” Joe added. “Gives me an idea. C’mon.”


 

Sometimes simple devices were the best devices; rather than relying on any magical augmentation, Billie’s Throwing Arm was a simple length of pipe with a gripping claw attached to one end linked by spring to a handle on the other. It enabled her to lengthen her arm by more than her body height, and thus hurl bombs a very great distance. She had practiced with it extensively. Not enough to bullseye an elf in an alley at seventy yards, but the nice thing about bombs was that you didn’t really need to bullseye anything.

She chuckled to herself as the grenade hit right in front of Vannae, reducing his path to a pile of rubble and catching him in the blast. It was too much to hope that it had done him in; between elvish relfexes and magical defenses, he wouldn’t be taken so easily. Unfortunately the fire, smoke and debris prevented her from seeing the results of her attack in any detail.

The only warning she got was a rasp of stone on stone behind her.

Billie whirled, another explosive in hand, but Shook was already on her. The angle of the climb to her perch had prevented him from just shooting her down, and he’d given himself away by clambering fully up onto the small ledge rather than reaching out to grab her. He was there, though, and close enough to land a vicious kick square on her chest.

The gnome was propelled into space, plummeting over twenty feet into the crater below. Baring his teeth in an expression that was triumphant but not a smile, Shook stepped up to the edge of the platform, leveling both wands.

He, unfortunately for him, was much taller than a gnome; the angle of the climb did not protect him from wandshots.

His shielding charm sparked at the impact of a lightning bolt; he whirled, almost losing his balance, and blindly returned fire.

Weaver stalked forward up the much gentler side of the rubble pile, the one Shook had avoided because it was within Billie’s line of sight. The bard glared fury at the enforcer, both wands upraised, and pressed forward one step at a time, unleashing blast after blast as he came.

Shook regained his balance and shot back; blue flashes lit up around both men as their respective charms absorbed wandfire. Meeting his assailant’s glare with his own, Shook began striding down the incline right at him.

Both men advanced at a walk, surrounded by flickering shields of light, and pouring on arcane destruction with two wands each. Those shields were starting put put off smoke and high-pitched whines of protest; they were not meant to stand up to continuous fire. Neither man wavered or slowed, however.

When they were only five yards apart, though, Weaver suddenly dropped his wands. Shook finally paused, hesitating in his own assault.

The bard reached into his coat, pulled out a flute, and raised it to his lips. The enforcer unleashed a furious volley of blasts straight at his face; Weaver’s shield sparked dangerously, the charm pinned to his coat glowing hot enough to make the fabric smoke.

Then Weaver blew a single note, and the world tilted out of balance.

Shook lost his footing, stumbling to his knees; he dropped one of his wands, barely catching himself from keeling over entirely. Weaver continued to play, the sound seeming to make the very air resonate sickeningly.

Then Shook raised his head.

His lips were peeled back in an animal snarl, eyes bulging with pure rage. Weaver’s own eyes narrowed; after a quick pause for breath, he blew harder, the note resuming even louder than before.

Shook stumbled again, wavering… Then, slowly, straightened up, climbing fully to his feet. Blood began to drip from his nose. Raising his remaining wand, he took aim at the bard.

Weaver let off playing for a moment. “It rattles the brain, y’know. To stand up to that, you’d have to be more wild animal than man. You’ve got some issues, don’cha, Mr. Shook?”

His shield sparked against the wandshot that would otherwise have burned through his throat. He put the flute back to his lips.

What struck him from the side was not a gust of air so much as a compressed sphere of it. Weaver kept his hold on his flute, though his wands were sent flying away even as he himself was tossed off the incline to skid down it on his back and land in a heap at the base.

“Stop,” Vannae ordered, bounding onto the ledge as Shook made to follow Weaver. “Persevering through that would damage your mind. If it is not healed—”

“I’m fine,” Shook snarled, his features twisted in animal fury. “Fuck off, I’m gonna finish—”

A light touch of the elf’s fingers on his forehead caused him to slump forward, unconscious. Vannae caught him, grunting as he carefully lowered the much bigger man to the ground.

“In my opinion,” the elf murmured, gently placing a hand over Shook’s eyes and concentrating on the healing flow of magic, “it would be more sensible to let you finish him off and kill yourself in the process. Two birds, as they say. But Khadizroth has stated all our lives are to be protected above all other considerations. There, that should—”

A brilliant tower of pure light burst up from a juncture of streets over a block distant, accompanied by a wail of agony in Khadizroth’s voice.

Vannae bounded off the ruined building in one great leap, leaving Shook unconscious at its peak.


 

McGraw stumbled backward, barely getting an arcane shield up between himself and the fireball thrown by the dragon. There was barely room to maneuver in the square; this end of the town was less destroyed than the other, but it was also more cramped. The only reason there was an open space here at all was due to the old well at one end, set in the base of a rock outcropping atop which a house had been raised.

Joe and McGraw had intercepted the dragon here and managed to hold him for a few minutes. While the wizard approached at street level, Joe had positioned himself on the rooftops, firing streams of white light in an intensity that left molten streaks of glass in the sandy dirt of the street. His onslaught had forced Khadizroth to keep moving, even as he himself had had to rapidly dodge and shift to defensive measures when the dragon hurled fireballs, and at one point caused an enormous thorned vine to crawl up the wall on which he was standing. Joe’s wands were crafted with the ability to project tunnels of ionized air to redirect incoming wandfire; it didn’t work nearly as well on fireballs, but worked somewhat, at least causing them to lose cohesion.

McGraw, meanwhile, had poured on a more direct attack, hitting the dragon with fire, ice, lightning, wind, sheer kinetic force and blasts of pure arcane energy. His assaults, while stronger pound-for-pound, were less concentrated than the wandshots, and Khadizroth mostly chose to block or deflect them rather than evading.

The dragon was kept busy with defense and evasion, only finding time to fire off one counterattack for every three or four of theirs, but still, it was apparent from the beginning that they were only keeping him at bay. And while both humans grew increasingly sweaty and short of breath, Khadizroth remained in perfect equilibrium, and even wore a calm smile.

Finally, sensing a moment’s weakness, he followed his fireball with a wall of solid air, smashing McGraw backward into the house behind him. The wizard lost his footing at the impact, stumbling to the side and barely catching himself on his staff.

“Stop!” Joe thundered as the dragon stepped forward. He leaped from the rooftop on which he’d been balancing, landing in the street a few yards away.

Khadizroth did, indeed, pause, turning to face him. “Unless you intend to parley, Mr. Jenkins, I do believe this matter is at an end. I would take it well if you did; I told you once before that your brand of honor is sorely needed in the world. It would pain me to expunge it.”

“Step away from him,” Joe grated, advancing with both wands upheld, “and don’t you dare speak to me of honor, you two-faced filth.”

The dragon’s sage smile finally vanished. “Child, you speak of things far above your understanding.”

“I understand integrity,” Joe snapped back, firing a stream of light at the dragon’s feet; Khadizroth stepped away, but made no other move as the Kid advanced. McGraw, against the wall, hauled himself upright, panting, but also held off, watching them carefully as if afraid to interrupt the conversation unfolding. “You know what kind of man you’re working for.”

“Yes,” Khadizroth said coldly, “and what kind of man you are working for. I’m certain you have this worked around in your mind so that you taking orders from your particular deceitful weasel is more noble than me doing so from mine, but—”

“Darling an’ Justinian aren’t the problem,” Joe interrupted, pressing forward. He fired another shot at the ground; Khadizroth glanced at it but did not move, the beam not coming close enough to singe him. “Neither am I. We work for Darling because of what he’s payin’ us—it’s that simple. We’re mercenaries. Not the noblest thing, but it is what it is, an’ none of us claim to be any better. You, though, you’re Khadizroth the Green. You’re supposed to stand for something. You’re supposed to matter, damn you! What can you possibly be doin’ with Justinian that’s worth leeching the honor outta the world?”

Khadizroth blinked his eyes, his expression very nearly shocked. “I—Joseph, much as we would like matters to be simple, we rarely have that luxury.”

“The world ain’t simple,” Joe said bitterly, coming to a stop only two yards from him. “It largely ain’t decent, and neither are a lot of folk in it. Difference is, people can be better. What makes ’em better, most times, is somebody settin’ an example. That is what you could be doing, and it’d matter a hell of a lot more than any a’ your schemes.”

The dragon drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. “I…wish I could say that you are wrong, young man. Perhaps it would be better for you not to live to understand the compromises that must be made for the greater good. You’ll be happier, not learning.”

“Whatever,” Joe said coldly. “Done with this conversation, anyway.”

He moved one foot forward, planting a toe on a still-hot length of burned, glassy sand, and closed his eyes.

Blue light flared up from the ground all around Khadizroth; the dragon whirled in sudden dismay, only belatedly realizing that Joe’s shots had carved a sprawling spell circle into the dusty street, and he was standing in the middle of it.

Before he could move, the air trembled as if rung like a bell, something rippling outward from the dragon’s form.

A column of blinding light blazed skyward and a shockwave of force ripped in all directions, tossing Joe and McGraw against the walls. Within the magical inferno, Khadizroth let out an unearthly howl of pain.

It was over as soon as it had begun, and the dragon collapsed in an unconscious heap.

“Whew,” Joe gasped, picking himself up and retrieving his wands from where they had fallen. “Well, that’s not gonna work a second time… You okay, Elias?”

“Wouldn’t say that, but I’ll live a few more minutes,” McGraw grunted, hauling himself upright using his staff. “Kid, what the hell was that? It looks like a simple transmutation matrix.”

“Yup,” Joe said, managing a weak grin. “Straightforward divine-to-arcane energy conversion. I figured, he wouldn’t have many divine spells, but dragons are known to use all kinds of magic, even apart from the one they specialize in. All four schools an’ even some shadow magic, right?”

“An’ if that quantity of divine energy were converted to arcane in his own aura, where he wasn’t expecting it to be, and reacted with the fae magic he’s filled with…” McGraw let out a low whistle. “Kid, you have any idea how risky that was? Quite frankly there are more reasons it shouldn’t’ve worked than reasons it did.”

“I figure we’ve learned by now that improbable plans are the only kind that work against dragons,” Joe replied, leveling both wands at Khadizroth, who was still unconscious. “Now, what to—”

Vannae lunged at him from the rooftop nearby, only prevented from hitting the Kid head-on by a blast of unfocused arcane energy from McGraw. The elf tumbled to the street, singed and snarling, where he swiftly planted himself between them and the fallen dragon, brandishing a tomahawk.

McGraw and Joe glanced at each other, then fired simultaneously.

Wandshots and arcane bolts alike slammed harmlessly into the rock wall that sprang up out of the street in front of them, incidentally obliterating part of the spell circle. In the next moment, it shattered into fragments, exploding outward and pelting both of them with shards of rock, knocking Joe over and pushing McGraw backward.

“I,” Khadizroth growled, getting to his feet, “have had enough!”

The dragon straightened up fully, baring his teeth at them, and held his hands out to both sides. White-hot flames burst into being in each palm.

Just as suddenly, they winked out, leaving him holding two handfuls of smoke and looking flummoxed.

A soft caw sounded on the air.

Everyone froze, turning to watch the crow as it glided down to settle on the rim of the old well.

Mary smiled, shifting to nonchalantly tuck one leg beneath herself.

“Am I late?”

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9 – 32

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Whatever she had intended, the results of Dragonsbane’s first shot were disappointing.

Her sidearm was a pricier model that projected a clean white beam of energy instead of a lightning bolt, but it still sparked ineffectively against the squad’s shielding charms. Rather than joining in the assault, the assembled protestors shied back from the discharge with a mix of gasps and mutters.

“And that’s assault,” Principia snapped. “Drop that weapon and place your hands on your head, or we will exercise force.”

“Hell,” growled a heavyset man, drawing a wand from within his coat. “We’re protecting ourselves from monsters—nobody who’s afraid to make sacrifices deserves to be here.”

“Sir, I advise against that,” Principia warned.

“Sorry, ladies,” he said, sounding oddly sincere, and fired a lightning bolt directly into her shield. Again came the snap and flicker of the charm activating, this time directing the electricity downward where it scorched the stone between the Legionnaires and the activists.

Dragonsbane, having the high ground, fired twice more, in a more exploratory pattern; her shots passed above Ephanie’s helmet and then to the right of Casey’s shield at the flank of their formation, clearly gauging the range of their arcane shields. Unfortunately, the support of their group seemed to embolden others, and more weapons were produced add leveled at the soldiers.

“Charge weapons!” Principia barked. “Citizens, this is your final warning—disarm and disperse!”

“They’ve got nothing but spears and shields!” shouted a woman from the back of the crowd.

Three more blasts sparked off their augmented shields, utterly drowning out five tiny clicks as the Legionnaires unfolded small mechanisms from the hafts of their lances. Another clean blast from Dragonsbane neatly clipped the uppermost reach of Principia’s shielding charm, causing the entire thing to ripple visibly. At that, several of the protestors, including two had had hitherto been holding wands confusedly skyward, took aim at her directly.

“VOLLEY!” she roared.

Five spearheads parted down the middle on hidden hinges, and five powerful blasts of lightning erupted from the small blue crystals thus revealed.

The bolts ripped through the crowd, setting off a veritable fireworks display of activated shielding and grounding charms. The protestors were thrown into utter chaos, several shoved bodily aside by the suddenly active fields of force surrounding some of their number who had been standing too close. Only a minority had taken the precaution of wearing charms, however, and lightning arced straight through several bodies.

At the far edge of the platform, Dragonsbane herself dived to the ground, placing her supporters between herself and the Legionnaires. None of the lightning bolts had reached her anyway; once she got behind the crowd, no more had a chance.

Finally, the scattering Principia had originally predicted occurred, accompanied by a pandemonium of screams. People bolted in multiple directions, several of the more level-headed among them trying to shout orders, to no avail.

“MELEE FORM,” Principia bellowed over the din, “RIGHT STEP, ARC BACK!”

Retracting their weapons from firing configuration and restoring the blades, their formation moved laterally to their right and bent, positioning themselves with Casey against the stone wall surrounding the platform and the rest of the squad arrayed in a curve. The position funneled the fleeing citizens away from them and prevented them from being flanked, not that any of their opponents had the presence of mind for such a maneuver. They scurried toward the two smaller gates, bottlenecking at the entrances; several were pushed down and trampled.

One woman was shoved forward and impaled herself on the tip of Ephanie’s lance. The blade penetrated only a few inches, but the panicked victim pulled it out more sideways than straight; she staggered away after the others, bent over and leaving a trail of blood along the stone.

Seven well-dressed bodies lay on the ground, marred by scorch marks.

“Orders to pursue, ma’am?” Ephanie asked crisply, raising her voice above the din.

“Negative,” Principia replied. “Lost the leader; no point in trying to wrangle a mob.”

The farther side gate had shut while she spoke, on the heels of the last fleeing escapees. Seconds later, the one through which the squad had come thunked closed, followed after a moment by the muted clacking of the locks being activated.

“Um,” Casey said. “We’re trapped.”

“Negative,” Principia repeated. “The stairs lead down to the docks; even if she managed to clear the Imperial personnel away from that, too, they can’t possibly stay gone long.”

“Can you…pick the lock?” Farah asked hesitantly.

“That’s an exterior gate of the capital of the world’s greatest military power,” Principia said scathingly. “No, I can’t pick the lock.”

Farah was spared having to respond to that by a blast of lightning that scored the upper range of her shielding charm. Above them were thin openings in the gate fortress, old arrow loops, one of which had just produced a wandshot. Figures appeared in the shadows at several others.

“Kneel and raise shields!” Principia shouted, dropping to one knee in unison with the rest of her squad; they angled their shields, and consequently the attached deflectors, facing upward. “Charge weapons!” All five again activated the hidden clickers, parting spearhead to reveal firing facets. Two more wandshots sparked across their shields from different points. “Fire at will!”

The deluge of lightning they expelled put an immediate stop to fire from the fortress, scorching the stone walls and blasting chips out of the edges of the arrow loops themselves. Their weapons, though somewhat less powerful than Imperial Army battlestaves due to having to be concealed within lances, were nonetheless far heavier than wands. Seconds later, when Principia called a cease fire, silence reigned, the protestors apparently having been dissuaded.

“Omnu’s breath, they’re in the fortress,” Casey breathed. “Where the hell is the Army?”

“Sarge,” Ephanie said in a more even tone, “all those shots came from the arrow loops on this side of the main gate. Whoever went into the one opposite the gates isn’t organized or motivated enough to launch a counterattack. I bet the leader’s in the west gatehouse.”

“Well spotted,” Principia replied. “Not much we can do about it, though; at this point our best outcome is for those idiots to flee and leave the Army to come sort this out. I don’t care what pull that woman has, there is no way she can keep one of the gates of Tiraas unattended for more than a very short period.”

“Well, this is just great,” Merry growled. “So far today we’ve killed a handful of civilians, damaged Imperial property and gotten locked out of the city. Sarge, may I suggest telling the next helpful deity to fuck off?”

They froze as a muted whirring noise sounded from above.

Towers rising above the gatehouse and turrets extending from its upper surface had held siege weapons since time immemorial; positioned at the altitude they were, this fortification could demolish any enemy ships that dared approach the docks below long before they could land soldiers, and the gate itself was high enough to be out of reach of shipboard catapults. In this day and age, however, the old trebuchets had been replaced with mag cannons, barrel-like constructs bristling with antennae.

Now, the one to the west of the gatehouse had begun to emit a blue glow from its depths, and began moving, its antennaed nozzle swiveling in their direction.

“No,” Farah whispered.

“Is there any chance these charms of yours will stand up to artillery fire?” Merry squeaked.

“Retreat!” Prinipia barked, “Shields up, down the—”

Before they could move a step, the mag cannon got into position and unleashed a blast of blue light.

All five of their shield charms lit up; even despite the protection, the kinetic force of the blast broke their formation, shoving all of them back against the low wall, and a powerful static field caused their hair to bristle. The unpleasant jangling of electricity set their teeth on edge.

But that was all. And in mere moments, it began to subside.

“Hell yes!” Merry crowed, grinning.

“Stow it!” Principia snapped. “Move your butts—down the stairs!”

They obeyed, moving as quickly as they could safely back down a staircase while keeping their charmed shields raised and angled at the cannon emplacement. It took several more moments for them to retreat far enough that the upper ledge of the staircase blocked it from view. The whole time, the mag cannon continued to swivel, tracking them.

“That’s incredible,” Casey gasped. “How the hell did you make personal charms that can stand up to that? Even the Army doesn’t have those!”

“That weapon is meant to charge for a minimum of forty-five seconds before firing,” Ephanie said curtly. “That was a sneeze. If the people manning it knew how to use it properly, it could blast this staircase into fragments. Sarge, I recommend we continue to retreat.”

“Agreed,” said Principia. “This is now the Army’s problem. Get back down—”

Turning, she saw what lay below them and broke off.

The two wide stone staircases switched back and forth, intertwining in an angular spiral that alternated between tunnels bored through the mountainside and exterior steps slicked with spray from the falls. On the landing directly below Squad One, two hulking forms stood at the base of the steps, blocking their way.

They were armored in dingy iron plates engraved with arcane runes; despite being humanoid in form, the things were clearly not alive. The gaps in their armor at the joints revealed mechanisms that put off a faint blue light. Beetle-like helmets had wide hexagonal lenses rather than eyes, and each construct’s right arm terminated in an inset battlestaff rather than a hand.

“B-but outfitting golems with weapons is illegal,” Farah stuttered.

“Szaravid,” Principia said quietly, “governments outlaw dangerous things so they can be the only ones to have them. Ergo, those have to be Army property and have no quarrel with us. They may even recognize Legion armor. Don’t make any sudden…”

She trailed off as the two golems raised their staves to point at the squad.

“If we don’t die here,” said Merry, “I am gonna march right to the nearest temple of Vesk and smash somebody’s lute over their head.”


 

The glow lit their way to the walled cemetery; light blazed across the whole mountainside, a colossal golden nimbus emanating from within the walls, as if the sun itself were rising on the grounds. Both paladins slowed to a trot as they approached, weapons out and at the ready, and passed side by side through the open gates.

They apparently weren’t needed here.

The place had suffered a degree of destruction comparable to the graveyard in which Trissiny had been imprisoned, with smashed tombs, burned trees and nearly every grave unearthed from within. There were no traces of undead here, however, nor of demons—nothing but a few swirls of fine ash on the breeze.

The light had begun to dim at their approach, and finally diminished enough that they could see clearly. Nearby, two Shadow Hunters were just lowering their hand from their eyes, blinking in confusion and staring at the center of the graveyard, though the man closer to them turned to peer at the mounted paladins when they approached.

In the small decorative garden in the center, Toby’s glow had reduced itself to a more normal proportion, merely lighting up his aura. He stood in an almost meditative position, feet braced, spine straight, hands folded in front of him.

“Toby?” Trissiny called, urging Arjen forward at a careful walk. “Are you… All right? How do you feel?”

Slowly, Toby opened his eyes and studied them in apparent calm.

“I,” he said flatly, “am extremely angry.”

“Right there with you, man,” Gabriel agreed. “Also: holy crap. Can you do that again?”

“I didn’t do it that time,” Toby replied, turning his head to the Shadow Hunters. “Are you guys okay?”

“Aside from being half-blinded,” the woman began, then paused. “Actually, no, there’s no aside. I feel great. What’d you do?”

“If I’m not mistaken, that was the light of Omnu in its purest form,” Trissiny said, a grin breaking across her features.

“Holy hell,” the other hunter whispered, peering around. “The undead, those demon dogs… Everything’s just gone.”

“Here.” Toby paced forward, coming to stand between Trissiny and Gabriel and reaching up to place a hand on each of their legs. For a moment, the glow around him brightened.

A moment later, each of them flared alight. Trissiny closed her eyes, drawing in a deep breath and letting out a sigh of relief.

“Fascinating,” Ariel mused.

“Well, that’s one glaring weakness in those disruptors,” Gabriel observed. “I guess it makes sense. Not likely the Army could invent something that stands up to an annoyed deity.”

“Nice…horse, Gabe,” Toby observed, studying Whisper. The shadow mare nickered and bobbed her head as if greeting him.

“Thanks,” Gabriel said with a grin. “She’s, uh, kind of delicate, though. Maybe you’d better ride with Triss.”

“Where are the others?” the female hunter asked tersely.

“We had to leave them,” Trissiny said with a worried frown. “Frind was unconscious but seemed to be all right. The others, though…”

“They had Wreath nearby, but they may have left when I slipped out,” said Gabriel. “These warlocks are up to something underhanded, but they’ve been careful not to actually hurt anybody. Actually…wasn’t there one here, too?”

“Three,” said Toby. “They seem to have gone.”

“That was actually worth seeing,” the male hunter said with a grin. “I never expected I’d live to watch the Black Wreath fleeing in panic; it’s almost worth all this trouble. We’d best go fetch our comrades; you lot had better get back to the city. If the Wreath wanted you pinned down out here, it’s a safe bet it’s so they can get up to something in Veilgrad.”

“Agreed,” said Trissiny.

“Which locations did you leave them at?” the woman asked.

“Um.” Trissiny blinked and glanced at Gabriel. “Actually, I don’t—”

“The Tranquil Shade Gardens and Vesmentheim Lawn,” he said.

“Right. Good hunting, paladins.” The man paused only to nod at them before following his companion. Once again, they moved at the speed that had enabled them to keep up with Arjen on the way there; in seconds they were out the gates and out of sight.

“How’d you know what they were called?” Trissiny demanded.

“He practices an ancient and secret Vidian technique known as ‘reading the signs.’”

“Ariel, don’t talk to my friends that way,” Gabriel said curtly. Trissiny had flushed slightly at the sword’s rebuke, and busied herself giving Toby a hand up. In moments, he had hopped into the saddle behind her. “All right, we’ve got the group back together.”

“Almost,” Toby said grimly. “Gods, I hope the others are okay.”

“They can take care of themselves,” said Trissiny, heeling Arjen forward. “And we can take care of the rest of the Wreath when we get there.”


 

“Keep in a line,” Ruda said in exasperation. “Quietly—quietly, damn your eyes! Don’t draw the—”

As if on cue, a child let out a shriek of terror. Across the square, the werewolf abruptly swiveled its head to glare at them, drawing its lips back in a feral snarl. The townsfolk shied backward, several crying out in fright. That proved too much for the wolf’s instincts, and it rounded on them fully, beginning to charge forward.

Scorn slammed into it from the side, sending them both rolling into a stack of barrels—one of the last objects in the square they hadn’t already smashed.

“Woman,” Ruda snarled, stomping up to the offender’s mother and brandishing her rapier, “in case you hadn’t noticed, everyone’s lives are at stake here. One of us is going to silence that child!”

“That is not helping, Ruda,” Juniper said reproachfully, gently pushing her aside and taking the terrified young mother by the arm. “It’s okay, she’s just cranky cos she cares. Nobody’s gonna hurt you; we’re not going to let them. C’mon, everybody, keep going. We’re almost all across!”

“Can’t fucking believe we made it this far,” Ruda groused, stepping back to critically examine the line of townsfolk fleeing into the guild hall. Indeed, Father Rusveldt was just now escorting an old woman at the end of the straggling formation, having insisted on being the last one out.

“Ruda!” Fross zipped out of the open doors of the cathedral. “We got trouble in here! The doors are down and Shaeine can’t shield this many—well, you guys had better come take a look.”

“Fucking great,” Ruda muttered. “Fross, can you keep an eye on this? If that hairy bastard makes another move in this direction, freeze his ass to the ground. I’m past caring about his feelings or Scorn’s.”

“Um, okay,” the pixie agreed. “For the record, we can’t really tell if it’s a him or a her, though clothes—”

“Don’t care!” Ruda snapped, dashing past her, up the steps and into the cathedral.

She arrived just in time to see Shaeine being pushed back by a veritable tide of undead. The doors at the end of the sanctuary had finally burst, emitting a flow of skeletons that had clearly been backed up against them, battering down the barriers with the sheer weight of their numbers. The drow was retreating quickly, re-forming a silver shield around herself and directing smaller ones to impede the advancing undead. Mindful of her energy levels, she wasn’t attempting to fully contain the pressure of the horde, merely to hamper and redirect their advance.

This time, though, once the initial rush had cleared, three more distinctive figures emerged from the doors. All three wore filthy robes that had apparently been crimson, once. All carried peculiar staves, capped at both ends with crystals and with golden lattices spiraling down half their lengths.

“What the fuck is this,” Ruda wondered aloud. “Shaeine! You okay?”

“Back,” the priestess ordered curtly. “This space is too open. We can try to hold them at the doors—”

She broke off as the central figure raised his staff, pointed it at her, and squeezed the clicker. A burst of pure golden light ripped across the space between them, striking her silver shield.

At the impact, the shield instantly collapsed. Sheine froze, naked shock painting her features.

The second shot hit her right in the chest and she staggered backward. The drow caught her balance, apparently unharmed, and gesticulated at the oncoming undead.

Nothing happened.

“Shaeine!” Ruda said urgently. “What’s wrong?”

“My shields!” the elf replied, and the note of unguarded fear in her voice was chilling. “I can’t cast—I have no magic!”

Then, suddenly, Vadrieny was there, folding her arms around the priestess and taking off with a mighty beat of her wings. She landed at the doors of the cathedral and backed carefully through them, bringing Shaeine with her.

Ruda and Juniper were left facing the oncoming undead and their apparent masters.

“Welp,” said the dryad. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Yeah.” Ruda drew back her lips in a grin that was at least half snarl, stalking forward toward the horde and raising her rapier. “Finally, something that bleeds.”


 

For almost a minute, everything was dust, coughing, the rumble of falling stone and the persistent howl of the sphere of compressed air Khadizroth had used to protect them. It wasn’t equal to the hard shields created by divine or arcane magic, and aside from letting in a large amount of dust, it had failed to keep out all of the debris; they had all been peppered with fragments of masonry and other detritus.

“Is everyone all right?” Khadizroth asked, raising his voice above the sound of their gasping and coughing.

“Feel like I’ve been rammed through an arcane washer,” the Jackal wheezed. “That the best you could manage? The hell kind of dragon are you?”

“A surprised one,” Khadizroth said grimly. “Just a moment.”

The air shield broke, and suddenly a sharp wind tore past them, clutching at their clothes and hair and causing Shook to stagger. It carried the dust away, though, giving them their first clear look at their surroundings since the building had collapsed.

They stood amid the wreckage of what had been the tallest structure in Risk. It still was, if only because it had more rubble to pile up. In the course of falling through what had been the floor of Khadizroth’s office, their air bubble and shoved them forward, so that they were nearly out in the street.

Hardly had they had a chance to get a good look when another wind slammed into them far more aggressively from the opposite direction, followed by a wandshot that clipped the dragon on the shoulder.

Aside from moving slightly with the blow, Khadizroth did not react save to gesture sharply upward with both hands.

An entire line of trees burst out of the ground in front of them, what had been the dirt main street of Risk mere minutes ago. They swelled in seconds, forming an entire wall between them and their attackers.

“Vannae, heal and bolster everyone,” the dragon said curtly. “This has only just begun. If I can just get—”

Before they found out what he wanted to get, the barrier of trees shuddered under a heavy impact; blue light flashed between their trunks.

“This way!” Shook snapped, dashing across the street and into the shadow of the only half-demolished building opposite. The others followed, Vannae whispering a blessing as he ran. Cuts and bruises melted away under the touch of whatever magic he was using as the group huddled in the meager shadow of their improvised shelter.

The treeline shuddered again; Khadizroth pointed at it, and thick vines spiraled upward from among the roots, bracing the fortification.

A wandshot slipped through a miniscule gap in the barrier, but merely flashed down the empty street past them, not coming near hitting anyone.

“Everyone hold still,” the dragon said curtly, gesturing again. This time, the very stones of the wall beside them were yanked out of place, reassembling themselves into another wall—lower, but thicker, and placed between them and the trees. “Scratch that. Duck!”

They obeyed, and not a moment too soon. The biggest explosion since the initial volley sounded, followed by an ongoing roar of destruction as wood, stone and dirt were pulverized. A tree toppled directly onto their hastily conjured barrier, cracking the stone severely. Seconds later, before the aftershocks had ceased, a fallout of sand and gravel splattered across them from above.

Baring his teeth, Khadizroth stood up, raised both his palms, and pushed forward against the air.

His barriers, what remained of them, disintegrated into a crushed spray of stone fragments and what little remained of the trees; the force with which they were hurled forward exceeded whatever had just exploded against them. A shockwave of debris blasted forth, mowing down more ruined buildings in its path.

In the next moment, another wind rose up, whipping past them, but the five men held their ground, straightening.

Suddenly, everything was cleared away. The dust in the air, the rubble in the street, the improvised barriers Khadizroth had called up. They found themselves staring from a mere dozen yards at Longshot McGraw, Gravestone Weaver, Tinker Billie, the Sarasio Kid and the great feline form of Raea.

Wind whispered quietly in the background, as if relieved to be given a break from its recent exercise. In the near distance, minor rockfalls continued to sound as the wreckage of the town settled. Both groups seemed equally surprised to find themselves so nearly face-to-face, and both apparently intact despite all the carnage.

The tension hung in the air, waiting for someone to make a move.

“Wait, hang on!” the Jackal exclaimed, raising his hands. “Wait for it…”

“What?” Vannae demanded tersely, not taking his eyes off their foes.

“C’mon, haven’t any of you cracked a novel in your lives?” the assassin asked, grinning insanely. “We must observe the proprieties. Any second now, a tumbleweed will bounce across the road, and then we can proceed. Aaaaannnnny second.”

“Son,” said McGraw from across the way, “those don’t grow in this province.”

“Fuck’s sake,” Shook spat, whipping out his wand and firing from the hip.

He was quick, but the Kid was faster.

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