Tag Archives: Kheshiri

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She bolted left. It was no dilemma, really; soldiers she could deal with, at need, but not a dragon. Milanda was far from sanguine about the way the dryads’ “gift” completely took control from her, but whatever intelligence governed the change clearly believed she was not prepared to take on a dragon, and she was inclined to agree.

The doorway was a momentary setback, with both her hands full as they were, but luckily the double doors didn’t latch. She hooked the wand through one of the handles, tugged it open, and slipped through.

Inward-opening doors, she noted. The mess hall wasn’t intended to be a defensible fallback in case of attack, which might be worth remembering if she had to flee back in this direction. On the other hand, this had been an Omnist temple, and who knew how much the Archpope had redecorated…

But that was all the time she could allot to introspection, because her escape had brought her right into an oncoming group of soldiers.

Four of them, all with staves. They had already been on the way to investigate the noise she’d made, which was to her benefit as their weapons had the longer range—they were close enough to the doors that her situation wasn’t automatically hopeless. Less to her benefit was that these were clearly well-trained fighters, in contrast to the armored Holy Legion who patrolled the Grand Cathedral, which Intelligence had reported were easily flustered and unprepared for real combat. These troops hesitated barely a fraction of a second at the sight of a masked, cloaked figure bursting out of their mess hall before bringing up their weapons.

Once again, Milanda sprang, unwilled, into action, dragged along for the ride by her own body.

Augmented as she was, her hand was faster than theirs. Two quick bursts from her wand took down the soldiers in the lead, the pair who had a clear line of fire at her. Uncannily precise shots, in fact, the beams piercing one through the upper arm and the other through the shoulder, in both cases swiftly eliminating their ability to aim. The second man squeezed his trigger even as he staggered, a lightning bolt scoring the wall and floor as his staff swung wildly from his suddenly limp grasp.

For a moment, she dared to hope these new enhanced reflexes knew the meaning of restraint. They had been designed for bodyguards, after all…

But then she was moving again. Milanda dashed toward them, leaped into the air and kicked off the wall, vaulting over the troops at a wild angle. The second pair stumbled back from her even as they tried to bring their own weapons to bear; one actually fired, though in his haste the shot went nowhere near her.

Unbidden, her thumb flicked the switch on the Infinite Order sword, and she slashed it in a single neat movement before deactivating it again, prompting a yelp of surprise—and pain?—from one of the soldiers.

Milanda landed behind them and continued up the hall at a dead run, leaving confusion in her wake. Her body was still aimed forward; she was helpless even to turn her head to inspect the results of her work. Maybe…hopefully that slash had just been to wound.

She whipped around the corner, barely in time. Behind her, an explosion powerful enough to make the stone walls shiver ripped through the hallway, sending a gout of smoke and a shockwave across the intersection.

There hadn’t even been a scream. There hadn’t been time.

“What was that?” Walker demanded.

“I don’t—something blew up!” Apparently she was out of immediate danger, because Milanda’s augmentation shut itself off so suddenly she staggered. She quickly caught herself and kept running. This hall was straight; she was now moving away from the central complex where the “high-value assets” lived. Life signs left and rear of her. There were more above, but they were likely to be civilian Church personnel. If Walker didn’t come up with directions to that mage, perhaps she should try for a more mundane exit.

“Things don’t just blow up,” Walker snapped. “Milanda, if someone down there has explosive ordnance, it’s immediately relevant to your safety. What happened?”

“I don’t know! This—this enhancement just takes over. My body moves and I can’t control it, I don’t even know what it’s thinking!” At least it worked, she added silently. At least twice already tonight she’d have been swiftly killed had she been working only with her own reflexes.

“Think.” Walker’s tone was more even, now, and Milanda found to her own surprise that it helped ground her. “Did a trap spring? Did a soldier throw something? What was the sequence of events?”

She passed another side hall and skidded to peer down it. Damned reflexes clearly didn’t help her find a path… After a second’s deliberation, Milanda continued on the way she had been going. It was taking her father from the center, which meant it was leading toward the edge. That would be a logical place to find stairs.

“Four soldiers intercepted me,” she recited as she ran, not even slightly out of breath. “I shot two before they could fire, jumped over the group. Turned on the sword and swung it once, didn’t see what it hit. Two of them fired back, missed me. I hit the ground and kept running, and when I got around the corner, something behind me blew up.”

“Uh, excuse me,” said Finchley’s voice, “but am I correctly guessing from context that this sword you’re talking about is a magic item? Something that can cut through walls?”

“Yes,” Walker said curtly, “and unless you have something constructive to offer—”

“Actually I think I do, ma’am. If you cut off part of the staff’s firing length, that would mess up its runic engravings. Attempting to fire it after that would cause unpredictable results. One possibility is the whole power source could blow.”

Milanda swallowed heavily. “Hell… I was sort of hoping these gifts would try to minimize harm. They clearly shot the first two to disable their shooting arms, not kill.”

“A lightning wand may completely destroy its target,” Moriarty recited in a clipped tone, “but a more precise one such as you’re using inflicts pinpoint wounds. A soldier pierced through a vital organ could still fire straight, possibly several times, before falling. Hitting the arms is more tactically sound.”

“Oh,” she muttered.

“All right, good,” Walker said calmly. “They’re not using bombs. I have a fix on your mage, Milanda. You’re running away from him. He’s back toward the center of the complex.”

“Of course he is,” Milanda spat. “Can you still see the layout of this place?”

“Not in real time, but I very much doubt they can change the architecture on the fly. I have a map.”

“Good.” She slid to a stop in a T-intersection, glancing left and right. “I’m in what I think is an outer hall. Can you just direct me to an exit? I can probably get through whatever token guard’s above more easily than a mage.”

There was a moment’s hesitation before Walker answered. “Milanda, there’s only one stairwell out of the underground complex. It leads to the sub-level of the ziggurat, which leads back to the main temple floor. The exit is very nearly on the opposite side of the whole place from your position. You are considerably closer to the mage. He or she is in a much more central location.”

Milanda glared at the wall for a moment, then peevishly flicked on the sword and gouged a smoldering rent in it.

“Please don’t do that. The ship has probably sailed, but the less evidence of that thing you leave behind, the better.”

“How can you hear it?” she growled, tucking the again-inert weapon into her belt and turning to pelt back the way she had come. “You can’t hear people talking, but that—”

“Produces a distinctive and deliberately augmented electromagnetic buzz which is rather distracting when I am trying to listen to your voice. The quickest path to your mage is to take a left at the next intersection.”

She stopped in the intersection in question. “No good. Dragon’s in that general direction. Get me an indirect path.”

Another brief pause. “Very well. Continue straight, then go right.”

Milanda did so, noting glumly that she was moving right toward a sizable clump of troops. Several of them were heading in her direction as well. It was hard to tell, viewed from this angle, with these senses, but it seemed they were executing a pretty orderly search pattern.

And the dragon had changed direction. He was moving in no great hurry, but clearly moving, and despite the zig-zagging of his course mandated by the halls, he was clearly heading right for her. How did he… But of course, if she could sense him, the reverse was almost certainly true. She was blindly fumbling to grasp the very school of magic he had spent countless years mastering. Why did it have to be a green dragon?

“If I’m correctly guessing based on context,” said Moriarty’s voice, “are you using some kind of combat-enhancing alchemy with which you aren’t familiar? Because that’s incredibly dang—”

He broke off with a grunt, followed by a brief, muted scuffle.

“Sorry about that,” Rook said cheerfully. “You’ll be glad to know I have confiscated the pedant’s talky-thing. He can have it back when he learns some basic goddamn social skills.”

Milanda paid no attention to them, nor to Walker’s scathing rebuke. Gods, she’d just killed four men…

She ruthlessly squashed the queasiness that tried to well up at the thought. Estranged or not, she was a daughter of Viridill, practically raised in a temple of Avei. This was war; it was kill or die. She’d known what she was risking by coming here.

“Left here. Left! Milanda, you missed the turn!”

“Major concentration of troops to the left,” she said curtly. “Lucky I got past without—”

“Halt!”

“Damn it,” she spat, at both the interception and the increasingly familiar loss of bodily control which followed it.

Without breaking stride, she spun in a complete circle, squeezing off two wandshots back the way she had come, then continued forward. There was a long groan from behind her, but she kept running, not bothering to glance back.

“Next left feels more clear,” she said. “Will that do?”

“It’s a start, but you’re letting them herd you away from your objective. Milanda, they probably think you’re making for the stairs, and these troops don’t seem to be amateurs. You won’t be able to avoid fighting.”

She wasn’t afraid to fight. She wasn’t even afraid to die, though she worried about leaving her business unfinished, the Hands still corrupted and Sharidan vulnerable. But she was rapidly becoming sick of this new gift of hers. Being forced to passively watch herself go on murderous sprees was a kind of horror she’d been totally unprepared to deal with.

“I suggest you aim for a smaller patrol, if you can sense them that acutely,” Walker advised. “Between your equipment and your enhancements, you can probably—wait. There’s a disruption in the wards in that hall, Milanda. Heading for you!”

Once again, she didn’t sense it immediately, needing Walker’s prompt to heighten her alertness and reach out with her mind. When she did, though, she felt the approach—too late. A weight landed on her back scarcely an instant after she felt the distortion closing in on her; an arm wrapped around her throat.

Milanda reflexively spun and bucked, but even as precisely as she moved, the creature now on her had advantages she did not. A spade-tipped tail coiled around her leg, yanking her off balance, and the beat of powerful wings filled the hallway. There wasn’t room to fly, and her weight would probably have prevented it anyway, but the succubus had enough lift to neatly deprive her of footing, which eliminated the lion’s share of what she could do about someone clutching her from behind.

She tried to throw the creature off, tried to reach behind and grasp her, but the demon was apparently as agile as she, even enhanced as she was. She squirmed and evaded every attempted grab. Not nearly as strong—Milanda was already prying her arm away one-handed—but strength wasn’t everything.

“I really don’t like it when people shoot me,” Kheshiri hissed next to her head, and plunged Milanda’s own throwing knife into her midsection.

She grunted with the blow; the tunic’s ironweave enchantment held, at least to the extent of preventing the blade from penetrating, but it was still a sharp point driven into her stomach. Had her abdominal muscles not been already clenched right then with the effort to dislodge her attacker, that hit might have driven the breath from her. It still hurt, and worse, no enchantment could make cloth as good as armor. Repeated blows to the same area would penetrate, possibly as soon as the second one.

“Then you’re really going to hate this,” Milanda snapped, grabbing the sword from her belt.

Even using herself as a yardstick, the succubus’s reflexes were freakishly fast. No sooner had she ignited the glowing blade than the weight vanished, one pump of those spiny wings sending the demon shooting away from her up the hall. Milanda spun and fired three times with her wand; Kheshiri was invisible again, but she could sense her location well enough to aim generally. She wasn’t nearly as close as she’d been in the central chamber, though, and “generally” apparently wasn’t good enough at this range. Focusing as she was, she could sense the fiend’s invisible retreat for a few more yards until distance blunted her senses. Enough to know she’d gotten away cleanly.

Damn it all. Couldn’t one thing go right?

“What happened?” Walker demanded. “Are you all right?”

“Fine,” she grunted, putting the sword away again. “Succubus jumped me. I swear I shot her through the chest earlier. How fast can they heal?”

“Not that fast,” Walker muttered. “Could there be more than one down there?”

“Ugh…at this point, nothing would surprise me. Here, left, right? I mean, correct?”

“Yes. And remember, the mask you’re wearing is enchanted to make you inaudible except to nearby co-agents wearing its siblings. Trash-talking your opponents will be a complete waste of time. I mean, more than it already is. They can’t hear you.”

“Right,” she mumbled grimly, racing up another hallway.

She was now heading for the soldiers. Not right for the biggest concentration, but a group that felt like at least a dozen was moving to link up with the smaller group directly in her path. She kept going; Walker was right. The longer she let them maneuver her around, the closer she came to disaster, and there were much worse things than troops down here. If she was here much longer, either the dragon would catch up—he had adjusted course again and was moving for her once more—or that succubus would get in a lucky shot. Milanda didn’t believe for a moment that the demon had been scared away for good.

The hall ended in a door, which she slammed into without bothering to turn the latch. The impact barely stung her shoulder; thanks to the dryads’ gifts, the door itself was no impediment at all, bursting right off its hinges.

Thanks to those gifts, breaking the door down was the last conscious control she had.

The space beyond was clearly an armory; racks of wands, staves, and swords lined the walls, as well as cases filled with neatly stacked charms. Five soldiers were present, all holding staves, three of which were in the process of being assembled after having their power crystals checked. That meant three of the hostiles were obviously no threat.

Milanda’s reflexes obviously did not give a damn.

She fired the wand as she rushed them, taking down both armed soldiers—lethal shots, throat and heart—before she closed with them, by which point she had ignited the blade again.

Cutting those men down was like swinging it through the air, for all the impediment they were to the sword. It didn’t matter even whether it moved through the soft points of anatomy or bones that would have stalled a metal blade.

One swipe cleaved a man diagonally across the chest, separating his arms even as it bisected his torso; he fell without a scream, having no lungs with which to draw breath. The last edge of that slash neatly removed the next soldier’s left arm, and he did scream, which Milanda could not ignore the way her body did. The last man had just enough time to register what was coming and try to back away before she slashed the sword through him vertically. Not quite in half; he fell apart as he fell, but his torso was still connected near the hip.

It would be a very long time before she stopped hearing the sounds he made in her head.

The sword hadn’t so much as tugged in her hand. Flesh, stone, air, it was all nothing.

Wide double doors stood at the other end of the room. Milanda was still moving under the power of her augmentation rather than her own will, still sensing the larger cluster of troops heading her way. She neatly flicked the tip of the blade through the latch and burst through the doors.

This was a wider hallway, a main thoroughfare. In fact, she had circled a full quarter of the way around the complex, and found herself in one of the central access halls that led directly to the big central chamber. By going straight, she could lose herself in the corridors again, but coming at her from the left were the soldiers.

Please…

“No no no!” she said fruitlessly as she neatly turned on a toe and lunged right into their formation.

Three staves were discharged, one in a clearly panicked misfire that scorched the ceiling. One shot was more professional, but still missed her, the weapon’s owner having a bad angle. The third hit directly, and would have been a killing blow—she highly doubted the defensive charms on her clothing could stand up to a weapon of that caliber at this range—had she not brought the blade up to intercept it.

Milanda had barely a moment to boggle at the absurdity of deflecting a lightning bolt with a sword. This hit hard enough to be a real concern, but her new reflexes adapted. She pivoted with the blow, preventing the weapon from being ripped out of her hand by spinning in three full circles as she continued to come, dispersing the kinetic energy and also ensuring that she hit their formation in a blinding whirl of unstoppable destruction.

She was fast, methodical, and thorough. Men screamed and died, mostly in far too many pieces. The width of the hall and the panic induced by her attack meant some managed to get out of her way to the sides; those she shot with the wand in passing. It took only seconds to cleave through the entire group of a dozen, but that was enough time for the last man in the formation to turn and flee. He had made it a few yards back up the hall, shouting for help, before Milanda deftly kicked someone’s arm after him at just the right angle to trip and fell him, and then experienced the very peculiar sensation of her enhanced reflexes bodily preventing her from vomiting into her own mask.

He stumbled to the ground, presenting a perfect target. She shot him in the back.

And only then regained control.

Milanda stumbled to a halt, numb. Not everyone behind her was dead; not everyone had lost the ability to scream. Someone was, and others were moaning. She couldn’t force herself to turn and look. There had been no blood. The horrible thing seared as it struck, cauterizing instantly. No one bled, they just…came apart. As easily as tissue paper.

A smell appallingly like fried pork hung in the air.

In her hand, the sword was still activated, glowing fiercely and filling the space with its powerful hum. The sound, now, struck her as hungry. As if it would never have its fill of carnage.

Her vision blurred as she glared at it in pure hate.

Belatedly, Milanda realized the sound in her ear was Walker frantically asking if she was all right. Even more belatedly, she realized she was weeping.

“I’m here,” she croaked, rubbing an arm—her wand arm—across her eyes. “I’m fi—I’m still alive. Gods, Walker, they just… I. I just… It’s like they weren’t even there, it’s…”

“Milanda.” Reassured that she wasn’t wounded, Walker’s tone reverted back to a deliberate calm. “Milanda, you need to keep moving. You are not out of danger.”

Milanda drew a shaky breath, nodded at no one, and finally pressed the switch. The sword hissed angrily at its dismissal, but the silence which followed was like a physical weight being lifted from her. She set off running again, fleeing the sounds of her victims.

“Good, you’re closer now. Keep going, you’re looking for a smaller hall on your right, two crossings up.”

She kept silent, simply following directions. Behind her, life signs gradually flickered out in a cluster in the central hall. Farther still, the dragon kept coming.

He reached the aftermath of her slaughter, and stopped.

It was only another minute before Walker announced that the door in front of her was the one. Milanda made one brief, abortive movement with the sword, then lowered it again and shot the latch. Had it even been locked? The roaring in her head was interfering with her ability to think…

This was clearly a ward control center. Arcane equipment stood all along the walls and in stands in the center of the rectangular room; the walls themselves were laid out with maps, as well as vertical spell circles. Static hung heavily in the air, as did the soft hum of magic in use; the whole space was lit by a gentle blue glow, needing no fairy lamps.

That hum, that glow, reminded her far too keenly of the detestable thing in her hand.

In front of her stood a middle-aged woman in a white uniform, her hair graying and face faintly lined, staring at Milanda in shock. After a moment’s hesitation, a blue shield flashed into place around her.

“No closer!” she barked, holding out a hand.

Milanda gritted her teeth, pressed the switch. The mage’s eyes flashed to the ignited blade, widening in disbelief.

“Y-you are under arrest!” the wizard stammered unconvincingly. Why didn’t she just attack?

Of course. She was actively maintaining a ward over the whole complex, and now a personal shield as well. It would take an archmage to add combat magic to that without suffering an aneurysm.

“Drop the wards,” Milanda ordered, pointing the blade at her. “Now.”

“Milanda,” Walker said.

“Do it!” she shouted, taking a step forward. The mage retreated, her shield bumping against a construct of brass pipes and glass filaments, causing a shower of sparks. “Remove the wards! Gods, please, no more. Don’t make me do this!”

“Milanda,” Walker said gently. “He can’t hear you. And you mustn’t remove the mask. If he sees your face…”

“She,” Milanda whispered.

Walker hesitated only a moment. “It doesn’t matter. You can’t—”

She let out a scream of wild, helpless fury, and slashed the hateful blade through the nearest object. It shrieked like a boiling lobster, propelling fragments of glass in all direction and only miraculously not costing her an eye. She spun, flailing wildly with the sword, cutting her way through anything she could see that glowed. Sparks and arcs of free electricity flashed—

And then she was gone. Everything was gone. Milanda careened to a stop, her eyes darting around.

She was standing in the teleport array, in the Infinite Order spaceport.

“Whatever you just did, the mage dropped the wards,” Walker said in her ear. “Hold on, I’ll be there as quickly as I can.”

Milanda nodded, despite the futility of the gesture. She had fallen still, and stared down at the glowing, humming blade hanging numbly from her hand.

She was still staring at it however many minutes later Walker arrived.

The fairy approached her carefully, placing one hand on her shoulder. When Milanda didn’t respond, she very gently reached out to take the sword from her, and pressed the switch.

Silence thundered around them.

“Could…” Milanda cleared her throat, tugged the mask down. “Could you. Um. Do something with that. Please? I…don’t want to see it again. Ever.”

Walker gazed at her quietly for a moment, then tossed the silver hilt over her shoulder. It landed with a clatter and skidded into a corner, which they both ignored.

“I’ll get it later,” Walker said quietly, then drew her into an embrace.

Milanda let herself be pulled, and after a moment, relaxed into the hug, her arms hanging limply at her sides.

“I killed them all.”

Walker stroked her hair.

“It was…so easy. Too easy. It should never, ever be that easy.”

“You need to rest,” Walker stated. “Come on. Let’s go back to the barracks.”

“I can’t sleep. Not…not for…”

“Come on.” Gently, but inexorably, the fairy pulled her toward the steps down to the lower level.

“How…” Milanda swallowed painfully. “How did…you deal with it? All the killing you’ve had to do?”

“It has taken a long time,” Walker replied. “I was alone, though. You aren’t.”

“You were right. I should never have taken that thing.”

“It probably saved your life. Yes, Milanda, I know. We’ll leave it behind, and be more careful from now on. But for now… Come on. Eat, bathe, and we’ll talk.”

Unresisting, she allowed herself to be led from the room.


The teleport array was silent behind them for a moment. Before the motion-activated lights had had a chance to shut off, though, a shape stepped out of the air on one of the inactive transport pads.

Kimono swishing softly, triangular ears laid back in disapproval, she glided across the pad and down the steps, then toward a corner of the room, where she bent and picked up the inert saber, her bushy tail twitching irritably.

“Silly children.”

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12 – 40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Need backup?” Moriarty offered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The succubus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much for stealth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her moment of frantic introspection cost her.

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

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

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

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

With that, he vanished from view.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So. Not a dryad, then.

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

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

“Agreed! Walker!”

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

“Walker!” she shouted. “Pull me out!”

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

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

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

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

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

“So much for keeping moving,” she muttered.

“What?” Walker demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

“I need another exit,” she said aloud.

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

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

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

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

“What was that?” Walker said sharply.

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

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

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

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

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

“I know what I’m doing, thank you.”

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

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

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

“The weapon!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But no such luck.

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

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

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

“Shit,” she muttered.

“Well said!” Walker snarled.

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

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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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Price would never have admitted how much she enjoyed dressing up the apprentices, and Darling would certainly never press her, but the results spoke for themselves. They got looks, of course, as they always did in the Cathedral, but so far as he could tell the looks were entirely due to their ears and not their attire or mannerisms. Flora and Fauna followed him demurely, clad in conservative but graceful frocks of dark blue and gray respectively, and had so far played the role of clerical students so well that even he could find no flaw in their performance. Of course, he still wouldn’t attempt this kind of test of their skills without his supervision. No one was going to interfere with a Bishop’s retinue, but elves alone in the Cathedral might otherwise not get ten paces without being stopped and questioned.

Or so he was idly reflecting, debating whether the innate injustice of it was something he ought to (or even could) address, when his theory was contradicted.

“Your pardon, Bishop Darling?”

He halted immediately, turning with careful smoothness—the Bishop’s mannerisms were more poised and languid than Sweet’s, and with all the various action lately the two roles had started to blend more than he liked. He seized upon every opportunity to emphasize the difference.

Of course, he recognized the person approaching him. There were relatively few elves in service to Pantheon cults, scarcely any in the employ of the Universal Church, and exactly one entitled to the uniform of a Bishop.

“Please, it’s just Antonio,” he said with a beatifically Bishoply smile. “I must endure far too much tedious formality as it is, without demanding it from equals.”

“Antonio, then,” Nandi Shahai replied with a nearly identical smile, and he immediately began to suspect that this one was trouble. Basra Syrinx’s absence had, needless to say, shaken up many people’s plans and routines, and her replacement was discreet enough to make it a challenge for anybody to get a good read on her. She had virtually no reputation outside the Sisterhood, who had nothing to say to any of his rumor-gatherers. “I wonder if I might requisition a few moments of your time?”

“You need only ask,” he replied, widening his smile by a very precise increment. Hers shifted equally precisely to match. Oh, yes, she was dangerous. He had seen the calm control of the older elves; seeing the calm control of a modern politician on an elf raised frightening prospects. “These are my apprentices, Flora and Fauna. Is this to be a private matter, or do you mind if they observe? My schedule affords me sadly few opportunities to show them the more ecclesiastical side of my work.”

He kept his expression open and solicitous, very much just a colleague dutifully concerned for the proprieties. Shahai once again shifted her own to mirror it in the most exact nuance, which confirmed his assessment that she was a skilled operator and made him begin to wonder whether she was subtly poking fun.

Darling made a mental note to grill the girls extensively later for their opinions of the new Bishop of Avei.

“The matter is no secret, at least not to me,” she said serenely, nodding to Flora and Fauna, who bowed in return. “I will leave it to you to judge whether it is sensitive—it concerns a member of the Thieves’ Guild with whom the Sisterhood may have a burgeoning problem.”

“Oh?” he said, allowing his gaze to sharpen. This was in line with his official duties and his numerous less-than-official ones, as she assuredly knew. Moreover, it was a disturbing prospect. Eserites who went sufficiently rogue to cause trouble for other cults tended to be big trouble for everyone before being finally reined in. “Please go on, you have my undivided attention.”

“Thank you,” Shahai said politely. “I shall try not to take up too much of your time. The individual in question is a Sifanese woman with the given name Saduko, who has claimed the Guild tag Gimmick. Her only distinguishing feature is a husky voice that suggests an old throat injury. To begin with, aside from the voice, we have only her word on any of that. I am not considering it confirmed that she isn’t simply someone using those names as cover.”

Darling, of course, was too professional to betray the sudden chill that ran down his spine, or so he hoped. One never knew what elvish senses could pick up; Flora and Fauna claimed that public spaces were usually too noisy for them to distinguish the speed of individual heartbeats.

“I am aware of a person matching that description, in fact,” he said, affecting a slightly worried wrinkle between his eyebrows. “The Saduko of whom I’ve been told is a model Guild member and an admirably discreet young woman. What has she done to antagonize the Sisterhood?”

“It is most puzzling,” Shahai said solemnly. “First, she appears to have entered the employ of the Conclave of the Winds, or at least of one member thereof. It is on behalf of Zanzayed the Blue that she intruded on the Third Silver Legion’s grounds and attempted to secure an unsolicited meeting with Sergeant Locke.”

So many new connections spontaneously formed in the web of intrigues he carried around in his head that he could swore he felt his ears pop. Saduko and Zanzayed meant Webs—Webs was a link to Thumper, who was after Keys, who hung precariously between the Guild and the Sisterhood and had dangerous ties to both Tellwyrn and Trissiny Avelea. Saduko had been sent to undermine and sabotage Webs; was she operating with or against him now? That assignment had long since expired, which made either possibility troubling. Could he really have nothing to do with this? No; she, Webs, Thumper, Zanzayed and Tellwyrn—and bloody Kheshiri—had all been present at that disaster in Onkawa. Darling didn’t believe in coincidence…

“That is most troubling,” he murmured, frowning thoughtfully into the distance beyond Shahai’s shoulder. For once it was a totally unfeigned expression, as his natural response suited the role he had to play. That was always good; a successful liar had to be as natural as possible.

“Forgive the change of subject,” Shahai said, watching his face intently, “but I believe you worked closely with Bishp Syrinx, did you not?”

Oh, what was she up to now? Had that whole affair been a feint?

“A few of his Holiness’s initiatives put us side by side, yes,” he replied, controlling his expression again.

“These are interesting shoes I am left to fill,” she said with an inscrutable little smile. “I wonder, what did you think of her?”

“Basra’s ability to get results has been missed by several of us around here,” he said frankly. “She is quite skilled. One must be, to get away with being so difficult to work with.”

Shahai’s answering smile was a few degrees warmer and more genuine. “I see. I apologize for derailing the conversation. You seemed so concerned, it put me in mind of the many snipped threads which I am left to grasp here and weave back together. I fear Captain Syrinx did not leave detailed notes on most of her projects with the Church. Could this issue be related to one of them?”

“I would be astonished if so,” he said slowly. Of course, he knew well that a good way to get a moment of honesty out of someone was by forcing them to abruptly change focus. And she surely would know that he knew that… Just how old was this woman? She carried herself with the classic aloof calm of the older elves, but hell, he had taught Flora and Fauna to do that in the course of a week. Shahai could be younger than he, or older than the Empire. There was no telling how much skill and experience he was contending with here, and now she wanted to stick her nose into…

Well, why not? He’d had unexpectedly good results in the last year from extending unasked trust and honesty. Perhaps this was a good opportunity to build on that.

“Pardon my slowness,” he said with a self-deprecating little smile. “There is a whole tangled web of priorities and agendas you’ve just brought up, Bishop Shahai, and I almost didn’t know where to start.”

“Please,” she said pleasantly, “it’s just Nandi. I am but a temporary replacement.”

“Of course,” he replied in the same tone. “Ultimately, though, we have a cult member in common, and her safety must come first.”

Shahai’s gaze sharpened. “Safety?”

“Girls,” he said, angling his head to include his apprentices in the conversation, “go to my office and retrieve the blue folder in the top right corner of my desk, please.”

“You locked your office, your Grace,” Fauna noted.

“Oh, it’s not merely locked,” he said with a hint of a properly mischievous Eserite grin, mostly for Shahai’s benefit. Let her chew on that. “Fetch me the folder, and when I inspect the office afterward, if I can find no other traces of your retrieval, you both get two days off from training.”

At that, they both smiled right back, their delight unfeigned, but its presentation still well controlled. Oh, they were coming along nicely.

“Consider it done,” Flora said with rransparently feigned solemnity, and they turned in unison and glided back up the broad hall down which he had just led them.

“Nandi,” he said, turning back to his fellow Bishop and letting his own face grow serious again, “I wonder if we could step into your office? I’ll need to pass the information you gave me on to Boss Tricks, but first there are a few things you, Commander Rouvad and especially Principia need to know.”


 

A short succession of raps sounded on the office door, and then it was pushed open. Shook stepped inside, nodding to Khadizroth and then to Svarveld. “Am I interrupting?”

“Just tedious progress reports,” the dwarf said with a tight little smile. “Made ever more tedious as well as irritating by the lack of any progress to speak of.”

“You mustn’t be so negative, Mr. Svarveld,” Khadizroth said with a patrician smile. “Every dead end your crews explore in the old mines rules out a threat and furthers our progress. I am only sorry that your team must shoulder the tedium themselves.”

“Well, the lack of actual retrieval is unusual and tad disheartening,” the foreman said, relaxing so far as to smile at the dragon, “but it’s not as if mucking around in tunnels isn’t our favorite thing to do. And I must say this surveying work is far quicker than actual digging.”

“Nonetheless,” Khadizroth replied, “if there is anything any of us can do to make your jobs easier, please don’t hesitate to come to me. This isn’t a pleasant task for any of us; I don’t want anyone to suffer unduly.”

“Oh, we’re all right,” Svarveld demurred quickly. “As I said, we’re all professionals. I may want to talk to you in a few more days about shift schedules, though. We’re getting far enough out from the town that the space we need to cover spreads us pretty thin. If those elves get any more aggressive, that could be a problem.”

“That,” said Shook with a cold half-smirk, “could finally relieve the tedium for the rest of us. I just did a sweep of the town’s outskirts, K, and Shiri’s off scouting Raea’s band from the air. And yes, before you ask, from a very safe distance. I know my girl; she doesn’t take unnecessary risks.”

“I appreciate your diligence, Jeremiah,” said Khadizroth, leaning back in his chair. Aside from his smooth emerald eyes and green hair, he looked simply like a wood elf, right down to his preferred attire. That made his surroundings seem peculiar; wood elves, or indeed elves in general, were rarely found seated in plush chairs behind heavy desks.

“Well, I may be a thief, but I’m not dishonest enough to accept unearned praise,” Shook said, shrugging. “Truth is, I am bored to the ragged edge of insanity, here. We all are, and I’m frankly beginning to worry about what’ll happen if Jack doesn’t find some outlet for his…himself. If those elves don’t start getting aggressive, I might suggest we move first.”

Svarveld coughed discreetly. “Well. Security’s over my head, gentlemen. Unless you want my input, Mr. K?”

“Your input is always valued,” Khadizroth said, nodding deeply to him. “But your skills are best used directing your miners, Mr. Svarveld. I won’t keep you from your work any longer.”

“Till next report, then, sir,” the dwarf replied, bowing. He paused in the act of turning away to give Shook an exceedingly blank look, then crossed to the door, stepping widely around the enforcer, and slipped out, shutting it quietly behind him.

“If I were a more paranoid person,” Shook said dryly, “I might be tempted to think he doesn’t like me.”

“He has, in fact, passed along to me a few complaints regarding you, Jeremiah, from several of his crew,” Khadizroth said. His tone remained soft and mild as usual; his blank green eyes were annoyingly hard to read, but the dragon’s expression was merely thoughtful.

Shook snorted, crossing to one of the other chairs in the office—the one near the bar—and pouring himself a drink even as he sat down. A drink of water, of course. Risk had no standing bodies of water, but boasted no fewer than three wells, and was well equipped to supply its current occupants. Shook had taken to enforcing a limit on hard drinks on himself: one, after dinner, period. It grated, but as dull as it was around here, he knew very well he would drink himself comatose before noon every day unless he maintained serious self-discipline.

He had scarcely exaggerated. The boredom was weighing heavily on their whole party. He had nothing to do with his time except patrol the town, inspect the miners, screw Kheshiri and play cards with the Jackal and Vannae—gods knew the elves were no good for conversation. He was also seriously concerned about what the Jackal might do if he grew too bored. Shook had been around enough men who enjoyed killing and hurting to recognize the type. If you couldn’t get rid of them, keeping them entertained was a high priority.

Not that he’d mentioned it to Khadizroth, nor would, but Kheshiri’s growing boredom was also making her an ever-increasing hassle to deal with. He knew little about the psychology of succubi, but the Jackal had mockingly disclosed enough of that lore to make him suspect he had underestimated the volume of trouble he was taking on in keeping her on a longer leash. Well, if worse came to worst, he could always put her back in the reliquary. That would be a shame, though; he very much liked having physical access to her.

“You seem unsurprised,” Khadizroth prompted, and Shook realized he had drifted off in thought.

He grunted and took a sip of water. “Feh. Dwarves. In their culture, thieving is a greater crime than murder.”

“That is a slight exaggeration,” said the dragon with an amused little smile.

“A very slight one,” Shook snorted. “The long and the short of it is, I’m hardly surprised that dwarves wouldn’t take to me. Fortunately, I do not give one single shit what they think. Makes my life a lot easier.”

“In the short term, I suppose it would,” Khadizroth murmured, folding his hands atop the desk and staring across the office at his pool. Not for the first time, Shook pondered how calm, how approachable the dragon was. Stories about them made much of their aura of majesty, the tendency they had to command awe and obedience simply by their presence. Khadizroth was, if anything, humble. Despite everything, Shook couldn’t help liking him a bit.

He liked the office, anyway; the dragon had simple but expensive tastes, and the magic on hand to indulge them even out here in the frayed end of the sticks. It was a pleasingly masculine space, paneled in dark wood, with a plush maroon carpet and old weapons displayed on the walls. Old weapons, bladed ones, nothing magical or modern, and all of them not only of quality make but bearing the marks of long use. Despite the generally low level of light, the dragon grew plants in large pots in each corner. Cacti, succulents and stands of field grasses, not floofy flowery plants like some ladies’ teahouse. Opposite his desk he had constructed a stone semi-circle which contained a pool of water, complete with two lazy carp and floating lily pads.

“Specifically,” the dragon went on after a long moment, “Svarveld says your inspections of his delving operations do more harm than good.”

“Yeah. Well.” Shook took a drink of water, averting his gaze. “Quite frankly, I’ll have to own that. I know precisely fuck all about mining; I only go down in those holes to get away from the rest of our delightful crew and keep myself occupied. Sorry; I’ll give ’em some space. Not like I was doing any good down there anyhow.”

“They don’t seem to much mind having their shoulders looked over,” Khadizroth said mildly. “The miners take great pride in their work, justifiably. But several have complained that you bother the women in the crews.”

Shook snorted loudly. “Oh, please. What the hell are women doing in a mining crew anyway? I don’t know whether they’re being indulged by rich daddies or are there to provide comfort to the real workers and dwarves are just too cagey to admit it in front of tall folk. Either way, the whole idea is ridiculous. Anyhow, they’ve got nothing to complain about. I’ve not laid a hand on a one of them, nor given ’em a cross word.”

“You might be surprised how much you can convey merely by looking.”

Shook grinned. “Then again, I might not. I’m an enforcer, K; you can’t effectively enforce by breaking everybody’s kneecaps. Mostly, people just need to be afraid of you. Break one or two kneecaps and get real good at glaring, that’s how it’s done.”

“If any of the female members of Svarveld’s crew are afraid of you, they’ve not mentioned it,” said the dragon with a thin smile. “I don’t believe they are intimidated by much, in fact; dwarves are a famously stalwart and hardy people. They have seemed to me offended, annoyed, in some cases even disgusted. But no, not afraid.”

“You sure seem to have done a lot of listening to these women’s opinions,” Shook said, scowling.

“As you yourself pointed out, my friend, there is a lack of much of anything to do, with our dwarven allies shouldering most of the actual work. I find that listening to everyone’s input fills my day quite satisfyingly.”

“Yeah, well, take ’em with a pinch of salt. Half of what a woman tells you is drama, a third is lies, ten percent is useful pertinent information, and the rest random noise.”

“What specific figures,” Khadizroth said, gazing calmly at him. “You’ve expressed similar views before, Jeremiah. I wonder what makes you think this? You are, after all, talking about half of all sentient species.”

“Not dragons, I note. And aren’t you the biggest, baddest, most powerful race there is? And not a female amongst you. I think my point stands.”

“There are roughly as many dryads as dragons in the world,” Khadizroth said wryly, “if not more. In any case, pardon my curiosity. I am simply interested in the reason for your antipathy. Such hostility is never without some root cause, in my experience.”

Shook made an involuntary twisting expression with his lips; even he couldn’t have said whether it was a grin or a sneer. “Root cause? I trust the evidence of my senses, that’s all.”

“Really?” Khadizroth suddenly leaned forward, staring intently at Shook as though his attention were captivated. “You do? Why is that?”

Shook stared back at him. “…are you kidding? What else can you do?”

“I wonder if you would indulge me in a little experiment,” Khadizroth said with a smile.

“Sounds creepy,” Shook said warily.

“I suppose anything can be, if looked at askance,” the dragon replied. “But I think you’ll find this instructive. Close your eyes for a moment.”

Shook squinted at him suspiciously, but Khadizroth only gazed calmly back at him. After a few seconds, moved more by idle curiosity than anything else, he complied.

“Good,” said the dragon. “What do you see?”

“Are you serious?”

“Well, eyelids are very slightly translucent, of course. Can you see the outline of the window behind me?”

Shook frowned. “Nope. Just black.”

“Very good. Now raise your right hand and wave it back and forth in front of your face.”

“…are you just trying to make me look stupid? You must be as bored as the rest of us.”

“I’ve seen the rise and fall of nations, Jeremiah,” the dragon said wryly. “I am not so easily entertained. Trust me—just try it.”

Shook sighed, but finally did so, lifting his hand and waving it rapidly in front of his closed eyes. A moment later he frowned, and did so again more slowly.

“What do you see?”

“It’s… Just a shadow. A faint image of… Well, that’s a neat trick, I guess, but like you said, eyelids are slightly dah!”

He yelped embarrassingly and jerked backward in his chair nearly hard enough to tip it over. He had opened his eyes to find Khadizroth’s face inches from his own, the glow of his eyes dominating his view.

“Clearly not,” the dragon said with a measure of satisfaction, straightening up and backing away a few steps. “Why, then, were you able to see the shadow of your hand through your closed eyelids?”

“That’s a rhetorical question, right?” Shook growled, clenching his hands on the arms of the chair and clinging to his self-control. He did not appreciate pranks like that. Approachable or not, though, Khadizroth was still a dragon, and not someone to whom it would be smart to show his temper. “This reeks of a lesson.”

“It’s a simple trick of the mind,” Khadizroth said, turning and pacing back around behind his desk. “Your brain knows where your extremities are. Even when you cannot actually see, it constructs an appropriate image. Especially when you cannot see, in fact; when you actually can, it has no need to. That is not the only thing about your vision which is counterintuitive. Due to the specific anatomy of the human eyeball, the picture you have of the world is upside-down and has a blank spot in the center. The brain corrects for both of those deficiencies.”

“That’s…interesting,” Shook said carefully.

“You don’t believe me,” Khadizroth replied with a smile, seating himself again.

“All due respect, K, if you’re gonna tell tales like that, you can’t fairly expect to be taken at face value.”

“You are a trained follower of Eserion, Jeremiah; you know how lies work. If I were going to lie, would I not tell a believable story?” He gave that a pause to let it sink in before continuing. “A less believable tale isn’t necessarily true, of course. In this matter, though, are you willing to acknowledge that my knowledge widely exceeds yours, and that I have no motive to trick you?”

“I…suppose,” Shook said grudgingly.

The dragons folded his hands in his lap, leaning back. “In any case, those interesting facts only serve to demonstrate my true point. Everything we see, hear, and touch…everything we know about the world…is filtered and processed through very imperfect mechanisms. We do not interact with reality itself, Jeremiah, but only with the vague shadows our senses tell us, reconstructed by our flawed minds.”

“What’s your point?” Shook demanded.

Khadizroth shrugged. “You say you trust the evidence of your senses? I don’t. It’s a lesson I have learned painfully.”

“What can you trust, then?” Shook exclaimed. “I don’t get what you’re driving at. Do you stagger around blind?”

“No,” the dragon mused. “Obviously you cannot function without placing a great deal of faith in these flawed perceptions. One must, however, keep in mind that those perceptions do have flaws, and potentially great ones. Believing without question in what you see is a path to self-deception. Over time, I have learned that the only true wisdom is in knowing that you are a fool.”

“I don’t much appreciate being called a fool,” Shook said, clutching the chair even harder.

“I was referring to myself, actually,” Khadizroth replied, his tone mild as ever. “Though the point applies to anyone. I have been dramatically wrong about many things, Jeremiah. I have made great, terrible mistakes. Rather recently, in fact.”

“Well,” Shook said, beginning to relax slightly, “I don’t get the impression anyone who lacks some flaws of character ends up in a merry little band like ours.”

“Indeed,” Khadizroth said with a wry smile. “Ultimately, I think, it is about power.”

“Power?” he repeated cautiously.

Khadizroth nodded. “One tends to blame others for one’s misfortunes—it is natural and instinctive. The mind reacts to protect its self-image. Obviously, whatever unpleasant thing befalls us is someone else’s fault, because we are each of us the hero of our own story. We cannot be in the wrong, or the world just doesn’t make sense!” He sighed. “I am embarrassed at how long I had to live to get over that gut reaction. I have seen so many others brought to ruin by it. In the end, it robs you of your power. So long as I am at fault for the ills of my life, so long as I accept the responsibility and the blame, I remain the one in command of my destiny. If I am the architect of my failures, I can be the architect of my successes. If they are imposed upon me, however, I become a victim. Weak, helpless…at the mercy of others.”

“This…is all pretty roundabout,” Shook said, frowning. “You’re starting to lose me.”

“Yes, forgive me, I do tend to natter on. One of those faults I was telling you about.” The dragon shook his head, smiling self-deprecatingly. “I suppose my point is that it’s unwise to place too much faith in yourself. Embrace being wrong, my young friend. It’s the only path I’ve found, in all my years, to eventually being right.”

“How did we get onto this from discussing women, of all things?”

“Well, it is a general observation,” Khadizroth mused, “but it did not come out of the blue. I suppose we are all wrong about certain things in particular.”

Blessedly, Shook was spared having to find a safe and useful response to that by the abrupt opening of the door.

“Is—master!” Kheshiri skittered in, sliding across the floor to kneel beside Shook’s chair. She was grinning hugely, her tail waving in eagerness.

“Whoah, girl,” he said with an indulgent smile, fondly resting a hand on her head. “What are you, a puppy? Rein it in. What’s got you so worked up?”

“Apparently she has news,” the Jackal drawled, strolling in after the succubus. “Wouldn’t give poor old me the time of day until she’d checked in with her dearest, darlingest master.”

“As is proper,” said Shook, smirking faintly. “What’s the big idea, Shiri?”

“Raea has friends,” the demon said, grinning savagely. “Three new arrivals are meeting with her little band now—three whose descriptions I recognize. An old man, a Westerner, in a ragged coat with a wizard’s staff. Younger man in a dark suit, ponytail and goatee. Gnome chick with far too many pockets.”

At that, a similar grin spread across the Jackal’s narrow features. “Well, finally. I was starting to think those lazy bastards would never get here. It’s just rude, making us wait around like this.”

“You are extremely fortunate, Kheshiri, to have made it back here safely,” Khadizroth said grimly. “The necromancer Weaver travels with a soul reaper.”

Kheshiri suddenly went deadly still, staring up at the dragon with a frozen expression.

“Excuse me, a fucking what?” Shook demanded.

“A complication,” said the Jackal, grinning even more widely. “An invisible death spirit which can send your little pet there straight back to Hell with a touch. My, this does make our job more interesting! Looks like you’re not gonna be with us much longer, pretty bird,” he added, leering down at the succubus. She gave him a disdainful look.

“We’ll not squander any of our number in the pursuit of foolishness,” Khadizroth said firmly. “If those three are meeting with Raea, we must assume the others are nearby, or on the way. Kheshiri, let’s hear as many details as you managed to gather.” He leaned back slowly in his chair, raising his green eyes to study the ceiling, and allowing himself a faint smile. “It does not do to act without information. Since we are about to have such important company, we must be certain to greet them properly.”

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7 – 8

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The Dawnchapel held so much history and significance that its environs, a small canal-bordered district now filled with shrines and religious charity facilities, had taken on its name. Originally the center of Omnist worship in the city, it had been donated to the Universal Church upon its formation and served as the Church’s central offices until the Grand Cathedral was completed. More recently it had done duty as a training facility and residence for several branches of the Church’s personnel, and currently mostly housed Justinian’s holy summoner program.

It was a typical structure of Omnist design, its main sanctuary a sunken amphitheater housed within a huge circle of towering standing stones, of a golden hue totally unlike the granite on which Tiraas sat, imported all the way from the Dwarnskolds along the northern rim of the continent. Once open to the sun, its sides had long ago been filled in with a more drab, domestic stone, which was later carved into niches that now housed statues of the gods. Its open top had been transformed into a dome of glittering stained glass, one of the architectural treasures of the city. Behind the circular center rose a ziggurat, topped with a sun shrine which had been left as a monument sacred to Omnu in gratitude for the gift of the temple itself. Most of the offices, storage rooms and other chambers were either underground or inside the pyramid.

The circular temple sat on a square plot of land, forcing the furtive warlocks to cross a measure of open territory before they could reach its entrance. They went unchallenged, however, and apparently unnoticed; this part of the city was as eerily silent and empty tonight as the rest. Still, despite the lack of opposition, only Embras Mogul strolled apparently without unease.

Two khankredahgs and two katzils accompanied the party, which had to be momentarily soothed as they crossed onto holy ground. They had been warded and phased against it, of course, but this ground was holier than most, and the demons were not immune to the discomfort. There were two hethelaxi escorting the group, both of whom bore the transition without complaint. That was it for demon thralls, the more volatile sentient companions having been dismissed back to their plane rather than risk the outbursts that would result from bringing them here.

Even peering around for onlookers, they failed to observe the small, faintly luminous blue figure which circled overhead.

Mogul himself laid his hand upon the bronze latch of the temple’s heavy front door and paused for a moment.

“Warded?” Vanessa asked tersely. “Cracking it with any kind of subtlety will take too long… Of course, I gather you want to make a dramatic statement anyway?”

Mogul raised an eyebrow, then turned the latch. It clicked, and the door opened smoothly, its hinges not uttering a squeak.

“There’s overconfident,” Mogul said lightly, “and then there’s Justinian.”

He gestured two gray-robed warlocks to precede him inside, accompanied by one of the katzils and the female hethelax.

The sanctuary was not completely unguarded, but the outcry from within was brief.

“Who are—hel—”

The voice was silenced mid-shout. Mogul leaned around the doorframe, peering within just in time to see the shadows recede from a slumping figure in Universal Church robes, now unconscious. His attention, however, was fixed on the hethelax, who was frowning in puzzlement.

“Mavthrys?” he said quietly. “What is it?”

“It’s gone,” she replied, studying the interior of the sanctuary warily. “The sensation. Not quite un-consecrated, but… Something’s different.” Indeed, the katzil inside had grown noticeably calmer.

“Justinian’s using this place to train summoners,” said Bradshaw. “Obviously it’ll have some protections for demons now.”

“Omnu must be spinning in his grave,” Vanessa noted wryly, earning several chuckles from the warlocks still flanking the entrance outside.

They all tensed at the sudden, not-too-distant sound of a hunting horn.

“What the hell?” one of the cultists muttered.

“Huntsmen,” Embras said curtly, ducking through the doors. “They won’t hunt in the dens of their own allies. Everyone inside, now.”

As they darted into the temple, the spirit hawk above wheeled away, heading toward a different part of the city.


“This is so weird,” Billie muttered for the fourth time. “And I have done some weird shit in my time.”

“Yes, I believe I read of your exploits on the wall of a men’s bathhouse,” Weaver sneered, taking a moment from muttering to his companion.

The gnome shot him an irritated look, but uncharacteristically failed to riposte. They all had that reaction when they glanced at the figure beside him.

In the space between spaces (as Mary had called it), the world was grayed-out and wavering, as if they were seeing it from underwater. The distortion obscured finer details, but for the most part they could see the real world well enough. This one was more dimly lit than the physical Tiraas, but apart from being unable to read the street signs (which for some reason, apart from being blurred, were not in Tanglish when viewed form here), they could navigate perfectly well, and identify the figures of Darling and his two apprentices, and even the little black form of the Crow as she glided from lamp to lamp ahead of them.

None of them had been able to resist looking up at the sky, briefly but long enough to gather an impression of eyes and tentacles belonging to world-sized creatures at unimaginable distances, seen far more clearly than what was right in front of them. Mary had strongly advised against studying them in any detail. No one had felt any inclination to defy the order.

The weirdness accompanying them was far more immediately interesting to the group. She was wavery and washed-out just like the physical world, but here, they could see her. Little of the figure was distinct except that she was tall, a hair taller even than Weaver, garbed entirely in black, and had black wings. She carried a plain, ancient-looking scythe which was as crisply visible as they themselves were, unlike its owner. Weaver had stuck next to his companion, carrying on a whispered dialogue—or what was presumably a dialogue, as no one but he could hear her responses. The rest of the party had let them have their privacy, for a variety of reasons.

The winged figure subtly turned her head, and Joe realized he’d been caught staring. He cleared his throat awkwardly and tipped his hat to her. “Ah, your pardon, ma’am. I didn’t get the chance to thank you properly for the help a while back, in the old apartments. You likely saved me and my friend from a pair of slit throats. Very much obliged.”

The dark, silent harbinger of death waved at him with childlike enthusiasm. It was nearly impossible to distinguish in the pale blur where her face should be, but he was almost certain she was grinning.

“Oddly personable, ain’t she,” McGraw murmured, drawing next to him as Weaver and his friend fell back again, their heads together. “That’ll teach me to think I’m too old to be surprised by life.”

“Tell you what’s unsettling is that,” Billie remarked, stepping in front of them so they couldn’t miss seeing her and pointing ahead. Several yards in front of the group, Darling and the two elves were engaging a group of Black Wreath. Their demon companions were clearly, crisply visible, while the warlocks themselves appeared to glow with sullen, reddish auras. As per their orders, the party was hanging back, allowing the Eserites to handle things on their own until they were called for. In any case, it didn’t seem their help was needed. Darling was glowing brightly, and making very effective use of the chain of white light which now extended from his right hand. As they watched, it lashed out, seemingly with a mind of its own, snaring a katzil demon by its neck and holding the struggling creature in place. In the next moment, a golden circle appeared on the pavement beneath it, and the chain dragged the demon down through it, where it vanished.

“I’ve gotta say, something about that guy equipping himself with new skills and powers doesn’t fill me with a sense of serenity,” Billie mused, watching their patron closely.

“You don’t trust him?” Joe asked. She barked a sarcastic laugh.

“Ain’t exactly about trust,” McGraw noted.

Mary reappeared next to them with her customary suddenness and lack of fanfare. “One can always trust a creature to behave in consistency with its own essential nature. As things stand, Darling is extraordinarily unlikely to betray us.”

“As things stand?” Joe asked, frowning.

The Crow shrugged noncommittally. “Change is the one true constant. In any case, be ready. I believe we will not be called upon to carry out the planned ambush; it likely would have happened already, were it going to. That being the case, we’ll shortly need to return to the material plane and move on to general demon cleanup duty.”

“Fun,” Joe muttered.

“What, y’mean we don’t get to stay and hang out in this creepity-ass hellscape?” Billie said. “Drat. An’ here I was thinkin’ of investing in some real estate.”

Mary raised an eyebrow. “If you would really like to remain, I can—”

“Don’t even feckin’ say it!”


“Hold it, stop,” Sweet ordered. Fauna skidded to a halt on command, turning to scowl at him as a robed figure scampered away down the sidewalk before her.

“He’s escaping!”

“Him and all three of his friends!”

“Let ’em,” he said lightly, peering around at the nearby rooftops with some disappointment. “We were making a spectacle of ourselves, not seriously trying to collar the Wreath. That’s someone else’s job. You notice there are no signs of Church summoners here, despite the presence of the demons they let loose?”

“Everyone’s bugging out?” Fauna asked, frowning. “What’s going on?”

“Seems like ol’ Embras isn’t taking my bait,” Sweet lamented with a heavy sigh. “Ah, well, it was probably too much to hope that he’d do something so ham-fisted. It’s not really in an Elilinist’s nature, after all. Welp, that being the case, onward we go!”

“Go?” Flora asked as he abruptly turned and set off down a side street. “Where now?”

“You know, it would save us a lot of stumbling along asking annoying questions if you’d just explain the damn plan,” Fauna said caustically.

“Probably would,” he agreed, grinning back at them. “But adapting to circumstances as they unfold is all part of your education.”

“Veth’na alaue.”

“You watch it, potty mouth,” he said severely. “I know what that means.”

“Oh, you speak elvish now?” Fauna asked, raising her eyebrows.

“Just enough to cuss properly. It seemed immediately relevant to our relationship.” They both laughed. “Anyhow, just up this street is the bridge to Dawnchapel. We are going to a warehouse facility, uncharacteristically disguised behind the facade of an upscale apartment building so as not to offend the ritzy sensibilities of those who dwell in this very fashionable district. A fancy warehouse, but still a warehouse if you know what to look for, which makes it the perfect spot for what’s coming next.”

“I didn’t realize there were warehouses in Dawnchapel.”

“Just outside Dawnchapel,” he corrected, grinning up ahead into the night. “Along the avenue leading straight out from the less obvious exit from the Dawnchapel sanctuary itself.”

“I don’t know what to hope for,” Fauna muttered, “that this all plays out as you’re planning and we finally get to learn the point of it, or that it doesn’t and you have to eat crow.”

“Well, there was a mental image I could’ve done without,” Flora said, wincing.

“Not that Crow, you ninny. Oh, gods, now I’m seeing it too.”

“Don’t worry your pretty little heads,” he replied. “I know exactly what I’m doing.”

Before any of the obvious responses to that could be uttered, the clear tone of a hunting horn pierced the night.

“Now what?” Flora demanded. “What’s that about?”

“That,” said Sweet, picking up his pace, “is the signal that we are out of time for sightseeing. Step lively, girls, we need to get into position.”


The spectral bird lit on Hawkmaster Vjarst’s gloved hand, and he brought it forward to his face, gazing intently into its eyes. A moment passed in silence, then he nodded, stroking the spirit hawk’s head, and raised his arm. The bird took flight again, joining its brethren now circling above.

“The summoners have retreated to their safehouses,” he announced, turning to face the rest of the men assembled on the rooftop. “Warlocks in Wreath garb are attempting to put down the remaining demons. There is significant incidental damage in the affected areas. No human casualties that my eyes have seen.”

“And the Eserite?” Grandmaster Veisroi asked.

“His quarry has not bitten his lure, but gone to Dawnchapel as he predicted. Darling and his women are moving in that direction. They are now passing through a cluster of demons, and acquitting themselves well.”

“How close?”

“Close.”

Veisroi nodded. “Then all is arranged; it’s time.” The assembled Huntsmen tensed slightly in anticipation as he lifted the run-engraved hunting horn at his side to his lips.

The horn was one of the treasures of their faith, a relic given by the Wolf God himself to his mortal followers, according to legend. Its tone was deep and clear, resounding clearly across the entire city, without being painful to the ears of those standing right at hand.

At its sound, Brother Ingvar nocked the spell-wrapped arrow that had been specially prepared for this night to his bow, raised it, and fired straight upward. The missile burst into blue light as it climbed…and continued to climb, soaring upward to the clouds without beginning to descend toward the city. Similar blue streaks soared upward from rooftop posts all across Tiraas.

Where they touched the clouds, the city’s omnipresent damp cover darkened into ominous thunderheads in the space of seconds. Winds carrying the chill of the Stalrange picked up, roaring across the roofs of the city; Vjarst’s birds spiraled downward, each making brief contact with his runed glove and vanishing. Snow, unthinkable for the time of year, began to fall, whipped into furious eddies by the winds.

The very light changed, Tiraas’s fierce arcane glow taking on the pale tint of moonlight as the blessing of Shaath was laid across the city.

“Brother Andros,” Veisroi ordered, “the device.”

Andros produced the twisted thorn talisman they had previously confiscated from Elilial’s spy in their midst, closed his eyes in concentration, and twisted it. Even in the rising wind, the clicking of the metal thorns echoed among the stilled Huntsmen.

Absolutely nothing happened.

Andros opened his eyes, grinning with satisfaction. “All is as planned, Grandmaster. Until Shaath’s storm abates, shadow-jumping in Tiraas has been blocked.”

“Good,” said Veisroi, grinning in return. With his grizzled mane and beard whipped around him by the winds, he looked wild, fierce, just as a follower of Shaath ought. “Remember, men, your task is to destroy demons as you find them, but only harry the Wreath toward the Rail stations. Yes, I see your impatience, lads. I know you’ve been told this, but it bears repeating. A dead warlock may yield worthy trophies, but he cannot answer questions. We drive them into the trap, nothing more. And now…”

He raised the horn again, his chest swelling with a deeply indrawn breath, and let out a long blast, followed by three short ones, the horn’s notes cutting through the sound of the wind.

Four portal mages were now under medical supervision in the offices of Imperial Intelligence, recuperating from serious cases of mana fatigue from their day’s labors, but they had finished their task on time, as was expected of agents of the Silver Throne. Now, from dozens of rooftops all across the city, answering horns raised the call and spirit wolves burst into being, accompanying the hundreds of Huntsmen of Shaath gathered in Tiraas, nearly every one of them from across the Empire. They began bounding down form their perches, toward lower roofs and the streets, roaring and laughing at the prospect of worthy prey.

“And now,” Grandmaster Veisroi repeated, grinning savagely, “WE HUNT!”


The three of them hunkered down behind the decorative stone balustrade encircling the balcony on which they huddled, taking what shelter they could from the howling winds and snowflakes. Uncomfortable as it was, they weren’t as chilled as the weather made it seem they should be. The temperature had dropped notably in the last few minutes, but it was still early summer, despite Shaath’s touch upon the city.

Directly across the street stood the warehouse Sweet had indicated. It had tall, decorative windows in sculpted stone frames, shielded by iron bars which were wrought so as to be attractive as well as functional. Its huge door was similarly carved and even gilded in spots to emphasize its engraved reliefs. It was, in short, definitely a warehouse, but did not stand out excessively from the upscale townhouses which surrounded it, or the shrines and looming Dawnchapel temple just across the canal.

“More information is always better,” Sweet was saying. His normal, conversational tone didn’t carry more than a few feet away, thanks to the furious wind, but his words were plainly audible to the elven ears of his audience, who sat right on either side of him. “When running a con, you want to control as much as you can. What you know, what the mark knows, who they encounter… But the fact is, you can’t control the world, and shouldn’t try. There comes a point where you have to let go. Real mastery is in balancing those two things, arranging what you can control so that your mark does what you want him to, despite the plethora of options offered to him by the vast, chaotic world in which we live.”

“And you, of course, possess true mastery,” Fauna said solemnly. She grinned when Sweet flicked the pointed tip of her ear with a finger.

“In this case, it’s a simple matter of what I know that Embras doesn’t,” he said, “and what Justinian doesn’t know that I know. This part of the plan wasn’t shared with his Holiness, you see; he’d just have moved to protect his secrets. That would be inconvenient, after all the trouble I went to to track them down, and anyway, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make use of it tonight.”

“What trouble did you go to?” Flora asked. “When did you find time to snoop out whatever it is Justinian was hiding from you on top of everything else you’ve got going on?”

“I asked Mary to do it,” he said frankly, grinning. “Now pay attention across the bridge, there, girls, you are about to see a demonstration of what I mean.” He shifted position, angling himself to get a good look down the street and across the canal bridge at the Dawnchapel. “When you know the board, the players, and the pieces…well, if you know them well enough, the rest is clockwork.”


“Don’t worry about that,” Embras said sharply as his people clustered together, peering nervously up through the glass dome at the storm-darkening sky. “It was a good move on Justinian’s part, but they’ll be hunting out there. This is probably the safest place in the city right now. Focus, folks, we’ve got a job to do.” He pointed quickly at the main door and a smaller one tucked into one of the stone walls. “Ignore the exterior entrances, we’re not about to be attacked from out there. That doorway, opposite the front, leads into the temple complex. Sishimir, get in there and shroud it; I don’t want us interrupted by the clerics still in residence. Vanessa, Ravi, Bradshaw, start a dark circle the whole width of the sanctuary. Tolimer, Ashley, shroud it as they go. You’re not enacting a full summons, just a preparatory thinning.”

“Nice,” said Vanessa approvingly. “And here I thought you just wanted to smash the place up.” She moved off toward the edge of the sanctuary, the rest of the warlocks shifting into place as directed, Sishimir ducking through the dark entrance hall to the temple complex beyond. The two hethelaxi took up positions flanking the main doors, waiting patiently, while the non-sentient demons stuck by their summoners.

“Now, Vanessa, that would be petty,” Embras said solemnly. “It’ll be so much more satisfying when the next amateur to reach across the planes in training tomorrow plunges this whole complex straight into Hell. Perhaps they’ll think with a bit more care next time someone suggests fooling around aimlessly with demons.”

“Ooh, sneaky and gratuitously mean-spirited. I like it!”

Everyone immediately stopped what they were doing, turning to face the succubus who had spoken.

“Not one of ours,” Ravi said crisply, extending a hand. A coil of pure shadow flexed outward, wrapping around the demon and securing her wings and arms to her sides; she bore this with good humor, tail waving languidly behind her. “Who are you with, girl? The summoner corps?”

“Justinian’s messing around with the children of Vanislaas, now?” Bradshaw murmured. “The man is completely out of control.”

“Why, hello, Kheshiri,” Mogul said mildly, tucking a hand into his pocket. “Of all the places I did not expect you to pop up, this is probably the one I expected the least. You already rid yourself of that idiot Shook? Impressive, even for you.”

“Rid myself of him?” Kheshiri said innocently. “Now why on earth would I want to do something like that? He’s the most fun I’ve had in years.”

“Change of plans,” Embras said, keeping his gaze fixed on the grinning succubus. It never paid to take your eyes off a succubus, especially one who was happy about something. “Vanessa, Tolimer, cover those doors. Sishimir, what’s taking so long in there?”

The gray-robed figure of Sishimir appeared in the darkened doorway, his posture oddly stiff and off-center. His cowled head lolled to one side.

“Everything’s okey-dokey back here, boss!” said a high-pitched singsong voice. “No need to go looking around for more enemies, no sirree!”

The assembled Wreath turned from Kheshiri to face him, several drawing up shadows around themselves.

Two figures stepped up on either side of Sishimir, a man in a cheap-looking suit and a taller one in brown Omnist style robes, complete with a hood that concealed his features.

“That is absolutely repellant,” the hooded one said disdainfully.

“Worse,” added the other, “it’s not even funny.”

“Bah!” Sishimir collapsed to the ground; immediately a pool of blood began to spread across the stone floor from his body. Behind him stood a grinning elf in a dapper pinstriped suit, dusting off his hands. “Nobody appreciates good comedy anymore.”

“I don’t know what the hell this is, but I do believe I lack the patience for it,” Embras announced. “Ladies and gentlemen, hex these assholes into a puddle.”

Kheshiri clicked her tongue chidingly, shaking her head.

A barrage of shadow blasts ripped across the sanctuary at the three men.

The robed man raised one hand, and every single spell flickered soundlessly out of existence a yard from them.

“What—”

Bradshaw was interrupted by a burst of light; the wandshot, fired from the waist, pierced Ravi through the midsection. She crumpled with a strangled scream, the shadow bindings holding Kheshiri dissolving instantly.

“Keep your grubby hands off my property, bitch,” Shook growled.

The robed figure raised his hands, finally lowering his hood to reveal elven features, glossy green hair, and glowing eyes like smooth-cut emeralds.

Khadizroth the Green curled his upper lip in a disdainful sneer.

“I do not like warlocks.”


“Almost wish I’d brought snacks,” Sweet mused as they watched the dome over the Dawnchapel flicker and pulse with the lights being discharged within.

“I wouldn’t turn down a mug of hot mead right now,” Flora muttered, her hands tucked under her arms.

“Hot anything,” Fauna agreed. “Hell, I’d drink hot water.”

“Oh, don’t be such wet blankets,” Sweet said airily, struggling not to shiver himself. “Where’s your sense of oh wait there he goes!”

He leaned forward, pointing. Sure enough, a figure in a white suit had emerged from the small side entrance to the temple’s sanctuary and headed toward the bridge at a dead run.

“Clockwork, I tell you,” Sweet said, grinning fiercely, his discomfort of a moment ago forgotten. “Confronted with an unwinnable fight when they weren’t expecting one, the cultists naturally huddle up and create an opportunity for their leader to escape. The rest of them are losses the Wreath can absorb; he simply can’t be allowed to fall into Justinian’s hands. And so, there he goes. But whatever shall our hero do now?”

Embras Mogul skidded to a stop at the bridge, glancing back at the Dawnchapel, then forward at the warehouse. He started moving again, purposefully.

“So many choices, so many direction to run,” Sweet narrated quietly, his avid gaze fixed on the fleeing warlock. “The Wreath’s first choice is always to vanish from trouble, but with their shadow-jumping blocked, his options are limited. But what’s this? Why, it’s a warehouse! And all warehouses in this city have convenient sewer access. Once down in that labyrinth, he’s as good as gone. As we can see, he is slowed up by the very impressive lock on those mighty doors.”

“Amateur,” Flora muttered, watching Mogul struggle with the latch. After a moment, he stepped back, aimed a hand at the lock and discharged a burst of shadow. With the snowy wind howling through the street, they couldn’t hear the eruption of magic or the clattering of pieces of lock and chain falling to the ground, but in the next moment, Mogul was tugging the doors open a crack and slipping through, pulling it carefully shut behind him.

“You weren’t going to ambush him there?” Fauna asked, frowning.

“What, out here in the street?” Darling stood up, brushing snow off his suit. “Where he could run in any direction? No, I believe I’ll ambush him in that building which I’ve prepared ahead of time to have no useable exits except the one I’ll be blocking.”

“One of these days your love of dramatic effect is going to get you in real trouble,” Flora predicted.

“Mm hm, it’s actually quite liberating, knowing in advance what your own undoing’ll be. The uncertainty can wear on you, otherwise. All right, girls, down we go. We’ve one last appointment to keep tonight.”


Embras strode purposely forward into the maze of crates stacked on the main warehouse floor, scowling in displeasure. This night had been an unmitigated disaster. He only hoped his comrades had had the sense to surrender once he was safely away. For now, he had to get to the offices of this complex and find the sewer access—there always was one—but in the back of his mind, he had already begun planning to retrieve as many of them as possible. It was a painful duty, having to prioritize among friends, but Bradshaw and Vanessa would have to be first…

He rounded a blind turn in the dim corridors made by the piled crates and slammed to a halt as light rose up in front of him.

The uniformed Butler set the lantern aside on a small crate pulled up apparently for that purpose, then folded her hands behind her back, assuming that parade rest position they always adopted when not actively working.

“Good evening, Master Mogul,” Price said serenely. “You are expected.”

Embras heaved a sigh. “Well, bollocks.”

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5 – 31

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Mercifully, the sun was finally slipping toward the sea in the west, but it was still more than warm on the rocky plains outside Onkawa. He trudged along through the scraggly bushes and lone patches of stubborn tallgrass, coat thrown over his shoulder and only a pilfered straw hat to protect him from the rays. At least he was alone. The distant city had been built on the cliffs above the sea, along the tributaries of the river, deriving scant resources from its rocky environs. Onkawa’s livelihood was trade and fishing; no one attempted to use this land for anything else.

Shook stopped as he came to an old dirt road running north to south, looking warily up and down it. Beyond that lay the mountains toward which he was headed; this was the first sign of civilization he had encountered since fleeing the city, and anxious as he was to avoid anyone who might be pursuing him, it brought him up short. Still, the road was empty. There was no other sign of life except for an enormous monitor lizard sprawled on a nearby outcropping of rock, still soaking up the heat trapped in the stone even after the sun had faded away.

The creature half turned its head toward him and flicked its tongue out, tasting the air. It looked to be nearly as long as he was tall.

“Don’t even fucking think about it,” Shook growled, reaching for a wand with the hand not holding up his coat.

The monitor flicked its tongue again, blinking both sets of eyelids.

He was contemplating shooting it on general principles when movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention. Shook swiftly sidestepped, repositioning himself to keep both the lizard (probably harmless, but he was well past the point of making assumptions) and the approaching figure in view. As the airborne dot grew close enough to become more distinct, however, he relaxed slightly.

Kheshiri swooped down and came to a graceful landing a few feet away, beating her wings once to slow her momentum. The quick breeze it caused was extremely welcome, even if it did knock his hat off. It was a stupid hat anyway.

“Master,” she said, looking tense but relieved. “I was worried. Did you get use out of the supplies I—”

“I have spent the whole goddamn day plodding across this goddamn desert, and I’m not dead of dehydration or heatstroke. Yes, I made good use of the supplies; the potions should be enough to last us till the mountains, if you’re sure you don’t need any.”

She shook her head, watching him warily. His voice was a subdued monotone, and contained an uncharacteristic lack of threats and bluster. “I don’t have many physical needs. I’m just glad you didn’t get chased down. I didn’t want to leave—”

“What’d you find out?” he asked curtly.

Kheshiri pursed her lips, then sighed. “It’s not good, master. Saduko lived. Vandro’s calling in special healers to make sure she has a full recovery. Amanika’s fine, and apparently on a fast track to heading up the local Guild chapter house. Vandro is upgrading his security system.”

He just nodded. His expression was blank, exhausted; there was something empty in his eyes.

Kheshiri sidled closer, lower her voice to a gentle murmur. “We’re gonna be fine, master. You’re smart and tough as hell, and you’ve got me. We’ll get them all for this, I promise.” She tried to cuddle up under his arm, but he pushed her away, not nearly as roughly as he usually did.

“Took you that many hours to find that much out?”

“Most of it was travel time,” the succubus said, suppressing irritation. “And…I saw an opportunity to take Vandro out of the picture, so I went for it. It…didn’t pan out.”

He glared. “You tried to… Goddamn it, you stupid wench, he has a Butler. The man is never out of earshot. It’s a miracle you aren’t dead! It’d serve you right, doing a stupid thing like that.”

“Yes, he has a Butler,” she said in exasperation. “A servant! How was I supposed to know he’s some kind of martial arts genius?”

“It’s a fucking Butler!” Shook shouted. “How can you not know what a Butler is?!”

“How would I?” she shot back. “Last time I was on this plane of existence, a butler was a guy in a suit who served tea and looked fancy! Maybe I could be more useful to you if you’d explain these things instead of making fun of me!”

She broke off, breathing heavily. Shook just stared at her. Any moment now would come the tirade, possibly with a punch in the jaw for emphasis.

Any moment.

He sighed and turned away. “Ask questions, Kheshiri. We were in that house plenty long enough for you to start wondering. You don’t understand something, you ask.”

“Yes, master,” she said meekly. While his back was turned, she permitted herself a fleeting expression of gleeful triumphant. Oh, he was all but broken. Clay to be reshaped. “I’m…sorry, master,” she added hesitantly. “I messed that whole thing up. I smelled a rat from the beginning, but… I thought it was Amanika who’d turn on us. Vandro took me by complete surprise. Luckily my precautions were of some use.”

He opened his mouth to reply, then turned his head sharply, looking up the road. A carriage was trundling along the dirt track in their direction. Shook swiftly peered around them, shoulders tensing.

“No cover,” Kheshiri said tersely, shifting silently into her local girl appearance. “It’s okay. We’re just two people out…”

“For a romantic stroll through the howling goddamn wilderness at sunset?” He gave her a disparaging look.

“…we can play the lost travelers angle, maybe bum a ride?”

“Look at that old jalopy, Kheshiri,” he said, staring at it. “Needs painting, broken head lamp…scruffy and busted.”

“I don’t think we’re in a position to be picky, master…”

“Shut up. Look at it, but listen to it. Damn near silent. That’s not some farmer’s raggedy-ass old carriage, it’s a well-maintained modern rig running the best Falconer enchantments, made up to look like a farmer’s old carriage.”

He really wasn’t stupid. Fantastically dense on certain subjects, emotional and easily manipulated, sure, but once in a while he’d abruptly remind her that he was fully trained by the Thieves’ Guild.

“Think they’re here after us?”

“Be ready for a fight,” he said as the carriage drew close. “Maybe they’re passing by on the way to some other… Oh, god damn it. Why should we get any luck?” he added in a growl as the vehicle began to slow and then pulled over to the opposite side of the road. This close, they could see that it was driven by an elf in traditional forest attire, with the addition of a pair of tinted goggles protecting his eyes from road dust.

“Shift back,” Shook said quietly.

“Master, I—”

“We’re past the point of pretenses, here. Let’s make ’em think carefully about whether they wanna fuck with us.”

“Yes, master,” she said grimly, fading back to her true form and stretching her wings menacingly. They weren’t all that useful in a fight, but they made for fantastic dramatic effect. The monitor lizard, apparently unimpressed by the carriage, recognized a traditional “puffing up” display and shifted a few feet away from them on its rock, tasting the air again.

“Now, now, there’s no need for that,” said a voice from within the carriage, and another elf emerged, stepping down into the road. He wore a pinstriped suit and an obnoxious grin. “We come in peace! I have a business proposal, if you’d like to put down those—”

Shook fired a bolt of white light into the ground right in front of his feet, cutting him off.

“I have exactly no patience for whatever bullshit this is,” he growled. “Next thing you say had better be a damn good reason for me not to shoot your ass.”

“Okay,” the elf said, his smile widening. “I’m the Jackal.”

Shook eyed him up and down. “Bullshit.”

“What’s a jackal?” Kheshiri stage-whispered.

“Look at it this way,” the elf said brightly. “I’m either the Jackal or some idiot who’s going to get killed for walking around using his professional moniker. Which do you think is more likely to intercept you on a deserted road in Buttfuck, Onkawa Province?”

“…god damn it, I hate today,” Shook muttered. “That sounds like a pretty good reason to shoot you, frankly.”

“You’d have done it if you were going to,” the Jackal said merrily. “Still could, but… I’ll tell you up front, others have made that mistake. None twice, though.”

“Who is this guy?” Kheshiri demanded, an edge to her voice.

“An assassin,” Shook said curtly.

“Oh, good,” she purred, waving her tail languidly behind her. “I love killing assassins. They appreciate the irony so much better than average shmoes.”

The Jackal laughed. “And this must be the charming Miss Kheshiri! Delighted, my dear, simply delighted. Driving our humble conveyance is my good friend Vannae, and allow me to introduce your other new friend…”

Out of the shadows of the carriage’s interior stepped another elf, this one with flowing green hair, a thin strip of beard… And eyes like luminous, smooth-cut emeralds.

“Khadizroth the Green,” finished the Jackal.

“I hate my life,” Shook corrected himself.

Khadizroth studied him over, then directed a distinctly contemptuous look at Kheshiri before turning to the Jackal. “These are the people with whom you insisted on meeting? Very well. I am patient, but not infinitely. Speak your piece, please.”

“Right then!” the Jackal said with relish, rubbing his hands together. “Quite so, quite so, you’ve been more than patient. I have brought us all together to present a fairly simple opportunity.” He spread his arms, smiling like a salesman. “How’d you all like to work for the Archpope of the Universal Church?”

In the silence that followed, the monitor tasted the air again.

“I think he’s making fun of us,” Kheshiri said, sounding offended. “Let’s kill him.”

“Now, hear me out,” the Jackal said, laughing again. “Archpope Justinian has embarked on a bold new project to rally the world’s remaining adventurers under his own thumb. Eventually, the plan is to have what amounts to a Church-controlled army of people very talented in the fine art of causing destruction.”

“First of all, adventurers are washed-up losers,” said Shook.

“Commonly, yeah,” the Jackal replied cheerfully. “I’m referring to the couple dozen or so individuals who aren’t. And, not coincidentally, don’t call themselves—ourselves—adventurers in this day and age. But the reality is the same. Three hundred years ago, we’d have been wandering, campaigning, dungeon-looting heroes, all of us.”

“Not all,” Khadizroth said quietly. “Some of us would have been targets of the rest.”

“Okay, leaving all that aside,” Shook snapped, “this is the dumbest fucking idea I’ve ever heard.”

“You are young,” the dragon said dryly.

“More to the point, this is not something I think I like the idea of the Archpope doing. So no, you can count me the fuck out.”

“Oh, honestly, Thumper, do you think I want him doing this?” the Jackal asked condescendingly. “It’d be an unmitigated disaster. Nobody needs to have power of that kind, and if anybody does, it’s definitely not the Church. Gods, no, this has to be prevented at all bloody costs.”

“And yet, you’re recruiting for him?” Shook demanded.

“That’s right.” The Jackal tucked his thumbs into his belt and rocked back on his heels, grinning broadly. “I am.”

“What the fuck—”

“It’s because he doesn’t think he can kill Justinian,” Kheshiri said quietly.

The Jackal pointed a finger at her. “Bingo!”

Shook narrowed his eyes. “What?”

“Killing the Archpope is the most logical solution to this…problem,” the succubus continued, studying the assassin through narrowed eyes. “Failing that… To oppose him directly would be suicide. The Church probably has more resources than the Empire, considering it’s stretched across the whole planet. The only workable strategy for stopping this is to go along with it. Earn trust, get placed close to Justinian, then watch for or create an opportunity to sabotage it.”

“Hm,” Khadizroth said thoughtfully.

“The lady is dead on, and proving that I was right in picking you two,” the elf said, still as cheerful as if discussing the sunny weather. “I am, to be quite honest, the best there is at what I do, and I will tell you that killing a sitting Archpope is simply not in the cards. There are limits to what Justinian can do with his power, but the gods are watching over him. I don’t mean that as the passe benediction it usually is; the actual gods keep their actual eyes on him, at least to the point of protecting him from harm. It’s part of the pact that led to the Church’s formation. No, he’s here to stay. All that’s left to do is to unwork his plans before he can complete them.”

“And you chose us?” Shook looked expressively around at the little group. “You’ve got interesting taste.”

“He’s completely insane, is what,” Kheshiri said disdainfully. “I am, in case it slipped your notice, a demon. Me going near the Church is a death sentence.”

“It might interest you to know,” the Jackal replied with a sunny smile, “that while I proposed this roster of talents, each of you was personally approved by His Holiness.” He paused, letting that sink in for a moment. “Justinian is a very forward-thinking chap.”

“Indeed, this new Archpope seems quite permissive,” Khadizroth noted, “considering we were brought here by a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman.”

“The skills represented by this group are plenty impressive enough to warrant recruitment,” the Jackal declaimed. “There’s me, of course, and Khadizroth here is… Well, I’m sure I don’t have to delve into his resume to impress you. Kheshiri is a noted conniver and corrupter even by succubus standards, and our boy Thumper is a veteran of security at the central office of the Thieves’ Guild. He’s the lad they send to break kneecaps when the kneecaps in question are attached to someone most people don’t want to mess with.”

“What’s his story?” Shook asked, nodding at the elf perched in the driver’s seat.

“Oh, he comes with the dragon,” the Jackal said offhandedly. Vannae tightened his mouth, but remained silent. “Even better, each of us has a hook. Justinian likes to deal with people he can control—or thinks he can. Kheshiri is bound to a kind of soul jar. Shook is currently on the outs and on the run from his own Guild. Khadizroth has been placed under a curse that severely limits his options, magically speaking. And me, well, I’ve spent the last couple of years laboriously building up the impression for Justinian’s sake that he has me on a leash. So that’s why he approves the lot of you for his venture. What’s far more interesting is what’s in it for us.”

“Go on,” Khadizroth prompted.

“We four displaced villains have enemies in common,” the Jackal continued, his smile turning grim. “There’s Justinian’s own scheme, of course, but we’ve all suffered from the attentions of one man: Bishop Antonio Darling.”

“Wait just a goddamn minute,” Shook said. “I have no quarrel with Sweet. He’s always been straight with me. Helpful, even.”

“Oh, Thumper, open your eyes,” the assassin said disdainfully. “Think about what’s happened to you. You had one little difference of opinion with an errant member of your Guild, which stemmed from you being sent by them to bring her to heel because she was out of line. Next thing you know, you’re wanted and on the run, and Principia is welcomed back with open arms. Do you even know why?”

“How do you know about any of that?” Shook demanded.

“Oh, I have my ways; that’s not important. What matters is that Darling was the one who sent Principia to Last Rock in the first place. As I understand it, you were sent by the Boss of the Guild to take her to task and she turned outright traitor, yes? Then the Boss sent you out again to drag her back.” He smirked. “Next thing you knew, the Guild wanted your ass on a platter. What you don’t know is what happened in between, in Tiraas. Someone with the power to lean on the Boss of the Guild, and with a pre-existing tendency to favor Principia, stuck his fingers in. Do the bloody math, Thumper.”

Shook had slowly stiffened as the elf spoke, and by this point had clenched his fists so hard around his wands that they vibrated. His expression was a portrait of barely-held control.

“And so, here we are,” the Jackal continued. “United in threefold purpose: We need to cozy up to Archpope Justinian to undercut his plans, we need to find ways to dismantle the various shackles placed upon each of us, and we most especially need to administer some long-overdue comeuppance to Antonio Darling and his various lackeys. As a professional courtesy to one another, I think we can find time to deal with the two friends of his who have caused us the most grief: Mary the Crow and Principia Locke.”

“And what’s to stop you from stabbing us in the back?” Shook asked tightly. “You’re not exactly a trustworthy figure, and I note this whole damn thing is your idea.”

“Alternatively,” Khadizroth suggested, “Any of us could turn on you. Or each other. I see little, if any, cause for trust here.”

“Okay, let’s think that through,” the Jackal suggested brightly. “Say you gang up, kill me and run back to Justinian with the story of how I was setting up a scheme against him. Curry a little favor, remove some competition, right? Then whoever was left would be in exactly the same position: needing to secure their freedom and revenge, and with one less ally.” He shook his head, still smiling. “It just doesn’t make any sense. We’re all professionals, and we all know where our best interests lie; in this case, that’ll suffice in place of genuine trust between us. Hell, I’d venture to say it’s the closest thing to real trust anybody ever gets in this life.”

Another silence fell; the thief, the demon and the dragon regarded each other speculatively.

“I’ve gotten us started with a little good-faith effort,” the Jackal continued smoothly. “I recently helped our buddy Khadizroth here out of a jam caused by Darling’s little hit squad. Interestingly enough, Darling is officially in charge of the Church’s adventurer recruitment program, but Justinian apparently doesn’t trust him completely. Can’t imagine why, heh. So I was dispatched with orders not to let it be known who I was, since Darling and the Crow both know who I work for.” He smirked smugly. “I may have failed to execute that as carefully as I might. By which I mean, I made damn sure two of the would-be dragonslayers got a good look at me.”

“How in the hell is that a good faith effort?” Shook growled. “That’s helping Darling.”

“Sure is,” the Jackal said cheerily. “Specifically, it’s helping him see who his real enemy is: Archpope Justinian. It’s helping to place our two groups of enemies at each other’s throats. Let them wear one another down with schemes and counterschemes while we position ourselves. By the time they’re done with that, whoever’s left over will be ripe for the picking.”

“I find this entire affair distasteful, for countless reasons,” Khadizroth said, frowning. “…however, your logic is compelling.”

Shook nodded slowly.

“I don’t trust this, master,” Kheshiri said tersely.

“Good,” Shook replied. “You’d be a fool to. But…the enemy of my enemy.”

“That never works out in the long run.”

“Oh, I’m making no promises about the long run,” said the Jackal with a grin. “Right now, we’re at the point of making sure there is a long run for any of us. We are each other’s best bet of doing so.”

“I will join you,” Khadizroth said solemnly.

Shook sighed. “Hell with it. We’re in. Not like we have any better options.” Kheshiri lashed her tail furiously, but kept silent.

“Excellent,” the Jackal purred. “Pile in, then, my friends, and let’s get out of this dump. We could all do with some rest and a good meal. And in some cases, a bath.”

Full dark fell as the carriage, loaded with its new passengers, whirred smoothly off on its way down the road. The monitor lizard watched it go, flicking out its tongue to sense the air. It made no reaction to the departing carriage, nor to the disturbance that developed in the air nearby once the vehicle was nearly out of sight.

The air shifted, twisted and rippled, as though reality itself were putty being stretched and mashed in a child’s hands. Out of the distortion stepped a stately figure in absurdly ornate blue robes, allowing the illusion effect to fade behind him.

“Now, you see that?” Zanzayed the Blue asked the monitor. “I swear, every time I see him, Khadizroth has minions. He doesn’t even try. He’s just always got some bloody mortal to fetch and carry for him, even while he’s apparently cursed, blackmailed and guilty of a ridiculously villainous plot to overthrow the Empire through organized miscegenation. It’s just not fair.”

He sighed moodily. “Now, if I had minions to talk to instead of you, little cousin, I could get some real feedback here. They’d say, ‘Zanza,’—they’d call me Zanza, I run a pretty loose hypothetical ship—’Zanza,’ they’d say, ‘you’ve tried to keep mortal followers too, and you always lose interest after a few years and forget about them. Remember the time you left four girls in a tower and forgot to feed them for thirty years? That was just gruesome, that was.’ And I’d have to shrug bashfully and admit they’re right.” He huffed in annoyance. “Of course, the alternative is this thing right here, where I’m standing alone in the wilderness talking to myself. Maybe I should give it another try. Whatever, I blame Khadizroth. Thanks to him and his idiocy, now I have to go do actual work. Bah.”

In the falling darkness, he shifted, swelling, his luminous blue eyes rising skyward, first with the revelation of his greater form, and then as he beat his massive wings and took off.

The lizard, unimpressed by travelers, carriages, impromptu conferences and dramatic magical effects, was nonetheless very impressed by finding itself in the company of the ultimate apex predator. It whirled and scuttled away with astonishing speed.

Zanzayed, though, was already halfway toward the mountains, paying it no more mind.


Captain Ravoud couldn’t help being awed. He had been to the Grand Cathedral, of course, but never beyond the public spaces dedicated to worship. Its inner halls were stately, opulent, almost perfectly designed to make him feel glaringly out of place in his stark uniform.

The soldiers of the Holy Legion who escorted him only added to the effect. Resplendent with their decorative armor and elaborate polearms, they were stern and aloof, more rigid in their bearing than the Imperial soldiers whose company he was used to. Even Ravoud’s certainty that his troops would vastly overmatch this lot in any real action did nothing to assuage the intimidation he felt. These were an honor guard, a ceremonial unit. They existed for psychological effect. It was no more than natural that he felt it in their presence, or so he told himself.

It was almost a shock when they came to what was apparently the right door; it had begun to seem he would wander this extravagant maze forever, as if trapped in a dream. His escorts, however, smoothly shifted formation (with needless but well-choreographed stomping that made their armor clank in unison), two of them moving to flank the polished oak door. One knocked.

“Enter,” said a slightly muffled voice from within. The guard turned the knob, stepped aside and saluted Ravoud. The captain returned the salute (the other man did it wrong) and stepped through. The door was pulled shut behind him, separating him from his erstwhile guards.

This space was smaller, and impressively managed to seem somewhat cozy, despite being made of the same carved white marble as the rest of the Cathedral, illuminated by towering stained glass windows as well as modern fairy lamps. The furnishings were of very dark-stained wood, bookcases laden with old leatherbound volumes, overstuffed armchairs upholstered in deep burgundy, small cabinets and stands scattered in a profusion that seemed almost cluttered. A comfortable fire labored against the winter chill in an ostentatious hearth on the far wall. The whole effect conspired to seem comfortable, habitable, offsetting the grandeur of the office itself.

Ravoud gave it all scarcely a glance, immediately falling to one knee as the Archpope of the Universal Church himself approached him.

“Your Holiness,” he murmured, kissing the proffered ring.

“Captain Ravoud,” Justinian said with a beatific smile, and withdrew his hand. “Thank you for joining me so swiftly. Rise, my son.”

He obeyed slowly. “I…was surprised by your summons, your Holiness. I confess I’m not at all sure what it is I can do for you…”

“Well, we can discuss that presently,” said he Archpope, turning to face the far end of the long office, near the fire. “First, there is someone where whom I think you should meet.”

Ravoud turned, and instantly froze, the blood draining from his face.

She stood in front of an armchair, an afghan sprawled on the floor beside her where it had clearly fallen from her lap when she abruptly rose. She was thinner than he remembered, her hair longer, but there could be no mistaking that face. It had haunted his dreams long enough.

“Alia?” he whispered.

“Nassir?” he little sister replied hesitantly, stepping convulsively forward once, then stopping as if unsure of herself.

“Alia!” he cried, completely forgetting the exalted company in which he stood and rushing forward. She ran to meet him, bursting into tears, and in the next moment she was in his arms. She wept—they both wept, rocking slowly, wrapped around each other.

“I thought you were lost forever,” he whispered finally, when enough of his breath and mental faculties recovered to form words. “I was… I tried, Alia, I tried so hard to reach you, but they blocked me at every turn. I was so close to giving up…”

“I missed you,” she sniffled, nuzzling at his shoulder. “Oh, gods, Nassir, you have no idea. I thought if I could just see you again…”

“Have you seen Papa yet? Oh, Alia, he hasn’t been the same since we lost you.”

“Not yet, I’ve only been here in the Cathedral.” She drew back slightly to smile up at him. “Papa’s still okay?”

“He will be now,” Ravoud promised, cupping her face in his hands.

“Thank the gods,” she said, tears still brimming in her eyes. “It’ll be so good to see him before I go back.”

He froze. “…go back?”

“I’m not supposed to be out,” she said, suddenly nervous. “I’m going to be in so much trouble…”

“Alia, that’s all over,” he soothed. “You’re safe now, in Tiraas. We’re not going to let any drow get to you.”

She was shaking her head before he even finished. “You don’t understand… It’s not my place, Nassir. I know where I belong. Mistress is going to be so disappointed… I’ve got to make it all right, I didn’t want to come, but they made me…”

“Alia, what are you talking about?” he demanded, his blood chilling.

“This has been an extremely trying time for all of us,” the Archpope said smoothly, stepping up next to them. “We must take the time to discuss these matters fully; it needn’t all be done tonight. Miss Ravoud, of course you should reconnect with your family. Your mistress will understand a brief delay.”

“I…” She bit her lip, glancing between Justinian and Nassir. “I guess… I don’t have permission, is what worries me…”

“All will be well,” the Archpope promised, smiling gently at her. “You are very tired, I know; it’s been a long day. I need to have a few words with your brother, my dear, and then you two will have all the time you need to talk. Branwen, would you kindly take Miss Ravoud into the sitting room and see that she’s comfortable? I’ll send the Captain in momentarily to join her.”

“Of course, your Holiness,” said a new voice, and Ravoud only then realized there was another woman present. It was a testament to the distractions occurring that he hadn’t; she was exactly the kind of woman he usually spotted right off. Short, yes, but pretty, curvy, and with striking hair of a deep red. She smiled warmly, taking Alia by the hand and gently pulling her away. “Come along, honey, let’s let your brother deal with his business as quickly as possible, so you two have all the time you need to talk.”

“All right,” Alia said, reluctantly letting herself be drawn away. “Don’t take too long, though, Nassir? I really want to talk with you, and, and, I can’t be gone too much longer.”

He only managed to nod, trying for a smile. A lump of congealed horror in his throat blocked all efforts at speech.

“Oh, but maybe you can meet mistress!” she said brightly, her face lighting up at the idea. “I just know you’ll love her. Everyone loves her.”

He couldn’t even nod. Alia didn’t seem to notice. She let Branwen escort her to a side door near the fireplace, and then through.

The moment it clicked shut, he rounded on the Archpope.

“What is wrong with her?! A spell?”

Justinian shook his head, his expression grave. “Narisian drow do not waste energy on such effects when more mundane methods will do. The crude term is ‘brainwashing.’ There is a hidden compliment to your sister in this; she would not have been so dramatically…worked upon, were she not unusually resistant to them in the first place. The mind, Captain, is always growing, ever adapting. The essence of the technique, as I understand it, is to introduce the subject to sufficiently severe trauma that they are forced to adapt new ways of thinking to survive, and then guide that adaptation in directions that serve your purposes.”

Ravoud was barely conscious of being ushered over to a large desk and gently pushed into a chair in front of it. He bit his fist, gazing emptily into the distance in shock. “Can… You can undo it?”

“There is no going back, I’m afraid. Only forward. That is how the mind works, Captain; you cannot change what has been done.” Justinian placed a glass of brandy on the desk in front of Ravoud, who hadn’t even seen him pour it. He went on more gently, a calm smile wreathing his face. “But we will put her right. It will be many times easier than having so distorted her in the first place. She already knows how to be a free, independent person, and has memories of the habits and patterns that will enable her to do so. It is simply a matter of bringing them back to the forefront, giving her time to heal, and to forget the behavior modifications that were forced upon her. It is a process, Captain; you must understand this. There is no magic incantation. It will take time and expert guidance. Luckily, we have the best. A man named Orthilon, once a Narisian slave trainer and now a resident of Lor’naris. There is no better expert on their methods.”

“More drow,” Ravoud said bitterly, closing his hand around the glass. He didn’t lift it to his mouth.

“Some disdain to use the tools and weapons of the enemy,” Justinian said mildly. “Personally, I find there is no more elegant victory for the righteous than to unmake the wicked upon their own depravities. Orthilon is trustworthy and diligent; I will personally vouch for your sister’s care. I am also,” he continued, turning and pacing over to gaze out the window at the arcane-lit city, “working to extract Tamra Faroud, who I understand was engaged to your late friend Corporal Khalivour. This is taking time and substantial energy, but I am confident it will be done. Unfortunately, so doing will expend the last of my resources in Tar’naris; I likely will not be able to rescue any more of the enslaved unfortunates there. The drow city is in the grip of a pagan goddess. It is possibly the place where my influence is thinnest.”

Ravoud swallowed the lump in his throat. “I… I can never thank you enough, your Holiness. What have I done to deserve this favor?”

Justinian turned to face him, his expression calm, thoughtful. “Let me ask you a question in return, Captain. What do you think of my Holy Legion?”

Ravoud carefully removed his fingers from the glass of untouched brandy. “They are…very impressive, your Holiness. Very dramatic. Stylish.”

“Anyone could tell me that,” Justinian said with a faint smile. “I am asking you not as a casual observer, but as a military man.” When Ravoud hesitated, he added more gently, “I beg you to speak honestly, Captain. I can assure you that nothing you have to say will offend me.”

“Well,” Ravoud said slowly. “From a strictly military standpoint… I don’t see any use for them. At all. Almost no one fights with armor and bladed weapons anymore, and of those who do… Honestly, those men wouldn’t stand a chance against the Silver Legions. I just… Your Holiness, I assumed they were meant to be strictly ceremonial. You can’t send those men against any significant threat. They’d be slaughtered.”

He trailed off, afraid he’d gone too far, but the Archpope only smiled warmly. “You have the right of it, Captain. I fear I had to engage in distasteful maneuvering and expend a great deal of political capital to gain authorization for the Church to build a military force within the Empire’s borders. Making that force an obviously ceremonial token army with little practical value has been a necessary step in soothing the feathers that were ruffled in this process.”

Justinian folded his arms behind his back, his expression growing distant. “The world, alas, is not so blessedly simple as to let me carry on in such a fashion. The fate of your sister is an example of a persistent problem the Empire faces: all too often, the Emperor is constrained by politics and unable to act…or perhaps, simply lacks the will to do so. I would not presume to judge his heart; I can only analyze his actions. Then, more recently, events in Lor’naris have reaffirmed the concerns which prompted me to form the Holy Legion in the first place. The shadowy forces at work in that debacle prove the need for the Church to strike directly against evil when it arises. It is a capacity we must develop.”

“Are you… Your Holiness, have you managed to learn anything about the people who were trying to organize that uprising? The Army’s investigation hit an immediate wall.”

“Suffice it to say, Captain, that you will hear no more from the individuals responsible,” the Archpope said with a smile. “I can assure you of that personally. I do, you see, have some ability to act where needed. As these events prove, however, more direct and forceful action is often necessary. You may not have heard of it yet, but the Black Wreath is rising, the fae in the wild places are growing restless, and in all corners of the world are whispers that a great doom is coming. Where the Empire cannot or will not act, the Church must. And to that end… While those who would oppose us are calmed by my extremely pretty, entirely useless guards, I have a mind to put together a smaller but considerably more effective force to act on my behalf.” He paused, studying Ravoud thoughtfully. “I will need someone to lead it. Someone trained in modern military tactics, experienced in leading men… And, while loyal to our Empire, someone very personally aware that governments cannot always be counted on to act where action is necessary. The more I learn of you, Captain Ravoud, the more I begin to think I have found that man. I understand you have been offered the chance to resign your commission in the Imperial Army due to the recent events in Lor’naris. While this may have seemed a punishment to you at the time… Often, the gods have a greater plan for us.”

Ravoud barely waited for him to finish speaking. He practically lunged up from his chair, starting at the Archpope and nearly trembling with fervor as he replied.

“Your Holiness, I am your man. To the death.”

Justinian smiled kindly, reached out and squeezed his shoulder.

“I know.”


The Imperial Rail station in Tiraas never truly closed. Despite the end of standard running hours, there was often a need for various persons on Imperial or other urgent business to charter private caravans. One of these was just now departing a platform, laden with agents of Imperial Intelligence on some clandestine night mission. In the relatively quiet hours of the night, though the doors remained open and the lights on, the station was protected from loiterers, vagrants and vandals by a light but steady presence of soldiers.

By and large, they let people be. Various night owls wandered through the station on no particular business; it was also a popular spot for all sorts of assignations, being clean, well-lit and safe. By the very nature of the traits that made it attractive, the Rail station was not prone to hosting any gatherings that were illicit or illegal, so the soldiers patrolling its platforms rarely interfered with anyone who did not give them specific cause.

The guards certainly didn’t bother three men in Imperial Army uniforms, standing on a platform next to a station trolley loaded with an assortment of backpacks and small satchels, rather like the light luggage of maybe a dozen people or less. After the men had been there for well over an hour, though, just standing, one of the guards finally approached them.

“Evenin’, lads,” he greeted his fellow soldiers, finally getting close enough to note their faces. One looked amused, one furious, the third merely perplexed. “Need any help?”

“Brother,” said Rook with a grin, “you have no idea.”

“They can’t possibly have just forgotten us!” Moriarty burst out.

Finchley sighed heavily, turning to the mystified station guard. “Do you happen to know if there’s a telescroll office open this late?”

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5 -29

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Most people were automatically on their best behavior in the presence of the Silver Legions, whose by reputation didn’t embrace any kind of tomfoolery. Reporters, it seemed, were made of stiffer stuff—or less mentally balanced stuff, perhaps. The dozen notebook-wielding men milling around in the street tried to interrogate everyone they came across, with varying degrees of politeness. The residents of Lor’naris who had gathered to watch the show were happy to be interviewed, but were mostly left alone as the newspapermen quickly discovered they knew nothing. It was at the Legionnaires standing guard that they directed most of their energies, seeming to take the troops’ stoic refusal to respond—and increasing hints of irritation—that they were hiding something.

The vacant shop which had been appropriated by the Third as a makeshift command post now had a small platform erected in front of it, hastily constructed of planks laid over shipping crates. A Legionnaire stood at either end of this, as well as in a loose formation sectioning off the bit of street in front of the shop. They made no moves to impede anyone coming and going, simply making it clear by their presence that this patch of land was currently under their protection. The only other apparently noteworthy individuals present were a couple of soldiers in Imperial Army uniform, standing with the Lorisians waiting for the show to start, and a dwarf woman on the platform in the white robes of a priestess of Avei. The Imps were as willing to talk as the citizens, and as quick to reveal their ignorance. The Sister didn’t bother to refuse to answer questions; she had Legionnaires to shoo nosy reporters away. For all intents and purposes, she was in a kind of meditation, standing still and in silence, staring across the crowd with a calm smile.

Finally, late enough in the morning that several of those present had begun to think about slipping away for lunch, the door of the shop opened and a blonde man in the robes of a Bishop stepped forth, smoothly mounting the improvised platform. Immediately the gathered reporters brought up notebooks and pencils, fixing their eager attention on him.

“Gentlemen, thank you for joining us,” Darling said with a beatific smile. “I apologize for keeping you waiting, but I do promise that you will be glad to hear what you are about to hear, as will your editors. I mentioned this to each of you when inviting you to be present, but let me repeat: this will be a simple address. Questions will not be taken. And with that and no more ado, allow me to introduce to you the Hand of Avei.”

He stepped smoothly to the side, standing next to the priestess, over whom he towered. A stir went through the onlookers as the door opened again and out stepped a slender blonde figure in striking silver armor over a winter coat, battered sword hanging at her hip and her eagle-marked shield on her back. There was a smattering of applause from the residents of Lor’naris, but the reporters only stared hungrily.

She strode to the center of the platform and fell automatically into parade rest, feet braced and hands clasped behind her. For a moment, she panned her gaze around at the modest crowd, expression unreadable, then cleared her throat and began.

“Gentlemen, thank you for coming. My name is Trissiny Avelea.” A soft swell of murmurs and the frantic scratching of pencils followed the lack of a title given, but Trissiny pressed on. “I will come to the point: there has been a lot of uncertainty and many questions about events in this district in the last few days. I’ve been told there is a lot of general curiosity about me, as well. For the record… I don’t really consider myself that important. I’m here to serve, not to court attention. But some answers need to be given about events in Lor’naris.

“Briefly, there have been several abuses of power by members of the Imperial Army tasked with patrolling this district. I understand you’ve all been given many of these details already, so I won’t bore you; any further questions should be directed to the Army, which I am assured has the matter well in hand. The guilty parties have been apprehended and are awaiting justice, and no aspersions should be cast upon the character of the Army, nor of the regiment responsible for this part of the city. In fact, the officer in command of Barracks Four, Captain Nassir Ravoud, has done a great deal to help calm the tensions all this has caused. I myself have been a signatory to a letter of commendation to General Panissar on his performance, along with a member of the Narisian House Awarrion and the Hand of Omnu.”

This time, she did pause to let the muttering die down a bit, frowning vaguely as if gathering her thoughts. “These things…happen. Troubles come and go. I’ve played an…incidental part in all this, which I don’t think is important. What I asked you here to speak about is a matter that has been increasingly troubling me as I’ve come to know the people of Lor’naris.

“This is a district of outcasts. In this street live half-bloods of various mixtures, including, I am told, a handful of half-demons. Dwarves, elves, lizardfolk and gnomes reside in Lor’naris… As do drow. The drow are here in the greatest numbers, of course, and have become sort of iconic. What the residents of this street have done here is nothing short of amazing: in a mere decade, they have converted a slum to a clean, safe, productive district. At this point, they stay here because they have invested so much in it. This is their home, and everyone here has more than earned her or his place.”

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, her frown deepening. “But they came here for very different reasons, for the simple reason that they were not wanted anywhere else. That the Lorisians are mostly content to remain in this district does not change the fact that they would be heavily pressured to do so if they attempted to spread out through the city. Or the Empire. I consider this a significant problem.

“The Pantheon have long been known as the protectors of humanity. Humans do not enjoy the innate benefits many of our neighbors do. We haven’t the sturdiness of dwarves, the agility of the elves, or the long lifespans of either. We are not so hardy as lizardfolk, as strong for our size as gnomes… We don’t compare to dragons by any measure. What we have is the protection of our gods, and our…resourcefulness, our adaptability. If there’s a consistent strength of humanity throughout our history, it is our skill at making our way wherever we land, storing up skills and knowledge to pass on to the next generation, leaving our descendents stronger and better-equipped than those who’ve come before. Our strength, in short, is cumulative, and has been building for these eight thousand years. Finally, a tipping point has been reached, and passed. Humans are now the dominant force among mortal races by a wide margin. In becoming so, we’ve changed the very world around us.”

Trissiny glanced over at Bishop Darling. “It was recently pointed out to me that Rail lines and scrolltowers represent connection. The world is drawn closer together by our advances, and this, more than our new weapons and modern conveniences, has changed the way we live. The other races aren’t distantly-glimpsed figures of legend anymore. They are everywhere. They come forth to partake of what we’ve created, bringing their own ways and cultures, and there has been some pushback against them because of it. That reaction is quite understandable.

“However, I think it is a serious mistake.”

She let that sit for a moment, staring out over the crowd. “Right now, too many Imperial citizens think of the other races as the same distant oddities their ancestors did, which doesn’t work when these people now live next door, open shops to sell their traditional foods in human cities and play their music on street corners. They are here, and we need to figure out what to do about this. Accept and embrace the foreigners, or…out of some belief in human ‘purity’…attempt to expel them? In this, as in all things, my advice is to look to the gods for guidance.”

Trissiny swallowed, stiffened her shoulders and raised her chin. “I cannot speak for the other cults, of course, nor for the Universal Church. But I believe Avei has made her view clear by selecting a half-elf as her Hand.”

Instant pandemonium exploded. Reporters shouted questions, waving their hands frantically to get her attention, scribbling in their notebooks so vigorously that some were tearing pages. Trissiny stood firm and silent through the onslaught, drawing a long breath in slowly through her nose.

Bishop Darling stepped to the front of the platform, raising his hands and gently making soothing gestures at the crowd. “Please! Peace, everyone. Calm yourselves. Gentlemen, this is most unbecoming. You’re adults.” It took him several repetitions even to become audible over the hubbub, but eventually the gathered newsmen complied with generally ill grace. “I said we would not be taking questions. Now, kindly hear General Avelea out.”

Trissiny nodded to him in thanks as he moved back to his position. “I have been speaking about these matters with High Commander Rouvad; any further questions may be directed to the Temple of Avei after we’re done here. What I called you here for was to see what steps the Sisters of Avei are taking to adapt to the changing world we live in. My first day here in Lor’naris, I was taken to task—quite justifiably—by a woman who, despite our pledge to protect all women in need, was not served by the Sisterhood when she most needed help. We have, and have always had, dwarves, elves and gnomes among our ranks, and even a few in the Silver Legions. All, however, sought us out, with great effort and often, significant personal risk. Each non-human among every cult of the Pantheon represents an exceptional story. Not all, I am not proud to admit, have been accepted. And we have never made an effort to reach out to them.

“That, now, will change.” Trissiny nodded firmly, as if someone had questioned her. “I am hereby announcing the formation of a new arm of the cult of Avei: the Silver Mission. The building behind me will form its first outpost, and given the Mission’s purpose, it is perfect that it be here, in Lor’naris. This will not be a cloistered order like the Sisterhood, nor a heavily disciplined one like the Legions. Each outpost shall be administered by a small core of priestesses—in many cases, no more than one or two—and an equally small detachment of Legionnaires, if any. The Mission will be staffed by un-ordained volunteers. Its purpose shall be to serve the priorities of Avei in whatever community it inhabits; it shall be open to all, and welcoming to any who offer their aid. In short, the lay worshipers of Avei will be given support and the means to advocate their faith and do whatever good they might in the world, so long as they are willing to bring outsiders into the fold. Outposts of the Silver Mission will be placed, at least at first, in areas with high concentrations of foreigners, aliens and any considered ‘undesirable’ by human society at large. And,” she added, her brows lowering challengingly, “in the interests of accommodating all who are willing to serve, these outposts will be unconsecrated, so as to provide for the needs of demonbloods.”

All Darling’s hard work went up in smoke as the reporters again devolved into a question-shouting melee. However, they were silenced this time by Trissiny herself. Golden wings sprang forth from behind her, stretching to their full, awesome span above the crowd. Stunned silence fell as the visible presence of Avei loomed over them all.

“Justice is for everyone,” Trissiny declared, her voice booming across the street as if amplified. “Avei calls all who will support it to her side. All. No one who comes in good faith will be turned away.”

The wings faded; she blinked twice, as if rousing from a dream, then squared her shoulders again. “With me is Aeldren Yrrensdottir, the priestess who will oversee this first outpost of the Silver Mission. I will now turn the floor over to her; she can better explain the Sisterhood’s intentions here, and answer any questions you have.

“Thank you for coming, gentlemen. Walk in the light.”

Aeldren smoothly stepped forward as Trissiny backed away, then turned to duck back into the building, Darling right on her heels. A couple of reporters attempted to follow her and were politely but inexorably dissuaded by the Legionnaires.

Inside, she let out a breath and slumped backward against the wall. “Oh, goddess, I think I’m going to faint.”

“You did great, kid,” Darling said, amused. He glanced at the closed door, though which the voices of the crowd were still audible. “Seriously, that was a stellar performance. If you want to keep your mystique, though, we should keep moving. Won’t be long before those vultures find the rear entrance.”

She drew in a deep breath, then another, shuddering. “Why on earth is that so hard? I’ve been trained to face demons and warlocks and battle of any kind… Public speaking, though…”

He laughed. “Well, you may complain, but you’re a natural.”

“I’m a what?” she asked, aghast. “How can you say that? I’m just grateful I didn’t shake hard enough they could see.”

“Maybe,” he said, still smiling. “But you gave that speech from memory, without notes. You kept on point, didn’t ramble, and showed a nice turn of phrase.”

“You wrote it,” she grumbled.

“The bulk of it, yes, but you improvised quite a few lines, and improvised well.”

She groaned, dragging a shaking hand over her face.

“That’s a good thing,” Daring said gently. “It’s like you just said out there: the world is small and connected, now. You can’t solve every problem with your sword the way your forebears did. Get used to fighting with words, Trissiny. Those are the weapons of the future.”

“Never thought I’d miss the centaurs,” she muttered. “I know what to do with centaurs.”

“Hey, I’m just a telescroll away,” he said, patting her on the pauldron. “If you ever need advice, consider me at your disposal. Probably not for the rest of today, though; I’ve got an unexpected load of houseguests to attend to, along with continuing to untangle the snarl of Barracks Four and Lor’naris, on top of my usual run of being too busy to breathe.”

Trissiny nodded, took another deep breath, and straightened up, adjusting her sword belt and shield almost absently. “I…appreciate that. If it’s all right… Someday when I have more time to think about it, I may ask you about…Principia.”

He nodded, starting to move toward the back of the shop; she unconsciously fell into step alongside. “Of course. When you’re ready, I’ll tell you what I can.”

“You…do know her, then?”

“Not intimately, but yes.”

“What…in broad terms, I mean… What do you think about her?”

“I don’t like her,” he said frankly.

Trissiny turned to stare at him. Then, surprising herself, she burst out laughing.


 

“How’re the numbers looking?” Vandro asked, gazing down at the workmen replacing shattered fairy lamps in the garden. This particular balcony didn’t give him the best view of the grounds, but for that very reason it was more secure.

“Financially, this episode has been a dismal one,” said Wilberforce, studying a clipboard. He didn’t need it, nor the papers on it, having every relevant detail committed to memory, but he enjoyed his props. “Between damage to the estate and the resources funneled into the Om’ponole job, which has ended up yielding no revenue, it has been an unmitigated loss. Not more than we can bear, of course. Indications are that we shall not need to dip into the investment capital to recoup this over time. The widespread damage to the villa does, in fact, afford us the opportunity to make some upgrades, including to the security system.”

“That was already supposed to be beyond state of the art.”

“Yes, sir, when we installed it, six years ago. Advances have been made. In particular, it may now be possible to apply a life-force lock to the control runes that will prevent another event like that caused by Kheshiri.”

“Life-force lock? That’s witchcraft. You can’t work that into an arcane enchantment network.”

“According to a source in Calderaas, it is now possible. I will investigate this carefully before recommending we spend any money, of course.”

“Hm. Of course, that means anyone wanting to do what she did will have to secure my ass instead of the runic controls.” He grinned. “Heh…I like that. If they have to involve me, they can’t keep me from playin’ ’em. Look into it.”

“Consider it done, sir.”

“Good.” He sighed. “And in the future, no matter how clever I think I’m being at the time, I have a new rule: no more goddamn demons.”

“Yes, sir.”

Vandro half-turned to raise an eyebrow at him. “Go on, you can say it. An ‘I told you so’ here and there isn’t a violation of your contract.”

“That will not be necessary, sir, as you clearly recall that I did. In any case, barring further mishap, the financial loss from this venture should not increase. We appear to have reached the limit of the bills, and can begin laying plans to recoup.”

“Mm. Is that estimate including the bribes and whatnot needed to keep Trigger off Om’ponole’s shit list?”

“Indeed, sir, though that is proving more problematic than anticipated. I have sent overtures, making it clear that we commissioned the fireworks and taking full responsibility for the regrettable accident, but it appears there was pre-existing bad blood between the two. Hence Trigger’s willingness to participate in the first place. Also, Chief Om’ponole is not so abysmally stupid that he has failed to deduce your hand in the incursion on his estate. He seems inclined to be obstreperous.”

Vandro snorted. “Pompous dickhead. If he won’t take the carrot, apply the stick. I got into his estate once; I can get into his bedroom while he sleeps.”

“I shall so remind him if need be, sir.” He flipped a page on the clipboard. “Amanika has sent her compliments. Toss is, in her opinion, not long for the chapter’s leadership, following the events of last night and your masterful verbal destruction of his character.”

“See, Wilberforce? Nothing’s ever a total loss, if you look carefully enough!”

“As you say, sir. Amanika would previously have been a front-runner for the post once Toss is removed from it, though following the revelation of her involvement with you, her credibility is badly damaged. It will likely take years to recover, denying her this chance at the leadership.”

“Ah, well. It was a hell of an omelet; wish I could’ve picked the eggs more carefully.”

“Saduko-san is stable and expected to recover in good health, though the clerics say she will almost certainly lose the use of her voice.”

“Mm…” Vandro swirled his omnipresent cocktail, frowning into the distance. “…no, she won’t. Somewhere, there’s a healer who can fix that. Find them. Send out feelers to Tiraas, Svenheim, the Green Belt… Hell, Tar’naris. Who knows what mojo the darklings are brewing down there.”

“Yes, sir. That will be a considerable expense, of course. And Saduko-san was spying on you, possibly with the intent to sabotage your plans.”

“Yes, yes, for the Guild.” Vandro sipped the drink, not looking up from his intense perusal of the near distance. “In any war, Wilberforce, the greatest of all tactics is to turn the enemy’s soldiers into your own. Saduko’s heard my views on the Guild and its failings, and spy or no, I know my reasoning is sound and its presentation compelling. She was just paraded about like a puppet by the Guild and got a slit throat for her trouble; I will be the one to selflessly undo all that damage and make sure she gets her life back.” He chuckled sardonically. “She’s a smart girl; she’ll figure out where her best interests lie. They say you can’t buy loyalty like that; in my experience, that’s exactly how you get it.”

He froze, staring down at the knife which had appeared under his chin, attached to a hand reaching over his shoulder. “…why, hello, Shiri. You’re late. Punctuality not one of your—”

Vandro was cut off by a blue flash as the knife plunged toward his throat and rebounded off his shielding charm. In the next instant, she was yanked bodily away from him.

He turned leisurely in his chair, careful not to spill his drink. Kheshiri was now on the opposite side of the balcony, glaring; she darted forward again, to be repelled by a lightning-quick spear-hand strike from Wilberforce to her throat. The succubus staggered backward, gagging and clutching her neck.

“Jerry mentioned you didn’t recognize the Butler uniform,” Vandro said conversationally. “You’ve been in that bottle a long time, haven’t you, girl? Yeah, I guess the Service Society sprang up during the interim. No matter how clever you are, this just isn’t your world anymore. You don’t know how things work.”

Kheshiri gulped, grimacing in annoyance, and pulled a wand from behind her belt. In the next instant she dropped it with a gasp; no fewer than four small throwing knives were embedded in the pale skin of her arm, black ichor beginning to well up around them. Wilberforce calmly readjusted his sleeves, clearly preparing to produce more weapons if needed.

“You played a good game, and protected your own interests,” Vandro went on. “I respect that. No hard feelings on my part.”

The succubus beat her wings once, darting sideways and diving for Vandro from out of Wilberforce’s reach. The Butler, moving with impossible speed, flashed across the gap between them, seizing her by the uninjured arm. What followed was a blur of motion, culminating in Kheshiri being bodily tossed back across the balcony with an audible crack of breaking bone.

She didn’t cry out, just leaned backward against the railing in shock, both arms now dangling uselessly.

“Business is business, but business isn’t everything,” said Vandro, pausing to take a sip of his drink. “You do anything to harm my boy Jerry… Well, that I will take very personally. It’s a new world, Kheshiri; a smaller one, a wonderfully interconnected world. It ain’t nearly big enough for you to hide from me.”

He held her gaze, his own eyes boring relentlessly into hers. Kheshiri drew in a ragged breath, then slowly straightened up, rolling her shoulders. As they watched, the four knives slid out of her flesh, clattering to the floor; her other arm rippled, its sickeningly wrong angle straightening out. Moments later, she shook both arms, flexing her fingers.

“Thanks for the party, Alan,” she cooed, blowing him a kiss. “I had a great time.”

The demon turned, bounding nimbly onto the railing, and launched herself into space. There came an outcry from below as she was spotted by the workmen, followed by another when she vanished in midair.

“Did she just use shapeshifting to heal herself?”

“So it appears, sir.”

“I thought that was supposed to be impossible.”

“When last I read up on magical theory, it was deemed theoretically achievable, but too complex in practice to be done under normal circumstances.”

“Hnh. She’s a piece of work, that one.”

“Quite so, sir.”

Vandro stared thoughtfully after the departed succubus, idly swirling his drink. Behind him, Wilberforce discreetly cleared his throat.

“Given what we know of Kheshiri and her intentions, sir, it seems probable that she will act to make this matter, as you say, personal.”

“Personal?” Vandro leaned forward, shifting to hold his cocktail in both hands and glaring out over the railing. “Oh, we are well beyond that point, Wilberforce. I promised Kamari a job, a home and a life here. Thanks to her, all he got for his good faith in my service was an unkind death.” He heaved a deep, mournful sigh, shaking his head. “That man could mix a cocktail that’d make Izara herself cream her skirts. It’s just… It’s a senseless fucking loss to the world. Besides which, he was mine, or would have been.” Vandro stood, setting his glass down on the railing, and leaned on it with both hands. “And as you well know, Wilberforce, if there is one thing I absolutely cannot stomach, it’s a presumptuous whore messing with my things.”

“Quite so, sir,” the Butler said calmly. “Her efforts do seem calculated at securing Master Shook’s ear. It may prove challenging to separate them.”

“Nothing worth having is less than a challenge to get, Wilberforce. Right now, getting the estate back in shape and securing what’s left of our allies in need—Trigger, Saduko and Amanika—is your priority. But, time permitting, I have another task for you. Something more long-term.”

“I am, as always, at your disposal, Mr. Vandro.”

“This one is going to be difficult. And more than a little risky.”

“Indeed, sir, and I appreciate your willingness to accommodate my aversion to boredom.”

Vandro turned to look at the Butler over his shoulder, a wicked gleam in his eye. “I want you to start the process of arranging for me to have a sit-down with the Black Wreath. One of their bitches has slipped her leash and made a mess on my lawn; I intend to chain her up again. All I need’s the right kind of collar.”

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