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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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9 – 36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And did you ever follow that advice?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mary,” Joe said tersely, “that man—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a beat of silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hm,” Shook muttered, frowning at nothing.

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

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

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

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

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9 – 33

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She growled once, crouching to spring.

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

The panther lunged.


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then Shook raised his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A soft caw sounded on the air.

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

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

“Am I late?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“VOLLEY!” she roared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um,” Casey said. “We’re trapped.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They froze as a muted whirring noise sounded from above.

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

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

“No,” Farah whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

“Hell yes!” Merry crowed, grinning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

They apparently weren’t needed here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fascinating,” Ariel mused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Agreed,” said Trissiny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was quick, but the Kid was faster.

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9 – 29

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“And this is where we part ways,” said Grip, turning to grin at Squad One. “See you girls in a little bit.” The enforcer slipped silently into a side alley, her footsteps inaudible within seconds.

“Why that one again?” Merry wondered aloud.

“Good choice for this operation,” said Principia, starting forward again. “C’mon, forward march. Grip is a good intimidator; since we’re about to interrupt a bunch of citizens meeting at a privately owned warehouse, that may be a useful skill. If they aren’t as dumb as the ones in the carriage, they won’t attack us or do anything hostile, in which case the presence of scary Thieves’ Guild personnel will be important in getting them to turn themselves in. We can’t arrest people for talking about how much they hate dragons.”

“I really don’t have a good feeling about this,” said Casey. “Any part of it. Even if it all goes well, and disregarding that we’re basically hoping to get people to attack us, I don’t like using the Guild to lean on people like that.”

“And that is why Grip is leading the Eserite side of this,” Principia replied. “I don’t know who else the Guild sent, but she’s good at toeing the line. She won’t let any of them inflict any harm that’s not immediately necessary. Which will mean none; this won’t be more than a dozen people if our intel is correct, and if they do attack trained Legionnaires, so much the worse for them.”

“If our intel is correct,” Merry repeated dryly. “I like how you just say that, as if it’s a given.”

“Nothing’s a given,” Principia murmured. “Life is a sequence of bullshit surprises.”

“When we met this Grip before,” Ephanie commented, “you didn’t seem to know her that well, Sarge.”

“True,” Prin agreed. “Hence, I’ve been taking pains to get the gossip while I was out gathering resources for us. I know what I’m doing, ladies.”

“If I knew what you were doing half the time I think I’d feel a lot better,” Merry muttered.

It was barely past sunrise, and would have been dim even had Tiraas not been shrouded in heavy fog that morning. Fairy lamps were eerie floating witch-lights in the gloom, their supporting poles invisible; everything else was washed-out and obscured by the mist. It was quieter than usual for the hour, creating an impression that even sound was quashed by the oppressive fog, though in truth it was just a matter of people avoiding going out in it. Everyone who could get away with staying indoors this morning seemed to have jumped at the chance.

In short, it was a good morning for clandestine meetings, and for sneaking up on them.

Squad One was passing through a poorer district, tenements rising on all sides; up ahead, less than a block distant but not yet visible through the gloom, was the warehouse district in which the anti-dragon rendezvous was to take place. Grip and the other Thieves’ Guild enforcers would be assembling on roofs around the warehouse in question, preparing for the Legionnaires to make their entrance through the front.

Suddenly, Principia slammed to a halt, peering about in alarm.

“What is it?” Farah demanded. “Sarge? You okay?”

“Sorry about that,” a voice said cheerfully, and a human man in an offensively colorful suit stepped around a corner directly in front of them. He was carrying, of all things, a lute, heedless of the effect the damp air would have on its strings, and wore an absurd floppy hat trailing a long ostrich plume. Beneath his maroon coat and pants he wore a pink shirt, with a loosely-tied cravat of powder blue. “Okay, well, to be totally honest, not that sorry. I do so enjoy a spot of dramatic effect!”

“Who are you?” Ephanie demanded.

“Avelea, stand down,” Principia said curtly. “All of you.”

“Now, now, Prin, don’t agitate them,” the man admonished. “I assure you, I mean you no harm. In fact, I’ve come to help!”

“That,” she said, “may be the most horrible news I’ve ever heard.”

“Who is this guy?” Merry asked her in a low tone while he burst out laughing.

“Ah, haha, me?” The fellow grinned hugely, waggling his eyebrows beneath his absurd hat. “Just a simple bard—no one to be concerned with. Prin’s just being overcautious. Not that I blame her! Anyway, though, time’s a-wasting, and as much as I love pausing to indulge in a bit of banter, you have an appointment to keep.”

“Yeah,” said Casey, “and you’re kind of standing right in the way of it.”

“Oh, but that’s not the one I meant,” the bard said merrily. “Now, I normally don’t give out spoilers, but everything is about timing. What’s happening her doesn’t quite reflect the synchronicity evident in other parts of—well, that’s neither here nor there, quite literally.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Merry exclaimed.

“Lang,” Principia said sharply, “respect!”

“Now, now, she has a fair point,” he said, waggling a finger at the elf. “Here is is, ladies. If you continue on with your mission, well… Things will proceed as they have been. You’ll be one step closer to your goal—but only one step. How would you like it if I could get you to the very end of that ladder? Right now, today, this morning?”

“We’re listening,” Principia said warily.

“Good,” the bard said, grinning broadly. “It may interest you to know that dear Saduko is not…trusted. That fact makes her very useful to her various employers; letting her overhear things is an easy way to get information into the hands of her other contacts. For example, the meeting you are now going to interrupt is a diversion. The real event is on the other side of the city. If you proceed to the south gate, you will find the way…suspiciously clear. Follow the path marked by a lack of the soldiers who should be defending the gate, and you’ll come to the organizers of this little movement. Who knows, you may be able to apprehend them! Probably not, but just disrupting their meeting should be enough to move yourselves out of the quagmire of other people’s agendas in which you are currently stuck.”

“Who are you?” Farah asked, frowning. “Have I seen you somewhere before?”

“You probably have, Farah my dear,” he said with a kind smile. “Not in person, but there are pictures. Anyway! That’s all I’ve got for you, ladies. It’s already more than I’m in the habit of giving most people, but what can I say? A great doom is coming, and it doesn’t suit my interests to have everybody bogged down in pointless intrigue. The rest is up to you.”

“Why are you doing this?” Principia asked tersely.

The bard grinned, and winked. “Oh, Prin. Dear, clever little Prin. Why do I do anything? Because when we’re all looking back on this, it’ll make a hell of a story.”

And then he was gone. There was no pop of disturbed air, no swelling of shadows, no arcane flash. Where the man had stood, suddenly, there was nothing but fog.

“What the hell?” Merry demanded. “Sarge? Who was that? What’s going on?”

Principia drew a deep breath. “Shit. Fuck. Veth’na alaue. It’s never good when they start talking to you directly… Oh, hell, I’m more than half tempted to just ignore that whole thing and go on as we were…”

“Sergeant Locke,” Merry said shrilly, “either you are going to start making sense or—”

“His aura,” Principia interrupted, “was…enormous. The size of the city, almost. It was like standing next to the sun.”

“You can see auras?” Ephanie asked warily.

“I’m an elf,” Principia said acidly. “I am an aura. We’re as much magical as biological. Yes, I can tell when I’m next to one of that size. And it wasn’t there until a second before he appeared. Now it’s just…gone. There’s really only one kind of being that can do that.”

Farah emitted a small squeak; everyone turned to look at her. She swallowed heavily.

“I—I just remembered where I’ve seen him. That guy. In…illustrations, like he said. He—he looked like…” She swallowed again. “Like how Vesk is depicted.”

There was a long moment of silence. The fog swirled gently around them.

“Why us?” Merry asked plaintively. “Why is it always us?”

“Avelea,” Principia said, turning to Ephanie, “what do the regulations concerning divine intervention say?”

Ephanie blinked her eyes twice as if to clear her vision before answering slowly. “If…as long as the deity in question is not opposed to Avei’s aims, and nor is the request they make, a Pantheon god’s orders supersede anyone else’s, excepting potentially that of the High Commander or a Hand of Avei, depending on the circumstances.”

Principia drew in a breath and let it out in a huff. “Szaravid, you know your lore. Does Vesk have a reputation for leading people into trouble?”

“Only people who deserve it,” Farah said weakly. “When he gives advice to heroes in the stories, it’s always good advice. That’s…rare, though. Even in myth. Really, really rare. He hardly ever appears to anyone who’s not a bard.”

“Apropos of nothing,” said Casey, “the last Vesker we met was involved in trying to dupe us…”

“She was as much a dupe as we were,” said Principia. “All right. Well, he wasn’t making a request, per se, but I think I can defend this to an officer if challenged.”

“Are we really going to…” Merry trailed off at Principia’s nod. “Bugger. Never mind the officers; we’d be running off on the Guild. They’re not forgiving types, are they?”

“I will worry about that,” Principia said grimly. “He said going to the south gate would skip us ahead in this. After the unending and ridiculous bullshit this whole thing has been, ladies, I find I quite like the sound of that. About face and march.”


 

Dawn, as always, came late to Veilgrad. The city was awake and alive well before sunrise appeared above the towering mountains that walled off the eastern horizon, its streets lit by a mixture of fairy lamps and firelight that reflected its blend of modern and classic Shaathist sensibilities.

The courtyard of the old trading guild hall which the Army had taken over was mostly in shadow, the lights being positioned primarily to illuminate the bays surrounding it. There were properly enclosed offices, but for the most part the sprawling structure was an open-air market, its roofless central area surrounded by roofed but unwalled spaces, with the actual building along the side opposite its broad gates. Those opened onto one of Veilgrad’s central squares, providing a lovely view of the fountain in the center and the cathedral beyond.

“Yes, it’s less secure than the barracks,” Major Razsha was saying in response to Gabriel’s question, “but security isn’t our primary concern, here. The gate guards are adequate to keep the public out. For purposes of this operation, the main attractions of the old trading hall are its central location in the city and its direct access to the catacombs.”

“I see,” Gabriel said, panning his stare around at the bay in which the Army had set up. Others had been used as staging areas for the search teams being dispatched, but all of those had gone underground an hour ago, thankfully taking the Huntsmen with them. The Shaathists, though eager to be helpful, were also eager to be boastful and several had made a point of trying to antagonize Trissiny. Now, the students and Razsha’s strike team, along with Adjavegh and the mages coordinating with the search teams, were clustered in the roofed bay closest to the catacombs access. Waiting.

Gabriel heaved a sigh and resumed pacing back and forth, Razsha watching him with open amusement. “This is insufferable.”

“This is an actual military operation,” Trissiny said calmly. She had been standing by a pillar next to the courtyard for nearly an hour, radiating patience. “You guys haven’t actually been along on any of those until now; they involve a lot of tedium. There is a reason armies run according to regulations, you know. Patience and enduring long waits are necessary skills in the army. More soldiers are killed by carelessness, disease, and accidents than battle. By far.”

“It’s not like you’ve ever been in an actual war,” Gabriel said, giving her an annoyed glance as he passed.

“Any contest of wills and powers is war,” Trissiny said quietly. He sighed and altered his trajectory to pace on the other side of the bay. Colonel Adjavegh glanced between him and Trissiny expressionlessly before returning his attention to the battlemage overseeing the large rack of runic charms being used to keep in contact with the search teams.

“Hey, Fross?” Trissiny said, still in a soft voice. The pixie had been making a slow circuit of the rafters, and now fluttered over.

“What’s up?”

“How are talking swords made?”

Razsha, standing at the other side of the opening into the courtyard with the rest of her strike team, glanced over but did not move. The other students began drifting closer.

“Ah,” said Fross. “Can I assume you’ve been pondering this since yesterday?”

“I probably should have brought it up at the manor last night,” Trissiny murmured, glancing at Gabriel, who seemed lost in thought. “But, well… The downtime here…”

“Yeah, I getcha.” Fross emitted a descending series of chimes like a sigh. “Well, of course, modern golems operate on logic controllers—their intelligences are assembled, step by step. Which is why they have very simple minds: an actual intelligence is too complex to just build. Honestly, Crystal is probably the most advanced golem intelligence in the world, and I have no idea how Professor Tellwyrn made her. And even she’s got glitches and giveaways that betray her nature. And then…there’s the older method, that was used to make things like Ariel.”

“Go on,” Trissiny urged when the pixie paused for thought.

“Well, Ariel’s much more realistic, y’know? She conversese just like a real person. It takes some long-term exposure to figure out the ways in which she’s incomplete. Her personality is totally static—she can’t adapt or change her behavior at all. Also, she doesn’t really have any compassion or the ability to relate emotionally to other beings. That’s standard for things made in that method. There are some friendlier ones, but that’s very hard to do. It’s because… A magical intelligence made that way is an imperfect copy of a soul.”

“A soul?” Teal asked, leaning forward. The rest of the group had wandered over by now, their attention on the pixie.

Fross bobbed up and down in affirmation. “Yeah. To do that… Well, the procedure is seriously banned, so I was only able to look up the broad strokes. Gabe and I researched this when Ariel first started talking to us, you see. Um… Basically, you have to release a soul from its mortal body and capture a sort of image of it in the instant between its release and it departing this plane. You can’t do it while it’s on another plane, or part of a living person.”

“By release,” Toby said, “you mean…”

“You know what she means,” Trissiny said flatly. “You have to kill someone. Right?”

“Right,” Fross chimed, her glow dimming slightly. “And…that’s not the worst part. This process… Well, it’s incredibly hard to time that exactly right, and even if you do it perfectly, there’s a random element. To duplicate a soul’s function like that… Um. Every successful talking sword probably represents multiple attempts.”

They digested that in silence, staring at the black sword hanging from Gabriel’s belt. He glanced up at them and stopped his pacing, frowning.

“What? Do I have something on my face?”

“Contact, team nine,” the battlemage suddenly said crisply in response to a rhythmic flickering of one of the runes on the control apparatus. A moment later, others began flickering. “Contact, team six…team seven… Teams four, eight and—sir, all teams are reporting enemy contact!”

Adjavegh narrowed his eyes at the display. “This is not a coincidence. How close together are the teams?”

“Triangulating,” she said, fingers flickering across the runes lining the rim of the control rack. “…minimum distance between any two teams is two hundred yards. Team four reporting overwhelming numbers. Team six reporting a severe threat…”

“Damn it,” Adjavegh hissed. Razsha stepped over to stand at his shoulder. “They were ready for us. Lieutenant, signal a retreat. Get them back here!”

“Yes, sir!” the mage said, rhythmically tapping the control rune that made its counterparts in the search team’s hands flicker a coded message.

“That’ll draw whatever’s attacked them back here,” Razsha pointed out.

“We have firepower concentrated here,” Adjavegh replied, glancing at her team and the students, who had now pressed forward to stare at the suddenly flashing runes on the control board. “If it chases them that far, we will deal with it. If any of the teams signal distress, we’ll send forces down to assist, though it may be hard to navigate to them. Lieutenant, status?”

“All teams except two and six have acknowledged—team two has just—wait. All teams acknowledge and confirm retreat order. They’re on the way back, sir.” She paused momentarily, eyes flicking back and forth at the flashing lights. “None are signaling for reinforcements. Team six just downgraded their threat assessment. Team four repeating overwhelming numbers, but not asking for help.”

“Massed skeletons,” Razsha said. “Like two of the cults we took out up here. What kinds of threats are they facing, Lieutenant?”

“Unknown, ma’am, the codes are not that precise. No teams have used the prearranged signal for chaos effects. Team four just downgraded their threat assessment, persistent but falling off—teams three and eight have signaled no further pursuit.”

“Damn it,” Adjavegh repeated. “Either they knew we were coming, or they’ve got an enormous force blocking off the catacombs below a certain level.”

“Given the complexity of the tunnel system, sir, likely the former,” said Timms.

“Agreed. Shift our remaining personnel to cover the entrance, and put the healers on alert for—”

He broke off as a bell began to toll over the city. A moment later it was followed by another from a different direction, and then a third.

“Oh, hell,” Razsha whispered.

“Major!” the Colonel barked. “Get your team out there, see what that is and put a stop to it.”

“Sir!” She saluted even as the other three members of her team sprinted to her side. With a crackled and a blue arcane flash, they vanished.

“What’s happening?” Juniper demanded.

“Those are alarm bells,” said Trissiny, even as a fourth one began chiming. “Some disaster is unfolding in the city, at multiple points. Right as our search teams came under coordinated attack in the catacombs.”

“Should we move out?” Toby asked. “If we can help…”

“Not yet,” Adjavegh snapped. “You! Demon and pixie, get aloft, see if you can spot what’s happening. Report back here, though, don’t rush off to interfere!”

Fross immediately zipped out from under the roof and fluttered skyward, followed a moment later by Teal dashing into the courtyard. She burst alight with hellfire as soon as she was in the open, and then shot straight up.

“The Colonel’s right, we need intel before moving,” Trissiny said tersely. “This could be a ploy to divide our forces.”

Before anyone could respond, shouts and the crack of lightning bolts sounded from the office complex just beyond their improvised headquarters. Everyone was moving in seconds.

Trissiny and Gabriel were first into the office where lay the trapdoor access to the catacombs, watched over by four soldiers. All four were firing their staves non-stop into the morass of bones pouring out of the opening, to little effect. Skeletons surged out like spiders, clawing and clambering over each other in their haste to escape the tunnels. The bones were mostly old, many coming apart from the simple effort of pushing up through their own numbers; many more were blasted to charred fragments by lightning bolts. And still, they kept coming, their sheer numbers pushing into the room through the onslaught. In only seconds, piles of bone fragments began to form around the trapdoor, drifting higher and doing nothing to inhibit the skeletons continuing to crawl over them.

Gabriel shouted something, the words lost amid the screams, blasts, and the dry clatter of bone upon bone; he pointed at the hole with his wand, which swelled in his hand into a wicked-looking scythe. Immediately, every skeleton in the throng collapsed into disconnected fragments. Seconds later, the soldiers ceased their fire, staring at the hole. Pieces of bone poured downward with a relentless clatter, the drifts of now-lifeless bones moving under no force but gravity.

“Valkyries,” Gabriel said into the sudden quiet. “Like I said, that kind of undead is simple. I’ve got nine here; they all went down the tunnels to help the search teams. That means we’re on our own if that happens again,” he added, turning back to face the others.

“Good man,” said Colonel Adjavegh from the door behind them. He was carrying a stave, currently leveled at the hole, but had not fired. “Timms! Get this mess cleared out; this is our people’s exit from those tunnels. We will not sacrifice this position.”

“Getting us to do so was the obvious purpose of that attack,” said Trissiny.

Fross zipped into the room, already chattering as she arrived. “Sir! Colonel! Everybody! We’ve got fires at four places in the city, a lot more people seem to be panicking in multiple areas for reasons I couldn’t see from that altitude, I really suggest getting Vadrieny down out of the air ‘cos I think she’s scaring people even more, and there’s five Shadow Hunters at the gate to the courtyard being stopped by your soldiers asking for Trissiny.”

“Come on!” Trissiny barked, turning and pushing back through the others out of the office. The group moved with her, streaming toward the courtyard, even as Adjavegh ordered Fross to find Vadrieny and get her back down.

They skidded to a halt outside as, with a sharp pop, a spinning wheel materialized out of midair, dropping half a foot to stand in the middle of the opening to the courtyard. It rocked for a second before settling.

Everyone stared at the perfectly mundane, apparently harmless object.

“Okay, I know I say this a lot,” said Ruda, gesturing at the wheel, “but really, now. What the fuck?”

“I don’t sense anything dangerous from that,” Trissiny said, frowning. A silver bubbled formed around the spinning wheel. “Oh. Good idea, Shaeine.”

“Thank you,” the drow replied as everyone stepped carefully around the shielded appliance.

“Let them through!” Trissiny barked at the soldiers in the front, striding toward the front gates. “Raichlin! What’s happening!”

“General Avelea,” the bearded hunter said in obvious relief. “Trouble is what’s happening. We’ve got undead cropping up all over the city. Almost every cemetery and tomb—it’s bad.”

“Shit,” said Gabriel. “All right, where is it worst? I just sent my valkyries into the catacombs…”

“That probably is where it’s worst, but that’s not why I came,” Raichlin said urgently. “We have more trouble than that. There are a lot of tombs and graveyards in the foothills around the city; those started acting up first, well before the cemeteries in the city proper. They’re also spewing skeletons and zombies, but none of them are getting close to the walls.”

“What?” Toby exclaimed. “Why not?”

“Because,” the hunter said grimly, “they are being beaten back by demons. There are warlocks in gray robes at multiple sites, spawning waves of katzils and khankredahgs. They are doing a very good job of keeping the undead in check, but there are other problems. Objects, people and skeletons have started teleporting around apparently at random.”

“Omnu’s breath,” Gabriel said in horror. “If the warlocks are opening multiple dimensional rifts in proximity to a known chaos effect…”

“And this,” Trissiny snarled, “is why you don’t let the Black Wreath help!”

“That has to be dealt with,” Adjavegh barked, striding toward them just as Vadrieny dropped to the pavement nearby, followed a moment later by Fross. “We can’t establish any kind of secure perimeter with that going on. There’s no way to get the civilians into safe areas if nothing’s going to stay put! Fross, find Razsha’s team and brief her—I want her back here immediately. Securing this space is now priority one.”

“Yessir!” the pixie chimed, shooting back aloft.

“You—Raichlin, yes? Can you deal with the warlocks?”

“My people are trying to keep the werewolves from getting into the city,” he said. “What you see here is all I’ve got left. The weres are agitated, too—and transformed even though it’s not night, which is making it worse. If one of them randomly teleports into the walls…”

“This is a catastrophe,” Timms whispered.

“Stay frosty, corporal,” Adjavegh snapped. “Someone has to shut down those warlocks. How many sites are active, Raichlin?”

“At least half a dozen.”

“Then we’ll have to divide forces to deal with them all…” The Colonel drew in a deep breath and let it out through his teeth, his eyes narrowed in concentration.

“We need to send the paladins,” said Ruda. Everyone turned to stare at her. “Think about it—they’re chaos-resistant, not to mention the best choice to stop warlocks, and Trissiny’s horse is big enough to carry all three, so they can move fast. Drop Toby and Gabe at two sites and proceed to the next. Raichlin’s people can guide them; split three ways you can shut ’em down faster.”

“We can keep up with a horse,” Raichlin agreed, nodding. “Even a divine one. For a while, at least.”

“The Wreath will listen to me,” said Vadrieny, “and I can reach them faster…”

“Yeah, but they’re trying to get to you,” said Ruda. “After this bullshit, I think giving the Wreath anything they want is a bad idea. You’ll be needed here in case we have another undead outbreak. You, Juniper and Fross have offensive power, Shaeine can provide shields and healing, and my sword’ll be necessary if a chaos effect happens here.”

“Good,” Adjavegh said crisply. “I like it. Get it done. Timms, signal the barracks to enact protocol… Oh, damn it, which is the one that orders civilians to gather here and in the cathedral?”

“On it, sir,” Timms said, whirling and dashing back toward the battlemage still manning the runic signal array.

“It’s a plan, then,” said Trissiny, vaulting into Arjen’s saddle and holding out a hand to Toby. “No time to waste.”

The sun finally peeked over the mountains, beaming down upon a city in the grip of chaos.


 

Joe almost didn’t want to stop running, so exuberant was the experience of dashing along under the influence of Raea’s blessing. He covered over a dozen yards in each bound, and his feet placed themselves precisely on secure footholds on the rocky upper plane of the Badlands. Was this what it was like to be an elf all the time? If anything, the precise data his senses constantly fed him was a little disorienting, leaping along at these speeds, but he quickly moved past that and into the sheer joy of the exercise. It must have been even better for the others; even McGraw and Billie were keeping up without effort, the gnome with many a shrieking laugh of pure delight.

Dawn had just come when he finally skidded to a stop on a flat stretch of stony ground, kicking up a spray of dust; the others alit beside him, Billie pinwheeling her arms frantically and nearly pitching forward into the cracked ground.

The enormous panther arrived a second later; the other elves had all peeled away as they ran, now doubtless taking up positions around the town.

“Be still a moment,” Raea said, again in her bipedal form. “I need to cancel that blessing on you, and it’s best if you aren’t moving around. Otherwise you may find yourself quite fatigued by the experience. Give me a moment to concentrate.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Joe said, already regretting the loss of the effect—but she was right, there was no way they’d be able to fight like that. He had already discovered that only his feet were enhanced, along with the instincts to control them properly. Actually using his wands while bouncing about like a jackrabbit would have been prohibitively challenging even for him.

While Raea closed her eyes and whispered to herself, he studied Risk. The town was tiny, a bare dozen dusty little stone and adobe buildings clustered around a well. He detected not a twitch of movement.

“Is this the right place?” Weaver asked, scratching beneath his hat.

“Yes,” Raea said curtly, opening her eyes. “You may move again. And yes, they are present—in that largest building, there, just off the central square. My scouts have been in place since sunrise, watching. The dwarves have all been sent away.” She turned her head to face McGraw. “All to the same mining tunnel, unlike their previous pattern. It appears Khadizroth knows we are coming, and wanted them out of harm’s way.”

“Mm,” the old wizard grunted, leaning on his staff with both hands as he studied the town. “I trust you’ve got your folk takin’ care of that as we speak?”

“Of course.”

“Here, now,” Joe said worriedly. “Not to sound soft-hearted, but those dwarves are just doin’ a job. In fact, they were willin’ to leave their homes and risk their lives for the purpose of takin’ Belosiphon’s skull out of commission. Them, at least, we oughtta handle respectfully.”

“Who’s we?” Weaver snorted.

“That is being taken into consideration, Joseph,” Raea said with a little smile. “Dwarves are slow, absurdly strong and incredibly durable, at least from an elf’s perspective. Incapacitating them harmlessly is, if anything, easier than killing them. Meanwhile, we should lay plans while my people are engaged dealing with the miners.”

“No,” McGraw said softly, still staring at the town through narrowed eyes.

“No?” Raea arched an eyebrow.

“No, that’s…what we would do. Khadizroth knows us; he’s fought us, knows our strengths. He’ll be expecting us to come in careful-like, position ourselves an’ try to take out his allies one by one.”

“Yeah,” Weaver said in exasperation, “because that’s the only sensible thing to do here!”

“Wait,” said Joe, “I think I see what he means. Khadizroth’s strength here isn’t just his power—remember what he was doin’ with the Cobalt Dawn? He’s a planner. An’ we know he goaded us out here deliberately, knowin’ how we’d react. So…how would we not react?”

“Hm.” Weaver frowned deeply, then just as suddenly smiled. “Well. I guess the thing we’d be least likely to do is charge in, wands blazing, with no plan.”

“I think not doing that would be an excellent idea,” Raea said sharply.

“Hey, Fallowstone,” Weaver said, ignoring her. “What’s the biggest, explodiest, most ridiculous thing you’ve got in those pockets?”

“Aw, Damian,” Billie said with a huge grin, already pulling lengths of metal out of her pouches. “Just when I think I’ve got a handle on you, y’have to go an’ say somethin’ that makes me all tingly.”

“Ugh. Why do you always have to make it weird?”


 

“That’s them, all right,” the Jackal said, staring out the window of Khadizroth’s office and fingering the long scar running across his right ear. True to the dragon’s word, it had been successfully reattached, but not without leaving a livid mark. “No sign of Raea’s little rats, it’s just the adventurers. The gnome’s doing something…”

“Are they just gonna stand there all morning?” Shook growled, pacing back and forth.

“You know, my boy, you’ve been getting positively antsy since your demon squeeze was sent off on assignment,” the Jackal said, turning to leer at him. “I’m concerned it’ll affect your performance. Wanna step around the corner and work off some of that steam? I mean, I don’t have nearly as impressive a pair of tits, but—”

“Enough,” Khadizroth said firmly as Shook rounded on the elf, clenching his fists. “This is not the time to be sniping at one another. For the moment, things are going well; our foes received our invitation and responded just as planned. This is a critical moment, my friends. They will either step into the noose, or exhibit more forethought than I anticipated.”

“Oh, I hope it’s the second one,” the Jackal whispered, turning back to the window. “It’s not nearly as satisfying to kill a trapped rabbit.”

“In other circumstances, I’d be inclined to agree,” said Shook. “Give me a straight-up, honest fight over this sneaking around any day. But against these guys…”

“They have considerably more strength than honor,” Vannae agreed quietly.

A blue light flashed from the plains outside the town. All four of them stood, stepping over to the window to stare.

It looked like a star ascending skyward; the blossom of pale blue fire burned brightly enough to be clearly visible, even against the morning sky. It soared upward to nearly two hundred feet, and suddenly erupted. Or, more accurately, shattered, dispersing into dozens of blazing points of light.

“The hell is this?” Shook marveled. “They’re putting on a fireworks display?”

“Probably signaling the tribesmen,” said the Jackal with a grin. “Looks like we can expect company momentarily!”

“Ah,” said Khadizroth in a tone of chagrin. “I might have known it wouldn’t be so easy. Gentlemen, if you would kindly cluster a little closer together?”

“Why?” Shook demanded, turning to frown at him. “What’s up?”

“When in an intractable situation,” said the dragon, “sometimes one’s best bet is to simply…shake up the playing field. Unfortunately, our guests seem to have come to the same conclusion. Closer, please. Now.”

“Wait,” said Vannae. “Are those lights getting…bigger?”

“Now!” Khadizroth said urgently, spreading his arms as if to embrace them. A whirling sphere of air formed in the office, sheathing the men inside a transparent bubble of wind, and not a moment too soon.

More than twenty burning arcane charges slammed into the town at nearly the speed of sound, reducing half of Risk to rubble in seconds.

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“Why is it,” demanded the Colonel, “that every time I see you kids, some fresh damn havoc is unfolding?”

“Correlation is not causation,” said Fross, “just for the record.”

“We are bringing you valuable intelligence,” Trissiny said sharply. “It’s not as if we put cultists in the tunnels.”

“Yes, fine, you’re right,” Adjavegh replied. He leaned back in his chair with a heavy sigh. “I do appreciate that. Interesting to finally meet all of you, too.”

“This may very well be exactly the break we need,” Major Razsha said, frowning pensively. “The catacombs, hm. Naturally, we’ve done sweeps of them, but the tunnel systems are plenty large enough to hide in, if somebody were really determined to do so.”

“We’ve not seen any indication we’re dealing with a foe who has that kind of capability,” Adjavegh said, scowling. “At least until very recently. Anyone who could launch a raid on this barracks could evade our admittedly cursory search of the catacombs. And on the subject of which, it seems to me the most likely culprits of that are the Black Wreath, since they seem to be active in the city and admittedly launched an operation against us.”

“I agree,” said Trissiny.

“I’m not sure I do,” Razsha mused. “That Wreath agent’s story is remarkably unconvincing. An organization like that made an admitted attempt on the barracks, and claim they were driven off by chaos cultists? It doesn’t add up.”

“One of us must be getting old, Major,” Adjavegh said sardonically. “You seem to be implying that the Wreath must be innocent because they are obviously lying.”

“I am implying that they may be innocent because their story appears to be a lie. The Wreath are deceivers, and very good ones. If they wanted to tell us a story, it would be a believable and compelling one. I’m not proposing to trust them, obviously… But they do have reason to defer to Vadrieny—and her host—and if they’re as much in the dark as we, it would explain why they don’t have a ready answer to who actually attacked the barracks.”

“Unless that’s what they want us to think,” said Gabriel. “Sorry, Teal—I’ve not dealt with the Wreath, to my knowledge, but I’ve had one good brush with an opportunistic warlock. They’re capable of anything.”

“If they know that we know that they know…” Shaeine shook her head. “That path is a spiral into deeper and deeper confusion. I concur with the Major’s reasoning; the Wreath would be able to point us in the direction they chose, rather than admitting weakness and a lack of information.”

“Hmph,” Colonel Adjavegh muttered. “If this is true, it explains much. The chaos cults have been popping up regularly, and have been strangely consistent in their methodology. If they are all part of the same cult… And operating from the catacombs would account for how they’ve avoided us.”

“It could also explain the apparently greater capability of these chaos agents,” Razsha added. “None of the necromancers we’ve seen so far could do more than raise skeletons. These apparently had an elaborate necromantic construct, and are operating at a higher level of sophistication. They could have been sending up their most erratic offshoots as a distraction while building toward something bigger. Something like attacking the Army.”

A brief silence fell while they all considered this. The meeting was an unbalanced reflection of the three paladins’ earlier session in this office: Adjavegh behind his desk, Corporal Timms discreetly at his shoulder and Razsha standing off to the side. The full group of students made for a crowded space, however, and the rest of Razsha’s strike team was not present this time.

“About those weapons,” Toby began.

“That is classified,” Adjavegh snapped, “and that is all that will be said on the matter.” Major Razsha raised an eyebrow, but offered no comment as the Colonel continued. “Obviously, our next step must be a much more thorough search of the catacombs. Timms, start drawing up shift assignments. I want a sweep-and-harry pattern; if we start at the top and push down, blocking every path out, they’ll have nowhere to run. We’ll find them if they’re down there.”

“Sir,” said Timms, “that isn’t possible.”

“Excuse me?” the Colonel said dangerously, turning to glare at her.

“We simply do not have the manpower, sir,” she said. “Even if all the wounded from the attack were cleared for duty, we wouldn’t. The catacomb system is far too large and complicated, and even we don’t have comprehensive maps. We don’t know where all the exits are, but there are a good many into private residences and businesses.”

“There’s another matter,” said Razsha. “If this is indeed the source of our troubles, it stands to reason the chaos rift is down there somewhere. Going into that… Our soldiers are trained to fight with staves, which are magical. Firing them too close to a chaos rift could be disastrous.”

Trissiny coughed discreetly. “Colonel, the Third Silver Legion is stationed in Tiraas; I can have them here by Rail tomorrow. That would considerably bolster your forces, and Legionnaires are trained for hand-to-hand engagements without magical weapons.”

“I appreciate that, Avelea,” Adjavegh said, frowning into space, “but I’ll have to consider it a last resort. Marching a Silver Legion into Veilgrad would signal something serious is afoot at the very least—it’ll rile the populace and send our quarry deeper into hiding. There’s enough Shaathist sympathy in this city that it may very well cause us additional trouble. Omnu’s breath, Timms, stop that throat-clearing! If you have an idea, spit it out.”

“Yes, sir,” the corporal said. “The local Huntsmen of Shaath have numbers and are experienced fighters with non-magical weapons, both hand-to-hand and at range. They are also likely to be more familiar with the catacomb system than any of our personnel, being local.”

“Shaathist weapons have elemental blessings,” said Toby. “Fae and divine magic, both. Could be risky, going up against chaos.”

“Their weapons can be switched out for non-magical ones,” Razsha mused. “That’d be a hard sell, but probably the only difficult part of involving them. Huntsmen love chasing difficult prey.”

“If we coordinate with the lodge,” said Timms, “and approach this as a seek-and-capture operation, I think it has a much better chance of succeeding, sir.”

“Very well,” Adjavegh said with a sigh. “Contact the Master and brief him. Politely; I do not need that strutting rooster adding to my headaches.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now, as for these constructs,” the Colonel continued. “I gather we can expect more. Arquin, can’t you do anything about undead?”

“Not that kind,” said Gabriel, shaking his head. “That was… Well, basically a golem made from body parts. Most of the simpler kinds of necromancy work by establishing a link between the body and the spirit, either of its original soul or another. That can be severed instantly. If they come at us with zombies, skeletons…no problem.”

“But the bigger things you can’t do anything about,” Adjavegh said sarcastically. “How inconvenient.”

“I can do plenty about them, Colonel,” Gabriel retorted. “Can’t turn them off as easy as flipping a switch, but anything breaks if you blast it hard enough.” Ruda chuckled.

“We should consider the possibility of meeting stiffer resistance down there,” said Razsha. “I recommend holding our high-value assets in reserve and using signal runes to enable the search teams to call for help. Between my strike team and the students, we have some very heavy-hitters on hand. Shame to waste them wandering around in random tunnels.”

“I agree with that, as far as it goes,” said Adjavegh, “but all of these assets are magical, which brings us right back to the chaos problem.”

“Our anti-chaos assets include one mithril rapier and three paladins,” said Ariel. “Mithril will not interfere with chaos directly, but any misfired spells caused by it are still magical and can still be neutralized by the metal.”

“Who is that talking?” Adjavegh demanded, sitting bolt upright and glaring around.

“This is Ariel,” Gabriel explained, drawing the sword and holding it up. “She’s a…kind of magical assistant. A little difficult, but it’s wise to listen to her advice.”

Adjavegh’s glare deepened. “Boy, do you know how talking swords are made?”

“I didn’t make her,” Gabriel said flatly.

“If I might continue with information germane to the issue?” Ariel said pointedly. “Thank you. A paladin’s powers are also magical, but they flow directly from a deity, which is consciously aware of their use and can compensate for chaos-induced misfires. Paladins have been instrumental in sealing chaos rifts in previous encounters. The opposite is true for the two fairies; I strongly advise keeping them as far back as possible. If their inherent magic is disrupted they could be destroyed outright.”

Juniper made a small squeak.

“That applies to you, too, Ariel,” Ruda pointed out.

“Indeed. If Gabriel is going to face the rift directly, I don’t object to being carried by someone else for a brief period. Preferably not the dryad.”

“What does that mean?” Juniper demanded.

“I’m not certain whether that applies to Vadrieny’s demon form, or the opposite,” Ariel continued. “It is a spell effect, but it stems directly from a goddess. The nature of her connection to Elilial is uncertain, given the imperfect fusion of archdemon and human. She might be as impervious as the paladins or as vulnerable as the fairies.”

“We need to minimize variables like that in contact with the rift,” Adjavegh said firmly. “And since we’re dealing with an unavoidably porous perimeter, we’ll need to keep tactical assets topside, as well. Paladins will stand by to be called when the rift or other significant resistance is located. Major, your team and the rest of the adventurers will remain up here to deal with any undead or cultists that make it out of other tunnels. That’ll free up more of our personnel to sweep the catacombs.”

“That’s a good strategy, sir,” Razsha agreed, nodding.

“I’m glad you approve,” he said sardonically.

“What about Malivette?” Fross suggested. “I bet she’d help.”

“I want that vampire nowhere near a chaos rift!” Adjavegh exclaimed. “She’s a good enough citizen now, but there’s no telling what would happen if something messed up her curse. All right, people you have your orders. Keep this quiet until we’re ready to move; we don’t want to spook our quarry. Timms, get to the lodge and talk to the Master; the rest of you, be back here at eight hundred hours. We move first thing in the morning.”

“You really think you can set all this up in one night, Colonel?” Toby asked.

“Son,” said Adjavegh, “this is the Imperial Army. We do what we have to, and find out afterward that we could.”


 

McGraw waved as they approached, leaning on his staff. “There y’are! I wasn’t sure you’d get the message.”

“The whole damn town got the message,” Weaver growled. “As communications go, bright blue signal flares are somewhat less than subtle.”

“Wasn’t goin’ for subtle,” the old wizard said, peering around Weaver’s shoulder at the town in the near distance behind them. “You came alone? I expected some of those Army folks to respond, as well…”

“Lieutenant Taash came partway,” said Joe, “but once we saw it was you, she went back to the station. I think the soldiers are tryin’ not to get mixed up with elves. It’s probably political. Afternoon, ma’am,” he added, tipping his hat to Raea, who smiled in return. The two elves behind her exchanged glances, but said nothing.

“Well, ‘ere we all are, then,” Billie said cheerily. “What’s the good word, Elias?”

“Just been bringin’ our friends up to speed,” said McGraw. “They didn’t see anyone leave the town.”

“So he’s still in the town, then?” Weaver said, glancing over his shoulder. “Fuck a duck, he could be anywhere.”

“No, he left,” said Raea, folding her arms. “We just didn’t see him. Once Elias alerted me, I consulted a spirit companion, who picked up his trail, heading off toward Risk. It was definitely a shaman. Aside from the fact that he is clearly using a quick-travel blessing to boost his speed, no one else could have made it past us undetected.”

“What, shamans can go invisible?” Weaver exclaimed. “Since when?”

“I’m pretty sure the plural of ‘shaman’ is—”

“Shut up, Joe!”

“There are a number of techniques we can use to deflect attention,” Raea said. “I can penetrate most of them myself—if I know to be on the lookout. I’m afraid a shaman who does not wish to be detected usually isn’t, even by other elves, unless said elves are specifically trying. His trail, too, is concealed, but I saw through that easily enough once I knew what to look for. We do not operate from a standard catalog of spells, like wizards,” she added, glancing at McGraw. “Each shaman’s capabilities depend on their alliances, on what they have learned, their sources of power.”

“It’s definitely Vannae, then,” Joe mused, “not the Jackal.”

“Him we would have spotted,” snorted one of the other elves. Like the rest of Raea’s band, he had not bothered to introduce himself. So far, they appeared content to let Raea be the sole point of contact with the adventurers.

“As I understand it,” said Weaver, “not getting spotted is a big part of what he does.”

“Not getting spotted by the likes of you,” the elf said disdainfully. “The Jackal does not prey on his own kind, and not out of any respect for us.”

“You’re pretty confident, for a watchman who just got blazed past in his sleep.”

The elf turned to face Weaver directly, throwing back his shoulders. “Listen carefully, you snub-eared—”

“Friend, don’t,” Joe interrupted. “Just don’t. He’s an aggravating jerk and a lot less killable than he looks; reacting to him won’t do anything but drive up your blood pressure. Ignore him and move on.”

Weaver grinned unpleasantly at the elf, who glared right back.

“Do you boys need to go find a tree to piss against?” Raea asked dryly. The elf snorted, but turned back to the group, giving Weaver a cold shoulder. The bard looked about ready to burst out laughing, but fortunately didn’t.

“The immediate thing is figurin’ out what we’re gonna do,” said McGraw. “From a cursory look, it appears to me like Khadizroth an’ his crew are aimin’ to set up a long game of sniping back and forth at each other. That bein’ the case, it’s probably best to nip this in the bud.”

“I dunno, though,” said Billie. “That daft prick just attacked two Imperial installations. Seems t’me all we gotta do is sit back an’ let nature take its course—K an’ the rest of his cronies’ll be taken care of within the week.”

“That, if anything, increases the urgency of this matter,” Raea said quietly.

“I agree,” Joe said, nodding. “If the Empire descends on them in force…they’ll also get whatever progress they’ve made toward finding the skull. One of the very first things we established in this business is that the Empire does not need to have that skull. I’m inclined to agree with Khadizroth on one point: while it’s best to keep it out of Svenheim’s hands as well, better them than the Empire.”

“You’re cute when you’re treasonous,” Billie said, grinning. Joe flushed and ducked his head momentarily before regathering his composure.

“Treason is when you deliberately sabotage your government’s operations,” said Weaver. “Keeping something dangerous out of circulation and just incidentally out of the Silver Throne’s greedy hands is another matter—or so a good enough lawyer could argue, if it comes to that. Anyhow, the kid’s got the right of it this time. Anybody disagree?”

“Definitely not,” said McGraw. “The original plan stands. We get the skull, we give it to Tellwyrn.” The other elf snorted, but subsided at a glance from Raea.

“Then Khadizroth has substantially accelerated the timetable,” Raea said. “I cannot help but suspect that was his intention; he is too old and too wise to flail about blindly in a situation like this. You did say that Vannae works for him directly, not simply as another of the Archpope’s lackeys?”

“The nature of their relationship is over our heads,” McGraw replied, “but Vannae was with him before the Archpope got his hands on Khadizroth. An’ I concur with your reasoning, Raea. As I see it, his actions here make sense only in the presence of two other facts: Khadizroth thinks the skull is nearly in his hands, an’ he thinks he can take us in a straight-up fight.”

“How d’ye figure?” Billie asked, scratching behind one of her ears.

“Forcin’ us to move up our timetable might make sense if he wanted to knock us out of the game before goin’ back to lookin’ for the skull,” McGraw explained, “but the way he did it, tweakin’ the Empire’s nose like that, started the hourglass running for all of us. The Empire’s patience with all this hogwash just got a lot shorter; both our groups have in common that we need to have this done and that artifact taken off the table before Tiraan agents get fully involved. That means we gotta act now.”

“And that,” said Weaver, “means the dragon is confident of his chances in a straightforward fight against us, considering that he just provoked one.”

Billie sighed. “Shit. All right, then, what’re we lookin’ at? Khadizroth himself won’t be as dangerous as when we last faced ‘im, not with ‘is powers bound. But he’s still a feckin’ dragon, not somethin’ ta take lightly. An’ the Jackal’s gonna be a right pain in the arse any way ye slice it.”

“The Jackal has the advantage if he has room and time to maneuver,” said Joe. “We fare best against him by striking fast and hard; face to face, he likely isn’t a match for us. What puzzles me is this guy Shook.”

“Thieves’ Guild enforcer,” said McGraw. “What he’s doin’ with this group is doubtless a hell of a tale; the man’s capable of putting together and acting on a good strategy in a tense situation, but at the end of the day, he’s a thug with wands. He’s frankly out of his league with this group.”

“Our watchers have observed him interacting closely with the succubus,” said Raea. “I believe they are connected.”

“That…just raises more questions,” McGraw mused.

“The demon is a non-issue,” said Weaver. “Neither her stealth nor her shapeshifting will fool Yngrid; she so much as shows her face anywhere in the vicinity, she goes straight back to Hell. Considering her absence from the meeting, I suspect she’s aware of that.”

“Who?” Joe frowned. Weaver gave him a scathing look.

“His valkyrie, innit?” said Billie. “Anyhow, I’m inclined to agree. Either the demon’s under control, in which case they won’t waste an asset like that by lettin’ her near a reaper, or she’s not, in which case she’ll protect her own hide by buggin’ out.”

“So,” Raea mused. “The dragon, the shaman, the wandfighter, the assassin… And their dwarven allies. This will not be an easy engagement.”

“How soon should we move?” Joe asked. “They’re clearly baiting us to strike quickly…”

“I’m afraid it’s bait we’re better off takin’,” McGraw said grimly. “The more time they have to position themselves, the harder this’ll be.”

“We can be there by dawn,” said Raea. “The blessings I can lay on you all will enable you to make the distance that quickly, and arrive untired. And my people, of course, are already in shape to make the run and fight at the end of it.” She smiled at the elf who had nearly started an altercation with Weaver; he nodded grimly back.

“This’d be a really good time fer Mary ta come back from wherever she’s gallivanted off to,” Billie sighed.

“Darling knows to send her our way if she turns up back in Tiraas,” said McGraw. “No point wastin’ effort on wishful thinkin’. We’d best get our butts on the move.”

“I can’t shake the feeling this is a mistake,” Joe muttered.

“It may well be,” Raea agreed solemnly. “We are certainly being manipulated. But there are some mistakes, Joseph, that simply must be made—and if you must do a thing, it is best to do it quickly.”

“Well, that’s a hell of a pep talk,” Weaver snorted. “I like the classic line better: let’s go kick some ass.”


 

“Ah, there you are!”

Bishop Shahai intercepted the squad as they were trooping back toward their cabin. They halted and turned to her, saluting.

“Ma’am,” said Principia. “Everything all right?”

“You look…rather tired,” Shahai observed, coming to a stop and studying them. Indeed, all five of them were sweaty and somewhat disheveled. “I trust the facilities I arranged were satisfactory?”

“Quite so, your Grace,” said Princpia. “And thank you again for doing it. I’m impressed how quickly you managed that.”

“Getting things done is simple enough in a well-run organization,” Shahai said with a smile. “How did your…practice go?”

“I think we’ll have something impressive to show the High Commander very soon,” Principia said slowly. “Excuse me, ma’am, but all of us could use a turn in the baths. Did you need us for something?”

“I’ll keep it brief,” the Bishop said, her smile fading. “You had a visitor while you were below, Locke.”

“Why does Locke get all the visitors?” Merry muttered.

“Considering the kind of people who come looking for her, I’m content being less popular,” Farah replied.

“Hush,” Ephanie said curtly. “Sorry, your Grace.”

Shahai smiled at her and continued. “Our friend Saduko came around—through the front door, this time—asking to speak with you. She seemed pressed for time; at any rate, when told you were busy and unavailable, she was willing to convey her message to me.”

“Message?” Principia narrowed her eyes.

“Saduko hinted as heavily as she could without saying it outright that she was giving this information without Zanzayed’s orders and possibly against his wishes,” Shahai said. “It was a tip. There is a meeting of this anti-dragon society taking place tomorrow morning. The Conclave is aware of it, but not able to move against them for obvious political reasons.”

“Yes, them laying one scaly finger on Imperial citizens in Tiraas would pretty much explode their talks with the Throne,” Principia murmured. “Well, this is all astonishingly convenient, isn’t it?”

“Indeed,” Shahai said gravely. “The High Commander hasn’t been able to see me since I finished talking with Saduko—which has been only a few minutes—but I do have authority in this matter, and I believe this is an appropriate time to send your squad out. You will interrupt the meeting in question and attempt to apprehend some or all of the activists.”

“What happened to using us as bait, ma’am?” Principia asked.

“This is a variant on the same plan, Locke. When we last spoke, we hadn’t so much as a hint of when or where we might find these people gathered. Now…”

“Excuse me, your Grace,” said Casey, “but…with all due respect…this could not more obviously be a trap.”

“Well, that is an interesting consideration,” Shahai said, nodding. “Locke, Saduko strongly implied her motives were pursuant to your shared membership in the Thieves’ Guild, and her personal feeling that she owed you some help for the trouble she has caused you. Any thoughts on that?”

“It’s…plausible,” Principia said slowly. “Saduko hasn’t done anything harmful to me, exactly; if she did, she’d be in big trouble with the Guild. Eserites are encouraged to con and prank each other, but there are limits. You don’t get a fellow Guild member into trouble with outside forces. Still, that’s a slender thread to hang all this on.”

“Quite so,” Shahai agreed. “Saduko is a woman of complex and perhaps contradictory loyalties, from what we have learned from Bishop Darling, and whatever attachment she claims toward you, the Sisterhood is an organization toward which her fondness must be at its thinnest. It would be a critical mistake, I think, to take her at face value. As such, I’m going to try to make this a joint operation with the Guild.”

Merry began grinding her teeth.

“By…tomorrow morning, ma’am?” Ephanie asked hesitantly. “Is that…feasible?”

“That’s the question, is it not?” Shahai replied briskly. “I need to head to the Cathedral and try to locate Darling; if he’s not there, it may be challenging to track him down. I understand he likes to remain highly mobile in the city. Considering the timetable, if Darling is not at the Cathedral I will likely proceed directly to the Imperial Casino and try to get an audience with Boss Tricks.”

Casey let out a low whistle.

“Don’t eat or drink anything they give you,” Principia advised. “They won’t hurt you, but embarrassing you would be another matter.”

“I have dealt with Eserites before, Locke,” Shahai said dryly. “In any case, I came to bring you into the loop; now, you’ll be wanting your baths, and I have an errand to see to, myself. I’ll speak with you again tonight with more detailed orders.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said, saluting again. The rest of her squad followed suit.

The Bishop nodded deeply to them. “Be wary, ladies. All of this, as I’ve said before, is developing far too fast. Populist movements simply do not assemble so quickly, much less organize themselves as effectively as this one has. I strongly suspect these activists are being manipulated by an outside force—one which may be more willing than the average citizen to harm Legionnaires. You are the bait in this trap, but if I cannot gain the aid of the Guild, the operation is off. I’m not sending you into this alone, not when we know so little. I’ll speak with you again soon.”

She turned and glided away toward the front of the complex, leaving Squad One staring worriedly after her.

“Sarge?” Farah asked hesitantly.

“Inside,” Principia said curtly, turning and leading the way into their cabin.

Once they were all in and Principia had shut the door and double-checked the charms she had placed on every window, she turned to them with a grim expression.

“I’ll be blunt, girls: Nandi Shahai is probably my favorite of the people we’ve had in charge of us since coming here. She reminds me a lot of myself, and that is what warns me not to trust her absolutely.”

“You think the Bishop has it in for us?” Casey exclaimed.

“Not that one, no,” Principia replied, shaking her head. “In fact, I think she’s willing to have our backs, to a great extent. However, I also think she has different ideas than we about what constitute acceptable losses. If it comes down to the mission or us, we may very well find ourselves the more expendable side of that equation. We’ll follow our orders, and her lead…but with every ace we can cram up our sleeves. Shahai is right that all this makes no sense. Everyone is lying to everyone else, and we’re the ones putting our necks on the line. When we assemble tomorrow for the mission, I want you in the new equipment I provided.”

“What?” Merry exclaimed. “We just started practicing with that! We’ve had one set of drills, for barely an hour!”

“And we will do our best not to be in a position where we need to use any of it,” Principia said firmly, “but let’s be honest: that’s out of our hands, and always was. It’s like the Bishop said: every step of this is coming too fast. Everything that’s happened has been way ahead of any reasonable kind of schedule. The fact that tomorrow’s events should not escalate into something truly dangerous at this stage of the game is what makes me suspect they may.”

“Bloody hell,” Merry spat.

“Well said,” Principia said dryly.

“Are we ready for this, Locke?” Ephanie asked quietly.

“We’re going to be as ready as we possibly can,” Prin replied. “For anything. All right; everyone gear off and head toward the baths. I want you to get as much rest as you can tonight. Tomorrow is gonna be…interesting.”

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9 – 27

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“I can’t help feeling all this celebrating is premature,” Joe murmured.

“That’s ‘cos it ain’t for us,” said McGraw, gesturing around at the saloon with his pint. The front wall of Whiskey Pete’s was currently boarded up, but materials and tools had already been stacked outside preparatory to actual repairs. Pete himself, while appreciative of Joe’s Imperial contact funding the reconstruction, had expressed a preference for using local labor rather than the Army personnel currently swarming over the town.

“Nonsense!” Billie proclaimed. “We are the heroes of the hour! Well, Joe is, an’ the rest of us vicariously.”

“That’s what I mean,” said Joe. He glanced around, receiving a round of cheers and upraised mugs in response, to which he felt obliged to nod and smile. The festival atmosphere in Whiskey Pete’s was reflected in the rest of Desolation today, though it was more muted than yesterday’s initial celebrations, and somewhat more sober—outside the saloon, anyway. People had dried out and gone back to work, and in some cases, to work for the first time in weeks. “Everybody in town’s acting like everything’s settled. But we know…”

“Everything is settled, far as they’re concerned,” said McGraw. “Don’t pooh-pooh everybody’s parade, Joe. Don’t forget about the danger still out there, either, but let the people have their party. They deserve it.”

“I’m inclined to agree with the kid on this one,” Weaver grunted. “A party’s an excellent opportunity for all manner of destructive bullshit. You know how many conquerors have been assassinated at their victory feasts?”

“I reckon we’ve likely got the rest of today,” McGraw mused. “At least. Plans take time to put into effect, and that’s assuming they’ve already got plans formed.”

“Well, Mr. K may be the planner,” Weaver replied, “but after Hotshot’s little stunt this morning, the Jackal is gonna be the one out for blood. And frankly, he’s the one who worries me the most anyway.”

“I do appreciate you kickin’ his attention my way,” Billie said cheerfully. “Right neighborly of ye, not hoggin’ all the action fer yerself. Ye great wanker.”

“Anytime,” Weaver said, taking a gulp of his own drink.

“As I said,” McGraw repeated, “we’ve likely got today. I wouldn’t advise dawdlin’ past that point, though. It better serves us to go on the offensive—we’re the ones with a secured base of operations and superior forces.”

“What ‘appened ta my idea?” Billie asked. “Let ’em dig up the skull an’ just take it from ’em?”

“As explained,” Weaver said, rolling his eyes, “that’s ceding the initiative and control of the timetable to the enemy…”

“Not to mention,” Joe added, “it’s best for everybody if the skull never gets dug up in the first place. If we can drive them off before that happens, this whole thing may be moot.”

“Did ye miss the part about all the oracles goin’ tits up in th’rhubarb?”

“Uh…” He coughed. “That’s one way to put it, an’ no, I didn’t. But it seems to me the Big K company is the principal risk of the thing gettin’ found.”

“Kid’s got a point,” McGraw noted. “Prophecy’s a tricky beast. Sometimes there ain’t nothin’ you can do to avoid ’em, but sometimes you can. If we do manage to beat and scatter the dragon and his friends, it might be worth pausin’ to check with Darling and see if the oracles are still goin’ nuts over this thing. That may do the trick. If the possibility exists, I’d say it’s worth pursuing. Joe’s right—best for everybody is if that damn thing stays wherever it’s buried.”

“I’m just a little nervous,” Joe said, glancing around again. “Sittin’ around relaxing while people are out there plotting against us.”

“Drink your sasparilla,” Weaver snorted. “The shit will fly in its own good time. Better to be rested and fed before we go charging back out there.”

“It’s a good instinct, Joe,” McGraw added with a smile, “but don’t let your paranoia override your situational awareness. This here town’s full of soldiers right now, and we’ve got Raea and the others patrolling the area outside.”

“Elves have to sleep, too,” Joe pointed out.

“That they do, but elves are more alert in their sleep than you are on your best day. It’s as secure a place as we can reasonably ask for at the moment. Nothin’s gonna happen tonight.”

Weaver abruptly straightened up in his chair, turning his head in a slow arc to pan his gaze around the saloon, ignoring the good-natured greetings thrown his way from the other patrons.

“What?” Joe demanded. “You hear something? Your, uh, friend…?”

Weaver grunted, finally relaxing back into his customary slouch. “Guess not. I half expected something to blow up the second he said it wouldn’t.”

“Y’do realize the world ain’t one o’ yer bard stories, aye?” Billie said.

“And there’s also the matter that things are less likely to blow up since you’ve got both hands on your pint,” he shot back.

“Aye, there’s that,” the gnome agreed cheerfully, tipping her mug back and having another gulp of ale. It was absurdly oversized in her tiny hands.

“Here, now,” Joe said, frowning. “I hate to be a meddler, but—”

“Yes, Joe, I will be perfectly sober come mornin’, an’ probably come bedtime, too. Even fer a gnome, I can handle me liquor, an’ we don’t have constitutions as delicate as you tall folk. Me mum used ta give us stronger stuff than this fer a cough remedy when I was a wee biter.”

A man in sweat-stained flannel and denim came skittering through the open doorway, where the swinging doors had once hung, barely catching his hat in time to prevent it being hurled off by his abrupt stop.

“Fire!” he shouted. “Fire at th’sheriff’s! We need hands out here!”

There was a bare beat of startled silence before everyone rose with a great scraping of chairs and clatter of boots, rushing toward the exit.

“Okay, so my timing was off,” Weaver said, standing and pushing his own chair back more leisurely. “The principle still applies.”

“There are any number of reasons a fire could break out,” McGraw said, rising as well. “Don’t borrow trouble.”

“I think we all know better,” Joe muttered, following. Billie sighed dramatically, giving her half-emptied pint a mournful look, but hopped down from her chair and came after them as they made for the door.

The crowd was a lot easier to follow than it was to get through; despite the fact that much of Desolation was allegedly back at work today, there was no shortage of rubberneckers clogging the streets. In the early afternoon sunlight, the actual glow of the fire could barely be seen, but the column of smoke rising from the sheriff’s office must have been visible for miles around.

Onlookers aside, the townsfolk had organized themselves remarkably quickly. A bucket train was already working, passing water to the office from the nearest town well. As the adventurers arrived, having to push somewhat impolitely past the crowd (or in Billie’s case, slip between their legs), another bucket of water was hurled onto the flames, and quickly handed off to a boy who darted back toward the well with it.

Sheriff Decker knelt to one side next to his deputy, who was laid out on the ground, coughing violently. The sheriff’s expression was terrifyingly blank. In the near distance, a woman was leading the two resident horses away down the street, and having to devote as much attention to calming the animals as guiding them.

“How’s it look?” McGraw asked, bounding up to him with a speed that belied his age. “He gonna be okay? Any other casualties?”

“Here for your situation report, are you?” Decker asked coldly. “Obviously, nobody but the great Longshot McGraw an’ his friends can handle a crisis on the frontier.”

“Saul, when things are settled you an’ I can sit down over drinks and you can be as much of an asshole t’me as you like,” McGraw said with uncharacteristic curtness. “Right now, though, how can we help?”

The Sheriff sighed. “Best to keep out of it, Elias. This only just broke out; they’re keepin’ it from spreading with the water. Those Imperial types are scattered all over, surveying and whatnot, but I’ve got folk fetchin’ some. Healers and mages on the way to contain this an’ help Slim.”

“’m okay,” Slim wheezed unconvincingly before dissolving into another coughing fit.

“He ain’t burned,” Decker said grimly. “Got a good lungful o’ smoke, though. Could be bad if one o’ them healers doesn’t get here pronto.”

“Oy, laddie, can ye stifle it long enough ta swallow?” Billie asked, coming up beside Slim and producing a vial of red fluid. “Cram this down yer gob; healing potion’ll do fer any serious damage to yer lungs, though it won’t do shite fer the coughing reflex.”

“M-much obliged, ma’am,” Slim said weakly, reaching for it with trembling fingers. Decker snatched the potion from her hand and uncorked it, gently holding it to the deputy’s lips.

“There we go, partner—you were right, they’re good for a little somethin’ after all. Just try to get this down without coughin’ it back up…”

“Somethin’ about this ain’t right,” McGraw said, staring at the burning office through narrowed eyes.

“Rarely have the words ‘no shit’ been more apt,” Weaver replied.

“Not that, the nature of it. That’s elemental fire—it’s magical. You don’t feel it?”

The bard frowned. “Not really, but I’m nowhere near as attuned to magic as you. Kid?”

“Nothin’,” Joe said, shaking his head. “But…same goes. If you say it’s magic, McGraw, I believe you.”

“Witchcraft,” McGraw murmured. “Or, more correctly, shamanism…”

“All right, all right, let’s everybody keep yer pants on, I got this.” Billie swaggered forward, producing a fist-sized (human fist, anyway) object from another pouch. It bore an alarming resemblance to the sonic explosive with which she had blasted out the front wall of the saloon. “You lot in the front, there, may wanna clear back a bit! This won’t hurt ye any, but may not be good fer yer togs.”

“Oh, gods, she’s doing it again,” Weaver groaned. “You can’t bomb a fire out, you demented pocket monster!”

“Ain’t a thing under the sun I can’t bomb out, gobshite,” Billie replied with a manic grin, drawing back her arm to throw. “Fire in th’hole—but not fer long!”

The bucket train dissolved, the nearest townsfolk sensibly scattering as she hurled the canister straight into the flames pouring out of the office’s front door. McGraw gestured with a staff, conjuring up a translucent wall of blue light between the group and the fire.

Sure enough, there immediately came a sharp bang from within, followed by a loud and peculiar hissing noise.

Suddenly, instead of flames and smoke, the windows of the office were spewing a thick white foam. It blasted out of the open door in a wet spray, puddling in a thicker form on the ground that oozed out over the doorstep. The townsfolk continued shuffling backward, but McGraw let the shield collapse. Not only was the foam causing no further damage, but the fire itself appeared to be vanishing under it.

“Well, damn,” Weaver said, lifting his hat to scratch his head. “There’ll be no living with her now.”

“There was no livin’ with me before, peckerwood!” Billie crowed. “Behold the power o’ modern alchemy! Maybe next time ye’ll think twice before oh come on!”

A tongue of flame erupted out the door, propelling a gout of foam in front of it. Smoke again began to trickle out the windows; the fire was clearly heavily dampened, but just as clearly not out.

“Bullshit!” Billie roared, dancing up and down in agitation. “That’s cheatin’, that is! That there is foolproof fire-retardant foam, there’s no way that bastard’s still burning!”

“As I was sayin’,” McGraw drawled, “that ain’t natural fire. It’s pure elemental flame, put there by witchcraft. Which means it won’t quit till the spell’s canceled.”

“Can you do that?” Decker demanded.

The old wizard shook his head. “Not reliably. Best I can do with arcane magic is try to cut off the air flow, but that won’t stop elemental flame. I’m afraid your office is a loss, Saul,” he added ruefully. “That stuff’ll burn right through stone and brick. You’ll need a new floor, walls…everything.”

“Figures,” the sheriff muttered. Slim coughed again, but already seemed to be doing much better for having forced down a mouthful of potion.

“The Imps’ll have clerics,” said Joe. “If the fire’s fae in origin, just tell ’em to bless the space—”

“I know my Circles, thank you,” Decker said bitingly.

“That elf,” Weaver said, scowling. “The shaman, Vannae, Khadizroth’s friend. He wasn’t at the meeting.”

“Welp, that’s one thing that fits neatly together,” Billie said, also frowning. She seemed personally offended by her device’s failure to extinguish the fire. “But what the ‘ell was the point a’ this? It’s property damage an’ a ruddy inconvenience, but even if they’d nailed the sheriff, that wouldn’t stop the Empire. Hell, it’d probably just draw the Imps’ anger. Still will, most likely.”

“A distraction,” said McGraw, stroking his beard with the hand not holding his staff. “From what, is the question. K and company would seem to be most interested in us, but we weren’t targeted.”

“Speakin’ of that,” Joe said, looking around at the muttering onlookers, “this has been going for a few minutes, and no sign of troops. This is the Corps of Enchanters and the Surveyors out here, mostly. Aren’t they pretty on the ball in a crisis?”

The four of them stared at each other for a moment, then turned as one and sprinted back toward Terminus Station.

The crowd was less concentrated now and only slowed them momentarily; in fact, once away from the burning office, their speed was improved by the general lack of people everywhere else on the streets.

There was activity around the station, however, and all of it military. The four of them slowed upon drawing in range of the soldiers standing watch over the Rail platform, chiefly because said soldiers leveled staves at them. All four raised their hands peaceably, McGraw tucking his staff into the crook of his elbow to do so.

“That’s close enough, citizens,” the nearest soldier said. “Move along.”

“What, is the Rail platform closed?” Weaver demanded. “Who’s allegedly in charge of this—”

“Whoah, whoah,” McGraw said soothingly. “Let’s be polite to the nice boys an’ girls who’re just doin’ their jobs, which involves pointing weapons at us…”

“What happened?” Joe demanded. “Is everyone okay?”

“Move along,” the soldier repeated sharply. “The situation is being handled and is none of your concern.”

“Was there an attack?” Joe persisted. “We might know who’s responsible. He also set fire to the sheriff’s office in town; they could use some help down there. It’s an elemental fire that’s only partially contained. They need divine casters to stop it completely.”

The soldier, who wore a lieutenant’s bars on his collar, glanced aside at one of his fellows and nodded. “Go check it out.”

“Yessir.” The other man raised his staff to rest it over his shoulder and darted off toward the crowd down the street.

“Now, what do you know about this?” the lieutenant demanded, keeping his scowl—and his weapon—trained on Joe.

“If we’re right,” said the Kid, “it’s an elvish shaman—”

“Is that Joe?” called a familiar voice from behind the soldiers. “Joe? Ah, and the rest of you, too! Splendid, very good. At ease, men, let them through; these are friends and valuable allies.”

The troops relaxed and lowered their weapons on command, though none of their expressions grew any less tense. The group parted, though, revealing Heywood Paxton behind them. He was red-faced and the right side of his coat was liberally flecked with ash, but he beckoned Joe and his companions forward with a look of relief.

“Glad to see you, my boy—and the rest of you, of course. I had a feeling you’d be along soonish. Just too bad you weren’t here five minutes ago!”

“Heywood, what happened?” Joe asked, peering around as he stepped up onto the platform. There were no active fires, but the evidence of them was abundant. Aside from the ash marking Paxton’s sleeve, there were large scorch marks on the floor, the wall of the stationmaster’s hut, even the ceiling. Two of the folding tables that had been set up to serve as a makeshift field office were reduced to smoldering wreckage.

There were about a dozen soldiers on site, all looking tense and unhappy at the very least. Two were sitting in folding chairs against the office wall, being tended by a third wearing the white badge of an Army cleric. The injured, a man and a woman, both had scorched uniforms, and the man’s hair was singed partially away, but evidently the cleric had had time to work; neither evinced signs of active burns. That would have been any healer’s first priority, as burns could leave lifelong scars if not healed immediately. Both wore the glassy-eyed expression of people in a state of shock, though their healer, while attentive, did not seem alarmed about their condition. The matter was apparently in hand.

“It was the damnedest thing,” Paxton said with a shaky little laugh. “I was just tending to some of my very tedious paperwork, when an elf in a suit came streaking out of nowhere at me, brandishing a knife. He threw bottles of some kind of alchemy in all directions—you see the results around you. I daresay that would have been an ample distraction for most guardians; every one of these men and women is getting a personal commendation from me for how rapidly they pulled together, even with half the station on fire, that Jackal doing his best to kill me and my silly old self wallowing around in the wreckage of my desk.”

“Ye sure got the fire out quick-like,” Billie observed.

“Credit for that goes to Lieutenant Taash,” Paxton said, nodding gratefully at a soldier whose insignia was set over the blue badge of a battlemage; she gave him a tight smile before resuming her wary study of the perimeter. “That, and saving my rubbery hide. I do believe it was the most adroit use of magic I’ve ever had the privilege of watching! She was directing gouts of wind and water in all directions, putting out flames, and still managed to keep spurts aimed at the assailant to push him away. Needless to say, that’s the only reason I’m here to regret that second helping of dessert! A much more limber man that I wouldn’t have a prayer of outmaneuvering an elf unassisted.”

“That…probably wasn’t the Jackal,” McGraw said slowly.

“Well, I’ve never met the fellow,” Paxton admitted, carefully lowering himself into one of the surviving folding chairs. “I mean, he was a wood elf in a pinstriped suit. The description doesn’t match anyone else I’ve ever heard of. Though I suppose that’s not conclusive… Anyhow, once Taash had his distraction under control and he was facing a dozen good Tiraan soldiers with staves, he took off.”

“Mm.” Joe narrowed his eyes, glancing at the lieutenant who had accosted them at the edge of the station. “You fired on him?”

“We sure tried,” the man said in an aggrieved tone.

“Was it like…he wasn’t where he seemed to be? Like you shot right at the man, but the bolts went through empty space anyhow?”

“You’re familiar with this effect?” Taash said sharply, stepping over to join them.

“More and more it sounds like Vannae,” said Joe. “A shaman we’ve faced before. I managed to take a few shots at him myself and had the same problem.”

“Those look like enchanter wands,” said the lieutenant, nodding at the weapons holstered at Joe’s belt.

“That’s Joseph Jenkins, Khavouri,” Taash said with a faint smile.

“Yes, I know,” Lieutenant Khavouri said, giving her an annoyed glance. “One weakness of those otherwise superior weapons is they shoot in reliably straight lines. These are standard-issue Imperial Army battlestaves—they shoot lightning.”

“So I see,” Weaver remarked, examining some of the burns.

“Lightning arcs,” Khavouri continued doggedly. “You don’t dodge a lightning bolt, even if you’re an elf. Electricity will go right for the path of least resistance to the ground, which compared to the stone and wood construction here, would’ve been the man’s body.”

“Unless he’s got a good shielding charm, of course,” McGraw said. “As we’re not lookin’ at a friendly-fire incident here, I’m assumin’ all of you do.”

“Standard policy,” said Taash.

“I’ve seen the effects of grounding and shielding charms,” said Khavouri. “They’re distinctive; bolts are redirected or blocked. This was like Jenkins described: the shots just didn’t hit, and they should have.”

“That can be done by a shaman, too, against lightning,” said Weaver. “It’s the only reason the Cobalt Dawn did as well as they did when they invaded. Otherwise one good volley would’ve wiped them out.”

“Anybody can put on a suit,” said Joe, turning back to Paxton. “More and more this sounds like Vannae; the Jackal would’ve finished you off, Heywood. With all respect to you ladies and gentlemen, of course,” he added, tipping his hat to the nearby soldiers. “That…man…is utterly ruthless, and he’s killed people behind some of the best defenses in existence. Trust me, I’ve had cause to research his career in detail. The Jackal doesn’t get chased off.”

“Does Vannae, though?” McGraw mused. “I seem to recall the fellow givin’ us a fair amount o’ trouble previously.”

“A distraction, innit?” suggested Billie. “He dolls himself up like the Jackal, makes the Surveyor ‘ere think ‘e’s a target, an…” She trailed off and blinked. “An’ then what?”

“So he sets a big destructive distraction in order to commit…a big, destructive distraction?” Weaver wrinkled his nose. “That’s either one very bored knife-ear, or we’re missing something important.”

“Tell you what,” said McGraw, “you folks carry on this discussion, lemme know what you figure out. I better go catch Raea up on this.” He vanished with a soft crackle and a flash of blue light.

“Who’s Raea?” Paxton asked, blinking.

“His shaman friend,” said Weaver. “She and some other elves are helping scout the Big K base. They’re…I dunno, somewhere. Around the town, keeping watch.”

“You put plains elves around this town?” Khavouri said incredulously.

“We didn’t put them anywhere,” Weaver sneered. “They went where they chose, and we didn’t try to tell them they couldn’t. If you wanna have a go, knock yourself out.”

“Peace, please,” said Joe. “The immediate question is, what are we gonna do about this?”

“Who do you think ‘we’ is?” Khavouri demanded.

“We are,” Billie said helpfully.

He ignored her. “This is an Imperial matter. A rogue agent assaulted Imperial interests; the Empire will deal with it. You lot, whoever you are—”

Another soldier softly cleared her throat. In fact, it was the young woman who had been alone on duty in Terminus Station the first couple of times Joe and company had visited. She gave Khavouri a meaningful look; he broke off, snapping his jaw shut, and grimaced as if tasting something sour.

“…and, as per Imperial policy,” Khavouri continued in a calmer but not happier tone, “I am classifying your group as adventurers and invoking the necessary protocols. That means you get sent head-first into…whatever is going on. You can either succeed in thwarting it or serve as a distraction while the actual soldiers take coordinated action.”

“Pleasure doing business,” Weaver said sarcastically.

“It occurs t’me we’re havin’ a conversation with two lieutenants,” Billie noted. “Who’s actually s’pposed t’be in charge around ‘ere?”

“Ah, Captain Causewick is off supervising one of the surveying teams,” Paxton said almost apologetically. “Naturally, I have no actual rank as such, at least not with regard to the Army, but…it seems I’m the most senior Imperial officer present. And, for the record, I concur with Lieutenant Khavouri’s assessment. Though I’d perhaps have put it a trifle more diplomatically,” he added reproachfully to the lieutenant in question.

“I’m still stuck on what the point of all this might be,” said Billie. “It seems roundabout and…well, just plain weird. They risk a lot, cheesin’ off the Empire like this. None of ’em struck me as that dumb, ‘specially not Big K ‘imself. What’re we missin’?”

“Depends on what K an’ his crew do an’ don’t know,” Joe said grimly. “If they’re aware that Mr. Paxton is a friend of mine, threatening him is a tidy way to keep me pinned down here, an’ possibly the rest of you with me.”

“Here, now,” Paxton said, frowning and leaning forward in his chair, which creaked in protest. “I absolutely refuse to be the cause of you being hampered. The blaggard caught us off-guard before; now I’m surrounded by the Empire’s finest, all on high alert. You go and do what you need to out there.”

“Oh, I’m with you on that,” Joe said darkly. “In fact, I think Khadizroth and company have just launched themselves to a higher level of priority. If Raea and the others are on board,” he said, turning to include Billie and Weaver, “I do believe it’s time we group up and start moving. They won’t have had time to dig in their defenses yet. Let’s not give it to them.”

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