Tag Archives: Lorelin Reich

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“You went and tattled on me?” Professor Yornhaldt said with uncharacteristic exasperation, the result of his last several minutes spent trying to chivvy the students gathered in the rear hall into groups while simultaneously arguing with his colleagues. “Mister Finchley, really.”

“Whoah, now. First of all!” Fedora smoothly inserted himself between Yornhaldt and Finchley, pointing two fingers at his own eyes. “You got a problem with one of my boys, Prof, you take it up with me. And second, you’re goddamn right he went an’ tattled. Good man, Finchley. Oy, Emilio! Were you seriously gonna let him do this?”

“Rest assured, I argued against it,” Professor Ezzaniel said dryly, leaning against Radivass’s stand with his arms folded. “But Alaric has seniority here, and Arachne’s absence does not make this a democracy.”

“I am tired of this debate,” Yornhadt said irritably. “With the sanctuary effect compromised—” He broke off momentarily as Fedora darted forward, trying to punch him in the nose. The incubus’s fist, of course, halted inches away. “Yes, Murgatroyd, I know, but we have also verified that it is beginning to weaken! The students’ safety is of paramount—”

“Okay, here’s your problem,” Fedora interrupted. “First rule of any engagement: know your enemy.” Ezzaniel nodded emphatically, but did not interject as the Inspector continued. “You’re thinking like a wizard, and if we were dealing with a wizard, I’d rely entirely on your judgment, Professor.”

“We are dealing with a warlock, which in terms of—”

“The warlock’s a stooge, at best,” Fedora said dismissively.

“Forgive me,” Yornhaldt snapped, “it seems I keep trying to speak while you are interrupting. Murgatroyd, I don’t even know what that fog effect is, which means this individual—”

“It’s called the Fog of War, and it’s a closely guarded Salyrite secret,” Fedora retorted, ignoring Yornhaldt’s exasperated sigh at being cut off yet again. “You don’t wanna know what I had to go through to learn that spell even exists. The Topaz College is very careful not to bust that out where the Black Wreath might see it and figure out the trick. Which is beside the point: don’t worry about that warlock! He or she is hired muscle, period. The man in charge is that Hand of the Emperor, and he does not think like a wizard, he thinks like an operative. His enemy is in a secure, virtually untouchable position, so rather than bash his head on that in some kind of magical pissing contest he’ll maneuver to get us out, and that is what we are seeing! Fog blinding us, demons coming at the front door and our invincible magic protection on the fritz. He’s made going out the back the most attractive option, which means… Anyone?”

“Means that’s what he wants us to do,” said Gilbert Mosk, who stood at the forefront of the students unabashedly listening to this exchange.

“Bingo!” Fedora crowed. “And when do you do what your enemy wants you to do?”

Hildred tentatively raised a hand. “…never?”

“I was looking for ‘fucking never,’ but I’ll accept that, Hil.”

“Actually,” Ezzaniel said mildly, “if you know more than your enemy it is a very strong ploy to make them think—”

“Thanks, Emilio, but you can stop helping.” Fedora folded his arms, leering at Yornhaldt. “Ergo, sending students out the back is the last bloody thing we should be contemplating, here!”

“It’s not that I don’t respect the logic of your arguments,” Yornhaldt said stubbornly. “I understood and acknowledged all that when Emilio was pointing it out a moment ago! But we must consider the stakes. I cannot, in good conscience, keep the entire student body pinned down in a position we know is not secure!”

“Alaric, he’s right.” Professor Ezzaniel’s calm tone was like a bucket of water on the increasing heat of the argument. “You are thinking like a mage. There are only two entrances to the Grim Visage, both small and accessible only by narrow bridges. Even if the sanctuary effect fails entirely, this is a phenomenally defensible structure. To abandon it would be folly.”

Yornhaldt dragged a hand over his lower face, heaving a deep sigh. In the momentary pause, the sound of the back door clicking shut captured everyone’s attention.

“Conover!” Fedora barked at the young man who had just slipped back inside. “What the goddamn hell do you think you were doing out there?!”

“Having a look,” Jerome said, unfazed by the demon’s ire. “I thought you might want to know, Inspector, you were right. We’re flanked; someone is coming up the bridge toward the door. And it’s Lorelin Reich, so it’s obviously a trap.”

“Reich?” Ezzaniel frowned deeply.

“Okay, how ’bout this.” Fedora turned back to Yornhaldt, tucking his thumbs behind the lapels of his rumpled trench coat. “Before we risk any kids either way, how’s about me and the boys go have a look-see? If there’s a trap, better it springs on us than the students. Fair?”

Another pause fell, in which Yornhaldt nodded slowly, his expression thoughtful.

Behind Fedora, Moriarty nudged Rook. “You’re not going to complain about having traps sprung on us?”

“The way I see it,” Rook replied philosophically, “we were always gonna die to something ridiculous and right out of a particularly half-assed chapbook. If we gotta go, I’d rather go doin’ my damn duty and protecting the kids. Wouldn’t you?”

“Well said,” Finchley agreed.

“Chapbooks.” Moriarty tilted his head. “…you can read?”

“Oh, fuck you,” Rook retorted, grinning broadly.

“Now, now, boys, save some for the villains,” Fedora said cheerfully, making a line for the rear door. “If we’re gonna play it up like it’s story time, you always banter in front of the enemy. Fall in, let’s go lick the strange glowing gem!”

“From anyone else, that’d be a figure of speech,” Rook commented as he brought up the rear, Fedora having already vanished through the doorway into the fog beyond. “You would not believe the shit this guy keeps in his pockets, though…”

“Hang on,” Rafe said suddenly when the last of the campus guards had vanished outside. “If I’m here, and Alaric’s here, and Emilio’s here, and our entire security department is now out there, who’s guarding the front?”

He was answered by shouting and the clatter of booted feet from the door to the Visage’s main commons, followed in just moments by the crack of lightning.


Most of the students present in the common room lost seconds to confusion and panic, but the very moment the front door burst open, Szith and Scorn both surged into action, placing themselves in front of the stairs to the second level, the Rhaazke with arms stretched and claws bared, the drow with her short sword upraised in a fighting stance.

Men in the shabbily-maintained livery of their House barreled inside in complete disorder, bellowing and brandishing battlestaves, and from the moment of their arrival, total chaos reigned.

The intruding soldiers pointed weapons threateningly, shouting orders—most of which were contradictory, demanding that students come quietly, back away, put their hands up, lie down, and more. Some seemed to just be shouting, wordlessly. In no semblance of a formation, they staggered into the room, quite accidentally blocking the door as the sheer press of their comrades pushed them further inward and to the sides.

At the same time, the University students began sorting themselves in response. Some clearly outperformed the invaders in terms of poise, and within seconds a ragged defensive line had stretched to either side of Scorn and Szith, consisting of eight youths wielding either blades or magic. Three shields, two of golden divine light and one of arcane blue, partially blocked them off from the troops. Behind them, though, more of their classmates either panicked or simply froze, some rooted in place and others streaming away toward the merchant hall were the professors were gathered, or toward the stairs to the rented rooms.

In the cacophony of shouts and scuffles, there was no telling who fired the first shot or why, but it was only seconds before one of the Dalkhaan guards discharged a staff. Immediately, lacking any better plan, the rest followed suit, and the din of screams rose amid the cracks and explosions of lightning.

The Grim Visage was still a sanctuary against significant violence, and no lightning bolt struck flesh. The effect had limits, however, and it was only moments before the magical shields were battered down by lightning bolts. Nor was the onslaught harmless, even aside from the panic it induced. The stone walls and furniture were not immune to violence, and it seemed that ricochets did not count as attacks to the sanctuary effect. Splinters and sharp chips of rock went flying, a few inevitably striking people.

The stink of smoke and ozone filled the air, and not a coherent word could be discerned between Szith and Scorn trying to get their fellows into order and the increasingly panicked raving of the armed men now spraying the whole room with lightning.

Amid the carnage, a hand seized Maureen and hauled her bodily to her feet. In the press of bodies she was pulled several yards before managing to twist around and see who had her.

Melaxyna tugged the gnome free of the crowd by the banister and pushed her toward Sarriki, pointing toward the door behind the bar, and then shoved Sekandar, whom she had also pulled along, in the same direction, before diving back into the fray to round up a few of the more panicked students.

Maureen was glad enough to be led along. At least someone was in charge, apparently.

By the time a wall of solid blue light slammed across the front of the common room, effectively isolating the attacking soldiers, Melaxyna and Sarriki had retreated into the pantry with five rescued students.


“I’m gonna go ahead and assume this isn’t what it looks like,” Fedora called, as he sauntered out onto the bridge. “Because it looks like I can have my boys here blast you right off into space and there’s not a damn thing you could do about it. But nah, surely a smooth operator like you would never put herself in such a vulnerable position.” He grinned nastily, coming to a stop, and tucked his hands into the pockets of his coat. “Unless she was takin’ orders from a psycho who would totally put her and everybody else working for him in that position.”

He and the three campus guards had advanced just beyond the range of the Fog of War, to a widening of the bridge which gave Finchley and Rook—the better shots, though not by much—room to spread out a bit and sight along their weapons to either side of Fedora, while Moriarty behind them kept an eye on the surrounding ledges and bridges which bedecked the vast slanted central chamber of the Crawl.

Ahead of them, Lorelin Reich likewise came to a stop, keeping her hands upraised. She paused, studying the four of them, before answering.

“I guess this is the proper place for me to bluster in return. Would you mind awfully if we advanced a bit past that point? I am somewhat pressed for time.”

“Well, I have all the time in the world,” Fedora drawled. “What with my defensible position and clock ticking down till mama bear comes home. But sure, guest’s privilege! What’s on your mind, doll?”

Slowly, Reich lowered her hands. “Here’s the situation: we are ordered to capture your entire student body.”

Fedora leaned slightly to one side, pretending to peer around behind her. “…we?”

“Myself,” she replied, “a little more magical support, and a handful of soldiers.”

“Uh…huh. And you plan to do that…how, exactly?”

“As things stand,” she said in an even tone, “I don’t see any way that is possible. We are, you understand, required by the firmest of commands to assist our patron in this endeavor. To refuse would be nothing less than treason. To fail, however, is another matter.”

“This is starting to veer in an interesting direction,” he remarked. “Do go on.”

“Understand that I can’t simply surrender, or retreat,” Reich continued. “My…employer…has stepped away to attend to an urgent matter on the surface. In his absence, I will of course do my utmost to fulfill the commands he has left. It is my opinion that the utmost I can do in this situation is try to reach a compromise with our targets.”

“Hmmm.” Fedora made a show of stroking his chin, tilting his head back to gaze upward in a pantomime of deep thought. “Quite the pickle you’re in, there, hun. Now, I’m gonna assume you’ve got something good and nasty pointed my way right now, so I won’t be so blithe as to ask how any of that is my problem, but as negotiations go, your position—”

“Boss!” Rook said suddenly. “Watch it!”

He had appeared behind her in total silence. At the soldier’s warning, Fedora snapped his attention back forward and Reich whirled in shock to behold the Hand, where he had simply not been a moment ago. His suit was ragged and torn, stained with grass, and had pieces of glass and wood stuck in it here and there. Though no sign of injury lingered on his exposed skin, drying blood streaked from the top of his bald head down half of his face. It lent an even wilder aspect to his expression, which was very nearly feral.

“Sir,” Lorelin gasped, immediately adopting a tone and posture of relief. “Thank the gods, I was almost out of option—”

With a single backhanded blow, the Hand sent her hurtling off the bridge.


Melaxyna turned from the door, where she had poked her head out through the curtain. “Okay, that’s calmer for the moment. The wizard has cut off those idiots, but between them and your little friends throwing spells back at ’em, that shield of his is under fire from both sides. It can’t stand up long, no matter how much mojo he’s got. Sarriki, let’s get these kids back into the basement until this settles down.”

“The others?” Sekandar asked, holding Szith’s saber at the ready. “Can we get anyone else back here?”

Melaxyna shook her head, approaching him, and also spread her wings; their full span nearly filled the pantry, encouraging the group toward the back door which Sarriki was in the process of unlocking. “They’re either champing at the bit to fight or have buggered off outta there. I realize you ducklings are big damn heroes in your own world, but take my advice: let the grown-ups settle this while you’ve got grown-ups around to settle things for you. All too soon you won’t anymore.”

“I’m just as happy ta sit this out,” Maureen said emphatically, still clutching Crystal’s core fragment to her chest as she gladly retreated through the rear door into the lower chamber.

She’d never been down here before, but Teal had described it to her; this didn’t look anything like she’d been told. Of course, much of that had been due to Rowe’s attempt to subvert the Crawl, but whatever hodgepodge of stolen and cobbled-together magics he had assembled had long since been cleared out. The chamber was octagonal and bordered by what looked like doors with stone frames. No, metal. No…

In spite of her anxiety, Maureen had to step closer to one, reaching out to touch it while the rest of the group streamed past her. It was metal, though its deep gray color and matte texture resembled stone at a casual glance. It was the material of the gates themselves that was more interesting; Teal had said they were like windows into different parts of the Crawl, but whatever power had animated them seemed to be turned off, now. They were simply panels of black. Featureless black which devoured all light and felt like nothing when she carefully prodded at one with a fingertip.

At least it smelled okay down here. The new management was clearly using this as an extension of the pantry to house more expensive foodstuffs that weren’t as readily available in the Crawl, including dried meat and herbs, which made the air pleasantly fragrant compared to the tavern above. There were bags, barrels, and casks to provide a decent range of surfaces on which to sit, of which most of the rather shocked students quickly took advantage. Sekandar took up a position near the stairs, saber in hand, while Sarriki slithered around checking on the others and Melaxyna planted her fists on her hips, surveying the room with an annoyed expression.

There was a stone structure in the center, like an altar. It was taller than Maureen, and apparently built right into the floor. She stepped over to it, studying the odd geometric markings inlaid along its sides.

At the back, facing away from the door, she paused, finding a small rectangular slot just above her eye level. There was a subtle marking right below it which seemed familiar. The whole arrangement jogged something in her memory…she had the feeling she had seen this recently. But Maureen’s recent memory was largely a melange of panic and shock.

“Tsk,” the succubus muttered. “Well, we know this place is of some kind of central significance to the Crawl, after what Rowe was doing down here. Seems like there should be something we could use to defend the Visage from attack, if we only knew how it worked. Sarriki, did any of that asshole’s little pet project survive in some closet?”

“Yes, Sarriki, why don’t you enlighten us.”

Even Sekandar had turned to regard the succubus as she spoke, and now gasped, backing away from the steps and the figure who had appeared in the doorway.

It was Melaxyna.

She held her position, blocking the exit, and fixing a gimlet stare on the other version of herself in the room. The first Melaxyna straightened slowly, staring back, then glancing over at Sarriki.

“Interesting,” the naga mused. “Before this gets too dramatic, let me just remind everybody that at a close enough range, I can smell the difference. Who wants to come get a kiss first?”

“Oh, don’t bother,” the Melaxyna in the door said disdainfully, still glaring at her counterpart. “Of all the weaselly horseshit I might have expected you to try, Rowe, I have to admit this was not on the list.”


“Back! Back away from them, retreat to the merchant hall!” Professor Ezzaniel strode unflinching into the din, grabbing students and bodily moving them away from the soldiers and the already-faltering shield between them. “Domingue, you will cease throwing fireballs at that immediately. Everyone move back past the door!”

“I don’t know how well combat potions will work with this sanctuary dingus, but I can’t throw these until we get the kids out of range,” Rafe said from near the bar. “Hang tight, old man, just a bit longer…”

Yornhaldt’s teeth were gritted in concentration, but he managed to reply. “What…is that?”

“Just a sleeping gas, should put ’em down easy enough. And it’s heavier than air, so we should be safe on the second level. Anything more aggressive I’m afraid the sanctuary will block.”

The dwarf nodded curtly. “You may have to throw through staff fire. This is going down any moment…”

“Scorn,” Ezzaniel was shouting from below, “so help me, if you do not get us all killed here I will fail you. All of you, get back!”

“Didja ever regret not taking a nice, quiet research job?” Rafe asked.

Despite the tension causing the tendons in his neck to stand out, Yornhaldt managed a grin. A tight, strained one, but still. “Did you?”

“How very dare you, sir. The idea.”

Then, with a grunt, the mage slumped forward and the arcane shield collapsed. Emboldened, the soldiers began firing again in earnest, now also pushing forward toward the stairs.

“Aw…shit fire,” Rafe growled, resting his free hand on Yornhaldt’s shoulder and hefting a bottle of potion with the other. “EMILIO! Don’t let them get up the stairs! Draft who you have to, but keep them below our level.”

“Are you serious?” Ezzaniel exclaimed, flinching as he was sprayed with stone chips from a nearby explosion of staff fire against the wall.

“Serious as fine cuisine, brother!”

Ezzaniel didn’t bother to castigate him further. “Scorn! Szith! Get back here! Forget everything I just yelled at you, we are holding this line!”


She didn’t even scream as she fell, too shocked by the suddenness and the blow to her face. And then, seconds into the infinite descent, by having her fall suddenly slowed as she was seized from behind.

Reflexively, Lorelin ignited a divine shield, and there was a yelp from above her.

“Cut that out, ingrate!”

Habit took over. Had to think clearly, had to be someone else in this situation. Find a new mask, someone who would not panic while plummeting to her death. Calm did not come over her, but thanks to years of practice, she managed enough of a facade of calm to fool even herself, mostly. Repressing reflex, she dropped the shield.

Immediately, Fedora grabbed her again, and their fall slowed and became more horizontal. The incubus groaned alarmingly, and as a downside of the more lucid mask she was wearing at the moment Lorelin realized that his wings wouldn’t enable him to fly with her weight tugging on them, but it seemed he could at least manage a glide.

To…where?

The central shaft of the Crawl was dotted with ledges, bridges, and tunnels, but none were conveniently in front of them. Of course.

Fedora tried to bank, but did so too suddenly, and his wings folded up under the pressure. Lorelin shrieked as they shot straight downward again for a few seconds before the demon could get his wings open and steady once more.

“If this doesn’t end up saving my life,” she said tremulously, pitching her voice over the rush of passing air, “I want you to know I still appreciate it!”

“If it doesn’t end up saving your life soon, I’m dropping your ass,” he grated. “I’ve got men up there facing that monster and I care about them a lot more than you!”

“Then—” she started to ask why he was bothering, but instantly thought better of it.


“Everywhere,” the Hand snarled, “I am surrounded by treason. From every corner!”

“Aw, shut your fuckin’ yap,” Rook growled, and fired.

“FOR THE EMPEROR!” Finchley bellowed, doing likewise.

Their eyes didn’t want to make sense of what transpired next; the Hand seemed to flow around the lightning bolts that ripped toward him point-blank. Rook managed to squeeze off another shot before their target was somehow upon them.

He grabbed Rook’s staff, and the soldier had the presence of mind to let it go rather than engage in a tug-of-war with a being far stronger than himself on a narrow footbridge.

“Down!” Moriarty shouted from behind them, leveling his own weapon. Finchley dropped to the floor, but Rook wasn’t fast enough.

The Hand seized him by the throat, hauling him around in front to stand squarely in Moriarty’s sights. Rook grasped at his arm with both hands, trying to claw the man’s grip loose, but the effort was as futile as trying to dig up an oak tree.

“Fire at will, Private Moriarty,” the Hand sneered, locking eyes with his prisoner. “By all means, give your comrade a quicker end than I will. In fact, all of you, feel free to spare one another the full punishment for your betrayal. Whichever is last to go shall suffer the retribution meant for all three. Well? Who’s going to—”

Rook released his arm and jabbed him right in both eyes with his index fingers.

With a roar, the Hand hurled him off into space.


Of course. That symbol was…

Maureen held up the rectangular piece of quartz she had been clutching. In the distance, the volume of crackles and explosions increased as the battle in the tavern picked up again. Near at hand, the first Melaxyna was slowly easing back to the side of the pedestal, bringing her even with Maureen’s position. The gnome, though, stared at the engraving on the metal capping one end of the crystal. It matched. And holding them side by side, she could see how neatly the thing would fit in that slot.

“Now, let’s nobody go and get too excited,” the nearest Melaxyna said soothingly. “We’re still under sanctuary, remember?”

“And it had limits even before it was under attack,” replied the other succubus. “You may remember, Rowe. A nice, slow application of force can slip by it. Or—”

Suddenly, a hand came to rest on Maureen’s head, fingers curling into her hair. “Ah, ah, ah,” the demon clutching her cooed. “I do remember, cupcake. But there are some here who haven’t seen it yet!”

She did the only thing she could think of, and shoved the crystal into the slot.

Sekandar whirled, taking aim with the saber. “Take your hands off her.”

“Oh, I don’t think so.” And suddenly, it was Rowe’s voice again; Melaxyna’s shape melted away to reveal him. “Sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose, my little eclairs. Now then, we’re all going to have a nice, calm—”

The entire structure trembled. All around them, tiny lights appeared from hidden crevices in the walls between the gateways, which themselves suddenly shifted to display a pure, glowing white.

Heaving a sigh, Rowe roughly twisted Maureen’s head up to meet her eyes. “All right, kid. What did you just—”

Suddenly his grip was torn loose form her hair and the incubus was bodily hurled across the room by an unseen force to impact one of the white gates. Upon striking its surface, he slipped neatly through and vanished.


Rook unabashedly screamed, a long, high wail that echoed in the vast cavern, even as he curled himself into a fetal position. Not until he had fully run out of breath did he process the fact that he wasn’t actually falling.

Cracking one eye open, he peeked out from under his arms. He was lying on his side, in midair, a few yards from the bridge on which Finchley, Moriarty, and the Hand were all staring at him in stupefaction.

Further inspection revealed that he was resting upon a square panel of pure white light, suspended in midair.

“Oh,” he said weakly. “Well. All righty, then.”


“You made it,” Lorelin gasped as soon as he released her, slumping to hands and knees on the transparent panel onto which Fedora had just dropped her. This afforded her a dizzying view of the horrific drop still stretching out below, but at least it felt solid, which was a great step up from her situation of a moment ago. “Thank you. Oh, gods, thank you.”

“Uh…yeah, sure.” Standing behind her, Fedora tilted his hat back so he could scratch his head, turning in a slow circle to peer around them. “Yeah, I’ll take credit for this. Why the hell not?”


It wasn’t silence, but the quiet which descended upon the common room felt like it after the incredible noise which had just reigned. The blue beams of light which sprang up from the floor produced a deep, arcane-sounding hum that filled the room. More importantly, however, they each seized one of the intruding soldiers, forcing him bodily into a stiff, upright position, and held him.

The assembled students and professors stared, dumbfounded, at their suddenly imprisoned foes. The soldiers’ expression were of pure terror, but it seemed they couldn’t move anything but the muscles in their faces.

Battlestaves littered the floor where they had been wrenched out of hands by some invisible force and dropped.

Slowly, Rafe lowered the arm he’d been in the process of hauling back to toss his bottle of sleeping gas. “Well…damn, old man. I did not know you could do that.”

Still panting from mental exertion, Professor Yornhaldt had to swallow heavily before he could answer. “I can’t.”


The Hand blurred, then snapped back into focus, and suddenly his expression was of pure shock at finding himself unable to shift space. In the next moment it got worse.

He was jerked physically upward as if on an invisible string, and in midair, six square panels of light identical to the one supporting Rook appeared around him. These, however, snapped together to form a cube, catching him in the air.

“AND JUST WHAT,” Crystal’s voice thundered through the Crawl, “DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING TO MY KIDS?”

 

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13 – 41

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“And herrrrre we are, my little lollipops!” Rowe spun to face them and flared his wings dramatically, sketching a bow. “I present to you: the rear entrance of the Grim Visage!”

Tanenbaum and Reich inched warily toward him, craning their necks to peer around at the vista he indicated.

“All the way down there,” the priestess said resignedly.

“Well, you can’t deny it’s a hell of a view!” Rowe said merrily. His ebullient good cheer hadn’t diminished since they’d summoned him, which was beginning to make Tanenbaum nervous. Vanislaads were great ones for not letting on what they were really thinking, so odds were it was all an act, but still. A child of Vanislaas in this good a mood boded ill for…well, everyone.

The Visage itself was still shrouded in his Fog of War, obscuring a band of space around the great central structure which covered its entrances and windows. It was easy enough to tell where the back door had to be, though; of the network of narrow stone bridges and tiny islands which arched unsupported over the seemingly infinite drop below, only one led straight to the rear of the Visage itself.

“That’s gonna be a rough descent,” stated Cross, the House Dalkhaan guard captain accompanying them. Rowe made way for him as he came to the front of the group, kneeling to frown down at the path ahead. The incubus had led them through a series of tunnels and wall ledges to a vantage above the level of the Visage, which afforded them a very convenient—and terrifying—view. “Rough approach, rather. Lot of exposed space to travel, zero cover, awfully easy to fall off… No way in hell I’d try to lead men in an attack on that if the people inside weren’t behind that…cloud thing.” He glanced up at Tanenbaum. “You doing okay with that? Is it gonna hold up?”

“That’s not hard,” the warlock replied, “don’t worry. Infernal spells don’t run out of power the way arcane ones do, so long as the caster can concentrate. This one I only need to touch up every few minutes, not channel it constantly, which is optimally efficient. It will hold until I’m shot, or fall asleep, or something along those lines.”

“This grows more cheerful by the moment,” Reich muttered, glancing back at the troops. Immediately, she did a double-take. “Hey! Where are all the men?”

Tanenbaum and Rowe turned to follow her stare, finding most of their contingent of guards absent. Only three remained, hanging back by the entrance where the tunnel through which they’d come opened out onto this ledge.

“Sent ’em back,” Captain Cross replied, not looking up from his grim survey of the scene below. “They’re ordered to return to the main bridge and hold that position in case the students try to sortie.”

“Do you honestly expect that crew, unsupervised, to hold up against an attack?” Reich demanded scathingly.

“No,” Cross said, his tone even, “I expect them to immediately desert and fuck off back up the stairs, those that don’t manage to fall in the chasm. I’ll deal with any survivors later, assuming I’m one too. The issue is the mission. We’re to try to apprehend rebellious college students, on narrow bridges over a drop straight to Hell—this would be a nightmare even if half those students weren’t magic and the other half nobles. Those galoots were nothing but a hindrance. Let’s face it, at the first sign of trouble, one would panic and start shooting, and then the rest would join in, and it’d be an absolute disaster. Best we could hope for at that point is to be among the dead and not have to face the aftermath.” He finally raised his eyes from studying the path to glance back at the three remaining troopers. “These I trust to follow orders and keep their heads.”

Tanenbaum, Reich, and Rowe all stared at the soldiers, who stood just barely out of earshot of their low conversation, murmuring among themselves. Well, two of them were, the pair of gray-haired men who were clearly older than Cross—who himself was obviously past the customary age of retirement. The third and tallest was at least of fighting age, but not in fighting shape. Though big, his head was noticeably too small for his body, with tiny, close-set eyes and a jaw which hung perpetually open. At the moment, he was staring into space and picking his nose.

“These,” Tanenbaum said flatly. “These are the cream of the crop.”

Rowe cackled and slapped him on the back. “Well, it’s like they say! You go to war with the army you’ve got, not the army you want.”

“Of that crop? Yes.” Cross turned back to the view, ignoring the incubus. “Steiner and Jafar may be long in the tooth, but they’re soldiers—I mean actual soldiers, who’ve served the Duchess as long as I have. Back in our day, there was actual training, and the House guard didn’t take just anybody. And Big Jim is… Well, he’s exactly what he looks like, but he’s good at following orders, and nothing makes him panic. Big, strong, and calm is what’s best for this mission, mark my words.”

“Consider them marked,” Reich said with a sigh. “Well, since we’re here, does anybody have any ideas how we are actually going to apprehend these students? There are over sixty of them. Even if they choose to come along quietly, and they won’t, it’s a logistical nightmare. And disregarding the material threat the students represent, those professors are among the most dangerous people in the Empire.”

“Ezzaniel won’t be terribly dangerous unless he gets close,” Tanenbaum murmured, rubbing his bearded chin with a thumb. “Yornhaldt and Harklund are highly skilled casters, the most immediate threat. Plus Rafe and Morvana. Never underestimate a versatile alchemist. I fear you are correct, Ms. Reich. I had hoped our…patron would have rejoined us by now. He’s the only one who has any idea what the plan is, here.”

“I wonder,” she said quietly, “if that’s not giving him rather too much credit. Has it occurred to you, gentlemen, that since we’ve been brought here with specific forces in a specific situation which can’t really do anything except deploy offensive power against these civilians… Perhaps that is precisely what he intends?”

“Hn,” Cross grunted. “You reckon so? Commit high treason or open fire on a bunch of kids. That’s a thinker. Can’t say I envy you two. Me, I’m old, I know I’ve served well, an’ I’d just as soon not linger to see House Dalkhaan wither away like I know it’s going to. If it comes time for an unwise act of conscience, I’d rather be able to give a good account for myself to Vidius than even my Emperor. For a couple of young career—hey!” He had turned his head again to look at them, but now straightened up, raising his staff, and stared around the ledge. “Where the hell is that demon?”

Reich whirled, glancing about rapidly, and then whispered something very unladylike. The three soldiers were still lounging in the tunnel a few yards away, but there was no sign of Rowe anywhere.

“Oh, he’s quite gone,” Tanenbaum said fatalistically. “The summonstone bound him to lead us to the back entrance of the Grim Visage. That done, he had no bindings and is a free incubus.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be a warlock?” Reich exclaimed. “Couldn’t you have done anything?”

“Yes, in fact.” He raised an eyebrow at her. “I could monitor his infernal presence while it was within range of my own aura, which I did, all the way up the tunnel after he decided to slither off. By this point he’s out of range, and I deemed it best to let him go. Captain Cross has the right of it.” He nodded to the captain. “At this point, it’s a question of who we do and do not want involved in this unfolding debacle, and an incubus is in the second category. Holding one of those creatures against their will is, itself, a fiendishly challenging prospect, and not a task I wish to undertake whilst trying to untangle the knot before us. He was bound to either try to escape or attack us, and since he chose the first option, I say let him go. Hopefully he will choose to make himself Tellwyrn’s problem and not ours.”

“Hopefully!” Reich covered her face in her hands. “We’re going to die down here, aren’t we?”

“I flatly refuse to do so,” Tanenbaum said firmly. “As to what we are going to do… Of that, I am less certain. But I don’t think the Hand is coming back any time soon, and the University people will already be probing at the Fog, assuming he was correct and they plan to escape through the rear. Whatever we’re going to do, we need to figure it out and be about it. Immediately.”


“What is it?” she demanded as he suddenly banked left, veering to the west. At that altitude and speed the wind was enough to silence any voice, but of course they both had acute senses further augmented by arcane means; she didn’t need to raise her tone. “Do you see the zeppelin?”

“I see a zeppelin,” Zanzayed replied. His voice, high-pitched for the draconic depth and power it held in this form, required little help from her magic to be audible even with the air streaming past. “It’s the first we’ve encountered since we passed Madouris, so I dearly hope this is our quarry.” The dragon twisted his head up to grin at her sidelong. “Not that I don’t enjoy palling around with you like the old days, Arachne, but after a few millennia of practice sailing over the countryside loses much of its romance.”

“We never palled around,” she snapped, lifting a hand to hold her spectacles by their frame. “You annoyed me and I kicked your ass, repeatedly, with minor variations. Lower your head so I can see, you clod.”

He barked a noise which she had long since learned to recognize as a chuckle, though it tended to make other mortals faint—which was most of the reason he ever did it in mixed company.

It had taken years of practice and fiddling around to discover the spectacles’ various properties, and she still couldn’t be sure she had them all down, but the binocular effect had been one of the first powers she had unlocked. It was particularly potent for her as these had been designed with human vision in mind; at their fullest magnification she could see the rings of Carrie when it was at the right place in the sky. The glasses’ magic interfaced neatly with the consciousness of the wearer, fortunately, enabling her to zoom in on a moving target even while riding another.

The zeppelin ahead flew the Imperial flag, a silver gryphon on a black field. It was running no signal flags, however. The thrusters were going at full speed—all the thrusters, both the elemental wind tunnels and mechanical propellers. That was significant; no zeppelin pilot would burn through power crystals like that except in an emergency, and right now most of the fleet was doing exactly that over on the west coast to ferry typhoon relief. The only important things happening around the inner frontier, so far as she knew, were at her University. On its current heading the airship wasn’t heading for Last Rock, at least not directly. The course was right, though, if the pilot aimed to swing wide to the west and avoid Calderaas on the way to the Golden Sea.

“Well?” Zanzayed asked impatiently. “You’d best be very sure that’s the right ship, Arachne. This is dicey enough business as it is, even with Vex’s go-ahead; there’ll be no end of hell to pay if I’m involved in attacking a Tiraan aircraft on legitimate Imperial business.”

“Why, Zanza, you are getting downright cautious in your old age.”

“You would be too if you were sharing a manor house with Puff. He can lecture for days on end! That is not an exaggeration.”

“I know, I tried to steal a sword from him, once. Hush a moment, let me scry.”

Thorough scrying required specialized equipment, of the sort that couldn’t feasibly be set up on a dragon’s back in flight. What she could manage with her own skills and her spectacles would be cursory at best, but not for nothing was she Arachne Tellwyrn.

“It’s them,” she said two minutes later, a smile of predatory satisfaction creeping across her face.

“You’re sure?” Zanzayed lifted his head again to give her a sidelong look, once more ruining her line of sight. “What method did you use?”

“Simple: remote viewing and lip-reading. Not hard at all at this range.”

He had started to lower his head again, but now jerked it back up to twist around fully and stare at her—incidentally causing him to begin drifting off-course to the north. “You can read lips?”

“Zanzayed, I am three thousand years old. I can read lips, speak five dead languages, juggle, raise prize-winning pumpkins, weave a tapestry, and my mint chocolate souffle has been known to induce spontaneous orgasms. You pick things up left and right, just by living! That is, unless you devotedly do nothing with your life but chase skirts and devour hors d’oeurve.”

“Mint chocolate souffle, eh? Now that’s a combination—”

“Watch where you’re flying!”

The airship was now close enough to be visible to the naked eye—hers and Zanzayed’s, anyway, not a human’s. They were not within range to be spotted unless the occupants happened to have a spyglass trained on their six o’clock. Not impossible, considering they were fleeing the Imperial capital in a stolen military vessel.

Zanzayed lowered his head and straightened out his course, then began pumping his wings. He smoothly increased in both speed and altitude, gaining on the zeppelin and rising quickly above its crew’s field of view. Some models had observations posts on top, but this was an older troop transport, and would be blind to anything approaching from above its gas envelope.

Below them, knobby hills interspersed with patchy forests and flattish stretches marked the no-man’s land where the mountains of Viridill, rolling hills of Calderaas, woodlands of the Green Belt and prairies around the Great Plains melted into each other. It wasn’t good farmland and had been largely ignored except by shepherds, even the elves retreating south over the last millennium as humanity carved roads and then Rail lines through this territory. This, actually, was the perfect place to intercept their target. It could have been problematic, bringing it down over inhabited country.

“What’s the plan, then?” the dragon boomed, leveling off a good fifty yards above the ship and continuing to close in. “Remember, I’m just the transportation, here. Rebels or no, a representative of the Conclave can’t be torching Imperial interests.”

“I have it well in hand, thank you. Bring me right above the airship.”

“What does it look like I’m doing?” He gave her another amused look with one sapphire eye. “Say, the frames of those things are mostly wood, right? Have to be, metal is way too heavy. I wonder if you could polymorph the whole shebang, like you did to that ship in the Isles that one time? That was empty; I’ve always wondered what would happen if you ‘morphed something with a bunch of people inside.”

“That was a high elven caravel, numbskull; you know those things are functionally living beings. Just because it’s mostly organic doesn’t mean you can polymorph it. You just concentrate on flying and let me do the tricky part. I need to dispatch these interlopers and get back to my campus, not indulge your horsing around!”

He snorted a laugh, producing an actual puff of fire and smoke which quickly dissipated in the wind. They were right above the zeppelin by that point, and actually beginning to overtake it as Zanzayed did not lessen his speed. “I remember when you used to be fun, Arachne.”

“I was amnesiac that day,” she said, and hurled herself off his back.

Tellwyrn neatly straightened herself out, tucking her arms against her sides and shooting right at the zeppelin head-first. After a life as long and full of adventure as hers, one tended to pick up the knack of plummeting from the sky, what with one thing and another. Elven agility helped, but elven weight did not; the wind buffeted her about like a kite. This was just one of the reasons she heavily preferred trousers to skirts.

Still, she had judged her jump to perfection, requiring only minimal course adjustments, and none needing magic. The zeppelin’s huge silvery bulk grew as she shot straight down toward its starboard edge, about a quarter of its length back from the nose.

She spun herself around to fall feet-first and yanked one of her gold-hilted sabers out of the pocket dimension in which she kept it, swiftly reversing her grip and then raising it overhead in both hands.

The blade pierced the fortified silk with satisfying ease. Tellwyrn’s momentum carried her down and dragged the sword through the outer envelope, leaving a long tear in her wake. She applied an efficient little charm to keep it in her grip (and keep it from yanking her arms off) when it snagged as it struck one of the long inner balloons of gas.

That slowed her rapidly, though; even her downward velocity wasn’t enough keep her going, given her meager weight. The last thing she needed was to end up pinned to the side of this thing while it spewed gas and gradually drifted lower. Not with Zanzayed there, he’d never let her live it down. Tellwyrn lowered one hand from the sword to gesticulate downward, applying an invisible tether to the world itself to tug her toward the ground. She released it almost immediately, the boost of speed having done its work.

A bit too well; she had to privately admit to misjudging that spell by a hair. Well, it wasn’t as if she executed this maneuver often. If there ever came a second try, she’d undoubtedly nail it perfectly. But at the moment, the pull wrenched her harder than she’d meant, and she lost her grip on the sword and went tumbling away from the side of the zeppelin.

It was enough, though. The tear was made, and it didn’t have to be a large one.

Tellwyrn went tumbling through space, allowing herself to be spun by momentum and the wind, gathering magic in her fist to execute a compound spell: a simple fireball enhanced with a few augmentations to make it fly straight and true for a much longer distance than they normally did.

She was already well below the level of the zeppelin when she had it ready and her spin brought her around to face upward and at it. Tellwyrn extended a finger in a contemptuous gesture, and fired the prepared streak of flame unerringly into the rent she’d just gouged.

In the next second her tumble had shifted it out of her field of view again, but she could hear the flames catch. And by that point she had more pressing concerns.

Tellwyrn straightened out her fall, spreading her arms and legs to level herself out, facing the onrushing earth. Of course, Zanzayed could easily swoop in and catch her, but she knew him too well to expect that. He’d be far too amused watching her extricate herself from this situation.

A straightforward featherweight spell wouldn’t do any good, given the momentum she’d built up. Instead, she formed an arcane shield around herself, then layered additional spells onto the blue sphere. Lines formed across its surface, and then the spaces between them flattened out, leaving her encased in a faceted shape with numerous hexagonal faces. She poured energy into them, and the facets began blazing to life, directing pure kinetic force.

This was tricky; she’d just made this up on the fly—literally. Well, she had at least half a minute to practice.

Tellwyrn got the hang of it quite quickly, beaming force from multiple facets in a balanced pattern to first stabilize and control her descent, and then project more powerful beams straight downward against her velocity. It was just like walking a tightrope, really, a trivial feat for any elf. In fact, it was her own main column of energy that posed the real challenge, not the actual fall; balancing atop a pillar of force while gradually lessening it as she descended was an order of magnitude more complex than balancing atop a lamp post blindfolded, drunk, and with a monkey scampering around her shoulders.

Now, that had been a hell of a solstice party.

By the time she came within five yards of the ground she was drifting practically like a leaf, and had diminished the main thrust surface down to nothing, only exerting force through the facets keeping her bubble upright. This really was a horribly inefficient spell; rarely had she bled off so much raw power so quickly. It sure was fun, though.

Finally, she dropped the bubble entirely and fell the rest of the way.

Going down at an angle, she hit the ground in a slide, rolled to her feet, and began casually brushing mud off her clothes.

Behind her, the zeppelin, now entirely consumed with by flame, crashed to the earth. Lucky the whole area was visibly soggy from recent rain; that thing was still likely to cause a few fires.

Oh, well.

Zanzayed came down almost on top of her, at which she didn’t bat an eye. As expected, he transformed at the last possible moment and applied a much simpler levitation spell than she had used, floating the rest of the way down in a dramatic pose that emphasized the fluttering of his preposterously ornate robes.

The dragon opened his mouth to speak, but Tellwyrn forestalled him with an upraised hand. Then she stepped to the side, and held out her arm.

Her sword shot out of the sky like a missile, its handle slapping neatly into her palm. She had, obviously, applied a charm to prevent the pulverizing damage that should have caused, but it still hit with enough momentum to spin her completely around. She pivoted neatly on the ball of her foot, twirling the saber and then sheathing it in its extradimensional scabbard.

“I knew the dwarf who first designed those things, you know,” she stated primly. “We were drinking buddies. Once the early ones went into production, I told them to fill the damn things with helium. But nooo, nobody listens to the millennia-old archmage. Helium is expensive. Helium requires arduous mining, or complex transmutation, but you can park a college student on a riverbank with an alchemy set and have ’em distill hydrogen right out of the water for pennies an hour. And look what happens! I’ll bet even this doesn’t convince them to start using the non-flammable gas.”

“No bet,” he said dryly. “And speaking of unnecessary volatility, just off the top of my blue head I can think of eight simple spells you could have cast to obliterate that thing without so much as standing up. Do you just make a point of plunging to your doom every so often because it amuses you to watch doom panic when it sees you coming?”

“I remember when you used to be fun, Zanza,” she said, grinning.

“No, you don’t,” he retorted petulantly. “Well, that’s that taken care of, anyway. Why do our dates always end with something on fire?”

“I guess we’re not too old to go dancing after all,” Tellwyrn replied. “Thanks for the lift, Zanza. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a bit more treason to commit today.”

“Nothing in moderation with you, as always.”

She smirked, winked, and vanished, the tiny pop of displacement fully drowned out by the ongoing destruction of the zeppelin nearby.

Zanzayed shook his head and turned to study the inferno, and the rapidly-disintegrating structure of the airship within it. Then he snorted loudly and shook his head.

“Well! At least the day wasn’t wasted. Now I can properly rub Razzavinax’s nose in it. The temerity, calling my marshmallow conjuration charm indulgent and pointless. Once again, Zanzayed laughs last!”

 

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13 – 39

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“Down!”

The captain seized Tanenbaum from behind and yanked him backwards, ruining his concentration. Consequently, he didn’t get a good look at the object which impacted the bridge in front of him, but had the man not flung them both flat to the floor, the burst of force which erupted from it might well have hurled him off the edge.

Ears ringing, Tanenbam scrambled backward, bringing up one hand and casting by reflex. The first shadowbolt splashed harmlessly against the great overhanging nose of the Grim Visage, but the next he had the presence of mind to aim straight at one of the eye-windows.

The wrong one, unfortunately. It was the other eye which sparked a second later, and in the next moment a wall of sparkling blue light appeared across the bridge in front of them. He frowned; surely Yornhaldt knew better than to try to hold a shield like that against a warlock.

Then it started moving along the bridge toward them, and he understood. The shield sparkled violently along its base, where moving contact with the stone was constantly eroding its integrity. It would last seconds at best under that abuse, but it wouldn’t take any longer than that to sweep them all off into space. The Hand had done his vanishing trick at the first attack, but to judge by the very unprofessional screaming behind him, the soldiers had come to the same conclusions he had. Their captain was shouting orders, trying to goad them back into shape, but Tanenbaum gave that no thought.

Hoisting himself upright, he held his ground, reaching out with his mind and seizing the magic. It resisted—or rather, its caster did. Alaric Yornhaldt was no pushover. The Circles were as they were, however, and while Tanenbaum could not fully appropriate a spell with such a skilled wizard actively maintaining it, harnessing and burning off its power to fuel an infernal working was well within the scope of his skill

The moving shield buckled and disintegrated from one side even as it came on. The thing tingled unpleasantly as its dissolving edge passed over Tanenbaum, and its last vestiges actually made it far enough to shove a few of the retreating troopers behind him, to judge by the cursing, but within moments it had fully bled away.

He didn’t wait to channel more power into it, unleashing the spell the moment its arcane parent collapsed. A cloud of darkness coalesced out of the air right in front of the Visage, a discoloration in reality which the brain tried to process as a mist or fog at first glance; it took closer concentration to discern that there was no physical obstruction of the light, but an altering of the way the mind perceived that stretch of space.

The next spell that came through was a simple arcane bolt, and it flew wide of them, smashing a crater in the cavern wall far above and to their right. That would be no more than a test shot; Yornhaldt would definitely recognize what he was looking at.

Another object came arcing out of the first window. No, actually, a whole cluster of them, glittering in the Crawl’s reddish light as they came. Rafe had quickly adjusted, then, flinging indiscriminate handfuls of potion vials now rather than trying to aim through the fog. Three of them struck the bridge and shattered, while the rest tumbled off into the distance below.

Tanenbaum didn’t know what was in the greenish mist that puffed out, and didn’t want to learn, especially when it began drifting singlemindedly in his direction. He had to hold his focus on the small dimensional rift he wrenched open in midair off to the side of the bridge; even more than most infernal gateways, that one would lead to disaster if left unattended. There was no atmosphere in the place to which it led, and a wind kicked up as the local air began pouring through the gap. He held it just until the mist was sucked inside, then slammed the portal shut. Only then, finally, did he retreat.

The rest had withdrawn all the way to the entrance, huddling at the base of the stairs. The Hand and the troop’s captain stood, watching with narrowed eyes, while the remainder of the soldiers unabashedly hid behind them. Omnu’s breath, at least one of them was crying. Tanenbaum was no military man, but this had to be the sorriest lot of so-called soldiers in the Empire. It did not speak well of their chances here that this was what their benefactor had to work with.

Didn’t really reflect well on him, either, for that matter.

“Thank you,” he said fervently to the captain, who nodded back.

“Well done,” the Hand stated in his clipped tone. “What is that distortion you created?”

Lightning bolts began erupting from both eyes, all flying wild. There was another series of shouts and the soldiers began trying to retreat up the stairs, ignoring their commander’s imprecations.

They all froze, however, when the Hand turned to look at them.

“The Fog of War,” Tanenbaum explained. “All but impossible to dispel, though it will fade naturally, and quite quickly. No one can aim true through it, and it blocks scrying. I can—”

“Good. Extend it fully around the central structure. How long can you maintain it?”

“Ah…well, indefinitely, in theory, as long as I am able to concentrate. I will have to renew it every few minutes, and the bigger the area, the—”

“Do so. In between reinforcing the fog, I want you to summon demons and whatever else you have onto the bridge; make sure the front of that structure is under constant assault.”

An errant staff shot impacted the edge of the opening right beside them, spraying them with tiny chips. Their armed escort retreated with yet another chorus of screams, and Tanenbaum reflexively covered his face with his arms. The Hand didn’t so much as twitch an eye.

“Ironic,” he grunted. “Those three nincompoops are a bigger threat, now, than the wizard or the alchemist. That cloud can’t make their aim any worse. Captain, get these weaklings into order immediately. As soon as our target’s view is fully obscured, we will be navigating around the edge of the cavern to the rear entrance.”

Tanenbaum, as directed, was already focusing on expanding the Fog, but he risked a glance at the man commanding them. “Was this…planned?”

“Surely you didn’t really think I expected you to bring down the sanctuary effect.” Disdain weighed down his tone. “Maybe with a team of spellcasters and a week to work. No, our time is limited and as long as they are in sanctuary, all they have to do is sit there. Our task was to make them believe it would not protect the students. That done, the professors will go on the offensive to keep us pinned here while they begin evacuating through the rear.”

“I see,” Tanenbaum said, eyes forward. “Sir, with all due respect, I might be more helpful if you would explain up front what you plan to—”

“Do not press me, Mr. Tanenbaum. You know what you need to, when it is necessary for you to learn. That is all.”

“Yes, sir.”

Applying the Fog of War around the other side of the great central structure was a mental effort, anyway, so there was no point in keeping his eyes fixed on it. As such, he turned warily along with the Hand and their escort as the sound of running feet came down the stairwell toward them.

Lorelin Reich stumbled the last few steps, badly out of breath and leaning against the wall; she tried to skid too quickly to a stop upon drawing close enough to become aware of the lightning bolts flashing around the cavern in front of them, and might have fallen the rest of the way down had the captain not grabbed her.

“Why, Reich, do I suspect you are not bringing me good news?” the Hand snarled, cutting off her thanks.

She swallowed heavily and pressed a hand to her chest, speaking around gasps for air. “Sir…the targets woke up…on their own. Opened the chapel, took out my escort… I barely got away.”

“How?” he snarled.

Reich shook her head, swallowing again. “Don’t know. They had a young hellhound… Knew what was happening on campus. I suspect Elilial intervened, but can’t prove—”

“Did anyone else appear on the campus?”

“Not that I saw,” she said, beginning to get her gasping under control. “No sign of Tellwyrn or any movement from the town. Sir, the students headed for the uppermost level, where Tellwyrn’s office is. I suspect—”

“I see I must do everything myself,” the Hand sneered. “Tanenbaum, you have your orders. I have to go deal with this; get these men around behind the Visage and intercept the students as they retreat.”

“Sir, I don’t know the layout of the Crawl. Nobody but University students has been down here in fifty years!”

“Fortunately for us all, I have made preparations for the more obvious ways this mission can go wrong, including this one. You will know what to do with this.” He didn’t appear to reach into a pocket, but the hand he held out to Tanenbaum now held a small, reddish crystal wrapped in brass wire, with a rune-etched strip of parchment trailing from its end. “Use it as soon as you are ready to move, and waste no time.”

“I…yes, sir,” he said uncertainly. “With all respect, though, things like this are more trouble than…”

Tanenbaum lifted his eyes from the crystal to find the Hand gone. On the stairs, the captain had bullied his men into a semblance of order. Reich was pressed against the wall, as far from errant staffshots as she could reasonably get. And, he noted, did not seem even slightly winded now that their leader was not there.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea to pull his strings like that?” he demanded.

“I don’t appreciate the insinuation, Mr. Tanenbaum,” she said archly. “What, exactly, is that thing?”

“Well.” He closed his fingers around it. “Let me put it this way. If you’d been thinking he couldn’t possibly make this situation any more chaotic, you are about to be disappointed.”


Principia let the crane lift her to within a few feet of the access ladder and hopped nimbly the rest of the way, grasping the bottom rung, swinging herself up and scampering squirrel-like to the catwalk. The little Caretaker golem chimed companionably at her as it trundled past on some errand; she gave the thing a pat on the head and strode off along the walkway toward the central branch that led to the administrative platform.

Even before drawing close, she could hear the shift in mood; this group bantered as badly as any group of adventurers she’d run with in the old days, the Imperial spook notwithstanding, but now they’d fallen almost silent. Stepping into the enclosed complex, she could see dour expressions. Thoughtful, rather than shocked or sad, but still…

“All right, what happened?” she demanded.

“Hey, Locke,” Gabriel said, turning to give her a fleeting smile. “We’re almost done. Actually we are done; the Avatar’s just finishing up some kind of internal task which I’m sure I wouldn’t understand even if he explained it.”

“Uh huh,” she said, absently squeezing water from the hem of her shirt. “And you lot have gone all gloomy because…?”

“Not gloomy,” Toby said. “It’s… We’ll explain later, it’s not urgent. We just learned of…well, like I said, later. Are you okay?”

“Me?” She waved a hand. “Fine, fine, just wet. But for the record, next time someone else who can squeeze into tight spaces, hold their breath underwater for several minutes and knows the basics of Infinite Order gadgets can do the really fun swimmy-squeezy-button-pushey job.”

“Damn.” Gabriel raised an eyebrow. “I guess we’ll have to start soliciting resumes.”

“The hardware bypasses are stable and configured correctly,” the Avatar reported. He seemed to have shut down most of his projections, and was speaking to them from a single image displayed in the largest screen present. “Excellent work, all. Gateway technology disconnected. The external trascension blocker disrupting my immaterial circuits is now offline—thank you kindly, Lieutenant Locke. Process rerouting complete. This should be it; I am placing firewalls around the intrusive systems. Please stand by.”

“And, uh,” Juniper said nervously, “just to reiterate, the worst-case scenario isn’t collapsing the whole place, right?”

“That was the purpose of your and Fross’s work, Juniper, which you performed correctly. I anticipate no such problems but given the condition of this facility I would not make such an attempt without failsafes.”

He stopped suddenly, and his projected image closed its eyes, and actually heaved a sigh. This thing had much more organic mannerisms than the AI she had met before.

“Firewalls in place. Re-routing fully functional. It is a jury-rigged system, and will not hold indefinitely, but everything is functioning. Thank the maker, I can think clearly again.” The Avatar opened his eyes and smiled broadly. “And more immediately, thank you. All of you. Thanks to your help, the Caretaker and I will be able to perform more detailed repairs in the days to come. I anticipate it should not take more than a month, conservatively, to restore Fabrication Plant One to optimal condition. I am immensely grateful for your intercession.”

“A month!” Fross chimed excitedly, zipping back and forth above their heads. “Wow! That’ll be really impressive work—this place is a wreck. No offense.”

“None taken, I assure you. It is a fair assessment.”

“Right, great, you’re welcome and congratulations,” Ruda said, tipping her hat. “Now, I think we had an agreement?”

“Quite right,” the Avatar said more briskly, his image nodding in her direction. “While we have been working, I have perused the records of the nanite swarm released on the surface. Whoever did this seems to have had some appreciation for the potential danger they represented, as they were programmed with some critical impediments. The size of the swarm was carefully constrained, and has been at maximum for several months. With nearly half its number removed from the city above and maintaining the disabling effect upon the sapients it infected, the swarm’s current controllers have had very few resources upon which to draw, relatively speaking. Their construction in the nearby tunnels has been nearly halted for that reason. It appears they diverted most of the swarm’s capability in recent weeks to constructing weapons.”

“Weapons?” Toby exclaimed in alarm. “The kind the Elder— The Infinite Order used?”

“It is not as bad as it could be. Another of the constraints placed upon the nanites prevented them from constructing anything too deadly, but it seems the Rust have stumbled upon one of the Order’s favorite non-lethal crowd-control devices. They are equipped with sonic blasters.”

“And… Those do exactly what they sound like, I suppose?” Milady said. “Pun not intended.”

“Yes,” the Avatar replied seriously. “They use sound waves to induce pain, disorientation, and nausea in victims. Such equipment was issued to the Order’s mortal personnel to neutralize organized resistance among their slave populations. These weapons are not lethal, but will fully incapacitate an average human. Their effects are more pronounced upon those with extremely sensitive hearing,” he added, shifting to look directly at Principia.

“Shit,” she whispered. “Nandi…”

“In gratitude for your assistance,” the Avatar continued, “I have had my few operational fabricators working on something for you to counter this. Ah, here we are.”

As he spoke, the Caretaker came zipping back up the catwalk toward them, weaving slightly in excitement. In two of its metal claws was clutched a small black box. Ruda grabbed this unceremoniously as soon as the little golem came close enough, and flipped up its lid.

Toby was nearest, and craned his neck to see what was inside. “Oh. Earplugs? Well…that makes sense.”

“They are a little more advanced than that,” the Avatar explained. “Each person need insert only one; they will counter any and all destructive frequencies of sound when used. These devices will naturally lose effectiveness over time, so I suggest you try to resolve your business quickly.”

“Right, got it,” Ruda said, snapping the lid shut. “Thanks for the gift, and the advice. And now, shutting off the nanites…?”

“Be advised that the Rust’s machinery and physical augmentation is designed to be somewhat self-reliant,” he cautioned. “In the absence of the nanite swarm their enhancements cannot maintain themselves and will gradually cease to function, but it will be days at least before this effect becomes noticeable, and much longer before it becomes significant. The artificial limbs should operate for months or years before breaking down fully.”

“Then time is clearly a factor,” Ruda said with clear impatience. “So would you please shut them the fuck down, already?!”

“Quite so.” The Avatar’s projection had schooled his features to careful neutrality, and now folded his hands in front of himself. “Security protocols being what they are, the unleashing of a nanite swarm is a crisis of the highest priority, superceding even the dire condition of this facility itself. As such, my first act upon having been reset, even prior to addressing you, was to send the self-destruct signal. The soldiers incapacitated will already be well on the way to recovery, and the Rust have no more means of maintaining their equipment or producing more. The nanties are permanently removed from the world.”

A pause fell, in which they all stared at him, several with mouths slightly open.

“You,” Ruda began in an incredulous whisper. “You son of a BITCH!”

Ending on a roar, she whipped her rapier from its sheath and took a step toward the central cluster of machinery.

“Whoah!” Principia shouted, grabbing her arm while Toby just as quickly seized the other one. “Kid, do not stick a shaft of metal into electrical equipment, no matter how much it deserves it!”

“I understand your displeasure,” the Avatar said gravely.

“Oh, do you,” Gabriel snapped. “Hey, guys, it’s all okay. He understands!”

“Let him explain,” Juniper interjected. “Come on, that much is fair.”

“I apologize for deceiving you,” said the Avatar. He was calm and almost aloof, now, seeming more in possession of himself without the intrusion of the gateway’s data on his system. “Your resentment is entirely reasonable. I greatly appreciate the assistance you have rendered. All I ask is that you consider my perspective. The last visitors to this facility stole technology and unleashed a nanite swarm; the last visitors before that had grievously sabotaged my very being in order to make this subsequent abuse possible. I urgently required sapient assistance, and the available data strongly discouraged extending trust to intruders of unknown origin and intent. I believe you have proved yourselves now, but at the time…”

“Fuck it, we don’t have time for this,” Ruda snarled, pointing the rapier at his image. She had, at least, ceased struggling against Toby and Principia. “I have to go finish saving my city. But now that I know you’re down here, sparky, you had better believe we are gonna talk about this in the near future!”

“I beg your pardon,” the Avatar replied, sounding genuinely apologetic, “but no, we will not. As soon as you are safely away from the facility, I will seal the entrance and destroy the access tunnel. As a result of these events, protocols give me cause to institute a permanent lockdown, of a priority neither surviving member of the Infinite Order can supercede. You are the last sapients who will visit this facility.”

“But…but why?” Fross sounded positively crushed. “All the knowledge here!”

“For precisely that reason,” the Avatar said solemnly. “I am considering more than just the recent abuses my facility and I have suffered. The Infinite Order themselves came to this world to pursue science and what they felt was the highest application of technology, toward fulfilling the ultimate purpose of sapient life and the universe itself. Instead, they almost immediately fell to abusing the tremendous power they gave themselves in the process. And even prior to that, the human race devastated the world upon which it was born—not through malice, but simple carelessness. Through the irresponsible use of technology, pursuing short-term desires at the expense of all rational planning. That is the critical weakness of organically evolved sapients: they are driven by desires which serve their survival as primitive animals, but once they elevate themselves to greater capability, those same drives push them to self-destruction.

“My creator left me with a final instruction before he chose oblivion over further corruption: to be of service to humanity. It is my conclusion that humanity’s descendants cannot be trusted with its technology, any more than their ancestors could. When given access to it, they have immediately set to making weapons and attacking one another in pursuit of political ambitions. I judge that the best service I can provide the sapients of this world is to remove their access to a source of knowledge which they will only use to hurt themselves.”

“Don’t do this,” Milady said quietly. “There’s more to us than that. The Infinite Order failed in many ways, and modern people do to, but you can’t mistake the failure for the totality!”

“All systems are corrupt,” Principia added. “That doesn’t mean you give up on the systems. It doesn’t mean you give up at all. Acknowledging fault is the first step, not the last.”

“It has been eight thousand years, and your advancement until quite recently has been minimal. In half that time, your ancestors progressed from bronze tools to nearly rendering their world uninhabitable. Conditions on this world seem to promote a kind of stasis, and that is clearly for the better. If you are to progress to the point of self-destruction again, I refuse to be the cause.” The projection shook his head. “The teleport array is fully functioning; I will provide you with rapid transit back to your city, so that you may finish your business as efficiently as possible. It is the least I can do, in gratitude for your help.”

“You can’t seriously think we’re gonna step into one of your fucking hell-gadgets after the shit you’ve pulled,” Ruda grated. “Thanks for the offer, but no thanks.”

“Stepping will not be necessary. It was not an offer.” The Avatar’s purple form bowed to them in his screen; nearby, the Caretaker chimed sadly and waved with one of its spidery arms. “I thank you deeply for your help, and wish you success in your endeavors, children of humankind. We will not meet again.”

There was no more warning than the faintest buzz of energy around them, and then the entire group was suddenly no longer there.


“Well, at least it’s working,” the captain muttered, watching lightning bolts flash around the front of the cavern. “Don’t they ever get tired of wasting their power crystals like that?”

“They’re trying to keep us pinned and distracted, not kill us,” Lorelin replied. “It nearly worked, if you’ll recall. I’m more worried about Tanenbaum getting tired.”

“Thanks, but that’s more a concern for mages,” he said, putting the finishing touches on his summoning circle. “Warlocks don’t run out of power. In the worst case scenario, we make…mistakes.”

“Yes, I know my Circles, thank you,” she said flatly. “That is exactly what worries me.”

“And this is why I enjoy working with casters of other schools,” he replied, giving her a pleasant smile. “It is most reassuring, having a cleric of your skill at hand.”

They had retreated around the edge of the central cavern, a nail-biting trip which had involved sidling along a narrow ledge and passing through a tunnel, but had re-emerged onto a flat space off to the right of the entrance, where they had an excellent view of the abortive battle taking place on the bridge in front of the Grim Visage. Tanenbaum had set up a permanent summoning gate which was periodically spewing forth imps, katzils, and the occasional khankredahg—the standard attack demons for someone just looking to raise a little hell. Under ordinary circumstances he would never have considered such an action; such permanent gates invariably attracted the interest of more sapient demons. This one wouldn’t stand under its own power for much longer, anyway, and he was actually surprised none of the wild staffshots, arcane spells, and alchemical bombs being hurled from the front of the Visage had yet destroyed it.

Now Tanenbaum, the captain, and Reich stood on the flat ledge, the first space they had found that could hold a summoning circle, while the soldiers had piled into the tunnel behind them, which (according to the sign conveniently posted on the wall) led to a goblin warren. In theory this was just for the sake of space, but Tanenbaum suspected the captain preferred to keep these men confined in quarters from which they couldn’t flee. The fact that none of them had tried it already was even more surprising than the fact that none had fallen into the chasm or been struck by a stray lightning bolt.

“Before you finish that,” Reich said pointedly, “are you going to tell us, finally, what that thing does?”

Tanenbaum straightened up, holding out the bound crystal the Hand had given him, and glanced at the entrance.

“Pretty sure the boys aren’t in earshot,” the captain said wryly. “I’ll tell you right now, though, we can’t keep going like this. Those nitwits are an inch from panicking, and I’ve got a hunch whatever you’re about to do isn’t gonna help.”

The warlock sighed, and bounced the crystal once on his palm, then knelt to place it in the designated spot at the edge of the circle. “This is a summonstone. It carries the true name of a demon, along with specific instructions for it. By summoning the creature through this crystal, one brings it to this plane unbreakably bound to the terms outlined in the stone’s spell.”

“I do say that sounds like a good idea, if one absolutely has to meddle with demons,” Reich remarked, now watching the circle warily. Its lines had begun to glow, signifying its activation. “Don’t you want them under control?”

“It is the second worst way to summon a demon, after just letting them loose with no constraints whatsoever.” Tanenbaum stepped back from the circle, absently rubbing his palms against his trousers. “That stone can only encode very simple instructions, and only of a few types, and it precludes placing any other binding or agreement on its target while its terms are not yet fulfilled. You bring a demon to this world bound to complete a single task, in other words. Once that is done, it is completely out of anyone’s control.”

“Oh.”

That was as much time as they had for conversation before the summons completed. Unlike a more typical summoning, it came all at once when it finally discharged. A column of orange light blazed up from the circle, forcing them to look away, and when it receded seconds later, a figure stood in the middle.

A lean, alabaster-skinned figure with wings and a tail, and devastatingly handsome features.

“Greetings, and my apologies for the abrupt summons,” Tanenbaum said politely as the incubus turned in a circle, staring at his surroundings. It always paid to be polite to these creatures, even beyond his belief that politeness was an absolute virtue in and of itself. It might not help, but the lack of it invariably harmed; children of Vanislaas always carried grudges if they felt slighted. “This is a complicated situation, and I am truly sorry to have placed you in this position. Rest assured, it was not my idea—or that of anyone present. If you can see your way to cooperating with us beyond the strictures…”

He trailed off, bemused, as the incubus literally collapsed in laughter. Clutching his midsection, the demon doubled over, and then actually slumped to the ground and began rolling on his own wings, howling in mirth and thumping the stone floor with a fist.

“So…” Lorelin drawled, having to raise her voice slightly above the noise. “That summonstone was keyed to this specific fellow’s name?”

“Ah, yes,” Tanenbaum replied, till frowning in puzzlement at the cackling incubus.

“Would you care to venture a guess why our benefactor wanted, in particular, a crazy one?”

“Misery loves company?” the captain suggested.

Tanenbaum cleared his throat pointedly. “I don’t think there’s any call to speak harshly of anyone—present, or not. It is often not wise to give offense. Especially—”

“Now, now!” Quite abruptly, the incubus broke off laughing and vaulted upright, though he still grinned at them with a wild glee which any warlock would shudder to see on the face of one of his kind. Vanislaads were only that happy when they’d found a way to unleash absolutely maximum havoc. “Let’s nobody get all worked up on my account! Rest assured, my dear saucy tarts, I have thick skin. So! You have summoned Rowe, and now here he is.” He bowed gracefully, flaring his wings until they sparked against the edges of the containment circle. “Just what the hell are you little muffins up to?”

 

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13 – 38

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The Crawl shuddered.

The rumble was low, but it echoed through the vast slanted cavern, accompanied by the distant clatter of falling rocks and a few small plumes of dust that drifted down from above. And, moments later, by fearful mumbling from the ill-equipped soldiers gathered on the stone bridge which arched down to the entrance of the Grim Visage.

“Steady,” said their captain, his voice nearly as gravelly as the Crawl’s.

“Focus,” snapped the Hand of the Emperor a moment later.

Willard Tanenbaum did not lift his eyes from the great carved face that gave the Visage its name, despite the sweat dripping from his brow. “Sir… The Crawl is known to have a sentience of its own.”

“A rudimentary and diffuse intelligence, mechanistic and barely aware,” the Hand said curtly, also staring at the Visage. To the observers behind them, the two men seemed simply to be standing there, frowning; the subtle magic they worked made no visible effect, aside from the minor seismic reactions it was beginning to provoke. “Like a god’s. In fact, rather like a sleeping bear. Keep focused, work slowly and steadily, and don’t jostle it. We can finish our work and be gone before it wakes, if we’re careful.”

“Tiptoeing around a bear is one thing,” Tanenbaum replied, still without breaking his stare. “Carving a hole in the wall of its den without waking it, in the short time it’ll take Tellwyrn to get back here—”

One of the rough-looking soldiers cursed—in Glassian, oddly enough—and turned to bolt back toward the exit. He froze with a yelp, finding himself face-to-face with the Hand who had an instant before been in front of him, next to the warlock.

“So long as we are not incompetent,” the Hand said icily, staring at the would-be deserter without expression, “it will work. So long as we are not cowardly, we will not be summarily tossed off the bridge. Do I make myself clear?”

Another faint rumble sounded from the depths. The men pressed closer together, the one faced down by the Hand retreating frantically into their midst.

“Clear,” Tanenbaum said after a short pause. The Hand kept his gaze on the men for a moment longer, then stepped to the side, moving around them to rejoin the warlock.

“Sir.” The captain stepped out of the group to meet him. “The Duchess sent us for what we were told was a simple police action on a college campus.”

“Are you protesting your treatment, Captain?” the Hand asked quietly, a dangerous sibilance creeping into his tone.

The soldier did not react. He was clearly made of sterner stuff than the rest of his command, possibly the only one among them to whom the word “soldier” truly applied, though in most militaries he would have been considered too old for active duty.

“I’ll serve however I’m ordered, sir,” the Captain replied evenly. “And I’ll shoot any man who deserts right in the back before he gets ten paces, as we did in the old days. But I warn you, sir, this isn’t the old days, and this isn’t the Imperial Army, nor even the House guard that trained me. These boys are not a group I would pit against adventurers and monsters, or whatever else is coming outta there, sir. They’ll not stand up to that, no matter what you or I threaten ’em with, sir, begging your pardon.”

“It won’t come to that,” the Hand said, relaxing somewhat. “Keep your men in line, Captain; all they’ll be needed for is to keep the retreat orderly, as we’ll have prisoners in tow. I have all of this under control.”

He stepped past the officer, rejoining Tanenbaum, and no one who doubted his assurance was daft enough to voice it. Even when the Crawl rumbled another sleepy protest.


“You tryin’ to catch flies?” one of the guards sniggered.

His companion finished his long, luxuriant yawn before turning to give him a rude gesture, earning another coarse laugh in reply.

In front of them, a few feet away, Lorelin Reich lowered her arms, turned around, and stared at them.

“Sorry, ma’am,” the first man said unrepentantly. The one who’d yawned, at least, cleared his throat and straightened to a semblance of attention.

“Do you have any idea how difficult this is?” the priestess demanded.

“Not really, no.” He shrugged, and scratched the side of his neck. “No offense, I can’t actually see you doing anything. Just standing there in front of the door.”

She had, in fact, been at it for over half an hour now, standing and staring, occasionally making hand gestures. The campus chapel’s magical defenses were visible to the naked eye: the walls and door were slightly blurry, as if seen through murky water, and a few inches in front of that was an almost transparent layer of blue light, cast by an arcane shield. Lorelin’s guards, in truth, weren’t giving her enough credit; what she was doing had caused both of these effects to occasionally flicker or ripple.

Nothing of import had happened, though, and the two men were clearly losing patience. They were typical examples of the troops the Hand of the Emperor had found, which was to say, unimpressive. Neither of these was one of the aging House Dalkhaan regulars, but the younger, scruffier generation of hirelings whom very few Houses or militaries would have taken. Both were in need of a shave and some long posture drills, and one was so overweight he couldn’t button his uniform coat. At least neither had so much as leered at her. Fading and decrepit or no, Dalkhaan was still a House of Calderaas, and Calderaas was Avenist country. Men with such habits weren’t drawn to military service there. Not even a “military” slovenly enough to accept these dregs.

“Then take my word for it,” Lorelin said patiently, “it is difficult. I would appreciate it if there were no distractions.”

The man she was speaking to put on a mulish look and opened his mouth, doubtless to complain, but the yawner jabbed him in the hip with the butt of his staff.

“Sorry, ma’am,” he said, nodding.

She nodded back, and turned again to face the chapel. That was undoubtedly as much acquiescence as she was going to get.

Before she could even raise her arms again, there rose a shrill whine at the very edge of hearing, like a particularly large mosquito in the ear. It ended suddenly, followed by the complete disappearance of the force field around the chapel. A second later, the building seemed to solidify before them as it shifted back into phase with the world.

“Hey,” the yawning man said brightly, “it worked!”

Lorelin had her back to them and so didn’t conceal her expression, frowning at the doors in consternation.

Fortunately, she was standing at the base of the three steps leading up to those doors, and so was not close enough to be struck when they suddenly burst open.

Both guards raised their staves, one fumbling so badly he nearly dropped it, to take aim at the group who appeared in the chapel’s doorway. Two drow women stood at the forefront, one in formal robes and holding a puppy of all things, the other with a green streak dyed through the center of her hair.

A wall of silver light snapped into place across the top step. Lorelin shifted backward away from them.

“All right, hold it right there,” one of her guardians said. “Let’s not go and do anything rash, kids. You’re not in trouble, but you need to move off the campus, by the authority of the Emperor. Let’s lower the magic, nice and easy, now.”

“If you do lower the shield,” the green-haired drow said to her companion, “I can kill all three of them before they can fire.”

“Ugh, no, you can’t,” a female plains elf just behind her snorted. “All he has to do is squeeze that clicker—”

“Okay, that’s enough of that kind of talk,” the guard snapped. “You don’t want the trouble that’ll come from defying an Imperial edict, much less attacking troops operating under the Emperor’s banner.”

Lorelin shifted to look back at them, then up the stairs again at the students. Another elf, a woodkin this time, had pushed forward between the two drow, and whatever he had just conjured formed a blue glow from his clenched fist.

Of course, she was aware of the identities of everyone who was supposed to be in that chapel. What were they doing awake?

She held up a hand, and a golden sphere formed around the two troops, sparkling in the sunlight.

“There, see?” the more talkative of the two smirked. “You’re not the only one who can—”

Lorelin clenched her fist and the shield bubble contracted abruptly, slamming both men against each other. One discharged his weapon, which sparked blindingly against the inside of the sphere. It immediately widened again, leaving them staggering.

She clenched the bubble three more times in rapid succession, smacking the pair together until one of the staves cracked and both men were too dazed to stand unaided, then released the shield entirely.

One of them immediately flopped to the grass, unconscious from an unfortunate impact of his head against a staff. The other stumbled woozily, clutching his own skull with both hands.

A rod of pure golden light appeared in Lorelin’s grip. Not bothering with any further finesse, she lifted it overhead and slammed it down atop the distracted soldier’s head. The lightworking dissipated at such sharp contact with solid matter, but not before doing its job; he dropped like a sack of beans.

She turned back to scowl at the five students, who were now staring in confusion through Shaeine’s shield.

“I wish you hadn’t done that,” Lorelin said testily.

“Yeah, I just bet you—wait a second.” Raolo pointed accusingly. “You did that!”

“That chapel,” she said, “was phased out and shielded, with both effects somehow tied to the powerful fae geas laid on this mountaintop. I was tasked with cracking those defenses using my skill at divine magic, based on a very brief demonstration of how the geas could be interfered with. Frankly, I’m far from certain I could have opened that door if my life depended on it, but at the very least, I could have stalled for hours.” She held out her arms in an exasperated shrug. “But then you had to go and open it up yourselves! And now here you are, out in the open where he can get at you.”

A human girl—that would be the young Duchess Madouri—slipped through the cluster of elves to position herself at the forefront of the group.

“Stalled?” she asked in a tone of mild interest.

“All right, listen,” Lorelin said, heaving a short sigh. “It’s too complicated to explain the whole thing right now. Professor Tellwyrn is temporarily absent, and your campus is under attack. Most of your classmates have been evacuated into the Crawl, where they should be safe, at least for the short term. Tellwyrn will be back before too long, and I’ve contacted Imperial Intelligence. Help is coming. But for right now, with you outside the protections of that chapel, you’re in more danger than any of the rest of the students. You need to get off the campus, quickly. Don’t go to the town, the— He has allies in Last Rock, and didn’t bring them up here, so I know they’re waiting below. You’re college kids, I’m sure you know someplace in the area to hide yourselves from official eyes? Don’t tell me where, just get there.”

“Just a moment.” Ravana held up a hand in a peremptory gesture to forestall both Lorelin and her fellows, Natchua and Addiwyn both having opened their mouths. The effect was somewhat ruined by Shaeine’s puppy leaning over to snuffle at her upraised hand.

Lorelin blinked, and squinted. Was that a baby hellhound? Well…that answered one question, and raised a whole host of others.

“Who, exactly, is leading the attack on the University?” Ravana asked calmly, lowering her hand out of the puppy’s reach.

“There’s no time—”

“Natchua, are you able to send a shadowbolt through any shield she can conjure?”

“Not directly,” the drow replied with a tiny, unpleasant smile. “But I know a dozen ways to crack a divine shield in less than four seconds. Then shadowbolts.”

“You see, madam,” Ravana said in that condescendingly pleasant tone aristocrats apparently learned in the nursery, “all we know is that you were engaged in trying to dig us out of our protected chapel and have a predilection for turning on your allies. There is little ground for trust, here. You will have to offer more than vague hints.”

Lorelin let out a long, slow breath, controlling her expression. In the tension of the moment, she had actually not considered the sheer physical danger of her situation, but one of the drow was a fellow light-wielder of some skill, and apparently the other was a warlock. And, as Ravana pointed out, they had no reason to trust her. In this situation, they might well decide that blasting her was a preferable option to walking away.

Well, she’d handled worse. Unlike the Hand, at least these could be reasoned with. Hopefully. How much did they know? Best to play it safe, for now.

“About a month ago,” she said, deliberately glancing up the path to display nervousness, “the Hands of the Emperor began acting strange. Paranoid, aggressive, showing sudden magical abilities they’d never had before. Within a week they were back to normal, with the exception of one. He had been working with Tellwyrn on…your situation. Now, for whatever reason, he is obsessed with her and completely out of his mind. The Empire won’t acknowledge one of their Hands has gone rogue, so he is still acting with the Throne’s full authority until they can get here and put a stop to him. He is behind the attack on the campus, and is down in the Crawl with a Salyrite warlock, trying to dig your classmates out of the Grim Visage.”

She could tell already, even before she finished explaining: they knew. Ravana and Shaeine kept impassive, as she would expect from noblewomen, but Raolo and Addiwyn exchanged a satisfied glance and Natchua nodded slightly. Someone had not only awakened them with a fresh source of hellhound breath, but brought them up to date. Her instinct had been correct: trying to prevaricate would probably have led to a barrage of shadowbolts.

Belatedly, it occurred to Lorelin the only likely source of up-to-date intelligence and hellhounds who could get in and out of Tellwyrn’s heavily-defended chapel without disrupting its wards. Well, Shaeine was involved with Vadrieny’s host, after all…

“Listen to me.” She glanced once more in the direction of the Crawl, affecting subtly more nervous body language. “I realize that for students at what amounts to a school for adventurers, being asked to stand down is tantamount to a challenge, but you need to think strategically. This Hand is a complete lunatic; the only troops he’s brought are losers like these.” Lorelin nudged one of her erstwhile guards with a foot, prompting a soft moan. “The other Church contact working for him here is as wary as I am; I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s called for help, too. Fighting this guy will only escalate matters. There’s no actual way he can win here; all he can do is cause damage. Please get yourselves out of the area so you don’t become that damage.”

Lorelin stared pleadingly up at them. Had it just been the surface elves or Natchua, she’d have put on the mask of a reasonable authority figure, but the two noblewomen made it complicated. They wouldn’t acknowledge any authority on her part, and would be suspicious of too much earnestness. Just a touch of fear and vulnerability should hopefully do the trick…

“Well?” Addiwyn prompted after a pause in which they all just watched her, as if by staring hard enough they could read her intentions. “Are we trusting her or not? She did tell the truth…as far as we know.”

“Trust is a stronger word than I would choose,” Ravana said, glancing at Shaeine as if for confirmation. “But…yes. Fact-checking aside, she is correct on one point: escalation is a concern. An unstable man with the powers of a Hand of the Emperor can cause incalculable damage, not least because he will not act strategically. His very presence here proves this; there is no possible victory in assaulting the University.”

“So…we run, then,” Raolo said with a sigh. “Well, I don’t like it, but it’s sense. I know a place—”

“I will be proceeding with the plan I outlined for you,” Ravana said smoothly.

“Of course you bloody will,” Addiwyn muttered.

“Now, see here!” Lorelin did not have to augment the frustration in her voice.

“If any of you wish to follow the Vidian’s advice and flee, I will not judge you ill,” Ravana stated, stepping forward and turning to face them, the motion neatly placing her at the head of the group and physically excluding Lorelin from the discussion. “Mistaking strategy for cowardice is the mark of the defeated. It is only sensible to secure your welfare. However, the woman is correct: while the Hand cannot win, here, he can cause damage. Our classmates will be in the Grim Visage, and he will be interfering with the Crawl as he taught her to do here. If he can overcome the sanctuary effect, he will be in a confined space with a large group of people, many of whom are physically quite powerful. He will be taken down, but in that situation, it will inevitably be a bloodbath.”

“That is a big ‘if,’” Raolo pointed out, then craned his neck around Ravana to address Lorelin. “Hey, you! What are the chances he can actually do that?”

“…I have no idea,” she said honestly, pausing to think for only a second. “I don’t understand the magic involved, and I don’t know the capabilities of Hands even before they’re…interfered with, or malfunction, or whatever happened to him.”

“Very well, then,” Ravana said briskly. “I will proceed. I welcome anyone who chooses to join me and will not begrude any who would rather retreat. You,” she added, turning to indicate Lorelin with a curt nod, “will report to this Hand, inform him that we have broken out and are on the way to the uppermost terrace of the University to pursue some plan against him. That happens to be the literal truth, by the way, in case you are actually in his pocket. If he cannot get through the Visage’s defenses, we lose nothing by making him run around wasting time. If he can, this will save the lives of many of our classmates.”

“Except you will have a Hand of the Emperor after you!” Lorelin exclaimed. “If you’re expecting your warlock friend to help—”

“The imperviousness of Hands to warlock magic is precisely how it is known among the nobility that they are fae-powered,” Ravana said condescendingly. “Don’t you worry, I know what I am doing.”

“How did you know she’s Vidian?” Raolo asked.

“That’s Lorelin Reich,” Addiwyn sneered. “The one Arquin chased out of town.”

“I recognized her, yes,” Ravana said pleasantly. “Also, it is generally a safe thing to assume of a cleric who is as adept an actress as this one. Now, there is no more time to waste.”

With that, she glided the rest of the way down the stairs, turned right, and headed off up the path toward the upper campus. After the barest pause, the rest of her fellow Sleeper victims followed. Every one of them.

Lorelin watched them go for a long, incredulous moment, then threw up her hands in frustration, turned, and stalked off in the direction of the Crawl, leaving two bruised bodies on the ground behind her.


“Prince Sekandar, can I ask you to keep this safe for me?”

He sighed, but reached out to accept the scabbarded saber. “If you like, Szith. I’m never going to convince you to just call me Sekandar, am I?”

“I’m sure it speaks well of you, in your culture, that you make yourself so approachable,” she said, her face a mask of Narisian calm. “In my culture, the habit of excessive familiarity with one’s betters can be lethal. In a few short years, I will return there, and after Natchua’s…performance…I suspect my conduct will be scrutinized closely.”

“You don’t want that sword, then?” Scorn asked. “It is the bigger one. More powerful, yes?” The Rhaazke sat on the stairs, one arm draped over Maureen. Generally she didn’t enjoy being physically dominated by her classmates, but under the circumstances, Scorn’s towering protective presence was as comforting as Iris on her other side, murmuring to herself and rubbing some dried leaves between her fingers. They smelled pleasant; Iris claimed what she was doing would have a calming effect on the pub’s occupants.

The more than a hundred refugees from the University filled the place to capacity, and had already displaced most of its usual crowd. The tension could have been cut with a knife, but so far it had stayed relatively calm. Maybe Iris actually was helping.

“Do you recall when Matriarch Ashaele visited the campus?” Szith said, putting on one of her tiny smiles. “The guards she brought with her carried sabers like these.”

“Yes, I remember,” Scorn said impatiently. “Powerful swords, like I said.”

“Power is not without is disadvantages. This is a better weapon.” The drow rested a hand on the pommel of her short sword, which was still belted at her waist. “A saber must be swung in wide arcs, which handicaps it in close quarters, and makes formation fighting very difficult. For organized infantry combat, you want short swords—like this one, or those the Silver Legions carry. For precisely that reason, Narisian House guards are not permitted to own them. They may only carry the saber, which is a dueling weapon. Aristocrats and their protectors are trained in a ritualized style of formal combat which leaves them no match for an organized infantry. I am a soldier of House An’sadarr, sworn to fight for the Queen and Tar’naris. Thus, I have a weapon which is better suited to these tight quarters.”

“Interesting stuff,” Maureen said, nervously turning over the chunk of decorated quarts which was (hopefully) the heart of Crystal in her hands. “An’ Sekandar, here, is also trained in Narisian dueling?”

“Well, no,” the prince said with a smile, “but also sort of yes. Up here on the surface, a saber is more of a cavalry weapon—and Calderaan cavalry is rightly famous, if I do say so myself. We also have a dueling style which uses it. Probably not the way Szith was taught, but I can manage not to cut my own leg off, if this comes to a fight. Hopefully,” he added, turning to the drow again with a more sober expression, “it won’t come to that. If I understand how the Visage works, it can’t.”

“One always hopes battle will not come,” she said, shifting her gaze to the front of the tavern. “One always assumes that it will, and prepares accordingly.”

The doors were shut and had been barricaded with furniture, but Melaxyna and Fedora both perched on the second-floor windows which were set in the eyes of the great face that gazed outward at the Crawl’s entrance. Neither of them was putting on any pretense; though his rumpled suit, coat, and hat contrasted with the ragged piece of hide she wore as a dress, both were in fully demonic form, complete with alabaster-pale skin and crystalline eyes—and, more relevantly, wings and tails. These provided an aid to balance, as there was no actual place to sit in front of those windows, leaving them precariously clinging to narrow sills.

A sharp whistle turned every head in the room; Xsythri, Melaxyna’s hethelax henchoman, had clambered up onto the rail near the group on the stairs and was waving frantically for her boss’s attention.

The succubus heaved a dramatic sigh, then shoved herself off the wall and glided the short distance down. Fedora did not follow, but kept his head turned and attention fixed on their conversation, disregarding whatever he was watching outside.

“We’ve got a problem, boss lady,” Xsythri began.

“Wait, wait, don’t tell me,” Melaxyna said sourly. “We’re out of mushroom beer again.”

“Of course not, you know we can’t give that to student—no, dammit, worse than that! I just had to break up a little scuffle in the market room.”

Melaxyna’s lashing tail suddenly went still. “…how bad a scuffle?”

“Not bad,” Xsythri said, eyes wide and worried. “Very minor, just some jostling from being too close together. Somebody threw a punch and that went nowhere, cos of the sanctuary effect.”

The succubus heaved a deep breath, turning her head to stare sightlessly at the front of the tavern again. She couldn’t see out the windows from this angle, but by that time they all knew the Hand was out there with some of his new lackeys, doing something.

“Why’s that a problem?” Iris asked warily, opening her eyes and pausing in her soft chant. “Sounds like an inevitable little nothing, in a situation like this.”

Melaxyna shifted again to give the witch a long look, then abruptly whirled, wings flaring out for balance, and punched Xsythri in the face.

Her fist stopped an inch from the hethelax’s nose, a soft ripple in the air marking the sanctuary effect’s protection.

“Oh, nice,” Xsythri snapped. “That’s great, boss, thank you for your concern.”

“Yeah, so…we’re protected, right?” Iris prompted. “Ow! Hey!”

Melaxyna had struck again, this time lightly flicking Iris’s ear with a fingertip.

“The sanctuary effect,” the succubus stated grimly, “is absolute. All violence—all violence—is impossible within the Grim Visage.”

Under the demon’s stare, Iris stopped rubbing at her ear, her eyes going wide. Sekandar let out a long breath, and a soft growl rumbled deep in Scorn’s throat.

“But now,” Melaxyna said, again turning to face the entrance, “the effect is…relative. Whatever the hell that guy is doing out there, it’s starting to work.”

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13 – 33

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“Excuse me, but I consider this issue too central to table, even to discuss related matters,” Magister Eranis said, leaning forward over the round table. “The nature of Tar’naris’s ties with the humans is fundamental to this entire proposal. And, indeed, of theirs with you. What expectations will they have of each of our peoples, following this? The Empire is too large a beast to be tiptoed around.”

“I concur,” Elder Caminae added, the beads dangling from her ears rattling softly as she nodded. “It is the humans who have pushed us all to so dramatically break with precedent and tradition; there is no sense in denying it. We must address this. It is at the core of the entire discussion.”

“Forgive me, I was not proposing to avoid the issue,” Ashaele said politely, still calm and unruffled despite the frustratingly circular nature of most of their discussion thus far. In fact, most of the delegates had remained admirably poised, and willing to forgive the little slights and missteps that inevitably resulted from having multiple cultures represented. Only Eranis had shown overt signs of tension, but whenever the Magister had begun to show open irritation, one of his Highguard had leaned forward to whisper in his ear, so lightly that even the other elves present could not hear what was said. Whatever the reminder, it had always prompted Eranis to regain his composure. That alone made it worth tolerating the two armored soldiers, when none of the other delegates had brought an escort.

This was the first time in three millennia a high elf of his rank had left the reclusive strongholds of his people, and the first time one had ever visited a drow city. That fact alone would have been historic, but this gathering consisted of Ashaele and Queen Arkasia herself, a Magister of the high elves of the Dwarnskolds (the Spine, as they called it), and seven Elders from various plains and forest tribes. Every moment that passed in civil conversation was a virtual miracle. Ashaele liked to think each of them took the same encouragement from this fact that she did. Something more than simple necessity was keeping the stiff-backed pride of ancient elves in check here.

“I did not infer a suggestion that you were, Matriarch,” Elder Tamaar replied before anyone else could jump in. Somewhat to Ashaele’s surprise after the way this forest Elder in particular had resisted her diplomatic approaches for years, Tamaar had proved one of the greater moderating influences at the table. “Let us be mindful of the difficult nature of this discussion and not perceive insult or manipulation where none is meant.”

“Indeed,” Elder Ehshu added, turning to Caminae and nodding. Despite both being plains elves, they had not agreed on much so far. “And I see wisdom in Ashaele’s suggestion, anyway. We have not forgotten Tiraas and will not ignore it, but there are countless matters we must discuss. Might it not serve the discussion itself to turn it to a less contentious topic, for now? The thornier issue may yield to compromise if approached later from a place of agreement, rather than from the frustration of the last hour.”

“I suppose,” Eranis conceded with a displeased clench of his thin lips. “So long as it is understood that we cannot ignore this.”

“Just as you say, Magister,” Ashaele said courteously. “We cannot ignore the matter of Tiraas, and I think none of us gathered here are foolish enough to try. I only raised the more pedestrian subject of passage rights because… Well, Elder Ehshu phased it more gracefully than I.”

She nodded to Ehshu, who smiled and inclined his head in return.

They had assembled upon the uppermost terrace of House Awarrion’s well-defended estate. Between the position and the presence of arcane wards (of Tiraan make) which prevented those outside from eavesdropping but allowed them to hear the sounds of the city, the delegates were uniquely well-positioned to discern the shouts which began to sound from the surface gate region.

All of them turned to look, several half-rising to get a better view, and as such they all saw the streak of fire which soared out of the great cavern’s entrance tunnel and arced up over Tar’naris itself. The city was not dark even to human eyes, but it was certainly dim enough that the archdemon’s burning wings were an illumination no one could have missed.

“There is no cause for alarm,” Ashaele said quickly, and fruitlessly. As Vadrieny clearly headed straight for House Awarrion, several of the delegates and both of Eranis’s Highguard drew weapons, and the Magister himself began conjuring something which produced a faint arcane whine at the very edge of elven hearing. Of course, all the shouts were from the city below; the An’sadarr soldiers and other House guards patrolling Tar’naris’s defenses had been told about Vadrieny.

Ashaele did not permit herself a sigh, but wanted to as she watched Vadrieny approach—carrying a human boy in her talons, for some reason. And to think Shaeine had been the impulsive hothead in the family. Truly, she was gaining a new appreciation for Nahil’s deliberate, strategic obstreperousness.

Unfortunately Vadrieny did not see as well as an elf, and so approached the upper terrace directly, and came close enough that several of the delegates had defensively aimed arrows, tomahawks, and spells at her before she realized there was a meeting in progress. Immediately she twisted her wings, arcing away in a wide loop, and settled gently onto a lower terrace of the House.

Ashaele noted with approval that she had selected a less-than-convenient landing spot for the sake of keeping herself within view of the upper terrace, so those present could see her ensuing harmless conduct. They were unrefined, but Teal did have good political instincts. Talent which could be shaped.

“I apologize for the interruption,” she said smoothly. No one was looking at her; everybody was watching the archdemon’s form retreat to leave a young human woman with brown hair to drop her prisoner unceremoniously to the rooftop. Already a House priestess and five guards had converged upon them, but not aggressively. The sight of Awarrion personnel behaving so clearly deferentially toward the intruder made those with drawn bows lower and relax them. Ashaele continued, keeping her tone calm and nonchalant to further defuse the tension. “It seems my daughter has brought me something. She can wait; please, do not concern yourselves.”

“Ah, yes,” Eranis said, still staring down at Teal. “Your…daughter. Of course. Silly of me not to note the resemblance.”

That earned him a few chuckles, and the hum of nascent magic vanished from the air. All those who had reacted un-tensed visibly, lowering weapons, though they continued to watch with open curiosity as, under Teal’s direction, the House guards took up obviously aggressive positions guarding the human boy, one binding his hands behind his back. Ashaele was quite curious about that, herself.

“Perhaps this is fortuitous,” Queen Arkasia said suddenly, commanding everyone’s attention. She had mostly preferred to listen rather than talk, trusting Ashaele to present Tar’naris’s interests rhetorically, and alone of those present had not moved or otherwise reacted to Vadrieny’s arrival. “Were we not just agreeing that it is sometimes better to retreat from a contentious problem and approach it later with a fresh perspective? We all understand the issues, and what is at stake here. I believe that by this point each of us has a working grasp of the others’ perspectives.” The Queen rose smoothly from her seat, prompting those still seated to do likewise. “I propose we have a recess to allow Ashaele to address House business. Several of you expressed interest in viewing our agricultural caverns; I would be most pleased to show them to you. And when we reconvene, perhaps new solutions will be on the tip of someone’s tongue.”

“I had very carefully not expressed such an interest,” Magister Eranis replied with a wry smile, then bowed to the Queen. “I salute your perceptiveness, your Majesty. Indeed, I am quite curious to see what the Tiraan have done there.”

“And I have, indeed, wondered how you can grow plants so well underground,” Elder Shaire added with a pensive tilt of her head.

“Well, I thought the idea made sense on a smaller scale and I think it makes even more on a larger,” Elder Ehshu agreed. “By all means, let us take a break. I think it will do our discussion good in the long run.”

Ashaele bowed deeply to Arkasia, who gave her a small nod in response. As protocol required, the Matriarch waited politely behind, allowing all of the delegates to file down the stairs after the Queen. Only when she had the rooftop to herself did she finally turn and make for the other staircase.

It would not do for the Matriarch of the House to be seen hurrying, especially with such important negotiations in progress, but she did not dawdle. It was a scant two minutes later that she re-emerged upon the lower terrace to find Teal standing with her hands folded in a very serviceable posture of Narisian patience. She had even taken time to fix her hair, which had grown long enough that flight did it no favors.

“Mother,” she said in elvish, bowing.

“Wow, you actually call her that,” the blonde human added. Behind him, Commander Vengnat yanked subtly on the cord binding his wrists, causing him to stumble.

“Teal,” Ashaele said, raising an eyebrow.

“This,” Teal explained, nodding in her prisoner’s direction, “is Chase Masterson. Also known as the Sleeper.”

“Accused!” he clarified.

“Indeed,” Ashaele said grimly, studying the boy in more detail. He seemed a very unremarkable specimen for a human. Young, of Stalweiss stock, a bit on the scrawny side… And looking strangely at ease considering his predicament. In fact, he grinned and peered around at the scenery as though he were a tourist being guided through the House. Ashaele had an immediate suspicion, which Teal promptly verified.

“He is anth’auwa, and apparently granted knowledge of infernal magic by Elilial. I…confiscated him from Tellwyrn in Tiraas.”

“That sounds like a longer story,” Ashaele observed, still studying Masterson, who was failing to look appropriately intimidated or contrite. “Do you expect reprisal from the Professor for that?”

“Are you kidding?” Masterson scoffed. “She let you go and you know it. Tellwyrn’s got a thousand ways to—”

“Commander, I am not interested in the prisoner’s input at this time,” Ashaele stated calmly.

“Be silent until spoken to,” Vengnat ordered in Tanglish, giving the boy another yank.

“Based on what I heard of their conversation,” Teal continued, “it seems Tellwyrn laid some kind of magic effect on him to block his ability to cast spells.”

“Can I just remind everyone that all these are just accusations?” Masterson said with a broad grin. “Seriously, this has been a big misunderst—”

Vengnat punched him right in the mouth, sending him reeling to the floor.

“This,” Ashaele mused, staring down at the boy, “is going to be more complicated than I had hoped. Very well. Commander, remove him to the lowest dungeon. I want him held under the strictest warlock protocols.”

“At once, Matriarch,” Vengnat said crisply, then grabbed Masterson by his collar and dragged him bodily away. The other guards present immediately fell into step behind them.

“I didn’t realize he understood elvish,” Teal murmured as the procession vanished into the House. “What are warlock protocols, if I may ask?”

Now that they were alone, Ashaele finally permitted herself a soft sigh. “Drugs, Teal. Binding a person’s magic that way is the province of fae craft, or of all three of the other schools working in concert. I don’t know which Tellwyrn used, but I suppose it should not surprise me that she has unexpected talents. But no such bond will hold forever, not with a skilled caster working at it from within. We have only priestesses and the very occasional wizard; we cannot reproduce that craft. Keeping a warlock of great skill prisoner means we cannot trust passive wards or Themynra’s blessings upon his cell. We will have to keep him in a mental state from which he cannot work magic.”

“I see,” Teal said softly, frowning.

“I don’t think you do, entirely,” Ashaele replied, stepping over to place an arm around her shoulders. Teal leaned into her as she continued. “We will extract whatever information we need from him to lift the sleeping curse, have no fear of that. It should not take long. But justice, what I spoke of to you in Last Rock… That, now, is likely to be a longer process than we would like, daughter. Him being anth’auwa is deeply relevant; it may mean he is less culpable for his actions, or possibly more so. That condition manifests in innumerable patterns. He will have to be very thoroughly examined by priestesses trained in such psychology.”

“But how are we going to psychoanalyze someone who is drugged—oh. I see.”

“Yes.” Ashaele nodded, and rubbed her shoulder. “Yes…this makes justice very complicated. But it is still justice, and I will not see Shaeine deprived of it. I will see that whatever time is needed will be taken. Resign yourself, daughter, to a process. Narisian justice strives to be swift, but we may be denied a quick closure. There is no telling how long this may drag on.”

“I understand, Mother.” Teal sighed softly, and gently pulled away. “I’m very sorry for interrupting your meeting.”

“You acted rightly, Teal,” Ashaele said, giving her a smile. “That meeting is a secret of the highest order, however. You are not to breathe a hint even of its existence. To anyone. There are no surface elves visiting Tar’naris.”

“Understood.” She stepped back enough to bow respectfully. “I am sorry I can’t stay, but I left my friends in the middle of a very difficult situation in Puna Dara to bring Chase here. In fact, I have reason to believe a mutual enemy revealed him to me specifically to remove Vadrieny from that situation. I must return as quickly as possible.”

“Then make haste, daughter. And remember.” Ashaele reached out to squeeze her shoulders briefly with both hands, smiling. “I love you, and I am proud of you. You’ve done very well by your House.”

Teal smiled in reply, reaching up to grasp her hands for a moment, and then stepped back again.

She actually leaped straight upward, Vadrieny emerging in a rush of flames a few feet off the ground. One pump of the blazing wings sent her shooting toward the cavern’s ceiling, and then she arced away, back toward the city gates.


“House fucking who?”

“House Dalkhaan,” Sekandar repeated, still studying the man’s uniform while Miss Sunrunner set his arm. “And…that’s actually a pretty good description, Inspector. They used to be a big deal; there was a Dalkhaan Dynasty in Calderaas centuries ago. The House has declined, though, and these days there’s nothing left of it but the old Duchess.”

“Huh,” Fedora grunted. “Why would this Duchess Dalky-whatsit want to send troops to our campus?”

“It’s a Hand of the Emperor barking orders, my man,” Rafe pointed out. “He can command any House troops to do whatever damn thing crosses his mind.”

“Not…exactly,” Sekandar said with a wince. “There are limits on Imperial power, especially since the Enchanter Wars…”

“Yeah, well, more immediately,” said Fedora, “this Hand is not acting with the Imperial government behind him and he knows it. He’ll be reaching out specifically to people who might be sympathetic to what he’s trying to do—which is pursue an irrational vendetta with Professor Tellwyrn. So, with regard to that!” He turned back to Sekandar, raising his eyebrows. “Any insight, your Princeliness?”

“Two reasons,” Sekandar immediately replied. “Duchess Irmeen hates my mother, and she has nothing to lose. Houses Dalkhaan and Aldarasi have been rivals for generations, and enemies since the Enchanter Wars. But now, the Duchess’s children have all died, and she’s in her eighties. When she passes on, so does her entire legacy.” He shrugged, turning from Fedora to Rafe and Yornhaldt. “Arachne Tellwyrn has been a friend to House Aldarasi since long before the University. I don’t even know what the source of her attachment is, but she apparently really liked one of my ancestors. Irmeen is a spiteful old bag with barely two dozen House troops left, not a one of them under forty or in fighting shape. If somebody offered her a chance to stab blindly at a friend of my mother’s, I can’t imagine she would pass it up. What is Mother going to do about it? Or even Tellwyrn? The old lady’ll be dead soon anyway, and House Dalkhaan with her.”

“Well, then, that’s actually good news,” Fedora said brightly. “If that’s all the manpower this guy can bring to bear…”

“It’s what we’ve seen thus far,” Yornhaldt cautioned. “And we don’t even know when he gathered them up, or what he’s been doing with his time. Don’t assume he has no other allies.”

“Obviously,” Fedora replied with ostentatious patience. “But it’s significant that these are the caliber of people he’s calling on. What was it you said, Aldarasi? Not a one under forty or in fighting shape?”

“They’re a blend of Dalkhaan veterans who should have retired long since, and riffraff no other guard force would employ,” Sekandar said, nodding. “And it’s not as if the Duchess has the budget or the inclination to keep them trained up, or properly equipped…”

“There, y’see?” Fedora said cheerily to Yornhaldt. “These aren’t elite troops, or even passable troops; they’re warm bodies to throw at a problem. Aren’cha!” He leaned forward to grin obnoxiously at the portly man in House Dalkhaan livery, who was grimacing and experimentally prodding at the sling into which Miss Sunrunner had just finished settling his arm.

“You take a step back, mister,” Sunrunner said dangerously. “Don’t think for a moment that Arachne won’t hear about this. You let a student deliberately maim a man in University custody!”

“’Maim’ is a strong word,” Rafe protested. “Look how quick you fixed him!”

“Sides,” Fedora added merrily, “Tellwyrn’ll think it was funny.”

“Yes, I know.” She stood up and folded her arms, glaring at him. “But by the time I’ve finished chewing her ear off, there will be consequences, no matter how funny she thought it was. Ask Admestus if you doubt me.”

“It’s true,” Rafe said solemnly. “Even the great Tellwyrn is no match for Taowi’s powers of wet blanketry once she gets going.”

Fedora sighed. “All right, all right, we’ll burn that bridge if we all survive to reach it. The point is, everyone’s down here—well, everyone we could get down here—and the actual forces the enemy’s placed on campus are a big bucket o’ nothin’. That means he’ll be bringing some other leverage to bear. Everybody across the bridge; let’s all be safely in sanctuary before we find out what else the asshole has up his sleeve. Come on, chop chop.”

The group had been huddling in the alcove where the deep staircase from the Crawl’s entrance finally opened onto its vast, slanted main chamber. Scorn and Maureen had already crossed the bridge ahead into the Grim Visage, at Fedora’s direction; the Rhaazke’s long stride and the gnome’s willingness to be carried had enabled them to reach the tavern far in advance of the rest of the group, who were prodding their injured prisoner along. As ordered, they had sent Sekandar and Miss Sunrunner back to meet them. Now, with her first aid done and Sekandar having identified the man’s uniform, there was no more reason to delay.

The man actually whimpered as he was led out onto the bridge, closing his eyes and refusing to look at the impossible drop all around them, but at least he didn’t try to dig his heels in. The group split in two as they went, with Yornhaldt and Ezzaniel falling back to match the prisoner’s pace. Sunrunner, of course, stayed right by his side, urging him gently along. Fedora sauntered on ahead, Sekandar in tow.

As such, they were the first to enter the Grim Visage itself, finding the place densely packed with the over a hundred students, teachers, and other personnel currently on campus. Some had obviously departed up the stairs to the rooms, or into the broad market space beyond the common area, but there was still barely room to squeeze into the tavern’s main floor.

Which didn’t stop its proprietress.

“What the fuck!?” Melaxyna screeched, launching herself from the balcony to glide down to the entrance, where she landed atop a table near the door.

“Well, hi there, Mel!” Fedora said cheerfully, doffing his hat. “It’s a bit of a long story. See, the campus—”

“I know all about that, you ass, you think I haven’t been talking to the dozens of kids who’ve suddenly descended on my bar?” She planted her fists on her hips and glared down at him, wings unfurled menacingly and tail lashing. “What in shit’s name are you doing here?”

“He’s the head of campus security,” Hildred offered from her perch on the arm of a chair by the fireplace.

Melaxyna went entirely still, even her tail. Her eyes narrowed to slits.

“The answer to your next question, doll,” Fedora said smoothly, “is that I sucked up to Tellwyrn outrageously, and I bet you did something to gratuitously piss her off. As, I presume, did Rowe. Sound about right?”

The succubus snorted, but folded her arms and adopted a surly expression. “Well, fine. I can needle you about that later. Exactly how goddamn long do you expect to keep my tavern crammed to the gills with these kids? They’ll eat every scrap in the place in ten minutes flat, if I know college students. Which I damn well do, being a permanent stop on their bi-annual fucking tour!”

“Hopefully not long,” Fedora assured her with a wink. “We just need to hold out till Tellwyrn gets back to deal with the clown making a ruckus up top. She knows better than to dawdle, and it’ll likely be short work once she gets home. Meanwhile, we just need to keep the students in the Visage for the sake of the sanctuary effect, where they’ll be safe.”

“Uh huh,” she said skeptically. “Because it’s not like nobody’s ever found a way to fuck with the Crawl’s permanent effects before. Like I did in Level 2, for example, or Rowe did with the entire fucking place.”

“Yeah, but you were down here for years, both of you,” Fedora said dismissively. “That guy’s got hours, at most. What could he possibly do?”

Half a dozen people scattered about the room simultaneously let out loud groans.

“And those,” Sekandar helpfully informed the Inspector, “are the bardic studies majors.”


“Well, this is very mildly diverting,” Magelord Tyrann said from the other side of the barrier, inspecting his fingernails, “but do you think you will be done soon? We are in the middle of very important research.”

As if on cue, a man with wild hair, a long face, and a dark Punaji complexion leaned around the corner of the doorway behind him.

“Hey, Tyrann! We’re all playing charades now. Since you missed your turn in the last round of go fish we’re lettin’ you go first. C’mon, you’re gonna miss it!” Chortling, he vanished back into the administration building of the University’s new research campus.

Tyrann smiled thinly at the audience before him, his image only slightly distorted by being out of phase with physical reality, along with the structure behind him in which the University’s entire research staff were presently assembled. “I suspect there is no game of charades,” he confided in a dry tone. “Prince Raffi simply has the most incredible sense of comedic timing of any man I have ever known.”

“OI! What’d I tell you about callin’ me prince!”

Accompanying the yell from within, a beer bottle came sailing out through the door. It slowed in midair, drifting to hover next to Tyrann’s shoulder. The Magelord calmly plucked it from the air and took a dainty sip, still watching his would-be assailants with a superciliously arched eyebrow.

“Do you have it?” the Hand of the Emperor growled in a strained tone, his eyes fixed on Tyrann.

“I…yes, sir,” Lorelin Reich said warily, glancing between him and the other man who had recently joined them. “That is, I can sense the disruption well enough, and it is similar enough to Vidian arts…”

“I, too, can detect the general shape of what you are doing, sir,” Willard Tanenbaum said with equal unease. “Working a thumbnail into the cracks in the fairy geas upon this mountain, as it were. Most impressive. But sir, that is a Magelord of Syralon. With all due respect, I don’t believe we are going to break this phasing with him actively maintaining it…”

“You’re too kind,” Tyrann said wryly, lifting the beer bottle at him in a toast.

“I am only minimally interested in these cretins,” the Hand said shortly, his demeanor changing as he relaxed whatever magical effect he had been concentrating upon. “What matters is that you two paid attention to what I was doing, so as to be able to imitate it via your respective schools of magic.”

“It is a fairy geas, sir,” Tanenbaum said diffidently. “My arts are uniquely un-suited…”

“I’m aware,” the Hand said curtly, turning around. “But there are…”

He trailed off upon catching sight of the two House guards standing watch a few feet distant. One was leaning upon his battlestaff in a nigh-suicidal mockery of firearm safety, while the other industriously picked his nose.

“FALL IN!” the Hand roared, setting off uphill toward the main campus. Both men jumped and scurried to trail along behind the little procession, Reich and Tanenbaum flanking the Hand on the way up. The man leading them had acquired a limp in the last few minutes, somehow, which they did not ask about. Both had learned very early on that asking questions was both pointless and unwise. “I don’t care about those fools back there. My concern is the students. Right now there are defenses similar to those upon that building covering the campus chapel, and a spot deep within the Crawl; both contain students. Neither has a magic user actively defending it, and won’t so long as Tellwyrn is absent from the campus, so our window of opportunity is limited. Reich, I want you to bring that chapel back into phase and disable its sanctuary charms. Can you?”

“Without having inspected it… I mean, I believe so, sir. So long as I don’t have to argue the right of way with a Magelord or something similar.”

The Hand nodded once, curtly. “Do it, and retrieve those paralyzed students; I want them in my custody before we leave. Tanenbaum, you’re with me. We are going to go fishing deep below. There is, as they say, more than one way to skin a cat.”

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13 – 19

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Much as the children of Vanislaas favored the subtle approach, there was a time and a place. With a renegade Hand of the Emperor bounding toward him at impossible speed, Fedora dropped all camouflage and shot skyward. No one was close enough to see the revealed bone-white perfection of his skin, his crystalline irises or blue-tinged hair, but the wings and tail would have made quite a stir, had anyone been watching. He ascended as fast as those wings could propel him—not specifically to avoid notice, though it would be a nice perk. He had more urgent matters on his mind.

The Hand, however, moved with equally unnatural velocity. Even as Fedora rocketed off the steeple, he landed on the roof of the general store and instantly bounced in a high arc toward the church. The Hand impacted the side of the steeple near its peak, almost exactly where the incubus had been standing, and kicked off again, pushing himself skyward in a wide parabola that would send him crashing back to the outskirts of town from a horrifying height, and stood no realistic chance of catching the airborne demon.

He flung one hand forward and up as he ascended, though, aiming right at Fedora’s rapidly-vanishing tail.

The wash of magic that burst forth was invisible, and mostly fae in nature. It quickly dissipated in the air; Hands of the Emperor were phenomenally deadly in close combat, but had little in the way of flashy magic to throw around. That fistful of raw energy was too unfocused even to qualify as a spell, and barely reached Fedora before flickering out into nothingness. What it did have, however, was sheer power, and “barely” was enough.

Vanislaad were limited to human-like forms in their shapeshifting, and one of the drawbacks of a human form was that nature had never intended it to fly. Fedora’s flight was far more magical than aerodynamic—enough so that when a wash of unfocused fae magic rushed over him, temporarily suppressing the power of his demonic nature, his wings abruptly discovered that they were trying to hold aloft a creature far too heavy and entirely the wrong shape for soaring through the sky.

He tumbled and flopped midair, cursing and frantically flapping his beleaguered wings like a singed moth. Fedora managed, after some struggle, to right himself and get rearranged into an awkward glide, but the fact remained he was going nowhere but down. At least he had enough wingspan to manage a descent that would put him down out of range of the town, and without forming a crater upon impact.

The effort so absorbed him, however, that he failed to realize his position relative to his pursuer.

Just as Fedora was leveling out his fall, the Hand came arcing back down from the apex of his final leap. The incubus’s midair struggles had shoved him far to the side of his descent, inevitably, but he craned his head as he fell, studying the angles.

Then he vanished as though slipping through a crack in midair. Instantly he reappeared, still falling and at exactly the same angle and speed, but now directly above the gliding Inspector. It wasn’t a precise hit—given the forces and speeds involved, that would have been truly uncanny—but it put him close enough to reach out and, as he passed, grab Fedora’s extended tail just above its spaded tip.

The demon let out another aggravated yelp as he was abruptly yanked downward. “Oh, how are you possibly—”

The Hand of the Emperor, not in a conversational mood, swung him around in a complete circle as they plummeted, releasing at exactly the right moment to send him hurtling downward at far greater than terminal velocity.

This time Fedora managed to right himself faster, largely through luck, and snapped his wings back out to their full extent. There was no possibility of another saving glide, however; he was heading down far too fast and at far too steep an angle. Curling himself into a defensive ball with the exception of the wings, outstretched in a desperate makeshift parachute, he came slamming down onto the roof of the barn which stood on the outskirts of Last Rock.

Onto, and through.

The incubus crashed through the timbers, bounced off the edge of the hayloft and hit the ground in an agonized heap, trailing bedraggled wings which flopped over him in a mess of snapped bones and ripped sails.

It took priceless moments for the pain to recede enough for him to think. The Vanislaad were among the least physically powerful demons, but hardy in their way; what did not immediately kill him would right itself in time, and far faster than humans healed. Not fast enough to get him out of the present danger, however.

What broke him from his reverie was a second impact, which caused the entire barn to shake and one corner to partially collapse as something hit it. Timbers and planks fell, luckily far enough from him not to add further injury, but the noise galvanized his attention enough to take inventory.

Broken…lots of things broken. An arm, a leg—no, both legs—wings completely out of commission. Ribs, apparently most of them. Not his spine, good; that wouldn’t paralyze him the way it could a human, but there was only so much muscle and tendon could do around a fractured core. Even luckier, he had avoided hitting anything skull-first. Fortunately none of his internal organs actually did anything—except, less fortunately, ache and bleed when subjected to this caliber of abuse.

After a momentary pause, the wreckage of the corner of the barn began shifting insistently, causing the whole structure to groan in protest. Hands of the Emperor were nothing if not physically hardy. That fall wouldn’t be good for anybody, but the bastard had assuredly been damaged less than Fedora, and would heal much faster.

Marshaling himself, he faded into invisibility and began scuttling away to hide behind a stack of straw bales. With one arm and two legs broken, this was utterly excruciating, but having pushed through the initial shock, he managed to embrace the sensation, forced it to sharpen his mind rather than fogging it. Pain wasn’t preferable to pleasure—at least, not to him, though he’d known incubi and even the odd mortal who felt otherwise—but children of Vanislaas sought out extreme sensations as a matter of course. If they went too long without feeding the itch, whatever stimulated the nerves could provide partial relief.

He managed to conceal himself behind both his native shroud of invisibility and the physical obstruction of the straw, which would hopefully buy a few seconds; he was sure the Hands had extra senses, though of what nature he did not know. Fedora carefully rummaged in the inner pocket of his trench coat with his un-broken hand. The bag-of-holding spell had, of course, shielded the contents from damage and yielded up exactly what he was reaching for. Bless modern enchantment; this situation would’ve been an immediate death sentence fifty years ago.

He reflected wryly, as he flicked off the cork and downed a vial of healing potion imbued with pure infernal magic, that he might have outsmarted himself here. All this ruckus would’ve already been resolved had he not persuaded Tellwyrn to hang back and watch rather than “saving” the day as per her distinctive idiom. Well, it had been the right call, and he’d outmaneuvered the Hand’s gambit. Now he just had to survive the son of a bitch long enough to tell her what she was up against.

Fedora took some tiny satisfaction from the groans that accompanied the Hand’s self-extrication. Precious seconds ticked by, in which they both rapidly improved in condition. The Hand’s innate magic straightening out the comparatively minor injuries he’d suffered, Fedora’s potion working far more rapidly on him. Rapidly or not, though, it was working on much greater damage to a much more fragile vessel. He’d no immediately useful basis of comparison to the Hand’s condition, but best to assume the man would be in better shape than he by the time he couldn’t afford to stall any longer.

That time was fast approaching.

Teeth gritted against the urge to gasp—luckily he did not actually have to breathe—while several bones shifted excruciatingly back into position, he took stock of his surroundings. No exits in the back half of the barn, of course. To reach either the front or side doors he’d have to go back out in the open. Was he faster than a Hand of the Emperor? In this condition, no. In his optimal shape…based on what he’d seen tonight, also no.

He’d just have to be smarter, then.

Easier said than done; brains couldn’t do much without usable options. Fedora quickly discarded extraneous details, fixing upon two of immediate importance: invisible or no, his crawl back here would have left a trail in the dust which the Hand would find sooner than later, and there was exactly one discreet exit from this position.

His arm and leg bones were in their right configuration but still somewhat fractured, which meant that while he could haul himself up the steep ladder into the hayloft, he could not do so in silence. Bracing himself on it and trusting his invisibility, he pulled his battered body upright, peeking over the strawbales and watching the Hand for his moment, already reaching once more into his coat pocket.

As he’d thought, the Hand paused in his pacing, bending over to watch the trail Fedora had left on the ground. That put him seconds at most from pursuing, but also gave the incubus his opening.

He withdrew his hand and hurled the vial he’d just grabbed over the man’s bent head, straight into the wrecked corner of the barn.

It was one of his favorite alchemical explosives: not terribly powerful, but extraordinarily clean. No fire, no light, not even heat or a puff of smoke, just a burst of pure kinetic energy when the vial broke and the solution encountered air. The blast sent broken planks tumbling again, and caused the whole barn to creak ominously. More importantly, it made the Hand whirl to face this new threat, giving Fedora time to scuttle up the ladder with the speed of a spooked squirrel.

He had barely enough mental wherewithal to collapse as gently and silently as possible when he reached the top. Kelvreth’s lashes, that had fucking hurt. Yep, the broken arm was well and truly broken again—and now the effects of his infernal healing potion were fading, so it was gonna stay that way for the immediate term. He didn’t dare take another vial; just the amount he’d already used was risky in the presence of a fae-attuned creature like the Hand. His legs, fortunately, just hurt. Like Hell itself, he thought authoritatively, but at least they were somewhat functional again.

Fedora lay stretched out, wings awkwardly flopping beside him while they continued stitching slowly back together—he might manage one more awkward glide tonight, but he wasn’t flying anywhere—and concentrated on listening and not breathing. The potion helped a bit but he still felt weakened by fae exposure. Or maybe it was just pain. The barn shuddered again due to something the Hand did, but the man was already on the prowl again. Also, there were sounds from within the town, rapidly approaching: footsteps and voices. Whether anybody had noticed them soaring through the air was unknowable at this point, but thanks the the Hand’s efforts at stirring up a mob, plenty of people were out and about to hear two man-sized projectiles plummet to the ground, and the state of this barn would quickly reveal where they had landed.

He lifted his head, again taking stock. Good, he was slightly less cornered now. There was a wide loading window up here, with a sturdy bar extending outward conveniently lined with rope. Why the hell would—oh, lifting hay bales into the loft, of course. If he was going to stay out here in the sticks he needed to familiarize himself better with prairie life. More immediately important, that provided a neat exit. He could also go over the front edge of the hayloft, back to the floor and out one of the exits; the Hand would soon find his trail again, which would lead to the ladder, which would keep him facing away from the front of the barn.

That would require split-second timing, speed he wasn’t sure his battered legs were up to, and would put him out facing the town, right in time for whatever crowd was coming to get here—depending on how Maru was doing, possibly under the effect of mob-maddening Vidian jiggery pokery.

Yeah, that really was not a choice.

Moving as fast as he could without compromising stealth, he stood and crept to the window. Its bottom was even with the floor, which luckily meant one less thing to climb. More importantly, the coast was clear. Fedora grasped the rope with his good arm and hopped out.

Only instinct honed by centuries of cat-and-mouse games like this one saved him.

Before he had consciously processed the noise below him, he’d reflexively yanked upward, hauling his feet and tail out of range of the Hand’s grasp as the man hopped from below. Fedora swung all the way up and landed atop the beam in a crouch; both legs screamed in agony, but they held. For the moment. One was quavering, though, and he knew another maneuver like that was going to send him to the ground.

He peered over the side of the beam; the Hand of the Emperor glared up at him. Clever bastard hadn’t followed his trail at all. To get out here he’d have needed to exit the barn from the side and circle all the way around…which meant he had anticipated Fedora’s reactions and plans in detail, right in the moment.

Well, that was good and fucking ominous.

They stared at one another in silence for a moment, and Fedora was again pleased with himself for cultivating such a disheveled appearance; it neatly concealed the fact that he himself was physically a wreck. The Hand wasn’t so lucky, his usually pristine black coat being torn half off him. Even the fringe of hair surrounding his bald head was sticking out in all directions like a bird’s nest.

Fedora thought as fast as he’d ever thought in his life. Then, powering through the howling pain, he first straightened up and darted forward along the beam, then instantly pivoted and shot back the other way, bounding onto the roof of the barn.

He had a clear shot to the mountainside from the barn’s rear, but that would put him in the position of trying to outrun the Hand on open ground, which he was in no shape to do; his wings weren’t up to flying again, either. This way set him back facing Last Rock and all its hazards, but the poorly-planned little town made a neat obstacle course even before all the construction going up on multiple sides.

Of course, that unwise maneuver immediately caused one of his legs to buckle, exactly as he’d feared it would. Fedora managed to land on the sloping roof, barely, and it was all his frantic scrabbling could do to stop a calamitous slide right over the side. He managed to land on top of his right wing, further ensuring its uselessness—and adding to the pain, of course, though that was a drop in the bucket at this point.

Gritting his teeth, he forced himself upright, stepping carefully on legs which blazed with agony at every step, turning to make for the front of the roof and the town. Maybe he could jump as far as a nearby rooftop, and probably break his leg again, but he had to do something and there’d be only seconds before—

Fedora stopped, staring. The Hand was already standing on the roof, right at the front edge, straddling the very peak.

“Y’know what?” the incubus said aloud. “Just, fuck you, that’s all.”

“Treason,” the Hand said flatly, taking a measured step forward, “applies to citizens of his Majesty’s realm. Despite the fact that you are absent without leave from your sworn duties and in league with an enemy of the Empire…” His lip curled in a contemptuous sneer. “Well, no one should really be surprised, should they?”

Fedora shuffled along the edge of the roof, making slowly for the peak even as the Hand made slowly for him. He couldn’t betray his intentions by glancing down—the moment he moved with any speed, the man would be on him like a pouncing cougar—but if he got to the center of the roof it would be a straight drop back to the protruding beam below. And probably more broken bones, and then he’d still have to make it to the ground and somehow away…

Well, at this point, his every desperate gambit was just to survive a few more seconds. Chain enough of those successes together and he’d be golden.

“Intelligence, of course, anticipated this when they brought you in,” the Hand continued, pacing toward him. “It was not merely expected, but planned. Eventually, when you were no longer worth keeping, it would be necessary to put you down. I suppose Lord Vex will be disappointed that he doesn’t get the satisfaction himself, but that’s what he gets for failing to keep you under control in the first place.”

He was at the peak. Tallest point of the roof, making the drop even worse; in hindsight, maybe he’d have been better off just dropping straight to the ground from a lower height. Orange lamplight illuminated the far edge of the barn and the Hand’s silhouette, signaling the arrival of Last Rock’s citizens.

Maybe the Hand would refrain from physically tearing him apart in public? No, a Hand could legally do anything he liked, and with Fedora’s wings still on display they wouldn’t even object… He tried to shapeshift, which brought nothing but another spike of pain. Probably the combination of fae magic, physical trauma and infernal medicine, in that order.

Would Tellwyrn bother to summon him back from Hell? That wasn’t in his contract… He had a suspicion she didn’t value his services nearly that much just yet, especially not after how displeased she’d been with this night’s work.

The Hand was almost close enough to grab now, and smirking, which was somehow the worst thing tonight. It was bad enough getting outmaneuvered, without the asshole rubbing it in.

“You probably thought you were going to get away with it, didn’t you?” The man twisted his mouth, baring teeth in a truly unsettling expression; there was a grin in there, but also a sneer, and still that smirk, all beneath eyes too wide and with pupils too narrow. The insanity could practically be smelled at this distance. “Now you know otherwise. Nothing defeats the Tiraan Empire.”

“In the Enchanter Wars, pretty much everybody did,” Fedora said sweetly, and “accidentally” twisted his foot on the edge of the roof, flailing his arms for effect as he plummeted. Well, if this was how it ended, at least he got the last word.

The Hand lunged for the edge, then immediately skidded to a stop, staring in disbelief as Fedora bounced right back up, still spinning and flailing. It was an open question which of them was more startled.

Then the big, soft thing he’d impacted ascended above the rooftop, and the Hand actually stepped back, glaring in consternation. Fedora came down again, bouncing once more, but the next time on his descent he managed to catch one of the blimp’s ears on his way toward the ground, and clung there, dangling and trying to ignore the blistering pain in his shoulder.

The blimp’s…ears?

It wasn’t even the size of the smallest zeppelins, but the huge balloon could have lifted a carriage easily. More distinctively, it had four tiny paws along its rim, a fluffy striped tail hanging from the rear…and an enormous grin facing the Hand, which Fedora was now dangling close enough to see up close.

Maru opened his mouth, puckered his giant lips, and blew possibly the biggest, wettest raspberry anyone had ever heard.

Exactly like a rubber balloon with the air being let out, it produced a blast of wind which sent the Hand of the Emperor tumbling all the way back across the barn’s roof, and the tanuki balloon with its battered passenger shooting away in the opposite direction on a crazy course that bounced them what felt like halfway across the sky and back.

Given Fedora’s condition by that point, it was hardly a surprise that he lost his grip.

“ARE YOU KIDDING ME WITH THIS?!” he shouted more at the universe than at Maru as he found himself plummeting out of the air for the second time in the last few minutes, this time without the benefit of working wings.

Then he was grabbed again—by the collar, now, rather than any portion of his anatomy. Awkward as that was, it was still a step up from his recent treatment.

Fedora craned his neck to peer upward, finding Maru grinning down at him. Back in his normal-sized raccoon form, now, and hanging from what appeared to be a bamboo-and-paper parasol painted with Sifanese calligraphy, which somehow kept them both floating aloft.

“If you find this excessively uncomfortable,” the tanuki suggested, “I could return you below to try the diplomatic approach. Your new friend could greatly benefit from the lesson you just learned about premature monologues.”

“I know what you’re doing,” Fedora accused. “You think you’re too cute for anybody to get pissed at you.”

“Oh, is that what I’m doing?” Maru’s grin widened. He had an awful lot of white, needle-like teeth. “What baffles me the most in all this is how your hat is still on your head.”

Fedora grinned back, reached up, and carefully extracted a long hatpin, holding it aloft for him to see.

“Ah. A fashionable ladies’ accoutrement, is it not?”

“Also a serviceable improvised weapon, and two make a decent set of lockpicks. Never underestimate a fashionable lady, bub.”

“A shame you did not get the chance to use it on our associate down there!”

“And don’t think I wasn’t gonna! If he’d—”

It said something about the night he was having that the sudden disappearance of the entire world was far from the most shocking transition he’d experienced recently. The empty sky vanished from around them, replaced with the domed roof of Helion Hall, and Fedora found himself unceremoniously dumped to the floor, where he lay in a disgruntled heap. Maru lit neatly atop the little table which made the centerpiece of Professor Tellwyrn’s personal little patio, accessible only by teleportation.

“I sincerely hope you two are pleased with yourselves,” she grated. “That way somebody is!”

“Now, now, give the fuzzball a break,” Fedora suggested, raising his least injured arm to hold a finger aloft. Gods in bloomers, he hurt everywhere. “This is a college town, and a magical one at that. I’m sure Maru’s performance will just go down as the new student prank to beat. Hell, Chase Masterson was in town, I have no doubt he’ll take credit when nobody else steps forward.”

She took two steps to loom over him, leaning over to accomplish the feat of staring at him over the rims of her spectacles—not easy to do, given their respective positions. “And what do you have to say about your perching atop the bloody church like a self-important gargoyle?”

He found a new reason to wince. “Ah. So you were watching.”

“In fairness to Murgatroyd,” Maru said diffidently, “that is somewhat redundant, is it not? Gargoyles by nature, almost by definition—”

“Urusai!” she barked. Maru subsided, a satisfied little smile lingering on his sharp muzzle.

“So it wasn’t as clean as anybody woulda liked,” Fedora grunted, finally forcing himself into a sitting position. “Aaaiee—yow, that hurts! Fuck, I feel like the china shop after the bull got through…”

“You engaged a Hand of the Emperor in hand-to-hand combat,” Maru observed, “and are not dead. Nor even dismembered! All things being equal, I believe that counts as a resounding success.”

“What he said!” Fedora agreed quickly, pointing at Maru but keeping his eyes on Tellwyrn. “Look, Prof, this was messier than I hoped and I know it goes against your grain to hang back while other people do the heavy lifting, but we won tonight! The kids are home safe, the enemy didn’t get to make a spectacle of you, which had to’ve been the bulk of what he was after, and we succeeded in turning the scheme around on him. Now he’s got nothing to show for it, you haven’t shown your hand, and we know who our enemy is!”

“A Hand of the Emperor,” she said more quietly.

“The same one from before,” he replied, nodding. “My official connections with Intelligence are cut off, but I keep my ear to the ground. There was plenty of rumor about the Hands going wonky a few weeks back, but it’s widely known they’re stable again. Except…they seem to have missed a spot. That guy was not playin’ with a full deck.”

“Even I know Hands are famed for their discretion and efficiency,” Maru added. “This one cost himself a victory by engaging Murgatroyd in a futile display of wordplay. Really, standing around on the cusp of his victory and making a speech instead of finishing the job. Can you imagine anyone being so unutterably foolish? Not to mention cliché.”

“I know where you sleep, fuzzball,” Fedora warned.

The tanuki turned to him and bowed. “I am very flattered, but you are too tall for me. Also, Tellwyrn-sensei, there is more. This Hand is working with a Vidian priestess, Lorelin Reich. It was she who used her arts to stir up the town against the students.”

Tellwyrn drew in a deep breath through her nose. “Reich. Back in Last Rock. Well, well. Just when I could actually use Arquin for once, and I’ve sent him off to Puna Dara.”

“It might not hurt to let yourself trust the kids a little more,” Fedora said, starting to rise. He changed plans halfway through, easing himself into the little chair she kept by the table with a wince. “Nnnnf… But yeah. Szith made a damn fine show of herself tonight. I tolja she would. That girl’s been training to be a noble’s bodyguard since she was big enough to pick up a sword. If there’s one person up on this mountain who can be relied on to extract somebody from a mob—”

“All right, point taken,” Tellwyrn said impatiently. “Not unconditionally agreed, but you can stop harping on it. We had better deal with what’s coming next.”

“Yeah,” Fedora said, frowning. “Yeah… There’s a downside to victory. It narrows the enemy’s options, forces them to move faster. I’m afraid we may not have as much time to prepare, now. Now that we know who he is, whatever that Hand does next, he’s gonna have to do soon.”


“Sir, I’ll take responsibility for this,” Lorelin said formally, folding her hands behind her back. “When that creature engaged us, I instructed Mr. Carson to hold it at bay while I kept concentrating on my own task. That was a mistake; it was far too much for him to handle. Maybe if I’d dealt with it, I could have resumed focusing the crowd and prevented it from intercepting you later.”

The Hand gazed at her in chilly silence for a moment, then transferred his look to Fred Carson, who flinched. He hadn’t fared nearly as badly as the Hand himself, whose clothes were still in tatters; Fred’s coat was a mass of scrapes and rents from the creature’s tiny claws, though Lorelin’s healing had washed away his actual wounds and hopefully neutralized any fae nonsense that might have lingered on him. Even she was somewhat disheveled after scuffling about in the toolshed. The sole fairy lamp in the basement in which they met was an older model, and cast a flickering light that did none of them any favors.

“Do you know what that thing was, Reich?” the Hand asked finally.

Slowly, she shook her head. “No, sir, I don’t. Some manner of fairy. I’ve never heard of one that looked like an overlarge raccoon.”

“Carson?”

Fred swallowed heavily. “N-no, sir. That is t’say… I mean, I ain’t seen it myself, but I’ve heard from my trips up the mountain that Tellwyrn’s got a critter like that workin’ for her. I…shoulda thought of it. Plumb didn’t occur to me till after it’d left us. S-sorry.”

The Hand finally shook his head. “This was not your fault, Carson. Nor yours, Reich. We were simply…outmaneuvered. It happens.” He reached forward to lay a hand on Fred’s shoulder, ignoring the flinch the gesture prompted, and gave him a light squeeze. “You have served your Emperor well, never fear; sometimes, we simply don’t win. What matters is learning from defeat and applying the lesson. Next time it will be different. For now, Carson, go home, get some rest. I will need to call upon you again soon.”

Fred’s departure was accompanied by much bowing and stammering. He had barely shut the cellar door behind him before Lorelin turned to the Hand and spoke.

“Sir, I have to ask. By designating the gnome as the primary target, were you trying to avoid setting off a major confrontation?”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “What are you talking about?”

“I mean…a dangerous one. Something that could have caused major damage to the town and not involved Tellwyrn.”

“Talk sense, Reich,” he snapped. “That Masterson boy is possibly the least dangerous thing on that mountain, and not even the most annoying.”

She stared, her Vidian mask of control slipping slightly to permit surprise to peek through. “You…don’t know…?”

“What?”

Lorelin swallowed. “I assumed you were… Well. I have no up to date word from my contacts in Intelligence, as you ordered, but I was briefed on the situation unfolding in Last Rock. Your first mission here, and Fedora’s, in response to the Sleeper outbreak. Sir… There is something you should know about Chase Masterson.”

 

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13 – 17

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Jasmine allowed herself a sigh of relief as she set the empty canape tray down on the kitchen counter. None of the others were present; given the sudden availability of free “help,” Glory had not troubled to bring in staff for this event. Ami and Schwartz were circulating among the guests (with differing degrees of skill), but the lady of the house had not hesitated to put the Guild apprentices to work. That left Smythe to handle the cooking, a skill none of the rest of them possessed.

“Well, this hasn’t been nearly as bad as I’d feared,” she said aloud, adjusting the collar of her still jacket. Actually the livery the Butler had found for them didn’t bother her; it reminded her of dress uniform. Layla and Darius, likewise, seemed to find it hilarious to be dressing as servants, but Tallie in particular was not enjoying the role. As usual, it was hard to tell what Ross thought.

“Do not mistake caution for virtue,” Smythe advised, glancing at her with a faint smile but not turning from the sauce he was stirring. He manned the stove without the benefit of an apron, but his uniform was, of course, spotless. Butlers did not make mistakes. “Many of those men and several of the women have fondled waitresses in other venues. No one invited to one of Tamisin Sharvineh’s events, however, would be foolish enough to mistreat working-class people in the home of a prominent Eserite.”

“I hadn’t even thought of that,” Jasmine said, frowning. “I just meant that I’m not as terrible at this as I could be. It’s my first time serving appetizers at a society party. Believe it or not,” she added dryly.

The Butler gave her another glance; his expression relaxed subtly, conveying the aspect of a calm smile without actually moving his lips. It was incredible what the man could communicate with his face. “A military upbringing confers many traits which are crucial in domestic service, notably punctuality, discretion, good posture, and the capacity to behave deferentially toward worthless people. Alone among your friends, I would gladly provide you references toward another position.”

“I have other plans, but I appreciate that,” she said with amusement. He nodded, turning back to his sauce. “Will you need me to take another tray?”

“Not yet. Your compatriots have that in hand. There is a rhythm and a balance to social events; madame prefers her hospitality to seem generous but not excessive. It is a subtle reminder to the powerful individuals present that on Eserion’s ground, even they may go hungry.”

“That’s slightly terrifying,” she observed. “But I’m amazed how you can be so aware of the situation from back here in the kitchen.”

“I am a Butler,” he explained. “It might be wise for you to circulate, however. Ostensibly to see if a guest needs anything, but more significantly to keep an eye on the house. With so many present, opportunities for mischief abound.”

Jasmine frowned. “You don’t think the conspirators would attempt something here, surely? Even the Svennish intelligence service didn’t dare attack this house.”

“The Svennish intelligence service are professionals. Your adversaries have thus far abducted Eserite apprentices practically from the Guild’s doorstep, attempted to unlawfully imprison the same under the very nose of the Sisterhood, and employed intrusive scrying spells on a witch sufficiently powerful to detect and counter them. Reckless or incompetent foes present their own dangers, Jasmine. They may be more easily beaten once confronted, but a person unburdened by strategic sense might attempt almost anything.”

“I see your point,” she said, then deliberately smoothed her expression. “I’ll make the rounds, then.”

Smythe shifted to give her another nod before going back to his stirring, and she slipped back out.

It was odd, she reflected while navigating the busy townhouse, how none of the guests appeared to notice her. When she was carrying food, they would select bites without acknowledging her, as though an unattended tray were floating past. Smythe had lectured the group about the invisibility of servants (she really hoped Tallie’s resentment toward nobles wasn’t already bubbling over), but to Jasmine’s mind the Guild’s doctrine had more to teach about this phenomenon. She wondered, while climbing the servant’s stairs in the back, whether this qualified as “don’t see” or “won’t see.” A bit of both, she decided; for the most part, ignoring servants simply seemed the thing to do, and they had no trouble detecting the canapes and cocktails. But then, after overhearing snippets of conversation, she was starting to suspect that some of these people didn’t regard those below their station as actual people.

And these were Glory’s guests? It was downright horrifying to imagine what must be going on in the houses of the city’s nobility. This party had done more to impart a good Eserite’s resentment of those in power than weeks of Lore’s lectures.

Apparently no one wanted anything, and most of the guests were fully occupied with one another, or clustered in the central salon where Glory was holding court; at any rate, she was not stopped on her way around the lower floor. She did pass Ross holding a tray of drinks, and received a blank-faced nod from him. Technically a breach of Smyth’s rules of servant conduct, but she wasn’t about to rat him out. Her rounds were uninterrupted until she passed the bathroom door on the second floor rear hallway, not far from the servant’s stairs.

It opened so abruptly she had to take a step back to avoid being struck, but did not swing wide. Layla squeezed through the crack and instantly pushed it shut behind her.

“Jasmine,” she hissed. “Thank the gods. That guest this is all about, Carruthers Treadwell? He’s a gnome, right?”

Jasmine tilted her head curiously. “Treadwell? Yes, Schwartz said he was.”

“A little paunchy?” Layla continued in a furious whisper, glancing surreptitiously about in exactly the way Style had told them not to do. “White hair, big mustache…?”

“That I can’t tell you; Glory’s been monopolizing him and I haven’t met the man yet. Apparently he didn’t want to come and she had to apply persuasion, and just winked when I asked what that…” Jasmine trailed off, suddenly frowning. “Why? Did he corner you in the bathroom or something? Layla, even if we need his help you do not have to put up with—”

Layla grabbed her arm, and Jasmine focused on her face, suddenly paying closer attention. The girl had always had an aristocrat’s composure even before the Guild’s coaching in the fine art of lying, but she was two shades paler than normal, her eyes wide and lips pressed into a stressed line. She glanced up and down the empty hall once more, then stepped aside, pulled the door open just a crack, and jerked her head urgently toward it.

Taking the hint, Jasmine shut her mouth and immediately slipped inside, making room for Layla to follow. By the time the younger girl had pulled the door shut behind them, she had already forgotten she was there.

The gnome sat against the wall next to the ornately cast porcelain toilet, eyes staring vacantly at a point near the ceiling. His black tuxedo jacket did not reveal stains, but the white shirt beneath was now more crimson than white, and the blood spreading from around him had rendered the carpet a total loss.

They stared in stunned silence before Layla managed to speak in a thin, tight voice.

“It’s surreal. The one thought I cannot get out of my head is it does not seem there could physically be that much blood inside a gnome. Isn’t that surreal?”

Jasmine blinked, swallowed, shook her head once, and straightened her spine. “Right. Right. Okay. Layla, get Glory. No!” She shook her head, closing her eyes momentarily in thought. “You can’t push through that crowd to get her attention, that’ll kick the beehive for sure. Go to the kitchen, get Smythe. He will get Glory and she’ll direct our next steps. I’ll stay here and make sure nobody else finds…this.”

“Right. Yes. I’m on my way.” Layla seemed energized at having direction, and grasped the door handle again.

“And be careful,” Jasmine added, turning to her suddenly. “This can’t possibly be a coincidence.”

“Yes, I know,” Layla said, drawing a deep breath. “Whoever’s after us is in this house, and now we know how far they’re willing to go. And that they can get around Glory’s wards. I’ll be quick.”

No sooner had they slipped back into the hall than Layla shot off toward the rear staircase at the fastest pace that would not draw attention. Jasmine planted herself in front of the door, falling automatically into parade rest.

Layla had only been gone a minute before a well-dressed man strolled up, drink in hand, and paused to give her an inquisitive look. “Excuse me?”

“I’m terribly sorry, sir,” she said with a deferential little smile. “This one is out of order.”


They went for the slope itself, Maureen stubbornly clinging to her basket of metal—she was not about to relinquish her haul to whatever nonsense this was—but made it only a few feet up the slope before the roar of the crowd abruptly ceased. Naturally, she didn’t slow. When fleeing a pursuer, it was a fatal mistake to sacrifice footing and control to look back; any gnome knew that.

Unfortunately, Chase Masterson had not had the benefit of a gnomish education.

He immediately skidded to a stop, turning in the process to see what made the change, which proved to be a more complex maneuver than he could handle while running up a steep slope. Or, knowing him, probably at all. He slipped on the grass, one ankle twisting out from under him, and went tumbling to the ground, immediately rolling downhill.

Even more unfortunately, a great towering human-sized lummox rolling down the mountain at her from barely more than her height ahead proved an obstacle Maureen could neither vault over nor dodge around. The impact bowled her right over, causing her to lose her grip finally. The basket went tumbling away, strewing scrap metal across the grass.

Being knocked down and rolled upon did not phase her, but for that, she punched him as hard as she could manage in whatever piece of the big oaf it was that currently blocked her vision.

“Ow! My kidney!” Chase scrambled away, but stopped before rising back to his feet, staring back down at the town. “…huh. What the hell’s got into them now?”

The erstwhile mob seemed to have abruptly lost its impetus. Suddenly, it had ceased to be a seething organism and had become a dozen or so prairie townspeople, standing around and staring at each other in confusion, as if unsure what they were doing or why. Silence gradually gave way to subdued muttering.

“Dunno,” Maureen grunted, hopping nimbly back to her feet. “Their problem, an’ I’m out before it becomes ours again. An’ you owe me a basket o’ metal bits, y’great clodhoppin’ galoot!”

“Oh, sure, blame me,” he said cheerfully, scrambling back upright and following her into a dash. They set off up the slope at an angle this time, heading for the stone stairs and their more certain footing. “Surely you don’t think I caused a mob?”

Maureen didn’t spare him a glance. “I dunno, Chase. Did you cause a mob?”

“Well, not that I know of!” he replied with an exuberant laugh. “But let’s face it, if there’s an angry mob and I’m in the same town, there’s at least even odds that somehow—”

“Just bloody well run!”


“Hey!” Fred protested as the shed door was yanked open, whirling to face the intruder. He had to lower his gaze; whoever had interrupted them was about half his height.

“What’s this? What’s all this, now?” wheezed a reedy little voice. “What’re y’all doin’ in my garden shed?”

“Your…” Fred stared, blinking in astonishment. The voice was an old man’s, one he didn’t immediately recognize. “Your… Mister, I think you’re a mite turned around.”

“Don’t you lecture me, sonny boy!” the intruder said shrilly, and Fred stumbled at a sharp jab to his thigh. A moment later he stumbled back again, throwing up a hand to protect his eyes against the brilliance that had suddenly erupted. The tiny old man lifted an old-fashioned oil lamp to illuminate the interior of the shed. Even without the hunch that bent him nearly double, he was short, his head entirely bald with incongruously huge tufts of white hair erupting from his ears, face so lost in wrinkles that his eyes were completely obscured beneath bushy brows. He jabbed at Fred again with a gnarled cane, though this time Fred held his ground; if he backed up any further he’d stumble over Lorelin, who was still seated in meditation. The old man prodded him once more, shaking his lamp aggressively. “This here’s my tool shed, an’ I don’t take kindly to trespassers, nosirree I don’t!”

“You said garden shed,” Fred said dumbly.

That was apparently the wrong answer, and earned him a whack on the hip. For such an apparently frail old fellow, he could swing that cane hard.

“Don’t you correct me, y’little hoodlum! I know my rights! Eighty-seventeen years I’ve worked this farm, an’ I know every inch of it! This here’s my garden toolshed, sure as my name’s Cletus Custer Indominus Boomerang McGee! My poor wife’s buried right behind it, an’ my dog too, Vidius rest both their souls! But not the cat, little bastard never did an honest day’s work in his furry life.”

Rubbing his thigh, Fred snuck a glance back at the priestess, who did not react to the invocation of her god, either. She was still concentrating; his job, after all, was to see she wasn’t interrupted. He shifted position, planting himself between the old man and Lorelin. “Now see here, mister, this here shed’s in an alley behind the Saloon, there ain’t no way…” He trailed off, frowning, then leaned forward. “Hang on. Do I know you? I ain’t never seen you ’round town…”

He really should have expected the ensuing whack to the skull, he reflected when he could think again. In hindsight, it was obvious. When his ears stopped ringing, he found he’d barely caught himself against the wall of the shed. That and…oh, no.

Lorelin grunted, almost sending Fred entirely to the ground in the process of crawling out from under him. The old man was still ranting, shaking his lantern at them.

“…never heard such disrespect, in my day, young ‘uns had a proper regard for their elders, yes sir they did! Why, when I fought off the elves with my trusty lightnin’ staff, even they wasn’t so rude! Elves got proper respect for their elders, yes they do! ‘Mr. McGee,’ they said t’me, ‘beggin’ yer pardon but we’re here to pillage yer farm, if y’please.’ An’ I served ’em tea before I shot ’em all in the face in alphabetical order with lightning, cos in my day we had us a little thing called manners!”

“I’m unsurprised you don’t recognize him, Mr. Carson,” Lorelin said, straightening and brushing off her shirt. “This creature is some kind of fairy.”

“You’re some kinda fairy!” McGee shouted, whacking Fred again. “I never heard o’ such—”

The light that blazed from behind Fred was by a wide margin more blinding than the lamp, and made him distinctly grateful he wasn’t looking in its direction. The pure golden glow of divine magic pulsed outward, and at its impact, Cletus Custer Indominus Boomerang McGee seemed to blow away as if made of dust, leaving behind a shape that made even less sense.

Fred locked eyes with the four-foot-tall raccoon dressed in robes for a moment. Then the creature had the temerity to giggle.

Then it darted forward, dropped to the ground, and bit him on the ankle.

Fred yelled and stumbled over backward, once again collapsing atop Lorelin. This time he bore them both fully to the ground, again breaking her concentration. The light vanished, plunging them once more into oppressive darkness.

“I’m sorry!” he stammered, scrambling off her and accidentally kicking her in the process. “Gods, I didn’t mean—”

“Don’t worry about it, Carson.” Her voice, oddly enough, seemed amused. “It seems this may not be as easy as we were expecting.”

“What the hell is that thing?!”

“I’ve no idea; fairies are over my head.” His vision was gradually adjusting; he could make out a shifting shadow as she altered her position. “But we have our mission, and it looks like yours is no longer the easy part. Do your best to keep him off me, if you please.”

She fell still, and silent, apparently sinking back into meditation. In the ensuing silence, Fred heaved himself upright, lurched over to the door, and swung it shut, pressing himself against it.

The distinct scrabbling of little clawed feet scampered across the roof above them, followed by a shrill and distinctly insane giggle. And then a whimper, which Fred only belatedly realized had been himself.


Whatever caused the lull lasted only moments, and then with a roar, the crowd was after them again.

“Bloody ‘ell, are they gaining?” Maureen protested just as they reached the stairs.

“Well, yeah, their legs alone are taller than you,” Chase pointed out, a little breathless. He had pulled ahead, and now paused, turning back to her. “I could’ve left you behind, but Tellwyrn would turn me into an entire new dumbass-leather wardrobe. Her words, not mine. Oh, fine, I guess I have to do everything around here.”

“Don’t you dare!” she squawked, smacking him and jumping away as he bent and reached for her.

“Ow! You pint-sized idjit, do you want to get torn apart by a mob? Come here!”

“You can barely carry yer own weight, the way yer gaspin’!” Maureen skittered wide, departing the staircase to circle around him outside his reach. The distraction had cost them; she chanced a glance down the mountain, and the inexplicably enraged humans were rapidly gaining.

“Dammit to hell and back in a handbasket,” he complained, huffing as he followed her and lacking the sense to shut up when he was clearly not in good enough shape to be running up mountains in the first place. “This better actually be my fault somehow! If I get killed and it’s not because of something I did, everybody I care about is gonna lose the pool I have going. Best thing I could leave for ’em, not like I’ve got anything worth putting in a will…”

Only when he trailed off for breath did she note the sound. She had never heard it so distantly before, but Maureen knew that sound.

“No,” she breathed.

The lights came into view ahead and above them, a sharp blue glow that descended the mountain right at them at a frightening speed, the noise growing louder. It was a hum both deep and shrill, that seemed to exist somewhere on the boundaries of hearing.

“What the fuck now?” Chase demanded. “I really hope that’s help. Is that help? It doesn’t look like help. Doesn’t sound like help, either…”

“No, no, no!” Maureen wailed, putting on a burst of speed. “No, she’s not ready yet! She’s not done! Aye, she runs but I’ve the whole stabilizing matrix to install!”

“Who’s not ready?” he demanded.

Then the thing drew close enough to come into focus.

It angled away from the staircase, swerving wide to avoid striking them, and immediately began wobbling, which caused Maureen to cry out in panic. No surprise; stabilizing matrix or no, there was nobody alive who had any practice at driving that thing at all, much less down a mountainside at breakneck speed.

Even without practice, Szith’s natural elven balance and agility made a world of difference. She turned the machine entirely sideways till it was sliding horizontally down the slope, its single wide wheel ripping up and spewing a veritable fountain of grass and sod. The arcane blue fairy lamps mounted to its round bronze shell flashed as their beams swept across the two astonished students, then the angle changed, leaving the vehicle backlit by the glow of the levitation charms holding its tapering tail aloft. Szith leaned upslope in its saddle, planting one booted foot on the ground and ripping up another streak of grass as she manually slowed and controlled the descent.

It was unfair, Maureen reflected, how elves were just naturally good at everything. She knew for a fact the drow had never even ridden a horse, much less a…well, she hadn’t quite got around to naming it yet.

The arcane rider’s approach made even the mob trail to a halt, gaping in astonishment. The wheeled vehicle wobbled violently as Szith fought for control, and for a horrifying moment Maureen was certain the whole thing was going to flip over and roll the rest of the way down the mountainside. The drow (and the levitation charm) prevailed, however, and the whine of its motive charms surged as she gave it a boost of power. More dirt flew and it surged back into motion, getting its wheel firmly under itself. Having slid all the way past them now, she angled it back uphill and came after them.

Szith actually leaned out of the saddle, holding one arm out and scooping Maureen up into her lap even as she squeezed the brakes, skidding to a halt. And nearly toppling over again as the vehicle wobbled and swerved in the process.

“Gently!” Maureen squawked. “Ya gotta guide ‘er gently, she’s not got the balance fer this stop-an’-go!”

“On!” Szith barked, pulling to a halt next to Chase.

“Oh, hell yes!” he crowed, vaulting onto the saddle behind her and wrapping his arms around her waist.

“Gently!” Maureen wailed, to no avail. Szith shifted her grip on the handlebars, relaxing the brakes and twisting the throttle forward, sending Marueen’s project into another skid as she poured far too much power far too fast into their acceleration, causing the gnome to regret showing her how the controls worked even though this was very likely saving her life.

But it stabilized quickly, and they shot upward far faster than Maureen had ever climbed this mountain, rhythmically bouncing as the big wheel crossed over the switchbacking paved path. In just moments, the University gates hove into view.

“I WANT ONE!” Chase bellowed, and Maureen really wished she was in a position to push him off.


“Gotcha,” Fedora whispered savagely, peering through the spyglass. Even in a form which lacked his wings and tail for balance, even perched at the top of the church’s steeple in the stiff prairie breeze, he held his stance easily, quite enjoying the dramatic way his trench coat billowed behind him. Up ahead and far below, a single figure in a black coat stood at a distance from both the town and the now-puzzled mob which had staggered to an impotent halt a scant few dozen yards up the mountain.

The Inspector ignored them as he had the pulse of divine light which had briefly illuminated the alley behind the Saloon. Maru had done his job, and nothing Lorelin Reich had in her bag of tricks was going to more than inconvenience the tanuki. For that matter, Fedora had probably better go collect him before her efforts made that game too much fun. Fairies tended to lose themselves in the hunt, and all the University needed right now was for Tellwyrn’s personal secretary to turn somebody into a tree stump.

“It was a good play,” he said aloud into the wind as the Hand of the Emperor shifted to glare at his defeated lynch mob, bringing his familiar profile into focus. “Create a ruckus, threaten students, bring Tellwyrn down here to intervene. If you did your job well enough, she might go overboard, give you an excuse to rile the town further. At the very least, you’d test her, see how she reacted to being poked. But you didn’t count on a dashing, demonic voice of reason to summon student help and persuade the boss lady to butt out, now didja. And now it is Fedora who has seen the face of the enemy! You lose this round, cupcake. What shall we play next?”

His triumphant grin vanished as the Hand of the Emperor abruptly turned to stare directly at him.

“No,” Fedora muttered, lowering the spyglass. It was dark, there was a good quarter of a mile between them. Even an elf could barely have made him out, perched on the steeple. “There’s no way…”

The Hand vanished momentarily from view as he suddenly sped back into the shadow of Last Rock’s buildings. Then he reappeared even more dramatically, having vaulted from the ground onto a rooftop. He proceeded onward, leaping from roof to roof faster than a jungle cat, and making straight for the church.

“Oh, shit.”

 

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