Tag Archives: Madeleine

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“Thanks for letting me drag you out here,” said Embras. “This is a last-minute change in the schedule, based on an idea I had scarcely an hour ago, otherwise I’d have given you more warning.”

“Not at all,” Hiroshi replied with his customary unflappable calm. “It’s not as if any distance is an impediment when one can shadow-jump. And I quite enjoy the chance to stretch my legs a bit, and especially see new sights. Not that I’m not fond of Puna Shankur, but it’s pleasant to see more of the Empire.”

He made no mention of the fact that as his cult leader, Embras Mogul could send him anywhere on a whim with neither apology nor explanation.

“For instance,” Hiroshi added, nodding at the bustling crowd teeming in and around the double doors of the structure across the street from them, “what is going on in there?”

“Why, like the sign says,” Embras replied easily, “that’s the Mathenon Stock Exchange.”

“We can both read, Embras,” Bradshaw said wryly. “That doesn’t mean either of us has a clue what that is. If it were any other neighborhood in any other city, I’d think that was some kind of sporting event, the way those fellows are riled up.”

“It is peculiar to see men in business attire shouting at one another and drinking in public,” Hiroshi added, glancing once more over his shoulder at the heaving crowd as they passed further down the street.

“It’s the most ingenious thing, really,” Embras explained, smiling darkly. “First, trading companies and other businesses are organized so that shares of them, or stocks, can be sold as tradeable commodities. For instance, if, say, Falconer Industries sold stocks, we could just wander into that building back there and buy a share for whatever they go for, and be the part owner of one of the Empire’s most successful operations.”

“Does FI do this?” Hiroshi asked in a tone of fascination.

“Hell if I know,” Embras said glibly. “I’m only this up to date on the practice because, as you may have heard, I suffer a minor obsession with the Vernisites and their various schemes. But anyway, the whole idea of a stock exchange is first to divide a business into pieces which can be traded, and then to trade them. Once these imaginary slices of ownership become commodities, the laws of supply and demand come into play. People can make—or lose—money in trading them back and forth, and the companies in question can improve their fortunes by manipulating the market to increase their perceived value.”

“That is the barmiest thing I ever heard of,” Bradshaw snorted, shaking his head. “I give it a year before the government shuts that down.”

“It is rather ingenious, as you say,” Hiroshi mused.

“And so very Vernisite,” Embras added. “A whole lot of lies, nonsense and legal fictions committed to paper, used to create money out of thin air by manipulating human nature. I’m telling you, boys, as I’ve told you time and again, it doesn’t matter how many people Avei kills, Naphthene drowns or Omnu pompously lectures: it’s Verniselle who truly embodies the rotten, self-serving heart of the Pantheon.”

Bradshaw sighed. “Anyway. You were going to explain a bit more about our business here? I thought the matter in Puna Shankur was rather urgent.”

“Yes, of course. Hang a right here, lads,” Embras said, turning the corner onto a street which immediately proved itself to be much quieter. Not that there was much activity of any kind, with sunset fading rapidly into twilight. Mathenon was a very genteel place, or at least most parts of it were. Not very much happened after dark. “Before meeting with Hiroshi’s Sifanese expert, we’re going to drop in on an information broker who specializes in the diabolic. If anyone on this continent happens to have tips on how to tangle with a kitsune using infernal means, she will.”

“And how likely is that, do you think?” Bradshaw asked.

“Not very likely at all. In fact, not likely enough to be worth the trip on its own merits; I have a secondary agenda here. Our current troubles merely provide a perfect excuse to put it into play. I’ll explain more on the way back, fellas; we don’t want to be late to meet with Hiroshi’s friend. I already delayed to ask Vanessa if she wanted to come along. She didn’t.”

“Vanessa is busy wrangling our annoyed contacts in Calderaas…ah,” Bradshaw nodded, his pensive expression clearing. “I see. So this is where she scurried off to. I confess it didn’t really occur to me to wonder. Is this necessary, Embras?”

“Necessary? Probably not. But useful, definitely.”

He fell silent as a man lounging against a gate up ahead straightened, turning to face them and reaching into his coat. A soft footstep sounded behind the three men, another individual materializing out of an alley.

None of them faltered so much as a step. Embras held out a hand, palm up, and a seething orb of fire sprang into being above it, casting a sharp orange glow over the scene. Hiroshi flicked his wrists, two wands sliding neatly out of his sleeves and into his hands. Bradshaw simply walked on, acknowledging none of this.

To his credit, the burly man in the slightly shabby coat ahead of them hesitated only fractionally before turning his motion into a cough smothered behind a fist. “Pleasant evening, gents,” he said politely, tipping his hat.

“Right back atcha,” Embras replied cheerfully as they filed past him.

Mathenon’s founding, two thousand years ago, had been a mistake and a cause of much misfortune for everyone involved. Situated on the plains between the Golden Sea and the Wyrnrange, its location had nothing to recommend it except proximity to the Old Road and to the only significant source of fresh water in the area. The mountains provided scant ore and timber, there were few available native animals, and while the prairie did yield good crops if properly cultivated, it had been centuries before the then-kingdom of Mathenon had built up its forces enough to adequately protect its farmland from tribes of centaurs and plains elves. The city’s only true asset had been the road, the primary trading route between the dwarven kingdoms and the human lands in the south.

Two millennia later, Mathenon was known as the Gilded City—or, less charitably, as the richest place in the world that had done nothing to deserve it. With nothing to cling to but trade, the Mathenites had hurled themselves into commerce with a vengeance, and by this point in history had built up an empire of their own, whose reach exceeded that of Tiraas, even as it paid its taxes to the Silver Throne. Here were all the greatest guild halls, the trading syndicates, the merchant conglomerates and the banks which serviced all of them. The wealth of the world flowed through Mathenon, a goodly portion of which never flowed back out. And with little agriculture and no manufacturing to speak of, almost everyone living in the city was either involved in commerce, or in a less financially privileged class who made a living servicing the bankers and merchants in whatever ways they required. It was a city that infamously produced nothing, and took its cut of everything.

Unsurprisingly, it was also a thriving haven for those who profited less directly from the peccadilloes of the rich. Mathenon was unquestionably a stronghold of Verniselle, but the disciples of Eserion had a much heavier presence here than a city of its size could ordinarily support. To them, three men in well-tailored suits strolling the streets without guards as dark fell would seem at a glance like a walking gift basket.

But the Black Wreath did not pay the Unwary Tax. In most places, at most times, they would simply have avoided confrontations via stealth. Once in a while, though, Embras Mogul took a personal satisfaction in seeing agents of the Thieves’ Guild back down.

At the next intersection, Embras crossed the street to take a left down an even narrower avenue, this one lined with expensive houses behind walled gardens and lit by fairy lamps in elaborate brass sconces, which levitated three yards above the sidewalks, unsupported by poles. There was a grassy median down the center of the street, dotted with immaculately trimmed dogwood trees, each protected behind a wrought-iron fence topped with chrome accents. The whole neighborhood screamed of wealth.

“And here we are,” Embras murmured aloud, slowing as they came abreast of an open gate. The house beyond was quiet, but all its windows blazed with light; clearly there was a social event in progress despite the hour, but it was a demure sort of party, as befit the neighborhood. He turned at the path, Bradshaw and Hiroshi trailing silently behind, and strolled up to the house’s richly carved walnut door.

A servant stood at the top step by the door, dressed in a suit that was just similar enough to a Butler’s uniform to be evocative without being close enough to provoke the Service Society—which was a thing no sensible person did. She regarded them calmly from behind thick darkened glasses, which seemed incongruous at this hour.

“Good evening,” Embras said politely to her, tipping his hat. “I’m afraid we’re not expected.”

“I’m afraid you are not invited, Mr. Mogul,” she replied. “Specifically, and by name. Goodbye.”

“Now, now, let’s be neighborly to one another,” he replied with a cheerful grin. “A fellow deserves a chance to plead his case to the lady of the house, don’t you think?”

“What I think is that my job is, in part, to dissuade undesirables, a category in which you are emphatically included. You can spare me the charm, sir; you’re not charming enough to come between me and a steady wage.”

“Well, that seems to be all the grounds we need to reach an agreement,” he said smoothly, producing a decabloon from within his pocket and bouncing it on his palm.

The woman regarded him in stony silence for a moment, then reached up and pulled her glasses down the bridge of her nose. Her eyes had golden irises which glowed in the dimness, with vertically slitted pupils.

“Sir,” she said with a cold smile, “are you attempting to bribe me?”

“Nothing so clumsy,” Embras replied, now tossing the coin back and forth between his hands. “There’s no reason the mistress need suspect you were paid to let us in, when she’ll find it perfectly believable that I threatened, enchanted, or otherwise coerced my way past you. Isn’t that right?”

“You’re right in that regard—I can hardly be expected to fight off the likes of you.” She glanced behind him at the other two men. “The same cannot be said of those inside the house, Mogul. You realize she’s just going to throw you right back out again.”

“That, my dear lady, is between her and me,” he said, holding up the decabloon between forefinger and thumb.

Faster than a flicker of lightning, her tongue lashed out, seizing the coin and drawing it back into her mouth. She leaned over to turn the door latch, and pulled it wide for them, smiling ironically.

“Enjoy your visit, gentlemen. I will see you again very soon.”

“Much obliged,” Embras said lightly, stepping past her. Bradshaw and Hiroshi followed him in, both nodding politely to the doorkeeper. She watched them with that same knowing smile, her dark glasses once again in place, and shut the door gently behind them.

The soft sounds of conversation and pianoforte music resonated through the marble-appointed foyer in which they stood. A staircase lined with deep scarlet carpet curved up to a landing ahead of and above them; to their left was a wide doorway, blocked only by velvet drapes, from which the sounds of the party could be heard.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” said the only person visible, a hethelax demon wearing a suit oddly tailored to fit over his armor plates. “I would offer to take your coats, but you will not be staying long.”

“That’s a likely outcome, yes,” Embras said with a sunny smile. “She’s in the salon, I assume?”

“Yes,” the demon said evenly. “I would advise you to depart rather than seek her out.”

“I appreciate the advice,” Embras replied, tipping his hat and turning to push aside the curtains, his fellow warlocks following on his heels.

The salon was large and displayed understatedly expensive taste in its furnishings. It was also full, occupied by over a dozen people whose attire and bearing spoke of wealth. They stood and sat, chatting, sipping glasses of sparkling wine and nibbling canapes, looking for all the world like any gaggle of rich people enjoying a house party, apart from a few unusual elements. Several were obviously half-demons; one young woman had finned ears and slowly writhing tendrils instead of hair, another had eyes that were featureless pits of crimson flame, and a man near the door had patterns of scales across his cheeks and forehead. There was also a katzil demon curled up asleep in front of the fireplace. In one corner stood a pianoforte, being softly played by a female hethelax. Her clawed fingers made faint clicking noises on the keys, just barely loud enough to be heard beneath the music.

“No.”

The three had hardly made it in before being addressed by the lady of the house, who had risen from her chair near the fire to point imperiously at them. She was a young woman, well short of thirty, with elaborately coiffed dark hair and a pale complexion, attired in a gown in the latest fashion which emphasized her figure despite its modest cut.

“You are unwelcome in my house, Embras Mogul,” she said sharply, the music and conversation falling silent around them.

Embras swept off his hat and bowed deeply. “Be that as it may, it is a genuine pleasure, Madeleine, as always. I hoped I might implore you to—”

“You might not,” she snapped. “Leave, before I am forced to insist.”

He straightened, his expression growing serious. “Whatever you may think of me—of us—I do respect your wishes, and would not have bothered you if it were not important. We have an urgent need, Madeleine.”

“Good,” she said flatly. “May it devour you. Somewhere else.”

“I understand your dislike,” he pressed on, “though I do believe, as I’ve said, that it is born of a misunderstanding. Perhaps if you would deign to do business with me as with any of these fine people, we might make progress toward finding common…ground…”

He trailed off as she turned her back on him, stepping over the sleeping katzil to lift an ancient-looking oil lamp from its perch upon the mantle. She turned back to face them, languidly dragging her fingers along the lamp’s curved surface.

The violet smoke that poured forth made the room smell of myrrh and jasmine. It streamed from the lamp in an oddly twisted cyclone, resolving itself into the form of a woman with blue skin and aquiline features—at least from the waist up. Below the navel, her body was only a long tendril of smoke, connected to the lamp.

“I am summoned, and have come, as it is agreed,” she intoned, executing an elaborate salaam. “Gracious lady, I beg that you deign to tell this unworthy traveler how she may have the honor of serving you.”

“Qadira,” Madeleine replied, “the Black Wreath has entered my home, despite knowing their presence is unwanted. Embras Mogul, the high priest of Elilial, stands in my salon, having thrice refused my orders to depart. I would have you bear witness to his next actions, that the worlds both above and below may know how he comports himself, lest anyone find themselves holding commerce with a faithless brute where they expected a gentleman.”

“It is indeed a precious gift you bestow upon me, most honored one,” Qadira replied, turning a crafty smile on Embras and his companions. “The eyes of the djinn see all things, in every plane and beyond, but that I may watch firsthand as such as this unfolds will grant me prestige in the esteem of my kin. Again, lady, I am in your debt.”

Madeleine stared at Embras with a faint, smug half-smile; the others assembled in the room watched like an entire rookery of hawks, awaiting a signal to strike. As if alerted by the change in mood, the katzil uncoiled itself, raising its head to sniff the air.

After a very tense moment of heavy silence, Embras Mogul took a deliberate step backward, again tipping his hat to Madeleine. “Well. My apologies for intruding, good lady. Can’t blame a fellow for trying.”

“Not for the first time in our acquaintance,” Madeleine said icily, “you are deeply mistaken.”

“Do enjoy your evening, ladies and gentlemen,” he replied, turning and pushing back through the heavy curtains.

They made their quick way out of the house, not acknowledging the smug looks of the hethelax manservant and half-demon guardian. Bradshaw waited until they were out the gate and two houses back down the street before speaking.

“Well, Embras, since I know you as I do, I’m going to assume that was not as completely pointless as it seemed.”

“In fact, that simply could not have gone better,” Embras said cheerfully. “There was always the risk she’d summon a baerzurg to pummel us, or have that diffident fellow in the impossible suit give it a go, but really, that was remote. Madeleine’s never been one to go in for brutish tactics. Ill-considered and overdramatic, yes, but never barbaric.”

“And?” Bradshaw drawled.

Embras came to a stop, turning to face them. “And now, she has very obligingly gone on record before a djinn, refusing to help the Black Wreath when we came to her in need, hat in hand. Were the girl a hair less aggravated by my presence, I think she’d have thought carefully before doing something so rash, but it’s done now! At issue, gents, is these fence-sitters, of which Madeleine is a prime example.”

“You can’t possibly mean to start hounding every diabolist who’s not part of our organization,” Bradshaw said, frowning. “We’re stretched too thin as it is, Embras. After Tiraas this spring, it’s a challenge to stay on top of the demons and warlocks who need to be put down, in addition to our ongoing major commitments.”

“Of course,” Embras replied. “That policy hasn’t changed; we’re not going to go out of our way to smite anybody who does not absolutely need it. However, matters are careening toward a head, and a lot of these characters are unknowable variables that present a problem. We’re going to have to be ready to bring down Justinian when the alignment comes, and between his holy summoner program and having bloody Kheshiri in his stable of lackeys, he’s proved his willingness to draw resources from even the most deplorable places. Going forward, anyone in the infernal community who is not with us must be assumed to be against us. Take note of tonight’s events, lads, and find opportunities to repeat the performance. We are going to start putting each of these independent operators on the spot. Any time an opportunity arises, or you can create one, force them to declare either their support or opposition, as publicly as possible.”

“Ah,” Hiroshi said, nodding. “To burn away the fog of war with the light of hellfire, leaving no gray area in which Justinian’s creeping fingers can hide.”

“Poetic as always,” Bradshaw noted with a smile. “I hope you’re not proposing to trust all of these outsiders, just because we can coerce them into declaring their support.”

“Trust, no,” Embras replied, “but you know as well as I where their interests fall. That’s why that trick worked on Madeleine, and variants of the same will likely work on the others, even when we’ve used it enough that they start to see it coming. A warlock who betrays his word is hamstrung; the mortal community is too small and the demonic one too vindictive to do business with oathbreakers. If anyone does turn on us, they will pay the price even if we are in no position to extract it ourselves. Now, then! Hiroshi, my thanks for your patience with this little drama. I hope this isn’t going to make us late to meet your friend.”

“Indeed not,” Hiroshi said with a smile. “Uncle will be expecting us at some point this evening after dinner; it is nowhere near late enough to be an imposition, even on the east coast.”

“Splendid! Let’s not drag this out any further, regardless. Lead the way, would you?”

“Of course,” Hiroshi said, bowing. The haze of Elilial’s stealth settled over all of them—not that anyone was nearby, but one never knew who might happen to be looking out a window in time to see three men abruptly shadow-jump out of a public street.

Following the dimensional tunnel bored by Hiroshi, who knew their destination best, they emerged in a dirty, dark and cluttered alley. All three immediately set off for the lighted street at the end of it, unfazed by their squalid environs. Such alleys were the Wreath’s bread and butter, in terms of moving around cities undetected.

Night had fully fallen over the city into which they emerged, but this area showed no signs of going to sleep. Lights blazed forth on all sides, illuminating bustling crowds pushing through narrow, winding streets that made as stark a contrast to the orderly layout of Mathenon as their shabby cheerfulness did to its discreet ostentation.

Puna Shankur itself would be a contrast to most Imperial cities, lacking their organization, wealth, and omnipresent law enforcement, not to mention being lit by lamps and torches nearly as commonly as fairy lights. Punaji territory in general was wilder, poorer, and yet more festive, even in cities as far south as this one, where the locals were forced by the climate to bundle up more than the Punaji in general cared to. For that and other reasons, Puna Shankur was one of the less ethnically consistent outposts of Rajakhan’s realm.

This particular neighborhood was a perfect example of that; brown Punaji faces were less common among the crowd than paler complexions accompanied by tilted eyes. Embras and Bradshaw would have stuck out if not for the layer of misdirection they maintained; Onkawi and Stalweiss were almost totally absent from the passersby, and only here and there could the odd Tiraan be seen. The people here hailed from a dozen nations, and the signs were in nearly as many languages, but on the Tiraan continent such neighborhoods were often referred to as Sifantowns. In other parts of the world, this racial mix might have met each other with swords and wands drawn, but when surrounded by another domineering culture of people who couldn’t even tell them apart, those from that general region tended to cluster together. It was an imperfect familiarity, but it would do.

Hiroshi led the way down the bustling market street, then down a quieter one lined with ramshackle apartments rising four and five stories above. The streets here were scarcely wider than alleys, though most were better cared for by their inhabitants, and continued to wend this way and that with no apparent plan. Their guide strode confidently, however, well familiar with the territory.

“Is it safe to involve your uncle in this?” Bradshaw asked as they walked. “Most of us prefer to keep family out of the Lady’s business. Much healthier for them, unless they’re already part of the faith.”

“I would prefer that he not learn just whose business this is,” Hiroshi agreed. “Uncle knows only that I am bringing two friends who have questions about the kitsune. And he is not a relation of mine; everyone in the neighborhood calls him that. He is the man most dedicated to preserving the traditions of the old country in this one, and makes sure the Sifanese children who grow up in Puna Shankur know who we are, and where we came from. In fact, he seemed delighted at the opportunity to share his knowledge with interested parties who are not of Sifanese blood.”

He stopped before the door of a three-story structure that seemed positively squat beside its towering neighbors, and rapped, murmuring to his companions, “Remember, it is polite to remove your shoes in the entryway.”

“Noted,” Embras replied.

The door opened after only a moment, revealing a young woman with her hair tied back in a silken kerchief. A warm but restrained smile spread across her face.

“Sakamoto Hiroshi. Just look at you, fancy suit and all. Should I be honored that you’re still willing to visit us?”

“You may be as honored or as insulted as pleases you, Kiyoko,” he said, grinning more widely back. “As long as your mother makes those sweet buns of hers, you’ll just have to keep putting up with me.”

“Oh, well played,” she retorted. “Now I have to be the polite and traditional one, which rules out the excellent rejoinder I had about your obsession with my mother’s buns.”

“Does Uncle know you talk to guests this way?” Hiroshi demanded, planting his fists on his hips and glowering in mock outrage.

“Oh, please, you know very well who I learned it from. Come in, Hiroshi, come in. And your friends! Uncle’s expecting you; he’ll be right down.”

After a brief exchange of introductions, which notably did not include anyone’s surname, Embras and Bradshaw found themselves seated on the floor along one side of a low table in the living room. It was arranged in a very Sifanese style, rather bare of furnishings and decorations, but spotlessly clean and everything carefully placed. The sparseness was clearly a deliberate aesthetic, not due to poverty.

Scarcely had they had time to get comfortable when Uncle arrived; Hiroshi immediately rose, and both his companions followed his lead.

Hiroshi’s description had hinted at an older man, and Uncle was definitely that, but rather than the wise old master of archetype, he resembled nothing so much as a blackmith. Despite his gray and receding hair, and the thick lines which nearly hid his eyes, he walked with an unbent spine, and was of an incredibly powerful build, his arms thickly corded with muscle and shoulders almost too broad to comfortably pass through the doorway. He was also, they noted upon rising, rather short, the top of his balding head not quite reaching Embras’s chin.

“Uncle,” Hiroshi said warmly, first bowing, and then stepping over to clasp the old man’s hand. “It’s been too long!”

“And whose fault is that, boy?” Uncle replied, his Tanglish clear but with a distinct accent. “You know my house is always open.”

“And you know how life is, better than I ever will. I only wish I could still run around bare-footed, listening to your stories and sneaking sweet buns.”

“Don’t wish for the past, Hiroshi,” Uncle said, reaching up to pat his shoulder. “You’re right, as you well know. There is only forward. So! I hear your friends are curious about kitsune?” He turned his bright eyes on his guests inquisitively.

“Indeed,” said Hiroshi. “May I present Embras and Bradshaw, neighbors and colleagues of mine.”

“My apologies for the hour, sir,” said Embras, tipping his hat. “I’m very grateful that you would take the time to speak with us.”

“And it’s a pleasure to visit,” Bradshaw added. “Your home is beautiful.”

“Not at all, it’s only a humble place,” Uncle replied, coming to join them at the table. “Please, sit! Be comfortable. Kiyoko will be back soon with tea. I’m always pleased to talk of the old stories, but it’s very rare that someone not of our nation would come seeking to hear them.” He arranged himself cross-legged at the table, staring piercingly at Embras. “And with such a specific question, too. Why are you curious about the fox-goddesses?”

Embras glanced at Hiroshi, who nodded, before replying. “Well…the truth is, our interest is practical, sir. We seem to have drawn the attention of one.”

Uncle’s expression did not visibly change, but he stilled slightly, as if his very breath were held in abeyance. “Here? On this continent?”

“Here,” Embras replied, nodding.

Uncle let out a long, slow breath, shifting his gaze to Hiroshi. “And you are mixed up in this?”

“I did not learn of it until after the fact,” Hiroshi said. “These are my friends, Uncle; I consider their problems my own. But I’ve had no contact with the kitsune.”

“Nor have we, directly,” Embras added. “So far, she seems to be just…playing jokes on us.”

“Mm,” Uncle murmured, his brow creasing further in a deep frown. “And so, you wish to learn of their ways.”

“We would be extremely grateful,” said Bradshaw.

Kiyoko returned at that moment, carrying a tray laden with a pot of fragrant green tea and small cups. There was silence in the room while she poured, her manners notably more conservative in Uncle’s presence. The master of the house gazed thoughtfully at the center of the table throughout her deft performance. Only when she had departed again, and everyone had a cup in hand, did he speak.

“The story of the kitsune is the story of Sifan, and of the world,” he said at last. “Tell me, Embras, Bradshaw… Do you know of dryads?”

“I certainly know they exist,” Embras said, glancing curiously at Bradshaw. “I must say I’ve never considered them any of my business, either.”

“You’re suggesting they’re related to the kitsune?” Bradshaw said, frowning.

“That makes some sense, in fact,” Hiroshi said thoughtfully. “In the stories, kitsune are always seducing people or killing people. Sometimes the same people.”

“Hiroshi always loved the stories,” Uncle said, glancing fondly at the younger man. “But I don’t tell all the stories to the children. There are some it does not profit them to know. But if you have already drown the attention of a fox-goddess, you clearly need not worry about doing so. Very well, then.

“The dryads are spirits of conservation,” he said, his voice taking on the subtly rhythmic quality of a veteran storyteller. “Spirits of life, who dwell where they will and live in balance with nature. They are thus, as the youngest daughters of Naiya, because they were made to compensate for their elder sisters. Before them, the valkyries were spirits of death, and they reaped so vigorously and so well that the gods of the last age conspired to capture them, and expel them from the mortal plane, lest they unmake everything the Elders had wrought. It was this which led to the world we now know, for Vidius found a way to anchor them to the world, and to keep them engaged and able to interact, though in a limited way. For this, Naiya sheltered the young gods of the Pantheon in their war, and refused the slightest succor to her fellow Elders. If not for her aid, the new gods would surely have perished before ascending.

“The valkyries, like their sisters who came after, were created to balance an even older mistake. The eldest daughters of Naiya, the kitsune, are spirits of play, of passion, and of deceit. Even Naiya could not control them, and so she brought forth a land for them to call their own, and persuaded them to claim it at the expense of leaving the rest of the world to its devices. The kitsune are Sifan. They do not rule it; they do not care for such things. They simply exist, and all others who exist there are at their sufferance.”

“That’s fascinating,” Bradshaw breathed. “Did Naiya have another generation of daughters before them?”

“That is not part of the story,” Uncle said sententiously, and Embras hid a smile behind his teacup. That digression about valkyries hadn’t been exactly germane, either; if this wasn’t part of the story, it was because Uncle didn’t know it. “Unique among nations, Sifan has had an uninterrupted history since its founding after the Elder Wars. It has never been conquered, nor even invaded. Though troubled by storms, earthquakes and tsunamis, it has never been ravaged by a disaster so great that it could not recover. This is as it is because the Eternal Kingdom exists at the pleasure of the goddesses of the Twilight Forest. The first humans settled there because the kitsune allowed it. The drow of Nathloss sally forth to raid and keep our people alert because the kitsune find it amusing. The surviving orc clans dwell there because they asked the blessing of the kitsune and were given it, and the Queen’s government would not think to gainsay them, despite the conflict it caused with Tiraas. The dragons come to Sifan to meet because they come often alone, bringing gifts to the kitsune, and have earned a permanent welcome.”

“How amazing,” Embras murmured. “I’m increasingly puzzled that one would leave such a place, if it’s so apparently sacred to them.

“Wouldn’t you?” Uncle countered. “In Sifan, they are the highest, the most mysterious, the most feared, respected, and oddly beloved. The people respect their forest, and do not set foot within except by permission. We hold festivals during which they may walk among us to be honored, and sometimes lay blessings where they think them deserved. And if sometimes a kitsune’s playfulness results in a burned house or field, a daughter transformed into a cow or a son who never returns from the Twilight Forest…” He shrugged fatalistically. “Shou ga nai.”

“If anything,” Hiroshi began, frowning, but Uncle forestalled him with an upraised hand.

“To engage a fox-goddess in her own realm is to be a character in a story of which she is the author. They are older than the gods, and have powers which draw deeply from Naiya—and thus from the universe itself. And what they love above all else is play. Tell me, would you not be bored, staying in the same place for eternity, with nothing to challenge you? The kitsune are not bound to Sifan, but they rarely leave it. They have, however, now and again, and always when offered the chance to do something…interesting.”

“Hmm,” Embras murmured, stroking his chin. “This is altogether not encouraging.”

“You do not fight a kitsune,” Uncle agreed. “She plays with you, until she grows bored…or her toys are too broken to entertain her.”

Bradshaw drew in a deep breath and let it out in a slightly shaky sigh.

Embras, however, suddenly smiled. “Well, then. I simply cannot thank you enough for the insight, sir—I fear I was about to make a very serious mistake.”

“If you have drawn the attention of a fox-goddess,” Uncle said seriously, “there are few paths open to you which are not mistakes.”

“Indeed, I see how that would be so. If you can indulge us a while longer, sir, we would be deeply grateful to learn anything you are able to tell us about their habits. But in the broad strokes…” His smile widened. “I do believe I know, now, what to do.”

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6 – 22

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“Slowly,” Madeleine purred, replacing the stopper in the decanter and setting it down on her dining room table. “Hold a sip on your tongue and inhale slowly through your nose. Taste, smell, savor it. A fine wine is an experience for all the senses, my darling.”

“Mm,” Gabriel agreed wordlessly around a mouthful of crimson wine. He let his eyes drift close, inhaling deeply through his nose.

“This is so precious I may have to chew my foot off to escape it,” Triss remarked, lounging against the door frame. “That’s drugged, by the way. Nobody who cares that much about wine would have it already decanted before her guest even arrived, unless she wanted to tamper with it first.”

“Oh…wow,” Gabriel mused, after finally swallowing. “You know, I never expected that to be so…”

“I know,” Madeleine said with a pleased smile.

“I sort of assumed people only used alcohol to get themselves drunk. It’s just so delicious.”

“You were right the first time,” Triss observed, while Madeleine nattered on about wine. “Booze is for getting plastered, candy is for pleasing the tongue. Confusing the two is the province of pretentious twits. Well, this seems to be some kind of memory, so at least you didn’t die.”

She perked up, suddenly paying attention upon hearing Madeleine’s next line.

“Do you trust me?”

The girl was gazing up at Gabriel through her lashes, eyes limpid but her expression serious.

“What?” He lowered his wineglass, frowning at her in consternation. “You know I do. I thought we’d had all this out long before now.”

“That is what I’d hoped,” she replied, smiling somewhat wistfully. “I see so much potential in you, Gabriel. You’re going to do great things, and I hope to be a part of them.”

“Great things wouldn’t be any fun without you there,” he said, grinning and moving closer, setting his glass down on the table.

She stopped him by placing a hand in the center of his chest, still gazing seriously into his eyes. “No one should ride your coattails, my dear. I fully intend to earn a place at your side. There are so many things I can teach you, show you… Ways I can help you gain what you need. What you deserve.”

“Oh, she’s good,” Triss breathed.

“You don’t have to earn anything,” Gabriel said, frowning now. “I just want… I like being with you, Madeleine. That’s all I need.”

“Then you do trust me?”

“Of course!” he said fervently.

“You, sir, are functionally retarded,” Triss announced.

“Good.” Madeleine nodded slowly. “I’ve prepared something… Something that will help you. It may be a bit of a shock, darling. I just want you to know everything I do is in your best interests. Please believe that.”

“You know I do,” he said, taking her hand in his and raising it to his lips.

“Then I have something to show you,” she replied, stepping back and leading him along with her.

“This oughtta be rich,” Triss muttered, following them.

Madeleine led him through her kitchen to a heavy door which she unlocked with a slim key produced from her bodice. Beyond this, steps led down into darkness, with just a hint of eerie light staining the walls of the stairwell.

The hostess stepped to the side at the base of the stairs, allowing her guest to have a view of the cellar. He came to a dead halt on the bottom step, staring; Triss had to crane her neck behind him to see within.

The wine cellar was clean, well-built and well-stocked with neatly racked and labeled bottles. It was also dim, the only light coming from the spell circle currently inscribed on the floor in the center. Within, a humanoid figure rose slowly from a crouching position at their entry.

“What have you done?” Gabriel whispered.

“It’s not what you’re thinking,” she said.

“You’re a warlock!”

“I?” Madeleine had the nerve to sound amused. “A warlock would be able to let him out of the circle and control him. Sadly, I have no such power. Connections open many doors, my dear; gold opens even more. All it takes to summon a demon is the capacity to acquire some rather expensive reagents, and follow directions.”

“What is that?” he demanded.

“Bored,” said the figure in the circle, short tail waving behind him. “Extremely bored. You could’ve left me a book or something, you know.”

“This,” Madeleine said in a satisfied tone, “is a hethelax. He can teach you to properly control your—”

“No!” Gabe shouted, taking a step back up the stairs and crowding into Triss, which he apparently didn’t notice. “I don’t need to control that. I don’t need to know anything about it!”

“Gabriel, darling, the last thing I want is to insult your father, but that’s him talking, not you,” she said. He flinched when she approached, but allowed her to take his hand. “And I can appreciate his desire to protect you…but the method he’s chosen is foolish in the extreme. Your blood will not simply go away if you ignore it. It is there, and can be used against you. It will be used against you, one way or another. The only way around this is to understand it. If you will not make use of whatever gifts it brings, that’s up to you. But you must know the facts, or you will be vulnerable.”

“I have my doubts about this whole enterprise,” the demon said calmly, shifting from side to side. The motion made light glint of the carapace shielding his forehead and forearms; he wore a short, tattered robe without sleeves, which concealed the rest of his body. “My advice to you is not to mess around with anything demonic, kid. If you want to have any kind of a life up here on this plane, that will only make your options fewer. But she’s not wrong; what you don’t know can and will be used against you.”

“That’s true,” Triss murmured. “You’re being played like a fiddle, of course. The truth is a good bow.”

“And what do you get out of this?” Gabriel demanded.

The demon chuckled, spreading his hands; the shells over his knuckles sparked against the invisible cylinder in which he stood. “I’m not really in a position to dictate terms, am I? But she’s promised to send me back after I help, and this I don’t mind doing. I’ve not sired any half-bloods myself, but I know those who have. You kids have it rough up here. It’ll make me feel good if I can actually lend you some insight.”

“I…” Gabe glanced rapidly between the hethelax and Madeleine, stepping back and eliciting a grunt of protest from Triss. “I…need to think. I’m gonna go.”

“You’ll go talk to your father,” she said with a wry twist of her pouty lips, “and your friend Tobias. And then I will be arrested for unlicensed demonology. You’re here, Gabriel, and so is he. Take advantage while the offer is available, then decide what you want to do about it.”

“I’m not going to just turn you in, Madeleine,” he said, practically vibrating with tension. “But this is too much. I really need to reconsider some stuff.”

“Gabriel,” she said firmly, “if you walk out that door, you will be placing yourself and everyone you meet in serious danger.”

“What?”

“I know you too well, my darling,” she said with a sad little smile. “I will spend whatever years it takes atoning for this, but to protect us both I had to take steps. In a very short while, your blood will rise, and you will need to learn to deal with it.”

“What? What did…” He trailed off, then raised a hand to his lips. “What did you do?”

“Fucking called it,” Triss grunted.

“I’m curious about that myself,” the hethelax said sharply. “This isn’t what we discussed.”

“It’s a simple demonic accelerant in the wine,” Madeleine said calmly. “Very mild. Not even dangerous to handle or injest, but where infernal magic is already present, it enhances it. In your case, once fully absorbed, it should induce a berserking state.”

There was a moment of dead silence.

“Lady,” Triss marveled, “you are either really evil or really fucking dumb.”

“I wish you’d shared more of your plan with me,” the demon said icily. “I could have warned you not to do such an utterly harebrained thing.”

“How could you do that to me?” Gabriel whispered. He was beginning to shake. Triss stepped backward up the stairs, putting a little space between her and him. “I trusted you.”

“He can tell you how to cope,” Madeleine said, staring intently up at him. She stepped backward, pulling him down into the room; in an apparent state of shock, Gabriel let himself be led. “You can do it, Gabriel. I know you can. I have unequivocal faith in you. And I…” She languidly lifted her free hand, dragging her fingertips slowly up the deep arch of her bosom, and carefully unfastened the top button of her dress. “I will provide you with an outlet.”

“Sinister, stupid and awkward,” the hethelax snorted. “I’m so happy to be included in this.”

“You creepy piece of shit,” Triss hissed. “And I’m not talking to the demon!”

Gabriel’s breath had begun rasping; he suddenly hunched forward, pressing his free hand to his chest.

“It’s all right, my love,” Madeleine said firmly, pulling herself closer. “You are in control.”

“Woman, shut up,” snapped the demon. “Gabriel, listen to me. The berserking state is a simple one, it shuts down all unnecessary thought. You can’t control it, but you can influence it heavily. Keep one thought firmly in the forefront of your mind right now and it’ll carry forward. Focus on your positive feelings for her. This is your woman; concentrate on love. You can hash out this argument later, just remember right now that you love her!”

“Right now, I don’t think I do,” Gabriel growled. He actually growled, his voice rasping heavily, as if his vocal cords were no longer designed for human speech.

“Love may be too complex,” said Madeleine, taking another step closer, almost near enough to embrace him. “Sex is simple. I know how much you want me, Gabriel. You can have me.” She lowered her voice, looking heatedly up through her lashes, and firmly placed his hand upon her breast. “You are about to have me. You, not the monster. You are you, and you are in control!”

He snarled and snapped at her like a wild dog; she did not so much as flinch as he seized her by the neck with his other hand. It wasn’t big enough to encircle her throat, but he clutched her viciously, his thumb digging into her jugular.

“I want you to know I’ve worked for two incubi and had a fling with a succubus,” the hethelax grated, “and none of them were are sexually freaky as this idiocy.”

“You…backstabbing…whore.” Gabriel’s speech was only barely recognizable as words. Madeleine emitted a soft sound of pain as he forced her head back, but her expression did not change in the slightest.

He flung her fiercely away; Madeleine careened off a wine rack, sending bottles crashing to the floor, and lost her footing in the resulting mess. She cried out as she landed on broken glass.

“Gabriel!” the demon shouted urgently, waving frantically at the half-blood, who was now stalking toward Madeleine, claw-tipped fingers flexing menacingly. “Gabriel, listen to me! Focus on my voice! Just take her. You can sort out your issues later. Take what she’s offering; it’ll keep you grounded. There’ll be no coming back from this if you kill her!”

“Hell with it, I don’t care how this was supposed to end,” Triss said, and launched herself onto Gabriel from behind.

It was far from her first time ambushing someone. She wrapped her arms around him, neatly pinning his own arms to his sides with one move, and twined her legs over his upper thighs, squeezing hard enough to impede his steps. He staggered, making her fear for a moment that they’d both fall into wine and broken glass, but caught his balance, twisting furiously this way and that. Triss could feel hardness along his arms beneath his shirt, where scales or carapace were forming, and only squeezed harder. Berserking or not, he wasn’t preternaturally strong, only preternaturally durable, and while she was in excellent shape, the Gabriel who’d never taken any of Professor Ezzaniel’s classes was a scrawny layabout. She held him firmly; his struggles gained nothing.

“The key to tricking people is to help them trick themselves,” she grated into his ear, grunting with each abrupt shift of his body. He staggered back and forth, at one point barely avoiding a fall, but couldn’t dislodge his invisible attacker. “People want to see what makes sense to them. You don’t know I’m here, so you’ve gotta—nf!—create your own narrative.”

He careened into another wine rack, sending another cascade of bottles crashing to the floor. Triss yelped, her right bicep taking the brunt of the impact, but tightened her grip, refusing to yield.

“That’s right,” she growled, “you can’t attack and there’s no outside explanation, so it must be you. You’re not attacking her because you don’t want to. Figure it out!”

Gabriel toppled to his knees, momentarily catching her foot painfully between his thighs. Still she clung to him.

“Listen to the monster and the creepy bitch,” Triss said into his ear, more calmly now that his struggles were starting to abate. “You’re in control. That’s the only thing that makes sense.”

He panted heavily, shoulders heaving with each breath, and slumped forward.

“You’ve got this,” she said. In the relative quiet, her voice was soft, calm. “I believe in you, Gabriel. Not because I have plans for you, but because I’ve seen you in action. You’re a good friend. You’re a good man.”

She slumped forward, resting her forehead on his shoulder, feeling his breath grow calmer.

“I just wish you knew that.”

Above them, the cellar door banged open. Mist poured down the stairs, silent but furious as a waterfall. In seconds it had washed over them, rising above the level of their heads, obscuring everything from view.

It was absolutely quiet. There was nothing to be heard except their breathing.

She could no longer feel his labored heartbeat through her breastplate.

Gabriel laboriously raised his head. “…thanks.”

Tentatively, Trissiny relaxed her grip slightly. “You okay? Are you back?”

“I—yeah. Yeah, I’m okay.” He shifted slightly to look over his shoulder at her, bringing his face very nearly into contact with hers. “…you?”

Finally, she let him go, settling back to the ground behind him. “I’m fine. Everything’s…back. I think.”

Slowly, he stood, self-consciously straightening his coat. Trissiny shifted the weight of her shield on her back experimentally, grasping the hilt of her sword for reassurance. When he finally turned fully to face her, they could only stare at each other in a painfully awkward silence.

Eventually, he cleared his throat. “You, uh… How much do you remember?”

“Everything.” She swallowed. “You?”

“Same.” He tore his gaze from hers, peering around them. “Well, it’s… Here we are, again.”

The hall was exactly as it had been at the beginning: broad, apparently infinite, and empty except for the omnipresent mist.

“So…did we win?” she asked cautiously.

Gabriel sighed heavily. “Do you feel like we won?”

“I—” She broke off, clutching her sword again. He followed her gaze and pivoted to face down the hall, reaching into his coat for his wand. A figure was approaching them, its feet resounding softly against the stone, gradually resolving itself out of the gloom. So dense was the fog that they couldn’t get a clear view until he was only a few yards distant.

Toby came to a stop, studying them closely. His face was drawn, expression guarded. He’d lost his staff somewhere, but flexed his hands in a very uncharacteristic display of martial readiness.

“I only caught the tail end of that,” he said quietly. “Are you two okay?”

Trissiny and Gabriel exchanged a glance.

“More or less,” she said cautiously. “Are you…you?”

“Gods, I hope so,” Toby replied with a humorless smile. “To be frank I don’t know if I can be sure anymore. This place…”

“Yeah,” said Gabe, nodding. Suddenly he grinned. “Hell, Toby… Nightmare vision or not, I’m really glad to see you.”

Toby nodded, not returning the smile. “There’s a nexus up ahead, with halls branching off from it. Eight of them, almost like this place was tailored to us. I came looking when I got out of mine; I bet the others are in there, too.”

“We’d better go help them, then,” Trissiny said firmly, taking a step forward. “How far is it?”

“Not very.” Toby shifted his gaze to her. “The things you saw… Is this place showing truth? Or just things that might have been?”

Again, Trissiny and Gabriel looked at each other.

“I think…both,” Gabe said slowly. “Whatever accomplishes its goals. Whatever those are.”

“That night on the quad.” Toby’s voice was quiet. “When you two had your… Gabriel, you told me it was your fault. You said you started a fight with her.”

“Uh, is this a good time or place to talk about that?” Gabe said nervously, glancing around at the ominous emptiness surrounding them.

“I want to know if what I saw was the truth,” Toby said flatly. “You yelled at her. Made demands and insults. That was it?”

“That was it,” Trissiny said quietly.

Toby looked back at her, in silence for a moment. When he spoke, finally, his voice was heavily strained. “And for that, you came at him with a sword?”

“Toby,” Gabe said sharply. “This is ancient history. It was months ago. We have long since talked it out. Both of us screwed up badly that night, but we learned from it.”

“You’re right,” Toby replied. “I guess that’s the difference. You’ve had time to get used to it. I only just learned that one of my friends tried to murder another because he was rude to her.”

“It wasn’t as simple as that,” Gabriel protested.

“Why do I get the feeling that’s your guilt talking again?”

“You’re both right,” Trissiny said wearily. “It wasn’t that simple, and I was completely, inexcusably in the wrong. What do you want from me, Caine? All I can do is apologize and try to do better. I have, months ago. I hope never to blunder that badly again.”

“Blunder?” Toby’s voice rose in pitch. “You attacked my best friend with a blessed weapon and all the power of Avei over—”

“Enough!” Gabriel shouted. “For the gods’ sake, that’s enough! You two want to have this out? Fine, we can have it out, clear the air. But we can do that later. This, right here, is not the fucking time!” He glared at them in silence for a moment until they both dropped their gazes, then continued. “Think about what’s happening here, will you? The Crawl set this whole thing up to mess with us, to screw up our heads. Well, right now, I’m the one telling you two to shape up and behave yourselves. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s the sign we have been successfully messed with. So suck it up, deal with it later, and keep your minds on the task at hand. Okay?”

“Right,” said Toby, nodding. “You’re right. We need to go find the others.”

“Yeah, Trissiny agreed. “I hope a few of them have met up, too. Otherwise this is going to be a very long day.”

They set off into the mist in strained silence.


 

“You’d better shift back.”

“Hm?” Teal twitched slightly at the sudden comment, half-turning to look at Ruda without stopping.

“If this fucking place keeps playing the same tricks,” Ruda said, “Vadrieny’s chief fear seemed to be getting buried inside you. Once she came out, she was in control and managed to save our asses, too. Might be best if she takes the lead in here.”

“Oh. Yeah, that actually makes good sense.” Teal stepped to the side, giving Vadrieny room to extend her wings without hitting her classmates with them. A moment later, the demon was padding along beside them, her talons clicking against the stone floor.

“Fross, you okay?” Ruda asked. “Need to go back in the bottle?”

“I don’t think so,” the pixie demurred, orbiting her head once. “The need didn’t develop last time. If this place is picking out deeply-held fears, that sorta makes sense in hindsight. Ending up like the other pixies back in the glade was basically the worst thing I could think of happening to me, but it’s not something I’ve ever been particularly afraid of. I don’t see any way it could happen.”

Ruda nodded. “Small blessings, then. All right, ladies, keep—”

“Punaji!”

She groaned. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”

“This is absolutely your final warning,” Mr. Jones proclaimed, stalking forward out of the mist. “if you are not back at your desk in—”

“Fuck off, needle dick,” she said curtly, brushing past him.

He gaped at her. “How dare you—”

Ruda stopped, whirled, and punched him in the eye. The reedy little man was bowled head over loafers, tumbling against the wall of the corridor.

“I quit,” she announced, then turned her back and stomped off up the hall. Vadrieny paused to grin at the felled accountant before following her.

“Something’s up ahead,” Fross reported, dropping back to eye level; she had been periodically floating higher to get a better vantage. “My augmented sensory spells aren’t working in this mist, but I think it’s a person.”

“Doing that?” Ruda asked tersely.

“Sitting.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“Sounds like a trap,” Vadrieny said, flexing her claws. “Be ready.”

Within moments, the figure coalesced out of the mist as they approached, and all three came to a stop, studying her.

Shaeine sat cross-legged in the center of the floor, robes arranged neatly around herself and hands resting on her knees. Her eyes were closed, her spine perfectly straight. She was breathing so slowly it took a few moments for them to be sure that she actually was.

“Is that…her?” Fross asked hesitantly. “Shaeine? Is that you?”

The priestess made no reply, nor any indication that she’d heard.

“It’s her,” Vadrieny said firmly, stepping forward and kneeling beside the drow.

“What kind of primal fear is this?” Ruda asked, lifting her hat momentarily to scratch her head.

“It’s not,” the demon replied, pride filling her voice. “She’s won.”

“Won? She’s just sitting there! It’s like she’s asleep or something.”

“Meditating,” Vadrieny replied, glancing up at her. “And do you see any nightmares or visions taking shape around us? A stilled, controlled mind isn’t susceptible to such manipulation. She found a way to beat it.”

“I can’t say that’s much of a strategy,” Ruda snorted. “Just sitting down isn’t a way out of trouble.”

“It is,” Vadrieny said firmly, “if you know help is coming.”

Very gently, she picked Shaeine up, arranging the drow in her arms. Shaeine didn’t move or apparently react at all, but allowed herself to be cradled a little too neatly to have been dead weight.

“If you know someone will always come for you,” Vadrieny whispered. Then she turned without another word and strode off the way they had come.

Ruda glanced up at Fross, shrugged, and followed. “Well, okay then. At least one of us got the better of this thing.”


 

She paced slowly around in a circle, giving Teal and Shaeine some space and carefully not looking in their direction. They weren’t doing anything but tightly hugging and rocking slightly back and forth, but given how Shaeine generally felt about displays of emotion, it was obviously an intimate enough moment to deserve a little privacy. For a wonder, Fross followed suit, hovering silently around Ruda’s head without a hint needing to be dropped.

“Hey,” Ruda said suddenly. “Look alive, girls, we’ve got company.”

She gripped her rapier and half-drew it, watching shapes form in one of the nearby halls. As Trissiny, Toby and Gabriel emerged from the mist, however, she re-sheathed the weapon, a grin blossoming on her face.

“Guys!” Teal exclaimed, approaching. She and Shaeine were still holding hands. “Gods, it’s good to see you. Are you okay?”

“We’re…here,” Toby said tersely.

“Okay is probably pushing it,” Gabe agreed. “Man, I’m getting really nostalgic for the Descent. This place is doing a number on my head. How’re you girls?”

“More or less the same,” said Ruda, glancing back at the others. “We have considered the matter carefully from all angles and come to the conclusion that fuck this shit.”

“We’re still missing someone,” said Trissiny, her eyes darting over the group. “Have any of you seen Juniper?”

“We have only seen each other,” said Shaeine, “and now, you.”

“Great.” Gabriel dragged a hand through his hair. “Hell…she’s all alone in there. Okay. Which halls have you checked?”

“That one, that one and that one,” Ruda reported, pointing to each of the three in question.

“I came out of there,” said Toby, jerking a thumb over his shoulder, “and found these two in the one right behind us there.”

“That was Gabriel’s,” Trissiny added. “I entered it from a cross-hall, so…I started in that one to the right.”

“You had a cross-hall?” Ruda demanded, planting her fists on her hips. “Man, why the fuck do you always get the good stuff?”

“Easy, there,” Fross chided. “We jumped halls too, remember?”

“Yeah, but that’s cos you’re smart. It wasn’t handed to us.”

“Let us focus, please,” Shaeine said firmly. “There’s no telling what Juniper may be suffering while we dally. It sounds as if we have to check those two adjacent halls across the way, yes?”

“Right,” Trissiny nodded. “Does it matter which?”

“Not that I can see,” said Gabe. “Start with the one on the right?”

“There is the question of what lies in the final one,” Shaeine observed. “Apparently Fross and Ruda were deposited together, and of course Teal and Vadrieny are inseparable. The nine of us were distributed through seven of the eight paths.”

“I think whichever one we try will have Juniper in it,” said Fross. “Geography is very malleable down here, we’ve more than established that. It makes the most sense for the final hall to be the way out. We won’t find that until everybody’s done.”

“All right, then,” Ruda said grimly. “Forward march, troops. Let’s go right. It’s a good, honest direction.”

They started moving, falling unconsciously into the formation Trissiny had drilled them on over the last few days. Up ahead, another misty opening loomed, tendrils of white fog beckoning them silently forward.

“To state the obvious,” Trissiny said quietly as they walked, “we all know what’s been bothering Juniper the most lately. Or at least the general shape of it. Given what this place does, turning our memories against us…”

“Odds are good,” Ruda finished, “we are about to see something seriously fucked up.” She glanced around at the others. “I think it’s a good idea that we decide up front not to judge anybody based on anything we see in here. You don’t know someone’s story till you’ve walked in their boots, and I’m pretty sure this fucking place is picking whatever shit will screw us up the most. I refuse to give it the satisfaction.”

“Well put,” Gabriel agreed.

“A nice thought as far as it goes,” Toby said more quietly. “I think a few of us are going to need to talk some things over once we’re out of here, though.”

Nobody had a response to that. In the next moment, they stepped into the mist.

They drew together as they continued down the path, not speaking, but taking comfort in one another’s presence after their recent trials. Fross darted ahead and then back, then rose upward, continually scouting around for a better view.

“I think I see something,” the pixie reported, her shrill voice echoing startlingly in the quiet. “It’s either close or a lot bigger than—”

A deafening roar cut her off, and the group instantly halted, each of them settling into a combat stance with weapons up. Teal shifted forms, Gabriel sidestepped to have a clear shot ahead and Shaeine lit with a soft, silver glow. The footsteps rapidly approaching them were terrifyingly loud.

In the next seconds a true nightmare stomped forward out of the fog.

It was easily twelve feet tall, and looked like it might have been part tree at one point. At least, its legs ended in broad, flat stumps lined with stiff tendrils resembling roots. Vaguely humanoid in shape, it was the mottled brown and green of rotting meat, and smelled much the same. Viscous slime dripped from it all over; near its squat head, enormous translucent sacs inflated rhythmically with its breathing, lit from within with a pale glow like the luminous mushrooms of Level 1. Whatever heritage it owed to the plant kingdom, the claws and spikes protruding from its misshapen limbs at odd intervals were very clearly animalian. Two tails extended from its back, of unequal lengths, arching forward and tipped in massive stingers.

Stopping just in front of them, it roared again, its lower jaw not so much opening as unfolding, to reveal a saw-like arrangement of teeth. It stuck out a long tongue at them, which was tipped in yet another stinger, flanked by a nest of writhing tendrils. If it had eyes, they were obscured by the crazy crown of slime-dripping thorns that wreathed its head.

“Fucking goddamn ew,” Ruda observed.

“Looks fae,” Trissiny said tersely. “Vadrieny, Gabe, hang back; if this thing is powerful enough to scare Juniper it could really hurt you. Light-wielders to the front; Ruda, be ready with that sword, we’ll try to make you an opening. Anything that unnatural will suffer if you stick mithril in it.”

“Wait!” said Fross. Whatever she had been about to add was cut off by another enraged howl from the monster. It charged forward, lashing out with tongue, limbs and stingers, and slammed against a huge silver shield that appeared across the entire hall in front of them.

Shaeine actually grunted with the impact, wincing. The creature, though, fared much worse, reeling backward; it was actually smoking in several places where it had come into direct contact with divine magic.

“Remember your Circles,” Trissiny said urgently. “Demons, back away; we need to flare up!”

“Wait!” Fross shouted.

The howl unleashed by the monster was its loudest yet, and filled with a wordless rage that flirted with insanity.

“Shaeine, hammer it!” Trissiny cried.

“STOP!” Fross shrieked, darting across the hall in front of them. A spray of water fanned out form her aura, coalescing into a waist-high wall of ice. She quickly made a second pass, then a third, completely walling off the corridor in seconds.

“Fross,” Trissiny said impatiently, “advise on the go! We don’t have time for this, that thing has Juniper!”

“No,” the pixie cried, “no, that’s not what this is!”

Shards of ice sprayed over them as the wall cracked with a hammer blow from one of the monster’s colossal fists. A second caused a section of it to collapse; a stinger probed through the gap.

It didn’t roar again, though, giving Fross an opening to speak.

“That thing is Juniper!”

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6 – 21

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“She’s just sitting there. Why is she just sitting there?”

“Uh, I don’t know,” Fross admitted. “She looks really unhappy. Can’t she run?”

Ruda stared down at the incongruous fancy dress party, eyes narrowed in concentration. Below them, illusory guests continued to chitchat and dine, while Teal sat woodenly before her own untouched plate, wearing a desolately empty expression.

“We were chased by stuff,” Ruda murmured. “It was… So it’s about fear. There’s a sort of progression when it comes to nightmares. Do you have nightmares?”

“I don’t even sleep! I’ve read about dreams. They, uh, sound…disturbing.”

“Can be,” Ruda said, nodding. “Being chased is a common enough thing in bad dreams, but… What makes them worse is there’s usually some way you can’t react as well as you could. Can’t run fast enough, can’t hit back if it catches you… Nightmares are basically fear brought to life. This is fear brought to life.” She finally tore her gaze from the scene below to look up at Fross. “Maybe we just got out of it in time to avoid the bad part. Looking at her… I bet this thing gets into our minds. Holds us there so it can work on us.”

Fross drifted slowly lower, as she tended to do when thinking. “…then we’ll have to zoom in and back out fast.”

“Yeah.” Ruda frowned deeply, looking back down at Teal. “Except I don’t know if that’s actually an option. I mean…look at her. It’ll take time and effort to drag her out of that. If it’s in her head, she may even resist, think she belongs there.”

There was silence for a moment.

“This is bad, isn’t it,” Fross said finally.

Ruda nodded. “Yep.”

“Oh! I get it! You’re not afraid of accountants, you’re afraid of being—”

“Goddammit, Fross!”

“Sorry, sorry,” the pixie said hastily, fluttering backward from Ruda’s furious expression. “I kind of have a compulsion to figure stuff out. But… Wait, actually I’m not sorry. This is an immediate tactical concern, here! We have to go down into that to get Teal. We both need to know what to expect.”

“Okay, fine,” Ruda snapped. “What should I expect, then? Why are you afraid of other pixies?”

“That’s simple enough, pixies prey on each other. It’s basically the only thing we can eat.”

Ruda stared up at her for two seconds, then shook her head. “What the fuck. First Juniper and… What is it with fairies and cannibalism? No, don’t answer that, please, I’ve got too much shit to think about already. Okay, giant cannibal pixies, that it?”

“That…I can deal with,” Fross said more quietly. “That’s not really the thing that…I mean… Well. Look.”

She dipped to the stone surface of the ledge and spun in a rapid circle, materializing something out of her aural storage. It was a glass bottle, its rim marked with runes and encircled by twine which had twists of copper wrapped around it at intervals. A small metal hook was attached to the stopper.

Ruda frowned. “Wait…that looks like…”

“A fairy bottle, yeah,” said Fross in a subdued tone. “Used by some witches to contain fairies for…various purposes.”

“Like the one that bitch in the Golden Sea stuck you in?”

“It is that one. It was in the wagon we brought back to Last Rock; I brought it to Professor Yornhaldt and had him show me the proper arcane spells to break out of these.”

“I don’t think I get it, Fross.”

The pixie chimed softly in the short, descending arpeggio Ruda had come to recognize as her sigh. “You know how everyone we meet seems to think pixies are mindless until I talk to them with complete sentences? There’s a reason for that. I’m not exactly normal. So…yeah. If what I fear the most happens down there… Long as I’m in this thing, I can’t, you know, wander off and get lost. And if it doesn’t, I can get out of it any time I need to.”

“Okay,” Ruda said slowly. “That’s… Damn, I am actually really impressed. This is some serious planning ahead, glowbell. Well done.”

“Thanks!” Fross said, bobbing in midair and emitting a more cheerful chime. “And I hate to pick at you but on the same note…”

Ruda sighed. “It’s… I’m…” She turned to look down into the hall again. “Basically? I have the same fear as Teal.”

“You’re…afraid of dinner parties?”

“Fross, the only people who are afraid of dinner parties have severe social anxiety, which is pretty much the opposite of me. Or Teal, for that matter. It’s about…being trapped. Stuck in a life that doesn’t suit you.” She shrugged, refusing to look at the pixie. “Watching this, I feel like I suddenly get Teal in a way I never did before. It’s a cage with different bars, but a cage is a cage.”

“Okay,” Fross said. “Well, that’s actually kind of troubling. If you’ve got the same basic kind of fear, stepping into Teal’s personal nightmare might be especially risky for you.”

“Yeah,” Ruda said grimly. “I really, really wish I had a better idea. Do you?”

“…no.”

“Right. Because leaving her in that is not an option. We don’t abandon friends.”

“Agreed. Well… Okay, I’ll need you to attach the stopper once I’m in. Then just wrap the twine around it, that should seal the spell.”

“First thing’s first,” Ruda said with a bitter ghost of a smile. “I need a way down and a way back up.”

“Oh! Right, sorry. I’ll just…”

“Make it a slide on this side, please, that’ll be faster, and we don’t want to spend a second longer in there than absolutely necessary. And…a ladder on the other side.”

“The… Why the other side? Can’t we just retreat back up here?”

Ruda shook her head. “The others are still out there. Once we get Teal out of this hall, I want to keep moving. We’re not leaving anybody, and there’s no telling how well they’re doing. They may need help.”

“Got it! Okay, gimme just a minute.”

With the grim expectation of plunging back into fear itself hovering over them, the preparations were swift; all too soon, the ice slide and ladder were in place (none of the diners seemed at all perturbed by their appearance) and Fross was safely tucked away in the bottle, which now hung at Ruda’s belt.

The pirate took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “All right. Here we fuckin’ go.”

For the second and a half it took, the slide was actually sort of fun, aside from the sharp cold of it. Ruda landed nimbly on her feet and just as adroitly vaulted onto the table and over it, coming to rest beside her classmate. This, too, the diners ignored, including the bespectacled matron whose plate she had upended with her boot.

“Teal!” she said loudly, grabbing the bard by one of her bare shoulders. “Up and at ’em, girl. Time to go.”

Teal had to be shaken twice before she even reacted. With painful slowness, she turned her head to look up at Ruda, a faint frown of puzzlement replacing her depressed expression. “Ruda. Hi. What’re you doing here?”

“I’m getting you out,” Ruda said impatiently, glancing around. “Come on, there’s no time to—”

“Miss Punaji!”

She jumped backward as if stung at the voice. A tweedy little man in a suit that smelled of dust bustled up to her, scowling thunderously. “And just what do you think you’re doing up here? I’m so sorry, Miss Falconer, she’s one of my clerks. I have no idea what possessed her…never mind, I’ll tend to this right away.”

Ruda grasped at her rapier’s hilt for comfort, and found it wasn’t there. She had no place on her cheap brown pantsuit to hang a sword. “Thanks so much for including me in your little horror story, Teal,” she muttered.

“You get back where you belong and back to work!” the man said imperiously, planting his hands on his hips.

“I—”

“It’s okay,” Teal said somewhat listlessly, managing a thin smile. “Ruda’s an old friend. It’s nice to catch up.”

“I’m sorry, I really need to get back to…” Ruda broke off, frowning; there was an insistent chiming coming from her hip. She shook her head. “No. This isn’t real. Come on, Teal, get it together! We’re in the Crawl, we’re in some kind of mind trap, and we need to go!”

“Go?” Teal smiled up at her again, and it was such an achingly bitter expression that Ruda’s heart contracted painfully in sympathy. “Nonsense, this is the social event of the season. I am absolutely required to attend.”

“Come on,” Ruda said urgently, shifting to place Teal’s chair between herself and the man, who was still glaring furiously at her. “Vadrieny has to be miserable at this thing. We need to find the others.”

“Vadrieny? Oh, that’s long over with. The Church separated us. I’m alone now.” Teal’s smile flickered once, then collapsed into blank emptiness.

Ruda closed her eyes for a moment, concentrating on Fross’s furious chiming. Bless that little pixie and her stubbornness. “If you won’t do this for yourself, think about Shaeine. She could be in the same kind of trouble.”

“Sh…a… No.” Teal slumped in her seat, staring down at her plate. A single tear fell onto it. “All that’s over with. Not appropriate at all. I’m engaged now, to a…to…” She trailed off, staring desolately into space.

“Goddammit, woman, we don’t have fucking time for this!” Ruda shouted, seizing her by both shoulders and shaking her violently. “I know you’ve got a spine in there somewhere! Snap out of it, you spoony bard!”

“That is enough!” the little man bellowed. “You are one more indiscretion from being out on the street without references, Punaji! If you wish you remain gainfully employed, you will be back at your desk five minutes ago!”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Jones,” she said immediately, releasing the unresponsive Teal and cringing. “I don’t know what came over me…”

“I don’t want to hear your excuses, just go!”

Ruda glanced around. “I…that…do you hear something? Like a bell?”

“Are you mad as well as insubordinate, girl? I am going to count to ten, and if you are not out of my sight when I finish, you are fired! One!”

Ruda looked frantically around. The diners, her furious boss, the despondent Falconer heiress… Everything felt wrong. This wasn’t right.

“Two! Three!”

Her instincts were telling her to do one thing, her brain another. She always followed her brain; instinct lied.

Except…

“Four!”

Except instincts never screamed at her like this; the brain never had so little to say. She made a decision, and let instinct take over.

“Fi—what are you doing? Put down that knife immediately!”

The diner from whose hand Ruda had snatched the steak knife let it go without even looking up. Ruda, barely conscious of what she was doing, raised the blade and stabbed Teal in the throat.

Teal gagged, shock suffusing her features. Scarlet blood fountained onto her plate, onto the lacy white tablecloth, staining her diamonds.

Ruda let go of the knife, staggering backward, stunned. “What did I…”

Everything exploded.

She shrieked, staggering to the ground and covering her head with her hands as an eruption of fire occurred right in front of her. In the next instant, a hand had seized the back of her coat, and suddenly she was being pulled. Her feet left the ground, and for the next moments Ruda was tossed about so violently she couldn’t even begin to get her bearings.

Then, with much greater gentleness, she was being set down. Ruda staggered, then grabbed at her sword. It was there. So was Fross’s bottle, hanging at the other hip.

The pressure on the back of her neck eased up, massive claws releasing her collar. She turned, letting out a sigh of relief.

“That was risky,” Vadrieny said sharply. “What were you thinking? If she physically had been separated from me, you’d have killed her.”

“I wasn’t thinking,” Ruda said frankly. “I don’t even know what I was doing, much less why the fuck it worked. But it did. Are we out of there?”

The twine crackled sharply as it snapped in multiple places, releasing the bottle, whose stopper immediately popped off, shooting away to the side. Fross zipped out and rose to hover at her normal spot just above eye level.

“We are! Look!”

Behind them was the hall, filled with mist. In fact, all around them were halls. They stood in a broad octagonal chamber, each side opening onto another wide hallway. Every one of them was shrouded in fog.

“A pattern emerges,” Ruda muttered. “Well! You got us out of the dangerous area, then. Nice work, Vadrieny.”

“I only did the flying,” the demon said somewhat grudgingly. “We’d still be there if not for your rescue.”

“Are you okay?” Ruda asked carefully. “I wasn’t sure you were there… What did you see? No, never mind, that’s not my business.”

Vadrieny averted her burning eyes, glaring at the hall from which they had come. “I… Couldn’t help her. She couldn’t hear me. I was trapped in there. Watching, but basically alone. Powerless.”

“Well, that’s actually kind of elegant,” Ruda said, scowling. “One personal hell to fit both of you at once. I fucking hate this place.”

“So, the others are in these halls, then?” Fross drifted over to the one they’d just escaped, then back. “Okay, that one’s cleared… And the one to the right, there, we came out of that one. Next counter-clockwise on the list?”

“Right,” said Ruda, nodding, then hesitated. “…right. Let’s, uh…catch our breath first, okay? I don’t wanna leave the others too long, but… But…”

“Yeah,” Fross said quietly.

Vadrieny sighed heavily—even that was musical in her voice—and withdrew back into her host without another word. For a moment, Teal stared at her classmates, wide-eyed and visibly shaken.

Then, abruptly, she stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Ruda in a rib-cracking hug.

Ruda stiffened momentarily, then found herself hugging back.


 

“So,” Gabriel said with a casualness that sounded forced even to him, “how well do you get along with your roommate?”

Triss shot him an annoyed look. “What’s with this? Have you ever known me to want to just chitchat about my feelings?”

“No,” he said immediately and in total honesty. “Right now I don’t even know what I know. I’m just…trying to get my bearings.” When she didn’t answer after a long moment he sighed and dragged a hand over his hair, having holstered his cheaper wand in order to reach his enchanting supplies if needed. “Nevermind, probably a stupid idea. I don’t mean to pry.”

“Always wanted a sister,” Triss mused thoughtfully. Gabriel clammed up and watched her sidelong as they meandered down the foggy hallway. All appeared to be quiet, still. “Ruda… Yeah, we’re close.” She glanced at him. “I guess you don’t remember, but I spent the winter break in Puna Dara with her.”

“I thought Puna Dara was too far away to get there and back over break?”

She frowned. “By Rail? It takes all of two hours, including stops.”

“There’s not a Rail line to oh gods why am I arguing about what’s in an alternate universe? Ignore me, I’m shutting up now.”

Triss grinned, a rakish expression so totally unlike what he was used to seeing on her face that it left him slightly queasy. “Yeah, well, I can’t say her parents liked me. Punaji and Eserites, you know how it is. Don’t you?”

“Let’s assume I do and move on.”

“Heh, fair enough.” She shrugged. “Ruda… She’s got this issue where she always has to be the alpha female. It was annoying at first, but hell, I learned to roll with it quickly enough. Suits me pretty well, in fact; I do better when I’m not the center of attention.” She produced a silver coin from somewhere, probably inside a sleeve, and rolled it across the back of her knuckles. “People who’re watching you are more likely to notice when you cut their purse strings. My mom wanted me to follow in her dainty little footsteps, but that’s parents for you. I just don’t have the patience to properly manipulate people. Give me daggers and a clear shot from behind, know what I mean? Yeah, me and Ruda… Two pieces of a puzzle.” She smiled again, this expression more gentle. “Of course, you will not tell anyone I was waxing emotive down here. This is strictly because your mental landscape is full of holes. I hope she’s okay.”

“This is so fucking disturbing,” he whispered.

“No kidding,” Triss said, coming to a halt. Only then did he notice that the hall had changed around them. It was an abrupt shift, this time, and apparently retroactive; quite suddenly everything was different, even the stretch of hall behind them. Different, and familiar.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” he groaned. “This again? Why are we back here?”

“Are we back?” Triss mused, turning to look around at the Tiraan street in which they now stood. “I mean, is this your hallway again, or did it change mine to look like this?”

“Fuck if I know,” Gabriel growled. “Why is it so determined to torment me?”

“Well, you’ve just got one of those faces. I’ve noticed it too.”

He gave her a bitter look. “Thanks, that’s super helpful.”

“I aim to please,” she replied, grinning.

They paused momentarily, studying their surroundings, before Gabriel heaved a sigh. “Well, as you said. Nowhere to go but forward.”

“Mm.” Triss didn’t start moving. “You get the feeling this is leading toward something?”

“Yes,” he said grimly, “and it is only through the supreme exertion of my will that I am not pissing myself in anticipation.”

“Gross, man.”

“Yeah, well, after what happened to…” He glanced at her and grimaced. “Let’s just say there’s a pattern here. If you fail to be cowed by the lesser terrors, the Crawl will drop something even nastier on you. In hindsight, maybe I’d have been better off if I’d just fallen to pieces when it leaned on me in the first place.”

“Enough of that kind of talk,” she said. “C’mon, I’m sharp and you’re sturdy. We’ll get through this. Wanna hold my hand?”

“…I think that would unsettle me even more.”

She laughed, but started walking, and he fell quickly into step beside her.

“Tiraas isn’t really my beat,” she said after a few minutes of tense silence. “Do you recognize this street?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t think it’s a street. I mean, not a real street. I couldn’t swear to that, but the way it’s… Vague, yet specific. Know what I mean?”

“Gabriel, I think you’ll find that babbling errant nonsense is a perfect way to ensure that of course I don’t fucking know what you mean!”

“Right.” He rubbed a hand through his hair again. “Right. Well… It feels like Tiraas. Very profoundly; I have an irrational but extremely compelling sense that this is a street in Tiraas. So do you, apparently, or you wouldn’t have said so. But I don’t recognize any landmarks, which means… Well, it suggests that the feeling is something the Crawl’s putting in my head.”

“I hate that,” she muttered, jamming her hands in her coat pockets. “Things messing with my mind. I can work my way around just about anything, but… Things that alter the way I’m me are just wrong.”

“Yeah,” he said, giving her a long, wary look.

“I almost wish we could get on with it an encounter whatever horror… Why are we stopping?”

Gabriel was staring ahead, at a place far enough from them to be just barely visible through the mist, and on the opposite sidewalk from the one they were on. “…I know that place.”

“Oh,” she said. “Well, good. Or…bad? Care to venture a theory?”

He stared at the house, frowning deeply. It didn’t look remarkable in comparison to the other fake edifices lining the illusory street. A nice place, certainly, but it blended in well with this apparently generic line-up of nice places.

“I think…” Gabriel trailed off, then shook his head. “Am I late?”

“What?” Triss frowned at him. “Late for what? Hey!”

He moved off ahead without her. “Crap, she hates it when I’m late. I should’ve checked the clock before leaving…”

“Gabriel!” Triss snapped, increasingly concerned. “What’s gotten into—hey, snap out of it! This is the Crawl, it gets inside your head, remember?”

He roughly shook her off when she tried to grab his arm, which looked extremely odd as he didn’t seem to notice he was doing it, or even that she was there. Triss swore under her breath and kicked him hard in the rump. He staggered forward, but quickly regained his balance and continued making a beeline for the house. There was nothing for her to do but trail along in his wake.

The door opened before they reached it, and Triss muttered another curse. Standing in the portal, smiling benignly, was the pretty, curvy, dark-haired girl from before.

“Gabriel!” she cooed. “I was about to start worrying.”

“Sorry to make you wait, lovely,” he said, strolling forward with a slight but distinct swagger in his step now.

“Oh, this is just priceless,” Triss groaned.

“You’re not late yet,” Madeleine said with a smile, extending her hand. Gabriel took it, bowing gallantly and placing a chaste kiss on her knuckles. Behind him, Triss gagged violently. Neither of them appeared to notice her. “That was what had me worried, my darling. Had you been late, I’d have had no choice but to be upset with you. Today of all days, I wanted to avoid that!”

“Then we’re in luck!” he said, grinning, and sweeping her into a hug.

“Gabriel!” she protested, giggling and struggling unconvincingly. “Not out here! The neighbors!”

“No one’s watching, pet,” he said, planting a kiss on her lips.

“Oh, that’s nice,” said Triss, folding her arms. “That makes me what? Grandma’s breakfast?”

“Ah, ah, ah!” Gently but more firmly, Madeleine extracted herself and eased back into the doorway. “Plenty of time for that later, darling. Please, come on in. I have something extra special planned for today.”

“The anticipation is killing me,” he said, following her. Triss could tell even from behind him that he was grinning insufferably.

“Am I right in concluding that you two can’t see or hear me?” she called. Neither answered, nor did they react when she darted forward to seize the door as he tried to shut it behind him. “Then let me just inform you, Mr. Boyparts, that skull-sized tits are not an asset on a girl. She’s gonna have lower back pain something fierce, and they’ll be hanging around her knees by the time she’s thirty.”

The two young lovers had vanished into the house. Standing in the doorway and craning her neck, Triss could tell that this wasn’t just another flat facade lining the walls of the corridor: there was an actual living space in there, expensively but tastefully furnished.

She grimaced, glancing longingly over her shoulder at the misty hall outside. Already Madeleine and Gabriel had passed through the foyer and were about to get out of sight round a corner. Muttering another curse, this time in elvish, she followed, slamming the door for emphasis.

They didn’t notice that, either.

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6 – 20

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She disregarded the voices, but did not ignore them. Ignoring cues from her environment was a good way to be ambushed, and there really wasn’t anything to orient her senses except the very faint sounds at the edge of hearing. Even though they consisted of accusing whispers and the occasional distant scream, Trissiny did not try to shut them out. She did, periodically, draw the tiniest stream of Avei’s power into her core. Just enough to feel the reassuring glow. The reminder of her goddess’s support grew increasingly necessary the longer she went in this place.

Walking through featureless mist with nothing for company but faint, hostile whispers would be enough to wear on anyone.

After that first scene, the mist had shown her nothing, only the soft sounds of women accusing her of a variety of sins and failures. It had been enough for her to develop a working theory about what was happening here. Despite the constant wear on her equanimity, Trissiny was mostly concerned for the others. Were they being tested in the same way? There was no way to even guess what was happening to the rest of her party, nothing to do but keep pressing forward and hope to reunite with them soon. Hope, and pray.

After deliberately tracking back and forth across the wide hall several times to make sure the walls were still there, she had stuck close to the left one. It was a rule of thumb she’d heard about mazes: keep a hand on the left wall and you would eventually come to the exit. This was hardly a maze, being a broad, straight path filled with swirling white fog, aggressive whispering and the occasional very disturbing vision—well, at least one such, anyway—but hopefully the same principle would apply.

The door appeared quite suddenly out of the pale gloom, and she stopped to consider it. A simple arched doorway in the left wall of the hall, it led into a tunnel that had neither mist nor light, and curved slightly so that she could see little more of what was down it than what lay ahead in her own foggy path. What she could see in both cases was nothing, so it made little difference on that front. This was alarmingly convenient, especially considering that this place clearly showed both intelligence and hostility. On the other hand…she wasn’t apparently getting anywhere on her current course.

She knew nothing of what was going on. Anything she did might be an error. Given the option, Trissiny always preferred to make the active rather than the passive mistake. At least the side tunnel would be a change of venue.

Raising her sword to a ready position, she stepped cautiously into it.

Only a few feet in, she lit up her aura, lacking any other way to see where she was going. The absence of mist was nice, but the apparently sourceless light of the main hallway was also missing. Had it been the mist providing light? Well, whatever the case, the voices also faded into the distance behind her, which came as a significant relief.

As a further benefit, the tunnel went somewhere. Not much of a somewhere, and a peculiar one, but it was something. After a relatively short walk, she found herself facing what looked for all the world like the front wall of someone’s living room. It had wallpaper in an understated paisley pattern, cheap-looking curtains over the window and a simple but well-polished wooden door with a brass knob. She carefully nudged a curtain aside with the tip of her sword to peer out.

More mist.

Trissiny sighed, but momentarily slung her shield on her back to turn the doorknob. She pulled it open and re-armed herself before stepping through. More of the same it might be, but she’d committed to this path.

It immediately turned out to have been the right thing to do, or at least an improvement. The space into which she carefully stepped was another broad, mist-filled hall, but this one had features. Actually, it looked exactly like a city street, lined with brownstone townhouses.

Even better, just ahead of where she emerged, it had one of her classmates.

“Gabe!”

He jumped and whirled, raising his wands. Upon seeing her, his face underwent a quick shuffle of expressions, starting with delighted relief and morphing into suspicion.

“I take it you’ve been seeing things too,” she said with a wry grin, stepping down the front stairs of the fake house from which she had emerged.

“Seeing, hearing, talking to, doing my goddamn best to ignore,” he replied cautiously, peering at her and making no move to lower his weapons. “What were you doing in there?”

“My hallway was a lot less interesting than this one,” she said, looking around. “Just…empty, except for the fog. There was an opening, so I went in. It led me here. All things considered I think I like yours better. Have you seen any of the others?”

“Nobody…current,” he said cryptically. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…how do I know it’s really you?”

“Is there a right way to take that?”

“Well…”

She sighed. “No, I’m sorry, bad time to joke. You’re right to be cautious. I don’t know what to tell you, though. If you like I could light you up and prove I’m physical.”

“No thanks, but the offer is pretty convincing,” he said with a grimace, finally lowering his wands. “Gods, I’m glad to see you, Triss.”

“Likewise,” she said fervently, stepping forward to stand beside him. “Speaking as an enchanter, do you have any idea what’s going on?”

He glanced suspiciously about at the apparently empty street. “Speaking as an enchanter, I am so out of my fucking depth I have a better chance of finishing this metaphor than figuring out what all this is.”

Trissiny smiled in spite of herself. “Well…I’m pretty sure we’re still in the Crawl.”

“Yeah.” He nodded. “Yeah, this is obviously not the Descent, but… It being the Crawl makes the most sense. I don’t think there are any other surface exits, and I can’t see any reason for something like this to be down wherever it is the drow are coming from. Question is, what the hell is happening, and why?”

She shook her head. “Your ignorance is as good as mine. Let’s keep moving, though. Maybe there’ll be more side-tunnels and we can catch up with the others.”

He sighed heavily, but fell into step alongside her as she strode cautiously forward. “You caught me taking a break. If I stay put, it stays quiet. Progress means…seeing things.”

“Hm.” Trissiny glanced around fruitlessly. There was nothing to see but more innocuous street and eerie fog. “I only had one real…episode. There were voices, though.”

“Voices?”

“The creepy kind. I don’t miss them.”

“You might, you know.”

Trissiny halted and whirled to face the voice from behind them, raising her shield. A strikingly pretty young woman stood on the street, smiling. Despite the expression, her eyes were hard.

“Who are you?” Trissiny demanded.

“My, my, is that any way to introduce yourself?” The girl’s smile widened. “I see etiquette is not a priority in Legion training.”

“Trissiny,” Gabriel said wearily, “this is my ex-girlfriend. She’s not really here, for obvious reasons, and I don’t particularly care to indulge the Crawl in whatever manipulative crap this is. Just keep moving, I’ve learned she won’t follow.”

“I’m not sure I like the idea of putting my back to her,” Trissiny said warily. The girl actually laughed. She was short and curvaceous, built somewhat like Ruda but without the muscle tone. In fact, she was exactly the sort of woman for whom Trissiny had the least patience, a living portrait of cosmetics, expensive fabric and pampered complexion, all style and no apparent substance.

“She really isn’t your type, Gabriel,” the woman said with another catlike smile. “Really, is this the sort of person you’re hanging around with, now? And I had entertained such hopes of instilling a little gentility in you. You have so much potential.”

“Shut up, figment,” he said curtly. “The only way that could be more insulting is if you really were Madeleine. Seriously, Triss. Come on.”

This time, it was he who strode off ahead, and she had to either follow or be left behind in the fog. She chose to do the former, glancing behind repeatedly. As he had predicted, the apparently fictitious girl remained where she stood, watching but not following them.

“So,” she said after Madeleine had vanished into the fog behind them. “You…had a girlfriend?”

“Sound more surprised,” he said shortly.

“I wasn’t surprised,” she replied. “Just trying to open a conversation. I guess I don’t blame you if you don’t want to talk about it. Can’t have been a pleasant memory.”

He gave her a sharp look. “What makes you say that?”

“Because the Crawl is throwing it in your face. If you’ve been getting anything like what I got, this is all calculated to unnerve us.”

He opened his mouth to answer, but there came a scream and a rush of flames off to their left before he could speak. Trissiny jumped again, raising her weapons, though she had the presence of mind not to blaze up with divine power and scorch her companion.

A gap had appeared in the buildings, quite suddenly, and within it was a roaring bonfire, surrounded by a jeering crowd. From the middle of the flames rose a thick wooden post, to which was tied a man, shrieking in agony.

“What—”

“Ignore it,” Gabriel said curtly, striding forward. “Not real.”

“But what is this?!”

“That’s my father being burned alive,” he said, not looking at her. “Last time it was the headsman’s block. Before that, the noose. These are actually my favorite little vignettes; I can just ignore them and pretty soon they’re gone. Sometimes people chase me shouting racial epithets; I have to threaten them with wands to make them leave. And then there’s Madeleine.” Trissiny had caught up with him again, enough to see his expression, which was falling ever deeper into a scowl. “Despite my better judgment I can’t seem to stop myself from engaging with her. I’m not that bright in some ways.”

“You’ve been…seeing all that?” she asked, horrified. He shrugged. “This whole time?”

“Yes,” he snapped. “Why, what’d you see? I thought you said it had been bad for you, too.”

“Compared to this? No…not really.” Trissiny shook her head. “Gabe, I think this is all just…fear.”

He looked over at her. “What?”


 

“It’s fear,” Ruda said, vigorously rubbing her hands together. Behind her, the rough ladder of ice was growing slick with condensation—well, slicker, it hadn’t been an easy climb—but didn’t seem to be melting in a hurry. It was markedly cooler here than in the Descent. She withdrew her arms from her sleeves, leaving her greatcoat hanging from her shoulders, and jammed her numb fingers into her armpits. “That’s the common denominator of that shit down there. We’re being shown our fears.”

“I…guess…that sort of makes sense?” Fross said hesitantly. “At least, in my case…yeah.”

“Gotta say, I did not get up this morning expecting to be chased by giant fucking pixies before lunch,” Ruda muttered.

“But…I’m pretty sure the other half of that wasn’t me,” Fross continued. “I, um… I only recognize what was going on from descriptions. That was you, then?”

“I’m pretty sure, yeah,” Ruda said curtly, stepping carefully away from the ladder. It wasn’t much warmer a few feet distant, but that thing was cold.

“That…that was an accounting firm? Why exactly—”

“Fross, having established why the Crawl is showing us this fuckery, do you really think I want to talk about it in detail?”

“I guess not,” the pixie said. “Sorry.”

“Thanks for the ladder, though,” Ruda added. “That was some quick thinking.”

“Thanks!” Fross replied with more of her usual pep. “It’s also pretty telling that none of those things followed us. I mean, the pixies can fly, obviously, and that tweedy looking guy who was yelling at you can probably climb it. They’re not trying, though.” She buzzed back over to peer over the ladder. “…oh. Actually, it’s all gone.”

Ruda frowned, turning to look. “Gone? Holy shit, you’re right.”

Below them was only the broad hall again, filled with mist. No wolfhound-sized pixies or rows of busily scribbling accountants to be seen, just lazily drifting fog, and occasional glimpses of the stone floor beneath it.

“So…” Fross said slowly. “…we’re above the effect, then. Look, the mist doesn’t reach up here. I bet it’s related to the, uh…visions, or whatever that was.”

Ruda groaned. “Is there any chance that this isn’t the Crawl?”

“Not much of one. I mean, I don’t detect any magic here. Any kind of magic, I mean. I can sense arcane and fae energies directly, which means I can pick up the presence of other schools sort of by deduction, and there’s nothing. Since those obviously aren’t physically normal effects, the most logical explanation is it’s an ambient effect of the genius loci.”

“Fucking great,” Ruda said, scowling. “And we just weaseled out of it. Given what the Crawl thinks about cheating, I guess we can expect the fucking ceiling to fall on us any second.”

“Well, I don’t… Um, nevermind.”

“No, finish the thought.”

“It’s…just speculation. Probably not helpful.”

“Fross, you’re one of the smartest people I know,” said Ruda. “You’re also by a wide margin the leading expert on dungeons in our social circle. I’d rather have your speculation than my own considered opinion, as in my considered opinion I’ve got no fucking clue about anyshit going on here.”

“Ah…heh, thanks. Well, I mean… This is here, right? I mean, it’s up here.”

“Uh, yeah.” Ruda looked around at the platform. It was broad, flat, and as featureless as the hall below had been before the apparitions had appeared to harass them. Lacking mist, though, they could actually see the ceiling, which was equally plain and uninteresting, just out of reach above. “It is indeed up here.”

“Well… I’ve been thinking about the Crawl and its apparent rules about cheating. You know how Melaxyna said it had taken her a long time to build up a relationship with the Crawl so it allowed her to have Level 2 separate from the rest of the Descent, and rent their portal to adventurers? And how the demons refused to let us use it to skip levels?”

Ruda nodded. “Mm hm, go on.”

“Well, the portal is pretty obviously cheating. But it’s obviously allowed. Because by contrast, there’s stuff that’s not allowed, that brought punishment. The demons are toeing the line pretty closely, but there is a line for them to toe and they were able to figure out where it is. I think… The Crawl does allow cheating…but only where it wants to.”

“So…you’re saying that we’re safe using approved shortcuts?”

“Like I said, I’m just speculating!” Fross clarified hastily, buzzing around in a circle. “But yeah, that’s the theory I’ve been developing. And this fits with it! Here’s this…whatever this is. Test, or trap, something. And here’s this platform up above it, which most people wouldn’t be able to get to easily but it’s possible. Unless something really bad happens to us in the next couple minutes, I figure this must be allowed.”

“If your theory is right,” Ruda mused, looking around, “the fact that it even is here pretty strongly suggests it’s allowed.”

“Exactly!” Fross chimed in growing excitement, bobbing up and down. “So…we’re not cheating, we’re using the provided means to…solve the puzzle. It makes sense! I mean, the Crawl is supposed to be friendly with Tellwyrn, and she encourages lateral thinking while also being really pushy and excessively direct, y’know?”

“Beautiful,” Ruda growled. “Why doesn’t she fuck off down here and leave us all alone, then? I bet they’d be very happy together. Well, anyway, no sense just sitting up here picking our noses. Let’s go see what else is up here.”

“I don’t think anything’s up here,” Fross said, drifting higher to get a better view. “But, um, off in the other direction from our hall is another gap. It also has mist.”

Ruda perked up visibly. “Finally, some good news! I bet some of the others are in there.”

“You think?” Fross asked, buzzing along after her as Ruda set out in the indicated direction.

“Well, we were split up, right? They’ve gotta be somewhere. Maybe it sent us all to random places, but… I’ve got a feeling if we’re being tested or something, we’re all being tested. It makes the most sense for the others to have been dumped in a similar place. And since Vadrieny’s the only other one who can fly, they’ll probably need our help to get out of the fear soup.”

“Hm, so…we’re in pairs?”

“Maybe. Then again, you and I have been functioning as a unit most of the time in the Descent, per Triss’s strategies. If the Crawl caught onto that, it might have sent everybody off separately. We won’t know until we start finding them.”

The chasm was barely a minute’s brisk walk away, and they could tell it was occupied by the lack of mist within. Faint tendrils swirled around its edges, but as they drew closer, it became clear that most of the central portion was empty. Empty, anyway, of mist.

The soft clatter of silver on porcelain and murmur of polite conversation rose from the scene below. A long table stretched down the center of the wide hall, bedecked with elegantly arranged dishes and centerpieces. Well-dressed people lined it, eating and conversing with graciously understated good cheer.

“Holy fuck, it’s a dinner party,” Ruda breathed.

“Um…” Fross drifted lower, almost coming to rest on the lip of stone overlooking the hall. “Maybe we should revise our theory? I mean, who’s afraid of dinner parties?”

Ruda pointed. “Looks like Teal is.”

“Oh…oh, wow,” Fross whispered, staring down at their classmate where she slumped between two gentlemen in tuxedos, staring emptily down at her plate. Teal’s hair was longer than they’d ever seen it, elaborately styled around her head; she wore a necklace of glittering diamonds with huge earrings to match, and a low-cut green gown of clearly expensive make. “She’s so pretty. But…she looks so sad.”

“Fross, that expression isn’t sad,” Ruda said grimly. “I would describe that as ‘critically depressed.’ We’ve gotta get her out of there. If we’re even close to right about what this place is doing…”


 

“…then it’s basically individually customized torture,” Gabriel snarled. “I hate this fucking place.”

“Save your energy,” Trissiny advised, still keeping a careful watch on their surroundings as they proceeded forward. “Getting mad at the Crawl won’t do anything useful. It might even provoke it to double down on us. Let’s focus on finding the others and getting out of here.”

“I hope you’ve got a better idea about that than I have,” he growled. “I know you popped out of one of these side doors, but every time I’ve tried one it just opened onto a brick wall. That leaves us with nothing to do but go forward.”

“The opening that I found was pretty obvious,” she said. “Maybe another will appear. You’re right, there’s not much for it but to keep looking.”

“Monster!” a voice shouted, accompanied by pounding footsteps. A shabbily-dressed man came pelting up out of the mist, carrying a pitchfork, which he leveled at Gabriel. “Hellblood! Run him through!”

Gabe turned and fired his wand into the ground just in front of the would-be attacker’s feet, forcing him to skid to a stop.

“I am in no mood,” he said firmly. Without another word, the man dropped his pitchfork and scrambled off into the fog. The second he was lost to view, the sound of his feet also vanished.

“You realize firing wands at people in the real world will only make it worse?”

“Yeah,” he grunted, “and in the real world, Madeleine doesn’t go away when you walk away from her. This whole damn place is pretty much a cruel joke.”

Trissiny frowned. “This…if we’re right… These are things you’re afraid of?”

He shrugged irritably. “What of it?”

“It’s just…” She shook her head. “I think I’m figuring out a pattern. What it hit me with was…sort of faint and disorganized. Just the one serious vision at the very beginning, of the Abbess of Viridill and senior Legionnaires condemning me for failing Avei. And I knew better than to take that at face value, because… Well, the thing is, that was something that had been weighing heavily on me, but I’d figured it out and dealt with it. Learned to let it go. Once I turned my back on it here, it didn’t come back.”

Gabriel grunted. “So you’re not afraid of anything? Typical.”

Trissiny actually laughed softly. “Courage is a measure of how well you function while afraid. It can be learned and taught. Pretty much any military does so. Oh, I’m afraid of things. All the usual stuff, I guess. Plague, earthquakes…bears. Public speaking.” She shook her head. “I think… This seems to be hitting us with significant, personal fears. I addressed mine and moved past it, and…it let me. But this.” She gestured around them with her sword. “You’re worried about things like this all the time?”

“I kind of have to be,” he said with a sigh.

“But…your father being killed,” she said, barely above a whisper. “Mobs after you… It would drive me crazy. You never seem…stressed about it.”

Gabriel grinned bitterly. “Well…what good would that do? You’d be amazed what you can learn to live with when you don’t really have an option.”

Trissiny just stared at him in silence as they walked. He kept his eyes stubbornly forward, not meeting her gaze.

They came to a simultaneous halt when one of the house doors just ahead of them abruptly swung open, its hinges ominously silent. Both of them stared at it suspiciously for a long moment, then turned to look inquiringly at each other.

“Well,” he said at last, “there’s your opening. Funny how reassuring I don’t find it, now that it’s here.”

“That’s about how I felt about the last one, but it led me to you. I don’t know, though,” she added, frowning. “It’s on the wrong side.”

“There’s a right side?”

“Well…this is on the same side of the hall I came out of, right?”

“Yeah, and?”

“And, they seemed to be running more or less parallel. If that’s the case…this’ll just lead us back to the hall I was in.”

“You mean, the one with the unnerving whispers?”

“…yes.”

“Welp.” He brushed past her, heading for the door. “We’ve pretty thoroughly explored the hidden tortures of my psyche, I think. Let’s give yours a try for a while.”

“I…guess…that’s fair,” she said reluctantly, following.

Gabriel turned to grin at her at the short steps leading up. “Come on, Triss, it’s us. You are a professional kicker of asses and I’m practically indestructible. We’ll be fine.”

“You’re only saying that because you’re eager to get out of your personal hell,” she accused, but couldn’t hold back a slight smile as she did.

“You bet your sweet…uh…nevermind. Let’s pretend I phrased that differently.”

“I do that quite a lot.”

He rolled his eyes and stepped through the door.


 

“Ugh…why am I on the…oh, shit, not again,” Gabriel groaned. He started to rise from his hands and knees, then staggered and slumped back to a kneeling position, the blood rushing from his head. “Shit. Bad door. Bad door. This is just like the bullshit that dumped us here in the first place. Please tell me you’re still here?”

“I’m here,” she grunted. “Ugh…crap, that’s disorienting. Okay, new rule: you don’t get to pick the damn doors!”

He blinked rapidly. “I’m sorry…what did you say?”

“No complaining,” Trissiny ordered, accompanied by a rustle of fabric and the soft scuffing of boots on stone as she rose to her feet. “I don’t care whose fault it wasn’t, I’m blaming you. Woman’s prerogative.”

“What?” He jerked up, staring at her. It made him dizzy again, but not badly this time, and anyway the sensation perfectly suited what he was seeing.

She was straightening the lapels of her tan leather duster, a coat which had clearly been tailored to her figure. Used as he was to seeing Trissiny in armor, or the loose, practical garments she favored when out of it, he hadn’t actually realized that she had a figure, but…there it was. Beneath it she wore a white silk shirt unlaced halfway down her chest and Punaji-style baggy pants tucked into battered leather boots. She had no sword, shield, or any weapons he could see.

“Uh,” he said intelligently.

“No, don’t mind me, you catch up on your rest,” Trissiny told him with a grin. Her expression sobered as she turned to study their surroundings. “Well…I can’t say this is promising. This looks just like the one I was in, by which I mean fuckin’ empty. Still, you’ll probably be glad to be out of that other one anyway. It was another of those weird portals, obviously, not just a door. Think maybe we’ll find one of the others?”

He got slowly to his feet, staring at her. “Uh, Trissiny?”

She was right in front of him with one long stride; a stiletto shot out of her coat sleeve and into her hand with one deft flick of her wrist, the tip ending up inches from his eye. She stared coldly at him from far too close. “What have I told you, Arquin?”

“I…” He gulped. “I honestly have no idea.”

“Nobody but my mother calls me that,” she said flatly.

“I, um…something’s wrong here.”

“Yeah, no shit.”

“Something is very wrong here,” he clarified. “I think…that door messed you up. Or messed me up. Something. You are, uh…not how I remember.”

She studied him closely for a long moment, then finally lowered the knife, sliding it smoothly back into her sleeve. He found himself letting out an unintended sigh of relief as she stepped back. “How so?”

“Well, you uh… You’re dressed differently. Your hair’s longer. And I’ve never heard you curse before.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Are you serious?”

“I don’t even know anymore,” he said honestly.

She frowned, tilting her head. “Well… I don’t know what to do about that. You look pretty much the same. Dumb and adorably awkward.”

“I’m…you think…adorable?” he squeaked.

A smile flickered at the edges of her lips. “Uh uh, boy, don’t start. That was one time, and I have since sworn off tequila. If you’re feeling the urge, take it up with Juniper when we find them.”

“I think I need to sit down,” he said weakly.

“No, you need to keep going,” she said, her expression sobering. “We do, rather. Nothing’s getting accomplished while we dick around here. I don’t like this place any more than you do, but given the options, I’d rather be doing something than just settling in to wait. Even if the something is being herded like rats in a maze.”

“Okay, look,” he said, taking a step back from her. “This is seriously messed up. You’re not my Tr—um, you are not the person I know. I dunno who you are, but I think I’m just gonna go back through…” He turned around, finding himself staring at a blank wall. “Oh. It’s gone. Well, of course it’s fucking gone. What did I expect?”

“Couldn’t answer that,” she said, amused. “Look, Gabe, the whole point of this place is obviously to mess with our heads. I don’t know what’s happening, or whether it’s happening to you or me. Frankly, I’m assuming it’s you who’s getting the whammy, because like I said, I’m not noticing anything different here. But…what are you gonna do? Hunker down and hope for rescue?”

“Um…”

“There’s nowhere to go but forward,” she pressed on, giving him a lopsided smile. It was surprisingly cute. That was a word he would never have thought to associate with Trissiny before. “Whatever is happening, two heads are better than one, right?”

“Um. I…maybe?”

“That’s the spirit,” she said sardonically. “Seriously, come on. We’ve gotta move; we can sort this out on the way. Triss Locke doesn’t abandon friends, no matter how apparently amnesiac they are. C’mon, Gabe: left foot, right foot, repeat as needed.”

Grinning, she began stepping backward down the corridor, beckoning him to follow as if coaching a toddler to take its first steps.

He sighed heavily, straightened his own coat, and proceeded after her. She was right; it wasn’t like he had a better idea.

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6 – 19

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“Y’know,” Gabriel mused, “when I pictured going on a dungeon adventure, I somehow imagined there would be more stabbing and less…accounting.”

“I don’t see you doing any accounting,” Ruda remarked, not looking up from her spreadsheet. While the others at the table had bowls of stew in front of them, she had only a bottle of rum wedged between her legs and papers fanned out on the table before her, a collection of charts, receipts, maps and several bearing columns of her own mysterious notation. “Unless you wanna pitch in, belay the complaining.”

“Whoah, hey,” he protested. “It was just an observation! I wasn’t complaining.”

“Mm. Well, forgive me for assuming. It’s you, after all.”

“It’s too early in the day for me to be the butt of the joke,” he muttered sullenly, dragging a piece of stiff bread through his stew to soften it. The “bread” was not baked, but rendered alchemically, somehow, from mushrooms. Juniper had pronounced it fairly nutritious, but it took considerable softening to be chewable, and never quite got to the point of palatability.

“Never too early,” Ruda said, grinning at her paperwork as she tallied.

“He didn’t actually do anything that time,” Trissiny remarked.

“He will, though. Best to settle up in advance.”

“That’s true.”

“You guys suck,” Gabriel grumbled.

“Yep, there it is,” said Trissiny, spooning up another mouthful.

Juniper entered the main bar from the market area, yawning. “Hey, guys. Morning.”

“You were up early,” Trissiny said.

“Too early… I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t sleep again. Went for a walk. Thanks,” she added as Toby set a bowl in front of the empty place and began ladling stew into it.

“You went for a walk?” Fross exclaimed. “In the Crawl? That’s dangerous!”

“Well, I didn’t leave the Visage,” Juniper replied, seating herself. “Ooh, the stew has tubers! Are we splurging?”

“Ruda says we can afford it,” said Fross. “So…you’ve been walking around the Visage for half the night? I’m, uh, confused.”

“Nah, I met Radivass, who couldn’t sleep either. She’s got a little place behind her stall, offered me some tea. We got to talking, and then making love.”

“Thanks for the update,” said Ruda, pulling another sheet of paper over and beginning to jot figures without looking up.

“Yeah, I usually try to think more about people’s privacy, but she was pretty into letting people know she ‘nailed’ me.” Juniper shrugged, blowing on a spoonful of hot stew. “It’s weird how people get about sex. I mean, it’s companionship and pleasure and pretty good exercise. What else do you need? Maybe folks would enjoy it more if they got out of their own heads a little.”

“Sound advice,” Trissiny said gravely.

“Good morning,” said Shaeine as she and Teal entered the bar, the latter with a broad smile.

“Morning!” Fross chirped. “Yay, everyone’s here! Pull up a chair, there’s plenty of stew.”

“Ah, yes. The famous stew,” Teal said with a grimace, holding out a chair for Shaeine.

“It’s good stew this time though!”

“Relatively,” Gabriel clarified.

“We’re indulging a little bit,” said Toby. “It’s got some tubers we bought, some of our pork and actual spices. Nothing fancy, but…”

“Fancy is relative,” Shaeine said calmly.

“Exactly.”

“All right!” Ruda set down her pen decisively. “We’re doin’ good.”

“We’re doing well,” Fross corrected.

The pirate drummed her fingers once on the table. “Fross…”

“Right. Sorry. Go on.”

“We are, as I say, doing well,” Ruda said, giving the pixie a pointed look. “Better quality of loot the farther down we go, though we begin to run into a slight bottleneck in terms of time and effort spent on disposing of it; not as much market for higher-value items, vendors can never be sure when they’ll be able to unload some things and so we can’t always get fair value. But still! We are putting away a substantial amount of gold once it’s converted to liquid assets.”

“Awesome,” Gabriel said, grinning.

Ruda nodded. “So, I’m gonna recommend we start spending money more aggressively.”

“Um…” His face fell slightly. “Why’s that?”

“Let’s keep in mind what we’re down here for,” Ruda said firmly. “We’ve gotta get to the bottom of the Descent, get Tellwyrn’s crap and then we can go home. Making money is nice and all, but that’s not our job. The assets we’re accumulating should be leveraged here where we most need the leverage.”

“We have been slowing down slightly,” Trissiny mused. “I noticed yesterday. We’re still making consistent headway and none of the puzzles have stumped us for long, but the fighting is getting harder.”

“I think it’s going well!” Juniper said brightly. “The tactics you’ve been teaching us are really solid, Triss. I feel like we’re getting better at it the more we practice!”

“We are,” Toby agreed, “but it’s also true that the threats are growing harder to batter through.”

“And battering through threats is exactly where we can turn money into advantage,” said Ruda, nodding. “The enchanted weapons and armor the Crawl is giving us are nice and all, but there’s more we can do to up our performance. There are alchemists who can provide some very good enhancers, and there’s a lot more we could be doing with enchantment. No offense, Gabe, but you’re not on Radivass’s level, or even Khavibosh.”

“That’s fair,” he said with a shrug. “I’ve got tricks that are helpful down in the levels, but permanently augmenting gear is beyond me.”

“There are other items available for purchase that could prove helpful,” Shaeine remarked. “Even things as simple as camping gear and serviceable clothing.”

“And better food,” Juniper added. “Nobody’s getting nearly malnourished yet, but right now Fross and I are the only ones running at our physical peak. You guys need nutrients that you can’t get from pork and mushrooms.”

“Better food will cost more than the rest of that combined,” Toby murmured.

The dryad shrugged. “Like I said, it’s not urgent. But it’s something you’re gonna want to look into before much longer. Nobody’s gonna starve in three weeks, but a properly nourished person is happier and more effective than somebody subsisting on scavenged crud. We need vegetables.”

“So, yeah,” said Ruda. “The challenges are starting to slow us down, and it’s only gonna get harder as we go deeper. At the same time, we’re getting more disposable income. There are vendors in the Visage and on Level 2 who can help gear us up; I think the time has come to take full advantage. The financial policy should be to spend according to our means. We’ve got no reason to save up.”

“I have at least a general idea how we’re doing financially, though I’m clearly not up to Punaji standards of accounting,” Gabriel said with a grin. “And there’s still a range of things in both places that are beyond us. Not everything on display was in our price range, and Shamlin, Radivass and that twitchy sshitherosz on Level 2 have all hinted they’ve got even better stuff that’s not on display.”

“Which twitchy sshitherosz?” Trissiny muttered.

“Right,” Ruda said patiently, “so there’s room to grow. I’ve got a feeling there will be, right till the end.”

“I agree,” said Toby. “I’m in favor of spending the time and money on caution. Better prepared is just better.”

“Ruda’s right!” Fross chimed. “This is how dungeons are supposed to work! The deeper you go, the harder it gets, but you get better equipment to deal with it!”

“Right, then. Any questions? Arguments?” Ruda waited for a few seconds, then grinned and took a swig of her rum, reaching for a bowl with the other hand. “It’s looking like a somewhat abbreviated day of adventuring, then! I suggest we take our time shopping both here and with the demons before we get into the Descent proper.”

“Does that mean you’re giving each of us an allowance to spend?” Gabe asked, grinning.

“It means,” she said, giving him a look, “I will help you shop, those of you whose judgment I don’t trust to know what gear you really need and can afford. Which is pretty much just you.”

He sighed. “You are just never gonna let up, are you?”

Ruda grinned at him and scooped up a spoonful of stew. “Well, that depends on you, doesn’t it?”


“And there they went,” Rowe said, peering through the door into the long merchant wing of the Grim Visage. He turned back to Professor Ezzaniel with a grin. “You’ll be wanting into the back room to keep tabs, then?”

“Later,” Ezzaniel said, keeping his eyes fixed on the go board on the table between them. It was already more than halfway through, lines of white and black stones marching across the grid, seeking to flank and encircle one another. “There’s no need to monitor their every little move. I’ll be notified if something goes badly wrong.”

“My, aren’t we trusting,” the incubus said.

Ezzaniel placed a black stone. “They’re fine. The whole point of this exercise is for the kids to learn how to be effective without someone lurking over their shoulders to supervise. I must say I had my doubts about this particular batch, but they appear to be making even better progress than Arachne had hoped.”

“Yes, quite the team of terrors and titans, so I hear,” Rowe mused, setting down a stone. “Who knows? They could even get to the bottom of your little mystery. Or maybe the Crawl will throw up enough challenges at the lowest levels to bar them like all the other groups. Firepower and magical invulnerability aren’t everything.”

“Mm.” Ezzaniel lifted his eyes to catch Rowe with his head turned, winking at a group of three drow, two women and a man, just then filing through the door into the merchant wing and the exterior door beyond. The last woman through turned and gave the incubus a sly smile before slipping out. “Well. You’re too good to let me catch you plotting what that looked like, so may I assume it wasn’t directed at my students?”

“Oh, nonsense,” Rowe said breezily, turning his attention back to the board. “Honestly, Emilio, I’m surprised at you, leaping to conclusions that way. Of course it was directed at your students. Those three have been lurking around for days and I’m beginning to have a bad feeling about them. Always do, when drow from the depths get too cozy up here. The last thing I need is them trying to creep up to the University grounds and bring Arachne down, causing me headaches.”

“I see,” Ezzaniel said flatly.

“Oh, don’t make that face,” Rowe chided, grinning. “You just said they’re a capable group. It’ll cost them little time and hardly any effort to demolish a trio of snooping Scyllithenes for me. And they could use the extra experience and loot. Everybody wins!”

“I suppose there’s a compliment in that,” Ezzaniel said with a sour twist of his mouth. “When you decide to really interfere it won’t be with anything so…mundane.”

“Pfft, why should I want to interfere with your little ducklings?” Rowe asked innocently. “They have enough to worry about.”


Gabriel groaned, blinking. He was…down? He hadn’t fallen, exactly. Hands and knees, looking at a stone floor. He didn’t remember falling. Didn’t hurt, wasn’t dizzy…nothing to explain why he was down here.

Carefully, he straightened up, peering around. Behind him was a stone wall, towering up into darkness; an obvious doorframe was set into the wall, but there was no door within it, only more neatly mortared blocks. Experimentally, he reached back and rapped on it, then pushed a few of the bricks. No…just stone.

The space was almost like a hall, in that it seemed to be longer than it was wide. It was plenty wide, though, about like one of the streets of Tiraas on which he had grown up. Worse, it was filled with mist. Tendrils of fog slowly uncurled close to him, slightly obscuring his view of the nearby walls and reducing the distance to nothing but a white void.

He was alone. What had happened to the others?

Checking his pockets, he found everything in place. His wands were holstered, his various supplies in each of the coat’s magical compartments.

Gabe turned in a complete circle, pondering. They had set out from the Visage, gone to the Descent, spent some time buying supplies in Level 2…then paid their silver and stepped into Melaxyna’s dimensional gate, allegedly to be ported down to Level 43 to continue their campaign. Then…

Nothing. On previous trips, stepping through the portal had been like stepping from one room to another, completely devoid of flash or identifying sensation. He couldn’t remember anything happening after the last one; he had merely stepped through the gate along with his classmates, and then…he was here.

“Guys?” he said hesitantly, then steeled himself and raised his voice. “Toby? …Trissiny? Fross!”

He didn’t even make an echo. Well…that had probably been too much to hope for.

“Wherever you are, Trissiny,” he muttered, “looks like you were right about the demons. I really, really hope I get to hear you say ‘I told you so.’”

Squaring his shoulders and straightening his coat, Gabriel did the only possible thing left to him and stepped forward into the mist.

He quickly found it to be magical in nature. Not arcane, he would have sensed that, and clearly not divine, as it did him no harm. But it didn’t respond to the charm he sketched out and laid down, which should have dispelled fog and any obscuring effects in its vicinity. Natural fog, anyway, but any relatively persistent magical effect would have overridden his simple charm. Infernal magic trumped arcane, but fae magic countered it… Then again, there was also the possibility that it wasn’t true magic in the sense he was used to thinking of it, but a genius loci at work. Within a sufficiently powerful one, the will of the place was absolute law. This clearly wasn’t the Descent—the proportions of the walls were all wrong—but could it still be the Crawl?

He did manage to arrange a light for himself, anyway. A rolled up and properly inscribed sheet of his spellpaper produced a blue glow from one end, just like a small torch. It didn’t penetrate far into the mist, but it made him feel better.

Gabriel proceeded carefully, keeping alert and constantly scanning around. The fog itself didn’t offer him anything to look at, but he stayed close enough to one wall to keep it in view—which necessitated drifting ever nearer to it the farther in he got, as the mist seemed to thicken with every step. It was all he could think of, though, to avoid getting hopelessly turned around.

Which was why he noticed immediately when the wall began to change. Vague shapes started appearing in the stone, as if carved or built that way; a few more yards down, they grew clearer, and then clearer still. Doors, corners, front steps and the blunt shapes of windows. Then, further down, more elaborate touches, light fixtures, details of stonework, window of actual glass and doors of wood, rather than their mere shapes cut in plain stone. Gabriel judged that he was deeper down this passage than any of the Descent’s levels was long by the time it became clear that he was walking along a street. The architecture was familiar, not specifically but generally; this particular street was one he’d never seen before, but he had a very strong sense that he was back home in Tiraas.

The appearance of the figure out of the mist in front of him—on what was now clearly a sidewalk—was quite sudden in comparison to everything else, so much so that he skidded to a stop, barely repressing a yelp. What started as a vague patch of darkness coalesced into a humanoid form—in fact, a human one. She stepped lightly into the glow of his makeshift torch, streamers of fog being scattered from her twirling parasol.

Gabriel’s eyes widened. “What—no. No, absolutely not.”

“Well,” she said, pouting. “That’s very nearly enough to hurt my feelings. I should think you’d be a little glad to see me, after all this time.”

“Why the hell would I be—you know what, no. I am not doing this. This isn’t real, you aren’t here, this is the Crawl messing with my head.”

“All right, Gabriel, I’ll play along.” Still idly spinning the parasol in her neatly gloved hands, Madeleine smiled, angling her body in that way she had which put forth the best details of her profile. “This isn’t real, neither of us is here. You still have to deal with it, one way or another. This time, darling, it doesn’t look like running away will be an option.”

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Bonus #9: On Being a Man, Part 2

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A week was basically an eternity. Gabriel managed to go that long without having a complete breakdown, which maybe wasn’t so terribly impressive as he only really felt like doing that at about two in the morning when he was lying awake, staring at the ceiling. His father mostly let him be; Toby was clearly perplexed by his newly surly disposition, but after a gentle reminder that Gabe could talk to him about anything, didn’t push. Toby was always understanding that way. For once, Gabriel actually felt grateful that his entire social circle consisted of two people. While he occasionally missed the opportunities to eyeball the girls in his former class, it wasn’t as if his fellow students had ever gone out of their way to make him feel welcome, and right now he definitely didn’t want to deal with their crap.

It was a week after he walked out of the cafe, leaving Madeleine behind, that he received a note from her, delivered to his home and distinctly smelling of her perfume. Jonathan handed it to him with a faint, knowing smile—not an amused or teasing smile, just knowing, which almost made it worse. It came right at the point where his resistance was weakest, and Gabriel couldn’t help wondering if she had timed it that way precisely…and if she had, where she’d learned to do such things.

He had told Madeleine he needed to think, and he’d spent the week doing exactly that. He had nothing to show for it. Exactly what he felt toward her was impossible to sort out; one minute he thought he might be in love with her, another he felt certain he’d just been overwhelmed by a pretty face and an impressive bosom whose owner favored tight bodices. Not to mention the comforts of her lifestyle. He couldn’t make head or tail of her motivations, either. Did she truly just like him? Was she up to something? If so, what could it possibly be?

He couldn’t think of anything anyone would want him for, diabolically speaking; it was the children of spellcasting demons who made prodigy warlocks. What use was there for a half-hethelax, who had no gifts but nigh-invulnerability and an urgent need not to lose his temper? The problem was that he didn’t know, and didn’t dare to research it. Even asking those questions would be enough to raise the kind of alarms that resulted in a visit from Imperial Intelligence. Could he be rendered down for reagents? Demons were, by nature, magically reactive… Horrifying as that idea was, Gabriel couldn’t envision Madeleine’s treatment of him leading in that direction, even at his most paranoid. Someone who wanted to cut him up would just have snatched him off the street; as much as he roamed around the Wide Spot, these days often alone, it wouldn’t have been hard.

Hours of pacing the alleys and his room, going round and round this way, led him nowhere, until he finally decided he had no choice but to bite the belt and reach out.

“And that’s pretty much where I am,” he said, the day after receiving Madeleine’s letter. He’d been pacing back and forth as he recounted the last part of his story, and now came to a stop, shrugging helplessly.

Toby nodded slowly, looking earnestly up at him from his seat on one of the stone benches. Technically they were trespassing, but the owner of this building was out of the city at present, and had never been particularly uptight about the two boys sitting in his rooftop garden before; they’d always been careful not to make a mess or disturb anything. It was quiet and out of the way, and more to the point, one of the few places now where Toby could be free from both the monks of his order and journalists or other curiosity-seekers.

“Sounds…confusing,” he said.

Gabriel rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’d say that about bloody sums it up.”

“Well…how do you feel?”

“Um…confused? Weren’t you listening?”

“I was.” Toby shook his head. “It sounds to me like you’ve been trying to think this thing through. Which, yes, is a good idea, especially given the risks. But on the other hand… Has this Madeleine ever given you a reason to think she’s up to no good? Or is that just a fear? That makes all the difference, Gabe. If you’ve seen a real warning sign, that’s cause to stay away from her, I think. But if you’re just being afraid, then you may be blowing something possibly very good for no real reason. What you feel is pretty central, then.”

“How I feel?” Groaning, Gabriel sank back down on the bench opposite him. “I feel like I’m self-aware enough to know I’m an idiot about girls. I don’t think I can trust my feelings. All they tell me is ‘smell pretty, look pretty, cuddly soft and wow those boobs.’ None of that is particularly helpful, y’know?”

Toby laughed. “Fair enough. Yeah, I know the feeling… Sometimes you just have to make the mistake.”

Gabe sighed. “I don’t…know if the risk is worth it, though.”

“Well, what is the risk? What do you think she’s going to do to you?”

“I don’t know! But just because I don’t know what she might do doesn’t mean there’s nothing!” He sprang to his feet and resumed pacing. “Toby, it’d be one thing if she wasn’t bothered by me being a half-demon. That would be awesome. But she was…she was interested. And she knew what hethelaxi are. Do you see why that might concern me?”

“Well,” Toby said, not trying very hard to repress a grin, “don’t rule out that she just has a very interesting fetish.”

Gabe stopped his pacing and glared down at him. “That’s cute. Real classy, man.”

“Sorry,” Toby said, openly laughing now, but holding up his hands in surrender. “It’s just… In seriousness, that’s not unlikely. Never underestimate the appeal of a bad boy.”

“I’m a bad boy?” Gabriel snorted.

“For someone who hasn’t grown up with you? You’re a demonblood from a poor neighborhood. That might be plenty bad enough for a sheltered rich girl, which is how she sounds to me. Gabe, I’ve actually done some reading about hethelaxi since Omnu called me. The Church has given me access to lots of material, and I thought… Well, I thought maybe I could stumble across something helpful.”

“Yeah?” Gabriel folded his arms, trying not to look interested. “Did you?”

“In this case? Maybe…” Toby shrugged. “You could say it’s good news. A hethelax isn’t a spellcasting demon, as—yes, I’m aware you know that, stop making faces at me. Warlocks who summon a hethelax are usually looking for muscle—that’s actually pretty common. Half-bloods sometimes end up doing that kind of work if they can get it. The Thieves’ Guild and the Army don’t want half-demons as a rule, but there are nobles and others who have money and no scruples. Half-hethelaxi are very useful brawn.”

“This is real fuckin’ cheerful,” Gabriel muttered.

“My point is, Gabe, that’s it,” Toby said, staring intently up at him. “Just like any other half-demon, they tend to get targeted by sshitherosz to become warlocks, but just because they’re outcast and emotionally vulnerable, not because they have more magical potential. You’re in no danger of that.”

“Yeah, I like to think I’m not quite that stupid.”

“So, no, I really don’t think Madeleine is likely to be…y’know, up to something. If anything, the fact that she knows a bit about demons is a good sign. A novice warlock might think you’d be useful to them for power; somebody who’s read up on hethelaxi would know better. It sounds like she really does just like you.”

Gabriel sighed heavily, dragging a hand through his hair. “Man… I just wish I could be sure.”

Toby nodded slowly, frowning. “Well… Hm. In the letter, what does she say she wants?”

“To talk to me,” he said, shrugging. “She wants me to meet her tomorrow. At the Falour Street market. Someplace nice and public, as she points out.”

“Okay.” Toby straightened up on the bench. “Then I think you should meet her.”

Gabriel frowned. “Just like that?”

“Well, not just like that. Like I said, I don’t think there’s probably any danger. But just in case…” He grinned. “It’s not like you have no way to protect yourself.”


 

He would have recognized her in the crowd even had he not been looking for her specifically. She was just… Madeleine. Her dress was royal blue—she favored blue—and her hair, that rich chocolatey shade just shy of black, tumbled down her back in curling waves. She wasn’t overly tall, and some might have thought her a bit on the plump side; the Avenic ideal favored a wide bust and hips, it was true, but it preferred them on a long, lean, muscular frame. For Gabriel’s money, though, she was the most perfectly beautiful woman alive.

That was why he was in such trouble.

She turned as he was approaching through the crowd. The the way her whole face lit up at seeing him made his heart stutter.

“You came,” she said quietly, reaching out to squeeze his arm when he got close enough.

He had to pause and swallow painfully before he could answer. “I… Didn’t come alone. So…yeah.”

Her expression fell slightly; the note of hurt in it made him want to kick himself right in the face for being such a heel, even as the paranoid little voice in the back of his mind wondered whether this wasn’t precisely the reaction she was trying to convey.

“Well, my dear, it’s not as if there aren’t plenty of witnesses here anyway,” she said wryly.

“Yes, that’s true,” he replied, unable to think of anything wittier. “It’s… I just… I’m really glad to see you.”

Her eyes lit again, and he began to have the strong feeling he wasn’t going to win here.

“Gabriel,” she said softly, “you haven’t told me more than bits and pieces about your life… Has it been terribly hard, having to hide? Are you constantly hounded by people trying to take advantage of you?”

“I…wouldn’t say constantly,” he said nervously, glancing around at the crowded market street. “Or…ever, really. I do have to be discreet, you know, but I don’t think anyone’s ever tried to use me.” He stopped himself barely short of adding before.

She gazed up at him, her expression serious and with that faintest tinge of reproach that made him feel like an utter ass. “Then… I’m wracking my brain trying to think what I’ve done to earn such suspicion, and… I confess I don’t understand.”

“It’s not…that you’ve done anything,” he said awkwardly. “It’s more that… No one’s ever done anything. I’ve never had a reason to…to talk about… That is, what I mean is, you’re the first person who seemed to think of it as a good thing. The only people who think positively about…well, you know, are… Well, you know.”

Madeleine raised one eyebrow, her perfect lips quirking in amusement. “Would you like to step indoors and talk? I know a charming little cafe not at all far from here.”

“I think…” He glanced around again. “I think it’d be better to stay in public. For now.”

“All right, then,” she said amiably, then raised her voice just a hair. “The thing about demonbloods—”

“Hsst!” Gabriel quickly shushed her, looking surreptitiously about. At least half a dozen people had turned to stare at Madeleine’s comment. Grabbing her by the arm, he ushered her quickly through the crowd to an open alleyway. Stacks of pallets and empty wooden crates filled it beyond a few feet in, but there was a little nook left clear near the opening. She allowed herself to be pulled along without protest. “Fine, you win,” he growled, pushing her in ahead of himself and sticking his head out to peer around.

“Gabriel, for heaven’s sake, stop looking shifty,” she said, amused. “That only draws more attention. We’re two attractive young people in a shadowed alcove; believe me, no one will question that, unless you act like you’re up to something.”

He sighed heavily, gritting his teeth. For having done the pulling himself, he had the distinct feeling of having been maneuvered.

“I understand your concerns,” she said more quietly. “Not having grown up with the pressures you have… Well, I can only imagine the things you have to worry about. But, Gabriel… It breaks my heart, seeing you so willing to give up on yourself.”

“Me?” He stared at her. “I’m not giving up on anything.”

“No? Yet after our conversation over tea, you seem to have decided I must be up to something insidious. Why?”

“You were…” He looked away, finding himself unable to meet those big blue eyes. “Madeleine, it’s not normal for someone to be happy when they find out your mother was a demon.”

“It is normal to be happy,” she said so fiercely that he turned back to stare down at her. She stepped in closer till their bodies were nearly touching, grasping him by both upper arms. “Everyone has the right to be happy! Even—no, especially you. After all you’ve been deprived of, don’t you deserve it?”

“It’s not about what I deserve,” he said doggedly. “Demons are incredibly dangerous. People are right to be worried about me.”

“Are you dangerous?”

“I… I could be.”

“Oh, Gabriel.” Her smile as achingly sad. “Your whole problem is that you couldn’t be if you had to. You’re the most harmless person I have ever met. The agonizing thing is how afraid you are of yourself. You’re not worried about me, my darling. You’re afraid of what I represent.” She lifted one hand to press her palm against his cheek. “The first person who’s ever told you it’s good to be what you are. That you deserve the same happiness, the same respect as anyone.”

“That… I don’t…that isn’t what…” He trailed off, finding no answer for her. In that lack of rebuttal came a new and deeply disturbing uncertainty.

Madeleine pulled back slightly, studying his face. “You want some assurance that I mean you no harm?”

“I…I guess… I mean, what could that be?”

“Come with me,” she ordered, smoothly stepping up next to him and sliding her hand through his arm. She led him back out into the street. “Now, where did you leave your father and Mr. Caine?”

He came to a dead stop. “I never told you who I brought with me.”

“Gabriel, dearest,” she said, smiling knowingly up through her lashes. “There are precisely two people in the world you could have brought as backup, which you say you did. It’s either them, or only one of them, or you were bluffing. I do hope it’s Mr. Caine, otherwise I’m afraid I’ve dragged you back out here for nothing.”

He sighed heavily. “It really doesn’t help that you’re smarter than me.”

“I really am not,” she said gently, pressing herself into his side in that extremely distracting way she had. “Just more accustomed to maneuvering. That’s what happens when you grow up around moneyed people. I’m sure I wouldn’t last a week in your life, either. Now, which way?”

Resignedly, he led her back up the street to where he’d left Toby and his dad lounging against the iron fence surrounding someone’s private yard. They both came alert at his approach, their attention fixing on his companion.

“Dad,” he said somewhat nervously. “Toby… This is Madeleine.”

“Glad to finally meet you,” Jonathan said calmly, offering his hand. Madeleine offered hers in such a way there was nothing he could really do except bow and kiss it. To Gabriel’s amazement, his father did so smoothly and without hesitation.

“The pleasure is all mine,” she said warmly. “Gabriel speaks glowingly of you both. And Mr. Caine, what an honor!”

“Oh, I’m nothing so special,” Toby said, smiling a little uncomfortably.

“You clearly are very modest, for being one of the most important people in the world,” Madeleine said with a smile. “Forgive me if you don’t prefer to discuss it, but I think you can perhaps help put Gabriel’s mind to rest. I believe he is worried I’m out to corrupt him or something. Tell me, isn’t it true that paladins can sense evil?”

“Um…’evil’ is a hugely subjective term,” Toby said carefully, frowning. “I can’t sense hostile intentions or differing philosophies or anything like that…which is most of what’s commonly called ‘evil’ end up being.”

“That has the ring of dogma,” Madeleine noted.

“Well, yes,” he replied with a sheepish grin. “The monks of Omnu are careful not to condemn anyone just for having different perspectives. But some things… Undead, demons, some kinds of spirits, yes. I can sense those.”

“Fascinating,” she said. “Are you certain? Have you ever encountered such a thing?”

Toby’s smile faded and he glanced around. No one was paying them any attention; his image hadn’t been widely circulated, and once he’d ducked the press, as far as anybody could tell he was just a teenager of Western descent in rather drab clothes. “After I was called… The Church keeps summoners on retainer. I was brought to a secure location and shown demons confined to spell circles, so I’d recognize the sensation. Yes, I’m sure.”

“I am glad to hear it,” she said, smiling. “And…?”

Toby smiled bad. “You seem positively lovely, miss, and about as evil as I am, I’d say.”

“Thank you, Mr. Caine,” she said smugly, smiling up at Gabriel. He had to smile back.

“So,” said Jonathan in a deceptively mild tone that Gabriel recognized with dread, “any particular reason Gabe thought you might have it in for him?”

Madeleine turned the full force of her smile on him. “I would say it is the result of a lifetime spent in hiding. He was, perhaps understandably, startled at being told that there is nothing wrong with being who and what he is. That perhaps there may even be advantages.”

Jonathan stared at her in silence for a long moment; Gabriel didn’t dare to speak. Toby glanced rapidly between the three of them. “That,” Jonathan said finally, “is a very dangerous line of thinking.”

“Dangerous doesn’t mean wrong,” Madeleine noted calmly.

“No, it doesn’t,” said Jonathan, his eyes boring into her. “It just means dangerous. No, it’s not fair, the way the world sees and treats Gabriel. It’s not right. But I’ve had a go at changing the world myself, and I know exactly how much the world doesn’t like that. I want my son to survive, and find what happiness he can. That means keeping his head down and not courting trouble.”

“It means being a second-class citizen,” she said grimly.

Jonathan transferred his gaze to Gabriel. “Yes,” he said softly, “it does. And I hate it so much that sometimes it could choke me. But I want him to live. If you stand up to the world, the world will put you back down. As hard as it can.”

“The world is changing,” Madeleine said, tightening her grip on Gabriel’s arm. “In a lot of ways. I happen to think that in the coming order, those who leverage whatever gifts they have will rise to the top. Your son is an extraordinary young man, Mr. Arquin, and it pains me how unaware of that he is. He could be destined for great things.”

“Mm.” Jonathan studied her face carefully. “How old are you?”

“Dad!” Gabriel burst out, mortified. Toby winced.

“Oh, my,” Madeleine said mildly. “How toweringly rude.”

“It’s just that I do recall, dimly, being a teenager,” Jonathan continued. “I wasn’t bad looking, if I say so myself.”

“I believe that,” Madeleine said sweetly.

He rewarded her with a ghost of a smile. “And even so, I couldn’t have dreamed of attracting the attention of a beautiful, wealthy woman in her…twenties?” She only smiled in silence, and after a moment he continued. “Between that and your…opinions concerning Gabriel’s prospects, I begin to see how he might wonder about your intentions.”

“Perhaps,” she replied, “you simply are so accustomed to worrying about his survival you haven’t had the chance to think about his prospects for having something greater than just existence. To answer your question, Mr. Arquin, I am far too young for you, and not too old for Gabriel. That is all that anyone needs to know.”

“Fair enough,” he said with a shrug. “As you said, though, I do have to think about these things. He’s a good boy, but it is somewhat odd that learning about his heritage makes you more interested and not less. You’re certain there’s nothing you’d like to tell us? Something that might explain your, shall we say, attraction to—”

“Have you lost your mind?” Gabriel burst out. “Do not talk to her like that!”

“It’s all right, darling,” Madeleine said, patting him on the arm, though she kept her eyes on Jonathan. “It’s a parent’s right and duty to be protective.”

“And there are any number of perfectly innocent explanations,” Jonathan said agreeably. “If you have a relative with a certain kind of bloodline yourself, for example…”

“Mr. Arquin, you seem to enjoy speaking bluntly, so allow me to do the same,” Madeleine said, her voice steely now. “Gabriel is, for all intents and purposes, as human as you or I, at least to look at. I have seen illustrations of full-blooded hethelaxi. Perhaps you, of all people, should think carefully before criticizing anyone else’s choice of lover.”

Everyone froze.

“Gabriel,” Jonathan said after a moment, meeting Madeleine’s gaze.

“Yes?” Gabe asked tensely.

Jonathan turned to look him in the eyes, finally, and smiled. “I like her.”


 

“But be careful around her,” he admonished as they walked.

Gabriel sighed. The sun was setting and they were finally heading home, having parted from Madeleine some time ago. He felt a great deal more at ease with and about her, but the tension between her and his father was clearly not completely in the past.

“I’m not going to bother explaining,” Jonathan continued, eyes on the street ahead, “as you clearly figured it all out. There are a few things that are…odd. Just speaking more generally, she’s clever and strong-willed, which characterizes the best women you can possibly get involved with, and also the worst.”

“As Toby pointed out,” Gabriel said, glancing over his shoulder at Toby, who was walking a few steps behind them, “it’s hard to imagine an ulterior motive for her. There’s almost no point in manipulating a part-hethelax. When they tested us at school they said I have pretty much the normal human aptitude for magic and no notable infernal gifts.”

Jonathan nodded slowly, making no reply. They continued on in silence for a while before he spoke again, his voice softer. “You’ve never asked me about your mother. I keep waiting for it, but you never have.”

Gabriel drew in a deep, slow breath and let it out just as slowly. “Is…there any chance of me meeting her?”

Jonathan shook his head. “I can’t imagine any situation where that could happen. If it looks like one is about to arise, you have my word I’ll give you as much warning as I can.”

“Do you think…I ought to know her?”

“I don’t know,” Jonathan said after a moment.

“Then, unless you change your mind, don’t worry about it,” Gabriel said firmly. “I know it’s been hard on you, Dad. Having me around, I mean. I figure talking about…her, and whatever happened between you, has to be rough. You don’t need any more stress on my part. And anyhow… I don’t really want to be any more in touch with that side of my heritage than I absolutely have to. Being Jonathan Arquin’s son is as much as I could want.”

Jonathan moved closer and threw an arm around his shoulder. “Madeleine and I agree on at least one thing, Gabe. There is nothing, not one damn thing, wrong with you. It’s the world that has the problem. You’ve gotta keep it in mind, got to be careful not to provoke trouble you’re not prepared to contend with. But don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re less than anyone else.” He stared forward as they walked, as if challenging the horizon. “Don’t you dare let them.”

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Bonus #8: On Being a Man, Part 1

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“It feels weird… I mean, it’s the least of what feels weird, but being at school would be something familiar, at least. The term’s starting and I’m not there. It’s like being adrift. A little something else about my life that’s different.”

“Man, you overthink everything,” Gabriel said, grinning and kicking an errant pebble out of the path. “My dad pulled me out of school and I am as happy as a shroomhead.”

Toby looked at him in surprise. “You? Why? Gabe, tell me you didn’t flunk out. Your grades—”

“Excuse you, I am an extremely mostly acceptable student,” Gabe said haughtily. “Nah, it’s just… Well, it’s not exactly a secret we’re friends, y’know? People would be after me to tell them all the juicy secrets about you, and Dad figured me being the center of attention was a bad idea for several reasons.”

“I suppose that’s logical.” Toby frowned. “I don’t like being the cause of upending your life.”

“Toby, seriously, you are the glummest human being alive. I am not in school!” Gabriel grinned hugely. “When Dad first said ‘tutor’ I was having visions of some hot blonde number in a tight little bodice like Mrs. Tanner used to wear—”

“What is it with you and blondes?”

“—and instead I got this beak-nosed old guy who smells like dust, I kid you not. I didn’t realize dust had a smell till I met this man. And even so, I can’t say I was disappointed, because hello, not in school!”

Toby kept his eyes on the sidewalk ahead of them as they approached the Omnist complex. He had resisted, thus far, efforts to have him moved into the main Temple of Omnu on Imperial Square, but felt it was coming whether he liked it or not. “So, uh, how is… I mean, your dad, how’s…”

“How’s he affording a tutor?” Gabriel’s smile rapidly diminished. “He just tells me not to worry about it.”

“And you left it at that?”

“Of course not. I kept asking until the answer turned into ‘don’t worry about it’ in his ‘boy I am not damn well kidding’ voice. That’s where I left it.”

Toby chuckled ruefully. “Even I wouldn’t challenge that voice.”

“What, you, the great and mighty paladin?”

“Gabriel, I’ve met Omnu, and I’ve met your dad. In my official opinion as his Hand, I can honestly say that Omnu is a safer person to have mad at you.”

The last vestige of Gabriel’s smile faded. “For you, I guess.”

Toby winced. “I didn’t mean—”

“It’s okay.” Gabe gave him a quick little smile. Then they had reached the gates of the monastery, where a small knot of monks in traditional brown homespun were trying not to look like they were waiting.

“Tobias,” said the man in the forefront, a middle-aged, hawk-nosed man whose black hair was no longer retreating and had been thoroughly routed. “Did you have a pleasant walk?”

“Yes, Brother Cavin,” Toby said dutifully.

“Very good,” the man said with a sharp nod. “Come, it is nearing time for evening prayers. Say good-bye to your friend.”

Toby gave him a polite smile, turning to Gabriel. “Well, guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“In fact,” Cavin said firmly, “you had better make it good-bye.”

Toby stiffened, slowly turning back toward him. “I don’t think I take your meaning, Brother.”

“This…acquaintance…has been good enough, I suppose, for a child. Indeed, it seems you have done your part to keep him out of trouble. Some trouble, from what we hear. But a time comes to put away childish things. It comes for all, but you in particular have your role in Omnu’s plans to consider.”

“You can’t be serious,” Toby said incredulously.

Cavin continued addressing him directly, not acknowledging Gabriel with so much as a look. “Tobias, we have made our views on this clear from the beginning. You must accept the reality of your changing situation, and your responsibilities. What you do and with whom you do it will reflect on all of Omnu’s people from now on. Now… Say good-bye to your acquaintance.”

Toby looked at Gabriel, who looked thunderstruck, then back at the implacable Brother Cavin. Then, slowly, his own shocked expression resettled itself into firm lines.

“Brother Cavin,” he said softly, “of what crime, precisely, are you accusing Gabriel?”

Cavin frowned. “It is not a question of what he has done, but what he is. The demonblooded—”

“That’s not the question I asked you,” Toby went on, his voice firming.

“Toby,” Gabriel warned, but Toby held up a hand to silence him.

“I am asking you, Brother Cavin, what grounds you have to stand in front of Gabriel Arquin and declare, to his face, that he is unsuitable company for a member of our faith.”

Cavin was starting to actually look unsettled. “It—Tobias, you are not just a member of the faith.”

“Am I not? Should I lord over the faithful like a Vernisite trade priest? Gabriel has been my best friend for years. He is one of the best people I know. If you are going to condemn him for an accident of blood, you’re on very dangerous ground.”

Cavin’s mouth hung open now. In the entire seventeen years of his acquaintance with Tobias Caine, the boy had never once talked back to him.

“The people of Omnu, above all else, are to show compassion,” Toby said, his voice pitched loud enough to resonate both on the street and into the courtyard of the monastery. “Care between living things is the stuff of which life is made. You taught me that; I am disappointed to see you’ve forgotten. I think you should go back inside and ponder it.”

Brother Cavin stammered in shock. “I—Toby, that—”

“Go!” Toby snapped, pointing past him at the monastery.

The monk gaped at him in silence for a long moment, before jerking in a half-hearted bow and backing away. He turned and strode off to the wooden doors of the monastery’s main building, pausing once on the threshold to glance back at Toby, then vanished within.

The other monks slowly trickled after him, though several gave Toby encouraging grins. “Don’t be out too long, Toby,” an older woman said gently, then gave Gabriel a quick smile before following the rest of the group.

Toby drew in a deep breath; it shuddered audibly on the way back out.

“Wow,” Gabriel said in awe. “That was… Damn. Are you sure… I mean, be careful, Toby. I don’t want you messing things up for yourself on my account.”

“Gabe, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but that was only slightly about you.” Toby managed a shaky smile. “It was slightly about me getting out from under Brother Cavin’s shadow before he makes himself my personal agent or something, but mostly it was exactly what I said. Omnists are to be compassionate. We don’t make as much a thing of justice as the Avenists, but you can’t be kind without some basic grasp of fairness.” He paused, then reached out to squeeze Gabriel’s shoulder. “I’ve been your friend long enough to see the way society treats half-demons is messed up. And I can’t very well be the Hand of Omnu if I see something like that without trying to do something about it.”

Gabe squeezed his lips together, trying to fight back a grin and ultimately failing. “So… Do you actually have the authority to give them orders?”

“Eh,” Toby hedged, wincing slightly. “It’s not a doctrinal prerogative, but… Hey, if the Hand of Omnu gave you a direct order, would you say ‘no?’”

“Heh, is that a hypothetical question or am I gonna have to find out?”

“Well, if we’re talking hypotheticals… I’m not saying I can be bribed with pastry…”

Gabriel laughed aloud, a sound that was more relief than amusement. “See you tomorrow, then?”

“Yes,” Toby said firmly. “You will.”

He stayed to watch the Hand of Omnu re-enter his monastery before turning and heading back toward his own apartment, whistling softly. Not even the furtive watchers in the street spoiled his good mood. Ever since Toby had been called by his god, the both of them had drawn more attention and curiosity than either liked, and the countermeasures against it weren’t much better. People had quickly figured out to leave them both alone, due to a combination of the monks’ influence, Gabriel’s father’s firm hand in the community, and worst of all, a heavily increased Imperial presence.

Even now, he could see more soldiers patrolling the Wide Spot than it reasonably warranted, and even a woman in the ankle-length navy blue coat of Imperial Intelligence. Aside from its long cut, that coat was identical in style to those worn by the Army, but it meant so much more. Intelligence operatives didn’t gad about in uniform due to the nature of their work; the presence of an agent in formal attire as a message that whatever was happening was Imperial business and all those present had better mind their own. The pestering had thus been much less than it otherwise might have, but Gabriel wasn’t about to argue with his father’s wisdom in pulling him out of school.

On the other hand, he didn’t much care for being watched. It was a learned instinct.

“Hey, pretty lady,” he said impishly to the woman in the Intelligence longcoat as he passed her spot on the street corner. “Where do I get a coat like that?”

The look she gave him was a skillful blend of amusement and condescension. “You don’t.”

“Well, that’s okay, it was just a pretext to break the ice anyhow,” he said, stopping. “What’s the matter? Never been flirted with before?”

Her smile remained unchanged; he noted a little belatedly that it didn’t go anywhere near her eyes. She moved on hand slightly, drawing back the coat just enough to reveal the heavier-than-normal wand holstered at her belt. “Not twice.”

Gabriel coughed awkwardly and resumed walking, a little quicker than before.

Head down, he very nearly ran smack into the next woman he encountered, who was backing carefully into the sidewalk from an antiques shop. Gabriel actually (to his mortification), let out a yelp of surprise, having to dance awkwardly into the street itself to avoid plowing into her.

“Oh!” she exclaimed in startlement, whirling and dropping her shopping bags.

“Gods, I’m sorry,” he blurted. “I wasn’t watch…I just…I…”

At some point deep in the abyss of her blue eyes, he forgot what he’d been trying to say. They were exquisitely framed by dark lashes, set in a heart-shaped face that somehow combined adorably rounded cheeks with an almost elvishly pointed little chin. Her rosebud lips were strikingly deep pink against her pale skin; dark hair flowed around her visage like…like a… Gabriel found himself trying to concoct a poetic simile and shook his head as though to chase fog out of his eyes.

“Uh, here, let me help you,” he said, bending to reach for one of the fallen bags. He slowed in the process, nearly forgetting what he was doing again as he noticed the rest of her. She had the kind of figure that could have been described as “thick” or “curvaceous,” depending on how she carried it… And she carried it very, very well indeed. The sleek, tailored blue dress she wore did a lot to heighten the effect. He had never imagined a bosom like that could exist…

Well, that wasn’t true. He’d just never expected to see one in person. Not this close, at least.

“That’s…all right?” she said somewhat archly as the silence stretched out. “I guess I can manage?”

Gabriel flushed, realizing that he was half bent over, one hand outstretched toward her bags, face inappropriately close to her chest and unabashedly staring. Quickly he finished the motion, fumbling to snatch up the shopping bag and hand it to her.

The amused, knowing expression on her face made his flush heat to the point he feared combustion. Even so, he couldn’t stop looking. Those eyes… Five minutes ago he couldn’t have conceived of a pair of eyes that could draw his gaze away from such a pair of…well.

“Mm, well,” she said without reaching for the bag, perfect lips curling up in an impish smile, “if you’d like to make it up to me, you can help me carry those. My carriage is parked just around the corner.”

“Oh! Uh, sure, that’s… I’d love to! I mean, least I can do, you know. Nearly hit you and all. I mean, not hit you, but almost…”

“That’s settled, then,” she said brightly, stepping around next to him and tucking her hand into his free arm. He was instantly paralyzed; she had to tug gently to get him moving. “My name’s Madeleine.”

“Madeleine,” he breathed. “That’s…wow, that’s gorgeous.”

Her laughter was a delightful trill, like birdsong. “You’re too kind!”

“I’m serious. It’s really pretty.”

She smiled up at him through her lashes, an incredibly unfair maneuver. “And… You are…?”

“Oh! Uh, I’m, uh…”

“You’ve forgotten?” she inquired sweetly. “Take your time.”

“Um, Gabe. Arkriel. I mean, Gabwin…” He closed his eyes, gritting his teeth in mortification. “Gabriel Arquin,” he managed finally.

“You’re sure, now?” Madeleine asked, grinning openly. “You wouldn’t like to reconsider? I have time.”

“Positive,” he mumbled, flushing to his collar and probably lower. “I’m just… Sorry. Not good at… I, uh, don’t know what to say.”

“Try the truth?” she suggested.

“The truth… The truth is stupid.”

“Probably less so than you think. Try me.”

“…and embarrassing.”

“I would never judge you, Gabriel Arquin,” Madeleine promised, again doing that brutal through-the-lashes trick.

“…you are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life and I cannot think with the words making right now.”

She laughed brightly. He could have listened to it forever.

“You just may be the sweetest boy I’ve ever met,” she said, eyes twinkling up at him.

“I’m quite serious,” he said, her encouragement doing wonders to repair his equilibrium. “I am extremely stupid right now and it’s all your fault. Well, mostly your fault. I was only slightly stupid before, I promise.”

“Well, that’s good to know,” she murmured. “A lady likes to be reassured that she can render a gentleman…stupid.” She hugged his arm closer, quite coincidentally pressing his elbow into the plushness of her breast.

Gabriel managed to freeze completely without losing his stride, nearly the entirety of his attention concentrated on that elbow. He felt like a hunter staring, frozen, at a grazing deer, afraid the slightest movement on his part would spook her into flight. He was young enough, yet, to think such a maneuver on her part could be accidental.

“Perhaps I should make it up to you, then,” Madeleine suggested, coming to a stop and causing him to do the same. Belatedly, he realized they were standing next to a late-model Falconer roadster. This was the first time in his life he’d been this close to such an expensive carriage, and he had almost no attention to spare for it.

“What’s that, then?” he asked dumbly.

“Would you be a love and help me with these?” she asked sweetly. He found himself obediently lifting her bags into the carriage and settling them on the passenger’s seat. It was a tiny little thing, with hardly room for two.

Madeleine climbed gracefully into the driver’s seat, producing the control rune from a pocket. “For being rendered stupid on my behalf. I feel I ought to give you a chance to show me how clever you can be. A gentleman deserves the opportunity to put on his best face in order to win a lady.”

“W-win,” he stammered, gazing up at her.

“Mm. How does tea sound?”

“…tea? Sounds…good.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Um… Tea tomorrow? I guess…”

“Splended,” she said, smiling mysteriously. “Four o’clock. Be here. Ta ta, Gabriel Arquin.”

She wiggled her fingers flirtatiously at him, and then the carriage was smoothly accelerating away with a whisper-faint arcane hum.

Gabriel stood on the corner, gazing after her. When he finally gathered himself enough to turn and head back home, he was whistling again, mostly as an exercise in self-control. What he wanted to do was sing.


“So what’s her name?”

Gabriel choked on a mouthful of stew, which luckily provided him with a priceless few seconds of coughing in which to formulate a clever reply.

He finally lifted his eyes to look at his father across the table. “…what?”

Jonathan Arquin was smiling at him, an expression just short of smugness. “Y’know, son, as much as you enjoy getting in trouble, I’d think you’d have learned to lie better after seventeen years. Come on, now, is it that you think I’m an idiot, or that you think I sprang up fully-formed and was never a teenager? It’s been two weeks. You’re constantly running off to mysterious assignations which I know aren’t with Toby. And if they are, well, that raises some questions about the dopey grin you’re always wearing.”

Gabriel dropped his eyes again at that, his expression sobering. His father didn’t know how on the nose that crack actually was. The reminder jarred him back to a semblance of control. “I don’t know if…if I’m ready to… Well. Introduce…um.” He trailed off. Well, a semblance was better than nothing.

Jonathan leaned back in his chair, the mirth slipping away from his face. He pushed aside his stew bowl and folded his arms. “Gabriel, I think it’s time we had a talk.”

“Oh, no. Oh no.” Gabe dramatically covered both his eyes with his palms. “Dad, I’m begging you, please. We have had the talk. It was every bit as hideously awkward as every joke about parenting in every story makes it sound. Let’s never, ever go there again.”

“Not that talk,” Jonathan said wryly. “No, I think we covered all the salient points that time. There’s more to all this than just…mechanics.”

“Dad, I swear by all the gods…”

“Shut up and listen.” He didn’t raise his voice or put any heat into it, but Gabriel knew his father’s tone well enough to tell when the time for slippancy was over. He lowered his hands, leaning back in his own chair and giving his full attention. Not without a dramatic sigh, of course.

Jonathan had paused, and was now gazing abstractly at the now-cold wood stove in the corner of their cramped little kitchen, gathering his thoughts. “Despite the best efforts of the Avenists,” he said finally, “women get put under a lot of pressure in our society. A lot of bullshit pressure, most of it. Wasn’t always this way. Your great-great grandfather was an actual, honest-to-gods adventurer, in a time when that meant something impressive. In the stories he used to tell, a good half the people in his field were women, and nobody dared show ’em a whit less respect than they asked for.” He shook his head. “You can pretty much tell things have changed. It’s like everyone turned a little bit Shaathist at some point without knowing how or why.”

He turned back to stare intently at his son. “You’ve spent enough time around other teenage boys by this point to have heard a lot of horsewash starting with ‘women are all.’ How they talk too much, how they manipulate men to get what they want, how they never say what they really mean and don’t make sense most of the time. The truth is… Well, there’s a lot of truth in all that.”

Gabriel cringed. “Ugh. Dad, every time I hear somebody say something like that I expect my old history teacher to pop up and smack ’em with a ruler.”

“Julin Avelea, right?” Jonathan nodded, eyes glinting approvingly. “I liked that lady. It was almost a shame you outgrew the levels she taught in. No, women really do have a tendency to do stuff like that, and the thing you need to keep in your mind is why. Fact is, women are taught from the cradle to be nice. They’re expected to be friendly, to be non-confrontational, nurturing. A woman simply can’t afford to approach problems the way a man does in this society. Unless she’s wearing Silver Legion armor, the best she could hope for is not being taken seriously. In some places—hell, a lot of places, that kind of thing could put her in real danger.

“In a way, you just might be better positioned to understand women than ninety percent of boys your age, Gabe. You’re under a lot of bullshit pressure, too. You know all about keeping quiet when it isn’t fair, when nobody else has to. Think about that when you react—no, before you react to anything a woman does. They’re nice because they have to be; they’re indirect because they can’t afford not to be. And it’s men who made up these rules. Far too many men see a girl’s smile and react like it means ‘take me, I’m yours.’ Most of the time, what it means is more ‘I’ve noticed that you exist, please don’t rape me.’ So yes, they play word games and mind games and whatnot, because what the hell else are they gonna do? Everyone has to live, and we don’t let women live fairly.

“There are two critical, very easy mistakes a man’s likely to make. The first is assuming he’s been promised something, or is entitled to something, when he’s been shown just a little bit of encouragement.” Jonathan’s eyes bored into Gabriel’s, his expression flat. “The second is trusting too easily that a woman’s manipulations are just harmless female hijinks, when there may actually be something sinister going on.”

Gabriel frowned. “…sinister?”

Jonathan drew in a deep breath and let it out as a sigh. “Gabe…you are who you are, and who you are is basically a good kid. But you’re also what you are, and… There are always going to be a lot of people looking to hurt you…and a good few people looking to take advantage of you.”

Gabriel stiffened. “Madeleine is not—”

“Easy, boy,” Jonathan said firmly. “I don’t know this lady of yours; I have no idea what she is or isn’t about. I want you to think about what you see and hear from her, understand? Getting to spend time around a girl intimately, especially for the first time… Well, if she’s anything like the girls I met at your age, you’re gonna find that huge swaths of what she says and does don’t make any damn kind of sense. That just means you’re thinkin’ about it from your perspective, not hers. Pay attention, try to understand where she’s coming from… And always think about what it means.

“A man who takes advantage of a woman and demands more than she’s willing to offer is less than a man. I’ve made my share of mistakes, but I know I’ve raised you better than that. On the other hand… Don’t be in a hurry to offer trust where trust hasn’t been earned. And don’t mistake pretty eyes and a soft body for rightly earned trust. Understand?”

Gabriel nodded, staring down at the table.

“Gabriel.” Jonathan’s voice was gentle, but firm. “I need to know if you understand what I’ve told you.”

Gabe lifted his gaze. “…yes, sir.”

Jonathan sighed again, running a hand through his graying hair. “All right. I know damn well it’s a bunch of theory and it won’t start making sense until after you’ve make a whopping big mistake or three. Just try to think back on what I said at that point, eh?” He huffed the soft shadow of a chuckle. “Well…anyway. Want the rest of your stew?”

Gabriel stared at his half-empty bowl. “I… No, thanks. I don’t think I’m very hungry.”


“I know I shouldn’t have told her off, but oh, she makes me mad! I mean, the catty little put-downs are one thing, but interfering with my dressmaker? There is a code. There are rules. For heaven’s sake, we are trying to have a society here!”

“Mm hm,” Gabriel observed.

Madeleine sighed prettily, cradling her teacup in front of her. “I know you must think me dreadfully shallow to care about these things, Gabriel dear, but… Such is the world I live in. If I don’t pay attention to it, it’ll eat me alive. Anyone’s world will do that, left unattended. You’re ever so tolerant to let me prattle on so about things that don’t concern you.”

“Mm hm,” he agreed.

She studied his face thoughtfully for a moment. “Well. I’ve decided to paint my teeth green and grow a second head. That’ll show them.”

“Good idea,” he said vaguely, gazing at a point over her left shoulder.

Madeleine remained quiet, simply looking at him with that thoughtful expression. After a protracted moment, Gabriel slowly turned his gaze back to her eyes.

“And…that last bit was a test to see if I was listening.”

“Bravo!” Her eyes twinkled with amusement, in that distinctive way they did that always made his heart flutter. No one else had eyes like hers. Not even close. “You passed. Belatedly, but still! That makes you more sensitive than most men.”

“Glad I have that going for me, then,” he said, trying at a light tone with only marginal success.

“Gabriel,” she said gently, “you have very kindly indulged my chattering all afternoon. It was probably easier, with you clearly being in another world. Would you like to share what’s on your mind?”

He dropped his gaze from hers, studying the tablecloth.

“I have never judged you,” she said quietly, “and never shall.”

He lifted his eyes again, meeting hers. There was nothing, for a brief eternity, except her blue gaze and the simple openness in it. The soft sounds of the upscale cafe around them seemed to fade into the distance. He had to forcibly jerk himself back to focus.

“I… There are things you don’t know about me.”

“We’ve known each other for…two weeks, yes?” She smiled lopsidedly, a mischievous expression he loved. “There are scads of things we both don’t know about each other. You can tell me anything you like, darling.”

He glanced around. The cafe was too perfect for intimate assignations to have been anything but designed for it. Tables were separated by thick walls which served as planters for enormously healthy philodendrons, their leafy vines crawling over decorative lattices and frosted glass partitions. The table was approachable only from the front; he could barely hear any of their neighbors, and couldn’t see them at all. It was a lovers’ place, a place for secrets.

Even so, he lowered his voice.

“I’m a half-demon.”

He had dreamed and feared saying the words for so long; now they hung in the air like a bad smell.

Madeleine just looked at him in silence, her expression not changing a bit. Gabriel met her gaze, shifting nervously in his chair.

Finally, when he was thinking seriously about getting up and fleeing, she spoke.

“What kind?”

Gabriel blinked at her. “Um… What?”

“I mean, what kind of demon,” she clarified. “There are several that are known to interbreed with humans.”

“You’re not… Surprised?”

“Oh, Gabriel.” Smiling fondly, she shook her head. “You mustn’t think I’ve been spying on you, but… Well, a lady gets curious about the gentleman with whom she keeps company. I have asked around a little bit, and people in your neighborhood are only too eager to talk about the resident demonblood.”

He stared at her. “You…you never mentioned…”

“Is there a reason it should bother me?” Her smile was vaguely feline. “I assumed you would tell me when you felt comfortable doing so. I’m very glad that day has come; I’m honored you would trust me. I am curious, though. What kind? It does make a difference, if I’m to know what to expect.”

He leaned back slowly in his chair, still staring at her eyes. “Hethelax.”

“Hmm…” Madeleine nodded slowly. “That’s good.”

“Good?!”

“Hethelaxi aren’t spellcasters,” she said, as calmly as she had discussed dresses and the tea, and more calmly than she’d related the would-be theft of her seamstress by another well-heeled young lady. “If you’d had sshitherossz blood, for example… That could be problematic. Young demonbloods who accidentally develop magical skills… Well, that kind of magic tends to land one in trouble, no? Hethelaxi, though, that blood won’t give you anything too troublesome. A bit of a temper, maybe, which I know by now you haven’t got. So… All you’ll have inherited is an allergy to divine magic, and a complete imperviousness to…well, everything else!” She smiled broadly. “A very fair trade-off, don’t you think? After all, what use it the holy light to someone who can’t be hurt?”

“You know your demonology,” he said quietly.

“I read.” Her voice had a faint edge to it now. “Demons, as I’m sure you’re aware, are quite dangerous. It seems only foolish not to know the basics.”

“You’re just so… So gorgeous,” he murmured.

“Well, it’s an abrupt change of subject,” Madeleine purred, “but I can’t find it in me to complain. Do go on.”

“So, just, perfect. Beautiful and poised and sexy and fun.”

“Excellent, just excellent. Continue, please.”

“And in addition to all of that, you’re…” He waved a hand, indicating the demurely tasteful cafe, the lace-trimmed napkins, silken tablecloth and fine china. “Riding around in that fabulous carriage of yours, eating in places I could never dream of affording… It’s been like a dream.”

“Well, not quite as complimentary,” she said dryly, “but I suppose it would be churlish to refuse even distant praise.”

“And with all of this,” he said, “it just hasn’t occurred to me to wonder what a woman like you would want with someone like me.”

“A woman. Like. Me.” Madeleine set down her teacup, interlaced her fingers and propped her chin in them, gazing at him. “If I did not know you were such a sweetheart, Gabriel, I might have to strain to think of a context in which that was a compliment.”

“You could have pretty much any man in the capital begging at your feet. And here I am, a seventeen-year-old kid from a rough neighborhood. I really am an idiot for not…wondering.”

“Oh, so now I’m too old for you?” She raised one sculpted eyebrow. “You’re backpedaling in very much the wrong direction, darling.”

“And you are deflecting,” he accused.

Madeleine shrugged. “If you must pry, I am still well on the right side of thirty. Perhaps I seem distantly sophisticated and mature to you, Gabriel, but the gap between us isn’t as great as all that. It will grow less significant with each year that passes.”

“Maybe I’m being unfair…”

“That seems to be a man’s prerogative, in my experience.”

“But,” he continued doggedly, “now that the subject is raised, I just can’t stop wondering what it is you might want with a demonblood.”

Madeleine unlaced her hands and reached across the table, wrapping her dainty fingers around his wrist. Her skin was silky, soft and cool. “A demonblood in general? I can’t imagine. But one demonblood in particular? Gabriel.” Her tone was soft, firm, coaxing. “I know it hasn’t been long. I know there’s so much for both of us yet to reveal. But please don’t think I don’t see you for who you are. There is so much to you. Such…potential.” She all but breathed the last word, gazing limpidly at him.

Slowly, very slowly, he pulled back, withdrawing his hand. “I…” Gabriel finally broke his gaze from hers. His movements suddenly awkward, he rose from the table. “I, um. Thank you for the tea, Madeleine. And the company. I’m… I’m gonna walk home. I need to think.”

“Of course, love,” she said sadly. Gabriel swallowed heavily, turned and shuffled off, shoulders hunched and hands stuck in his pockets.

Madeleine watched him go, waited until he was out the doors of the cafe and beyond sight of its plate glass windows before moving again. She delicately picked up a fork and speared a bite of frosted sponge cake.

“You think, my dear,” she murmured to herself. “So will I.”


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