Tag Archives: Major Razsha

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“I kinda miss having Fross along,” Ruda commented. “No offense, but you guys are a little… I dunno, glaring.”

Trissiny and Toby both glanced at her, saying nothing; up ahead, Gabriel sighed but did not turn around.

“It’s just that she’s got this pleasant blue-white thing going on; it’s soothing. It’d be a nice way to improve the fuckin’ scenery down here, what there is of it. All this yellow is puttin’ me on edge.”

“We’re pursuing necromancers toward a source of pure chaos,” Toby said. “If you weren’t on edge, I would be worried for your mental health.”

“And the light is usually referred to as ‘gold,’” Trissiny added dourly. Ruda just laughed.

All three were glowing subtly, which was the only source of illumination in the tunnels beneath the cathedral. In fact, it had been the only source of illumination in the old church’s basement, but in these much more cramped corners, the light felt even more precious, regardless of Ruda’s commentary. The group could probably have seen where they were going by the light of only one aura. Pushing back against the darkness made them all feel slightly better.

Nothing about the catacombs was visually surprising: the tunnels were cramped, dusty, and dark. A blend of natural caves and man-made structures, they passed without apparent pattern through exposed dirt, carefully dressed stone, crumbling old brick and living rock, both carved out and naturally worn by aeons of water. Water, too, they passed twice and had to step over once. Though small galleries opened off here and there, so far the group had only been able to follow a single tunnel, just barely wide enough for three of them to walk abreast if they squeezed in.

Most of those side galleries had held coffins. All were now empty.

Bones were everywhere, so thick in places that the students had to pick their way carefully over piles, and in some cases wade through them. Even Ruda had not offered a joke about this; they were all working hard at ignoring it as much as possible. At least the trail of felled undead told them they were headed in the right direction.

Until they passed through a doorway and had to stop, staring.

The chamber ahead, barely lit by Gabriel’s aura, seemed to be a cylindrical natural cavern, like an underground tower. A bridge (without railing, of course) extended from the door in which they stood to a platform in the middle, part of an island which jutted out from the wall to their right and had clearly been flattened for this purpose. There were two doors in the wall adjacent, and three more narrow bridges leading to openings around the rim of the cavern. Below, the darkness fell away to seemingly infinite depths, the bottom completely out of view.

Bones littered the whole area indiscriminately. One of the other bridges was clear of them; aside from that, every path before them was marked by the same gruesome trail they’d been following.

Ruda craned her neck to peer over Gabriel’s shoulder. “Aw, fuck.”

“That’s your answer to everything,” Gabriel said, glancing back at her with a smile, then pointed at the far door on the ledge. “It’s that way.”

“What are you seeing that we don’t?” Trissiny asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “But I’ve got scouts ahead. Oh, that reminds me, the Army search teams are all back topside; they’ve got some wounded but didn’t lose anyone. But yeah, my friends are all back. Vestrel’s giving me directions.”

“They found the source of chaos?” Toby said sharply.

“They think so,” Gabriel replied, stepping forward—very, very carefully—across the stone footbridge. “They don’t want to get too close, which I fully support. It’s causing some kind of dimensional issue, and being phased out the way they are, they could be vulnerable to that. But Vestrel says that from a distance, it looks like some kind of artifact, not a dimensional rift.”

“That’s…unexpected. And unusual.” Trissiny spoke thoughtfully as she followed the others across to the platform. “But not without precedent. Maybe it’s for the best—if it’s not an actual rift we have a better chance of dealing with it. Artifacts can be destroyed.”

“Just for the record, soul reapers are scared of this fucking thing and we’re walking right toward it,” Ruda said. “I can’t help thinking this is not the smartest thing we’ve ever done, guys. And let’s face it, we have done some pretty dumb shit.”

“Yes,” Trissiny said archly, “because you didn’t listen to my advice and I had to fight the centaurs on my own. What did we learn, Ruda?”

“Oh, fuck you.”

“And they’re not afraid,” Gabriel said testily. “They’re cautious. The difference is important.”

“Look at you, bein’ all protective,” Ruda said, shoving him lightly in the shoulder from behind. They were passing through the indicated doorway into another tunnel, so this was much less dangerous than it would have been in the tower chamber. Even so, he stumbled over a skull and shot her an annoyed look. “Aw, don’t make that face, it’s cute!”

“In any case,” said Ariel, “we are approaching with the active attention of the three primary gods of the Pantheon. It is well within the Trinity’s power to subdue chaos radiation, particularly if the source is a tainted object and not a planar rift. I presume that you are all staying in touch with your patrons?”

“Yeah,” Toby said, nodding.

“And as I’ve mentioned before,” Trissiny said, “’patron’ is a specifically gendered word and not—”

“I have never said this to a living being, Trissiny Avelea, nor imagined that I ever would, but it is my professional opinion that you need in the worst way to get laid.”

Ruda laughed so hard she nearly fell over.

Toby cleared his throat loudly and raised his voice to be heard over her. “Gabe, please be sure to thank Vestrel and the others for us.”

“She’s the invisible one, man,” Gabriel replied, grinning back at him. “She can hear you just fine. Says you’re welcome. Triss, don’t grind your teeth. And Ariel, if you don’t quit being an ass to my fellow Hand I’m gonna let her whack you with the sword of Avei and see which breaks first.”

It was another half hour’s walk through cramped darkness. The path the valkyries indicated led them through more tunnels, now branching out enough that the group could easily have become totally lost without their aid. At one point they passed close enough to a massive subterranean waterfall to be dampened by its spray; the flowing water which had done the initial work of carving out the corridors beneath Veilgrad was still very much in evidence. It was only in dry chambers distant from it that they passed evidence of bodies having been deliberately interred, which was sensible.

The farther they went, the fewer bones they encountered, until the entire place appeared to have been picked clean. Clearly, every corpse down here had gotten up and rushed to the surface; they had descended well past the level at which the skeletons had fully cleared out.

Gabriel stopped in a small square antechamber decorated by a bust of a Stalweiss chieftain set in a wall niche.

“This is it, guys. Another fifty yards or so straight down: this corridor angles upward slightly and terminates right in the relic room where the problem is.”

“What are we walking into, exactly?” Trissiny asked.

He paused for a moment, frowning at a point near the wall where no one visible was standing, before speaking. “It’s… Okay, this is all starting to make a little more sense. They were able to scout it from above. We’re in the mountains outside the city now. Seems the chamber in question is very close to the surface, and there was a cave-in. The relic had been bound in some kind of container that kept the chaos from leaking out, but part of the ceiling landed on it and broke it. That’s probably what kicked all this off in the first place.”

“Duly noted,” said Toby, glancing around at the others. “All right, guys, from here on, active prayers at all times. Ruda, I know it’s your least favorite position, but maybe you’d better walk in the back. In fact, if it’s a straight shot from here, let’s have Trissiny take point; she’s best at both attack and defense, and infernal radiation aside, there’s no telling what this may spit out at us.”

“Chaos isn’t sentient, is it?” Gabriel said, frowning as Trissiny moved past him into the tunnel.

“Unknowable,” Ariel replied. “It has nothing we would recognize as a mind, which is very far from saying it has no mind.”

“And on that cheery note, here we go,” Ruda said fatalistically. “I suppose I could add a few prayers to the goddess I grew up knowing, but I assure you Naphthene doesn’t give a shit.”

Trissiny had her shield up before her as she led the way—her physical shield, in addition to the divine one. They walked in grim silence, not dragging their feet but in no hurry to meet what lay ahead.

There was light at the end of this tunnel; as Gabriel had said, the ceiling had collapsed and daylight been allowed to stream in. The group paused at the door to the relic chamber before Trissiny stepped forward, allowing the others to exit the corridor and fan out to both sides of her.

What this room had once looked like was impossible to tell now. It had clearly been large and roughly circular, but the walls and much of the floor were obscured. Apparently the entire ceiling had come down, leaving them in a broad island of sunlight completely buried under chunks of fallen stone so broken that it was impossible to tell whether the original roof had been natural or carved.

They had been cleared away at certain key points, though. The door was clear, as was a path to the reliquary in the center. This was the only sign anyone had been present since the collapse; clearly the chaos cultists must have spent considerable time in this chamber, but they had either been careful to leave no traces or something that removed them after the fact.

In the center lay what could have been a sarcophagus meant to house a man twelve feet tall and correspondingly broad. It had been an elaborate thing, once, banded in silver and engraved with runes both arcane and divine. Now, it lay broken. The pieces of its shattered lid and walls had been carefully set aside, revealing what lay beneath. Though the stone of both the ceiling and sarcophagus must have fallen on the object within, it had not been so much as scratched.

The skull was enormous, easily big enough that the dragon could have swallowed a person whole when alive. Unlike the other bones they had seen on the way here, this was coal black and glossy as if lovingly polished.

Silence stretched out while they stared, until Gabriel finally spoke.

“Vestrel says this whole area was…tainted, sort of, until we got close and our auras pushed it back. Don’t let up for a second, guys, we do not want to be near that thing at its full power. I… It’s been a good long while since I listened to old fairy tales. That can’t possibly be what I think it is, can it?”

“The details are lost to history,” Trissiny said softly, “but we do know it happened. That was no fairy tale. This is… It has to be. The skull of Belosiphon the Black.”

“Who the fucking what?” Ruda exclaimed.

“He was a chaos-tainted dragon who served Scyllith before the Elder War,” said Toby. “Which… Well, I guess this was as good a place as any for it, though I can’t imagine what could have been holding its power in check all this time. Whatever it was must’ve been worked into that big stone coffin, and broke when it did. So…what do we do with it now?”

“I don’t advise you attempting to do anything personally,” said Ariel. “This is something for the gods to handle. By the look of those runes, they did so last time. Salyrene is personally invoked multiple times in those charms; she does not generally permit people to do that.”

A shadow fell over the sky above, and they all jumped, staring upward.

“What is that?” Trissiny demanded, dropping into a battle stance. “Something the skull is doing?”

“No,” Gabriel replied, frowning. “It’s… According to Vestrel it’s a zeppelin. Has Imperial Army markings. And…it’s stopping, right overhead.”

“I desperately want to think this is good news,” said Ruda, “but I’m not quite that dumb.”

“Stand ready,” Ariel said urgently. “There are multiple arcane transfer signatures forming on this site—”

A series of sharp pops and crackles sounded, accompanied by flashes of blue light, and half a dozen people materialized in the space. Three wore the blue robes of Salyrite clerics, two were in improbably elaborate crimson-and-gold armor over white surcoats, and the last was dressed in a pristine white longcoat; they could see no more, as he had landed with his back to them.

“Quickly,” the man in the coat barked, unnecessarily. The priests had already begun furling a large length of iridescent cloth over the dragon’s skull. Both guards turned to level their impractical gilded polearms at the students. “Chaos will be in abeyance in the paladins’ presence, but that doesn’t make it safe. How long?”

“One minute, at the most,” the woman farthest from them said tersely, beginning to carefully fold the edges of the shimmering blue fabric under the skull.

“Step away from that!” Trissiny ordered. “Who do you think you are? What are you doing?”

“We are with the Universal Church,” he replied, “answerable directly to his Holiness the Archpope. We are securing this incredibly dangerous artifact before it has the chance to cause any more harm to Veilgrad. So, the same thing I expect you came here to do.” He finally turned to give them an extremely flat look. “Hello, kids.”

Gabriel blinked in astonishment. “Captain Rouvad?”

“It’s Ravoud,” he said testily, “and it’s Colonel.”

“You work with the Church now?” Toby asked.

“I am blessed to have been offered employment,” Ravoud said curtly. “My last job was abruptly terminated about the time these two ladies killed my best friend. You may recall something of the incident.”

“We wrote you a letter of commendation,” Trissiny protested.

“Yes, thank you. That made it all better.”

“Package secure,” the priestess said crisply. “The dimensional weave is operating exactly as tested. Chaos energies will be contained for transport, but this will decay rapidly. We have less than one day to get it securely to its new resting spot.”

“Wait a second,” Trissiny exclaimed.

“Seconds are precious, as you just heard.” Rouvad nodded curtly to them. “Thank you for your invaluable assistance, ladies and gentlemen. You have my word this thing will trouble Veilgrad no more. Take us out, Sister.”

Another series of flashes and pops followed, and then they were gone, leaving an empty, broken sarcophagus where the skull had lain.

Above, a distant thrum sounded as the zeppelin powered up its elemental thrusters. In only a few moments more, the shadow receded, allowing bright sunlight to pour unimpeded into the chamber once again.

“Well,” Toby said at last, “I guess that’s…that.”


 

“Major, thank the gods,” the soldier said fervently as Razsha strode up to him, the rest of her strike team following in the standard diamond formation. Seven troopers had formed a perimeter around one corner of the old guild complex, staves aimed at what lay near the wall. “She beat the werewolf unconscious and then dragged it in here. The Colonel said to keep her secured, but… I mean, how? We saw that fight. I don’t think we could…”

“You did fine, soldier,” Razsha said, patting him on the shoulder. “That particular demon has…a degree of trust. Three paladins are taking responsibility for her. When did the werewolf transform back?”

“Less than five minutes ago, ma’am. About the time the skeletons collapsed. Does that mean it’s over?”

The Major made no response, staring through narrowed eyes at Scorn, who was seated upon an unconscious man dressed in the shredded remains of what had been a formal suit. Demon and man alike were bruised and scratched virtually all over, but that did not seem to have diminished the Rhaazke’s spirits.

“Hello!” she called cheerily, then roughly patted her captive on the head. “Not kill!”

“I’m glad to hear that, I suppose,” Razsha said.

“Well, that’s…something,” Simmons offered. “It’s not a bad grasp of Tanglish considering she’s only been practicing a couple days.”

“I’m more concerned that that’s one of the first things they felt the need to teach her,” Tieris muttered.

“I can’t believe it,” Durst whispered, staring. “I just can’t. An actual, live Rhaazke. Here! What I wouldn’t give to—”

“Durst,” Razsha interrupted, “you did say this is a sentient demon, right?”

“What? Well, I mean, of course. They’re the dominant culture in their dimension.”

“Then let’s assume she enjoys being gawked at like a zoo animal about as much as you would and keep that to a minimum. She’s holding that werewolf down, and isn’t hostile. That’ll do, until the paladins get back here and take her off our hands.”

“How long will that take?” Simmons wondered aloud. “And I don’t think she’s all that skittish. She doesn’t seem to mind having battlestaves pointed at her.”

“I doubt she knows what they are,” said Durst. “A bunch of humans with sticks aren’t going to impress her.”

“Hypothetically,” Razsha mused, “would a staff shot put her down?”

“Hypothetically?” Durst grimaced. “There’s no data. Nobody’s shot one that I ever heard of. Um, they are very powerful demons, though. There’s a good chance it would just piss her off.”

Scorn ruffled the unconscious werewolf’s hair and waved at them with her other hand. “BEHOLD!”

Major Razsha sighed. “Those kids had better get back here fast.”


 

“Wait, the Church?” Teal exclaimed. “Captain Ravoud? This is… I don’t even know what to think.”

“That is far too many coincidences in far too short a time for my comfort,” Shaeine said.

“Hit the nail on the head,” Ruda agreed. “Come on, the timing alone. We clear a path to the big bogey and that’s the moment they show up to whisk it away? There is some serious behind-the-scenes fuckery going on. I think we blundered across the tip of a very big iceberg, guys.”

“Belosiphon the Black,” Teal murmured. “Incredible.”

“It kind of explains it, though,” said Fross.

Trissiny heaved a sigh, sweeping her gaze around the church. Fross’s ice had been removed, but not without leaving some signs of water damage to the pews. There was also the broken window and the fact that most of the sanctuary was piled knee-deep in bones. Altogether the cathedral had seen better days. “Well, for the moment it’s over. I agree, though, Ruda. There’s something more to this. I don’t think we can just leave it alone in good conscience.”

“Well…our actual assignment here is done, though, right?” said Juniper. “Which…shoot. We weren’t the ones who actually solved the problem, were we? I hope that doesn’t affect our grade. It wasn’t our fault the Church stepped in.”

“Your priorities are on point as always, Juniper.”

“Cut it out,” Gabriel said curtly, smacking Ariel’s hilt. “What’s been happening up here, guys?”

“The whole city got quieter,” Fross reported. “The Army’s been fanning out, cleaning up and helping people. Colonel Adjavegh sent Timms to check on us.”

“We reported the cathedral currently clear of both hostiles and civilians,” said Shaeine. “We felt, though, it was best we remained here to secure your exit. Timms apparently agreed; at least, we have heard nothing further from them.”

“We tried to clean up a bit in here,” Fross added glumly. “It’s gonna be a long haul, though. I feel really bad about the church.”

“Oh, don’t worry your pretty little head about it,” Embras Mogul said cheerfully from the dais behind them. “The Church does not lack for resources. They’ll have everything shipshape in no time.”

All of them whirled on him, most drawing weapons; Vadrieny burst forth, flexing her claws.

No one attacked, though. Seven robed warlocks stood on the dais with Mogul. Each of them was carrying a crystal-tipped divine disruptor, including the ones the students had collected from the cathedral itself.

“How dare you show your face in front of me,” Vadrieny snarled. “You tricked and assaulted my friends, and now you steal from us!”

“Your pardon, lady, but I believe that’s a bit unfair,” Mogul replied evenly, tipping his hat to her. “You were dealing with chaos cultists in possession of Imperial weaponry capable of neutralizing a paladin. They had laid traps for you. I’m still stuck on how those crazy buggers managed to plan all this; it was an altogether respectable operation, and all done by people who couldn’t string two coherent sentences together. Something’s fishy as all get-out, here. Regardless! Caine, Arquin and Avelea would have found themselves de-powered and at the mercy of insane necromancers with ample undead slaves had we not stepped in.”

“Stepped in and put us at your mercy!” Trissiny growled, brandishing her sword.

“Why, yes,” Mogul replied mildly. “While more than half of these weapons were still in hostile hands, I went out of my way to secure you three where you would be safe until the disruptors could be rounded up. I’ve dealt too much with Pantheon worshipers to expect gratitude for such a paltry favor as saving your lives, of course. Seeing you safe and hale is reward enough.”

“That’s a load of bullshit,” Gabriel snapped. “We’re the Hands of the gods. Whatever you think of Vadrieny, I don’t believe for a second you would go out of your way to protect us.”

“Don’t you?” Mogul replied, tilting his head like an inquisitive bird. “There is, as you say, the matter of Lady Vadrieny’s high regard for you—that’s far from nothing in my estimation. But no indeed, I make it a point never to do anything that serves only one purpose. I do have an ulterior motive. Y’see, kids, if you kill a paladin, all that happens is another one gets called—by a deity who makes you the new one’s first order of business.”

“Better to play with them, I suppose,” Juniper said quietly.

“Well, now, a daughter of Naiya would know all about batting her prey around before delivering the final mercy, I bet!” Mogul replied, grinning. Juniper dropped her gaze, shoulders slumping. “But no, kids. That’s logic for more stable times. A great doom is coming, and secrets are unraveling on all sides. Dead paladins are worth nothing to anybody, but paladins who know the truth?” His grin broadened; with his head angled so the brim of his hat hid his eyes, the effect was deeply creepy. “Paladins who are in on the secret their gods are trying to hide? That’s a thing that’s never been seen. I do believe I want to let that unfold. The Black Wreath, you see, has always been on the side of truth. And now, that means we have a vested interest in your welfare.”

“What truth?” Fross demanded.

“Ah, ah, ah.” Mogul wagged a chiding finger at her. “That’s the downside of having a reputation as terrible as ours: we can’t tell the truth, or it becomes tainted by association. No, you have to find it out yourselves. We have to content ourselves with unraveling the Pantheon’s secrecy from a safe distance. Pursuant to that, I believe you kids are acquainted with a certain Joseph Jenkins?”

“What about Joe?” Gabriel demanded, taking aim with his wand. Instantly the other warlocks on the dais pointed their disruptors at him.

“Joe,” said Mogul smugly, “is or is about to be in possession of some extremely interesting information that sheds light on what’s been happening here in Veilgrad. One might say that you and his group of friends each hold half the pieces to this puzzle. You’ll want to drop him a line at your earliest opportunity. He can be found in Tiraas these days; if he’s not gotten around to listing his address, Bishop Antonio Darling will know how to reach him. That’s yet another name familiar to you, I believe!”

They all stared at him in silence.

“Well!” Mogul said briskly. “Time waits for no man. No one, I should say; my apologies, General Avelea. We must be off, then. These devices need a new home—”

Silver mist shot in through the broken window at a steep angle, slamming into the floor of the cathedral midway between the students and the warlocks. It swirled upward in a twisting pillar, then resolved itself into the lean figure of Malivette Dufresne.

“Embras!” she squealed, throwing wide her arms. “How just perfectly lovely to see you!”

“…Lady Malivette,” Mogul replied, suddenly looking wary. “I must say, this is unexpected.”

“Why, yes, of course,” the vampire said cheerfully. “Because everyone knows Malivette is hiding in her manor while the kids are here. She’s afraid of the valkyries, you see! Y’know, the ones right now crawling all over this building.”

“They’re not going to harm you,” Gabriel said carefully. “It’s, uh, nice to meet you, by the way.”

“Good heavens, boy, I know that,” Malivette said, turning to wink at him. “Right back atcha, by the way. And frankly I wouldn’t much care if they did. It’s not like I so very much enjoy existing.”

“Well,” said Mogul, shaking his head. “Well, well, well. If there is one thing I respect, it’s a well-executed ploy. My hat is off to you, madame.” He suited the words with actions, lifting his straw hat to reveal a shiny bald head and bowing to her. “If you’ll forgive me a prying question, how did you even know we would be here?”

“My, someone thinks a lot of himself!” Malivette tittered, turning back to the warlocks, who edged back away from her. “No, Embras, actually I was hoping to catch whoever was behind all the crap afflicting my city, but…you’ll do. Yes indeed, this is quite fortuitous! It seems you’re in possession of some very exciting items belonging to the Empire!”

Abruptly the cheer melted from her features, and she stared coldly up at Mogul.

“Give them to me.”

He cleared his throat. “Ah. Perhaps you would care to discuss—”

The vampire moved with such speed that not even a blur was visible. One moment she was standing on the floor of the sanctuary; the next, she was in the midst of the Wreath’s formation, arms wrapped around Vanessa, one hand tangled in the warlock’s hair, wrenching her head back to expose the side of her neck.

Shadows swelled around Vanessa and Malivetted, then instantly dissipated.

“No, no, dearest,” the vampire cooed, “none of that. It’s rude to leave a party before the guest of honor has even had a drink.”

Vanessa emitted a thin keening sound of pure panic.

“Nessa, easy,” Embras said urgently. “She’s just making a point; if she wanted you dead, you would be. Don’t rile her! Lady Dufresne, if you want a hostage, I’m more valuable.”

“But you care about this one,” Malivette said sibilantly. “I know your great secret, Embras Mogul. Everyone is afraid of the big bad Wreath; afraid of your eeeevil, baby-sacrificing ways. I know a thing or two about being a monster, and I know about faith. You just might care more about the world and each other than any of the other cults.”

“Stop this,” Toby said urgently. “All of you! Malivette, please—”

Vanessa was crying openly now, practically vibrating with tension.

“Do you know what it’s like,” Malivette continued softly, her crimson eyes fixed on Mogul, “being hungry all the time? Never getting your fill? Worse, living in a world inhabited by delicious walking steak dinners? The smell alone… I never take more than the bare minimum I must to survive. It’s been so long since I just…drained someone.” Slowly, she leaned in, pressing her nose to the side of Vanessa’s neck, and inhaled deeply. “Mmmfffnn… Warlocks are so spicy. And best of all, nobody would miss one.”

Vanessa squeezed her eyes shut, whimpering.

“Enough,” Mogul snapped, tossing the disruptor to the ground at the foot of the dais. “You win. Everyone, give them up.”

“But Embras—” a man in gray robes started to protest.

“Do it!” Mogul barked. “Enchantments are replaceable—people aren’t!”

The rest followed suit, tossing down their weapons, and backed away.

“Let go of her,” Mogul said, glaring at Malivette. “You have no idea the harm you’re doing. You know what the Church did to her just this summer?”

“You know how many of those disruptors there are, Embras?” Malivette replied in a hiss. “Because I do. Please don’t lie to me. It makes me peckish.”

She drew her upper lip back, leaned in, and pressed the tips of her fangs to the nape of Vanessa’s neck.

The warlock fainted.

Mogul held out his hand to one side, glaring mutely at the vampire. Seconds later, another robed figure flickered into visibility and placed one last divine disruptor in his outstretched hand. He tossed it onto the pile with the others.

“Attaboy!” Malivette said, suddenly all sweetness and light again. She knelt, gently lowering Vanessa to the ground and somehow managing to make the awkward movement look graceful. “Don’t you worry, kids, I will ensure that most of these find their way back into the Army’s hands.”

“Most?” Toby said sharply.

“Well, yeah,” she replied, winking at him. “Like I told you once before, I’m patriotic enough. I think it’s a grand idea for my government to have the best and newest weapons available! But no government needs to be the only entity with access to any weapon. Or so I hear from some Eserites I’m acquainted with, who I bet will know just how to disseminate these shiny new enchantments into the world. All right, this was fun, but I gotta go get a drink now before I accidentally kill a whole bunch’a people. See you at home, kids!”

She dissolved abruptly into mist, which flowed down the steps and over the pile of disruptors, then vanished. The weapons disappeared along with it.

Embras Mogul stepped over to Vanessa as soon as the vampire was gone, kneeling to gently gather her into his arms.

“And with that, it’s official,” he said grimly. “Now no one is pleased with the outcome of this, except the blood-sucking undead. Y’know, they say you can tell a lot about a person based on the company they keep; what interesting friends you’ve got. I’ll be seeing you kids again soon.”

Shadows swelled up over them, and then the Wreath were all gone.

For several moments they could only stand in stunned silence.

“Um,” Juniper said at last, “how come warlocks and vampires can just do whatever they want in a church? Aren’t these places supposed to be consecrated? Cos…I’m not feeling de-powered either, now that I think of it.”

Gabriel rubbed at his eyes. “Yeah. Well. Crisis over. The chaos is gone, the Wreath is gone, the Army’s even getting their weapons back.”

“Most of them, apparently,” said Shaine.

“Right.” He sighed. “So why do I feel like we didn’t win here?”

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

“Why that one again?” Merry wondered aloud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?” Ephanie demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re listening,” Principia said warily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can see auras?” Ephanie asked warily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s up?”

“How are talking swords made?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“By release,” Toby said, “you mean…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, hell,” Razsha whispered.

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

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

“What’s happening?” Juniper demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone stared at the perfectly mundane, apparently harmless object.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Toby exclaimed. “Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is a catastrophe,” Timms whispered.

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

“At least half a dozen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

“Who’s we?” Weaver snorted.

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

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

“No?” Raea arched an eyebrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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9 – 28

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I agree,” said Trissiny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“About those weapons,” Toby began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juniper made a small squeak.

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

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

“What does that mean?” Juniper demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut up, Joe!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

“Ah, there you are!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Message?” Principia narrowed her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry began grinding her teeth.

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

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

Casey let out a low whistle.

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

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

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

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

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

“Sarge?” Farah asked hesitantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bloody hell,” Merry spat.

“Well said,” Principia said dryly.

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

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

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9 – 18

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“Nothing?” Trissiny shouted. “You cannot be serious! The Tiraan Empire can do nothing?”

“If you want to take this up with the Emperor, General Avelea, that’s your prerogative, though I can’t say I’d advise it.” Colonel Adjavegh was not a diplomatic man; the effort he was putting into being patient with his guests had become increasingly evident in his tone throughout the conversation, which had not helped Trissiny’s mood. “I, however, am required to follow the law. And the fact is, Lord Sherwin Leduc has not broken any laws.”

“He was keeping a woman in a cage!” Trissiny snapped, planting her fists on his desk and leaning over it. “His stated purpose—”

“Yes, we know!” Adjavegh interrupted. “Frankly, Avelea, we don’t need to hear it again! But the situation is entirely changed by the fact that Leduc’s alleged victim was a demon!”

“Alleged?!”

“No one doubts your word, General Avelea,” Major Razsha said calmly. She stood beside the desk, positioning herself as a neutral party between Trissiny and Adjavegh, with the other three members of her strike team seated behind her on the Colonel’s couch. “The issue, as Colonel Adjavegh has pointed out, is about laws. All crimes are alleged until a conviction has been rendered, which I’m afraid won’t happen in this case.”

“I have absolutely no trouble believing you, to be frank,” the Colonel said, finally displaying open asperity in his tone. “The Leduc boy has always been a weird little twit, even by the standards of his family. That he would summon a demon and try to brainwash it for sexual purposes, while gross in every possible way, seems quite in character.”

“Her,” Gabriel commented idly, “not it.”

“Yes, of course,” said Adjavegh, back to being overtly patient. Behind him, his aide coughed discreetly, which he ignored. “The point is, no actual laws have been broken. Leduc has all the relevant permits for his activities, both the hereditary permissions House Leduc procured years ago and his own. He’s actually quite scrupulous about keeping everything up-to-date with the Imperial government.”

“That’s characteristic of intelligent people who don’t want their business pried into,” said the Major with a humorless smile.

“Of all the adjectives I could apply to that guy,” Gabriel said, “’intelligent’ is way down the list. I swear he either has a death wish or an actual mental disability.”

“Again, that’s consistent with what I know of him,” Adjavegh snorted, “but lordlings always have a crew of buzzing lawyers and managers to be intelligent on their behalf.”

“Needless to say,” Razsha continued, “he did not have permission to summon a succubus. The Empire doesn’t give permits for that. But since by your own description he didn’t manage to do it, and any evidence of the attempt is long gone, I’m afraid there’s little point in pursuing that matter. There also aren’t permits available to summon a…what was it called again?”

“A Rhaazke,” said Drust from the couch behind her. His Strike Corps insignia had an orange background, marking him the warlock of the team.

“Right. The problem there is there aren’t any actual laws covering those, and you yourselves have indicated it was an accident. Since he apparently summoned the creature into an incredibly secure facility, it’s doubtful he could even be charged with reckless misuse of infernal magic.”

“Which is actually quite impressive,” Drust noted. “You can almost always charge warlocks with reckless misuse. They’re almost always guilty of it.”

“If Leduc had done this to any woman of a mortal race, Imperial citizen or no, I’d have him in a cell before his fancy lawyers could so much as blink.” Colonel Adjavegh folded his arms on his desk, staring pointedly at Trissiny’s fists until she got the hint and acknowledged it, removing them and straightening back up. “Hell, I could almost wish he had managed to acquire a succubus, since I could throw his skinny ass in a cell for that.”

“If he had acquired a succubus,” Toby said dryly, “he would probably be dead and she on the loose by now.”

“I said almost,” Adjavegh grunted. “The reality of the situation is that demons don’t get protection under the law. They can’t; it’s simply not possible to treat them as you would a mortal, they are too aggressive and unstable by nature. General Avelea, I think I can appreciate how this matter must place your priorities into conflict. Seeing that degenerate little twerp trying to forcibly enslave a woman of any race had to be even more galling than hearing about it is. But if there is one person I would expect to understand both the needs of justice and the need to apply different rules to demons than people, it’s you.”

Trissiny drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“What we can do is watch Leduc a lot more carefully from now on,” Adjavegh continued, keeping his eyes intently on her face. “A paladin’s testimony counts for a lot; I believe this constitutes probable cause. If you’re willing to give me a written statement I bet I can get scrying authorized. Since he didn’t get his succubus and, as you say, he suffers from an appalling lack of sense, he’s likely to try again, at which point I can stick the little shit in a dungeon to rot.”

“We’d be glad to,” Toby said pointedly, his eyes also on Trissiny.

She nodded. “Yes. Of course. My apologies, Colonel. You’re right; this is…jarring. I hate having seen the man do something like that and have to just accept it.”

“Well, I do appreciate you bringing this story to me,” Adjavegh continued, leaning back in his chair and folding his hands in his lap. “There are apparently several points that we need to discuss more urgently, beginning with this demon. First of all, I would like to speak with your archdemon friend; this whole matter is difficult enough to believe, coming secondhand. If it were anybody but you three coming to me with this story, I doubt I could make myself swallow it.”

“That’s very kind of you, Colonel,” Gabriel said sweetly. “A paladin’s life is service, after all.”

“We don’t speak for Vadrieny,” Toby interjected hastily, “but I can’t imagine she’d object. We’ll pass that to her today.”

“Thank you,” the Colonel said, nodding. “In the meantime, there’s the matter of what to do with this creature. Having an exotic demon running loose isn’t an option, obviously.”

“She’s hardly loose,” said Toby. “Our group is keeping an eye on her when we’re at the manor. As is Malivette, I understand.”

“You don’t know?” Adjavegh said, frowning.

“We came right here from Grusser’s house this morning; there hasn’t been time to fully catch up with the girls,” Gabriel explained.

“In fact,” said Trissiny, “Malivette seems even better at keeping her under control than we are.”

“That’s all well and good,” said the Colonel, frowning, “but from an official perspective…”

“Actually,” Major Razsha said, calm as ever, “from an official perspective a Hand of Avei’s custody is adequate; neither Army regulation nor Imperial law require anything further to keep a demon. The addition of two more paladins, to to mention the rest of their group, is just icing on the cake, as it were.”

Adjavegh gave her a dark look. “Thank you, Major.”

“My pleasure, Colonel,” she said with a faint smile.

In the ensuing silence, the other three members of Razsha’s strike team sprouted matching smiles, Toby half-turned to divide a warning look between Trissiny and Gabriel, and Adjavegh’s aide, Corporal Timms, raised an eyebrow, but did not otherwise break composure. This was not the first time since the paladins had arrived that the Major had subtly reminded the Colonel that the Strike Corps did not answer to him. That strongly suggested it was a running issue in this barracks, and one they would be better off not involving themselves in.

“I would still appreciate as much information as you can give me on this,” Adjavegh continued after a moment, finally tearing his dour stare from Raszha’s face. “These creatures are wholly unknown; we have enough troubles in Veilgrad without having unknowns running around. As it is, the information we have on this demon could be entirely made up by your friend, for all I know. That’s not an accusation, of course.”

“I know of Rhaazke,” Drust piped up. He shrugged when everyone turned to stare at him. “Not much, of course. They’re the stuff of myth and legend, but the basics are known, and consistent with what the paladins have already told us. Both physically and magically powerful, mentally and emotionally stable thanks to Elilial’s intervention, residents of the unreachable sub-dimension hellhounds come from.”

“If this place is so unreachable,” Adjavegh said skeptically, “how in blazes do you know of it?”

“Summoning a hellhound is sort of an ultimate quest for extremely skilled and powerful warlocks,” Drust replied with a smile. “It’s actually quite simple in concept and damn near impossible in practice: you have to go through a hellgate, perform the summoning in Hell itself, and come back with your hellhound. It’s been attempted by a number of people but achieved by precious few. There are also accounts by individuals who failed in their effort but made it back from Hell; those are usually the ones who fell afoul of the Rhaazke. According to the accounts, Rhaazke like poachers even less than demons in general do.”

“That seems like an improbable amount of trouble to go through for a pet,” said the Colonel.

Drust shrugged. “If you have a source of hellhound breath you can basically consider yourself richer than Verniselle’s bookie. Any well-read warlock can confirm the existence of Rhaazke, but nothing more about them except that they are even less to be trifled with than the other denizens of the infernal plane. I would give Simmons’s left nut to interview this creature.”

“I insist that you leave me out of your fantasies,” said Simmons, the cleric in their team. Drust grinned at him.

“It might be best if as few people as possible bother her,” Trissiny said, scowling. “She’s had a difficult time on this plane, as I’m sure you can imagine, and the fact of her origins means we don’t yet have a plan to send her back. The less she’s agitated, the better.”

“That, at least, I agree with,” Adjavegh said with a sigh. “This demon, she has a name?”

“It’s hard to say,” Toby replied.

“What, you didn’t ask?” The Colonel raised an eyebrow.

“No, I mean, it’s hard to say,” Toby repeated.

“It’s a name in Demonic,” Gabriel added. “Sounds like a mouthful of spitting and gargling to me, and apparently if you get it wrong you’ve declared a feud. We’ve just been letting Vadrieny and Malivette handle her; it’s not like she speaks any Tanglish anyway.”

Adjavegh sighed heavily, rubbing the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger.

“In any case,” said Major Razsha, folding her hand behind her back, “the theory that Veilgrad’s troubles were chaos-related is one we’ve been seriously considering. In fact, it has been a leading theory, as the sudden presence of chaos cultists is highly correlated with such events elsewhere. I think we can now consider that theory confirmed.”

“You’re certain?” Adjavegh asked wearily, looking up at her from between his fingers.

She nodded, her expression grim. “The spell to summon a child of Vanislaas is nigh-impossible to botch; it is designed so that a Vanislaad can compensate for any errors from the other end if their attention is caught by even a partial summons. They are quite eager to have access to this dimension. More to the point, accessing the Rhaazke plane from here is utterly impossible. A chaos effect is the only conceivable explanation for that demon being brought by Leduc’s summons.”

“Then I trust this is all you need to search Leduc Manor for that, at least?” Trissiny said sharply. “Being the most distinctive effect yet seen, surely that indicates the manor is the likely location.”

“That’s, uh, not really how that works, Trissiny,” said Gabriel.

“Indeed,” Razsha nodded. “If anything, this all but conclusively rules out Leduc Manor as the source of the chaos rift.”

“What?” Trissiny exclaimed. “How?”

“Think about it,” said Gabriel. “There were lots of infernal spell effects at work in that place. We fried a bunch of them ourselves. They seemed to be working correctly.”

“That is the long and the short of it,” the Major agreed. “One spell of Leduc’s going wrong due to chaos means there is a chaos effect active…well, somewhere. If it had been on the grounds, everything he did would have dramatically misfired. That would have drawn attention long since. No, the existence of a practicing warlock who’s had only one major misfire pretty conclusively means the source of chaos isn’t in or near the Manor.”

“Where, then?” Adjavegh demanded. “Can we narrow it down at all?”

“Not from this information alone,” Razsha mused, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. “A single effect tells us almost nothing; the rift could be on the other side of the planet and cause that. Chaos is…chaotic. Unpredictable by definition. The other troubles cropping up in Veilgrad strongly suggest it is somewhere in the vicinity, though.”

“Chaos cults,” said Toby, frowning, “undead incidents, generally increased aggression in the populace…”

“Don’t forget the werewolves,” Trissiny added.

“They’ve always lived in the hills nearby,” said Adjavegh. “The Shaathists keep an eye on them; we had maybe one problem every five years up till now. No confirmed attacks yet since this started, but they’ve been howling non-stop, which means they’re transforming even though the moon isn’t full. It’s only a matter of time before there is an incident.”

“And other unknowns,” added Razsha. “People have disappeared in the mountains nearby, lately. That could be anything at all. No, the chaos is focused here. Unfortunately…that doesn’t even mean it’s located here.”

“Are you kidding?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“It probably is,” the Major clarified. “But I know of one incident of a chaos rift opening and, for some reason, causing all of its effects in a concentrated area hundreds of miles away.”

“I think I know the one you’re thinking of,” added Drust. “There’s at least one other. There’s a precedent.”

“Wonderful,” Trissiny growled.

“With some certainty that it is a chaos effect,” Razsha continued, “I can begin scrying protocols. You can’t find chaos directly, but it’s possible to use a straightforward search grid. Scry at locations in a pattern covering the region; odd are good any that attempt to target the source of the chaos will be disrupted, which tells us more precisely where to look.”

“That sounds time-consuming,” the Colonel said, frowning.

“It’s a standard search grid,” Razsha admitted, “so yes, it is. Less so than quartering the ground on foot, but still… Targeted scrying effects take time to set up. I’ll need to requisition additional personnel from Tiraas in order to do this on any kind of schedule. We’re talking about days to check the city, in the best case scenario. Weeks if we have to search the whole province, maybe more. That’s based on my best guess of how may scryers the Army will spare me.”

“You’ll be limited to arcane scrying for this,” said Teloris, the strike team’s witch. “I am not sending my spirits after a chaos rift. The risk to them is catastrophic.”

“I will also be sending people to search Leduc Manor on general principles,” the Colonel added with an expression of dark satisfaction. “Between your report on his activities and the occurrence of one chaos effect on the grounds, I believe I’ve got reason enough to stand up to an inquiry. May or may not find anything useful, but I highly doubt anyone is going to object to me keeping eyes on Sherwin bloody Leduc.”

“No one who matters, anyway,” the Major agreed with an amused little smile.

“You keep saying it’s a rift,” Toby noted. “Could it be something else? An artifact, a person?”

“Very unlikely,” said Razsha. “Not impossible—with chaos, nothing can be really ruled out—but those are vanishingly rare. Chaos usually comes from a dimensional rift. Its source is outside the dimensions.”

“You’ll keep us informed?” Trissiny said pointedly.

“Of course we will,” the Major said quickly before Adjavegh could speak. “With a matter like this, I definitely want as much help as possible.”

“We would also like to interview any of the chaos cultists you may still have imprisoned,” she added, fixing her stare on the Colonel.

“I don’t see the harm in it,” he said after a moment. “They’re not here, though. The Imperial prison is across the city.”

“Seems inefficient, doesn’t it?” Gabriel noted.

“Not really,” said Trissiny. “There’s some overlap between the functions of prisons and military bases, but they’re meant to do different things. And in the event of a mass escape, it’s not ideal for convicts to have access to military hardware.”

“I will send a message to the Warden authorizing you to speak with the prisoners in question,” said Adjavegh, half-turning in his chair to nod at Corporal Timms. “Paladins or no, that’s one thing you can’t just walk in and do without official permission.”

“We greatly appreciate that, sir,” said Toby.

“In the meantime,” said Major Razsha, “please tell every magic-user in your party—which I gather is most of you—to be extremely careful. Chaos causes magic to go wrong. I’ll expect any sharing of information to go both ways.”

“Of course,” Toby said quickly. “The more of us are working together on this, the faster we can sort it out.”

“Right,” the Colonel said more briskly. “If there’s nothing else, Timms will escort you out. Give me an hour to notify the prison; after that you should have no trouble there. Make sure at least one of you three are part of any group sent to interview the cultists. The Warden isn’t going to open his doors to just any gaggle of exotic teenagers.”

“We’ll send you a message at Dufresne Manor if we learn anything constructive,” added Major Razsha. “You can reach us here.”

“We will,” Toby promised. “Thanks for all the help, both of you.”

Timms was already at the door to the office, holding it open for them and standing impassively at attention, an inescapable hint. Trissiny paused to salute the strike team before following the others out.

“I cannot believe that little toad is just going to get away with this,” she growled to herself as the corporal led them through the barracks.

“They’ll be watching him,” Gabriel said comfortingly. “That guy is just dumb enough to try his scheme again, no matter what Juniper said to him. This time, hopefully the Empire will catch him at it. I get you, though,” he added more thoughtfully. “It would be really satisfying if we could just go back there and punch his stupid face a few times.”

“You hold him, I’ll punch.”

“It’s a date,” he said, grinning. “You’ve probably got a better arm, anyway.” Toby sighed heavily.

“The laws exist for good reasons,” said Timms. “Unfortunate that those good reasons result in a rich bastard getting away with something vile, but that tends to be the case.” She paused at the front doors of the barracks, turning to them with a smile and idly rolling a doubloon across the backs of her fingers, in stark contrast to her stiff bearing in the Colonel’s office. “All systems are corrupt—that doesn’t mean you abandon the systems, just that you sometimes have to work around them. Be sure to visit us again, General, gentlemen. Especially if you want help doing that.”

She made the coin vanish up her sleeve, saluted them, then turned and strode off back the way they had come, leaving the three paladins staring after her.

“All systems…” Gabriel frowned. “I’ve heard that somewhere before. What’s that from?”

“That,” said Trissiny, still staring after the corporal, “is one more complication here. I’ll explain when we meet the others back at the safe house.”

“Yeah,” Toby said slowly, “we need to catch up with everyone on how the demon’s doing, anyway. Thanks for coming straight here, by the way; I expected you to at least bring Shaeine along.”

“I think Triss had the right idea,” said Gabriel. “The three of us have some standing with the Army, and the Colonel didn’t enjoy having our noses stuck into his business anyway. The less he has to deal with the others, I think, the better.”

“We have a lot to talk about when we all reconvene,” Trissiny said, turning to go. “I still haven’t told everyone about the night I had, either.”


 

It was warm and peaceful, rather pleasant. Strange, then, the sense he had from the moment consciousness began to return, the feeling that something was wrong. He felt groggy, but not unhappily so. More or less as one should feel after awakening. Which was odd, as he was normally quite alert upon rising.

His eyes drifted open. Stone ceiling overhead—this wasn’t his room… Oh, right. Svenheim. He was studying…

“Well, there he is! Morning, sunshine.”

Memory crashed down upon him all at once, and Yornhaldt sat bolt upright in bed.

“Easy, there!” cautioned the man seated on a stool at his bedside. “Glad you’re feeling chipper, old fellow, but you got quite a dose of katzil venom. Luckily my man Bradshaw pumped you full of antivenom almost immediately, or you’d be doing a lot worse. You know how it is with infernal poisons—the longer it has to work, the nastier the lingering effects. There you go, take your time.”

He did just that, finding himself in no immediate danger. The speaker was unfamiliar to him: human, Western, apparently in later middle age, of a gangly build and wearing a white suit with a matching flat-brimmed hat pulled down almost over his eyes. The other men in the room were more familiar to Yornhaldt. Another human stood by the door in a gray robe; Yornhaldt had seen his face only momentarily, but it had stuck in his mind, considering the man had just jabbed him with a syringe.

In the far corner of the room was the dwarf who had attacked him, bound with cords and chains, from which glyphed ribbons of paper hung. Well, that made sense; one didn’t try to imprison a magic-user with strictly mundane methods. The dwarf glared daggers at him, but didn’t try to speak. A tightly-bound strip of cloth held a gag in his mouth anyway.

They were in a bedroom, unfamiliar to Yornhaldt and generally nondescript. There were no personal touches of any kind; it had the aspect of an inn room, neat but starkly plain.

“All right,” he said slowly after a moment. “This is altogether surprising. Does someone mind filling me in?”

“Gladly!” said the man in the white suit, his grin a gleaming slash in his dark face. “My name is Embras Mogul; I have the honor of leading Elilial’s followers on the mortal plane.”

“I see,” Yornhaldt said neutrally, glancing between Mogul and the other warlock. He wondered what would happen if he tried to call up a spell. Probably something swift and bad for his health.

“Over there by the door,” Mogul continued cheerfully, “is Bradshaw, who came to your rescue in the library. And this chap, well, we haven’t got much out of him just yet. That’ll come in time, of course, though frankly I believe we can deduce all the relevant particulars from the situation.”

“Can you?” Yornhaldt asked warily.

“Well, let’s review, shall we?” Mogul tilted his head back so his eyes were finally visible beneath his hat, and winked. “Here we have the good Professor Alaric Yornhaldt, probably the single most inoffensive person affiliated with the University at Last Rock. You’re a man without enemies, a moderating influence on your peers and widely beloved by your students. As such, not only are you unlikely to be the target of a personal attack, but anyone using you to get at Professor Tellwyrn would be far too screwy in the head to mobilize a careful strategy like this one. The vengeance that would descend upon such a fool would be apocalyptic.”

“You flatter me,” Yornhaldt said carefully, “and in fact may be overstating the case. Arachne has managed to antagonize a number of very unstable people. One might argue that’s the inevitable result of her being in their vicinity.”

“Ah, well, perhaps I indulge in a bit of hyperbole,” Mogul said airily, waving a hand. “You take my point. We can assume with some certainty, then, that this is not a personal matter. Especially since we have a much more likely motive! You’ve been looking into some very particular and very hidden knowledge, my friend—alignments, histories, powers and secrets that all point toward the culmination of the Elder Wars eight thousand years ago. The greatest mystery of the modern world: apotheosis. A person who’d been following your efforts might conclude you were trying to puzzle out how to make a god.”

There was silence in the room for a long moment, Yornhaldt staring mutely at his smiling host.

“Or, I suppose, unmake one,” Mogul finally mused. “There was some of both going on at that point in history. Either way, I can think of few organizations that might take exception to your research, and none of them are local. The dwarves are admirably self-motivated folk, I find, not overly concerned with gods and religions. There’s the Order of Light, of course—in fact, they’re headquartered not far from here! But that theory is busted by the fact that this fellow,” he pointed at the bound dwarf, “is not merely a cleric, but a holy summoner. The Order, being generally sensible people, do not mess about with demons, and in fact put a swift stop to that foolishness wherever they find it. Go on, you can say it, I promise I’ll not take offense.”

“No need,” Yornhaldt demurred. “I flatter myself that I’m well-read enough to know the Wreath don’t deal with demons indiscriminately.”

“Splendid!” Mogul grinned broadly at him. “So we’re looking for someone interested in suppressing inquiry into the origin of the gods, who uses divine power to control diabolic forces and isn’t affiliated with the Kingdom of Svenheim, who gave you specific permission to root through their archives after this. Someone who, furthermore, is confident enough in their own power to risk the wrath of the great and terrible Tellwyrn if it means shutting you up. Do correct me if I’ve missed a candidate, but that seems to point at no one but the Universal Church of the Pantheon. Anything to add, there, friend?” he said, turning to the prisoner. The summoner simply transferred his glare to the warlock, making no attempt to speak around his gag, nor signal a desire to.

“That’s…a theory,” Yornhaldt acknowledged. “I trust you’ll pardon me if I don’t take your word for it.”

“My dear fellow, I would be sadly disappointed if you did. You’re a man of science, after all—you seek your own answers. There are few things I admire more.”

Yornhaldt glanced once more between Mogul and Bradshaw. “Putting that aside, there seems to be another pressing question. Why would you, of all people, help me? Even if it was the Church behind this, I see no motive here besides ‘the enemy of my enemy.’ Which, if you’ll pardon my saying it, doesn’t seem to justify going to this kind of effort.”

“Why, it’s quite simple,” Mogul said, smiling blandly. “We want you to succeed.”

“You do?” Yornhaldt blinked.

“My people have had eyes on you almost from the beginning,” Mogul informed him. “It was only a matter of time before someone cottoned on to what you were after and tried to put a stop to it. Pursuant to that, Professor, it appears you’d achieved something of a breakthrough just before this regrettable business kicked off. Not to tell you how to run your affairs, but I will suggest this is an excellent time to head back to Last Rock and share what you’ve got so far. Once Tellwyrn is in on your findings, the cat’s out of the bag—there’ll be no further point in anyone coming after you.”

“I will take that under advisement.”

“Do,” Mogul said, rising and stretching languidly. “Anyhow! I’ve taken the liberty of making some preparations for you. Your suit, I’m sorry to say, was rather the worse for wear after your little misadventure. We’ve got a replacement hanging in the wardrobe there, for you. Not a tailored fit, but it should suffice. You’ll find your shoes in there as well—those were fine, fortunately. My people also rescued your books and papers. Both those you were carrying, and those you’d left in your rooms. Sorry for the presumption, but it was very likely somebody would try to destroy them.” He leaned over and patted the nightstand. “In the drawers, here. They have not been tampered with, though I fear your rather obscure filing system might have been disrupted by the simple act of moving them.”

“They were all over every surface,” Bradshaw noted with a smile. “Even the bed. Anyway, there’s another matter.” He reached into his robed, pulled out a bottle, and almost immediately dropped it.

Mogul dived across the room with astonishing agility, snagging the bottle before it struck the floor.

“Augh…thanks, Embras,” Bradshaw said, lowering his shaking hand. “Sorry.”

“No harm done, old friend,” Mogul said, straightening up and patting him on the shoulder.

“I say, is he quite all right?” Yornhaldt asked, frowning. He had noticed only then that Bradshaw had a persistent tremor in his left hand—luckily, not the one with which he’d applied the syringe.

“It’s just a spot of major nerve damage,” Bradshaw said dismissively. “A little souvenir from my recent stint as the Archpope’s guest.”

“I keep telling him to take some time off and let the healers do their jobs,” Mogul said, frowning at him. “It’s like talking to a particularly stubborn wall.”

“Hard to sit on my ass while the people who do things like this are sitting on thrones,” Bradshaw said curtly.

“Anyhow,” Mogul continued, pausing to pat Bradshaw’s shoulder again before turning and lightly tossing the bottle onto Yornhaldt’s bed, “that’s another supply of antivenom. A specific one for katzil bites, rather than the general anti-infernal Bradshaw gave you. The syringe is better of emergency doses, of course, but that can be taken orally. I’m afraid the taste is quite appalling; there was nothing to be done about that, sorry.”

“You should be fine, given some time and rest,” Bradshaw added. “Still, infernal venoms are tricky; you might have recurring issues for a few weeks. I trust a man of your education knows the symptoms of infernal corruption; be watchful for them. Take one teaspoon if you notice any, and no less than four hours between doses. I recommend you seek out a witch or shaman as soon as you’re able for a more comprehensive healing than we could provide. Avoid divine healers for now; exposing the light to any lingering traces of the venom can cause tissue damage.”

“And with all that out of the way,” Mogul said, striding across the room to the prisoner, “we’ll leave your fate in your own capable hands, Professor. Pardon us for rushing off like this, but there’s always so much to do, and not enough hours in the day! We’ll keep our eyes on you till you’re back at Last Rock, just in case someone decides to have another go.”

“I…ah…thank you,” Yornhaldt said weakly.

“Not at all, think nothing of it! As you pointed out, old fellow…the enemy of my enemy.” Mogul winked again and tipped his hat. “Never stop seeking the truth, Professor. The truth is what will set us all free.”

He casually gathered up a fistful of the captured dwarf’s coat, and then the shadows swelled up around them. A similar effect washed over Bradshaw, and a moment later, Yornhaldt was alone.

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