Tag Archives: Mary the Crow

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Trissiny exhaled sharply in relief as her boots touched down on the rooftop, though she did not fully un-tense until Kuriwa had let the rift she had opened close behind them.

“With all due respect,” she said fervently, “I devoutly hope I never have to travel that way again.”

Kuriwa gave her an amused smile. “Then, if you wish to keep making dramatic and surprising entrances, I suggest you keep company with friends who can teleport or shadow-jump. This is the best I can do with my craft; the divine offers nothing at all for rapid travel.”

Trissiny nodded, peering around to get her bearings. They were atop one of the mansion-like structures in Tiraas’s government district; just down the street, she could easily see the Svenheim embassy, which Kuriwa had just transported them into and then back out of by tunneling through a deeply creepy space between dimensions.

“I’m not sure about this morning’s work,” she murmured.

“I believe your ultimatum to the ambassador will have the desired effect,” Kuriwa replied, “coupled as it was with an alternative. Contracts for his country’s metalworkers to re-outfit the Silver Legions is by far preferable to having the Hand of Avei obliterate Svenheim’s intelligence agency. The stick always works better when the carrot is proffered as an alternative.”

“That’s what Commander Rouvad said. In almost exactly those words. That’s not really the part I’m concerned about, though.” She turned her back on the embassy, facing the shaman again. “I know Bishop Syrinx’s account of last night passes inspection, if just barely. But… Kuriwa, almost everyone we spoke with believes she honestly tried to kill Principia. And her entire squad!”

“Everyone,” Kuriwa said calmly. “Not almost. Don’t mistake Weaver’s mask of disinterest for disagreement.”

“It made sense when the High Commander explained it to me, but the more I think…” Trissiny shook her head. “I’m just not sure we did the right thing, letting her off that way. And apparently this is becoming a pattern. How many times is Basra Syrinx going to get away with literal murder and only face temporary exile or the loss of some possessions?”

“I would say,” Kuriwa mused, “that Farzida Rouvad is wiser than you, simply by dint of her longer experience. But one can be wiser and still be wrong—I know it all too well. In this case, however, I happen to agree with her assessment. Basra Syrinx, for all the disastrous potential she represents, is presently better left where she is.”

“I know why the Commander thinks that,” said Trissiny, studying her closely. “Why do you?”

“For entirely different reasons.” Kuriwa stepped over to the edge of the roof and seated herself on the low wall encircling it, tucking one leg under herself and regarding Trissiny seriously. “In fact, I strongly disagree with Rouvad’s assessment: she thinks she has Syrinx under control, and she is deeply mistaken. No, Trissiny, I am an old schemer, and I see the long-term value in this. Principia, for all her faults, is only a mere match for Syrinx because she allows herself to be constrained by her duty to the Legion and her care for her soldiers; when Syrinx pushes her too far, or when Principia advances herself enough to have the leeway, it will be swiftly finished. Then, too, the Bishop is rapidly accumulating enemies whose potency, or very existence, she does not realize.” She shook her head. “Basra Syrinx is not long to be a free agent…and perhaps, not long to be a living one.”

“So you think we should stand back and just let things unfold?”

“I generally don’t recommend that as a motivation, though as a course of action it can be valid. No… At issue is that Syrinx represents the rot that has accumulated in the heart of this Empire, as well as in the Church and the Sisterhood. Corruption, complacency, the triumph of individual profit over the greater good. It happens, when social structures grow too large. They begin to perpetuate themselves first and foremost, often at the expense of their original goals.”

Trissiny sighed heavily. “All systems are corrupt. Yes, I can’t seem to get away from that.”

“They really are, though,” Kuriwa said, smiling placidly. “Sometimes—well, often—one must swiftly excise rot when it grows. However… One treatment for infection, when magical means are not available, is to introduce maggots to the wound. They will eat the infected tissue and leave the rest healthy and clean.”

“That is revolting,” Trissiny said, grimacing.

Kuriwa shrugged. “The healing arts frequently are. So it is with other things. Sometimes, child, it is more profitable in the long run to let the rot spread, even help it along, so that it can eat away at old structures. When they collapse, new and better ones may be built. If Syrinx is simply removed as she undoubtedly deserves, well… There is nothing to stop another creature such as her climbing as high as she has, which itself indicates a serious failure of multiple safeguards. I deem it best to let her cause the destruction she inevitably will, and let the Church and the Sisterhood heal from the wounds which result.”

“That’s consigning a potential lot of people to significant pain,” Trissiny said quietly. “And possibly much worse. I’m sorry, but I’m still not sure I can stomach the cost.”

“Good.” Kuriwa nodded slowly, gazing up at her, then turned to stare down at the street four stories below. “Look at everyone, going about their day… They look so small from up here. Living too long can have the same effect. One sees the larger picture, sometimes to the exclusion of a thousand smaller ones. Having watched too many lives come and go, they begin to blur together, to lose the spark of significance… And yet, that is only perspective. None of those people are smaller than you or I, nor any less alive. We see the world differently, Trissiny, but your perspective isn’t less valid than mine. It may be less informed, but still worthwhile for that; too much information can introduce confusion. Just make sure, as much as you can, that you are thinking clearly and carefully before you act.”

Trissiny drew in a deep breath and let it out very slowly. “That’s a lesson I’m trying very hard to learn.”

“All you can do is try.” Kuriwa unfolded herself, rising, and reached out to squeeze the younger woman’s shoulder. “For now, I believe this business is settled. Don’t hesitate to call me again if you need me, child…or if you just want to talk. I always have time for family. You can get down on your own, I trust?”

“Wait.” Trissiny turned back to her, frowning suddenly. “Before you go… What does iyai mean?”

Kuriwa tilted her head to one side, and then smiled warmly.

“It means no.”


“Man, it seems like we’ve been gone from here a lot longer than we have,” Darius commented, setting his tray down on the table in the Guild’s apprentice cafeteria and plopping himself onto the bench. “Been a hell of a few days, right?”

“I already miss Rasha,” Tallie said a little sullenly, taking the seat across from him. “I mean, I’m happy for him, I honestly am. But he’s, I dunno… Kinda the conscience of the group. Know what I mean?”

“Not even a little,” Darius said cheerfully. “Hell, Tallie, he isn’t dead. Glory said we’re all welcome to visit—if anything, he’s our in with an established Guild member with a lot of cred. Be happy he got himself a sponsor, and a cushy room in her mansion, and be happy we’ve got ourselves a Rasha!”

“Yeah,” Ross said. “Cos we’re not gettin’ sponsors of our own. Y’know that, right?”

“Thank you, Sergeant Sunshine,” Tallie said acidly.

“It’s like the Boss said,” Ross grumbled. “Politics. We’ve been too deep an’ too high up; we’re mixed up with too many big deals. Nobody’s gonna wanna touch us; no tellin’ what kinda mess we’re tangled up in, far as they know.”

The other two frowned at him, then surreptitiously turned to peer around the room. No other apprentices were sitting nearby, and no one was paying them any attention. That could have been normal, of course; lunch was always sparsely attended in the mess hall, and the Eserites in general stayed out of one another’s business—except when they didn’t. After Ross’s glum pronouncement, though, the way everyone’s eyes slid past them was suddenly suspicious and disheartening.

Their own perusal of the cafeteria enabled Tallie to spot a friend approaching, though.

“Jas!” she called, immediately brightening. “Hi! Where the hell have you been all day?”

“Hey, guys,” Jasmine said, striding over and sliding onto the bench next to Tallie. “Sorry, had family business to deal with all morning.”

“I’ll just bet,” Darius said, grinning fiendishly. “It’s okay, Jasmine—it’s always a shock to learn you’re related to a dragon fucker. That’s natural.”

“Thank you, Darius, for your concern,” she said dryly.

“Now, I don’t say that to be judgmental,” he went on, airily gesticulating with a forkful of broccoli. “I, of all people! Why, you’d be amazed how many dragon fuckers there are among the nobility. We’re the ones, after all, who are so filled with ennui from our lives of tedious, idle luxury that we may be inclined to try something ridiculous to break the monotony. Like, you know, fucking a dragon. Not to mention that our womenfolk are often bred for beauty like prize racing hounds, exactly the sort who might tend to draw a dragon’s attention. It’s a deadly combination, really.”

“Anyhow,” Tallie said pointedly, glaring at him, “Ross may be right, but we’re not out of luck. So maybe we don’t get individual sponsors, fine, we’ll live. By the same token, we’ve got friends.” She grinned. “Glory, Webs, and Grip. C’mon, we all went through hell together! I bet we can finagle some training and maybe a few favors outta that!”

“I’m not sure I’d be willing to trust everyone on that list,” Jasmine said, frowning. “Two thirds of them, in fact.”

Tallie waved her off. “Pfft, this is the Thieves’ Guild. It’s not about trust, it’s about mutual interest. They all know we can be useful—we’re good people know!”

“Also,” Darius said thoughtfully, “we were involved in wrecking two very expensive carriages belonging to a couple of those.”

“I’m sure they will forgive us!”

All four turned to stare at the person who had just plunked a tray down next to them. Layla gazed challengingly back, wearing a simple and practical dress for the first time since they had met—with no jewelry or makeup, even.

“You can all just wipe those fish-like expressions right off your faces,” she declared, spearing a bite of her own fish. “Especially you, Darius. You surely didn’t think I was just going to toddle off back to my personal hell under Father’s increasingly heavy thumb where you so blithely left me, did you?”

“Uh, Lady Layla,” Jasmine began carefully.

“Ah, ah, ah!” Layla wagged a finger at her, smirking. “There will be none of that lady nonsense, understand? After all, I have it on good authority that we Eserites don’t have the highest opinion of the nobility. Really, putting on airs as they do. Just who do they think they are?”

“Kid,” Tallie said more bluntly, “no. This is a bad idea. Someone is gonna break your goddamn legs within a week.”

“Well, I’m not saying I necessarily will succeed all the way to full membership,” Layla replied, shrugging. “But I’m sure the education itself will be valuable, and in the meantime it’s something to do. Something which does not involve going home. And we make a good team, do we not? You lot can show me the ropes, and I’m sure we’ll be getting into and out of just all sorts of exciting scrapes in no time at all!”

She tucked the bite of fish delicately into her mouth and chewed smugly, clearly unperturbed by their expressions of dismay. Her own expression quickly began to wilt, however, and for decidedly different reasons, as she announced after finally swallowing.

“Eugh,” Layla said, grimacing down at her plate. “This is awful.”

“Yeah,” Darius agreed, still staring at her in something akin to horror. “Yes, I’m afraid it is.”


The shadows were lengthening over the prairie when the Sheriff of Port Nonsense finally headed home for the day. Aside from its amusing name, it was a frontier village much like all its kind—a small patch of streets surrounded by outlying farms and cottages, one of which was her own home. Some Imperial sheriffs preferred to house themselves in apartments attached to their offices, so as to be close to the action, but there’d been none of that to speak of in this entire region since the days of Horsebutt’s crusade. Even the Cobalt Dawn had never struck this far south, and their annihilation seemed to have deterred any other elves or centaurs from leaving the Golden Sea, a mile or so to the northwest. As such, the Sheriff kept herself in the small house a good twenty minutes’ ride from town which she and her husband had bought. There she would stay, at the very least, until her remaining child was grown enough to leave home.

Rosalind Schwartz pulled her mare up just outside the gate to her own yard, studying the unusual scene unfolding there under the orange sunset. Her daughter’s presence was typical enough; Melody wasn’t one to stay indoors, or to stay still at all, and as usual had managed to get herself thoroughly dusty and inflicted a fresh hole on the already-patched knee of her trousers. This time, though, she’d had help.

It had been a good while since the Schwartz home had been visited by a Silver Legionnaire, and this one was a more unusual sight than most.

“Footwork!” the woman said, grinning indulgently at the teenager, bracing her own feet to demonstrate and extending her sword forward. “It all starts with how you stand. Stop that flailing around, an enemy could knock you off your feet with a good sneeze if you can’t balance properly in action.”

She wore a sergeant’s stripes on her shoulder, and was an elf—a black-haired elf. Rosalind had lived here long enough to know what that meant, though she’d never suspected one of them had joined the Legions, of all things. The elf, of course, had to have heard her coming, but for the moment kept her attention on the still-oblivious Melody.

“That’s so boring,” the girl whined, brandishing the stick she was using for a mock sword. “Come on, swords! Battle! Action! How can you—”

“Because the fundamentals are how you survive the battles and action,” the Legionnaire said dryly, sheathing her weapon. “Something tells me this isn’t the first time you’ve heard about it, either.”

“Yeah, it’s even more boring when Ma does it.” Melody moodily swiped at imaginary foes with her stick. “I’m gonna enlist as soon as I’m old enough, Ma said I could. I just wanna have some adventures before I have to settle down and get all stiff and boring.”

“Military service doesn’t have a lot to do with adventure,” the sergeant replied with an indulgent smile, “though ironically, if you go into it thinking that, a stint in the Legions might be exactly what you need. Probably not what you wanted, though.”

Lucy picked that moment to snort loudly and shake her mane, irked at standing around out here when she had her stall and bucket of oats to look forward to at the end of a long day. Melody whirled, nearly overbalancing (and underscoring her visitor’s earlier point), to grin at her mother.

“Ma! Hi! We’ve got a guest!”

“So I see,” Rosalind replied, nodding at the soldier, who had turned to face her and now saluted. “Can’t say I was expecting this. I’m Sheriff Schwartz. What can I do for you, Segeant…?”

“Locke,” she replied. “Squad 391. Don’t worry, it’s not Legion business.”

“Wasn’t especially worried,” Rosalind replied, raising an eyebrow at the salute; she was discharged years hence, and anyway had been a sergeant herself. “Seeing as how the Legions have no business with me anymore. That wouldn’t be Principia Locke, by any chance?”

“Ah,” the elf replied with a wry grin, “I see my reputation precedes me.”

“She says she grew up right over there in the grove!” Melody offered brightly.

“Mm hm, so I’ve heard,” said Rosalind. “I don’t get over to visit the elves very often, myself, but I do find reason every now and again. Enough times to have heard their opinion of you a time or two…Sergeant.” She slowly raised her chin, studying the elf down her nose. “I have to say, the sight of you in that armor is very… Incongruous, that’s the word. A more suspicious person might wonder where you came by it.”

“Mother!” Melody protested, appalled.

“It’s all right,” Principia said with a grin. “Yeah, I’m well aware what you’d have heard from those rigid old trees in the grove. I probably won’t be around long enough for it to matter, but you can check up on me if you are so inclined, Sheriff. I’m with the Third, currently stationed in Tiraas; my captain is Shahdi Dijanerad. Anyhow, this is a personal visit. I was actually a friend of your husband.”

“You knew Dad?” Melody exclaimed.

“I did.” Principia turned to her and nodded. “Anton was a fine man and a good friend; I was very sorry to hear he had passed. Sorrier still that I didn’t hear of it until very recently. We’d fallen out of touch.”

“Interesting,” Roslind said quietly, patting Lucy when the mare snorted again and stomped a hoof in annoyance. “Anton never mentioned you. Not once. You seem like a peculiar thing to just forget about.”

“Yeah,” the elf replied with a sigh. “He was a great one for not mentioning things. I happened to run into your son Herschel in Tiraas this last week, which marked the first time I ever heard that Anton had a family. I never even knew he was married.”

“I see,” Rosalind stated flatly, stiffening in her saddle. “And is there…a particular reason that fact is relevant?”

Principia met her gaze directly, but sighed again. “Yes. It is. You and I need to have a long, awkward conversation, woman to woman.”

The Sheriff studied her guest in silence for a moment before speaking—to her wide-eyed daughter, not Locke. “Melody, it’s getting late, and Marjorie’s still laid up with that ankle. Go help her bring the sheep in.”

“But Ma—” Melody’s protest cut off instantly when Rosalind shifted her head to give her a look. “…yes’m.”

The teenager flounced out of the yard, shutting the gate harder than was called for, and stalked off down the road toward the neighbor’s property, just visible in the near distance. Neither woman spoke again until she was well out of earshot.

“I’ve had years to come to terms with life,” Rosalind said finally. “It’s been hard without Anton, but I stitched myself back together. And it’s not as if I didn’t know he was an imperfect man, or had my ideas about how some of his…adventures went. But that’s all history. Before you say anything else, I want you to think very carefully about what you came here to talk about. Be sure it’s something that needs to be dragged up again. Because if it’s not, and you drag it… I’m not shy about facing hard facts if I need to, but I’d just as soon not dig up the past for no good reason.”

“There’s good reason,” Principia said, her expression dead serious. “I haven’t said anything about this to Herschel, because… Well, I consider it your prerogative. You’ll know best how to raise the matter with the kids, and this is all outside my realm of experience.” She grimaced. “This is not about reminiscing, though, and it’s not just about family. There are serious, practical reasons Herschel and Melody will need to know about their sister.”

Rosalind closed her eyes for a moment, drawing in a steadying breath, then opened them and swung down from the saddle.

“C’mon into the barn,” she said shortly. “I’ve a horse to look after and evening chores to see to. You can help while you talk.” She turned her back on the elf, leading Lucy away. “Apparently, it’s the least you can do.”


Daksh sat on the pier, gazing out to sea as the sunset faded over the mountains behind Puna Dara. He had been there for over two hours when the weirdo came and sat down beside him.

After nearly a full minute of silence, he finally shifted his head to glance at his new companion, who was attired in an all-concealing robe of brown sackcloth, tightly closed over his chest. As if the deep cowl weren’t enough to conceal his identity, he had a coarse cloth scarf covering his neck and face below the eyes. His exposed hands were tightly bound in bandages.

In Puna Dara’s climate, the outfit was ridiculous to the point of suicide, even now with the heat of the day beginning to dissipate.

“Do you want to talk about it?” the newcomer said in a deep voice muffled by his absurd mask.

“Why?” Daksh asked without thinking.

The robed figure heaved slightly in what Daksh only realized a moment later was a shrug. “It can help.”

He returned his stare to the darkening horizon. Somehow, even this absurdity did not make much of an impression. “It doesn’t matter.”

“That’s the same as saying you don’t matter.”

Daksh actually laughed, bitterly. “Clearly, I do not matter. Not to my daughters, who chase me away from my own house. Not to my son Rasha, who disappeared to Tiraas to become a thief. I certainly don’t matter to any of those who used to buy my fish.”

“Is something wrong with your fish?”

“They are Naphthene’s fish now, not mine. My boat sank.” Daksh caught himself, then shook his head. “No, that is not truthful. I sank my boat. I was drunk. My family’s livelihood… No, I do not matter. Not even to me.”

There was silence for a while longer before the stranger spoke again.

“Would you like to?”

Daksh heaved a short sigh. “Ugh. Which cult are you recruiting for?”

The man’s laugh was a hoarse rasp, with a strange undertone like metal grinding on stone. The odd sound finally drew Daksh’s full attention.

“Perhaps there is a better question,” the man said. “Regardless of what…cult, or whatever else I may represent. If you could matter. If you could be strong. Fearless. Powerful. Invincible. What would that be worth to you?”

“You are mad,” Daksh said matter-of-factly.

“I may well be,” the hooded figure agreed, nodding. “My question remains.”

“If you could do this?” He shrugged. “You can’t, but if you could? Anything but my soul. That is all I have anyway, now, so it seems I have nothing to barter. Which makes two of us.”

“You are so wrong.” The robed figure abruptly stood, grabbed his coarse garment at the throat, and tugged firmly, dragging the enveloping layers of cloth from him in one improbably powerful sweep. Daksh shied away from his sudden movement, and then found himself gazing up at the man in awe.

He now wore only his arm bindings and a simple wrap around his groin, exposing the metal which partially covered him. His entire right arm was lengths of copper and steel, slightly twisted as if they had been repurposed from scrap, bound together with hinges and springs—and yet, below the wrappings on his hand, his fingers seemed to be normal flesh. Metal was his left leg from the knee down, and fragments of scrap clustered on the skin of his right like barnacles, as if peeking through from structures beneath the skin. From the artificial joint of his right shoulder, irregular lengths of scrap metal crawled across his chest, forming a very rough triangle whose tip covered his heart, over which a battered compass with a green glass casing sat.

Half his face was covered in copper plates and brass wires, including his left eye, which was a small blue fairy lamp.

“You, my friend, are not dead,” the half-metal man proclaimed, grinning exuberantly and exposing—unsurprisingly—iron teeth. “And that alone means you have much to offer. You are still a man. You still matter. You are worth preserving!”

He leaned forward, holding out the wrapped hand of his metal right arm.

“But you can always become…more.”

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11 – 41

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The cloud cover had broken not long after midnight, and the following day dawned unusually clear and cloudless for Tiraas. It was still cold, winter having apparently decided to stay now that it had come. The city itself was in fairly good shape, its army of civil servants having been hard at work through the night with salt and shovels. Only along the northern districts, where water mains had broken and frozen, was the clean-up still impeding business. Elsewhere in the city, particularly in its bustling central districts, life went on at its usual pace.

Of course, the High Commander of the Sisters of Avei would probably not have delayed her activities even for an active hailstorm, and so Principia was summoned to her office shortly after breakfast.

“He said that?” Rouvad demanded skeptically.

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia replied. “Obviously, I cannot attest to how serious he was or what he will do next, but Lord Vex’s exact words were ‘none of this happened.’ Considering the factions and individuals represented, I can understand how the Imperial government would prefer to avoid untangling the diplomatic mess that would result.”

“You implied there was more,” Rouvad prompted.

“Yes, Commander. The demolition of the fortress, he said, is to be recorded as a deliberate action by the Empire to remove an unsafe structure, preparatory to replacing it with a modern facility. And…he made it quite plain that, Imperial cover-up or not, the actions of everyone present would be taken into account the next time any of us have to interact with the Imperial government.”

“Splendid,” the Commander said sourly, then heaved a sigh. “Suddenly I feel a little nervous that I haven’t heard from Intelligence yet. It’s early, but I don’t believe that man actually sleeps. And he definitely saw the disruptors?”

“Saw, and demanded that they be handed over,” Principia said. “I refused. I apologize for any trouble that results, ma’am, but that seemed to me both the best thing to do given the tactical needs of the situation, and the course of action most compliant with Legion regulations.”

“That rather depends on the manner of your refusal, Sergeant.”

“I was forthright and completely honest, ma’am. I told Lord Vex those particular devices were made by me personally, on a mandate from you and using Avenist resources, and thus the property of the Sisterhood. I…mentioned that if he wanted them, he would have to take it up with you.”

“That will be an enjoyable conversation, I’m sure,” the Commaner said wryly.

“Yes, ma’am. I did not mention anything regarding how we obtained the specs for those disruptors. He will surely demand that information.”

“Then I’ll take great pleasure in passing the buck. Vex can try to drag his answers out of the Thieves’ Guild, and much good may it do him. You said there was another matter on which you wished to report.” Her eyes dropped to Principia’s hands; Rouvad had not asked about the objects she was carrying.

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said, approaching the desk. She reached out and carefully laid a tiny ball of lead on its surface. “I wish to put Private Lang forward for a commendation. I realize that she cannot be awarded the Red Star due to it being on a mission not disclosed even to our captain, but she was wounded in the line of duty.”

“Reasonable,” Rouvad said with a touch of impatience. “I’ll instruct Dijanerad to approve it. Is that immediately pertinent, Locke?”

“Yes, ma’am. This object was removed from her arm. It punched through her shield, through the defensive enchantments on that shield—both of which were completely destroyed by the impact—and then through her armor and bicep. By that point it had lost enough momentum that it merely broke the bone on impact rather than taking her arm off entirely. That piece of metal had to have been moving at a significant fraction of the speed of sound to have that much energy behind it.”

“I see,” Rouvad said noncommittally, glancing at the object in the sergeant’s other hand. “You have some insight, I take it, into the kind of spell which could do this?”

“That’s just it, ma’am. I don’t believe there was any spell. Shahai managed to retrieve this from the snow while Zanzayed was teleporting dwarves back to the Svennish embassy.” She laid the device on the desk. It was a simple thing, seemingly little more than a short length of pipe with a wooden handle and a clicker mechanism. “We have both examined it and found no evidence of enchantment present at all, though there are burn marks and traces of chemical explosive inside the tube.”

“I see,” Rouvad repeated, picking up the object and turning it over in her hands. “What do you make of it?”

“The lead ball fits neatly in that tube,” Principia said. “From there, we can deduce how it works. An explosive powder is packed into the base of it, the ball is placed in on top of that, and the powder is ignited by a sparking mechanism triggered by squeezing that switch. The explosion, contained as it is, propels the ball with tremendous force, and the length of the tube guides its trajectory.”

“Ingenious,” Rouvad marveled.

“This is extremely concerning,” Principia said, frowning. “You are of course aware that all magical shields are weakened by contact with physical objects. That thing hits with enough sheer kinetic force to collapse any shielding charm I’ve ever heard of, and probably a lot of personal caster shields. A paladin or archmage’s shield could stand up to it, most likely, but… Ma’am, I know just enough physics and math to do my various jobs, but I am pretty sure this technology could be scaled up without any real limits. A cannon-sized version of that could destroy any magical shield in existence, and any fortification behind it.”

“Dwarven engineering at its finest,” Rouvad noted. “What intrigues me most is that I’ve never heard of such a device before. I don’t suppose you’ve analyzed the explosive used?”

“Not in detail, ma’am, but I did a very basic charm test on the traces inside the tube, and I think the results were the most interesting part of this yet. No alchemical agents were present; this was a completely non-magical explosive compound, which has to be a deliberate design choice, as the effect could be achieved far more easily with enchantments. This is a non-magical and anti-magical weapon. We can’t know the range without testing it, but it’s surely comparable to conventional wands. If a force armed with these faced off against a unit of the Imperial Army, they’d have similar firepower, and the Army’s defensive measures would be useless. It would be a rout.”

“Hm.”

“Of course, as soon as they use these where the Empire can see, countermeasures will be in the works. I think they must have been desperate and planning to wipe out everyone there, to have used it in sight of us last night. But if they pick the right battle, it only has to work once. If a dwarven force were able to secure or destroy the right high-value target, they could truly change the fates of the Five Kingdoms by forcing the Empire to terms.”

“Locke,” Rouvad said patiently, “I find your various skills and aptitudes useful in their place, but there is something backward about you lecturing me on matters of military strategy.”

“Yes, ma’am. Sorry.”

“Needless to say,” the Commander went on, “you may consider this as classified as everything else which occurred last night.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Have you anything else to report, sergeant?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Principia stepped back from the desk, leaving the lead ball and its launcher with the Commander, and stood at attention. “The fortress was destroyed by the adventurers summoned by General Avelea, at the command of Bishop Syrinx, who was sent to fetch them. According to Avelea’s plan, which Syrinx knew, my squad should have been in it when that happened.”

“And so you both improvised,” Rouvad said flatly. “Basra with her pyrotechnics and you by involving the dragon who involved the Empire whom I’ll be dealing with for the forseeable future about this.”

“Ma’am, destroying that fortress was an action with no strategic application in that situation. I believe its only purpose was to destroy us.”

“You are, in fact, my third meeting today, early as it is,” Rouvad replied. “I have already been over this with General Avelea and Bishop Syrinx, who has explanations for every one of her actions last night. Something tells me you don’t particularly care to hear them.”

“That’s correct, ma’am. With regard to—”

“Locke, my patience for repeating myself to you is thin. I’ve already made it plain I’m not having this infighting. I will deal with Syrinx, and you will drop it.”

“No,” Principia said flatly.

Very slowly, Rouvad leaned forward in her chair, her face suddenly devoid of all expression. “What did you say, soldier?”

“I said no, Commander,” Principia repeated. “Attempts on my life don’t much bother me; it doesn’t pay to take these things personally. But if that woman tries to murder my soldiers one more time, I am going to murder her right back. And the difference between me and Basra Syrinx is that I accomplish what I set out to. If you want to keep your Bishop, get her under control before someone else has to.” She saluted. “I will now report for court martial if that is your command, so long as you understand that it won’t change anything.”

Rouvad stared at her in silence; Principia stared right back. It was almost a minute before the Commander spoke.

“Do you want to be removed from the Legions, Locke?”

“No, ma’am.”

“You have what you signed up for, now. Trissiny is on speaking terms with you; let’s not pretend that wasn’t your whole purpose for doing this. So why are you still here?”

“I—”

“Tell me the truth,” she ordered. “And don’t assume I won’t know if you don’t.”

The sergeant hesitated before replying. “I find serving here…much more satisfying than I expected. And I want very much to continue looking after my girls. Their potential is enormous, but with so much arrayed against them I don’t want to leave them.”

The High Commander suddenly sighed and eased back in her chair. “Trissiny reported on your performance, by the way. She said you are insubordinate and failed to follow her orders. She also said that your strategies on the ground were better than her own, and your refusal to respect the chain of command saved your soldiers’ lives and contributed significantly to her victory. I would suspect she was sugar-coating it were that not exactly what I have observed from you from the beginning.”

Principia kept silent while Rouvad studied her thoughtfully for another long moment.

“It’s useful, having someone on one’s side who isn’t a slave to regulations and the chain of command,” Rouvad finally continued. “It’s one of the things that has made Nandi so valuable to me, and to my predecessor, and why I was so reluctant to cede her to you. As I recall, you’ve seen firsthand that I tolerate backtalk from her that would send any other soldier immediately to the stockade. But she has devoted more time and energy to the Legion’s service than all of us combined; the leeway she has is more than earned. And then there’s you.” She paused again, peering up at Principia with an expression that was almost quizzical. “That’s the damnable thing about you, Locke. You’re just so…useful. For all the headaches you cause me, I can’t help getting the impression you actually are loyal to the Legions, and you do get results. But you’re just not ever going to be a good soldier, and I think I’d get no use out of you at all if I forced you to be.”

Rouvad folded her arms on the desk and raised an eyebrow.

“Dealing with you is a lot like dealing with Basra Syrinx.”

Principia let the silence stretch another moment before replying.

“That wasn’t called for, Commander.”

“No, I’m not going to have you court-martialed,” Rouvad said, suddenly more brisk. “Instead, I shall take it as a sign of the urgency of the matter that you’re willing to risk speaking to me that way—and only because we are alone here, Locke. Open your mouth like that where anyone else can hear it and by the time I’m done with you, I promise you will be grateful for the mercy of standing before a military tribunal. Is that clear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Is it believed?” Rouvad said more pointedly. “You think you’re smarter than I—don’t deny it. But I did not become the mortal leader of the cult of war without being as crafty and as ruthless as the situation demands. I certainly wouldn’t be keeping a creature like Syrinx on a leash otherwise. And let’s not forget the weight my words have with the only person alive whose opinion matters to you enough that you’d subject yourself to all this.” She smiled, as cold as the snow outside. “I can hurt you, Locke, if you make it necessary. So don’t.”

“…yes, ma’am,” Principia said quietly.

“And just keep away from Syrinx, for now,” Rouvad said with a heavy sigh. “Yes, I’m aware of the situation and what she did, and she as usual has conjured sufficient justification to evade official censure for her actions. The thing she and you have in common is that you both seem to think I can’t punish or contain her under such circumstances.” She straightened up in her seat, that frosty little smile returning to her face. “You’re both wrong. Basra is being dealt with as we speak, by one of my more…unconventional assets.”


Basra whirled, scowling, when the door of her office was opened without the courtesy of a knock, but quickly marshaled her expression when she saw who had walked in.

Trissiny was still wearing her street clothes and slightly battered coat rather than the silver armor, and hadn’t removed the dye from her hair—yet there was a distinctive change in her demeanor. She had put enough effort into cultivating a casual, non-military bearing that her stiff spine and purposeful stride were now all the more distinctive for their return.

As was the black bird perched on her left shoulder.

“Good morning, General Avelea,” Basra said smoothly, shutting the cabinet in which she had been digging and stepping away to meet her guests. “And…Mary, always a pleasure. I wasn’t expecting to see either of you again so soon.”

The crow ruffled her feathers, but remained mute.

“Good morning, your Grace,” Trissiny said, staring pensively at her. “Sorry to interrupt so early in the day, but I have a full list of errands myself and I hoped to catch you before you headed to the Church.”

“Not at all, my time is yours,” Basra replied. “Please, have a seat. What can I do for you?”

Trissiny tilted her head, making no move toward the proffered chair; on her shoulder, the crow mimicked the expression, which would have been comical if not for the suddenly fraught atmosphere.

“I wonder if you could clarify your tactics for me,” said the paladin, “as an experienced commander to one still learning. What purpose did the destruction of the fortress serve?”

“Considering our list of allies and enemies,” Basra replied immediately, “and the likelihood of those extremely professional dwarves discerning your procession’s goal and moving to intercept you, I realized, upon reaching and surveying the field, that that fortress was just waiting to be used as an ambush against you. Had they reached it first, your attempt to secure it would have led to your group’s downfall. I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t think of any of this in the first place, but I was unfamiliar with that old ruin before seeing it for the first time last night.”

“I should mention,” Trissiny said quietly, “I have already spoken with Joe, Mr. Weaver, and their other friends this morning. None of them reported any sign of dwarves reaching the fortress. They simply said that you directed it to be destroyed.”

“And that bloodthirsty little gnome was more thrilled than I have ever seen anyone to oblige,” Basra said dryly. “Honestly, I was expecting her to start a fire or something. How or why she had munitions of that quality on hand I’m afraid even to ask. But the result was satisfactory. The purpose was to deny the enemy a fortification, not catch them in it; acting before they arrived was thus the entire point. You know this very well, Trissiny, it’s basic military strategy. The general who prepares the ground ahead of the battle controls the field.”

“And,” Trissiny said more quietly still, “according to my orders, Squad One would have been in that fortress at the time.”

“According to your orders,” Basra said with an indulgent smile, “there would have been no dragons and no Imperial presence. Your ambush would have succeeded, thanks to the adventurers you sent me to rally and my initiative in removing that fortification. Zanzayed was…overkill. And involving Vex will carry a hefty political price for all of us. I did not anticipate that, exactly, but I expected things to go south if we assumed Locke’s part in the plan would be carried out correctly. Believe me, Trissiny, I know how Locke thinks.”

“Did you scout,” Trissiny asked, “to make sure the squad was not inside?”

“We observed no tracks,” Basra replied. “In that snow—”

“In that snow, tracks would have faded quickly; it was still coming down.”

“Not that heavily, and only two of the squad are elves. Six women in full armor would leave easily discernible tracks—”

“And so you checked every approach to the fortress?”

“Why on earth would they have circled around to the back?” Basra tilted her head in a mimicry of their earlier gesture. “I must say I’m sensing a little hostility, here. Everything went exactly as I expected, and according to my plan—with the exception, of course, of Locke’s needless complications. Had it been any other squad, I would have considered it a risk. That woman is congenitally unable to do as she is told.”

“I came here,” Trissiny said, “hoping you would help me understand why such a risk was warranted. I confess that I’m still not there.”

“Perhaps,” Basra said more firmly, “you should be mindful of your own preconceptions. I understand you may have an emotional attachment to Sergeant Locke, that’s only natural. Just…don’t forget what kind of creature she is, Trissiny. Her interest in your existence began when you became someone it was politically useful to know. She is only here because of that, because she sees in you the chance to advance herself. Don’t let her deceive you.”

“I won’t,” Trissiny replied, smiling thinly. “Her, or anyone else.”

Basra sighed. “I see you’re not convinced. I have been over this in more detail with the High Commander already this morning; she accepted my reasoning. If you doubt me, I encourage you to take it up with her. And it might profit you to ask her opinion of Principia Locke’s performance as a soldier while you’re there.”

“Right,” Trissiny said, nodding agreeably. “You have all the angles covered just enough that nobody can authoritatively call you down. Well done.”

“I don’t think that tone is necessary,” Basra said mildly.

The crow suddenly emitted a soft croak, and very gently pecked at Trissiny’s ear, then turned her head to jab her beak toward the door.

“Well, then,” Trissiny said, smiling again. “I suppose that covers what I came to ask. I also wanted to offer a word of advice, Bishop Syrinx: you should not assume you’re the only one who can make things mysteriously explode.”

Basra raised one eyebrow. Before she could speak, however, the rapidly approaching sound of pounding boots echoed from the hall, through the door which Trissiny had left open a crack. The Bishop turned, frowning, and stepped toward it to investigate.

The boots skidded to a stop outside and the door was yanked open to admit Private Covrin, breathless and disheveled. “Your Grace!” she panted. “The—they sent—I mean, I only just learned, I’m sorry for the delay but I think my message was intercepted—”

“Spit it out, Covrin!” Basra said in exasperation. “Sometime today!”

“Ma’am,” her aide said desperately, “there’s a fire. At—at your house.”

She gazed nervously at the Bishop, still regaining her breath, but Basra had gone completely still and expressionless. Slowly, she turned to stare at Trissiny.

The paladin had stepped to one side, and was now trying to roll a doubloon across the backs of her knuckles. She went at it with excruciating slowness, clearly unpracticed in the maneuver, tentatively shifting the coin one finger’s increment at a time.

At Basra’s stare, she looked up and smiled. “Well, that sounds rather urgent; don’t let me keep you any longer. Excuse me, private.”

Covrin stepped aside to let her leave, and both of them stared after the departing paladin in silence.

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11 – 34

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The grand upper room of Glory’s house was meant to hold much larger groups, but with all of them gathered the place seemed very much alive even despite the gloom and snow displayed by its large windows. Layla had immediately latched onto her brother, while refusing to express anything but annoyance toward him, which he bore with practiced good humor. Glory had arrived shortly after Smythe seated them in a circle of chairs and sofas around a low table and provided refreshments to take the chill off; by the time she joined them, they were all working on hot cider (and in Vandro’s case, brandy). Layla’s retinue was present as well, though keeping themselves on the periphery as well-trained servants of the nobility naturally did. Ralph seemed quite content to hover in the background, though her footman, Talvers, appeared frustrated by the lack of anything for him to do with two preternaturally efficient Butlers looking after the group.

“So for the time being,” Vandro said following his and Grip’s recitation of the day’s events for their hostess’s benefit, “it comes down to how defensible your home is. And my apologies, by the way, for droppin’ this flaming bag on your doorstep, Glory.”

“No apologies,” she demurred, shaking her head. “We’re protecting apprentices and bringing down predators. No Guild member worth a damn should have to think twice about helping, here.”

“Well said!” Vandro proclaimed, toasting her with his glass.

“To answer the question,” Glory continued, “considering who I host here on a regular basis, this house may well have better protections than the manors of many aristocrats. It matters how desperate they are, however. My defenses are geared toward repelling discreet intrusions, not full-scale assaults.”

“They are desperate,” Grip noted, “and clearly able to enact good plans on the fly. These are professionals. We are not out of the woods yet, not until Style’s street soldiers are hounding them out of the city.”

“Uh, question?” Tallie raised her hand. “What defenses are these, and how are they different from the, uh, full assault type?”

“Well, it’s a matter of defensive philosophy,” Glory said with a vlpine smile. “If one fears organized attack, the enchantments used can be likened to a castle’s walls: designed to prevent anyone from entering uninvited. If one fears spies and assassins rather than armies, however, one tends to favor measures that make an intruder’s life hellish and brief once they are inside.”

“Are you telling us,” Darius said resignedly, “this whole place is booby-trapped?”

“Nothing so gauche,” Glory replied. “I do have basic external defenses using the standard arcane enchantments, but my home also employs fae craft to repel those who enter with hostile intent.”

“Mm,” Jasmine murmured, staring across the room at the fireplace. The hall was heated by arcane ranges, but the fire made an excellent focal point of the décor. “Good… Arcane enchantment is standardized and can be worked around, but fae measures are highly individual. It’s nearly impossible to guess what one is going up against when encountering fairy craft. The problem, there,” she added, turning to Glory, “is that a lot of dwarves can use divine magic without needing to be clerics. That will neutralize fae.”

“And arcane neutralizes divine,” Glory said calmly. “Believe me, Jasmine, I considered all relevant angles when commissioning my magical defenses.”

“So we’re safe, then?” Rasha asked, entering the room.

“Hey, man!” Darius called, grinning and waving. “You look worlds better. How you feeling?”

“Better, yes,” Rasha replied, giving him a tight little smile and sliding onto the loveseat next to Tallie. “I’m not going to be good until this is over, though.”

“Hear that,” Ross muttered.

“And no,” Grip said coldly. “All safety is an illusion.”

“I have it on good authority,” Vandro said with a grin, “that our girl Tessa was very nearly tagged Sunshine instead of Grip.”

“You should consider, Alan, how I’m going to deal with you after we’re not back-to-back against an enemy before you open your mouth at me.” The enforcer shifted her sharp gaze back to Rasha. “I repeat, we are dealing with adaptive, competent people in unknown numbers, with unknown resources. We will not become complacent.”

“However,” Vandro said in a more serious tone, “whether they physically can invade the house may not be the question; I don’t think they’ll try. Too risky and expensive. Supposing they countered whatever witchcraft is protecting this place and got in—then they’d be in the position of endangering someone with multiple friends in the highest levels of Imperial society, not to mention being in an enclosed space with two Butlers and Grip. Plus, y’know, the rest of us small fry. No, that’s not a winning move for them. Grip’s right, though, these bastards aren’t done and don’t seem the type to take defeat lying down. We should be prepared for something a little more…lateral.”

“Agreed,” Glory said, nodding. “But for the moment, there is little we can do but wait. As we are presently confined to a residence which, if I may flatter myself, sets the standard of comfort and pleasure among Tiraan households, I suggest everyone take full advantage and rest. Relax, enjoy yourselves as best you are able! My home is yours and you may avail yourselves of any amenities I have to offer. It may sound shallow, under the circumstances, but having a moment to catch one’s breat can make all the difference at times like these.”

“Truly,” Vandro said solemnly but with a twinkle in his eye, “you are a queen among hostesses, Tamisin.”

“What’d you do to your hair?” Tallie asked, patting Rasha’s head. “This looks awesome!”

“T-thanks,” he stuttered, flushing. “Um, Glory gave me… A little help.”

“We can all do with a little from time to time,” Glory said, smiling.

“You do look nice,” Jasmine agreed with a smile. “Glory… Ah, do you have a garden or anything?”

“Of course,” Glory replied, raising her eyebrows in surprise. “A walled courtyard garden, to be precise. Why do you ask?”

Jasmine cleared her throat, her expression suddenly pensive and slightly uncomfortable. “I wonder… Well, first of all, I assume it’s defensible?”

“As the rest of the house,” Glory assured her. “All the requisite charms on the walls, and all applicable magical measures extend over the whole property.”

Jasmine nodded. “If it isn’t too much trouble, could I have some privacy there for a little while?”

“Of course,” Glory said, smiling again. “As I said, my home is yours.”

“You think it wise to go outside at a time like this?” Layla asked pointedly. “Defenses or no, we are rather under siege, are we not? Or have I misunderstood the situation?”

“Yeah, maybe people shouldn’t be going off alone for any reason,” Darius agreed, frowning.

Grip cleared her throat pointedly. “How important is this, Jasmine?”

“To me?” Jasmine met her stare unhesitatingly. “Quite. Consider it…a religious matter.”

“Ah, yes, our Avenist Eserite,” Tallie said airily, “daughter of the Eserite Avenist. I didn’t realize Sisters had to go outside to pray.”

“People in pursuit of a spiritual path generally seek privacy for such things as prayer,” Glory said smoothly, “and the courtyard is as safe as the rest of the property, from anything except frostbite. I will insist you take a fresh heating charm, Jasmine, in case yours wears out. If it’s not prying, how long do you expect to be?”

“I’m not… Well, not a moment longer than necessary.” Jasmine frowned into the fire again. “There’s just something I need to…straighten out.”

“Well, now, hang on a sec,” Tallie said, her eyes narrowing as she turned them on Vandro. “Before you go off to hide in the corner, we have other business we were going to see to, remember? Like this asshole and just where the hell he gets off planting trackers on us.”

“The girl has a point,” Vandro said easily, swirling his drink with one hand. “You may not want to miss this! Sounds like it’ll be quite a party.”

“Mm.” Jasmine gave him a considering look. “You know, Tallie, if a coyote kills your chickens, you shoot it. Blaming it for doing what coyotes do is pointless, and a more relevant question is who left the chicken coop unlatched.”

“Ah, what a delightfully rustic metaphor,” Layla said, showing teeth in a smile that went nowhere near her eyes. “That should aid her comprehension considerably.”

“Let me just jump in here,” Darius said grimly. “There is not going to be a feud between you two; nobody has time or energy for that crap. If I have to enforce this by knocking your heads together, so be it.”

“I see that you have entirely taken leave of your already basic social skills,” Layla sniffed. Tallie just rolled her eyes.

“My point,” Jasmine said patiently, “is that Vandro hasn’t harmed us, and in fact these measures enabled him to come to our aid. And he didn’t plant anything on us; we accepted free gifts from someone we were repeatedly warned is a manipulator. Perhaps we’re not in a position to point fingers.”

“You are half right,” said Grip. “Hold other people responsible for the shit they pull, Jasmine. But definitely own your mistakes and don’t repeat them.”

“Yes, indeed,” Vandro said cheerily. “You’ve got a sharp little head on you, my girl! I can see why Glory found you so interesting.”

Jasmine gave him an exceedingly cool look. He winked at her.

“I’m still pissed at you,” Tallie informed him, scowling.

“Attagirl,” he said approvingly. “Be pissed when you’ve been played. Make sure you channel that into doing better next time, or it’s so much wasted energy. The three of us,” he gesticulated broadly at Grip and Glory with his brandy, “may seem all wise and awesome, which we are, but we got that way through a long process of fucking up and learning from our mistakes. And that’s after getting fully trained and tagged.”

“The wise mentor thing looks better on Glory than on you,” Rasha commented, gazing flatly at Vandro and earning a grin from Tallie.

“Son, nothing looks good on me,” Vandro said genially. “It’s one of those things you just have to accept when you reach a certain span of years.”

Jasmine cleared her throat, turning back to Glory. “Anyway. Which direction…”

“Smythe,” their hostess said smoothly, “please show Jasmine to the solarium and the courtyard access. And make sure she has a new warming charm.”

“Of course, madam,” the Butler replied; he was already standing right there with Jasmine’s coat. “If you will follow me, Ms. Jasmine?”

“Thank you, Smythe,” she said, nodding to the others and shrugging into her coat. “And, ah, just Jas is fine.”

“As you say, Ms. Jasmine.”

Vandro chuckled at their retreating backs, then turned to grin at Wilberforce. “I don’t recall you ever being that stuffy.”

“Rest assured, sir,” Wilberforce replied with perfect aplomb, “I shall remain faithfully at your side no matter how your memory degrades.”

Vandro laughed so hard he slumped sideways into Ross, somehow without spilling his drink. Ross bore this with visible discomfort, and only slightly more than everyone else present.


The snow was several inches thick, now, and doing an aesthetic favor to Glory’s garden; mild as the winter had been before today, it was still winter, and with the exception of two small evergreen conifers, nearly all the decorative plants here were dead or dormant. Now, under a pristine blanket of snow, everything looked fresh and clean. The courtyard was not overly large, but spacious enough to accommodate groups comfortably; Jasmine wandered to an open spot in the center, surrounded by bare-limbed bushes, and found that the space felt more than expansive even in comparison to the large upper salon in which the others were still talking.

She turned in a complete circle, studying the high walls surrounding the courtyard. On one side was the driveway leading from the street to the carriage house in the back; the opposite wall was shared by the neighbor’s garden, and of course the house stood in front. The walls themselves were nearly two stories tall and lined with spiked iron fences on top. It was a classic Tiraan garden, designed for privacy above all.

With a soft sigh, she reached into her coat, carefully unlatched one of her belt pouches, and extracted the little wooden ocarina.

The instruments were every bit as ubiquitous and simple as the elf had told her in the forest above Veilgrad, once she knew to look for them. She had found one easily in one of the shops in Last Rock, and hadn’t even needed to get lessons from Teal to play it; a few minutes of messing around were enough to grasp the basics. She had used the cheap clay ocarina to practice the lullaby, but since getting that down had now and again found time to hone her musical skills (such as they were) with other tunes she knew. For that, she preferred to use the carved wooden one Kuriwa had given her. In fact, she wasn’t exactly sure where the other was. Probably back in Clarke Tower.

She lifted the ocarina to her lips and very softly began to play the old melody.

Thanks to her warming charm, her face and hands were not growing numb, though she was still noticeably cool. Still, the discomfort faded in concentration. She’d never been a particularly musical person, but found the act of making music to be like combat, in some ways. It carried her away to a space of clarity and focus. At least, now that she had enough basic practice not to be utterly awful at it. She still wouldn’t have performed in front of others, but found her own playing good enough, now, to be pleasing to her, the occasional flubbed note and all.

But the song ended, and nothing happened. She lowered the ocarina, frowning at it in contemplation. Maybe a few missed notes did matter? She didn’t have a deep understanding of fae magic, which was what this had to be. Nobody truly understood fae magic itself, even those who practiced it. By its very nature, it was the hardest of the four schools to pin down. Jasmine sighed softly and lifted the instrument to her lips again. May as well try once more before giving up.

“If I have to visit this city, I quite prefer it this way. Snow is good for covering the sins of civilization.”

Jasmine whirled—of course the woman had appeared behind her. Heaven forbid she get a look at how she did it. Elves.

Kuriwa, looking perfectly at ease in her dyed buckskins despite the snow already accumulating in her black hair, was peering around inquisitively at the garden, but quickly focused her attention on Jasmine. “Are you in danger?”

“No. Well, actually, yes, but that’s—it’s complicated. That’s not why I wanted to speak with you. I hope you weren’t in the middle of something important?”

“I am in the middle of many things,” Kuriwa said with a mysterious little smile, “and at the beginnings and ends of others. I consider nothing currently going on to be more important than family. I am very glad to see you again, Trissiny. That hair dye doesn’t suit you, though.”

“Jasmine,” she said quickly. The shaman raised an eyebrow. “I am…well, playing a role. I prefer not to use any name but my cover for the time being.”

“Jasmine, then,” the elf said, nodding and showing no hint of surprise. “How can I help you?”

She busied herself for a moment tucking the ocarina away in its pouch. “I… Okay, well, I’m in a bit of a situation right now. I am currently enrolled as an apprentice in the Thieves’ Guild. Why is that funny?”

“Forgive me,” said Kuriwa, still grinning. “I am not amused, but merely pleased. And proud. Do you know how few young women in your position would even think to seek out such training?”

“That’s been mentioned to me a few times,” she muttered. “Thanks, I guess. Anyway, I’ve made some friends and learned some few skills, and we have stumbled into an unexpectedly dangerous situation. We’re being hounded by government agents from one of the dwarven kingdoms over… You know what, it doesn’t really matter.”

“You need help dealing with these?” Kuriwa tilted her chin up slightly. “I find it best not to meddle in the Kingdoms’ affairs needlessly, but I will not suffer my kin to be harmed by them.”

“I’m not in the least afraid of them,” Jasmine said with a sigh. “If they manage to push me to the point where it becomes necessary, with the powers I can call on, I could smash through anything they throw at me. The issue I’m grappling with is…whether I should.”

“You seek a solution that does not involve the use of force? I continue to be proud. That’s wise, for one so young.”

“Yes, well, I suppose I’m wiser than I was a year ago,” Jasmine said bitterly.

“As am I,” Kuriwa said with a smile. “But I think you were not done?”

She began to pace up and down, swiftly wearing a rut in the fresh snow. “Obviously, that will put an end to my apprenticeship. I’m only able to be here as long as I’m being discreet.”

“Yes, I can see how the Guild would find it troublesome for someone of your rank to be openly among them. And why they would leap at the chance to gain your favor underhandedly. This new Boss, from what I have seen, is less congenial than the last one, and cleverer by half.”

“I hate to just give up,” Jasmine whispered, eyes on the ground as she wandered back and forth. “But I’m more and more uncertain I’m doing anything good here. I’ve been trained by various thieves… I talked with Commander Rouvad about this, and even Principia. People keep telling me the Guild and the Sisterhood aren’t so inherently opposite at their core, but… I came here to learn specific things that I’m just not. I wanted to know how to plan, to, to scheme. To be able to deal with the likes of the Black Wreath without them running circles around me the way they have every time, without being so dependent on my sword and flinging divine power about. But everywhere I turn, here, they want to make me an enforcer. All the Guild is doing so far is refining my ability to intimidate and assault. That is specifically what I don’t need more of.”

“I see,” Kuriwa mused. “And is that the Guild’s fault, or yours?”

Jasmine stopped pacing, turning to stare at her. After a moment of silence, she trudged over to a stone bench and plunked herself roughly down, heedless of the snow covering it. Heating charm or no, cold immediately seeped through her coat and trousers. She ignored it.

“I think if I knew that, I’d know already whether I should go or stay.”

Kuriwa’s steps were so light the snow barely crunched beneath them; it seemed almost incongruous that she left footprints. She padded over to sit down beside Jasmine on the bench.

“Then, you’ve called on me to seek my advice?”

“I…yes, please. I’m running out of fresh perspectives on this.”

“I’m glad to hear that. It seems, based on what you have said, that you’re concerned with not becoming an overly violent, brutish style of warrior, correct? That you worry for you ability to act carefully and with forethought?”

“That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.”

“Then you already fail to give yourself enough credit, I think. Considering my promise to aid you, and the trying situation in which you find yourself, it would seem more immediately useful to ask me to fight alongside you. Instead, you seek wisdom and perspective. That is hardly the action of a brute.”

Jasmine sighed. “Well, no offense, but I don’t actually know how much good you’d be in a fight. Not that I doubt your abilities, but I like to work with understood assets.”

“Mm.” Kuriwa smiled faintly. “There’s a reason I respect the use of assumed names, you know. Perhaps you’ve heard of me under a nickname I’ve acquired since the Enchanter Wars: Mary the Crow?”

Jasmine’s head whipped around and she stared, wide-eyed. “You’re—well, of course you are. And I’m related to you. Because of course I am. Isn’t that great. Suddenly I appreciate Principia more.”

Kuriwa grinned. “I told you any black-haired woodkin is blood to you; I believe I also mentioned the tendency of our family line to be…challenging. Am I wrong, Jasmine, in intuiting that something specific and quite recent has happened to bring these things to a head for you?”

“Well, yes. Today we’ve been helped out by a senior Guild enforcer, Grip. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of her?”

“I have. A dangerous individual.”

“You don’t need to tell me that,” she said bitterly. “She gave us a very close look at just what it means to be a Guild enforcer, and that was more viciousness than I ever wanted to see and not immediately put a stop to with my sword. And this is what they want me to become. It’s left me with this terrible feeling that I’m not just wasting my time here, but actively making things worse.”

“And yet, here you still are, asking questions,” Kuriwa mused. “If the sight was so appalling, I wonder why you did not unfurl your wings, bring Grip to task, and then settle the dwarves and end your affiliation with the Guild in one fell swoop.”

“I don’t know,” Jasmine whispered.

The shaman laid one arm around her shoulders. “Jasmine, I can tell you that in my very long life, some of the worst and best people I have ever known were Eserites. But I do happen to know whose house this is, and that tells me the same is true of your relatively short life. All this suggests to me the shape of your problems, and it is not the situation around you.” With her other hand, she reached across and gently tapped Jasmine on the forehead. “But the one within.”

“I kind of want to resent that, but at the same time I think you have a point,” Jasmine said with another little sigh. “Is that… I suppose this is a more complicated question. Can you help me at all with this?”

“In several ways, yes.” Kuriwa smiled and very gently gave her shoulders a shake. “I rather think I could help you work through these issues over the course of several very long, involved conversations. I would enjoy getting to know you in the process, as well. But something tells me that in addition to being a generally practically-minded person, you are in a specific hurry right now. Yes?”

“Uh, yes to both of those,” Jasmine said with a wry grimace.

“I had a feeling.” The shaman smiled again. “Everything is a rush when you’re young. Well. Between Avei and me, you should be quite safe for a short time while unconscious, dwarves or no dwarves.”

“Hang on, what?” Jasmine said in sudden alarm, pulling away from her. “Unconscious?”

“Be calm,” Kuriwa urged gently. “I am not going to do anything to you without your permission. But your answers, as I said, lie within. I rather think you already understand far more than you realize on some level; it only need be brought to light. If you will allow me to, I can indeed help with that.”

Despite her instinctive hesitation, Jasmine did not have to think on that for more than a few seconds before nodding. “I…unwise as it may be…trust you.”

“Good,” Kuriwa said, smiling. “Then close your eyes.”

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Epilogue – Volume 3

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Warm weather had lingered throughout the continent, to the point that rumors had begun circulating about Ouvis’s displeasure and the Empire’s plans to employ various magical schemes to bring on winter. Any of these could be debunked by theological scholars acquainted with Ouvis’s habits (he had none to speak of) or magicians aware of the possibilities regarding weather control (there were no possibilities; you could manipulate the weather, not control it, and the manipulation was exceedingly inadvisable). Fortunately, the winds turned cold and the first snows began to fall before any of these nascent fears could get out of hand.

In a certain cabin barracks at the Silver Legion’s main fortress in Tiraas, more than a few jokes were made about how perfectly the onset of chilly skies and falling snow coincided with the return of one Bishop Basra Syrinx.

Three weeks later, they weren’t laughing. The housing provided to the Legionnaires of the Ninth Cohort was perfectly adequate—Avenist ethics wouldn’t allow soldiers to be deprived of necessities—but there was a wide distance between adequate and comfortable. The cabin was kept warm enough by the decades-old arcane stove provided, barely. Changing in and out of armor had become something of an ordeal, and all of them had changed bunks to sleep as far from the door and as close to the heat source as possible. Ironically, the much older technology of wood-fired iron stoves would have put off more heat, but in Tiraas, power crystals and enchanting dust were easier to obtain (not to mention store) than firewood, and the Legion quartermasters obstinately refused to spring for a refurbishment. Meanwhile, at the other end of the cabin, it remained cool enough that frost didn’t melt from the outside of the windows.

Thus, Principia got the usual round of unfriendly looks when she threw the door open. Her sunny mood, unsurprisingly, did not improve the reception.

“Gooooood evening, ladies!” she said brightly. “Everybody enjoyed dinner, I trust?”

“Shut that damn door, you maniac!” Merry barked, huddling by the stove.

“First, Lang, I have spoken to you about melodrama. It isn’t that cold. You wait till midwinter; you’ll feel a right fool for complaining about this. And second, we have company, so could you turkeys at least pretend there’s a semblance of a functioning chain of command in this barracks?”

She continued into the room, revealing the other soldier behind her, as the rest of Squad One got to their feet. In the next moment, they all snapped to attention, saluting.

“Bishop Shahai,” Farah blurted. “This is a surprise.”

“At ease, ladies,” Nandi said with a little smile, turning to pull the door closed behind her. “And surely you know it’s no longer Bishop. I was merely keeping the seat warm, as it were, and now its owner has returned to reclaim it.”

“Yes…we know,” Casey said quietly, relaxing her posture. “Sorry, ma’am. It’s, uh, good to see you again.”

“And in armor,” Ephanie added with a smile. “That’ll take some getting used to, Captain.”

“I fancy I’ve grown rather adept at getting used to things over the years, Avelea,” Nandi replied, smiling back and hoisting the rucksack she was carrying over one armored shoulder. “But before we all catch up, I believe Sergeant Locke has some announcements to make.”

“Yes, indeed I do,” Principia went on with the same mischievous cheer, opening the folder of papers she had held tucked under her arm. “Front and center, Avelea!”

Ephanie blinked, but didn’t join in the round of puzzled glances that passed between the others; relaxed as Principia preferred to keep things within their own barracks, she was the most devoted to military decorum among them. As ordered, she stepped forward to the middle of the aisle between bunks, falling naturally into parade rest.

“Ephanie Avelea,” Principia said more solemnly, “you are hereby advanced to the rank of Corporal, with all attendant duties and privileges. Furthermore,” she added, quelling Farah’s excited gasp with a stern look, “I am designating you executive officer of this squadron. Both are effective immediately.”

Ephanie’s lower lip trembled, but only for a second, before she snapped to attention and saluted, fist over heart. Only the lack of a sword, which she wasn’t wearing, diminished the gesture, and that not by much. “Thank you, Sergeant,” she said crisply.

“That’s all you have to say?” Principia asked somewhat wryly.

Ephanie swallowed once. “I… It really is. Thank you.”

“Now, I’m aware that it’s tradition in the military for officers not to bother explaining themselves as a general rule,” Principia went on, sweeping a glance across the rest of the squad, all of whom looked more excited even than Ephanie. “However, we’re a small unit, and within this little family, I want to make sure you all understand where I’m coming from with this.”

“It’s hardly a question, is it?” Farah burst out eagerly. “She has tons more experience than any of us! Weren’t you a Lieutenant, Ephanie?”

“Sides,” Merry added, grinning, “any of the rest of these jokers claiming to be officer material would be good for a laugh and not much else.”

“Stow that kind of talk,” Principia said flatly. “You’ve all got potential I don’t think you’re aware of, and the only reason I don’t ride your asses harder about it is the rest of you have all indicated you’re not planning to stick with the Legions as a career once your contracted enlistment is up. And even so, there are going to be some changes around here in that direction. But yes, back on point. Avelea does have the experience and the know-how, but that’s only half of it. You’re a by-the-books soldier, Ephanie,” she added directly to the new corporal. “And I, to put it mildly, am not. More importantly, you’ve consistently managed to support me with your knowledge of and devotion to the Legion’s principles and regulations, without ever undercutting my authority or butting heads with me.”

“You get the credit for that, ma’am,” Ephanie replied, still saluting. “You’ve always been quick to ask for input.”

“It’s a two-way street, and at ease, woman, for heaven’s sake. The point is, quite apart from your innate qualifications, you’re what I need both backing me up and counterbalancing me.”

“I won’t let you down, Sergeant,” Ephanie promised fervently.

“I know that quite well, Corporal,” Principia said with a grin. “Quite frankly I’ve had this in mind almost since I was promoted, but there have been…details to consider. Which brings me to our next item of business!” Turning, she smiled at Shahai, who was watching the proceedings with a warm little smile of her own. “This had to wait, Avelea, so you could be promoted first to preserve your seniority in the squad—an outdated and perhaps unnecessary little rule, but I’m being very careful to leave no wiggle room for someone to start picking us apart, and you know who I mean.”

She paused for emphasis, and they all gazed back at her in mute understanding. So far, none of them had heard directly from Bishop Syrinx, though Jenell Covrin had been spotted around the temple and adjoining fortress.

“The other thing I’ve arranged required paperwork which needed the approval of High Commander Rouvad, who did not want to give it.”

“Sergeant Locke approached me about this some time ago,” Nandi said, her smile tugging upward further on one side and taking on a sly undertone. “I began a campaign of persuasion upon Farzida as soon as I was able to relinquish the Bishop’s office. It has only borne fruit, finally, today.”

“The voluntary grade reduction for someone of Shahai’s status goes all the way to the top, I’m afraid,” Principia said smugly. “But Shahai has proved her worth—as if we haven’t all seen plenty of evidence of it already—and got her way. Ladies, may I introduce Corporal Nandi Shahai, the newest member of Squad Three Nine One.”

“Bwuh?” Farah said.

“Pick any bunk you like the look of,” Principia said directly to Nandi. “Except Lang’s, of course. Not that I don’t encourage you to push Lang around, but I think she has mites.”

“Oh, look,” Merry said dryly, folding her arms. “She ruined a nice moment. What were the odds.”

“W-welcome aboard…Corporal,” Casey said hesitantly.

“Yes, welcome,” Ephanie repeated. “I think…this is a very good idea, Sarge. She’s perfect for our squad’s assigned objectives.”

“Not to mention the un-assigned ones,” Principia said easily.

The others exchanged another wary look.

“You’ve, um, talked with her about…?” Casey trailed off, looking uncertainly at Nandi.

“Not explicitly, no,” their new squadmate replied, “but it’s exceedingly obvious that you will be contending directly with Basra Syrinx, and sooner rather than later. That she will be coming after you is an unavoidable conclusion—quite apart from the humiliation she suffered right under your eyes, which she won’t forgive, the fact is that your squad is a professional threat to her. Your assigned duties eat into the additional powers and responsibilities she has taken on beyond the standard job of the Bishop. I strongly suspect none of you are complacent enough or foolish enough to let her come without meeting her in kind, and I know Sergeant Locke isn’t.”

Principia beamed like the cat who’d eaten the whole aviary.

“And you’re…okay with this?” Casey asked warily.

Nandi’s smile faded, and she shook her head. “I am not okay in any sense with any part of this, ladies. What I am is in. I’ve been watching Basra Syrinx for a long time, and I know exactly what she represents and means for the Legions and the Sisterhood. Farzida believes she can be controlled and used to good advantage. So, I rather suspect, does the Archpope. I think you and I know better.”

“Nobody at the very top has a good view of what goes on in the shadows,” Principia agreed, nodding. “For now, let’s help the newbie get settled in, here, and then we have a promotion to celebrate! I know a perfect pub—discreet enough to keep us out of trouble, but not too much to be fun. And then…” She grinned wolfishly. “…we start working on our dear friend Basra.”


The office was illuminated only by the dim light of her desk lamp. She didn’t need even that to see; to elvish eyes, the moonlight streaming through the windows behind her was more than adequate for the letters she was writing. It cast a faint, rusty light over her desk, however, and created interesting shadows around the room. The lamp was more for ambiance than anything; she used it to great effect when intimidating unruly students (and sometimes parents), but had come to enjoy it for its own sake, too.

Only the soft scratch of her old-fashioned quill sounded in the room, at least aside from the soft flutter of wings as a small bird landed on the sill outside. Tellwyrn, who of course could hear that perfectly, too, ignored it. She also ignored the increasingly insistent croaking which followed. Only when the sharp, persistent tapping of a beak on the panes started up and refused to stop did she sigh in irritation, blow upon the ink to dry it, and put her quill away.

Spinning her chair around without bothering to get up, she un-latched the window and swung it outward, the bird nimbly hopping aside.

“I’m half-surprised you didn’t just blast it in,” she said acerbically.

“I really cannot imagine why,” Mary replied, swinging her legs in over the sill. She simply perched there, though, not coming the rest of the way inside. “When have you ever known me to do such things? Not everyone suffers from your delusions concerning what constitute social skills, Arachne.”

“From arriving to insulting me in seven seconds,” Tellwyrn said sourly. “Sadly, that is not a record. What the hell do you want, Kuriwa? I have a shit-ton of paperwork to get done before I’ll have the chance to enjoy a week’s vacation from the little bastards, and so help me, if you ruin my holiday you’ll leave this mountaintop minus a few feathers.”

The Crow stared piercingly into her eyes, all levity gone from her face. “Where is Araneid?”

Tellwyrn gazed right back. “Who?”

Mary just stared at her.

“You’re not as inscrutable as you like to think, Kuriwa,” Tellwyrn said, idly turning back toward her desk, but not too far to keep her visitor in view. “I know you recognized my name. I knew it the first time we met. And yet, in three thousand years, you have never once asked me about this. So now I have to wonder…” She edged the chair back to face the Crow directly, and leaned forward, staring over the rims of her spectacles. “What just happened?”

“I returned to Viridill weeks ago, on your advice,” Mary replied. “It was good advice, by the way, and you ended up being more right than you knew. I thank you; it proved very good that I was there. Among the interesting things I learned was the repeated occurrence of spider webs as a theme, seen binding and drawing various players in that drama to one another. They were glimpsed only in the medium of dreams, thanks to Khadizroth’s intervention—that is a specialty of his, as you probably remember.”

“Of course.”

“And the matter put me in mind of a conversation I had with Sheyann not long ago,” Mary continued. “I have been noting for a while that wherever an event of significance occurs, particularly on this continent, it seems to be centered around the same few people. The dreamscape, of course, has a way of interpreting complex things in a way that is meaningful to intelligent minds. All this makes me wonder what strings have been tightening around us all that I was simply not in a position to see, before.”

“Spider webs, hm,” Tellwyrn mused.

“And so, I repeat my question,” Mary said, her stare sharp and unyielding. “What is the current location and status of Araneid?”

Tellwyrn sighed. “Uh…dead? Undead? Mostly dead? Maybe sort of comatose, with a bit of unborn… It’s not simple, and quite frankly I never understood it well.”

“Go on,” Mary said flatly.

The sorceress twitched her shoulders in an irritated shrug. “You know, you really could have asked me about this in the beginning. It’s not a great secret. Or rather, I suppose I should say I’ve no care for the opinions of those who might want to keep it secret. I just don’t know, Kuriwa. What I know, you now do, and it took all of a moment to tell. I can add a little insight, though,” she said, folding her arms. “The corpse or sleeping body or whatever it is of a god makes a tremendous power source—but only another god would be able to make use of such a thing. To ask about a dead or almost dead deity, look for the living ones who have custody of her. If you want to know what happened to Araneid, ask Scyllith. If you want to get at her now, you’ll have to go through Avei. And in all seriousness, I wish you luck with it. I had just finished washing my hands of the whole sordid affair when we met the first time, and I will not be dragged back in.”

“Hmm,” the Crow mused, finally breaking eye contact and staring thoughtfully at the far wall. “The spider webs are not, after all, definitive proof of anything… But I have taken so long to come back here because I did my own research first. They are strongly associated with Araneid, and not just in myth. You say this goddess is…sort of dead, but not?”

Tellwyrn grimaced. “That’s as good a description as I could come up with, I suppose. Ask at the Abbey if you want to examine the…uh, body. I rather doubt they’d let you, though, and not even you are going to get through those defenses. Get too close to that thing, and Avei will land on you personally.”

“Is it possible,” Mary persisted, “that she could influence events across time? Your description suggests a revival of this Elder is possible. If this happens soon, what are the chances she could—”

“Kuriwa, I don’t know,” Tellwyrn exclaimed. “I’ve told you that. The magic involved is heinously complex and maybe comprehensible to me, but it was never explained, and I haven’t gone looking. I want out of the whole business. In theory, though? Sure, Araneid probably had that power, back in the days of the Elder Gods. I suspect most of them did. They didn’t have any equivalent of Vemnesthis watching against intrusions like that, and by the way, with him around and on duty she would have to be powerfully subtle to get away with it. Also… This would have to be very closely linked in time. If this is Araneid at work, she hasn’t been at it long. Someone would definitely have noticed before now. Probably someone in this room. Although…” Her expression grew faraway and thoughtful. “If it is within just a few years, though… There’s that great doom I haven’t been able to pin down. Alaric’s research points at an alignment of some kind… But of what we can’t figure out. It’s likely to be in just a few years, however. That could theoretically be a short enough time.”

Mary straightened up, suddenly frowning. “…Arachne, have you seen what is under Linsheh’s grove? I have long assumed that was an early stop on your own research.”

Tellwyrn grimaced. “Linsheh and I don’t get along.”

“Yes, your feud made waves I have not managed to ignore, but I’ve heard nothing about it in four hundred years. I had assumed you two made up.”

“Well. For a given value of ‘made up.’ I’m pretty sure I won.” The sorceress grinned. “After her last stunt, I teleported her eldest son’s birth tree out of the grove, had it carved into a collection of exotic marital aids, sold them off in Puna Dara and sent her the receipts. I haven’t heard a peep out of her since, so I declared victory.”

For a long moment, Mary stared at her in utter silence. Then, finally, she shook her head.

“You really are the worst person,” she said in a tone of weary disgust. “In all my ages alive on this world, I have known the sick and depraved, the cruel, the truly evil. But you. There is no soul, living or dead, who is your rival in sheer, pigheaded obnoxiousness.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” Tellwyrn said, smirking. “Especially not when you come pecking on my window in the middle of the night smelling like a haystack and with your hair badly in need of a brush. A lady likes to be finessed.”

“If you are investigating what’s coming, particularly if you’re curious about alignments,” Mary said curtly, “you need to look at what is underneath that grove. The answers there could reflect on other things that are of interest to you, as well. And for the love of whatever it is you may love, Arachne, try to mend fences with Linsheh while you’re at it. I don’t know what happened between you or who started it, but she doesn’t deserve that kind of abuse. And we all will need to be able to reach out to one another in the near future, I suspect.”

She paused only to snort disdainfully, then turned and swung her legs out over the other side of the sill.

Tellwyrn watched the crow flap off into the night, frowning pensively.

“Hm… Well, it beats the hell out of paperwork.” She glanced disparagingly at her desk. “Then again, what doesn’t?”


“Have you all lost your goddamn minds!?”

It was well past dark and more than halfway toward midnight; sleet was pounding on the windows of Darling’s house, and the downstairs parlor had its fairy lamps turned as far down as possible, lit chiefly by the fire in the hearth. It was a cozy environment, the kind that would encourage sleepiness, if not for Style stomping up and down the carpet, raging at everyone.

“C’mon, now,” Darling protested. “You can’t possibly fail to see the benefits.”

“I don’t fail to see the benefits of ripping off the fucking Imperial treasury!” she snarled, pausing to glare down at him. “That doesn’t mean I don’t also see how that would bite me right the fuck on the ass!”

“How, though?” Tricks asked mildly. Aside from the circles under his eyes, he looked livelier than he had in weeks; all evening, he’d been growing more jolly as Style grew more irate. “You think the Sisterhood are going to spy on us? Quite apart from the fact they’ve shown no interest in doing that in eight thousand damn years, Style, this is not how you plant a spy. You don’t send a ranking officer of your army up to the enemy’s fortress and say ‘hello there, I would like to come spy, please.’ They’re not thieves, but a divinely-appointed military is definitely clever enough not to do something so thickheaded.”

“This is pretty much exactly what it looks like,” Darling added in the same calm tone. “A damn good idea, far too long coming, with huge potential benefits for both cults. I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t think of it first…although, it pretty much couldn’t have come from anyone else.” He grinned at the room’s other, quieter guest.

Style, meanwhile, clapped a hand dramatically over her eyes and groaned loudly. “You do it on purpose, Boss. And you, ex-Boss. You just like to see me suffer. I oughta throttle you both with your own fucking nutsacks.”

“Tea, Style?” Price asked diffidently.

“Don’t fucking start with me, Savvy,” the enforcer warned.

“It is my solemn hope that I do not have to start with you,” the Butler replied with characteristic serenity.

“What she means,” Sweet said with a grin, “is that it’d be politically awkward if she had to finish with you.”

“Style, you’ve been raging up and down for half an hour and generally making the point that this bugs you on an instinctive level,” said Tricks. “Fine, I get that. It’s your job, after all, to watch for threats. But if you’d seen a specific, credible threat here, you’d have said so by now. So with all respect, hun, button it. I’m making my decision: we’ll go ahead.”

Style snarled and kicked the rack of fireplace tools, sending them clattering across the carpet. Price swept silently in to tidy up.

“We’ll have to arrange a disguise, of course,” Darling said more seriously, studying his houseguest. “There’ll be all kinds of a flap if this gets out.”

“How the fuck are you going to disguise that?!” Style shouted.

“This is why I hate you sometimes,” Tricks informed her. “You never listen when I talk about what’s important to me. You don’t change a person’s whole appearance to disguise them, you just change the identifying details. Yessss… We’ll dye her hair, lose the uniform and give her a crash course in not walking like a soldier. It’s not like her face is widely known.”

Style snorted thunderously and halted her pacing directly in front of the chair next to Tricks’s. “Don’t you think for a second,” she warned, leveling a pointing finger, “that I’m gonna go easy on you, trixie.”

Trissiny, who had been silent for the last ten minutes as the conversation continued around her, slowly stood, her eyes never leaving the chief enforcer’s.

“If you insulted me by trying,” she said quietly, “I would lay you out. Again.”

Tricks burst out laughing. “Oh, but this is fantastic! It’s exactly the opportunity both our cults need—I love every part of this! Especially Style’s bloomers being in a bunch, that’s always good comedy.”

“I know where you sleep, twinkletoes!”

Ignoring her, he stood as well, turning to face their guest, and extended a hand. Trissiny clasped it in her own, gauntlet and all.

“It’s decided, then. You may all consider this official.” The Boss grinned broadly, pumping the paladin’s hand once. “Welcome to the Thieves’ Guild, apprentice.”

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10 – 46

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Birds chirped with incongruous cheer, oblivious to the tension lying over the ruined fort.

Khadizroth sighed very softly through his nose. “Perhaps it is time, at that. Speak, then.”

“Do you have any idea,” Flora said tightly, “what you put us through?”

“Can you even imagine?” Fauna said. “Are you capable of feeling what it was like?”

“Being that vulnerable, that dependent…”

“On someone who planned to ultimately use you.”

“For an abhorrently disgusting purpose…”

“That would eventually make the world suffer?”

“It’s not as if we don’t know what you did for our tribe.”

“We haven’t forgotten that you saved all our lives, and gave us a life again.”

“Taking care of the wounded and young.”

“Do you remember how grateful we were, that first time you came to us?”

“That’s what made it all so awful, Khadizroth.”

“Even after all you did for us…”

“Even still, having to loathe you for what you planned.”

“That is how repugnant the situation you created was.”

“You don’t get to call us ungrateful.”

“You have to answer for being so vile it overwrote that gratitude.”

They finally fell silent, glaring, both practically vibrating with tension now, fists clenched and feet braced. Khadizroth’s eyes had progressively widened as they spoke, till he was practically gaping at the two elves. For long moments, there was only the sunlight and the birdsong, mocking the mood.

Then he turned to stare incredulously at Darling.

“They talk…in tandem, now. Is this your doing, thief?”

“Hey, hey.” Darling held up a hand. “I’m just here to facilitate this meeting. You can direct yourself to the elves, please.”

“And make it good,” Flora snapped as the dragon turned back to them.

“We’ve waited a long time to hear you account for yourself,” Fauna said implacably.

Again, Khadizroth sighed. “Shinaue, Lianwe… You know everything. My reasoning, my intention, my unease with the whole project. I never deceived you or withheld truth.”

“You brazenly manipulated us, all of us!”

“Do you comprehend the kind of damage that does to a young mind?”

“Sometime you should speak to the Elders at the groves that took in the younger ones.”

“You ought to know exactly how you messed them up!”

“Fine,” he said wearily, spreading his hands. “Here you are, here I am. Weakened by Kuriwa’s curse and you with the source of your extremely ill-considered power only a breath away. Unleash your vengeance and let’s be done with it. I would not much mourn the chance to rest.”

In unison, they shook their heads.

“Revenge is a tool, Khadizroth; it has specific uses, and only damages the work when applied wrongly.”

“The point of revenge is to manage reputation, to prevent further attacks.”

“No one but us even knows about this…”

“…and it’s not as if you would change your behavior just because we have the power to hurt you.”

“There’s no point at all. This isn’t about revenge.”

“It’s just,” Fauna finished softly, “about closure.”

“That…is Eserite philosophy,” Khadizroth said slowly. Again, he turned to glance back at Darling. “You have actually taught them. In all honesty, I’d believed you were using them for your own ends.”

“Course I am,” Darling said with a shrug. “Everyone uses everyone else. That has nothing to do with how people feel about each other. I can put someone to work in my plans and still care deeply for their welfare. Really, K, have you ever had a friend in your life?”

“Many,” the dragon said wryly.

“Not that it was necessarily easy to get to this point,” Flora said with asperity.

“As we mentioned, you did a number on us,” Fauna continued. “It was a hard thing to get over.”

“But hating someone is like stabbing yourself and hoping they bleed to death.”

“Letting go is necessary; it’s just sense and self-management, not morals.”

“So, yes, Khadizroth… We’ve forgiven you.”

“For our sake, not yours.”

“But you are still,” Flora said sharply, clenching her fists, “going to explain yourself.”

“Right. Damn. Now.” Fauna leveled an unrelenting stare at him.

He sighed heavily, then turned and walked a few steps away, breaking up the symmetry of their formation. Darling remained on the opposite side of the cold campsite, watching curiously, as Khadizroth took up a position to one side of the gates, gestured at the ground, and pulled forth a sawn-off stump from the dirt. He turned and sat down on this, facing the elves, and folded his hands in his lap.

“It should go without saying that I was furious,” the dragon stated, gazing at them in earnest calm. “I felt betrayed, to say the least. I was aggrieved by the loss of those whom I had come to hold dear, and yes, by the destruction of all my careful plans. There was not time, by that point, to start over. I feared already that I had left it too long, put off by the distasteful nature of the idea. It was all moot by the time you had finished spiriting the others away; the power of Tiraas is too concentrated, now. To hear the mortal politicians speak of it, the Silver Throne has never regained the authority it had before the Enchanter Wars, but they see power only as a means to exercise force. The truth is, the Tirasian Dynasty has been wiser than most of its forebears. The Empire has focused, in the last century, on infrastructure, on social development, on the advancement of knowledge. Despite the proliferation of factions within it, the fragmenting of authority, the Tiraan Empire as a civilization is stronger right now than it has ever been, far more potent than the corrupt government which laid waste to Athan’Khar. This continent, this ancient, sacred land, belongs to the humans, now. The groves and the dwarven kingdoms may hold out while they can, but in the end, it will be Tiraas which decides the fate of all souls on the continent, and throughout much of the world beyond.”

Khadizroth shook his head slowly, his expression purely weary. “And all indications are that that fate will be a grim one indeed. I tried, children. I did the only thing I could think of that I believed had a chance of working. Thanks to you, that opportunity is lost.”

“Are you actually going to sit there and blame—”

“Please.” He held up a hand. “I listened to you speak. Will you hear me out?”

They narrowed their eyes, then glanced at each other.

“Go on,” Fauna said curtly, folding her arms.

“Like you,” he said, “it has taken me time to work through this. It is not a simple matter and my feelings about it were likewise complex. But time has elapsed, I have thought on it, and as everything stands now… When I look on you and think on the turns our relationship has taken, I find that my resentment is a distant thing. More than anything else, I feel…grateful.”

In perfect unison, both sharply raised their eyebrows, and blinked.

“It’s not as if I didn’t know how repellent the whole thing was,” Khadizroth said with a grimace, looking down at the ground. “I have no rebuttal for that. For any of it. You are right in all particulars. As I said at the time and said ever since, I did not do that because it was right…I did it because I believed it necessary. And I can only hope for your sake that you never have to choose between those two things. What you did, girls, by destroying my scheme, was to rescue me from the burden. I besmirched my honor by carrying it as far as it went, but in the end, the real horror of it never had the chance to materialize, and the opportunity will not come again. You obviated the need. Whatever happens to me, now, I will face with the knowledge that I could not prevent it. What remains of my integrity is mine to keep. Thanks to you.”

He stood, slowly, turned to face them directly, and bowed deeply.

“I thank you. And for what little it may be worth… I am sorry. For everything.”

Both were watching him warily now, their expressions almost uncertain.

“Do you feel,” Khadizroth said somewhat wryly, straightening up, “that you have gained your closure?”

“Actually…” Flora glanced at Fauna. “Actually, yes.”

“Somewhat to our surprise.”

“Good.” He nodded. “Somewhat to my surprise, I do as well. I has been…very good, very good indeed, being able to talk. I had thought that if we ever met again it would inevitably come to bloodshed.”

“We’re not going to rule that out,” Flora said grimly.

“But it’ll be over whatever happens at that time,” Fauna added, “not over the past.”

He nodded. “That is both fair, and rather prescient. And now.” The dragon shifted to look at Darling. “I believe we still have more current matters to discuss?”

“Yes, well, one more bit about the past.” Darling shrugged nonchalantly. “You’ll tell Vannae I’m sorry for roughing him up that time, won’t you? It was undiplomatic, I’ll warrant, but the little prick was talking about my girls like they were a pair of stolen dogs he could just come and collect. That kind of thing is very hard not to take personally.”

“Indeed,” the dragon said with a wry half-grimace. “I’ll convey the message, but I guarantee no acceptance on his part. Vannae is a somewhat more emotional creature than I.”

“Ugh, you have no idea,” Flora muttered, rolling her eyes.

“And for my part, I choose to disregard that insult,” Khadizroth added more gravely to Darling. “I think, going forward, we would all do well to emulate Joseph’s example and address one another with courtesy when we have the chance to speak, even if it necessarily comes to violence in the next breath.”

“Agreed,” Darling said, nodding. “With all that out of the way… Just what is going on with these elementals?”

“To speak plainly, then,” the dragon said, folding his hands, “I am here on the orders of Archpope Justinian, using these elementals to forment a crisis in Viridill of a specific nature that Bishop Syrinx should be able to solve. I am to manage the event carefully such that she emerges the unquestioned hero of the day. This was going rather well,” he added sardonically, “until one of her associates bungled it up last night. I’m afraid I outsmarted myself; managing two remote presences, having two separate conversations—one in the dream plane—left me vulnerable. That rather minor magical device inflicted more harm than it otherwise would have, and prevented me from explaining the full situation to Ingvar, as I intended.” He sighed, shaking his head. “It was a long and careful plan that brought the Huntsman and the Crow here, and just like that, wasted. I’m growing sadly accustomed to the sensation.”

“Well, once again, it’s the Thieves’ Guild to the rescue,” Darling said cheerfully. “I have to say, though, I’m left a tad perplexed that Justinian cares enough about Basra to want her back that badly.”

“I have learned that questioning his motives is wasted breath,” said the dragon. “While I am beholden to him, I carry out his orders. He has not seen fit to preclude conversations such as this, at least. I know little more of Syrinx than that Justinian thinks she would disapprove of this plan—at any rate, he insisted that she not be brought in on it.”

“The woman is anth’auwa,” Fauna said darkly.

“She’s also a highly skilled politician,” Darling mused, “and one of the best swordswomen in the Sisterhood today.”

“I see.” Khadizroth frowned. “I didn’t know any of that. I had been operating under the general principle that what Justinian wants, he should not have. Now, I believe he should quite specifically not regain an asset of that quality.”

“So the question becomes,” said Darling, “what to do about it now?”

“I am not in a position to turn on the Archpope directly,” the dragon cautioned, “and in any case I deem it more valuable to remain close enough to observe his plans and interfere with them.”

“I work for him under pretty much that exact logic.”

“So I had assumed. Therefore, I will have to continue my campaign…but it is possible that between us we can arrange—”

He broke off at a sudden, frantic squawking from above. A crow dived into the courtyard with uncharacteristic speed, plummeting beak-first at the ground.

Mary landed in a crouch, whirling to face Darling.

“Antonio. You are unharmed?”

“Me?” He put a hand to his chest, blinking in surprise. “Is there a particular reason I wouldn’t be? If you’re worried about Big K, here, turns out this has all been one big kooky misunderstanding. He’s a total sweetheart!”

“Shut up,” she said curtly, turning her head slowly with her nose upraised as if sniffing the wind. “You are human… I fear that neither the dragon nor these two would be an adequate defense… No, it has passed by. You have been unfathomably fortunate just now, Antonio.”

“My patience for you is nil to begin with, Kuriwa,” Khadizroth growled. He had assumed a more aggressive posture upon her arrival, as well as a deep scowl. “You will explain yourself swiftly and in detail.”

The Crow turned to stare flatly at him. “It is a very fortunate thing I decided to return here in haste; I expected to find more of Justinian’s schemes to unravel. Instead, the situation has abruptly changed. Very much for the worse.”


“What is going on?” Basra demanded, striding up to the command tent, which for the last five minutes had been buzzing like a kicked beehive. Behind her, the rest of her party clustered together, watching nervously.

“Watchers with telescopes on Fort Naveen just reported someone walking out of the forest,” Colonel Nintaumbi said curtly, handing a slip of paper to a soldier who saluted and dashed off. “Moments later, the watchers on Fort Tarissed confirmed the report.”

“My scouts are unable to verify,” Yrril said, unflappable as ever. “My colleagues, here, are trying to insist that my forces withdraw.”

“Yrril, we can’t abandon the lines,” General Vaumann exclaimed in exasperation, clearly having already gone over this. “It would only provoke him, even if it weren’t unacceptable to cede this position in the first place. Please don’t turn this into a diplomatic disaster on top of all the other kinds of disaster it’s about to become. Get your people out of here!”

“Disaster?” Basra snapped. “What? Who came out of the forest? It’s far too soon for Antonio to have returned with anything useful; he hasn’t even had time to reach Varansis.”

“Bishop Darling is almost certainly dead,” Nintaumbi said grimly. “An elf came out of the forest, Bishop Syrinx. A lone, male elf, dressed in filthy rags. Coming straight at us from Athan’Khar.”

“Confirmed!” barked the Legionnaire who had her eye pressed to the telescope that had been hastily set up on a tripod just outside the tent. “Target has been observed using obviously infernal, divine and arcane magic.”

“Where the hell are my strike teams!” Nintaumbi roared.

“In position, sir!” shouted an Imperial soldier, skidding to a stop just under the awning and tossing off a salute.

“We have two strike teams,” Vaumann said tonelessly. “That’s about the number who usually die in the first engagement against a headhunter. If we deploy them before the other four get here from Tiraas it’ll be in vain. Yrril, nothing we or you have will stand against that creature, do you understand? Nothing. This is our land; we cannot yield it to a mad thing that only wants destruction. For the goddess’s sake, take your people and pull back!”

“What is the headhunter doing?” Basra asked in icy calm.

“He appears to be dismantling the wards placed in front of the forest, ma’am,” the Legionnaire at the telescope reported. “Systematically, showing no signs of agitation or aggression. He hasn’t moved toward the front lines.”

“Why would he want those wards dismantled?” Yrril asked, making no response to Vaumann’s entreaties. “I understood they were simply detection devices, surely no threat to him.”

“Archcommander, this creature is by definition insane,” Nintaumbi said with a sigh. “Looking for logic in his actions is pointless. It’s a rabid dog with the power to cleave through our lines like they’re nothing.”

“How long until he finishes off the wards?” Basra demanded.

“Unknowable, ma’am,” said the watcher. “His pace is uneven. He keeps pausing to just…look around.”

“And we can’t assume he’s going to do a thorough job of it anyway,” Vaumann added darkly. “He could lose interest any moment. I repeat my recommendation that my troops move to the fore, Colonel. Avenists are slightly less inherently provocative to a headhunter than Imperial soldiers.”

“And my people least provocative of all,” Yrril pointed out. “That elf may dislike drow, as most do, but the spirits of Athan’Khar have no reason to hold an opinion about us.”

“That’s right, talk amongst yourselves,” Basra said curtly. “Soldier, fetch me a horse. Now. I’m going out there.”


“We have to help them!”

“Let’s go!”

“Stop!” Mary barked, pointing at Flora and Fauna, who appeared poised to lunge into action. “Will you think before leaping? You two are creatures without precedent already, both for your relationship to each other and the mental stability you have retained. That is an eldei alai’shi of the old breed—unreasoning and completely lost to the voices. He seems to have been even more weak-minded than most, to judge by his laughing and talking to himself as he passed. You cannot know what will happen if you approach him. What if the spirits within you try to fuse with those in him?”

They both froze, expressions agonized.

“I suppose,” Khadizroth said, frowning deeply, “you and I could try to intervene, Kuriwa… But I fear the outcome of that would be similarly random. I’m forced to admit I am not a sure match for that creature, unless you see fit to lift your curse.”

“For a situation like this, I honestly would,” she replied, “but the undoing would take more time than we have.”

“Good to know,” he murmured.

“The both of us together might be able to dissuade him,” she added, “but the Imperial troops would almost certainly attack us, as well.”

“Surely you’re not suggesting we just leave this?” Flora exclaimed.

“We have to do something, damn it!” Fauna shouted.

“We have to act carefully,” said Darling, and his calm voice seemed to ground them both. “We have friends out there; we’re not just going to ignore this. Come on, girls, this is just the kind of exercise you’re trained for. Brute force and frontal assaults won’t work. We have to find a way around—we have to be clever.” He turned to Mary. “I’m open to suggestions.”

“This must begin with observation,” she replied. “I will return to the edge of the forest; he will be there by now. If there is anything to be learned, I will learn it. But it will leave precious little time to act upon that knowledge before many lives are lost.”

“Wait,” said Khadizroth, holding up a hand. “I will go, too; aside from the obvious need to intercede, this dovetails with my mandate from Justinian. But consider, Kuriwa, the staggeringly improbable timing of this.”

“If you’re about to suggest Justinian sent that thing here, you can forget it,” Darling scoffed. “He doesn’t have that kind of power.”

“Are you saying that because you know it,” the dragon asked, arching an eyebrow, “or because you would prefer to believe it?”

“Khadizroth, if Justinian could summon and deploy headhunters, most of what he’s done up till now would be redundant and pointless. I don’t trust coincidences, either, but Justinian is not the shadow lurking in every corner.”

“Exactly.” The dragon nodded and turned to Mary again. “Kuriwa, attend.”

All of them shifted back as the color of the light changed, taking on a greenish tint, and the air pressure sharply dropped.

“Khadizroth,” Mary warned.

“This is not meant to harm you,” the dragon said, reaching out a hand toward her. “You can feel what I am doing quite well.”

“Thinning boundaries like this is a terrifyingly bad idea so close to Athan’Khar,” she snapped. “Release it!”

“Calling up the aspect of the dream,” he said calmly, “is necessary to illustrate—ah. There it is.”

The dragon laid his fingers on something invisible in midair, pinched them together, and plucked.

Strands of gossamer were momentarily visible where they vibrated, thin streamers of spider web linking all five of them and stretching away into the distance in multiple directions. A moment later they faded completely, and a moment after that, Khadizroth released his effect, allowing the world to shift back to its normal hue.

“Justinian,” the dragon said grimly, “is not the only spider who can spin a web. Since young Ingvar’s visit, I have been pondering…this. We will go observe the headhunter and take what action we can, but before doing so, I think we must decide upon a plan for what comes next.”


“Have one of your mages teleport to Vrin Shai with these orders,” Basra instructed Colonel Nintaumbi as she climbed into the saddle, continuing to ignore his protests. “The Sisterhood’s scryers are always able to pinpoint my position; get one to the topmost mag cannon above the city. That one should have a clear field of fire all the way to the border. I want it aimed right at me. You keep watch on what happens down there, and if that thing kills me, send another mage with the order to fire. Headhunters are dangerous for their versatility; their magical strength isn’t necessarily all that great, and no personal shield, divine or arcane, will stand up to that weapon. The beam will come in at a shallow angle at this distance, so you may need to shift troops out of the way. Your own artillery teams can do the trigonometry to tell you where the danger zones are.”

“This is insane, Syrinx.” Vaumann’s calm voice seemed to catch Basra’s attention where all of Nintaumbi’s imprecations did not. “You cannot reason with that creature.”

“Of course not,” Basra said. “One doesn’t reason with crazy—but one can manipulate it. This job calls for a politician. Hold the line, people, and have that cannon ready. But please be sure not to fire unless I’m already too late to help.”

She turned her mount, placing her back to the protests still rising, and trotted off down the field to face the headhunter alone.

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10 – 43

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“This Ingvar sounds like he’s cruising to get himself digested,” Tellwyrn snorted.

“Perhaps,” the Crow mused in reply. “Perhaps not. Likely not, I think. His manner toward Aspen is not at all the approach I would take… If anything, he appears to be relating toward her as a devout Shaathist toward a young woman who has suddenly become his responsibility.”

“You could print that up in a handsome leather binding under the title How to Get Eaten by a Dryad.”

Kuriwa smiled faintly. “In general, yes. I think that this situation reflects Sheyann’s hard work, and ours. Assuredly Aspen as she was when you placed her in this situation would have responded very poorly indeed to such treatment, but Sheyann reports that she has found success in teaching the dryad some self-awareness and responsibility. Not enough that I would inflict her upon your campus like Juniper, but she is, at least, primed to want to better herself. You of all people know how it is with the young. They act out, on some level, because they need to find where the boundaries are. Ingvar is providing her that. She appears to be taking to it quite well, far better than I could have anticipated.”

“So he’s teaching her Shaathist boundaries.” Tellwyrn shook her head. “Be it now or further down the road, someone’s getting eaten. Meanwhile, we face the question of what to do with this.”

“Yes.”

They stood in the magically fortified chamber deep beneath the University, staring up at the time-frozen form of Aspen locked in mid-transformation.

“This new body,” Tellwyrn mused, “you said it exhibited no signs of transforming?”

“And I studied her carefully with more than just my eyes, yes. Whatever Khadizroth did, it brought her back in a default state.”

“I wonder why you didn’t just do that in the first place.”

“First,” Kuriwa said with faint annoyance, “because stabilizing her emotionally was necessary before that was safe, and we are the beneficiaries of great good fortune that that process had gone far enough to be successful when Ingvar blundered across her. And second, it honestly did not occur to me that such was possible. I’ve added it to the ever-lengthening list of things I intend to discuss with Khadizroth when the opportunity presents itself.”

“Well, we’re procrastinating, here, and we both know it,” Tellwyrn said somewhat brusquely. “I’d advise retreating a couple of steps. Presuming what you just let loose in Viridill is the real and only Aspen and not some kind of clone, this thing might just slump over dead, or it may be savage, mindless, and predatory. And there is absolutely no guessing what Naiya will think of us dispatching it.”

“In the worst case scenario,” Kuriwa said calmly, “you can always re-freeze it, no?”

“Right,” Tellwyrn grumbled, “because this is exactly the kind of nicknack I want cluttering up my basement for all eternity. Stand back.”

She gave no more warning beyond a curt gesture of her hands, and without any visible magical effect, the partially-transformed dryad continued the motion she had been in the middle of, which was a very aggressive step forward.

A low groaning sound echoed from within her snarling face, and she staggered forward another step; neither elf backed up further, Tellwyrn keeping her hands up and ready to cast again. Aspen’s body swayed drunkenly to one side, then slowly toppled forward.

She hit the stone floor and completely collapsed. Five seconds later they were looking down at a pile of sticks and golden aspen leaves, only the spray of grass stalks that had been her hair serving to hint at a humanoid form.

“Well.” Tellwyrn shook her head, and folded her arms. “Well. I suppose that was the absolutely ideal outcome.”

“Yes.”

“I’m always mistrustful when those happen.”

“Yes.”

“Should we check outside and see if the world is ending?”

“We are underground, Arachne. Naiya’s domain is more than plants and animals; if she thought us guilty of slaying one of her daughters, we would be hearing about it already.” Kuriwa shook her head. “No, I believe we can consider this matter satisfactorily concluded. Aspen is, really and truly, safe and free.”

“And,” Tellwyrn drawled, “running around Viridill with some Huntsman, that smirking weasel Darling and Joseph Jenkins, who I rather like. I was hoping to persuade him to attend my school in a few years; I’ll be very put out if you get him eaten, Kuriwa.”

“Someday, Arachne, we’re going to have a conversation which includes no exchange of threats, and both of us will be left with a great yawning void in our hearts.” The Crow turned and stepped toward the room’s only door. “Now, I believe I had better visit Sheyann and inform her of this. She will be rather disappointed that her work was thus interrupted; hopefully she finds this conclusion as satisfactory as we.”

“Kuriwa.”

The Crow paused at the tone of Tellwyrn’s voice and turned back to face her, raising an eyebrow.

The sorceress wore a frown, but it was a pensive and slightly worried expression. “Not to tell you your own business, but I really think you ought to go keep an eye on this group you set loose in Viridill.”

“Oh?”

“The events you describe down there, Khadizroth’s apparent involvement, and especially this hint that he’s answering to the Universal Church now… In the last few days, Justinian has been making hostile noises at my school, to the extent of riling up a continent-wide debate in the newspapers. I have had to seek out advice from gods of the Pantheon with regard to this, the Black Wreath has taken it as an opportunity to strike at his interests by ‘helping’ some of my kids…”

“That is an unsettling prospect.”

“Imperial Intelligence has likewise gotten involved… And the whole time, the big unanswered question has been what the Archpope thinks he can accomplish this way. He poses zero threat to me, and he knows it. Now this. Whatever else he’s done, this has done a bang-up job of fixing the world’s attention here. To the point that I, for one, had no idea anything so interesting as a rash of elemental attacks was taking place in Viridill. I think, Kuriwa, someone competent had better be on site there. Someone who knows to keep an eye out for Justinian’s sneaky fingers.”

“Hmm.” Now frowning herself, Kuriwa nodded slowly. “You raise an extremely valid point, Arachne. Yes, I believe I shall take your advice. Thank you.”

“I suppose wonders never cease.”

“If they did,” said the Crow, turning again to leave, “you would simply make your own. Which is a better prospect for the world than you becoming bored.”

Tellwyrn grinned down at the pile of leaves and twigs that had previously been a dryad’s body as the sound of small wings receded down the corridor behind her. “Said Elder Pot to Professor Kettle. Bah… Now, where does Stew keep the brooms?”


“Sorry I’m late,” said Basra, arriving in the command tent and helping herself to a position around the map table. “Have I missed anything significant?”

“No, and you’re hardly late, your Grace,” said Colonel Nintaumbi, nodding respectfully to her. “The only development since last night is that our scouts and scryers have confirmed the absence of any further reaction from Athan’Khar; there are no more monsters north of the river, or indeed north of the corrupted region. Scrying is ineffective beyond that point, I’m afraid.”

“My scouts,” Yrril said calmly, “have ventured to the edge of the corruption and found it calm. The denizens of Athan’Khar are howlingly mad, to the last. It is not in their nature to strategize, or lie in wait. It is safe to assume they are not planning another attack.” She had removed her helmet and carried it under one arm; in the light of day, her armor was revealed to be a form-fitting tunic and trousers of some densely woven material overlaid with strategic plates of metal. All of it, as well as the hilt of her saber, had been treated to prevent them shining even in the sunlight.

“That fits,” Basra agreed, nodding. “Our quarrel is with the elementalist currently hiding there, not with the spirits of Athan’Khar. What we faced last night were simply the specimens antagonized by Falaridjad’s stupidity. Where is she?”

“En route to Vrin Shai to be held pending arraignment,” said General Vaumann. “You and your other companions will naturally be called upon to testify, so the proceedings will have to wait until things are somewhat settled here. I did, on your recommendation, have a suicide watch placed on her, though if I may say so she doesn’t seem the type.”

“Good. Thank you.” Basra nodded deeply to her. “The type or not, I want no risk taken of that treasonous imbecile finding an easy way out of her mess.”

“The rest of your party are still resting,” Vaumann added. “After the night you’ve had, no one would blame you if you remained with them. What an interesting group, Captain Syrinx. A bard, a witch, a sole Legionnaire and a priestess of Izara. One might think you were trying to form an old-fashioned adventuring party.”

Colonel Nintaumbi cracked a grin at that; Yrril cocked her head infinitesimally to one side.

Basra drew in a deep breath through her nose and let it out slowly. “I have a feeling that was rather amusing, General. I may ask you to repeat it sometime when I’m not so fresh from shepherding that gaggle of misfits away from a mostly self-inflicted doom.”

“It’s a date,” Vaumann said with an amused smile.

“In any case,” Nintaumbi said more briskly, “the core of our strategy will rely on magical superiority. General Panissar has sent us two strike teams, and the last scroll I got said four more were requisitioned and on the way. In addition to that, we have no lack of battlemages, both those attached to the units already present and a detachment from the Azure Corps who arrived just an hour ago.”

“We have been assured by our fae specialists,” said General Vaumann, “that while this summoner’s ability to call up elementals at such a long range is impressive and dangerous, maintaining a fine control over them at that range is beyond the realm of possibility. Even if he is a competent general, which we have yet to see evidence for or against, his troops are more like animate weapons. Our objective will be to create controlled chaos on the battlefield and prevent any elementals which arrive from coordinating.”

“Makes sense,” Basra agreed, nodding.

“The Second Legion is going to take a primarily defensive stance,” Vaumann continued. “We’re backed by clerics, and I’ve had them hard at work since yesterday buffing and applying more than the standard blessings to weapons and armor. They’ll make a fine bulwark against anything operating on fae magic. The Imperial Army is going to take a more aggressive stance, using mages, staves and what mag artillery we can get into the field. Yrril’s troops are far more mobile than any of ours; Narisian infantry are quicker even than cavalry, as the Silver Legions have had cause to observe.” She gave Yrril a wry look, receiving a bow and a polite smile in reply. “They’ll form our primary means of controlling the field. The trick here is going to be avoiding any friendly fire incidents; the Legions should be adequately shielded against stray staff shots, and Colonel Nintaumbi is having full suites of grounding and shielding charms issued to the Narisians from the Army’s stores. Beyond that, it’ll be Army hammers and Legion anvils all the way down, with Narisian tongs to put our enemies in just the right spot.”

“Will you have problems fighting in the sun, Yrril?” Basra asked, turning to the drow.

“We have means of dealing with it,” she replied.

“In fact,” Nintaumbi added, “we have reversed variants of the same charms to enable our troops to operate in the dark. We intend to draw up plans for a counter-attack at night. Drow are known to have an advantage in the darkness, but the hope is that human forces moving at night will take them by surprise.”

“As long as this character hides in Athan’Khar,” Basra said grimly, “we’re at a stalemate. Surely you don’t plan to cross the river in force.”

Vaumann shook her head. “The hope is that if we can decisively crush a full complement of whatever he or she fields, it will put our enemy in a more conciliatory frame of mind and we can try diplomacy again.”

Basra grunted. “If he wants Falaridjad, I fully endorse handing her over.”

“I’ll make a note of that,” Vaumann said dryly. “Now, with regard to the immediate—”

“General!” A runner dashed up to the tent, saluting as she came to a stop. “Ma’am, we’ve had a… It’s hard to describe. Some people just arrived on our northern flank, insisting on speaking with whoever’s in charge. They got here with some kind of fae fast-travel effect; they say they just crossed the whole province in the last two hours. On foot.”

Nintaumbi frowned deeply; Yrril raised an eyebrow.

“’Some people?’” Vaumann repeated. “Can you offer a little more detail, Corporal?”

“Very little, ma’am, but it’s a weird group. A woman dressed as a Huntsman of Shaath, a boy about sixteen, a woman who appears to be a dryad, and a man claiming to be the Eserite Bishop.”

“What?” Basra straightened up.

“Did you say a dryad?” Nintaumbi exclaimed. “Are you sure?”

“No…sir,” the Legionnaire said, glancing between him and General Vaumann. “She has green hair and an odd complexion. She’s under-dressed and, um, somewhat lacking in social skills. I was ordered to alert the General, not interrogate them. Ma’am, the Eserite says they have important information about the elemental summoner.”

Vaumann drew in a deep breath and let it out in a huff. “Well. This is peculiar enough, and suggestive enough, that I think it’s worth investigating. Any disagreements?”

Yrril shook her head. “I concur.”

“If we’re going to talk to this lot, let’s go to them,” Nintaumbi said firmly. “If that is a dryad, apart from wanting to know what the hell is going on, I don’t want her in the middle of my troops.”

“Good thinking,” said Basra. “I’ll come along, if I may. I know the Eserite Bishop quite well; if this is an impostor I’ll be able to alert you.”

“Splendid,” said Vaumann. “Lead the way, Corporal.”

The defenses across the southwestern border of Viridill consisted of a line of fortresses, jointly staffed by the Imperial Army and the Silver Legions, marching between the Tiraan Gulf and the southernmost tip of the Stalrange, where the Viridill hills merged with the younger, craggier mountains. The land stretching between them was heavily patrolled, but the fortresses themselves were not large, serving primarily as platforms for mag artillery. They lacked the space to house the much larger than usual forces being assembled along the border, and as such, most of the troops were currently encamped in tents.

One reason the joint operation had gone so well thus far was that the three commanders of the coalition forces got along very well, sharing, among other things, a preference for leading from the front. They had a command center set up in Fort Naveen, which stood right on the coast, but had preferred to move themselves to the middle of their assembled army during the day.

It was a fairly short walk to the point where their mysterious visitors had arrived, and they saw their destination long before getting there. Imperial troops, both on and off duty, were clustered around the region, craning their necks to see what was up ahead and generally preventing the arriving commanders from doing so. A few bellowed words from Nintaumbi scattered them back to their own business, leaving the visitors guarded only by the Silver Legionnaires who were actually supposed to be present.

They were at a staffed checkpoint, either having gone for it directly or been brought there by the soldiers. Legionnaires saluted General Vaumann upon her arrival, stepping aside to grant, finally, a view of the mysterious party.

They were very much as the runner had described: a youth in a sharp suit, a beardless and uncomfortable-looking individual wearing the ceremonial gear of the Huntsmen of Shaath, a sullen-faced young woman with green hair wearing a black leather duster and clearly nothing underneath (as she couldn’t be bothered to hold it closed), and…

“Bas!” Antonio Darling crowed, throwing wide his arms and beaming at her.

“Antonio, what do you think you’re doing here?” she demanded, stalking toward him and ignoring the Legionnaires who moved to intercept her before being called back by a gesture from Vaumann.

“Straight to the point!” he cried, grinning from ear to ear. “Hah, just like old times. I’ve missed you!”

“I gather this actually is him, then?” Vaumann said dryly.

Basra sighed heavily through her nose. “Antonio, these are General Vaumann, Colonel Nintaumbi, and Yrril nur Syvreithe d’zin An’sadarr, the joint commanders of the force assembled here. Ladies and gentleman, may I present Bishop Darling, of the Thieves’ Guild and the Universal Church. And the rest of this I am just dying to hear.”

“Of course, of course,” Darling said gaily, gesturing to his companions. “Meet my very good friends, Brother Ingvar of the Huntsmen, Joseph P. Jenkins of Sarasio…”

“Pleasure,” said Jenkins, tugging the brim of his hat.

“…and of course, Aspen, daughter of Naiya.”

The dryad just folded her arms and grunted sullenly.

“She’s had a trying morning,” Darling confided. “Tree spirits aren’t usually much for cross-country running, and then on top of that we made her wear clothes.”

“You didn’t make me do anything,” Aspen snapped. “I agreed to.”

“What she said,” Darling said equably.

“Excuse me,” said Nintaumbi, “But…the Joseph Jenkins?”

“I’m afraid so, sir,” Jenkins replied.

“What a fascinating story this must be,” said General Vaumann, her eyes roving across the group. “I was told you had information for us?”

“Of course, of course,” said Darling, cheerful as ever. “Might there be someplace a tad more comfortable where we can sit and chat?”

“With the greatest possible respect,” said Nintaumbi, “there are Imperial laws governing dryads.”

“Excuse me?” Aspen exclaimed. “How dare you?”

She stilled instantly when Ingvar took her by the elbow, leaning forward to murmur softly in her ear. The dryad’s expression fell and she lowered her eyes, abashed. Whatever the Huntsman said was too quiet for most of them to hear, though Yrril raised an eyebrow at it.

“I understand your concern,” said Darling, “but Aspen is a friend. We’ll vouch for her.”

“Oh?” Basra folded her arms. “And who’ll vouch for you?”

He gave her a sardonic look. “Oh, come on now, Bas.”

The two Bishops stared at each other for a long moment, then she shook her head. “All right, fine. I cannot say that Bishop Darling doesn’t generally know what he’s doing. If he says Aspen is safe, I’m inclined to believe him.”

“It’s not necessarily that simple,” Nintaumbi said, frowning.

“Perhaps,” Yrril said, “we should consider whether, in an unprecedented situation such as this, codes and regulations are as important as the needs of the moment.”

“I have to agree with that,” said General Vaumann. “Very well; Captain Syrinx, why don’t you escort our very interesting new friends to the command tent? We’ll join you momentarily; I would like a quick word with my fellow commanders.”

“Of course, General,” Basra said with a sigh. “Silly me, hoping I could for a few hours escape the menagerie of oddballs and…adventurers.”

“You do seem to have a knack for finding them, don’t you?” Vaumann agreed.

“I haven’t found a damn one of them,” Basra grumbled, “they keep getting dropped on me. Except Covrin, who I’ll note is the only one who doesn’t add to my headaches. All right, Antonio, bring your friends this way, please. And…try not to touch anything.”


The Universal Church of the Pantheon did not host worship services as such, at least not in the sense that individual cults did. Its smaller chapels, in less-populated areas, often did so, where there were only a few followers of each faith and no space or budget to build a temple for everybody. A Church service tended to be general to the point of generic, lacking the specific flavor of any one deity. The Church’s sanctuaries were built along a plan that encouraged people to sit with their attention focused on a single speaker in the front, as they served as general meeting places in many parts of the Empire and the world, even when not being put to use as houses of worship.

Exactly how much activity the great sanctuary of the Grand Cathedral in Tiraas saw depended very much on the inclinations of whoever was currently Archpope. The sanctuary area was always open, but most often served as a quiet place for prayer and contemplation. Some Archpopes had held prayer meetings multiple times a week, while others did not see fit to call any assembly except in times of great tragedy or celebration.

Justinian’s presence before the public was carefully measured, as was everything he did. Prayer meetings at the Grand Cathedral were regular but not frequent; he sponsored smaller services once a week on average, conducted by a rotating roster of clerics, but himself led a sermon only on a monthly basis. It served to keep him present and memorable in the minds of the public, while always keeping the appetites of the faithful whetted for more of their Archpope’s sparing attention.

This was his first public address since the beginning of the newspaper-driven controversy surrounding the University at Last Rock, and his Holiness was playing to a bigger crowd even than usual; the Grand Cathedral was packed to the point that Holy Legionaries had finally stopped more people from entering, so many were standing along the walls. Thus far, his sermon had been fairly typical, but when he shifted to the topic everyone most wanted to hear about, the hundreds present stilled so fully that their collectively indrawn breath was plainly audible.

“I know that many of you have been concerned with reports from Last Rock,” the Archpope stated, gazing out across the crowd with a solemn frown, his hands resting on the edges of his pulpit. “The matter has been argued over so much in recent days that I think this issue has become somewhat muddied. At its core, it seems to me that this is a controversy over nothing less than the role of adventurers in our society. Whether they are still part of the modern world… Whether they should be.

“It speaks well of our people, I think, that so many have opinions on this, and care enough to discuss them. We were once an adventuring society; wandering heroes have done much to shape our history, and the destinies of nations…and Empires. This is a question of who we once were, who we shall become, and who we are. A society will only flourish while its members care about such questions.”

He paused, then smiled with a careful touch of ruefulness. “If you hoped to hear me endorse or rebuke Arachne Tellwyrn for teaching a generation of young adventurers to follow the old ways, I must disappoint you. It is important for an Archpope, more even than most spiritual leaders, to remember his or her place, and to cultivate a measure of humility. I am here to intercede, to mediate—not to direct.

“This, though, I will say: it is my fervent hope that in the days to come, while this matter is discussed and debated, you will all remember the importance of solidarity.” He raised his arms in a gesture of benediction, smiling kindly down on the assembled faithful. “Everything that brings us together here is rooted in the concepts of togetherness, and oneness. We are many nations under one Empire. We are many faiths under one Church. Even the very gods we follow have led the way and set this example: they are many deities, gathered in one Pantheon. It is a universal truth that people are stronger together than when they are split asunder. Please, remember this as you contemplate the role of adventurers, of this University, of any matter that engenders strong feeling. Anyone who would divide you from one another seeks only to control or destroy; look to those who bring togetherness. Only together do we continue to grow toward the bright destiny to which the gods have called us.”

“I am glad to hear you say so.”

Gasps rose all around as her voice echoed through the cathedral. She appeared at the opposite end of the central aisle from the Archpope behind his pulpit, just inside the great open doors without having passed the Holy Legionaries guarding them.

She was a young woman rather shorter than average and not much to look at—but she was also a towering figure, her head brushing the peaked roof high above, and her presence filling the vast chamber. Her voice was soft and unprepossessing, yet powerful enough to echo through the ears and souls of every person present as if she stood right beside them. Nothing changed upon her arrival, and it it was as if the cathedral were filled with brilliant sunlight, with the smell of flowers…or at least, the sense of such things.

Izara paced slowly forward, smiling calmly to the left and right as she came. Shocked worshipers belatedly fell to their knees as she passed, as did the armored Legionaries posted throughout the sanctuary.

“The Pantheon have talked about this among ourselves,” said the goddess as she strolled forward. “The nature of the world today, the needs of our people. And, specifically, the University at Last Rock, its students and graduates. Its…eccentric…founder and leader.” She shook her head, slowly, and it was as if sunbeams shifted throughout the room, the scents of different flowers changing rapidly as though carried on playful currents of wind. “Arachne Tellwyrn… What a difficult individual. We have long observed her, and dealt with her. We know her faults, and they are many.

“But we know her virtues as well, and those are also many. Ultimately… Arachne is someone we know, and who knows us. Someone who cares for the world and the people in it, though her unique way of being can obscure that fact. She has earned a measure of trust.”

Izara continued forward, having crossed most of the sanctuary by now; the Archpope had stepped around from behind his pulpit to meet her. He did not kneel, but bowed to the goddess, and held that uncomfortable position as she came.

“Your Archpope has spoken truly. This question is one of adventurers, of heroes, of whether they are necessary, and what form they should take. I have discussed this with my brothers and sisters, and this I will tell you: we were once adventurers, and heroes. Taking up the mantle of godhood was necessary in those dark times. It is a fate I would not wish upon anyone for whom I cared, but it was what had to be done.

“And that is all a hero is: someone who does what is necessary. You may think, when you hear the word, of rangers and wizards, rogues and bards, embarking on a quest for gold and glory. It applies just as well to the man who rushes into a burning building to rescue a child. To the woman who seeks a public office to represent the needs of common people who have been too long ignored. To a priest who prays for you, and with you, and helps you through your darkest hours, no matter how exhausted he may be in his own soul. Heroes are all around you.”

The goddess reached the end of the great chamber and turned to face them, her back to the Archpope and pulpit. She was far too short to obscure the crowd’s view of the dais; her awesome, towering presence blotted out everything but herself.

“One thing a hero must be is prepared, and that means there must be those dedicated to preparing them. Perhaps someday, this shall be a peaceful world. A world where all of nature is in harmony, where no wars rage and no diseases ravage. A world in which every government and every church has no aim except the well-being of those who look to them.” Slowly, mournfully, Izara shook her head again. “It is not such a world yet. And in addition to those mundane problems that have always plagued humanity, it is a world complicated by magic and still haunted by surviving memories of the bitter times that gave birth to the Pantheon. I will say this to you: it is not time for the age of heroes to end. Not yet.

“They must change, though. The old ways don’t work in the new world. No one understands this better than we. My sisters and brothers called no paladins for three decades while we considered the state of the world, and those called since have each been of a new pattern, selected to address new needs. A new kind of hero is needed.”

She paused, her eyes moving across the kneeling crowd, then smiled. “I trust Arachne to teach a new generation how to fill that need. Remember what your Archpope has told you today: it is togetherness that will save us all. Arachne cannot do this alone, and should not be expected to. I agree with the criticism of some that she ought not be the sole arbiter of what youths become powerful and successful, but that does not mean she should be condemned for stepping up to fill a need. More must rise. It is up to you to shape the destiny of your world, and to decide what kind of life you will leave for your children. Love one another always, and you will find the heroes among you who are needed.”

The goddess smiled, and everyone present felt suddenly alive as never before, giddily joyful and yet solemn. Then, just as quickly, her expression sobered.

“On a personal note, I would clarify that Branwen Snowe does not speak for me, or my faith. Remember love, my friends. Care for each other as yourselves.”

And she was gone.

The stillness left by her absence was stunning; the hundreds of souls kneeling in the Cathedral stared, awestruck, at the place where the goddess had stood.

Archpope Justinian, fittingly, was the first to recover his poise.

“We have been blessed beyond measure,” he said, his normally controlled voice slightly rough with emotion. He stepped back behind the pulpit, gazing fervently down upon his people. “Remember this day, my friends; it is only rarely, and never for nothing, that the gods speak to us in person. Remember what you have been told. Love one another as yourselves. Each of you must carry this forward in your hearts, and decide what it means for your lives. For now, I believe a prayer of thanks for this blessing is called for.”

Somewhat shakily, the parishoners rose to slide back into pews, following along as the Archpope led them in a devotion of gratitude and humility before their gods. All the while, he remained a living picture of perfect serenity.

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The end of the dream wasn’t clearly marked; Ingvar still flailed, feeling he was falling, and only belatedly realized he was in the grove of the elves and not a featureless white void. He was kicking up rents in the moss and very close to conking his head on a tree root before he caught hold of himself and stilled.

“Omnu’s breath, is he okay?” Joe’s voice exclaimed from somewhere in the near distance.

“Ingvar.” Mary was closer; in fact, suddenly she filled his field of view, her eyes intent and concerned. “Look at me. Are you well? Are you still there?”

“Still—where else would I be?” he demanded, straightening up with a wince.

“The vision should not be exited that abruptly, or violently,” she said, still frowning at him, but backed away to give him space. “Obviously, my first concern is for your welfare. Please, take your time, take stock. Be certain.”

“I…am fine, I think,” he said, getting his legs under him to sit upright. Both his hands were clenched shut…

Aspen’s hand clasped in his left. It was gone—she was gone. But in the right…

He opened his fingers, and there it was. The nut, shaped somewhat like an uncapped acorn, but larger, shot through with veins of glowing green like some magical ore.

“What is that?” Mary demanded. “Where did you get it?”

“It’s a promise,” he whispered. “Khadizroth gave it to me.”

“Khadizroth?” three voices exclaimed simultaneously.

Ingvar looked up, frowning. “That is your answer, shaman. It was he who sent me the dreams. You…all know this dragon?”

“I don’t know why I expected more mystery,” Darling grunted, folding his arms. “Must just be the general pattern of this trip. But no, suddenly a lot of things make a lot more sense.”

“This can’t be a coincidence,” Joe added. “Ain’t no such animal. What would the ol’ lizard want with sending you to suss out this hidden knowledge?”

“He was just starting to explain,” Ingvar said grimly, finally standing up, “when he was attacked.”

“Attacked?” Mary asked sharply.

“I couldn’t see by what. He was talking, and suddenly thrashed in pain. His struggles tore at the vision, and it fell apart.”

“How much did he tell you?” she demanded.

“He spoke of events south of here, in Viridill. Something about honor and obligation that kept him trapped, and how what was transpiring there was a front for…well, that was when he lost focus.”

“Viridill,” Mary said, eyes narrowing. “Of course. Khadizroth…Justinian.”

“What’s goin’ on in Viridill?” Joe asked, blinking his eyes.

“Strange elemental attacks,” said Darling, frowning at Mary.

“What the—how do you know that?” the Kid exclaimed. “You’ve been with us this whole time?”

“C’mon, what did you think I wanted that newspaper for in Veilgrad, lining a birdcage?”

“You didn’t have it an hour later!”

“They aren’t books, Joe; you read ’em and toss ’em. Which I did. C’mon, who brings a newspaper along on a camping trip?”

“Who buys a newspaper on a—”

“Boys!” Mary barked. “Focus, please, we have more important matters. If Khadizroth is seeking to—Ingvar, stop!”

He had turned his back to them, crouched, and begun gouging up a hole in the moss, exposing rich forest loam below, and continuing to dig. It was a little awkward with one hand, but in moments he had achieved a hole a few inches deep.

“Whatever Khadizroth gave you that for, he is not to be trusted,” Mary said insistently.

“Actually, if he gave his word, I’d honestly take him at it,” Joe said. “Ain’t like he doesn’t have his faults, but he’s a little obsessed with honor.”

“Joe, please,” Mary said in some exasperation. “Ingvar, explain carefully what he said about that before you…oh.”

Ingvar was just in the process of replacing the dirt over the top of the nut.

“Welp, I guess that’s done,” Darling remarked. “Excuse me, everybody, while I back away from whatever’s about to happen.”

“After all this time, Ingvar, I would expect more patience from you,” Mary said, her mouth tight with disapproval. “Have you any idea what that thing does?”

“It rescues someone to whom I made a promise,” Ingvar replied, following Darling’s example and stepping back. “This is about more than just Khadizroth. I will explain everything, shaman, and I will also want some explanations, since you seem to know things about this that we don’t…”

“How’s that for a shocker,” Joe muttered.

“…but this won’t wait,” Ingvar continued, meeting Mary’s irate gaze and not backing down. “She’s already been a prisoner too long.”

“She?” the Crow exclaimed.

A shoot of green burst up from the soil.

It glowed faintly, like the phantom trees Khadizroth had used to light the way through the dream world, and uncurled rapidly, rising knee-high in seconds. All of them, even Mary, backed away further as the sapling took form, its body hardening into wood and halting its growth at roughly human height, and continued to change.

“Ingvar, what have you done?” Mary whispered.

The tree was no longer growing vertically, but it was taking a distinct form, its topmost point swelling rapidly like a bulb. Branches separated from its body, two of them, and the lower half of the thin trunk thickened and split in two.

“Oh, gods, that is creepy,” Joe breathed, and Darling nodded in agreement.

It was still taking shape, not quite formed and decorated oddly here and there by little protruding leaves, but the sapling was very clearly taking on the form of a skeleton. Its mass continued to expand outward, pelvis and ribcage forming, legs and arms developing joints, the spine beginning to show vertebrae. Two eye sockets appeared in its skull, and the lower portion partially detached, its proto-jawbone hanging.

The half-made skull shifted slightly to aim at Ingvar and emitted a low, eerie moan, like the creaking of a ship’s timbers. One skeletal arm reached feebly toward the Huntsman, its partially-formed finger bones bristling with new leaves.

“Right, don’t plant magic nuts Khadizroth gives you in a dream,” said Darling. “I would’ve thought that was common sense.”

“Well, it ain’t like he knows Khadizroth like we do,” Joe said nervously, drawing one wand and pointing it at the skeleton-sapling. “Mary, what do you think—”

“Put away the weapon,” she said curtly, eyes fixed on the still-swelling tree. “If this is what it seems to be, you could doom us all by harming her. Ingvar… I dearly hope you understand what you’ve done. I’m not certain that I do.”

He remained silent, watching the dryad form.

It was both fascinating and repulsive. Thick vines burst out from her joints, lacing together along her limbs and central body and lining her skull, quickly swelling in the middle to become obvious muscles, or facsimiles thereof. Fortunately they formed across her ribs and abdomen in time to spare them most of the sight of bulbous, mushroom-like structures bursting into being in the place of organs. They formed together and pulsed visibly as they were walled off by the verdant muscle tissue, though they nascent eyes and breasts were still unhidden. A thick amber sap began to ooze out from between the vines, coating the entire structure and filling the air with its sharp scent; she emitted a slightly more human moan, twisting and staggering to the side as if about to fall.

Ingvar reflexively stepped forward to catch her, and Mary grabbed him by the collar.

“Do not put your hands on that,” she said flatly, “unless you want them to be consumed, and possibly the rest of you as well.”

Another tracery of vines was unfolding over the now woman-shaped tree, much smaller and more golden in color, forming an intricate lattice across and through her structure; only after a few seconds of puzzled study did Ingvar realize he was looking at a circulatory system. At the very least, they soaked up the sap, which was a relief; the sight was still eerie, but somewhat less disgusting when not oozing.

Moss appeared in patches, a thing, lichen-like growth that spread quickly to cover her surface in fuzz, while at the same time long blades of pale green grass sprang out of her skull, quickly extending upward almost three feet and giving her an altogether crazed look.

The eyes formed fully before the eyelids did, which was somehow the most disturbing sight yet.

The moss spread far too rapidly to be skin, though, coating her in a cocoon of fuzz that wouldn’t stop expanding even after it formed a foot-thick nimbus.

The oddly fluffy feminine form wrapped arms around itself, shuddering.

“Uh,” Joe said uncertainly, “I don’t think it’s, uh, going right.”

She trembled again, and suddenly the long thatch of tallgrass surmounting her went limp, falling around her head in a curtain of thick, glossy green hair. As if that kicked off a final chain reaction, the moss suddenly dried out and flaked away, a green torrent of it falling from her, starting at the head and working its way down to her feet.

And there she stood, just as he remembered from the dream. Alive, nude, and perfect. She opened her brown eyes, looked up at the treetops waving above them, and smiled.

“Aspen?” Mary exclaimed in shock. Ingvar would never have admitted just how gratifying that was.

Aspen snapped her gaze down to fix on the Crow, and her delighted expression immediately collapsed in a scowl. “Oh. Hello, you.”

“Well, I gather they’ve met before,” Darling said airily.

“Uh huh,” Joe replied, now flushed bright red and staring determinedly away from the naked dryad.

She turned toward Ingvar, widening her eyes, then frowning slightly, and took a step forward, peering fixedly at his face.

“Are you…all right?” Ingvar asked hesitantly. “That looked rather…uncomfortable. You made it through unharmed?”

“Ingvar?” She took two long strides toward him; he instinctively reared back, but Aspen closed the distance and reached up to take his face in her hands. “It is you. But…you’re female.”

He gritted his teeth, and gently grasped her wrist, opening his mouth to reply.

“But…not,” the dryad continued, frowning, and tilting her head to one side. An oddly pleased expression blossomed on her features. “Huh. I’ve never seen that before. You’re interesting!”

“Well…thank you,” he said with a sigh. “And you’re all right? You look the same, but as I say, that looked somewhat traumatic.”

Suddenly her expression changed again, her smile widening and taking on a distinctly unpleasant aspect. “Oh, hey, y’know what? This is the real world now.”

The dryad shifted her grip, letting one hand drop to her side and grasping him by the throat with the other.

“And here, I’m stronger than you.”

“Aspen!” Mary snapped, taking a step forward.

She stopped in surprise when Ingvar raised a hand, holding out his palm toward her, but not removing his stare from the dryad’s brown eyes. Joe had surged forward, his wand upraised again, but he, too, came to a halt, staring in alarm.

“Aspen,” Ingvar said calmly, his voice rasping only faintly under her grip, “let go.”

She narrowed her eyes, staring back at him, but her head tilted imperceptibly back the other way, and he saw the sudden hesitation on her features.

It was an expression he recognized, though not from seeing it on her. Ingvar had been around children before. They acted out, yes, but on a deeper level, they wanted to understand where the boundaries were.

“I will not ask you again,” he said quietly.

The dryad stared, her nostrils flaring once, and then she abruptly released him, taking a convulsive step back and wrapping her arms around herself. Never had he seen an apparent adult look so guilty.

“We made a deal,” Ingvar said firmly. “Remember?”

She glanced up at him from the corner of her eye, then pouted and nodded once.

“Then I expect you to abide by it,” he said. “Is that clear?”

Another pause, another little nod.

“Aspen.” He waited until she looked up at him fully. “Is that clear?”

She grimaced, swallowed, and nodded again, more deeply. “I… Yes. I’m sorry.”

Ingvar nodded in reply. “Good. Don’t forget again. I’m glad you’re all right,” he added, softening his voice. “I was worried.”

She looked up again, now wearing a shy smile.

He looked to the side, finding the others all staring at him in shock. Even Mary. Oh, yes, that was satisfying.

“I think,” the Crow said slowly, “you had better begin explaining this, Brother Ingvar. When last I saw this dryad, she was frozen in time and halfway through a transformation into a monstrous form.”

“A trans—they transform?” Joe said, blinking rapidly. Darling, for once, kept quiet.

“I followed the trail I found in the dream,” Ingvar said, stepping over beside Aspen; in stark contrast to her momentary aggression of before, she eased partially behind him, staring mistrustfully at the others over his shoulder. “It was your scent—or essence, or something like it—mingled with another, which I later learned to be the dragon Khadizroth. They moved in the same direction for a time, then diverged. I followed yours first—”

“And why would you do that?” she interrupted, staring at him with her customary evenness, apparently having quickly recovered from her shock. Well, that was only to be expected. “You know what you were sent there to discover, and it wasn’t me.”

“Oh, come on, how is that even a question?” Darling asked, rolling his eyes. “Mary, it’s not that we don’t respect you, but if you’re going to run around acting all aloof and mysterious, and especially if you insist on leading people by the nose through preposterous quests, they’re naturally going to seize any chance to find out what you’re really up to. You’ve got nobody to blame for that but yourself. Any good Eserite could’ve explained it to you.”

“Quite frankly, I find it hard to believe you didn’t see it comin’,” Joe added. He shrugged a little defensively when Mary turned to give them a very flat look.

“Well, they’re right,” Aspen muttered sullenly.

“Anyway,” said Ingvar, pulling the Crow’s attention back to himself, “that led me to Aspen, who was imprisoned in…some kind of hourglass.”

“An hourglass,” Mary said, staring at him. “Ingvar, do you have any idea how much effort went into crafting the dream-space that held her separate in time? Accessible only to me and my fellow healers who were trying to help her? How did you get in?”

“I have no idea,” he said frankly. “I just did. It was as simple as taking a few steps. Perhaps someone better attuned to the vision could have interpreted it more accurately, but all I remember doing was walking there and pulling open the door.”

“A door?”

“There was another thing, though,” Ingvar added, frowning, and turned to Darling. “Brother Andros has mentioned that you are an acknowledged expert on the history of Elilial, Darling. Does this include knowledge of other, forgotten or less-known gods?”

“Only in passing,” the Bishop replied, cocking his head curiously. “I take it this isn’t a random subject change?”

“It’s just that this is the second time I’ve seen a specific image in a vision that proved to be highly meaningful,” said Ingvar, “and I still don’t know what it means. Are you aware of any god who uses spider webs as a symbol?”

“Spider webs,” Darling mused, frowning deeply. “Well…no, not a one. Not even the pagan gods I know of, and there are very few still extant who aren’t aligned with the Pantheon. None endemic to this continent; Khar was the last of those. No Pantheon god considers spiders sacred, nor Elilial.”

Mary was now watching them all even, her face suddenly devoid of expression.

“Although,” Darling mused, “the drow use a lot of spider iconography. That just occurred to me because it specifically isn’t sacred to Themynra. I always figured it was because spiders were important down there; most cultures use images of animals they’re familiar with in their art. I know very little about Scyllithene worship, though. Hardly anyone does.”

“Have you anything to add to this?” Ingvar asked, turning his attention to Mary.

“I?” She raised one eyebrow. “I believe you were still rendering an explanation, Huntsman.”

“I had come nearly to the end of it,” he said shrugging. “Aspen wished to be released from her prison, and I found I hadn’t the heart to leave her caged.”

“Because he’s a good person,” Aspen said pointedly, glaring at Mary.

“You hush,” the Crow snapped. “And so you just brought her out of a place where she was safe, into a realm foreign to her? Do you realize how close you came to killing her, Ingvar?”

He nodded. “Khadizroth explained that, too. Knowing what I do now, I might have acted differently. But based on what I knew at the time…what else could I have done?”

“You could have refrained from meddling with something you manifestly did not understand!” Mary said sharply. “Do you know what happens to a butterfly if you help it out of its cocoon?”

“I have never had a newborn butterfly beg for rescue in obvious misery,” he said quietly.

Mary closed her eyes, then shook her head. “I suppose we should be grateful that this did not lead to real disaster. Still, I mistrust this turn of events. Khadizroth isn’t one to do favors for me without an ulterior motive.”

“Actually,” said Aspen, “he was doing me a favor. In fact, he specifically said it was even better because it gave him a chance to stick it to you and the Arachne.”

Darling burst out laughing.

Mary sighed heavily, giving the Bishop an irritated glance. “Well, that much, at least, I have no trouble believing. And I suppose it would also be in his nature to aid a dryad if one came before him in need. Particularly since she would have been in extreme peril thanks to Ingvar’s intervention.”

“It worked out,” Ingvar said somewhat defensively.

“Yeah!” Aspen added, sticking out her tongue at Mary.

“Well, anyway,” Joe said loudly, still keeping his gaze pointedly away from the dryad, “what’d we learn about Khadizroth? And what’s goin’ on in Viridill?”

Mary turned away from Ingvar and Aspen, pacing a few steps distant and staring off into the darkened woods in thought. “I had not connected these events with Khadizroth specifically, but it hangs together alarmingly well.”

“Somethin’ about elementals?” Joe prompted when she trailed off.

“They have been attacking the Sisterhood’s interests throughout Viridill,” Mary said, “exhibiting sophisticated tactics which elementals do not use without the guidance of a powerful summoner. The Avenists and more recently the Empire are increasingly stirred up over this, as you can imagine.”

“Omnu’s breath,” Joe whispered, frowning. “But… Why would Khadizroth… You reckon he’s finally turning against the Archpope?”

“The Archpope?” Ingvar exclaimed.

“Who?” Aspen asked, frowning in puzzlement.

Darling glanced at the other two before answering. “You didn’t hear this from me, Ingvar, but Khadizroth the Green has been working on behalf of Justinian, lately. Under…we’re not sure. Some combination of duress and obligation; the details of that relationship are probably not known to anybody but the people in it.”

“He said that,” Ingvar said, realization dawning on his face. “He was trapped by honor, and under an obligation he did not like. He was turning against whomever he was beholden to—the Archpope, if what you say is true. But not because he’s summoning elementals; it was my quest that was his rebellion. He said he sent out the visions as a gambit to draw Mary’s attention to what was happening in Viridill without being too overt.”

“But what would Justinian possibly have to gain from attacking Viridill with elementals?” Joe exclaimed. “I mean, aside from bein’ incredibly risky to make the Sisterhood of Avei an enemy, what’s the point?”

Darling clapped a hand to his forehead. “Basra!”

“Hm,” Mary mused.

“What are you guys talking about?!” Aspen shouted.

“I’m sorry,” Ingvar said, patting her on the shoulder. “I know all this must be boring for you. It’s important, though; have a little patience, please.”

“Well, okay,” she grumbled, leaning her head against his shoulder. The gesture was startling, and the sensation oddly pleasant.

“Basra Syrinx is the Avenist Bishop,” Darling said, beginning to pace up and down in excitement. “She’s also one of the few in Justinian’s inner circle. I don’t know the specifics of what she did to cheese off High Commander Rouvad, but she’s been exiled to Viridill for the last few months as some kind of punishment. If Justinian wanted her back…”

“Then,” Joe continued, nodding in understanding, “all he’s gotta do is enchant up a crisis, one this Bishop Syrinx would be suited to solve. An’ if he was controllin’ the source of the crisis, he could make sure she was the one to solve it. If she was a big enough hero, the High Commander would almost have to bring ‘er back.”

“Is Syrinx really that important to Justinian?” Mary asked, watching Darling closely. “I would have thought her too risky and difficult to control.”

“Well, apparently she is,” Darling replied “which is a fascinating revelation to me. Unless you have a better explanation for all this.”

“Andros has spoken on the subject of Bishop Syrinx,” said Ingvar. “I doubt he would be pleased to see her back.”

“A lot of people wouldn’t be,” Darling agreed. “Which would explain why extraordinary measures were needed to get her back.”

“Then,” said Mary, “as things stand, Justinian’s plans proceed apace, and he is on the verge of getting something he wants. Whatever he did to Khadizroth to prevent him from revealing this plan to Ingvar, we cannot assume he has removed the dragon from play, or that his plans have been stopped. He is not one to launch such an effort without failsafes in place.”

“I agreed,” Darling said, nodding grimly. “We’re here, and we’re the only ones who know what’s going on. We have to step in.”

“Why do we want to stop the Archpope’s plans?” Ingvar asked quietly.

All three of them turned to look at him, and he could clearly see the contemplation on their faces. There was something politically deep going on here, something to which he was not privy.

“Well, because he’s a jerk,” Aspen said reasonably.

“You know about this?” Ingvar demanded. “How?”

The dryad shrugged. “This Archpope guy is forcing a dragon to act in a way he doesn’t want to and hurting him to shut him up when he tries to talk about it. He’s calling up innocent elementals and using them to attack innocent humans, just to trick everybody into liking somebody who apparently is also a jerk. I mean, I get the impression there’s a lot of history here that I don’t know about, but just from what you guys have described right here, he sounds like an asshole.” She looked up at Ingvar. “You talked to me about honor, right? Doing stuff that’s…right? And good? If we’re gonna be doing that, it sounds like we’re not on the Archpope’s side.”

“Wow,” Joe said, blinking. “That’s remarkably perceptive.”

“I’m not dumb,” Aspen said defensively.

“My apologies, ma’am,” the Kid replied, doffing his hat to her. “I certainly didn’t mean to imply you were.”

“Viridill’s just on the other side of this grove,” said Darling. “If we start now…”

“You will have to cross the entire province,” Mary said thoughtfully. “Khadizroth will be operating out of Athan’Khar; it has already been determined with relative certainty that the source of the elemental attacks is there, and a green dragon would have little to fear from the things therein. Vrin Shai itself is closer to the southern border than the northern one, and the Imperial and Avenist forces concentrated along the border will be where those planning any defensive effort are concentrated.”

Joe drew in a deep breath and blew it out in an explosive sigh. “It’ll take a day or two… I mean, once we get to the Rails, sure, but it’s a fair piece o’ walkin’ to make it that far, if I remember right from the maps I’ve seen.”

“Wait, ‘you’?” Ingvar demanded. “You won’t come?”

Darling cleared his throat. “Mary can’t exactly talk with the Imperial Army. They’d shoot on sight.”

“…oh.”

“I can expedite your travel, though,” she said.

“Wait,” Joe said nervously, “you’re not talkin’ about that creepy place…between, are you?”

“Absolutely not,” she said firmly. “What Tiraas did to Athan’Khar struck from across the planes. Traveling between dimensions in its vicinity is extremely unwise.”

“Y’mean even more unwise than it normally is.”

“Precisely. However, you can be blessed with a charm that will enable you to cross great distances quite quickly. I can arrange it such that it will fade as you reach your destination.”

“You sure?” If anything, Joe looked even less comfortable. “I mean, Raea did that for us out in Desolation an’ she had to be there to undo it at the other end.”

“Raea is a smart girl,” Mary said dryly, “who has devoted less time and effort to the craft than have my toenails. Trust me, Joe, I know what I am about. Besides, I will need to escort Aspen safely back to Last Rock.”

“Oh, no you don’t,” Aspen said, clinging to Ingvar’s arm. “I wanna go with you guys. I’m staying with Ingvar.”

Darling winced. “Um, I’m not sure that’s a great idea.”

“What?” she demanded. “Why not?”

“This is going to lead to some already difficult conversations; it’s going to be tricky enough to explain what’s going on and how we know of it. Adding a dryad to the mix will just make things worse.”

“Dryads generally cause somethin’ of a ruckus if they get too close to Imperial holdings,” Joe added.

“What?” She seemed offended. “What’s wrong with dryads?”

“Dryads are unpredictable and dangerous,” Ingvar replied.

“Oh,” she said, mollified. “Well, okay, then. But figure it out, because I am not staying here with her.” She glared accusingly at Mary, who rolled her eyes.

“If nothing else,” said the Crow, “I still need to learn whether Naiya plans any vengeance for what befell Juniper.”

“Naiya?” Joe said in alarm. “Vengeance? What happened to Juniper?”

“You know Juniper?” Aspen asked, staring at him.

“Aspen,” Mary said in exasperation.

“Well, of course Mother isn’t going to do anything,” the dryad replied in the same tone. “Honestly. You of all people should know better than that; if she were going to smack everybody she’d have done it by now. Mother doesn’t have the biggest attention span.”

“Still,” said Ingvar, patting her hand where it gripped his arm, “they’re right. Bringing you would be an added complication.”

“But…I wanna stay with you,” she said plaintively, gazing up at him.

“No,” Mary said flatly.

“It’s really not a good idea,” Darling agreed.

Joe cleared his throat. “Um, ‘scuze me, but can I just play dryad’s advocate, here?”

Everyone turned to stare at him.

“So, we’re goin’ into a situation where we’ve got an army of elementals on one side and an army of humans on the other, right?” he said. “Well, seems to me it’d be fantastically useful to have someone along who can order one side to stand down an’ who the other side won’t dare shoot at.”

Silence held for a moment while they considered that.

“Elementals may not be so easily ordered about,” Mary mused finally. “Still, though…you’re not without a point. They would definitely not attack a dryad. It’s quite possible that their summoner could not even force them to. And neither the Imperial Army nor the Silver Legions would risk it, either.”

“Right,” said Joe, nodding. “So if worst comes to worst, we just have ‘er stand in the middle and…that’s that.”

“Yay!” Aspen beamed at them. “I’m coming along! Oh, but before we go…can we stop and hunt something? I’ve just been, like, re-born, and I’m really hungry.”

They all backed quickly away.

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