Tag Archives: Maureen

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“Morning,” Jasmine said mildly as Tallie shambled into the kitchen, blinking blearily.

“My ten-year-old self would hate me for asking this,” Tallie replied, pausing to smother a yawn, “but how come I gotta come in here after some food? Glory and Smythe both seem to love playing host. I figured there’d be something laid out in the dining room.”

“You missed them,” Jasmine replied. She was leaning against the kitchen cabinets, idly practicing rolling a coin across the backs of her fingers; at this point she could do it as smoothly as any Guild veteran. It had been harder for her to learn to lean against things rather than standing at parade rest, and her posture still looked a bit affected. Too stiff in the shoulders to be a believable ruffian’s slouch. “Glory left first thing this morning to do some errands and check up on things—she’s got contacts to…uh, contact, both official and less so. Pretty much all of her household went along. Rasha to learn, Smythe for protection because she is still an item of interest to violent conspirators, and Ami…” she grimaced. “Actually I’m less sure about that.”

“To shmooze,” Layla said primly. The only other person present, she was seated at the kitchen table, working on a plate upon which she had assembled slices from the bread, cheese, and summer sausage laid out. “Ami is quite the career girl, and Glory is the best opportunity she’s ever had.”

“This morning has been an interesting experiment in who gets up when, without Style stomping through the dormitories kicking random beds,” Jasmine asked with a grin. “Ross has been through and out; Schwartz came in for some tea and I seriously think he was sleepwalking the whole time. No sign of Darius yet.”

“An’ you’re up, of course,” Tallie grumbled, shuffling over to the table and plopping herself into a seat before reaching for the sausage. “I’ve got no explanation for this one.”

“That’s because you never listen to me,” Layla scoffed. “Little rich girl can’t possibly have anything worthwhile to say.”

“No, no,” Tallie moaned, weakly flapping a hand at her. “No sniping till I’m properly awake. Unfair. What about that thing where all our lives’re in danger, huh? We know anything about that? The Bishops got it all squared away?”

“I think that’s the lion’s share of what Glory went to find out,” Jasmine said more seriously, then straightened up. “The second shift of Legionnaires Syrinx called for came to relieve the others less than an hour ago. This looked like less than a half squad, so hopefully things are simmering down. I know we’re all gonna get stir crazy, but the Bishops were right; better to stay put while this is cleaned up by the professionals. I’m going to go check on the others.”

“Good idea,” said Layla. “Ross was talking about going outside to flirt with the Legionnaires.”

Tallie straightened up, blinking in surprise. Jasmine hesitated in the act of heading for the door, turning a wary look on Layla. “…I thought he was joking. I mean, come on. Have you ever known Ross to flirt with anybody?”

Layla arched an eyebrow. “Have you ever known him to joke?”

Jasmine stared at her for a moment, then shook her head. “Bloody hell,” she muttered, hurrying out through the dining room.

“Are they making the troops stand outside, still?” Tallie asked blearily after swallowing a bite of sausage. “Just cos it hasn’t snowed in a week doesn’t mean it’s balmy out there.”

“They’re troops, that’s what they do,” Layla replied with an indifferent shrug. “Those last night declined offers to come in. And rightly so; they can’t very well guard the house against intruders if they’re not watching for people to approach.”

“Ah, yes, right,” Tallie said, eyes on the sandwich she was now making of cheese and sausage folded into a slice of bread. “Gods know we can’t have those little people acting above their station.”

Layla gazed at her in silence for a moment, then shook her head. “Tallie, I have refrained from rising to your bait because I know enough about my own social class to assume your antipathy is well earned. Let me just ask you this, though: have I, personally, ever acted toward you as if I thought you were somehow lesser than myself?”

“Yes,” Tallie said immediately, still looking at her sandwich. “First day we met, when you showed up in that preposterous fuckin’ carriage.”

“Fair enough. And…since?”

Tallie slowly chewed a bite while Layla regarded her in silence. After she finished and just sat there, staring at her food for a moment, the younger girl sighed and opened her mouth to continue.

“You’re a lady,” Tallie said suddenly. “Look…you’re right, it’s not really fair. You’ve been okay to me, just like anyone else in our little group. But your brother goes out of his way to be as much of an oaf as a boy can; he reminds me of the roadies from the caravan growing up. You, though, you’re just so…everything I associate with people looking down their noses at me. Even when there’s no malice behind it, I can’t help…reacting.”

“I suppose I can understand that,” Layla mused after pausing to consider. “I’m not sure it’s fair, though. I would say that Jasmine is as ladylike in her conduct as I.”

“Jasmine isn’t a lady,” Tallie said immediately. “Truthfully…I dunno what the hell she is. She gives off some weird signals sometimes; only thing I know is she’s trying hard to fit in with us mere mortals. Maybe that’s the difference. I’ve got a category I can fit you in, fair or not, and it’s not exactly a pretty one. Jas is just Jas, in a class of her own.”

“Well, as to that,” Layla said with a faint smile, “I’ve been disappointed, I’ll confess, at not having someone to snipe at Ami with behind her back. I love Jasmine, too, but she’s not very good at…girl things.”

“Boy, ain’t that the truth,” Tallie replied, grinning and finally meeting her eyes. “I honestly don’t think she understands why anyone would dislike Ami.”

“She was raised Avenist,” Layla huffed. “I half wonder if she doesn’t try to sneak glances like the boys do and is just better at hiding it.”

“After sharing a dorm with Jas I am pretty sure she’s not into girls,” Tallie said dryly. “Anyhow, don’t you worry about dearest Ami; let her have her spotlight while she can. As my mom used to say: the bigger they are, the farther they fall.”

Layla was unfortunately in the process of taking another bite and nearly choked, doubling over with laughter.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Tallie said lightly, lounging back and tipping her chair up on two legs. “This is fun. Jas’d just lecture us about body-shaming a fellow woman.”

“Give me credit for recognizing a lost cause,” Jasmine said, striding back into the room. Tallie and Layla both straightened up guiltily, but met each other’s eyes with a conspiratorial little shared smile. Jasmine, however, looked worried. “No one panic yet, but I think we have trouble.”

Both of them instantly sobered, Tallie rising from her chair. “Is everybody okay?”

“I haven’t made a complete sweep of the house,” Jasmine said quickly, “didn’t even get upstairs. But I did poke my nose outside, and the Legionnaires are gone. The whole squad; none of their assigned positions are attended. That is not normal procedure; they should have notified someone if they were being recalled.”

“Did you happen to see any of the boys?” Layla asked, her eyebrows drawing together.

Jasmine shook her head. “I wanted to warn you two something might be up; I haven’t gone looking yet. Darius is probably still asleep, but I want to make sure Ross and Schwartz are—”

“Do you hear that?” Tallie interrupted.

All three of them froze, listening. In the ensuing silence, the noise was plain, if faint; a rapid, almost frantic scratching sound, like claws on wood.

Layla twisted around in her chair. “It’s coming from over there. The door!”

She rose while the others whisked past her, both automatically falling into the rapid, silent movement drilled into them by Guild trainers. All three girls clustered around the kitchen’s back door; it had a glass panel looking out onto Glory’s walled-in garden. The glass was partially obscured by frost, but still, they could tell no one was standing outside.

Tallie crouched, shifting her head closer to the door, then lifted her face to the others and pointed at a spot at the very bottom, where the noise was coming from. Jasmine and Layla both nodded acknowledgment; there was no lock or mechanism there that anyone would be trying to pick, which ruled out one immediately threatening possibility. The three moved silently, as if they had rehearsed the maneuver: Tallie retreated to one side where she had open space and braced her legs to spring in any direction, Layla backed across the room to cover the dining room door, and Jasmine shifted into position next to the outer door, placing her hand on the latch.

She looked at the others, getting a nod of confirmation from each of them, before yanking it open and stepping back, ready to face whatever was there.

A tiny red blur zipped into the kitchen, going straight for Jasmine’s leg, and scaled her in seconds while her poised stance dissolved into hopping and flailing. Not until the passenger arrived on her shoulder, reaching up to grab her ear with tiny paws, did she stop after finally getting a good look.

“Meesie?”

The little elemental squealed frantically, hopping up and down on Jasmine’s shoulder and tugging at her face.

“What’s she doing?” Tallie exclaimed. “I’ve never seen her act like that before. Course, I haven’t spent a lot of time—”

“Tallie,” Layla interrupted, stepping forward, “think. This can only mean one thing.”

Tallie’s eyes widened and the color drained from her cheeks, but it was Jasmine who spoke, accompanied by Meesie’s plaintive little wail.

“They’ve got Schwartz.”


By popular demand, Maureen had wheeled the device out of its housing to work on it; she had only a short break between classes, but between inspiration having struck after seeing the vehicle in action last night and the attention she was getting, she had found a pretext to roll it out and make a few adjustments. There was a much bigger audience than usual, a dozen students having wandered over to admire the machine and its creator.

“But it even looks like a wasp,” Hildred was saying animatedly. “Look how it’s body’s all round, there, and that narrow bit at the end fer the stinger!”

“I suggested calling it the Hornet,” Chase said grandiloquently. “It even makes a sound like an enormous buzz when it’s in motion! But Miss Buzz-kill here pooh-poohed that idea.”

“You lot an’ yer chapbook fantasies,” Maureen grunted, swinging the access panel closed and wriggling out from under the machine. Its rear hover charm was online, holding it off the ground, but the motive enchantments had been disconnected while she made adjustments; now, she re-engaged the controls. It did not hum to life, which would require an extra step, and there was no use in wasting the power crystals anyway. “Wasp this an’ hornet that, tryin’ ta make my girl inta somethin’ fierce an’ mean. She’s not a weapon, okay?” Slowly, she stepped along the length of the vehicle, trailing her fingertips affectionately over its curved lines. “Maybe yer onta somethin’ with that insect talk, though. She’s efficient, beautiful, an’ a hard worker. My little Honeybee.”

Chase clapped a hand over his eyes. “Oh, come on. That has got to be the most—”

“Chase Masterson.”

Most of the assembled students shied backward, some with exclamations of startlement, at the appearance of a craggy-faced, balding man in a long black coat right in their midst. At being addressed, Chase whirled to stare at him, and then blinked.

“Oh. Well, hi there,” he said, nonplussed. “You know, I realize technically Hands are supposed to represent the Emperor in a personal capacity, but nobody’s ever told me the right formal address. Is it your Majesty? Cos that just seems disrespectful to the actual—”

The Hand of the Emperor smoothly drew a wand from his pocket and shot him, twice, point blank.

The students surged back further, most of them shouting now; two divine shields and one blue arcane one flared into being, and Iris thrust a hand into the pocket of her dress. All of them immediately froze, however, staring.

Chase was unharmed; both lightning bolts had sparked fruitlessly against a glowing orange spell circle which had flashed into being—standing vertically, midair, unlike any such circle they had ever seen—between him and the Hand. It faded instantly from sight, but too late to avoid being observed.

“What the—” Hildred swallowed heavily. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“I have.” Iris’s upper lip had drawn back in an animal snarl, and she withdrew a clenched fist from her pocket, trailing a faintly luminous green dust. Her glare, though, was fixed on Chase, not on the wand-toting Hand.

“There is a lesson here for you, students,” the Hand said flatly, also staring at Chase with his weapon still at the ready. “In how quick and easy it is to do what Arachne Tellwyrn has failed to for two months. Masterson, among the Sleeper’s offenses for which you can be held responsible is the assault of duly appointed ambassadors from Tar’naris, an allied power. That does not necessarily but can carry a charge of high treason, at the officiating Magistrate’s discretion. I can assure you, young man, the Grand Magistrate in charge of your case will find it appropriate to charge you with the capital crime.”

“We can save them the trouble!” Iris snarled, and Szith pounced bodily on her, wrapping both arms around her roommate to inhibit her from throwing her handful of now-smoking dust.

“Stop,” the drow hissed. “If you assault a Hand of the Emperor, even inadvertently, that is also a capital offense!”

“Heed her,” the Hand advised, glancing at Iris. “Once again, Ms. An’sadarr, you demonstrate why your people are such valued allies.”

“You didn’t do it this way just to lecture me, though,” Chase said thoughtfully. Incongruously, he was wearing a fascinated smile, as though an intriguing puzzle were unraveling right before his eyes. “No, this doesn’t make sense at all. This isn’t about little ol’ me, is it?”

“Inspector Fedora offered you a position with Imperial Intelligence,” the Hand said to him, ignoring the increasingly angry mutters of the students, who had started to press closer around them. “He is no longer in a position to make such offers, but I am. Your stupidity has terminated your life as a free agent, Masterson, but you do have better options left than the headsman. The Empire has made use of nastier pieces of work than you, by far.”

“You can’t be serious!” Gilbert Moss shouted, trying to shove forward and rebounding fruitlessly off Anoia’s divine shield.

“Oh, I see,” Chase mused, grinning broadly now. “And if I’d rather not be an Imperial lackey?”

“Your anonymity was your only shield, you little fool,” the Hand said curtly. “Tellwyrn can demolish you in a heartbeat, once she knows who to attack. So can the Empire. Serve, or die. Unlike Tellwyrn, we always have a plan in place before acting. Report to Tiraas, and you will be immediately found and given instructions. Or try to run. It will be a short hunt.” He looked pointedly at Iris, who had stopped struggling with Szith to glare pure hatred at them both. “I’d think quickly, if I were you.”

And then the Hand was simply gone, as if he’d never stood there.

Chase cleared his throat, putting on a bashful expression and shrugging. “Well! This is awkw—”

With a unified roar, they surged in on him, so fast he barely managed to shadow-jump away.


The docks were, if anything, more crowded than usual, though a great deal less busy. Many of the citizens of Puna Dara were clustered along the wharves, muttering and staring out at the great serpent still making slow laps around the center of the harbor. Most of the activities at which they would normally be busy had been suspended.

Being Punaji, there were a few risk-takers among them, and several boats had attempted to launch throughout the day. No one had actually been attacked, yet, because even those reckless souls had had the sense to head back to the docks once the serpent broke off its aimless patrol to move slowly in their direction. So far, no ships had been launched, and a handful of royal privateers who had been outside the harbor when the serpent appeared were maintaining position beyond the lighthouses, warning approaching vessels away.

The people watched their livelihoods slowly wither while the monstrosity lurked, and their mumbling grew increasingly angry. Notably, no Rust cultists had dared show their faces near the wharves today. The dockside warehouse where they made their public home, usually open to all, was buttoned up tight and had been since well before dawn.

Near midmorning, a cry went up on the docks, engendering at first some confusion and then more shouts as people pointed; most of the onlookers, expecting the source of trouble to come from out in the harbor, looked the wrong way initially and had to be directed toward the sky.

She descended slowly on broad wings of pure flame. Vadrieny made a pass over the docks, then circled around and swung in lower, executing another sweep before gliding in a third time, this time clearly making to land. It was an approach obviously designed to make her intentions clear and give people the chance to get out of the way, which they did. She set down gently, pumping her wings and creating a rush of warm air over the onlookers who pressed back from her, before settling lightly to the dock. As soon as she had landed, the flame and overlarge claws withdrew, leaving behind only a girl in deep red Narisian robes, her brown hair in an oddly shaggy style as if it had been cut short and then left to grow out for a few weeks.

She had set down near the southern end of the shallow arc of the docks, on a pier at which only local fishing boats were tied up. Teal turned in a slow circle, taking in the muttering crowds, the beast in the harbor, and the surrounding geography, and then set out inland. She strode off the pier and onto the solid ground of the city, making straight for an open-fronted fishmonger’s shack.

“Good morning,” she said politely to the wary-looking old man seated behind the counter.

“You too,” he said slowly. “So, uh…that fiery bit, there. What’s that about?”

She hesitated before answering. “That was the archdemon Vadrieny. Last surviving daughter of Elilial.”

“And…she’s gone, now?”

“No,” Teal said evenly, touching the Talisman of Absolution pinned to the front of her robes. “Still here.”

“Mm.” He grimaced. “Daughter of Elilial, that’s exactly what we need right now. You can’t go pick on somebody else? Puna Dara’s got enough problems.” His eyes cut past her; he had a perfect view, between the wharves, of the augmented sea serpent moving along its slow, endless sweep.

“Actually,” she said, “we’re here to do something about that. I guess business must be pretty slow today, huh?”

“That your idea of a joke?” the fishmonger demanded.

“No, sir,” she replied, her tone polite. “I’m hoping you’ll be willing to part with a whole barrel of chum. I figure it won’t be much of a hardship if nobody’s fishing today.”

For a moment, the man just stared at her. “You’re…going to get rid of the beast…with a barrel of chum.”

Some of the onlookers had drawn closer; the people of Puna Dara were not as easily intimidated as the average run of civilians, and with Vadrieny not actually in evidence several dozen were emboldened enough to have stepped within earshot by that point.

“Well, there are steps involved,” Teal explained. “Dealing with the serpent may take time, but we can force it down from the surface and neutralize the Rust cultists who summoned it, at least temporarily, by bringing on a storm.”

More muttering began, on all sides. Teal ignored this, smiling calmly at the fishmonger. He, for his part, just stared.

“You want,” he said at last, “to cause a storm. With a barrel of chum.”

“Yes.”

“…kid, I get the impression you’re new in town.”

“What gave me away?” she asked with a faint smile. “Is it the accent?”

He shook his head. “You don’t cause storms. They just come. Naphthene does what Naphthene wants, and the storm cares not. Welcome to Puna Dara.”

“How about this?” Teal pulled a wallet from one of the pockets of her robe and began flicking through its contents; it was a thin thing, containing only paper money. “Sell me a barrel of chum, and if this doesn’t work out, you’ll have done some business and got to see the last daughter of Elilial look foolish. Win/win, isn’t it?”

She produced the smallest denomination of bank note she had and held it up, smiling.

He stared at her for another two heartbeats before turning his eyes to the note. It was for twenty Imperial decabloons—the better part of a year’s take at his little bait shack.

“Lady,” the fishmonger said in mounting exasperation, “I do not have change for that.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Teal set the note down on his counter. “Share with your neighbors, help offset the lost business from that creature. So, my chum?”

The man looked truly flummoxed, but with a sigh, he carefully picked up the bank note—gingerly, as if holding the most valuable object he had ever touched, which was possibly the case. “Just so you know, all sales here are final.”

“Of course.”

“…right. So…chum’s right here. I’ll just…uh, you want some help carrying this to…wherever? I can call my son over…”

“That’s quite all right. May I?”

At her polite request, he shrugged, then lifted the hinged board separating his counter from the street. Teal stepped behind, gripped the edges of the open barrel he indicated, and picked it up without effort.

The barrel stood as high as her waist and was filled to within inches of the top with fish guts and other effluvia, kept behind the counter to discourage seagulls. Teal appeared as unbothered by the smell as she was by the weight, which a strong man would have been hard-pressed to hoist alone. She held it carefully at arm’s length, away from the front of her robes.

“Thanks,” she said lightly, trundling back out onto the street bordering the wharves. “Pleasure doing business. Now, if I’m not mistaken, I think I saw a little shrine to Naphthene just up that way as we were gliding in. Is that right?”

His eyes widened. “You’re not thinking of…”

“You can come watch, if you want,” she said, turning and setting off down the docks.

Her gait was a little awkward, holding the barrel out in front of herself, but she moved at an average walking pace, which gave the ever-growing crowd plenty of time to get out of her way. Those who hadn’t been close enough to observe the exchange at the bait shack were warned off by the smell as a barrel of half-rotten fish parts made its way along the wharves. Even as they cleared a path, however, the locals followed along, muttering in increasing curiosity over what this clearly possessed, oddly polite foreigner was up to.

Not too far distant from the bait stand, there was indeed a small shrine to Naphthene built adjacent to the water, between two piers. It was a simple thing, the goddess of the sea having no formal cult, just a waist-high circular base of stones, mostly filled with rounded pebbles from the harbor or nearby beaches. A single large, rounded rock stood upright from the middle of it, carved with the trident sigil of Naphthene and turned to face out to sea. Around it, atop the sea stones which made its nest, had been laid a thick melange of shells, fish hooks, coins, and little trinkets, offerings of appreciation and supplication, which were universally ignored—but still offered. Naphthene did not answer prayers, but she was sometimes known to punish the lack of them. It was not visible from the docks, but there would be a pile of similar little treasures in the water directly under the shrine. When the space in the shrine itself became too full, its offerings would be tipped into the sea. No one in this city dared pilfer from the fickle goddess.

Teal approached this directly, and the crowd’s muttering became more urgent as they perceived her intent; most of them began backing away more expeditiously, eager not to be within range of whatever was about to happen.

“Lady, no,” a young boy exclaimed, waving to get her attention. “The goddess cursed the whole royal family cos a prince pissed on one of those shrines! An’ that was by accident!”

Still holding the reeking barrel, Teal paused and turned to give him a calm smile of acknowledgment.

“I,” she said with a faint edge to her tone, “am not a prince.”

Then she effortlessly lifted the barrel, tipped it up, and dumped its entire load of rotting filth over and into the sea goddess’s shrine.

Fish entrails and old pieces no longer fit for human consumption poured down in a rank slurry, quickly filling the space inside the shrine and spilling over it to splatter on the ground. People began turning to flee outright—some, at least. Others gazed on, wide-eyed, apparently unable to tear themselves away from what was sure to be a spectacle.

Immediately, a ripple appeared in the harbor, halfway out to where the serpent lurked, and shot toward the shrine as if something just beneath the surface were heading landward at an incredible speed. At the sight of this, more of the onlookers fled, and even the most stubborn judiciously backed away from the edge of the water.

The surge hit the shore, and erupted in a veritable geyser, blasting the shrine and Teal hard enough to bowl anyone over and sweep them out to sea. Indeed, several of those closest lost their footing in the backwash that rushed back into the harbor, and nobody within earshot avoided getting soaked. Fortunately, no one was sucked out into the ocean. The only one standing close enough to the sea goddess’s little slap had been its target, Teal.

But when the water receded, Teal was gone; Vadrieny stood there, clawed hands braced on the edges of the shrine, talons sunk right into the stone of the harbor wall below for purchase. Her blazing wings and hair hissed, water rapidly burning away to steam and dissipating in the moist air.

Flaring her wings outward, Vadrieny released her hold and hopped up, landing nimbly with her talons on the edges of the shrine. It had been blasted clean by the spray, fish guts and offerings both swept away to leave only stone. While the drenched onlookers stared in horror, the daughter of Elilial deliberately raised one clawed foot and slammed it down, crushing the central rock and obliterating the sigil of Naphthene.

Vadrieny sank her claws into the stone with a crunch, leaned forward to glare out to sea, spread her wings and arms wide—claws fully extended in an obvious threat—and screamed, jaws stretching wider than a human mouth was physically meant to open, baring her full complement of fangs. The unearthly howl blasted forth with enough physical force to make the water ripple back from the destroyed shrine; everyone nearby clapped hands over their ears, many crying out in protest. They were unheard, of course. Nothing was heard except the roar of a challenge from the infernal demigoddess.

In the distance, the entire horizon turned black.

The ocean itself changed color, and began to heave; white foam appeared, accompanying a sudden rise of wind whistling straight ashore. The sky itself thickened, thunderheads appearing seemingly from nowhere and spreading out from that ominous line of clouds. Already flickers of lightning appeared along the leading edge of the storm, flashing nearly constantly, though it was still too far out to sea for the thunder to be audible.

Still, but not for long.

Vadrieny turned and hopped down from the wrecked shrine, putting her back contemptuously to the storm. Immediately, lightning snapped out of the still-clear sky overhead, arcing into the harbor and sending a crack of thunder booming across Puna Dara, a herald of the tempest rapidly on its way. The archdemon did not even flinch.

“I suggest you all get ready,” she said over the rising howl of the wind. “It’s coming fast.”

 

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13 – 23

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“It isn’t that you’re wrong, Mr. Mosk,” Tellwyrn said, pacing slowly up and down her dais as she usually did while lecturing, “it is a question of detail. The difference between an educated person and an uneducated one is comprehension; both perceive the same basic reality, in this case that the Age of Adventures is trailing to a halt and has been for centuries now, but you are studying to become the sort of people who can name specific causes, understand how those factors interact, draw insights from them and then apply those to current and future events.

“Specifically, in this case, we are covering the end of the Age of Adventures to illustrate a rather uncomfortable and little-appreciated but vitally important fact that underpins all societies.” She came to a stop, resting a hand on the lectern, and regarded the class over her spectacles. “The single, unavoidable, core reality which separates an organized state from primitive, tribal societies, is that the state holds a monopoly on violence. Police forces exist to enforce this internally, and armies externally. A state which fails to maintain this monopoly has failed to exist, and is by definition already in the process of collapsing by the time this effect can be widely observed. An organized state only exists when it is the sole entity within its purview whose exercise of force is considered legitimate.”

The door at the rear of the classroom opened and Colonel Azhai slipped inside, quietly pushing it shut behind her and taking a position against the upper wall. Almost every head in the room turned at her arrival, and several students twisted around fully to stare up at the visitor.

A shrill whistle followed by small explosions seized everyone’s attention; Tellwyrn had pointed one finger upward, which had spouted a small display of fireworks.

“Class is still in session,” she said peevishly, “and I am down here.”

The Professor waited for everyone to fully focus upon her again, and then a few seconds longer just to make her point, before continuing.

“With regard to the adventurer problem, it is important to consider that for most of recorded history, human civilizations have been islands built around useful clusters of resources; on most continents and especially this one, a combination of limited populations and abundant hazards have kept the borders of nation-states from pressing against each other. To take what is now the Tiraan Empire as an example, there was a time when Calderaas existed a two-month ride through bandit-infested no man’s land from the Tira Valley or Viridill, and much longer to any of the dwarven kingdoms. Constant pressure existed on all states in the form of marauders from Tar’naris, from Athan’Khar, from the dozens of dungeons, centaur and plains elf raiders from the Golden Sea, the odd fairy excursion from the Deep Wild… Even from other groups of humans, as the Stalweiss, Punaji and Tidestriders regularly molested any of their neighbors who neglected their defenses for a moment. In this era, adventurers served a vital role in legitimizing the states from which they launched. They exerted counter-pressure, thinning out these aggressive agents at their source without requiring kings to institute expensive military action. They also appropriated wealth from these targets, which then bolstered local economies, and served to keep trade routes clear simply by traveling along them and representing hazards that most bandits wouldn’t try. I trust you can all, by this point in the semester, explain what changed that? Miss Fillister.”

“Human populations expanded,” the girl called upon replied, lowering her hand, “and all of those external threats were eventually pacified, one way or another.”

“Precisely,” Tellwyrn said with an approving nod. “The role of population is very understated in most modern discussion of the adventurer problem. Everyone knows there is not much left for adventurers to do; few appreciate the importance to them of having a place in which to do it. While there were broad gaps between states, blank spots on the map and regions considered too dangerous to settle, adventurers were useful in keeping the hazards therein from encroaching upon established kingdoms. They aided the legitimacy of states by keeping violence outside their borders. But when all the borders come together, when there are no more gray areas outside the law, the opposite happens. Adventurers doing what they do within the purview of a state’s authority are an inherent challenge to that authority, because so long as people are committing violence, for any reason, it means the local government has failed to assert itself. Thus, the government is forced to either assert itself harder, or collapse. For a time, when the dungeons began drying up and rogue societies were either contained, destroyed, or folded into the Empire, some adventurers tried turning to vigilantism. They were landed on harder than those who flocked to the frontiers. Yes, Miss Willowick?”

“Talkin’ of current events,” Maureen said, lowering her hand, “ain’t this sorta what’s goin’ on in Puna Dara right now? Rumor is, the local government’s facin’ the prospect of a change, if it can’t keep its own house in order.”

“That’s an excellent example,” Tellwyrn agreed.

“And…in Last Rock?” Maureen said more hesitantly. “Like…last night, fer example. I know we’re only technically within Calderaan Province here, an’ the Sultana’s writ runs pretty thin. But if there’s t’be mobs an’ chases an’ whatnot…”

“An interesting point,” Tellwyrn said, beginning to pace again. “Last Rock is a somewhat unusual case, due to my presence and this University’s. A better example would be the ongoing expansion of wand regulations in frontier towns throughout the Great Plains. In the decades since their initial settlement, private ownership and use of firearms was considered a widespread necessity given the hazards represented by the Golden Sea. More and more, though, laws are changing; the situation in Sarasio was something of a tipping point, showing that heavily-armed residents are more of a danger to one another now than centaur or plains elf raiders. Not coincidentally, it took an event which directly challenged the Empire’s authority to provoke a wave of reforms. All of which are potential topics for your homework! Next class, I want a two-page essay from each of you on a current application of this principle, covering an example of your choice: discuss a modern situation in which a state’s success or failure to assert control of violent action within its borders reflects upon its overall stability. And with that, we’re out of time for today. Class dismissed.”

She remained by the lectern, watching placidly, while they all gathered their books and filed out, several exchanging greetings with the Colonel on their way to the door. Azhai was a woman of reserved and formal bearing, but compared to some of the fellows assembled at the new research division of the school, she was not standoffish with students and had already garnered a positive reputation.

Once the last of the pupils had shut the door behind them, she finally strode down to the dais, where Tellwyrn was waiting with a mildly quizzical expression.

“My apologies, Professor,” Azhai said. “I didn’t mean to disrupt your class.”

“Nonsense, you were perfectly decorous,” Tellwyrn said, dismissing that with a wave of her hand. “Maintaining focus in the face of extremely slight distraction is just one of the basic life skills I have to teach these kids, since so many of their parents clearly couldn’t be arsed. What can I do for you, Colonel?”

Azhai drew in a slow breath, frowning in thought. “I wanted to let you know in person that I’ve been recalled. I’m to abort my assignment here and depart Last Rock.”

“I see,” Tellwyrn replied, raising an eyebrow. “Well, I must say you will be missed. I confess this surprises me, Colonel. Have you been told anything about a replacement? I am assuming, here, that the Empire’s interest in my program has not abruptly ceased. I’ve not heard so much as a hint of this from Tiraas.”

“That’s…the thing, Professor,” Azhai said, a grim note entering her tone. “No, I was not given any instructions regarding my successor. I have also not heard so much as a rumor from the Azure Corps that the Throne has changed its position on you and your research program. Staying in touch with Tiraas from out here is a bit of an undertaking, as I’m sure you know, but I have been doing my best to remain on top of the rumor mill. Everything I have heard suggests that the University is in good standing with the Empire, and with Intelligence in particular. Furthermore, Professor… Forgive me if I seem to be dancing around certain topics, but I was explicitly instructed not to reveal details of my reassignment to you.”

“I see,” Tellwyrn repeated in a low drawl. “How extremely mysterious.”

“Off the record,” said Azhai, glancing at the door. “As I am no longer on duty here, and in the interest of casual conversation… I transferred to the Azure Corps from the Corps of Enchanters, Professor; I have no shortage of personal experience working with special forces. When you’re not attached to one of the regular corps, you tend to gain some insight into the politics behind the Army. There are lots of factions wanting to make use of forces with special skills, and some which simply resent the special corps and like to throw petty inconveniences our way when they can get away with it. You learn to watch for certain red flags… And I am seeing a lot of those today. Being told to abandon a mission and vacate the premises but not given instructions on where to report next. The sudden reversal of policy from Command—and most damning, orders to keep this hushed from the Azure Corps’s brass and Intelligence. Professor, somebody, somewhere, is up to something they should not be, and which I seriously doubt is being undertaken with the Empire’s best interests in mind.”

“I appreciate you offering me your insight on this, Manaan,” Tellwyrn said, nodding. “I understand there are risks to you in doing so. Rest assured you can count on my discretion.”

“Thanks, Professor,” Azhai said, nodding in reply, a hint of relief passing across her features. “Understand that I like it here, I support your program and I was very much looking forward to the research we were about to undertake. My loyalty, though, is to my Emperor. And as a soldier I will follow orders, but if those orders aren’t for the Emperor’s benefit…”

“You don’t have to justify anything to me,” Tellwyrn assured her. “Assuming all this gets resolved soon and the Empire’s participation in my research initiative continues, I’ll hope to see you back here. You will always be welcome.”

“I’ll hope to be back,” Azhai said fervently. “In the meantime… I have been ordered to be packed and out of Last Rock by tonight.” She tilted her head forward, staring into Tellwyrn’s eyes with as much emphasis as she could muster.

“Thank you for keeping me in the loop,” Tellwyrn replied, patting the shorter woman on the shoulder. “I had better not detain you any longer if you’re on a tight schedule. And don’t worry about me, Colonel, you take care of yourself for now.”

“Worrying about you seems presumptuous, somehow,” Azhai said wryly. “Just… Take care of the kids, Professor. I mean that in a general sense, of course.”

“Oh, I always take care of my kids,” Tellwyrn replied flatly. “I mean that as generally or specifically as the situation requires, and you might pass it along to whoever needs to hear it.”

“I will. Here’s hoping to see you again soon, Professor Tellwyrn.”

“Safe travels, Colonel Azhai.”

Tellwyrn waited until she had departed the classroom before snapping her fingers. Maru popped out of midair nearby, dropping a foot to land lightly on the dais.

“If you must do that, you could at least teleport me directly onto the ground,” the tanuki complained. “I know you do this on purpose, Professor.”

“Maru, I should hardly have to remind you that we met when you tried to drop me into a spike pit,” she retorted. “You don’t get to fuss about these little jokes.”

“Ah, but my fussing about them is half the fun,” he said, grinning widely. “For you, I mean.”

Tellwyrn did not smile in response. “I brought you here because making Fedora vanish out from in front of whoever he’s pestering right now would be the fastest possible way to reveal that something’s up. I may have secured a brief head start, which could be squandered if whoever’s watching this campus realizes I know. Find that incubus and both of you haul ass to my office as quick as you can without drawing attention. Whatever’s going down, it’s going to be tonight.”


“I see your hunt was successful,” King Rajakhan stated as he strode into the room, his daughter on his heels. Ruda paused to kick the door shut, her eyes also on the guest perched on a chair at the end of the conference table.

The Queen and the rest of the sophomores were scattered around the table, Juniper playing with Jack in one corner and Teal in another, experimentally plucking at a sitar—which, to judge by the results produced, she had never played before. Principia lounged next to the door, making a show of cleaning her fingernails with a dagger. Most of them, overtly or not, were monitoring the woman garbed in black, including a climate-inappropriate cloak, who was seated in a prim posture with her hands on her knees, watching them all calmly.

“My business also went well, husband, thank you for asking,” Anjal said archly.

The King grunted. “I always assume your efforts meet with success, wife. I can’t be so safe about all of these.”

“Flatterer,” she accused, but with a smile.

“So what’s the story with this one, then?” Ruda asked, scowling at the woman in black.

“She came along quietly enough,” Gabriel reported. “And in fact she’s been quite willing to help. That is, with anything we ask that’s not explaining who she is, or who she works for.”

“Also, she’s got an invisible friend.” Juniper looked up from her jackalope at the ensuing silence, finding everyone staring at her. “You guys didn’t notice? She does the same exact thing Gabe does when Vestrel’s talking. Tilting her head to listen and staring at nothing for a second.”

“Well, how about that,” Gabriel drawled, turning fully to face their guest. “Anything you wanna add, Milady?”

She cleared her throat. “I don’t suppose you would believe I was talking to another valkyrie.” Her accent was Tiraan, her voice with the precise diction of an educated person.

“Do you find that funny?” he asked coldly. “Because I guarantee, you’re the only one.”

“Yeah, an’ this standoffishness isn’t gonna work,” Ruda added, glaring and ostentatiously fondling the jeweled hilt of her rapier. “Way I heard it, your fuck up sank negotiations with the Rust and spooked them into releasing that fucking thing in the harbor. I wanna know just who the hell you think you are, in detail.”

Toby cleared his throat. “I don’t want to tell you your business, Ruda, but consider that there may be an advantage in leaving it vague.”

“Ex-fucking-cuse me?” she exclaimed, rounding on him.

“Well, I mean, it’s pretty likely she’s from the Imperial government,” Fross chimed, swooping around the woman in black in a wide circle. “I mean, gosh, look at all these enchantments. She’d have to be an archmage to make this gear herself, which I don’t think she is. That means it was probably supplied by a government, and not a dinky little poor one.”

“Like ours?” Anjal said dryly.

“Oh.” The pixie dimmed, fluttering lower. “I didn’t mean…”

“And that’s the point,” Toby said quickly. “If she is Imperial, as seems overwhelmingly likely, there are benefits to everyone having some deniability. As soon as we all officially know the Empire has been unilaterally acting here and making a mess of it to boot, the Crown will pretty much have to respond to that, right? Which will create a whole slew of new complications.”

“As things stand,” Anjal added grimly, “we can avoid wrestling that shark, and make it damn clear to the Empire that we know and don’t appreciate this, without being forced to do so through formal channels. Listen to the boy, Zari, he has surprisingly good political instincts for an Omnist.”

Toby returned her smile. “Actually, your Majesty, that little theater we put on earlier helped me work through a spiritual problem with which I’ve been grappling.

“Happy to be of service,” Anjal said, tipping her hat. “But back to the point at hand. You two haven’t missed much, yet, but the revelations so far are not small. Apparently we have an ancient hideaway of the Elder Gods buried underneath the middle of the harbor.”

The woman in black cleared her throat as everyone focused on her again. “Yes, a fabrication plant—a place where they made their machines.”

“That explains some stuff about the Rust, doesn’t it,” Gabriel muttered.

“And you know this…how?” Rajakhan demanded.

“All the facilities of the Elder Gods were sealed at the end of the Pantheon’s uprising,” she explained. “And then, after that, they were all buried underground or sunk underwater by Naiya, probably to keep Scyllith from getting at the resources in them if she ever got out of the hole Themynra has her in. Some, though, have subsequently been re-opened by various mortals. I have worked closely in one of these. You might say I’m the closest thing available to an expert on the Infinite Order’s technology. I mean the real Infinite Order,” she added. “The actual Elder Gods, not these Rust idiots.”

“They’re idiots,” Teal muttered from her corner, plucking a discordant twang. “Who got caught screwing around in their tunnels and borked our mission there?”

The woman sighed. “Fair enough. I’m sorry; I tripped an alarm I failed to see coming. But back to the point at hand, the Order’s machines have the ability to connect to each other and communicate over long distances. It was severely diminished when the Pantheon shut off the transcension field linking them, but it can still be made to work in a limited capacity.”

Gabriel scratched his head. “Trans what?”

“A kind of magic. The point is, I learned from another of these systems elsewhere, weeks ago, that the fabrication plant in Puna Dara had been opened and accessed. Actually, this was done ten years ago.”

“Ten years,” Anjal muttered.

“It gets worse,” the woman in black warned. “The Infinite Order’s machines and facilities require their personal input to be re-activated. The one here was opened under Scyllith’s credentials.”

“Ffffffuck,” Gabriel whispered.

“Now, nobody panic,” Toby said hastily. “If Scyllith were loose, problems would be a lot worse than the Rust and a lot more widespread than Puna Dara.”

“That’s correct,” the woman agreed, nodding. “It’s far more likely that someone got hold of her credentials somehow and used that. There are ways; I have some experience with them.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Juniper said. “If you need one of the Elder Gods to open these things and you’ve opened one, whose credentials are you using?”

She sighed, making a resigned face. “Naiya’s.”

“And how did you do that?” the dryad demanded.

“By recruiting some of her daughters to help,” she said wearily. “Dryads and a kitsune.” The woman frowned suddenly, looking to the side. “I do not think that’s a good idea. No, seriously, that’s just going to agitate… Okay, fine, but there’s still security to—”

“Have you utterly lost it?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“Invisible friend, remember?” Juniper said, gathering Jack into her arms and standing up. The jackalope’s behavior had indeed improved; he hardly struggled at all. “This is good, though, it’s finally something we can verify. Which dryads? What kitsune?”

“I don’t know how we can verify that part,” Fross objected. “We only know one kitsune and she’s not exactly available to ask.”

The woman in black was frowning now, staring into the distance. After a moment, she sighed heavily. “All right, fine. I said all right! I don’t… Oh, whatever, it hardly matters now, anyway. Apple, Hawthorn, and Mimosa,” she finally answered, turning to Juniper.

The dryad let out a low whistle. “Well. Aspen told me those there are in Tiraas.”

“Mm hm,” Anjal grunted, scowling. “Tiraas.”

The woman in black sighed again. “Fine, fine, on your head be it. And I am being requested to convey a message.” She turned to Gabriel. “For Vestrel. Yrsa would like her to know that things were hard for a long time, but she is doing well, now. She sends her love.”

“Okay, what the hell was that?” Gabriel demanded after a short pause. “Vestrel is completely freaking out. And not in a good way, Milady. If that scythe were tangible on this plane you would be headless right now.”

“I told you so,” the woman muttered, rubbing unconsciously at her neck.

“Are we seriously calling her Milady?” Ruda snipped.

“Well, she won’t tell us her name, and it’s as good as—” Gabriel broke off, wincing. “Yeah, you’re gonna have to explain that some more. And no more of this cagey—”

“If I may?” Everyone turned to look at Principia, who had raised a hand. “With apologies to Vestrel, this sounds like family business. And if there’s one thing I know about family business, it’s that it is messy. We really have much more urgent things to discuss; valkyrie drama is going to have to wait for now. It sounds like what we’ve gotta do is break into an Infinite Order facility and destroy it. I’ve been in those before; this is not a small undertaking.”

“Not destroy it,” Milady said quickly. “In fact, the opposite. The Infinite Order are using something called nanites to do what they do. I don’t know what those are, but I do know it’s a prohibited technology; the Order sealed it and even blocked records that explain them. Which means if the Rust have got them out and working, they have disabled the security in that facility. There should be an intelligent system governing it, which has to have been seriously messed with for this to have happened. If we can get to that and repair it, we may be able to completely disable them.”

“Intelligent system,” Principia grunted. “And you say it’s broken. When an intelligence breaks, that’s called madness. I do not look forward to trying to wrangle an insane Avatar.”

Milady’s gaze snapped to the elf. “How do you know what an Avatar is?”

Principia grinned at her. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, pumpkin.”

“Enough,” Rajakhan growled. “You say we have to fix this thing. How do you propose to do this, not even knowing what’s wrong with it?”

“That’s the hard part,” Milady admitted. “I’ve done so before, but it took days, and we have no choice but to go in blind. It is in no way going to be easy. But this is not like repairing a machine; it has more in common with…counseling. These are thinking, feeling things with personalities.”

“I may be able to help with that,” Toby said slowly. “Though I don’t want to get anybody’s hopes up.”

“Juniper’s help will also be invaluable,” Milady said. “She is a link to Naiya, which may help get us access. And I think Principia had better come,” she added reluctantly. “Anyone who knows anything about Infinite Order systems will be useful.”

“Someday I’ll learn not to open my goddamn mouth,” Principia said philosophically. “Oh, who’m I kidding? No, I won’t.”

“Before that,” Gabriel interjected, “we have to get into this place. Something tells me the Rust isn’t going to be enthused about that prospect.” He was still scowling at Milady, clearly having picked up some of Vestrel’s agitation. “How do we even find the way there?”

“I can guide you,” said Milady. “My…counterpart has a complete map of the tunnels and mineshafts all around Puna Dara and can convey directions to me in real time. Several of them link up to the corridor the Rust have dug connecting to the old fabrication plant. There are a number of paths that avoid areas they traffic.”

“So we need to distract them,” Anjal said, suddenly grinning. “We are already working on that. Rajakhan has been exhorting the people while I worked on the powerful; Puna Dara itself is going to turn on the Rust.”

“If you can provide me with some disguise charms,” Principia added, “something to make my squad look like locals, I can furnish a more focused distraction. Like, outside that warehouse that they’re using for their public face. Five people who start screaming and throwing rocks can turn an angry crowd into a mob in seconds.”

“What you are talking about,” Rajakhan grated, “is dangerous almost beyond comprehension. To everyone involved.”

“I comprehend the danger, your Majesty,” she said seriously. “The offer stands, if you decide the risk is worthwhile. But I agree—if somebody has a better idea, that would be excellent.”

“It’s too bad the weather’s nice,” said Fross. “The Rust’s mechanical augmentations are metal and run on electricity; rain will impede them. Maybe not much, but every little bit helps.”

“Maybe more than a little, actually,” the King said, frowning. “We have noted, in monitoring them, that they avoid going out in storms. Most Punaji love rough weather—it was a notable pattern of behavior.”

“Yeah, but I don’t think we can afford to wait around for a storm,” Ruda snorted. “Fross is right, the weather’s gorgeous and gonna stay like that for at least a while. We can’t afford to fuck around; every minute that thing is in the harbor, the city’s economy is hemorrhaging, to say nothing of how it’s riling up the populace. And while we’re on the subject, distracting the Rust is only part of the issue. If we’re going to be out in the harbor, the sea serpent’s a factor, too. Not to mention that it could attack the city if the Rust feel too threatened.”

“A nice, big storm would solve that problem as well,” Fross offered. “It’s still subject to the laws of physics, even if it’s designed to withstand mag cannon fire. With the water agitated it will be unable to navigate and will have to go to the bottom to avoid getting beached. It might be forced to leave the harbor entirely.”

“Fross,” Ruda said with strained patience, “it is not storming. It is not going to storm any time soon, and no power in creation is going to make the weather change. Trust me, that’s in Naphthene’s hands, and Naphthene does not give a shit. That is the core reality of Punaji life. Talking about storms is wishful thinking.”

A suddenly loud twang chimed from the corner, making Principia wince.

“So,” Teal said slowly, “a storm would temporarily neutralize the sea serpent and the cultists, and since the Punaji like harsh weather, might actually help the public move against the Rust. Do I have all that right?”

“Teal, what did I just fucking say?” Ruda exclaimed.

Teal carefully set the sitar down and stood, adjusting her robes. “That we can’t conjure up a storm. All due respect, Ruda, but… I bet I can.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just bloody well run!”


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

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

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

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

“You said garden shed,” Fred said dumbly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the hell is that thing?!”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” she breathed.

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

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

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

“Who’s not ready?” he demanded.

Then the thing drew close enough to come into focus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, shit.”

 

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13 – 16

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“Well, hey there, li’l lady! Need a hand with that?”

Maureen sighed, coming to a stop, and turned to face the man approaching. “Thank you, no, I have it well in hand.”

Chase sauntered up, hands in his pockets and grinning his customarily cheerful grin. Despite the fact that he’d never harmed anyone (that she’d heard), Maureen felt instinctively unsettled at being approached by him in a dark alley. She knew from her childhood coaching to listen to those instincts, and also to avoid showing any unease. A certain kind of person responded to any perceived weakness with outlandish aggression.

“Aw, don’t be like that, shorty,” he said easily. “What kid of gentleman would I be if I let a girl like you haul a basket of…” He came to a stop, looming over her, and craned his neck to peer down. For once, she didn’t have the impression he was trying to look down her blouse, and somehow that wasn’t reassuring. “…scrap metal? You’ve got interesting hobbies. Anyhow, what kind of gentleman would—”

“I feel obliged to point out that a gentleman wouldn’t make fun of a person’s stature, nor push when he’s been politely invited to sod off.”

He laughed, and stepped back, pulling his hands from his pockets to hold them up disarmingly. “All right, all right, fair enough. So what’re you doing skulking around in the back alleys? That’s not like you.”

“I could ask you the same,” she said tersely.

That got another laugh, and a roguish wink. “Maureen… It’s me, Chase. You wonder what I’m doing skulking in alleys?”

She rolled her eyes and turned to resume walking. “Aye, fair enough.”

To her annoyance—but not surprise—he strolled alongside her, moving at a leisurely amble that kept pace neatly with her bustling stride, given the difference in the length of their legs. That same difference meant running away from him was an unlikely prospect.

“You, though,” Chase continued merrily. “You’re such a fine, upstanding citizen. Heading back to campus, then? Cos there’s no storefronts back here…”

“An’ what makes y’think I’m headin’ ta campus?”

“And there goes the accent,” he observed. “I can never figure out if that means you’re more or less happy. Anyhow, this arc’ll lead you through the back ways of the old part of town by the least-traveled path, where there is absolutely nothing until you come out right at the base of the mountain, a good few dozen yards from the stairs.” He looked down at her and winked again. “I may have had cause to slip through Last Rock without attracting notice. Y’know, once or twice. A day. For three years.”

She sighed, and shook her head. “Town’s funny t’night…all riled up, innit? I passed the A&W on the way in, an’ the noise was like a full-blown party. Seem t’be knots o’ people chatterin’ in the streets, too, but lookin’ nervous about something. Not like usual. Even with all the new construction, Last Rock’s a sleepy sorta place.”

“Yeah, I noticed the same.” For a wonder, the vacuous grin faded from his features. Maureen chanced a glance up at the human, finding him looking ahead with a thoughtful expression. It made a surprising difference in his aspect; that smile was unnerving, but now he just seemed like one of her classmates, mulling a question. “I also veered close enough to overhear a few snatches of those conversations. You know, purely by accident,” he added solemnly.

“Oh, aye. Of course.”

“Folks seem to be tetchy about the University in particular this evening,” Chase continued. “Apparently Tellwyrn posted an announcement about the first major research project she’s funding, and it’s to do with summoning demons. All the yokels are worked up something fierce.”

“Huh,” she grunted noncommittally, shifting her basket to her left hand. Not actually planning to drop it on his foot, but making that prospect more available.

“So, you may have had the right idea,” he said, that grin returning. “Perhaps this isn’t the best night for casual encounters with the Rockies, eh?” When she didn’t reply, he went merrily on. “So, I’m sure you won’t mind if I keep you company on the way back! After all, you’re probably downright starved for company these days. The Well must be feeling pretty empty, huh?”

Maureen stared straight ahead at the distant gap where the alley opened out below the mountain, concentrating on keeping her breath even. One ear twitched, but not because of him; there was a swell of noise in the near distance, as a crowd of men passed through the street, talking loudly. Shouting, actually… She couldn’t make out many individual words, but the anger was obvious.

“Everyone’s been assuming we’ll wake the Sleeper’s victims just cos I woke up,” Chase said suddenly, after she failed to respond to his last comment. “I wonder if they’re really just asleep, though? I mean… There are ways to keep the body alive, even when the mind and soul passes on. It’d be a ridiculously cruel thing to do, but hell, who can say how this asshole thinks? That’d be a kick in the pants, if Tellwyrn finally cracks the curse and it turns out they’re all just dead after all.”

“What is wrong with you?!” Maureen exploded, rounding on him and hopping backward, her ears shifting back in agitation. “You are the most—why are you like this? How can any person not want anything outta life except t’just make an arse of ‘imself? Haven’t you one bloody thing better to do than scamper around irritating everybody?”

Chase, somewhat to her surprise, didn’t pounce now that his needling had finally provoked a reaction. In fact, he turned to face her, tilting his head quizzically, and regarded her in silence for a moment before speaking. “Heh. Y’know, you’re actually the first person to ask me that since I came here? Even at the lodge they’d given that up long before I left, and Tellwyrn never bothered.”

“Aye, well, at least you’re aware you’re a horse’s arse!”

“I’m aware of a lot,” he said cheerfully, turning and sauntering off in the direction of the mountain. Maureen let him pull ahead a few steps before following slowly, keeping a distance between them. “Let me put it this way: I’ve heard it said that the thing which separates sentient beings from the animals is our capacity to be more. A wolf or bison or prairie dog just does what it does, but a human or elf or gnome creates things, improves themselves beyond what biology intended.”

“Sapient,” she said automatically.

He glanced back over his shoulder at her. “Hm?”

“Wolves an’ bison an’ prairie dogs are all sentient. They sense an’ interact with their surroundings. You mean sapient beings.”

Chase chuckled, shaking his head. “Well, maybe I don’t. Because I’ve done a lot of people-watching, and I’ve noticed that the happiest people are reliably the dumbest ones. The key to bliss is not having a thought in your head. Everything that’s good in life—food, sex, sleep, humor—it’s all basic, animal instinct. Being more is just a pointless pain in the ass.”

“Humor, is it?” she asked, intrigued in spite of herself. Maureen had never expected to hear Chase Masterson’s philosophy on life; until that moment it had never occurred to her that he might have one. “That seems like a pretty sapient thing.”

“Ever played tug-of-war with a dog? Or watched a bluejay tease a cat? Or how about wild pigs who sniff out glittershrooms to get high?” Chase laughed lightly, jamming his hands back in his pockets. “Not to mention that everything has sex, and you’re never gonna convince me it’s because all those animals think it over and decide what they really need is to be responsible for a smaller version of themselves for a while. Fun is the only true universal good, my dear little friend. All the rest is just bullshit people make up to feel more important than they are.”

He emerged into the open air, with the mountain looming above, and stopped. Maureen was still a few steps behind; by the time she caught up, Chase had turned to their right to peer in the direction of the main street. She peeked around the corner, following his gaze.

A crowd of men and women were milling around, several carrying lamps and one or two actual torches. The buzz of conversation which hovered over them was distinctly angry, and loud enough it seemed it might burst into shouting at any moment.

“Well, that’s different,” he mused. “I heard there was an actual mob in Last Rock a while back, but honestly I was never willing to believe these folks that that much initiative. Or organizational skills.”

“A mob doesn’t take much in the way o’ skill, ‘specially not of the organizational kind,” she replied, frowning at the townspeople.

Chase just laughed. “Oh, I know my townies, trust me.”

His bark of amusement attracted notice. A few people turned to face them, and then to Maureen’s horror, they erupted in shouting and imprecations. The group started toward them with long, aggressive strides, beginning with those nearest but the rest quickly catching up, as if the whole crowd were some sort of huge amoeba sensing prey. It was dark, but the lights they carried were enough for Maureen to make out scowls and snarls on far too many faces.

As she stood, gaping, one man in the lead broke into a trot, quickly followed by several others.

“Oh, my,” Chase observed in a fascinated tone, then turned to her with a cheerful grin. “Hey, here’s a crazy idea! I think we should run.”


The mineshaft was mostly horizontal for the first leg of its journey; only after turning sharply to the left did it begin descending. Nowhere around its periphery were there any obvious signs of activity, though Ermon said that tracks in the dust showed the whole area saw regular foot traffic. Now, the group was descending gradually along a seemingly endless shaft, which occasionally branched off to the sides or opened into disused chambers, some containing the wreckage of old crates and tools. There was no light except Fross’s silver glow.

“I can’t make out any sounds,” Juniper muttered. “The echoes down here are weird… Plus, there’s this…thing.”

“Thing?” Teal’s voice was a little strained. “What kind of a thing?”

“I don’t know,” the dryad said, frowning and shaking her head.

“Phrasing, June,” Gabriel said. “The atmosphere’s pretty tense already without us suddenly being told there’s a thing.”

“Let’s not make it worse by picking at each other,” Toby said soothingly. “Can you describe it, Juniper?”

“Mm…sort of like…bees,” she said pensively.

“Bees?!” Teal’s voice rose half an octave.

“The buzzing, I mean,” Juniper hastily clarified. “There’s this low hum, at the very edge of my hearing. All I can tell is it’s coming from deeper below, and that only because it’s been getting louder as we go down. Like I said…echoes. It’s a mess to try to track anything in here.”

“It certainly is that,” Ermon agreed. He had placed himself at the head of the group, off to one side and behind only Fross, where he studied the floor, walls, and ceiling in detail as they passed through. “I can make out only traces; this ground does not like to leave tracks. It does see traffic, though, both coming and going. And I have seen no signs of any kind of struggle in the distance we’ve come.”

“Well, let’s consider that a hopeful sign,” said Toby.

“I’d caution against excessive optimism,” the Huntsman replied. “I’m sure you have reason to be confident in your power, but following prey into its own den is always a highly risky venture.”

“Vadrieny wonders if we’d rather she take over from me, here,” said Teal.

Toby glanced back at her. “I appreciate the offer. Remember, though, our first plan is to talk. Vadrieny is, let’s face it, pretty intimidating. Having her out might seem hostile in and of itself.”

“Yeah,” Gabriel added, touching Teal’s shoulder momentarily. “And if this does come down to trouble, best we hold something in reserve. If they get aggressive, maybe we can prevent a throw down by suddenly showing we’ve got bigger fangs than they thought.”

“Okay,” she said with no further comment.

“I can feel arcane magic up ahead,” Fross added, “but…well, the distance is an impediment, but there’s not much. Assuming the rest of what the Rust does is like that arm, it might employ small arcane charms here and there but whatever it runs on is its own thing. I haven’t figured out a way to detect it directly. Ariel, anything?”

“I perceive nothing. My senses are designed for precision of analysis, not range. I will have little to add until we are much closer, if the conventional enchantments involved are as minor as you say.”

They continued on in silence for a few more minutes, which seemed longer than they were owing to being spent creeping through oppressive darkness. When Gabriel suddenly stopped, shifting his head as if watching something invisible, the rest of the group halted as well, turning to look at him.

“Vestrel’s back,” he reported with a grin of clear relief, which slowly faded as he continued, speaking with a halting cadence indicating he was repeating observations as they were given to him. “Okay…up ahead they tunnel opens out into a very large chamber, a natural cave that’s had mineshafts carved out of it in multiple directions, and that’s where the Rust has all their stuff. People, and machines…” He hesitated. “Vestrel recognizes some elements of what they’ve built, but it’s way different from the Elder God—okay, fine, Infinite Order stuff she remembers. Also…she says the machines are…weird.” He paused again, then sighed. “…apparently we’ll have to see them ourselves to understand.”

“How helpful,” Ariel commented. Everyone ignored her.

“Oh!” Gabriel brightened, turning to Ermon. “Arlund is here! I mean, down there. She wasn’t sure about his situation; he hasn’t been harmed and doesn’t seem to be restrained, but he looks angry.”

“I’m not sure how significant that is, in and of itself,” Ermon replied ruefully. “But I thank you, Vestrel, for the information.”

“And they’ve built some kind of…gate, across the tunnel,” Gabe continued, turning again to stare into empty space where the valkyrie apparently stood. “A pretty solid one, made of that reddish metal of theirs and a bunch of cobbled-together junk that resembles their artificial limbs. Vestrel can pass through most objects, but no idea how we’re going to get past it. The good news is all the Rust cultists are beyond it, in their big cavern. There’s nobody between us and the gate.”

“Okay,” Toby said, nodding. “That’s something. If we can’t figure out how to get it open, we can always try to force it. I very much doubt any gate will stop Juniper and Vadrieny.”

“Uh, I thought the idea was to try the friendly approach first?” said Fross. “If the thing is locked, maybe our first move should be to just knock.”

Toby hesitated, then chuckled. “Well, I can’t argue with that, can I? All right, guys, on we go. Gabe, any details while we walk? How far we are, how many cultists up ahead?”

“Only a couple dozen. Vestrel didn’t get a precise headcount because they were all milling around, doing something. She couldn’t tell what. And…apparently we’re closer to the gate than we are to the entrance of the tunnel, now.”

“I wonder,” Teal mused. “They can’t do much back-and-forth from here to the city. It’s a hellishly inconvenient approach, and somebody would have noticed that kind of traffic going in and out of the mountains.”

“We’ve already passed a lot of side tunnels,” Juniper pointed out, “and Vestrel said there are more below, from their actual lair. The mine entrance was just the one the Thieves’ Guild found. I bet they’ve got a more direct path into Puna Dara. Probably more than one, actually.”

“We’ll see what we see,” Toby murmured, and they fell silent again.

It was another few minutes of walking before they reached the gate Vestrel had told them of, which also revealed what she meant about the weirdness of the machines.

The tunnel was blocked off by a ring of steel, in which stood an obvious door of the same metal, split down the middle in an asymmetrical pattern unlike any standard doorway. Thick bars were set vertically into the metal in front of it, spaced too closely for a human to slip through, even had there been anywhere beyond it to go. The whole thing was set in a most peculiar melange of metallic parts. They were mostly of the reddish alloy that characterized the Rust, unlike the steel door and bars, though there were a number of small lights set in various places, some glowing steadily, others blinking in repeating patterns. Obvious machine parts were in evidence, from simple struts and braces to exposed gears, some actually moving. Pipes crisscrossed the entire thing at intervals, a few with valves which produces periodic little spurts of steam. In several places scattered throughout were oddly-shaped surfaces which glowed in the darkness and depicted peculiar systems of glyphs and markings; some of these held steady, while others changed continuously.

Most alarming of all was the way it was all constructed. Machines were usually logical, even mathematical in their design, featuring a lot of straight lines and right angles. By comparison, the gate’s housing was just crazy. Though they all connected together, pipes, gears, metal supports and blinking screens were layered around the walls haphazardly, in wild angles, as if they’d been laid down erratically and built up to cover the whole tunnel. Miscellaneous bits of inscrutable purpose extended out from the structure to crawl along the walls toward the distant exit like the questing roots of a tree.

“If a spider spun machine parts instead of silk,” Gabriel said after they had stood regarding this in silence for a few moments, “the result would look like this.”

Teal sighed. “Spiders, and bees. I never had an aversion to bugs until just now…”

“What if there is some kind of huge mechanical spider in there?” Juniper suggested. “That could explain this. Well, not explain it, but it’d make a little more sense…”

“Great,” Teal said sourly. “That’s a lovely thought.”

“Well, at least we figured out where that hum you talked about is coming from,” Toby said. Actually, though it clearly emerged from the peculiar machine, this close it seemed to be a number of different hums. Parts of it emitted periodic soft beeps and chimes, the pipes thrummed with some hydraulic force, gears clicked and whirred together, and several segments of the construction put off sharp electrical buzzing. From a distance, it all did blur together to resemble the tone of a beehive.

Juniper suddenly whirled, shifting her feel to a braced stance, and stared back up the tunnel. “There it is again!”

“The bees?” Teal asked.

“No. The smell. If I couldn’t feel the lack of any through attunement I would swear there was a dryad heading this way!”

All of them turned, Ermon drawing his tomahawk and hunting knife. Gabriel eased out the wand that morphed into his scythe, but did not activate it yet, and placed a hand on Ariel’s hilt without drawing her.

“I think you should know,” she said into the tense silence which ensued, “that there is a very sophisticated invisibility spell attached to something moving this way down the tunnel.”

“How close?” Gabriel asked tersely.

“Presuming standard human hearing, close enough to be aware of this conversation. I believe I recently pointed out that my senses are not designed for great distances.”

“Is someone there?” Toby called, staring ahead into the darkness. Fross fluttered back to hover above their heads, casting silver light on the tunnel walls around them.

Several of them twitched, Teal emitting a muffled noise of surprise, when a figure suddenly appeared seemingly out of thin air right in front of them. The person who had arrived was garbed entirely in black, and manifested in the process of lowering the hood of a black cloak. Beneath it was another hood, attached to her fitted jacket, and inside that a mask which obscured the lower half of her face, leaving only her eyes exposed. Her black attire was mostly of supple leather, and fit closely enough to reveal this was a woman.

“Oh, invisibility cloak,” Gabriel said after a tense silence. “Nifty. You don’t see those often.”

“Greetings,” Toby said to the mysterious woman. “Friend, or foe?”

She tilted her head minutely to one side, eyes flickering across them. Then she took a step forward. When everyone tensed, she paused again, and held up one finger, which she then pointed at the contorted apparatus around the gate behind them.

“Hello?” Juniper said sharply. “Yes? No? Anybody home?”

“That mask has a silencing spell attached,” Ariel announced. “If she spoke, you wouldn’t hear. There are a good number of impressive enchantments on this person’s equipment. She is either a skilled enchanter or exceedingly wealthy.”

“That’s interesting,” Juniper said bluntly. “And why do you smell like dryads?”

“And couldja maybe take the mask off and talk to us?” Fross suggested.

Ermon shook his head. “People who don masks are rarely willing to remove them upon meeting someone new.”

The woman watched this conversation inscrutably, but at that, pointed at Ermon. Then she stepped forward again, angling to pass between Teal and Juniper on her way to the gate.

“Hey!” Juniper moved to bar her path, scowling. “You don’t just show up out of nowhere in a place like this, at a time like this, and refuse to explain yourself!”

“Enchantments aside,” Ariel interjected, “the magic roiling off this person is extremely potent and extremely confusing. I detect all four schools, heavily favoring the fae, with additional branches of shadow magic, all intertwined in ways I have never seen and whose purpose I cannot discern. In terms of raw power, she is on a level with most of you. I advise against starting an altercation.”

The woman’s dark eyes shifted right to Ariel—itself interesting, as few people who heard her voice immediately suspected the sword—and then back to Juniper. She held the dryad’s gaze for a moment, then carefully shifted to edge past her again. This time, though she kept her stare locked onto the interloper, Juniper did not move, and allowed her past; Teal even edged back out of the way.

The woman in black squeezed by, then headed straight for one of the tunnel walls which was covered by the overgrowth of machinery, holding up another finger in their direction as if cautioning them to wait. She carefully pored over the exposed pieces as if searching for something, pausing at each of the display screens. Several she touched with her fingers; two responded by changing their contents, but the woman seemed unimpressed by the results and moved on.

Finally, she came to a roughly hexagonal screen attached to the mess by only a single length of pipe, extending out from the wall not far from the gate itself. This time, she hunched over it, quickly working at it with her gloved fingertips. Sigils and pictograms shifted at her touch, accompanied by soft chirps and whirrs.

“I suppose there’s no point in asking how you know how to do that,” Gabe said irritably, shifting closer and craning his neck to watch.

She raised her head to look at him, and winked, then returned to what she was doing.

The group jumped again when the gate suddenly moved. The entire circular steel housing rotated a hundred and eighty degrees, causing the bars to spin fully around. Once it stopped, there came a loud thunk from somewhere deep inside the machinery, and the bars suddenly retracted into what was now the floor. Then, with a deep rumble, an inner section of the circle began rotating in the opposite direction. When the door itself had been turned fully upside down—or right side up?—it parted smoothly, both doors sliding into the walls to either side. Another set of bars were revealed beyond it, which now slowly rotated back in the first direction, and then retracted just as their cousins had.

“There is really no reason for that to have been so elaborate,” Ariel opined.

“Well, thank you for the help,” Toby said to the woman, who after glancing into the now-open gate had resumed studying the screen. “I gather you’re a person who values her secrets, but I’m sure you understand if we—”

She abruptly grabbed the metal edges of the extended screen, and with a strength clearly beyond the human, ripped it clean off the wall, leaving its broken mount trailing a few sparking ends of wire.

“Hey!” Gabriel shouted. Orange light suffused the tunnel as Vadrieny emerged, but they hardly had time to react beyond that.

The woman in black moved like an elf, darting past them and actually running up the wall for a few paces as she dashed by. Ermon spun and nocked an arrow, drawing a bead on her as she raced back up the tunnel, but with her free hand she whipped up the hood of her invisibility cloak and vanished entirely into the darkness.

Once she did, not even the sound of footsteps betrayed her presence.

“So,” Gabriel said irritably after they had all stared after the mysterious figure for a moment. “Carrying a bunch of pricey enchantments, made of a weird combination of all magic, smells like a dryad, somehow knows how to use weird-ass Elder God magic machines even better than Vestrel. And, best of all, showed up in the middle of all this. Yeah, there’s no way in hell we’ve seen the last of her. I will bet you a semester’s tuition her next appearance is going to be even more annoying.”

“No bet,” said Vadrieny. Ermon turned at the sound of her voice, peering at the archdemon with clear wariness.

“I could’ve frozen her to the ground,” Fross said apologetically, “but based on what Ariel said and what I sensed I wasn’t sure it’d be a good idea to poke that bear. There was a lot of magic in that lady, and I couldn’t tell what basically any of it did, and this seems like a really, really bad place to start an unnecessary fight.”

“I think you’re right,” Toby said with a heavy sigh. “No worries, Fross. For now, we’ve got a mission we’d better stick to, but we should also follow up on this as soon as we’re back in the city. See what the King and the Guild and maybe the Avenists and monks have seen.”

“For now, though, onward,” Vadrieny agreed, then faded away to leave Teal among them again.

The tunnel beyond the gate was much shorter, and horizontally level. It was also made entirely of smooth metal—apparently steel, once they stepped beyond the crawling clutter of machine parts that housed the gate apparatus itself. The group clustered together as they emerged from its mouth onto a platform overlooking a vast cavern.

The whole scene was a study in contrast between organic and angular forms. Large, glaring fairy lamps were almost blinding after the dimness behind them, but at least they exposed everything—which in this case meant a clearly natural cavern which had been both cut and built up with stone bricks to form even floors, walls, and platforms that had once served the mining operation in some capacity. In the ceiling and in the walls of sections not adapted for human use, the smooth natural curves left by eons of erosion were still evident. Remnants of wood and stone construction remained, but all of it had been partially covered by reddish metal growths which seemed to have spread over everything like crawling lichen.

There were Rust cultists present, as well, roughly two dozen as Vestrel had advised. Every single one present had at least one metal limb, some two or more, and several were partially augmented with further metallic pieces of uncertain purpose. Now, however, they were not milling about engaged in any task. All of them stood all but motionless, scattered around the chamber and staring flatly at the group which emerged into their midst.

A chilling silence hung between them, until a large piece of the machinery occupying the back wall began detaching itself.

When housed against a huge overgrowth of metallic parts it had been just another inscrutable piece of the morass, but as it pulled free and stepped closer its shape immediately became clear. The thing walked on two enormous legs, had a round torso with what appeared to be a circular eye of green glass occupying most of its front, and two metal arms extending from the upper edge of that. Despite its lack of a head, it stood nearly twenty feet tall. Each of its footfalls echoed through the chamber with a crash.

“Giant mechanical spider,” Juniper muttered. “Well, I wasn’t too far off…”

The Rust cultists stood still, keeping their attention on the intruders and paying the huge construct no mind—not even the two it had to step directly over on its way toward them. The group edged backward toward the tunnel mouth as it came, but it stopped a few yards distant.

With a hiss and several bursts of steam, the round glass face came loose and tipped slightly forward. Another metal piece on its top shifted up like a trap door. Whirring sounded from within the metal beast, and slowly a man rose into view from inside it, seated in a chair installed on a platform which now climbed upward. He stood up when it came to the top, which put him almost perfectly on a level with the group.

If the Rust cultists were given more mechanical parts as they rose through the ranks, this man must be their leader; he seemed at least as much machine as human. Enough of his flesh and blood face remained, however, to smile broadly at them, and he held his arms wide.

“Welcome, honored guests!” he boomed in a voice clearly accustomed to public speaking. “Honored indeed, even if not invited. And now, we will have to decide just what to do with you.”

 

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13 – 14

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The hum filled the air, powerful enough to make her bones resonate sympathetically, but not loud enough to drown out the screams. She tore through the corridors, a prisoner behind her own eyes, unable even to scream as she carved away lives.

Palace guards tried to shoot her, but she effortlessly swatted lightning bolts aside with the burning shaft of light in her hand. It pulled her onward, hungry for revenge, and she slashed two soldiers into shrieking fragments with one wide swing. The smell of seared meat competed with the sharp tang of ozone in the air.

She did not stop, pulled forward by the sword. Cutting down servants, clerks, more guards, everyone who came within range of her swing. Faces of people she knew, frozen in horror and betrayal as she ended them. The sword didn’t care; it only needed blood.

Somehow, she had made it to the harem wing, and Isolde was ahead of her, fleeing in panic. Fruitlessly, of course; she ran the other consort down and impaled her through the heart from behind, and Isolde fell, screaming a question for which she had no answer.

Around the next corner, Empress Eleanora had barely a moment to give her a shocked look before the blade whipped through her body in a swift Z formation, reducing her to chunks, and still she pushed forward. Beyond the Empress was what the sword wanted.

Sharidan watched her come, wide-eyed. She could hear nothing but the powerful buzz of the weapon, but saw him mouth her name in disbelief as the blade came down.

The screams finally tore past whatever force silenced them, and everything vanished in confused panic. It took her a few seconds to understand where she was and stop shrieking. There was no angrily humming Infinite Order weapon; she was alone in a shabby little room in Puna Dara, entangled in the thin blanket that came with her rented cot, and one of her neighbors was pounding on the wall, shouting imprecations. Also, there was a frightened voice in her ear.

“Milanda! What happened? Are you all right? Say something!”

“Sorry, Walker,” she rasped, then paused, working her mouth to wet it a bit. “Just…a nightmare. I’m fine.”

Walker hesitated. “You’re…alone?”

Milanda paused in extricating herself from the blanket to give the room’s wall a wry look. “Now that the noise has stopped, nobody cares. I chose this neighborhood for a reason; the odd scream here and there won’t draw a response.”

“So these dreams are now determining your choice of where to stay?”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” Milanda muttered, rising and going to the basin of water to splash her face. “You know why I’m here; the Punaji will not work with Imperial agents on this. They won’t even allow me to work if they find me, and once I’ve been explicitly told to butt out by Rajakhan’s government, my presence becomes a serious provocation. Nobody will look for me here.”

It was a sign of Walker’s concern that she didn’t allow herself to be baited into a long-winded discussion of the situation. “You never did see that mental healer, did you?”

“I haven’t had time,” Milanda said shortly, “and I don’t really care to discuss it.”

“Too bad. Milanda, this is like trying to operate with a high fever or a broken leg. Mental injuries are not less serious because they’re invisible!”

“What time is it?” Milanda asked. Her third-floor shack of a room was luxurious by the neighborhood’s standards for having an attached toilet; a window was not among its amenities.

Walker hesitated, as if about to argue, but then answered the question. “Almost twenty hours. Actually, I was about to wake you anyway. Hope you got some rest; this may be a long night.”

“Why? What’s happened?” The slight tingle of alarm was enough to banish the last of the sleep cobwebs from her brain, and she paused in the middle of the floor, just listening.

“The Avatar wasn’t able to improve the data gain from the transcension field by much, so we’re operating at a very low sensor capacity, but you carrying that receiver in your ear around Puna Dara has helped. We’ve finished mapping the cave systems around the city and found more than one that lead to an obviously artificial shaft which terminates at Fabrication Plant One. One of these, an old mineshaft outside the city, has Infinite Order tech operating at low levels. We weren’t able to interface with any of it to see what it’s doing.”

“That’ll be where the Rust have their base, then,” Milanda said, running a hand over her hair. She probably looked like a mess, but that was a lesser consideration right now. “I’ll have a look before deciding our next steps. Point the way, Walker.”

“Wait,” Walker advised. “The rest of the news isn’t good. Our system was able to identify the technology the Rust cultists are using.”

“Really?” Milanda couldn’t restrain a grin of excited satisfaction. “What is it?”

“I don’t know, and that is the bad part,” Walker said grimly. “It came up as classified. Even the Avatar refused to discuss it. He was very apologetic, but said it’s an absolute rule. He can’t act against his programming.”

Milanda’s smile melted into a frown. “…I thought our whole rigged-up system was logged into the Order’s tech under Naiya’s credentials. Why would anything be classified to her?”

“There are several things that would be; technologies and information that the Order as a whole agreed never, ever to use, or even discuss. Long before their fall they had devolved to infighting of the worst kind. The only thing that brought them all to the table was a weapon or technology which scared them so much they were all willing to permanently give up access to it as long as it meant none of the others could have it either. And these are the people who were screwing around with time travel and solar system-sized spatial distortion fields.”

Milanda drew in a deep breath and blew it out slowly.

“Yeah,” Walker said in response to the sound.

“That’s really bad.”

“Potentially. It also raises very troubling questions. How did these yokels defeat the Infinite Order’s highest security? The Avatar in Fabrication Plant One would never have allowed anyone to access classified technology, and if they somehow disabled him, there should be no way to access it. Only an Avatar governing intelligence is able to extract sealed data from the computers.”

“Hm.” Milanda had been conducting a quick check while Walker was talking; she’d been napping in her clothes and already had everything she needed at hand. Stepping out of the room and shutting the door behind her, she lowered her voice. A young woman walking around muttering to herself was far from the strangest thing to happen in this neighborhood, but still. “Maybe they interfered with the Avatar somehow? Altered him?” The rickety exterior steps creaked woefully as she descended. Milanda had suspicions about the quality of carpentry that had been done after the last hurricane.

“That would almost have to be it, but I can’t see how. Remember that our altered system only works because Empress Theasia convinced the Avatar to help set it up that way in the first place. As nervous as the Order were about AI, they’re supposed to be impervious to tampering. Anyway, I wanted you to be aware of the level of danger you’re walking into—and repeat my objection that you shouldn’t be doing this alone.”

“This is the whole point,” Milanda muttered, tucking her chin down as she reached the street. Nobody was paying her any attention; dark had fallen, but the city was still lively at this hour. “The Archpope is trying to rally everybody under one banner to prevent the Throne from turning on him, and I don’t buy for a second that he didn’t knowingly penetrate our system in the first place. I’ll buy that the Rust are a serious threat, but I also don’t want to let him scapegoat them. If I can deal with this quietly, without involving the Punaji or the cults…”

“Let me remind you that I do not work for the Empire, nor does Akane or the Avatar or the dryads. You’re the only party here who has an opinion on the Silver Throne’s political goals. What matters to the rest of us is that some humans are messing with the most dangerous technology the Infinite Order possessed and have already shown themselves willing to weaponize it somehow.”

“Noted,” Milanda said with a sigh.

“And even that wasn’t why I wanted to wake you. While doing those scans, the system identified someone it recognized moving through Puna Dara, and according to what I’m tracking toward the Rust-infested mineshaft I just mentioned.”

Milanda frowned, picking up her pace, then came to a stop, realizing she didn’t know where she was going. “Which way, Walker? And who is it? I thought those sensors weren’t acute enough for that kind of detail at this range.”

“If you’re determined to stick your nose into this, head to the southern edge of the city and toward the mountains, and I’ll guide you further from there. And no, they generally aren’t, but the presence it picked up resonates very strongly through the specific transcension field it’s using. It identified them as Administrator Naiya with thirty percent certainty.”

“Wait… That means—”

“One of her avatars, yes,” Walker said. “This system knows what kitsune and valkyries are; it’s able to accept our girls as having Mother’s clearance specifically because it doesn’t recognize dryads as a specific, separate thing. That, in fact, is how it identifies them: as Naiya, but without complete certainty.”

Milanda ran a hand roughly over her face. “Omnu’s balls… Walker, I need a favor.”

“It’ll cost you,” Walker said solemnly.

She almost missed a step, then smiled ruefully and picked up her pace. “Uh huh, good one. Has the Emperor made his nightly visit yet?”

“I don’t know, Milanda. It’s not as if he comes down to my hidey-hole.”

“Right. Well…any way you can, please try to get in touch with Lord Vex.”

Walker hummed thoughtfully into the headset. “You understand the handicap we’re under with regard to getting anybody’s attention up top? Everyone down here either physically can’t get to the surface, or really, really shouldn’t.”

Milanda made a mental note to see about having a Hand of the Emperor stationed down there at all times. Waste of talent for what amounted to a pageboy’s job, but given how Hands were made, she doubted they’d begrudge the chance to loiter with the dryads. Akane, though, was another matter…

“I understand. Whatever you can do, please. It’s very unlikely that this is just some random dryad wandering through. That would have created a major incident by now.”

“I’ve already checked the Empire’s reports on dryad activity, which Sharidan so helpfully brought us last week,” Walker replied. “Banana roams up and down the Punaji Coast, but in two centuries she’s never shown the slightest interest in approaching human settlements. Seems more standoffish than most of her generation.”

“Right. Which leaves two possibilities that I’m aware of. Either this is Ash, who works for Lord Vex, in which case he is meddling in my mission without my knowledge and I am going to have words with him… Or, unfortunately more likely, the sophomore class of Last Rock U has showed up to…help.”

“If they have,” Walker suggested, “let them. You’re in over your head, Milanda. If you absolutely insist on not involving any of the cult assets that have been moving into the city, those kids at least don’t have political ties to the Empire.”

Milanda did not bother to address that erroneous statement. “I’m more concerned with their particular manner of help. They shot Sarasio to hell, almost started a riot in Tiraas and burned half of Veilgrad. I’m just going to hope I’ll have to yell at Vex—or maybe deal with a rogue dryad. The last thing I need right now is those meddling kids.”


Fred kept his head down, hurrying on through the gathering darkness toward his destination. Last Rock wasn’t as sleepy a town as it had been not long ago, but even so, it was notably less active than in daylight. Also dimmer, lacking an organized system of street lamps. The mayor had been talking about adding just such a thing, what with all the new construction going on. Privately, Fred somewhat resented these changes in his comfortable life, but at the same time, he knew that for the silliness it was. Progress happened. All a man could do was buckle down and do his best.

“All right there, Mr. Carson?”

He came to a stop a bit too abruptly, so much so that he staggered and nearly fell, but that beat the alternative. Even so, Maureen backed away in alarm, clutching her basket of metal parts and staring up at him with wide eyes.

“Omnu’s—I’m so sorry, missy!” Fred blurted, snatching off his hat. “I plumb wasn’t looking. Didn’t step on you, did I?”

“Not so much as a toenail, don’t you worry,” the gnome assured him, smiling now. “I’m pretty quick on me feet; even the tall folk who keep a lookout can’t always spot me in the dark. Really, though, are ye doin’ all right? Y’look a wee bit under th’weather.”

In fact, he was suddenly feeling even worse, but plastered on a smile, gamely trying to conceal his unease. “Oh, pardon me, miss. Not to worry, just rushin’ to finish off errands I should’ve managed earlier. One o’ those days, y’know the kind.”

“Aye, that I do,” she agreed, nodding.

“Can I, uh, offer you a hand?” he asked politely.

“Oh, that’s all right, it ain’t as heavy as it looks,” she said cheerfully. “Just pickin’ up some scrap fer me pet project. I won’t keep ye any longer. Sorry fer almost trippin’ ye!”

“My fault entirely, Miss Willowick,” he said, tipping his hat again. “You have a good evenin’, now.”

“Same t’you!”

Once he was past her, Fred allowed himself to cringe. That…that was absolutely the last thing he’d wanted to see…

His path took him through the back ways of the old town, along dark alleys that just barely deserved the name. As Last Rock grew, it was developing such features in truth, but in the oldest parts of the village the spaces between the backs of buildings had never been used for much; it had barely had enough streets for such alleys even to exist. Fred stepped carefully in the darkness, mindful of old rubbish tossed back here, and even despite all his efforts stumbled repeatedly over unseen obstacles, having to bite his lip to keep from cursing aloud.

He found the shed without difficulty, though. Annoyance and discomfort, but not difficulty. It had been there his whole life, the storage shed behind the Saloon, tucked into a little nook left by the odd shape of the alchemy shop which had been constructed closer to the mountain and the students who had always been its main custom. In Fred’s youth the Crete’s tool shed had been kept locked and chained shut, but Jonas Crete’s fixation on magical gizmos had resulted in him moving all his stuff into the convenience of extradimensional storage inside the Saloon itself. Thus, the shed was empty, and had been for years.

And tonight, was occupied.

He slipped inside and carefully pulled the door shut behind him, turning to face those present. It was even darker, obviously, though the slits between loose boards admitted faint moonlight, enough to discern two dim figures, and the faint glint of their eyes. Fred couldn’t tell which was which, and so bowed deeply in the general direction of the space between them. Obviously, this wasn’t going to get any better; those same gaps would light the whole shed up like a beacon if they ignited a lamp. All it would take was one person glancing down the alley to see that something improper was happening in the old Crete toolshed.

“Carson,” said the Hand of the Emperor’s voice from the figure to his left. “Well?”

Fred cleared his throat self-consciously, tugging his hat off and kneading it in both hands in front of his body. “Well, sir, like you said, I found a student. Um, students, that is, here in town. The Masterson boy is just across the other side of the square down there, around the A&W.” He paused; the other dark figure had shifted as if turning to stare at the Hand.

“And?” the Hand prompted in a sharper tone. “You said students. There are more?”

Fred swallowed against the lump in his throat. “Th-there’s one other. As I was comin’ to meet you I ran across young Miss Willowick, comin’ out of the blacksmith’s. I dunno what Chase is up to, but she’ll be headin’ up the mountain toward campus. Maureen’s a good girl.”

“Mm. Even better,” the Hand said quietly. “Then we have our target. Reich, focus your ability on the crowd in the Saloon; rile up everyone amenable and target them at the gnome.”

“Oh, but sir!” Fred burst out, forgetting himself. “She’s the sweetest little thing, ain’t never said boo to a goose! Nobody cares what happens to Chase, that boy’s a prick. Couldn’t we—”

“That is precisely the point,” the Hand said in a dangerous tone. “The more sympathetic the target, the stronger the reaction.”

“But—”

“Carson, I want you to keep two things in mind. First, I am always aware of details you are not, and my plans extend well beyond you; what may seem a cruel action from one perspective may lead to ultimately benign results. Second, I speak for the Emperor. I must balance complex needs and make hard choices—and, if need be, sacrifices for the greater good. Any harm that results will be on my head, not yours. You have served your Emperor well. Do it, Reich.”

“I will,” the voice of Lorelin Reich replied from the other dark figure, “but I want it noted that I am doing this under severe protest.”

The Hand spun on her so abruptly that Fred staggered back against the closed door.

“Why is it,” the Hand grated, “that just now, when I am finally moving to enact all the planning we have done, I find myself surrounded by disloyalty?”

Fred opened his mouth to protest that he wasn’t disloyal, immediately thought better of that, and shut it again, grateful his lapse had been invisible in the dark.

“I know my duty,” Reich replied, her tone perfectly calm as far as Fred could tell. “I will serve my Emperor’s will without hesitation. But I have just spent a great deal of time being reprimanded by my cult, by an Imperial Grand Magistrate, and by Imperial Intelligence that exerting this kind of influence on unsuspecting citizens is a repulsive abuse of my abilities. I took those lessons to heart, sir. I will obey, and trust that a greater good is being served. But for the record, I consider this action vile, and am in a better position than most to know.”

“Your objections have been noted,” the Hand snapped, “and in the future, you will register them after the moment to act is not rapidly escaping us. Do it, Reich! Thanks to you two, I now have to go pull other strings to slow down our quarry, or this will all be for nothing. Carson, make sure she’s not disturbed.”

He shoved brusquely past Fred, who almost literally fell over himself to get out of the way, then vanished through the door into the night.

They stood in frozen silence for two heartbeats before Reich spoke in a soft tone.

“Carson, I think we have a smilodon by the tail, here.”

“W-what’s a smilodon?” he stammered.

Her shadow shifted incrementally as she shook her head. “Something agile enough to kill you no matter where you grab it.”

With that cheerful observation, she sank down into a lotus position to concentrate her magic on whipping up maximum carnage among the people of Last Rock.


As the black-coated figure of the Hand slipped away down the alley, moving silently in the dimness and with none of the tripping that had plagued Fred, a much smaller, chubbier shape reared upright on the roof of the little shed. After watching, whiskers a-twitch, until the Hand had vanished into a nearby cellar, the raccoon scampered to the edge of the roof and then climbed down one corner of the shed, its claws inaudible against the old wood.

Moving with impressive speed despite its waddling gait, the raccoon skittered off the other way up the alley, then rounded a corner and across the backyard of a small house, around to its front porch. There, an old woman in a heavy shawl sat in a rocking chair, creaking steadily while knitting a pair of socks by the light of a single oil lamp. The raccoon scrambled up the porch rail and shuffled rapidly along till it stood right beside her.

Quite unlike the usual prairie-dweller’s response to the sudden presence of a disease-carrying wild animal, she leaned subtly toward it while the raccoon stood on its haunches, craning its neck forward to chitter softly in her ear.

Moments later, she dropped her knitting and rose from the chair with astounding speed and agility. Fortunately no one was in the nearby street to see as the incredibly spry granny vanished entirely from sight in the act of vaulting over the porch rail. There came a rush of air from the beat of invisible wings, and then a figure flickered into view high above, shooting upward toward the distant campus.

The raccoon waddled over to the oil lamp, neatly opened its shutter, and blew it out. In the ensuing darkness, it scampered back into the town, in the direction of the old shed behind the Saloon.

No one was close enough to hear it giggling.

 

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12 – 60

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“I am not in the habit of divulging anybody’s personal business to anybody else,” Professor Tellwyrn began as soon as she settled herself behind her desk, “a fact for which several of you have abundant cause to be personally grateful. I am, in this one case, going to make an exception because the cat is pretty well out of the bag, and it’s better that those who saw it understand exactly what type of cat it was before the rumor starts flying that there’s a lion on campus.”

“Nice turn of phrase!”

“Shut up, Arquin. Since a classmate’s personal privacy is being abrogated here, I will have to insist that what I am about to tell you travels no further. If it does, the repercussions will be severe and indiscriminately applied to everyone present. And,” she added with rising asperity, “I would have thought all of this went without saying, but I can’t help noticing that this group is already larger than I expected.”

She paused to glare around her office, which in addition to the students who had been present in Last Rock for the Sleeper’s attack, now contained the entire population of the Wells and the sophomore class who remained un-cursed, as well as Scorn.

“Iris is our friend,” the Rhaazke said stidently, laying a heavy hand on Szith’s shoulder. “We care about her!”

Tellwyrn fixed a gimlet stare on her. “And in your mind, this entitles you to be involved in her personal business?”

“That, yes,” Scorn said with an emphatic nod.

Ruda cleared her throat. “So, Iris is a half-demon, right? I mean, that’d explain her being Sleeper-proof, not to mention her fixation on Gabe…”

“What?” Gabriel frowned at her. “Iris is hardly fixated on me. Where are you getting that from?”

“Arquin, you elevate cluelessness to a fucking art form.”

“Iris Domingue is not a half-demon!” Tellwyrn said loudly. “She comes from a respectable old Vernisite family from Thakar, with no traceable demon lineage on either side, and no evidence of demonic corruption that could explain her situation. She is simply, for reasons nobody understands, an infernal savant.”

There was a momentary pause while they all stared at her in varying degrees of confusion.

“So…wait,” Fross said at last. “I know what both those words mean and I can infer what they mean in connection with each other, but that can’t be right because it doesn’t make any sense.”

“I know you are all aware, by this point in your academic careers, of the basic nature of infernal magic,” Tellwyrn said, folding her hands atop her desk and regarding them over the rims of her spectacles. “Anyone can use it; the challenge for warlocks is in using it safely. Without the inherent protection granted by full-scale demonic mutation from having one’s entire lineage forged in Hell itself, the infernal is unfathomably dangerous and nearly impossible to control. A significant error can cause catastrophic, usually explosive destruction; even a minor error will cause the first stage of lifelong degenerative disease, with cancers being the most common, though they are not the totality or even the worst of it. Half-demons tend to have both a greater aptitude and a measure of protection, but neither is absolute even for them. And yes, I’m aware you have all heard this lecture before, but you’re hearing it again now, and will every time I find a reason to discuss infernal magic with my students. It is that dangerous.” She paused, and heaved a little sigh before continuing. “Iris Domingue, for whatever reason, can wield the infernal with perfect, intuitive control. Without understanding or even thinking about it, she uses it in such a way that she avoids corruption, either in the form of combustion or illness. And she can do things with it, despite knowing zero technique, that no warlock has even thought to try.”

Another silence descended, marked this time by expressions mostly of consternation.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Toby said at last.

“Nobody has, Mr. Caine,” Tellwyrn replied. “That is why I brought her here. It’s not widely known, because very few organizations are both positioned and invested in identifying and recruiting unusual young people—I haven’t been arrogant enough to assume this, but it’s possible I’m the only one who’s noticed. But within the last decade, roughly since the time the gods retreated and stopped calling paladins, individuals have begun popping up who can use magic in ways that aren’t exactly…normal. November Stark’s case is unusual, but not without precedent; there have occasionally been humans who can touch the divine unaided, just as there are occasionally drow who can wield the arcane. The prevailing theory is that it’s the natural state for all sapients to have access to all magic, and occasionally whatever force bars certain races from certain schools…misses a spot. More seriously, though… No, if there’s ever been a case like Iris before, I’ve never heard of it. And nobody who has studied her has the faintest clue what the cause is. Similarly, I have never heard of any fairy, much less a pixie, who can use arcane magic without simply exploding. Fross is, after all, the effective grandchild of an Elder God, but still. It’s never happened before. Something is up in the world.”

Teal let out a soft breath. “A great doom—”

“Don’t fucking say it!” Ruda groaned.

“So, um…” Gabriel frowned pensively. “Now you mention it, Professor, I know this is supposed to be a school for exceptional and dangerous people, but on reflection it occurs to me quite a few of our classmates seem pretty…normal. How many of these secret walking magical anomalies have we got on this campus?”

“Arquin, what did I just say about other people’s personal business?”

“Right. Sorry.”

“Anyway,” the Professor went on more briskly, “that’s the context. This meeting was convened because your classmate and friend has just had a traumatic experience, and needs support, not suspicion. It may be impossible to keep a lid on this; too many people from the town know she got cornered by the Sleeper, and others will wonder how she got away. It’s up to Iris to decide what she wants to tell anybody. It’s up to you lot to be there for her and back her up.”

“This we will do,” Szith said firmly.

“Aye,” Maureen agreed in a quieter tone. “Thank th’Light it wasn’t more traumatic, though. Way I understood it, she right whipped ‘is arse, an’ more power to ‘er.”

“There’s a lot more to trauma than being physically wounded,” Tellwyrn said gravely. “Consider Iris’s life up until now. She has refused to learn any infernomancy, which shows wisdom, but also has downsides. It’s that technique which makes the infernal useful for anything besides destruction; she cannot shadow-jump, become invisible, summon anything… With training, Iris would be the greatest warlock who ever lived. Without that training, she is a walking weapon comparable in scope to the Enchanter’s Bane. Her decision to eschew all infernal magic and immerse herself in the fae to suppress it is obviously in her best interests, and the world’s best interests. But there are people who care nothing for the interests of the world, and worse, people who care deeply and automatically conflate the world’s interests with their own agendas. The Black Wreath has been after her since before she could walk, and even those who protected her did so with the presumption of repayment. Iris has only grown to adulthood without being conscripted by one power or another because her parents are both bankers, which is the next best thing to aristocrats in terms of ruthless cunning. They’ve managed to play the Universal Church and Imperial Intelligence against each other for eighteen years, but that can’t last forever. I brought Iris here to give her four years to just…be a person. And more importantly, to develop the skills and the connections that will enable her to live her life without becoming anybody’s pawn.”

“We’ll help her,” Teal said quietly.

“Fuck yes!” Ruda agreed with much less restraint. “I don’t like to bust out my tiara, but the hell with it; anybody who tries to slap a collar on her is gonna have words with the Punaji nation about it.”

Toby cleared his throat. “I think we had better let Iris make decisions about her own life and back her up, rather than declaring our intentions unilaterally. Bad enough we’re having this discussion behind her back.”

“Gods, thank you, Toby,” Tellwyrn groaned. “The rest of you chucklefucks listen to him, for heaven’s sake.”

“Yeah, she’s right,” said Juniper. “Our job’s just to be friends. Wherever Iris decides that takes us.”

“So…what happens now?” Gabriel asked. “About the Sleeper? That warlock you brought in seemed to think he might have gotten killed…”

“He wasn’t,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “I’ve already verified the presence of every student on campus. None of them appear to have had their asses kicked in the Golden Sea, either, and to find that out in detail I would pretty much have to throw out any pretense of anyone having any privacy or personal security on this campus. For obvious reasons, I’m not willing to do that.”

“When’d you manage this?” Ruda demanded. “Cos you just got back and I know that weird new fuzzy assistant of yours didn’t check up on everybody and report in. He doesn’t even speak the language!”

“Crystal checked in on me earlier,” Toby reported.

Scorn grunted and curled her lip, baring fangs. “That tame incubus of hers was snooping around, too.”

“He’s neither tame nor mine, and don’t you forget either of those things,” Tellwyrn said irritably. “To answer your question, Arquin… What happens now is that you lot go back to your dorms and sleep. Those of you going to the Wells anyway take the time to hug your roommate, and the rest of you leave it be until you see her again normally. Tomorrow… Well, there are going to be some changes around here. Tomorrow will be a big day. You’ll want to be rested up and ready.”


Dawn, as always, was more a shift change than an awakening in the sleepless capital of the Empire. Most people who kept typical business hours were barely awake, much less contemplating breakfast yet, and the city as a whole was still early in the process of rising toward its usual frenetic pace. This was certainly not an hour when those who had been up till nearly midnight would be expected to be already at work, and yet, here they were.

The hour was all part of the pantomime. The Imperial family received their guest in one of the harem wing’s smaller formal parlors, no bigger than the average drawing room in a modestly well-to-do home, but deliberately laid out like a throne room, with a narrow strip along the wall opposite the door raised a single step and two chairs set upon it, with their backs to the windows. Sharidan and Eleanora sat in these, Milanda and Vex respectively standing at their sides. There was no other furniture, nothing for the person called before them to do but stand amid the heavy reminder of their respective stations.

Bishop Darling seemed perfectly calm and at ease, as he usually did, and was doing as well as they at presenting himself as though fully rested and alert. Doubtless he, like the Imperials, had been at the coffee. The stuff was starting to show up on the menus of tea rooms in the city, and rumblings had begun that it should be classified as a drug and regulated as such. Sharidan was considering it, if only to keep the drink out of general circulation and maximize the advantage of those who had access to it. Not that that would have helped today; Antonio Darling would have no trouble getting his hands on whatever he felt himself entitled to.

So far, no one had remarked upon the presence of the two black-coated Hands of the Emperor standing just inside the doors to the room, as impassively watchful as always, nor the fact that Milanda Darnassy was dressed in one of their uniforms, tailored to her figure.

“You are too modest, your Grace,” the Emperor said smoothly in a continuation of a back-and-forth of pleasantries which had now gone on long enough that it was verging on tediousness. “The fact remains that you are owed a great debt by the Silver Throne—you personally, and the Thieves’ Guild as a whole. I flatter myself that I am known to honor my debts.”

“It’s nothing more than the duty of a citizen to aid the Throne, should the opportunity present itself,” Darling said blandly. There came a momentary pause, the briefest hesitation in this practiced social ritual in which the next step was silently contemplated, and finally the Bishop chose to give ground by acknowledging ignorance—a slight concession, and one he was in a position to afford, but a concession nonetheless. “Your Majesty, I have to confess that I don’t understand more than a fraction of what transpired last night.”

Eleanora drummed her fingers once on the arm of her chair, giving Sharidan an expressionless sidelong look—a reminder that Darling wasn’t the only one in the dark on some points. The Emperor allowed himself a slight smile.

“I’m afraid this isn’t like a story in which everything is neatly explained in the end, your Grace. There are details we ourselves have not entirely sorted out—and of course, there are details we are not able to share with you. The entire matter, obviously, is enormously sensitive. That said, I didn’t call you here at this ungodly hour just to express my thanks. After the help you and your enforcers rendered, I want to explain as much as I am able. Even aside from my appreciation of your rescue…we both know some explanations are owed.”

“I wouldn’t presume to make any such demands,” the Bishop said with a bland smile. “But I would of course be glad to understand as much as possible of what I stumbled into.”

“The last part was the biggest mystery,” said the Emperor. “I was not expecting those…cultists. In truth, we still don’t know who they were. Apprehending their leader did us little good, I’m afraid; he killed himself via lethal injection, using a hypodermic syringe.”

A frown creased Darling’s serene expression. “Well, that certainly is…suggestive.”

“Lord Vex?” Sharidan prompted, turning to look past Eleanora at the spymaster.

Vex was the only person present who actually looked sleepy, but then, it was unusual for him to appear alert. He blinked languidly before speaking.

“We are not seriously entertaining the idea that the attackers were Black Wreath. The tactics were all wrong, the Wreath has no motive to have done such a thing, and this is hardly the first time someone has tried to pin the blame on them by donning silly robes before engaging in shenanigans. The syringe and shadow-jumpers were nice touches, more effort than we’re used to seeing at selling this old charade, but the facts stand. We know what the Wreath want, and we know how they fight. They don’t use necromancy, they do use infernomancy, they don’t meddle in politics unless there are demons involved, and there quite simply aren’t that many of them. Or if there are, they at least do not throw bodies at their problems.”

“All of us here,” Darling said quietly, “know of the Wreath’s attempt to meddle in politics. At the highest possible level.”

An absolute freeze descended momentarily. This was as touchy a subject as could possibly be raised in this particular company. Eleanora’s hands tightened on the arms of her chair.

“That wasn’t the Wreath,” Vex said mildly after a moment, “but their goddess. They are no more in control of her than any cult, and not alone in occasionally finding themselves stumbling over her trail. Most gods are more of a hassle to tidy up after than yours, Antonio. My man in Last Rock reports the Wreath is actually cleaning up one of her messes out there, or rather trying to help Tellwyrn do so.”

“The spider and the scorpion, meeting in the dark,” the Empress said frostily. “Someone’s getting stung, and I don’t much care which.” Sharidan grinned at her in open amusement, which she ignored.

His expression sobered as he turned back to the Bishop, however. “More to the point, your Grace, I owe an apology to you and yours. The truth is, you aided the Empire in good faith, you and the Guild, and we were less than honest with you from the beginning about our intentions. It all turned out as well as I could have hoped, and I certainly would not have agreed to such manipulation had it not been absolutely necessary. Still, I did not like having to deceive you, and I regret doing so—and not only because of the aid you subsequently rendered. You have the apology of the Throne, which I hope you will convey to Boss Tricks as well. We are doubly in your debt.”

“For my part, your Majesty, it’s all water under the bridge,” Darling said smoothly, putting on a magnanimous smile. “As Lord Vex himself pointed out to me yesterday, we’re all old hands at politics, here. These things have to be done, from time to time; there’s no use in taking anything personally.” He deliberately sobered his expression before continuing. “I feel I can say with relative certainty that the Boss will bear no grudge, either. However, with the greatest possible respect, I must remind your Majesty that the Thieves’ Guild is not a thing to be antagonized, particularly from atop a throne. At the core of Eserion’s faith is the command to watch the halls of power, and thwart their overreaches. You risk worsening your problems exponentially by playing the Guild for fools, and I may not always be able to intercede.”

“Well, that’s a little backward, isn’t it?” Sharidan spoke pleasantly, but he suddenly leaned forward, propping his arms on his knees; the change in his demeanor was abrupt and striking. “We’re glad, even eager, to make whatever amends we can for any offense taken by your cult, or anyone in it. But you, specifically, were the one tricked, Bishop Darling—that is, Sweet. And you are the one taking this tone with me now. Are you certain you wanna do that?”

Eleanora, Vex, and Milanda all shifted infinitesimally to stare at him, eyes widening by fractions despite their practiced reserve. This was not what they had discussed before the meeting.

Darling, too, was thrown off enough to cause the briefest hitch in his smooth presentation. “Your Majesty—”

“Okay, let’s cut the crap, shall we?” the Emperor suggested. “We’ll be here all morning at this rate. I don’t know about you, but I have an impossible number of things to do today and it looks like I’m already going to miss breakfast. You and I both know the score well enough to speak plainly.”

“Sharidan,” Eleanora said sharply.

“In addition to expressing my apology for this mess to your Boss,” the Emperor continued, “I’d take it as a personal kindness if you’d carry it to Lakshmi and Sanjay. And not on behalf of the Throne. I hate having abused their hospitality; those two were never anything but kind to me. It rankles, having to leave things like this.”

“I’ll tell her,” Darling said slowly, watching the Emperor with open wariness, now. He wasn’t the only one in the room doing so. “I have to warn you, though, Peepers probably doesn’t want to hear anything from you. Do…you want to let her know who you actually were?”

Sharidan sighed softly, and leaned back in his chair. “…no. No, best not; I can’t see anything but more trouble coming of that. I’m just someone who did her wrong, and regrets it. That’s how things will have to stand.”

“All right, well—”

“But with that aside, we were talking about us.” He actually shifted to lounge against one side of his chair and crossed his legs in a deliberately casual posture totally unlike his normal carriage before guests. Eleanora had returned her gaze forward, but Milanda was watching him with wide eyes. “Here’s the simple truth, Sweet: you are a pain in the ass. You’re everywhere, involved in the government, in the Church, in whatever your Guild is up to on a given day, and yet, nobody knows what it is you actually want. All we know is that you’re one of the Empire’s foremost experts on playing both ends against the middle, and you should know that by this stage in your illustrious career, everybody is getting tired of it. Now, I will gladly—humbly, even—offer my apologies and make amends to the Guild, for the sake of the necessary politics. To Lakshmi as a friend, as well, if such overtures won’t be immediately spat on. But you, Antonio Darling? I won’t do anything as pointless as suggest you pick a role and stick to it, but if you’re seriously going to have the face to stand here and complain about someone playing you false in this game…” Sharidan grinned broadly, the expression showing a lot of teeth and not reaching his eyes. “Blow me.”

The silence was absolute.

Darling cleared his throat discreetly, once he had recovered. “With greatest appreciation for the kindness of your Majesty’s offer, I must respectfully decline.”

The Emperor’s grin softened, becoming marginally more sincere. “Vex thinks you’re a true Eserite at heart. I realize we didn’t exactly spend much time bonding over the last few days, but I’m inclined to lean toward that conclusion myself, after watching you in action. As such, I realize you’re not inclined to trust anyone who sits on a throne for a living—as you yourself pointed out. Just keep in mind that there are powers in this world, and then there are powers, and you’d be wise to consider which of them rule just to rule, and which are trying to help people. There’s a limit to how long you can keep playing this game of yours, Sweet.”

“There are limits to everything, your Majesty,” the Bishop said pleasantly, his poise back in place. “Men like you and I are forced to push them as far as we humanly can. And let’s be honest: we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Sharidan heaved a sigh and straightened his posture. “There are a lot of things I wish could be other than they are… In any case. We thank you for accommodating us at this early hour, your Grace, especially after such an eventful night. Your assistance to the Throne is, as always, duly appreciated, and it is our hope that you will convey our sincere gratitude to the Thieves’ Guild as well.”

Long before the end of his speech, he had fully resumed the serenely regal bearing expected of an Emperor, and finished by inclining his head in a kingly gesture of dismissal.

Darling bowed deeply. “It is my honor to aid the Empire however I may, your Majesty. I’m certain the Guild will appreciate your overture. By your leave, then?”

“Go in good health, your Grace.”

Vex was drawing in breath for a heavy sigh before Darling was fully out of the room, and began speaking in a tone of strained patience the instant the doors had shut behind him. “Your Majesty—”

“Have you lost your mind?” Eleanora exclaimed.

“If anything, I’ve recently found it,” Sharidan said lightly, again relaxing into his chair. “You know what your problem is, Quentin?”

“I very much fear I am about to,” Vex said flatly.

The Emperor grinned at him. “In fairness, it’s not really a problem. You are so fixated on facts, on knowing all the details and angles, you tend to undervalue the squishier variables. People’s personalities, their passions, their hearts.”

“I assuredly do not neglect to consider individual character in my calculations, your Majesty,” Vex said with open annoyance, “but I also understand their place in the greater equation.”

“People aren’t rational creatures,” Sharidan replied. “They can’t be rationally predicted in their actions. Sometimes, you have to follow your intuition. You have to extend a little faith, a little trust. It’s not a criticism; your way of looking at the world is what makes you so good at your job. It’s not the only way, however, nor even necessarily the best.”

“Exactly what faith and trust are you displaying by needlessly antagonizing that smirking Eserite weasel after all the effort we just put into mollifying him?” Eleanora demanded.

Sharidan winked at her, and for a moment she looked like she was about to hit him.

“After spending a few days among Eserites, I’ve gained some insight,” he said cheerfully. “I just did more to earn that guy’s respect than we’ve managed in the entire time we’ve been trying to court him. Trust me, Nora. I know what I’m doing.”

“Your Majesty,” said Vex, “with all due respect, I question that assertion. I have never agreed with any part of this plan of yours, and with it now completed I consider it lucky that you escaped serious harm. And we’ve gained nothing.”

“Not at all,” the Emperor said more seriously, reaching over to take one of Milanda’s hands. “We know who was behind the attack on our magical systems, even if we can’t prove it. We forced Justinian to react rapidly to protect his schemes, and in the process learned something we’ve previously only suspected by watching his general pattern: he is strongest when he’s allowed to set up the board before the game, and not so smooth when he’s forced to improvise.”

“You believe he sent those…whoever they were, last night?” Milanda asked quietly.

“Oh, please, who else? I realize your people are still analyzing the bodies we recovered, Lord Vex, but I think we all know there won’t be any useful evidence. Who but the Church has the resources to build an entire disposable cult to fling at us anonymously? What’s important is that we made him do it. We forced him to expend resources, cover his rear and make a show of sending those adventurers we know work for him to aid us in an effort to demonstrate that he’s not the enemy. There’s been a lot we know he’s done that we can’t prove, but he has finally overplayed that hand.”

“He did play it, though,” Vex said, frowning. “We have no solid indication of Justinian’s duplicity. He succeeded in covering his tracks, and turned the situation to his advantage.”

“No,” the Emperor disagreed, “all he managed to do was mitigate his losses, and I’ll bet he doesn’t fully appreciate the gains we’ve made. I established contact with his high-ranking killers; I want you to work on getting in touch with them, Vex. If they can be turned against him, it’ll be a decisive blow, and one we’re even more likely to be able to land now that they’ve seen him try to get them killed. They know who sent those cultists, I assure you. Just because nobody can prove it doesn’t mean everybody doesn’t know.”

Vex opened his mouth to speak, but Sharidan pressed on.

“Which is my main point: I accomplished exactly what I set out to. We’ve got the Guild on our side now, when previously they were nominally aligned with the Church. Their inclination is to be hostile to any entrenched power, and overall have been as adept as Darling at dealing with both sides while avoiding a commitment. I assure you, Darling knows as well as we that Justinian is the only one who could have been summoning a necromantic mass-murder cult in the middle of a residential district last night, and Tricks sure as hell does. Putting the Throne in debt to the Guild is a bond between us, as strong as if we’d put them in our debt, and a lot more possible to achieve. As long as we don’t screw this up, when Justinian finally makes his move, he’ll have the Guild against him, not on his side or even neutral.” Smiling smugly, he lounged in his pseudo-throne. “It was dicey for a while, but this is a success, people. You all know we haven’t been winning this game recently. This time, we did.”

“Your Majesty,” Vex said firmly, “be all that as it may, and allowing for differences of opinion on your final analysis, I will have to insist that you never again take such a risk as you did this week, and especially last night.”

The two Hands by the door had been silent for the whole conversation thus far, but now shifted to stare at Vex. People did not use words like insist when addressing their Emperor. Sharidan made a quick placating gesture at them, even as he replied.

“In that, I have to agree. That gambit only worked because it was unthinkable; if me going out in disguise becomes a pattern, it’ll be all too easy for someone to use it against me. And for purposes of this discussion, twice constitutes a pattern. I don’t think that trick will be usable again for…oh, about thirty years or so. Regardless, for now!” He stood up, still holding Milanda’s hand, and bowed to her courteously. “I have a lot of appearances to make; after this week, people need to be reassured that their Emperor and his Hands are in place and functioning as usual. But first, I think you had something to show me down below?”

“Indeed,” she replied with a smile, “it’s been a little tense, but to my own surprise, I actually got everything settled. It’s going to take some…explaining, however.”

“Splendid! Eleanora, I’ll meet you after breakfast and we shall proceed with our first meeting of the day. For now, after being out of the action all week, I’m anxious to see how this has finally turned out.”

 

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12 – 59

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The sunset had gone unnoticed, as the night blazed with hellfire.

For a half mile all around, the tallgrass had been scoured to ash, and even beyond that, fallout from various spells burned merrily. The stars were obscured by an ugly blend of airborne ash, greenish clouds of some residue from a misfired hex, and the angry glow of portals and dimensional rents both half-formed and fully blaring infernal energy onto the scene. All around lay the corpses of demons, those which hadn’t already crumbled to charcoal when the magic left them, interspersed with fresh craters and clumps of jagged obsidian one of the two warlocks had called up to make the landscape nearly impossible to navigate.

Still, they fought on, and at this point only one was growing tired.

Their styles were virtually opposite. The Sleeper was on his fourth suit of armor and the most haphazard yet, as he was continually battered by Iris’s spells and had to re-arrange his defenses under ever-increasing pressure. Whether or not he still cared about concealing his identity, some manner of magical protection was absolutely essential for survival in the hellscape they had created, and so he was still warded, but down from his earlier hulking carapace to a human-sized shroud of greenish flame, hastily fixed into conventionally styled plates of armor. He summoned demons, cast circles which either blocked her path or spat out hostile magic, used curses to alter the terrain with clouds of dust, darkness, and even a patch of slowed time.

The Sleeper had (almost) all the knowledge of the queen of Hell herself, and he was barely slowing her down. He would long since have given up and fled if his opponent had let him.

Iris had virtually no style, not technique at all. She did basically nothing but hurl fire and shadow, and yank open dimensional rents which devoured his spells and occasionally spat more fire and tendrils of darkness to impede his way. He called up demons, and she effortlessly blasted them to ash. His summoning circles went haywire at her merest glance, flickering out, exploding dangerously, or even altering to unleash horrific magical backlash on their creator. Curses, area-of-effect attacks, even direct damage spells she easily unraveled, neutralized, or hurled right back at him, without even seeming to realize what she was doing. Every time he tried to run, shadowy tendrils snared him, or a new rip appeared in reality, unleashing a blast of force that hurled him back toward her. That was still gentler than what happened when he attempted to shadow-jump, a prospect upon which he had given up early in their duel.

The fire-armored Sleeper finished obliterating the obnoxious tentacles of shadow which had impeded his last escape attempt and turned to face her once more. Iris paced forward with a measured stride, face still twisted in a snarl of animal fury. Her dark skin and white dress were both liberally stained with ash, but neither had suffered so much as a burn or scrape.

He gesticulated with both arms, and all around her, a ring of thirteen spell circles formed out of the air, glowing flame-orange with infernal runes. The very air within them thickened, darkened, the charred ground beginning to bubble.

Iris made a slashing motion with one hand, and five of the circles on that side shattered like glass; the rest, destabilized, began to misfire, causing the shadows to dissipate and the aggressive decay to spread outside their boundary. Even as she strode forward beyond their range and the remaining circles collapsed, he was already conjuring again.

The orb of flame which descended from the sky at a steep angle was the size of a house, and moving at such an impossible speed it was almost upon her seconds after its first appearance over the horizon; Iris was already pointing at it before it came into view, and a mere two yards from impacting her it struck an invisible barrier and rebounded, arcing through the air to strike the ground scarcely twenty yards away. The roar and shockwave of the explosion blasted everything in the vicinity clear, momentarily obscuring the whole scene.

The Sleeper, relatively secure behind his armor, seized this opportunity to flee again. As before, he didn’t make it more than two steps. This time, rather than the multitude of shadow tendrils which had grabbed him previously, a single tentacle burst from the ground, coiling around his ankle, and whipped him through the air to slam him against the ground.

“Well, you got your way,” Iris said, stalking forward. “Proud of yourself? Are you happy? Is this what you wanted to see?!”

He tried to roll to his feet to face her, and the tentacle yanked him away again, smashing him to the ground a few yards away in the other direction. The shadowbolt he had barely formed went careening harmlessly into the sky.

The Sleeper, still alert despite the impacts, unleashed a blast of fire at the tentacle holding his leg, just in time for another to grab his arm and whirl him away again. This one whipped him back and forth, smashing him hard on the ground three times in three places yards apart before finally giving him a break.

This time, he just lay there, apparently stunned. And this time, Iris finally closed the gap.

Seething darkness appeared over her hand like a gauntlet as she bent to grasp him by the neck. Iris straightened up, hefting the Sleeper bodily upright, a feat for which she likely lacked the physical strength; more tendrils of shadow sprang up from the ground, snaring his limbs and helping to push him upward.

“Might as well keep your secrets,” she said coldly, glaring at the inscrutable mask of flame. “We’ll find out who you were when somebody doesn’t show up for class tomorrow.”

“Need…me…” His voice was weak, clearly male, disguised this time by fatigue, smoke inhalation, and possibly the grip of the dark gauntlet around his throat. Even without his earlier pretentious vocal effect, it was unrecognizable. “I can fix—”

“Professor Tellwyrn is the greatest mage in the world, you little stain,” she snarled. “Your curse won’t last much longer, anyway.”

The air around them rippled again, and Iris turned her head in the direction from which the wave had come, raising a hand. Two figures had appeared upon the charred landscape nearby, neither of them demons.

“Miss Domingue, I presume?” the dwarf said politely. “Your Professor sent us. Dear me, what a mess,” he added, peering around at the destruction and ongoing infernal radiation.

“This must cease,” added his companion, a tall Tidestrider man with an octopus tattoo along his right arm.

A sharp crack sounded, and the Sleeper’s armor began to fragment. Fractures appeared and spread across it, white lines interrupting the dance of the green flames, making them resemble reflections in a broken mirror.

“No, you don’t,” Iris snapped, squeezing harder. A thin film of purple shadow coalesced over his body, even as the fractures deepened and spread further.

“Oh dear,” said the dwarf. “A little closer, Haunui, if you please. This is going to be tricky.”

He made a lifting motion with both hands, and four square basalt columns thrust upward from the ground around them in a square formation, trailing lengths of black chain from their upper edges. They rose to a height of seven feet, all the while the lengths of chain reached for each other as if magnetic. Within seconds, they had formed an impromptu cage.

“What is this?” the Wavespeaker demanded. Before Wrynst could reply, the Sleeper exploded.

The noise alone was enough to knock a person bodily over; the concussion of the blast made the cage shudder, to say nothing of the wash of white-hot flame with raked away a foot of topsoil in all directions. It was over quickly, though, leaving Iris holding a handful of nothing.

“No,” she whispered, staring at her black glove even as it dissipated. There was no sign of the Sleeper at all; nothing had survived in the vicinity except Wrynst’s cage, which had only barely endured. Lengths of chain broke away and fell like pieces of dried-up vines, and one of the square columns, cracked across its middle, toppled over.

“An inverted containment spell,” Wrynst said matter-of-factly as Haunui pushed his way out of the now-limp chains. “Only effective against infernal power, but rather impressive, if I say so my—”

He was cut off by Iris’s scream of pure frustration. She sank to her knees, then toppled forward, slamming both her fists into the ground.

“I had him! I was so close!” She began rhythmically punching the earth, kicking up puffs of ash with each blow. “All of this was for nothing. Years of work, my whole life, gone for nothing!”

“Child.” Haunui had strode over quickly, and now knelt in front of her. “Nothing is gone.”

“LOOK AT THIS!” she screamed at him, throwing her arms wide.

As far as they eye could see in every direction, the golden tallgrass was gone; flickers of fire still raged along the horizons. There were several impact craters still, though the other detritus of their fight had been destroyed by the final destructive spells she and the Sleeper had unleashed. The sky was all but hidden by a sick mockery of the northern lights, seething rents in reality from which tongues of flame and eye-wrenching darkness seeped all around.

“This is all I’m good for,” Iris said, suddenly toneless. Her arms fell limply to her sides. “I was just fooling myself. First time it came down to it, this is—”

Haunui grasped her face gently in both hands, capturing her attention.

“The tide comes and goes, beyond our power to affect,” he said, holding her gaze in perfect calm. “The wind blows as it will, bringing what it will. The world turns, the clouds change. We are specks adrift on the surface, hefted by powers we cannot contest. This is true.”

“Excuse me,” said Wrynst from a short distance away, “but this whole area is massively unstable. We had really better—”

“The one thing that is yours to command,” Haunui continued, ignoring him, “the one thing, is your own hand on the tiller. The world will do with you whatever it does. You, and only you, decide who you are.”

“I can’t,” she whispered. Tears streamed down her cheeks, washing over his callused fingers. “I can’t do this. I lost it all.”

The shaman smiled gently. “Child, I hear the spirits around you still. They do not abandon you so quickly; no friend does. Still your mind, as you were taught. Reach out, and find them still there.”

“But…”

“Reach,” he insisted. “You are your choices, not your gifts. Reach out. Make a choice.”

Iris heaved in a shaking breath, swallowed heavily, and closed her eyes.

“I really must insist we go,” Wrynst said nervously. “Sheyann was unsure how long she could sustain the link anyway, and we are surrounded by active and uncontrolled dimensional rifts. Now, please!”

“We will heal them,” Haunui said, not looking up from Iris’s face. “Patience, warlock. What was done will be undone. What was destroyed, remade. The magic of the earth and the wind holds sway here, not the magic of the nether.”

Wrynst threw up his hands in a hopeless gesture, turning and stomping back toward the point at which they had first appeared.

Haunui closed his own eyes. Light blossomed along his tattoo, the inked tentacles glowing brilliant green along his arm and back. For achingly long moments, he and Iris knelt in the dust, eyes closed, while hellfire flickered hungrily in the destruction all around them.

A faint whisper of wind rose.

The first changes were too slight and too slow to be noticeable, but they swiftly grew in speed, and strength. The glaring rents in the sky began to close, shrinking to points and lines until finally the last flickers of fire and shadow vanished. Reality reasserted itself, the corruption of the infernal shrinking away. Finally, after scarcely a minute had passed, the last of them were gone, and the stars shone again unimpeded.

Iris drew another breath again, shaking from a withheld sob, but a smile blossomed on her face.

“They do not forget so quickly,” Haunui repeated. “Come, there is more to do.”

It took a few minutes longer, but finally the first green shoots began to appear. Once they initially manifested, they grew quickly, rising and spreading. In another ten heartbeats, the fires in the distance had flickered out and a veritable carpet of pale green spread around them. As the two knelt, concentrating in silence, the tallgrass continued to blossom, pushing its way upward.

The rate of its growth slowed as rapidly as it had first accelerated, and all too soon came to an apparent stop. It was nowhere near as well-developed as the usual grasses of the Sea, rising barely knee-high, and the green of new shoots rather than the golden amber of the mature tallgrass…but it was there, spreading away in all directions over what had been a battlefield torn by flame. Dips in the landscape still marked the craters left by spells of destruction, but they were covered by a green shroud of new growth.

From somewhere nearby, impossibly, came the chirp of a cricket.

Haunui let out a long sigh, at last opening his eyes, and lowering his hands from Iris’s face. “These things go in cycles, as you know well. Ash is good for the ground. Look.”

She finally opened her own eyes, meeting his gaze, then following it to a point on the ground between them.

A single red flower rose from the soil amid the blades of new tallgrass, a cluster of cone-shaped blossoms shifting slightly in the faint breeze. The old symbol of regrowth after fire, the versithorae, a bloom that only rose from ashes. A sign of the earth’s forgiveness.

“As I live and breathe,” Wrynst marveled, gazing around. “You actually did it… Total infernal nullification. I’d never have thought such a disaster could be cleaned so quickly.”

“A choice was made,” Haunui said gravely, finally standing up. He held a hand down to Iris.

After a moment, she tore her gaze from the flower and looked up at him. Her dark eyes were clear, despite the tracks left by tears through the dust on her cheeks. Finally, she accepted his hand.

“Thank you.”

He nodded to her, once, then turned back to the warlock. “And now, we had better go. It does not do to keep an Elder waiting.”

Wrynst sighed and rolled his eyes. “Well, if you’re certain you’re finished here.”

“We’re done,” Iris said in a small voice. “Let’s go. Please.”


“Uh, Professor,” Gabriel said nervously, “if you don’t mind my asking—”

“Because, Arquin,” Tellwyrn said, “some problems are not best solved by exercising force. If I thought Iris in danger you had better believe I would be there myself. The situation, however, is that she needs to be rescued from the Golden Sea, not the Sleeper. We need the best shaman and the best warlock to navigate the shifts inflicted upon it. That means Wrynst and, with Sheyann forced to stay here and hold the path open, Haunui. Trust me,” she added grimly, “I’m not worried about the Sleeper hurting her. I guarantee he is regretting forcing Iris Domingue into a corner right now.”

“Um,” he said carefully, “…okay.”

Gabriel had dismissed Whisper, who tended to quickly grow restive with nothing to do. Now they all stood in the tallgrass at the outskirts of the Sea, waiting. Sheyann knelt on the ground, eyes closed and lips moving constantly in a silent soliloquy; nearby, an unceasing rustle moved back and forth through the tallgrass where Maureen paced, muttering to herself. Tellwyrn and Gabriel simply stood, she staring fixedly at the horizon, he fidgeting.

“Actually,” he offered after a terse silence, “I was going to ask—”

“They’re coming,” Sheyann said suddenly, relief audible in her voice, as well as fatigue. Maureen darted toward them, pushing amber stalks roughly aside.

Reality itself heaved, the ground seeming to roll like the tide, without actually displacing the grass or any of them standing upon it. The undulation carried three figures, though, and deposited them right in front of the group.

“Iris!” Maureen wailed, throwing herself forward.

Iris, filthy and clearly exhausted but apparently unharmed, knelt to catch her, wrapping the gnome up in a hug and rocking slightly back and forth.

Tellwyrn quickly joined them, bending down to rest a hand on Iris’s shoulder, heedless of the ash staining her dress.

“Iris,” she said in an uncharacteristically soft voice, “are you all right?”

Iris nodded, swallowed, and finally looked up. “I’m not hurt. Professor… I’m sorry. I almost had him, but—”

“None of that,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “I’m responsible for protecting you, not the other way round. I’m sorry. What’s important is that you are okay. We’ll finish dealing with the Sleeper very soon, I promise you.”

“I’m not absolutely certain he got away, though,” Wrynst added, straightening his robe. “That effect he unleashed… It might have been a ploy to conceal a shadow-jump, or it may honestly have been his destruction, whether self-inflicted out of spite or resulting from the damage you did. Either way, it was a desperate maneuver. You really had him on the ropes, young lady.”

“Keeping us in the dark would be just like him,” Gabriel chimed in, then added fervently, “I am damn glad to see you back safe, Iris. We were worried sick.”

She actually twitched, her eyes falling on him and widening in shock. Iris opened her mouth, but no sound emerged.

Maureen’s shoulders jerked slightly, and she finally drew back, grinning. “Oh, aye, that reminds me. Before I forget to tell ye, Gabe’s here. He’s the one who came to fetch us; hasn’t left ever since, not till we were sure you were safe.”

“I—uh—I mean…thank you,” Iris said weakly, ending on a squeak.

Tellwyrn sighed, straightening. “Sheyann? Are you all right?”

“Quite well, thank you, Arachne,” the Elder said smoothly. “That was by no means easy, but far from the most tiring thing I have ever undertaken. Most instructive, as well. You know, I may have gained some insight into Kuriwa’s trick of traveling between places.”

“Now, why the hell would you want to do a damn fool thing like that? Let Kuriwa play footsie with unspeakable horrors if she wants. I thought you had more sense.”

Sheyann raised an eyebrow, but smiled faintly in amusement. “I allowed you to teleport me for this escapade of yours, Arachne; I expect to be spoken to with a bit more restraint. At least for a while.”

“Yes, you’re right. Sorry.” Tellwyrn sighed heavily, and grimaced. “I’ve been quickly using up my store of restraint over the last two days.”

“In fact, you’ve been doing quite well,” Sheyann replied, gliding over to pat her on the shoulder. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed. You have conducted yourself very nearly like a person with normal, basic social skills. It may seem an odd thing to say, Arachne, as I certainly have no claim to responsibility for you, but I am…proud.”

Tellwyrn glared at her. Then, incongruously, her lips twitched, and she emitted a soft snort that was clearly the lesser part of a laugh.

“Well…all right. We’ve got a crowd back at Last Rock to reassure, most of you will be needing some food and rest, and I owe a series of explanations to several people. Most urgently, Iris had better get into a bath and then bed. Let’s move this out, people. Wrynst, Haunui, I thank you very sincerely for helping to protect my student.”

“Oh, no need for that, Professor,” Wrynst said cheerfully. “This beats the daylights out of laboratory work. I’m having a smashing old time!”

Haunui just nodded gravely.

They started slowly, Iris having to detach herself from Maureen and push upright with obvious weariness, but soon enough the little procession got underway, heading back toward Last Rock. Tellwyrn stood aside, letting them all pass before finally bringing up the rear, alongside Gabriel, who had hovered nearby.

“So, Professor,” he said in a low tone, nodding at Wrynst and Haunui a few yards ahead of them. “What I was actually going to ask… Who are those guys?”

She sighed. “Later, Arquin. Tomorrow, you’re going to learn a lot of things, some of which will explain the presence of all the…guests I brought with me. More immediately… Gather your comrades when we reach the town, if you would. Before people start scattering to the winds and spreading rumors, there are some things you’ll need to understand.”

He followed her gaze past Haunui’s shoulder, to where Iris was trudging along, slumped with exhaustion, then nodded silently.

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