Tag Archives: Maureen

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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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12 – 57

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They emerged from the alley into more trouble.

“Contact!” Rook called rather shrilly, placing himself in front of Danny and lifting his staff to take aim at the two figures in gray robes suddenly dashing down the street toward him.

Before he could fire, perhaps luckily, Joe pushed past, raising one of his wands. Two short, clean beams of light pierced each attacker straight through the head, causing them to collapse mid-stride.

“Holy shit,” Finchley said somewhat tremulously.

“Keep it together,” Moriarty muttered. “We have a mission still to complete.”

Kheshiri was the last out of the alley. She paused upon the sidewalk, surveying Joe’s handiwork with her fists on her hips, and incongruously grinned. “Well, well, you are learning!”

“Shut up,” Joe said curtly, his eyes scanning the street. It was narrower than the main avenue they had been trying to reach at the other end of the alley, and looked less planned, to judge by the way it kinked back and forth around irregularly-placed old buildings. Altogether this was a much more ambush-friendly corridor, though at least it showed no further evidence of cultist activity at the moment.

“Really, I applaud your dedication to preserving life,” Kheshiri continued in an overtly mocking tone. “I warned you, though: berserker drugs. Shooting to disable is not going to accomplish anything. Ah, well, what matters is you eventually got the—”

Joe very calmly turned and shot her through the foot. She yelped and staggered back, slumping against the face of the nearest building.

“Whoah, hey!” Rook protested.

“I understand the impulse, Joe,” Danny said more quietly, “but she’ll only keep needling if you give her reactions, and that isn’t going to help. If you’re not going to kill her, please don’t wind her up.”

The three ex-soldiers glanced at each other with wide-eyed alarm, while Joe heaved a heavy sigh.

“Fine,” he grunted after a pause. “We’d best move out.”

“Oh, I’m all right, thank you for your concern,” Kheshiri said bitingly. Indeed, after holding her foot off the ground for a moment and flexing her ankle, she set it down again, and set off up the street without any trace of a limp. “Good call, time is precious and enemies abound. This is the fastest—”

“Not that way,” Danny interrupted, already heading down the street in the other direction.

“Hey!” she called after him in irritation. “This leads directly to a major artery—there’ll be military police there. You’re going deeper into this dead end of a district that way!”

“We can circle around easily enough,” Danny replied, “and more importantly, not taking straight and obvious routes is key to avoiding pursuit.”

“Not in this situation,” she retorted. “Unless you have a better reason than that…?”

“He’s right,” said Joe, nodding solemnly at Danny. “We know somebody who lives just up the road there, and we ain’t leadin’ whoever these clowns are in that direction.”

“I said better reason,” she said dryly.

“Come on.” Danny turned and resumed walking without another word. He finally seemed motivated to pick up his pace; at any rate, there was no more of his previous aimless ambling. The troops fell into formation around him, and Joe quickly pushed ahead, weapons out. Kheshiri, grumbling and cursing under her breath, finally brought up the rear.

“Sooo, Kheshiri,” Rook said rather weakly after a few yards of awkwardness. “Interesting name. Is that Calderaan?”

“Vanislaad,” Joe said shortly.

All three came to an immediate stop, swiveled in unison, and pointed their staves at the disguised succubus. She rolled her eyes.

“Cut that out,” Danny ordered. “In fact, with all respect, I’d prefer if you three refrained from firing your weapons except in the last extremity of self-defense. Those are military-grade, and people are living all around us. We have a legendary sharpshooter along; let him do what he does best.”

“For people being all around, it’s awful quiet, don’t you think?”

They swiveled again, still raising weapons, as did Joe, to aim at the man who slipped out of another alley just up ahead.

“Oh, great,” Joe muttered.

“Master,” Kheshiri said warily. “I thought you were—”

“Situation’s changed,” he interrupted. “Jack and Vannae are still scouting and trying to keep our flanks clear, but you chowderheads are about to plow right into another big concentration of the Wreath.”

“They aren’t Wreath,” she said sullenly.

“Yeah, you really latched onto the important part of that,” he snapped. “Keep quiet if you’re just gonna waste air.”

“You know this guy, I take it?” Finchley asked.

“Shook,” said Joe. “Am I gonna have to shoot you, too?”

“Another time, kid,” Shook replied. He had two wands in hand himself, both pricey-looking enchanter wands rather than standard lightning-throwers, but had them aimed at the ground, and was seemingly ignoring all the weapons still trained on him. “We’ve got mutual fish to fry right now. These robed assholes are gonna kill everybody they stumble across, which raises some real concerns about what happened to everybody living around here. Come on, we gotta backtrack, fast.”

“They won’t go that way,” Kheshiri complained. “This is like herding suicidal cats.”

“I do not give a fuck,” Shook exclaimed. “You go back if you want to live.”

“We’ll not be doing that,” Danny replied in perfect calm, heading across the street. “Do you happen to know where this alley—”

The pounding of feet on the pavement was the only warning they got.

As before, the attackers came in disturbing silence. They rushed around the corner ahead with a speed and ferocity that seemed it should have been accompanied by mad howling, but the only sounds were footsteps and the rustling of robes. This time, though, there were a lot more of them.

“Into the alley!” Finchley barked, grabbing Danny roughly by the shoulder and shoving him through the opening. Rook and Moriarty backed after them, firing into the crowd as they went. Joe and Shook both joined in, shooting with much more accuracy, but even as they created enough bodies to physically impede those still coming, none of the berserkers so much as slowed.

“How the fuck many of these guys are there?” Shook snarled, furiously casting beam after beam into the throng.

“Master, quickly!” Kheshiri called, her voice inexplicably coming from directly above them. “Into the alley, now!”

“We’ll be trapped—”

“Trust me, now!”

Shook cursed, turned, and bolted after the others through the narrow gap. Joe was the last in, moving backwards and still shooting. By the time he passed through the opening, silent cultists brandishing clubs had nearly reached it.

Abruptly, a wall of solid stone shot straight upward from the ground, sealing off the entrance.

There were no cries from beyond; the rock was too thick, apparently, to carry the sound of bodies piling against it as they must be.

“There you are,” Shook said in relief. “Where’s the other one?”

“Still scouting,” an elf in a dark suit replied; he had been pressed against the wall of the alley, forcing the others to push past him, and seemed out of breath.

“Vannae,” Joe said stiffly.

“Jenkins,” the shaman replied in a similar tone, pressing a hand to his chest.

“That’s a useful trick,” Danny commented from just up ahead. “Can you do that again? They can’t possibly keep this up long before drawing attention. I’m surprised we haven’t already heard alarm bells, given the weapons being fired off.”

“Weapons being fired mean anybody with any sense is huddling inside, not going after the cops,” Shook retorted. “There’re always a couple of heroes without sense, but they’ve gotta get through those…them. And there are a lot of ’em out there.”

“Also,” Kheshiri added from above, “the rooftops around this whole area are lousy with Thieves’ Guild enforcers, who I suspect had something to do with it.”

“Shit,” Shook hissed, quickly holstering his wands. He drew a black bandana from an inner coat pocket and began wrapping it around his lower face.

“You mentioned that before,” said Danny, looking up at the succubus and seeming unperturbed at the fact that she now had spiny wings and was clinging spiderlike to the side of the building. “What’s the Guild doing?”

“Fuck all, as usual,” a new voice said cheerily. Another elf in a suit ambled toward them from up the alley, casually twirling a stiletto in one hand.

“Not another step!” Joe snarled, aiming a wand at him.

“Oh, keep it in your pants, child,” the Jackal said dismissively. “You and I will have to continue our discussion later. Right now we face more urgent questions. Who are these people? Where did they come from? What are they doing here?”

“We’ve already killed more of ’em than the Wreath has skilled operators left on the whole continent,” said Kheshiri, finally dropping to the ground. It made the alley even more crowded, even when she pressed herself against Shook’s side. “I’m at a loss. I may be a little behind on events, but I don’t know who could not only field a surprise army, but drop it into the middle of Tiraas on a whim.”

“The dropping is easy,” Vannae panted. “Shadow-jumping. Could come from anywhere…”

“Hey, are you okay?” Shook asked him.

“This city…” The shaman shook his head, slumping against the wall. “Worst possible place for my magic. So few natural materials, so much arcane… I overextended myself—”

“Then what the hell good are you?” the Jackal demanded, arching an eyebrow. “One more idiot for us to shepherd around, now. This whole business is entirely outside my skill set. I’m used to being the one doing the hunting.”

“Hey, Joe?” called Rook. “I’m gettin’ a vibe where it might be best to just shoot all of these people.”

“Generally, that’s correct,” Joe said, “but let’s not start a firefight in this alley.”

“Also, let’s none of us waste allies, however reluctant,” Danny added. “We seem to be in a tight spot, metaphorically as well as literally.”

“I just love the way he talks,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “Back to the matter at hand, let’s be honest with ourselves. We all know someone who it wouldn’t surprise any of us to learn could pull an army out of his butt—even if this really isn’t an army. They’re jumping into nearby buildings in parties of not more than a couple dozen each. It’s a raiding party, at most.”

“Oh, is that all,” Finchley muttered.

“Assuming you’re talkin’ about who I think you are,” Joe said warily, “don’t you creeps work for him?”

“Indeed, indeed.” The Jackal grinned so widely it looked physically painful. “I’m inclined to interpret this as a very careful notice of termination—one he can deny if it turns out we’re the ones doing the terminating.”

“Fuck,” Shook growled. “How sure are you of that?”

“I wouldn’t stake my honor on it, and not just because I left that at the bottom of a river a few decades back. But let’s face it, none of us is going to be surprised if that turns out to be the case.”

“So,” Danny said slowly, “perhaps we have grounds for a more than immediate alliance.”

“Danny, no,” Joe said firmly. “You do not wanna get mixed up with these…people.”

“Oh, he’s done business with worse,” the Jackal said merrily. “But let’s walk as we chat, my new friends! I’m freshly back from a scouting run sweep, and while the bulk of our enemies are just humans hopped up on alchemicals, they’ve got good magical support. Shadow-jumpers are not only bringing them in, they’re moving them around to avoid having to cross the streets in large groups, and cleaning up after themselves; there are no bodies left on the site of your first firefight, and I’ll bet by now there are none left on the street right out there, either. It’s inconceivable they don’t have tactical scrying, which means we’re gonna be constantly surrounded until we can call in the Army.”

“Fuck this whole business,” Shook muttered.

“Amen, brother,” Rook agreed.

“Time’s on our side,” said Danny. “This is still Tiraas. They can’t keep this up long without drawing official attention, and if the Guild has people on site, they’ll intervene before too many bystanders can be hurt.”

“Yeah, the Guild’s a real charity operation, I hear,” said Finchley.

“The Guild isn’t in it for the profit,” Shook snapped. “Whatever they’re doing here, they won’t allow magic assholes to carve up the population. But the Guild doesn’t use much magic, especially in fights, and there’s no way they’ve got as many people around here as the cultists do. They won’t wade into a pitched battle unless they’ve got an advantage…”

The Jackal cleared his throat pointedly. “I wasn’t finished. Yes, the clock is ticking down, the enemy surely knows this, which is why we can’t waste time either. They’ll be forced to take us out as fast as they can, which means they’ll shortly start leveraging their other assets. Like the undead I saw them starting to summon before I came to see what was taking you clods so damn long.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Seriously?” Moriarty exclaimed at last.

“Like I said.” The Jackal had turned and was already strolling away up the alley. “Walk and talk.”


As predicted, the rozzk’shnid proved not to be a great threat. Having been summoned into a ring around the town, they effectively blockaded Last Rock, at least for a while, but that didn’t last long. Like most towns this far into the frontier territories, weapons control laws were lax at best, and rare was the household that did not own several wands and staves. Had the demons been in any way organized, they might have prevailed, but they were essentially wild animals, blind and isolated, and their discovery by citizens resulted in their dying in a swift hail of lightning. By the time the Sheriff had gathered a hunting party to clean them out, at least half the rozzk’shnid had been reduced to smoking husks.

The town was in a general state of disorder, however, having found itself surrounded by demons. The doctor was already busy treating injuries—so far, none of these were demon-inflicted, but resulted mostly from surprise-related accidents, including one electrical burn from a friendly fire incident.

By far the worst of it, though, were the katzils.

Where the ring of nearly-blind, slow-moving rozzk’shnid did little to contain or damage the town, the fast-moving, fire-breathing flying serpents were causing havoc. Lighning bolts blasted skyward nearly constantly, from almost every street, and there were several small fires where errant shots had clipped the eaves of buildings, or demons had come close enough to exhale on rooftops. The katzils as a rule moved too fast to make easy targets, and so far none had been felled by wandshots, but on the positive side, the constant barrage of thunderbolts mostly chased them away when any dived low enough to spit flame at anyone.

Unfortunately, it was also making them angry.

As the crowd assembled outside the church watched, another katzil rammed into a wall of silver light which suddenly appeared in front of it. Dazed, it reeled away, and in the next moment Vadrieny had swooped in, seizing the creature in her claws and ripping it cleanly in half. By the time its pieces fell to earth, they had crumbled away to charcoal.

Several other smears of charcoal and ash were scattered around; after the first four had been incinerated, the remaining katzils had learned to avoid the gathering which included Toby and the priestesses. That, however, had forced them to branch out ever more aggressively in taking the flying demons down; even Vadrieny wasn’t nimble enough in the air to catch them unassisted, though in a straight flight she was faster.

“Be careful,” Matriarch Ashaele snapped in the most openly irate tone any of those present had heard from her, after a stray wandshot clipped the archdemon, sending her veering off course with a screech of protest.

“S-sorry, ma’am,” the man responsible stammered, backing away from her glare.

“She’s all right,” Toby said soothingly. “Nothing we’re throwing will harm her.”

“This ain’t good,” said Mayor Cleese to himself, frowning deeply as he watched the sky. “We can win this…eventually. Longer it goes on, though, th’more fires are gonna be started. Whole town’ll be ablaze by the time we take ’em all down…”

“Rafe and Yornhaldt are helping with damage,” Toby reminded him.

“I know, son,” the Mayor said with a sigh. “A wizard an’ an alchemist, and that’s a darn sight more than nothing. But you want fire suppression, you need fae magic.”

“I think you may be underestimating Professor Rafe,” Juniper assured him with a smile.

An abrupt chorus of loud pops occurred in the street just ahead of them, causing the Awarrion guards to spin, raising sabers and flowing between the sound and their Matriarch. A whole group of people appeared out of thin air. At their head was a figure they all recognized.

“Professor Tellwyrn!” Toby exclaimed in clear relief.

She paused for only a moment to scan the sky before turning to face the cluster of diverse individuals she had just teleported in. “All right, what exactly are we dealing with?”

“There are active dimensional rifts around the town,” a dwarf in formal robes reported, closing his eyes in concentration. “Summoning circles…cloaked from immediate view.”

“Open, but inert,” added Embras Mogul, himself frowning in thought. “From the feel of it, I’d say prepared to bring more demons, but not currently doing so. That suggests the summoner’s attention is elsewhere.”

Tellwyrn shifted her attention to the nearest elf. “Sheyann?”

“Child’s play,” the Elder said calmly, her eyes drifting closed. She inhaled deeply through her nose, then fell totally still.

“While she is putting a stop to that,” Tellwyrn said, turning back to Mogul, “what have you got for a mass banishing?”

“You know very well if we could do that our lives would be a lot easier,” he said testily. “You want to banish demons, you have to catch them, individually. For lesser critters like katzils, it’s faster and easier to just kill them.”

“Fast is a factor here,” she retorted. “Easy, not so much. It’s time to send a message. Haunui!”

The man she addressed was a Tidestrider windshaman, barefoot and bare-chested, with his hair gathered into braids adorned with seashells and feathers. An intricate, sprawling tattoo depicting an octupus was inked across his back, its tentacles adorned with runes and spiraling along his right arm.

“If the winds allow it,” he intoned dourly, “the skies themselves can be called to repudiate the unclean things. I do not know the spirits here, though, nor they me.”

“I can assist you, Wavespeaker,” Sheyann said, opening her eyes. “Portals are closed, Arachne.”

“I can confirm that,” the dwarf added.

“Thank you, Mr. Wrynst,” Sheyann said dryly.

“Please refrain from bickering,” Tellwyrn said in a clipped tone. “All right, we can do this. Sheyann, Haunui, do what you can to weaken demons in the vicinity. It doesn’t have to be decisive, just put them off balance and buy the rest of us some space to cast. Father Raas, I’d like you to invoke whatever blessing you can around this immediate area without interfering with them. We need them kept away from here long enough for us to work.”

“Blessings are easy,” replied the man addressed, an older gentleman in a Universal Church parson’s frock. “Structuring it so as not to impede the fae casters is trickier. I’ll do what I can; if anything impacts either of your work, please speak up so I can correct it.”

“What do you have in mind, Professor?” Mogul asked.

“A mass banishing,” Tellwyrn said grimly. “Don’t start, Mogul; we can discuss what is and isn’t possible after we’ve done it. Ashaele, I’m very glad to see you here. May I borrow your priestesses?”

“Provided they are returned in the same condition,” the Matriarch said sardonically, directing a nod to the three cowled women now hovering beside her.

“Thank you. Caine, and all of you with wands, you’ll have to take over keeping the creatures away until Raas gets some results. Hopefully this won’t take long enough to matter. All right, I am going to set up an ambient spell lattice over the area to intermix and control magic of different schools. That is every bit as difficult as it sounds and will require my full concentration, so I need each of you to handle your individual parts. It should become intuitively apparent how to work your own spells into the whole—I’ve recently had some practice in mind magic, but it’s not my forte, so please sing out if you have any trouble understanding what the matrix calls for. Mogul, Wrynst, combine your focus and set up some demon chains for me. I need those creatures immobilized.”

“There’s a stark limit to how many of those spells we can conjure at once,” Mogul said with a frown. “Especially since we don’t have a clear line of sight to many of the katzils or any of the rozzk’shnid.”

“I will take care of that. You just have the spell templates ready to be slotted into the whole; you should be able to tell how it works once I have it running.”

“I’ve done multi-school cooperative spells before,” Wrynst said, nodding. “It should be achievable.”

“Good. I am aware that you’ll need a power boost to get as many chains as we’ll require. Mr. Saalir, that’s where you’ll come in. I won’t have the focus to spare on it, so I need you to establish a standard arcane-to-infernal energy conversion pipeline. Please wait until I have the overall matrix assembled; I need everything to be structured, and piping in energy from an unconnected system will threaten its stability.”

“Now, wait just a moment,” said a lean Westerner in blue Salyrite robes, scowling heavily. “I’m willing to endure this individual’s presence for the sake of the greater good, Professor Tellwyrn, but what you’re asking me is that I lend power to the Black Wreath!”

“Yes, I am,” she said in a tone that warned of fraying patience. “I appreciate your willingness to help me, Saalir, very much. I did not promise you that this would be easy, however, and this is what we need to do to protect this town. There’s no time for arguing.”

“There are serious matters of principle—”

Nearby, Inspector Fedora loudly cleared his throat. “Pardon me,” he said with an insouciant grin, “but maybe you should pause and think about what happened to the last Salyrite who got up into Arachne Tellwyrn’s face?”

Tellwyrn closed her eyes. “Oh, good. You’re here. Stop helping me, Fedora. Saalir, please ignore him. I am not going to blast you for refusing to help. I’m asking for your contribution.”

The Salyrite frowned at her, at Fedora, then at Mogul, then at Fedora again.

“To be clear,” he said at last, “is everyone aware that that man is a—”

“Yes!” chorused half a dozen people.

“Right,” he muttered. “Well. There’s the greater good, after all. For the time being, Professor, I’ll choose to trust you. Please don’t make me regret this.”

“I’ll do my utmost,” she assured him. “And thank you. Now, ladies.” Tellwyrn turned to the three Themynrite priestesses, nodding deeply in respect. “I don’t know your specialization, but when I last spent any time in Tar’naris, every priestess of Themynra was trained to banish demons.”

“That much has not changed,” the woman in the center of their group replied. “Our method will not send them neatly back to Hell like your Elilinist friend’s; the demons will be simply destroyed.”

“Even better,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “If you would, please, come closer, and attend to the spell matrix as I organize it. I am going to direct energy pathways along the demon chains our warlocks will be establishing, and applying dispersal systems which should enable you to strike multiple targets simultaneously.”

“Provided the demons are immobilized, that should work,” the priestess said, nodding her hooded head.

“They will be,” Tellwyrn assured her. “With three of you, I expect you’ll have adequate power without needing to draw from our shamans; if it begins to appear otherwise as I set it up, please let me know.”

“Of course.”

“All right, everyone, you know your part. I’ll make this as quick as I can.”

There was some shuffling and nervous glancing from the assembled townspeople in the silence which followed, as well as from several more of the individuals who had appeared in Tellwyrn’s mass teleport who were apparently not involved in the spell. To outside viewers, it seemed a large and complex magical working of this nature mostly involved several people standing around with their eyes closed, frowning in concentration.

After a pause, Toby sidled over to Fedora, murmuring. “What happened the last time she had an argument with a Salyrite?”

“Oh, you haven’t covered that in class, yet?” the Inspector said, smirking. “I was referring to Magnan, the last Hand of Salyrene. Also the out-of-control piece of shit who built the Enchanter’s Bane that destroyed Athan’khar. Guess who ultimately took his ass down?”

Toby sighed. “Right.”

The event, when it came, was so sudden that quite a few of the onlookers jumped in surprise, and more than a couple cursed. Tendrils of pure black limned with a thick purple glow sprang from the ground at a single point in the middle of the street, spiraling skyward; each of the katzils twirling overhead was snared and held in place midair, where they immediately began hissing and squawking in protest. More of the shadow tentacles arched toward the ground around the outskirts, apparently seizing the rozzk’shnids still surviving around the periphery.

“Hold your damn fire, you knuckleheads!” Sheriff Sanders bellowed at the men who took the opportunity to shoot at the suddenly stationary katzils. “You don’t fire wands into the middle of the most complex spell this town’s ever seen! What’s wrong with you?”

The actual banishings were not exactly simultaneous, but a cascade of sharp retorts, each accompanied by a burst of silver light, flashed through the air above the town, rather like a giant kettle of popcorn cooking. In each, a katzil exploded into nothingness, and a suddenly unmoored tendril of shadow was wrenched loose and drawn back into the point from which they spawned.

The whole thing took only seconds. Then, quite suddenly, it was all over: no spells, no demons, nothing but the evening sky. Shock at the abruptness kept the onlookers silent for only a few seconds, before the whole town erupted in cheers, and more than a few celebratory wandshots fired skyward.

Before that had a chance to escalate into a proper celebration, however, there came the pounding of hooves.

Whisper rounded the corner just up ahead, slowing to a canter as she approached the group. Astride her, Gabriel held the reins with one hand, his other wrapped around Maureen’s waist, where she was perched in front of him.

“Professor Tellwyrn!” he shouted, drawing his steed to a stop just in front of the assembled crowd. “Thank the gods.”

“That’s something I don’t often hear,” she said with a sigh. “How bad is it?”

“Where’s Iris?” Juniper demanded in alarm.

“It’s the Sleeper!” Maureen burst out frantically. “They’re in the Golden Sea! He’s got her!”

“Oh, does he,” Tellwyrn said in such a grim tone that several people immediately took a step away from her. “We will see about that.”

 

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12 – 55

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“I feel like I’m very bad at this,” Iris grunted, shoving stalks of tallgrass aside out of her face. “This is like the Golden Sea trip, but…worse.”

“How worse?” Maureen asked more softly. She was walking in front, creating a little furrow in the tallgrass, which helped Iris navigate, but also resulted in stalks constantly whipping back at her.

“I don’t know, I’m just grousing. Are you sure this is necessary?”

“I’m not sure o’ much, truth be told, not with regard t’this situation here. I know me tactics, though. What we’re doin’ is the general shape o’ the right thing. Just wish I could tell whether th’warnin’ got through, an’ how much good it did…”

“Well, we could tell if we went back to town…”

“Iris.”

“I know, I know.”

Maureen stopped, turning to peer up at her. “Can ye see anything? Any sign o’ progress?”

Iris turned, shading her eyes with a hand to study the distant town. They were moving around its periphery at just beyond the normal range of human earshot—at Maureen’s suggestion, close enough that the drow or other elves could find them quickly, but not near enough anybody—or anything—was likely to stumble across them by accident. Her view was impeded but not blocked by the tallgrass, which was just about eye height to her. The mountain soared skyward in plain view, of course, but Last Rock itself was little more than a collection of slate roofs.

“Not really,” she reported. “I can’t see people, or…anything. Just the tops of buildings. Um…wait, actually I have an idea. Can you find us a…is it called a clearing if it’s grass and not trees? Something relatively flat where I have some room to work.”

“Can I find us a clearing?” Maureen asked pointedly. “Pardon me fer pointin’ it out, but you’re the one with the view up there.”

Iris heaved a sigh. “Right. Sorry. It’s just…you’re good at tracking and wilderness craft, I thought you might be able to…I dunno.”

“I think you’re thinkin’ of elves,” the gnome said with a wry smile.

“Trust me, that’s not what I’m thinking of,” Iris muttered. “But anyway, while we’re stopped, surely this isn’t the whole plan? We can’t just run around in the prairie forever.”

“We could run around till it blows over a mite, aye, but that ain’t the plan, no. Just tryin’ to avoid blunderin’ into any beasties till we can figure out what’s what. I’ll admit we’re at a wee bit of a disadvantage in that regard, ‘less somethin’ really interestin’ happens in town…”

“Right. Okay. Then that brings me back to my idea.” Iris turned in a slow circle, seeing nothing but the town and mountain in one direction and infinite grass everywhere else. “Well, I don’t think anybody actually owns this grass, and if they do, I’ll just owe them an apology. We’re not gonna find a clear spot any time soon, I bet, so I’ll have to make one. C’mere, please, and stand close to my legs.”

“What’re ye up to, then?” Maureen asked a little nervously, obeying. She pressed her back against Iris’s side, where her head barely came up to her roommate’s hip.

“In theory, nothing that would hurt a person, but I don’t like to take risks.”

She breathed in slowly, deeply, straightening her spine and letting her eyes drift closed. After a moment’s concentration, Iris folded both her hands in front of her as if in prayer, and held that pose.

“Um,” Maureen whispered, peering up at her. “Is somethin’ supposed to—”

She broke off with a squeak as Iris suddenly dropped her left hand to her side and made a slashing motion with her right.

In front of them, a wide swath of tallgrass tumbled to the ground, neatly severed in an arc about an inch from the topsoil.

Iris opened her eyes, and then grinned. “Oh, that was even cleaner than I hoped! I’ll have to remember that one.”

“Remember? Y’mean you improvised that? I thought fae magic was all…rituals and components, aye?”

“Not all. There’s a big place for those things.” Iris stepped forward and knelt in the flattened space she had created, where the fallen tallgrass made a serviceable carpet. “But simple elemental work, such as using pure air like I just did…well, it’s more like building a relationship. Get close enough to the spirits, and they recognize you. Befriend them, and they’ll sometimes do you quick little favors.”

“Spirits, huh.” Maureen glanced nervously around, hovering at the border of the cleared space. “What sort? About how many are there, y’know, hereabouts? Helpful against demons, y’think?”

“It depends.” Iris had reached into her pocket pulled out a vial of dirt, which she sprinkled in a careful circle about the width of a dinner plate, then began adding pinches of other things taken from smaller pouches also concealed in her dress, which clearly had bag-of-holding spells on its pockets. “Some places…old places or sacred ones, mostly…have their own spirits. Others…well, with elementals, they kind of don’t exist until you pay attention to them. A discrete elemental you have to sort of make, but less formal kinds aren’t so much an objective part of the environment, but kind of an expression of your interaction with it.”

“So…these spirits are inside yer own ‘ead…an’ ye still ‘ave to sweet-talk ’em.”

“I dunno about you, but the inside of most people’s heads doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Iris muttered. “Gimme a minute, I have to concentrate on this part.”

She closed her eyes, and began making motions with her hands that were reminiscent of a potter shaping clay on a wheel. Fittingly, the dirt circle she had cast on the ground began to rise and stretch, slowly forming itself into a shallow earthen bowl. Iris let out a soft sigh once this was done and opened her eyes again, then reached in and with great delicacy extended one finger toward its center.

Her fingertip touched a point in the middle, about the height of the brim, and ripples spread out from the empty air. Just like that, it was no longer empty, but filled with impossibly clear water, visible only where it shimmered from her touch.

“Now that is a right nifty trick,” Maureen said, creeping closer.

“That’s the easy part,” Iris muttered, shifting from her kneeling position to sit cross-legged on the ground in front of the bowl. “Now I look for information. This isn’t like arcane scrying; it’s not a machine that does what I tell it to. But I can ask it for answers, and get a sense for the general…shape of things. To answer your question, witchcraft is very good against demons. Asking about demons is one of the more reliable things; the spirits sense them easily, and don’t like them. Let me just focus for a little bit.”

Maureen studied her face, and then the gently rippling surface of the bowl, and then her face again. Iris simply frowned in concentration; the surface of the bowl continued to ripple, revealing nothing except, apparently, to its creator. The gnome opened her mouth once, then thought better of speaking, and took a judicious half-step backward to give her room.

“It wasn’t just the one,” Iris whispered, eyes fixed on the bowl. “They’re…all around the town. Encircling it. Except…” She suddenly flung one arm out, pointing. “There!”

Maureen followed her finger, and winced. “Um… You’re pointin’ at the whole shebang over there, Iris.”

Iris blinked, and looked up. “…oh. Right, yes. Sorry. I meant, there are demons around the town except at the point where the mountain’s base touches the outskirts.”

“Aye…stands t’reason,” Maureen agreed, nodding slowly. “I doubt the Sleeper wants t’risk gettin’ Tellwryn into the middle o’ whatever the hell he’s doin’ now.”

“Yes. And, by the way, speaking of the Sleeper.” Iris made an expansive gesture with both hands, and her bowl collapsed, disintegrating back into a ring of dirt, now somewhat unevenly distributed after its little adventure. Of the ephemeral liquid which had been in the bowl, there was no sign. “Witches and warlocks…well, all other things being equal, the witches usually have the advantage, as you well know, but for that very reason a powerful enough warlock can almost always tell when there’s fae magic being used in the vicinity. So if the Sleeper happens to be nearby and paying attention…”

“Say no more,” Maureen said, already moving. “Let’s shake a leg.”

“Right behind you.” Iris rose and set off after her, and in seconds they were again proceeding through the tallgrass, making a wide arc around the north of the town toward the point where it abutted the foot of the mountain. This time, the human pushed ahead and led the way, the better to be able to navigate now that they weren’t simply proceeding away from Last Rock.

“This is good,” Maureen said to herself as they walked. “Aye, we can work with this. We get t’where we’re not bargin’ into a demon blockade, an’ we can get a look an’ decide whether t’jump in or retreat again.”

“I’m not retreating any more,” Iris said grimly. “I think you were right, though, it would’ve been a mistake to tackle that ourselves, alone. But once we make the town, we can link up with the others. There are probably students down there, plus the Rockies and those drow. They aren’t helpless, and they’ll be even better off with us.”

“Aye,” Maureen said, frowning worriedly. She chewed her lower lip in thought, lost for a moment in her own worries. “Uh. Look, what if—”

Maureen, thinking rather than looking, walked right into Iris’s knee with a grunt. “Oof! What’s that about? See somethin’?”

“No,” Iris whispered. She had frozen in place, and now looked back and forth frantically. “I—no. Nothing! I don’t see…”

“What’re ye on about?” Maureen demanded, growing increasingly nervous.

“The town! The mountain, it’s—there’s nothing there! Everything’s gone!”

“What?! How’s that possible? Lemme up!”

Iris, moving slowly, bent down, offering a hand. Maureen was far more nimble, and swarmed up the human like a squirrel, eliciting several grunts of protest before getting herself situated on Iris’s shoulders.

They were standing, alone, in the apparent middle of an infinite sea of golden tallgrass.

“Bollocks,” Maureen declared after a period of stunned silence. “No, this is…this is wrong. It can’t be like this. What do the spirits say?”

“They’re not the town gossip, I can’t just…” Iris turned in a slow circle, not minding the way Maureen grabbed her hair for purchase. “…oh, no. I just had a thought. Exactly…how close to the mountain is the Golden Sea?”

“No, no, that’s not it,” Maureen said, shaking her head vigorously. “I don’t think we were that close, but anyway, doesn’t matter. Remember ‘ow the geas works? We’re initiates o’ the Unseen University. Any time we’re near the edge, we’ll come out right were we can see th’mountain.”

“Unless it shifted us farther into the Sea…”

“It doesn’t! It doesn’t work like that! Professor Ezzaniel said!”

“Did you ever talk to the sophomores about their trip?”

Maureen started to shout something exasperated, but broke off, gritted her teeth for a moment, and replied in a calmer tone. “I did, yes, a couple times. Why?”

“They had trouble with centaurs,” Iris said woodenly. “When Teal and Trissiny told me the story…they said centaurs move the Sea. They’re warlocks. They reach through to the Darklands on the other side of the dimensional divide, and move that, and the Golden Sea shifts in response. They said it doesn’t like that, and retaliates eventually, but it works, at least at first.”

“Oh, kick me up the stairs,” Maureen groaned, pressing a hand over her eyes. “Yer thinkin’ a certain other warlock may’ve picked up that trick?”

“I also asked Trissiny about the hellgate incident last year,” Iris said, her tone growing increasingly grim. “The hellgate had to have been opened from both sides. The Darklands on the other side were shifted so there was a hiszilisk hive practically next door to the campus. The Sleeper has to have been the warlock who did that, so we know he can do this.”

There was silence, again, while Iris turned in another slow circle, just for hope’s sake. Nothing came of it; they were still surrounded by nothing but tallgrass, waving gently under the setting sun, stretching away to a perfectly circular horizon.

“Okay,” Maureen said at last. “It’s…it’s not all bad, then, aye? We can…we can ‘ead downhill, that’ll take us back outta the Sea eventually. No matter ‘ow far in we are. Yer a witch, I’m a gnome, we can survive outdoors fer a bit. We’ll come out near the campus. Most important, the Sleeper can’t get to us ‘ere. Nobody can navigate in the Sea. Even Tellwyrn can’t teleport in an’ outta here, Ezzaniel warned us about that, remember? Now which way’s downhill, can ye tell?”

“Maureen,” Iris said wearily, “someone can navigate in the Sea. We’ve already established—”

A sudden breeze blew over them, disturbing the tallgrass, and with it, a shadow drifted over the golden stalks all around, as if cast by a cloud scudding by overhead.

There were no clouds.

“Right. Yep. That’s on me, I’ll own that,” Maureen said glumly. “Just had to open me mouth.”

Another gust of wind blew, accompanied by another shadow. This time, the hissing sound of the air was accompanied by the soft, yet unmistakable, rhythm of breath. It fell silent, then came again, blowing a third sourceless shadow across them, and in the wind was a clear, sibilant laugh.

“Get down,” Iris said tersely. The gnome immediately pushed herself off, leaping to the ground. The moment she had, Iris dropped to her own knees, bending forward amid the tallgrass and working her hands stubbornly through the thick clusters of its bases, seeking dirt.

A deeper shadow fell over them. The sun was setting in the west, casting the sky and the grass around in deepening red; now, something suddenly stood between them and it, creating a small eclipse.

Maureen swallowed heavily. “Iris, I don’t think hidin’ is gonna work…”

Iris had screwed her face up in concentration, whispering something constantly to herself. Her fingers found purchase between the stands of tallgrass, sinking as deep as she could force them into the loam.

Another breath of shadow washed across them. The laugh that accompanied it was deeper, huskier. To their west, only yards distant, only hidden by the thickness of the grass around them, there came the crunching thump of something very large taking a step.

“Iris,” Maureen hissed frantically, pressing herself against the human’s side and shaking her. “Get a grip! We need yer magic here!”

“Please,” Iris whispered, clenching her teeth as if in pain. “Please, please, please—”

Another step. Then another. The sky darkened, faster than the mere sunset could allow for. There came a deeper chuckle, accompanied by yet another footstep, laid down by something larger than a human, crushing a swath of grass beneath it.

“That’s not helping!” Maureen squeaked, jostling Iris as forcibly as she could, to no apparent effect. “Iris, please!”

“Please!” Iris echoed frantically, pushing her hands deeper into the dirt. “Please please…”

“Ohhhh, Maaaaaurrrreeeeeeeeeennnn…”

The voice was at once deep as a dragon’s and breathy, brushing lightly across them like another breath of the wind. It was followed by a rumble of deliberately sinister laughter.

Maureen’s squeal of sheer terror was muffled only by Iris’s shoulder, against which she had pressed her face.

Suddenly, Iris’s head snapped up and she opened her eyes. A desperate breath escaped her, and then a final whisper.

“Thank you.”

The world wrenched.

Maureen squawked as she was bucked right off the ground as if by an earthquake. Innate agility and early childhood training took over, and she landed nimbly on her feet despite her panic, quickly casting around for friend and foe alike.

She was, once again, alone. No sign of Iris, nor of the shadow falling over them.

“Oh, no,” she groaned. “Not—”

The approaching sound of hoofbeats coming at a flat-out gallop made her dive back to the ground with a wail, covering her head with her arms.

“Maureen!”

The horse skidded to a stop nearby, snorting, and at the familiar voice, the gnome raised her head again in desperate hope.

“Maureen!” Gabriel called once more, while Whisper whinnied and pawed at the dirt. “I heard your voice! Where are you? I can’t see a thing in this crap. Is Iris with you?”

“Gabriel!” She bounded upright and lunged in the direction of his voice. He was closer than she’d expected, and she found herself shooting directly underneath the horse. “Gabe! Down ‘ere!”

“Oh, thank the gods,” he said, swinging a leg over Whisper’s back and dropping heavily to the ground, staggering slightly on landing. “Are you okay? Are you alone? Did you meet any demons?”

“Never mind that, ‘ow’d ye find us? Didja ‘ave to come far into the Sea?”

Gabriel paused in the act of drawing Ariel to slash tallgrass out of his way, frowning at her. “What? Into the Golden Sea, you mean? We’re not nearly that close to it, the border’s gotta be half a mile north of the town.”

“The…” She stared up at him in dawning horror, then spun around. She was far too short to see any sign of Last Rock through the thick tallgrass, but the mountain itself reared up, unmistakable and unavoidable at that distance.

It took a long moment of silent staring for understanding to crash down on her.

“Oh, Iris. Oh, no.”


The witch straightened up slowly, her expression resolute and calm, and carefully dry-washed her hands, brushing dirt off her fingers without getting any on her white dress. In silence, she watched the Sleeper come.

One slow, plodding step at a time, he approached, his form blotting out the sunset. He towered over her, fully encased in armor formed of scintillating shadow, so thick it was effectively a second, much larger body. The bruise-colored figure would have been taller and burlier than Scorn. Spiky growths protruded from the crown and shoulders, like the natural defenses of some grotesque beetle. His eyes were two pinpricks of flame within an otherwise featureless mask.

The Sleeper stopped, flexing enormous, clawed hands at his sides. He was tall enough they were visible to her through the upper reaches of the tallgrass.

“Oooonnnly enough power to save one?” His voice was as obviously obscured as his body, and as melodramatic, hidden within layers of sibilance and reverberation. At least, after the first word, he seemed to give up on the deliberately drawn-out delivery he had used to taunt Maureen. “Noble. Brave. My compliments.”

“Fine,” she whispered, flexing her own fingers at her sides.

“Pleasant dreams, little witch,” the Sleeper mocked, ponderously raising one massive hand toward her, palm out.

The sleeping curse that had defied warlocks and archmages alike stretched across the space between them.

Iris raised her own hand and caught it.

Out of thin air came form, as pure magic took on a shape, an impossibly complex structure of crystalline fractals the shade of amethysts. The curse immediately splintered and began to fracture as its non-infernal elements spun out of it suddenly frozen structure, arcane and shadow magic spinning away in little puffs of mist and light. The remainder shattered, dust and inert shards tumbling to the ground between the stalks of grass.

The Sleeper lost some of his melodrama in sheer surprise, rearing backward in shock and then having to stagger to catch his balance, apparently unused to moving so suddenly in that massive form.

Iris bared her teeth in a snarl. “Fine.”

He recovered, raised a hand again, and hurled a more conventional shadowbolt at her.

She slapped it out of the way, sending the blast of dark magic into the ground nearby, and flung another right back at him.

The Sleeper was less adroit in his movements; the bolt struck him dead in the center of his massive chest, though it had little effect on the thick armor. He staggered backward again, but recovered and gesticulated.

Tallgrass burst into flames as a summoning circle sprang up directly between them. The creature which rose up from it was a lopsided amalgamation of tentacles and pincers, covered in overlapping plates of chitin. It raised several limbs, each tipped with either claws or waving tendrils, emitted a burbling noise, and charged at Iris. The demon was almost as tall as the armored Sleeper; each of its footsteps shook the earth.

She made a grasping motion with one fist, seizing a handful of reality and wrenching a small hole in it.

A ripple of vibration and noise blasted out from the tiny rift, the ear-splitting sound of existence itself shrieking in pain, and a gout of absolutely pure and intensely concentrated infernal magic blazed forth.

The demon was adapted to infernal magic, of course; all its kind were inherently resistant to it. But nothing could have stood up to that blast of pure entropy. The creature exploded with the force of a bomb, not a single piece larger than a mote of dust surviving, most projected away with a speed that sent them half a mile before either combatant could blink.

The Sleeper hesitated only an instantly longer, then turned and bolted.

Shadows swelled around his huge form, but before they could thicken, another screaming rent in the fabric of creation spread open directly in front of him. Tentacle-like tendrils of purple shadow lashed out from the rift, grasping at nothing and sweeping away the energy of his attempted shadow-jump. More coiled around his huge limbs, then still more, all tightening, pulling… The impenetrable armor groaned in protest, and began to crack.

He let out a roar of sheer frustration, and a ripple of white-hot hellfire pulsed out in all directions, reducing a perfect circle around him to ash. The rift endured, pulsing angrily, but the tentacles of darkness were blasted away.

The Sleeper spun back around, drawing back one arm, and hurled an orb of blazing destruction in the direction of Iris.

She caught the pumpkin-sized fireball with one hand and chucked it dismissively over her shoulder. The impact behind her caused a shockwave that should have hurled her through the air, but it succeeded only in ruffling her dress. Her form was limned in shadow, not armored like his, but clearly protected with infernal magic, despite the well-known fact that infernal magic had no protective application.

The blackened ground around them served as a perfect arena for the two arch-warlocks.

The Sleeper took a step back, then leaned toward her, clearly uncertain whether to fight or flee.

Iris bared her teeth again, and raised her hands. Fire and shadow coalesced out of the air around her, streamers of it shifting forward, weaving into a pattern that promised carnage and unimaginable pain.

“Have it your way,” she snarled, and unleashed Hell.

 

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12 – 52

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“This was a good idea,” Gabriel murmured, looking around the square.

“Course it was!” Professor Rafe replied breezily. “It was Matriarch Ashaele’s—good ideas are the only kind that lady has! Reassure the townies, mend some fences or bridges or what-have-you that needs mending, give everybody some very much needed opportunity to unwind. You don’t get to be literally the most senior diplomat on the planet without picking up a trick or two!”

The event set up on the square next to the Rail platform had arisen quickly enough to pass for impromptu, but it had been organized with flawless efficiency that suggested considerable planning. Striped awnings had been erected around the periphery of the space along two sides, with tables and chairs borrowed from the A&W in front of the tavern itself; people were congregating quietly at the tables, partaking of food laid out on stands under the shade. There were tin plates, cups, and utensils, and in fact all the necessary details had been thought of, even those that would seem counter-intuitive to subterranean dwellers, such as pest-repelling charms. Everything was free for all, and had been purchased from local businesses, right down to the farrier’s son playing the guitar over by the telescroll office.

As parties went, it was rather subdued, the space being at least half occupied by drow, who were naturally quieter in their manners than Last Rock was used to. After Ashaele’s initial arrival, which bodyguards and priestesses, a second caravan had arrived with civilian personnel from House Awarrion, who had done the lion’s share of the organizing for this event. Though the townspeople in attendance largely seemed somewhat wary of their new guests, it was a polite wariness, escalating to downright friendliness in many cases. Most of the conversations taking place around the square were between Narisians and Imperials. Nonetheless, the Sheriff and Ox were both visibly present, holding themselves aloof and keeping a careful watch. As were several stony-faced armored drow bearing sabers.

“Looking for trouble?” Gabriel asked, still in a low tone and giving Toby an inquisitive look. His fellow paladin had, for the second time in as many minutes, panned his gaze around the square, wearing a faint frown.

“Trouble, no,” Toby replied. “Szith said Iris came down here earlier. Before the picnic was set up, even… I’m a little worried, about her and Maureen. Those two are pretty sensitive, and their dorm’s been hit especially hard by all this…stuff.”

“Look at you, everybody’s dad,” Gabe said with a grin, patting him on the shoulder.

Toby sighed. “Yeah, yeah, I’m sure it’s nothing. There are other things to do in town, and not everybody likes crowds.”

“I’m a little surprised not to see Szith here, now you mention it,” Juniper added.

“Szith has responsibilities,” Professor Yornhaldt rumbled. “And, being the exceedingly conscientious young lady she is, feels responsible for far more than she actually is. The presence of so many Narisians might be a factor.”

“Poor kid,” Juniper said, frowning.

“Your concern speaks well of you, Juniper,” Yornhaldt said with a smile. “I’m sure she would appreciate a kind word when you see her next.”

He and Rafe were watching the event as closely as the Sheriff and the Awarrion House guards, though their mandate was limited to making sure none of the students in attendance partook of the free beer available—despite the fact that both professors had mugs of it in hand. The three sophomores had gravitated toward them on one edge of the square after a few minutes of aimless circulation, and now the small group simply stood aside, watching, while Juniper sipped from a cup of punch and Gabriel intermittently gnawed a drumstick.

“Okay, so,” Gabriel said after a pause, in an even softer tone than before. “This may be an inappropriate thing to say, considering the circumstances…”

“Have you considered not doing so, for once?” Ariel suggested.

He slapped her hilt lightly. “I gotta be me. Really, though. Did you guys notice that Shaeine’s mom is impossibly gorgeous? Even for an elf.”

Toby sighed again. “Gabriel.”

“Oh, yeah,” Juniper agreed, nodding. “You’re very correct. About both parts. Not really the time, Gabe.”

“The dryad is criticizing your sense of social propriety. You have officially reached peak Arquin.”

“Shut up, Ariel,” he said sullenly. “It’s not like I was talking loudly.”

“Gabriel, my man, I’m a little disappointed that I need to point this out,” Rafe said archly. “Drow. Elves. The ears. Nothing you say out loud is gonna go unnoticed on the other side of the square.”

Gabriel’s cheeks darkened slightly and he ducked his head for a second, before catching himself and straightening up defiantly. “Yeah…well… Narisians. They’re very respectful of private conversations. You’ve heard Shaeine talk about it.”

“Mm hm,” Yornhaldt grunted. “Now if only everyone would be respectful of their feelings.”

“No offense was taken, I assure you.”

All five looked up in surprise at being addressed. A drow woman with short hair had approached them, wearing a simple lizard-scale breastplate over a dark red tunic, rather than the full armor of the guards; she carried a long knife at her belt instead of a saber. She stopped a respectful conversational distance away and bowed courteously.

“I am Vengnat eyr Vrainess n’dur Awarrion, subcommander in the lower House guard, off-duty for this excursion. It is an honor and a distinct pleasure.”

She bowed again, though less deeply, at each of their introductions, the whole time wearing a polite little smile such as Shaeine often did.

“I wonder, Mr. Arquin,” she said when everyone was introduced, “if you are familiar with the particulars of the House system of Tar’naris?”

“I…am aware that it exists,” he said hesitantly. “Sorry, but to be honest, I have my hands full understanding Imperial politics most of the time. Despite Shaeine’s noble efforts, the details of Narisian government are mostly over my head.”

Vengnat’s smile widened fractionally. “Please don’t feel bad—we are not all diplomats, after all. Well, to put it simply, we are drow. We have our Houses and our intrigues, our jockeying for advantage; it is, in many ways, intrinsic to our kind. However, the governance of Tar’naris is far more civilized than that of our deeper-dwelling Scyllithene cousins. Queen Arkasia devised the current House system to end infighting.”

“Oh, yeah! That much I know,” he said, nodding. “Every House has a particular role in the running of the city, so attacking another House damages the city itself. Any infighting would be outright treason, so it doesn’t happen.”

“It very rarely happens,” she corrected, still smiling. “Very rarely indeed, and that largely because we have found other outlets for our competitive impulses, which is as valuable in heading off conflict as punishing transgressors. Specifically, rather than for power, advantage, or wealth, the Houses of Tar’naris compete vigorously for prestige.”

“How so?” Juniper asked.

“Mr. Arquin’s observation was a perfect example,” Vengnat explained. “Matriarch Ashaele is widely acknowledged as one of the most beautiful women in Tar’naris. It is a trait with virtually no practical application, contributes nothing to the running of the House…but it’s a point of pride. That is the kind of thing around which our little intrigues are built in this era. So, while we are accustomed to hearing our Matriarch praised in somewhat more gracious terms, the observation itself supports a minor point of honor for us. And after all, those of us present were made aware that plain speech is a trait of the plains dwellers in which they take pride.” She bowed to Gabriel, her smile widening another hair. “On behalf of House Awarrion, I accept and thank you for the compliment in the spirit in which it was intended.”

A few yards away, one of the gray-robed priestesses looked in Gabriel’s direction and deliberately smiled.

“Oh,” he said awkwardly. “I, uh, that’s… Well, you know. Um.”

“Perhaps you should take the opportunity to learn about diplomacy from these drow, Gabriel. Though it is very fortunate that you have a career already established.”

“Ah, yes,” he said sourly, “I forgot to introduce Ariel, whose constant commentary on my social skills is a never ending source of irony.”

“What an intriguing weapon,” Vengnat said, studying the sword. “The design is clearly elvish, though it is surprising that elves would conduct the kind of rituals which are necessary to create a talking sword.”

“Drow would,” Ariel replied. “Hands off.”

“Hey!” Gabriel snapped. “I put up with your sass, but do not insult visiting diplomats!”

“Oh, not to worry,” Vengnat assured him. “I am, as I said, not on duty for this trip. Any conversations I have are strictly personal and I am not properly a diplomat in any case. Besides, I do know a bit about weapons such as Ariel, here; certain allowances must be made for their conduct.”

“You’re off duty for the whole trip?” Toby asked curiously. “Forgive me, but…”

“What am I doing here?” If anything, Vengnat seemed even more amused. “The Matriarch’s second daughter requested off-duty personnel from a variety of specializations to attend in a strictly social capacity, to circulate politely with the residents.” She nodded toward Nahil, who was holding court in the opposite corner of the square, having surrounded herself with most of Last Rock’s more well-to-do women. “I am a House guard by profession, but we are all expected to develop some skill in diplomacy, and I was particularly interested in the opportunity to mingle with Tiraan in their own environment. It’s a chance I rarely have at home.”

“I dunno if this qualifies as the average Tiraan environment,” Rafe mused. “Still and all, we’re damn glad to have you!”

“I’m impressed,” Toby added with a smile. “For someone who’s not even a diplomat by focus, your Tanglish is amazingly fluent. You barely have an accent!”

“Not to mention a better vocabulary than some of our classmates,” Juniper added.

“I appreciate that very much,” Vengnat said, bowing to each of them. “The language is rather counter-intuitive for me; it’s gratifying that my efforts have paid off. And I am, of course, honored to serve my House in the capacity in which I was trained, but I aspire to a more varied life than a simple soldier’s.”

“Hey, I’m glad some good came of all this,” Gabriel added, smiling at her. “Always good to make new friends! Maybe we could show you around while you’re here.”

She turned a much more direct look on him, and took one step closer. “I’m very glad you suggested that, Gabriel. Nothing would please me more.”

“Oh, yeah,” Rafe snorted. “Be sure to get a good look at the saloon, and the Rail platform, and the scrolltower before you leave the town. Whoop, there we go! Tour over.”

Yornhaldt heaved a sigh. “Admestus.”

“What? It’s a nice little town, but let’s face it. Everything interesting’s up on the campus.”

“I would not dream of disturbing Professor Tellwyrn’s school,” Vengnat said smoothly, her eyes still on Gabriel’s. “And you may find Last Rock provincial, but to me, everything is new and endlessly fascinating. For instance, I have at some personal expense secured a private room in that establishment just yonder—considering the number of my colleagues present, it required calling in a few favors, but it was a worthwhile investment. Everything is made of wood. I can’t tell you how much that fascinates me, we so rarely see it in Tar’naris.”

“Huh,” Gabriel said, grinning. “It’s funny, how you don’t think of things like that until confronted with them. The simplest stuff is radically different in other places.”

“Precisely,” Vengnat said with a smile which was downright warm. “Wood furniture, cotton fabrics. The bed alone is a work of art, to my eyes. Why don’t you let me show it to you? At length,” she added, her voice dropping to a subtly huskier register, “and in detail. I have the whole evening free.”

Gabriel gaped at her; his chicken leg fell from suddenly limp fingers. Juniper grinned, seemingly on the verge of bursting into laughter, while Rafe and Yornhaldt exchanged a long look. Toby sighed softly through his nose, though his expression was amused. Vengnat kept her crimson eyes fixed on Gabriel’s, one graceful white eyebrow slightly arched in invitation.

“Um,” Gabriel said carefully after a long pause. “I, uh, am…let’s just say, not the most perceptive person. You know, socially. Forgive me if I misunderstand, but…”

“All is forgiven,” Vengnat said smoothly, smiling up at him again. “Forgive me, but concessions to local culture aside, there are certain things I’m simply not accustomed to saying any more…explicitly.”

“Ah. Yes. Well, then. I would be honored to…show you around. Not to mention delighted, of course.” He bowed politely to her, then turned to the others. “Well! Sorry to abandon you, guys, but I can hardly neglect a guest in our lands. If you’ll excuse me…”

“No extra credit for stuff that just falls into your lap,” Professor Rafe said severely, then extended his arm, hand clenched. “I am, however, obligated to offer you a manly fist bump.”

“That was real classy, Professor,” Toby said a few moments later, as they all watched Gabriel and the drow stroll toward the tavern, arm in arm. “Maybe I’m being paranoid, but that was kinda…sudden. Is there maybe another agenda at play, here?”

“Pff, nothing paranoid about it,” Rafe said glibly. “Drow culture being what it is, her ulterior motive’s pretty obvious. So long as Gabe has the sense to swallow the contraceptive I just slipped him, nothing’ll come of it. Really, though,” he added with a sudden frown. “This is verging on ridiculous. How does that kid keep stumbling ass-backward into the most exquisite piece of ass on display wherever he happens to be?”

“Why, thank you, Professor!” Juniper beamed.

“I’m serious! The chase is meant to be just that—you’ve gotta have a challenge to appreciate the conquest properly! He’s gonna come away with some pretty messed up ideas about women if this keeps up, ‘specially with Trissiny not here to kick his butt for him.”

Yornhaldt grunted into his beer. “Hmph. Hard to imagine where he’s learning it from, Admestus.”

“I kinda do wish Trissiny was here,” Juniper said with a sudden frown.

Toby sighed. “Yeah. Not that I think she cares how Gabe spends his time, but with this Sleeper thing going on…”

“That’s more what I mean, Triss is the one who knows about military strategy. I bet she’d understand what that means immediately.”

“What?” He straightened up, following her pointing finger.

“All the Narisian guards just suddenly moved while we were talking,” said Juniper. “See, three are covering Shaeine’s sister, over there, and the rest went up the street. Isn’t the Matriarch up at the town hall, with Teal and the mayor?”

Yornhaldt frowned deeply, turning to set his half-empty pint on a nearby table. “Well spotted, Juniper. Adventuring rule of thumb, students: if anything is happening, the elves will hear it first. I suggest we keep alert and prepare ourselves. Something…interesting…may be coming.”


“Y’know, you don’t have to settle all this right now,” Iris suggested gently. “Today, even. I’m not trying to rush you, Maureen, don’t worry. But maybe come back at this when you’re not so upset?”

“I…actually don’t feel upset, really, anymore,” Maureen said, kicking her legs in the empty space between them and the ground, and gazing at the horizon. “I really appreciate ye stayin’ with me, Iris. You were right, it helps a lot to have somebody listen. Anyhow,” she added with a sigh, “I reckon I have decided. Lettin’ fear make me choices, leavin’ me friends behind in danger… That’d make me not just a bad gnome, but a bad person. I’m not goin’.”

Iris nodded, and squeezed her shoulder. “Okay. I’m glad to hear it.”

“…d’ye mind if I stick around ‘ere for a while, though?”

“Of course not. Whatever you need.”

“I don’t really feel up to much company,” Maureen said, giving her a quick little smile, then jerked her head at the platform and square across the Rail some yards behind them. “But it sounds like they’ve got a full-on picnic goin’, up there. If you wanna go, I won’t be upset. You’ve helped me a lot just by stickin’ around this long.”

“Oh, well.” Iris shrugged, kicking her own legs—which, being much longer, resulted in her shoes scraping through the dirt. “I’m…not much for parties, generally. I pretty much get my fill of crowds in class and in the cafeteria.”

“Aye, I get that.” A sly glint appeared in the gnome’s eye, and she winked. “But you know… Gabriel might be there. I bet he’s the sort who loves gatherings.”

Iris heaved a deep sigh. “Ugh. I’m starting to think I should just forget the whole thing, stay away from him. If I can’t muster the guts to just…” She shrugged helplessly. “I don’t even know what.”

“Well, it can’t hurt ta hang around with ‘im a bit more! These things ‘ave a way of comin’ up on their own, if ye give ’em an opportunity.”

“Oh, come on, what would I do? Just walk up and proposition him?” Iris snorted. “He’d never go for that. Probably think I was some kind of a…a hussy.”

Maureen tilted her head, giving the human a long, thoughtful look. “…y’don’t actually know all that much about boys, do ye?”

“Oh, what would you—”

Turning toward her, Iris broke off abruptly, going rigid and grabbing Maureen by the shoulder.

“What? What’s the…” The gnome turned to follow her gaze, and gasped, scrambling up onto the bench.

“Easy!” Iris hissed. “Be calm, don’t do anything sudden.”

“What is that?!”

The creature was proportioned like a monkey and the size of a large goat, with a wedge-shaped head and jagged spines running down its back. Its eyes were sunken pits, the sides of its lips seeming to form its teeth—in fact, the thing looked like its whole hide was made of bone, rigid and the color of old ivory. It had an ugly, wasp-like stinger protruding from its bony rump, and enormous claws on each fingertip. As they watched, it snuffled around the base of the footbridge nearby, butting its head against the ground as if trying to bury itself.

“That’s a rozzk’shnid,” Iris said very quietly.

“Th’feck…” Maureen gulped audibly. “Seein’ as that’s a word made o’ sneezes an’ phonetic insanity, I assume it’s a demon?”

“Yes. Don’t worry—they’re stone deaf, and practically blind in sunlight. I don’t know what kind of idiot warlock would summon such a thing onto the prairie in the afternoon, but it’s easily dealt with.” Moving slowly and carefully, she stood and took a step to the side, positioning herself with a clear line of sight at the demon.

“Wait!” Maureen hopped off the bench after her, rushing over to grasp Iris’s leg. “Wait. Yer a witch—didja sense anything bein’ summoned?”

Iris had raised her hands, preparing to cast something, and now lowered them slightly, frowning. “No. Not a thing.”

“Aye. An’ I don’t ‘ear an outcry, from any o’ the students or drow priestesses right up there on the platform, so it was summoned subtle-like. That’s a good warlock, not one who’d pluck the wrong demon fer the wrong job.”

“The Sleeper,” Iris growled.

“Likely, aye,” Maureen said, still watching the rozzk’shnid, which seemed more interested in finding a patch of shade for its eyes than anything going on around it. “The Sleeper lays traps. He knows us. We can’t afford t’do the obvious thing—which’d be to attack that critter. It’s a trick somehow, I know it.”

“Well, what do you suggest?” Iris hissed.

Maureen swallowed. “Back away fer now.”

“I don’t run from demons!”

“There’s a difference between runnin’ away and retreat! Take it from somebody who was about t’do the bad one a wee bit ago. One’s an act o’ cowardice; the other’s a strategy. Look, we’re a gnome an’ a witch; we’re safer’n anybody out on the prairie. Heck, if we get to the Golden Sea, we’re home free. Somethin’ tells me the town’s about to get real interesting.”

“We can’t just go,” Iris insisted. “We have to warn everyone, at the very least!”

“Iris, that square’s full o’ drow,” Maureen said with a grim little smile. “I know the range of elvish hearing, trust me. Lemme just reiterate fer clarity that there’s a feckin’ demon sniffin’ around the square, an’ likely others, almost certainly summoned by an arsehole warlock who loves ‘is schemes an’ everybody needs ta deal with this as careful an’ quiet as they can. Nobody go off alone, or lash out rashly. There, everybody’s warned.”

Iris’s fingers actually twitched, as if desperate to begin hurling magic. “Maureen…”

“This is personal for you, isn’t it?” Maureen whispered. “Not just the Sleeper, but…demons. Warlocks.”

The human bared her teeth. “They live only to destroy. It should be personal for everyone. You need to listen to Trissiny on this subject, when she comes back.”

“Well, talkin’ o’ Trissiny, she’s a strategist. She’d never endorse lungin’ into a trap or doin’ the reckless thing. We’re not gonna let him win, Iris, an’ that means not doin’ what he wants. Come on. Step back, an’ we’ll come at this from another angle. One ‘e won’t expect.”

Iris hissed in pure frustration, but allowed the gnome to tug her gently away from the shelter and deeper into the tallgrass, leaving behind the demon at the edge of a crowded square, on which the drow were already quietly surging into motion.

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12 – 50

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Iris stared at her, mouth slightly open, and Maureen found herself in the odd position of feeling too awkward even to cringe. She simply froze, waiting for the hammer to come down.

“Oh,” Iris said after an excruciating pause, clearly grasping for something to say. “…you are?”

“No!” Maureen blurted. “I mean, yes, but… I, it’s, I don’t…”

She opened and closed her mouth twice, and then finally gave up and hid her face in her hands.

It was another silent few moments before the bench shifted, Iris having stepped over to settle onto it beside her.

“So, um,” the human said a few seconds later, “I don’t…know how good my advice might be. I’m guessing not very. But…I’ve been told I’m a pretty good listener? If that’ll help?”

“I don’t know what to do,” Maureen whispered.

Iris finally settled an arm around her shoulders. Well, a forearm. The difference in their sizes made it a slightly awkward gesture, but less awkward than the rest of this, all things considered.

“Is it about the Sleeper?”

Maureen sighed, then nodded miserably, finally peeking over her fingers. “I’m such a coward.”

“I think being terrified in this situation just means you aren’t crazy.”

“That’s got nothing to do with it,” she whispered. “You can be afraid when you’re in danger. You’re right, that’s just sense. Somethin’s wrong with you if you’re not. Courage an’ cowardice is all in what you do about it. An’ I just wanna run away.”

Iris held silent, rubbing her shoulder gently for a moment, before speaking. “Well, um. I missed you at lunch, but all your stuff’s still in the room. What I mean is, it doesn’t look like you’re trying to bolt, here. I wouldn’t have thought you were gonna until you said something.”

Maureen heaved a much heavier sigh, and leaned against her for a second before straightening up again. The position had tucked her right under Iris’s arm, which was a little uncomfortable.

“Truthfully, I hadn’t made up me own mind. I’ve been standin’ down here, ditherin’ on it.”

“Well, there you go, then,” Iris said with only sightly forced cheer. “Sounds like you’re not a complete coward.”

“You don’t understand,” she muttered.

“…okay, so, maybe I don’t. You can explain it to me, if you want.”

“I’m a gnome,” Maureen exclaimed. “Adventure is what we do. Hell, it’s what we are. Surely ye know that much?”

“I…well, gnomes do have that reputation, yes. I wasn’t gonna try to make assumptions, though. Since coming to this school and meeting all kinds of people I’ve been learning not to do that if I can avoid it. Gets awkward.”

“Sure, that’s sense. But when it comes to gnomes, aye, the stereotype’s there for a reason. We made it ourselves an’ work at livin’ up to it. Me mum already thinks I’m a nutter cos I like tinkerin’ with machines more’n roughhousin’. Me whole life, I never wanted t’go out an’ play with they other kids. They were always explorin’ the woods around the Hold, fightin’ off boars, fallin’ in caves, gettin’ lost fer weeks on end…”

“You let kids do that?” Iris demanded in horror.

“We’re gnomes,” Maureen said with a shrug, finally looking up at her. The human’s expression was equal parts fascinated and aghast. “It’s… Well, look, Iris, we don’t often talk about our business outside the Folk. There’s stuff you’re just not meant to know, so…don’t feel bad if some of what I do say doesn’t make much sense to ye.”

“Well, I mean, sure,” Iris said hastily. “You don’t have to tell me anything, Maureen, I’m not gonna pry. I’m just here to listen if you want to talk. Talking to somebody always helped me when I struggled with things.”

“Aye, don’t worry,” she said a little wryly, “I’m not about t’give away any great secrets. But you’ve gotta understand… Aye, gnomish children are pretty well expected to get into scrapes that’d bally well kill off humans twice their age, see? So when yer a kid who likes t’stay indoors, readin’ books an’ stackin’ yer toys up into interesting new shapes… Well, when I was real young, me mum thought I was barmy. An’ those were th’good years. Past a certain age, ye get to the point where not doin’ what your society wants makes people think…poorly.”

“I know a little about that, myself,” Iris said quietly.

Maureen nodded. “So, aye. I hate this, Iris. I just wanna make stuff! I like buildin’ things, not riskin’ me ears on adventures. Makes me a fair lousy gnome, but I’m me, y’know? An’ this…this Sleeper nonsense…” She swallowed heavily. “I was actually excited t’be comin’ here. Sure, I got a place at the school cos me uncle went adventurin’ with Tellwyrn back in the day, before she was a Professor an’ all. I got sent to the school cos me folks figured it was the only place left for a classic adventurin’ education. But Tellwyrn came to our place ta give me the interview, an once me mum an’ dad were outta the room, she made it clear what I could learn here didn’t have to be adventure if I didn’t want it to be.”

“You always seemed okay on field trips,” Iris said softly. “Like, out in the Golden Sea. Honestly I kinda thought you were in your element. You knew all about making campsites.”

“Oh, any gnome knows stuff like that,” Maureen said, waving a hand dismissively. “Raw basics. An’ we didn’t even have proper adventures!”

“Proper adventures,” Iris repeated, her eyebrows climbing. “I’m sorry, but do you remember the manticore? Or the harpies? Or that whatsit that wanted to eat Raolo?”

“That whatsit was a fairy, an’ those were all nothin’,” the gnome said with a grin. “Trash mobs an’ beginner dilemmas. Have ye heard the story o’ what the sophomores went through on their Golden Sea trip? Now that was a proper adventure!”

“The way I heard it, half of them nearly died. And considering most of them are nearly un-killable…”

“Exactly.” Maureen leaned back, letting her head thunk against the bench. “…exactly. There’s a part o’ me that can appreciate a story like that. Me upbringin’, aye? But not me. A life spent workin’ in a big factory, designin’ new machines… A dwarf’s life, basically, not a gnome. It’s a gnomish idea of hell, but t’me, it sounds like heaven. No matter who scared an’ fed up I am, I can’t go runnin’ home at the first sign o’ lethal danger. I can’t, Iris. I’m already the worst gnome there is. I can’t bear how me mum’d look at me…”

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Iris murmured, “but…maybe being a good person is more important than being a good gnome? You’re one of the best people I know, Maureen.”

“Have you thought about runnin’?” Maureen asked, looking up at her again. “Tell ye the plain truth, Iris, half o’ what scares me is how all this seems targeted at us. Half our dorm’s been hit, an’ Raolo, who’s also our year. Plus Natchua an’ Shaeine, who’re connected to Szith through the exchange program. I’d suspect it was Addiwyn actin’ up again if she wasn’t one o’ the first to go.”

“I don’t run from enemies,” Iris said quietly, her eyebrows settling into a hard line. “Especially warlocks.”

“…you’d have made a more’n fair gnome.”

She grinned. “Well. I dunno about that, but considering the source, I get the feeling that’s one of the nicest things anybody’s ever said to me.”

“It’s like everything that makes me love this place is bein’ taken away,” Maureen whispered. “Even Rook’s gone. I’ve got nobody left to Patter with.”

“Rook?” Iris’s eyebrows shot upward and she leaned away, staring down at her in shock. “You had a thing with Rook? The scruffy one?”

“A thing with—oh, ew!” Maureen wrinkled her nose. “Don’t be utterly daft, he’s well too old for me, an’ not my type even if I was inta tall boys! It’s not like that, Iris, it’s just…he spoke a bit o’ Patter, as much as a human can. It was a wee bit o’ home.”

Iris blinked, then shook her head. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

Maureen rubbed at her face with both hands. “…all right. Well. You’ve noticed how me accent tends to…come an’ go?”

“I, uh, didn’t want to say anything. It seemed rude…”

“Oh, it’s not rude,” Maureen replied with a rueful smile. “And I’ve a million ways to deflect the conversation if ye had, we all learn ’em growin’ up. It’s not just an accent—it’s Patter. There’s a rhythm to it, a second language threaded through the Tanglish. A whole other layer of meanin’, a way to communicate that shares so much more than just words can.”

“Oh.” Iris blinked. “And Rook can do that?”

“Humans can’t do it,” Maureen explained, wincing. “It’s…this is a bit of a secret, by the way. Not a huge one, the Nemitites an’ some others doubtless know about Patter, but it’s not somethin’ we talk about outside the Folk, except with our most trusted friends.”

“Well, I’m honored, then,” Iris said with a smile.

Maureen smiled back. “But it’s a gnomish thing. It’s intuitive; half of it isn’t even verbal. You have to be a gnome to Patter properly. But there’s some very few humans, those who were brought up by the Folk as babies—aye, that does happen, there’s not a gnome alive who’d throw out an infant if there was nobody else to take care of ’em. They pick up a wee bit of it. Not enough to Patter fully, but if ye get ’em young, when their minds are unformed, they can do some o’ the basic patterns. Rook can, so we’d talk sometimes. Made me feel at home, a bit. Him too, I guess.”

“Huh.” Iris blinked again, twice. “So…Rook was raised by gnomes. How ’bout that.”

“I dunno ‘is story,” Maureen said, shrugging. “He didn’t offer, an’ fer anybody with a gnomish upbringing it’s powerfully rude t’pry. But…now he’s gone, him an’ the other lads, an’ nothin’ left behind ’em but rumors that a Hand o’ the Emperor did ’em in. Bit by bit, Iris, everythin’ I love about bein’ here is bein’ taken away.”

It seemed Iris could find nothing to say to that. For a few more long minutes, they sat in silence.

“I can’t stay here,” Maureen whispered at last. “I can’t. And…I can’t go home either. I can’t do anything. Iris, what am I gonna do?”

“I don’t know, Maureen,” Iris replied softly. “Hon, I don’t think this is something I can help you answer. But… I can sit with you while you figure it out, if you want.”

“…aye. Yeah, that’s not nothin’.”

Slowly, Maureen leaned against her again. It was still awkward, but all things considered, that wasn’t so bad.


The door was not locked, for much the same reason Darling’s own was not; anybody trying to break into this house was either an imbecile or fishing for more trouble than most people wanted to risk. Darling, of course, preferred not to think of himself as an imbecile, but the next few minutes would likely tell.

It wasn’t, of course, as easy as just strolling up the path and walking in, but he hadn’t come here alone. Quietly removing the guards from the home of the head of Imperial Intelligence had required him to call in more favors than he’d ever before expended on a single job, but damn if it wouldn’t impress the hell out of Vex, which of course was the point.

He quietly closed the front door and paused in the entryway, examining the place. It was eerily familiar—very much like his own home, in fact. The tastefully expensive furnishings might have come right out of a magazine illustration, without a hint of personal identity anywhere. Whatever personality this place had, it was well concealed and likely not immediately accessible from any of the entrances. Which meant Darling wasn’t going to see it on this visit. He wasn’t nearly daft enough to think a house like this would have no interior defenses; getting inside had been as much as he’d been able to arrange. He had no plans to step through one more door. Gods only knew what might befall him further in.

No one was there to greet him at first, interestingly. Vex did not employ a Butler, and in fact had made a point of disapproving of Panissar employing one. Despite the Service Society’s vaunted discretion and neutrality, the spymaster felt it a gross abrogation of security to have such a powerful outside organization in a position to access Imperial secrets. It seemed strange that there were no servants, however. True, he had come in without knocking, but any well-trained household staff would be attuned to the sound of the door opening. This place was spotlessly clean, and Darling would eat his own shoes of Vex dusted it himself.

Even while he wondered on it, though, the swishing of fabric and rapid footsteps announced someone coming. Darling put on a pleasant smile and tucked his fingertips into his sleeve discreetly. He was still in full view of the windows…

A young woman bustled into the entry room from a hall doorway and stopped, staring at him rather stupidly. She was an immediately recognizable archetype: blonde, lovely, with elaborately styled hair and too much makeup, wearing a dress which was necessarily out of fashion. Current trends followed the Empress’s personal taste in severe, dark-colored gowns, which poorly suited the professional floozy. Her richly embroidered dress of blue velvet was daring, in the sense that if she moved too abruptly it was likely to slide right off her entirely. Despite its long, blousy sleeves and ankle-length skirts, it left enough of her chest on display she might have been cited for indecency if she left the house during daylight hours.

“Oh,” the girl said finally, in a voice so high-pitched it went past cute and into the territory of grating. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I never heard you knock! That silly maid should’ve answered the door.” She turned to look back into the hall, twisting her torso admirably into profile in the process. “Elzi! You silly girl, where are you?! There’s a visitor!”

“Now, that’s not necessary,” Darling said smoothly, not moving from his position. There was a wall immediately to his left; the room opened up on the right, with tall windows, the curtains currently not drawn, and a single low sofa flanked by end tables occupying the space. An entry where visitors could be kept waiting in a modicum of comfort while it was decided whether they should be allowed deeper into the house. Also, ample space for brawling, if necessary. “So sorry to barge in like this, but I need to speak with Quentin. Immediately.”

“Oh,” she said, turning back to him and batting her thick lashes, blue eyes wide and vacant. The girl sashayed forward a few steps, and he infinitesimally shifted his fingertips to touch the throwing knife up his sleeve, keeping his right hand against his side where she couldn’t clearly see it without doing anything so overtly shifty as moving it behind his back. “Well, Quenty’s usually not home at this time of afternoon—”

“He’s here,” Darling said. Calm and pleasant, but flatly implacable, with the faintest edge to his tone that she seemed not intelligent enough to grasp.

She showed no sign of having grasped it.

“Oh, you think so?” the girl tittered, coming forward another step. “Well, he’s probably up in his office, then. I can take you right to him!”

“That’s all right,” he said with a flirtatious wink. “I’ll wait right here.”

The girl stopped again, once more batting her lashes with an expression of thought which suggested it was a difficult labor for her. “But…but if he doesn’t know you’re here…”

“He knows,” Darling said quietly. “I can be patient. For a while.”

She tilted her blonde head to one side, staring quizzically up at him, then her expression cleared and she smiled, a touch too warmly. “Well, then, if you’re sure. Maybe while we wait—”

The projectile made only the softest sound when it punched through the glass of the front window, boring a neat hole rather than shattering the whole pane. It struck her perfectly on the side of her graceful neck and lodged there, little more than a needle attached to a pencil-thick length of rune-engraved wood. The girl managed a single gurgle and collapsed, slumping against the sofa with one arm draped across it, her head lolling back.

“I don’t think that was called for,” said Quentin Vex, stepping into the room and regarding Darling with a mildly disapproving expression. “There’s really no point in asking what happened to my house guards, is there?”

Darling stepped over to the fallen woman and calmly plucked the dart from her neck, tucking it into his pocket. “There we go; wouldn’t want you to overdose. I’m told alchemical drugs are very precise, but no sense taking risks, eh?” In fact, there was virtually no risk at all, except of him leaving evidence.

Vex shook his head and strode forward. “If you insist on—”

“Not one more goddamned step, Quentin.”

He didn’t bother pulling out his knife. Vex halted two steps into the room, blinking somnolently.

Darling, meanwhile, picked up the girl’s hand, running his fingertips along her wrist, up under her sleeve. Her eyes tracked him, the only thing she could currently move; even her facial expression was frozen in vacancy.

“There we are,” he said in satisfaction, withdrawing the wand he found strapped to her forearm. “Long, baggy sleeves—not part of the kept bimbo’s customary uniform. She’s good, isn’t she? If I hadn’t come here looking for something like this, I’d never have given her a second thought. Oh, my, this is a nice piece, isn’t it?”

The wand was beautifully crafted, its haft bounded in fancifully wrought silver with a large pearl on the end. Darling held it up to the light, admiring the workmanship. It was a shortened variety, perfect for concealing in pockets, at the expense of most of its firepower and accuracy; a weapon like this was all but useless at a range of more than two yards, but a nasty surprise for up-close fighting. Illegal for exactly those reasons, of course. This was a type of wand favored by spies and criminals.

“A gift,” Vex said curtly.

“Well, I promise I shall treasure it,” Darling replied, giving the young woman a wink and slipping her wand into his own sleeve.

Vex cleared his throat. “Maybe you should consider not digging yourself any deeper, Antonio. Trixie isn’t someone you want for an enemy.”

“Oh. Really?” Darling stared down at the paralyzed girl, blinking in apparently thought, her hand still held in his. She gazed blankly back.

He shifted his grip, squeezed, and wrenched. In the quiet foyer, the snap of her wrist breaking was plainly audible. She couldn’t even blink, but her pupils shrank to pinpricks.

Vex had not so much as twitched. That said nothing about whether he cared for the girl; he was too much a professional, and the injury too easily healed. Darling hadn’t really expected him to show his hand in response to what amounted to petulance. “This begins to seem downright out of character, Antonio,” Vex said. “Not your actual character, of course, but the role you like to play in public. Are you sure you want to take the masks off?”

“They’re off,” Darling said curtly, straightening and dropping Trixie’s arm. Vex’s eyes locked on his, sharp and focused, with no trace of the spymaster’s normally sleepy expression. “My apprentices overheard the most interesting thing last night, Quentin. Care to hazard a guess what it was?”

“You have indulged in all the melodrama you’re going to, Antonio. Say your piece before I decide you’re not worth allowing to leave here.”

He didn’t acknowledge the threat, which they both knew was empty. All part of the scene. “I took the time to follow up on rumors rather than risking all this based on one source. And guess what? It seems pretty well confirmed that the newly-unhinged Hands of the Emperor have acquired the ability to teleport.”

He took one step forward; Vex held his ground, eyes narrowed.

“So perhaps you can clarify something for me,” Darling said icily. “I have the Emperor hidden, at your request, with a member of my Guild—in her own home, where a child lives. All this on the presupposition that if the Hands start moving in his direction, your people on the scene will know in advance and have time to give warning and get my people to safety. Perhaps you would like to explain to me, Quentin, how they are meant to do this if the Hands can be on the site instantly?”

“Oh, don’t stop now,” Vex sneered. “Finish your monologue, Antonio. Storybook villainy suits you so perfectly.”

With the tiniest jerk of his arm, Darling dropped the wand out of his sleeve into his hand and shot him.

That, finally, got a reaction. The room was too long and the wand too inaccurate to hit at that distance, but the unfocused blast of light smashed a fairy lamp and charred a wide burn in the wallpaper far too close to Vex for comfort; the spymaster bolted to the side, bringing up a weapon of his own from behind his belt.

They froze, wands aimed at each other. The wall smoldered.

“You find me annoying, I know,” Darling said calmly. “You don’t know whose side I am truly on, and even as well as you control yourself, it irritates you, the way I play both ends against the middle.”

“Both?” Vex spat. “There are far more ends than that in your game.”

“Well, if you want to know what really matters to me, congratulations! You’ve forced my hand, Quentin.” Darling’s voice rose steadily as he continued. “You do not screw over the Thieves’ Guild! You came to me in good faith, promising to look after one of my people if she did the Throne an enormous favor. I added my own word to this. You made me a liar, put Eserites at risk of harm by your own agents, and broke faith with Eserion after coming to us for help. Do you have any idea what you’ve nearly sparked off? You can’t possibly not know! The Guild has taken kings right off their thrones for lesser insults than this!”

“Oh, spare me,” Vex snarled, no sign of his customary reserve in place. “Don’t you dare try to paint this as some kind of moral issue, you hypocrite. You’re no less a cold-blooded snake than I, and you know damn well what thrones and guilds are like! Yours, mine, everyone’s, everywhere. We did what we had to do, it required playing loose with the truth, and if it had all gone well, you’d never have been the wiser. Well, you caught me, fine. Win some, lose some. There’s nobody here but us bastards, Antonio; insult me by playing the martyr and I may decide to take all this personally.”

“I’m going to show you a little more of who I really am, Quentin,” Darling said flatly. “Right now, what I ought to do, as a faithful servant of Eserion, is take this right to the Boss and call for punishment for this hubris. We both know what would happen next—or at least, one of us does, and one has a general sort of idea.” Slowly, he lowered his arm. Vex did not do likewise, keeping the wand aimed at him, but his eyes flicked momentarily to the hole punched in his window, and he did not fire. “Instead, I’ve pulled out all the stops to stay his hand. You’ll never know how hard I had to lean on Tricks to keep this under wraps—and I only did that because I didn’t think I could keep it from him. I did this to stop the kind of bloodbath that should ensue when a sitting Emperor betrays the cult of Eserion the way ours just did. I did this because I am not your enemy, despite your apparent effort to make one of me.”

He slipped the wand into the pocket of his coat, eyes never leaving Vex’s.

“So now, I’m going to go to the home of my friend and Guildmate Peepers, and inform her that her houseguest lied and screwed us over and placed her and her little brother in immense physical jeopardy. I will not harm him in any way, nor allow her to—and not gonna lie, it may be a hell of a task to stop her. But his safe house is about to be gone. You’ve got that long to find another place to stash him. That’s your problem, not mine; in the position you’ve stuck me in, I can’t do you any more favors, however positively I may feel toward the Emperor. Or did until very recently, anyway. And that’s the end of it, Quentin. The Empire will not retaliate—against me, against Peepers, against the Guild. You will not interfere with me going over there. This all hangs by a thread, which you will cut if you make one more move in a direction the Boss finds even mildly distasteful. Understand?”

Darling held his gaze one moment longer before turning his back. He grasped the door handle, but paused before turning it, and spoke without looking back at Vex.

“You can’t fuck up like this again. Not one more time. I’ve worked too long and too hard to keep the Guild and the Throne in good standing with each other. No matter what duress you’re under, Quentin, do not make us enemies. We’ve both got much bigger fish to fry.”

Finally, he opened the door and stepped out.


The Imperial Guard, naturally, raised their weapons as someone teleported directly into the residence. In theory, only duly authorized mages should have been able to get through the wards, but those guarding the harem wing had recently had harsh lessons about the danger of trusting too much in their defenses.

Neither Vex nor the Azure Corps battlemage batted an eye at the staves leveled at them, simply standing motionless and waiting for the all clear.

“Stand down,” the officer on duty said after a moment, and all four soldiers returned their weapons to the upright position, falling back into parade rest around the room.

“Thank you, Major,” Vex said to the mage who had brought him. The man saluted, stepped back from him, and then with a short sparkle of blue light, vanished. The spymaster turned back to the officer who had spoken. “Where is she?”

“Here,” Eleanora herself stated, gliding into the room. “Fortunately—or is that why you chose to come during my customary tea time?” Despite her light tone, the Empress’s expression was sharp, tension visible in the set of her shoulders.

“I did not decide on the timing myself, your Majesty,” Vex replied, nodding deeply in a gesture that was nearly a bow. “I came to report that it’s in motion, now. Darling bought it.”

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12 – 49

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“Morning, Chase!”

“It’s barely still morning,” he said automatically, looking up from his open textbook, the top edges of a comic peeking above its pages. “Oh, hey, creepy government guy and his eerily hot friend!”

“Hey yourself,” Ashley said with a smile as the pair came to a stop alongside him, perched on one of the campus’s low retaining walls.

“I can’t decide exactly what it is that makes you hot,” Chase said, studying her with an expression of deep contemplation. “I mean, sure, you’re pretty, but that suit hides the best parts. Maybe it’s the suit itself! Drag is so delightfully transgressive. But no, I never got that vibe from Teal…”

“It’s a dryad thing,” Fedora said, his lips twitching in a smirk. “They’re all pretty much irresistible, even the ones who aren’t your type.”

“I don’t have a type, that’s so limiting,” Chase said automatically. “But I’m prepared to believe your theory! Juniper’s just about the scorchingest thing I ever saw, not to mention a hellcat in the sack.”

“Also a dryad thing,” Ashley said, her smile widening.

“Weellll, then, I’ll just have to try out a few more to test that assertion, won’t I?” he rejoined, waggling his eyebrows. “Whaddaya say, sweetheart? Lose the spook and let’s find a nice comfy bush? Or hell, bring him along.”

She laughed. “I suggest you stick to Juniper. Any of the rest of her sisters would just kill you after. Or possibly during.”

“Present company excepted, of course…?”

Her smile widened enough to show teeth.

“Damn if that isn’t the hottest thing yet,” Chase said to Fedora.

“I don’t disagree.”

“What’s with you, by the way? You look a little…peaked.”

Ashley huffed softly in amusement and released the Inspector’s arm, taking a step away from him. Immediately the color flowed back into his pale complexion; even the shadows under his eyes and his perpetual five o’clock shadow deepened. He gave her a sardonic look.

“What is she, poisonous?” Chase asked, watching this curiously.

“So, Masterson,” Fedora said, jamming his hands in his pockets. “Had a chance to consider the deal I offered you?”

Chase blinked. “Uh… Excuse me? The whozamawhuh?”

Fedora smiled, the expression far from friendly. “Because I suspect we’re rapidly approaching a point where the option’s not going to be on the table. These Sleeper antics have managed to impact the Imperial government on multiple levels—the governance of Tiraan Province and its good relationship with Tar’naris. Not to mention the Narisians themselves, what remains of House Madouri… It is probably, barely, still possible for a settlement, but there are powerful people out for blood, now. One more straw is gonna break the donkey’s back.”

Chase slowly tilted his head to one side, his eyebrows drawing together in confusion. “Um… Yeah. The Sleeper is pissing people off. But seriously, man, I haven’t been drunk enough since all this shit started to have forgotten you making me some kind of offer, not to mention I don’t get what… Waaaait a second!” Suddenly a grin blossomed across his face. “Hang on, do you think I’m the Sleeper? Because that’s… Aw, man, that’s just too rich. Did nobody tell you I was the first one to get sleeped? I mean, come on, to have arranged all that and still be in control of everything, not to mention cursing Natchua while I was unconscious, that’d make me just about the craftiest son of a bitch on the—actually, wait up, that sounds pretty good. Is it too late to claim I am the Sleeper? Especially if it comes with a government deal? Aw, shit, I already said too much for that, didn’t I.”

He tried to pout sullenly, an effort that went mostly wasted due to the grin that kept breaking through.

Fedora just shrugged. “Welp, just thought I’d bring it up. You take care, kid.”

Chase leaned forward so far he seemed in danger of tipping off the wall, now leering avidly. “Now, stop me if I’m wrong, but didn’t I just hear that you’ve been offering deals with a crazy magic terrorist asshole? Oh me oh my, I’m not at all sure that’s something a fine, upstanding servant of his Majesty’s government such as yourself ought to be doing! Why, just imagine if Professor Tellwyrn heard about this!”

“Heard about what?” Ashley asked innocently. “From whom?”

“There’s a certain strength in being as much of a career asshole as you’ve made a point of being, kid,” Fedora said with a smirk. “People can afford to let things slip to you. Probably shouldn’t, true, just because the gods only know what a little prick like yourself would do with sensitive information. But you can tell whatever you know to whoever you wish. It’s not like anybody’s gonna listen.”

“Pfft, I’ll have you know—”

“MISTER MASTERSON!”

Professor Tellwyrn was suddenly there—and not teleporting out of thin air as she normally did, but stepping out from behind a nearby sapling far too small to have concealed even her slender frame. “I distinctly recall not seeing you in class this morning. Care to explain yourself?”

“It’s…it’s all the stress, teach,” Chase said tearfully, his expression transitioning to wide eyes and trembling lips without an instant’s hesitation. “I’ve lost friends, lost sleep…why, we could all be struck down at any moment! It’s just too much to—”

She blinked forward, transitioning across the space between them without actually passing through it and ending up barely a foot from Chase, who again nearly tumbled off the wall in startlement, this time backwards.

“No one is impressed, Masterson,” she said flatly, “and no one is fooled. No one is ever impressed or fooled, so stop wasting my time with these antics. Tanq has your assignments; if you break your pattern and ask quite politely he will perhaps allow you to peruse his notes. And henceforth, unless you are the one cursed, you will be in class at the appointed time. That is all.”

“Well…yes, ma’am,” he said, blinking. For once, he seemed almost at a loss for words.

“Well?” she said impatiently. “Notes! Tanq! Move!”

Chase slapped his book shut, comic and all, and hopped down. He gave her a mocking salute, but didn’t pause to so much as leer at Ashley before turning and scurrying off down the path.

“And as for you,” the Professor continued, turning on Fedora, “I believe I was explicitly plain on the subject of you badgering my students.”

“Have you seen those coon skin hats the settlers sometimes wear?” he said mildly. “Y’know, kind of a gray furry cap with the fluffy tail hanging down the back. I just ask because you’re gonna end up as one if she didn’t give you permission to wear her face like this.”

“Inspector, do you find that anyone ever knows what the hell you’re babbling about?” she said impatiently. “This is an altogether disappointing performance—if you’re serious about catching this Sleeper, I sincerely hope you have more tricks up your sleeve than just making random accusations. That’s all I’ve seen from you today, at least.”

“Uh huh,” he said dryly.

“Progress,” she said, leveling an accusing finger at him. “Make some. Quickly. Without haranguing students when you’ve no evidence. Chop chop, Fedora, time’s a-wasting.”

Tellwyrn snapped her fingers once and vanished completely with a soft whoosh of air, leaving them standing alone in the sunshine.

“Um…” Ashley turned to look expressively at Fedora. “What the fuck?”

“That’s interesting,” he mused.

“You don’t think she’s actually lost control of that…critter? I’m not even sure what kind of fairy he is.”

“Something from Sifan, they’ve got some weird shit in kitsune-land. Anyhow, if so, it’s his ass, as I mentioned. But no…” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Doesn’t fit. I think she’s just trying to be clever, now. Finally. What remains to be seen is whether she’s any good at it. I really hope she’s got more to her plan than that, or it’s gonna result in the opposite of progress.”

“Hmph.” She stepped closer and threaded her arm through his again. At her touch, his magic immediately weakened, making his illusory countenance falter. Not too badly, but enough to strongly hint at his naturally bone-white complexion. Fedora bore this without complaint or comment, allowing the dryad to tug him off down the path at a slow stroll. “Well, that doesn’t seem to have yielded anything. And after all the trouble we went to to make sure there were no elves within earshot, too. You really think that Masterson kid’s the Sleeper?”

“Nope,” he said immediately, patting her hand. At the touch, his fingers shifted for a moment, becoming long and almost delicate, before resuming the rougher, tobacco-stained and bitten nails of the Inspector when he moved his hand back away. “No, I said that to Tellwyrn in the first place, and I stand by it. The Sleeper’s a mastermind type, loves to manipulate people and create intrigues. That habit of lashing out once confronted suits Masterson, but he’s not the sort to have created all these smokescreens in the first place.”

“Okay, you lost me, then,” she said, shooting him an annoyed sidelong look. “Why did you feel the need to come poke at him, then?”

“It occurs to me,” he mused, “that we’ve been operating on an assumption that may not be warranted. After all, we know where the Sleeper’s powers come from.”

“A gift of Elilial, intended to cause trouble, yes,” she said, nodding.

“And we know the kinds of students who would be doing something as fucknut stupid as trying to summon greater djinn—of which Chase Masterson is a perfect example. We also know there was more than one kid present for that. Some of the inconsistencies in the Sleeper’s behavior begin to make sense when we ask one question: why assume the Sleeper is only one person?”

“…hm.”

“Or has only one agenda. I could well see one of them doing this bullshit and another trying to stop it without revealing them both to Tellwyrn… So no, I don’t think Masterson’s our boy,” he said, staring ahead into the distance with a predatory glint in his eye. “But I’ve got a funny feeling that if I poke at him, it’ll eventually be felt in the right places.”


“She’s crazy,” Hawthorn hissed furiously. “I’m telling you, she’s stark raving nuts in the head! We gotta get her out of here!”

“Yeah, okay,” Mimosa said disinterestedly, studying her with her head tilted so far her ear nearly rested on her shoulder. “But…what are you wearing?”

Hawthorn was wearing a kimono, and was not the least bit happy about it. Its application had involved a large mirror and a display of inscrutable sleight of hand by Akane, the sight of which had probably been even more confusing to Milanda, who’d had a full view of the whole thing, than the dryad who had found herself stuffed into it. Even replaying the event in her head, she wasn’t sure how it had happened.

What was a little more believable (not to mention memorable) was the tongue-lashing which had ensued when Hawthorn had tried to tug the garment off. Even now, when she unconsciously fidgeted with the sash holding it together, her hands froze in the next moment and she shot an apprehensive look at Akane, who was standing near the teleport gate, speaking in a low tone with the Avatar.

“This is only the beginning,” Hawthorn warned ominously. “You just watch, if she moves in here you’re both gonna end up stuffed into these…these damn…things!”

“I dunno, that actually looks sorta nice,” Apple mused, reaching out to finger Hawthorn’s sleeve. Indeed, the kimono was of black silk embroidered with white leaves and thorns, which offset her coloration beautifully. “It’s pretty. Maybe I could try yours on? Since you don’t like it.”

“I wouldn’t mind it if I’d been allowed to try,” Hawthorn said furiously, her voice rising. “She just put me in it! That’s what she does, swaggers around jamming things at people! She’s awful!”

“Girls!” Akane barked, turning to stare disapprovingly at them. “We are having a conversation. Remain quiet, please!”

Hawthorn whirled at her and opened her mouth furiously to reply. The kitsune’s green eyes seized and held hers. A moment later, the dryad shut her mouth and hunched her shoulders.

“And stand up straight,” Akane added firmly. “Are you a tree or a bramble bush?”

She turned back to the Avatar’s panel without waiting for a reply.

“I hate her so much,” Hawthorn whispered.

They stood a good few yards distant, far enough that the kitsune was hidden from the knees down, thanks to the curvature of the tiny planet; they were due north, so she remained in view even as she walked slowly to keep pace with it as the world orbited, though the occasional tree passed between them and her. Milanda, at least, couldn’t hear the details of her discussion with the Avatar, even with her newly enhanced senses. She didn’t know the acuity of the dryads’ hearing, but suspected Akane did… Then again, Akane’s request for privacy had probably had more to do with her than them. She had little to fear from her younger sisters, who clearly understood none of what was going on. Milanda, though…

“Remember how you felt about Walker, at first?” she asked. Hawthorn scowled at her.

“…that’s different. That’s just…how she is. It’s not her fault her whole existence is a great screaming wrongness, that’s all crap that was done to her. Walker is super nice, and I can learn to ignore the scary awful part to spend time with her because she’s worth it. This one is the complete opposite.”

“I really gotta meet this Walker,” Mimosa said with a yawn.

“Yeah, you should,” Hawthorn replied, turning to her. “Walker’s awesome. I really wasn’t expecting to learn we had other sisters, but so far it hasn’t been all bad.” Again, she glared accusingly at Akane in the distance.

“I think you have your priorities right, there,” Milanda said with what she hoped was an encouraging smile. The nap she’d managed was not enough for this kind of cat-herding… “Judge people by the way they act, not your instinctive reactions to them. I just mean there might be something more to Akane than you’ve seen so far.”

“Do you like her?” Hawthorn said pointedly.

“No,” Milanda replied, not caring in the least if Akane could hear her, “I really don’t. But she’s not my sister. And whether I like someone has no bearing on whether I can work with them and speak to them respectfully.” Most days, she wanted to slap Empress Eleanora on general principles, but there was almost as little point in discussing that as in doing it. “Akane, if she decides to, may be able to help fix the Hands.”

“Hm,” Apple grunted, folding her arms and studying Milanda thoughtfully. “So…I guess that tells us what you’re concerned with.”

“Hey, yeah,” Mimosa added. “If she sticks around, you get what you want! Is that why you’re trying to foist her off on us?”

“Foist, that’s a good word,” Hawthorn said emphatically, nodding.

Milanda cracked a rueful smile in spite of herself. “You girls are pretty smart, you know that?”

“Yes,” Hawthorn said, while Apple and Mimosa blushed and tittered, respectively.

“I’m serious, though,” Milanda continued. “In my honest opinion, if Akane stays around… Well, she’s going to irritate the hell out of you. Frankly think you’ll find her very difficult to get along with. But, as hard as it might be to believe, I think that in the end you’ll benefit from it.”

“You’re crazy,” Hawthorn said bluntly.

Milanda drew in a breath and let it out, resisting the urge to rub at her eyes. “You girls haven’t had any kind of upbringing, you know that?”

“We don’t need one,” Mimosa said petulantly. “We’re dryads.”

“And yet,” Milanda persisted, “Akane walked in here, immediately started pushing you around, and so far, you’ve let her.”

That brought all three of them up short. They glanced uncertainly at one another, then at the kitsune, who was still apparently ignoring them.

“Dryads get left alone because you’re powerful, and because Naiya looks out for you,” Milanda went on. “But that leaves you vulnerable to other things. You can be manipulated, pushed into things you don’t necessarily like. There’s an art to dealing with other people, you see. Your…eldest sisters have learned it. Mastered it, even. Frankly, I think that for you to learn it will end up benefiting you more than enough to be worth the frustration Akane would almost certainly cause you in the process.”

“I am not convinced,” Hawthorn stated.

“Well, let me tell you about my situation, then, since you brought it up,” said Milanda. “First of all, if I were being selfish here, I wouldn’t be encouraging you to learn how to be more crafty. This whole system works the way it does because an Imperial politician keeps control of it. My personal loyalty is to that politician. And why are the humans in control? It’s not as if they’re stronger than you.”

This sparked another round of dubious glances, but she pressed on.

“And as for Akane, as I’ve already said to her, involving her in this will only decrease the Empire’s control more. She’s at least as powerful as you three, and a lot more cunning.” Milanda glanced again at the kitsune, who continued not to acknowledge them. “What it comes down to is… By encouraging this, I’m sacrificing a lot of the Throne’s authority over this whole…thing. I’m willing to do it because I believe it’s right, because I believe that all of our self-interests coincide here. I think Empress Theasia was wrong to manipulate and bully everyone the way she did. I think that having us all on the same page and with nobody left in the dark will make all this better. I have that much confidence in Sharidan, and in the Empire. And…if, someday, the Empire turns into something that isn’t as just or fair, I’m not unhappy at the thought of there being neutral parties down here—like you, and Akane, and Walker—who can lean on it if necessary.”

“Hum,” Apple said. The other two just frowned.

Milanda had the thought, not for the first time, that it was difficult to tell decades or centuries of uneducated, undeveloped thought from simple stupidity. Her conversations with the dryads were generally somewhat frustrating, just because they talked and related like spoiled children. However, once in a while a beam of intelligence would shine through, as it did now. They were all thinking, which spoke well of their mental faculties; the churlish brats they sometimes acted like could probably not have followed her argument. If Akane forcibly adopted them all the way she seemed to be trying to do with Hawthorn, they might eventually become something truly formidable. Provided they didn’t kill her or something first.

Which made her hope all the more fervently that she was right. The more she contemplated this, the more it began to appear that by fixing the Hands in this manner, she was wresting ultimate control away from the Throne itself. That made the prospect of simply destroying them and their whole system one she had to consider… But she hadn’t lied to the dryads. Her feeling was that this was still the right thing to do—for the Empire, for the world, and for Sharidan.

If only she could be more confident that her own reasoning was working as it should. She was just so damned tired…

“Hey, are you okay?” Mimosa asked suddenly. “You’re, uh…kinda swaying there.”

“She hasn’t slept much,” said Hawthorn, and Milanda couldn’t help finding her guilty expression somewhat endearing. “Part of that’s my fault, I wrecked her nap. You wanna lie down for a bit, Milanda? We’ll letcha know if she comes back over here, kay?”

“Oh, no, I’m fine,” she said, and immediately had to smother a yawn. “Well… I think I’ll sit down, if that’s okay. But I’d rather keep alert.”

“If you want,” Apple assured her while she folded herself carefully to the ground. “No sense in forcing yourself, though. Really, relax. This is our place; let us show a little hospitality.”

“Well, I guess…if you don’t…” Somehow, she’d ended up lying on her back. When had that happened? The grass was so much softer than she remembered grass being…


It was only happenstance that she saw her coming. Maureen had been pacing back and forth in front of the telescroll office, clutching her Pack, long enough that the townsfolk about in the square had stopped giving her curious looks, and even so she had yet to decide whether she was going to go in or go back up the mountain. Iris, though, was such a distinctive sight, a tall and slim figure in her characteristic white dress which made her dark skin stand out, that Maureen couldn’t help but notice her approach the square.

She cringed and scuttled around behind the telescroll office, cradling her Pack against her chest for comfort. Had Iris seen her? She didn’t seem to have been looking in her direction…

After a moment, she took the extra precaution of scurrying forward and dropping off the platform next to the Rail line. There she was hidden…sort of. The platform was taller than she. Still, she couldn’t help feeling exposed even here…

Maureen took off again, ducking under the Rail between the spokes holding it up—which would have been a very tight squeeze for a human, but she didn’t even have to drop to her knees—and darted across to the base of the little footbridge which arced over the Rail itself, terminating in the small structure which housed a few benches where the stagecoaches stopped to discharge and take on passengers unwilling or unable to use the Rail line. There was no coach now, of course; just the dusty old road stretching away to either side, and ahead nothing but endless golden prairie until it reached the Wyrnrange, far over the horizon to the west.

She stopped inside the little shelter, catching her breath and coping with the shame of it all. Honestly…bad enough to be down here. Bad enough to be dithering this way… Now running from her own friend? And just because she couldn’t—no, just didn’t want to—face what she was doing. Her mother would’ve taken the rolling pin to her for such craven behavior.

Maureen sighed, and clambered up onto one of the benches, setting her Pack beside her. Well, at least there was seating, here. It was a better place to think—to dither, honestly—than out in the square in front of the scrolltower.

Now if only there were something conveniently provided in this little shelter to help her reach a decision…

So quickly and completely had she sunk back into her funk that the sound of footsteps on the bridge didn’t even register with her.

“Are you okay?”

Maureen started violently, then flushed, finding herself facing exactly the person she’d been running from. Iris leaned around the edge of the shelter, frowning at her in concern.

“Um, if you wanna be alone, I won’t bother you. Sorry, I didn’t mean to sneak up on you, it’s just that you look… Well, if you need any help, you know I’m here, right?”

Maureen opened her mouth to try to dissuade her with some platitude, and accidentally blurted out truth.

“I’m leaving the school.”

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