Tag Archives: Maureen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just bloody well run!”


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

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

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

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

“You said garden shed,” Fred said dumbly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the hell is that thing?!”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” she breathed.

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

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

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

“Who’s not ready?” he demanded.

Then the thing drew close enough to come into focus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, shit.”

 

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13 – 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, aye. Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sapient,” she said automatically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” she said with no further comment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The bees?” Teal asked.

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

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

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

“How close?” Gabriel asked tersely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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13 – 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walker hesitated. “You’re…alone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s really bad.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Noted,” Milanda said with a sigh.

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

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

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

“Wait… That means—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“All right there, Mr. Carson?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Same t’you!”

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

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

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

And tonight, was occupied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“W-what’s a smilodon?” he stammered.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

No one was close enough to hear it giggling.

 

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12 – 60

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

“Nice turn of phrase!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t fucking say it!” Ruda groaned.

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

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

“Right. Sorry.”

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

“This we will do,” Szith said firmly.

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

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

“We’ll help her,” Teal said quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sharidan,” Eleanora said sharply.

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

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

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

“All right, well—”

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

The silence was absolute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go in good health, your Grace.”

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

“Have you lost your mind?” Eleanora exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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12 – 59

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

A faint whisper of wind rose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

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


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

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

“Um,” he said carefully, “…okay.”

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

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

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

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

“Iris!” Maureen wailed, throwing herself forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haunui just nodded gravely.

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

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

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

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

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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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