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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 – 15

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“I realize it’s difficult to plan when walking into an unknown, but we need to have some kind of strategy ready for this,” Toby said, following Fross into the outskirts of the city. Puna Dara’s buildings did not grow smaller or more sparse as they climbed; flanked as it was by craggy mountains on all sides, the city had long since filled up all the available space, but the streets grew steadily steeper as they climbed toward the limits of its confines.

“I think Gabe had the right of it before,” Juniper replied. “This is a lot less delicate than our previous assignments. All we have to do is wipe out the Rust, and the problem is basically solved. Doing it in their hidey-hole outside town where nobody else will get hurt is just an added benefit.”

“First of all,” Teal said sharply, “mass slaughter is never an acceptable solution to anything. And second, we’re making a sweeping assumption if we go in there thinking we can just take them all out.”

“That, exactly,” Gabriel agreed. “Let’s keep in mind these guys vanquished an entire Silver Legion without apparently being there. I know we’re used to out-classing enemies in a straight-up fight, but like they say, there’s always a bigger fish. Seems like a bad idea to face everybody just blithely assuming we can take ’em.”

“What did happen to the Legion, exactly?” Toby asked. “I know it was a magical plague of some kind, but we seem to have missed out some important details…”

“That would have been an excellent subject to study in detail before embarking on a mission to engage these Rust in battle.”

“Gabriel,” Teal said tersely, “does your sword have to say something snotty at the most inopportune time?”

“I am designed for precision and analysis, not social interaction.”

“You seem plenty designed for snark,” Juniper observed.

“Snark is merely the byproduct of being constantly surrounded by lesser intellects.”

“Shut up, Ariel,” Gabriel said wearily. “We had enough of a hassle getting out of the Rock and convincing Ruda not to come, I think missing some details is forgivable. Anyway, the plague…”

“Its symptoms are weakness and lethargy to the point of making basic movement difficult,” Fross chimed at the head of the group. “It appears to have been designed to be non-lethal, though several Legionnaires did perish, as is to be expected of any large group subjected to such an effect. Whether this was meant to be compassionate or to saddle the Rust’s enemies with the burden of providing for several hundred incapacitated soldiers is a matter of debate. Its cause and nature have not been identified last I heard; they’ve been evacuated to Rodvenheim where the dwarves and the Salyrites have been working on this.”

“Bless you, Fross,” Toby said.

“Thank you!”

“So what are we going to do, if the plan’s not to go in wands blazing?” Juniper asked.

“First, diplomacy,” Toby said firmly. “In fact, this whole situation reminds me of a worthwhile lesson in negotiating I got from Trissiny before she left.”

“Oh, good, it’s almost like old times,” Teal muttered. “Usually she has to be here to turn everything into a fight.”

Gabriel and Juniper both looked at her sidelong with slight frowns. Up ahead, Toby turned around to give her a deeper one.

“One thing we could all stand to learn from Trissiny,” he said, “is to recognize when our own education has left us blind spots and work to correct them. That is what she’s off doing right now, and I respect her a lot for it. No, I wouldn’t generally take the approach she recommends for diplomacy, but what she did say that I’ve taken to heart is that it’s always better to negotiate from a position of strength.” He finally turned to watch ahead while they walked; the road continued on up into the mountains, but the end of Puna Dara’s structures was fast approaching. “Omnists do not think in those terms, as a rule. But the truth is the Rust must be quite confident in their power, if they have presented enough of a threat to keep Blackbeard from moving on them directly. It will look different if we, who represent more of a physical threat than the Fourth Silver Legion did, show up in their base which they thought was secret. Hopefully, we can get them to come to terms.”

“And what’s plan B?” Juniper asked.

Toby shook his head. “Well…still to talk. Even if they won’t meet us halfway, talking will buy us time to look around and hopefully learn. The problem is how little we know. Plan B may have to be concocted on the fly.”

Gabriel cleared his throat. “If they are using Elder God stuff, once we get a look at what they’ve got in there, I may be able to do something. Vestrel is familiar with the magic they used; she says a lot of it came from or through machines, which fits with the mechanical parts these people have. She can give directions…assuming whatever they’ve got in there is set up in a way she recognizes, of course.”

“How is Vestrel so familiar with this?” Teal asked, frowning.

“Valkyries are also daughters of Naiya,” Juniper said softly. “I’ve…looked into this. It seemed relevant, especially after how they terrorized Aspen. The Elder Gods banished them from reality, and Vidius saved them from being destroyed completely. That’s how he won Mother over to the Pantheon’s side. But yeah…Vestrel would have been around when the Elders were in power.”

“Now, that’s definitely something,” Toby said, turning his head again to look at Gabriel while he walked. “Not to put too much on her shoulders, Gabe, but does she know anything else about the Elder Gods’ magic that might help?”

Gabriel shook his head. “I asked. Without seeing what the Rust have in there, we can’t predict how much she’ll recognize. Anyway…most of them don’t think fondly of the Elders, as you can imagine. There was one valkyrie who remained interested in their stuff, and loved to study history and tell anybody who’d listen about it, but she was lost a long time ago.”

“Lost, how?” Juniper asked. “I thought I understood valkyries are basically untouchable in the chaos dimension.”

“I didn’t ask,” he said shortly. “Maybe drop it? Vestrel can hear us, June, and she’d have offered any information that would have been useful. If something happened to one of your sisters that could be described as ‘lost,’ you probably wouldn’t care to have it brought up, either.”

“Gabe,” Teal said quietly, “that is one of her sisters you’re talking about.”

His face immediately turned two shades darker. “Oh. Gods… Juniper, I’m sorry, I didn’t…”

The dryad shifted a little closer and reached out to take his hand, giving him a smile. “It’s okay, Gabe. Remember that time I broke your shoulder? I figure that buys you a whole bunch of thoughtless comments.”

“The way I heard it, thoughtless comments were what led to his shoulder being broken.”

“Shut up, Ariel!” Gabriel and Juniper exclaimed in unison.

“I keep forgetting about your invisible friends, Gabriel,” Teal added. “Can they maybe scout ahead, get a sense of what we’re walking into?”

“It’s actually just Vestrel here at the moment,” he said apologetically. “She’s the only one really assigned to accompany me; the others like to hang around because I’m interesting to them, but they have jobs, too. Right now, most of them are off dealing with something in Sifan.”

Toby came to a stop, turning to face him with a wary expression. “…do we need to know?”

Gabriel grimaced. “One of the orcish clans opened some kind of portal into Athan’Khar.”

“Ooh, ouch,” Juniper said, cringing.

“Yeah,” Gabriel nodded. “But apparently everything living in Athan’Khar is both technically undead and partially phased out of this dimension, so they are vulnerable to to valkyries. The girls are holding the line while the clan and a blue dragon seal that thing back up. They’re trying to get it done before the kitsune become involved. Kitsune, as you likely recall from Professor Ekoi, are only amused by their own jokes. Other people making a mess on their lawn…”

“Say no more,” Toby said, shaking his head and turning around again. “The valkyries are busy, got it. But as for Vestrel scouting ahead…?”

“She offered.” Gabriel wore a frown now. “Honestly…I asked her to hold back a bit. When we’re closer, she can keep an eye on our perimeter, but I’m wary of sending her alone into that. These guys probably are using Elder God stuff, which is also probably one of the very few things that could detect and even harm her.”

“Mm,” Teal said thoughtfully. “But if they did do something to Vestrel, wouldn’t that get Vidius involved? I mean, that’s one way to put a swift end to this.”

Now Gabriel stopped walking, rounding on her in shock. “Teal!”

She froze as well, suddenly looking stricken. “Oh. I didn’t mean… I mean, I was just…I didn’t…”

“Okay, whoah,” Toby said soothingly, coming back to them. “I’m sure Teal didn’t intend that the way it sounded. We all know very well she’s not at all heartless.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Gabriel said, giving Teal a smile. “The phrasing just, uh, took me by surprise.”

“Sorry,” Teal said, still cringing.

Fross chimed softly, fluttering over. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, Gabe, but intentionally or not, she had a point. Sending out scouts always involves a risk to them, but it’s important to do anyway. And if anything, Vestrel is less vulnerable than any other prospect, not to mention vastly stealthier.”

“Ah, yeah,” he said with a wince, looking up the road ahead, where the mountains rose up to blot out the night sky. “As for that…”

“While you kids were chattering about your feelings,” Ariel reported, “Vestrel delivered some succinct and insightful commentary about being lectured on how to do her job by twenty-year-olds, and departed to scout the Rust’s base.”

“Right,” Gabriel said irritably, grasping her hilt. “So, that’s that done, I guess. We may not want to be in a hurry, here. If we give her time to look around and come back, we’ll be better off.”

“Incoming,” Teal said, looking back down the road toward the city. Everyone turned to follow her gaze.

Brother Ermon did not seem out of breath, despite having run what must have been a long way. He slowed as he approached, coming to a stop just a few yards distant, and bowed, only a faint sheen of sweat on his forehead betraying his exertion.

“I’m glad I caught up with you,” the Huntsman said. “Tracking in the city is never easy, but the royal seneschal had a good idea which route you had taken.”

“Evening, Brother Ermon,” Toby said, nodding. “Has something happened?”

“I fear so,” Ermon said gravely. “I’ve come to join your hunt, if I am welcome.”

They exchanged a few glances.

“It isn’t that you’re not,” Teal said carefully, “but each of us are…well, extremely durable, in our own ways. We are walking into a confrontation with people whose power we don’t understand, and hoping we can end this with just words. But…”

“I imagine it was very difficult to persuade Princess Zaruda to remain in safety at the Rock,” Ermon replied, with a faint crinkling at his eyes hinting at a smile his beard otherwise hid.

“Gods, you have no idea,” Juniper muttered.

“And I imagine, further, that what persuaded her was the awareness of her duty, and importance to her people,” the Huntsman continued, his gaze growing serious again. “It is duty that brings me here. As Mr. Caine and Juniper told us, Brother Arlund followed the Rust cultist you met at the Omnist temple, seeking to find their base. As of my departure from the Rock less than an hour ago, he has not returned.”

Toby covered his mouth with a hand, eyes widening. “Oh, my… I didn’t even think. Ermon, I cannot apologize enough—”

“Please.” The Huntsman held up a hand. “Arlund is a brother Huntsman and as such I will act to aid him as best I possibly can, now that I see the need. That does not mean I’m unaware of his…personality. I hardly expect anyone else in this city to make such an effort.”

“I appreciate that, but it was still inexcusable,” Toby said, his expression truly haunted. “At the very least I should have remembered.”

“We both should have,” Juniper agreed. “I think we owe Arlund a big apology. And that’s after getting him out of there.”

Toby drew in a deep, calming breath. “Omnu send that we still have that option.”

“Let’s not jump to conclusions, though,” Gabriel warned. “He might not have come back because he’s still following that guy around who knows where. Or anything else.”

“The man just had his arm torn off,” Ermon said grimly. “A wounded animal returns to its den. Arlund may, indeed, still be studying the area rather than captured, but you are right, Mr. Arquin; it is best, at this stage, to assume nothing. I foresee your objections,” he added. “Yes, I understand the danger. These Rust neutralized a Legion, I have been briefed. Duty demands my presence. Death and suffering are facts of life, and are not to be feared. What a man should fear is that his pain or his death may be without purpose. The best way to ward off that fate is never to shrink from duty.”

“Well put,” Teal said. “If you’re sure, I don’t think we can turn afford to down an ally.”

“On the contrary. You do, of course, have the option of forbidding him to help,” Ariel pointed out, “especially as this effectively means you’re going to have to watch out for him in addition to dealing with the Rust.”

“Ariel,” Gabriel said with barely-restrained aggravation, “be silent. Huntsmen of Shaath are the most expert trackers and marksmen in the world, and you are not daft enough to fail to see the utility in his presence. Stop being an ass!”

“I see utility chiefly in magic, for the record, but if you say so.”

“You flatter me,” Ermon said, visibly amused. “If I may assist in scouting the enemy’s den before we approach, please put me to work.”

“Ah, well, actually,” Toby replied, “funny you mention scouting. We were only just—”

He broke off as Juniper abruptly spun to face the city, shifting her feet to a ready stance. She flexed her fingers, shifting her head to study the buildings behind them carefully.

“What is it?” Teal asked in alarm.

“It’s…nothing, I guess.” Slowly, the dryad straightened up, still wearing a puzzled frown. “I must have imagined…”

“June, I have never seen you go on point like that without a good reason,” Gabe said.

“Not to mention that you don’t have the imagination to concoct flights of fancy.”

“Ariel, I am going to throw you in the harbor!” he exclaimed.

“No, you aren’t. The dryad has very keen senses, and I stand by my previous observation. If she sensed something, she sensed something.”

“Instinct should not be allowed to make your decisions for you,” Ermon added, “but it should never be disregarded.”

Juniper shook her head, still peering at the city behind them. “It’s…there is nothing there, I’m certain of it now. I reached through the attunement as well, and…nothing. But for just a moment… I thought I smelled dryads.”

This time, the look which bounced between the rest of them was wary.

“All right,” Toby said at last. “I agree…that is probably not nothing. If there’s one thing I’d expect you to pick up on, June, it’s that. But if you can’t sense them clearly, it may not have been what it seemed.”

“Yeah, I can’t imagine there’s another dryad in Puna Dara,” Teal added. “They tend to make a stir. Which raises the tricky question of what would feel like one to a real dryad.”

“Vestrel?” Toby suggested.

Gabriel shook his head. “We know from long experience Juniper can’t perceive them directly, and the last time I saw a dryad who could see valkyries, they threw her into a panic. Okay, how about this. We’d best keep it in mind, but with nothing more to go on, I think we’d better get back to the mission at hand. When we come back, tomorrow we’ll get in touch with the local Thieves’ Guild, since Locke said they’re such rumor-mongers, and see if they’ve heard anything about a cannibal serial killer or something like that in Puna Dara. For now…”

“For now,” Juniper said slowly, with a grudging nod, “you’re right. Focus on the now. I think that’s a good plan, Gabe. C’mon, let’s get this done as quick as possible. I’ve got a feeling it’s not going to be an easy night.”

She finally turned her back on the city and started walking again, the others falling into step alongside. They had this last stretch of street to themselves; there were still structures lining it, but no one else was out at this hour, and only a few had lights in their windows. There were, this far out, no street lamps. Only the darkness of the trail up the mountain loomed ahead of them.


Milanda lay flat against the rooftop, counting breaths and staring up at the stars without seeing them. After waiting two full minutes, she very carefully wiggled forward to the edge of the roof, and craned her neck to peek over it sidelong, not sticking the top of her head up. Just the way Lord Vex had taught her, and despite the discomfort, she well understood the utility of the maneuver.

The students from Last Rock, now with that Huntsman in tow, were once again on the move. With her heightened senses, a gift of her elevation by the dryads, she could still make them out, but they had moved beyond the glow of the city, climbing the old trail that led up to the mines.

She rolled over and wriggled forward to watch them from a slightly more comfortable position. “Walker… I’ve never heard about Hands of the Emperor encountering dryads in the wild. They’re usually sent to deal with sensitive, mostly human threats, in settled territory. How probable is it that a dryad could sense me because of my…connection?”

“That’s impossible to say for sure, for the very reason you just stated,” Walker’s voice replied in her ear. “Your situation isn’t exactly that of the other Hands, either, and the only dryads you’ve met since the change were the ones who did it to you. I’ll ask the girls next chance I get, but I wouldn’t count on them being able to say.”

Milanda nodded, mostly to herself as Walker of course couldn’t see the gesture. “I wonder whether it might just be Juniper.”

There came a short silence before the reply. “According to the Empire’s notes, Juniper is the youngest dryad. She’s also the most acclimated to human society apart from Ash, who as you mentioned recently is actually associated with Imperial Intelligence. Also, during the periods when classes are out at ULR, she goes to study druidism with a tribe of wood elves. Based on that alone, I think it’s quite likely she can perceive things her sisters may not.”

“Lovely,” Milanda grumbled, finally rising to her knees. “As if following them around in the dark wasn’t going to be enough of a challenge…”

“Milanda, this is getting ridiculous. Those kids are here, you don’t really have any means of getting them un-involved. That Huntsmen, likewise. You have days at most before some of the Avenists the High Commander sent reach Puna Dara, and you know they’ll go to the Rock and link up with them as well. Eserites are already present, and likely the source of whatever lead the students are following. It is worse than nonsensical for you to be running around trying to do this yourself while so much talent is being moved into place. Even if you don’t accidentally get yourself killed by one of these should-be allies, you’re going to mess up their work just as they’re interfering with yours. The only people who profit from this standoffishness are the Rust.”

“And I know the Emperor’s political concerns don’t matter to you,” Milanda replied quietly, adding a soft grunt as she landed lightly in an alley, having dropped the three stories straight to the ground. “But they matter to me. It’s not that I don’t see the sense in what you say, and I’ll probably end up offering them my help. I’ll probably have to, just to keep from creating a worst-case scenario like you just described. But not until all other options are exhausted.” She slipped past the last of the buildings, a little bit distant from the road, and stopped to finish conversing; once she started actually tracking the students and their Huntsman friend through the dark, it would have to be in silence. “If nothing else, Blackbeard doesn’t want Imperial help, and as soon as he knows I’m Imperial help, he’ll forbid me to get involved. Anything I do after that point will have diplomatic repercussions.”

There was another silence, and Milanda had just taken a step into the darkness when Walker spoke again. “If I’m not mistaken, this Left Hand of the Emperor business hasn’t been announced. Right?”

“Right,” Milanda said slowly, frowning into the night. “The idea is not to stifle it, but to let rumors grow. Hands are already boogeymen to an extent; with something even more—”

“Yes, yes,” Walker interrupted impatiently. “And every previous Hand of the Emperor has been a man, correct? So why would you need to tell anybody who you are, or who you represent?”

“A mysterious woman in black with awesome physical prowess will arouse questions,” Milanda said thoughtfully. “Especially one who may or may not smell like dryads.”

“Sure, but where are they going to get answers? Come on, you are acting in the capacity of a spy here, Milanda. Why was announcing yourself ever part of your plans?”

“Huh,” she grunted. In hindsight, it did seem rather self-evident…

Walker’s tone took on a heavy hint of irritating smugness. “And to think, you complain about my speeches. How ever did you get along without me to point out obvious facts for you?”

“Well,” she drawled, “shortly before I met you, my most important consideration was how much Sharidan liked it when I used my—”

“All right, enough, stop!”

“You know, on his—”

“Please! I give already!”

Grinning, Milanda raised the mask dangling from her neck to cover the lower half of her face, adjusted her hood, and set out into the night.

 

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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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3 – 1

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Tricks would have felt more comfortable in one of his disguises. More than keeping in practice, more than having fun with his subordinates or even making a constant effort to keep them sharp, it was a way for him to defray the stress of his position, drawing on another face, another identity. He’d never discussed this with anyone, though he suspected Style had an inkling. She was oddly perceptive at times, for being so bullheaded.

But this business required his own original face as the head of the Guild, and so he waited in the office just off the training pit, wearing a plain, unprepossessing suit, lounging in the room’s one padded chair.

Fortunately, he didn’t have long to wait. The office door opened and Style entered, a quietly seething Jeremiah Shook on her heels. Despite his glower, he was self-possessed enough to shut the door behind them while Style paced down the carpeted center of the room, past the rows of accountants’ desks, to come stand behind Trick’s shoulder.

“Thumper!” he said genially, beckoning the man forward. “Good to see you back safely.”

“Boss,” Thumper replied, making an effort to get his expression under control. Well, the man had due cause to be upset. None of that, as far as Tricks knew, was directed at him. Still, on top of the failure of his job in Last Rock, it was always humiliating, having to be extracted from the clutches of the law by the Guild’s attorneys. At least they’d gotten to Shook before he’d been handed over to Avenists. The cults of Avei and Eserion had a…complicated relationship.

“First of all,” Tricks said, “I want to reassure you up front that you’re not being called down on the carpet. What happened in Last Rock was patently not your fault. You were dealing with a foe extremely well-positioned and practiced at outmaneuvering opponents.”

“We should deal with that asshole McGraw,” Thumper all but snarled, his self-control fraying. “Our rep’s on the line. We can’t have people thinking they can spit in the Guild’s face and walk away.”

“All in good time,” Tricks said mildly. “He’s not the foe I was speaking of, however. One of our people in Puna Dara spotted McGraw less than a week after the events in question.”

“Doing what?” Thumper demanded.

Tricks grinned, well aware that it was an unpleasant expression. “Having dinner,” he said, “with Principia Locke. Apparently they went upstairs together afterward. Our agent heard enough of their conversation to confirm that Prin was the individual who hired McGraw to interfere in your operation.”

For a moment, Thumper just stared at him, completely nonplussed. Then his eyes tracked to one side, then the other. Tricks could almost see him making connections, considering events in light of this new information. Slowly, his posture stiffened until the man was practically vibrating. Fists clenched at his sides, he failed to maintain the mask of calm, his face twisting with rage.

“That little. Fucking. Whore.”

“Here’s the thing,” Tricks went on, feigning a casual air but watching Thumper carefully. The man was clearly on the verge of a complete blowup; it would be preferable if Style didn’t have to beat him compliant. “That operation of hers? Brilliant. One of the more elegant cons I’ve seen, and that is saying something. If she’d just had you roughed up or killed, the Guild would have sent along another, more dangerous agent, escalating the stakes and the risk. No, she had to generate complete chaos, turn the whole mission into such a complete and utter tits-up-in-the-rhubarb debacle that we have no choice but to withdraw all our attentions from the town. That succeeded brilliantly. Any new arrivals in Last Rock for the next little while are going to be examined very carefully, both by the local law and likely by Tellwyrn, which we risk the identity of any of our people we send back in there. And that leaves me in an awkward position. If it were anything simpler—going to the law, hiring an outside thug to take out a Guildmate—you know exactly what we’d do.”

“Drag her ass back here and beat it purple,” Shook snarled.

“For starters,” Tricks said with a faint grin. “But the point of that is to demonstrate to all the the Guild is still in control, that we’re not to be made fools of. In this case… Well, Thumper, we’ve been made right fools of, and no mistake. Keys made you and I look like complete idiots. Only reason she hasn’t managed to make a mockery of the Guild itself is nobody outside this room knows the extent of what she pulled. And it’s going to stay that way. You keep your mouth shut about this business, understand?”

Thumper forgot himself so far as to take a step forward, raising both fists. “You’re actually going to let the little cunt get away with—”

“Settle,” Style said quietly. Thumper stopped, collected himself, and nodded sharply, evidently not trusting himself to speak.

Style yelled, cursed and generally blustered as a matter of course, but as her enforcers quickly learned, when she whispered, people tended to die.

“So,” Tricks continued, “I’m giving you a little time off from your duties. It’s going in the records as a suspension related to a recent failed job. Consider it a well-earned vacation.”

Shook physically twitched as though struck. “You said,” he replied, clinging to a frayed thread of restraint, “I wasn’t to be punished.”

“You’re not,” Tricks said gently. “It’s like this, Thumper. I obviously cannot let Keys get away with turning on the Guild like this, and I cannot afford to spend any more resources going after her without further undercutting our credibility. If it comes down to it, I’ll suck it up and chase her down with whatever we’ve got, but first, I’m going to hope for her to magically find herself back here under completely other circumstances so I can straighten her out and make it look like we were all of us in full control the whole time.”

Thumper’s sneer eloquently said what he thought of that. “And she’ll come back here because…?”

“Hypothetically speaking,” Tricks said, “if an off-duty member of the Guild were to find and bring Keys here… Well, that person would gain quite a bit of rep for exposing and collaring a traitor when they weren’t even supposed to be at work. Naturally, if there were any recent blemishes in such a person’s record, they’d be quite overshadowed. Hell, I could probably see my way to removing such black marks entirely.”

Slowly, visibly, Thumper grew calmer as understanding dawned on him. His face didn’t quite relax completely, but there appeared something in his eyes that hinted at a very cruel sort of smile. “I see.”

Tricks grinned. “Enjoy your vacation.”

“You got it, Boss,” Thumper said, nodding first to him and then to Style, then turned to go.

Tricks let him get the door open and start to step out. “Oh, and Thumper.”

He turned back to look warily at his two superiors. “Boss?”

“In this hypothetical scenario, anybody bringing Keys back here had better be mindful of the condition she’s in. I can’t make an example of a corpse.”

“In this hypothetical scenario,” Thumper replied, “I would know exactly how to teach an uppity bitch some humility.” He nodded to them again, stepped out, and shut the door behind him.

Just like that, Tricks let the mask fall, slumping down in his chair and covering his eyes with a hand. “Ugh…what an absolute cock-up. I still can hardly believe all this, Style. Principia’s disrespectful and ornery, but she’s always been faithful to the Big Guy. I just…didn’t see this coming. Before the end of this, I’ve really gotta find out what it is she wants so badly in Last Rock that she’s willing to cross the Guild to get it.”

“This is why I wish you’d let me deal with my enforcers directly,” she replied. “Before sending Thumper off, I’d rather have spent some time finding out what he did to set her off that way. Yeah, I know my man. You can bet he did something. People don’t just up and turn on their cult on a fucking whim.”

He twisted around and leaned his head back to look up at her. “Do you think he tried to hand her off to the Wreath or something? To Tellwyrn?”

Style shook her head slowly, her expression troubled. “No…not that. Shook’s stuffed to the skull with rage and he’s got bad habits around women… Sweet tried to teach him some self-control, and ended up just teaching him to repress, which has not been helpful. But the Guild is his whole life. Even more than Prin, I can’t see him betraying a member to our enemies.”

“Then it doesn’t matter what he did, it matters what she did about it,” Tricks said firmly. “I will not have treason, Style. It’s not to be tolerated. Anything else we can deal with, work around, forgive if need be. Anybody who turns on the Guild is an enemy, simple as that.”

She drew in a deep breath and blew it out all at once. “You really think Thumper has a chance of collaring Prin in the wild? He’s a kneecapper; she’s a conwoman, and a damn good one. She’s already manipulated the hell out of him once.”

“Of course not. He’ll flush her out, though. Principia settled down in some nest with her defenses up is something I don’t fancy trying to root out. Principia fleeing across the countryside with that asshole at her heels… Well, if we play this right she might still be persuaded to come home voluntarily. After all, Thumper’s not working on my orders here, now is he?”

Style shook her head. “Well, let’s just hope this works out better than your last clever idea.”


 

Emperor Sharidan preferred a simple breakfast. When he had first ascended to the Silver Throne, moving into the harem wing and to a staff of servants who didn’t yet know his ways, he’d been greeted in the morning by a veritable feast, enough to feed a small village, from which he was expected to graze lightly, letting the rest go to waste. Over a dozen servants were posted about the room, ready to dash forth and pander to his merest whim.

He had quickly made his opinions about this known.

Now, breakfast in the Imperial harem was a small, almost cozy affair. He sat at a little round table in the parlor outside his bedroom, only four other people present, none of them servants. Milanda Darnassy, the young lady with whom he’d spent the night, was serving as hostess, pouring tea for those present. Sharidan never slept alone, and this duty always fell to his consort of the evening—which, these days, was more likely than not to be Milanda. In truth, he’d have welcomed her to sit down at the table, and while the other girls usually did, she preferred to keep a respectful distance from the rest of his company. This consisted of his wife, Eleanora, and sometimes a minister of some department or another called to deliver reports. Having breakfast with the Emperor was considered not so much an honor as an occasional duty. Today it was Lord Quentin Vex, who was in the process of running down a list of events he deemed important to bring to the Emperor’s attention, all but ignoring his pastry and braised swordfish.

Vex was more Eleanora’s creature than Sharidan’s, to be truthful, but she made a point of never receiving reports from the man except in his presence. The nature of their partnership was that she handled many of the more aggressive aspects of the Throne’s duties, chiefly espionage and military matters, but she was insistent that Sharidan be kept fully in the loop.

The fourth person in the room, and the reason no guards were present, was a black-coated Hand of the Emperor. Barring another attack by a deity, guards would have been quite superfluous.

“Nothing will come of it, as usual,” Vex was saying. “The orcs are always rattling sabers at us, but even if they did manage to land a raiding party on Tiraan soil they’d be obliterated by our forces. Even that is practically impossible; they’d have to get through the Tidestriders or the Punaji first.”

“We know this very well, Quentin,” Eleanora said with a hint of reproof. “The question was how this new round of saber-rattling will affect our relationship with the kingdom of Sifan.”

“Your pardon, Majesty, but the Sifanese are as aware of the situation as we. If any orcs actually launched an attack from their shores, it would be considered an act of war by them. They’ll never allow it, and the orcs know this very well. It’s all just talk.

“Nonetheless,” said Sharidan, “talk is the first step in every kind of interaction between nations, and there are things far short of war that could more than merely inconvenience us. I think it’s time to arrange a state visit to Sifan. With gifts suitable to express the great esteem in which we hold them.”

“Conveyed by warships,” Eleanora added, smiling at him. “The carrot and the stick.”

“Just so.” He returned her grin. “We have no objection to the Sifanese allowing orcs to dwell in their lands. It doesn’t hurt to remind them, now and again, why they don’t want us to develop objections.”

“Very good, your Majesty,” Vex said with an approving nod. “Then, there are only a couple more domestic issues, related to each other. I have…been in touch with Professor Tellwyrn regarding the Elilial matter.”

There was a moment of stillness at the table. Even the Hand tore his gaze from his perpetual survey of the room’s entrances to look over at them. This was a subject the Emperor did not prefer to discuss.

“Define ‘in touch,’” Eleanora ordered, her voice cold.

“I took the liberty of notifying her of Elilial’s re-entry to this plane, and the fact that she has worked out a way of doing so without tripping the alarms thought to be inherent in opening hellgates.”

“And you did this…why?” the Empress asked quietly. Vex appeared unruffled by her razor stare. He was one of the few who could manage it.

“With respect, your Majesty, managing Tellwyrn is something of an art form. I have been reviewing my predecessors’ notes on her, and the point that jumped repeatedly out at me is that she is usually reasonable and amenable to working with others, even with enemies, if treated with respect. If she feels someone is trying to manipulate her, well… At that point, people begin to vanish and things start exploding. I’ve not come out and said I’m using her to run interference with Elilial, nor will I, but it seems she is inclined to do that anyway, and I’d rather she not get the impression I’m doing anything at her expense.”

“That woman is unreliability given flesh,” Eleanora said with a sneer, but let the matter drop, turning back to her fish. Sharidan held his tongue. He had not asked about the details of Eleanora’s brush with Arachne Tellwyrn, as it had obviously happened before they had met, and hoped he would never have to. His wife’s dislike of the elf was clearly personal.

“In any case,” Vex went on smoothly, “I received, finally, a reply from the Professor. It read, in its entirety: ‘I’ll talk to her.’ Hopefully she will extend the same courtesy in appraising me of the broad strokes of that conversation, if or when it happens.”

“Can she actually do that?” Sharidan asked with interest. He told himself the interest was purely tactical, that he had no hope or desire of ever having another conversation with the woman he’d known as Lilian Riaje. He told himself this every time Elilial came up, in the hope that he would eventually start to believe it.

“That is impossible to know,” Vex said with an eloquent shrug. “I would say that if anyone can, though, it’s Tellwyrn. She is possibly the world’s leading expert on getting audiences with deities. That was the main thrust of what she’s done with her life since she appeared on the scene three thousand years ago. Whatever she wants with the gods, she’s managed to get a personal audience with every single one known, then vanished for thirty years, then showed up again to found that University of hers. I rather suspect this will be just like old times for her.”

“Don’t put us in a position where we must rely on her,” Eleanora said sharply.

“Your pardon, Majesty, but I would never do that,” he said politely. “I will, however, make use of every tool that presents itself. The other thing is tangentally connected. Last week, a Black Wreath cell was uprooted and obliterated in the village of Hamlet in Calderaan Province.”

Eleanora narrowed her eyes. “I thought the cell in that village was already wiped out. By Tellwyrn.”

“Yes, well…it would appear she missed a spot. The fascinating thing is that this was done by four Bishops of the Universal Church, in civilian clothes, who did not identify themselves as such to the locals, though they did not use assumed names. The Imperial Marshal in residence was under the impression they were there on the business of the Throne.”

The Empress’s eyes were onyx slits. “Which four?”

“Basra Syrinx—” This brought a snort from Eleanora, which he ignored. “—Andros Varanus, Branwen Snowe…and Antonio Darling.”

The Hand looked over at them sharply. Vex met his eyes and nodded. This particular Hand was the one who also sat on the security council, of which Vex and Darling were members.

“Isn’t that absolutely fascinating,” Sharidan mused, while Eleanora glared holes in the far wall. “It fairly well has to be Church business, does it not? Those are four deities whose followers tend to try to strangle each other when they come into contact.”

“Perhaps the time has come to have another conversation with dear Antonio,” Eleanora suggested grimly.

“With respect, your Majesty,” said Vex, “my recommendation at this point is to leave him alone and watch what he does. He is, after all, doing more or less what you told him to.”

“While misrepresenting himself as an agent of the Throne!”

“He is an agent of the Throne, even if he wasn’t officially on Imperial business. Consider that the man is balancing loyalties to the Throne, the Church, and the Thieves’ Guild; several of those loyalties are inherently contradictory. I think it would be a mistake to call him down before we learn which of them truly has his heart. If, indeed, any of them do. He’s the kind of man who juggles impossibly complex games for incalculable stakes because anything less would bore him. I am, however,” he added, “placing his home under surveillance over a different matter.”

“Oh?” Eleanora raised an eyebrow.

“It seems Bishop Darling has recently hired two housemaids.”

Sharidan knew Vex well enough to assume that this apparent non sequitur was going somewhere relevant. “I thought I remembered that Darling had a Butler?”

“He does,” Vex nodded.

“And his home,” Eleanora said slowly, “is big enough to need additional servants?”

“It is not, your Majesty. The girls in question are both elves. They are both former prostitutes at the establishment whose proprietress was recently murdered in the headhunter attack.”

He paused, giving that a moment to sink in.

“Go on,” Eleanora said.

“The perpetrator of that homicide was caught and dealt with—or so we assume, as no further incidents have occurred, and it’s not in the nature of headhunters to lie low. The thing that catches my attention about this chain of events was how instrumental Darling’s help was in identifying and apprehending the elf responsible. Who, as an interesting point, was a member of the Thieves’ Guild. It appears that these two elves are now apprenticing at the Guild. Directly under Darling himself.”

“You surely don’t think one of those elves is a headhunter,” Sharidan said slowly.

“There are innumerable other explanations which are more likely,” Vex replied, nodding. “Elves are quick, agile and deft; they make fantastic thieves, and yet are rarely inclined to become so. I can well imagine Darling snapping them up as apprentices. Then, too, he would hardly be the first wealthy man to arrange for a couple of exotic prostitutes to be exceedingly grateful to him. To look at it from another view, headhunters are solitary creatures and rarely evince an excess of self-control; the fact that there are two of these girls suggests neither is one. It is unlikely both would still be alive in that instance.”

“But?” Eleanora prompted.

“But.” He nodded to her. “If there were anyone ambitious enough and reckless enough to think he could keep a headhunter under control… Well, I have no trouble imagining Darling trying to play that game. It’s enough of a possibility, however remote, to justify a few basic precautions. Surveillance, and notifying you—nothing further at this point, but I’m sure I need not tell your Majesties that a headhunter loose in the city is an absolutely unacceptable outcome.”

“Is it possible that he could manage to control a headhunter?” Sharidan mused. “Or two…or more? Think what someone could do with an entire force of those things.”

Lord Vex cleared his throat. “I…do not presume to speak toward what is magically possible, your Majesty. But what you suggest… It is in the category of every reclusive mage who sits in a tower ranting about how he’ll show everyone who mocked him. We simply can’t afford to take all such threats seriously. An army of headhunters under intelligent control is… It’s like a spell to drop the moon on one’s enemies. The odds of such a thing being achieved are not even worth calculating, and if it were somehow to happen, well… There is simply not much that could be done about it.”

Sharidan turned to regard the Hand, who was looking at him steadily. What the two of them knew that no one else in the room did—even Eleanora—was that Vex had also just neatly described the process by which Hands of the Emperor were created.

“The possibility, as you say, is enough,” he said to Vex, and then to the Hand, “begin preparing countermeasures.”

The Hand nodded, a deep gesture that verged on a bow.

Eleanora gave him a look; he gave her one back, and she quirked an eyebrow but turned back to Vex, letting it go. For all that their marriage was a sham as marriages went, the two of them were closer than he had once imagined he might ever be with another human being. The amount of trust between them was enough to permit his occasionally taking actions she did not understand, even to do so without explaining them to her, despite her suspicious nature. He accepted the same from her in turn. Neither had ever given the other cause to regret it.

Vex seemed quite unperturbed at being tacitly contradicted, but then, he rarely seemed perturbed by much. “That settled, then, nothing that remains is a significant interest to the Throne, in my opinion. There are a few minor intrigues among several of the Houses which you may wish to keep abreast of going forward. House Madouri has effectively withdrawn from the city…”


 

The little attic apartment had never been much of a home. She’d only spent three years there, which in an elf’s lifespan was hardly enough time to make unpacking worthwhile—not that she’d ever owned enough to fill the space anyway. Even so, there was something sad and hollow about the sight of the long room cleaned up and emptied of the touches that had made it hers.

The bed, small table and single ladderback chair had come with the space—“furnished,” indeed. Her rug, bed linens and quilt, and the thin little cushion on her chair had all been disposed of. The meager rest of her possessions were on her person in her bag of holding; they really amounted to little but clothes, toiletries and her enchanting supplies. All that was left out was a small disc of crystal, which currently sat in the middle of the floor, in the center of a diagram scrawled on the hardwood in enchantment-grade chalk.

Projected above it was a translucent model of Clarke Tower, glowing a dim blue that illuminated the room better than the late afternoon sun; that window was in the worst possible position for light. The model flickered occasionally, usually accompanied by a tiny spark from the chalk below as some of it burned out. It had grown progressively dimmer the whole time she’d been watching, though even still, she could clearly see the tiny golden eagle, the only object picked out inside the tower. It had been moving around all afternoon, since it had re-entered the tower—since Trissiny had come home from class. Now, it stayed relatively stationary in the upper room.

Principia sat on the uncovered mattress, her back against the wall, knees drawn up and arms wrapped around them, staring at the glowing little tower. She sat thus, unmoving, as the last of the light faded outside, true night fell and the only thing brightening the room was her magical model. Not until the little eagle had remained completely still for nearly an hour did she stir.

It was the work of a moment to scrub out the diagram, causing the tower to vanish and true dark to fall over the room. It would have been dark to a human, anyway; her eyes had no trouble picking out the details of the attic. She picked up the crystal disc and tucked it into a pocket, then turned without a backward glance and left her room for the last time, leaving behind nothing but a smudge of spent magical chalk on the floor.


 

Lianwe clawed at her sheets, having long since given up on sleep. It was bad tonight.

Mostly the spirits let her be. She could always hear them—except it was more feeling than hearing, for all that she clearly perceived the words—but usually in the distant background, not distracting her. They had at least that much pragmatism, that they avoided disrupting her actions or putting them all in danger. If they were going to act up, it would be when all was quiet, when she was trying to rest. It had rarely been this bad before. But then, she had rarely gone this far without indulging them.

They were a torrent, a cacophony, yet she clearly heard each voice. Some screaming incoherently, some screaming for vengeance, for blood. Insistent voices urged her to hunt, to glory in the chase, the kill. Others whispered advice—one even was trying to calm her. She appreciated the thought, at least.

It wasn’t the voices that bothered her, disturbing as they were. Much as it seemed such things might be enough to drive one mad, something about the transition she had taken on when she’d embraced the spirits had left her able to cope. No, the problem was that one of them—possibly more, she couldn’t tell—had grabbed at the powers, and she clenched and trembled with the effort of controlling them.

She was no mage, no warlock, witch or priest to have picked a magical path in life and learned a deep control and understanding of it. She knew what the powers did intuitively, but it was different each time they came. They always provided what she needed in a given situation. Or what the spirits thought she needed, anyway. She did not need what they were trying to do now.

Infernal spells to rip open portals in reality and slide through the streets of the city. Elemental fireballs. Fae magic to pull thorny vines from the ground and ensnare prey. Lightning, ice… Pain. Lianwe clung to her control.

So intent was she on this that she didn’t even hear Shinaue rising from her own bed on the other side of their small room, didn’t notice her until the other elf climbed into her own bed and wrapped her arms around her. Soft murmurs, gentle hands stroking her hair. Just like that, the spirits began to calm, the powers sliding back into the void from which they sprang. Something in them responded to the spirits in the other woman. They had gone to the dark place together, come out together. The things inside them knew each other. In some ways, they were all one.

Lianwe relaxed, burying her face in Shinaue’s neck gratefully. Soon enough, she knew, it would be the other who risked a loss of control, and it would be she who offered relief. Eventually, if they didn’t give in to what the spirits demanded, no relief would be enough.

It wouldn’t come to that point, though. They would kill before then. Once had been enough to teach them never to let it come to that.

But this time… Things were different now. This time, they had purpose. Prey who deserved, needed to die. This time, Sweet would tell them who to kill.

As she drifted to sleep, Lianwe wondered if it was wisdom or cowardice, letting him make that decision for them. Before the darkness drifted over her, she decided it did not matter.

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