Tag Archives: Ox

12 – 43

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Midmorning was a fairly busy time in Last Rock, so there were enough onlookers in the square to form a decent-sized crowd when the Rail caravan eased to a halt next to the platform. The town wasn’t a scheduled stop, so any Rail traffic was specially chartered—which meant the arrival of a caravan always heralded something interesting about to happen. It was fortunate that no one had had any forewarning, or most of the town would have shown up to gawk.

The caravan’s doors hissed open in unison, and showing no sign of the disorientation Rail travelers usually did, armed drow streamed out onto the platform. There were a few muted outcries from the bystanders, and a couple even reached for wands, but luckily everyone present had the sense not to act in rash haste.

The soldiers wore silk tunics under armor of scaled lizard-hide and plates that seemed formed of some kind of chitin, all of it close-fitting and dyed shades of red and green so dark that only under the prairie sun did they show any color to speak of; at night they would have simply looked black to human eyes. Each soldier carried a saber sheathed at the waist, and wore a wide-brimmed hat to shield their eyes from the sunlight. They took up positions clearly delineating a space adjacent to the parked caravan and stood at attention, putting their hands nowhere near their weapons and not acknowledging the townspeople.

A second wave disembarked, this consisting of four women in robes of the same red and green, these adorned with light gray sashes from the right shoulder to left hip, affixed by silver pins in the shape of Themynra’s balance scale emblem. Their robes had attached hoods to shield their eyes rather than hats. Showing no more sign of discomfiture from the ride than the troops had, the priestesses arranged themselves in an inner ring, with somewhat more casual postures, focusing their attention on the caravan rather than the growing crowd of locals.

Finally, two women emerged from the last compartment.

One wore robes with embroidery in House Awarrion colors, with a saber hanging at her waist—not a Narisian model, but one with a gold crosshilt and ivory handle—and a Punaji-style hat protecting her face, complete with colorful feathers. She stepped forward, glanced quickly around the square, then turned and bowed to the last person to disembark.

Matriarch Ashaele was dressed simply, in a plain robe of green with red trim. She had no head covering at all, leaving her snowy hair practically luminous in the sun. Even her eyes were not narrowed against the glare of the light.

It had been a swift and efficient discharge of personnel, but by the time it was over, an official response had already manifested—having been nearby anyway, as luck would have it. Sheriff Sanders approached slowly, glancing about with a faint frown but taking his cue from the Narisian troops to the extent of keeping his hand well away from his holstered wand.

“Excuse me,” he began.

The woman with the hat intercepted him, bowing politely. “Good morning—you are the Sheriff, I presume?”

“Sam Sanders, at your service,” he replied, seemingly relieved to have somebody to talk to, and doffed his hat respectfully.

“It is a pleasure. I am Nahil nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion. We apologize for descending upon your town so abruptly, and will of course do our utmost to minimize the impact of our presence. My mother has business with the University, but while she attends to that, perhaps you could help me arrange facilities for our stay?”

Nahil deftly took him by the arm, turning and steering him back toward the town. At her movement, one of the priestesses followed, and four soldiers slipped out of formation to arrange themselves around her and the Sheriff in a clear honor guard, the rest of the squad neatly rearranging themselves surrounding their matriarch.

“Uh, sure, I’d be glad to help,” Sanders said a little uncertainly as he was skillfully handled, turning to glance back over his shoulder at the Rail platform. “Um, exactly how long are you gonna be in town? There ain’t a whole lot o’ room…”

“For the time being, we must…what is that expression? Play it by ear. I am very eager to speak with more plains dwellers, Sheriff; my Tanglish is decent, I believe, but there is such poetry in the prairie dialect! Tell me, what exactly is a ‘pig in a poke?’”

The rest of the drow started forward, moving in perfect sync with Ashaele as she made a beeline for the mountain—a path which would inevitably take them right through the center of the town.

In the shadows of the porch in front of the Ale & Wenches, one man started to step out into the sunlight, and was suddenly halted by a huge hand upon his shoulder.

“Wilson,” Ox rumbled, “don’t you even damn well think about it.”

“I wasn’t thinkin’ about nothin’!” Wilson protested with an air of wounded innocence.

“That’s pretty much the whole problem with your entire life. You stay the hell away from exotic guests ’till we figure out if they’re bringin’ commerce or trouble, an’ maybe even then. Clear?”

“You’re not the boss o’ me, Ox Whipporwill!”

“That’s the plain truth, an’ a point for which I’m downright grateful.” Ox’s bushy mustache shifted, the only sign on his face of a smile which did not touch his eyes. “How’s about we make sure it stays that way? By you not doin’ anything that’ll get your ass thrown in a cell for once.”

The two men were well within the range of elven hearing, but none of the Narisians acknowledged them, or any of the other conversations taking place nearby. At that moment, anyway, they had a more immediate distraction which demanded a response.

The drow reacted swiftly to the appearance of Professor Tellwyrn in the middle of their formation, right in front of the matriarch, by whirling toward her and bringing up weapons. They froze mid-swing at a slight movement of Ashaele’s hand. Tellwyrn, for her part, gave no sign that she had even noticed them.

“Matriarch,” she said gravely. “I suppose we can dispense with some of the pleasantries. I will of course take you to her. At the very least, I can bring you directly—”

“Thank you, Professor, but I prefer to walk,” said Ashaele, suiting the words with action. She resumed her even pace forward, forcing Tellwyrn to either step aside or be collided with. The soldiers re-formed their ring about them, those closest to the Professor now keeping eyes on her and hands on hilts.

“I of all people respect the value of pride,” said Tellwyrn, falling into step beside Ashaele, “but also of reason. I know you are unaccustomed to climbing mountains in this heat, Ashaele. Let me help; it’s the least I can do.”

“Well, this is already going better than our last conversation,” Ashaele said calmly. “Perhaps you should abysmally fail to safeguard your charges more often, Arachne, if that is what it takes to squeeze a drop of respect from you.”

Tellwyrn simply looked at her, sidelong, wearing a lack of expression that would have done a Narisian proud. By the time they passed from the square into Last Rock’s main thoroughfare, she had returned her gaze forward. They continued on in a chilly silence which belied the prairie sunshine.


“These are—”

“I recognize everyone,” Ashaele said smoothly, interrupting Tellwyrn’s introduction as they drew to a halt outside the chapel. At some signal from her, too subtle to be noticed by anyone not looking for it, the priestesses and honor guard had shifted formation to proceed behind her, so that none stood between her and the chapel, and those now clustered outside it. “Most I’ve not met, but Shaeine greatly values her friendships, and has spoken at length of each of you.”

Toby and Gabriel bowed to her; Ruda swept off her hat, simply nodding respectfully. Scorn and Juniper glanced uncertainly at them, while Fross just hovered, showing none of her usual frenetic movement.

Teal stood slightly apart from the others, face impassive. She was pale, and her eyes visibly reddened within dark pits that told of sleeplessness, but at this moment at least, she carried a reserve that would have done any Narisian proud.

“They’re a good group, all things considered,” said Tellwyrn, folding her arms. “Actually, this is the first time I’ve found any of them skipping classes. Under the circumstances, I’m inclined to let it slide.”

Ashaele simply looked at her, a hair too long for it to qualify as a glance, and then proceeded forward toward the doors. The students shifted out of her way, Juniper after a moment’s awkward hesitation.

“I would like to see my daughter in privacy,” she said calmly.

“Of course,” Tellwyrn replied. “The chapel’s wards ensure that even for elvish ears. Back away, children, this is not a show.”

“I, uh…ma’am…” Gabriel trailed off, swallowing painfully. Ashaele paused on the chapel steps, then reached out and touched his shoulder for a bare instant. He gulped again and shuffled back, giving her another bow.

“Teal,” said the matriarch, “accompany me.”

“Teal,” said Tellwyrn quickly, “you don’t have to do anything you don’t feel is necessary.”

“I realize, Professor, that diplomacy is far from your strongest skill,” Ashaele said quietly, standing on the top step and staring at the closed doors, “so I shall assume that was not deliberate. To give you the benefit of my own expertise, insinuating that I might harm one of your students is an insult.” Slowly, she turned to fix an impassive gaze on Tellwyrn. “One which a person in your position would be well advised to avoid.”

“It’s all right, Professor,” Teal said softly.

Tellwyrn glanced between her and Ashaele, nose twitching once, then shook her head. “As you will. I’ll be right out here, Teal.”

Ashaele turned her back.

Teal slipped forward and unlatched the door, giving it a push, then stepped back to bow the matriarch through. Ashaele slipped into the dimness of the chapel without another word, and Teal followed, pausing only to close the door behind them.


The campus chapel was laid out like a standard prairie church, though built of stone rather than the planks which were more common, and devoid of Universal Church iconography. Even the gods were represented only as figures in the stained glass windows, with none of their sigils displayed. There was no choir loft and only a low dais with no pulpit; no preaching was done here, the space being used only by students for individual prayers and meditations. It was kept dim as a rule, the fairy lamps left dark to allow the colored illumination of sunlight through the stained windows, contributing to its peaceful atmosphere.

At the moment, the pews had been moved and rearranged, pairs positioned face-to-face and with deep cushions added to form impromptu beds, on which lay the students suffering the Sleeper’s curse. Each had been carefully tucked in with thick handmade quilts donated by the citizens of Last Rock.

Ashaele paced quietly down the center aisle. She gave a bare glance to the profusion of flowers and trinkets piled around Ravana, and paused only momentarily to look down on Natchua, remaining otherwise focused on her destination. In only seconds, she stood beside the bed of pews on which Shaeine lay.

The matriarch stood, her back to the entrance, beside which Teal stood like a guardian. She bent slightly to lay her fingertips against Shaeine’s cheek. The curse was thorough and the sleep profound; only to an elf was the victims’ breath audible.

For a long moment, there was silence.

“Please explain how you allowed this to happen.”

Teal’s flinch was only the barest twitch of her left eye, which Ashaele could not see, with her back to the door. Vadrieny’s outrage howled within her, though. It quickly subsided at Teal’s silent plea.

“The campus was under widespread attack,” she answered quietly, her voice slightly raspy from fatigue and long hours of crying. “The Sleeper targeted multiple groups of students, including Shaeine and I. We were with three others, including Szith. Demons attempted to herd us into a trap, but Shaeine formed a plan to outmaneuver them. We entered the music building, which to the Sleeper should have been a dead end, but she led us to the roof and had Iris—a classmate who’s a witch—form a ladder of vines to escape down the back, and directed Vadrieny and I to counter-attack the demons and prevent them from observing her ploy. It…nearly worked. Shaeine insisted on being the last one down. The others escaped as she planned. We…Vadrieny and I…returned to help, and found her asleep on the rooftop. Unresponsive.” She paused to swallow heavily against the lump forming in her throat. “Just like the others. The Sleeper outmaneuvered us.”

Ashaele gazed down at her daughter in silence. After a pause, Teal opened her mouth to speak again, but the matriarch’s soft voice cut her off.

“When Shaeine brought you to visit us, Teal, I was favorably impressed. As an applicant to join House Awarrion, you presented yourself quite well.”

“For a human,” Teal finished softly, too tired even to sound resentful.

“For anyone.” A faint edge appeared in Ashaele’s tone—borderline inappropriate for any Narisian, but a matriarch could get away with a lot. She straightened and turned her head to put her face in profile from the door, regarding Teal sidelong. “I would not diminish the strength or prestige of my House by holding any prospective member to a relaxed standard. For House Awarrion, in the current political climate, a human as my daughter’s consort would be a curiosity, but a prestigious one. A Tiraan-trained bard, too, would bring us great prestige. Vadrieny also represents a tremendous asset—even if, as you insist, she does not fight aggressively. Nor do we, as diplomats, but I’m sure the utility of an ambassador who is functionally impervious to harm or imprisonment is plain. Your own status and education make you an asset, as well. Such a union between my House and Falconer Industries would be potentially bumpy, there being no precedent for such a thing, but in most possible outcomes, greatly advantageous for both. Even in your ignorance of our culture and customs, I see favorable potential. You showed me a greater willingness to learn than even most Imperial diplomats, and your unfamiliarity represents a useful…malleability. Potential that I could shape in a direction of my choosing. And…” She shifted again, to resume gazing down at Shaeine. “My duty as matriarch supersedes my duty as a mother, but the fact that my daughter adores you is hardly insignificant. If for no other reason than that Shaeine, from her earliest years, has always been a gifted judge of character.”

She turned fully around, folding her hands and gazing at Teal.

“For all that, only one concern has led me to reserve judgment. One which weighs more heavily on me as a mother than a matriarch, but is not without importance to both. There is you: first and sole daughter of a greatly powerful family, famous and wealthy beyond the imagining of most Narisian nobility, coupled with a nigh-unstoppable power in the form of your demon counterpart. And there is Shaeine: a third daughter, in practical terms a spare. Heral and Nahil both have daughters of their own, securing the matriarchal line against my own death, and are both groomed for the necessary administrative positions in the House. Shaeine, before it was decided that she should come here, was to be a House priestess—a minor position for one of her hereditary rank. Were your family another House of Tar’naris, Teal, in the union between you, it would be she who went to live with your family, answerable to your mother. Subordinate to you.”

“The comparison…isn’t exact,” Teal said after a moment.

“I am well aware. But politics aside, there remains the fact that the force you represent overshadows her. As a mother, I do not wish to see my child trailing passively in anyone’s footsteps. As matriarch, with responsibility both to the health of House Awarrion and the diplomatic interests of Tar’naris, I must be wary of setting a precedent in drow/human relations which will not serve our interests. All this has made me leery of this union. But this.” She shifted her head infinitesimally, its faint tilt to the right indicating curiosity. “What you tell me now…strongly implies that between the two of you—between the three of you, in fact—Shaeine is the dominant personality.”

Teal stared at her, blinking twice, gathering her thoughts before replying. “Matriarch… I’m a bard. And Vadrieny…in her own words, is more weapon than warrior. Something of a blunt instrument. Shaeine and I don’t think or relate in terms of dominance. But in most regards… She is the one with the political education, with the experience. And, I have to say, a personality with more innate wisdom. Vadrieny and I have both become comfortable following her lead. The dynamic between us feels natural. And it’s served us very well.” She hesitated, then swallowed again. “Until…very recently.”

Teal drew in a deep breath and lowered her eyes, her fists bunching slowly at her sides despite her efforts to cling to what she could manage of Narisian reserve. Vadrieny’s barely-contained rage and agony pulsed within her, fury feeding on fury in a cycle that grew ever harder to control.

“The Sleeper is a student here. They have to be. It’s a small campus and a small community; this is someone who knows us. Someone who’s observed us and has a grasp of how Shaeine and I relate. This wasn’t an accident or an attack of opportunity, this was very carefully planned. You asked how this happened: it was done by someone who understands our relationship, and used it to get to Shaeine.” She drew in a long breath through her teeth, which elongated subtly as she did so. Her hands un-clenched, lengthening into ebon claws, and sparks of fire danced behind her eyes. “The Sleeper is not going to get away with this much longer. Tellwyrn is closing in on them. Others are getting involved, including the Empire. No warlock can escape this kind of pursuit for long. And when we know who has done this, I am going to personally tear them into small pieces and make them eat each one.”

She broke off, squeezing her eyes shut. Despite Vadrieny’s presence flickering through, the words had been entirely her own. The archdemon’s consciousness flowed around her, clutching her for comfort against the pain, even as their anger resonated.

Caught in her inner battle, Teal hadn’t heard Ashaele move, and when the matriarch’s arms slipped around her, the shock brought her inner battle to a standstill, even Vadrieny freezing in confusion. Claws and fangs vanished, leaving Teal physically herself again.

Ashaele held her close, pressing Teal’s face gently into her shoulder with the hand cradling the back of her head.

“As matriarch, I recognize this union. You are consort to my own blood, welcomed by House Awarrion as its own. We embrace you, daughter.”

She gave Teal a final, gentle squeeze, then pulled back to hold her by the shoulders and study her face. In the interim, it was as if Ashaele’s own expression had come alive, showing finally her own weariness, her worry, and despite that, a warm smile.

“How are you, Teal?” she asked gently, with open care and concern.

Teal could only stare up at her for a moment. “Um. Aside from the obvious?” She glanced past Ashaele’s shoulder, at Shaeine’s bed of pews, then back to her face. “…confused.”

The drow’s expression shifted toward wryness. “I see. Shaeine has been coaching you in our customs, or so she told me. I trust you do understand the significance of formal adoption into the House? This is the closest parallel we have to your custom of marriage.”

“Ah, yes, that we discussed. In fact, it was one of the first things she taught me,” Teal added, a faint flush rising in her cheeks. “But it takes more than a year to absorb an entire culture.”

“Quite.” Ashaele nodded and stepped back, gently taking one of Teal’s hands and leading her up the aisle, toward Shaeine’s sleeping form. “I presume she has taught you things as she thought of them, or as they came up—it’s understandable that this one might not have occurred to her yet. It isn’t commonly invoked, but it is traditional for courting couples to have their adoption expedited in the case of a sudden…bereavement. Death, illness, injury, even imprisonment. Provided the matriarch in question had no specific objection to the union, in most such cases she would acknowledge the loved one immediately. It is a way to help build and strengthen bonds throughout our society, as well as serving the individual adopted by providing the comfort of family—and the protection of House—at a time when such is most necessary.”

“I…see,” Teal said slowly. Ashaele squeezed her hand once, then pulled her closer and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. After a moment of stiffness, she relaxed against the taller woman. A moment longer, and even Vadrieny calmed in the embrace. “I will do my utmost not to disappoint you.”

“I have little worry about that, Teal,” she said without hesitation. “I was quite frank with you; from our first meeting, I judged you a suitable mate for Shaeine, if a surprising choice. Now that I understand your situation a bit better, my last lingering concern is assuaged. This is the right thing for us all, and I’ve no doubt you will be an asset to our House. But with that established, regarding your threat toward the Sleeper.” She squeezed Teal gently, rubbing her shoulder. “You will do no such thing. In this matter I am speaking to you as both mother and matriarch, and I expect to be obeyed.”

Teal froze. “I—but…”

“You are part of a drow House, now. You know very well we are not savages, Teal. Vindictive we are indeed—but in the proper way. This is about more than you and Shaeine and the Sleeper, more than her other victims and Tellwyrn. This is a clash between civilization and barbarism. I have studied Tellwyrn’s explanation of these events closely, and this Sleeper’s motivations are obvious to me. She is a young fool with unearned power, blindly asserting it. The Sleeper represents an idea: that the strong dominate the weak simply by virtue of their strength. That she is allowed to do what she will to others simply because she is able to. This is the opposite of the purpose of all civilization, Teal. If you catch and kill her, you eliminate one threat, but you grant her the moral victory.”

“I…forgive me, mat—mother. I can’t find it in me to be concerned with moral victories right now.”

Ashaele pulled her even closer, leaning her own head against Teal’s. “Be concerned with them, daughter. They are what define you. Aren’t you the girl who tamed an archdemon through the power of love? Don’t rush to an action that will plague your dreams forever, Teal. Besides, there are greater things at stake than our feelings. We must not simply strike down the Sleeper. We will apprehend, try, convict, and duly punish her. She will be dragged before the gaze and the full force of civilization, and made to acknowledge her own impotence and insignificance against it, before being crushed beneath its heel. That is justice, distinct from retaliation. These are the principles to which Shaeine has dedicated her life. We will give her no cause to be ashamed of us when she wakes.”

She moved her arm, taking Teal’s hand and into the improvised bed, laying it atop Shaeine’s own hands, which were folded at her breast. Both of them gently twined their fingers about the sleeping girl’s.

“And I,” Ashaele finished in deadly quiet, “will settle for no lesser revenge.”

After a silent moment, Teal leaned into her again, and once again, Ashaele rested her temple against the crown of her head.

“Yes, mother.”

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12 – 5

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Dawn had just graced the mountain when they returned.

“Enter,” Tellwyrn said in response to the sharp knock on her office door.

It swung open and Professors Rafe and Ezzaniel stepped inside, the martial arts instructor pausing to shut the door behind them.

“All right, gentlemen,” Tellwyrn said, watching them expressionlessly. “How bad is it?”

Rafe blinked at her, then scowled. “Okay, come on now, really. Just how sharp are those ears? You could tell we have bad news just from listening to our footsteps outside?”

“I can tell you have bad news because I can see your face,” she said in exasperation. “You look like someone just drowned your puppy in a pond. Both of you.”

He grimaced. “I sort of wish you’d expressed that differently…”

“I’m not getting my hellhound breath, am I?” Tellwyrn asked, her eyebrows lowering into a scowl.

“No,” Ezzaniel replied, folding his arms behind his back. “The hellhounds are gone.”

A moment of silence followed, in which Rafe sighed irritably. The office was lit only by the windows, leaving it pleasantly dim, but bright enough for them to clearly see the University president’s expression. Unfortunately.

“Gone?” Tellwyrn asked softly. “Can you be more specific, please?”

“I’m afraid not,” Ezzaniel replied. “It is quite the mystery. Khavibosh, who is now in charge on Level 2, has been stomping about in a fury about it for the last week. Apparently, both hellhounds just up and…vanished.”

“I’m sure I need not explain to you two how very impossible that is,” she said.

“No indeed,” Rafe agreed. “Level 2 is supposed to be instanced and sealed, and Melaxyna’s jiggery-pokery to overcome its multiple-version effect should make it even harder to extract things from it. In fact, rather than just come straight back here empty-handed, we looked around in the Crawl for some answers. Hence this trip taking all damn night.”

“Unfortunately,” Ezzaniel continued, “there is a dearth of persons to ask. Our ideas ran dry after Melaxyna, as she is the only denizen of the Crawl we know of who has been placed in Level 2 and yet escaped.”

“She didn’t escape,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “The Crawl let her out, at my request. I prefer to have a Vanislaad or something similarly manipulative watching over the Grim Visage. A more brutal kind of demon can keep order on Level 2 just as easily, but Sarriki does not need to be slithering about without a significant check on her movements. What did she say?”

“She affected to be incensed at the news,” Ezzaniel said with a shrug. “Frankly, the only definitive result we can claim from the encounter is evidence that she does not have the hellhounds in the Visage itself. Beyond that… I am not going to take anything a succubus tells me at face value.”

“She brought Xsythri to the Visage with her, too,” Rafe added. “That hethelax who follows her around. Did you authorize that?”

Tellwyrn’s eyes narrowed. “…not explicitly. But in retrospect, I can see how she might have arranged that loophole.”

“So,” Ezzaniel said in satisfaction, “she could be behind their disappearance.”

“Maybe,” said Rafe. “Xsythri was heartbroken at the news her puppies had vanished. Emilio’s right, a child of Vanislaas is more likely to lie than breathe, but I don’t think Xsythri has the imagination to be deceitful. It’s not the first time I’ve had that thought.”

“Whatever happened to the hellhounds,” Ezzaniel said, “we are not going to get information, much less their breath, without conducting some serious investigations. And that involves a dungeon delve of the old school. Not one of our comparatively tame class trips with the Crawl itself watching out for the students; we’ll be down there looking for answers, facing the native dangers, and probably not with the cooperation of the dungeon itself.”

“Don’t rush to conclusions,” Tellwyrn warned. “Before it comes to that, I’ll see what I can get from the Crawl myself. We get along well.”

“Regardless,” he replied, “if it does come down to an investigation of the type I referred to, it will mean several members of the faculty will be occupied doing that for a significant amount of time. Right at a moment when we need every one of us on campus and alert.”

“Yeeaah,” Rafe drawled. “We were pretty much running with the conclusion that none of this is a coincidence. It’s a virtual certainty that whoever’s casting this sleeping curse is a student, and probably one who’s been here at least two years. They all know about the hellhounds on Level 2. And a student is more likely than most to be able to get the Crawl to cooperate with them in mussing things up down there. More likely than anybody who lives in it, anyway.”

“And now you’re speculating,” said Tellwyrn. “Don’t do that. We need information, not baseless theories.”

“Well, pertaining to that,” said Ezzaniel, “dare I hope you have made some progress up here while we were occupied?”

“Of a sort,” she replied with a sigh. “To the extent of ruling out possibilities. Alaric and I have been at the scrying arrays and studying Natchua, and we seem to have established that whatever this curse is, it’s simply not detectable by magic.”

“I thought we already knew that,” said Rafe.

“Not exactly. Both the incidents were recent enough that Alaric could scry them through the ley line network. We had perfectly clear views of Chase and then Natchua just drifting off to sleep, apropos of apparently nothing. In her case, while she was walking between buildings. Something about the curse, or something done by the person who casts it, corrects the sight when viewed through a scrying apparatus.”

“Perhaps that is literally what happened,” Ezzaniel suggested. “We know nothing about how this curse is transmitted.”

“Perhaps,” she said. “Then again, Chase recalled someone approaching him from behind just before he was struck.”

Rafe groaned. “When Chase is our most reliable source of information, we’re pretty well boned.”

“We also spent some more time studying Natchua,” Tellwyrn continued, giving him a sour glance. “None of our tests have yielded any direct evidence of magic at work. By all appearances, her body is simply maintaining and infinitely rejuvenating itself at the cellular level for no reason at all, which of course is impossible. It’s made somewhat more difficult by the fact that she is an elf; her body doesn’t decay nearly as quickly as a human, but even drow aren’t meant to lie still for more than hours at a time. The unfortunate fact is that to get more data, we will have to hope she remains that way for a long period, or that other students of more short-lived races are struck. Obviously, I can’t bring myself to hope for either outcome.”

“Well,” Ezzaniel mused, “there is some precedent for things being invisible to magic. Or antithetical to it.”

“I am still certain this isn’t the Wreath’s doing,” Tellwyrn replied, “and I don’t see how mithril could be a factor here, thought it does block scrying. For it to be doing this, it would pretty much have to be ground to a fine powder and introduced directly to the subject’s bloodstream. Leaving aside the horrendous expense of obtaining a sufficient quantity of the stuff, it’s physically impossible to reduce that way. Also, elves require magic on a basic biological level. If that were possible, doing it to a drow would simply kill her.”

“Chaos disrupts magic,” Rafe said quietly.

“Chaos does not behave itself when used,” Tellwyrn said, shaking her head. “I did think of that, but no. Wielding chaos involves grand, dramatic spells, which don’t work in any consistent fashion at the best of times. This is extremely precise. No…we’re still in the dark.”

“Fuck a duck,” Rafe grumbled.

Tellwyrn sighed. “Well, anyway. Thank you both for making the effort. I’ve already posted notices that your morning classes are canceled; go get some rest.”

“Nonsense!” Rafe proclaimed, puffing out his chest and planting his fists on his hips, while Ezzaniel gave him a long, sardonic look. “I’ll just throw back a vial of one of my many sources of bottled vitality and be rarin’ to go!”

“Admestus,” she said more gently, “no. Keep those for later—I have a feeling we may need them. You and I both know, and even you have to acknowledge, that no shortcuts or replacements for natural sleep are as good as the real thing. I’m going to need both of you—and everyone else—in their best shape. No more students have been struck down yet, but I’m not enough of an optimist to assume this thing has run its course.”

“Nor I,” Ezzaniel agreed. “I rather suspect it’s only beginning. Very well, I’ll grab a few winks and be back to class after noon. What’s your plan for the time being, Arachne?”

“For now,” she said, pushing back her chair and standing, “I’ve let the faculty know to keep their eyes open; any students found inexplicably and unwakeably asleep are to be brought straight to Taowi. I’ve first period today free, and I need to go deal with yet another perplexing new thing that’s come up.”

“Anything bad?” Rafe asked, raising an eyebrow.

She grimaced. “I really, really hope not.”


The Saloon kept evening hours exclusively and the town’s sole inn did not serve food, which left but one place where people could congregate in public over breakfast. The Ale & Wenches seemed marginally less ridiculous in the morning, occupied only by a few townsfolk and with the windows open to admit the sunlight, than it did in the more raucous evening shift, when University students and passing would-be adventurers were the main clientele.

He had been here nearly twenty-four hours, not long enough yet that he needed to start thinking about food or sleep. It wasn’t his plan to stay in Last Rock enough time to make those a necessity. Nothing he was doing here was terribly urgent. It had been a well-spent day, though; wandering invisibly about, he had observed much and heard some extremely enlightening conversations. Vex’s intelligence reports generally agreed with what he had now seen, but he did not like to rely overmuch on secondhand information. Considering what might be at stake, it was well worth it to take a day and see for himself.

Now, another such interesting conversation was occurring at the next table over.

“Just don’t feel right, Hiram,” Ox Whipporwill rumbled, folding his arms across his chest. “I know, it’s all in good fun, but after the events a’ the last year…”

“Omnu’s breath, Ox, you’re getting downright stodgy in your old age,” huffed the banker, who was easily fifteen years the deputy’s senior. “You’re right, it is just a bit of fun. As Sam is so fond of reminding us, if the pool ever did pay out, we’d be in too much of a cataclysm for anybody to collect.”

“That’s what I mean,” Ox replied. “I like the kids, Hiram, you know I do. Even the ones I don’t like; as a group, I got no quarrel with ’em. An’ if you ain’t heard, Loretta’s girl will be enrolling next semester—seems Tellwyrn was serious about havin’ Last Rock’s kids sign up if they’re interested.”

“Should be a grand opportunity for young May,” Hiram Taft agreed.

“But,” Ox continued, pointing a finger across the table at him, “last time we had the freshman pool was before the hellgate, an’ then that near riot. I just don’t think it’s the same.”

“It’s very easy to say that now,” Taft replied petulantly.

“I said it then,” Ox shot back. “That hellgate was pretty fresh in everyone’s minds when you were organizin’ it first thing last semester. Matters ain’t a lot better now, despite Tellwyrn’s promise…”

“Ox, old boy, I’m going to have to disagree with you there,” said Taft. “Things are better. I rather wish the good Professor had done this years ago, if for no other reason than that it has improved the general feeling toward the University here in town. But aside from that, the fact that there’s lingering tension makes it all the more important, in my view, that we not walk on eggshells. Having our little annual joke as usual sends the message that nothing has changed. We’re still the same town, it’s still the same school, and we’re no more afraid or resentful of them than in any year before.”

“I s’pose I see the reason in that,” Ox said grudgingly. “Still makes me a mite nervous, though.”

Suddenly, the A&W’s door burst open with far more force than it required, and Arachne Tellwyrn strode in.

She made a beeline for his table, passing the startled locals without a glance, stopped right in front of him, folded her arms and stared down her nose, over the rims of her spectacles.

“Hi there, and welcome to Last Rock. Might I have a word with you in private?”

Gasps and murmurs rose all around; the tavern wasn’t busy at this hour, but half a dozen people were scattered about, all now staring at him. The serving girl went pale and actually knelt.

The Hand of the Emperor sighed softly and rose from his seat. His magic did not provide true invisibility, but it served to deflect all notice from his presence when he so chose. That technique had its weaknesses, however. Such as when someone on whom it did not work deliberately called attention to him in a way that no one could ignore.

“Good morning, Professor,” he said, nodding to her, then turned his head to nod again at the room at large. “Please, everyone, go about your business. Rise,” he added gently to the waitress, who jibbered something incoherent and actually scuttled backward a few feet without getting off her knees. Well, at least even in this backwater they knew how a Hand of the Emperor was to be treated. “Is this going to be a friendly conversation?” he added pointedly to Tellwyrn.

“As far as I know, it is,” she replied. “I have absolutely no quarrel with the Empire and my interactions with it have mostly been quite satisfactory.”

“Yes,” he said dryly, “I understand the Treasury quite enjoys receiving your taxes every year.”

Tellwyrn grinned unrepentantly. “What concerns me is the question of why a Hand of the Emperor would feel the need to skulk around here without announcing himself.”

“Perhaps my presence has nothing to do with you.”

She made a face. “Do we have to fence and banter in front of the citizenry? Nobody here needs the awkwardness of being in that crossfire.”

“There will be no crossfire,” he said firmly as the whispers started up again. “The Empire has only the highest opinion of your University, Professor. In any case, yes, I believe we should speak, now that we already are. Would you care to provide teleportation to a suitable spot? I’m sure you know the town better than I.”

She actually raised her eyebrows in visible surprise. “Don’t mind if I do, then.”

He knew her teleportation was smoother than that of any mage in the Empire’s employ, but knowing wasn’t the same as experiencing it. The world changed around him so suddenly and without fanfare that it was quite disorienting.

They now stood in a long, wide hallway, one wall consisting of glass windows overlooking the Golden Sea from atop the mountain; the rest of it was thronged with potted plants of various kinds. One lifted a blossom to face him. It had an eyeball in its center.

“Of all the highly secured, soundproof labs on my campus,” Tellwyrn said, pacing over to the windows to gaze out, “this one has the best view. Keep well back from the plants. There’s a reason these species are kept in a secure lab.”

“Duly noted,” he said, following her. “So, Professor, what can the Empire do for you?”

She turned to give him a look. “What does the Empire want from me?”

“Certainty,” he said promptly.

She actually grinned. “Something tells me I can’t help you there.”

“I quite meant what I said in front of the townsfolk,” he went on. “His Majesty’s government bears you no ill will, and in fact, Lord Vex speaks highly of your cooperation over the last two years. Regardless, there are…uncertainties. Your relationship with the entire Tirasian Dynasty has been somewhat tumultuous. And it must be said that the Throne bears half the responsibility.”

Tellwyrn blinked in apparent surprise. “You really think I harbor animosity toward the Throne?”

“It has hardly been forgotten,” he said, “that the Tirasian Dynasty exists in part because you ended the previous one.”

She shrugged. “Emperor Arvusham was incompetent, corrupt, weak, and had instigated a civil war at the same time the Universal Church was undergoing its own coup literally across the street from his house. If I hadn’t taken him off the Silver Throne, someone would.”

“Yes, but the fact remains, someone didn’t. You did. When we consider the nature of your relationship to the government, that is exceedingly relevant. The Throne appreciates your recent aid, but it also recalls that unfortunate business with the Ministry of Mysteries, not to mention Emperor Sarsamon’s attempted abduction of you just before you vanished. And, Professor, just because we cannot prove where that vodka elemental came from does not mean we don’t know.”

She grinned again. “Oh, come on. That was funny, admit it.”

“I believe his Majesty agrees with you,” the Hand replied, calmly folding his arms. “I may speak with his voice, in the eyes of the law, but I necessarily cannot share his relaxed attitude toward…practical jokes.”

Tellwyrn’s expression sobered and she turned again to gaze out over the prairie. “You’re really concerned that I’ve been eyeing the Throne since Sarsamon?”

“The facts as they are recorded are that you attempted to penetrate the Palace’s defenses with a very high-level scrying spell, and the Emperor dispatched agents to collect and question you—to no avail.”

“That’s it?”

“Is there more?”

Tellwyrn smiled, this time reminiscently. “I guess he never did leave behind a clear record…well, that doesn’t surprise me. That kerfuffle was the only way we could get in touch with each other one last time without letting on that we were doing so.”

Very slowly, the Hand raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“Sarsamon Tirasian was my friend.” She shifted to look at him sidelong. “I saved his life a dozen times during the Enchanter Wars. He’d have done the same, but I was the archmage and he the nobleman; our power differential didn’t really work out that way. We once got liquored up to the point of combustibility and spent a whole night bawling about our respective dead lovers. I was about to leave, and… Well, I wanted to say goodbye.”

“Go on,” he said after a silent moment.

“It’s all ancient history now,” she whispered, again staring out the window. “And anyway, you’re the living embodiment of sufficient clearance. The Emperor and I couldn’t let on that we were acquainted for the good of the Empire. You see, House Tirasian was an insignificant little merchant House from southern Calderaas before Sultana Shiranza, Duke Rashond and Archpope Vyara cooked up between them the idea to take advantage of the Empire’s fractured state to install a puppet on the Silver Throne. With the combined influence of House Aldarasi, House Madouri and the Universal Church, they were able to bring enough other nobles and cults on board to make it happen. Once they put Sarsamon in place… We decided the Empire deserved a true leader to help it heal. So some of us put together a conspiracy of our own.” Tellwyrn turned to stare him fully in the eye. “It revolved around another acquaintance of ours. A Stalweiss warlord named Heshenaad. We set him up as a threat, someone we could rally the Empire against and elevate the Emperor above the machinations of his original supporters.”

“…I see,” the Hand said slowly. “And you couldn’t find someone not called Horsebutt? It’s an ongoing humiliation that that has to be written in the history books as someone who seriously threatened the Empire.”

She grinned in open amusement. “There’s a certain savage poetry to the Stalweiss and their honor names. It’s funny, but I originally heard the name translated as Horse’s Ass; the modern version is the improved one, believe me. Really, it’s not so bad. Everyone who’s worked with horses understands the reference. Heshenaad was a man you absolutely did not want to sneak up on from behind.” She shrugged. “So, no. Not only do I not resent the Tirasian Dynasty, I am the lion’s share of the reason it’s a thing at all. I haven’t exactly been active in politics, and I’ve never made the effort to get to know Sarsamon’s descendants, but that’s probably for the best.”

“With regard to that,” he said, “the Silver Throne does owe you an apology for the Ministry of Mysteries affair. It may interest you to know that the Ministry’s dissolution was not directly due to your efforts, but to Empress Theasia’s outrage that it had presumed to pressure you in her name without her consent.”

“She always seemed like a good one,” Tellwyrn mused. “I missed the bulk of her reign, though. That was not how I preferred to be welcomed back to the world. Well, as I said… Certainty I cannot give you. When one has seen governments come and go as often as I have, one learns not to become attached. In point of fact I happen to think the Empire in its present form is a very good thing, and Sharidan seems the best leader this continent has seen in the last century. To you he may be the center of the universe, but to me, he’s one more in a long line, and others will come after him. Someday the Empire will fall; empires always do. Someday long before then it will be afflicted with a government which is neither as competent or as benign as Sharidan’s. It will not find me in a position where I am tied to it excessively closely.” She tilted her head back, again looking down her nose at him. “For now, though, at this moment? I heartily approve of the boy and his work. You need fear no interference or hostility from me, and in fact I’m glad to help out here and there as it is necessary and appropriate.”

The Hand of the Emperor regarded her in thoughtful silence for a moment, then took one step back and sketched a shallow bow.

“The Silver Throne acknowledges and appreciates your sentiment, Professor. And returns it in virtually perfect symmetry.”

That earned another amused smile. “So, then. What specific thing brings you out here sniffing around? And kindly don’t waste my time by dissembling. Vex wouldn’t do this, and I’m well aware that you Hands lack initiative. Sharidan isn’t likely to suddenly be making gestures like this un-prompted, so either he or you are reacting to something.”

The Hand permitted himself the luxury of a soft sigh. “The Empire is…beset.”

“What else is new?”

He shook his head. “The Black Wreath is more aggressive than it has been since the Enchanter Wars, the Archpope has begun making highly disruptive moves, there is unrest simmering in multiple provinces… Both the Punaji and Tidestrider nations test the terms of our treaties, Narisians are suddenly interacting with elven groves on an unprecedented scale, and Sifan has begun making noises to the effect that the Silver Throne should offer formal reparations to the orcish clans for the cataclysm of Athan’Khar. Now, the dwarven kingdoms are suddenly acting with great aggression in Tiraan territory.”

“The dwarves?” She raised her eyebrows in surprise. “That makes no sense. The Empire could roll over in its sleep and pulverize them, and they have to know it.”

“That is precisely the issue,” he said. “A competent, comparable rival will conduct himself in a fairly predictable manner, at least insofar as refraining from rocking the boat too much. Someone cornered and desperate, however, might do absolutely anything at all. The dire condition of the Five Kingdoms is exactly what makes their overtures worrisome, and exactly what makes the Throne’s response uncertain. We can do as we have always done: send our armies, leverage our economic and political might, make the world bow before the power of Tiraas. But…the world is not as it was a hundred years ago. Economically, politically, socially, we are tied to more people and in more ways than ever before. Great shows of force are increasingly inappropriate ways to accomplish the Throne’s aims. It is his Majesty’s considered opinion that they are likely to backfire.”

“Wait a moment,” she said. “Am I on that list? You’re here because you worry I’m going to add to your troubles?”

“As I already assured you, no,” he said firmly. “On the contrary. I am tentatively studying you as a possible…solution.”

Tellwyrn folded her arms. “I’m not sure I like the sound of that.”

“No more do I, but this is the world we live in. Better that we make our accommodations, with it and with each other. Do you not think so?”

She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “What, exactly, are you proposing?”

“Exactly?” He shrugged. “Nothing. But the Throne is interested in fostering…amity. With you, and wherever else it may be possible. The more friendly faces we can see in the world, the better positioned we are to gently counter the hostile ones.”

“That is remarkably forward-thinking,” she said thoughtfully. “Of course, it raises an ugly question.”

“Oh?”

“I find myself quite suddenly beset by problems I am having trouble solving. And here you come, looking to build some kind of…partnership. I have to wonder what role the Throne may have played in arranging for me to need help.”

“None,” he said immediately. “Bothering to say so may be an empty gesture if you are determined to be suspicious, but I assure you the Throne does not want you riled up. If it helps you at all, I did not come here to propose an alliance. I was simply watching and listening in Last Rock to see how you and your school are perceived by the populace. My purpose was to gather information and form opinions, not offer a helping hand.”

“But,” she prompted.

He smiled faintly. “But, if we can offer such a hand… It would seem to be in both our interests, would it not?”

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10 – 48

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“All right, everyone, listen up!” Trissiny gently urged Arjen forward into the center of the little square, commanding the attention of everyone gathered. “This is the plan.”

Everybody had assembled with admirable speed—almost as adroitly as proper troops, though the way they straggled in and milled about somewhat ruined the image. The rest of her class had found them shortly after she sent the townsfolk to arm themselves, Fross bouncing and chiming at the head of the group. The crowd which had returned wasn’t quite the same one that had left; it seemed a few people had decided to sit this out at home, while others had rallied to the call. All four of the local priests were present, and clustered together nearby at the front of the crowd. Sisters Takli and Aria wore matching intent expressions; Trissiny didn’t actually know whether either had served in the Legions, but a cleric of Avei would be no stranger to following orders and facing peril. Val Tarvadegh looked a bit out of place, hands folded nervously in front of him, but kept his expression schooled. Father Laws was older than any of his colleagues by far, but had also brought a staff, an older model with a large and elaborate clicker mechanism, though not as dated as Miz Cratchley’s old thunderbuss.

In fact, as Trissiny surveyed her assets, it occurred to her that this sight was actually somewhat familiar.

“This is a variation on something we’ve done once before, in Sarasio,” she said to the assembled crowd, “so we do know what we’re doing. Our quarry is a single demon—based on my own experience, I can tell you it’s quick, agile, and invisible to the naked eye, which makes this complicated.”

“How dangerous is it?” someone whose name she didn’t know asked.

“That remains to be seen,” Trissiny said, raising her voice among the agreeing murmur which rose after the question. “On its last appearance the creature did nothing overtly destructive, but it is still a demon. Most of them are not safe even to be around; hethelaxi and the like are exceptions to the rule. Many demons leak infernal energy, which makes them a hazard to anyone in the vicinity. That’s why we are not going to tolerate this one’s presence in the town; if possible, we will learn what it wants before dispatching it, but the first priority is everyone’s safety. I want you all to keep that in mind, and don’t take any needless risks.”

“How’re we s’posed to chase it if it’s invisible?” a middle-aged woman demanded.

“I was just coming to that,” Trissiny said, smothering her irritation. Not soldiers; they couldn’t be expected to know how to behave during a briefing. “Fross and I are able to sense the demon’s presence, so we’re going to work with that. Teal, can we talk with Vadrieny please?”

Teal raised her eyebrows sharply, glancing around. “Um…”

“She’s as much a citizen as any of us,” Toby said firmly. “And I think we’ve all learned to trust Trissiny’s strategies by now.”

“Okay.” Looking resigned and still slightly nervous, Teal took a step forward into the open space surrounding Trissiny.

Vadrieny’s emergence was somewhat less explosive than usual, no doubt a deliberate choice to avoid agitating the townsfolk. Fiery wings blossomed, claws appeared, her hair flickered alight, and moments later the archdemon stood among them, wearing a faint frown.

There was some agitated murmuring and general shuffling back, but her presence didn’t incite a panic; practically everyone in town knew of Vadrieny, and some had had actually seen her before.

“Vadrieny, as you can see, is very easy to spot,” said Trissiny. “I want you and Fross to get aloft when we’re ready to begin. Fross, you’ll keep focused on the demon and position yourself directly above it. Vadrieny, follow her. That way, everyone can tell where it is by looking up.”

“Can do!” Fross chirped enthusiastically.

“Pretty slick use of assets, Boots,” Ruda commented with an approving nod.

“The rest of us,” Trissiny continued, “are going to organize ourselves into six groups, spread as evenly as possible. Three of these will arrange themselves on the outskirts of the town to the northeast, three to the southwest. You’ll all spread yourselves out to create as nearly continuous a line as possible; the groups are to create units that can stay together as we move into the streets and the buildings break up formations. The objective is to herd our quarry into the middle of the town and surround it. As I said before, if we simply drive the creature off, it’ll only come back. We are going to put a stop to this.”

The outburst of approval which followed that verged on cheering at points; she had to hold up a hand for a few moments to gain quiet. Arjen stood patiently beneath her, apparently unmoved by the agitated crowd, though Whisper seemed to want to dance and was demanding most of Gabriel’s concentration. He wasn’t exactly a veteran rider.

“We’ll try to bring the creature to the center of town: the intersection of Main and Division, in front of the courthouse. I’ll need…” She took a quick visual headcount. “…four volunteers to proceed directly there, make sure the mayor knows what’s happening and keep everyone in the surrounding buildings calm and safe.”

There was some murmuring, shuffling and glancing about in response.

“Sheriff Sanders,” she said, “I’d like you to take charge of organizing the six groups, please, and that includes designating any ‘volunteers’ if none come forward.”

“You got it, General,” he said with a grin, tipping his hat.

“Each group is to have one light-wielder,” Trissiny continued, “who will provide the primary means of controlling the demon, since I’m not sure how impressed it’ll be by armed townsfolk. Takli, Aria, Mr. Tarvaegh, Father Laws, Toby, Shaeine. Please step over to the Sheriff so he can assign you to a group.”

“Seems you left some gaps in the formation, there,” someone commented.

“Yes,” Trissiny said, nodding. “The three groups on each designated side are to assume a bowed formation, encircling the town as completely as possible, but I do expect there to be gaps to the southwest and northeast. Small ones, if possible, but they’ll be there. Gabriel and I are going to fill those. With no offense meant to Toby or anyone else present, I think we’re the two a demon is going to be least likely to want to challenge. More to the point, we’re mounted and thus far more mobile, able to cover a wider territory. Gabe, I’m going to cover the southwest gap, since I can sense the demon directly. You watch the opposite one; I doubt the thing’s going to try to escape up the hill to the University. If it does, I suspect Tellwyrn will make all this moot before we have time to react.”

“Yes,” he said, grinning. “Finally, I get the cushy job!” Whisper nickered and bobbed her head enthusiastically, pawing at the ground with one invisible hoof.

“Now, a final point before we move out,” Trissiny said seriously. The Sheriff was moving through the crowd, directing people with pointing fingers and soft words; he didn’t create enough noise to be distracting, by and large, and everyone remained focused on her. “Light-wielders, this thing is agile and speedy; don’t try to chase it down. I want everyone to focus on wide, splashy uses of energy. Yes, I’m well aware this is the least efficient possible use of divine magic, but remember, you aren’t attempting to take it down, just to create an inhospitable region of space it won’t want to try pushing through. Everyone else, please keep weapons at hand, but do not fire except at need. You are present and armed because we don’t know what’s going to happen when this thing is hemmed in. Most creatures lash out when cornered, and most kinds of demons burn just like anything else when struck by lightning. Be mindful of the fact that we’re moving into an inhabited town, and that your fellow citizens will be directly across from you. Do not take a shot unless a situation arises in which you are completely sure of that shot, and of its necessity. Better to have the weapons at hand and not need them than to face that event unarmed.”

Everyone murmured in approval, even as they shuffled into six distinct clusters around her, each of which had one of the designated clerics at its head. Trissiny noted that Ruda and Juniper had been placed in separate groups, apparently at random, and both seemed to be already making friends.

“I had hoped, in addition,” she said, glancing inquisitively at Gabriel, “that we might be able to arrange some kind of blessing for everyone. Something beyond the standard benediction; that’ll do everyone well, but I’m interested in a means of spreading divine power to everyone to help caulk the gaps in our formation, make it harder for the demon to push past. Could the weapons be charmed, perhaps?”

Gabriel was shaking his head before she finished her question. “Divine magic won’t hold on wands and staves; the inherent arcane energy will purge it in seconds. Any blessing powerful enough to override that would mess up their enchantments, and wear you out besides.”

“Also…wouldn’t that take forever?” Juniper added. “There are dozens of people here.”

“Well, it was a thought,” Trissiny said with a sigh. “Then if no one has any questions…?”

She trailed off as Toby stepped forward from his group, moving toward the center of the gap in which she and Arjen stood. Something in his expression was intent and focused in a way that brought her pause, even if she couldn’t quite place a finger on it. He paced into the middle, Trissiny unconsciously nudging Arjen with her knees to make way. In a moment, he stood in the center, she off to the side, everyone present watching curiously, quite silent now.

Toby closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them, and a warm smile lit up his face. “Everyone, be calm,” he said, and his voice seemed to resonate with a quality that encouraged it. “Fross, Juniper, this won’t bother you.”

Then he closed his eyes again, and began to glow. His aura lit up as it usually did when he was calling on Omnu’s power, then slowly began to expand, the quality of the light streaming off him shifting more white than gold.

The sun was almost directly overhead; a single beam streamed straight down from it to the top of Toby’s head, and the light flared out from him like the birth of a new star. Its sheer intensity was blinding, and yet it didn’t hurt at all to look at; in fact, no one closed their eyes, even by instinct.

Only seconds later, it was over. The sunbeam vanished, and the paladin’s aura faded, leaving him standing before them, relaxed and calm. He opened his eyes at last; they glowed gold for a split second before that light, too, faded, leaving the Hand of Omnu looking as normal as anyone.

Except that his aura now bedecked everyone present. Only in the faintest sense, barely visible under the prairie sunlight, but the light around each person there was subtly brighter, some remnant of Omnu’s touch radiating from each of them. Only Juniper (and presumably Fross, though her innate glow made it impossible to tell) were exempt from the effect. The dryad seemed totally unharmed by the divine blasting, however. In fact, she looked oddly pleased, smiling fondly at Toby.

“Holy smokes,” someone said in awe. “Does everybody else suddenly feel like a million doubloons?”

Where there had been only the hard-packed dirt of the old street, they now stood in a thick patch of clover, bedecked with little white and purple blossoms.

“I think,” Trissiny said firmly, regaining everyone’s attention, “we should all take the time once this is done to offer thanks to Omnu for this. Right now, is everyone ready?”

She swept her gaze around the assembled group, meeting firm nods and vocal agreement, and nodded herself.

“Then let’s move.”


After the repeated blunders and humiliations of the last few days, it was almost eerie to have something go so smoothly.

The townspeople of Last Rock didn’t march in anything resembling a formation, but despite the way their disorganized movement made her want to twitch, they unquestionably got where they were going in short order. Nobody got lost, nobody forgot what group they were in, and there was no shoving or scuffling. The folk of the prairie might not be a disciplined militia, but as had been pointed out to her several times recently, they knew what they were about and didn’t require much supervision once the action started.

They reached their assigned positions quickly and fanned out, placing the net around Last Rock and beginning to close in. Trissiny could feel the demon in the distance, darting back and forth, testing first one side of the formation, then another, then yet another, looking for gaps that failed to materialize. The glow Omnu’s blessing had laid over the people remained in full effect; they formed a living screen that seemed to intimidate it. The invisible presence did, now and again, try for a weak spot, but the clerics she had sent with each group did their jobs. That had been a point of some concern for Trissiny, who didn’t know what kind of education in divine magic any of the four locals had, but every attempt by the demon to rush a point on the perimeter was answered by a flash of gold in the distance, and once by a wall of silver light.

At one point it seemingly gave up on that project and veered straight toward her. This early in the plan, she was covering an area some thirty yards wide by herself, which must have seemed a tempting target. Sensing the thing coming, however, Trissiny flared up as brightly as she could and urged Arjen forward to charge straight at it, flinging indiscriminate bursts of divine light to the left and right as she came.

The demon veered aside long before she got close enough to actually hit, and Trissiny turned to keep even with the advancing flanks of the groups to either side of her. Following that confrontation, it shot through the streets directly opposite, right at the mountain.

She couldn’t see or sense what Gabriel did, but it zipped away even faster that time, retreating to probe at the thin space between Shaeine’s group and Father Laws’s, where a burst of mingled silver and gold dissuaded it.

All the while, Vadrieny circled overhead. She wasn’t built to hover, and so she drifted in tight circles above the demon whenever it lingered in one spot, like an enormous burning vulture. The sight was surely enough to instigate a panic by itself, if her purpose hadn’t been already known to the townspeople. Trissiny couldn’t see Fross, nor feel her through the scrying network (apparently Fross’s ability to sense her had to do with her enchanting skill), but she could pinpoint the demon’s position, and Vadrieny was never more than a few seconds behind. It was fast enough, at least, that every time the demon went for a weak point in the encircling formation, Vadrieny heading for that spot was all the warning the townsfolk needed to draw together and head it off.

The longer it went on, the more they closed the loop, the fewer gaps there were. By the time they reached the outer ring of buildings, the only openings were around Trissiny and Gabriel, and even they were just a few seconds’ canter from the flanks on either side.

While the maneuver was similar to what they had done in Sarasio, it was going much, much better. Last Rock was smaller than Sarasio, and fully inhabited, by well-fed, civic-minded people who had both weapons and a healthy gossip network. By the time the members of the posse had reached the outlying buildings, most houses had people standing in their doors or windows, many muttering prayers or clutching idols and sigils of various gods. Similar sacred objects had suddenly appeared decorating door jams and fence posts, and the ankh of the Universal Church, as well as the insignia of Avei, Omnu, and Vidius, had been hastily scrawled on numerous surfaces in chalk, charcoal, and paint.

Their quarry had no space in which to get lost, and its movements became increasingly frantic.

“Slow and steady!” Trissiny shouted, projecting as hard as she could. Her lungs were well-exercised, having been used to command novices back home at the Abbey, but she doubted her voice would reach all the way across the town. “It’s cornered now—this is when it’ll attack if it’s going to. Stay calm, do not rush, and keep in formation! Pass it down the line!”

The call went up on either side as her order was obeyed, instructions being relayed across the ranks. Hopefully the message wouldn’t grow too mangled in the process.

The townspeople were moving into the streets proper, now, passing wary residents standing guard over their businesses and homes with weapons and holy sigils. Trissiny nodded in what she hoped was a reassuring manner to an old man and a housewife as she urged Arjen past them at a walk. The groups to either side had to break up their lines to get around buildings, now, but Trissiny could sense more than see the glow of divine energy streaming off them—faint, but holding longer than it seemed it should have, and clearly serving to keep the demon hemmed in. It seemed their enterprise here merited Omnu’s direct attention, unless Toby had abilities she’d never heard of. Which, upon reflection, was possible.

“You’ve put this together very well, Trissiny,” a voice said from her left, and she glanced aside to behold Sister Takli, who had stepped to the flank of her group to address her. Tarvadegh’s group had closed in on the other side, now; he kept near the center, eyes on Vadrieny above, but they had narrowed the gap enough that there was no open space around her any longer. “I’m sorry for speaking harshly to you before, though I think what I said was correct. In any case, your performance here is more than admirable enough to make up for it.”

“Have you found what you were looking for in Last Rock, sister?” Trissiny asked, keeping her eyes ahead and attention focused on the demon. It was making sweeps around their steadily tightening perimeter—she noted that it was moving around buildings, this time, not trying to go through them. Perhaps those sigils people were putting up were doing some good. In any case, it was calm enough for the moment she felt she could spare a few seconds to converse.

“I’m not sure I was looking for anything in particular,” Takli replied calmly. “But I have found the town more pleasant than I’d expected. I think I may remain here unless specific business calls me elsewhere, at least for a time.”

“Perhaps you should find some business elsewhere without waiting for it to call.”

Even without looking, she could hear the sudden scowl in the Sister’s voice. “I beg your pardon?”

“I would never dream of intruding deliberately on your privacy, sister,” Trissiny said, glancing down at her now and making no effort to moderate her voice. Takli wore a reproachful frown, which deepened as she spoke. “However, I cannot control what valkyries do or who they observe, or what they tell Gabriel, or what he tells me. So I’ve ended up knowing about your relationship with the Universal Church without meaning or really wanting to.”

“How dare—”

“Considering the case of Lorelin Reich,” Trissiny carried on calmly, now looking ahead again, “it would probably be best if you took yourself and your affiliations elsewhere. And kindly remind Archpope Justinian that I work for Avei, not for him. If I have to go down there and tell him myself, it won’t be pleasant for anyone.”

Takli made no verbal response, and Trissiny didn’t glance at her again to see what effect her words had. They earned a dry chuckle from a member of the group to her right, though.

They made the rest of the remaining walk in a tense silence, which Trissiny ignored, focusing on her prey.

The square outside the town hall was more or less the geographic center Last Rock, and the largest open space within the city limits aside from the square by the Rail platform. By the time the encircling forces reached the mouths of streets opening onto it, they had been compressed into ranks four bodies deep; the clerics had continued to place themselves on the front, as had Juniper and Ruda, who had her rapier unsheathed. With everyone clustered that close together, the residual glow of Omnu’s touch upon them was again visible to the naked eye, though faint; in the bright sunlight, it had the effect of making the air seem paler, not to mention bolstering the spirits of all those present. Despite that, the faces visible were all focused to the point of grimness.

Gabriel and Trissiny heeled their mounts forward into the square, ahead of the others. Vadrieny continued to make a circle directly above.

The demonic presence had come to a stop in the dead center.

“Hold ranks!” Trissiny called. “Clerics, step forward two paces. Auras alight at a sustainable intensity—you are to hold this line, not assault.”

“It’s here?” somebody called from a street across the way.

“Oh, it’s here,” Trissiny said grimly. “And now it’s going to account for itself.”

As if responding to her order, the thing burst into visibility. What appeared was bruise-purple, a hovering spot of shadow radiating an aura of sickly darkness that seemed to glow—it was confusing to look at. It oddly resembled an overlarge, sinister pixie.

“Hold your fire!” Trissiny roared as wands and staves were leveled all around. She drew her own sword, urging Arjen forward while Gabriel likewise approached from the opposite side, his scythe fully extended. “No one has a clear shot—let us handle it!”

The presence wasn’t idle as she spoke. It wheeled around in a rapid circle, spitting shadows at the ground. Trissiny only realized what it was doing belatedly, too late to interrupt. The spell circle seemed to appear fully formed, as if the demon were able to lay down elaborate sections in single bursts of light. After only seconds, it flared alight, and something rose up from the center.

It was a hideous thing, all suckered tentacles, pincers, and plates of gleaming chitin; it looked like something that belonged on the ocean floor. Trissiny’s aura blazed to life around her, while Gabriel drew back his scythe, preparing to strike.

An ear-piercing scream split the air, and Vadrieny plunged straight down from above. Before either paladin or the demon had the chance to act, she struck it hard enough to bear its towering bulk to the ground. Natural armor cracked and flesh tore under her claws with a truly sickening cacophony, leaving her standing not so much atop the creature’s back but in it, her talons apparently dug into the ground below.

Under her feet, it immediately began crumbling away to charcoal and ash. The creature hadn’t so much as managed to growl or raise a pincer.

Unfortunately, the original demon had continued to work during their momentary distraction, and with the same dizzying speed. It laid down five more spell circles, each materializing fully formed in a single puff of purple light. That was incredibly complex spellwork, Trissiny noted; very few warlocks would be able to achieve such a feat. She had no time to dwell on this, however, for the smaller circles immediately spat forth snarling katzil demons.

“Clerics, shield!” she shouted. “Everyone raise weapons—wait till they’re above the rooftops to fire!”

The demons seemed more agitated and confused than aggressive, wheeling about in the air and hissing at one another in the confined space in which they found themselves. Once again, however, action was made unnecessary before anyone could take it.

From a single point high above, spears of ice flashed downward in a cone-like formation around Vadrieny and the crumbling ruins of the other demon. Fross struck unerringly, bearing the shrieking katzils to the ground, their bodies partially encased. With the exception of one whose entire head was sealed in a block of ice, they spat flames haphazardly. Only two managed to direct theirs, whether deliberately or not, at actual people; Shaeine brought up a wall of silver light to protect her group from one, while the other flashed harmlessly across the golden shield which formed around Gabriel and Whisper. Though unharmed, the mare whinnied in protest and danced a few steps away.

Even those last gasps ended quickly, however; having immobilized her targets, Fross followed up with blasts of pure arcane energy, reducing each of the five demons to ash and steam in seconds.

“Good work, Fross!” Trissiny shouted, keeping her attention on the circling purple summoner demon.

“Only kind I do!” the pixie called cheerfully from above, her silver glow invisible against the sun.

The original demon shot toward the town hall rather than trying to summon anything else. Trissiny wheeled Arjen around to follow, fully prepared to charge right through the doors if necessary. It wasn’t, however; the thing was apparently not seeking escape.

It arced upward a few feet, prompting Fross to zip toward it in a visible flurry of snow forming into more ice lances as she went, but it did not try to fly away, merely slamming down onto the top of the steps leading up to the hall.

Upon impact, it exploded into a burst of shadow and smoke which rushed outward hard enough to blow everyone’s hair back, carrying the acrid stink of sulfur.

Where it had landed stood a man, limned in an aura of evil-looking purple and black from which orange flames flickered at the edges, wearing an incongruously pristine white suit.

“I suppose you think you’re pretty damn clever,” Embras Mogul snarled, pointing accusingly at Trissiny.

“I think you’re pretty clever,” she shot back, urging Arjen forward a few steps, Gabriel and Whisper prancing up alongside. “And I think we just outmaneuvered you anyway, warlock.”

Mogul sneered from beneath the wide brim of his hat at the cheers which rose up on all sides.

“Wipe those smug looks off your faces, you galoots—do you think any of you would’ve done a damn thing to stop me if you didn’t have this paladin nipping at your heels?” He actually grinned at the shouts of derision brought by that. “Aw, what’s wrong, don’t enjoy the ring of truth? Tell me, the last time she came down here to warn you, did you idiots try to help? Did you even listen? Or did you pitch a big collective fit about a few bruised egos and broken latches?”

“Enough!” Trissiny barked. “You don’t get to stand there and belittle these people! You will leave this town, now, and permanently, or you will leave this plane of existence!”

Arjen trumpeted a challenge, stomping forward, and Trissiny raised her sword, golden wings flaring into being behind her.

“Do you have any idea the hard work you’ve just undone, you snot-nosed little guttersnipe?” Mogul bellowed, again flinging an arm dramatically out at Trissiny. In fact, the pose he struck reminded her incongruously of Professor Rafe in one of his moods. “Do you know how difficult it was to worm into the confidences of the Church itself? To push at Bishop Snowe’s buttons, to get extra clerics placed here and acting under nonsense orders of my choosing? It’s not so very easy to convince followers of the Church to act against their own obvious interest! But no, you’ve no appreciation for all the time and effort you’ve unmade, you just run around smashing things like a good Hand of Avei. You’re nothing but a bear loose in a tea shop, aren’t you!”

“Oh, shut your drama hole, you jackass,” Gabriel exclaimed, leveling his scythe at Mogul like a lance. The beam of light which burst forth from its shaft resembled a standard staff blast, except shot through with streams of violet and blue.

The flash of lightning struck Mogul’s aura, then arced around him and shot away harmlessly into the sky.

“Have your way, paladins,” the warlock sneered. “Keep your wretched little fleabit town. The rest of you—remember, when the gods are falling and your whole world is coming to pieces around you, that the Black Wreath came to try to shield you from their perfidy. Think on that while you’re being crushed underfoot by your own so-called protectors!”

“Shooting isn’t working,” Trissiny said to Gabriel. “Let’s just stab him.”

“I like the way you think.”

They heeled their mounts forward in unison, but before they made it two steps, another eruption of smoke and shadow occurred around him, accompanied by a blast of wind that made them squint and slow.

“You’ve won today, but this is not over!” Mogul shrieked, his voice rising to the edge of hysteria. “Not till every god lies at the Dark Lady’s feet!”

Shadows swelled up around him, and he sank back into them, leaving behind only a peal of deranged laughter.

In its aftermath, the silence was absolute and startling. There were a few beats of quiet beneath the pure sunlight.

The surrounding citizens of Last Rock, though, burst into cheers as if ordered, shouting and clapping one another on the back. A few weapons were discharged into the air, before bellowing from the Sheriff and Ox put a stop to that. All the while, Trissiny and Gabriel sat their saddles, staring at the spot from which Mogul had vanished with identical frowns on their faces, ignoring the jubilation around them.

“It’s not just me, right?” Gabriel said finally, turning to look at her. “That was…weird, wasn’t it? Wrong, somehow.”

“No…it’s not just you.” She sheathed her sword, her own frown not lessening. “I’m not absolutely certain why, but I have a feeling that…”

“I’ll tell you why,” Ruda announced, striding over to stand by Trissiny’s stirrup. The rest of their class had assembled as well, threading through the celebrating townspeople around them to cluster together around the two mounted paladins; Vadrieny had withdrawn into Teal, and Fross hovered about Gabriel’s head, close enough to be seen despite the sunlight. “Last time we saw that guy,” Ruda continued, “he went out of his way to seem as reasonable and approachable as he possibly could. Now, that time?”

“That time,” Teal finished, nodding, “he was hamming it up. Acting like a villain, in the way that an actor does, not like any actual villains do. It was like…”

“Like Rafe,” Shaeine finished softly, her voice nearly lost in the surrounding tumult. “In some ways, like Ruda. He was trying to create an impression.”

“In short,” Ruda said grimly, “that was a performance from start to finish. I think all of it was. I don’t think we actually won here, guys.”

“This isn’t over, is it,” Trissiny said.

No one bothered to answer. It hadn’t been a question.

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10 – 45

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“I guess we missed the freshmen,” Trissiny noted as they made their way across campus toward magic class. “Rafe must’ve let them out early.”

“Or he’s entombed them to serve as components in his foul experiments!” Gabriel suggested.

“Aw, such a shame,” Ruda said, grinning. “Any particular frosh you were hoping to meet?”

Trissiny glanced at her, forehead creasing in puzzlement. “Not really? I mostly get on with the girls, though. And they’ve been helpful in all the…stuff…going on. Most of my social circle is you guys. More friends can’t hurt.”

“I choose not to take that personally,” Shaeine said serenely.

Trissiny sighed. “You know I didn’t…”

“Yes, I do,” the drow replied, turning to give her a smile.

“Well,” Ruda drawled, “I know poor Sekandar must be devastated he missed you.”

“And that’s the third time today,” Trissiny said irritably. “What is with this obsession you suddenly have with Sekandar?”

“Triss, you are not this obtuse. Nobody is this obtuse.” Ruda leaned over and threw an arm around her roommate’s shoulders, leering insanely, and lowered her voice to a widely audible stage whisper. “He desires to sex you.”

Trissiny flushed slightly. “Ruda…”

“Probably in the butt.”

“Ruda!” The paladin shrugged her roughly off, glaring.

“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger!” Ruda held up both hands, but her grin only widened. “Nobility and especially royalty are some freaky fuckers.”

“I guess you would know!”

“Fuck yeah, I would! This one time—”

“Stop!” Trissiny shouted.

“Um…” Teal came to a stop, causing the others to do likewise, looking at her inquisitively. She was peering at a creased sheet of parchment in her hand as if she’d never seen it before. “It looks like class is canceled. I’ve got a note from Professor Ekoi.”

“Huh?” Juniper frowned. “When’d she give you a note?”

“She didn’t. I just found it in my pocket.”

“I can’t decide if Professor Ekoi is so awesome she’s scary or the other way around,” said Fross, orbiting over Teal’s head.

“Huh. I got one too.” Toby unfolded the note he’d just retrieved from his vest pocket. “…mine just says to tell Teal to check hers.”

“Me too!” said Gabe eagerly. Immediately his face fell, descending into a scowl as he studied his own note. “Okay…does anybody read Sifanese?”

“A lot of Sifanese people do, presumably,” said Fross.

“Man, Arquin,” Ruda said with a grin. “What did you do to get on her bad side?”

“Oh, who knows,” he grumbled, stuffing the folded sheet of unintelligible calligraphy back into his pocket. “Just being my usual charming self, I guess.”

“Yeah, that’d do it.”

Suddenly, Trissiny straightened up as if stung, her eyes widening.

“Oh oh oh oh,” Fross said worriedly, abruptly zipping back and forth. “I just got a ping on—Triss, you felt it too?”

“That demon again?” Toby said sharply.

“Yes,” Trissiny said tersely. “Exactly the same as before. Fross, did you modify the wards at all?”

“Um, was I supposed to? They seemed to work right…”

“No, it’s fine. I was just checking if anything was different about it this time.” Trissiny closed her eyes. “So weird to be able to sense something that far away so precisely… It seems to be just wandering around the town. Just like it was doing last time, at least until I got down there.”

“All right,” said Ruda. “This time, we do this smart. We go in organized, and we do something they’re not expecting.”

“Like what?” asked Juniper.

“Getting help,” said Gabriel, absently clutching Ariel’s hilt. “We get Sheriff Sanders and Father Laws. Plus Val, Sister Alia…” He glanced at Trissiny. “And Takli, I figure. Whatever else she’s doing, she’ll help against a demon.”

“You do realize,” said Teal, “we are talking about leaving the campus during class hours?”

“This is not a coincidence,” Ruda snapped, pointing at the note still dangling from Teal’s hand. “We already know thanks to Arquin’s invisible bugaboos that Tellwyrn and Ekoi are in on this. I say we consider it a class exercise and stick with that if they call us on it. But this is the real deal. It’s a fuckin’ demon, or a shadow of one being puppeted by the Black goddamn Wreath, fucking around Last Rock.”

“And Gabriel’s right,” Trissiny said, turning and climbing smoothly into Arjen’s saddle. “I was in error last time for trying to do this alone. Rallying the townspeople is the best move we can make here—both against the demon, and to help mend the rift Justinian’s propaganda has opened. Gabe, we should go on ahead; we move faster on horseback. We’ll get whoever we can and meet up with the rest of you in town. Fross, can you keep up?”

“I’m gonna stay with these guys,” Fross announced. “Remember, the ward network is keyed to your senses specifically—I can find you through it. That way we can meet up without wasting time.”

“Good thinking,” Trissiny said approvingly.

Gabriel raised two fingers to his lips and let out a piercing whistle. Instantly, an explosion of smoke and shadow blasted out of the ground beside him, sending the others scattering from it, and Whisper dove straight up from the darkness. She landed on her hind hooves, rearing and letting out a challenging whinny, before planting herself firmly on the ground and allowing Gabriel to mount.

“Damn,” Ruda said approvingly. “Sorry, Boots, but his is better.”

Arjen twisted his neck around to face her and snorted so hard her hat blew off.

“You’re the demon expert,” Gabriel said, nodding to Trissiny. “Lead the way.”

She nodded back, gathering her reins, and said to the others, “We’ll see you shortly.”

Then both paladins were galloping down through the campus toward the front gates.

“Never thought I’d say this,” Ruda mused, dusting off her hat, “but I gotta get me a horse.”


There were few meeting spaces of enough size in Last Rock to accommodate any serious fraction of the population, fewer still indoors, and both the church and the town hall were spoken for at this hour of the day. Thus, the unofficial town meeting convened in a disused barn on the outskirts of the village, blissfully unaware of the Black Wreath rituals which had recently been carried out there. A few enterprising attendees had lugged folding stools along with them, but for the most part, the three dozen or so townsfolk were standing, or leaning against the walls.

The barn did have the advantage of a raised platform in the form of an old wagon resting on its axles, the wheels having been commandeered long ago for service in a less rickety vehicle. Despite the aid this provided in increasing his height, Wilson was having trouble keeping the arguing assembly on point.

“Everybody, please!” he exclaimed for the fourth time in the last two minutes. Those who intended to quiet had already done so; the rest of the discussions going on continued, paying him no heed. Helplessly, he looked over to the side, where Sam Sanders lounged against the wall near the wagon. “Sam, can ya give me a hand here?”

“Oh, no, you don’t,” Sanders drawled. “I’m just here to make sure this doesn’t degenerate into shootin’ or somethin’ similarly stupid. You buttered your bed, Wilson, as usual. Have yourself a nice nap.”

Wilson sighed, scowling, and turned back to face the crowd. “Would everybody SHUT UP?!”

Somehow, it worked this time—not instantly, but a hush fell over the front ranks of the throng, rippling backward as people nudged one another and pointed up front, most suddenly looking extremely nervous.

“That’s better,” Wilson said in satisfaction, lowering his hands. “All right, now, thanks to everybody for meetin’ here like this. I know we’re all feelin’ pretty sore about the other night, an’ I’ll acknowledge I made just as much a fool o’ myself as anybody. Still an’ all, there’s still a matter that’s been brung up by all this ruckus that I reckon deserves to be discussed! I think you all know what that is.”

He paused expectantly. The gathered townsfolk were edging backward from the wagon, staring up at it; Wilson frowned at them.

“Oh, c’mon, I ain’t gonna bite anybody. Y’all know dang well what I’m talkin’ about!”

“Wilson,” Sam said wryly. “Might wanna take a glance over your shoulder.”

Wilson scowled at him, but followed his advice. A second later, with a shrill yelp, he jumped so violently away from the back of the wagon that he tumbled to the ground, only missing the front row of his neighbors because they had already edged out of range.

“Very graceful,” Professor Tellwyrn said dryly, unfolding her arms and stepping forward from the rear corner of the wagon onto which she’d teleported. “Interesting time of day to be having a town meeting, isn’t it? I always thought these things took place in the evening because most of you had jobs.”

She glanced around with one eyebrow coolly raised, answered only by nervous shuffling. “Now that I think of it, I don’t see Father Laws…or the Mayor…or any clergy from either temple. Hell, Wilson, you couldn’t even get Hiram Taft to come? At least the banker would provide a veneer of respectability.” Tellwyrn grinned wolfishly down at Wilson, who scuttled backward toward the crowd. “Omnu’s breath, if you’re going to go to the trouble of organizing a meeting when I’m in class, you could at least bother to find out what my class schedule is. It’s easy: just tell Chase Masterson you’re looking to put something over on me.”

A couple of people chuckled nervously.

“For heaven’s sake,” Tellwyrn said with a grimace, “quit creeping toward the door, you turkeys. I teach college students for a living. Believe me, if I were in the habit of vaporizing people for arguing with me, you’d have damn well heard about it before now. If you have a problem with me or my University, tell me so. Well, we’re all here now. What’s on your mind?”

A few coughs were all that answered her. Tellwyrn sighed and glanced over at the Sheriff.

“Hey, I’m supervising these galoots, not participating,” he said, holding up a hand. “In fact, with you here I reckon I just might be entirely unnecessary.”

She fixed her gaze on Wilson, staring down at him over the tops of her spectacles. “I’m sure we all know the answer to this, but is there any chance the person who organized this little charade would like to step up?”

“Ah—well—uh—um—” He had managed to clamber to his feet and now nervously clutched his hat in front of himself with both hands, not meeting her gaze.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Jonas Crete exclaimed, pushing forward out of the crowd. He tipped his hat to Professor Tellwyrn. “Ma’am, I have to confess came along here outta ruffled feelings as much as the belief there was any point to this, after one a’ your students tore through my saloon, damaged my stuffed bear an’ broke into my kitchen.”

“I heard about that,” Tellwyrn said mildly. “I was also told that the kids spent the remainder of the evening fixing damage, but let’s be honest; they’re not always the most industrious little bastards without someone cracking a whip at their heels.”

More chuckles sounded at that, and Jonas cracked a smile himself.

“It didn’t amount to more’n a busted lock an’ some scuffed furniture, easily fixed. Miss Fross came by th’next day an’ even fixed up my bear with a stitchin’ charm, which I thought was right neighborly. Still, a man’s home an’ business is his castle, know what I mean?”

She nodded. “Quite. If anyone wants to put forth a claim for any damages to the University, I assure you it’ll be taken seriously. Sam and the Mayor can reach me at need, if you don’t feel like making the climb.”

“I, uh, can’t speak for nobody else, ma’am, but I don’t feel the need.” Jonas drew in a breath to steel himself, squaring his shoulders. “It’s like this. We’re mostly over all that, ‘specially once it came out what that Vidian witch had been doin’ to the town. In all the ruckus, though, somethin’ came up that still deserves consideration.”

Tellwyrn nodded again. “Go on.”

“It’s like this,” Jonas said seriously. “The way the papers were all carryin’ on, an’ the way Bishop Snowe put it, made it seem like the folks up at the University were holdin’ themselves above us all. Now, for my part, it never really felt that way to me till very recently. This town was a sad little patch o’ farmhouses before the University came along, an’ even if I wasn’t around then to remember it, my pa told me plenty. It’s cos o’ you an’ your staff an’ students that most of us have a livelihood, yours truly included.”

“But?” Tellwyrn prompted when he paused for a moment.

“The thing is,” Jonas continued with a frown, “It gets hard to overlook the fact that who you got up there is nobles, royals, demigods, paladins… An’ a lot o’ miscellaneous others who’re scary powerful, whatever else they are. An’ aside from wherever they come from, they all got places to go. Kids who graduate from that University can write their own ticket in the world. I ain’t bothered to follow up on most of ’em, but the way the papers’ve been carryin’ on, I’d had the chance to learn. The ones who’ve spoken up to journalists all seem to be leadin’ pretty remarkable lives, an’ the lot of ’em give credit for it to you an’ your school.”

“That’s rather the point of education, you know,” Tellwyrn said mildly.

“I don’t disagree, ma’am. In fact…that’s kinda the point. Last Rock’s got kids, too. Not so many, but more of us grew up here than otherwise. All this business… Well, it’s pointed out there’s a divide there. Now, we all know you’ve got a good number o’ just common folk like us attendin’ school, but that’s just it. Them kids go on to lead great lives out there in the world. Those of us just reared down here in the town…well, we stay in the town.”

Jonas got a lot more sympathy than Wilson had; there were a great many nods and more than a few spoken agreements in the wake of his speech.

Tellwyrn, too, nodded slowly, her eyebrows drawing together in thought.

“It ain’t that I mean to criticize,” Jonas said hastily as the chorus died down.

“Of course you do,” Tellwyrn said. “That was a criticism, Mr. Crete. You’ve taken your stand; don’t spoil the effect by backing down from it.”

He coughed, suddenly looking nervous. “Uh, well, anyway…”

“You make a pretty good point, too,” Tellwyrn continued, cutting him off. She nodded slowly, staring into space above their heads. “Hm. I’ll be frank: the fact is, I know very well I’m not the most approachable person. Habits older than the Empire are difficult to shake, I’m afraid. Furthermore, I have a tendency to latch onto ideas that are important to me and not consider other things going on around me. For that reason…if there’s a problem in this town, specifically one with my University, I really need people to let me know. Just because I don’t notice or think about things like this doesn’t mean I don’t care, or that I don’t think you matter.”

Sam nodded approvingly.

“Very well, then,” Tellwyrn said, her tone suddenly brisk. “This is an extremely valid concern, and I thank you for bringing it up, Jonas. And Wilson,” she added puckishly, smiling down at him; Wilson squeaked and backed up into the crowd. “And it seems to have a simple enough solution. Starting with enrollment season next year, any citizens of Last Rock who can meet the academic requirements will be welcome to attend the University, irrespective of any other qualifications. Hm… We normally enroll at age eighteen, but considering the circumstances… I’ll make that open to anyone between fifteen and, let’s say, twenty-two. Any older than that and they’ll be on a different level entirely than the rest of the student body. So, appropriate age, able to pass a basic admissions exam, and at least five years’ residence in Last Rock for qualifications. In fact, I’ll do you one better: we’ll make that a scholarship for anyone who meets the criteria. Last Rock citizens can attend the school at no charge.”

She had to stop there, as the swelling commentary from the crowd became too much to easily talk over. This time, though, the voices were almost entirely jubilant in tone. Some few were still obviously shouting questions, but no hostile or argumentative voices rose above the throng.

Tellwyrn let this continue for almost a minute before snapping her fingers and causing a crack like a thunderclap to ring through the room. “All right, enough! It’s more than half a year till we start enrolling, which should be enough time to work out any kinks. I’ll draw up a more comprehensive document, and anybody with questions or concerns can send them up. I’ll also want to talk with Miss Tanner, who I note is one of those with more important things to do at this hour than attend Wilson’s latest vanity project,” she added more severely. The town schoolmarm, indeed, was at work at this time of day. “And Omnu’s breath, people, if you have something to say, say it. Those old stories are mostly exaggerated anyway; I do not blast people unless they richly and specifically deserve it.”

She shook her head, snorted, and vanished with a soft puff of air.

“Welp,” Sanders drawled, finally straightening up. “That pretty well address your concerns, Wilson?”

“I think that was a, uh, satisfactory conclusion, yeah,” Wilson replied trying at dignity.

“Hey,” Jonas added suddenly, “how come he ain’t in jail, Sam? There was that business about assaulting the Duchess if I recollect rightly…”

“You don’t,” Wilson said furiously. “I never got near the lady!”

“It was assaulting Imperial troops,” Sanders said, rolling his eyes. “And not only did nobody wanna press charges, Duchess Madouri specifically interceded on Wilson’s behalf, requesting leniency.”

“She don’t know him too well, I guess,” someone chimed in from the back of the crowd, earning widespread laughter.

“I got nothin’ bad to say about that young lady an’ I won’t hear nothin’ said against her,” Wilson proclaimed, swelling up like a cockerel. “A right stand-up gal, that one!”

Sam’s attention shifted abruptly; Ox had just entered the barn through its wide-open doors. He towered above almost everyone, making the worried frown on his mustached face very apparent. The Sheriff strode toward him around the side of the mostly-oblivious crowd, rather than trying to push his way through. Ox took the same route, coming to meet him, and as soon as he stepped out of the doorway, Trissiny and Gabriel became visible in it behind him.

They were quickly noticed by the rest of the crowd, and another hush spread through the barn, this one marred by whispers and mutters.

“Sam,” Ox rumbled, “the kids have news you might wanna hear.”

“I see,” said the Sheriff, glancing between them. “Should we head to my office an’ talk in private?”

“I think not,” said Trissiny, her voice low but carrying well through the barn. “This affects everyone.” She turned to face the crowd, all of whom were focused on her now, quite a few still muttering. “There’s another demonic presence in the town.”

At this, there came a mass outburst of shouting and waving arms.

“Will y’all SHUT UP!” Ox thundered.

The quiet was instantaneous.

“Is this anything like the last one?” Jonas asked, pushing forward and folding his arms.

“Exactly like the last one,” said Trissiny, nodding, “and probably the same thing. And after last time, I realize that I made a serious mistake in trying to deal with it. If we just keep chasing this thing away, it’ll just keep coming back.” She glanced across the sea of faces aimed at her, and took in a deep breath. “More importantly, I’ve come to realize that Ms. Cratchley hit the nail on the head. You are all capable people who are accustomed to being responsible for your town and your own lives. For a paladin to come riding in here trying to rescue everybody is a completely wrong-headed approach. This thing is interested in Last Rock, specifically; it’s for Last Rock to fix.”

Sanders nodded approvingly, as did some of the onlookers.

“What can we do?” someone asked.

“It’s an invisible demon!”

“Repent!”

“Carl, I’m beggin’ you.”

“Please!” Trissiny called, holding up both hands, and for a wonder everyone quieted. “We have the outlines of a plan. Some of our friends are on the way down from the campus right now, but to do this we need numbers. Specifically, we need men and women who have weapons and know how to use them, and who can keep a level head under pressure.”

“To put it plainly,” said Gabriel, smiling thinly, “we’re rounding up a posse.”

“The demon is currently on the other edge of the town,” Trissiny continued over the low hubbub that arose, “and so far it doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone directly. We should have a little time, but it’s best not to dawdle. Everyone who’s willing to help, please gather in the intersection right outside here; take time to run home and grab wands if you can, and bring along anybody who might want to help. I’ll also need someone to collect Val Tarvadegh, and Sisters Aria and Takli.”

“Ox, Jonas,” said Sanders, nodding to each of them, “head to the temples an’ do as she says, please.”

“Sheriff,” Jonas said in acknowledgment, tipping his hat and following after Ox, who had simply nodded and strode out into the streets.

“Time is a factor, everyone,” Trissiny said seriously. “Don’t rush, but move as efficiently as you can. Remember that this creature’s method so far has hinged on agitating people and causing damage incidentally, so it’s vitally important that everyone remain calm. I believe I can trust the people of this town to do what’s needed. All right, let’s all get moving. We’re going to try to set out from this spot in fifteen minutes, so I’ll need everyone back here in time to go over the plan.”

Nods and verbal agreements met her pronouncement, but the people appeared to be taking her plea for calm to heart; there were no cheers or shouts this time. People poured out of the barn, streaming around Sanders and the paladins and heading off into the side streets.

“You certain about this, Avelea?” Sanders asked pointedly. A handful of townsfolk remained nearby, those who apparently had nothing and no one to collect; most were now holding wands, pointed safely at the ground. Frontier people were generally most conscientious about wand safety.

“It’s a mistake to be too certain about anything,” Trissiny replied seriously. “This is a demon, after all, and a tricksy one besides. Also…” She hesitated, glancing around at those listening nearby, then nodded almost imperceptibly, as if to herself. “We have intelligence suggesting the Black Wreath is involved in this directly.”

“Here now,” said a middle-aged woman in denim and flannel, two wands holstered at her belt, “think somebody oughta go get Tellwyrn?”

“If someone wants to,” said Gabriel, “we won’t argue. We didn’t, though.”

“Why not?” asked a younger man.

“It comes down to this,” said Trissiny, resting the palm of her left hand on the pommel of her sword. “This demon, or warlock, or whatever is behind it, has not targeted the University—probably because they’re afraid to challenge Tellwyrn. Which is just sensible. What they’re doing is feeling out the town, seeing what reaction they get from poking at people here. Last time, I came charging down here to drive it off, doing a lot of incidental damage and accomplishing nothing in the end. I owe you all an apology for that. And, notably, as soon as things calmed down, it came right back. This is not a problem that can be solved by higher powers coming to the rescue. Demons, warlocks, and servants of evil stop when they are stopped, and not before. They are held back only by the awareness that they cannot win, and only when and where that point has been made inescapably. I don’t intend to leave them any gap to wiggle through, no hint that they can come back here and work their mischief as soon as there’s no paladin or archmage keeping an eye out.”

She drew her sword, pointing the blade at the ground, and spoke subtly more loudly, her voice ringing with confidence. “I intend, by the end of this day, for there to be a very chastened warlock out there who won’t be trying their luck on Last Rock again. Not because of any University on a hill, but because they’ll have seen the character of the people here, and will know that they came to the wrong town.”

This time, the cheers broke out in earnest, and neither she nor the Sheriff made any attempt to stop them.

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10 – 3

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Between wanting to have this over with and being unable to get back to sleep, Ingvar ended up at the temple very early. Dawn was well-risen, the sky a pale gray and fiery in the east, but on city time that meant the night dwellers had long since staggered home and most people were still asleep. The convenient thing about paying a visit to soldiers was that they could be relied upon to be up with the dawn and probably already working. On the other hand, it was a strangely early hour for visiting. Not to mention that soldiers probably didn’t appreciate having their work interrupted first thing—or maybe they did; Ingvar had little notion what soldiers even did in peaceful times.

Plus, there were the obvious pitfalls of coming here.

Though not wishing to be indecisive, especially after Hrathvin’s upbraiding the night before, he found himself pausing at the foot of the steps of the Temple of Avei, staring uncertainly up at it. He remembered the back entrance to the Silver Legion grounds, but walking into an Avenist military base dressed in his full Huntsman gear was a very different prospect alone than when he had been in the company of a Bishop, several brother Huntsmen, and a squad of actual Legionnaires. Oh, and the Eserites, whatever use they were. Generally, clerics were easier to approach than warriors. Hopefully.

He was galvanized into action, not by having reached a conclusion, but by the subtle shifts in posture of the Legionnaires guarding the temple’s entrance, making it plain they were watching him almost to the exclusion of all else.

Carefully keeping his hand away from his tomahawk, Ingvar mounted the steps, nodding respectfully to one of the armored women in passing. She continued turning her head to stare at him, making no gesture in reply. He could barely see the glint of eyes behind her helmet, but could not make out an expression. Didn’t they usually forgo helmets on city guard duty? It wasn’t as if he’d ever paid close attention to the Legions, but he recalled having heard that somewhere.

The temple’s main sanctuary was quiet, currently inhabited only by a handful of Legionnaires posted at regular intervals along the walls and a couple of priestesses at the back, near the great statue of Avei. A few other women in white, some robed, some wearing simple tunics, passed through, most giving him suspicious looks, which he ignored. He also tried to avoid looking at the statue, unable to shake the irrational impression that the goddess was glaring at him. It was bright and peaceful, though, illuminated by fairy lamps. Obviously, no major temple ever closed, but there had evidently been no great business of war or justice overnight, nor any female emergencies. Whatever those might entail.

Well, he was here, now. His half-formed idea of speaking with a priestess and seeking permission to approach the Legion grounds was apparently the one he was going with. That was probably for the best, anyway.

“Are you lost?”

One of the priestesses approached him, a rather diminutive woman of swarthy, sharp-featured Tiraan stock. Her expression was very, very neutral. Ingvar carefully repositioned himself to face her directly, showing full attention even though an Avenist was unlikely to understand or appreciate the gesture, and bowed.

“I don’t believe so. I wish to speak with a Silver Legionnaire. Have I come too early in the morning?”

The priestess raised her eyebrows in mild surprise, turning her head to look pointedly at one of the soldiers standing at attention at the base of a nearby column.

“A…specific Legionnaire,” Ingvar clarified, feeling rather foolish. “I’m sorry, I’m not aware of the Legion’s…visitation policies. I don’t wish to…violate any rules.”

He hated himself a little for the hesitant tone, but it was the simple truth; he didn’t know the rules here, and the fact that Avenists were champions of weird and socially destructive ideas didn’t mean he was obligated to spit in their faces. He certainly wouldn’t get anywhere with them that way.

“What is this about?” the cleric asked.

“It is a religious matter,” he said, then hastily continued when her eyebrows climbed still further. “She knows me. I simply have a question to ask; it won’t take long.”

“A religious matter,” the woman mused. “I assume you are aware that religious matters between Shaathists and Avenists are rarely amicable.”

“Yes,” he said as calmly as he could. “And some men—and women—of lesser character take that as an excuse for rudeness. I see no benefit in treating people disrespectfully.”

Her expression did not soften, precisely, but she looked slightly more interested at that. “I see.”

“Sister, if I may?” The priestess glanced aside at the armored Legionnaire who had approached while they were talking, and nodded. The soldier nodded back and turned to Ingvar. “Who are you looking for, Huntsman?”

For a moment, he was tongue-tied. He recognized this one, obviously: Ephanie, Feldren’s runaway wife. She was a distinctive beauty, and he vividly recalled escorting her squad with Brother Andros. That was the problem: it was inappropriate to speak so directly with another man’s wife in his absence and without his permission, and anyway, he ought not to acknowledge her at all until Feldren brought her to heel. This conversation had the potential to encompass multiple insults to his fellow Huntsman.

On the other hand, she knew Shaath’s ways, might even recognize him, and most importantly, was in the same squadron as Locke. He couldn’t possibly ask for a more useful person to run into. Well, his whole presence here was placing practicality above tradition—might as well continue in that vein while the opportunity was before him. These things didn’t just happen, and the fates tended not to hold out another hand if one disdained their first offer.

Barely a second had passed while he furiously deliberated. He could tell by Ephanie’s wry expression that she had marked the hesitation, but he turned to her and bowed politely before it could stretch out any further. “Ah, good morning. In fact I would like to speak with your squad mate, Principia Locke, if possible.”

Now it was Ephanie’s turn to raise her eyebrows in surprise. “Locke? Sorry, but what do you want with her?”

“It’s…” He glanced at the priestess again. “It is a spiritual matter, pertaining to a vision. I actually need to ask about a family connection of hers.”

Ephanie pursed her lips. “She won’t like that. Locke doesn’t get on with her family.”

“All right,” Ingvar said, struggling to keep his expression neutral and tone polite. “And she is under no obligation to talk to me, of course. But I would like to ask her, please. It’s important.”

“He’s a fairly respectful young…man,” the priestess said, glancing at Ingvar, and he fought back a sigh. “It’s not as if they are banned from the temple grounds. I’ll leave this to your judgment, private; she’s your sergeant.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Ephanie said respectfully, bowing to her. Ingvar took note of that. So they only saluted other Legionnaires, then? Weren’t the clergy above them? Such observations were just habit, of course; Shaath grant that the structure of the Sisterhood never became something he needed to pay attention to. Brother Andros had encouraged his political perceptiveness, and he tried to be in the habit of practicing it.

“It’s this way,” Ephanie said to him, half-turning toward the far end of the sanctuary. “This actually is a very good time for you to visit. Breakfast is about to be served, no one’s on duty yet, and we don’t have the day’s orders.”

“Good,” he said, then belatedly added, “My thanks.” She glanced back with a faint smile, and he simply followed her the rest of the way across the sanctuary and through the doors in the back corner. Eyes tracked them the whole way.

There weren’t many people about in the temple yet, but those they did pass gave him very sharp looks, several stopping to stare rudely. At least nobody accosted them, since he was clearly in the company of a Silver Legionnaire. Ingvar did his best to ignore them.

Of course, that left him with the problem of where to direct his eyes.

The Legion armor was modest, he had to give them that; he could see basically nothing of the shape of her body through it. As a downside, however, that left him staring at her most attractive visible feature: her rare, flame-red hair. That was hardly proper, nor respectful. It was a quandry, though, since his inability to actually see her rump or the curve of her waist didn’t make him comfortable casting his eyes in their general direction. Ingvar finally decided to study the interior of the temple as they passed, and lifted his gaze just in time to get a very hostile look from a priestess who had halted in a cross-hall, planting her hands on her hips.

Maybe he should have affected a less traditional style of dress for this visit, and foregone the weapons. On the other hand, so far, this was going about the way he had expected, and better than he had feared. If he was going to encounter opposition, better to do it honorably, without sneaking around.

“So…Locke made sergeant?” he offered, casting back to a brief mention from the sanctuary.

“Yes.” She glanced back at him again. “You can ask her all about it if you’re interested.”

He turned what wanted to be a sigh into a noncommittal little noise of politeness. Well, he’d tried.

Ephanie’s silence didn’t much bother him. It wasn’t really appropriate for them to be interacting at all, which of course she knew. Clearly she wasn’t holding to proper Shaathist behavior, now, but he’d been half-afraid she would swing in the other direction and go out of her way to spit on his standards, as some wildwomen did. Instead, she appeared to be conducting herself as a model soldier—which, errant as it was for a woman, was a better outcome for their interaction than he really could have hoped for.

It was not a short walk through the temple—they were traversing nearly its entire length, from the main hall in the front to the Silver Legion fortress at its rear, and the temple complex itself was massive. It was like a city, compared to the Shaathist lodge in Tiraas. Ingvar was keenly aware that the journey seemed longer because of his discomfort in this place, both inherent and caused by the glares and whispers that followed him.

Eventually, though, they did reach the fortress; built right into the temple complex itself, the transition was marked only by a checkpoint manned—womanned?—by bored-looking Legionnaires. They livened up considerably at the sight of a Huntsman in their midst, but did not challenge them, even verbally. He wondered at the significance of that; it seemed like lax security for a military installation, if all you needed to get in was the company of someone in uniform.

Crossing the parade ground he remembered from his previous visit to the fortress, they gathered more stares from other Legionnaires, who were trickling toward the temple in the opposite direction Ephanie was leading him. These, perhaps unsurprisingly, proved a less reserved group than the priestesses in the temple proper.

“Oy, Avelea!” one woman shouted in passing. “You got something stuck to your back!” A few of her fellow harridans cackled at this.

Ingvar stopped, turned very deliberately to face them, and bowed courteously before resuming his way, having to lengthen his stride to catch up with Ephanie, who hadn’t waited. The soldiers seemed surprised; the one who had catcalled jeered at him, but none of the others backed her up this time.

Simple courtesy. Much as he’d have liked to pin the lack of it on Avei’s degenerate ideas, he’d met far too many Huntsmen and people from all walks of life who seemed to think they could advance themselves by putting someone else down. Not once had he ever seen anyone improved by another person’s suffering.

They met the rest of Ephanie’s squad midway across the parade ground; apparently the others were among the last to head in for breakfast. They slowed and stopped as Ephanie led Ingvar up to them. Like his guide, they were in armor, with short swords buckled at the waist, but not wearing helmets nor carrying lances or shields. Principia, of course, he recognized immediately. The others didn’t leave much of an impression, except for the sandy-haired girl who hardly looked old enough to be away from her mother, much less enlisted in an army.

“Morning, Sarge,” said Ephanie, stepping over to join her squadmates and turning to gesture at Ingvar. “You’ve got a visitor.”

“I do?” Principia said incredulously, staring at Ingvar.

One of the other women, a dark-haired girl a little shorter than the elf, sighed dramatically. “Why is it always Locke?”

“He was in the sanctuary in front, talking with a Sister,” Ephanie explained. “I thought I’d better intervene.”

“What were you doing up there at this hour?” Principia asked her.

“Praying,” Ephanie said dryly. “In case it’s escaped your notice, Sarge, we live in a temple.”

“Oh,” the elf mused. “I didn’t realize you were…observant.”

“Yes, that’s correct. You know exactly as much about my spiritual life as I’ve cared to tell you.”

“All right, fair enough,” Principia said peaceably.

“Good morning, Sergeant,” Ingvar said courteously, bowing to Principia, who finally turned her attention to him. “My apologies for intruding. I hope I’m not keeping your squad from their duties.”

“My squad wouldn’t stop in their actual duties to chat with you,” she replied. “All we’re missing right now is breakfast. Which they could still be heading off to, if they wanted, though of course that won’t stop them from griping all day about missing it.”

She didn’t so much as glance at the others as she said this, but the youngest girl tugged at the arm of the last member of the squad, a tall, lean woman with skin a shade darker than the Tiraan average, and the two of them resumed walking toward the mess hall. Ephanie, Principia and the sharp-tongued one remained.

“Well, then,” said the elf. “It’s… Ingvar, yes? What can I do for you?”

He drew in a breath; this was it. “I need a little guidance. It has been said in the lore we keep of the elder races that all dark-haired wood elves are of a single family. Is that correct?”

Principia’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you ask?”

“I need to know how to contact Mary the Crow.”

Ephanie blinked; the other girl snorted derisively. Principia just stared at him.

“The smartest thing you could possibly do,” she said, “is stay as far away from Mary the Crow as you can manage. I’d say that to anyone, but in particular, she doesn’t have a high opinion of Shaathists.”

“What?” said the third girl. “I thought they didn’t hold elves to their bullshit double standard?”

“I really don’t feel like having a theological discussion before breakfast,” said Principia, turning to give her a sharp look, “and keep a civil tongue in your head while we have a guest, Private Lang. The Crow has her own issues with the Huntsmen.”

“Well, maybe this one would have better luck anyway,” Lang said, eying Ingvar up and down. “I’ve never seen a female Huntsman before.”

“Lang,” Ephanie said sharply, “shut up.”

Ingvar drew in a breath and let it out slowly. It was just to be expected; this one seemed particularly ignorant even by Avenist standards. It happened all the time; sooner or later he would just have to stop being bothered by it. Surely, someday.

“What is it you want with Mary the Crow?” Principia asked him.

He hesitated. Discussing spiritual matters with outsiders wasn’t smiled upon, and for good reason. On the other hand, he clearly wasn’t going to get any further here without explaining himself, at least somewhat. Give and take.

“It pertains to a vision,” he said finally, “and a quest. In a vision I was directed to seek guidance from a crow. It…could mean something else, but I believe Brother Andros and I encountered her previously, just before our last meeting. Visions are challenging,” he admitted. “I don’t know whether I am even tracking the right spoor, but this is the best idea I have.”

Lang rolled her eyes, but Principia nodded slowly, her expression more serious. “Well. Actually, that casts another color on this. You wouldn’t be the first; spend enough time being a big heap shaman and things like this start to happen. Mary has been the target of vision quests before, and she does take them seriously.”

Hope rose in him, mingled with unease. Progress was good, but a weak little part of him had wished for an excuse to give up on this whole venture. “Then you’ll help me?”

“Well…up to a point,” she said, shrugging. “I honestly have no idea where Mary is, nor do I wish to. I follow my own advice with regard to her. The less anybody interacts with the Crow, the happier they are.”

“I see,” he said, sighing. “Well. I thank you for your time, anyway. You have at least helped me see the path.”

“Now, wait a moment,” she said with a faint smile. “I can give you a little more help than that. If you want to get in touch with Mary the Crow, she has some kind of established relationship with the Eserite Bishop, Antonio Darling. Check with him; he probably can’t call her up either, but he may know more about how to reach her.”

Ingvar’s recently lifted hopes plummeted.

Oh, he remembered Darling. Much as he had to acknowledge some personal antipathy, due to the man’s generally foolish countenance and his failure to address Ingvar as a man, there were much better reasons to keep away from the Eserite. He remembered very well what had happened to Angner. It wasn’t even that he regretted any harm suffered by that Wreath traitor, but it was the way Darling had been. He’d heard very detailed accounts of it, how the man’s silly exterior hadn’t wavered through cold-blooded torture and shocking cruelty.

A man like that was… Scarcely human. A viper in a songbird’s plumage.

“You have a problem with Darling?” Principia said dryly, and Ingvar realized he’d done a poor job of marshaling his expression. “I must say that’s a first. His favorite thing in the world is making friends with everybody.”

“I’ll bet,” Ingvar muttered. “That man is… He’s just… Creepy.”

There was a moment’s silence, and then Principia and Lang burst out laughing in unison. Even Ephanie hid a smile behind her hand.

Brother Andros liked to say that women were to be experienced, not understood. Ingvar had questions about that logic, but this wasn’t the first time he’d had the thought that he was better off not bothering.


 

“Wilson,” Ox said wearily, “did your mama ever tell you the story of the boy who cried wolf?”

Wilson broke off his gesticulations to squint suspiciously at the bigger man. “What? Course I know that story, what of it?”

“I want you to consider that in light of this here situation,” Ox rumbled. “You carryin’ on about this, an’ the general lack of interest in what’s got you so worked up. Every time anything happens, here you are complainin’. When nothin’ happens, you complain about that.”

“What’s your point?” Wilson snapped.

“His point,” said Jonas idly, watching the progress of the various personnel breaking down the tents, “is that you’re the boy cryin’ wolf. You complainin’ an’ stirrin’ up trouble ain’t worth a prairie dog’s fart, you do it so damn much. Someday you’re gonna have an actual point, by accident, and ain’t nobody gonna pay you any mind then, either.”

Wilson swelled up like a bullfrog, leaning forward and planting his fists on the table between the other two men. “Y’all can be assholes all you like, that don’t mean I’m wrong! You heard the Bishop speak—I’m just embarrassed I never thought about what she said before, even after livin’ in this town my whole life!”

“Too busy havin’ thoughts about a bunch of other shit that ain’t none of your business either,” Ox said dryly.

“Yeah, you laugh it up, big man. I ain’t the only one who feels this way,” Wilson said stridently. “It ain’t fair, the way them kids lord it over us. What gives ’em the right?”

“I oughta just ignore him, I know it,” Jonas said to Ox, “but I got this allergy to people talkin’ out their asses about stuff I actually understand.”

“That there’s a serious condition,” Ox said gravely. “You should see the doc.”

“Omnu’s breath, Wilson,” Jonas said before Wilson could start up again, “sometimes I think if I put as much effort into anything as you do into bein’ wrong I’d be Emperor. Them kids are exactly like any bunch o’ kids anywhere. Yeah, some of ’em do look down their noses at us. Course some do; there’s assholes like that anywhere. An’ y’know what? Most don’t. Ain’t always the rich ones, neither. That Falconer girl’s just about the sweetest thing I ever did meet, an’ I remember young Lord Ravinaad who got his own hands dirty helpin’ me clean out the stables after a couple of ‘is friends got drunk an’ raised hell behind the Saloon. No complainin’, didn’t even offer, just rolled up his sleeves an’ got to work like a good neighbor.”

“Them kids ain’t anything but different,” Ox agreed. “All types, from all over the world, but in the end they’re basically just folk. If you’d pay attention, there’s a lesson in that.”

“So how come none of our kids are invited to the fancy education up on the mountaintop?” Wilson demanded.

“Why, Wilson,” said Ox, “an’ here I had no idea you were a father. Who’s the unlucky lady?” Jonas snorted a laugh.

“Oh, shut the hell up,” Wilson said irritably. “Not my kids, our kids. We got young folk of our own, just like any town anywhere. What do they grow up to? Learnin’ a trade, takin’ over the farm or the shop. Some go off an’ join the Army or some clergy.”

“Name to me one thing that’s wrong with any o’ that,” said Jonas.

“Not a damn thing an’ you know it,” Wilson pressed on. “It’s the comparison. You know what those kids up there on the hill become? Rich. They leave here knowin’ all about the world, havin’ skills none of us could even dream of. A graduate of that University can write their own damn ticket any place they feel like goin’. Most of ’em leave with connections that’ll get ’em into the highest levels of whatever part of society they want, an’ I know you two hicks ain’t backward enough not to realize it’s who you know that matters in life. Well, we know ’em. How come the children of Last Rock have nothin’ better to look forward to than takin’ over a saloon or a farm?”

A thoughtful silence settled over the table, Ox and Jonas holding their mugs of beer without raising them for a sip. Both stared out from the shade of the Saloon’s awning, wearing identically pensive frowns as they observed porters, pack animals and the odd enchanted carriage hauling folded tents and religious paraphernalia toward the Rail platform.

“Huh,” Jonas muttered at last. “Ox, I suddenly wonder if this ain’t that moment. With an actual goddamn wolf he’s hollerin’ about.”

Ox heaved a sigh, causing his thick mustache to flutter. “Some folks have the good stuff, some folks don’t. That’s the way of the world, every damn part of it. You set yourself up to fix that, and you’re gonna have a hard time. Professor Tellwyrn’s always done right by this town as I see it, an’ I got no problem with a lot more o’ those students than I have got one with. Dunno what more a man can reasonably ask for.”

“Oh, yeah, she’s always done right,” Wilson said sarcastically. “’cept when those little assholes are opening up hellgates right over our heads.”

“One time that happened,” Ox grunted.

“So fuckin’ what?” Wilson exclaimed. “It was a goddamn hellgate! Omnu’s balls, man, one is all it takes! An’ they never did figure out which of ’em even did it! What the hell is gonna be next, is what I wanna know!”

Again, they fell silent, and after a moment, Wilson straightened up, folding his arms across his chest and adopting a smug expression.

At the other end of the shady front porch of the Saloon, Embras Mogul pointed to the three men, turning to his companion. “Now, there, y’see? Isn’t that absolutely fascinating?”

“Not particularly,” Bradshaw grunted. “That was a pretty direct jab Bishop Snowe launched. It’s bound to set people talking. Talk is easy.”

“Talk is the first step to things which are less easy,” Embras replied, “either to do or to live through. And you just got here, old boy; take note of how quickly I managed to find a suitable target for us to eavesdrop upon. I’ve been hearing little chats like this all weekend, starting before our dear Bishop Snowe fired a shot across Tellwyrn’s nose.”

The three men started up their conversation again, taking no notice of the two at the other end of the porch. Neither did any of those passing by on the street, despite Mogul’s glaring white suit and Bradshaw’s ominous gray ritual robe.

“I hope you’re not leading in the direction I think you are, Embras,” said Bradshaw.

“Well, it’s not as if this is a particularly difficult trail to follow,” Embras mused, lounging against the pillar at the corner of the porch. “The pattern I’ve been observing throughout this…revival…is consistent enough, and surprising enough given the general state of things in this town, that I can see the hand behind it. We already know Snowe is little more than Justinian’s charming and attractive mouthpiece, and there’s nothing like a religious festival to give him an excuse to flood the town with agents spreading dissent.”

“There’s not enough town here to flood.”

“You are being needlessly argumentative,” Embras accused. “Face it, Bradshaw, the Archpope is trying to stir up Last Rock against Tellwyrn.”

Bradshaw shook his head. “I just can’t see it. Even if there’s evidence hinting in that direction, which I’ll admit, it’s just that. Hints. Come on, Embras, Justinian’s smarter than that. What could he possibly hope to achieve? Tellwyrn is…outside the social order. Stirring up resentment against her, even if successful, would barely inconvenience her. The gods aren’t about to step in to bring her down, the cults wouldn’t bother to, the Empire has an actual policy about Zero Twenties that hinges on not stirring them up. Any other agents who wanted Tellwyrn taken out would’ve done it long since, had any of them the capacity.” He snorted, shaking his head again. “It’s ridiculous. He can’t do anything but piss her off, which is not a winning move. Justinian’s not nearly dense enough to try something like this.”

“And there, my friend, you’ve hit the nail on the head,” Mogul said gleefully. “He wouldn’t try something so insane—and yet, clearly, he is. Therefore, this is not Justinian’s game, but only the smoke screen obscuring his true motives. As you rightly point out, he’s more than savvy enough to operate on multiple levels, and not about to throw effort after foolishness.”

“Hm,” Bradshaw grunted, stroking his chin and frowning at the arguing men at the other end of the porch. “All right…let’s run with that theory, then. Offhand, I can think of two possible goals for stirring up trouble with the University. First, he’s trying to provoke a reaction from Tellwyrn that’ll get someone else to step in and finish him off for her. I’m inclined to dismiss that, since pissing off the cranky archmage is how stupid people throughout history get themselves dramatically dead.”

“On the other hand,” Embras said, raising a cautionary finger, “if there’s one man in all the world who could take that risk, it’s a sitting Archpope. As long as he stays in that Cathedral and keeps on top of his prayers, she can’t bring him down by force. Dear Arachne might be on a level to challenge the gods individually, but the whole Pantheon would crush her if she provoked them to.”

“Which is the fatal flaw in this idea,” said Bradshaw, nodding. “Despite her reputation and reliance on blunt force, the woman isn’t in any way stupid. She wouldn’t take such a risk even if provoked, and honestly I would expect her to see through such a transparent trap. Which brings me to my other theory: this is an effort by Justinian to coax us out.”

“Seems rather roundabout, doesn’t it?” Embras mused. “Tellwyrn and the Lady have a sort of detente in place; it doesn’t mean we have any connection to her.”

“As you said, there are currents here we don’t yet see,” Bradshaw agreed, “but after Tiraas this spring, we know Justinian’s interested in drawing us out and thinning our numbers. And yes, I know that was Darling’s game, but he couldn’t have done that without the Archpope’s support. Seems to me the best course of action here is to butt out.”

“The safe way isn’t always the best way, my friend,” Embras said with a wide grin. “I see great potential, here, to advance the work I started in Veilgrad.”

Bradshaw groaned, lifting his trembling hand to cover his eyes. “You and those paladins…”

“Yes, those paladins,” Embras agreed. “Think of it, Bradshaw. What would happen if the Trinity’s paladins learned their great secret? Would they strike them down like they do everyone else? How would they cover that up, in this age of printing presses and telescrolls? And the other option is even more intriguing!”

“Yes, yes, I’ve heard this speech at least thrice this week.”

“Then you should see my point by now without all this naysaying,” Embras said with mock severity.

“And you should pay more mind to the Lady’s agreement with Tellwyrn. We are not to harm or interfere with her students. Chaining them to trees is hard to justify as anything other than interference, Embras!”

“I saved those wretched kids’ lives, and you know it.” Embras chuckled, shaking his head. “This is more of the same. Think of it! The Church against the University—those paladins are going to be caught right in the middle. They’ll be in just all kinds of trouble. What better opportunity to do them a few favors? And if we have to interfere with them a bit first, well… Eggs, omelets, you know how it goes.”

“The Lady may appreciate your hair-splitting,” Bradshaw warned. “Tellwyrn will not.”

“Indeed. That’s why we’ll have to be very careful to stay out of sight until we can produce evidence of just how useful we are. Do the kids a solid favor and vanish into the night before there’s any talk of reward—that’s the kind of thing that gets us in Tellwyrn’s good graces.”

“I don’t think she possesses any such thing as good graces.”

“Well, it’s how we get her to owe us a favor, then,” Embras said irrepressibly. “And the active immortals always respect a favor owed. That’s the currency that keeps them from killing each other off, after all.”

Bradshaw sighed, staring down the street. The square beside the Rail platform was visible in the distance, bustling with activity; more caravans had arrived and departed today, carrying Church and cult personnel and material, than the town saw in the average month.

Across the porch, Jonas rose and turned to enter his saloon, leaving Ox and Wilson to carry on their argument. The bartender’s expression was thoughtful, and troubled.

“I still think the odds are good this is a trap, and quite possibly one aimed at us,” Bradshaw grunted.

“But of course,” Embras said with a grim smile. “Spotting the trap is only the first step—next comes leading the hunter who laid it to step in it. And really, old friend, isn’t that the fun part?”

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2 – 19

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McGraw began to have a fatalistic feeling about the day when he wasn’t even allowed to finish breakfast. It wasn’t that the food at the A&W was particularly sumptuous, or even that he could afford to give it his undivided attention. He always kept an eye and ear on his surroundings when out on a mission, and in this particular town he also had his mental senses attuned to the wards that would notify him of his quarry attempting to flee via Rail. It was breakfast, though. There were some things to which a man was simply entitled, things he took it amiss when someone interrupted them.

He had, as usual, chosen a seat in the front corner of the room, which afforded him a view out the windows and one of the inn’s common room itself. After Tellwyrn’s surprise visit, he’d also taken to keeping a weather eye on the door. As such, he of course noted the five figures assembling in the square outside, but didn’t assign any particular attention to them until the one in the middle bellowed his name.

With a sigh, he glanced down at his plate of eggs, beans and hash browns, currently half-finished. The thought of just ignoring them crossed his mind, but with some regret he dismissed it. The sort of fool who stood outside a tavern yelling for someone to come out was the sort of fool who’d create an even more disruptive ruckus if they weren’t obliged. He brought the bite currently sitting on his fork to his mouth and stood, carefully wiping his face and beard with his napkin, and strolled across the room to the bar while chewing.

He swallowed just before reaching the waitress currently minding the tavern and tipped his hat politely to her. “Mornin’, miss. Just wanted to settle up here, in case I don’t get the chance later.” Smiling unthreateningly at her wary expression, he set a small stack of coins on the counter.

“That’s…uh, that’s well more than enough,” the girl said carefully.

“I’m aware. Listen, those kids outside yelling in the street? If they’re in a position to take advantage later, give ’em a round on me. They’re likely to need it.”

Nodding to her again, he turned and strode unhurriedly toward the door.

McGraw stepped outside and descended the short steps to the square, then came to a stop a couple of yards from the front of the tavern.

“Mornin’,” he said politely, tipping his hat. “It’s a mite early for it, don’t you think? I don’t suppose you kids would care to do this later.”

Two of the five—the women—he recognized from the tavern and around town; they were by far the more distinctive. The more absurd, if he was to be honest. The one in the center who’d been yelling was the attractive young lady in the dramatic black leather that showed a distracting amount of skin. He’d done his best not to be distracted, of course. McGraw’s policy was never to ogle a woman unless she specifically indicated that she wanted him to, and this one looked more the type to invite attention just so she could ream some poor fellow out for showing it. The other was a short, waifish, rather hollow-cheeked girl in sweltering black robes, clutching a staff of dark-stained hardwood. A magical staff, but not one that fired bolts of lightning at the press of a switch. No, it was a wizard’s staff in the tradition of his own, an aid to spellcasting. For all that, he didn’t perceive any arcane energies around her. A witch, then, or warlock? Either way, an amateur. People who meddled with either fairies or demons quickly learned to be serious and not waste time on such melodramatic touches as sweeping black robes and ornately-carved staves, or they came to a swift and sticky end.

The men were slightly more respectable-looking, with the exception of the mage, who was actually wearing hooded robes straight out of the last century. The man was middle-aged at least, with a slight paunch and as much gray as brown in his beard; of all people, he ought to know better. Beside him stood a fellow who wasn’t a cowboy but had dressed as one, his leather and denim attire brand-spanking new and embellished with needless embroidery, surmounted by a white ten-gallon hat. He also sported late-model wands holstered at his belt, over which his hands hovered menacingly. On the other side was a nervous-looking fellow in a plain suit, a bronze badge at his lapel marking him a cleric of Salyrene.

“Justice,” said the girl in leather self-importantly, “doesn’t wait till it’s convenient for you.”

“Now, I might be mistaken,” McGraw said mildly, “it wouldn’t be the first time. But I was under the impression that justice in this town was the province of a nice fellow with a badge, who has the actual authority of the Empire to hand it out.”

“Our weapons are all the authority we need,” sneered the “cowboy.”

“That’s no way to live, son,” McGraw told him gravely. “It makes for a world that ain’t fit for anybody to live in.”

“There are things more important than the law,” the girl in leather said sharply, clearly trying to steer the conversation back toward herself. “Especially when assassins hide behind the law to do their dirty work.”

“Was that directed at me?” he asked. “I didn’t realize I was hiding behind anything.”

“There are higher powers,” intoned the girl in the black robe. She had a thin, strained voice. “Higher concerns. A great doom is coming; it is whispered on the wind in every corner of the world. Those who care to stand against the darkness must do so, ere it is too late.”

“Kid,” he said wearily, “nobody talks like that.”

“Enough,” snapped Leather. “We’re not here to argue the point. Any point. We know what you’re here for, Longshot, and it’s not happening. I think you should leave town.”

“If there’s a problem with me minding my own business in this fair little burg, I believe I’ll wait till I hear about it from an official source. Just as a point of curiosity, though, are you kids aware the people you’re protecting are members of the Thieves’ Guild?”

That caused a stir in their ranks. The girl in the leather narrowed her eyes; the cleric actually twitched as if startled, looking over at the leader as if for direction.

“So,” said the mage with a smile, “you not only know who we’re discussing, but that they need protection. Sounds like an admission to me.”

“Well, it seems I’ll have to grant you that one,” McGraw said, chuckling ruefully. “Fairly caught. That’s what happens when I don’t get to finish my breakfast. What’s your story, friend? Forgive my pointin’ it out, but you don’t seem to quite fit in among these whippersnappers.”

“Rotscale,” the other wizard replied, holding up an arm and pulling back the sleeve of his robe to show a long streak of black, hardened skin. “I’ve been to every cleric in Tiraas; they can’t do a thing. The doctors say I’ve got two years, tops. Always wanted to be a hero, ever since I was a boy. Facing the prospect of actually dying in bed, well… A man reassesses what’s naïve and what’s true.”

“That, I can respect,” McGraw said, nodding gravely. The other man nodded in return, his expression still calm and faintly amused.

“So what’s it gonna be, McGraw?” asked the girl in the leather. “Are you gonna leave on your own terms? Or do we have to do this…the hard way?”

“Ideally,” he replied calmly, “the outcome here is that I go back inside and finish my meal, and y’all cut this foolishness out and go get a real job. Ain’t my policy to tell anybody how they oughta live, but I do wish you’d consider the consequences of your actions for people who aren’t you. This here’s an inhabited town,” he nodded to the side, where a dozen or so townfolk had gathered to watch the proceedings with great interest. “Anybody starts shootin’, there’s likely to be bystanders injured and sure to be property damage. Also, the way you’ve been carryin’ on out here, I expect the Sheriff to arrive any second, and as things stand it ain’t me who’s aimin’ to spend a night in the pokey.”

That brought them up short. Some of the bluster leaked out of the leader; she glanced uncertainly around at the buildings and people nearby, while the cleric and the robed girl looked to her for guidance. The cowboy only stared at McGraw, a faint grin hovering around his mouth. That one was going to be trouble, no matter how this played out.

“All of this,” McGraw went on, “is leaving aside that you poor saps have been suckered in by some authentically bad people to do their dirty work. So I’ll turn your question back around on you, miss. You wanna step inside, have a seat, talk this out like civilized folk? Or would you prefer to do something foolish and get buried under the consequences of it? What’s it gonna be?”


 

Watching from the shadows of a nearby alley, Thumper cursed softly to himself. Already it was all going wrong. All those damned kids had to do was be their stupid selves, and they couldn’t even do that right. Even as he watched, he could see their resolve faltering.

As usual, he had to do everything himself.

He pulled a small hinged case from the inside pocket of his coat and flipped it open; inside were several vials from his potion kit. He might be a fake salesman, but the props provided for his cover were quite real, and he had taken the precaution of bringing several along in case they came in handy for today’s work. Selecting one, he shut the case and tucked it back away, flicked the cork off the vial with his thumb, and drank it down, grimacing at the bitter taste. Would it interfere with the functioning of alchemy to add some damn flavor?

At least it worked. In seconds, his own arms faded from view. Clothes and all, luckily; he’d read horror stories of adventurers caught in sticky situations when their invisibility elixirs had only concealed flesh, but thankfully modern alchemy was more reliable.

Shook was no sneak-thief, but he’d grown up on the streets of Tiraas and knew how to move quietly. For all that sneaking out in the open in broad daylight set his nerves jangling, he circled around the little tableau unfolding in the square without being spotted by any of the participants. He’d half-expected McGraw to be able to see through the effects of the potion, but it seemed luck was with him.

He ghosted around behind the five would-be heroes, creeping up on the fool in the cowboy hat just as McGraw was finishing up his little speech. He was right about one thing: the sheriff would be here very soon. Thumper had singled out this guy when Tazlith had introduced him around to the posse she’d put together: he was aggressive, reckless, and exactly the sort of fellow who could be relied on to start trouble. Even if he didn’t actually start it, nobody would have a hard time believing that he had.

As the fives wannabes hesitated, glancing at each other, Thumper crouched, moved in closer, and then lunged. He grabbed one of the cowboy’s hands with one of his and his wand with the other. The man cried out in surprise and tried to pull away, but Thumper was faster, stronger and had the element of surprise. He mashed the wand against the man’s hand, twisted it in the general direction of McGraw, and squeezed the clicker.

The shot missed, of course, cracking one of the wooden supports holding up the A&W’s awning. That didn’t matter; what mattered was that to those watching, it looked like the man had performed a quick draw and fired from the waist.

It had been a gamble; it would have backfired had his targets shown any introspection or reserve, but human nature didn’t fail him. Once the shooting started, the thinking stopped.

McGraw hadn’t been in the path of the wandshot, but he nevertheless threw up a shield, a sparkling blue sphere around himself, which protected him from the blast of unfocused shadow magic hurled by the girl in the black robe. People screamed and ran in all directions. The cowboy had dropped his wand when Thumper let it go, and was looking around in confusion.

The Sheriff would be there in seconds, surely.

Thumper was already on his way back into the alley.


 

Principia had chosen a good spot once she heard the shouting begin. For all the trouble-making types who came through Last Rock, few bothered to make use of the town’s rooftops, which was almost a shame; the stone structures were extremely solid and their slate shingles kept in good repair. They also didn’t transmit sound well, so as long as she stepped lightly, nobody knew she was making her way over their house.

It helped that people never thought to look up.

The sloping roof of the general store had a conveniently-placed chimney from behind which she peeked down at the action in the square. She had marked the alley into which Shook had vanished prior to the action starting, and thus noted the faint disturbance of invisible footsteps in the dust heading toward the adventurers. It was, she had to acknowledge, a good effect. If not for elven eyes and the fact that she’d been watching specifically for something from that point of emergence, she would have missed it.

“You bastard,” she murmured with a faint smile. He was nothing if not predictable.

Prin ducked lower as the first shot went off, hiding herself completely and thus losing her view of the action. There followed two more wandshots and the less distinctive sounds of spells being cast, then a lull. She peeked out again a moment later, taking stock of the scene.

McGraw had vanished. Unless one of those fool casters had managed to disintegrate him—about as likely as a sudden revelation that she was in line for the Imperial throne—that meant he had moved to reclaim the advantage. The fact that she didn’t know where he was…well, that could be all kinds of bad.

Tazlith was trying to rally her troops, who were varying degrees of frightened, confused and pissed off. Principia decided none of this needed to be dealt with by her.

Moving lightly as a squirrel, she darted across the rooftops to the large house where she rented an attic, slipping neatly through her open window into her chambers. Even using her unconventional paths, nowhere in Last Rook took long to reach.

Prin shut the window behind herself, turned to her enchanting table…and froze. She darted over to the door—yes, it was open, the lock broken. Naturally Shook didn’t have the skill, and probably also not the inclination, to pick a lock like a professional. She looked back to the table, where her row of carefully enchanted rings were missing.

“Bastard,” she said with more feeling.

Right. Predictable.

Speaking of, at that moment her broken door pushed open and Longshot McGraw ducked inside.

“Ma’am,” he said courteously, tugging the brim of his hat to her. “Pardon my intrusion, but it seems I need to move up my timetable considerably.”

She stared at him for one silent moment before bolting.

Prin threw down a coin as she fled; its simple anti-magic charm wouldn’t have held against anything a wizard of McGraw’s caliber threw at it deliberately, but it disrupted the stasis spell he tossed after her enough that she only felt a brief tugging sensation before she managed to dive through the still-open window.

She somersaulted midair and landed on her feet in a slide, shooting straight down the sloping roof tiles. In the alley below, she kicked off the far wall to blunt her momentum and rolled as she reached the ground, sprinting for the mouth of the alley.

McGraw’s teleportation wasn’t as tidy or potent as Tellwyrn’s; his appearance was presaged by a split-second flash of blue light, giving Prin enough warning to skid to a stop rather than plow into him, and his reappearance came with a crack of energy and a static buzz that made her hair try to stand up.

“It seems,” he said conversationally as though nothing had just happened, “that your friend Mr. Shook has set a pack of ravenous puppies on me. I actually have to admire his cleverness; I’d feel quite bad if I brought harm to any of those silly kids, which hampers me more than a little. My feeling, though, is they’ll maybe be a bit less trigger-happy if I show up again with you in tow. They did turn up to protect you from my depredations, after all,” he added with a grin.

Principia backed up two careful steps. “Why are you doing this?”

He shrugged. “The money’s good.”

“That is what I meant. Why? You could have apprentices…wealth, a life of comfort. You’re ten times the mage any of those turkeys who go adventuring in the Sea are. Why this?”

McGraw tilted his head to one side, regarding her curiously for a moment before replying. “Short answer is, it’s something to do.”

“Seriously? That’s it?”

“Miss, when you get to my age—”

“I’m at least twice your age.”

“—you start to think about who you are and what you really want, whether you intend to or not. I stumbled into the adventuring life quite by accident and spent a couple decades moaning about it…but come time to retire, I found the thing I truly fear is… Well. Apprentices, wealth, comfort, and all the trappings of a staid life. Won’t say I crave adventure, as such, just…not to be bored. Things like this suit me fine.”

She crept back another step. “I could only wish I had your problems.”

“I imagine my situation looks a fair bit better’n yours at this moment. Not that I’m not enjoying this discussion, ma’am, but I also am not a fool. We can carry on chatting while we walk, if you are so inclined.” He leveled his staff at her and smiled politely. “This way, please.”


 

Shook made a point of breathing hard as he dashed up to the adventurers, who were huddled together in the square. Townspeople had fled; they had the place effectively to themselves for the moment. Where the hell was that Sheriff? It had been more than a couple of minutes already; Sanders had never been so slow to respond to a disturbance, at least not from what the locals had told him over the last few days. He’d had to wait for the counteragent to the invisibility elixir to take effect, and had been sure he’d come back to find his minions slugging it out with the law while their actual quarry slipped away. Well, odd as it was, he’d take it.

“Everybody all right?” he panted, doing his best to look concerned. “Damn, he moves fast. I didn’t even have a chance to get in behind him.”

“Jeremiah,” Tazlith said with obvious relief, turning to him. “Marks says he was grabbed; somebody got his wand and made him shoot at McGraw.”

“We are not of one mind on what to make of this story,” said Lorrie, the warlock. “It seems terribly convenient for him. Terribly inconvenient for us.”

“I didn’t detect any invisible presence,” the mage (whose name Shook hadn’t troubled to learn) intoned pompously. It was all Shook could do not to roll his eyes.

“Dammit, I should’ve expected that,” he said, putting on a rueful face.

“What?” said Tazlith. “What do you mean?”

“The whole point of this was to stand him down, prevent it coming to a fight, right? McGraw told me to my face he’d like nothing better than if I started the shooting so he could claim self-defense. If he realized we weren’t going to oblige him, obviously he made it seem you were starting the fight.”

“Can…can he do that?” Marks asked uncertainly.

“Man’s a famous battlemage. Who can say what he can do?”

“It’s an interesting theory.”

They all spun toward the speaker in unison, those who had weapons raising them. Sheriff Sanders was striding toward them, his stare promising murder. With him came Ox Whipporwill… And the three Imperial soldiers quartered at the University.

So that’s what had taken him so long.

“I cannot recommend strongly enough that you lower those wands,” Sanders said grimly. “Needless to say, a thorough investigation of everyone involved in this mess is forthcoming. If there’s been magical meddling, we’ll find out, one way or another. In the meantime, though, you are all coming down to the office with me. It’ll look much better for you if I don’t have to be assertive about it.”

“All we wanted to do was protect that girl McGraw is after,” Tazlith said stridently. “We’ll cooperate in any way we can, but right now he is still out there, and so is she. We aren’t the threat here. Do your job, Sheriff!”

Shook would have winced if her blustering didn’t so perfectly suit his aim of deflecting the trouble toward herself. That was one of the top ten things you absolutely did not say to law enforcement.

“This ain’t a conversation, miss,” Sanders shot back, placing a hand on his own wand. “I am gonna repeat myself one more time, and after that I’ll assume you’re resisting. We are going—”

“Excuse me,” said the robed mage, “but you should all see this.”

They turned to look where he pointed, Sanders a second after the others as if expecting to be attacked from behind if he averted his eyes. It was no trap, though, at least not for them. McGraw and Principia were entering the empty square from the street beyond. She walked in front, stiffly, her hands balled into fists at her side. The old wizard strolled behind her, staff resting over his shoulder, puffing idly on a cigarillo.

“Hello again,” he said. “Ah, ah, ah, let’s nobody go an’ do something rash. There’s been enough dust kicked up for one morning, I think. Seein’ as how Ms. Locke and myself seem to be the source of all this commotion, we’ve talked it over amongst ourselves and decided the most responsible course of action is for us to remove ourselves from town till everything has a chance to settle down again.”

“That true, Prin?” Sanders asked tersely.

She glared at him. “Of course it’s not fucking true, you half-wit, I’m being kidnapped! Do something!”

McGraw shook his head. “Nobody around here can ever let me do anything the easy way,” he said fatalistically. “Y’know, I believe I’m beginning to actively dislike this town.”

“Feeling’s mutual,” Sanders said, drawing his wand. “Elias ‘Longshot’ McGraw, you’re under arrest.”

“If you consider the matter carefully,” McGraw replied calmly, smiling, “I think you will find that I am not. As I was saying, Ms. Locke and I will be leaving the town now. I leave it to you and these lovely people to decide how much needs to get broken in the process, Sheriff.”

“You are astronomically outnumbered, villain,” the warlock intoned. “Submission is your only wise course.” Around her, the others readied their weapons; wands and staves were aimed at him, and Tazlith drew a pair of throwing knives.

“It seems to me,” McGraw said evenly, stepping up behind Principia so that he addressed them over her shoulder, “a show of force isn’t appropriate in your situation. I’m assuming, of course, that you would rather Ms. Locke not get shot in the process. I might be wrong about that. Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“We fan out, take him from all angles,” Shook said tersely. “He can’t hide behind her skirts if he’s encircled.”

“Thank you for your input,” Sanders said sarcastically.

“What?” Principia screeched, a note of hysteria entering her voice. “No shooting!”

“Do you wanna get hauled off into the prairie to be executed like a dog?” Shook replied. “Just keep your head down and try not to get shot.”

“No! Fuck you, Shook! No shooting!”

“Prin—”

“Go to hell!” She was shrieking now, eyes wide in panic. “Nobody’s taking shots in my direction just because you would rather I’m out of the picture! You stole my fucking enchanted rings and left me high and dry, you faked the shot at McGraw with that invisibility charm! This bullshit is entirely your fault!”

“Wait, you did what?” Tazlith said, whirling on him.

He glared at her. “This is not the time—”

“He’s wearing rings,” the robed man noted. “Rather a lot of them. I wondered about that.”

“Seems I’m gonna need a bigger cell,” Sanders said wearily. “Goddamn it, the middle of the street with weapons pointed in all directions is not the place for this. Everybody stop whatever the hell you’re doing and stand down!”

“Y’all clearly have matters to discuss amongst yourselves,” McGraw said cheerfully. “We’ll just be heading—”

“No, you don’t!” Sanders raised his arm, aiming his wand right for McGraw and disregarding Principia’s squeal of protest. “Nobody fucking moves!”

McGraw opened his mouth to reply, but cut off, his eyes widening as they shifted to look past the group. Immediately he and Principia were wreathed in a sparkling sphere of transparent blue light. Two wandshots splashed against it, causing it to flicker and dim—Marks and one of the soldiers had apparently been spooked by the sudden spell effect.

“Hold your fire!” Sanders roared, to no effect.

McGraw pointed his staff at the ground between them; light flashed along its length, and an elaborate circular glyph appeared on the paving stones. Everyone backed rapidly away from it, Rook and Moriarty swiveling to point their weapons at the shape that began forming out of mist above it.

“What the fuck?” Marks moved one hand to aim at the figure, keeping his other wand pointed at McGraw and Principia.

“He summons something,” said Lorrie, shifting her staff to rest in the crook of her arm and folding her hands together. “Two can play at this game.”

“No!” Tazlith shouted, whirling on her. “Dammit, we talked about this! Do not bring that damn thing out, this’ll all go to hell if you lose control of it!”

“An elemental!” exclaimed the mage as the missed coalesced into a figure. It wasn’t even vaguely humanoid, though it had two arm-like protrusions. “How does an arcane wizard have access to a water elemental?!”

“Oh, shit.” Sanders’s outburst wasn’t aimed at the elemental, however; he’d glanced over his shoulder, following McGraw’s eyes.

“Shoot it!”

“Don’t shoot it! Don’t make it mad!”

“Will somebody do something?!”

CRACK!

The bolt of power that roared across the square, making all their hair stand up and momentarily blinding everyone, was massive enough nearly to suit a magical artillery shot. It struck the creature dead center; half its mass evaporated on the spot, the rest splashing harmlessly to the ground, apparently now inert.

The weapon that had fired it was clearly antique. Shorter than modern battlestaves and at least twice as thick, it was a throwback to the age when such enchanted weapons were a new invention borrowing from older sensibilities; elaborately carved, decorated across its whole length with bands of silver and surmounted by a globe of glowing crystal, it looked like what an artist designing a cover for a penny dreadful might imagine an old-fashioned wizard’s staff to be.

The person carrying it had made that perfect shot with the cumbersome weapon one-handed, using the other to prop herself up on one of her canes. She glared coldly at McGraw.

“Shame on you,” said Mabel Cratchley.

With a burble and a huge gout of steam, the elemental rose up from the ground; it was smaller now, but clearly re-forming itself.

This time, Marks, Lorrie and the cleric dived away as Miz Cratchley blasted it again, Rook stumbling backward from the incredible force and falling on his rear. It made a smoking crater in the middle of the square where it struck.

The staff, too, was smoking now, though Miz Cratchley didn’t pay it any mind, shifting her aim to McGraw.

“Don’t do it!” Principia wailed, cowering back against him.

“Impressive shootin’, ma’am,” McGraw said, tipping his hat to her. At some point in the last minute he had dropped his cigarillo. “But there’s a reason those old thunderbuses were taken out of service. One more shot and the thing’s likely to blow up.”

“I’ve lived long enough,” she replied, staring him down. “I’m ready to account for myself to the gods. Are you?”

McGraw stared back at her, apparently lacking an answer to that.

Before anybody could act or come up with something to say, there came a soft pop from right between the two groups, the effect rather underwhelming after the recent show of firepower. The effect on the group of the figure who materialized was another matter entirely.

“All right,” Arachne Tellwyrn said flatly, “that’s enough.”

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2 – 11

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He stepped calmly from the Rail caravan and looked around, resting the butt of his staff on the stone platform. Around him rose Last Rock, a collection of plain stone buildings that weren’t old but would not have looked out of place in a bygone era. Aside from the modern dress of the people passing by, and the scrolltower perched at one edge of the square, it could have been a painting of a medieval village.

To his right, another man weakly extracted himself from another caravan, clutching the edge of its door for support briefly before wobbling out onto the platform. Listing from a combination of dizziness and a limp—probably freshly acquired—he stumbled toward the tavern at one side of the square, its sign proclaiming it the Ale & Wenches.

He snorted. Pretentious. The kind of name designed to sucker in fools who went treasure hunting in the Golden Sea and called themselves “adventurers,” as though they were dungeon delvers of old.

“Made the trip all right?”

He looked to the left, finding himself approached by a towering, burly man with an impressive mustache in a faded old Imperial Army coat. His expression was solicitous, but stern.

“Well enough,” he said easily. Tucking his staff into the crook of one arm, he reached into his coat and pulled out a small cigar case, carefully selected a cigarillo, and lit it by tapping the end against the head of his staff, this whole display giving the big man time to look him over carefully. He knew the way of these small towns.

His appearance, as he was well aware, invited scrutiny. The tan leather duster he wore was old, scarred, and even burnt in places, as was his matching flat-brimmed hat. Around his neck was a sweat-stained bandana, and his boots, though of fine quality, had been with him long enough to bear their own scars, too deep to be healed with polish. Below all that, though, his suit, while also dusty and rumpled from travel, was presentable. Much as it galled him to admit it, his age was an asset. Nobody seemed to expect trouble from a well-lined face framed by steely gray whiskers.

“I think that other fellow came off it a bit worse than I,” he said mildly, jerking his head toward the man who was even now limping through the A&W’s doors.

The big man had fixed his eyes on the lighting of the cigarillo with a faint frown, but apparently decided he passed muster. “That’s Jethro, he comes through here every couple weeks. Works with some bank in Tiraas, has some business with the University. After a whiskey he’ll be good as new. I’m Ox. Welcome to Last Rock, stranger.”

“McGraw.” Clenching the cigarillo between his teeth, he took the proffered hand and shook it firmly. “Good to know you.”

The crack of the Rail re-igniting its transit matrix sounded; a static buzz washed over them and his arcane senses were momentarily blinded by the activation of complex, powerful enchantments so close. It passed quickly, though, as the caravan accelerated away and was soon lost to view.

“Damn fool contraption,” Ox grunted. “I dunno why the Empire lets people ride those things. They kill a couple dozen a year, as I understand it.”

“Control,” he said simply, puffing at his cigarillo. Ox raised an eyebrow. “I was around when the Rails were new, got to ride in some of the very first caravans. They had safety harnesses. The cargo cars still do—all kinds of straps and buckles to hold things steady. Despite what the Empire likes to say, those things were not meant to move troops. They were for moving adventurers, specifically to the frontier.”

“Never heard that,” said Ox, frowning.

“Suppose, friend, you’re in charge of running some rats through a maze. You want ’em to go a specific way, get ’em to the end where you want ’em. Now what’s a better use of your energies: trying to herd and heckle each one along, or move the walls such that they naturally lead where you want?” He glanced over at his new acquaintance; Ox was studying him more closely now, his eyes narrowed. He grinned, teeth clutching his cigarillo. “The world is run by a certain kind of men, my friend. Be it the crowned kings of old or the bureaucrats of today, they’re well-fed men in expensive suits, who have no idea what it means to risk your neck and bust your ass workin’ for a living. To governments, rats in a maze is all we are. The Empire was modernizing, moving from a chaotic loot-based economy to one of systems, structures and laws. Shunting off the well-armed loners to the last place guaranteed to grind ’em up en masse served two purposes: getting them out of society, and helping to push back the frontiers as far as they can be pushed, so society has room to expand. Thus, crazy rattletrap Rails, fit for those willing to risk their necks, but sure to discourage the saner, calmer breed who they want to stay in the cities and pay their taxes. It was…elegant, really.”

“That’s…an interesting theory,” Ox said noncommittally when he finished.

He shrugged. “And I may be wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. A funny thing, though… There are hardly any adventurers or adventures left, these days. Lo and behold, the Rails are getting upgraded. The ones serving the interior provinces are downright comfy, now, safe as your mother’s arms. Last I heard, the schedule they’re on, even these frontier lines will have full safety features within two years.”

“Well, whatever the Empire’s motives, that I can get behind. All I know is, these Rail cars are insane. Sooner they get straightened out, the better.”

“On that we can agree.”

“What brings you to Last Rock?”

“Oh, I’m just stopping in on my way elsewhere,” he said easily. “I heard a friend of mine might be loitering in this town and thought I’d see if I could catch him. Name of Shook? Greasy-lookin’ fellow, cheap suit… Ostensibly a salesman but I’ll lay odds he’s not been seen trying to sell jack shit to anybody.”

“I know him,” Ox replied slowly. His increasingly serious expression told McGraw this was, indeed, the place. “He don’t cause any trouble, just hangs around the A&W, playing cards and drinkin’. Seems to be an acquaintance of Prin’s.”

“Prin? That wouldn’t be Principia Locke? Brunette wood elf?”

“You know Prin, too?” Now, Ox looked downright leery.

“Only by reputation. We have acquaintances in common, you might say.”

“You’re not reassurin’ me, McGraw. Shook’s not good for much that I can see, but like I said, he’s no trouble. Prin’s another matter. I’m not sure Last Rock needs any more of their ‘friends’ moving in.”

“Oh, don’t worry none about me,” McGraw said, grinning around his cigarillo. “Like I said, I don’t aim to be here long. Just to pay my respects, and then I’ll be on my way. You attached to the law in this town, by any chance?”

“There’s no budget for a paid deputy,” Ox rumbled, “but I help out Sheriff Sanders when help’s needed. I live on a pension; I’ve got the free time.”

“That’s good to hear, friend, good to hear. Do give the Sheriff my regards, won’t you?” He puffed smoke contentedly for a moment, jabbing his cigarillo in the direction of the A&W. “How’re the accommodations over yonder?”

“Clean. Food’s good, whiskey’s…plentiful. Ain’t a quiet place, though; that’s the common watering hole for the University kids and every wannabe hero who passes through on the way in or out of the Sea.”

“Perfect. I believe I’ll arrange a bed for the night. These old bones don’t look forward to another Rail ride any sooner than they have to.”

“I’ll let the Sheriff know you’re in town, then,” Ox said firmly. There was no mistaking the warning in his tone. McGraw just smiled at him.

“Do that, friend. Perhaps I’ll see you around.”


 

No one had ever accused the Ale & Wenches of false advertising.

There was ale, technically, though frontier tastes being as they were, the A&W did more business in whiskey, with beer coming in second. As for the other part, the serving girls did indeed dress in medieval-style attire, prominently featuring low-bodiced peasant dresses and blouses. That was as far as it went, however. There was invariably at least one burly man with a cudgel and a wand on duty, but they rarely had time to step in, even when the need arose. In a town the size of Last Rock, every one of those girls was the daughter of someone’s friend or neighbor. The University kids knew to treat them politely; out-of-towners seldom had to be told twice. Even had any of the young ladies in question been willing, there was absolutely no chance of a traveler slipping her a coin and taking her upstairs.

Despite the way expectations thus yielded to the reality of modern life, the A&W remained a perennial favorite of the students and the would-be heroes who passed through town, because it played perfectly to their fantasies. The fairy lamps illuminating the common room were of the flickery old style rather than steadier modern versions, and housed behind yellow-tinted glass that made their light resemble that of torches. Maps, hunting trophies and well-used old bladed weapons decorated the walls, and the room itself was of rough timber and plaster with fieldstone accents, just like the illustrations of taverns in modern books full of old stories.

It was an unspoken joke among the citizens of Last Rock that the illusion pitched by the A&W succeeded so well because those who bought into it were no more adventuring heroes than the tavern itself was a real adventurer’s bar, such as had formed a basic economic role throughout the frontiers five hundred years ago. The closest thing to real adventurers present were the University students, who were an odd, eclectic and often dangerous bunch, though they were ironically the better-behaved of the patrons. Those who were actually there for adventuring purposes rarely deserved to be taken seriously. People did, occasionally, still find treasure and glory in the Golden Sea. Most of those who went looking came staggering out weeks later, half-starved, traumatized, and hell and gone from wherever they’d entered…those who came out at all. It wasn’t something rational, well-adjusted people attempted.

Principia loved it here.

She didn’t push the swinging doors open and stand in them—aside form being mindful of the cliché, it wasn’t her habit to be the center of attention unless a specific con required it. Usually there was better hunting to be had in blending in. But she did, as usual, slip to one side of the doors and treat herself to a moment of soaking in the ambiance. This was just like old times. The Age of Adventures was already stumbling toward its slow end by the time she’d started her career, but she was still old enough to have been in a few adventurer bars—the real ones. Those were some of her happiest memories.

But that was then, this was now, and she was on a particularly unforgiving deadline. The reminder of her straits soured some of her nostalgic pleasure, and she narrowed her focus to the night’s business.

It was after sundown on a Friday and the A&W was predictably busy, but she had no trouble zeroing in on her targets; they were ensconced at the largest table in the place. The three privates stood out in their navy blue Army uniforms, and were keeping company with a couple of the more exotic University kids. Chase and Tanq blended in as they would in any group of miscellaneous humans, but Hildred, a honey-blonde dwarf girl, and especially Natchua made for a more distinctive sight. There was a card game in progress, as well as tankards and pitchers and platters of the A&W’s simple but good finger food.

Prin took a moment to consider her approach. She needed those boys’ interest, and first impressions were vitally important.

“Hey! PRIN!” Chase waved at her, grinning delightedly. “Perfect timing, get that perky butt over here!”

Her sly smile wasn’t entirely faked. Once in a while, fortune did favor her.

She threaded her way nimbly through the crowd, pulled out a chair between two of the soldiers and plopped down. “What’s this, then, you started without me? Now my feelings are hurt. Somebody better buy me something to compensate.”

“Something shiny or something alcoholic?” Tanq asked with a grin.

“That’ll do for a start!”

She received a smiling greeting from Hildred and a glare from Natchua, which she knew by now not to take personally. It wasn’t personal, and wasn’t even the usual hostility that drow often held toward surface elves and vice versa; Natchua was simply, as usual, trying for the “brooding badass” look, and as usual managing only to come off as surly. The three soldier boys all eyed her with interest.

“Well, hello,” she purred at them. “I don’t believe you’ve had the pleasure.”

“Not so far,” said the swarthy one to her right, grinning. “Am I going to?”

“I haven’t,” Chase complained. “Rumor has it that makes me the only one in town.”

“Funny thing is,” she said airily, setting a stack of copper coins on the table, “he keeps saying things like that to me, and yet appears to think he’s going to get somewhere. Deal me in.”

“I am very stupid,” Chase agreed, nodding solemnly. “This is known.”

It was a good group to work. Chase and Rook, the soldier with the olive complexion, were jokers and talkers, keeping conversation going. Finchley, Hildred and Tanq were quieter, but affable; Natchua and Moriarty were too sullen and stiff, respectively, to contribute much, but that was fine. A group that size would have been chaos with everybody talking over each other. Prin could apply her charm in chaos—she could apply it anywhere, but chaos was less than ideal.

A few hands and a pitcher of beer were enough for her to get the measure of her targets. Moriarty she dismissed as a prospect to leverage. Not that she couldn’t do it, but guys like him required a lot of effort and very particular tactics, which she had neither time nor inclination to pursue. Finchley and Rook were likelier prospects, though the personalities demanded such different approaches that she wouldn’t really be able to work both at one time. Luckily, she’d placed herself right between them at the table, and both kept giving her eyes of interest. Prin didn’t devote great time or attention to her looks; sometimes, in company like this, being an elf was all it took.

Half an hour after sitting down (it didn’t do to rush these things), she’d settled on Rook as her best prospect, as he was clearly the more careless of them. Getting useful intel on Tellwyrn out of him here, now, during a loud poker game, wasn’t really an option, but she had plenty of room to strike up a rapport to be leveraged later. This couldn’t all be done in one night.

Hopefully that would be enough to keep Thumper off her for a while longer.

She had just gotten down to a seriously, slowly escalating campaigns of subtle touches and flirtatious glances when a man stepped up to their table.

“Evenin’, folks,” he said, tipping his hat politely. “This a closed game or can an old wanderer join in? Ain’t had a good round of cards in far too long.”

Principia gave him a carefully calculated look—not overtly hostile, but not one he’d have mistaken for welcome. Such an addition would shift the dynamic of the group, and she’d have to take time to adjust her tactics. She needed to come out of this with, at minimum, plans to meet up with Rook later. Something concrete, as Thumper wasn’t the sort to understand subtler degrees of progress.

“Glad to have you, stranger!” Chase said cheerily without waiting to get anybody else’s opinion. “I don’t mind taking your money if you don’t mind donating.”

“Much obliged.” The old man pulled over an unoccupied chair from a nearby table and seated himself beside Hildred.

“Another hand like that last one, Chase, and you’ll be out of it for the night,” Tanq warned.

“Nonsense, I’ll just tap into my reserves.”

“You asked us not to let you do that. Remember?”

“Oh, I say lots of things. You should always listen to what I’m saying now. Past me was naïve and innocent, and future me will probably be drunk.”

Prin appraised the new arrival silently. He was clearly well along in years, and had the dark complexion of a westerner, though his skin was several shades lighter than Tanq’s. The ragged old coat and hat gave off a certain impression, but the staff gave another one entirely. That was no mass-produced soldier’s weapon, but an old and hand-crafted object polished to a dull glow, surmounted by a short obelisk of smoky quartz in an asymmetrical iron setting. There was no clicker, or any mechanism to activate it, meaning its owner did so mentally, which she could have guessed anyway; even from across the table she could feel the haze of arcane energy around the thing and its owner.

He caught her looking and nodded politely, giving her a small smile. She returned an equally stiff one.

Their game resumed mostly unchanged. The stranger, who gave his name simply as McGraw, was on the quieter side, or at least seemed so in comparison with some of the others at the table, though he wasn’t shy about joking along, and quickly endeared himself to the party by paying for his own drinks rather than partaking of what was already on hand. Principia let him be, pursuing her own game, which was also going well. Finchley seemed a bit put out at the lack of her attention, but Rook was clearly quite interested.

She felt a little wistful, in truth. It was a good night: food, drink, noise, and the company of friends and cheerful strangers. It would have been nice to simply enjoy it.

McGraw caught the elbow of a serving girl the next time his tankard was empty, beckoning her closer, and murmured a message into her ear along with his order. She smiled, nodded, and gave him a pat on the shoulder as she straightened, then trotted off. Prin seemed to be the only one paying attention to this exchange; again, he caught her looking, acknowledging her with that private little smile.

“What is it you do, McGraw?” Chase asked without looking up from his cards.

“For starters, I take coin from smug kids who try to distract me from considering my bets.”

Chase laughed in response to that. “Well, that must keep you busy. I was just curious—you’ve got sort of the look of an adventurer, but most of those around here are, ah…”

“Younger?” McGraw said dryly. “By a good thirty years’ minimum, I’d say, yeah. Heh, been a while since anybody accused me of having ‘the look.’ Guess it clings to a man.”

“So you were an adventurer, then?” Natchua asked giving him what she probably thought was a piercing look. It made her look nauseous. Not for the first time, Principia felt an urge to pull the girl aside and give her a few pointers on acting.

“One of the last,” McGraw mused, staring down at his cards without really focusing on them. “When I was your age, a body could still make an actual living roaming about, slaying monsters and looting ruins. Not as good of one as previous generations, of course…even then, the end had already begun, so to speak. The times sure are changin’… I had a couple of good scores, though, enough to set me up. Good thing, too, since there ain’t much room for my kind in the world of today.”

“I wish you’d explain that to Professor Tellwyrn,” Hildred commented, taking a sip of her beer. “I think she’s trying to train us up for a new Age of Adventures, sometimes.”

“With regrets, little lady, I’ll leave you to deal with that on your own,” McGraw said with a wry smile, tipping his hat to her. “I managed to have a full career without bein’ in a room with Arachne Tellwyrn or any of her ilk, and I’m long past being foolish enough to be disappointed by it. Anyhow, I fold, and I’ll have to wish you kids good night.” Grunting softly, he rose from his chair, leaning for a moment on his staff. “Get to be my age, you find yourself heading to bed at decent hours whether you want to or not. Enjoy my coin, kids, and thanks for the game.”

“Cheers!” Chase said, suiting the words with a lifted mug, which he then drained.

McGraw looked directly across the table at Principia. “Actually, if I could borrow you for a moment, Miss Keys? Won’t take long.”

She did not freeze like a startled rabbit, nor allow any emotion to show on her face except mild confusion. She was too old, too practiced and too good for that. “Wh—is that me?” she asked blankly. “I think you have me confused with somebody else.”

“I might, at that,” he said agreeably. “Wouldn’t be the first time. I’d be mighty grateful if you’d spare a moment to correct me, lest I waste an evening barkin’ up the wrong tree.”

“Eh…sure, I’ll sit this hand out.” She leaned over to Rook with a smile, placing a friendly hand on his arm. “I’ll be right back. Don’t let Chase steal my coins.”

“Shock! Outrage! I would never!”

“’Cos you can’t reach ’em from over there.”

“Precisely!”

She stepped smoothly around the table and wrapped herself around McGraw’s free arm, simpering up at him. Keep your enemies closer; that applied double to casters. Besides, she might ignite a spark of jealousy in Rook that she could make use of later. “So,” she said at a good volume as she led him away, mostly for the benefit of the group, “tell me about this clearly attractive and talented acquaintance of yours. You know, I believe I’ve been approached by friends of every dark-haired elf on the continent; we really do all look alike to some people! I wonder what she would say.”

“I’m curious to find that out myself,” he said more quietly, gently steering them toward the only remotely private spot in the common room, a relatively shady nook under the stairs to the second-floor balcony. He had clearly identified it in advance, and timed his approach for a moment when there was nobody in there having a quick grope. That, plus the fact that the arm coiled up in hers was corded with lean muscle belying his apparent age made her consider him a bit more carefully. This one was more than he appeared.

“If you will indulge me in wasting a bit of your time, ma’am, in the interest of not repeating myself I’d like to wait for—ah, nevermind! Speak of the devil.”

Rounding the bottom of the steps into their shadowy alcove stepped the last person she wanted to meet at that moment.

“Why, Jeremiah,” Prin said coolly, “I was specifically not expecting to see you this evening.”

“Always a pleasure, Miss Locke,” Shook replied dryly. “I was just informed by one of the girls that a patron was asking after me down here? You look to have found him.”

“Indeed, at least we’re all gathered,” McGraw said agreeably, gently disengaging himself from Principia. “My apologies for interrupting your respective evenings. It was a bit of bother to follow you all the way from Tiraas, Mr. Shook, and regretfully I didn’t manage in time to grab a word with you on the way. Regardless, and you may well call me a relic of an older age for this, which would be fair enough, but I feel if you’re going to kill somebody, you owe it to ’em to look ’em in the eyes first. Seems to me what little nobility there was in battle went out of it when we moved from blades and armor to magic bursts from a hundred yards away.”

They both stared at him blankly for a moment. Prin eased a step away from him. “…I’m sorry, I think I must’ve misheard you.”

“That’s one of the great peculiarities common to all sentient beings, I find,” McGraw said, reaching into his coat to pull out a thin cigar case. As he continued speaking, he withdrew a cigarillo, lit it by pressing the tip against the quartz head of his staff, and tucked the case away. “I had an acquaintance some years ago…well, a friend, really, as best as men like myself can reckon such things…with the given name of Bell. No matter how clearly he enunciated, upon introducing himself to just about anyone, he’d get back a ‘Nice to meet you, Bill!’” He puffed calmly at the cigarillo for a moment. “Now, nobody thought this over and decided to change his name for him… I reckon none even decided on a conscious level that they’d misheard and corrected it. It’s a thing that happens quicker than thought. Our fickle brains look for patterns, for the familiar. They see somethin’ outside their register of what makes sense, well, they just erase it and substitute something more comfortable. Thus, a man named Bell gets called Bill. Likewise, a man who states his intention to kill the other party in a civilized conversation must have been misheard. Why not? The way we’re accustomed to treating each other, well, it just doesn’t make a damn lick of sense. My apologies for the language, ma’am,” he added, tipping his hat to her.

“Oh, good,” Prin said sourly. “He’s a talker.”

McGraw laughed at that. “Apologies for that, too. Afraid at my age, I’ve already kicked the bad habits I’m going to and made peace with the rest.”

“Just to be clear,” Shook said softly, “you are talking about killing us?”

“Well, her, specifically. Things bein’ as they are, it’s likely to end up being you, too, ‘less you decide to keep well enough out of it.”

“Now why would you want to go and do a thing like that?” the enforcer asked, still in that mild tone. His hands, though, had curled in on themselves, obviously (to the trained eye) preparing to access the knives hidden up his sleeves.

“I don’t concern myself with the likes of ‘why,’” McGraw said, puffing away. “Ain’t a wise thing to ask about, nor a safe thing to know. Once the money’s paid, I proceed with the job. I will say, as I’ve been authorized to do so, that the Thieves’ Guild has stepped on toes that ought not to’ve been stepped on. A rival cult would very much like to see the end of whatever specific business you two are sniffing around after, in the most absolute manner possible. Hence, here I am.” He spread his hands in a gesture that was half-shrug, as though amused by the vagaries of life.

“What cult?” Shook asked tersely. McGraw just gave him a long look. “…right.”

“This is insane,” Principia protested, backing up again. “If you intend to murder someone, you don’t announce it to them ahead of time.”

“Indeed, assassination must come from the shadows, right?” He shook his head. “That’s just the way it’s done. I wonder how many people a year die from seein’ what they expect to, ‘stead of what’s right in front of ’em.”

“You’re in the middle of a crowded bar full of witnesses, most of whom would love nothing better than to jump into a fight and play hero. And threatening murder is itself a crime under Imperial law! All we have to do is go to the Sheriff and you’ll be in a cell faster than you can finish that foul-smelling cigar.”

“You make an awful lot of presumptions concerning what I do or don’t care about,” he replied calmly. “Yes, you could, indeed, go to the Sheriff, at which point the matter would be your word against mine. That can be a dicey thing, when one’s an outsider in these little towns. Folks are more inclined to believe what’s familiar and comfortable to them, as I think I’ve mentioned recently. Course, matters become different when the familiar faces are the town’s two shiftiest residents. My blank slate looks a lot more attractive in that situation, I think. And I happen to find the smell soothing.”

“You can’t just—”

“My apologies for cuttin’ you off, ma’am, but it’s been a long day and I really would prefer to move this along. There are a couple ways this can proceed. Best of all for me is that you try to get the jump on me. Thank the gods for self-defense laws; they’ve allowed me to put down more than a few targets in public without appearin’ so much as suspicious.”

“You’re assuming we can’t take you,” Shook snarled.

“Why, yes,” McGraw said mildly. “It appears I am assuming that. Slightly less advantageous to me is that you try to flee the town, get yourselves lost in the Golden Sea, or the more mundane prairie in the opposite direction. Killing you out of sight of civilization is similarly clean. Just as a word of warning, though, if either of you puts a foot near the scrolltower office or a Rail car, you’ll be dead before the second foot comes down.”

“You can’t watch us all the time, you know!”

“You think not, miss?” he asked in that same tone of calm. “Down the list to the less preferable alternatives, you could just sit on your hands and wait till I’ve got no choice but to act. I have a generous timetable, but I don’t aim to fool around in this town more than a few days. Or, you could attempt to enlist help. It’d have to be help of the illicit sort, since the law won’t be too kindly disposed toward a couple members of the Thieves’ Guild.”

“You can’t possibly prove—”

“That is actually a lot less challenging than you Eserites like to believe. Most people simply don’t bother.”

“That’s because being a member of the Guild is not against the law!”

“Just so, ma’am,” he said agreeably. “But it sure doesn’t make the law more favorably inclined toward you. And if you optimistically assume you’ll be around to continue your operations after I leave town, well, it’d complicate your life considerably to be outed. So, what’s it to be, then? Care to do me a favor and start this right now?”

He puffed placidly on his cigarillo, watching them. Principia glanced sidelong at Shook; she wasn’t armed, and wasn’t much use in a fight anyway. The enforcer was glaring pure fury at McGraw, every line of his frame rigid. He remained silent, though, and made no movement toward the other man. Whatever his prowess in hand-to-hand combat, it didn’t take much wit to see that they were dealing with a magic user of some kind. The way to attack one of those was not from the front, when they were expecting it.

“Pity,” McGraw mused after the silence had stretched out for a few moments. “But circumstances being as they are, I can hardly fault you for being less than accommodating. No offense is taken, I assure you. Well, in that case, I’ll bid you good night.”

He stepped forward twice, till his way was blocked by Shook, who still stood tensely, glaring at him.

“’Scuze me,” McGraw said politely. He received only a murderous stare in reply. After a moment, he grinned around his cigarillo and shifted sideways to slip around the enforcer. “Be seein’ you two real soon,” he said amiably as he turned to mount the stairs.

They stood in silence, listening to the sound of his footsteps above, until they grew too distant to be audible over the babble of cheerful noise in the tavern.

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