Tag Archives: Professor Tellwyrn

13 – 7

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“It wasn’t much of a town, but it was what I had. After living in the capital, I actually let myself think things would be different out here. Quieter. More…decent, somehow. More fool, me. The truth follows you everywhere you go, the fact that people, all people, are exactly the same: no damn good. Human nature covers everything like a thin, greasy film of mold. Serves me right for thinkin’ I was safely out of the business.

“I knew the lady was gonna be trouble the second she walked in, and not just ‘cos I’ve developed a healthy skepticism toward pretty girls wearin’ gold ornaments. No, you survive in the dirty business as long as I have, you just know. Even before they open their mouths, even before they give you the chance to appreciate the sway in their walk, that little voice pipes up in the back of your head, warns you: ‘this one’s trouble.’

“You better believe I listen to that voice. I learned the hard way, it’s never wrong.”

“What the hell is he doing?” Tellwyrn demanded incredulously, turning to the desks at which the other two men present were seated.

“Oh, if you only knew how many times a day I ask myself that question,” Moriarty muttered, not looking up from whatever he was writing.

“He appears to be narrating,” Finchley said helpfully. He was lounging comfortably in his seat, currently in the process of folding a paper glider.

Fedora grinned insouciantly and swung his legs off his desk, bounding upright. “Hey, I gotta practice! I’m planning to write a novel. I was gonna write my memoirs, but I got to thinking and everything interesting I’ve ever done is actually classified, or would tip off some very annoyed people who to come hunting for. There’s totally a market for detective fiction, but everybody’s publishing frontier stories right now—”

“Don’t quit your day job,” Tellwyrn said brusquely, “and I’m not just saying that as the person who pays you to do it. Moriarty, no offense, but what are you writing?”

“Incident report. Nothing serious, Professor, just Chase putting glue on our office chairs. I wasn’t even going to suggest a punishment; in his case there doesn’t seem much point.” Moriarty finally looked up, blinking owlishly. “Wait. Why would I be offended?”

“Because what you’re doing is aimless busy work, and everybody but you can see it at a glance,” Fedora informed him. “I encourage this, Professor; if he doesn’t have something to do, he starts cleaning the place, and that actually does get in the way, unlike the paperwork. Besides, having records actually can come in very useful. You never know.”

She shook her head. “I’m almost afraid to ask, but…where’s Rook?”

“On gate duty,” Moriarty grumbled. “Which is to say, having a nice nap.”

Tellwyrn regarded him in silence for a long moment, which he did not notice, being absorbed in his writing again. Finchley paused in his folding, looking uncertainly up at her, while Fedora leaned against his desk, watching with an expectant little grin.

“It’s good to have you home, boys,” Tellwyrn said finally, cracking a small smile.

“Good to be back, Professor!” Finchley replied brightly.

“You.” She pointed at Fedora. “With me. I want a word.”

“I am yours to command!” he declared, bouncing upright. She snorted and brushed past him on the way to the stairs.

The guardhouse, in keeping with Tellwyrn’s somewhat gothic taste in architecture, came complete with a battlemented watchtower rising a full story above the rest of the structure. It was even with the top of the old campus wall, and afforded an excellent view of both the construction underway in the new extension, and down the mountain and across the prairie below Last Rock. Fedora followed her all the way up the winding stairs without comment, and leaned carelessly against the crenelated wall when they arrived, folding his arms and watching her expectantly.

“This is new,” Tellwyrn said, running her hand along the telescope mounted on the wall. “What exactly did you plan to do with it?”

“Give business to the lens grinder who the town blacksmith hired,” he said cheerfully. “And, more importantly, form a connection and be seen supporting local industry. Mission accomplished. I mean, it’s good for playing pirate and not much else; I figured you’d object if I had it mounted facing the campus.”

Tellwyrn turned to him and planted her fists on her hips. “I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t realize what you were up to until I had the kids safely in Puna Dara.”

“They all settled in, then?”

“They’re fine,” she said curtly. “More to the point, they’re collectively a force which held back a demon invasion. Even without Shaeine and Trissiny, those students are nothing to be taken lightly. Which means anyone looking to attack this campus in any way would have to deal with them first. Just because I acknowledge the reality, Fedora, does not mean I want you taking steps to encourage an assault on my University, especially without consulting me first!”

“That actually wasn’t the point,” he said, his tone and expression serious now. “My thinking was that anyone planning to attack the campus would need to remove them first, and with all respect to your teaching methods, that particular group doesn’t do subtle very well. The Sleeper outmaneuvered them; the kinds of forces we’re dealing with definitely could. Taking them off the campus removes the likelihood of something permanent being done to them before they can react. And more importantly, Professor, they aren’t the keystone of this campus: you are. So long as you’re around and in charge, nobody’s going to launch anything too aggressive.”

“But,” she said, narrowing her eyes, “getting them to launch something aggressive is what you say we want.”

He nodded. “When the time comes, however. When we’re ready. Getting the sophomores out of the way protects them and gives us the power to determine the timing of this future confrontation. Now, all we have to do to create an opening is send you off the campus.”

“Like we just did,” she snapped. “If you expect me to leave the defense of my students entirely to you—”

“Give me credit for a little basic sense!” he protested. “Hell, no. Depending on what might be coming at us, the last thing I want is to be dealing with it and not have you around for backup. The point is that we can fake them out. You can teleport across the world in an instant and I’m sure you have some measures for illusion and stealth in your arsenal. Bombastic bully or not, I can’t imagine you get to be called ‘archmage’ without having at least that much versatility. When the time comes, we let it be known that you’re away, the point being that you’ll be back to spring the trap.”

“Hm,” she grunted, folding her arms. “When the time comes…?”

“We’re nowhere near that point,” he said seriously. “I’m following the rumor mill in town; nothing but murmurs there, at the moment. No sign of unrest among the students, just concern for the Sleeper victims and ongoing efforts to wake them. I can’t get jack shit out of your new research fellows, which is to be expected considering most of them are career politicians, but we have to keep in mind that at least some of those are likely to be enemy agents. But nah, it’s far from time. I need to see a general shape for what’s coming before I can plan countermeasures. I’m still watching, Professor, don’t worry. I expect things to start moving fast once you officially announce that demon-summoning project.”

“Fair enough, I suppose,” she said grudgingly. “But with that said, Fedora, you are not to go over my head like this. If you make plans, I am to be included before they are enacted. Is that clear?”

“Now, hold on!” he objected, holding up a hand. “I wasn’t expecting the sophomores to move out that fast—if anything, I’m concerned about the timing. If they straighten out Puna Dara and get back here before we get our situation dealt with, we’re back at square one with additional complications. We were in front of some of the very people we don’t want knowing about this when I warned you they were moving, and you vanished before I could get you alone. I didn’t even know you were back on campus until you walked into my office just now. Believe me, Professor, I’m pretty comfortable working under somebody who comes and goes as she pleases, but if you expect me to keep you appraised of all of my movements, you’re gonna have to work with me here. It’s just not in my power to follow you zip-zap all over the continent at a whim.”

“I am still not getting you a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman,” she said flatly.

“I don’t know how much that would help in this instance,” he replied, “since you can’t shadow-jump to a person without being familiar with the landing spot, but for the record a number of my other projects would be a lot easier if—”

“No,” she snapped, then sighed and moderated her tone somewhat. “Still… Point taken. I can work to be a bit more accommodating, but so can you.” She pointed accusingly at him. “I know you didn’t go right from getting Raffi Chandrakeran drunk to that meeting; there was time for you to fill me in. If you’re planning anything that’s going to involve manipulating my students, I want to know about it as soon as the plans are somewhat formed. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am!” He came to attention and saluted. After a moment, under her stare, he sighed and resumed his habitual slouch. “I’m working against habit, there… In Imperial Intelligence, paperwork is such a fact of life it’s almost a given you do whatever you can get away with in order to get anything done. And needless to say, none of my previous employers…”

“You work for me now,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “This was your idea. You can either do it my way, or I can send you right back where you came from.”

“Oh, your way it is, no question,” he said, raising his hands in surrender. “I just have to overcome some old habits, is all. But don’t you worry, Prof. I am nothing if not adaptable!”


The Punaji royal family apparently had breakfast in the open air when the weather permitted; at least, that was where the palace servants directed the princess’s classmates as they wandered out of their rooms in the morning.

Juniper was the last to arrive, and she brought a surprise.

“Look!” the dryad squealed, entering the wide balcony bunny-first. She had a firm grip on Jack and held him out in front of herself, while the jackalope squirmed and kicked impotently, clearly displeased with this state of affairs.

“June,” Ruda said in a strained tone, “what the fuck is that fucking rabbit doing here?”

“That’s a rabbit?” Anjal asked, tilting her head and frowning. “It’s huge. Are those antlers?”

“He’s not a rabbit, and you know it,” Juniper said reproachfully, re-settling Jack into a more comfortable position in her arms and stroking him soothingly. He stopped attempting to flail, though his antlers continued to jab her in the cheek, which seemed not to bother her. “It wasn’t my idea, I just found him in my room last night along with a note from Tellwyrn that Stew has better things to do than take care of him.”

At the head of the table, the pirate king cleared his throat. Rajakhan “Blackbeard” Punaji was an enormous man: tall, powerfully muscular, and with a spreading middle-aged gut atop that. His bushy eyebrows and even bushier namesake beard added to his imposing aspect, the effect not in the least diminished by streaks of gray. His voice, even in a discreet cough, was like the growling of a bear.

“I seem to recall reading that jackalopes are notoriously ornery creatures,” he rumbled. “Would this happen to be related to my seneschal declaring first thing this morning that she refuses to have the staff clean that room? I thought she was just afraid of getting eaten by a dryad.”

“I don’t eat people,” Juniper said defensively, tightening her grip on Jack, which caused him to kick again. His powerful hind legs gouged at her chest hard enough to bruise and draw blood, had she been human; she didn’t appear even to notice. “And I’m sorry about that. Jack is my druidic familiar, my first one, and he’s pretty wild; I’m still training him. Don’t worry, I will be responsible and keep him out of trouble, and I can clean up my own room. We do back at Clarke Tower.”

“Glad to hear that,” Anjal grunted, casually seating herself on her husband’s knee. Not a large woman to begin with, the juxtaposition made her look positively tiny. “I worry about little Zari getting spoiled at that place.”

“I can honestly say that that isn’t one of the things you should worry about,” Gabriel assured her. Beside him, Teal heaved a sigh.

“Hm,” Rajakhan grunted, absently wrapping an arm around his wife while giving Gabriel a flat look. “This is the one Zari stabbed?”

Ruda sighed heavily and gazed up at the sky.

“That’s me, sir!” Gabriel said cheerfully.

“I thought it was fucking stabbed,” Fross added, hovering in front of him. “You usually make a big deal about that part.”

“Well, I’m in the middle of breakfast, here. One should never whine on an empty stomach.”

The king turned his baleful stare on his daughter. “I thought these people were your friends. You can’t play as roughly with shorelanders as you would with Punaji, Zari. And I wouldn’t want you stabbing one of our people, either.”

Ruda pursed her lips for a moment before replying. “Arquin is a half-demon, Papa. He’s practically invulnerable. Pain and surprise make him transform—or they did, before he went and got all paladinized. So yes, I put a blade in his foot to make him flare up and spook the White Riders’ horses to get rid of them.”

“I see.” Rajakhan’s dark brows lowered further. “And you couldn’t just fight these men because…?”

“Yes, we coulda taken them,” she snapped, banging a fist on the table. “Easily! It was me, Arquin, and two paladins. But we were standing right in front of occupied houses and they had wands. Bystanders woulda been shot, or at least had their homes burned. I got rid of the fuckers without causing collateral damage. And I apologized, and I bought him new shoes.”

“Fair’s fair,” Gabriel agreed with his mouth full. “I really like these boots, Ruda. Very comfy, now they’re all broken in.”

“Mm.” Rajakhan nodded, seeming mollified, while Anjal gazed up at him in clear amusement. “Very well, that sounds like a good maneuver. So why do you apparently always complain about it, boy?” He frowned at Gabriel, who blinked in surprise. “Sometimes a man has to take one for the crew. It’s nothing to whinge about.” He broke off as his wife stuck a forkful of fish into his mouth, and gave her a sour look, but chewed obediently.

“Oh, don’t get on Arquin’s case,” Ruda said, scowling. “He’s a good guy to have at your back. It’s a running joke, is all.”

The king swallowed, still frowning, and demanded, “And who is Ruda?”

She sighed heavily, shoved her plate away and thunked her forehead onto the table.

“Relax, Raja,” Anjal said lightly. “A girl goes off to college and wants to reinvent herself, it’s completely normal. It’s not as if she’s raising a flag of rebellion against the crown.” She affectionately tugged at his beard. “Or marrying the captain who did so.”

“I hear you two had quite the courtship,” Teal said with a smile, looking somewhat less wan than she usually did these days. “I’d love to hear that story right from the source.”

Rajakhan coughed heavily. “Well, regardless. According to Tellwyrn, you lot are here to help us solve our problems, which we apparently can’t be trusted to do on our own.”

Ruda raised her head. “Papa, I brought them with me. These are my friends, and every one of them is a badass. I know what I’m doing.”

“I also know what you’re doing,” he growled. “And just because Tellwyrn chose to save face by endorsing this project doesn’t mean you weren’t running away from your responsibilities and butting in.”

“Now, see here,” she snarled, beginning to rise from her chair.

“Actually, your Majesty,” Toby said quickly, “we were hoping to get your take on this Rust issue before we start doing anything. Prince Raffi was very concerned about what’s happening here, but he’d been away from Puna Dara for a few weeks by the time we talked to him.”

“You called my brother a prince?” Anjal asked with a distinctly malicious grin. “To his face? I’m sorry I missed that.”

“No, he didn’t,” Ruda said, sinking back into her chair.

“I did,” Gabriel added. “Only the once, though.”

Anjal winked at him. “I’ll bet.”

“The Rust are not the first to try this gambit,” Rajakhan growled, “and I doubt they will be the last. The Punaji respect strength and straightforwardness, and mistrust those with ambition toward power. Others, other cults and rich people and captains, have done this very thing: carefully gathered a base of support to make the crown seem weak while toeing the line and doing nothing that provides a reason to move against them. It’s a fool’s plan. Even those who have succeeded in seizing power this way did not hold it long. We are a people who do not tolerate leadership that would rather play politics than actually govern. We have strong and healthy traditions to ensure this.”

“What happened to the Fourth Silver Legion changes the matter,” Anjal added seriously, even as she folded fish and curried rice into a piece of warm flatbread. “There is no proof that the Rust did this, but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. It is known that the Legion was coming here to keep an eye on them. No one else had a motive to attack Avei’s soldiers this way, and with those machine parts some of them wear, the Rust are an obvious suspect in any magical attack that has no precedent. No one understand how they work.”

“Is the suspicion not enough to move against them?” Toby asked.

The king blew out a snort, ruffling his beard. “Exactly—that’s their scheme. I have all the reason I need to root them out, and yet they’ve shown themselves capable of striking down the finest soldiers in the world, invisibly, from a distance. How can I fight this? And yet, every day that goes by, I make the crown look weaker due to my inaction.” Anjal leaned against him, and he accepted the flatbread sandwich from her and took a bite, chewing with a grim expression.

“And that is exactly where we come in,” Ruda said firmly. “I don’t know what the Rust are capable of and I do not give a fuck: we can take ’em. We’ve stood against hellgates and zombie uprisings, centaurs, bandits, what-the-fuck-have-you. I’m the princess of this country, and you guys are with me. So long as we deal with this, it doesn’t undercut Papa’s rule. It shows Puna Dara has the means to deal with its enemies as hard as they deserve, whatever they throw at us.”

Despite her defiant countenance, both her parents looked pensive.

“I’ve been thinking about this myself,” Gabriel said, frowning and pushing his plate aside to lean on the table. “And I think we need to be real careful not to fall into old habits, here. Considering the other civilized places where we’ve been sent to help…well, this situation is very different on a basic level. Sarasio, Lor’naris, even Veilgrad, all had in common that their societies were beleaguered and the leadership was fragmented, incompetent, or non-existent. We had to step in, basically take over, and organize folks to be able to look after themselves once we were gone. That’s not the case here.” He nodded to the king and queen. “The Punaji have their shit together and I haven’t heard anything to suggest the government here is less than competent. This is dicey because we’re dealing with an enemy of unknown capability, and the big problem is we can’t afford to antagonize them in the wrong way because that risks destabilizing Puna Dara. But that’s the issue: Puna Dara is stable, and once the Rust is out of the way, it’ll stay stable. This is a lot more straightforward than out other adventures.”

“In fact,” Toby said slowly, “this seems more like classic adventurer stuff than what we’ve dealt with before. It’s just an enemy to defeat.”

“Um.” Fross bobbed in place above the table, chiming almost diffidently. “I don’t mean to alarm anyone, but the way you describe it, what we’ve gotta do is remove the Rust subtly and carefully with a minimum of noise and mess, and let’s be really honest with ourselves, guys… That is not exactly our strong suit.”

Juniper sighed heavily. “I really miss Shaeine right now.”

Teal had been staring at the table; at that, she suddenly lifted her head. “I need to visit the Narisian embassy.”

There was a pause while everyone stared at them.

“There’s a Narisian embassy here?” Gabriel asked finally.

“Of course,” Anjal said, raising an eyebrow. “Tar’naris is very interested in maritime trade, now that it’s suddenly a possibility for them. They have an embassy here and consulates in all our cities along the east coast, as well as a presence in Onkawa, Ninkabi, and Tidecall.”

“It’s just like Shaeine did when we went to Tiraas,” Teal continued softly. “I’m the Matriarch’s daughter; within House Awarrion, I outrank the ambassador here. In order to avoid causing a political problem for her, I just need to put in an appearance and make it plain I am at her service, so there will be no question who is in charge among the drow in the city.”

“Um,” Juniper said uncertainly, scratching behind Jack’s antlers, “well, that’s…”

“I wasn’t changing the subject,” Teal said firmly. “It’s the same thing. We came here with Ruda; we need to be seen, in public, making it clear we’re acting at her request. That way, anything that happens is clearly credited to her, and doesn’t look like there’s a random bunch of adventurers taking over in the city. Plus, as the princess, she has deniability; her actions will reflect on the king, but if it becomes necessary to distance the crown from anything we do, we’re not technically acting on his orders. It gives the royal family a little wiggle room, politically.”

“I appreciate the direction of your thoughts,” Rajakhan rumbled, “but it doesn’t quite work that way, here. If Zari causes trouble, that will reflect on me—the more so if I am seen as unable to control my own daughter.”

“I see,” Teal said, looking down at her lap.

“You’re not wrong, though,” Ruda said firmly, reaching over to squeeze her shoulder. “I do need you guys to publicly take my side. And, with apologies to everybody’s pride, let it be known that I’m calling the shots.”

“I don’t think anybody here is going to let their pride trip us up,” Toby said with a smile.

“So, then,” Anjal said, “what exactly are you planning to do?”

A pause ensued, in which they looked uncertainly at each other.

“I was afraid of that,” Rajakhan grumbled.

“Actually,” Fross chimed, “it seems sort of obvious to me. The core problem is we don’t know what these Rust are capable of and it’s too risky to antagonize the lot of them with an overt attack. So! What we need to do is secure a sample for study.”

“Whoah,” Toby exclaimed. “A sample? These are people, Fross. We can’t just abduct one and…and dissect them!”

“Excuse me,” said Ruda, raising a finger, “but just for the fuckin’ record we can entirely do that.”

“I wasn’t proposing to dissect anybody!” Fross exclaimed.

He sighed. “Well, thank goodness for that, I guess.”

“Exactly,” she chimed. “I mean, that would be creepy and unethical, and also probably not informative. Really, we just need to dissect the mechanical parts! If I can figure out what makes those work I bet I can learn a lot about their magic and how to counteract it!”

Toby heaved a long-suffering sigh and slumped down in his chair.

“So it’s a matter of strategy, then,” Gabriel said cheerfully. “How does one seize and dismantle a half-machine cultist? Maybe they’ll freeze up if we dunk one in the harbor? I figure they call themselves the Rust for a reason…”

“Actually, that’s a nickname that they’ve acquired in the city and not bothered to argue with,” said Anjal. “It’s not the actual name of their cult.”

“Oh?”

“They’re far too pretentious for that,” she said, curling her lip disdainfully, “though they at least have the basic discretion not to swagger too much where the public can see; Punaji would not be impressed by it. Their proper name is kept discreet, but we’ve made very certain to be kept informed of their doings. Among themselves, they are the Infinite Order.”

 

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13 – 6

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The Rock looked almost squat from a distance, due to its subtly sloping walls. In shape, it resembled the bottom third of a pyramid, built from the dark volcanic stone of the craggy mountains surrounding Puna Dara. The closer they drew, however, the more its size revealed itself. The palatial fortress was easily the largest structure in the city. Square in shape and perched right on the shore with half its bulk extending into the harbor, it was set at a forty-five degree angle from the shoreline, one corner extending out past all but the longest of the piers.

“Right into the teeth of the storm,” Ruda said as they came into the shadow of the huge fortress. “Nobles in Tiraas, Sifan, Shengdu, everywhere, they like to build their palaces up on the hills, out of the way of…whatever might come. Not the Punaji. There are no weak leaders in Puna Dara; never have been, never will be. When a storm hits the city, it hits the center of government first.”

“Is that why the fortress is positioned that way?” Fross chimed curiously. “It looks aerodynamic! Like the storm winds channeled into the harbor by the shape of the mountains would part around that leading edge out there instead of hitting a big wall head-on.”

“Well, sure,” Ruda said, grinning. “Just ‘cos you lead from the front doesn’t mean you’ve gotta be stupid about it. Quite the opposite, takes strategy to live that way.”

“I am not much for cities as a rule,” Brother Ermon said mildly, “but in just a few days I’ve come to rather like the Punaji.”

Everyone glanced at him silently. That comment stifled the conversation for now, a fact which didn’t seem to bother the Huntsman in the least.

The Rock’s battlements bristled with mag cannons on its sides facing seaward, though no such weapons were aimed west at the city, clearly indicating from where Puna Dara’s leadership expected to find threats. Its city gates stood open, as well, but for all that the fortress was hardly undefended. Broad streets ran alongside it and nothing was permitted to be built against its walls, offering no structure which could provide a path to the ramparts. At its westernmost corner, a huge plaza spread out from the tower where the walls intersected, lined with stores and stalls and filled with a throng of people. The open gates of the Rock were symbolic of the relationship of the Punaji to their King; watchful soldiers, however, not only stood in the gates themselves, but were positioned all around the plaza, a column marching through even as the party from Last Rock drew close.

Ruda moved to the head of the group, but she didn’t even have to open her mouth; upon her arrival, the entire squad manning the gate saluted and stepped aside.

“Psst.” Teal nudged Juniper. “Take off the ring.”

The dryad frowned at her in confusion. “What? But I’m not allowed to be in cities without…”

“That’s Imperial cities. I don’t actually know what laws they have about dryads here, but in Punaji culture it’s an insult and a threat to enter someone’s home with your identity concealed.”

“Oh.” Juniper chewed her lower lip, and began toying with the silver ring she wore. “I guess…”

“It’s fine, Juniper, take it off,” Professor Tellwyrn said. “You’re Ruda’s guest, and Teal is right. Respect the tradition.”

“Okay, if you say so,” Juniper said with clear relief, and pulled the ring off.

Several of the soldiers twitched and turned toward her when her hair suddenly turned green.

“She’s with me,” Ruda barked. “At ease, boys.”

“Is it just me,” Gabriel said in a low voice, leaning closer to Toby, “or has she started swaggering more in the last five minutes?”

“She’s nervous,” Toby replied, just as softly. “Overcompensating.”

“About what?” Toby just shook his head.

They were at the back of the group, though still within Tellwyrn’s easy hearing. She didn’t so much as glance back at them. Teal, however, half-turned her head to give Gabriel a pointed look from the corner of her eye.

The thickness of the walls was incredible; passing through the gate was like entering a tunnel. Soldiers in baggy trousers, scarlet vests and turbans saluted Ruda, all seeming to recognize her on sight, once they emerged into the Rock’s enormous front courtyard. It seemed the fortress itself was built right into its seaward walls, leaving a triangular space inside the wedge which protruded into the city.

“Were we…expected?” Teal asked uncertainly as they stepped back into sunlight. There was a double line of troops extending toward the main fortress, forming a corridor. “I thought this was a sort of impromptu trip?”

“Fortunately for you, not everyone shares your apparent inability to plan ahead,” Tellwyrn replied. “I made arrangements. Yes, you’ll be expected, though they haven’t had much time to prepare. I’m rather impressed at this much fanfare.”

“Well, we all know how the Punaji think on their feet, eh?” Gabriel said cheerfully. “Right, Ruda?”

She didn’t answer. They all turned to look where she was silently staring: at a lone figure emerging from the Rock, heading toward them between the rows of soldiers. After a pause, Ruda suddenly broke into a run.

The woman approaching did likewise, grinning broadly, and they collided near the first rank of troops, spinning around in a bundle of exuberant laughter.

“Mama!”

That close, the comparison was striking. The Queen of Puna Dara was exactly as tall as her daughter—which was to say, not very. Where Ruda was both muscular and curvy almost to the point of plumpness, though, Anjal Punaji was slim as a blade, making her look diminutive in comparison. She wore a blue longcoat trimmed in gold, with neither a weapon nor a hat, revealing the azure gem glittering between her eyebrows and the threads of silver in her black hair.

Anjal pulled back, holding Ruda by the shoulders and grinning. Abruptly, though, her demeanor changed, expression switching to a scowl, and she shook her daughter roughly.

“What do you mean by this, turning up out of nowhere? We don’t pay tuition at that crazy school for you to go haring off whenever the mood takes you!”

“I heard the—”

“So we have some troubles in the city and you think you have to come rescue your poor, helpless old parents? How do you think we ever managed before you came along, Princess? Everyone has their duty and yours is to be studying in Last Rock!”

“I don’t run or hide from trouble when my people need help!” Ruda shouted back, matching her mother’s glare, now. They still stood close enough to hug, clasping each other by the arms.

“Oh, we know that, don’t we? After you decided only you could handle a damned hellgate when everyone was ordered to evacuate!”

“You want I should abandon my friends to danger? Is that how you raised me?”

“I raised you to know your duty and to do it, you—”

“Well, not that this isn’t entertaining as hell,” Tellwyrn said loudly, “but it sounds like you might want to pick it up in more comfortable surroundings?” She looked pointedly at the students and Ermon, all of whom were staring in clear fascination.

The Queen gave the Professor an appraising look, then released Ruda and nodded to her. “Ah, yes. Welcome to Puna Dara! I believe I recognize everyone from Zari’s letters. We received your belongings just a little while ago, everything is in your rooms.”

“Our…belongings?” Toby said warily.

“Ah, so this is as much a surprise to you as to us?” Anjal raised an eyebrow. “You work quickly, Professor. I had a suspicion this trip wasn’t of your planning—or at least, not at first.”

“Sometimes it’s necessary to adapt to the circumstances,” Tellwyrn replied. “While it is possible to effectively imprison my students in order to make them behave, rare is the situation in which that is the best choice. This time… They actually can help, and it makes for a very worthwhile exercise.” She turned a grim stare on the sophomores. “And afterward, we will discuss their respect for my rules at considerable length.”

“Well enough, I suppose,” said the Queen, finally giving the rest of them a smile. “Brother Ermon, thank you for finding our guests.”

“Fortuitous happenstance, your Majesty,” he demurred, bowing slightly. “I take no credit. I suspect none of them needed any guidance.”

“Come on, all of you, I’ll show you to the rooms we’ve prepared,” Anjal continued, stepping toward the castle. “It’s no floating tower, but we take good care of our guests here.”

“I’m looking forward to it!” Juniper said brightly. “I know we’re not here to sight-see, but after everything Ruda’s told us it’s great to finally visit Puna Dara.”

Anjal had begun to lead them toward the fortress, but suddenly slammed to a halt. Slowly, she turned to face her daughter. “And who,” she demanded, both eyebrows rising sharply, “is Ruda?”

The princess heaved a sigh. “Mama…”

“When did this start? Never mind, don’t tell me. As soon as you were out of my sight, wasn’t it? You’re so embarrassed by where you come from you had to rename yourself?”

“Mama,” Ruda said in clear frustration.

Tellwyrn cleared her throat, stepping forward and patting the Queen on the shoulder. “I advise against taking it personally, Anjal. Kids leave home, they want to establish their own identity…take it from someone who knows, this is perfectly normal. I have a drow on the rolls right now who went so far with it her mother tried to call her home in disgrace. I assure you, Zaruda has been nothing but a credit to her upbringing.”

“Hmph.” Anjal fixed her daughter with another long look. “I can see we have a great many things to catch up on. Come along.”

She turned and headed off again. To either side, the lined soldiers stared straight ahead, earnestly pretending to have seen and heard nothing. Ruda sighed again, heavily, and pointed at Gabriel. “Not a fucking word, Arquin.”

“I?” he exclaimed, pressing a hand to his chest and adopting a look of shocked reproach. “Why, dearest classmate, what possible words could I speak that would besmirch your unimpeachable character? Except, I suppose, for possibly bringing up that time you fucking stabbed me.”

Ahead, Anjal stopped again, this time so quickly she actually skidded, and whirled to face them. “You what?!”


The stagecoach rumbled toward the gates of Puna Dara in darkness, though dawn had come long since. As they drew ever closer, the mountains rose higher all around, obscuring the sunrise in the east; now, they were actually in the ancient dwarven tunnel leading to the city itself. It was late enough in the morning for there to be traffic on the broad highway now passing under the mountains, despite the darkness. Their coach proceeded in the company of wagons, travelers both on foot and on horse, and several enchanted carriages, though they weren’t the preferred vehicle for long trips away from cities. Carriages reliable enough not to need repair on such journeys weren’t exactly new, but the public’s tastes hadn’t yet caught up with the state of modern enchantment.

“It would have been near here,” Nandi murmured in elvish. “Where the Fourth was struck down. Or back at the entrance to the tunnel.” Principia glanced at her, but made no comment.

They were on schedule to beat the rest of their squad by at least a day. She and Nandi had made it this far ahead by hopping the stagecoach; two elves materializing out of the wilderness and begging for a ride did not make a particularly outlandish sight, though without the benefit of Avenist armor, they’d been greeted with suspicion. Finally, after paying twice the normal carriage fare, they had been relegated to riding on top with the baggage, despite the fact that there was room in the coach itself. Neither were fazed by these insults; what mattered was that they were on the way, and did not resemble an official presence of the Sisterhood, both being garbed as plains elves. Principia had dyed her hair a more conventional blonde, and if any of the humans they met were familiar enough to recognize the shape of her ears, well, there were any number of reasons a wood elf might have become part of a plains tribe.

In the interest of avoiding notice, the human members of their squad were proceeding much more conventionally. Thanks to Principia’s connections in the Wizard’s Guild, they had been teleported as close as was feasible to Puna Dara, which in the case of herself and Nandi meant the highway not far outside it, but the humans had been sent to Desolation, the last stop on the Rail network. Bypassing even the Rails, the whole squad would probably be the first of the Silver Legionnaires sent by Rouvad to actually reach the city. Elves wandering out of the wilderness might be a typical sight, but four human women doing so would have drawn attention, so they had embarked from the usual carriage line. The squad was to rendezvous at the Mermaid’s Tail as soon as possible. For now, though, the elves were alone.

“This is oddly nostalgic,” Nandi said suddenly, pulling one of the arrows from her quiver and turning it over in her hands. It was authentic; the Sisterhood had surprising things in its armories. She carried a shortbow and arrows, Principia a tomahawk, and both hunting knives. “I honestly hadn’t expected to be dressed and armed like this again till…ever, really. It has been a very long time since I looked back at where I came from.”

Principia watched her face sidelong. The tunnels weren’t illuminated; some of the vehicles passing through them carried fairy lamps, but not their stagecoach. The dimness was no challenge to her eyes, though.

“I guess falling in love is one reason to leave home,” she said at last, also in elvish. “I wouldn’t know. Me, I just couldn’t stand anybody I was related to.”

Nandi smiled slightly, gazing ahead. The tunnel passed under most of a mountain, but they could both see the light in the distance, morning sun rising above the ocean. It would be a while yet before they drew close enough for the humans in their vehicle to make it out. “I didn’t find her until some time after I went wandering, actually. Odd as the idea may seem to you, we may not be so different. I really didn’t fit in among my tribe, either.”

Principia kept her face neutral. Since their early conversations when Nandi had been serving as interim Bishop, the other elf hadn’t seen fit to share anything about her past, and Prin had not inquired. If there was one thing she respected, it was the need to leave ancient history in the dust where it belonged. Still, the fact that Nandi had brought this up, seemingly out of nowhere, said she wanted to discuss it. And Nandi Shahai had never done anything without a reason.

“Not much of a traditionalist?” she asked after a short silence.

“Traditions exist for a reason,” Nandi said quietly, still gazing ahead. “Not necessarily a good reason, but not necessarily a bad one. It’s not that I’m rebellious…at least, not more than I could help. The Elders of my tribe simply found it frustrating that I only approached women as lovers.”

Principia blinked and straightened up. “Wait—they threw you out for that? I mean…I know plains tribes are more strict about some things, but where I’m from that would be an eccentricity, at worst. And where I’m from, Elders compete with each other to see who can be the most stuffy and hidebound.”

Nandi grinned, just faintly enough to show teeth. “Oh, no, I wasn’t chased out; leaving was entirely my own decision. Life is different in the Golden Sea than in the groves, Principia. I don’t begrudge the Elders their concern…exactly. A tribe’s quest for enough food is eternal, and life is dangerous. We would lose people more often than a forest tribe usually does, no matter what care we took. For those responsible for shepherding the tribe’s future… It is a matter of concern to the tribe if a healthy female, for any reason, will not produce children.” She shook her head. “Concern it all it was, not condemnation. But it never stopped. It quickly becomes exhausting and demoralizing, having well-intentioned people constantly try to fix you when you aren’t broken.”

“Hm.” Principia heaved a deep sigh and squirmed slightly, shuffling down to sit more comfortably among the bags and suitcases lashed to the roof. “Now there, I can relate.”

“I bet you can,” Nandi replied, her smile widening.

“No offense,” Principia said carefully, “but you’ve never struck me as eager to trade backstories before…”

“Oh, I’m not prying, don’t worry. It honestly didn’t cross my mind that you would care to talk about your own history.”

“Good, because I don’t,” she said wryly, “but that’s not that I meant. Is this an ‘eve before battle’ thing? Not to understate the danger, here, but I think if we were going to be preemptively struck dead, it would have happened before now. It seems to me we’ve made it in, knock wood.”

“Nothing so dramatic,” Nandi murmured. “I don’t know. Nostalgia, as I said… And having no one for company but another elf, which is a very unaccustomed situation for me. I haven’t made an effort to interact with my own kind in the last five centuries, nor to spend much time apart from the Sisterhood. We have elves, of course, gnomes, dwarves…everything but drow. It is mostly a human organization, though. This is just…I don’t know.”

“Now, that’s not terribly reassuring. I’ve grown to thinking of you as the most self-possessed, even-tempered person in my squad.”

Nandi cracked another grin. “Don’t worry, I am not about to become hysterical. Perhaps I’m just feeling more comfortable with you, is all. One downside to one’s entire social circle being so short-lived: after five hundred years, one grows hesitant to make close friends. Maybe I’d just like to have someone with whom to talk about these things.” She shifted to give Principia an amused look. “You don’t exactly project an aura of reliability or trustworthiness, Locke, but after all these months I feel I do have a sense of your virtues and flaws. And you are a good friend.”

“Well,” Principia said airily, “thank you for not having this discussion in front of the squad.” Nandi laughed obligingly. The silence which followed was comfortable, and lasted until they emerged into the tropical warmth of the city.


She stood at the end of the pier, shading her eyes with a hand. Even so, staring more or less at the sunrise was more than she could handle, and after only a moment she had to turn away, grimacing.

“You’re closer,” buzzed the voice in her ear. “Still not enough that I can get anything directly from the facility from your position, though I can tell it’s a good two hundred meters below your level, as well as almost five hundred meters east by southeast. Can you get closer?”

“Walker, if I get any closer I’ll be swimming,” Milanda said quietly, touching her earpiece. No ships were currently docked nearby, and she had the area mostly to herself, but still, it was generally better not to be seen chattering with oneself in public.

“Hm… So it’s underwater, then, not just underground.”

“Is it possible the whole thing’s just flooded?” she asked.

“Very unlikely. The Fabrication Plant’s facilities could pump out water and secure itself with force fields in a crisis, but frankly, the physical material from which it is made…”

“Mithril, like the spaceport,” Milanda sighed, turning again to peer out at the harbor. She knew, approximately, what a meter was, but didn’t have an intuitive sense of how far that would be in feet or miles. Broadly speaking, though, it would be somewhere in the middle of the harbor.

“Besides,” Walker continued, “if your description of the Rust cultists is accurate, they did not acquire that technology from any contemporary source. Somehow, there is an access to the facility, and they either control it or know where it is.”

“Well, that’s almost a relief,” Milanda murmured, turning and heading back toward Puna Dara. “I wasn’t looking forward to chartering a boat.”

“I doubt very much you could make significant progress that way.”

“Exactly. But if it comes to getting my hands on this cult and getting answers from them?” The Left Hand of the Emperor indulged herself in a smug smile. “That, I am pretty confident I can do.”

 

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13 – 5

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“You are more!”

The Rust cultist had chosen a good spot, right at a broad intersection where a street running perpendicular to the wharves was crossed by another leading into the city in one direction and onto Kapadia’s pier on the other. It was broad enough that the street preacher could not be justifiably shooed away by the city guard for blocking traffic, though the two standing nearby would dearly have liked to, judging by their scowls. She had indeed drawn a crowd, some dozen loitering about out of the path of vehicles and pedestrians, few looking particularly taken in by the ongoing speech. Their expressions ranged from amused to skeptical to, at best, thoughtful. The preacher seemed not the least dissuaded by this lack of enthusiasm.

“So much of life, of the things which surround us, are nothing more than illusion—in fact, the bars of a cage!” She was really into her sermon now, actually pacing up and down a small stretch of the path, gesticulating with her artificial arm. “The things which bind us to what we think of as our place: our roles in society, our lack of resources, our obligations, these are only excuses! The truth, the only real, ultimate truth, is in here!” She paused, facing her audience directly, and tapped at her temple with one fingertip. A metal fingertip, which produced an audible ping against the piece of metal running along the side of her head. “These things bind us because—and only so long as—we accept them! The true work of life is to decide our own reality. To decide what life we wish, and then to decide that is our life—and by deciding, make it so. In the end, it is nothing but our own thoughts with determine what our reality is.”

She was a Punaji woman in her later middle years, her face lined and hair entirely gray, though in movement she was vigorous as a much younger person. Attired in the traditional baggy pants, cloth wrap wound around her chest, and sailcloth greatcoat, her only unusual aspect of costume was that the left sleeve had been torn off her coat to display the metal arm.

It was clear, from this, where the Rust got their name, assuming all the others looked similar. The type of metal was hard to place; its color was coppery from a distance, but in a flat matte tone which did not gleam under the tropical sun. It was the color of rust, though smoothly even, without the variation in hue that actual rust tended to have. And whatever it was made of, the arm was clearly quite functional, moving smoothly and without so much as a squeak. Her metal shoulder was hidden by the ragged edge of the greatcoat’s torn sleeve, but the elbow was a simple hinge with a rotating socket below that, the wrist similar; a set of taut wired like extended tendons attached controlled the movement of her fingers. In the center of her metal palm was a circular hole in which a red metal frame like a jewelry setting held a wide disc of blue glass. She had a similar but smaller blue piece set between her eyebrows, in the same place where Ruda wore her tiny jewel, though the street preacher’s was attached to a strip of metal which ran from that point to somewhere behind her ear, where it was lost in her hair.

“It can be a painful thing,” she continued, pacing again, “a frightening thing, to acknowledge and accept responsibility—to accept the role each of us has played in creating our own disappointments. But in that responsibility is freedom! When you realize that nothing has been forced upon you, that you have created the reality in which you live, when you truly realize that, then you realize that you alone have the power to make your world anew!”

“This is nothing but arcane mysticism,” Fross muttered in annoyance. The group standing off to one side of the intersection had drawn almost as many odd looks at the Rust street preacher, though with Juniper wearing her disguise ring only Tellwyrn and Fross seemed truly outlandish; Ruda was the only one who was clearly Punaji, and the contrast with everyone else on the docks made it clear from her attire that she was a rich Punaji. “That’s just disappointing. I thought at least they’d have something interesting to say.”

“It’s what, now?” Juniper asked in the same soft tone.

“Oh, I guess Professor Yornhaldt hasn’t really gone into that in the intro to magic classes… Well, if you take a lot of his electives like I do you’ll hear him complain about this. Arcane mysticism, that’s what she’s talking about. The idea that thoughts influence reality, because of stuff that only works on the sub-atomic level. You know, wave functions collapsing when they’re observed, all that.”

Juniper tilted her head inquisitively. “Isn’t that just…magic?”

“Yes!” Fross chimed irritably, raising her voice slightly, though not enough to compete with the preacher who continued to rant. “It’s a description of how magic works, but for it to be valid, you need actual magic. That’s what magic is; that’s the whole point of it! Without magic, you have zero interaction with anything pertaining to arcane physics. Thinking happy thoughts does absolutely nothing to change the world! The world has lots of inertia; thoughts have none at all.”

Tellwyrn grinned, glancing at the pixie. “I’m glad to see you’re not going to go through an arcane mysticism phase, Fross. A lot of magic majors do, the first year or two. There’s a reason Alaric is so annoyed by it.”

“You mean, magic majors at our school?” Fross sounded downright offended. “Oh, now that’s really disappointing.”

“Hey, yeah, question!” Before any of them could stop him, Gabriel raised his hand and stepped out into the intersection. Instantly, he caught the attention of most of the onlookers, and also the preacher, who paused mid-speech to peer at him. “How come you guys attacked the Silver Legion?”

A murmur ran through the crowd. Toby sighed heavily and rubbed at the bridge of his nose.

“Real fuckin’ subtle, Arquin,” Ruda muttered, jamming her hands in her pockets. She didn’t intervene, however. Tellwyrn just watched this unfold with an eyebrow slightly cocked.

“You aren’t from around here, are you, my young friend?” the preacher asked, smiling indulgently at Gabriel.

In fact, having black hair and a dark complexion for a Tiraan, he could almost have passed for Punaji, especially in the Punaji-style coat he wore. He didn’t even look as rich as Ruda, aside from his belt from which Ariel and his wand hung: both were clearly expensive. All hope of that vanished as soon as he opened his mouth and displayed an Imperial accent, however.

“Are you?” Gabriel shot back. “I mean, sure, the Punaji have been wearing enchantments longer than almost anyone. These coats would be idiotic in this climate without their weatherproof charms. That metalwork, though, that’s some freaky stuff. Something tells me you didn’t pick that up at a local blacksmith. Does that have something to do with what you hit the Legion with?”

The murmurs intensified, but the street preacher did not betray unease even by glancing around at her audience.

“And why,” she asked, “would you cast blame for such a thing at me?”

Gabriel shrugged. “Who else?”

She shook her head. “That question has countless answers. The one I asked is better: Why do you feel the need to blame me, in particular?” Her kind smile never wavered as she continued. “I have found that people who are eager to cast blame are struggling to create a sense of order in their own lives. If you can identify an enemy, it grants a feeling of control. That is an illusion, though, and a dangerous one. To define oneself in relation to an enemy is to give up all power in one’s own life. Trust me, my friend, you will not find your answers in designating villains—they are in you. Everything you need, you already have, and already know! All you require is to master yourself!”

“Okay,” he said, grinning. “But if I think you guys are the ones who attacked the Legions, doesn’t that make it so?”

At this, a good number of the onlookers laughed outright, and some started drifting away. The preacher showed no hint of unease, however, smiling more broadly still.

“From blame to mockery—you are running down the list of the desperate gambits I’ve seen in everyone struggling to find meaning in life. Farther down that list comes real hardship, friend. If you would like to talk over what is really troubling you, perhaps I can help?”

“Another time, maybe,” Gabriel said noncommittally, turning and sauntering back to the others.

“Well handled,” said a new voice, prompting the students to turn to the spot to Tellwyrn’s right, where Kapadia had been before he’d gone back to oversee his business.

Though he did not wear the traditional furs, which would have been suicidal in Puna Dara’s heat, they didn’t need to see the bronze wolf’s head pinned to the shoulder of his light tunic to recognize the man as a Huntsman of Shaath. He wore his hair long and his beard untrimmed, the former tied back with a simple length of leather and the latter in apparent need of brushing. From his heavy belt hung a tomahawk and quiver bursting with arrows; he carried his longbow in one hand, and had an enormous hunting knife, almost large enough to pass for a short sword, lashed to one boot.

“Thanks,” Gabriel said, while behind him the preacher resumed exhorting the passersby to think their way out of their problems. “I was kinda gambling she wouldn’t hex me or whatever in front of all those people. She doesn’t seem to be making much headway, though. Nobody seems really interested; the only ones watching seem to think this is a comedy show.”

The Huntsman shook his head. “They do not need to believe, they just need to listen. We are seeing only part of the strategy here; elsewhere, others of the Rust will be deliberately seeking out the vulnerable. People down on their luck, adrift from the familiar, people in need of a friendly ear. Those are ripe for recruitment into cults. This one is serving to spread their philosophy so that it does not seem as alien when it is encountered more intimately.”

“And you know a thing or two about this strategy, do you?” Teal said flatly, folding her arms.

The Huntsman turned to her and bowed; his beard made it hard to tell, but by the shifting lines next to his eyes, he seemed to be smiling slightly. “Among our duties is to seek out whose who are called by Shaath and guide them to his path. I have often found myself in this role, being less uncomfortable in cities than some of my brother Huntsmen. We, however, do not…preach.” He glanced sidelong at the gesticulating Rust cultist, who appeared to be paying them no attention now. “Some faiths want every soul they can gather in; Shaath only needs those who are truly called to his side. Not for nothing are we the smallest of the Pantheon cults.”

Ruda cleared her throat. “Apropos of nothing, why do I have the feeling you bein’ here isn’t a coincidence?”

He glanced again at the cultist, then lowered his voice slightly and took a step closer. “I had the same thought. Forgive me, Professor Tellwyrn, but you are distinctive, and your habit of bringing groups of your students into crises is known. When I saw you here, amid the troubles assailing Puna Dara and watching an example of their source, accompanied by a group of somewhat exotic young people…” He smiled up at Fross. “Well, I made an assumption. I am Brother Ermon. Well met to you all.”

“Interesting,” Tellwyrn mused. “The Huntsmen aren’t generally interventionist. Why take an interest in this?”

Ermon’s expression fell into a frown, and he again glanced at the Rust preacher. “It’s no secret that my religion and Avei’s agree on virtually nothing. In the end, though, they are sister servants of the gods, however misguided. The cults stand united against such as the Wreath…and I fear this may be something similar. When so many are so brazenly attacked, even the lodges must take notice, and take action. I understand that several of the cults are sending people to Puna Dara. After what befell the Fourth Legion and their Salyrite companions, though, they are doing so less openly.”

“Oh, perfect,” Ruda groaned, rubbing at her eyes with both fists. “That is just absolutely fuckin’ gorgeous. That’s exactly what this city needs right now, half a dozen surreptitious crusades.”

“I think we’d better get a handle on this as quickly as possible,” Toby said seriously.

“No shit,” Ruda growled. “It was real nice meetin’ you, Mr. Ermon, but if you’ll excuse us, we gotta get to the Rock.”

“Wait, we’re going where?” Juniper asked.

“That’s the name of the Punaji palace,” Teal explained.

“Just Ermon is fine,” the Huntsman said, smiling again. “And of course, I quite understand. I will walk you there.”

“Yeah, I know the way, but thanks,” Ruda said wryly.

“Oh, I don’t doubt it! This is clearly your city, after all. But it’s no inconvenience—a brother Huntsman and I have the honor of being guests of the King, as well. Shall we go?”


All this skulking in alleys offended Ildrin’s sense of propriety, particularly since she was on the side of right, here. Realistically, though, she had already resigned herself to having to do more of it in the future. Especially once Syrinx had finished dragging her name through the mud, it might be some time before she could do much of anything openly again. Events and the need to act wouldn’t wait for that, though, so…here she was.

It was a very discreet house in a very discreet neighborhood, to the point that coming around back to the servant’s entrance, hidden by a tall garden wall and the house itself, seemed almost excessive. Her business here was that sensitive, though, and still not as sensitive as that of the house’s occupant. She could not afford to take risks.

And so, as she’d been directed to do in the case of emergency, she had come here, ignored the kitchen door, and carefully twisted the housing of the fairy lamp next to it in a full circle. Several minutes ago, in fact, and yet here she still stood, her increasingly irritated breath misting on the air. Ildrin shuffled her feet, regretting having chosen to use a warming charm instead of a scarf or hat; it kept her head warm enough, but the little gusts of wind were still almost painful on her ears. Twisting the sconce had caused no immediately evident reaction; she debated doing it again, but still hesitated. If it was anything like a doorbell, standing there and doing it repeatedly would be rude. Still…she had been assured that if she needed to avail herself of this approach, it would always be answered.

She had just given up and was lifting her hand to try a second time when a section of the wall next to her shifted. The seams had not been apparent, being cunningly worked into the pattern of the mortar between the bricks, but now a whole door-sized piece moved soundlessly outward till there was a hairline gap between the edges of the bricks and the wall. Then it swung fully open, revealing the hidden hinges affixed to one side.

Ildrin stood there in affronted silence, glaring down at the figure on the other side of the secret door.

It stood no taller than her knee, apparently some creepy combination of a lizard, monkey, and rat, covered with rough black scales and occasional tufts of wiry fur. It was wearing, preposterously, a tuxedo coat, and staring up at her with gleaming red eyes beneath the brim of a tiny top hat.

After a long pause, she spoke, stiffly. “I need to see Mr. Tanenbaum.”

The imp’s tiny shoulders shifted in a sigh. “Uh…is this really important? The boss is…doing something. This isn’t a great time.”

“I wouldn’t be here, using this entrance, if it weren’t urgent,” she snapped, bitterly resenting having to speak with demon filth, even such a tiny specimen. “I was assured that if I came here…”

“Yeah, I know, them’s the rules,” the imp said with ill grace. “All right, well…you better come on in, then. But you can’t interrupt the boss, okay? He can talk with you when he’s done, which should be pretty soon, but what he’s doing…well, interrupting would be bad.”

“I don’t doubt it,” she said stiffly, striding inside. In fact, she stepped over the imp, not waiting for him to get out of the way. To judge by his barely audible mutters, he didn’t miss the implied insult.

She paused inside the cramped little hallway while the imp clambered up the wall, spider-like, to pull a lever at doorknob height, which caused the hidden panel to swing closed again. It was dim in the hall, lit only by a tiny fairy lamp, and there was only one way to go; stairs leading down into darkness.

This time, she waited for the imp to lead the way.

At the bottom it was practically pitch black; Ildrin was still making her way down the staircase, groping carefully for each step, when a scrabble announced the little demon was climbing a wall again, followed by the click of another switch being activated. To her relief, another door swung open, revealing a room lit by the warm glow of oil lamps.

She stepped through quickly, glancing around. It was clearly a study, with a desk on one side and the walls lined with bookcases. Fully lined, in fact; one swung shut behind them to conceal the stairwell. It could have passed for any intellectual’s small private library, if not for the cleared spot in the center of the floor in which the summoning circle had been placed.

There were two occupants already there: a middle-aged man in tweed with a neatly trimmed beard sitting behind the desk, facing a stunningly beautiful woman who stood in the middle of the circle. A woman with alabaster skin, violet-tinged hair, crystalline topaz eyes, spiny wings and a spaded tail. She wore only a crude leather wrap around her waist.

Both the warlock and demon looked up at Ildrin and the imp upon their arrival; the man nodded politely to her, while the succubus sneered, and then they focused once more on each other.

“Forgive the interruption,” he said courteously. “We were discussing your qualifications. Now, of course, I well understand your reason for desiring the position; you needn’t go to further detail on that. Tell me, what would you say is your greatest asset?”

“Well, that’s something I don’t get asked every day,” the demon purred. She cocked her hip to one side, languidly dragging her fingertips down the side of her body in a motion which exaggerated its inherent curve. “If they’re not to your liking, I can, of course, make…adjustments.”

Her heated smile widened slightly, and her body shifted, the curve of her waist drawing inward an inch, her bare breasts swelling. Ildrin repressed the urge to make a disgusted noise, folding her arms and scowling.

The man behind the desk cleared his throat. “Yes, I am of course aware of your innate gifts, my dear, no need to reiterate the basics. There is, however, only the one position, and many prospects who might fill it. I wonder why you, in comparison to other children of Vanislaas I might summon, are uniquely qualified to form a pact?”

“Oh, come now,” she said coyly. “If you’re familiar with my kind, you must know that versatility is what we do. The question isn’t what I’m like, but what you would like me to be like. You’ve already cast the summons; you have me here, ready…and waiting.” She licked her lips slowly, and Ildrin just barely managed not to retch. “Tell me what you want, and that is what I’ll be…master.”

The warlock sighed, shook his head, and closed the book open in front of him on the desk, shifting a sheet of parchment to lie on top of it. From her angle, Ildrin could make out that it appeared to be a list of names, several with lines drawn through them.

“Well,” he said, “I believe that concludes our business here. Thank you for coming, Jezrathin. It appears that you’re not what I am looking for in a familiar at this time, but I will keep your details on file for future needs, and of course I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. Hixlpik, the honorarium? Ah, thank you.”

The imp had skittered over to a cabinet beneath a bookcase and pulled out a vial of glittering powder, apparently enchanting dust. Though it was almost as big as his torso, he had no trouble handling it, and in fact easily tossed it through the air into the summoning circle, where the nonplussed succubus caught it apparently by reflex.

“I realize it is an inconvenience to be so abruptly summoned in this manner,” the man said politely, “so consider that a small token of my thanks and apology for the imposition. It’s a sample of very basic arcane enchanting dust, quite versatile for someone who practices the craft, and of course easily transmutable to infernal power. Even if you don’t personally use magic, it will be quite valuable in Hell to those who do. Thank you for coming by.”

The succubus stared at the vial in her hand, then up at the warlock, her previous sultriness giving way to clear frustration. “What are you, some kind of idiot?”

He coughed softly. “Far be it from me to tell you your business, Jezrathin, but as a word of friendly advice, I believe you’ll find that a more professional demeanor opens more opportunities to you. Now, I must bid you good day.”

He gestured almost dismissively with one hand, and the runes on the circle pulsed once with orange light. The demon immediately began fading from view—and from sound, fortunately, as she left them with a string of curses in at least three languages that seemed to linger on the air even after she had vanished entirely. Finally, though, the circle went fully dark. And silent.

The warlock sighed, picked up a pen, and carefully drew a line through another name on his list, then turned to Ildrin and stood.

“Well! Thank you for waiting, I apologize for keeping you. As you can imagine, it is best not to dawdle in these matters, and especially not to discuss sensitive business in front of a child of Vanislaas.”

“That…looked more like a job interview than a summoning,” Ildrin said, intrigued in spite of herself.

“Of course.” Willard Tanenbaum smiled benignly at her. “They are individuals, you know. If one must deal with a Vanislaad, it pays to do all due diligence and select one with the utmost care.”

“And must you deal with them?” she asked skeptically.

“Apparently,” he said with a pensive frown, “the Archpope himself has one on his personal staff. He asked me to find…another. Either as a replacement or to counteract his current Vanislaad, who seems to be growing difficult to manage—as they inevitably do. I strongly doubt the wisdom of bringing another into the equation, but I have observed that his Holiness’s plans always seem to succeed, even when I cannot imagine that they would. It does not pay, I find, to challenge intellects so apparently superior to my own. So! Welcome, Sister Ildrin. Since I was expecting the usual anonymous delivery of reagents, and instead I find you, empty-handed and calling upon my emergency door, I gather something unfortunate has transpired?”

“I’m afraid so,” she said. “Your source of reagents has been cut off. A group of Eserites stuck their noses in, made off with the lot, and then swiped enough paperwork to reveal the whole method of appropriation and put it in the hands of both Avenist and Salyrite leadership. I was able to protect my Legionnaires and your name doesn’t appear anywhere, but by the time the two cults get through digging into this, both Carruthers and I are likely to find ourselves unable to act within them for some time. Maybe ever.”

“That is a serious problem,” he said, frowning heavily. “Poor Carruthers…the Collegium is his whole life. Well, I will be able to continue the Archpope’s special projects for a while, at least. I can’t use the Topaz College’s resources, as those must be rigorously accounted for, but I have some personal stocks. They will not last long, however.”

“Of course, we’ll find a new source of supplies, and can see about reimbursing you…”

“Not at all necessary,” he demurred, holding up a hand. “Nothing I might do with them is more important than the Church’s work. I simply want to make it clear that my assets are limited.”

“Understood. I’ll pass it along.”

“Eserites, hm.” Tanenbaum stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Do we have any allies in the Guild?”

“We don’t,” she said grimly, “and here is the thing: these were apprentices. They were not supposed to be sticking their noses into other cults’ business, and in fact I understand Boss Tricks is about ready to string them up. That doesn’t help us, though, because Basra bloody Syrinx snatched them from me before I could question them in detail.”

“Leaving,” he said slowly, “the extremely troubling question of where a group of apprentice thieves happened upon enough detail to know of our business.”

Ildrin nodded. “It has to be through one or the other cult, if not both. Since my name is about to be mud in the Sisterhood, I’ve had to delegate Raathi to try to hunt down a possible leak on the Avenist side. That kind of work really is not her strong suit, however. I’m hoping you’ll have a better way to get information from the Collegium.”

“I fear I’m a bit of a recluse these days,” he said ruefully. “Such inquiries would not likely lead me far. However! I think I have just the thing to help us find such a lead, wherever it may lie. Hixlpik, please clean up the circle and lay down a standard djinn containment.”

“On it, boss!” the imp said cheerfully, opening the cabinet again. He produced a handheld duster, which for him was ludicrously oversized, and scampered over to the circle, where he began picking up crystals and candles preparatory to sweeping away the burned-out enchanting dust which made up most of the design.

“You’re keeping a djinn in your house?” Ildrin demanded in horror.

“Ah, I’m afraid that is a misconception,” Tanenbaum replied with an indulgent smile. He stepped over to one of the bookcases and carefully pulled out a single volume. With a soft click, the upper half of the case swung outward, and he selected a single, tall brass bottle from the variety of objects concealed in the hidden compartment behind. “One does not, as such, keep them. Djinn are not contained in the bottles, lamps, and other paraphernalia which are used to contact them, you see. There are but thirteen of the lesser djinn, nowhere near enough for every warlock to summon his or her own. They were once warlocks themselves, a circle who operated in Calderaas centuries ago. They attempted to summon something they should not, and…this is their punishment. Like Vanislaads, they are not proper demons, but human souls bound to Hell. Unlike Vanislaads, they can never leave it. These summonings enable them to interact intangibly with the mortal plane; their ethereal nature gives them vast access to information that way. They seem to pluck it out of the warp and weft of magic itself!”

“What did they try to summon?” Ildrin asked, unable to repress her curiosity.

He grimaced, carefully holding the bottle in both hands. “What we now call a greater djinn. A true djinn. A type of demon which should never be summoned by mortals; they have the power to grant actual wishes, which is what prompts people to try, but they are impossible to coerce or control. The Thirteen came closer than anyone, and…you know, now, what happened to them. I suspect I am preaching to the choir, here, but I’ll remind you that any creature of Hell who does not manifest physical mutation must be interacted with only with the greatest of care. They have the aggression inherent to the infernally corrupted, and express it through manipulation, seeking to create strife on this plane. That is the risk in turning to a djinn for information: they know things that neither fae oracles nor arcane scrying can reveal, but they parcel it out in such a way as to deliberately cause the greatest chaos they can. Ah, thank you, Hixlpik.”

“My pleasure, boss!”

The imp was remarkably efficient; he had swept away the old summoning circle and inscribed one which Ildrin, even with her very basic magical education, could tell was meant not to contain something within, but to block outside influences. At least, she was fairly sure that was what it meant that there was a single ring with all the runes on the outside. Well, presumably Tanenbaum knew what he was about.

Hopefully…

The warlock carefully set the bottle upright in the center of the circle, then gently pulled out the stopper. It came loose with an ease she found vaguely troubling.

Mist immediately billowed forth, quickly resolving itself into the form of a man from the waist up, a quiet cyclone of smoke terminating in the bottle’s mouth serving in place of his legs. He bowed deeply, which was a very odd sight.

“Ah, once again you honor me!” the djinn intoned. “Most esteemed practitioner of the arts, it pleases me more than my paltry words can express that I am graced once again by your company. To be a guest in your exalted home, to be granted an audience with a companion in your quests—these are joys the hope of which sustains me through my isolation in the dark realms below. Tell me, most honored one, how may Ali al-Famibad be of service to you and yours?”

“It is pleasant to see you again, as well, Ali,” Tanenbaum replied, his tone perfectly polite but the greeting seeming almost curt in comparison to the effusive djinn’s. “I have summoned you in accordance with our contract; this guest in my home is an observer to this conversation, but not a participant.”

“But of course,” the djinn replied with an ingratiating smile, bowing again, “nothing gives me greater satisfaction than to assist you, unless it is to do so while upholding my part in a bargain fairly struck.”

Ildrin kept quiet. Part of her bridled at being excluded, but she well understood the point; interacting with this creature, as Tanenbaum had just explained, was inherently dangerous. Much better it be left to a professional.

“I seek information,” the warlock said. “A group of young thieves have intervened in my business. You know the ones, of course.”

“Oh, but of course,” Ali replied, smiling widely. Too widely. How did he already know… Oh, right; warp and weft of magic, and so on. “Most interesting, most interesting indeed. I can tell you little of them, I regret to say. A powerful hand indeed lays heavy upon this affair, one at whose fingers the likes of myself should not pluck.”

“I see,” Tanenbaum mused. “Well, actually, I had not meant to inquire about them directly, but only at their connections. I must learn how they discovered our activities—the source of their information.”

“Ah, the things I could tell you!” Ali exclaimed in tones of dramatic woe. “Alas, ours is a very strict contract, a testament to your most admirable caution. Of course, if you were to relax the terms only a—”

“Quite out of the question, I’m afraid,” Tanenbaum said pleasantly, but with iron firmness.

“Indeed, I greatly respect your wisdom in this,” Ali said solicitously. “Then with my most effusive apologies, honored practitioner, I must be vague.”

“That will be satisfactory,” the warlock replied, nodding.

“I see, indeed, an agent within the house of most noble Salyrene, through whom information flows to these playful young thieves. I see a young man, a man of books and letters more than adventures, a man who nonetheless shies from nothing if pressed. A man who is used to the ways of other faiths. A man who travels with a friendly fireball upon his shoulder.”

A pause ensued, in which Tanenbaum apparently waited for more detail. The djinn only grinned at him, though.

“And that is all you can tell me?” the warlock asked at last.

“Oh, but such things I could tell you!” Ali lamented. “Yet, we have our contract. I must not do less than uphold my part.”

“Tall?” Ildrin said suddenly, frowning. “Dishwater blonde hair, glasses, has a little fire elemental for a familiar?”

“A friendly fireball,” Tanenbaum mused. “Is that description accurate, Ali?”

“Indeed, indeed!” Disturbingly, the djinn appeared inordinately pleased by this turn of events. “Sometimes, I am able to aid my cherished friends even beyond the scope of our formal dealings, simply by connecting one source of information with another. Your compatriot has all she needs to proceed, I believe.”

Ildrin drew in a deep breath, and let it out slowly, frowning into the distance even as Tanenbaum turned an inquisitive gaze on her.

“Schwartz.”

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13 – 3

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“Stop worrying,” Tallie said cheerfully. “Style said not to leave the district, and we’re not. If she hadn’t wanted us to leave the Casino, she’d have said that. Honestly, does that woman strike you as someone who has trouble articulating her intentions?”

“I know, I know,” Jasmine muttered, glancing around. “It just feels…”

“Well, you didn’t have to come.” Tallie gave her a sly sidelong look. “Unless, of course, you were feeling as cooped up as I was.”

“All right, fine, you caught me. Yes, I don’t like being cooped up. Which is why I agreed to join you on this excursion, which I will repeat is silly.”

“It is not silly,” Tallie said primly. “It is annoying and borderline mean.”

“Which is silly. It’s been weeks; we both know Layla doesn’t need a nursemaid.”

“Jasmine, honey, I understand that.” Grinning, Tallie jostled her with an elbow; her silent laugh manifested as puffs of mist in the frosty air. “That is exactly why it’s funny to nursemaid her. She hates it.”

Jasmine shook her head. “I don’t know what your issue is with nobles, but honestly, I think you need to get over it. We’re talking about one who specifically turned on her family to be here.”

“Wasn’t even her idea,” Tallie muttered. “She was just following big bro.”

“Regardless, she did, and I note you don’t give him such a hard time.”

“The balls I don’t!”

“Not nearly as—”

“And speak of the Dark Lady!” Tallie said loudly, stopping right in front of one of the ritzy shops which lined the streets around the Imperial Casino.

Layla Sakhavenid had just emerged, carrying an embossed shopping bag, and arched an eyebrow superciliously at her. “And hello to you, too, Tallie. If you’re going to give me a nickname, might I at least request something original? I don’t care to argue the right of way with the Queen of Demons.”

“Omnu’s balls, Layla,” Tallie exclaimed with borderline glee, “were you shopping? At a time like this?”

“Everyone has their hobbies,” Layla replied. “They are having a sale. I may be new to the need to hunt for bargains, but having tried it I find there’s an almost predatory satisfaction in snatching something at a great price. If I thought you were someone who would appreciate it, I’d gladly show you the scarf I…”

She trailed off, her expression going deliberately blank as her eyes shifted to look between them. Tallie and Jasmine stared at her in silent consternation for a second before catching on, and turned around.

Behind them stood a priestess of Avei, identified by her golden eagle pin despite the heavy coat she wore over her white robe. She was flanked by no less than four Silver Legionnaires, their faces unreadable behind winter helmets.

“I thought so,” the priestess said with grim satisfaction. “Sergeant…Collier, was it?” She fixed a stare on Jasmine, then shifted it past her to Layla. “Suddenly on remarkably friendly terms with this…deserter. How nice for you.”

“Hey, look,” said Tallie, subtly widening her stance, “we don’t want any trouble…”

“Yes, you obviously do,” the priestess said curtly. “You three will come with us to the nearest temple. We have things to discuss with you.”

“I think we would rather not,” Jasmine said quietly. “We’re under orders to remain near the—”

“Yet another thing you should have considered before stealing from the Sisterhood,” the priestess said implacably. “You are now in custody. Let’s move along, now, with a minimum of fuss.”

“You are making a mistake,” Layla declared, holding her ground even as two of the Legionnaires stepped around them, moving to box them in. The street was fairly busy, but people simply shifted out of their way on the wide sidewalk; few even bothered to stare. “We are apprentices of the Thieves’ Guild.”

“So I had assumed. Anything else you have to say will be listened to when we reach the temple. Now, move.”

“You can’t actually think you’ll get away with this,” Tallie blustered. “You don’t abduct—”

“The word is arrest,” one of the soldiers suddenly snapped. “And knowing the Guild’s policy on resisting arrest, we all know that won’t be an issue, so don’t bother. Sister Falaridjad, with all due respect, don’t engage Eserites in banter. You three, march. Now.”


“Feels kind of exposed,” Gabriel muttered.

“Arquin, the only remotely suspicious thing we’re doing is you glancing around like you’re about to go for somebody’s wallet,” Ruda snapped.

“Hey.” Toby reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder. “Easy. We’ll be there as quick as we can.”

She heaved a sigh, and then nodded. “Right. Sorry, Gabe. I’m just tense about…”

“No harm,” Gabriel said, shooting her a quick smile. “And I know, you’re right, it’s just… I mean, everybody has to know un-escorted students aren’t supposed to be leaving the area.”

“Well, it was this or try hiking across the prairie,” Fross said reasonably. “It’s doubtful we’d all fit in one of the regular stagecoaches, and I’ve been practicing my teleportation but it’s at a level that I’m positive if I tried to ‘port all of us from here to Puna Dara we would all end up either dead or wishing we were, and upon consideration it turns out I have no appetite for either of those outcomes.”

“I think if anybody was gonna give us trouble, it would’ve been when we bought tickets,” Juniper added, grinning at the pixie. “I mean, Silas let us charter a caravan, so…that’s that.”

Nobody had an immediate comment after that, and a moment later, the group subconsciously edged closer together. They were positioned along the side of the telescroll office facing the prairie, rather than the Rail platform where they were waiting for their chartered caravan to arrive, the idea being to minimize their exposure to onlookers. The people of Last Rock certainly didn’t consider it their business to enforce Professor Tellwyrn’s rules, but a lot of them, as Gabriel had pointed out, knew the basics of campus policy. It would be relatively common knowledge that six students clearly waiting for a Rail caravan without an accompanying professor were up to no good.

It was less private than it had once been, though. Last Rock had begun growing last year, with Gabriel’s calling and the establishment of the Avenist and Vidian temples. The pace had exploded in just the month since Tellwyrn had opened the University’s research division and publicly named the school after the town. Now, they were looking out over a smattering of construction sites being actively worked on across the Rail line and the highway; off to their left, a large stone bridge was in the early stages of development, which would eventually span both, and likely render the current wooden footbridge obsolete.

Juniper casually draped an arm around Teal’s shoulders, and after a moment, the bard leaned against her. Teal’s hair was beginning to look almost shaggy, just long enough now to dangle into her eyes and onto her collar. She had grown comfortable in the Narisian-style robes she now wore, but her efforts at a reserved demeanor mostly made her look tired and sad.

Which may not have been a mask, after all.

They all edged closer again, including Fross, who fluttered over to hover directly above the group rather than drifting about as she usually did. They didn’t speak of it; they didn’t need to. Whenever the whole class assembled, anymore, the absence of its missing members was keenly felt.

“So,” Gabriel said at last, and before he could get another word out the whole world shifted around them.

Teal and Juniper staggered slightly, Fross shooting six feet straight upward with a loud chime of alarm, and Ruda and Gabriel grabbed at sword hilts, stopping just short of drawing.

“Ruda,” Toby said warily, looking around, “am I wrong, or is this…?”

“This,” she said, nodding, “is a wharf in Puna Dara.”

“Well…damn,” Gabriel muttered. “That Rail service is a lot more efficient than I remember.”

It was considerably warmer than in Last Rock and vastly more humid. The sounds of waves and the calling of seabirds formed a backdrop to the noise of conversation around them, which largely came to an abrupt end as their sudden appearance. They were standing on a large pier, with a merchant ship tied just in front of them and dockworkers all around in the process of offloading cargo—all brown-complexioned Punaji, mostly barefoot and the men bare-chested. To the east, the Azure Sea stretched away to a horizon on which light clouds had begun to gather.

“Oh, crap,” Teal muttered.

Slowly, they all turned to face the city behind them.

Professor Tellwyrn stood a few feet away with her arms folded, slowly drumming her fingers against her own bicep, and staring at them over the rims of her spectacles.

“Okay, before you start,” Fross chimed, “we’d already arranged transportation, and frivolously summoning a Rail caravan is misdemeanor abuse of Imperial facilities. It was in Ruda’s name and I’m not sure her diplomatic immunity covers—”

“Your conscientiousness is inspiring as always, Fross,” Tellwyrn interrupted, “even when misplaced. I’ll take care of it. So. I’m not going to claim omniscience, but after you insufferable twerps pulled that stunt at the hellgate last year, you’d better believe I watch for you to be shuffling off en masse to places where I don’t want you.”

“Hey, you pronounced that right,” Teal said nervously. “Most people don’t get Glassian quite—”

“Falconer.”

“…yeah. Sorry.”

“I can’t help noticing that we’re here now,” Ruda said sharply. “You could’ve just as easily put us back in our dorms.”

“A lot more easily, yes,” Tellwyrn said sourly. “Just a moment, kids. Hi, Sharad. Sorry to drop in on you like this.”

“Sorry? Sorry?!” The students turned to look at the man approaching them, and with the exception of Ruda now edged backward. He stood almost a foot taller even than Toby, with a full beard in which threads of silver had just begun to appear. Unlike the surrounding dockworkers, he wore boots, a traditional sailcloth greatcoat, and a wide-brimmed hat with feathers rather like Ruda’s. Also, he was coming at them very rapidly, with arms upraised. He stopped short, though, and a broad grin split the darkness of his beard. “Nonsense, this is the best news I’ve had in weeks! Pushta told me a bunch of people hast just appeared and I thought—well, never mind, it’s always a pleasure to see you, Professor! And, I presume, students?”

“Students indeed,” she said. “Class of 1182, this is Sharad Kapadia, an alum and proprietor of this wharf. I try only to disrupt the business of people I actually know.”

“Nonsense, nothing is disrupted,” Kapadia boomed. “Especially since my employees all know not to stand around gawking!”

Instantly, their audience dispersed back to their tasks, with the exception of several sailors who leaned over the side of the ship, watching with naked interest.

“So,” Tellwyrn said briskly, “Raffi Chadrakeran just happened to pass along to Miss Punaji, here, what was occurring in Puna Dara, and she decided to take off and deal with it herself. And you lot came along in a show of solidarity. Right?”

Toby lifted his chin. “We’re not about to abandon—”

“Caine, did I ask you for justifications? I’ll take the lack of denial as an affirmative. Well, here you are, and as Punaji herself pointed out, yes, I brought you here myself.”

“Why?” Juniper asked quietly.

Tellwyrn let out a sigh through her nose. “…how much do you know about what’s happening in Puna Dara these days?”

“Cultists,” Ruda said tersely. “Creating civil unrest, trying to disrupt my father’s rule, and now attacking a Silver Legion.”

“Neutralizing a Silver Legion,” Tellwyrn said grimly, “which is what make this urgent. Nobody knows how they did it, but the fact that they did it means this Rust is suddenly a real player—one that nobody saw coming. A lot of eyes are on Puna Dara now, and they’ll be shortly followed by a lot of fingers.”

“Which is why I need to be here, helping,” Ruda snarled. “This nation is not stable enough to deal with an internal uprising and meddling from the Empire at the same time, and you know damn well the Empire will meddle! We need to solve this fast.”

“And that, all modesty aside, is what we do,” added Gabriel.

“The Empire, in fact,” Tellwyrn said much more calmly, “or at least Lord Vex, has asked me to send a student group here. Let me emphasize how unusual that is. I’ve worked with Vex for over a year, to make sure my little class projects don’t disrupt Imperial business too much. He has pointed out potential trouble spots before, but his only requests to date involve asking me to stay away from certain places. This is the first occasion on which he has specifically asked for help.”

“Is that…bad?” Toby asked, frowning.

“It emphasizes the severity of the situation,” said Tellwyrn. “And the Empire’s dilemma. They cannot afford to overtly interfere in Puna Dara’s internal business. Care to explain why, Miss Punaji?”

“I already have,” Ruda said shortly, glancing at Mr. Kapadia. He was watching her speculatively, and inclined his head at meeting her eyes.

“The Punaji nation is an ally, not an Imperial protectorate,” Teal said softly. “And due to current political and cultural factors, the King can’t be seen to be accepting any outside help; it would make him look weak.”

“Which would just be a problem most of the time,” Gabriel added, “but with these Rust assholes suddenly challenging his authority, Blackbeard acknowledging that he’s not in full control could trigger a complete change of government.”

“Which, most of the time, is a strictly internal matter and usually only a temporary disruption of Puna Dara’s business,” Fross chimed, “but with the Rust as a serious contender for power, the Empire can’t afford to let Blackbeard’s government be destabilized, because they can’t tolerate the continent’s entire eastern seaboard being in the hands of an unstable sect that’s willing and able to attack the Silver Legions! Did we miss anything, Ruda?”

“That’s the long and the fucking short of it,” Ruda said bitterly. “The Punaji have to fix this problem, now, and without foreign help. If we don’t, we’re gonna end up very likely at war with the Empire. And I don’t care who these Rust are or what they’ve got up their sleeves, there’s no power in the world that could win that fight. They’ve gotta be stopped, fast, without undercutting my father’s reign. Otherwise, we’re looking at the end of the Punaji as a sovereign people, very likely with a shit-ton of bloodshed involved.”

“Well, thank goodness for small favors,” Tellwyrn muttered. “I do like it when I don’t have to explain everything for a change. The truth is, I had not planned to send anyone out here for the simple reason that I test my students against challenges I know they can beat. Whatever the Rust did to the Fourth Silver Legion is…without precedent. I don’t understand it at all—nobody does. That means I would be sending a student group to face an undefined peril with no guarantee of their safety, much less success.”

She stopped, and heaved a heavy sigh. “I’m giving you the go-ahead for three reasons. First, thanks to Miss Punaji’s investment in this, and yours in her, it’s clear I would have to ride herd on the lot of you until this was all settled if I decided to keep you from it, and quite frankly, I have too many other things to do. Second… You, of all people, might just be safe, even with the danger as unknowable as it is. Two of you are paladins, and that kind of direct connection to a god changes matters. People who cast any kind of incredibly potent curse on a Hand of the gods draw the direct attention of the deity in question. Hopefully these Rust will have the sense not to try, but if they do, that just might end up putting a stop to the whole business. Juniper may be blocked from Naiya, but she and Fross are inherently quite resistant to such effects anyway. The lot of you will need to keep watch over Zaruda, but you’ve already shown you are inordinately willing to do that.”

“And me,” Teal added.

Tellwyrn shook her head. “Falconer, you just might be better off even than the boys. Elilial isn’t an interventionist deity as a rule, but after losing the other six archdemons, anybody who manages to put any kind of whammy on Vadrieny is asking to have an apocalypse shoved right up their butts. Even Naphthene would hesitate to pick that fight. Which doesn’t mean you should go around pissing on wave shrines like Zaruda’s ancestor.”

“Why in the blazes would I do such a thing?” Teal exclaimed.

“I have been working with teenagers for fifty years and I still don’t understand why you lot do anything. If I did, maybe I could control you. Anyway, I have a third motivation for allowing this.” The sardonic levity leaked from her expression. “Honestly…I think you kids have the best chance out of anybody of pulling it off. And beyond the needs of your education, this is a big problem. This isn’t Sarasio or Lor’naris. The fall of Puna Dara would send shockwaves across the continent. Around the world. Much as it pains me to use the term, this city needs heroes. You’re the best I can think of for the job.”

She let that sit for a silent moment before turning back to the wharf master with a sudden smile. “So! Sorry to keep you away from your business, Sharad, but can you direct us to the nearest hub of Rust activity?”

“In fact, I can take you there!” he said. “It’s far closer than I would like—just barely beyond my own wharf, in fact. I’ve had some of my own people come around spouting their philosophy, which is…a difficult situation. Puts me in the same position as the King, on a smaller scale. If I try to shut that down, it raises the question of why I feel threatened by it, not to mention that any fool knows nothing validates a religion like oppressing it. It really is abominable stuff, though. Anyway, don’t you worry about my business, Professor, it’s booming! Since you’re in town, you really must come by for dinner. I think my wife doesn’t actually believe I know you.”

“I appreciate it, but I have pots simmering back in Last Rock that I can’t leave unattended for too long.”

“Nonsense!” he boomed jovially. “You can zip-zap halfway across the world in an eyeblink, it’ll be no trouble. We’ll see you tonight. I insist!”

She lowered her head to stare at him over her glasses. “I’m sorry, you insist? I’m almost curious what would happen if you tried.”

“In that event,” he said, suddenly with deep gravitas, “I would have to make a very sad face. I would do this all night. And you would be thinking about me doing it.”

“…you’re a monster, Kapadia.”

His laugh was practically a bellow. “Fantastic! I will ask Erika to make her curried rice with eel! We stopped arguing over native cuisines by learning to blend them, you see.”

Tellwyrn shook her head and turned to face the city. “All right, lead on, then. Come along, kids. Let’s go see what you’re up against.”


“Sister Falaridjad, this is a surprise,” said the armored woman who greeted them inside the temple. If “temple” was the right word. This was an Avenist facility, all right, but religious iconography aside, it was clearly more military than clerical in function. Its main entrance hall, in which they now stood, resembled a police station more than a place of worship, with desks along one side at which white-robed priestesses sat, speaking quietly with visitors. Armored Legionnaires stood at attention in every corner and bracketing every entrance, a rather excessive display of force for a temple.

“For me as well, Captain Leingardt,” the priestess who had apprehended them replied. “I wasn’t planning on this, but it seems the goddess smiled on us. Two of these I recognize from the robbery at my temple this morning. The third has already implicated herself in the same business.”

“Excuse me, I’ve what?” Tallie demanded.

Leingardt cast a cool glance across them, lingering momentarily on Tallie, before addressing Falaridjad. “I see. Fortuitous indeed that you came across them while accompanied by enough soldiers to bring them in.”

“Indeed, I don’t presume Avei’s favor lightly. Though they are Eserites. Apprentices, but still, they know better than to fight when fairly caught.”

“Guild, hm,” the captain said, her eyebrows lowering fractionally. “Then I hope you weren’t expecting to keep them long, sister. The Guild always extracts its own as quickly as possible.”

“All the more reason to interrogate them immediately,” Sister Falaridjad said firmly, “if you will grant us the use of a suitable room. We actually picked them up a stone’s throw from the Casino itself, so we’re likely to have one of those obnoxious lawyers of their knocking any minute. We are justified in holding them for interrogation, at least, given the charges. Conspiracy, theft, assault—”

“That is a lie!” Layla, when she chose to, could project at a startling volume without raising the pitch of her voice; it lent her an unexpectedly commanding aspect for a sixteen-year-old girl. All around the chamber, activity stopped as Sisters, soldiers and civilians turned to stare.

Falaridjad scowled in annoyance. “You’ll have your chance to defend—”

“Fabricating charges is a very severe offense for a woman in your position, sister,” Jasmine said sharply. She turned to the captain with a stiff nod. “We have no intention of prevaricating or denying anything we’ve done, Captain, but no one was assaulted. Sister Falaridjad was at the temple; I remember seeing her. She knows this.”

“Oh, please,” the priestess said with heavy disdain. “You really intend to press your word against mine? Here? Good luck, girl.”

“I don’t need luck,” Jasmine replied, turning to face her directly. “Just justice.”

A sharp clap echoed through the room, followed by another. Everyone shifted to look at the woman who had just entered the building behind the prisoners and their escort, and now approached them, continuing to applaud slowly while she came.

“Oh, good show,” said Bishop Syrinx. “Very dramatic, the Veskers would be proud. But if you’re quite done fooling around, we should get down to the business of how very much trouble you are all in.”

 

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13 – 2

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“YOU DO NOT FUCKING ROB THE FUCKING SISTERS OF FUCKING AVEI!”

“We didn’t,” Darius protested. “I mean, quite specifically, we did not rob them!”

“If anything, we un-robbed them!” Tallie added. “They were getting snookered and we—”

“Do not get cute with me,” Style snarled. “You entered their facilities under false pretenses and appropriated shit which was not yours. This is the fucking Thieves’ Guild, if you little wankstains haven’t noticed. I know what a fucking robbery is, and you just pulled one.” She stopped her pacing right in front of Tallie, and leaned in close. “ON THE GODDAMN SISTERHOOD OF FUCKING AVEI.”

“We’re not evading,” Jasmine said in perfect calm. “The matter just wasn’t as simple as you’re making it sound. We took things out of the temple, yes, but—”

“Let me see if I got the details,” the enforcer interrupted, straightening and turning to pace again. “You interrupted a Salyrite delivery of potions, reagents, magical shit in general, to a local temple of Avei. Jasmine, dressed in Legion armor, drags in Layla, pretending to be bringing her in as a prisoner. Scuffling ensues, everyone is distracted. Meanwhile, Tubby and Smarmy, here, drive a delivery truck up to the temple and accidentally block the Salyrite vehicle in.” She scowled at Ross and Darius in turn as she paced by them.

“How come the girls don’t get nicknames?” Ross muttered.

“While the scrawny one engages the Salyrite driver in an argument and generally adds to the confusion, the beefy one starts loading crates in and out of the place, and lifts the Salyrite shipment while they’re all distracted. And while this is going on, our little burgeoning cat burglar oozed first into the temple through an upper window and then the Salyrite truck to swipe documents.” Again, she stopped, folded her arms, and glared at them. “I miss anything?”

“After that,” Layla said primly, “we made copies of the documents from both cults, which prove that agents within the Sisterhood and the Collegium were massaging the figures of what had been delivered and how much paid to skim revenue and poach supplies from these transactions.”

“Which,” Tallie added with a grin, “we then had delivered to the central temples of Avei and Salyrene, along with giving the Salyrites their stuff back. So nobody lost any property, and both cults now know who in their ranks was screwing ’em over.”

“They’re welcome, incidentally,” Darius added.

Off to the side of the room, Lore chuckled, still lounging against the wall. “Not gonna lie, kids, that’s a pretty damn neat job. I’d expect full Guild members to do that kinda work, never mind apprentices on their first unsupervised heist. Only thing you forgot was how to get yourselves paid.”

“We are but lowly apprentices,” Jasmine said with a beatific smile. “Happy to work for the experience and prestige.”

“You, stop helping,” Style barked, pointing at Lore, then turned to glare at Jasmine. “And you. If you’re so insistent you didn’t actually rob the Sisterhood, wanna explain what the fuck you were doing with a set of Silver Legion armor in the first place?”

“I borrowed it,” Jasmine said blandly.

Style took two strides and leaned down directly into her face. “You wanna try again, squirt?”

Lore cleared his throat. “I’m not sure if any of your trainers have covered this explicitly, Jasmine, but the ‘borrowed’ defense isn’t regarded kindly around here. We’re thieves; we steal stuff. Taking without permission is theft, whether or not you bring the item back. Have some pride and don’t make excuses or beat around the bush.”

“Actually nobody had mentioned that, but thank you,” Jasmine said, glancing at him sidelong but keeping most of her attention on Style’s uncomfortably close glower. “Really, though, I wasn’t doing that. I did borrow it. Glory hooked me up with a dealer who had two almost-complete sets of armor. I helped him assemble them properly and showed him where to get the missing pieces, and he let me take one for the day as thanks.”

“I still say we should have borrowed both,” Layla huffed. “I would really have liked—”

“Layla,” Darius said in exasperation, “you couldn’t both be Legionnaires. If neither one was the prisoner, what the fuck would you have been doing there?”

“And if she was a prisoner,” Style growled at Jasmine, “how the fuck did you get out without her being in a cell?”

“The story we used was she was a runaway Legion cadet,” Jasmine replied, leaning subtly backward in her seat. “Which is breach of contract at the worst; it’s a legal gray area whether the Sisterhood has the authority to detain people for that. It made the perfect cover for her to kick up a fuss for half an hour and then still get to leave. Can I get some personal space, Style? I can taste what you had for lunch, here. Not everybody likes Punaji curry.”

Lore burst out laughing.

“Kid,” Style said, slowly straightening back up but not releasing Jasmine from her glare, “there are days when I think you were put on this world specifically to be a thorn in my ass.”

“I thought the expression was ‘thorn in my side?’” Tallie piped up.

“Thorn in the foot’s also used,” Ross grunted. “The ass thing is new.”

“Classic Style!” Darius chirped.

“Shut the fuck up,” Style ordered, and they immediately did; she had spoken calmly and flatly. Style cursed and yelled and threw things as part of her ordinary conversation. Everyone who survived a month of Guild apprenticeship knew to step very lightly, however, when she lowered her voice. “Lore, I can’t deal with this magnitude of horseshit. Explain their stupidity whilst I take a mental health break.”

She turned and stomped over to a cabinet against the far wall of the underground meeting room, from which she extracted a bottle of wine and took a long swig.

Lore coughed, suppressing his earlier laughter, and finally straightened up from the wall, stepping toward them. He was one of the Guild’s few actual priests, and its foremost specialist in Eserite philosophy and what little actual dogma the cult had. For the most part, that meant he stayed around the Guild’s headquarters, assisting the Boss and training apprentices.

“You kids have really stuck your collective foot in it,” he said more somberly. “You know our relations with the other cults can be dicey. There are long-standing tensions, such as the way we like Avenists more than they like us, and Vernisites like us more than we like them. In general, though, there’s a lot of widespread dislike of thieves. Lots of groups, religious and secular, have the attitude that Eserites are only tolerated because Eserion is a god of the Pantheon, and they resent having to tolerate us. And that, kids, is why any jobs pertaining to other cults are undertaken very carefully. Very carefully. Usually with the direct say-so of and organization by the Bishop and the Boss himself. Not a gaggle of out-of-control apprentices…you know, as a general rule.”

“Ohh,” Tallie said quietly, then swallowed. “Um…”

“In the time it took you to drive back to wherever you staged all this, transcribe those documents, arrange to have them delivered, and get back here, the beehive you kicked hasn’t stopped buzzing. Sweet has already had an earful from Bishops Throale and Syrinx. The Universal Church has gotten involved, trying to smooth things over, and the Boss has been fully occupied keeping some of our hotter heads in check, because all they can see is spellflingers and soldiers getting up in the Guild’s face apparently on their own initiative.”

“Oh, fuck,” Darius mumbled.

“WELL SAID,” Style thundered, slamming the bottle back onto a shelf and turning to glare at them. “Let’s have a little pop trivia! Who can tell me under what circumstances it is acceptable for the Boss of the Thieves’ Guild to have to clean up after a pack of goddamn apprentices?”

“Um…none?” Tallie ventured.

“Wrong! Who else wants to try?”

“Well,” Jasmine said carefully, “I suppose, theoretically, in a situation where the Boss himself was considered corrupt—”

“Jasmine, it’s a constant mystery to me how you can think so goddamn much and never about the right things. Anybody else got the answer I’m looking for?”

Ross hesitantly raised a hand. “…fucking none?”

“WINNER!” Style shouted, pointing at him.

Lore shook his head. “Look… How the hell did you kids find out about this in the first place? Shenanigans between elements in the Sisterhood and the Collegium aren’t the kind of thing into which random junior Eserites normally have insight.”

“Well, actually, that was just a right place, right time sort of deal,” Tallie said almost timidly. “See, our friend Schwartz is in the Emerald College, and he’s been involved in both interfaith relations and disseminating supplies. Apparently it was all part of his own plan to get to know Eserites, which, I guess, worked. But he mentioned he’d been seeing some funny activity…”

“And then there’s our other friend Rasha,” Darius added. “Who happens to have insight into some of the alchemical reagents the Avenists use, you know, cos he goes to them for—I mean, she—they… Dammit! I knew her all of a week the other way, why am I still not used to that?”

“Because you’re a clod,” Layla said fondly, ruffling his hair.

“Rasha,” Jasmine said quickly before Style could swell up any further, “has treatment sessions with the Sisterhood as part of transitioning. She’s not using alchemy yet because they do very thorough counseling before starting on that, but she talks with the sisters about the program, and they’ve mentioned there are unexplained shortfalls in some of their alchemical supplies.”

“Which was the other thing with which Glory helped,” Layla continued primly. “She really is the most fabulous source of gossip, and I enjoy very much being a guest at her salons. There, I heard rumors about some unexpected personnel changes in various cults; individuals who are known to favor the Universal Church have been maneuvering into positions where they serve as the intermediaries between cults. It’s all very subtle, and might never have been noticed at all except one has some kind of feud with the Avenist Bishop, who made noise about this particular priestess horning in on her territory, so to speak. Even so, only the sort of people with whom Glory associates follow these dealings. If not for our very fortuitous acquaintance, the likes of us would never have learned of this.”

“But we put that together, saw a pattern, and looked further,” Jasmine finished. “Black market dealings, places where those mislaid alchemical supplies might have been turned into untraceable cash. Pick’s connected to those, and he helped us out.”

“Surprisingly decent little prick, in his way,” Tallie added thoughtfully. “Prob’ly just cos he owes us for getting him away from those dwarves, but still.”

“Mm,” Lore grunted. “Well, you kids do impress. That was good work, spotting an opportunity and finding a way to exploit it. But what you should have done when you figured out something was fishy was go straight to Style with it. Apprentices have no business messing in other cults’ affairs.”

“But we were helping them!” Layla protested. “At least—”

“The man didn’t fucking stutter!” Style snarled. “Apprentices have no fucking business fucking around with other fucking cults’ business! You don’t help them, you don’t thwart them, you stay the hell out of their shit entirely! If you spot something fucked up going on in another Pantheon cult, or between two of them, you bring it to the Guild. The Boss will decide whether it’s something we need to intervene in, and if so, how. Not. You.”

“I realize we emphasize independence and distrust of structures,” Lore said much more gently. “It’s an understandable mistake; most of the time you’re expected not to bother the Boss, or rely excessively on the Guild. But for exactly that reason, in the few areas where the Guild does need to be involved, we take it very seriously when people go off on their own and create exactly these kinds of problems.”

“Sorry,” Ross mumbled.

Style snorted and threw up her hands, but Lore nodded gravely. “I believe you. Look… This was overall damn fine work, all right? You planned and executed an extremely neat job, and that after making excellent use of your connections and available resources. But you acted without considering the ramifications, or the role the Guild would have to play in this. That is what we can’t have.”

“And before you start getting big heads,” Style said, “he was warning you, not praising you. That’s a dangerous spot to be in, kids. If you’ve got the skills of Guild members and don’t grasp what it means to be Guild members, you’re a potential problem, if not a threat. People who land themselves in this position and don’t straighten the fuck out usually end up getting dealt with in other ways.”

Tallie swallowed heavily again. “Um…”

“No, I’m not threatening you,” Style said with a sigh. “If I thought you were gonna be that kind of problem, I’d be kicking your asses, not telling you about it. You’re students; I’m teaching. Now you understand where you went wrong. Fix your shit.”

“Understood,” Jasmine said quickly.

“I believe you,” Style replied. “Which just leaves the matter of putting this right. For now… Just leave it alone. Stay close to the Guild and wait for orders. Since you little shits are the ones with firsthand knowledge of what went down, you’re likely to be part of the process of smoothing it over, but first the Boss and the Bishop need to figure out what’s what and how to straighten it out. In the meantime, wait. And for fuck’s sake, behave yourselves.”

Jasmine cleared her throat. “Okay. And…since we’re not being punched, what’s it to be? Are we going to be scrubbing the kitchens again?”

“Jas, shut up,” Darius hissed.

Style rolled her eyes. “Punishment is for assholes; dumbasses get correction. You never have figured out the difference, Jasmine. No, when I said you were gonna make this right, that is what I meant. Now you understand how you fucked up; once you do your part to fix it, that’s that. Abusing you further isn’t gonna accomplish anything. All right, enough. Get outta here and stay in this district until I tell you otherwise. And I suggest you keep in mind that malice accounts for the lesser part of all fuckups. Trouble is much more often caused by stupidity. You wanna avoid getting in trouble, fucking think.”

“Surprisingly good advice,” Darius murmured as they filed hastily out of the room before Style could change her mind.

“Yeah,” Jasmine agreed as quietly. “Actually, it reminds me of another teacher of mine. She’s fond of saying much the same thing.”

“But with less cussing?” Tallie asked with a grin.

Jasmine sighed. “It…depends.”


“I know you’re well aware of the phenomena, Professor,” said Wrynst, the designated spokesman of the group. “Demons which bleed or otherwise dispense bodily fluids inflict infernal corruption on whatever the substance touches—yet when they are killed on this plane, the bodies dissolve into ash which leaves minimal corruption behind, and in some cases none. In order to be magically reactive, spell components harvested from demons must be taken while the demon was alive. Yet, sapient demons which can use infernal magic mostly leave behind intact bodies, which may or may not be infernally active, depending on the situation. Vanislaads in particular appear to leave behind a fully intact body, and the very same demon may return later to this plane in a new body, while their previous one might still exist here. Altogether the nature of demons’ connection to magic, to life, and to this plane is not understood. We have only lists of observed effects and no understanding of the underlying principles involved.”

“Yes, of course,” Tellwyrn said neutrally, interlacing her fingers and regarding him over them. “And of course, you know why that understanding is lacking, even after thousands of years.”

“Actually, Professor, for most of that period, infernal magic was considered far more dangerous to use than it is today, and understanding of its use was correspondingly lacking. Until as recently as the Hellwars, ‘warlock’ was considered synonymous with ‘servant of Elilial,’ because no one without that goddess’s specific protection could even touch the infernal and not combust or mutate on the spot. The word itself is said to mean ‘oathbreaker,’ as the only people to whom it applied had specifically betrayed the gods. Now, though, there are not only the Wreath, but also organized warlocks in the service of Salyrene and many national governments and other organizations, not to mention independent practitioners—all because of the advancement of knowledge.”

“And you propose,” she said slowly, “to advance it again.”

Wrynst nodded, stepped forward, and laid a thick folder down upon her desk. “Yes, Professor. The full details of our proposal are there for you to peruse at your leisure. In brief, however, we have outlined an experimental protocol which will involve the repeated summoning of and experimentation upon lesser non-sapient demons to study the nature of their dimensional connection to Hell, and thus the nature of infernal magic itself. Katzils, mostly, as they are the most manageable. At present, infernomancy is more an art than science; its safe use is largely intuitive, and therefore difficult to teach and fraught with peril. We propose to study and quantify it. If our program meets with any success, it would be a great leap forward in magical understanding, as well as taking much of the inherent danger out of infernal magic. This will make it not only safer to use, but help in devising methods of resisting demons and their masters.”

Tellwyrn glanced at the folder without moving to touch it, then across the small knot of people assembled before her desk. Behind Wrynst stood the representatives from the factions which were backing Rodvenheim’s proposal: a warlock from the Topaz College of Salyrene, a magelord of Syralon, a robed Black Wreath cultist, and a battlemage of the Empire’s Azure Corps.

Strange bedfellows, indeed.

“This is, of course, possibly the most dangerous research project ever undertaken.”

“Yes, Professor,” Wrynst said solemnly, not even quibbling with her obvious hyperbole. “We are well aware of the risks, and seek to take all possible steps to mitigate them. That fact is why this research has never been conducted before.”

“Oh, it’s been tried,” said Fedora, who was lounging against a bookcase off to the side. “By many a warlock throughout the years. In slow bits and bites over the millennia, they added gradually to the knowledge of the craft, while meeting a succession of swift and grisly fates.”

Tellwyrn shot him a brief, irritated glance, which was mirrored by each of the research delegates before her. “I’m sure this lays out your proposed containment methods. Leaving that aside, in brief, what do you intend to do about the dimensional effects of such repeated summonings?”

Wrynst coughed discreetly and glanced behind himself. At his look, Colonel Azhai nodded and stepped forward.

“In short, Professor, we intend to monitor them. This campus’s inherent protections, and the fae geas laid upon it, will do a great deal to mitigate the inherent dimensional thinning effect. Our containment protocols will do more. But as part of our research protocol, we will be closely observing the state of dimensional stability in the region. Our program calls for a cessation of summoning activity should signs of dimensional instability appear, and that only as an initial measure. You are of course aware of the methods of repairing such unintended rifts.”

“They aren’t easy,” Tellwyrn murmured.

“No, ma’am,” Azhai agreed. “Which is why our strategy emphasizes prevention. But we will be prepared to take whatever restorative action is necessary, should the need arise.”

Tellwyrn looked at Fedora and raised an eyebrow.

“I’ll want to read over their protective measures, just to be in the loop,” he said with a shrug. “Ultimately, though, you know a lot more about this hoodoo than I. Suggest having Yornhaldt and Harklund sign off on it, as well. Long as everyone’s confident, that’s that.” He cleared his throat and straightened up. “I do have an additional thought on this, which I’d prefer to share with you in private, Professor.”

“Of course,” Wrynst said hastily, bowing and taking a step back from the desk. “We can come back…”

“Oh, I don’t think that will be necessary,” said Tellwyrn. “Let’s not take up any more of your time than we must. If you will excuse us for just a moment?”

“Certainly!”

She nodded politely and gestured.

A distortion flickered across the office, as if a wall of frosted glass had appeared to separate Tellwyrn and Fedora from the guests. Behind it were revealed only vague shapes, and no sound penetrated.

“Well?” she asked, swiveling her chair to face him directly. “What do you think?”

“In short,” he said, “I think you have to go for it.”

She raised one eyebrow. “Oh, I have to, do I?”

“C’mon, don’t get all Tellwyrn on me,” he said with a grin. “You’ll do what you want, and we both know it. But in this case, with regard to your stated goals for this whole program? This is just too perfect to pass up. It’s dangerous and potentially incredibly valuable if it’s a success. It’s exactly the kind of research you launched this whole initiative to do. This is the first real test of the whole plan. If you’re not willing to take this on, it all becomes kind of…moot. This research hasn’t been done elsewhere because nobody was willing to touch it. If you’re not…what’s the point of the new research division?”

“Mm,” she grunted, glancing at the obscured shapes behind the barrier, which were now shifting slightly as they interacted with one another.

“There’s more,” Fedora said in a less jocular tone. “This is also the perfect opportunity to deal with the other thing I warned you about when you hired me. It’s not only incredibly dangerous, it deals with warlocks and demons—exactly the subject that gets people riled up and frightened. It is the ideal avenue of attack for your enemies to use against you.”

“And so,” she murmured, “by controlling the path my enemies take, I control their fates.”

He tilted his head. “Huh. I dunno why it should surprise me that you’ve read the Aveniad, but it does.”

“If anything it’s more surprising that you’ve read it,” she sighed.

“Some good, solid advice in there,” he replied, winking. “Take a little time to review the proposal in detail; that’ll give me a little time to make preparations for whoever’s gonna take advantage to try it. This is it, Professor. Make or break.”

“All right,” she said, suddenly brisk, and turned back to the desk. The barrier vanished, and the assembled magical specialists turned expectantly to her. “Very well, upon consultation with my head of campus security, I am strongly inclined to endorse this program. Obviously, I will need to review your proposal in detail; there may well be adjustments upon which I will have to insist.”

“Oh, of course,” Wrynst said quickly, nodding.

“But, barring some absolute dealbreaker in the fine print, I believe you have just become the proud progenitors of this University’s first major research project. Give me a few days to review in detail, consult with my faculty and make some arrangements. I shall try not to drag my feet about it.”

“Professor, we are glad to grant you whatever you need,” Wrynst assured her, glancing back at his compatriots and getting a chorus of affirmative nods. “After all, you are being more than generous with us.”

A soft chime sounded, and everyone shifted to look at Fedora, who pulled a large silver pocket watch from inside his coat and flipped it open.

“Ah,” he said in a tone of deep satisfaction. “Professor! You remember that thing you asked me to watch for yesterday? It’s happening.”

“What?” she exclaimed, shooting upright. “Already?”

“Yes, well,” Fedora said glibly, shutting the watch and putting it away again. “I may have encouraged it along a little bit.”

“I asked you,” she grated, “to watch for the sophomore class trying to sneak off campus, not to goad them into doing it!”

“I swear to you I’ve not said a word to them!” he replied, holding up his hands in surrender, but grinning unrepentantly. “I did, however, have a few selective words with Raffi at our poker game last night, on the assumption they’d find their way to Zaruda and onward from there. Sometimes, Professor, watching for bad behavior means strewing a few seeds. That’s how you find out which soil is the most fertile.” He winked at the delegates.

Tellwyrn growled wordlessly. “Mr. Wrynst, everyone, I’m sorry to cut this meeting short, but it appears I have something rather more urgent to attend to. If you will excuse me.”

“Not to worry, Professor, we…” Wrynst trailed off; Tellwyrn had vanished in the middle of his sentence.

“She does that a lot,” Fedora confided. “It’s all part of the charm.”

 

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12 – 64

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As usual, the patch of blackened grass followed her on her way toward the teleporter. It was a convenient time for visitors, the little orb’s rotation having brought the gate within easy view of her construction project. Behind her rose the unfinished white marble columns of a Grecian temple, already twined with flowering vines despite the construction itself being in an early stage.

Milanda came forward to meet her, a hefty box tucked under one arm. After giving Walker a smile of greeting, her eyes shifted to study the new project, and then to the black streaks on the ground, where patches of dead grass and crumbling bushes showed Walker’s path.

“Wow,” she said, coming to a stop about halfway between the temple and the teleporter. “It looks kind of…Avenist.”

“The style is older than that by far,” Walker said, grinning, “but yes, you’re not wrong. Please pardon the destroyed vegetation; I can’t help it. It grows back fairly quickly; the Avatar had to adjust the settings down here, but with the facility already keyed to Naiya’s transcension field, re-growing plant life isn’t very taxing. I must say, lifting and placing marble blocks has been surprisingly therapeutic. I’m stronger than I realized.”

“What about those?” Milanda asked, pointing with her free hand. “Did you manage to create vines that are immune to your effect?”

“Oh! No, those are plastic. Really, decorative touches like that ought to be the last stage of construction, but…I was really yearning for some greenery that I could touch. Even if it’s fake.”

“Plastic?”

“Wonderful stuff! Lightweight, very resilient, incredibly versatile. It’s made from oils, both petroleum and organic. Having the fabricators produce it avoids the messy by-products of that, of course. Based on what I’ve gleaned of your civilization, I’d guess you’re within fifty years or so of producing something similar through alchemy.”

Milanda nodded, then cleared her throat and held up the box in both hands. “So! Where I come from, it’s customary to bring a house-warming gift when someone moves into a new home. Granted, this is apparently more of a pseudo-Avenist-temple-on-a-tiny-underground-planetwarming gift, but I believe the principle still applies.”

Walker chuckled as she took the box from her, tucking it under one arm to open the top. “I would say that it’s the thought which counts. It really was a very thoughtful…”

She trailed off, her expression falling still, then carefully reached in to extract the object, letting the box fall to the ground. The gravitational isolation chamber’s artificial sun gleamed blindingly on its glossy red paint, steel accents, and glass dome filled with tiny colored balls.

“I asked the fabricator for a gumball machine and it had thousands of schematics,” Milanda said almost nervously. “So…that probably doesn’t look anything like the one your mother had. And, of course, it’s not an Earth relic, I made it less than an hour ago. But I figured, at least… Well, it could be a start at making this a home, and not just a cell. You know. Um, you definitely don’t have to display it or anything, if it’s not to your taste…”

Walker took a step to the side, out of their way, and very carefully knelt to place the gumball machine upright on the ground. Then she rose, stepped back to Milanda, and wrapped her up in a tight hug.

“I just discovered something,” the fairy murmured. “It appears I can’t cry. That hasn’t really come up since I ended up like…this.”

Milanda squeezed her tighter.

It was a long moment before Walker finally pulled back. “You know…at first, I was planning to betray you. To go along with your intentions until I found something I could exploit to get out. No matter what I had to do, or to whom.”

“Was?” Milanda asked quietly. “What changed your mind?”

“I didn’t,” Walker said with a rueful smile. “Or…more accurately, I suppose, I don’t know. I just…happened to think of it at one point, and realized I didn’t want to anymore. I liked working with you, and talking with you. And your project was a challenge. To have something to do after so long… But mostly, I think it was you.”

Milanda grinned back. “Well…I guess I should also admit I was expecting a betrayal and trying to plan for it. The Avatar even gave me a book by Robert Greene to read, to help with outwitting you.”

Walker’s face collapsed in an incredulous grimace. “Ugh. Greene? That amoral, nihilistic, self-satisfied—”

“Yes, I honestly had a little trouble getting into it, though that’s partly because the historical allusions are over my head. You are not a fan, I take it?”

Walker scowled. “It’s a little personal, rationally or not. Greene is a favorite of Vidius. I hold him indirectly responsible for several of my ongoing frustrations. If you want to read Earth political philosophy, I would start with Rousseau. Oh, I bet you would really appreciate Marcus Aurelius, too. Actually, if you’re going to start somewhere, I suppose it should be with Aristotle and Plato, at the beginning. And that’s just the Western tradition! Personally, I’ve always been partial to Musashi, but he was more a warrior poet than a philosopher. Now, Lao Tzu—”

“How about this,” Milanda interrupted, grinning broadly. “You think it over, and pick the best book of philosophy that you’d consider a starting point on Earth’s tradition. Have the fabricator print one up for me on my next visit. And the visit after that, we can discuss it.”

“That…” A broad smile blossomed over Walker’s face. “That sounds excellent. Yes, it’s a date.”

“Perfect.” Milanda sighed, glancing at the teleporter, which had retreated several yards toward the horizon. “Well, I seem to have inadvertently finagled my way into a more central role in politics, and it’s a mess up there right now. The Imperial bureaucracy is resilient and Vex and the Empress held order the best they could, but after most of a week with no Emperor and the Hands acting unstable, there are a thousand fires to put out. Also, the Punaji are having some kind of crisis and Tellwyrn has picked this moment to pull something exceptionally cute.”

“I rather doubt that was personal,” Walker opined. “Tellwyrn isn’t a strategic thinker, and just doesn’t care about the doings of Empires.”

“Gods, I hope you’re right. This is not a good time for her to start caring.”

“It sounds like you had better get back to work, then,” Walker said, smiling. “Thank you for the gift, Milanda. It was just the thing I needed.”

“It’s going to be a hectic few days, but I’ll come down again as soon as I can,” Milanda promised. “Till next time, then!”

“Till next time, friend.”

She watched her all the way to the teleporter before turning to pick up the gumball machine again, almost reverently, and carried it into and through the temple. The roof was not in place, showing only the artificial sky, and sunlight which continued to gleam on the machine’s surfaces. Walker took it to the back of the main chamber, where the altar would be, and set it gently on the floor.

Still kneeling there, she pressed the mechanism, and with a satisfying little clunk, a gumball dropped through the metal door into her waiting hand. A pink one. Straightening up slowly, she popped it into her mouth and bit down.

Nothing but sugar, food coloring, and glue, as she’d said to Milanda, what seemed like ages ago. Saccharine sweetness erupted across her tongue, and with the flavor came an acute burst of memory and emotion.

She chewed in silence for several minutes, before abruptly turning and striding out of the temple. The grounds around were beginning to turn green again, though she unavoidably cut a black swath through them. Walker steered away from the trees—it seemed a shame to kill such sizable things—and set off through an open field for a good walk, leaving behind a path of blackened destruction.

After she was gone, slowly at first, new life began to rise in her wake.


Setbacks.

The labyrinthine corridors beneath the Grand Cathedral were useful for more than security; Justinian found the long process of traversing them gave him opportunity to think, and plan. Even here, he kept his expression serene, not allowing any of his thoughts even the slightest exposure. It did not do to let one’s self-control grow even the tiniest bit rusty. This was a fine opportunity to practice; his thoughts were not encouraging.

Naturally, he had kept the true Avatar template far from Rector’s workshop, so the destruction had merely cost years of work, tipped his hand to the Empire and forced him to scramble to cover his tracks, and not destroyed a truly priceless artifact. Merely. The Hands had suddenly reversed their changes, which proved Sharidan had his systems back under control, and strongly suggested there would be extra security on them now. That avenue of attack could be considered closed, and in the process of poking that beehive under the Palace…

The Holy Legion, decimated. He had faith in Ravoud, and even that Khadizroth would come through on his promises, now that he had given his word. The restoration of his maimed soldiers would take time, still, and far too many had been slain outright. Ravoud’s analysis was correct; building the Legion’s numbers back to their previous level would require a slackening of their standards, which he was not willing to do, yet. The plan had always been to open recruitment to less thoroughly vetted men and women, but not until the solid core of elite troops had experience working together, and the Silver Throne was not in a position to object. Neither was yet true.

Khadizroth was his own issue, too. He was growing slowly more ambitious, and the current situation would only further cement his hold on the Holy Legion and Justinian’s organization, in addition to the influence he wielded over the other adventurers gathered at Dawnchapel. Sending them into danger last night had been intended partly as a reminder to him that Vannae, at least, was physically vulnerable, but the improbable survival of every one of the team had rendered that an empty gesture. Justinian had his own theories about that, which he would shortly be able, finally, to test…

And as for last night, the loss of the Tide was a bitter pill to swallow. They had fulfilled the purpose for which he had spent the last ten years recruiting and grooming them: a sect of devoted fanatics, without traceable origins or proof of their true affiliation, ready to be hurled at whatever target he deemed necessary. But it was too soon—far too soon. He had intended them for use much closer to the endgame, when the accelerated pace of events would make such violent methods more appropriate, and the need to introduce chaos more pressing. Now, that joker had been played far too early. There was, at this point, no benefit in trying to rebuild them, not even as seeds for more chaos cults such as he’d deployed in Veilgrad. There just wouldn’t be time.

Unless…

Justinian did not allow himself a smile, but filed away that jolt of inspiration to be refined into a proper plan. As it was, the Tide were gone, used up for no greater purpose than to maintain deniability against the Throne’s increasing suspicions. Sharidan knew who his adventurers were, and he had made a much stronger show of friendship that way than any words from him could have done. It had been necessary, but the loss still rankled. It would be that much more keenly felt, the farther and faster events progressed; he’d been counting on having the Tide to use when he was in a tight spot. He had every hope that the upcoming confrontation with the Rust in Puna Dara would, at least for a while, cement his fracturing relationship with the Throne. It would not do for Sharidan to find reason to move openly against him too soon.

There was that, at least. The one bright spot in all this: the increasing pressure upon him had provided the leverage he needed to force Szaiviss’s hand. The Rust was her pet project, one he was not supposed to know about, and he had at least manipulated her into deploying them too early. The combined forces about to descend on them would wipe out the cult no matter what armaments they had cobbled together. All he had to do was ensure that any remaining tracks he had left in Puna Dara were covered in the chaos, which should not be hard. It would not do, of course, to think Szaiviss harmless or under control, but at least, now, he was confident she had no more external assets.

Except Scyllith. He had better be careful not to pressure her further; if she felt cornered enough to call her goddess’s attention, there would be no end of disaster.

Setbacks, on every side. This entire week had been a debacle without parallel in his plans thus far. None of these setbacks, alone, was enough to form a threat to his plans, but in aggregation the resources he had lost or been forced to expend seriously hampered his ability to maneuver. Not to mention pushing him close to a precipice. If he suffered one more major loss before he could rebuild his assets, it might all be over.

He put his grim ruminations aside, arriving at the door he sought. Almost mechanically, he passed through its security measures, entering a short hall leading to a whitewashed wooden door, and entered without knocking.

The little cottage inside was still somewhat under construction, but it was clearly a replica of that which had been outside Rector’s last workstation. The walls had just been painted, leaving most of the furniture pushed into the center of the floor, with boxes of smaller objects half-unpacked among them.

Ildrin had been splayed out in a rocking chair, the very picture of exhaustion, but upon the Archpope’s sudden appearance she jumped up.

“Your Holiness! I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting—”

“It’s quite all right, Ildrin. Please, rise,” he said kindly, helping her up from the kneeling position to which she had dropped. “These events have been extremely difficult for all of us. You are well? Getting enough rest?”

“I’m fine,” she assured him. “Really, don’t fret about me—I know my limits, and I’ll be sure to rest extra when I’m nearing them. It’s not that time, yet; Rector is still have trouble adjusting. He and Delilah need me.”

“Ah, yes,” Justinian said seriously. “And how is he faring, in your view?”

She hesitated, frowning pensively. “Your Holiness…I feel I’ve gained a new appreciation for Rector recently. He’s a creature of—that is, a man of routine, and it’s been very difficult for him, having all his work undone and then being uprooted. He’s making it difficult for us, too. But at the same time… This is the first time I’ve seen this, but it’s become clear he knows he’s unusual, and is trying to mitigate his own…issues, for our sake. I feel…quite ashamed of the way I thought of him when I was first posted down here.”

“Don’t,” Justinian advised gently, placing a hand on her shoulder and giving her a warm smile. “I know you’ve not mistreated him, or I would have heard about it from Delilah. We cannot help our thoughts, sister; it is our actions which define us. You have done well, here, and if you’ve learned something of empathy in the process, so much the better. For now, though,” he continued more seriously, putting on a carefully measured frown of contemplation, “I’m afraid recent events both here and elsewhere have forced me to adjust a number of my plans. Among other things, I am in need of trustworthy people in a variety of positions. I am sorry to keep shuffling you about this way, Ildrin, but I will soon need you elsewhere. Not immediately—we want to avoid subjecting Rector to any more abrupt changes than we can help, I think.”

“I’m eager to serve in any way you need me,” she assured him fervently. “I will…somewhat to my surprise…miss this place, and even Rector. But we all go where the gods need us most.”

“Quite so,” he agreed, smiling again. “And now, since I have to interrupt our resident genius again, best to do so quickly rather than dragging it out.”

“Of course, your Holiness.”

She followed him through the kitchen, similarly in a state of partial completion, and to the work area beyond. This was different than the workspace of Rector’s last project; though roughly the same size, it was a rectangular room with walls formed of massive stone blocks, not a natural cavern. Something of the same aesthetic was present, in the enchanting equipment lining its walls in a profusion of pipes, glass tubes, and wires, though that was also laid out much differently. The total apparatus was far bulkier than the previous one, but rather than concentrated in clumps, lined the walls and climbed to a central crystal disc set amid brass and copper fixtures in the middle of the ceiling. Apart from that disc, and the runic control console laid in the center of the chamber and connected to the rest, most of the arcane materials were clearly connectors; the bulkiest parts of the structure appeared to be small shrines spaced around the walls at regular intervals, each prominently featuring the sigils of a god of the Pantheon.

At their entry, Delilah turned and started to kneel, but before she could complete the gesture, Rector barked impatiently without looking up from his console, “There you are! I’ve been waiting!”

“Rector!” Delilah exclaimed, turning to face him. “Don’t speak that way to his Holiness!”

“It’s quite all right, Delilah, no harm is done,” Justinian said soothingly, striding into the room. “I apologize for the delay, Rector, there are numerous demands on my time. It sounds as if all is in readiness, then? Shall I proceed?”

“Yes, yes, let’s get on with it, I’ve had it set up for an hour,” Rector grumbled, still fidgeting with the runes on his console, his finicky motions evidently more for something to do than because anything needed to be done.

“Very good,” Justinian said calmly, striding across the room to a shrine set up in the center of one of the shorter walls, linked with enchanting paraphernalia to the two in each of the nearby corners. Prominently featured upon it were the gears and hourglass of Vemnesthis, one of the few gods whose sigil was not widely known—in his case, because he had no worshipers.

All around him rose a low hum as Rector powered up the new device. This time there was no sign of the Avatar, and in fact no display surface in which one could have manifested, but only the activation of various arcane circuits and their accompanying musical tones and azure light effects. Each of the shrines around the edges blazed to life, as well, glowing a mellifluous gold and emitting harmonic tones like the clearest of bells.

Only the shrine of Vemnesthis remained dark, until Justinian reached out to touch its sigil with both his hand and his mind.

There was, and could be, no other device like this in the world. Only a sitting Archpope could invoke the powers of individual gods without drawing their direct attention—and even so, much of the apparatus constructed here served to ensure that what they did would not draw the gods’ notice. At his touch, the time-bending power of Vemnesthis poured into the system with the activation of that final shrine, the only temporal effect in the world guaranteed not to draw the Timekeeper’s swift censure.

With the final activation of the structure, the room was suddenly filled with a colossal spider web.

“Please, be calm,” Justinian said over Ildrin and Delilah’s shouts, loudly enough to be heard but careful to keep his own voice utterly serene. “This will not harm you—it was here before. What we have done is created a bridge between the subtler expressions of reality and human perception, enabling us to see this effect, in a manner which makes sense to our own minds.”

Both priestesses edged closer together, peering around nervously. The web was disturbing to look at, in the way that things in dreams did not quite stay put; its strands shifted position when not watched closely, creating a constant sense of motion out of the corners of one’s eye. It all spread from the crystal disc in the ceiling in a most disconcerting display, at once as if the web were a normal one radiating from that point, and a constant spiral funneling into it like water down a drain. Always in furious motion, yet totally constant. It was almost physically painful to look at; they all quickly decided not to.

“Your Holiness,” Delilah whispered, staring at him.

Justinian stepped back from the shrine of Vemnesthis, lifting his hands to study them thoughtfully. He was linked to the web—in fact, strands lay thick over both his arms, connecting to his fingers, wrapped around his waist and upper body. Every movement he made caused the whole thing to tremble.

“Don’t be alarmed, Delilah,” he said gently. “This is not directly harmful. We are simply seeing, now, the machinations of an entity which does not, at present, exist.”

“I…I don’t understand,” Ildrin said faintly.

“You will find her there,” he said, lifting a finger to point at the swirling vortex of webs in the ceiling. They both reflexively followed his gesture, then immediately averted their eyes. “And this is why it was the power of Vemnesthis, who guards the timeways, that was necessary to finally see it. That creature is dead, and has been for millennia. But it seems that in a time very soon to come, she will not be—and is reaching back through time to arrange things to her benefit. Possibly to arrange her own resurrection. Try not to think about it,” he added kindly, smiling at their expressions. “Causality breaks down in matters like these. That is why Vemnesthis and his work are so important.”

“But why is it all attached to you?” Ildrin squeaked.

“Not just me,” the Archpope said gravely. “I have noticed something, recently. A pattern, which this begins to confirm. Certain individuals, being drawn forcefully together in the face of events—and also resisting grievous harm, coming through trials which ought to destroy anyone, unscathed. As if they are being lined up in a particular formation, to serve a particular purpose.”

“So…it’s…good?” Ildrin asked, frowning deeply. “As long as the webs hold you, you can’t die?”

“Nothing in this world cannot die,” he replied. “But I take this as confirmation of my theory. I suspect that I, and the others who are bound to the strands of this great web, will find ourselves all but impervious to circumstance resulting in our death, imprisonment, disfigurement…anything which prevents us all arriving at that point, ready to play whatever part she intends.” Again, he indicated the crystal; this time, they didn’t look, though Ildrin grimaced with remembered discomfort, wiping her palms on the front of her robe.

“Can’t…Vemnesthis…deal with that?” Delilah asked faintly, glancing back at Rector, who was muttering over his runes, making fine adjustments. “Isn’t that what the Scions of Vemnesthis are for?”

“Vemnesthis has no proper cult,” Justinian said solemnly. “The Scions, with the exception of their leader, are effectively enslaved. They are the mages and warlocks gathered from across history, all those who tried to meddle in the timestream, and were given his ultimatum: serve, or be destroyed.” He shook his head. “No… Aside from the fact that this creature is, or will be, superior in power to their patron, the Scions of Vemnesthis are not a force which will stand against an Elder God. She will be ready for anything they do—able, even to subvert them, which makes it the wiser course not to bring them to her direct attention. This apparatus, however, is a thing which should not be, which no one will expect—not even our Pantheon. This is why the gods needs us, sisters. For all their power, there are things in their service which only mortals can do.”

He turned to gaze directly into the mind-wrenching chaos at the center of the spiral of webs, not flinching.

“It falls to us to thwart Araneid’s return.”

Setbacks…but also new opportunities.


“Hang on!” she shouted over the crash of the waves. “In fact, it’d be better if you sat down, but at least hang on!”

He ignored her, clinging to the bowsprit and staring grimly ahead through the spray, as he had since they had passed through the guardian stones and from calm, sunny seas into this chaos. The boat tipped over the precipice, shooting straight down the colossal wave into what seemed a chasm in the surface of the ocean.

He tightened his grip, wrapping one hand more firmly in the rope. He was stronger than a normal human by far, but even so… They were picking up terrible speed, and seemed about to plow straight into a wall of water thrown up by the undulating sea, taller than the walls of Tiraas. He drew in a breath, and closed his eyes, and they hit.

The boat plunged under—everything was water, roaring and pulling him, and suddenly, it was gone. Everything was gone. The noise, the pressure… Even his clothes weren’t wet anymore.

He opened his eyes, peering around at the flat, shimmering expanse of the ocean around them, glittering calmly beneath a sunny sky, then swiveled to look behind. The boat was in perfect condition, showing no sign of having just passed through that tempest. The towering sentinel stones that ringed Suffering were not to be seen, nor was the island.

“Woo! Made it again!” Karen cheered, pumping one fist in the air. Her heavy black robes prevented him from getting a glimpse at what she really looked like, not that he’d been curious enough to investigate. “I told you it was nothing to worry about. Next stop: Onkawa! Well, the docks below Onkawa, depending on whether you count them as part of the city proper. I do, just for simplicity’s sake. I don’t know what kind of sense it makes to build a city up on a cliff and its wharfs way down below, but hey, what do I know? I’m just the ferryman. Ferry person. I dunno, I’ve had Avenist passengers yell at me for it, but it doesn’t sound right, ‘ferry person.’ ‘Ferryman’ rolls off the tongue, y’know?”

She carried on prattling, as she had from the moment he’d stepped aboard, and he turned his back on her, tuning her out. Other things demanded his focus.

He could feel them again. The others, and his Emperor. But…distantly. Distorted. Altered. Something terrible had happened in Tiraas, something which cut at the core of his Empire. He feared the worst—anything which could alter the Hands had the potential to topple the Silver Throne itself. No wonder she had been so anxious to get rid of him, if something like this were about to unfold.

And that, at least, told him where to start. He would not be able to trust the others, at least until he learned what had happened, and how to free them from whatever the effect was that all but cut them off from his senses. It would be necessary to be cautious, subtle, investigate slowly and carefully. But at least he knew, circumstantially, who had to be behind it.

There was one Hand of the Emperor left, and Tellwyrn would rue the day she turned against the Silver Throne.


She closed the chapel door gently, and paused for a moment just inside to gaze abstractly into the dimness. Late afternoon sunlight streamed through the windows, creating shifting patterns upon the floor in the absence of fairy lights, and a heavy floral scent hung in the air from the veritable mountain of bouquets piled around Ravana’s resting place.

Slowly, Tellwyrn paced down the central aisle, turning her head to study each sleeping student without stopping. Natchua, she noted, had a Narisian blessing talisman resting on her chest just above her folded hands—one carefully painted in House Awarrion colors. Nothing had been sent from her own House. Other gifts and tokens lay in each of the improvised beds—coins, candles, notes, flowers, sent by fellow students and family members alike. More than that, in Ravana’s case.

Only at reaching the end, Shaeine’s resting place, did Tellwyrn finally stop. For a long moment, she gazed down at the sleeping drow. Then, moving slowly and wearily as if suddenly feeling every one of her three thousand years, she turned, and sank down to the floor, resting her back against the wood. There, she tilted her head back, gazing emptily through the silence.

“I’m sorry.”

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12 – 63

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“My clan will not be interested in this, but there are others that definitely will,” Haunui said, nodding with his customarily solemn expression. “In particular, the idea that any representative sent will have equal footing with that of the Empire will sell it, alone. I will raise the matter at the next moot.”

“I appreciate it, Haunui,” Tellwyrn replied with a smile.

He nodded again. “It has been good to see the old campus once more. Surprising, how little it has changed. I’m grateful I got this opportunity, since it seems change is about to come in great force.”

She sighed softly. “Yes…it always does. Anyhow, if you’ll give me a few minutes I can take you home…”

“There’s no rush,” he said, finally smiling. “Actually, if you don’t mind, I would like to stay a few days. There are interesting new constructions in the town, and quite a number of people gathered here with whom I would like to have conversations.”

“You’re welcome, of course,” she said. “The guest chambers will be available as long as you need them. Just so you know, teleporting back to Tidecall is the work of seconds, but finding a few spare seconds might be increasingly tricky in the coming days. You may have to wait a bit on my convenience to go home.”

“The wind blows where it wants,” he intoned. “There is no rush.” Turning to go, the shaman paused and bowed politely to each of the others waiting nearby. “Huntsman. Daughter of Naiya.”

“Wavespeaker,” Ingvar replied, bowing with equal respect.

“Yo,” Aspen said, waggling her fingers.

Tellwyrn let out a sigh as Haunui strode down the hall toward the stairs descending to the lobby. She had spent the morning mobbed by people wanting a slice of her attention, dealing with dozens of conversations while slowly retreating toward her office, and even still hadn’t quite made it there. Most of those discussions had been with relative newcomers to the mountain; only Ingvar, Aspen and Haunui had had the foresight to wait in the upper corridors of Helion Hall.

“Well, Ingvar, you’ve certainly been more than patient with me during your time here.”

“We’ve kinda gotten used to being patient,” said the dryad.

“Aspen,” Ingvar said pointedly. She rolled her eyes, but subsided, and he continued more courteously to Tellwyrn. “We haven’t felt put upon in the least, Professor. We did, after all, appear out of the blue with a personal request for your time and attention, and you have clearly had more important things to deal with. We inadvertently picked a very trying time to visit, it seems.”

“Nonetheless, you’ve been quite helpful while you were here, and I’m sorry to keep you waiting for so long. I have given some thought to your questions, mostly while doing other things; I regret that that is as far as I’ve managed. Barring some fresh nonsense, though, things will hopefully be settling down here in the next few days.”

“Seems kinda like you’ve managed to make things more busy in the next few days,” Aspen said, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes,” Tellwyrn replied with a grim little smile, “but with plans. Lots of stuff to do, but stuff that will be done on my schedule, not while I run around willy nilly reacting to whatever fresh idiocy the Sleeper and whoever else throws. As such! Ingvar, this promises to be a somewhat involved conversation. Would you and Aspen join me for lunch tomorrow?”

“Gladly.”

“Perfect. I’m not absolutely certain how germane my insights will be to your quest, but I can describe in detail how I approached Shaath, as well as giving you general strategies for dealing with gods. Naiya might be the hardest to get to, but you have a big advantage, there.” She nodded at Aspen. “Additionally, let me take the rest of today to check some of my old notes; I believe we have quite a few volumes in our library that may be relevant to your search. Some are in the restricted archives, but I don’t think they are necessarily too sensitive to show you. I’ll put together a reading list and have Crystal assist you with it. You are, of course, welcome to stay on campus as long as you need. It’s the least I can do, after the help you’ve already given.”

“That is tremendously helpful, Professor,” he said, bowing. “Thank you very much. We’ll rejoin you tomorrow, then. After this morning I’m sure you’re eager to have a few moments to yourself.”

“Well, you know what they say,” Tellwyrn snorted. “Rest when you’re dead.”

“That’s just silly,” Aspen huffed. “A person needs rest. While alive. That’s the point.”

“It’s just an expression, Aspen,” Ingvar said, gently steering her toward the stairs.

“You keep saying that as if it justifies some of the dumbest ideas people keep spouting,” she complained while following him down the hall. “If someone’s wrong, the fact that it’s an expression doesn’t make them less wrong!”

“In fact, I think you’re onto something, there. My point was, expressions are part of culture. Challenging them isn’t going to get you anywhere; it just makes people dig their heels in, mostly. And anyway, even if someone is wrong, throwing it in their face usually doesn’t help.”

“Who said anything about helping?”

“We talked about persuasion, remember…?”

“Oh, sure, but honestly I don’t all that much care what nonsense people choose to believe. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta tell a bonehead they are one.”

Tellwyrn stood alone in the hall, staring abstractly in the direction they had gone, until their receding voices had departed the building entirely.

“I hope,” she finally said aloud, “you don’t think you’re sneaking up on me.”

“Well, one hates to interrupt,” Inspector Fedora said, materializing from empty space nearby. He was holding two brown bottles, and tossed one to her. “Here—compliments of Raffi Chandrakeran.”

“Mermaid’s Bite?” She raised her eyebrows, studying the label. “Impossible to get outside the Punaji Coast.”

“Can’t imagine why,” Fedora said, grinning and pulling the stopper from his bottle. “Absolutely vile stuff, but it is one of your favorites. Cheers.”

“Now how the hell did you oh never mind, don’t answer that.” She opened her own and took a swig; the drink made her grimace and shudder, but she let out a soft sigh of satisfaction after the first swallow. “Ahh, that takes me back. Well! You clearly want something, but so does everyone else today, and not one of them had the basic courtesy to bring me booze. That earns you the privilege of speaking.”

The Inspector took a more judicious sip of his own. “Bleh. Not the worst thing I’ve ever put in my mouth, to be sure. Well, you know quite a bit about what my kind are like, Professor. And not just due to your age, or long adventuring career, or magical proficiency. I’ve met archmages and ancient elves aplenty who clearly had no clue what they were dealing with. You, though! I know for a fact you’ve got Melaxyna and Rowe squirreled away down in that Crawl of yours. Impressive you managed to ensnare even one, much less both.”

“Just Melaxyna now,” she said sourly. “I failed to keep them separated.”

Fedora barked a laugh. “Aw, those two. I always did think they’d make a lovely pair. Well, anyway, I suspect you understand…the urge.” He began moving, at a slow amble, and Tellwyrn followed gamely along, sipping from her bottle and watching him. “It starts as an itch, right in the back of your head. Like that tickle in the throat that comes when you’re first getting sick. If not indulged, it grows…slowly, at first. Till it’s like ants crawling all over and under your skin, everywhere. The need to sow some chaos, cause a little misery. Flex your wings and your skills and break somebody. Infernal aggression, almost—almost suppressed.”

“Feeling itchy?” she asked in a deceptively mild tone.

He shrugged. “Less now than a week ago. Even if I’ve yet to catch the little fucker, stalking the Sleeper has been most therapeutic. See, when the Empire first picked me up, my new handlers spun this lovely story—it was positively Vesker in its overwrought romanticism. The lone incubus who turned himself to hunting criminals and outwitting those who took advantage of others, on a personal quest for redemption.” He grinned broadly. “I let them think it. Vex, of course, wasn’t fooled, but he of all people recognizes a useful lie; it enabled his spooks to work with me without being too jumpy about it. Truth is, I just found criminals the most satisfying challenge. Sure, you can destabilize a whole country by ensconcing yourself in the capital and pulling the right threads; that’s what most of my kind end up going for. Maximum collateral damage. It’s kind of fundamentally unsatisfying, though, playing a game with people who don’t know the rules. All those scheming aristocrats and priests and bankers and kings—they just can’t grasp that another player in their great game isn’t trying to win it, but just to make sure everyone loses. Almost unfair.”

“Somehow it’s even creepier to hear one of you admit it,” she grunted. They passed the closed door of her office without pausing.

“Crime, though,” Fedora continued, seemingly lost in his thoughts now, “that’s a game. There are laws and customs to form a neat board and a set of rules. The crook is trying to get away with something; I’m trying to stop them. One against one, now that is a challenge. Given a certain level of intelligence on the part of one’s opponent, of course. As I worked out an ever-better method for detective work I had to raise the stakes, till I needed to thwart the schemes of nobles to really get my fix. Those evil bastards are as ruthless as any incubus; I think I could’ve kept on indefinitely that way. Except…”

“Except nobles aren’t the only ones paying attention to themselves,” she said. “That’s a quick way to get Intelligence after you, as you discovered. Fedora, it’s not like you to make long speeches. Or reveal anything about yourself. I trust this is going somewhere relevant to my interests?”

“Oh, quite,” he assured her with a grin. “Indulge me just a moment longer, if you would. You see, Professor, I’ve been sensing a change in the wind, lately, at Imperial Intelligence. Vex made certain to let me indulge myself against real opponents—at first, for a while. Lately, though? It’s been all about administration. Organization. Teaching my methods to other Inspectors, to the Army, the police, his spies… Oh, it’ll be to the overall good of society, having police actually able to solve crimes rather than just grabbing the first likely bloke and clubbing a confession out of him. I’m going stir crazy, though, cooped up in that office, and Vex is far too canny not to fully understand what he’s doing, keeping me on administrative work. The pisser is, even knowing his game, I can’t help it. The pressure builds up, till eventually I’m going to have to do something. Something that’ll give him all the excuse he needs to stick me in a bottle and lose it in a vault somewhere.”

“That sounds like a Vex move,” she agreed.

“So!” Fedora stopped, turning to face her and grinning. “It seems to me it’s a good time for me to seek other employment.”

Tellwyrn faced him as well. “Something tells me the terms of your arrangement with Imperial Intelligence are not the kind of job one simply quits.”

“Oh, quite. Ordinarily? No, utterly out of the question. Matters become different, however, if my new employer, who had just given a speech about how nobody tells her what to do on her campus and could use a convenient excuse to prove it, were to tell Vex to keep his grubby fingers off her new head of campus security.”

She stared at him. “…all right. As thanks for the drink, and largely out of morbid curiosity, I’m willing to hear your pitch.”

“I was very impressed with what I heard at that assembly.” His jocular expression suddenly gone, he stared back intently. “It’s honestly a brilliant move, and all other things being equal, I think it’ll work. You can’t stop the world from changing, so you position yourself to be the administrator of that change. You do realize, of course, that the logical move on the part of all those people you brought here would be to boycott your University, cut you out of the loop and let you remain isolated until it finally puts you out of their misery once and for all?”

Tellwyrn snorted and took a gulp of her drink. “You’re suggesting the great powers of the world might do the sensible thing, when the alternative is to scheme against each other for tiny scraps of advantage? Don’t make me laugh.”

“And that’s it exactly.” He pointed the mouth of his bottle at her. “How those people think. It’s one thing to remind everyone that you’re Arachne goddamn Tellwyrn and they’d better mind their manners. But in your whole life, Professor, when you’ve come up against people intelligent enough they should know better than to test you, yet they didn’t… Who were they?”

There was a pause before she responded. “What, you want a list?”

“Just a category,” he said with a grim little smile. “Because I think you’ll find there’s just one.”

“Quite a few, in fact,” she said slowly. “Largely aristocrats. Kings and queens, which is the same thing, really. Priests—”

“Average priests, or high-ranking ones?” When she didn’t respond, he nodded. “That really is one category, along with all the other sub-groupings you can list. The rich, the powerful. At their core, Professor, powerful people simply cannot accept the idea that they won’t get their way. Even no matter how many times other powerful people thwart them, they keep coming back for more. They don’t know restraint or moderation; they are driven by the unshakable conviction that they are entitled to possess absolutely everything, and the irrational belief that they one day will. It takes a certain amount of adversity to shape someone’s mind into knowing their place in the world. The mighty, the kings and popes and bishops and bankers? They’ll never stop.”

“And?” she drawled.

“And I like what you’re about to do here, Professor. Irrespective, even, of my own need to find different employment, I’d like to be a part of it. But more important to your interests… You do not appreciate what you’ve begun, Tellwyrn. I mean it: they will never stop. In the long term, no matter what rules you lay down or what consequences you impose, the people you’re planning to gather here will scheme and plot and not hesitate to threaten your students if it gets them what they want.”

“I’m well aware they will,” she said irritably. “The point is not to prevent them from scheming but to enforce rules upon how they do.”

“Good!” He pointed the bottle at her again, nodding approvingly. “Then you grasp the basics of the situation—but not the details. Professor, the fact that you can destroy all these people with a wave of your hand isn’t going to deter them. To do that, to really keep this court you’re assembling under control, you need someone cunning. Someone who thinks the way they do, and is tireless and relentless. Someone who needs the challenge.”

“Someone like you.”

“Well, Melaxyna would also do,” he said with a grin, “if you think you can trust her.”

She grunted. “Fortunately, decades of teaching adolescents have burned away any shame I once felt at stating the blazingly obvious. I don’t trust you, Fedora.”

“Well, obviously. Trust is earned; that takes time. I don’t know how you came to be hooked up with someone like Admestus bloody Rafe, but I can’t imagine it was all snuggles and puppies at first sight. And in the shorter term, we have something better than trust!”

“Oh, this should be absolutely priceless,” she muttered.

“Self-awareness!” Fedora held out his arms, beaming. “Nobody can offer me a better deal than what I’m asking from you, Professor. It’s protection from my enemies, and assurance that I will never get bored. I have nothing to gain by screwing you over, and everything to lose by pissing you off. And you, for your part, need someone to do this for you. You couldn’t even control the Sleeper, Tellwyrn. You can’t run your University and herd the cats you’re proposing to. This plan of yours involves filling your campus with people you cannot trust, and who are all working their own angles. Even if you had the right temperament to engage in the necessary conniving, you’re only one person. I, however, am a bloody well avatar of deceit. All you have to do is keep your eye on me, while I keep mine on all the others. It’s simple delegation.”

She just stared in silence. After a moment, he continued.

“I’ve just heard from Tiraas that the situation with the Hands of the Emperor has been resolved. That being the case, I know the perfect staff I’d like you to hire for me! There are three ex-Imperial soldiers who’ll be needing jobs, and are absolutely perfect for it. They’re already known and liked on this campus, and they are clearly, even famously, not useful for damn well anything—the perfect smokescreen to reassure the people I’ll actually need to be watching that campus security is just a token gesture. I know you’re familiar with this strategy, yourself. Good move, having that Sifanese fairy of yours play the fool so he’s free to do things like impersonate you while you’re away to prevent the Sleeper from trying something in your absence. Didn’t exactly work, but it was a good ploy and it did keep him from doing it on the campus.”

“On the subject of the Sleeper,” she said, “I can’t help thinking it doesn’t speak well of your qualifications that you, the big scary agent from Imperial Intelligence, have done fuck all to actually catch him.”

“Unfair and untrue, and you know it,” he countered without ire. “He’s not caught, yet, but we’re closing in. I hate using this phrase because it makes me sound weak, but it’s true: that’s not my fault. Crime is a game of connections, Professor. The victim and the perpetrator are always linked by circumstance and motivation, and that web of threads is what you have to follow and untangle to catch the guilty. Random crimes of passion or opportunity are always harder to solve than premeditated ones. And serial attackers like the Sleeper, the hardest yet. What he’s doing only makes sense inside his own head. With nothing linking him to his victims, I have no threads to follow. Serial killers are caught when they make a mistake—which they always do. We’ll get him, especially with the pressure you’ve just turned up. Hopefully before he does any more damage.”

“Hnh,” she grunted. “This is all starting to sound very reasonable. That alone makes me skeptical.”

“Good! Run with that—you’ll need that outlook. Because let me give you the bad news now.” Fedora folded his arms, the bottle dangling loosely from one hand, and frowned seriously. “You and your University are about to come under attack like you have never been before, Professor. What you’re doing… You are poised to change the world for the better, and that is the most dangerous position anyone can possibly be in. When the world needs change, it’s because the most powerful people in it are profiting from the way it is now—and the one thing they absolutely cannot stand is the grubby little fingers of do-gooders all over their playthings. They have to stop you. Have to. The crucible will come very early in this campaign, Tellwyrn; someone, or likely a consortium of someones, will strike from beyond your sight, using the very system you’re building here. And they don’t even have to beat you, they just have to make you default to your established methods; that’ll lower you to their level, force you to play their games, and from there it’s only a matter of time. Your force against their cunning is just another contest. You need to outfox them on their own terms, and then impose consequences with your superior firepower. Once you’ve won that first battle, you’ll be in the position you need to go forward: not another player in the game, but the arbiter standing above it, enforcing the rules. That is what will secure the future of this University. First, though, you have to win—and don’t forget that your students are going to be right on the front line of this battle. You’re going to need every ally and scrap of influence you’ve got to pull this off, and what you’ve got isn’t going to be enough.

“You need me.”

“You are wildly overstating the danger,” she snapped.

“No,” he said quietly, “I am not. And you’re pissed off now because now that I’ve said it, you realize I’m right.”

They locked eyes, and the silence stretched out. After a long pause, Tellwyrn took another long swig from her bottle, her gaze never leaving his.

“Fah,” she gasped, coming up for breath. “Well, this is usually the point where I’d threaten someone…”

“You’re used to dealing with people who need the reminder,” he said, suddenly grinning. “We’ve already been over that: I know exactly what I’m getting into.”

“And you understand my rules,” she began, but he cut her off.

“Not in any particular detail, but you can fill me in at your leisure. More importantly, I understand your priorities. The students’ safety is the first and foremost concern. After that, securing the University’s position against the onslaught that’s about to come. And once that’s taken care of, well, riding herd on the scheming politicians you’re filling this place with will be rather more low-key, but it’s never going to stop or relent. There’s plenty to do.”

“But the students come first.”

“The students come first.”

She sighed heavily. “Gods help us all… I’ll pick you out an office.”

He cleared his throat. “Actually, just build me one.”

Tellwyrn had turned to head back up the hall, but now swiveled back, pinning him with a gimlet stare. “Is this how it’s going to be? Because you’ll find I have little patience for demands.”

“Oh, to be sure,” he said cheerfully. “But you’re also going to be constructing a whole new extension of the campus to house the research facilities, right? Those are the whole reason we’ll need security; it only makes sense to have that office housed there.”

“Well, damn,” she mused, regarding him thoughtfully. “You actually are going to be sort of good at this, I suppose.”

Fedora grinned widely. “Best you’ve ever had. That’s a promise.”

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