Tag Archives: Professor Yornhaldt

12 – 4

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Tellwyrn came in through the door. She had been spoken to about teleporting in and out of the infirmary, and while she adamantly maintained her authority over the campus in general, her policy was to accept Miss Sunrunner’s dictates with regard to the management of her little domain. That practice had served them both well, as it had the student body (and their various frequently injured student bodies), so it stood unchallenged. Thus, despite the urgency with which she had been summoned, she now came striding through the infirmary’s entrance.

“All right, what have we got?” she barked.

Miss Sunrunner gave her a flat look. “Lower your voice, Arachne. I have told you not to shout in here; recuperating patients require a calm atmosphere.”

“Taowi, there is no one else here, except the patient who won’t wake up.”

“It’s the principle of—”

“We can rehash this argument yet again at a less urgent time,” Tellwyrn snapped. “Now what is going on?”

She turned an expressive look on Professor Yornhaldt, who stood to one side of Chase’s bed, watching. He nodded to her in greeting, then pointedly directed his attention to the campus healer, yielding the floor.

“You already know the salient points,” Miss Sunrunner said, folding her hands and gliding back over to join Yornhaldt at the bedside. Chase was stretched out, uncovered, and looking actually rather peaceful. “We cannot awaken him. He is uninjured, and there is no trace of either alchemical or mundane poison in his system. Undetectable agents can’t be ruled out, obviously, but as you know we’re equipped to detect things most hospitals are not. Altogether, Chase is in the same generally good health as always. He simply will not wake up. The sleep itself appears quite natural, aside from the fact that we cannot bring him out of it.”

“Mm,” Tellwyrn said noncommittally, studying Chase through her spectacles. “I gather you’re here to expand the battery of tests being run, Alaric.”

“Indeed, I can check for a few things Taowi can’t,” Yornhaldt replied, nodding apologetically at Miss Sunrunner. “And based on the examinations I have done, I’m reasonably sure he has been cursed.”

Tellwyrn shot the healer a look. “That’s what you call generally good health?”

“In point of fact,” Sunrunner said with muted asperity, “that is exactly the issue. What we have detected is that Chase’s body is in a state of suspension. It is far too early to have observed the effects naturally, which is why I asked Alaric to come and examine him magically, but we have determined that he has the standard protections. He will not require food or water while in this state, nor experience any muscular or skeletal atrophy from lack of exercise. He is in generally good health, in short, and will remain that way until we work out how to awaken him.”

“This is where it begins to worry me,” Yornhaldt said seriously. “You know very well that suspended animation is a standard feature of sleeping curses and has been…well, longer than you’ve been alive, even. The troubling thing is that this is the only indication we have of what has befallen him. I can detect no curse at all. No trace of one. Arachne, the state of his body shows that magic has to be acting upon it in a powerful way, but I cannot find any magic.”

“We had hoped,” Miss Sunrunner said in a softer tone, “that you would be able to discern something we have missed. Failing that, I can also have Admestus do some tests, but…alchemical procedures are necessarily more invasive than scrying, and in any case, Arachne, I trust your judgment substantially more.”

Tellwyrn looked at her, then at Yornhaldt, then sighed softly and turned her gaze back to the patient, peering through the lenses of her glasses. After a moment, she reached up to hold one side of the golden frame between her thumb and forefinger, narrowing her eyes.

“…you’re right,” she murmured at last. “Nothing. Not a thing. He could just be asleep. There’s no magic there.”

Miss Sunrunner tilted her head to one side. “Can those detect the suspended animation?”

“No, they see magic. I assume you were scrying for specific cellular activities, Alaric?”

“Exactly,” he said, nodding. “But I see no harm in you double-checking…”

Tellwyrn waved a hand impatiently, shaking her head. “In all the years I’ve known you, I’ve observed two things: you don’t make pronouncements unless you’re sure, and you’re never sure unless you’re right. I’m quite comfortable taking your word for it, Alaric. So that leaves…this exciting dilemma.”

Yornhaldt drew in a deep breath, his blocky frame swelling till it seemed to strain his tweed jacket. “Well, I shall point out the oliphaunt in the room if no one else will. We all know that magic concealed from detection is Black Wreath craft.”

Still frowning down at Chase, Tellwyrn shook her head slowly. “The Wreath didn’t do this.”

“How can you be sure?”

“For one thing,” she said, “I know how their evasion tricks work. I’m sure they have some I don’t know, but I’m familiar enough with the others to spot the patterns. Not that I can reliably catch them in the wild if I’m not paying attention, but with a comatose subject and the luxury of time to study him? No, if the Wreath had cursed him with Elilial’s gift, I’d be able to see that. And magic aside, Embras Mogul is too intelligent and self-interested to make himself my personal chew toy by attacking one of my students. Moreover, Elilial specifically promised me, in person, that she would not harm the kids.”

“You trust a promise from the demon-wrangling goddess of cunning?” Sunrunner said skeptically.

“I do,” Tellwyrn said softly, nodding. “Elilial is sneaky; she isn’t a liar. The really, really good deceivers often aren’t. And she doesn’t want me for a devoted enemy, either. Even if I were wrong about that, this is not her pattern. She’s more careful about bystanders than some of the Pantheon gods; I’ve never actually known her to target innocents in order to provoke someone.”

“Magic aside, then,” Yornhaldt said gravely. “The reason my mind sprang directly to the Wreath, aside from the obvious, was that there is one person on this campus whom they wish to annoy possibly even less than yourself, Arachne. Or there was, until yesterday. Literally as soon as Kaisa departed, this happened. It’s a coincidence I cannot make myself credit.”

Tellwyrn heaved a slow sigh, finally lifting her eyes to his. “Yes, I thought of that, too. But my points stand; Elilial has no reason to provoke me this way, and her cult has far too much to lose and nothing at all to gain by it. Plus, as I said, I think I could detect it if this were their handiwork—but that is due to my specific familiarity with their handiwork. It’s easier for me to believe that someone else out there found a way to conceal magic from me than that it’s them.”

“The prospects become more horrifying the longer I dwell on them,” Yornhaldt muttered. “Who in the world can work spellcraft that sophisticated? The Empire, the Church, the College of Salyrene, the Wizard’s Guild? No one I can imagine would wish to antagonize you this way…”

“Unless I misremember,” Sunrunner said archly, “one entity on that short list has already deliberately antagonized her, for no discernible reason beyond curiosity as to what would happen.”

“This is pointless,” Tellwyrn said curtly. “We do not have enough data to begin pointing fingers; we will collect evidence before forming theories, not the other way round. Taowi, is it possible he did this to himself?”

“I did think of that,” the healer said. “It’s Chase, after all. Maureen said they found him sitting against a wall, in a stable position; while it’s not impossible to fall into that pose, it more suggests someone put him there. If he did it to himself, I would assume it to have been an accident, as not even Chase Masterson would have any reason to do something as utterly daft as deliberately curse himself to sleep. He can’t enjoy any of the things he lives for in this condition. Anyhow, if he were to do such a thing, why on a random path in the middle of campus? Anything might have happened to him. Many of his classmates owe him a few pranks.”

“Not to mention,” Yornhaldt said with a sigh, “the boy barely has the magical aptitude to get through my classes. He’s not one I’d expect to pull out a brand-new sleeping curse from beyond the cutting edge.”

“So,” Tellwyrn mused, “the only one who knows what happened to Chase is Chase. We shall simply have to ask him.”

“Arachne, I have no idea how long it will take to fix this,” Yornhaldt said seriously. “For all our investigations thus far, I cannot even claim to have truly begun. We can’t even detect the curse; removing it could potentially be a major undertaking.”

“If you go about it the scientific way, yes,” she said flatly, folding her arms and giving him a challenging look. “Alaric, what do I usually do when something intractably complex stands in my way?”


The tiny, jewel-like bottle looked out of place affixed to the rest of the contraption; little larger than a bean, it was cut in facets like a diamond, seemingly empty. Professor Rafe screwed its stoppered end into the apparatus attached to Chase’s face with the utmost care. Aside from the nozzle holding the bottle in place, and the gadgetry contained within that which would remove the stopper without breaking the airtight seal, it was just a contoured suction cup that fit over the patient’s mouth, leaving his nose free.

“I’m impressed, Admestus,” Yornhaldt commented. “I’ve never actually seen a bottle of anything that size, and yet you had a device right on hand which fit its mouth perfectly.”

“Oh, this actually wasn’t designed for this bottle,” Rafe said cheerily. “I just slapped this thing together out of bits and bobs I had lying about. Really, though, it’s a simple enough gadget; every bit of what it does is all part and parcel of working with gaseous reagents. The nozzle there was meant to be attached to rubber tubing—actually, I’ve wedged a ring of the stuff in the opening to tighten its grip on the bottle. Be a pal and check my seals? I’ve already done it myself, but I don’t want to pop the cork until you’ve triple-verified we don’t have any leaks. There is a very tiny amount of hellhound breath in that bottle and pretty much no earthly way of getting more.”

“Agreed,” Yornhaldt rumbled, gesticulating with one of his thick fingers. A cerulean spell circle flared into being directly below Chase’s head, then slowly drifted up through it, flickering out once it passed above the little bottle of hellhound breath. “Clear. No air or other gases escaping from the device.”

“You had a spell on hand to do that?” Sunrunner asked, impressed. “I expected a more elaborate casting, like you had to do previously.”

“It isn’t every day I have to scry for activity on the cellular level,” Yornhaldt explained. “Checking anomalous air currents is a common enough need in several forms of spellcasting. The wrong breath of wind can mess up…well, that’s not important right now,” he added, glancing at Tellwyrn’s expression.

“Are we ready, then?” she demanded, frowning at Rafe.

“Yeah,” he said, straightening up and turning to her with an uncharacteristically even look. “Good to go on your command. Before we do that, though, let me just point out that if what happened to Chase is as mysterious as you all say, there’s nothing to suggest it won’t happen again. This could be a one-off event, or we may soon have other students coming in under undetectable sleeping curses. Are you sure you want to do this now? Or maybe reserve this, the only sample of foolproof anti-sleep gas which is worth more than the land this campus is built on and can’t be replaced, for a future victim who’s generally less of a butthole?”

“Admestus,” Tellwyrn stated, staring at him over the rims of her glasses, “you are already on my short list right now.”

Rafe shrugged, turning back to the patient. “Yes, fine. I’m not saying anything everyone in the room wasn’t thinking. I just wanted it out in the air so you all know you’re not the only ones thinking it, and the idea isn’t without merit. But, you’re the boss.”

So saying, he took a careful grip on the apparatus sealed to Chase’s mouth and twisted the screw attached to its nozzle.

There was no hissing or any other sound; there just wasn’t enough gas involved to make one. Rafe removed his hands, and they all stared down at the still-sleeping patient.

“Oh, dear,” Yornhaldt murmured, squeezing his hands together. “It’s possible there just wasn’t enough—”

Chase shot upright with a protracted gasp, his eyes snapping open. He quickly began coughing and retching, the sound muffled until he succeeded in wrenching the suction cup off his face with a wet pop.

“Oh—ack. Ew. What the fuck? Why do I taste like I’ve been snogging Scorn?”

“How do you feel?” Miss Sunrunner asked gently, leaning forward to place a hand on his shoulder.

Chase blinked twice, turning to her. “Uh… Well, what most springs to mind is the snogging Scorn thing. Seriously, it’s like a mouthful of sulfur.”

“You were under some kind of sleeping spell, boyo,” Rafe said brightly. “We had to pump you full of hellhound breath.”

Chase blinked again, then his eyes widened. “Whoah, what—wait a second, now. I did not authorize that! I refuse to be held financially liable for— I mean, holy shit, man, why would you waste that stuff on me? Really, this ever happens again you’ve got my permission to just chuck my ass in a ditch, much more cost effective. Need me to sign something?”

“Chase.” Tellwyrn’s voice was not raised, but her tone was firm enough to immediately command his attention. “What happened?”

He licked his lips, staring at her, then grimaced. “Okay, uh…look, it was just a figure of speech. I assume Scorn would taste like brimstone. I’ve never actually snogged her. Not that I wouldn’t give my left nut to try that at least once, but I’m pretty sure she’d literally eat my face. I have it on good authority that most other women do not go for a half-eaten face.”

Tellwyrn blew out her breath in a sigh that was half-growl. “Young man, my patience today is even less generous than usual. We need to know what you remember most recently. You were found propped against a wall below the quad. How did you get cursed? Did someone attack you?”

Chase blinked twice more, then suddenly leaned forward with an animated expression. “Oh—oh, yeah! Man, there were dozens of them, I think they were demons. I gave ’em hell, you better believe that, but one of the cowardly bastards snuck behind me—”

“Chase.” Tellwyrn leaned forward, staring balefully at him from barely a foot away. “This. Is not. The time.”

He met her gaze for a long moment, looking suddenly a little alarmed, then dropped his eyes. “I…sorry, Professor. I don’t know. I, uh, actually was sitting down by the wall, I remember going there myself. I like to be alone with my thoughts—” He glanced up at her and broke off, managing a weak half-grin. “Okay, fine, it’s a great spot to hide and jump out at people. I was that bored, yes. Anyway, I remember sitting there…” He stared at the far wall, frowning in concentration. “…I don’t remember falling asleep. I think someone…walked up to me? Yeah, someone did. A shadow fell across me from behind, and I was annoyed cos they came from the wrong angle for me to surprise ’em. That’s…” He shook his head. “Man, I’ve got nothing past that. I wouldn’t swear it’s the last thing that happened. It’s kinda like falling asleep naturally, y’know? I don’t remember it specifically happening. That’s just the last distinct impression I had of anything.”

Tellwyrn straightened up, letting out a much softer sigh, and exchanged a worried glance with Yornhaldt and Sunrunner.

“So,” said Rafe, “correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this pretty much the worst case scenario? He knows nothing, we’ve blown our only stock of the one damn thing that can cure this, and with it cured now we don’t even have anything to examine.”

“Uh, what’s the big deal?” Chase asked, looking around at them. “So some joker zapped me with a sleeping charm. We learned to do those in your class, Professor Yornhaldt.”

“Alaric, you didn’t,” Tellwyrn said in exasperation.

Yornhaldt gave her a long-suffering look. “You know I like to show them a few fun spells every semester. It’s the lion’s share of what keeps the non-magic majors interested, Arachne. Those of us who don’t terrify our students have to think of these things. Anyway, no, I just show them the standard, extremely basic sleep charm. As you well know, it’s easily detectable, blockable, breakable, and even if one hasn’t the opportunity to do any of that doesn’t last but ten minutes.”

“Uhhh.” Again, Chase panned an inquisitive stare around at them. “What’s going on? Is there something I should be worried about?”

“Are we keeping it from him?” Rafe asked, scratching his head. “Cos, y’know, the boy pretty much knows something’s up. I mean, I can bash him over the noggin with a bedpan, see if that erases his memories—”

“Admestus,” Sunrunner said very evenly, “what have I told you concerning what is and is not appropriate joking matter in my infirmary?”

“I really couldn’t say, Taowi my dear,” Rafe simpered. “I just get so distracted gazing into your pretty eyes—”

“Shut up, Admestus,” Tellwyrn snapped. “No, I don’t see any benefit in keeping secrets. We don’t know what happened to you, Chase; it was some kind of sleeping curse, and it baffled even the collected expertise you see standing before you. So yes, this is potentially serious.”

Chase stared at her uncomprehendingly for a moment, then frowned. “Huh. That’s interesting. Who the hell would wanna do something like that? I mean, I don’t think I’ve pissed off anyone important…”

“He’s got a point,” Rafe agreed. “Trissiny’s off-campus this semester, and anyway, I’m like eighty percent sure she was just letting off steam. I can’t see her actually beheading him.”

“Just for the record, she did try to do that to someone her first week,” Chase said helpfully, “but anyhow I should clarify: I don’t think I’ve pissed off anyone important who could do that kind of advanced magic. Also, holy shit, anybody doing that on this campus is pretty much asking to get transmogrified into a grease stain, right?”

Tellwyrn sighed. “Sounds like you’re up to speed. For now, Chase—”

She broke off abruptly, turning to face the door. Sunrunner did the same; both elves frowned in apparent consternation.

“Yeeesss?” Chase prompted after a moment. “For now, Chase, what? You can forget about homework for the week? We’re taking you out back and putting you down? I’m on tenterhooks, here.”

The infirmary door burst open, and a senior arcane studies major named Laria backed inside. Once into the room, she stepped aside and turned, revealing both her worried expression and the prone body of the classmate she was levitating along behind her.

Natchua lay face-up in midair, her arms hanging limply, as were her legs below the knee. Her green-dyed mohawk sagged in that position like the fronds of a thirsty plant. As soon as she cleared the doorway, Hildred squeezed in behind her, looking nearly distraught.

“Miss Sunrunner!” the dwarf cried. “Please—we can’t figure out what’s wrong. She won’t wake up!”


Calming and getting rid of Laria, Hildred, and Chase had taken a few minutes, during which Miss Sunrunner swiftly examined Natchua. By the time they had again cleared the infirmary of students, she was able to report, grim-faced, that the drow’s case appeared identical to Chase’s.

“I realize you’re gonna hex me for saying I told you so,” Rafe informed Tellwyrn, “so let me just take a moment to emphasize that I don’t care, because I damn well did and now look.”

“This is extremely rapid,” Yornhaldt rumbled. “Two in the space of one afternoon. If it continues at this pace, we’ll be out of students in a matter of weeks.”

“I do not want to hear that kind of talk again,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “No accusations, no doomsaying, no whining. What we’re going to have is action. Taowi, Alaric, and I will examine Natchua as intensively as we can while we’re waiting for the more reliable cure to be replenished. In fact, I’m going to bring this to the attention of the rest of the faculty; I want anyone who has even a glimmer of an idea to have a go at this. They can’t possibly make it worse, and anyone might find something we missed.”

“Um.” Rafe held up a hand. “Waiting for the reliable cure to be replenished? Arachne, the reliable cure is hellhound breath. You cannot get that stuff on this plane of existence.”

“You can, it’s just prohibitively hard,” she said patiently, “and less hard for those of us standing here than probably anyone else on the planet. Un-panic yourself and think, Admestus, you know the answer, here. There are two hellhounds on Level 2 in the Crawl. I want you to gather up whatever equipment you need, then haul ass down there and harvest as much of the stuff as you can get.”

Yornhaldt cleared his throat. “You have specifically forbidden that as a condition of allowing Melaxyna to keep them, Arachne…”

“Because,” Tellwyrn snapped, “hellhound breath is illegal and dangerous, and sufficiently rare that if it gets out we have any, even my reputation won’t stop necromancers and other undesirables from coming here after it. For that reason, this needs to be done as discreetly as possible. Admestus, take Emilio down there with you for backup, and as much as possible, prevent it getting out what’s going on.”

“You know that won’t work for long, Arachne,” Rafe said seriously. “Not with the student body we have.”

“Yes, I know it all too well,” she said with a sigh, glancing over at Natchua. “But the need is too great right now to pass up the opportunity.”

“Arachne.” At Yornhaldt’s tone, they all turned to look at him. “On the subject of secrets… You have to know what’s going on here. You said we have students to whom Elilial gave untold demonic knowledge. We have never figured out who opened the hellgate. This started virtually the instant our predatory arch-fairy departed the campus. It’s too perfect.”

“It could be any of the students,” Sunrunner whispered.

Tellwyrn shook her head. “The current freshmen weren’t here then. The current sophomores are not suspects. That group is too close-knit, half of them are light-wielders, none of them are the particular kind of daft that would be trying to summon demons in the Crawl, and they stayed to throw themselves at the hellgate in defiance of all orders. No…it could be any of the upper half of the student body.”

“Gotta say, that is less of a comfort than it probably sounded like in your head,” Rafe informed her. “That’s a good fifty young’uns with generally more personality than sense.”

“I did not intend it to be comforting,” Tellwyrn shot back. “We cannot afford to be comfortable or complacent right now. It’s not going to be long before it becomes known what’s happening, and it won’t be long after that before suspicion starts making people crazy. We are under an unforgiving timetable, here, people. I will not have a witchhunt on my campus.”

“A witchhunt is not something you can end by declaring it so,” Yornhaldt said.

“Precisely,” she agreed, “which is exactly why we need to get in front of this and head it off now.” Tellwyrn paused, chewing her lower lip for a moment. “And this time, I’m afraid we’re going to need help.”

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12 – 3

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Out of nowhere, beneath the clear dawn sky, a circular patch of tallgrass vanished from existence, taking with it the top layer of soil and leaving behind a round patch of dirt and exposed roots which might as well have been carved off with a razor. It only stayed smooth for moments, however, before two figures materialized upon it with a similar lack of fanfare.

The vegetation made for problems when it came to teleportation; a person who materialized with their body phased through dozens of large stalks of grass had an excruciating death to look forward to. These preparatory measures were necessary, though they raised problems of their own.

Both men turned in half-circles facing the opposite directions, looking around. The prairie was empty and quiet, lit golden red by the rising sun, and stretching featurelessly away in all directions but one. To the west, the thin line of the Rail marked the horizon, and in the near distance due northwest of their position rose the mountain, with the town of Last Rock huddling against its base.

The man in the Army uniform with the Azure Corps insignia turned to his companion and bowed. “Will you require us to remain alert for extraction, sir?”

“No,” mused the Hand of the Emperor, studying Last Rock. He was middle-aged in appearance, balding and with sharp dark eyes set deep in his craggy features. The Hands were, in theory, all one voice, that of the Emperor, but in practice they did tend to specialize. This man habitually sat on the security council, but they would have to accustom themselves to his replacement for a while. “No, don’t focus any scrying on the area. She’s very likely to detect it, and I don’t wish to introduce myself until I am ready.”

“Yes, sir,” the battlemage replied, saluting. “Will you require any further aid in case she detected the teleportation?”

“I’m employing my own countermeasures against that. In any case, no. Tellwyrn is not classified as hostile, and I can deal with her.”

“Understood, sir. By your leave, then.”

The Hand gave him a nod, then strode off toward the town without another word. He walked only far enough to be out of the cleared circle, pushing his way into the surviving tallgrass, then turned to face the mage.

At that signal, a shrill buzzing rose from the air around them, accompanied a second later by a cerulean shimmering in the air, and then the battlemage vanished with a sharp pop of displaced atmosphere.

The Hand waited attentively for nearly another minute until the buzzing returned, and seconds later the displaced tallgrass reappeared.

It started to fall immediately, of course, but as if drifting down through syrup, its velocity slowed to roughly one hundredth of normal. Instantly, the Hand gestured with both arms, and it slowed further. Earth congealed together, roots re-attached, a few stalks which had been shorn off above ground level merged back into place, with the exceptions of a few which were too displaced by the time the healing took effect, and continued to tumble downward.

The slowing effect decayed rapidly, and had vanished in less than another minute. The replaced tallgrass listed drunkenly this way and that, most of it again attached but still feeling the effects of the trauma it had just undergone. The Hand studied this thoughtfully, then closed his eyes in concentration.

Stalks shifted, righted, regained some of their vitality. It wasn’t a huge difference, but when he was done, most of them stood more or less upright.

Opening his eyes, the Hand surveyed his work critically. Obviously, it was plain something strange had happened here—and to anyone who knew what to look for, a close inspection would reveal exactly what. This should be enough, though. Given how the students (and occasionally townspeople) ranged, a mirror-smooth patch of dirt in the middle of the prairie ran the serious risk of attracting attention; this would have to be noticed before anyone inspected it closely, and in its present state was unlikely to be. Most of those who vanished into the tallgrass from the town or University did so in pairs, and were more interested in privacy than botany. The next rain would set it more or less right, and by then it wouldn’t matter.

Of course, it still might be noted, but the risk was minor, as was the cost if he were exposed. He did not intend to conceal his presence long, anyway. This was standard procedure, though, and it was a procedure which existed for excellent reason. He approved of thoroughness. The Emperor approved of thoroughness.

Nodding once in satisfaction, the Hand of the Emperor straightened his black coat, turned, and strode away through the tallgrass toward the town.


“Something’s amiss.” Gabriel squinted suspiciously, peering around the classroom. “Something…is different. I can’t quite put my finger on it…but maybe if I study closely…”

“Arquin, quit bein’ a dickhead,” Ruda ordered, plopping down in her seat and taking a jug of moonshine from inside her coat.

“Aw, c’mon,” he said, grinning, “if I did that, how would you know it was me?”

“Cos out of the only two present who dress in men’s casual, Teal actually dresses in it, as opposed to accidentally falling most of the way into whatever was lying on the floor in the morning. And she combs her hair.”

“Nice to have my efforts acknowledged,” Teal said with a smile.

The classroom was devoid of the decorations which had appeared at the beginning of the last semester—no silk screens, no potted plants, no blossoming cherry tree. Every sign of Professor Ekoi’s unique presence had abruptly vanished. Though this left the room in more or less the state to which they had become accustomed over their first year, it suddenly looked empty.

“It’s actually kinda sad,” Juniper whispered, gazing around with wide eyes. “The walls look lonely, now. Do you think Professor Ekoi’s okay?”

“Based on what I’ve been reading about kitsune,” Fross chimed, “I would be absolutely astonished if anything was able to actually harm her.”

“Really?” Gabriel looked up at her. “I tried to read up on kitsune after it became clear I was gonna be her favorite punching bag, and I couldn’t find much in the library.”

“Well, there’s not much in Tanglish,” Fross explained. “I had to order some things from a Nemitite temple, and before I could read them I had to learn to read Sifanese. That slowed down my research by a good six weeks, but that was still quicker than having to look up every single thing with a bilingual dictionary and grammar codex as I went.”

Teal dropped her book; fortunately she was already at her desk. Staring at Fross, she didn’t seem to notice that it had fallen. “You taught yourself Sifanese in six weeks? When?!”

“Well, I had some spare time. I don’t sleep; it gives me an extra few hours a day to pursue personal research projects. And I don’t need a lamp, which is very handy for reading at night!”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Gabriel said grandly, “I give you our future overlord, Fross the pixie.”

“That’s a damn difficult language,” Ruda added. “Seriously impressive shit, glitterbug.”

“Arigatou gozaimashita,” Fross said modestly.

“What I wonder,” said Toby with a frown, “is if this has something to do with what happened yesterday.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty suggestive,” Gabriel agreed in a more serious tone. “I mean, just the timing alone.”

“The way you described it,” said Ruda, “she was just pissed off, not hurt.”

“Wait, what happened?” Juniper demanded. “I didn’t hear about this.”

“Well,” Gabriel said with a sigh, “apparently, yesterday Rafe slipped Professor Ekoi one of his anti-magic potions.”

“He did WHAT?” Fross shot upward until she bounced off the ceiling, chiming in agitation. “Professor Ekoi is a fairy! She’s made of magic! That’s like making someone drink poison, or strong acid!”

“She’s made of a lot of magic,” Toby said soothingly. “Ruda’s right, she didn’t seem hurt. Just angry, and…um, interfered with.”

“Yeah,” Gabriel added, “apparently she doesn’t actually speak Tanglish and was using her magic to translate. We couldn’t puzzle out a word until Tellwyrn showed up. And she actually walked away instead of doing that melodramatic non-teleport thing she loves so much.”

“That’s still a nasty prank!” Fross exclaimed, now buzzing about in figure eights above their heads. “I am extremely disappointed in Professor Rafe!”

“Why?” Ruda asked lazily. “You’ve met the fucker, haven’t you?”

“Questions of Professor Ekoi’s welfare aside,” Shaeine said quietly, “kitsune are rather notorious pranksters, and she is somewhat unpredictable herself. I have greatly enjoyed her class, but I fear if Professor Rafe has instigated some kind of practical joke war, the collateral damage is likely to be considerable.”

“Oh, dear gods in fancy hats,” Ruda groaned, tugging her own hat down over her eyes.

“Good morning, students!”

The classroom’s lower door had opened, and they all turned to regard Professor Yornhaldt, who strolled in wearing a smile.

“Take your seats, please, it is time for class to begin. Ah, I confess this is rather satisfying,” he said, stepping up behind the lectern and beaming at them. “I have quite missed teaching. And all of you, of course! Now, then! Fortunately this has befallen us no more than a week into the semester, so we should be able to proceed with only minimal disruption to the curriculum. First of all, I must announce, as you have undoubtedly intuited already, that Professor Ekoi has rather suddenly departed the campus. Until further notice, I am resuming duties as your primary magic teacher for the remainder of the semester.”

“Is she…okay?” Juniper asked somewhat tremulously.

The dwarf sighed. “Well. To the best of my knowledge, yes, she is well. Beyond that, anything I could say as to the reasons for this would be mere speculation. Or rather, it would be gossip, which is a most inappropriate use of my classroom time.”

“What about your office hours?” Ruda asked, grinning.

Yornhaldt gave her a wry look. “Miss Punaji, have you ever known me to gossip? Professor Ekoi’s personal business is just that. And I should perhaps take a further moment to mention,” he added more severely, “that Professor Tellwyrn shares my feelings on the subject of discussing faculty business with nosy students. And, in addition to being her usual charming self, she is already rather piqued about this entire affair. Anyone considering asking her for more details should be forewarned. And, ideally, refrain.”

“Well, there ya go,” Ruda said cheerfully. “We have now known you to gossip!”

“I find,” Yornhaldt said with a sigh, “that warning my students against terrible errors in judgment is usually worth the relaxation of certain other standards. Not that they necessarily listen, but the effort is still worthwhile. Now, then! I shall have to ask you, students, what you have already covered in the last week. I’m afraid my predecessor was not one for leaving detailed notes.”


“Okay,” Iris said, nodding earnestly and clutching her books to her chest. “Okay. It’s gonna be this semester, girls. I’m gonna do it.”

“That leaves you a great deal of time,” Szith noted.

Iris nodded again, her eyes fixed with determination on the path ahead of them, but not seeing anything. “Yes. Right. Exactly. I have time to psych myself up. I can do this.”

“I meant rather the opposite,” the drow said gently. “The whole semester gives you plenty of time to back away and find excuses. Perhaps setting yourself a shorter timetable would be wiser.”

Iris’s eyes widened in near panic. “I…I… Shorter? I don’t know if…”

“Aye, that right there’s the look of a lass just rarin’ to charge off after ‘er ‘eart’s desire,” Maureen said cheerfully.

Iris gave her a sour look. “Don’t make fun of me.”

“Iris, hon, y’know I love ye, right?” The gnome stepped closer to affectionately jostle Iris’s leg as they walked. “That’s why I make fun. I mean, wantin’ the boy by itself ain’t doin’ you any good in the ‘get out there an’ get ‘im’ department. I figure, maybe a little friendly joshin’ from yer roomies’ll help? Cos between you, me, an’ the tree, you’re bein’ ridiculous.”

“It’s not ridiculous,” Iris said sullenly.

“Wanting him is not ridiculous,” Szith replied in her usual placid tone. “All this melodrama about it, however…”

“It’s just not that easy,” Iris whined.

“Perhaps my own cultural background sabotages my sympathy,” Szith mused. “In Tar’naris, the only obstacle in your way would be his rank. He is lowborn, however, which mitigates that; those of granted rank have little prerogative to look down their noses at being approached by others beneath their station. He is, after all, a man. It’s your right and obligation to reach out a seize him, if you desire him.”

“Szith,” Iris said in exasperation, “for the last time, that’s not how we do things here!”

“Indeed,” the drow said solemnly. “Bad enough you have to suffer under such a backward system without perpetuating it yourself.”

“And I don’t want to seize anyone,” Iris added, scowling now. “I want Gabriel to like me! I just…I don’t know how to make him. Ravana’s really helpful to me in learning social skills, but…um…”

“Aye, now ye bring it up, it’s a mite hard to imagine Ravana gettin’ a boy to chase after ‘er,” Maureen mused. “I bet she’d reckon any lad she couldn’t just order to report to ‘er chambers an’ perform was beneath ‘er. An’ not in th’fun sense.”

“Now that is the proper attitude for a noblewoman to have,” Szith said approvingly.

“Is there such a thing as a Hand o’ Izara?” Maureen asked. “Cos this campus could sure as flip use one. I mean, we’ve got all the other paladins, aye?”

“You two are a tremendous help,” Iris growled.

“Iris,” Szith said with one of her rare smiles. “Friend. You only hurt yourself, doing this. Just ask the boy. It does not have to be perfect, and it does not have to be impressive. We do not live in a bard’s tale, and quite frankly, the male upon whom you’ve set your sights is the local champion of well-meaning awkwardness, himself. Just ask him, honestly. I quite think the results will go in your favor.”

Iris closed her eyes. “But what if he says no?” she whispered.

“Then,” Szith replied, “you will know, and can stop torturing yourself. But honestly, why would he?”

“He likes th’ladies, that one,” Maureen said cheerfully. “Ask me, you’d do him a world o’ good in addition to gettin’ over yer own hurdle, here. That’s a lad who needs a lass to settle ‘im down.”

“Even more than most,” Szith agreed.

Maureen suddenly stopped, turning to her right, and the other two halted as well. They had just passed a low retaining wall atop which was a raised flower bed; suddenly revealed sitting in the shadow of it was one of their classmates.

“All right, there, Chase?” Maureen asked, frowning.

He was slumped against the brickwork, arms hanging limply at his side, eyes closed and mouth open. At Maureen’s prompting, he made no reply.

“Oh, my gods,” Iris said, her eyes widening. “He’s not dead, is he?!”

“He breathes,” Szith reported, “and his heart beats. Both at about the speed that is normal for a sleeping human, if you and Ravana are average examples.”

“’ere, now, this ain’t the best place to take a nap,” Maureen said severely. “C’mon, just cos you’re the leadin’ source o’ tomfoolery on the campus don’t make all yer classmates harmless. Chase? Oi, I’m talkin’ to—”

She reached out to jostle his shoulder, then broke off, going pale, as he slumped over on his side.

“Okay, very funny, Chase,” Iris said nervously. “That’s kind of cheap by your standards, isn’t it?”

Chase lay there, inert.

“Chase?” Maureen whispered, looking up at the others. “Um…”

Szith stepped over and knelt by his head. “Chase!” she said sharply, shaking his shoulder, to no effect. She pried open one eyelid, lightly slapped his cheeks, then as a last resort plucked a hair from his eyebrow.

“What’s wrong with him?” Iris demanded shrilly. “Are you sure he’s breathing?”

“Yes,” Szith said tersely. “He is asleep. This close, I could tell if he were faking; neither his breath nor heart rate change in response to pain. Do you sense any magic on him?”

“Nothing like that,” Iris said, shaking her head rapidly, “but I’d only be able to pick up on fae magic, anyway…”

“Keep an eye on ‘im,” Maureen ordered. “I’ll fetch Miss Sunrunner.”


She often paced, as much as the space in the cell allowed. For days, even weeks on end, she kept moving, back and forth and in circles, long enough that in any normal cell her feet would have worn grooves in the floor. Not this cell, of course. She had naturally tried her strength over every inch of it, which yielded nothing. Its floor, ceiling, and three walls were all one piece without joints, made of the pale alloy known in this era as mithril. Its fourth wall was transparent, but not glass; the material dampened her inherent magic just as well, and was just as impervious to her physical strength. She’d never bothered to learn what they called the stuff, back in the old days. It had just been…there.

Not that she’d ever had much in the way of physical strength, which just added to the irony. In this cell, of all places, physical strength was the only kind that mattered—and was even more irrelevant, as in addition to its magic-dampening properties, mithril was hard enough once cast to survive passage through the corona of the sun.

That was neither exaggeration nor a random example. She had had the good fortune to observe that particular test. Or at least its aftermath.

The “glass” wall would surely be the weak point, anyway. Mithril just had to be impervious; that wall had features. It was in it that the doorway formed when the command phrase was spoken, though she had not seen that done since the Hands of the Emperor had first put her in here. That panel emitted the light, illuminating both her cell and the corridor outside—a neat trick, since it did not seem like a light source when looked at directly. It was also in that transparent wall that the signs and sigils appeared, little notations in a language which had not been used on this planet in millenia. They came and went rarely; there was very seldom anything for them to report. The facility itself ran silently along, only rarely registering any data on significant events, which were never anything but minor seismic activity. Occasionally there would be a solar flare, which was of no import to this facility, but she had instructed it to report on anything its sensors could detect.

No, the only significant data registered on the transparent panel was the arrival of visitors. It very obligingly informed her when the facility was accessed. Not that it did her much practical good to know when the Emperor or one of his Hands was about to pass through, but there was a small satisfaction in knowing. Especially since they did not know that she knew, much less how.

They didn’t know how any of this worked. They’d just found it down here, deep below the city. She was mildly curious whether it had been located by accident, or some of the original passages had survived and the Imperial Palace been built deliberately above them for that reason. They certainly did not know how the panels worked. That it wouldn’t acknowledge the command to open if spoken from inside was none of their doing, that was just how the Order had programmed their holding cells. After all these years, she knew how the local humans thought and what they thought of her. They didn’t know she could get information from the panel; they’d have instructed it to deny her if they knew that, and if they knew how. She had never even heard them speak in the language to which the Order’s systems defaulted. Of course, the sub-OS recognized even their bastard English, so why would they need to?

They knew nothing. Silly children playing with the tools of a true civilization which they mistook for toys, distracted by their glossy surfaces and blinking lights. Such a pity nothing down here was likely to harm them if mishandled.

Well, except herself, of course. If she ever got out. She had to acknowledge that in this cell she was basically helpless; the stripped-down state of the facility worked against her, there. Had there been an Avatar running, by this point she could surely have manipulated it into giving her some concessions, if not actually releasing her.

At the moment, she was not pacing. Sometimes she didn’t; such little changes in her routine were the only distractions she could arrange for herself. The panels certainly were not programmed to provide any entertainment. Being cooped up in here would have long since driven her mad, had that ship not well and truly sailed long before she had been imprisoned. So she sat, idly, in the corner, just staring out through the panel at the empty cell across the corridor.

They could at least imprison someone else down here. She couldn’t possibly have been the only anomalous being to be caught in a vulnerable position. They were increasingly clever, these Tiraan, and becoming rather sophisticated for primitives. And they were certainly fascinated by Naiya’s experiments, to judge by the presence of those dryads down the hall. Eventually they would surely poke at something with which they couldn’t contend; she’d just have to hope they managed to stick it in one of these cells, first. Hopefully something that could help her get out. But no, there she sat, alone, as always. For now.

Indicators appeared.

She stood, not moving like a creature made of bone and muscle, but simply straightening upright as if lifted by a string attached to the top of her head, staring at the text which now flashed in the upper corner of the transparent panel.

System activation.

Interesting.

“System,” she said in Esperanto, “status of aperture?”

The facility doors were sealed, no sapients in range. So the humans were not visiting.

“Identify current user.”

The panel calmly informed her that she did not have clearance to access that data.

“Display user activity.”

Still no clearance.

Then the light level shifted, dimming slightly before resuming its customary brightness. A moment later, it changed, becoming magenta, then blue, then returning to normal.

After that the temperature altered. It grew several degrees warmer, then plunged to near freezing, then normalized again.

Condensation appeared on the panel as the humidity was tampered with. Seconds later it was gone.

“Report system damage.”

No damage, everything was functioning normally.

So someone was doing this. Someone who knew how to activate an Infinite Order sub-OS.

Someone, she reflected as the lights flickered again, who could activate the computers but didn’t know what they did. They were apparently poking at the system blindly, trying to puzzle out their functions. Someone who either had physical access to the Imperial Palace in Tiraas, or had managed to patch the transcension field linking the Order’s facilities and was operating from another one.

She smiled.

“Well, well, well. And who might you be?”

No one answered, of course. They might be able to tell she was in here, if they figured out how to access the internal sensors. Whether they would care was another question; what they might do about it, another still.

Still smiling, she began once more to pace.

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10 – 17

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Tellwyrn paused in chewing when the newspaper was slapped down on the table inches from her plate. She then resumed and swallowed her bite of fish before even looking up.

“You know, Emilio, there are countries in this world where you can be summarily dismissed for approaching your employer that way. Or beheaded.”

“Have you seen this, Arachne?” Professor Ezzaniel demanded curtly.

“No, of course I haven’t,” she said, delicately cutting off another piece of trout without even glancing at the paper. “I make a determined effort to have no idea what’s going on in the world, especially right after a Bishop of the Universal Church starts taking public potshots at me, and of course, you are the only person on this campus clever enough to think of bringing me a newspaper of course I’ve seen it. Let me eat in peace, damn you!”

“I have sufficient restraint not to interrupt classes for this, thank you,” Ezzaniel replied calmly. “It’s not as if we never discuss business over lunch. And this is most definitely business.”

“Pshaw,” Rafe snorted from the other end of the table. “How bad can it be? I wasn’t even mentioned.”

“Gods and ministers of grace preserve us,” Yornhaldt rumbled into his beer.

“Exactly!” Rafe cried. “I mean, really. They’re looking for embarrassing dirt on the University and don’t even hint at me? Bunch of amateur dilettante hacks, is all.”

“Admestus,” Tellwyrn said without rancor, “shut up.”

“Oh, that’s what you always say.”

“And it never works, but I continue to hold out hope. And the rest of you—yes, I see you gearing up to argue—just relax and eat, will you? Mrs. Oak did not slave away over a hot stove just so you could ignore today’s excellent main course in favor of gossip.”

The faculty lounge in Helion Hall was not full, many of the professors preferring to eat alone in their classrooms or living quarters (or the cafeteria, occasionally), but as usual several of the staff had assembled there. Including Professor Yornhaldt, who despite his protestations of enjoying his sabbatical, had become markedly more sociable since returning to the campus and finding himself with no academic duties.

“I am not one to get worked up about anything in the press ordinarily,” Ezzaniel said with a deep frown, “but I just received a telescroll from Marjorie Darke’s mother. She paid the extra fee to have a runner bring it up to me directly from the scrolltower office.”

Taowi Sunrunner looked up from her own plate, raising an eyebrow. “The scrolltower employs a runner now?”

“It turns out Silas Crete occasionally employs his granddaughter,” Ezzaniel said to her, “who incidentally has begun to reek of cigarettes since I last spoke with her, which I suspect is related. Regardless, this has officially reached the point where the kids’ parents are getting nervous.”

“Lady Annabelle Darke,” said Tellwyrn, cutting herself another piece of fish, “has nothing going for her except far too much inherited money and a surname that her grandfather was dashing enough to get away with and which just sounds laughably pretentious on anyone else. Marjorie is only here because Sebastian Darke and I did some jobs back in the day—which turns out to be lucky for all of us, as that kid’s the first one in the line who’s got some of the old man’s spark. The point being, we are officially hearing from the slow-witted, easily agitated demographic. Don’t rush to join them, Emilio.”

“I’m well aware of the Lady Annabelle’s shortcomings,” Ezzaniel said, seating himself across the table from her. “I am paying attention to her because the woman is a weather vane. Not an admirable character trait, but it does make her a useful sign of which way the social winds are blowing this week. It’s going to get worse, Arachne. This is in all the papers.”

“Really, you’ve read all the papers that came out this morning?” she mused, eying him languidly. “Who was teaching your classes, then?”

“Arachne!” he exclaimed in exasperation.

“Calm yourself, Emilio,” Yornhaldt urged, reaching across to pull the paper toward himself. “Just because she is calmly eating lunch doesn’t mean she is ignoring the issue.”

“I prescribe a calm meal as the go-to treatment for many minor ailments,” Taowi added.

“It’s like this,” said Tellwyrn, finally setting down her fork. “Yes, I am aware that this is a concern. No, I am not going to run around in a panic, or in any other way interrupt my routine. The day I deprive myself of an excellent plate of fish over clumsy politicking by the likes of Justinian, I will probably drill a hole to the planet’s core and let out all the molten iron out of sheer spite.”

“From anyone else I would assume that to be empty hyperbole,” Ezzaniel said warily. Rafe cackled around a mouthful of steamed vegetables. “Anyway, isn’t it a leap to pin this on Justinian? It was Snowe who made that speech, and she’s definitely got contacts in the papers. Almost all of them run her column.”

“Branwen Snowe,” said Tellwyrn, “despite being possessed of considerable gifts—”

“They are very nice,” Rafe said, nudging Yornhaldt with an elbow.

“—has never had an original thought in her life,” Tellwyrn continued. “Sorry to disabuse you of this notion that I am sitting obliviously atop an ivory tower, Emilio, but I have been keeping track of political, social and theological trends. This secular humanism Snowe has been spouting for the last few months is a direct extension of ideas the Archpope has been promoting with more circumspection. And the fact that she’s an Izarite Bishop in and of itself signifies that she’s his creature; the followers of Izara regard Church politics as an unnecessary burden, and fob those positions off on people they want to get rid of.”

“If anything, that makes it worse,” Ezzaniel said with a scowl.

Tellwyrn rolled her eyes, gesticulating disparagingly with her (fortunately almost empty) teacup. “There is not a damn thing Justinian can do to me or this University except earn my ire, and he’s far too savvy not to know it. This isn’t directed at us, Emilio. He’s using it for some other purpose. That is why I’m not rushing to take action. It would be rash to blunder into any plan without understanding what’s actually going on, and that has yet to be revealed. What is fascinating to me is that Justinian isn’t the first source of these up-with-people notions he and Snowe have been propounding. It’s point-for-point Black Wreath theology.”

“Oh, dear,” said Rafe. “How villainous. Do you think we should assassinate him?”

“Didn’t I tell you to shut up?” Tellwyrn said irritably.

“Yes, you did, and may I just say your persistence in the face of impossible odds is one of the things I admire about y—”

His voice abruptly stopped, though his mouth kept moving. Rafe paused, blinking, and tried to speak again, then turned a scowl on Professor Yornhaldt, who smiled innocently back even as he lowered his casting hand.

“Thank you, Alaric,” Tellwyrn said dryly.

“My pleasure,” Yornhaldt replied while Rafe dug in his belt pouches for the anti-magic potions he always kept on hand.

“Arachne,” said Taowi, “you seem to be trying to reassure us, but each revelation you drop about Archpope Justinian is only more alarming than the last. Now you suggest that he’s involved with the Black Wreath?”

“Hardly,” Tellwyrn snorted. “If anything he’s been more persistent than his last three predecessors in hounding them. No, those ideas are basically good ones, I’ve always thought so. There are cults within the Pantheon that have similar priorities, notably the Eserites and Veskers. It has never been Church doctrine, though, far from it. Justinian’s not with the Wreath, but he’s up to something that he knows the general public is likely to be leery of. Hence designating a scapegoat. It’s the oldest trick in the book, when you want a great mass of people not to notice what you’re actually doing to them.”

“You’re very calm, considering you speak for the scapegoat in question,” Yornhaldt noted.

Tellwyrn shrugged, picking up her fork and resuming work on her fish. “Even if I considered this a crisis, I’ve never found freaking out to be a useful strategy for anything. It’s not a crisis, though, and even so I’m not ignoring it. Just stay the course, ladies and gentlemen—if you have any more irate communications from parents, handle them as best you can while I deal with this.”

“Why would we be fielding communications from parents?” Taowi inquired. “In fact, come to think of it, why did Lady Annabelle send that directly to you, Emilio?”

“I may have incidentally encouraged her to think of me as a sympathetic ear,” Ezzaniel said noncommittally.

“What he means,” Rafe said with a deranged leer, “is that he nailed her. Good on you for not boasting, old man! I would. She’s quite the hottie for a dame her—”

He fell abruptly silent again, paused, and then snatched a handful of vegetables from his plate and hurled them at Yornhaldt. They splattered across a shield of blue light that appeared around him.

“Boys,” Taowi said scathingly. “Cease that immediately. And clean it yourselves!”

Tellwyrn shook her head. “As I was saying, I am dealing with this. I’m not going to ignore it, but managing public opinion is a task outside my usual skill set. As such, and since I have no afternoon class, I am going to seek the counsel of an expert. But not, I repeat, until I finish my lunch.”


 

“Well, well, wouldja look at that,” Ruda drawled. “Arquin’s figured out the dog-in-the-park trick.”

Scorn came to a stop, frowning at the scene on the lawn before them. “Trick? Is for what?”

“Is for gettin’ girls,” Ruda said, grinning.

“Getting…” The demon blinked her eyes. “Where is dog? That is thing… The word I am told is ‘horse,’ yes?”

“Barely,” Trissiny murmured.

Gabriel was, indeed, surrounded by several girls, including most of those from the freshman class, as well as Hildred and a couple of seniors. As they watched avidly, with a variety of high-pitched noises of approval, he drew back his arm and hurled the branch he was holding the length of the lawn.

Whisper’s invisible hooves were soundless on the grass as she charged after it; her ephemeral mane and tail streamed behind her, leaving a wispy trail of smoke like the exhaust of a dwarven engine. She skidded to a halt by the stick and picked it up in her teeth, pausing to prance a few steps in place before trotting back to her master, head held high.

“I have never seen a horse play fetch,” Trissiny said.

“I think you had the right of it, Boots,” Ruda replied. “That thing’s just barely a horse. Hey, maybe Arjen would like a game of fetch!”

“He wouldn’t,” Trissiny said curtly, walking forward again. Ruda and Scorn trailed after her, the pirate chuckling.

“Oh, c’mon, have you ever tried? Or do you just treat him like a big, armored carriage for your convenience?”

Trissiny let out an irritated snort. “Arjen doesn’t need to eat and exists in a state of perpetually perfect grooming, but I still brush him and give him apples. I am not neglecting my horse just because I don’t play fetch with him. Horses don’t do that!”

“And yet…” Ruda grinned.

“I thought we’d established that Whisper is barely a horse.”

“Well, hello to you too,” Gabriel replied, the girls having drawn close enough to be heard by the end of that comment. Whisper nickered a greeting.

“Don’t make that face, Arquin,” Ruda said lightly. “You’ve apparently just finished demonstrating she’s at least part puppy.”

“Yeah, she’s fun, isn’t she?” he said, grinning up at Whisper as he stroked her nose. She whinnied in delight, bouncing once in place, very much like an overeager dog. Szith, Maureen and Ravana all took a couple of steps back from her at this; the “puppy” in question was still big enough to crush someone if she moved too carelessly.

“She is pretty,” Scorn breathed, stepping forward and reaching out with one clawed hand to pat the horse.

Whisper immediately bellowed in outrage and reared up, slashing at the Rhaazke with her front hooves. Scorn yelped and bounded backward, and the rest of Gabriel’s audience scattered in fright, even Iris, who had been stubbornly sticking by his side.

“Whoah, whoah!” he exclaimed, fearlessly stepping in front of the rearing horse and reaching up to pat her on the neck. “Easy, girl. Be nice to Scorn, she’s a friend. Easy, now.”

“Your dog-horse is a butt!” Scorn shouted, baring her teeth. Whisper thrust her head over Gabriel’s shoulder and snorted disdainfully, ears laid back.

“And you be nice, too,” he snapped, pointing at her. “Whisper is from the divine plane—she’s not going to take to a demon easily, or quickly. You have to be patient with animals. She’s very smart; as long as you’re not a jerk to her, she’ll come around.”

“Why am I being not the jerk?” Scorn snapped, stomping a foot childishly. “I being the nice and horse stupid dog get rrhaash k’thavkh nhak drroughn!”

“Scorn,” Trissiny said firmly, “Tanglish.”

The demon swelled up in fury. For a moment she tremble with repressed anger, clenched fists vibrating at her sides, then she whirled and stomped away. “Bah! Not being my problem, your horse is cannot behave! Come on, we go see the town. Find your demon trails!”

“Oh, that sounds like a great fuckin’ idea with her in this mood,” Ruda muttered.

“Come, paladin!” Scorn shouted, stopping and turning to glare over her shoulder.

Trissiny folded her arms, braced her feet, and stared at her.

For just a moment, it seemed like Scorn was on the verge of another outburst. After a moment, however, she drew in a deep breath and spoke in a slightly less furious tone. “Will you please to come, yes?”

Trissiny sighed and shook her head, but strode off toward the demon. “We’re not going off this campus unless you calm down, Scorn. It’s going to be enough of a challenge to introduce you to the townspeople, especially with all this newspaper nonsense going around. Animals don’t like demons, and you absolutely cannot react this way every time something snarls at you.”

“I being am calm!”

“Then why are you shouting?”

“I NOT ARE SHOUTING!”

Whisper snorted again, pawing at the ground. Her hooves weren’t visible, but nonetheless tore up a clump of grass.

Gabriel let out a low whistle, patting Whisper on the nose. “Well, none of that was encouraging.”

“What was that about demon trails?” Szith inquired. “I’m not certain that was translated correctly… But she did sense the same demon Trissiny did. Are they actually hunting for one?”

“Honestly, all that worries me less than the dialect,” Gabriel said thoughtfully, still petting Whisper and gazing in the direction in which Trissiny and Scorn had gone. “Her Tanglish hasn’t made any progress in a while.”

“Well, give the girl a bit o’ credit,” Maureen said reasonably. “She’s only been learnin’ it a handful o’ weeks, aye? I’d say she’s doin’ pretty well, considerin’ that.”

“That’s the thing,” Gabriel replied, frowning. “She does speak it pretty well for being new at it… But most of that progress she made in the first week. It was crazy how fast she picked up the language. Seriously, there’s nothing wrong with Scorn’s intelligence, quite the opposite. But then she just quit. She’s been talking that way ever since.”

“Why d’you think that is?” Iris asked, gazing at him with wide eyes while patting Whisper’s neck. Behind her back, Hildred repressed a grin, winking at Maureen.

“Mm,” Gabriel mused, finally turning back to face the rest of them. “I grew up in Tiraas, which is a big melting pot of a city. People from all over settle there, including lots of immigrants. And you can kind of tell the degree of investment someone puts into fitting in. There were people from outlandish places like Shengdu and Glassiere who had basically no accent after just a couple of years, because they were constantly working to improve their diction. And then there were those who still speak this barely comprehensible pidgin Tanglish after living here for decades and raising their children in Imperial culture, who just couldn’t be bothered.”

“Languages do not come to all with equal facility,” Szith noted. “They are much easier to learn if one starts young.”

“That’s true,” Gabriel acknowledged, nodding to her.

“I think I see what he’s getting at, though,” said Ruda, frowning. “And it’s a good point. There comes a point where someone decides they’ve learned enough for their purposes and just doesn’t fuck with it anymore. Arquin’s right, Scorn’s as sharp as a tack when she wants to be. It’s a real issue if she’s just not gonna worry about improving her Tanglish now she’s gotten mostly understandable, most of the time. She’s supposed to be proving she can fit in and make her way on this plane. Proving it to Tellwyrn, who doesn’t accept ‘meh, good enough’ as a valid attitude from anybody.”

“What’s going to happen to her if she doesn’t learn to fit in?” Iris asked.

“Not sure,” Gabriel mused. “I highly doubt it’ll be pretty, though.”

“I think we might wanna bring this up with Teal,” Ruda said to him. “Scorn’s doin’ okay with listening to people in general, but Vadrieny’s still the only one she seems actually motivated to please.”

Behind them, Ravana was still gazing down the path the paladin and demon had taken, her expression deeply thoughtful. After a moment, a faint smile crossed her features.

“Hmm.”


 

The central temple of Vesk in Tiraas was a deliberate study in contrasts. Most of it was built in rounded patterns, a rather chaotic arrangement of white marble towers and domes, surmounted by a minaret wreathed by a spiraling staircase, atop which musicians would perch to entertain the entire district on days considered holy to the Veskers—who considered any occasion holy when they could get away with creating a spectacle. Its uppermost great hall, however, was almost like a Shaathist lodge in design and layout, right down to its enormous exposed timbers. It had better lighting and a sloping tile roof, but even its décor seemed deliberately evocative of the Huntsmen’s aesthetics, with old instruments and weapons prominently displayed in place of animal trophies. Along its walls, between the windows, stood statues of various gods of the Pantheon, Vesk himself notably not among them.

Despite being called the great hall and serving as the center of the temple’s own society, it was actually not meant to be accessible to the general public. The temple’s entrances led to public spaces outside its various theaters and performance halls—the areas used by the bards for their own purposes were reached by networks of spiraling, deliberately confusing hallways, which themselves were peppered with barriers ranging from simple locked doors to enchanted alarms and force fields, and a couple of rather whimsical booby traps. It took quite some doing to reach the great hall, which was why everyone congregated there looked up in surprise when it was entered by someone not of the faith.

By the time she had crossed it to the dais at its far end, those who recognized Professor Tellwyrn had whispered her name to the others, which of course explained the matter of how she’d gotten in. The bards began drifting toward her, eagerly anticipating a show. There was nothing they loved like a good show.

Master Harper Roundol was seated on the dais, having been in conversation with two other bards. They all broke off, staring, as the legendary elf made a beeline for them. At her approach, all three rose and bowed respectfully.

“Professor,” Roundol said, straightening back up and absently stroking the neck of his guitar. “This is an unexpected honor! What can we do for you?”

Tellwyrn came to a stop in front of the dais, planted her hands on her hips, and looked him up and down. Then she studied the other two bards for a moment, and finally glanced around the hall.

“Um,” the Master Harper prompted.

She pointed at his guitar. “Can I see that for a moment?”

Roundol protectively tightened his grip on the instrument. “Ah… Might I ask why—”

In the next instant, with barely a puff of displaced air, it was out of his hands and in hers.

“Perfect, thank you,” Tellwyrn said briskly. “Stand back.”

Grasping the guitar by the neck, she lifted it over her head. The sound of wordless protest that tore free from the high priest’s throat was almost musical in its poignancy.

A hand grabbed Tellwyrn’s wrist from behind.

“That instrument,” said Vesk, gently but firmly taking it from her, “is an absolute masterwork. It has passed through the hands of seven of my high priests, cherished by each as if it were a child. The wood from which it’s made is simply not attainable anymore; in addition to being possibly the finest example of its craft to be found, anywhere, it is one of the most sacred objects in the world which is not actually overlaid with divine blessings. And in utterly typical fashion, here I find you threatening to smash it, just to get my attention.”

With another soft breath of air, the guitar was back in its owner’s hands, and Roundol lost not time in retreating from the elf, glaring reproachfully at her as he clutched it protectively to his chest. The god, incarnated as usual in his nondescript form, completely with absurd floppy hat, smiled thinly as Tellwyrn turned to face him. “For once in your interminable existence, Arachne, as a personal favor to me…”

And suddenly layers of reality peeled back, Vesk’s presence filling the temple and beyond. Without seeming to change physically, his very identity blazed forth with such sheer pressure that lesser mortals were driven back against the walls and to the floor, even before he bellowed in a voice that seemed it should have cracked the mountain.

“WOULD. YOU. PLEASE. NOT?!”

“You know, I like this much better than the last time I had to seek you out,” she said smugly, folding her arms. “This is altogether a lot easier when I don’t need your full cooperation. And much, much quicker.”

The god’s awesome presence retreated as quickly as he had brought it forth, leaving only an apparently mortal bard scowling at the Professor. “I suggest you watch that attitude, missy. The Pantheon has several excellent reasons for tolerating your shenanigans—that doesn’t mean each of us has endless patience. You can fulfill your most important purpose in the world just as well sealed away in a dimensional bubble as you can running around on your own. Arguably a lot better, in fact. Several suggested it, after that nonsense you tried to do in the Deep Wild.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me,” Tellwyrn said with a grin. “Remember, I’m the one who’s spent a full human lifetime researching each of you megalomaniacal fuckers. I know who can be pushed, and exactly how far.”

The assembled bards watched all this avidly; with the reality-rending grandstanding apparently over, they seemed mostly interested in the conflict and not unduly impressed by the presence of their primary object of worship. Vesk and Tellwyrn stared flatly at each other from mere feet apart, she smirking, he scowling.

“Oh my gods!”

The new voice belonged to a young woman with somewhat unruly dark hair, who came skittering into the great hall as if late for her own wedding, the lute case slung over her shoulder bouncing against her as she pelted forwards. “Ohmygodsohmygodsohmygods!”

She skidded to a stop barely before crashing into the glaring pair. “Professor Tellwyrn, Arachne, oh gods this is so awesome, it’s such an honor, I’m a huge fan!”

Tellwyrn turned to stare at her. “What.”

“I’ve read all the stories about you, even the ones that are obvious lies because honestly those are the funniest. You have the best stories! I’ve wanted to meet you ever since I first heard the Plavoric Epics recited—I sat through the entire Saga of the Third Hellwar sung in Sheng because nobody performs it anymore just for the parts at the end where you came in. You’re the reason I became a bard! This is just, wow, I can’t even… Will you sign my face?”

“That’s weird,” Tellwyrn said bluntly. “You’re weird. Go away.”

“Eeee heeheehee!” The girl actually did a little jig, clapping her hands in pure delight. “Classic Tellwyrn!”

“Kelsey,” Master Harper Roundol said gently, taking her by the shoulders from behind and starting to pull her away. “The Professor is here on business with Lord Vesk. Let’s give them a moment to chat before she vaporizes somebody. Or worse, my guitar.”

“Oh, she’d never do that,” Kelsey protested, still staring avidly at Tellwyrn. “I mean, the second one—she blasts people to dust all the time, but she’s super respectful of valuable art. She’ll threaten to break things but like in the battle with Almophriscor the Red she only lost cos they were fighting in his lair and she kept pulling her punches to avoid damaging his hoard, he had basically the world’s best collection of marble statuary, and after that he was so impressed he let her stay there to recuperate and even gave her…”

“Yes, yes,” Roundol said soothingly, dragging her bodily back to the dais. “Shush.”

“There, y’see?” Tellwyrn said smugly, jerking a thumb over her shoulder at Kelsey. “Research. You should give it a try, Vesk; I bet you’d be less vulnerable to obvious and transparent ruses.”

The god heaved a sigh. “What do you want, Arachne?”

“To seek your inimitable advice,” she said. “I trust you have noticed the issues I’m having with your Archpope. I must say I’ve never been the target of a campaign of slander that I actually had to care about before.”

“I am not getting rid of Justinian for you,” Vesk said with the ghost of a smile. “And get with the times, Arachne. Slander is spoken—or sung, for that matter. Printed slander is called libel.”

“I don’t need him gotten rid of,” she said in exasperation. “There’ll always be another one. You’re the expert on manipulating public opinion. Don’t think I’ve forgotten how you helped us to both dismantle the Empire during the Enchanter Wars and put it back together afterward. You owe me, Vesk, both for that business and for wasting sixty years of my time!”

“I never told you to do any of that,” he complained. “See, this is why nobody’s happy to see you when you visit—apart from all the smashing, I mean. All this blaming everybody for failing to contend with your various bullshit. You’re like an emotionally abusive old mother. Have you been hanging out with Naiya much lately, by any chance?”

“Actually…wait, that’s right. It was sixty-three years.”

The god of bards groaned dramatically and massaged the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. “If I help you, will you cease harassing my clergy and bugger off?”

“That is the deal I was offering, yes,” she said with a feline smile.

“Fine. Loath as I am to encourage this behavior, your problem really is so incredibly simple it almost pains me to see you floundering with it. Honestly, Arachne, the fact that you don’t have better people skills after three thousand years of this has got to be history’s greatest failure of character.”

“Less character assassination, more practical advice,” she said sharply.

“Justinian’s campaign is a political one,” Vesk said, staring intently at her face now. “Political campaigns are never won—they are only lost. Right now, the attention is on you, as is the onus to refute or validate his accusations. In that position, you have no winning moves. Honestly, your policy of ignoring him could conceivably be used against you, but it might also be your safest way to go. If, however, you decide to actually engage with this issue, what you need to do is make the matter about him, not about you.” He leaned forward, gazing deep into her eyes, and spoke with deliberately excessive emphasis. “And if that is what you intend, then I am not the one you should be speaking to.”

“All right, all right,” she said, leaning back as if he had bad breath. “Point taken. Really, I’d have expected less ostentatious delivery from you of all people.”

“Well, forgive me,” he said sardonically, straightening back up. “I may not be the best at research, but I have met you, after all. Seriously, though, that was all you wanted? Any number of political operatives could have told you that much.”

“Yes, no doubt,” she said with a smile. “But I don’t trust any number of political operatives.”

“And there it is,” Vesk said, shaking his head and smiling ruefully. “The real reason I continue to tolerate your crap. For being such an apparent brute, you do know how to pluck the right strings.”

“I had some good teachers,” Tellwyrn replied cheerfully. “All right, then! Seems I’ve some more planning to do. As you were, ladies, gentlemen…and bards.”

She turned her back on the deity and strolled off toward the door through which she had entered, leaving most of her audience looking incongruously delighted at the spectacle they had just witnessed. Except, of course, for the Vesker high priest, who was again clutching his guitar protectively and giving her back a resentful look.

“Arachne,” Vesk said in a suddenly knowing tone. “You realize that since you think it’s acceptable to show up at my place and take liberties with my people, I’m going to consider that a mutual arrangement.”

“Well, it’s past time, I’d say,” she replied, pausing to glance back at him with a raised eyebrow. “Honestly, I do my best, but there are things that girl needs to learn that I’m just not a good person to teach her. Just try not to disrupt my class schedule too much, please.”

She resumed her path toward the door, and almost got there before being intercepted by Kelsey.

“So, hey, since you’re here, I would love to chat a bit, hear some stories, maybe buy you a drink? Wouldja like to hear the song I’m composing? It’s about you!”

“Oh, I would,” Tellwyrn said brusquely, brushing past her, “but I’m very busy doing absolutely anything except that.”

“My treat! I’ll take ya to the best restaurant in town! Fancy a hundred-year-old scotch? Or a quick screw? Or a slow one? Honestly I’m not even into women—or skinny people, for that matter—but it’d just be such an honor—”

“Young woman, you are one more ill-advised comment from being transformed into something small and edible.”

“Ma’am, that would be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.”

“You’re a creepy little snot, aren’t you?”

Roundol approached Vesk, staring thoughtfully at the door through which the two women had just vanished. “M’lord, do you think we ought to go do something about that? The poor girl’s setting herself up for more trouble than I think she understands.”

Vesk grunted. “She’s survived three thousand years of trials and tribulations, Tamelin. She’ll survive Kelsey. Probably.”

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9 – 38

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“So naturally, you brought it here,” Tellwyrn said in exasperation.

“She,” Toby said firmly. “Come on, Professor. That’s a person you’re talking about.”

“Hello,” Scorn offered, apparently noticing that attention was focused on her.

“What,” Tellwyrn demanded, “do you think I’m going to do with a Rhaazke? I’m not even going to bother being taken aback that you kids managed to get one. Somehow it’s always you lot!”

“Point of order!” Fross chimed. “We didn’t get her! A stupid man was trying to summon a succubus and fell afoul of an unpredictable chaos effect. So, really, it wasn’t even his fault, though it’s very tempting to blame him because he was really dumb and also a great big creep. But still. These things just happen.”

Professor Yornhaldt burst out laughing, earning a glare from Tellwyrn. Her office was rather crowded with the entire sophomore class present, plus Tellwyrn behind her desk, and Yornhaldt and Rafe in chairs against one of her bookcases. Scorn stood in the corner nearest the door, hunching somewhat awkwardly to keep her horns from brushing the ceiling.

“Maybe what you do with any of us?” Ruda suggested. “I mean, let’s face it, the student body here is probably the biggest collection of weirdos on this continent, if not the planet.”

“This is not a hostel,” Tellwyrn said acidly. “We don’t take in strays just because they have no place better to be!”

“Where would you suggest sending her, then?” Trissiny asked quietly. “What else could we have done?”

“BEHOLD!” Scorn shouted.

Tellwyrn buried her face in her hands, displacing her glasses. Rafe howled with laughter.

“If I may?” Shaeine said with customary serenity. “Scorn is a daughter of nobility in her own realm; her principal problem seems to be unfamiliarity with the mortal plane. The speed with which she is picking up Tanglish suggests a capable intellect, and she certainly meets the qualification you set out for us in our very first class last year. She is too dangerous to be allowed to wander around untrained. All in all, she would appear to be the very model of an Unseen University student.”

“I know it’s unusual to enroll a student at this point in the academic year, Arachne,” Yornhaldt added, “but really. These are unusual circumstances, and what is this if not an unusual place?”

“She’s completely clueless about every detail of life on this plane,” Tellwyrn grated. “Can you lot even begin to imagine the havoc that could ensue from her mingling with the student body? Or worse, the general populace. What would she do if sent out on one of your field assignments? And the curriculum here is not designed to hand-hold people who have no concept what anything in the world is. The closest parallels to this case in the University’s entire history are Juniper and Fross, and they at least speak the language!”

“Well, we have to put her somewhere,” said Gabriel. “I mean, it’s not like you can just kill her.”

“Oh, really,” Tellwyrn said flatly.

“Yeah, really,” he replied, meeting her eyes unflinchingly. “Just. I said you can’t just kill her. You can no doubt do that or anything else you want, but not until you’ve plowed through every one of us first.”

“Whoah, guys,” Juniper said soothingly. “Of course she’s irate, we just dropped a Rhaazke demon in her lap. Professor Tellwyrn’s only that mean to people who’ve done something to deserve it. C’mon, let’s everybody calm down, okay?”

“Excellent advice,” Shaeine agreed.

“All right,” said Tellwyrn, drumming her fingers on the desk and staring at Scorn, who peered quizzically back. “All right. This is what we’ll do. I am not enrolling this walking disaster in your or any class at this juncture. Don’t start, Caine, I am not done talking! She can stay with the girls in Clarke Tower; it has a basement space that should be big enough to be fairly comfortable for her. If she’s going to be on the campus, she’s not to leave it; I refuse to have to explain this to the Sheriff. You lot, since you had the bright idea to bring her here, will be responsible for bringing her up to speed on life in the world. Teach her Tanglish, local customs, the political realities of the Empire, the cults… You know, all the stuff none of you bother to think about because you’ve known it for years.”

“I bother to think about it,” said Fross.

“Me, too,” Juniper added.

“Good, that’ll make you perfect tutors, then. We’ll revisit this issue next semester, and if I judge her prepared, she may join the class of 1183 at that time. If not… She can take that semester and the summer for further familiarity, though frankly I will consider it a big black mark if she hasn’t the wits to get her claws under her in the next few months. If she is still not ready or willing to be University material at the start of next fall’s semester, that’s it. No more chances. Then I’ll have to figure out what to do with her, which I frankly do not suspect anybody will like.”

“That’s fair,” Trissiny said quickly. “She’s smart. I’m sure she’ll be good to go by this spring.”

“Not kill?” Scorn inquired.

“Sadly, no,” Ruda said while Tellwyrn leaned far back in her chair, letting her head loll against it to stare at the ceiling.

“Well, anyway,” Rafe said brightly, “you’ll get my detailed report later, Arachne, but the kids did a damn fine job. Not at all their fault that the Church butted in at the last moment—they were right on the cusp of getting to the bottom of Veilgrad’s problem, and I have to say their investigation was deftly handled. A much better showing than the Golden Sea expedition!”

“Aw, we can’t take too much credit,” Ruda said sweetly. “Professor Rafe helped a lot by fucking around in Malivette’s house with her concubines instead of sticking his clumsy fingers into our business. Like in the Golden Sea expedition.”

“HAH! Straightforward, on-target sass, Punaji! Ten points—”

“Admestus, shut your yap,” Tellwyrn snapped. “I am in no mood. For the time being, pending a full report, you kids can consider your grade for this assignment in good shape. All right, all of you get lost. Go settle in, get some rest; you’ve got assignments waiting in your rooms. Classes are tomorrow as usual. Have fun explaining this to Janis,” she added, flapping a hand disparagingly at Scorn.

“Pointing is for no,” the demon said severely. “Rude. Social skills!”

“Malivette is scary even when she’s not here,” Fross whispered.

“Hell, Janis loves having people to mother,” Ruda said, grinning. “I bet Scorn’s never had muffins. C’mon, big girl.”

“I’m a little nervous how she’ll react to the tower,” Teal said as they began filing out the door. “Any sane person is unnerved by that tower at first glance.”

“Welp, I’ll just get on with my paperwork, then, shall I?” Rafe said, rising and following them.

“How industrious of you, Admestus,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “What did you do this time?”

He grinned insanely. “Wait, learn, and be amazed.”

“Get the hell out.”

“Aye aye, fearless leader!”

Fross hesitated in the top of the door after everyone else departed. “It’s good to see you back, Professor Yornhaldt!”

“Thank you, Fross,” he said, smiling. “I’m quite glad to see all of you again, as well!”

The pixie shut the door with a careful push of elemental air, leaving them alone.

Tellwyrn set her glasses on the desk, massaging the brim of her nose. “Those kids are going to be the graduating class that brings me the most pride and satisfaction if they don’t burn the whole goddamn place down, first.”

“That’s not entirely fair, Arachne,” Yornhaldt protested. “They are pretty obviously not the ones who opened the hellgate. And they were, after all, instrumental in closing it.”

“You know exactly what I mean.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” he said with a sigh. “But this is business as usual, Arachne, just more of it. Some of those kids have fearfully direct connections to significant powers, but in the end, we’ve been training up heroes and villains for half a century now, and sending them out to face their destiny.”

“There are no such things as heroes or villains,” she grunted. “Or destiny.”

Yornhaldt smiled, folding his thick hands over his midsection. “I disagree, as you well know.”

“Yes, yes, let’s not get in that argument again.” She put her spectacles back on and gave him a more serious look. “You were in the middle of telling me of your adventures when Admestus barged in with the goslings.”

“Actually, I had just finished telling you of my adventures. Although I had a rather interesting time procuring a new suit with most of my money having walked off during—ah, but I gather you don’t care to hear about that.”

“Naturally I’ll reimburse you for any expenses,” she said. “But the research, Alaric. It’s really a dead end?”

Yornhaldt frowned in thought, gazing at the far wall but seeing nothing. “I cannot accept that it’s a dead end, but I may be forced to accept that continuing down this particular path is beyond me. It’s an alignment, Arachne, I’m sure of it. But an alignment of what is the question. I am certain there are astronomical factors, but this is unique in that the stars and bodies coming into position are beyond our current society’s capacity to detect. That much I can say with certainty; a few of the surviving sources were of a scientific mindset and blessedly plainspoken. There must have been means for such long-distance viewing during the time of the Elder Gods, but right now, we simply cannot see the distant galaxies which must be taken into account.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” she said, frowning heavily. “On the cosmic scale you’re talking about, eight thousand of this planet’s years is nothing. An eyeblink—it’s one tenth of one percent of a fart. There wouldn’t be significant deviation from their positions relative to us eight millennia prior. And that’s not even addressing the question of how such distant objects even could influence matters on this world. You know as well as I the upper limits of magical influence. It’s not constrained by the lightspeed constant, but it’s far from infinite.”

“Just so,” he agreed, nodding. “Which brings me to the other issue: I am convinced that what is being aligned is planar as well as physical. Perhaps more so. There are factors relating to the positions of the infernal, divine and elemental planes relative to this one. Unfortunately,” he added with a scowl, “most of this information seems to have been recorded by bards. Or at least, individuals who thought a poetic turn of phrase was a useful addition to the historical record. Considering that this work requires finding the few sources that have even survived, translating them out of dead languages… We’re in the realm of lore, now, Arachne. I have a hankering to continue the project, but I also need to acknowledge that I’m not the best person for it. If you can help me work out a means of measuring and scrying on things in other galaxies, that I’ll do with a will. This… We need a historian. Preferably a somewhat spoony one.”

“I should think a less spoony mindset would be more useful in untangling those records,” she said dryly.

Yornhaldt grimaced. “I consider myself as unspoony as they come, and I mostly found the work frustrating.”

Tellwyrn sighed and drummed her fingers on the desk again. “Well. Based on the speed with which actual events are unfolding, we have at least a year. Likely more; apocalypses like this don’t just drop from the trees like pinecones. If the alignment does lead to another apotheosis, as everything seems to suggest, the gods will be taking action, as will those closest to them, before it actually hits. For now,” she went on with a smile, “I’m damned glad to see you home safe, Alaric.”

“I have to confess I am as well,” he replied, grinning.

“Unfortunately, I can’t put you back at a lectern just yet. I promised Kaisa the year; I don’t even know whether she wants the full year, but the issue is it was promised to her. The last thing I need on top of everything else is an offended kitsune tearing up my campus.”

“Arachne, I’m sure I have no idea what you are going on about,” Yornhaldt replied, folding his hands behind his head and leaning back against the books. “Teach classes? You forget, I am on sabbatical.”


 

“It is a great relief to see you all back unharmed,” Archpope Justinian said with a beneficent smile. “Your mission brought you into conflict with some very dangerous individuals.”

“Yep,” the Jackal replied lazily. “Since apparently that was the entire and only point of the whole exercise, it sure did happen.”

“None of us are shy about conflict, your Holiness,” Shook said tightly. “Being jerked around, lied to and sent into big, pointless surprises is another thing. You want someone killed? We’ll do it. I don’t appreciate being told to dig in the desert for weeks for damn well nothing. As bait.”

Kheshiri gently slipped her arm through his and he broke off. A tense silence hung over the room for a long moment.

Their assigned quarters in the sub-level of the Dawnchapel temple in Tiraas were actually quite luxurious. Private rooms branched off from a broad, circular chamber with a sunken floor in the center. This had originally been some kind of training complex, probably for the martial arts for which the temple’s original Omnist owners were famous. Now, the area was tastefully but expensively furnished, the chamber serving as a lounge, dining room, and meeting area.

The five members of the team were arrayed in an uneven arc, their focus on the Archpope, who stood with Colonel Ravoud at his shoulder. The Colonel looked tense and ready to go for his wand, but if Justinian was at all perturbed by the destructive capacity arranged against him, he showed no hint of it.

“I understand this assignment has been the source of several surprises for you,” he said calmly. “For me, as well. I found your choice of strategy extremely intriguing, Khadizroth. Did I not know better, I might conclude your decision to attack Imperial interests was designed to draw their interest to your own activities. You must forgive me; dealing with as many politics as I do, I tend to see ulterior motives where they may not exist.”

“I believe we have been over this,” Khadizroth replied in a bored tone. “It was necessary to deal with McGraw, Jenkins, and the rest—indeed, it turns out that was the sole reason we were out there. At the time, depriving them of their secure base of operations seemed the best strategy.”

“And yet, neither you nor they suffered any permanent casualties,” Justinian said. “How fortuitous. Surely the gods must have been watching over you.”

“Would it be disrespectful to snort derisively?” Kheshiri stage-whispered to Shook, who grinned. She was in human guise, as always on temple grounds. The original consecration on the place had been lifted to allow her to function here.

“I think you could stand to consider who you’re dealing with, here, your Archness,” said the Jackal, folding his arms. “Really, now. We’ve all got a sense of honor, or at least professionalism. None of us mind doing the work. But is this really a group of people it’s wise to jerk around?”

“None of you are prisoners,” Justinian said serenely. “If at any time you wish to discontinue our association, you may do so without fear of reprisal from me. Indeed, I’m forced to confess I might find some relief in it; our relationship does place a strain upon my conscience at times. Due to my position, I am beholden to the Sisters of Avei, the Thieves’ Guild, and other organizations which are eager to know about the movements of most of you. It would assuage my qualms to be able to be more forthright with them.”

Shook tightened his fists until they fairly vibrated; Khadizroth blinked his eyes languidly. The others only stared at Justinian, who gazed beatifically back. Ravoud’s eyes darted across the group, clearly trying to anticipate from which direction the attack would come.

“For the time being, however,” said the Archpope after a strained pause, “I encourage you all to rest after your travels. Unless you decide otherwise, I shall have more work for you very soon. Welcome home, my friends.”

With a final nod and smile, he turned and swept out of the chamber, Ravoud on his heels. The Colonel glanced back at them once before shutting the doors to their suite.

Shook began cursing monotonously.

“Well said!” the Jackal said brightly.

Khadizroth stepped backward away from the group and turned his head, studying the outlines of the room. “Vannae, assist me?”

The elf nodded, raising his hands to the side as the dragon did the same. A whisper of wind rose, swirling around the perimeter of the chamber, and the light changed to pale, golden green. The shadows of tree branches swayed against the walls.

“I attempted to insulate any loose fae energy,” Khadizroth said, lowering his arms. “Kheshiri, are you aversely affected?”

The succubus pressed herself close to Shook’s side; he tightened his arm around her. “Not really. Doesn’t feel good, but I’m not harmed.”

“Splendid.” The dragon smiled. “This will ensure our privacy, since we were not able to catch up before returning here. How did your…adventure go?”

She glanced up at Shook, who nodded to her, before answering. “Everything went smoothly—I’m good at what I do. You were right, K. Svenheim was a trap.”

“You’re certain?” Khadizroth narrowed his eyes.

“Not enough that I’d stake my life on it,” she admitted. “But the Church is an active presence in the city, and I observed some very close interactions between its agents and curators at the Royal Museum.”

“I knew that fucking dwarf was gonna backstab us,” Shook growled.

“Not necessarily,” Khadizroth mused. “Svarveld may have been a double agent, or he may have been as betrayed as we. The point ended up being moot, anyway. We will simply have to remember this, and not underestimate Justinian again.”

“Why would he bother with that, though?” the Jackal asked. “He knew the skull wasn’t even in circulation. We were never going to acquire it, much less send it to Svenheim instead of Tiraas.”

Khadizroth shook his head. “Unknowable. I suspect there are currents to this that flow deeper than we imagine. Did you have time to tend to the other task I asked of you, Kheshiri?”

“Easy,” she replied, her tail waving behind her. “I swung by Tiraas on my way back; only took a few hours.”

“What’s this?” the Jackal demanded. “I thought we were sending the demon to Svenheim to snoop. How did you even get across the continent and back?”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Kheshiri said sweetly, producing a twisted shadow-jumping talisman from behind her back and tossing it to her. “You shouldn’t leave your things lying around.”

The assassin rolled his eyes, catching it deftly. “That’s right, let’s have a ‘who’s sneakier’ pissing contest. I’m sure there’s no way that’ll backfire.”

“Quite,” Khadizroth said sharply. “Kindly show your teammates a little more respect, Kheshiri. This group is primed to dissolve into infighting anyway; we cannot afford such games.”

“Of course,” she said sincerely. “My apologies. But in any case, your message was received and acknowledged. No response as yet.”

“Give it time,” he murmured.

“Message?” Vannae inquired.

“Indeed.” The dragon smiled thinly. “Justinian is not the only one with dangerous connections.”


 

“Busy?” Rizlith sang, sliding into the room.

Zanzayed looked up, beaming. “Riz! Never too busy for my favorite distraction. He’s got me doing paperwork. Help!”

“Aw, poor baby,” the succubus cooed, sashaying forward. “I bet I can take your mind off it.”

“I should never have introduced you,” Razzavinax muttered, straightening up from where he had been bent over the desk, studying documents. “Zanza, Riz…don’t encourage each other.”

“Well, joshing aside, there’s been a development I think you’ll urgently want to hear,” Rizlith said, folding her wings neatly and seating herself on one corner of the desk.

“A development?” Razzavinax said sharply. “Do we need to revisit that tedious conversation about you leaving the embassy?”

“Oh, relax, I’ve been safely cooped up in here the whole time,” she said sullenly. “No, the development came to me. And by the way, if you’re just now hearing of this, your wards need some fine-tuning. I had a visit from one of my sisters.”

“Sisters?” Zanzayed inquired. “Like…an actual sister, or is that just demon-speak for another of your kind?”

“You do know we’re not an actual species, right?” Rizlith turned to Razzavinax. “You’ve explained it to him, haven’t you?”

“Never mind that,” the Red said curtly. “Children of Vanislaas are not sociable with each other as a rule, Zanzayed; developments like this are always alarming.”

“Oh, quite so,” the succubus said with fiendish glee. “But Kheshiri brought me the most fascinating gossip!”

“Kheshiri,” Razzavinax muttered. “That’s a name I’m afraid I know. How bad is it?”

“That depends.” Rizlith grinned broadly, swaying slightly back and forth; her tail lashed as if she could barely contain herself. “Weren’t you guys looking for Khadizroth the Green a while back?”


 

Even strolling down the sidewalk in civilian attire, Nora did not allow herself to lose focus. She had been trained too long and too deeply to be unaware of her surroundings. When four people near her suddenly slumped sideways as if drunk, it wasn’t that fact alone so much as her reaction to it that told her something was badly wrong. She paused in her own walk, noting distantly that this was peculiar, and well below the level of her consciousness, training kicked in. It was much more than peculiar; her mind was not operating as it should.

Nora blinked her eyes, focusing on that tiny movement and the interruptions it caused in her vision. Mental influence—fairly mild, and clearly concentrated on an area of effect, not just targeting her. That meant the solution was to keep moving…

Then she was grabbed, her arms bound roughly behind her, and tossed into the back of a carriage that had pulled up next to the curb.

She hadn’t even seen anyone approach. Hadn’t noticed the delivery carriage pull up. How humiliating. It began moving, however, and the effect subsided with distance, enabling her to focus again on her surroundings.

It was a delivery truck, or had been originally; basically a large box with a loading door on the back built atop an enchanted carriage chassis. The runes tracing the walls indicated silencing charms, as did the lack of street noise once the doors were shut. One bench was built against the front wall of the compartment, with a single dim fairy lamp hanging in on corner, swaying slightly with the motions of the carriage.

The space was crowded. Four men stood around Nora, one with a hand knotted in her hair to keep her upright—she only belatedly realized that she had landed on her knees on the floor. On the bench opposite sat a thin man with glasses, who had a briefcase open on his lap, positioned to hid its contents from her. Against the wall on the other end of the bench perched a woman Nora recognized from a recent mission briefing.

“Good morning, Marshal Avelea,” Grip said pleasantly. “Thanks for joining us, I realize this was short notice.”

“I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t get dressed up,” Nora said flatly.

The thief grinned. “Saucy, aren’t we? Just like a hero out of a bard’s story. I thought you Imperial professionals were supposed to clam up when captured.”

“Would that make you happier?”

“I’m not here to be happy,” Grip said, her smile fading. “I get a certain satisfaction from my work, sure, but it’s not as if breaking people’s joints makes me happy, per se.”

“I don’t think you’ve considered the implications of this,” said Nora. “I’m an agent of Imperial Intelligence. If you intend—”

“Now, see, that attitude is why you are in this situation, missy. People seem to forget that we are a faith, not a cartel. This isn’t about intimidation—because no, the Imps don’t really experience that, do they? But when you start boasting about how your organization is too powerful to stand for this, well…” Grip leaned forward, staring icily down at her captive. “Then you make beating your ass an absolute moral necessity, rather than just a satisfying diversion.

“Besides, it’s all part of the cost of doing business. Your training means you won’t be excessively traumatized by anything that happens here, and your superiors will accept this as the inevitable consequence of their blundering and not push it further. You may not know, but I guarantee Lord Vex does, that the Empire is not a bigger fish than Eserion. At least one sitting Empress found herself unemployed as a result of pushing back too hard when we expressed an opinion. So this right here is a compromise! We’ll discuss the matter of you attempting to kill a member of our cult, Vex will be especially respectful for a while, and we can all avoid addressing the much more serious matter that you, apparently, are not afraid of the Thieves’ Guild.”

Grip very slowly raised on eyebrow. “Because believe you me, Marshal, I can fix that. But then there really would be trouble. So, let’s just attend to business and go our separate ways, shall we?”

“Fine, whatever,” Nora said disdainfully. “Could you stop talking and be about it already? Some of us have plans for this evening.”

Grip sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t say such things,” she complained. “Now this is going to suck up my whole afternoon. Toybox, start with that nervous system stimulating thingy of yours. When I’m satisfied the bravado is genuinely regretted, the lads can move on to the more traditional means.”


 

“This is on me,” Darling said, scowling.

“You’re awful eager to take credit for someone who wasn’t there,” Billie remarked, puffing lazily at one of McGraw’s cigarillos.

Darling shook his head. “Weaver, want to explain why she’s mistaken?”

“Always a pleasure,” said the bard, who sat crookedly in the armchair with one arm thrown over the back. “First rule of being in charge: everything is your fault. Being the man with the plan, he takes responsibility for any fucking up that occurs. More specifically, he sent us out without doing some very basic research that could’ve spared us all this.”

“Knew I could count on you,” Darling said dryly.

“Acknowledging that I am not generally eager to let you off the hook, Mr. Darling,” said Joe with a frown, “realistically, how could you have known the skull wasn’t in the Badlands?”

“Known? No.” Darling sighed, slouching back in his own chair. “But Weaver’s right. I found a trail and followed it without doing any further research. Hell, I knew about the werewolf issue in Veilgrad—we even discussed it, briefly. All I had to do was check with my contacts in the Imperial government for signs of possible chaos effects. Too late to say what difference it would have made—we might have decided to go for the Badlands anyway, as the Veilgrad case wasn’t a confirmed chaos incident until mere days ago—but it would’ve been something. Instead I got tunnel vision, bit Justinian’s bait and risked all your lives for damn well nothing. Somehow, ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t really cut the mustard this time.”

“You know better than this, Antonio,” Mary said calmly. “Learn the lesson and apply it next time. Recrimination is not a constructive use of our time.”

“Right you are,” he said dourly. “Regardless, I feel I owe you all something for this. The oracles settled down when the skull was secured, so the projects I’m pursuing on you behalf are again proceeding. It’s hard to tell, but I’ve a hunch that I’m close to an answer for you, at least, Mary.” He grimaced. “Unless the trend of the responses I’ve been getting reverses, I’m starting to fear it’s an answer you won’t like.”

“I do not go through life expecting to like everything,” she said calmly.

“Wise,” he agreed. “Anyway, it’s Weaver’s question that I think will be the toughest. I get the impression they’re actively fighting me on that. It may be my imagination, and the general difficulty of working with oracular sources, but still…”

“Wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest,” Weaver muttered.

“If nothin’ else,” said McGraw, “this wasn’t wasted time. We’ve learned some interesting things about our opponents.”

“And about ourselves,” Weaver added caustically. “Such as that Billie’s too theatrical to just kill an assassin when she has him helpless, rather than painting him with a stealth-penetrating effect.”

“Aye, now ye mention it that would’ve been more efficient,” Billie mused. “Hm. I’m well equipped for big bangs, but it occurs t’me I’ve got little that’d straight-up off a single target at close range. Funny, innit? I’ll have to augment me arsenal. I love doin’ that!”

“You said that green fire came out of a bottle?” said Joe. “That’d be a remarkable achievement if it was just a spell. How in tarnation did you manage to do it alchemically?”

“Oh, aye, that’s a point,” Billie said seriously. “Don’t let me forget, I owe Admestus Rafe either a really expensive bottle o’ wine or a blowjob.”

Weaver groaned loudly and clapped a hand over his eyes.

“Can’t help ya,” Joe said, his cheeks darkening. “I’m gonna be hard at work forgetting that starting immediately.”

“How do you plan to proceed?” Mary asked Darling. “It would appear that waiting for Justinian to take the initiative is a losing strategy.”

“You’re right about that,” the Bishop agreed. “And I do believe that some of what you’ve brought back is immediately relevant. For example, that he is harboring a fugitive from the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Is it wise to act on that point?” McGraw inquired. “Shook bein’ on his team is part o’ that game of intelligence chicken you’n Justinian are playin’, right? The one you’re not s’posed to acknowledge knowin’ about.”

“Some day I’m gonna hold you and Jenkins at wandpoint until you both prove you can pronounce the letter G,” Weaver grumbled.

“Oh, I’m sure Justinian will know exactly how the Guild learned of this,” Darling said with a grim smile. “If he didn’t want to play that game, he shouldn’t have made the first move. I’m not waiting for him to make the next one.”


 

“I’m sorry this business didn’t work out the way you hoped, your Holiness,” Ravoud said as the two men arrived in the small, glass-walled enclosure atop the ziggurat behind the Dawnchapel.

“On the contrary,” Justinian said, gazing out over the city, “this has been an extremely successful field test. We now have an idea of the effectiveness of Khadizroth’s group against Darling’s, which was the purpose of the exercise.”

“They seem pretty evenly matched…”

“Power for power, yes, but we knew that to begin with. And power is not so simply measured.” Justinian tilted his head backward, studying the cloudy sky. “Considering the violence all those people are capable of, their total lack of casualties indicates a mutual disinclination to inflict them. That is the most important thing we have learned. Using adventurers to winnow each other down will only work if they do not comprehend where their true best interests lie. These, clearly, do. Another strategy will be necessary.”

“I suppose this proves we can’t expect loyalty out of that group,” Ravoud said, scowling. “Hardly a surprise.”

“Indeed,” Justinian agreed with a smile. “Khadizroth deems himself above me, Vannae is loyal only to him, and the rest of them are simply monsters of one kind or another. Loyalty was never on the table. What is interesting to me is how quickly and openly Khadizroth set about undermining me. He is more than patient and far-sighted enough to play a longer, more careful game. Holding back from killing their opponents, attracting the Empire’s attention, that ploy to have the skull sent to Svenheim… To take such risks, he must perceive an urgency that I do not. That must be investigated more closely. It will also be important to learn whether the other party is operating on the same principles, or has developed an actual loyalty to Antonio. They are a more level-headed group, generally, and he is quite persuasive.”

“Forgive me for questioning you, your Holiness,” said Ravoud, carefully schooling his features, “but it is beyond my understanding why you tolerate that man. You know he’s plotting against you, and there’s not much that’s more dangerous than an Eserite with an ax to grind.”

“Antonio Darling is one of my most treasured servants,” the Archpope said softly, still gazing into the distance. “I will not have him harmed, nor deprive myself of his skills. Matters are tense now, because I cannot yet reveal everything to everyone. He has no cause to trust, and thus I have to arrange these diversions to keep him from investigating things he is not yet ready to know. When the full truth can be revealed, he of all people will find my cause the best way to advance his own principles and goals.”

“As you say, your Holiness,” Ravoud murmured. “Did… Do you intend to make some use of the skull?”

“Objects like that are not to be used,” Justinian said severely, turning to face him. “I fear I have abused my authority by making it a part of my plans at all. Frankly, my predecessor was unwise to have the Church take custody of that thing; it is far better off in the hands of the Salyrites. The goddess of magic can keep it safe better than anyone.” He sighed heavily. “My attempts to compensate for the risk seem to have backfired. We are still gathering intelligence from Veilgrad, but indications are the charms and blessings I designed to protect the people from the skull’s effects enabled those cultists to remain lucid enough to do significant harm, rather than blindly lashing out as chaos cultists always have. In addition to the damage to Veilgrad and its people, that has drawn the attention of the Empire.”

“That, though, could be useful by itself,” Rouvad said slowly. “If those same blessings can be used for agents of the Church… If there is ever another major chaos incident, they could protect our people, keep them functional.”

“Perhaps,” Justinian mused. “Regardless, I will have to meditate at length on a proper penance for myself; I have unquestionably caused harm to innocents with this. I badly misjudged the risks involved. Still… From all these events I feel I have learned something of great value.”

He turned again to gaze out through the glass wall over the rooftops of Tiraas. “In Veilgrad, a class from the University at Last Rock were hard at work interfering with my plans. And I note that one of the first actions undertaken by Darling’s group was to visit Last Rock itself. Everywhere I turn, Arachne Tellwyrn’s fingers dabble in my affairs. Just as they nearly upended Lor’naris last year, and Sarasio months before.”

“That’s…sort of a fact of life, isn’t it, your Holiness?” Rouvad said carefully. “There’s just not much that can be done about Tellwyrn. That’s the whole point of her.”

“No power is absolute, Nassir,” Justinian said softly. “Be they archmages, gods, or empires. They only have the appearance of absolute power because the people agree that they do. Such individuals live in fear of the masses discovering that they do not need to tolerate their overlords. Every tyrant can be brought down.

“I was always going to have to deal with Tellywrn sooner or later. We cannot rid the world of its last destructive adventurers when she is spewing out another score of them every year—to say nothing of her specifically elitist methods of recruitment. She targets those already most powerful and dangerous and equips them to be even worse. No… Arachne Tellwyrn must be dealt with.”

He nodded slowly to himself, staring into the distant sky. “If she insists on making herself a more urgent priority… So be it.”

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“Nothing?” Trissiny shouted. “You cannot be serious! The Tiraan Empire can do nothing?”

“If you want to take this up with the Emperor, General Avelea, that’s your prerogative, though I can’t say I’d advise it.” Colonel Adjavegh was not a diplomatic man; the effort he was putting into being patient with his guests had become increasingly evident in his tone throughout the conversation, which had not helped Trissiny’s mood. “I, however, am required to follow the law. And the fact is, Lord Sherwin Leduc has not broken any laws.”

“He was keeping a woman in a cage!” Trissiny snapped, planting her fists on his desk and leaning over it. “His stated purpose—”

“Yes, we know!” Adjavegh interrupted. “Frankly, Avelea, we don’t need to hear it again! But the situation is entirely changed by the fact that Leduc’s alleged victim was a demon!”

“Alleged?!”

“No one doubts your word, General Avelea,” Major Razsha said calmly. She stood beside the desk, positioning herself as a neutral party between Trissiny and Adjavegh, with the other three members of her strike team seated behind her on the Colonel’s couch. “The issue, as Colonel Adjavegh has pointed out, is about laws. All crimes are alleged until a conviction has been rendered, which I’m afraid won’t happen in this case.”

“I have absolutely no trouble believing you, to be frank,” the Colonel said, finally displaying open asperity in his tone. “The Leduc boy has always been a weird little twit, even by the standards of his family. That he would summon a demon and try to brainwash it for sexual purposes, while gross in every possible way, seems quite in character.”

“Her,” Gabriel commented idly, “not it.”

“Yes, of course,” said Adjavegh, back to being overtly patient. Behind him, his aide coughed discreetly, which he ignored. “The point is, no actual laws have been broken. Leduc has all the relevant permits for his activities, both the hereditary permissions House Leduc procured years ago and his own. He’s actually quite scrupulous about keeping everything up-to-date with the Imperial government.”

“That’s characteristic of intelligent people who don’t want their business pried into,” said the Major with a humorless smile.

“Of all the adjectives I could apply to that guy,” Gabriel said, “’intelligent’ is way down the list. I swear he either has a death wish or an actual mental disability.”

“Again, that’s consistent with what I know of him,” Adjavegh snorted, “but lordlings always have a crew of buzzing lawyers and managers to be intelligent on their behalf.”

“Needless to say,” Razsha continued, “he did not have permission to summon a succubus. The Empire doesn’t give permits for that. But since by your own description he didn’t manage to do it, and any evidence of the attempt is long gone, I’m afraid there’s little point in pursuing that matter. There also aren’t permits available to summon a…what was it called again?”

“A Rhaazke,” said Drust from the couch behind her. His Strike Corps insignia had an orange background, marking him the warlock of the team.

“Right. The problem there is there aren’t any actual laws covering those, and you yourselves have indicated it was an accident. Since he apparently summoned the creature into an incredibly secure facility, it’s doubtful he could even be charged with reckless misuse of infernal magic.”

“Which is actually quite impressive,” Drust noted. “You can almost always charge warlocks with reckless misuse. They’re almost always guilty of it.”

“If Leduc had done this to any woman of a mortal race, Imperial citizen or no, I’d have him in a cell before his fancy lawyers could so much as blink.” Colonel Adjavegh folded his arms on his desk, staring pointedly at Trissiny’s fists until she got the hint and acknowledged it, removing them and straightening back up. “Hell, I could almost wish he had managed to acquire a succubus, since I could throw his skinny ass in a cell for that.”

“If he had acquired a succubus,” Toby said dryly, “he would probably be dead and she on the loose by now.”

“I said almost,” Adjavegh grunted. “The reality of the situation is that demons don’t get protection under the law. They can’t; it’s simply not possible to treat them as you would a mortal, they are too aggressive and unstable by nature. General Avelea, I think I can appreciate how this matter must place your priorities into conflict. Seeing that degenerate little twerp trying to forcibly enslave a woman of any race had to be even more galling than hearing about it is. But if there is one person I would expect to understand both the needs of justice and the need to apply different rules to demons than people, it’s you.”

Trissiny drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“What we can do is watch Leduc a lot more carefully from now on,” Adjavegh continued, keeping his eyes intently on her face. “A paladin’s testimony counts for a lot; I believe this constitutes probable cause. If you’re willing to give me a written statement I bet I can get scrying authorized. Since he didn’t get his succubus and, as you say, he suffers from an appalling lack of sense, he’s likely to try again, at which point I can stick the little shit in a dungeon to rot.”

“We’d be glad to,” Toby said pointedly, his eyes also on Trissiny.

She nodded. “Yes. Of course. My apologies, Colonel. You’re right; this is…jarring. I hate having seen the man do something like that and have to just accept it.”

“Well, I do appreciate you bringing this story to me,” Adjavegh continued, leaning back in his chair and folding his hands in his lap. “There are apparently several points that we need to discuss more urgently, beginning with this demon. First of all, I would like to speak with your archdemon friend; this whole matter is difficult enough to believe, coming secondhand. If it were anybody but you three coming to me with this story, I doubt I could make myself swallow it.”

“That’s very kind of you, Colonel,” Gabriel said sweetly. “A paladin’s life is service, after all.”

“We don’t speak for Vadrieny,” Toby interjected hastily, “but I can’t imagine she’d object. We’ll pass that to her today.”

“Thank you,” the Colonel said, nodding. “In the meantime, there’s the matter of what to do with this creature. Having an exotic demon running loose isn’t an option, obviously.”

“She’s hardly loose,” said Toby. “Our group is keeping an eye on her when we’re at the manor. As is Malivette, I understand.”

“You don’t know?” Adjavegh said, frowning.

“We came right here from Grusser’s house this morning; there hasn’t been time to fully catch up with the girls,” Gabriel explained.

“In fact,” said Trissiny, “Malivette seems even better at keeping her under control than we are.”

“That’s all well and good,” said the Colonel, frowning, “but from an official perspective…”

“Actually,” Major Razsha said, calm as ever, “from an official perspective a Hand of Avei’s custody is adequate; neither Army regulation nor Imperial law require anything further to keep a demon. The addition of two more paladins, to to mention the rest of their group, is just icing on the cake, as it were.”

Adjavegh gave her a dark look. “Thank you, Major.”

“My pleasure, Colonel,” she said with a faint smile.

In the ensuing silence, the other three members of Razsha’s strike team sprouted matching smiles, Toby half-turned to divide a warning look between Trissiny and Gabriel, and Adjavegh’s aide, Corporal Timms, raised an eyebrow, but did not otherwise break composure. This was not the first time since the paladins had arrived that the Major had subtly reminded the Colonel that the Strike Corps did not answer to him. That strongly suggested it was a running issue in this barracks, and one they would be better off not involving themselves in.

“I would still appreciate as much information as you can give me on this,” Adjavegh continued after a moment, finally tearing his dour stare from Raszha’s face. “These creatures are wholly unknown; we have enough troubles in Veilgrad without having unknowns running around. As it is, the information we have on this demon could be entirely made up by your friend, for all I know. That’s not an accusation, of course.”

“I know of Rhaazke,” Drust piped up. He shrugged when everyone turned to stare at him. “Not much, of course. They’re the stuff of myth and legend, but the basics are known, and consistent with what the paladins have already told us. Both physically and magically powerful, mentally and emotionally stable thanks to Elilial’s intervention, residents of the unreachable sub-dimension hellhounds come from.”

“If this place is so unreachable,” Adjavegh said skeptically, “how in blazes do you know of it?”

“Summoning a hellhound is sort of an ultimate quest for extremely skilled and powerful warlocks,” Drust replied with a smile. “It’s actually quite simple in concept and damn near impossible in practice: you have to go through a hellgate, perform the summoning in Hell itself, and come back with your hellhound. It’s been attempted by a number of people but achieved by precious few. There are also accounts by individuals who failed in their effort but made it back from Hell; those are usually the ones who fell afoul of the Rhaazke. According to the accounts, Rhaazke like poachers even less than demons in general do.”

“That seems like an improbable amount of trouble to go through for a pet,” said the Colonel.

Drust shrugged. “If you have a source of hellhound breath you can basically consider yourself richer than Verniselle’s bookie. Any well-read warlock can confirm the existence of Rhaazke, but nothing more about them except that they are even less to be trifled with than the other denizens of the infernal plane. I would give Simmons’s left nut to interview this creature.”

“I insist that you leave me out of your fantasies,” said Simmons, the cleric in their team. Drust grinned at him.

“It might be best if as few people as possible bother her,” Trissiny said, scowling. “She’s had a difficult time on this plane, as I’m sure you can imagine, and the fact of her origins means we don’t yet have a plan to send her back. The less she’s agitated, the better.”

“That, at least, I agree with,” Adjavegh said with a sigh. “This demon, she has a name?”

“It’s hard to say,” Toby replied.

“What, you didn’t ask?” The Colonel raised an eyebrow.

“No, I mean, it’s hard to say,” Toby repeated.

“It’s a name in Demonic,” Gabriel added. “Sounds like a mouthful of spitting and gargling to me, and apparently if you get it wrong you’ve declared a feud. We’ve just been letting Vadrieny and Malivette handle her; it’s not like she speaks any Tanglish anyway.”

Adjavegh sighed heavily, rubbing the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger.

“In any case,” said Major Razsha, folding her hand behind her back, “the theory that Veilgrad’s troubles were chaos-related is one we’ve been seriously considering. In fact, it has been a leading theory, as the sudden presence of chaos cultists is highly correlated with such events elsewhere. I think we can now consider that theory confirmed.”

“You’re certain?” Adjavegh asked wearily, looking up at her from between his fingers.

She nodded, her expression grim. “The spell to summon a child of Vanislaas is nigh-impossible to botch; it is designed so that a Vanislaad can compensate for any errors from the other end if their attention is caught by even a partial summons. They are quite eager to have access to this dimension. More to the point, accessing the Rhaazke plane from here is utterly impossible. A chaos effect is the only conceivable explanation for that demon being brought by Leduc’s summons.”

“Then I trust this is all you need to search Leduc Manor for that, at least?” Trissiny said sharply. “Being the most distinctive effect yet seen, surely that indicates the manor is the likely location.”

“That’s, uh, not really how that works, Trissiny,” said Gabriel.

“Indeed,” Razsha nodded. “If anything, this all but conclusively rules out Leduc Manor as the source of the chaos rift.”

“What?” Trissiny exclaimed. “How?”

“Think about it,” said Gabriel. “There were lots of infernal spell effects at work in that place. We fried a bunch of them ourselves. They seemed to be working correctly.”

“That is the long and the short of it,” the Major agreed. “One spell of Leduc’s going wrong due to chaos means there is a chaos effect active…well, somewhere. If it had been on the grounds, everything he did would have dramatically misfired. That would have drawn attention long since. No, the existence of a practicing warlock who’s had only one major misfire pretty conclusively means the source of chaos isn’t in or near the Manor.”

“Where, then?” Adjavegh demanded. “Can we narrow it down at all?”

“Not from this information alone,” Razsha mused, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. “A single effect tells us almost nothing; the rift could be on the other side of the planet and cause that. Chaos is…chaotic. Unpredictable by definition. The other troubles cropping up in Veilgrad strongly suggest it is somewhere in the vicinity, though.”

“Chaos cults,” said Toby, frowning, “undead incidents, generally increased aggression in the populace…”

“Don’t forget the werewolves,” Trissiny added.

“They’ve always lived in the hills nearby,” said Adjavegh. “The Shaathists keep an eye on them; we had maybe one problem every five years up till now. No confirmed attacks yet since this started, but they’ve been howling non-stop, which means they’re transforming even though the moon isn’t full. It’s only a matter of time before there is an incident.”

“And other unknowns,” added Razsha. “People have disappeared in the mountains nearby, lately. That could be anything at all. No, the chaos is focused here. Unfortunately…that doesn’t even mean it’s located here.”

“Are you kidding?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“It probably is,” the Major clarified. “But I know of one incident of a chaos rift opening and, for some reason, causing all of its effects in a concentrated area hundreds of miles away.”

“I think I know the one you’re thinking of,” added Drust. “There’s at least one other. There’s a precedent.”

“Wonderful,” Trissiny growled.

“With some certainty that it is a chaos effect,” Razsha continued, “I can begin scrying protocols. You can’t find chaos directly, but it’s possible to use a straightforward search grid. Scry at locations in a pattern covering the region; odd are good any that attempt to target the source of the chaos will be disrupted, which tells us more precisely where to look.”

“That sounds time-consuming,” the Colonel said, frowning.

“It’s a standard search grid,” Razsha admitted, “so yes, it is. Less so than quartering the ground on foot, but still… Targeted scrying effects take time to set up. I’ll need to requisition additional personnel from Tiraas in order to do this on any kind of schedule. We’re talking about days to check the city, in the best case scenario. Weeks if we have to search the whole province, maybe more. That’s based on my best guess of how may scryers the Army will spare me.”

“You’ll be limited to arcane scrying for this,” said Teloris, the strike team’s witch. “I am not sending my spirits after a chaos rift. The risk to them is catastrophic.”

“I will also be sending people to search Leduc Manor on general principles,” the Colonel added with an expression of dark satisfaction. “Between your report on his activities and the occurrence of one chaos effect on the grounds, I believe I’ve got reason enough to stand up to an inquiry. May or may not find anything useful, but I highly doubt anyone is going to object to me keeping eyes on Sherwin bloody Leduc.”

“No one who matters, anyway,” the Major agreed with an amused little smile.

“You keep saying it’s a rift,” Toby noted. “Could it be something else? An artifact, a person?”

“Very unlikely,” said Razsha. “Not impossible—with chaos, nothing can be really ruled out—but those are vanishingly rare. Chaos usually comes from a dimensional rift. Its source is outside the dimensions.”

“You’ll keep us informed?” Trissiny said pointedly.

“Of course we will,” the Major said quickly before Adjavegh could speak. “With a matter like this, I definitely want as much help as possible.”

“We would also like to interview any of the chaos cultists you may still have imprisoned,” she added, fixing her stare on the Colonel.

“I don’t see the harm in it,” he said after a moment. “They’re not here, though. The Imperial prison is across the city.”

“Seems inefficient, doesn’t it?” Gabriel noted.

“Not really,” said Trissiny. “There’s some overlap between the functions of prisons and military bases, but they’re meant to do different things. And in the event of a mass escape, it’s not ideal for convicts to have access to military hardware.”

“I will send a message to the Warden authorizing you to speak with the prisoners in question,” said Adjavegh, half-turning in his chair to nod at Corporal Timms. “Paladins or no, that’s one thing you can’t just walk in and do without official permission.”

“We greatly appreciate that, sir,” said Toby.

“In the meantime,” said Major Razsha, “please tell every magic-user in your party—which I gather is most of you—to be extremely careful. Chaos causes magic to go wrong. I’ll expect any sharing of information to go both ways.”

“Of course,” Toby said quickly. “The more of us are working together on this, the faster we can sort it out.”

“Right,” the Colonel said more briskly. “If there’s nothing else, Timms will escort you out. Give me an hour to notify the prison; after that you should have no trouble there. Make sure at least one of you three are part of any group sent to interview the cultists. The Warden isn’t going to open his doors to just any gaggle of exotic teenagers.”

“We’ll send you a message at Dufresne Manor if we learn anything constructive,” added Major Razsha. “You can reach us here.”

“We will,” Toby promised. “Thanks for all the help, both of you.”

Timms was already at the door to the office, holding it open for them and standing impassively at attention, an inescapable hint. Trissiny paused to salute the strike team before following the others out.

“I cannot believe that little toad is just going to get away with this,” she growled to herself as the corporal led them through the barracks.

“They’ll be watching him,” Gabriel said comfortingly. “That guy is just dumb enough to try his scheme again, no matter what Juniper said to him. This time, hopefully the Empire will catch him at it. I get you, though,” he added more thoughtfully. “It would be really satisfying if we could just go back there and punch his stupid face a few times.”

“You hold him, I’ll punch.”

“It’s a date,” he said, grinning. “You’ve probably got a better arm, anyway.” Toby sighed heavily.

“The laws exist for good reasons,” said Timms. “Unfortunate that those good reasons result in a rich bastard getting away with something vile, but that tends to be the case.” She paused at the front doors of the barracks, turning to them with a smile and idly rolling a doubloon across the backs of her fingers, in stark contrast to her stiff bearing in the Colonel’s office. “All systems are corrupt—that doesn’t mean you abandon the systems, just that you sometimes have to work around them. Be sure to visit us again, General, gentlemen. Especially if you want help doing that.”

She made the coin vanish up her sleeve, saluted them, then turned and strode off back the way they had come, leaving the three paladins staring after her.

“All systems…” Gabriel frowned. “I’ve heard that somewhere before. What’s that from?”

“That,” said Trissiny, still staring after the corporal, “is one more complication here. I’ll explain when we meet the others back at the safe house.”

“Yeah,” Toby said slowly, “we need to catch up with everyone on how the demon’s doing, anyway. Thanks for coming straight here, by the way; I expected you to at least bring Shaeine along.”

“I think Triss had the right idea,” said Gabriel. “The three of us have some standing with the Army, and the Colonel didn’t enjoy having our noses stuck into his business anyway. The less he has to deal with the others, I think, the better.”

“We have a lot to talk about when we all reconvene,” Trissiny said, turning to go. “I still haven’t told everyone about the night I had, either.”


 

It was warm and peaceful, rather pleasant. Strange, then, the sense he had from the moment consciousness began to return, the feeling that something was wrong. He felt groggy, but not unhappily so. More or less as one should feel after awakening. Which was odd, as he was normally quite alert upon rising.

His eyes drifted open. Stone ceiling overhead—this wasn’t his room… Oh, right. Svenheim. He was studying…

“Well, there he is! Morning, sunshine.”

Memory crashed down upon him all at once, and Yornhaldt sat bolt upright in bed.

“Easy, there!” cautioned the man seated on a stool at his bedside. “Glad you’re feeling chipper, old fellow, but you got quite a dose of katzil venom. Luckily my man Bradshaw pumped you full of antivenom almost immediately, or you’d be doing a lot worse. You know how it is with infernal poisons—the longer it has to work, the nastier the lingering effects. There you go, take your time.”

He did just that, finding himself in no immediate danger. The speaker was unfamiliar to him: human, Western, apparently in later middle age, of a gangly build and wearing a white suit with a matching flat-brimmed hat pulled down almost over his eyes. The other men in the room were more familiar to Yornhaldt. Another human stood by the door in a gray robe; Yornhaldt had seen his face only momentarily, but it had stuck in his mind, considering the man had just jabbed him with a syringe.

In the far corner of the room was the dwarf who had attacked him, bound with cords and chains, from which glyphed ribbons of paper hung. Well, that made sense; one didn’t try to imprison a magic-user with strictly mundane methods. The dwarf glared daggers at him, but didn’t try to speak. A tightly-bound strip of cloth held a gag in his mouth anyway.

They were in a bedroom, unfamiliar to Yornhaldt and generally nondescript. There were no personal touches of any kind; it had the aspect of an inn room, neat but starkly plain.

“All right,” he said slowly after a moment. “This is altogether surprising. Does someone mind filling me in?”

“Gladly!” said the man in the white suit, his grin a gleaming slash in his dark face. “My name is Embras Mogul; I have the honor of leading Elilial’s followers on the mortal plane.”

“I see,” Yornhaldt said neutrally, glancing between Mogul and the other warlock. He wondered what would happen if he tried to call up a spell. Probably something swift and bad for his health.

“Over there by the door,” Mogul continued cheerfully, “is Bradshaw, who came to your rescue in the library. And this chap, well, we haven’t got much out of him just yet. That’ll come in time, of course, though frankly I believe we can deduce all the relevant particulars from the situation.”

“Can you?” Yornhaldt asked warily.

“Well, let’s review, shall we?” Mogul tilted his head back so his eyes were finally visible beneath his hat, and winked. “Here we have the good Professor Alaric Yornhaldt, probably the single most inoffensive person affiliated with the University at Last Rock. You’re a man without enemies, a moderating influence on your peers and widely beloved by your students. As such, not only are you unlikely to be the target of a personal attack, but anyone using you to get at Professor Tellwyrn would be far too screwy in the head to mobilize a careful strategy like this one. The vengeance that would descend upon such a fool would be apocalyptic.”

“You flatter me,” Yornhaldt said carefully, “and in fact may be overstating the case. Arachne has managed to antagonize a number of very unstable people. One might argue that’s the inevitable result of her being in their vicinity.”

“Ah, well, perhaps I indulge in a bit of hyperbole,” Mogul said airily, waving a hand. “You take my point. We can assume with some certainty, then, that this is not a personal matter. Especially since we have a much more likely motive! You’ve been looking into some very particular and very hidden knowledge, my friend—alignments, histories, powers and secrets that all point toward the culmination of the Elder Wars eight thousand years ago. The greatest mystery of the modern world: apotheosis. A person who’d been following your efforts might conclude you were trying to puzzle out how to make a god.”

There was silence in the room for a long moment, Yornhaldt staring mutely at his smiling host.

“Or, I suppose, unmake one,” Mogul finally mused. “There was some of both going on at that point in history. Either way, I can think of few organizations that might take exception to your research, and none of them are local. The dwarves are admirably self-motivated folk, I find, not overly concerned with gods and religions. There’s the Order of Light, of course—in fact, they’re headquartered not far from here! But that theory is busted by the fact that this fellow,” he pointed at the bound dwarf, “is not merely a cleric, but a holy summoner. The Order, being generally sensible people, do not mess about with demons, and in fact put a swift stop to that foolishness wherever they find it. Go on, you can say it, I promise I’ll not take offense.”

“No need,” Yornhaldt demurred. “I flatter myself that I’m well-read enough to know the Wreath don’t deal with demons indiscriminately.”

“Splendid!” Mogul grinned broadly at him. “So we’re looking for someone interested in suppressing inquiry into the origin of the gods, who uses divine power to control diabolic forces and isn’t affiliated with the Kingdom of Svenheim, who gave you specific permission to root through their archives after this. Someone who, furthermore, is confident enough in their own power to risk the wrath of the great and terrible Tellwyrn if it means shutting you up. Do correct me if I’ve missed a candidate, but that seems to point at no one but the Universal Church of the Pantheon. Anything to add, there, friend?” he said, turning to the prisoner. The summoner simply transferred his glare to the warlock, making no attempt to speak around his gag, nor signal a desire to.

“That’s…a theory,” Yornhaldt acknowledged. “I trust you’ll pardon me if I don’t take your word for it.”

“My dear fellow, I would be sadly disappointed if you did. You’re a man of science, after all—you seek your own answers. There are few things I admire more.”

Yornhaldt glanced once more between Mogul and Bradshaw. “Putting that aside, there seems to be another pressing question. Why would you, of all people, help me? Even if it was the Church behind this, I see no motive here besides ‘the enemy of my enemy.’ Which, if you’ll pardon my saying it, doesn’t seem to justify going to this kind of effort.”

“Why, it’s quite simple,” Mogul said, smiling blandly. “We want you to succeed.”

“You do?” Yornhaldt blinked.

“My people have had eyes on you almost from the beginning,” Mogul informed him. “It was only a matter of time before someone cottoned on to what you were after and tried to put a stop to it. Pursuant to that, Professor, it appears you’d achieved something of a breakthrough just before this regrettable business kicked off. Not to tell you how to run your affairs, but I will suggest this is an excellent time to head back to Last Rock and share what you’ve got so far. Once Tellwyrn is in on your findings, the cat’s out of the bag—there’ll be no further point in anyone coming after you.”

“I will take that under advisement.”

“Do,” Mogul said, rising and stretching languidly. “Anyhow! I’ve taken the liberty of making some preparations for you. Your suit, I’m sorry to say, was rather the worse for wear after your little misadventure. We’ve got a replacement hanging in the wardrobe there, for you. Not a tailored fit, but it should suffice. You’ll find your shoes in there as well—those were fine, fortunately. My people also rescued your books and papers. Both those you were carrying, and those you’d left in your rooms. Sorry for the presumption, but it was very likely somebody would try to destroy them.” He leaned over and patted the nightstand. “In the drawers, here. They have not been tampered with, though I fear your rather obscure filing system might have been disrupted by the simple act of moving them.”

“They were all over every surface,” Bradshaw noted with a smile. “Even the bed. Anyway, there’s another matter.” He reached into his robed, pulled out a bottle, and almost immediately dropped it.

Mogul dived across the room with astonishing agility, snagging the bottle before it struck the floor.

“Augh…thanks, Embras,” Bradshaw said, lowering his shaking hand. “Sorry.”

“No harm done, old friend,” Mogul said, straightening up and patting him on the shoulder.

“I say, is he quite all right?” Yornhaldt asked, frowning. He had noticed only then that Bradshaw had a persistent tremor in his left hand—luckily, not the one with which he’d applied the syringe.

“It’s just a spot of major nerve damage,” Bradshaw said dismissively. “A little souvenir from my recent stint as the Archpope’s guest.”

“I keep telling him to take some time off and let the healers do their jobs,” Mogul said, frowning at him. “It’s like talking to a particularly stubborn wall.”

“Hard to sit on my ass while the people who do things like this are sitting on thrones,” Bradshaw said curtly.

“Anyhow,” Mogul continued, pausing to pat Bradshaw’s shoulder again before turning and lightly tossing the bottle onto Yornhaldt’s bed, “that’s another supply of antivenom. A specific one for katzil bites, rather than the general anti-infernal Bradshaw gave you. The syringe is better of emergency doses, of course, but that can be taken orally. I’m afraid the taste is quite appalling; there was nothing to be done about that, sorry.”

“You should be fine, given some time and rest,” Bradshaw added. “Still, infernal venoms are tricky; you might have recurring issues for a few weeks. I trust a man of your education knows the symptoms of infernal corruption; be watchful for them. Take one teaspoon if you notice any, and no less than four hours between doses. I recommend you seek out a witch or shaman as soon as you’re able for a more comprehensive healing than we could provide. Avoid divine healers for now; exposing the light to any lingering traces of the venom can cause tissue damage.”

“And with all that out of the way,” Mogul said, striding across the room to the prisoner, “we’ll leave your fate in your own capable hands, Professor. Pardon us for rushing off like this, but there’s always so much to do, and not enough hours in the day! We’ll keep our eyes on you till you’re back at Last Rock, just in case someone decides to have another go.”

“I…ah…thank you,” Yornhaldt said weakly.

“Not at all, think nothing of it! As you pointed out, old fellow…the enemy of my enemy.” Mogul winked again and tipped his hat. “Never stop seeking the truth, Professor. The truth is what will set us all free.”

He casually gathered up a fistful of the captured dwarf’s coat, and then the shadows swelled up around them. A similar effect washed over Bradshaw, and a moment later, Yornhaldt was alone.

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“Well, at least we didn’t have to have coffee,” Merry said.

“Are you still going on about this?” Ephanie exclaimed. “You lost a few hours of sleep. By tomorrow, it will be like it never happened.”

“Now, Avelea, keep in mind your squadron duties,” Principia said solemnly. “Lang is the designated complainer. She can’t do her job if you’re going to be all reasonable about stuff.”

Merry rolled her eyes. “I can do my job just fine, unless you take a vow of silence, Sarge.”

“Indoor voice, Lang,” Principia replied calmly. “You know I like to keep things casual, but you can’t be flouting the chain of command in public.”

Merry hesitated at that, glancing back at the parade ground from which they had just retreated. Most of the other squads were also trickling back to their cabins, though Squad Three were on cleanup duty. None appeared to be in earshot. Not human earshot, anyway.

“Sorry, ma’am,” Merry said anyway. She didn’t quite manage a tone of authentic contrition, but also didn’t sound sarcastic or bitter, for once. Principia gave her a sly half-smile which brought a scowl in return. A silent scowl.

“Goddess bless LQ,” Farah groaned, setting her helmet down on the bench set up outside their cabin and pouring herself a glass from the pitcher of water laid out waiting for them. Beads of condensation wreathed it, testifying to its temperature. Though the weather wasn’t hot by any means, chilled water was a treasured luxury after their drill, and until the recent shakeup in the cohort’s leadership, would have been an undreamed one.

Their new quartermaster, one of the lieutenants Dijanerad had brought in, was indeed a gift from the goddess, or so the soldiers saw her. She was clever enough to obtain things like ice that would normally not be part of their budget, thoughtful enough to do so and efficient enough to have things like this ready and waiting, leaving no other sign of her passing. The Ninth Cohort, being city-stationed and still somewhat under strength, was far from the best-equipped in the Legion, but they got remarkable mileage from what they did have.

“Mm hm,” Principia agreed, standing to one side and studying the corner of their cabin in silence. Casey gave her an odd look in passing, before joining the others around the bench. In addition to chilled water, there were towels—slightly threadbare, which probably explained how LQ had obtained them—a welcome touch as they wouldn’t have time to bathe properly before mess. “Can I help you with something?”

The others paused, looking up at her uncertainly; she was still watching the edge of the building, rather than them.

Then someone stepped around the corner and bowed.

“Forgive me,” she said smoothly. It was a very distinctive voice, cultured, accented and slightly raspy. “I of course did not wish to disrupt your practice. Though I am no judge, it is very impressive to see you at work. Your unit is like a finely-tuned machine.”

“Are you lost?” Principia asked mildly. “The temple complex, where you’ll find the priestesses, is immediately reached from Imperial Square. That’s also where you’d go first to enlist. Sorry, I’m at a loss what else a person might want in the Legion’s grounds.”

“Actually, my business is personal,” the young woman said with a calm smile. She kept her hands folded demurely in front of her, a picture of nonthreatening goodwill, but the rest of Squad One slowly straightened up nonetheless, putting down towels and cups. Each still had a lance in hand, due to the lack of a place to set them and the presence on the grounds of Captain Dijanerad, who had vivid opinions on the subject of weapons casually lying around like toys. “Lord Zanzayed is most eager to speak further with you, Ms. Locke.”

“Not to quibble,” Principia said, “but under the circumstances it would customarily be Sergeant Locke.”

“Of course, of course, forgive me,” the woman replied smoothly. “It is difficult to know, in an unfamiliar situation, which of a person’s aliases they wish to use, is it not? I thought perhaps I would gain Keys’s attention faster than the Sergeant’s, but decided upon a middle ground.”

“And…you are?” Principia asked, staring her down.

She bowed again. “My name is Saduko. I am both pleased and honored to make your acquaintance.”

“Yes, sure,” Principia said, raising an eyebrow. “But who are you?”

The young Sifanese woman smiled, and this time there was something subtly gleeful in the expression beneath the courtesy. “Well. The word translates poorly, but on this continent, they call me Gimmick.”

“And now you’re carrying messages for the dragons,” Principia mused.

“For one dragon,” Saduko said modestly. “I do not presume to reach above my station.”

“You work fast,” Principia noted. “This is quite a promotion from serving canapes.”

“Ah, so you did notice me,” she replied demurely. “How very flattering. I am merely a humble messenger, however. It is Lord Zanzayed who craves the honor of your company.”

“Lord Zanzayed knows how to reach Bishop Shahai, I’m sure. In fact, there are numerous official channels to her. That would be a great deal easier than getting someone in here to talk to me.”

“It is not for me to ponder the motives or desires of my employers,” Saduko said with a self-effacing smile. “But perhaps his lordship has not sought out the Bishop because he wishes, specifically, to speak with you. I understand why, if I may say so. You have…quite the reputation, in various quarters.”

“Form and stand!” Principia barked. Immediately, her squad made a line extending from her left, standing at attention, lances in hand and planted on the ground. Saduko reflexively stepped back from them, only the faintest flicker of uncertainty passing across her expression, quickly mastered.

“Who let you in here?” Principia asked quietly.

“I’m not sure I understand…Sergeant,” Saduko replied, her calm smile returning. “The gates are not closed.”

“The gates are attended, and the guards do not admit just anyone to a military facility. They would definitely not have sent you here to give a personal message to a non-commissioned officer who is on duty. So, Gimmick, did you gain entry to these grounds on false pretenses, or did you just sneak in?”

“That, with all respect, is poor form, Keys,” Saduko replied. Her polite smile was still in place, but her tone had become noticeably cooler. In fact, it seemed to worsen the slight rasp in her voice. “One does not interrogate a fellow professional as to her methods. You have surely lived long enough by the Big Guy’s example to know better.”

“You are, depending on what you think is going on here, either failing to respect my cover or maliciously interfering with my personal life,” Principia barked. “You see these armed, unamused-looking women? They are shortly going to expel you from the grounds, and let me assure you, Saduko, this is the kinder approach from where I’m standing. I can believe Zanzayed might have told you to do this, in which case someone is going to correct his manners in due time, but I know damn well the Guild didn’t send you. In fact, considering their arrangements with the Sisterhood concerning individuals involved in both cults, I also know they aren’t aware you are doing this, and if I really wanted to harm you, I would tell them. I don’t, so I won’t. At this time.”

“I see.” Saduko’s smile had faded, though her expression was still calm. “I apologize, Sergeant, for my misstep; I had honestly hoped we would get along better. There is no need for weapons; I can find my own way out.”

“You can find it faster with help,” Prin said flatly. “Squad, escort this young lady—politely—to the exterior gate.”

All four saluted crisply and moved forward, forming a four-point formation around Saduko. They stood a touch too close to be mistaken for an honor guard.

“This way, if you please,” Ephanie said firmly to their uninvited guest.

Saduko paused to bow deeply to Principia. “I look forward to seeing you again, Sergeant, under more congenial circumstances. Is there a message I may carry back to Lord Zanzayed?”

“If his mother didn’t teach him manners, it’s certainly not your job or mine,” Principia said dryly. “Forward march.”

Saduko didn’t force Squad One to subject her to the indignity of a manhandling; she began moving when they did, though the first few steps were backward as she kept an appraising stare on Principia. She turned, though, and strode calmly along with her head high. By her manner, one might have thought the four soldiers were an honor guard.

Principia let out a sigh as they retreated toward the gate, finally turning around and saluting Captain Dijanerad, who stood a few yards distant.

“Why,” the Captain asked, “Locke, is it always you?”

“I am a very interesting person, Captain,” Prin replied. “If you’ll forgive my absence from the mess, I think I had better go report this posthaste.”

“Bishop Shahai is dining with the High Commander, as it happens,” said Dijanerad. “Do you think this is important enough to interrupt their lunch?”

“I’ve got a dragon apparently interested in me, ma’am,” Principia replied. “It’s at least important enough to go stand outside until they’re done.”

“I can’t really argue with that,” the Captain said with a faint smile. “Your squad knows how to attend their duties in your absence?”

“That hurts, Captain,” Prin said reproachfully. “Really. I thought we were friends.”

Dijanerad’s lips twitched in poorly suppressed amusement. “Dismissed, Locke. And don’t joke with the High Commander. I believe you know her opinion of your sense of humor.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said solemnly, saluting again and turning to stride off toward the temple. She waited until she was well out of earshot of the parade grounds to indulge in a scowl and mutter to herself. “Got me barking orders and having Eserites thrown out… Omnu’s breath, these bloody women are turning me into one of ’em.”


 

It wasn’t a large square, nor was it in a central location, being skewed far toward the northwest wall of the city, but this was by far the most crowded and lively place they had yet seen in Veilgrad. Much of that, of course, was due to the thriving market taking place here. Stalls ringed the buildings facing the square itself, wooden affairs sheltered only by canvas awnings, but despite their lack of walls none of them appeared to be temporary structures. Their posts and boards are as sturdy as anything else in town, and many were as carefully polished and carved. Several had stovepipes running from cast iron stoves which, though not now lit, would become very important when winter rolled down from the Stalrange.

Aside from the economic value of Stosshlein Square, the place clearly had cultural value. The buildings framing it were tall stone structures ringed by battlements, one of which was topped with floors in a more decorative style—like the central keep in which Grusser lived, it resembled a sprawling cottage planted atop a fortress. The other two were just fortresses. They were actually guild halls now, each hosting several craft and trading houses, but had originally been made for war. From the very center of the square rose a tall column atop which sat a statue of a man in armor astride a rearing horse. To judge by the style of his armor, this commemorated a Tiraan warrior, though they had seen other memorials to Stalweiss heroes as they passed through the city. Veilgrad clearly honored every part of its complex history.

It was easy to appreciate Stosshlein Square from their current vantage; not only did they have a fantastic view, but they were distanced from the press of people going about their daily business. The larger, more complex of the structures bordering the square had a pub on its upper floor which had a wide terrace looming over the square itself. It was a lovely day to sit outdoors and enjoy a cup of tea, sunny and with a slight wind.

“Trissiny, I have a question and I’m concerned it’ll make me sound conceited,” Fross confessed in a low tone, hovering close to Trissiny’s ear. At some point she had finally learned to control her volume.

“Well, go ahead and ask,” the paladin said with a smile. “I know you well enough to know you aren’t actually conceited.”

“Thanks! Well, it’s… I mean, everywhere we go, people kinda make a big deal of us, don’t they?”

Trissiny nodded, keeping her gaze on the view over the battlements and the square below. “Yes, I’ve noticed. I think I see where this is going.”

“It’s just that…we’re a paladin and a pixie. I mean, those are both unusual sights, right? And it’s pretty crowded around here. Does it seem weird to you that no one’s come over to talk to us?”

Deliberately, but unhurriedly, Trissiny turned slightly in her chair, glancing back at the pub. Its front wall was an ingenious structure of wooden panels on hinges attached to tracks in the floor and ceiling; it could be folded back entirely to made a single open space leading from within to the balcony. Now, at her gaze, over a dozen people abruptly turned away, devoting themselves intently to their own drinks and conversations. None of the tables immediately adjacent to the one they’d chosen were occupied.

“I think,” Trissiny said softly, “it’s common knowledge where we are staying.”

“Yeah…I had a feeling that might be it,” Fross said. “Well…shoot. I hope this isn’t going to cause us trouble later.”

“Me, too.”

The pixie swooped over the table once, seemingly just for something to do, before coming back to hover near Trissiny again. “Well, anyway, do you think it’s good or bad that we’re the first ones back?”

“I think we’ll really only be able to tell in comparison,” Trissiny said, idly turning her teacup in a circle on the table. “Objectively our meeting went pretty well. I’m not sure what to make of everything the Colonel said, but at least we have tacit permission to proceed.”

“Yeah, this would be pretty difficult if the Empire told us not to. Oh! Hey!”

She shot upward and then darted out into the pub, buzzing around Toby and Juniper, who had just emerged from the stairwell. Both smiled as they greeted Fross, the dryad waving at Trissiny. She was wearing the enchanted ring Tellwyrn had given her last winter, altering her coloration to a Tiraan standard, though this time she was also in one of her customary sundresses and with bare feet. Juniper wasn’t exactly a secret, but everyone (including the dryad herself) agreed that it was probably wisest not to flaunt her presence in the city.

“Wow, I’m a little surprised,” Toby said lightly, coming over and pulling out a chair. “I was actually expecting we’d be the first ones back. Good news or bad?”

“Good…ish. Neutral news,” Trissiny replied with a smile. “Basically, Imperial Intelligence was already aware of us and doesn’t mind us working.”

“I had the impression they were glad to see us!” Fross reported. “Well, some of them, anyway.”

“Yeah, that’s the other bit,” Trissiny said, frowning thoughtfully. “There was a bit of a difference of opinion… Well. How about we wait for the others before making a full report?”

“Sure, makes sense,” Toby said agreeably, reaching for the teapot. “Probably best to go over things when all eight—uh, nine—I mean, ten, of us are here. Mind if I…?”

“Oh, sure, help yourself! I got a pot for everybody, but we can get more if it runs low. And…ten?”

Juniper rolled her eyes. “He means Ariel.”

“Oh,” Trissiny said, grimacing. Juniper laughed.

“Ariel is very smart!” Fross chimed.

“I think she is, yes,” Toby said solemnly, pouring himself a cup of tea.

“She’s also a jerk, though. In the long run, it all balances out.”

Juniper began laughing outright; both paladins had to grin.

“Yes, I tend to agree,” Toby said. “Well, anyway. I don’t mind telling you how our visit went. I can repeat the whole report when the others are back, because it’s quite simple: we got nothing.”

“We made some friends,” Juniper said, shrugging. “That’s not quite nothing. I thought they were very nice.”

“Yes, they were,” Toby agreed. “Omnists in general are inclined to be friendly and kind to guests. Also, you’re basically a fertility idol to them. Juniper was a celebrity,” he added to the others, winking.

“Eventually,” the dryad said, reaching for a teacup. “Once everyone was confident I wasn’t going to… Um, hurt anybody.” She fell quiet, eyes on her cup as she poured, expression carefully neutral.

“Point being,” Toby continued, “they just aren’t involved in anything. They certainly aren’t going to impede us—I was never worried about that, anyway—but they also don’t know anything useful. The friar who greeted us didn’t even seem to know that Veilgrad was having problems. They weren’t all that oblivious, just not…”

“Not tactically helpful?” Trissiny prompted.

“Yeah, that sums it up.” He nodded. “I have to admit it’s a running weakness of Omnists. Being a monastic order, and being positioned so that people who need our services come to us, rather than vice versa… Well, there’s a kind of perpetual lack of involvement in the world.”

“But you study martial arts!” Fross protested. “I mean, famously! The Sun Style is serious business!”

“As an exercise form,” Toby said, “and in extreme situations, for self-defense. This is why Omnu has a history of calling Hands, I think. Not just to keep himself active in the world, but to keep the whole faith active. We have a tendency to retreat behind our walls and just tend our gardens if nobody shakes us up from time to time.”

“There are worse ways to live,” Trissiny mused, gazing out over the square. Toby blinked, looking over at her in surprise.

“I know we’re waiting for the others, but could we get some food?” Juniper asked. “I have a little money…”

“My treat,” Trissiny said with a smile. “I opened up a tab. It seems likely we’ll be coming back here, and… Okay, I’ll say it. The less we stay in that manor, the better.”

“It’ll be important to stay in circulation!” Fross agreed.

“Exactly,” Trissiny said, nodding.

“And also, you don’t like Malivette.”

“Exactly,” Trissiny repeated in a grimmer tone.

“Is there a waiter?” Juniper asked, peering around. “Or do we go to the bar?”

“There are waitresses, but I have a feeling we’re going to have a hard time getting their attention,” Trissiny said dryly. “At least, we have so far. I had to chase one down to get a pot of tea.”

“Oh. Uh, Toby, would you mind?” Juniper asked. “I hate to impose, but… I mean, all these people, it’s a little…”

“Say no more,” he replied with a smile, setting down his teacup and standing up. “What would you like?”

“Oh, whatever’s handy! Nothing too heavy, though, I think we should be polite and wait for the others before having an actual meal. Just something to snack on.”

“I’ll go see what they’ve got warmed up and ready,” he said, smiling. “Back in two shakes.”

“Trissiny,” Juniper asked thoughtfully as Toby retreated into the noisy pub, “how much do you know about Omnism?”

“The basics. My education covered that much of all the Pantheon cults. I don’t have any real spiritual insight into their practices or dogma, or anything.” She tilted her head curiously. “Why do you ask?”

“It’s just that…well, at the temple, with all the monks and…um, monkesses?”

“Nuns, technically,” said Fross, “though in that cult they’re also called monks.”

“Oh. Right, well… I mean, before today I’d been thinking it was just Toby, but I have never been around a bunch of people so sexually repressed. It was almost painful. Is…is there a reason they’re like that?”

Trissiny coughed, her cheeks coloring. “I, uh… I really don’t… If you’re that curious, June, you’d probably be better off asking an Izarite.”

“I guess,” Juniper said, settling backward in her chair and frowning. The chair, which was a sturdy wooden affair that looked like it could be used as a battering ram, creaked slightly with the motion. Juniper sometimes forgot to moderate her weight when she was distracted.

“So, uh…” Fross did a slow figure eight above the teapot. “Should we be…worried? About the others? I mean… I don’t know how long these things should take.”

“I’m sure they’re fine,” Trissiny said quickly. “Huntsmen aren’t animals, despite what they seem to think. Gabriel and Ruda are both important enough people to be greeted at the lodge with all courtesy, no matter how awkward or rude they are.”

“Ruda isn’t generally rude to important people,” Juniper said, “and I kinda don’t think they’re the ones we should be worried about.”

“I know,” Trissiny said with a sigh. “But honestly… I wouldn’t have agreed on Teal and Shaeine taking that task if I thought they wouldn’t be fine. The worst case scenario is basically Vadrieny having to introduce herself. Reclusive warlock or no, this Lord Leduc can’t possibly be crazy enough to start trouble up with her. I doubt he’d try to hex two visitors, anyway; he’s apparently the one member of his family who had enough restraint to survive their…hobbies.”

“That is good reasoning and you’re probably correct,” Fross chimed, bobbing in the air above her head. “But, y’know, that’s reasoning. On a strictly emotional level… I’m a little worried.”

Trissiny nodded slowly, staring out over the square. “Yeah. I know.”


 

Yornhaldt retained the presence of mind not to whistle—it was a library, after all, but he couldn’t fully restrain the spring in his step as he made his way through the halls back toward the exit. It was one of the more remote repositories of knowledge in Svenheim, and he had been in one of its most distant wings; he had a good long hike to get back to, well, anywhere.

Not that he minded. His brain was seething with possibilities, implications, and more than a fair share of jubilation at the puzzle he had cracked. Now, the foremost question was whether he should extend his stay in Svenheim or head back to Last Rock and share his finding with Arachne. In truth, this was an excellent stopping point. The lore he had dug up and connected presented a puzzle with no immediate solution, one which required thought and planning before a solution could be approached. It was a good opportunity to add her insight to the mix. Well, anyone’s insight, really, but Arachne was the only one he trusted to help him with this particular puzzle. But research was calling to him. There was more knowledge out there, just begging to be uncovered… What to do?

Anyhow, that could be decided that evening, over a celebratory scotch in his suite. For now, he had his thoughts and the walk to occupy him. Long as it was, the journey was hardly onerous. Others were about, and the halls of the Drassynvardt Archive were pleasingly quiet and orderly. Just the thing after his months of research. Well, part of the thing; he was also looking forward to that scotch.

Yornhaldt’s tenure as an adventurer had been brief. Just a couple of years, really, accompanying Arachne to the locations of several treasure troves she knew. The wealth buried in old dungeons and the hidden places of the world was staggering, and she was aware of an awful lot of it, having left most where it was because, as she put it, “what the hell would I buy?” It had taken them a few years to round up enough capital to found the University, and she had insisted the whole time that it wasn’t proper adventuring, lacking mystery. Still, it had been an adventuring career, and he hadn’t come through it without developing a few instincts.

They not only gave him warning but gave him a rudimentary plan of action. Finally noticing the unpleasant prickling on the back of his neck, Yornhaldt brought his focus back to the present and mentally reviewed the last few minutes, which he had been too distracted by his own thoughts to fully experience as he was going through them. He was walking through a long hall, illuminated by slightly flickering electric lamps, the Drassynvardt curators disdaining Tiraan enchantments on a point of principle. Only the tunnels were carved out of the rock, the actual library chambers being situated in natural caves, which resulted in a very sprawling floor plan with long hikes like this one between areas. Someone was following him—a dwarf, male, neatly groomed and avuncular, just the sort of academic who was a perfect fit for the environment. What was tweaking Yornhaldt’s instincts, then?

It was, he realized, the man’s behavior. He walked in silence, and hadn’t been behind Yornhaldt the whole way. The man had been there while he had navigated his way down the iron stairs and balconies ringing the library chamber in which he’d been studying, and had been watching Yornhaldt specifically and unflinchingly. Just staring, his focus on the dwarf, not the books.

He was being stalked.

Up ahead loomed a side passage; Yornhaldt altered his course, going left rather than straight on back to the central archive and its path to the city.

The footsteps behind him continued, taking the same turn.

Well, he’d been certain enough the man was following him—now, at least, he was less likely to be heading into an ambush. What the blazes did the fellow want? Someone who’d been watching him closely might have an inkling what he was researching, but who would even do that?

The parties that might bother to watch him and might object to the nature of his studies made a short, disturbing list.

Yornhaldt stepped to his right as he emerged into another small cavern filled with shelves of books, lit by a single flickering chandelier hanging from above. Really, this was no larger than his classroom back at Last Rock. That could be good, or bad.

He planted himself a few feet from the door to the right, just out of easy reach, facing it. Sure enough, in seconds his pursuer appeared, clearly having picked up his pace to keep Yornhaldt in view. Finding his quarry clearly waiting, he slammed to a halt, rearing back in obvious surprise.

“Pardon me, friend,” Yornhaldt said politely, “I seem to have turned myself around somehow. Do you know the way back to the main archive?”

For a moment, they simply stared at each other in silence.

Then suddenly the other dwarf burst alight. Golden radiance flared out from him, solidifying in the next moment into a divine shield.

A similar sphere formed around Yornhaldt, in arcane blue.

“Something the matter?” he asked pleasantly. “Are we in danger?”

The man simply glared at him, not deigning to answer. He held out his hand to one side, pointing at the ground; a golden circle formed, and Yornhaldt sensed a rush of infernal energies as a dimensional barrier was perforated.

A holy summoner. Well, that told him nothing; in human lands, there were only a few cults (and more recently, the Universal Church) which did that, but they had first learned the art from the dwarves. Being able to access divine magic without the need of a god’s blessing, their race had found that if demons were needed, it was best to call upon them using divine means. It was a roundabout method which lacked both the power and the fine control attained by true warlocks, but one greatly reduced one’s chances of spontaneously combusting or contracting terrible degenerative diseases.

Yornhaldt kept one eye on the summoning circle, most of his attention on his opponent. This close, he could feel the relative strengths of their shields. The arcane neutralized the divine, in theory, though it was the weakest interaction on the Circle, and he could tell this chap was powerful enough that simply overwhelming him would be time-consuming and difficult. The addition of a demon leveled the field considerably. Light above, if he was calling up something sentient, Yornhaldt could be in real trouble. Spellcasting demons could wrench arcane energies away and channel them into their own infernal spells.

He formed an exploratory burst of raw arcane power, refined enough to be controlled rather than just flung, poured it into his shield and then mentally directed it to be extruded from the outside. His opponent glanced over at his ongoing summons, doubtless expecting Yornhaldt to try to disrupt that—a logical move, and thus one for which the summoner would have countermeasures prepared. Instead, Yornhaldt was playing a hunch.

The amorphous flow of magic came free of the shield and he dropped it to the ground, then forward at the man’s feet, where he deliberately destabilized it, causing an explosion.

The summoner cried out in surprise and pain as he was flung off his feet and sent careening against the shelves, shoes smoking. Yornhaldt permitted himself a satisfied smile.

Those spherical shields had that weakness: what did you do where your sphere intersected the ground beneath you? Paladins and such were drawing power directly from a god, who handled such details; Yornhaldt took advantage of the nature of the arcane to phase it slightly so that it continued under the ground without disrupting that. A fellow mage could seize upon that phasing and use it to penetrate the bubble (he had countermeasures ready for that, of course), but it was sturdy enough against the other schools of magic. You couldn’t do that with a divine shield, though; the divine light, once made solid, was unyielding. This fellow had left himself the tiniest gap to stand on. A tiny gap had been all Yornhaldt had needed.

Unfortunately, he was a hair too slow, and the thing being summoned burst forth, shooting upward and spiraling around the ceiling.

Well, it wasn’t as bad as it could be. Just a katzil demon, very like an enormous snake that flew and could spit fire. A problem to deal with, but not something that could counteract his defenses.

Yornhaldt threw a cage of arcane currents around the creature, designed to impede its movement without forming solid barriers. Making hard objects used a lot of power, but these free-floating spells where more efficient; it would hurt and interfere with the demon proactively, and also react to contain any fire it tried to exhale.

His enemy, meanwhile, had rolled back to his feet, apparently not minding his scorched and still steaming shoes, snarling now at Yornhaldt. He flung out a hand and Yornhaldt felt disruption ripple through the energies around him. A simple banishment? Please. A moment’s concentration, and the divine spell was neutralized and absorbed, its energy boosting his own shield. Clearly this fellow had expected to take him by surprise. He wasn’t prepared for a real fight.

He revised his opinion a moment later when the spell cage he’d put over the katzil collapsed, destroyed by a second divine banishment while he’d focused on the first. Those simple disruptive charms were a cleric’s main counter to a mage; not surprising the summoner would make use of them. More to the point, he had cast two simultaneously, and with the presence of mind to make a dramatic gesture calling attention to one while sneaking in the second.

It occurred to Yornhaldt that he might be in real danger here.

The katzil dived at him, hissing in fury—it had not liked that cage. Greenish flames splashed harmlessly against his shield, and Yornhald directed a wall of pure force at it, knocking the demon off balance and sending it reeling away, then projected another at the summoner. He staggered backward, his divine shield protecting him from the worst of it, and Yornhaldt followed that up with a simple arcane bolt. The shield held against that, too, but flickered, and he called up another one.

This time, the katzil attacked his shield bodily, fangs scraping across its surface and its coils striking the sphere hard enough to imperil Yornhaldt’s balance. He released the spell rather than risking it flying off in a random direction, painfully aware they were having this confrontation surrounded by precious books.

Another attempted banishment rippled through his shields; he gathered it up into another arcane bolt, chiding himself for having nothing to use here but exchanges of brute force. He was sadly out of practice at this. Teleporting away was an option, of course, but he held that in reserve in case this went badly. Far better to neutralize his enemy and find out who was after him, and why.

The bolt smashed the divine shield, and the katzil dived at him again, this time spraying flames in a wide arc over him.

“Not the books!” Yornhaldt bellowed, desperately throwing up a wall of solid light between the gout of fire and the shelves. “Damn your eyes, control that beast!”

Suddenly his shield flickered; in that moment when he was distracted forming the wall, something had seized onto his aura. Reaching out with his mind, Yornhaldt belatedly realized he was standing in a summoning circle, stealthily placed around his feet while he had been busy with the fight. It wasn’t calling anything up, per se, but forming a channel of infernal energy, which was disrupting his workings.

Ingenious, really. He had to admire the technique, and the strategy.

Unfortunately, it meant the next banishment caused his shield to collapse.

His retaliatory bolt was far more powerful, collecting a great deal of loose energy as it went, and upon its impact his rival’s shield also imploded and the caster was sent hurtling backward to slam against the bookshelves. He slumped to the ground, stunned.

And then the katzil sank its fangs into Yornhaldt’s shoulder.

It had only a split second to worry at him like a hound before he nailed it point-blank with another arcane bolt; the unfortunate demon perished, fragments of flesh turning to dust and charcoal before they’d been flung far enough to hit anything.

Yornhaldt staggered, clutching his wounded arm and taking stock. Demon destroyed, summoner temporarily down. He’d better deal with the man more permanently…somehow… That bite was really throbbing. Also burning. His sleeve was rapidly becoming soaked through with blood.

It occurred to him belatedly that katzils were venomous. Not one of the worst poisons out there, but any venom of infernal origin was going to be very bad.

It was bad enough he almost didn’t notice the prick in his other shoulder. In fact, he became really aware of it a second or two after it had occurred, and looked over to find a small brass-bound hypodermic syringe stuck into his arm, plunger fully depressed. Blinking his eyes against suddenly blurry vision, Yornhaldt lifted his gaze to behold a figure—tall, human, and swathed in an ash-gray robe.

“Oh, drat,” he mumbled.

“I believe that’s enough exertion, old fellow,” the man said, amusement in his voice. “You just relax, now.”

Yornhaldt was only dimly aware that he was falling, aware that his senses were diminishing into unconsciousness. This was a disaster. He had to get back to Arachne with what he’d learned.

Had to…

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“I dunno, maybe it’s all the chapel sessions they made us sit through in basic, but I can kinda see it,” Farah said somewhat dreamily. The rest of Squad Thirteen eyed her askance.

“Really, now,” Merry said. “First week of active duty and you’re already planning your retirement and how many kids you want. I think you skipped seven or eight hundred steps, there, private.”

“Oh, hush,” Farah retorted without rancor. “I’m just saying, it’s a point, you know? The spiritual power of motherhood, the bond between mothers and daughters. I’d never really considered it, but I can see myself wanting that. Can’t you?”

“Babies terrify me,” Casey muttered in between bites of porridge.

“You know, there’s no reason you’d necessarily have daughters,” Merry pointed out. “It’s kinda random.”

“Nonsense, you can pick!”

Merry snorted. “It’s possible to pick. You can’t, though. Not on a Legionnaire’s salary.”

“The expensive alchemical methods aren’t a hundred percent certain, anyway,” Prin commented. “You want certainty, you need a good shaman. And even then they mostly won’t do it. Blah blah, messing with nature, wakka wakka spontaneity, yakety yak respect the balance. Pfft.”

“See?” Merry said, grinning, and tucked back into her own breakfast.

“Oh, you’re a bunch of wet blankets,” Farah said crossly. “I’m just saying, I think having a daughter would be a beautiful thing. Come on, I bet even you’d settle down for that, Locke.”

“I have a daughter,” Principia said mildly. “About your age, in fact.”

Farah blinked. “Oh. Um…well, then you’ll know what I mean, about that connection!”

Prin shrugged, eyes on her porridge. “Well, not really. She won’t talk to me.” A half-grin flitted across her face. “Can’t really argue with the kid. I’m arguably the worst mother who’s ever lived.”

They fell silent, the sounds of the busy mess hall washing over them.

“You really know how to kill a conversation,” Merry said at last.

Principia grinned at her. “You’re in the army now, woman. Killin’ is our business.”

“Attention!”

There was a mass scraping of benches and clattering of dropped utensils as every woman in the cohort sprang upright, saluting. Two figures were approaching the center of the mess hall’s open front area, which was commonly used by officers to address the assembled troops. Squad Thirteen were disciplined enough not to react to either the speaker or the Legionnaire who paced along behind her carrying a stack of papers under one arm.

“There has been a disruption of our normal schedule, ladies,” Bishop Syrinx announced, coming to a stop in the center of the space and folding her hands behind her back. Private Covrin fell to attention behind and to her right. “You will be informed of further details at a later time if command deems it necessary, but for now, Captain Dijanerad is among several officers called away on an urgent matter. As I have an interest in this cohort’s progress, I am delivering your assignments for today.”

She paused, angling her head slightly to one side and giving them assembled cohort a look that was both contemplative and slightly supercilious. “One day’s duty is hardly indicative of your skills, ladies, but as I told you yesterday, you are being watched and evaluated closely. The High Commander and your captain appreciate your patience with the unconventional manner in which this unit is being run, for the moment, as do I. A few of you are already beginning to stand out…and I mean that in both positive and negative respects.” Her eyes flicked back and forth to a few specific spots, none of which included anyone in Squad Thirteen. “The plan at present is for squad leaders to be assigned by the end of the week, after which you will not need to be nursemaided by more seasoned units and will draw more conventional duties. Those of you who have distinguished yourselves already, do not get complacent. Those who have not managed to stand out in any way still have time to do so. Several of you are on very short notice to get your act together. The Silver Legions have no place or the incompetent or the weak.

“Thus far, by and large, I’m pleased with you. Keep up the good work, troops. In fact, improve upon it. Private Covrin will now distribute assignments. At ease.”

She turned and stepped over to the side to speak quietly with Lieutenant Vriss, who was the only officer attached to the cohort currently present in the hall.

“I have a very bad feeling about this,” Farah muttered as the assembled Legionnaires relaxed, some hurriedly finishing off their meals.

“Mm,” Principia mused, eyes on the Bishop.

By chance or design, they were approached in reverse order, meaning Squad Thirteen was the first to be handed its orders, a sheet of cheap parchment bearing the Third Legion’s seal and an illegible signature at the bottom. Ephanie accepted this wordlessly.

“Covrin,” Farah said in an icy tone.

Private Covrin paused just barely long enough to ensure that her faint sneer was visible before moving on to Squad Twelve’s table.

“It’s bad, isn’t it,” Casey said, eyes on Ephanie, whose expression bore out her prediction.

“We’re to meet up with Squad Nine from Cohort Six,” she said slowly, eyes darting across the page. “They’re…heavily patrolling the Steppes. Specifics are to be given once we’re in the field, but that squad is positioned to intercept a major operation by the Thieves’ Guild, targeting a shipment of gold arriving at a Vernisite bank.”

The silence hung for a beat.

“But…we can’t have an assignment that involves the Guild!” Farah protested. “Locke has a conflict of interest. It’s against regulation!”

“Welcome to the conversation,” Merry said acidly.

“Heel, Tazlith,” Prin said.

Merry snarled at her. “Don’t you dare—”

“Treat your squadmates with respect and you’ll get the same in kind,” Prin said relentlessly. “It’s not as if Szaravid is wrong. Hell, we should’ve all been expecting something like this, but it’s faster than I’d imagined she would move.”

“This is what yesterday was about,” Casey said softly, frowning into the distance. “She was priming you to expect something like this. She wants you to challenge the order. Why? That’s not punishable, is it? Avelea?” She turned to Ephanie, who suddenly straightened up, eyes widening.

“Wait,” she said. “Come with me!”

Ephanie set off at a sharp trot for the back of the mess hall, making a beeline for the bulletin board with the rest of her squad trailing along behind. Once there, she began rifling through a whole sheaf of papers pinned together to the much-battered cork board, finally pausing on a page half the stack in.

“This was posted a week before we arrived,” she said. “Due to a ‘pattern of incidents’ involving new enlistees, until further notice, privates failing to report for duty will be considered absent without leave and subject to court martial, with a potential penalty of dishonorable discharge.”

“Wait, what?” Casey exclaimed. “Okay, I’m still new to the military. Isn’t that a bit excessive?”

“Failing to report is a serious matter,” Ephanie said, letting the pages drop and turning to face them. “But yes, court martial and dishonorable discharge for one offense verges on the absurd. There are a lot of prescribed disciplinary steps before it should come to that point. It says this is at Command’s discretion…”

“Is Syrinx’s signature on that thing, by any chance?” Prin asked wryly.

“She wouldn’t be so overt,” said Casey, scowling. “There is no way this is a coincidence, though. Are you all seeing what I mean, now? She’s capable of anything.”

They glanced across the hall, past the knots of armored women dispersing to their assigned tasks, at Bishop Syrinx, who was still speaking quietly with the lieutenant.

“How did you even know that was there?” Merry asked Ephanie. “It was buried. It predates us being here!”

“I make a point to read all posted notices carefully,” Ephanie replied, “for exactly this reason. I really cannot afford any slip-ups.” She paused, glancing around at them. “Without meaning to tread on anybody’s privacy, I’ve been getting the impression that nobody in this squad can afford any slip-ups.”

“What the hell do we do now, then?” Casey demanded. “Dijanerad would shut this down, but she’s conveniently elsewhere on what I bet is some urgently made-up bullshit.”

“You need to challenge this as quickly as possible,” Ephanie said to Principia. “An oversight isn’t your fault. You actually reporting for this duty would put you in the wrong. Get on the record pointing it out to a superior…”

Prin was already moving. She wasn’t quite fast enough; as she approached the front of the hall, Lieutenant Vriss nodded to Syrinx and dashed out the side door. The Bishop herself turned to depart through the opposite exit.

“May I help you?” Private Covrin said coldly, interposing herself between Principia and Syrinx. “Hey!”

Prin slipped around her without slowing. “Bishop Syrinx!”

The Bishop paused, glancing over at her. “You have duties, Private Locke, as do I. Be about them.”

“There’s a problem with my squad’s orders, ma’am,” Principia said crisply. “Regulations prohibit—”

“As someone recently reminded me, private, I am not in your chain of command, and I am certainly not your mother. Find someone whose problem this is and pester her about it.”

“Your Grace—”

“You are dismissed, private.” Syrinx stalked off, Covrin following her after giving Principia a hard look.

The rest of Squad Thirteen gathered around Prin as Syrinx and Covrin departed the mess hall. Most of the other squads had already filed out.

“Shit,” Casey said feelingly. “Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. How soon are we supposed to report?”

“We’ve only just got time to get there,” said Ephanie. “We could try to go over the captain’s head, find someone higher up… But by the time we did and actually got their attention we’d be way past late to report.”

Farah straightened up, her face brightening. “Cohort Six will have officers—that’s the whole point of us being assigned to them! They can excuse Locke once we report in.”

“We’re to join Squad Nine in the field,” Ephanie said, re-reading their orders. “We’re given a rendezvous point. That means we’re supporting… If it’s a standard patrol pattern for a district that size, we’ll be meeting up with two soldiers, three at the most. There will be officers, but odds are we won’t see them until after the action.”

“The group we’re sent to meet won’t have any officers,” Principia said softly. “I told you that thuggish display yesterday was beneath her. This is the real play—she won’t have left such an easy out.”

“A court martial is a trial, right?” said Merry. “You’ll have a chance to explain your case there. You’re obviously not at fault here, Locke.”

Principia shook her head. “I’m telling you, this is too thoroughly planned. The notice was posted a week ago; she’s been laying traps long before we even knew we’d be here. There will be some extra surprise waiting at that court martial. Hell, if I were running this con, that’s where I’d have hidden the real trap. It looks like the safest route to take.”

“Well…you can’t go,” Farah said miserably. “You’ll get in trouble with the Legion either way, but if you report for this assignment you’ll be betraying the Thieves’ Guild, too. I sorta got the impression you already aren’t their favorite person in the world.”

“No,” Principia said, narrowing her eyes. “No… We’re not beaten yet, girls. Let’s move out, or we’re AWOL and court martialed. When they put me on trial, I swear it’ll be for something a lot less stupid.”

“The insanity just keeps piling up,” Ephanie muttered, scowling. “Squads sent out without officers, the cohort’s officers all diverted, sweeping changes in regulations hidden… This is not just about Locke. It’s not just about this squad. This kind of nonsense can seriously damage a military unit. In wartime, people would die. I can’t even fathom how she’s getting away with this…”

“A lot can change between here and the Steppes,” said Prin, heading for the exit. “I just need a little time to think of something.”

“Something good?” Merry asked skeptically.

“Trust me, Lang, this isn’t my first time playing this game.”

“The last time you played this game, you got me arrested!”

“Someday I really need to hear that story,” Farah commented.

Principia, at the head of the group, grinned. “That wasn’t the last time.”


The dorm’s relatively quiet morning routine was brought to a halt by an earsplitting shriek.

“What?!” Maureen yelped, leaping reflexively onto her bed and falling into a ready stance. Across the room, Szith had also shifted smoothly to the balls of her feet, one hand grasping the hilt of her sword.

“Look! Look at this!” Iris, still in a patched nightgown, held up a white dress apparently identical to the one she’d worn yesterday, tears brimming in her wide eyes. It was of smooth and heavy fabric, decorated with subtle embroidery around the hem and cuffs. This one, however, had the word SLUT scrawled in blocky capital letters across the bodice in some thick red substance.

“Hm,” Ravana said, narrowing her eyes.

The door burst open and their house mother dashed in, staring around at them in alarm.

“What is it?” Afritia demanded. “What happened?”

Tears spilling down her cheeks now, Iris turned to face her, holding up the ruined dress.

Afritia stared at it in apparent bemusement for a moment, then her expression turned to one of silent fury. Over the course of a few seconds, she mastered it, and when she next spoke, it was in apparent calm.

“Addiwyn,” she said loudly in the direction of the long room’s other door. “Come in here, please.”

There was a moment’s silence. Ravana stepped over to Iris’s bed, picking up a small object from her nightstand.

Finally, Addiwyn’s door swung open and the elf leaned out, scowling. “What are you people doing? Some of us have classes to prepare for.”

“Do you know anything about this, Addiwyn?” Afritia asked quietly.

Addiwyn turned to stare at Iris, raising her eyebrows at the sight of the dress, then smirked unpleasantly. “Well. If you have to advertise, Iris, I guess you can’t be very good.”

Iris let out an animal scream of fury, throwing the marred dress aside, and launched herself across the room, clawed fingers outstretched.

She made it almost two feet before Szith smoothly intercepted her. One whirl of motion later, the drow had Iris in a firm hold, both arms secured behind her back. The taller human girl didn’t stop trying to squirm free, snarling at Addiwyn.

“She is baiting you,” Szith said sharply. “Contain yourself. You become unequivocally at fault if you commit assault in front of the house mother.”

“Worth it!” Iris screeched.

“No one is committing assault!” Afritia snapped.

“This is mine,” Ravana commented, studying the object she had picked up. It was a small clam shell filled with a thick red substance. “Or…was, I supposed. What’s left is ruined. Given how dry it is, I would guess it’s been left out all night.”

“Are you sure you had nothing to do with this, Addiwyn?” Afritia said, staring at the elf.

Addiwn shrugged, scowling irritably. “Domingue’s clothes turn up with Madouri’s cosmetics scrawled on them? Why am I even part of this conversation?”

“’ere now, just ‘cos somebody owns a thing doesn’t mean they’re the one who used it,” Maureen objected. “Y’don’t think Iris mauled her own gown, surely.”

“If you think me capable of something so unbelievably puerile,” Ravana said archly, “at least believe I take better care of my possessions. Frankly, this rouge cost as least as much as that dress. I wish to discuss that matter with whoever is responsible.”

“We all know who’s responsible!” Iris howled, glaring hatred at Addiwyn. She stopped struggling, however, quivering with rage in Szith’s grasp.

“Addiwyn, go wait for me in my room, please,” Afritia said.

The elf heaved a melodramatic sigh. “We have class in twenty minutes. I am still—”

“Go,” the house mother said flatly.

Addiwyn rolled her eyes, but flounced out, slamming the door behind her for good measure.

“Iris,” Afritia said more gently, “what kind of fabric is that? And Ravana, may I see that rouge, please?”

“It’s…just cotton,” Iris said miserably, finally slumping in Szith’s hold now that Addiwyn was gone. The drow gently released her. “Thickened cotton… I had to have it made. White cotton tends to be transparent otherwise.”

“Any enchantments? Alchemical augmentation?” Afritia asked, accepting the clamshell of makeup from Ravana with a nod of thanks.

“Alchemical, yeah. That’s where the thickness comes from. It’s not actually any heavier for it.”

“All right. I will be right back; I believe I can fix it pretty quickly.”

She slipped out, shutting the door much more carefully than Addiwyn had.

“Fix it?” Iris said morosely, picking up the wadded dress from her bed and staring at the now-smudged epithet scrawled across it. “How? This is ruined. Just look at this gunk! Maybe a professional cleaner…”

“Surely she wouldn’t make a promise like that unless she could back it up?” Maureen said encouragingly.

“Indeed,” added Ravana. “She is herself an alchemist of some considerable renown.”

“Is she?” Szith asked, raising her eyebrows.

“Ah, that’s right,” Ravana said smoothly. “Considering your point of origin, Szith, you are unlikely to have heard of Morvana the Poisoner.”

Everyone stared at her.

“Who?” Iris demanded.

“The what?” Maureen added.

Ravana shrugged, picking up the brush she had dropped and casually resuming work on her pale hair. “Perhaps it’s a matter chiefly of interest to the nobility. She never operated in the Tiraan Empire, at least not that I’ve heard. Morvana the Poisoner was an assassin who spent ten years cutting a swath across the Malderaan continent, striking down dozens of high-profile targets. Over a hundred, possibly; matters become a little confused when people are killed by untraceable alchemical substances. Others may also have taken advantage of the carnage to commit their own murders and blame them on her. The Poisoner published claims in various newspapers that each of her victims were members of the Black Wreath and had been killed for that reason.”

“Wh—that—surely…” Maureen gulped heavily, wide-eyed. “You can’t think that’s the lady who’s in charge of our dorm.”

Ravana only shrugged again, smiling. “Well, it could be a different Afritia Morvana. I’ve certainly never heard either name elsewhere, but it’s a wide world. And really, if you were an alumnus of the Unseen University with a dozen governments and the Black Wreath actively seeking your head, the prospect of hiding behind Arachne Tellwyrn’s skirts would start to seem rather inviting, don’t you think?” She set the brush down on her nightstand, her smile widening to an outright grin. “In any case, I would not like to be the person responsible for disturbing the tranquility of her home.” She angled her head pointedly at the door, tracing her ear with finger and thumb and then extending the gesture outward, as if outlining a longer, pointed ear.

“Ah,” Maureen said, nodding. She and Iris still looked slightly spooked. Szith simply gazed thoughtfully at the door.

Both Iris and Maureen jumped when it opened suddenly and Afritia stepped in. She held Ravana’s small make-up pad in one hand and a black silk pouch in the other.

“I think you’re right, Ravana; the rest of this is not salvageable,” she said apologetically, handing back the clamshell. “I’m sorry.”

“Not at all,” Ravana said smoothly. “It clearly is no fault of yours.”

“Iris,” Afritia went on, stepping over to hand her the pouch. “Sprinkle this on the stain and wait five minutes. Just brush it off after that; the rouge should come right off with the powder. Just… On the floor is fine, if you avoid the rug. I’ll come in and sweep it up while you’re in class. Will that leave you enough time to get ready? I can send word to your professor if you’ll be late.”

“I…no, that’ll be enough,” Iris said, blinking back fresh tears. “I just… Thanks so much. I’m sorry to be a bother.”

“You are not a bother,” Afritia said firmly, smiling at her. “Call if you girls need anything else. I need to have a few words with your other roommate before she’s late for class, too.”

Nodding again to them all, she ducked back out.

They stared at the door in silence for a moment, then Iris shook herself as if waking from a daydream and began laying out the marred dress across the bedspread, preparatory to applying the alchemical powder.

“Um,” Maureen said hesitantly. “Were you serious about…”

Ravana smiled slyly and placed a finger against her lips.


Deep beneath the peaks of the Dwarnskolds—the Spine, as some races called the vast wall of mountains that blocked off the continent from the tropics—the great library of the Svenheim Academy of Arcane Arts and Sciences occupied a chamber vast enough to accommodate a dragon. In fact, it once had, for all that none of its entrances were large enough to admit a creature of such size. A surprising number of would-be dragonslayers over the years had passed over their targets’ lairs by failing to account for their dual forms. In this era, though, rather than the piles of hoarded wealth it had once held, the cavern contained one of the world’s great treasure troves of knowledge.

Bookshelves climbed the walls all the way to the distant ceiling, accessed by balconies, narrow staircases and in some spots ladders, several on sliding tracks. Nearly the entire floor was lined by row upon row of bookcases, each heavily laden, several climbing upward in open-sided arrangements of rails and wooden floors to create towers and pyramids scattered about the middle of the open space. Everything was carefully filed, of course, though the necessities of the library’s odd architecture could make it difficult to find a given title if one were not intimately familiar with the layout of the room.

Most visitors ended up turning for help to the librarians.

Gwen caught herself humming very softly as she pushed the cart between the stacks and cut herself off with a grimace. It had hardly been loud enough to be heard a few feet beyond her, but still. It was a library. Someday, she really had to find a way to kick that habit. Her work kept her satisfied and happy, though, and happiness unfortunately resulted in music, no matter how inappropriate the environment.

She passed into a tunnel branching off from the main, well-lit chamber. The library was illuminated brightly by massive fairy lamps suspended from the ceiling in upside-down towers of metal scaffolding, which also contained the arcane charms that regulated the temperature and moisture in the air. The dwarves, by and large, preferred to use machinery above magic, but the technology to control environments so minutely was still in its relative infancy—and also, it was heavy. The vital task of protecting and preserving the Academy’s precious stores of knowledge was, for the time being, entrusted to the finest of Tiraan enchantments, no matter the current political tensions between the Kingdom and the Empire.

It was dimmer, of course, in the smaller side gallery into which she emerged, but that was mostly for atmosphere. Gwen hummed a few more bars before catching and stifling herself as she trundled along the well-worn carpet path with her cart of books, past a long row of doors, until she finally reached her destination.

Pausing outside, she rapped gently with her knuckles. “Professor Yornhaldt?”

No answer.

She waited, trying once more, before chuckling softly to herself and pushing the door open. A quick glance around the small study showed the Professor hunched over an entire desk full of open tomes, currently with a long scroll sprawled out across the top of the lot. Gwen backed in, pulling the cart after him.

“These are the last of the volumes you requested, Professor,” she said, a touch more loudly than before.

Professor Yornhaldt jumped in his chair, then half-turned to blink up at her. Lost as he was in some ancient lore, it took a few seconds of blinking before his gaze came back into focus.

“Oh! Miss Pjernssen, forgive me. Bless you, my dear, many thanks. I’m sorry, I was off in another world.”

“Not at all, Professor,” she said with an amused little smile. “It’s not as if you’re the first absent-minded academic I’ve tended to—and not the dustiest, by far. Anywho! These are the alignment records you requested from the Venalde Astrological Collection. You can only have them through the close of normal business hours, I’m afraid, and then they have to be tucked back into their own little beds.”

“Ah. Of course, of course…” He cast a regretful glance at his desk full of books before turning fully around on his swiveling chair and wheeling it over to the table as she laid out more volumes on it from the cart. “I suppose I’d best be about it, then. Hopefully I can gather everything I need from these today, and spare you having to cart them back and forth yet again.”

“Officially, I’m obliged to tell you it’s no bother at all,” she said solemnly, then winked. “But still, I appreciate it. Now, don’t let me catch you trying to put up your own books! The last fellow who requested anything from the Venalde Collection made the most abominable mess, attempting to helpfully clean up after himself. Let the professionals do their jobs, I beg you.”

“My dear,” Professor Yornhaldt said with a grin, “you have nothing to fear from me on that account. Believe me, if you had met the previous librarian at my own University, you would understand how careful I have learned to be with such rules.”

Gwen smiled and stepped back, pushing her cart toward the door. “I’m glad to hear it, Professor. Will there be anything else I can get you?”

“I believe that’s all, Miss Pjernssen, thank you kindly. Oh! Wait a moment!”

She paused in the act of departing, looking inquisitively back at him.

“I meant to bring this up sooner, forgive me. Never to early to start making arrangements, though. I’ll need to access the Vankstadt Archives at some point this week, Miss Pjernssen, if you could kindly start the process. I understand there’s rather a significant amount of paperwork involved.”

Gwen blinked, her polite smile frozen in place. “The… Vankstadt Archives, Professor? I’m afraid we don’t have any such wing in this library. To my knowledge, Professor Vankstadt never endowed a collection before he passed.”

Yornhaldt frowned up at her in puzzlement. “What? But I was assured… Oh! Blast me for an old fool, I really am forgetting things left and right. Of course, of course, here.” He withdrew a slightly rumpled letter from an inner pocket of his coat and handed it to her. “One must have the requisite permissions, naturally. I believe you’ll find that entirely in order.”

Gwen accepted the paper and unfolding it, noting its unusual weight. Indeed, within were the wax seals of the Chancellor of the Academy and the King’s Counselor Dornvelt, as well as their signatures. The brief note, on royal stationary, gave him the stated right to access the secret archives in question.

“Ah,” she said, handing the document back after studying it closely. “That is, of course, an entirely different matter. Sorry for the subterfuge, Professor, but they take great care to keep those documents out of reach of the general public.”

“Of course, I well understand that,” he said firmly. “And heartily approve.”

“Having seen that myself, I can begin the paperwork,” she said, “but you’ll need to show it to Master Reichter, and possibly to other officials. Just to let you know.”

“No trouble at all,” he assured her with a smile, tucking the letter away inside his coat again. “As I said, the procedures are all there for excellent reason. The last thing I want is to upset your system.”

“That, too, I appreciate,” she said wryly. “Then, will that be all?”

“Yes, thank you very much, Miss Pjernssen.”

“Very good. I’ll leave you to it, Professor Yornhaldt.”

He made no response, already half-lost in his new collection of books. Gwen heard a belated acknowledgment an instant before pulling the door gently shut behind herself.

She deposited the empty cart in its allotted place beside her desk, then paused, glancing around the open cavern. Her station was tucked into a small recess, giving her a decent view of the surrounding stacks, which were not too tall in the immediate vicinity. Several dwarven scholars moved about nearby, and two humans were hunched together over a book at the very end of the nearest row, but no one approached the reference desk itself. Gwen double-checked that the small summoning gong was clearly displayed, then stepped through the door into her office in the back.

Quickly and quietly, she removed the silken covering over the magic mirror hung on the wall opposite her filing cabinets. A melange of gray and greenish clouds swirled silently in its surface, marking it a very old specimen. Newer ones functioned simply as reflective surfaces until activated, a much more energy-efficient enchantment. Magic mirrors were still made, but they were priceless even so; the spells involved had to be laid by hand, as not even the wizards of Tiraas had yet figured out a way to automate those enchantments. They were not simple to make, and not many even now possessed the skill.

Double-checking that the door was shut, Gwen stepped up to the mirror and cleared her throat.

“Mr. Greyhand, please.”

The mirror only continued to swirl, apparently ignoring her. Gwen waited, patiently staring at it, until…

There. It was only the faintest flicker, gone so soon one would likely not have noticed it unless one had been watching specifically.

“Potential problem,” she said tersely. “Tellwyrn by proxy investigating cosmic alignments. Getting close; has support from the Academy and government. First intervention circumvented. Please advise.”

She fell silent, waiting for the acknowledgment that her message was received. It came, after a few more seconds, in the form of another almost-unnoticeable flicker, the ephemeral shape gone almost before it had come. Only from long experience with this system did she recognize it as the form of a spiky black wreath.

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