Tag Archives: Sekandar

12 – 8

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“I’m not certain how worried we ought to be,” said Sekandar. “Three cases don’t constitute a pattern, even among a population as small as the University’s.”

Aerin set down her teacup. “That’s why I raised the topic, Sekandar. November was attacked last night.”

“She was?” Teal asked, straightening in alarm. “Miss Sunrunner’s going to run out of beds…”

“That’s the thing,” Aerin continued seriously. She was almost always serious; a junior, she was a half-elf and the younger daughter of an Imperial House from Ninkabi, where her pale complexion and blonde hair made her stand out starkly from the rest of her family. “November’s fine. She actually survived the thing, held it off long enough for Professor Tellwyrn to intervene. She said something chased her, that she could feel it trying to put her to sleep, but her divine magic counteracted it to an extent.”

“Well, that’s excellent news!” Sekandar exclaimed. “And here I was thinking it was some kind of disease going around; if it’s a person or monster attacking people, it can be defended against! And besides, if November’s magic countered it, that narrows down the things it could be.”

“Not necessarily,” Iris said quietly. She was holding her own teacup and had been for the last ten minutes, but still did not take a sip. “Arcane or infernal magic would disrupt her shields, yes. But so could fae, if it was substantially more powerful than November. And let’s face it, she doesn’t even have a god backing her up. I doubt November actually has the same kind of firepower as a real cleric.”

“Yeah, this is a lot of interesting theory,” Ruda drawled, tipping more rum into her tea, “but trust me, we’re in no position to begin unraveling this puzzle. We don’t know what happened, or how.”

“Perhaps we would, if we allowed Aerin to speak,” Ravana suggested mildly.

Aerin’s lips twitched in momentary amusement before her face resumed its customary blank mask. “I certainly did not interrogate her; she was at once keyed up and exhausted. Hildred and I had to practically wrestle her into bed, but once there she fell asleep so fast I wondered if the thing had got her anyway until she woke up this morning. All she really described was the attacker.”

“That seems significant,” Ravana said.

“Perhaps,” Aerin replied with a shrug. “She described it as a shadow. In her own words, it didn’t look like anything so much as the effect of something trying to deflect her attention from a particular spot. Which,” she added, shifting to nod at Iris, “does sound like fae magic.”

“Or Vidian,” said Shaeine, “or Wreath.”

A glum silence fell over the table.

Their table was set up in one of the campus’s secluded spots, a little courtyard surrounded on three sides by walls which provided heavy shade. It was lined by leafy shrubs, and home to three small trees, one of which had been oddly twisted early last semester and now looked vaguely humanoid in shape. Iris kept sneaking glances at it. The table itself was a simple folding card table, but had been disguised by a brocaded silk cloth in red and gray with thread-of-silver trim. Even the crockery was fine porcelain.

None of this, of course, was University issued. Ravana enjoyed hosting little tea parties, to which she invited various friends. The roster varied from one week to the next, but this time leaned heavily toward girls from the freshman and sophomore classes. Sekandar was the only male present, and Aerin the only upperclassman.

“Well, then!” Ravana said more briskly. “That is a start. It gives us something to go on. We shall, of course, have to ask November to describe in more detail what she saw—but needless to say, that should be done as gently and respectfully as possible. It cannot have been a pleasant experience for her. Meanwhile—”

“Meanwhile,” Ruda interrupted, “let me give you the benefit of my experience on the subject of taking campus safety concerns into your own hands when Tellwyrn is clearly already handling it: fucking don’t. She’s got even less of a sense of humor than usual about that.”

Ravana gave her a little smile which was more than half smirk. “Well, I am hardly proposing to defy an evacuation order, or leave the campus without permission to tattle to someone’s parents. Much as I enjoy the tales of your class’s exploits, Ruda, I rather think you would be more successful overall with a touch of moderation. No, clearly, students ought not interfere with the running of the University—but just as clearly, we cannot sit around waiting idly for this thing to strike again.”

“Ruda isn’t wrong,” Aerin stated. “This is not our job or our place, Ravana.”

“Not sure I agree,” said Sekandar. “At any rate, I don’t see how we can make it worse.”

“Oh, ye of little imagination,” Ruda muttered.

“I am inclined to concur with Ravana,” said Shaeine. “Presuming that we proceed with all due respect for everyone’s privacy, the rules of the campus and Professor Tellwyrn’s own prerogatives, I see no harm in acquainting ourselves with the situation in as much detail as possible. Besides, Tellwyrn not only doesn’t expect us to sit on our hands while there’s trouble afoot, I don’t believe she would approve of that.”

“Exactly,” Ravana said with a smile, lifting her cup in Shaeine’s direction in a little toast. “It’s all about the proper ways and means. Ultimately, whoever is to blame for this, are we not all responsible for looking after ourselves, each other, and our home?”

“Hey, I’m all for not taking shit like this lying down,” Ruda retorted. “And I didn’t say I intend to, either. Somebody thinks they can run around the campus hexing people, they deserve whatever they get, and I would honestly love for that to be my sword in their ribs. I’m just saying, Tellwyrn runs this campus, and not only does she not appreciate people getting into her business, if there’s anybody on the damn planet who can handle this, it’s her.”

“View it as…a class exercise, then,” Ravana said, still smiling. “Look around at who is present, Ruda. At the expense of appearing a dreadful snob, I exhibit a clear preference for nobility in those I invite to my little get-togethers.”

They all did look around, most frowning.

“I’m not so sure I can see it,” said Teal. “I mean, I’m not noble.”

“Most of the campus’s aristocrats have never been asked to attend,” Aerin added.

Iris cleared her throat loudly and pointed to her face, giving Ravana a sardonic look.

“Yes, yes, valid objections, all,” Ravana said lightly, “but I can refute each. Teal, I hardly think you can claim not to be an aristocrat simply because you lack a title. The Houses, despite their pretensions, were not designated by the gods. They are descendants of individuals who rose up in troubled times to seize power through their own ingenuity and labor. And then, as if to refute the entire point of what they had done, they fossilized the system such that their descendants would be assured the fruits of their success without having to produce any of their own. In the nobility who sneer at families like the Falconers for lifting themselves up by their own strength, I see nothing but insecurity.” She smiled broadly at Teal, but with something sly in the set of her eyes. “You have a better claim to nobility than most, Teal. You are not as far removed as the older Houses from that which makes such claims worthwhile.”

“I’ve often had the same thought,” Ruda noted.

“Indeed.” Ravana turned to her and nodded. “The Punaji have prospered, in part, by ensuring their rulers deserve to rule. Whoever holds the throne and the name had done something to prove they deserve it. A very wise system, in my opinion.”

“Stop, I’m gonna blush,” Ruda said with a grin.

“The converse is also true,” Ravana added. “I do not choose to socialize with much of the nobility present among the student body because I find many of them to be generally useless individuals. There are none so laudable as those who lift themselves up despite starting from a disadvantaged position, and none so contemptible as those who begin life with every asset the world can give them, yet never produce anything in return. Much is expected of those to whom much is given.”

“Is this why Szith hasn’t come at all this semester?” Iris said suddenly, frowning.

Ravana sighed. “I’m afraid so. Once she discerned that I am, in effect, building connections among persons of a certain social class, she concluded that it is not her place to be here, and I have yet to convince her otherwise.”

“Matters are different in Tar’naris,” Shaeine said quietly. “Social class is not easily transcended. Nor wisely, nor safely.”

“And that works very well in Tar’naris,” Ravana agreed, “where, it seems, you actually raise the nobility to be useful to society to an extent which justifies the resources that go into their upbringing. Far too many Imperial aristocrats feel entitled to all the privileges of their position and none of the responsibility. Honestly, I have a far higher opinion of my roommates than most of my peers.” She gave Iris a smile.

“Huh,” Ruda said, staring at her. “An’ this whole time, I had no idea you were bringing me along for a noble’s club.”

“Of course,” Ravana said sweetly. “If you had, you wouldn’t have come.”

“Why, you duplicitous little monstrosity,” Ruda said admiringly.

“Aren’t you sweet to notice,” Ravana replied with a sunny smile. “In any case, yes, I haven’t yet convinced Szith she has a place here, and Maureen wanted to work on her project. Building things calms her when she’s unsettled. How is it coming along, by the way?” she asked Teal.

“Well, I’m mostly just contributing the enchanting work,” Teal said modestly. “The actual structure itself is all Maureen. She’s a lot better than I at mechanical engineering. Right now there’s not much for us to apply charms to, until she gets more of the actual thing built.”

“So let me see if I follow you,” Aerin said slowly. “You want to step into a campus problem because you feel that as aristocrats, specifically, it’s our responsibility?”

“I think my mother would actually approve of that,” Sekandar said thoughtfully.

“I’m not sure how useful the designation of ‘aristocrat’ is in this context,” Ravana replied. “Those of you here are here because you have been raised to be actual leaders, trained to do the work, and possess the will and the intellect—and the sense of personal responsibility—to get it done. Or, even more admirably, you are building those traits yourselves. People like us should be involved with one another, simply for practical purposes, if nothing else. As an added bonus I find that I quite like all of you,” she added, beaming.

“People like us,” Shaeine repeated. “I am not sure what is meant by that.”

“People,” Ravana explained, “who grasp that the rational exercise of their own self-interest mandates building a just and functional society which works for the benefit of all. It’s interesting how both the thoughtlessly altruistic and the mindlessly selfish reliably commit the same catalog of errors. All of you, either consciously or not, know what it means to succeed. It does not work unless we bring with us to success all those who look to us for leadership. All lesser forms of power are fleeting, and prone to turning on their masters.”

“I don’t know how they do things in Madouris,” Aerin said dryly, “but where I am from, bastard half-blood daughters are not put in charge of anything.”

“I foresee you being in charge of a great many things over the course of your life, Aerin,” Ravana said quietly, “and not one because anyone put you there.”

“Well spoken!” a new voice announced cheerily. They all turned to behold a short human man in need of a shave, wearing a battered trench coat and a rakishly tilted felt hat, arriving at the foot of their table. “Good afternoon, kids, glad to see everybody enjoying the fine weather. If I’m not mistaken, I think I heard something about this sleeping problem the campus is having? Perhaps I could pick your brains about that for a bit.”

“Excuse me,” Ravana said evenly, “but I do not believe you’ve been introduced.”

“Oh, of course, sure, where are my manners?” He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a silver gryphon badge. “Inspector Fedora, Imperial Intelligence. Relax, nobody’s in trouble! I’m just asking questions, is all.”

“Uh huh,” Ruda said skeptically. “And does Professor Tellwyrn know you’re asking questions?”

Fedora grinned broadly at her and winked. “What, you think I have a death wish?”


He strolled casually down the hall, pausing in front of her door, and rapped sharply.

“Enter,” Tellwyrn’s voice said instantly. Her tone was oddly neutral. He couldn’t help but wonder if his visit was expected… Not that he could see any way how, but then, nothing this woman pulled out of her hat would surprise him.

“Good afternoon!” Mogul said, stepping into her office and doffing his hat, not missing the exceptionally flat stare she was giving him. “I realize we’re not personally acquainted, Professor, but it seemed to me this was a good time to get that out of the way before things got even more awkward. As you may recall, my name is—”

The world vanished, and yep, he really wasn’t surprised.

A peninsular outcropping of rock had been carved into an ascending staircase to nowhere, terminating in midair above a vast drop. Tellwyrn stood on the top step, one hand outstretched toward him.

Mogul hovered above the abyss just beyond the range at which he could have grabbed the ledge if he were suddenly to fall. They appeared to be inside a hollowed-out mountain; at least, the colossal space was roughly conical. It was lit by a sullen, reddish glow, emanating from someplace far below them. The source was not clear, as the bottom of the enormous chamber was hidden by a roiling fog which was either sulfurous yellow or just looked that way due to whatever was burning underneath it.

“…so this is awkward,” Mogul said. “Even more so, now. I had a whole speech ready, you know: it started with ‘this is awkward,’ but now it seems as if I’d be referring to this death trap right here instead of the ongoing kerfuffle on your campus. Now I have to revise my speech on the fly, or risk sounding all self-absorbed.”

He suddenly dropped two feet before stabilizing again.

“You do know I can shadow-jump right out of this, don’t you?”

“Oh, you think so?” She raised one eyebrow. “I’ll give you credit for sheer balls, Mogul: I would not have expected you to come swaggering openly onto my campus like that.”

“I feel I should stop you before you give me too much credit,” he demurred, raising one long finger. “I only swaggered openly to your door. Believe me, I skulked cravenly through the rest of it. Some of your students are a mite trigger-happy and I really don’t want to deal with the fallout of me having to defend myself against them.”

“Which brings us to the subject of your visit, doesn’t it.”

“Wouldja mind awfully setting me down in a relatively gentle manner on the step, there?” he asked. “It’s just that this is all so classic. The posing, the environment, even the light! I feel like I can’t properly take it all in from this position. How come we aren’t being cooked alive, by the way? I mean, if we’re in a volcano, the convection alone…”

“That’s not lava down there,” she said cryptically. After studying him in silence for a long moment, though, she stepped aside, and he drifted forward to land lightly on the top step near her.

“Much obliged, ma’am,” Mogul said respectfully, tipping his hat again.

“I think my point is made,” she stated, folding her arms. “Yours too, to be fair, though I really didn’t expect you’d be easy to bully. Well, here we are. Spit it out, and I’ll warn you, it had better be good.”

“Yes, ma’am. Well, then! As I was going to say to begin with: this is awkward. Basically any action I take at this juncture makes me look guilty. If I stay hiding in the shadows as is my wont, well, that’s pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it? But if I come forward to offer my help with your little problem, that’s even worse. You’re far too intelligent a lady not to observe how I could benefit from being in a position to help you, and that raises ugly questions about what role I may have played in causing these issues in the first place.”

“And what role,” she asked in deadly calm, “would that be?”

“None,” Embras said instantly, meeting her eyes. “None whatsoever. I won’t lie, Professor, I do keep an eye on your campus, to the extent that I can without running afoul of your excellent security. I noticed the very esteemed Professor Ekoi had suddenly absented herself from the school, and quite frankly I’ve been operating under the assumption that it was a trick aimed at making me do something rash.”

“If it was, she did not deign to inform me,” Tellwyrn said. “Kaisa has, in fact, left my employ.”

“Mm. With the greatest possible respect, Professor, I believe I’m going to carry on assuming the thing that keeps me out of the most trouble. In any case, yes, I have noticed you’ve got students suddenly being struck down with a sleeping curse. I’ve noticed that you took the step of appealing to the Empire for help, which is what made me think this matter may be more serious than your usual run of campus hijinks. The details of exactly what’s going on I don’t have, and can’t really get without treading upon your privacy in a way I am far too intelligent to do. But no—what it comes down to is that I have nothing to do with this. I swear it upon Elilial’s name and my own soul. I am also completely confident that no one in my cult is to blame. The very few who even might have the capability answer to me directly and would not be out doing such a horse’s ass of an idiotic thing.”

“And you came all the way to see me, yourself in the flesh, just to say that?” she demanded, skepticism written plainly on her face.

Mogul spread his arms disarmingly. “Why, that, yes, but also, to offer you my help. I can’t promise that my people will be able to contribute anything useful, but I’ve caught whispers from my attempts to eavesdrop that some of your faculty think this curse may be infernal in nature. We know a thing or two about that.”

“And this is purely out of the goodness of your heart.” She curled her lip.

“This is out of bare-ass naked self-interest,” he said frankly. “Look, Professor, in a less volatile situation I’d love the opportunity to ingratiate myself a bit. This is something else, though. I know what happens to people who harm your students. It should go without saying that I wouldn’t do such a thing, that’s just the bare minimum of common sense. I also don’t particularly want to be anywhere in the vicinity when it happens. I am simply trying to make the point that we didn’t do this, and that landing on my cult over it will not only not help, it’ll be a distraction you probably can’t afford right now.”

“And so you come to suck up.”

“Exactly!” He grinned. “I am willing to pucker up and plant my lips on whatever doesn’t get me atomized. Or any of my people, preferably.”

Tellwyrn stared at him in silence, her eyes narrowed to slits. Mogul just gazed back, his expression patient and expectant. He had learned not to look too open and honest; it was an expression he could produce at will, but it tended to rouse suspicion.

Finally, she turned away, pacing a few feet to the very edge of the stairs, and gazed off into space.

“What do you know about Elilial’s gambit on my campus?”

“I wasn’t aware she had one,” he said slowly. “The Lady doesn’t bother to inform the likes of me of every project she has running, and I certainly don’t ask.”

Tellwyrn turned to give him a skeptical look, and he shrugged.

“Whatever it is, I can only conclude none of my activities in the vicinity of Last Rock would have impacted it, or she’d have told me so.”

“She claims,” Tellwyrn said, “to have granted some of my students powers and knowledge to use the infernal at a level far beyond what even the most accomplished warlocks ordinarily can. Simply as something to distract me and keep me out of her business.”

Another silence passed, in which a slow frown fell across Embras’s face. “Hm. Hmmmm. I could see that. It’s rather bold, but… Well, the situation in the world is altogether tense at the moment, and this wouldn’t be the first time lately I’ve seen the Lady risk causing more collateral damage than she prefers to. I guess it would suffice to keep you good and tied up, wouldn’t it? Which reminds me,” he added hastily when she turned an irate glare on him, “we have never figured out who opened that damned hellgate last year, but it had to have been an initiate of your University, thanks to the geas you have over that mountain. I don’t suppose…?”

“The immediate aftermath of that was when she told me this,” Tellwyrn said, nodding. “With an apology. Apparently opening new hellgates was not what she had in mind.”

“That’s for damn sure,” he said fervently. “That’s a nightmare nobody needs, especially the Wreath. Well. Startling as this is to learn, I don’t believe it changes anything. It sounds like she didn’t have a specific plan for those beyond causing trouble, and in any case, we end up having to clean up the splash effects of her schemes fairly often, anyway. If the Lady instructs me otherwise I’ll have to bow out, but for now, the offer stands.” He bowed, once again tipping his hat. “If I can help you address this problem, I will. It sounds like my assistance might be more relevant than I had suspected.”

“I’ll tell you what, Mogul,” she said. “You may consider the original purpose of your visit a success. I am, for the time being, not considering you or your Wreath a suspect in this. What that means, among other things, is that I shall take it very much amiss if I later learn that faith was misplaced.”

“I assure you—”

“I am still talking, shut up,” she snapped. “With that said, matters are not yet so dire that I’m willing to turn to you for help.”

“You’ve never turned to the Empire before, either,” he observed.

“Are you just trying to piss me off, now?”

He blinked. “…I don’t think anyone’s ever so directly questioned my intelligence right to my face before. Good show.”

“Your offer has been noted,” she said curtly, “and declined. You stay the hell off my campus, and keep all your warlocks and demons off with you.”

“As you wish,” he replied, nodding. “If I may—”

She snorted, and vanished.

“Well,” he said to the empty air, “that’s fine, then. I’ll just find my own way back.” Mogul paused, turning in a slow circle to peer around the cavernous space. “Now, just where in the hell am I?”


She had been watching almost the whole day. The interloper didn’t work constantly, of course. It was probably human, and needed food, sleep, and other biological functions. Besides, it had become more cautious since discovering the dryads.

It was an open question, of course, whether the intruder knew what they were. They weren’t labeled as such, but the Tiraan had jury-rigged this whole system to let them use the Order’s facility by installing those dryads in such a way as to gain access to the sub-OS under Naiya’s credentials. That much the intruder had surely deduced by now, and someone intelligent (which he or she had to be) and in possession of the right historical knowledge could connect the dots.

Their progress was slow and careful. She watched the panel on her cell as it showed the systems being called up, but no more functions were triggered. Someone was just studying the code. She had to wonder whether they had any idea what they were seeing; the last she’d heard of these humans and their “enchantment” before being locked up, they had progressed to simple logic gates. It was doubtful any of them were coding software by now. Still, code was language, and language could be interpreted by its function. This system had enough of their junk in it already to give the intruder a mental handhold. The Tiraan didn’t even understand all the changes they’d wrought to the system; they would not have been pleased by her having access to the facility’s functions from her cell, however inhibited, and the Infinite Order had certainly not designed it this way. In their bumbling they had left all kinds of backdoors open to exactly this kind of invasion.

It was thus even more alarming than it might otherwise have been when the intruder began tweaking variables in the code linking the dryads to what they were doing with Naiya’s administrative access. Those functions were integral to what made Hands of the Emperor work.

“This,” she said aloud, watching the numbers change, “is going to be terribly interesting.”

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10 – 29

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A constant background noise of angry mutters filled the square, but for a moment at least, it was still. Wilson cowered under the glow of active battlestaves, the townspeople held position, and the students stood as if frozen in place.

“Teal,” Sekandar said very quietly, “this would be a good time to show your other face, I think.”

Vadrieny shifted her head, fixing Scorn with a fiery stare, and said softly, “Be still.” In the next moment, however, she withdrew, flaming wings and claws vanishing to leave Teal still holding the towering Rhaazke by one arm. Scorn looked unhappy, her jaw clenched, but she obeyed the archdemon’s last command.

A man stepped to the side from the thick of the crowd, seizing the young boy by the arm and bodily tugging him backward, scowling and mouthing an obvious reprimand that was inaudible to the students from beneath the constant babble. Rook drew in a deep breath and let it out explosively, keeping his grip on his staff but sagging physically in relief to the point that the weapon drifted down to aim at the ground.

In that moment of comparative calm, Ravana cleared her throat and stepped forward, attempting to push between Finchley and Rook. When neither man budged and she failed to exhibit the necessary physical strength to force them to, she cleared her throat again, more loudly, and spoke in a well-practiced, resonating voice that projected across the square despite the angry buzzing of the townsfolk opposite.

“Gentlemen, if you will not lower your weapons, kindly power them down, at least? It’s clear to me that we are suffering from a series of misunderstandings. I have no intention of bringing any formal charges against Mr. Wilson. We do not punish people for having opinions.”

Rook and Finchley paused, glancing at each other, but Moriarty immediately relaxed his grip on his staff’s clicker, causing the electric glow limning its business end to fade. Rook followed suit a moment later, and all three shifted their grips to aim the weapons skyward.

The square grew quieter; while the crowd kept up a low, disaffected murmur, the shouting ceased. More people continued to trickle in through side alleys, but they all slowed and peered around on arrival, the additional numbers seeming not to add to the overall tension.

“Very good,” Ravana said with an approving smile. “Now—”

At that second, Trissiny and Gabriel dashed into the square from the direction of the town’s edge, both skidding to a stop and staring at the scene.

Immediately, shouting resumed, louder and angrier than before.

“There she is!”

“What the hell’s wrong with you, girl?!”

“You know how—”

“Repent!”

“Goddammit, Carl!”

“All y’all, settle, let ‘er explain—”

“Please!” Trissiny shouted, raising her hands—which was not as calming a gesture as she seemed to mean it, since she was still holding her sword. “Everyone, please! Is anybody hurt? Did anyone notice something alarming or odd tonight?”

“Y’mean, aside from you?” a woman shouted derisively, prompting a chorus of agreement.

“Triss,” Gabriel said, “I don’t think…”

“Listen to me!” she shouted. “There was a demon in this town tonight! It’s very important that everyone make sure they and their neighbors are unharmed and unaffected.” This had a slight calming effect on the crowd, but angry mutters continued. “If you feel at all unwell or out of the ordinary, please go to the church or the Vidian temple to speak with a priest; symptoms of infernal attack can be—”

“Is that why you broke down the Saloon’s door, you hooligan?” barked an older man in a ragged hat.

Trissiny visibly gritted her teeth. “I was trying—”

“You can’t just warn people about danger, you gotta run around scarin’ folks half to death an’ breakin’ down doors?!”

“Listen to me—”

“You knocked over my front fence! Who’s gonna fix that?”

“Stop,” Szith ordered, thrusting a fist in front of Sekandar when he tried to push forward. “Defending her will only make this worse. We need to disengage, all of us.”

Indeed, Gabriel appeared to be trying to persuade Trissiny to back away, though his muttered pleas were swamped by the slowly increasing roar of the crowd.

“That. Is. ENOUGH!”

Gabriel and Trissiny both jumped apart, whirling to face the stooped figure that emerged from the alley behind them. Finally, actual quiet descended on the scene, broken only by scattered murmurs. She hobbled forward, dragging herself along on two canes, and a veritable chorus of sighs rose from the citizens of Last Rock, accompanied by many rolled eyes and shaken heads.

“Evenin’, Miz Cratchley,” someone said in a tone of ostentatious resignation, earning a few titters.

“I never saw such a sad display,” Mabel Cratchley declared, pulling herself to a stop just inside the square and glaring furiously. “What’s got into you people? Where are the good, solid folk who who’ve weathered prairie storms and elf raids since before that mountain had anything on it but flowers? A hundred years and more Last Rock has stood here, since before the Empire bothered to extend its protection over us, and we’ve stood our ground on our land just the same. We’ve relied on nothing but each other and the gods, and lived to remember it. We earned our lives out here, through work, faith, and god-given skill. And now…now, I find y’all standing around, fixing to throw a fit because of a few bruises and broken fence latches? What, you got shoved and shouted at, and now you have to whip up a mob?” She pointed one cane at the prone form of Wilson, teetering momentarily on the other. “I expect such from fools such as that. I thought better of the rest of you!

“What would make you happy?” the old woman continued, taking another shaky step into the square. The now-quiet crowd actually pressed backward, as if physically driven by the force of her outrage. “There was a demon in our town. A demon! And you’re all pitching a fit because someone rushed down here to warn you, and chase it off? Have every last one of you lost your minds? We have the incredible blessing of a paladin in our midst to protect us, a Hand of a goddess herself, and you’re all complaining? You’d like it better if she left you to see your children corrupted and strangled in their beds, is that what I’m hearing?”

She planted both canes firmly in the dirt, then laboriously straightened her spine, drawing herself up to a surprisingly considerable height to glare at the silent throng. “I’ve no shortage of complaints with that woman and her school. You’ve all heard them. I’ve argued with many of you, and I have never been shy to criticize those who needed it, be they honest Last Rock folk, the Calderaan governors, the Empire, the University, whoever! Yes, I’ve known my share of grievances. But in my eighty-six years until this night, I have never been ashamed of my neighbors.”

The silence was crushing.

Every person in Last Rock had heard Mabel Cratchley complain, and more than otherwise had felt the swat of one of her canes on their backsides while growing up, and been prodded by them many times since. But not a soul present had ever before heard her voice quavering on the edge of tears as it was tonight.

“I can’t even look at you.” The old woman drew in a deep, shaking breath, sinking back down into her customary stoop, then laboriously began turning back the way she had come. “Ms. Trissiny, if the gods have any regard for the opinion of one old woman, then by the time I’ve finished my prayers this night, Avei will know there is one soul in Last Rock who is grateful that she watches over us.”

“Here.” Trissiny sheathed her blade and stepped quickly over to Ms. Cratchley’s side. “Let me help you home, ma’am. It’s late.”

“Bless you, child, but I know my way. You’ve better to do than waste your time on the likes of me.”

“The demon’s gone.” Trissiny’s voice was low and calm, but in the silence left by Ms. Cratchley’s speech, it echoed across the square. “And a paladin is not more important than anyone else. We serve, that’s all.”

The old woman started to speak, then simply cleared her throat and nodded mutely, allowing Trissiny to take her by one arm.

Everyone watched in silence as they retreated back down the alley, till they were lost in the shadows and the soft shuffling of Ms. Cratchley’s feet faded away.

Then Ravana took advantage of her escorts’ distraction to slip between them and out into the square.

“Well, then,” she said briskly, “I understand there was some incidental damage done during Trissiny’s ride through the town? Doors, fences, the like? Why don’t we see if we can help set things straight?”

“Aw, now, you don’t need to trouble yourselves,” a man at the front of the crowd said, doffing his hat, while others shuffled and muttered awkwardly behind him.

“Nonsense,” said Sekandar, pushing his way forward with a smile. “It’s late, and everyone will be wanting to get to bed as quickly as possible; best to get these things squared away.”

“Aye!” Maureen agreed brightly, stepping forward and tugging Iris by the hand; Rook gave up on trying to hold the students back and moved aside, making a wry face. “That’s what neighbors do fer each other, after all!”

The students began shifting forward in unspoken agreement, with the exception of Shaeine, who caught Scorn’s hand and leaned up to murmur to the demon. The townsfolk continued mumbling and shuffling, but without hostility now. Their ranks opened up, letting the students move among them, where Ravana and Sekandar led the way in asking for directions to any property damaged during Trissiny’s ride.

“S-so,” Wilson said tremulously, “that’s that, then? I, uh, reckon I oughtta go apologize to the young lady. Don’t rightly know what got into me…”

“Same as always, isn’t it?” Finchley said rather archly. His expression softened when Wilson slumped his shoulders, lowering his gaze to the ground. “We on for poker as usual on Wednesday?”

“Don’t see why not!” the older man agreed quickly, nodding in eagerness. “Lemme just see if I can get the lady’s attention real quick—”

“You’ll have to do that another time, Wilson,” Moriarty said firmly. “Right now, we’re going to the Sheriff’s.”

“What?” Wilson gaped at him. “B-but she said—”

“She said she would not press charges,” Moriarty replied. “She did not direct us to rescind arrest, and there remains the matter of you interfering with a soldier of the Empire in the protection of an Imperial governor by means of physical assault.”

“Omnu’s balls, Wilson, you’re lucky we know you,” Finchley said in exasperation. “You don’t grab a soldier’s weapon. Ever.”

“Any other trooper in the Empire woulda shot your ass dead in the street,” Rook agreed, “and the inevitable inquest would’ve backed them up. Now, c’mon, let’s go explain to Sam why you’re a towering dumbass. That’s pretty much his usual Monday night, anyway.”

They led the shamefaced man off toward the town center, while the now-blended group of citizens and students dispersed through the side streets.

Behind them all, Scorn scowled heavily at nothing in particular. After a long moment of sulking, she childishly stomped one clawed foot on the ground before turning to stalk back in the direction of the University campus.


“All right,” Basra said, planting her fists on her hips. “This was not what I was expecting.”

There were two Silver Legions currently based in Viridill, the Second on constant patrol through the province and the Fourth encamped in Vrin Shai itself. Soldiers of the Fourth were now spread through the city, forming cordons around each of its multiple canals. So far, though, they were only standing there, enforcing a safe distance between what was in those canals and the citizens who had come out to gawk at it.

Water elementals were clearly visible, amorphous beings formed of the canal water itself, changing shape as they jumped about on the surface and seeming to vanish entirely when they submerged beneath it. They spent an awful lot of time up in the air, though, most splashing each other and shooting jets of water here and there, and occasionally at any people they happened to catch sight of. A few of the onlookers were still soaked from such incidents during the elementals’ first appearance, but by this point, most of those targeted were Legionnaires now standing resignedly in wet armor.

In addition to the near-constant noise of splashing, the elementals had voices which were now audible almost everywhere in the city. They were high-pitched, unearthly, and spoke in no language anyone understood, but they were also unmistakably laughing. Or, more often, giggling.

It seemed all they wanted to do was play.

Basra and her party had edged up to the perimeter enforced by the soldiers, studying the scene, with the exception of Ami, who was keeping a respectful distance and a protective grip on her guitar. A sudden squirt of water shot out of the canal, scattering against the golden shield that flashed into place around Basra and incidentally spraying Schwartz, who squealed rather girlishly and skittered backward.

“Is it possible we were mistaken about the elemental at the house?” Ildrin asked. “I mean…we started in on it almost before it could do anything. These seem harmless enough… Maybe it just wanted to talk.”

“That thing was eight feet tall and built like an ogre,” Ami said from behind them. “It clearly had the brute force to be a danger, and the subtlety to penetrate our defenses without effort. The choice of messenger was the message. Specifically, a threat.”

“Exactly,” said Basra. “Schwartz, you’re certain there are no other elementals called up in the city? Just these…things?”

“I was twenty minutes ago,” he said, wiping off his glasses on the sleeve of his robe. “My divination spread is back at the house… But no, this was what I detected arriving, this and the one specimen that, ah, visited us.”

“The situation is tentatively considered under control,” said the Legionnaire wearing a captain’s insignia who stood nearby, having been grabbed and quickly interrogated by Basra upon their arrival. “At the moment we’re awaiting the arrival of sisters from the temple; General Ralavideh has ordered something called a…frog-in-a-pot maneuver.”

“What does that mean?” Basra demanded.

“I’ve no idea, your Grace,” the captain said with long-suffering patience. This was far from the first very pointed question the Bishop had shot at her. “I’m not a cleric.”

“It’s a reference to the old metaphor,” said Schwartz, now soothingly stroking Meesie, who seemed agitated by all the wetness in the vicinity. “You know, how you can boil a living frog slowly if you increase the heat in its pot by increments, but it’ll jump out if you try to do it all at once? Same applies to using divine magic to neutralize elementals. If you just flare up at them, they’ll be able to tell you’re weakening them, and react to that. If you start very gently, though, and gradually increase the power, you can progressively weaken them until they just…fall apart.”

“Hm,” said Branwen, chewing her lower lip and frowning at the occupied canal. “Offhand I can think of several problems with that plan…”

“Yeah,” Schwartz agreed, nodding. “With all respect to the general and the Sisterhood, I don’t think that’s going to work. For one thing, these are all over the whole city. You’d need an army of priests to cover the whole space to do it all at once; if you did it sequentially, canal by canal, it’d take days. And that’s assuming the elementals stayed gone once banished—what’s happened here is there were charms evoked in the water itself, which means they’re likely to reappear once it’s not being actively channeled at.”

“You could compensate for that by blessing the canals,” Ildrin offered.

“Yes,” Schwartz agreed, “theoretically. But there’s another problem; doing this maneuver requires divine casters to call up and hold a constant stream of energy. You pretty much can’t not do that without risking serious burnout. I, uh…honestly, this sounds to me like something to do when you lack better options.”

“We have our orders,” the captain said stiffly. “I’m sure the general has everything under control.”

“The canals are full of water elementals,” Basra snapped. “Whether or not they’re presenting an active threat, this whole city is very much not under control. Schwartz, are these things as harmless as they seem?”

“You mean potentially?” He shrugged helplessly. “I mean, if they all attacked, that’d be a big problem. And I don’t see what’s stopping them… But, like, tactically speaking, if they were going to do that, wouldn’t they have done it at first, when they had the element of surprise?”

“Maybe this shaman really isn’t trying to start a fight,” Jenell mused.

“The other elemental incidents throughout the province were definitely hostile,” said Basra. “Not nearly as violent as they could have been—in fact, they did seem to specifically avoid causing unnecessary harm. But still hostile. This is a departure.”

“And, again,” Ami added, “that rock elemental was not a friendly thing to send us, whether or not it was planning to bash all our brains in.”

Before anyone could respond to that, another Legionnaire in soaking wet armor came dashing up, saluting. “Captain Veiss! New orders from the general.”

“Ah, good,” the captain said, pointedly turning her back on Basra, whose increasingly sharp questions she’d been enduring with steadily diminishing patience. “We’re ready to begin?”

“No, ma’am,” the soldier replied. “The operation is suspended; new orders will be coming shortly. You’re to hold position, keep the civilians away from the elementals. Bishop Syrinx,” she added, turning to Basra. “That’s…you, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Basra replied. “Ralavideh has orders for me, as well?”

“A request, ma’am,” the messenger said diplomatically. “She would like you to join her to discuss new developments in this situation as soon as possible.”

“Excellent,” Basra said with clear satisfaction. “At the temple?”

“No, ma’am, she’s set up a field command post at a square in a more central location in the city. I’ll guide you.”

“Lead on,” the Bishop replied, glancing aside at the rest of her party with a wry lift of one eyebrow. “Well, fall in, troops. It seems we’re going visiting.”

They had gone right to the nearest canal from their house, which fortunately was, itself, not far from the center of the city. To reach General Ralavideh’s temporary headquarters, they only had to travel a few blocks and descend one tier. It was a mostly uneventful trip, though it required some navigating around rubbernecking residents. So far, no curfew had been declared, and nothing was preventing curious citizens from standing around gawking at the unusual sights; the Legionnaires seemed to mostly be keeping them away from the canals by sheer presence. Silver Legionnaires were very much respected in Vrin Shai.

There was a brief delay when they had to cross a canal and their guide warned them that anyone traversing the bridges could expect to be liberally splashed. Basra had quickly vetoed the use of divine shields, lest it agitate the elementals, but then Ami had flatly (and dramatically) refused to risk getting her guitar wet. Ultimately they had trooped across, Branwen holding a compact little shield over their bard, while the rest of them got soaked. For the remainder of the trip, Schwartz worked some of his own magic to dry them (and their grateful escort) off, while everyone rather irritably gave Ami a cold shoulder.

A market square just beyond the bridge had been overtaken by the Fourth Legion; their guide led them past an outer perimeter of soldiers into an orderly beehive of activity, making straight for a cluster of folding tables which seemed to be the center of the whole operation. As they approached, Basra lengthened her stride, passing their escort and striding right up to the General.

Ralavideh was a Tiraan woman in her fifties, short and stocky in her armor, with graying hair trimmed close to her head. She was surrounded by a dozen people, a mix of senior officers, priestesses of Avei, and off to one side a small knot of civilians in diverse attire. She turned away from a cleric upon Basra’s arrival, nodding in greeting.

“Ah, Captain Syrinx—good, I was hoping one of my messengers would find you.”

“Thank you for including me, General,” Basra replied. “I’m long since discharged, though, you needn’t address me by rank. What’s the situation?”

“At this moment,” said Ralavideh, “we have an unprecedented annoyance in Vrin Shai, but the situation appears not to be dangerous. That doesn’t mean we intend to leave it as is; the Governor agrees with me that these beings need to be removed as swiftly as possible. Right now our focus is on doing so without escalating the situation. Have you anything to contribute to our knowledge of the, for want of a better word, enemy?”

“Not of these specifically,” Basra said, nodding to Schwartz. “My elemental specialist, here, had detection wards over the city and hasn’t identified any other incursions, though we were visited by a large rock elemental at our temporary base.”

“Hm,” the General mused, frowning down at a map of Vrin Shai on the table before her. “Then I’m not the only one who knows the Abbess set you on the hunt for this elementalist. Well! In addition to wanting your perspective, we have unexpected help who also asked to see you as soon as possible.”

Indeed, as she was speaking, a man with a familiar bearded face stepped forward, trailed by the other assorted civilians who had been clustered together at one corner of Ralivedeh’s command post. “Your Grace! Good to see you again!”

“Mr. Hargrave,” Basra replied, nodding. “I confess I hadn’t expected to meet again so soon.”

“Yes, I’ve made…well, it’s a long story,” he said seriously. “These are some of the people I went to speak with. Over a dozen have come to Vrin Shai with me; Abbess Darnassy said we could find you here.”

“You brought Viridill’s witches here?” Basra asked, her eyebrows rising in surprise.

“Well, not all of them, by any means,” Hargrave clarified hastily. “You see, it’s—”

General Ralivedeh cleared her throat pointedly.

“Right,” Hargrave said quickly. “Priorities. They were going to try neutralizing the elementals with priestesses, which would have been quite risky and probably ineffective. Now that we’re here, the rest of my friends have fanned out through the city to begin laying preparations, and we’re going to deal with this matter first of all. Barring any further upsets, I believe we can have all this cleared away in a few hours. Tomorrow, though, I’d like to have a lengthy conversation about what we’ve learned.”

“Excellent,” she said emphatically. “Can you use another caster? Schwartz, make yourself useful.”

“Glad to!” the Salyrite said cheerfully, stepping forward. “Actually, I may have some fresh data to add to your findings—I had a good, solid ward network overlaying the city before all this started up, and I was able to detect…”

He melted into Hargrave’s gaggle of witches and they drifted off toward the canal in the near distance, talking among themselves.

“That’s been the theme of the evening,” Ralavedeh said with an annoyed twist of her mouth. “I’m glad they came along, but you know what it’s like working with civilians. Takes a constant effort to know what they’re doing and make sure they don’t screw up my chain of command.”

“I do know,” Basra agreed. “Well, for the time being it seems I’m a little superfluous, here…”

“Actually,” said the General, “since you brought your whole group, I wonder if I could borrow them for a bit?” She turned, nodding to the others. “I understand Bishop Snowe and a trained bard have joined you—we’ve a use for talents exactly like that.”

“Oh?” Basra raised an eyebrow. “Whatever for?”

“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?” Ami asked dryly. “Or do you intend to just leave this mob to its own devices?”

Beyond the perimeter marked by the Legionnaires, a noisy and energetic crowd were circulating, talking and gesticulating eagerly. No one seemed particularly agitated, though, and while their general noise didn’t yield any specific conversational threads at this distance, it didn’t sound angry.

“I would hardly call that a mob,” Basra began.

“Well, that doesn’t mean you just ignore them,” Branwen said in mild exasperation. “This is what you wanted us for, General?”

“If you’re able and willing,” Ralavedeh replied, nodding. “Citizens of Vrin Shai are a respectful people as a rule, and they trust the Legions, but you simply cannot drop an event like this on top of thousands of civilians and expect it to stay calm indefinitely. Fortunately this happened at dusk; provided we can get it squared away before business hours begin tomorrow, we can hopefully avoid any serious unrest. For now, I would like any help possible in keeping a lid on this.”

“Hm,” Ami mused, absently tuning her guitar and frowning at the onlookers. “That’s hardly the whole population of the city. Nor even a significant percentage…”

“It’s a start, though,” Branwen said with a smile. “Come, Bas, let’s see if we can’t put people’s minds at ease.”

She glided off toward the edge of the square opposite the bridge without waiting for anyone’s approval, apparently not seeing the scowl Basra directed at her back. Ildrin, Ami, and Jenell, who had seen it, followed at a more circumspect distance.

At the other end, the plaza terminated on a broad staircase only four steps tall. It was a short enough drop that they could plainly see the people milling around below it, built mostly for decoration and to prevent wheeled vehicles from entering the market square. Legionnaires were guarding the staircase, however, keeping the civilians isolated in the wide street below.

The crowd focused its attention on the top of the stairs as Branwen arrived, taking a position near the center between two soldiers, who looked quizzically at her and then at a nearby officer. Apparently having been told what to expect, the lieutenant gestured them away, and they shifted to the very edges of the staircase, distancing themselves from the Izarite Bishop. By that point, a few scattered cheers had broken out and people surged forward eagerly, smiling up at Branwen.

“Well, what a night this is!” she said, her light voice projecting skillfully out over the crowd, and earned a laugh from her audience. “I’m a guest here, myself, so please don’t take anything I say as an official pronouncement. General Ralavedeh has very kindly allowed me to speak to you—which works out well for everyone, as I’m sure you know how much I love to hear myself talk.”

During the laugh which followed this, Ami mused aloud, coincidentally having placed herself close enough to Basra to be audible to her, “My, she’s actually rather good at extemporizing, isn’t she? Somehow, I’d though all her speeches were the work of Church handlers.”

“What I can tell you,” Branwen continued as soon as it was quiet enough again, “is that the Sisterhood of Avei has matters well in hand. At this point, it’s not yet certain what is happening or why, but there is no indication that anyone is in any danger. And should these…peculiar visitors take a turn toward hostility… Well, in that event, I find I am still not overly concerned. This is Vrin Shai, after all!”

She beamed proudly down at them, waiting for the cheers to subside before continuing. “It’s hardly a secret that the cults of the Pantheon don’t all see eye-to-eye, and indeed, my faith has its frictions with Avei’s. If I must be surrounded by an invasion of strange elementals, though, I can honestly say there is no one among whom I would rather find myself. Yes, the Sisters of Avei are indeed fearsome in battle, and the presence of all these Legionnaires makes me feel much safer. But there’s far more to it than that! Avei is a goddess who places great trust in people. For all of the Sisterhood’s history, she has encouraged people to find their own courage, to hone their skills, and the result is what you see around you! An invincible city, filled with an unconquerable people, living under the aegis of a goddess who has led them to be the most they can be!”

More cheers, this time slower to subside. Branwen nodded and smiled encouragingly, but before she opened her mouth to speak again, there came a shout from near the front of the crowd. The speaker hadn’t waited for silence, and so most of the words were lost, but the Bishop was apparently close enough to make them out clearly. All that was clearly audible from Basra’s position behind her was “Last Rock.”

Apparently, Branwen was not the only one who’d heard the words. The crowd’s voice faltered into confusion, cheers and applause continuing from various quarters, while others who had been close enough to hear broke off their adulation, murmuring.

“It’s hardly kind to cast aspersion on the people of the frontier,” Branwen said with an artful hint of reproach. “In fact, I was in Last Rock very recently, and I found them to be a most admirable folk as well. They have had a different journey through history than you, and were shaped by different pressures, but I rather think they would cope well with a situation such as this, too. The prairie breeds hardy and adaptive folk.

“If anything, the comparison should only encourage you! For all their strengths, the folk of Last Rock lack a great gift that Avei has bestowed on you: leadership and examples which come from within, not from above. You live with and among the Sisterhood—the Legionnaires rise from within your own families, proving the potential of a whole population. No one sits high atop a mountain, grooming rogue adventurers and denying you a place among them.”

She paused for more reaction again, but this time the result was clearly not as she expected. The onlookers frowned, glancing at one another in apparent confusion—at least, some of them. Quite a few tittered, and open laughs sounded from several direction. Branwen hesitated, for the first time betraying uncertainty.

“So, your Grace,” called a male voice from near the front, the same voice which had shouted about Last Rock. “I take it you haven’t seen today’s papers?”

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10 – 28

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The gentler slope of the mountain was challenging but not too arduous to climb on foot, but that same angle made for a rather frightening descent when one was pounding down it on horseback at a full gallop. Nonetheless, Arjen’s every step was sure and unfaltering, even when he leaped over the switchbacking stone path that crossed the slope multiple times. He was, after all, no ordinary horse. Trissiny rode low in the saddle, keeping her body angled forward in defiance of the instinctive urge to lean backward against the slope, trusting her steed to manage the way and focusing fully upon the ephemeral sensation she was tracking.

She could feel it in the same subtle way as her customary ability to sense evil, a grating, tingling sense of alarm in the back of her mind. Now, however, augmented by Fross’s wards, there was direction to it. Trissiny could have pointed to each of the arcane wards set up in the streets of Last Rock, and could feel the connections between them. It was like a giant spider web, in a way; the links between the wards, and the threads of magic connecting them to her own divine senses, hummed when touched. Now, she was the spider, able to interpret those patterns of motion to pinpoint exactly where they were stemming from. That had to be an effect of the spell, since she didn’t have such powers of discernment ordinarily; she could barely sense magic, and had never been able to interpret patterns this way before.

The transition from slope to flat ground was jarring at the speed at which they took it, but Arjen handled it smoothly by gathering himself and leaping the last few yards, landing heavily at the start of the street that ran through Last Rock. It was evening, and despite the falling dusk, people were still up and around on the sidewalks; they all stopped what they were doing and stared at the paladin’s arrival. In fact, the number of them standing around suggested that her approach had been watched at least part of the way down the mountainside.

Trissiny wasted not a second before urging Arjen forward, charging down the street at a gallop. “Clear the way!” she bellowed, trusting the horse not to trample anybody. As it was, a few people who were unwisely still in the road had to scamper aside, a couple with shouted imprecations, which she ignored.

Demonic taint was like a beacon, searing at her subtler senses rather than her eyes. She could feel the incubus—assuming it was the same kind of thing that had disturbed her before; unlike Scorn, she wasn’t able to distinguish between demon species by aura alone. This time, though, she also had the network of wards pointing her onward. It wasn’t as if she could see the creature, not enough to make out its shape, but its presence, and its location, were given away completely.

It was up ahead, and on the move, zigzagging about the street as if dodging around people.

Trissiny and Arjen charged after it, the horse’s speed and straight course rapidly closing the distance. People saw her coming, fortunately, though they weren’t all equally adroit at getting out of the way. One man in the process of pushing a wheelbarrow across the road yelped at the sight of the mounted paladin barreling right at him and fled, arms over his head, leaving Arjen to leap over his barrow rather than waste precious seconds dodging around.

They rounded a corner, thundering down a slightly narrower side street, and at that pace reached the outskirts of the town in moments. She still couldn’t see anything in the roads, but she had felt the several ward points as she passed them, and could sense the disturbance leading her own. Up ahead, though, loomed the new Vidian temple. The demon seemed to be heading right for it.

Trissiny reined Arjen back to a canter, then gradually came to a stop, staring ahead through narrowed eyes. It was still there…but not fleeing, now. It seemed, instead, to be simply drifting. Still toward the temple.

Why would a demon head for holy ground? It made no sense.

“Just what the hell do you think you’re doin’, young lady?!” a man shouted, stomping up the road behind her.

“My duty,” she said curtly, not taking her eyes off the fixed point up ahead. Something was wrong here… “Keep back. There is a demon nearby.”

“Demon…” The middle-aged townsman paused, peering around uncertainly. Several other residents of Last Rock crept forward behind him, a few within earshot and most giving her distinctly unhappy looks. “I don’t see nothin’ like that.”

“That’s why they’re dangerous,” Trissiny said.

Suddenly, the target ahead moved, zipping off around the side of the Vidian grounds. She started to spur Arjen after it, but then hesitated, sensing its course, and instead guided him the opposite way. Indeed, as she swept around the temple in a wide arc, the invisible presence in front slammed to a halt, having been attempting to circle around it and head back into the town. It abruptly reversed course, arcing back the way it had come, with Trissiny in hot pursuit.

“Clear the road!” she roared as Arjen rounded the amphitheater. This time, the townsfolk were quicker to obey.


“I almost feel bad,” Embras Mogul confessed, his cheerful grin belying the claim.

“Guilty?” Kaisa asked mildly, her tail waving slowly in the wind.

“Not so much that, as embarrassed,” he replied. “This is just more fun than it ought to be. Seems a little petty, doesn’t it?”

He made another smooth motion with his hands, holding them palms down and with fingers shifting in complex patterns, as if he were manipulating the strings of a marionette. Perched as they were at the base of the church’s steeple, it left him no hands free to hold his balance, but the use of infernal magic was, itself, a balancing act at all times. Embras was surefooted enough not to worry about a fall, but still leaned back against the steeple itself for safety’s sake.

“There’s no harm in enjoying one’s work,” she said lightly. “Especially if one’s work encompasses an invigorating chase. Games are meant to be fun, after all. Now, if you unnecessarily taunted or abused your prey after finishing your hunt, that would be beneath you.”

“Quite so,” he agreed. “Not to mention, in this case, bringing me afoul of our agreement that the girl would be unharmed.”

“Yes, indeed,” Kaisa said solemnly. “There is that.”

“Well, I suppose there’s an element of satisfaction in the long history behind this moment,” Embras murmured, smiling coldly as he watched Trissiny chase the phantom demon trace he was puppeteering far below. “Eons of relations between our respective faiths end up either this way, or with swords and fire. I do believe I like this better. Dance for me, little paladin.”


The demon swerved partway down the street, abruptly diving through the doors into the Saloon. Arjen skidded to a halt at Trissiny’s direction, the paladin flinging herself from his saddle before he fully stopped and charging through the swinging doors.

It was a fairly typical night at the establishment, most of the tables occupied and with Jonas Crete currently plucking out a cheerful tune on the old pianoforte. Every conversation in the place abruptly stopped at her entrance, as did the music, and everyone turned to stare; she had burst in hard enough to make both doors slam against the walls to either side.

The presence was there. It had paused just in front of the stuffed grizzly bear, as if taunting her. Trissiny pivoted on one boot and charged at it, sword out, and her aura blazing to life.

Her blade cut a golden arc through the space where she sensed the demon, cleaving a slice from the bear’s belly in the process. A split-second too late; she felt she might have been close enough to nick it, and indeed it seemed to move unevenly as it fled, but move it did, fast enough that she had clearly not finished it off. The invisible demon skittered away toward the doors to the kitchen.

“Hey!” Jonas shouted, jumping upright hard enough to knock over the piano bench at the sudden damage to his bear. “Kid, what the sam hill are you doin’?!”

“Everyone remain calm and in your seat,” Trissiny barked, whirling to race toward the back door as fast as her boots could carry her. “There is a demon in this room.”

A babble of excited, frightened, and irate voices broke out at that.

“A demon? Where?”

“I don’t see no demon.”

“Bullshit!”

“Keep yer head down, you idjit, the paladin knows her business!”

“Repent!”

“Aw, shuddup, Carl.”

“Now, hold it!” Jonas shouted, rushing to intercept her as she reached the kitchen doors. “That’s off limits to customers—”

“I’m sorry,” Trissiny said curtly, grasping the door handle, “but I don’t have time for this.”

“Look, miss, this here’s my bar, and I got rules. You don’t have the right—”

“I’m very sorry,” she said. Finding the door locked, and not pausing to wonder how that could possibly work with the saloon obviously in business, she drew on pure divine light as Professor Harklund had taught, letting it fill and invigorate her, and slammed her armored shoulder into the door.

Trissiny felt the distinct electric shock of an enchantment breaking as the door burst off its hinges, and shrugged it off, charging through into the kitchen beyond. Jonas Crete followed on her heels, now shouting imprecations, which she also ignored.

There was a lot of arcane energy in this room, enough to slightly dampen her own aura; no wonder a demon would flee here. The usual fixtures of a kitchen were present, as was a lot of enchanting equipment at whose function she couldn’t even guess. Standing by the sink, a portly middle-aged woman whirled, gaping at her in shock.

Trissiny lunged after the invisible presence, which was making for the rear door. It turned at the last second, though, shooting sideways; she skidded to a halt and lunged around the island stove in the center of the room, seeking to flank it. The thing was faster than she, faster than anything merely biological possibly could be. It backtracked again, dodging around, her, and she pursued, her shield catching a pot full of something and sending it crashing to the floor in passing.

Jonas was still blocking the kitchen door; the demonic presence went back out the way it had come, apparently right through him, which seemed not to phase him at all.

“Move,” Trissiny barked, charging after it.

“That is it!” Jonas bellowed in pure fury, leveling an accusatory finger at her and seemingly unperturbed by the sight of an oncoming paladin. “You park your ass right there, girl, I am gettin’ the Sheriff—”

“MOVE!” Trissiny roared, golden wings flaring into being behind her. Jonas actually staggered backward in surprise, but didn’t get quite all the way out of the doorway. She had to catch him with her shield and shove him against the wall to push past.

The demon had taken full advantage of her momentary distraction to zip back out into the street. Trissiny went after it in a straight line, ignoring all obstacles in her way, which involved shouldering four men roughly aside and bounding onto and over a table, disrupting a poker game and multiple tankards of beer.

She charged out, whirling to pursue the presence on foot, and leaving behind a maelstrom of shouting and cursing.


“What on earth?” Teal asked, frowning. The sound of a galloping horse had been present only briefly, but the shouting which had followed had not died down. In fact, it had seemed to move around, to judge by the way the distant babble had waxed and waned. The students at their picnic had ignored it for a couple of minutes, but by this point, all of them had stopped eating and were frowning toward the end of the alley.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Sekandar said.

“Doesn’t sound like nothing from here,” Iris replied, her tone slightly nervous.

“Trissiny,” Shaeine said softly.

Ravana’s eyes cut to her, the Duchess’s expression growing guarded. “Pardon?”

“They are shouting about her,” Szith confirmed, “those I can make out over the hubbub. She… I’m not sure what she did, but it appears to have upset quite a few people.”

“Those were some loud hoofbeats,” Maureen agreed. “Coulda been that honkin’ great horse a’ hers, I guess. What’d she do ta mix up the locals, though? She’s one a’ the calmer sorts on campus.”

“That very much depends on the situation,” Shaeine said, shifting as if to rise from her chair.

“She is chasing demons!” Scorn exclaimed, actually standing up. “We must go help!”

“Stop!” Ravana said sharply. “Whatever she did has clearly agitated the residents; let us not add to the chaos.”

“Your Grace, permission to go investigate,” Finchley said crisply, stepping forward.

“Please do,” Ravana replied, nodding to him. Teal, meanwhile, had taken Scorn by the arm, attempting to tug her gently back into her chair.

“I have to agree with Scorn,” Sekandar said, frowning now. “If there is a demon in the town, and Trissiny is after it—”

“I’m not certain that actually is a demon,” Shaeine said softly, her eyes following Finchley until he rounded the corner. “I think… This may develop into a serious problem.”


She had hopped astride Arjen again to charge down a narrow side street, causing two women in bonnets to shriek and press themselves against a picket fence, one actually tumbling backward over it into someone’s yard, but Trissiny remained on target, ignoring all distractions. Following her quarry, she dismounted in another flying leap, landing in a garden and pursuing over another fence, around the corner of a house, and through a back gate which she accidentally knocked off its hinges in her hurry to get through. She did not stop to acknowledge the questions, demands and insults that came hurling after her.

Her aura blazed to life and she hurled a blast of pure divine energy forward, swamping the thing as it leveled out in a garden path and she got a clear shot at it. Indeed, it faltered, staggering drunkenly to one side and the size of its presence in her senses diminishing markedly. That was a horribly inefficient attack, however; the divine did not lend itself easily to such spells. She also couldn’t keep up the stream of energy for more than a second, and as soon as she was forced to let up, the demon strengthened again and zipped forward. In fact, it seemed almost to be pushed ahead by the force of her aura.

And this time, it shot right through someone’s front door into a house.

A second later she was after it, yanking the door open and charging in without hesitation.

“Stay where you are!” she barked at the astonished family sitting around the fireplace. “You’re in danger—head for the chapel as soon as I’m gone!”

She tore past them, into a cozy kitchen and out through a back door, which she left standing open behind her.

The next fence she had to vault hid an older man, who had been sitting amid a small stand of rose bushes into which she plummeted, relaxing in a rocking chair. She was forced to adjust course mid-leap, grabbing the fence with her shield hand and barely avoiding slamming her armored bulk into him. Unfortunately, this caused her to land right on a rose bush, and even more unfortunately, the demon put more distance between them, swerving around the side of the house and toward a street beyond.

“Sorry!” she shouted in passing, her aura flashing and healing away the multiple tiny scratches she had accumulated apparently over every inch of skin not covered by her armor. Roses did not make for a friendly place to land.

“My garden!” the man howled behind her, hurling his walking stick ineffectually. “You hooligan!”

Trissiny vaulted over the front garden gate, tore past the cottage and launched herself into Arjen’s saddle beyond, immediately spurring him forward and down the side street.

The demon seemed to be tiring; at least, it wasn’t keeping ahead quite as fluidly, now. Arjen kept creeping up on it, the invisible presence momentarily faltering and then regaining ground in little bursts rather than at an even speed.

Trissiny barely registered the sound of hoofbeats coming up from behind, not acknowledging the second rider until he pulled abreast of her.

“Trissiny, stop!” Gabriel shouted. “You’re going to cause a riot!”

“You can’t sense it?” she replied, eyes fixed on her invisible quarry. “Just follow me, it’s right there!”

“There is nothing there!” he insisted. “Listen to me, you’re being played!”

They rounded a corner, Whisper falling momentarily behind as they charged past the edge of the little town into open space. Up ahead, the marble columns of the small Silver Mission rose up out of the prairie, the Rail line stretching into the infinite distance behind it. Once around the corner, though, Whisper proved faster than Arjen, and Gabriel urged her forward.

A moment later, he actually guided his steed directly in front of her, turning sideways and forcing Arjen to skid to a halt to avoid plowing into them.

“Get out of the way!” Trissiny shouted in fury.

“Will you listen to me!” he bellowed back. “Trissiny, you have to stop, this is not what it seems to be.”

Her eyes widened, and she turned her gaze from him, peering around in dismay. “What—no! It’s gone!”

“Triss, I’m trying to tell you—”

She heeled Arjen forward around him, trotting in a circle in front of the Mission grounds and looking about frantically. “It was right here, but it’s gone! Just…gone. You made me lose it!”

“That is not all you’ve lost!”

Both paladins turned to face the speaker, a dark-skinned woman with her hair in a multitude of bead-decorated braids, wearing the white robes of a Sister of Avei and a thunderous scowl.

“Young woman, get in here this second!” the priestess snapped. “And you, too, boy. Now.”

“There’s a demon—”

“Enough!” Sister Takli shouted. “I don’t care what rank you have, you silly girl, you are causing a disaster! Get yourself off the street and into the Mission. Immediately, before you make this even worse!”


“Aaaand there we are,” Embras said in satisfaction, flourishing both his hands in an unnecessarily showy gesture as he snuffed out the spell mimicking a demon for Trissiny’s senses. “Brought to a halt at the Silver Mission, as directed. And now, I’m very eager to learn how you plan to extricate her from this fracas.”

He turned expectantly, then blinked his eyes in surprise. Where the kitsune had stood moments before, there was only the faint wind, leaving him alone upon the steeple.

“Huh,” he mused. “So that’s what that feels like. Vanessa’s right, that’s just irritating.”


“It’s not good,” Finchley said seriously. “The whole town’s in an uproar. It looks like she dashed through basically…well, everything. There’s people everywhere, all of ’em mad as hell… Your Grace, none of us have done civil disturbance duty, but it was covered in basic. This is exactly the kind of thing that can get really ugly.”

“I see,” Ravana mused. “How unfortunate… I believe it’s best that we keep our heads down for the time being. This will all be quieted soon enough; the Sheriff in this town is most admirably efficient.”

“What are you talking about?” Scorn exclaimed. “There is demon, Trissiny is chasing, people are in danger! We go to help!”

“There is a better than even chance that there is not actually a demon,” said Shaeine. “We discussed the theory that a false trace was being used to taunt Trissiny, remember?”

“She is not stupid,” the Rhaazke retorted. “If she does this, there is a real problem!”

“Maybe,” said Teal, frowning. “Remember what Malivette said? Hands of Avei apparently get…like coursing hounds, almost, around demonic energy. If she’s being manipulated anyway…”

The conversation broke off at a sudden swell of shouting from the town only a few dozen yards distant, the upraised voices obviously furious. They had stepped away from their table, toward one end of the alley, and now turned in unison to frown in the direction of the bellowing.

“This is too risky,” Moriarty said curtly. “Your Grace, I must respectfully insist that we retreat to the campus. We can’t protect you from an angry mob.”

“I am deeply gratified by your concern, Private Moriarty,” Ravana said, giving him a kind smile and placing one delicate hand on his arm. “And for future reference, that will be the last time you use the word ‘insist’ when addressing me. I cannot imagine we are in danger from—”

She broke off abruptly as Szith drew her sword and held the sinuously curved blade in front of her face, its edge pointed at the ground.

“Ravana,” the drow said in a tone just short of outright anger, “I will speak to you as a warrior and the daughter of a line of warriors going back millennia. Whatever titles you hold, you do not outrank your bodyguard unless you wish to die. He is entirely right; this is a ceremonial guard. They are not equipped or prepared to contain a riot. And if we are forced to defend ourselves against angry townspeople, the political repercussions will be an absolute disaster. We retreat—now. Do I need to carry you?”

Ravana stared up at her in uncharacteristically open surprise, blinking her eyes twice, before visibly gathering herself. “Yes. Well… Upon consideration, I believe I see your point. Forgive me, Private Moriarty. Ah…this way?”

“That leads to the prairie outside the town,” said Sekandar, frowning back at the opposite end of the alley. “We’ll be less likely to run into angry townsfolk there…but it’ll take a lot longer to circle around than the other way.”

“We are to run?” Scorn said plaintively. Teal reached up to pat her on the shoulder.

“Other way’s faster, but riskier,” Rook said tersely. “If we turn right here instead of heading out to the main square, then left, we’ll come out at the little square around the well. It’s a straight shot to the mountain stairs from there. Deeper into the town, though.”

“Most of the noise I hear is coming from the other direction,” said Sekandar, turning to Ravana. “I think it’d be better to take the faster path.”

“I concur,” she said, nodding. “Very well, let’s be off. Gentlemen, if you would?”

Rook and Finchley both saluted her, stepping to the head of the group as they set out, Moriarty waiting to fall behind and bring up the rear.

They moved in tense silence around the first corner, speeding up at another surge of angry shouting from behind them. Coming to a stop at the mouth of the alley leading out into the little plaza surrounding Last Rock’s central well, Finchley held up a hand to stop them while Rook carefully peered out.

“It’s clear,” he said quietly, then hesitated. “Ah…wait. Voices… Man, they’re passing by awfully close.”

Indeed the sound of furious shouting was clearly running adjacent to their route now, close enough that the orange flicker of torchlight was visible against the walls of the other side street opening onto the well yard.

“Go,” Ravana said quietly, having finally picked up the soldiers’ urgency. “We can’t hide here; make for the other side.”

The group moved in unison at her order, stepping out into the yard and making their way rapidly to the right, where the mountain loomed up beyond only a few more buildings.

They made it halfway before a dozen people burst into the square from the opposite side, two carrying torches, and all shouting.

Both groups came to a stop, staring at each other.

“Aww, shite,” Maureen muttered.

“Hey, you!” the man in the lead shouted, stalking toward them.


The interior of the Silver Mission was laid out somewhat like an Avenist temple in miniature, but with more informality. The white marble was softened by rugs and wall hangings, the windows were plain glass instead of stained, and there was no statue of Avei nor weapons displayed. Padded benches were set along the walls, and rather than a dais at the back of the main room, there were doors into the other rooms at the rear of the structure.

Trissiny looked quizzically around, still tense and on edge from her chase. “Where’s Sister—”

“Out trying to clean up the mess you were just busy making,” Sister Takli snapped, “along with, no doubt, Father Laws and the Sheriff. What were you thinking?”

“I was pursuing a demon!” Trissiny shot back. “That’s my calling!”

“You tore up half the town, damaged who knows how much property and accidentally assaulted at least two people that I know of, and that’s just what I know from listening to the shouts and talking to the young woman who fled here in a panic after you apparently demolished the Saloon!”

“Nothing’s demolished,” Trissiny said, affronted. “It was barely—”

“Well, you scared the waitress there badly enough that she fled to the Silver Mission,” Takli retorted. “She’s now hiding in the back, thanks to you. Trissiny, running through a town shouting about demons is bad enough even if you manage to do it without smashing through people’s property and kicking them out of your way!”

“What would you have done?” Trissiny shouted at her. “Just leave everyone in danger from a demon attack because it’s not convenient—”

“It’s called grand strategy!” Takli roared back. “You know this! You’ve had the finest strategic education the Sisterhood can provide—or so I thought! There is more to your calling than just destroying unclean things. You are part of something much greater than yourself, and your actions have consequences that reach far beyond yourself. Do you have any idea how much damage you just did? To the Sisterhood, to the University? To the Church, even? The Hand of Avei stampeding through a town like a madwoman is not acceptable!”

“How dare you lecture me!” Trissiny snarled. “Who are you, anyway? I wasn’t called by the goddess herself to have to explain myself to some—”

“If you are going to act like an undisciplined child, General Avelea, I will treat you as one! Either go for that sword or sit yourself down and take your medicine!”

“HEY!” Gabriel shouted.

“WHAT?” both women snarled in unison, rounding on him.

“Sorry to interrupt,” he said, “and I’m also sorry to drag us back out there, considering as mad as everyone is bound to be at you right now, Triss, but according to Vestrel there’s something happening on the other end of town that we had better go deal with.” Seemingly unfazed by their glares, he drew Ariel and turned to stride to the door. “Now.”


“What the hell is wrong with you kids!” Wilson shouted, stomping right up to the group and pointing an accusing finger at Ravana, who stood between and somewhat behind Rook and Finchley. “You think you can just do whatever the hell you want in this town?”

“Pardon me, sir,” she said calmly, “but perhaps you have us mistaken for someone else? We were having a quiet dinner until just minutes ago.”

“Oh, sure,” he sneered. “Walk around with your nose in the air all you want, but as soon as folk start tellin’ you off for it, suddenly you don’t know nothin’ about any trouble!”

“Wilson, calm your ass down,” a man in the group behind him said in exasperation. “Them kids weren’t anywhere near the ruckus; you know which one done it. It’s not like she ain’t distinctive.”

“They’re all alike!” Wilson raged, pressing forward and glaring at Ravana, who merely regarded him with a curious expression. “Well, I don’t aim to—”

He broke off, finding himself staring at the tip of Finchley’s staff, the soldier having stepped directly in front of him.

“Sir,” said Finchley coldly, “if you want to pick fights with paladins, that’s on your head, but I’ll have to insist that you step away from the Duchess.”

“Duchess, bah,” Wilson snarled, curling his lip. “I’m just about done takin’ shit from snotty brats I wouldn’t hire to wipe my boots.”

“You are addressing the sitting governor of Tiraan Province,” Moriarty said sharply, pressing through the students to join the others. “Back away.”

“I don’t see you makin’ me!”

“Wilson, you idjit!” a woman exclaimed. “Boys, don’t pay him no mind, you know how he is.”

“Ma’am, this is a different matter,” said Finchley, not taking his eyes off Wilson. “We are on duty, protecting Lady Madouri. You all need to disperse. Now.”

“Now, you just hold your horses,” another man said, stepping forward with a scowl. “Ain’t nobody here doin’ any harm. You got no call to order us around in our own town.”

“Gentlemen, please,” said Ravana, attempting to crane her neck to be seen around the soldiers. “Let us all step back and calm ourselves; there is no need for any—”

“Boy, you get that damn thing outta my face!” Wilson snapped, grabbing the end of Finchley’s staff and jerking it sideways.

Instantly, two more staves were thrust directly into his face, both suddenly bursting alight with charged energy ready to fire; at that range, the static made his hair stand up.

“ON THE GROUND!” Rook roared with uncharacteristic ferocity. “HANDS ON YOUR HEAD!”

“You are under arrest!” Moriarty bellowed. “For interfering with a functionary of the Tiraan Empire and assaulting an Imperial soldier! These are military charges—any resistance can and will be met with deadly force!”

“Wait!” Sekandar shouted fruitlessly. “Men, stop!”

Wilson, meanwhile, had had the bluster apparently spooked right out of him. Wide-eyed and suddenly ashen-faced, he dropped to his knees, whimpering incoherently and placing his hands atop his head.

Behind him, though, the other townspeople were pressing forward, most of them glaring and muttering angrily.

“This is turning very bad,” Scorn growled, trying to push forward.

“Stop,” Teal ordered, catching her arm.

“I will not stand here and be pushed and yelled by these!” the demon grated, shrugging her roughly off.

With a burst of orange flame, Vadrieny emerged, seizing the Rhaazke by the shoulders. “Stop at once before you make this worse!”

“Oh, love,” Shaeine whispered mournfully.

“We’re under attack!” Wilson wailed, throwing himself face-down in the dirt.

A furious outcry rippled through the crowd at Vadrieny’s sudden appearance, complaints and threats jumbling together too rapidly to be discerned from one another.

“This is your final warning!” Moriarty shouted, leveling his staff at the crowd. “Citizens, you will disperse immediately!”

And then, at one edge of the group, a boy of about twelve stooped and picked up a rock.

Rook took aim at him with his own weapon, even as his face went sickly pale.

“Oh, shit,” he whispered.

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10 – 27

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“What are you doing?” Scorn demanded suspiciously, drawing back her lips to bare fangs and scowling at Rook.

He skittered back a step, eyes widening. “I—oh, uh, I was just… I mean, it’s not like they trained us for honor guard duty, I was just trying to be polite…”

“Armed man sneaking up on my behind is being not polite,” the demon snapped.

“Scorn.” Ravana’s voice was gentle and soft, but nonetheless stilled the growing confrontation. “He’s correct, that was a polite gesture. It’s a custom, here, for a man to hold a lady’s chair for her as she sits.”

“…oh.” Scorn rolled her shoulders once, then nodded curtly at Rook. “Thank you, then, for custom.”

“You’re welcome,” he replied, still edging backward.

Ravana cleared her throat very softly, catching Scorn’s gaze and raising one eyebrow.

The demon drew in a deep breath, swelling menacingly, then let it out in a sigh. “I am sorry for snapping at you. I misunderstood.”

“No offense taken at all!” he said with forced cheer, retreating all the way to the wall. “Enjoy your dinner.”

“Wow,” Teal murmured. Shaeine gave her a sidelong little smile; Maureen grinned and winked.

“Is a good custom anyway,” Scorn added, seating herself. “Man showing respect to a woman. We do not have that at my home. Maybe I start it when I go back.”

“It’s actually a complicated question whether chivalrous gestures like that are respectful or just sexist,” Teal mused. “Or both.”

“Such cultural practices are often difficult to parse in such simple terms,” said Shaeine. “We have many such customs in Tar’naris, and while we largely eschew discriminatory practices that cause unnecessary strife, I must acknowledge that many of them are quite openly sexist.”

“Well, not everything discriminatory is overtly disruptive, necessarily,” Sekandar remarked.

“Indeed,” the drow replied, nodding to him. “In fact, I have had several very interesting conversations with Trissiny about this very subject.”

“If by ‘interesting’ ye mean ‘long,’ I don’t doubt it,” Maureen said cheerfully.

Sekandar hid a smile behind a discreet little cough. “By the way, where is Trissiny? I thought you were going to invite her, Ravana.”

“I did indeed,” the Duchess said serenely. “Invitations were extended to, among others, all three paladins and Princess Zaruda. Unfortunately, that forms a roster entirely of people who have no interest in dinner parties. In frankness, while I would have welcomed anyone who chose to attend, I mostly made the offer so that no one would feel excluded.”

“Ah,” the prince replied, keeping his expression even. Iris sighed softly, glancing down at her hands in her lap.

“I’m afraid the rest of the sophomore class begged off, citing prior commitments,” Ravana said calmly. “But no matter! We are here, and have the place to ourselves. It promises to be an enjoyable evening.”

The place in question was one of the closest things Last Rock had to a back alley: the space between the rear of the Ale & Wenches and the warehouse behind it, which was town property communally used by local businesses for storage. Ravana had somehow arranged for it to be not only scrupulously cleaned, but decorated with tasteful paper lanterns and bunches of hanging flowers. Their table and chairs were of the folding variety, but the tablecloth was a rich brocade. And the food was better than anything served in the A&W. They could hear (and smell) the town clearly, and had a clear view of more back buildings in one direction and the prairie in the other, but a little care had somehow transformed this spot into a peculiar kind of outdoor dining room.

“So,” Scorn said carefully, peering around, “this is a…formal occasion?”

“Oh, not particularly,” Ravana said airily, reaching for the basket of rolls. “I use the term ‘dinner party’ somewhat euphemistically. Really, more of a picnic.”

“Okay, good,” Scorn said, nodding. “I am… There are customs, yes? I don’t know them.”

“Precisely,” Ravana agreed, smiling and glancing over at Teal. “Consider it an opportunity for us to get to know one another better, without the pressure of expectations. And you can get some practice toward dining customs without any stakes.”

“I am not being laughed at,” Scorn said, dragging a scowl around the table.

“Most certainly not,” Sekandar agreed gallantly. “I’m sure no one here would dream of it.”

“Anyone who does will be asked to leave,” Ravana stated. “Which is why I was careful to invite only people who I trust not to do any such thing.”

“And notably,” Iris added, smugly pouring herself a glass of wine, “our other roommate is absent.”

“I begin to wonder if your fixation on Addiwyn isn’t making things in our room worse, with all respect,” said Szith. “I know her flaws as well as you, but she has been notably quiet since the first week of classes.”

“Well, of course,” Iris said acidly. “Since her behavior in the first week was utterly psychotic, that isn’t setting much of a bar, now is it.”

“She did save yer life in the Golden Sea trek,” Maureen pointed out.

“I’m sure that was just reflex,” Iris muttered.

“Granted, I wasn’t as close at the time,” said Sekandar, “but I never met anyone whose reflexes include grabbing a manticore by the tail to prevent it from stinging someone.”

“This roommate,” said Scorn. “I think I have met her. She is the rude elf?”

“That sums her up perfectly,” Iris agreed.

“Hm.” The demon nodded. “Why do you let her to act this way? Best to have things out, openly. If she is being mysterious and nasty, force a confrontation. Then you get the truth!”

A short silence fell.

“I quite agree,” Ravana said after a moment. “In fact, I said so at the time.”

“Aye,” Maureen added wryly. “An’ we tried that. Didn’t go so well.”

“Sometimes forcing a confrontation is the last thing you should do,” Teal said gently. “Um…on another note…are we really just gonna make the guys stand around while we eat?”

“We are on duty,” Moriarty said crisply from the other end of the alley. “Per the statutes governing use of Imperial soldiers by the Houses, our current arrangement with the Duchess constitutes a binding—”

“What he means,” Rook interrupted with a grin, “is that if her Grace wants to pay us to stand around, then stand we shall. You kids have fun, don’t worry about us. Frankly, I feel like we’re gettin’ away with something as it is. Not likely you’re in any danger in this town.”

“Why did you feel the need to hire them on as security, if you don’t mind my asking?” Shaeine inquired.

“I am not concerned for my physical safety, considering the company,” said Ravana, calmly buttering a roll. “Given the tensions in Last Rock, of late, I thought an official Imperial presence might keep things…calm.”

“Well, that’s a good thought, but maybe going a little overboard,” Iris remarked. “Nothing ever happens in this town.”

Teal and Shaeine exchanged a look, but said nothing. At the other end of the alley, Finchley turned to glance at his compatriots.

Rook leaned over and nudged Moriarty with an elbow. “Permission to mention the hellgate?”

“Oh, shut up,” Moriarty muttered.


“No trouble at all,” Tarvadegh assured him, “It’s not like there are any temple ceremonies at this hour, and I tend to stay up late reading, anyway. My time is yours. What’s on your mind, Gabe? Made a breakthrough on that shadow-casting?”

“Actually, this isn’t about training,” Gabriel said slowly, pacing down the center aisle of the underground Vidian sanctuary and finally sinking down onto a bench. “I… Well, I sort of wanted to talk. Are you available in your, y’know, priest-like capacity?”

“Absolutely,” Tarvadegh replied, sitting beside him. “Is this…something you can’t discuss with your friends?”

Gabriel sighed heavily and slumped forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. “Well…it’s about them, is the thing. Sort of.”

“Okay.” Tarvadegh just nodded, then waited silently for him to continue.

“What if…you knew something?” Gabriel said finally. “Something important…maybe even urgent. Something that affects the people closest to you, and…something you weren’t sure you could tell them?”

“Well, there are a lot of ‘somethings’ in that hypothetical,” the priest replied. “A whole lot depends on the situation. Gabe you don’t have to tell me any details that may be sensitive, rest assured. I’m here to help if I can, though.”

“The thing is…we’ve always been a group, y’know?” Gabriel sighed and absently drew Ariel, turning the sword over and over in his hands. “Maybe not at first, we had to learn to work together… But as things are, we’re a unit. My first instinct is always to trust the group, to bring them stuff like this so we can plan, but… I dunno, I have this feeling that it would be a bad idea in this case. The specific problem in question, I’m afraid, might provoke a, uh, fearful, ignorant reaction.”

“How so?” Tarvadegh asked mildly.

Gabriel glanced over at him. “…this is confidential, right?”

“Absolutely,” the priest said immediately. “Assume that Vidius hears anything you have to say here, but confession is sacred in all faiths I know of. I wouldn’t reveal your thoughts even to Lady Gwenfaer.”

“Well, there’s some heavy stuff going on,” Gabriel said, watching the light flicker dimly across Ariel’s blade. “The…Black Wreath is sniffing around us. Rather aggressively. And yeah, that sounds like exactly the kind of thing I should warn somebody about, right? Except… Based on what I know, I really think it’s smartest to take a step back and let them, for now. And…that would be a really, really hard sell. Even Toby probably wouldn’t go for that; Trissiny would absolutely lose her mind. Teal and Vadrieny have their own issues with the Wreath, and after what happened in Veilgrad, we’ve all got cause to be nervous about them. But I’m also thinking about Veilgrad, and the Wreath, who they are and what they want. And in this case…they are specifically not trying to hurt us. They seem to be trying to provoke a reaction.”

“That sounds like a rather hostile action in and of itself,” Tarvadegh observed.

Gabriel nodded. “But I’ve got indication their motive may actually be helpful… And there are other things. Professor Ekoi is circling them like a hawk, which I’m pretty sure means Professor Tellwyrn knows about this, too. And neither of them has done anything. What I think… I think the right thing to do would be to quietly watch and see what they do. And I think my friends will insist on going on the attack. And…I think that would be a disaster.”

“Can I ask a few questions?” Tarvadegh asked mildly.

“Sure, of course.”

“I suspect I know this already, but what source of information do you have that your classmates don’t?”

Gabriel grimaced. “Yeah, well…that’s another thing. I think certain issues may come up about the fact that I’m having valkyries spy on people. Do you… This isn’t some kind of abuse of my position, is it, Val?”

“I doubt you have to worry about that,” the cleric assured him, placing a hand on his shoulder. “You can’t really make the reapers do anything—if they choose to help you, take it as a sign of their favor. And additionally, anything you do involving them is all but guaranteed to have the god’s attention, so be assured he would let you know if he disapproved.”

“Okay, good.” Gabriel sighed, nodding. “That’s actually quite a relief.”

“Whether it’s an abuse of anyone’s trust is another matter,” Tarvadegh continued. “A paladin’s role is a martial one more often than not, and there are circumstances in which gathering intelligence is necessary and appropriate. Especially against the Black Wreath.”

“And…” Gabriel paused to swallow. “…what about certain new priestesses of Vidius and Avei who may have moved to the town recently?”

For a long moment, Tarvadegh stared at him in silence. Finally, he leaned back, his expression growing thoughtful.

“I’ve not been in a hurry to introduce you to some of the more complex inner workings of the cult,” he said at last. “Since our earliest practice sessions, it’s seemed to me that you do better being yourself first and a Vidian second. There must be a reason Vidius called our first paladin from outside the faith. But as a general rule, Gabriel… This kind of thing is not at all unusual within our ranks. The doctrine of masks and false faces makes trust a thing that we perceive differently than most others. We don’t value it less—if anything, we value it more. But within the cult, there is an expectation that no one is going to tell you the full truth about themselves, their ambitions, or their activities. If you’re spying on a priestess of Vidius, for whatever reason… Well. Without saying anything personal about the woman in question, just by virtue of her position, she’s probably done as much to others.”

“Have you?” Gabriel asked, frowning slightly.

Tarvadegh gave him a grin. “Yes, of course. Though for future reference, that’s a question you’ll probably want to avoid asking people outright.”

“Yeah, that occurred to me as soon as I said it,” Gabriel agreed, wincing.

“And as I said, if you’re using valkyries to do this, you would be told if Vidius disapproved of your activities. If anything, I’m encouraged to see you taking some initiative with intelligence-gathering. Now, spying on a priestess of Avei is another matter. To my knowledge, the Avenists have no craft that could detect a valkyrie’s presence, but for future reference, absolutely do not try that on a Salyrite.”

“Noted.”

“And be wary of the likely repercussions if you are discovered. The only cults that actively spy on the Sisterhood are the Black Wreath and the Thieves’ Guild. You have probably heard from Trissiny what they think about that.”

“Yep,” he said ruefully.

“But back to your original question,” Tarvadegh said in a more serious tone, again squeezing his shoulder. “First, let me say that I’m very glad to see you thinking carefully before acting. Honestly, Gabriel, in general I’ve observed that you thinking of yourself as thoughtless is more of a fault of yours than actually being thoughtless, though thoughtlessness is still a real issue you have. I, uh, sort of lost control of that sentence. Need me to re-phrase?”

“No, I think I got it,” Gabriel said, grinning. “And you’re pretty much not wrong.”

“Okay, good,” Tarvadegh replied with a smile. “So yes, I’m glad you’re thinking about this first. However, the main reaction I take from it is that you don’t seem to respect your friends very much.”

Gabriel straightened up, his eyes widening, and stared at Tarvadegh in mute dismay.

“Think about it,” the priest went on gently. “These are some of the most dangerous people in the world—and, as you have seen firsthand, some of the most effective. Sure, they have their foibles. Just from your own descriptions, I know of several, and yes, I can see how the information you’re withholding could generate some rather strident reactions from several of them. But ultimately, none of them are stupid, and you aren’t without flaws. Gabriel, when you decide to determine who knows what, you’re effectively trying to control what people do. And that means you’ve placed yourself at the head of the group—a group which you’re now trying not even to lead, but to manipulate.”

“But…but…” Gabriel clenched his jaw, swallowed heavily, then lowered his eyes.

“And,” Tarvadegh said kindly, “I know that isn’t what you intend. Honestly, as a Vidian paladin…well, you’re unprecedented, but if someone had told me ten years ago there would be a Vidian paladin, I’d have pictured someone doing exactly that. The problem here, as I see it, is that your actions are in conflict with your ethics and your desires. I think you’ve stumbled into this box accidentally, not out of a desire to control the situation. That, in my opinion, is the root of your problem.”

“Yeah,” Gabriel said quietly. “That’s…wow. Holy crap, I’m an asshole.”

“As we were just saying,” Tarvadegh said wryly, “you’re a little thoughtless. People make mistakes. Whether or not you’re an asshole is a function of what you do next.”

“Right. You’re right.” He drew in a deep breath and let it out explosively. “Yeah, I have to tell them everything. I should’ve just done that from the beginning…crap, this is gonna be a difficult conversation.”

“The important ones usually are.”

“Thanks, Val. This…was exactly what I needed to hear.”

“Well, that’s why they pay me the big bucks,” Tarvadegh said with a grin. “That’s a joke. They don’t actually—”

He broke off and both of them looked at the ceiling as the sound of hoofbeats thundered by overhead.

“What the…” Gabriel frowned. “It’s after dark, who’d be…” He trailed off, glancing to the side at the invisible figure which had just dived in from above. “Oh, shit. Trissiny.”


“Bishop Syrinx, may I have a word with you?”

Basra glanced over at Ildren, who had just emerged from the rear door of their borrowed townhouse, but did not pause in stretching. Against the far wall of the rear courtyard, Jenell also glanced up, then immediately resumed packing away their practice swords and surreptitiously rubbing the several bruises she’d just acquired.

The house, though its décor was purely Viridill, was built in the Tiraan style, which meant a short public garden in the front, by the street, and a walled courtyard behind. Since this particular house sat on a corner, bordered by streets on two sides, it was less private than some—they could hear the traffic outside from the courtyard, and there was no telling what anyone had thought of the sounds of two women going at each other with wooden swords for the last hour.

“Certainly,” Basra said after leaving her to stew for a calculated moment. “I’m about to head inside, though; make it quick, if you please.”

Ildrin glanced over at Jenell. “In private, please?”

“I’m willing to indulge you, but not the point of going out of my way,” Basra said brusquely. “And Covrin is my assistant; she’s likely to end up hearing anything you have to say, anyway. I have a habit of venting to her about the various time-wasters I’ve had to deal with in the course of a day.”

Ildrin clenched her jaw for a moment. “…fine. What is your problem with me? I hardly know you, but I came here to offer my assistance when asked, and you have been nothing but dismissive and hostile.”

“Very well, you want the simple truth?” Despite her claim to be on the way inside, Basra turned and strolled over to a stone bench set against the courtyard’s far wall, seating herself. “Working where I do, in the Universal Church, dealing largely with the results of Archpope Justinian’s various…agendas…I have incidentally become acquainted with a number of individuals whom he considers useful and trustworthy. Yours is a name that has repeatedly come to my attention, both in the Church itself and from sources within the Sisterhood. You have a well-established reputation, Sister Falaridjad, as someone interested in Justinian’s cause as much as Avei’s. If not more so.”

“That is a false dichotomy and you know it!” Ildrin exclaimed. “I have never been anything but loyal to Avei and the Sisterhood. But yes, I see a great deal of sense and virtue in the messages that the Archpope has put forth during his tenure, and I’d like to think that’s reflected in my actions. So why is this a problem?” She took a step forward, pointing an accusing finger at Basra. “You have the same reputation, and far more than I! I’d say anyone in the Sisterhood or the Legions would contend you’re as much Justinian’s creature as Rouvad’s. I’ve heard more than a few rumors that’s the reason you’re now out here. What, exactly, is your problem with me?”

“I have no problem with you,” Basra said in perfect calm. “I barely know you, nor have any particular interest in you. My problem is with a Universal Church element meddling in this matter. From the Sisterhood’s perspective, intervention by the Church is not appropriate unless called for. From mine…” Her voice and expression abruptly hardened considerably. “If Justinian or you have any thoughts of ‘helping’ me make a name for myself out here to restore Commander Rouvad’s high opinion of me, any attempt to do so would horribly backfire. And then I will be angry.”

“Your Grace,” Jenell said, staring at a spot in the far corner of the courtyard, where dust had begun to swirl upward in a slow spiral that had nothing to do with the very faint movements of air that drifted over the walls.

“Furthermore,” Basra barreled on, making a silencing gesture at Jenell, “Justinian, at least, is wise enough to know that any attempt by him to intervene would only worsen matters. Which means you’re either here on your own initiative, or far more likely, this is Branwen’s idea. Allow me to let you in on a secret, in case you haven’t noticed: Branwen is an idiot. Letting her graduate beyond serving Izara flat on her back has been a sad waste of the only use she has.”

Ildrin narrowed her eyes. “Whatever issues the two of you have, she has the same reputation among Church-related circles. She’s trusted, and loyal to his Holiness. So, yes, when she approached me about this, I was glad to offer my services.”

Basra snorted. “I’ll consider my point made.”

“Ma’am?” Jenell said in alarm, having put down the practice swords and picked up her metal one. The dust column had silently swelled to a height greater than a person, and was coalescing slowly into a humanoid figure.

“Fine, whatever!” Ildrin exclaimed. “You can still control the situation—it’s not like I’m going to run around trying to slay elementals behind your back! Just give the orders and I’ll follow them; that was the job I signed on for. There is no reason for you to be so hostile! I came here in good faith. Does it matter to you at all how this affects me?”

Basra stared blankly at her. Jenell started to speak again, but the Bishop made a swatting gesture in her direction. “Of course. Sure, of course your perspective matters. But not at the expense of the mission. I’ve told you already, Falaridjad, just be ready; when trouble arises, you’ll get your chance to prove yourself.”

“And in the meantime,” the priestess said bitterly, “I’m to continue being treated like a—”

“Basra!” Jenell barked.

Basra snapped her head sideways to glare at her, and in the next moment was on her feet, falling into a ready stance. Jenell threw her sheathed sword, which she deftly caught and drew, tossing the scabbard down onto the bench.

Despite being formed from dust, the massive figure’s slow movements made a soft grinding of stone against stone, and indeed it looked, now, like it was assembled from irregular chunks of rock. Towering over eight feet tall and proportioned in a way that would have been imposing even had it not been made of boulders, the elemental dwarfed both them and the courtyard itself. As Jenell backed up toward Basra, it turned to face the three women. The lower of the slabs of rock that formed its head shifted, opening up an obvious mouth, and a deep rumble sounded from within.

“Well, Falaridjad, now’s your chance,” Basra said quietly. “Don’t make any moves to agitate it, but on my signal, I want you to draw as much divine energy as you can. Weakening it is the only chance we have against that thing.”

“Will that be enough?” Jenell asked, her voice trembling.

“We are about to find out,” Basra said, apparently in total calm. “Try to circle around, slowly, toward the door. If this doesn’t work, we’ll have to run, and it can’t fit…”

She trailed off as the door to the house opened and Ami came strolling out, strumming a soft tune on her guitar and looking perfectly unconcerned. She ambled out into the courtyard, beginning to sing a lilting tune in elvish.

The rock elemental had been shifting toward the three women, its posture clearly aggressive, but suddenly it went quiet, turning to focus on the bard. Another rumble sounded from within, but this time a very soft one; it took one ponderous step toward her, then sank slowly down onto its knees, peering down at her.

Ami smiled calmly up at it, continuing to play, but the words of her song changed.

“Oh, don’t stop planning on my account,

You were really going strong!

Get an idea and please spit it out—

I can’t keep this up for long.”

“Okay…same plan applies,” Basra said. “Move toward the door, slowly so as not to agitate it. Talaari can back inside last, and it’ll be trapped out there.”

“I’m pretty sure that thing can beat down the wall and get out into the city,” Ildrin said tersely.

“And we’ll deal with that,” Basra replied. “but first we have to survive, and that means not being trapped in a box with it.”

The back door abruptly banged open again and Schwartz came skittering out, Meesie clinging to his hair. “Your Grace! Bishop Syrinx! My wards have picked up a major elemental ohhhhh, shit.”

He slid to a halt, frozen and staring up at the elemental, which had turned its head to peer at him, beginning to straighten up.

Ami’s fingers danced nimbly across her strings, and her voice glided upward into a deft arpeggio that seemed almost to fill the courtyard with light. The elemental turned back to face her, seeming to relax again, and shuffled forward a couple of grinding steps, bending closer.

“Ah, good, our specialist,” Basra said sharply. “Schwartz, do something about this.”

“Right,” Schwartz said weakly, staring up at the elemental, then physically shook himself. “Right! I can…yes, I think I can banish it. How did that thing get in here?”

“It didn’t start like that,” Jenell said. “It formed from dust.”

“Dust to stone! That’s amazing! Whoever summoned this must be—ah, yes, right, on topic. Yes, I can still banish it, provided it’s in a weakened state. Ladies, when I give the word, I’ll need you to channel as much raw divine energy at it as possible—but not until I’m prepared! That will make it very angry.”

“Covrin, go get Branwen out here,” Basra said curtly. Jenell darted through the door into the kitchen without another word.

Schwartz, meanwhile, knelt on the ground and pulled several small pouches and vials from within his sleeves, while Meesie scampered down his arm to cling to his hand. “Ami, can you keep it in that position, please? I’ll just need a couple of minutes.”

Ami didn’t even glance at him, nor allow her relaxed posture and kind smile to waver, but switched again to a stanza in Tanglish.

“I hardly have it on a leash!

Be quick about it, Schwartz.

Fine control’s outside my reach.

Nothing rhymes with Schwartz.”

“Warts?” Ildrin suggested; Basra made a slashing motion at her.

Schwartz, meanwhile, had picked Meesie up and bodily dipped her in a bag of powder, held her up to whisper into her twitching ear, then set her back down. The fire-mouse immediately dashed toward the towering elemental, leaving behind a trail of sparkling powder on the ground. Upon reaching it, she began running around it, first in a simple circle, then in more complicated patterns. Gradually, a full spell circle began to form around the elemental’s feet, positioned so that it was entirely inside it, and Ami was just barely within its outer edge.

“Don’t!” Basra said urgently when Ami took a half-step back. “It’s fixated on you, Talaari; it’ll follow you. Retreat when we’re ready to move.”

The bard made no response, continuing to play, sing, and gaze placidly up at the rock elemental.

It made another soft rumble, then reached over with one huge, clumsy hand to grab a small rose bush from nearby. This it ripped right out of the ground, and set down next to Ami.

Meesie’s powder was not running out, fortunately, but it took the tiny elemental time to weave in and out, forming the circle. Schwartz kept his eyes focused on her, expression intent; Ami played on, and Basra stood with her sword at the ready, a half-step in front of Ildrin, whose eyes darted nervously about.

Jenell ran back out the kitchen door, trailed a half-moment later by Branwen, who stared at the scene intently but without apparent alarm.

“Schwartz?” Basra said quietly.

“Almost,” he murmured, beckoning. Meesie dashed back to him, and he gave her a small handful of nuts, which she stuffed into her mouth, making her cheeks bulge comically. “Just another moment…”

Meesie ran back to the spell circle, and made a quick but halting trip around it, pausing every few feet to retrieve an acorn from within her mouth with her nimble front paws and place it in a specific spot on the circle. The whole time, Ami kept up her singing.

The effect was clearly beginning to waver, however. The elemental made another rumbling sound, shifting as if in a shrug. It began clambering back upright.

“Schwartz,” Basra said urgently. For the first time, Ami glanced aside at him, betraying nervousness.

“Done!” he said, as Meesie dashed back toward him. “Swamp it with light and I’ll do the rest!”

“On my signal,” Basra said rapidly, “you two join me at the edge of that circle, and you get out of there, Talaari. Three…two…now!”

She rushed forward, her aura flaring alight, with Branwen and Ildrin flanking her. Ami skittered backward, keeping up her strumming for good measure, but between that and the sudden wash of divine energy, the elemental’s calm was effectively shattered. It threw up one arm to shield its head from the glow, letting out a low, awful roar of displeasure.

Shifting its body around, it drew back its other arm, clearly preparing a devastating punch at Basra, Branwen and Ildrin.

“Herschel!” Jenell cried.

“Got it!” he said, planting his hand, palm-down, on the very edge of the trail Meesie had made toward the elemental, the one feeding into the circle itself.

Rather than anything rising up from the circle, a column of white light slammed down from the sky, filling the space defined by the spell circle and momentarily blotting out the elemental from sight. It let out another unearthly roar, and suddenly the light vanished.

Where it had stood, there was only dust. It didn’t hold together even for a second, collapsing to the ground and washing over them in a cloud that seemed to fill the courtyard. All six staggered backward from it, coughing and spluttering, Ami trying to hold her guitar overhead and out of reach of the tide of grit.

In seconds, however, the dust dissipated as well, seeming to melt back into thin air. Only a few swirls of powder were left on the ground, in and around the remains of Schwartz’s banishment circle. A double handful of fragrant mint leaves drifted on the air, settling gradually to the ground.

Branwen caught one. “What on earth…?”

“Oh, ah, that’s mine,” Schwartz said awkwardly. “Well, I mean, you’re welcome to have it, if you want, but that was conjured by my… That is, it’s perfectly safe! All my doing, nothing to do with whoever called that thing here.”

“Good work, all of you,” Basra said, lowering her sword to her side. “Especially you, Schwartz, and you, Talaari.”

“All in a day’s work,” he said modestly.

“Well, I do have a few uses, if I may say so,” Ami replied with a smug smile. “Don’t think of me as just the bitch with the nice ones.”

“Oh!” Scwhartz’s eyes widened. “Bishop Syrinx! I came out here to tell you—it wasn’t just here! I detected multiple elementals appearing—all over the city!”

In the sudden silence that fell over the courtyard, they finally took note of the sounds drifting in from outside. The normal mild clamor of early evening traffic had been replaced by a distant but distinct cacophony of crashing, splashes, and screams.

“Stop!” Basra barked as Ildrin whirled to dash for the courtyard’s side door. “Running out there with no plan will only make things worse. Back into the house, grab any weapons or supplies you need, and meet at the front door in two minutes. We will find what’s going on and put a stop to it, but in an organized fashion. Go!”

They all turned and moved toward the door, following the Bishop, who suited her words with action by being the first one through. Jenell paused and backtracked a moment to retrieve Basra’s scabbard from the side bench where it still lay.

“You, ah, might want to be careful with the b-word, Ami,” Schwartz said, following the bard in at the tail of their procession. “Avenists really don’t like it.”

“Yes, I know,” she said, turning to give him a coy smile. “Ildrin definitely didn’t, I could tell. But Bishop Syrinx, who is never too shy to express her displeasure about anything? Not even a hint that she’d noticed.” She turned forward again, her smile only broadening as she stepped back into the shadows of the house. “Interesting, is it not?”

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The manor gates were standing open when they arrived. The group paused for a moment, glancing around at one another before Darling shrugged, grinned insouciantly, and strolled on in. There was nothing for them to do but follow, Ingvar with a soft sigh.

Though the thief made a (somewhat casually-paced) beeline for the door, Joe and Ingvar carefully studied the grounds as they trailed along in his wake. The gravel walk was even and clean, the house apparently well-repaired, its partial blanket of climbing ivy even cleared away from windows. It didn’t look like a particularly well-maintained property apart from that, however. There was no landscaping of any kind, and the lawn was essentially a walled-in patch of wild prairie in the forest, thick with chest-high grasses, bramble bushes and even occasional small trees that had clearly grown up within the last ten years or so, due to no one bothering to clear them out. There was no statuary, no garden or porch furniture, and the only flowers appeared haphazardly on the edge of the walk where the taller grasses didn’t quite blot out their access to sunlight.

They all stopped again at the top of the short flight of steps to the manor’s doors, because those doors opened before they got close enough to knock. Well, one of the double set did, revealing a beautiful young woman in an expensive red gown. She regarded them with a faint, knowing smile.

“Good afternoon!” Darling said with a grin and a bow. “Would I have the pleasure of addressing Lady Malivette?”

“Hardly,” she said, her smile widening. “But please come in, your Grace. She is expecting you.” With that, she stepped aside, gesturing them demurely through.

“You’re too kind!” Darling, again, strolled right on ahead as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Joe and Ingvar exchanged a significant look before following, hands straying close to holstered wands and tomahawks.

The woman in red stood aside to watch them with that calm smile as they clustered together inside, pushing the door shut as soon as they were clear of it. Inside, the entrance hall of Dufresne Manor was more of the same: clean, well-repaired, but starkly bare of furnishings and apparently not much cared for. The three gave it only a glance, however, being focused upon the person waiting for them at the base of the stairs, directly ahead.

It could only be Malivette Dufresne; the crimson eyes were a dead giveaway. She also wore an exquisite but severe black gown that suited the vampire mystique, but apart from that, she seemed to be just a petite young woman who could be quite pretty if she’d get a good night’s sleep, eat several regular meals and get some sun. Ingvar, naturally, was not about to voice that assessment.

“Bishop Darling,” the lady of the house intoned in a silky contralto voice. “What an interesting visit. I can’t recall the last time a cleric deemed me desirable company—though, now that I’ve said it aloud, it occurs to me that the disciples of Eserion aren’t exactly the standard run of clergy, are you?”

“Why, we take pride in not being the standard run of anything, m’lady,” Darling said with another grandiose bow. “I apologize for dropping in on you like this…though apparently we’re not quite as unexpected as I was expecting.”

“No indeed,” the vampire said with a broad, friendly smile which was both uncharacteristic of the nobles Ingvar had observed, and unnerving in that it showed off her elongated canines. He suspected that was no accident. Malivette oozed forward with a slinky gate that might have been alluring under other circumstances. “This has been the day for unexpected visitations—you’re not half so surprising as what told me to be on the lookout for you. Tell me, your Grace, do you know what a shadow elemental is?”

Darling blinked. “I…confess I haven’t the faintest idea. Sorry, elementals are a bit over my head.”

“I didn’t either,” said the vampire, her smile fading. “Let me tell you, it’s a hell of a thing to have breezing into your living room all of a sudden.”

“And we are exceedin’ly sorry to’ve been such an imposition, however indirectly, ma’am,” Joe said politely, hat in hand. “It’s clear you don’t care for visitors. We’ll aim not to take up a hair more of your time than absolutely necessary.”

Malivette turned her red eyes on him, tilting her head inquisitively. “That’s clear, is it? Now, what makes you think that?”

Joe glanced at Darling, who merely raised his eyebrows, expression a blank mask of curiosity. The Kid cleared his throat. “Well, ah… Just puttin’ together the numbers, so t’speak. Your home is in very good repair, an’ so’s the outer wall. None o’ that’s cheap for a property this size, which means the apparent state of disrepair’s deliberate. Few times I’ve seen rich places fallen on hard times, the furnishings were all kept, an’ all gettin’ shabby together. I reckon you affect a tumbledown aesthetic on purpose, to discourage people comin’ over.”

“Why, what a sharp eye you have,” Malivette cooed, “Mr…?”

“Jenkins, ma’am. Joseph P. Jenkins. Just payin’ attention and applyin’ logic. Your pardon if I step outta turn, I mean no disrespect.”

“Oh, pish tosh,” she said, waving a hand airily. “I do say it’s a delight to meet a young man your age with a sense of did you say Joseph P. Jenkins?”

He swallowed. “I, ah…yes, I did.”

“Well, as I don’t live and breathe!” the vampire enthused, grinning broadly. “The Sarasio Kid, in my front room! What a day this is turning out to be! The Kid, the Bishop, and…” Her gaze fell on Ingvar. “I’m certain this is quite a story, too.”

“This is Brother Ingvar,” Darling said mildly. “Huntsman of Shaath.”

“Brother?” Malivette looked him up and down, and Ingvar refrained from bristling, having had far too much practice at it. “Okay. Quite a story, then.”

“And one with which we won’t bore you,” Ingvar said flatly. “Your pardon, lady, but these gentlemen seek an audience with you; I am merely traveling with them. I’m afraid I’ve nothing to offer or ask of you, and will not trouble you more than I must simply by being here.”

“There’s no need to be defensive, Brother Ingvar,” the vampire said with a faint smile. “We all have our need for privacy—believe me, you will rarely meet someone who understands that better than I.” She transferred her gaze back to Darling. “So! What wind blows you to my door, Bishop?”

“Well,” he said with an easy smile, “we’re following up on a trail of old events, your Grace. I understand you had some houseguests recently!”

“Mm hmm,” she murmured, watching him closely now. “The sort of houseguests about whom lots of people are curious. It’s not my policy to divulge anyone else’s secrets any more than my own—and that’s even for people who aren’t watched over by a certain archmage with an apocalyptic temper.”

“By all means,” he said smoothly, “I’ve no intention of digging into the students’ business; we won’t be at all offended if you can’t tell us anything. It’s not they who chiefly concern us, anyhow. The events in question, though…” He sighed, glancing back at the others. “Well, the truth is, Joe and I are part of a group of folks who were trying to prevent disaster from breaking out here.”

“Good job,” she said, deadpan.

Darling chuckled ruefully. “Yeah, you’ve hit it on the head, my lady. I was the one in charge of planning, Joe more a boots-on-the-ground type. I completely missed my mark—had everybody nosing around up north of Desolation. I misread the intelligence and didn’t pay enough attention to Veilgrad until matters here disintegrated so far there was nothing to be done, except by those already present.” He sighed. “I’ll have to accept your condemnation, Lady Dufresne, for failing you, even if you had no idea I was trying to help. What we are doing here, now, is investigating what happened, why, and at whose behest. The goal is to get a better handle on events so as not to make such mistakes in the future. But it already being well too late to be of use to you, here, so… As I said, I’ll take no offense if you show us the door at this point.”

“Hmm,” she mused, studying him thoughtfully. She turned her unsettling gaze on Joe, and then on Ingvar. “Hmm. Mm hmm hm hmm. Ruby!” The vampire looked past them at the woman in red. “Would you be good enough to show our guests into the dining room?”

“Of course, my lady,” said Ruby, curtsying gracefully to the men when they turned to her. “If you will follow me, please, gentlemen?”

“Most comfortable room in the house that I don’t sleep in,” said Malivette cheerfully. “I’ll be with you in just a tick, lads.”

Abruptly she exploded in a cloud of swirling, squeaking mist. Ingvar leapt back, drawing a tomahawk by reflex, as a swarm of bats whirled out of the place where the vampire had stood. Squealing and chattering, they fluttered up to the second-floor landing and down a hall.

“I apologize for the mistress of the house,” Ruby said calmly. “Social isolation and a rather quirky sense of humor make her, at times, startling to company. This way, please?”

“Put that up,” Darling said in a low tone as he followed after her. “What’d you think you were gonna do, chop down the bats?”

“Ease up, your Grace,” Joe said to him, equally softly but with an edge. “It’s instinct. Makes perfect sense to me, an’ I doubt the lady took offense. She seems too intelligent not to know exactly what she’s doin’ with antics like that.”

“Fair enough,” Darling said with a shrug, and offered Ingvar a smile.

The Huntsman slipped his ax back into its belt loop, not acknowledging him.

Ruby led them through a side door into a dining room that was very like the entrance hall in aesthetics—which was to say, clean and bare. A fireplace stood at one end of the room and a long table lined with chairs down its center.

Malivette, somehow, was already waiting for them.

“There you are,” she said cheerfully. “I was afraid you’d gotten lost. I have something for you, Bishop Darling.”

She was, indeed, holding an object, which she lightly tossed to the Bishop. Darling caught it deftly, turning the staff over in his hands; Ingvar and Joe both craned their necks over his shoulder to peer at it. Though about the size of an Army-issue battlestaff, it looked more like a scepter, capped at both ends with large crystals and with hefty spirals of gold embossing half its length. There was an obvious clicker mechanism in the usual place, however.

“I’ve been wanting to get rid of that for weeks,” their hostess said. “My plan was always to get it into the hands of the Thieves’ Guild, but our local representative is a little too closely tied to the Army for my comfort, and well… That makes things complicated with regard to that weapon.”

“Weapon?” Joe said, raising his eyebrows.

“Complicated?” Darling added. “How so?”

Malivette grinned again, which was no less disconcerting. “You boys had best grab some seats—this might take a while. Upon consideration, I believe I’ll be happy to tell you all about what went down in Veilgrad recently. Ruby, bring the gentlemen some refreshments, would you? This might take…a while.”


 

Though the revival had ended, a festive atmosphere lingered over Last Rock, chiefly due to the efforts of the remaining religious institutions to capitalize on the spirit. The Universal Church chapel had remained open and fully staffed with a few priests from the capital lingering in town for that purpose; Father Laws had wisely avoided the temptation to give extra sermons, instead having organized a bake sale. The lure of fresh baked goods, donated by the ladies of the town, and freely available root beer and apple cider had kept people streaming steadily through the chapel and its yard all afternoon, once usual working hours had passed. Students trickled down from the mountain, too, their own classes being done for the day.

With the tents and representatives from the other cults having packed up and left, Last Rock’s newest additions were doing a brisk business, too. The high spirits of the revival lingered but the competition had not, and the new Vidian temple and the Silver Mission were both centers of activity. People clustered and swirled around the Mission’s grounds, on the outskirts of town near the Rail platform, but by far the biggest concentrations of activity were on a different side of the outskirts, between the Vidian amphitheater and the chapel, which were not far separate. In that region, shops along the short stretch of street linking the two had set out festive stands (several complete with free samples), and a sort of impromptu town picnic had formed on the prairie around the temple.

The Vidians themselves were putting on a performance. It was an old morality play, one of those stories with a ham-fisted message which everyone had already heard anyway, but not for nothing was Vidius the patron of false faces; the performers put effort and style into the production, and Val Tarvadegh, the chief priest attached to this temple, was a man with a robust sense of humor, which colored the proceedings to their benefit. Many townsfolk were clustered in and around the small amphitheater, actually watching the show, even as others milled about on the grass, sharing food and gossip.

Big, Church-sponsored festivals were fine and dandy, but now was a day for the good folk of Last Rock to have their own shindig. If a few muttered and cast dark looks at the University students in their midst, they kept it discreet, and nobody seemed to pay them any notice.

A dozen yards or so distant from the amphitheater, another cluster of people had formed around a large blanket laid out on the grass, replete with dishes brought by various citizens. Some stood or sat near it, grazing and chit-chatting, and a handful of children chased each other around nearby, pausing periodically when some adult or other scolded them, though they didn’t seem to be bothering the performers. Quite a few people were gathered on the far side of the blanket, however, watching another impromptu show at the edge of the tallgrass.

It was a little unclear what exactly Juniper was trying to do with her jackalope, expect give him some exercise. She had Jack on a harness and leash—itself a highly impressive feat to those who knew anything of the creatures and their temperament—and was running up and down, back and forth, and in circles with him. Periodically she would give him commands to stop, or to leap, which he occasionally chose to obey. Generally, Jack didn’t seem to mind bounding alongside his companion, and he made short work of the peanuts she gave him after every successful “trick,” but based on his performance he had clearly not learned to associate obedience with reward. It probably didn’t help that she gave him encouraging scratches behind the ear even when he refused to jump on command.

They made for an amusing spectacle anyway, particularly the dryad. With her green hair flying in the breeze, garbed in just her usual sundress, Juniper was an impressive physical specimen, which the exercise just served to highlight. It probably helped to encourage her audience that her antics were bouncy in multiple senses. A few of the women of the town were dividing annoyed looks between the dryad and their male companions. In a slightly separate group off to one side, several University kids loitered around, chitchatting and eyeballing Juniper with even less discretion.

“Am I alone in sensing a certain…coldness?” Sekandar Aldarasi asked quietly, eying the nearby citizens.

“What, you mean the townies?” Chase replied, glancing at them before returning his gaze to Juniper. “Nah, that’s about typical. They always keep a little aloof.”

“You are not alone, Sekandar,” Ravana said calmly. “We’ve been here a relatively short time, but I have noted a subtle yet consistent change in the way the locals look at us since yesterday.”

“Since Bishop Snowe’s very interesting speech,” Sekandar said, nodding.

“Well, maybe you’re right,” Chase said with a grin. “I mean, who’d know better? They’re your people, after all.”

Sekandar barked a short laugh. “Hah! These? The mostly Stalweiss descendants of Heshenaad’s armies, with a culture and dialect heavily influence by the gnomes and plains elves? When the Great Plains were officially claimed, most of them were divided into new provinces; this area was appended to Calderaas only because House Tirasian needed to placate my family after the skulduggery following the Enchanter Wars. The frontiersmen are no one’s people but their own. I think they rather insist on that point.”

“Y’know, this is a lot like one of Tellwyrn’s lectures,” Chase commented. “Except—and I never thought I would say this—she’s prettier than you.”

“Well, you can see the evidence before you,” Sekandar said dryly. “Everyone seems to find Juniper far more interesting than their prince.

Ruda snorted. “Be fair, now. If you had knockers like that, they’d be all over you.”

“Yeah?” Chase turned to her, grinning. “You’ve got knockers like that, and nobody’s bothering you, I see.”

“Maybe because I don’t wave ’em around for everybody to gawk at.”

“Yes, and I’ve been meaning to speak to you about that, now that you mention it. A rack of such proportions is a gift from the gods, Punaji. You have a certain obligation to share—”

“On the subject of confusing me with Juniper, Masterson,” Ruda interrupted. “she’s the one who needs a good reason to beat your ass into the ground.”

“Oh!” Chase bonked himself on the forehead with the heel of his hand. “Right, sorry. I always get those mixed up.”

Ravana gave him a very long, very cool look from the corner of her eye, which he appeared not to notice. Beside her, Szith edged subtly closer, casually flexing her fingers in the vicinity of her sword.

Juniper had either finished her allotted exercise or given up on Jack’s training, and was now wandering toward the other students, the jackalope gathered into her arms. Before getting more than a few yards, however, she was intercepted by a girl of no more than eight who burst out of the crowd of townsfolk.

“Hi!” she squealed, beaming. “Can I pet the bunny?”

“Oh,” Juniper said, blinking at her and carefully adjusting her grip on Jack. “Um, that’s not a really good idea, honey.”

The child’s face immediately crumpled.

“It’s just that he’s still being trained,” Juniper said hastily. “And he doesn’t like strangers. Jackalopes aren’t tame bunnies; those antlers can really hurt you. I wouldn’t want that to happen! Aw, please don’t cry…”

“Hm,” Ravana murmured, her eyes roving over the picnic area; almost everyone else was studying the new drama unfolding. “Why is that child not playing with the others?”

“Children are unpredictable,” Ruda grunted. “Bunnies are fluffy. Can’t expect a kid to understand that bunny is also a thing of goddamn evil.”

“Who is that?” Ravana inquired, nodding her head toward a lean-faced blonde woman in a black coat, who had come to stand at the front of the group of townsfolk.

“I don’t know her name,” Szith replied. “She is a priestess of Vidius, however, from what I have overheard. Apparently she and an Avenist have stayed on after the revival to be attached permanently to their respective temples.”

“And she’s now here,” Ravana mused, “watching this, instead of the Vidian service going on. Interesting.”

“I’m not sure I’d call a play a Vidian service,” Sekandar began.

“Uh oh,” Ruda said suddenly, frowning, and pointed.

A woman had emerged from the crowd, stalking over to Juniper, who backpedaled, clutching her jackalope. His ears had begun to twitch dangerously, though he had not yet started struggling.

“What are you doing to my child?” she demanded.

“I was just—”

“She ain’t hurtin’ anything,” the woman said sharply, taking the little girl by the hand and glaring at Juniper. “I don’t see any call to be snapping at her.”

“I wasn’t trying to snap,” the dryad said earnestly. “It’s just, she wanted to pet Jack, and I was trying to explain—”

“And what’s wrong with that? Are you really so hard up you can’t let a little girl touch your rabbit?”

“Now, hold on,” Juniper protested.

“Marcy, there ain’t no call to be like that,” a man added, stepping forward and frowning reproachfully. “She weren’t hurtin’ the girl. What would you say if she wanted to pat an ornery mule? You can’t let a kid get too close to disagreeable animals, that’s just sense.”

There were several nods and murmurs of agreement from the onlookers, which seemed to infuriate Marcy. She clutched her daughter close, the child having begun to cry in earnest during all the raised voices.

“It’s a rabbit, Herman. What’s it gonna hurt? All I see’s one o’ them kids from up on the hill who thinks she can walk around our town doin’ what she likes, an’ not show the slightest regard for th’ people livin’ here!”

That brought a few murmurs of its own.

“Omnu’s breath, Marcy, it’s her rabbit!” Herman exclaimed.

“Hey!” Natchua pushed forward through the crowd; Marcy shied back from the glaring drow, huddling protectively around her weeping daughter. “Your child was trying to interfere with an aggressive wild animal with very large horns. Its trainer just explained that it’s only half-trained and not sociable. It’s not going to be the dryad’s fault of someone gets gored. As I see it, the difference between you two is she is being responsible for her little beast!”

“Oh, my,” Chase breathed, grinning from ear to ear. Several of the onlookers had burst out laughing, while others were nodding in agreement—though with whose points it was impossible to say.

“If I may?” The soft voice cut through the noise, clearly delivered by someone accustomed to projecting through the stage. The blonde woman in Vidian black stepped forward, smiling. “Madam, I certainly understand your concern, but having been here a few moments before you arrived, I can assure you I saw no one threatening your child. She was disappointed, not harmed. And the young lady is quite correct: jackalopes are not friendly creatures, as a rule. Might I suggest it would be wise if everyone lowered their voices? The poor creature looks rather stressed. We wouldn’t want to provoke him, now would we?”

At that, most of the onlookers obligingly dropped their tones, or stopped talking entirely, and Juniper eased back further, clutching Jack close and stroking his fur. His nose was twitching furiously, but he still didn’t lunge free; despite appearances, her training seemed to be having some effect on him.

“Well, you can’t blame me,” Marcy muttered, stroking the child’s hair. “I came over to find my girl crying and that…woman right there… We all know dryads ain’t the safest creatures.”

“Juniper seems to have been trying to protect the child from another dangerous creature, if I’m not mistaken,” said the blonde. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I’ve met everyone yet.” She dropped to a crouch, smiling disarmingly at the girl, who peeked out from over her mother’s arm. “Hi, there. My name’s Lorelin. What’s yours?”

“D-daisy,” the child sniffled. “Daisy Summers.”

“Daisy!” the priestess said warmly. “That’s very pretty, your parents have good taste. I’m sorry you didn’t get to pet the bunny, hon. You have to remember, though, he belongs to Miss Juniper. We must respect other people’s things, mustn’t we? You’d want them to respect yours, right?”

Daisy muttered something indistinct; Lorelin smiled up at Marcy and winked, before straightening up. “There, now, just a little misunderstanding. It’s good you came along when you did, ma’am.”

“Well, I’m glad someone ’round here has some sense,” Marcy said, shooting a look at Herman. He threw up his hands and turned away.

“I’m sure we all are,” Natchua said, fairly dripping sarcasm.

“Hmmmm,” Ravana mused from the sidelines. “How very interesting.”

“How so?” Sekandar inquired. She just shook her head.

Juniper had retreated further, back toward the tallgrass, and set Jack down to let him stretch and relax. Chase and a few of the others started toward her, but she looked up, shook her head apologetically and gestured them back, still soothingly stroking the jackalope’s fur.

That was the moment when Jack lunged forward, his powerful legs propelling him like a stone from a catapult. His leash brought him up short, the force of the jump not shifting the startled Juniper by an inch, and so his horns merely grazed Herman’s leg, rather than outright impaling him.

Herman staggered with a yell, other shouts immediately breaking out from the onlookers. Juniper began frantically reeling the struggling jackalope back toward her, even as he continued to bound this way and that, lunging at whoever his eyes caught. People wisely backpedaled away from the dryad and her pet, Marcy picking up Daisy and fleeing at a run. Natchua, standing just outside the range of the jackalope’s diminishing leash, watched them go without moving.

Chase was laughing so hard he had to sit down.

Lorelin had leaped to Herman’s side; she and another man from the crowd helped him away from the struggling jackalope and to a seated position on the ground, where the priestess knelt beside him, hands glowing with healing light.

Amid the hubbub, Ravana caught Sekandar’s elbow and tugged gently. He glanced down at her curiously, but allowed himself to be led; she pulled him back from the gaggle of students toward Ruda, who now stood a few feet distant, idly swirling a bottle of rum and watching the proceedings thoughtfully.

“Your Highnesses,” Ravana said, coming to a stop.

Ruda made a face at her, but Sekandar, merely raising an eyebrow, played along. “Your Grace?”

“I wonder,” said the Duchess, “if you would be good enough to say whether you’ve just seen the same sequence of events I have.”

The Prince, turned his head, frowning thoughtfully at Juniper, who had got Jack back into her arms and was holding him firmly. “Hum. I would have to say this began yesterday, with Bishop Snowe’s speech. In a widespread religious event organized by the Universal Church, a Bishop thereof launched a very sharp verbal attack on the University. Most uncharacteristic behavior for an Izarite, I might add, which suggests on whose behalf she was speaking. Now, we have this little drama, facilitated by a new Vidian cleric who arrived as part of the same function.”

“There’s a new Avenist, too,” Ruda added quietly. “A priestess, apparently gonna be working down at the Silver Mission. That’s interesting to me; Trissiny’s whole point in starting those was having a single cleric on hand to organize, and lettin’ the rest of any staff be volunteer laypeople.”

“I don’t suppose either of you happened to observe what this Lorelin was doing before the child approached Juniper and kicked all this off?” Ravana inquired, still watching the hubbub as it gradually got under control, townspeople drifting away and Herman gingerly testing his leg.

“I’m afraid not,” said Sekandar.

“Because I distinctly recall seeing the town’s children playing together, some yards distant,” Ravana continued. “There could, of course, be perfectly innocent explanations for that one having separated from the group to approach Juniper and the rabbit, but the timing seems odd, to me.”

“Hm,” Ruda said noncommittally.

“And now,” Ravana continued, “we have an incident. A local resident injured, however slightly, by a student. Or at least, I’ve no doubt that is how the story will be told. And all right as this new cleric, placed here by the same organization which funded Bishop Snowe, arrived on the scene.”

“Speculation,” Ruda pointed out.

“Oh without doubt,” Ravana agreed. “I merely point out a suggestive sequence of events. Any of them could be coincidental and harmless. It’s when chained together that a troubling pattern emerges. I’m sure that I needn’t lecture the two of you about suggestive sequences of individually harmless events.”

“No, you needn’t,” Ruda said, now watching the Vidian priestess, who was in earnest conversation with Herman and two other town citizens.

“I wonder,” Sekandar mused, “how difficult would it be for a cleric to manifest an object of divine light. Something small enough to, say, prod a jackalope, or flick its ear.”

“Hmm,” Ravana said thoughtfully, tapping her lips with one finger. “It was my understanding that light-created objects had to remain in contact with the caster.”

“What about divine shields? They are clearly solid, and not physically connected to their creators.”

“You have a point,” she acknowledged. “Of course, the tricky part would have to be doing it without garnering attention. If I’m not mistaken, isn’t such misdirection a known skill of higher-ranking Vidian clerics?”

“Almost half my class is taking divine casting with Harklund this semester,” said Ruda. “I’ll ask about the possibilities. Discreetly.”

“Yes,” Ravana agreed, nodding. “I’m sure you both understand the importance of discretion, here. It might be unfortunate if one of the paladins were to hear an accusation without proof at this juncture.”

“That would muddy the waters,” Sekandar said, frowning. “I dislike the thought of sneaking around them…”

“Don’t sneak,” Ruda advised, “and don’t lie. This is nothing but unconfirmed theory as of right now; there’s no reason at all for them to hear about it until there’s something significant for them to hear. Trust me, I know those three. One would shrug and blow you off, and the other two would fly right the hell off the handle.”

“Quite so,” said Ravana. “If it all turns out to be nothing, it will be better not to have sown any further seeds of discord. But if, for whatever reason, the Universal Church is angling to undermine the University, it seems best, to me, that someone be on site to angle right back. Don’t you agree?”

Standing a few yards distant, separate from all the various groups of people present, Szith stared into space, one hand resting lightly on the hilt of her sword. The drow heaved a soft sigh and spoke in a low tone inaudible to anyone but herself.

“I hate politics.”

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8 – 3

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“I think he’s mellowing with age.”

“I don’t think that man is capable of mellowing, Ruda,” Toby disagreed. “I think we’re just getting used to him. Which…could be a good or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.”

“What’s bad about getting used to things?” asked Teal.

He shrugged, pushing his teacup back and forth on the table. “I don’t know…just something about this place. In hindsight I can see the point of a lot of what Tellwyrn’s subjected us to, but on the other hand, I sometimes get the feeling the University is training us to cope with a certain kind of ridiculousness that just doesn’t occur anywhere else.”

Ruda laughed and added another splash of brandy to her “tea.” She’d been doing that after every sip and not refilling it from the pot; by this point she basically had a teacup full of brandy.

The cafeteria was open to students at all hours except during the night. There weren’t meals to be had except at mealtimes, but they could almost always find hot tea and cold pastries. It had long been a popular place for groups to study, between the plentiful table space and free food, though the library was enjoying a resurgence in popularity since Weaver had been replaced by the somewhat awkward but vastly more pleasant Crystal.

The newly-minted sophomores had stopped in to relax and swap stories of their various summers after their first class. Rafe, as per his pattern, hadn’t kept them long, using a tenth of the allotted class time to do little but say hello, strike a few poses and give an extremely brief description of the focus of this year’s alchemical studies.

“The unexpected and extreme can occur anywhere,” Sheaine said. “Perhaps we are better served by—”

She was interrupted by an enormous antlered hare, which bounded onto the table and snatched the half-eaten muffin from Gabriel’s plate. Gabe yelped in surprised, jerking backward so hard he nearly tipped his chair over.

“Jack, no!” Juniper exclaimed, lunging across the table to seize the animal, which kicked in her grasp. Teal grabbed the teapot, barely averting a disaster. “I’m so sorry, he’s not really used to indoors, yet. We’re working on his manners.” The dryad settled her pet back in her lap, soothingly stroking his fur. Only the antlers were visible over the edge of the table.

“Well, this is as good a time as any to ask,” Gabriel said, grimacing and pushing away the smashed remains of his muffin. “June, what is with the rabbit?”

“Actually he’s a jackalope!” Fross chimed. “Closely related to rabbits, as you can see, but a distinct species. They’re fey, rather magical; an actual rabbit’s neck wouldn’t support the weight of those horns very well.”

“They’re antlers, not horns, and it’s a druid thing,” Juniper explained. “Animal companions are a tradition of druidic practice.”

“They’re called ‘pets,’ and they’re a tradition everywhere,” Ruda observed.

“Well, yes, but I mean it’s a specific druidic practice. Several traditions of shamanism and witchcraft make use of animal familiars. It’s a way of…well, it’s kind of technical…”

“It involves imbuing an animal with a part of one’s essence!” Fross said brightly. “Thus creating a second point of observation which is capable of instigating the wave-function collapse which is at the heart of all magical action.”

“Wave…what?” Teal asked, mystified.

“That’s arcane theory, though,” said Gabriel. “Does it really apply to druidic or any fae arts?”

“Arcane physics is so called because it’s most easily investigated by use of arcane magic,” Fross explained. “The principles themselves apply to basically all magic equally. That’s why magical creatures are popular familiars. Actually, some witches use pixies, if they can! Pixies are hard to get, though, you usually have to go to the Pixie Queen’s grove to find any, and she’s not big on visitors.”

“That’s an interesting choice, Juno,” Trissiny said. “Aren’t jackalopes sort of…infamously ornery?”

“Well, he’s not a true familiar,” Juniper said somewhat defensively. “I’m not at that point, not nearly. Really, I’m just starting out. The Elders had me take care of an animal for somewhat more mundane reasons. It’s all about forming a bond with—”

She broke off, having to grab and subdue Jack again as he launched himself at Teal’s plate.

“Taking on a more challenging prospect can be a way to learn more swiftly,” Shaeine observed. Juniper was too busy wrangling the jackalope to respond; he didn’t seem as interested in settling down in her lap again this time.

“Hey, check this out,” Ruda said, craning her neck to peer past Toby at the glass front wall of the cafeteria. “It’s the freshmen!”

“There are an awful lot of them,” Teal remarked, turning to look.

“Twenty-two!” said Fross. “The student roster is posted in the library.”

“Twenty-two isn’t a large class at most schools,” Toby pointed out. “Though…compared to nine, I guess it is.”

“Why are they all boys?” Trissiny asked, her brows lowering.

“Oh, here we go,” Ruda muttered, rolling her eyes.

“The Class of 1183 has seventeen men and five women,” said Fross, “which is a seventy-seven percent gender imbalance, which is the same as the seventy-seven percent gender imbalance in our class skewing the opposite way. Actually those are rounded percentages and ours is just slightly greater, but you get the idea.”

“I didn’t know you could do that kind of math in your head,” said Teal. “Bravo!”

“It’s an important skill if you’re going to study arcane magic,” said Gabriel. “Which is why I really ought to work on that…”

“And I do it in my mind, not my head,” Fross clarified.

“Hey, wanna go say hi to the newbies?” suggested Ruda. “Look, they’re trooping toward the greenhouse. Already had Tellwyrn’s claws in them and are about to meet Rafe. Makes you feel sorry for the little darlings.”

“You mean, like how Natchua said hi to us between our first two classes?” Toby said, smiling faintly.

“Well, no,” Ruda replied. “Because we aren’t creepy and pathetic.”

Gabriel cleared his throat pointedly.

“I stand corrected,” she said, grinning. “Most of us aren’t creepy and pathetic.”

“Thank you,” he said with deep dignity. “I hate to fuss, but a fella likes to be acknowledged.”

“It’s a good idea, though,” said Trissiny, standing up. “Shall we?”

“Yeah, sure,” Gabriel replied, glancing down at his desecrated muffin. “I guess we’re pretty much done here.”

“It’s almost time to head to Yornhaldt’s class anyway,” Toby added, also rising. “C’mon, we can meet the freshmen on the way.”

“Well, a few of them,” said Ruda. “They mostly went past while you lot were jabbering.”

Indeed, most of the students had gone past by the time they emerged onto the lawn. The freshmen walked alone or in small groups, forming a staggered line; some turned to look at the emerging sophomores, a few slowing down to stare as they recognized Trissiny’s armor and put the rest together. Only the last cluster actually stopped, though. For whatever reason, the girls were walking along at the end, with only a couple of their male classmates.

“Mornin’, little lambs!” Ruda said cheerily. “How’re you settling in?”

“Well, thank you,” said the drow woman politely, then turned fully to Shaeine and bowed. Shaeine nodded deeply in reply.

“Teal, how lovely to see you again,” said a diminutive girl with waist-length blond hair, smiling brightly.

“Likewise, your Grace,” Teal said in a carefully neutral tone.

“Pshaw, let’s not fuss about that,” the girl replied, waving a hand airily. “We are all equals here, as Professor Tellwyrn has just emphasized at some length. Call me Ravana.”

“If you say so,” Teal replied evenly. Shaeine eased closer to her, moving her hand so that the backs of her knuckles brushed Teal’s.

“Can I ask a question?” said the gnomish woman timidly, raising a hand and peering up at Ruda. “Are you really a princess?”

“Only on my parents’ side,” Ruda said lightly. “C’mon, girl, project from the diaphragm! Are you actually raising your hand? Trust me, outside of Tellwyrn’s class, that’s not gonna do you any good.”

“Ruda, be nice,” Trissiny said reprovingly.

“I am being nice! It’s all about confidence, Boots. C’mon, let me hear you roar!”

The gnome’s eyes widened, and she began sidling behind a tall, dark-skinned girl in a white dress, who was gawking at Gabriel.

“Hmph.” The speaker, whose derisive snort seized everyone’s attention, was a plains elf incongruously dressed in a conservative, old-fashioned human style. “We are going to be late. Come along,” she ordered, grabbing one of the boys—also an elf—by the arm and dragging him off toward the greenhouse. He glanced back at them, smiling timidly and offering a small wave.

“Well, damn,” Ruda said, raising her eyebrows. “Who pissed in her oatmeal?”

“Oh, she’s just like that,” said the girl in white. “Are… You’re Gabriel Arquin, aren’t you? The new paladin!”

“Um…for whatever that’s worth, yes, that’s me,” he said, smiling somewhat awkwardly and settling a hand on the hilt of his sword.

“That’s amazing!” she gushed, eyes shining. “I mean… You’re amazing! To be a demonblood and get to… Augh, I’ve wanted to meet you ever since I heard and when I got accepted here I just, oh I can’t even think!”

“Oh, gods, don’t do that,” Ruda groaned. “He gets a big head over the slightest little thing.”

“And this is my fan club,” said Gabe, turning to Ruda and raising an eyebrow. “Not to worry, if my head starts needing the air let out, I can always count on you to fucking stab me!”

“And he carries a grudge like you wouldn’t believe,” Ruda added, winking. “Anyway, you don’t need me to stab you anymore, Arquin, since you seem determined to carry that thing around.”

“I’m getting better with it,” he said defensively, running a hand over the black sword’s hilt, almost as if he were petting it. “Anyhow, it seems like an appropriate thing to carry, me being a paladin now, and all.”

“You were given a divine weapon,” Trissiny pointed out.

“Yes, but it fits in my pocket,” he said, grinning. “The ancient elven sword is so much more impressive.”

“It’ll be real impressive when you hack your foot off,” said Ruda. “I dunno, Arquin, something about you with a sword will just never look right.”

“Hey,” he protested, “do I give you crap about the special lady in your life?”

“…I can’t even start to deal with all the shit that’s wrong in that sentence.”

The remaining male member of the freshman party stepped forward and bowed directly to Trissiny. “General Avelea, may I say it is an honor to be in your presence, and one I have eagerly anticipated since long before my arrival.”

“Oh,” she said, nonplussed, “that’s kind of you.”

“Forgive me,” the young man replied with a smile. “I should have introduced myself to begin with. I am Sekandar Aldarasi, prince of Calderaas.”

He was dressed casually, in a simple open-collared shirt with pressed slacks. The lack of regalia did not detract from his claim, however; the boy was every bit as good-looking as a prince from a fairy tale would be, and carried himself with the confidence of a man who knew it.

“Wait, prince?” said Fross. “I’m confused. Calderaas is an Imperial province, right? How do they have royalty?”

“Calderaas is one of the original provinces,” said Ravana. “The then-Sultanate of Calderaas formed the alliance with the city-states of the Tira Valley that became the Tiraan Empire. Several of those first provinces still have royal titles, though the rank of king, sultana or whatever is applicable is functionally the same as that of an appointed provincial governor.”

“As the Lady Madouri knows quite well,” said Sekandar, nodding to her with a smile which she returned. He turned back to Trissiny, bowing again. “If it is permissible, General, I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to speak with you further.”

“Of…course,” she said uncertainly.

“For now,” said Ravana, “I think we should all be moving along. It’ll make a poor impression on our professors if we are late on the first day.”

“I shall count the hours till we are together again, my lady!” Gabriel proclaimed grandly, bowing deeply to her and ignoring Ruda’s snort.

“Aren’t you a charming one,” Ravana said with a coquettish flutter of her lashes. “Come along, girls.” The girl in white looked to be on the verge of some kind of outburst, but swallowed heavily and followed meekly along after the much shorter blonde.

The sophomores watched their younger counterparts retreat into the greenhouse in bemused silence.

“Gabe,” Teal said tersely, “not to meddle in your love life, but… Not that one.”

“That’s right,” he said, turning to her. “She implied you know her?”

“I…” She stared after Ravana, expression unreadable. “…am aware of her.”


“So, this is a departure,” Toby commented, peering around at Professor Yornhaldt’s classroom as they wandered into their seats.

“I like it,” said Teal. “Doesn’t seem like his style, though…”

“I’m not sure he did it,” said Juniper, frowning and stroking Jack, who rested in her arms. “There’s a lot of magic at work here. Fae magic. Professor Yornhaldt is an arcanist.”

Most of the room’s accoutrements were the same, but it had gained a great deal of greenery over the summer. The back corners of the room contained artfully arranged clusters of potted ferns, which spilled out in a riot of leafy fronds. Other plants were placed strategically under the windows and along the walls, and in a huge, squat container on the dais itself was a small cherry tree, bursting with lovely pink blossoms, for all that it was completely the wrong season.

“So,” Ruda said, turning in her seat to leer at Trissiny. “That boy was crushing on you hard, General Shiny Boots.”

“What?” Trissiny demanded, her cheeks coloring slightly. “What boy? You mean Prince Sekandar? Nonsense.”

“Oh, come on,” she snorted. “’Such an honor to be in your presence, general.’ He was way into you.”

“You’re being ridiculous,” Trissiny snapped. “He was just showing respect to a Hand of Avei. I simply happened to be that Hand.”

“There were three paladins standing right there,” Teal pointed out with a smile. “One of whom is a lot more interesting, for being new and unprecedented in several ways. Not to mention foreign royalty, a demigoddess…”

“Hm, Gabriel the Unprecedented,” Gabe mused. “I like the way that rings. I should have business cards printed up.”

“Calderaas has been heavily Avenist for over a thousand years,” Trissiny said testily. “The old Sultanate was a matriarchy and a lot of its traditions are still alive. Naturally an Aldarasi prince would be more interested in a paladin of Avei.”

“One presumes,” Shaeine observed, “that a prince of any extraction would be sufficiently poised not to snub the other members of a party to whom he was introduced. Unless, of course, he were emotionally overwhelmed by, for example, meeting the object of his distant affections…”

“Not you, too!” Trissiny exclaimed. The drow smiled at her, with only the faintest hint of mischief.

“Yeah, that boy wants you bad,” said Ruda, grinning insanely. “Juno, back me up here!”

“Oh, I don’t like to spread other people’s business around,” the dryad demurred, scratching behind Jack’s antlers. “I can’t help picking up on people’s desires and inclinations, but there’s no reason anyone else should be privy to that information. Everyone’s privacy is important.”

“Thank you, Juniper,” Trissiny said stiffly.

“No dryad business, then,” said Ruda. “Just girl talk, based on what you saw.”

“Oh, just that? Then yeah, he was totally into you.”

“Good morning, class.”

Several of them jumped, all whirling to stare at the dais. No one had seen her enter, but a woman now stood there, beneath the cherry blossoms, smiling mysteriously up at them. She was slender, with luxuriant black hair, almond-shaped eyes and vulpine features, and dressed in a sleek silk robe in dark green with a subtle pattern of white ferns around the hem and cuffs.

Most eye-catchingly, triangular ears, covered in reddish fur, poked up through her hair. A bushy tail extended from behind her, through some apparent opening in her robe, also dusky red and tipped in white. It twitched twice as they stared at her in shocked silence.

The doors of the classroom were infamously squeaky, and were easily within their frame of view. She had not come in that way.

“Let us begin by attending to the obvious, shall we?” said the fox-woman, still with that enigmatic smile. “Professor Yornhaldt is taking an unexpected sabbatical for this semester. I am assuming his duties in the classroom. I am Professor Ekoi, interim teacher of magical arts.” She bowed gracefully, her ears twitching. “And of course, I know each of you by description, and by reputation. You created quite the stir on this campus at the end of the spring term, did you not?

“It is my understanding that last year, you explored the basics of magic—what it is, and how it is used. In my class, you will be learning more specific, more practical things pertaining to that same basic school of thought. We will be examining each of the four common systems of magic, as well as the few which lie outside such classifications, with regard to their actual use. It should be your goal to learn to identify magical objects, creatures, spells and attacks, and understand how each should be dealt with. In short, you have absorbed sufficient theory that you can now begin learning facts. And, more importantly, strategies. You have a question, Mr. Arquin?”

“Yeah,” Gabriel said, lowering his hand. “Um, what exactly are you?”

Professor Ekoi gazed up at him placidly, in silence, until he shifted uncomfortably in his seat and opened his mouth to speak again.

Suddenly she flicked her wrist, and a folded hand fan slipped out of the wide sleeve of her robe, landing neatly in her grip. She swirled it open, covering her face below the eyes and revealing its pattern of calligraphy in a language that wasn’t familiar to them. Then, in a very disorienting spectacle, she twirled the fan in a full circle. It did not visibly grow, and yet it somehow concealed all of her body in passing—and she did not reappear when it moved on. The fan whirled in a complete arc and then vanished into its own center, like water swirling down a drain, leaving nothing behind.

The students gaped down at the empty dais.

“Um,” said Gabriel, “I didn’t mean to yipe!”

“There is endless variety in this world, Mr. Arquin,” Professor Ekoi murmured from right behind him, close enough that he could feel her breath. He could also feel the tips of her sharp nails, resting against his throat. Trissiny half-rose, gripping the hilt of her sword, but made no further movements as the professor continued. “People of every conceivable belief, origin and description. If you are privileged to lead a long life, and to explore the world in all its beauty, you shall come to know the grand diversity of its inhabitants—provided you possess the sense to absorb what you are shown. And you will find, Mr. Arquin, that none of these people enjoy being referred to as a what.”

He hissed softly as the tips of her claws—and those were clearly not just nails—pricked his skin. Five tiny points of blood welled up.

Before he could react physically, she was gone.

And then the professor stepped out from behind the cherry tree, down on the dais. “Except,” she said pleasantly, “for individuals in certain…specialty social clubs one tends to find in the major cities, which you are unlikely to enter or even discover without a specific invitation. For now, we should focus our attention upon the study of magic, children. Now, let us begin.”


Walter tromped through the tallgrass back toward the homestead, four hares strung on the rope thrown over his shoulder. It was early, not even noon yet, but he’d had the luckiest morning of hunting in a good long while, solid enough that he could justify taking the afternoon off. Ma would be happy enough with the meat he brought in to let him go without a fuss…probably. He had his bow in one hand, quiver hanging at his hip—he had a wand, of course, but that was for emergency use against any predators he happened to encounter. Lightning had a bad effect on game. All in all, he was in a great mood, whistling as he walked.

As such, he wasn’t paying terribly close attention, lost in his thoughts, and didn’t spot the other person coming toward him until Smitty barked. The hound was staring, on point but not growling, meaning he didn’t sense a threat. That was generally good enough for Walter; he found dogs were the best judges of character.

Then the individual coming toward him through the tallgrass pushed aside a particularly dense clump, coming fully into view, and he froze, almost dropping his bow and hares.

She was a girl, looking to be about his age, maybe a few years older, and stunningly beautiful in a way he only saw in magazine illustrations and never before on an actual woman. Also, she had pale green hair and was stark naked. He’d have been hard pressed to say which of those traits commanded more of his attention.

“Hello!” the nude girl said brightly.

“Uh… H-hi,” Walter choked out, then swallowed, struggling valiantly to keep his eyes on her face, a battle he knew he was doomed to lose. Not that it wasn’t a gorgeous face, but she also had gorgeous breasts, and he’d never actually seen… He gulped again, trying desperately to maintain an even keel. “Um, can I…help you with something, miss?”

She tilted her head to one side as if thinking, and suddenly frowned. “Maybe. Did you kill my sister?”

That made even less sense to Walter than her appearance and manner, but luckily he had a ready and truthful answer to it. “No, ma’am, I didn’t.”

“Oh, okay, then,” she said, that dazzling smile returning. “Maybe you can give me directions! Am I still headed toward Last Rock? Is it close?”

Last Rock. It figured. Ma always said the only downside of living out here was the proximity to that place.

“You’re headin’ the right way,” he said, looking at her chest again in spite of himself. “It’s about thirty miles on. Careful not to stray too far north or you’ll be in the Golden Sea.”

“Oh, I know all about that,” she said dismissively, taking a step closer.

Smitty whined, and instantly Walter was on full alert. The hound pressed hard against his leg, clearly frightened. His teenage hormones were telling him one thing, but the dog told him something very different—and he knew quite well which was more trustworthy.

“Since you offered to help, though,” she said, licking her lips and smiling broadly, “I’m kinda hungry. Can I have a couple of your rabbits?”

“Oh,” he said, easing backward from her. “I, uh…” It had been a lucky morning, true, and he had ample time to go back out and hunt more… But this was a significant amount of good meat, not to mention what the pelts would sell for.

“Don’t worry, I’d make it worth your while,” the girl promised, stepping forward again, her smile widening. “Would you like to have sex?”

He very nearly exploded on the spot. Ma was forever going on about how boys his age had exactly one thing on their minds, and to be truthful, that thing was very much on his mind right now. Meeting a nude beauty in the tallgrass and receiving such an offer…this was a situation straight out of some of his more absurd fantasies.

But Smitty wasn’t the only one whose instincts were jangling, now. Walter had looked into the eyes of predators before.

“Tell ya what,” he said carefully. With the slow, even movements he knew wouldn’t startle or provoke a wild animal, he pulled the string of hares from his shoulder and held it out toward her. “You just help yourself, my treat. I’ve gotta get home.”

“Aw, you sure?” she said, pouting slightly even as she took the hares. Her warm brown eyes flicked up and down his body, making his pulse accelerate. “I wasn’t just offering a trade. I think it’d be swell to stop and make love. Don’t you?”

Walter had to gulp twice before he could speak again. That would be swell. But Ma, it seemed, wasn’t wrong about everything; the very, very bad feeling he had about this was more powerful than lust. Her knowing smirk widened, almost as if she could tell what he was thinking. Maisie Taathir down at the trading post sometimes gave him that impression, especially when she caught him sneaking a peek at her bum, but…not like this.

“I really have to go,” he repeated. Smitty whined again.

“Okay, then,” she said with a shrug that did extremely interesting things to her chest.

Walter tipped his hat to her, backed up a few steps, then half-turned to set off in a wide arc around her, keeping her in his peripheral view.

As he watched, she licked her lips again, then calmly ripped a leg off one of the hares and bit into it, fur and all. Bone crunched audibly and she made a soft sound of approval.

He didn’t walk backward, but kept going in the slightly wrong direction at an angle until a more comfortable distance had stretched out between them. Even then, Walter very carefully kept his pace measured as he and Smitty left the girl behind.

It was, as he knew very well, a bad idea to run from a predator.

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