Tag Archives: Sheriff Sanders

12 – 43

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

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

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

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

Finally, two women emerged from the last compartment.

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

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

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

“Excuse me,” he began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“These are—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ashaele turned her back.

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


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

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

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

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

For a long moment, there was silence.

“Please explain how you allowed this to happen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teal froze. “I—but…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, mother.”

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10 – 48

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can do!” Fross chirped enthusiastically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then let’s move.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How dare—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I like the way you think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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10 – 45

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

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

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

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

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

Trissiny sighed. “You know I didn’t…”

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

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

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

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

Trissiny flushed slightly. “Ruda…”

“Probably in the butt.”

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

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

“I guess you would know!”

“Fuck yeah, I would! This one time—”

“Stop!” Trissiny shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, that’d do it.”

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

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

“That demon again?” Toby said sharply.

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

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

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

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

“Like what?” asked Juniper.

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

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

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

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

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

“Good thinking,” Trissiny said approvingly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A couple of people chuckled nervously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tellwyrn nodded again. “Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam nodded approvingly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will y’all SHUT UP!” Ox thundered.

The quiet was instantaneous.

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

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

Sanders nodded approvingly, as did some of the onlookers.

“What can we do?” someone asked.

“It’s an invisible demon!”

“Repent!”

“Carl, I’m beggin’ you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?” asked a younger man.

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

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

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

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3 – 2

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Trissiny returned from her morning run looking forward to a shower. Much as she’d found the thing ostentatious on her first arrival at the University, she’d come to enjoy the experience. It was certainly a more efficient way of getting clean than soaking in a tub of water. Upon opening the door to Clarke Tower and stepping inside, however, she had to stop, taking in the scene.

At first glance, everyone appeared to be having breakfast. Pancakes, in fact; there was a large, steaming platter of them set in the center of the coffee table, along with dishes of butter and syrup, and those present were holding laden plates and forks. Shaeine and Teal sat side by side on the sofa, Ruda and Janis in two of the chairs.

Something about the situation made the fine hairs on the back of Trissiny’s neck stand up, however, and she knew very well to respect her intuition about danger. Indeed, on a second look, only Ruda appeared to be enjoying the meal. Teal and Shaeine were glassy-eyed and chewing slowly as if bespelled or drugged. Janis was holding a plate but not eating; her body language was tense, and upon Trissiny’s entry she looked up at her, an incoherent plea in her eyes.

Reflexively, Trissiny reached for her sword.

“What’s going on?” she asked tersely.

“Breakfast,” said Shaeine with a broad smile so totally unlike her normally reserved demeanor that it sent chills down Trissiny’s spine. “Have I mentioned how much I love Imperial food? Sugar on everything.” She swirled a forkful of pancake in syrup and stuck it in her mouth, Teal giggling beside her.

“I’m pretty sure they’re okay,” said Ruda, grabbing Trissiny’s attention. “I’m keeping an eye on this and Janis hasn’t eaten the food.”

“You’re eating the food!”

“Yeah, have you noticed I drink a barrel’s worth of liquor a day and never so much as slur my speech? Mind-altering shit doesn’t work on me.” She glanced at the hallway door. “Like I said, I’m keeping an eye on this; didn’t wanna start up a scrap when we’ve got two incapacitated crewmates, that’s asking for somebody to get hurt. ‘Sides, help’s on the way. Glad you’re here, though, it seems to be you she’s after.”

“What’s… Who did—”

She broke off as Principia Locke bustled into the room from the direction of the kitchen, carrying another platter of pancakes. She looked eerily domestic, wearing a frilled apron and oven mitts. Her whole face lit up when she saw who was present.

“Trissiny! How wonderful, everyone’s finally here. I’m so glad, dear; I’ve been waiting a long time to—”

“What have you done to my friends?” Trissiny demanded.

Prin clucked her tongue, coming forward to set down the pancakes on the coffee table. “I made them breakfast. Honestly, everyone’s so suspicious when I do a nice turn, you’d think…” She trailed off at the rasp of Trissiny’s sword coming out of its sheath.

“I am not going to indulge you in banter,” the paladin said icily. “Something is clearly, badly amiss with them. You will explain this, or you’re going head-first out the nearest window.”

The elf stared at her in silence for a moment, her expression neutral, then sighed softly. “They’re fine. It’s just a little charm to encourage peace and happiness; people pay good money to have it done to them. Wears off in an hour. Honestly, Trissiny, all I wanted was a chance to talk with you, but you’re always surrounded by…” Her eyes cut back and forth around the room, and a scowl fell over her features. “All right, what happened to the dryad?”

“Went to get Tellwyrn,” Ruda said cheerfully. “C’mon, you didn’t expect using a fairy charm on a dryad would do anything but cheese her off? Be glad she didn’t decide to deal with you herself; Juniper’s tastes in breakfast doesn’t run toward pancakes. These are really good, by the way.”

Prin narrowed her eyes. “You are annoyingly lucid for someone who’s supposed to be charmed.”

“Yup. Let’s see, you’re clearly using witchcraft, so it runs on sympathy and symbolism… Something that clouds minds, but it’d almost have to be divine in origin to avoid tripping Triss and Shaeine’s alarms… Ah!” She grinned broadly. “Sacramental wine in the pancake batter, right? I’m right, aren’t I? Yeah, read about the Punaji Curse sometime, see if you can guess where you fucked up.”

The door to the tower flew open. A shrill whine just at the edge of human hearing sounded for a moment, and then with a sharp pop and a flash of light, something burst from above the doorframe and shot across the room, landing smoldering in Prin’s new dish of pancakes. It was a silver horseshoe, slightly charred. Immediately, Shaeine and Teal straightened up, blinking, and the goofy smiles faded from their faces.

Professor Tellwyrn stepped inside, Juniper hovering behind her. Her expression promised murder.

“Well, aside from the obvious,” Ruda added.

“Arachne,” Janis said in obvious relief. “I could have fought her, but the girls…”

“You acted correctly, Janis,” the Professor said, her eyes on Prin. “Kindly make sure they’re suffering no lingering effects.”

Principia stared at Tellwyrn for half a second, then turned back to the paladin. “Trissiny, just—”

“No,” Tellwyrn snarled. She stepped to one side, herding Juniper along with her, then pointed at Principia and gestured at the open door. With a yelp, Prin was yanked forward and hurled bodily outside.

Tellwyrn followed, Trissiny right on her heels, Juniper and Ruda bringing up the rear while Janis attended to a confused Shaeine and Teal. Principia landed on her feet on the bridge, skidding briefly but managing not to lose her balance, thanks to elven agility.

“This is too far,” Tellwyrn said icily. “You were warned about this, Principia. By me, and by the Sisters of Avei. The fact that you chose to challenge me instead of them just goes to prove you’ve not developed any wisdom in the last twenty years.”

“The Sisters didn’t send her into the Golden Sea to face off against a centaur horde,” Prin shot back, glaring. “They aren’t trying to get her killed!”

“They will, though,” Tellwyrn said grimly. “No Hand of Avei has ever died in bed. Well, except Taslin of Madouris; somebody got her with some kind of flesh-dissolving poison. Nasty business. Which doesn’t change the fact that none of this is any of your concern.”

“What is going on?” Trissiny demanded.

“This will always be my concern, Arachne!”

“You gave up the right long ago,” Tellwyrn said inexorably. “Deliberately. Now I have to decide what to do with—”

“She’s still my daughter!” Principia shrieked, then fell silent, fists clenched at her sides.

The only sound was the constant wind that sighed over the bridge.

And then Trissiny laughed. “Oh, come on,” she scoffed, “that’s not even believable. I’m not an elf!”

No one answered her. Principia was staring at her with something like hunger, and Tellwyrn… The Professor’s face was carefully blank, not the expression of someone who’d just heard an easily debunked falsehood. Trissiny felt her smile drain away.

Prin opened her mouth, then glanced warily at Tellwyrn.

“Well, you’ve gone to all this trouble,” Tellwyrn said, folding her arms. “Go on, say your piece. See if she thanks you.”

“The ears are a recessive trait.” Prin began with a careful eye on the Professor, but turned her gaze to Trissiny as she spoke. “Your friend Rafe is the exception, not the rule. Most half-elves are basically just tall, lanky humans with incredible stamina and really good eyesight. Usually blonde. Sound like anyone you know?”

She paused, as if for a response. Trissiny stared blankly at her, unsure whether she was experiencing a total lack of thoughts or simply too many at once for her to pick one out.

“You’ve probably already felt the effects, training with the Sisters,” Principia went on, her tone gentle. “You have ten times the stamina of a pure human and don’t need as much food, but you’ll have had to work thrice as hard as any of the other girls to put on muscle.”

“I…” Trissiny looked desperately at Tellwyrn, who was still watching Principia.

“It’s a tree,” Prin said, barely above a whisper. Trissiny looked back at her and she swallowed painfully before going on, still as softly. “The trissiny. It’s… I don’t know the Tanglish word, they aren’t common on this continent. It literally means ‘silk tree.’ There was one in the grove where I grew up; I used to climb it as a child. It’s one of the very few happy memories I have of home. Slim branches, leaves like fern fronds and little pink puffball flowers in the spring—”

“A mimosa?” Trissiny burst out, horrified. There had been a mimosa tree on the grounds of the Abbey at Viridill. A delicate, decorative thing that with absolutely zero practical use, it was a standing affront to Avenist sensibilities. It had been a gift from some Izarite temple, Mother Narny had said. The cults of Avei and Izara had deep doctrinal conflicts, and the Izarites were forever trying to mend the divide with such ill-considered presents.

Principia jerked back from her as if struck; her expression fell, and Trissiny realized she had let revulsion stand out plainly on her own features. If any of this were true… The fact that she might have been named after that stupid tree was the last straw.

Professor Tellwyrn heaved a sigh. “Well, there you go. Look how happy everyone is. Janis?”

“The girls are fine,” the house mother reported from the doorway behind them. Her eyes were on Trissiny. Everyone’s eyes were on her; she couldn’t make herself meet anyone’s gaze. “It’s a harmless enough spell, but Shaeine is furious.”

“You came onto my campus,” Tellwyrn said grimly, turning back to Principia, “broke into a residential building and laid a hostile enchantment on my students. I have killed people in extravagant ways for considerably less, and none of them had been warned to stay off my property beforehand. All things considered, though, I think it’s more poetic to leave you to stew in the consequences of your selfishness, Prin. The Sisters of Avei will know you flouted their command before the day is out, and you’ll find them a more reasonable enemy than I, but also far more persistent. Enjoy. But you’re done in Last Rock. I want you out of this town within the hour, and if I ever see you on my campus again, I will personally send you to Hell.”

“Yes, yes,” Principia sneered, “the great Professor Tellwyrn hands out death like candy at a parade. We know.”

“I’m not talking about killing you,” Tellwyrn said with a cold smile. “Not directly. On the Acarnian subcontinent there is a hellgate which, though easily accessible from this side, opens thirty feet in the air above a phosphorous swamp on the infernal plane. The nearest exit point back to this dimension is more than fifty miles distant, in the hands of a major demon settlement on the Hellish side and blocked by an Avenist temple on the other. Cross me again and I will take you there, toss you through, and see if you can weasel your way out of that. In four years she’ll be out from under my protection and you can decide whether your selfishness is worth further antagonizing the Sisterhood. Meanwhile, get out of my town.”

“I’m already packed,” Principia said grimly, looking at Trissiny again. The sadness in her eyes made Trissiny furious, for some reason. “I just wanted her to know.”

“Yeah, good job. Everybody’s just so very happy. Feh.” With a wave of Tellwyrn’s hand and a quiet pop of air, the dark-haired elf vanished.

The silence that followed was painfully awkward.

“She…was lying, right?” Trissiny had to pause to swallow the lump in her throat. She could hear a note of pleading in her voice and hated herself for it, but couldn’t hold it back. “Right?”

Tellwyrn sighed heavily, taking off her glasses to rub at her eyes with a thumb and forefinger. Every moment she didn’t casually brush off Principia’s claims was another damning affirmation of them. “I suppose we should talk, Trissiny. Let’s go to my office.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, you are not dragging her across the goddamn campus at a time like this,” Ruda exclaimed. “I’ll help Janis clean up and you can have the room. How many thousands of years does it take you to grow some fucking sensitivity, woman?”

“Thanks, Ruda,” Trissiny said, touched in spite of herself. Ruda grunted and waved her off, turning to head back inside.

“Hey, guys!” Fross zipped over to them from the gate to the main campus, coming to a stop in the middle of the bridge. “Wow, everybody’s up early! You know this is Saturday, right?”


Ruda had been progressively decorating the whole time they’d lived there, and her side of the room was now draped in rugs and heavily embroidered throw pillows, the walls swathed with silken hangings and tapestries. At the foot of her bed were an old-fashioned treasure chest that looked like it belonged in an illustration in a penny dreadful, as well as a modern enchanted cold box in which she kept pints of frozen custard. A white bearskin rug, complete with mounted head and claws, was draped haphazardly over her bed. Trissiny’s side of the room was as stark and spartan as ever.

Tellwyrn stopped in the middle; she didn’t seem to be terribly interested in either side, but frowned at the sharp line of demarcation between them.

Trissiny shut the door behind her, a touch more firmly than was necessary. “It’s…true, then? That woman is my mother?”

The Professor turned to face her, a distasteful grimace twisting her lips. “Trissiny, any imbecile can get knocked up, carry a child to term and squeeze it out. Profound as the experience may seem when you’re going through it, the fact that so many imbeciles do so is the only thing that explains the state of the world. Motherhood is another matter entirely.”

“You’re avoiding the question,” Trissiny accused.

Tellwyrn shook her head. “I am clarifying the question, because you asked the wrong one. Now you listen to me: Abbess Narnasia Darnassy is your mother. She gave years of her life to loving you every minute, taught you everything you know about the world, formed you into a young woman capable of living on your own and then let go to let you do it. That is what a mother is, and you have a damn fine one.”

Trissiny nodded; the lump in her throat was too painful to speak around, but there was something sweet in it as well. Mother Narny had been responsible for all the girls at the Abbey, trainees of every age from all backgrounds, as well as the seven other orphans who’d been raised alongside her, but Trissiny had never once felt that she lacked for care or attention. It was a timely and welcome reminder—and surprising, coming from Tellwyrn—and she resolved on the spot to let the Abbess know how much she was appreciated the next time she had the chance to go home.

“With that said,” Tellwyrn went on, suddenly sounding weary, “the answer to what you meant to ask is yes. You do owe half your blood to Principia Locke. Best have a seat, Trissiny,” she added, suiting the suggestion by stepping over to sit down on Ruda’s bed.

Trissiny pulled out her desk chair and seated herself, keeping silent for the moment as she still didn’t trust her voice not to waver, and also wasn’t sure which of the questions roaring in her head to grasp at first.

“Principia,” Tellwyrn began, “is selfish, clever, unburdened by moral scruples and rather predictable despite her twisty way of thinking. I make a point to keep several such people in my address book; they’re very useful to know. So it was that I happened to be acquainted with her about twenty years ago when she was pulling something particularly crafty with a rural noble House—which I won’t bother to name, as it’s not really material to the subject.

“She’d managed to initiate a fling with the eldest son of the family. I don’t know how and it doesn’t particularly matter. As you probably know, and should if you don’t, such things are taken very seriously by the nobility; the two things they love most are their comforts and their bloodlines, and there is thus always some contention when an aristocrat’s prerogative to screw around with lowborn women creates the risk of producing bastard potential heirs. Matters are more serious still when non-humans are involved; the rich do love exotic playthings, but a half-human member of the family is seen as a disgrace most Houses would go well out of their way to cover up. Of course, all of this happens regularly, everywhere, but it’s still something shameful. The wealthy and powerful, Trissiny, are weird.

“Alchemical contraceptives weren’t common back then, but you can bet that the aristocracy had access to them, and even the most dissolute noble wastrels were heartily encouraged to make use of them. Principia’s paramour most definitely did; he didn’t lack for intelligence or ambition. That ended up being immaterial, however. Prin arranged things so that her status as the young noble’s mistress was well-known throughout the province, behaved herself with uncharacteristic good taste and charity and actually managed to be somewhat well-thought-of. And then she got herself pregnant.”

“You mean… I’m an aristocrat?” Trissiny said numbly.

Tellwyrn grimaced. “You wouldn’t be even if the poor boy had been your father—House Whatever would go to great lengths to hush you up in that case. Anyhow, he wasn’t; he was more careful than that. Prin went and found herself some other human in another district to take care of that little detail. It was a rather inspired little con, which was why I loitered in the area to watch how it played out. She couldn’t prove anything and didn’t need to; it was all about perception and insinuation, about the court of public opinion, not courts of law. She couldn’t have won a paternity suit, but with some skillful manipulation of rumor, she placed the House in the position of having to be nice to her or risk a greater scandal than she’d already created. If their scion’s pregnant mistress were made to up and disappear, there would’ve been an outcry. She effectively forced them to pay her off, make a show of how generous and understanding they were. And then, of course, she wisely removed herself from the region before the fickle public forgot the whole story and the much more vindictive nobility she had effectively blackmailed decided to correct her manners.”

“That is despicable,” Trissiny breathed.

“Yes,” Tellwyrn said, grinning faintly. “but it was quite clever, and it worked. That, I assure you, was all that mattered to Principia. After that, she was only left with the inconvenience of actually being pregnant, and too far along to extinguish it gently. So…when you came along, she was very relieved when I offered to find you a home.”

“You offered?” Trissiny said shrilly. “You?”

“That’s a little more shock than I think the story warrants,” Tellwyrn said wryly. “Yes, me. I didn’t happen to have any reliable friends who’d have wanted a child at the time, and state-run orphanages have a tendency to be unspeakable hellholes. Of the cults who take in orphans… Well, it was just lucky you turned out to be a girl. The Sisters of Avei indoctrinate their youth just like anyone—obviously, I mean look at you—but they generally don’t screw kids up too badly. And Narnasia had just taken over as Abbess at the time; I knew she’d do very well by a foundling. It was part of why she was given the job.”

“But you hate the Sisters!”

The Professor rolled her eyes. “Other way round, Trissiny. I’ve never had an argument with the Sisters; it’s they who hate me. I doubt they even remember why anymore, but Avei chose to take something I did a few centuries back more personally than it was meant, and let me tell you, nobody holds a grudge like an immortal.”

“And of course, you’re famous for rescuing orphaned babies from a life of drudgery,” Trissiny said bitterly.

Tellwyrn gazed at her in silence for a long moment before replying. “I’ve had five children, Trissiny. All by human fathers.  Four errors in judgment and one extremely extenuating circumstance.  Not a bad record for a three-thousand-year career.”

Trissiny blinked in startlement. “I… You… Really? Somehow…I can’t see you raising a child.”

“Omnu’s breath, girl, I didn’t raise them. Can you imagine how messed up someone would be with me as their primary moral example?”

“That’s a great thing to hear from an educator.”

“You kids are at least nominally adults. You are intellectually and morally formed; I’m simply teaching you how to think effectively. Creating a fully functioning person from whole cloth, as it were, is an entirely different matter. Trust me, I know my limitations.” She sighed softly and glanced to the side. “So no, Trissiny, I don’t make it a habit of gallivanting around the world rescuing orphans… But I happened to be there, and I have a soft spot for the half-elven offspring of horribly unfit mothers. Prin didn’t want you, and I found it wasn’t in me to just leave you there. So…here we are.” She shrugged, smiling ironically. “If I hadn’t intervened, you’d have been brought up as a small-time grifter. In the best-case scenario. In the other… I would like to think even Principia wouldn’t have abandoned an inconvenient baby in a haystack somewhere, but if you asked me to look you in the eyes and swear to it, I’d have to balk.”

“Here we are,” Trissiny repeated in a whisper, staring at the floor. Slowly, she lifted her eyes. “She…Principia… She’s a bad person, isn’t she?”

“In all my years, after all the things I’ve done, for all that I’ve kept myself at the forefront of world events about half the time, I’ve met maybe a dozen bad people. Trissiny, most evil in the world is due to stupidity, ignorance and laziness. Some is the work of the mentally ill; much results from the accidents of birth and culture that train people to see the world in irrational ways. Actually evil people, individuals who understand right and wrong and deliberately choose wrong, are vanishingly rare. For the most part, people do what seems best to them, and their moral failings are the extension of intellectual failings.

“Principia Locke is selfish, lazy, deceitful, irreverent and gratuitously obstreperous, but there are much, much worse things a person can be. I can’t tell you she’s a good person to know, but she is not the sort of person you as a paladin are likely to be called on to chase down and bring to justice.”

Trissiny nodded, lowering her eyes again. “I don’t even know what to think about all this. What… What do you think I should do?”

“I think I’m the wrong person to ask,” Tellwyrn said, her voice uncharacteristically gentle. “I’m here to help however I can, but in this case, you have better sources of support. I suggest talking to Avei, and to Narnasia when circumstances permit. I’ll tell you this much: redemption is a real thing and the desire for it is downright commonplace. People do change, and the love for a child is a powerful motivator. You should know, however, that Principia brought you into the world as a prop for a con she was running, and after handing you off to me, the first time she evinced the slightest interest in your existence was when you were chosen by Avei to be her paladin. A week after the announcement, she turned up on the steps of the Abbey, and Narnasia threw her bodily down the stairs.”

“Mother Narny did that?” Trissiny said, shocked. The Abbess had been a Silver Legionnaire in her youth, but now suffered arthritis and walked with a cane.

“She was quite irate, I understand. She also swallowed her pride enough to keep me informed, which was lucky, as the next thing Prin did was move into Last Rock. Avei determined you were to attend school here when you were old enough almost as soon as she called you, though how Prin found out about that I’ve no idea. You may choose to forgive her or not, maybe even to let her be part of your life, but don’t do so blindly: remember her interest in you began when you became a person who’d be useful to know. If she is genuinely repentant, I strongly advise you to make her prove it before you come to any decisions.”

Trissiny nodded slowly. “…I’m a half-elf, then. I think I’m having the most trouble with that.”

“If you’ve gone eighteen years without knowing that, it’s not likely to break your stride now. You’re lucky in that you can pass; most humans and an unfortunate lot of elves tend to shun half-bloods. You’re also the Hand of Avei, so nobody with a lick of sense is going to give you a hard time. Talk with Admestus if you have questions. I can explain the basics, but it’d all be very technical; he’s actually lived them.”

“Ugh.” Trissiny made a face, and Tellwyrn laughed.

“Yes, I know. Remember what I said about people doing what makes sense to them? Rather than turning up your nose at his eccentricities, it would behoove you to wonder what motivates him to act that way.”

“I’m…altogether surprised at how you’re acting,” Trissiny admitted, forcing herself to meet Tellwyrn’s gaze.

“Why, because big bad Tellwyrn has a kind streak?” The elf shook her head. “If I had to guess at Avei’s motivations in sending you here, I’d say she meant you to soften the black-and-white view of the world that growing up in what amounts to a convent has left you with. Nobody’s all one or the other, Trissiny. Honestly, I’m probably the most straightforward person you will ever meet. If I confuse you, you are dramatically oversimplifying the world.”

“Do you know who my father is?”

“No idea,” Tellwyrn admitted. “Some human. He was a bit part in Principia’s game; probably got the night of his life out of the blue and never had an inkling it resulted in consequences for anyone else. They never do. Let me ask a question: what kinds of interactions have you had with Prin since you got to town?”

Trissiny shook her head slowly. “Not much… She tried to give me a necklace once, but Sheriff Sanders chased her off. Well, actually gave it to me, I suppose.”

“What?” Tellwyrn straightened up. “You have something she gave you?”

“She didn’t give it directly to me,” Trissiny explained. “She found Teal and Shaeine in town one night and gave it to them to pass along. I, uh… I was going to have someone look it over for enchantments, but…it slipped my mind.”

“Slipped your mind. Well, now we know how she’s been following your movements, at least. I was all set up to go hunting down whoever blabbed about centaurs.” She rubbed her forehead. “Damn it, Trissiny, I can accept your priggishness as a result of upbringing, but you of all people should know to be more careful than this.”

“You’re right,” Trissiny said, flushing. She opened her belt pouch and rummaged inside for the necklace; it took some doing, as the thing had slid under her first aid kit. “I’ve been kind of overwhelmed by this place, but that’s a poor excuse. Here it is.”

“And you’ve even been carrying it—” Tellwyrn broke off abruptly, staring at the necklace dangling from Trissiny’s fingers. “That’s a golden eagle.”

“Uh…yes. I guess she thought it’s the only kind of ornamentation I might want. Which is true; I didn’t even want this, but the sigil…”

“The sigil!” She snatched the necklace out of Trissiny’s hand, staring at it. “Yes, there’s a tracking charm… Oh, hell, Principia, what have you done?”

“What?” Trissiny stared at her, nonplussed. “I’m confused, what does that—”

“No time!” Tellwyrn said curtly, and then the room vanished.

Trissiny had never teleported before; the lack of sensation was disorienting. It seemed it should feel like something, but her room simply disappeared and the sheriff’s office in Last Rock replaced it. She also materialized in a seated position and staggered to one knee, only her years of physical training warding off an embarrassing tumble to the floor. Tellwyrn, she noted with annoyance, had re-sorted herself in transit so that she appeared upright.

“Damn it!” Sheriff Sanders shouted, jerking backward from his desk so abruptly he caused a minor avalanche of papers. “Don’t do that!”

“Where is Principia Locke?” Tellwyrn demanded. “Have you seen her today?”

“A few minutes ago,” he grunted, re-settling himself in his chair. “She popped out of midair and landed right there in the street. I kinda figured it was your doing.”

“Which way did she go?”

“Hell if I know,” he said. “I ain’t her keeper, unless I can manage to actually catch her committing a crime for once. Home, I reckon.”

Tellwyrn hissed a curse, and the world vanished again.

“Son of a bitch!” Sanders barked when they materialized; this time he was dumped to the floor, suddenly without the chair under him. He winced, looking up at Trissiny. “Ah… My apologies, ma’am.”

Trissiny nodded abstractly to him, looking around. They were in a bare attic space containing nothing but a bed with an uncovered mattress and battered old table and chair. “Where are we?”

“Prin’s place,” Sanders grunted, climbing to his feet. “Though it looks like she’s skipped town. Well, for all that I couldn’t help liking her a little, I’ve gotta say this’ll make my job a mite easier.”

“Trissiny,” Tellwyrn said sharply, “do you sense anything? Anything demonic or otherwise evil?”

Trissiny frowned, panning her gaze around the bare little room. “Nothing like that. Why? Are you expecting demons?”

“I would take it as a great kindness if someone would explain to me what’s going on,” Sanders said with visibly strained patience.

Tellwyrn held up the necklace, regarding it grimly. “This piece of jewelry has a tracking charm on it. She’s been using it to keep tabs on Trissiny’s movements.”

“Well, that’s a misdemeanor, if Ms. Avelea didn’t consent to the surveillance,” he said slowly. “I’m not sure I understand the urgency of all this, though.”

“Sam, this is the sacred symbol of Avei! The gods aren’t always paying attention to us—okay, hell, they aren’t often paying attention. But to lay a charm on a holy sigil intended to surreptitiously track her Hand? Avei would damn well notice that.”

“What are you saying?” Trissiny demanded.

“There are ways of hiding such things from the gods,” Tellwyrn said grimly. “They’re commonly used on idols, to prevent the deities in question from realizing that those worshiping them are…less than sincere. This is Black Wreath spellwork.”

Silence held for a moment.

“Aw, Prin,” Sanders groaned, dragging a hand over his face.

“It’s probably not what you’re thinking,” Tellwyrn said. “Principia wouldn’t join the Wreath.”

“This looks pretty damning!” Trissiny retorted. A hollow sensation was opening up inside her; this was just too many revelations for this early in the morning.

“Pun not intended?” Tellwyrn actually smiled a little when Trissiny glared at her. “Two kinds of people join the Black Wreath: true believing fanatics eager to pull down the gods, and everyone else, most of whom just like feeling subversive and get squeamish when they realize what they’ve gotten into—if they ever do. Principia is too self-centered and too cynical to be in either group. However, I can well imagine her being brazen enough to con the Wreath out of some spellwork. Which leaves the very significant question of what she offered them in return and whether she came through on her end of the deal. I can see that going either way.”

“That’s assuming she’s not actually a Wreath cultist,” Trissiny added grimly. “A personality profile isn’t evidence, Professor.”

“Yes…in any case, she’s certainly intelligent enough to foresee how this would play out when she broke into Clarke Tower,” Tellwyrn said, beginning to pace. “Packed up and ready…an escape prepared. We won’t catch her.”

“She broke into…” Sanders trailed off, shaking his head. “What do you mean, we won’t catch her? Are you Arachne Tellwyrn or not?”

“Legendary power does not connote omnipotence or infallibility,” Tellwyrn said, still frowning into the distance. “Last person I met who thought it did was a god. I will forever cherish the look on his face when I killed him.”

Trissiny and Sanders exchanged a wary look.

“City girl or not, she’s still an elf. All she has to do is get lost in the tallgrass and that is pretty much that. With even the basic enchantments she can use, she can deflect a tracking hound.” She shook her head, coming to a stop and staring out the room’s one window. “This goes way beyond Principia. Damn it… We need to find her. We aren’t going to be the only ones trying, and depending on who gets there first, she may be silenced before anybody can get answers.”

“By ‘silenced,’” Trissiny said slowly, “you mean…”

“You know exactly what I mean.”

She realized she was gripping the hilt of her sword. Whether for comfort or in anticipation of trouble, Trissiny couldn’t have said, and it bothered her that she could make so little sense of her own thoughts. Whatever else was going on, they needed—she needed to find Principia Locke. They needed answers.

So did she.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

2 – 21

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Tazlith’s group exchanged a round of glances, Shook began creeping back to place them between himself and Tellwyrn, the three soldiers grinned in unison, McGraw very casually lowered his staff to point in the Professor’s general direction, and Principia said something in elvish that was, even to those who didn’t understand the language, unmistakeably a curse.

“I know what several of you are thinking,” Tellwyrn said, “and the answer is ‘no.’ This nonsense is at an end.”

Marks raised one of his wands. “I think we can take—”

She gestured in his direction and he vanished with an audible snap of arcane energy. In his place a small terrier reappeared at about chest height, yelping when it fell to the ground.

“What the hell?” Tazlith exclaimed. “What did you do?”

“It’s called a baleful polymorph,” Tellwyrn said serenely. “I do not like repeating myself.”

“You can’t just cast a baleful polymorph!” said Lorrie the warlock, her attempts at sententious diction gone in panic. “It takes a ritual circle, multiple spell foci, a huge power source…”

Ox cleared his throat. “That’s Professor Tellwyrn.”

“Oh,” the warlock squeaked, and fell silent, edging behind Tazlith.

“There will be no more acts of violence or general disruptive behavior,” Tellwyrn continued. “Those of you who are under arrest will go quietly with the Sheriff; the rest of you get lost back to your own business.”

“You wretched witch!” Miz Cratchley screeched, brandishing her still-smoking staff at Tellwyrn. “This is all your fault, all of it. This was a good, quiet town before you came along!”

“Except for Mabel, for whom we make allowances,” Tellwyrn said, waving a hand. With a soft pop, Miz Cratchley disappeared.

Sanders cleared his throat. “Ah, if you don’t mind my asking…”

“She’s safely at her home,” Tellwyrn said, “and that staff of hers is in your office. Not sure why I bother,” she added, giving him an exasperated look, “since I know you’re just going to give it back to her again.”

“That staff is an heirloom,” Sanders replied in the weary tone of a man who has had this conversation once too often. “Her husband carried it in the Emperor’s service. It’s also a valuable antique. She’d need to actually hurt someone with it before I can confiscate it.”

“At least have the enchantment stripped off. She’s gonna blow herself up one of these days, and then how will you feel?”

“The vintage enchantment is the better part of what makes it valuable. Damn it, Professor, some of us have to follow the laws!”

“Seems you two could use a mite of privacy,” McGraw said solicitously. “Shall we come back and finish this later?”

“Do you think you’re funny, McGraw?” Tellwyrn asked, turning to face him. She extended an arm and pointed at Rook. “The boy in the scruffy uniform there, he’s funny. You are a pain in the ass.”

“Well, to be fair,” said Rook cheerfully, “I’m also a pain in the ass.”

“With regard to our understanding, ma’am,” McGraw said politely, “I didn’t start this, and I did my very best to prevent it getting out of hand. As I’m sure you are more than aware, reasoning with high-strung youths just ain’t always feasible.”

“Do you know what Zero Twenty means, McGraw?” Tellwyrn asked mildly.

He subtly tightened his grip on his staff. “I’m afraid I do, ma’am.”

“If I may?” the mage with Tazlith said politely. He bowed when Tellwyrn turned to stare at him. “Mr. McGraw speaks truthfully. He made every effort to talk this down before someone intervened, apparently forcing one of Marks’s wands to discharge. It is, by the way, quite an honor to meet you, Professor.”

“Did they, now,” Tellwyrn said quietly. “That’s very interesting.” She shifted her eyes to look straight at Shook.

She wasn’t the only one.

“Anybody who wants to make an accusation had best have more than hearsay backing them up,” Shook said, glaring.

“Oh really? Should I?” Tellwyrn grinned savagely. “And why is that, precisely?”

“If you don’t mind, Professor,” Sanders interjected, “I would prefer to handle this. After all, a fine, upstanding member of the Thieves’ Guild like Mr. Shook here knows better than to resist arrest when he’s fairly caught. Ain’t that right, Jeremiah?”

Shook gave the Sheriff a share of his furious stare, which appeared not to faze him in the slightest.

“It’s true?” Tazlith whispered. She glanced down at Shook’s hands; he tucked them back into his sleeves, but not fast enough. “You stole her rings, too? You said we were protecting her.”

“Oh, shut up, you dimwitted sow,” he snarled. “She’d be dead twice over by now if not for me.”

“Everything was going fine until you blundered into town, dumbshit!” Principia snapped. “Now look. Good fucking job, Enforcer.”

“Yup,” Sanders said. “Looks like everybody’s coming down to the office. Boys, if you don’t mind, I’d appreciate your help a while longer.”

“You kidding?” Rook replied, still wearing a grin. “This is fantastic! Most excitement we had at our last post was when they sent us a shipment of bad beans and Moriarty had the runs for a week. Well, until that thing we can’t talk about.” He staggered, having been elbowed hard from both sides by Finchley and Moriarty.

“Shook’s getting charged,” Sanders went on grimly, then pointed at Tazlith. “Also you, missy, since I know for a fact you’re the organizer of this motley troupe. Whatever your intentions, you need to learn a thing or two about law and order, and why you don’t take them into your own little hands.” Tazlith looked absolutely stricken by the unfairness of it all; mouth hanging open, she couldn’t even formulate a response. The Sheriff continued, moving his pointing finger around at those assembled. “The rest of you… I’ll wait till I’ve heard the whole story from all participants before I decide if it’s worth charging anybody with anything. Um…and that fellow who’s now a dog…” He glanced helplessly at Tellwyrn.

“He’s fine,” she said dismissively. “He’ll revert in about an hour, none the worse for wear. You might give him some water, though. This climate is rough if you’re wearing a fur coat.”

Marks yapped furiously at her.

“And her?” Tazlith demanded shrilly, pointing at Principia. McGraw wasn’t visibly aiming a weapon at her, but the elf still held herself as still and small as possible. “Apparently she’s a thief, too!”

Sanders heaved a sigh. “Being a thief is a crime. Being a member of the Thieves’ Guild is not.”

“What?”

“The Guild is the organized cult of Eserion,” Tellwyrn explained, smiling faintly. “You can’t just outlaw the cult of a god of the Pantheon.”

“And as usual,” Sanders said in annoyance, “Prin is sitting pretty in the gray area between what I’m pretty sure she’s done and what I can prove she did. Apparently all she’s guilty of is getting threatened, stolen from, and kidnapped.”

“I would just like to say,” Principia remarked, “fuck you all. Every last one of you in particular. I’m certain you each knows exactly why.”

“Which just leaves the man of the hour, here.” Sanders turned to face McGraw directly. “Kidnapping. Threats of murder. That’s more’n a slap on the wrist.”

“With the greatest possible respect, Sheriff, you are something of a redundancy here,” McGraw said politely, then tipped his hat in Tellwyrn’s direction. “Professor, I’d take it as a kindness if you could suss out just where we stand. Makes quite the difference with regard to what I do next.”

She shrugged. “If you didn’t cause the trouble, you didn’t cause the trouble. You start messing with the Sheriff and matters will be different, but if all the harm you’ve done is to Principia… Well, I did specifically exempt that from any promises of retribution, didn’t I?”

“Wait,” Prin said, stiffening. “You fucking what?”

“I told him I didn’t care what he did to you,” Tellwyrn replied, grinning nastily. “Are you surprised? Offended? Do you think that’s in any way unfair? Grow up already, Prin.”

“Oh, you absolute unutterable bitch!”

“My, my, gendered insults between women. And in public, no less! What would Trissiny think, I wonder?”

Principia fell silent, but her face went scarlet with rage.

“On the subject of gray areas,” Sanders said, “out here on the frontier I sometimes have to make a decision between observing the letter of the law and keeping the general peace. If the good Professor doesn’t care to step in, and considering I don’t fancy havin’ a shoot-out with you in particular… And since I’m also not excessively perturbed by crimes committed exclusively against Miss Locke, here, I might be amenable to lettin’ all this go.”

“You fucking WHAT?” Principia screamed.

“I always appreciate reasonable exceptions to silly laws,” McGraw said mildly, stepping around from behind the apoplectic elf. He held his arms wide, grinning disarmingly. “Course, I’m honor-bound to point out that if you did choose to make an issue of this, and I did defend myself, well… I’m pretty sure that’d cross the line drawn by the esteemed Professor, here. Might be small consolation for having half of Last Rock leveled, but you could go down in history as the man who helped bring down Longshot McGraw.”

Sanders strode forward, straight at him. McGraw didn’t back down by so much as an step, and the Sheriff didn’t pause until his nose was a bare inch from the other man’s. He kept his voice low, but in the sudden stillness, the mild wind of the prairie wasn’t enough to prevent his words from being clearly heard by everyone present.

“Get the hell out of my town, McGraw.”

They locked gazes for a long moment, utterly still. Then Longshot McGraw very deliberately stepped backward, nodding politely.

“Fair enough, Sheriff. D’you mind awfully if I loiter on the platform, there, till the next caravan arrives? It’s a long stretch of nothin’ between here and…well, anything at all. You get to be my age, and the thought of hiking through the prairie for weeks just ain’t as exciting as it once was.”

Sanders held his gaze for another long moment, then turned away. “Ox, me an’ the boys’ll take this lot down to the jail. Kindly stay here and make sure Mr. McGraw gets safely on the Rails. He so much as sneezes, blast him.”

“Sheriff,” Ox said, nodding grimly.

“Feh,” Tellwyrn said, making a dismissive gesture with one hand. “Half the morning, wasted. If I have to come deal with this again, everybody dies.” She vanished with a quiet pop of air rushing in to fill the space she had occupied.

“Least one good turn came outta this,” Sanders remarked loudly to Finchley as he and the soldiers began herding Shook and the adventurers down the street at wand point. “Membership in the Thieves’ Guild isn’t a crime, but it does constitute probable cause. So much as a butter knife goes missing in this town from here on an’ I get to search Prin’s rooms as a matter of course. Should make several things easier.”

“Well,” McGraw said ruefully, “this’ll be a blot on the record, I suppose. Guess I’ll have to go give back some money, soon as I get to Tiraas.” Turning to Principia, he tipped his hat politely. “Ma’am.”

She watched him stroll over to the Rail platform and lounge against one of the pillars holding up the awning there, taking out a cigarillo and lighting it with his staff.

For a heartbeat, all was quiet.

Then Principia Locke threw back her head and let out a long, wordless scream.


 

Admestus Rafe swam slowly up through the most delicious dreams. As reality began to coalesce around him, he found it just as agreeable, full of splendid warmth and softness. He opened his eyes, finally, just as gentle lips were withdrawn from his own. For a second, all he was conscious of were the big brown eyes inches from his, and the warm, curvy weight resting across his body.

“Hey, it worked!” Juniper said cheerfully.

“Waugh!” Suddenly lucid, Rafe scrambled backward in panic, throwing her off. “No! Bad! Student! Arachne will eat my liver!”

“Mornin’, sunshine!” Ruda said cheerfully from just above him.

He paused to take stock. They were in a covered wagon, trundling along; to judge by the light filtering through the openings, it was early afternoon. Fross flittered around the interior, Ruda sat on the driver’s seat just behind his head, Juniper was…well, right there. Toby and Shaeine were still laid out, unconscious.

“I wasn’t absolutely sure I could do it,” Juniper said, then yawned hugely. “I mean, basic healing, yeah, but drugs are so much more…complicated. But apparently I can sorta…take it on myself? Sort of. Not, like, the drug, but some of the…badness of it?”

“You can suck drugs out of people?” Fross chimed. “Neat!”

Ruda cackled. “Word around campus is she can suck the enchantment off a battlestaff.”

Juniper yawned again. “It’s not easy, though. Been a rough day… I’m gonna…” She listed over onto one side and curled up, asleep before she finished her sentence. For the first time Rafe realized there was a large hole in the side of her dress, its edges burned black, and the flesh underneath it appeared to be covered in some kind of bark.

“What happened to her?” he asked.

“She got shot,” said Ruda.

Rafe bit back a curse. “Oh…hell. Who’s dead?”

“Just the fuckers that did it. All’s well that ends well an’ all that shit.”

“Whew… I guess Naiya was in an uncharacteristically reasonable mood. Last time I heard about somebody shooting a dryad, it was killer bees and wasps from one horizon to the other.”

“Let me get you caught up,” the pirate went on, still in that cheery tone. “The nice people who gave us dinner drugged us with magic cornbread. It was damn good cornbread, almost worth the drugs. Beans baked right in and a cinnamon glaze, I gotta remember that… Anyway, they were gonna steal our shit, dose us with memory-altering magic and leave us somewhere. Except Fross, who was being made into a lamp.”

“Excuse me, I’m an arcane sciences major! That bottle was only warded against fae magic. I would’ve gotten out eventually.”

“Yeah, but not before the rest of us were goners. I still saved all our asses.”

“That’s right, you did!” She buzzed down to hover in front of Rafe’s face. “She did! Ruda’s very smart.”

“Also good-looking and a goddamn terror in a fight,” Ruda said merrily. “So yeah, yadda yadda, yadda, they knocked us out, I’m awesome, and now here we are and I get to make fun of you, Professor Big Heap Alchemist, for getting drugged by cornbread.”

“I beg your pardon,” he said stiffly, “but I’m a genius, not a deity. Do you know how many tasteless, odorless and basically undetectable compounds can be cooked into food to knock people out? No, you don’t, and neither do I, because that’s just about the simplest thing there is to do.”

“Oh, please,” she said, grinning over her shoulder at him. “’Bella, get the special cornbread.’ They might as well have been twirling their fucking mustaches. Honestly, how the hell any of you so much as buy breakfast without getting swindled outta your goddamn pants is beyond me.”

“You ate it too,” he said irritably, getting up. It wasn’t easy with the lurching progress of the wagon, but he needed to check on Toby and Shaeine.

“I was hungry, and I don’t get drugged. Just one of the many benefits of being Punaji. It’s pretty much all benefits, for the record.”

“And how did you know they weren’t going to just feed us poison, if you’re so smart?”

“It’s called tactics, chucklenuts. Trissiny might be the military expert, but when it comes to knocking people down an’ taking their shit, we’re in my territory. They had staves, see? Practically pointed at us. If I’d made a stink about the cornbread, they’d’ve just shot us. Contrariwise, the fact they didn’t indicated they didn’t want us dead. So I played along until an opportunity came up to turn the tables. Which, inevitably, it did, and here we are. You’re fucking welcome, by the way.”

“What, you want a medal? I’ll see to it Tellwyrn passes you for the exercise, anyway.”

“Eh, that’ll do for a start,” she said airily. “I expect everyone to go on at length about the glory that is me, by the way.”

“You savor that, kiddo,” he said, grinning. “Now you have a taste of what it’s like to be Professor Rafe every day!”

Ruda’s smile faded; she glanced back again. Rafe was bent over Toby, holding a small vial under his nose.

“Ooh, is that smelling salts?” Fross asked, fluttering close. “Will that wake him up?”

“No, no, I don’t want to just pump drugs into them without knowing what we’re dealing with. I’m just working out what they got dosed with. Then I can apply the right counter-agent without risking a bad interaction. Actually, could you fly a little closer? I need to watch how this changes color and you’re the only light in here.”

“So,” said Ruda, turning back to face forward again. “What’s with you, anyway?”

“Me?” Fross asked.

“No, him.”

“Nothing’s with me,” Rafe replied, showing signs of his old bluster returning. “Merely the extravagant and vigorous splendor that is my stock in trade!”

“Cut the bullshit. You spent most of last night practically silent. Well, talking about like a normal person does, which for you is practically silent. Then you got your ass drugged, and you can make excuses all you want but we both know that’s a sign you fucked up. I bet you’d have seen the trap coming if you’d been paying attention. So, spill.”

They were quiet for a minute while he fiddled with his reagents. Fross buzzed around as if uncertain where she wanted to hover. Ruda didn’t prompt him again, and had just about decided he wasn’t going to answer when he finally did.

“We’ve lost students before, of course. C’mon, the kind of people Arachne recruits? You little bastards are one of the better-behaved years I’ve seen in a while. You just don’t throw the Empire’s most powerful weirdos onto a campus together and then send them out against real-world threats three times a semester without having fatalities. But… I’ve never lost someone before. Having a student I alone was personally responsible for get…” He broke off, stuffed a vial back into his belt pouch and took out another one, not looking at her or Fross. “It’s…something to deal with.”

Ruda nodded slowly. “I think I get you. Man… I didn’t even like her. But she was part of my crew, and…now we don’t even know if she’s gone or not. I’m still wondering if there’s even anything I need to deal with, never mind how the fuck I’m actually going to deal.”

“Yeah.”

“So, get the fuck over it.”

He twisted around to scowl at her. “Excuse me? Real sensitive, Punaji.”

Ruda kept her face forward toward the horizon, but spoke loudly enough to be clearly heard. “That’s what leadership means: everything is your fucking fault, and you don’t get to whine about it. You just keep at it and do the job. Instead, you got into your little funk and walked all our asses right into a trap.”

“If you’ll recall,” he said pointedly, “Professor Tellwyrn reminded everyone that I’m along on this little shindig in an observational capacity. I’m not the one giving orders.”

“Bullshit. That went over the side when you shouted Trissiny down for doing her fucking job and giving us advice on dealing with the centaurs. Which, by the fucking way, was good fucking advice and we probably wouldn’t be in all this shit if we’d just followed it. You took the job, so do the job.”

He scowled and turned back toward Toby, gently lifting the boy’s head and tipping a vial of thick fluid into his mouth. Seconds later, Toby coughed weakly, his eyelids beginning to flutter.

“Well, too late now,” Ruda said lightly. “No sign of the mountain yet, but the kidnapping assholes thought they were gonna get to the edge of the Sea by the end of today. Fuck if I know, I’m just figuring they understood how this place works.”

Rafe had no answer for her. He simply occupied himself tending to the others.


 

The mountain at Last Rock cast a long shadow. Unlike its sudden vanishing when they had first headed out into the Golden Sea, it appeared in a geographically normal fashion upon their return, giving the students hours to prepare themselves for their homecoming. It was hours spent mostly in conversation; even after everyone had been fully brought up to date on events, they found comfort—even Shaeine—in just talking.

Consequently, it was a tired and quiet group who drew their captured wagon to a stop at the foot of the mountain.

Professor Tellwyrn stood alone, waiting for them.

Toby had been handling the oxen; Ruda didn’t actually know anything about steering them, and had simply been sitting up front for the view, Juniper having given the beasts their instructions. He took time to stop and pat both animals as the others filed down from the wagon, Juniper still yawning and rubbing her eyes.

“Well?” Tellwyrn said simply when they had finally assembled in front of her.

“Teal,” Shaeine said, “and Gabriel?”

“Are fine. In their respective rooms, as far as I know, worrying about you lot.”

“We scored us a free wagon, and a small fortune in gemstones,” Ruda said.

“Actually, not such a small fortune,” Shaeine corrected.

“Whatever. It’s our plunder, won fair and square. The two demony types get a cut, too. Everybody, otherwise I wouldn’t feel right takin’ my share. And nobody who has any sense better come between a pirate and her booty.” She glared over at the others.

“Miss Punaji,” Tellwyrn said wearily, “three of your classmates—including you—are heirs to massive fortunes and don’t need gems. Two are paladins who have no attachment to worldly wealth, and two are fae who don’t even participate in the economy.”

“Everybody gets a share,” Ruda repeated stubbornly. “Sell ’em, donate ’em, chuck ’em down a well, fuck if I care.”

“Right. Anything else you’d like to report?”

“Professor,” Toby said quietly. “We…lost Trissiny.”

“Really,” she said dryly. “Have you checked your pockets?”

There was a moment of stunned silence before Ruda responded. “Is that a fucking joke to you?!”

“Pretty much,” Tellwyrn replied glibly. “I assure you, Trissiny’s fine and will be along presently.”

“How can you possibly know that?” Toby demanded.

“I keep forgetting you kids grew up in an era without paladins. Have you heard about the Stand at Stavulheim?”

“One Imperial legion held the city gates, alone, against an army of orcs for three days,” Shaeine replied. “Though the relevance of it to this situation escapes me.”

“The relevance is that that is the sanitized, politicized version taught by Imperial historians. I was around then, and I can hardly blame them for changing it up, as the truth is a lot less believable. It was two Hands of Avei who did that. Two. Against two thousand. And you think Trissiny was felled by a handful of centaurs? Please.

“Quite apart from that,” she went on, raising her voice over the comments that arose, “I am far from Avei’s favorite person; I assure you, if her brand new Hand had just gotten killed on one of my training exercises, we would be hearing about it. Also, she’s right behind you.”

They spun, Toby so quickly he nearly overbalanced, to look back at the Sea. Nobody was there.

“Are you just fucking with us now?” Ruda snarled, whirling back to glare at her, one hand falling to the hilt of her sword.

“A little,” Tellwyrn said with a smile. “’Right’ behind you may have been overstating it, but yes, she’s on her way, and making much better time than you did. Should be here in minutes. Trust me, you don’t argue with elven eyes.”

“You wear glasses!” Ruda shouted.

“Meanwhile,” Tellwyrn went on in a more grim tone, “we can discuss your performance, or lamentable lack thereof. To review: Upon being accosted by centaurs, your first move was to send your two most durable combatants away, hopelessly splitting your group and depriving the rest of their best defenders.”

“The centaurs’ war drums—”

“Miss Awarrion, do not interrupt me when I am chastising you. Then, you set out on a long, exhausting fighting retreat, with the inevitable result that your next most durable member—and also your best remaining counter to your opponents’ infernal magic—collapsed from fatigue. Honestly, how could you possibly have thought a tree nymph would fare well on a cross-country run? And finally, you apparently sacrificed your last magically-endowed fighter to the horde while the rest of you went blundering away to…” She trailed off, running her eyes over the wagon and oxen. “…all right, I have to admit I’m baffled how you got to a wagon full of plunder from fleeing for your lives from centaurs. It promises to be a good story, though. Probably not enough to redeem your grade for the exercise, but something.”

“Then how,” Shaeine asked quietly, “did you know we lost Trissiny to the centaurs?”

Tellwyrn tilted her head forward to stare them down over the rims of her spectacles. “Because, despite the fact that I specifically told you to follow Trissiny’s advice on combat matters, I know she didn’t tell you to enact this utterly hambrained plot. Which means you weren’t listening to her. You know what a paladin does when the idiot civilians she’s trying to protect refuse to see reason? She puts herself between them and whatever is out to get them. Ergo, here you are, sans paladin, and plus plunder. I doubt she’d have let you loot the corpses of whoever else you killed, either. Hello, Trissiny.”

They whirled around again; this time, Toby did overbalance, landing on his rump in the grass and staring up at the spectacle approaching them.

It was as if they’d appeared out of a fold in the ground—which was probably close to the literal truth, the Golden Sea being what it was. The horse was absolutely massive, an enormous, barrel-chested draft horse with a thick arched neck, blunt nose and feathered hooves the size of dinner plates. He wore silver armor over his neck, face and rump, and the golden eagle sigil of Avei was worked into his breast collar. Sitting in the saddle, dwarfed by the huge horse despite her height, was Trissiny. She was covered in grime and dried blood, but appeared as alert and unharmed as when they’d last seen her.

“Professor,” she said, nodding as she guided the steed to a halt next to them. For all his size, his hoofsteps were eerily quiet. “Is everyone all right? I passed these travelers’ other wagon a while back, and their bodies. It looked like they were eaten by wild animals.”

“No, that was me,” Juniper said brightly. “Hi, Triss! I’m glad you’re okay!”

“Hi,” the paladin said slowly. “…and you did that because…?”

“Oh, they drugged everybody and captured Fross and were going to rob and abandon us. And then they shot me.”

“Ah.” Trissiny nodded. “Very well, then. I’m just glad you all made it.”

“We made it?” Ruda said, gaping at her. “You’re glad we made it?! We—you were—we left you… How did… WHY THE FUCK DO YOU HAVE A HORSE?”

“Paladins get mounts,” Tellwryn said serenely. “Avei usually doesn’t bequeath one until the Hand in question has proven herself in actual combat. I guess the centaurs were an adequate test.”

“Less trouble than I expected, honestly,” Trissiny said. “Once I killed their leader, the rest scattered.”

“Yes, for all their size and ferocity, they really aren’t militarily impressive. Which makes it all the sadder that you lot got yourselves routed by them. Honestly, if anybody important had been along to see that, it would go down in the annals of tactical incompetence. I can’t believe you let them do this,” she added directly to Trissiny.

The paladin raised an eyebrow. “Oh, so they have to listen to me, now? Splendid. I want everyone assembled on the main lawn at six AM for drill.”

“You joke,” Tellwyrn said grimly, “but after this debacle I’m half-tempted to authorize that.”

“You got,” Ruda said slowly, as though trying to convince herself of it, “a fucking horse.”

“His name’s Arjen,” Tellwyrn said helpfully.

“How do you know that?” Trissiny demanded.

“There’s a limited number of celestial steeds in Avei’s stable,” the Professor said cheerfully. “These creatures are truly immortal, not merely ageless like elves. If killed on this plane, they just return to their divine point of origin, ready to be summoned again. This fellow has served the Hands of Avei for millennia. We’ve met before,” she added, raising a hand as if to pat Arjen’s nose. He snorted disdainfully and twisted his head away. “See?” she said wryly.

“Arjen, is it,” Trissiny murmured, leaning forward to pat his neck. He whickered softly.

“You know what?” Ruda said flatly. “I fucking hate you.”

Trissiny sat bolt upright in her saddle, gaping at her in shock. “What?”

“Can you just for once not try to fucking show me up?” She clawed a bottle out of her coat and took a long swig. “But,” she added, wiping her mouth on her sleeve, “I’m really glad you’re not dead.”

Trissiny stared at her, open-mouthed, unable to formulate a reply.

“All right, it’s been great adventuring with you lot, but I’ve had enough,” said the pirate. “Tellwyrn can tell us all how much we suck another time, I’m done with this horseshit. Anybody needs me, too fucking bad. I’m gonna be in town, and I will not be back till I’ve drunk my weight in the dilute pisswater that passes for beer around here and screwed at least three local boys. Concurrently if I can find enough of these hicks without too many goddamn hangups. Have a good fucking night, all.”

Still drinking from her bottle, she stomped off in the direction of Last Rock.

“Don’t get pregnant!” Tellwyrn called after her.

“Fuck you!”

“So!” Rafe said brightly. “How’ve things been back here?”

“Eh.” Tellwyrn waved a hand dismissively. “Nothing ever happens in this town.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

As usual, he had to do everything himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sheriff would be there in seconds, surely.

Thumper was already on his way back into the alley.


 

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

It helped that people never thought to look up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bastard,” she said with more feeling.

Right. Predictable.

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

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

She stared at him for one silent moment before bolting.

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

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

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

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

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

He shrugged. “The money’s good.”

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

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

“Seriously? That’s it?”

“Miss, when you get to my age—”

“I’m at least twice your age.”

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s an interesting theory.”

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

So that’s what had taken him so long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That true, Prin?” Sanders asked tersely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No! Fuck you, Shook! No shooting!”

“Prin—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shoot it!”

“Don’t shoot it! Don’t make it mad!”

“Will somebody do something?!”

CRACK!

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

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

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

“Shame on you,” said Mabel Cratchley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2 – 14

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Sanders knew his aversion to the campus was irrational. It was an intriguing and objectively beautiful place, the students were typically friendly toward him, or at least respectful, and he had Tellwyrn’s explicit permission to visit at need, or even socially. Nonetheless, climbing the mountain was like putting half a world between himself and his town, for all that he could see the entire thing from up here. He belonged down below, in the streets and humble structures of Last Rock, among its straightforward people. The University was a place for…someone else. A whole other kind of someone else.

Still, he navigated adroitly through the stairs and switchbacks leading up through the terraces, returning cheerful greetings from passing students with as much poise as he could muster. The passage through Helion Hall was similarly well-remembered, all because he had taken great pains to memorize the route. Getting lost in this place…well, once had been enough.

The door to Professor Tellwyrn’s office was open. Voices sounded within, but he approached anyway. The Professor was not one to act carelessly; if she wanted to be private, she would have been. He eased up to the doorway, making sure she could see him from behind the desk, and tugged the brim of his hat respectfully to her when her eyes cut to him from the student standing in the office.

“No one is restricting your right to practice your religion, November,” Tellwyrn was saying patiently. “In fact, I’m not requiring you to do anything. I am simply advising you in the strongest terms, for your own benefit, to take down that absurd shrine to the Hand of Avei you’ve put up in the campus chapel. She’s on the same freshman trek you participated in, not off crusading against the barbarians.”

“All I’m hearing is you telling me not to show support for the champion of my faith,” retorted the young woman stridently. Sanders winced; November Stark was one of the more annoying of the current crop of students. A tall young woman with her dark hair hacked boyishly short, she wore, as usual, a white shirt and trousers in an approximate imitation of the uniform of lay clerics of Avei. The best thing he could say about her was that she rarely visited the town.

“Be with you in a moment, Sam,” said Tellwyrn past the girl’s shoulder. “Stark, if you want to argue further, maybe you’d like to postpone it till you don’t have an audience?”

November glanced over her shoulder at Sanders, and a catlike smile appeared on her face. Turning back to face Tellwyrn, she folded her arms, adopting a smug posture. “What, you’re not comfortable discussing your stance on religious freedoms in front of an agent of the law? I don’t mind if he doesn’t.”

I mind a little, Sanders thought, but wisely kept his opinions out of it.

“Is that really what you want?” Tellwyrn asked in a very mild tone that really should have warned the girl off.

“Absolutely.” November set her jaw firmly, her expression proud and confident.

“Very well,” said Tellwyrn. “As I said, I’m not going to make you take it down. For the record I do have that authority, but despite what you like to tell yourself, I have absolutely no interest in anybody else’s religious practices on this campus unless they convert to the Black Wreath or something. I am suggesting that you remove it for your sake and Trissiny’s, Miss Stark.”

“That’s Ms—”

“No.” Tellwyrn’s voice cracked like a whip, and she leaned forward, planting an elbow on the desk to point a finger at Stark. “Don’t fucking start with me, you irritating little rash. I put up with that from Trissiny because she was raised in a Temple of Avei and actually has a deep understanding of feminist philosophy. You are a self-absorbed child who’s less than a year on from discovering how cloyingly righteous it feels to be oppressed by the patriarchy.

“That ridiculous shrine is not a religious expression, it’s an extension of your schoolgirl crush, which by the way, everyone has well and truly noticed. The only people who are not embarrassed on your behalf are yourself because you lack sense, Trissiny because she’s not here to see it, and Chase, who runs on pure schadenfreude and is probably glorying in the awkwardness. You can avoid at least one of those by getting rid of the damn thing before Trissiny comes back and has to share in the general humiliation.

“And for the gods’ sake, child, quit pussyfooting around. If you want her, ask her. The worst case scenario is that she’ll say ‘no,’ and you can avoid wasting the best years of your life pining after what you can’t have.

“Now,” Tellwyrn finished sweetly, folding her hands on the desktop, “is there anything else you would like to discuss in front of the Sheriff, while he’s here?”

“No,” said November in a strangled voice. Her posture was so rigid now that she practically quivered, her face flushed almost crimson. Sanders felt a rush of pure pity, which he very carefully kept from going anywhere near his expression. It would only have made it worse.

“Right, then. Run along.”

Sanders stepped aside to allow her room to exit, tugging his hat politely. November avoided his eye, stalking stiffly past and away down the hall.

“Sorry about that,” said Tellwyrn as he stepped into the room. She had removed her glasses and was scrubbing wearily at her eyes with one hand. “I don’t mind keeping discipline in an unruly classroom, but gods, how I hate it when they force me to act like their mom. What can I do for you, Sam?”

“I’m in a somewhat awkward position, Professor,” he said, stepping up to the desk. “Something’s moved into town which, if it becomes a problem, I have to frankly acknowledge I won’t have the capacity to deal with.”

“Do tell.” He managed not to flinch as she focused her attention fully on him. She had never been anything but polite, both to him and to his predecessor, but damn it, a man couldn’t stand in a room with a living, breathing legend without being keenly aware of his shortcomings, unless he was an enormous fool.

“A new fellow stepped off the Rail yesterday,” he said, keeping his tone as even as possible. “Name of McGraw. He didn’t identify himself as such, but others have. It’s Longshot McGraw, in the flesh.”

“Longshot, huh,” she mused. “I wonder what kind of pissing contest he had to win to get a moniker like that.”

Sanders blinked, taken aback. “You’re…not familiar with him?”

“Sam, it’s been more than twice your lifespan since I bothered to keep track of who’s who in adventuring. As my students love to keep reminding me, the whole concept of adventurers is a holdover from another time. Give me the basics?”

“Well, today’s frontier wandfighters aren’t exactly the same breed of adventurers you remember,” he said. “Longshot McGraw is a name mentioned alongside the likes of Tinker Billie and the Sarasio Kid. Which…I guess you might not be familiar with, either…ahem. He’s an actual wizard, not just some wandslinger. Popular imagination paints a somewhat contradictory picture, but he’s roamed around the frontier for decades, taking down any wandfighter who challenged him. A man like that doesn’t come to a town like this to just take in the sights.”

“Hm. What’s he done?”

“So far? Had a civil conversation with Ox, sat in on a poker game with several of your students, and then pulled aside Principia and that guy Shook for a brief conversation that left them both lookin’ spooked.”

“Principia.” She closed her eyes momentarily. “Why is it always Principia?”

“My thoughts exactly, ma’am.”

“Who the hell is this Shook?”

“New face in town. So far he ain’t done anything worthy of note, but he’s not somebody I enjoy having around. Oily-lookin’ fellow, which is suitable enough as he claims to be a salesman, but I can’t find a single person to whom he’s sold anything. Mostly loafs around in the A&W, drinkin’ and playin’ cards, when he’s not hanging out with Prin. He’s got a habit of looking at women in a way that makes ’em leave the room. I’m not the only one who’s noticed.”

“So that’s two undesirables rolling into town on Prin-related business,” she said grimly. “This verges on impacting my interests.”

“I thought that might be the case, Professor,” he said. “I don’t rightly know why Prin moved in but it stands to reason it’s University-related.”

“Oh, it is. She wants something she’s not going to get and hasn’t the sense to set herself more attainable goals.”

“Well…be that as it may, I can deal with Shook, and probably Principia, if it comes down to it. McGraw, though, is way outta my pay grade. If any serious trouble starts and he’s involved… This is the kind of thing that gets towns burned to the ground.”

“Mm. Where is this McGraw at the moment?”

“He’s stayin’ at the A&W. It’s only been one day, but he’s been a model guest so far. Probably’ll be sitting down to lunch along with everybody else here in a bit.”

“I do believe I’ll be sociable, head down and introduce myself.” She stood, straightening her glasses. “You can walk me down the mountain, if you’ll just give me a minute to grab my privates first.”

It took Sanders a moment to remember to say something, at which point he discovered that his mouth was conveniently already open. “…I’m sorry, what?”


 

“It’s pointless, is all I’m saying,” Rook groused, smoothing out his pillow. “Making beds adds nothing to their utility and little to their aesthetic. It’s just bullshit busy work to fill two minutes in the morning when I could still be asleep.”

“Are you done yet?” Moriarty asked woodenly. He and Finchley had finished theirs long since. It was well understood among the group that Rook’s bed would never be made if Moriarty didn’t chivvy him about it every morning, and it was something of a toss-up which of them had developed a bigger attitude on the subject.

“Yes, done, bed is made, for all the good it does anybody. It’s just gonna get unmade again the first time it gets used for its intended purpose.”

“It is no different from keeping your uniform neat! Cultivating a properly ordered environment is a boost to both morale and especially discipline in the service.”

“Moriarty, have you ever heard the fable of the boy who cried wolf?”

Moriarty rolled his eyes. “No, I don’t think I ever have. How does it go?”

“I’m just saying, it’d be a lot easier to take you seriously on the rare occasions when you have a point if you didn’t talk in that metered singsong like you were reading right out of your operations manual. Especially since that’s all you ever do.”

The door burst open before Moriarty could reply—fortunately—and Professor Tellwyrn stuck her head in.

“Ah! Excellent, everybody’s home. And dressed. Come along, boys, we’re going to take a little walk down to the town.”

She ducked back out, leaving the three soldiers to exchange wide-eyed looks. This was the first time Tellwyrn had expressed an interest in having them do anything since their arrival. Much as they had all bemoaned the lack of anything to relieve the tedium, they couldn’t help but see this as an alarming development.

“Morning, Sheriff,” said Finchley when they trooped out into the hall and found Sanders waiting for them.

“Boys,” he replied, nodding.

“So, uh…what’s up, Prof?” asked Rook.

“We are going to pay a little social call on a new resident of Last Rock,” said Tellwyrn, bounding up the stairs at a clip that forced the men to scramble after her. The dormitory housing this year’s freshman boys and the three Imperials was a subterranean gallery built right against the eastern edge of the mountain. Aside from its floor-to-ceiling windows, which afforded a beautiful and terrifying view of the open plain from high above, it appeared to be a long, naturally occurring cave, with a sanded-down floor and uneven walls sloping up to form an arched roof studded with runty stalactites. Reaching it involved a long staircase which terminated in what appeared to be a small storage shed out behind the music building.

Whoever had designed this campus had a weird sense of humor.

Tellwyrn didn’t seem inclined to wait for them, but they hustled up to rejoin her above, falling into step as they reached the main lawn.

“And how can we help with that?” asked Finchley once they were regathered.

“Just stand around looking uniformed,” she replied. “This McGraw character may not have a lot of regard for authority, but if he’s as sensible as he pretty much has to be, he’ll know that getting rough with Imperial soldiers will have far-reaching consequences.”

“Getting rough with you would have immediate and horrible consequences,” Rook pointed out.

“Yes,” she said, grinning, “but you have to understand the mentality of adventurers. The law is one thing; a fellow spellslinger is another. A rival who is unequivocally more powerful, well…some take that as an inherent challenge. I don’t expect him to start tossing fireballs right there in the tavern; I just want to remind him of the lay of the land should he get a notion to plan something more long-term.”

“Wait, McGraw?” said Finchley. “Old guy, long coat, well-spoken in a prairie drawl kinda way?”

“That’s him,” said Sanders.

“What’s he done? He seemed like a nice enough fellow.”

“He’s done nothing,” replied the Sheriff. “We’d all very much prefer to keep it that way. You boys didn’t realize you were talkin’ to Longshot McGraw?”

“Holy shit,” Rook muttered.

“That about sums it up,” said Sanders grimly.

“It’s…not such an uncommon name,” Moriarty protested. “I don’t know about you, but when I meet a scruffy old man my first thought isn’t ‘legendary wandfighter.’”

“So everyone’s heard of this guy but me?” Tellwyrn said with a touch of petulance.

“You’ve seriously never heard of Longshot McGraw?” exclaimed Rook. “What rock have you been living under?”

“The rock currently affording you free room and board, boy.”

“And an excellent rock it is,” he said hastily, “which I am very much enjoying, and by the way I’ve been meaning to ask if there’s anything I can do to be more helpful around here. Also your hair looks lovely today.”

“A little artless, but points for enthusiasm. Your backpedaling is accepted, Rook.” She glanced over her shoulder at them, one corner of her mouth turned up wryly. They passed under the wrought archway of the University’s main gate and she set a pace down the steep marble stairs that was just short of reckless. “Anyway, I had a secondary motive for bringing you lads along on this little outing. I’ve been informed of something by Lord Vex which concerns you.”

“Orders?” Moriarty perked up visibly at the prospect.

“Any orders would be sent directly to you, not through me. No, it seems Elilial is back on the mortal plane.”

They digested this in silence for a moment before Finchley replied. “That’s…good to know, I guess, but what’s it got to do with us?”

“Just that you not only saw her, she actually stopped to speak to you. It may mean nothing; a goddess of cunning is hard to predict, by definition. But historically, she’s been something of a…people person. She remembers those with whom she interacts, and sometimes visits them again when she needs something from a mortal.”

“What?” Rook squeaked. “She—you—that’s… She might come after us?!”

“Probably not,” Tellwyrn replied, calm as ever. “I’m reasonably sure your role in her plans was brief, obvious, and already fulfilled. However, as I said, it’s a mistake to make assumptions about someone like that; she thinks in very elaborate patterns. Anyhow, this campus is one of the most magically protected spots on the world, but I’m not sure how much good that’ll do in her case. It seems her purpose in returning to the mortal plane the way she did was to make a point about what she can and cannot do.”

“How so?” Finchley asked nervously.

“Just that she came through the hellgate itself without tripping it, without creating any impression that the thing had opened at all. We only know she had because she paused to make an impression on the scrying orbs set up on site. You may not have covered this in whatever theological education you received, gentlemen, but the reason the Pantheon chose the infernal plane as Elilial’s prison is the nature of passages between them. They can’t exactly keep her there by main force; it’s been effective for eight thousand years because even with all her stealth, it’s never been possible to slip through a hellgate without kicking up a cosmic ruckus. When anything comes through, it’s obvious; when she does, the gods immediately know where and when, and can move to do something about it. But not this time. This is a game-changer, boys; her options have just opened up considerably.”

“Well, fuck a duck,” Rook said eloquently.

“Professor,” Sanders said in the tone of a man clinging to his calm by sheer bloody stubbornness, “what, exactly, would you estimate are the odds of the Mother of Demons showing up in my town in the near future?”

Tellwyrn was silent for a moment, before finally shaking her head. “I wouldn’t lay odds, Sheriff. She may or may not—probably not—have some leftover business with these lads. She definitely has some with me, though I’m not yet sure if anything’ll come of it.” She glanced back at him, smiling faintly. “For what it’s worth, any business she’s likely to have should be of the civil and quiet variety. Anyway, Elilial coming to town is honestly a better prospect than some of the Pantheon gods doing the same. She, at least, is very careful about collateral damage. A few of the others have a tendency to…step on people, so to speak, the way you might a passing anthill.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s some kind of blasphemy,” Rook said.

Tellwyrn made a dismissive gesture. “If the gods were going to gripe at me about blasphemy, I think they’d have done so when I did it to their various faces.”

“With all due respect, Professor, I’m not sure I like going on field trips with you,” Finchley said weakly.

“What he means is, we’ll be only too happy to accommodate your needs, nice lady who can kill us with a thought,” Rook said, grinning.

“Actually, painless death spells are tricky to set up and require rather expensive reagents, and I used the last of mine a month ago. If I were going to kill you, I’d use cheaper elemental magic. Fire, lightning, something like that.”

Moriarty frowned. “Wait…who did you—” he broke off, getting elbowed in the sides by both Finchley and Rook.

Sanders heaved a sigh, and refused to ask.


 

One of the fringe benefits of being an old man in less than pristine garb was that he was commonly left to enjoy his meals in peace. The A&W was somewhat less rowdy during the midday meal than it had been the night before, but a hubbub of conversation still filled the room, and more tables were full than otherwise. McGraw had found a seat at an unoccupied circular table in the corner, and so far had been left to enjoy it alone. The waitress having just delivered his plate of sausages and potatoes, he was looking forward to a quiet meal, unless the wards he’d set warned of Principia or Shook making for the telescroll office.

She moved fast. Scarcely had the sudden hush of an attention-grabbing arrival fallen over the common room when Arachne Tellwyrn pulled out a chair and sat down across from him.

That, McGraw reflected wryly, was what he got for boasting of a perfect record. The very next day, there it went.

“Ma’am,” he said politely. “Pardon me for not standing; you kinda snuck up on me there. Can I offer you a bite to eat? My treat.”

“To be frank, I only bother to fence and dance about with pleasantries when my sparring partner exceeds a certain level of significance,” she said, folding her hands on the table and staring at him over the rims of her spectacles. “Don’t take offense; there are very few individuals who make the cut, and most of them refuse to have anything to do with me anyway. So I’ll come to the point, McGraw: what the hell are you doing in Last Rock?”

He chewed a bite of sausage carefully, weighing his options. The buzz of arcane energy around her was palpable, but also…less so than it should have been. Less than his own, even, which far from suggesting that she was a lesser mage, raised the disturbing prospect that she was simply able to consciously contain her aura to a degree that was beyond his abilities. It was Tellwyrn; he wasn’t about to underestimate her.

Her commentary suited her reputation: blunt, aggressive, and heavy-handed. McGraw didn’t much care for needless confrontation, himself, but he knew when trying to deflect would cause more harm than good.

“I’ve been employed by an outside party,” he said calmly after swallowing, “to remove Principia Locke from Last Rock.” Past her, he noted those three soldier boys making a brave but inept try at looking imposing. The Sheriff pulled it off much better, lounging against the wall by the door.

“Define ‘remove,’” Tellwyrn said flatly.

“The young lady is under the impression that I’m here to kill her. I’d take it as a professional courtesy if you didn’t correct her.”

The elf raised an eyebrow. “Then you’re not, in fact, after her head?”

“At this stage in my career, it’d be pretty hypocritical to balk at a little homicide,” he said, carefully maintaining his calm tone, despite the ratcheting tension in the room. Around them, other patrons were steadily finding excuses to cut short their lunches and go elsewhere. Nobody was obviously within earshot. “But no, killing is very seldom necessary, and certainly not my first choice of method in a civilized place like this. Ain’t like the old days,” he went on reminiscently, stirring potatoes around his plate with his fork. “Seems nowadays, nobody’s so inconsequential that a whole mess of paperwork doesn’t ensue when they turn up dead. I do hate dealing with lawyers.”

“But as long as Prin thinks you’ve got a contract on her life, she’s likely to go and do something rash… Which will make it that much easier to chase her out of Last Rock.” She nodded approvingly. “Elegant. I like it. Provided, of course, that you’re not lying to me.”

McGraw finished chewing a bite of potato and swallowed. “Granted, you’ve no reason to take me at my word. Let me assure you, ma’am, that if I am lying, I’m well aware I’d be gambling my life on the outcome. You can trust me to proceed with all due caution and restraint.”

“Well, that’s something, I suppose. I will be frank, then: it would suit me admirably to have Principia out of this town and out of my hair. I can’t say I’d shed any tears if that involved her death, but I agree that cleaner methods are usually preferable.”

“Mm. I’m less inclined to be careful around her buddy, Mr. Shook,” he mused. “Been listening to the local scuttlebutt… Honestly, a man like that is better off removed from the mortal coil.”

“Which brings me to a point of concern,” she said flatly. “I neither run this town nor enforce the law in it. Generally speaking, the citizens of Last Rock do not need, nor would they appreciate, my help in seeing to their business. I do, however, have an ancillary interest in the doings of the town, for obvious reasons. So, let me establish my ground rules: if you cause such a degree of collateral damage that my help is requested to come down here and deal with it, I kill you. If any of your actions result in harm to my University or any of my students, I may or may not kill you, but I guarantee you will have ample time to repent your mistakes before that final judgment is made. Anything else you get up to is between you, the law, and whoever you do it to. Understood?”

McGraw calmly carried on eating, swallowing another bite as she finished speaking. Many years of practice kept his expression even as ever, despite the unaccustomed frisson of fear that passed through him. It wasn’t often he had been so baldly threatened by someone who could unquestionably back up their bluster. “Seems quite reasonable, ma’am. As I said, I don’t aim to do anything that’ll run afoul of your rules, but a little extra motivation never hurts.”

“Glad we understand each other,” she replied, standing up to leave.

“I was recently reminded,” McGraw said mildly, “that making threats of murder are, in fact, grounds for imprisonment under Imperial law.” He glanced over at Sheriff Sanders, who was still lounging by the door, too obviously not looking at them to be unaware of every detail of the conversation.

Tellwyrn gave him a condescending smile. “That’s adorable.”

Gathering up her uniformed entourage with a peremptory gesture, she swept out as suddenly as she’d arrived, leaving behind only Sanders, who calmly straightened up and wandered over toward the bar in search of a drink.

McGraw chuckled to himself, and tucked back into his lunch.


 

Tazlith made a show of frowning in contemplation as she examined the amulets behind the glass barrier of their display case, hoping the shopkeeper would interpret her expression as a sign she was carefully weighing the pros and cons of each enchantment as they were described on the accompanying notecards. In truth, she was weighing the pros and cons against what remained of her money purse.

She’d been sold on the idea that stocking up on equipment back home in Calderaas was foolish, when things were bound to be cheaper out on the frontier. Last Rock, however, did most of its commerce in the hopes and dreams of people like herself, and she was finding that the pendulum swung the opposite direction. Not by very much, but weaponry and enchanted gear was proving to be a touch pricier than she’d seen it advertized in the city. Foodstuffs, at least, were cheaper, whatever sense that made. Economics was over her head.

Occupied with her grim thoughts, her general disappointment with the way reality was sullying her excitement at setting off into the Golden Sea and her efforts to look as upstanding as possible—the shopkeeper’s patience with her browsing had visibly begun to fray—she didn’t realize she had been approached until the man cleared his throat softly.

Tazlith jumped, and immediately flushed with embarrassment. Great, very heroic. Luckily, he wasn’t laughing at her, though she was hardly delighted to meet the guy with the oily hair and cheap suit who she’d caught checking out her butt yesterday in the tavern.

“Can I help you?” she asked in her unfriendliest tone. Had she been interested in ending up as some jerk’s bedwarmer, the prospects had been better in Calderaas.

“Depends, ma’am,” he said. Well, at least he was polite, and seemed to have less trouble keeping eye contact than some men. “You’ll doubtless find this a presumptuous question, for which I apologize in advance.” Oh, great, here it was. “Are you one of those adventurers in it for the fortune and glory… Or more the storybook-inspired type? Looking to right wrongs and smite evil, that kinda thing?”

She frowned at him. This was a setup to an insult or a scam, she just knew it…and to her embarrassment, a flutter of hope stirred deep inside her. “What’s it to you?”

“I’m just hoping it’s the latter, is all. ‘Fraid I don’t have a lot of budget to hire on muscle, but there’s somethin’ bad about to unfold in this town. Someone who aims serious harm to a good friend of mine, and needs to be stopped. If you require fair payment for your time, I’ll have to leave you to your shopping…” Jeremiah Shook smiled, and maybe it was Tazlith’s own repressed dreams that did it, but suddenly he looked a lot less crooked. “But if you have plans to be a hero, it may be that only you can help.”

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