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They emerged from the alley into more trouble.

“Contact!” Rook called rather shrilly, placing himself in front of Danny and lifting his staff to take aim at the two figures in gray robes suddenly dashing down the street toward him.

Before he could fire, perhaps luckily, Joe pushed past, raising one of his wands. Two short, clean beams of light pierced each attacker straight through the head, causing them to collapse mid-stride.

“Holy shit,” Finchley said somewhat tremulously.

“Keep it together,” Moriarty muttered. “We have a mission still to complete.”

Kheshiri was the last out of the alley. She paused upon the sidewalk, surveying Joe’s handiwork with her fists on her hips, and incongruously grinned. “Well, well, you are learning!”

“Shut up,” Joe said curtly, his eyes scanning the street. It was narrower than the main avenue they had been trying to reach at the other end of the alley, and looked less planned, to judge by the way it kinked back and forth around irregularly-placed old buildings. Altogether this was a much more ambush-friendly corridor, though at least it showed no further evidence of cultist activity at the moment.

“Really, I applaud your dedication to preserving life,” Kheshiri continued in an overtly mocking tone. “I warned you, though: berserker drugs. Shooting to disable is not going to accomplish anything. Ah, well, what matters is you eventually got the—”

Joe very calmly turned and shot her through the foot. She yelped and staggered back, slumping against the face of the nearest building.

“Whoah, hey!” Rook protested.

“I understand the impulse, Joe,” Danny said more quietly, “but she’ll only keep needling if you give her reactions, and that isn’t going to help. If you’re not going to kill her, please don’t wind her up.”

The three ex-soldiers glanced at each other with wide-eyed alarm, while Joe heaved a heavy sigh.

“Fine,” he grunted after a pause. “We’d best move out.”

“Oh, I’m all right, thank you for your concern,” Kheshiri said bitingly. Indeed, after holding her foot off the ground for a moment and flexing her ankle, she set it down again, and set off up the street without any trace of a limp. “Good call, time is precious and enemies abound. This is the fastest—”

“Not that way,” Danny interrupted, already heading down the street in the other direction.

“Hey!” she called after him in irritation. “This leads directly to a major artery—there’ll be military police there. You’re going deeper into this dead end of a district that way!”

“We can circle around easily enough,” Danny replied, “and more importantly, not taking straight and obvious routes is key to avoiding pursuit.”

“Not in this situation,” she retorted. “Unless you have a better reason than that…?”

“He’s right,” said Joe, nodding solemnly at Danny. “We know somebody who lives just up the road there, and we ain’t leadin’ whoever these clowns are in that direction.”

“I said better reason,” she said dryly.

“Come on.” Danny turned and resumed walking without another word. He finally seemed motivated to pick up his pace; at any rate, there was no more of his previous aimless ambling. The troops fell into formation around him, and Joe quickly pushed ahead, weapons out. Kheshiri, grumbling and cursing under her breath, finally brought up the rear.

“Sooo, Kheshiri,” Rook said rather weakly after a few yards of awkwardness. “Interesting name. Is that Calderaan?”

“Vanislaad,” Joe said shortly.

All three came to an immediate stop, swiveled in unison, and pointed their staves at the disguised succubus. She rolled her eyes.

“Cut that out,” Danny ordered. “In fact, with all respect, I’d prefer if you three refrained from firing your weapons except in the last extremity of self-defense. Those are military-grade, and people are living all around us. We have a legendary sharpshooter along; let him do what he does best.”

“For people being all around, it’s awful quiet, don’t you think?”

They swiveled again, still raising weapons, as did Joe, to aim at the man who slipped out of another alley just up ahead.

“Oh, great,” Joe muttered.

“Master,” Kheshiri said warily. “I thought you were—”

“Situation’s changed,” he interrupted. “Jack and Vannae are still scouting and trying to keep our flanks clear, but you chowderheads are about to plow right into another big concentration of the Wreath.”

“They aren’t Wreath,” she said sullenly.

“Yeah, you really latched onto the important part of that,” he snapped. “Keep quiet if you’re just gonna waste air.”

“You know this guy, I take it?” Finchley asked.

“Shook,” said Joe. “Am I gonna have to shoot you, too?”

“Another time, kid,” Shook replied. He had two wands in hand himself, both pricey-looking enchanter wands rather than standard lightning-throwers, but had them aimed at the ground, and was seemingly ignoring all the weapons still trained on him. “We’ve got mutual fish to fry right now. These robed assholes are gonna kill everybody they stumble across, which raises some real concerns about what happened to everybody living around here. Come on, we gotta backtrack, fast.”

“They won’t go that way,” Kheshiri complained. “This is like herding suicidal cats.”

“I do not give a fuck,” Shook exclaimed. “You go back if you want to live.”

“We’ll not be doing that,” Danny replied in perfect calm, heading across the street. “Do you happen to know where this alley—”

The pounding of feet on the pavement was the only warning they got.

As before, the attackers came in disturbing silence. They rushed around the corner ahead with a speed and ferocity that seemed it should have been accompanied by mad howling, but the only sounds were footsteps and the rustling of robes. This time, though, there were a lot more of them.

“Into the alley!” Finchley barked, grabbing Danny roughly by the shoulder and shoving him through the opening. Rook and Moriarty backed after them, firing into the crowd as they went. Joe and Shook both joined in, shooting with much more accuracy, but even as they created enough bodies to physically impede those still coming, none of the berserkers so much as slowed.

“How the fuck many of these guys are there?” Shook snarled, furiously casting beam after beam into the throng.

“Master, quickly!” Kheshiri called, her voice inexplicably coming from directly above them. “Into the alley, now!”

“We’ll be trapped—”

“Trust me, now!”

Shook cursed, turned, and bolted after the others through the narrow gap. Joe was the last in, moving backwards and still shooting. By the time he passed through the opening, silent cultists brandishing clubs had nearly reached it.

Abruptly, a wall of solid stone shot straight upward from the ground, sealing off the entrance.

There were no cries from beyond; the rock was too thick, apparently, to carry the sound of bodies piling against it as they must be.

“There you are,” Shook said in relief. “Where’s the other one?”

“Still scouting,” an elf in a dark suit replied; he had been pressed against the wall of the alley, forcing the others to push past him, and seemed out of breath.

“Vannae,” Joe said stiffly.

“Jenkins,” the shaman replied in a similar tone, pressing a hand to his chest.

“That’s a useful trick,” Danny commented from just up ahead. “Can you do that again? They can’t possibly keep this up long before drawing attention. I’m surprised we haven’t already heard alarm bells, given the weapons being fired off.”

“Weapons being fired mean anybody with any sense is huddling inside, not going after the cops,” Shook retorted. “There’re always a couple of heroes without sense, but they’ve gotta get through those…them. And there are a lot of ’em out there.”

“Also,” Kheshiri added from above, “the rooftops around this whole area are lousy with Thieves’ Guild enforcers, who I suspect had something to do with it.”

“Shit,” Shook hissed, quickly holstering his wands. He drew a black bandana from an inner coat pocket and began wrapping it around his lower face.

“You mentioned that before,” said Danny, looking up at the succubus and seeming unperturbed at the fact that she now had spiny wings and was clinging spiderlike to the side of the building. “What’s the Guild doing?”

“Fuck all, as usual,” a new voice said cheerily. Another elf in a suit ambled toward them from up the alley, casually twirling a stiletto in one hand.

“Not another step!” Joe snarled, aiming a wand at him.

“Oh, keep it in your pants, child,” the Jackal said dismissively. “You and I will have to continue our discussion later. Right now we face more urgent questions. Who are these people? Where did they come from? What are they doing here?”

“We’ve already killed more of ’em than the Wreath has skilled operators left on the whole continent,” said Kheshiri, finally dropping to the ground. It made the alley even more crowded, even when she pressed herself against Shook’s side. “I’m at a loss. I may be a little behind on events, but I don’t know who could not only field a surprise army, but drop it into the middle of Tiraas on a whim.”

“The dropping is easy,” Vannae panted. “Shadow-jumping. Could come from anywhere…”

“Hey, are you okay?” Shook asked him.

“This city…” The shaman shook his head, slumping against the wall. “Worst possible place for my magic. So few natural materials, so much arcane… I overextended myself—”

“Then what the hell good are you?” the Jackal demanded, arching an eyebrow. “One more idiot for us to shepherd around, now. This whole business is entirely outside my skill set. I’m used to being the one doing the hunting.”

“Hey, Joe?” called Rook. “I’m gettin’ a vibe where it might be best to just shoot all of these people.”

“Generally, that’s correct,” Joe said, “but let’s not start a firefight in this alley.”

“Also, let’s none of us waste allies, however reluctant,” Danny added. “We seem to be in a tight spot, metaphorically as well as literally.”

“I just love the way he talks,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “Back to the matter at hand, let’s be honest with ourselves. We all know someone who it wouldn’t surprise any of us to learn could pull an army out of his butt—even if this really isn’t an army. They’re jumping into nearby buildings in parties of not more than a couple dozen each. It’s a raiding party, at most.”

“Oh, is that all,” Finchley muttered.

“Assuming you’re talkin’ about who I think you are,” Joe said warily, “don’t you creeps work for him?”

“Indeed, indeed.” The Jackal grinned so widely it looked physically painful. “I’m inclined to interpret this as a very careful notice of termination—one he can deny if it turns out we’re the ones doing the terminating.”

“Fuck,” Shook growled. “How sure are you of that?”

“I wouldn’t stake my honor on it, and not just because I left that at the bottom of a river a few decades back. But let’s face it, none of us is going to be surprised if that turns out to be the case.”

“So,” Danny said slowly, “perhaps we have grounds for a more than immediate alliance.”

“Danny, no,” Joe said firmly. “You do not wanna get mixed up with these…people.”

“Oh, he’s done business with worse,” the Jackal said merrily. “But let’s walk as we chat, my new friends! I’m freshly back from a scouting run sweep, and while the bulk of our enemies are just humans hopped up on alchemicals, they’ve got good magical support. Shadow-jumpers are not only bringing them in, they’re moving them around to avoid having to cross the streets in large groups, and cleaning up after themselves; there are no bodies left on the site of your first firefight, and I’ll bet by now there are none left on the street right out there, either. It’s inconceivable they don’t have tactical scrying, which means we’re gonna be constantly surrounded until we can call in the Army.”

“Fuck this whole business,” Shook muttered.

“Amen, brother,” Rook agreed.

“Time’s on our side,” said Danny. “This is still Tiraas. They can’t keep this up long without drawing official attention, and if the Guild has people on site, they’ll intervene before too many bystanders can be hurt.”

“Yeah, the Guild’s a real charity operation, I hear,” said Finchley.

“The Guild isn’t in it for the profit,” Shook snapped. “Whatever they’re doing here, they won’t allow magic assholes to carve up the population. But the Guild doesn’t use much magic, especially in fights, and there’s no way they’ve got as many people around here as the cultists do. They won’t wade into a pitched battle unless they’ve got an advantage…”

The Jackal cleared his throat pointedly. “I wasn’t finished. Yes, the clock is ticking down, the enemy surely knows this, which is why we can’t waste time either. They’ll be forced to take us out as fast as they can, which means they’ll shortly start leveraging their other assets. Like the undead I saw them starting to summon before I came to see what was taking you clods so damn long.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Seriously?” Moriarty exclaimed at last.

“Like I said.” The Jackal had turned and was already strolling away up the alley. “Walk and talk.”


As predicted, the rozzk’shnid proved not to be a great threat. Having been summoned into a ring around the town, they effectively blockaded Last Rock, at least for a while, but that didn’t last long. Like most towns this far into the frontier territories, weapons control laws were lax at best, and rare was the household that did not own several wands and staves. Had the demons been in any way organized, they might have prevailed, but they were essentially wild animals, blind and isolated, and their discovery by citizens resulted in their dying in a swift hail of lightning. By the time the Sheriff had gathered a hunting party to clean them out, at least half the rozzk’shnid had been reduced to smoking husks.

The town was in a general state of disorder, however, having found itself surrounded by demons. The doctor was already busy treating injuries—so far, none of these were demon-inflicted, but resulted mostly from surprise-related accidents, including one electrical burn from a friendly fire incident.

By far the worst of it, though, were the katzils.

Where the ring of nearly-blind, slow-moving rozzk’shnid did little to contain or damage the town, the fast-moving, fire-breathing flying serpents were causing havoc. Lighning bolts blasted skyward nearly constantly, from almost every street, and there were several small fires where errant shots had clipped the eaves of buildings, or demons had come close enough to exhale on rooftops. The katzils as a rule moved too fast to make easy targets, and so far none had been felled by wandshots, but on the positive side, the constant barrage of thunderbolts mostly chased them away when any dived low enough to spit flame at anyone.

Unfortunately, it was also making them angry.

As the crowd assembled outside the church watched, another katzil rammed into a wall of silver light which suddenly appeared in front of it. Dazed, it reeled away, and in the next moment Vadrieny had swooped in, seizing the creature in her claws and ripping it cleanly in half. By the time its pieces fell to earth, they had crumbled away to charcoal.

Several other smears of charcoal and ash were scattered around; after the first four had been incinerated, the remaining katzils had learned to avoid the gathering which included Toby and the priestesses. That, however, had forced them to branch out ever more aggressively in taking the flying demons down; even Vadrieny wasn’t nimble enough in the air to catch them unassisted, though in a straight flight she was faster.

“Be careful,” Matriarch Ashaele snapped in the most openly irate tone any of those present had heard from her, after a stray wandshot clipped the archdemon, sending her veering off course with a screech of protest.

“S-sorry, ma’am,” the man responsible stammered, backing away from her glare.

“She’s all right,” Toby said soothingly. “Nothing we’re throwing will harm her.”

“This ain’t good,” said Mayor Cleese to himself, frowning deeply as he watched the sky. “We can win this…eventually. Longer it goes on, though, th’more fires are gonna be started. Whole town’ll be ablaze by the time we take ’em all down…”

“Rafe and Yornhaldt are helping with damage,” Toby reminded him.

“I know, son,” the Mayor said with a sigh. “A wizard an’ an alchemist, and that’s a darn sight more than nothing. But you want fire suppression, you need fae magic.”

“I think you may be underestimating Professor Rafe,” Juniper assured him with a smile.

An abrupt chorus of loud pops occurred in the street just ahead of them, causing the Awarrion guards to spin, raising sabers and flowing between the sound and their Matriarch. A whole group of people appeared out of thin air. At their head was a figure they all recognized.

“Professor Tellwyrn!” Toby exclaimed in clear relief.

She paused for only a moment to scan the sky before turning to face the cluster of diverse individuals she had just teleported in. “All right, what exactly are we dealing with?”

“There are active dimensional rifts around the town,” a dwarf in formal robes reported, closing his eyes in concentration. “Summoning circles…cloaked from immediate view.”

“Open, but inert,” added Embras Mogul, himself frowning in thought. “From the feel of it, I’d say prepared to bring more demons, but not currently doing so. That suggests the summoner’s attention is elsewhere.”

Tellwyrn shifted her attention to the nearest elf. “Sheyann?”

“Child’s play,” the Elder said calmly, her eyes drifting closed. She inhaled deeply through her nose, then fell totally still.

“While she is putting a stop to that,” Tellwyrn said, turning back to Mogul, “what have you got for a mass banishing?”

“You know very well if we could do that our lives would be a lot easier,” he said testily. “You want to banish demons, you have to catch them, individually. For lesser critters like katzils, it’s faster and easier to just kill them.”

“Fast is a factor here,” she retorted. “Easy, not so much. It’s time to send a message. Haunui!”

The man she addressed was a Tidestrider windshaman, barefoot and bare-chested, with his hair gathered into braids adorned with seashells and feathers. An intricate, sprawling tattoo depicting an octupus was inked across his back, its tentacles adorned with runes and spiraling along his right arm.

“If the winds allow it,” he intoned dourly, “the skies themselves can be called to repudiate the unclean things. I do not know the spirits here, though, nor they me.”

“I can assist you, Wavespeaker,” Sheyann said, opening her eyes. “Portals are closed, Arachne.”

“I can confirm that,” the dwarf added.

“Thank you, Mr. Wrynst,” Sheyann said dryly.

“Please refrain from bickering,” Tellwyrn said in a clipped tone. “All right, we can do this. Sheyann, Haunui, do what you can to weaken demons in the vicinity. It doesn’t have to be decisive, just put them off balance and buy the rest of us some space to cast. Father Raas, I’d like you to invoke whatever blessing you can around this immediate area without interfering with them. We need them kept away from here long enough for us to work.”

“Blessings are easy,” replied the man addressed, an older gentleman in a Universal Church parson’s frock. “Structuring it so as not to impede the fae casters is trickier. I’ll do what I can; if anything impacts either of your work, please speak up so I can correct it.”

“What do you have in mind, Professor?” Mogul asked.

“A mass banishing,” Tellwyrn said grimly. “Don’t start, Mogul; we can discuss what is and isn’t possible after we’ve done it. Ashaele, I’m very glad to see you here. May I borrow your priestesses?”

“Provided they are returned in the same condition,” the Matriarch said sardonically, directing a nod to the three cowled women now hovering beside her.

“Thank you. Caine, and all of you with wands, you’ll have to take over keeping the creatures away until Raas gets some results. Hopefully this won’t take long enough to matter. All right, I am going to set up an ambient spell lattice over the area to intermix and control magic of different schools. That is every bit as difficult as it sounds and will require my full concentration, so I need each of you to handle your individual parts. It should become intuitively apparent how to work your own spells into the whole—I’ve recently had some practice in mind magic, but it’s not my forte, so please sing out if you have any trouble understanding what the matrix calls for. Mogul, Wrynst, combine your focus and set up some demon chains for me. I need those creatures immobilized.”

“There’s a stark limit to how many of those spells we can conjure at once,” Mogul said with a frown. “Especially since we don’t have a clear line of sight to many of the katzils or any of the rozzk’shnid.”

“I will take care of that. You just have the spell templates ready to be slotted into the whole; you should be able to tell how it works once I have it running.”

“I’ve done multi-school cooperative spells before,” Wrynst said, nodding. “It should be achievable.”

“Good. I am aware that you’ll need a power boost to get as many chains as we’ll require. Mr. Saalir, that’s where you’ll come in. I won’t have the focus to spare on it, so I need you to establish a standard arcane-to-infernal energy conversion pipeline. Please wait until I have the overall matrix assembled; I need everything to be structured, and piping in energy from an unconnected system will threaten its stability.”

“Now, wait just a moment,” said a lean Westerner in blue Salyrite robes, scowling heavily. “I’m willing to endure this individual’s presence for the sake of the greater good, Professor Tellwyrn, but what you’re asking me is that I lend power to the Black Wreath!”

“Yes, I am,” she said in a tone that warned of fraying patience. “I appreciate your willingness to help me, Saalir, very much. I did not promise you that this would be easy, however, and this is what we need to do to protect this town. There’s no time for arguing.”

“There are serious matters of principle—”

Nearby, Inspector Fedora loudly cleared his throat. “Pardon me,” he said with an insouciant grin, “but maybe you should pause and think about what happened to the last Salyrite who got up into Arachne Tellwyrn’s face?”

Tellwyrn closed her eyes. “Oh, good. You’re here. Stop helping me, Fedora. Saalir, please ignore him. I am not going to blast you for refusing to help. I’m asking for your contribution.”

The Salyrite frowned at her, at Fedora, then at Mogul, then at Fedora again.

“To be clear,” he said at last, “is everyone aware that that man is a—”

“Yes!” chorused half a dozen people.

“Right,” he muttered. “Well. There’s the greater good, after all. For the time being, Professor, I’ll choose to trust you. Please don’t make me regret this.”

“I’ll do my utmost,” she assured him. “And thank you. Now, ladies.” Tellwyrn turned to the three Themynrite priestesses, nodding deeply in respect. “I don’t know your specialization, but when I last spent any time in Tar’naris, every priestess of Themynra was trained to banish demons.”

“That much has not changed,” the woman in the center of their group replied. “Our method will not send them neatly back to Hell like your Elilinist friend’s; the demons will be simply destroyed.”

“Even better,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “If you would, please, come closer, and attend to the spell matrix as I organize it. I am going to direct energy pathways along the demon chains our warlocks will be establishing, and applying dispersal systems which should enable you to strike multiple targets simultaneously.”

“Provided the demons are immobilized, that should work,” the priestess said, nodding her hooded head.

“They will be,” Tellwyrn assured her. “With three of you, I expect you’ll have adequate power without needing to draw from our shamans; if it begins to appear otherwise as I set it up, please let me know.”

“Of course.”

“All right, everyone, you know your part. I’ll make this as quick as I can.”

There was some shuffling and nervous glancing from the assembled townspeople in the silence which followed, as well as from several more of the individuals who had appeared in Tellwyrn’s mass teleport who were apparently not involved in the spell. To outside viewers, it seemed a large and complex magical working of this nature mostly involved several people standing around with their eyes closed, frowning in concentration.

After a pause, Toby sidled over to Fedora, murmuring. “What happened the last time she had an argument with a Salyrite?”

“Oh, you haven’t covered that in class, yet?” the Inspector said, smirking. “I was referring to Magnan, the last Hand of Salyrene. Also the out-of-control piece of shit who built the Enchanter’s Bane that destroyed Athan’khar. Guess who ultimately took his ass down?”

Toby sighed. “Right.”

The event, when it came, was so sudden that quite a few of the onlookers jumped in surprise, and more than a couple cursed. Tendrils of pure black limned with a thick purple glow sprang from the ground at a single point in the middle of the street, spiraling skyward; each of the katzils twirling overhead was snared and held in place midair, where they immediately began hissing and squawking in protest. More of the shadow tentacles arched toward the ground around the outskirts, apparently seizing the rozzk’shnids still surviving around the periphery.

“Hold your damn fire, you knuckleheads!” Sheriff Sanders bellowed at the men who took the opportunity to shoot at the suddenly stationary katzils. “You don’t fire wands into the middle of the most complex spell this town’s ever seen! What’s wrong with you?”

The actual banishings were not exactly simultaneous, but a cascade of sharp retorts, each accompanied by a burst of silver light, flashed through the air above the town, rather like a giant kettle of popcorn cooking. In each, a katzil exploded into nothingness, and a suddenly unmoored tendril of shadow was wrenched loose and drawn back into the point from which they spawned.

The whole thing took only seconds. Then, quite suddenly, it was all over: no spells, no demons, nothing but the evening sky. Shock at the abruptness kept the onlookers silent for only a few seconds, before the whole town erupted in cheers, and more than a few celebratory wandshots fired skyward.

Before that had a chance to escalate into a proper celebration, however, there came the pounding of hooves.

Whisper rounded the corner just up ahead, slowing to a canter as she approached the group. Astride her, Gabriel held the reins with one hand, his other wrapped around Maureen’s waist, where she was perched in front of him.

“Professor Tellwyrn!” he shouted, drawing his steed to a stop just in front of the assembled crowd. “Thank the gods.”

“That’s something I don’t often hear,” she said with a sigh. “How bad is it?”

“Where’s Iris?” Juniper demanded in alarm.

“It’s the Sleeper!” Maureen burst out frantically. “They’re in the Golden Sea! He’s got her!”

“Oh, does he,” Tellwyrn said in such a grim tone that several people immediately took a step away from her. “We will see about that.”

 

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12 – 54

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As afternoon faded into early evening, the overall light in Tiraas did not diminish, even in this relatively dingy district, though it changed in character with the transition from gloomy, cloud-obscured sunlight to the sharp golden glow of the fairy lamps lining the streets. Given the typical weather in the region, nightfall often had the ironic effect of enlivening the colors of everything the light touched. At any rate, the approach of dusk did little to diminish the activity in the street. This particular district was a fairly quiet one most of the time, not rich by any means, but with several temples and regular patrols by the military police; it was a safe enough place to stand outside, observing passersby.

That was fortunate for the man currently calling himself Danny, as he lounged against a corner, simply watching the people as they went about their business. City folk were not terribly ebullient with strangers as a rule, but he received and returned a few polite greetings, nonetheless. One pair of patrolling soldiers slowed slightly as they passed him, but a smile and cordial greeting, coupled with his calm demeanor, apparently assuaged their concerns. People did much stranger things than stand around doing nothing in the city, and those up to no good either avoided troops or were with the Thieves’ Guild, which in either case was encouragement not to bother him.

When not greeting someone, though, he tended to let his expression lapse into a near-frown, more pensive than unhappy. He was normally quite adept at concealing his thoughts; here, he was nobody worth looking at twice, and being able to let his guard down just a little was a luxury.

Three young men approached, immediately standing out. They were moving faster than the average passerby, they had come out of an alley across the street rather than down the main avenue, and they went right toward him with obvious intent. All three drew up on the sidewalk next to him, looking nervous and generally shifty, and he suppressed a sigh. This would draw far more attention than anything he’d been doing.

“Your, uh,” the red-haired one stammered, “I mean mister—I mean, um…”

“My friends call me Danny,” he said mildly. “For the time being, that is. Are we friends?”

“We would never presume,” said the only one with an obviously military bearing, his tone as stiff as his spine. “It would be entirely inappropriate—”

“Yes, we most certainly are friends of yours,” interrupted the third, the only ethnic Tiraan in the group and with an impressive enough habitual slouch to make up for his companion’s posture. “Have been for a good long time. Look, uh, Danny, you don’t know us, so I get that you’ve got no reason to trust us here, but—”

“If I am not mistaken,” he said with a smile, “Privates Finchley, Rook, and Moriarty, yes?”

They all gaped at him.

“You know us?” Finchley croaked at last. “I mean—you—but that’s—”

“You lads have had a rather interesting couple of years, so I understand,” Danny said lightly. “You might be surprised how many people are aware of you. Just as I am surprised to find you, of all places, here. I’m sure this is quite a story.”

“We’re here to escort you to safety, y-your…” Moriarty swallowed hard. “…Danny.”

“It is quite a story, but he’s right,” Rook added. “This probably isn’t the best time. We’re working with Ms. Darnassy, whom I trust you also know?”

At that, Danny straightened up. “That’s…very interesting. Last I heard, she was fully occupied with matters that didn’t include my immediate safety. How you three factor into it is quite the puzzle.”

“The short version is, by accident,” Finchley said hurriedly, glancing around in a way that would be sure to draw the attention of any patrolling soldiers, had any been nearby. “The, uh…the…men…who are a little…”

“I have some friends who are presently under the weather, yes,” Danny said mildly. “Milanda was working on that. Please, continue.”

“Uh, right. Well, one was at the college where we were…um, attending, and he caused…some trouble.”

“Yadda yadda, some stuff happened,” Rook continued airily, “our mutual friend Quentin found us and pointed us at the lovely and talented Ms. Darnassy, and when he heard you lost the couch you were crashing on, we got tapped to lead you to a new one. So, speaking of that, shall we? This is all very, y’know…terrifyingly exposed.”

“Hmm.” Danny considered them thoughtfully for a long moment, not minding their obvious signs of anxiety. A trap? That, he decided, was very unlikely. They knew who he was, and the core of all their recent problems was that they had more personal loyalty to him than sense or talent; that made them the worst possible choice of agents to mean him harm. Plus, this would be just like Vex. The spymaster had not been happy in the least with his plan, and this way he could put a token watch around him and be able to argue later that as incompetent as these three were, they didn’t count as real guards. In fact, it was sort of perfect. “Very well, I appreciate you going out of your way, gentlemen.”

“It is no trouble, sir,” Finchley said fervently. “So, uh, this way, if you please.”

“Now, now, wait up,” Danny said smoothly as they all three took a step up the street. He paused to straighten the lapels of his suit. “It’s such a fine evening, isn’t it? There’s no hurry. I so rarely get to stroll the streets; no need to set such a pace.”

He actually passed them, at a leisurely amble, while they gaped at him as if wondering if he were insane and not daring to say so. He recognized that specific expression; it was directed at him with fair frequency.

“Um,” Rook said finally, “with all due respect…there kind of is a hurry. Because you’re…pretty vulnerable here, y’know, and if something happens to you, it’s not just you who’s gonna suffer for it. Danny.”

“Relax,” Danny said, turning to grin at him. “I know what I’m doing. Coming?”

There was another pause while they hastened to catch up and fell into an obvious formation behind him, looking nervous. He repressed another sigh; attracting certain kinds of attention was, after all, part of the plan, but this was going to get random soldiers or Silver Legionnaires involved. Did the Legions even patrol this district?

“As I understand it,” Finchley said, clearly choosing his words with extreme care, “the plan involves…our friends who are unwell. Yes? Maybe they aren’t the most reliable of…friends…right now? Kind of by definition?”

“I’m not expecting much from them except trouble, truth be told,” Danny agreed. “If they end up showing up tonight, the trick will be making sure it’s trouble for the right people, but I’m reasonably confident I can arrange that. No, gentlemen, I’m counting on other parties to become involved in this.”

Even with all three of them behind and thus out of his line of sight, he could practically hear them exchanging dubious looks.

“Who?” Moriarty finally asked.

“Let me pose you a hypothetical question,” said Danny. “Suppose you were trying to outmaneuver someone who is adept at manipulating events from a safe distance, someone who works with exacting precision and never takes a risk unless he’s certain he has control over the whole environment. Suppose that a major part of your long-term plan in this regard involves gaining the allegiance of his opposites: individuals who thrive on adapting on the fly to chaotic situations, and who have been stubbornly refusing to take a side. In that situation, what would you do?”

“I suppose,” Rook said slowly, but without pausing, “in that purely hypothetical scenario, I would create some goddamn chaos.”

“Watch your language!” Moriarty barked.

“It’s fine,” Danny said with a grin. “And quite so, Mr. Rook. That is, indeed, the plan.”

“Which means,” Rook continued sourly, “you’re gambling that you can control the chaos when it breaks out.”

“Unlike the antagonist I referred to, I don’t bother to wait until everything is certain before acting. Adaptation is crucial. That doesn’t mean I don’t hedge my bets, however. It’s a critical mistake to gamble without an ace or three up one’s sleeve, gentlemen.”

“Oh, gods,” Finchley muttered. “Please tell me he doesn’t mean us.”

Danny laughed.


“Now, who the hell is that?” Sweet muttered, leaning over the rooftop’s edge to frown at the four men proceeding up the street below. “Those three resemble some individuals I know by description, but there’s no possible way it’s them.”

“Actually, we know them,” said Flora.

“Yeah,” Fauna agreed, “they were with Professor Tellwyrn and her students in Lor’naris last year.”

“They wore Army uniforms then, but she treated ’em like bellboys.”

“Which, to be fair, could just be Tellwyrn being Tellwyrn.”

“If I were a lesser man,” he complained, “I would need to sit down. What the fuck is going on here? With everything I learn, this makes less and less sense. C’mon.”

He stepped back from the ledge and strode up the fortunately gently angled slate roof beside them, swiftly cresting it and proceeding with more care down the other side. At the base of that, they had to vault across a narrow alley to the flat roof opposite in order to keep pace with their quarry.

“According to what they said to him,” Flora reported, “Vex and Darnassy sent them here.”

“Darnassy,” Sweet muttered. “That one keeps popping up lately—and suddenly. She’s been an Imperial mistress for a few years now and never made a peep about wanting to do more than warm Sharidan’s bed until this week. I don’t like unknown quantities butting into my already messy job…”

“Is this a job, though?” Fauna asked. “Do we really need to keep doing this? Maybe the best thing is to back off and let the Imps deal with their own crap.”

“You have a point,” he said, “and yet, you aren’t right. Think back: you said you overheard about the Hands being able to teleport by lurking above an open window, yes?” He paused to look at them, waiting to get nods of acknowledgment before proceeding. “Doesn’t it strike you as odd that seasoned Intelligence operatives on a mission of no less importance than keeping watch over the Emperor himself would chatter about sensitive mission details right next to an open window? They do know we like to use the rooftops. Did you take any special steps to make sure you weren’t seen?”

“No,” Flora said, frowning in thought. “You’re saying they leaked it to us on purpose?”

“But why?” Fauna asked. “That would just set the Guild against Intelligence. Which it did.”

“Not exactly,” he said. “Everything that happened after that might as well have been scripted. Based on the roles we play, I pretty much had to go down to Vex’s house and make a show of being able to kick his ass—a ranking Guild priest who’s been given the runaround by Intelligence has little other option. He knows this. Not only did he play along, with an aggression I’ve never seen from him before, he actually threatened me to the point I had to hurt one of his people to avoid breaking character.”

“You’re saying he forced you to act that way?”

“You know better than that, Flora,” he reproached. “Force is the least effective of all kinds of coercion, and Vex knows that as well as any Eserite loremaster. No, he told…a story. Laid out a neat narrative that I had to follow unless I wanted to break character, and doubled down on it to make sure I followed along. I had the option not to comply, but would pay for it by signaling that my allegiance is elsewhere than with the Guild—which is not true, and considering where else I’ve got strings tied, would have created complications for me and the Guild’s business. It was neatly done, actually. The point is, it’s unusual for him to be even that pushy. The only reason he would even try to back me into a corner like that is if something big were on the table, either something he hoped to gain for the Empire, or an unexpected threat he had to move against.”

“Like the Hands?”

“That’s the thing,” Sweet mused. “Any other time, I’d think he was just trying to make me take a side and declare allegiance. But he’s never shown interest in pressing that issue before, and this is the worst possible time. The whole government should be in damage control mode as long as the Hands are off-kilter, and with Danny running around down there, the stakes are far too high for Vex to be playing games like that with me, of all people. None of this makes any goddamn sense, and that means we don’t know what’s really going on. And that means we need to learn, fast, given how involved we already are.”

“That kinda goes back to the original question,” Flora pointed out. “Couldn’t we…disengage?”

“Isolation is death,” he said severely. “There is no safety; a fortress is a trap. We’re already engaged, and whatever’s happening has already proved it’s going to seek us out. This strategy is already as conservative and hands-off as I’m willing to go; we urgently have to figure out what the hell is going on here.”

All three paused at the hoarse cawing of a crow, turning to look in the direction of the noise. Darling nodded at Fauna, who nodded back, and then produced a few notes of a starling’s call. Flora paced along the edge of the roof, keeping an eye on the torturously slow progress of their targets, while the other two waited tensely.

They didn’t have to wait long. A woman in a long coat hoisted herself over the opposite edge of the roof and strode toward them, scowling.

“That bad, huh?” Sweet asked.

“Dunno from bad, but it’s weird,” she said. “You were right, Sweet, they’ve all started moving. I’m late to report in because we’ve had to wait to make sure of what we were seeing. You sure that guy down there is important to the Imps? You made it sound like they’d wanna protect him.”

“Spit it out, Duster,” he said tersely.

“They’re bugging out,” she replied. “All across the neighborhood. And not in one direction; they’re fanning out like they’re fleeing a fire. Intelligence is abandoning the whole district.”

Slowly, his expression crumpled into a thunderous scowl. “What the hell?”

“You tell me,” she said, folding her arms.

“You’re sure of—no, never mind, you already said so. Hn… Seen any signs of…special agents?”

“Seen, no,” the enforcer said with a shrug. “Sure, Intelligence has assets we wouldn’t be able to spot, but by definition, how the hell would I know if they’re hovering around?”

“You’re right, of course,” he agreed, clapping her on the shoulder. “Sorry, Duster, I wasn’t snapping at you. This whole thing is just balls-out crazy. Good work; have everybody pull carefully to this area. Not clustered all together, but I want us to be able to react in concert to anything that goes down in this vicinity.”

“You got it,” she said, nodding, then turned and dashed away. Reaching the edge of the roof, she vaulted over, causing a metallic thump as she hit the fire escape below.

“Vex,” Darling whispered, turning to stare down at the Emperor of Tiraas, walking the streets accompanied only by three of the worst soldiers in the Empire, “have you lost your mind?”


Gabriel was still shrugging into his coat as he entered the town hall, but just inside the door he stopped, staring at the standoff which had developed. “Uh…what’s this, now?”

“Ah, welcome back,” said Toby. “You heard about the demons?”

“Vestrel warned me before one of Vengnat’s friends got there, yeah. What’s this doing here?” he demanded, pointing at the gray-robed Black Wreath warlock.

“That is the subject of some discussion, Mr. Arquin,” Matriarch Ashaele said.

“They’ve offered to help,” Teal added. “Nobody’s happy about this, but we may not be able to afford to turn them down.”

“They? Them?” Gabe exclaimed. “There’s more?”

“Any time you see one Wreath, you can assume there are more,” Toby said grimly. “This didn’t get really awkward until she spilled the beans about him.”

“Let me just point out, again,” said Inspector Fedora with a long-suffering sigh, “that I am the only person here with legitimate government credentials.”

“Hey,” the Sheriff protested.

“And he’s hardly the first child of Vanislaas to get those,” the warlock said cheerfully. “This is supposed to be a secret, but one of his ilk was governor of Mathenon for over a month a few decades back. It’s never a smart idea to let them weasel into positions of power.”

“Very much the same can be said about you,” Toby snapped. “Fedora, what are you even doing here? I thought you were up on the campus.”

“I have made careful arrangements to know when and where demons are being summoned in the whole region around Last Rock, for obvious reasons,” the Inspector replied. “That’s here, and so here I am.”

“Speakin’ of which, I’ve got demons in and around my town, apparently,” Mayor Cleese said tersely. “I don’t think we’ve got time for this, people. I recognize this is literally makin’ deals with devils, but if it keeps Last Rock from bein’ overrun with hellspawn, I’m prepared to take whatever help presents itself.”

“I’ll leave this to wiser heads than mine to settle,” Sanders added. “But for the record, if the order that comes down is ‘shoot ’em both,’ I ain’t gonna complain.”

“I am not excessively worried about lesser warlocks such as the Elilinists,” Ashaele said smoothly. “She is correct about the incubus, however.”

“Now, I realize you don’t much care for me, friendly neighborhood paladins,” Fedora said with a grin, “but you both know my credentials are legitimate, and my superiors know who and what I am. Turning on a duly appointed agent of Imperial Intelligence will create trouble none of you want.”

“And now he’s threatening us,” Teal said, scowling.

“Hey!” Gabriel shouted, earning surprised silence. “The only person here making a lick of sense is the Mayor. We do not have time for this! Am I correct about those robes? Are there two priestesses of Themynra in this room?”

“You are indeed,” one of the drow women he indicated replied with a thin smile.

“Fine,” he said firmly. “I’m not much of a theologian, but some of us here should remember what we’ve learned from Shaeine. If the ladies will oblige us, a simple blessing by the goddess of, among other things, judgment, will reveal who is and is not trying to screw us over.”

“It is not quite so simple,” the other Themynrite cleric said. “A simple blessing will not reveal agendas or plots. However, it will burn any who are aligned with evil against Themynra’s objectives, which appears to be the fundamental question here. I’m sure the goddess will not consider this a frivolous use of her power.”

“Well spotted, Gabriel,” Ashaele said, smiling.

“Themynra, huh,” Fedora mused. “You know, I’ve never actually had a divine blessing on me that wasn’t used as an attack. By all means, go for it. This oughtta be interesting.”

“Whatever,” the warlock said irritably. “If that’s what it will take to get some action taken here, I’ve no objection.”

“And aren’t they gracious,” Sanders muttered.

Toby gently nudged Gabriel out of the doorway and toward one corner of the town hall, where Juniper was hovering with her sister Ash. “Nicely done,” he murmured. “Though for the record, you just insulted a room full of important people, including the Matriarch.”

“I—wait, what? No, I didn’t!”

“You kinda did, though,” Juniper observed. “I mean, if the mayor’s the only one making sense, it implies…”

“Aw, fuck,” he muttered. “I mean, that is. Um. I’m sure Shaeine has mentioned to her mother that I tend to have my foot in my mouth. And any of the drow who were at the picnic can attest I’m a big fan of the lady.”

At the other side of the noisy room, Ashaele shifted her head slightly to look at him and very deliberately smiled, before returning her attention to the front, where Fedora and the warlock were being limned with silver light by the two priestesses. In keeping with their previous attitudes, the incubus seemed fascinated by the whole procedure, while the warlock had her arms folded and extended one leg so her foot peeked out from beneath the hem of their robes, just to make sure everyone could see her tapping it. Neither appeared to be burning.

“Smooth, kid,” Ash said with a grin.

He sighed. “Thanks, I try. Has anybody else turned up? Ruda and Fross would be handy to have around about now, or any of the remaining freshman girls…”

“No sign of our classmates,” said Toby. “I haven’t heard anything about Szith, but actually Maureen and Iris were in town. From what I’ve been told, they were the first to spot a demon, and got a warning to the drow. Then apparently they retreated into the prairie to avoid sparking off a fight, and that’s the last we heard—”

“What?!” Fedora’s insouciant demeanor instantly collapsed, and he lunged across the room toward them, prompting Sanders and three of Ashaele’s bodyguards to level weapons, all of which he ignored. “You idiots! What are you standing around here for?!”

“Um, excuse me,” Juniper said, frowning, “but I think we were just discussing—”

“You know the Sleeper likes to create distractions to herd people off and strike them alone! You’ve got two classmates who’ve isolated themselves out there away from help, and that wasn’t your first priority?”

There was a second of shocked silence.

“I hate to acknowledge it, but the hellspawn is right,” Ariel observed. “You’re idiots.”

“Come on!” Gabriel barked, spinning and bolting for the door.

“You cannot just run out there without a plan,” Ashaele said firmly, coming after him with a swiftness which did nothing to diminish the smoothness of her glide.

“I don’t intend to, ma’am,” he said. The Matriarch actually pushed ahead of Toby and Juniper, following him outside. Gabriel bounded down from the town hall’s steps, put two fingers to his lips, and whistled.

Several nearby townsfolk yelped and dashed away at the explosion of smoke and shadow which erupted from the ground in the middle of the street. Whisper lunged out, prancing to a stop near Gabriel and pawing one of her invisible hooves at the ground in eagerness.

“It’s not a complex plan,” Gabriel continued, placing a hand on his steed’s neck, “but it’ll work. I need to go after them. I have the fastest mount, my valkyries can conduct a search pattern at very high speed, which’ll be the most reliable way of finding the girls, and I’m hardly defenseless. Nobody else has the same combination of advantages.”

“I see your point,” Ashaele acknowledged, though not without a faint frown.

“I can still help,” Teal disagreed, stepping out of the town hall. “Vadrieny is faster than Whisper, and there’s not a thing the Sleeper can do to us. Let’s be realistic, Gabe, we don’t know if you being a half-demon has any effect on that curse. What if you get sleeped out there on the prairie? We’d never find you.”

“Keep in mind I’m the Hand of a god,” he said with a grim little smile, nodding at Toby. “Trissiny clued us in about this, remember? You do something magical enough to a Hand, particularly if it’s demonic in nature, and you’re begging for their patron’s direct attention. We can only hope the Sleeper’s dumb enough to want a face-to-face chat with Vidius. I kinda doubt he is.”

“Gabriel is correct,” said Ashaele, placing a hand on Teal’s shoulder. “He is the best suited for this. And while you are also correct, daughter, there are other factors to consider. The town is still in immediate danger, and Vadrieny is one of our most potent combat assets. There are more people than your friends who will need protection; he can help two, but it will take every pair of hands we have to look after the whole town.”

“I’ll be quick as I can,” Gabe said with a roguish grin, then took a step back from Whisper, got a brief running start, and vaulted onto her back.

He landed awkwardly and she whinnied in protest, prancing and pivoting about to give him a reproachful look. Gabe yelped, snatching ineffectually at her mane as he tumbled off the other side.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Ariel, “he remembered to mount from the left. Believe it or not, this represents marked progress in the Hand of Vidius’s horsemanship.”

Standing in the door of the town hall, Fedora folded his arms and heaved a sigh. “Ohh, yeah. We’re all boned.”

 

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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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