Tag Archives: Sheyann

12 – 59

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The sunset had gone unnoticed, as the night blazed with hellfire.

For a half mile all around, the tallgrass had been scoured to ash, and even beyond that, fallout from various spells burned merrily. The stars were obscured by an ugly blend of airborne ash, greenish clouds of some residue from a misfired hex, and the angry glow of portals and dimensional rents both half-formed and fully blaring infernal energy onto the scene. All around lay the corpses of demons, those which hadn’t already crumbled to charcoal when the magic left them, interspersed with fresh craters and clumps of jagged obsidian one of the two warlocks had called up to make the landscape nearly impossible to navigate.

Still, they fought on, and at this point only one was growing tired.

Their styles were virtually opposite. The Sleeper was on his fourth suit of armor and the most haphazard yet, as he was continually battered by Iris’s spells and had to re-arrange his defenses under ever-increasing pressure. Whether or not he still cared about concealing his identity, some manner of magical protection was absolutely essential for survival in the hellscape they had created, and so he was still warded, but down from his earlier hulking carapace to a human-sized shroud of greenish flame, hastily fixed into conventionally styled plates of armor. He summoned demons, cast circles which either blocked her path or spat out hostile magic, used curses to alter the terrain with clouds of dust, darkness, and even a patch of slowed time.

The Sleeper had (almost) all the knowledge of the queen of Hell herself, and he was barely slowing her down. He would long since have given up and fled if his opponent had let him.

Iris had virtually no style, not technique at all. She did basically nothing but hurl fire and shadow, and yank open dimensional rents which devoured his spells and occasionally spat more fire and tendrils of darkness to impede his way. He called up demons, and she effortlessly blasted them to ash. His summoning circles went haywire at her merest glance, flickering out, exploding dangerously, or even altering to unleash horrific magical backlash on their creator. Curses, area-of-effect attacks, even direct damage spells she easily unraveled, neutralized, or hurled right back at him, without even seeming to realize what she was doing. Every time he tried to run, shadowy tendrils snared him, or a new rip appeared in reality, unleashing a blast of force that hurled him back toward her. That was still gentler than what happened when he attempted to shadow-jump, a prospect upon which he had given up early in their duel.

The fire-armored Sleeper finished obliterating the obnoxious tentacles of shadow which had impeded his last escape attempt and turned to face her once more. Iris paced forward with a measured stride, face still twisted in a snarl of animal fury. Her dark skin and white dress were both liberally stained with ash, but neither had suffered so much as a burn or scrape.

He gesticulated with both arms, and all around her, a ring of thirteen spell circles formed out of the air, glowing flame-orange with infernal runes. The very air within them thickened, darkened, the charred ground beginning to bubble.

Iris made a slashing motion with one hand, and five of the circles on that side shattered like glass; the rest, destabilized, began to misfire, causing the shadows to dissipate and the aggressive decay to spread outside their boundary. Even as she strode forward beyond their range and the remaining circles collapsed, he was already conjuring again.

The orb of flame which descended from the sky at a steep angle was the size of a house, and moving at such an impossible speed it was almost upon her seconds after its first appearance over the horizon; Iris was already pointing at it before it came into view, and a mere two yards from impacting her it struck an invisible barrier and rebounded, arcing through the air to strike the ground scarcely twenty yards away. The roar and shockwave of the explosion blasted everything in the vicinity clear, momentarily obscuring the whole scene.

The Sleeper, relatively secure behind his armor, seized this opportunity to flee again. As before, he didn’t make it more than two steps. This time, rather than the multitude of shadow tendrils which had grabbed him previously, a single tentacle burst from the ground, coiling around his ankle, and whipped him through the air to slam him against the ground.

“Well, you got your way,” Iris said, stalking forward. “Proud of yourself? Are you happy? Is this what you wanted to see?!”

He tried to roll to his feet to face her, and the tentacle yanked him away again, smashing him to the ground a few yards away in the other direction. The shadowbolt he had barely formed went careening harmlessly into the sky.

The Sleeper, still alert despite the impacts, unleashed a blast of fire at the tentacle holding his leg, just in time for another to grab his arm and whirl him away again. This one whipped him back and forth, smashing him hard on the ground three times in three places yards apart before finally giving him a break.

This time, he just lay there, apparently stunned. And this time, Iris finally closed the gap.

Seething darkness appeared over her hand like a gauntlet as she bent to grasp him by the neck. Iris straightened up, hefting the Sleeper bodily upright, a feat for which she likely lacked the physical strength; more tendrils of shadow sprang up from the ground, snaring his limbs and helping to push him upward.

“Might as well keep your secrets,” she said coldly, glaring at the inscrutable mask of flame. “We’ll find out who you were when somebody doesn’t show up for class tomorrow.”

“Need…me…” His voice was weak, clearly male, disguised this time by fatigue, smoke inhalation, and possibly the grip of the dark gauntlet around his throat. Even without his earlier pretentious vocal effect, it was unrecognizable. “I can fix—”

“Professor Tellwyrn is the greatest mage in the world, you little stain,” she snarled. “Your curse won’t last much longer, anyway.”

The air around them rippled again, and Iris turned her head in the direction from which the wave had come, raising a hand. Two figures had appeared upon the charred landscape nearby, neither of them demons.

“Miss Domingue, I presume?” the dwarf said politely. “Your Professor sent us. Dear me, what a mess,” he added, peering around at the destruction and ongoing infernal radiation.

“This must cease,” added his companion, a tall Tidestrider man with an octopus tattoo along his right arm.

A sharp crack sounded, and the Sleeper’s armor began to fragment. Fractures appeared and spread across it, white lines interrupting the dance of the green flames, making them resemble reflections in a broken mirror.

“No, you don’t,” Iris snapped, squeezing harder. A thin film of purple shadow coalesced over his body, even as the fractures deepened and spread further.

“Oh dear,” said the dwarf. “A little closer, Haunui, if you please. This is going to be tricky.”

He made a lifting motion with both hands, and four square basalt columns thrust upward from the ground around them in a square formation, trailing lengths of black chain from their upper edges. They rose to a height of seven feet, all the while the lengths of chain reached for each other as if magnetic. Within seconds, they had formed an impromptu cage.

“What is this?” the Wavespeaker demanded. Before Wrynst could reply, the Sleeper exploded.

The noise alone was enough to knock a person bodily over; the concussion of the blast made the cage shudder, to say nothing of the wash of white-hot flame with raked away a foot of topsoil in all directions. It was over quickly, though, leaving Iris holding a handful of nothing.

“No,” she whispered, staring at her black glove even as it dissipated. There was no sign of the Sleeper at all; nothing had survived in the vicinity except Wrynst’s cage, which had only barely endured. Lengths of chain broke away and fell like pieces of dried-up vines, and one of the square columns, cracked across its middle, toppled over.

“An inverted containment spell,” Wrynst said matter-of-factly as Haunui pushed his way out of the now-limp chains. “Only effective against infernal power, but rather impressive, if I say so my—”

He was cut off by Iris’s scream of pure frustration. She sank to her knees, then toppled forward, slamming both her fists into the ground.

“I had him! I was so close!” She began rhythmically punching the earth, kicking up puffs of ash with each blow. “All of this was for nothing. Years of work, my whole life, gone for nothing!”

“Child.” Haunui had strode over quickly, and now knelt in front of her. “Nothing is gone.”

“LOOK AT THIS!” she screamed at him, throwing her arms wide.

As far as they eye could see in every direction, the golden tallgrass was gone; flickers of fire still raged along the horizons. There were several impact craters still, though the other detritus of their fight had been destroyed by the final destructive spells she and the Sleeper had unleashed. The sky was all but hidden by a sick mockery of the northern lights, seething rents in reality from which tongues of flame and eye-wrenching darkness seeped all around.

“This is all I’m good for,” Iris said, suddenly toneless. Her arms fell limply to her sides. “I was just fooling myself. First time it came down to it, this is—”

Haunui grasped her face gently in both hands, capturing her attention.

“The tide comes and goes, beyond our power to affect,” he said, holding her gaze in perfect calm. “The wind blows as it will, bringing what it will. The world turns, the clouds change. We are specks adrift on the surface, hefted by powers we cannot contest. This is true.”

“Excuse me,” said Wrynst from a short distance away, “but this whole area is massively unstable. We had really better—”

“The one thing that is yours to command,” Haunui continued, ignoring him, “the one thing, is your own hand on the tiller. The world will do with you whatever it does. You, and only you, decide who you are.”

“I can’t,” she whispered. Tears streamed down her cheeks, washing over his callused fingers. “I can’t do this. I lost it all.”

The shaman smiled gently. “Child, I hear the spirits around you still. They do not abandon you so quickly; no friend does. Still your mind, as you were taught. Reach out, and find them still there.”

“But…”

“Reach,” he insisted. “You are your choices, not your gifts. Reach out. Make a choice.”

Iris heaved in a shaking breath, swallowed heavily, and closed her eyes.

“I really must insist we go,” Wrynst said nervously. “Sheyann was unsure how long she could sustain the link anyway, and we are surrounded by active and uncontrolled dimensional rifts. Now, please!”

“We will heal them,” Haunui said, not looking up from Iris’s face. “Patience, warlock. What was done will be undone. What was destroyed, remade. The magic of the earth and the wind holds sway here, not the magic of the nether.”

Wrynst threw up his hands in a hopeless gesture, turning and stomping back toward the point at which they had first appeared.

Haunui closed his own eyes. Light blossomed along his tattoo, the inked tentacles glowing brilliant green along his arm and back. For achingly long moments, he and Iris knelt in the dust, eyes closed, while hellfire flickered hungrily in the destruction all around them.

A faint whisper of wind rose.

The first changes were too slight and too slow to be noticeable, but they swiftly grew in speed, and strength. The glaring rents in the sky began to close, shrinking to points and lines until finally the last flickers of fire and shadow vanished. Reality reasserted itself, the corruption of the infernal shrinking away. Finally, after scarcely a minute had passed, the last of them were gone, and the stars shone again unimpeded.

Iris drew another breath again, shaking from a withheld sob, but a smile blossomed on her face.

“They do not forget so quickly,” Haunui repeated. “Come, there is more to do.”

It took a few minutes longer, but finally the first green shoots began to appear. Once they initially manifested, they grew quickly, rising and spreading. In another ten heartbeats, the fires in the distance had flickered out and a veritable carpet of pale green spread around them. As the two knelt, concentrating in silence, the tallgrass continued to blossom, pushing its way upward.

The rate of its growth slowed as rapidly as it had first accelerated, and all too soon came to an apparent stop. It was nowhere near as well-developed as the usual grasses of the Sea, rising barely knee-high, and the green of new shoots rather than the golden amber of the mature tallgrass…but it was there, spreading away in all directions over what had been a battlefield torn by flame. Dips in the landscape still marked the craters left by spells of destruction, but they were covered by a green shroud of new growth.

From somewhere nearby, impossibly, came the chirp of a cricket.

Haunui let out a long sigh, at last opening his eyes, and lowering his hands from Iris’s face. “These things go in cycles, as you know well. Ash is good for the ground. Look.”

She finally opened her own eyes, meeting his gaze, then following it to a point on the ground between them.

A single red flower rose from the soil amid the blades of new tallgrass, a cluster of cone-shaped blossoms shifting slightly in the faint breeze. The old symbol of regrowth after fire, the versithorae, a bloom that only rose from ashes. A sign of the earth’s forgiveness.

“As I live and breathe,” Wrynst marveled, gazing around. “You actually did it… Total infernal nullification. I’d never have thought such a disaster could be cleaned so quickly.”

“A choice was made,” Haunui said gravely, finally standing up. He held a hand down to Iris.

After a moment, she tore her gaze from the flower and looked up at him. Her dark eyes were clear, despite the tracks left by tears through the dust on her cheeks. Finally, she accepted his hand.

“Thank you.”

He nodded to her, once, then turned back to the warlock. “And now, we had better go. It does not do to keep an Elder waiting.”

Wrynst sighed and rolled his eyes. “Well, if you’re certain you’re finished here.”

“We’re done,” Iris said in a small voice. “Let’s go. Please.”


“Uh, Professor,” Gabriel said nervously, “if you don’t mind my asking—”

“Because, Arquin,” Tellwyrn said, “some problems are not best solved by exercising force. If I thought Iris in danger you had better believe I would be there myself. The situation, however, is that she needs to be rescued from the Golden Sea, not the Sleeper. We need the best shaman and the best warlock to navigate the shifts inflicted upon it. That means Wrynst and, with Sheyann forced to stay here and hold the path open, Haunui. Trust me,” she added grimly, “I’m not worried about the Sleeper hurting her. I guarantee he is regretting forcing Iris Domingue into a corner right now.”

“Um,” he said carefully, “…okay.”

Gabriel had dismissed Whisper, who tended to quickly grow restive with nothing to do. Now they all stood in the tallgrass at the outskirts of the Sea, waiting. Sheyann knelt on the ground, eyes closed and lips moving constantly in a silent soliloquy; nearby, an unceasing rustle moved back and forth through the tallgrass where Maureen paced, muttering to herself. Tellwyrn and Gabriel simply stood, she staring fixedly at the horizon, he fidgeting.

“Actually,” he offered after a terse silence, “I was going to ask—”

“They’re coming,” Sheyann said suddenly, relief audible in her voice, as well as fatigue. Maureen darted toward them, pushing amber stalks roughly aside.

Reality itself heaved, the ground seeming to roll like the tide, without actually displacing the grass or any of them standing upon it. The undulation carried three figures, though, and deposited them right in front of the group.

“Iris!” Maureen wailed, throwing herself forward.

Iris, filthy and clearly exhausted but apparently unharmed, knelt to catch her, wrapping the gnome up in a hug and rocking slightly back and forth.

Tellwyrn quickly joined them, bending down to rest a hand on Iris’s shoulder, heedless of the ash staining her dress.

“Iris,” she said in an uncharacteristically soft voice, “are you all right?”

Iris nodded, swallowed, and finally looked up. “I’m not hurt. Professor… I’m sorry. I almost had him, but—”

“None of that,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “I’m responsible for protecting you, not the other way round. I’m sorry. What’s important is that you are okay. We’ll finish dealing with the Sleeper very soon, I promise you.”

“I’m not absolutely certain he got away, though,” Wrynst added, straightening his robe. “That effect he unleashed… It might have been a ploy to conceal a shadow-jump, or it may honestly have been his destruction, whether self-inflicted out of spite or resulting from the damage you did. Either way, it was a desperate maneuver. You really had him on the ropes, young lady.”

“Keeping us in the dark would be just like him,” Gabriel chimed in, then added fervently, “I am damn glad to see you back safe, Iris. We were worried sick.”

She actually twitched, her eyes falling on him and widening in shock. Iris opened her mouth, but no sound emerged.

Maureen’s shoulders jerked slightly, and she finally drew back, grinning. “Oh, aye, that reminds me. Before I forget to tell ye, Gabe’s here. He’s the one who came to fetch us; hasn’t left ever since, not till we were sure you were safe.”

“I—uh—I mean…thank you,” Iris said weakly, ending on a squeak.

Tellwyrn sighed, straightening. “Sheyann? Are you all right?”

“Quite well, thank you, Arachne,” the Elder said smoothly. “That was by no means easy, but far from the most tiring thing I have ever undertaken. Most instructive, as well. You know, I may have gained some insight into Kuriwa’s trick of traveling between places.”

“Now, why the hell would you want to do a damn fool thing like that? Let Kuriwa play footsie with unspeakable horrors if she wants. I thought you had more sense.”

Sheyann raised an eyebrow, but smiled faintly in amusement. “I allowed you to teleport me for this escapade of yours, Arachne; I expect to be spoken to with a bit more restraint. At least for a while.”

“Yes, you’re right. Sorry.” Tellwyrn sighed heavily, and grimaced. “I’ve been quickly using up my store of restraint over the last two days.”

“In fact, you’ve been doing quite well,” Sheyann replied, gliding over to pat her on the shoulder. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed. You have conducted yourself very nearly like a person with normal, basic social skills. It may seem an odd thing to say, Arachne, as I certainly have no claim to responsibility for you, but I am…proud.”

Tellwyrn glared at her. Then, incongruously, her lips twitched, and she emitted a soft snort that was clearly the lesser part of a laugh.

“Well…all right. We’ve got a crowd back at Last Rock to reassure, most of you will be needing some food and rest, and I owe a series of explanations to several people. Most urgently, Iris had better get into a bath and then bed. Let’s move this out, people. Wrynst, Haunui, I thank you very sincerely for helping to protect my student.”

“Oh, no need for that, Professor,” Wrynst said cheerfully. “This beats the daylights out of laboratory work. I’m having a smashing old time!”

Haunui just nodded gravely.

They started slowly, Iris having to detach herself from Maureen and push upright with obvious weariness, but soon enough the little procession got underway, heading back toward Last Rock. Tellwyrn stood aside, letting them all pass before finally bringing up the rear, alongside Gabriel, who had hovered nearby.

“So, Professor,” he said in a low tone, nodding at Wrynst and Haunui a few yards ahead of them. “What I was actually going to ask… Who are those guys?”

She sighed. “Later, Arquin. Tomorrow, you’re going to learn a lot of things, some of which will explain the presence of all the…guests I brought with me. More immediately… Gather your comrades when we reach the town, if you would. Before people start scattering to the winds and spreading rumors, there are some things you’ll need to understand.”

He followed her gaze past Haunui’s shoulder, to where Iris was trudging along, slumped with exhaustion, then nodded silently.

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12 – 57

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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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8 – 26

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“I know you’re tired, that’s why we need to make another stop,” Principia said, grinning back at them. “It’ll just take a few minutes, but believe me, you’ll thank me tomorrow. I know a place that’ll be open this late—just gotta pick up the ground beans and a handpump press.”

“What the bloody hell are you on about now, you daffy knife-ear?” Merry groaned, trudging along behind her.

“Excuse you, that’s Sergeant Daffy Knife-Ear, private,” Principia said gaily. “It’s called coffee. We’ll be having it in the morning. Wonderful stuff! You’re gonna hate it.”

“Why do I have the feeling that’ll describe a great deal of my life in the near future?” Merry grumbled. Eyes on her boots, she barely came to a stop in time to avoid plowing into Principia from behind.

“This looks good,” Principia murmured, peering around. They had staggered to a halt on an arched footbridge crossing one of the city’s canals. Fairy lamps atop posts at either end kept it from being too dim, but it was still after midnight. The sounds of traffic from the bigger street half a block ahead were muted; it was completely dead in this neighborhood.

“Why are we stopping?” Casey asked blearily.

“Because I want to have a word with you ladies away from prying ears,” Principia replied, turning to face them. “Not suitable for the inn; the patrons there know how to mind their own business, but some things we can’t take the risk of being overheard. There are barely any people within the range of my hearing, here, and they’re all behind stone walls and asleep.”

“What’s so important?” Farah asked, looking more alert.

Princpia looked at each of them in turn, holding eye contact for a moment. “The truth is… This may seem rather cheap, since I was only just promoted, and that out of what we can all agree was a weird and twisty sequence of events. But in the days and weeks to come, girls, I expect you all to get thoroughly sick of me. We are going to work hard, and train hard.”

Merry raised a hand. “What if we were already sick of you?”

The elf ignored her. “The Legion’s normal course of training is one thing—we won’t be skimping on that, not because I am hugely a fan of it but because we can’t afford to. However, that will not be our focus. As was mentioned several times recently, this squad represents an intriguing balance of backgrounds and skill sets, and we are going to share them, ladies. Thieves’ Guild con artistry and street fighting, Shaathist wilderness skills, adventuring party tactics, Nemitite research methods and lore, Black Wreath spycraft… Anything and everything. Whatever you know that even might be useful to us, you are going to train your squadmates in. Much of this is religious in origin and directly applicable to our official mandate, but there’s more to it than that. We need skills—diverse, dangerous skills. We need to be the best, because we have a job to do over and above what Commander Rouvad wants from us.”

“What are you talking about?” Ephanie asked quietly.

Principia glanced around fleetingly, but was apparently satisfied with the lack of prying ears. She stared at her squad, her jaw set, and stated flatly, “We are going to destroy Basra Syrinx.”

There was a beat of silence.

“I’ve pointed out already that she will be coming for us,” Principia went on, “so it’s not as if we even have a choice. But that isn’t enough, ladies. I refuse to remain in the trap of defensive thinking. More than the need to fend her off, more even than the fact that that need alone will force us, eventually, to take an aggressive tack… She has to go. That woman is a monster. She’s broken in the head, has no feeling heart, and is in a position of considerable power. It cannot stand. For us, for Jenell Covrin, for everyone else that we damn well know she’s mauled even if we don’t know who they are. This needs to be done. Circumstances have decreed that we’ll be the ones to do it, so damn it, we’re going to do it well.”

“Hell yes,” Casey whispered, eyes sharp and alert now.

“We’ve got four months,” Principia stated. “After that point… Best behavior or not, Syrinx will be wanting a rematch, and she will get it. Whipping ourselves into shape will be good enough for our careers and standing generally that I expect us to be in a stronger position by then, but even if not… It doesn’t matter. What it comes down to is this: Either she is going down, or we are.”

All four of them stared right back at her, and one by one, nodded their agreement.


 

“Regardless,” Ravana said, leading the way as usual on the path back from class, “I do regret dragging you all into this. Needless to say, I fully intend to make it up to you. We are unfortunately stranded in the environs of Last Rock for the duration of the semester, but I would be delighted to host a vacation when class lets out this winter. Someplace pleasant, and relaxing! I’ve several ideas. In the meantime, perhaps the dorm can be made more comfortable by—”

“Ravana,” Maureen interrupted, her tone quiet but firm, “quit it.”

The group came to a stop, Ravana turning to regard the gnome with confusion. “I’m sorry?”

“Quit taking responsibility,” Maureen said, gazing up at her. “We don’t none of us answer to you; we make our own choices, as we did last night, an’ it’s frankly insulting the way you assume you’re the decider around here. And fer the luvva courage, quit tryin’ to buy us.”

The Duchess stared at her, mouth slightly open.

“Look,” Maureen said with a sigh. “I like you, don’t think otherwise. But you’re goin’ about this all wrong. You wanna make friends, be part o’ the group? Then be part of it. You might find that easier than bein’ in charge all the time, I bet. At the very least, it’s gotta be more relaxing. But that’s how you get people ta like you, not by showering them in shinies.”

Ravana finally shut her mouth, then shook her head ruefully. “Well, I am…appropriately chastened. It seems we’ve had this conversation once before, haven’t we?”

“An’ likely will again,” Maureen said in a more cheerful tone. “C’mon, the habits of a lifetime don’t just up an’ change. I expect you all t’let me know when I’m bein’ a dink, an’ I’ll do the same fer you. Without makin’ it personal.”

“That is, after all, what friends do,” Szith added with one of her private little smiles.

“And yay! We get to bond over cleaning rooms full of evil sludge!” Iris said with a forced, manic smile.

Ravana sighed softly. “I really do feel bad about that, though. Not that I intend to denigrate your own agency, girls, but… Well, it was my idea, wasn’t it?”

“Water under the bridge,” Iris said dismissively, waving her hand. “What I want to know is what we’re going to do if Addiwyn starts up again.”

“She never came back to the room last night,” Szith observed. “Whatever Professor Tellwyrn said or did, let us hope for the time being that it finally made an impression.”

Iris pursed her lips skeptically. “And if it didn’t? Because between you, me and the trees, I can’t see that unbalanced twit getting the point no matter what’s done to her.”

“Don’t underestimate Tellwyrn,” Ravana cautioned. “But in any case… If she resumes her campaign, we will consider at that time how to deal with it.” She paused, then smiled wryly. “With, ah…a bit more restraint, perhaps.”


 

“This is so you,” Mary mused, pacing in a circle around the frozen form of Aspen. “One cannot contest that it does the job. And all it cost was a staggering expense of power and the complete reordering of a small patch of reality.”

“It’s such a shame we don’t get the chance to catch up more often, Mary,” Tellwyrn said, deadpan. “How did you enjoy the Rail trip?”

“All right, enough!” Sheyann exclaimed. “We are going to have to work closely together to accomplish this, if indeed it can be accomplished. Let us establish up front that if we are to be successful, the personal barbs will need to be kept to an absolute minimum.”

“Quite right,” the Crow said pleasantly. “Oh, but Arachne! On the subject of personal history, I understand the young Aldarasi prince is currently enrolled in your institution.”

A ball of blue fire burst alight in Tellwyrn’s hand. “Now see here—”

Before she could get any further, Sheyann streaked across the room and slapped Mary hard across the face.

The fireball fizzled out; Tellwyrn and the Crow both stared at her in shock.

“We are not doing this,” Sheyann declared furiously. “I will not have it! Kuriwa, if you cannot manage to act your age I will treat you accordingly. Is that understood?”

The Crow blinked twice, then took a step back and bowed, first to her, and then to Tellwyrn. “You are, of course, entirely correct. Forgive me, Arachne, that was a jest in very poor taste. I assure you, I have no intention of interfering with any of your students in any way.”

“’Interfere’ is an interesting choice of word,” Tellwyrn said, twisting her lips sourly. “Elilial pulled that one on me recently. Leaves you room to be aggravatingly helpful.”

“Well,” Mary said with a placid smile, “I do have an interest by blood. And as we just established, blood, however dilute, is a connection to be respected.”

The Professor snorted. “Oh, I am not worried about Trissiny. If you want to go toe-to-toe with Avei, be my guest. Anyway, back to the matter at hand, because I do need to head off to class pretty soon. What do you think?”

Mary turned back to study Aspen, her expression growing pensive. “Tricky, as I am sure you know. I can prepare the rituals that will allow us to touch her mind. Sheyann, if you could contribute toward the general emotional contact with which our magic is good, to encourage calm and healing, that will grant me space and some flexibility to set up the far more advanced mental workings.”

“Of course,” Sheyann said, nodding.

“The hard part is going to be bridging the difference between her time frame and ours,” said Tellwyrn. “Eventually, I hope to establish a passive effect in the room that will enable us to do the work without me constantly having to ride herd on that. For the first few sessions, though, it will require a personal touch. I never automate anything until I am absolutely confident of its function.”

“Wise,” Mary said approvingly.

“And of course, the real kicker will be integrating that into your fae spells.”

“Indeed,” the Crow said, slowly rubbing her chin with a finger as she studied the immobilized dryad. “All right, I will take some time to prepare and confer with Sheyann while you attend to your students, Arachne. Before you go, however, I have some thoughts on the methodology we will need to use. To begin…”


 

Finally escaping the tense, empty conversation with her mother, Jenell practically leaped up the stairs and strode down the hall double time. Beholding the door of her room standing open, she picked up her pace even further, the long coattails of her dress uniform flying behind her, and whipped around the corner.

Her satchel was on the bed, open. Her father stood beside it, and in his hands was one of her books.

“Can I help you find something?” Jenell grated.

Colonel Covrin slowly raised his eyes, giving her a very flat stare, then hefted the old volume. He handled it gently, of course, despite his obvious displeasure with it; the Colonel was an established bibliophile who collected rare volumes himself. He often said that he would have been a Nemitite had he not gone into the Army.

“Athwart the Gods,” he said, glancing down at the book’s title. “Treatises on diverting and manipulating the attention of deities. Isn’t this volume banned, Jenell?”

“Depends on who you ask,” she shot back. His brows lowered menacingly, and she hastened to add, “It’s suppressed, not banned. The Universal Church doesn’t have the authority to outlaw books in the Empire.”

“And how did you manage to obtain a copy of a volume suppressed by the Church?”

She folded her arms, meeting his stare challengingly. “I can’t think of any reason you would need to know that.”

“Jenell,” he said quietly, “you would tell me if you were in some kind of trouble, wouldn’t you?”

She startled them both by laughing. “Are you serious, Dad? Since when do we have that kind of relationship?”

His mouth thinned to a line of pure disapproval. “What have you gotten involved in?”

“Nothing I can’t handle,” she said curtly. “I am handling it.”

“Jenell…”

“As someone keeps reminding me,” she stated, “despite how generally disappointing you may find me, Dad, I’m still a Covrin. We don’t whine about problems. We end them.” Imperiously, she held out a hand, wordlessly demanding the book’s return.

The Colonel ignored that for the moment, lowering his eyes to study its battered old cover. “What problem?”

“One,” she replied quietly, “that I am going to look in the eyes when it realizes that I’m the thing that destroyed it.”

She could see him processing, and silently willed him not to come to the correct conclusion. Colonel Covrin was anything but stupid. If he figured out what was going on, no power in the Empire would prevent him from trying to rescue her. And his trying would ruin everything.

“This problem,” he said at last, lifting his eyes to stare piercingly into hers, “isn’t Avei, is it?”

It was all she could do not to sigh in relief. “No. Gods, give me a little credit. No, Avei will be the solution. It’ll just take some work on my part, that’s all.”

He stared at her for a long, silent moment, then nodded slowly and finally handed the book back. She immediately stepped past him, gently placing it back in her satchel, and slung that over her shoulder. “I’m heading out. I need to get to the Rail station and embark for Viridill. My sponsor is keeping me on as an attendant while on a mission.”

“Jenell,” he said as she started for the door. She turned to look back at him, and found herself unsure what to make of his expression. “I’m proud of you.”

Despite herself, despite everything, Jenell couldn’t hold back a smile. “That’s… I don’t think you’ve ever said that to me before.”

“Yes, well,” he replied with an awkward shrug. “I guess it wasn’t the case before.”

And just like that, the smile evaporated from her features. “Thanks for lunch, Dad,” she said with a sigh, then turned and strode from the room before he could respond.

She practically flew down the stairs, through the hall and out of the house, fearing her mother would catch and ensnare her in another of her empty conversations. She didn’t stop until she was at the corner, two full blocks down from the Covrin residence. There, she stood, waiting until a black carriage with the red and yellow stripes of the municipal taxi service approached, and flagged it down.

“Western Rail terminal south,” she said curtly to the cabbie as she climbed into the back.

“Right away, ma’am,” he said, tipping his hat deferentially, then immediately faced forward again, palming the control runes and bringing the carriage back into motion.

She still wasn’t used to that. Jenell was long accustomed to being pretty and well-dressed, which commanded a certain kind of attention. Part of her regretted that men never flirted with her anymore, since she’d started wearing Legionnaire armor, but another part was finding the new treatment somehow sweeter. It was still an unfamiliar experience, being addressed with respect.

After glancing up to double-check that the cabbie’s eyes were on the road where they belonged, she carefully opened her satchel and studied its contents. Her father didn’t seem to have disturbed any of the books apart from the one… Even her personal reading was untouched, which she’d have more than half expected him to remark on. Ashner Foxpaw’s Exploits was so far outside both her previously established sphere of interest and the preferences of Avei’s Legions that it practically demanded comment. Perhaps he’d caught sight of the old copy of Athwart the Gods and hadn’t noticed. Luckily he’d not seen some of the other volumes she had in there.

That had been risky, and sloppy, and she could not afford to be either. Obviously her old room at home was not a secure fortress, and it was pure sentimentality that had made her assume so. She had to tighten up her game. If anybody else found the kinds of things she was studying… Gods, if Syrinx found them. She would invest in a bag of holding at the first opportunity, and never have these materials away from her person again.

Finally relaxing back into the seat, Jenell carefully pulled out the Exploits and opened it at her bookmark. There was time to get through maybe another chapter; traffic was dense at this hour.

Rather than the spot where she had left off, her eyes cut automatically to an increasingly familiar phrase, one Foxpaw was fond of using—it was the closest thing he had to a personal motto, it seemed. Jenell always found herself pausing a moment to let it sit in the forefront of her mind whenever she came across it. Due to her recent experiences, the idea resonated with her powerfully.

Not for the first time, she found herself silently mouthing the words.

“All systems are corrupt.”

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8 – 24

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Both elves leaned back, straightening, and Mary gently trailed her fingers through the puddle between them. It was hardly uncommon to find standing water on the rooftops of Tiraas; they’d not had to look hard to find a suitable location, no farther in fact than the inn in which Sheyann was staying, though both had employed a little shamanic skill to ensure their impromptu scrying mirror wasn’t disturbed by wind or rain.

More skill had been needed to ensure that they weren’t disturbed. Scrying was arcane craft; the degree of ability and power in the fae arts that enabled it was enough to bring curious people sniffing about if they were detected. Some of those people would come wearing silver gryphon badges.

“I still cannot believe you left the hook for this in the High Commander’s office,” Sheyann said at last, shaking her head. “If she learns of it, there will be trouble that may task even you. The Sisters of Avei are not the Tiraan Empire.”

“If anything, they are less skilled in the hunt,” Mary replied with an aloof little smile. “Farzida would not go so far, and anyway, she won’t find out. I am frankly surprised my little charm lasted all week; it is fragile enough to be erased by the merest touch of divine magic. Apparently she has had no need to call upon Avei directly in the last few days, but regardless, a woman of her mindset would bless her working space regularly. It will be gone before anything more can be learned from it.”

“Is there more you planned to learn?”

“No, in fact, I consider this matter now concluded, as far as my own interests are concerned.”

Sheyann gazed at her thoughtfully, but her attention was inward, not on her companion’s face. “I’ve not followed Principia’s career in any detail since hearing she gave Arachne her child—that’s a combination of events that would seize anyone’s attention—and now I am not sure whether this is fully in character for her or completely out of it.”

“The method is a well-trod path for the girl,” Mary said, her expression more serious. “It’s the motive which is new. She has ulterior motives, to be sure, and I’m positive she plans to work against or around the Sisterhood’s rules at some point, but at the same time, she is taking the matter of her enlistment seriously. And now she has the charge of four young women. I believe this will lead to better things for her than I had previously dared to hope.”

“Are you going to intervene further?” Sheyann asked. “Even from what little I saw of that woman Syrinx, I am certain she is disturbed in some manner, and very probably anth’auwa. She is also not gone in any permanent sense, nor will she forgive this humiliation. Principia has likely just bought herself more trouble later.”

Mary nodded. “But she has bought time in which to prepare for it. Syrinx had the element of surprise and a vast advantage of positioning here. I interceded only to the point of preventing her from leveraging it to the fullest; it was Principia’s own cunning that turned the tables, and it is that upon which she will have to rely in the future.”

“Ah, yes,” Sheyann said, deadpan. “Because now that she’s become interesting, you’re going to give up paying attention to her.”

The Crow smiled a sly little smile. “You know very well that I like to keep an eye on things that are interesting to me. And who knows? The girl may need another nudge in the future. By and large, though, I deem it best to leave her life in her own hands, as we always must with the young. After all, Sheyann, with this matter wrapped up, you and I have someplace to be.”

“Indeed.” Sheyann stood, Mary following suit. “We may as well take the opportunity to sleep; the Rails will not resume until morning. Last Rock is also not a regular stop; chartering a caravan is a somewhat more involved process than simply purchasing a ticket. We will need to take the first scheduled caravan to Calderaas and make arrangements from there. It is likely to be afternoon before we reach Arachne’s University.”

Mary narrowed her eyes. “I have no intention of riding that infernal contraption. If you absolutely insist on prioritizing speed over all other considerations, I will meet you in Last Rock tomorrow evening.”

“Kuriwa,” Sheyann said patiently, “you know what is at stake. What method could you possibly have of traveling so far, so fast? Manipulating the winds like that will cause storms across the continent, and even so would take your little wings a week to make the trip.”

“There are faster methods, as you know.”

Sheyann stared at her. “The place between? You would seriously rend a hole in the fabric of reality and risk traveling through a netherworld of doom, beneath the eyes of the great uncreators and the lessor horrors that prowl between the planes, just to avoid riding the Rails?”

Mary tilted her head to one side, making a thoughtful expression. After a moment, she nodded. “That’s correct, yes.”

“Nonsense,” Sheyann said flatly. “You will glamour your hair blonde and I will buy you a ticket. Honestly, Kuriwa. It has been five thousand years; I think it is about time you grew up.”

The Crow very slowly raised one eyebrow. “Oh, I see. You object to my aversions. Very well, then, Sheyann, if we are in such a hurry, why did you not simply arrange to have Arachne teleport us hither and yon? I would wager my moccasins she made the offer.”

“That is a completely different matter,” Sheyann said stiffly. “Don’t change the subject.”

She lost patience and went below in search of her bed before the Crow was done laughing.


“All right, Ruda, what’s this all about?” Gabriel demanded, coming to a stop. He was the last of them to arrive at the small landing just before the bridge to Clarke Tower. “It’s late. What was so important?”

“Late?” Ruda said, grinning mockingly. “It’s late? Gabriel Arquin, you’re a college student, you’re under the age of twenty, and it’s before midnight on a Friday. You call this late? You have officially failed at everything.”

“That’s it, I’m going to bed,” he announced, turning around.

“Wait, Gabe,” Toby urged. “The word went out from Ruda because I asked her to make some arrangements. This was my idea.”

“Yours?” Trissiny asked, raising her eyebrows. “Well… Gabriel’s question still stands, then. What is so important?”

“Guys,” Toby said, slowly panning a serious expression around his assembled classmates, “we need to talk.”

“And…what would you like to talk about?” Fross asked.

“Let me put it this way,” Ruda said, folding her arms. “Can any of you think of something you would like to talk about?”

A silence fell. Gabriel chewed his lower lip and gripped the hilt of his sword; Teal flushed and lowered her eyes, and Shaeine stepped closer to her, moving her hand so that the backs of their fingers touched. Juniper swallowed heavily and sniffed, hugging Jack closer to her chest. For once, the jackalope didn’t seem to mind the treatment. Trissiny frowned thoughtfully at them.

“I can’t, specifically,” Fross declared. “But I can talk about whatever’s on anybody’s mind!”

“I’m glad to hear that, Fross,” Toby said. “But for this… I think we need some privacy. The kind that even professors, even Tellwyrn, aren’t in a position to overhear. And that’s why you heard about this from Ruda instead of me; she has the tools we’ll need, and when I asked her, she said to leave her the arrangements.”

“And I was glad to do it,” Ruda said firmly, her mirthful expression lost in seriousness now. “Because I’ve been watching you clowns all week and I am beginning to be concerned. In fact, right now, Shiny Boots and Fross are the people I am least worried about, and that should give you a hint as to how fucked up we very nearly are.”

“Thanks!” Fross said cheerfully.

“I think,” Trissiny muttered.

“And so,” said Ruda, drawing an object from within her coat pocket and holding it up to them, “I dug into my stash. I trust you remember how these things work?”

“Whoah, wait a second,” said Gabriel, frowning at the blue-glyphed Crawl waypoint stone in her hand. “Why do you have that? Aren’t those basically all Teal’s? I mean, Melaxyna gave her the black one, she bought that one and it was her flute-playing that got us the last one…”

“And I risked my ass actually collecting that, which you seem to have somehow forgotten,” Ruda snapped.

“I gave them to Ruda to hold onto once we were out,” Teal said hurriedly. “Remember, we were gonna let her handle the loot from the Crawl, since she’s the best with figures? I just thought it made sense to add those to the pile.”

“And I hung onto them,” Ruda said, “because they are useless except to University students, since no one else has access to the Crawl, and they’re more useful to us as ways to get around down there than as currency; we’ll probably have more Crawl excursions.”

“Definitely more!” Fross proclaimed. “At least one per year!”

“Right, so we’ll sell ’em off our senior year,” Ruda continued.

“That reminds me,” Gabriel said, “I’d forgotten about that. What happened to our loot, Ruda?”

She shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. I sold off everything except the bacon, which I donated to Mrs. Oak. Over the break I had my family’s bankers open nine interest-bearing accounts. Split that many ways it wasn’t a huge haul, so I had them pursue a fairly aggressive investment strategy. Risky, but there’s lots of development going on in enchantment and industry, and last I heard we were doing quite well.”

“Why didn’t you mention this to us?” Shaeine asked.

Ruda grinned. “Because most of you wouldn’t care, Arquin would’ve yanked his out and spent it—”

“Hey!”

“—and Boots here would’ve just donated her cut to somebody.”

“In point of fact,” Trissiny began.

“No.” Glaring, Ruda thrust a finger directly under her nose. “You let me work! Dammit, woman, this ain’t the Age of Adventurers; you cannot stomp around living off the land. People own the land now; they’ll either charge rent or shoot you for trespassing. Trust me, you will need funding.”

“I’m backed by one of the biggest worldwide cults—”

“Boots, if I’ve gotta explain why it’s smart to have resources that don’t appear on the Sisterhood’s books, you truly do not understand this century.”

“Anyway,” Toby said firmly, “here we are, there’s our waystone, and I think it’s time we visited our old friends in the Crawl and had a long conversation. Don’t you?”

“What friends?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“Do you really think this is that important?” Trissiny asked.

“I think it a good idea,” Sheaine said quietly.

“Me, too,” Juniper whispered.

“We’re really not supposed to go in the Crawl except on approved class exercises,” Fross fretted. “On the other hand, campus rules aren’t the only important thing, and sneaking down there is sort of a major tradition. I mean, Chase does it at least twice a month…”

“We’re settled, then,” said Ruda, grinning. “I trust you guys remember the drill, right? Link arms and hold onto your stomachs.”

“Speaking of which,” Gabriel said, “can we pause for a moment to collect our own snacks to bring? Because I still have the taste of mushrooms and bacon on the back of my—”

“Arquin, shut up and hold my hand, y’big baby.”


“Omnu’s balls, Prin, no!” the innkeeper exclaimed the moment they entered, clutching what remained of his hair in a pantomime of fright. “Not the Legions! Have you no sense of self-preservation? Con someone less dangerous, like the Black Wreath!”

“Been there, done that,” Principia said airily. “Anyhow, Pritchett, I have no idea what you’re on about. I am a duly enlisted soldier in Avei’s mortal army.”

“In fact, she’s the sergeant!” Casey said helpfully.

Pritchett, a man in later middle age, whose retreating hair and advancing gut mirrored each other almost perfectly, gaped at them. Or specifically, at Principia. “You’re not serious,” he said finally.

“As a steak dinner,” she replied, winking. “Look, we’re gonna need one of the quiet tables, an hour or so of privacy, and a pot of Black Punshai tea. The extra-strong blend. Ooh, with cucumber sandwiches. And do you have some of those fantastic butter cookies still?”

“Cookies,” the innkeeper said, still staring at her. “I mean… Sure, yeah, they’re the most popular… Prin, are you sure you’re not in some kinda trouble? If you need a place to crash…”

“Pritch,” she said more kindly, “I’m exactly the same as I always am. Up to my pointy ears in trouble, completely in control and loving every minute of it. I remember where the tables are. Tea, sandwiches, cookies, and I’ll drop by again later so we can catch up, okay? Swell! Toodles! C’mon, ladies, this way.”

“You always take us the nicest places,” Merry grumbled as she followed Principia and the others into the farthest, dimmest corner of the inn’s common room. It was built on a sprawling, rambling plan that resulted in more corners than it seemed a building should have, most of them unnecessarily dim. It was also shabby, with peeling wallpaper, scratched and dented furniture, and cracked, flickering fairy lamps. For all that, though, it was clean.

“There’s nothing more ridiculous than a snobby guttersnipe, Lang,” Principia said cheerfully, seating herself and sliding toward the wall, making space in her selected booth for the others to pile in. With their armor, it was a cozy fit, but it did afford them a measure of privacy. Despite the late hour, the inn had multiple occupied tables, and those sitting at them were very unaccustomed to seeing Silver Legionnaires, to judge by the stares they accumulated. No one seemed hostile, though, and they were not approached.

“Okay, I think we’ve been fairly patient about this, Sarge,” Farah said pointedly, “but it has been a long and stressful day, and I really want to just sleep. What could possibly be so important at this seedy bar that we have to come do it tonight?”

“Story time!” Principia declared, folding her gauntleted hands on the table and smiling at them.

“Story…time,” Ephanie repeated slowly, as if uncertain of the meaning of the words.

“So there I was, in Last Rock,” Principia began. “For about three years. Honestly, I viewed it as being on vacation; I just sat on my ass, mostly. In theory I was keeping an eye on Professor Tellwyrn for the Guild, but hell, they don’t care what she does with her time. It’s just that it’s not smart to ignore somebody like that, y’know? The Thieves’ Guild doesn’t get along by letting the world’s most dangerous people swagger around outside their range of view. So, they needed nominal eyes on the scene, and I needed a break. Anyhow, there’s me, hanging around in bars with the students and adventurers and generally having a grand old time, when up rears the politics of the big city, which is never so far away that it can’t bite you on the ass. It started with some shit between the Black Wreath and the Imperial government, and the next thing I knew…”


“Kids!”

No sooner did they materialize on the lower floor of the Grim Visage than they were greeted with evident delight. Melaxyna leaned over the railing from the upper level, emphasizing her cleavage even more than that position required, and smiled at them with every appearance of happiness. Of course, appearances didn’t count for much with a succubus.

“Welcome, welcome!” the demon said, beaming. “Only the best for my favorite patrons! Drinks and a meal on the house, your money’s no good here.”

“Well, damn, girl, look at you!” Ruda exclaimed, grinning up at the succubus. “You work fast. How’d you get out of Level 2 so quick?”

“Ah, ah, ah,” Melaxyna chided, winking. “That is for me to know, and Arachne to tear her hair out wondering.”

“She let you out, didn’t she,” said Gabriel.

The demon’s expression didn’t alter by a hair, but her tail began lashing behind her like an agitated cat’s, hard enough to be eye-catching even though it was barely visible from that angle. “You know, Gabriel, it’s the funniest thing. I have so much reason to be grateful to you, and yet here you are, not in the room even sixty seconds and already getting under my skin. Sarriki! Our finest table for these most honored of guests.”

“You mean our least shitty table?” the naga suggested, gliding over to them bearing a tray of empty goblets. “’Finest’ isn’t really a word I hear much in this joint. Hi, kids.”

“Hello, Sarriki,” Teal said, smiling.

“Yes, yes,” said Melaxyna, “the least dank one over by the fireplace. And the best of whatever we’ve got in the back, I’ll not have a poor review of my hospitality making its way back up top.”

“The best of whatever?” Sarriki asked, raising one of the ridges that passed for her eyebrows.

“Well, of course,” said the succubus reasonably, her smile remaining in place. “Unless, of course, they seem to be trying to take advantage. Then poison them. Enjoy your stay, kids.” She turned and sashayed back toward the bar, flicking her tail at them.

“I can’t help liking her a little bit,” Gabriel mused, “and I’m not sure why.”

“She’s got an amazing figure,” Juniper pointed out.

“Nah,” he said, “it’s not that… Hard to put my finger on.”

“It probably wouldn’t be hard at all to put your finger on anything of hers,” Trissiny said sharply. “Regardless, don’t.”

“Oh, come on,” he said, offended. “Give me a little credit.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

“You two are just too precious,” Sarriki chuckled. “Right this way, little biscuits.”

“Oh, gods, she’s doing that thing,” Fross stage whispered. “I thought that was just Rowe. Does there always have to be somebody in this pub who calls us desserts?”

“Rules of the house,” Sarriki said gravely, gesturing to the large corner table to which she had just escorted them. It was, indeed, comfortably close to the hearth, spacious and slightly less splintery than most of the furniture in the Visage. “You lollipops get yourselves settled in, and I’ll be back with something for you to nosh in just a moment.”

Ruda had already plopped herself into a chair; the others followed suit more carefully as the naga slithered off.

“So,” Trissiny said, “now that we’re here, what is the big issue?”

“It was about two hundred years ago,” Ruda said, producing a bottle of rum from within her coat and setting it on the table. “Like all the events which have led to great changes in the world, it was random and hilariously stupid. So Ankhar Punaji, the prince of Puna Dara, went out and had himself a little too much to drink, which is pretty much a fuckin’ tradition—it’s how we celebrate important events, like surviving to see another sunset, or waking up without having died of alcohol poisoning in your sleep. So there’s Prince Ankhar, staggering around as sloshed as a sloop in a typhoon, and pauses to take a leak on a convenient rock by the harbor.”

She grinned, popped the cork, and had a swig of rum, pausing the wipe her mouth on the sleeve of her greatcoat before continuing. “Turns out the rock in question was a small shrine to Naphthene. Just for a bit of historical background, I should mention that shit like this is exactly why she doesn’t like people putting up shrines. They always do, anyway, and she mostly leaves ’em alone. It’s only worshiping her in an organized manner that gets your ass hammered into the ground by lightning bolts. But anyway, yeah. The prince pissed on a shrine.”

“I bet you get extra smote for that,” Gabriel said in an awed tone.

“Well, Naphthene is as capricious as the sea itself,” Ruda continued. “We always make our offerings to her when setting out on a voyage. It’s no guarantee at all of fair sailing—she just doesn’t play nice with anybody—but not doing it markedly ups your chances of getting sunk. She’s a gigantic bitch, is what I’m sayin’, and doesn’t generally mind having that pointed out. Closest thing we’ve got to a Naphthist dogma is the old saying, ‘the storm cares not.’ Still and all, pissing on a shrine? That is the kind of shit that gets a deity’s attention. Sometimes. If they’re a pretty pissy one to begin with, that is. So the goddess cursed Ankhar with the worst fate that could be inflicted on a pirate.”

“Hanging?” Trissiny said dryly.

“Poverty?” Gabriel suggested.

“A peaceful system of maritime trade enforced by sophisticated modern navies?” Fross chimed.

“Worse,” Ruda said gravely. “Sobriety.”

For a moment, there was silence around the table.

“I just…wow,” Gabriel said at last. “It’s just begging for a smartass comment, but…what can you say? The thing itself is its own punchline.”

“Pretty much, yeah,” Ruda said lightly, pausing to take another swig of rum. “Naphthene cursed Prince Ankhar and all his descendants to, and I quote, ‘drink but never be drunk.’ This is why I get a campus exemption to the ban on drinking. The Punaji royal line, despite being completely impervious to the intoxicating effects of…well, anything…suffers a compulsion to consume alcohol.”

“What happens if you don’t drink?” Trissiny asked curiously.

Ruda’s expression darkened. “One of my uncles tried that. I do not want to talk about it.” She took another drink of rum.

“Um,” Juniper said, slowly stroking Jack’s fur, “that’s a neat story and it’s interesting to finally know why you’re immune to drugs—”

“Actually that really straightens out something that had been bugging me!” Fross exclaimed. “If it’s a divine curse, that explains why it didn’t work as well on infernal intoxicants! It probably saved your life when you got hopped up on hthrynxkh blood, Ruda, but didn’t manage to completely obviate the effects like it does everything else. Fascinating!”

“Yes, but my point was,” Juniper said patiently, “why are you telling us this now?”


“Because, as I said, it is story time,” Principia said in response to Farah’s question. The others were silent in the aftermath of her tale, not reaching for the tea or sandwiches which had been delivered while the elf spoke. Principia folded her arms on the table, pushing her teacup away, and leaned forward to stare earnestly at them. “And because it’s a pretty basic rule of command not to ask anything of your troops you’re not willing to do yourself.”

“Holy shit, Locke,” Merry whispered. She looked downright nauseous. “I had no idea… I mean, I knew that guy was skeevy, even before he betrayed us, but I never figured… If I’d even imagined he’d do something like that…”

“Relax, Lang,” Principia said gently. “To look at it another way, I could’ve warned you about him if I wasn’t so tied up in worrying over my own skin. Let’s face it, none of us came out of that mess looking good. Can we just, finally, put it behind us and start over?”

Merry nodded, and gulped. “I… Yeah. I think I like the sound of that.”

“If I take your meaning,” Ephanie said slowly, “you want us to tell you our stories.”

“It’s like this,” the newly-minted sergeant said seriously. “We are not out of the woods, girls. Syrinx got slapped on the wrist, no more. We have four months in which to shape up without having to worry about her descending on us, and probably a small grace period after she’s back in which she’ll be careful not to piss off the High Commander again. But she is not gone, and in fact her last memory of us is the humiliation of being knocked down a peg while we watched. This isn’t over. She’ll be coming for us again, eventually.

“Furthermore,” she went on, her expression growing grimmer, “there’s the fact that Commander Rouvad made it plan she doesn’t like us. She also set us up for future confrontations with Syrinx by arranging for us to be witness to the Bishop’s comeuppance, which let’s face it, was completely unnecessary. That woman is too sharp to have done something like that accidentally or at random. I think, next time we have to take on Syrinx, it’ll be with the tacit approval of the High Commander. She’s setting us up to clash with her.”

“That’s completely bonkers,” Farah objected. “Why?”

“It actually makes perfect sense,” Casey said, frowning. “She can’t get rid of Syrinx without having a suitable replacement—and it might not be smart to get rid of Syrinx anyway, because then she might go over to the Church completely and become an outright enemy. One who knows the Sisterhood’s inner workings. But if she wanted to replace Syrinx…here we are. If we shape up, take her on and take her down, Rouvad has a whole roster of women who can do the Bishop’s job—at least, her political job, I dunno about being a priestess. And if we fail, well, we’re a convenient chew toy for Basra to focus on while Rouvad sets up something else.”

Ephanie sighed heavily. “I hate politics so very much.”

“I am afraid that’s just too damn bad, Avelea,” Principia said firmly. “Politics, as of right now, is what we are. We have at least one powerful enemy who will be coming back for us, and we cannot count on the support of the High Commander when her own interest lies in making us fight our own battles.”

“Captain Dijanerad has our backs,” Farah pointed out. “I mean, Locke, the fact is your little tirade against Syrinx ended on a big fat gendered insult. Rouvad didn’t mention that at all, which I’m pretty sure means she didn’t know about it. Which means Dijanerad didn’t tell her.”

“And that’s something to consider,” Principia said nodding. “But we’ve been over the fact that Shahdi Dijanerad is a good soldier and not much of a political operative at all. No, ladies, what we have to rely on is each other. And right now, we are a big bundle of unknown elements to one another. I love my privacy as much as the next gal, but that’s not going to work. There are too many unasked questions, here, and not enough trust.”

She leaned back, dragging her stare around the group, meeting each of their eyes in turn. “So I went first. Now, we need to know just who and what we are dealing with. I’m sorry to have to put you all on the spot like this, but I’m doing it because I have to. As of this moment, we are family. We succeed together, or we all fail, and the consequences of failure for each of us are likely to be far worse than a damaged military career. You all know that, right?”

“Commander Rouvad pretty much told us that straight out,” Merry said in a hollow tone.

“Yeah,” Principia said grimly, nodding. “So we are not going into one more day without knowing who we’re fighting beside. Who’s next?”


“It’s not even that I think it’s urgent, or that anybody’s in danger,” Ruda said, pouring rum into her teacup while the others stared disconsolately at the steaming pot of mushroom stew now in the middle of the table, “but it’s been a week of watching most of you lot moping and sulking and fidgeting and generally acting off-kilter, and dammit, I’m getting worried. I’m not the only one, either,” she added, nodding at Toby. “Look, guys, I respect your privacy and all, but we’re family, here. There is clearly some unresolved business from the battle this spring weighing on several of us. I know this is hard, but we have got to deal with it. Keepin’ it to yourself isn’t going to help you at all, whatever’s troubling you. Fuck it, I love you guys. We’re all in this together. Let’s deal with it together. Okay?”

Juniper sniffled, tears beading in her eyes, but she was smiling at Ruda as she did so. Toby smiled, too; Trissiny looked thoughtful. Teal was twisting her hands in her lap, stopping only when Shaeine reached over to take one of them in her own.

“Well,” Gabriel said after a moment’s silence, “this is not something I would’ve expected or thought to try, but when you put it that way… Yeah, Ruda, I think you’re right. So, I guess I’ll go first.”

He leaned to one side, drawing the black sword from its sheath, then pushed aside his still-empty bowl and set the elven saber on the table in front of him.

“Everyone, this is Ariel.”

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8 – 17

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The sun had not yet risen, but Squad Thirteen was getting ready for their day in the near darkness, only a single tiny fairly lamp with about the output of a candle illuminating their barrack. The Legion did not encourage luxury or indulgence of any kind on principle. There were brighter lights in the building, but no one wanted to risk the conversations that would result from the window being lit up. At the very least, it wouldn’t improve their already-strained relationship with the other squads of their cohort, and there was always the possibility of more official disapproval coming down.

Early mornings were quiet affairs. Aside from the tension hanging over all their lives, none of the five were really on joking-around terms with each other, excepting Farah and Casey, and even they seemed responsive to the terse atmosphere of the squad. Evenings were more relaxed, but it had already become their custom to wake up and suit up in efficient quiet; any conversation could generally wait until breakfast in the mess hall. Everyone was awake, dressed and in the process of buckling on armor when the door suddenly opened.

They swiveled in unison to stare, Casey having to catch her half-buckled breastplate as it tried to slide off, then leapt to attention as Captain Dijanerad stepped inside and pulled the door shut behind her. She paused, glanced around, and thumbed the switch that ignited the overhead fairy lamp before speaking.

“At ease.”

They relaxed, relatively, blinking in the sudden light.

“Morning, Captain,” Principia said warily. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”

“Orders, ladies.” Dijanerad’s tone was flat and her expression grim. “Today I took the precaution of getting early access to duty assignments, and I’m giving you advance notice. We have unconfirmed reports of women being abducted by Shaathist fanatics in Tiraan Province, west of the capital. Squad Thirteen is being sent to investigate.”

There was absolute silence. The fairy lamp overhead flickered slightly.

“Captain,” Ephanie said finally, “permission to speak freely?”

Dijanerad’s expression turned wry. “Granted, private.”

“That,” Ephanie said, “is a completely idiotic paranoid fantasy that doesn’t even make an effort to be realistic. No Shaathist sect has practiced wife-stealing in five hundred years, and if one were to begin doing some such backward thing, it would be in some remote province far from Imperial supervision, not a stone’s throw from the capital with both Imperial and Avenist forces absolutely everywhere. On that note, if this were going on, somehow, the Empire would have the culprits in chains almost the minute it occurred. And if we’re to stretch our credulity well past the breaking point and assume something like this even could be happening, despite all of the above, this assignment would be given to experienced wilderness scouts, not an understaffed neophyte squad without even a sergeant and no field experience. This is at best a ploy to make us waste a day stomping around the woods, and at worst, some kind of trap.”

“Are you about done, Avelea?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Dijanerad nodded. “On paper, ladies, this cohort is on active duty, experimental mission parameters or no. The practical facts of our situation are that squad assignments come down from well above my own head. I am, until we are cycled out to a real assignment, basically an administrative convenience, much as it irks me to acknowledge that. You are none of you to repeat this, but Avelea is correct. This is pure nonsense with a transparent ulterior motive, and it’s beyond my power to put a stop to it as it stands. I will be working on that, and I frankly do not expect this ‘threat’ to stand up to even a cursory analysis by Field Command, but unfortunately, by the time this is done, you will already be outside the city and beyond reach of easy recall.”

“Captain,” Merry said cautiously, “are you… That is, isn’t it obvious by now that our squad is being targeted for persecution? And considering by whom, is this really tolerable? I mean, can’t someone…” She trailed off helplessly.

The captain sighed. “Ladies, the alleged purpose of your activities here is to gain proficiency in the world of politics. Here’s a free lesson in that very thing: do not voice accusations like that unless you can first furnish proof, and second, defend that proof all the way through the process of a court martial. Making such statements about any superior officer, or any ranking member of the Sisters of Avei, would have swift and severe consequences.”

Merry twisted her mouth bitterly, clenching her fists at her sides.

“In any case,” Dijanerad went on, “I am here for a reason. As you know, duty assignments are handed out over breakfast, with details usually given at that time. I have reason to expect that you are to be sent out under light mobility protocols.”

Principia narrowed her eyes; the others widened theirs in horror. Light mobility protocols were customarily applied to scouts and other soldiers for whom speed trumped all other considerations. It meant they would carry short swords only, with no lances or shields, wear leather rather than metal armor and carry no provisions other than canteens of water.

“I am sending you out early,” Captain Dijanerad said grimly, “before you have a chance to hear of this. You are to depart before breakfast, and first report to the south gate, where you will be issued your detailed marching orders, as well as provisions and equipment for this assignment. That is at my order, and there will be no question of you facing responsibility for this deviation from your mission parameters.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Farah said feelingly.

“Can we request additional personnel?” Merry asked sardonically. “There’s a certain Private Covrin who I think could benefit from a long walk in the woods.” She glanced at Casey. “That’s not meant to be an ironic statement. She actually could benefit.” Casey looked away.

Dijanerad stared at Merry for a moment, then glanced around at the squad. Then, oddly, she stepped over to the narrow window near the door and glanced out at the parade ground beyond. Dawn was only just lightening the eastern sky; it was dimly gray outside, with no sunlight having reached over the walls of the temple complex yet. Apparently satisfied with what she saw, the captain turned to face them again, folding her hands behind her back.

“What I am about to tell you is never to be repeated outside this room, nor to anyone other than yourselves. Is that clear?” She waited for a round of verbal assent before continuing. “I received forewarning of your assignment today from Jenell Covrin, who appeared at my door with the paperwork. I told you before that I intercepted Private Covrin carrying your court-martial orders when you failed to report for duty at the Guild ambush. The truth is that she brought word straight to me, instead of taking the papers directly to be filed as she was ordered. And Locke, when Covrin escorted you to that out-of-the-way interrogation room in the temple sublevel, her very next action was to find and notify me, which is the only reason you were down there as brief a time as you were.”

She paused, watching their startled expressions with a raised eyebrow.

“Politics is a lot like war, ladies. You should never make assumptions based on incomplete intelligence. Never initiate hostile action in a situation you don’t understand. Never summarily dismiss a possible ally, nor attack someone just because they are a possible enemy. You’re all fresh enough from basic to still have the Doctrines of War rattling around in the front of your skulls. Remember: the only battle truly won is a battle avoided.”

The captain drew in a deep breath, and let it out as a sigh. “Among the equipment I have requisitioned for you are arcane beacons keyed to a scrying array which I have in my possession. Their range should be sufficient to cover the whole province—much farther than you will get on foot in the course of one day. With those, as soon as I have gotten this foolishness struck down as it deserves, I’ll be able to send scouts out to retrieve you. Until that time, I have to handle this very carefully. That we all consider this assignment a waste of time is irrelevant; until someone sufficiently high in the chain of command does, we’re all bound by it. In the absence of solid evidence that this will place you in some kind of danger, I have no prerogative to order you to disregard the assignment. I’m giving you the best advantages I can. Beyond that, you’ll have to trust yourselves.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said quietly.

Dijanerad nodded, turning to grasp the doorknob. “I want you ready and at the south gate in five minutes, ladies, before somebody else can intercept you with any orders that will tie your or my hands. Goddess watch over you.”

With that, she opened the door and departed.


 

“This sounds like more than a minor set of inconveniences,” Sheyann observed as the two elves strode silently through the forest. “Does not the attention of this Basra Syrinx place her in real danger?” It was an old forest, but a long-settled one, regularly traveled by humans and home to relatively few animals, with almost no underbrush. Thanks to the Imperial foresters, the woods surrounding the capital more closely resembled parks than their wilder cousins in which elves made their groves.

Many of Sheyann’s kin and colleagues pointed to places such as this as evidence that humans could not be trusted, that they destroyed everything in their environs. In truth, she could not see this forest as damaged, but…changed. Environments inevitably reached a rhythm with their occupants, and this one reflected the power and dominance of humanity. They could reach an equilibrium with their surroundings, but only on their own terms. It both gave her hope, and made her even more fearful of them.

“If it were a simple contest between the two, I would feel no need to take an interest,” Kuriwa replied with a faint smile. “I don’t believe Syrinx truly comprehends what she is tangling with.”

“You sound almost admiring of the girl’s capabilities.”

“Principia has devoted her life to an ethically barren pursuit of frivolity,” the Crow said equably, “but it cannot be denied that at that pursuit, she is one of the best alive. No, the issue is not the contest between the two, but all the things connected to it. They each have strings tied to them which drag multiple influences into conflict. If anything, Principia is hampered by her need to accommodate her new responsibilities.”

“So,” Sheyann mused, “you wish to see whether responsibility will win out over the easy victory.”

“There is that,” Kuriwa conceded, “but when I spoke of strings, I referred to much more.” She frowned silently at the green depths ahead of them. The sun was only just above the horizon to the east, still partially hidden behind the hills which surrounded the River Tira’s deep canyon. The two elves, of course, had no trouble seeing their way. “Syrinx is connected to Antonio Darling, and to the Archpope Justinian’s ambitions, both of which concern me directly. Those connections involve other Bishops and their respective cults; Darling brings with him his eldei alai’shi, not to mention the tauhanwe he has gathered to his service. Or those working directly for Justinian, and the fraught relationships between all those. Then, Principia is linked to Eserion, and now to Avei, as well as to Trissiny Avelea, to Arachne, and to a few very interesting young women with whom she has been sorted into a squad. Aside from my personal interest in her, any manner in which she resolves her present difficulties will pluck strings whose vibrations I am likely to feel directly.”

“What a complex existence you lead,” Sheyann remarked.

Kuriwa shook her head. “I have been noticing something of late. Increasingly, in the last few months, matters which will affect the course of the entire world seem to hinge upon the actions of a relatively few individuals, clustered on this continent.”

“That certainly follows precedent. The Elder Gods ruled from here; the Pantheon have their own first temples here. Gnomes originated in this land, and the few elves to survive the Elder War had their groves around Naiya’s wild refuge. You know well how long we have assumed the next apocalypse would take place here.”

“I try to assume as little as possible,” the Crow noted with a wry smile. “And there have been multiple apocalypses of a smaller nature since the fall of the Elder Gods. Most of them centered on this continent, in support of your point. That is precisely what caught my interest. I have seen this pattern before. A great doom is coming, and always when one does, those whose actions will tip the balance begin to cluster together. To combine, or clash. It is wise to monitor their actions.”

Sheyann frowned deeply. “Hm. Trissiny, Juniper, Arachne… All were present and heavily involved in the events at Sarasio last year. They rattled even the most hidebound of my grove to take actions some would have thought unthinkable. And no sooner did we reach out to other elders did we find similar awakenings taking place everywhere.”

Kuriwa gave her a considering look. “I was invited to participate in some of these discussions.”

“I’m sure they were devastated that you chose not to attend.”

“I have not so chosen. I’m busy, Sheyann, as you well know. But no, I don’t intend to let these events simply wash over me. How go these negotiations?”

“With a speed that both inspires and frightens me,” Sheyann said quietly. “It is the Narisians who are the greatest hangup, of course. They, if anything, are among the most accommodating of those involved, but many of our own kind take exception to their presence. Yet if matters continue apace, we may well see concrete results within another year.”

The Crow shook her head. “So quickly. You understand what I mean? The pattern. The strings. The same few people, over and over. I advise you to pay close attention to these young ones, including Principia. Their actions in the immediate future could mean everything.”

Sheyann stopped walking, turning in a circle to study the forest around them. To her ears, the evidence of civilization was not too far distant, but it was at least out of sight. That, itself, served as a reminder that she did not know these woods.

“Where, if I may ask, are we going? I thought you wished to observe Principia in action. Have you been snooping aggressively enough among the Sisters to know where, exactly, she is being sent?”

“In fact, I have,” Kuriwa said with a grin. “However, we are not going directly there. Interested as I am in seeing how Principia fares in her challenges, I remain mindful of all these threads. What she is heading into now is something she may be hard-pressed to contend with. That is, without causing a great deal of trouble that may spread surprisingly far, through the most ephemeral of connections. I feel this is not the time for such disturbances.”

“And so, you are going to discreetly help her.”

“Discreetly, yes.”

“By not going to meet her?”

Kuriwa’s grin widened. “I’m sure you know she would not welcome my help. No, Sheyann; be ready to fade into the background. I am going to pull another string.”


 

“Well, I’ll say it if no one else will,” Merry announced, staring into the forest. Behind her, the rest of Squad Thirteen clutched their lances, grim-faced and most of them pale. Only Principia seemed unperturbed, though her eyes were narrowed in apparent concentration. “This is Syrinx upping the game, exactly as we were warned she would.”

“Could she really have moved that fast?” Farah asked uncertainly. “I mean… Could the Guild have moved that fast? It was just yesterday we spoke with Darling. It’s hard to imagine she’d have reason already to be coming down harder on us.”

“He was vague about how fast we could expect results on that front,” Casey pointed out.

“Depends, really,” Principia mused. “Something like that, involving an inquiry within the Guild… It’s all a question of how motivated the Boss is. He could have the ball rolling in hours, get something together practically overnight if he really wanted. Or he could drag it out for months.”

“Months?” Farah whimpered.

Principia grinned bitterly. “I doubt it’ll be that bad. Truthfully, I’m not sure which side he’ll come down on. Tricks doesn’t much like me… But he’s an honorable fellow, in his way, and he’ll be feeling an obligation. I made a point, before enlisting, to arrange for the Guild to dangerously screw me over. They owe me a big one, and he knows it.”

“You are a piece of work,” Merry muttered. Principia winked at her, earning a sneer in return.

The fortifications of the border town rose behind them, but they were isolated enough here to speak freely. There was already early morning traffic along the road into the city, but the Legionnaires acquired only a few curious looks and no direct attention. The bridges extending from the gates of Tiraas landed in small towns clinging to the edges of the canyon; over the centuries of the Empire’s development, they had been built up, and heavily reinforced during the Enchanter Wars. Now, the border towns were themselves practically fortresses. This one sat within eyeshot of the protected forest rolling over the region’s low hills, though the trees were kept cleared well back from the walls.

Squad Thirteen stood on the edge of the road, staring gloomily into the silent green depths.

Ephanie sighed and re-folded the sheaf of papers containing their orders, tucking it back into her belt pouch. “Well, this is the starting point we’re given. From here, it’s just a matter of tromping through the woods toward the hills until we happen across the secret Shaathist extremists who unequivocally do not exist.”

“Safely away from witnesses,” Casey said darkly. “Anybody wanna take a bet what she’s got waiting for us in there? I’m betting it’s not gonna be anything as gentle as getting us in trouble with regulations.”

“Nobody ambushes an elf in the woods,” Principia said with a sly smile. Merry rolled her eyes.

“Syrinx will have planned for that,” said Casey, heaving a sigh. “She plans for everything.”

Principia shook her head. “She plans for everything she knows about. There’s a difference.”

“None of this is getting us anywhere,” Ephanie said. “We have our orders. The Captain’s given us the best chance she could manage. From here, we will have to make do ourselves, ladies.” She turned to nod sharply at them. “Remember your training, trust in each other and be ready to make the fullest use of your skills. Forward march.”

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8 – 16

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Toby opened his eyes slowly, beholding the relative calm of the afternoon on the campus lawn. As usual, he’d been left alone to meditate. He liked doing so outdoors, under the sun, and over the last year the other students had learned to leave him be.

It usually brought him more calm.

With a sigh he stood up from his seat beneath the oak tree, the same one Professor Ezzaniel had ordered Gabriel to punch almost exactly a year ago. They had all been new to the campus and its peculiar rules and customs, all out of place, nervous, tense… Which was preferable to how he felt now.

“Funny, that looked like it should have been more relaxing. Something on your mind?”

Toby actually jumped very slightly at being addressed, but immediately mastered himself, turning to study the speaker.

He was an elf, and seemed familiar, though Toby could not recall having met him. The elves on campus were a mixed lot; this one had upright ears, marking him a wood elf, and wore Tiraan-style shirt and trousers with sturdy boots.

“Oh, just…this and that,” he said evasively, trying to clear the frown from his expression. “I’m sorry, I could swear I’ve seen you before but I can’t recall your name now.”

“You saw me briefly,” the elf said with a grin, stepping forward and extending his hand. “I was with a few of the other freshmen, coming from class.”

“Oh! That’s right!” Toby grasped his hand in return, smiling. “And now I remember, you were pulled away before we could speak. Another wood elf…a friend of yours?”

He winced. “Ah. Well. Addiwyn seemed to latch onto the idea that since we are both of the same race, and both somewhat ostracized from our kin, we should be the best of friends and perhaps more. Unfortunately, I do believe that girl is the single most unpleasant person I have ever met.”

“Ouch,” Toby said, grimacing sympathetically.

His new acquaintance grinned, a slightly lopsided expression that promised mischief. “I’m Raolo. Glad to know you.”

“Toby, and likewise.”

“But of course, you are the great and inimitable Tobias Caine!”

Now it was his turn to wince. “Ah, well… I think ‘great’ is really pushing it.”

“Well, how many paladins are there in the world, after all? Wait, don’t answer that, I know this one.” Raolo grinned. “Three. There are exactly three.”

“Yes, but I’m the most senior by at least two weeks,” he said solemnly. “That makes me the most boring.”

Raolo laughed brightly. “Well, I can’t argue with that logic. Guess I’ll just have to make do with you until I can work my way up to a more interesting paladin. If you’re so dull, though, why so gloomy? It takes some imagination to really suffer, I think.”

“That’s…oddly profound,” Toby mused.

“Something one of the Elders used to say. Which means, I suppose, I really ought to leave it back in the grove…” For a moment, Raolo frowned himself, glancing aside. “New place, new rules, and all that.”

“It’s certainly been an adjustment, getting my bearings in this place,” Toby said, glancing around the lawn. “It doesn’t help that Professor Tellwyrn’s idea of education is to keep everyone as off-kilter and nervous as possible at all times.”

“Should I be frightened?” the elf asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Yes,” Toby nodded solemnly. “Yes, you should. For what it’s worth, she makes a pretty solid effort not to get anybody killed.”

“Well…damn.”

“I have to admit I find myself nostalgic for the peace and quiet of the monastery on a regular basis.”

A shadow passed over Raolo’s face. “Ah, well… I don’t really have that problem. Getting almost killed should at least let me practice my skills a bit. Uh, forget a said that.” He grimaced, glancing away. “I seem to keep dragging up my problems in every conversation since I got here. You don’t need to hear about it.”

Toby shrugged, keeping his expression open and calm. “I don’t need to, no, and you certainly have no obligation to tell anybody your business. But if you keep finding yourself doing so, maybe it’s a sign you want to talk about it?”

Raolo looked uncomfortable. “Well…no shit. I mean… Dang, I’m sorry, that came out a lot harsher than I intended. Never mind, it’s just that I’m trying to find my footing here without making a pest of myself.”

“Admirable,” Toby said, nodding. “I’ll tell you what, though; as the Hand of a peacemaking god, there’s not much that’s more central to my calling than listening to other people’s problems. You ever feel the need to unburden yourself, look me up.”

At that, a slightly amused expression flitted across the elf’s face. “Do you offer therapy to everyone you meet?”

“…huh,” Toby said after a moment spent staring into space. “You know, now that you mention it, I more or less do. Wow, that must be kind of annoying for people, right?”

Raolo laughed again. “Well, it’s one way to make friends. How’s it work for you?”

“Eh… Well, you remember Ruda?”

“Ah, yes, the Punaji princess! Don’t tell me, let me guess. She punched you.”

Toby valiantly tried to repress a grin. “In my defense, not for that.”


 

There came a short, sharp rap on the door, and then it swung inward and Afritia leaned into the room, wearing a slight frown.

“Maureen,” she said, “could you come here for a moment, please?”

“Sure!” Maureen set aside her textbook and hopped down from her bed. “What’s up?”

“Follow me,” Afritia replied, ducking back out. The gnome trundled after her without further comment. Szith, Iris, and Ravana exchanged a look, then rose in unison and followed them.

The cause of the house mother’s concern was apparent as soon as they stepped into the stairwell, from the broken fragments of metal lying on the stone floor, though the frame of steel pipes comprising Maureen’s package-delivering apparatus remained intact and secured to the bannister down here. The gnome heaved a small sigh, but said nothing, following Afritia up the stairs. The house mother glanced back at them, her lips twisting wryly at the sight of the rest of the dorm trailing along behind, but did not rebuke them.

At the top, the damage was much more severe. A whole segment of the framework was in shambles, all but severed and ripped free of its moorings, pipes twisted and broken in a few places. Oddly enough, the bell rope connecting the door to their room had been left untouched.

The entire area was splattered with purple ink. It made a couple of sprays on the stone wall and practically soaked the stairs themselves. A few purple footprints were visible heading down, but they trailed off after several steps.

“When I said you could build this,” Afritia said archly, “it honestly didn’t occur to me to stipulate that it should not be filled with paint and explosives.”

“There were no explosives!” Maureen exclaimed. “C’mon, what would be th‘point o’ that? I’m not an idiot!”

Afritia shook her head. “Look at this, Maureen. Whatever this stuff is, it didn’t just leak out. It’s sprayed everywhere. What part of a simple metal framework should have had any components that would do this? And for that matter, what is this stuff, and why was it necessary?”

Maureen cleared her throat and shuffled her feet slightly. “It, ah, wasn’t strictly necessary for the function of the device, ma’am.”

Afritia raised an eyebrow.

“It’s a simple alchemical dye,” Ravana said smoothly. “Professor Rafe provided it. He also gave us a solvent which will remove it from any surface without causing further damage.”

The house mother grimaced. “Rafe. I should have known. How, exactly, did you convince him to give you this stuff? I’m fairly certain that whatever this is, it belongs on the list of substances students aren’t to be issued outside of class.”

Ravana smiled. “We told him it was for a prank. He handed over several bottles, and gave us extra credit in both of his classes.”

“That imbecile,” Afritia growled, rolling her eyes.

“An’ there were no explosives, see?” Maureen said, holding up a broken piece of pipe. The interior was entirely stained purple. “The innards, ‘ere, were just pressurized. Break ’em open an’ the ink sprays out. Simple. Just takes a li’l equipment an’ some extra elbow grease! Nothin’ dangerous.”

Szith took the pipe from her and held it up to the light. “This was severed with a bladed implement. An axe, I believe—see how this side is heavily dented, right at the cut? It was struck with significant force.” She turned slowly, pointing. “Considering how quickly this dries, whoever left those footprints was obviously here right when the spray occurred. And look at this spray pattern on the wall. It’s a single, wide splatter, with an interruption in the middle. Considering the positioning involved, I would say that break is perfectly sized to have been a person standing right in the spray.”

“Just as a point of edification,” Ravana said sweetly, “Professor Rafe assured us this dye would adhere to skin and hair as perfectly as anything else. We’ll just go get the solvent and get to work cleaning this up, shall we?”

Afritia stared at them in silence for a long moment, then looked away to the side, not quite succeeding in suppressing a smile. “Yes…you do that, girls. And later, if you’re asked, you be sure to tell Professor Tellwyrn I lectured you in a very stern voice about pranks and vigilantism in general. For now, excuse me.”

She didn’t turn to look as they all followed her back down the stairs. Afritia walked more quickly this time, heading straight into their room and toward the extra door at the back. The others clustered around Ravana’s bed as she opened her trunk and began extracting and handing out vials of an effervescent transparent liquid, but none made any pretense they were not watching the house mother.

Afritia rapped sharply on the door. “Addiwyn, come out here, please.”

“I’m not feeling well,” came a muffled voice from within. “Can this wait till later?”

Iris grinned with savage glee.

“Now.”

“I said I don’t feel well.” Addiwyn’s petulance was audible even through the wood.

“Young lady, I am offering you a chance to grasp at some dignity which I suspect will be sorely needed. If you are not out here in a count of five I will come in and get you.”

There came a muted thump, then a moment of silence, then finally the door opened a crack.

Afritia grabbed the knob and pushed it all the way inward. Addiwyn skittered back, but not in time to conceal the purple streak splashed across her face and soaked into her golden hair. She had at least changed her clothes; only her person was marked.

“Addy, honey, you don’t look so good,” Iris said, still grinning. The elf gave her a murderous stare.

“Oh, yes, laugh it up,” she sneered. “I’m sure it’s great fun to booby-trap the stairwell. It would serve you right if it was a visiting professor caught in your little trap—”

“That’s bollocks and you know it!” Maureen shouted, brandishing the broken length of pipe, which she had retrieved from Szith. “Look at this! Look at it! The purple stuff was fully contained inside—nobody would ever have known it was there unless somebody deliberately took an axe to the thing!”

“Well, that’s interesting,” Addiwyn said, folding her arms. Her smirk looked purely ridiculous with half her face painted purple. “You know your accent completely vanishes when you’re angry?”

“Enough,” Afritia said quietly. “Girls, you have cleaning up to do. Save some of that solvent for her to use later. You, miss, will come with me.”

“Oh, great,” Addiwyn sneered. “Another very fascinating conversation. Can I bring a book this time?”

“You’ll find I have limited patience for wasting my time on hopeless causes,” Afritia said flatly. “You declined to listen to me, so now you get to have a talk with Professor Tellwyrn.”


 

“So, no, attending the University isn’t exactly a point of pride in the grove,” Raolo said, leaning against the stone balustrade separating them from the one-story drop to the lower terrace. “Not in any grove, I would imagine. In mine, at least, it’s not exactly a mark of shame, but heck… That would be pretty redundant in my case, anyway.”

“Wow,” Toby said, leaning beside him. “That sounds… Well, honestly, rather hard to believe. It sounds like you’re quite good at magic.”

“I may have exaggerated my gift a little bit,” the elf confessed, grinning at him. “I’m very egotistical, I’m told. But, well, it’s the wrong kind of magic. Tradition is a huge concern to elves, considering most of our communities have people still alive who remember why the traditions were founded.” He idly held out one hand, palm up, and produced a small cloud of blue sparks, which began to dance in intricate patterns in the air.

“I don’t want to tread on any sensitive cultural taboos or anything,” Toby said with a frown, “but I have to ask… Why are elves so opposed to the arcane? I think Professor Tellwyrn is the only other elven mage I’ve even heard of, and I’ve seen hints that other elves don’t think terribly highly of her, either.”

“It’s because it’s too easy,” Raolo said, closing his fist and cutting off the display of sparks. He straightened up and turned to Toby. “This is another thing we don’t like to discuss with humans, but the hell with it. Do you know anything of how elvish metabolism works?”

“I didn’t realize it works any differently than ours,” Toby admitted.

Raolo grinned. “We don’t process energy with our squishy internal bits like you do—it’s all in the aura. Everything we take in, food, sunlight, air, every source of energy, goes right to the aura. Elves don’t generally eat with any regularity; we tend to have large quantities at wide intervals. In fact, an elf with a highly charged aura can hold their breath basically forever. Don’t need air when we can recharge the blood straight from our personal energy stock.”

Toby blinked. “Wow.”

“So, related to that, we have a much higher capacity for storing energy than other intelligent races. Shamanism, now, is all about connection. You grow in power as a shaman by forming relationships with fairies, gathering totems and objects of power…all paths that root you in the world. It’s all very much in line with the elven perspective on our role in nature. The arcane, though… You gain power in the arcane by increasing your capacity to store power. Elves start out with a large advantage, there. Almost any elf has the arcane storage capacity of a professional wizard, even if they don’t know how to use such power should they try to gather it.” He shrugged.

“Why don’t the drow have mages, then?” Toby asked curiously. “I can’t see them turning down a source of power, but I’ve never actually heard of a drow wizard.”

“That’s just their genetic peculiarity,” Raolo said, “like how dwarves can use divine magic on their own, but no other races can, or how gnomes are the only sentient race that can’t interbreed with the others. Who knows why? Drow just don’t generally have the ability to grasp the arcane. Actually a few do, a handful every generation. I understand they’re basically treated like royalty down there.”

“I’ll bet,” Toby mused.

“There are old legends—old even as we reckon time—about the first origins of the arcane and why it shouldn’t be messed with, but that aside, it’s seen as cheating. As laziness, selfishness, and hunger for power. You start dabbling in the arcane, and you’ve basically declared your intention to go tauhanwe, at the very least.”

“But you did,” Toby said quietly.

Raolo sighed. “It’s just that… I’m good at it. It feels as natural, to me, as breathing. It’s a part of who I am. After growing up with lectures on the nature of being, I just can’t see how it’s fair to expect me not to be who and what I am. Y’know?”

“I think I do,” he said, nodding slowly.

The elf grinned again, his dour expression of a moment ago evaporating in an instant. “Well! I bet you’re good at empathizing with other people’s problems, after all. You are clearly a people-pleaser.”

“Now, what makes you think that?” Toby asked, amused. “Almost the whole time we’ve been talking, we talked about you.”

“And that is why,” Raolo said, prodding him in the chest with a finger. “I came upon you looking all tense and broody, despite being right out of a meditation. But a few minutes listening to someone else blather on about his problems, and you’re the very portrait of serenity! Simple deduction.”

“Well, I guess you’re pretty perceptive, then,” Toby said, now fighting a smile.

“Don’t feel bad, I also ensnared you in my trap,” the elf replied with a bow. “I am very clever. So let me ask you, Toby the Paladin, what would you do if you came upon somebody looking as glum as you were earlier? How do you fix that?”

“People are not for fixing,” Toby said, frowning. “Most aren’t truly broken. Everyone just needs a little bit of a boost, now and again, to sort themselves out.”

“Okay, well, the question stands. Put yourself outside yourself. You don’t know this Toby guy, but he’s clearly got a good, solid glum worked up. What’s your approach?”

Toby sighed, turning his head to stare out over the campus. “You can’t make somebody talk to you, any more than you can make somebody better. I guess… I’d just offer to listen.”

“Check,” said Raolo, leaning sideways against the stone rail and keeping his eyes on Toby. “Doesn’t seem to me like he wants to talk, though.”

“Sometimes people don’t,” Toby said with an irritable shrug. “Then you leave them alone.”

“Even when they clearly need to?”

“Yes. Even then. Besides, a lot of people have trouble opening up to people they don’t know.”

“And what about people they do?”

He sighed. “Well, there’s… I mean, yeah, if they…”

Toby trailed off, staring into space.

“I’ve got a feeling some of those people have noticed already,” Raolo said in a more gentle tone. “Bet they’d be glad to be supportive of you for once. I don’t need to know your history to conclude you’re the only who usually plays that role.”

“You know what?” Toby said, staring into space. “I’m an idiot.”

“I’m sure you are,” the elf said gravely, then winked when Toby turned to scowl at him. “But don’t take it to heart. We all are, at one point or another.”


 

“So that much is cleared up,” Ravana said lightly. “I think we all assumed it was Addiwyn behind these attacks, but it’s pleasing to have confirmation. Now we can decide what to do about it.”

“Need we do anything?” Szith asked pointedly. “She is being reprimanded by the University’s highest authority as we speak. The matter is being dealt with.”

“To assume that matters are simply dealt with is to confer imaginary and impossible powers upon authority figures,” Ravana replied. “One must consider the nature of the crimes and the person responsible. Were Addiwyn responsive to reprimand, she would likely have at least slowed her pattern after being lectured by Afritia. In reality, though, she proceeded immediately to her next attack. More to the point, we may be dealing with an individual suffering from a severe personality disturbance. It may be that even Tellwyrn can’t bring her to heel.”

Despite her dainty frame and uncalloused fingers, the young Duchess was working vigorously alongside the rest of them without complaint. Truthfully, it wasn’t onerous labor. The solvent had a pleasantly mild but antiseptic scent, and the purple dye dissolved apparently into nothing under its touch. They had simply to damp their rags with it and apply them to stained areas. By far the most difficult part of the job was making sure they didn’t miss any spots.

“The cause of Addiwyn’s behavior is an immediate concern,” Ravana continued, frowning pensively at the bannister she was currently scrubbing. “Her actions were at once absurdly juvenile and frighteningly cruel, and the context in which they occurred defies my understanding. Not knowing what motivates her, I cannot guess what she will do next. This leaves me quite unsettled.”

“She’s a bully,” Iris snorted from a few feet above, where she was on her knees, scrubbing dye off the steps. “Simple as that.”

Ravana shook her head without lifting her own eyes from her task. “Bullying occurs for specific reasons, according to specific patterns. It is, ultimately, about power. A bully will consistently place her victims in weaker positions, using her actions to emphasize how much lesser they are in power than she. That is the entire point. Addiwyn, though, might as well have been deliberately knitting us into a united front against her. She never tried to exercise any leverage or build a power base. It was just…lashing out, without pattern. Not consistent with any bullying I’ve ever seen. She would have tried to control the situation somehow.”

“So she’s a stupid bully,” Iris said disparagingly.

“Somehow, I doubt there are any stupid people of any kind admitted to this University,” Maureen noted.

“Having discarded that idea,” Ravana went on, “I considered the possibility that she might be anth’auwa.”

Szith stopped scrubbing the wall and half-turned to give her a sharp look.

“Uh, sorry?” Iris said, also looking up. “What’s that in Tanglish?”

“Unfortunately,” Ravana said ruefully, “it’s nothing in Tanglish. Human scholarship is lamentably behind the elder races in categorizing mental illness. The elvish word I just used literally means heartless. The dwarven scholars call it ‘social pathology.’ It refers to an aberrant personality which lacks any empathy or ability to connect emotionally with others.”

Iris snorted again, turning back to her work. “That sounds about right to me.” Szith slowly followed suit, a faint frown creasing her brow.

Ravana sighed softly, still wearing her own thoughtful little frown, though she straightened up and flexed her back as she continued speaking. “I am not ready to definitively rule it out, but… No, that, too, falls apart upon closer inspection. I have known several such individuals. The nobility, ever eager to conform to stereotype, tends to produce them at a higher rate than the general population.” She bent back to her scrubbing, continuing to speak. “At issue is that this is a severe personality disturbance. The primary concern of anth’auwa is always to hide what they are. They make a consistent effort to imitate normal social behavior; you have to catch them when they aren’t being careful to see the truth. Addiwyn has done precisely the opposite: she is surly and disagreeable whenever interacting with anyone, but at other times appears quite calm, even happy.”

“When have you seen her calm or happy?” Iris demanded, looking up from her task to stare incredulously at Ravana.

“She is hostile, erratic and probably emotionally unstable,” Ravana said dryly. “I watch her carefully. Don’t you? In fact, in just a few days I have observed that she quite enjoys Tellwyrn’s class, seems oddly fond of Professor Rafe and is even more suspicious of Professor Ekoi than the rest of us.”

“That is sayin’ something,” Maureen muttered.

“Not a bully,” Ravana mused, “not a heartless… Completely irrational and aggressive. It is very curious indeed.”

“So, maybe she’s just crazy,” Iris said disdainfully.

“No one is just crazy,” Ravana replied. “That is not how the mind works. Insanity follows patterns—a thinking person cannot be truly random in their behavior, though the pattern may be opaque to the outside observer. No… I don’t even see Addiwyn as insane, to be frank. Her conduct is generally that of a mentally normal person who is…doing something.”

“Doing what?” Szith inquired.

“That is the question, isn’t it?” Ravana said, staring thoughtfully at the rail she was scrubbing. “If I knew that, I suspect all of this would make perfect sense. That, ladies, is what I think we must determine, if we are to ensure our own safety.”

“’ere, now,” Maureen said worriedly. “Y’don’t think she’d actually harm us, do ye? I mean…sabotaging our belongings is one thing…”

“I cannot say what she might do,” Ravana admitted, “because I do not know what she wants. Right now, that she might harm us remains a possibility, as yet untested.”

“And how do you propose to find out?” Iris demanded. “You wanna just ask her nicely?”

“Asking her seems a good approach,” Ravana said, beginning to smile slightly. “After all, who else but she knows the answer? But I think we are well past the point of doing anything nicely. Don’t you?”


 

Sheyann slowly opened her eyes and smiled down at the translucent blue hare which had materialized on the rooftop before her. It had taken a good fifteen minutes of concentration to weave the magics just right. Hopefully this one would last longer than its predecessors.

The inn she had chosen was low, dwarfed by the surrounding buildings, though it was an amusing irony that she had come to think of a four-story structure as small. Its attached iron fire escape made a serviceable path for her spirit hare to reach the street below. The last three had generated some small outcry as they passed, but less than she had feared; apparently citizens of the great metropolis were accustomed to unusual sights.

Now, though, a few were gathering on the sidewalk opposite to see if another hare would come down from the roof. This would have to be her last attempt of the day; aside from her disinclination to put on a show for the locals, drawing too much attention here could lead to citizens or even authorities interrupting her work.

“You know whom I seek, little friend,” she whispered to the hare. “Find her for me.”

It stared up at her for a moment, spectral nose twitching, then turned and bounded onto the fire escape.

Sheyann settled back into a meditative pose, closing her eyes and attuning her senses to the hare’s. It made it to the street, seeking the faint traces of Kuriwa’s distinctive aura that she had instilled from her own memory.

There were muted cries of excitement from the onlookers as the hare reached the street, which both it and Sheyann ignored. Already she could tell this was going better, thanks to her fine-tuning; the last two had decayed rapidly under assault from all the loose arcane magic in the city. This one was more stable, existing in much less inherent conflict with its surroundings. It quested about for traces of the magic it sought, turned and bounded across the street…

And burst apart in a flash of light as it was crushed by a passing carriage.

Several cries of dismay and one loud cheer rose from the audience. Sheyann winced, opened her eyes, and sighed heavily in irritation.

“You might try asking down at the Shaathist lodge. Their spirit wolves and hawks seem to operate just fine in the city. Clearly they’ve mastered the method.”

Sheyann lifted her eyes, showing no hint of surprise on her features, to behold Kuriwa herself seated on the inn’s currently inert chimney, smiling down at her. She was dressed in soft buckskins, like a plains warrior. When had she started doing that?

“Or,” Sheyann said evenly, “you could explain the method yourself, as I strongly suspect you have it down.”

“On the other hand, I’m sure you would work it out yourself quite quickly, were you inclined to continue experimenting,” the other shaman said lightly. “What brings you out to seek me, Sheyann? This is a most peculiar place to find you. Virtually the last I would have expected.”

“I could say the same.”

Kuriwa shook her head. “I have always gone where the trouble is. You, though, seldom stir from your grove unless there is an apocalypse brewing.”

“Fair enough,” Sheyann said wryly. “Arachne and I need your help.”

Kuriwa straightened up slowly. “Arachne…and you? Now I begin to be worried. Is the world actually ending?”

“We consider that a lesser probability,” Sheyann said, folding her hands into her sleeves, “but I am not yet prepared to conclusively rule it out.”

“Do tell.”

“The short version is that we have two injured dryads on our hands. Juniper is mostly well and in fact making greater progress toward being an emotionally stable, responsible person than most of her sisters have ever achieved. She is, however, grieving, and has a blockage placed in her aura by Avei herself, which seems to have lead Naiya to believe she is dead. That brought in Aspen, who currently is severely traumatized and began to transform before being fixed in a time-altering spell by Arachne. She remains thus, in a secure room at the University. And she is the only one who knows what Naiya thinks and plans to do about this.”

Kuriwa narrowed her eyes, but made no other sign of distress. “Naiya is not the patient sort. I suspect her plans would have become clear already if she had any.”

“Ordinarily, I would concur. Juniper, however, is living proof that she can act with more agency and subtlety. Arachne had to spend some time campaigning for it, I understand, but Naiya sent her out specifically to learn the ways of mortals, as a first step toward making peace between them and the fey kingdom. With regard to this, at least, Naiya is not only able to act with more discretion than usual, but highly motivated.”

The Crow sighed, shaking her head. “And Aspen is with Arachne. Frozen in time? That sounds typical of her.”

“In that it is overbearing, inefficient and undeniably effective?” Sheyann said dryly. “Yes, that’s Arachne all over.”

“What do you think of her at present, Sheyann?” Kuriwa asked, watching her carefully.

“Arachne is one of the things that worries me least about the world,” Sheyann replied. “She remains mostly in her chosen place, training young ones. Training them as tauhanwe, to be sure, but I have noted that she teaches them how to think, not what to think. She stands as a living impediment to other mortal powers, and her presence serves to strongly discourage destructive influences. All in all, and aside from being an arcanist, she would be the very picture of a respected Elder if she were not such a tauhanwe to her core. Rather like someone else I could name,” she added with a smile.

Kuriwa returned one of her own. “That much is a relief, then. I’ve not had any interaction with her since she vanished into the Wild, and none with that school of hers. This assuages some of my worry.”

“You trust my judgment on the matter?” Sheyann asked with mild surprise.

“I have frequently disagreed with your judgment, Sheyann. When have I ever disparaged it?”

She acknowledged this with a nod. “Fair enough. For now, can we count on your help with the dryads?”

Kuriwa frowned pensively. “Hm. In your opinion, how likely is it that Naiya will take violent action?”

“In my opinion, not likely at all. Plans or no, she isn’t patient, and as you know, she has little ability to act on the world directly, except in just the kind of dramatic assaults we fear. Those are brief in duration and highly localized, though. I think if she were going to react, she would have by now. This is, of course, nothing but opinion. Naiya’s mind is unknowable.”

Kuriwa nodded. “Good. Yes, of course I will lend any help I can; this issue is clearly serious, even apart from then need to be of aid to the dryad in question. But if it is not an immediate urgency, Sheyann, I am monitoring a situation here in Tiraas that I hate to leave unattended until it reaches a conclusion.”

“Yes, your human friend Darling,” Sheyann said disapprovingly. “You are surely aware he has two eldei alai’shi in his custody? I see no way that can end in anything but catastrophe.”

“Actually,” Kuriwa replied, “he has kept those girls stable longer than any previous headhunter has ever been, and even taught them to be happy and somewhat well-adjusted.”

“You’re not serious.”

“Entirely. I consider him worth preserving for that alone. But no, that is a long-running affair, and anyway, it is business. My immediate concern is a family matter.”

“I see. I won’t pry…”

“Oh, I don’t mind if you pry,” Kuriwa said with a slight grin. “In fact, you would be welcome to watch, if you wish. It appears that Lanaera’s daughter is actually doing something constructive with her life.”

Sheyann raised her eyebrows. “Principia? Headhunters, dryads and apocalypses are one thing. That I will believe when I see it.”

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8 – 15

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The hatch opened with a hiss, sliding upward, and Sheyann stepped lightly out, moving to the side to allow the other passengers to disembark. None seemed in a hurry to do so; lacking her relfexes and agility, most of the human passengers had been badly slung about by the Rail ride. The new caravans, she had been told, were a great deal safer and more comfortable than the old, thanks to the addition of safety harnesses, an apparent luxury of which she had not availed herself. Her fellow travelers had thus been furiously jolted against their own bindings, probably hard enough to bruise, while she had nimbly shifted in place, bracing herself against the walls and opposite bench at need.

The design of the Rail caravans was a puzzle. The ingenuity that led to their creation could surely have made them safer in a variety of ways, so why had it not been done? Despite the maunderings of Shiraki and some of his ilk, Sheyann had never found humanity to be institutionally stupid, incompetent or obstreperous—at least, not more than any other race, and never on a huge scale for any length of time, without suffering the inevitable consequences. The Empire had made the Rails this way for a reason. She couldn’t guess what, but the possibilities were rather ominous.

Only two people had been in her compartment, and they only because the other seats had filled. Sheyann was not offended by their reluctance to sit with an elf in obviously tribal attire; her own people’s reclusiveness had plenty to do with the problem. With any luck, the ongoing meetings between tribes and with the Narisian representatives would move toward remedying the issue, if they did not exacerbate it first.

She studied the station carefully. Despite Tiraas’s greater importance to the Empire, it was much smaller than its counterpart in Calderaas, though no less busy. Of course, that was due in part to its more efficient design. Tiraas had four Rail depots, two corresponding to each of its landward-facing gates, while Calderaas had only the one central terminal. Also, the city itself was physically smaller, constrained as it was by the available space on the island.

“Need any help, miss?” a slightly graying, slightly portly man in an Imperial Army uniform asked politely, tugging the brim of his cap in her direction. Beside him, a younger woman in the same uniform regarded her with a neutral expression. She never had bothered to learn what the different Tiraan insignia meant, but presumably the elder human was the superior officer.

“In fact,” she said, deciding this was as good a starting point as any, “I am looking for someone in the city. A Bishop of the Universal Church.”

The older officer raised his eyebrows. “Oh? What business would an elf have with the Church?”

Sheyann gazed at him in silence, wearing a small, fixed smile.

“No business of anybody’s but hers,” the female soldier said, nudging her companion with an elbow, and Sheyann mentally revised their relationship. The insignia wasn’t the same, but they were either very comfortable together or quite close in rank.

“Yes, right, of course,” the man said hastily. “Well, miss, the Bishops are a disparate lot; they all have their own business to attend to. I’d say your best bet is to look either at the Grand Cathedral or the central temple of whichever faith your Bishop represents. You may not find him—uh, or her—there, but there’ll likely be someone who can point you to them.”

“I see,” she said gravely, nodding. “Thank you. Would you know where the central temple of the cult of Eserion is located?”

At this, the two soldiers exchanged a look, their expressions growing almost imperceptibly grimmer.

“I could point you to the location,” the man said slowly, “but the Eserites aren’t going to let anyone into their actual temple. You could try your luck at the casino they run above it, but… They also don’t like people asking questions on their property. And…with all due respect, miss, you’d rather stand out.”

“I see what you mean,” she said thoughtfully. “Well. The warning is certainly appreciated.”

“I’d really suggest trying your luck at the Cathedral,” he went on in a more welcoming tone, turning to point at the great glass wall along the front of the station, beyond which was a busy street. “Just go outside onto the avenue, hang a left and keep walking uphill till you reach the city center. You can’t miss the Cathedral; it’s the building that isn’t the Palace and isn’t plastered with the insignias of Avei or Omnu.”

“By which he means,” the woman said dryly, “it’ll be the one on the left. North side of Imperial Square.”

“Yes, of course, right,” the man said, giving her a slightly exasperated look.

“Thank you very much,” Sheyann said courteously, bowing to them. “You have been tremendously helpful.”

“All part of the job, ma’am,” the man replied with a smile, tipping his cap again. “Welcome to Tiraas. I hope you enjoy your stay.”

She smiled, nodded, and glided off toward the exit. Even with the noise of the crowd and the Rail caravans washing over her, she could plainly pick out their voices as the throng closed behind her.

“Are you sure that was all right?” the woman asked. “Some random elf just tumbled out of the fairy tree, doesn’t know the first thing about the city, has business with the bloody Thieves’ Guild, and you point her right at the Church?”

“Omnu’s breath, Welles, you need to read fewer novels and more of your encounter manual. She’s not going to scalp somebody; elves are exactly as savage as anyone else, no more, no less. And she wanted the Eserite Bishop, not the Guild. If she wanted the Guild she’d no need to beat around the bush. Talking with Eserites isn’t illegal. Plus, she was polite. Always refreshing to see a young person with some respect, unlike some I could name.”

“She’s an elf, Lieutenant. She could be older than you.”

“Nah, the old ones are more standoffish. They hardly even breathe. Trust me, I’ve been around elves. I can tell.”

Sheyann permitted herself a smile of amusement as she slid through the crowd and out the doors into the Imperial capital.

There she had to stop, staring.

She had grown steadily accustomed to the faint, unpleasant buzz of arcane magic everywhere since passing through Calderaas. Tiraas, though, was…taller. Buildings seemed piled atop each other, climbing skyward in a way it would never have occurred to her to construct a dwelling. Many of them were taller than trees. Not to mention that a good few in the distance were surmounted by towers bearing the flickering orbs of telescroll transmitters, or branching antennae which crackled with artificial lightning. Artificial lights were everywhere, lit even in the day due to the gloomy sky overhead, some hovering in midair rather than supported by poles. Vehicles passed in the street, only a few drawn by animals. The horseless carriages emitted a thin hum of magic at work, their voices blending together into a constant, oscillating whine that bored unpleasantly into her ears.

So much they had done, in such a short time. So much glory and progress…such potential for carnage.

Her work with the other tribes and the drow was even more urgent than she had realized. The ancestors send that they were not already too late.

Sheyann turned left and set off down the sidewalk at a brisk pace.


 

Even in the relative quiet of the Grand Cathedral, Sheyann drew suspicious looks. She ignored them as she had all the others, pacing slowly down the central aisle of the enormous sanctuary, her moccasins silent on the threadbare carpet. It looked like it had been expensive, but this room must see vast amounts of traffic. It was a suitably vast space for it, the ornately carved stonework and beautiful stained glass almost lost beyond the cavernous emptiness.

Nearly her entire grove could have been squeezed into this room. And if she was any judge, it was far less than half the total volume of the cathedral complex.

There were two smaller aisles on the other sides of the long rows of pews; only a few people slipped between the benches to walk there rather than having to pass her, but they were not subtle about it. One woman made the action quite ostentatious, her nose firmly in the air. Most of the people present, however, either paid her no mind or just nodded quietly to her. This place, it seemed, encouraged a quieter way of being, which came as a relief after the city, the Rails, and the other city. What a day this was turning out to be; she was already thinking fondly of the relative serenity of Arachne’s University.

A few people strolled, admiring the stained glass, while several dozen more were scattered throughout the pews in individual prayer. At the front of the chamber, though, was an open area below the wide steps to the main dais towering over it all. Looming behind it was a huge golden statue of the Universal Church’s ankh symbol, with behind that towering stained glass windows depicting Avei, Omnu and Vidius, with the other gods of the Pantheon represented around their borders. Sheyann gave this ostentation only a glance, however, before turning toward a smaller lectern tucked off to the side, at which stood an officious-looking Tiraan human in the long black coat of a Church parson.

She waited calmly while he finished speaking with a well-dressed woman, politely declining to hear their conversation. This, a basic social skill in elven societies, seemed to be quite above the capability of most humans. They finished within a few minutes. The woman jumped and gasped softly when she turned and beheld Sheyann standing there.

The Elder gave her a smile and a deep nod, and got only a wary look in return before the woman scurried off.

The parson was regarding her with more calm, but not any kind of friendliness. Of course, a cleric would comport himself with serenity. That he was not seemingly interested in reaching out to her gave Sheyann a sense of how this conversation was going to go.

“May I help you?” he asked politely.

“I would like to speak with Bishop Antonio Darling,” Sheyann replied, folding her hands.

A beat of silence passed. The parson’s expression did not waver, but the pause communicated his surprise quite effectively.

“And whom may I tell Bishop Darling is seeking him?” he finally inquired.

“He does not know me,” Sheyann said. “I was directed to him by a mutual acquaintance.”

“And…with regard to what do you wish to see him?”

“That business is personal,” she said evenly.

“Ah,” the parson said, lowering his eyes to shuffle a few pages on his lectern. Sheyann didn’t need to see his hands to know he was creating meaningless background noise. “Your pardon…madam…but as I’m sure you can understand, the Church must safeguard the time and attention of its highest officials. So, you do not know Bishop Darling, yet you have unnamed personal business with him?” He raised his eyes, re-affixing his polite smile. “I don’t suppose you can offer anything more than that?”

“The rank of Bishop…” she mused. “It exceeds your own?”

He blinked, then his lips twitched in a quickly repressed smile. “Ah…considerably, yes.”

“And yet, you seem to be making judgments concerning the use of his time,” she said, matching his emptily courteous tone exactly. “Why not, instead, tell me where I might find him, and if he does not wish to speak with me, allow him to make that determination himself?”

The parson’s lips thinned, irritation finally beginning to show on his face. “And you are?”

“I am Elder Sheyann.”

“I see.” He fussed pointlessly with the papers again. “Well, Elder, Bishop Darling is not here. He is an extremely busy man, between his various responsibilities to the Church, to his own cult and the Imperial government. I can have a message conveyed to him if you like.” The faint smile returned, noticeably smug now. “I cannot, however, make any guarantees about how quickly he will receive it.”

Sheyann permitted herself a small sigh. “Perhaps my time would be better spent making inquiries at the Imperial government. I am given to understand the Empire boasts a generally competent bureaucracy. To which office, specifically, should I direct my attention?”

“I’m sure I do not know,” the parson said, all pretense of friendliness gone from his face now. “As you so kindly pointed out, Elder, it is not my place to monitor the comings and goings of the Church’s Bishops. Perhaps if you had specific business with him, of which he was made aware beforehand, you might find this encounter more productive.”

Behind her, a passing man suddenly stopped, turning toward them.

“Which Bishop are you looking for, shaman?”

She turned, studying the new arrival. He was huge—barrel-chested and towering head and shoulders over her, his hair slightly unruly and much of his face and chest hidden by a luxuriant beard. Sheyann did not need to see the wolf’s-head brooch pinned to his shoulder to know him for a priest of Shaath; she could feel the faint tug of fairy energies floating about him, mixing incongruously with the divine. Most interestingly, he wore a white robe under a tabard, a uniform she had already been prompted to watch for.

“Antonio Darling,” she replied, “of the cult of Eserion.”

The Shaathist Bishop raised one eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Are you acquainted with him, sir?” she asked politely.

“Antonio and I have worked together.” He bowed respectfully. “I am Andros Varanus, Huntsman of Shaath and a fellow Bishop. Your quarry is not present now, and he ranges widely. There are places where you can wait for him without likely being kept too long.”

“So I have been told,” she said mildly. “Government offices and the Thieves’ Guild’s casino.”

“The Imperial offices are closing soon for the day,” he replied, his beard twitching with a hidden expression she could not identify. “And the thieves would entertain themselves by making you wait for no reason, or send you out to hunt mockingjays. However, I can direct you to Bishop Darling’s home. He will likely be returning there soon, and his Butler provides excellent hospitality, even in his absence.”

Ah, a Butler. What an interesting man this Darling was shaping up to be. Also, that answered one of her newfound questions about this fellow’s willingness to assist her; a Butler’s presence would mean even a mysterious visitor such as herself would be unlikely to pose a threat.

“You are extremely helpful, sir,” she said, bowing in return. “Forgive me, but I am unaccustomed to such courtesy from Huntsmen. Those I have met seemed rather put off at being forced to address a woman.”

At that, even his beard could not hide Varanus’s sneer. “Some men, even in Shaath’s service, are weak of mind. Not all follow Shaath’s ways; it is a weak-willed man indeed who feels threatened by the existence of other ideas. A Huntsman should be many things, but never weak. I will provide you with Antonio’s address, shaman. Paper and a pen,” he added curtly to the parson, who immediately scrambled to produce the requested objects.

“Thank you,” Sheyann said moments later, studying the names and numerals on the sheet of paper she had just been handed. “Hm…forgive me, but this street name. Where will I find this?”

Varanus blinked, then his beard rippled in a short exhalation that might have been the lesser part of a laugh. At the least, his eyes crinkled in amusement. “You are new here, then. Forgive me, I should have considered that. I am even now on my way out of the city, and expect to be gone for some time. More paper,” he added to the parson in a flat tone which made her suspect he had overheard more of their earlier conversation than he let on, then turned back to her with a more respectful expression. “I will draw you a map.”


 

Darling paused inside his front door, as was his custom, letting out a sigh and luxuriating for a moment in the quiet.

“Good evening, your Grace,” Price intoned. “You have a visitor.”

He scowled and opened his mouth to deliver a complaint, but she swiftly raised one finger to her lips, then pointedly tapped the upper edge of her ear. He was tired; it had been a long day even before he’d met with Principia’s squad, and the subsequent unpleasant conversations at the Guild had left him drained. It took him an embarrassing two seconds to catch her meaning.

An elf? What the hell now?

“Well, by all means, let’s not keep them waiting any longer,” he said lightly. “The downstairs parlor?”

“Of course, your Grace.”

He didn’t allow himself to sigh as he stepped past her. An elf would hear even that. He’d developed a rather nuanced understanding of the range of their senses over the last year.

The reasons for this were also present in the downstairs parlor, in their severe black frocks that went with the guise of housemaids. Flora and Fauna weren’t doing anything in particular, however, just standing against the far wall, staring flatly at their visitor in a manner that made his hackles rise. The new elf, in turn, was regarding them with a similarly direct look, which she did not lift immediately upon his entry. Only after a few heartbeats did she turn to face him.

She was a wood elf, her ears a different shape than his apprentices’, and dressed in stereotypical costume, a simple green skirt and blouse dyed with shifting patterns, and a plain leather vest over that. Her moccasins were elaborately beaded, but looked well-worn, and she carried a belt with a large horn-handled knife as well as several heavy pouches. Well, no tomahawk; that was something, anyway.

“Good evening,” he said cheerfully. “I’m terribly sorry to have kept you waiting; I had simply no idea anyone was here to see me!”

“Not at all, your Grace,” she replied in a calm tone, bowing without taking her eyes off his face. “I apologize for my abrupt appearance. I will try not to take any more of your time than I must.”

“Nonsense, you’re a guest; my time is yours, Miss…?”

“Sheyann,” she said, still staring at him with an even look that was beginning to be unsettling. “I was directed to you by Arachne Tellwyrn.”

“Oh?” he asked mildly, increasingly intrigued. “And you are…a relative of hers?”

Sheyann raised one eyebrow. “We are all of us kin, Bishop Darling. The mightiest dragon and the meanest algae all rose from common ancestors, in the infinite mists of the deep past. With that said… No. No, I am not. However, Arachne and I have an acquaintance in common, whom I find myself needing to contact and not knowing how. Apparently you are the last to have had regular interaction with her.”

Darling sighed in spite of himself. “Oh, don’t tell me…”

The elf nodded. “You would know her as Mary the Crow.”

“Yes, that’s what I was afraid I would know her as.” He chuckled wryly, shaking his head. “Well, it’s bad news that I’m the likeliest contact, as I’m not sure how much help I can be. I do speak with Mary on a semi-regular basis, but she decides when and where.”

“I see,” she said, permitting herself a small smile. “I somewhat anticipated that; it would be consistent with her general patterns. If I may ask, how recently have you seen her?”

“Quite recently, in fact, no more than two days ago. I don’t actually know why; she popped in on me at the Temple of Izara, hovered around for a few minutes and took off. I couldn’t even tell you what that was about. I’ve learned not to ask.”

“And…you have no way of contacting her directly?”

Darling grinned. “Well. I’ve twice got her attention by placing a scarecrow on the roof. The third time, though, it disappeared and then I didn’t see her for two weeks.”

“A…scarecrow.”

“An improvised one,” he admitted. “I’m afraid we sacrificed some of my old clothes and one of Price’s favorite brooms, not to mention that lovely pumpkin Flora and Fauna here had such fun carving.”

She smiled broadly at that, her eyes creasing with genuine amusement. “I am somewhat embarrassed that I never thought of that.”

“If I might ask a prying question,” he said, “does Mary know you, Sheyann?”

“Oh, yes,” she said, her smile fading. “We have been acquainted for a long time.”

“I see. Well, I find that Mary seems to keep herself appraised of my comings and goings. Not in any great detail—I hope—but she does always seem to know when someone especially interesting comes to my door. It’s possible she’s already aware you’re here, or will be soon.”

“Hm… That, too, would be characteristic of her. Well, then.” She bowed again. “I will take no more of your time this evening, Bishop Darling. It seems I had best make arrangements to stay the night in the city, and possibly for some nights to come. It would be better if I were able to find and speak with her quickly, but… One must, unfortunately, make allowances for the Crow.”

“That one must,” he agreed gravely, nodding. “If it helps, I will certainly tell her you’re looking, should she happen to visit me again.”

“I would appreciate that,” she said politely. “And I may call on you again if my quest is not immediately fruitful.”

“By all means, feel free! My door is always open.”

Ushering her out was a blessedly quick affair; elves, he had found, were not prone to linger over small talk and needless pleasantries. Darling ordinarily enjoyed small talk and needless pleasantries, but it was getting late and he was just as glad to get the mysterious elf out of his house.

After seeing her to the door, he made his way back to the parlor and watched through the window as Sheyann departed down the street. Only when she was out of view did he turn back to Flora and Fauna, who had remained unmoving the entire time.

“All right. Just what was that about?”

“She was looking for Mary the Crow,” Fauna said woodenly.

“Don’t get smart with me when I’m looking for simple,” he snapped. “And don’t look at me like that, I know damn well you can tell the difference. You and that woman were glaring at each other like a box of strange cats.”

“She knows,” Flora said darkly. “About us. What we are.”

That brought him up short. “You’re sure? She said as much?”

“Not in terms that would hold up in court,” Fauna said, scowling. “But she hinted strongly and made it pretty plain.”

“I don’t know how she can tell,” Flora added. “Even a shaman shouldn’t be able to just spot it like that!”

“No need to reach for magical explanations when mundane ones will do,” he said wearily, dropping himself into the armchair. “Price! Fetch me a—oh, bless you.” He took the brandy from her proffered tray and downed half of it. “Mhn, that hits the spot. Anyway, she came from Tellwyrn, who you said was able to sniff you out as well.”

“Don’t know how she did it either,” Fauna said sullenly.

“So did Mary, for that matter,” Darling mused. “Tellwyrn is to mages what Mary is to shamans; best not to assume anything about the limits of either of them. In fact, this is what concerns me. Now we’ve got an elf foofling about my city who not only knows a secret that could get us all sent to the gallows, but learned that secret because she is apparently a trusted link between Tellwyrn and Mary. Just there being a link between those two is going to cost me some sleep.”

“What do you want to do?” Flora asked quietly.

He sipped the brandy once more, frowning at the far wall. “…is it too late for you to tail her?”

Fauna shook her head. “We can track her down easily enough. In fact, it’s probably best to give her a bit of a head start. Less likely she’ll be looking for us that way.”

“We can also hide from her, no matter what kind of shaman she is,” Flora added. “But if she actually meets with the Crow… Well, it’s like you said. No telling what she can or can’t do.”

“We actually snuck up on her once…”

“…or so we thought. There’s no guarantee she didn’t let us.”

He nodded. “Well, be careful, but do your best. I’d like you to keep an eye on Miss Sheyann while she’s in town—find out who she talks to, what she says to them and what she does about it. If the Crow becomes a factor, be discreet. Don’t get confrontational with that one.”

“We’re not idiots,” Fauna muttered. “Though for the record I think we could take her.”

Flora nudged her with an elbow. “Not without outing ourselves and wrecking a whole lot of real estate.”

“Please don’t do that,” he said fervently. “This is a priority for now, though; there’s too much at stake to leave it unattended. I’ll speak with Style and have your training appointments for tomorrow put on hold.”

“We’ll head out, then,” Fauna said, grinning.

“Wait.” He held up a hand. “While we’re here and discussing risky business, there’s something else I want to bring up with you. It’s been a good few months since you told me your spirits would probably be satiated for close to a year. How’re we doing on that?”

The elves exchanged on of their fraught looks. “Some…faint twinges,” Flora said reluctantly. “It’s nowhere near a dangerous level yet. We’d tell you long before it got to that point.”

“Attagirl,” he said, nodding. “I mention it because something’s come up that may be relevant to that, at least potentially. The Guild’s ongoing search for Thumper has hit a wall in Onkawa. Webs is holding it up.”

“Who’s Webs?”

Darling sighed, idly swirling his drink. “An operations man, and Thumper’s Guild sponsor and first trainer. He’s being difficult, to the surprise of absolutely no one. His loyalties have always been more to his personal contacts than the organization. Webs is…a theological purist. He’s got a loudly poor opinion of the Guild’s current structure.”

“A renegade?” Flora asked, intrigued.

Darling shook his head. “An objector. Tricks mostly leaves him alone; I encouraged him. The Guild needs dissenting opinions to keep its management honest and on their toes. It becomes inconvenient at times like this, though, when we need specific cooperation and he’s of the opinion we don’t deserve it. Right now, he’s trying to pitch the idea that Thumper’s presence in Onkawa and the shitstorm left in the wake thereof were due to a succubus called Kheshiri.”

Both elves perked up visibly. “A succubus?” Fauna asked.

“Webs is covering for Thumper, that much is certain,” Darling said, leaning forward, “but the succubus’s presence there has been confirmed by other, more trusted sources. This bitch is bad news, even for a demon. She’s got thick files with both the Church and Imperial Intelligence. Even the Black Wreath has put an effort into getting her out of circulation in the past. It doesn’t seem to have stuck. What the hell she is doing with a goon like Shook is a complete unknown, but there are no possibilities that aren’t terrifying.”

“Vanislaad demons are good hunting,” Flora whispered. “The spirits were very happy with that incubus you got for us.”

“Yeah, well, that’s the issue from one angle,” Darling said grimly, pausing to take a much-needed sip of his brandy. “From another… If this Kheshiri is the piece of work it seems like she is, it might take a pair of headhunters to bring her down. Should it come to that, I want you two ready.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Fauna said with a predatory smile. “We always are.”

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