Tag Archives: Sheyann

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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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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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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8 – 13

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“There is really no way to work your mind around the inherent limitations other than practice,” Professor Harklund said as he paced slowly around the room, watching his students creating staves of golden light and then hitting them against things—the walls and floor, mostly, though some were very carefully sparring, testing the magical weapons against one another. “Remember, the clock is ticking from the moment you summon an object, but its duration depends upon you, and not merely upon the depth of the power you can call up. Every contact with the physical world will weaken it further—the harder the blow, the greater the damage. There are simply too many amorphous variables to properly quantify the lifespan of a summoned object; over time, with practice, you will develop an intuitive sense of what you have made, and what it can withstand. And unfortunately, divine magic does not offer spells of the kind that would let you know this. Your sense will be built of experience, nothing more. Hence, practice. Yes, I will be repeating it even more,” he added with a grin, coming to a stop next to November, who was grimly battering her glowing staff against an identical one held up by Trissiny. “If you are to get any use of these constructs in the real world, timing is essential. You’ll only have them for so many seconds, and if you do not know the timing, your efforts may prove not only useless, but backfire. Practice, practice!”

November’s staff flickered out of existence at her next blow, causing her to stumble forward; Trissiny caught her with one hand, her own glowing staff still extant but notably dimmer than before.

“All due respect, Professor,” said Gabriel, pounding the butt of his against the floor, “but this seems like the kind of unstructured activity we could be doing on our own time. How about learning something new?”

“Are you seriously asking for homework?” exclaimed one of the new freshmen.

“Rest assured, Mr. Arquin, the schedule for this class is carefully planned out,” Harklund replied with a smile. “You will be practicing things on your own, don’t you worry. As a rule, though, I prefer that you do your initial experiments under supervision. Of course, I can’t stop you kids from working ahead on your own, nor would I. Do keep it in mind, though. Striking off on your own may result in the rapid expansion of your abilities, but it can also lead to the acquisition of bad habits I will have to drill out of you before you can proceed to the next step. Everyone should please feel free to ask my help outside of class, too! My office hours are posted.”

Toby stood by himself, facing one wall, methodically re-summoning his staff after every time it flickered out—which it did every time he struck it against the wall. The staff glowed dimly to begin with, and never seemed fully solid. It also took a few seconds longer to fully form than did the other students’ attempts, which were mostly instantaneous. He would focus energy into his hand until the golden rod slowly flickered into being, shift into a proper striking stance and slam it against the well, whereupon it would vanish from existence.

After glancing around the room at her fellow students, Trissiny wandered over to him. “Hey, that’s better!” she said encouragingly. “If it helps, think of it—”

“Trissiny,” Toby said abruptly, not looking at her, “I will get there. Would you please leave me alone?”

She actually jerked backward, blinking her eyes. “I… Um, sure. Sorry.” Looking nonplussed, she stepped away from Toby as he laboriously called up another staff, her gaze meeting Gabriel’s. He looked purely shocked, his expression slowly shifting to one of worry as he moved it to Toby’s back.

November scowled and opened her mouth, then shut it with an audible snap when Trissiny pointed a finger at her and shook her head firmly.

Several of the other students had stopped what they had been doing and were looking askance at the exchange between the paladins. Only when Gabriel turned to sweep a frown across the room did most of them resume their own practice. The exception was Shaeine, who was still watching Toby intently.

Toby manifested another staff, slammed it against the wall, and began patiently calling up the next one.

“All right,” Professor Harklund said in his customarily mild tone, smiling at them as he finished his rounds at the front of the room, “that’s our class time. This was good practice, everyone—remember, keep practicing on your own, and don’t be afraid to experiment a little, but also don’t try to run before you can crawl. I’ll see everyone on Friday. Mr. Caine, could you stay for a moment, please?”

Toby nodded, and just waited calmly while the others filed out of the room, his expression blank. Most of the freshmen and upperclassmen talked and laughed among themselves, but the sophomores and November, exiting as a group, remained pensively quiet, at least until the door finally closed behind them.

“So,” November said, frowning, “what’s eating him?”

The others looked at each other, but nobody had an answer.


“I cannot believe you let her do this,” Sheyann said disparagingly as she paced in a slow circle around the frozen form of Aspen.

“She was utterly confident she could handle it,” Tellwyrn replied, scowling.

“Have you not noticed how consistently Juniper overestimates her reach?”

“In point of fact, I have had distinctly the opposite impression,” Tellwyrn snapped. “In the year I’ve been teaching her, Juniper has consistently acknowledged her unfamiliarity with new subjects, proceeded slowly and always made sure she understood the basics before moving forward. She’s not shy about asking help from other students, and in fact that’s a big part of her knack for making friends. Well, that and her habit of offering sex as a greeting while being absurdly gorgeous. Even despite the need to coach her through basics that almost every other sentient being knows by the age of four, she is one of my least tiresome students.”

Sheyann had come to a stop and turned a look of surprise on the Professor. “Really? That is rather startling to hear. Either myself or Shiraki have been constantly having to pull her back and repair the small disasters she has caused. Not least of which being her choice of a notoriously erratic, intractable and untamable species as her first animal companion.”

“Hm,” Tellwyrn mused, folding her arms and frowning up at Aspen. “On the other hand, you’re mostly teaching her nature-based stuff, correct?”

“Almost entirely.”

“That she probably thinks of herself as already knowing more than anyone else.” She shook her head, spectacles glinting in the blue glow of the runes sealing the chamber. “Ugh, one or the other of us really should have put that together. Well, lesson learned. I will not be letting her attempt anything involving fae magic until I see proof she’s competent enough.”

“Indeed,” Sheyann agreed, nodding. “And this raises some possibilities I can use to further her education on her next visit to the grove. But that is tomorrow’s battle. For now, we have this one to deal with.”

For a long moment, they were silent, staring at the partially transformed dryad.

“Is there any way to tell how far into the transformation she is?” Tellwyrn asked finally.

Sheyann shook her head. “There is no point of reference, no way to tell what she was turning into. The effect is all but random. A dryad’s power is nigh-limitless; the question is, what was her imagination in the process of making?”

Tellwyrn heaved a sigh.

“This spell,” Sheyann murmured. “How does it work? She is frozen in time, this I can see. Is she out of phase with the world?”

“Actually, if you do that the subject just vanishes. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that if you dissociate something from physical reality they’re just instantly left behind as the planet orbits. Summoning spells account for that naturally, so I wasn’t thinking in terms of…well. No, she isn’t even frozen in time, merely slowed. Slowed so greatly she might as well be frozen for all practical purposes. Assuming I could ward the room well enough, she’d still be there when the sun goes nova. We’re not short on time.”

The Elder narrowed her eyes. “Then…she would be tremendously vulnerable to impact.”

Tellwyrn nodded. “The room’s built-in protections shielded her to begin with. I’ve since refined them to be sure. She should be safe while in here, provided we don’t introduce any more unknowable variables.”

“All right, then,” Sheyann said, nodding. “That at least tells me the shape of what we must do. It will involve a very intricate blending of arcane and fae energies, which is potentially explosive if we make the slightest mistake.”

The Professor grinned. “Then we’d better not. Fortunately, we’re the best in the world at what we do.”

“I’m not sure I would claim that,” Sheyann murmured.

“I would,” Tellwyrn said bluntly. “I’ll freely admit I rely more on force than technique in many of my workings, but when it comes to time magic I am the leading expert. Not that I blame the other mages; I have an understanding with the extremely persnickety god of time. It’s hard to do the research when you get smote for even thinking about it. And you can be as modest as you like, but I know you’re the eldest living shaman on the continent, if not the world.”

“No,” Sheyann said with a faint quirk of her lips. “I do have at least one senior.”

“Ah, yes. Right.” Tellwyrn grimaced. “When I’m thinking of people I expect to be helpful, she doesn’t spring to mind.” Sheyann actually grinned at her.

“One to handle the temporal magic, then, bridging the gap between Aspen’s frame of time and ours,” she shaman mused to herself, gazing at the dryad but seeing far beyond her. “One to conduct the actual healing. This…will be prohibitively difficult, Arachne. Neither of our systems of magic is innately helpful at touching another’s mind, which is what we must do. I can do it, but that is already a tiring process before the actual work even begins. She must be reached, before she is unfrozen, guided along a path of healing. We are talking about therapy. It is a journey of potentially years, considering the strains upon her mind.”

“Hm,” Tellwyrn said, frowning in a similar expression. “I can possibly speed things along while shifting the… Hm. I will need to be very careful with that, though. Even more than the rest. We’re on thin ice to begin with, emotionally speaking; dissociating someone from their ordinary passage through time can have dicey psychological effects.

“Yes,” Sheyann agreed, nodding. “Anyone participating in this endeavor will be taking on risks.”

“Well, I got her into this; I can’t just leave the girl there, and I’m not just saying that because I still need to know the situation with Naiya regarding Juniper.”

“You do not need to defend yourself to me, Arachne,” Sheyann said mildly, still staring up at the dryad. “I know very well you are far from heartless.”

“My point was, I’m not going to pass judgment if you decline to risk your own sanity over this.”

“That, I think, exaggerates the danger somewhat,” the Elder said dryly. “You are yourself aged enough to absorb a little extra time spent in a pocket dimension without being unduly befuddled by the experience. I was ancient even by elvish reckoning when you first appeared.”

“Mm hm,” Tellwyrn said with a reminiscent smile. “Thinking about it now, I have to agree with Chucky. It really is counterintuitive that I’ve survived this long, isn’t it?”

Sheyann gave her an exasperated glance before resuming her study of Aspen. “Even so, Arachne… This is more than I can take on alone.”

Tellwyrn drew in a deep breath and let it out explosively. “Okay. All right, then. Who else do you need? I don’t mind involving a few other Elders, provided you can temper their attitudes somewhat.”

“I am sure they would say the same to me about you. I could seek help from several Elders—it would take multiples pooling their skills to achieve what we will need to do. I understood, however, that this matter is somewhat sensitive. Elder shamans would be very inquisitive about an issue that may involve Naiya becoming agitated. It might be better not to spread this any farther than we must.”

“Oh, please.” Tellwyrn waved a hand dismissively. “By the time enough of them speak to each other to spread a rumor, all of this will be long done with. You’re probably the most wide-ranging of the bunch, and I’ll eat my spectacles if you’ve been out of your grove in the last thirty years.”

“What a suspiciously specific and accurate number,” Sheyann mused. “Anyway, Arachne, trust me when I say the other Elders would talk. Things change.”

“I am well aware that they do. I’ll be astonished if the Elders are.”

The shaman smiled broadly at that, but the expression just as quickly faded. “There is, though I hesitate to say it, a more pragmatic option. More discreet, and also a better source of help to begin with.” She turned to face Tellwyrn directly. “Do you happen to know how to get in touch with Kuriwa?”

Tellwyrn scowled deeply at her. “You would be far more likely than I to know how to do that. Mary and I have developed the perfect relationship that keeps us away from each other’s throats. At the core of the method is staying as far away from each other as the breadth of this continent will permit.”

“And then, in typical fashion, you settled yourself down as close to the center of the continent as you could,” Sheyann said dryly. “In any case, though I have much less of a personality clash with her, I find I also sleep better when Kuriwa is nowhere near my grove. Nonetheless, she is the best prospect to help with this. Her command of the necessary magics outstrips mine considerably, as does her knowledge of it. And she has had many long and fruitful dealings with dryads; there may not be any higher authority on the subject. We can settle for involving a few other Elders if you are willing to embrace the risks, the inconveniences, the wait and the fact that it is second-rate assistance. If we can find her, though, we’ll need her.” She sighed, and shrugged. “But then, that may be too distant a possibility to consider anyway.”

Tellwyrn closed her eyes, shook her head, and hissed something obscene to herself, shifting through four languages in two seconds. “Last year,” she said finally, “she actually contacted me obliquely. She’d found Caledy’s old amulet and returned it to me. Through an intermediary, though, and without any personal message attached.”

“Both wise precautions,” Sheyann said gravely.

Tellwyrn rolled her eyes. “Yes, well, her contact was Antonio Darling. He strongly implied he was in regular, consistent communication with her.”

The shaman tilted her head. “Who is this?”

“He’s a priest of Eserion, a politician in the Imperial capital, and currently the Eserite Bishop for the Universal Church.”

Sheyann raised her eyebrows. “Indeed. A Tiraan official? And an Eserite, to boot? That is very peculiar company for Kuriwa to keep.”

“He’s not Tiraan,” Tellwyrn said, “just lives there. Seemed like frontier stock to me. You know the type: Stalweiss complexion, old gnomish name. That might make a difference to her… Still, and even considering how odd it would be for Mary to be loitering in Tiraas, I believed him. The man had no motive to deceive me, and is certainly intelligent enough not to torque me without substantial reason.” Tellwyrn paused and sighed heavily. “Are you adamant that we need her?”

“I wouldn’t put it that way. However, this will go much faster, be much easier and involve fewer complications with her help than without.” She paused for a moment, then spoke more gently. “I don’t believe anyone actually likes Kuriwa, Arachne. Possibly not even herself. However, I have learned to understand her, somewhat, and I know the ulterior motive she will bring to this. Other Elders will involve the politics of their groves; she will only see the advantage to herself in befriending a dryad, particularly one as old as this. That won’t harm our efforts and will, in fact, encourage her to be helpful. I would not suggest involving her if I did not deem it more than worth the drawbacks. I think, though,” she added in a wry tone, “I had better be the one to approach her. No offense intended.”

Tellwyrn snorted. “When was the last time you were in Tiraas?”

“It has been…let’s see…at least four centuries,” Sheyann said thoughtfully. “I will be very interested in seeing how the city has changed.”

“Good gods,” Tellwyrn muttered. “Well. On the subject of discretion… If you’re planning to approach Bishop Darling, let me pass on a word of warning about his apprentices.”


“Oh, my,” Ravana said, stopping at the top of the staircase just inside the Well’s front door. “What is all this?”

“Oh, just a little project,” Marueen said modestly, tucking a wrench back into her Pack and hopping down from the rail. “Afritia said I could. I’ve got th’easy part all set up there, see? Those wires an’ pulleys, see how they’re all connected t’that little lever that gets flicked whenever the door opens?”

“I do,” Ravana agreed, craning her neck to peer upward. Indeed, the taut network of white cables vanished from the small apparatus down the stairwell to the floor far below.

“That sounds a little bell in our dorm room when somebody comes in or goes out,” Maureen said rather smugly. “And this,” she patted the much more hefty network of metal rods she was in the process of bolting to the bannister, “when it’s done, will be a means of sending packages down to the bottom from up here.”

“But…why, though?” Ravana asked. “Afritia handles our mail. Anyone bringing a package to the dorm will likely be going there herself.”

Maureen shrugged, leaning through the bars of the bannister—and suspending her upper body terrifyingly over the drop—to tighten the next row of bolts. “The joy of the thing is in making it, not necessarily in havin’ or usin’ it. That’s the only reason I bother at all, since it’s doubloons to doughnuts Addiwyn’ll just take an axe t’the whole thing first chance she gets. It’s… It helps me think, y’know? Straighten out me thoughts, get the blood flowin’ an’ the body workin’.”

“I believe I understand,” Ravana said, nodding slowly. “I have my own thought-inducing exercises. Mine happen to be a bit more cerebral, but then, I was not raised to exert myself physically.” She smiled ruefully.

“Aye, well…I’m also revelin’ in the freedom, a bit,” Maureen grunted, still working on bolts. “Back home, tinkerin’ wasn’t considered a proper thing to do.”

“Forgive me, but my knowledge of your culture is entirely secondhand,” Ravana said, frowning. “It was my understanding that gnomes greatly valued adventuring. And is not one of your most famed current adventurers known for her mechanical skills?”

“Aye!” Maureen paused in her work to grin up at her. “Aye, you’re dead on, but those two facts are in spite of each other, not because of each other. Tinker Billie gets respected because of what she’s accomplished—y’don’t argue with results. But she had a hard road of it, settin’ out. She was always me hero, growin’ up. Let’s just say Mum did not approve.”

“Well.” Ravana moved toward the stairs. “I am glad you’ve found a chance to indulge your passion.”

“Aye, you too. I ‘ad me doubts, right up till the end, but you did get us the only A in the class with that scheme of yours.”

“And made us no friends,” Ravana said with a satisfied little smile, “but all things considered, I would rather we be respected than liked.”

Maureen stopped what she was doing, resting her arms on one of the bannister’s horizontal bars to peer up at the human girl. “So… How’s that factor into your plans to bribe and manipulate your way into friendship with the three of us?”

Ravana’s expression closed down. “I beg your pardon?” she asked softly.

“I’m not trying to start somethin’ up, here,” Maureen said quietly, gazing up at her. “It wasn’t even an accusation. I mean… You really weren’t trying not to be obvious, y’know? And I was more’n a mite offended for a brief bit, but… I get the strong impression you really do want to make friends, here, an’ just don’t know any other way to go about it. And that’s just too achingly sad to let me stay miffed.”

“You are…more perceptive than I fear I’ve given you credit for, Miss Willowick,” Ravana said, staring at her.

Maureen shrugged and turned back to her bolts. “Aye, well, we gnomes are comfortable bein’ underestimated. Better’n bein’ stepped on, which is the other most likely option! Anyhow, it’s been all o’ three days; I’m not too worried about things just yet. We’ll all get our sea legs in time. I hold out hope even Addiwyn’ll come around.” She paused, studying her half-built contraption. “Though I may change me mind after we find out what she does to this beauty of a target I’m settin’ up. This is turning out to be more effort an’ love than I was plannin’ to pour into it.”

“You sound absolutely confident that she will sabotage it.”

The gnome shrugged again, grinning. “Well. I am makin’ an assumption about who’s causin’ the trouble around here, but…c’mon. Is it an unlikely outcome?”

“Hm.” Ravana tapped her thin lips with a finger, and a smile slowly blossomed across her features. “Hm. Not to second-guess your creativity, Maureen, but… I wonder if I could persuade you to make a modification?”


“I assure you, I have been forewarned,” Sheyann said, stepping into the sunlight from the door of Helion Hall.

Tellwyrn sighed, following her. “Forewarned is one thing. The experience of riding a Rail caravan is not the kind of thing for which one can truly prepare. I would be happy to teleport you…”

“Arachne,” the Elder said flatly, “if it turns out that I hate the Rails more than that, we can revisit this conversation. Quite frankly, though, I would find that outcome extremely surprising.”

“Ah, yes,” Tellwyrn said in the same tone. “I know how you venerable Elders despise anything convenient or efficient.”

Sheyann just shook her head, smiling. “I’ll have to ride back anyway, unless you were planning to chauffeur me all over the continent.”

“It would be worth it just for the look on your face.”

They were silent for a long moment, standing on the top step. In the near distance, four students tussled playfully on the lawn outside the cafeteria. A few others walked past on the paths, and two young women were hunched over a book in the shade of the astronomy tower’s small front porch.

“You are actually doing this,” Sheyann said softly. “This…University. I honestly thought you would lose interest within a decade.”

“Yeah, that seems to have been the general assumption,” Tellwyrn snorted. “I don’t know why. It’s not as if I have ever lacked focus or discipline—it’s just that the thing I was focusing on forced me to completely change the whole pattern of my life every few years.”

Sheyann turned to regard her in quiet thought for a moment before speaking softly. “I am sorry, Arachne, that you never found what you were looking for.”

Still gazing out across the campus, Tellwyrn slowly shook her head. “I’m not. All these years later, I find my only regret is how long I spent on it. This is a much better use of my time.”

The shaman smiled. “Well. It is surprisingly pleasing to see you settling down to something, finally.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Tellwyrn waved her off. “Away with you, the Crow isn’t going to conveniently collar herself. Be nice to Darling, he’s a useful sort of person to know, despite the dramatic horrors he’s meddling with. And, as always, give my love to Chucky.”

Sheyann paused in the act of descending the stairs to look curiously back at the Professor. “Why do you insist on taunting him so?”

Tellwyrn grinned wolfishly. “Why do you?”

The Elder was still laughing as she made her way across the lawn.

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8 – 11

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“I’m thinking,” Principia said tersely.

“Well, you’re thinking on a schedule,” Merry shot back. “I don’t know the city all that well, but we’re at most a quarter hour from stepping into one or the other trap.”

“Less,” said Farah.

“I can think faster if people wouldn’t distract me,” Prin said, grimacing.

“So let us in on your thought process, then,” Merry replied.

Principia shook her head. “I have it in hand.”

“Shortcut here,” said Farah, pointing with her lance at an opening between tall buildings, a bit too wide to be called an alley, but still a little less than a street. “Are we wanting to dawdle so Locke can think, or shave a few minutes off the trip so we’re not late, if we’re going?”

At this hour of the morning, Tiraas was alive and vigorous despite the looming thunderheads above—its citizens were more than used to being rained on, anyway. The five Legionnaires had no difficulty getting down the sidewalk, though, given everyone’s tendency to step out of their way, either out of respect or unease.

“Let’s take the shortcut,” Merry said abruptly, breaking ranks and striding into the tiny side street. It was dim and presently unoccupied, a stark contrast to the main avenue down which they had been walking. The others followed her without comment.

Only for a dozen yards, though, enough to leave behind the bustle of the main street, before Merry came to a stop and turned around.

“All right, Locke, spit it out,” she ordered, planting the butt of her lance on the rain-slick cobblestones and staring flatly.

“Look,” Principia said irritably, “if you will just let me—”

“I don’t know if you’ve actually noticed this, Locke, but while you may still be in the Thieves’ Guild, you are not there now. This is a unit, inadequately staffed as it is. And this problem affects us all; you’re just the means of it. So, no, this is not a thing where you personally out-scheme Syrinx and we all trail along behind you like ducklings to marvel at your cleverness.”

“Do…are ducklings known for that?” Casey asked, frowning.

“I agree with Lang,” said Ephanie. “It’s not that I doubt your wits, Locke, but she’s right: you aren’t in command, here, and we all have a stake in this. If you’re laying plans, let us in on them.”

Principia looked back and forth between them, then sighed heavily in defeat. “I don’t have anything I’d call a plan yet, just… Ideas.”

“So, share your ideas,” Merry said.

The elf shook her head. “It’s a fairly standard rock versus hard place dilemma. When you can’t go in either of the available directions, you have to find or create a third one.”

“And what would a third direction be, here?” Farah asked.

“That is where I’m stalled,” Prin admitted.

“Well, that seems like a perfect place to ask your squadmates for help, then,” Merry said with a small grin. “The walls of this maze are made of regulations. And oh, look! We’ve got a walking encyclopedia of regulations right here!”

They all turned to look at Ephanie, whose cheeks colored slightly.

“I don’t know if encyclopedia is fair. I just have a history with the Legions.”

“Well, still,” said Principia, “Lang has a point. We’re in a trap between rules: we can neither obey nor disobey our orders. What would be something that gets us out of it?”

“You don’t get out of obeying orders,” Ephanie said with a faint scowl. “That’s the point of them.”

“Okay, well, the Silver Legions haven’t been the world’s predominant military for thousands of years by being too hidebound to function,” said Casey. “There has to be something that’s considered a good cause not to show up.”

“It’s not much more than a thousand years, actually,” said Farah, “and given the Tiraan Empire’s success over that period I don’t know whether—”

“Is that really important right now?” Merry exclaimed in exasperation. Farah flushed and fell silent.

“There is a precedent for the refusal of morally or tactically unacceptable orders,” Ephanie said with a frown, staring into the distance. “But this isn’t a moral dilemma, it’s a…clerical one. I don’t think that would fly.”

“All right, what else?” Merry prompted. “What’s a good reason not to report for duty?”

“Casualties bringing the squad below functional numbers would demand a retreat,” Ephanie said, still wearing a thoughtfully distant expression. “But as we started out below strength, that seems like a reach. Also, if some crisis arose in which we had a clear moral obligation to help, we would be expected to attend to that above a routine assignment like this one.”

“Well, I guess we could burn something down,” Prin said sourly. “Or maybe Avei will take pity on us and create a disaster.”

“That is…not exactly Avei’s style,” Farah said, lips twitching.

“Our orders also can be countermanded by a superior officer,” Ephanie continued.

“Wait,” Merry interrupted. “Back up. What was that about casualties?”

“I don’t see that just up and happening, either,” said Casey.

“Well, that’s the point of casualties,” Merry said with a grim smile. “They happen because someone makes them happen.”

“Self-inflicted injury to get out of duty is a serious offense,” Ephanie warned.

“Let’s come back to that,” Merry said impatiently. “If one of us were injured, would the squad be obligated to retreat?”

“It’s…hard to say,” Ephanie admitted. “By regulations, yes. But by regulations, we wouldn’t be sent out with only five of us in the first place. By regulations, we wouldn’t be sent out without an officer. I think our whole problem is that for our cohort, the regulations say whatever Bishop Syrinx wants them to.”

Merry rubbed her chin with a thumb, frowning in thought. “If there were one injured member of the squad… Two of us would be needed to carry her to help. That’d leave two to report for duty. There’s understaffed, and then there’s ridiculous.”

“One would need to be sent to tell the squad we’re to rendezvous with what happened,” Ephanie said, “but yes, still. You’re right.”

“And Locke is the only one who can’t report for this,” Casey added, her face brightening. “So if she’s the one injured, we sidestep the whole problem!”

“This discussion is veering in a direction that makes me nervous,” Principia said, scowling.

“Have you managed to come up with a better idea?” Merry demanded.

“Time’s wasting,” Farah warned. “At this point we better do something; if we’re going to report in, we’ll be late now even if we run.”

“Aw, hell,” Principia muttered. “Wouldn’t be the worst thing I’ve subjected myself to for the sake of a job.”

“All right, ladies, here’s what went down,” Merry said crisply, peering around the alley. Her gaze fell on a particularly deep puddle, and she stepped over and planted a boot in it. “I was walking in the lead, Locke right behind me. Stepped in this here puddle, slipped…” Slowly, she pantomimed flailing with her arms, including the one holding her lance, which she then brought backward, jabbing the butt at Principia’s face. “Thwack.”

“Ow,” the elf said, grimacing.

“It’ll be fine, you’re wearing a helmet,” Merry said with a grin. “For real this time, though. Don’t dodge.” She planted her feet and raised the lance again, her grip much more serious.

“Hold it,” said Casey. “About face, Locke. Elves have reflexes like cats; no one will believe she failed to dodge a wild hit she saw coming.”

“And why the hell would I be walking backwards?” Principia demanded sourly.

“You weren’t walking,” Casey said, frowning in thought and nodding slowly as she went along. “You were…turned around to… Argue with Farah about this alleged shortcut. Yes, and Lang tried to turn mid-stride to see what the trouble was, and that’s when she slipped in the puddle.”

“You’ve done this before,” Merry said approvingly. Casey shrugged, lowering her eyes.

“Just to state the obvious,” Ephanie said grimly, “we are all trusting each other very deeply, here.”

“Some more than others,” Principia snapped.

“Conspiracy, assault, evading duty… We’re all going to be in serious trouble if anybody finds out what happened here,” Ephanie said. “The kind of trouble that gets people who are already on short notice dishonorably discharged.”

They glanced around at each other.

“Oh, the hell with it,” Principia said with a grin. “I trust you girls.”

“You do?” Casey asked suspiciously. “Why?”

“Elwick, nobody is truly trustworthy,” Prin said. “Trusting someone is a choice. It’s something you do because you have to, or because it improves your lot. If they’re important enough to you, you keep trusting them even after they let you down.”

“That’s a very Eserite philosophy,” Farah commented.

“Well, if we’re doing this, best be about it,” said Merry, hefting her lance again. “Like the girl said, Locke, face the other way.”

Principia sighed heavily, but obediently turned around. “You’ve just been waiting for an opportunity like this, haven’t you.”

“I am not even going to dignify that with a flimsy denial,” Merry said cheerfully, and slammed the butt of her lance into the back of Principia’s helmet.


Szith was first into the room, and came to a dead stop right in the doorway.

“Is there a problem?” Ravana asked after a moment.

The drow slowly stepped forward. While the others trailed in behind her, she crossed to her own bed, and picked up a sheet of ripped fabric that had been laid out atop the quilt.

A banner had been hung to the wall beside her bed. It now lay in two pieces, the larger of which she now held in her hands.

“Oh,” Maureen said softly, raising a hand to her mouth. “Oh, dear…”

“Szith,” Ravana said softly, “is that your House flag?”

The drow nodded slowly, still staring down at the swatch of ripped spidersilk in her hands. Her expression, usually calmly aloof, was frozen and blank.

“She left class before us,” Iris said in a low growl, subconsciously running her fingers across the front of her white dress. Afritia’s alchemy had proved as effective as she claimed, and there was no sign of the smear of paint that had been there that morning. “She was moving so fast we didn’t even see her coming back… I should’ve known.”

“This crosses a line,” Ravana said, and there was real anger in her expression. “One does not deface a House insignia. Even in war it is a needless insult. Duels and assassinations have been prompted by considerably less!”

“Addiwyn!” Szith said sharply, raising her voice above normal speaking tones. Maureen, wincing, crept over to her own bed, where she pulled off the omnipresent backpack she always wore and stuck a hand into one of its pockets. There was no sound of movement behind the door to Addiwyn’s private room. After waiting a few seconds, Szith spoke again, this time in an outright shout. “Come in here now!”

There came a thump from behind the door. Finally, it opened and Addiwyn herself leaned out, one hand on the knob, and scowled at them.

“For heaven’s sake, what? This had better be important; you trollops have wasted enough of my time for one day already.”

Szith held up the ruined banner. “What possible satisfaction could you get from this?” she demanded.

Addiwyn stared at the ripped flag, frowned, and then straightened up. Her expression cleared, then morphed into an outright smirk.

Szith let go of the length of fabric with one hand, in order to grip the hilt of her sword.

“Oh, I see,” Addiwyn said, folding her arms and lounging against the frame of her door. “Allow me to let you in on a little secret, girls: I didn’t come here to make friends.”

“That’s your idea of a secret?” Iris snapped.

“I’m not interested in being buddy-buddy with any of you, or anyone, really,” the elf continued. “I mean to get my degree and get out of here. I don’t expect you to like me, nor do I care. So, since I’m the least liked person present, I guess that makes me the natural choice when there’s blame to be thrown around. Thus, whoever is taking it upon herself to trash all your belongings has a ready-made scapegoat. You won’t even think to look anywhere else.” She shrugged, straightened up, and grabbed the doorknob. “Think about that. Think about which of you seem to have a proven knack for being underhanded and cruel. And think carefully before you decide to do anything about this. Mess with me or my things and you’ll barely have time to regret your own stupidity.”

With that, she ducked back into her room, slamming the door far harder than was necessary. The assembled roommates stared at it with varying expressions of outrage and disbelief.

“This is just nasty, this is,” Maureen said from behind them. Szith whirled to find the gnome standing beside her bed, holding up the other half of the torn flag. “It’s authentic Narisian spidersilk, aye? That’s basically un-rippable. Aside from how tough it is, it stretches. Right?”

“Yes,” Szith said in a hollow tone. “It’s used in armor.”

Maureen nodded. “So, this wasn’t torn, it was cut. But see, look here, how the ends are jagged and frayed? As if it was torn. Somebody went well out of their way to use a special tool fer this. Made it as ugly as possible, so it’s less likely to be mended.” She grimaced. “I’m sorry, Szith, fabric arts ain’t exactly me strong suit. I’m better with tools and gadgets. Mayhap it can be fixed with magic?”

Wordlessly, Szith took the other half of the banner from her, and began tenderly folding them together.

“I had hoped this was a mere case of poor social skills, or overcompensating for the nervousness of being in a new place,” Ravana said, staring at Addiwyn’s door through narrowed eyes. “This behavior, however, is only escalating. This act demands retaliation.”

“Here, now,” Maureen said worriedly. “Gettin’ into a feud ain’t exactly smart. I don’t think Professor Tellwyrn likes it when people scrap on her campus, somehow.”

“I am hardly proposing to ambush her,” Ravana said, “nor participate in some kind of prank war. These antics are sickeningly juvenile; I would like to think that each of you, like myself, are above such foolishness.”

“The bitch can hear you, y’know,” Iris pointed out.

“That’s fine,” Ravana said with a shrug. “She’s the one flouting rules and disrespecting the personal space and possessions of others. That will carry its own repercussions. There are innumerable ways to add a little extra sting to the whip when it finally falls.”

“If she is the one doing this,” Szith said suddenly. While the others turned to stare at her, she gently tucked the folded banner into her armored tunic. “Excuse me. I am going…out.”

“Okay,” Maureen said in a small voice. No one else spoke as the drow strode across the room and back out through the door, shutting it gently but firmly behind her.

“We really ought to go get Afritia,” Iris said after a moment. “Even with Szith gone, she needs to know about this.”

“Agreed,” Ravana murmured, staring at Addiwyn’s door again with a thoughtful frown. As the other two watched her warily, the expression shifted, momentarily becoming a smile. A very small, subtly unpleasant smile. “By all means, let us do things through the proper channels. For the moment, at least.”

Iris and Maureen exchanged a dubious look. Ravana only smiled more widely.


Captain Dijanerad strode into the mostly empty sick ward, fully armored and looking not in the least flustered, stressed or adversely affected from whatever crisis had kept her from the mess hall that morning.

Principia was under orders to remain in bed, but she offered a salute from her reclining position. Merry, standing beside her bed, came smartly to attention and saluted as well.

“Captain,” she said, staring straight ahead. “I take full responsibility. This was entirely due to my clumsiness.”

“I object to that,” Principia chimed in. “If I’d been paying attention I could have avoided this easily.”

Dijanerad came to a stop alongside them, studied each in silence for a moment, then turned to the only other person in the room. “What’s the verdict, Sister?”

Sister Tyrouna, the healer currently on duty, was a dark-skinned Westerner with a broad, subtly sly smile habitually in place. She picked up the helmet hanging from the bedpost as she answered.

“Private Locke has a rare medical condition named, according to the textbooks I’ve consulted, a ‘goose egg.’” She tossed the helmet lightly to the Captain, who snagged it out of the air. “That was the real casualty, here, and exactly why we make the troops wear them. In seriousness, she doesn’t even have a concussion, and that little bump was the work of moments to heal away, but I’m keeping her in the ward overnight for observation. She was unconscious, briefly. This is SOP for head injuries, as you well know.”

“Mm hm,” Dijanerad murmured, turning the helmet over to study it. There was a substantial dent in the back. “Good hit, Lang. Now, if we could just teach you to do this on purpose we might make a real soldier of you.”

Merry opened her mouth to reply, then closed it silently and swallowed.

“So, here’s a funny thing,” the Captain continued, studying them with a mild expression. “When I got back to the temple, I had paperwork waiting for your entire squad to be court-martialed for failing to report waiting for me. Actually, I got that before I was notified of Locke’s injury. Isn’t that interesting? It’s as if somebody had the forms all filled out and ready to file, just itching for a reason to materialize.”

Merry swallowed again. Principia frowned slightly. “The papers were sent to you, Captain?”

“I am your commanding officer,” Dijanerad said dryly.

“Of course,” Principia replied quickly. “It’s just….”

“It’s just,” the captain finished, “this business smacks of the kind of thing that by all appearances should have gone behind my back, yes? As it happened, I intercepted a certain Private Covrin en route to Command with the papers in question. Needless to say, I confiscated them. Discipline in my cohort is mine to hand out.”

“Covrin,” Merry murmured, frowning.

Dijanerad glanced pointedly at Sister Tyrouna, who smiled languidly and strolled off to busy herself at the other end of the room.

“I am not an idiot, ladies,” the captain said in a lower tone. “Nor do I want you to be. However, you should consider the fact that women in your position may be well advised not to be excessively clever, either. I told you once, Locke, if any political shenanigans occur, I expect you to leave them to me to handle.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’m not even sure how you knew about that crackpate court-martial order,” Dijanerad continued, scowling, “but that was posted in response to some nonsense that happened in a completely different cohort and doesn’t have the force of the High Commander’s seal behind it. I am still in charge of discipline in our ranks, and the order to court martial you lot would have gone nowhere under me. As its author surely realized. Right now, ladies, I am dealing with a much more persistent bureaucratic hassle pertaining to your squad. Someone has opened an investigation suggesting that Squad Thirteen deliberately engineered an accident to get out of duty. I am reasonably sure I can also get that shut down, as by chance I got forewarning of it before it got into hands that outrank me. I don’t want to keep having to do this, though.”

Merry and Prin risked glancing at each other; the captain stared flatly at them both. “Clever people are ironically easy to trick into doing something stupid, ladies. You are soldiers, and whatever backroom deals are flying around here, none of them involve the kind of stakes that could get you seriously in trouble—unless, that is, you are goaded into doing something that’ll get you in trouble. Just be soldiers, and good ones. Use your common sense, not your animal cunning; follow your orders and trust the chain of command. And for future reference, Locke, you are to consider the prohibition on you getting between the Legion and the Guild to have greater force than any incidental orders that originate from outside this cohort.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said with obvious relief. “Thank you, ma’am!”

“For now,” the captain said with a cold smile, “since you have both so graciously taken responsibility for this horsewash… Well, Locke, I’ll deal with you once you’re out of the healer’s care. Lang, report to the cohort parade ground and mop it.”

“M-mop it, Captain?” Merry stuttered.

“Have you developed a hearing problem, Lang?”

“No, ma’am!”

“Good. Mop it till it’s dry, private. Or until I tell you to stop.”

Merry looked at the window, which was currently being pounded with warm rain. Principia cringed sympathetically.

“Yes, ma’am,” Merry said resignedly.


“Very good,” Elder Shiraki said approvingly. The young shaman acknowledged him with only the barest hint of a smile, focused as she was on her task. Before them, a vine had risen out of the ground in the grove’s wide central space; it was currently standing upright, to the height of their shoulders, and under the apprentice’s gentle hands what minutes ago had been a single berry had swollen and hardened, gradually becoming a sizable watermelon. It was delicate work, producing the fruit while supporting the vine in an upright position not natural to it, carefully drawing energy and nutrients from the earth to supply all of this and not causing a backlash that would damage the other plants in the vicinity, which was why Shiraki preferred it as a training exercise. He stood by, ready to intervene in case of problems. He would certainly not salvage the apprentice’s melon, but he would prevent a mishap from adversely affecting her, or their environment.

The young elf was also getting practice in maintaining focus under mild duress. Though the others in the grove knew better than to interfere with or deliberately distract a shaman being trained by an Elder, they did not hesitate to stop and watch, and they were all certainly cognizant that an audience could, by itself, be ample distraction.

His praise was not idly given, however. She was doing quite well, especially in comparison to her previous attempt.

The warning was scant, a mere split-second, but the harsh buzz of arcane magic was alarming enough to provoke a reaction, and a split-second was plenty of time for the dozen elves present to spring into ready positions, those who had weapons placing hands on them.

Of course, the young shaman’s spell collapsed, and Shiraki had to reach out with his mind to prevent the suddenly uncontained energies she had been working from damaging either her or the soil. The melon withered, of course, but there was nothing to be done about that. Clearly not the student’s fault.

Before the watermelon had even started to turn brown, before any of the suddenly tense elves could call out a warning, there came a short, soft puff of displaced air, and then she was standing among them.

Tellwyrn turned in nearly a full circle, studying the assembled wood elves through those pretentious golden spectacles of hers, and then her gaze fell on Shiraki. She straightened up, holding out her arms as if for a hug, and grinned in evident delight.

“Chucky!”

Shiraki sighed heavily, gently allowing the last of the shamanic energies he had seized to dissipate harmlessly into the ground. His apprentice took two steps back, scowling at the mage; several of the other elves had similarly unfriendly expressions, though a few of the younger ones studied her with a degree of interest he did not like.

“In all the time that has passed, Arachne,” he intoned, “and all that has passed in that time, I begin to think it is a cruel cosmic joke at my expense that neither of us has managed to be killed yet.”

“Such sweet things you always say,” she retorted, her grin actually broadening. “I did save your life that one time, you know.”

“Yes, I know,” he replied calmly. “I am quite clearly indebted to you for it. Considering that, it would take quite a long and intense pattern of deeply annoying behavior to leave me so unimpressed whenever we meet. And yet, you managed.”

Tellwyrn laughed. “Well, fair enough. I think the real issue is that I saved you from being saved by Sheyann. Face it, you’d be a lot more annoyed at owing her one.”

At that, he had to smile. “All that aside, Arachne, you’re hardly known for your habit of making casual social calls. What brings you to our grove?”

“Straight to business, then, is it?” She shook her head, the mirth leaking rapidly from her expression. “All right, the truth is, I need the help of a shaman. A powerful and learned a shaman as the grove can spare me for a bit.”

“Oh?” he said, intrigued despite himself. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard—or heard of—you asking such a thing before. What disaster has brought this on?”

Tellwyrn sighed and folded her arms. “To make a very long story short, I’ve got a sick dryad on my hands, and damn if I know a thing to do with her.”

“What have you done to Juniper?” Elder Sheyann demanded, striding toward them and dispersing the onlookers with a sharp gesture.

“Juniper is fine,” Tellwyrn replied, turning to face the new arrival. “Somewhat distraught at the moment, but unharmed. What I did,” she added with a rueful grimace, “was severely overestimate her capabilities and her knowledge of them. I let her attempt something she was clearly not ready for. The dryad who’s been harmed is named Aspen.”

Shiraki and Sheyann exchanged a sharp look, before returning their attention to the sorceress.

“It sounds,” Sheyann said firmly, “as if we had better hear the long version.”

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