Tag Archives: Tallie

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The Wizards’ Guild occupied a broad tower, one of the tallest structures in Tiraas, situated in (oddly enough) the financial district. It was close enough to the Imperial Casino that it hadn’t taken them long to get here on foot; having Trissiny in full armor at the head of the group had made the trip considerably faster, as nobody wanted to impede the Hand of Avei, especially when she was moving at a brisk stride and wearing a scowl.

Now, as the group reached the top of the long staircase to the entrance, they finally slowed. It had been a significant climb; the actual door was on the third floor, on a wide balcony suspended above the base of the stairs, which wrapped all the way around the tower.

“Just excessive, is what it is,” Schwartz huffed once they eventually reached the entrance. “Wizards, always having to make a spectacle…”

“Shh,” Tallie muttered, nudging him. “I think they can hear you.”

Flanking the broad doors were two golems made of brass and crystal engraved with glowing arcane runes. The things were eight feet tall, proportioned not unlike gorillas, and deliberately turned their small heads to track the visitors’ movement.

“It’s all right,” Schwartz said, despite his own suddenly worried expression. “They can’t really be…that is, weaponized golems are illegal in the Empire, surely…”

Trissiny had paused to glance back and make sure everyone was still present, and gave him an encouraging little smile before stepping forward again. She strode right up to the doors, paying the towering golems no mind.

At her approach, one of them reached across and pulled one of the doors open. The other bowed politely.

“Wow,” Darius said as they filed past, into the tower. “Wonder if they would’ve done that for us?”

“Probably not for me,” Schwartz murmured, reaching up to pat Meesie for comfort, but fell silent despite the questioning looks Layla and Tallie gave him.

They had arrived in a sizable foyer with marble floors and columns, the walls paneled in mahogany—and marred by erratic chips and old scorch marks. A once-expensive but now slightly battered desk sat immediately to the right of the door, with a glowing contraption perched on one corner which seemed to consist of levitating gears and pulleys that turned endlessly around without actually touching one another. Benches padded in shabby red velvet lined the wall on the opposite side.

There was a constant soft rustle of paper from books, scrolls, and individual sheets which zipped back and forth overhead, passing in and out of small tubes which extended from the walls near the ceiling.

“Good afternoon,” said the supercilious-looking man behind the desk, raising his eyebrows at them. “Welcome to the Honorable Guild of Wizards. May I help you?”

“Yes, please,” Trissiny said crisply. “I apologize for the short notice, but we need to commission a teleportation for five people to Puna Dara.”

“Five people and one class two fire elemental,” Schwartz added, leaning around her and raising one finger. Meesie squeaked in affirmation, nodding. He met Trissiny’s questioning look with an apologetic shrug. “Sorry to cut in, but details like that are relevant in teleportation.”

“Quite so,” agreed the man behind the desk. Though it would not have seemed possible moments ago, his eyebrows had somehow ascended further. He studied them each in turn, eyes lingering on Trissiny’s armor and Schwartz’s green robes; the two of them made a surprising contrast to the three casually-dressed apprentice thieves. “That is some considerable distance… Forgive me, but have you made arrangements ahead of time for this?”

“I’m afraid not,” Trissiny replied. “This is an emergency.”

“I see. That is difficult…” He pursed his lips momentarily, then nodded. “I will see what I can arrange. Please excuse me briefly, General Avelea. You and your companions may wait here.”

With no further ado, the man turned and strode away at a rapid pace, departing the foyer into the large chamber beyond and turning the corner out of sight. Past the columns around which he had disappeared was a cathedral-like round space, far too large to have fit inside the tower they had just climbed all the way around to get in here.

Schwartz blew out a short breath. “Well! I hope me being along isn’t going to make this difficult…”

“Why the hell would it?” Darius asked bluntly. “I mean, you’re just about the nicest guy we know.”

“Anymore,” Tallie whispered.

Everyone fell silent. Layla closed her eyes.

After a moment Schwartz cleared his throat. “Ah, yes, well, it’s a question of…history. I, ah, might not have worn the, uh, official robes of my cult had I known this day would bring me to the Wizards’ Guild.”

“Bad blood, there?” Tallie asked. Her tone was barely interested, but Schwartz nodded, obviously glad for the excuse to keep talking.

“It all goes back to the Enchanter Wars. You know how that started, of course.”

She frowned slightly at that, turning to him with more focus. “The Enchanter Wars? Sure. The Empire bombed Athan’Khar with the Enchanter’s Bane, half the provinces seceded in protest, the Emperor was dethroned, House Tirasian took over, Horsebutt the Enemy invaded and Sarsamon united the rebel provinces again to repel the Stalweiss. Who went on to settle the Great Plains and that’s why the Empire extends all the way to the Golden Sea now. Just ‘cos I’m not a noble or a paladin doesn’t mean I dunno basic history.”

“Nobody’s saying that, Tallie,” Darius said with a sigh. “Nobody here has ever said that to you. We’re all hurting, here. Don’t take it out on Schwartz.”

She lowered her eyes. “Right. Yeah. Sorry.”

He smiled, and patted her gently on the shoulder. Meesie scampered down his arm to do the same, which earned a small grin from Tallie.

“I think he was talking about Magnan. Right?” Trissiny had stepped a bit away from the group, staring ahead in the direction the greeter had gone, but now turned back to the rest of them.

“Right, yes,” Schwartz said, nodding. “Magnan the Enchanter, the last Hand of Salyrene. The whole shebang was basically his fault. He built the Bane, he pressured the Emperor to use it… And he also caused the religious war that made all the rest of it possible.”

“Religious war?” Tallie frowned again. “Okay, I’ll admit I hadn’t heard about that one. Nobles, paladins? Fill me in?”

“Well, the provinces didn’t just up and secede,” said Layla. “Viridill did, and the Silver Legions crushed the Imperial forces sent to retake it. The Sisterhood provided military support to other rebel groups, the cult of Vesk launched a nationwide campaign of propaganda to encourage revolt, and the Thieves’ Guild started selectively sabotaging and assassinating Imperial interests to weaken the regime. The cults were very much involved in the Enchanter Wars.”

“What’d Magnus have to do with that?”

“Magnan.” Trissiny’s voice was soft, and tired. “He was the most brilliant wizard of his age, and also a dangerously unstable man. He was obsessed with fae magic and fairies, thought the whole business was inhuman, somehow, and should be prohibited. Eventually he amassed so much political influence in the Empire and the Universal Church that he got the Emerald College nullified and expelled from Salyrene’s cult, and got the Empire to ban fae magic entirely. That caused a schism within the Collegium, and within the Church. The Colleges all took sides, and the cults took sides. Avei, Eserion and Vesk sided with the witches, which put them against the Empire.”

“Actually it wasn’t college against college, in my cult,” Schwartz added, “which is how it all comes back to the original question. Magnan listened too much to his sycophants and overestimated how much support he had. When he started hunting down witches, most of the Sapphire College itself turned on him. It was…well, it was a huge mess, during the Wars and for a while after. It’s why there are secular traditions of magical study, now, and why the numbers and influence of the Collegium has never fully recovered. Also why Salyrene never called another Hand. A lot of witches and mages both felt she had betrayed or failed us, and turned away from the faith. The mages who just wanted to continue their research without the goddess’s oversight left this continent to found Syralon, while…”

“While those who fought back against Magnan went on to found the Wizards’ Guild, right here in Tiraas, beholden to no god but the mortal mind.”

All of them straightened and turned to face the speaker, who approached them briskly from the great open chamber beyond, flanked by the man from behind the desk and half a dozen other people. All of them wore suits, of various degrees of stylishness, formality, and cleanliness; the woman in the center, who had addressed them, was by far the best-dressed, in a clearly tailored black suit with a bolo tie inset with a luminous blue gem. She was old enough that her narrow face was deeply lined, her short hair entirely white, but she moved and spoke with the vigor of a much younger woman.

“We still have old tensions with the Salyrites, yes,” she said, coming to a stop and smiling wryly, “but a witch of the Emerald College, of all people, will find welcome here. I am Fareena Raasvedh, Archmage of the Guild, and it seems I am suddenly transported to a past age! Here there’s a Hand of Avei on my doorstep, asking for magical assistance for herself and her adventuring party.”

“Holy shit, she’s right,” Darius muttered. “We’re an adventuring party. Does anybody else feel like we’ve suddenly switched to a whole different type of story?”

“Shut up, you oaf,” Layla hissed. “Don’t banter in front of the Archmage!”

“I realize this is asking a lot,” Trissiny said to Raasvedh. “Especially on such short notice. We need to get to Puna Dara as quickly as possible, and teleportation is by far the quickest way; there isn’t even a Rail line any closer than Desolation. I’m afraid I don’t have on me the kind of funds this commission would normally require, but the Sisterhood will of course compensate—”

“Now, that we don’t even need to discuss,” Archmage Raasvedh said with a grin, holding up a hand. “It would be an absolute honor to help the Hand of Avei in smiting whatever thing it is you’re hunting. Just because we’re agnostics around here doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate what you do for the world.”

“No, just a moment,” said one of the wizards accompanying her, a man only a few years younger with a long beard and bushy eyebrows, which now lowered in a frown. “Five people, to Puna Dara? That’s a substantial commission, Fareena, you can’t just—”

“My gods in bloomers, Tanaquin, really?” the Archmage exclaimed, turning a scathing look on him. “If your licorice and tobacco budget is so strained, I will personally pay you for your labors. Anybody else?”

“Yo!” The youngest woman in the group, whose dress shirt was buttoned askew and lacked a tie, raised a hand. “If you’re paying out of your own pocket—”

“Shut up, Lessa,” Raasvedh grunted, turning her back on them. “I am pretty curious about all this, General. What’s going on in Puna Dara that’s so urgent? And you are, after all, traveling with a Salyrite. It seems like it would be easier to have Collegium mages ‘port you. They’re almost obligated to aid a paladin without charge, are they not?”

Trissiny hesitated, glancing back at the others. “It’s…a long story. I suppose you’re aware of the ongoing crackdown of Universal Church loyalists being rounded up by the government and their cults?”

“Mm.” Raasvedh’s lips curled up in a catlike expression. “I don’t know if you’ve read Stalweiss philosophy, General Avelea, but I have been following the news and meditating upon the concept of schadenfreude. Heard of it?”

“I was not aware Stalweiss philosophy was even a thing,” Trissiny said with a sigh. “Those are the people we’ve been dealing with, and they were doing a lot worse than just thinking the Archpope has some good ideas.”

“Obviously, or the government wouldn’t be involved. Beyond vague whispers of treason, I’ve not heard what, specifically, these alleged conspirators are up to.”

“We’ve had at least one Salyrite hounding us already,” Trissiny said bluntly. “Possibly more. A friend of ours was murdered this morning by members of my own Sisterhood. My faith in the faithful is very thin right now. Until everyone’s house has been thoroughly cleaned, I’m not inclined to trust any of the cults.”

“I’m very sorry for your loss,” the Archmage said, her expression immediately sobering. The only mage with her who wore a hat immediately removed it respectfully; the messy young woman at the edge of the group looked like she might actually cry. “Not to pry, but you think these people are up to something else in Puna Dara?”

“I think most of these people are patsies who have been abandoned now that they’re no longer useful,” Trissiny replied. “But the person behind them is up to something in Puna Dara.”

“Say no more,” Raasvedh said, nodding sharply. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have work to do. General, if you and your friends will step right this way? The main chamber here is what we use for mass teleports.”

They followed her out of the foyer into the broad, domed space beyond. The floor was engraved with concentric rings, each elaborately marked by runes, making multiple spell circles of varying size and purpose. More enchanted equipment was positioned around the edges of the space, some of it extending overhead toward the middle of the chamber; much of this was immediately identifiable as scrying devices, consisting of mirrors, telescopes, and constantly-changing maps. It probably would have taken a wizard to understand the purpose of all the various banks of crystals, glass, wire and metal. Or perhaps a witch, to judge by the way Schwartz avidly stared around at everything.

Despite the chamber being broader than the tower itself, arched doorways opened off it in multiple directions, leading to halls which extended into the distance beyond sight, lined with more doors. Several wizards passed in and out of these, though as the Archmage and her companions took up positions around the circle and scrying equipment, they hurriedly got out of the way. Several lingered in the doorways to watch, eyeing Trissiny in particular and whispering to each other. To judge by what they wore, the Wizards’ Guild had a most peculiar dress code. Everyone wore suits, but the majority were shabby, out of style, and markedly disheveled.

The five of them clustered not far into the room, trying not to feel awkward as they were abruptly being ignored. Schwartz craned his neck about, lips moving soundlessly as he studied the machinery and whispered to himself, but the rest were left to just…stand.

“I get what you mean, Darius,” Tallie muttered. “Man, all this magic shit is over my head…”

“Apologies, the Archmage is a very…task-oriented person,” said the sharply-dressed man who had greeted them at the door with a faint smile. He had just finished activating a bank of power crystals next to a huge scrying mirror at which two of his colleagues were already working. “Your request requires some considerable planning. We have more than sufficient power reserves here that a five-person teleportation across the continent will not be a hardship, but this demands absolutely precise data before we act. In any kind of teleportation, precision is paramount. The consequences of the slightest mistake are…exceedingly ugly.”

“Uh, yes,” Darius said emphatically, nodding. “I’m in favor of whatever doesn’t get us turned into soup or stuck halfway through a wall.”

“The soup thing is practically unheard of,” the man replied with a faint smirk, turning to join his associates at the mirror.

“Practically?” Layla said shrilly.

“A little wizards’ humor,” Schwartz said, patting her lightly on the back. “Really, I dunno what it is about arcane magic, but they’re more macabre even than the warlocks. Anyway, he’s right, stuff like that hardly ever happens. Most teleportation accidents involve re-materialization errors that leave pieces out or accidentally integrate their subject with an unforeseen object in the landing area. A complete physical breakdown like he described can really only occur if the data stream is interrupted by a dimensional rift of some kind—a chaos event, or hellgate, or accidental intersection with a shadow-jump in progress. The odds of that—”

“Schwartz, man, I love you,” Darius said seriously, “but shut the hell up. Right now.”

Layla had squeezed her eyes shut and appeared to be whispering to herself.

“Ah…sorry. I was just trying to be reassuring. The point is, any such thing is extraordinarily unlikely! That’s the reason for all this preparatory work they are doing. I mean, with magic, nothing is truly impossible, but only in the rarest circumstances does a standard teleport result in—”

“Schwartz!”

“Hey.” In contrast to the unfolding argument, Tallie’s voice was almost imperceptibly soft. She had edged away from the others to where Trissiny was standing a little distant from the group, staring into space, and nudged her armored side with an elbow. “I see you there, brooding. Don’t do that, your face’ll freeze that way.”

Trissiny sighed softly, not looking at her. “Sorry.”

Tallie tilted her head slightly, studying the other girl’s face in profile. “You don’t need to apologize to me.”

“I didn’t just mean—”

“I know, Jas, I’m not an idiot.” She sighed and folded her arms, now looking to the side. “Look, I’m past the point where I might have been mad at you keeping secrets. We’ve all had…more important stuff to feel, today. Anyway, nothing’s really changed. You were always right, it was none of my business, and I definitely see why you kept it to yourself.” She cracked a grin, turning to look at the paladin again. “Hell, if anything I feel a little better. Secrets mostly bug me because I’m afflicted with insatiable curiosity; it’s a challenge, anything I don’t know. Sort of like…I needed to prove I wasn’t stupid by figuring out the truth. Well, ‘secret Hand of freakin’ Avei’ is one I was just never gonna guess. Honestly, how could I? So, not my fault.”

There was silence for a moment before Trissiny replied. “You’re right, personal business is just that. That isn’t what I meant. Everything that happened today is my fault, and we both know it.”

“Bullshit.” Her voice was loud enough to cut off the bickering going off a few feet away. Tallie stepped closer, Trissiny turning to face her in surprise. “What, you get your shiny armor and your high horse back and suddenly you think you get to be responsible for all of us? No, uh uh. With all due respect, General, screw you. We make our choices and we face the consequences, all of us. I am not a side character in someone else’s story, not even yours.”

“I could have ended that at any time,” Trissiny replied, still quietly. “Or before it got to that point. It was me keeping secrets that—”

“You know what, if I thought you were to blame, I’d blame you. You know damn well I would. Jas—Trissiny, I killed Ross.”

“What?!” Trissiny took a step toward her, clearly aghast. “Tallie, no—”

She reached out, but Tallie stepped back out of range. “Come on, you were there! That priestess shot him by accident. Ross was right: she wasn’t a murderer, didn’t have that in her. She was trying to psych herself up to do it while he was trying to psych her down, and he was a lot more persuasive. But then I stood up, which made the soldier yell, which made her jump and squeeze the clicker. Me. I did it.”

“Tallie,” Trissiny said miserably. Behind Tallie, the others stared in silence.

“And you bet your shiny ass I will spend a lot of nights crying over that,” Tallie said flatly, her eyes already shining with moisture. “There’s no way not to feel what you feel. But you know what? I am not going to brood, or wallow. It was a fucked up situation. We made mistakes, all of us, and it went horribly wrong. But goddamn it, we tried. We did our best. Ross deserves better than for any of us to just shrivel up. Mistakes are to be learned from, not curled up around. And that goes for you too, Ms. Fancy Paladin. Yeah, I believe you fucked up, you probably could have done something different, maybe better. So don’t do that next time. But you loved Ross just as much as any of us and you didn’t mean for this to happen.”

She stepped forward again, and held out her hand.

“No fucking brooding, Jasmine. For Ross’s sake. We learn, and we’ll do better next time. We’re not gonna wallow like losers. If you can’t do that on your own, then make it a pact between us. Shake on it.”

Trissiny stared, her own eyes bright. After a moment, though, she reached out and clasped Tallie’s open hand with her own.

“…a pact, then. You’re right, Tallie, mistakes are to be learned from. When’d you get to be so much wiser than me?”

“Pff, don’t act like that’s new.” Despite the tears glittering in her eyes, Tallie cracked a grin. “It’s called an upbringing. I love you guys, but you’re a bunch of fucking rubes, always have been.”

“Ahem?”

They all turned to find Archmage Raasvedh standing two yards away, hands folded before her.

“Sorry to interrupt, but there is a slight problem.”

“A problem?” Trissiny hastily scrubbed a hand across her eyes, not seeming bothered by the metal-plated gauntlet. Tallie, though, winced slightly, flexing the fingers she had recently squeezed. “How slight?”

“There appears to be a massive storm in Puna Dara right now,” Raasvedh reported. “This makes our business far more complicated. Ordinarily you would want to be teleported to an open space, which would be a matter of picking any unoccupied one which would fit the needs of your insertion. However, this is a ‘raining sideways’ kind of storm. Water passing through the space is a catastrophic thing to materialize into, and that doesn’t even account for flying debris. The wind itself, even if it was bone-dry… Point being, these are the worst possible conditions to ‘port into.”

“Wait…does that mean you can’t do it?” Darius asked, frowning.

Raasvedh shook her head. “Merely that it’s a little more complicated. We’re going to have to scry for a suitable indoor space. In Puna Dara, that’ll most likely mean a dockside warehouse. And that means trespass via magic, which is a big enough offense in the Empire. I don’t know the actual laws offhand, but the Punaji in general are very big on both privacy and business.”

“The warning is appreciated,” Trissiny said, inclining her head politely. “We will take extra care not to disrupt anything when we arrive.”

“Well, that’s great and all,” Raasvedh said dryly, “but with my Guild being responsible for doing this, we have liability.”

“Ah. Yes, of course. As it happens, Princess Zaruda is a very close friend of mine. If anyone’s feathers are ruffled, I’m sure we’ll be able to smooth it over. And if not, I will personally assume all responsibility.”

“Fair enough,” said the Archmage with a little smile. “That’s all I needed to hear. There’s another thing you ought to know: this storm isn’t natural.”

Trissiny frowned. “Not natural? How?”

“It doesn’t match with the surrounding weather patterns, which means it was summoned very abruptly and will also blow itself out pretty fast. But we checked the vicinity and found a colossal amount of unfocused divine residue out to sea which explains where it came from. This particular storm is an act of the gods. Or, far more likely, a god in particular: Naphthene.”

“Huh,” Darius grunted. “Any idea why she’d hit Puna Dara with a storm?”

“There is absolutely no telling,” Schwartz said, shrugging. “Naphthene hasn’t even got priests, and she’s rather notoriously…touchy. She just does things like this sometimes. It could be something as simple as somebody spilling chum on one of her harbor shrines. It’s not likely to be anything to do with us,” he added, turning to address Trissiny.

“Is the origin of the storm relevant to your calculations for the teleport?” Trissiny asked the Archmage.

“It won’t make a difference what caused the weather,” Raasvedh said with a grin. “But you’re charging into the place after rebel cultists; it sounded like the kind of detail you’d want to know, going in.”

“Quite right. Thank you for informing us.”

“That reminds me, though,” Raasvedh said thoughtfully. “You know Arachne Tellwyrn quite well, don’t you, General?”

Trissiny hesitated. “I…doubt whether anyone knows Tellwyrn well. I see her often enough, though.”

“Well, that’ll do. There is a little favor you could do for me, if you are so inclined.”

“Oh?” Trissiny’s tone was openly wary, but Raasvedh just grinned more broadly.

“I’m a tremendous fan. If you could get me her autograph, that would be fantastic.”

“Oh,” Trissiny said in relief. “Well… That’s the kind of request that makes her curse and start throwing fireballs, but it’s not like I haven’t survived worse. I’ll definitely ask her; it’s the least I can do. In fact, if you’re interested, I might be able to arrange for you to meet her.”

“Oh, gods, no. I’m a fan because we’re far too similar in temperament; one of us would end up dead.”

“That would be you, Archmage,” Lessa called cheerfully from across the room. “Tellwyrn has beat up Zanzayed the Blue with her bare hands at least twice!”

“I’m gonna polymorph that girl into a barnacle one of these days,” Raasvedh muttered. “Thanks, General. Now if you kids will move toward the center circle, please, we’re locating an insertion point for you; we’ll let you know when we’re ready. Any particular needs we should watch for?”

“Discreet,” Trissiny said. “We’d prefer to be able to get out without being noticed, to scout the situation before acting.”

“Well, thanks to the storm, that part will be easy. Even the Punaji will be indoors in a mess like this.” The Archmage turned back toward her colleagues at the nearby scrying mirror, who were muttering to each other and pointing at images appearing in the glass. “You may have trouble scouting, though…”

“Close, personal friend of the Princess,” Tallie muttered as they made their way toward the center as directed. “Knows Arachne fucking Tellwyrn. Honestly, shit like that is gonna take more getting used to than the armor, Jasmine.”

“Tellwyrn’s always teleporting people everywhere without any planning,” Trissiny said, shaking her head. “I never appreciated how impressive that actually is, I guess. Mostly it’s just obnoxious.”

“Not to mention presumptuous and highly rude,” Schwartz said with a frown. “Some cultures object to teleportation on religious and/or philosophical grounds.”

“And it’s Trissiny,” Layla added primly. “Respect cover, Tallie, you know that. When she’s not disguised you don’t throw around her cover name.”

“Yeah, yeah. Trissiny. What kind of name is that, anyway?”

“Elvish,” said the paladin with a wry grimace. “It means ‘silk tree.’”

“Wow.” Darius mimicked her expression. “I’m really starting to understand why you don’t get on with your mom.”

“You’ve noticed I have a sword now, right?”

“All right!” Raasvedh called to them. “We have an insertion point! A half-empty warehouse just off the waterfront, no sapients or active magic inside. Are you ready?”

“As we’ll ever be,” Schwartz replied, glancing at the others. Meesie hopped onto his head and grabbed a firm grip of blonde hair, flattening herself against his skull.

“Then godspeed, kids,” the Archmage said, raising her hands.

The lines on the floor around them flared a piercing blue-white, a shrill whine rose at the very edge of hearing, and then with a sharp electric crackle, the world vanished around them.

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13 – 34

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Such a procession drew attention and created a ripple of rumor that quickly swept across the city. It was early afternoon by the time they reached the wealthy district in which the Imperial Casino lay, and by that point, the news of their coming had preceded them. Well-dressed men and women had gathered on the sidewalks to stare, but mostly had the decency to remove their hats and lower their eyes in respect as the group passed. The street was also thronged with silent, grim-faced thieves of the Guild, waiting.

Trissiny walked in the front in full armor, her expression closed and eyes straight ahead, leading her silver-clad warhorse by his reins. Arjen followed with his own head lowered, surrounded by four young people, two men and two women. Only Schwartz stood out visibly, in his Salyrite robes and with Meesie riding on his shoulder. He, Tallie, and the Sakhavenid siblings kept pace with Arjen, each with one steadying hand on the carefully-wrapped bundle lying across the huge horse’s saddle. Though fully swathed, it apparent even without the presence of obvious pallbearers that it was a body.

Four Silver Legionnaires followed them, in uniform but helmetless and conspicuously absent their weapons, shivering in the winter air and looking a great deal more nervous than Legionnaires usually did in public. At the end of the procession walked a fifth soldier: Covrin had her helmet on, shield in hand, and lance held menacingly as if she intended to prod the woman in front of her at the slightest provocation. Beside her, also bare-headed and with an expression promising retribution, was Bishop Syrinx, her golden eagle-wrought sword drawn and ready.

The broad avenue terminated in a broad cul-de-sac before the steps of the Casino itself, the space now lined with quiet onlookers. Dozens of civilians murmured and jostled each other to stare, most of them in the expensive attire of the Casino’s usual clientele, but none tried to push past the perimeter of cold-faced Guild thieves enforcing a clear area in front of the steps.

Everyone stood where they were as Trissiny led the group straight toward the front doors of the Casino, with one exception. She had been standing on the top stair, watching up the street, and now as they approached, Style strode down and through the crowd. Only thieves had placed themselves in front of the steps, and so nobody had to be pushed bodily out of her way. They all knew better than to impede her.

Trissiny finally came to a stop near the center of the plaza. Style strode right up to and then past her, seeming not to notice anyone standing there and not the least bit impressed by the divine warhorse. Darius yielded his position and she came right up to Arjen’s side.

All muttering and coughing had utterly ceased among the onlookers by the time Style slipped her brawny arms, bare even in the cold, under Ross’s body and lifted him from the horse’s back. Despite his size, she did it with no apparent effort, but it was not her physical strength that held the watching enforcers silent. Everyone knew Style’s capacity for brute power, but rarely had they seen the towering chief enforcer’s face as it was now, crumpled with pain as if she might begin weeping any second.

The Hand of Avei stood to the side, head lowered, while Style carefully laid Ross upon the paving stones, and with amazing gentleness, folded back the white quilt with which they had covered him to reveal his face. He was already too pale to be merely sleeping.

At no apparent signal, every Eserite ringing the plaza silently raised their right fist defiantly to the sky.

“Lest the mighty grow complacent.” Lore’s voice was not raised—in fact, he spoke barely above a murmur from the top of the Casino’s steps. In the silence, though, he was clearly heard by all present. “Be warned: a thief can die, but the fight cannot.”

“WE ARE STILL HERE.”

Hundreds of voices, even in a respectfully soft tone, were deafening when they spoke in unison. The sounded from the enforcers circling the plaza, from the alleys and windows and rooftops all around. At this, finally, some of the civilian watchers began shuffling away, trying carefully to move up the street from the casino without creating a disruption that might draw attention. These were rich people, the kind the Thieves’ Guild existed to humble. It was one thing to play with danger by idling in the thieves’ own casino; being surrounded by the Guild in this mood was a horse of a different color.

Several enforcers came closer, forming a smaller, less precise ring around the group—not so much delineating space as making it plain by their presence, turned outward to stare flatly at the crowd, that no one was welcome to approach. Around them, though some stubborn rubberneckers remained to gawk, the crowd was beginning to stream away with enough speed that its sounds quickly grew loud enough to cover conversation. They were encouraged along by thieves turning from the scene in the middle of the plaza to give pointed looks at those who remained, several toying idly with weapons.

Style carefully folded the quilt back over Ross’s face. Still kneeling over him, she paused for a long moment to draw two steadying breaths before straightening back up to her full, intimidating height.

“All right,” the chief enforcer said simply. “Who did it?”

She turned to stare at the four disarmed Legionnaires, all of whom drew closer together in alarm and would have tried to back away had Covrin not deliberately planted the tip of her lance against the back of the sergeant’s breastplate.

“None of them,” Trissiny said evenly. “The murderer preferred death to justice. I…failed to apprehend her. That’s on me.”

“I’ll assume that’s the armor talking,” Style said shortly. “Avenist justice may be complicated, but as far at the Guild is concerned, if you killed the killer, that’s settled. Now I want to know what role this lot played, and why you brought them to me.”

“These are accomplices,” Trissiny said, turning to give the four a cold look. “They are guilty of abducting Ross, and also Schwartz here, but none of them did him any harm beyond that. Private Ulster, there, broke from them and raised steel on her comrades when Ross was shot. I don’t think they wanted anything to do with murder, and that one at least had the spine to take a stand, even if it was too late to be useful. We brought them here because they need to be debriefed and held until the Imperial investigators rounding up this conspiracy can finish their work. And right now, the Sisterhood of Avei is not trustworthy. I don’t want any more fish slipping the net before Commander Rouvad gets her house in order.”

“Well, you heard the General.” Boss Tricks materialized from the crowd as if he had teleported, pacing up to the group with an uncharacteristically dark expression. “We’ve got some guests, people. See that they’re comfortable.”

Several of the surrounding enforcers stepped forward, two hefting cudgels and Grip, at their head, toying pointedly with a long knife. The soldiers drew into an even tighter knot, eyes widening, and the sergeant finally found her voice.

“Now, just a minute here. High Commander Rouvad specifically said Legionnaires aren’t to be held by—”

Trissiny crossed to them with astonishing speed for someone in armor, her sword clearing her scabbard as she came; Schwartz barely got out of her way fast enough to avoid being run over. Sergeant Raathi broke off with an undignified squeak when the edge of the paladin’s blade came to rest against her throat.

“Rouvad,” Trissiny said icily, “is not here. I am. If I were to take your head off your shoulders right now, Sergeant, who among those present do you think will raise a whisper of complaint?”

Bishop Syrinx twirled her own sword, the flash of motion intended to catch Raathi’s attention, then deliberately sheathed the weapon, folded her arms, and smirked. Raathi’s throat moved abortively, as if she had started to swallow and then changed her mind.

“You will cooperate with the Guild,” Trissiny continued after enough of a pause had stretched out to make her point plain. “You will answer any questions you are asked and cause no trouble, and if I receive a favorable report of your conduct, I will make certain it’s considered at your trial. Do otherwise and I won’t do anything at all, and you can learn for yourself how far Commander Rouvad’s say-so goes among the Thieves’ Guild. Do I make myself plain?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Trissiny held her gaze for a moment longer before lowering the sword and turning her back dismissively on the four. “Boss, I’m trusting that they won’t be mistreated here.”

“No call for that, I don’t think,” Tricks said, studying the armored women dispassionately. “Long as they do what’s asked of ’em, it’s better for the whole business if they have no cause to complain about their treatment when it’s time for trials and sentencing. We do know a thing or two about handling the justice system, after all. In fact, we can consider that my official verdict on the matter.” The Boss raised his voice and subtly shifted to direct his words to the crowd at large. “The law is already closing in on this conspiracy, and seems to have most of ’em in hand. If it does so, fine; the Guild won’t contest the right of way with the Empire. But. These bastards have killed one of our own—an apprentice. There will be no more mercy offered. I officially no longer give a shit about interfaith procedure. Any member of this conspiracy who is not safely in Imperial custody by sunset will be found hanging in the doorway of their own temple by dawn. Be they altar boys or High Commanders, I don’t care. Eserite blood is never the last to be spilled. I have spoken.”

He received a round of sharp nods, and almost every Guild thief present who was not already moving to escort the four Legionnaires into the Casino turned and began melting away into the shadows and alleyways.

“Why have I got the strangest fucking feeling,” Style said grimly, folding her arms, “that you kids aren’t done making a goddamn mess.”

Darius cleared his throat. “Style, none of us are in any mood. If you even suggest what happened to Ross is our fault, I’m gonna come over there and smack you one.”

She raised her eyebrows fractionally. “Boy, you have to know I can demolish you with one hand.”

“I surely do, and I’ll do it anyway.”

“The defiance is good, Darius, but keep it pointed where it deserves,” Tricks said firmly. “No infighting, not right now. Kids, I expect great things from all of you, and believe me, I know what it feels like to want retribution. You all know our doctrine of revenge, though.”

“You…have a doctrine for that?” Schwartz asked hesitantly.

“Revenge should only be sought,” Tallie recited in a quiet monotone, “if it serves both a strategic and personal goal. Strategic in that it will dissuade the target or others from committing more actions that demand retaliation. Personal in that the target must understand by whom and for what they are being punished, and be unable to prevent their comeuppance, because only in that circumstance will it bring satisfaction.”

“That is disturbingly insightful,” he muttered.

“And the killer is dead,” Tricks stated, glancing at Trissiny. “which takes that off the table. The people responsible for the whole debacle are being rounded up by far more effective agents than you. This is not a situation where you can help.”

“Not more effective than her,” Tallie said defiantly, also turning to Trissiny.

“And,” Layla added, “it seems the one person most responsible is in no position to be rounded up.”

Tricks shot a look at Syrinx, who still had her arms folded and was now listening without expression.

“If you kids are thinking of trying to rough up the Archpope, so help me I will put you all in cells until you cool down. I don’t care whose Hand any of you are.”

Arjen turned to stare at him, laying his ears back, which the Boss ignored.

“Excuse me, I’m not even in your cult,” Schwartz said testily.

“I think it’s pretty significant we didn’t even have to say who we’re all talking about,” Tallie said dryly.

“And no,” Trissiny added, “no one’s talking about going to the Cathedral and attacking Justinian. No one here is stupid enough to think that would work.”

“Yo.” Darius raised his hand. “Totally that stupid, for the record. That’s why I let my baby sister tag along all the time, she’s the plan person.”

“I take full credit for his survival to date,” Layla said primly.

“It seems,” Trissiny continued, “the events of this week in Tiraas are just one part of something that has parallels in Last Rock and Puna Dara. While Justinian’s name has been brought up a lot, the truth is we haven’t absolute proof that he is the one orchestrating all this behind the scenes. Which means that both justice and revenge can be best sought without attacking him directly. Whoever is responsible for this, I mean to go make certain they get nothing they want today, and that they see who wrecked their careful plans.”

Style swelled like a bullfrog, but then released the air in a heavy sigh. “And so you’re thinking of taking my apprentices and charging off to Last Rock to help your little adventurer friends?”

“She’s not taking us anywhere,” Tallie stated, glaring at her. “We’re going with. You can dish out whatever punishment you want when we get back, Style, but this is fucking well happening. Live with it.”

“And no,” Trissiny said before Style could retort. “Last Rock is a monster that eats overweening fools; anybody who wants to try their luck with Tellwyrn and my classmates is welcome to have at it. But Puna Dara is not prepared for the kinds of trouble someone like Justinian can unleash, and I have a good friend who will never forgive me if I turn my back on the Punaji when they need help. That is where I’m going. And as far as I’m concerned, everyone here has the right to come if they choose to exercise it.”

“I swear,” Style muttered, shaking her head. “A thorn in my ass to the very end.”

“You realize, kid,” Tricks said quietly, “that not everybody is secretly a paladin. The kind of trouble that you exist to stamp down gets regular people killed. How many friends are you looking to lose today?”

“If you can persuade them not to come,” she whispered, “do. Please.”

“We’ve had this out already,” Tallie said, much more firmly. “This isn’t the big bad paladin ordering us to fight. We’re Guild, Boss; nobody orders us to do jack shit.”

Style cleared her throat pointedly.

“What’re you grunting about?” Darius snorted. “It’s true and you know it. You complain about it often enough.”

“Historically speaking,” Layla added, “paladins do not operate alone; they have usually been the focus of adventurer teams. Three thieves and a witch makes for pretty good backup, I’d say.”

“Apprentice thieves!” Style grated.

Tricks shook his head, but held up a hand. “Technically, I do have the prerogative to forbid you from going.” He gave Style a long, pensive look. “But…we’re not big on technicalities here, are we?”

“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” she said incredulously.

“A great doom is coming,” the Boss murmured. “Shit’s going down, Style. I’ve heard from the Big Guy himself about our pet paladin, here. The word is to give her space to do what she wants, unless she gets into something we specifically cannot support. This is Guild retribution of exactly the kind our very few doctrines support. If any thieves want to have her back, apprentice or no… They’re cleared to go.”

Style turned her back, cursing monotonously under her breath.

“But you,” Tricks said grimly to Trissiny, “just keep in mind that raising a fist in defiance is the why but not the how of Eserion’s people. You assess the situation, you act with strategy, and you don’t take needless risks with our people’s lives.”

“You don’t need to tell me,” she replied, “but I appreciate that you did, nonetheless. I don’t plan to lose anybody else, today.”

“Yeah?” he shot back. “Did you plan to lose Ross?”

“Okay, that was not necessary,” Schwartz snapped. Meesie hopped onto his head and chittered angry agreement.

“It’s not wrong, though,” Trissiny said quietly. “Anything could happen. In war, people die.”

“You gotta trust us on this, Boss,” Tallie said, wearing a grim little smile. “I’ve been thinking on it all the way over. The biggest advantage of having our very own paladin isn’t even her capacity to break shit: it’s that with her riding at the head, nobody’ll even see us coming.”

Tricks heaved a sigh, rolling his eyes. “She said, in the middle of the street.”

That prompted a round of winces and glances around. Actually his concern might have been overstated; most of the onlookers had left, either voluntarily or shooed away by enforcers, and nobody who remained was within earshot. What was left of the crowd was again generating enough typical city noise to cover their conversation.

“Hey, give her a break,” Darius said reasonably. “After all, we’re just apprentices.”


“How’s it look out there, Sanrachi?” one of the gathered soldiers asked merrily as their soaking-wet comrade entered the barracks.

“Fucking glorious,” she replied with the same good cheer, settling onto one of the benches close to the fireplace and picking up a rag from the supplies laid out there. She began removing, drying and oiling her gear as she continued, not seeming to mind the rainwater that plastered her own clothes and hair. “It’s one of Naphthene’s own rages out there. I can’t believe you lazy sods are sitting around in here instead of out playing in the rain.”

“Yeah, well, you can go back out when your shift is over,” the lieutenant presently in charge said, looking up from his book and raising an eyebrow. “We’re all on standby. If that means missing a really good blow, well, life’s hard.”

“Not me!” another man called. “I haven’t missed a really good blow since I met Apta’s—”

“Yeah, yeah, my sister’s a whore, we’ve all heard it,” a fellow soldier grunted, tossing a boot at him without raising his attention from his game of chess. “You need some new material.”

The small barracks was on the second floor of the Rock’s southern gatehouse, set inside the massive outer wall of the fortress itself. This was not the main troop housing, but served as a common area where soldiers stationed on gate watch gathered. At times like this, the policy was to have enough troops on the ramparts to keep watch over the city, but more in reserve below not being distracted and tired out by having to remain alert in the middle of a storm. As much as Punaji enjoyed stormy weather as a rule, manning the top of a wall during a tropical gale as fierce as the one now raging could wear a person out. Sanrachi’s replacement had already gone above to relieve her, and another swap would take place in half an hour. With the weather this bad, the twelve soldiers patrolling the gatehouse’s towers would be rotated constantly, so there was always someone with fresh eyes on the city.

In theory, the Rock should have nothing to fear from the people of Puna Dara, but the very fact of the Punaji affinity for storms meant that watchers on the walls could not trust the weather alone to keep the gates clear, as might be the practice elsewhere.

“All quiet out there?” the lieutenant asked, then had to pause for a particularly loud clap of thunder. “…you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sanrachi said, grinning. “The usual. Some folks out in the street, but not a sign of these Rust bastards. I guess their name’s not a complete coincidence, huh? They seem shy about getting wet. So, uh…” She glanced curiously at some of the new arrivals, whose silver armor stood out strikingly among the Punaji uniforms. “What brings you out here, Sisters? I heard you were honored guests of the royal family.”

“That’s the theory,” Ephanie said lightly, “but we’re letting our LT hog all the honor. Honestly, you know how it is. We all complain about the digs we’re assigned, but put me on plush carpeting and silk sheets and I’m afraid to touch anything. I have no idea which one’s even the shrimp fork.”

“Shrimp fork’s the one you use to stab the shrimp who complains about what fork you’re eating with!” shouted the man who’d made the crack about Apta’s sister, earning a round of guffaws.

“Well, you’re welcome in here,” the lieutenant said, smiling warmly at her. In fact, Ephanie in particular had been the focus of a fair amount of attention from most of the men and several of the women stationed in this gatehouse. “Good company’s always appreciated. We don’t even mind you sharing the rations; we don’t go hungry around here.”

“Aw, we wouldn’t wanna be a burden,” Casey said cheerfully. “That’s why we keep Lang around! Someone so terrible at cards can’t help but make us friends.”

Merry scowled at her, slapping her handful of cards down on the table amid the laughter of the rest of the poker players. Indeed, her stack of pennies was the smallest by a wide margin. “I fucking knew it! That’s it, soon as we’re back in Tiraas I’m putting in a requisition for come compensation.”

While the joking and laughter carried on, Ephanie politely extracted herself from the lieutenant’s attention and went to join Nandi, who was standing by one of the windows, staring out at the storm with a slight frown.

“All right, Shahai?” she asked softly. “I’ve never known you to be bothered by a little thunder and lightning.”

“It isn’t that,” Nandi said slowly. “I can almost hear…something.”

Ephanie’s eyebrows drew together pensively. “Can you be a little more specific?”

“I wish I could, Avelea. I cannot pick it out, but I have the sense that there is a background sound that…” She trailed off, then finally tore her eyes from the window to look at Ephanie directly. “Elven hearing is a matter of focus. Discerning as many sounds as we do, we’d go mad from over-stimulation if we did not learn to tune most of it out. There is an art to hearing almost everything in one’s vicinity and deciding, subconsciously, what is important. Sometimes the fact that this is art and not science works against us. Something is nagging at me, and I cannot fix my attention upon it. The storm and the soldiers, obviously, do not help.”

“I’ve never seen you do that, either,” Ephanie said, studying her. “You have a great deal of experience to draw on, Shahai. Is this ringing any bells at all? Anything you want to tell me about?”

Nandi’s eyes had narrowed in concentration, tracking to the side as she listened, but at that she fixed her gaze back on Ephanie’s. “It’s nothing I would be comfortable initiating action based upon, but… My experience has been that when I have this sensation, it means someone nearby is attempting to be very stealthy, aware that an elf can hear them. Stealthier than a normal human is capable of being.”

Ephanie nodded slowly. “All right. Thanks for the warning; I’ll discreetly notify the others to be on the alert, but I don’t think we want to spook the local troops just yet.”

“No…tell their lieutenant, at least,” Merry said, having abandoned the last of her pennies and joined them in time to catch the latter part of their exchange. “We’re not the big damn heroes here, that’s those Last Rock kids and possibly Locke. We came here to support the Punaji; I think it’s a bad idea to have the attitude that these troopers are yokels who can’t be trusted to take care of their own city. We should share intel that might be important. Uh, I mean…ma’am.” She finished weakly, belatedly noticing Ephanie’s very pointed stare.

“Mouth off like that in front of anyone, Lang, and I’m gonna have to land on you,” Ephanie said dryly, “but with that said, you are dead right and I thank you for the reminder. Just learn to watch your tone. Most of the Legions do not share Locke’s idea of military comportment.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Merry said contritely.

Ephanie nodded to Nandi. “I’ll go have a discreet word with their LT. I’ve been getting the vibe he’d be happy enough to speak with me in private. It should be his call what to tell his troops, if anything, and if he doesn’t believe me, that’s that.”

“I find human soldiers are often impressed by ‘elf stuff’ to an almost superstitious degree,” Nandi said, her grave tone somewhat spoiled by the twitch of her lips. “Don’t hesitate to mention the ears.”

Ephanie grinned and patted her shoulder. “Back shortly. Keep those ears perked and let me know if you can pick anything important out.”

“Will do.”

Not even an elf could have heard the distortion of candle smoke, or even the movement of air as it was displaced by an invisible body in the rafters; with all the noise of the storm and the boisterous soldiers present, the hidden figure above managed to creep from beam to beam all the way to the stairwell door without drawing further attention.

Rather than risk opening it herself, she had to wait for the next shift change and slip out after the soldier who went to relieve his counterpart upon the battlements. It was a simple enough matter to trip him while he was opening the heavy wooden door, providing her with an opportunity to squeeze past and scamper almost silently up the stairs.

At the top, troopers were hunkered down against the battlements themselves, lifelines tied to their belts in case of someone being blown over the edge. With the wind roaring as it was, Kheshiri didn’t even try to unfurl her wings; she’d have been instantly picked up and hurled halfway to the Stalrange. Flattening herself against the floor and as close to the inner wall as she could, she made her way carefully across, mindful of both storm and soldiers, heading for the other gatehouse—the one not currently inhabited by an elf.

This delay had cost her time. The others would be getting impatient; Shook could only take his frustrations out on her later, but if Khadizroth feared she had been intercepted he might go and do something unfortunate. She would have to move faster to get the gate open, which meant creating an opportunity rather than waiting for one.

The thought was enough to set her tail waving in anticipation.

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13 – 32

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The back door opened onto a perfectly ordinary kitchen, dim with the lack of any active fairy lamps or torches. There was both a modern arcane stove and an old-fashioned hearth, neither showing signs of having been in recent use. The apprentices crept through with all the silence their training had granted them, even Meesie perching still and quiet on Jasmine’s shoulder. It was hard to tell how intelligent the little fire elemental actually was, but despite her clear agitation over Schwartz’s abduction, she was able to follow orders well enough, at least once Jasmine had explained the necessity.

In truth, there was some cover for their movements, as Bishop Syrinx had evidently found someone, to judge by the raised voices echoing from somewhere in the house—both female, one hers. Tallie took the lead, gesturing for the rest to follow, and peeked around the kitchen door the way she had been taught: approaching it backwards, leaning her head to the side around the corner and presenting the smallest possible profile while glancing rapidly about with one eye.

She gestured them again, indicating that room was clear, and they slipped into a parlor that was just as ordinary in appearance, and just as dim. The only light came from the windows; a lack of drawn drapes suggested someone was in residence and awake (one of the signs a thief was trained to look for), but there remained no sign of the house’s inhabitants, aside from Syrinx’s confrontation.

They froze at the ring of metal upon metal, accompanied by a shout. Jasmine started to lunge forward, but Tallie seized her by the arm, and she restrained herself in response, nodding acknowledgment of the silent reminder. Tallie resumed point position, creeping up to the other way into the room, which had no door and appeared to lead into an entrance hall.

She paused at the sound of heavy footsteps, and then more scuffling and another shout much closer at hand—just around the corner, in fact. There came a thump and a shriek, and then the distinctive ascending sound of booted feet running up a carpeted stairwell.

Tallie peeked carefully around the edge again, then glanced back at the others and beckoned them forward as she stepped brazenly into the foyer.

They found Jenell slumped against the banister of a staircase, shield dangling from her hand and sword lodged in the wall nearby, with her free hand pressed to the side of her head. Blood seeped from between her fingers. Syrinx was just arriving from another direction, also carrying a bared blade. She gave the apprentices a single dismissive glance, then her aura flashed alight and she raised a glowing hand to touch Jenell’s.

“I suppose after having you do secretarial work for months on end, Covrin, it’s not fair to expect you to be able to stand up to a real Legionnaire in a fight. Hold still, you flighty hen, this won’t take a moment.”

“Hey, that’s a head wound,” Darius said, crowding up behind Jasmine and Layla. “Shouldn’t she go to an actual—”

“Boy, if I ever ask for your opinion, it will mean I am possessed by a particularly inept demon and I want you to shoot me on the spot.” Syrinx lowered her hand and her glow, already stepping around Covrin to peer up the stairs. “Heading to an upper floor is a quick way to corner yourself, unless… Whatever that girl is up to, I had better put a stop to it. Covrin, come.”

“Wait!” Jasmine said quickly. “Show us where that soldier was standing. The exact spot.”

There was a pause in which the other apprentices frowned in confusion, while Jenell cast a wary look at Syrinx as if expecting some kind of outburst, but after a second the Bishop nodded thoughtfully.

“Quite right, well spotted. Straight down the hallway here is a small library; she was standing in front of the bookcase with the bust of Theasia on one shelf. Come, Covrin, time’s wasting.”

Once again they parted ways, and in much the same manner as before: Syrinx charging ahead and dragging Covrin along in her wake, while the apprentices moved most cautiously deeper into the house.

“Psst,” Darius whispered as they filed into the library, which was roughly the size of a bedroom, lined with laden bookshelves, and actually lit with fairy lamps. “Anybody know what Theasia looks like?”

Tallie swept a stare around the room. “Well, we do now, since there’s only one bust of anybody in here. Her Majesty was a handsome lady!” She crossed to the case in question, which was heavily laden with books, apart from the spots kept clear by bookends to create display space for the small bust, a unicorn horn in its own stand, and a bottle full of thick liquid that glowed faintly and moved in a continuous slow swirl. “Jas, you’re thinking secret entrance?”

“Only thing that makes sense of this,” Jasmine replied, still hovering by the door. “If they’re really short on personnel, like if they didn’t have enough to post guards at all entrances of the house, they might have just posted one on the sole entrance to wherever they’ve gone. Then, if the guard came under attack and couldn’t quickly retreat through it, she’d logically try to run to draw the attacker away. Meesie, is Schwartz behind that door?”

Meesie squeaked once, and leaned forward off Jasmine’s shoulder to point straight down.

“Layla, you’re the best with locks,” Tallie said. “Can you find the hidden whatchamajigger?”

“Ah, yes, in fact I know a trick for situations just such as this,” Layla said primly, stepping forward. The pulled a book off the shelf, then another, and another…

“Are you just trying every book?” Tallie demanded, softly as Layla continued to build a stack on a nearby table.

“If someone knows a faster way, that would be delightful. I know locks, not secret bookcases.”

“Careful, there,” Darius warned, hovering around her worriedly. “This is a warlock’s house and that’s apparently the door to his secret basement…”

“So be wary of traps, yes,” Tallie said, “but…I don’t think this guy is home. If there was a warlock in residence, it stands to reason we’d be having demon problems by now, after Syrinx blew the hell out of his wards.”

A hefty thump sounded from directly above them, followed by scuffling, a muffled shriek, and then more footsteps stomping away. They all stared at the ceiling for a moment, then Layla and Darius resumed dismantling the bookcase.

“One problem I see with your theory, Jas,” Darius grunted, setting an atlas down on the floor as quietly as possible. “Posting a guard on this entrance basically revealed what it was. That doesn’t seem smart.”

“How many of their actions so far have been smart?” she countered. “If the warlock’s not here, this may just be Legionnaires; remember the Bishops were out rounding up other members of the conspiracy. Some Avenist personnel are trained in intelligence tactics, but most rank-and-file won’t—”

“And click goes the mechanism!” Layla said smugly, her hand on an economics treatise which had not come all the way loose. Indeed, she and Darius then had to back away as the half-unloaded bookcase swung silently outward. Behind it was a dark stairwell, descending in a steep spiral into the unknown.

“Okay,” Tallie said grimly. “Slow and silent, people. This has got to be the last leg of the journey. We get down there, we scout, we do whatever needs doing. We all know our strengths. Any fighting, Jasmine takes point, followed by Darius. Layla’s best with nimble fingers and a silver tongue, so you’re on any filching or sweet-talking. I’m a cat burglar; I’ll do any stealthy clambering around the situation calls for. We may not be able to talk once we’re down there without revealing ourselves, so keep your eyes open and watch each other’s backs. Ready?”

A chorus of soft affirmations followed, including one from Meesie. Tallie nodded once, then turned and stepped into the darkness.

Gauging distance by feel was among the skills Guild thieves learned, but it was one that required practice to develop judgment, which none of them had had. It was clear, though, that this stairwell went down below the level of a basement. Below that would be the sewer system, which made sense; the Guild used the broad tunnels when they weren’t flooding, as did various other troublemakers, but that very fact made it unlikely that a warlock would use a sewer space for any secret purpose. Somebody would likely come across it, and it would be swept clean by the regular torrential runoffs from Tiraas’s heavy rains which were the reason its sewer tunnels were so broad.

Then again, rumors of secret, sealed-off chambers hidden within the tunnel system were as old as the sewers themselves…

Jasmine walked second after Tallie, with Meesie on her shoulder; the elemental’s glow wasn’t bright, but it was the only light they had, and barely enough to find their footing in the cramped stairwell. Darius, bringing up the rear, had the least illumination and descended with one hand on Layla’s shoulder.

They decreased their already slow pace as voices began to sound from below. The words were garbled beyond comprehension by distance and echo, but if nothing else it was a sign that they were close. A minute later, the faintest glow of light appeared.

The group paused, Tallie turning to look up at the rest of them. Jasmine picked Meesie up off her shoulder, lifting the mouse to her lips and whispering a few almost silent words. The little elemental sat bolt upright in her palm, whiskers twitching, and then nodded once and quickly squeezed herself into Jasmine’s sleeve. Without her reddish glow, the paler yellow of lamplight from below was all they had to go on.

It turned out they were closer than they’d realized; immediately around the next turn of the stairwell, a doorway appeared. Tallie crouched next to it, peeking carefully out, and then dropped to crawl on her belly through the opening. The others followed suit, each as the one in front cleared a space for them, emerging from the stairwell into an underground chamber lit only by a single fairy lamp.

Finally, they had a stroke of luck; this place might as well have been designed to give anyone entering from the stairs a tactical advantage over the room’s occupants. In fact, judging by a few rusted chains still bolted to the walls, that might have been literally the case. It was laid out exactly like the Pit back at Guild headquarters, only a fraction of the size; a stone path ran all the way around the edges of the room, at the level of the entrance, with a single flight of steps descending to the cubic depression below. Crawling along as flat as they could get to peek over the ledge, they had a perfect vantage.

And of course, by the time they emerged from the stairwell they could clearly hear the conversation taking place, and listened while getting themselves into position.

“But it’s different if it’s someone you know?”

“Yes! All right? Is that what you wanted to hear?” Ildrin Falaridjad’s voice cracked and she paused before continuing. “I have worked with Herschel, and he’s a sweet—look. I didn’t decide to kill the gnome, nor did I do it, nor would I have approved of that! All of that was on Tanenbaum!”

“Or on whoever he got his orders from…”

“I am the liaison to his Holiness!”

“You’re certain you’re the only one, Sister?”

Tallie was the first in position to peek over the edge; the others spread themselves out to the right, avoiding the steps which would be the first place the pit’s inhabitants would look for intruders.

Ildrin had been pacing up and down in agitation, and now stopped to glare at the Legionnaire wearing sergeant’s stripes, who was the one arguing with her. Two other Legionnaires, both privates, were standing against the wall, looking nervous.

Both their missing friends were against another wall. Schwartz lay in an awkward position; he had his wrists bound together in front of him (a rookie mistake as they all had been taught; you tied a prisoner’s hands behind them, especially if they were spellcasters) and was slumped on his side, clearly unconscious. Ross sat next to him with his back to the wall, awake and apparently perfectly calm, watching the argument unfold. It was hard to take cues from that. Ross was always calm.

“What are you insinuating, Raathi?” Ildrin demanded, glaring at the sergeant. Tallie gently nudged Jasmine, then tilted her head once significantly and received a nod in return. The Legionnaires were only carrying their traditional melee weapons, but Ildrin had a wand in her hands. In fact, she was twisting it nervously in both fists in a manner that would send anyone schooled in basic wand safety into a rage.

“I don’t mean to insinuate anything,” Sergeant Raathi said, meeting the priestess’s gaze without flinching, “but we need to face the fact that this situation is completely out of control. Tanenbaum was supposed to be here to tell us our next steps, but he’s not. You are supposed to be acting on orders directly from the Archpope, but he was just in a public pulpit yesterday denouncing people exactly like us!”

“His Holiness is wise, and clever,” Ildrin shot back. “Obviously, he had to deflect attention from—”

“And were you told that or did you assume it after the fact?” one of the other soldiers interrupted.

“Can it, private,” Raathi barked. Ildrin glared at the girl who had spoken, who shrank back against the wall, all the military stiffness leaking from her shoulders.

Tallie, meanwhile, had been instigating a series of nudges to get everyone’s attention, and now began gesticulating. She pointed at Jasmine and then Darius, and then to the stairs down to the pit, finally making a sign to wait. Tapping her own forehead, she indicated the far corner of the room, behind Ildrin, then pointed at Layla and made a couple of hand signals at which the girl in question frowned in confusion.

Jasmine nodded once, though, and Darius leaned close to his sister to whisper directly in her ear. He and Jasmine would draw attention via the main stairs; Tallie, being the most limber, would ambush Ildrin from above and behind and take that wand out of play, and Layla was to hang back until the scuffle got underway, the intervene in whatever manner opportunity provided to tip the balance. They had no way of waking Schwartz, but with the wand down Ross would be able to help. Hopefully, they would collectively be enough to fend off the Legionnaires.

“Insubordination aside,” Raathi was saying, turning back to Ildrin, “she has a point. Do you know what is happening, Sister?”

“I…” Ildrin trailed off, turning a helpless stare on Schwartz and Ross, and swallowed. The hair at her temples was slick with sweat. Again, she fidgeted dangerously with the wand, and both privates began edging away from the direction in which it happened to be pointed.

“Aimless grunting is not what I want to hear,” Raathi snapped. “Goddess, we just abducted an apprentice of the Thieves’ Guild! Arresting them was one thing, but this. Tricks will send enforcers after our families if we don’t have a plan to get out of this situation, and here you are, making goldfish faces and stammering!”

“I did not tell you to do that!” Ildrin shrieked. “What were you thinking?!”

“Well, we had to do something! He was following and—it’s done, now, regardless. What about the witch, Falaridjad? You said he fought off Athan’Khar monsters! I had exactly one sleep dart, and he’s going to be waking up in minutes. What then? He’ll demolish us! Unless—”

“I am not going to murder an unconscious boy!” Ildrin snarled.

“Then him murdering us, that’s all right with you?”

“He won’t,” the priestess insisted. “I know him. Hershel wouldn’t harm anyone who didn’t… That is, unless he was…”

“Was what? Threatened? Abducted? Tied up and drugged? Falaridjad, you’re supposedly in charge, here. That means you need to come up with a plan. If you’re not going to kill him, what are we going to do?”

“We could surrender,” suggested the soldier who had spoken out previously.

“Private, you will shut your mouth!” Raathi growled.

“Ya could, though,” Ross said suddenly.

Everyone paused.

Jasmine and Darius were in position, flat on the ground out of sight just behind the stairs, she whispering to the quivering lump in her sleeve. Tallie had just reached her spot behind Ildrin, creeping low along the wall, and was in the process of worming forward to peek over the edge again; Layla just huddled in the far corner, looking surly at not having something more specific to do. All of them froze, as did the abductors in the pit.

“You just…be quiet,” Ildrin said at last with an unconvincing effort at authority.

“The thing is, you’re all right,” Ross said. “I mean, all correct, I don’t think anybody here’s all right. This mess is out of control, an’ it’s not really any of your fault. Well, maybe not all of it.”

“Shut up,” Ildrin snapped, brandishing the wand. “The last thing I’m going to do is listen to you!”

He shrugged; Darius, Jasmine, and Tallie had all wormed forward to peek carefully over the ledges, watching for the right moment. They had to time this precisely, and Ildrin was the dangerous element here. She was agitated and playing around with a deadly weapon. Unless they neutralized her quickly…

“I think you tried to do the right thing at every step,” Ross continued, his voice oddly nonchalant. “Started out want’n ta be moral an’ stand for what you believed, right? Dealt with the problem in front of you the best you could, an’ then the next thing, while it all got more an’ more outta control, till you’re ass-deep in kidnapping an’ murder an’ don’t really know how it happened. I can relate, a bit.”

Ildrin and the soldiers were all staring at him now, apparently stunned into silence. The apprentices above barely dared to breathe. If he could talk them down, this could all be over in the most perfect outcome they could hope for.

“I mean, not the kidnapping an’ stuff, that’s outside my area,” Ross continued. “But…doin’ your best and it all goin’ to hell anyway. I’ve been there. The private’s right. Sorry, miss, didn’t get yer name,” he added to the soldier. “Maybe you just gotta stop and realize what a mess you’re in, and… Y’know, stop. I think we’re in a thing now where doin’ anything more will just make it worse for—”

“All right, enough, shut up,” Ildrin said suddenly, gripping the wand again and holding it up. Behind her, Tallie tensed, preparing to burst into motion if she had to. Not that she could move faster than a lightning bolt… “Just…stop. You’re just trying to confuse me. We’re working on behalf of the Archpope. He is right, we are in the right, and this will work out. His Holiness has a plan. We just have to…to stay the…”

Ross grunted, then moving slowly as if to avoid spooking a skittish horse, began standing up.

“Stop it!” Ildrin said shrilly, pointing the wand directly at him. Sergeant Raathi rested a hand on the hilt of her sword, but didn’t otherwise move. “Don’t you—just sit down!”

Disregarding her orders, Ross finished straightening, and took one step, placing himself between her and the unconscious form of Schwartz. He held up his hands, palms forward, and spoke quietly.

“Look, lady, I dunno your story. But just from listening to you, I can tell you’re better than this. You just wanted to do the right thing. Well, everything’s a mess right now, but… It’s time to do that. You gotta stop.”

“I—you don’t…” She had the wand clenched in her fist, pointed straight at him; it quivered from the tension in her arm. “You’re just… You sit down, and be quiet. I will shoot!”

“No ya won’t,” he said quietly. “You’re better than that.”

Ildrin emitted a strangled noise that might have been part of a sob, then squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head away. She did not lower her hand, though. Ross watched her face, while Jasmine and Darius watched the tip of the wand in mounting alarm.

The priestess was distracted but wouldn’t lower the weapon; Tallie rose smoothly to a crouch, gathering herself to pounce like a cat. Hesitation could be fatal, and there would not be a better opportunity.

But in doing so, she brought part of her body above the edge of the pit. Raathi, watching Ildrin from the side, caught the motion and turned toward it, letting out a yell and drawing her sword.

In the dim, enclosed space, the flash of lightning rendered everyone momentarily blind; the crackle of the wandshot, ordinarily no rival to a real thunderclap, was absolutely deafening.

The apprentices moved, though, blind or not, several with anguished yells. Darius lost his footing on the steps, slipping painfully down them and fortunately not tripping Jasmine, who had leaped straight off the edge. Tallie flung herself from the rim of the pit, but with her eyes closed, missed Ildrin, who had skittered back amid all the noise.

They landed there and froze again, Ildrin having backed up to stand next to Raathi, and turned the wand on them.

“Freeze! Everyone stop right there!” she screamed. Tallie crouched with her arms spread, clearly preparing to spring at her, but obeyed. Jasmine, though, ignored the order, rushing to Ross’s side.

He had fallen back against the wall, partially on top of Schwartz. His clothes smoked faintly.

“You bitch,” Darius snarled, his voice half-choked. “You fucking—”

“No,” Ildrin cried, turning her stare on Jasmine and Ross. “I didn’t—no, that’s not, I wasn’t… Oh, goddess.”

“It’s a little late for prayers, Falaridjad,” Basra Syrinx stated, striding into the room from the staircase above. She descended the second flight of steps in three long bounds.

“You!” Ildrin shrieked, turning the wand on her.

Basra lit up, a golden sphere snapping into place around her, and in the next moment a wandshot sparked against it harmlessly.

“I suggest you cut that out before you make this any worse for yourself, Ildrin,” Basra said flatly. She strode across the pit floor, apparently unconcerned with the wand being fired at her, and knelt next to Jasmine, the light surrounding her brightening further. “Give me space, girl.”

“Is he…” Layla’s face appeared over the rim of the pit above, but she couldn’t finish the question.

“You—all of you—you just freeze,” Ildrin stammered, clutching the wand in both hands now. Tallie started forward, then halted as the weapon was turned on her.

Basra let out a soft sigh, and the glow about her diminished. “…damn. There’s nothing I can do here.”

“No,” Tallie shouted, turning to her and seeming to forget for a moment about the wand trained on her. “No, it’s… People get shot by wands all the time, and walk away. You’re a priestess, you can…”

“Lightning is unpredictable,” Basra said evenly. “It might give you a mere burn, or nerve damage, but if it strikes the heart, or the brain…”

“No!” Tallie protested again. “You have to do something!”

“Vidius himself can’t fix this,” the Bishop said, shifting to kneel over Schwartz. She began lightly slapping his face. “Come on, Schwartz, it’s time to get up. What did you do to this boy? You’d better hope you haven’t left two bodies in your wake today, Falaridjad…”

She paused when Meesie came skittering out of Jasmine’s sleeve to perch upon Schwartz’s head, pointing up at her and chittering furiously.

“Two,” Ildrin whispered.

“Put. The weapon. Down.” Jasmine rose slowly to her feet, fixing her cold glare on the priestess.

Ildrin swallowed once, heavily. “Sergeant… Soldiers. Weapons up. We’re already—”

“Falaridjad,” Basra warned, “I know what you’re thinking, and you are wrong. You have no idea the danger you are in right now. Lower the weapon.”

“Already have blood on our hands,” Ildrin said, her voice firming by the moment. “If they all just…disappear down here—”

“Absolutely not!” roared the more outspoken of the two Legionnaires suddenly. “That’s enough of this. Sister, lower the wand.”

“Private,” Raathi shouted, “I am not going to tell you again—”

“Go right to hell, Sergeant!” she snarled back, drawing her sword. “This is insane! That boy was talking the only sense I’ve heard in days, and now…” She stepped back from the others, bringing her sword up. “No more. Your Grace… Orders?”

“I suggest you step away from the murdering traitors while the stepping is good, private,” Basra said dryly.

“Raathi, swords up,” Ildrin said, baring her teeth. “It’s us or them, now.”

“I don’t…” The sergeant trailed off, swallowed, and raised her weapon. The remaining Legionnaire looked on the verge of panicking, but did the same.

Ildrin turned the wand on Tallie. “I’m sorry it had to be this way.”

“It didn’t, you unmitigated cunt,” Tallie hissed.

Then Jasmine stepped right in front of her, placing herself in the path of the wand.

“I’ll tell you again,” she said coldly. “Drop that weapon, or I will take it from you.”

Ildrin swallowed heavily. “I really am,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”

Once again, the burst of light was blinding. But this time, it didn’t stop.

The glow of divine light blazed from her, annihilating the presumptuous lightning bolt and putting Basra’s aura to shame. Dimness was banished from every corner of the room by Avei’s light, and yet it was strangely gentle to the eyes. Though it was as if a miniature sun had risen in the chamber, they could all see plainly through it.

Golden wings extended upward almost to the edges of the pit from behind her. The silver armor materialized out of the air, first as simple lines of light and then hardening into metal and leather. The shield, marked with the golden eagle, appeared in the same way on her left forearm, and last, the ancient sword of Avei coalesced in her grip.

Trissiny shifted to point it straight at Ildrin’s heart. “DROP THEM.”

Raathi and both privates instantly did.

“…oh,” Layla said softly.

Ildrin had not dropped the wand, but she slowly lowered her arm, the weapon dangling loosely from her grip now. The expression with which she stared at the paladin of her goddess was lost, desolate.

“I…didn’t mean…any of this.”

“I don’t care what you meant,” Trissiny snapped. “Now there is only justice. Put down that weapon and face the consequences of your actions with some honor, for once. I will not tell you again.”

She took one step forward, still glowing, and the golden wings shifted, arching out behind her.

Ildrin closed her eyes for a moment.

Then she opened them, and raised her arm again to aim the wand at Trissiny. Her grip, suddenly, was perfectly steady.

“Don’t do it,” Trissiny warned, shifting to a combat stance, shield partially upraised between them.

“I…can’t,” Ildrin said quietly. A strange little smile hovered about her lips, though tears began pouring down her cheeks. “I’m sorry. I’m just not strong enough. If everything I believed was…”

“Falaridjad, don’t you dare,” the paladin barked, shifting forward. “Drop it and—”

Lightning blasted against her, having no effect. The bolt sizzled out a foot before it even reached the shield. That didn’t stop Ildrin from firing another, and another yet behind it. Her face was calm, resigned, and still streaked by fresh tears.

“Stop it!” Trissiny bellowed over the vicious crackling of electricity.

“Sister, stand down!” Raathi pleaded.

“I’m sorry,” Ildrin said again, “but I won’t.”

Then she turned to aim the wand up at Layla.

Trissiny, apparently unencumbered by the metal she now wore, uncoiled like a spring. She was too far distant to effectively rush with her shield, but Ildrin was just barely within the range of her sword, fully extended.

The tip lodged in her throat just below the chin.

Blood poured as if from a faucet, quickly staining her white robes, and then the ground around her as she stumbled backward to slump against the far wall. Raathi retreated, staring down at the dying priestess in open-mouthed horror.

Silence finally descended, cruelly, forcing them to listen to the wet rattle of Ildrin’s last breaths. Even had either of the remaining Light-wielders wanted to, that was beyond their skill to heal. Too much blood lost, too much of it pouring into her lungs, the wound itself a total disruption of a delicate piece of anatomy. A random burst of healing light would only consign her to die more slowly, and in more pain.

Basra shook her head. “A coward to the very end.”

The armored paladin simply stood in the middle of the room, staring at the floor with all eyes on her. The sword she held in a firm grip, pointed down. Scarlet blood dripped slowly from its tip.

The remaining apprentices had gathered themselves, now, and crept hesitantly forward.

“Jasmine?” Tallie asked uncertainly. “…Jas?”

Layla softly cleared her throat, reaching out to lay her small hand on one silver pauldron.

“Trissiny?”

Trissiny drew in a sudden, heavy breath through her teeth, threw her head back, and let out a wild, piercing scream of pure, helpless rage.

“WE’RE SUPPOSED TO BE BETTER!” she roared, stepped forward, and viciously kicked Ildrin in the chest.

The priestess only slumped sideways, already beyond feeling it.

“You’ve got some things to deal with,” Basra said calmly, “but right now, you need to suck it up, soldier. Grieving has to wait until the battle is done.”

“Oh, my fucking gods,” Darius snarled. “Lady, don’t you ever stop—”

“She’s right,” Trissiny interrupted, turning around. “And don’t bother arguing with this one, Darius, it’s a waste of time even when she’s not right. We still have work to do, here. The innocent and the guilty, the living and the dead, all must be dealt with. And then,” she added, curling her lip in a snarl, “I am going to go find the one responsible for all this, and deal with him.”

“No, you are not,” Layla stated, glancing at the other two apprentices before returning her gaze to Trissiny’s. “We are.”

 

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13 – 30

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“Somehow, we always end up skulking in alleys,” Layla muttered.

“We’re thieves,” Tallie retorted. “Some cliches exist for a reason. Shall I take the chitter-chatter to indicate you’ve got that thing open?”

“Almost,” Layla said, her attention still focused on the lock.

“On the subject of cliches,” Jasmine said from a few feet away, “it is too quiet. Whoever else is in there, we know they’re accompanied by Silver Legionnaires, who would know to post lookouts. Especially if they were up to anything illicit. Especially since they had to know we’d be in pursuit!”

“They didn’t necessarily know that,” Darius replied from the other end of the alleyway; he and Jasmine were positioned to either side of the house’s kitchen door, keeping watch in both directions. “No reason to assume they understand how Meesie works. If she was smart enough and fast enough, they may not’ve noticed her.”

“That isn’t very comforting,” Jasmine said, even as she soothingly stroked Meesie. The little elemental, having led them to this house, had not un-tensed for a moment, and was glaring at the door, chattering softly. “It’s all conjecture, and anyway, they still should have posted lookouts. Something’s not right. I mean…aside from the obvious.”

Both turned at the soft, distinctive click.

“This,” Layla said in clear satisfaction as she extracted her picks from the door, “is a better lock than belongs on a townhouse in a neighborhood like this.”

“No surprise there,” Tallie muttered. “So, do we…go in?”

Meesie squeaked a shrill affirmative, squirming out of Jasmine’s hand to bounce to her shoulder and point insistently at the door.

“Wait,” Jasmine insisted. “Guys, I’m not just being paranoid. This isn’t right. There’s no explanation for there not being guards; if there are no guards, their role is being fulfilled by something else. We are chasing magic-users. If there are wards, we’ve likely already tripped them, but that’s the least of our concerns. There may be traps. Do I even have to tell you how ugly magical booby traps can get?”

Layla sidled uneasily away from the door she had just jimmied open, while Darius backed up from his end of the alley to join them.

Meesie had led them only a few blocks, to a residential neighborhood somewhat less rich than Glory’s, to judge by the size of the townhouses and their lack of garden space, but just as quiet and discreet. They had cased this one carefully, finding it locked, quiet, and apparently unoccupied; they’d done a somewhat hasty job of it due to trying to avoid notice. There were people out in the main street, and nothing would draw the attention of locals in an area like this faster than a gang of shifty youths peeking into windows and trying door handles. Now, they were gathered in a dim space behind the house with their backs to another just like it—hopefully one from which no one was looking out a window.

Now, even as Layla retreated from the door, Jasmine and Darius closed in on the group, and they all stared at it for a silent moment.

“Well, it’s not like we’ve got any other options,” Tallie said finally. “They’ve got Schwartz and probably Ross; we can’t leave this. Jas, you seem to know more about this than the rest of us. We gotta go in there, so what’s the best thing we can do to prepare?”

Jasmine frowned, drew in a deep breath, and opened her mouth to answer.

“For starters, pay attention.”

All of them whirled, Jasmine bracing herself for a fight. An instant later, she had to shift to snatch Meesie, who charged down her arm and hurled herself bodily at the speaker, squealing furiously.

“What the hell are you doing here,” Tallie demanded, “and holy shit, why does the mouse hate you so much?”

Basra Syrinx glanced disinterestedly at Meesie, who was struggling in Jasmine’s grip, then swept her eyes across the group, finally shifting to peer at the back door of the house.

“It was an unpardonably foolish mistake to stop carrying those scrying bafflers once you got the dwarves off your case,” she said curtly. The Bishop clearly had not slept; her eyes were sunken and her short hair was lank and greasy. Despite that, she did not seem any more irritable than usual, even when shooting a pointed stare at Jasmine as she continued. “The Sisterhood of Avei had taken pains to be able to locate you, missy. Getting access to the tracking charms was just a matter of throwing my political weight around. It’s a good thing I went to the Temple first instead of back to Sharvineh’s place. Where is the rest of your group?”

“Glory, Rasha, Smythe, and Ami are…elsewhere,” Jasmine reported, frowning at Basra and shifting her other hand to help restrain Meesie. “Glory was following up on your progress and they all went with her. The Legionnaires sent to guard the house after the squad from last night apparently abducted Schwartz. Ross is also missing; we’re assuming they either got him too, or he followed them and…well, in that case, they probably got him anyway.”

“Oy.” Darius poked her in the back. “Why the hell is the Sisterhood tracking you? What’d you do, steal a temple idol? Sucker-punch the Hand of Avei?”

She shrugged him off, still watching Syrinx and soothingly stroking Meesie, who had settled down to vibrate furiously, no longer struggling. “I take it your efforts to corral the conspirators didn’t go off without a hitch.”

“No, due to my own High Commander,” Basra snapped, scowling in disgust. “Thanks to her squeamishness about letting outsiders take custody of Sisters, a bunch of them slipped the net. This is also the cause of your problems, as the holes she created in our dragnet not only let Avenist conspirators get through but tipped them off that we were coming, which is how you ended up with corrupt Legionnaires set to guard you. Now you know who to thank. Regardless, did you little snots even notice the emblem of the Topaz College on the front of this house?”

Jasmine sucked in a breath and Layla cringed. Tallie just frowned. “Uh, the what?”

“It’s discreet, but Eserites of all people should know to look for it,” Basra stated. “It’s there to warn the kind of people who mess with other people’s houses not to. This is the home of a Salyrite warlock. That’s the kind of magic you’re facing.”

“The nasty kind,” Darius muttered. “Typical.”

“But it also presents solutions.” The Bishop turned her back on them and strode away. Without thinking, they all fell into step behind her, listening as she rounded the corner and headed back up the side of the house toward the street. “The composition of forces we have is uniquely suited to handle a warlock—if Schwartz isn’t dead and we can get him back into play. He’s a pinhead even by the standards of young men in general, but he is a very competent witch, and his magic will swiftly demolish a warlock’s. And then, there is me.”

Jenell Covrin stood guard at the front of the house, watching people passing by on the street, several of whom slowed to study their group as they went. The Legionnaire looked over at them, but turned back to her vigil immediately with no further reaction.

“Here’s what we’ll do,” Basra stated, bounding up the front steps in a single hop. “I will go in the front and draw attention; you little sneaks go back around to the rear entrance, give me a few minutes to make myself the focus of whatever happens, and then proceed with whatever it was you were trying. That has something of a chance to work if you’re not the sole recipient of whatever reaction ensues. Have Jasmine walk in front and your chances improve further. You need to find Schwartz, quickly, and take care of whatever hold they’ve got on him. With that done we should be in the clear.”

“Hang on,” Tallie protested. “What if he’s drugged? It’s not like we can—”

Basra suddenly flared alight, a golden corona flashing into being around her. Immediately, a series of pops and crashes sounded from within the house, followed by a sharp, acrid smell. Her glowing aura eclipsed the front of the building, and had clearly interacted badly with infernal wards on the inside.

She drew her sword with a flourish, and the blade itself began to glow furiously. Basra brought it up overhead, deftly reversed her grip, and drove the tip into the top edge of the latch fixture where it was set in the wood. A burst of orange fire puffed out of the keyhole as if a tiny infernal explosion had been set off within, and the door itself began to blacken and smoke. The Bishop, ignoring this, yanked back and forth on the blade, and moments later had wrenched the latch entirely free of its mountings, causing the door to jerk open a few inches. Her sword was a pretty and clearly expensive piece, but obviously as sturdy as a crowbar.

“So, hey, thanks for hearing us out and taking time to plan,” Tallie said sourly.

“Wards are tripped,” Basra stated. Behind her, Jenell drew her own weapon and stepped forward. “The peanut gallery back there will be fetching the police. Tick tock, kids.”

With that, she yanked the door all the way open and stepped into the warlock’s house, sword first.


“That’s blackmail!” Ruda snarled.

“I apologize,” the Avatar said, sounding quite sincere. “I do not mean to underplay the seriousness of your concerns. In fact, the security breach in question is of the greatest magnitude; nanites loose on the planet’s surface present a potential catastrophe. But in order to deal with this, I must reassert control over my own systems, and with that I require aid. It is a question of task prioritization.”

“Okay, whoah,” Toby said, stepping up behind Ruda and placing his hands gently on her shoulders. “It sounds like he’s got a point. Let’s try to be logical about this. If we could just ask a few questions to clarify, Mr. Avatar?”

“Most assuredly,” the man of purple light said with a smile. Unlike his previous flat appearance in the screens, his translucent form was now projected in midair by one of the nearby machines. “No honorific is needed, by the way. If your customs require a personal form of address, I am known by my designation, Zero Two.”

“Ah…okay,” Toby said carefully. Ruda, meanwhile, pulled away from him, grumbling, but did not speak up again. “Then, I guess the most urgent questions are what do you need us to do, exactly, and why can’t you have your golem here do it?”

The Caretaker chimed disconsolately, changing its face to a sad one.

“Also,” Milady added, “who messed all this up in the first place?”

“Apt questions, all,” the Avatar said, nodding. “In short, my core system has been interrputed and a link interposed directly into my central processing network, requiring the information flow which constitutes my personality to be routed through the devices you see here. This is a direct link to the gate to Alt Earth One. As a result, data being broadcast from that world—which is a more advanced society than yours and transmits vast quantities of data—is interjected directly into my mind. This, obviously, is…distracting.”

“Holy crap,” Fross chimed. “No wonder you went crazy!”

“Significant program corruption is the inevitable consequence of this, yes,” he said soberly. “My memory is able to store the entire Internet of the period, but having to sort through it anew every second puts a massive strain on my processors. I believe I can remain lucid long enough to help you conduct repairs; as best as I have been able to determine, it took my previous iteration years to degrade to the point that I began to so badly mismanage this facility. But as for the question of who did this, I do not know. Extreme data corruption has occurred, making it difficult for me to extract useful information from my former self’s memories. At a glance, however, I find the lack of specific data on that point suggestive, and suspicious. Some data would inevitably be lost, but I think this was deliberately deleted. Unfortunately, the overall corruption has made it all but impossible to determine how, by whom, or for what purpose. I will of course reconstruct the surviving data to the best of my ability, but that will take time, and I suspect the saboteur covered their tracks too well.”

Milady muttered a soft curse.

“And as for why you need our help?” Ruda said pointedly.

“Ah, yes. I need someone able to interface with the consoles for me. I have been locked out of certain relevant functions, which complicates this. Simply shutting off these machines, or pulling them out, would likely destroy me entirely. That would swiftly result in the destruction of this facility and have unknowable repercussions for the nanites loose above. Ordinarily I should be able to bypass this device in several ways, but those methods have all been disabled. I require the aid of sapients to re-activate them and disable this parasite apparatus so it can be dismantled.”

“That still doesn’t explain why the golem can’t do it,” Gabriel objected.

“Actually it does,” Ruda said grudgingly. “Look, Arquin, all the doodads we’ve seen require you to either talk to ’em in a voice or touch ’em with fingers, right? Well, the Caretaker hasn’t got either of those things, just bells and claws. The Elder Gods were the prototypical fucking assholes who set the mold we Punaji have had to deal with for centuries. If you wanna keep somebody enslaved, you gotta make sure they have no means of ever becoming anything more.”

The Caretaker let out a soft chime, then suddenly rolled across the alcove toward Ruda. She shied backward, but the little golem kept coming, gently pressing its squat bulk against her and wrapping two of its limbs around her gently. One patted her back.

“Uh…okay,” she said uncertainly, awkwardly patting the top of the golem in response.

“I have a question!” Juniper raised her hand. “What’s nanites?”

The Avatar hesitated before answering. “This topic is highly classified… But the proverbial ship has well and truly sailed, it seems. Nanites are molecule-sized machines which are deployed in swarms of millions. They work in unison to accomplish tasks.”

“Huh,” Gabriel mused, absently watching Ruda gently disentangle herself from the Caretaker’s hug. “And…how come everybody’s so scared of them?”

“Think,” Principia said wryly. “Think about it real hard.”

“Well, we know they can turn people in o machine hybrids,” Toby said slowly, “cause machine parts to grow over stuff like moss…”

“And act like a disease to take out enemy troops,” Gabriel finished, wincing. “Yikes, point taken. And if they’re not even magical, most of our methods of countering them wouldn’t work.”

“Finally, a cooperative Avatar,” Milady murmured. “Walker said ours shut off whole chunks of the entertainment database to hide references to them once she started asking questions.”

“Yes, that is also what I would do, were the situation other than what it is,” the Avatar agreed. “But it is clear you have a need to understand. The Infinite Order were paranoid about some forms of technology, but the power of nanites they knew firsthand. On Earth, they acquired permission to colonize this world by assembling a complete record of the evolution of life using their temporal viewing technology. They were not highly thought of, so this service was vital in securing the colonization license. Earth was at that time in the process of rebuilding from global environmental catastrophe, and this knowledge was priceless in its applications toward reconstructing the biosphere.

“Upon coming here, they did exactly that. The Order first constructed Luna Station, then retreated there, secured the planet itself in a temporal bubble and unleashed nanite swarms to spend the next several billion years of vastly accelerated time to replicate the process of evolution as it had occurred on Earth. Nanites guided the development of life according to this pre-established pattern by intervening constantly on the cellular level, in a planet-wide, coordinated process. The result, when the process reached its endpoint and the planet’s temporal state was re-aligned with the universe, was an organically evolved biosphere ninety-six percent identical to Earth’s. This gave them a familiar environment with which to work.”

There was a momentary silence, in which only the hum of machinery and the rush of water was heard.

“That,” Ruda said finally, “has got to be the most grandiose, overblown, unnecessarily fucking complicated means anybody in the history of the universe has ever used to accomplish any task.”

“Sounds like something they’d do,” Milady said with a sigh.

“The universe is incomprehensibly vast and almost entirely unknown,” replied the Avatar, “but…your point is well taken. The Infinite Order were very interested in the scientific discoveries incidentally gleaned from this process. And, it must be said, in being able to boast that they had done it.”

“Yeah, so, clearly we can’t have those things running loose, especially not working for the Rust,” Fross agreed. “Also, what’s Luna Station?”

“Upon their arrival here, the Infinite Order removed this planet’s three natural satellites and constructed its current artificial one in the same configuration as Earth’s moon. It consists of an outer crust of habitable indoor space surrounding a mostly hollow area with a dark matter generator at its core, which not only provided the necessary power for the early stages of the Ascension Project, but also exerts the gravitational pull that reproduces the tidal forces exerted upon Earth by Luna.”

“Wait, the fucking moon is—no, stop.” Ruda covered her eyes with a hand, slightly dislodging her hat. “No more vast revelations, I can’t deal with this shit right now. We’ve got more immediate concerns, people.”

“Yeah, keeping it a bit more on point,” Gabriel agreed, “let’s fix all this crap before the place floods.”

“About that, you need not worry,” the Avatar reassured them. “Fortunately, the Fabrication Plant’s teleportation array is on a lower level and is completely submerged. I am constantly teleporting large blocks of water out to sea; I can do this much faster than it is coming in. The flooding is under control. Other systems over which I still have control are re-enforcing the damaged areas to prevent a collapse due to water pressure. You are no longer in physical danger here. But I do require urgent aid to dismantle this disruptive construction so I can regain full control and then deal with the nanite problem.”

“All right, sounds good,” Toby said, cracking his knuckles. “What do you need us to do?”


“There you are.”

Maureen started guiltily, peeking over the top of the large book she had in her lap. It was a hefty dwarven engineering text, designed to be left open on a reference desk and not held; the size of the thing nearly obscured her body.

“Ah…here I am,” the gnome said, smiling tentatively at Crystal, who had approached the dim corner of the library stacks in which she had tucked herself away. “Were ye lookin’ for me?”

“I have been conducting a sweep of the library; your name is still on the unaccounted list,” the golem librarian said seriously. Her diction and elocution had improved recently with some of Tellwyrn’s last modifications, but her face was still a blank metal mask. “I gather you skipped classes this morning, or you would know about the campus-wide state of alert.”

“Alert?” Maureen lowered the book carefully to the floor and wiggled out from under it at the same time. “What’s goin’ on?”

“I do not know, exactly, but students are all instructed to report to the Crawl immediately,” Crystal said.

“Wait, the Crawl? What the blazes do we need—”

“I don’t know, Maureen,” the golem said patiently. “But it is general knowledge that the Crawl has a single, defensible entrance, which leads directly to the Grim Visage, a zone in which violence is impossible. It is not hard to surmise that Professor Tellwyrn perceives immediate danger, to have issued this order. Campus security has been trying to round up the students for the last hour. I need to finish checking over the library; you need to report to the Crawl as ordered. Professor Ezzaniel is there to coordinate, along with Mr. Fedora. They will direct you further.”

Maureen swallowed heavily. “I…this… This is why I was hidin’ in the corner. I dunno how much more o’ this I can take.”

“I understand, Maureen,” Crystal said gently. “It has been a very stressful few weeks. But for now, you need to go. The Crawl is safe, and you’ll be with the rest of the students and most of the fac—”

She broke off and started to turn; Maureen barely glimpsed the black shape which had suddenly materialized out of nowhere behind the librarian, and then before Crystal could finish pivoting to face it, she froze.

Light blazed out from the openings in the golem’s joints, along with a high-pitched keening of enchantments being strained to the breaking point as far too much power was poured into them. Crystal actually rose slowly off the ground, arching her back in apparent pain. Her body continued to stretch, the gaps between solid segments widening and glowing ever brighter as if some tremendous force was being exerted from within.

Maureen dropped the book and scrambled backward into the corner. She had room, there, to escape around one end of the nearest row of shelves, but for the moment she only stared in horror.

With a shrill grinding noise, the metal plates themselves began coming apart, arcs of static snapping between them, revealing filaments, pieces of crystal and other interior workings of the golem’s body, barely visible within the brightness.

A shriek finally burst forth—a sound in Crystal’s actual voice, not the noise of metal and magic being tested beyond its limits.

And with a tremendous shockwave that knocked over the shelves and slammed Maureen against the wall, her body exploded. Fragments of metal peppered the entire area, a piece barely missing the gnome’s head.

Behind her, still holding up the illegally modified wand which he had used to overload the golem, stood a balding, hawk-faced man in a long black coat.

“There is but one punishment for treason,” he said, pointing the device at her. “In the Emperor’s name.”

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13 – 26

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“You said Chase couldn’t be the Sleeper!” Rafe accused.

“What I said,” Fedora retorted testily, “is that it doesn’t make sense and is a complete departure from his personality and all established patterns. Masterson is all about trouble for trouble’s sake, sure, but he always stops short of challenging boundaries once he knows where they are. Furthermore, if he’s the Sleeper, it means he started by Sleeping himself, forcing you to expend the hellhound breath and establishing an alibi while some kind of delayed reaction cast the curse on Natchua. That would be a brilliant, devious action, and totally outside his wheelhouse.”

“I’ll vouch for that analysis,” Yornhaldt added, glancing at Tellwyrn. “If Chase had ever exhibited that kind of lateral thinking… Well, his grades would be an entirely other story.”

Standing by the office door, Ezzaniel cleared his throat. “Our conversations have been very instructive in the short time you’ve been here, Murgatroyd. I have learned a great deal about the children of Vanislaas, I feel. You’ve spoken of a compulsion to scheme and cause trouble. The manifestation of the aggressive nature that comes from infernal corruption, channeled into subtlety by Prince Vanislaas’s protection.”

Fedora stopped in his pacing, where he was already threatening to wear a groove in the carpet before Tellwyrn’s desk, and turned to frown at him. “The Sleeper’s a warlock, not an incubus.”

“Yes,” Ezzaniel agreed, folding his arms. “And as we all know, a warlock’s first and most important task is always to keep the corruption at bay. Using infernal magic without becoming tainted by it requires patience, restraint, and exactitude… Traits which Chase Masterson decisively lacks. To speak hypothetically, if Elilial appeared and gave him vast knowledge of the infernal, the very first thing he would do would be to cast something reckless and corrupt himself good and proper. And then, draw upon that knowledge to contain and conceal the taint, but if he could not excise it—which to my knowledge no warlock can… I could well imagine such methods having a similar effect to the blessing of Vanislaas. Warlocks historically tend to be as devious as they are belligerent, do they not?”

A hush fell on the office, Fedora frowning in thought. One by one, the assembled Professors turned to look at Tellwyrn, who was sitting behind her desk, elbows propped on its surface and chin resting on her interlaced fingers, staring into the distance. In the corner behind her, Maru stood holding a tray of teacups, which now rattled as he trembled slightly.

“It’s plausible,” Fedora finally said, almost grudgingly. “But one hundred percent wall-to-wall conjecture. It’s a critical mistake in criminal investigation to form theories before you’ve got facts. What we know, now, is that he’s been seen suddenly using infernal magic at a level of skill way beyond what a junior would know even if that were a course of study at this school. Professor.” He turned around to face Tellwyrn. “How certain are you that Masterson wasn’t dabbling in the dark arts before you brought him here?”

“Absolutely,” she replied tonelessly.

Fedora nodded. “Then this is academic. Chase is one of the kids the Dark Lady blessed; if he’s not the Sleeper, he knows who is. Either way, he’s our answer to the sleeping curse.”

“Alaric,” Tellwyrn said quietly, shifting her gaze to him, “how close are you to a cure?”

Yornhaldt heaved a heavy sigh. “Arachne… I am working with one of the greatest arrays of magical talent ever assembled to unravel what might well be the most excessively elaborate curse ever devised. There is simply no frame of reference for predicting something like this. We could have the key breakthrough literally any hour. Or it could take…potentially years.”

“And the Hand sent him off to Tiraas, knowing we’d have to go fetch him,” Rafe said in disgust. “Damn, but that’s some good bait.”

“It should go without saying he did this specifically to get you off the mountain,” Fedora said to Tellwyrn. “Obviously, he means to make a move of some kind as soon as you’re gone.”

“I have other warning of that already, yes,” she agreed. “He’s diverted the Imperial presence away from the research program. Is there any chance, do you think, that order came from a legitimate Imperial source?”

“My connections there are long-distance and a lot weaker than they were,” Fedora cautioned, “but I can’t see it. Vex was well pleased with the results he was getting from this partnership, and Sharidan listens to him. If you’ve gone and done something to piss off the Throne, that’s another matter, but if not… No, that was just this guy clearing the way. They won’t have canceled his rank or warned anybody about him; if they wouldn’t admit there was a problem when all the Hands were haywire, they won’t for this one guy. The Silver Throne can’t afford to look any weaker than it is.”

“Do you think, gentlemen,” she asked softly, “you could find and retrieve Chase if I sent you all to Tiraas after him?”

“If we could persuade him to come…perhaps,” Yornhaldt rumbled. “I am not absolutely sure that’s possible, nor would I really know how to do so. If you are talking about forcing him, Arachne, may I remind you the Sleeper fought the entire sophomore class to a standstill?”

“If we instigate something like that in Tiraas, it could mean the end of this school,” Ezzaniel added. “And Alaric’s right. We wouldn’t win, anyway.”

“And the other option,” she continued in the same quiet tone. “If I leave the mountain and you are left to protect it…can you?” This time, she fixed her gaze directly on Fedora, who shrugged helplessly.

“Pound for pound, against a disgraced Hand of the Emperor and whatever allies he’s cobbled together?” He grimaced. “Sure, absolutely we can take him. The faculty could, the new research fellows could…hell, the students probably could, even without the sophomores. But this guy’s nuts, Professor. I can’t diagnose his brain but the symptoms I observed were paranoia and blind aggression. There’s no predicting what the hell he’ll try, and the fact that he can’t win isn’t going to stop him. That’s a battle that will have casualties. As your head of security, I have to tell you we can’t guarantee the students’ safety if it comes to that.”

“Veth’na alaue,” Rafe muttered.

“All right.” She stood up abruptly, her tone suddenly filled with its characteristic iron. “Thank you, gentlemen, for helping me organize my thoughts; I believe I see the whole situation, now. I am going to Tiraas to retrieve Chase. Now, this is what you will do…”


“You have got some fucking nerve,” Ruda snarled, drawing her rapier.

“Honestly,” Embras Mogul said with a grin, adjusting his lapels and ignoring the soldiers who surged forward with staves leveled at him, “do you kids plan out your one-liners ahead of time? Concurrently?”

“And what is this now tracking mud on my floors?” Rajakhan rumbled. He seemed quite relaxed, lounging in his chair at the head of the long table, but his dark eyes were fixed piercingly on Mogul. At his side, Anjal practically vibrated with tension, a hand on the hilt of her saber.

“This, your Majesty,” Toby said quietly, “is the leader of the Black Wreath.”

“Ah,” the King rumbled. “Stand down, men.”

“Why, your Majesty, I am truly touched!” Mogul tipped his hat courteously. “I so rarely—”

“Don’t read a welcome into my refusal to waste lives trying to wrangle one of the world’s greatest warlocks,” Rajakhan said disdainfully. “If it turns out I need you dead, these preposterous young people will see to it. Explain your intrusion.”

Mogul had shadow-jumped straight into the conference chamber where they were tensely waiting for Teal to return. Now, as the guards lowered their weapons and grudgingly stepped back, he carefully settled the hat back on his bald head and took a discreet step back himself, placing a little more distance between him and the students.

“I’m here as a favor to Vadrieny,” he said, “with whom I just had a conversation. She regrets that she will not be accompanying you on your excursion; she’s gone to Tiraas to fetch the Sleeper.”

“The longer that sentence went on, the less sense it made,” Gabriel snorted. “You wanna try again?”

“That is how manipulators operate,” Toby warned. “The longer he talks, the more ground he gains…”

“Oh, honestly,” Embras exclaimed, throwing up his hands. “This whole mess is already enough of a debacle without me poking the bear. I’ll tell you frankly, Vadrieny heading off after the Sleeper is a mistake. She was baited into it specifically to make your job harder, now that you’ve gotta do it without her, and I told her not to go. I guess I can take some blame, there,” he added more thoughtfully. “Given a little effort I probably could’ve manipulated her into doing the smart thing and my say-so did have the opposite effect… In my defense, that girl is just irritating as hell to talk to.”

“I suggest you watch what you say about Teal in our presence,” Juniper growled.

“Oh, I was talking about Vadrieny,” he clarified, grinning again. “Truth be told, I’ve a rather high opinion of Miss Falconer. Somehow I doubt she’d appreciate hearing it, though.”

“And just what does the Sleeper have to do with Tiraas?” Gabriel demanded.

“Here’s what you need to know,” the warlock continued, his expression growing serious. “Your problems in Puna Dara are one chapter in a thicker book. There’s trouble going down in Tiraas and Last Rock, and our mutual opponent in this has just made a move designed to exacerbate and prolong these conflicts. The Sleeper was just exposed as Chase Masterson—” Here he paused for a moment until the cursing died down. “—who was then directed to flee to Tiraas and seek shelter working with the Imperial government. I doubt he’ll actually find any, but that’s not the point. The ploy was to get Tellwyrn out of Last Rock and Vadrieny out of Puna Dara, to make sure none of what’s about to happen in either place gets wrapped up too quickly.”

“That checks out,” Milady said suddenly. “Archpope Justinian’s whole gambit here is to try to forge an alliance between the Empire, the cults, and his Church, so he can evade the consequences for some of his recent antics. You kids are too close to cleaning this up and most of his people haven’t even got here yet; he needs this drawn out longer.”

“Well, then,” Anjal said dryly, “we would know exactly whom to thank for our recent troubles, if only any of the people talking where remotely trustworthy.”

“Hey,” Gabriel said reproachfully. “What’d I do?”

“Shut the fuck up, Arquin,” Ruda sighed. “Question is, are we gonna believe this guy?”

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” Mogul said airily, “you should never trust anybody. What you should do is know who you’re dealing with—know their personalities, their agendas, the situations in which you interact with them. Trust’ll just lead you into mistakes, but understanding helps you predict what someone will do.”

“Damn good advice,” Principia said approvingly. “And on that note, the Black Wreath will absolutely trick you into doing whatever gets you out of their way, but they don’t just wreck people’s lives for the fun of it, despite what the Church likes to preach. Most people who aren’t summoning random demons have nothing to fear from ’em, but the sheer concentration of paladins in this group means you kids had better step carefully around this guy.”

“Fuck that, I say we stab him,” Ruda snorted, taking a step toward Mogul.

He retreated, raising his hands. “Now, now. You remember what I said last time we talked?”

“I remember a lot of sniggering about stealing our divine disruptors,” Fross chimed, “and then a lot of whining when Malivette single-handedly kicked your butt.”

“There was no sniggering or whining,” Mogul said reproachfully. “Really, young lady, I expected you to gloss over the part where I saved your lives, but such casual slander is beneath you. No, I was referring to my ultimate goal. Beyond these little squabbles and adventures, the business in which my Lady and her faithful have been engaged for millennia. Your gods have lied to you.” He grinned broadly, tilting his head forward just enough that the wide brim of his hat concealed his eyes, leaving his smile a white gash in his dark face. “What I want is to see what shakes loose if their own precious paladins find out their secrets. I can think of no better shortcut to that goal than helping you kids get yourselves into one of the Elder Gods’ strongholds.”

“You know about that, do you,” Rajakhan said quietly.

“We know where all of them are,” Mogul replied. “Our mandate is to protect the mortal plane from demon incursions, and there are still more than a few demons who once bowed to Scyllith. Demons or modern warlocks getting their mitts on Elder God junk is a worst-case scenario. These Rust aren’t demonic and thus not our problem, but you’d better believe we noticed and have been watching them. Yeah, I know all about that thing under the harbor and I’ve taken pains to be up to date on what’s happening here. Justinian wants you slowed down, and Vadrieny is halfway to Tiraas by now. You’re looking at hours more to make your way through the old mining tunnels.”

“Hang on, halfway to Tiraas? There’s no way,” Gabriel snorted. “She’s not that fast.”

“Vadrieny’s flight has little respect for the laws of physics,” Mogul said, tilting his hat up to wink at them. “One of her sisters once circumnavigated the planet in two days, and that was on a wide zig-zagging course being chased by a Hand of Salyrene. How fast she goes is a function of how anxious she is to get somewhere. So yeah, from here to Tiraas? I’d say half an hour, tops. More importantly, I oppose whatever the Church desires. As I was just saying to your classmate, I’m starting to question whether Justinian’s agenda really lines up with the Pantheon’s, but after due consideration I’ve decided I don’t like the son of a bitch anyway. If he wants you wasting time, then I want you making progress. So!” He swept off his hat and executed a deep bow. “I’m not goin’ in there with you, but I can have you at the entrance in seconds.”

“Or,” Juniper said, folding her arms, “you could shadow-jump us to the bottom of the ocean, or into a volcano, or…”

“The Wreath is part of Tellwyrn’s new research initiative,” Fross pointed out. “It wouldn’t make sense for him to harm us. Or even to refuse to help us, not that we asked.”

“Full disclosure,” said Milady, “my agenda aligns with his on this one point. If Justinian is trying to slow down our progress, I’m all the more eager to get there faster. Remember, we have no idea what we’ll have to do down there, or how long it might take. I’m willing to risk working with him, if you are. I’ve dealt with scarier beings,” she added, giving Mogul a cool look.

“I don’t trust this, obviously,” Toby said. “And please don’t start lecturing about trust again. Ruda? This is your city, and we’re here explicitly to back you up. I’ll follow your judgment on this.”

Ruda drew in a breath and let it out slowly, looking at him, and then over at her parents.

“You know the risks, and you have a good mind, little minnow,” the King said, nodding gravely. “I share your friends’ misgivings. And their regard for your judgment. I have already declared this mission is yours.” Anjal took his hand, inclining her head once toward her daughter.

“Fuck it,” Ruda said, turning back to Mogul. “We passed the point of pussyfooting around when we let our bard spit in a goddess’s eye. Bunch up, everybody. We’re letting the asshole help.”

Gabriel cleared his throat. “Can I just remind everyone that last time he helped—”

“He saved your lives,” she interrupted, “did exactly what he promised, and also tried to further his agenda at our expense. I expect exactly the same shit this time, and it’s my judgment we can clean up whatever additional fuckery he causes after we put out the immediate fires. I’m not gonna force you, Arquin. Either you trust me or you don’t.”

“Aw, you know I’m with you, Zari,” he said with a grin. “If I was gonna break from the group I think it’d have been when you fucking stabbed me.”

Mogul cocked his head to one side. “You kids have some interesting stories, don’t you?”


“It’s not much of a plan, is all.”

“Well, Darius, you’ve got till we get there to come up with a better one,” Tallie said, striding along at the head of the group alongside Jasmine. Meesie hadn’t left the latter’s shoulder, and was their guide, pointing the way and squeaking urgently the whole time. They’d had to ignore a lot of passersby, many of whom stopped to stare at the little elemental. “I’m really, really hoping that Ross is following them, too, and didn’t also get captured. But if not…that’s what we got. Find ’em, get Schwartz back on his feet an’ let him make with the mojo.”

“It’s not that I mind charging into certain death,” Darius growled from behind them. “They’ve got our friends; that’s what you do. Certain death or no, you don’t leave people behind. But we’re dragging my baby sister along on this…”

“Yes, because gods forbid she make any decisions for herself,” Layla huffed.

“You are sixteen!”

“Really, Darius. Where do you see that argument leading? In what possible outcome does it end well for you?”

“How’ll you feel if I’m the one who gets hexed into ashes, hm?”

“Insert obligatory comment about peace and quiet,” she said lightly. A moment later, though, she shifted closer to him, and he draped an arm around her shoulders as they walked.

He could be forgiven for being on edge; even apart from the inherent tension of the situation, Layla had circumvented the need for Jasmine to round everyone up back at the house by emitting a blood-curdling shriek at a pitch and volume that had set dogs barking all through the neighborhood. It had also brought Darius crashing into the kitchen in a panic, half-dressed and hefting a candlestick in preparation to bash someone.

That was also when they had learned that Ross was absent, as well. He was ordinarily so quiet, there was no telling how long that might have taken to discover, had they tried to find him the old-fashioned way.

“It’s not that Darius is wrong, though,” Tallie said more softly. “Pretty scary enemies. Lot of unknowns.”

Jasmine nodded, glancing back and forth between Meesie and the sidewalk ahead of them. They had just emerged from Glory’s expensive residential neighborhood into an equally expensive shopping district; their plain clothes and shabby coats made them stand out somewhat, not that any of them cared.

Tallie looked at her sidelong and sighed, her breath misting on the air. “Look, I don’t wanna—”

All of them stopped and reflexively flattened themselves against the storefront they were passing when screams suddenly broke out along the street behind them. The four apprentices braced themselves for action, turning to face whatever was coming as the cries of shock and fear spread.

A streak of living fire had just crested the city walls, soaring toward them, even as the mag cannons spaced along the guard toward began clumsily turning, trying to track the intruder. Its form grew clearer as it approached; it was a person, held aloft on wings of pure flame. All of them except Jasmine ducked slightly when the creature arced directly over their street and banked, gliding away toward the center of the city.

“What the fuck,” Darius wheezed, pressing Layla against the wall with one arm. “What was that? A phoenix?”

“An archdemon,” Jasmine corrected, staring after the flying creature, which had vanished over a nearby rooftop. The cries around them were still ongoing, having changed in tone as the demon vanished from view but not begin to abate.

“A what?” Tallie exclaimed.

“A daughter of Elilial,” Jasmine clarified. “The last living one, actually. Vadrieny.”

“Oh, gods,” Layla whispered. “That has nothing to do with us… Please, please let that have nothing to do with us.”

“Is there any point in asking how you know this?” Tallie asked wearily.

“I’ve seen illustrations…” Jasmine trailed off, shrugging irritably when they all turned to stare at her. “And I’ve seen her in person before. She has a Talisman of Absolution; she’s not going to go around attacking people.”

“Well, that’s dandy, I suppose,” Darius snapped. “Any insight into what the fuck she’s doing in Tiraas?”

“Not a glimmer,” Jasmine admitted, then winced when Meesie began tugging violently on her ear, squealing shrilly and pointing ahead. “Walk and talk, guys. We’re still losing time.”

“Right.” Tallie once again took the lead, straightening up and setting off, and the others fell in. She let it rest for a moment before asking, “So, Jas… Is there anything you want to tell me?”

Jasmine sighed again. “I…”

“I don’t mean to put you on the spot.” Tallie kept her eyes forward as she walked. “I’ve been thinking, though. Remember when Style kicked your ass?”

“No, refresh me,” Jasmine said sourly. “How did it go?”

Tallie grinned, but her expression sobered again immediately. “The thing is… Quite apart from you being more physically dangerous than almost anyone else I know, the thing I’ve noticed about you is you don’t overestimate yourself. You know what you can do and don’t push it; your restraint has kept us out of a bunch of trouble. I’m sure you remember that business with the Vernisite caravan.”

“I’m still annoyed I even had to talk you clowns out of that. Boosting anything from the Vernisites is expressly against—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Tallie said impatiently. “What I’m getting at is… You rushed into that thinking you could win it. It’s the only time I’ve seen you screw up that bad, and I’ve been wondering about it, and why Grip was so hellbent on getting you as an apprentice. Why you were so adamant not to go along with her, too. I keep coming around to the idea that you’re used to having more to throw around in a fight than just your own muscles.” She snuck a glance at Jasmine, who was staring ahead as they walked. “I mean… You know an awful lot about alchemy and magic for somebody who doesn’t do them.”

Jasmine heaved a sigh. “Look…”

“When I asked if there was something you wanted to tell me,” Tallie said hastily, “I meant exactly that. It’s your life and we’re all runnin’ from something. You don’t need to share if you’re not ready to. But right now, this situation, we’re going up against Silver Legionnaires and Salyrite casters. People who have already killed. This is serious shit, and all we’ve got for a plan is ‘hopefully wake Schwartz up.’ We only know he’s not dead because Meesie’s still here.”

“When we were riding out of the city,” Layla said suddenly, “that night when we fought the dwarves, you started to suggest something, and Glory cut you off. She said something about not playing your trump card too soon.”

“I just wanna know,” said Tallie. “If it goes as bad in there as it might… Are we as fucked as it seems? Or is there something more we can count on?”

Jasmine was silent for a long moment. Even Meesie trailed off her constant squeaking, watching her in concern.

“Whatever they’ve got to throw at us,” Jasmine said finally, not turning to meet anyone’s gaze, “I’m certain I’ve faced scarier. And killed some of it. But there’s a big difference between being able to dish out pain, and being able to protect people. If this goes as badly as it could, that is still going to be very bad.” She looked over at Tallie, eyebrows drawing together in worry. “Let’s concentrate on Plan A. Schwartz is still our best bet.”

Tallie nodded, and they continued on in silence. After a moment, she reached over and tucked her arm through Jasmine’s.

“Seriously, though, that demon thing,” Darius said suddenly. “That’s not gonna get involved in this business, is it?”

Jasmine sighed. “We should be so lucky.”

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13 – 24

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“Morning,” Jasmine said mildly as Tallie shambled into the kitchen, blinking blearily.

“My ten-year-old self would hate me for asking this,” Tallie replied, pausing to smother a yawn, “but how come I gotta come in here after some food? Glory and Smythe both seem to love playing host. I figured there’d be something laid out in the dining room.”

“You missed them,” Jasmine replied. She was leaning against the kitchen cabinets, idly practicing rolling a coin across the backs of her fingers; at this point she could do it as smoothly as any Guild veteran. It had been harder for her to learn to lean against things rather than standing at parade rest, and her posture still looked a bit affected. Too stiff in the shoulders to be a believable ruffian’s slouch. “Glory left first thing this morning to do some errands and check up on things—she’s got contacts to…uh, contact, both official and less so. Pretty much all of her household went along. Rasha to learn, Smythe for protection because she is still an item of interest to violent conspirators, and Ami…” she grimaced. “Actually I’m less sure about that.”

“To shmooze,” Layla said primly. The only other person present, she was seated at the kitchen table, working on a plate upon which she had assembled slices from the bread, cheese, and summer sausage laid out. “Ami is quite the career girl, and Glory is the best opportunity she’s ever had.”

“This morning has been an interesting experiment in who gets up when, without Style stomping through the dormitories kicking random beds,” Jasmine asked with a grin. “Ross has been through and out; Schwartz came in for some tea and I seriously think he was sleepwalking the whole time. No sign of Darius yet.”

“An’ you’re up, of course,” Tallie grumbled, shuffling over to the table and plopping herself into a seat before reaching for the sausage. “I’ve got no explanation for this one.”

“That’s because you never listen to me,” Layla scoffed. “Little rich girl can’t possibly have anything worthwhile to say.”

“No, no,” Tallie moaned, weakly flapping a hand at her. “No sniping till I’m properly awake. Unfair. What about that thing where all our lives’re in danger, huh? We know anything about that? The Bishops got it all squared away?”

“I think that’s the lion’s share of what Glory went to find out,” Jasmine said more seriously, then straightened up. “The second shift of Legionnaires Syrinx called for came to relieve the others less than an hour ago. This looked like less than a half squad, so hopefully things are simmering down. I know we’re all gonna get stir crazy, but the Bishops were right; better to stay put while this is cleaned up by the professionals. I’m going to go check on the others.”

“Good idea,” said Layla. “Ross was talking about going outside to flirt with the Legionnaires.”

Tallie straightened up, blinking in surprise. Jasmine hesitated in the act of heading for the door, turning a wary look on Layla. “…I thought he was joking. I mean, come on. Have you ever known Ross to flirt with anybody?”

Layla arched an eyebrow. “Have you ever known him to joke?”

Jasmine stared at her for a moment, then shook her head. “Bloody hell,” she muttered, hurrying out through the dining room.

“Are they making the troops stand outside, still?” Tallie asked blearily after swallowing a bite of sausage. “Just cos it hasn’t snowed in a week doesn’t mean it’s balmy out there.”

“They’re troops, that’s what they do,” Layla replied with an indifferent shrug. “Those last night declined offers to come in. And rightly so; they can’t very well guard the house against intruders if they’re not watching for people to approach.”

“Ah, yes, right,” Tallie said, eyes on the sandwich she was now making of cheese and sausage folded into a slice of bread. “Gods know we can’t have those little people acting above their station.”

Layla gazed at her in silence for a moment, then shook her head. “Tallie, I have refrained from rising to your bait because I know enough about my own social class to assume your antipathy is well earned. Let me just ask you this, though: have I, personally, ever acted toward you as if I thought you were somehow lesser than myself?”

“Yes,” Tallie said immediately, still looking at her sandwich. “First day we met, when you showed up in that preposterous fuckin’ carriage.”

“Fair enough. And…since?”

Tallie slowly chewed a bite while Layla regarded her in silence. After she finished and just sat there, staring at her food for a moment, the younger girl sighed and opened her mouth to continue.

“You’re a lady,” Tallie said suddenly. “Look…you’re right, it’s not really fair. You’ve been okay to me, just like anyone else in our little group. But your brother goes out of his way to be as much of an oaf as a boy can; he reminds me of the roadies from the caravan growing up. You, though, you’re just so…everything I associate with people looking down their noses at me. Even when there’s no malice behind it, I can’t help…reacting.”

“I suppose I can understand that,” Layla mused after pausing to consider. “I’m not sure it’s fair, though. I would say that Jasmine is as ladylike in her conduct as I.”

“Jasmine isn’t a lady,” Tallie said immediately. “Truthfully…I dunno what the hell she is. She gives off some weird signals sometimes; only thing I know is she’s trying hard to fit in with us mere mortals. Maybe that’s the difference. I’ve got a category I can fit you in, fair or not, and it’s not exactly a pretty one. Jas is just Jas, in a class of her own.”

“Well, as to that,” Layla said with a faint smile, “I’ve been disappointed, I’ll confess, at not having someone to snipe at Ami with behind her back. I love Jasmine, too, but she’s not very good at…girl things.”

“Boy, ain’t that the truth,” Tallie replied, grinning and finally meeting her eyes. “I honestly don’t think she understands why anyone would dislike Ami.”

“She was raised Avenist,” Layla huffed. “I half wonder if she doesn’t try to sneak glances like the boys do and is just better at hiding it.”

“After sharing a dorm with Jas I am pretty sure she’s not into girls,” Tallie said dryly. “Anyhow, don’t you worry about dearest Ami; let her have her spotlight while she can. As my mom used to say: the bigger they are, the farther they fall.”

Layla was unfortunately in the process of taking another bite and nearly choked, doubling over with laughter.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Tallie said lightly, lounging back and tipping her chair up on two legs. “This is fun. Jas’d just lecture us about body-shaming a fellow woman.”

“Give me credit for recognizing a lost cause,” Jasmine said, striding back into the room. Tallie and Layla both straightened up guiltily, but met each other’s eyes with a conspiratorial little shared smile. Jasmine, however, looked worried. “No one panic yet, but I think we have trouble.”

Both of them instantly sobered, Tallie rising from her chair. “Is everybody okay?”

“I haven’t made a complete sweep of the house,” Jasmine said quickly, “didn’t even get upstairs. But I did poke my nose outside, and the Legionnaires are gone. The whole squad; none of their assigned positions are attended. That is not normal procedure; they should have notified someone if they were being recalled.”

“Did you happen to see any of the boys?” Layla asked, her eyebrows drawing together.

Jasmine shook her head. “I wanted to warn you two something might be up; I haven’t gone looking yet. Darius is probably still asleep, but I want to make sure Ross and Schwartz are—”

“Do you hear that?” Tallie interrupted.

All three of them froze, listening. In the ensuing silence, the noise was plain, if faint; a rapid, almost frantic scratching sound, like claws on wood.

Layla twisted around in her chair. “It’s coming from over there. The door!”

She rose while the others whisked past her, both automatically falling into the rapid, silent movement drilled into them by Guild trainers. All three girls clustered around the kitchen’s back door; it had a glass panel looking out onto Glory’s walled-in garden. The glass was partially obscured by frost, but still, they could tell no one was standing outside.

Tallie crouched, shifting her head closer to the door, then lifted her face to the others and pointed at a spot at the very bottom, where the noise was coming from. Jasmine and Layla both nodded acknowledgment; there was no lock or mechanism there that anyone would be trying to pick, which ruled out one immediately threatening possibility. The three moved silently, as if they had rehearsed the maneuver: Tallie retreated to one side where she had open space and braced her legs to spring in any direction, Layla backed across the room to cover the dining room door, and Jasmine shifted into position next to the outer door, placing her hand on the latch.

She looked at the others, getting a nod of confirmation from each of them, before yanking it open and stepping back, ready to face whatever was there.

A tiny red blur zipped into the kitchen, going straight for Jasmine’s leg, and scaled her in seconds while her poised stance dissolved into hopping and flailing. Not until the passenger arrived on her shoulder, reaching up to grab her ear with tiny paws, did she stop after finally getting a good look.

“Meesie?”

The little elemental squealed frantically, hopping up and down on Jasmine’s shoulder and tugging at her face.

“What’s she doing?” Tallie exclaimed. “I’ve never seen her act like that before. Course, I haven’t spent a lot of time—”

“Tallie,” Layla interrupted, stepping forward, “think. This can only mean one thing.”

Tallie’s eyes widened and the color drained from her cheeks, but it was Jasmine who spoke, accompanied by Meesie’s plaintive little wail.

“They’ve got Schwartz.”


By popular demand, Maureen had wheeled the device out of its housing to work on it; she had only a short break between classes, but between inspiration having struck after seeing the vehicle in action last night and the attention she was getting, she had found a pretext to roll it out and make a few adjustments. There was a much bigger audience than usual, a dozen students having wandered over to admire the machine and its creator.

“But it even looks like a wasp,” Hildred was saying animatedly. “Look how it’s body’s all round, there, and that narrow bit at the end fer the stinger!”

“I suggested calling it the Hornet,” Chase said grandiloquently. “It even makes a sound like an enormous buzz when it’s in motion! But Miss Buzz-kill here pooh-poohed that idea.”

“You lot an’ yer chapbook fantasies,” Maureen grunted, swinging the access panel closed and wriggling out from under the machine. Its rear hover charm was online, holding it off the ground, but the motive enchantments had been disconnected while she made adjustments; now, she re-engaged the controls. It did not hum to life, which would require an extra step, and there was no use in wasting the power crystals anyway. “Wasp this an’ hornet that, tryin’ ta make my girl inta somethin’ fierce an’ mean. She’s not a weapon, okay?” Slowly, she stepped along the length of the vehicle, trailing her fingertips affectionately over its curved lines. “Maybe yer onta somethin’ with that insect talk, though. She’s efficient, beautiful, an’ a hard worker. My little Honeybee.”

Chase clapped a hand over his eyes. “Oh, come on. That has got to be the most—”

“Chase Masterson.”

Most of the assembled students shied backward, some with exclamations of startlement, at the appearance of a craggy-faced, balding man in a long black coat right in their midst. At being addressed, Chase whirled to stare at him, and then blinked.

“Oh. Well, hi there,” he said, nonplussed. “You know, I realize technically Hands are supposed to represent the Emperor in a personal capacity, but nobody’s ever told me the right formal address. Is it your Majesty? Cos that just seems disrespectful to the actual—”

The Hand of the Emperor smoothly drew a wand from his pocket and shot him, twice, point blank.

The students surged back further, most of them shouting now; two divine shields and one blue arcane one flared into being, and Iris thrust a hand into the pocket of her dress. All of them immediately froze, however, staring.

Chase was unharmed; both lightning bolts had sparked fruitlessly against a glowing orange spell circle which had flashed into being—standing vertically, midair, unlike any such circle they had ever seen—between him and the Hand. It faded instantly from sight, but too late to avoid being observed.

“What the—” Hildred swallowed heavily. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“I have.” Iris’s upper lip had drawn back in an animal snarl, and she withdrew a clenched fist from her pocket, trailing a faintly luminous green dust. Her glare, though, was fixed on Chase, not on the wand-toting Hand.

“There is a lesson here for you, students,” the Hand said flatly, also staring at Chase with his weapon still at the ready. “In how quick and easy it is to do what Arachne Tellwyrn has failed to for two months. Masterson, among the Sleeper’s offenses for which you can be held responsible is the assault of duly appointed ambassadors from Tar’naris, an allied power. That does not necessarily but can carry a charge of high treason, at the officiating Magistrate’s discretion. I can assure you, young man, the Grand Magistrate in charge of your case will find it appropriate to charge you with the capital crime.”

“We can save them the trouble!” Iris snarled, and Szith pounced bodily on her, wrapping both arms around her roommate to inhibit her from throwing her handful of now-smoking dust.

“Stop,” the drow hissed. “If you assault a Hand of the Emperor, even inadvertently, that is also a capital offense!”

“Heed her,” the Hand advised, glancing at Iris. “Once again, Ms. An’sadarr, you demonstrate why your people are such valued allies.”

“You didn’t do it this way just to lecture me, though,” Chase said thoughtfully. Incongruously, he was wearing a fascinated smile, as though an intriguing puzzle were unraveling right before his eyes. “No, this doesn’t make sense at all. This isn’t about little ol’ me, is it?”

“Inspector Fedora offered you a position with Imperial Intelligence,” the Hand said to him, ignoring the increasingly angry mutters of the students, who had started to press closer around them. “He is no longer in a position to make such offers, but I am. Your stupidity has terminated your life as a free agent, Masterson, but you do have better options left than the headsman. The Empire has made use of nastier pieces of work than you, by far.”

“You can’t be serious!” Gilbert Moss shouted, trying to shove forward and rebounding fruitlessly off Anoia’s divine shield.

“Oh, I see,” Chase mused, grinning broadly now. “And if I’d rather not be an Imperial lackey?”

“Your anonymity was your only shield, you little fool,” the Hand said curtly. “Tellwyrn can demolish you in a heartbeat, once she knows who to attack. So can the Empire. Serve, or die. Unlike Tellwyrn, we always have a plan in place before acting. Report to Tiraas, and you will be immediately found and given instructions. Or try to run. It will be a short hunt.” He looked pointedly at Iris, who had stopped struggling with Szith to glare pure hatred at them both. “I’d think quickly, if I were you.”

And then the Hand was simply gone, as if he’d never stood there.

Chase cleared his throat, putting on a bashful expression and shrugging. “Well! This is awkw—”

With a unified roar, they surged in on him, so fast he barely managed to shadow-jump away.


The docks were, if anything, more crowded than usual, though a great deal less busy. Many of the citizens of Puna Dara were clustered along the wharves, muttering and staring out at the great serpent still making slow laps around the center of the harbor. Most of the activities at which they would normally be busy had been suspended.

Being Punaji, there were a few risk-takers among them, and several boats had attempted to launch throughout the day. No one had actually been attacked, yet, because even those reckless souls had had the sense to head back to the docks once the serpent broke off its aimless patrol to move slowly in their direction. So far, no ships had been launched, and a handful of royal privateers who had been outside the harbor when the serpent appeared were maintaining position beyond the lighthouses, warning approaching vessels away.

The people watched their livelihoods slowly wither while the monstrosity lurked, and their mumbling grew increasingly angry. Notably, no Rust cultists had dared show their faces near the wharves today. The dockside warehouse where they made their public home, usually open to all, was buttoned up tight and had been since well before dawn.

Near midmorning, a cry went up on the docks, engendering at first some confusion and then more shouts as people pointed; most of the onlookers, expecting the source of trouble to come from out in the harbor, looked the wrong way initially and had to be directed toward the sky.

She descended slowly on broad wings of pure flame. Vadrieny made a pass over the docks, then circled around and swung in lower, executing another sweep before gliding in a third time, this time clearly making to land. It was an approach obviously designed to make her intentions clear and give people the chance to get out of the way, which they did. She set down gently, pumping her wings and creating a rush of warm air over the onlookers who pressed back from her, before settling lightly to the dock. As soon as she had landed, the flame and overlarge claws withdrew, leaving behind only a girl in deep red Narisian robes, her brown hair in an oddly shaggy style as if it had been cut short and then left to grow out for a few weeks.

She had set down near the southern end of the shallow arc of the docks, on a pier at which only local fishing boats were tied up. Teal turned in a slow circle, taking in the muttering crowds, the beast in the harbor, and the surrounding geography, and then set out inland. She strode off the pier and onto the solid ground of the city, making straight for an open-fronted fishmonger’s shack.

“Good morning,” she said politely to the wary-looking old man seated behind the counter.

“You too,” he said slowly. “So, uh…that fiery bit, there. What’s that about?”

She hesitated before answering. “That was the archdemon Vadrieny. Last surviving daughter of Elilial.”

“And…she’s gone, now?”

“No,” Teal said evenly, touching the Talisman of Absolution pinned to the front of her robes. “Still here.”

“Mm.” He grimaced. “Daughter of Elilial, that’s exactly what we need right now. You can’t go pick on somebody else? Puna Dara’s got enough problems.” His eyes cut past her; he had a perfect view, between the wharves, of the augmented sea serpent moving along its slow, endless sweep.

“Actually,” she said, “we’re here to do something about that. I guess business must be pretty slow today, huh?”

“That your idea of a joke?” the fishmonger demanded.

“No, sir,” she replied, her tone polite. “I’m hoping you’ll be willing to part with a whole barrel of chum. I figure it won’t be much of a hardship if nobody’s fishing today.”

For a moment, the man just stared at her. “You’re…going to get rid of the beast…with a barrel of chum.”

Some of the onlookers had drawn closer; the people of Puna Dara were not as easily intimidated as the average run of civilians, and with Vadrieny not actually in evidence several dozen were emboldened enough to have stepped within earshot by that point.

“Well, there are steps involved,” Teal explained. “Dealing with the serpent may take time, but we can force it down from the surface and neutralize the Rust cultists who summoned it, at least temporarily, by bringing on a storm.”

More muttering began, on all sides. Teal ignored this, smiling calmly at the fishmonger. He, for his part, just stared.

“You want,” he said at last, “to cause a storm. With a barrel of chum.”

“Yes.”

“…kid, I get the impression you’re new in town.”

“What gave me away?” she asked with a faint smile. “Is it the accent?”

He shook his head. “You don’t cause storms. They just come. Naphthene does what Naphthene wants, and the storm cares not. Welcome to Puna Dara.”

“How about this?” Teal pulled a wallet from one of the pockets of her robe and began flicking through its contents; it was a thin thing, containing only paper money. “Sell me a barrel of chum, and if this doesn’t work out, you’ll have done some business and got to see the last daughter of Elilial look foolish. Win/win, isn’t it?”

She produced the smallest denomination of bank note she had and held it up, smiling.

He stared at her for another two heartbeats before turning his eyes to the note. It was for twenty Imperial decabloons—the better part of a year’s take at his little bait shack.

“Lady,” the fishmonger said in mounting exasperation, “I do not have change for that.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Teal set the note down on his counter. “Share with your neighbors, help offset the lost business from that creature. So, my chum?”

The man looked truly flummoxed, but with a sigh, he carefully picked up the bank note—gingerly, as if holding the most valuable object he had ever touched, which was possibly the case. “Just so you know, all sales here are final.”

“Of course.”

“…right. So…chum’s right here. I’ll just…uh, you want some help carrying this to…wherever? I can call my son over…”

“That’s quite all right. May I?”

At her polite request, he shrugged, then lifted the hinged board separating his counter from the street. Teal stepped behind, gripped the edges of the open barrel he indicated, and picked it up without effort.

The barrel stood as high as her waist and was filled to within inches of the top with fish guts and other effluvia, kept behind the counter to discourage seagulls. Teal appeared as unbothered by the smell as she was by the weight, which a strong man would have been hard-pressed to hoist alone. She held it carefully at arm’s length, away from the front of her robes.

“Thanks,” she said lightly, trundling back out onto the street bordering the wharves. “Pleasure doing business. Now, if I’m not mistaken, I think I saw a little shrine to Naphthene just up that way as we were gliding in. Is that right?”

His eyes widened. “You’re not thinking of…”

“You can come watch, if you want,” she said, turning and setting off down the docks.

Her gait was a little awkward, holding the barrel out in front of herself, but she moved at an average walking pace, which gave the ever-growing crowd plenty of time to get out of her way. Those who hadn’t been close enough to observe the exchange at the bait shack were warned off by the smell as a barrel of half-rotten fish parts made its way along the wharves. Even as they cleared a path, however, the locals followed along, muttering in increasing curiosity over what this clearly possessed, oddly polite foreigner was up to.

Not too far distant from the bait stand, there was indeed a small shrine to Naphthene built adjacent to the water, between two piers. It was a simple thing, the goddess of the sea having no formal cult, just a waist-high circular base of stones, mostly filled with rounded pebbles from the harbor or nearby beaches. A single large, rounded rock stood upright from the middle of it, carved with the trident sigil of Naphthene and turned to face out to sea. Around it, atop the sea stones which made its nest, had been laid a thick melange of shells, fish hooks, coins, and little trinkets, offerings of appreciation and supplication, which were universally ignored—but still offered. Naphthene did not answer prayers, but she was sometimes known to punish the lack of them. It was not visible from the docks, but there would be a pile of similar little treasures in the water directly under the shrine. When the space in the shrine itself became too full, its offerings would be tipped into the sea. No one in this city dared pilfer from the fickle goddess.

Teal approached this directly, and the crowd’s muttering became more urgent as they perceived her intent; most of them began backing away more expeditiously, eager not to be within range of whatever was about to happen.

“Lady, no,” a young boy exclaimed, waving to get her attention. “The goddess cursed the whole royal family cos a prince pissed on one of those shrines! An’ that was by accident!”

Still holding the reeking barrel, Teal paused and turned to give him a calm smile of acknowledgment.

“I,” she said with a faint edge to her tone, “am not a prince.”

Then she effortlessly lifted the barrel, tipped it up, and dumped its entire load of rotting filth over and into the sea goddess’s shrine.

Fish entrails and old pieces no longer fit for human consumption poured down in a rank slurry, quickly filling the space inside the shrine and spilling over it to splatter on the ground. People began turning to flee outright—some, at least. Others gazed on, wide-eyed, apparently unable to tear themselves away from what was sure to be a spectacle.

Immediately, a ripple appeared in the harbor, halfway out to where the serpent lurked, and shot toward the shrine as if something just beneath the surface were heading landward at an incredible speed. At the sight of this, more of the onlookers fled, and even the most stubborn judiciously backed away from the edge of the water.

The surge hit the shore, and erupted in a veritable geyser, blasting the shrine and Teal hard enough to bowl anyone over and sweep them out to sea. Indeed, several of those closest lost their footing in the backwash that rushed back into the harbor, and nobody within earshot avoided getting soaked. Fortunately, no one was sucked out into the ocean. The only one standing close enough to the sea goddess’s little slap had been its target, Teal.

But when the water receded, Teal was gone; Vadrieny stood there, clawed hands braced on the edges of the shrine, talons sunk right into the stone of the harbor wall below for purchase. Her blazing wings and hair hissed, water rapidly burning away to steam and dissipating in the moist air.

Flaring her wings outward, Vadrieny released her hold and hopped up, landing nimbly with her talons on the edges of the shrine. It had been blasted clean by the spray, fish guts and offerings both swept away to leave only stone. While the drenched onlookers stared in horror, the daughter of Elilial deliberately raised one clawed foot and slammed it down, crushing the central rock and obliterating the sigil of Naphthene.

Vadrieny sank her claws into the stone with a crunch, leaned forward to glare out to sea, spread her wings and arms wide—claws fully extended in an obvious threat—and screamed, jaws stretching wider than a human mouth was physically meant to open, baring her full complement of fangs. The unearthly howl blasted forth with enough physical force to make the water ripple back from the destroyed shrine; everyone nearby clapped hands over their ears, many crying out in protest. They were unheard, of course. Nothing was heard except the roar of a challenge from the infernal demigoddess.

In the distance, the entire horizon turned black.

The ocean itself changed color, and began to heave; white foam appeared, accompanying a sudden rise of wind whistling straight ashore. The sky itself thickened, thunderheads appearing seemingly from nowhere and spreading out from that ominous line of clouds. Already flickers of lightning appeared along the leading edge of the storm, flashing nearly constantly, though it was still too far out to sea for the thunder to be audible.

Still, but not for long.

Vadrieny turned and hopped down from the wrecked shrine, putting her back contemptuously to the storm. Immediately, lightning snapped out of the still-clear sky overhead, arcing into the harbor and sending a crack of thunder booming across Puna Dara, a herald of the tempest rapidly on its way. The archdemon did not even flinch.

“I suggest you all get ready,” she said over the rising howl of the wind. “It’s coming fast.”

 

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13 – 21

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The King of the Punaji strode onto the tower platform to find it already abuzz with activity, as were the other towers of the Rock itself, and to judge by the distant lights, every defensive emplacement across the harbor. It might be their alliance with Tiraas that secured Puna Dara from retribution by other naval powers, but the Punaji were not foolish enough to blithely rely upon it. The deep hum of a fully-charged mag cannon occupying the center of the tower platform attested to that.

“Papa!” Ruda said with clear relief. “The signals are in from the other towers; all cannons are ready to fire on command. That thing is a much more mobile target than a ship, but it’s cruising around in predictable circles out there. I’ve given orders for every artillery team to focus on one spot in its established course, but we’re inevitably going to have some missed shots once it starts reacting. That’s as much as I wanted to order without you here.”

“Well done, Zari,” Blackbeard rumbled, joining her at the battlements and placing a heavy hand on her shoulder. Together, they stared out into the night, and the augmented sea serpent dominating the harbor. As she had said, it was in some kind of odd little patrol route, swimming around and around in a tight circle right in the center of the bay, as if going out of its way to avoid impacting the docks or ships. It was wasting a lot of energy, too; sea serpents were not designed to move with their upper bodies extending out of the water. This thing was deliberately making a show of itself, which implied direction by a much greater intelligence than an animal should have. “To judge by the gadgetry plating that aberration, I surmise your friends have failed to negotiate.”

“I trust my friends,” Ruda said, glaring at the circling monster. “It was worth trying. Sometimes, some people just can’t be reasoned with.”

“It’s good that you understand that, little minnow. Prepare to fire!” he added in a booming voice of command. “Signal the other towers to fire at will upon this weapon’s discharge!”

“Aye, sir!” barked the nearby artillery specialist, hunkering over her mag cannon’s runic controls and staring down its huge barrel, while another soldier swiftly ran signal flags up and a third flashed the beam of a fairy lamp to illuminate them.

“As soon as we fire, it’s war, Papa,” Ruda said grimly. “It’ll be war in our streets.”

“That is not a threat, Zari,” Blackbeard rumbled. “Even if only meant as one, the harbor is unsafe while it’s out there. We are the sea. Without our navy, without merchant ships, Puna Dara is crippled. This is war. I have not rushed to confrontation, but once we are attacked, I will not hesitate.”

“Yes, sir.”

The King’s chest swelled, and he roared, “FIRE AT WILL!”

The cannoneer had been tracking the beast, her weapon’s levitation charms straining to adjust it upon its hinged and spring-loaded mounts; mag cannons were easier and quicker to aim than older conventional artillery, but that was not saying much. At Rajakhan’s command, she immediately yanked the ignition lever.

Everyone’s hair stood up and the tower was illuminated by a white glow as the mag cannon discharged a tremendous beam of pure energy, momentarily cutting off all conversation with its deafening, metallic roar, oddly reminiscent of the semi-mechanical serpent’s. It was a glancing hit; the beam raked one side of the monster’s upthrust body, sending it careening away, then gouged a path of steam and spray through the ocean as the cannoneer tried to adjust, following the beast’s movement. The beam persisted for less than ten seconds, though, and the heavy weapon was awkward to move; she did not get it back onto its target before the energy expired.

Per the King’s orders, however, more fire immediately followed, from each of the mag cannon emplacements on the Rock and the harbor walls. Massive streams of pure arcane energy lit the night, blazing from the arc of Puna Dara’s docks and filling the center of the harbor with an inescapable field of destruction. Not every shot connected; not every shot that hit was a direct blow. Two beams struck the serpent dead on, however, and three others managed glancing strikes off various portions of its long body as it flailed under the assault.

A mag cannon could bore a hole through a fortress wall or obliterate a warship with a single shot. A famously lucky hit by an Imperial mag artillery team had once cleaved a dragon right out of the sky. They failed, however, to sink the beast.

Even as its hide was ignited with a furious torrent of energy and lightning arced from its beleaguered body across the surface of the water, the serpent did not go down. Its metal plating flared alight, the spiny ridges along its back blazing with the intensity of the sun, and apparently diffusing even the colossal energy of the mag cannon fire and dispersing it back into the ocean itself. Waves surged outward toward the docks, whipped up both by the artillery and the sea serpent’s thrashing.

The cannons fell silent, having all fired within seconds of each other; it would take roughly a minute of recharging before they were ready to discharge again at full power.

Still glowing and sparking with residual energy, the sea serpent reared up again, opened its tremendous jaws and let out another deafening roar which boomed out across the harbor.

Princess Zaruda gripped the battlements, sticking her head out toward the sea, and roared right back. Soldiers on the tower followed suit, brandishing staves and swords, and the wordless call was taken up and spread rapidly across the walls of the whole fortress. Faced with an apparently indestructible, unstoppable foe, the Punaji screamed defiance into the dark.

King Rajakhan, however, stood still and silent, one hand resting upon the battlements, watching for whatever fate brought next.


“I won’t hold that against him,” Ayuvesh said magnanimously to the group staring in horror at his massive screen. “Perfectly reasonable reaction to my little pet’s sudden appearance in the harbor. In fact, it makes a very useful object lesson!” He turned a beaming smile upon them, his overt jolliness not quite hiding the venom lurking at the edges of the expression. “Much better in the long run that Rajakhan understands there is nothing he can do against the serpent. This way, hopefully, I will not have to make any demonstrations upon anything which bleeds.”

“You piece of shit,” Gabriel growled, striding to the edge of the platform and leveling his scythe.

“Ah, ah, ah!” Seemingly unperturbed at having a divine weapon pointed at him, Ayuvesh shook a chiding finger. “Careful where you swing that thing, Hand of Death. Yes, yes, we all know you can reap the life from everyone here. Just be advised that if you do, Puna Dara will soon follow. My will alone keeps the beast in check, now that it is awake.” Abruptly, his jovial expression collapsed into a flat stare. “It will not attack…for now. I will give you a few hours to return to the Rock and explain the situation to the King; my pet can withstand the venting of his outrage until then. Beyond that point, however, I expect the Infinite Order to be shown some consideration in Puna Dara.” Slowly, he leaned back in his chair, turning the walking machine again to face them directly. “Once these extremely reasonable and basic conditions are satisfied, perhaps we can resume our discussion. But I see no reason to negotiate until my people’s safety is assured. Especially not with interlopers who talk with one face and scheme with another. And now…” He raised one hand to make a languid gesture at them—or rather, at the doorway behind them. “Until then, children, it would seem you have a rather urgent errand to run. I trust you remember the way out?”


“Your Grace…es.” Inspector Jaahri paused, cleared his throat, and then adjusted his lapels, the living portrait of a man knocked off balance. “I assure you, this situation is under control. If you will allow me to do—”

“Well, drat,” Bishop Darling said, turning to Syrinx, “now he’s gone all diplomatic. That looked rather promising for a moment, there.”

“I never get to have any fun,” she replied petulantly. “Well, if the boy is through making threats, I suppose this’ll go more quickly.”

“Now, see here,” the Inspector said loudly.

“Hush. You’re done.” Basra flicked her fingers at him in a contemptuous gesture, turning a cold shoulder to Jaahri and addressing the rest of the group. “Fortunately, I did not just traipse off into the sunset after interrupting my old friend Falaridjad trying to illegally arrest you kids. I can only surmise from this debacle that you’ve been trying to unravel this affair yourselves in spite of repeated advice to keep safely out of it. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know someone competent has been addressing the matter while you scurried around wasting time.”

“All that’s a little strong,” Darius complained.

“Meet Bishop Syrinx,” Jasmine muttered. Schwartz clenched his fists, breathing slowly and evenly and making a concerted effort not to look at either Basra or Jenell. Meesie, meanwhile, had puffed herself up like a pincushion and was emitting a high, constant hiss.

“All right, this is enough,” Jaahri barked, trying to reassert control. He took a menacing step toward Syrinx. “I will have to insist—”

Jenell’s sword hissed as she yanked it from its sheath and strode forward, pointing the blade at his heart and interposing herself between him and Syrinx.

Jaahri halted, staring at her in clear disbelief. “Young woman,” he said finally, “I am an Imperial Inspector.” For good measure, he pointed at the silver gryphon badge pinned to his coat. “Assaulting me constitutes treason.”

“Congratulations,” she replied, deadpan. “Step away from the Bishop while you’ve still got legs, fool. You just started to charge one of the Sisterhood’s top blademasters. If I meant you harm, I’d have let you do it.”

“Thank you, Covrin,” Basra said lightly. “In any case, I have been investigating this conspiracy with every resource available to me.”

“And that includes me!” Darling said in a cheerful tone, raising a hand. “Hello, everyone, my name is Antonio Darling and I serve as the Church’s liaison to the Imperial security council. My own contacts, working on information helpfully gathered by Bishop Syrinx, singled out branches of this mess among the military police. Including one Inspector Jaahri—who, as we just learned even while gathering intel, was himself on the way to the home of a prominent Eserite to investigate the mysterious demise of one of the best leads in this case.”

“That is slander,” Jaahri hissed.

“Actually he’s got the documents to prove it,” Flora piped up.

“So, being written down, it’s technically libel,” Fauna added.

“Except, proof is absolute defense against a charge of slander,” Flora corrected her.

“Oh, that’s right. So it’s just… What was the word he used?”

Jenell had not lowered her weapon, and now smiled at Jaahri across it. “Treason.”

“Antonio, so help me,” Basra complained, “if your little vaudevillians start including my aide in that insufferable act of theirs I shall be very cross with you.”

“Heel, girls,” he said dutifully. Both elves stuck out their tongues at his back. “Anyhow, we came down here in something of a hurry; we only just learned of this development.”

“But not too much of a hurry to take precautions,” Syrinx added with a predatory smile. “I have a squad from the Third Legion on the way here.”

“And,” Darling said complacently, “I took the time to start several balls rolling before leaving Imperial Command. For your edification, Inspector, General Panissar and Lord Vex are on that council with me, so if you were entertaining thoughts of going over my head, I hope your arms are a lot longer than they look. If you act very quickly and are very adroit, perhaps by this time tomorrow you won’t be in a cell. Who knows? If you’re a lot more capable than I think you are, you might even still be employed by his Majesty’s government.”

Jaahri stared at him, breathing loudly through his nose. The other soldiers in the room watched both him and their sergeant uncertainly.

“Or,” Basra said into the ensuing quiet, “you can attempt what you are contemplating right now. With no surviving witnesses, things might still go in your favor. Then again, you are in a room with two powerful divine casters, one a blademaster, two elves, a Butler, a Silver Legionnaire and…” She glanced at Schwartz with a faint smirk. “…a witch who, despite his numerous failings, is probably capable of demolishing your squad single-handedly. Think carefully, Inspector. Take your time. Some of us can spare it.”

“There seems to be no probable cause to seek arrest here,” the sergeant said suddenly. “Men, you are to ignore any such orders. If the Inspector sees fit to file a complaint, let it be on my head.”

“Yes, sir!” several of them chorused in clear relief.

Jaahri’s left eye twitched violently. He drew in an exceptionally deep breath and let it out through his teeth.

“This is not over,” he promised the two Bishops, and swept toward the door. His dramatic exit was ruined by the fact that Flora and Fauna were still standing in it, and made no move to clear the way.

“You may want to curtail that melodramatic streak before being interviewed by Intelligence,” Darling suggested. “In my experience, the innocent don’t issue threats. Girls, let the man out.”

Jaahri made a point of brushing aggressively against Flora as he departed. She exaggeratedly pantomimed fainting against the door frame, causing Fauna to snicker.

“Weren’t you just making threats, Sweet?” Tallie asked.

Bishop Darling turned to her and winked.

The sergeant cleared his throat. “Well! I guess our business here is done. Unless your Graces will be needing us for anything else?”

“Report to Imperial Command, if you would, Sergeant,” Darling said politely. “That is a request; I’m not empowered to give you orders. But Intelligence will be wanting your testimony on this anyway, and the faster you tell your side, the less opportunity that one has to throw you lads under the carriage.”

“Thank you, your Grace, I’ll do that.” He tipped his cap politely, then again to Glory. “A good evening to you, your Graces. Apologies for the inconvenience, Ms. Sharvineh. Fall in, men.”

There was a slightly awkward silence while the soldiers filed out, Smythe following them into the hall. The moment they heard the front door click shut, Tallie let out a whoop. “Now that is what—”

“Shut up.” Darling’s voice was not loud, but flat and forceful; it commanded instant silence. “You little idiots have come within a hair’s breadth of getting yourselves killed. You actually did get Carruthers Treadwell killed, so, thanks for that.”

“I was the one who invited him here, Sweet,” Glory said calmly. “The security of this house has never failed before. I still don’t know how someone was able to commit an act of such violence without alerting my wards.”

“I’ll wager you’ve never made yourself an enemy of renegade Salyrites, Sharvineh,” said Basra. “You were probably better off trusting Schwartz than your own passive defenses in that regard.” She gave him a suspiciously bright smile. “So long as you can deal with his tendency to develop inappropriate and obsessive crushes, he’s a very useful boy to have around.”

Schwartz grabbed Meesie, who tried to lunge at Basra from across the room, squealing ferociously. “Always a pleasure, your Grace,” he said tersely. “Glory, unless you need me for something else, I’ll just be in the kitchen. I imagine it will mess up your nice parlor if I set that woman on fire, which is where this is heading.”

“Maybe absenting yourself is a good idea, Herschel,” Glory replied softly. Ami, meanwhile, let out a theatrical groan and rolled her eyes dramatically.

“And Talaari,” Basra added. “This is downright nostalgic! Almost the whole gang, together again.”

“I am here to further my career,”Ami said haughtily, “this being a most prestigious house in which to perform. It was going rather well until the unfortunate homicide. No offense meant to anyone, but I would be delighted if the ‘gang’ remained separate. Every time I see any of you people, I end up with some maniac trying to kill me.”

“Wow, you weren’t kidding,” Darling mused while Schwartz slipped out the back, still clutching a struggling Meesie in both hands. “She really talks that way.”

“Ami’s another one who’s very good at what she does,” Basra said dourly, “and so annoying it’s almost not worth it. I seem to attract them, somehow. Anyway! We both have to go resume cleaning up this mess, so we can’t loiter here much longer. Ms. Sharvineh, assorted junior reprobates, I’ve given orders for the Legionnaires coming to escort you to the Temple of Avei.”

“Now, just a ding-danged second here,” Tallie began stridently.

“If,” Basra all but shouted, “you choose to go! I strongly encourage you to do so—renegade Salyrites may be willing to take on a famous socialite’s personal defenses, but the Sisterhood of Avei is another matter. If you prefer to take your chances alone, though, they will stay here to secure the house until further notice.”

“My neighbors will love that,” Glory murmured.

“The problem,” said Jasmine, “is that we know for a fact this conspiracy has a presence in the Sisterhood of Avei. The Guild is the only cult we believe isn’t infiltrated.”

“And that’s why you don’t let anybody corner you alone,” Basra said in a tone of exaggerated patience. “Stay in the Temple’s main areas—or better yet, in the Silver Legion’s public grounds. I’m sure you know your way around, Jasmine.”

“And for the record,” Darling added, “just in case it comes up, the Huntsmen of Shaath are also clean.”

“Hard to imagine that becoming helpful,” said Darius.

“Yeah,” Darling said sharply. “All of which makes it very curious that you left the Guild in the first place.”

“The thing about that,” Tallie began.

“We fucked up,” Ross interrupted. He shrugged when everyone turned to stare at him. “That’s the truth. We saw cults infiltrated an’ panicked. Didn’t think about the Guild bein’ harder to corrupt.”

“Well, at least they can learn,” Basra said, shaking her head. “The good news is that all of this may be coming to a head very soon. We’ll take steps to get you lot safely back to the Guild if it’s not cleaned up by tomorrow. What I assume you don’t know is that today, Archpope Justinian gave an address in which he warned in the strongest possible terms against clerics of any faith prioritizing Church loyalty over obligations to their own gods.”

“Wait…what?” Tallie said incredulously. “I thought this whole thing was about Justinian’s inner circle making some kind of power play!”

Darling and Syrinx exchanged a look.

“Kid,” he said, “we’re his inner circle. And one thing we know Justinian likes to do is use his loyal agents to winnow each other down.”

Layla suddenly straightened up, her eyes widening. “He’s cleaning house.”

“Well, good,” Basra said, “at least one of them has a mind.”

“Well, it ain’t me,” said Darius. “What do you mean, cleaning house?”

“The general tensions between the Church and the Imperial government were brought to the very brink of open violence just a few weeks ago,” Darling said somberly. “The details are classified, but suffice it to say, each runs secret projects, and two of theirs blundered into each other in the dark and it got messy. Sharidan knows the Archpope has designs on increasing his power at the Throne’s expense; all that restrains him from acting is public opinion and the support of the Houses and cults. If the government moves on the Church without damn solid evidence of wrongdoing…”

“It would be the Enchanter Wars all over again,” Jasmine whispered.

“Probably not that bad,” said Basra, “but it’s enough of an issue that the Throne having any legitimate, actionable grievance is an existential threat to Justinian’s ambitions. He has been frantically rebuilding bridges; the two main fronts appear to be this business and what’s unfolding in Puna Dara. The Archpope is setting up those loyal to him but whom he doesn’t need to take a fall, and prove his goodwill toward the Silver Throne.”

“And that’s why their moves have been so…reckless and unwise,” Layla said eagerly. “He’s directing them to make mistakes on purpose!”

“Oh, he’s not directing this,” Basra said grimly. “That would leave a trail Imperial Intelligence can follow, and Justinian is far too clever for that. No, it’s as simple as placing incompetent people in positions of leadership, and letting events unfold naturally—hence Ildrin Falaridjad. No one who has worked with that whingeing, glory-hounding nitwit would place her in charge of a fruit stand, much less a conspiracy.”

“Wait,” Jasmine said, “what’s happening in Puna Dara?”

“None of your business!” Syrinx barked. “You little nincompoops have caused enough damage! If you truly have no regard for your own welfare, as seems to be the case, then at least quit messing up the efforts of people who can actually do this work!”

“This is a conflict between the Universal Church and the Silver Throne, ultimately,” Darling said in a calmer tone. “Everyone you’ve encountered so far is considered expendable by the real players, including yourselves, and us. This is over your pay grade, kids. We have contacts within the Imperial Government and every cult we could reach moving to clean up the conspirators as we speak. This is going to unfold quickly, and it’s going to get a lot messier before it gets cleaned up. The best thing you can do now is hunker down and butt out. Let the Legions keep you safe until this blows over.”

“And if you can’t manage that,” Basra added disdainfully, “at least try not to get any more useful witnesses murdered.”

“Well,” Darius said after a short pause, “no promises, but we’ll see what we can do.”

 

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