Tag Archives: the Jackal

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“So naturally, you brought it here,” Tellwyrn said in exasperation.

“She,” Toby said firmly. “Come on, Professor. That’s a person you’re talking about.”

“Hello,” Scorn offered, apparently noticing that attention was focused on her.

“What,” Tellwyrn demanded, “do you think I’m going to do with a Rhaazke? I’m not even going to bother being taken aback that you kids managed to get one. Somehow it’s always you lot!”

“Point of order!” Fross chimed. “We didn’t get her! A stupid man was trying to summon a succubus and fell afoul of an unpredictable chaos effect. So, really, it wasn’t even his fault, though it’s very tempting to blame him because he was really dumb and also a great big creep. But still. These things just happen.”

Professor Yornhaldt burst out laughing, earning a glare from Tellwyrn. Her office was rather crowded with the entire sophomore class present, plus Tellwyrn behind her desk, and Yornhaldt and Rafe in chairs against one of her bookcases. Scorn stood in the corner nearest the door, hunching somewhat awkwardly to keep her horns from brushing the ceiling.

“Maybe what you do with any of us?” Ruda suggested. “I mean, let’s face it, the student body here is probably the biggest collection of weirdos on this continent, if not the planet.”

“This is not a hostel,” Tellwyrn said acidly. “We don’t take in strays just because they have no place better to be!”

“Where would you suggest sending her, then?” Trissiny asked quietly. “What else could we have done?”

“BEHOLD!” Scorn shouted.

Tellwyrn buried her face in her hands, displacing her glasses. Rafe howled with laughter.

“If I may?” Shaeine said with customary serenity. “Scorn is a daughter of nobility in her own realm; her principal problem seems to be unfamiliarity with the mortal plane. The speed with which she is picking up Tanglish suggests a capable intellect, and she certainly meets the qualification you set out for us in our very first class last year. She is too dangerous to be allowed to wander around untrained. All in all, she would appear to be the very model of an Unseen University student.”

“I know it’s unusual to enroll a student at this point in the academic year, Arachne,” Yornhaldt added, “but really. These are unusual circumstances, and what is this if not an unusual place?”

“She’s completely clueless about every detail of life on this plane,” Tellwyrn grated. “Can you lot even begin to imagine the havoc that could ensue from her mingling with the student body? Or worse, the general populace. What would she do if sent out on one of your field assignments? And the curriculum here is not designed to hand-hold people who have no concept what anything in the world is. The closest parallels to this case in the University’s entire history are Juniper and Fross, and they at least speak the language!”

“Well, we have to put her somewhere,” said Gabriel. “I mean, it’s not like you can just kill her.”

“Oh, really,” Tellwyrn said flatly.

“Yeah, really,” he replied, meeting her eyes unflinchingly. “Just. I said you can’t just kill her. You can no doubt do that or anything else you want, but not until you’ve plowed through every one of us first.”

“Whoah, guys,” Juniper said soothingly. “Of course she’s irate, we just dropped a Rhaazke demon in her lap. Professor Tellwyrn’s only that mean to people who’ve done something to deserve it. C’mon, let’s everybody calm down, okay?”

“Excellent advice,” Shaeine agreed.

“All right,” said Tellwyrn, drumming her fingers on the desk and staring at Scorn, who peered quizzically back. “All right. This is what we’ll do. I am not enrolling this walking disaster in your or any class at this juncture. Don’t start, Caine, I am not done talking! She can stay with the girls in Clarke Tower; it has a basement space that should be big enough to be fairly comfortable for her. If she’s going to be on the campus, she’s not to leave it; I refuse to have to explain this to the Sheriff. You lot, since you had the bright idea to bring her here, will be responsible for bringing her up to speed on life in the world. Teach her Tanglish, local customs, the political realities of the Empire, the cults… You know, all the stuff none of you bother to think about because you’ve known it for years.”

“I bother to think about it,” said Fross.

“Me, too,” Juniper added.

“Good, that’ll make you perfect tutors, then. We’ll revisit this issue next semester, and if I judge her prepared, she may join the class of 1183 at that time. If not… She can take that semester and the summer for further familiarity, though frankly I will consider it a big black mark if she hasn’t the wits to get her claws under her in the next few months. If she is still not ready or willing to be University material at the start of next fall’s semester, that’s it. No more chances. Then I’ll have to figure out what to do with her, which I frankly do not suspect anybody will like.”

“That’s fair,” Trissiny said quickly. “She’s smart. I’m sure she’ll be good to go by this spring.”

“Not kill?” Scorn inquired.

“Sadly, no,” Ruda said while Tellwyrn leaned far back in her chair, letting her head loll against it to stare at the ceiling.

“Well, anyway,” Rafe said brightly, “you’ll get my detailed report later, Arachne, but the kids did a damn fine job. Not at all their fault that the Church butted in at the last moment—they were right on the cusp of getting to the bottom of Veilgrad’s problem, and I have to say their investigation was deftly handled. A much better showing than the Golden Sea expedition!”

“Aw, we can’t take too much credit,” Ruda said sweetly. “Professor Rafe helped a lot by fucking around in Malivette’s house with her concubines instead of sticking his clumsy fingers into our business. Like in the Golden Sea expedition.”

“HAH! Straightforward, on-target sass, Punaji! Ten points—”

“Admestus, shut your yap,” Tellwyrn snapped. “I am in no mood. For the time being, pending a full report, you kids can consider your grade for this assignment in good shape. All right, all of you get lost. Go settle in, get some rest; you’ve got assignments waiting in your rooms. Classes are tomorrow as usual. Have fun explaining this to Janis,” she added, flapping a hand disparagingly at Scorn.

“Pointing is for no,” the demon said severely. “Rude. Social skills!”

“Malivette is scary even when she’s not here,” Fross whispered.

“Hell, Janis loves having people to mother,” Ruda said, grinning. “I bet Scorn’s never had muffins. C’mon, big girl.”

“I’m a little nervous how she’ll react to the tower,” Teal said as they began filing out the door. “Any sane person is unnerved by that tower at first glance.”

“Welp, I’ll just get on with my paperwork, then, shall I?” Rafe said, rising and following them.

“How industrious of you, Admestus,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “What did you do this time?”

He grinned insanely. “Wait, learn, and be amazed.”

“Get the hell out.”

“Aye aye, fearless leader!”

Fross hesitated in the top of the door after everyone else departed. “It’s good to see you back, Professor Yornhaldt!”

“Thank you, Fross,” he said, smiling. “I’m quite glad to see all of you again, as well!”

The pixie shut the door with a careful push of elemental air, leaving them alone.

Tellwyrn set her glasses on the desk, massaging the brim of her nose. “Those kids are going to be the graduating class that brings me the most pride and satisfaction if they don’t burn the whole goddamn place down, first.”

“That’s not entirely fair, Arachne,” Yornhaldt protested. “They are pretty obviously not the ones who opened the hellgate. And they were, after all, instrumental in closing it.”

“You know exactly what I mean.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” he said with a sigh. “But this is business as usual, Arachne, just more of it. Some of those kids have fearfully direct connections to significant powers, but in the end, we’ve been training up heroes and villains for half a century now, and sending them out to face their destiny.”

“There are no such things as heroes or villains,” she grunted. “Or destiny.”

Yornhaldt smiled, folding his thick hands over his midsection. “I disagree, as you well know.”

“Yes, yes, let’s not get in that argument again.” She put her spectacles back on and gave him a more serious look. “You were in the middle of telling me of your adventures when Admestus barged in with the goslings.”

“Actually, I had just finished telling you of my adventures. Although I had a rather interesting time procuring a new suit with most of my money having walked off during—ah, but I gather you don’t care to hear about that.”

“Naturally I’ll reimburse you for any expenses,” she said. “But the research, Alaric. It’s really a dead end?”

Yornhaldt frowned in thought, gazing at the far wall but seeing nothing. “I cannot accept that it’s a dead end, but I may be forced to accept that continuing down this particular path is beyond me. It’s an alignment, Arachne, I’m sure of it. But an alignment of what is the question. I am certain there are astronomical factors, but this is unique in that the stars and bodies coming into position are beyond our current society’s capacity to detect. That much I can say with certainty; a few of the surviving sources were of a scientific mindset and blessedly plainspoken. There must have been means for such long-distance viewing during the time of the Elder Gods, but right now, we simply cannot see the distant galaxies which must be taken into account.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” she said, frowning heavily. “On the cosmic scale you’re talking about, eight thousand of this planet’s years is nothing. An eyeblink—it’s one tenth of one percent of a fart. There wouldn’t be significant deviation from their positions relative to us eight millennia prior. And that’s not even addressing the question of how such distant objects even could influence matters on this world. You know as well as I the upper limits of magical influence. It’s not constrained by the lightspeed constant, but it’s far from infinite.”

“Just so,” he agreed, nodding. “Which brings me to the other issue: I am convinced that what is being aligned is planar as well as physical. Perhaps more so. There are factors relating to the positions of the infernal, divine and elemental planes relative to this one. Unfortunately,” he added with a scowl, “most of this information seems to have been recorded by bards. Or at least, individuals who thought a poetic turn of phrase was a useful addition to the historical record. Considering that this work requires finding the few sources that have even survived, translating them out of dead languages… We’re in the realm of lore, now, Arachne. I have a hankering to continue the project, but I also need to acknowledge that I’m not the best person for it. If you can help me work out a means of measuring and scrying on things in other galaxies, that I’ll do with a will. This… We need a historian. Preferably a somewhat spoony one.”

“I should think a less spoony mindset would be more useful in untangling those records,” she said dryly.

Yornhaldt grimaced. “I consider myself as unspoony as they come, and I mostly found the work frustrating.”

Tellwyrn sighed and drummed her fingers on the desk again. “Well. Based on the speed with which actual events are unfolding, we have at least a year. Likely more; apocalypses like this don’t just drop from the trees like pinecones. If the alignment does lead to another apotheosis, as everything seems to suggest, the gods will be taking action, as will those closest to them, before it actually hits. For now,” she went on with a smile, “I’m damned glad to see you home safe, Alaric.”

“I have to confess I am as well,” he replied, grinning.

“Unfortunately, I can’t put you back at a lectern just yet. I promised Kaisa the year; I don’t even know whether she wants the full year, but the issue is it was promised to her. The last thing I need on top of everything else is an offended kitsune tearing up my campus.”

“Arachne, I’m sure I have no idea what you are going on about,” Yornhaldt replied, folding his hands behind his head and leaning back against the books. “Teach classes? You forget, I am on sabbatical.”


 

“It is a great relief to see you all back unharmed,” Archpope Justinian said with a beneficent smile. “Your mission brought you into conflict with some very dangerous individuals.”

“Yep,” the Jackal replied lazily. “Since apparently that was the entire and only point of the whole exercise, it sure did happen.”

“None of us are shy about conflict, your Holiness,” Shook said tightly. “Being jerked around, lied to and sent into big, pointless surprises is another thing. You want someone killed? We’ll do it. I don’t appreciate being told to dig in the desert for weeks for damn well nothing. As bait.”

Kheshiri gently slipped her arm through his and he broke off. A tense silence hung over the room for a long moment.

Their assigned quarters in the sub-level of the Dawnchapel temple in Tiraas were actually quite luxurious. Private rooms branched off from a broad, circular chamber with a sunken floor in the center. This had originally been some kind of training complex, probably for the martial arts for which the temple’s original Omnist owners were famous. Now, the area was tastefully but expensively furnished, the chamber serving as a lounge, dining room, and meeting area.

The five members of the team were arrayed in an uneven arc, their focus on the Archpope, who stood with Colonel Ravoud at his shoulder. The Colonel looked tense and ready to go for his wand, but if Justinian was at all perturbed by the destructive capacity arranged against him, he showed no hint of it.

“I understand this assignment has been the source of several surprises for you,” he said calmly. “For me, as well. I found your choice of strategy extremely intriguing, Khadizroth. Did I not know better, I might conclude your decision to attack Imperial interests was designed to draw their interest to your own activities. You must forgive me; dealing with as many politics as I do, I tend to see ulterior motives where they may not exist.”

“I believe we have been over this,” Khadizroth replied in a bored tone. “It was necessary to deal with McGraw, Jenkins, and the rest—indeed, it turns out that was the sole reason we were out there. At the time, depriving them of their secure base of operations seemed the best strategy.”

“And yet, neither you nor they suffered any permanent casualties,” Justinian said. “How fortuitous. Surely the gods must have been watching over you.”

“Would it be disrespectful to snort derisively?” Kheshiri stage-whispered to Shook, who grinned. She was in human guise, as always on temple grounds. The original consecration on the place had been lifted to allow her to function here.

“I think you could stand to consider who you’re dealing with, here, your Archness,” said the Jackal, folding his arms. “Really, now. We’ve all got a sense of honor, or at least professionalism. None of us mind doing the work. But is this really a group of people it’s wise to jerk around?”

“None of you are prisoners,” Justinian said serenely. “If at any time you wish to discontinue our association, you may do so without fear of reprisal from me. Indeed, I’m forced to confess I might find some relief in it; our relationship does place a strain upon my conscience at times. Due to my position, I am beholden to the Sisters of Avei, the Thieves’ Guild, and other organizations which are eager to know about the movements of most of you. It would assuage my qualms to be able to be more forthright with them.”

Shook tightened his fists until they fairly vibrated; Khadizroth blinked his eyes languidly. The others only stared at Justinian, who gazed beatifically back. Ravoud’s eyes darted across the group, clearly trying to anticipate from which direction the attack would come.

“For the time being, however,” said the Archpope after a strained pause, “I encourage you all to rest after your travels. Unless you decide otherwise, I shall have more work for you very soon. Welcome home, my friends.”

With a final nod and smile, he turned and swept out of the chamber, Ravoud on his heels. The Colonel glanced back at them once before shutting the doors to their suite.

Shook began cursing monotonously.

“Well said!” the Jackal said brightly.

Khadizroth stepped backward away from the group and turned his head, studying the outlines of the room. “Vannae, assist me?”

The elf nodded, raising his hands to the side as the dragon did the same. A whisper of wind rose, swirling around the perimeter of the chamber, and the light changed to pale, golden green. The shadows of tree branches swayed against the walls.

“I attempted to insulate any loose fae energy,” Khadizroth said, lowering his arms. “Kheshiri, are you aversely affected?”

The succubus pressed herself close to Shook’s side; he tightened his arm around her. “Not really. Doesn’t feel good, but I’m not harmed.”

“Splendid.” The dragon smiled. “This will ensure our privacy, since we were not able to catch up before returning here. How did your…adventure go?”

She glanced up at Shook, who nodded to her, before answering. “Everything went smoothly—I’m good at what I do. You were right, K. Svenheim was a trap.”

“You’re certain?” Khadizroth narrowed his eyes.

“Not enough that I’d stake my life on it,” she admitted. “But the Church is an active presence in the city, and I observed some very close interactions between its agents and curators at the Royal Museum.”

“I knew that fucking dwarf was gonna backstab us,” Shook growled.

“Not necessarily,” Khadizroth mused. “Svarveld may have been a double agent, or he may have been as betrayed as we. The point ended up being moot, anyway. We will simply have to remember this, and not underestimate Justinian again.”

“Why would he bother with that, though?” the Jackal asked. “He knew the skull wasn’t even in circulation. We were never going to acquire it, much less send it to Svenheim instead of Tiraas.”

Khadizroth shook his head. “Unknowable. I suspect there are currents to this that flow deeper than we imagine. Did you have time to tend to the other task I asked of you, Kheshiri?”

“Easy,” she replied, her tail waving behind her. “I swung by Tiraas on my way back; only took a few hours.”

“What’s this?” the Jackal demanded. “I thought we were sending the demon to Svenheim to snoop. How did you even get across the continent and back?”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Kheshiri said sweetly, producing a twisted shadow-jumping talisman from behind her back and tossing it to her. “You shouldn’t leave your things lying around.”

The assassin rolled his eyes, catching it deftly. “That’s right, let’s have a ‘who’s sneakier’ pissing contest. I’m sure there’s no way that’ll backfire.”

“Quite,” Khadizroth said sharply. “Kindly show your teammates a little more respect, Kheshiri. This group is primed to dissolve into infighting anyway; we cannot afford such games.”

“Of course,” she said sincerely. “My apologies. But in any case, your message was received and acknowledged. No response as yet.”

“Give it time,” he murmured.

“Message?” Vannae inquired.

“Indeed.” The dragon smiled thinly. “Justinian is not the only one with dangerous connections.”


 

“Busy?” Rizlith sang, sliding into the room.

Zanzayed looked up, beaming. “Riz! Never too busy for my favorite distraction. He’s got me doing paperwork. Help!”

“Aw, poor baby,” the succubus cooed, sashaying forward. “I bet I can take your mind off it.”

“I should never have introduced you,” Razzavinax muttered, straightening up from where he had been bent over the desk, studying documents. “Zanza, Riz…don’t encourage each other.”

“Well, joshing aside, there’s been a development I think you’ll urgently want to hear,” Rizlith said, folding her wings neatly and seating herself on one corner of the desk.

“A development?” Razzavinax said sharply. “Do we need to revisit that tedious conversation about you leaving the embassy?”

“Oh, relax, I’ve been safely cooped up in here the whole time,” she said sullenly. “No, the development came to me. And by the way, if you’re just now hearing of this, your wards need some fine-tuning. I had a visit from one of my sisters.”

“Sisters?” Zanzayed inquired. “Like…an actual sister, or is that just demon-speak for another of your kind?”

“You do know we’re not an actual species, right?” Rizlith turned to Razzavinax. “You’ve explained it to him, haven’t you?”

“Never mind that,” the Red said curtly. “Children of Vanislaas are not sociable with each other as a rule, Zanzayed; developments like this are always alarming.”

“Oh, quite so,” the succubus said with fiendish glee. “But Kheshiri brought me the most fascinating gossip!”

“Kheshiri,” Razzavinax muttered. “That’s a name I’m afraid I know. How bad is it?”

“That depends.” Rizlith grinned broadly, swaying slightly back and forth; her tail lashed as if she could barely contain herself. “Weren’t you guys looking for Khadizroth the Green a while back?”


 

Even strolling down the sidewalk in civilian attire, Nora did not allow herself to lose focus. She had been trained too long and too deeply to be unaware of her surroundings. When four people near her suddenly slumped sideways as if drunk, it wasn’t that fact alone so much as her reaction to it that told her something was badly wrong. She paused in her own walk, noting distantly that this was peculiar, and well below the level of her consciousness, training kicked in. It was much more than peculiar; her mind was not operating as it should.

Nora blinked her eyes, focusing on that tiny movement and the interruptions it caused in her vision. Mental influence—fairly mild, and clearly concentrated on an area of effect, not just targeting her. That meant the solution was to keep moving…

Then she was grabbed, her arms bound roughly behind her, and tossed into the back of a carriage that had pulled up next to the curb.

She hadn’t even seen anyone approach. Hadn’t noticed the delivery carriage pull up. How humiliating. It began moving, however, and the effect subsided with distance, enabling her to focus again on her surroundings.

It was a delivery truck, or had been originally; basically a large box with a loading door on the back built atop an enchanted carriage chassis. The runes tracing the walls indicated silencing charms, as did the lack of street noise once the doors were shut. One bench was built against the front wall of the compartment, with a single dim fairy lamp hanging in on corner, swaying slightly with the motions of the carriage.

The space was crowded. Four men stood around Nora, one with a hand knotted in her hair to keep her upright—she only belatedly realized that she had landed on her knees on the floor. On the bench opposite sat a thin man with glasses, who had a briefcase open on his lap, positioned to hid its contents from her. Against the wall on the other end of the bench perched a woman Nora recognized from a recent mission briefing.

“Good morning, Marshal Avelea,” Grip said pleasantly. “Thanks for joining us, I realize this was short notice.”

“I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t get dressed up,” Nora said flatly.

The thief grinned. “Saucy, aren’t we? Just like a hero out of a bard’s story. I thought you Imperial professionals were supposed to clam up when captured.”

“Would that make you happier?”

“I’m not here to be happy,” Grip said, her smile fading. “I get a certain satisfaction from my work, sure, but it’s not as if breaking people’s joints makes me happy, per se.”

“I don’t think you’ve considered the implications of this,” said Nora. “I’m an agent of Imperial Intelligence. If you intend—”

“Now, see, that attitude is why you are in this situation, missy. People seem to forget that we are a faith, not a cartel. This isn’t about intimidation—because no, the Imps don’t really experience that, do they? But when you start boasting about how your organization is too powerful to stand for this, well…” Grip leaned forward, staring icily down at her captive. “Then you make beating your ass an absolute moral necessity, rather than just a satisfying diversion.

“Besides, it’s all part of the cost of doing business. Your training means you won’t be excessively traumatized by anything that happens here, and your superiors will accept this as the inevitable consequence of their blundering and not push it further. You may not know, but I guarantee Lord Vex does, that the Empire is not a bigger fish than Eserion. At least one sitting Empress found herself unemployed as a result of pushing back too hard when we expressed an opinion. So this right here is a compromise! We’ll discuss the matter of you attempting to kill a member of our cult, Vex will be especially respectful for a while, and we can all avoid addressing the much more serious matter that you, apparently, are not afraid of the Thieves’ Guild.”

Grip very slowly raised on eyebrow. “Because believe you me, Marshal, I can fix that. But then there really would be trouble. So, let’s just attend to business and go our separate ways, shall we?”

“Fine, whatever,” Nora said disdainfully. “Could you stop talking and be about it already? Some of us have plans for this evening.”

Grip sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t say such things,” she complained. “Now this is going to suck up my whole afternoon. Toybox, start with that nervous system stimulating thingy of yours. When I’m satisfied the bravado is genuinely regretted, the lads can move on to the more traditional means.”


 

“This is on me,” Darling said, scowling.

“You’re awful eager to take credit for someone who wasn’t there,” Billie remarked, puffing lazily at one of McGraw’s cigarillos.

Darling shook his head. “Weaver, want to explain why she’s mistaken?”

“Always a pleasure,” said the bard, who sat crookedly in the armchair with one arm thrown over the back. “First rule of being in charge: everything is your fault. Being the man with the plan, he takes responsibility for any fucking up that occurs. More specifically, he sent us out without doing some very basic research that could’ve spared us all this.”

“Knew I could count on you,” Darling said dryly.

“Acknowledging that I am not generally eager to let you off the hook, Mr. Darling,” said Joe with a frown, “realistically, how could you have known the skull wasn’t in the Badlands?”

“Known? No.” Darling sighed, slouching back in his own chair. “But Weaver’s right. I found a trail and followed it without doing any further research. Hell, I knew about the werewolf issue in Veilgrad—we even discussed it, briefly. All I had to do was check with my contacts in the Imperial government for signs of possible chaos effects. Too late to say what difference it would have made—we might have decided to go for the Badlands anyway, as the Veilgrad case wasn’t a confirmed chaos incident until mere days ago—but it would’ve been something. Instead I got tunnel vision, bit Justinian’s bait and risked all your lives for damn well nothing. Somehow, ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t really cut the mustard this time.”

“You know better than this, Antonio,” Mary said calmly. “Learn the lesson and apply it next time. Recrimination is not a constructive use of our time.”

“Right you are,” he said dourly. “Regardless, I feel I owe you all something for this. The oracles settled down when the skull was secured, so the projects I’m pursuing on you behalf are again proceeding. It’s hard to tell, but I’ve a hunch that I’m close to an answer for you, at least, Mary.” He grimaced. “Unless the trend of the responses I’ve been getting reverses, I’m starting to fear it’s an answer you won’t like.”

“I do not go through life expecting to like everything,” she said calmly.

“Wise,” he agreed. “Anyway, it’s Weaver’s question that I think will be the toughest. I get the impression they’re actively fighting me on that. It may be my imagination, and the general difficulty of working with oracular sources, but still…”

“Wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest,” Weaver muttered.

“If nothin’ else,” said McGraw, “this wasn’t wasted time. We’ve learned some interesting things about our opponents.”

“And about ourselves,” Weaver added caustically. “Such as that Billie’s too theatrical to just kill an assassin when she has him helpless, rather than painting him with a stealth-penetrating effect.”

“Aye, now ye mention it that would’ve been more efficient,” Billie mused. “Hm. I’m well equipped for big bangs, but it occurs t’me I’ve got little that’d straight-up off a single target at close range. Funny, innit? I’ll have to augment me arsenal. I love doin’ that!”

“You said that green fire came out of a bottle?” said Joe. “That’d be a remarkable achievement if it was just a spell. How in tarnation did you manage to do it alchemically?”

“Oh, aye, that’s a point,” Billie said seriously. “Don’t let me forget, I owe Admestus Rafe either a really expensive bottle o’ wine or a blowjob.”

Weaver groaned loudly and clapped a hand over his eyes.

“Can’t help ya,” Joe said, his cheeks darkening. “I’m gonna be hard at work forgetting that starting immediately.”

“How do you plan to proceed?” Mary asked Darling. “It would appear that waiting for Justinian to take the initiative is a losing strategy.”

“You’re right about that,” the Bishop agreed. “And I do believe that some of what you’ve brought back is immediately relevant. For example, that he is harboring a fugitive from the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Is it wise to act on that point?” McGraw inquired. “Shook bein’ on his team is part o’ that game of intelligence chicken you’n Justinian are playin’, right? The one you’re not s’posed to acknowledge knowin’ about.”

“Some day I’m gonna hold you and Jenkins at wandpoint until you both prove you can pronounce the letter G,” Weaver grumbled.

“Oh, I’m sure Justinian will know exactly how the Guild learned of this,” Darling said with a grim smile. “If he didn’t want to play that game, he shouldn’t have made the first move. I’m not waiting for him to make the next one.”


 

“I’m sorry this business didn’t work out the way you hoped, your Holiness,” Ravoud said as the two men arrived in the small, glass-walled enclosure atop the ziggurat behind the Dawnchapel.

“On the contrary,” Justinian said, gazing out over the city, “this has been an extremely successful field test. We now have an idea of the effectiveness of Khadizroth’s group against Darling’s, which was the purpose of the exercise.”

“They seem pretty evenly matched…”

“Power for power, yes, but we knew that to begin with. And power is not so simply measured.” Justinian tilted his head backward, studying the cloudy sky. “Considering the violence all those people are capable of, their total lack of casualties indicates a mutual disinclination to inflict them. That is the most important thing we have learned. Using adventurers to winnow each other down will only work if they do not comprehend where their true best interests lie. These, clearly, do. Another strategy will be necessary.”

“I suppose this proves we can’t expect loyalty out of that group,” Ravoud said, scowling. “Hardly a surprise.”

“Indeed,” Justinian agreed with a smile. “Khadizroth deems himself above me, Vannae is loyal only to him, and the rest of them are simply monsters of one kind or another. Loyalty was never on the table. What is interesting to me is how quickly and openly Khadizroth set about undermining me. He is more than patient and far-sighted enough to play a longer, more careful game. Holding back from killing their opponents, attracting the Empire’s attention, that ploy to have the skull sent to Svenheim… To take such risks, he must perceive an urgency that I do not. That must be investigated more closely. It will also be important to learn whether the other party is operating on the same principles, or has developed an actual loyalty to Antonio. They are a more level-headed group, generally, and he is quite persuasive.”

“Forgive me for questioning you, your Holiness,” said Ravoud, carefully schooling his features, “but it is beyond my understanding why you tolerate that man. You know he’s plotting against you, and there’s not much that’s more dangerous than an Eserite with an ax to grind.”

“Antonio Darling is one of my most treasured servants,” the Archpope said softly, still gazing into the distance. “I will not have him harmed, nor deprive myself of his skills. Matters are tense now, because I cannot yet reveal everything to everyone. He has no cause to trust, and thus I have to arrange these diversions to keep him from investigating things he is not yet ready to know. When the full truth can be revealed, he of all people will find my cause the best way to advance his own principles and goals.”

“As you say, your Holiness,” Ravoud murmured. “Did… Do you intend to make some use of the skull?”

“Objects like that are not to be used,” Justinian said severely, turning to face him. “I fear I have abused my authority by making it a part of my plans at all. Frankly, my predecessor was unwise to have the Church take custody of that thing; it is far better off in the hands of the Salyrites. The goddess of magic can keep it safe better than anyone.” He sighed heavily. “My attempts to compensate for the risk seem to have backfired. We are still gathering intelligence from Veilgrad, but indications are the charms and blessings I designed to protect the people from the skull’s effects enabled those cultists to remain lucid enough to do significant harm, rather than blindly lashing out as chaos cultists always have. In addition to the damage to Veilgrad and its people, that has drawn the attention of the Empire.”

“That, though, could be useful by itself,” Rouvad said slowly. “If those same blessings can be used for agents of the Church… If there is ever another major chaos incident, they could protect our people, keep them functional.”

“Perhaps,” Justinian mused. “Regardless, I will have to meditate at length on a proper penance for myself; I have unquestionably caused harm to innocents with this. I badly misjudged the risks involved. Still… From all these events I feel I have learned something of great value.”

He turned again to gaze out through the glass wall over the rooftops of Tiraas. “In Veilgrad, a class from the University at Last Rock were hard at work interfering with my plans. And I note that one of the first actions undertaken by Darling’s group was to visit Last Rock itself. Everywhere I turn, Arachne Tellwyrn’s fingers dabble in my affairs. Just as they nearly upended Lor’naris last year, and Sarasio months before.”

“That’s…sort of a fact of life, isn’t it, your Holiness?” Rouvad said carefully. “There’s just not much that can be done about Tellwyrn. That’s the whole point of her.”

“No power is absolute, Nassir,” Justinian said softly. “Be they archmages, gods, or empires. They only have the appearance of absolute power because the people agree that they do. Such individuals live in fear of the masses discovering that they do not need to tolerate their overlords. Every tyrant can be brought down.

“I was always going to have to deal with Tellywrn sooner or later. We cannot rid the world of its last destructive adventurers when she is spewing out another score of them every year—to say nothing of her specifically elitist methods of recruitment. She targets those already most powerful and dangerous and equips them to be even worse. No… Arachne Tellwyrn must be dealt with.”

He nodded slowly to himself, staring into the distant sky. “If she insists on making herself a more urgent priority… So be it.”

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9 – 36

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Khadizroth physically swelled, drawing in a long breath, his face descending into a deep scowl. “You, Kuriwa, I had minimal patience for to begin with. If—”

“Truce,” Mary said calmly, holding up a hand, palm forward.

The dragon paused and narrowed his eyes. “Truce? Why?”

“Let me second that incredulous question,” added McGraw. “With you bein’ here, finally, this ruckus seems about to take a turn for the beneficial. For some of us, that is.”

“There are some things you should all know before pursuing this matter any further,” Mary said equably, lowering her hand. “If you will kindly give it a minute or two, let the others gather. I’ve had to send help for some myself, but—ah, here they come now.”

Now might have been overstating it for those without the benefit of elvish hearing. Vannae turned his head slightly toward the far end of the square, narrowing his eyes; Khadizroth glanced fleetingly in that direction before focusing his attention back on Mary.

“I am impressed, at the least, with your nerve. That you should presume to speak politely with me after our last encounter…”

“Khadizroth, I will not have this conversation if you plan to contend that your treatment was unwarranted,” Mary interrupted. “Existence is not fair, and people cannot be expected to be scrupulous in their judgment; we are not all Avei, nor Themynra. Your actions have consequences, and you knowingly took a substantial risk by launching a scheme which, frankly, was beneath you on multiple levels. If you wish to discuss the removal of my curse, we can. As soon as you are no longer attached to Justinian.”

“I see,” the dragon said evenly. Vannae scowled deeply at Mary and opened his mouth.

The sound of footsteps came from around the corner at the end of the square. The flaming green silhouette of the Jackal, eerily visible through intervening buildings, dashed toward the corner and whipped around, not slowing as he pelted straight for his compatriots. A second later, the huge panther rounded the corner, sliding on the dusty street, and lunged after him.

The Jackal unashamedly skittered behind Khadizroth; the panther skidded to a halt and glared at the group, tail lashing.

“Raea, please don’t play with that,” Mary said with a smile. “You have no idea where it’s been.”

“Look who decided to show up,” Raea shot back, her expression decidedly unfriendly. “After leaving this whole situation to devolve into carnage, here you are to clean everything up and take credit. As usual.”

“Petulance does not become you, child,” Mary chided gently. “If it makes you feel better, there will be very little credit here for anyone. If you will join us, we are going to have a chat shortly. I’ve had to send some help to escort the last few interested parties to this location.”

“Did you sign off on this?” the Jackal asked, peeking around from behind Khadizroth.

“Regardless of any outstanding personal business between myself and the Crow,” the dragon intoned, folding his arms, “it has been my long experience that it is worth listening when she speaks. I’ll grant a few minutes to hear this…revelation.”

“Oh, good,” said the assassin, brushing fruitlessly at the flames on his sleeves. “Can you do something about this?”

Khadizroth half-turned to glance over him. “Probably. Not here, in the presence of opportunistic hired thugs who I don’t trust not to take advantage of my distraction.”

“That’s a little rich,” Joe protested. “All’s fair in war, as they say. Now we’ve agreed to a truce.”

“This is the first time I have heard you voice such agreement,” Khadizroth replied. “Regardless, complex magics can wait.”

“Oh, sure, I’ll just wait,” the Jackal said sullenly as Raea came to stand next to McGraw, laying a hand on his shoulder. After a moment of no visible effect, the old wizard straightened up slightly and rolled his shoulders as if suddenly freed of stiffness, then smiled and tipped his hat to her.

Everyone shifted to stare at the mouth of a side street when a swirling cloud of dust emerged from it, moving far too slowly to be natural. The cloud slowed and arced back toward the street from which it had come, and for a moment during the shift a vaguely humanoid outline was visible in its form. Then it shifted again, drifting toward Mary, and rippled in an indecipherable series of gestures.

She smiled and bowed to the air elemental from a seated position. “En-shai da.”

The elemental swelled outward and dissipated, a few leftover streamers of dust drifting to the ground.

From the street behind it came Weaver, carrying Billie seated in the crook of his left arm; he had his wand in his other hand, pointed currently at the ground. The bard glanced rapidly around the growing assemblage in front of the well, but spoke to his passenger.

“Quit drinking those, you idiot. You of all people know what the effects of healing potion overdose are!”

“Ah, quit yer maunderin’,” Billie said with a grimace, tossing the vial she had just emptied to the ground. “All the worst times I ever had seem to’ve begun with somebody tellin’ me not ta drink somethin’.”

“And did you ever follow that advice?”

“Course not, what d’ye take me for?” She grinned at his ostentatious sigh, raising her voice to address the others. “Well, what’ve we got ‘ere? Back to talkin’, eh? You wankers had enough?”

“Hello, Billie,” said Mary, finally getting up from her perch and stepping over to them. As Weaver carefully lowered the gnome to the ground, she knelt and placed both hands on Billie’s cheeks.

Billie grimaced, then shuddered, staggering, and apparently would have fallen had Mary not held her up. “Ach! Blech, that tingles. Thanks, though. Feels a lot better.”

“He’s right, you know,” Mary said more severely. “One more vial of that and you’d have had much more serious problems than the internal bleeding. Remedying that was more difficult than what remained of your actual injuries.”

“Well, sorry, yer Crowness, but if you just turn up at the last second, don’t expect ta be handed the easy jobs!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Weaver said dismissively, glaring around the square. “Either someone explain to me why we’re not still killing these assholes, or let’s just resume.”

Khadizroth reached behind himself unerringly and planted a hand over the Jackal’s mouth, just as the assassin opened it. “We are as eager to learn the point of this as you, I’m sure, deathspeaker.”

“Just a moment, please,” said Mary calmly. “Our final guest is arriving.”

She stepped in front of McGraw, Joe, and Raea, crossing the space separating the two groups, and met a large figure emerging from another street.

It was easily eight feet tall and seemed made of stone, which made the silence of its movements deeply incongruous; only upon closer inspection was it apparent that the elemental was not made of solid rock, but slowly shifting sand. In its blocky arms was the unconscious form of Jeremiah Shook.

The sand elemental bent and carefully laid him out on the ground, where Mary knelt to touch his forehead. “Hm, he’s been healed recently. Your work, Vannae? Neatly done.”

“Mary,” Joe said tersely, “that man—”

“Is your diametric opposite in nearly every respect, Joseph, and altogether would have been a better choice for a first nemesis than a dragon.” Mary straightened up, turning her back on Shook, and strode serenely back to her perch on the rim of the well. The elemental, rather than rising again, slowly sank back into the dusty street, leaving no trace of its presence.

Shook twitched once, then sat bolt upright, groping at his belt where his wands should have been and not finding them. He fell still, staring at those gathered in the square through narrowed eyes.

“Come on, really?” the Jackal protested. “No one’s dead? Nobody? You guys suck at this.”

“Okaaaay,” said Shook, ignoring him. “What the hell now?”

“That is what we’re about to find out, apparently,” said Vannae, returning his attention to Mary.

“I have spent the last several days traveling widely,” Mary said, while Shook got to his feet and joined the other members of his party. “Much has been going on behind the scenes, and I’ve been working to determine what, and why, and at whose behest. I had some advance warning of these events, you see, thanks to my own divinations. When the oracles begin to warn of danger, there are always some of us who hear the alert first.”

“Thanks for keeping us in the loop,” Weaver snorted.

Mary raised an eyebrow. “I’ve worked toward the betterment of the world for a very long time before you came along, Weaver, though I would still have included you, had I any reason to believe you would act for the greater good when not being paid. Regardless, there is a point within your griping, whether you intended it or not. There is one secret I knew long beforehand, which I wish I had been present to share with you before you were sent off on this errand. It could have spared us all a great deal of needless fuss and bother.”

She folded her legs beneath herself and regarded them all solemnly. “You were sent here to obtain the skull of Belosiphon the Black—or more accurately, to fight over it. For the last eight hundred and twelve years, the skull has lain in a sealed barrow in the mountains outside Veilgrad, reachable through the city’s ancient catacombs.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Veilgrad?” Shook said incredulously. “Bullshit.”

“Veilgrad,” Mary continued, “has been the scene of all manner of catastrophe in the last few months. Necromancy, werewolf activity, multiple misfired spells. Chaos cultists.” She cocked her head to one side. “Exactly the sort of goings-on one would expect to see in the presence of a major chaos artifact, and which has not been seen here.”

“Well,” McGraw mused, “suddenly I feel a lot less intelligent than I did this morning.”

“So…what, this is a race to Veilgrad, now?” Joe asked. “Then I don’t see what’s different about this encounter. Stands to reason we’d be best advised to prevent each other from settin’ out first.”

“I suspect we are not done being surprised,” said Khadizroth.

“Indeed,” Mary said with a smile. “The skull is now secure, or will be very soon. An extraction team sent from the Universal Church, composed of members of the Holy Legion and spellcasters of multiple schools form the cult of Salyrene, were dispatched in a borrowed zeppelin. Their operation was exquisitely timed; I expect they either have the skull in their hands now, or will within the hour.

“Most interestingly, to me,” she went on, her expression growing more serious, “is the timing. That skull was inside a casket sealed by Salyrene herself. It has endured for centuries and in theory should have indefinitely. This summer, the roof over it was collapsed, cracking the seal—a most interesting development, considering the protections laid upon that place. I would venture to say such a thing could not happen unassisted. This caused the taint of chaos to flood Veilgrad, slowly growing until it became a severe enough threat to alarm the oracles, leading to…all of this.

“So Justinian sent you here,” Mary said, turning to nod at Khadizroth’s group. “Bishop Darling, to whom I spoke just yesterday, researched the oracles’ warnings on his own time, finding the Church’s records to indicate the Badlands as the skull’s resting place. There is no historical reason why they should.”

“Wait,” said McGraw, frowning. “There’s the matter of Imperial Intelligence. Darling looked through Imperial records too, and got the same info. And they’ve sure as hell been a presence in Desolation of late.”

“The inner workings of the Empire are frustratingly opaque to me,” Mary allowed. “Who has done what and why in the halls of Imperial Intelligence I cannot say. But I can interpret the events unfolding as I see them. The new Imperial presence and construction in Desolation, among its other aims, is directly targeted at extending the Rail network to Rodvenheim and Puna Dara—two sovereign states which have emphatically refused to give Tiraas a clear route to their front doors. Now, with adventurers brawling, plains elves prowling and rumors of a major chaos artifact flying about the desolate region where all their territories abut, I rather suspect both governments are under significant pressure, from both within and without, to join hands and impose mutual civilization on this last piece of wilderness.”

She paused to let her words sink in for a moment before driving them the rest of the way with a veritable hammer. “Of course, there is exactly one man who could arrange for the skull to be exposed, you four and your succubus companion to be sent here, and a trail of breadcrumbs laid exactly where Darling would look for it. Now, I’ve said my piece. We can resume this affair to its logical conclusion, which in any outcome involves massive damage, injury, and likely fatalities. Considering who has arranged all this, who is the only party who will benefit from both our groups weakening each other… Well, I find that I, for one, am disinclined to dance for his amusement. I am even less interested in helping the Tiraan Empire advance its foreign policy ambitions. My proposed truce has now seen its purpose fulfilled. I suggest that rather than continuing to fight… This is a good time for us all to walk away.”

The wind whistled emptily over the shattered rooftops of the town, carrying the scents of smoke and ozone. Both groups assembled in the square stared suspiciously at one another, at their own members, at Mary positioned neutrally apart from them.

Then Joe, moving slowly and very deliberately, slipped his wands back into their holsters.

“I said it to begin with,” the Jackal said, still swiping absently and fruitlessly at the green flames limning him. “Whatever problems we’ve got with each other, with Darling or anyone else—and you’d better believe there are going to be a series of reckonings on all those scores—at the end of the day, Justinian’s still the big spider in the middle of this web. And the son of a bitch went and made us forget that for a while.”

“Yes,” said Khadizroth softly. “A fitting reminder why he is dangerous.”

“You don’t have to answer to him,” said Joe.

“Someone does,” Khadizroth replied. “I like him better in my proximity than weaving his schemes behind my back.”

“Aye?” Billie snorted. “How’s that workin’ out for ye?”

Shook grunted. “Pains me to admit it, but the gnome makes a point. We have every fucking one of us just been played like a whole band of fiddles.”

“A veritable orchestra of dupes and patsies!” the Jackal said, grinning. Shook gave him a filthy look.

“Now, I might be mistaken,” said McGraw. “It wouldn’t be the first time. But all this talk seems to be leadin’ toward the conclusion the lot of us have more urgent matters in common than we have reason to fight.”

“You’re not completely right there,” Weaver replied. “The matters in common, yes. But every time we meet, this shit gets more and more personal.”

“I’m sure this has nothing to do with the proclivity of several of you to be gratuitously vicious toward each other,” Raea commented.

“The enemy of my enemy,” Vannae began, and was drowned out by a loud snort from Shook, a peal of hysterical laughter from the Jackal, and a theatrical groan from Weaver.

“Enough.” Khadizroth did not raise his voice, but it nonetheless cut off the noise. “You are all right. We have between us matters which must be settled. However… The Crow is also right. The matters need not be settled right now, and we have in common one figure who would presume to control or destroy all of us. We would be wise not to let ourselves forget that, when next we meet.”

“I can’t help but see the utility in havin’ one group in the Archpope’s camp and one outside it,” said Joe. “If we were willin’ to…compare notes, so to speak. Not to mention that, let’s face it, Darling ain’t a whole lot better. If he’s any better.”

“Darling is as duplicitous a player as the Archpope,” said Mary, “and I think has an even greater capacity for viciousness. The ultimate difference between them, however, is that Darling does not aspire to rule. He is Eserite to his core; his aim is to bring down those who would set themselves above others. That makes him useful, despite his…numerous annoying character traits.”

“Hm,” Shook muttered, frowning at nothing.

“I accept your recommendation, for now,” said Khadizroth, taking one deliberate step backward. “We will continue to play Justinian’s game because we must. Henceforth, however, we must be very careful not to find ourselves doing his dirty work.”

“Agreed,” Joe replied, nodding. The dragon nodded back.

There were a few more mutters and grunts from various persons, but with that, it seemed the main topic of conversation was exhausted. Mary stood and strolled calmly over to join her own group, as both parties began shuffling backward from each other. They eased away in reverse at first, keeping eyes on their rivals, but gradually, as they neared the edges of the square, everyone relaxed enough to turn around and slip into the streets on opposite sides.

The desolate wind whistled into the space left behind as both groups walked away.

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9 – 33

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A nimbus of arcane blue ignited around Shook, Joe’s first shot slamming into nothingness just above his heart. A split-second later, Shook had squeezed off two return shots, which sparked against shielding charms over Joe and McGraw, and then absorbed two more clean bolts of light from Joe’s wands and one flash of lightning from Weaver’s, forcing him backward.

Before the shoot-out had a chance to burn through anyone’s shielding charms, the Jackal hurled a tiny object to the ground at his feet, and with a burst of highly compressed air, a fog of dense gray smoke billowed out over the ruined street.

More wandshots flashed blindly through the sudden darkness, and the high-pitched, theatrical laughter of the Jackal faded rapidly into the distance.

“Circle up,” McGraw said urgently. “Don’t let the bastard flank anybody!”

Raea, again an elf, had called up another burst of wind to clear the smoke away from them, giving the group a clear view at least of each other. Following the old wizard’s directive, they swiftly arranged themselves back-to-back in a knot, with McGraw and Joe facing down the street at where their enemies stood.

In the next moment, the Jackal’s smoke was dissipated entirely by another burst of wind, this one conjured by Vannae. Shook still clutched his wands, and raised them once he had a view of McGraw’s team again. Of the Jackal there was no sign.

Before Shook could fire, Khadizroth stepped forward past him, placing himself at the front of the group. McGraw unleashed a bolt of pure arcane energy straight at him.

The dragon made a contemptuous swatting motion and the blast veered sideways, slamming into the half-collapsed front of what had long ago been a general store and completing its demolition. With his other hand, Khadizroth made a grasping motion in midair, then gestured sharply upward.

A conical spire of rock burst out of the ground in the dead center of their formation, hurling them in multiple directions. The formation was twelve feet high in seconds, the violence of its emergence tossing everyone away, and its ever-expanding base preventing them from regaining their footing—except Raea, who nimbly bounded up the rising tower.

She just as nimbly leaped away from it as the peak of the now twenty-foot outcropping exploded, emitting a burst of fire and superheated air. Blazing droplets of magma oozed over the edges of the tiny crater thus formed, adding considerably to the heat of the air and forcing the adventurers still further away. A few more wandshots from Shook and a couple of fireballs hurled by Vannae herded them farther away from each other, until the whole party was forced to split, each diving for whatever cover they could find.

“That was good advice,” Khadizroth said calmly. “Stay together, gentlemen; with the exception of our assassin friend, we are stronger as a group. Force them apart and pick them off one-by-one…” He broke off suddenly, frowning and swiveling his head to stare at a collapsed structure behind which one of their foes had taken shelter.

“My lord, what is it?” Vannae asked urgently.

“A pocket of fast time,” Khadizroth replied, narrowing his glowing eyes. “The sign of a mage who wants to cast something very complicated very quickly. Stay together and move back; whatever he is doing will—”

Again, he abruptly stopped talking, this time to turn and dash between Shook and Vannae, down the street in the opposite direction. Behind him came a veritable wall of air which picked up both men and dragged them along, Shook cursing vehemently.

Moments later, Khadizroth skidded to a stop over forty yards away, at the very outskirts of the town, and released the air spell that had gathered up his comrades, along with a great deal of dust and rubble. Vannae laded lightly on his feet, but Shook was hurled face-first to the street with a small drift of rubble dropped atop him. Having his face in the dirt stifled his obscene commentary for a moment.

Not wasting any time, Khadizroth gestured again, pulling up a wall of rock from the ground between them and the place where they had been standing. Not a moment too soon; an enormous fireball had come screaming out of the sky, slamming into the street where they had tried to form up and trailing a retinue of smaller objects which peppered the already-demolished town. The main impact shook the earth and threw up a shockwave of dust and heated air, which was mostly ablated by the dragon’s hurriedly-summoned wall.

Khadizroth pushed the wall back into the ground, its duty done, and called up another burst of wind, again dispelling the fog of dirt from the air.

“How did he do that?” the dragon demanded.

“What the fuck?!” Shook choked, dragging himself upright and immediately falling into a coughing fit.

“I see the portal magic,” Khadizroth murmured, peering intently back down the street at the brand new crater. Of their enemies there was no sign. “He… Ah. Temporal bubble, open a portal to the upper stratosphere and conjure a rock. I can only guess how he handled the trigonometry—the math involved is more than even I could do in my head. Truly, the man’s technique is inspiring. But the thing should have taken considerable time to fall this far—how did he shorten it? One can only twist time a very little bit before Vemnesthis intervenes.”

“How ’bout this,” Shook rasped, pausing to cough again. “Less admiring the fuckers and more killing them!”

“I suppose so,” the dragon mused, shaking his head. “Tis a shame—one always hates to destroy a true artist. First, though, we now have to find them.”


 

Billie plunked herself down atop the very highest point of the half-building, half-rubble pile that had previously housed Khadizroth’s office and began withdrawing components from her pockets.

“There y’are,” she murmured, squinting at the three figures well down the street even as she connected a sturdy tank of liquid to a metal charm containing impossibly pressurized elemental air with an extremely durable hose. “Don’t suppose I could get ye to stand still fer a bit? Aye, that’s even better,” she added with a predatory grin as the three began cautiously advancing back up the street. Screwing a wide spraying nozzle onto her nearly-finished apparatus, she glanced down the other side of the pile, where from this vantage she could see McGraw and Joe lurking behind cover across the street.

Suddenly the air around her seemed to thicken; several arcane charms pinned to her coat blazed to life, and a shockwave of pure force blasted outward from her in all directions.

Dropping the device she’d been crafting, Billie bounded to her feet, dipping one hand into a pocket and spinning around with the other outstretched. The indicator charm pinned to her cuff pointed her dead in the right direction; the instant she came to a stop, she pulled a rune-engraved cylinder from her pocket, slapped it into her other palm, then released it. The directional charm flashed brightly once more and propelled the object forward in a straight line.

She was quick, but not as quick as an elf. Even elves were subject to the laws of physics, however, and the Jackal’s agility and speed did not enable him to change direction in midair. The runic device struck him in the back before he touched the ground, still in the process of being hurled backward by the blast.

The charm flashed brightly once and tumbled to the ground, inert; the Jackal went the opposite direction, shooting three yards straight upward, where he hung, grasping at nothing.

“Joe mentioned that trick,” Billie said, gathering up her pump device and beginning to pick her leisurely way toward him. “Makin’ an entire suite o’ the best shielding charms available just up an’ collapse. Once I got to thinkin’ how such a thing might be done, it was child’s play slappin’ together a little countermeasure. Ach, what’m I sayin’? I don’t do little. Ironically enough.”

“A bard once told me,” the Jackal commented as she neared, “that if you find yourself delivering a monologue to a helpless foe, you are clearly the villain of the piece.”

“Now, now, lemme brag a bit. I’m very smart, an’ I want ye to appreciate it before ye die here in a minute.” She stopped, grinned, and aimed the pump at him; he was drifting rapidly lower, whatever magic she had used wearing off quickly. “Smile pretty, now.”

The Jackal hurled out a hand, propelling a cluster of small throwing knives at the gnome; they flashed against her shield charm and fell to the ground. In the same moment, she activated the pressurized air in her gadget and sprayed a gout of green fire directly at him.

The elf yowled and twisted about frantically in midair, unable to dodge; he was coated completely in flames. He continued to yell, thrashing and flailing, as Billie backed up a few paces and set down the pump.

“Oh, quit yer whinin’, ye big baby, it doesn’t hurt,” she said dismissively.

Indeed, the assassin quickly found that he was unharmed. He was on fire, completely coated in flickering green flames, but they weren’t even hot. They just didn’t come off, as he discovered upon trying to pat and brush at his sleeves and torso.

Billie, meanwhile, produced a palm-sized leather ball attached to a brass runic seal and hurled it. More prepared this time, the Jackal swatted it away, but the device activated upon impact with his hand, letting loose another blast of compressed air and sending him sailing off toward the edge of the town. The levitation charm gave up the ghost under that abuse, and he hit the ground gracelessly for an elf: bouncing once on his rump and only belatedly getting his feet under him.

The assassin glared up at the gnome, lunged to the side, and vanished.

While he disappeared from sight, the green flames clinging to him did not.

“Oi!” Billie shouted gleefully from above, waving with one hand and pulling out another grenade with the other. “That’s some right top-notch stealth magic ye got there! Be a shame if somebody went an’ made it completely useless!”

Hissing a curse, the Jackal changed course, dashing around the edge of the town and pressing himself close to a still-standing wall, placing some cover between himself and Billie.

There, he skidded to a halt, face-to-face with a giant panther.

She growled once, crouching to spring.

“Raea, my dear,” he said with great dignity, straightening up and adjusting the invisible lapels of his coat as if they weren’t on fire, “since this is our first real meeting and I may not have the chance later, I just want you to know something.” He smiled pleasantly. “Your mother pays dire wolves to fuck her in the—”

The panther lunged.


 

“That is a right disconcerting spectacle,” McGraw mused, staring at the figure of a slim man outlined in green fire. It was a good twenty yards away, and on the other side of a collapsed building and a standing one besides, but the flames were visible between it. According to Billie, they’d have been visible on the other side of the planet, if anybody there had eyesight keen enough to see it. He was correct; the ghostly image was deeply disconcerting, making the brain struggle to place it against its backdrop.

“Mm hm,” Joe murmured, jerking his head up the street, where Khadizroth and Vannae were approaching at a walk. “Can you occupy these two for a moment?”

“Reckon I can whip somethin’ up,” McGraw said idly, taking aim with his staff and unleashing a blast of pure, destructive arcane force.

Again, the dragon deflected it, then the second one, but he slowed under the onslaught as McGraw continued to pepper him with arcane bolts. Vannae ducked into a side alley behind his master.

“The other elf just went outta sight,” McGraw said tersely. “Watch your ass, Joe.”

“Damn,” the Kid hissed, lowering his wands, their tips smoking. Neat holes had been burned into the pile of rubble between them and the Jackal, but were quickly erased as the debris shifted. The Jackal, engaged in a fighting retreat from Raea, had moved out of the way of the shots, not that it mattered; powerful as Joe’s wands were, it was simply too much mass for him to shoot through. “I’m gonna—”

“Son, do not go off chasin’ him,” McGraw ordered. “We’ve taken his element of surprise; he’s not a match for Raea hand-to-hand. I could use your help here!”

Joe whipped around, baring his teeth, and stepped up next to the old wizard, adding a barrage of wandfire to McGraw’s assault.

At that, Khadizroth was finally forced to halt his advance, ducking into another alley. A final blast from McGraw collapsed the entrance after him.

“So,” the wizard said, breathing heavily, “he can deflect unfocused bursts of arcane power, but not wandshots. Interesting.”

“And good to know,” Joe added. “Gives me an idea. C’mon.”


 

Sometimes simple devices were the best devices; rather than relying on any magical augmentation, Billie’s Throwing Arm was a simple length of pipe with a gripping claw attached to one end linked by spring to a handle on the other. It enabled her to lengthen her arm by more than her body height, and thus hurl bombs a very great distance. She had practiced with it extensively. Not enough to bullseye an elf in an alley at seventy yards, but the nice thing about bombs was that you didn’t really need to bullseye anything.

She chuckled to herself as the grenade hit right in front of Vannae, reducing his path to a pile of rubble and catching him in the blast. It was too much to hope that it had done him in; between elvish relfexes and magical defenses, he wouldn’t be taken so easily. Unfortunately the fire, smoke and debris prevented her from seeing the results of her attack in any detail.

The only warning she got was a rasp of stone on stone behind her.

Billie whirled, another explosive in hand, but Shook was already on her. The angle of the climb to her perch had prevented him from just shooting her down, and he’d given himself away by clambering fully up onto the small ledge rather than reaching out to grab her. He was there, though, and close enough to land a vicious kick square on her chest.

The gnome was propelled into space, plummeting over twenty feet into the crater below. Baring his teeth in an expression that was triumphant but not a smile, Shook stepped up to the edge of the platform, leveling both wands.

He, unfortunately for him, was much taller than a gnome; the angle of the climb did not protect him from wandshots.

His shielding charm sparked at the impact of a lightning bolt; he whirled, almost losing his balance, and blindly returned fire.

Weaver stalked forward up the much gentler side of the rubble pile, the one Shook had avoided because it was within Billie’s line of sight. The bard glared fury at the enforcer, both wands upraised, and pressed forward one step at a time, unleashing blast after blast as he came.

Shook regained his balance and shot back; blue flashes lit up around both men as their respective charms absorbed wandfire. Meeting his assailant’s glare with his own, Shook began striding down the incline right at him.

Both men advanced at a walk, surrounded by flickering shields of light, and pouring on arcane destruction with two wands each. Those shields were starting put put off smoke and high-pitched whines of protest; they were not meant to stand up to continuous fire. Neither man wavered or slowed, however.

When they were only five yards apart, though, Weaver suddenly dropped his wands. Shook finally paused, hesitating in his own assault.

The bard reached into his coat, pulled out a flute, and raised it to his lips. The enforcer unleashed a furious volley of blasts straight at his face; Weaver’s shield sparked dangerously, the charm pinned to his coat glowing hot enough to make the fabric smoke.

Then Weaver blew a single note, and the world tilted out of balance.

Shook lost his footing, stumbling to his knees; he dropped one of his wands, barely catching himself from keeling over entirely. Weaver continued to play, the sound seeming to make the very air resonate sickeningly.

Then Shook raised his head.

His lips were peeled back in an animal snarl, eyes bulging with pure rage. Weaver’s own eyes narrowed; after a quick pause for breath, he blew harder, the note resuming even louder than before.

Shook stumbled again, wavering… Then, slowly, straightened up, climbing fully to his feet. Blood began to drip from his nose. Raising his remaining wand, he took aim at the bard.

Weaver let off playing for a moment. “It rattles the brain, y’know. To stand up to that, you’d have to be more wild animal than man. You’ve got some issues, don’cha, Mr. Shook?”

His shield sparked against the wandshot that would otherwise have burned through his throat. He put the flute back to his lips.

What struck him from the side was not a gust of air so much as a compressed sphere of it. Weaver kept his hold on his flute, though his wands were sent flying away even as he himself was tossed off the incline to skid down it on his back and land in a heap at the base.

“Stop,” Vannae ordered, bounding onto the ledge as Shook made to follow Weaver. “Persevering through that would damage your mind. If it is not healed—”

“I’m fine,” Shook snarled, his features twisted in animal fury. “Fuck off, I’m gonna finish—”

A light touch of the elf’s fingers on his forehead caused him to slump forward, unconscious. Vannae caught him, grunting as he carefully lowered the much bigger man to the ground.

“In my opinion,” the elf murmured, gently placing a hand over Shook’s eyes and concentrating on the healing flow of magic, “it would be more sensible to let you finish him off and kill yourself in the process. Two birds, as they say. But Khadizroth has stated all our lives are to be protected above all other considerations. There, that should—”

A brilliant tower of pure light burst up from a juncture of streets over a block distant, accompanied by a wail of agony in Khadizroth’s voice.

Vannae bounded off the ruined building in one great leap, leaving Shook unconscious at its peak.


 

McGraw stumbled backward, barely getting an arcane shield up between himself and the fireball thrown by the dragon. There was barely room to maneuver in the square; this end of the town was less destroyed than the other, but it was also more cramped. The only reason there was an open space here at all was due to the old well at one end, set in the base of a rock outcropping atop which a house had been raised.

Joe and McGraw had intercepted the dragon here and managed to hold him for a few minutes. While the wizard approached at street level, Joe had positioned himself on the rooftops, firing streams of white light in an intensity that left molten streaks of glass in the sandy dirt of the street. His onslaught had forced Khadizroth to keep moving, even as he himself had had to rapidly dodge and shift to defensive measures when the dragon hurled fireballs, and at one point caused an enormous thorned vine to crawl up the wall on which he was standing. Joe’s wands were crafted with the ability to project tunnels of ionized air to redirect incoming wandfire; it didn’t work nearly as well on fireballs, but worked somewhat, at least causing them to lose cohesion.

McGraw, meanwhile, had poured on a more direct attack, hitting the dragon with fire, ice, lightning, wind, sheer kinetic force and blasts of pure arcane energy. His assaults, while stronger pound-for-pound, were less concentrated than the wandshots, and Khadizroth mostly chose to block or deflect them rather than evading.

The dragon was kept busy with defense and evasion, only finding time to fire off one counterattack for every three or four of theirs, but still, it was apparent from the beginning that they were only keeping him at bay. And while both humans grew increasingly sweaty and short of breath, Khadizroth remained in perfect equilibrium, and even wore a calm smile.

Finally, sensing a moment’s weakness, he followed his fireball with a wall of solid air, smashing McGraw backward into the house behind him. The wizard lost his footing at the impact, stumbling to the side and barely catching himself on his staff.

“Stop!” Joe thundered as the dragon stepped forward. He leaped from the rooftop on which he’d been balancing, landing in the street a few yards away.

Khadizroth did, indeed, pause, turning to face him. “Unless you intend to parley, Mr. Jenkins, I do believe this matter is at an end. I would take it well if you did; I told you once before that your brand of honor is sorely needed in the world. It would pain me to expunge it.”

“Step away from him,” Joe grated, advancing with both wands upheld, “and don’t you dare speak to me of honor, you two-faced filth.”

The dragon’s sage smile finally vanished. “Child, you speak of things far above your understanding.”

“I understand integrity,” Joe snapped back, firing a stream of light at the dragon’s feet; Khadizroth stepped away, but made no other move as the Kid advanced. McGraw, against the wall, hauled himself upright, panting, but also held off, watching them carefully as if afraid to interrupt the conversation unfolding. “You know what kind of man you’re working for.”

“Yes,” Khadizroth said coldly, “and what kind of man you are working for. I’m certain you have this worked around in your mind so that you taking orders from your particular deceitful weasel is more noble than me doing so from mine, but—”

“Darling an’ Justinian aren’t the problem,” Joe interrupted, pressing forward. He fired another shot at the ground; Khadizroth glanced at it but did not move, the beam not coming close enough to singe him. “Neither am I. We work for Darling because of what he’s payin’ us—it’s that simple. We’re mercenaries. Not the noblest thing, but it is what it is, an’ none of us claim to be any better. You, though, you’re Khadizroth the Green. You’re supposed to stand for something. You’re supposed to matter, damn you! What can you possibly be doin’ with Justinian that’s worth leeching the honor outta the world?”

Khadizroth blinked his eyes, his expression very nearly shocked. “I—Joseph, much as we would like matters to be simple, we rarely have that luxury.”

“The world ain’t simple,” Joe said bitterly, coming to a stop only two yards from him. “It largely ain’t decent, and neither are a lot of folk in it. Difference is, people can be better. What makes ’em better, most times, is somebody settin’ an example. That is what you could be doing, and it’d matter a hell of a lot more than any a’ your schemes.”

The dragon drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. “I…wish I could say that you are wrong, young man. Perhaps it would be better for you not to live to understand the compromises that must be made for the greater good. You’ll be happier, not learning.”

“Whatever,” Joe said coldly. “Done with this conversation, anyway.”

He moved one foot forward, planting a toe on a still-hot length of burned, glassy sand, and closed his eyes.

Blue light flared up from the ground all around Khadizroth; the dragon whirled in sudden dismay, only belatedly realizing that Joe’s shots had carved a sprawling spell circle into the dusty street, and he was standing in the middle of it.

Before he could move, the air trembled as if rung like a bell, something rippling outward from the dragon’s form.

A column of blinding light blazed skyward and a shockwave of force ripped in all directions, tossing Joe and McGraw against the walls. Within the magical inferno, Khadizroth let out an unearthly howl of pain.

It was over as soon as it had begun, and the dragon collapsed in an unconscious heap.

“Whew,” Joe gasped, picking himself up and retrieving his wands from where they had fallen. “Well, that’s not gonna work a second time… You okay, Elias?”

“Wouldn’t say that, but I’ll live a few more minutes,” McGraw grunted, hauling himself upright using his staff. “Kid, what the hell was that? It looks like a simple transmutation matrix.”

“Yup,” Joe said, managing a weak grin. “Straightforward divine-to-arcane energy conversion. I figured, he wouldn’t have many divine spells, but dragons are known to use all kinds of magic, even apart from the one they specialize in. All four schools an’ even some shadow magic, right?”

“An’ if that quantity of divine energy were converted to arcane in his own aura, where he wasn’t expecting it to be, and reacted with the fae magic he’s filled with…” McGraw let out a low whistle. “Kid, you have any idea how risky that was? Quite frankly there are more reasons it shouldn’t’ve worked than reasons it did.”

“I figure we’ve learned by now that improbable plans are the only kind that work against dragons,” Joe replied, leveling both wands at Khadizroth, who was still unconscious. “Now, what to—”

Vannae lunged at him from the rooftop nearby, only prevented from hitting the Kid head-on by a blast of unfocused arcane energy from McGraw. The elf tumbled to the street, singed and snarling, where he swiftly planted himself between them and the fallen dragon, brandishing a tomahawk.

McGraw and Joe glanced at each other, then fired simultaneously.

Wandshots and arcane bolts alike slammed harmlessly into the rock wall that sprang up out of the street in front of them, incidentally obliterating part of the spell circle. In the next moment, it shattered into fragments, exploding outward and pelting both of them with shards of rock, knocking Joe over and pushing McGraw backward.

“I,” Khadizroth growled, getting to his feet, “have had enough!”

The dragon straightened up fully, baring his teeth at them, and held his hands out to both sides. White-hot flames burst into being in each palm.

Just as suddenly, they winked out, leaving him holding two handfuls of smoke and looking flummoxed.

A soft caw sounded on the air.

Everyone froze, turning to watch the crow as it glided down to settle on the rim of the old well.

Mary smiled, shifting to nonchalantly tuck one leg beneath herself.

“Am I late?”

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Whatever she had intended, the results of Dragonsbane’s first shot were disappointing.

Her sidearm was a pricier model that projected a clean white beam of energy instead of a lightning bolt, but it still sparked ineffectively against the squad’s shielding charms. Rather than joining in the assault, the assembled protestors shied back from the discharge with a mix of gasps and mutters.

“And that’s assault,” Principia snapped. “Drop that weapon and place your hands on your head, or we will exercise force.”

“Hell,” growled a heavyset man, drawing a wand from within his coat. “We’re protecting ourselves from monsters—nobody who’s afraid to make sacrifices deserves to be here.”

“Sir, I advise against that,” Principia warned.

“Sorry, ladies,” he said, sounding oddly sincere, and fired a lightning bolt directly into her shield. Again came the snap and flicker of the charm activating, this time directing the electricity downward where it scorched the stone between the Legionnaires and the activists.

Dragonsbane, having the high ground, fired twice more, in a more exploratory pattern; her shots passed above Ephanie’s helmet and then to the right of Casey’s shield at the flank of their formation, clearly gauging the range of their arcane shields. Unfortunately, the support of their group seemed to embolden others, and more weapons were produced add leveled at the soldiers.

“Charge weapons!” Principia barked. “Citizens, this is your final warning—disarm and disperse!”

“They’ve got nothing but spears and shields!” shouted a woman from the back of the crowd.

Three more blasts sparked off their augmented shields, utterly drowning out five tiny clicks as the Legionnaires unfolded small mechanisms from the hafts of their lances. Another clean blast from Dragonsbane neatly clipped the uppermost reach of Principia’s shielding charm, causing the entire thing to ripple visibly. At that, several of the protestors, including two had had hitherto been holding wands confusedly skyward, took aim at her directly.

“VOLLEY!” she roared.

Five spearheads parted down the middle on hidden hinges, and five powerful blasts of lightning erupted from the small blue crystals thus revealed.

The bolts ripped through the crowd, setting off a veritable fireworks display of activated shielding and grounding charms. The protestors were thrown into utter chaos, several shoved bodily aside by the suddenly active fields of force surrounding some of their number who had been standing too close. Only a minority had taken the precaution of wearing charms, however, and lightning arced straight through several bodies.

At the far edge of the platform, Dragonsbane herself dived to the ground, placing her supporters between herself and the Legionnaires. None of the lightning bolts had reached her anyway; once she got behind the crowd, no more had a chance.

Finally, the scattering Principia had originally predicted occurred, accompanied by a pandemonium of screams. People bolted in multiple directions, several of the more level-headed among them trying to shout orders, to no avail.

“MELEE FORM,” Principia bellowed over the din, “RIGHT STEP, ARC BACK!”

Retracting their weapons from firing configuration and restoring the blades, their formation moved laterally to their right and bent, positioning themselves with Casey against the stone wall surrounding the platform and the rest of the squad arrayed in a curve. The position funneled the fleeing citizens away from them and prevented them from being flanked, not that any of their opponents had the presence of mind for such a maneuver. They scurried toward the two smaller gates, bottlenecking at the entrances; several were pushed down and trampled.

One woman was shoved forward and impaled herself on the tip of Ephanie’s lance. The blade penetrated only a few inches, but the panicked victim pulled it out more sideways than straight; she staggered away after the others, bent over and leaving a trail of blood along the stone.

Seven well-dressed bodies lay on the ground, marred by scorch marks.

“Orders to pursue, ma’am?” Ephanie asked crisply, raising her voice above the din.

“Negative,” Principia replied. “Lost the leader; no point in trying to wrangle a mob.”

The farther side gate had shut while she spoke, on the heels of the last fleeing escapees. Seconds later, the one through which the squad had come thunked closed, followed after a moment by the muted clacking of the locks being activated.

“Um,” Casey said. “We’re trapped.”

“Negative,” Principia repeated. “The stairs lead down to the docks; even if she managed to clear the Imperial personnel away from that, too, they can’t possibly stay gone long.”

“Can you…pick the lock?” Farah asked hesitantly.

“That’s an exterior gate of the capital of the world’s greatest military power,” Principia said scathingly. “No, I can’t pick the lock.”

Farah was spared having to respond to that by a blast of lightning that scored the upper range of her shielding charm. Above them were thin openings in the gate fortress, old arrow loops, one of which had just produced a wandshot. Figures appeared in the shadows at several others.

“Kneel and raise shields!” Principia shouted, dropping to one knee in unison with the rest of her squad; they angled their shields, and consequently the attached deflectors, facing upward. “Charge weapons!” All five again activated the hidden clickers, parting spearhead to reveal firing facets. Two more wandshots sparked across their shields from different points. “Fire at will!”

The deluge of lightning they expelled put an immediate stop to fire from the fortress, scorching the stone walls and blasting chips out of the edges of the arrow loops themselves. Their weapons, though somewhat less powerful than Imperial Army battlestaves due to having to be concealed within lances, were nonetheless far heavier than wands. Seconds later, when Principia called a cease fire, silence reigned, the protestors apparently having been dissuaded.

“Omnu’s breath, they’re in the fortress,” Casey breathed. “Where the hell is the Army?”

“Sarge,” Ephanie said in a more even tone, “all those shots came from the arrow loops on this side of the main gate. Whoever went into the one opposite the gates isn’t organized or motivated enough to launch a counterattack. I bet the leader’s in the west gatehouse.”

“Well spotted,” Principia replied. “Not much we can do about it, though; at this point our best outcome is for those idiots to flee and leave the Army to come sort this out. I don’t care what pull that woman has, there is no way she can keep one of the gates of Tiraas unattended for more than a very short period.”

“Well, this is just great,” Merry growled. “So far today we’ve killed a handful of civilians, damaged Imperial property and gotten locked out of the city. Sarge, may I suggest telling the next helpful deity to fuck off?”

They froze as a muted whirring noise sounded from above.

Towers rising above the gatehouse and turrets extending from its upper surface had held siege weapons since time immemorial; positioned at the altitude they were, this fortification could demolish any enemy ships that dared approach the docks below long before they could land soldiers, and the gate itself was high enough to be out of reach of shipboard catapults. In this day and age, however, the old trebuchets had been replaced with mag cannons, barrel-like constructs bristling with antennae.

Now, the one to the west of the gatehouse had begun to emit a blue glow from its depths, and began moving, its antennaed nozzle swiveling in their direction.

“No,” Farah whispered.

“Is there any chance these charms of yours will stand up to artillery fire?” Merry squeaked.

“Retreat!” Prinipia barked, “Shields up, down the—”

Before they could move a step, the mag cannon got into position and unleashed a blast of blue light.

All five of their shield charms lit up; even despite the protection, the kinetic force of the blast broke their formation, shoving all of them back against the low wall, and a powerful static field caused their hair to bristle. The unpleasant jangling of electricity set their teeth on edge.

But that was all. And in mere moments, it began to subside.

“Hell yes!” Merry crowed, grinning.

“Stow it!” Principia snapped. “Move your butts—down the stairs!”

They obeyed, moving as quickly as they could safely back down a staircase while keeping their charmed shields raised and angled at the cannon emplacement. It took several more moments for them to retreat far enough that the upper ledge of the staircase blocked it from view. The whole time, the mag cannon continued to swivel, tracking them.

“That’s incredible,” Casey gasped. “How the hell did you make personal charms that can stand up to that? Even the Army doesn’t have those!”

“That weapon is meant to charge for a minimum of forty-five seconds before firing,” Ephanie said curtly. “That was a sneeze. If the people manning it knew how to use it properly, it could blast this staircase into fragments. Sarge, I recommend we continue to retreat.”

“Agreed,” said Principia. “This is now the Army’s problem. Get back down—”

Turning, she saw what lay below them and broke off.

The two wide stone staircases switched back and forth, intertwining in an angular spiral that alternated between tunnels bored through the mountainside and exterior steps slicked with spray from the falls. On the landing directly below Squad One, two hulking forms stood at the base of the steps, blocking their way.

They were armored in dingy iron plates engraved with arcane runes; despite being humanoid in form, the things were clearly not alive. The gaps in their armor at the joints revealed mechanisms that put off a faint blue light. Beetle-like helmets had wide hexagonal lenses rather than eyes, and each construct’s right arm terminated in an inset battlestaff rather than a hand.

“B-but outfitting golems with weapons is illegal,” Farah stuttered.

“Szaravid,” Principia said quietly, “governments outlaw dangerous things so they can be the only ones to have them. Ergo, those have to be Army property and have no quarrel with us. They may even recognize Legion armor. Don’t make any sudden…”

She trailed off as the two golems raised their staves to point at the squad.

“If we don’t die here,” said Merry, “I am gonna march right to the nearest temple of Vesk and smash somebody’s lute over their head.”


 

The glow lit their way to the walled cemetery; light blazed across the whole mountainside, a colossal golden nimbus emanating from within the walls, as if the sun itself were rising on the grounds. Both paladins slowed to a trot as they approached, weapons out and at the ready, and passed side by side through the open gates.

They apparently weren’t needed here.

The place had suffered a degree of destruction comparable to the graveyard in which Trissiny had been imprisoned, with smashed tombs, burned trees and nearly every grave unearthed from within. There were no traces of undead here, however, nor of demons—nothing but a few swirls of fine ash on the breeze.

The light had begun to dim at their approach, and finally diminished enough that they could see clearly. Nearby, two Shadow Hunters were just lowering their hand from their eyes, blinking in confusion and staring at the center of the graveyard, though the man closer to them turned to peer at the mounted paladins when they approached.

In the small decorative garden in the center, Toby’s glow had reduced itself to a more normal proportion, merely lighting up his aura. He stood in an almost meditative position, feet braced, spine straight, hands folded in front of him.

“Toby?” Trissiny called, urging Arjen forward at a careful walk. “Are you… All right? How do you feel?”

Slowly, Toby opened his eyes and studied them in apparent calm.

“I,” he said flatly, “am extremely angry.”

“Right there with you, man,” Gabriel agreed. “Also: holy crap. Can you do that again?”

“I didn’t do it that time,” Toby replied, turning his head to the Shadow Hunters. “Are you guys okay?”

“Aside from being half-blinded,” the woman began, then paused. “Actually, no, there’s no aside. I feel great. What’d you do?”

“If I’m not mistaken, that was the light of Omnu in its purest form,” Trissiny said, a grin breaking across her features.

“Holy hell,” the other hunter whispered, peering around. “The undead, those demon dogs… Everything’s just gone.”

“Here.” Toby paced forward, coming to stand between Trissiny and Gabriel and reaching up to place a hand on each of their legs. For a moment, the glow around him brightened.

A moment later, each of them flared alight. Trissiny closed her eyes, drawing in a deep breath and letting out a sigh of relief.

“Fascinating,” Ariel mused.

“Well, that’s one glaring weakness in those disruptors,” Gabriel observed. “I guess it makes sense. Not likely the Army could invent something that stands up to an annoyed deity.”

“Nice…horse, Gabe,” Toby observed, studying Whisper. The shadow mare nickered and bobbed her head as if greeting him.

“Thanks,” Gabriel said with a grin. “She’s, uh, kind of delicate, though. Maybe you’d better ride with Triss.”

“Where are the others?” the female hunter asked tersely.

“We had to leave them,” Trissiny said with a worried frown. “Frind was unconscious but seemed to be all right. The others, though…”

“They had Wreath nearby, but they may have left when I slipped out,” said Gabriel. “These warlocks are up to something underhanded, but they’ve been careful not to actually hurt anybody. Actually…wasn’t there one here, too?”

“Three,” said Toby. “They seem to have gone.”

“That was actually worth seeing,” the male hunter said with a grin. “I never expected I’d live to watch the Black Wreath fleeing in panic; it’s almost worth all this trouble. We’d best go fetch our comrades; you lot had better get back to the city. If the Wreath wanted you pinned down out here, it’s a safe bet it’s so they can get up to something in Veilgrad.”

“Agreed,” said Trissiny.

“Which locations did you leave them at?” the woman asked.

“Um.” Trissiny blinked and glanced at Gabriel. “Actually, I don’t—”

“The Tranquil Shade Gardens and Vesmentheim Lawn,” he said.

“Right. Good hunting, paladins.” The man paused only to nod at them before following his companion. Once again, they moved at the speed that had enabled them to keep up with Arjen on the way there; in seconds they were out the gates and out of sight.

“How’d you know what they were called?” Trissiny demanded.

“He practices an ancient and secret Vidian technique known as ‘reading the signs.’”

“Ariel, don’t talk to my friends that way,” Gabriel said curtly. Trissiny had flushed slightly at the sword’s rebuke, and busied herself giving Toby a hand up. In moments, he had hopped into the saddle behind her. “All right, we’ve got the group back together.”

“Almost,” Toby said grimly. “Gods, I hope the others are okay.”

“They can take care of themselves,” said Trissiny, heeling Arjen forward. “And we can take care of the rest of the Wreath when we get there.”


 

“Keep in a line,” Ruda said in exasperation. “Quietly—quietly, damn your eyes! Don’t draw the—”

As if on cue, a child let out a shriek of terror. Across the square, the werewolf abruptly swiveled its head to glare at them, drawing its lips back in a feral snarl. The townsfolk shied backward, several crying out in fright. That proved too much for the wolf’s instincts, and it rounded on them fully, beginning to charge forward.

Scorn slammed into it from the side, sending them both rolling into a stack of barrels—one of the last objects in the square they hadn’t already smashed.

“Woman,” Ruda snarled, stomping up to the offender’s mother and brandishing her rapier, “in case you hadn’t noticed, everyone’s lives are at stake here. One of us is going to silence that child!”

“That is not helping, Ruda,” Juniper said reproachfully, gently pushing her aside and taking the terrified young mother by the arm. “It’s okay, she’s just cranky cos she cares. Nobody’s gonna hurt you; we’re not going to let them. C’mon, everybody, keep going. We’re almost all across!”

“Can’t fucking believe we made it this far,” Ruda groused, stepping back to critically examine the line of townsfolk fleeing into the guild hall. Indeed, Father Rusveldt was just now escorting an old woman at the end of the straggling formation, having insisted on being the last one out.

“Ruda!” Fross zipped out of the open doors of the cathedral. “We got trouble in here! The doors are down and Shaeine can’t shield this many—well, you guys had better come take a look.”

“Fucking great,” Ruda muttered. “Fross, can you keep an eye on this? If that hairy bastard makes another move in this direction, freeze his ass to the ground. I’m past caring about his feelings or Scorn’s.”

“Um, okay,” the pixie agreed. “For the record, we can’t really tell if it’s a him or a her, though clothes—”

“Don’t care!” Ruda snapped, dashing past her, up the steps and into the cathedral.

She arrived just in time to see Shaeine being pushed back by a veritable tide of undead. The doors at the end of the sanctuary had finally burst, emitting a flow of skeletons that had clearly been backed up against them, battering down the barriers with the sheer weight of their numbers. The drow was retreating quickly, re-forming a silver shield around herself and directing smaller ones to impede the advancing undead. Mindful of her energy levels, she wasn’t attempting to fully contain the pressure of the horde, merely to hamper and redirect their advance.

This time, though, once the initial rush had cleared, three more distinctive figures emerged from the doors. All three wore filthy robes that had apparently been crimson, once. All carried peculiar staves, capped at both ends with crystals and with golden lattices spiraling down half their lengths.

“What the fuck is this,” Ruda wondered aloud. “Shaeine! You okay?”

“Back,” the priestess ordered curtly. “This space is too open. We can try to hold them at the doors—”

She broke off as the central figure raised his staff, pointed it at her, and squeezed the clicker. A burst of pure golden light ripped across the space between them, striking her silver shield.

At the impact, the shield instantly collapsed. Sheine froze, naked shock painting her features.

The second shot hit her right in the chest and she staggered backward. The drow caught her balance, apparently unharmed, and gesticulated at the oncoming undead.

Nothing happened.

“Shaeine!” Ruda said urgently. “What’s wrong?”

“My shields!” the elf replied, and the note of unguarded fear in her voice was chilling. “I can’t cast—I have no magic!”

Then, suddenly, Vadrieny was there, folding her arms around the priestess and taking off with a mighty beat of her wings. She landed at the doors of the cathedral and backed carefully through them, bringing Shaeine with her.

Ruda and Juniper were left facing the oncoming undead and their apparent masters.

“Welp,” said the dryad. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Yeah.” Ruda drew back her lips in a grin that was at least half snarl, stalking forward toward the horde and raising her rapier. “Finally, something that bleeds.”


 

For almost a minute, everything was dust, coughing, the rumble of falling stone and the persistent howl of the sphere of compressed air Khadizroth had used to protect them. It wasn’t equal to the hard shields created by divine or arcane magic, and aside from letting in a large amount of dust, it had failed to keep out all of the debris; they had all been peppered with fragments of masonry and other detritus.

“Is everyone all right?” Khadizroth asked, raising his voice above the sound of their gasping and coughing.

“Feel like I’ve been rammed through an arcane washer,” the Jackal wheezed. “That the best you could manage? The hell kind of dragon are you?”

“A surprised one,” Khadizroth said grimly. “Just a moment.”

The air shield broke, and suddenly a sharp wind tore past them, clutching at their clothes and hair and causing Shook to stagger. It carried the dust away, though, giving them their first clear look at their surroundings since the building had collapsed.

They stood amid the wreckage of what had been the tallest structure in Risk. It still was, if only because it had more rubble to pile up. In the course of falling through what had been the floor of Khadizroth’s office, their air bubble and shoved them forward, so that they were nearly out in the street.

Hardly had they had a chance to get a good look when another wind slammed into them far more aggressively from the opposite direction, followed by a wandshot that clipped the dragon on the shoulder.

Aside from moving slightly with the blow, Khadizroth did not react save to gesture sharply upward with both hands.

An entire line of trees burst out of the ground in front of them, what had been the dirt main street of Risk mere minutes ago. They swelled in seconds, forming an entire wall between them and their attackers.

“Vannae, heal and bolster everyone,” the dragon said curtly. “This has only just begun. If I can just get—”

Before they found out what he wanted to get, the barrier of trees shuddered under a heavy impact; blue light flashed between their trunks.

“This way!” Shook snapped, dashing across the street and into the shadow of the only half-demolished building opposite. The others followed, Vannae whispering a blessing as he ran. Cuts and bruises melted away under the touch of whatever magic he was using as the group huddled in the meager shadow of their improvised shelter.

The treeline shuddered again; Khadizroth pointed at it, and thick vines spiraled upward from among the roots, bracing the fortification.

A wandshot slipped through a miniscule gap in the barrier, but merely flashed down the empty street past them, not coming near hitting anyone.

“Everyone hold still,” the dragon said curtly, gesturing again. This time, the very stones of the wall beside them were yanked out of place, reassembling themselves into another wall—lower, but thicker, and placed between them and the trees. “Scratch that. Duck!”

They obeyed, and not a moment too soon. The biggest explosion since the initial volley sounded, followed by an ongoing roar of destruction as wood, stone and dirt were pulverized. A tree toppled directly onto their hastily conjured barrier, cracking the stone severely. Seconds later, before the aftershocks had ceased, a fallout of sand and gravel splattered across them from above.

Baring his teeth, Khadizroth stood up, raised both his palms, and pushed forward against the air.

His barriers, what remained of them, disintegrated into a crushed spray of stone fragments and what little remained of the trees; the force with which they were hurled forward exceeded whatever had just exploded against them. A shockwave of debris blasted forth, mowing down more ruined buildings in its path.

In the next moment, another wind rose up, whipping past them, but the five men held their ground, straightening.

Suddenly, everything was cleared away. The dust in the air, the rubble in the street, the improvised barriers Khadizroth had called up. They found themselves staring from a mere dozen yards at Longshot McGraw, Gravestone Weaver, Tinker Billie, the Sarasio Kid and the great feline form of Raea.

Wind whispered quietly in the background, as if relieved to be given a break from its recent exercise. In the near distance, minor rockfalls continued to sound as the wreckage of the town settled. Both groups seemed equally surprised to find themselves so nearly face-to-face, and both apparently intact despite all the carnage.

The tension hung in the air, waiting for someone to make a move.

“Wait, hang on!” the Jackal exclaimed, raising his hands. “Wait for it…”

“What?” Vannae demanded tersely, not taking his eyes off their foes.

“C’mon, haven’t any of you cracked a novel in your lives?” the assassin asked, grinning insanely. “We must observe the proprieties. Any second now, a tumbleweed will bounce across the road, and then we can proceed. Aaaaannnnny second.”

“Son,” said McGraw from across the way, “those don’t grow in this province.”

“Fuck’s sake,” Shook spat, whipping out his wand and firing from the hip.

He was quick, but the Kid was faster.

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9 – 29

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“And this is where we part ways,” said Grip, turning to grin at Squad One. “See you girls in a little bit.” The enforcer slipped silently into a side alley, her footsteps inaudible within seconds.

“Why that one again?” Merry wondered aloud.

“Good choice for this operation,” said Principia, starting forward again. “C’mon, forward march. Grip is a good intimidator; since we’re about to interrupt a bunch of citizens meeting at a privately owned warehouse, that may be a useful skill. If they aren’t as dumb as the ones in the carriage, they won’t attack us or do anything hostile, in which case the presence of scary Thieves’ Guild personnel will be important in getting them to turn themselves in. We can’t arrest people for talking about how much they hate dragons.”

“I really don’t have a good feeling about this,” said Casey. “Any part of it. Even if it all goes well, and disregarding that we’re basically hoping to get people to attack us, I don’t like using the Guild to lean on people like that.”

“And that is why Grip is leading the Eserite side of this,” Principia replied. “I don’t know who else the Guild sent, but she’s good at toeing the line. She won’t let any of them inflict any harm that’s not immediately necessary. Which will mean none; this won’t be more than a dozen people if our intel is correct, and if they do attack trained Legionnaires, so much the worse for them.”

“If our intel is correct,” Merry repeated dryly. “I like how you just say that, as if it’s a given.”

“Nothing’s a given,” Principia murmured. “Life is a sequence of bullshit surprises.”

“When we met this Grip before,” Ephanie commented, “you didn’t seem to know her that well, Sarge.”

“True,” Prin agreed. “Hence, I’ve been taking pains to get the gossip while I was out gathering resources for us. I know what I’m doing, ladies.”

“If I knew what you were doing half the time I think I’d feel a lot better,” Merry muttered.

It was barely past sunrise, and would have been dim even had Tiraas not been shrouded in heavy fog that morning. Fairy lamps were eerie floating witch-lights in the gloom, their supporting poles invisible; everything else was washed-out and obscured by the mist. It was quieter than usual for the hour, creating an impression that even sound was quashed by the oppressive fog, though in truth it was just a matter of people avoiding going out in it. Everyone who could get away with staying indoors this morning seemed to have jumped at the chance.

In short, it was a good morning for clandestine meetings, and for sneaking up on them.

Squad One was passing through a poorer district, tenements rising on all sides; up ahead, less than a block distant but not yet visible through the gloom, was the warehouse district in which the anti-dragon rendezvous was to take place. Grip and the other Thieves’ Guild enforcers would be assembling on roofs around the warehouse in question, preparing for the Legionnaires to make their entrance through the front.

Suddenly, Principia slammed to a halt, peering about in alarm.

“What is it?” Farah demanded. “Sarge? You okay?”

“Sorry about that,” a voice said cheerfully, and a human man in an offensively colorful suit stepped around a corner directly in front of them. He was carrying, of all things, a lute, heedless of the effect the damp air would have on its strings, and wore an absurd floppy hat trailing a long ostrich plume. Beneath his maroon coat and pants he wore a pink shirt, with a loosely-tied cravat of powder blue. “Okay, well, to be totally honest, not that sorry. I do so enjoy a spot of dramatic effect!”

“Who are you?” Ephanie demanded.

“Avelea, stand down,” Principia said curtly. “All of you.”

“Now, now, Prin, don’t agitate them,” the man admonished. “I assure you, I mean you no harm. In fact, I’ve come to help!”

“That,” she said, “may be the most horrible news I’ve ever heard.”

“Who is this guy?” Merry asked her in a low tone while he burst out laughing.

“Ah, haha, me?” The fellow grinned hugely, waggling his eyebrows beneath his absurd hat. “Just a simple bard—no one to be concerned with. Prin’s just being overcautious. Not that I blame her! Anyway, though, time’s a-wasting, and as much as I love pausing to indulge in a bit of banter, you have an appointment to keep.”

“Yeah,” said Casey, “and you’re kind of standing right in the way of it.”

“Oh, but that’s not the one I meant,” the bard said merrily. “Now, I normally don’t give out spoilers, but everything is about timing. What’s happening her doesn’t quite reflect the synchronicity evident in other parts of—well, that’s neither here nor there, quite literally.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Merry exclaimed.

“Lang,” Principia said sharply, “respect!”

“Now, now, she has a fair point,” he said, waggling a finger at the elf. “Here is is, ladies. If you continue on with your mission, well… Things will proceed as they have been. You’ll be one step closer to your goal—but only one step. How would you like it if I could get you to the very end of that ladder? Right now, today, this morning?”

“We’re listening,” Principia said warily.

“Good,” the bard said, grinning broadly. “It may interest you to know that dear Saduko is not…trusted. That fact makes her very useful to her various employers; letting her overhear things is an easy way to get information into the hands of her other contacts. For example, the meeting you are now going to interrupt is a diversion. The real event is on the other side of the city. If you proceed to the south gate, you will find the way…suspiciously clear. Follow the path marked by a lack of the soldiers who should be defending the gate, and you’ll come to the organizers of this little movement. Who knows, you may be able to apprehend them! Probably not, but just disrupting their meeting should be enough to move yourselves out of the quagmire of other people’s agendas in which you are currently stuck.”

“Who are you?” Farah asked, frowning. “Have I seen you somewhere before?”

“You probably have, Farah my dear,” he said with a kind smile. “Not in person, but there are pictures. Anyway! That’s all I’ve got for you, ladies. It’s already more than I’m in the habit of giving most people, but what can I say? A great doom is coming, and it doesn’t suit my interests to have everybody bogged down in pointless intrigue. The rest is up to you.”

“Why are you doing this?” Principia asked tersely.

The bard grinned, and winked. “Oh, Prin. Dear, clever little Prin. Why do I do anything? Because when we’re all looking back on this, it’ll make a hell of a story.”

And then he was gone. There was no pop of disturbed air, no swelling of shadows, no arcane flash. Where the man had stood, suddenly, there was nothing but fog.

“What the hell?” Merry demanded. “Sarge? Who was that? What’s going on?”

Principia drew a deep breath. “Shit. Fuck. Veth’na alaue. It’s never good when they start talking to you directly… Oh, hell, I’m more than half tempted to just ignore that whole thing and go on as we were…”

“Sergeant Locke,” Merry said shrilly, “either you are going to start making sense or—”

“His aura,” Principia interrupted, “was…enormous. The size of the city, almost. It was like standing next to the sun.”

“You can see auras?” Ephanie asked warily.

“I’m an elf,” Principia said acidly. “I am an aura. We’re as much magical as biological. Yes, I can tell when I’m next to one of that size. And it wasn’t there until a second before he appeared. Now it’s just…gone. There’s really only one kind of being that can do that.”

Farah emitted a small squeak; everyone turned to look at her. She swallowed heavily.

“I—I just remembered where I’ve seen him. That guy. In…illustrations, like he said. He—he looked like…” She swallowed again. “Like how Vesk is depicted.”

There was a long moment of silence. The fog swirled gently around them.

“Why us?” Merry asked plaintively. “Why is it always us?”

“Avelea,” Principia said, turning to Ephanie, “what do the regulations concerning divine intervention say?”

Ephanie blinked her eyes twice as if to clear her vision before answering slowly. “If…as long as the deity in question is not opposed to Avei’s aims, and nor is the request they make, a Pantheon god’s orders supersede anyone else’s, excepting potentially that of the High Commander or a Hand of Avei, depending on the circumstances.”

Principia drew in a breath and let it out in a huff. “Szaravid, you know your lore. Does Vesk have a reputation for leading people into trouble?”

“Only people who deserve it,” Farah said weakly. “When he gives advice to heroes in the stories, it’s always good advice. That’s…rare, though. Even in myth. Really, really rare. He hardly ever appears to anyone who’s not a bard.”

“Apropos of nothing,” said Casey, “the last Vesker we met was involved in trying to dupe us…”

“She was as much a dupe as we were,” said Principia. “All right. Well, he wasn’t making a request, per se, but I think I can defend this to an officer if challenged.”

“Are we really going to…” Merry trailed off at Principia’s nod. “Bugger. Never mind the officers; we’d be running off on the Guild. They’re not forgiving types, are they?”

“I will worry about that,” Principia said grimly. “He said going to the south gate would skip us ahead in this. After the unending and ridiculous bullshit this whole thing has been, ladies, I find I quite like the sound of that. About face and march.”


 

Dawn, as always, came late to Veilgrad. The city was awake and alive well before sunrise appeared above the towering mountains that walled off the eastern horizon, its streets lit by a mixture of fairy lamps and firelight that reflected its blend of modern and classic Shaathist sensibilities.

The courtyard of the old trading guild hall which the Army had taken over was mostly in shadow, the lights being positioned primarily to illuminate the bays surrounding it. There were properly enclosed offices, but for the most part the sprawling structure was an open-air market, its roofless central area surrounded by roofed but unwalled spaces, with the actual building along the side opposite its broad gates. Those opened onto one of Veilgrad’s central squares, providing a lovely view of the fountain in the center and the cathedral beyond.

“Yes, it’s less secure than the barracks,” Major Razsha was saying in response to Gabriel’s question, “but security isn’t our primary concern, here. The gate guards are adequate to keep the public out. For purposes of this operation, the main attractions of the old trading hall are its central location in the city and its direct access to the catacombs.”

“I see,” Gabriel said, panning his stare around at the bay in which the Army had set up. Others had been used as staging areas for the search teams being dispatched, but all of those had gone underground an hour ago, thankfully taking the Huntsmen with them. The Shaathists, though eager to be helpful, were also eager to be boastful and several had made a point of trying to antagonize Trissiny. Now, the students and Razsha’s strike team, along with Adjavegh and the mages coordinating with the search teams, were clustered in the roofed bay closest to the catacombs access. Waiting.

Gabriel heaved a sigh and resumed pacing back and forth, Razsha watching him with open amusement. “This is insufferable.”

“This is an actual military operation,” Trissiny said calmly. She had been standing by a pillar next to the courtyard for nearly an hour, radiating patience. “You guys haven’t actually been along on any of those until now; they involve a lot of tedium. There is a reason armies run according to regulations, you know. Patience and enduring long waits are necessary skills in the army. More soldiers are killed by carelessness, disease, and accidents than battle. By far.”

“It’s not like you’ve ever been in an actual war,” Gabriel said, giving her an annoyed glance as he passed.

“Any contest of wills and powers is war,” Trissiny said quietly. He sighed and altered his trajectory to pace on the other side of the bay. Colonel Adjavegh glanced between him and Trissiny expressionlessly before returning his attention to the battlemage overseeing the large rack of runic charms being used to keep in contact with the search teams.

“Hey, Fross?” Trissiny said, still in a soft voice. The pixie had been making a slow circuit of the rafters, and now fluttered over.

“What’s up?”

“How are talking swords made?”

Razsha, standing at the other side of the opening into the courtyard with the rest of her strike team, glanced over but did not move. The other students began drifting closer.

“Ah,” said Fross. “Can I assume you’ve been pondering this since yesterday?”

“I probably should have brought it up at the manor last night,” Trissiny murmured, glancing at Gabriel, who seemed lost in thought. “But, well… The downtime here…”

“Yeah, I getcha.” Fross emitted a descending series of chimes like a sigh. “Well, of course, modern golems operate on logic controllers—their intelligences are assembled, step by step. Which is why they have very simple minds: an actual intelligence is too complex to just build. Honestly, Crystal is probably the most advanced golem intelligence in the world, and I have no idea how Professor Tellwyrn made her. And even she’s got glitches and giveaways that betray her nature. And then…there’s the older method, that was used to make things like Ariel.”

“Go on,” Trissiny urged when the pixie paused for thought.

“Well, Ariel’s much more realistic, y’know? She conversese just like a real person. It takes some long-term exposure to figure out the ways in which she’s incomplete. Her personality is totally static—she can’t adapt or change her behavior at all. Also, she doesn’t really have any compassion or the ability to relate emotionally to other beings. That’s standard for things made in that method. There are some friendlier ones, but that’s very hard to do. It’s because… A magical intelligence made that way is an imperfect copy of a soul.”

“A soul?” Teal asked, leaning forward. The rest of the group had wandered over by now, their attention on the pixie.

Fross bobbed up and down in affirmation. “Yeah. To do that… Well, the procedure is seriously banned, so I was only able to look up the broad strokes. Gabe and I researched this when Ariel first started talking to us, you see. Um… Basically, you have to release a soul from its mortal body and capture a sort of image of it in the instant between its release and it departing this plane. You can’t do it while it’s on another plane, or part of a living person.”

“By release,” Toby said, “you mean…”

“You know what she means,” Trissiny said flatly. “You have to kill someone. Right?”

“Right,” Fross chimed, her glow dimming slightly. “And…that’s not the worst part. This process… Well, it’s incredibly hard to time that exactly right, and even if you do it perfectly, there’s a random element. To duplicate a soul’s function like that… Um. Every successful talking sword probably represents multiple attempts.”

They digested that in silence, staring at the black sword hanging from Gabriel’s belt. He glanced up at them and stopped his pacing, frowning.

“What? Do I have something on my face?”

“Contact, team nine,” the battlemage suddenly said crisply in response to a rhythmic flickering of one of the runes on the control apparatus. A moment later, others began flickering. “Contact, team six…team seven… Teams four, eight and—sir, all teams are reporting enemy contact!”

Adjavegh narrowed his eyes at the display. “This is not a coincidence. How close together are the teams?”

“Triangulating,” she said, fingers flickering across the runes lining the rim of the control rack. “…minimum distance between any two teams is two hundred yards. Team four reporting overwhelming numbers. Team six reporting a severe threat…”

“Damn it,” Adjavegh hissed. Razsha stepped over to stand at his shoulder. “They were ready for us. Lieutenant, signal a retreat. Get them back here!”

“Yes, sir!” the mage said, rhythmically tapping the control rune that made its counterparts in the search team’s hands flicker a coded message.

“That’ll draw whatever’s attacked them back here,” Razsha pointed out.

“We have firepower concentrated here,” Adjavegh replied, glancing at her team and the students, who had now pressed forward to stare at the suddenly flashing runes on the control board. “If it chases them that far, we will deal with it. If any of the teams signal distress, we’ll send forces down to assist, though it may be hard to navigate to them. Lieutenant, status?”

“All teams except two and six have acknowledged—team two has just—wait. All teams acknowledge and confirm retreat order. They’re on the way back, sir.” She paused momentarily, eyes flicking back and forth at the flashing lights. “None are signaling for reinforcements. Team six just downgraded their threat assessment. Team four repeating overwhelming numbers, but not asking for help.”

“Massed skeletons,” Razsha said. “Like two of the cults we took out up here. What kinds of threats are they facing, Lieutenant?”

“Unknown, ma’am, the codes are not that precise. No teams have used the prearranged signal for chaos effects. Team four just downgraded their threat assessment, persistent but falling off—teams three and eight have signaled no further pursuit.”

“Damn it,” Adjavegh repeated. “Either they knew we were coming, or they’ve got an enormous force blocking off the catacombs below a certain level.”

“Given the complexity of the tunnel system, sir, likely the former,” said Timms.

“Agreed. Shift our remaining personnel to cover the entrance, and put the healers on alert for—”

He broke off as a bell began to toll over the city. A moment later it was followed by another from a different direction, and then a third.

“Oh, hell,” Razsha whispered.

“Major!” the Colonel barked. “Get your team out there, see what that is and put a stop to it.”

“Sir!” She saluted even as the other three members of her team sprinted to her side. With a crackled and a blue arcane flash, they vanished.

“What’s happening?” Juniper demanded.

“Those are alarm bells,” said Trissiny, even as a fourth one began chiming. “Some disaster is unfolding in the city, at multiple points. Right as our search teams came under coordinated attack in the catacombs.”

“Should we move out?” Toby asked. “If we can help…”

“Not yet,” Adjavegh snapped. “You! Demon and pixie, get aloft, see if you can spot what’s happening. Report back here, though, don’t rush off to interfere!”

Fross immediately zipped out from under the roof and fluttered skyward, followed a moment later by Teal dashing into the courtyard. She burst alight with hellfire as soon as she was in the open, and then shot straight up.

“The Colonel’s right, we need intel before moving,” Trissiny said tersely. “This could be a ploy to divide our forces.”

Before anyone could respond, shouts and the crack of lightning bolts sounded from the office complex just beyond their improvised headquarters. Everyone was moving in seconds.

Trissiny and Gabriel were first into the office where lay the trapdoor access to the catacombs, watched over by four soldiers. All four were firing their staves non-stop into the morass of bones pouring out of the opening, to little effect. Skeletons surged out like spiders, clawing and clambering over each other in their haste to escape the tunnels. The bones were mostly old, many coming apart from the simple effort of pushing up through their own numbers; many more were blasted to charred fragments by lightning bolts. And still, they kept coming, their sheer numbers pushing into the room through the onslaught. In only seconds, piles of bone fragments began to form around the trapdoor, drifting higher and doing nothing to inhibit the skeletons continuing to crawl over them.

Gabriel shouted something, the words lost amid the screams, blasts, and the dry clatter of bone upon bone; he pointed at the hole with his wand, which swelled in his hand into a wicked-looking scythe. Immediately, every skeleton in the throng collapsed into disconnected fragments. Seconds later, the soldiers ceased their fire, staring at the hole. Pieces of bone poured downward with a relentless clatter, the drifts of now-lifeless bones moving under no force but gravity.

“Valkyries,” Gabriel said into the sudden quiet. “Like I said, that kind of undead is simple. I’ve got nine here; they all went down the tunnels to help the search teams. That means we’re on our own if that happens again,” he added, turning back to face the others.

“Good man,” said Colonel Adjavegh from the door behind them. He was carrying a stave, currently leveled at the hole, but had not fired. “Timms! Get this mess cleared out; this is our people’s exit from those tunnels. We will not sacrifice this position.”

“Getting us to do so was the obvious purpose of that attack,” said Trissiny.

Fross zipped into the room, already chattering as she arrived. “Sir! Colonel! Everybody! We’ve got fires at four places in the city, a lot more people seem to be panicking in multiple areas for reasons I couldn’t see from that altitude, I really suggest getting Vadrieny down out of the air ‘cos I think she’s scaring people even more, and there’s five Shadow Hunters at the gate to the courtyard being stopped by your soldiers asking for Trissiny.”

“Come on!” Trissiny barked, turning and pushing back through the others out of the office. The group moved with her, streaming toward the courtyard, even as Adjavegh ordered Fross to find Vadrieny and get her back down.

They skidded to a halt outside as, with a sharp pop, a spinning wheel materialized out of midair, dropping half a foot to stand in the middle of the opening to the courtyard. It rocked for a second before settling.

Everyone stared at the perfectly mundane, apparently harmless object.

“Okay, I know I say this a lot,” said Ruda, gesturing at the wheel, “but really, now. What the fuck?”

“I don’t sense anything dangerous from that,” Trissiny said, frowning. A silver bubbled formed around the spinning wheel. “Oh. Good idea, Shaeine.”

“Thank you,” the drow replied as everyone stepped carefully around the shielded appliance.

“Let them through!” Trissiny barked at the soldiers in the front, striding toward the front gates. “Raichlin! What’s happening!”

“General Avelea,” the bearded hunter said in obvious relief. “Trouble is what’s happening. We’ve got undead cropping up all over the city. Almost every cemetery and tomb—it’s bad.”

“Shit,” said Gabriel. “All right, where is it worst? I just sent my valkyries into the catacombs…”

“That probably is where it’s worst, but that’s not why I came,” Raichlin said urgently. “We have more trouble than that. There are a lot of tombs and graveyards in the foothills around the city; those started acting up first, well before the cemeteries in the city proper. They’re also spewing skeletons and zombies, but none of them are getting close to the walls.”

“What?” Toby exclaimed. “Why not?”

“Because,” the hunter said grimly, “they are being beaten back by demons. There are warlocks in gray robes at multiple sites, spawning waves of katzils and khankredahgs. They are doing a very good job of keeping the undead in check, but there are other problems. Objects, people and skeletons have started teleporting around apparently at random.”

“Omnu’s breath,” Gabriel said in horror. “If the warlocks are opening multiple dimensional rifts in proximity to a known chaos effect…”

“And this,” Trissiny snarled, “is why you don’t let the Black Wreath help!”

“That has to be dealt with,” Adjavegh barked, striding toward them just as Vadrieny dropped to the pavement nearby, followed a moment later by Fross. “We can’t establish any kind of secure perimeter with that going on. There’s no way to get the civilians into safe areas if nothing’s going to stay put! Fross, find Razsha’s team and brief her—I want her back here immediately. Securing this space is now priority one.”

“Yessir!” the pixie chimed, shooting back aloft.

“You—Raichlin, yes? Can you deal with the warlocks?”

“My people are trying to keep the werewolves from getting into the city,” he said. “What you see here is all I’ve got left. The weres are agitated, too—and transformed even though it’s not night, which is making it worse. If one of them randomly teleports into the walls…”

“This is a catastrophe,” Timms whispered.

“Stay frosty, corporal,” Adjavegh snapped. “Someone has to shut down those warlocks. How many sites are active, Raichlin?”

“At least half a dozen.”

“Then we’ll have to divide forces to deal with them all…” The Colonel drew in a deep breath and let it out through his teeth, his eyes narrowed in concentration.

“We need to send the paladins,” said Ruda. Everyone turned to stare at her. “Think about it—they’re chaos-resistant, not to mention the best choice to stop warlocks, and Trissiny’s horse is big enough to carry all three, so they can move fast. Drop Toby and Gabe at two sites and proceed to the next. Raichlin’s people can guide them; split three ways you can shut ’em down faster.”

“We can keep up with a horse,” Raichlin agreed, nodding. “Even a divine one. For a while, at least.”

“The Wreath will listen to me,” said Vadrieny, “and I can reach them faster…”

“Yeah, but they’re trying to get to you,” said Ruda. “After this bullshit, I think giving the Wreath anything they want is a bad idea. You’ll be needed here in case we have another undead outbreak. You, Juniper and Fross have offensive power, Shaeine can provide shields and healing, and my sword’ll be necessary if a chaos effect happens here.”

“Good,” Adjavegh said crisply. “I like it. Get it done. Timms, signal the barracks to enact protocol… Oh, damn it, which is the one that orders civilians to gather here and in the cathedral?”

“On it, sir,” Timms said, whirling and dashing back toward the battlemage still manning the runic signal array.

“It’s a plan, then,” said Trissiny, vaulting into Arjen’s saddle and holding out a hand to Toby. “No time to waste.”

The sun finally peeked over the mountains, beaming down upon a city in the grip of chaos.


 

Joe almost didn’t want to stop running, so exuberant was the experience of dashing along under the influence of Raea’s blessing. He covered over a dozen yards in each bound, and his feet placed themselves precisely on secure footholds on the rocky upper plane of the Badlands. Was this what it was like to be an elf all the time? If anything, the precise data his senses constantly fed him was a little disorienting, leaping along at these speeds, but he quickly moved past that and into the sheer joy of the exercise. It must have been even better for the others; even McGraw and Billie were keeping up without effort, the gnome with many a shrieking laugh of pure delight.

Dawn had just come when he finally skidded to a stop on a flat stretch of stony ground, kicking up a spray of dust; the others alit beside him, Billie pinwheeling her arms frantically and nearly pitching forward into the cracked ground.

The enormous panther arrived a second later; the other elves had all peeled away as they ran, now doubtless taking up positions around the town.

“Be still a moment,” Raea said, again in her bipedal form. “I need to cancel that blessing on you, and it’s best if you aren’t moving around. Otherwise you may find yourself quite fatigued by the experience. Give me a moment to concentrate.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Joe said, already regretting the loss of the effect—but she was right, there was no way they’d be able to fight like that. He had already discovered that only his feet were enhanced, along with the instincts to control them properly. Actually using his wands while bouncing about like a jackrabbit would have been prohibitively challenging even for him.

While Raea closed her eyes and whispered to herself, he studied Risk. The town was tiny, a bare dozen dusty little stone and adobe buildings clustered around a well. He detected not a twitch of movement.

“Is this the right place?” Weaver asked, scratching beneath his hat.

“Yes,” Raea said curtly, opening her eyes. “You may move again. And yes, they are present—in that largest building, there, just off the central square. My scouts have been in place since sunrise, watching. The dwarves have all been sent away.” She turned her head to face McGraw. “All to the same mining tunnel, unlike their previous pattern. It appears Khadizroth knows we are coming, and wanted them out of harm’s way.”

“Mm,” the old wizard grunted, leaning on his staff with both hands as he studied the town. “I trust you’ve got your folk takin’ care of that as we speak?”

“Of course.”

“Here, now,” Joe said worriedly. “Not to sound soft-hearted, but those dwarves are just doin’ a job. In fact, they were willin’ to leave their homes and risk their lives for the purpose of takin’ Belosiphon’s skull out of commission. Them, at least, we oughtta handle respectfully.”

“Who’s we?” Weaver snorted.

“That is being taken into consideration, Joseph,” Raea said with a little smile. “Dwarves are slow, absurdly strong and incredibly durable, at least from an elf’s perspective. Incapacitating them harmlessly is, if anything, easier than killing them. Meanwhile, we should lay plans while my people are engaged dealing with the miners.”

“No,” McGraw said softly, still staring at the town through narrowed eyes.

“No?” Raea arched an eyebrow.

“No, that’s…what we would do. Khadizroth knows us; he’s fought us, knows our strengths. He’ll be expecting us to come in careful-like, position ourselves an’ try to take out his allies one by one.”

“Yeah,” Weaver said in exasperation, “because that’s the only sensible thing to do here!”

“Wait,” said Joe, “I think I see what he means. Khadizroth’s strength here isn’t just his power—remember what he was doin’ with the Cobalt Dawn? He’s a planner. An’ we know he goaded us out here deliberately, knowin’ how we’d react. So…how would we not react?”

“Hm.” Weaver frowned deeply, then just as suddenly smiled. “Well. I guess the thing we’d be least likely to do is charge in, wands blazing, with no plan.”

“I think not doing that would be an excellent idea,” Raea said sharply.

“Hey, Fallowstone,” Weaver said, ignoring her. “What’s the biggest, explodiest, most ridiculous thing you’ve got in those pockets?”

“Aw, Damian,” Billie said with a huge grin, already pulling lengths of metal out of her pouches. “Just when I think I’ve got a handle on you, y’have to go an’ say somethin’ that makes me all tingly.”

“Ugh. Why do you always have to make it weird?”


 

“That’s them, all right,” the Jackal said, staring out the window of Khadizroth’s office and fingering the long scar running across his right ear. True to the dragon’s word, it had been successfully reattached, but not without leaving a livid mark. “No sign of Raea’s little rats, it’s just the adventurers. The gnome’s doing something…”

“Are they just gonna stand there all morning?” Shook growled, pacing back and forth.

“You know, my boy, you’ve been getting positively antsy since your demon squeeze was sent off on assignment,” the Jackal said, turning to leer at him. “I’m concerned it’ll affect your performance. Wanna step around the corner and work off some of that steam? I mean, I don’t have nearly as impressive a pair of tits, but—”

“Enough,” Khadizroth said firmly as Shook rounded on the elf, clenching his fists. “This is not the time to be sniping at one another. For the moment, things are going well; our foes received our invitation and responded just as planned. This is a critical moment, my friends. They will either step into the noose, or exhibit more forethought than I anticipated.”

“Oh, I hope it’s the second one,” the Jackal whispered, turning back to the window. “It’s not nearly as satisfying to kill a trapped rabbit.”

“In other circumstances, I’d be inclined to agree,” said Shook. “Give me a straight-up, honest fight over this sneaking around any day. But against these guys…”

“They have considerably more strength than honor,” Vannae agreed quietly.

A blue light flashed from the plains outside the town. All four of them stood, stepping over to the window to stare.

It looked like a star ascending skyward; the blossom of pale blue fire burned brightly enough to be clearly visible, even against the morning sky. It soared upward to nearly two hundred feet, and suddenly erupted. Or, more accurately, shattered, dispersing into dozens of blazing points of light.

“The hell is this?” Shook marveled. “They’re putting on a fireworks display?”

“Probably signaling the tribesmen,” said the Jackal with a grin. “Looks like we can expect company momentarily!”

“Ah,” said Khadizroth in a tone of chagrin. “I might have known it wouldn’t be so easy. Gentlemen, if you would kindly cluster a little closer together?”

“Why?” Shook demanded, turning to frown at him. “What’s up?”

“When in an intractable situation,” said the dragon, “sometimes one’s best bet is to simply…shake up the playing field. Unfortunately, our guests seem to have come to the same conclusion. Closer, please. Now.”

“Wait,” said Vannae. “Are those lights getting…bigger?”

“Now!” Khadizroth said urgently, spreading his arms as if to embrace them. A whirling sphere of air formed in the office, sheathing the men inside a transparent bubble of wind, and not a moment too soon.

More than twenty burning arcane charges slammed into the town at nearly the speed of sound, reducing half of Risk to rubble in seconds.

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The sun was climbing toward noon as they approached the natural amphitheater set amid the twisting stone corridors of the Badlands. It was later in the day than they had planned to arrive, but McGraw had been adamant that they would not attend this meeting without bringing Raea and her fellow elves into the loop, and into attendance. Indeed, as the group approached, they found the rim of the hollow hosting a ring of figures, divided almost evenly. On one side were grim-faced dwarves, carrying a variety of tools and equipment but with wands firmly holstered. On the other, the elves stood impassively, like statues in gray-dyed buckskins.

“Looks ominous,” Weaver murmured, peering down at the makeshift tent erected at the base of the amphitheater. It was nothing more than a stretch of green canvas held up by four poles, which themselves were braced in piles of stone rather than driven into the ground.

“Looks like what we were told t’expect,” Billie replied. “They all down there?”

“I can’t see any more than you can, half-pint.”

Their angle hid the awning’s occupants from view, but one man stood at one of the poles, barely shaded from the sun, watching them. He was a wood elf in an incongruous pinstriped suit. Joe narrowed his eyes, hands straying toward his wands.

“Don’t,” McGraw advised quietly. “I know, Joe, I was there. We’ll deal with him an’ the others in good time, but we agreed to meet under a flag of truce. You’ll get nowhere in life by breakin’ your word.”

“I know,” he said tersely.

Below, the Jackal grinned up at them, sketched a mocking little bow, then turned and sauntered back into the shade.

Weaver drew in a deep breath and let it out. “Well, if we’re gonna do this damn fool thing, no point in stretching it out.”

He stepped out into the sunlight and began picking his way down the uneven steps. Beside him, the enormous panther padded along silently. The others followed, Billie hopping lightly from step to step, apparently with no difficulty.

They arrived and paused, just within the shade of the awning, studying their counterparts. Khadizroth sat behind a rickety folding table, looking exactly as he had on their last meeting, his expression calm. The others stood; on one side, the Jackal leaned indolently against a pole with his arms folded, which had to be an affectation as the pole was clearly not sturdy enough to support even an elf’s weight, and the awning had not so much as trembled. Opposite him stood a dwarf in sensible working clothes with his sleeves rolled up to reveal brawny forearms. A sharp-featured man in a cheap suit with slicked-back hair stood closer to Khadizroth, studying them through narrowed eyes.

“Why, Mr. Shook, isn’t it?” McGraw said, tipping his hat. “What a very small world it is.”

“Not really,” Shook replied, fixing his glare on the old man. “Just starts to seem that way to people who swagger around taking up more than their fair share of the space.”

Khadizroth smiled faintly.

“Well, well,” McGraw said with a rueful chuckle. “I confess I’m caught without a rebuttal to that. Point conceded, son.”

“How lovely to see you again, Mr. Jenkins,” the Jackal simpered. “It’s such a relief to find you in good health!”

“Guess your reputation’s a bit overblown, then, ain’t it?” Joe replied sharply. The assassin’s smile thinned.

“I don’t miss a mark, boy. Not in the long run.”

“How’re ye doin’, big K?” Billie asked cheerfully, waving. “You look different! I can’t put me finger on it. Have ye lost weight?”

“This is going marvelously already,” Weaver grunted. “If I want to exchange threats and insults with dumbasses, I’ve got the gnome. Can we get on with it, here?”

“Somebody got that thing on a leash?” Shook demanded, pointing at Raea.

“That thing,” the Jackal said condescendingly, “is a shaman. They don’t get put on leashes unless they’re into that.”

“Welcome,” Khadizroth said. His voice, though soft, cut through the chatter and effectively silenced it. “Honor prevents me from claiming it is a pleasure to see any of you again, but I am glad you agreed to speak with us. Please, have a seat.” He indicated the folding stools set up across the table from him.

Nobody moved toward them.

“You seem to be missing somebody,” McGraw noted.

“Everyone is present who was invited to attend, and more besides,” the dragon replied calmly.

“The succubus isn’t around,” said Weaver. “Nowhere in the vicinity, in fact.”

“Oh ho, your little friend can tell that, can she?” the Jackal said with a broad grin. “That is excellent information to have, thanks ever so.”

“You, too, are different in number than I recall,” said Khadizroth, fixing his eyes on Raea. “Shall I infer that the torch has been passed?”

“Don’t you worry about Mary,” said Joe. “She’s around, too.”

“Splendid. There are things I wish to discuss with her, as well.”

“I’ll bet,” Weaver snorted. “Let’s get to brass tacks already. What do you have to say to us, dragon?”

“No.” Shook cursed and shied back as Raea spoke, suddenly an elf again. “First he will explain the desecration his agents have been committing against elven culture in this area.”

The dwarf flushed slightly and lowered his eyes.

“Yes, that matter deserves to be addressed,” Khadizroth said seriously. “Ah…Raea, is it not? Welcome. As I’m certain everyone here knows, we are all gathered in this desolate corner of the world in search of the skull of Belosiphon the Black, one of the few powerful chaos artifacts known to exist. I assume you are also aware of what happens to magic in the presence of chaos.”

“Virtually anything,” said McGraw, nodding.

Khadizroth nodded back. “Indeed. That is the issue. The traces of elven culture in the area mostly take the form of small shrines—individually not powerful, but all blessed and most with a significant fae component which ties them strongly to the land itself. Thus, if and when the skull is unearthed, each and every such object becomes a potential focus of chaos, a source of random magical effects, which pose a potentially significant threat.”

The dwarf cleared his throat. “I’ll assume you noted our removal of the elven items specifically due to your own interests. We’ve also been removing every magical object we find from the area.”

“How many magical objects can there be around here?” Weaver demanded.

“Not a lot,” said the dwarf. “The elven stuff is actually less than half of it, and all told it’s still not more than a few tidbits per square kilomark on average. Much is fairly modern equipment, or pieces thereof, left over from mining operations, though we’ve also found any number of enchanted bangles and weapons dropped by adventurers who knows how long ago. The archaeologists will have to sort that out.”

“Archaeologists?” Raea said sharply. “What have you done with these things?”

“The mining debris we disenchant and destroy,” the dwarf replied. “Everything else is crated up—carefully, I promise you—and shipped back to Svenheim on the carts that bring our supply deliveries. It’s all going to the Royal Museum.”

“A museum?” she repeated, her voice climbing an octave.

“The Royal Museum,” said Khadizroth. “An institution which handles cultural artifacts with the greatest care and respect. It does not sell to private collectors, nor destroy anything which may hold religious significance. The curators will also return any such artifacts to any individual, tribe or family who has a claim to them.”

“If they’re willing to hike up to Svenheim and press their case, that is,” said Weaver, folding his arms.

Khadizroth nodded gravely. “Yes, there is that, in addition to the imposition of removing these objects from the land in the first place. It is an inadequate solution; unfortunately it was the best I could manage under the circumstances. To that, I add my own apologies—also inadequate, but more than deserved.”

“You could have just talked to the elves about this,” Billie pointed out.

“Which elves?” The dragon raised an eyebrow. “Raea and her compatriots are the only elves in the area right now, and their defense of elven culture extends to harassing those who tamper with shrines, notably not the protection of shrines themselves. Even among the forest tribes, it takes months and often years to get Elders to take action, and those one can at least find. These artifacts are the leavings of plains tribes, all of which are doubtless somewhere deep in the Golden Sea by now. This was, I repeat, the best we could do.”

“Well,” McGraw said, glancing at Raea, who only frowned at the dragon, “I suppose that’s as good a segue as any to the central matter at hand. We seem to find ourselves in a race to acquire the skull.”

“Allow me to establish some common ground up front,” Khadizroth said with a small smile. “Based on our prior dealings, I credit you with enough intelligence that I assume you do not wish to possess the skull. My assumption is that we are all concerned not with who shall have the skull, but who shall not. Am I correct?”

“That’s the long and the short of it,” Joe agreed, nodding. His eyes kept straying to the Jackal, who grinned and finally blew him a kiss.

“The real short of it,” said Weaver, “is you’re trying to take the damn thing to Archpope Justinian, who absolutely does not need to have it.”

“On that,” said Khadizroth, “we are all in agreement.”

“Hang on a tick,” said Billie, frowning. “We are? Don’t ye work fer the bugger?”

Shook snorted loudly.

“Ostensibly,” said Khadizroth, smiling placidly. “His Holiness ordered and financed this expedition, yes. We are to retrieve the skull and return it to the Universal Church.” He glanced aside at the dwarf, who smiled and bowed. “Upon our successful uncovering of the artifact, I fear we shall all find ourselves incapacitated by our treacherous mining crew, who will then abscond back to Svenheim with it.”

The wind whistled softly into the ensuing silence.

“Huh,” McGraw said at last. “Gotta say, I didn’t see that coming.”

“Look around you, old man,” said Shook. “Do any of us seem like the type of people who’d work for the Archpope because we respect him? The last thing that asshole needs is more power.”

“A chaos artifact isn’t even power,” added the Jackal. “It’s dangerous, that’s all. Not dangerous like a weapon—dangerous like an earthquake. Any damn thing might result from someone playing around with it.”

“No, I believe this sentiment to be quite universal,” said Khadizroth. “The prospect of Archpope Justinian obtaining the skull of Belosiphon is absolutely unacceptable. That brings us to a significant question, and the reason I asked you to speak with us. What are your plans for the skull?”

“We’re not to that point, yet,” Weaver said sharply. “You’re still halfway through an explanation. Svenheim? What the hell is gonna happen to it there?”

“The Royal Museum,” said the dwarf, folding his burly arms. “They have the facilities and the experience to contain dangerous objects of that magnitude. It’ll go into an extra-dimensional vault, and stay there till the end of time. Or at least of dwarven civilization. Whichever comes first.”

“Mr. Svarveld has experience with such dangers himself,” Khadizroth added, nodding to the dwarf. “All of our chosen crew have; that is the reason we hired them.”

“That’s a government institution, ain’t it?” Joe said quietly. “This Royal Museum. Answers to the King of Svenheim, if I recall right?”

“That’s so,” said Svarveld, frowning at him. “And I hope you’re not implying that his Majesty would be mad enough to attempt to use the skull.”

“I know nothing at all about his Majesty,” said Joe, “and I don’t mean to cast any implications or aspersions of any kind. What I know is that governments are not to be trusted with the prospect of acquiring power.”

“That’s a solid point,” Shook said, frowning.

“Ah, yes, I keep forgetting he actually is an Eserite under all the greasy thuggery,” the Jackal mused aloud.

“If that assuages your curiosity,” Khadizroth said, “perhaps you are willing to respond in kind, now? I confess the prospect of Bishop Darling acquiring the skull does not please me, either.”

“Darling doesn’t want it,” Joe said quickly. “He’s of the same mind as the rest of us—just wants the thing out of circulation.”

“And you know this,” the Jackal sneered, “because he told you so?”

“Oh, Darling’s a snake, we’re under no illusions about that,” McGraw said easily. “The first step in successful snake handling is knowin’ what species of viper you’re dealin’ with. Darling’s not the type to want to meddle with things like that; he is the type to want them secured someplace as far from his own carefully-laid plans as possible. No, he’s on the up-and-up about this one.”

“I could’ve told you that,” Shook muttered.

“Then what do you plan to do with it?” Khadizroth asked.

The group glanced at each other.

“I’m not sure,” Joe began.

“No,” McGraw shook his head, “there’s no harm in saying. We’ve the same intentions as yourself: remove the skull from the world. In our case, by giving it to Arachne Tellwyrn.”

Another silence fell.

“I think,” Khadizroth said carefully, “you have failed to consider the implications of that plan.”

“Tellwyrn?” Shook turned to frown at the dragon. “Is that as terrible a goddamn idea as it sounds like to me?”

“Very likely more so,” Khadizroth said grimly.

“That’s because you have no idea what you’re talking about,” Weaver snorted. “Arachne has the power to remove the thing from the mortal plane, and definitely has the sense and reason to want to do so. She, unlike any of the other options I’ve heard named, has also already disposed of dangerous chaos artifacts this way.”

“I am willing to credit Arachne with her virtues, such as they are,” said Khadizroth. “Though sense and reason are not traits I would have ascribed to her in any significant quantity.”

“Sounds to me like you don’t know as much about her as you think, then,” Weaver retorted.

“No?” The dragon leaned forward, his featureless emerald eyes intent on Weaver’s face. “I’ve no doubt you know her more personally than I. My own interactions with Arachne have been at a safe distance and adversarial in nature. In fact, let me tell you how one of these transpired. She and I found ourselves contending for possession of— Actually, that hardly matters anymore. Suffice it to say, she won that round, driving me away by gathering up an alliance of other interests to keep me occupied.”

“Well, good for her, then,” Joe snapped.

Khadizroth sighed. “Not getting possession of the scepter did not harm me unduly in the long term, nor do I think she gained very much from having it. What I found distressing was what she did to achieve this. The woman actually negotiated an alliance between a cell of the Black Wreath and Izitiron the Red, who had previously been at one another’s throats, and set them on me.”

“Aw, ye poor big baby,” Billie said, grinning.

The dragon gave her a very flat look. “Deal with that sometime before you sneer at it, young woman. It was a significant problem—and not just for me. That union of diabolists went on to cause untold havoc over the years to come, not that Arachne ever lifted a finger to do anything about it. The price of her success in that one little conflict of interests—which, I repeat, was a relatively minor affair—was paid in the lives of the Silver Legionnaires who finally put a stop to Izitiron’s personal cell of warlocks decades later. And this was after they had opened four new hellgates, all of which are still open today. If I were to sit here and tabulate the sum total of the harm done, it would take the rest of the day at least.” He sighed heavily and shook his head. “That is the problem. Arachne sees the task in front of her and charges at it, paying no heed to the ripples she spreads or the consequences beyond achieving her immediate goal. Yes, I’m sure she does possess the sense not to want to use a chaos artifact, otherwise she would not have lived so long. But if you place that object in her hands, you are trading a crisis now for one in the unknowable future. All it will take is something to arise which makes her think using the skull is a worthwhile gambit.”

“What could possibly make her think that?” Joe demanded. “You are talkin’ about the most intelligent woman I ever met.”

Khadizroth transferred his gaze to the Kid. “Considering the company you keep, Joseph, I’m sure it has not escaped your notice that the world is growing more dangerous. All of this, all our interactions and adventures, are pieces of a larger puzzle whose shape we cannot yet see. A great doom is coming, and Arachne is exactly the type to meet something like that by throwing every possible thing she can at it. No… I cannot countenance her acquiring the skull.”

“Well, that makes your position clear, then,” said McGraw in a mild tone. “Though you’ve not given us any reason to think the thing’s any better off in the Royal Museum’s hands. No offense intended, Mr. Svarveld.”

“There is no good outcome here,” Khadizroth said gravely. “By far the best is that the skull remains firmly lost in whatever dark hole it resides in now. With the alarms raised by the oracles, however, I fear we must dismiss that prospect from consideration. What remains is to find another hiding place for it, ideally somewhere out of the hands of anyone who would use it. In my years, I have found dwarves to be eminently sensible and responsible folk. I adjudge that delivering the skull to Svenheim is the least objectionable prospect.”

“Then you adjudge wrong,” Billie said, planting her hands on her hips. “Ye cannot possibly be daft enough not ta see it. Responsible or not, you’re talkin’ about placin’ that thing in the custody of a King. Even if he never finds a use fer it, one of ‘is descendants will, sure as the bloody tides.”

“Governments tend to swell till they overtake other considerations anyway,” the dragon said softly. “Better Svenheim than Tiraas. We were told about your efforts in Desolation. What do you imagine the Imperial government is really there for?”

“The skull, I expect,” McGraw mused. “Which is somethin’ you ought to consider if you intend to get rough in keepin’ it away from us. We’ve already had a great deal of useful help from Imperial Intelligence.”

“Oh, is that what you think?” the Jackal asked, grinning nastily.

“Why would Imperial Intelligence go to the effort of tracking down the skull when they can have some other poor saps do it?” Khadizroth asked quietly. “It will be quite dangerous to handle, and the search is made risky by the conflicting interests currently raging over the matter. You’re adventurers; in the Empire’s eyes, are you are disposable tools which not only can but ought to be disposed of sooner rather than later. By involving the Empire, all you fools have done is ensure that someone well-funded and highly trained will be poised to swoop down on whichever of us obtains it first. We have the same ultimate goals—we only disagree on one frankly minor point of strategy. We have common opponents, in the Universal Church and the Empire, two institutions which must be prevented from getting the skull. Can we not reach a compromise?”

“What, send half of it to Svenheim and half to Last Rock?” Weaver said disdainfully.

“We do seem to’ve reached a sticking point, there,” said McGraw. “How ’bout this: let’s take a little time to think this over, shall we? We might be persuaded ’round to the notion of letting the Museum take the skull.”

“There are all kinds of reasons why that—”

“Or,” McGraw continued loudly, cutting Weaver off, “the reverse may happen. You understand the risks of placing that object with a government institution; I’d ask you to consider the risks of putting it in Professor Tellwyrn’s hands are the same in nature and necessarily somewhat lesser in probability.”

“Perhaps,” Khadizroth mused. “Perhaps not.”

“Give it a day or two,” McGraw said with a smile. “The skull ain’t likely to suddenly turn up now. If we can reach an understanding… Well, that’s a darn sight better’n us fighting took and nail over it, don’t you agree?”

“On the contrary, I was quite looking forward to that part,” the Jackal said with a grin.

“Now correct me if I’m wrong,” Billie said cheerfully, “but I get the impression nobody even among yer own team there gives a flyin’ fig’s fart about yer opinion, aye?”

“Then again,” the elf replied brightly, “there are advantages to us all being on good terms! Why, I do so enjoy having a gnome in a pliable position. Your mouth is at just the right height—”

Weaver’s wand cleared its holster in a split second, and the crack of the lightning bolt he fired into the ground was deafening at that range.

Immediately there was a chorus of yells, weapons were raised, and everyone darted backward out into the sunlight, away from each other. Only that prevented a full-scale showdown, as the dwarves and elves on the rim of the crater paused with their own upraised weapons, now that they could see all parties on their feet and unharmed.

“We are here under a truce!” McGraw snapped, forcefully prodding Weaver backward with his staff. “Put that damn thing away, you buffoon!”

“I will explain this once,” Weaver said, ignoring him in favor of staring coldly at the Jackal. “I’ve put in the time, here; I have endured weeks on end of this gnome’s bullshit. You don’t talk to her that way. Clear?”

“Oh, my,” the Jackal drawled, his grin stretching to truly insane proportions. “I do seem to have struck a nerve! You have my deepest and most sincere apologies, Mr. Gravestone, sir.”

“Be silent,” Khadizroth said curtly. “I did not call them here for you to insult and abuse them.”

“He’s not the asshole who started shooting!” Shook snapped, his own wands in his hands.

“Peace!” the dragon thundered. His voice blasted over them like a tidal wave, augmented magically to resonate across the depression and out though the winding canyons. Khadizroth slowly turned his head, panning his gaze across all those present. When he spoke again, it was in a more normal tone. “I believe this is a stopping point. As Longshot has pointed out, we each have things to consider.”

“I don’t know what was actually accomplished here,” Joe muttered, one of his wands still in hand, but pointed at the ground.

“Why, isn’t it obvious?” the Jackal said sweetly. “Exactly as much as was ever going to be.”


 

“Think we’ve reached a safe distance?” Joe asked some minutes later, pausing and turning back to look at the others.

“Far enough that it would be difficult even for the tauhanwe to hear,” said Raea, folding her arms. “You have something you wish to say?”

“I have something I wish to have said to me,” Joe replied, turning to glare at Weaver. “What was that?! Have you lost your mind? And since when do you even care about Billie?”

“You know what your problem is, kid?” Weaver said mildly. “You take far too many things at face value. If Billie and I really hated each other as much as we let on, there’d be bloodshed.”

“Aye, ye remind me a bit o’ me brothers,” Billie said, grinning, and slugged Weaver on the thigh. “Less ‘andsome, o’ course, but what can ye expect?”

“That aside,” said McGraw, “that was a hell of a stunt you pulled back there. You coulda started off a whole showdown right on the spot.”

“Yeah? Let me tell you what I think about that.” Weaver stuck his hands in his pockets and smirked faintly. “First of all, that conversation wasn’t going to get anywhere. We could’ve gone round and round as many times as it took to decide who should get the skull, but the ultimate fact is that neither group would ever trust the other enough to work together, or let the other obtain it. There is just too much bad blood here. That is a gaggle of unspeakable greasy-fingered evil-minded fuckers if I ever saw one, and I dunno what they think about us but I strongly suspect it’s not any more friendly. We got the only useful thing we were gonna get with the revelation that they aren’t fully in bed with the Archpope—which, come on, wasn’t exactly arcane physics to figure out, anyway. I just saved us a very hot, thirsty afternoon of tedious and pointless yammering.”

“Be that as it may,” Joe began.

“Furthermore,” Weaver continued more loudly, “if the showdown had started right there, that would have been just about the best scenario we could hope for. Power for power, both groups are a close match, and let’s keep in mind the extra muscle we’ve all got together.” He nodded at Raea, who merely raised an eyebrow in reply. “We’ve got elves who are skilled fighters, with several magic-users. They’ve got miners. An all-out battle would be decisively to our advantage, and we’re likely never going to see another situation like that where everyone was arranged like chess pieces. Next time, they’ll have had time to prepare. And on the subject of that, the wild card here is that fucking assassin. He snuck up on us last time; if we’re gonna fight that guy, and you’d better believe we’ll have to, I’d much rather it start from a standstill with the element of surprise on our side, and not give him the chance to do what he does and creep up on somebody again.

“Plus,” he added with a wolfish grin at Billie, “him being the vicious little shit he is, thanks to my little production we know exactly who he’ll go right for next time.”

“Yes, I see you clearly act out of affection for your friend,” Raea said, deadpan. Billie just threw back her head and barked a laugh.

“I know you’re all more comfortable thinking of me as a surly oaf,” Weaver said, curling his lip. “I wouldn’t still be alive if I could suss out situations and make plans, though.”

“In the future,” McGraw said flatly, “before you do any sussing or planning, include us. Clear?”

Weaver shrugged. “I saw an opportunity, and I took it. Discussing it with you would’ve made the whole thing moot.”

“You saw an opportunity to attack under a flag of truce,” Joe snapped. “Under other circumstances that is called a war crime!”

“I didn’t attack,” Weaver replied, now smiling placidly. “I made a sudden loud noise. If they had attacked, well, your conscience would be clean, now wouldn’t it?”

“Uh huh, that’s all very persuasive,” said McGraw, “but I will repeat my point. Do not do that again, or anything like it. Are we clear?”

“I have to concur,” Raea said flatly, staring Weaver down. “That was reckless, whatever your reasoning.”

“I’m hearing a lot of complaints about how you don’t like my strategy,” the bard replied, “but not a word about how any of my reasoning was flawed or my conclusions incorrect, or the results— Kid, what the hell are you doing?”

Joe had turned away from him and begun scrambling up the fairly gentle slope to his right, quickly getting atop the stone outcropping and onto the upper of the Badlands’ two flat planes. From that vantage, looking out over the twisting cracks in the sprawling landscape was rather like an extremely close view of dried-up mud.

“Just wanna see if I can get a look at ’em,” he said, pulling a spyglass from his pocket and peering back in the direction from which they’d come.

“Unless one of them is daffy enough to climb up there,” Raea said dryly, “you won’t catch so much as a glimpse. The angles are impossible.”

“Well, the meeting’s over, and all,” Joe mused, “and it sounds to me like that bit about thinking things over and trying again was an excuse—we are really not going to let those monsters get the skull, and they won’t let us, either. So… And by the way, the angles aren’t impossible. Just very, very unlikely.”


 

“No, we won’t be hearing anything further,” Khadizroth said calmly, not looking back at the others as he walked. Shook and the Jackal flanked him, falling behind when the twisting corridors became too narrow to walk abreast. The dwarves were still packing away the makeshift pavilion, table, and stools. “It was worth attempting, both ethically and for the chance to size up our opponents. The personal issues here overwhelm the professional, however—and even if every member of this party were willing to put those aside, I do not expect them to.”

“Should’ve brought Vannae, then,” Shook said. “If nothing else, he could make inroads with those other elves.”

“I prefer to keep a few elements in reserve,” the dragon said. “They may or may not know he is here; we can’t be sure how much Raea’s scouts have observed of our movements, and he mostly stays indoors. I will say this much: Raea is a poor substitute for the Crow. Mary’s absence changes the equation in our favor.”

“If she is absent,” the Jackal pointed out. “She likes to lurk.”

“She is not good at lurking silently,” Khadizroth said evenly. “And she is prone to wandering off in pursuit of her own projects. She may be hiding nearby, it’s true, but that would be out of character. No, her absence from the meeting strongly suggests her absence from the entire issue.”

“We’re talking about Mary the fuckin’ Crow,” Shook growled. “I’m hesitant to gamble my life on the fact she’s not here. And yeah, those are the stakes.”

“You are correct,” Khadizroth agreed, nodding. “In any case, consider the different constitutions of our respective forces. We have miners; they have elvish raiders. This is not a race to obtain the skull. Their most logical move will be to let us acquire it, and attempt to take it from us. That places the initiative in our hands.”

“Hm,” Shook muttered, frowning.

“I like where this is heading!” the Jackal crowed, bounding ahead of them and turning to walk backward. They stepped into a junction of canyons, a fairly wide space that permitted sunlight into nearly every crack. “If we control the timing of the skull’s emergence, that gives me time to work my own special magic. All we have to do is thin their numbers a bit before they confront us.”

“Well, don’t bother with the old man,” Shook said, grinning. “He’s likely to keel over any day now anyway.”

“You just get more delightfully thickheaded every time I talk to you,” the Jackal replied. “Yes, he’s old. He’s an old adventuring wizard who’s been at it for decades. Beware an old man in a field that kills men young. No, between the lot of them, I’d say McGraw and the boy augh!”

The pencil-thin beam of white light that tore through the air was traveling at such a shallow angle that it was nearly horizontal, shooting straight down the canyon through which they’d just come. It was totally silent and existed for only a split-second, barely long enough to be seen in the bright sunlight.

The elf shrieked and staggered backward, clapping a hand to the side of his head where it had clipped him. Khadizroth and Shook both spun to stare backward, then in unison darted to opposite sides of the opening.

“Now that I don’t believe,” Shook said softly, clutching his wands and peering around in the direction from which the shot had been fired. “There’s nobody anywhere near… And we saw them head off the opposite way. I mean, you hear stories about the Sarasio Kid, but nobody can shoot like that. It isn’t physically possible!”

“I assure you, the stories are not exaggerations,” said Khadizroth, swiftly crossing to the Jackal, who had slumped against the wall, clutching his head and hissing furiously in pain. Blood now trickled out from between his fingers. “You are right, no one is nearby; I would sense someone attempting to ambush us. Keep your heads down. Let me see it, Jack.”

“Hey, uh,” Shook said, pointing at the ground a few feet from them. “You dropped something.”

All three fixed their eyes on the triangular object lying on the dusty stone, a line of blood tracing one of its sides.

The Jackal’s eyes widened, his face contorting into a snarl of pure animal rage. “No.”

Khadizroth bent to pick it up, his lips pursed, then turned back and gently but firmly pried the Jackal’s hand away from the side of his head. “I see… Wands.” He sighed, studying the shorn-off stump of the elf’s ear. “This is cauterized. I can reattach it, but that is…involved. There will almost certainly be scarring, and it may not completely match your other ear in length. We must return quickly to the office where I can work in peace with supplies; this is not something I can do here.”

“I killed him too quickly the last time,” the Jackal grated. “Lesson learned.”


 

Five hundred yards away, the Sarasio Kid lowered his spyglass, no longer afforded the momentary glimpse of the other party through the sprawling network of canyons. Even that one brief opening had been nearly miraculous. The shot, though… Anyone telling the story would make it seem miraculous, but in the end, it was all angles and forces. Just math.

“That’s one for one, you bastard,” Joe whispered, holstering his wand. “The next time’ll be the last.”

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Price would never have admitted how much she enjoyed dressing up the apprentices, and Darling would certainly never press her, but the results spoke for themselves. They got looks, of course, as they always did in the Cathedral, but so far as he could tell the looks were entirely due to their ears and not their attire or mannerisms. Flora and Fauna followed him demurely, clad in conservative but graceful frocks of dark blue and gray respectively, and had so far played the role of clerical students so well that even he could find no flaw in their performance. Of course, he still wouldn’t attempt this kind of test of their skills without his supervision. No one was going to interfere with a Bishop’s retinue, but elves alone in the Cathedral might otherwise not get ten paces without being stopped and questioned.

Or so he was idly reflecting, debating whether the innate injustice of it was something he ought to (or even could) address, when his theory was contradicted.

“Your pardon, Bishop Darling?”

He halted immediately, turning with careful smoothness—the Bishop’s mannerisms were more poised and languid than Sweet’s, and with all the various action lately the two roles had started to blend more than he liked. He seized upon every opportunity to emphasize the difference.

Of course, he recognized the person approaching him. There were relatively few elves in service to Pantheon cults, scarcely any in the employ of the Universal Church, and exactly one entitled to the uniform of a Bishop.

“Please, it’s just Antonio,” he said with a beatifically Bishoply smile. “I must endure far too much tedious formality as it is, without demanding it from equals.”

“Antonio, then,” Nandi Shahai replied with a nearly identical smile, and he immediately began to suspect that this one was trouble. Basra Syrinx’s absence had, needless to say, shaken up many people’s plans and routines, and her replacement was discreet enough to make it a challenge for anybody to get a good read on her. She had virtually no reputation outside the Sisterhood, who had nothing to say to any of his rumor-gatherers. “I wonder if I might requisition a few moments of your time?”

“You need only ask,” he replied, widening his smile by a very precise increment. Hers shifted equally precisely to match. Oh, yes, she was dangerous. He had seen the calm control of the older elves; seeing the calm control of a modern politician on an elf raised frightening prospects. “These are my apprentices, Flora and Fauna. Is this to be a private matter, or do you mind if they observe? My schedule affords me sadly few opportunities to show them the more ecclesiastical side of my work.”

He kept his expression open and solicitous, very much just a colleague dutifully concerned for the proprieties. Shahai once again shifted her own to mirror it in the most exact nuance, which confirmed his assessment that she was a skilled operator and made him begin to wonder whether she was subtly poking fun.

Darling made a mental note to grill the girls extensively later for their opinions of the new Bishop of Avei.

“The matter is no secret, at least not to me,” she said serenely, nodding to Flora and Fauna, who bowed in return. “I will leave it to you to judge whether it is sensitive—it concerns a member of the Thieves’ Guild with whom the Sisterhood may have a burgeoning problem.”

“Oh?” he said, allowing his gaze to sharpen. This was in line with his official duties and his numerous less-than-official ones, as she assuredly knew. Moreover, it was a disturbing prospect. Eserites who went sufficiently rogue to cause trouble for other cults tended to be big trouble for everyone before being finally reined in. “Please go on, you have my undivided attention.”

“Thank you,” Shahai said politely. “I shall try not to take up too much of your time. The individual in question is a Sifanese woman with the given name Saduko, who has claimed the Guild tag Gimmick. Her only distinguishing feature is a husky voice that suggests an old throat injury. To begin with, aside from the voice, we have only her word on any of that. I am not considering it confirmed that she isn’t simply someone using those names as cover.”

Darling, of course, was too professional to betray the sudden chill that ran down his spine, or so he hoped. One never knew what elvish senses could pick up; Flora and Fauna claimed that public spaces were usually too noisy for them to distinguish the speed of individual heartbeats.

“I am aware of a person matching that description, in fact,” he said, affecting a slightly worried wrinkle between his eyebrows. “The Saduko of whom I’ve been told is a model Guild member and an admirably discreet young woman. What has she done to antagonize the Sisterhood?”

“It is most puzzling,” Shahai said solemnly. “First, she appears to have entered the employ of the Conclave of the Winds, or at least of one member thereof. It is on behalf of Zanzayed the Blue that she intruded on the Third Silver Legion’s grounds and attempted to secure an unsolicited meeting with Sergeant Locke.”

So many new connections spontaneously formed in the web of intrigues he carried around in his head that he could swore he felt his ears pop. Saduko and Zanzayed meant Webs—Webs was a link to Thumper, who was after Keys, who hung precariously between the Guild and the Sisterhood and had dangerous ties to both Tellwyrn and Trissiny Avelea. Saduko had been sent to undermine and sabotage Webs; was she operating with or against him now? That assignment had long since expired, which made either possibility troubling. Could he really have nothing to do with this? No; she, Webs, Thumper, Zanzayed and Tellwyrn—and bloody Kheshiri—had all been present at that disaster in Onkawa. Darling didn’t believe in coincidence…

“That is most troubling,” he murmured, frowning thoughtfully into the distance beyond Shahai’s shoulder. For once it was a totally unfeigned expression, as his natural response suited the role he had to play. That was always good; a successful liar had to be as natural as possible.

“Forgive the change of subject,” Shahai said, watching his face intently, “but I believe you worked closely with Bishp Syrinx, did you not?”

Oh, what was she up to now? Had that whole affair been a feint?

“A few of his Holiness’s initiatives put us side by side, yes,” he replied, controlling his expression again.

“These are interesting shoes I am left to fill,” she said with an inscrutable little smile. “I wonder, what did you think of her?”

“Basra’s ability to get results has been missed by several of us around here,” he said frankly. “She is quite skilled. One must be, to get away with being so difficult to work with.”

Shahai’s answering smile was a few degrees warmer and more genuine. “I see. I apologize for derailing the conversation. You seemed so concerned, it put me in mind of the many snipped threads which I am left to grasp here and weave back together. I fear Captain Syrinx did not leave detailed notes on most of her projects with the Church. Could this issue be related to one of them?”

“I would be astonished if so,” he said slowly. Of course, he knew well that a good way to get a moment of honesty out of someone was by forcing them to abruptly change focus. And she surely would know that he knew that… Just how old was this woman? She carried herself with the classic aloof calm of the older elves, but hell, he had taught Flora and Fauna to do that in the course of a week. Shahai could be younger than he, or older than the Empire. There was no telling how much skill and experience he was contending with here, and now she wanted to stick her nose into…

Well, why not? He’d had unexpectedly good results in the last year from extending unasked trust and honesty. Perhaps this was a good opportunity to build on that.

“Pardon my slowness,” he said with a self-deprecating little smile. “There is a whole tangled web of priorities and agendas you’ve just brought up, Bishop Shahai, and I almost didn’t know where to start.”

“Please,” she said pleasantly, “it’s just Nandi. I am but a temporary replacement.”

“Of course,” he replied in the same tone. “Ultimately, though, we have a cult member in common, and her safety must come first.”

Shahai’s gaze sharpened. “Safety?”

“Girls,” he said, angling his head to include his apprentices in the conversation, “go to my office and retrieve the blue folder in the top right corner of my desk, please.”

“You locked your office, your Grace,” Fauna noted.

“Oh, it’s not merely locked,” he said with a hint of a properly mischievous Eserite grin, mostly for Shahai’s benefit. Let her chew on that. “Fetch me the folder, and when I inspect the office afterward, if I can find no other traces of your retrieval, you both get two days off from training.”

At that, they both smiled right back, their delight unfeigned, but its presentation still well controlled. Oh, they were coming along nicely.

“Consider it done,” Flora said with rransparently feigned solemnity, and they turned in unison and glided back up the broad hall down which he had just led them.

“Nandi,” he said, turning back to his fellow Bishop and letting his own face grow serious again, “I wonder if we could step into your office? I’ll need to pass the information you gave me on to Boss Tricks, but first there are a few things you, Commander Rouvad and especially Principia need to know.”


 

A short succession of raps sounded on the office door, and then it was pushed open. Shook stepped inside, nodding to Khadizroth and then to Svarveld. “Am I interrupting?”

“Just tedious progress reports,” the dwarf said with a tight little smile. “Made ever more tedious as well as irritating by the lack of any progress to speak of.”

“You mustn’t be so negative, Mr. Svarveld,” Khadizroth said with a patrician smile. “Every dead end your crews explore in the old mines rules out a threat and furthers our progress. I am only sorry that your team must shoulder the tedium themselves.”

“Well, the lack of actual retrieval is unusual and tad disheartening,” the foreman said, relaxing so far as to smile at the dragon, “but it’s not as if mucking around in tunnels isn’t our favorite thing to do. And I must say this surveying work is far quicker than actual digging.”

“Nonetheless,” Khadizroth replied, “if there is anything any of us can do to make your jobs easier, please don’t hesitate to come to me. This isn’t a pleasant task for any of us; I don’t want anyone to suffer unduly.”

“Oh, we’re all right,” Svarveld demurred quickly. “As I said, we’re all professionals. I may want to talk to you in a few more days about shift schedules, though. We’re getting far enough out from the town that the space we need to cover spreads us pretty thin. If those elves get any more aggressive, that could be a problem.”

“That,” said Shook with a cold half-smirk, “could finally relieve the tedium for the rest of us. I just did a sweep of the town’s outskirts, K, and Shiri’s off scouting Raea’s band from the air. And yes, before you ask, from a very safe distance. I know my girl; she doesn’t take unnecessary risks.”

“I appreciate your diligence, Jeremiah,” said Khadizroth, leaning back in his chair. Aside from his smooth emerald eyes and green hair, he looked simply like a wood elf, right down to his preferred attire. That made his surroundings seem peculiar; wood elves, or indeed elves in general, were rarely found seated in plush chairs behind heavy desks.

“Well, I may be a thief, but I’m not dishonest enough to accept unearned praise,” Shook said, shrugging. “Truth is, I am bored to the ragged edge of insanity, here. We all are, and I’m frankly beginning to worry about what’ll happen if Jack doesn’t find some outlet for his…himself. If those elves don’t start getting aggressive, I might suggest we move first.”

Svarveld coughed discreetly. “Well. Security’s over my head, gentlemen. Unless you want my input, Mr. K?”

“Your input is always valued,” Khadizroth said, nodding deeply to him. “But your skills are best used directing your miners, Mr. Svarveld. I won’t keep you from your work any longer.”

“Till next report, then, sir,” the dwarf replied, bowing. He paused in the act of turning away to give Shook an exceedingly blank look, then crossed to the door, stepping widely around the enforcer, and slipped out, shutting it quietly behind him.

“If I were a more paranoid person,” Shook said dryly, “I might be tempted to think he doesn’t like me.”

“He has, in fact, passed along to me a few complaints regarding you, Jeremiah, from several of his crew,” Khadizroth said. His tone remained soft and mild as usual; his blank green eyes were annoyingly hard to read, but the dragon’s expression was merely thoughtful.

Shook snorted, crossing to one of the other chairs in the office—the one near the bar—and pouring himself a drink even as he sat down. A drink of water, of course. Risk had no standing bodies of water, but boasted no fewer than three wells, and was well equipped to supply its current occupants. Shook had taken to enforcing a limit on hard drinks on himself: one, after dinner, period. It grated, but as dull as it was around here, he knew very well he would drink himself comatose before noon every day unless he maintained serious self-discipline.

He had scarcely exaggerated. The boredom was weighing heavily on their whole party. He had nothing to do with his time except patrol the town, inspect the miners, screw Kheshiri and play cards with the Jackal and Vannae—gods knew the elves were no good for conversation. He was also seriously concerned about what the Jackal might do if he grew too bored. Shook had been around enough men who enjoyed killing and hurting to recognize the type. If you couldn’t get rid of them, keeping them entertained was a high priority.

Not that he’d mentioned it to Khadizroth, nor would, but Kheshiri’s growing boredom was also making her an ever-increasing hassle to deal with. He knew little about the psychology of succubi, but the Jackal had mockingly disclosed enough of that lore to make him suspect he had underestimated the volume of trouble he was taking on in keeping her on a longer leash. Well, if worse came to worst, he could always put her back in the reliquary. That would be a shame, though; he very much liked having physical access to her.

“You seem unsurprised,” Khadizroth prompted, and Shook realized he had drifted off in thought.

He grunted and took a sip of water. “Feh. Dwarves. In their culture, thieving is a greater crime than murder.”

“That is a slight exaggeration,” said the dragon with an amused little smile.

“A very slight one,” Shook snorted. “The long and the short of it is, I’m hardly surprised that dwarves wouldn’t take to me. Fortunately, I do not give one single shit what they think. Makes my life a lot easier.”

“In the short term, I suppose it would,” Khadizroth murmured, folding his hands atop the desk and staring across the office at his pool. Not for the first time, Shook pondered how calm, how approachable the dragon was. Stories about them made much of their aura of majesty, the tendency they had to command awe and obedience simply by their presence. Khadizroth was, if anything, humble. Despite everything, Shook couldn’t help liking him a bit.

He liked the office, anyway; the dragon had simple but expensive tastes, and the magic on hand to indulge them even out here in the frayed end of the sticks. It was a pleasingly masculine space, paneled in dark wood, with a plush maroon carpet and old weapons displayed on the walls. Old weapons, bladed ones, nothing magical or modern, and all of them not only of quality make but bearing the marks of long use. Despite the generally low level of light, the dragon grew plants in large pots in each corner. Cacti, succulents and stands of field grasses, not floofy flowery plants like some ladies’ teahouse. Opposite his desk he had constructed a stone semi-circle which contained a pool of water, complete with two lazy carp and floating lily pads.

“Specifically,” the dragon went on after a long moment, “Svarveld says your inspections of his delving operations do more harm than good.”

“Yeah. Well.” Shook took a drink of water, averting his gaze. “Quite frankly, I’ll have to own that. I know precisely fuck all about mining; I only go down in those holes to get away from the rest of our delightful crew and keep myself occupied. Sorry; I’ll give ’em some space. Not like I was doing any good down there anyhow.”

“They don’t seem to much mind having their shoulders looked over,” Khadizroth said mildly. “The miners take great pride in their work, justifiably. But several have complained that you bother the women in the crews.”

Shook snorted loudly. “Oh, please. What the hell are women doing in a mining crew anyway? I don’t know whether they’re being indulged by rich daddies or are there to provide comfort to the real workers and dwarves are just too cagey to admit it in front of tall folk. Either way, the whole idea is ridiculous. Anyhow, they’ve got nothing to complain about. I’ve not laid a hand on a one of them, nor given ’em a cross word.”

“You might be surprised how much you can convey merely by looking.”

Shook grinned. “Then again, I might not. I’m an enforcer, K; you can’t effectively enforce by breaking everybody’s kneecaps. Mostly, people just need to be afraid of you. Break one or two kneecaps and get real good at glaring, that’s how it’s done.”

“If any of the female members of Svarveld’s crew are afraid of you, they’ve not mentioned it,” said the dragon with a thin smile. “I don’t believe they are intimidated by much, in fact; dwarves are a famously stalwart and hardy people. They have seemed to me offended, annoyed, in some cases even disgusted. But no, not afraid.”

“You sure seem to have done a lot of listening to these women’s opinions,” Shook said, scowling.

“As you yourself pointed out, my friend, there is a lack of much of anything to do, with our dwarven allies shouldering most of the actual work. I find that listening to everyone’s input fills my day quite satisfyingly.”

“Yeah, well, take ’em with a pinch of salt. Half of what a woman tells you is drama, a third is lies, ten percent is useful pertinent information, and the rest random noise.”

“What specific figures,” Khadizroth said, gazing calmly at him. “You’ve expressed similar views before, Jeremiah. I wonder what makes you think this? You are, after all, talking about half of all sentient species.”

“Not dragons, I note. And aren’t you the biggest, baddest, most powerful race there is? And not a female amongst you. I think my point stands.”

“There are roughly as many dryads as dragons in the world,” Khadizroth said wryly, “if not more. In any case, pardon my curiosity. I am simply interested in the reason for your antipathy. Such hostility is never without some root cause, in my experience.”

Shook made an involuntary twisting expression with his lips; even he couldn’t have said whether it was a grin or a sneer. “Root cause? I trust the evidence of my senses, that’s all.”

“Really?” Khadizroth suddenly leaned forward, staring intently at Shook as though his attention were captivated. “You do? Why is that?”

Shook stared back at him. “…are you kidding? What else can you do?”

“I wonder if you would indulge me in a little experiment,” Khadizroth said with a smile.

“Sounds creepy,” Shook said warily.

“I suppose anything can be, if looked at askance,” the dragon replied. “But I think you’ll find this instructive. Close your eyes for a moment.”

Shook squinted at him suspiciously, but Khadizroth only gazed calmly back at him. After a few seconds, moved more by idle curiosity than anything else, he complied.

“Good,” said the dragon. “What do you see?”

“Are you serious?”

“Well, eyelids are very slightly translucent, of course. Can you see the outline of the window behind me?”

Shook frowned. “Nope. Just black.”

“Very good. Now raise your right hand and wave it back and forth in front of your face.”

“…are you just trying to make me look stupid? You must be as bored as the rest of us.”

“I’ve seen the rise and fall of nations, Jeremiah,” the dragon said wryly. “I am not so easily entertained. Trust me—just try it.”

Shook sighed, but finally did so, lifting his hand and waving it rapidly in front of his closed eyes. A moment later he frowned, and did so again more slowly.

“What do you see?”

“It’s… Just a shadow. A faint image of… Well, that’s a neat trick, I guess, but like you said, eyelids are slightly dah!”

He yelped embarrassingly and jerked backward in his chair nearly hard enough to tip it over. He had opened his eyes to find Khadizroth’s face inches from his own, the glow of his eyes dominating his view.

“Clearly not,” the dragon said with a measure of satisfaction, straightening up and backing away a few steps. “Why, then, were you able to see the shadow of your hand through your closed eyelids?”

“That’s a rhetorical question, right?” Shook growled, clenching his hands on the arms of the chair and clinging to his self-control. He did not appreciate pranks like that. Approachable or not, though, Khadizroth was still a dragon, and not someone to whom it would be smart to show his temper. “This reeks of a lesson.”

“It’s a simple trick of the mind,” Khadizroth said, turning and pacing back around behind his desk. “Your brain knows where your extremities are. Even when you cannot actually see, it constructs an appropriate image. Especially when you cannot see, in fact; when you actually can, it has no need to. That is not the only thing about your vision which is counterintuitive. Due to the specific anatomy of the human eyeball, the picture you have of the world is upside-down and has a blank spot in the center. The brain corrects for both of those deficiencies.”

“That’s…interesting,” Shook said carefully.

“You don’t believe me,” Khadizroth replied with a smile, seating himself again.

“All due respect, K, if you’re gonna tell tales like that, you can’t fairly expect to be taken at face value.”

“You are a trained follower of Eserion, Jeremiah; you know how lies work. If I were going to lie, would I not tell a believable story?” He gave that a pause to let it sink in before continuing. “A less believable tale isn’t necessarily true, of course. In this matter, though, are you willing to acknowledge that my knowledge widely exceeds yours, and that I have no motive to trick you?”

“I…suppose,” Shook said grudgingly.

The dragons folded his hands in his lap, leaning back. “In any case, those interesting facts only serve to demonstrate my true point. Everything we see, hear, and touch…everything we know about the world…is filtered and processed through very imperfect mechanisms. We do not interact with reality itself, Jeremiah, but only with the vague shadows our senses tell us, reconstructed by our flawed minds.”

“What’s your point?” Shook demanded.

Khadizroth shrugged. “You say you trust the evidence of your senses? I don’t. It’s a lesson I have learned painfully.”

“What can you trust, then?” Shook exclaimed. “I don’t get what you’re driving at. Do you stagger around blind?”

“No,” the dragon mused. “Obviously you cannot function without placing a great deal of faith in these flawed perceptions. One must, however, keep in mind that those perceptions do have flaws, and potentially great ones. Believing without question in what you see is a path to self-deception. Over time, I have learned that the only true wisdom is in knowing that you are a fool.”

“I don’t much appreciate being called a fool,” Shook said, clutching the chair even harder.

“I was referring to myself, actually,” Khadizroth replied, his tone mild as ever. “Though the point applies to anyone. I have been dramatically wrong about many things, Jeremiah. I have made great, terrible mistakes. Rather recently, in fact.”

“Well,” Shook said, beginning to relax slightly, “I don’t get the impression anyone who lacks some flaws of character ends up in a merry little band like ours.”

“Indeed,” Khadizroth said with a wry smile. “Ultimately, I think, it is about power.”

“Power?” he repeated cautiously.

Khadizroth nodded. “One tends to blame others for one’s misfortunes—it is natural and instinctive. The mind reacts to protect its self-image. Obviously, whatever unpleasant thing befalls us is someone else’s fault, because we are each of us the hero of our own story. We cannot be in the wrong, or the world just doesn’t make sense!” He sighed. “I am embarrassed at how long I had to live to get over that gut reaction. I have seen so many others brought to ruin by it. In the end, it robs you of your power. So long as I am at fault for the ills of my life, so long as I accept the responsibility and the blame, I remain the one in command of my destiny. If I am the architect of my failures, I can be the architect of my successes. If they are imposed upon me, however, I become a victim. Weak, helpless…at the mercy of others.”

“This…is all pretty roundabout,” Shook said, frowning. “You’re starting to lose me.”

“Yes, forgive me, I do tend to natter on. One of those faults I was telling you about.” The dragon shook his head, smiling self-deprecatingly. “I suppose my point is that it’s unwise to place too much faith in yourself. Embrace being wrong, my young friend. It’s the only path I’ve found, in all my years, to eventually being right.”

“How did we get onto this from discussing women, of all things?”

“Well, it is a general observation,” Khadizroth mused, “but it did not come out of the blue. I suppose we are all wrong about certain things in particular.”

Blessedly, Shook was spared having to find a safe and useful response to that by the abrupt opening of the door.

“Is—master!” Kheshiri skittered in, sliding across the floor to kneel beside Shook’s chair. She was grinning hugely, her tail waving in eagerness.

“Whoah, girl,” he said with an indulgent smile, fondly resting a hand on her head. “What are you, a puppy? Rein it in. What’s got you so worked up?”

“Apparently she has news,” the Jackal drawled, strolling in after the succubus. “Wouldn’t give poor old me the time of day until she’d checked in with her dearest, darlingest master.”

“As is proper,” said Shook, smirking faintly. “What’s the big idea, Shiri?”

“Raea has friends,” the demon said, grinning savagely. “Three new arrivals are meeting with her little band now—three whose descriptions I recognize. An old man, a Westerner, in a ragged coat with a wizard’s staff. Younger man in a dark suit, ponytail and goatee. Gnome chick with far too many pockets.”

At that, a similar grin spread across the Jackal’s narrow features. “Well, finally. I was starting to think those lazy bastards would never get here. It’s just rude, making us wait around like this.”

“You are extremely fortunate, Kheshiri, to have made it back here safely,” Khadizroth said grimly. “The necromancer Weaver travels with a soul reaper.”

Kheshiri suddenly went deadly still, staring up at the dragon with a frozen expression.

“Excuse me, a fucking what?” Shook demanded.

“A complication,” said the Jackal, grinning even more widely. “An invisible death spirit which can send your little pet there straight back to Hell with a touch. My, this does make our job more interesting! Looks like you’re not gonna be with us much longer, pretty bird,” he added, leering down at the succubus. She gave him a disdainful look.

“We’ll not squander any of our number in the pursuit of foolishness,” Khadizroth said firmly. “If those three are meeting with Raea, we must assume the others are nearby, or on the way. Kheshiri, let’s hear as many details as you managed to gather.” He leaned back slowly in his chair, raising his green eyes to study the ceiling, and allowing himself a faint smile. “It does not do to act without information. Since we are about to have such important company, we must be certain to greet them properly.”

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