Tag Archives: the Jackal

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The darkness receded and he was released, immediately spinning away from his captor. The elf took a step back from him, grinning and raising both hands—not a greatly reassuring gesture, as one still held that stiletto and the other the shadow-jumping talisman.

“Welcome.”

Ayuvesh whirled to behold a tall, robed figure approaching him from the corridor ahead. Finding himself apparently not under attack, for the moment, he chanced a glance around at his surroundings. There wasn’t much to see; he stood in a small, perfectly square chamber, unadorned except for a single wrought iron stand in one corner containing a modern fairy lamp which provided the only illumination. The walls, floor, and ceiling appeared to be all of one piece.

He did not know the name of the material, but he had seen it before. It had a grainy texture like rough stone, but reflected light like metal, and was impervious to every tool or weapon he had tested against it. Only the Infinite Order of old had built with this substance.

The figure approaching him reached up and lowered his hood, revealing an angular elfish face with eyes of solid emerald green. His long hair and neat little goatee were the same color.

“We have met before,” the dragon said, “but I regret that circumstances at the time did not permit a proper introduction. I am Khadizroth the Green. You have already met the Jackal. I apologize for the drama; it was an unfortunate necessity. I hope he did not indulge overmuch in…theatrics. He does have that tendency.”

“Yeah, I’m a real stinker,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “But, hey, least I’ve never assembled a child harem out of genocide survivors. Everybody’s gotta draw the line somewhere!”

Khadizroth’s head shifted minutely; Ayuvesh had the expression he was glancing at the elf, but without visible pupils or irises the movement of his eyes was impossible to track. The dragon’s expression did not alter, in any case.

“Where are we?” he asked with all the poise he could muster. “And, if you will indulge me in a second question, why have you brought me here?”

Khadizroth bowed slightly to him. “This is the most secure location I know. I used it as a lair centuries ago, before it was found by an adventurer. This individual and I had an understanding and he never returned here, nor revealed its secret, but nonetheless I moved elsewhere once a single uninvited soul knew of it. That is a dragon’s way. I have kept…an eye, so to speak, on this spot, in case I one day required absolute security, and I can attest it has not been breached since. It is quite safe and quite empty now, I assure you, but it was originally made by the Elder Gods. There is no possibility of scrying or communicating through its walls, except at my instigation from within. Only one who has been here before can shadow-jump inside, and arcane teleportation in and out is quite impossible. That is why your escort paused to engage in that pantomime of murder. He observed, during our previous visit to Puna Dara, that you seem able to communicate with your fellows, likely via those machine augmentations of yours. Once here, that is no longer possible. But now they, like the Punaji authorities, will believe you dead. I apologize for the distress this must cause.”

He bowed again, more deeply.

“I see,” Ayuvesh said slowly. It was, he supposed, a good sign that his abductors were being so forthcoming—at least, so far. “And as for the why…?”

“You’re dead!” the Jackal crowed. “Sorry, kid, nothing personal. Archpope’s orders.”

Ayuvesh turned to examine the grinning elf, not bothering to suppress his disdainful expression. The Jackal pursed his lips and made kissing noises at him.

“This entire situation requires some explanation,” Khadizroth said with much more courtesy. “I will, of course, help you understand everything I may. If you would accompany me?”

He stepped to the side, politely gesturing Ayuvesh forward through the square corridor.

Well, it wasn’t as if there was anywhere else he could go. He nodded back to the dragon with equal courtesy and paced forward as indicated. When he drew abreast of Khadizroth, the dragon fell into step beside him.

“There is, in terms of space, not much to see,” Khadizroth said, sounding oddly apologetic. “The cavern has six small outlying chambers, identical to the one we just left—which has been set aside for shadow-jumping in and out. Another is serving for sanitation. In a vault which is as thoroughly sealed as this one, that involves a convoluted arrangement of portable holes and water conjuration devices which requires no small amount of power crystals.”

“How creative,” Ayuvesh said neutrally, reasoning it was safest and wisest not to irritate his host with all the questions racing through his mind.

“The rest we mean to set aside for individuals, as a matter of privacy. When those run out, we will be reduced to erecting barriers to subdivide the main space. Which you now see before you.”

They had just emerged from the corridor onto a wide chamber which was mostly lost in darkness. A ledge of the stone-metal ran along one of its narrow ends; more square corridors opened off this. At intervals were set up iron stands holding fairy lamps, their glow lighting the ledge adequately but not penetrating far into the vast darkness spreading off in the other direction. Ayuvesh stepped forward to peer down; the ledge was about nine feet tall. Off to his left a set of wooden stairs descended do the chamber floor.

“Everything is in a very early state, as you can see,” the dragon explained. “With time and effort it will become much more comfortable. At the moment, however, quarters are unavoidably somewhat spartan.”

“It looks like a vehicle hangar,” Ayuvesh commented. His voice created a faint echo, now that they were standing in the huge main chamber. “Which suggests the main entrance is at the other end; the entire wall would open. I assume it is too buried in a rockslide or some such to function, otherwise all this would have been found ages ago.”

“You are a surprisingly educated man,” Khadizroth observed.

“In a few highly specific areas, I suppose so,” Ayuvesh replied, nodding graciously. “When might I be permitted to rejoin my followers, if it’s not too much to ask?”

The dragon nodded slowly, turning to gaze out into the dark, empty space. To Ayuvesh’s minor discomfiture, the Jackal had followed them out of the corridor and now lounged against the wall nearby, trimming his fingernails with his stiletto and grinning that unsettling grin.

“I cannot give you a definitive answer to that at this time,” Khadizroth said, “though I hope the final answer is not ‘never.’ We must all be prepared for the potential worst-case scenario.”

“Which is?”

“That, I am still trying to determine.” The dragon grimaced bitterly. “You are here, Ayuvesh, because Archpope Justinian has commanded your death.”

Ayuvesh glanced over at the Jackal, who winked. “So I hear.”

“Therefore, you must remain dead, so long is he is aware—and his web stretches far indeed. The only way to ensure that Justinian is kept in the dark is to ensure that the world itself is.”

“The bomb may have been overplaying your hand, in that case,” Ayuvesh opined. “Such a measure is needless overkill for assassination; such a clever man as your Archpope will suspect it was meant to conceal a disappearance.”

“Oh, the bomb was his Holiness’s idea!” the Jackal said brightly. “He doesn’t want the Punaji thinking anybody knew or cared enough about you to send someone into their secure rooms and open your throat. But who knows what’s in all that hardware you’ve got strapped to your chassis, eh? Lacking any other explanation they may conclude you just malfunctioned and blew the hell up!”

“Anyone who thinks that is not giving Rajakhan nearly enough credit.”

“Hey, take it from an old pro.” The Jackal bowed deeply, flourishing his non-knife-holding hand out behind him. “Sometimes it’s just not possible to fully cover your tracks, in which case creating ambiguity and confusion is the next best measure.”

“We, as I presume you have surmised by now, serve the Archpope in a less than open capacity,” Khadizroth said. “Carrying out those of his orders which he does not wish connected to him. Some of such, anyway; he has many hands, most unknown to each other. We do this for two reasons: the Archpope is holding something over each of us, and more importantly, because we prefer to be close to him rather than hiding away in the hope that what he is planning simply fizzles out. Only by remaining active and nearby do we have any chance of creating an opportunity to thwart him.”

“And…” Ayuvesh slowly tilted his head. “What is the good Archpope planning?”

“That,” Khadizroth replied with a deep frown, “is a question which troubles me greatly. A person in his position, pursuing designs of the scale and complexity that he is, should be trying to simplify them. Consolidating power, eliminating rivals, controlling the situation. Justinian, in many ways, seems determined to do the opposite. Most prominently a cornerstone of his strategy appears to be keeping as many of his enemies alive and in positions to pester him as possible. He has repeatedly passed over opportunities to finish off a disadvantaged foe, and even arranged for some to receive much needed strokes of luck after suffering major setbacks. The only blood he seems willing to spill is that of his own agents, when their usefulness has ended.”

“And guess who gets to do the spilling,” the Jackal smirked.

“The heart of the problem with Justinian is that I cannot tell what he is attempting to do,” Khadizroth continued. “His machinations are too careful and too precise to be directed at stirring up simple chaos… But I fail, thus far, to see what other end result they could possibly have. He appears to want as many factions and powers in play as possible, in a state of maximum conflict with one another. Even his efforts to deflect their attention from him appear…begrudging, undertaken only when one becomes a true threat.”

“It looks a lot like he wants the whole world at his throat,” the Jackal mused, tossing his knife in the air and catching it. “Not right now, but at some point in the future. Fuck me if I can see why, though.”

“And so, here you are,” Ayuvesh mused, “tired of taking increasingly nonsensical orders, naturally wondering when it will be your turn upon the chopping block, and beginning to set up the pieces for an act of rebellion.”

Khadizroth nodded to him. “You are as perceptive as your reputation suggests, Ayuvesh.”

“I am as perceptive as any man who still has one working eye,” he replied sardonically. “Nothing about this situation is particularly subtle, now that I am in the middle of it. Let me ask you this: what was the Archpope trying to accomplish by manipulating my cult—and, I presume, the Punaji Crown?”

“The recent events in Puna Dara were only half that story, I’m afraid.” Ayuvesh turned at the new voice, finding himself approached by a man in a neat suit, with a neat beard, who had a Stalweiss complexion but spoke with a Tiraan accent. “A simultaneous debacle unfolded in Last Rock; I had the honor of a much closer vantage than I would have liked for that.”

“Ayuvesh, may I present Willard Tanenbaum, our first new recruit,” Khadizroth said politely. “A scholar of the Topaz College, and recently one of Justinian’s trusted, until he apparently outlived his usefulness and was slated for sacrifice.”

“Along with a great many of my fellows,” Tanenbaum said bitterly. “To answer your question, sir, his Holiness had recently come very close to open conflict with the Silver Throne. He has since been arranging opportunities to work alongside its agents. Purging the ‘corrupt’ from the Pantheon’s cults—specifically, those more loyal to himself than their gods, and no longer necessary to his plans. Setting up your Rust for a fall in order to have his agents build bridges with the Empire and, apparently, the Punaji.”

“All that carnage,” Ayuvesh whispered. “My friends, slain. My nation, brought to the edge of collapse. For a distraction.”

“So, yeah,” the Jackal drawled. “There’s a reason Justinian’s favorite pawns are pretty willing to turn on him.”

Slowly, Ayuvesh shook his head. “I certainly sympathize with your aims, gentlemen, but… I fear I have very little to offer you. These…” He held up his mechanical arm and pinged the nail of his other index finger against its hard surface. “…are now deprived of the essential power that maintains them. They will seize up, and cease to work. I do not know how soon, but it’s more than my arm and leg that are controlled by these machines. When those which replaced my heart fail, so will I. Little time have I left, and for every minute of it I will grow gradually less functional.”

“I am a green dragon,” Khadizroth said gravely. “Regeneration is within my power. It will not be quick, Ayuvesh. It will not be simple, nor easy. But your body can be restored. Your true body, the flesh and bone nature gave you. And indeed…with this done, you will find yourself much less confined. After all, you are very distinctive in appearance. I rather think people will not recall where they have seen you before, if they see you without those modifications.”

Ayuvesh stared at him. Tanenbaum simply raised an eyebrow, while the Jackal balanced the stiletto on his finger by its tip, wearing a manic grin.

“You said Mr. Tanenbaum was the first new recruit,” he said at last. “And I?”

“The second,” Khadizroth replied. “More will come.”

“And what will we do?”

“At this time, I cannot yet tell,” the dragon said patiently. “As I’ve said, it remains a mystery what our devious benefactor is doing, himself. But the longer it goes on, the more difficult it will become for him. Eventually—in fact, soon, I believe—a point will come…a fulcrum. One spot upon which all will hinge, and a swift, unexpected action will bring him to the ruin he has brought upon so many others. What I propose is that we take steps to ensure that when this happens, we are ready.”

“Ready. Yes. After all…” Ayuvesh nodded. “One can always become more.”


“So that’s the Tellwyrn.”

“Ugh.” Trissiny grimaced. “Please don’t give her a the, her ego is out of control as it is.”

“Well, of all the people on this world, I figure she is entitled,” Darius said, stepping up beside her on the wall. The Rock was awake by that hour of the morning, and her friends had begun to trickle out of their rooms in ones and twos, but whole groups had not assembled yet. They were poking about on their own, processing the events of the last few days in their own way. She was surprised to see Darius of all people up here; strolling the battlements seemed more a way for her to orient herself than he. Nonetheless, here he was.

They stood in comfortable silence for a few moments, watching Tellwyrn, Ruda, and Anjal have a conversation across the courtyard below, near the damaged front door of the Rock itself.

“So,” Darius said finally, “I guess you’ll be going back with the Last Rock people, huh.”

“Oh…not necessarily,” she replied lightly. “I took the whole semester off, so there’s really not much for me to do there. It’s been good to see everyone again, but I’ll see them in the fall. Don’t worry, I still plan to come back to Tiraas with you guys. I need to thank Glory and say goodb—”

“You need to go back where you came from.”

She broke off in surprise, turning to face him. Darius was still gazing down below, his expression empty.

“People like me, like us,” he said quietly, “people who aren’t paladins, or dryads, or witches, or half-demons, or… We get killed for being too close to you lot, and the kind of shit that follows you.”

“That isn’t fair,” she whispered.

“Course it isn’t,” he agreed, shaking his head. “It’s not fair, and it certainly isn’t your fault. It just…is what it is. I read all the same bard stories you did, growing up, I bet. Paladins always have companions, and the companions always die. Because that is what happens when you’re a squishy nobody who gets in the line of fire. That kind of fire. I learned something, yesterday, about how brave I am, and how brave I’m not.” He raised his head and turned to meet her eyes, unflinching. “If it was just me? Right now I’d be asking you to take me with you, wherever the hell you’re off to next. I am quite willing to die from getting into paladin shit I had no business going near. Hell, that’d be a nobler end than anything I’ve got planned for my life. But… It turns out I am not willing to watch that happen to any more of my friends. And definitely not to my little sister.”

He reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder. She hadn’t put on her armor this morning, nor even her leather coat as a concession to Puna Dara’s climate, and felt his grip clearly through her shirt.

“There’ll always be people willing to die for the cause, Trissiny. Just…do me a favor? Make sure the next guy that happens to knows what he was signing up for, before it happens.”

She flinched.

“Thank you, for everything…Thorn. You’re my hero, and that’s not an exaggeration.” Darius squeezed her shoulder, and gave her an affectionate little jostle. A tiny, sad smile flickered across his features. “Now go home.”

He released her, turned and walked away along the wall, unhurried, jamming his hands into his pockets.

Trissiny stared after him in something like shock. With her head turned to follow him leaving, she didn’t see Tellwyrn look up at her and sigh softly before returning to her own conversation.


Night always fell early on Mathenon, thanks to the Stalrange rising in the west. On this particular night, a storm had come with it—the kind that was all wind, occasional lightning, and no rain. The way weather behaved around the edge of the Great Plains, this wasn’t unusual, either. Nothing was really unusual. Sometimes it hailed in midsummer; the Golden Sea made a mess of air currents. Prairie folk had learned to put their heads down and endure.

All this made it a perfect night to while away in the pub with the gang, drinking and talking, as the sky howled outside.

The Fallen Arms stood in a somewhat rough part of the city, but it wasn’t a rough establishment. Neither boisterous nor dull, it had a dedicated clientele of hard-working men and women who liked to stop in and unwind after a day’s work; they liked stiff drinks, friendly conversation, and not having to deal with any foolishness. In Mathenon, “working class” most often meant accountants, House servants, or fancy private guards. The regulars at the Fallen Arms were a different breed; they worked with calloused hands and strong backs, and it was well within their ability to insist on some damn peace and quiet if some pushy lout wandered in and tried to start something. The proprietor encouraged them to do so.

“Now, don’t go puttin’ words in my mouth,” Roy said with mounting exasperation, pointing an accusing finger with the hand still holding his beer. “I didn’t say anything about joining the Huntsmen, I’ve already got a job. What kinda fool you take me for?”

“All right, fair,” Elsa replied agreeably. “But suppose your boy wanted to run off and join a lodge. What would you say to that, since you like ’em so much?”

“I dunno why you’re rarin’ to start a fight tonight,” Roy grumbled. “All I said was, they got their virtues, see? They ain’t totally without a point. How’d you get to me liking ’em so much from that?”

“I’ve got tits, that’s how,” she retorted. “Every time those pelt-wearing asshats come through town I have to deal with ’em talking down to me in a way you never have to worry about. This ain’t a theoretical exercise to me, Roy, or any woman, it’s you talkin’ out of your ass about stuff you don’t understand.”

“Now, I never said they didn’t have their bad sides, either!” he said, his voice rising defensively in pitch. “Come on, Elsa, you know me better’n that. All I’m saying is, some of that they have to say ain’t completely stupid. They’re all about self-reliance, an’ having respect for nature. What’s the matter with any of that?”

“What’s the matter is the bullshit it comes with!”

“Omnu’s balls, there’s no talking to you tonight,” Roy grunted. “Hey, Jonathan! Settle an argument.”

“No.”

“Yeah, Jon, set this asshole straight,” Elsa chimed in, leaning around Roy to grin at the man seated on his other side at the bar, nursing a beer. “You’re the most level-headed guy here.”

He sighed, and rolled his eyes. “How many times do you think I’m gonna fall for that?”

“Oh, let’s not do this,” Elsa said dismissively. “You love playing the wise old man.”

“What do you mean, old?” he demanded, and she snorted a laugh in response. He had to grin back, despite his efforts to look offended.

Gods, he’d missed this.

Jonathan Arquin regretted none of the decisions he had made in life, even though they had made his lot hard in some ways. Now, though, things were looking brighter. The Church had relocated him out here to Mathenon for his protection, and had arranged a monthly stipend on which he could live very comfortably indeed, and never have to work.

He donated it every month to an Omnist shelter for the poor. Had to funnel it through a Vernisite temple in order to do so anonymously, which meant the Vernisites took a cut—six percent, the bloodsuckers—but that was a small price to pay for not having to explain why and how a man of his humble bearing could make such a generous gift on the regular. And whatever else could be said about bankers, they were admirably discreet people, particularly the religious ones. Meanwhile, he’d gone out and gotten a job.

A man was meant to work, otherwise, what was he good for? Work rooted him in the world, in society, kept him strong and centered and useful. And as an added bonus, it brought him this again, the kinship of other people who labored for a living. People who didn’t know about the demon and the child he’d had with her.

“Yeah, shut her up for me, Jon,” Roy added. “You don’t think the Huntsmen are totally bad, do you?”

Jonathan took a judicious sip of his beer before answering. “I can’t see anybody as totally bad, Roy, and that’s not a point for your argument. Not being an irredeemable monster is the baseline, not something a person gets praised for. Let’s face it, Huntsmen of Shaath are fanatical weirdos on their best day. Nobody who treats women the way they do is worth crossing the street to spit on, you ask me.”

“Thank you!” Elsa exclaimed, while Roy grumbled something and took a swig of his beer. He then sputtered on a mouthful of foam when she smacked him a little too hard on the shoulder. Jonathan almost missed the sound of the door opening in the ensuing playful scuffle, occurring as it did right in his ear.

The spreading silence was what warned him. Though they weren’t loud, or boisterous, the patrons of the Fallen Arms talked, and laughed, and drank. It was a place where people went for good company and good conversation. When the noise faded away, once table at a time, it meant something was up.

He raised his head, turning to examine the new arrival, and found himself staring like everyone else.

Mathenon was a city of merchants, and those who supported them; positioned on the single most important trade route between the inner provinces of the Empire and the mountain paths to Svenheim and Stavulheim, it was mostly inhabited by humans but saw its fair share of dwarves. It didn’t see many drow, however.

She paced slowly across the floorboards, the gnarled ebony staff in her hand making a rhythmic thunk each time she set it down, deep red eyes scanning the room as if searching for something. Dressed in pure black, both her leather trench coat and the robe underneath it, she cut a dark swath through the rustic ambiance the Arms cultivated. Her hair, though, had a streak of livid green dyed down the center, marring the white.

By the time she reached the bar, total silence had fallen upon the tavern, every eye fixed upon the drow woman, which she gave no sign of noticing. Slowly, she glided along the row of stools, feet soundless and only the butt of her staff making noise to mark her passing. She stepped past Jonathan, past Roy, then paused.

Elsa stiffened, but the dark elf turned and went back a few steps, this time stopping right behind Jonathan, who had turned around on his stool to study her direction.

She gave him a slow, insolent once-over, then nodded as if deciding on something.

“You,” the drow ordered. “Buy me a drink.”

Jonathan tore his gaze from her crimson eyes to glance at Roy, who shrugged helplessly.

He cleared his throat. “Lost your wallet, have you?”

One corner of her lips twitched upward. “This isn’t my first visit to the Empire. I know the custom in bars like this. The man buys the woman a drink. Or are you refusing me?”

She raised one snowy eyebrow, the expression somehow challenging.

Jonathan studied her right back, with the same measured impertinence. She was, it occurred to him, quite pretty. But hell, she was an elf; they were all pretty. He hadn’t known a lot of elves, and even fewer drow, certainly not enough to make a mental comparison. It was unnerving, having no idea how old she was. By her looks, she could’ve been barely out of her teens…which meant she was just as likely to be as old as the Empire. What might a creature like this have seen in her life?

“No offense,” he said at last, “but lady… You’re kind of scary.”

The drow tilted her head to one side in an inquisitive gesture, still maintaining eye contact. After another beat of silence, she smiled.

“Perhaps. But you still haven’t refused, I notice. Maybe you like that in a woman?”

He narrowed his eyes very slightly.

She did the same.

“Hey, Eliott,” Jonathan said at last, still looking at the dark elf and not the bartender he was now addressing. “Pour something…sweet, fruity, and pink. With a little paper umbrella if you’ve got any.”

“Sure, Jon,” Eliott said, deadpan. “And for the lady?”

A few chuckles from around the room broke the tension, and the drow herself grinned broadly in mischievous delight. The expression transformed her entire face.

Grinning back at her, Jonathan Arquin experienced the familiar feeling that he was about to make an excellent series of mistakes.

 

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13 – 52

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They watched him pacing in the monitors from the security hub which now served as the headquarters for the entire Hand program. There were, of course, two Hands present; they had, without comment, implemented a policy of never leaving the Emperor unattended when he was in a room with the kitsune. In addition to Sharidan, Milanda, and Akane standing in front of the monitor, the three resident dryads were huddled around another screen some distance away, reading something. They liked to be nearby when people gathered, but didn’t seem to have the attention span for prolonged discussions. In two smaller screens flanking the one showing the prisoner were displayed the images of the Avatar and Walker, the latter observing this through a similar two-screen setup down in her home in the GIC. The Avatar, of course, could see whatever the computers did. Making a visible face was just a courtesy he extended. Altogether it was rather more crowded than usual in the hub.

On the monitor, the damaged Hand of the Emperor, his clothing still stained and ragged from his travails at Last Rock, paced like a caged animal—which wasn’t far from the reality. They had secured him in one of the cells lining the access corridor. Not the one in which Walker had been kept for years; that one was now a sort of reading nook, permanently set aside with books and a small fountain. The dryads enjoyed congregating there.

“Tactically, it’s interesting,” the Emperor mused. “They weren’t able to destroy him—but they did fight him to a standstill. And those were a handful of miscellaneous leftovers after most of the University’s faculty and students were secured out of his reach. This is the closest we have ever been, or likely will be again, to testing the Hands’ on-the-ground combat capability against what are effectively the adventurer teams of the modern age.”

Everyone nodded, and no one commented. While Tellwyrn and her school were ostensibly allies of the Silver Throne, it was important to know how dangerous one’s allies were. In case one needed to call on them…or in case they suddenly changed their minds.

“Avatar,” Akane said, “how long until your scan of him is complete?”

“I estimate less than an hour, and apologize that I cannot be more precise. I am using the general trascension field sensor program Walker and Milanda established during the recent crisis, which is slower than this facility’s original detector functions. We could perform a full analysis almost instantly by employing the transcension matrix which forms the updated Hand system, but there is a risk of contamination if he is connected to it in his current state.”

“You can’t use it to gather information without hooking him into it?” Sharidan asked, interested.

“At that level of transcension activity, your Majesty, observation and interaction are the same.”

“Yes,” Walker added, nodding in the viewscreen, “that’s one of the principles of quantum mechanics which informs the core ideas—”

“Yes, Yrsa, we know,” Akane interrupted, one ear twitching impatiently. “If you must lecture, please spare us that Infinite Order quantum mystic drivel. We can, of course, establish barriers that would enable us to analyze a connected Hand while keeping him contained from the system…in theory. When I redesigned the structure I did not have that function in mind, and so it is not equipped.” She inclined her head politely to the Emperor, as close to a bow as the kitsune ever came—and a courtesy which she extended to no one else. “At this point, your Majesty, our next act depends upon your priorities.”

“Can you elaborate, Akane-sama?” he replied with equal politeness. It would not do for a sitting Emperor to show actual deference, but he always treated Akane with grave courtesy. The two of them got along surprisingly well.

“The most efficient action, here,” she said, “would be to sever him fully from the magic empowering him. That might be more complicated than doing so to one of our currently linked Hands, as… I am not exactly certain what’s empowering him at this point. He appears to be linked to the corrupted network, which of course no longer exists. I am confident I can brute-force a way around it in the worst-case scenario, since the more elegant option involves bringing Tellwyrn here to explain the nature of that dimensional cage of hers which caused this. I gather that is not on the table.”

“I want Tellwyrn in here even less than she wants to reveal her secrets,” Sharidan said with some amusement.

Akane nodded agreement. “That done, and after we have ascertained that his mind was not permanently damaged by this experience, we can simply re-initiate him the usual way.”

“Who’s we?” Mimosa asked from behind them. “You’re not the one who has to get all physical with the guy.”

“If you object, ladies,” the Emperor began, but Apple grinned and interrupted.

“No, we don’t object, she’s just being difficult. We like all the Hands. I’ll do him this time; I feel bad about all the trouble he’s been through.”

“The other possibility,” Akane continued with a long-suffering sigh, “is to take this opportunity to re-work the system once again, with him included this time. If there are further modifications you wish to make, your Majesty, it is a good moment to discuss them.”

“That would involve temporarily disabling the entire thing, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes,” Walker said before Akane could answer. “Just like before. The Hands would be incapacitated for the duration.”

“Interesting,” he mused. “That, it seems to me, is a good idea to pursue at another date, when we have time to plan for it. For the time being, I would prefer the more efficient solution with the least disruptive ramifications.”

“Wise,” she agreed. “Then our only other potential crisis is your Left Hand’s little episode in Puna Dara.” She turned a supercilious expression on Milanda, who continued to stare blankly at the pacing Hand in the screen. “Obviously, we cannot have you melting down like that in a crisis situation. Now, I have outlined a training program which you can undertake with the Avatar and the dryads, which—”

“Shut up, Akane.”

It was Milanda who twitched, for an instant fearing it was she who had spoken. But Akane turned her glare on the right-hand monitor, her ears lying flat against her skull. In the screen, Walker was glaring right back.

“What did you say to me?” the kitsune hissed.

“You heard me,” Walker said bluntly. “Mouth shut. You’re being an ass, and it is beneath you.”

“How dare—”

“My brightest memories,” Walker said, raising her voice, “are of you extending a hand to me when our own mother would not. You were kind, and wise enough to know exactly how to ease a troubled young person’s unhappiness. But that was before thousands of years of only interacting with people who have been terrorized by generations of kitsune tyranny into dancing to your tune atrophied your social skills almost to nothing, Akane. And now here you are, barking orders at a trauma victim. Frankly I think spending time around here will come to do you a world of good, but in the meantime, here’s a rule of thumb: if you can’t be nice, button your yap and go away.”

For once, Akane seemed too stunned to say anything imperious. Her ears remained swiveled fully backward, tail rigid and puffed up, but she only stared at Walker’s face in silence.

“She makes a good point, there,” Hawthorn observed after a momentary pause. “Nobody likes you, Akane.”

“You’re mean,” Mimosa added, nodding emphatically. “We’d much rather spend time with Walker. That really says something, cos she’s a terrifyingly wrong thing who makes my hair stand on end just being in a room with her. Not to mention the most boring person I ever met.”

“Hey!” Walker protested.

“Well,” Apple said reasonably, “you do go on and on and on about things nobody cares about. But really, that’s no more annoying than these two,” she waved a hand absently at her sisters, both of whom stuck out tongues at her, “and you obviously care. It’s kinda good hanging around with you even when you’re making long speeches about nothing, cos you at least act like a sister.”

“Unlike this one,” Hawthorn added, pointing accusingly at the flabbergasted kitsune. “I’ll be honest, Akane, the only reason none of us has punched you yet is Walker keeps saying how nice you are at heart and to give you a chance and you’ll surprise us eventually.”

“Still waiting on that, by the way,” Mimosa said with a yawn.

“Now, girls,” the Avatar began soothingly, but Akane whirled and stalked to the door without another word. It hissed open and then shut behind her, leaving an a strained silence in her wake.

The two attending Hands glanced at each other sidelong, which was possibly the greatest loss of composure they had ever displayed when not malfunctioning.

Sharidan drew in a slow breath and let it out in a sigh, stepping closer to Milanda and wrapping an arm around her. She leaned gratefully against him.

“I am removing you from active duty, though,” he murmured.

She mutely nodded, rubbing her cheek against his shoulder.

“I have never ordered you to do anything, Milanda, but this time I have to. You will begin attending sessions with Counselor Saatri, as Lord Vex tells me he advised you to do weeks ago. I will not have you back in the field until she clears you for duty.”

“Okay.” That was perhaps not the correct way to acknowledge a command from her Emperor, but he pulled her closer in response and rested his chin atop her head. It would do, for now.


“I hope neither of us is in trouble for showing up late to the big climactic battle,” Teal murmured while constructing a sandwich of flatbread and curried fish. “Guess I wouldn’t blame anybody for being mad at us…”

“Nobody who matters will be,” Trissiny replied, pausing to sip her cup of cold tea. “I was warned shortly after Avei called me that there’d always be someone demanding to know where the hell I’ve been. Because something terrible is always happening somewhere, and a person can only be in one place at a time. The balance we have to strike is in learning to live with that, without becoming jaded over it. What?” she asked quizzically, as Teal had been staring at her in apparent shock for the last half of her reply.

The bard laughed softly, as much in surprise as humor, and resumed piling up fish. “I…sorry. I just never heard you curse before. Those Eserites really are as bad an influence as everyone says.”

“Oh. Well.” Trissiny grinned, idly swirling her half-empty teacup. “Mother Narny always said profanity was the self-expression of a weak mind. The Eserites taught me to use every weapon available, and favor the ones that make an impression without having to draw blood. If you think about it, a curse word doesn’t hurt anybody, it’s just a word. Its power comes from the taboo. And breaking a taboo creates an impact. A stronger one if you don’t do it often; nobody bats an eye when Ruda curses, after all.”

“Wow, they taught you linguistics,” Teal said. Having finished making her breakfast sandwich, she set it down on the plate and made no move to take a bite. “That’s a surprising detail. I’d expect you to pick that up if you’d been apprenticing with the Veskers, but…”

“Everybody has a past. Eserites come from all over; they’re mostly people who feel a need to right wrongs in the world, and don’t trust the systems to help.” Trissiny’s expression turned somber, and she stared absently at the distance. “The guy who told me about strategic cursing had been a bard, before being a Guild apprentice.”

Teal nodded slowly, also staring at nothing, her sandwich apparently forgotten. They sat in companionable silence, letting the banquet hall stir idly around them with sporadic activity.

Punaji parties being as they were, the great hall of the Rock had not been cleaned up from the feast of the night before, and more than a handful of attendees were asleep in various positions around the room. There had been plenty of food and drink, and enough was left to make a serviceable breakfast for the early risers now coming through. Most of those were castle staff, minor bureaucrats and the odd guest of indeterminate origin. Thus far, Teal and Trissiny were the only members of the student or apprentice groups up and about—or at least, the only ones who had come down to eat. Principia and her squad had been through early and departed to meet the first of the Silver Legion special forces who were meant to help them settle the Rust crisis; Principia had looked fiendishly gleeful at the prospect of bringing them up to speed.

Teal never did pick up her breakfast again, though after a few silent minutes she looked over at Trissiny once more, and her lips quirked up in a smile. “You really need to fix your hair, though. It never occurred to me how well the blonde suited you until I saw you without it.”

“Everyone is so concerned about my hair,” Trissiny grumbled. “Mother Narny said women outside Viridill were obsessed with cosmetic details, but until very recently I’d come to think she was exaggerating. Anyway, you’re one to talk, Shaggy. I’m sure you’ll look very pretty when you finish growing it out, but the short cut suited you perfectly.”

“Ah…well.” Teal lowered her eyes, her expression fading back to wistfulness. “There’s a story behind that.”

“I noticed the robes, too.”

“Yeah… I may not be much of a Narisian, but—”

“Ah!” They both looked up at the satisfied exclamation, and found Professor Tellwyrn just inside the front door of the banquet hall, already making a beeline for them. “Perfect timing, for once—exactly who I wanted to see! Plus Trissiny, for some damn reason. I would ask what the hell you’re doing here, young lady, but I’ve known too many paladins over the years to be actually surprised.”

“Morning, Professor,” Teal said, waving. “Please let everybody wake up naturally before you teleport us all back to the mountain. We had a long night.”

“So I see,” Tellwyrn said, planting her fists on her hips and sweeping an expressive stare around at the ruins of last night’s shindig. “Anyway, no, Falconer. I’ll hear everyone’s oral report later today. But I thought you would appreciate me making an early stop, first.”

“Me? What did—”

She broke off as a tiny black shape came bouncing into the hall from the front door, yapping exuberantly and heading right for a half-eaten platter of roast boar which for reasons pertaining to a lot of people having been drunk the night before was resting on a bench rather than a table.

“F’thaan, come back here this instant.”

Teal shot to her feet at the voice; Trissiny rose more slowly beside her. Tellwyrn, grinning, stepped aside to clear a path between them and the door, turning to watch.

The puppy skidded to a halt with a plaintive whine, but obediently turned his back on the pork and went gamboling back toward the front of the hall. Shaeine entered in a stately glide, snapped her fingers, and pointed at the ground by her feet. Even as F’thaan came to sit where directed, her garnet colored eyes were already locked on the figure beside Trissiny.

Teal actually vaulted over the table behind which she was sitting. Barely catching her balance on the landing, she staggered briefly before dashing pell-mell across the banquet hall, robes fluttering behind her, bounding over the sleeping form of one of last night’s revelers. She skidded to a stop only a few feet from Shaeine, at the last moment seeming to remember the Narisian composure she was supposed to be practicing.

They both made the last few steps in unison, Shaeine’s face a mask of formal calm, Teal doing an admirable job of imitating one. The human reached out with both hands, and the drow took them gently, gazing up at her eyes.

“I…” Teal paused, then tried again, her voice less rough. “I am very glad to see you.”

Shaeine looked up at her in silence for a moment. Then a broad, totally uncontrolled grin spread across her face, transforming her entire aspect.

“Hello, wife,” she said, then surged forward, wrapping her arms around Teal and insistently tugging her face down to meet her in a triumphant kiss. The two of them whirled around in a full circle, F’thaan yapping excitedly and bouncing in rings around them. Both ignored the encouraging whoops that came from two of the more lucid occupants of the banquet hall.

“What’s all this?” Shaeine demanded finally, somewhat out of breath, running her fingers through Teal’s shoulder-length hair. “And the robe, too? You look so dashing in those suits of yours!”

“Ah, well…” Teal had given up all pretense of Narisian rectitude by that point, and her goofy grin didn’t go at all with the formal robes. “I was the last representative of House Awarrion left on the campus, after all. I figured, you know… If you’re going to play a part, you should embrace the costume.”

“Oh, beloved.” Shaeine tugged her close again, resting her cheek on Teal’s shoulder. “If that’s truly what you want, I support you absolutely. But if this is my mother and sisters trying to mold you, I won’t have it. I introduced you to Mother because I believed you would be an asset to House Awarrion, not because I thought I could turn you into one. Those were the terms on which she accepted you. No one is going to change my Teal.”

Teal squeezed her nearly to the point of pain, though the petite drow made not a peep of protest. “I missed you so much,” she whispered hoarsely into her white hair. “We missed you.” Then, after a pause: “Also, why have you got a baby hellhound?”

“Ah, well…” Shaeine drew back slightly, just enough to gaze up at her with a distinctly impish expression. “Why don’t you show me to your room? We have…things on which to catch up.”

Teal big her lip eagerly in an answering grin. Reluctantly pulling free, she kept a grip on one of Shaeine’s hands, and led her urgently toward a side door, F’thaan bouncing eagerly along behind them and yapping without cease. They slipped out into the corridor, a last startled yelp from Teal echoing behind them.

“Are my eyes starting to go,” Trissiny asked incredulously, “or did Shaeine just goose her? In public?”

“Shaeine has a diplomat’s instinct for adapting to local customs,” Tellwyrn intoned, strolling around to join her on the other side of the table. “Apparently, somewhere midway between Narisian and Punaji is grabbing your wife’s bum if you’ve not had the opportunity for a few weeks. So, what are we having?”

“Whatever’s lying around,” Trissiny replied, and the Professor plopped down next to her, picking up Teal’s untouched fish sandwich.

“Gods, I needed to see that,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh, still gazing in the direction of the side hall with a faint smile. “There’s been far too much ugliness lately. This wasn’t even my first stop of the day; the last order of business wasn’t nearly so pleasant.”

“Oh?”

She took a bite of the sandwich and continued talking, enunciating with surprising clarity even as she chewed. “Had to deal with the Duchess of House Dalkhaan, she who had the goddamn temerity to send her House troops to attack my University.”

Trissiny raised an eyebrow. “I presume that ended poorly for them.”

“A lot more survived than you would think, but yes, they accomplished a sum total of nothing. Still, politics. I cannot have the aristocratic class of the Empire thinking they can so much as sneer in my direction without suffering consequences, nor can our political allies. House Dalkhaan, as of this morning, is dissolved and stricken from the rolls of the nobility, by decree of the Silver Throne. All its lands and property are seized and given to me in compensation for insults and offenses given, by command of the Sultana of Calderaas.” She swallowed, then frowned down at the sandwich still held in both her hands. “I got to deliver these edicts to the Duchess my very own self, and remove her from her ancestral home—which is now my property. I let her keep the clothes she was wearing.”

“That was gracious of you,” Trissiny said in a carefully neutral tone.

Tellwyrn’s frown deepened. “She immediately went at her own throat with a letter opener. I put a stop to that, and teleported her to the nearest Omnist homeless shelter. Not until I’d made a production of it for the Imperial observers, though. It was quite the sadistic little speech. ‘Die by any means you wish, but you’ll do it among the rest of the lowborn nothings, where you belong.’ I can’t take credit, the line’s from a play I used to like which hasn’t been performed in about eight hundred years.”

“You look…oddly disquieted,” Trissiny observed. “That’s surprising. I thought you loved delivering fools their comeuppance.”

“I love it when I don’t have to deal with fools at all. Anything else is a grudging compromise.” Tellwyrn shook her head and put down the sandwich, her appetite apparently gone. “I won’t deny there’s a lot of satisfaction in hurling bombast in every direction until the people I want to leave me alone do so, tails between their legs and all. But… I don’t know, Trissiny. Deliberate, targeted, subtle viciousness just isn’t in my character. I could’ve reduced the old bat to atoms with a wave of my hand and that might have felt like a victory. The situation demanded that I hurt her, though. Right in the heart and spirit, in a way that no physical violence could have done. A way that’ll put the fear in the rest of her social class so none of them even thinks of trying such a thing again. Having looked in someone’s eyes at that moment… I suddenly find I don’t have a taste for it.”

“Hm.” Trissiny took a sip of her remaining tea, staring thoughtfully at the far wall now. “Professor Yornhaldt told me you once maimed and blinded a Huntsman of Shaath, and put him in the care of the Sisterhood. That sounds like highly targeted cruelty.”

“Oh, that.” Tellwyrn actually grinned. “Yeah, I threatened some idiot with that in front of Alaric once. Heh, I didn’t realize until just now I never got around to telling him that whole incident was a lie. I thought up the scenario while slogging through a swamp in a bad mood one day, back when I was roaming around the Deep Wild. Quite frankly, Trissiny, I find that anyone who deserves that kind of suffering isn’t worth going to the trouble of inflicting it on them. Or at least, that was my position until I had to start making accommodations with this subtle new century in which we live.” She shrugged, and sighed. “Best get used to it, I guess.”

“It’s not a fun lesson to absorb, is it?”

“I had a feeling you’d be sympathetic. It hasn’t escaped my notice that what I’m describing is thinking like an Eserite. If you’re going to scare the bastards into behaving, you have to make a truly chilling object lesson out of somebody.”

Slowly, Trissiny nodded. Her eyes were fixed on a point in the far distance, the cup hanging forgotten from her fingertips. “Not long ago, a very smart, very evil, not very sane person told me that we hurt people because some people need to be hurt. I…resent having to acknowledge how right she was.”

“Yeah. Well.” Tellwyrn held out a hand to one side, and a half-empty bottle of rum lifted off a nearby table, floating straight into her grasp. She raised it up to the morning light peeking through the hall’s upper windows. “Here’s to the age of progress. Fuck it and the horse it rode in on.”

Trissiny clinked her teacup against the bottle, and they both drank in silence.


The Punaji codes of war being what they were, the Rock did not have a proper dungeon. It did have a wing of “guest rooms” with barred windows, doors that only locked from the outside, and constant guard patrols in addition to domestic servants. It was a core tenet of the Punaji philosophy of life that if you deprived a person of their freedom, no matter how good the reason, you owed them all care and consideration, and that cruelty toward a defeated person in your power was the ultimate evil.

Confinement aside, Ayuvesh wasn’t finding his imprisonment arduous at all. True, his breakfast had been delivered through a slot in the door, but that was half an hour after a servant had politely asked him what he would like. The bed was comfortable, there was a shelf of books provided to relieve the tedium—all classics and raggedly secondhand chapbooks, but it was something—and there was even a painting on the wall. A cheap watercolor of a cliché pastoral scene, of course, though he was no art critic. The toilet was tucked in an alcove without a privacy door or even a curtain, but it was a toilet, which flushed and everything, and even came with a sink providing running water. He had never been in jail before, and was surprised at finding better than a bucket in the corner.

Not that his captors were soft, though. Even after just one night, he had heard the guards tromp past his door enough times to realize they did so at irregular intervals, preventing prisoners from memorizing their patrol patterns. Fortunately for him, he had no plans to escape. The King and Queen had shown themselves willing to extend consideration so long as they got it in return. He well understood that politics as well as basic sense prohibited them giving him the run of the palace. If it meant securing as much comfort and protection for his remaining followers as possible, some time spent locked in a room was a very light price to pay. Especially if, by working with the royals, he could help protect Puna Dara from its enemies, both seen and unseen.

Though caged, and marking time until the inevitable failure of his artificial limbs, he still had a mind, and a will, and that was all a person needed. The universe would bend, so long as he kept his mind strong enough.

Ayuvesh was pacing absently in front of his cell door when an odd shadow passed over the barred window. He turned to see what it could be; that window overlooked a side courtyard of the Rock. Surely no one would attempt to climb up…

“Catch!”

By pure reflex, he snagged the object tossed to him, even as the darkness receded. The shadow had not come from outside; someone had just shadow-jumped into his cell.

It was, of all things, an elf wearing an alarmingly wide grin and a neat, pinstriped suit.

The next thing Ayuvesh realized was that the thing he was holding was ticking softly in his hands. It consisted of a dwarven clockwork device, complete with a tiny watch face, linking two terrifyingly fragile-looking jars of softly glowing alchemical substances of different colors. Primitive indeed, compared with the Infinite Order’s nanite-built machinery, but he had been around enough mechanical construction in the last few years to tell how this worked at a glance: once the clock wound down to zero, the two potions would mix, and then…

He twisted this way and that, looking frantically for a place to throw the bomb. It wouldn’t fit through the cell bars. The toilet? No, not big enough, and even water might—

The combination of his distraction and elvish speed was enough to give the intruder the drop on him. The elf surged around behind Ayuvesh and with one adroit move, place the tip of a stiletto against his throat while rapping the bomb out of his grasp with its pommel. Ayuvesh’s breath seized in momentary terror, but the device landed safely upon his blessedly plush pillow.

At the tiniest exertion of pressure against the un-armored portion of his neck, right atop his vulnerable jugular, a drop of blood welled. That blade was viciously sharp. Out the corner of his good eye, he saw the elf’s other hand hold out a palm-sized metal object, like two twisted vines laid atop each other so that their thorns clicked together when they were turned. He had never seen a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman in person, but knew it by description.

The elf’s breath was hot against his one ear.

“Warmest regards from his Holiness the Archpope.”

The explosion, when it came, blasted the cell door clear across the hall.

 

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13 – 37

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“So, here’s a question,” Ruda grunted, taking the heavy power cell from Gabriel. “We’ve got two people here with invisible valkyries whispering in their ears, who apparently know how all this shit works. So why the fuck are they both together screwing around with that thing, while all the rest of us are having our slow-ass orders relayed by Mr. Avatar?”

“Hey, you heard the man,” Gabriel said with a grin, and dusted off his hands as he backed away from her. “Worst you guys can do is break the factory and drown us all. If we screw up, we could end the whole world!”

“Neither of those outcomes is remotely likely,” the Avatar said soothingly from the nearest of his floating projections. Talking to him in this state was a little disorienting; as they had scattered to various pieces of the command platform to dismantle equipment under his direction, he addressed them from whatever apparatus was most convenient, which meant there were several purple men displayed in viewscreens and hovering as light sculptures, sometimes more than one talking at once. “I assure you, the software modifications you are making will not destabilize the facility. And the dimensional gate’s full capabilities would have to be accessed very deliberately; it has far too many incorporated failsafes to accidentally activate any kind of rift, stable or otherwise.”

“Yeah, okay,” Ruda said, carefully slotting the power cell into a housing indicated by small flashing lights the Avatar had activated. “Question stands, though.”

“Counter-intuitive as it might appear, I believe this to be the most efficient allocation of our manpower,” the Avatar explained. “Your work is with the installed software, via interface devices which I can access directly and relay detailed instructions, responding in real time to developments as needed. The gateway is a completely separate device, and seems to have been deliberately installed in such a way as to avert my standard oversight measures. Their work is better facilitated by additional—”

“Yeah, yeah, point taken,” she said sourly, stepping back while the Caretaker slipped in with a diffident chime to begin attaching the power cell to the console. “Right, this thing’s being hooked up. What’s next?”

“As soon as the console is powered, it should form the last link in our jury-rigged system to bypass the gateway’s intrusion into my network. It will need to be configured; I will walk you through the process once it is online.”

“You okay?” Toby asked quietly, straightening up from the screen he’d been tapping to lay a hand on Ruda’s shoulder.

“You know, this thing you do,” she said wryly, “how you’re everybody’s mom all the time? That would be really annoying if it was anybody else. But for some damn reason I can’t get mad at you, Caine. And that is also annoying, but I can’t get mad about it either. It’s a recursive loop of stymied pissiness.”

Toby blinked, then grinned and held his arms out. “Hug?”

“Fuck off,” she snorted, but not without grinning in return. “Don’t mind my bitching, I’m just worried about what’s goin’ on up there without us. Faster we get this done, the faster it all becomes moot.”

A few feet away, Gabriel had returned to the gate, where Milady was bent over its attached control screen, eyes narrowed in concentration. The soft background noise of voices drifted by them, from Toby and Ruda’s conversation and the Avatar giving instructions to Fross and Juniper at another part of the machinery.

“Soooo,” he drawled quietly, “since it was brought up, maybe this is a good time to have a chat about valkyries?”

Milady’s lips twitched. The sharp light of the viewscreen emphasized the dark circles under her eyes. She kept her gaze on it, answering him after a short pause.

“You place me in an awkward position, Mr. Arquin. My loyalties being what they are, I cannot go divulging Imperial secrets.”

“Okay, well…” He knelt next to the base of the gateway. It was in two distinct parts: the actual gate, a metal doorway with an attached control screen, and a hefty base in which its power cells were installed, which the Avatar had set him to cannibalizing so they could build extra units to work around the blocks forced into his main system. “Can you at least account for what happened to Yrsa? Valkyries are kind of experts on death; when one of them dies, the others notice.”

“Apparently not,” she muttered. Straightening slightly, she glanced sidelong at Juniper, whose back was turned to them at the other end of the platform. “Are you aware what can happen to daughters of Naiya who are severely traumatized?”

“They transform,” he said, frowning. “Though…I thought that was just dryads.”

“Well, it’s valkyries, too. And, theoretically, I suppose also kitsune, though it’s hard for me to imagine anything really hurting one of those.”

“Met one too, have you,” he said with a grin, which immediately faded. “So…Yrsa?”

“Have you heard the legend of the Dark Walker?”

“Sure, I grew up with the same fairy tales you did, but what’s…” Gabriel trailed off, then straightened up, the color fading from his face. “Oh. Oh, no.”

Milady cleared her throat, glancing up at him. “So…on the one hand, Imperial secrets. On the other is a good friend whom I hate to deprive of access to her own sisters… Is Vestrel here right now? I mean, close by?”

He winced. “Uh, yeah. By the way, you’re decapitated again.”

“Charming,” she muttered. “Well, I am just going to casually mention the words spaceport and gravitational isolation chamber, and if anybody here can make something of that, well, good for them.”

“Oh…kay?”

The purple figure of the Avatar appeared nearby, projected from the closest surface he could access. “How goes it?”

“I found the activation records,” Milady reported in a louder tone. “It’s good news: this gate was last powered up more than fifteen thousand years ago. Last portal activation was never. So your worry about the other side coming through seems to be unfounded.”

“Excellent!” the AI said with a broad smile of relief. “That also bodes well for our immediate work here. As I hoped, the interlopers were using the connector between the actual portal surface and its base rather than the portal itself. The gate’s technology is merely being used to connect the dimensional vortex in the Golden Sea to this structure, which is already nightmarishly complicated. It would have been much worse had there been another rift involved. This means the Caretaker should be able to disconnect them without ill effect. Which is an additional benefit; all of these gates were slated for destruction, but their maker hid an annoying number of them. It is gratifying to be able to remove one from the world.”

“Wait, there are more of these things floating around?” Gabriel placed one hand against the side of the gate. “Just…doorways to other dimensions, built by the Elder Gods?”

“Unfortunately, yes. Have you found where this one goes, Milady?”

“Not yet,” she said, frowning at the screen. “This is the most annoying thing… It doesn’t seem like there’s very much information in this; each piece I find is just a few lines, if that. I bet it could all be just displayed on the desktop. But everything is hidden behind links, and each one wants multiple confirmations before letting you see it…”

“Yes, that sounds like Heilo’s idea of a user interface.”

“Heilo?” She glanced up at the purple hologram. “Let me guess, the Infinite Order member who made these?”

“Correct. Allegedly, his aim was to make them difficult to access for safety reasons, but Heilo also took personal satisfaction in being obstreperous.”

“What kinds of places might it go?” Gabriel asked.

“Heilo devised these gates as a means to solve intractable technological dilemmas. Each has only one destination, because each was formed by scanning possible alternative universes to locate one according to specific criteria. The Infinite Order used them, when they were unable to devise a given technology, to seek out a universe in which the technology already existed and observe it.”

“All the power in the world and they were still lazy, cheating bastards,” Ruda grunted. She had wandered away from her console, waiting for the Caretaker to finish installing the power cell and turn it on.

“That’s absolutely fascinating, though!” Fross chimed exuberantly, zipping around overhead. “Why, it’s confirmation of the many-worlds hypothesis!”

“Not necessarily,” the Avatar cautioned. “It was never entirely clear whether the alternate universes viewed through these gates had an independent existence, or were actually created by the act of viewing them.”

“Oh, come on,” Gabriel exclaimed. “Sub-atomic particles are one thing. How can an entire universe not exist until someone opens a door to it?”

The Avatar’s nearest projection shrugged, even while another called Ruda back to her station and a third continued to walk Juniper through disconnecting something. “Reality gets that way, when you pick it apart in sufficient detail. Are you familiar with the Big Bang theory? According to one interpretation, this universe didn’t exist until a door to it was opened. In any case, these gates should all have been destroyed after use. In addition to their practical application, however, Heilo had a hobby of creating gateways to view universes in which his favorite mythological stories were real. Obviously, the Infinite Order did not tolerate this and had all such dangerous devices destroyed. I think most of the fun for Heilo was hiding them from his colleagues. If you ever encounter another device like this, I strongly urge you to verify that it is inactive and then leave it strictly alone. It would lead either to a dimension inhabited by beings more advanced than the Infinite Order, or given Heilo’s taste in fiction, to someplace chaotic and wildly dangerous.”

“Azeroth,” Milady said suddenly, straightening her back without lifting her eyes from the screen.

The Avatar’s projection, with oddly human body language, stiffened and widened his eyes in visible alarm. “I beg your pardon?”

“I can’t find anything labeled as a destination for the portal, but there’s a folder that says it’s the device’s name. It just says ‘Azeroth.’” She looked up at him. “What’s that?”

He remained still for a moment, though a flicker ran through his form.

“You are certain this gate has never been fully activated?”

“Well, that’s what the records say,” she replied, her eyebrows rising, “though of course I can’t know if anybody has tampered with them…”

“Mr. Arquin, if you would, please take a moment to disconnect all the power cells from that apparatus.”

“Uh…sure, okay.” Gabriel picked up the multi-tool the Caretaker had brought him and bent to begin working on one of the three remaining cells. “Rough neighborhood, I take it?”

“One of the stories I mentioned. Certain entities there might detect a dimensional rift and attempt to cross it, none of whom I wish to meet. That is not my primary concern, however. This gate is among those listed as missing; the world it leads to was not one of Heilo’s personal interests, but Scyllith’s. He built it for her as a gift, attempting to coax a favor in return. Scyllith’s personal dimensional plane is inundated with her personal transcension field, which makes it difficult and dangerous to traverse, even for ascended beings. The gate was hidden there and then never accounted for again. I am relieved, and somewhat surprised, to see she retained enough sense never to open a full portal through it. I cannot, however, explain what it is doing on this plane of existence, much less in my fabrication plant, attached to my systems.”

The others had all stopped work and turned to listen while he spoke; apparently the Avatar was spooked enough by this discovery that his other projections had fallen silent, leaving only the one near the gate speaking. After he finished, there was a pause in which only the rush of water below could be heard. Even Gabriel had halted in the act of detaching one of the power cell’s couplings.

“We knew whoever broke into the facility in the first place was logged in under Scyllith’s credentials,” Milady said slowly, at last breaking the silence. “I had assumed someone had just found them. As…a relic, like all the other Infinite Order junk that’s turned up over the centuries.”

“But this thing was actually in Hell,” Toby added, eyes wide, “and apparently only Scyllith knew where.”

“Elilial has reigned in Hell for eight thousand years,” Fross pointed out. “She could’ve found it, easily.”

“If the Black Wreath were involved in setting this up,” Juniper countered, “why would that Mogul guy have helped us get down here to fix all this?”

Ruda snorted derisively. “The only thing we can be sure of about why the Black Wreath does anything is that they’d lie to us about it.”

“So it was either Elilial or Scyllith,” Gabriel said, shifting from his uncomfortable crouch to sit on the floor next to the power cell, his task apparently forgotten. “Remember the hellgate last year? The demons that came through that weren’t loyal to Elilial. She doesn’t fully control Hell, any more than the Pantheon has absolute control over the mortal plane. I bet Scyllith still has secrets and allies there, even if she’s been banished. And if one of them has access to something like this, plus the ability to cart it through a hellgate somehow to get here…”

“Elilial can’t get through Infinite Order security,” Milady murmured. “Scyllith could. Elilial also can’t just hop between dimensions whenever she wants, it’s known she has to use the hellgates like everybody else. But Scyllith was part of the Order that created the separate dimensions in the first place. If anybody could work around that…”

“Also, Scyllith or someone working for her might know how to build a big, complicated gadget like this,” Fross acknowledged, her glow dimming slightly in alarm. “I don’t think the Wreath would.”

“Scyllith is bound,” Toby insisted. “Elilial stole her throne in Hell, and Themynra and her drow are keeping her imprisoned in the Underworld.”

“And yet…here’s this thing,” Gabriel said, craning his neck to stare up at the dimensional gate. It was such a plain thing to look at, little more than an empty, rectangular doorframe, unadorned and apparently made of stainless steel.

Ruda slammed her fist against the side of a console, making several of them jump. “All right, enough. Yes, this is a big fuckin’ deal and I am pretty goddamn sure we’re gonna be dealing with the implications of this later on, so we’d better not forget it. But right now there’s not a damn thing we can do about any of that. What we can do now is finish fixing the Avatar’s shit, so he can shut off the nanites and kill the Rust. Gods know what’s happening to my city while we sit here maundering. Back to your stations, people, we’ve got work to do.”


Kheshiri was forced to cover her tracks by following one of the wall guards through the gatehouse; she had been drenched in the storm, and the only way to conceal the trail of water she left was by following a trail of water the guards expected to find. Unfortunately, that meant she had to stop in the north gatehouse barracks where the soldier she was stalking had come to rest. The good news was that he had plunked down by the fire to dry himself and his gear.

She was now lurking precariously in the rafters near the brazier. It would’ve been nice if they’d made a proper fire, but Puna Dara was simply too hot at this time of year; the glowing coals were only being used to dry uniforms soaked in the storm, and that only because the arcane heater shoved into a nearby corner was apparently broken. The succubus wasn’t willing to risk filching a towel, not in front of this many people. So she perched there, wings fully spread both for balance and to expose them to the rising heat, while water dripped from her. The occasional drop fell in the brazier itself, but the hissing went unnoticed thanks to the wind outside and the boisterous chatter within.

At least this enforced pause gave her a chance to eavesdrop. Somewhat to her surprise, she actually overheard something useful.

“Sir!” A soldier had entered who was not part of the wall rotation; rather than going to dry off, he had marched up to the officer in charge and saluted. “Message from Lieutenant Laghari in the south gatehouse!”

The local commander, a tall man with a waxed mustache and captain’s knots at his shoulder, kept himself in the barracks with his men instead of squirreled away in an office; at this, he set down the book he’d been reading and turned on the bench to face the dripping trooper who had just arrived. Nearby, conversations faltered as onlookers turned to watch.

“At ease, soldier,” said the captain. “Go ahead.”

“Yes, sir. The squad of Silver Legionnaires from Tiraas are in the south bunkhouse, including an elf. She reported hearing something. The Lieutenant felt you should know.”

“An elf,” the captain said flatly, “heard…something. What kind of a something, did Lieutenant Laghari see fit to mention?”

“She wasn’t sure, sir,” the soldier said crisply, eyes straight ahead. Even Kheshiri could see this captain wasn’t a hardass from the relaxed manner in which his troops chatted around him while not on watch, but there was a certain, universal way about soldiers having to report something even they knew was stupid to a superior officer. “Corporal Shahai reported a possibility that someone was creeping around the gatehouse under magical stealth, but couldn’t be certain. The Lieutenant didn’t feel it warranted further action, but he wanted you to know in case you disagreed. I’m to convey the message and bring back any orders if you have them, sir.”

The captain sighed. “Orders? Well, obviously, be on watch for intruders. But since that is the entire mandate of gate watch duty, I hopefully don’t need to issue orders to that effect. Back to your post, soldier.”

“Yes, sir,” the man said with clear relief. He saluted again, then turned and made for the stairs with incongruous eagerness for someone about to climb up into the kind of storm that blew people off battlements.

“Think there’s anything to that, Captain?” asked a female sergeant hovering nearby.

“Oh, who knows,” the captain said irritably, picking up his book again. “Keep an eye out, regardless. It won’t hurt anything to be extra wary, but I don’t think we need to change our rotation over it. Naphthene’s tits, but Laghari wouldn’t even have humored something like that if the elf in question had been male.”

There was a round of guffaws at this, by which time Kheshiri had already started moving again. She was still dripping, but time was now out. Apart from the elf’s warning, her partners had been waiting longer than they were supposed to, and she didn’t need them getting antsy.

She dropped to the floor, pressed herself to the wall, and crept as rapidly as she could for the door opposite the one she had come in. The layout of this gatehouse was a mirror of the other, so she knew where she was going. The succubus luckily encountered no more soldiers as she descended a narrow staircase to the ground level.

The barracks was on the second floor; down below was an armory and a narrow hall leading to a small, sturdy side door. As with everything in the Rock, it was almost excessively defensible. Slits in the ceiling and upper walls provided soldiers above the ability to fill the space with arrows, wandshots, spells, boiling oil…whatever they had handy. Sections of the wall next to the outer door and the stairwell were cut away, the space beyond filled with stones and angled to create an avalanche that would completely block the hall if the sturdy net covering the opening were released.

Only one side door opened off the hall, into the armory. Kheshiri peeked into this in passing, finding two more soldiers “guarding” the exit by playing cards. Well, they weren’t drinking and their backs weren’t to the door; clearly nobody here expected trouble, but the Punaji soldiers weren’t incompetent. There was a good chance the people she was supposed to let in were not going to get any further than the gatehouse.

Not that that was her problem. She had her job to do, and the offhand satisfaction of knowing somebody was going to die because of it. Who it was didn’t concern her. This petty little religious squabble was even more boring than most such inane affairs.

The small side door was only small in comparison to the main gate; though narrower than the average door, it was a single piece of oak, which she knew to be fully six inches thick and with a hollowed out interior filled with a sheet of steel. It was barred and locked.

Picking the lock took her a few minutes. The Punaji hadn’t grown complacent in the years since anyone had attacked the Rock, so this was a new and well-maintained lock. Fortunately, she’d had ample opportunity to practice during all the downtime lately…

It finally gave with a soft click, and she smirked and tucked her lockpicks back into her bodice. Lifting the bar was the challenging part, for her; it was a bar designed for two men to pick up, and she was a demon designed for stealth, not brute force. Not that she couldn’t have managed to shove it loose, but raising the thing to rest against the wall without creating a noise had her clenching her teeth and concentrating hard to avoid giving herself away with a grunt.

Soon, though, it was open, and she didn’t waste a second to rest on her laurels, or even catch her breath. Opening the door itself was risky, thanks to the noise outside; she waited for a particularly heavy thunderclap to shove it outward and slip through the gap, pushing it shut behind her. The whole maneuver took less than a second.

Outside, there was a broad space between the Rock’s walls and any other structures, which left her exposed. She was invisible, sure, but if anyone had been paying close attention, an invisible person moving through a rainstorm was an eye-catching sight. Nobody was within view, however, and at this angle she wouldn’t be visible from atop the wall. The door was also somewhat sheltered from the wind, which had prevented it from being loudly slammed shut.

Still invisible, Kheshiri shifted into a form exactly like her usual one, minus only the obvious demonic features. Without wings and tail to get caught in the wind, she had less trouble getting across the square. There wasn’t much she could do about her hair being blown around, but at least it didn’t obstruct her vision when it was blown across her face. A fringe perk of invisibility.

As she’d entered the other gatehouse, she had to swing all the way around the corner of the Rock’s outer wall to get back to where the others were. In moments, though, she was there, slipping through the warehouse door.

Inside, dozens of individuals whirled, pointing weapons at the door which had apparently opened and shut by itself. Kheshri popped back into view, raising her hands in a gesture of surrender. She didn’t bother to keep the predatory grin off her face. The local rubes would expect such from the likes of her, and this was the most fun she’d had in weeks.

“It’s about fucking time,” Shook growled, holstering his wand. He shouldered roughly past several Rust cultists and grabbed her by the upper arm in a bruising grip. “What held you up?”

“Sorry, master,” she said, still grinning, well aware of the tinge of madness in her expression and enjoying it. “That was a little more fun than I’d anticipated. There are Silver Legionnaires in the gatehouse I entered, including an elf; she could hear me.”

“You were discovered?” Two figures stood apart from the crowd of cultists; the one who had spoken wore heavy robes, a deep cowl, and a mask below that. The other was half machine, and now fixed her with a piercing stare.

“No,” Kheshiri replied, deliberately leaning into Shook’s touch. By this point she had conditioned him to a specific degree of roughness that she’d led him to believe she enjoyed. Well, she actually did rather enjoy it, but that was beside the point. “I couldn’t mask myself completely from the elf’s senses, but she couldn’t figure out what she was hearing, either. So I went across to the other gatehouse, to be safe. The side door is unlocked.”

“That’s a longer run from here,” Ayuvesh said sharply, shifting his gaze from her to glare at the hooded man with him. “More time for the guards on the wall to see us and react.”

“My girl’s the best at what she does,” Shook stated flatly. “If that was what she could do, it’s all anybody could do.”

The machine-man gave him a long, contemplative look, as if pondering the relative merits of a rodent he had just discovered digging through his trash, and Kheshiri had to concentrate to keep the anticipation from her expression. That was exactly the kind of provocation that could send Shook into a most amusing snit.

The enforcer simply stared back, however, and annoyance rose in her. Apparently Khadizroth’s efforts with him were beginning to bear fruit.

That simply would not do.

“Very well, I take your point,” Ayuvesh acknowledged at last, turning back to the hooded man. “Your people seem quite capable. Since this is now more difficult than we had planned, we could use—”

“Our part in this is finished,” he replied, his mellifluous voice not muffled by his mask. “We have opened the door for you, as agreed. That is already far more than you could have achieved unaided. What you are able to do with this advantage depends upon you.”

“Very well,” Ayuvesh replied after a moment’s pause. “I would thank you for your help, but I suspect we are soon to learn what your motive is for intervening here, perhaps to our detriment. Farewell, then, strangers.”

The hood shifted as the man nodded. Ayuvesh turned his back with no more ado, and strode for the door.

It took time for the dozens of cultists to file out. They went without speaking, though their movements were accompanied by a soft scrape and clatter of metal which was only mostly overpowered by the storm outside. Soon, though, they had all exited the warehouse.

Almost immediately, the sound of alarm bells began.

With a sigh, Khadizroth reached up to push back his hood and lower the mask. “And that is our signal.”

The Jackal popped out of nowhere nearby, wearing his usual borderline insane grin and toying with a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman. “Aw, sure you don’t wanna stay a while? His Holiness’ll just put us back into storage for fuck knows how long.”

“There’s good fun to be had here,” Kheshiri agreed eagerly. “I haven’t seen a coup go down in ages.”

“In that castle,” Khadizroth said quellingly, “is the Hand of Vidius, who is accompanied by at least one valkyrie. You of all people should be anxious to get away from here.”

“Yeah,” Shook agreed. “I’m as stir-crazy as anybody, but this isn’t our problem. Those demented half-metal assholes are going to get themselves killed, and I say good fucking riddance. Better them than us.”

“Oh, I highly doubt we are the only surprise they will spring on the King today,” Khadizroth said dryly. “That Ayuvesh is too lucid a man to attempt something like this unless he believed he could truly gain. But that, as you rightly point out, is now his business. Our part in this is done. Let’s go.”

 

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12 – 58

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“I need someone to say how quiet it is,” the Jackal murmured, easing back into the alley from having peeked around the corner. He turned to grin at the rest of them. “You know. So I can make the obvious rejoinder.”

He was met by a cluster of unimpressed expressions.

“It’s too quiet,” he clarified, seeming on the verge of bursting into laughter.

“You see what I have to deal with?” Shook muttered to Joe. “Every day with this crap.”

“My heart bleeds,” Joe retorted. “Although, to be fair, that was just the once.”

They all ducked at the sudden gust of wind that swooped into the alley. Seconds later, a stack of old crates a few yards back shook slightly, and Kheshiri popped back into view atop it, wings still spread from her glide.

“Well?” Shook demanded.

“It’s a trap,” the succubus reported.

“Didn’t we already know that?” Rook stage whispered. Moriarty nudged him with the butt of his staff, scowling.

“No, no, this is good news,” Kheshiri continued, grinning, as she folded her wings against her back. “It was supposed to be a trap, but it’s been neutered. The guy in charge is gonna try to ambush us right out there on the street, he’s got his people positioned packed into alleys and a couple ground-floor rooms in the surrounding area. But! The Thieves’ Guild have finally got off their butts and been moving, too, and they do quick and quiet a lot better than these guys. They’ve ambushed several of the shadow-jumpers and have been blocking doors. I don’t think they’ll be able to contain the whole horde, there are still at least a couple scores of ’em, but Mr. Big Shot out there is gonna be very underwhelmed when he tries to spring his ambush.”

“How, exactly, do you know this guy’s in charge?” Joe demanded.

“Because he’s the only one I can sense,” she said condescendingly. “I told you the others are on drugs—all I get from them is…fuzz. They’re like a sea, not like individuals. The ones using magic, though, and this guy, they’re alert and focused. And this one’s standing still, not shadow-jumping around, which makes him in charge. We take him out—”

“You can read minds?” Finchley blurted out in horror.

“Not quite,” Danny murmured. “Children of Vanislaas can sense desires, though. It’s an intuitive thing. I never heard of one making such tactical use of the skill, though…”

“I’m a piece of work,” Kheshiri said smugly. “Right, master?”

“That’s my girl,” Shook said, then snapped his fingers and pointed to the ground by his feet. The demon obediently hopped down from her crate and went to heel with an unnecessarily slinky gait, deliberately turning to brush her bust against Finchley’s chest as she squeezed past and causing him to turn nearly scarlet.

“As a point of general reference,” said Joe, “you guys trust the demon because…?”

“People make such a fuss about trust,” the Jackal mused, shaking his head woefully. “We work as a group because we all know what we want and what we’re like. And Kheshiri will be in deep shit if anything excessively bad happens to her precious master, there. Considering we’re not only in mortal danger but surrounded by Guild enforcers who specifically want to haul his ass away in chains, she’ll behave herself. And she’s right; if we’ve identified the leader, and he thinks he has the upper hand but doesn’t, this is our chance to finish this.”

“Undead,” Vannae said weakly. He had regained some of the color in his cheeks, but was still having trouble breathing, apparently.

“Ah, yes,” the Jackal said, “that. When I said ‘undead,’ I didn’t mean skeletons and zombies. He’s got some real nastiness waiting in the wings. Soon as his trap fails to go off, he’ll drop that hammer, so we’ve gotta finish this fast.”

“Vampires?” Finchley squeaked.

“Kid, if there was a vampire after us, most of this group would be dead already,” the Jackal said disdainfully. “Constructs. Big ones. Constructed undead are pretty fragile, but they hit hard. Better by far if we put a stop to this before they come into play.”

Rook cleared his throat. “Uh, doesn’t it seem likely the thieves will attack him once that starts? Him and possibly us, since we’re with Shook?”

“Fuck my life,” Shook muttered. Kheshiri snuggled against his side, and he absentmindedly patted her rear.

“Yep,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “Well, what’re you jokers all standing around for? This beehive ain’t gonna kick itself!”


“Here?”

“I—I don’t know!” Maureen said frantically, clearly on the verge of tears. “I wasn’t—it all looks the same, it’s just grass and I can’t see over it—”

Sheyann stepped over to the horse and reached up to lay a hand gently on Maureen’s leg. The gnome broke off, choking back a sob, then blinked down at the elf.

“One breath at a time,” the Elder said, radiating calm. Maureen nodded, hiccuping again, and squeezed her eyes shut, clearly reaching for self-control. Sheyann shifted her attention to Whisper’s other rider. “Gabriel, did you happen to take note of your surroundings?”

“’Fraid I have the same problem, uh, Elder,” he said, frowning around at the horizon. “I was distracted trying to find the girls, and…this all looks the same to me. I came north toward the Sea, so it’s this general area…”

“It’s here,” said Wyrnst, who was barely visible through the tallgrass, being a foot shorter than its average height. “It’s fading fast, but…there’s a characteristic smell about this, so to speak. Infernal magic was used…not quite here, but across the dimensional barrier from this spot. I’ve encountered similar in the aftermath of major summonings. From what I know of how the Golden Sea works, it could cause the same residue. Can you sense anything?”

“Agitation,” Haunui murmured, gazing out across the tallgrass. “The wind speaks of its anger. They call this a sea?”

“We know that’s how centaurs navigate,” said Tellwyrn, striding forward to join Sheyann. “Shift the Darklands, cause a corresponding shift on this side of the barrier, at least until the tension builds up and the whole system randomizes itself. But that’s within the Sea, and we’re a good half a mile from the border. Sheyann, you’re older than I; have you ever heard of someone reaching out of the Sea to suck someone in like this?”

The Elder shook her head, patting Maureen’s leg one last time and then taking a step north, toward the endless horizon, where the last red light of sunset was fading. “Centaurs are not ambitious warlocks; I doubt any would think to try such a thing. I do feel it, now that I focus…but it’s strange. It’s not what I… Give me a moment, please. I must concentrate.”

She folded her legs under herself right where she stood, sinking smoothly down to kneel and consequently all but vanishing into the tallgrass. Gabriel gently nudged Whisper away, giving the Elder a respectful space in which to work.

Haunui glanced down at her, then up again at the horizon. “I will help if I can, but I do not understand this land. Nor the depth of your craft.”

“There are few elemental spirits anywhere on this continent that don’t know Sheyann,” Tellwyrn said briskly, “and few people anywhere who are more skilled at what they do. If she wants to try something, we’ll probably get the best results by leaving her to it.”

“She’s out there,” Maureen whimpered.

“And we will find her,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “Sheyann is, as usual, right. Right now the best thing you can do is take care of yourself, Maureen. Try to find some calm.”

“Should…I go back for some of the others?” Gabriel asked uncertainly. “I mean, since Whisper and I have the speed, here.”

“To retrace the Sleeper’s steps, we need infernomancy and shamanism,” Tellwyrn replied. “That’s who I brought along, Arquin—and before you suggest it, Embras Mogul is already more involved in this whole business than I like.”

“Wasn’t gonna,” he muttered.

“Mr. Wrynst,” Tellwyrn said, turning to the dwarf, “I realize this is out of your element, but can you detect anything else?”

Wrynst stroked his chin ruminatively. He was clean-shaven and altogether looked the part of the modern dwarf; his formal robes were well-tailored, suggesting a business suit in their style and cut to accentuate rather than conceal the blocky shape of his physique.

“Not without more to go on,” he said at last. “As I said, the traces are fading rapidly, even while we stand here. The problem is that there wasn’t actually a rift opened. I can track a shadow-jump or dimensional transfer if I can get at it, but this accursed mirroring effect obscures the traces I’d need to read. The real action happened in Hell, not here. If either of our shaman can coax the Sea to oblige us, that’ll be another matter. Rifts are even easier to follow in the context of other nearby rifts, so long as you’ve a head for the math—and have the right tools. I have both, of course! The Golden Sea makes the ultimate sextant in that regard; most theorize there is a massive dimensional nexus of some kind at its center, which both causes the instability in the region and is the reason the Sea doesn’t let anybody get at its heart. But, again, that’s little help because the shifting we’re trying to follow is merely a reflection of something that happened in another universe, and I’ve neither the senses nor the instruments to perceive something like that in the necessary detail.”

“The winds are angry,” Haunui repeated morosely. “I expect no help from them.”

“Thanks for that,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh.

“The Sea will help us,” Sheyann said suddenly, opening her eyes and standing. “I must remain here, to keep communication open. The mind of the Sea is normally unreadable…but it seems Iris reached it.”

“She said please,” Maureen whispered. “Over and over. I didn’t know who she was begging…”

“The child will be a truly remarkable witch, in the fullness of time,” Sheyann said gravely, “provided we are able to rescue her. She touched the Sea itself, its consciousness, something no shaman I have ever known has been able to do.”

“Iris has gifts apart from her craft,” Tellwyrn said tersely. “I don’t invite just any teenage witch to my school. You have an expression that says there’s a downside, Sheyann.”

“The consciousness of the Golden Sea is…rather like a god, in some respects,” Sheyann explained, nodding. “It is a consciousness, but not like ours. In the way it is approached, it’s like a machine, responding predictably to a few narrow stimuli and ignoring most others. While gods will sometimes make their thoughts known, however, the Sea never has that I know of. Iris left traces that I can follow. However…”

“Here it comes,” Tellwyrn muttered.

Sheyann gave her an irritated look without pausing. “This is delicate. I sense compliance toward Iris, as well as resentment at the Sleeper. I don’t understand what Iris did, exactly, and cannot reproduce it; the Sea will not comply with me. To do this, I will have to skirt the line between cajoling the Sea’s distant mind in the wake of Iris’s touch, and coercing it to cooperate, as the centaurs do. One false step will backfire catastrophically.”

Tellwyrn drew in a breath, and let it out in a short sigh. “I know your skill, Sheyann. If anyone can do it…”

“I would not suggest such a risk if I didn’t think I could,” the Elder replied gravely. “That is not the problem. I must maintain a reflection, in Mr. Wrynst’s words, of what was done before.”

“What’s that mean?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“The Sleeper’s passage was separate, and invisible to me,” Sheyann said. “I can retrace the grip that seized Iris and Maureen. But two were taken, and only two can follow.”

“Sometimes,” Tellwyrn growled, “I honestly hate magic.”


Immediately upon exiting the alley, they put together the best formation they could. Shook and Kheshiri stepped to one side of the opening, the Jackal and Vannae to the other, while Joe paced out in the center, wands in hand. Behind him, Danny emerged, and the three soldiers swiftly clustered around him as soon as they had space to do so, brandishing staves at the empty street.

“Fuckin’ creepy,” Shook muttered. “Haven’t even heard any alarm bells…”

They all whirled to face the shadows which swelled in the center of the street ahead. The darkness receded, revealing three figures in gray robes which obscured their faces.

“Grandiose,” Kheshiri said skeptically. “You only needed one caster to shadow-jump. You’re sacrificing strategic value for—”

“We are the rising tide,” a gravely voice interrupted her.

“Which one’s talking?” Finchley whispered.

“I will bet you a year’s pay it’s the one in the middle,” Rook muttered back.

The Jackal barked a laugh. “No bet.”

“We will sweep away the unworthy,” the voice continued, and finally the figure in the middle stepped forward to raise his arms skyward. “The very stones are worn away by the tide!”

“Fascinating,” said Danny, craning his neck to peer over Moriarty’s shoulder. “Excuse me, but what god are you with? I don’t recognize that rhetoric.”

“You cannot stop the—”

The cultist’s proclamation was cut short by a lightning bolt. It was an imperfect shot, coming at an awkward angle; the electric discharge struck the figure to his left indirectly, arcing to graze him. He toppled backward to the street with a squeal, while his compatriot fell silently, robe smoking. The other cultist jumped backward, and vanished in an abrupt swell of shadow.

The rest of them had whirled to face the direction from which the shot had come, with the exception of the Jackal, who flung his arms wide in a gesture of frustration.

“Oh, come on! I was gonna murder that guy! Goddammit, I never get to kill anybody anymore…”

Sweet hopped down from the second-floor fire escape, landing in a deep crouch, then straightened, still aiming a wand.

“Still alive?” he said to the fallen cult leader, who was emitting shrill moans of pain. “Splendid, I have some friends who’re looking forward to kicking your ass in meticulous detail. Flora! Fauna! Why do I not hear—ah, there we go.”

A bell began tolling not far away, followed by another, and then a third more distantly, the city’s chain of alarm bells finally coming to life to signal the emergency.

“Sorry, boss!” shouted a feminine voice from the roofs above the street. “We’re not miracle workers, you know!”

“Flesh and blood can only move so fast,” another added.

“Yeah, yeah,” the thief muttered, sweeping his gaze across the group. “Joe, you picked a perfect time to show up. Everybody all right?”

“Quite well, thank you,” Danny said pleasantly.

“Well indeed,” the Jackal said, grinning. “The man himself! It’s been a while.”

“It’s gonna go much worse for you than the last time if you attempt any of the bullshit you’re contemplating,” Sweet said curtly, striding over to the fallen cultists. He kicked the leader, eliciting another cry of pain. “You. I don’t know who you fuckers are, but you are going to explain, and then have things explained to you. You do not do this horseshit in my city. By the time I finish—”

He jumped back at the resurgent rise of shadows. Six more robed figures had appeared on either side of the street from the cluster of people present, arranged in a pair of matching triangles.

“Summoning formations!” Joe barked, snapping his wands up. He dropped the three on their right with a round of blindingly fast shots.

Shadow-jumping was an extremely rapid process, though, and by the time he’d turned to the other cluster, they had done their work. The shadows which swelled up obscured that entire half of the street momentarily. When they receded, the three cultists had vanished with them. What remained behind was at least twelve feet tall.

“Oh, by the way,” the Jackal said helpfully. “Undead.”

It was proportioned like a centaur, with a humanoid torso rising from a four-legged base, and made from bones. Not that it was a skeleton; it had been built from haphazardly-collected bones forming a lopsided structure, held together with bolted lengths of iron and pulsating greenish strands of tissue rather like misplaced ligaments. Atop its torso was a single, normal-sized human skull. If not for the overall horror of the thing, its tiny head might have looked comical.

The accompanying smell was truly unspeakable.

Rook squeaked, Finchley retched, and Moriarty shot it. He actually hit it, too, the blast of lightning sending charred bone fragments flying and causing electricity to crackle visibly along the iron pieces lining its structure. The only tangible result of this was to catch the construct’s attention. It turned far more smoothly than such an awkward-looking thing had any right to, facing them directly.

Joe dispatched a rapid series of shots, burning hole after hole through the thing’s tiny head until the skull finally dissolved completely in broken fragments.

This accomplished nothing. The construct ignored him entirely, charging at the group with the speed of an angry bull.

The three soldiers shoved Danny back into the alley, leaving the rest of the group to dive out of the way. It crashed against the side of the building with an awful clatter, breaking chunks of masonry and sending large pieces of bone and iron to the sidewalk.

“Look how fragile it is!” Kheshiri shouted from above. “We can wear it down!”

Joe, Sweet, and the elves had gotten out of the way, Vannae moving far more deftly than his previous show of weakness had suggested he could. Shook was slower, and got accidentally kicked in the monstrosity’s charge and sent skidding across the pavement. Kheshiri dived to the ground, landing over him with her wings protectively spread.

Lightning blasted out of the alley’s mouth; with the construct pressed against the opening, there was no way they could miss, and bolts of energy ripped pieces of it loose. They broke off firing as the thing adjusted itself to reach into the alley with one enormous arm. It was thankfully too big to fit inside, but it had a long enough reach that they were forced to retreat to avoid being grabbed.

Sweet and Joe fled to the opposite side of the street, where the thief let fly with indiscriminate shots from his wand, raking more and more pieces off the monster, while the Kid surgically shot out metal joints one at a time. After just a few seconds of this, the monster sagged slightly to one side, beginning to lose some of its structural integrity. It stumbled further when the Jackal darted up and slammed a long blade into the knee of one of its back legs, wrenching it loose and causing it to slump sideways, that leg disabled.

Moving less adroitly now, the construct shifted to face the rest of them, just in time to take another barrage of lightning out of the alley to its central mass.

“Hold your fire!” Kheshiri shouted. The succubus dived straight down from the sky, striking the monster’s shoulder with both feet and all her weight, then bouncing off and gliding away. The impact knocked its arm loose entirely, leaving it with just the one reaching into the alley.

“Shit!” Shook yelped from up the street. “Shit shit!”

They turned, barely catching the end of another swell of shadows from that direction as the cultists jumped back out, leaving behind a second construct built along the same lines as the first.

“What?” Sweet protested. “How? Where were they keeping them?”

“With multiple shadow-jumpers, coulda been in Sheng-la for all the difference it makes,” Joe said grimly, swiveling and unleashing a barrage of wandfire at the thing as it came barreling up the street at them. “Gotta catch the—look out!”

They had to dive out of the way again, back toward the first monster, which was still trying to move, but able to do little but thrash now, all of its limbs having been disabled by the various adventurers. The new arrival slammed against the apartment building opposite, shattering windows and demolishing a set of decorative eaves; Joe and Sweet barely got out of its way in time to avoid being crushed.

A figure swathed in black plummeted from the roof above, cloak billowing behind her.

“Flora, no!” Sweet shouted.

“Flora, yes,” the elf snapped from right next to him, grabbing his arm and tugging him away. “You let the heavy-hitters deal with this crap.” Fauna planted herself between him and the second monster, brandishing long knives in both hands.

“Wait a sec,” Sweet protested, though he didn’t struggle against her tugging. “If you’re—who is that? Who else wears a cloak?!”

The black figure whirled and swarmed across the construct’s massive body like a temporally accelerated monkey, moving with speed and deftness that even an elf could not match—not to mention strength. Striking with hands and feet, it swiftly and precisely knocked loose strategic pieces of iron while clambering over the monster and evading its grasp. In barely ten seconds, it accomplished what a gaggle of armed fighters hadn’t managed to do to the first construct, which was still feebly wriggling, now lying across the street itself after the last barrage of staff fire had knocked it away from the alley. The new construct, however, collapsed to the pavement in pieces. Something fundamental in its body had clearly been destroyed; it entirely disintegrated, none of its components even attempting to move.

There was a momentary pause in which the only sound was the ongoing alarm bells, followed by another massive swell of shadows out of nowhere, immediately pierced by three beams from Joe’s wand. The shadow abruptly dissipated, leaving three robed figures lying dead in their wake.

“That is enough a’ that,” Joe growled.

Kicking aside a piece of arm as long as she was tall and lowering her hood, the figure in black turned to face the rest of the street. On the ground and stationary, she was revealed as a pretty young woman with dark hair.

Across the way, Shook, Kheshiri, the Jackal, and Vannae, who had just attacked an undead monstrosity five times their collective size without flinching, shouted in panic and scrambled away toward the nearest open alley.

Face set in a predatory glower, the woman shot after them, fast as a pouncing lion.

“STOP!”

Roughly pushing aside Finchley, who was trying to hold him back, Danny emerged from their hiding place, giving the still-twitching necromantic construct a wide berth, but showing no sign of unease. On the contrary, his voice and bearing radiated a command which, surprisingly, stopped everyone in their tracks. The woman skidded to a halt, whirling to stare at him, and the four she’d been pursuing hesitated in spite of themselves.

“We’ve won here,” Danny said firmly. “No more. No turning on each other, and no revenge. Let them be, Milanda. I owe them.”

She let out a short breath, then charged at him, cloak flaring behind her.

Moriarty whipped up his staff at her and Danny punched him in the face, and then she was on him, wrapping her arms around him and burying her head against his chest.

Feet came pounding up the street, and Joe whirled to aim wands, which he immediately lowered.

Five soldiers skidded to a halt, weapons raised, staring around incredulously.

“What in the goddamn hell?” demanded the sergeant at the head of the group. “Weapons down! NOW!”

“Coulda used you gentlemen ’bout ten minutes ago,” Joe muttered, holstering his wands.

“Officers,” Sweet said pleasantly, obligingly dropping his wand and raising his hands over his head. “This is…” He paused, glancing around at the dead bodies, the damaged walls, multiple lightning burns, and shattered remnants of two giant constructs of bone, one still trying to get up. “Well! This is probably more or less exactly whatever the hell it looks like.”

 

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They emerged from the alley into more trouble.

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

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

“Holy shit,” Finchley said somewhat tremulously.

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

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

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

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

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

“Whoah, hey!” Rook protested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I said better reason,” she said dryly.

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

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

“Vanislaad,” Joe said shortly.

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

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

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

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

“Oh, great,” Joe muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll be trapped—”

“Trust me, now!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Vannae,” Joe said stiffly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, are you okay?” Shook asked him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, is that all,” Finchley muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck this whole business,” Shook muttered.

“Amen, brother,” Rook agreed.

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

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

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

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

There was a beat of silence.

“Seriously?” Moriarty exclaimed at last.

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


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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, it was also making them angry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Professor Tellwyrn!” Toby exclaimed in clear relief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can confirm that,” the dwarf added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There are serious matters of principle—”

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

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

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

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

“Yes!” chorused half a dozen people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

Toby sighed. “Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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12 – 40

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“And that’s the perimeter secure,” Rossiter said, heaving a sigh. “On we go.”

“Don’t look so glum,” Alsadi replied as they rounded the corner into the interior halls. “It’s probably nothing, same as always.”

“I’ll look glum if I wanna,” she said without ire. “’Sides…”

He echoed her sigh. “Yeah, yeah. I know.”

Everything and everyone in this sub-level below Dawnchapel was a secret of the highest order, but at least the soldiers of the Holy Legion—the true Holy Legion, veterans trained by Colonel Ravoud, not the shiny-armored popinjays who served to attract attention in the Cathedral—could take off their white uniforms and visit home. They were all fully devoted to the Archpope and his cause, and thus far there had been no breaches of security from them. The others down here, though, were either too distinctive, or too hunted, to show their faces outside except on assignment. There had been no assignments for far too long a span of weeks, and several of them were growing increasingly restive. Mostly the ones whose personalities hadn’t been much to speak of in the first place. Which was most of them.

No sooner had they entered the ring of halls circling the central underground complex than Rossiter’s worst fears were born out.

“Lot of running hither and yon all of a sudden,” Jeremiah Shook commented idly, lounging against the wall with his hands in his pockets. Had he encountered such a man on the street, Alsadi would have gripped his weapon and increased his pace—or, if he’d been on duty, stopped to demand an explanation for his presence. Everything about the guy screamed thug, which was an aspect Shook cultivated deliberately and with skill. Not that it did him much good down here. “What’s got you lot so stirred up, hm?”

He addressed himself directly to Rossiter, allowing his eyes to flick below her collar for a moment, though at least he had the restraint not to give her the full once-over. This time.

“An irregularity in the wards, sir,” Rossiter replied with admirable composure. “There’s a possibility of incursion. The squad is doing a full sweep.”

At that, Shook straightened up, his leer vanishing. “What? Intruders? Why wasn’t I told?”

“It’s almost certainly nothing,” said Rossiter. “This has happened before, usually caused by a telescroll passing overhead in just the wrong way, or a nearby factory firing up new equipment. It’s common; wards are finicky in a city with this much active enchantment. You and the high-value assets are safe, rest assured.”

Not, Alsadi noted, you and the other high-value assets. Rossiter had spoken completely deadpan, but he knew her well enough to know the omission was deliberate. His own face betrayed a smile, though, which made him the focus of Shook’s glare. The man tensed up, bunching his fists and flushing, as if somebody had just insulted his mother. What a charmer.

“We need to continue our sweep and report in, sir,” Alsadi said politely, saluting. “Good evening.”

He and Rossiter turned and marched off down the hall. He had half-expected Shook to follow and try to make something of it—which wouldn’t have been the first time—but there was no sound of footsteps from behind them, thankfully.

“Gods, I hate that guy,” Rossiter growled once they’d rounded the corner. “What’s he even doing down here? The others I understand, but he’s just some sleazy…”

Alsadi gave her a sympathetic look. She was the only woman in the unit attached to Dawnchapel, which, Shook being Shook, made her the frequent focus of his attention. The Holy Legion suffered the same imbalance as the Imperial Army, but far worse: most women who wanted to be soldiers enlisted in the Silver Legions. The Army was barely forty percent female, and the Holy Legion less than one in ten, since women who were of both martial and religious inclination especially preferred the Silver Legions.

“At least the succubus leaves you alone,” he offered. “She’s tried to get in everybody else’s pants. I don’t think she even wants to, really. She’s just bored.”

“I never thought I would hear myself say this,” she grumbled, “but I don’t have a problem with the demon. At least she keeps him busy. Anyway, she can probably tell I don’t go for girls; I think they have special senses for—”

Alsadi barely registered the black blur that sped at them from behind, crashing into the side of Rossiter’s head and sending her careening off the wall, before an arm was wrapped around his throat, cutting off his airflow and clamping down. He gripped it desperately, but his attacker had the strength of an ogre. Not the weight, though; he was able to shift, trying to throw the assailant, but they moved with astonishing deftness, compensating for his every motion. Not they, she—pressed against his back as she was, he could tell that much, though all he could see was the tip of the elbow clutching his neck. Frantically, he tried to shift his staff to aim behind at her feet, and it was deftly wrenched from his grasp and tossed away. As sparks and darkness encroached on his vision, he scrabbled for his sidearm, only to find his wrist pinned. Gods, she was strong…


Milanda released the soldier, letting him slump to the floor. White uniforms…this was new. They had an understated ankh insignia at the breast, so she was clearly looking at Universal Church personnel.

“Did you hear any of that?” she asked softly, trusting the mask to muffle her voice. Vex had issued them four; the black wrap which concealed everything below her eyes was enchanted so that anything spoken into it could be heard only by someone wearing one of its siblings. Between that and her Infinite Order earpiece, she was audible to the rest of her team and no one else. In theory.

“Uh…maybe a scuffle of some kind?” Finchley’s voice offered. “You okay?”

“As I’ve mentioned, the earpieces are designed to obscure anything but your voice,” Walker replied with her customary calm. “Not perfectly, but… What happened?”

“I overheard some soldiers talking,” Milanda replied, moving lightly back up the hallway in the direction from which they had come. “There’s a succubus down here.”

“Holy shit,” Rook muttered. “On the list of the top ten things an Archpope should not be screwing around with, that’s gotta be numbers two through six!”

“Seems your hunch was right, then,” Finchley added.

“Clear this channel, please,” Walker said curtly. “Milanda, think about disengaging. The only thing you know about that facility is that what’s down there crushed the core of the Black Wreath when they invaded it. Just the intelligence you’ve gathered so far is important. I can have you out the moment you give the word.”

“That’s what makes the difference,” Milanda murmured. “The Wreath couldn’t escape; their shadow-jumping was blocked at the time. Vex says this is where Justinian’s keeping his dark project, and it’s darker than we imagined. Be ready to teleport me out, Walker, but I want to learn more if I can. And possibly break some things.”

“Need backup?” Moriarty offered.

She grimaced behind the mask. The thought of those three loose down here was not comforting. So far, she hadn’t come up with an actual plan for them, though they’d already proved useful to her in keeping in contact with Vex while she visited the old spaceport for supplies.

“Not at the moment,” she said aloud, creeping up to the corner and peering around. No sign of whoever the two soldiers had been talking to. There were living beings present, though, including one which felt remarkably similar to the dryads; she had to get a look at that, at bare minimum. Milanda could have pointed to them in a straight line, but there were walls intervening, and she didn’t know the layout down here.

She had minutes, at most, before this got very exciting. There were two unconscious soldiers lying behind her in the hall, while the facility was apparently in the middle of a security sweep. The only question was whether they’d wake before they were discovered.

Milanda padded swiftly up the hall, silent on enchanted boots. Vex had provided absolutely top of the line charms on all the gear, including actual invisibility cloaks, though ironically she hadn’t been able to bring one of those as the rest of the enchantments she was wearing messed up its function. The cloak she did have on was a more limited version, bearing a chameleon charm; so long as she stood completely still, she would blend into the background, but in motion she became visible again. That was one of the problems with over-reliance on enchantment. The more powerful they were, the more likely to interfere with each other.

She came to a broad doorway, its double doors standing open, and paused for a moment to let the chameleon charm activate before carefully peeking around the frame. Moving slowly enough made her a barely-visible blur; if someone were looking right at the door, they might still spot her, but it was better than nothing.

Beyond lay a very wide circular chamber, its center slightly lowered. It looked like a stadium, actually, which made sense as the Dawnchapel had once been an Omnist temple. Now, though, it had clearly been retrofitted as living quarters, with furniture and decorations scattered about. Doors branched off from multiple sides, with wide double ones in each of the four cardinal directions and smaller ones in between. She sensed living beings behind several of the small ones. So…broad doors leading to outer halls, narrow doors to attached rooms or suites, most likely.

A man in a suit stood next to a bar/kitchen arrangement with his back to her, in the process of mixing a cocktail.

Milanda took stock of this for a bare moment, then slipped inside, moving slowly to remain partially obscured, and dividing her attention between the man with the slicked-back hair and her sense of the lives around. She headed toward the door behind which lay the blazing beacon of fae power; she very much needed to learn what that was. If Justinian had a dryad of his own, her situation with Hawthorn and the others could become complicated.

The shortest path there took her uncomfortably close to the man in the suit, but she kept to it for the sake of speed, watching him closely and prepared to freeze instantly if he turned. It was odd, considering the danger she was in, how calm she felt. One of the gifts of her new status, maybe?

She was so focused on her objective and the surrounding threats that she very nearly missed the other presence in the room.

It was different—subtle, too, difficult to notice, and not life so much as…its inversion. Not like Walker, though. It was its movement that gave it away, and Milanda paused, not turning her head, but focusing her attention. Something off-kilter and wavery was creeping through her perceptions right toward her.

The succubus.

Grimacing behind her mask, she considered her options. The demon clearly knew she was there, and was coming in for a stealth attack. By the same token, the succubus apparently didn’t realize she’d perceived her. Milanda had the element of surprise and was physically more than a match for the creature, she was sure. But engaging would draw attention… Could she get to her objective first? No, the demon was too close, and drawing closer. If there was a fight, the object of her focus might come out to investigate anyway… But if it was something related to dryads or comparably powerful, having it come after her was a very different proposition than sneaking up to peek at it.

Bollocks. Well, any dead demon was progress on behalf of the world, especially if this one was important to Justinian.

Among her equipment was a variety of weapons. Milanda considered them for a moment before deciding to try for one last hope of subtlety.

Knife-throwing wasn’t favored in Viridill, being associated with rogues and ruffians rather than honorable warriors, which was exactly why she had practiced it in her rebellious youth.

Augmented as she was by the craft which made the Hands of the Emperor, the act of snatching a knife from behind her belt and hurling it was so fast even an elf would have been hard-pressed to dodge the attack. That, however, was the extent of the good news. The rapid movement collapsed her stealth, snapping her back into visibility—just as the guy in the suit turned to bring her into his field of view. The succubus, also, was no elf, and while Milanda had never read that children of Vanislaas were noted combatants, her presence in Milanda’s ethereal senses rippled and shifted, and the knife flashed harmlessly past.

“What the fuck!” the man snarled, and despite his phrasing, it was not a question.

Then he dropped his freshly-mixed drink and whipped out a wand, and Milanda lost all control of her body.

Without deciding to move, she was moving, hurtling toward him in a flying leap and spinning about in midair, causing her cloak to whirl dramatically about her. Two wandshots—clean white beams of light, not lightning bolts—flashed at her, but she had successfully distorted her appearance with her approach, and neither connected. Not with her, anyway; both pierced the cloak, and Milanda heard the soft but distinctive crackle of enchantments being disrupted.

So much for stealth.

She landed on him, neatly grabbing him by the wand arm and whipping herself around in a kind of reverse throw, hurling her body instead of his, so that she landed behind him with his arm still in her grip. With, in fact, her hand covering his, and squeezing his finger on the trigger.

Milanda, far stronger than he, shifted minutely, firing the wand at midair. The succubus dodged again, but beams of light were not so easily evaded as thrown knives. With a shriek, she popped into visibility as she spun around, pierced right through the chest.

Would that kill her? Did they even have organs? She was sadly unfamiliar with demonology.

“Kheshiri!” Milanda’s captive shouted. “You fucking who—”

The rest of his imprecation was lost as she shifted her grip, spinning in place, and hurling him forward over her shoulder. He impacted the wall back-first, upside down, and slid down to land on his head before collapsing in an ungainly heap.

Finally, she froze, staring about in near-panic. She could never have moved like that. No one could move like that. Scuffling with the dryads had been one thing; this was a total loss of control. Her body just reacted. It had surely saved her life, but it was not an experience she had enjoyed.

Her moment of frantic introspection cost her.

One of the doors burst open, catching Milanda’s attention and bringing her focus back to the other life signs nearby.

An elf stood there, wearing an incongruous pinstriped suit and regarding the scene with an expression of mild surprise. Milanda, cloaked and masked all in dramatic black, standing over the unconscious shooter and with the succubus groaning on the ground nearby. Not dead, curse it all. How did you kill a Vanislaad?

Then the elf smiled, and despite her lack of fear for her physical safety, the expression sent a chill down her spine.

“Now you,” he said cheerfully, “are exactly what I was looking for. Finally, a little fun!”

With that, he vanished from view.

Once again, Milanda was overtaken by the “gifts” of the dryads. She could still sense the now-invisible elf, making a beeline toward her with the speed only his race possessed, and while her instincts wanted her to flee, her body stood in place, swiveling to peer about in an pantomime of disorientation. Only belatedly did she realize what she was doing.

The invisible elf lunged from opposite the direction she was currently looking. Without turning her head, Milanda grabbed him in mid-leap. She felt the bones of his arm break in her grip an instant before she whipped him through the air above her head and slammed him onto the bar.

He yelped, wheezed, and tumbled gracelessly to the ground, again visible.

“I’m fairly certain that was a wandshot,” Walker said in her ear, “and I’m positive I hear scuffling. What’s your status, Milanda?”

“Fine,” she said a little numbly, shaken more by her own loss of control than the violence. “Three hostiles down. How do you kill a succubus?”

To her credit, Walker hesitated only for a moment. “They don’t have biological weak points. Magic weapons, if you brought any, or catastrophic physical damage. Removing the head or destroying at least fifty percent of the torso should suffice.”

At that moment, another door opened. The one toward which she’d been heading in the fist place.

Milanda locked eyes with the new arrival for a bare moment, before she and her newfound battle reflexes found themselves in agreement. Which was to the good, because she might have wasted precious seconds staring in shock before fleeing. As it was, she made it out the door and around the corner before a blast of fire roared after her, splashing against the wall.

So. Not a dryad, then.

“A dragon,” she gasped, pelting down the hall at full tilt. “There is a green dragon down here!”

“Holy fuck!” Rook squeaked. “Lady, get out of there!”

“Agreed! Walker!”

Silence. Milanda carried on down the hall, reaching out with her senses. The dragon had hesitated in the central chamber, probably examining his downed allies. Unfortunately, the path she was taking away from that door was bringing her closer to a large cluster of human life signs. Troops, probably.

“Walker!” she shouted. “Pull me out!”

“There’s a problem,” Walker said in a strained voice. “The wards have been cycled—wait, no. These aren’t passive wards anymore, someone is actively maintaining them. This is real trouble, Milanda. This equipment can outsmart any enchantments currently made, but an actual wizard is another matter.”

“Standard procedure in the event of an incursion like this,” Moriarty said, and oddly enough, his clipped delivery was somehow reassuring. “At least, in the Imperial Army. It stands to reason these soldiers will have similar policies and regulations.”

“All right, give me a minute,” Walker said quickly. “Keep moving and stay alive, Milanda. I’m going to zero in on the wizard, then I’ll direct you to him. Take him out, the wards will lift, and I’ll be able to extract you.”

“Got it,” Milanda said grimly. She skidded to a halt next to the first door she came to; people were running in the halls now, closing on her from multiple directions. Yanking the door open, she dived through, pulling it shut quickly and then holding it at the last instant to avoid a slam.

She very gently finished closing it a second before she sensed the first soldier moving into the hall behind her. There was, blessedly, a lock, which she slid softly home. Only then did she turn to discover the bad news.

“So much for keeping moving,” she muttered.

“What?” Walker demanded.

“I’m in a room with only one exit,” Milanda said irritably. An office of some kind; desks, papers, nothing that looked useful in her situation. “Soldiers in the hall behind me.”

“Hey, uh,” Rook said hesitantly, “can you get us into there? Maybe we can help her…”

“Not with that wizard working!” Walker snapped. “Be quiet, let me concentrate!”

Milanda stood in place, focusing. Soldiers were now moving in the halls behind her… But not on the other side of the wall opposite the door. In fact, there was no one in the immediate vicinity on that side. Was she strong enough to punch through a wall, now? Not quickly or cleanly—that would take time and draw attention.

The dragon was moving, now. Could he sense her this way, or similarly? Who knew what a green dragon could do?

“I need another exit,” she said aloud.

“I can’t help you there,” Walker said somewhat plaintively. “I’m working, Milanda! Soon as I have something, I’ll direct you, but you’ll have to find your own way through the soldiers.”

“You’ve got this, ma’am!” Finchley said encouragingly. “You faced down a succubus and whatever else, you can do it!”

She wasn’t listening. Milanda had reached into the largest pouch attached to her belt, and with some difficulty extracted the object she’d stowed there earlier. Finally she had to jerk it free. It hadn’t wanted to fit in the first place; this wasn’t part of the kit Vex had issued her.

A quick press of the switch, and the room lit up a pale, arcane blue, suddenly filled with a deep buzzing.

“What was that?” Walker said sharply.

“Oh, that you heard,” Milanda muttered, then crossed the small room in two strides and pressed the glowing blade against the wall.

It sank through as if she were cutting cheese. Sparks flew from the masonry, flames flickered along the scorched edges of wood paneling, but the weapon carved neatly through. She began drawing a vertical line, attending to the motions of people around her. Still nobody in the space beyond, but there was movement on the periphery… Nothing else for it now; it would likely only be moments before they thought to check this door.

“Milanda,” Walker said shrilly, “that sound had better not be what I think it is!”

She pulled the blade free from the wall, and began carving a vertical line to form the top of her improvised door. “I’m afraid it is.”

“You—how could you!? Did I not emphasize how dangerous those—put that fool contraption down before you kill yourself!”

“I know what I’m doing, thank you.”

“Uh, what’s going on?” Rook asked nervously.

“You shut up!” Walker barked. “Milanda, put that thing away! Aside from the risk to you, what do you think will happen if anybody sees the saber? You might as well advertise where you got it in the papers!”

Milanda paused before starting on the other vertical cut. “If anybody sees the what?”

“The weapon!”

She frowned at the straight, glowing blade. “This is clearly not a saber. If anything, it’s a longsword.”

The buzz and crackle of the sword going back into the wall was augmented this time by a repeated, muffled thumping from her earpiece.

“Walker, don’t hit your head on things. That equipment is ancient.”

Finally, she withdrew the blade again and switched it off, though she kept it in her hand rather than trying to cram it back in the ill-fitting pouch. Her improvised doorway smoldered and put off acrid smoke. It also wasn’t particularly even, but it would do.

She stepped back, shifted position, and slammed her foot against it.

Ordinary human strength probably wouldn’t have sufficed, but the cut section of wall cracked and buckled at its base, then toppled outward into the space beyond. Milanda immediately stepped after it.

She was now in what appeared to be a mess hall—long tables and benches, broad doors at either end. Oh, just perfect. Thankfully the soldiers were still chasing her around, rather than occupying their own living quarters, and clearly didn’t expect to find her here of all places. Perhaps their section of the facility down here wasn’t connected to the space where the serious assets were kept.

But no such luck.

“What was that?” a man’s voice shouted from beyond the door to her left.

Milanda paused to concentrate on her senses. No… If anything, she’d managed to pin herself even more thoroughly. Humans were clustered in the space to the left side. Worse…

The dragon was approaching. Not quickly, but exiting the right-hand doors would bring her in his direction.

“Shit,” she muttered.

“Well said!” Walker snarled.

Milanda glanced rapidly back and forth, then drew a wand from its holster at her belt with her other hand. Wand and sword at the ready, she made her choice and flew into motion.

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9 – 38

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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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