Tag Archives: Thumper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“VOLLEY!” she roared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um,” Casey said. “We’re trapped.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They froze as a muted whirring noise sounded from above.

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

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

“No,” Farah whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

“Hell yes!” Merry crowed, grinning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

They apparently weren’t needed here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fascinating,” Ariel mused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Agreed,” said Trissiny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was quick, but the Kid was faster.

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9 – 29

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

“Why that one again?” Merry wondered aloud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?” Ephanie demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re listening,” Principia said warily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can see auras?” Ephanie asked warily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s up?”

“How are talking swords made?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“By release,” Toby said, “you mean…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, hell,” Razsha whispered.

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

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

“What’s happening?” Juniper demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone stared at the perfectly mundane, apparently harmless object.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Toby exclaimed. “Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is a catastrophe,” Timms whispered.

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

“At least half a dozen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

“Who’s we?” Weaver snorted.

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

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

“No?” Raea arched an eyebrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know,” he said tersely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Khadizroth smiled faintly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody moved toward them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dwarf flushed slightly and lowered his eyes.

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

“Virtually anything,” said McGraw, nodding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shook snorted loudly.

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

The wind whistled softly into the ensuing silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The group glanced at each other.

“I’m not sure,” Joe began.

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

Another silence fell.

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

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

“Very likely more so,” Khadizroth said grimly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There are all kinds of reasons why that—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Be that as it may,” Joe began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hm,” Shook muttered, frowning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

“Your pardon, Bishop Darling?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is most troubling,” he murmured, frowning thoughtfully into the distance beyond Shahai’s shoulder. For once it was a totally unfeigned expression, as his natural response suited the role he had to play. That was always good; a successful liar had to be as natural as possible.

“Forgive the change of subject,” Shahai said, watching his face intently, “but I believe you worked closely with Bishp Syrinx, did you not?”

Oh, what was she up to now? Had that whole affair been a feint?

“A few of his Holiness’s initiatives put us side by side, yes,” he replied, controlling his expression again.

“These are interesting shoes I am left to fill,” she said with an inscrutable little smile. “I wonder, what did you think of her?”

“Basra’s ability to get results has been missed by several of us around here,” he said frankly. “She is quite skilled. One must be, to get away with being so difficult to work with.”

Shahai’s answering smile was a few degrees warmer and more genuine. “I see. I apologize for derailing the conversation. You seemed so concerned, it put me in mind of the many snipped threads which I am left to grasp here and weave back together. I fear Captain Syrinx did not leave detailed notes on most of her projects with the Church. Could this issue be related to one of them?”

“I would be astonished if so,” he said slowly. Of course, he knew well that a good way to get a moment of honesty out of someone was by forcing them to abruptly change focus. And she surely would know that he knew that… Just how old was this woman? She carried herself with the classic aloof calm of the older elves, but hell, he had taught Flora and Fauna to do that in the course of a week. Shahai could be younger than he, or older than the Empire. There was no telling how much skill and experience he was contending with here, and now she wanted to stick her nose into…

Well, why not? He’d had unexpectedly good results in the last year from extending unasked trust and honesty. Perhaps this was a good opportunity to build on that.

“Pardon my slowness,” he said with a self-deprecating little smile. “There is a whole tangled web of priorities and agendas you’ve just brought up, Bishop Shahai, and I almost didn’t know where to start.”

“Please,” she said pleasantly, “it’s just Nandi. I am but a temporary replacement.”

“Of course,” he replied in the same tone. “Ultimately, though, we have a cult member in common, and her safety must come first.”

Shahai’s gaze sharpened. “Safety?”

“Girls,” he said, angling his head to include his apprentices in the conversation, “go to my office and retrieve the blue folder in the top right corner of my desk, please.”

“You locked your office, your Grace,” Fauna noted.

“Oh, it’s not merely locked,” he said with a hint of a properly mischievous Eserite grin, mostly for Shahai’s benefit. Let her chew on that. “Fetch me the folder, and when I inspect the office afterward, if I can find no other traces of your retrieval, you both get two days off from training.”

At that, they both smiled right back, their delight unfeigned, but its presentation still well controlled. Oh, they were coming along nicely.

“Consider it done,” Flora said with rransparently feigned solemnity, and they turned in unison and glided back up the broad hall down which he had just led them.

“Nandi,” he said, turning back to his fellow Bishop and letting his own face grow serious again, “I wonder if we could step into your office? I’ll need to pass the information you gave me on to Boss Tricks, but first there are a few things you, Commander Rouvad and especially Principia need to know.”


 

A short succession of raps sounded on the office door, and then it was pushed open. Shook stepped inside, nodding to Khadizroth and then to Svarveld. “Am I interrupting?”

“Just tedious progress reports,” the dwarf said with a tight little smile. “Made ever more tedious as well as irritating by the lack of any progress to speak of.”

“You mustn’t be so negative, Mr. Svarveld,” Khadizroth said with a patrician smile. “Every dead end your crews explore in the old mines rules out a threat and furthers our progress. I am only sorry that your team must shoulder the tedium themselves.”

“Well, the lack of actual retrieval is unusual and tad disheartening,” the foreman said, relaxing so far as to smile at the dragon, “but it’s not as if mucking around in tunnels isn’t our favorite thing to do. And I must say this surveying work is far quicker than actual digging.”

“Nonetheless,” Khadizroth replied, “if there is anything any of us can do to make your jobs easier, please don’t hesitate to come to me. This isn’t a pleasant task for any of us; I don’t want anyone to suffer unduly.”

“Oh, we’re all right,” Svarveld demurred quickly. “As I said, we’re all professionals. I may want to talk to you in a few more days about shift schedules, though. We’re getting far enough out from the town that the space we need to cover spreads us pretty thin. If those elves get any more aggressive, that could be a problem.”

“That,” said Shook with a cold half-smirk, “could finally relieve the tedium for the rest of us. I just did a sweep of the town’s outskirts, K, and Shiri’s off scouting Raea’s band from the air. And yes, before you ask, from a very safe distance. I know my girl; she doesn’t take unnecessary risks.”

“I appreciate your diligence, Jeremiah,” said Khadizroth, leaning back in his chair. Aside from his smooth emerald eyes and green hair, he looked simply like a wood elf, right down to his preferred attire. That made his surroundings seem peculiar; wood elves, or indeed elves in general, were rarely found seated in plush chairs behind heavy desks.

“Well, I may be a thief, but I’m not dishonest enough to accept unearned praise,” Shook said, shrugging. “Truth is, I am bored to the ragged edge of insanity, here. We all are, and I’m frankly beginning to worry about what’ll happen if Jack doesn’t find some outlet for his…himself. If those elves don’t start getting aggressive, I might suggest we move first.”

Svarveld coughed discreetly. “Well. Security’s over my head, gentlemen. Unless you want my input, Mr. K?”

“Your input is always valued,” Khadizroth said, nodding deeply to him. “But your skills are best used directing your miners, Mr. Svarveld. I won’t keep you from your work any longer.”

“Till next report, then, sir,” the dwarf replied, bowing. He paused in the act of turning away to give Shook an exceedingly blank look, then crossed to the door, stepping widely around the enforcer, and slipped out, shutting it quietly behind him.

“If I were a more paranoid person,” Shook said dryly, “I might be tempted to think he doesn’t like me.”

“He has, in fact, passed along to me a few complaints regarding you, Jeremiah, from several of his crew,” Khadizroth said. His tone remained soft and mild as usual; his blank green eyes were annoyingly hard to read, but the dragon’s expression was merely thoughtful.

Shook snorted, crossing to one of the other chairs in the office—the one near the bar—and pouring himself a drink even as he sat down. A drink of water, of course. Risk had no standing bodies of water, but boasted no fewer than three wells, and was well equipped to supply its current occupants. Shook had taken to enforcing a limit on hard drinks on himself: one, after dinner, period. It grated, but as dull as it was around here, he knew very well he would drink himself comatose before noon every day unless he maintained serious self-discipline.

He had scarcely exaggerated. The boredom was weighing heavily on their whole party. He had nothing to do with his time except patrol the town, inspect the miners, screw Kheshiri and play cards with the Jackal and Vannae—gods knew the elves were no good for conversation. He was also seriously concerned about what the Jackal might do if he grew too bored. Shook had been around enough men who enjoyed killing and hurting to recognize the type. If you couldn’t get rid of them, keeping them entertained was a high priority.

Not that he’d mentioned it to Khadizroth, nor would, but Kheshiri’s growing boredom was also making her an ever-increasing hassle to deal with. He knew little about the psychology of succubi, but the Jackal had mockingly disclosed enough of that lore to make him suspect he had underestimated the volume of trouble he was taking on in keeping her on a longer leash. Well, if worse came to worst, he could always put her back in the reliquary. That would be a shame, though; he very much liked having physical access to her.

“You seem unsurprised,” Khadizroth prompted, and Shook realized he had drifted off in thought.

He grunted and took a sip of water. “Feh. Dwarves. In their culture, thieving is a greater crime than murder.”

“That is a slight exaggeration,” said the dragon with an amused little smile.

“A very slight one,” Shook snorted. “The long and the short of it is, I’m hardly surprised that dwarves wouldn’t take to me. Fortunately, I do not give one single shit what they think. Makes my life a lot easier.”

“In the short term, I suppose it would,” Khadizroth murmured, folding his hands atop the desk and staring across the office at his pool. Not for the first time, Shook pondered how calm, how approachable the dragon was. Stories about them made much of their aura of majesty, the tendency they had to command awe and obedience simply by their presence. Khadizroth was, if anything, humble. Despite everything, Shook couldn’t help liking him a bit.

He liked the office, anyway; the dragon had simple but expensive tastes, and the magic on hand to indulge them even out here in the frayed end of the sticks. It was a pleasingly masculine space, paneled in dark wood, with a plush maroon carpet and old weapons displayed on the walls. Old weapons, bladed ones, nothing magical or modern, and all of them not only of quality make but bearing the marks of long use. Despite the generally low level of light, the dragon grew plants in large pots in each corner. Cacti, succulents and stands of field grasses, not floofy flowery plants like some ladies’ teahouse. Opposite his desk he had constructed a stone semi-circle which contained a pool of water, complete with two lazy carp and floating lily pads.

“Specifically,” the dragon went on after a long moment, “Svarveld says your inspections of his delving operations do more harm than good.”

“Yeah. Well.” Shook took a drink of water, averting his gaze. “Quite frankly, I’ll have to own that. I know precisely fuck all about mining; I only go down in those holes to get away from the rest of our delightful crew and keep myself occupied. Sorry; I’ll give ’em some space. Not like I was doing any good down there anyhow.”

“They don’t seem to much mind having their shoulders looked over,” Khadizroth said mildly. “The miners take great pride in their work, justifiably. But several have complained that you bother the women in the crews.”

Shook snorted loudly. “Oh, please. What the hell are women doing in a mining crew anyway? I don’t know whether they’re being indulged by rich daddies or are there to provide comfort to the real workers and dwarves are just too cagey to admit it in front of tall folk. Either way, the whole idea is ridiculous. Anyhow, they’ve got nothing to complain about. I’ve not laid a hand on a one of them, nor given ’em a cross word.”

“You might be surprised how much you can convey merely by looking.”

Shook grinned. “Then again, I might not. I’m an enforcer, K; you can’t effectively enforce by breaking everybody’s kneecaps. Mostly, people just need to be afraid of you. Break one or two kneecaps and get real good at glaring, that’s how it’s done.”

“If any of the female members of Svarveld’s crew are afraid of you, they’ve not mentioned it,” said the dragon with a thin smile. “I don’t believe they are intimidated by much, in fact; dwarves are a famously stalwart and hardy people. They have seemed to me offended, annoyed, in some cases even disgusted. But no, not afraid.”

“You sure seem to have done a lot of listening to these women’s opinions,” Shook said, scowling.

“As you yourself pointed out, my friend, there is a lack of much of anything to do, with our dwarven allies shouldering most of the actual work. I find that listening to everyone’s input fills my day quite satisfyingly.”

“Yeah, well, take ’em with a pinch of salt. Half of what a woman tells you is drama, a third is lies, ten percent is useful pertinent information, and the rest random noise.”

“What specific figures,” Khadizroth said, gazing calmly at him. “You’ve expressed similar views before, Jeremiah. I wonder what makes you think this? You are, after all, talking about half of all sentient species.”

“Not dragons, I note. And aren’t you the biggest, baddest, most powerful race there is? And not a female amongst you. I think my point stands.”

“There are roughly as many dryads as dragons in the world,” Khadizroth said wryly, “if not more. In any case, pardon my curiosity. I am simply interested in the reason for your antipathy. Such hostility is never without some root cause, in my experience.”

Shook made an involuntary twisting expression with his lips; even he couldn’t have said whether it was a grin or a sneer. “Root cause? I trust the evidence of my senses, that’s all.”

“Really?” Khadizroth suddenly leaned forward, staring intently at Shook as though his attention were captivated. “You do? Why is that?”

Shook stared back at him. “…are you kidding? What else can you do?”

“I wonder if you would indulge me in a little experiment,” Khadizroth said with a smile.

“Sounds creepy,” Shook said warily.

“I suppose anything can be, if looked at askance,” the dragon replied. “But I think you’ll find this instructive. Close your eyes for a moment.”

Shook squinted at him suspiciously, but Khadizroth only gazed calmly back at him. After a few seconds, moved more by idle curiosity than anything else, he complied.

“Good,” said the dragon. “What do you see?”

“Are you serious?”

“Well, eyelids are very slightly translucent, of course. Can you see the outline of the window behind me?”

Shook frowned. “Nope. Just black.”

“Very good. Now raise your right hand and wave it back and forth in front of your face.”

“…are you just trying to make me look stupid? You must be as bored as the rest of us.”

“I’ve seen the rise and fall of nations, Jeremiah,” the dragon said wryly. “I am not so easily entertained. Trust me—just try it.”

Shook sighed, but finally did so, lifting his hand and waving it rapidly in front of his closed eyes. A moment later he frowned, and did so again more slowly.

“What do you see?”

“It’s… Just a shadow. A faint image of… Well, that’s a neat trick, I guess, but like you said, eyelids are slightly dah!”

He yelped embarrassingly and jerked backward in his chair nearly hard enough to tip it over. He had opened his eyes to find Khadizroth’s face inches from his own, the glow of his eyes dominating his view.

“Clearly not,” the dragon said with a measure of satisfaction, straightening up and backing away a few steps. “Why, then, were you able to see the shadow of your hand through your closed eyelids?”

“That’s a rhetorical question, right?” Shook growled, clenching his hands on the arms of the chair and clinging to his self-control. He did not appreciate pranks like that. Approachable or not, though, Khadizroth was still a dragon, and not someone to whom it would be smart to show his temper. “This reeks of a lesson.”

“It’s a simple trick of the mind,” Khadizroth said, turning and pacing back around behind his desk. “Your brain knows where your extremities are. Even when you cannot actually see, it constructs an appropriate image. Especially when you cannot see, in fact; when you actually can, it has no need to. That is not the only thing about your vision which is counterintuitive. Due to the specific anatomy of the human eyeball, the picture you have of the world is upside-down and has a blank spot in the center. The brain corrects for both of those deficiencies.”

“That’s…interesting,” Shook said carefully.

“You don’t believe me,” Khadizroth replied with a smile, seating himself again.

“All due respect, K, if you’re gonna tell tales like that, you can’t fairly expect to be taken at face value.”

“You are a trained follower of Eserion, Jeremiah; you know how lies work. If I were going to lie, would I not tell a believable story?” He gave that a pause to let it sink in before continuing. “A less believable tale isn’t necessarily true, of course. In this matter, though, are you willing to acknowledge that my knowledge widely exceeds yours, and that I have no motive to trick you?”

“I…suppose,” Shook said grudgingly.

The dragons folded his hands in his lap, leaning back. “In any case, those interesting facts only serve to demonstrate my true point. Everything we see, hear, and touch…everything we know about the world…is filtered and processed through very imperfect mechanisms. We do not interact with reality itself, Jeremiah, but only with the vague shadows our senses tell us, reconstructed by our flawed minds.”

“What’s your point?” Shook demanded.

Khadizroth shrugged. “You say you trust the evidence of your senses? I don’t. It’s a lesson I have learned painfully.”

“What can you trust, then?” Shook exclaimed. “I don’t get what you’re driving at. Do you stagger around blind?”

“No,” the dragon mused. “Obviously you cannot function without placing a great deal of faith in these flawed perceptions. One must, however, keep in mind that those perceptions do have flaws, and potentially great ones. Believing without question in what you see is a path to self-deception. Over time, I have learned that the only true wisdom is in knowing that you are a fool.”

“I don’t much appreciate being called a fool,” Shook said, clutching the chair even harder.

“I was referring to myself, actually,” Khadizroth replied, his tone mild as ever. “Though the point applies to anyone. I have been dramatically wrong about many things, Jeremiah. I have made great, terrible mistakes. Rather recently, in fact.”

“Well,” Shook said, beginning to relax slightly, “I don’t get the impression anyone who lacks some flaws of character ends up in a merry little band like ours.”

“Indeed,” Khadizroth said with a wry smile. “Ultimately, I think, it is about power.”

“Power?” he repeated cautiously.

Khadizroth nodded. “One tends to blame others for one’s misfortunes—it is natural and instinctive. The mind reacts to protect its self-image. Obviously, whatever unpleasant thing befalls us is someone else’s fault, because we are each of us the hero of our own story. We cannot be in the wrong, or the world just doesn’t make sense!” He sighed. “I am embarrassed at how long I had to live to get over that gut reaction. I have seen so many others brought to ruin by it. In the end, it robs you of your power. So long as I am at fault for the ills of my life, so long as I accept the responsibility and the blame, I remain the one in command of my destiny. If I am the architect of my failures, I can be the architect of my successes. If they are imposed upon me, however, I become a victim. Weak, helpless…at the mercy of others.”

“This…is all pretty roundabout,” Shook said, frowning. “You’re starting to lose me.”

“Yes, forgive me, I do tend to natter on. One of those faults I was telling you about.” The dragon shook his head, smiling self-deprecatingly. “I suppose my point is that it’s unwise to place too much faith in yourself. Embrace being wrong, my young friend. It’s the only path I’ve found, in all my years, to eventually being right.”

“How did we get onto this from discussing women, of all things?”

“Well, it is a general observation,” Khadizroth mused, “but it did not come out of the blue. I suppose we are all wrong about certain things in particular.”

Blessedly, Shook was spared having to find a safe and useful response to that by the abrupt opening of the door.

“Is—master!” Kheshiri skittered in, sliding across the floor to kneel beside Shook’s chair. She was grinning hugely, her tail waving in eagerness.

“Whoah, girl,” he said with an indulgent smile, fondly resting a hand on her head. “What are you, a puppy? Rein it in. What’s got you so worked up?”

“Apparently she has news,” the Jackal drawled, strolling in after the succubus. “Wouldn’t give poor old me the time of day until she’d checked in with her dearest, darlingest master.”

“As is proper,” said Shook, smirking faintly. “What’s the big idea, Shiri?”

“Raea has friends,” the demon said, grinning savagely. “Three new arrivals are meeting with her little band now—three whose descriptions I recognize. An old man, a Westerner, in a ragged coat with a wizard’s staff. Younger man in a dark suit, ponytail and goatee. Gnome chick with far too many pockets.”

At that, a similar grin spread across the Jackal’s narrow features. “Well, finally. I was starting to think those lazy bastards would never get here. It’s just rude, making us wait around like this.”

“You are extremely fortunate, Kheshiri, to have made it back here safely,” Khadizroth said grimly. “The necromancer Weaver travels with a soul reaper.”

Kheshiri suddenly went deadly still, staring up at the dragon with a frozen expression.

“Excuse me, a fucking what?” Shook demanded.

“A complication,” said the Jackal, grinning even more widely. “An invisible death spirit which can send your little pet there straight back to Hell with a touch. My, this does make our job more interesting! Looks like you’re not gonna be with us much longer, pretty bird,” he added, leering down at the succubus. She gave him a disdainful look.

“We’ll not squander any of our number in the pursuit of foolishness,” Khadizroth said firmly. “If those three are meeting with Raea, we must assume the others are nearby, or on the way. Kheshiri, let’s hear as many details as you managed to gather.” He leaned back slowly in his chair, raising his green eyes to study the ceiling, and allowing himself a faint smile. “It does not do to act without information. Since we are about to have such important company, we must be certain to greet them properly.”

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The Dawnchapel held so much history and significance that its environs, a small canal-bordered district now filled with shrines and religious charity facilities, had taken on its name. Originally the center of Omnist worship in the city, it had been donated to the Universal Church upon its formation and served as the Church’s central offices until the Grand Cathedral was completed. More recently it had done duty as a training facility and residence for several branches of the Church’s personnel, and currently mostly housed Justinian’s holy summoner program.

It was a typical structure of Omnist design, its main sanctuary a sunken amphitheater housed within a huge circle of towering standing stones, of a golden hue totally unlike the granite on which Tiraas sat, imported all the way from the Dwarnskolds along the northern rim of the continent. Once open to the sun, its sides had long ago been filled in with a more drab, domestic stone, which was later carved into niches that now housed statues of the gods. Its open top had been transformed into a dome of glittering stained glass, one of the architectural treasures of the city. Behind the circular center rose a ziggurat, topped with a sun shrine which had been left as a monument sacred to Omnu in gratitude for the gift of the temple itself. Most of the offices, storage rooms and other chambers were either underground or inside the pyramid.

The circular temple sat on a square plot of land, forcing the furtive warlocks to cross a measure of open territory before they could reach its entrance. They went unchallenged, however, and apparently unnoticed; this part of the city was as eerily silent and empty tonight as the rest. Still, despite the lack of opposition, only Embras Mogul strolled apparently without unease.

Two khankredahgs and two katzils accompanied the party, which had to be momentarily soothed as they crossed onto holy ground. They had been warded and phased against it, of course, but this ground was holier than most, and the demons were not immune to the discomfort. There were two hethelaxi escorting the group, both of whom bore the transition without complaint. That was it for demon thralls, the more volatile sentient companions having been dismissed back to their plane rather than risk the outbursts that would result from bringing them here.

Even peering around for onlookers, they failed to observe the small, faintly luminous blue figure which circled overhead.

Mogul himself laid his hand upon the bronze latch of the temple’s heavy front door and paused for a moment.

“Warded?” Vanessa asked tersely. “Cracking it with any kind of subtlety will take too long… Of course, I gather you want to make a dramatic statement anyway?”

Mogul raised an eyebrow, then turned the latch. It clicked, and the door opened smoothly, its hinges not uttering a squeak.

“There’s overconfident,” Mogul said lightly, “and then there’s Justinian.”

He gestured two gray-robed warlocks to precede him inside, accompanied by one of the katzils and the female hethelax.

The sanctuary was not completely unguarded, but the outcry from within was brief.

“Who are—hel—”

The voice was silenced mid-shout. Mogul leaned around the doorframe, peering within just in time to see the shadows recede from a slumping figure in Universal Church robes, now unconscious. His attention, however, was fixed on the hethelax, who was frowning in puzzlement.

“Mavthrys?” he said quietly. “What is it?”

“It’s gone,” she replied, studying the interior of the sanctuary warily. “The sensation. Not quite un-consecrated, but… Something’s different.” Indeed, the katzil inside had grown noticeably calmer.

“Justinian’s using this place to train summoners,” said Bradshaw. “Obviously it’ll have some protections for demons now.”

“Omnu must be spinning in his grave,” Vanessa noted wryly, earning several chuckles from the warlocks still flanking the entrance outside.

They all tensed at the sudden, not-too-distant sound of a hunting horn.

“What the hell?” one of the cultists muttered.

“Huntsmen,” Embras said curtly, ducking through the doors. “They won’t hunt in the dens of their own allies. Everyone inside, now.”

As they darted into the temple, the spirit hawk above wheeled away, heading toward a different part of the city.


“This is so weird,” Billie muttered for the fourth time. “And I have done some weird shit in my time.”

“Yes, I believe I read of your exploits on the wall of a men’s bathhouse,” Weaver sneered, taking a moment from muttering to his companion.

The gnome shot him an irritated look, but uncharacteristically failed to riposte. They all had that reaction when they glanced at the figure beside him.

In the space between spaces (as Mary had called it), the world was grayed-out and wavering, as if they were seeing it from underwater. The distortion obscured finer details, but for the most part they could see the real world well enough. This one was more dimly lit than the physical Tiraas, but apart from being unable to read the street signs (which for some reason, apart from being blurred, were not in Tanglish when viewed form here), they could navigate perfectly well, and identify the figures of Darling and his two apprentices, and even the little black form of the Crow as she glided from lamp to lamp ahead of them.

None of them had been able to resist looking up at the sky, briefly but long enough to gather an impression of eyes and tentacles belonging to world-sized creatures at unimaginable distances, seen far more clearly than what was right in front of them. Mary had strongly advised against studying them in any detail. No one had felt any inclination to defy the order.

The weirdness accompanying them was far more immediately interesting to the group. She was wavery and washed-out just like the physical world, but here, they could see her. Little of the figure was distinct except that she was tall, a hair taller even than Weaver, garbed entirely in black, and had black wings. She carried a plain, ancient-looking scythe which was as crisply visible as they themselves were, unlike its owner. Weaver had stuck next to his companion, carrying on a whispered dialogue—or what was presumably a dialogue, as no one but he could hear her responses. The rest of the party had let them have their privacy, for a variety of reasons.

The winged figure subtly turned her head, and Joe realized he’d been caught staring. He cleared his throat awkwardly and tipped his hat to her. “Ah, your pardon, ma’am. I didn’t get the chance to thank you properly for the help a while back, in the old apartments. You likely saved me and my friend from a pair of slit throats. Very much obliged.”

The dark, silent harbinger of death waved at him with childlike enthusiasm. It was nearly impossible to distinguish in the pale blur where her face should be, but he was almost certain she was grinning.

“Oddly personable, ain’t she,” McGraw murmured, drawing next to him as Weaver and his friend fell back again, their heads together. “That’ll teach me to think I’m too old to be surprised by life.”

“Tell you what’s unsettling is that,” Billie remarked, stepping in front of them so they couldn’t miss seeing her and pointing ahead. Several yards in front of the group, Darling and the two elves were engaging a group of Black Wreath. Their demon companions were clearly, crisply visible, while the warlocks themselves appeared to glow with sullen, reddish auras. As per their orders, the party was hanging back, allowing the Eserites to handle things on their own until they were called for. In any case, it didn’t seem their help was needed. Darling was glowing brightly, and making very effective use of the chain of white light which now extended from his right hand. As they watched, it lashed out, seemingly with a mind of its own, snaring a katzil demon by its neck and holding the struggling creature in place. In the next moment, a golden circle appeared on the pavement beneath it, and the chain dragged the demon down through it, where it vanished.

“I’ve gotta say, something about that guy equipping himself with new skills and powers doesn’t fill me with a sense of serenity,” Billie mused, watching their patron closely.

“You don’t trust him?” Joe asked. She barked a sarcastic laugh.

“Ain’t exactly about trust,” McGraw noted.

Mary reappeared next to them with her customary suddenness and lack of fanfare. “One can always trust a creature to behave in consistency with its own essential nature. As things stand, Darling is extraordinarily unlikely to betray us.”

“As things stand?” Joe asked, frowning.

The Crow shrugged noncommittally. “Change is the one true constant. In any case, be ready. I believe we will not be called upon to carry out the planned ambush; it likely would have happened already, were it going to. That being the case, we’ll shortly need to return to the material plane and move on to general demon cleanup duty.”

“Fun,” Joe muttered.

“What, y’mean we don’t get to stay and hang out in this creepity-ass hellscape?” Billie said. “Drat. An’ here I was thinkin’ of investing in some real estate.”

Mary raised an eyebrow. “If you would really like to remain, I can—”

“Don’t even feckin’ say it!”


“Hold it, stop,” Sweet ordered. Fauna skidded to a halt on command, turning to scowl at him as a robed figure scampered away down the sidewalk before her.

“He’s escaping!”

“Him and all three of his friends!”

“Let ’em,” he said lightly, peering around at the nearby rooftops with some disappointment. “We were making a spectacle of ourselves, not seriously trying to collar the Wreath. That’s someone else’s job. You notice there are no signs of Church summoners here, despite the presence of the demons they let loose?”

“Everyone’s bugging out?” Fauna asked, frowning. “What’s going on?”

“Seems like ol’ Embras isn’t taking my bait,” Sweet lamented with a heavy sigh. “Ah, well, it was probably too much to hope that he’d do something so ham-fisted. It’s not really in an Elilinist’s nature, after all. Welp, that being the case, onward we go!”

“Go?” Flora asked as he abruptly turned and set off down a side street. “Where now?”

“You know, it would save us a lot of stumbling along asking annoying questions if you’d just explain the damn plan,” Fauna said caustically.

“Probably would,” he agreed, grinning back at them. “But adapting to circumstances as they unfold is all part of your education.”

“Veth’na alaue.”

“You watch it, potty mouth,” he said severely. “I know what that means.”

“Oh, you speak elvish now?” Fauna asked, raising her eyebrows.

“Just enough to cuss properly. It seemed immediately relevant to our relationship.” They both laughed. “Anyhow, just up this street is the bridge to Dawnchapel. We are going to a warehouse facility, uncharacteristically disguised behind the facade of an upscale apartment building so as not to offend the ritzy sensibilities of those who dwell in this very fashionable district. A fancy warehouse, but still a warehouse if you know what to look for, which makes it the perfect spot for what’s coming next.”

“I didn’t realize there were warehouses in Dawnchapel.”

“Just outside Dawnchapel,” he corrected, grinning up ahead into the night. “Along the avenue leading straight out from the less obvious exit from the Dawnchapel sanctuary itself.”

“I don’t know what to hope for,” Fauna muttered, “that this all plays out as you’re planning and we finally get to learn the point of it, or that it doesn’t and you have to eat crow.”

“Well, there was a mental image I could’ve done without,” Flora said, wincing.

“Not that Crow, you ninny. Oh, gods, now I’m seeing it too.”

“Don’t worry your pretty little heads,” he replied. “I know exactly what I’m doing.”

Before any of the obvious responses to that could be uttered, the clear tone of a hunting horn pierced the night.

“Now what?” Flora demanded. “What’s that about?”

“That,” said Sweet, picking up his pace, “is the signal that we are out of time for sightseeing. Step lively, girls, we need to get into position.”


The spectral bird lit on Hawkmaster Vjarst’s gloved hand, and he brought it forward to his face, gazing intently into its eyes. A moment passed in silence, then he nodded, stroking the spirit hawk’s head, and raised his arm. The bird took flight again, joining its brethren now circling above.

“The summoners have retreated to their safehouses,” he announced, turning to face the rest of the men assembled on the rooftop. “Warlocks in Wreath garb are attempting to put down the remaining demons. There is significant incidental damage in the affected areas. No human casualties that my eyes have seen.”

“And the Eserite?” Grandmaster Veisroi asked.

“His quarry has not bitten his lure, but gone to Dawnchapel as he predicted. Darling and his women are moving in that direction. They are now passing through a cluster of demons, and acquitting themselves well.”

“How close?”

“Close.”

Veisroi nodded. “Then all is arranged; it’s time.” The assembled Huntsmen tensed slightly in anticipation as he lifted the run-engraved hunting horn at his side to his lips.

The horn was one of the treasures of their faith, a relic given by the Wolf God himself to his mortal followers, according to legend. Its tone was deep and clear, resounding clearly across the entire city, without being painful to the ears of those standing right at hand.

At its sound, Brother Ingvar nocked the spell-wrapped arrow that had been specially prepared for this night to his bow, raised it, and fired straight upward. The missile burst into blue light as it climbed…and continued to climb, soaring upward to the clouds without beginning to descend toward the city. Similar blue streaks soared upward from rooftop posts all across Tiraas.

Where they touched the clouds, the city’s omnipresent damp cover darkened into ominous thunderheads in the space of seconds. Winds carrying the chill of the Stalrange picked up, roaring across the roofs of the city; Vjarst’s birds spiraled downward, each making brief contact with his runed glove and vanishing. Snow, unthinkable for the time of year, began to fall, whipped into furious eddies by the winds.

The very light changed, Tiraas’s fierce arcane glow taking on the pale tint of moonlight as the blessing of Shaath was laid across the city.

“Brother Andros,” Veisroi ordered, “the device.”

Andros produced the twisted thorn talisman they had previously confiscated from Elilial’s spy in their midst, closed his eyes in concentration, and twisted it. Even in the rising wind, the clicking of the metal thorns echoed among the stilled Huntsmen.

Absolutely nothing happened.

Andros opened his eyes, grinning with satisfaction. “All is as planned, Grandmaster. Until Shaath’s storm abates, shadow-jumping in Tiraas has been blocked.”

“Good,” said Veisroi, grinning in return. With his grizzled mane and beard whipped around him by the winds, he looked wild, fierce, just as a follower of Shaath ought. “Remember, men, your task is to destroy demons as you find them, but only harry the Wreath toward the Rail stations. Yes, I see your impatience, lads. I know you’ve been told this, but it bears repeating. A dead warlock may yield worthy trophies, but he cannot answer questions. We drive them into the trap, nothing more. And now…”

He raised the horn again, his chest swelling with a deeply indrawn breath, and let out a long blast, followed by three short ones, the horn’s notes cutting through the sound of the wind.

Four portal mages were now under medical supervision in the offices of Imperial Intelligence, recuperating from serious cases of mana fatigue from their day’s labors, but they had finished their task on time, as was expected of agents of the Silver Throne. Now, from dozens of rooftops all across the city, answering horns raised the call and spirit wolves burst into being, accompanying the hundreds of Huntsmen of Shaath gathered in Tiraas, nearly every one of them from across the Empire. They began bounding down form their perches, toward lower roofs and the streets, roaring and laughing at the prospect of worthy prey.

“And now,” Grandmaster Veisroi repeated, grinning savagely, “WE HUNT!”


The three of them hunkered down behind the decorative stone balustrade encircling the balcony on which they huddled, taking what shelter they could from the howling winds and snowflakes. Uncomfortable as it was, they weren’t as chilled as the weather made it seem they should be. The temperature had dropped notably in the last few minutes, but it was still early summer, despite Shaath’s touch upon the city.

Directly across the street stood the warehouse Sweet had indicated. It had tall, decorative windows in sculpted stone frames, shielded by iron bars which were wrought so as to be attractive as well as functional. Its huge door was similarly carved and even gilded in spots to emphasize its engraved reliefs. It was, in short, definitely a warehouse, but did not stand out excessively from the upscale townhouses which surrounded it, or the shrines and looming Dawnchapel temple just across the canal.

“More information is always better,” Sweet was saying. His normal, conversational tone didn’t carry more than a few feet away, thanks to the furious wind, but his words were plainly audible to the elven ears of his audience, who sat right on either side of him. “When running a con, you want to control as much as you can. What you know, what the mark knows, who they encounter… But the fact is, you can’t control the world, and shouldn’t try. There comes a point where you have to let go. Real mastery is in balancing those two things, arranging what you can control so that your mark does what you want him to, despite the plethora of options offered to him by the vast, chaotic world in which we live.”

“And you, of course, possess true mastery,” Fauna said solemnly. She grinned when Sweet flicked the pointed tip of her ear with a finger.

“In this case, it’s a simple matter of what I know that Embras doesn’t,” he said, “and what Justinian doesn’t know that I know. This part of the plan wasn’t shared with his Holiness, you see; he’d just have moved to protect his secrets. That would be inconvenient, after all the trouble I went to to track them down, and anyway, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make use of it tonight.”

“What trouble did you go to?” Flora asked. “When did you find time to snoop out whatever it is Justinian was hiding from you on top of everything else you’ve got going on?”

“I asked Mary to do it,” he said frankly, grinning. “Now pay attention across the bridge, there, girls, you are about to see a demonstration of what I mean.” He shifted position, angling himself to get a good look down the street and across the canal bridge at the Dawnchapel. “When you know the board, the players, and the pieces…well, if you know them well enough, the rest is clockwork.”


“Don’t worry about that,” Embras said sharply as his people clustered together, peering nervously up through the glass dome at the storm-darkening sky. “It was a good move on Justinian’s part, but they’ll be hunting out there. This is probably the safest place in the city right now. Focus, folks, we’ve got a job to do.” He pointed quickly at the main door and a smaller one tucked into one of the stone walls. “Ignore the exterior entrances, we’re not about to be attacked from out there. That doorway, opposite the front, leads into the temple complex. Sishimir, get in there and shroud it; I don’t want us interrupted by the clerics still in residence. Vanessa, Ravi, Bradshaw, start a dark circle the whole width of the sanctuary. Tolimer, Ashley, shroud it as they go. You’re not enacting a full summons, just a preparatory thinning.”

“Nice,” said Vanessa approvingly. “And here I thought you just wanted to smash the place up.” She moved off toward the edge of the sanctuary, the rest of the warlocks shifting into place as directed, Sishimir ducking through the dark entrance hall to the temple complex beyond. The two hethelaxi took up positions flanking the main doors, waiting patiently, while the non-sentient demons stuck by their summoners.

“Now, Vanessa, that would be petty,” Embras said solemnly. “It’ll be so much more satisfying when the next amateur to reach across the planes in training tomorrow plunges this whole complex straight into Hell. Perhaps they’ll think with a bit more care next time someone suggests fooling around aimlessly with demons.”

“Ooh, sneaky and gratuitously mean-spirited. I like it!”

Everyone immediately stopped what they were doing, turning to face the succubus who had spoken.

“Not one of ours,” Ravi said crisply, extending a hand. A coil of pure shadow flexed outward, wrapping around the demon and securing her wings and arms to her sides; she bore this with good humor, tail waving languidly behind her. “Who are you with, girl? The summoner corps?”

“Justinian’s messing around with the children of Vanislaas, now?” Bradshaw murmured. “The man is completely out of control.”

“Why, hello, Kheshiri,” Mogul said mildly, tucking a hand into his pocket. “Of all the places I did not expect you to pop up, this is probably the one I expected the least. You already rid yourself of that idiot Shook? Impressive, even for you.”

“Rid myself of him?” Kheshiri said innocently. “Now why on earth would I want to do something like that? He’s the most fun I’ve had in years.”

“Change of plans,” Embras said, keeping his gaze fixed on the grinning succubus. It never paid to take your eyes off a succubus, especially one who was happy about something. “Vanessa, Tolimer, cover those doors. Sishimir, what’s taking so long in there?”

The gray-robed figure of Sishimir appeared in the darkened doorway, his posture oddly stiff and off-center. His cowled head lolled to one side.

“Everything’s okey-dokey back here, boss!” said a high-pitched singsong voice. “No need to go looking around for more enemies, no sirree!”

The assembled Wreath turned from Kheshiri to face him, several drawing up shadows around themselves.

Two figures stepped up on either side of Sishimir, a man in a cheap-looking suit and a taller one in brown Omnist style robes, complete with a hood that concealed his features.

“That is absolutely repellant,” the hooded one said disdainfully.

“Worse,” added the other, “it’s not even funny.”

“Bah!” Sishimir collapsed to the ground; immediately a pool of blood began to spread across the stone floor from his body. Behind him stood a grinning elf in a dapper pinstriped suit, dusting off his hands. “Nobody appreciates good comedy anymore.”

“I don’t know what the hell this is, but I do believe I lack the patience for it,” Embras announced. “Ladies and gentlemen, hex these assholes into a puddle.”

Kheshiri clicked her tongue chidingly, shaking her head.

A barrage of shadow blasts ripped across the sanctuary at the three men.

The robed man raised one hand, and every single spell flickered soundlessly out of existence a yard from them.

“What—”

Bradshaw was interrupted by a burst of light; the wandshot, fired from the waist, pierced Ravi through the midsection. She crumpled with a strangled scream, the shadow bindings holding Kheshiri dissolving instantly.

“Keep your grubby hands off my property, bitch,” Shook growled.

The robed figure raised his hands, finally lowering his hood to reveal elven features, glossy green hair, and glowing eyes like smooth-cut emeralds.

Khadizroth the Green curled his upper lip in a disdainful sneer.

“I do not like warlocks.”


“Almost wish I’d brought snacks,” Sweet mused as they watched the dome over the Dawnchapel flicker and pulse with the lights being discharged within.

“I wouldn’t turn down a mug of hot mead right now,” Flora muttered, her hands tucked under her arms.

“Hot anything,” Fauna agreed. “Hell, I’d drink hot water.”

“Oh, don’t be such wet blankets,” Sweet said airily, struggling not to shiver himself. “Where’s your sense of oh wait there he goes!”

He leaned forward, pointing. Sure enough, a figure in a white suit had emerged from the small side entrance to the temple’s sanctuary and headed toward the bridge at a dead run.

“Clockwork, I tell you,” Sweet said, grinning fiercely, his discomfort of a moment ago forgotten. “Confronted with an unwinnable fight when they weren’t expecting one, the cultists naturally huddle up and create an opportunity for their leader to escape. The rest of them are losses the Wreath can absorb; he simply can’t be allowed to fall into Justinian’s hands. And so, there he goes. But whatever shall our hero do now?”

Embras Mogul skidded to a stop at the bridge, glancing back at the Dawnchapel, then forward at the warehouse. He started moving again, purposefully.

“So many choices, so many direction to run,” Sweet narrated quietly, his avid gaze fixed on the fleeing warlock. “The Wreath’s first choice is always to vanish from trouble, but with their shadow-jumping blocked, his options are limited. But what’s this? Why, it’s a warehouse! And all warehouses in this city have convenient sewer access. Once down in that labyrinth, he’s as good as gone. As we can see, he is slowed up by the very impressive lock on those mighty doors.”

“Amateur,” Flora muttered, watching Mogul struggle with the latch. After a moment, he stepped back, aimed a hand at the lock and discharged a burst of shadow. With the snowy wind howling through the street, they couldn’t hear the eruption of magic or the clattering of pieces of lock and chain falling to the ground, but in the next moment, Mogul was tugging the doors open a crack and slipping through, pulling it carefully shut behind him.

“You weren’t going to ambush him there?” Fauna asked, frowning.

“What, out here in the street?” Darling stood up, brushing snow off his suit. “Where he could run in any direction? No, I believe I’ll ambush him in that building which I’ve prepared ahead of time to have no useable exits except the one I’ll be blocking.”

“One of these days your love of dramatic effect is going to get you in real trouble,” Flora predicted.

“Mm hm, it’s actually quite liberating, knowing in advance what your own undoing’ll be. The uncertainty can wear on you, otherwise. All right, girls, down we go. We’ve one last appointment to keep tonight.”


Embras strode purposely forward into the maze of crates stacked on the main warehouse floor, scowling in displeasure. This night had been an unmitigated disaster. He only hoped his comrades had had the sense to surrender once he was safely away. For now, he had to get to the offices of this complex and find the sewer access—there always was one—but in the back of his mind, he had already begun planning to retrieve as many of them as possible. It was a painful duty, having to prioritize among friends, but Bradshaw and Vanessa would have to be first…

He rounded a blind turn in the dim corridors made by the piled crates and slammed to a halt as light rose up in front of him.

The uniformed Butler set the lantern aside on a small crate pulled up apparently for that purpose, then folded her hands behind her back, assuming that parade rest position they always adopted when not actively working.

“Good evening, Master Mogul,” Price said serenely. “You are expected.”

Embras heaved a sigh. “Well, bollocks.”

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5 – 31

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Mercifully, the sun was finally slipping toward the sea in the west, but it was still more than warm on the rocky plains outside Onkawa. He trudged along through the scraggly bushes and lone patches of stubborn tallgrass, coat thrown over his shoulder and only a pilfered straw hat to protect him from the rays. At least he was alone. The distant city had been built on the cliffs above the sea, along the tributaries of the river, deriving scant resources from its rocky environs. Onkawa’s livelihood was trade and fishing; no one attempted to use this land for anything else.

Shook stopped as he came to an old dirt road running north to south, looking warily up and down it. Beyond that lay the mountains toward which he was headed; this was the first sign of civilization he had encountered since fleeing the city, and anxious as he was to avoid anyone who might be pursuing him, it brought him up short. Still, the road was empty. There was no other sign of life except for an enormous monitor lizard sprawled on a nearby outcropping of rock, still soaking up the heat trapped in the stone even after the sun had faded away.

The creature half turned its head toward him and flicked its tongue out, tasting the air. It looked to be nearly as long as he was tall.

“Don’t even fucking think about it,” Shook growled, reaching for a wand with the hand not holding up his coat.

The monitor flicked its tongue again, blinking both sets of eyelids.

He was contemplating shooting it on general principles when movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention. Shook swiftly sidestepped, repositioning himself to keep both the lizard (probably harmless, but he was well past the point of making assumptions) and the approaching figure in view. As the airborne dot grew close enough to become more distinct, however, he relaxed slightly.

Kheshiri swooped down and came to a graceful landing a few feet away, beating her wings once to slow her momentum. The quick breeze it caused was extremely welcome, even if it did knock his hat off. It was a stupid hat anyway.

“Master,” she said, looking tense but relieved. “I was worried. Did you get use out of the supplies I—”

“I have spent the whole goddamn day plodding across this goddamn desert, and I’m not dead of dehydration or heatstroke. Yes, I made good use of the supplies; the potions should be enough to last us till the mountains, if you’re sure you don’t need any.”

She shook her head, watching him warily. His voice was a subdued monotone, and contained an uncharacteristic lack of threats and bluster. “I don’t have many physical needs. I’m just glad you didn’t get chased down. I didn’t want to leave—”

“What’d you find out?” he asked curtly.

Kheshiri pursed her lips, then sighed. “It’s not good, master. Saduko lived. Vandro’s calling in special healers to make sure she has a full recovery. Amanika’s fine, and apparently on a fast track to heading up the local Guild chapter house. Vandro is upgrading his security system.”

He just nodded. His expression was blank, exhausted; there was something empty in his eyes.

Kheshiri sidled closer, lower her voice to a gentle murmur. “We’re gonna be fine, master. You’re smart and tough as hell, and you’ve got me. We’ll get them all for this, I promise.” She tried to cuddle up under his arm, but he pushed her away, not nearly as roughly as he usually did.

“Took you that many hours to find that much out?”

“Most of it was travel time,” the succubus said, suppressing irritation. “And…I saw an opportunity to take Vandro out of the picture, so I went for it. It…didn’t pan out.”

He glared. “You tried to… Goddamn it, you stupid wench, he has a Butler. The man is never out of earshot. It’s a miracle you aren’t dead! It’d serve you right, doing a stupid thing like that.”

“Yes, he has a Butler,” she said in exasperation. “A servant! How was I supposed to know he’s some kind of martial arts genius?”

“It’s a fucking Butler!” Shook shouted. “How can you not know what a Butler is?!”

“How would I?” she shot back. “Last time I was on this plane of existence, a butler was a guy in a suit who served tea and looked fancy! Maybe I could be more useful to you if you’d explain these things instead of making fun of me!”

She broke off, breathing heavily. Shook just stared at her. Any moment now would come the tirade, possibly with a punch in the jaw for emphasis.

Any moment.

He sighed and turned away. “Ask questions, Kheshiri. We were in that house plenty long enough for you to start wondering. You don’t understand something, you ask.”

“Yes, master,” she said meekly. While his back was turned, she permitted herself a fleeting expression of gleeful triumphant. Oh, he was all but broken. Clay to be reshaped. “I’m…sorry, master,” she added hesitantly. “I messed that whole thing up. I smelled a rat from the beginning, but… I thought it was Amanika who’d turn on us. Vandro took me by complete surprise. Luckily my precautions were of some use.”

He opened his mouth to reply, then turned his head sharply, looking up the road. A carriage was trundling along the dirt track in their direction. Shook swiftly peered around them, shoulders tensing.

“No cover,” Kheshiri said tersely, shifting silently into her local girl appearance. “It’s okay. We’re just two people out…”

“For a romantic stroll through the howling goddamn wilderness at sunset?” He gave her a disparaging look.

“…we can play the lost travelers angle, maybe bum a ride?”

“Look at that old jalopy, Kheshiri,” he said, staring at it. “Needs painting, broken head lamp…scruffy and busted.”

“I don’t think we’re in a position to be picky, master…”

“Shut up. Look at it, but listen to it. Damn near silent. That’s not some farmer’s raggedy-ass old carriage, it’s a well-maintained modern rig running the best Falconer enchantments, made up to look like a farmer’s old carriage.”

He really wasn’t stupid. Fantastically dense on certain subjects, emotional and easily manipulated, sure, but once in a while he’d abruptly remind her that he was fully trained by the Thieves’ Guild.

“Think they’re here after us?”

“Be ready for a fight,” he said as the carriage drew close. “Maybe they’re passing by on the way to some other… Oh, god damn it. Why should we get any luck?” he added in a growl as the vehicle began to slow and then pulled over to the opposite side of the road. This close, they could see that it was driven by an elf in traditional forest attire, with the addition of a pair of tinted goggles protecting his eyes from road dust.

“Shift back,” Shook said quietly.

“Master, I—”

“We’re past the point of pretenses, here. Let’s make ’em think carefully about whether they wanna fuck with us.”

“Yes, master,” she said grimly, fading back to her true form and stretching her wings menacingly. They weren’t all that useful in a fight, but they made for fantastic dramatic effect. The monitor lizard, apparently unimpressed by the carriage, recognized a traditional “puffing up” display and shifted a few feet away from them on its rock, tasting the air again.

“Now, now, there’s no need for that,” said a voice from within the carriage, and another elf emerged, stepping down into the road. He wore a pinstriped suit and an obnoxious grin. “We come in peace! I have a business proposal, if you’d like to put down those—”

Shook fired a bolt of white light into the ground right in front of his feet, cutting him off.

“I have exactly no patience for whatever bullshit this is,” he growled. “Next thing you say had better be a damn good reason for me not to shoot your ass.”

“Okay,” the elf said, his smile widening. “I’m the Jackal.”

Shook eyed him up and down. “Bullshit.”

“What’s a jackal?” Kheshiri stage-whispered.

“Look at it this way,” the elf said brightly. “I’m either the Jackal or some idiot who’s going to get killed for walking around using his professional moniker. Which do you think is more likely to intercept you on a deserted road in Buttfuck, Onkawa Province?”

“…god damn it, I hate today,” Shook muttered. “That sounds like a pretty good reason to shoot you, frankly.”

“You’d have done it if you were going to,” the Jackal said merrily. “Still could, but… I’ll tell you up front, others have made that mistake. None twice, though.”

“Who is this guy?” Kheshiri demanded, an edge to her voice.

“An assassin,” Shook said curtly.

“Oh, good,” she purred, waving her tail languidly behind her. “I love killing assassins. They appreciate the irony so much better than average shmoes.”

The Jackal laughed. “And this must be the charming Miss Kheshiri! Delighted, my dear, simply delighted. Driving our humble conveyance is my good friend Vannae, and allow me to introduce your other new friend…”

Out of the shadows of the carriage’s interior stepped another elf, this one with flowing green hair, a thin strip of beard… And eyes like luminous, smooth-cut emeralds.

“Khadizroth the Green,” finished the Jackal.

“I hate my life,” Shook corrected himself.

Khadizroth studied him over, then directed a distinctly contemptuous look at Kheshiri before turning to the Jackal. “These are the people with whom you insisted on meeting? Very well. I am patient, but not infinitely. Speak your piece, please.”

“Right then!” the Jackal said with relish, rubbing his hands together. “Quite so, quite so, you’ve been more than patient. I have brought us all together to present a fairly simple opportunity.” He spread his arms, smiling like a salesman. “How’d you all like to work for the Archpope of the Universal Church?”

In the silence that followed, the monitor tasted the air again.

“I think he’s making fun of us,” Kheshiri said, sounding offended. “Let’s kill him.”

“Now, hear me out,” the Jackal said, laughing again. “Archpope Justinian has embarked on a bold new project to rally the world’s remaining adventurers under his own thumb. Eventually, the plan is to have what amounts to a Church-controlled army of people very talented in the fine art of causing destruction.”

“First of all, adventurers are washed-up losers,” said Shook.

“Commonly, yeah,” the Jackal replied cheerfully. “I’m referring to the couple dozen or so individuals who aren’t. And, not coincidentally, don’t call themselves—ourselves—adventurers in this day and age. But the reality is the same. Three hundred years ago, we’d have been wandering, campaigning, dungeon-looting heroes, all of us.”

“Not all,” Khadizroth said quietly. “Some of us would have been targets of the rest.”

“Okay, leaving all that aside,” Shook snapped, “this is the dumbest fucking idea I’ve ever heard.”

“You are young,” the dragon said dryly.

“More to the point, this is not something I think I like the idea of the Archpope doing. So no, you can count me the fuck out.”

“Oh, honestly, Thumper, do you think I want him doing this?” the Jackal asked condescendingly. “It’d be an unmitigated disaster. Nobody needs to have power of that kind, and if anybody does, it’s definitely not the Church. Gods, no, this has to be prevented at all bloody costs.”

“And yet, you’re recruiting for him?” Shook demanded.

“That’s right.” The Jackal tucked his thumbs into his belt and rocked back on his heels, grinning broadly. “I am.”

“What the fuck—”

“It’s because he doesn’t think he can kill Justinian,” Kheshiri said quietly.

The Jackal pointed a finger at her. “Bingo!”

Shook narrowed his eyes. “What?”

“Killing the Archpope is the most logical solution to this…problem,” the succubus continued, studying the assassin through narrowed eyes. “Failing that… To oppose him directly would be suicide. The Church probably has more resources than the Empire, considering it’s stretched across the whole planet. The only workable strategy for stopping this is to go along with it. Earn trust, get placed close to Justinian, then watch for or create an opportunity to sabotage it.”

“Hm,” Khadizroth said thoughtfully.

“The lady is dead on, and proving that I was right in picking you two,” the elf said, still as cheerful as if discussing the sunny weather. “I am, to be quite honest, the best there is at what I do, and I will tell you that killing a sitting Archpope is simply not in the cards. There are limits to what Justinian can do with his power, but the gods are watching over him. I don’t mean that as the passe benediction it usually is; the actual gods keep their actual eyes on him, at least to the point of protecting him from harm. It’s part of the pact that led to the Church’s formation. No, he’s here to stay. All that’s left to do is to unwork his plans before he can complete them.”

“And you chose us?” Shook looked expressively around at the little group. “You’ve got interesting taste.”

“He’s completely insane, is what,” Kheshiri said disdainfully. “I am, in case it slipped your notice, a demon. Me going near the Church is a death sentence.”

“It might interest you to know,” the Jackal replied with a sunny smile, “that while I proposed this roster of talents, each of you was personally approved by His Holiness.” He paused, letting that sink in for a moment. “Justinian is a very forward-thinking chap.”

“Indeed, this new Archpope seems quite permissive,” Khadizroth noted, “considering we were brought here by a Black Wreath shadow-jumping talisman.”

“The skills represented by this group are plenty impressive enough to warrant recruitment,” the Jackal declaimed. “There’s me, of course, and Khadizroth here is… Well, I’m sure I don’t have to delve into his resume to impress you. Kheshiri is a noted conniver and corrupter even by succubus standards, and our boy Thumper is a veteran of security at the central office of the Thieves’ Guild. He’s the lad they send to break kneecaps when the kneecaps in question are attached to someone most people don’t want to mess with.”

“What’s his story?” Shook asked, nodding at the elf perched in the driver’s seat.

“Oh, he comes with the dragon,” the Jackal said offhandedly. Vannae tightened his mouth, but remained silent. “Even better, each of us has a hook. Justinian likes to deal with people he can control—or thinks he can. Kheshiri is bound to a kind of soul jar. Shook is currently on the outs and on the run from his own Guild. Khadizroth has been placed under a curse that severely limits his options, magically speaking. And me, well, I’ve spent the last couple of years laboriously building up the impression for Justinian’s sake that he has me on a leash. So that’s why he approves the lot of you for his venture. What’s far more interesting is what’s in it for us.”

“Go on,” Khadizroth prompted.

“We four displaced villains have enemies in common,” the Jackal continued, his smile turning grim. “There’s Justinian’s own scheme, of course, but we’ve all suffered from the attentions of one man: Bishop Antonio Darling.”

“Wait just a goddamn minute,” Shook said. “I have no quarrel with Sweet. He’s always been straight with me. Helpful, even.”

“Oh, Thumper, open your eyes,” the assassin said disdainfully. “Think about what’s happened to you. You had one little difference of opinion with an errant member of your Guild, which stemmed from you being sent by them to bring her to heel because she was out of line. Next thing you know, you’re wanted and on the run, and Principia is welcomed back with open arms. Do you even know why?”

“How do you know about any of that?” Shook demanded.

“Oh, I have my ways; that’s not important. What matters is that Darling was the one who sent Principia to Last Rock in the first place. As I understand it, you were sent by the Boss of the Guild to take her to task and she turned outright traitor, yes? Then the Boss sent you out again to drag her back.” He smirked. “Next thing you knew, the Guild wanted your ass on a platter. What you don’t know is what happened in between, in Tiraas. Someone with the power to lean on the Boss of the Guild, and with a pre-existing tendency to favor Principia, stuck his fingers in. Do the bloody math, Thumper.”

Shook had slowly stiffened as the elf spoke, and by this point had clenched his fists so hard around his wands that they vibrated. His expression was a portrait of barely-held control.

“And so, here we are,” the Jackal continued. “United in threefold purpose: We need to cozy up to Archpope Justinian to undercut his plans, we need to find ways to dismantle the various shackles placed upon each of us, and we most especially need to administer some long-overdue comeuppance to Antonio Darling and his various lackeys. As a professional courtesy to one another, I think we can find time to deal with the two friends of his who have caused us the most grief: Mary the Crow and Principia Locke.”

“And what’s to stop you from stabbing us in the back?” Shook asked tightly. “You’re not exactly a trustworthy figure, and I note this whole damn thing is your idea.”

“Alternatively,” Khadizroth suggested, “Any of us could turn on you. Or each other. I see little, if any, cause for trust here.”

“Okay, let’s think that through,” the Jackal suggested brightly. “Say you gang up, kill me and run back to Justinian with the story of how I was setting up a scheme against him. Curry a little favor, remove some competition, right? Then whoever was left would be in exactly the same position: needing to secure their freedom and revenge, and with one less ally.” He shook his head, still smiling. “It just doesn’t make any sense. We’re all professionals, and we all know where our best interests lie; in this case, that’ll suffice in place of genuine trust between us. Hell, I’d venture to say it’s the closest thing to real trust anybody ever gets in this life.”

Another silence fell; the thief, the demon and the dragon regarded each other speculatively.

“I’ve gotten us started with a little good-faith effort,” the Jackal continued smoothly. “I recently helped our buddy Khadizroth here out of a jam caused by Darling’s little hit squad. Interestingly enough, Darling is officially in charge of the Church’s adventurer recruitment program, but Justinian apparently doesn’t trust him completely. Can’t imagine why, heh. So I was dispatched with orders not to let it be known who I was, since Darling and the Crow both know who I work for.” He smirked smugly. “I may have failed to execute that as carefully as I might. By which I mean, I made damn sure two of the would-be dragonslayers got a good look at me.”

“How in the hell is that a good faith effort?” Shook growled. “That’s helping Darling.”

“Sure is,” the Jackal said cheerily. “Specifically, it’s helping him see who his real enemy is: Archpope Justinian. It’s helping to place our two groups of enemies at each other’s throats. Let them wear one another down with schemes and counterschemes while we position ourselves. By the time they’re done with that, whoever’s left over will be ripe for the picking.”

“I find this entire affair distasteful, for countless reasons,” Khadizroth said, frowning. “…however, your logic is compelling.”

Shook nodded slowly.

“I don’t trust this, master,” Kheshiri said tersely.

“Good,” Shook replied. “You’d be a fool to. But…the enemy of my enemy.”

“That never works out in the long run.”

“Oh, I’m making no promises about the long run,” said the Jackal with a grin. “Right now, we’re at the point of making sure there is a long run for any of us. We are each other’s best bet of doing so.”

“I will join you,” Khadizroth said solemnly.

Shook sighed. “Hell with it. We’re in. Not like we have any better options.” Kheshiri lashed her tail furiously, but kept silent.

“Excellent,” the Jackal purred. “Pile in, then, my friends, and let’s get out of this dump. We could all do with some rest and a good meal. And in some cases, a bath.”

Full dark fell as the carriage, loaded with its new passengers, whirred smoothly off on its way down the road. The monitor lizard watched it go, flicking out its tongue to sense the air. It made no reaction to the departing carriage, nor to the disturbance that developed in the air nearby once the vehicle was nearly out of sight.

The air shifted, twisted and rippled, as though reality itself were putty being stretched and mashed in a child’s hands. Out of the distortion stepped a stately figure in absurdly ornate blue robes, allowing the illusion effect to fade behind him.

“Now, you see that?” Zanzayed the Blue asked the monitor. “I swear, every time I see him, Khadizroth has minions. He doesn’t even try. He’s just always got some bloody mortal to fetch and carry for him, even while he’s apparently cursed, blackmailed and guilty of a ridiculously villainous plot to overthrow the Empire through organized miscegenation. It’s just not fair.”

He sighed moodily. “Now, if I had minions to talk to instead of you, little cousin, I could get some real feedback here. They’d say, ‘Zanza,’—they’d call me Zanza, I run a pretty loose hypothetical ship—’Zanza,’ they’d say, ‘you’ve tried to keep mortal followers too, and you always lose interest after a few years and forget about them. Remember the time you left four girls in a tower and forgot to feed them for thirty years? That was just gruesome, that was.’ And I’d have to shrug bashfully and admit they’re right.” He huffed in annoyance. “Of course, the alternative is this thing right here, where I’m standing alone in the wilderness talking to myself. Maybe I should give it another try. Whatever, I blame Khadizroth. Thanks to him and his idiocy, now I have to go do actual work. Bah.”

In the falling darkness, he shifted, swelling, his luminous blue eyes rising skyward, first with the revelation of his greater form, and then as he beat his massive wings and took off.

The lizard, unimpressed by travelers, carriages, impromptu conferences and dramatic magical effects, was nonetheless very impressed by finding itself in the company of the ultimate apex predator. It whirled and scuttled away with astonishing speed.

Zanzayed, though, was already halfway toward the mountains, paying it no more mind.


Captain Ravoud couldn’t help being awed. He had been to the Grand Cathedral, of course, but never beyond the public spaces dedicated to worship. Its inner halls were stately, opulent, almost perfectly designed to make him feel glaringly out of place in his stark uniform.

The soldiers of the Holy Legion who escorted him only added to the effect. Resplendent with their decorative armor and elaborate polearms, they were stern and aloof, more rigid in their bearing than the Imperial soldiers whose company he was used to. Even Ravoud’s certainty that his troops would vastly overmatch this lot in any real action did nothing to assuage the intimidation he felt. These were an honor guard, a ceremonial unit. They existed for psychological effect. It was no more than natural that he felt it in their presence, or so he told himself.

It was almost a shock when they came to what was apparently the right door; it had begun to seem he would wander this extravagant maze forever, as if trapped in a dream. His escorts, however, smoothly shifted formation (with needless but well-choreographed stomping that made their armor clank in unison), two of them moving to flank the polished oak door. One knocked.

“Enter,” said a slightly muffled voice from within. The guard turned the knob, stepped aside and saluted Ravoud. The captain returned the salute (the other man did it wrong) and stepped through. The door was pulled shut behind him, separating him from his erstwhile guards.

This space was smaller, and impressively managed to seem somewhat cozy, despite being made of the same carved white marble as the rest of the Cathedral, illuminated by towering stained glass windows as well as modern fairy lamps. The furnishings were of very dark-stained wood, bookcases laden with old leatherbound volumes, overstuffed armchairs upholstered in deep burgundy, small cabinets and stands scattered in a profusion that seemed almost cluttered. A comfortable fire labored against the winter chill in an ostentatious hearth on the far wall. The whole effect conspired to seem comfortable, habitable, offsetting the grandeur of the office itself.

Ravoud gave it all scarcely a glance, immediately falling to one knee as the Archpope of the Universal Church himself approached him.

“Your Holiness,” he murmured, kissing the proffered ring.

“Captain Ravoud,” Justinian said with a beatific smile, and withdrew his hand. “Thank you for joining me so swiftly. Rise, my son.”

He obeyed slowly. “I…was surprised by your summons, your Holiness. I confess I’m not at all sure what it is I can do for you…”

“Well, we can discuss that presently,” said he Archpope, turning to face the far end of the long office, near the fire. “First, there is someone where whom I think you should meet.”

Ravoud turned, and instantly froze, the blood draining from his face.

She stood in front of an armchair, an afghan sprawled on the floor beside her where it had clearly fallen from her lap when she abruptly rose. She was thinner than he remembered, her hair longer, but there could be no mistaking that face. It had haunted his dreams long enough.

“Alia?” he whispered.

“Nassir?” he little sister replied hesitantly, stepping convulsively forward once, then stopping as if unsure of herself.

“Alia!” he cried, completely forgetting the exalted company in which he stood and rushing forward. She ran to meet him, bursting into tears, and in the next moment she was in his arms. She wept—they both wept, rocking slowly, wrapped around each other.

“I thought you were lost forever,” he whispered finally, when enough of his breath and mental faculties recovered to form words. “I was… I tried, Alia, I tried so hard to reach you, but they blocked me at every turn. I was so close to giving up…”

“I missed you,” she sniffled, nuzzling at his shoulder. “Oh, gods, Nassir, you have no idea. I thought if I could just see you again…”

“Have you seen Papa yet? Oh, Alia, he hasn’t been the same since we lost you.”

“Not yet, I’ve only been here in the Cathedral.” She drew back slightly to smile up at him. “Papa’s still okay?”

“He will be now,” Ravoud promised, cupping her face in his hands.

“Thank the gods,” she said, tears still brimming in her eyes. “It’ll be so good to see him before I go back.”

He froze. “…go back?”

“I’m not supposed to be out,” she said, suddenly nervous. “I’m going to be in so much trouble…”

“Alia, that’s all over,” he soothed. “You’re safe now, in Tiraas. We’re not going to let any drow get to you.”

She was shaking her head before he even finished. “You don’t understand… It’s not my place, Nassir. I know where I belong. Mistress is going to be so disappointed… I’ve got to make it all right, I didn’t want to come, but they made me…”

“Alia, what are you talking about?” he demanded, his blood chilling.

“This has been an extremely trying time for all of us,” the Archpope said smoothly, stepping up next to them. “We must take the time to discuss these matters fully; it needn’t all be done tonight. Miss Ravoud, of course you should reconnect with your family. Your mistress will understand a brief delay.”

“I…” She bit her lip, glancing between Justinian and Nassir. “I guess… I don’t have permission, is what worries me…”

“All will be well,” the Archpope promised, smiling gently at her. “You are very tired, I know; it’s been a long day. I need to have a few words with your brother, my dear, and then you two will have all the time you need to talk. Branwen, would you kindly take Miss Ravoud into the sitting room and see that she’s comfortable? I’ll send the Captain in momentarily to join her.”

“Of course, your Holiness,” said a new voice, and Ravoud only then realized there was another woman present. It was a testament to the distractions occurring that he hadn’t; she was exactly the kind of woman he usually spotted right off. Short, yes, but pretty, curvy, and with striking hair of a deep red. She smiled warmly, taking Alia by the hand and gently pulling her away. “Come along, honey, let’s let your brother deal with his business as quickly as possible, so you two have all the time you need to talk.”

“All right,” Alia said, reluctantly letting herself be drawn away. “Don’t take too long, though, Nassir? I really want to talk with you, and, and, I can’t be gone too much longer.”

He only managed to nod, trying for a smile. A lump of congealed horror in his throat blocked all efforts at speech.

“Oh, but maybe you can meet mistress!” she said brightly, her face lighting up at the idea. “I just know you’ll love her. Everyone loves her.”

He couldn’t even nod. Alia didn’t seem to notice. She let Branwen escort her to a side door near the fireplace, and then through.

The moment it clicked shut, he rounded on the Archpope.

“What is wrong with her?! A spell?”

Justinian shook his head, his expression grave. “Narisian drow do not waste energy on such effects when more mundane methods will do. The crude term is ‘brainwashing.’ There is a hidden compliment to your sister in this; she would not have been so dramatically…worked upon, were she not unusually resistant to them in the first place. The mind, Captain, is always growing, ever adapting. The essence of the technique, as I understand it, is to introduce the subject to sufficiently severe trauma that they are forced to adapt new ways of thinking to survive, and then guide that adaptation in directions that serve your purposes.”

Ravoud was barely conscious of being ushered over to a large desk and gently pushed into a chair in front of it. He bit his fist, gazing emptily into the distance in shock. “Can… You can undo it?”

“There is no going back, I’m afraid. Only forward. That is how the mind works, Captain; you cannot change what has been done.” Justinian placed a glass of brandy on the desk in front of Ravoud, who hadn’t even seen him pour it. He went on more gently, a calm smile wreathing his face. “But we will put her right. It will be many times easier than having so distorted her in the first place. She already knows how to be a free, independent person, and has memories of the habits and patterns that will enable her to do so. It is simply a matter of bringing them back to the forefront, giving her time to heal, and to forget the behavior modifications that were forced upon her. It is a process, Captain; you must understand this. There is no magic incantation. It will take time and expert guidance. Luckily, we have the best. A man named Orthilon, once a Narisian slave trainer and now a resident of Lor’naris. There is no better expert on their methods.”

“More drow,” Ravoud said bitterly, closing his hand around the glass. He didn’t lift it to his mouth.

“Some disdain to use the tools and weapons of the enemy,” Justinian said mildly. “Personally, I find there is no more elegant victory for the righteous than to unmake the wicked upon their own depravities. Orthilon is trustworthy and diligent; I will personally vouch for your sister’s care. I am also,” he continued, turning and pacing over to gaze out the window at the arcane-lit city, “working to extract Tamra Faroud, who I understand was engaged to your late friend Corporal Khalivour. This is taking time and substantial energy, but I am confident it will be done. Unfortunately, so doing will expend the last of my resources in Tar’naris; I likely will not be able to rescue any more of the enslaved unfortunates there. The drow city is in the grip of a pagan goddess. It is possibly the place where my influence is thinnest.”

Ravoud swallowed the lump in his throat. “I… I can never thank you enough, your Holiness. What have I done to deserve this favor?”

Justinian turned to face him, his expression calm, thoughtful. “Let me ask you a question in return, Captain. What do you think of my Holy Legion?”

Ravoud carefully removed his fingers from the glass of untouched brandy. “They are…very impressive, your Holiness. Very dramatic. Stylish.”

“Anyone could tell me that,” Justinian said with a faint smile. “I am asking you not as a casual observer, but as a military man.” When Ravoud hesitated, he added more gently, “I beg you to speak honestly, Captain. I can assure you that nothing you have to say will offend me.”

“Well,” Ravoud said slowly. “From a strictly military standpoint… I don’t see any use for them. At all. Almost no one fights with armor and bladed weapons anymore, and of those who do… Honestly, those men wouldn’t stand a chance against the Silver Legions. I just… Your Holiness, I assumed they were meant to be strictly ceremonial. You can’t send those men against any significant threat. They’d be slaughtered.”

He trailed off, afraid he’d gone too far, but the Archpope only smiled warmly. “You have the right of it, Captain. I fear I had to engage in distasteful maneuvering and expend a great deal of political capital to gain authorization for the Church to build a military force within the Empire’s borders. Making that force an obviously ceremonial token army with little practical value has been a necessary step in soothing the feathers that were ruffled in this process.”

Justinian folded his arms behind his back, his expression growing distant. “The world, alas, is not so blessedly simple as to let me carry on in such a fashion. The fate of your sister is an example of a persistent problem the Empire faces: all too often, the Emperor is constrained by politics and unable to act…or perhaps, simply lacks the will to do so. I would not presume to judge his heart; I can only analyze his actions. Then, more recently, events in Lor’naris have reaffirmed the concerns which prompted me to form the Holy Legion in the first place. The shadowy forces at work in that debacle prove the need for the Church to strike directly against evil when it arises. It is a capacity we must develop.”

“Are you… Your Holiness, have you managed to learn anything about the people who were trying to organize that uprising? The Army’s investigation hit an immediate wall.”

“Suffice it to say, Captain, that you will hear no more from the individuals responsible,” the Archpope said with a smile. “I can assure you of that personally. I do, you see, have some ability to act where needed. As these events prove, however, more direct and forceful action is often necessary. You may not have heard of it yet, but the Black Wreath is rising, the fae in the wild places are growing restless, and in all corners of the world are whispers that a great doom is coming. Where the Empire cannot or will not act, the Church must. And to that end… While those who would oppose us are calmed by my extremely pretty, entirely useless guards, I have a mind to put together a smaller but considerably more effective force to act on my behalf.” He paused, studying Ravoud thoughtfully. “I will need someone to lead it. Someone trained in modern military tactics, experienced in leading men… And, while loyal to our Empire, someone very personally aware that governments cannot always be counted on to act where action is necessary. The more I learn of you, Captain Ravoud, the more I begin to think I have found that man. I understand you have been offered the chance to resign your commission in the Imperial Army due to the recent events in Lor’naris. While this may have seemed a punishment to you at the time… Often, the gods have a greater plan for us.”

Ravoud barely waited for him to finish speaking. He practically lunged up from his chair, starting at the Archpope and nearly trembling with fervor as he replied.

“Your Holiness, I am your man. To the death.”

Justinian smiled kindly, reached out and squeezed his shoulder.

“I know.”


The Imperial Rail station in Tiraas never truly closed. Despite the end of standard running hours, there was often a need for various persons on Imperial or other urgent business to charter private caravans. One of these was just now departing a platform, laden with agents of Imperial Intelligence on some clandestine night mission. In the relatively quiet hours of the night, though the doors remained open and the lights on, the station was protected from loiterers, vagrants and vandals by a light but steady presence of soldiers.

By and large, they let people be. Various night owls wandered through the station on no particular business; it was also a popular spot for all sorts of assignations, being clean, well-lit and safe. By the very nature of the traits that made it attractive, the Rail station was not prone to hosting any gatherings that were illicit or illegal, so the soldiers patrolling its platforms rarely interfered with anyone who did not give them specific cause.

The guards certainly didn’t bother three men in Imperial Army uniforms, standing on a platform next to a station trolley loaded with an assortment of backpacks and small satchels, rather like the light luggage of maybe a dozen people or less. After the men had been there for well over an hour, though, just standing, one of the guards finally approached them.

“Evenin’, lads,” he greeted his fellow soldiers, finally getting close enough to note their faces. One looked amused, one furious, the third merely perplexed. “Need any help?”

“Brother,” said Rook with a grin, “you have no idea.”

“They can’t possibly have just forgotten us!” Moriarty burst out.

Finchley sighed heavily, turning to the mystified station guard. “Do you happen to know if there’s a telescroll office open this late?”

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5 – 28

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“Sir,” Wilberforce murmured, leaning close to Vandro’s ear. He already had his employer’s undivided attention, having arrived far more quickly than his usual efficient but decorous pace. Unusual behavior from Wilberforce was a cardinal sign that something had gone wrong. “We have visitors from the Thieves’ Guild in significant numbers. I have taken the liberty of activating the golems; if you move now, you may be in time to greet them at the gates.”

Vandro nodded, turning back to his erstwhile conversation partner with a rueful smile. “Terribly sorry, m’lord, but it seems I have to go put out a fire. The perils of hosting, you know how it is.”

“Indeed,” the aristocrat replied with a lofted eyebrow, looking somewhat bemused. It always came as a surprise to his type that lowly commoners found something more important than themselves on which to focus.

Thanks to Wilberforce’s warning, Vandro made it to the broad, well-lit pathway between the gates and the house that formed the party’s center of mass just before the Guild made their entrance. He wasn’t quite in time to pose front and center and be waiting languidly for their arrival, but it would have to do. Pacing and presentation mattered in these affairs.

Six entered first, fanning out to either side of the path in a reverse arrowhead formation. Though swift and coordinated, no one would have mistaken the ragged bunch for soldiers; they wore clothing in dark colors and advanced states of scruffiness, ostentatiously displayed clubs and knives, and menacing expressions. The guests drew back from them, conversation disintegrating into nervous whispered all over the gardens, followed by chilly silence as the thieves took up positions, apparently if not actually controlling the estate’s entrance.

Of course, all that was for show, as well. Most of these people dressed comfortably and casually when at their real work, and quite a few slept on silk. A good thief was someone who did not stand out in a crowd; they usually had to go out of their way to properly menace the normals, including dramatic changes in costume and demeanor.

Vandro narrowed his eyes slightly at the next wave to enter, but carefully held his neutral posture. Four more Guildmembers came forward, pushing a pair of bound prisoners before them. They stopped a few yards into the estate, ignoring the gasps of the onlookers, and forced the captives to their knees. Jeremiah Shook merely looked furious, if somewhat rumpled; Amanika had clearly been worked over. Her clothes were torn and stained with both dirt and blood, one of her eyes was swollen shut and a dried trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth still decorated her chin. She slumped to the ground, head lolling.

Finally, another pair entered with the last three armed thieves behind them. The well-dressed man, a dark-featured Onkawa local, was slim, tall and stately, wearing an intolerably self-satisfied smirk. On his arm, looking stupefied and as tense as a plucked guitar string, was Saduko.

“Forgive the overly dramatic entrance, Webs,” he said airily. “It seems someone forgot to deliver my invitation.”

“Why, that’d have been me, Toss,” Vandro replied easily. “I confess I plumb forgot to want you at my party. Things start to slip the mind, when you get to my age.”

Toss, the leader of the local Guild’s chapter, grinned at the frisson of nervous conversation that swept through Vandro’s crowd of well-heeled guests at the sound of his tag. He was known in the city.

“Ah, but how could I let this occasion pass unremarked? I confess I’ve had cause to be worried about your loyalties of late, but our dear Gimmick, here, has put my mind to rest.” He patted Saduko’s hand where it lay on his arm; she flinched. “And to think we thought she was spying on you. Instead, you have oh-so-deftly rooted out the subversive elements within our local chapter and delivered them into our hands. Along with the fugitive Thumper! Truly, this is a great night for the followers of Eserion, and we owe all this success to you, Webs. Bravo,” he said, drawing out the last word in a silky drawl.

Vandro studied Saduko idly, his mind whirling. Her, Guild? Possibly. He’d checked out her credentials, but those were so very fakeable, especially coming from overseas as they did. He had also studied how she thought and acted while his guest, and found her generally self-contained and a skilled walking poker face as long as she had time to prepare, but easy to rattle and throw off her game. Right now she looked good and rattled, and clinging to her equilibrium by a ragged fingernail.

That was one plot uncovered, then; Saduko had been sent to observe and possibly interfere with his and Amanika’s undercutting of the Guild, but she was either a far more advanced player than he believed, or her own scheme had come unraveled. There was no reason to assume the former when he knew the latter could be explained by yet another actor whose full play had yet to be revealed.

Kheshiri. What could she hope to gain by all this?

“Son of a bitch,” Shook spat, his voice soft. Vandro gave him a warning look, and was met with a venomous glare. He suppressed a sigh. Jerry was a good kid, when he used his head, but that damn temper of his reliably made him stop using it, exactly when he needed it most.

“Seems you’ve been a little rough with our friends, there,” Vandro said mildly. “I mean, if you’re gonna work someone over, sure. Dragging valuable prisoners all over the city, though, letting one apparently bleed herself half to death? Truly, the complexity of your plots is over my head.”

Amanika lifted her face a fraction, and the look she gave Vandro was fleeting, but icily calculating. Not so dazed and beleaguered as she appeared, then, and apparently not taking this turn of events at face value. Good girl; if only she’d been a trifle less homely he’d have looked for reasons to have her around more often.

“I think the time has come for a clearing of the air,” Toss proclaimed, smiling with immense self-satisfaction. “There has been too much suspicion and discord, do you not think so? Let all of Onkawa see that the Thieves’ Guild stands united. Let them see what befalls those who seek to undermine Eserion’s people.”

Vandro shrugged and took a sip of his cocktail. “Your funeral.”

Toss’s smile did not diminish in the slightest. “Why, Webs, I could very nearly take that as a threat. And on the heels of your very valuable assistance to your Guild, too! Surely you cannot have meant that the way it sounded.”

He made a swift motion with his free hand and the six thieves forming his advance guard began moving slowly forward, their gazes coldly intent upon Vandro.

Then Wilberforce glided forth out of the crowd to stand at Vandro’s shoulder. The enforcers instantly halted in their tracks, staring at the Butler. Two glanced uncertainly back at Toss; the rest were studying Wilberforce, clearly mentally calculating whether they could take him on.

They couldn’t, which was beside the point as far as Vandro was concerned. He couldn’t afford to let this come to blows. To say nothing of the risk to his guests, it was blindingly obvious that Toss wanted a confrontation. Whether or not he believed that Vandro was behind the ensnaring of Shook and Amanika (he hadn’t got that from Saduko; why would Kheshiri promote that particular notion?), he knew a rival when he saw one. If Vandro fought the Guild openly, whether he won or lost the battle would be irrelevant in the long run.

“This is why I don’t invite you to parties, Toss,” he said genially. “Nor do I intend to stand here all night bantering with you. Honestly, I don’t give you a thought when you’re not right in front of my face. No point, really; you’re not gonna be in charge long.”

Toss’s smile became a hungry grin. “Oh, I think you’ve grown a little too flushed with your recent success, Alan Vandro. You challenge me openly? In front of all these—”

He tried gamely to keep on talking, but the sheer volume of Vandro’s booming laugh made it pointless. Vandro had practiced that laugh, honed it for that very effect.

“Challenge you?” he chortled, wiping at his eyes. “You silly, sad little man. If I were to challenge you, in the best case scenario I’d end up having to do your tedious job. Nah, what could I possibly gain by going to the trouble? I mean, look around you. Look at this!” He indicated them all, the enforcers, the prisoners, with a contemptuous flick of his wrist. “This very public display of force, this airing of Guild laundry in the faces of all the finest folk in the city? This just isn’t how we do business, Toss, and it’s inconceivable to me that a chapter house head hasn’t figured that out at by this stage in his career.”

“Don’t you point at my—”

“And that’s another thing,” Vandro went on merrily. “This here thing you’re doing, this attempt to use social pressure to force me to either confront you or bend knee? Well, Toss, this is just plain clumsy. I almost hate to tell you, my boy, but you suck at this game. Challenge you? Please. Tell you what I’m gonna do. Since I’m retired and all, I’m gonna sit here in my villa, enjoying the ill-gotten fruit of my lifetime of labor, throwing ridiculous parties and hobnobbing with all my fancy friends, and generally ignore you. I don’t have to challenge you, y’moron. Hell, I don’t think I could save you if my own life depended on it. It’s a damn miracle you’ve lasted this long.”

Toss’s grin had become a decidedly less controlled baring of his teeth; his grip on Saduko’s arm was clearly hard enough to bruise, now, though, she bore it without complaint. “You are one more careless word from—”

“All systems are corrupt,” Vandro said, projecting from the diaphragm and completely overwhelming Toss’s growling delivery. Tragic, how few thieves studied public speaking; it was a priceless skill in their line of work. “We all know the catechism, Toss. You didn’t have to go so far out of your way to prove it.”

The enforcers were all watching Toss, now, their expressions a lot more thoughtful. Vandro knew most of them personally, knew there was nothing personal against him in their presence here, merely the execution of what they saw as their duty. A duty he’d just called into question by turning Toss’s attempted trap around on him.

He glanced at the prisoners; Amanika was smiling, keeping her face angled downward to mostly hide it. Shook still glared at Vandro, his expression a mask of betrayal. Hopefully he could calm the boy down long enough to explain…

In that moment, he understood Kheshiri’s plan. All this had been arranged, his plans subverted, Saduko’s deception turned against her, Toss’s ambition and cruelty manipulated, to create this scene, where Vandro was accused of betraying Shook, and couldn’t afford to deny it. Amanika could read between the lines well enough, but Shook and Toss were thugs who’d made good through hard work and judicious brutality. Shook had heard Vandro tacitly admit having set him up for a fall and the reward, and wouldn’t look beyond that. Unless he could separate Shook from Toss’s custody now, the boy’s trust in him would be completely severed. Leaving him alone in the world with the Guild and the law after him, no one he could trust…except his demon.

He also realized that his understanding had come a moment too late. Because that was the moment, and he was totally unprepared to take advantage of it.

Vandro opened his mouth to press his case, to begin working around to a demand that Shook and Amanika be released to his custody, knowing he wasn’t going to have enough time.

Sure enough, the winged form melted out of nothing right behind Toss, reached around with a large knife and slashed Saduko across the throat.

The screams and panic that followed broke what remaining order there was among the Guild enforcers. Toss stared at the woman now dangling limply from his arm, convulsing as she helplessly pressed a hand to her neck, completely failing to stifle the gushing of her blood. The three enforcers at the rear rushed forward, their swings missing the demon as she went aloft with one powerful beat of her wings. One of them actually struck Toss, sending him and Saduko crashing to the ground.

Kheshiri descended on the two men holding Shook, stomping directly on the head of one and launching herself off again, swooping about them as all four guards abandoned their charges to swipe at her. Released, Amanika turned and struggled frantically over to Saduko as best she could with her arms bound behind her, already glowing with healing light.

In the confusion, the succubus slashed through Shook’s bindings; he rolled forward, coming nimbly to his feet, and bared his teeth in a snarl at Vandro, reaching into his coat. Did he still somehow have his wands? Toss, that damned idiot…

“Jerry, my boy,” Vandro began.

“Save it!” Shook spat, bringing out his weapons. He glanced at Wilberforce and very deliberately did not point them at Vandro.

“Protocol: activate!” Vandro’s voice boomed across the garden, considerably louder than a human throat could actually have spoken. Unsurprising, as it came from Kheshiri, who was now perched atop a palm tree. “Execute program: great escape!”

They unfolded on all sides: benches, wastebins, pieces of decorative statuary, picnic tables. The various heavy stone accents decorating Vandro’s garden slid apart in pieces, revealing their interior metal frames and the blue glow of the arcane magic that made the golems run. Re-sorting themselves swiftly into more or less humanoid shapes, they took form and stepped forward, raising the wands that had been concealed within them.

Vandro sighed. His own security commands prevented them from revealing those weapons except in a case of utmost emergency. Outfitting golems with wands was extremely illegal; this was gonna cost him a fortune in bribes.

“Now, when did you find time to do that?” he asked, a note of admiration in his tone.

Kheshiri smirked down at him. “I suggest you all listen carefully,” she said, still boomingly loud, but in her own voice. Silence fell at her command, the guests and Guild enforcers staring up at her in horror. In that tense moment, the only sounds were the canned music still playing throughout the garden and Amanika’s furiously whispered prayers as she attempted to heal Saduko without the use of her hands. “The program these golems are acting on means they’ll destroy anyone who attempts to interfere with my master or myself as we make our departure. It also locks you out from issuing further commands, Alan, so don’t bother.”

“Simple, but effective,” he said, nodding. “As a professional courtesy, I hope you’ll leave me the counter-code to discover after you’re safely away.”

“Oh, there’s no counter-code,” she said sweetly. “You’ll have to shut them down the hard way. Whatever that may be.”

“Those were expensive, Shiri.”

“You can get more golems, Alan. I only have one master.”

Vandro sighed, turning his gaze to Shook. “Jerry, my boy, think this over carefully. You are being played, here.”

“How stupid do you think I am, Alan?” he snarled, convulsively raising his wands.

Wilberforce tried to step in front of Vandro; Vandro gently pushed him aside. “Watch it, boy,” he said firmly. “Right now, that question has an answer.”

“Master, run,” Kheshiri urged. “I’ll stay here and make sure nobody tries anything.”

“Just think on it, first chance you get,” Vandro said firmly, his eyes boring into Shooks, willing him to understand. Damn it, boy, think!

Shook stared back at him, and beneath the raw fury in his expression, Vandro saw the hurt. Hurt, he knew, was at the bottom of all rage. This was going to damage the boy, maybe beyond what could be fixed.

“Go, master. Please.”

Shook steeled himself, directing his eyes upward at his thrall. “Right. I’ll meet you at—”

“Don’t say it! Don’t give them any clues. Just go, be safe, hide. I can find you anywhere.”

Shook turned without another word, and set off for the gates at a run. In seconds he was out of view around the corner.

“Now then,” Kheshiri purred, turning back to grin down at Vandro. “Since we’ll be together for a while, I see no reason for the party to end here. How about you give us a little jig, Vandro.”

“You can’t be serious,” he said dryly.

“Can’t I?” She grinned with near maniacal glee. “I own your golems, Alan. I can demolish these Guild lackeys and your own security with a word. That means I own you. So…dance for me. Now.”

“You played a good game, Shiri,” Vandro said. “I respect skill. If you’d been willing to be professional, I’d have let you leave here safely. You need to learn when to quit, girl. Wilberforce, power up.”

None of the onlookers could see Wilberforce apply his thumb to the master control rune in his pocket. They only saw the entire estate explode.

Only the magical appliances therein, of course, but in a fully tricked-out modern rich man’s home like Alan Vandro’s estate, that might as well have been the whole thing. Every reserve power crystal in storage spontaneously poured its full load of energy into all the active devices; suddenly channeling several orders of magnitude more power than they were designed to contain, every apparatus on the grounds that used arcane energy burst apart in a series of booms and flashes. The whole house was lit up, windows blazing as if lightning had struck within; the gardens hosted a ferocious shower of sparks and explosions as light fixtures, music boxes, food fresheners and security golems disintegrated, flinging sparks and fragments in all directions.

The screams trailed off a few seconds after the explosions, leaving behind shocked quiet. It was darker, but not totally dark; the levitating party lights operated under their own power, and cast shifting, eerie patches of colored illumination in the absence of the estate’s main lighting. The smell of smoke and ozone hung heavily over everything. Small fires flickered in dozens of places.

The golems slumped, inert and smoking, emitting small sparks and most missing pieces.

“What say we play a different game?” Vandro suggested cheerfully. He lifted high his cocktail glass in Kheshiri’s direction as if toasting her. “Friends and neighbors, servants and gatecrashers, fellow acolytes of Eserion! For one night only, I’ll be paying the sum of one hundred decabloons to whoever brings me that demon’s corpse!”

Kheshiri took one look at the sheer number of those present who turned out to be carrying wands, and vanished.


 

Snow had begun falling, a soft counterpoint to the ominous quiet that filled the street.

The soldiers were hard-eyed, but disciplined, holding their ranks as they marched into the district. The full regiment seemed to have come; they filled the entire avenue, offering no path of escape past them.

Opposite them, residents of Tar’aris, bundled against the cold, had begun melting out of doors and alleys, staring equally hard-eyed at the approaching troops. Quite a few of them were openly carrying wands. They began to form a loose crowd blocking off the street as well.

Silver Legionnaires in their concealing winter gear stood at attention at intervals, several patrols having stopped and positioned themselves along the sidelines between the two groups. They stood firm and rigid, offering no move in either direction.

The students of the University wormed their way out of the crowd, where they had been trying to talk with various members of the community. Teal and Shaeine parted from Avrith, Bob and the small knot of citizens they had accompanied, stepping forward to meet the others in the middle. Ruda appeared out of an alley, Fross darting about above her head. Trissiny, Toby and Gabriel arrived in more of a hurry, having had a longer walk from the inn; they were accompanied by two Legionnaires and Bishop Darling. The latter was leaning close to Trissiny as they walked, whispering urgently into her ear. The paladin appeared to be listening closely, deep in thought.

A startled motion rippled through the watching crowd as Juniper arrived from a nearby rooftop, hitting the ground with a solid thud that left cracks in the pavement. She straightened up, brushing at her ill-fitting dress, and stepped up to join her classmates.

Darling peeled off and Trissiny directed the Legionnaires away with a simple hand motion. The rest of the students gathered with them, placing themselves between the soldiers and the citizens. The eight students—nine, including Vadrieny—represented enough offensive power to seriously damage that regiment, if not to smash through it entirely. Fortunately, they didn’t look like it; the soldiers didn’t see the threat, and thus didn’t react as if threatened. At least, not so far.

The man marching in the lead held up a hand. “Halt!” Behind him, the troops came to a stop in unison, their boots thundering once upon the pavement.

For a few moments, all was still. The groups stared at one another across the uncomfortably small open space in the street between them.

It was Captain Ravoud who finally spoke up.

“I see a lot of Silver Legionnaires in this district, General Avelea. May I ask what your intentions here are?”

Trissiny glanced at Darling; he nodded encouragingly at her.

“There has been serious misconduct on the part of a few of your troops, Captain,” she said firmly, her voice echoing in the silent street. Several soldiers shifted at her words. “That has given rise to a lot of rumor and ill feeling. Silver Legionnaires are known to be women of good character, also trained to understand military actions, and to see and report accurately on tactical details. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know they are here to observe.” She paused, then added more pointedly. “Whatever transpires here, there will be no unjust accusations of misconduct against your soldiers. We’ll see to that.”

Ravoud stared at her for a long moment, then nodded slowly. “I appreciate that, General.”

She nodded back, then began stepping backward toward the sidewalk. Toby was the next to move, widening his arms and silently ushering the rest of the students along with them. Ruda snorted disdainfully, but let herself be herded. As a group, they shifted out of the way, taking position at the edge of the street and clearing a direct path between the soldiers of Barracks Four and the citizens of Lor’naris.

Ravoud squared his shoulders and took one step forward. Two figures emerged from the crowd; Bob and Avrith paced forward to come nearly within arms’ distance of him.

“Corporal Robert Hollander,” Ravoud said, his voice pitched loud enough to be clearly audible to all present. “And… Avrith, isn’t it?”

“You may call me Mrs. Hollander, Captain, if it makes you more comfortable.”

Ravoud’s lips thinned. “I thought it was the women of your kind who determined the family name.”

“As a rule, yes,” she said, her voice mild. “My family, however, do not care for me to use their name so long as I choose to bind myself to a human. Bob’s family are my family, his home my home. His country my own.”

“Be that as it may,” Ravoud said firmly, “I have received intelligence that there is an armed insurrection forming in this district. You will immediately surrender any weapons being gathered for the purpose of rebellion against His Majesty the Emperor and submit any persons responsible for this action to Imperial custody.”

“Yep,” Bob said laconically, pulling a wand out of his pocket and holding it out to Ravoud, butt first. “Here you go.”

The Captain stared at him, open-mouthed.

“This has only been going on the last day or so,” Bob went on. “Folk none of us knew, making very pointed suggestions in taverns and the like. Several of us got together and decided on a course of action: we took to meetin’ with these chumps, tried to encourage them along a bit. I wish I had better to tell you, but we got nothing out of ’em but these gifts. If I have some of my friends come forward carrying arms to turn in, Captain, will you kindly refrain from having them shot?”

Ravoud blinked twice, then visibly steeled himself. “If… As long as they approach slowly, with hands in plain view and those weapons held pointed down.”

“All right, you heard the man,” Bob said more loudly, half-turning to address those behind him. “Slow and polite. Let’s not make the lads any more nervous than they already are.

A dozen people melted out of the crowd. Drow and human, male and female, they all held wands by the hafts, hands nowhere near the clickers, tips aimed at the pavement below their feet. Ravoud watched them approach warily, then turned his head to issue an order of his own. Two soldiers stepped forward and began collecting the wands, looking somewhat bemused.

“We have examined those weapons and unfortunately found nothing that seems useful,” said Avrith. “They are mass-produced and of middling quality. Perhaps the resources of the Empire can find out more about them than we, but I fear they were meant to be untraceable.”

“Everyone you see here was personally present at a meeting with at least one of these agitators,” Bob added. “Well, I mean, those of use stepped forward, here. The rest of those folk back there are just curious about the commotion, I think. We’re all happy to recount everything we saw and heard.”

“The men in question took pains to be anonymous,” said Avrith. “I cannot prove the use of disguise charms, but it would not surprise me. They offered no names and refused to reveal any patron, or the source of those weapons. However, several of us are soldiers, of both Tiraan and Narisian extraction, and two of the witnesses are trained diplomats. We met with them with the specific intention of gathering information. It is my hope that some of our recollections will prove useful to you in tracking them down and putting a stop to this.”

Ravoud just continued to stare at her, seeming at a total loss for words.

“Tiraas is our home, Captain,” Avrith said more softly. “This city has offered us a place when our own would not. We will protect and serve it in any way we can, as fervently as any other citizen. All of us.” Bob took her gloved hand in his.

“I…” Ravoud trailed off, then swallowed, squaring his shoulders. “I…thank you for your cooperation, citizen.”

“Great,” said Bob wryly. “D’you mind if we have the rest of this discussion someplace a bit warmer? We can go to your barracks, if you’d like, or there are spots closer where we can set up and do interviews.”

“None of us have any appointments,” Avrith added. “Consider us all at your disposal.” There were agreeing nods from the rest of the individuals standing alongside her.

“I…think a local place would do fine,” Ravoud said slowly. “No need to drag this out any more than it must be.”

Trissiny cleared her throat, stepping forward. “Captain, the Third has set up a command post in an unoccupied shop nearby. You may consider that at your disposal.”

“Thank you, General,” he said, nodding respectfully to her. “In fact, that would be perfect. Your Legionnaires can continue to…observe.”

“Of course. Soldier, show him where it is.”

The nearest Legionnaire saluted her before stepping over to Ravoud. She patiently stood by while he turned and issued orders to his men; shortly, the bulk of the regiment had turned and were marching back out of the district. Quite a few looked mystified, but they kept their ranks and their discipline. A small detachment of Imperial soldiers remained with the Captain and the citizens who had stepped forward to be interviewed, and in short order they, too, were departing, led by the woman in armor toward the Legion’s command center.

Darling drew in a deep breath and blew it out dramatically as the street finally began to clear of onlookers. “All praise be to whoever the hell is watching over us and willing to take credit for that. And I mean that in my official, ecclesiastical capacity.”

“Wait, so…that’s it?” Ruda demanded. “All that work, all that skullduggery and gathering tension, and it all ends like that? Just a few words and everybody’s friends again?”

“It is a little anticlimactic,” Fross agreed.

“Yes, Ruda, that’s it,” Toby said firmly. “And I, for one, will be spending a great deal of the rest of the night giving prayers of thanks. This is the best ending to all this we could possibly have hoped for.”

“I don’t know how much credit any of us can take,” Trissiny added grimly.

“Cheer up, kid,” said Darling, patting her on the back. “You’ve just successfully refrained from igniting a civil war. It was a good day.”

“Great,” she muttered.

“And no, Princess, everyone’s not friends,” he added more seriously. “There’s a long way yet to go… But the going has begun, and will continue. The hard part was always getting us through this confrontation.”

“But…we didn’t do anything,” said Gabriel.

The Bishop grinned at him. “No, you didn’t, did you? If you remember nothing else about this mess, Mr. Arquin, remember that. Good people taking care of their own affairs are always a force to be reckoned with. Sometimes, people need saving, that’s true. Most of the time, though, a hero is just somebody who reminds everyone at large to be their own best.”

“Aw,” said Fross. “Now, that’s uplifting! How come Professor Tellwyrn never gives us lessons like that?”

“Combination of complex factors,” said Ruda. “Mostly stemming from the fact that Tellwyrn’s a rotten bitch on her best day.”

They began drifting back in the direction of their inn, letting off tension in the form of good-natured bickering as they went.

Behind them, leaning against the wall of an alley, Professor Tellwyrn stood in silence, wearing a calm smile. She simply watched until the students were nearly out of sight around the curve of the street, then straightened, brushed off her tunic, and vanished with a soft pop that barely disturbed the falling snow.

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