Tag Archives: Vadrieny

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The door was hard to close; once Mogul had shown her the trick, she had managed to deflect her attention from it but not shut it off entirely. It was something that had always been there, creeping out in Vadrieny’s relationship to sound, in the way her magic sometimes sang through when Teal created music and they were both caught up in it. It was more than physical sound, more than the delicate mechanisms of the ear detecting vibration in the air. Something in her being that superceded mundane physics, like the means she used to fly, sought out and connected to it, and Mogul with his bell and his explanations had opened a door she had no idea how to close again.

Despite the speed of the air rushing past her, the sounds of the city rose up in an infinite clamor as she soared above Tiraas. Teal had been in cities plenty of times and was familiar with their cacophony, but now each sound, each voice and crash and clatter, registered individually. Mogul had said it could be overwhelming, but she viewed it with some detachment. Whether it was her musical training or just the long experience of disregarding unimportant noise, she let the hubbub slide past.

She could definitely detect the shrieks and responses to her arrival in particular, and winced. Well, there was nothing to be done about that, unfortunately.

Vadrieny arced toward the center of the city, but not too far, carefully avoiding Imperial Square. Both the government and the Church knew who she was, but she was under no illusions what would probably happen if an archdemon came diving out of the sky right at the Palace with no warning. Even coming over the walls had been pushing her luck. She only needed to glide in a wide sweep to orient herself; during previous trips to the capital she had not been encouraged to take to the air. It was quick work, though, to get her bearing and locate the Narisian embassy, in the aptly-named Embassy District two blocks distant from the Square.

Very carefully, she slowed her descent, banking as she approached and pumping her wings to settle as gently as possible into the courtyard. The people crossing the space between the front gates and the doors, a mix of drow and humans, wisely scurried off the main path to make room, while soldiers in House An’sadarr uniforms stepped forward with weapons upraised.

Immediately upon landing, Vadrieny submerged herself, leaving Teal standing in the chilly air in her House Awarrion robes. She turned to face the startled onlookers with the calmest expression she could muster, painfully aware that her hair must be a disaster.

“I am very sorry for startling you,” she said with well-practiced public calm, bowing to the public. “Everything is all right; there is no danger here. My apologies for the intrusion.”

She turned to approach the embassy’s door, and found her way blocked by two soldiers. Already stepping forward, Teal trailed to a halt; these had swords out and upraised. They were An’sadarr, not Awarrion, but surely they had been told about her?

“It’s all right. Let her pass.”

The armored women obeyed immediately, sheathing their weapons and stepping aside to flank the open door again, in the process revealing the slim figure of the Ambassador.

Shariss yr Shareth a’nar Awarrion wore her hair shorter than most Awarrion personnel save the House guards, in a style not dissimilar to Teal’s which was more associated with a martial path than a diplomatic one in Narisian culture. She generally had a famously unique sense of style, as evidenced by her robes: black, rather than deep red and green as was common among her House, and custom-designed in a shape evocative of a Tiraan business suit, complete with lapels and high collar and subtle embroidery hinting at pinstripes.

“Teal,” Shariss said, a masterpiece of a syllable which conveyed a greeting, a question, and a dire warning all at once.

“Ambassador,” Teal replied, bowing again. “I apologize for interrupting your business, but mine is urgent. May I speak with you in privacy?”

“Of course,” Shariss said neutrally. “This way, if you please.”

The Ambassador set a brisk pace, which suited Teal perfectly. They strode—or in Shariss’s case, glided—through the embassy’s main entry hall, both acknowledging the stares of visitors with polite nods, then passed through a side door into a hallway. Shariss led her up a narrow flight of stairs, along a short hall, and through a heavy wooden door into a small conference room with a window overlooking the street outside, which marked it as a place for meeting human visitors as Narisians generally preferred fully enclosed spaces. It also bore some kind of enchantment for privacy, to judge by the way the sounds from without were fully cut off once Shariss shut the door behind Teal.

“It’s just lucky I was alerted to your approach in time to meet you personally,” Shariss said, an open edge in her tone now that they were in private, turning to fix Teal with a stare. “I trust you realize the trouble that entrance may have created, and that this is worth it?”

“I do, and I think so,” Teal said, swallowing nervousness with the help of a rush of wordless support and affection from Vadrieny. “I was just intercepted in Puna Dara and informed that the Sleeper has been identified.”

Shariss’s eyes narrowed, but she just nodded for Teal to continue.

“His name is Chase Masterson, and I can well believe he would do such…things. My source indicated he fled Last Rock upon being outed and was directed to come to Tiraas to be recruited by the Imperial government. And further, that Professor Tellwyrn had been sufficiently agitated that she would be pursuing with the intent to kill him on sight.”

“Source?”

“An agent of the Archpope. Embras Mogul of the Black Wreath was also there, and he is under orders from Elilial herself to support Vadrieny as needed. He was able to confirm some part of the story and clarify others. And debunk a few obvious lies.”

“So,” Shariss said with another nod, “you consider this account credible, overall.”

“Mostly, but it also contains misdirection. Tellwyrn is not a fool, nor is she mindlessly violent; she’ll be trying to capture Chase as well, to get the cure for the sleeping curse.” Teal drew in a steadying breath. “According to Mogul, the Archpope’s intent is to prolong conflicts in Puna Dara and Last Rock by removing Vadrieny and Tellwyrn, respectively, from those locations. It was probably he who outed Chase. And as infuriating as it is to have to take the bait…this is a question of loyalty.” She permitted a hard edge to creep into her own voice. “While he’s here, and not caught by Tellwyrn or the Empire yet, Chase is in play. Vadrieny possesses a tracking ability that may lead to him, which makes this our one chance to put him in the hands of House Awarrion. I…abandoned an assignment from the University and left my friends facing a very uncertain situation to come here after him. I can’t let it be for nothing.”

Shariss simply nodded once more. To a Narisian drow, choosing House above all other considerations was nothing more or less than expected, particularly of a daughter of the Matriarch. Teal was not so sanguine; her friends were physically powerful enough to resist most material dangers and neither she nor Vadrieny likely could have contributed much to fixing ancient Elder God machinery, but this had still been a painful decision. It was her decision, though, and she had made it. Now there were only the consequences to deal with.

“Very good, then,” the Ambassador said. “What do you need from me?”

“I’ll need to be on the roof,” Teal said, “to listen. And…in Vadrieny’s form.”

“That will cause nearly as much of a stir as your entrance,” Shariss noted.

“I’m sorry for…”

The drow held up one hand. “Be sorry for nothing. I will run whatever interference is necessary with the Imperial government to buy you time. That’s nothing more or less than the task your mother and the Queen charged me with; it is my duty and an honor to aid you.” She turned and unlatched the window, but then paused just before pushing it open. The Ambassador shifted her head and gave Teal a look that was very undiplomatic. “Get him.”

Teal nodded deeply in thanks, stepping forward and pushing the window open. Shariss stepped back from the rush of city noise and cold air, but Teal climbed up onto the sill and leaped out.

There were shouts from the street below, followed by screams when Vadrieny burst forth again and propelled herself upward with a powerful beat of her wings. She paid them no mind, rising and circling till she was above the embassy and then setting herself down carefully on its highest point, a small spire surmounting its central done.

It was a position not designed for perching upon, but with her claws wrapped around it, she held still even against the buffeting of the wind. Vadrieny closed her eyes, fully extended her fiery wings, and listened.

Deliberately, consciously opened to it like that, it was overwhelming for a moment. She could tell how that ability had always been there, but unnoticed and ignored till now—the way sound interacted with her, the way Teal’s music poured out and Vadrieny’s perception of it had aided her in creating it. Having been crammed into a mortal body and nearly destroyed in the process, she had rebuilt her consciousness by clinging to Teal’s; who knew what other senses she might still possess, dormant and waiting to be awakened? Thanks to Mogul’s intervention, now, she didn’t know how to stop it.

But it was Teal, not Vadrieny, who provided the key to making this useful. According to the warlock Vadrieny had, in times past, used precisely this ability to separate sounds out in order to hunt her mother’s enemies, but right now she had no idea how that was done. Teal, though, could single out one note from an orchestra… Or one voice from a city.

They clung there, feathers spread like hundreds of antennae, with every tiny vibration of sound thrumming through fiery plumes, ears, aura. Slipping through their shared consciousness like threads of silk through fingers, searching for one familiar voice.


She arrived first upon a flat rooftop not far from the city’s center. Tellwyrn took a moment to glance about, noting the nearby spires of the Grand Cathedral and the Temple of Avei; the structure atop which she stood had a view straight down the avenue which passed between them into Imperial Square. Well enough; a central position wasn’t really necessary for this, but it couldn’t hurt.

Finding him was the work of moments. She had to close her eyes and release a gentle pulse with her will, the softest exertion of arcane energy that rippled out across the entire city, passing through and around its chaotic morass of active enchantments without disturbing them. Rare was the wizard who could detect that, but if any were near enough to feel it, they would also feel whose locator spell that was and know better than to meddle in her business. Indeed, she felt a tiny ripple in response, the distinctive faint pressure of Zanzayed off in the Conclave’s embassy, acknowledging her presence. She ignored him; her business lay with the other ping that resulted.

Chase Masterson was in no position to detect that spell, but he was a student of her University and therefore Tellwyrn had long since made certain of her ability to find him at need. In theory, she could have done so from anywhere in the world, but it was easier and much faster to start from close by. Her information was correct: he was in the city. That would make this a very short pursuit indeed.

She opened her eyes, this time channeling power through the inherent charms on her spectacles. In the sixty years since acquiring them in that unfortunate little town on the N’Jendo border, she had made certain not only to research their history but to experiment with their abilities, and it was now the simplest thing in the world to turn her head and focus her eyes and mind to see him. Though he was far enough away that even elven eyes could barely have picked him out from the crowd, and there were hundreds of buildings and other objects separating them, Chase was a speck in her vision that she would not lose now that she had it.

Not even when he abruptly shadow-jumped to a different part of the city. She turned again, unerringly. She had the scent now, and he wasn’t getting away that easily.

First, preparations. The spell she wove using only the exertion of her mind; no reagents, no gestures even, simply a matrix of arcane and infernal energy crafted into an invisible cage on the rooftop, half-completed so as to allow its target to move within, ready to be finished and snare him once he was in position. That took only moments longer. The more time it spent here, the more likely someone would find it—or blunder into it—but she did not expect this to take long enough for that to become an issue.

Tellwyrn opened her eyes, studying the flows of magic through her spectacles. Everything was in order; no reason to delay further.

Teleportation was a specialty of hers; many mages hesitated to use it in cities at all, particularly in crowded areas, but Tellwyrn had no trouble planting herself abruptly in an opening in the crowd barely big enough to accommodate her. She ignored the cursing and single shriek that resulted from her sudden arrival, focusing only on Chase.

She had appeared right in front of him, which wasn’t deliberate; any arrival point within a few feet would have ensured the reaction she wanted. He had apparently just slipped out of an alleyway and was heading down a busy sidewalk, but now skidded to a halt to avoid running right into her.

For one second, they locked eyes in silence.

“Okay, y’got me,” Chase said with a bashful grin, raising his hands. “I’m away from campus without permission. I was gonna get a note from Miss Sunrunner, but—”

Doubtless he thought he was being clever by shadow-jumping away mid-sentence, but no amount of infernal mastery made his reaction time a match for an elf’s. Tellwyrn’s eyes shifted minutely, following the trail he made through spacetime, which was at the same time a tunnel connecting two points and those points being brought to the same location for a moment. Like most such effects, this made no sense to minds accustomed to classical physics; it had taken her several decades of practice to be able to do that without suffering crippling nausea and a migraine, but a wizard’s mind was flexible.

Intercepting and redirecting a shadow-jump was doubtless part of the knowledge Chase had been granted; at least, Elilial definitely knew the technique. Just because he understood the theory, though, did not mean he could do it. That required a great deal of practice; it was as much a matter of intuition as skill. Countering that technique was a whole order of magnitude harder. Even she would have been hard-pressed to manage it, which was one of the reasons she disdained shadow-jumping. Chase had no chance.

Tellwyrn teleported back to her rooftop, arriving at the same moment Chase’s interrupted dimensional jump spat him out right into the middle of the snare array. It instantly closed like the jaws of a bear trap, meeting his own reflexive defenses.

With more time and attention she could have carefully crafted a spell to ensnare a specific foe, but it hadn’t even been necessary in this case. Chase was no wizard; he wasn’t even a proper warlock, just a silly boy with powers he didn’t respect or deserve. His instinctive reactions were exactly as she had assumed, a retaliatory use of infernal magic to disrupt the arcane element of the snare and try to convert it per the Circles of Interaction to a form he could subvert. Then, he encountered the spell’s infernal component and wasted precious seconds being stymied.

“Oh ho!” Chase exclaimed, grinning in delight. “Someone’s been dabbling in the dark arts herself! Shame on you, Arachne, and after you present yourself as such an upstanding—”

A proper caster of any kind would also know better than to try engaging in repartee while already in a battle of magic. She could have arranged an even more complex spell to finish trapping him while he stopped to jabber. Knowing Chase as she did, this outcome was predictable enough that it would have been a safe bet. Again, though, there was no need to have bothered. She simply applied the last element of the spell.

The divine magic that flared around them was pure white and of an intensity that met and incinerated the infernal he was trying to use. Not that in her own spell, though; that had been arranged beforehand in precisely the proper configuration. Magic of the third school fit neatly into the existing array.

The whole thing collapsed inward, plunging to a single point in the middle of Chase’s aura like a balloon popping in reverse. Arcane, infernal and divine energy clamped down on and through him, settling over his mind and his very being like a solid shield and cutting him off from accessing magic.

Any magic.

“…okay, I’ll hand it to you,” he said aloud after a moment. “That I was not expecting. But…you know, in hindsight, I dunno why.” Again, he grinned insouciantly, not in the lease perturbed by his predicament. “All those thousands of years doing nothing but chasing down gods and getting their attention, it’s downright idiotic of me and everyone else not to have guessed. So, whose priestess are you? Wait, don’t tell me! It’s Vidius, isn’t it? In the stories you always got along real well with him.”

She continued to ignore his prattling, already weaving another spell. This one was visible, since she felt no need to conceal it, and Chase stopped talking to warily eyeball the circles of arcane blue that appeared around him, rotating and marked with glyphs.

“Hnh,” Tellwyrn grunted, eyes tracking rapidly back and forth as she extracted data on the spells he had recently cast, pulling the information directly from his own aura. “And there it is, the infamous curse. It really was you.”

For once, he seemed to have nothing to say. The binding did not restrict him physically, but he just stood there. Even Chase Masterson wasn’t daffy enough to think trying to escape or attack her would lead anywhere useful.

“And…oh, Chase.” She shook her head. “Of all the idiotic… You know, embarrassingly, it was Ezzaniel and not one of the magic professors who came up with the theory that you were reacting like a Vanislaad. He’ll be insufferably smug about this. But honestly, you summoned one and destroyed its soul to absorb that aspect? There is a reason warlocks don’t do that, Chase! Because any warlock knows where his soul will go in the end, and refrains from doing things which will ensure Prince Vanislaas spends an eternity ripping him a series of new ones!”

“Eh,” he said lightly, shrugging and regaining his characteristic grin. “I bet I can take him. It’ll all work out for me in the end. It always does.”

“You sad little idiot,” she grunted, already studying the cluster of data that was his sleeping curse in four dimensions. It really was hellishly complex, pun entirely relevant. She could crack this, though. It might take time, but certainly less than Alaric, Bradshaw and the others would have to spend.

“Hey, you’re supposed to be my teacher. If I’m an idiot, whose fault is that?”

She consigned the data to a carefully partitioned-off segment of her memory and focused on him again.

“Who else?” she asked curtly.

“Ah.” Chase stuck his hands in his pockets and smirked at her. He was dressed for a Last Rock winter—which wasn’t even properly a winter—but despite the snow scattered around the roof and the sharp wind, he didn’t even shiver. “That’s right, you’ll be wanting to know who else got a brainjob from the Dark Lady. How many, what they know, the whole works. Well, that seems like important information, doesn’t it? Not to mention, and I don’t mind admitting it, the only thing I’ve got to bargain with, here. So, say I’m in a mood to be accommodating. What’s in it for me?”

Tellwyrn sighed. “You have to know you’ll tell me anything I want to hear, in the end.”

Chase gazed back at her with that insufferable little smirk for a long moment. She waited; his patience was no match for hers and they both knew it. Slowly, the smirk receded, but rather than intimidated, his expression grew thoughtful.

“Why’d you ever bring me here, Arachne? Oh, not this.” Grinning, he gestured around at the empty rooftop. “No, I totally get this part right here. I meant…the school. Your big infamous University for future heroes and villains and other things that haven’t been things since the Age of Adventures. Me, just some fucking guy who got chucked out of a lodge. I never understood it, but I wasn’t gonna look that gift horse in the mouth. But seriously, since we’re here… Why? Tell me that. What the fuck was I ever doing at that school?”

Tellwyrn pursed her lips, debating internally. Well, if all he wanted was conversation, that cost her nothing. It was one of the less troublesome paths to an accord.

“Are you aware, Chase, of just how you are…different?”

“I think the word you mean to use there is ‘defective,’” he replied with a wink. “Oh, not that I think I am. Mostly I notice that almost everyone but me are hypocritical idiots obsessed with mushy shit that objectively does not matter. They don’t even really believe it, either; we just all have to pretend, because that what you’ve gotta do to live in a society. I’ve always had a feeling that you, of all people, knew better.”

“That mushy shit is what makes everything possible,” she said, heaving a sigh. “Empathy begets cooperation; cooperation begets everything else. You think you’re so special? Without people connecting to each other, working together, you’d be special running naked through the woods searching for tubers and grubs to eat. Civilization is a product of people being able to look into one another and see reflections of themselves. And Chase…you should know better than that by now.”

“Ah, yes, here it comes,” he said sagely. “The long speech about how I suck. Lay it on me, teach.”

“I had a friend,” she said, shifting her eyes to gaze at the city’s distant walls. “Morgan Corrassan. A charming asshole who loved fun a lot more than self-preservation, like you. Just like you, Chase. Anth’auwa, as the elves say: missing that little piece in the brain that contains your connections to other thinking, feeling beings. But the thing is…my friend Morgan figured out how to get along in the world. He made himself useful, was always friendly and kind to others, spoke respectfully to authority figures. Hell, the man carried candy around to give to children every time we passed through a village. Do you think he gave a shit about them? Children were just particularly annoying meat-marionettes as far as he was concerned. Morgan got it, Chase. He grasped that the way to succeed in life was to be a source of pleasure and utility to others. That society is a thing you can neither ignore nor spit on without consequences. He and I had some crazy times together—this was back when dungeon-delving was a legitimate career. Every time I needed someone really reliable, there was always good ol’ Morgan. Because, in a way, he was more stable than a so-called normal person. His issues were comprehensible; I always knew exactly what he was, what he was about, and what might cause him to turn on me. So I never let that happen. A normal person might do any goddamn thing at all—people are as skittish and irrational as horses at the best of times. If you know how to handle them, if they know how to handle themselves, anth’auwa can be some of the best friends out there.” She shook her head slowly, turning back to him. “Morgan died a rich man, at the age of seventy, in bed from a stroke. On silk sheets, under a literal pile of prostitutes. He willed his entire fortune to the Universal Church, and I will be eternally bitter about that because it’s a practical joke I will never top. That’s all it was, Chase. He wasn’t a better man than you. I don’t think terms like ‘better’ are even applicable to people like you. He just did the one thing you apparently couldn’t be bothered to: used his fucking brain.”

“That’s a beautiful story,” Chase said solemnly. “Truly, I am touched.”

“Most human societies have never worked out a way to cope with your kind,” she said, folding her arms and staring at him over the rims of her glasses. “Or even to recognize them. Plains and forest elves just expel anth’auwa from the tribe to be someone else’s problem. In Tar’naris, you would be identified and studied, and if found useful, put to work. Narisians are great ones for not wasting resources, and your nature does lend itself to particular fields. Someone with obsessive focus and no regard for the pain of others can make a fantastic surgeon, for example. Of course, they would also assign you a dedicated handler, and if you weren’t found to be useful enough to justify the expenses of keeping both yourself and your minder, you’d end up food for the spiders that make the silk. Then, of course, there are the Eserites; the Guild attracts anth’auwa. They probably think they’re doing the public a service by slitting their throats and dumping them in ravines. And I don’t have to tell you of all people how Shaathists react to the kinds of trouble you cause.”

“Oh, that wasn’t personal,” he said lightly, waving a hand. “They’ll take any excuse to boot boys out of the ol’ fraternity. More wives for whoever’s left.”

“It’s just a damn shame, is all,” she said quietly, still gazing at him. “So much potential, constantly going to waste. And worse, turning out to be a danger to society in most cases, because society fails to identify people with your condition and give them the support they’d need to turn out productive. It can be done; I’ve seen it done. There’s no reason it can’t be done on a large scale. You were my first real try, Chase.”

She twisted her mouth bitterly to one side.

“I am…disappointed.”

“Yeah? Sounds like quite the noble goal you’ve got going there.” Chase grinned broadly, stuck his hands back in his pockets and slouched nonchalantly. “It lines up really well with your oft-stated educational philosophy, too. Yeah, I actually have listened to all your talk about how every problem in the world is due to people not thinking. And you know what, maybe you’re not wrong about that. I don’t think that’s what went wrong here.” He grin broadened. “Maybe, Arachne, you’ve just bitten off more than you can chew with this one. Maybe it’s a worthwhile goal, and ought to be left up to a competent teacher.”

The wind whistled across the space between them, carrying with it the chill of late winter and the hubbub of the city. Tellwyrn shifted her gaze to stare past his shoulder, and pushed her spectacles back up her nose.

“So, anyhow!” Chase said in a cheerful tone. “Here we are. I still have information you need, so the question is: what’s it worth to you for me to cooperate, hmm?”

“I confess I had hoped you’d start acting in your own best interests, belatedly,” she said with a heavy sigh. “Of course, I came prepared to get it out of you by whatever other means proved necessary. Circumstance does tend to intervene, though. Now that we’re all here, I think I’ll just let her take care of it.”

He blinked, his grin faltering, but it returned in full force the next moment. “Oh, come on, that’s downright insulting. You don’t think I’m gonna fall for—”

Probably expecting Tellwyrn to intervene, Vadrieny came swooping in at a low angle and high speed. She slowed just enough to snatch Chase without maiming him, but in the next instant had pumped her wings and shot upward in an arc carrying her straight for the walls, captive clutched firmly in her claws. It was only seconds more before they were out of sight, an orange streak of fire vanishing above the horizon.

Tellwyrn sighed softly. “You may as well come out. I assume you wanted to talk to me, since you showed up in person. Admirably quick response time, by the way.”

“Truth be told, I had scryers on standby watching for something else when you started flinging spells around.” At the other end of the roof, near the fire escape, Quentin Vex materialized out of the air in the act of removing an invisibility ring from his finger. “You’re not going to stop her?” he asked, pacing forward to join the Professor.

“Oh, I will be having words with that girl about what she’s doing here instead of where I directed her to be,” Tellwyrn said grimly. “But later. With regard to this… No, that’s an acceptable resolution. She’s heading west by northwest, toward Tar’naris. The drow will get any answers needed out of him. They are better prepared to handle both warlocks and anth’auwa than you or I are, frankly. And whatever else they do to the little shit, he’s brought on himself. So!” She turned to face him directly. “Sorry my little bag of tricks distracted your attention, but since it’s you and not half the Azure Corps here to greet me, you must want something.”

“Well, this is rather embarrassing,” Vex replied, “but I’m afraid we’ve had a problem containing a local…issue. And it has come to affect us both.”

“Do tell.”

“The short version is that a cabal of treasonous individuals loyal to the Archpope above the Empire have been rounded up and arrested over the course of the last two days. Most were members of various cults, and the cults have taken point on this. A group of two dozen Imperial soldiers, however, slipped our net, stole a zeppelin, and according to its last sighting, are heading toward Last Rock.”

“…why?” Tellwyrn asked in a dangerously calm tone.

“Come, Professor, you have to know all the events going on here are interconnected. Justinian’s sticky fingerprints are all over the mess in Puna Dara, and while this is the first solid indication I’ve had that he’s also involved in your problems out there, it doesn’t surprise me. Does it you?”

She grunted. “Well, Lorelin Reich is in Last Rock again. Two dozen troops, hm. Where’s that zeppelin now?”

“I don’t know,” he said, scowling. “That’s the problem. Probably somewhere over the Green Belt by now, but they know very well that if they come withing range of any mag cannon emplacements they’ll be shot down. So they aren’t. The farther they get into the Great Plains, the more empty space there is in which to hide.”

“I’m not sure what you expect me to do,” Tellwyrn snapped. “Scrying the location of a moving vehicle isn’t as easy as that, or your people would just do it yourselves. By far the most effective action here would be to use another, faster flying unit, and go search.”

“I don’t expect you to do any specific thing, Professor,” Vex said, resuming his customary mild smile. “I just thought you deserved to know about the group of armed men and women apparently planning to intervene on your campus. And to know that the Empire has already written the airship off. Anyone reducing it to shrapnel would be doing the Silver Throne a service. But, with that message delivered, I had better get back to my increasingly exhausting duties. Always a pleasure, Professor.”

He bowed politely to her, then turned and ambled back toward the fire escape. Tellwyrn watched him go, and waited until he reached the street below before acting.

She devoted two solid minutes to cursing under her breath, cycling through twelve languages. At last, still grumbling to herself, she held out a hand.

A polished wooden flute popped out of midair into her grasp. She lifted the instrument to her lips and began to play. Only a few bars of music emerged before yet another person stepped out of thin air onto the rooftop; after her earlier seeking spell, he had probably been waiting specifically for this.

“Seven down,” Zanzayed the Blue crowed, a living portrait of smugness, “three to go! Have you given any thought to names yet, darling? Me, I’ve already picked out curtains for the nursery. Blue, obviously.”

“If it ever gets as high as nine, I’ll just drop the damn thing into the Azure Sea,” she snorted. “Don’t flatter yourself any more than you can absolutely help, Zanza. When have you ever gotten the better of me in the long run?”

“Now, now, poppet, if you were going to get rid of it you’d have done so when we first made our little bet. And at seven of ten allowed favors invoked, I am numerically winning. So!” He grinned a particularly insufferable grin. “How may I be of service?”

“You’re going to think this is dreadfully prosaic,” she said dryly, “but I need a ride.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Absolutely,” she replied tonelessly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Veth’na alaue,” Rafe muttered.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“It’s not much of a plan, is all.”

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

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

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

“You are sixteen!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A what?” Tallie exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jasmine sighed again. “I…”

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

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

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

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

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

Jasmine heaved a sigh. “Look…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jasmine sighed. “We should be so lucky.”

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13 – 25

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“Too quiet,” Vex murmured, ignoring or not seeing the annoyed glances both Bishops gave him.

Cliche aside, he was correct. This was just a cargo warehouse attached to the zeppelin docks; it wouldn’t have been bustling when not actively in use. Still, it was nominally a military facility, and the complete lack of guards wasn’t right.

Vex gestured, and the five men and women in plain clothes accompanying him immediately scattered into the surrounding outbuildings. Basra started to follow one, but Darling grabbed her by the shoulder. From the look she shot him, he thought for a moment she was going to go for her sword, but in the next instant she had gone still again, turning to stare intently at the warehouse where their trap was supposed to have been laid.

Supposed was the word of the day. All this would have been over before midnight, had anything gone according to plan, and yet here it was pushing mid-morning and the three of them were still chasing their tails all over the city—and now, beyond it. They were in the fortified town across the bridge from Tiraas on the eastern edge of the canyon, still legally part of the capital, but to Darling at least this didn’t feel like his city.

They were all running on static at this point. Even Vex’s unflappable demeanor was starting to fray. Despite Darling’s concern, Basra hadn’t caused any problems since being separated from High Commander Rouvad hours ago; as she grew more exhausted, she grew more focused, until by this point she seemed to see only whatever obstacle was right in front of her with no context. That had several times raised difficulties, but at least was easier to manage than Darling had feared. He had seen her cooped up for days with people she didn’t like; seeing her run ragged wasn’t nearly as bad.

“What were you expecting to find?” Darling asked quietly.

“Having the storage facility’s usual personnel cleared out was part of the plan,” Vex replied, staring fixedly at the warehouse. Oddly, when he actually was tired, he didn’t put on his usual sleepy expression. “We coaxed no less than twenty disaffected Imperial personnel here, most of them military, five magic-users; last thing we want is dockworkers and admins caught in some kind of crossfire. But, if my agents had secured the targets as planned, one would have met us. There are signals they should have placed if that was not possible, and none are displayed. I sent four of my best here, and something’s happened to them.”

“Four,” Basra said curtly, “against twenty.”

“Four of mine,” he retorted. “Ordinarily that should have been plenty.”

One of Vex’s spies suddenly re-emerged from a gap between the warehouse and the fortress wall, crossing to them with long strides.

“No sign of the targets,” he reported without preamble. “Four people are inside the warehouse, tied to chairs, bags over their heads. I observed one moving. Two in Army uniform, no way to confirm identities.”

“That screams trap,” Basra said.

Vex glanced at her but spoke to his agent. “Any sign that our trap went off, Marshal?”

“No telling, sir. The gas leaves no visible traces, and our people would have concealed the tanks.”

The spymaster drew in a breath and let it out through his nose. “If the traitors were deft enough to thwart our agents, Syrinx is right; their best move would have been to use them as bait and lure us into our own trap. All right, you know the protocol. Go in and get them out, but sweeping for triggers the whole way. I don’t want anybody else caught in this cock-up.”

The man nodded once, turned, and strode back in the direction whence he had come.

“So…we just wait?” Basra demanded irritably.

“Intelligence work is a lot like soldiering,” Vex replied, “at least insofar as it involves a lot of tedious standing around.”

Another of his agents reappeared, this time from behind them.

“Sir, there’s an additional situation,” she reported. “None of the zeppelin dock’s personnel are present; our plan didn’t involve removing them. The command tower is locked and seems to have been barricaded from the inside.”

Vex’s eyes narrowed, then darted back and forth rapidly as if he were studying equations no one else could see.

“Avelea,” he said suddenly. “How many zeps should be at this dock?”

“Just the stanbys, sir,” Nora Avelea replied. The only agent Vex had kept by his side, she had been the soul of professionalism apart from being notably frosty to Darling. Well aware of her issues with the Guild, he had opted not to make a thing of it. “Almost the whole fleet is deployed right now, between the mission to Shengdu and flood relief in Thakar. This dock should only have two staffships and two troop transports at the ready.”

Vex nodded to her, glanced once at the Bishops, then turned and strode away. Basra immediately followed, Darling coming along after only a momentary hesitation. Avelea fell into step behind him, slipping a hand into her pocket in a gesture he was certain she’d meant him to observe.

“What are we doing?” Basra demanded.

“Taking a quick headcount,” Vex said cryptically. He was leading them toward the nearest stairs that led to the fortress wall, which in this case meant a corner turret that housed a mag cannon emplacement. Darling noted the lack of soldiers on patrol, which was not right, before they passed into the tower stairwell. The four of them climbed quickly but in silence, apart from Basra’s barely-audible muttering.

Even she fell silent when they emerged onto the artillery platform overlooking the actual zeppelin docks.

Both staffships were tied up to the tower dock, high enough that they could see the weapons bristling from their undercarriages below the gas capsules. Proper mag cannons were far too powerful to mount on an airship; firing one would send the vessel into an uncontrollable spin. An Imperial staff ship had a bomb bay, four grenade launchers, and eighteen staff emplacements, the latter weapons augmented for range and power beyond that of the average battlestaff, which was about the most that could be used from a lighter-than-air vehicle. There was no sign of any personnel in the tower or aboard the ships, either.

And there was a single, much larger troop transport moored at the lower docks.

“They stole,” Basra said incredulously, “a zeppelin? Vex, you can track those, right?”

“They carry locator charms, obviously,” he replied, staring down at the docks. “To pull this off they’d have needed the aid of zeppelin personnel, who would know where to find those and how to disable them. What we cannot yet do, though, is render them invisible, so wherever they went, they’ll have been seen. Damn it, I’ll have to return to headquarters to get the reports I need to follow up on this… Antonio, suppose this were a job you were running. You’re fleeing in an airship. What’s your next move?”

“Well,” Darling said, leaning against the parapet and frowning at the lone remaining transport, “step one would be to throw the assclown whose idea that was off the damn airship. A zeppelin is the worst possible choice of getaway vehicle. They aren’t fast, agile, or stealthy. You can’t even have a fall guy head in one direction with it while the rest go in another, since you can’t board or disembark from it without landing the whole thing.”

“Parachutes,” Basra pointed out.

“Yes,” Vex said, stroking his chin. “They could jump, leave it adrift, and scatter into the countryside…if all they want is to get away. But if they’re going somewhere in particular…”

Abruptly, he turned and strode back to the stairs.

“Where would they go?” Basra demanded, again following.

“They have no safe havens,” Vex said as they descended. “Twenty troopers, even with a few casters among them, aren’t a match for any significant military emplacements. Even most House guards could repel them. It’s enough to intervene effectively in an already-upset situation, though, if they do it right. If these are going for one of Justinian’s projects… It’ll be Puna Dara or Last Rock.”

“Last Rock?” Darling exclaimed.

“Justinian is throwing these people under the carriage, remember,” Basra added.

As they emerged into the courtyard again, Vex cast a cool glance over them. This was a tense moment; ostensibly, the two of them worked for the Archpope in this regard. But both of them knew the broad strokes of what was really going on, and Vex had to know they knew. The question was what Vex knew about their actual loyalties.

Hell, even Darling didn’t know Basra’s actual loyalties, if she truly had any, and he knew that his own vagueness on the subject was a sore point with the Imperial government.

“Sending them into a battle would be a very convenient way of getting rid of them,” Vex said suddenly, breaking the tense silence, “and potentially a way to tip the balance of one in the process. Justinian rarely does anything with only one purpose. I can’t prove he’s behind the unfolding situations in either place, of course, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know damn well he is. And he knows I know, and so on, endlessly. We need to get back to the capital. Avelea, I’m leaving you in charge of this operation.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I have to find out where that damn zeppelin went,” Vex said to the Bishops, already striding back toward the fortress entrance with them moving to flank him while Marshal Avelea peeled off to intercept two more Intelligence agents coming to report. “Antonio, can you wrangle the Church end of this?”

“What’s to wrangle? At last check-in, that was going well, Sisterhood aside.”

Basra made a sound like a cranky rattlesnake.

“That is my concern,” Vex replied, “and why I need Bishop Syrinx elsewhere. Will the Huntsmen listen to you, if you need to give orders?”

“Maybe,” Darling said. “If not, they’ll listen to Andros Varanus, and he’ll listen to me.”

“Good enough, I suppose,” the spymaster grunted.

“And what is it you want from me, now?” Basra demanded.

This touched painfully on the reason the night’s operation had gone so poorly. On the Church’s end, only the cults of Eserion and Shaath had been confirmed clean of conspirators, and as both cultivated physical prowess as a matter of course, they were being used to corral targets from the other cults. Most of the cult leaders had signed on for this, but upon learning of this development, High Commander Rouvad had abruptly reversed course and dug her heels in. She remained adamant that no Sister of Avei, traitorous or not, would be placed in the custody of Huntsmen or Guild enforcers. In the end, Darling had had to steer Basra out of the Commander’s office before she could complicate the situation further by getting herself excommunicated.

“The Sisterhood is close to the military,” Vex said. “We already suspect that’s how these have kept a step ahead of us all night; until Rouvad manages to clean house, the Silver Legions are compromised. We know of one existing conspiracy target which you sent trusted soldiers to protect last night, but that was when we thought all of this would be wrapped up by now. Your Grace, did you make arrangements to have those soldiers relieved by other, also specifically trusted troops, or to remain at their post past time for a shift change? Because otherwise, Legion protocol…”

“Shit!” Basra hissed. “If they’ve still got enough women in the Legions they’d have gone right for…”

“Exactly,” Vex said grimly.

“How could that still be a priority of theirs?” Darling asked skeptically.

“Tamisin Sharvineh’s personal security has foiled no less than nine assassination attempts since she moved into that house,” Vex replied. “These conspirators penetrated it—and then took out Carruthers Treadwell, who knew nothing damaging that my people hadn’t already uncovered, thus gaining nothing and adding murder to the charges against them. They’ve now stolen an Imperial zeppelin, which is an incredible feat of skullduggery and a damned stupid thing to do given how little they can do with that vehicle. These people have no overarching strategy, Antonio, or at best a laughably bad one, but they are devastatingly effective in their individual tactics. Attacking your apprentices again is foolish, pointless…”

“And entirely in character,” Basra finished, curling her lip. “Trissiny Avelea’s in that group. The greatest risk is an outcome that will let valuable witnesses or dangerous agents slip away. The girl’s improving under the Guild’s tutelage but she is not capable of containing this. Not yet.”

“Bloody hell,” Darling muttered. “Right then, I’ll head to the Church to coordinate. Quentin, you’ll have to check with your people… And Bas, I suppose all you can do is make for Sharvineh’s place and hope they’re still there.”

“If they’re not,” she said flatly, “it’ll mean those idiots have harmed one of my paladin’s little friends. In which case I’ll just have to follow the smoke and bloodstains.”


The sound cut through the noise of the increasingly agitated city, the rush of air over her wings, and even the gathering fury of the oncoming storm. It was both sweet and vile, a sound that was not quite a sound—something that Vadrieny knew, though she couldn’t recall how, was meant for her alone.

She was soaring above Puna Dara, and had been on her way back to the palace, when it appeared in the air all around. Now, she changed course, unconsciously zeroing in on the source of the high, thin noise. That, by itself, was bizarre; she had never been able to do that before. For a moment, she hesitated. In part to reassure herself that she could, and indeed, the sound had no hold over her; she swooped back toward the harbor, and immediately was blasted off course by a burst of wind that was very likely not a coincidence. The wind was the irate sea goddess’s doing, though; the sound was something else entirely. It was not coming from the sea.

It tugged at her, though, and she decided to investigate. If nothing else, this sudden intervention at this of all times demanded some kind of response.

Following it was as easy as falling; it was as if the noise left a trail through the air, like a scent to a bloodhound. Vadrieny swooped toward a flat roof in Puna Dara’s market district. Even through the rain starting to fill the air, she clearly saw a figure standing there alone, wearing a white suit.

And holding up a bell wrought from black metal.

She arced high overhead, then abruptly plummeted down, spreading her wings at the last moment to slow herself and land with a solid thump, but not enough force to crash through.

“You have some nerve,” the archdemon snarled.

“Me?” Embras Mogul lowered his peculiar bell, putting on a wounded expression. “I have some nerve? One of us just spat in a goddess’s eye, young lady, and it wasn’t me. That was an impressive move, incidentally, trapping Naphthene in her own nature. She doesn’t dare invite the Dark Lady’s personal fury by striking you directly, not standing apart from the Pantheon as she does, but she also cannot ignore a challenge that direct. Very clever. Which, of course, is how I know it was Teal’s idea.”

“What do you want?” she snapped. “I am busy and have nothing to say to you unless you want to discuss your betrayal in Veilgrad.”

“I’ve never betrayed you in Veilgrad or anywhere else, you little thug,” the warlock replied, his smile abruptly vanishing. “I saved your friends’ lives by keeping them away from those chaos freaks. Furthermore, you know this quite well, and these histrionics are unworthy of you. Let me explain some things to you, Vadrieny. Your mother’s orders are that you be kept out of the events unfolding in the world, now that you don’t have your sisters’ protection. It’s not in my power to keep you out, but I am certainly barred from drawing you in. More to the point, you are the absolute last creature I want mucking around in my carefully laid plans. You’ve never been anything but a flying ball of brute force. How much esteem do you think the cult of the goddess of cunning ever had for you?” He actually took an aggressive step toward her, tilting his head up to glare at he from beneath the brim of his omnipresent hat, which somehow remained firmly attached to his bald head despite the gathering gale. “Would you like to learn how many of your sisters tried to arrange for your demise, hmm? Lucky for you, Azradeh had a soft spot for you from the beginning, and she was by far the smartest of the lot, which is saying something. I bet you can guess who the least clever was.”

“Are you serious?” she said incredulously, too astonished to be hurt. “You called me down here, in the middle of all this, just to insult me?”

“I am making a point,” he retorted. “You think everything I do is calculated to manipulate you toward my own ends, because you’ve absorbed the Church’s paranoia about your mother’s own cult. Look at it from my point of view, Vadrieny. If you were me, would you want you to…” He curled his lip. “…help?”

“I wonder,” she said, stepping toward him, “if I took your head off, would that finally prompt my mother to speak to me? It’s beginning to sound increasingly worth trying. She has some things I want explained.”

“You’ll do nothing of the kind and you know it,” he snorted. “Teal could never bear that. I called you here, Vadrieny, because somebody wants a word with you. Somebody who means you no good. I have decided to make it easier for him to find you explicitly so that I can supervise this conversation—not because I have nothing better to be doing right now, but because your mother wants you looked after to the best of our ability.”

“Who are you talking about?” she demanded.

His eyes cut past her shoulder, beneath the fiery arch of her wing, and he nodded once.

She whirled to find herself facing a wood elf wearing a pinstriped suit and an insolent grin, who had definitely not been there when she approached from above. His blonde hair was slicked back in a style that popular fiction associated with sleazy salesmen and Thieves’ Guild enforcers; whatever held it in place was apparently more than a match for the wind howling in off the sea.

“Top of the morning to ya!” the elf said with ebullient cheer. “I just caught the tail end of that, but damn am I impressed! And not a little bit envious, I don’t mind admitting. Flipping off an actual deity is still on my to-do list. If I may be forgiven for presuming, I bet your mom is damn proud of you, missy.”

Vadrieny narrowed her eyes, then half-turned her head to speak over her shoulder.

“What, exactly, is this?”

“Calls himself the Jackal,” Mogul said disdainfully. “Murder for hire. Good at what he does and good for absolutely nothing else.”

“Somebody’s in a spiteful mood today,” the assassin said with a wink. “But anyway, Miss Vadrieny, I won’t take up too much of your time—I am here on behalf of my current long-term employer to deliver a message.”

“I don’t think I want to hear—”

“Chase Masterson has been outed as the Sleeper,” he said, raising his voice slightly over both her protest and the howl of the wind, and Vadrieny immediately fell silent, flexing her claws. “But wait, it gets better! He has also been recruited by the Imperial government and directed to Tiraas. Furthermore, your dear Professor Tellwyrn is on her way to kill his ass. If she gets to him first…no justice, and no cure for the sleeping curse.”

“Nonsense,” Vadrieny snapped. “Professor Tellwyrn would never do something so—”

His howl of derisive laughter tore through the wind. “Are you serious? Tellwyrn would never do something so…what? Reckless? Destructive? Selfish? Thoughtless? That is her entire three-thousand-year resume! Sure, she’s made a good show of acting like a civilized person the last few decades—more’s the pity, she used to be fun—but this is bigger than you, Masterson, or even her. People are pulling strings who know exactly what strings to pull and exactly how hard, and trust me, it’s not all that hard to make a creature like Tellwyrn revert to form. But hey, maybe you’re right! Maybe it’s all under control. Maybe you aren’t the only one who can get to Masterson first, deliver him to Narisian justice and secure the remedy for your lover. Excuse me, wife. Felicitations, by the way, sorry I missed the reception.”

“I don’t mind people trying to manipulate me,” Vadrieny snarled, “but being this blunt about it is just insulting my intelligence.”

“Lemme just draw a distinction there,” the Jackal said, holding up one finger. “I am acting on the orders of my employer, whom I do not like and about whose agenda I do not give one single fuck. In fact, I think it’d be smashing if he doesn’t get what he wants, for a change, so I’m gonna go ahead and offer you a little insight. Yes, he is trying to manipulate you, and not just you. Like I said, Tellwyrn’s strings are being yanked as well. Shit’s going down in both Puna Dara and Last Rock right now, and the guy holding my leash would prefer that it stay good and messy in both spots for a while longer. That means sending a wild goose to Tiraas that you and Tellwyrn can’t help chasing after: the Sleeper. You two are the most physically dangerous players in each location and getting you both out of the way is a means of making life harder for your various allies and prolonging the conflict.”

“Generous of you to be so…helpful,” Mogul said in a tone almost dry as the sky had been an hour ago.

“Let’s just say,” the Jackal drawled, “there are changes in the wind. I may be bound to…what’s his name…for now, but eventually he will go down. They all do, in the end. I wouldn’t mind if it’s remembered, at that time, that I am not his obedient lapdog.”

Vadrieny shifted sideways and stepped back, to keep both of them in view, but cocked her head slightly in Mogul’s direction.

“He’s been on permanent retainer for Archpope Justinian for the last few years,” the warlock said flatly. “Quite secretly, of course. This is the kind of man the Archpope cannot admit to consorting with.”

“A less credible accusation I’ve never heard,” she sneered. “You would blame the Archpope for the rain if you could get away with it.”

The Jackal chuckled. “If Embras Mogul starts blaming Vernisites for everything going wrong, that’s how you know he’s letting personal vendettas cloud his judgment. Anything else he has to say, you’d be wise to heed. I speak purely in the abstract, of course,” he added with a wink. “About this specific matter I have no comment.”

“The more I learn about Justinian,” Mogul added in a more thoughtful tone, “the more I suspect he is not actually on the Pantheon’s side.”

“Welp, sounds like you crazy kids have your own stuff to work out,” the Jackal said brightly. “Family stuff, religious stuff, and that’s a doozy of a combo if I ever heard one. I’ll leave you to it. Cheers!”

Vadrieny jerked toward him, but the elf had already produced a shadow-jumping talisman from his pocket and begun twisting it. He was grinning madly at her even as darkness swelled and swept him from view.

She halted, glaring at the space he had occupied. At this angle, she was facing the sea; the horizon was growing darker with a line of stormclouds that was coming ashore fast.

“No, I can’t help your friends,” Mogul said behind her. “I cannot imagine a scenario in which they would let me. Several of them chose to be even more unreasonable about Veilgrad than you are, which is really saying something.”

“I didn’t ask,” she said, turning to scowl at him.

“We are going to assist in keep the mess in Last Rock under control,” he continued.

“I don’t want you going near—”

“That is not up to you,” Mogul interrupted. “Just because I have to protect you doesn’t mean you get to order me around, missy. The Wreath has a vested interest in Tellwyrn’s research program; with that threatened, we will move to back her up. What you do now, with this warning, is entirely your call. Personally, I would ignore it.”

She stared at him for a moment, then turned to look again at the harbor. The Rock rose up from the shoreline, dominating the city; just past it, she could see the serpent, already struggling visibly to maintain its course in the increasingly choppy waters. In that fortress, her friends would be awaiting her return, already prepared to head into the tunnels.

Mogul sighed so heavily it was audible over the weather. “If you are going hunting, Vadrieny, either the Sleeper or the Rust… There’s something you should know. That sonic magic you have, the reason we chose to pair you with a bard…” He held up the bell again and shook it, causing that chime to resonate through her. “If nothing else, let me show you a trick.”

 

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13 – 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fair enough. And…since?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you hear that?” Tallie interrupted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Meesie?”

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

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

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

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

“They’ve got Schwartz.”


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

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

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

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

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

“Chase Masterson.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And…she’s gone, now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

“That’s quite all right. May I?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the distance, the entire horizon turned black.

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

Still, but not for long.

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

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

 

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13 – 22

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The sun rose over a city stirring with barely-contained furor. A constant hum livened the streets, anger and incipient panic growing steadily. It would not be long before it exploded, one way or another. Already people were gathering around the walls of the Rock.

The sight of Puna Dara’s movers and shakers entering the fortress helped to deflect some of the rising unease, at least for a while. Punaji as a rule did not revere the powerful and wealthy, but by the same token, everyone in the Punaji nation who had accrued power and wealth had done it themselves. With the sole exception of the royal family, there was no hereditary nobility, and a hefty estate tax limited the wealth a person could inherit; anyone positioned as a leader in Puna Dara had earned that, and was treated with respect. Not the fawning that Imperial or Narisian nobles expected, but respect.

Even the royals could be deposed if enough public sentiment turned against them, which added another dimension to the arrival of over a dozen wealthy visitors to the Rock. That the Crown would seek council with the various guildmasters, merchants, and civic leaders of the city was a sign that action was being taken, and served to assuage some of the public’s fear. By the same token, though, if there was to be a change of leadership, it would almost certainly fall to one of those now summoned by the King.

And there was still the serpent making its slow patrol in the harbor. The thing was tireless, and bore no marks from the mag cannon fire it had suffered last night. One way or another, the tension rising would soon boil over.

They met with the Queen and her advisors in a formal dining room first thing that morning. The Rock’s throne room was mostly used for entertaining foreign visitors who expected such grandiosity from a crowned head of state; Punaji, particularly of the successful variety, did not respond well to being lorded over. Anjal had positioned herself at the head of the long table, and that was as far as the privilege of rank went on this occasion.

None of those assembled would have stood out among the rich in Tiraas; ostentation in Punaji culture was seen as an invitation to a comeuppance. Leathers and fabrics were of the highest quality, hats had more feathers than most and some coats had understated gilt trim; swords and daggers were of exquisite workmanship and in many cases not even bejeweled. That was how the Punaji displayed wealth, in quality rather than frippery.

Guards stood at each of the doors, servants along the back wall, and the Queen’s special guests behind her chair, which immediately brought comment.

“I see some interesting faces present,” said a woman a few years younger than Anjal and apparently high in the rankings, as she positioned herself close to the head of the table. “I do not see his Majesty. Has he something better to do this morning, Anjal?”

“And it’s a pleasure to see you too, Ashla, as always,” Anjal said dryly. “The King and Princess Zaruda are preparing to address the public, and in fact I intend to involve you all in that, but first we need to have a discussion. With me are some allies who have been sent by the major cults to assist with this Rust issue. Brother Ermon and Corporal Shahai have been most helpful already.” She turned and nodded to the incongruous pair standing against the wall behind and to her left. Both were impressive, Ermon in full regalia but for the fur cloak, which the climate did not permit, Shahai in Legion dress uniform borrowed from the local Avenist temple. “And this is Tobias Caine, Hand of Omnu.”

“Toby is fine,” he said, bowing slightly. “A pleasure.” He was closer, standing at the Queen’s right.

“Interesting,” mused a tall man whose beard was more gray than black. “Shall we take this as the Crown’s formal declaration that it requires help with this crisis?”

“Neither my husband nor I have called for help, until this morning when we asked you to join us,” Anjal said calmly. “All these have been here for days now; their various masters dispatched them and we have made them welcome, as is not only polite but strategic. The last thing we need right now is various cults running around muddling the issue further.”

“You’d think they would have learned, after what happened to the Fourth Legion,” Ashla commented.

Nandi cleared her throat. “It is not often that Avenists and Shaathists find common ground, but we do have in common that we do not scare easily.” Ermon grinned.

“And this wasn’t a crisis until this morning,” Anjal continued, “merely a problem. Now it is damn well a crisis, as you can all plainly see, and we’d be fools not to accept any aid which is available, so be so good as to lose the attitude, Jandhar.”

“Of course, you’re quite right,” the man who had spoken replied, nodding deeply and giving her a smile. “My apologies.”

“I should clarify,” said Toby, “that I was not sent by my cult. I’m here as a personal friend of the Princess, at her request.”

“Yes, Zaruda’s entourage,” replied a stately woman halfway down the table. Most of the women present wore Punaji attire of greatcoats and hats, distinguished from the common folk only by finer fabrics and brighter colors, but this one was in formal silk dress, her white hair held up by an arrangement of fine gold chains connected to the blue jewel set between her eyebrows. “I daresay we have all heard of you by reputation. She keeps fascinating company, our Princess.”

“That damned school,” another man muttered.

“As to that,” Jandhar piped up, “stop me if I’m just shooting my mouth off again, but how is it the lot of you haven’t already put this thing to bed? You represent quite the bundle of firepower, from what I understand.”

“Complex problems are rarely solved by hitting them hard enough,” Toby replied.

“Spoken like an Omnist, to no one’s surprise,” said Ashla, curling her lip. She had set her hat on the table and picked up one of the pastries laid out, but was now tossing it idly from hand to hand rather than taking a bite. “This one seems to occupy pride of place, Anjal.”

“We don’t get many paladins,” Anjal said brusquely. “With regard to the matter at hand—”

“This clearly is the matter at hand,” Ashla interrupted. “The Rust have been building themselves up for the better part of a year, and you’ve done nothing. They proved their will and capability to be a threat by striking down an entire Silver Legion, and you did nothing. Now you’ve got…what, a multi-cult strike force? Paladins? And somehow you’ve abruptly made this worse.”

“Oh, keep it in your pants, Ashla,” snorted the youngest man present, who didn’t look any older than Toby. “This is not the time for a political upheaval, and you aren’t going to be the next Queen. I want to hear what her Majesty and these fascinating people have to say.”

“I am absolutely flabbergasted to find you sober enough to be here at this hour of the morning, Khadesh,” Ashla replied with a cold little smile. “That’s how we know things are bad.”

“Ashla, if you want to take potshots at me, knock yourself out,” Anjal said sharply. “But anybody who’s just going to snipe at each other can go stand in the hall and do it. We do not have time for this childishness. We are here to discuss the situation, and options. We have not been doing nothing. The Huntsmen have helpfully located the Rust’s base of operations—their real one, not the harbor warehouse we all know they’ve been using. We are also in contact with the local Eserite chapter, who are gathering intelligence for us. Corporal Shahai’s squad is the first of several Silver Legion special forces units the High Commander has sent.”

“Don’t you have any actual Punaji to solve your problems?” Ashla exclaimed.

“We Punaji solve our problems by keeping our wits about us,” Anjal retorted. “For most of their existence the Rust were apparently harmless. Their involvement with what befell the Fourth Legion was unproven—until last night. Thanks to Toby and his friends we have confirmation of that from the Rust’s leader himself. Prior to this, the Crown had no excuse to clamp down on them.” She leaned forward, gripping the arms of her chair. “Had we attempted it, Ashla, you would have raised bloody hell—and unlike your posturing here and now, you would have been right to do so. The one thing the Punaji must absolutely never tolerate in their government is its clamping down on anything resembling dissent, which was all we could prove the Rust to be guilty of.”

“Hear, hear!” Khadesh exclaimed. “And furthermore, we all know this, so let’s not waste time and insult each other’s intelligence by making the Queen explain obvious decisions we all fully understood to begin with.”

“The Rust admitted fault for striking down the Legion, then?” the richly-dressed old woman asked, narrowing her eyes.

“Yes,” said Toby, “right before unleashing that sea serpent and instructing my friends and I to carry an ultimatum back to the Crown. They don’t actually want anything but to be left in peace; I gather they were quite alarmed by the display of force we represented to them. We were trying to negotiate when a third party intervened and spooked them.”

“Third party?” Jandhar demanded. “Who?”

“Someone anonymous,” Toby replied. “The rest of my group is working on that right now. Someone wielding powerful magic, which is why we cannot have them running around unsupervised any longer; I believe the current crisis would not have developed had they not antagonized the Rust while we were there. But they seem to have done it by interfering with those magic machines the cultists use, which makes me suspect they have valuable aid to offer once we catch them.”

“Probably Imperial,” Ashla snorted. “Tiraas just can’t leave well enough alone.”

“Perhaps,” Anjal said mildly. “If that is the case, there will be no official acknowledgment. Both because the Crown does not need to have the Silver Throne meddling in our business so intimately, and because if this rogue agent is not going to cooperate, I intend to throw them to the Rust as a chew toy to placate them.”

That brought grins and a few chuckles from around the table, quickly cut off when Ashla slapped her palm down.

“So that’s it?” she demanded. “Placate them?”

“As a first step,” Toby said. “That is not the only—”

“And this is who you’re getting advice from, I see,” Ashla barreled on. “Omnists would have us all sit and meditate while our city is overthrown by machine cultists! Do you not understand, boy, that that sea serpent represents the end of Puna Dara?! As long as it’s out there in the harbor, we have no trade. Our ships can’t sail. It will be days before the lack of fish causes widespread hunger, at most. Without our ships, we are nothing!” She finished on a shout, actually hurling the pastry at Toby’s head.

He caught it, looking bemused.

“Toby,” the Queen said in a deceptively mild tone, touching the jewel on her forehead with a fingertip, “did Zari ever tell you the significance of these?”

“Uh…” Toby blinked. “No, your Majesty, it hasn’t come up.”

“It was actually started by a foreigner,” she said. “Queen Sera. She was Calderaan, married to a Punaji King for political reasons.”

“Oh, come on,” Jandhar exclaimed. “Is this really the time for a history lesson?”

“Shush,” Khadesh said airily. “I like this story.”

“The Calderaan, of course,” Anjal continued lightly, “are a military society, and largely Avenist, but King Dakresh mostly thought of his new wife as foreign, and noble, and therefore delicate. So when Puna Dara was attacked by the Sheng, he forbade her to leave the fortress and fight. Not only did she take up a sword and join the fray, she took the time to place a target on her forehead.” Anjal grinned, tilting her head so that the gem flickered in the light. “It has ever since been the custom for Punaji women of a certain rank. Only one of sufficient power and importance that she is already a target wears the jewel; to put it on is to proclaim that you believe yourself such, which is not wise in our society unless you are prepared to back that up. It is a standing invitation, in essence.” Her grin widened. “A woman wearing the jewel is saying, ‘slap this off my head, if you think you can.’”

“Hm,” Toby mused. “I see.”

“If you’re quite done educating your foreign guests,” Ashla said, her voice dripping with acid, “I think we have a rather more urgent matter to—”

Toby’s hand was much faster than hers; he threw the roll hard enough that the impact on her forehead made her jerk backward.

“Wow, that’s on there good,” he observed. “You know, I always wondered how Ruda kept that thing on. Didn’t seem polite to ask.”

“It’s enchanted,” the grandmotherly woman explained with a wry smile.

“Who’s Ruda?” somebody inquired, but was drowned out by the scraping of chair legs on the stone floor as Ashla shoved her seat backward, standing and drawing her saber.

“Little boy,” she said in deadly calm, “I do not care whose Hand you think you are. If you issue a challenge to a Punaji woman, you are going to bleed.”

“You started it,” Khadesh pointed out gleefully.

Ignoring him, Ashla lunged at Toby with the sword.

He moved like water, flowing aside and toward her, spinning around the back of her blade and coming to rest behind her. Somehow, in that split-second, he had ended up with one hand on her sword arm and the other on her waist, as if he were guiding her through the swing.

Ashla emitted a high-pitched grunt of pure outrage, trying roughly to shrug him off. Toby continued to flow with her impetus, spinning the pair of them in a full circle like they were dancing and tugging the sword from her hand in the process, as a smooth continuation of her own attempted stab. He twirled them around, extending a leg almost as an afterthought to kick Ashla’s chair.

It slammed against the back of her knees, causing her to drop back into the seat with another grunt. In the next instant she froze, Toby having planted the tip of her saber against her belt buckle. He shifted it a few inches, however, guiding it unerringly back to its sheath. A single flick of his wrist sent the blade sliding home with a whisper and a click.

“The monks of Omnu exist to encourage peace,” he said, “as gently as possible.”

Pushing her chair back into the table required more brute force, but he did not seem to lack for it; Ashla’s midsection met the edge of the table hard enough to wring a squeak from her.

“The Hand of Omnu,” Toby said from right behind Ashla, both his hands resting on her shoulders, “exists to insist upon peace. No more gently than necessary.”

He held that position for a few seconds before releasing her and taking a step back.

Khadesh applauded until his neighbor reached over and swatted his hands down.

“I do prefer peaceful solutions,” Toby continued, stepping back over to the Queen’s side; Anjal was grinning openly at him. “I certainly tried to reach one with the Rust’s leader. But if any of you are worried that I am going to try to broker a solution which will not reflect the best interests of your nation, let me put that fear to rest. There was a moment, talking to him, listening to him, when I wanted to believe. As little respect as I have for the Rust’s philosophy, as long as they weren’t harming anyone, as long as they just wanted to practice in peace, I really wished I could support them in that. Reassure them, and persuade the Church, the Empire, and whoever else to leave them alone. But that was before. That man, Ayuvesh, acknowledged attacking and all but destroying a Silver Legion—just because they might have been a threat to him. When startled and faced with the possibility of my friends and I intervening, he set loose that beast in the harbor. He operates through fear, securing his needs by the threat of force. He is a bully and a terrorist, and he has to go.” He nodded firmly to the Queen. “I speak for my friends as well when I say that we are fully behind the Crown in this. The Rust must fall.”

“So when we talk about placating them,” Anjal continued, nodding back, “it is a tactic only to buy time. We must acknowledge that at this moment, the upper hand is theirs; so long as their pet is swimming around the harbor, they have a hand on Puna Dara’s throat. Our first priority must be to break that grip, and persuading them to release it, as galling as it may be, is our clear best bet in that regard. But in doing so, however we must, we will not lose sight of the fact that the Rust have declared war upon the Punaji.” She bared her teeth, and the expression was no longer a smile. “And the Punaji do not suffer tyrants.”

There were fervent mutters of approval at this, and one outright cheer from Khadesh.

“Well said,” Jandhar stated, nodding. “What, then, is your plan?”

“The situation is this,” Anjal said, folding her hands lightly. “We have two paladins, a pixie mage, a dryad, and the archdemon Vadrieny—together enough sheer force to crush almost any opponent. Unfortunately they can’t be used directly on the serpent because none of them can fight while swimming. The Rust did not do what they did to the Fourth Legion, which suggests that they aren’t able to. Conjuring that sea serpent guaranteed them the enmity of all Puna Dara, not something they would have done lightly if they had a cleaner option.”

“Back up,” said Ashla, not much the worse for wear for her recent manhandling, aside from an even more annoyed expression. “Vadrieny? That one’s the worst of Elilial’s get. Mindless destruction personified. Are you certain you have her under control?”

“Vadrieny is not under control,” Toby said quietly. “She was nearly destroyed five years ago and has no memory of her existence before that point. She is a friend, and has earned my trust. These…are interesting times,” he added wryly.

“I note that your assessment of the situation made no mention of conventional military assets,” said Jandhar. “Are we just not going to bother solving this ourselves, with soldiers?”

“This is not a conventional military situation,” the Queen replied. “We do not know what additional tricks the Rust have yet to play, and more to the point, they have made it plain that if they are further antagonized that serpent will begin destroying the docks and the ships there. What we need is to get to a point where we can use our forces. That means we need, first, to neutralize that serpent and cripple the Rust’s magical abilities. And that is being worked on as we speak.”

“Don’t keep us in suspense,” said Khadesh, grinning.

“I am in here talking to you while my husband is out there addressing the public for one reason,” Anjal said with a smile. “He is a much better public speaker than I. For the time being, the Crown is forced to comply with the Rust’s demands, to prevent the destruction of the docks—but the Rust have made a critical mistake in that regard. They depend upon Puna Dara for…everything. They have to eat. They have to move freely through the city to get any supplies they need. They wish to spread their gospel, which requires a public that will listen to them and not, for example, hurl bricks. The King is reminding the people right now that the government serves them, not the other way round, and while the government is forced to wait—for now—the Punaji people, themselves, are far from helpless.”

“So that is why you need us,” the old woman said slowly. “We can command action from our various employees. More to the point, we command respect from the general public. A united plan enacted by everyone in this group will spread throughout the city.”

“I like it,” Ashla said suddenly, nodding to the Queen. “Make it impossible for the Rust to do any business—even to exist in Puna Dara. As long as it’s not soldiers refusing to sell them food or let them walk down the street unmolested, they cannot claim the Crown has challenged their ultimatum. They may have cut off trade in Puna Dara, but Puna Dara can cut them off just the same.”

“And making that point,” Jandhar mused, “might just encourage them to call off their snake. Which brings us back to the other point: how, then, do you plan to neutralize their magic and put a stop to them?”

“That,” said Toby, “is what the rest of my friends are doing right now. We know someone who has insight into the Rust’s workings; it’s just a matter of bringing her into the fold.”


Milanda had given up on sleeping and gone in search of breakfast. All she’d managed after coming back to her rented hovel was a quick nap before another eyeball-gouging nightmare had catapulted her back out of bed, and she hadn’t dared try again. Worry and remorse made for poor company, but they sure kept her occupied.

They had occupied her mind, too; she was stymied as to her next move, and keenly aware that stress and lack of sleep were wearing down her faculties. If she still had that Infinite Order screen she could maybe have kept working at it, but as Walker had rightly pointed out, that thing would undoubtedly lead the Rust straight to her. So she’d ditched it back in the mines, and now here she was, alone, probably responsible for the current disastrous state of affairs in Puna Dara…

This mission was altogether not going well.

Dawn found her out on the street, heading for the nearby market where she could obtain some bread and fish. Milanda honestly felt too anxious to be hungry, but it was an excuse to move. Maybe a little air and exercise in the tropical sunlight would help clear her head. Maybe it would tire her enough that she could actually get some rest.

Of course, that was before she felt the blazing beacon standing out from the sea of candles that were the people around her, perceived through her life sense. She recognized that bottomless font of fae power from having followed her around last night, and from working with her sisters. Well, actually, she couldn’t distinguish between dryads at a distance this way, but how many could there be in Puna Dara right now?

And more to the point, what the hell was Juniper doing here?

Walking along with her attention on the dryad some two streets off to her left, she was sufficiently blinded to her own surroundings that only the reflexes granted by her fae attunement enabled her to catch the object tossed to her.

“Here ya go!” a voice said cheerfully. “On the house. You could use it, hon, you look half dead.”

It was a steamed honey bun, and it had been lightly pitched to her by a black-haired elf. There were few enough of those, but Milanda had taken pains to be able to recognize this one in particular, and her stomach dropped further. She resisted the urge to glance down at herself; the disguise charm on her gear should make her look like an unremarkable Punaji woman. Maybe this was a coincidence?

And maybe Justinian would spontaneously drop dead of a heart attack and she could go home.

“No, thank you,” she said politely, holding out the bun to the elf.

“Take it,” Principia bloody Locke said in a gentle tone that made Milanda want to punch her. “I know the look of somebody who hasn’t slept or eaten all night. A full stomach’ll help you get some rest, too.”

What the hell was going on? Was this a Legion special forces thing, hunting her down in connection to the ongoing Rust debacle? Or was it Locke on personal business as Trissiny Avelea’s biological mother, trying an even more indirect route? Milanda wasn’t on speaking terms with her grandmother, but she was aware that Narnasia had bodily ejected the elf from the Abbey last time she came sniffing around.

And in either case, how the hell had she found her?

Plus, that dryad was still wandering about not far away. Not getting closer, but…

“Guilty conscience?” Locke inquired innocently, and Milanda very nearly hurled the sticky bun at her face.

“What do you think I have to be guilty about?” she snarled.

The elf shrugged. “No idea. Worries, then? Or recently in love? Those are the big three, when it comes to insomnia.”

She could run. Of course, even with all her new gifts, she likely couldn’t outrun an elf. And even if this elf didn’t chase her down… Now that she was here, Milanda had to learn how much she knew and how she’d found it out. That this was a coincidental meeting was simply beyond the scope of possibility.

She started walking again, slowly, and Locke fell into step beside her. Obviously, she did not take a bite of the bun; gods only knew what the wretched woman had done to it.

“Conscience,” Milanda said suddenly. “And worry.”

Locke nodded, strolling along and apparently not watching her. There was silence for a long moment.

“Have you ever done something,” Milanda finally said, painfully aware she was in no mental state for these games, “something unspeakably awful…that wasn’t at all your fault, but you were there. No matter how rationally you know you couldn’t have stopped it, you can’t help feeling…”

“Nope,” Locke said after she’d trailed off. “I’ve lived a long time—at least, by human standards—and done some pretty awful shit, but I am glad to say everything I did was my idea. Good or bad, for better or worse, I own my mistakes. I’d hate to be in your shoes, if that’s what’s eating you. It sounds…disempowering.”

“That’s a good word,” Milanda mused. “What’s the worst thing you’ve done?”

The elf emitted a soft huff of breath that might have been the shadow of a laugh, or a grunt, or almost anything. “Oh, that’s easy. Abandoned my daughter.”

So…maybe this was a personal thing after all? That was not better. The absolute last thing she needed was this random event blowing her cover.

“I’ve lied and cheated like you wouldn’t believe,” Locke continued thoughtfully, “killed and maimed… And stolen, oh, gods. I bet I’ve lifted about the annual gross domestic product of Stavulheim, one way or another. But all that was for a purpose. Even the people who’ve suffered for it…well, I knew what I was doing and why, and I always considered it worthwhile at the time. My little girl, though. I was just scared, and confused, and stupid, and mostly pissed off about being those things when I’d spent two hundred years thinking I had all the answers. I did something for all the wrong reasons, something I didn’t understand, and it…huh. I guess maybe I can relate to you a little better than I thought.”

“Mm,” she said noncommittally.

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” she asked, turning to give Milanda an inquisitive look.

Murdered a room full of soldiers? Accidentally provoked the Rust into unleashing a sea serpent on Puna Dara? The burning presence of the dryad was drifting closer; she was hemmed between Locke and Juniper. Was that an accident?

Gods, she was so tired.

“I don’t really care to discuss it,” she said shortly. “Thanks for the bun. I’d better be going.”

“Well, it really isn’t that easy,” Lock said, stopping and turning directly to her. Oh, great, here it was. “Y’see, I was hoping we could have a conversation. You know, connect, maybe find some common ground.”

“I think you have me confused with someone else,” Milanda said politely. What could she do to this elf, if it came to that? Her augmented reflexes worked to protect her; they were useless on the attack, and she didn’t think she was faster than an elf. Plus, there were people around. Ignoring the two of them, as people in cities did to each other, but that would change if she took a swing at somebody.

“The thing is,” Locke said mildly, “the pixie and the dryad have this trick where they can…okay, honestly, it’s a bit over my head. Something about attunements and tracking and I dunno from fae magic, I left all that crap behind when I fled my parents’ grove. But no, I don’t have you confused with someone else. I’m just the first envoy, lady. The polite one. Isn’t it best for everybody if we do things the polite way?”

Milanda dropped the sticky bun in the street, planted her feet, and loosely balled her fists.

“Try to do it the impolite way,” she said quietly. “Go on, Locke. Try.”

The elf raised an eyebrow. “She knows my name. That’s interesting. Anyhow…no, sorry, that’s not my job. I guess you’ve just removed me from the equation.”

And suddenly the dryad was right there.

The overwhelming presence simply shifted spontaneously from its distant position to mere yards away; Milanda spun, right in time to see a young Stalweiss woman remove an enchanted ring, staring at her, and resume her natural green-and-golden coloration.

“You’re new at this,” Juniper said condescendingly. “If you are very helpful, and I mean so helpful that I end up getting over how annoyed I am at you, maybe I’ll teach you a bit more about the attunement. Maybe.”

Before Milanda could decide on a course of action, the earth shook, and people began screaming and scattering.

She whirled back the other way, where Vadrieny had landed in the street hard enough to make a small crater in the dirt. Locke was backing away slowly, but Milanda paid her no attention. She had just spied something else out of the corner of her eye.

She hadn’t felt him at all, and still didn’t; it was like he was completely absent from her life sense, he and that absurd, smoke-and-fire horse he rode. Gabriel Arquin brought his mount to a halt a few yards distant and leveled his scythe at her.

“Morning, sunshine,” he said flatly. “I see you decided not to play nicely with our elf. Very well, by the power vested in me by this here life-destroying divine weapon, I hereby deputize your ass. Welcome to the team.”

 

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13 – 20

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“All right,” Inspector Jaahri said in a weary tone, “one more time, then. Miss Sakhavenid found—”

“With all respect, Inspector,” Glory said, finally with open sharpness, “we have been over this six times now. It is neither a long nor a complex story.”

“I find that repetition helps weed out accidental little falsehoods that tend to creep into any narrative,” the Inspector replied, matching Glory’s stare flatly. “Or do you imagine yourself to be an expert on Imperial investigative procedure?”

“It is not procedure for you to have dismissed the entire house full of guests,” Jasmine interjected.

“Quiet, girl,” Jaahri snapped, shooting her a sidelong look.

“Each of those,” she pressed on, “was a potential witness and suspect, and I know you did not have time to interview them all in detail—”

“Sergeant,” the Inspector said loudly, “if that young woman interrupts me again, take her into custody.”

The tension in the room increased significantly, and it had not been slight to begin with. Glory and her staff for the evening had been gathered in the downstairs parlor at the insistence of the Inspector, along with Schwartz and Ami. The rest of the house had been cleared out, at Jaahri’s insistence, leaving them alone with eight Imperial soldiers, who had positioned themselves in a ring around the civilians. Their demeanor was cold almost to the point of aggression; they stared balefully at the gathered Eserites (and Vesker and Salyrite) as if expecting to have to break out wands at any moment. A rather peculiar attitude for soldiers to have toward a group of young servants whom they had not been informed were Guild apprentices.

Smythe was gliding smoothly around the chamber, offering tea to each soldier in turn, and being irritably rebuffed every time. Which, of course, did not ruffle his equanimity in the slightest.

“Why are your men not investigating the house, or the crime scene?” Glory asked, her tone again deceptively mild.

“Madam,” Jaahri said impatiently, folding his arms, “I will ask the questions, if you don’t mind—”

“I mind,” she interrupted. “In fact, I have had just about enough of this. It beggars belief that you would dismiss an entire house full of suspects only to sit here grilling those least likely to have been implicated in this crime.”

“Don’t presume that I know nothing of this matter except what I’ve learned here tonight,” the Inspector retorted. “I already have my suspects, Ms. Sharvineh, thank you for your concern. For instance, the late Mr. Treadwell was not a social creature, and in particular was last seen in seclusion due to an embarrassing misstep within his own cult. Someone exerted significant pressure to bring him out to this event…at which he was subsequently murdered. And as luck would have it, I happen to know already who did so.”

“You accuse me of this?” She raised one eyebrow, her expression artfully skeptical.

“I am not yet ready to make accusations,” Jaahri replied, tucking his notebook away in an inner pocket of his coat. “But I am well aware, Ms. Sharvineh, that there is an ongoing matter here, and that you have attempted to conceal the connection from me. This group of young people very closely matches the description of a group of Thieves’ Guild apprentices who were involved in the burglary of a temple of Avei, an event connected to Mr. Treadwell being reprimanded by his superiors in the Collegium. Now, it would seem he has been silenced.”

“Now, that’s real interesting,” Tallie snapped. “Since Schwartz and Ami weren’t part of—”

“Hzzt!” Ross grunted, driving an elbow into her side nearly hard enough to knock her over. Glory glanced over at Tallie, letting out a soft sigh.

“And that is an admission,” Jaahri said with grim satisfaction. “I believe you had all better accompany me to the barracks to discuss this further, in more detail.”

“She is right, though,” Glory said thoughtfully, holding up a hand to forestall Darius, who had straightened up and unfolded his arms at the Inspector’s last comment. “Mr. Schwartz and Ms. Talaari are not involved in that. Why would you see fit to detain them? Herschel is a guest this evening—the only one you did not dismiss. And I cannot fathom what connection you think my paid musician might have to the murder.”

“The fact that you know less than I is the reason this will be quickly solved,” Inspector Jaahri stated. “Sergeant, start gathering these people up, all of—damn it, will you go away?” he snapped at Smythe, who had offered him a canape. The Butler bowed in silence and retreated to stand by the door. Jasmine glanced at him once, pressing her lips together; Smythe’s act had effectively removed him from the soldiers’ consideration except as a buzzing nuisance, and now he had placed himself in control of the room’s primary exit, holding a tray which would serve as either weapon or shield. Clearly, these troops were not accustomed to dealing with Butlers.

“Hershel,” Glory said calmly, “what do you have for neutralizing enemies in a crowd?”

“You are on thin ice, Sharvineh,” Jaahri warned.

“In fact I’ve got just the thing!” Schwartz replied, while Meesie bristled on his shoulder, chattering at the Inspector. “Cooked it up after our last go-round. You know, the one where we trounced a contingent of Svennish intelligence agents?” He cast a pointed look at Jaahri, who hesitated in the act of opening his mouth again. “Controlled chain lightning. I can cast it to arc only to targets I designate; a quick and clean way to clear out a room of mixed hostiles and friendlies. I’d sort of rather not, though. Lightning has a tendency to be lethal.”

“Are you aware that threatening a duly appointed agent of the Silver Throne is a crime, Mr. Schwartz?” the Inspector grated.

“Are you aware of the penalty for corruption for officers of the Emperor’s law?” Jasmine asked quietly.

“That does it,” Jaahri snapped, pointing at her. “Sergeant, arrest that one. Now.”

A man wearing sergeant’s stripes glanced at Jasmine, then at Schwartz, and swallowed. “Sir…”

“Did I stutter?” the Inspector asked incredulously, rounding on him.

“A thought occurs to me,” Glory said idly, inspecting her flawlessly manicured nails. “We know that poor Mr. Treadwell was involved in a conspiracy which has been pursuing these apprentices. All of us had been operating on the assumption, however, that this was strictly a matter among the cults. I confess it simply did not occur to me that there would be enemy agents among the Imperial Army. And yet, I am stymied as to why else you would choose to dismiss most of the possible suspects from investigation, Inspector, or how you would know to include Mr. Schwartz and the bard in this…net, of yours. Tell me, what do you think will happen when I bring my own influence to bear upon you?” A feline smile uncoiled itself across her lips. “I am not, as I suspect you know, without powerful friends.”

“You have managed to say the worst possible thing available to you in this circumstance, Sharvineh,” Jaahri said. “You are all under arrest, and I strongly suggest you comply voluntarily. Resisting his Majesty’s—”

Smythe interrupted him by clearing his throat loudly; the Butler, in fact, was in the process of slipping back into the room, having ducked out while everyone was distracted. Jaahri whirled on him, reaching into a pocket of his coat, and one of the soldiers actually drew a wand. Smythe ignored all of them, directing himself to a point in midair near the center of the parlor.

“Bishops Darling and Syrinx to see you, madam,” he intoned, stepping aside.

They paced inside in lockstep, both wearing their formal Church robes and tabards, but both moved with the graceful stride of a pair of leopards, their eyes snapping to Inspector Jaahri as soon as they entered the room. Even the ecclesiastical uniforms did not detract from the effect; these were plainly here as Eserite and Avenist, not Church officials.

“Oh, now, don’t let us interrupt you, Inspector,” Darling said in an uncharacteristically flat tone.

Behind them, three more women strode into the parlor, immediately fanning out to assert full control of the exit; Flora, Fauna, and Jenell Covrin also stared coldly, making a point of watching the assembled soldiers.

“Yes, by all means,” Syrinx growled, fondling the ornate hilt of her sword. “Finish your thought.”


Akhatrya rapped on the wooden door frame even as he stepped into the room without waiting to be invited; the palace seneschal enjoyed certain privileges as well as responsibilities, and being on hand to assist the royal family whether they sought him out or not involved some blending of the two. It was late, and this wasn’t strictly his responsibility—any number of lesser servants could have seen to it—but he made a point of keeping an eye on any of the family who were under unusual stress, or acting out of the ordinary.

Both conditions applied to Princess Zaruda this evening.

She did not commonly choose to spend time in her father’s office, or any place predominated by papers and books. Neither did the King, but Rajakhan never shirked his duties, no matter how tedious he found them. It was a safe bet, however, that when the King did not need to be actively poring over documents, he would be elsewhere, and so Ruda had had the office to herself all night. She’d spent the evening having clerks bring her a variety of textbooks, financial records and copies of several treaties. Now, Akhatrya entered to find her hunched over an open volume of conversion tables, muttering to herself and tracing one fingertip across a page as she read.

“Would you like anything, your Highness?” he asked diffidently.

“Think I got everything I wanted, thanks,” Ruda muttered without looking up.

The seneschal smiled faintly. “Good. I meant more in the way of food or drink, however. Perhaps a pillow?”

“It isn’t that late,” she said, finally lifting her eyes to frown at him. The office had two narrow windows looking out across the battlements at the harbor, which showed nothing but darkness at this hour. It was not dim, thanks to the fairy lamps.

“Very good, your Highness,” Akhatrya said, bowing. “I am, of course, at your disposal, should you have questions about anything you read.”

She was already frowning at the book again, and absently shook her head. The seneschal waited another moment before bowing again, despite the fact she was no longer looking at him, and turning to go.

“Hey, Akhatrya, wait a second.”

“Your Highness?” He turned back to face her, folding his hands in front of himself.

Ruda almost grudgingly tore her gaze away from the columns of figures she was studying. “Let me pose you a hypothetical.”

“I am at your service.”

“Suppose you worked for a King or Queen who wanted to change the standard of measurements we use from the common system to the dwarven system. How would you advise them to go about implementing that?”

He hesitated for a moment, thinking. “Well… In honesty, Princess, my first recommendation would be not to.”

She drummed her fingers once on another book, staring at him. When she said nothing further, he continued.

“Forcing changes in people’s way of life from the position of the Crown is always tricky, Princess, and should be done as sparingly as possible. This is true for all rulers, but most especially for those governing a people as free-spirited and prone to defiance as the Punaji. Any hint of heavy-handed action without a clear and specific purpose will agitate the populace. That, in particular, would impose costs upon everyone, most especially merchants. Converting from one system—any kind of system—to another is always a difficult transition.”

She let out a soft huff, and turned her head to scowl at the dark windows. “If there’s one thing I would expect of Punaji, it’s not to carry on following a mindless tradition when there are better, more effective ways. Especially a tradition that it turns out was created by the Elder Gods for the specific fucking purpose of holding people back and making our lives difficult. Akhatrya, have you ever looked at the tables of dwarven measurements? It’s all so…efficient. Everything’s derived from a base measurement designed to be specifically useful. Everything scales in neat increments of ten—no figuring or fumbling involved, if you can damn well count you can do shit it takes a trained accountant to handle now. No wonder the dwarves switched over. If they can do it, why the hell can’t anyone else? Why not the Punaji? What the economy alone would save in the long run is more than worth the hassle of converting!”

“If only people saw life in terms of neat costs and rewards,” he said wryly. “Your Highness, I have not been party to your political education. Are you aware of the systems of government used by the dwarves?”

“Mm, not in much detail,” she admitted. “I could probably tell you more about Tiraan or Sifanese or Arkanian politics than the Five Kingdoms. They’re pretty insular an’ they bend over backwards to accommodate us whenever we do business; I’ve mostly learned how to show ’em proper manners when they visit and leave their inner workings alone. Hell, even the Sifanese are less standoffish about people getting into their internal business.”

“I see,” Akhatrya said thoughtfully. “Are you acquainted with the concept of socialism?”

“No, but I like it already,” she replied, grinning. “Sounds cuddly.”

“It’s an idea which is implemented, in one form or another, in the governing policies of each of the Five Kingdoms,” he explained. “Basically, the core contention of socialism is that nothing which is necessary for life should be the subject of personal profit, for anyone. Food, lodgings, and medical care, for example, are all provided to all citizens equally by the state. The different dwarven nations have varying standards of what is necessary; by and large, they are all more highly organized at the state level than any human nation, and their governments provide a very wide range of services compared to ours. They have elaborate public education, for example, all the way through the university level, and state-sponsored arts, museums, scientific research, loans of business capital… Obviously, this necessitates a very high level of government involvement in all aspects of life, and is funded by a heavy income tax, levied progressively according to individual wealth.”

Ruda stared at him in blank silence for a long moment.

“Well,” she said at last, “that’s not quite the dumbest fucking idea I’ve ever heard, but I respect it for trying.”

Akhatrya grinned. “Consider this, though. Even with most of their economies in shambles and gross domestic products flatlined at best for the last ten years, the Five Kingdoms have universally low crime, almost no unemployment, and zero homelessness. Most societies in the state of economic vulnerability they currently suffer succumb to further related maladies, notably outbreaks of disease. No such thing has happened in the Dwarnskolds. They suffer some privation, but they do so equally. The strong do not prey upon the weak, and society itself endures without leaning upon its most vulnerable members.”

“Akhatrya, it sounds like you like this cockamamie scheme,” she exclaimed. “You can’t possibly be thinking of trying something like that in fucking Puna Dara! We’d have a revolution within five fucking minutes!”

“And that,” he said, nodding, “is exactly my point. I heartily approve of you studying the ways of our neighbors to learn from their strengths, Princess. But never forget that we are not dwarves. We are not even Imperials. We are Punaji, and not every useful idea that exists in the world would be useful to us. Some, though they might indeed prove to be assets, are simply too far from the core of who we are. The people will not tolerate anything they see as an attack upon the spirit of our nation.”

She turned again to frown at the window, but this time the expression was more thoughtful than disgruntled.

“The spirit of our nation,” Ruda said quietly, “is already under attack. A long, slow one that we can’t seem to do anything to halt. There’s no room for a pirate nation in the world as it’s shaping up. We already depend on the Empire’s goodwill to prevent one of the other naval powers of the Azure Sea from invading us, and isn’t that a constant fucking insult. Sooner or later, we have to either change who we are, or…give up. Forget who we are, be absorbed by Tiraas like the Calderaan and the Stalweiss and the Onkawi and…” She trailed off, and swallowed heavily. “Gods. I hope Mama and Papa are gone before it comes to that. I don’t want them to have to see it.”

After a moment, Akhatrya stepped quietly over to the desk, and reached out to lay a hand upon her shoulder. It was not strictly appropriate, but the Rock was probably the least formal of the government palaces in all the world. They were, after all, Punaji.

Ruda heaved a sigh and cleared her throat, turning back to regard him with a freshly incisive expression, and he let his hand fall, stepping back.

“We’re already the Five Kingdoms’ biggest trading partner, though,” she said. “Everything they make and wanna sell overseas comes through Puna Dara. Since the Narisian Treaty they’ve vastly increased the business they do that way instead of selling to the Empire, too. There is no possible way Punaji merchants aren’t already familiar with dwarven systems of weights and measures.”

“That is true,” he allowed. “Most have found it profitable to endure our neighbors’ little peculiarities. And if the systems are indeed as superior as you say, there may well be some who already favor them.”

“So, getting back to my original question.” Ruda leaned back in her father’s chair, staring at the far wall, and propped her (thankfully clean) boots up on a copy of a tariff agreement with the Kingdom of Stavulheim. “How to implement that, while still respecting the independent spirit of the Punaji. Since the precedent’s already there, I think we could begin by encouraging the use of dwarven standards without mandating them. Go slow, go careful, gradually get the population more acquainted with ’em an’ make sure there’s widespread acceptance before starting to switch actual government practice. Hnh, I much prefer to get shit done, but I guess you’ve gotta take your time when dealing with the egos of tens of thousands of people.”

“The safe way is the slow way, as a rule,” he agreed, smiling again.

Ruda looked back up at him, grinning. “So! You like my general strategy, then? Anything you’d add?”

“Well,” Akhatrya said, “you asked me what I would do, hypothetically, if I served a monarch who insisted on pursuing such a course. In that situation…yes, I think I would proceed much as you describe. And I also would offer thanks to the gods that my people were in the hands of a wise Queen.”

Her smile actually faltered, and the princess cleared her throat, averting her eyes. “Ah… Yeah, well, I guess—”

Both of them stiffened as an alarm bell began tolling outside the fortress, quickly followed by a second, and then more.

Ruda swung her legs back to the floor and bounded up, crossing to the window, where she pressed her face against the glass, peering out at the darkened harbor.

“What the fuck?” she exclaimed after a brief moment, then whirled and dashed for the door.


“THINK!” Ayuvesh thundered, his voice booming from the walls of the cavern.

The group actually hesitated, which was just as well for the sake of diplomacy; Vadrieny had already burst forth, both Huntsmen had bows drawn, Gabriel was brandishing both scythe and saber, and even Toby had shifted to a ready stance.

“You servants of the Pantheon are always so quick to turn to violence,” the leader of the Rust continued, bestowing on them a mocking smile from his perch atop the walking machine. At the touch of his fingers upon the chair controls, it took a lumbering step backward, then shifted, awkwardly turning itself to face them at an angle. “Really, it’s not as if I don’t know who the lot of you are. Would I actually want to start a fight with you, here, in our own sanctum? Knowing it would cost the lives of many of my comrades, and incalculable damage to our home and resources? No, no, children, rest assured, I was not challenging you to battle.”

“Y’know, for a guy who talks so much about how put-upon he is,” Fross chimed irritably, “you spout a lot of what are really easy to take as threats.”

“This is a misunderstanding,” Toby said firmly. “I honestly have no idea what’s happening, and I have no qualms at all about telling you anything you want to know about the woman who stole the screen off your gateway. I can’t even say for sure if she’s the reason for this—”

“I would be willing to put money on that,” Gabriel growled.

Toby shot him a quelling look. “But we certainly have no attachment to her. Her behavior was not exactly friendly.”

Ayuvesh regarded him sardonically while he spoke, then lowered his gaze to study something set amid the controls on the arm of his mount’s seat. “Hummm. And yet, I find no indication of someone apart from you lot creeping around…” He paused, frowning. “And yet. A screen was remotely activated, and its position is currently unknown. So…perhaps.”

“Perhaps is a starting point,” Toby said soothingly, holding up both hands. “Look, we’ve already established that none of us here wants anything to get more violent than it already has.”

“Ah, yes, so we should now lay our cards on the table,” Ayuvesh said bitterly. “As you did when you mentioned this mysterious woman as soon as you entered.”

“Honestly, man, what would you have said?” Gabriel asked in exasperation.

Vadrieny turned on him with the same tone. “Are you under the impression that you’re helping, Gabe?”

“Not usually,” he muttered.

“Let me lay out for you some other things we have established,” Ayuvesh continued, again manipulating his controls. The walker retreated further, even as the other members of the Rust scattered to man various pieces of machinery, or disappear into side tunnels. “None of us are eager to volunteer information—perhaps understandably. You kids have a tendency to perceive threats in every little thing, and respond with the promise of your considerable capacity for brute force. I, on the other hand, respond to threats by…rearranging the playing field. The best way, I find, to avoid getting into a pitched battle is to make the process so uninviting that no one seeks to offer you violence.”

“Like you did to the Silver Legions,” said Juniper.

“You seem to think that was an extreme response,” Ayuvesh said grimly. “What’s more reasonable, when presented with a large, threatening force, than to remove that force from the board, as gently as possible? But you lot aren’t a Silver Legion. You have a lot more firepower, a lot less restraint, and not half the logistical hurdles involved in doing anything. Carefully incapacitating you isn’t really a prospect, I suppose. So I must, if we are to continue these discussions, somehow ensure your good behavior. I wish I could think of a less regrettable way to do so. Truly, I do.”

He pushed a lever and the walker turned to face one of the walls, which was already shifting into motion, its innumerable machine parts whirring and shuffling like a colossal swarm of ants. Metal arms extended from dozens of points, each bearing view screens of various sizes, and began fitting them together into a single, huge display, its image clear despite the lines of connection running across it and its wildly uneven edges.

The cobbled-together screen showed them an image of the city harbor under the moonlight. As they watched, the waters began to stir.

“I expect you kids to be respectful, henceforth,” Ayuvesh chided, “for the sake of Puna Dara.”


Ruda burst out of the fortress doors onto the battlements, racing for the foremost tower which extended into the harbor with Akhatrya right on her heels. It was chaos, but organized chaos; soldiers dashed alongside them, moving themselves into proper order, as more assembled in ranks in the Rock’s main courtyard below.

The princess and the seneschal reached the tower, troops hustling out of their way, and tore up its steps to the platform on top, where Ruda pressed herself against the crenelated wall, staring incredulously out over the harbor.

Ships were moored, but there was fortunately no active traffic at this hour, and thus no vessels were lost in the disturbance. The spot near the center of the bay, which alternately bubbled as if pressed upon from below and descended into a whirlpool, abruptly exploded, spraying water as far as the docks.

The thing that rose up from within was titanic, a thick, sinuous shape plated in irregular metal over its coiled scales. A row of metallic spikes ran along its spine, with lengths of wire connecting them and giving off sparks and arcs of lightning which danced across the surface of the water. Most of the massive sea serpent’s head was original flesh and bone, but its wedge-like lower jaw was entirely metal, and its right eye had been covered over with a huge patch connected to the plates and spikes climbing up its back. Into this was set a tremendous green fairy lamp which cast a sickly glow across the whole harbor.

Giant sea serpents did not come this close to the shore, they very rarely breached the surface and definitely did not vocalize. The augmented monstrosity finished showing that it did not respect any of these rules by throwing back its head and emitting a mighty roar which had a distinct undertone of metal scraping against metal.

“Are you fucking kidding me?!” Ruda roared right back, turning to Akhatrya and pointing accusingly out at the beast. “Look at this! This is what happens when I leave those assholes unsupervised!”

 

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13 – 16

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“Well, hey there, li’l lady! Need a hand with that?”

Maureen sighed, coming to a stop, and turned to face the man approaching. “Thank you, no, I have it well in hand.”

Chase sauntered up, hands in his pockets and grinning his customarily cheerful grin. Despite the fact that he’d never harmed anyone (that she’d heard), Maureen felt instinctively unsettled at being approached by him in a dark alley. She knew from her childhood coaching to listen to those instincts, and also to avoid showing any unease. A certain kind of person responded to any perceived weakness with outlandish aggression.

“Aw, don’t be like that, shorty,” he said easily. “What kid of gentleman would I be if I let a girl like you haul a basket of…” He came to a stop, looming over her, and craned his neck to peer down. For once, she didn’t have the impression he was trying to look down her blouse, and somehow that wasn’t reassuring. “…scrap metal? You’ve got interesting hobbies. Anyhow, what kind of gentleman would—”

“I feel obliged to point out that a gentleman wouldn’t make fun of a person’s stature, nor push when he’s been politely invited to sod off.”

He laughed, and stepped back, pulling his hands from his pockets to hold them up disarmingly. “All right, all right, fair enough. So what’re you doing skulking around in the back alleys? That’s not like you.”

“I could ask you the same,” she said tersely.

That got another laugh, and a roguish wink. “Maureen… It’s me, Chase. You wonder what I’m doing skulking in alleys?”

She rolled her eyes and turned to resume walking. “Aye, fair enough.”

To her annoyance—but not surprise—he strolled alongside her, moving at a leisurely amble that kept pace neatly with her bustling stride, given the difference in the length of their legs. That same difference meant running away from him was an unlikely prospect.

“You, though,” Chase continued merrily. “You’re such a fine, upstanding citizen. Heading back to campus, then? Cos there’s no storefronts back here…”

“An’ what makes y’think I’m headin’ ta campus?”

“And there goes the accent,” he observed. “I can never figure out if that means you’re more or less happy. Anyhow, this arc’ll lead you through the back ways of the old part of town by the least-traveled path, where there is absolutely nothing until you come out right at the base of the mountain, a good few dozen yards from the stairs.” He looked down at her and winked again. “I may have had cause to slip through Last Rock without attracting notice. Y’know, once or twice. A day. For three years.”

She sighed, and shook her head. “Town’s funny t’night…all riled up, innit? I passed the A&W on the way in, an’ the noise was like a full-blown party. Seem t’be knots o’ people chatterin’ in the streets, too, but lookin’ nervous about something. Not like usual. Even with all the new construction, Last Rock’s a sleepy sorta place.”

“Yeah, I noticed the same.” For a wonder, the vacuous grin faded from his features. Maureen chanced a glance up at the human, finding him looking ahead with a thoughtful expression. It made a surprising difference in his aspect; that smile was unnerving, but now he just seemed like one of her classmates, mulling a question. “I also veered close enough to overhear a few snatches of those conversations. You know, purely by accident,” he added solemnly.

“Oh, aye. Of course.”

“Folks seem to be tetchy about the University in particular this evening,” Chase continued. “Apparently Tellwyrn posted an announcement about the first major research project she’s funding, and it’s to do with summoning demons. All the yokels are worked up something fierce.”

“Huh,” she grunted noncommittally, shifting her basket to her left hand. Not actually planning to drop it on his foot, but making that prospect more available.

“So, you may have had the right idea,” he said, that grin returning. “Perhaps this isn’t the best night for casual encounters with the Rockies, eh?” When she didn’t reply, he went merrily on. “So, I’m sure you won’t mind if I keep you company on the way back! After all, you’re probably downright starved for company these days. The Well must be feeling pretty empty, huh?”

Maureen stared straight ahead at the distant gap where the alley opened out below the mountain, concentrating on keeping her breath even. One ear twitched, but not because of him; there was a swell of noise in the near distance, as a crowd of men passed through the street, talking loudly. Shouting, actually… She couldn’t make out many individual words, but the anger was obvious.

“Everyone’s been assuming we’ll wake the Sleeper’s victims just cos I woke up,” Chase said suddenly, after she failed to respond to his last comment. “I wonder if they’re really just asleep, though? I mean… There are ways to keep the body alive, even when the mind and soul passes on. It’d be a ridiculously cruel thing to do, but hell, who can say how this asshole thinks? That’d be a kick in the pants, if Tellwyrn finally cracks the curse and it turns out they’re all just dead after all.”

“What is wrong with you?!” Maureen exploded, rounding on him and hopping backward, her ears shifting back in agitation. “You are the most—why are you like this? How can any person not want anything outta life except t’just make an arse of ‘imself? Haven’t you one bloody thing better to do than scamper around irritating everybody?”

Chase, somewhat to her surprise, didn’t pounce now that his needling had finally provoked a reaction. In fact, he turned to face her, tilting his head quizzically, and regarded her in silence for a moment before speaking. “Heh. Y’know, you’re actually the first person to ask me that since I came here? Even at the lodge they’d given that up long before I left, and Tellwyrn never bothered.”

“Aye, well, at least you’re aware you’re a horse’s arse!”

“I’m aware of a lot,” he said cheerfully, turning and sauntering off in the direction of the mountain. Maureen let him pull ahead a few steps before following slowly, keeping a distance between them. “Let me put it this way: I’ve heard it said that the thing which separates sentient beings from the animals is our capacity to be more. A wolf or bison or prairie dog just does what it does, but a human or elf or gnome creates things, improves themselves beyond what biology intended.”

“Sapient,” she said automatically.

He glanced back over his shoulder at her. “Hm?”

“Wolves an’ bison an’ prairie dogs are all sentient. They sense an’ interact with their surroundings. You mean sapient beings.”

Chase chuckled, shaking his head. “Well, maybe I don’t. Because I’ve done a lot of people-watching, and I’ve noticed that the happiest people are reliably the dumbest ones. The key to bliss is not having a thought in your head. Everything that’s good in life—food, sex, sleep, humor—it’s all basic, animal instinct. Being more is just a pointless pain in the ass.”

“Humor, is it?” she asked, intrigued in spite of herself. Maureen had never expected to hear Chase Masterson’s philosophy on life; until that moment it had never occurred to her that he might have one. “That seems like a pretty sapient thing.”

“Ever played tug-of-war with a dog? Or watched a bluejay tease a cat? Or how about wild pigs who sniff out glittershrooms to get high?” Chase laughed lightly, jamming his hands back in his pockets. “Not to mention that everything has sex, and you’re never gonna convince me it’s because all those animals think it over and decide what they really need is to be responsible for a smaller version of themselves for a while. Fun is the only true universal good, my dear little friend. All the rest is just bullshit people make up to feel more important than they are.”

He emerged into the open air, with the mountain looming above, and stopped. Maureen was still a few steps behind; by the time she caught up, Chase had turned to their right to peer in the direction of the main street. She peeked around the corner, following his gaze.

A crowd of men and women were milling around, several carrying lamps and one or two actual torches. The buzz of conversation which hovered over them was distinctly angry, and loud enough it seemed it might burst into shouting at any moment.

“Well, that’s different,” he mused. “I heard there was an actual mob in Last Rock a while back, but honestly I was never willing to believe these folks that that much initiative. Or organizational skills.”

“A mob doesn’t take much in the way o’ skill, ‘specially not of the organizational kind,” she replied, frowning at the townspeople.

Chase just laughed. “Oh, I know my townies, trust me.”

His bark of amusement attracted notice. A few people turned to face them, and then to Maureen’s horror, they erupted in shouting and imprecations. The group started toward them with long, aggressive strides, beginning with those nearest but the rest quickly catching up, as if the whole crowd were some sort of huge amoeba sensing prey. It was dark, but the lights they carried were enough for Maureen to make out scowls and snarls on far too many faces.

As she stood, gaping, one man in the lead broke into a trot, quickly followed by several others.

“Oh, my,” Chase observed in a fascinated tone, then turned to her with a cheerful grin. “Hey, here’s a crazy idea! I think we should run.”


The mineshaft was mostly horizontal for the first leg of its journey; only after turning sharply to the left did it begin descending. Nowhere around its periphery were there any obvious signs of activity, though Ermon said that tracks in the dust showed the whole area saw regular foot traffic. Now, the group was descending gradually along a seemingly endless shaft, which occasionally branched off to the sides or opened into disused chambers, some containing the wreckage of old crates and tools. There was no light except Fross’s silver glow.

“I can’t make out any sounds,” Juniper muttered. “The echoes down here are weird… Plus, there’s this…thing.”

“Thing?” Teal’s voice was a little strained. “What kind of a thing?”

“I don’t know,” the dryad said, frowning and shaking her head.

“Phrasing, June,” Gabriel said. “The atmosphere’s pretty tense already without us suddenly being told there’s a thing.”

“Let’s not make it worse by picking at each other,” Toby said soothingly. “Can you describe it, Juniper?”

“Mm…sort of like…bees,” she said pensively.

“Bees?!” Teal’s voice rose half an octave.

“The buzzing, I mean,” Juniper hastily clarified. “There’s this low hum, at the very edge of my hearing. All I can tell is it’s coming from deeper below, and that only because it’s been getting louder as we go down. Like I said…echoes. It’s a mess to try to track anything in here.”

“It certainly is that,” Ermon agreed. He had placed himself at the head of the group, off to one side and behind only Fross, where he studied the floor, walls, and ceiling in detail as they passed through. “I can make out only traces; this ground does not like to leave tracks. It does see traffic, though, both coming and going. And I have seen no signs of any kind of struggle in the distance we’ve come.”

“Well, let’s consider that a hopeful sign,” said Toby.

“I’d caution against excessive optimism,” the Huntsman replied. “I’m sure you have reason to be confident in your power, but following prey into its own den is always a highly risky venture.”

“Vadrieny wonders if we’d rather she take over from me, here,” said Teal.

Toby glanced back at her. “I appreciate the offer. Remember, though, our first plan is to talk. Vadrieny is, let’s face it, pretty intimidating. Having her out might seem hostile in and of itself.”

“Yeah,” Gabriel added, touching Teal’s shoulder momentarily. “And if this does come down to trouble, best we hold something in reserve. If they get aggressive, maybe we can prevent a throw down by suddenly showing we’ve got bigger fangs than they thought.”

“Okay,” she said with no further comment.

“I can feel arcane magic up ahead,” Fross added, “but…well, the distance is an impediment, but there’s not much. Assuming the rest of what the Rust does is like that arm, it might employ small arcane charms here and there but whatever it runs on is its own thing. I haven’t figured out a way to detect it directly. Ariel, anything?”

“I perceive nothing. My senses are designed for precision of analysis, not range. I will have little to add until we are much closer, if the conventional enchantments involved are as minor as you say.”

They continued on in silence for a few more minutes, which seemed longer than they were owing to being spent creeping through oppressive darkness. When Gabriel suddenly stopped, shifting his head as if watching something invisible, the rest of the group halted as well, turning to look at him.

“Vestrel’s back,” he reported with a grin of clear relief, which slowly faded as he continued, speaking with a halting cadence indicating he was repeating observations as they were given to him. “Okay…up ahead they tunnel opens out into a very large chamber, a natural cave that’s had mineshafts carved out of it in multiple directions, and that’s where the Rust has all their stuff. People, and machines…” He hesitated. “Vestrel recognizes some elements of what they’ve built, but it’s way different from the Elder God—okay, fine, Infinite Order stuff she remembers. Also…she says the machines are…weird.” He paused again, then sighed. “…apparently we’ll have to see them ourselves to understand.”

“How helpful,” Ariel commented. Everyone ignored her.

“Oh!” Gabriel brightened, turning to Ermon. “Arlund is here! I mean, down there. She wasn’t sure about his situation; he hasn’t been harmed and doesn’t seem to be restrained, but he looks angry.”

“I’m not sure how significant that is, in and of itself,” Ermon replied ruefully. “But I thank you, Vestrel, for the information.”

“And they’ve built some kind of…gate, across the tunnel,” Gabe continued, turning again to stare into empty space where the valkyrie apparently stood. “A pretty solid one, made of that reddish metal of theirs and a bunch of cobbled-together junk that resembles their artificial limbs. Vestrel can pass through most objects, but no idea how we’re going to get past it. The good news is all the Rust cultists are beyond it, in their big cavern. There’s nobody between us and the gate.”

“Okay,” Toby said, nodding. “That’s something. If we can’t figure out how to get it open, we can always try to force it. I very much doubt any gate will stop Juniper and Vadrieny.”

“Uh, I thought the idea was to try the friendly approach first?” said Fross. “If the thing is locked, maybe our first move should be to just knock.”

Toby hesitated, then chuckled. “Well, I can’t argue with that, can I? All right, guys, on we go. Gabe, any details while we walk? How far we are, how many cultists up ahead?”

“Only a couple dozen. Vestrel didn’t get a precise headcount because they were all milling around, doing something. She couldn’t tell what. And…apparently we’re closer to the gate than we are to the entrance of the tunnel, now.”

“I wonder,” Teal mused. “They can’t do much back-and-forth from here to the city. It’s a hellishly inconvenient approach, and somebody would have noticed that kind of traffic going in and out of the mountains.”

“We’ve already passed a lot of side tunnels,” Juniper pointed out, “and Vestrel said there are more below, from their actual lair. The mine entrance was just the one the Thieves’ Guild found. I bet they’ve got a more direct path into Puna Dara. Probably more than one, actually.”

“We’ll see what we see,” Toby murmured, and they fell silent again.

It was another few minutes of walking before they reached the gate Vestrel had told them of, which also revealed what she meant about the weirdness of the machines.

The tunnel was blocked off by a ring of steel, in which stood an obvious door of the same metal, split down the middle in an asymmetrical pattern unlike any standard doorway. Thick bars were set vertically into the metal in front of it, spaced too closely for a human to slip through, even had there been anywhere beyond it to go. The whole thing was set in a most peculiar melange of metallic parts. They were mostly of the reddish alloy that characterized the Rust, unlike the steel door and bars, though there were a number of small lights set in various places, some glowing steadily, others blinking in repeating patterns. Obvious machine parts were in evidence, from simple struts and braces to exposed gears, some actually moving. Pipes crisscrossed the entire thing at intervals, a few with valves which produces periodic little spurts of steam. In several places scattered throughout were oddly-shaped surfaces which glowed in the darkness and depicted peculiar systems of glyphs and markings; some of these held steady, while others changed continuously.

Most alarming of all was the way it was all constructed. Machines were usually logical, even mathematical in their design, featuring a lot of straight lines and right angles. By comparison, the gate’s housing was just crazy. Though they all connected together, pipes, gears, metal supports and blinking screens were layered around the walls haphazardly, in wild angles, as if they’d been laid down erratically and built up to cover the whole tunnel. Miscellaneous bits of inscrutable purpose extended out from the structure to crawl along the walls toward the distant exit like the questing roots of a tree.

“If a spider spun machine parts instead of silk,” Gabriel said after they had stood regarding this in silence for a few moments, “the result would look like this.”

Teal sighed. “Spiders, and bees. I never had an aversion to bugs until just now…”

“What if there is some kind of huge mechanical spider in there?” Juniper suggested. “That could explain this. Well, not explain it, but it’d make a little more sense…”

“Great,” Teal said sourly. “That’s a lovely thought.”

“Well, at least we figured out where that hum you talked about is coming from,” Toby said. Actually, though it clearly emerged from the peculiar machine, this close it seemed to be a number of different hums. Parts of it emitted periodic soft beeps and chimes, the pipes thrummed with some hydraulic force, gears clicked and whirred together, and several segments of the construction put off sharp electrical buzzing. From a distance, it all did blur together to resemble the tone of a beehive.

Juniper suddenly whirled, shifting her feel to a braced stance, and stared back up the tunnel. “There it is again!”

“The bees?” Teal asked.

“No. The smell. If I couldn’t feel the lack of any through attunement I would swear there was a dryad heading this way!”

All of them turned, Ermon drawing his tomahawk and hunting knife. Gabriel eased out the wand that morphed into his scythe, but did not activate it yet, and placed a hand on Ariel’s hilt without drawing her.

“I think you should know,” she said into the tense silence which ensued, “that there is a very sophisticated invisibility spell attached to something moving this way down the tunnel.”

“How close?” Gabriel asked tersely.

“Presuming standard human hearing, close enough to be aware of this conversation. I believe I recently pointed out that my senses are not designed for great distances.”

“Is someone there?” Toby called, staring ahead into the darkness. Fross fluttered back to hover above their heads, casting silver light on the tunnel walls around them.

Several of them twitched, Teal emitting a muffled noise of surprise, when a figure suddenly appeared seemingly out of thin air right in front of them. The person who had arrived was garbed entirely in black, and manifested in the process of lowering the hood of a black cloak. Beneath it was another hood, attached to her fitted jacket, and inside that a mask which obscured the lower half of her face, leaving only her eyes exposed. Her black attire was mostly of supple leather, and fit closely enough to reveal this was a woman.

“Oh, invisibility cloak,” Gabriel said after a tense silence. “Nifty. You don’t see those often.”

“Greetings,” Toby said to the mysterious woman. “Friend, or foe?”

She tilted her head minutely to one side, eyes flickering across them. Then she took a step forward. When everyone tensed, she paused again, and held up one finger, which she then pointed at the contorted apparatus around the gate behind them.

“Hello?” Juniper said sharply. “Yes? No? Anybody home?”

“That mask has a silencing spell attached,” Ariel announced. “If she spoke, you wouldn’t hear. There are a good number of impressive enchantments on this person’s equipment. She is either a skilled enchanter or exceedingly wealthy.”

“That’s interesting,” Juniper said bluntly. “And why do you smell like dryads?”

“And couldja maybe take the mask off and talk to us?” Fross suggested.

Ermon shook his head. “People who don masks are rarely willing to remove them upon meeting someone new.”

The woman watched this conversation inscrutably, but at that, pointed at Ermon. Then she stepped forward again, angling to pass between Teal and Juniper on her way to the gate.

“Hey!” Juniper moved to bar her path, scowling. “You don’t just show up out of nowhere in a place like this, at a time like this, and refuse to explain yourself!”

“Enchantments aside,” Ariel interjected, “the magic roiling off this person is extremely potent and extremely confusing. I detect all four schools, heavily favoring the fae, with additional branches of shadow magic, all intertwined in ways I have never seen and whose purpose I cannot discern. In terms of raw power, she is on a level with most of you. I advise against starting an altercation.”

The woman’s dark eyes shifted right to Ariel—itself interesting, as few people who heard her voice immediately suspected the sword—and then back to Juniper. She held the dryad’s gaze for a moment, then carefully shifted to edge past her again. This time, though she kept her stare locked onto the interloper, Juniper did not move, and allowed her past; Teal even edged back out of the way.

The woman in black squeezed by, then headed straight for one of the tunnel walls which was covered by the overgrowth of machinery, holding up another finger in their direction as if cautioning them to wait. She carefully pored over the exposed pieces as if searching for something, pausing at each of the display screens. Several she touched with her fingers; two responded by changing their contents, but the woman seemed unimpressed by the results and moved on.

Finally, she came to a roughly hexagonal screen attached to the mess by only a single length of pipe, extending out from the wall not far from the gate itself. This time, she hunched over it, quickly working at it with her gloved fingertips. Sigils and pictograms shifted at her touch, accompanied by soft chirps and whirrs.

“I suppose there’s no point in asking how you know how to do that,” Gabe said irritably, shifting closer and craning his neck to watch.

She raised her head to look at him, and winked, then returned to what she was doing.

The group jumped again when the gate suddenly moved. The entire circular steel housing rotated a hundred and eighty degrees, causing the bars to spin fully around. Once it stopped, there came a loud thunk from somewhere deep inside the machinery, and the bars suddenly retracted into what was now the floor. Then, with a deep rumble, an inner section of the circle began rotating in the opposite direction. When the door itself had been turned fully upside down—or right side up?—it parted smoothly, both doors sliding into the walls to either side. Another set of bars were revealed beyond it, which now slowly rotated back in the first direction, and then retracted just as their cousins had.

“There is really no reason for that to have been so elaborate,” Ariel opined.

“Well, thank you for the help,” Toby said to the woman, who after glancing into the now-open gate had resumed studying the screen. “I gather you’re a person who values her secrets, but I’m sure you understand if we—”

She abruptly grabbed the metal edges of the extended screen, and with a strength clearly beyond the human, ripped it clean off the wall, leaving its broken mount trailing a few sparking ends of wire.

“Hey!” Gabriel shouted. Orange light suffused the tunnel as Vadrieny emerged, but they hardly had time to react beyond that.

The woman in black moved like an elf, darting past them and actually running up the wall for a few paces as she dashed by. Ermon spun and nocked an arrow, drawing a bead on her as she raced back up the tunnel, but with her free hand she whipped up the hood of her invisibility cloak and vanished entirely into the darkness.

Once she did, not even the sound of footsteps betrayed her presence.

“So,” Gabriel said irritably after they had all stared after the mysterious figure for a moment. “Carrying a bunch of pricey enchantments, made of a weird combination of all magic, smells like a dryad, somehow knows how to use weird-ass Elder God magic machines even better than Vestrel. And, best of all, showed up in the middle of all this. Yeah, there’s no way in hell we’ve seen the last of her. I will bet you a semester’s tuition her next appearance is going to be even more annoying.”

“No bet,” said Vadrieny. Ermon turned at the sound of her voice, peering at the archdemon with clear wariness.

“I could’ve frozen her to the ground,” Fross said apologetically, “but based on what Ariel said and what I sensed I wasn’t sure it’d be a good idea to poke that bear. There was a lot of magic in that lady, and I couldn’t tell what basically any of it did, and this seems like a really, really bad place to start an unnecessary fight.”

“I think you’re right,” Toby said with a heavy sigh. “No worries, Fross. For now, we’ve got a mission we’d better stick to, but we should also follow up on this as soon as we’re back in the city. See what the King and the Guild and maybe the Avenists and monks have seen.”

“For now, though, onward,” Vadrieny agreed, then faded away to leave Teal among them again.

The tunnel beyond the gate was much shorter, and horizontally level. It was also made entirely of smooth metal—apparently steel, once they stepped beyond the crawling clutter of machine parts that housed the gate apparatus itself. The group clustered together as they emerged from its mouth onto a platform overlooking a vast cavern.

The whole scene was a study in contrast between organic and angular forms. Large, glaring fairy lamps were almost blinding after the dimness behind them, but at least they exposed everything—which in this case meant a clearly natural cavern which had been both cut and built up with stone bricks to form even floors, walls, and platforms that had once served the mining operation in some capacity. In the ceiling and in the walls of sections not adapted for human use, the smooth natural curves left by eons of erosion were still evident. Remnants of wood and stone construction remained, but all of it had been partially covered by reddish metal growths which seemed to have spread over everything like crawling lichen.

There were Rust cultists present, as well, roughly two dozen as Vestrel had advised. Every single one present had at least one metal limb, some two or more, and several were partially augmented with further metallic pieces of uncertain purpose. Now, however, they were not milling about engaged in any task. All of them stood all but motionless, scattered around the chamber and staring flatly at the group which emerged into their midst.

A chilling silence hung between them, until a large piece of the machinery occupying the back wall began detaching itself.

When housed against a huge overgrowth of metallic parts it had been just another inscrutable piece of the morass, but as it pulled free and stepped closer its shape immediately became clear. The thing walked on two enormous legs, had a round torso with what appeared to be a circular eye of green glass occupying most of its front, and two metal arms extending from the upper edge of that. Despite its lack of a head, it stood nearly twenty feet tall. Each of its footfalls echoed through the chamber with a crash.

“Giant mechanical spider,” Juniper muttered. “Well, I wasn’t too far off…”

The Rust cultists stood still, keeping their attention on the intruders and paying the huge construct no mind—not even the two it had to step directly over on its way toward them. The group edged backward toward the tunnel mouth as it came, but it stopped a few yards distant.

With a hiss and several bursts of steam, the round glass face came loose and tipped slightly forward. Another metal piece on its top shifted up like a trap door. Whirring sounded from within the metal beast, and slowly a man rose into view from inside it, seated in a chair installed on a platform which now climbed upward. He stood up when it came to the top, which put him almost perfectly on a level with the group.

If the Rust cultists were given more mechanical parts as they rose through the ranks, this man must be their leader; he seemed at least as much machine as human. Enough of his flesh and blood face remained, however, to smile broadly at them, and he held his arms wide.

“Welcome, honored guests!” he boomed in a voice clearly accustomed to public speaking. “Honored indeed, even if not invited. And now, we will have to decide just what to do with you.”

 

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