Tag Archives: Val Tarvadegh

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“All right, everyone, listen up!” Trissiny gently urged Arjen forward into the center of the little square, commanding the attention of everyone gathered. “This is the plan.”

Everybody had assembled with admirable speed—almost as adroitly as proper troops, though the way they straggled in and milled about somewhat ruined the image. The rest of her class had found them shortly after she sent the townsfolk to arm themselves, Fross bouncing and chiming at the head of the group. The crowd which had returned wasn’t quite the same one that had left; it seemed a few people had decided to sit this out at home, while others had rallied to the call. All four of the local priests were present, and clustered together nearby at the front of the crowd. Sisters Takli and Aria wore matching intent expressions; Trissiny didn’t actually know whether either had served in the Legions, but a cleric of Avei would be no stranger to following orders and facing peril. Val Tarvadegh looked a bit out of place, hands folded nervously in front of him, but kept his expression schooled. Father Laws was older than any of his colleagues by far, but had also brought a staff, an older model with a large and elaborate clicker mechanism, though not as dated as Miz Cratchley’s old thunderbuss.

In fact, as Trissiny surveyed her assets, it occurred to her that this sight was actually somewhat familiar.

“This is a variation on something we’ve done once before, in Sarasio,” she said to the assembled crowd, “so we do know what we’re doing. Our quarry is a single demon—based on my own experience, I can tell you it’s quick, agile, and invisible to the naked eye, which makes this complicated.”

“How dangerous is it?” someone whose name she didn’t know asked.

“That remains to be seen,” Trissiny said, raising her voice among the agreeing murmur which rose after the question. “On its last appearance the creature did nothing overtly destructive, but it is still a demon. Most of them are not safe even to be around; hethelaxi and the like are exceptions to the rule. Many demons leak infernal energy, which makes them a hazard to anyone in the vicinity. That’s why we are not going to tolerate this one’s presence in the town; if possible, we will learn what it wants before dispatching it, but the first priority is everyone’s safety. I want you all to keep that in mind, and don’t take any needless risks.”

“How’re we s’posed to chase it if it’s invisible?” a middle-aged woman demanded.

“I was just coming to that,” Trissiny said, smothering her irritation. Not soldiers; they couldn’t be expected to know how to behave during a briefing. “Fross and I are able to sense the demon’s presence, so we’re going to work with that. Teal, can we talk with Vadrieny please?”

Teal raised her eyebrows sharply, glancing around. “Um…”

“She’s as much a citizen as any of us,” Toby said firmly. “And I think we’ve all learned to trust Trissiny’s strategies by now.”

“Okay.” Looking resigned and still slightly nervous, Teal took a step forward into the open space surrounding Trissiny.

Vadrieny’s emergence was somewhat less explosive than usual, no doubt a deliberate choice to avoid agitating the townsfolk. Fiery wings blossomed, claws appeared, her hair flickered alight, and moments later the archdemon stood among them, wearing a faint frown.

There was some agitated murmuring and general shuffling back, but her presence didn’t incite a panic; practically everyone in town knew of Vadrieny, and some had had actually seen her before.

“Vadrieny, as you can see, is very easy to spot,” said Trissiny. “I want you and Fross to get aloft when we’re ready to begin. Fross, you’ll keep focused on the demon and position yourself directly above it. Vadrieny, follow her. That way, everyone can tell where it is by looking up.”

“Can do!” Fross chirped enthusiastically.

“Pretty slick use of assets, Boots,” Ruda commented with an approving nod.

“The rest of us,” Trissiny continued, “are going to organize ourselves into six groups, spread as evenly as possible. Three of these will arrange themselves on the outskirts of the town to the northeast, three to the southwest. You’ll all spread yourselves out to create as nearly continuous a line as possible; the groups are to create units that can stay together as we move into the streets and the buildings break up formations. The objective is to herd our quarry into the middle of the town and surround it. As I said before, if we simply drive the creature off, it’ll only come back. We are going to put a stop to this.”

The outburst of approval which followed that verged on cheering at points; she had to hold up a hand for a few moments to gain quiet. Arjen stood patiently beneath her, apparently unmoved by the agitated crowd, though Whisper seemed to want to dance and was demanding most of Gabriel’s concentration. He wasn’t exactly a veteran rider.

“We’ll try to bring the creature to the center of town: the intersection of Main and Division, in front of the courthouse. I’ll need…” She took a quick visual headcount. “…four volunteers to proceed directly there, make sure the mayor knows what’s happening and keep everyone in the surrounding buildings calm and safe.”

There was some murmuring, shuffling and glancing about in response.

“Sheriff Sanders,” she said, “I’d like you to take charge of organizing the six groups, please, and that includes designating any ‘volunteers’ if none come forward.”

“You got it, General,” he said with a grin, tipping his hat.

“Each group is to have one light-wielder,” Trissiny continued, “who will provide the primary means of controlling the demon, since I’m not sure how impressed it’ll be by armed townsfolk. Takli, Aria, Mr. Tarvaegh, Father Laws, Toby, Shaeine. Please step over to the Sheriff so he can assign you to a group.”

“Seems you left some gaps in the formation, there,” someone commented.

“Yes,” Trissiny said, nodding. “The three groups on each designated side are to assume a bowed formation, encircling the town as completely as possible, but I do expect there to be gaps to the southwest and northeast. Small ones, if possible, but they’ll be there. Gabriel and I are going to fill those. With no offense meant to Toby or anyone else present, I think we’re the two a demon is going to be least likely to want to challenge. More to the point, we’re mounted and thus far more mobile, able to cover a wider territory. Gabe, I’m going to cover the southwest gap, since I can sense the demon directly. You watch the opposite one; I doubt the thing’s going to try to escape up the hill to the University. If it does, I suspect Tellwyrn will make all this moot before we have time to react.”

“Yes,” he said, grinning. “Finally, I get the cushy job!” Whisper nickered and bobbed her head enthusiastically, pawing at the ground with one invisible hoof.

“Now, a final point before we move out,” Trissiny said seriously. The Sheriff was moving through the crowd, directing people with pointing fingers and soft words; he didn’t create enough noise to be distracting, by and large, and everyone remained focused on her. “Light-wielders, this thing is agile and speedy; don’t try to chase it down. I want everyone to focus on wide, splashy uses of energy. Yes, I’m well aware this is the least efficient possible use of divine magic, but remember, you aren’t attempting to take it down, just to create an inhospitable region of space it won’t want to try pushing through. Everyone else, please keep weapons at hand, but do not fire except at need. You are present and armed because we don’t know what’s going to happen when this thing is hemmed in. Most creatures lash out when cornered, and most kinds of demons burn just like anything else when struck by lightning. Be mindful of the fact that we’re moving into an inhabited town, and that your fellow citizens will be directly across from you. Do not take a shot unless a situation arises in which you are completely sure of that shot, and of its necessity. Better to have the weapons at hand and not need them than to face that event unarmed.”

Everyone murmured in approval, even as they shuffled into six distinct clusters around her, each of which had one of the designated clerics at its head. Trissiny noted that Ruda and Juniper had been placed in separate groups, apparently at random, and both seemed to be already making friends.

“I had hoped, in addition,” she said, glancing inquisitively at Gabriel, “that we might be able to arrange some kind of blessing for everyone. Something beyond the standard benediction; that’ll do everyone well, but I’m interested in a means of spreading divine power to everyone to help caulk the gaps in our formation, make it harder for the demon to push past. Could the weapons be charmed, perhaps?”

Gabriel was shaking his head before she finished her question. “Divine magic won’t hold on wands and staves; the inherent arcane energy will purge it in seconds. Any blessing powerful enough to override that would mess up their enchantments, and wear you out besides.”

“Also…wouldn’t that take forever?” Juniper added. “There are dozens of people here.”

“Well, it was a thought,” Trissiny said with a sigh. “Then if no one has any questions…?”

She trailed off as Toby stepped forward from his group, moving toward the center of the gap in which she and Arjen stood. Something in his expression was intent and focused in a way that brought her pause, even if she couldn’t quite place a finger on it. He paced into the middle, Trissiny unconsciously nudging Arjen with her knees to make way. In a moment, he stood in the center, she off to the side, everyone present watching curiously, quite silent now.

Toby closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them, and a warm smile lit up his face. “Everyone, be calm,” he said, and his voice seemed to resonate with a quality that encouraged it. “Fross, Juniper, this won’t bother you.”

Then he closed his eyes again, and began to glow. His aura lit up as it usually did when he was calling on Omnu’s power, then slowly began to expand, the quality of the light streaming off him shifting more white than gold.

The sun was almost directly overhead; a single beam streamed straight down from it to the top of Toby’s head, and the light flared out from him like the birth of a new star. Its sheer intensity was blinding, and yet it didn’t hurt at all to look at; in fact, no one closed their eyes, even by instinct.

Only seconds later, it was over. The sunbeam vanished, and the paladin’s aura faded, leaving him standing before them, relaxed and calm. He opened his eyes at last; they glowed gold for a split second before that light, too, faded, leaving the Hand of Omnu looking as normal as anyone.

Except that his aura now bedecked everyone present. Only in the faintest sense, barely visible under the prairie sunlight, but the light around each person there was subtly brighter, some remnant of Omnu’s touch radiating from each of them. Only Juniper (and presumably Fross, though her innate glow made it impossible to tell) were exempt from the effect. The dryad seemed totally unharmed by the divine blasting, however. In fact, she looked oddly pleased, smiling fondly at Toby.

“Holy smokes,” someone said in awe. “Does everybody else suddenly feel like a million doubloons?”

Where there had been only the hard-packed dirt of the old street, they now stood in a thick patch of clover, bedecked with little white and purple blossoms.

“I think,” Trissiny said firmly, regaining everyone’s attention, “we should all take the time once this is done to offer thanks to Omnu for this. Right now, is everyone ready?”

She swept her gaze around the assembled group, meeting firm nods and vocal agreement, and nodded herself.

“Then let’s move.”


After the repeated blunders and humiliations of the last few days, it was almost eerie to have something go so smoothly.

The townspeople of Last Rock didn’t march in anything resembling a formation, but despite the way their disorganized movement made her want to twitch, they unquestionably got where they were going in short order. Nobody got lost, nobody forgot what group they were in, and there was no shoving or scuffling. The folk of the prairie might not be a disciplined militia, but as had been pointed out to her several times recently, they knew what they were about and didn’t require much supervision once the action started.

They reached their assigned positions quickly and fanned out, placing the net around Last Rock and beginning to close in. Trissiny could feel the demon in the distance, darting back and forth, testing first one side of the formation, then another, then yet another, looking for gaps that failed to materialize. The glow Omnu’s blessing had laid over the people remained in full effect; they formed a living screen that seemed to intimidate it. The invisible presence did, now and again, try for a weak spot, but the clerics she had sent with each group did their jobs. That had been a point of some concern for Trissiny, who didn’t know what kind of education in divine magic any of the four locals had, but every attempt by the demon to rush a point on the perimeter was answered by a flash of gold in the distance, and once by a wall of silver light.

At one point it seemingly gave up on that project and veered straight toward her. This early in the plan, she was covering an area some thirty yards wide by herself, which must have seemed a tempting target. Sensing the thing coming, however, Trissiny flared up as brightly as she could and urged Arjen forward to charge straight at it, flinging indiscriminate bursts of divine light to the left and right as she came.

The demon veered aside long before she got close enough to actually hit, and Trissiny turned to keep even with the advancing flanks of the groups to either side of her. Following that confrontation, it shot through the streets directly opposite, right at the mountain.

She couldn’t see or sense what Gabriel did, but it zipped away even faster that time, retreating to probe at the thin space between Shaeine’s group and Father Laws’s, where a burst of mingled silver and gold dissuaded it.

All the while, Vadrieny circled overhead. She wasn’t built to hover, and so she drifted in tight circles above the demon whenever it lingered in one spot, like an enormous burning vulture. The sight was surely enough to instigate a panic by itself, if her purpose hadn’t been already known to the townspeople. Trissiny couldn’t see Fross, nor feel her through the scrying network (apparently Fross’s ability to sense her had to do with her enchanting skill), but she could pinpoint the demon’s position, and Vadrieny was never more than a few seconds behind. It was fast enough, at least, that every time the demon went for a weak point in the encircling formation, Vadrieny heading for that spot was all the warning the townsfolk needed to draw together and head it off.

The longer it went on, the more they closed the loop, the fewer gaps there were. By the time they reached the outer ring of buildings, the only openings were around Trissiny and Gabriel, and even they were just a few seconds’ canter from the flanks on either side.

While the maneuver was similar to what they had done in Sarasio, it was going much, much better. Last Rock was smaller than Sarasio, and fully inhabited, by well-fed, civic-minded people who had both weapons and a healthy gossip network. By the time the members of the posse had reached the outlying buildings, most houses had people standing in their doors or windows, many muttering prayers or clutching idols and sigils of various gods. Similar sacred objects had suddenly appeared decorating door jams and fence posts, and the ankh of the Universal Church, as well as the insignia of Avei, Omnu, and Vidius, had been hastily scrawled on numerous surfaces in chalk, charcoal, and paint.

Their quarry had no space in which to get lost, and its movements became increasingly frantic.

“Slow and steady!” Trissiny shouted, projecting as hard as she could. Her lungs were well-exercised, having been used to command novices back home at the Abbey, but she doubted her voice would reach all the way across the town. “It’s cornered now—this is when it’ll attack if it’s going to. Stay calm, do not rush, and keep in formation! Pass it down the line!”

The call went up on either side as her order was obeyed, instructions being relayed across the ranks. Hopefully the message wouldn’t grow too mangled in the process.

The townspeople were moving into the streets proper, now, passing wary residents standing guard over their businesses and homes with weapons and holy sigils. Trissiny nodded in what she hoped was a reassuring manner to an old man and a housewife as she urged Arjen past them at a walk. The groups to either side had to break up their lines to get around buildings, now, but Trissiny could sense more than see the glow of divine energy streaming off them—faint, but holding longer than it seemed it should have, and clearly serving to keep the demon hemmed in. It seemed their enterprise here merited Omnu’s direct attention, unless Toby had abilities she’d never heard of. Which, upon reflection, was possible.

“You’ve put this together very well, Trissiny,” a voice said from her left, and she glanced aside to behold Sister Takli, who had stepped to the flank of her group to address her. Tarvadegh’s group had closed in on the other side, now; he kept near the center, eyes on Vadrieny above, but they had narrowed the gap enough that there was no open space around her any longer. “I’m sorry for speaking harshly to you before, though I think what I said was correct. In any case, your performance here is more than admirable enough to make up for it.”

“Have you found what you were looking for in Last Rock, sister?” Trissiny asked, keeping her eyes ahead and attention focused on the demon. It was making sweeps around their steadily tightening perimeter—she noted that it was moving around buildings, this time, not trying to go through them. Perhaps those sigils people were putting up were doing some good. In any case, it was calm enough for the moment she felt she could spare a few seconds to converse.

“I’m not sure I was looking for anything in particular,” Takli replied calmly. “But I have found the town more pleasant than I’d expected. I think I may remain here unless specific business calls me elsewhere, at least for a time.”

“Perhaps you should find some business elsewhere without waiting for it to call.”

Even without looking, she could hear the sudden scowl in the Sister’s voice. “I beg your pardon?”

“I would never dream of intruding deliberately on your privacy, sister,” Trissiny said, glancing down at her now and making no effort to moderate her voice. Takli wore a reproachful frown, which deepened as she spoke. “However, I cannot control what valkyries do or who they observe, or what they tell Gabriel, or what he tells me. So I’ve ended up knowing about your relationship with the Universal Church without meaning or really wanting to.”

“How dare—”

“Considering the case of Lorelin Reich,” Trissiny carried on calmly, now looking ahead again, “it would probably be best if you took yourself and your affiliations elsewhere. And kindly remind Archpope Justinian that I work for Avei, not for him. If I have to go down there and tell him myself, it won’t be pleasant for anyone.”

Takli made no verbal response, and Trissiny didn’t glance at her again to see what effect her words had. They earned a dry chuckle from a member of the group to her right, though.

They made the rest of the remaining walk in a tense silence, which Trissiny ignored, focusing on her prey.

The square outside the town hall was more or less the geographic center Last Rock, and the largest open space within the city limits aside from the square by the Rail platform. By the time the encircling forces reached the mouths of streets opening onto it, they had been compressed into ranks four bodies deep; the clerics had continued to place themselves on the front, as had Juniper and Ruda, who had her rapier unsheathed. With everyone clustered that close together, the residual glow of Omnu’s touch upon them was again visible to the naked eye, though faint; in the bright sunlight, it had the effect of making the air seem paler, not to mention bolstering the spirits of all those present. Despite that, the faces visible were all focused to the point of grimness.

Gabriel and Trissiny heeled their mounts forward into the square, ahead of the others. Vadrieny continued to make a circle directly above.

The demonic presence had come to a stop in the dead center.

“Hold ranks!” Trissiny called. “Clerics, step forward two paces. Auras alight at a sustainable intensity—you are to hold this line, not assault.”

“It’s here?” somebody called from a street across the way.

“Oh, it’s here,” Trissiny said grimly. “And now it’s going to account for itself.”

As if responding to her order, the thing burst into visibility. What appeared was bruise-purple, a hovering spot of shadow radiating an aura of sickly darkness that seemed to glow—it was confusing to look at. It oddly resembled an overlarge, sinister pixie.

“Hold your fire!” Trissiny roared as wands and staves were leveled all around. She drew her own sword, urging Arjen forward while Gabriel likewise approached from the opposite side, his scythe fully extended. “No one has a clear shot—let us handle it!”

The presence wasn’t idle as she spoke. It wheeled around in a rapid circle, spitting shadows at the ground. Trissiny only realized what it was doing belatedly, too late to interrupt. The spell circle seemed to appear fully formed, as if the demon were able to lay down elaborate sections in single bursts of light. After only seconds, it flared alight, and something rose up from the center.

It was a hideous thing, all suckered tentacles, pincers, and plates of gleaming chitin; it looked like something that belonged on the ocean floor. Trissiny’s aura blazed to life around her, while Gabriel drew back his scythe, preparing to strike.

An ear-piercing scream split the air, and Vadrieny plunged straight down from above. Before either paladin or the demon had the chance to act, she struck it hard enough to bear its towering bulk to the ground. Natural armor cracked and flesh tore under her claws with a truly sickening cacophony, leaving her standing not so much atop the creature’s back but in it, her talons apparently dug into the ground below.

Under her feet, it immediately began crumbling away to charcoal and ash. The creature hadn’t so much as managed to growl or raise a pincer.

Unfortunately, the original demon had continued to work during their momentary distraction, and with the same dizzying speed. It laid down five more spell circles, each materializing fully formed in a single puff of purple light. That was incredibly complex spellwork, Trissiny noted; very few warlocks would be able to achieve such a feat. She had no time to dwell on this, however, for the smaller circles immediately spat forth snarling katzil demons.

“Clerics, shield!” she shouted. “Everyone raise weapons—wait till they’re above the rooftops to fire!”

The demons seemed more agitated and confused than aggressive, wheeling about in the air and hissing at one another in the confined space in which they found themselves. Once again, however, action was made unnecessary before anyone could take it.

From a single point high above, spears of ice flashed downward in a cone-like formation around Vadrieny and the crumbling ruins of the other demon. Fross struck unerringly, bearing the shrieking katzils to the ground, their bodies partially encased. With the exception of one whose entire head was sealed in a block of ice, they spat flames haphazardly. Only two managed to direct theirs, whether deliberately or not, at actual people; Shaeine brought up a wall of silver light to protect her group from one, while the other flashed harmlessly across the golden shield which formed around Gabriel and Whisper. Though unharmed, the mare whinnied in protest and danced a few steps away.

Even those last gasps ended quickly, however; having immobilized her targets, Fross followed up with blasts of pure arcane energy, reducing each of the five demons to ash and steam in seconds.

“Good work, Fross!” Trissiny shouted, keeping her attention on the circling purple summoner demon.

“Only kind I do!” the pixie called cheerfully from above, her silver glow invisible against the sun.

The original demon shot toward the town hall rather than trying to summon anything else. Trissiny wheeled Arjen around to follow, fully prepared to charge right through the doors if necessary. It wasn’t, however; the thing was apparently not seeking escape.

It arced upward a few feet, prompting Fross to zip toward it in a visible flurry of snow forming into more ice lances as she went, but it did not try to fly away, merely slamming down onto the top of the steps leading up to the hall.

Upon impact, it exploded into a burst of shadow and smoke which rushed outward hard enough to blow everyone’s hair back, carrying the acrid stink of sulfur.

Where it had landed stood a man, limned in an aura of evil-looking purple and black from which orange flames flickered at the edges, wearing an incongruously pristine white suit.

“I suppose you think you’re pretty damn clever,” Embras Mogul snarled, pointing accusingly at Trissiny.

“I think you’re pretty clever,” she shot back, urging Arjen forward a few steps, Gabriel and Whisper prancing up alongside. “And I think we just outmaneuvered you anyway, warlock.”

Mogul sneered from beneath the wide brim of his hat at the cheers which rose up on all sides.

“Wipe those smug looks off your faces, you galoots—do you think any of you would’ve done a damn thing to stop me if you didn’t have this paladin nipping at your heels?” He actually grinned at the shouts of derision brought by that. “Aw, what’s wrong, don’t enjoy the ring of truth? Tell me, the last time she came down here to warn you, did you idiots try to help? Did you even listen? Or did you pitch a big collective fit about a few bruised egos and broken latches?”

“Enough!” Trissiny barked. “You don’t get to stand there and belittle these people! You will leave this town, now, and permanently, or you will leave this plane of existence!”

Arjen trumpeted a challenge, stomping forward, and Trissiny raised her sword, golden wings flaring into being behind her.

“Do you have any idea the hard work you’ve just undone, you snot-nosed little guttersnipe?” Mogul bellowed, again flinging an arm dramatically out at Trissiny. In fact, the pose he struck reminded her incongruously of Professor Rafe in one of his moods. “Do you know how difficult it was to worm into the confidences of the Church itself? To push at Bishop Snowe’s buttons, to get extra clerics placed here and acting under nonsense orders of my choosing? It’s not so very easy to convince followers of the Church to act against their own obvious interest! But no, you’ve no appreciation for all the time and effort you’ve unmade, you just run around smashing things like a good Hand of Avei. You’re nothing but a bear loose in a tea shop, aren’t you!”

“Oh, shut your drama hole, you jackass,” Gabriel exclaimed, leveling his scythe at Mogul like a lance. The beam of light which burst forth from its shaft resembled a standard staff blast, except shot through with streams of violet and blue.

The flash of lightning struck Mogul’s aura, then arced around him and shot away harmlessly into the sky.

“Have your way, paladins,” the warlock sneered. “Keep your wretched little fleabit town. The rest of you—remember, when the gods are falling and your whole world is coming to pieces around you, that the Black Wreath came to try to shield you from their perfidy. Think on that while you’re being crushed underfoot by your own so-called protectors!”

“Shooting isn’t working,” Trissiny said to Gabriel. “Let’s just stab him.”

“I like the way you think.”

They heeled their mounts forward in unison, but before they made it two steps, another eruption of smoke and shadow occurred around him, accompanied by a blast of wind that made them squint and slow.

“You’ve won today, but this is not over!” Mogul shrieked, his voice rising to the edge of hysteria. “Not till every god lies at the Dark Lady’s feet!”

Shadows swelled up around him, and he sank back into them, leaving behind only a peal of deranged laughter.

In its aftermath, the silence was absolute and startling. There were a few beats of quiet beneath the pure sunlight.

The surrounding citizens of Last Rock, though, burst into cheers as if ordered, shouting and clapping one another on the back. A few weapons were discharged into the air, before bellowing from the Sheriff and Ox put a stop to that. All the while, Trissiny and Gabriel sat their saddles, staring at the spot from which Mogul had vanished with identical frowns on their faces, ignoring the jubilation around them.

“It’s not just me, right?” Gabriel said finally, turning to look at her. “That was…weird, wasn’t it? Wrong, somehow.”

“No…it’s not just you.” She sheathed her sword, her own frown not lessening. “I’m not absolutely certain why, but I have a feeling that…”

“I’ll tell you why,” Ruda announced, striding over to stand by Trissiny’s stirrup. The rest of their class had assembled as well, threading through the celebrating townspeople around them to cluster together around the two mounted paladins; Vadrieny had withdrawn into Teal, and Fross hovered about Gabriel’s head, close enough to be seen despite the sunlight. “Last time we saw that guy,” Ruda continued, “he went out of his way to seem as reasonable and approachable as he possibly could. Now, that time?”

“That time,” Teal finished, nodding, “he was hamming it up. Acting like a villain, in the way that an actor does, not like any actual villains do. It was like…”

“Like Rafe,” Shaeine finished softly, her voice nearly lost in the surrounding tumult. “In some ways, like Ruda. He was trying to create an impression.”

“In short,” Ruda said grimly, “that was a performance from start to finish. I think all of it was. I don’t think we actually won here, guys.”

“This isn’t over, is it,” Trissiny said.

No one bothered to answer. It hadn’t been a question.

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The land stretching south of Fersis seemed to be a sprawling transition between the Great Plains to the north and the forest that climbed steadily from the horizon as they approached. The town itself had been small and unmemorable, barely of a size to afford itself a Rail station, and that likely only because this was as close as the Empire could plant a transportation hub to the nearest elven grove. Unlike the neighbors of Sarasio, these elves clearly cherished their privacy and didn’t encourage visitors. To the other side of their forest lay Viridill, and apparently the nearest town in that direction was also most of a day’s hike away.

It was, so far, unmistakably a prairie, though one which bore little resemblance to the Golden Sea. The tallgrass was of a different species than its northern cousin, shorter, leafier and in varying shades of green and brown rather than the uniform gold. Other plant life was in evidence, as well, from towering ferns to various thorny shrubs, and even the occasional tree, most bent southward by years of steady wind. Even the geography was more varied; during the course of the day they had passed several streams and ponds, and here and there the prairie rolled upward into little hillocks (often with clumps of brush sheltered on their southern sides) or downward in shallow bowls.

According to Ingvar, there were also more animals about than in the Golden Sea. While the local tallgrass mostly grew no higher than mid-chest, it was apparently enough to camouflage these creatures; at any rate, Darling and Joe perceived no sign of them.

By midafternoon, they had made enough progress that Fersis was an invisible memory behind them, and the Green Belt loomed ahead, with beyond it a haze on the horizon that was the rolling mountain range of Viridill.

“Never thought I’d hear myself say this,” Darling sighed, “but I miss the Stalrange.”

“I never thought to hear you say that, either,” Invar remarked, glancing back at him with a faint smile. “You didn’t seem to fit in with the locals.”

“Oh, I thought the Rangers were very nice,” the thief said lightly. “But no, I meant the landscape. If we must traipse about on interminable nature hikes, that was a friendlier place to do it.”

“Seriously?” Joe asked. None of them were out of breath, even after walking most of the day with only a short break every hour. “That was much more vertical country. This is almost literally a walk in the park, next to the Stalrange. Almost reminds me of home.”

“Ah, but the cool mountain air,” Darling said, squinting up at the cloudless sky. “The scent of pines… The shade of pines. Whoof, I think I’ve had my yearly allotment of sunshine today.”

Ingvar had to grin at that. “And suddenly, your general pastiness makes a great deal more sense.”

“Hey, gimme a break,” Darling protested. “You live in Tiraas, you know what it’s like! In my hometown, the sky is frequently an upside-down swamp. This much sunshine can’t be healthy.”

“Hm…that’s actually a point, there,” Joe remarked, then plucked the wide-brimmed hat from his head and held it out toward Darling. “Here, put this on.”

“Oh, cut it out, it’s not that bad. I used the same sun oil you two did…”

“Uh huh,” said the Kid, unimpressed. “An’ what else do you notice? Ingvar’s got himself a proper tan, on account of this not bein’ his first nature hike by a long shot. And as for me…” He grinned, pointing at his face, which was a shade darker in complexion than either of theirs. “We may all three be of Stalweiss stock originally, but I wear the legacy of my Punaji grandmother an’ my ma’s grandpa from Onkawa. Ah, the joys of bein’ a mutt. You, blondie, are gonna fry like a hotcake before we ever reach the trees. Wear the hat.”

“Actually, dusk will fall before we arrive at the forest at this pace,” said Ingvar. “Keep your eyes peeled for serviceable campsites; while I do enjoy making good time, if a particularly promising one arises, we may wish to take advantage and rest for the remainder of the day. This close to an elven forest, there are likely to be well-used spots. Hidden, but not to the point of being secret. Watch the copses and hilltops.”

“Maybe we’ll run into some of the elves before then,” Darling suggested, now with Joe’s black hat perched incongruously atop his blonde locks, where it did not at all go with his outfit. Black theoretically matched everything, but the man seemed to have designed his suits to clash with everything.

“Elves have senses far keener than ours,” said Ingvar, “as you well know, and they will be in the habit of having scouts patrol their borders regularly. And that only concerns the mundane; their shamans will surely cast regular divinations to watch for intruders. If they even need to take such measures. For any very old practitioners of the Mother’s ways, especially elves, the land and the wind begin to speak as old friends. I would be amazed if they are not already aware of our presence.”

“I see a distinct lack of greeting parties, then,” Darling noted wryly.

“Don’t make assumptions about whether elves are around based on whether you see them,” Joe said with a grin. “Anyhow, even if we aren’t bein’ stalked by their scouts, it ain’t in their nature to roll out the welcome mat for uninvited guests. Elves like their privacy, an’ these folk ’round here are right on the edges of Imperial civilization. The elves near my hometown were fairly sociable by comparison, but I wouldn’t be surprised if these have a particularly bad taste in their mouths about clumsy humans bumblin’ around in their lands.”

“Indeed,” said Ingvar. “There are doubtless some still living who remember being slowly pushed out of what is now Calderaas by expanding human populations. Long ago, the Tira Valley and the lands west of the Wyrnrange were acknowledged human territory, while everything from the Green Belt north to the Dwarnskolds was the domain of the elves.”

“I didn’t realize you were a student of history, Ingvar,” Darling commented.

“Certain aspects of history. I think it would surprise you, what Huntsmen are called upon to know.”

“I’m willing to believe it would. Ah, well,” he said, removing Joe’s hat for a moment to fan himself with it. “Hopefully Mary came ahead to smooth the way. As I understand it, she’s not terribly well liked among the tribes, but is at least listened to. If we have to just bumble into a crowd of strange elves, I’m not certain even my sweet-talking skills are up to the task of getting access to…whatever it is we’re here to see.”

“I reckon she probably did,” Joe mused, “though I’ve noticed it ain’t sound policy to make assumptions about what Mary has or hasn’t done.”

“I would have assumed that even before meeting her,” said Ingvar.

“Gods aside,” Darling said thoughtfully after a moment of quiet walking, “this trip has already been a chance to stretch my wings, and not just because of all the exposure to the great outdoors. Dealing with people’s always been my strong suit, but…I’m just starting to realize what a narrow conception of people I’ve had. Living in the great melting pot of Tiraas, you don’t think of the people there as ‘narrow,’ and yet here I am, out of my element.”

“Were the people in Veilgrad so very different?” Ingvar asked.

“Veilgrad, no. The mountains outside Veilgrad are another matter. And…elves. Honestly, I have absolutely no idea how to proceed, here, which is an unusual feeling for me. There are some cultures where my kind of charm is nothing more than annoying.”

“I bet there are more a’ those’n you realize,” Joe muttered.

“You are at least somewhat acquainted with elves, are you not?” Ingvar inquired, glancing back at him. “After all, your apprentices are elves.”

“Plains elves,” said Darling. “No kin at all to the tribe we’re about to drop in on uninvited. And anyway, Flora and Fauna are in the process of learning how to be Eserite and Imperial; we don’t spend a lot of time discussing their home customs. Any time, really. In fact, now that I think about it, basically all the elves I know are pretty well assimilated and almost as Tiraan as anyone else, from the new Avenist Bishop to the drow of Lor’naris.” He grinned, stepping to the side as they walked to get a view around Joe of the forest ahead. “This will be…different. It’s been a good while since I had a chance to meet people who’re a complete mystery to me.”

“In fact, I vividly recall your last such chance,” Invar said dryly, looking back at him again. “Maybe you had better let me do the talking when we arrive.”

“How the tables have turned,” Darling muttered.

“So,” Joe drawled, “you find yourself out in the unknown, your skills and your very understanding of the world useless, and facing the very real chance that any action you take will be the wrong one. Bein’ unaccustomed to not knowin’ your footing, you feel even more helpless than you maybe actually are. Sound about right?”

“I think that might be overstating it just a little,” Darling protested.

“Y’know, a real smart fella once gave me a piece of good advice about just such a situation.”

Joe came to a stop, turning to face him and tucking his hands in his pockets, a sly little smile on his lips.

“Grow up.”

He held the startled Bishop’s gaze for a long moment, Ingvar also pausing to watch them curiously. Then Joe turned without a word to resume their trek.

They continued onward toward the grove, Darling still bringing up the rear, and for some reason laughing as if he’d just heard the best joke of his life.


Though it had been cleverly designed to maximize its use of space and seem expansive in its proportions, the small size of the Vidian temple beneath Last Rock was extremely evident with the entire Vidian population of the town present. They were less than thirty, but it really was a small temple; the room was almost uncomfortably warm with so many bodies present, and even their muted voices created a constant babble that seemed to fill the space, given how excited the undercurrent of conversation was.

Exactly two native townspeople had been practicing Vidians before this academic year, for a given value of “practicing.” Everyone else present had been drawn by the calling of Gabriel Arquin as paladin, and this was actually a lesser population than had been in the town only a few months before. Now, the remaining hangers-on had integrated themselves somewhat, either finding (usually intermittent) employment in Last Rock or subsisting on personal savings and creating custom for the local innkeepers.

In all that time, very few of them had managed to have a conversation with their paladin, who seemed to go out of his way to be reclusive. Val Tarvadegh, the temple’s official presiding priest and the only one who was actually supposed to be there, tended to monopolize the time Arquin spent on the premises. Since this was at the specific assignment of Lady Gwenfaer herself, no one quite dared complain; the faith’s mortal leader wasn’t known to be heavy-handed, but she was known to be sly even by Vidian standards, and one never knew what whispers might find their way to her ears. They did indulge in complaining about their inability to seek Arquin out on the University campus, since Professor Tellwyrn quite famously didn’t give a damn what anyone had to say about her.

Now, for the first time, the Hand of Vidius himself had called an assembly of every member of the faith in Last Rock. It was very short notice, but every one of them had dropped their other business and come running.

It wasn’t quite so crowded that people had to stand; the aisle was clear, as were the nooks between the columns that supported the sides of the temple. Marking a space between the temple grounds and the dirt outside them, these zones were considered sacred, as were all boundaries in the faith. The small dais at the back of the chapel was also clear, with only Val Tarvadegh and the other, newer priest, Lorelin Reich, standing calmly at its edge, awaiting the arrival of the guest of honor.

Most of the attention of those assembled was on the other guests. Three Tiraan soldiers stood at attention near the stairs leading up to the ground floor above—and not the three who lived on the campus and could often be seen about town. They were clustered to one side of the door, stiffly ignoring the assembled citizens. On the other side stood a woman with the black hair and tilted eyes of the Sifanese and related peoples, wearing the silver gryphon badge of an Imperial Marshal.

The anticipation was almost a physical presence. It hung so heavy over the little chapel that the sudden arrival of the paladin who had called the meeting brought an instant and total hush, unmarred even by expressions of shock at his abrupt appearance. No one had heard the upper door opening, but they of all people knew the tricks of misperception that ranking members of the faith could perform.

Arquin stood silently in the doorway for a few long moments, an intense young man with tousled dark hair, wearing a Punaji-style greatcoat of green corduroy in a shade so deep it was nearly black. At his waist hung a black-hilted saber of elven design; there was no sign of his god-given weapon on his person. He clutched his left wrist with his right hand, hard enough to rumple the fabric of his coat, and his expression was intent, but unreadable. In silence, he swept his dark eyes over the assembly, resting them for a moment on each of the two priests standing in the back.

“You all seem like nice people,” he said suddenly. “Thanks for coming, I know this was sudden. Sorry you haven’t seen much of me before today, but quite frankly I’m not at this University or on this earth to be gawked at, and most of you have no actual business here.”

There was a faint, awkward stir at that. The Marshal stood in silence to his left, her eyes perpetually scanning the room.

Arquin inhaled softly and let the breath out in a faint huff, then stepped forward a few paces till he was nearly abreast of the nearest row of benches.

“That’s now how you’re used to being spoken to in a temple of Vidius, is it? Yes, believe me, I know the customs. I’ve been studying them pretty, uh, intensively. False faces. A mask for every occasion.” His jaw tightened momentarily before he continued. “Everybody means well, more or less, but with doctrines like that… You pretty much can’t not have a thousand agendas for every hundred people, can you? Canniness and misdirection just make for a good Vidian, after all. I have to say, I’ve learned to greatly appreciate our doctrines of integrity. If not for that, the sense of truth to oneself and to the faith that’s emphasized so heavily to us, I figure the main difference between us and a bunch of Eserites would be their ability to get things done.”

There was another stir, this time with a few soft protests. They quickly fell silent as Arquin swept the room with his eyes again, now frowning in clear displeasure.

“I’ve been giving some thought,” he said, “to why Vidius would call a paladin from outside the faith. It’s been done before, of course. What was her name, that Hand of Avei? Val?”

By the dais in the back, Val Tarvadegh cleared his throat. “Laressa of Anteraas.”

“Yes, right! That’s the one, the Peacemaker. A few others. There was always a specific purpose for that when it happened. I know you’ve all been wondering what purpose Vidius had in pulling this…funny little trick on all of us. Well, I have too. And I recently was given some insight by the new priestess among us. Hey, Ms. Reich, would you join us up here?”

He beckoned with his left hand, at the same time drawing the black sword with his right. Lorelin Reich, having started to step forward immediately on being called, hesitated for a moment at this, her eyes flicking to the weapon, before continuing down the aisle toward him.

“I’m not sure I understand, Lord Gabriel,” she said in a rich contralto that was clearly accustomed to public speaking. “In fact, I haven’t yet had the pleasure of a conversation with you.”

“You could say I was inspired by your example,” said Arquin, staring at her with an intensity that bordered on ferocity. He flexed the fingers of his left hand almost convulsively before slipping it into the pocket of his coat.

“Well…in that case, consider me honored to have been of any service,” Reich said smoothly, gliding to a stop a few feet distant and bowing to him.

“Mm,” Arquin said noncommittally, eyes fixed on her face as if he were trying to memorize it. “You’re a good Vidian, aren’t you, Lorelin? Mind if I call you Lorelin?”

“Not at all, milord,” she said. “And I certainly try, though of course we all serve in our own way, according to our gifts. No one is a sufficient judge of their own—”

“Knock it off,” he said curtly, causing her to blink in startlement and several of the onlookers to gasp. “That is what I mean, Lorelin. There you are with a ready handful of doublespeak for anything I say. A mask for every occasion, right? Just like a good Vidian.”

She hesitated, staring at him, before replying. “Well… I am not sure what to reply to that, milord. Have I done something to offend you?”

“Oh, we’ll get to that in a moment,” he said coldly. “Everyone, I have come to a conclusion with regard to my calling. The faith of Vidius does not need a moral example, like a Hand of Omnu. You don’t need a battle leader, like the Hand of Avei. You know your business just fine. Unfortunately, your business encourages you to be more clever than is necessarily good for you. By and large, maybe that’s fine… But these aren’t by and large times. In case you haven’t noticed, the world is… Well, it’s changing, and I’m not just talking about social, political, economic issues. You all know about that. There’s something big happening. A great doom is coming. You need to be preparing for that. Preparing to help Vidius meet whatever threat comes. What you need is a taskmaster. Someone to keep you all on point.”

He withdrew his hand from his pocket; in it was the gnarled black wand given to him by their god. Quite a few pairs of eyes fixed on the weapon.

Lorelin Reich smiled and dipped her head in a semi-bow. “How can we be of service—”

“Shut your clever mouth,” Gabriel snarled.

The silence was immediate, total, and stunned.

“Among the things I cannot have you people doing,” the paladin continued, his face clenching in an expression of near fury, “is placing your own political agendas above not only the needs of the faith, but the safety and welfare of those around you. Like, for example, by deliberately casting a shroud of passions over an entire town, to make them susceptible to manipulation.”

“What?” someone exclaimed in a quavering voice from near the back.

“What are you talking about?” Lorelin demanded, staring at him in an expression of alarm. “Who would do such a thing?”

She tried to jerk back at the sudden motion of his left arm, but not fast enough. The wand morphed in his hand, extending instantly into a roughly-shaped black scythe, its curved blade apparently marred by rust, but its cutting edge gleaming wickedly. Gabriel whipped it around to hook the blade behind Lorelin Reich’s head, cutting off her retreat. She froze as the edge of the weapon came to rest against the back of her neck.

“It’s time to remove the mask, Lorelin,” Gabriel said in a voice like ice.

Behind him, the Marshal cleared her throat and stepped forward.

“Lorelin Reich, you are under arrest in the name of the Emperor for two hundred forty-six counts of unlawful magical influence.”

“You had better have a great deal more than this boy’s say-so,” Reich said furiously, her clenched fists quivering at her side. “Paladin or no, that is nothing but—”

Screams rang out and a mad scramble ensued as everyone tried to scoot or step away from the edges of the room. In every alcove along the walls, and all over the dais in the back, suddenly stood wavery figures, indistinct as if viewed through water. They were clear enough, though, to be clearly women garbed in dark armor, with black wings folded behind them, each carrying a scythe.

“Lesson number one,” said Arquin flatly. “Never assume the Hand of Vidius does not know your secrets. My eyes can look beneath any mask.”

“That’s…you can’t…” Reich swallowed convulsively. “A valkyrie’s testimony is not admissible in a court of law!”

“Oh, you just made that up,” the Marshal said lazily. “There’s no precedent for it, sure, but…”

“In order for a valkyrie to testify,” said Arquin, “the trial would have to be held on Vidian holy ground. There is a precedent for that; I checked.” He began slowly lowering his arm, pulling the blade of the scythe forward and forcing Reich to step closer to him or risk learning exactly how sharp it was. She opted not to test it, taking grudging little steps toward him. “They can, as you see here, appear where the land is consecrated to their god. For them to actually speak, an additional blessing would be required. And hey, guess what I just learned how to do!”

He suddenly raised his sword, pressing its tip against Reich’s sternum; she gulped audibly, her eyes cutting down to it. Arquin continued to slowly pull forward with the scythe, forcing her to bend forward in a bowing position and hold it.

“But let’s not make me go to all that trouble, shall we, Lorelin? Tell you what… You be a good girl and cooperate with the nice Marshal, and the good folks in Imperial Intelligence who’ll want to ask you some questions. Then they’ll be inclined to be nicer to you…” His voice hardened still further. “And I will refrain from telling my good friend Juniper how your scheme involved hurting her pet bunny.”

“I did nothing of the kind!” Reich said shrilly, her whole body swaying and trembling in place as she fought to keep her balance in the awkward position.

“I can see how the sudden change of topic might have confused you,” Gabriel growled. “A dryad isn’t an Imperial magistrate. I don’t have to prove to Juniper beyond a reasonable doubt that you molested her pet; I just have to tell her you did.”

A golden shield flashed into place around Reich’s bent form. It had absolutely no effect on the scythe behind her; a sparkling haze lit up around the black saber, previously invisible blue runes flaring to life along its blade. Neither weapon wavered.

“That is not helping your case, Lorelin,” Arquin said with a very cold smile. “Cut it out. Now.”

She held the shield for a moment before letting it drop, emitting a strangled sob. Terrified silence hung over the chapel now, all those assembled staring either at the furious paladin or the looming reapers.

“Now then,” Arquin said in a tight voice, “you’re going to be cooperative, correct? And don’t worry, I’ll have valkyries continue to watch you and make sure the Empire doesn’t handle you too roughly. You’re still a member of the faith, after all. At least until Lady Gwenfaer decides that selling us out to the Archpope’s political agenda and publicly embarrassing the entire cult is worth excommunication. You understand?”

“Yes,” she choked, teetering desperately between the two blades.

“Splendid,” he said curtly, suddenly whipping the sword away and giving her a gentle nudge with the haft of the scythe. Reich collapsed to the side, where she curled up around herself on the floor, crying quietly.

“As for the rest of you,” Arquin said frostily, lifting his eyes to drag a fierce stare around the room. “Find something more constructive to do with yourselves. Unless you have a legitimate reason to be in Last Rock—which means an employer and a landlord who’ll vouch for you—I want you out of town by sunset tomorrow. This is not a vacation spot, and I am not a tour guide. A great doom is coming, and your god needs you. Get to work.”

He turned abruptly to go, then paused, and glanced back over his shoulder at them.

“And do not make me come tell you again. So help me, I will whip this cult into shape to face what’s coming. You don’t want to be the one I have to start on. The Hand of Death doesn’t bother with masks.”

Finally, he strode forward onto the staircase, quickly vanishing into the shadows above. The Marshal made a quick motion, spurring the soldiers forward to collect Reich, then turned to follow him.

At last, the valkyries faded back into invisibility.

Standing by the dais in the back of the chapel, Val Tarvadegh stared wide-eyed after his departed paladin, his hands clutched together before him as if in prayer.


They stood a few yards distant, near the point where one of Last Rock’s streets opened onto the Golden Sea and the nearby Vidian temple, watching the soldiers usher a very subdued Lorelin Reich into a waiting carriage with barred windows. Another uniformed officer sat in the driver’s seat.

Gabriel waited until Reich was secured within before letting out a low hiss. He jerked his left sleeve back, revealing a braided cord wrapped around his wrist, which he quickly but clumsily clawed off and stuffed into his coat pocket, muttering furiously to himself the whole time. With the bracelet stowed away, he stood there grimacing and alternately rubbing his wrist where it had been and dry-washing the fingers of his right hand against his coat.

Marshal Avelea watched this performance with raised eyebrows, but apparently decided to let it pass without comment.

“Having a valkyrie monitor our proceedings isn’t necessary, just for the record. We don’t abuse potentially useful prisoners anyway.”

“That was for her benefit, not yours,” Gabriel said, still wincing and rubbing his wrist. “You’re probably aware that Vidian clerics have…certain skills. Misdirection, stealth… I’m sure Imperial Intelligence has the ability to counter that, but I thought it’d be less trouble for everybody if she knew not to try it.”

“Ah.” The Marshal nodded, smiling faintly. “Well. If I may say so, that shows both your lack of experience and your good instincts. Lorelin Reich is a political creature; as of now, her focus will be on damage control, and trying to salvage as much of her life from this as possible. I expect her to be eagerly cooperative once she’s had the chance to regain her poise; she’ll fall over herself to sell out the Archpope in exchange for leniency. The last thing she’ll want to do is become a fugitive from Imperial justice.”

“Oh,” he said grimacing. “I guess…yeah.”

“I must say,” she continued, “you handled that…surprisingly well. Given what I was briefed on your history, I expected you to be rather more nervous, giving a speech like that.”

“Yeah, well.” Gabe shrugged and rubbed his wrist again. “I asked Professor Rafe for something to help keep me calm and focused.”

“I see,” she said, her lips thinning faintly in disapproval. “Well, whatever works. As a matter of general policy, though, I would not get in the habit of depending on drugs to help you function.”

“Yeah, that’s what Rafe said. Anyway, it wasn’t drugs so much as a hemp bracelet impregnated with a special formulation of katzil venom that caused constant pain but no damage. Apparently the outward symptoms of pain look almost exactly like those of righteous outrage. I wasn’t so sure, but damn if it didn’t work.” He drew in a deep breath and let it out in one blast, glancing back at the door to the subterranean temple. “Good thing, too. I may still need to go home and throw up…”

“Ah.” Avelea nodded, a smile spreading slowly over her features. “Well. That’s another matter, but…similar. Best to develop the ability to handle such situations unaided.”

“Right, agreed. But that’s an ability I haven’t developed before now, and I’ll practice on my own time, with lower stakes. When things matter, I’m gonna use every trick I have available.”

“Also a wise policy. You mind if I have a look at that? I’ve actually never heard about such a formula.”

“Oh, uh… I guess I should specify it causes pain but no harm to me. You’d be better off keeping your non-hethelax hands to yourself. Sorry.”

“Right. Quite so.” She nodded again, her smile widening. “Well, Mr. Arquin… Much to my surprise, I find it has been a pleasure to work with you. Next time you’re in Tiraas, do look me up; my office will know where I am.”

“I, uh, appreciate that,” he said carefully. “But with the greatest possible respect, and please don’t take this the wrong way, but… Honestly I would prefer not to be dealing with Intelligence any more than I absolutely have to.”

Avelea’s smile extended still further. “I didn’t say Intelligence. I said look me up.” She held his startled gaze for a long moment, then deliberately winked, before turning away to stroll to the carriage. “Take care, Gabriel.”

The Marshal climbed up onto the driver’s seat beside the soldier, and the other troopers took up positions on small platforms at the corners of the vehicle. The carriage purred to life, and rolled off toward the Rail platform, where a special carrier car was standing by for it.

Gabriel stood alone on the plain, smiling vaguely and still absentmindedly rubbing at his wrist.

“Hopefully I don’t need to remind you,” said Ariel, “that that woman is a professional spy, who is cultivating a relationship with you for tactical advantage and not out of personal interest.”

He sighed heavily, his pleased expression vanishing. “Can you just for once let me enjoy something?”

“Fine. You may enjoy it for two minutes, and then we need to resume dealing with reality.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, turning to head back up the mountain. “I have a feeling I just kicked a whole hornet’s nest of reality…”

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10 – 27

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“What are you doing?” Scorn demanded suspiciously, drawing back her lips to bare fangs and scowling at Rook.

He skittered back a step, eyes widening. “I—oh, uh, I was just… I mean, it’s not like they trained us for honor guard duty, I was just trying to be polite…”

“Armed man sneaking up on my behind is being not polite,” the demon snapped.

“Scorn.” Ravana’s voice was gentle and soft, but nonetheless stilled the growing confrontation. “He’s correct, that was a polite gesture. It’s a custom, here, for a man to hold a lady’s chair for her as she sits.”

“…oh.” Scorn rolled her shoulders once, then nodded curtly at Rook. “Thank you, then, for custom.”

“You’re welcome,” he replied, still edging backward.

Ravana cleared her throat very softly, catching Scorn’s gaze and raising one eyebrow.

The demon drew in a deep breath, swelling menacingly, then let it out in a sigh. “I am sorry for snapping at you. I misunderstood.”

“No offense taken at all!” he said with forced cheer, retreating all the way to the wall. “Enjoy your dinner.”

“Wow,” Teal murmured. Shaeine gave her a sidelong little smile; Maureen grinned and winked.

“Is a good custom anyway,” Scorn added, seating herself. “Man showing respect to a woman. We do not have that at my home. Maybe I start it when I go back.”

“It’s actually a complicated question whether chivalrous gestures like that are respectful or just sexist,” Teal mused. “Or both.”

“Such cultural practices are often difficult to parse in such simple terms,” said Shaeine. “We have many such customs in Tar’naris, and while we largely eschew discriminatory practices that cause unnecessary strife, I must acknowledge that many of them are quite openly sexist.”

“Well, not everything discriminatory is overtly disruptive, necessarily,” Sekandar remarked.

“Indeed,” the drow replied, nodding to him. “In fact, I have had several very interesting conversations with Trissiny about this very subject.”

“If by ‘interesting’ ye mean ‘long,’ I don’t doubt it,” Maureen said cheerfully.

Sekandar hid a smile behind a discreet little cough. “By the way, where is Trissiny? I thought you were going to invite her, Ravana.”

“I did indeed,” the Duchess said serenely. “Invitations were extended to, among others, all three paladins and Princess Zaruda. Unfortunately, that forms a roster entirely of people who have no interest in dinner parties. In frankness, while I would have welcomed anyone who chose to attend, I mostly made the offer so that no one would feel excluded.”

“Ah,” the prince replied, keeping his expression even. Iris sighed softly, glancing down at her hands in her lap.

“I’m afraid the rest of the sophomore class begged off, citing prior commitments,” Ravana said calmly. “But no matter! We are here, and have the place to ourselves. It promises to be an enjoyable evening.”

The place in question was one of the closest things Last Rock had to a back alley: the space between the rear of the Ale & Wenches and the warehouse behind it, which was town property communally used by local businesses for storage. Ravana had somehow arranged for it to be not only scrupulously cleaned, but decorated with tasteful paper lanterns and bunches of hanging flowers. Their table and chairs were of the folding variety, but the tablecloth was a rich brocade. And the food was better than anything served in the A&W. They could hear (and smell) the town clearly, and had a clear view of more back buildings in one direction and the prairie in the other, but a little care had somehow transformed this spot into a peculiar kind of outdoor dining room.

“So,” Scorn said carefully, peering around, “this is a…formal occasion?”

“Oh, not particularly,” Ravana said airily, reaching for the basket of rolls. “I use the term ‘dinner party’ somewhat euphemistically. Really, more of a picnic.”

“Okay, good,” Scorn said, nodding. “I am… There are customs, yes? I don’t know them.”

“Precisely,” Ravana agreed, smiling and glancing over at Teal. “Consider it an opportunity for us to get to know one another better, without the pressure of expectations. And you can get some practice toward dining customs without any stakes.”

“I am not being laughed at,” Scorn said, dragging a scowl around the table.

“Most certainly not,” Sekandar agreed gallantly. “I’m sure no one here would dream of it.”

“Anyone who does will be asked to leave,” Ravana stated. “Which is why I was careful to invite only people who I trust not to do any such thing.”

“And notably,” Iris added, smugly pouring herself a glass of wine, “our other roommate is absent.”

“I begin to wonder if your fixation on Addiwyn isn’t making things in our room worse, with all respect,” said Szith. “I know her flaws as well as you, but she has been notably quiet since the first week of classes.”

“Well, of course,” Iris said acidly. “Since her behavior in the first week was utterly psychotic, that isn’t setting much of a bar, now is it.”

“She did save yer life in the Golden Sea trek,” Maureen pointed out.

“I’m sure that was just reflex,” Iris muttered.

“Granted, I wasn’t as close at the time,” said Sekandar, “but I never met anyone whose reflexes include grabbing a manticore by the tail to prevent it from stinging someone.”

“This roommate,” said Scorn. “I think I have met her. She is the rude elf?”

“That sums her up perfectly,” Iris agreed.

“Hm.” The demon nodded. “Why do you let her to act this way? Best to have things out, openly. If she is being mysterious and nasty, force a confrontation. Then you get the truth!”

A short silence fell.

“I quite agree,” Ravana said after a moment. “In fact, I said so at the time.”

“Aye,” Maureen added wryly. “An’ we tried that. Didn’t go so well.”

“Sometimes forcing a confrontation is the last thing you should do,” Teal said gently. “Um…on another note…are we really just gonna make the guys stand around while we eat?”

“We are on duty,” Moriarty said crisply from the other end of the alley. “Per the statutes governing use of Imperial soldiers by the Houses, our current arrangement with the Duchess constitutes a binding—”

“What he means,” Rook interrupted with a grin, “is that if her Grace wants to pay us to stand around, then stand we shall. You kids have fun, don’t worry about us. Frankly, I feel like we’re gettin’ away with something as it is. Not likely you’re in any danger in this town.”

“Why did you feel the need to hire them on as security, if you don’t mind my asking?” Shaeine inquired.

“I am not concerned for my physical safety, considering the company,” said Ravana, calmly buttering a roll. “Given the tensions in Last Rock, of late, I thought an official Imperial presence might keep things…calm.”

“Well, that’s a good thought, but maybe going a little overboard,” Iris remarked. “Nothing ever happens in this town.”

Teal and Shaeine exchanged a look, but said nothing. At the other end of the alley, Finchley turned to glance at his compatriots.

Rook leaned over and nudged Moriarty with an elbow. “Permission to mention the hellgate?”

“Oh, shut up,” Moriarty muttered.


“No trouble at all,” Tarvadegh assured him, “It’s not like there are any temple ceremonies at this hour, and I tend to stay up late reading, anyway. My time is yours. What’s on your mind, Gabe? Made a breakthrough on that shadow-casting?”

“Actually, this isn’t about training,” Gabriel said slowly, pacing down the center aisle of the underground Vidian sanctuary and finally sinking down onto a bench. “I… Well, I sort of wanted to talk. Are you available in your, y’know, priest-like capacity?”

“Absolutely,” Tarvadegh replied, sitting beside him. “Is this…something you can’t discuss with your friends?”

Gabriel sighed heavily and slumped forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. “Well…it’s about them, is the thing. Sort of.”

“Okay.” Tarvadegh just nodded, then waited silently for him to continue.

“What if…you knew something?” Gabriel said finally. “Something important…maybe even urgent. Something that affects the people closest to you, and…something you weren’t sure you could tell them?”

“Well, there are a lot of ‘somethings’ in that hypothetical,” the priest replied. “A whole lot depends on the situation. Gabe you don’t have to tell me any details that may be sensitive, rest assured. I’m here to help if I can, though.”

“The thing is…we’ve always been a group, y’know?” Gabriel sighed and absently drew Ariel, turning the sword over and over in his hands. “Maybe not at first, we had to learn to work together… But as things are, we’re a unit. My first instinct is always to trust the group, to bring them stuff like this so we can plan, but… I dunno, I have this feeling that it would be a bad idea in this case. The specific problem in question, I’m afraid, might provoke a, uh, fearful, ignorant reaction.”

“How so?” Tarvadegh asked mildly.

Gabriel glanced over at him. “…this is confidential, right?”

“Absolutely,” the priest said immediately. “Assume that Vidius hears anything you have to say here, but confession is sacred in all faiths I know of. I wouldn’t reveal your thoughts even to Lady Gwenfaer.”

“Well, there’s some heavy stuff going on,” Gabriel said, watching the light flicker dimly across Ariel’s blade. “The…Black Wreath is sniffing around us. Rather aggressively. And yeah, that sounds like exactly the kind of thing I should warn somebody about, right? Except… Based on what I know, I really think it’s smartest to take a step back and let them, for now. And…that would be a really, really hard sell. Even Toby probably wouldn’t go for that; Trissiny would absolutely lose her mind. Teal and Vadrieny have their own issues with the Wreath, and after what happened in Veilgrad, we’ve all got cause to be nervous about them. But I’m also thinking about Veilgrad, and the Wreath, who they are and what they want. And in this case…they are specifically not trying to hurt us. They seem to be trying to provoke a reaction.”

“That sounds like a rather hostile action in and of itself,” Tarvadegh observed.

Gabriel nodded. “But I’ve got indication their motive may actually be helpful… And there are other things. Professor Ekoi is circling them like a hawk, which I’m pretty sure means Professor Tellwyrn knows about this, too. And neither of them has done anything. What I think… I think the right thing to do would be to quietly watch and see what they do. And I think my friends will insist on going on the attack. And…I think that would be a disaster.”

“Can I ask a few questions?” Tarvadegh asked mildly.

“Sure, of course.”

“I suspect I know this already, but what source of information do you have that your classmates don’t?”

Gabriel grimaced. “Yeah, well…that’s another thing. I think certain issues may come up about the fact that I’m having valkyries spy on people. Do you… This isn’t some kind of abuse of my position, is it, Val?”

“I doubt you have to worry about that,” the cleric assured him, placing a hand on his shoulder. “You can’t really make the reapers do anything—if they choose to help you, take it as a sign of their favor. And additionally, anything you do involving them is all but guaranteed to have the god’s attention, so be assured he would let you know if he disapproved.”

“Okay, good.” Gabriel sighed, nodding. “That’s actually quite a relief.”

“Whether it’s an abuse of anyone’s trust is another matter,” Tarvadegh continued. “A paladin’s role is a martial one more often than not, and there are circumstances in which gathering intelligence is necessary and appropriate. Especially against the Black Wreath.”

“And…” Gabriel paused to swallow. “…what about certain new priestesses of Vidius and Avei who may have moved to the town recently?”

For a long moment, Tarvadegh stared at him in silence. Finally, he leaned back, his expression growing thoughtful.

“I’ve not been in a hurry to introduce you to some of the more complex inner workings of the cult,” he said at last. “Since our earliest practice sessions, it’s seemed to me that you do better being yourself first and a Vidian second. There must be a reason Vidius called our first paladin from outside the faith. But as a general rule, Gabriel… This kind of thing is not at all unusual within our ranks. The doctrine of masks and false faces makes trust a thing that we perceive differently than most others. We don’t value it less—if anything, we value it more. But within the cult, there is an expectation that no one is going to tell you the full truth about themselves, their ambitions, or their activities. If you’re spying on a priestess of Vidius, for whatever reason… Well. Without saying anything personal about the woman in question, just by virtue of her position, she’s probably done as much to others.”

“Have you?” Gabriel asked, frowning slightly.

Tarvadegh gave him a grin. “Yes, of course. Though for future reference, that’s a question you’ll probably want to avoid asking people outright.”

“Yeah, that occurred to me as soon as I said it,” Gabriel agreed, wincing.

“And as I said, if you’re using valkyries to do this, you would be told if Vidius disapproved of your activities. If anything, I’m encouraged to see you taking some initiative with intelligence-gathering. Now, spying on a priestess of Avei is another matter. To my knowledge, the Avenists have no craft that could detect a valkyrie’s presence, but for future reference, absolutely do not try that on a Salyrite.”

“Noted.”

“And be wary of the likely repercussions if you are discovered. The only cults that actively spy on the Sisterhood are the Black Wreath and the Thieves’ Guild. You have probably heard from Trissiny what they think about that.”

“Yep,” he said ruefully.

“But back to your original question,” Tarvadegh said in a more serious tone, again squeezing his shoulder. “First, let me say that I’m very glad to see you thinking carefully before acting. Honestly, Gabriel, in general I’ve observed that you thinking of yourself as thoughtless is more of a fault of yours than actually being thoughtless, though thoughtlessness is still a real issue you have. I, uh, sort of lost control of that sentence. Need me to re-phrase?”

“No, I think I got it,” Gabriel said, grinning. “And you’re pretty much not wrong.”

“Okay, good,” Tarvadegh replied with a smile. “So yes, I’m glad you’re thinking about this first. However, the main reaction I take from it is that you don’t seem to respect your friends very much.”

Gabriel straightened up, his eyes widening, and stared at Tarvadegh in mute dismay.

“Think about it,” the priest went on gently. “These are some of the most dangerous people in the world—and, as you have seen firsthand, some of the most effective. Sure, they have their foibles. Just from your own descriptions, I know of several, and yes, I can see how the information you’re withholding could generate some rather strident reactions from several of them. But ultimately, none of them are stupid, and you aren’t without flaws. Gabriel, when you decide to determine who knows what, you’re effectively trying to control what people do. And that means you’ve placed yourself at the head of the group—a group which you’re now trying not even to lead, but to manipulate.”

“But…but…” Gabriel clenched his jaw, swallowed heavily, then lowered his eyes.

“And,” Tarvadegh said kindly, “I know that isn’t what you intend. Honestly, as a Vidian paladin…well, you’re unprecedented, but if someone had told me ten years ago there would be a Vidian paladin, I’d have pictured someone doing exactly that. The problem here, as I see it, is that your actions are in conflict with your ethics and your desires. I think you’ve stumbled into this box accidentally, not out of a desire to control the situation. That, in my opinion, is the root of your problem.”

“Yeah,” Gabriel said quietly. “That’s…wow. Holy crap, I’m an asshole.”

“As we were just saying,” Tarvadegh said wryly, “you’re a little thoughtless. People make mistakes. Whether or not you’re an asshole is a function of what you do next.”

“Right. You’re right.” He drew in a deep breath and let it out explosively. “Yeah, I have to tell them everything. I should’ve just done that from the beginning…crap, this is gonna be a difficult conversation.”

“The important ones usually are.”

“Thanks, Val. This…was exactly what I needed to hear.”

“Well, that’s why they pay me the big bucks,” Tarvadegh said with a grin. “That’s a joke. They don’t actually—”

He broke off and both of them looked at the ceiling as the sound of hoofbeats thundered by overhead.

“What the…” Gabriel frowned. “It’s after dark, who’d be…” He trailed off, glancing to the side at the invisible figure which had just dived in from above. “Oh, shit. Trissiny.”


“Bishop Syrinx, may I have a word with you?”

Basra glanced over at Ildren, who had just emerged from the rear door of their borrowed townhouse, but did not pause in stretching. Against the far wall of the rear courtyard, Jenell also glanced up, then immediately resumed packing away their practice swords and surreptitiously rubbing the several bruises she’d just acquired.

The house, though its décor was purely Viridill, was built in the Tiraan style, which meant a short public garden in the front, by the street, and a walled courtyard behind. Since this particular house sat on a corner, bordered by streets on two sides, it was less private than some—they could hear the traffic outside from the courtyard, and there was no telling what anyone had thought of the sounds of two women going at each other with wooden swords for the last hour.

“Certainly,” Basra said after leaving her to stew for a calculated moment. “I’m about to head inside, though; make it quick, if you please.”

Ildrin glanced over at Jenell. “In private, please?”

“I’m willing to indulge you, but not the point of going out of my way,” Basra said brusquely. “And Covrin is my assistant; she’s likely to end up hearing anything you have to say, anyway. I have a habit of venting to her about the various time-wasters I’ve had to deal with in the course of a day.”

Ildrin clenched her jaw for a moment. “…fine. What is your problem with me? I hardly know you, but I came here to offer my assistance when asked, and you have been nothing but dismissive and hostile.”

“Very well, you want the simple truth?” Despite her claim to be on the way inside, Basra turned and strolled over to a stone bench set against the courtyard’s far wall, seating herself. “Working where I do, in the Universal Church, dealing largely with the results of Archpope Justinian’s various…agendas…I have incidentally become acquainted with a number of individuals whom he considers useful and trustworthy. Yours is a name that has repeatedly come to my attention, both in the Church itself and from sources within the Sisterhood. You have a well-established reputation, Sister Falaridjad, as someone interested in Justinian’s cause as much as Avei’s. If not more so.”

“That is a false dichotomy and you know it!” Ildrin exclaimed. “I have never been anything but loyal to Avei and the Sisterhood. But yes, I see a great deal of sense and virtue in the messages that the Archpope has put forth during his tenure, and I’d like to think that’s reflected in my actions. So why is this a problem?” She took a step forward, pointing an accusing finger at Basra. “You have the same reputation, and far more than I! I’d say anyone in the Sisterhood or the Legions would contend you’re as much Justinian’s creature as Rouvad’s. I’ve heard more than a few rumors that’s the reason you’re now out here. What, exactly, is your problem with me?”

“I have no problem with you,” Basra said in perfect calm. “I barely know you, nor have any particular interest in you. My problem is with a Universal Church element meddling in this matter. From the Sisterhood’s perspective, intervention by the Church is not appropriate unless called for. From mine…” Her voice and expression abruptly hardened considerably. “If Justinian or you have any thoughts of ‘helping’ me make a name for myself out here to restore Commander Rouvad’s high opinion of me, any attempt to do so would horribly backfire. And then I will be angry.”

“Your Grace,” Jenell said, staring at a spot in the far corner of the courtyard, where dust had begun to swirl upward in a slow spiral that had nothing to do with the very faint movements of air that drifted over the walls.

“Furthermore,” Basra barreled on, making a silencing gesture at Jenell, “Justinian, at least, is wise enough to know that any attempt by him to intervene would only worsen matters. Which means you’re either here on your own initiative, or far more likely, this is Branwen’s idea. Allow me to let you in on a secret, in case you haven’t noticed: Branwen is an idiot. Letting her graduate beyond serving Izara flat on her back has been a sad waste of the only use she has.”

Ildrin narrowed her eyes. “Whatever issues the two of you have, she has the same reputation among Church-related circles. She’s trusted, and loyal to his Holiness. So, yes, when she approached me about this, I was glad to offer my services.”

Basra snorted. “I’ll consider my point made.”

“Ma’am?” Jenell said in alarm, having put down the practice swords and picked up her metal one. The dust column had silently swelled to a height greater than a person, and was coalescing slowly into a humanoid figure.

“Fine, whatever!” Ildrin exclaimed. “You can still control the situation—it’s not like I’m going to run around trying to slay elementals behind your back! Just give the orders and I’ll follow them; that was the job I signed on for. There is no reason for you to be so hostile! I came here in good faith. Does it matter to you at all how this affects me?”

Basra stared blankly at her. Jenell started to speak again, but the Bishop made a swatting gesture in her direction. “Of course. Sure, of course your perspective matters. But not at the expense of the mission. I’ve told you already, Falaridjad, just be ready; when trouble arises, you’ll get your chance to prove yourself.”

“And in the meantime,” the priestess said bitterly, “I’m to continue being treated like a—”

“Basra!” Jenell barked.

Basra snapped her head sideways to glare at her, and in the next moment was on her feet, falling into a ready stance. Jenell threw her sheathed sword, which she deftly caught and drew, tossing the scabbard down onto the bench.

Despite being formed from dust, the massive figure’s slow movements made a soft grinding of stone against stone, and indeed it looked, now, like it was assembled from irregular chunks of rock. Towering over eight feet tall and proportioned in a way that would have been imposing even had it not been made of boulders, the elemental dwarfed both them and the courtyard itself. As Jenell backed up toward Basra, it turned to face the three women. The lower of the slabs of rock that formed its head shifted, opening up an obvious mouth, and a deep rumble sounded from within.

“Well, Falaridjad, now’s your chance,” Basra said quietly. “Don’t make any moves to agitate it, but on my signal, I want you to draw as much divine energy as you can. Weakening it is the only chance we have against that thing.”

“Will that be enough?” Jenell asked, her voice trembling.

“We are about to find out,” Basra said, apparently in total calm. “Try to circle around, slowly, toward the door. If this doesn’t work, we’ll have to run, and it can’t fit…”

She trailed off as the door to the house opened and Ami came strolling out, strumming a soft tune on her guitar and looking perfectly unconcerned. She ambled out into the courtyard, beginning to sing a lilting tune in elvish.

The rock elemental had been shifting toward the three women, its posture clearly aggressive, but suddenly it went quiet, turning to focus on the bard. Another rumble sounded from within, but this time a very soft one; it took one ponderous step toward her, then sank slowly down onto its knees, peering down at her.

Ami smiled calmly up at it, continuing to play, but the words of her song changed.

“Oh, don’t stop planning on my account,

You were really going strong!

Get an idea and please spit it out—

I can’t keep this up for long.”

“Okay…same plan applies,” Basra said. “Move toward the door, slowly so as not to agitate it. Talaari can back inside last, and it’ll be trapped out there.”

“I’m pretty sure that thing can beat down the wall and get out into the city,” Ildrin said tersely.

“And we’ll deal with that,” Basra replied. “but first we have to survive, and that means not being trapped in a box with it.”

The back door abruptly banged open again and Schwartz came skittering out, Meesie clinging to his hair. “Your Grace! Bishop Syrinx! My wards have picked up a major elemental ohhhhh, shit.”

He slid to a halt, frozen and staring up at the elemental, which had turned its head to peer at him, beginning to straighten up.

Ami’s fingers danced nimbly across her strings, and her voice glided upward into a deft arpeggio that seemed almost to fill the courtyard with light. The elemental turned back to face her, seeming to relax again, and shuffled forward a couple of grinding steps, bending closer.

“Ah, good, our specialist,” Basra said sharply. “Schwartz, do something about this.”

“Right,” Schwartz said weakly, staring up at the elemental, then physically shook himself. “Right! I can…yes, I think I can banish it. How did that thing get in here?”

“It didn’t start like that,” Jenell said. “It formed from dust.”

“Dust to stone! That’s amazing! Whoever summoned this must be—ah, yes, right, on topic. Yes, I can still banish it, provided it’s in a weakened state. Ladies, when I give the word, I’ll need you to channel as much raw divine energy at it as possible—but not until I’m prepared! That will make it very angry.”

“Covrin, go get Branwen out here,” Basra said curtly. Jenell darted through the door into the kitchen without another word.

Schwartz, meanwhile, knelt on the ground and pulled several small pouches and vials from within his sleeves, while Meesie scampered down his arm to cling to his hand. “Ami, can you keep it in that position, please? I’ll just need a couple of minutes.”

Ami didn’t even glance at him, nor allow her relaxed posture and kind smile to waver, but switched again to a stanza in Tanglish.

“I hardly have it on a leash!

Be quick about it, Schwartz.

Fine control’s outside my reach.

Nothing rhymes with Schwartz.”

“Warts?” Ildrin suggested; Basra made a slashing motion at her.

Schwartz, meanwhile, had picked Meesie up and bodily dipped her in a bag of powder, held her up to whisper into her twitching ear, then set her back down. The fire-mouse immediately dashed toward the towering elemental, leaving behind a trail of sparkling powder on the ground. Upon reaching it, she began running around it, first in a simple circle, then in more complicated patterns. Gradually, a full spell circle began to form around the elemental’s feet, positioned so that it was entirely inside it, and Ami was just barely within its outer edge.

“Don’t!” Basra said urgently when Ami took a half-step back. “It’s fixated on you, Talaari; it’ll follow you. Retreat when we’re ready to move.”

The bard made no response, continuing to play, sing, and gaze placidly up at the rock elemental.

It made another soft rumble, then reached over with one huge, clumsy hand to grab a small rose bush from nearby. This it ripped right out of the ground, and set down next to Ami.

Meesie’s powder was not running out, fortunately, but it took the tiny elemental time to weave in and out, forming the circle. Schwartz kept his eyes focused on her, expression intent; Ami played on, and Basra stood with her sword at the ready, a half-step in front of Ildrin, whose eyes darted nervously about.

Jenell ran back out the kitchen door, trailed a half-moment later by Branwen, who stared at the scene intently but without apparent alarm.

“Schwartz?” Basra said quietly.

“Almost,” he murmured, beckoning. Meesie dashed back to him, and he gave her a small handful of nuts, which she stuffed into her mouth, making her cheeks bulge comically. “Just another moment…”

Meesie ran back to the spell circle, and made a quick but halting trip around it, pausing every few feet to retrieve an acorn from within her mouth with her nimble front paws and place it in a specific spot on the circle. The whole time, Ami kept up her singing.

The effect was clearly beginning to waver, however. The elemental made another rumbling sound, shifting as if in a shrug. It began clambering back upright.

“Schwartz,” Basra said urgently. For the first time, Ami glanced aside at him, betraying nervousness.

“Done!” he said, as Meesie dashed back toward him. “Swamp it with light and I’ll do the rest!”

“On my signal,” Basra said rapidly, “you two join me at the edge of that circle, and you get out of there, Talaari. Three…two…now!”

She rushed forward, her aura flaring alight, with Branwen and Ildrin flanking her. Ami skittered backward, keeping up her strumming for good measure, but between that and the sudden wash of divine energy, the elemental’s calm was effectively shattered. It threw up one arm to shield its head from the glow, letting out a low, awful roar of displeasure.

Shifting its body around, it drew back its other arm, clearly preparing a devastating punch at Basra, Branwen and Ildrin.

“Herschel!” Jenell cried.

“Got it!” he said, planting his hand, palm-down, on the very edge of the trail Meesie had made toward the elemental, the one feeding into the circle itself.

Rather than anything rising up from the circle, a column of white light slammed down from the sky, filling the space defined by the spell circle and momentarily blotting out the elemental from sight. It let out another unearthly roar, and suddenly the light vanished.

Where it had stood, there was only dust. It didn’t hold together even for a second, collapsing to the ground and washing over them in a cloud that seemed to fill the courtyard. All six staggered backward from it, coughing and spluttering, Ami trying to hold her guitar overhead and out of reach of the tide of grit.

In seconds, however, the dust dissipated as well, seeming to melt back into thin air. Only a few swirls of powder were left on the ground, in and around the remains of Schwartz’s banishment circle. A double handful of fragrant mint leaves drifted on the air, settling gradually to the ground.

Branwen caught one. “What on earth…?”

“Oh, ah, that’s mine,” Schwartz said awkwardly. “Well, I mean, you’re welcome to have it, if you want, but that was conjured by my… That is, it’s perfectly safe! All my doing, nothing to do with whoever called that thing here.”

“Good work, all of you,” Basra said, lowering her sword to her side. “Especially you, Schwartz, and you, Talaari.”

“All in a day’s work,” he said modestly.

“Well, I do have a few uses, if I may say so,” Ami replied with a smug smile. “Don’t think of me as just the bitch with the nice ones.”

“Oh!” Scwhartz’s eyes widened. “Bishop Syrinx! I came out here to tell you—it wasn’t just here! I detected multiple elementals appearing—all over the city!”

In the sudden silence that fell over the courtyard, they finally took note of the sounds drifting in from outside. The normal mild clamor of early evening traffic had been replaced by a distant but distinct cacophony of crashing, splashes, and screams.

“Stop!” Basra barked as Ildrin whirled to dash for the courtyard’s side door. “Running out there with no plan will only make things worse. Back into the house, grab any weapons or supplies you need, and meet at the front door in two minutes. We will find what’s going on and put a stop to it, but in an organized fashion. Go!”

They all turned and moved toward the door, following the Bishop, who suited her words with action by being the first one through. Jenell paused and backtracked a moment to retrieve Basra’s scabbard from the side bench where it still lay.

“You, ah, might want to be careful with the b-word, Ami,” Schwartz said, following the bard in at the tail of their procession. “Avenists really don’t like it.”

“Yes, I know,” she said, turning to give him a coy smile. “Ildrin definitely didn’t, I could tell. But Bishop Syrinx, who is never too shy to express her displeasure about anything? Not even a hint that she’d noticed.” She turned forward again, her smile only broadening as she stepped back into the shadows of the house. “Interesting, is it not?”

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8 – 6

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“Will you need anything else? There are further volumes which I can pull for a more in-depth study.”

“No, thank you,” said Ravana, surveying the dozen books already stacked on their table. “The assignment calls for a two-page paper; more material than this will simply swamp us, I think.”

“Very well,” said Crystal, nodding her head. The expressionless mask that formed her face was an eerie contrast to her pleasant voice. “Don’t hesitate to ask at the front desk if you require any help.”

“We won’t, thank you.”

The golem turned and walked back through the stacks toward the front of the library and her customary seat behind its broad desk, leaving the four girls seated around a small table in a reading alcove. As she went, the light emitted from between her joints and the plates of her “skin” cast shifting patterns of illumination on the nearby bookshelves.

It wasn’t dim in the library by any means; there were tall windows and abundant fairy lamps, creating plenty of light to read by. Its architecture, though, trended toward narrow spaces and dark tones, making it feel cozy and even a little gloomy despite the light level. Crystal’s blue-white glow made for a stark contrast.

“She’s amazing,” Maureen breathed, staring after the golem even once she was gone from sight.

“Oh?” Iris said warily. “Uh, that’s… Well, she’s not really my type, but I guess…”

“What?” The gnome blinked at her, then blushed. “Oh, for the— No! Are ye daft? She’s a machine. That’s what I meant; the way she talks an interacts, it’s incredible. There’ve been talking enchantments basically forever, but those were rare, an’ always stuck on static objects; havin’ something that moves around attached to ’em mucked up the old methods, as I understood it. No, she’s a modern golem, but almost like a real person!”

“Is she not a person?” Szith asked, raising an eyebrow. “If she can communicate as one, what other measure is there by which to judge her? She certainly appeared as sentient as you or I.”

“You can tell if y’pay attention an’ know what to listen for,” said Maureen. “She uses exactly the same inflection on everything she says, an’ there’s a faint pause, like, after ye speak to ‘er. Somethin’ bein’ processed in there, the machinery finding the right response an’ spittin’ it out. ‘Course, it’s all arcane magic, not really a true machine, but still, it’s far and away beyond any other golem I ever heard of.”

“It seems my question remains valid, then,” said Szith. “Even if she is an artificial creation, is she not a sentient thing?”

Maureen had begun shaking her head before the drow was finished speaking. “Actual sentience, that’s still beyond modern enchantment. Some o’ the old archmages came close, with talkin’ mirrors an’ swords an’ the like, but in the end they were a lot simpler than an actual person. No real psychology, I mean, just…patterns o’ behavior. Also, most o’ those were made by killin’ somebody and fixin’ a bit o’ their soul to the object, so… That’s highly illegal in the Empire.”

Iris went wide-eyed, turning to stare in the direction Crystal had gone. “You…you don’t suppose…”

“If Tellwyrn had done something like that,” said Ravana with an amused little smile, “I hardly think she would encourage the results to circulate among her students. In any case, I doubt she would have done so to begin with.”

“Aye,” said Maureen, “an’ no matter how reclusive she is, if she’d cracked actual golem sentience, there’d be word of it all over. That’s one of the great unsolveds, y’know? Like mass-producible magic mirrors or automated teleportation.”

“You know, your accent kind of comes and goes,” Iris remarked, frowning. Maureen shrugged, averting her eyes, and pulled one of the books over to herself. She had to stand on her chair to see comfortably over the table, but she was used to long hours on her feet.

“I still don’t feel my question was addressed,” said Szith. “So Crystal is perhaps a bit simple-minded; there are no shortage of biological people in the same state. What truly differentiates her? Your explanation implied a definitive line between speaking enchantments and sentient beings, but you didn’t define it.”

“Well…it’s vague,” Maureen said. “I’ve never spoken with a sentient enchantment till today, but I could tell. Like I said, she processes speech like a machine, sortin’ out what she hears and findin’ the right combination o’ words to reply. Supposedly the older talking enchantments really only started to look sketchy when studied in detail.”

“Is that not what we all do, though?” Szith asked. “Perhaps Crystal does not find her words quite as adroitly, but the end result seems to be the same…”

“In my opinion,” said Ravana, “the difference is one of degree, not of nature. We are all of us nothing but machines, differentiated from an abacus only by a level of complexity. The mind is just a function of the body, after all.”

Szith frowned slightly. “When you put it that way, it sounds rather nihilistic.”

“Oh?” Ravana smiled at her. “Do you know much about the sea goddess Naphthene?”

“I do not.”

“Naphthene has no cult or worshipers,” Ravana said, folding her hands serenely in her lap. “Nor does she want any; she either ignores people who try, or sometimes takes exception to their temerity if they are particularly stubborn. Nonetheless, seafaring cultures revere her, for obvious reasons. No ship sets out to sea without making a small offering to Naphthene, for to omit that step is to reliably court disaster. And yet, storms still happen. Those who have made the requisite sacrifices are still vulnerable. The sea is not a thing to be tamed.”

“She sounds…unjust,” said Szith, her frown deepening.

“Precisely!” Ravana replied. “Unfair, arbitrary, random. And that is the lesson absorbed by a lot of coastal societies: life is simply a matter of luck and fickle fate. What is fascinating, and relevant to our discussion, is how they deal with this worldview. In the west and south, the Tidestrider clans are known to be brutal and, as you say, nihilistic. The Empire has brought them somewhat to heel, but in the old days they rendered that ocean all but impassable, mostly raiding each other, but they would descend in force on anyone else who dared to sail their waters. They took no prisoners and gave no quarter, and the few who visited among them described them as a dour and unsmiling folk. On the other hand, in the east and north are the Punaji, who are famously high-spirited and cheerful. And both societies arrived at their value systems from the same starting point: observing the unfairness of life.” She leaned back in her chair, her smile broadening. “There’s an old Punaji proverb I very much like: ‘When nothing means anything, everything means everything.’”

The group fell silent, three of them frowning thoughtfully at the empty space in the center of the table.

“I’m a wee bit flummoxed how we came ’round to this from me admiring the golem,” Maureen said at last.

“Quite so!” Ravana replied, suddenly brisk, and leaned forward to pick up a book. “Now, we have here several volumes on history, adventuring and magic which make reference to Arachne Tellwyrn. I propose that we divide them up; that will give us this evening to skim through and isolate references to her failures and defeats, and then we can pool our notes and compose the actual essay tomorrow in time for Wednesday’s class. Does anyone object if I do the writing myself?”

“Forgive me,” said Szith, “but I object to your presumption. We’ve followed you this far, as requesting books from the golem scarcely constitutes effort, but the group has not agreed to pursue this course of action. In frankness, you have not justified it.”

“Uh, yeah,” Iris piped up, her expression worried. “I don’t like the sound of that assignment to pick at each other’s weaknesses, but I really don’t see how starting a fight with Tellwyrn is gonna help us.”

“Very well, it’s a fair concern.” Ravana leaned forward again, folding her hands on the table and interlacing her fingers. “To begin with, do you believe me when I say that the assignment itself is not meant to be taken at face value?”

The other three girls exchanged glances.

“I dunno,” Iris said doubtfully.

“This project is by no means the first time I have engaged in research about our professor,” said Ravana. “Upon being accepted here I commissioned a detailed analysis of her, the better to know what to expect. While Tellwyrn herself has historically bludgeoned her way through obstacles with sheer magical might, she has an entirely other set of priorities for other people. Particularly students. In fact, she is rather fond of subtle tests of character, of placing obstacles in people’s paths and engineering situations to gauge their moral and mental capabilities. I came prepared to be on the lookout for these; I did not expect to find one so quickly, or for it to be so blatant.”

“Blatant?” Maureen asked.

Ravana grinned faintly. “May I at least assume you have all noticed, as I have, the insanity of the assignment in question? The sheer, emotionally destructive absurdity of it?”

They all nodded, slowly, and she spread her hands. “Arachne Tellwyrn is not someone who does insane, absurd things—at least, not to students or others under her protection. She is someone who likes to carefully feel people out using oblique methods before subjecting them to her bombastic approach to life. I suspect that’s why she is still alive; it has prevented her from picking a fight with someone too close to her level.”

“That makes sense, then,” said Szith, again nodding. “Very well, I can accept your assertion, and thank you for the analysis. I for one would likely have stepped right into the trap otherwise.”

“Ought we to clue the others in?” Maureen asked.

Ravana shrugged. “If you wish. We were assigned our room groups to do this with, however; I don’t think we will be expected to extend our efforts beyond that.”

“Still,” said Szith, “you have yet to explain why you think antagonizing Professor Tellwyrn is a wise academic move.”

Iris nodded emphatically. “I think your exact words were ‘rub her face in it.’ Failing us is the least of what she can do to us, you know.”

“Ah, yes,” Ravana replied with a rueful smile. “Forgive me, I do like to indulge in tiny little melodramas. No, being aggressive with Tellwyrn is probably not a good idea. If nothing else, it would be a metatextual failure; seeing the subtle trap and using it to act brutishly seems self-defeating. No, what I had in mind is a simple message, and if anything a gentle one. Or at least a subtle one.”

“Go on,” said Szith when no one else commented.

Ravana leaned forward to tap one of the books. “Rather than the assigned analysis of each other, I propose that we collaborate on a general essay detailing strategies a group of people can use against a more powerful opponent, with examples—each of which will be an instance of someone overcoming Tellwyrn herself. At no point do I plan to make threats or personal statements. It will be far more oblique, and yet pointed, indicating that we have discerned both the trap and the true nature of the assignment, and that we have identified the real aggressor here.”

Another quiet fell; Ravana smiled beatifically at the others, who looked pensive.

“When you explain it that way,” Szith said finally, “I still think the idea is excessively confrontational. We can surely present a statement without encroaching upon her personal history.”

“Her personal history is public,” Ravana replied, “and I assure you, we will get nowhere with Tellwyrn if we do things by half-measures. Let’s be realistic, ladies; we are under no circumstances going to intimidate her, and I frankly doubt we can even offend her. She simply doesn’t take us that seriously, or personally. This is about not being walked over. The risk is slight, but for that, at least, I am willing to take it.”

Szith nodded at that; Iris and Maureen frowned at each other.

“Or,” Ravana went on mildly, “if you are more comfortable establishing up front that you will always be a victim, we can run with that, too.”


 

Last Rock’s expansion over the summer had been minor, but it was a relatively static town most of the time, and even a minor growth had upended everything. Coming as it did right on the heels of the evacuation and subsequent return, there was more muttering than usual in the town about the students and the disruption they caused, but for the most part, this was overruled. The students were still the biggest source of revenue for local business—or at least, they always had been. Last Rock’s newest additions were beginning to call that into question.

The new Silver Mission stood on the outskirts, close enough to the Rail platform to be immediately visible to arriving travelers. It was a modest building in size, but very much Avenist in its sensibilities, all white marble, domed roofs and with a fence of iron bars topped in spear-like points. Aside from the one assigned priestess, who lived on site, the Mission had few regulars, most of its visitors being the would-be adventurers who passed through the town en route to the Golden Sea. There didn’t seem to be any residents of Last Rock itself who felt the need to call on Avei’s protection.

At least, not so far, though that might change, given the additions to the population brought by the other new addition. The Vidian temple, too, was small, little more than a shrine—but it had come with personnel, and continued to attract more. Three new houses and another inn were under construction on the outskirts of town, the Mayor was busy drawing up plans to extend a couple of the streets, and Sheriff Sanders had been sufficiently pressed to keep order among the new arrivals that he had officially deputized Ox Whippoorwill and another man. Imperial surveyors had visited, and there was even talk of an Imperial Marshal being assigned too the town.

Aside from the clerics and others who had moved in, people continued to pass through, seldom staying long, but all hoping for at least a glimpse of the new paladin—or either of the old ones, for that matter. Tellwyrn had made it sufficiently plain that sightseers were not welcome on campus that few tried that anymore, especially after the newspapers had begun circulating horror stories of tourists teleported to Tidestrider islands, Tar’naris, the Stalrange and other unwholesome vacation spots. Still, even after that and the natural waning of interest over the summer months, the Imperial Rail Service had finally been force to designate Last Rock a justification-only destination—meaning tickets there could only be purchased by people who could provide a reason for their trip to the Rail conductor. It wasn’t much of a barrier, only keeping out the particularly stupid and deranged, but it did the trick. Anybody intelligent enough to come up with an excuse to be in Last Rock was intelligent enough not to cause trouble once they got there.

Even so, Gabriel’s visits to the Vidian temple were necessarily crowd-pleasing affairs. In just a few short weeks he had perfected the art of nodding, smiling and waving to people without stopping to engage with them. He also usually didn’t go without escort. Toby and Trissiny would have only drawn more attention, Juniper might have created a panic and none of his other classmates were particularly intimidating, but the three privates with whom he roomed often accompanied him into town. Sanders or one of his deputies sometimes shadowed him once there. It was awkward at times, but it worked.

This evening, though, he was alone, which was the point. The sky had long since fallen red, and the sun was only partially visible on the horizon. Now, at the point between day and night, was a sacred time to Vidians; dusk and dawn were favored for their gatherings and rituals. More to the point, certain powers of Vidius granted to certain of his followers were at their peak in these between times.

He walked with a frown of concentration on his face, focusing internally and barely paying enough attention to where he was going to get there intact. By far the biggest threat to his focus was his success; he’d made it all the way to the temple without anyone noticing his presence, and jubilation threatened to wreck it for him. The final stretch of the race was ahead: the temple itself, and the Vidian worshipers gathered there.

The temple was, of course, of two parts. The public area was a roofless stone amphitheater, the materials for which (like the white marble of the Silver Mission) had been brought in by Rail and assembled rapidly with the aid of Wizards’ Guild artisans. The half dozen Vidians who had emigrated to Last Rock for the chance to be near their new paladin were all present, rehearsing a play that was to be performed in a few weeks. Even for those who weren’t professional actors, drama was considered a sacred art to the god of masks, one most of his followers involved themselves in.

Gabriel did not slow or look up at them as he arrived, stepping up onto the stone outer rim of the amphitheater. This was not far from the spot from which he and his classmates had embarked into the Golden Sea almost a year ago, right on the north edge of town. He passed quickly around the edge of the ring, ignoring the performers, none of whom even looked up at him, to reach the half-pyramid positioned at one edge and the door set into it.

Opening the door, for whatever reason, brought attention. Immediately voices were raised behind him, but he swiftly ducked inside, pulling it shut, and then slumped against it, letting out a long breath of relief.

The staircase in which he found himself was well-lit by small fairy lights, descending straight forward without any curves or turns. Gabriel, having regathered his composure, set off down toward the bottom, confident in the door’s ability to protect him from his adoring public. He could still hear them clearly, clamoring outside; the enchantments on it were designed to conduct rather than to muffle sound, so that those below could be aware of anything important happening above. Still, he knew they would respect the barrier, as Vidians respected all barriers. This half of the temple was not entered except on specific business.

Right now, its position was obvious, as the prairie grasses hadn’t yet had time to settle in above the underground complex, leaving a long rectangle of bare earth adjacent to the amphitheater. In time, though, the lower half of the temple would be invisible from above, only the door revealing that such a thing existed. Some temples favored trapdoors, even hidden entrances, as if to deny that they even had a lower half. The facility at Last Rock was not only small, it was simple, and didn’t seem to feel any need for such touches.

At the bottom was a long, narrow room terminating in a shrine to Vidius himself and lined with benches—not an uncommon arrangement for places of worship. Doors to either side led to the apartments of the priest in residence, and…what else Gabriel did not know, never having been invited in. All his conversations and lessons had taken place here, in the chapel.

The priest, Val Tarvadegh, was a lean man in his middle years, whose beakish nose and widow’s peak conspired to make his face rather birdlike in aspect. He was dressed, as always, in the black robes of his office—as was the other person present.

Gabriel paused at the base of the stairs, sizing up the woman. Bronze of skin and black of hair, she was a perfectly average-looking Tiraan like himself and Tarvadegh, but he couldn’t shake a feeling of familiarity at seeing her.

“Gabriel!” the priest said, turning to him with a smile. “And here you are, unmolested! How did it go?”

“Brilliant,” he said, a grin breaking across his own features. “I made it the whole way this time! Well…almost. It broke when I got to the door. As you can probably hear,” he added ruefully, glancing behind. Indeed, in the sudden quiet, the excited babble of voices was still dimly audible. “I’m sorry, am I early? I don’t mean to interrupt…”

“Oh, pay no attention to me,” the woman said, rising from her seat on one of the chapel’s benches. “I merely stopped by to see Val; far be it from me to impede our new paladin’s education.”

“Are…you a priestess?” he asked hesitantly. “I’m sorry, it’s just I’ve got this feeling I know you from somewhere.”

“You have possibly noticed me on campus,” she said with a smile. “Afritia Morvana. I’m the new house mother for the Well.”

“Oh! The freshman girls, right. So, what’re they like?”

“If they decide that’s any of your business,” she said placidly, “I’m sure they will inform you.”

“Whoah, point taken.” Gabriel raised his hands in surrender; Tarvadegh grinned, hiding a chuckle behind a cough. “I assure you, madam, your charges are in no danger from me. You can ask anybody how awkward I am with women.”

“Yes, I begin to see that,” she said, her smile widening. “Anyway. I must be off; I’ll see what I ca do about dispersing your fan club, shall I?”

“You are my new favorite person,” he said fervently. Morvana laughed and glided past him up the stairs.

“It’s not uncommon for the deflection to be disrupted by such things as opening doors,” Tarvadegh said as Gabriel approached him. “You are diverting people’s attention from yourself. If you change anything in your environment, they will tend to notice that—and then, in looking around to find what caused it, will quite quickly pierce your deflection. Anything which calls attention to you will unmake it.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Gabe said with a grimace. “Is it possible to get around that?”

“To extend it to other objects? Most certainly, yes, even to other people. That is very advanced, though.” Tarvadegh winked. “Crawl before you fly, my friend. You made good progress today.”

“It still takes a lot out of me,” he admitted. “Well…not out of me. It’s not very tiring, and I don’t feel like I’m using much energy. But it’s the concentration. If I let up for a second, poof. There it goes.”

“Yes,” the priest said, nodding. “You mentioned how it doesn’t drain energy; that’s because this is a very passive effect. Unfortunately, that means you can’t just power through it with more magical oomph. It’s a trick of concentration. Once you learn how, and can make it habitual, you’ll find yourself able to do almost anything you normally could while holding the deflection.” He smiled and shrugged. “Till you do, though… It’s a process.”

“Sounds like my lightworking class,” Gabriel muttered.

“Depending on what you’re working, yes, it can be similar. Come, have a seat.” Tarvadegh suited the words with action, sitting down on a bench and pointing to the one across from him. “How have you been doing with your masks?”

Gabriel sighed heavily, slumping down onto the padded surface. “I just… I don’t know, Val. This is the thing that most makes me think Vidius made a mistake.”

“Perhaps he did,” Tarvadegh said mildly, earning a startled look. “I think it’s unlikely, however. Gods have insight beyond our imagining, and access to undreamable amounts of information. I’ve mentioned this before, Gabriel, but the masks are not something made up by Vidian theology; rather something codified by it. We have different facets of ourselves to display to different people, at different times. This practice is nothing more than becoming conscious of the effect and making use of it.”

“It feels like lying.”

“It can be,” the priest said, nodding, “if you are unethical or careless. But if so, that is not a true mask, in the sense that we use the term. It is a true aspect of yourself, one that you possess naturally, and are simply taking control of, putting to better use.”

“It’s just… I’ve always been a bit of a…a buffoon. I’m the guy who says the thing we’re all thinking but everyone else was too polite. The least Vidian person in the room, in other words. All of this, now…” He shrugged. “Maybe I’m just afraid of losing myself.”

Tarvadegh tilted his head to one side. “That’s interesting, you hadn’t mentioned that before.”

“Sorry…”

“No, no! These things are not meant to be done all at once, Gabriel; we’ll figure it out. For now, what you just said makes me think I have been trying to start you off too far ahead. It was always my assumption that a demonblood would have learned to play it very safe to get along in society. How does one do that without being…extremely circumspect?”

Gabriel sighed again and leaned back against the wall behind him. “One does it by hiding behind one’s soldier dad and monk friend when one accidentally sparks off a problem. You’ve kinda hit the nail on the head for me, though. If I couldn’t manage to suss all this out when it was arguably a matter of life and death, how’m I supposed to figure it out now?”

“Well, now you have the benefit of teaching,” Tarvadegh said with a smile. “Let’s go back to a much more basic thing, then, the different masks that I know you have. You are not the same person exactly with your father as with, say, your classmate Trissiny, correct?”

Gabriel blinked. “Hm. Actually… Maybe I’d have gotten along better with Trissiny from the start if I’d been a little less relaxed and kept my mouth shut. See, this is what I mean. The more you talk about these masks as a normal thing that everyone has, the more I just realize how I’ve been screwing up my whole life by not doing this.”

“So perhaps you’re a much more forthright person than most,” Tarvadegh said, grinning now. “But I guarantee, Gabriel, you have some different shades. Let me try a more pointed example. You don’t behave the same when talking with Toby as you do when in Juniper’s arms, right?”

Gabe averted his eyes, flushing.

“Sorry to be so blunt,” said Tarvadegh. “But are you beginning to see my point?”

“Kinda hard not to, with that image dropped into my head,” Gabriel muttered.

“Then it’s something for you to think about. And perhaps this will help you out socially. Everyone does not need to hear the first thought that crosses your mind, nor to see your feelings written on your face. In fact, sometimes it is kinder to spare them that. The Narisians have a philosophy that I have enjoyed reading—”

He broke off mid-sentence and both of them turned toward the stairwell. Above, there suddenly came the sound of screaming.

Both men were on their feet in a heartbeat, Gabriel pushing ahead to dash up the stairs. He withdrew the black wand Vidius had given him as he went, grabbing Ariel’s hilt with his left hand, and pushed the door latch down with his fist when he reached it.

He emerged onto the amphitheater in the gathering darkness in time to see the last of the assembled Vidians fleeing back into the town, a couple still shrieking in panic. Gabriel gave them little more than a glance, his attention fixed on the thing that had set them to running. They were fortunate that there was someone in their number who knew what they were looking at, otherwise somebody might have made a very severe mistake.

“Hello!” she said brightly.

“Hi,” Gabriel replied in a much more wary tone. The dryad was of a slimmer build than Juniper, less voluptuous, her skin a pale gold that was nearly white and her hair a much lighter shade of green, but she was still excruciatingly lovely. Also, she was completely nude. “Are you lost, miss?”

“Nope!” she said, pointing over his head at the slope of the mountain. “This is where I was going to! Last Rock, just like the name says. I made really good time! Well, the Golden Sea helped me a bit. My name’s Aspen!”

“Hi, Aspen,” he said warily. He didn’t point the wand at her, but kept it out, and his hand on the sword. “I’m Gabriel. You realize it’s kind of a problem for you to be here, right? Dryads aren’t supposed to be in human settlements.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” she said lightly, striding toward him, “I don’t care about that. So, do you live here? Did you know my sister?”

“Juniper? Sure, I know her. She’s a good friend of mine.”

“Good.” Aspen stopped barely beyond arm’s reach, still smiling, but with something intent and distinctly predatory in her gaze now. “Do you know what killed her?”

Gabriel blinked. “I… What? Killed her? Juniper’s not dead. I talked with her just a few—”

“Now, see, that’s gonna be a problem,” Aspen interrupted, taking one more step closer. He fought the urge to back away; he was still framed in the door, with Tarvadegh behind him. “Our mother felt it when she was snuffed out. You’re just lucky it’s me you’re talking to and not her, but I’m still gonna start getting annoyed if you lie to me. It sure does seem like you know something about this, Gabriel, so let’s try the truth this time.” The smile vanished from her face. “What happened to my sister?”

“I think there has been a misunderstanding,” he said carefully. “If you want to talk to Juniper…in fact, that’s probably the best thing, now that I think of it. If you could just stay right here for a bit, I’ll go and get—”

He saw her lunge and tried to jerk backward away from her, but not fast enough. Aspen grabbed his neck with one hand, squeezing just hard enough to hold him. He reflexively brought up the wand, but just as quickly pointed it elsewhere; the situation wasn’t nearly so bad that he couldn’t make it a thousand times worse by shooting a dryad.

“I told you, I don’t like lying,” Aspen said coldly. “And I don’t like being tricked. So no, I will not wait here while you run away, or go fetch someone to get me like they got Juniper. Now you get one more chance to tell me the truth, Gabriel, and then I’m just gonna kill you and go find someone else.”

“Please, calm down,” he said hoarsely around the constriction of his throat. She only squeezed harder.

“Last chance. Spit it out, before—”

A sound like howling wind rose up around them, though there wasn’t a breeze. A peculiar tinge grew in the air above the amphitheater, as if everything were seen through a haze of fog, but the distance was not obscured. Aspen stopped, staring around in surprise.

Then the figures appeared.

Seven of them, lining the edges of the amphitheater in a semicircle. They were watery and indistinct, but there were several obvious features they had in common. Each was garbed in black, had enormous black wings, and each carried a scythe in her right hand.

Aspen gasped, releasing Gabriel and stumbling backward. One of the shadowy figures followed, stepping forward until she was only two yards from the dryad.

The valkyrie transferred her scythe to her left hand, reached forward with her right, and then very slowly wagged one finger back and forth in front of Aspen’s face.

The dryad swallowed once, convulsively, then whirled and fled back into the prairie. In moments she was lost among the tallgrass.

As abruptly as it had come, the haze faded, the seven reapers vanishing along with it, leaving Gabriel and Tarvadegh standing alone in the doorway, suddenly conscious of raised voices and movement in the town.

“Well,” Gabe said, shaking himself off. “Um…can you talk to the Sheriff, please? I think I’d better go find Juniper. And Professor Tellwyrn,” he added.

“Good plan,” said Tarvadegh, nodding. “Oh, and Gabriel, for future reference…”

“Yes?”

“Never,” said the priest, “ever tell a woman to calm down.”

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