Tag Archives: Vanessa

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With a soft sigh of relief, she pressed the wax seal onto the final envelope, stacked it neatly on the side of her desk with the others, and pushed her chair back. For a long moment, Tellwyrn indulged in a luxurious stretch, arching her back and pressing both fists at the windows behind her. Fifty years and she’d never grown to like all the damned paperwork. Only some days could she even claim to be somewhat used to it.

Without warning, the presence slammed down on her, the sudden proximity of an entity whose very consciousness was enough to make an indentation in reality.

“ARACHNE!”

Grimacing, Tellwyrn straightened up and stared sardonically at the goddess glaring at her from inches away, fists planted on her desk.

“Well, hi there. Won’t you come in.”

“I am not going to indulge your nonsense, Arachne. How dare you allow the Black Wreath to manipulate my paladin? When I sent here here I understood that your unconventional methods could be important to her growth, but there are limits. You cannot have thought that was an acceptable line to cross!”

“Stop it, Avei,” Tellwyrn said flatly, staring at her over the rims of her spectacles. “Just…spare me. You’ve had the whole afternoon to come blazing down here in a fury if you wanted; this is a calculated move, and I’m not going to indulge your nonsense. What is it you really want?”

“Why, I should think it’s obvious,” Kaisa purred from behind her chair, slinking out into view. “Like all unhappy parents, she wants a word with the teacher who dared administer a spanking to her little darling. After all, Arachne, you did promise me I could handle this, no?”

Tellwyrn groaned and slumped back into her chair, covering her eyes with a hand, glasses and all.

“You are stepping into matters better left alone, little fairy,” the goddess growled. “The business of the Pantheon is not fodder for one of your elaborate pranks.”

“Omnu’s balls, don’t say that to her,” Tellwyrn pleaded.

Kaisa laughed softly. “Dear Avei, I understand your worry. Truly, I do. But you chose to trust Trissiny’s education to Arachne, and she has trusted part of it to me. You have my solemn word, at no point has any of this trust been betrayed.” She paced slowly around the desk to join Avei on its other side, ears alert and tail bobbing lightly. “I do love my little jokes—but I am a teacher first and foremost. My great joy has been in the forming of young minds far, far longer than Arachne has been at it. Longer than you have called paladins, in fact. If I choose to allow the Black Wreath to play their little games with my students, it is for one reason only: I deem it in the best interests of my students’ education.”

“The Wreath wants nothing more than to sink their claws into the Hands of the gods,” Avei grated. “You are not to give them what they want!”

“They want that, yes,” Kaisa mused. “Which is why I was careful to supervise and set boundaries; I fear Mr. Mogul would have taken shocking liberties had I not monitored him. But no, the exercise proceeded according to my plan. The paladins have not been turned against their gods; they have only learned to ask piercing questions and to challenge dangerous assumptions. And if you are bothered by this, perhaps it is not you who should be criticizing me, hmmmm?”

“I’ve already heard from Janis, Emilio and Kaisa herself about Trissiny’s demeanor after this morning’s events,” Tellwyrn added. “All indications are that she has managed what I haven’t in eighteen months and your people couldn’t in three years: she got through to the girl.”

“To what end?” Avei snapped. “I didn’t send her here so you could teach her to challenge the gods!”

“You sent her here so I could teach her to think,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “And Kaisa is right about that, too. If thinking results in turning on the gods, that’s something you should think about, rather than complaining at educators. But no, so long as we do our jobs well, it won’t come to that. Based on everything I know, the Pantheon could benefit greatly from criticism and challenge, but knowing the full truth is unlikely to make your own Hands turn against you.”

“Embras Mogul certainly does not agree with that,” Avei said pointedly.

“Embras Mogul,” Tellwyrn replied, steepling her fingers and raising an eyebrow, “is a man of faith. Specifically, a faith which keeps him locked in a very weak position. No matter what cunning their goddess teaches them, the Black Wreath are utterly defined by their obsession with their enemies. If the gods actually did fall, the Wreath would go down soon after, just because they’d have nothing left to cling to. On matters of gods and paladins, I may or may not know as many secrets as Mogul, but I am certainly more objective. And I’m telling you, he hasn’t done nearly the harm he believes he has. Mogul assumes critical thinking by the paladins will bring them ultimately to his point of view because, like all religious people, he is emotionally unable to entertain the prospect that he isn’t right.”

Kaisa giggled; Avei glared at her.

“Critical thinking,” said the kitsune, waving her tail playfully, “is always worth pursuing, for its own sake.”

Avei straightened up to her full height; even in a purely mortal shape as she was now, wearing a crisp Army uniform without insignia, she was well over six feet all and powerfully built besides. The far daintier kitsune was dwarfed in comparison.

“Allow me to make myself clear,” the goddess intoned, her voice suddenly resonating through far more than the air; the fabric of existence around them appeared to pulse with it. In the next moment, she was holding a sword and shield made of pure golden light, with blazing eagle wings fanning out behind her. There wasn’t actually room for them in the office, but they didn’t brush the walls. “My trust is limited and hard-earned, and I have chosen this course for my Hand because I will not take foolish risks with her. Your antics here have eroded my patience for any further tricks, Ekoi Kaisa. If I have any further indication that your actions will harm Trissiny, I will put an immediate and absolute halt to them.”

Again, Kaisa giggled.

Light flared through the office, and suddenly she, too, stood taller than the space should have been able to hold. A corona of pure, pale light shifted and pulsed around her, and the office was filled with the scent of cherry blossoms.

The kitsune’s coiffed hair, the fur of her ears and tail, were all luminous as spun gold. In fact, a whole fan of tails swayed and waved behind her, shifting too rapidly to be counted.

“Dear, Avei,” she said in a fondly indulgent tone, her own voice like the music of galaxies. “Dear, silly little Avei. No. You will not.”

“Really?” Tellwyrn complained. “Can’t you two have your pissing contest somewhere other than my office? Other than my campus, for that matter.”

“Indeed so!” Kaisa said pleasantly. “This is, after all, an institute of learning. Avei, I want you to remember something important, when next you feel an urge to intervene in your paladin’s education.”

The kitsune leaned forward; the goddess shifted back, frowning suspiciously, but Kaisa continued to smile benignly, even as she raised one hand with a single clawed forefinger extended.

And then the fox-woman poked the goddess of war lightly on the nose.

“Boop!”

Her laughter echoed through the office as she swirled in on herself, a brief cyclone of swishing foxtails and golden light, and was gone.

In the aftermath of her passing, Avei’s golden effects had vanished as well, leaving the goddess scowling at empty space in an apparently mortal shape.

“Honestly,” Tellwyrn grumbled. “Would you please not rile her up?”

“Me?” Avei exclaimed, rounding on her.

“Yes, you,” Tellwyrn snapped. “You I expect to have the judgment and self-control to know what powerful fae are like and not push their buttons, nor rise to the bait. Honestly, if this is how you’re going to act, sending Trissiny here for an education was an even better idea than you realized. And speaking of that, I now need to go finish what Kaisa started.” She stood up from the chair, straightening her tunic. “The girl’s had long enough to ponder, I believe. Do me a favor.”

The elf gave the goddess a sardonic look over the tops of her spectacles.

“Butt out.”

Then, with a soft pop, she vanished.

Standing alone in an empty office, the goddess sighed. “This is what happens when I go too long without publicly smiting someone.”


After a year and a half, Trissiny was inured to the horror of hanging suspended over the edge of the mountain and had learned to simply appreciate the views offered by Clarke Tower’s position. The Rock itself blocked the sunrise, but the little outdoor patio at the tower’s “ground” level offered the most amazing view of sunsets she had ever seen. In some ways, it was symbolic of the reversal her life had taken since coming here. In Viridill, you could always see the sun coming up in the distant east, but the mountains hid it by mid-afternoon.

The sun had just vanished below the distant horizon, leaving the plains swathed in reflected crimson and orange, when the door behind her clicked open.

“Here you are,” Ruda said, striding out and kicking it shut behind her. “You missed dinner.”

“Mm.” Trissiny didn’t lift her stare from the empty distance. “Not hungry.”

There was a moment of silence while Ruda stared at her critically, then the pirate sighed, stepped forward, and plunked herself down on the bench next to Trissiny.

“Boots, I can see you’re upset, but come on. You have to fucking eat.”

“Actually, I don’t,” Trissiny said without inflection, not shifting her gaze. “Did some experiments with Professor Rafe this summer; turns out I have the elvish metabolism, or most of it. After nineteen years of regular human-sized meals, he figures I won’t need food for at least five years. Or I could just hold my breath for a month.”

“Oh,” Ruda said, nonplussed. “Huh. That’s…well. That’s pretty nifty.”

“I managed half an hour,” Trissiny said absently. “Without breathing. It feels wrong, though, and it got boring. Breathing is habitual.”

“Uh, yeah, I’d say it’s a pretty fuckin’ good habit to be in.”

Trissiny continued to stare at nothing, face blank. Ruda, frowning worriedly, studied her for a few moments before speaking again.

“So…you wanna talk about it, or do I need to badger you first?”

“That’s the second time we’ve dealt with the Black Wreath,” Trissiny said softly. “And both times, they played me like a lute.”

“Played all of us, to be fair…”

“I’ve got two and a half more years to be a student. Then, there’ll be no more improbably friendly vampires or kitsune keeping watch. It’ll just be me, out there with them. I’m the hand of Avei. Gabriel’s unprecedented and Toby’s calling is far more nurturing. Me? Striking down the Wreath is a huge part of my purpose in this world. And I…just keep failing.”

“Trissiny…”

“It’s not just failure,” Trissiny continued, a frown slowly forming on her face. “I can learn from failure and do better, next time. It’s what I learn that… I mean, we even had intelligence they couldn’t have guessed at; we had the valkyries feeding us information, we knew in advance what they were about, and they still played me.”

“Well, it’s the Wreath,” Ruda said reasonably. “And let’s face it, Boots, nothing about this is new. They’ve always been sly, and the Hands of Avei have always been badass. Your predecessors managed.”

“My predecessors managed for a while, and almost every one of them died fighting. And that’s okay with me, I’m long past fearing that end. Everybody dies; all I ask is that it’s meaningful. Y’know?”

“Yes, I do,” Ruda said quietly, nodding.

“Yeah.” Finally, Trissiny glanced at her. “You’re as much a woman of action as I am. But it’s not just the Wreath. People keep making the point to me that the world is about connection. That dealing with it is about subtlety. I just can’t… I’m not good at that, Ruda.”

“Hey, there is nothing wrong with your intelligence, Triss.”

“It’s not that I’m stupid, it’s the way I think. What I was trained to be. You were brought up to be clever. Down in the Crawl I experience that…alternate of mine, the one raised by my mother. She was brought up to be clever. I know the capacity’s in me. I just… I have no idea how to reach it. When I look for it, nothing’s there. I can do strategy, I can do tactics, but I can’t do…espionage. Con artistry. I’m a warrior, and you can’t just swing a sword in this world and expect to get anywhere. They…” She paused to swallow heavily. “They trained me wrong. I’m equipped to serve my goddess a hundred years ago. If I keep on now, all I’m going to do is fail her.”

“Trissiny,” Ruda said in alarm, “stop. You are seriously scarin’ me, here. Come on, remember last spring before the hellgate? You told me that whatever happened with my people, we’d be together to deal with it—all of us. Well, same goes. So the world’s about connection? Fine. You’ve got connections, and I think you’re doing a kickass job learning to use them. I mean, c’mon, remember our first week when you tried to straight-up murder a guy for callin’ you a dirty word?”

Trissiny sighed heavily. “In fairness, it was for calling me a dirty word while being a demonblood.”

“Right.” Ruda grinned and jostled her with a shoulder. “So, thoughtless, hotheaded and racist. You can’t deny you’re a much better person now. Hell, you and Gabe are as close as any of us; who woulda pictured that, way back then? You’re going to be okay.”

Trissiny looked at her again, suddenly with a slight smile, and shifted to drape an arm around her roommate’s shoulders.

“Ruda, I love you too, but you can stop comforting me. I’m not having a crisis, I’m thinking.” She heaved a sigh, again frowning out at the horizon, where the last dregs of the sunset were fading. Right behind them, the small fairy lamp above the tower’s back door clicked on. “Like I said, woman of action. I’ve identified a problem and what I want is to solve it, not sit here maundering. I’m just… I’m stuck. I have absolutely no idea what to do, where to turn. How do you learn a whole new set of skills and adjust your personality to accommodate them, all at once? Who can teach that?”

“I get what you mean,” Ruda murmured, nodding. “Not much is worse than being unable to act when you need to.”

“I know it’s possible,” Trissiny said pensively. “It has to be. People change—people gain new aptitudes all the time. But…how?”

“I can’t tell you how glad I am that you’re finally asking those questions,” Professor Tellwyrn said warmly.

Both of them jumped up, whirling on her. The elf sat in the other chair on the terrace, positioned just out of view of their bench. She had clearly not come through the door; they hadn’t even heard the customary puff of breath caused by her teleportation.

“Goddammit!” Ruda shouted. “Naphthene’s bouncing bazooms, woman, do you have to do shit like that?!”

“Not strictly, no, but it amuses the hell out of me,” Tellwyrn said pleasantly. “Go on, sit down. The truth is, Trissiny, none of what you’ve been pondering this afternoon is news to me, or most of your teachers, but we’ve been in this business long enough to know when someone isn’t going to listen to a certain idea.”

“Great,” Trissiny said sourly.

“Trissinly,” Tellwyrn said calmly, “if you had the world figured out and needed no help finding your way, what would be the point of getting educated? I’m not condemning you. This is progress, and I’ve been waiting eagerly to see it. However,” she added with a sigh, “it also brings us to a point I haven’t been looking forward to. The truth is, this University is not equipped to grant you what you need.”

Trissiny blinked at her.

“You’re quite perceptive,” Tellwyrn continued, “to note that the root of your problem is not simply a set of skills, but a mindset. For most people, I would say the simple awareness of the world’s complexity and a habit of analytical reasoning would be all you need to get yourself in order. You, though, aren’t just working against a certain kind of upbringing: you have the pressure of a deity who wants to do things a certain way on your mind at all times. I’m not saying anything against Avei, here—”

“Yeah, we can pretty much tell when you do that,” Ruda commented.

Tellwyrn ignored her. “—but it’s a factor that you have to consider. What you need is specific training, and not only that but guidance, in exactly the kind of cunning and underhandedness that you’ve been brought up from the cradle to disdain.”

“What…are you suggesting, Professor?” Trissiny asked warily.

The elf gazed at her thoughtfully for a long moment, then glanced out over the Golden Sea, and nodded to herself. “Well. It’s not something I commonly encourage my students to do, but unique as your situation is, it’s not without precedent. Sometimes, Trissiny, the right thing for a certain student in a certain position is to take a semester off.”

“Off?” Trissiny exclaimed. “What do you mean, off?”

“I mean, off campus,” Tellwyrn said patiently. “Elsewhere. Pretty much the only circumstance in which I’ll endorse the idea is if the student in question needs a particular course of study that the University isn’t able to provide—which is what we’re facing here. There’s a lot of things your professors here can teach you beyond what you learn in their classes, Trissiny, but my own predilection for straightforward methods has left me surrounded by people who simply don’t have the kind of adaptive, underhanded thinking you’re looking for. Quite frankly I do not enjoy the company of such people.”

“What about Professor Ekoi?” Trissiny asked, raising an eyebrow.

Tellwyrn grinned. “Well, yes, she could. Could. And if you can pitch that to her in a way that she’ll go for, I think it’d be a great solution. But Kaisa came here to teach specific things; she has a contract, and takes it seriously. Besides, studying under a kitsune, one on one… Well, take it from me, there’s a lot involved that you wouldn’t think of until you’ve done it. And frankly, you’re entirely the wrong sort of person for that experience.”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah!” Ruda protested. “Come on, now, you’re talkin’ about breaking up the team. We have a good thing going here! We’re a group!”

“We won’t always be, though,” Trissiny said softly. “Don’t look at me like that, Ruda; we’ll always be friends, and I’m sure we’ll have a place in each other’s lives. But most of us have specific places we’ll have to go after the University. Once we graduate, it just can’t be the eight of us, roving around as a unit.”

“And,” Tellwyrn added severely, pointing at the paladin, “I said semester, singular. You’re a smart cookie when you want to be, Trissiny; it won’t take you all that long to nudge your mind and your habits in the direction you need, especially if you find the right mentor. I expect to see your ass back on this campus the following autumn.”

Trissiny nodded slowly, her eyes wandering away to the horizon, and her mind clearly beyond that. “I still… I mean, that kind of leaves me right back where I was. Worse, even. I have no idea where to start looking.”

“Nonsense, of course you do,” Tellwyrn said brusquely. “You’re letting the enormity of the future cloud your thinking. To start with, you can always go back where you came from. Trissiny, have you ever given thought to the fact that the Silver Legions use exclusively weapons and tactics rendered obsolete by modern military enchanting? I assure you, followers of the goddess of war did not give up their ability to wage war effectively just to placate the Empire, or anyone else.”

“What are you getting at?” Trissiny asked, narrowing her eyes.

Tellwyrn grinned. “Look… Narnasia trained you as best she could, toward the best purpose she knew how. She most certainly didn’t tell you everything. In the time she had, there was no way she could have, and she had to pick and prioritize. You, however, are at least the equal of the High Commander, and you outrank everyone else in the Sisterhood. There is nothing they are entitled to keep secret from you. I guarantee if you go back to the Abbey and tell Narnasia what’s on your mind, she’ll have just the thing ready to start you on.”

“Hm,” Trissiny said, frowning thoughtfully. “I…well. Hum. That’s actually very good to know, thank you, Professor. But…”

“Yes?” Tellwyrn prompted after a moment.

“It’s… Never mind. I’m not sure if it’s a worthwhile idea.”

“Trissiny, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed the pattern, but I only get on your case for the dumb comments you make when you think they’re smart. If you’re having a thought that you’re not sure is wise or not, it’s the perfect time to share it with a teacher.”

Trissiny had to smile faintly at that. “Well, it’s… With all I’ve heard about the complexity and connectedness of the world, plus the fact that my schooling at the Sisterhood’s hands is kind of what put me in this position in the first place… It feels almost treasonous to say it, but I can’t help thinking the best thing for me would be to seek some answers elsewhere.”

“That,” Tellwyrn said with an approving nod, “is in fact a very perceptive thought, and I’m proud of you for having it. And there, too, you certainly have prospects. Just off the top of my head, according to Admestus’s report on your Veilgrad expedition, you were an absolute hit with the Shadow Hunters. You couldn’t ask for better than they to teach you precisely what you’re looking to learn.”

“Hey, that’s a point,” Trissiny said, brightening up. “Raichlin gave me a book on the Silver Huntresses, which I’ve absolutely loved reading. And they have a huge library.”

“Oh!” Ruda said in sudden excitement. “Boots, remember back in Lor’naris when that Colonel came and got you to finagle his brat daughter into the Silver Legions?”

“Um…yes, Covrin. Jenny, I think. Actually, now you mention it, I meant to check up on her, but it managed to slip my mind. I sort of doubt she lasted all the way through basic…”

“Sure, whatever,” Ruda said impatiently. “Point is, he started by suggesting I have her fostered in Puna Dara, right? Because that’s actually a standing custom. Well, if you gotta break up the unit, where better to go? My mother would love to take you under her wing for a few months, and I bet you’d get along famously with her. She’s a sword-swinging badass like you, and a sly as a bag of foxes to boot. They called her the Sea Devil back in the day. ‘sides, she loves having somebody around to mother!”

“There, see?” Tellwyrn said, smiling. “You do have options. I bet if you give it some time and some thought, you’ll come up with even more than that. Anyhow, though, you’ve got a few more weeks till finals, and a week of break after that. This is not something that needs to be settled right now. Think on it, sleep on it, talk to your classmates.” She stood, brushing off her trousers. “And Trissiny? Whatever else happens, I’m proud of you.”

She vanished with a little puff of displaced air before the paladin could respond.

“You know,” Trissiny said thoughtfully, “the thing that surprises me the most, I think… If you’d told me a year ago I would one day give a damn about that, I’d’ve called you a liar.”

Ruda’s laughter rang out over the prairie.


“Well,” Vanessa said, swirling her glass of rum punch idly in one hand, “are you happy?”

“All things considered, I am,” Bradshaw said fervently. “As much of a runaway mess as that was for most parts of it… And regardless of however we may be beholden to that crazy fox now… I’d have paid a great deal more for what she did for us.”

“You know I’m in total agreement,” Vanessa replied with a broad smile. “I’ve spent the whole afternoon just walking up and down the docks. Just walking. But I was talking to him.”

She turned expectantly to face Embras, who was gazing out to sea.

The dockside bar remained lively despite the darkness that had fallen over Puna Dara. The Punaji were a people whose famous zest for life didn’t yield to storm or fog, much less anything so commonplace as nightfall, and besides, open-sided taverns like this did a great deal of business among visiting merchants and other strangers to the city. The pier on which it was built was well-lit, both with modern fairy lamps inside the building and torches lining the rails protecting the pub-goers from a drop into the ocean. Talking, laughing, and singing patrons in varying states of inebriation thronged the pier, while musicians played frantically on a platform near the bar and comely young waitresses in matching sarongs dodged nimbly through the crowd. For once, the warlocks didn’t need to employ any magical effects to go ignored. Besides, if they had, they’d never have been served.

“Well,” Embras drawled at last, “we mustn’t lose sight of the future. The paladins are wary, but we’ve made a start there. Ekoi and Tellwyrn have proved willing to endure and even facilitate our presence, provided we behave accordingly. And more importantly, we’re set up, now, for next semester’s campaign on Falconer and Vadrieny. Even considering all the uncertainty to come…”

He grinned, swiveled in his seat to face them directly, and picked up his glass. “You know what? I do believe I am happy.” Embras lifted his drink. “To the future.”

Both his companions raised their own in reply. “The future!”

In the far distance, at the very rim of the horizon, there came the faintest flicker of light, and a soft growl of thunder that was lost to the noise in the restaurant. Whether they heard it or not, the storm was on its way.

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10 – 39

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A storm was brewing over Calderaas, which its residents bore with long-suffering good humor. Weather in all parts of the Great Plains was notoriously unpredictable, as the wind out of the Golden Sea might blow in any direction at all, and bring anything with it. Summer snow rarely survived to reach the ground, but from time to time it happened. Calderaas itself was somewhat sheltered by the slope of the mountain on which it sat, which deflected many of the worst storms, but on the other hand the cold winds which came from the Stalrange and the humidity of the Tira Valley might both drift over it, depending on what came out of the Sea. The Calderaan were accustomed to adapting quickly.

In a loft apartment atop one of the city’s younger housing complexes, faint flashes of lightning and the shifting patterns of rapidly-blowing clouds had little effect against the steady glow of an arcane lamp. It was a sparsely furnished space, ready to be abandoned at a moment’s notice, containing only a few cots, a few chairs, and a single table. The summoning circle scrawled in the center of its open area was made of cheap chalk that could be quickly erased, and in fact had not been used to summon anything and wouldn’t be. They liked to prepare the spaces they used with red herrings to obscure their true purposes to anyone who might come sniffing about.

Embras Mogul planted his elbows on the table, resting his chin on his interlaced fingers, and frowned in thought at the space in front of him, from which a warlock had just shadow-jumped away. Thunder grumbled in the distance; none of the three remaining in the room acknowledged it with so much as a glance at the windows.

“It’s thin,” Bradshaw said finally to break the silence, “but workable. I think the little pranks you’ve set up for Justinian should both keep him occupied and keep his attention from our central objective…”

“He knows the central objective anyway,” Embras said, still gazing into empty space. “And we know he knows, and he knows we know he knows, and so on into infinity. This is just…that kind of game. What bothers me is the lack of retaliation.”

“You think something big is coming?” Vanessa asked quietly.

Slowly, Embras shook his head from side to side without changing the focus of his blank stare. “I think he has his sights set on bigger things. We are being…tolerated. That aggravates me more than it ought to. The Lady deserves better than a bunch of distractions.”

“It has to be done, though,” Vanessa said gently. “If you withdrew the pressure on his peripheral activities, he would wonder what was up and devote serious resources to striking at us. For now…this suffices. I really hope your project in Last Rock hits him as hard as you hope.”

“With regard to that,” Kaisa said brightly from behind them.

Vanessa and Bradshaw both leaped from their chairs, she staggering slightly and barely catching her balance on the back of it. Embras rose more smoothly, turning, bowing, and doffing his hat to the kitsune.

“Why, a good evening to you, dear lady,” he said politely. “Forgive the spartan accommodations; I was not expecting such honored company tonight, as you are manifestly aware.”

Kaisa smiled languidly, her eyes half-lidded, and demurely folded her hands in front of her, the wide sleeves of her flowered kimono nearly hiding them. “Given the point you made so elaborately with regard to the very broad game playing in the world around us, I assume you are aware of events transpiring in Viridill?”

“I know of them, certainly,” Embras replied in the same carefully light tone. “And I remain insistently uninvolved. We don’t have a dog in that race.”

“Nonetheless,” she said, “it shifts things into motion that will have an effect upon matters which are of concern to both you and myself. While that comes to a head, it creates the correct opportunity to finish our own little game. We will move on to the final play tomorrow.”

He coughed discreetly. “With all respect, dear lady, I don’t believe that the wisest course just yet. Your kids are admirably clever, and I’m not blind to the fact that the group has pulled together and are, bluntly speaking, onto us. Now is the time to lay a few more diversionary trails, throw up a couple of entertaining smokescreens, before we build to the final act.”

Her smile broadened infinitesimally. Lightning flashed again beyond the windows, accompanied by a closer rumble of thunder, and the arcane lamp flickered.

“It is a peculiar thing I have noticed in this country,” she said, beginning to pace slowly in a wide arc around them. The three warlocks subtly shifted as she circled, keeping their faces to her. “This…misconception of the value and meaning of simple politeness. Courtesy is the sauce in the stew, the oil in the gears. The softness which enables us all to live together in this world without needlessly grinding against one another. Its importance is more, not less, in the absence of friendliness.” Lightning flashed, closer; the lamp flickered again, and her shadow danced upon the walls, a strangely angular thing of back-slanted ears, as if it were cast by a far more predatory creature than the woman before them. “Here, again, you seemingly assume that because I do not address you with a string of obscenities in an outdoor voice, we must be friends.”

Another rumble and flash from outside, another faltering of the lamp, and in the few split-second flickers of darkness, her eyes were eerie green points in her silhouette. “Well, it seems forthrightness is valued here; let it never be said that I am less than accommodating. You and your circle of hell-dabblers, Mr. Mogul, are a class exercise as far as I am concerned, and I expect you to conduct yourselves as such. If you will not, then you are just a suspicious person who has been hanging around the school, performing infernomancy upon my students. That makes a great difference in how I shall deal with you.”

“It’s apparently a short trip between polite and pushy,” Vanessa said tightly.

“Nessa,” Embras warned.

“That is purely unjust,” Kaisa said, her smile unwavering. “I am pushy without being for a moment less than polite.”

“As I suspect you already know,” Embras said, his tone a few degrees cooler than before, “virtually all my available people are out of hand, on business which has nothing to do with you or your students. What we discussed for our final presentation will require more magical skill than I can bring to bear alone, in a field which you emphatically do not practice.”

“Is there something wrong with these?” she asked mildly, making a languid gesture toward the other two with one hand. Thunder rumbled again, closer still, and the lamp cut out completely for almost a full second, plunging the room into a short blackness from which her luminous green eyes bored into them.

“In a word, yes,” Embras replied. “Both sustained serious injury at the hands of the Archpope’s lackeys. Surely you don’t suggest I should risk very important, partially disabled lieutenants on an affair sure to ruffle Professor Tellwyrn’s easily-ruffled feathers?”

“Hmm,” she mused, blinking slowly and cutting her eyes from Vanessa to Bradshaw and back. “I see…I see. Well. In some cultures which live closer to nature than this one, it is considered advisable to…cull the weak.”

Lightning flashed outside, brighter and closer yet, but there was a heavy silence in its wake. Kaisa suddenly grinned broadly at them.

Thunder slammed down as if the lightning bolt had struck directly overhead, and the lamplight vanished entirely.

In the blackness which followed, the glow of the city outside the windows was interrupted by darting, thrashing shapes, and the room filled with the sounds of scuffling, cursing, and finally a single shout of pain. Two shadowbolts flashed across the darkness, their sickly purple glow doing very little to alleviate it, and for an instant the decoy spell circle flashed alight before being brushed away in a single swish of a furry tail.

The whole thing lasted barely five seconds.

Then the lamp came back on, revealing Kaisa standing exactly where she had been, in exactly the same pose. Bradshaw sagged against the wall, barely holding himself upright; Vanessa stood five feet distant from where she had started, hands upraised and a half-formed shadowbolt flickering between them. Embras was now within two yards of Kaisa, a green glass bottle in his hands, half a second from being uncorked.

“There,” the kitsune said brightly, tail swishing in self-satisfaction. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, Embras, but it seems your friends have been tortured recently. Quite clumsily, I might add. If there is one thing I cannot abide, it is shoddy work; whatever is worth doing is worth doing to perfection. But that aside, I trust there will be no more problems or excuses?”

“Are you all right?” Embras asked, shifting his head slightly toward the others but keeping his gaze firmly on Kaisa.

“Fine,” Bradshaw said, straightening up, then blinked, and held up both hands before himself. Neither trembled in the slightest. “I’m…fine?”

Vanessa also straightened, lowering her own hands and letting the spell dissipate. Her mouth dropped slightly open in wonder, and she shifted, leaning her weight on her bad leg, with no apparent effort.

“As I said,” Kaisa said complacently, “perfection. I shall expect to see you in place tomorrow after classes. Do try not to disappoint me, Embras; I was actually beginning to grow rather fond of you. We don’t have any Wreath in Sifan, and you kids have such a wonderful appreciation of fun. Ta ta!”

With a final, cheerful smile, she whirled around, her tail swishing in a broad circle and appearing to erase her from existence. Two crimson maple leaves drifted slowly to the floor where she had stood.

“Are you…” Embras finally turned fully to the others. “Did she really…?”

“I think… Kelvreth’s lashes, she did,” Vanessa whispered, taking a few steps, then a few more back the other way, and finally trotting at a near run to the windows and back. “It’s fixed.”

“Well, then,” Embras said, tucking the bottle away in a pocket and straightening his coat, “we are going to have to have ourselves a celebration. Later, I’m afraid. Right now, it appears we’d better start making preparations for our…command performance. I gather it would go over poorly if the hour arrived and we were unready.”

“At this moment,” Bradshaw said with the faintest tremor in his voice, “I feel inclined not to disappoint her, even without the implied threat.”

“It’s not that I disagree, at all,” said Vanessa, still pacing back and forth as if not yet convinced that she could. “But if anything, this only underscores the point. Oh, I’m grateful; I don’t think I could tell you how much. I’d be willing to—”

“Stop!” Embras barked, holding up a hand. “That’s a fairy, Nessa, and I wouldn’t lay odds that she’s not still listening. Don’t say anything she could interpret as a promise, or a bargain.”

“Even more proof,” she said grimly, finally stopping and facing him. “Embras, that creature is ancient, wildly unpredictable and far more powerful than anything needs or deserves to be, and I don’t believe for a moment that she just placed us so much in her debt out of the goodness of her vulpine little heart. With everything we see of her, I feel less sanguine about this bargain you’ve struck. What if she immediately turns on you the moment your role in her little drama is done?”

“In that case,” he said lightly, “you’re in charge. It’s not that I lack respect for your skills, Bradshaw old boy, but the business of the next few years will call for herding cats more than casting hexes.”

“Let’s not think about that quite yet,” Bradshaw said tensely.

“Embras, be serious,” Vanessa snapped.

“I am,” he said calmly. “If this pays off, it will be worth it. I see no reason to believe it won’t, and as for the good Professor Ekoi… Well, we struck a bargain. So long as we honor it, so will she. Anyway, this isn’t all bad. We’ve as much stake in this as she has, if not more. And if she says the time is right… Frankly, it’s entirely possible that she’s just correct. I’ve a feeling this isn’t her first rodeo.”


Slipping back out through the rent was as easy as getting in had been, though Aspen balked at the eerily empty space between the wall of her mental prison and the dream world beyond. She kept a grip on Ingvar’s sleeve, huddling behind him, and forcing him to moderate his pace on the way back to the mouth of the cave. Not that he was in a particular rush; even knowing the nearly-invisible path would hold him, he felt no urge to walk hastily upon it.

It held, though, as it had before, and he indeed picked up the pace once he got his feet back on ground that looked like ground. In fact, by that point, Aspen also hastened, until she actually pushed him aside and was the first out into the forest.

Ingvar had to halt and watch, smiling in spite of himself, as the dryad squealed in sheer delight and hurled herself to the ground, rolling exuberantly through the moss. She bounded upright in the next moment, rushing over to wrap her arms around the trunk of a tree and hug it, then darted to one side to investigate a bush.

“Oh my gosh! Things! Plants! It’s not like the real world but oh how I’ve missed other living things. Stuff that isn’t me!”

“Couldn’t you have made—Aspen!” he exclaimed in alarm.

“What?” She looked up at his tone, frowning. “What the mat—augh!”

Mid-sentence, she caught sight of her hands, which had begun to fade from view like the path beyond the dreamscape. The dryad stumbled backward, as if she could outrun the oncoming invisibility, which did not work. It traveled up her arms, progressively erasing first her hands, then her forearms. She stumbled, glanced down, and let out a keening sound of pure panic at the sight of her vanishing feet.

Ingvar rushed forward, horribly unaware that he knew of nothing that could help, but reflexively grabbed her by the arms as if by holding her, he could keep her anchored in existence.

He was actually quite surprised when it worked.

Her limbs immediately faded back into view, and she clutched his waist, her fingers digging in as if to reassure them both that she still had fingers. They stared at each other, wide-eyed, Aspen panting in gradually diminishing panic.

“Okay,” Ingvar said shakily after a moment, “I warned you something like that might happen. I think…you had better keep hold of me while we’re in here.”

“Right,” she said weakly. “Right. Good idea. Um. What…are we doing?”

Moving very carefully, he slipped an arm around her waist, pulling her close, and turning in a slow half-circle to reorient himself. There was the cave… Once he was facing the right direction again, even without taking wolf form, he found he could detect the trail of scent leading off into the distance. Or not exactly scent…now it was a perception to which he couldn’t quite put a name, as if he had senses here to which he was not accustomed. Which, now that he thought of it, made perfect sense.

“I’m looking for someone,” he said. “A… Well, I’m not sure what, or who. But it’s someone who knows a lot about traveling through dreams this way.”

“Do you think this…someone…could help me?” she asked tremulously.

“I suppose that if anyone can, he’s a likely candidate. Or she,” he added. “And I was looking for h—them anyway. I guess now we just have another reason to find them.”

“Right,” she said, pressing herself against his side. He almost wished the situation were less worrisome (and she less weirdly childlike) so he could enjoy what would otherwise have been an exceedingly pleasant sensation. “Okay…good, sounds like a plan. Uh, sooner would be better.”

“Right,” he echoed. “It’s going to be a little difficult to walk in this position…”

After shuffling around for a few moments, they settled on holding hands, which seemed to keep her visible and intact. His left hand and her right; useless as it might be here, he felt it important to keep his dominant hand free to reach for a weapon if he needed to. If nothing else, it brought him some comfort.

“It’s that way,” he said, pointing in the direction of the invisible trail.

“How do you know?”

“It’s a long story. I was…”

He trailed off, staring. A few feet directly in front of them, a tree suddenly sprouted from the thick moss underfoot, rising upward in seconds to the height of a man and unfolding branches which dangled like a willow’s. The sapling was a pale green like the earliest leaves of spring, and glowed as brightly as a street lamp.

As they stared at it, another tree sprouted further up, in the direction the trail went, ten yards or so distant. After a few moments, yet another one did beyond, far enough that it would be lost in the shadows if not for its green glow.

“There’s also that,” Ingvar said finally. “And it appears we’re expected, now.”

“Great,” she said. He couldn’t tell from her tone whether that was sarcastic or not. At any rate, she didn’t resist or have to be pulled along when he set off on the now-marked trail. Considering her present condition, it made sense that she would be as eager as he to meet the person Ingvar had come here to find.

Whether that person would be willing, or able, to help her were two separate and currently unanswerable questions.

They proceeded, guided by the glowing trees; it was oddly reminiscent of walking along a street marked by lamps. That thought made Ingvar cringe and decide he had spent far too much time in Tiraas. He did not relax his attention, however, not willing to blindly trust these signals. He could still find the trace, and it did continue to lead in the same direction as the glowing trees.

“Do you sense anything?” he asked his companion, who was silent and apparently nervous. “Anything aside from these? I found it as a scent, first, but now it’s like I can still perceive it, even without smelling…”

“Uh huh,” she said, picking up her pace slightly. “I think…I have an idea what’s up there.”

“Do you think we’re in danger?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah,” she said immediately. “But I also think he can probably help. Both of us, I mean.”

“Great.” He was, at least, certain of his own sarcasm.

They did not have far to go, it turned out. After only a dozen or so tree-markers, their destination became plain. Up ahead of them rose an entire grove of the glowing trees, these full-sized, towering above even the ordinary pines that made up the forest. They were planted close together, their branches intertwining to form an almost solid wall; at least, he could not see what lay beyond it. Rather than a forest, the tight structure made him think of some kind of temple, or cathedral.

Ingvar and Aspen exchanged a wary glance, but did not slow.

As they neared, the spaces between the trees began to be somewhat more visible. Drawing closer, he found that while the glow of the whole thing made it look homogenous from without, its “walls” were composed only partly of slender tree trunks; most of them were made up of the drooping, willow-like fronds, which formed an almost solid barrier to sight, but clearly not to passage. They shifted slightly in the faint movement of air through the woods. Something was beyond…something he could glimpse only vaguely. It was big.

Ingvar drew in a deep breath to steel himself, but still did not slow. Aspen kept her grip on his fingers as he slipped through the fronds between a pair of trunks; the gap was narrow enough that she had to fall behind, but a moment later she joined him within the grove, stopping to stare at its occupant.

“Welcome,” said the dragon.

He was green, and luminous as the trees making up his encircling grove, which Ingvar was fairly certain was not an ordinary draconic trait. Of course, in this dream-land, it made as much sense as anything else. Aside from that, he was a dragon in all relevant respects: sinuous, armored in jagged scales, winged, clawed, fanged, and over two stories tall.

Ingvar immediately bowed, as deeply as he was able. Aspen did not.

“My name is Khadizroth,” the dragon rumbled, tilting his huge, triangular head inquisitively. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you—and especially your companion, whom I confess I did not expect. Whom might you be?”

“I am Ingvar, a Huntsman of Shaath,” he replied, bowing again.

“Hi! I’m Aspen!” The dryad contented herself with a languid wave of her free hand.

Khadizroth surged to his feet, shifting his enormous bulk to face them directly, and Ingvar managed only by a sheer exertion of will not to skitter nervously backward. The dragon only used his upright stance to bow, however. Despite his size, it was clear from his orientation that he directed the gesture specifically at Aspen, and the thought of making an issue of it did not for a moment cross Ingvar’s mind. The Huntsmen were what they were, and had their ways, but he didn’t think even Tholi would have been daft enough to challenge a dragon for alpha male status.

“Aspen,” Khadizroth said, his voice a light tenor that made its deep, powerful resonance seem rather peculiar. “It is an honor and a pleasure to meet you. And you as well, Ingvar. I’m certain you have some questions for me—and I, now, for you. I am curious what a dryad is doing wandering this realm? Forgive me, but of those of your sisters whom I have met, I never found any to be sufficiently introspective to find entrance here.”

“Well, it wasn’t exactly my idea,” she huffed. “I was being kept in a…a kind of bubble. Isolated from time and stuck in my own head.”

The dragon narrowed his eyes to blazing emerald slits, their luminosity outshining even the glow of the rest of him, and Ingvar’s wariness increased substantially. “Who would dare do such a thing?”

“Oh, it wasn’t to attack me,” she said grudgingly. “I was…um…kind of transformed? Partially. The Arachne froze me to stop it from happening, and she and Kuriwa and Sheyann were trying to… Well, they were trying to help, but I really didn’t like it. They wouldn’t let me out; Sheyann said I’d just continue the transformation if they did unless we made some kind of progress.”

“Transformation?” Ingvar said, curious in spite of himself.

Aspen turned to him, her face lighting up in a sunny smile. “But then Ingvar here found me and helped me get out! Oh, but… There’s kind of a problem. If I don’t stay touching him, I tend to…um, disappear.”

“I see,” Khadizroth rumbled thoughtfully. “To accomplish such a thing… You are an even more interesting individual than I expected, Brother Ingvar, and that is indeed saying something. I’m afraid, however noble your intentions, you have placed Aspen in considerable danger. She is here with neither body nor mind; both are imprisoned in another location. The soul of her is able to exist only because you have brought it out connected to yourself.”

Aspen let out a soft squeak of dismay.

“Is it possible you can help her?” Ingvar blurted. “I mean… My apologies, Lord Khadizroth, I did not intend to presume…”

“Not at all,” the dragon said, drawing back his lips in what Ingvar only realized after a terrified moment was a smile. That was a lot of teeth, and on average they were longer than his forearm. “Not at all, I would not dream of sending you away unaided. Yes, I believe I can do something. Hm… Forgive me, but this may take some effort, and concentration. My focus is currently divided; I am not physically present in the dream world, and you are, I’m afraid, not the only important matter which demands my attention.”

“I’m sorry if it’s trouble,” Aspen said piteously, and Ingvar gave her a wry look. Even ill-behaved dryads became suddenly more respectful in the presence of a dragon, it seemed.

Khadizroth smiled again, and laughed, a booming chuckle that, if anything, increased Ingvar’s nervousness. “My dear child, it is no imposition. I would be honored to be of aid to a daughter of Naiya under any circumstances, but to do so and spite both Kuriwa and Arachne at the same time? Oh, I assure you, nothing could prevent me. Now, Ingvar. Are you ready to be of assistance to her?”

“What can I do?” Ingvar asked immediately, which would be the only possible answer to that even were he not already interested in aiding Aspen.

“You have bound her to yourself, and you alone of the pair of you have a safe avenue out of the dream. You will have to carry her with you to the material plane. I will perform the working which will make this possible. Hold out your other hand.”

Ingvar did so, opening his palm, then blinked. Sitting upon it was a large nut. It was the size of a walnut, but smooth, and striated with luminous green and gold veins.

“It is done,” the dragon said solemnly.

“Wait…that’s it?” Aspen exclaimed. “I thought you said that would be hard!”

Again, Khadizroth chuckled. “This is a realm of symbol and perception, child. I assure you, what you just observed was the palest shadow of what actually transpired. When you awake, Ingvar, plant the seed. Do so quickly. The magic will do the rest.”

“I thank you for your help, Lord Khadizroth,” he said formally, closing his fingers around the seed and bowing again.

“Uh, me too,” Aspen said belatedly. “Seriously, thanks. That’s a big help.”

“I am honored to be of service,” the dragon said solemnly. “And now, if that addresses your problem, I believe Ingvar here came to me with questions.”

He turned his head expectantly toward Ingvar, sitting back down on his rear legs.

Ingvar experienced a tongue-tied moment, and cleared his throat to cover. “It’s… The truth is, milord, I owe you thanks. I have benefited greatly from the quest on which you set me. I’ve learned a great deal…most of it troubling, but all, I think, vitally important.”

“You are welcome,” the dragon said solemnly, nodding his great head.

“This part, though,” Ingvar continued, steeling himself, “was part of a bargain I struck. In exchange for the Crow’s help, she asked that I journey through the dream to find out who it was who sent me those visions.”

“As expected,” Khadizroth said, nodding again. “Have you any questions of your own for me, before we address that?”

“I…one, in fact,” Ingvar said slowly. “If I may.”

“I assure you, young Huntsman, I did not send you on a journey toward the truth without expecting you to ask for detail at its end. Speak, and I will answer what I can.”

Ingvar hesitated again, then took a deep breath and blurted. “Why me?”

“Ah,” said Khadizroth, blinking slowly. “Sadly, that’s a question I cannot answer, at least probably not to your satisfaction. I sent out to find the right one to undertake this quest. In such matters… It is unknowable, how the One is selected. Depending on who you ask, you might be told that I chose you subconsciously, that the world did, that Shaath or even Naiya did. There are some who would contend that you chose yourself for this duty.”

“Well, that’s nice and all,” Aspen said dubiously, “but he pretty much asked you what you think.”

“Aspen!” Ingvar protested.

Khadizorth laughed. “Don’t begrudge her a little brazenness, my friend, you’re only arguing with the wind. To answer, then… I will fall back upon the only consistent wisdom I can claim to possess, and say…” He shook his head slowly. “I don’t know. But I am most definitely not disappointed with the result. However you were chosen, and by whom, you are clearly the right one. Not just any fool could have stumbled into this dream and rescued an imprisoned dryad on your way to this meeting. Who can say what threads there are, linking you to what destiny? The wild magic of the fae is not meant to be understood.”

“By which you mean,” Ingvar said quietly, “that particular…transcension field is not designed with mortal consciousness in mind.”

Khadizroth stared down at him for a long moment, then shook his head. “Kuriwa sent you down that hole, didn’t she?”

“That was the most educational part of this journey, yes. Though…perhaps by not as great a margin as it deserved. I am still not at all certain what to do with the knowledge I gained.”

“Embrace that, Huntsman, and act only judiciously. The unwise use of knowledge is behind the vast majority of suffering.”

Ingvar nodded. “Well, then… That aside, it sounded as if you were unsurprised to learn that she sent me here to find you.”

“Only to find?” the dragon asked in amusement.

“Yes,” Ingvar said firmly. “That was all; she tasked me only with learning who it was who could send visions through dreams and designate her as a person the recipient should seek out. This is done and my duty to her fulfilled. Before I return, though, I am curious…”

“Yes?” Khadizroth prompted when he trailed off, still smiling.

“I have the sense,” Ingvar said very carefully, “that you planned all this for a reason.”

Again, the dragon chuckled, momentarily filling the air with the scent of smoke. “Indeed. Given your origin, Huntsman, I suspect you understand the purpose and the value of honor. That is why I chose Shaath; any of the gods would have sufficed, but I deemed a Huntsman the best choice for this journey.”

“I certainly do,” Ingvar said, nodding firmly.

“I don’t,” Aspen said somewhat petulantly. “Honor’s just a made-up idea. It’s not natural.”

“Natural, unnatural,” Khadizroth mused. “Where do you draw the line?”

He stared at her expectantly; she only stared mutely back, her mouth hanging open.

“Aspen,” Ingvar said, turning to her with a frown, “you feel bad about killing those people, right?”

Her expression collapsed into a sulky scowl and she kicked at the ground. “I don’t know why you have to bring that up…”

“But you didn’t before,” he persisted.

“I didn’t know better!”

“But you do now. You are more than just an animal; things matter beyond simple survival. Honor is what guides us away from wrong action, prevents us from making the mistakes that make us feel as horrible as you do about that. It is well worth pursuing.”

“Well said,” Khadizroth rumbled approvingly. “But even honor has its pitfalls. I find myself somewhat trapped by my own. I am beholden, thanks to honor and obligation, to a certain individual whose aims I find it inherently dishonorable to serve. It is the proverbial rock and hard place.”

“I…see,” Ingvar said slowly.

“Makes one of us,” Aspen muttered.

“In this much, however,” the dragon continued, “I persist in finding ways around the prohibitions laid upon me. By, for example, drawing Kuriwa’s attention in a most roundabout manner.”

“Oh?” Ingvar said, finding his curiosity rising again. “Toward what?”

“Events are transpiring,” said the dragon, “in Viridill and across the border in the cursed lands to the south. Large events, which have commanded a great deal of attention—which was exactly what they were intended to do. Someone should know that these are a smokescreen for—”

Abruptly the dragon broke off, eyes and mouth going wide, and suddenly the luminosity of his scales faded, leaving him a glittering, metallic green which seemed mundane only by comparison.

“Lord Khadizroth?” Ingvar asked, alarmed. “What’s wrong?”

Khadizroth heaved backward, letting out a roar of unmistakable pain and toppling back against the rear edge of his grove, smashing a wide swath of the glowing trees to the ground. Ingvar and Aspen backpedaled in unison, reaching the opposite wall just as the glow of those trees flickered out and they began dissolving into dust.

The dragon thrashed wildly, flailing tail and claws raking up huge rents in the forest floor, and where they gouged the moss, an empty whiteness was revealed beyond. After mere moments of this it began to spread, his continued struggles seeming to tear open the very air.

“What’s wrong with him?” Ingvar asked frantically.

“Just run!” Aspen shouted, following her own advice and dragging him along.

He needed little more encouragement; the world itself seemed to be dissolving around them, jagged rents now spreading outward from the increasingly damaged area around the flailing dragon. They quickly outpaced the fleeing pair, trees, ground and sky alike disappearing in segments. The very earth dissolved beneath them, and suddenly they were plummeting into infinity, their cries of panic underscored by a last, thundering wail of pain from the dragon.

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10 – 23

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“That’s…heavy stuff,” Gabriel said slowly, frowning into the distance. “And by the way, am I the only one noticing a pattern here? Deities seem unusually interested in our social circle.”

“I had the same thought,” Teal agreed. “And…honestly, it’s a little unnerving. I mean, not that we haven’t all been treated well by various gods, but in the stories…”

“In the stories,” Ruda finished, “when the gods start paying undue attention to you, it’s usually either the cause or the effect of you being utterly fucked.”

“So that’s true in Punaji stories, too?” Teal asked.

Ruda grinned. “Gods are gods, Teal. It’s been eight thousand fuckin’ years. People everywhere have pretty much figured out to stay outta their damn business.”

The group was nominally moving, but at a pace more conducive to conversation than getting anywhere. They had paused in a bench-lined alcove sheltered by oak trees, most of them consumed by curiosity over Teal’s late arrival to class and what had caused it. Now, with that story told, the students were occupied with digesting and discussing the details of her encounter, and only incidentally making their way toward their next class.

“Well,” Juniper mused. “The last one made a new paladin. So…maybe that’s what he wants from you, Teal!”

Teal groaned, covering her eyes with a hand.

“I think, with all respect to everyone present,” Shaeine said softly, “I would not prefer that outcome, either.”

“There’s never been a Vesker paladin before,” Fross chimed, fluttering slowly about their heads. “On the other hand… There’s never been a Vidian paladin till now, either. And when Vidius came to the campus this spring, he kind of implied he wasn’t the only god looking to expand his repertory, didn’t he?”

“That’s not the first time I’ve heard something like that,” Toby added. “When Omnu called me, he stated outright that the Pantheon had all been reconsidering the state of the world, and that was why they’d held off calling paladins for thirty years.”

“Avei said the same at my calling,” Trissiny said, frowning thoughtfully.

“I really don’t think that’s it,” Teal said fervently, “and I’m fairly sure that’s not just the voice of wishful thinking. Honestly, he seemed more critical of the way I’ve been doing than anything else.”

“It’s kinda funny a god would show up out of nowhere just to nitpick,” Juniper pointed out. “I mean, the paladin thing makes some sense, right? Also, sorry if I’m being dense, but I’m not sure I get why you’re so down on the idea. It seems to come with a lot of advantages.”

“Paladins tend not to live very long,” Trissiny said in an extremely neutral tone.

“Well, but she’s got Vadrieny!” Juniper said brightly. “So, hey, maybe that’s the whole point. An un-killable paladin!”

“Nothing’s un-killable,” Gabriel said rather darkly.

“Hell yes!” Ruda crowed, brandishing a bottle of scotch. “Paladins all around! Everybody gets a divine calling! Fuck yeah, I can be the new Hand of Naphthene!”

“Um, excuse me,” Gabriel said, “but isn’t she the one who doesn’t like anybody, doesn’t give a shit about anything, sometimes sinks ships even when they’ve made the right offerings, smites people for praying to her, and cursed your entire family?”

“Exactly!” Ruda replied, grinning madly. “It’s perfect for me!”

“I don’t really think so,” he said, regarding her pensively. “That’s just chaotic dickery. You’re an invested, goal-directed asshole. It seems like a basically different kind of a thing.”

“Anyway!” Teal said firmly. “Seriously, why ever Vesk has decided to take an interest in me, I really don’t think that’s it. Especially with my situation with Vadrieny. Vesk is not impressed by brute force; that’s the whole point of being a bard. He, uh, didn’t sound very impressed by my ability to do without brute force, either…”

“The more we contemplate this,” said Shaeine, “the more obscure his intentions appear. I am reminded that it is generally so, when discussing the plans of the gods. For the time being, perhaps it would be more productive to simply consider Vesk’s advice, and act upon it insofar as it is possible. You have our full support in this, Teal,” she added more softly.

“Hell yeah,” Ruda agreed. “All joking and theorizing aside, we’ve got your back.”

“In theory,” Juniper said thoughtfully. “I mean… Based on what it seems he was talking about, I, uh, kinda suck at that, too.”

“Now, that is a potential reason Vesk might take a firm interest in our resident bard,” Trissiny suggested. “If you consider us as an adventuring party in one of his stories… There are three paladins, a cleric and a demigoddess among us—we’re a group who might reasonably attract the interest of any deity. And subtlety has not exactly been our strong suit.”

“Ballroom dancing isn’t our strong suit, Shiny Boots,” Ruda said cheerfully. “Subtlety is the realm in which we have collectively set new standards of failure and ineptitude.”

“Right, so it’s something we can work on,” Gabriel said seriously. “As a starting point, perhaps we could all refrain from fucking stabbing each other.”

“Arquin,” Ruda said sardonically, “if you’re gonna keep trotting that old thing out, I might just have to arrange for it to be fresh and applicable again.”

Toby sighed.

“Hey, Teal!”

They all straggled to a stop as Scorn came stomping up the path, waving. It had taken a few weeks of getting to know the demon before people stopped being alarmed by that approach, but despite the appearance that she was trying to punish the earth with her claws, she was probably not walking that way out of anger. It was just her gait.

“Hi, Scorn,” Teal replied, waving back. “What’s up?”

The Rhaazke came to a stop in the path in front of them, wearing an uncharacteristically pensive frown. “Where you were just now? You have a class, yes? Right before now?”

“Yes, magic with Professor Ekoi,” Teal said slowly. “I was late, though, because… Well, that’s a long story. Why, were you looking for me?”

Scorn shook her head impatiently. “You are always in this class, this time of day? It’s known?”

“Well, the schedule’s public,” Teal said. “Why do you ask?”

The demon let out a short breath through her nose, looking off to the side, then narrowed her eyes. “Tell me… Hellhound breath. The hounds, they are from my place—very hard to get here, yes? Almost impossible, like me?”

“Uh, yeah,” said Gabriel. “Did…you want a pet? I mean, I can see how a reminder of home would be nice…”

“Ooh!” Fross bobbed up and down in excitement. “Melaxyna has two down in the Crawl! They’re crazy strained for resources down there, I bet we could get her to trade for something!”

“I rather suspect that Professor Tellwyrn has already ruled that out,” Shaeine said calmly, “considering the value of those creatures, and the fact that several of our fellow students are appallingly mercenary.”

“No, no!” Scorn waved a hand impatiently. “I don’t need, I am asking about the breath. Hard to get here, yes? It is expensive?”

“Hellhound breath is illegal to possess or trade in the Empire due to its use in high-level necromancy and the necessity of category one demonic trafficking to obtain it,” Fross recited. “The substance has unparalleled powers of awakening, and aside from its necromantic utility has—”

“I know what is the breath,” Scorn exclaimed in exasperation. “I have four at home! They are stay in their kennel at night so I can have sleep. I am asking, it is rare here? Very rare? Very expensive?”

“Oh, sorry, I guess you would know that,” Fross said, chagrined. “Um, yes, then. It’s rare, and expensive.”

“How expensive?” Scorn pressed. “Say, amount in a bottle the size of a pea. This costs what? You could buy a building with?”

“Um…sorry,” the pixie replied somewhat awkwardly. “I do like to diversify my studies, but the economics of magical contraband isn’t something I’ve found a need to investigate.”

“Scorn, what’s going on?” Toby asked. “Why do you need hellhound breath?”

“I don’t need,” Scorn said brusquely, turning her attention back to Teal. “You do not like Ravana Madouri, right?”

Teal drew in a slow breath and let it out in a sigh. “Ah. This is all beginning to make more sense.”

“Glad you are having sense made,” Scorn said in visible annoyance. “Meanwhile, I am asking question which is not answered!”

“Scorn,” Trissiny said pointedly, “calm. We talked about this.”

“Yes, when you will not take me to town,” the demon shot back, scowling at her. “Your talk is boring, Trissiny.”

“Having you leave the mountain requires special permission from Professor Tellwyrn,” Shaeine said, “which she would not give if you approached her in a state of anger. The attempt would likely set back your progress in gaining her trust. This was all explained.”

“Well, I am understand a few things better now,” Scorn said. “I leave the mountain today, just now.”

“What?” Teal shouted, almost overwhelmed by similar outbursts from several of the others.

“Not very far off,” Scorn said quickly, making a dismissive gesture with her hand. “Not into the town. There is a spot at the bottom of the mountain, yes? Sort of still on it, I guess, actually. There is a nice hill and shady trees and boulders and stuff.”

“Wait, you went down to the make-out spot?” Gabriel said, his eyebrows climbing abruptly. “I am suddenly very alarmed, and oddly intrigued.”

“If you act on either of those feelings, I may be forced to emulate Princess Zaruda with regard to your foot.”

“Shut up, Ariel!” several people chorused, including Scorn.

“What were you doing down there?” Toby demanded. “Scorn, you know the rules, and the risks. If you aggravate Professor Tellwyrn we may not be able to protect you!”

“I am not need protected!” Scorn shot back, baring her teeth.

“Enough.” Teal’s voice was firm, but flat, and cut through the argument like a shut door. “I have a feeling I know, generally, where this is headed. Were you with Ravana, Scorn?”

“Ravana, yes, and Iris. I am not say her last name; not sure I can do it right. Anyway, I was asking.” She frowned again, gazing at Teal’s face. “You do not like Ravana. She is say… Um, well, I am not sure how much I trust what she says. She has ideas that are make me think. But you I trust, Teal, and Lady Vadrieny. I am concerned to know why you dislike her.”

“Ravana,” Teal said in a slow, careful tone, her eyes never leaving Scorn’s, “is extremely devious, highly intelligent, highly driven and ambitious, and… I don’t think she really has any moral scruples. At all. She definitely doesn’t regard other people with much personal feeling. She’s a very dangerous person.”

“Wait, really?” Gabriel said. “Ravana, the cute little blonde one?”

Trissiny turned very slowly to stare at him.

“Oh, don’t give me that look,” he huffed. “That is neither the dumbest nor the most offensive thing I’ve ever said.”

“This week, even,” Toby said dryly.

“Thanks for chiming in, there, bro.”

“And for all that,” Teal said in a softer tone, now frowning at the ground, “I don’t think I’ve been entirely fair to her. We…met under extremely stressful circumstances. It’s entirely possible part of what I feel toward her is based on that, rather than on her.”

Shaeine stepped closer, shifting her hand to press the back of it against Teal’s.

“Do you think,” Scorn said thoughtfully, “she would lie to harm me?”

Teal ruminated for a moment, then shook her head. “I think…that’s the wrong question, Scorn. Yes, she’s capable of harming you, or anyone else, but what’s more important is why. In my opinion, the way she acts toward people is not based on any personal feeling for them, but…cold logic. A calculation of what she feels is most in her best interests.”

“Hm,” the demon said, nodding contemplatively. “That is not really honorable. But maybe is not dishonorable, depends how it is done with.”

“That’s actually a pretty damn salient analysis,” Ruda commented. “An’ I think you’re right, based on my own conversations with the girl. Ravana Madouri is a born stateswoman. She’s not gonna hurt anybody for no reason, but if she has a reason, she won’t hesitate for an instant.”

“I thought she seemed sweet,” Gabriel mumbled.

“Of course she fucking did, Arquin,” Ruda said scathingly. “That’s what they do.”

“Scorn,” Teal said, “what does hellhound breath have to do with me being in class and you talking with Ravana just now?”

“There is class for younger scholars,” Scorn replied. “Alchemy with Admestus. Ravana is bribe him to cancel, so she can talk with me—hellhound breath in a bottle, size of a pea, she says. And I am thinking, what is worth to her to talk with me in one time she knows you will not be there? So I want to know how much is hellhound breath worth.”

“Holy shit,” Gabriel muttered. “I mean, I don’t know black market economics any better than Fross, but hellhound breath is one of the rarest magical reagents there is. I’m pretty sure a pea-sized bottle of hellhound breath is worth more than a pumpkin-sized ball of platinum. That stuff’s right up there with mithril.”

“I have to say it’s somewhat alarming she’d consider it that important to get her hooks into Scorn without us around,” Trissiny said, scowling and absently fingering her sword.

“Bear in mind,” said Shaeine, “that a thing’s value is a function of various factors. Its rarity and utility, yes, but also the facility with which it can be traded—which in this case, I gather, is not easy. A House as ancient and wealthy as Madouri is likely to have unimaginable treasures in its vaults. If Ravana already owned such a substance and had no intention of performing necromancy, she might not consider it as severe a loss.”

“That’s reasonable and probably true,” said Juniper, “but it’s also just speculation.”

“Quite right,” Shaeine agreed, nodding to her. “I was merely pointing out that we do not know her means, motivations…anything, really. There is also the fact that she stands to gain by cultivating Professor Rafe’s favor, both during her academic career and afterward. He is one of the world’s foremost alchemists.”

“Hm,” Scorn said, folding her arms and tapping one clawed foot. “Ravana wants to be friends with me. She says she can teach me to…um. Behave better. More like is supposed to do on this planet.”

“I thought we were doing that,” Trissiny said, sounding slightly affronted.

“I’m not sure I can say how well we were doin’ it,” Ruda said dryly.

“Also, I thought you were from the same planet on a different dimensional resonance?” Fross added.

“Augh!” Scorn exclaimed, grabbing her horns dramatically. “Again! Always you do this, all the time! You people are never just having a talk on the subject, it always goes around with arguing and jokes till I am not remember what I was talk about!”

“Annoying, isn’t it?” Ariel agreed.

“Well, I think they’ve got us there, guys,” Fross chimed.

“I am talk about Ravana,” Scorn said insistently. “I am ask what you think, because you have my trust. It is…safe? I should take her advice?”

“Hmm,” Teal murmured.

“Yes,” Ruda said, catching her eye, then turning to Scorn with a decisive nod. “Yeah, I think a lot of what you can learn from Ravana Madouri would help you hugely with what you need to know about the world. But.” She pointed a warning finger at the demon. “You keep it firmly in mind at all times that anything that girl does, she does because she sees an advantage in it for herself.”

“In fact,” Teal said, raising her gaze to meet Scorn’s, “I agree. And I think I will join you, Scorn. We both have a lot we could learn from a scheming noblewoman. She clearly wants to teach, for whatever reason… And I think we’ll be a lot better off not letting her separate us to do it.”


“Home again, home again!” Embras said cheerily, strolling up to the broad door of the barn. The shadow of the mountain kept Last Rock relatively cool at this time in the afternoon, but this one structure, out beyond the edge of town, was half in direct sunlight. It was also, despite being clearly repaired and stocked with hay, currently disused and apparently unoccupied.

“Yes, looks cozy,” Vanessa said absently. “Embras, exactly how heavy a deflection did you lay over this barn? Quite apart from that damned kitsune, it’s not smart to make assumptions about what Tellwyrn can or can’t pick up on.”

“Relax, I am a constant work in progress,” he replied, turning his head to wink at her. “Each day I pick up new tricks. In this case, I spent the morning sniffing around that shiny new Vidian temple. The deflection over this spot currently looks exactly like their method—augmented with our own particular brand of misdirection till I bet Vidius himself would think his people did it.”

“I’m not sure it’s to our advantage to have Vidius sniffing around here to see why his priests are hiding barns,” she muttered. Embras patted her on the shoulder.

“It doesn’t have to hold long, Nessa. In fact, it specifically needs to be penetrable in a few hours. And as I’ve said before, I have plans in place for Tellwyrn’s intervention.”

She sighed, but offered no further complaint as he slid the door open.

“Ah, good timing,” Bradshaw announced inside, straightening up from the spell circle he had just finished inscribing in the middle of the dirt floor. “Nessa! How’re you holding up?”

“Well,” she said, limping in as Embras stepped aside, gallantly gesturing her forward. “Tired, but satisfied. Calderaas is under control—we’ve inevitably lost some political capital, and I had to spend some rather more literal capital to wrangle some irate acquaintances, but I judge the city safe to move in again. A little more time to rebuild our connections the organic way and it’ll be almost as good as new. How about you guys? I gather from our fearless leader, here, that the trip to Puna Shankur was productive.”

“Quite,” Bradshaw agreed, pacing in a slow circle around his spell diagram and peering down at it. “Hiroshi sends his regards. Yes, it went well once we were out of Mathenon, where Embras felt the need to further detour what was already a detour so he could grouse about the Vernisites.”

“Excuse me, that was hardly a detour,” Embras said haughtily. “Hiroshi asked as we were passing. It cost us not a second to have a discussion while walking.”

“Oh, you and those Vernisites,” Vanessa said with wry fondness. “What were they doing this time?”

“Trading stocks,” Bradshaw replied.

“Embras, that’s been going on for centuries,” she said in exasperation.

At that, Bradshaw lifted his head, frowning. “It has?”

“Sure, among themselves,” Embras snorted. “Behind closed doors, with their cronies, their bankers and guilded merchants. Now they’re peddling stocks in special exchanges, involving the general public, who have no idea what they’re dabbling in.”

“Yes,” she said, deadpan. “The temerity, expanding the ability of the common people to participate in and profit from the wider economy. Those fiends.”

“People profit from participating in what they understand,” he shot back. “Do you think the average, cobbler, farmer or factory worker knows a damn thing about stock trading? How to analyze a company for risks and reward? Pah! All they’re doing by opening that up to the public is promising people the prospect of big winnings and raking in the dough because they’re the only ones who know how the system truly works! It’s exactly like that casino the Eserites run, except they at least are only picking on the wealthy and corrupt. Those Vernisites milk the whole economy—they cheat everyone, even those who don’t play their games. You mark my words, by the end of the century they’ll be replacing coins with bank notes so they can artificially inflate the value of the currency itself!”

“Really, Embras?” Bradshaw said wearily. “Are we so lacking in problems that you have to spin conspiracy theories?”

“Well, you’ve certainly got a point there,” Embras agreed. “Best to keep our minds on the task at hand. How close to prepared are we, Bradshaw?”

“This has been done, theoretically, for half an hour,” the warlock replied, now walking around the circle in the other direction. “I have been double, triple and quadruple checking it. This is not simple spellcraft we’re talking about, here.”

“By all means,” Embras said, “be certain. I trust your expertise implicitly—we don’t proceed if you’re not confident the spell will work.”

“Oh, I’m confident,” Bradshaw said, sighing. “At least, I can’t find any errors in my casting. It’s just…this plan.”

“Yeah,” Vanessa said softly. “We are talking about tweaking the nose of a demigoddess arch-fae, under the nose of a grouchy archmage.”

“We’re not tweaking anything,” Embras said patiently. “Assuming Bradshaw has arranged this thing to my specifications—which I don’t doubt he has—I think she’ll be rather flattered by the attention.”

“Just…don’t forget the risks,” Vanessa murmured.

“Never.”

“You have the item?” Bradshaw asked, straightening again.

“Right here.” Embras produced an envelope from within his jacket, its seal of black wax embossed in the shape of a spiky wreath. “Do you need to add it yourself?”

“No, there’s no great ceremony involved,” Bradshaw demurred. “And it’ll be better with your personal touch. As long as you place it at the proper time. If you’re certain you wish to be the focus of the attention you’re drawing…”

“Very good, then,” Embras said. “That being the case, I believe we’re just putting off the inevitable, now.”

Vanessa heaved another sigh and shuffled back a few steps to position herself by the door.

“All right,” Bradshaw said, nodding. “Stay alert, then. As complex as this is, it’s not going to take long to execute. Your part shouldn’t require very specific timing, so long as you don’t jump in too soon, but keep in mind aspects of that stage of the spell are designed to degrade gradually. No point stretching things out.”

“Of course. On your lead, then.”

“All right,” he repeated, visibly steeling himself. “Here we go.”

Bradshaw made no apparent physical move at the spell circle; for a warlock of his caliber, a pointed thought was enough.

At first, only the six lesser circles inscribed around its outer edge lit up, the lines forming them gleaming white. Inner rings from each rose bodily off the ground to rise into the air, where they hovered about four feet up. Below, the six small circles shifted in color to an eerie purple, and the first demonic forms began to emerge.

The katzils hissed in displeasure, as they were prone to do—these were wild creatures called straight from Hell, not tamed pets trained to behave. As they were forced upward through the invisible columns marked by their little summoning circles, the glowing rings above narrowed. At the moment when each katzil’s head passed through one, it snapped into place around the demon’s neck, solidifying into a black collar of gleaming metal, richly inscribed with spell runes in elaborate demonic script.

It took only a few moments for all six demons to emerge. As soon as all were caught and collared, the runes around the lesser circles physically shifted, and shadows rose up from nowhere—rather a disorienting sight, happening as it did in the middle of a glowing spell diagram—swallowing up the demons. A moment later, there was no sign that they had ever been there.

“That’s incredible,” Vanessa murmured. “Just that you can do that much, for one thing. If you could summon and control a demon with one spell…”

“Those won’t hold them long,” Bradshaw said absently, watching his spell circle closely as the inner ring slowly glowed to life, its own binding runes altering into a new pattern and the outer summoning circles melting away entirely. “Those collars will, in fact, kill the beasts within a few hours.”

“But the controls on them!”

“Yes, they’ll keep them from harming anyone, and the shadow-jumps will direct them away from people. Each will be impelled to sniff around a different type of bait; at least one is bound to catch the kitsune’s nose. But they’ll leave six trails back here, and we know she can follow shadow-jumps. All right, the remaining circle is re-configured. Embras, you’re up.”

“Right you are,” Embras said, stepping forward and extending the envelope. His sleeve shimmered as he thrust his hand into the area defined by the spell circle, but it caused him no evident discomfort. When he had the envelope positioned in the center of the space above the circle, he paused, standing utterly still and gazing in silence at it for a long moment.

“I’m exhausted,” he said finally, his voice suddenly soft and every bit as weary as his words claimed. “The last year has been a constant chain of screw-ups. The last four years, but it’s been escalating badly. Ever since the summoning of the archdemons was intercepted, and we lost them… All those years of planning gone up in smoke, to say nothing of the Lady’s heartbreak. We’re the Wreath; we lay our strategies in advance and act when we have control of the board. Since that day, we’ve been forced to react, to adapt, and it shows. We are not doing well. It was bad before, but since Tiraas this spring… I very much fear that was the deathblow for us. We’ve been running, fighting, making do with guerrilla tactics when we should have been moving pieces into place to dominate our endgame. It’s been centuries since the Black Wreath suffered so many failures and setbacks in such swift succession. Each day I find new reasons to be proud of our people, but I cannot escape the fear that now, after eight thousand years, I will be the one to let the Lady down when she needs us the most.”

In the aching silence which followed, the nigh-inaudible hum of magic at work was barely discernible at the edge of hearing.

Then, all at once, Embras released the envelope and stepped back away from the spell circle, briskly dusting off his hands.

It hung there, suspended in midair, while the circle morphed again, first shifting to a deep red, then re-configuring its runes till it was nothing but a single ring of crimson light. Finally, the circle shrank inward upon itself, vanishing into a coin-sized spot, and winked out entirely. Above it, the envelope melted from view, leaving the barn looking empty and totally mundane.

“Embras,” Vanessa said softly, gazing at him with a pained expression.

“I… I thought you were just going to…invite her,” Bradshaw said hesitantly.

“Nonsense,” Embras said brightly, his tone as light as ever now, as though his last speech had never occurred. “That spell wasn’t designed to carry a verbal message, merely the sense of one to a creature with fae gifts of perception. You both know that school of magic is the best at parsing and representing emotions. Well, she’ll notice the katzils, follow the shadow-jumps back here, decode the vanished circle as she did the last one and find our written invitation, ready and waiting! No sense adding another request for her presence. Fairies rarely do what they’re asked, and never what they’re told. A gift of real emotion, though?” He turned to them and winked, grinning. “A sensation of vulnerability, from a master of shifting facades such as myself? That will get her attention, and sweeten the offer to the point she won’t be able to resist. If you’re dealing with a foe clever enough to see through any trap you can lay, the quality of the bait is of paramount importance.”

“Is it truly that bad?” Vanessa asked quietly.

Embras’s expression sobered slightly. “You know better than most how bad it is. Both of you. But we’re still who we are, and we still have assets not yet brought to bear. It’s far from hopeless—and remember, this is not over until we have the gods of the Pantheon in chains at the Lady’s feet.”

They both nodded, expressions resolute, and Embras nodded back.

“For now, my friends, time we move out. Remember, no shadow-jumping till we’re a safe distance away—don’t want her following us. Until our invitation is delivered…there’s nothing to do but wait.”

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10 – 15

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“What is she doing?” Bradshaw asked, watching the pixie bob in place at the intersection. A few of the passing townsfolk seemed to have the same question, to judge by the stares they gave her. Some shied away from the bouncing ball of silver light, but clearly Fross was a known quantity in Last Rock, to judge by the number of cheerful greetings she received and returned. Notably, no one actually asked what she was up to. Apparently it was expected that University students would be a little odd.

“This is the fourth place she’s done it, whatever it is,” Embras replied, lounging against the side of the general store. “I didn’t happen to see her place the first one, but I could detect the spell; I’ve been following her since number two. Notably, she’s placing them in a grid around the periphery of the town—it’s a little hard to tell, Last Rock is so small, but I believe she’s covering each point where streets and alleys meet that’s surrounded by the town itself. Nothing out in the prairie, it’s aimed at quartering the village. They’re detection wards, that much I can see at a glance. I’d like your assessment unclouded by my theorizing, though; you are my acknowledged superior in spellcraft. That’s why I poked at you so urgently to jump down here.”

“Hmm…” Bradshaw rubbed at his chin, studying Fross, then glanced up and down the street. “You want to stay and watch where she puts the others first?”

Embras shook his head. “They’re detectable; we can follow up on that later. Best to keep a distance from her, methinks. Follow me, I’ll show you the first one. It’s also the most isolated, which is convenient.”

He straightened, brushing dust from the shoulder of his white suit, and led the way back toward the periphery. Both warlocks passed other people in the street, weaving around them as they went; though the citizens of Last Rock also stepped aside as they would have for anyone else on the sidewalk, none actually noticed their presence.

“Here we are,” Embras said, arriving at a currently unoccupied intersection. It was a T-crossing, where a narrow street terminated against the wall of a large stone barn that had been repurposed for storage, and neither of the other facing buildings had doors nearby. The street itself was mostly there as a boundary between structures, and had no pavement. “Passive and personal silencing only, please; I don’t want to risk casting a concealment over this thing until we’re certain what it does.”

“Good call,” Bradshaw murmured, beginning to pace in a circle around an invisible spot in the center of the intersection. “It’s a ward, all right. And in fact, it looks to be specifically geared toward detecting stealthed demons.”

“How fascinating!” Embras said, smiling broadly in delight. “You don’t suppose she could actually tag us with this?”

“Heavens, no. Far better mages than Fross have tried with no luck; nothing here is a threat to the Lady’s gift. Still, though…”

“Good work?” Embras prompted after he trailed off.

“Mm. Pretty good, yes. In fact, better than that. It’s not the best spellcraft of it’s kind I’ve seen by any stretch of the imagination… But considering this was done by a second-year student arcanist, it’s actually downright amazing. That pixie’s going to be a fearsome sorceress once Tellwyrn and Yornhaldt get done with her.”

He paused and knelt, peering closely at something on the ground, then carefully produced a small lens from an inner pocket of his robe and studied it.

“Hmm hm hmmmmm. This is very tight for student work. Unpolished—there are significant gaps in the frequency coverage, the kind of thing I’d expect from someone who doesn’t know the most probable ways an infernal spell would be hidden. But what she does cover is quite carefully woven. There’s a care and attention to detail there…”

“My goodness, you’re starting to sound positively enamored,” Embras said with amusement.

Bradshaw ignored him. “With the exception of an intersection lattice, here, clearly attuned to divine magic. That’s left wide open. It’s clearly intended to make this ward detectable to someone using a divine perception spell, and that’s necessarily going to create a gap in the ward’s structure. She left it more open than it needs to be, though. Inexperience, or she may be uncertain of the skills of whatever light-wielder is going to be making use of this.” He straightened up slowly, still frowning at the invisible ward.

“So…Trissiny, then.”

“Or Arquin,” Bradshaw countered, “who is, himself, an amateur arcanist. Or Caine; keep in mind we still don’t understand what’s going on there. That trick he pulled in Veilgrad is not part of the paladin’s general repertory. However…” He sighed. “Looks like you were right, Embras. They are working together on this. After Veilgrad I really didn’t think they’d pull together that fast.”

“I told you at the time,” Embras replied, “we didn’t divide them, they did. Splitting off the paladins was a tactical decision. It was a bad one, but it was deliberate and not indicative of friction in the ranks, which makes all the difference here. I wouldn’t have taken this approach if I wasn’t confident the others would rally around Trissiny. A Hand of Avei stampeding through the town is no use to anyone who’s not selling insurance; now we’ve a group to work with, several of whom have an education in politics, strategy, and magic. There are handles there that can be manipulated, hooks that Trissiny herself lacks. The question,” he mused, beginning to pace back and forth, “is just which of them we’re working with. The whole sophomore class, that’s a given. But there are all of a hundred people up on that mountain, students and staff, and a community that size is tightly knit by necessity. We lack solid data on a lot of them.”

“This reinforces the point I made in the first place,” said Bradshaw. “If we are dealing with the whole class, you’d better be extremely careful. And what are you going to do when Tellwyrn gets wind of this? They may have told her already.”

“What little they know to tell her isn’t damning, and won’t be,” Embras said. “Don’t worry, I have plans in place for Tellwyrn. Layer upon layer of plans; you don’t make assumptions or take risks with a wild card like her. But no, you’re right—the rest of this campaign calls for exceedingly light touches. We shall be faultlessly polite and playful with the little dears. No direct interference, just signals to point their attention where we want it.”

“So, no more chaining them to trees,” Bradshaw said dryly.

“That was a different matter and you know it,” Embras retorted, pointing a finger at him. “And so do the paladins. Even if Omnu proved interested in countering the disruptors—and really, who could have predicted that?—detaining them that way was for their own good. They won’t admit it, but they understood. No, in an ideal world, the rest of this will unfold on its own, without us needing to take the risk of doing anything at all. We’ve seen Justinian’s plants gearing up their own bags of tricks, and we’ve now got the students with eyes sharp and backs up. Hopefully they’ll do most of our work for us.”

“Snort,” Bradshaw said, deadpan. “This is my disdainful snort. Feel my disdain.”

“Yes, yes,” Embras acknowledged with a grin. “Nothing’s ever that easy. This, I’m afraid, is where the fun part begins; we’ll need to keep a careful watch on those two priestesses, and poke at the kids in such a way that it brings their noses across whatever trails those leave. Gonna be dicey, I won’t lie.”

“We’re still too blind for this,” Bradshaw complained, folding his arms. “We have only general profiles of many of those students and none at all of a lot of them. Only the sophomores and the professors are known quantities. So many ways this can go wrong.”

“Yes,” Embras agreed, nodding. “I’ve already consulted Ali, which is good for starting points. He was full of smug warnings about us becoming the targets of a foxhunt, but aimed me at the most likely interlopers. The new freshman girls, interestingly enough.”

“Hmm.” Bradshaw narrowed his eyes. “Yes, I can definitely see Domingue sticking her nose into this. She is not a fan of ours.”

“I’m honestly more concerned about the Lady Madouri and the drow,” Embras mused, gazing absently at the spot where Fross’s ward was laid. “That girl’s a vicious little snake even by the standards of the aristocracy, and this year’s drow is an An’sadarr—a soldier.”

“Very little scares me less than soldiers.”

“A soldier on her own for you to play games with? No, that’s too easy to be any fun. Here, though, we’re dealing with one who’s been trained specifically to contend with a nastier brand of warlocks than us—and even I don’t want to cross spells with a Scyllithene shadow priestess if I can help it—in the context of far more clever and resourceful individuals who will be actively trying to expose us. I really don’t fancy finding myself in an enclosed space with an irate Narisian guardswoman.”

Bradshaw sighed. “Embras… You know I trust you, but are you sure this is worth it?”

“This is the game, now,” Embras said quietly. “Us and Justinian. We can’t rush the timing till the alignment, and with Snowe’s campaign it’s clear what he’s aiming at—which we already suspected. This is about setting up the board, Bradshaw. We need to arrive at the endgame prepared to beat him there, but we also have to let him get there. And he has to let us get there for the same reasons, and with the same considerations. Yes, this was an attack of opportunity, but it’s too perfect. If we can damage his credibility with the paladins, we’ll have won a significant coup.”

Bradshaw opened his mouth to reply, then abruptly stilled and turned to stare at the corner of the old barn. Embras simultaneously straightened, following his gaze.

A moment later, Vanessa limped around the corner, her face drawn in a tight frown of worry.

“Oh, good, you’re here too,” she said by way of greeting, then turned to the high priest. “You’d better get back to Calderaas, Embras. We have a problem.”

“Can you be a little more specific?” he said.

“I’ve spent the morning fielding irate messages from about half our contacts in the city,” Vanessa replied. “They’re rather steamed to find that you’ve been clumsily spying on them.”

“Excuse me, I’ve what?” Embras raised both eyebrows in surprise. “Clumsily? Them’s fightin’ words.”

“They’re complaining that your personal succubus has left a wide trail around their homes and places of business,” she said grimly. “Then they started comparing notes, and it took me so long to prevent that from bursting into chaos that I’ve only just had the chance to cast a few divinations of my own. Vlesni’s tracks are all over the city, Embras. Quite glaringly. It looks like she spent last night futzing around just about every safe house and ally we have in Calderaas, and none of them knew it until they awoke this morning. Naturally, they are not taking it well. About half haven’t discovered it yet—it’s going to be messy when they do. This could well cost us our foothold in the city if it’s not fixed.”

“What the hell?” Bradshaw exclaimed. “Vlesni? Blatant tracks? Even if she’d turned on us, Embras, she’s too good to make such a mess. What could she possibly be up to?”

“Why, isn’t that an excellent question,” Embras replied thoughtfully. “Vanessa, can you kindly nominate a good site for us to investigate that is not currently swarming with pissed-off individuals demanding explanations we don’t have?”

“The nook behind Halisar’s,” she said immediately. “He left the city yesterday. Embras…where is Vlesni?”

“Another excellent question,” he said. “The nook it is. Let’s go have us a little look-see. Not that I doubt you, Nessa, but this is all hard to credit.”

“Oh, I know exactly how you feel,” she said darkly, taking a step back from them. The thin shadow cast by the barn bent, leaning forward, swelling and darkening, and in the next moment she was gone. Bradshaw and Embras rippled immediately afterward, vanishing as well.

In their absence, there was a brief pause, and the shadow shifted a fourth time.

The three warlocks emerged from the darkness in a hexagonal cul-de-sac approached only by one alley, which itself was so cluttered with stacks of broken crates and other detritus that the path there wound through a veritable maze. Walls on all sides rose at least three stories, casting the space in perpetual shadow; old, nigh-inscrutable graffiti lined its walls. The runes hidden within those messages were all but undetectable, both because of the pattern of the fading paint, and because they were partly inscribed in invisible ink. A single door stood in one wall, and several crates and boxes scattered about made convenient if impromptu seats. Despite its quite deliberate atmosphere of disuse and squalor, the area was uncommonly clean.

“All right, here we are,” said Embras, straightening his suit jacket. “Care to point me at—never mind, I think I see it.”

He took a few steps toward the door, staring through narrowed eyes, Vanessa and Bradshaw following along behind. For a moment, all three studied the door and the wall around it.

“That’s…most peculiar,” Embras mused at last. “Most peculiar. She doesn’t leave traces that overt in places she’s actually been. I find Vlesni so useful to work with largely because she is discreet, even for a succubus.”

“Well?” Vanessa folded her arms. “Let’s hear what she has to say for herself.”

“Quite right,” Embras replied, turning back to face the center of the nook, and snapped his fingers.

The demon appeared soundlessly, glancing around in mild surprise overlaid with boredom.

“Really, Embras,” she protested lazily. “A little forewarning is courteous. One of these days you’re going to catch me in the bath.” Grinning, she rose up on tiptoe and stretched her arms above her head, the catlike gesture serving to marvelously highlight her figure. “You know if you want a good look, you need only ask.”

“Vlesni, my dear,” Embras said mildly, “where’ve you been?”

The succubus lowered her arms, frowning slightly. “What? Why? Did you need something? If you called, I didn’t hear it. That’s never happened before…”

“Answer the question, if you please,” he replied.

“All right,” she said with a shrug. “Right then I was in Ninkabi, watching the local cell as you asked. They’re still not doing anything remotely interesting, by the way, but by the dictates of the bitch goddess Irony I’m sure that’ll start up immediately now I’m gone.”

“And before that?” he said. “Last night?”

Vlesni frowned now. “Last night? I was at the Black Isle, in Razzavinax’s library.”

“Did you do anything of interest?”

“Not terribly. The good books are locked up and I’m not about to mess with his wards; he took Rizlith with him to Tiraas, so there’s not much to do there except read. There’s still stuff worth reading, but that gets dull so quickly.” She smirked. “I did manage to wrangle a threesome with a couple of the students to pass an hour or so. Since you’re so interested in my personal life, there are two of them I’m getting accustomed to that, with various others. The magical anonymity adds a certain spice for them. These two are siblings, neither even aware the other is even at the academy. Next time I’m gonna get ’em in bed together. Of course, I’ll never be able to tell them I got them to boff, Razz’d have my wings for that, but I’ll know.” She grinned fiendishly, twitching her tail like a contented cat. “It’s the little things in life, don’t you agree?”

“Can we please,” Vanessa said in a strained tone, “never, ever hear about her sex life again?”

Vlesni’s grin widened. “It’s all right, Nessa dear, you were drunk. That totally doesn’t count. Ask anyone.”

“Shut up, Vlesni,” Embras said softly, immediately regaining the succubus’s full attention. “Look at that door. Tell me what you see, and then explain it.”

She frowned at him, then shifted her gaze to study the door as directed. Bradshaw had already stepped over to it and was peering about through his lens. Vlesni’s expression melted to one of shock, then morphed to fury; she dashed past Embras, placing her hands against the wall and feeling around the pitted brickwork.

“What the fuck?” the demon snarled. “What—who did this? How? How did they do this? Embras!” She whirled on him, fists clenched and wings fanning out in a menacing display. “Explain!”

“I believe that’s what I just asked you to do,” he said. “It’s not just here, Vlesni. There are traces like this all over Calderaas. Just about everywhere in the city where we can go and feel slightly safe—or could, until this morning. Our friends and contacts who live under your brand new shadow are not pleased.”

“You think I did this?” she screeched. “Me? How? Why? Embras you can’t think—I have no explanation for this! I don’t understand how it could happen!” Tail lashing in agitation now, she seemed almost on the verge of tears.

Embras studied her calmly, visibly unimpressed. “And yet…there it is.”

“Embras!” she wailed. “You know I wouldn’t risk undermining you like this. You think I want to go back to Hell? If I’d been sneaking around on you I’d have a good cover story! I—this—this is insane! I have no idea what—how—who…”

“That actually is a solid point,” he mused.

“Unless that’s what she wants you to think,” Vanessa said skeptically. Vlesni shot her a baleful glare.

“Embras,” said Bradshaw, “look at this. Look at the way this energy is distributed. The quantity of it is purely absurd; Vanislaads don’t leave traces like this unless they bleed all over something. And see where it’s spread?” He pointed with his lens. “Along the walls, the door frame, over the door. Unless you think Vlesni has been running around the city scent-marking walls like a stray cat…this was planted.”

“Even if she were working against us,” Vanessa said grudgingly, “this would be an utterly idiotic thing to do. A priest would be able to pick up on these traces, they’re so outstanding. She’s got a giant target painted on her forehead, now. I cannot see her taking a risk like that for anything.”

Vlesni snarled wordlessly, quivering with rage.

“Yes,” Embras said, nodding slowly. “Yes, I’m inclined to agree. This costs us—one of our most subtle agents has just had her ability to move severely limited. Which, by itself, explains the why of it.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully with a thumb, staring at the marked door. “But…how? And by the same token, who? To do something like this, a person would first have to find discernible traces Vlesni had left—itself a tall order—and then somehow reproduce them. I confess I don’t even know a spell that can do such a thing. Bradshaw?”

“Sure you do,” Bradshaw replied. “Not exactly like this, but we were just doing basically the same to Trissiny Avelea. The difference is, that was the tiniest whisper of a trace, and it took a physical sacrifice from Vlesni to do it. This… Someone did the opposite, working from the merest hint of her residue to produce sizable quantities. That is the mind-boggling part. I don’t know any infernal craft that could do such a thing. The Lady could, a couple of the archdemons could have. Prince Vanislaas surely could. But those are inherent gifts, not any spellwork. Also, Elilial and Vanislaas have much better things to do than footle around Calderaas making life difficult for their own servants.” He shook his head. “I’m at a loss.”

“This is your fault!” Vlesni screeched, pointing accusingly at Embras. “You and that damned paladin-taunting spell of yours! So help me—”

“What?” Embras said flatly, staring at her. “No, really. Go on and finish that sentence, Vlesni. I’m curious.”

She pantomimed a throttling motion at him, baring her teeth.

“Embras, take it easy,” Vanessa said reprovingly. “She’s no more irritating than most of her kind, and she’s also got a point. I would be very surprised if this weren’t connected to that business somehow. It’s all too convenient.”

“Foxhunt,” Bradshaw said suddenly.

Embras turned to him. “What’s that?”

“Remember, you were telling me about Ali’s warning?” Bradshaw said, staring intently back. “You used the word ‘foxhunt.’ Was that his word, or yours?”

“His,” Embras said slowly. “I noted it at the time. It’s not a word that comes up in general conversation, and Ali does love his wordplay.”

“Oh, forsaken gods,” Vanessa whispered. “Embras, Tellwyrn brought a kitsune onto that campus.”

Vlesni groaned and sagged against the wall. “Just put a wandshot in my head right now. Let’s not drag this out.”

“Could a kitsune do something like this, is the question?” Embras asked, again frowning at the wall.

“That’s…a very good question,” Vanessa replied. “It’s hardly clear what they can do. I only know of a handful of instances of them ever leaving Sifan.”

“Are we jumping to conclusions?” Bradshaw asked cautiously. “The connection seems rather specious.”

“No, it fits,” Embras said. “We’ve got a mean and impressively impossible prank on our hands, the sudden proximity of a powerful fairy of unknown capability—whose students we are actively taunting—and Ali’s warning to link the two. Trust me, I know him; the only thing he loves more than sneaky wordplay is sneaky wordplay that’s only obvious in meaning when it’s too late.”

“Well,” said Bradshaw, tucking the lens back into his robe, “if that fox-woman is capable of doing something like this, it goes without saying that she’s a nasty piece of work. The complexity of this, the power necessary… She clearly ranks close to Tellwyrn herself as a threat.”

“And she’s the newest faculty member, of course,” Embras murmured. “The one about whom we know almost nothing.”

“Right,” Bradshaw said worriedly. “I think we’d better fix that immediately.”

“Quite so,” Embras replied, suddenly brisk. He clapped his hands together, then rubbed them vigorously. “All right! To arms, people. Vanessa, I’m delegating the mess in Calderaas to you, with apologies. This is where your talents shine, however. I want your silver tongue put to work smoothing all these ruffled feathers.”

“Well, that was an entertaining visual,” Vlesni muttered.

Embras ignored her, still addressing himself to Vanessa. “Do what you have to to keep everyone happy—the local cell is under your command for purposes of this assignment. However, before that, I want you to jump to Rodvenheim and get Svalthram in on this. We are obviously being hunted, and I’m not going to risk you without insurance. Explain the situation to him, and make sure he’s looking over your shoulder the whole time.”

“Svalthram?” she queried, raising her eyebrows. “Well, it can’t be said that you’re not taking this seriously.”

“Oh, I am dead serious,” he said darkly. “Anybody tries to take advantage of this to move against you, I want them put down viciously.

“Very well,” she agreed. “I’m on it. I’ve been on it most of today already; hopefully I’ve laid sufficient groundwork already to keep this from swelling any further.”

“Attagirl,” he said approvingly. “Meanwhile, we face the simpler but no less daunting of rustling up some solid information about kitsune, and Kaisa Ekoi in particular.”

“Ekoi Kaisa,” Vanessa corrected him. “They put the surname first in Sifan.”

“Quite right, thank you.”

“I’m not sure it’s all that daunting,” Bradshaw objected. “There’s a language barrier, but Sifan’s only a moment away by shadow-jump—I’m sure they have libraries…”

“No!” Vanessa cried in alarm. “Absolutely not, you don’t just go to Sifan and start poking around—especially about kitsune, of all things! There’s a reason we don’t have cells there!”

Bradshaw blinked in surprise. “I thought… It was my understanding the reason was none of the cults have a solid presence there. We’re not exactly useful where there are no Pantheon gods to oppose.”

“It’s not that simple,” Embras explained. “Religion in Sifan is…different. Many of the cults are indeed completely absent, including ours. It’s positively crawling with Eserites and Veskers, but they answer to the Queen as much as to their own organizations, if not more so. There’s a local Avenist sect that has no actual ties to the Sisterhood at all. And not to put too fine a point on it, Bradshaw, but kitsune and similar local phenomena are also part of the reason we don’t act there. We have no business in the place, and there are things in the Twilight Forest which would hunt us like rabbits. No… In general I prefer firsthand information, but in this case, we had better stick to what can be gleaned about kitsune from Tiraan sources. Asking prying questions about anything related to demons, fairies, or anything remotely sensitive is a quick way to get a visit from what passes for the local Thieves’ Guild. And if you think the Guild in Tiraas is nasty, just hope you never have to contend with the shinobi. There’s a very good reason all our Sifanese members were recruited after leaving the Eternal Kingdom itself.”

“Hm.” Bradshaw frowned pensively. “Is Hiroshi still in Puna Shankur?”

“If he’s not, the cell there will know where he went,” Vanessa replied. “That’s probably our best starting point, though, you’re right. Puna Shankur itself is off the beaten path and outside Tiraan authority, and Hiroshi is remarkably well-read.”

“Someone has a crush,” Vlesni muttered, too sullen still to be properly snide. Vanessa ignored her.

“Embras,” Bradshaw said, “until we’re on better footing with regard to this, Last Rock…”

“Way ahead of you,” Embras said fervently. “That will have to manage itself for a day or two at least, until we know what we’re dealing with, and how to deal. I’m not taking chances with an unknown quantity this apparently dangerous.”

“And if it turns out we can’t deal?” Bradshaw prompted insistently.

Embras sighed. “Then… Yeah, I’m afraid we’ll have to consider dropping that campaign, if this fox-woman proves too much to contend with. It’s a priceless opportunity, but after Darling’s hilarious little prank in Tiraas this spring, we cannot afford to risk people. Bad enough we don’t have time to rebuild our numbers before our date with Justinian. For now, we’ve got our assignments. Let’s hop to, people. Vlesni, you’d better stick with me for a while, at least until Vanessa manages to cover your tracks.”

“They aren’t my tracks,” the succubus snarled. “And hell yes, I’m with you. If this kitsune can be killed…dibs.”

She remained blissfully unaware of the tip of the scythe hovering mere inches from the back of her skull, the slightest cut with which would have removed her instantly from the mortal plane.

Alydren loomed invisibly over them, staring balefully down at Vlesni, whose image was glaringly sharp to her even across the watery barrier between planes. Regretfully, the valkyrie pulled back her scythe, mindful of the strategy of the situation. Alarming the warlocks by dispatching their pet succubus would mean she wouldn’t learn anything further. For now, she waited. Watching.

Vanessa was the first to depart; Alydren studied the dimensional pathways carved by her shadow-jump for a moment, but turned her back on them to follow Embras, Bradshaw and Vlesni. They were going after more information on the fox-goddesses. That, in her estimation, was much more interesting.

For several reasons.

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“This is too soon.”

“Bradshaw, you are turning into a regular old nanny,” Embras replied, not looking up from the diagram he was scrawling on the ground.

“Let me remind you what happened to us the last time you decided to get too aggressive,” Bradshaw said sharply, nodding at Vanessa, who just folded her arms. “I’m not blaming you, Embras, but keep in mind you’re working with people who have earned some caution.”

At that, Embras did raise his head, his expression serious. “I wasn’t being condescending when I suggested you two sit this out, you know. Lady knows, you’ve gone above and beyond the call lately. And frankly, aside from having earned a break, there’s the matter of it being in the best interests of the organization to have you fully rested and recuperated…”

“We’re both still in fighting shape,” Vanessa said tersely. “For a given value of ‘fighting,’ anyway.”

“The kind we usually do,” Bradshaw added. “Which doesn’t involve the sort of bear-poking you’re doing right now. But leaving that aside, Embras, I’m not just being conservative or cautious. Speaking as a fellow strategist, I believe this is too soon. I’d leave her alone for a bit—at least a day or two—to let this morning’s event settle to the back of her mind. The next one will have more impact that way.”

“Well, you aren’t wrong,” Embras acknowledged, kneeling again in the flattened tallgrass to resume work. He was using nothing more than his finger now, the enchanting dusts, sigils and charms all having been laid; a thin stream of bruise-purple energy was slowly scoring lines where he pointed it, adding to the already considerable complexity of the circle. “Under other circumstances, that’s exactly the approach I would take, too. However, we haven’t the luxury of a luxurious, drawn-out game this time. There’s a timetable here, and I’m not sure exactly where the numbers lie just yet. I want the girl good and spooked now, before she can convince herself it was her imagination, so she stays that way. We’ll have to adjust the schedule on the fly as things develop. Not ideal, I know, but we make do. All right, I think this is done. Nessa, Vlesni, kindly double-check my work?”

Vanessa silently limped over to him and began perusing the sigil through narrowed eyes, her head moving slowly as she studied each aspect of it in detail. The fourth member of their party sashayed forward to join her, unfurling her wings and re-folding them about her shoulders as a kind of cloak. Such little displays were as natural as breathing for the succubus, but were notably unaccompanied by comment this time. Vlesni had been unusually quiet all evening.

Bradshaw cast a grim look at the distant form of the mountain rising up from the flatness all around them. They were right at the edge of the effective range of the spell Mogul was crafting; the towering feature that gave Last Rock its name was a thumb-high blot on the horizon, both the town below it and the University at its peak invisible in the falling twilight.

“What kind of schedule?” Bradshaw asked, turning his attention back to Mogul, who was watching Vlesni pace slowly in a circle around the diagram.

“I’ve been thinking,” Embras said slowly.

“That could be good or very bad,” Vanessa commented without looking up. Not so long ago she’d have been moving around the circle like the succubus, but her leg didn’t appreciate unnecessary walking.

“Yes, yes,” Embras said. “Laugh it up. But seriously, now. We’ve been over the improbability of Justinian’s apparent plans, here. Turning Last Rock against Tellwyrn would barely inconvenience her. It makes a little more sense, though, if you consider it as the first step of a longer game. Turning the world against her might cause her annoyance, even impediment, but it won’t stop her operations. She’s just not the kind of personality or creature to care overmuch what people think, and unlike most governments and heads of institutions, has no need to concern herself with public opinion.”

“So that’s still wasted effort on Justinian’s part,” said Bradshaw.

Embras nodded. “And Justinian does not waste effort. However, one thing he could do by stirring up ill feeling that would hurt her greatly is turn the students against the University.”

Vanessa looked up at that, frowning. “Do you think he could?”

“Not the way he is so far,” Embras replied, “but it’s been established that these are obviously the opening moves of something more complex. That is both the dilemma and the solution, my friends. Not knowing the shape or nature of Justinian’s plans, we’re in the dark as to the schedule of events. But this creates an opportunity we cannot afford to waste. Whatever the exact details, the general form of his plan is clearly disharmony, division, and discord. Others can take advantage of that.”

“You surely don’t think you can turn the University students to our side,” Bradshaw protested.

“We could, but nah. There are nearly eighty of them; we could unquestionably gather up a few, but not the specific ones I want. Those are going to take some careful handling.”

“Again with the paladins,” Bradshaw grunted, folding his arms.

“Yes, the paladins,” Embras said implacably. “Think what Justinian must be after. Tellwyrn isn’t enough of a hazard to him that he would risk making her one unless he had a specific goal in mind. And there are some very interesting individuals on that campus with whom he already has fingerholds. Specifically, the same ones we are interested in. The paladins, and our dear Vadrieny.”

“The paladins are the least likely to give you so much as the time of day,” Vanessa scoffed. “And Vadrieny has made it plain she wants nothing to do with us. Amnesia clearly did wonders for her disposition, but it’s not made her any easier to handle.”

“And that, my dear, is our advantage,” Mogul said, raising a finger and grinning. “Those three owe much more to their own cults than the Church; he has to win their favor, and their loyalty, specifically to himself to get anywhere. He has to win—we just have to not lose.”

“I see,” Bradshaw said slowly, frowning. “Well, some of it. If you can discredit Justinian while putting us in a positive light… We don’t need to convert them to come out on top. I’m still not clear on how this leads to prodding at Avelea this way.”

“I don’t want to convert them,” said Embras. “Then their patrons would just kick them to the curb, and what use would they be after that? Even Vadrieny; the Lady has made it clear she wants the girl staying on campus and out of danger as long as possible. No, I want those kids questioning everyone. Us, the Church, their own gods. And the best part is, I cannot imagine Professor Tellwyrn objecting to that goal.”

“This looks good to me,” Vlesni said curtly, coming to stand next to him.

“Agreed,” said Vanessa, taking a few uneven steps back from the spell circle. “If you intend to do this, let’s get on with it.”

“Very good,” he said cheerfully, producing a heavy hunting knife out of thin air. Its pommel was hammered into the bronze wolf’s head that symbolized Shaath’s cult.

“I’m still waiting to hear the story behind that thing,” Bradshaw noted.

“Vlesni, my dear, you’re up,” Embras said, holding out a hand to her.

The succubus wrapped her arms and wings around herself, and looked away at the mountain on the horizon. “We’re too close to that place. I don’t do valkyries, not after last time. We had an agreement, Embras.”

“There are no valkyries here,” he said patiently. “I went well out of my way to chart the area from multiple dimensions. They don’t patrol the region, just come and go. Seems they like to visit their new Hand when they’ve nothing better to do, is all. And speaking of hands, dear, I’ll need yours.”

“I’m not so sure I like this,” Vlesni complained. “Why can’t you summon up someone else for these things? Last thing I want is that paladin getting the scent of my blood in her nose.”

“Vlesni,” Embras said, his tone just perceptibly harder. “You know I like to lead with a gentle hand, my dear, but that doesn’t mean you don’t obey. You get to run around on the mortal plane so long as you follow my rules, and make yourself useful. If that deal is no longer working for you, just say the word.”

For a bare instant, the succubus fixed him with a sly, calculating look. Then she sniffed dramatically and extended her hand, palm down and wrist limp, as if expecting a kiss on the knuckles.

“You don’t need to get all huffy,” she huffed, languidly raising one forefinger. The nail spontaneously grew till it curled a good three inches outward.

“That’s my girl,” Mogul said cheerfully, taking her hand and swiftly but carefully cutting free the overgrown nail with the fae-blessed Huntsman knife.

Mogul stepped over to the spell circle, knelt, and very carefully laid the demon’s fingernail in the center of one elaborately glyphed ring positioned at the edge of the overall design.

Instantly the entire thing glowed purple. Then, as if being sucked down a drain, the lines and glyphs began to crawl free of their place on the ground, inching toward the circle containing the severed nail. Only one spot seemed to resist: directly opposite that circle was a rendition of Avei’s eagle sigil, bound by another inscribed ring, which now began to glow a dull red and let off sparks in protest.

Its resistance finally gave, however, and the entire thing swirled into the point around Vlesni’s fingernail and vanished.

For an instant, all was silent.

The final discharge of the elaborate spell was an anticlimactic puff of purple smoke, which swirled into an off-center twister no bigger than a mule, and sailed off in the direction of Last Rock, vanishing from view as it did so.

“And that’s that!” Embras said brightly, clapping his hands. “All right, folks, let’s clean up the site—full scrub, no stone unturned, you know the drill. I’m sure you know better than to assume the Lady’s stealth works on Tellwyrn, especially after she got her hands on those materials Locke stole from us. I can’t imagine why she’d be sniffing around out here, but it pays not to make assumptions.”

“And while we’re going that,” Bradshaw said pointedly, then stopped, looking over at Vanessa. “No, you don’t, Nessa! Sit down, we’ll take care of this.”

“I am not an invalid,” she said sharply.

“You kind of are, though,” Vlesni commented. Embras snapped her fingers, and the demon obligingly fell silent, still wearing a placid smile.

“Bradshaw’s right,” said Embras. “All assets should go where they are most useful, and your skills at the moment don’t include repeatedly bending over. Vlesni, don’t you dare.”

“Oh, please,” the demon said scornfully. “Way too easy.”

“As I was saying,” Bradshaw continued, while kneeling to slowly run his palms over the apparently featureless dirt where the spell circle had been moments ago, “this would be a great time for you to explain how goosing Trissiny Avelea with pieces of Vanislaad aura leads to turning her against Justinian.”

“Well, now, just playing to type,” Mogul said innocently, bending to repeat Bradshaw’s motions on the other side of the erstwhile circle. “If you read the old epics, the really popular songs and stories about paladins, a sort of pattern emerges. It begins to seem that, whatever their stated goals, the purpose of a paladin’s enemies is always the same in the long run.” He grinned broadly as he worked. “To make her a hero.”


 

Veilgrad wasn’t much of a travel destination these days; the Empire had taken steps to prevent gawkers from impeding the repairs to the city. Said repairs seemed to mostly be done at this point, to judge by the condition of buildings they had passed today, and the number partially encased in scaffolding. Still, Ingvar suspected that Darling’s connections were a major reason they’d been able to secure a ticket to Veilgrad so quickly. On the upside, it was nice and quiet, particularly now, on the upper floor hallways of the inn in which they were staying.

Darling followed him past the door of the room he was sharing with Joe, and Ingvar, having already said his goodnights, steadfastly ignored him, opening his own door and stepping through in the hope that the Eserite was simply on his way back down to the common room for a nightcap.

“So!” Darling said, his chipper voice as usual dashing all of Ingvar’s hopes. “You know the chair trick, right?”

Ingvar stopped, turned, and stared at him. “The chair…trick?”

“Let me show you!”

Darling slipped past him into the room, and even as he bristled at the presumption, Ingvar had to respect the man’s physical adroitness. Not many people could maneuver around him so neatly—but then again, perhaps the could and simply didn’t try to. Most people gave Huntsmen a respectful berth.

The thief had already picked up the ladder-back chair which was one of the few items of furniture in Ingvar’s room. “C’mon, shut the door so I can demonstrate.”

Ingvar gave him a considering look before complying. Something about shutting himself in this small room with the man put him on edge.

Darling stepped past him, set the chair down on its back two legs and wedged it in so it was lodged directly under the door handle.

“There!” he said, giving the door a jiggle to demonstrate. “Snug as a bug. It’s damn near impossible to open a door from the other side with the chair in place like that—anybody who wants in that badly will pretty much have to break it down, and in pieces. Physics is a wonderful thing.”

“I see. Thanks for the tip,” Ingvar said tersely, only un-tensing slightly when Darling removed the chair. Being blocked in the room with the man had been even worse.

Rather than opening the door to leave, however, Darling turned to face him, his expression serious.

“It wasn’t a random suggestion. I’m pretty sure we were followed today.”

“Followed?” Ingvar tensed further, a hand straying toward his tomahawk. “By whom?”

Darling shook his head. “I didn’t get a good look.”

“Well…how many?”

“Not sure… It was just an impression I had. The sense of increasingly familiar shapes out of the corner of my eye, conveniently behind us whenever I happened to glance, and absent when I looked specifically.”

Ingvar was torn between the urges to laugh and to cuff him about the ears. “That’s it? Really, that’s all?”

“It’s instinct, Ingvar,” Darling said, seemingly unperturbed by his tone. “Instinct is just the summation of a thousand tiny observations and calculations you could never consciously do. You of all people should know to trust it. Or are you going to tell me that when you’re out hunting, you don’t have a grasp of the forest? Doesn’t nature talk to you at all, if you know how to read the signs?”

“You’re equating the hunt with this…premonition you had?” Ingvar said skeptically.

“They’re exactly the same thing,” Darling replied with a faint smile. “Cities are my woods, Ingvar, and stalking people through them was my bread and butter long before I got promoted into playing mind games with the powers that be. When I have a feeling that I’m being followed, I’ve learned it means I’m being followed. And when I can’t get a solid look at the person doing the following, that means they’re good.”

“Hm,” Ingvar grunted, frowning. With it all explained like that, it did make sense. He understood the value of instinct very well—better, he felt, than the Eserite, for he didn’t feel a need to explain it away as unconscious calculation. It had come as a surprise that Darling of all people would understand the instincts of hunter and prey, but there, too, he was right. Who better to know such dynamics in the city than a thief?

“I’m not going to rule out random pickpockets, or some unknown new party,” Darling continued, “but I can’t help thinking the only people we know expressed an interest in our group today were those three Huntsmen. And we know who they’re interested in.” He patted the back of the chair. “So…chair trick. May it serve you well.”

“I see,” Ingvar mused, then nodded. “Thank you. I’ll put that to good use. Will you two be okay?”

Darling grinned. “I almost hope I get to see someone try to sneak up on the Sarasio Kid on this trip. Sleep well, Ingvar.”

After he had finally slipped out, pulling the door shut behind him, Ingvar stared at it in thought for a long moment.

He propped the chair in place as Darling had shown him, then went to collect his satchel. Everything was packed exactly where he could lay hands on just what he needed; it was the work of moments to extract a few lengths of rawhide cord and small tin discs. Working them into a snare alarm took only a moment, the motions well-practiced. Arranging them on the window was only slightly trickier; its latch was designed to be minimally obtrusive, and Ingvar was used to setting this on convenient lengths of twig and branch, not angular surfaces against which they’d lie too flat to chime. He did get it rigged up, however, and tested his handwork to ensure that anyone opening the window would unavoidably cause the chimes to jangle loudly together. Perfect.

After a moment’s thought, he arranged a second such alarm on the chair propped against his door. He couldn’t see any way to open it from the outside, but considering who had told him to do that…

It never hurt to be sure.


 

The room filled with golden light; Ruda was on her feet before being fully awake, snatching up her sword from beside the bed and only belatedly pulling it from its scabbard. Trissiny was already up, naked blade in hand, glowing like the sun. The paladin turned this way and that as if looking for something. Barefoot, dressed only in the plain shift in which she slept and with her hair pillow-mussed, she was quite a sight.

“What is it?” Ruda finally demanded. “Boots? Say something, you are wigging me the fuck out, here.”

“Demon,” Trissiny said tersely.

Ruda tightened her grip on her sword. “Like before?”

“Just like before.” Trissiny turned in a slow circle, panning her gaze around the room. “It’s…gone. I only felt it for a moment… Hang on.”

She frowned in concentration, and the glow around her expanded gradually, until it filled the room.

“Hey, be careful with that,” Ruda chided. “If you incinerate yourself, they’re gonna say I murdered you. Triss? Seriously, stop. There’s nothing here.”

Trissiny sighed and nodded, relaxing slightly. The light around her diminished to the normal scale of her divine shield, then further, till she was barely glowing. “I didn’t imagine it.”

“Didn’t say you did.” Ruda padded across the room to the switch by the door, igniting the fairy lamp. “But after that display, we can be certain nothing’s in here. Or out in the hall, or in the bathroom. Unless that glowy shit is stopped by walls?”

“It isn’t,” Trissiny said tersely.

“Right, then.” Ruda glanced down at her own pajamas, then over at her hat hanging from the bedpost and scabbard lying against the wall where she had flung it. “So what happened?”

“I’m not crazy,” Trissiny muttered to herself. “I know I felt…”

“Boots, if you were crazy, Avei would damn well take notice. Whatever’s going on, that’s not it. Look…last time, Scorn felt it too.”

“Right,” Trissiny said vaguely, then her gaze focused. “Right. You’re right. Let’s go check on her.”

Ruda followed her out into the hall and down the stairs, their steps utterly silent on the luxuriant carpet.

Trissiny hesitated outside the fairies’ door, but continued past when no sound emerged from within. Fross didn’t actually sleep, but she used her nights to study, which Juniper claimed didn’t bother her. Since reshuffling the rooms after their first semester, they had developed a comfortable rhythm, which had taken time to re-establish after Jack was added to the picture. Everyone had been extra careful around that door this semester. The jackalope didn’t appreciate being awakened, and those antlers hurt.

The next door down opened as they neared it, however, and Shaeine slipped out, garbed in a black nightdress.

“What’s amiss?” she asked.

“I felt another demonic presence,” Trissiny replied. “I don’t suppose you…?”

“Nothing like that,” the drow replied with a faint frown. “I heard you two coming down, is all. At this hour and as fast as you are moving, it seemed unlikely to have been in search of a midnight snack. Are you going to wake Janis?”

“May not be much point in that,” Ruda said. “We’re gonna check with Scorn. Last time she had the same sense Trissiny did…”

“Good thinking,” Shaeine agreed, gently pulling her door shut.

“Uh…” Ruda glanced at it. “Just for the record, she listens to Teal…”

“She listens to each of us,” Shaeine said firmly. “I think it is best not to get her used to interacting politely only with one person. And Teal needs her sleep.”

“All right,” Trissiny agreed. “Come on.”

The stairwell terminated into the living room downstairs; getting to the basement from there meant creeping down the hallway past the kitchen and Janis’s door. There was no door blocking the steps that led down into the giant, hollowed-out floating stalactite on which Clarke tower perched, which meant Scorn lacked some of the privacy the tower’s other residents enjoyed, but she had never objected to that. Vadrieny had hinted that privacy was at a premium in her home dimension anyway.

The basement room, blessedly, had no windows. Aside from its leveled floor, it could have been a natural cave, the walls rough-hewn. Stored barrels and trunks had been rearranged to make a sleeping area for the Rhaazke; she was presently curled up in it, having chosen to construct a huge nest of quilts and pillows, propping the bed she’d been provided up on its end against one wall to serve as a rack for clothes and her large collection of cheap jewelry.

They continued to step quietly, but Scorn (as they had previously discovered) was apparently accustomed to being snuck up on, and rose as they filed into the room. Trissiny let her golden glow flicker out, leaving the room lit only by the small fairy lamp Scorn used as a nightlight. The demon had never given any indication of being afraid of the dark; she seemed to find it a sign of wealth and privilege to have a light on all the time while she slept.

Which she did in the nude. It didn’t bother her to be visited in that state, and after the initial surprise, no one but Teal was particularly flustered by it.

“What?” Scorn demanded irritably. “Is late. Am sleeping.”

“Did you feel a demon nearby just now?” Trissiny asked.

Scorn snorted. “I feel nobody in my bed. Boys not allowed, remember? Yes?”

“That’s not what I meant,” Trissiny said, her cheeks coloring slightly. “This morning, you sensed a demon when I did. I just had the same feeling—exactly the same. You didn’t sense anything?”

“No,” Scorn said with a huge yawn which showed off her jagged teeth alarmingly. “Why you were up to sense?”

“I…wasn’t,” Trissiny admitted. “It woke me up.”

The demon rolled her eyes. “You have a dream. Good night, let everyone else have some.”

“I really don’t think—”

“Night!” Scorn flopped back down on her pillows, face-first, and said something else which was too muffled to be understood.

“Well…thanks anyway,” Trissiny said with a sigh. Stifled but still ostentatious snoring began to emerge from the demon’s nest. Shaking her head, Trissiny turned back to the stairs. “I’m not crazy.”

“No, you aren’t,” Shaeine agreed. “No one has suggested otherwise.”

“They will, though,” Trissiny said glumly. “When you start sensing things no one else can…that’s just not a good sign. Maybe it was a dream. Feeling that…thing…out of nowhere this morning… Well, that’d give anybody nightmares.”

They had navigated back up to the darkened living room, where Ruda stopped. “That was no nightmare, Boots.”

Trissiny frowned at her. “How would you know? You have insight into my dreams, now?”

“Fuck yes I do,” Ruda retorted. “I’ve slept in the next bed over for a year and a half now. You get nightmares, you know that? They tend to wake me up. But never anything like that. That was pure, divinely inspired fight or flight. Something real happened up there.”

“Do you think we are in any danger?” Shaeine asked.

“I don’t…know,” Trissiny said, frowning. “Both times, it was just the sensation, quickly gone.”

“First,” said Ruda, “I can’t picture an actual demon getting past Tellwyrn’s wards unless invited, like Scorn or Vadrieny. Or Gabriel, even. Second, supposing one found herself in this tower—and it’d have to be a her, or the charm would keep it out—she’d be locked in with a crew of women who individually are a match for most things and collectively for damn near anything. No demon clever enough to penetrate the outer defenses would wanna be in that position. Nah…we’re not under attack.” She turned to look at Trissiny. “Both times this shit has been targeted at you, Boots.”

“You do believe me, then?” Trissiny seemed half grateful and half disbelieving.

“Triss, I’ve got a pretty firm handle on your flaws by now,” Ruda replied with a grin. “You’re judgmental and not the most socially adept person when it comes to people. When there’s battle or evil shit afoot, though, I trust your instincts. They’ve saved all our asses more than once.”

“I agree,” Shaeine said, nodding.

“This is what I don’t like,” Ruda continued, her features falling into a scowl. “If we accept that Trissiny’s reactions are real, and that this doesn’t seem to be a physical threat to us… The logical conclusion is that somebody is deliberately fucking with you.”

“Who would do something like that?” Trissiny demanded. “And why?”

“I think we had better devote some serious thought to those questions,” Shaeine said, her forehead infinitesimally creased in one of her faint frowns, an expression that indicated severe worry. Whether they had grown accustomed to her or she had begun to open up slightly, her classmates had become more perceptive of her subtle displays of emotion.

“Whoever it is,” Ruda growled, “they’re gonna fuckin’ quit it. First we find them, and then we explain it to ’em.”

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“I kinda miss having Fross along,” Ruda commented. “No offense, but you guys are a little… I dunno, glaring.”

Trissiny and Toby both glanced at her, saying nothing; up ahead, Gabriel sighed but did not turn around.

“It’s just that she’s got this pleasant blue-white thing going on; it’s soothing. It’d be a nice way to improve the fuckin’ scenery down here, what there is of it. All this yellow is puttin’ me on edge.”

“We’re pursuing necromancers toward a source of pure chaos,” Toby said. “If you weren’t on edge, I would be worried for your mental health.”

“And the light is usually referred to as ‘gold,’” Trissiny added dourly. Ruda just laughed.

All three were glowing subtly, which was the only source of illumination in the tunnels beneath the cathedral. In fact, it had been the only source of illumination in the old church’s basement, but in these much more cramped corners, the light felt even more precious, regardless of Ruda’s commentary. The group could probably have seen where they were going by the light of only one aura. Pushing back against the darkness made them all feel slightly better.

Nothing about the catacombs was visually surprising: the tunnels were cramped, dusty, and dark. A blend of natural caves and man-made structures, they passed without apparent pattern through exposed dirt, carefully dressed stone, crumbling old brick and living rock, both carved out and naturally worn by aeons of water. Water, too, they passed twice and had to step over once. Though small galleries opened off here and there, so far the group had only been able to follow a single tunnel, just barely wide enough for three of them to walk abreast if they squeezed in.

Most of those side galleries had held coffins. All were now empty.

Bones were everywhere, so thick in places that the students had to pick their way carefully over piles, and in some cases wade through them. Even Ruda had not offered a joke about this; they were all working hard at ignoring it as much as possible. At least the trail of felled undead told them they were headed in the right direction.

Until they passed through a doorway and had to stop, staring.

The chamber ahead, barely lit by Gabriel’s aura, seemed to be a cylindrical natural cavern, like an underground tower. A bridge (without railing, of course) extended from the door in which they stood to a platform in the middle, part of an island which jutted out from the wall to their right and had clearly been flattened for this purpose. There were two doors in the wall adjacent, and three more narrow bridges leading to openings around the rim of the cavern. Below, the darkness fell away to seemingly infinite depths, the bottom completely out of view.

Bones littered the whole area indiscriminately. One of the other bridges was clear of them; aside from that, every path before them was marked by the same gruesome trail they’d been following.

Ruda craned her neck to peer over Gabriel’s shoulder. “Aw, fuck.”

“That’s your answer to everything,” Gabriel said, glancing back at her with a smile, then pointed at the far door on the ledge. “It’s that way.”

“What are you seeing that we don’t?” Trissiny asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “But I’ve got scouts ahead. Oh, that reminds me, the Army search teams are all back topside; they’ve got some wounded but didn’t lose anyone. But yeah, my friends are all back. Vestrel’s giving me directions.”

“They found the source of chaos?” Toby said sharply.

“They think so,” Gabriel replied, stepping forward—very, very carefully—across the stone footbridge. “They don’t want to get too close, which I fully support. It’s causing some kind of dimensional issue, and being phased out the way they are, they could be vulnerable to that. But Vestrel says that from a distance, it looks like some kind of artifact, not a dimensional rift.”

“That’s…unexpected. And unusual.” Trissiny spoke thoughtfully as she followed the others across to the platform. “But not without precedent. Maybe it’s for the best—if it’s not an actual rift we have a better chance of dealing with it. Artifacts can be destroyed.”

“Just for the record, soul reapers are scared of this fucking thing and we’re walking right toward it,” Ruda said. “I can’t help thinking this is not the smartest thing we’ve ever done, guys. And let’s face it, we have done some pretty dumb shit.”

“Yes,” Trissiny said archly, “because you didn’t listen to my advice and I had to fight the centaurs on my own. What did we learn, Ruda?”

“Oh, fuck you.”

“And they’re not afraid,” Gabriel said testily. “They’re cautious. The difference is important.”

“Look at you, bein’ all protective,” Ruda said, shoving him lightly in the shoulder from behind. They were passing through the indicated doorway into another tunnel, so this was much less dangerous than it would have been in the tower chamber. Even so, he stumbled over a skull and shot her an annoyed look. “Aw, don’t make that face, it’s cute!”

“In any case,” said Ariel, “we are approaching with the active attention of the three primary gods of the Pantheon. It is well within the Trinity’s power to subdue chaos radiation, particularly if the source is a tainted object and not a planar rift. I presume that you are all staying in touch with your patrons?”

“Yeah,” Toby said, nodding.

“And as I’ve mentioned before,” Trissiny said, “’patron’ is a specifically gendered word and not—”

“I have never said this to a living being, Trissiny Avelea, nor imagined that I ever would, but it is my professional opinion that you need in the worst way to get laid.”

Ruda laughed so hard she nearly fell over.

Toby cleared his throat loudly and raised his voice to be heard over her. “Gabe, please be sure to thank Vestrel and the others for us.”

“She’s the invisible one, man,” Gabriel replied, grinning back at him. “She can hear you just fine. Says you’re welcome. Triss, don’t grind your teeth. And Ariel, if you don’t quit being an ass to my fellow Hand I’m gonna let her whack you with the sword of Avei and see which breaks first.”

It was another half hour’s walk through cramped darkness. The path the valkyries indicated led them through more tunnels, now branching out enough that the group could easily have become totally lost without their aid. At one point they passed close enough to a massive subterranean waterfall to be dampened by its spray; the flowing water which had done the initial work of carving out the corridors beneath Veilgrad was still very much in evidence. It was only in dry chambers distant from it that they passed evidence of bodies having been deliberately interred, which was sensible.

The farther they went, the fewer bones they encountered, until the entire place appeared to have been picked clean. Clearly, every corpse down here had gotten up and rushed to the surface; they had descended well past the level at which the skeletons had fully cleared out.

Gabriel stopped in a small square antechamber decorated by a bust of a Stalweiss chieftain set in a wall niche.

“This is it, guys. Another fifty yards or so straight down: this corridor angles upward slightly and terminates right in the relic room where the problem is.”

“What are we walking into, exactly?” Trissiny asked.

He paused for a moment, frowning at a point near the wall where no one visible was standing, before speaking. “It’s… Okay, this is all starting to make a little more sense. They were able to scout it from above. We’re in the mountains outside the city now. Seems the chamber in question is very close to the surface, and there was a cave-in. The relic had been bound in some kind of container that kept the chaos from leaking out, but part of the ceiling landed on it and broke it. That’s probably what kicked all this off in the first place.”

“Duly noted,” said Toby, glancing around at the others. “All right, guys, from here on, active prayers at all times. Ruda, I know it’s your least favorite position, but maybe you’d better walk in the back. In fact, if it’s a straight shot from here, let’s have Trissiny take point; she’s best at both attack and defense, and infernal radiation aside, there’s no telling what this may spit out at us.”

“Chaos isn’t sentient, is it?” Gabriel said, frowning as Trissiny moved past him into the tunnel.

“Unknowable,” Ariel replied. “It has nothing we would recognize as a mind, which is very far from saying it has no mind.”

“And on that cheery note, here we go,” Ruda said fatalistically. “I suppose I could add a few prayers to the goddess I grew up knowing, but I assure you Naphthene doesn’t give a shit.”

Trissiny had her shield up before her as she led the way—her physical shield, in addition to the divine one. They walked in grim silence, not dragging their feet but in no hurry to meet what lay ahead.

There was light at the end of this tunnel; as Gabriel had said, the ceiling had collapsed and daylight been allowed to stream in. The group paused at the door to the relic chamber before Trissiny stepped forward, allowing the others to exit the corridor and fan out to both sides of her.

What this room had once looked like was impossible to tell now. It had clearly been large and roughly circular, but the walls and much of the floor were obscured. Apparently the entire ceiling had come down, leaving them in a broad island of sunlight completely buried under chunks of fallen stone so broken that it was impossible to tell whether the original roof had been natural or carved.

They had been cleared away at certain key points, though. The door was clear, as was a path to the reliquary in the center. This was the only sign anyone had been present since the collapse; clearly the chaos cultists must have spent considerable time in this chamber, but they had either been careful to leave no traces or something that removed them after the fact.

In the center lay what could have been a sarcophagus meant to house a man twelve feet tall and correspondingly broad. It had been an elaborate thing, once, banded in silver and engraved with runes both arcane and divine. Now, it lay broken. The pieces of its shattered lid and walls had been carefully set aside, revealing what lay beneath. Though the stone of both the ceiling and sarcophagus must have fallen on the object within, it had not been so much as scratched.

The skull was enormous, easily big enough that the dragon could have swallowed a person whole when alive. Unlike the other bones they had seen on the way here, this was coal black and glossy as if lovingly polished.

Silence stretched out while they stared, until Gabriel finally spoke.

“Vestrel says this whole area was…tainted, sort of, until we got close and our auras pushed it back. Don’t let up for a second, guys, we do not want to be near that thing at its full power. I… It’s been a good long while since I listened to old fairy tales. That can’t possibly be what I think it is, can it?”

“The details are lost to history,” Trissiny said softly, “but we do know it happened. That was no fairy tale. This is… It has to be. The skull of Belosiphon the Black.”

“Who the fucking what?” Ruda exclaimed.

“He was a chaos-tainted dragon who served Scyllith before the Elder War,” said Toby. “Which… Well, I guess this was as good a place as any for it, though I can’t imagine what could have been holding its power in check all this time. Whatever it was must’ve been worked into that big stone coffin, and broke when it did. So…what do we do with it now?”

“I don’t advise you attempting to do anything personally,” said Ariel. “This is something for the gods to handle. By the look of those runes, they did so last time. Salyrene is personally invoked multiple times in those charms; she does not generally permit people to do that.”

A shadow fell over the sky above, and they all jumped, staring upward.

“What is that?” Trissiny demanded, dropping into a battle stance. “Something the skull is doing?”

“No,” Gabriel replied, frowning. “It’s… According to Vestrel it’s a zeppelin. Has Imperial Army markings. And…it’s stopping, right overhead.”

“I desperately want to think this is good news,” said Ruda, “but I’m not quite that dumb.”

“Stand ready,” Ariel said urgently. “There are multiple arcane transfer signatures forming on this site—”

A series of sharp pops and crackles sounded, accompanied by flashes of blue light, and half a dozen people materialized in the space. Three wore the blue robes of Salyrite clerics, two were in improbably elaborate crimson-and-gold armor over white surcoats, and the last was dressed in a pristine white longcoat; they could see no more, as he had landed with his back to them.

“Quickly,” the man in the coat barked, unnecessarily. The priests had already begun furling a large length of iridescent cloth over the dragon’s skull. Both guards turned to level their impractical gilded polearms at the students. “Chaos will be in abeyance in the paladins’ presence, but that doesn’t make it safe. How long?”

“One minute, at the most,” the woman farthest from them said tersely, beginning to carefully fold the edges of the shimmering blue fabric under the skull.

“Step away from that!” Trissiny ordered. “Who do you think you are? What are you doing?”

“We are with the Universal Church,” he replied, “answerable directly to his Holiness the Archpope. We are securing this incredibly dangerous artifact before it has the chance to cause any more harm to Veilgrad. So, the same thing I expect you came here to do.” He finally turned to give them an extremely flat look. “Hello, kids.”

Gabriel blinked in astonishment. “Captain Rouvad?”

“It’s Ravoud,” he said testily, “and it’s Colonel.”

“You work with the Church now?” Toby asked.

“I am blessed to have been offered employment,” Ravoud said curtly. “My last job was abruptly terminated about the time these two ladies killed my best friend. You may recall something of the incident.”

“We wrote you a letter of commendation,” Trissiny protested.

“Yes, thank you. That made it all better.”

“Package secure,” the priestess said crisply. “The dimensional weave is operating exactly as tested. Chaos energies will be contained for transport, but this will decay rapidly. We have less than one day to get it securely to its new resting spot.”

“Wait a second,” Trissiny exclaimed.

“Seconds are precious, as you just heard.” Rouvad nodded curtly to them. “Thank you for your invaluable assistance, ladies and gentlemen. You have my word this thing will trouble Veilgrad no more. Take us out, Sister.”

Another series of flashes and pops followed, and then they were gone, leaving an empty, broken sarcophagus where the skull had lain.

Above, a distant thrum sounded as the zeppelin powered up its elemental thrusters. In only a few moments more, the shadow receded, allowing bright sunlight to pour unimpeded into the chamber once again.

“Well,” Toby said at last, “I guess that’s…that.”


 

“Major, thank the gods,” the soldier said fervently as Razsha strode up to him, the rest of her strike team following in the standard diamond formation. Seven troopers had formed a perimeter around one corner of the old guild complex, staves aimed at what lay near the wall. “She beat the werewolf unconscious and then dragged it in here. The Colonel said to keep her secured, but… I mean, how? We saw that fight. I don’t think we could…”

“You did fine, soldier,” Razsha said, patting him on the shoulder. “That particular demon has…a degree of trust. Three paladins are taking responsibility for her. When did the werewolf transform back?”

“Less than five minutes ago, ma’am. About the time the skeletons collapsed. Does that mean it’s over?”

The Major made no response, staring through narrowed eyes at Scorn, who was seated upon an unconscious man dressed in the shredded remains of what had been a formal suit. Demon and man alike were bruised and scratched virtually all over, but that did not seem to have diminished the Rhaazke’s spirits.

“Hello!” she called cheerily, then roughly patted her captive on the head. “Not kill!”

“I’m glad to hear that, I suppose,” Razsha said.

“Well, that’s…something,” Simmons offered. “It’s not a bad grasp of Tanglish considering she’s only been practicing a couple days.”

“I’m more concerned that that’s one of the first things they felt the need to teach her,” Tieris muttered.

“I can’t believe it,” Durst whispered, staring. “I just can’t. An actual, live Rhaazke. Here! What I wouldn’t give to—”

“Durst,” Razsha interrupted, “you did say this is a sentient demon, right?”

“What? Well, I mean, of course. They’re the dominant culture in their dimension.”

“Then let’s assume she enjoys being gawked at like a zoo animal about as much as you would and keep that to a minimum. She’s holding that werewolf down, and isn’t hostile. That’ll do, until the paladins get back here and take her off our hands.”

“How long will that take?” Simmons wondered aloud. “And I don’t think she’s all that skittish. She doesn’t seem to mind having battlestaves pointed at her.”

“I doubt she knows what they are,” said Durst. “A bunch of humans with sticks aren’t going to impress her.”

“Hypothetically,” Razsha mused, “would a staff shot put her down?”

“Hypothetically?” Durst grimaced. “There’s no data. Nobody’s shot one that I ever heard of. Um, they are very powerful demons, though. There’s a good chance it would just piss her off.”

Scorn ruffled the unconscious werewolf’s hair and waved at them with her other hand. “BEHOLD!”

Major Razsha sighed. “Those kids had better get back here fast.”


 

“Wait, the Church?” Teal exclaimed. “Captain Ravoud? This is… I don’t even know what to think.”

“That is far too many coincidences in far too short a time for my comfort,” Shaeine said.

“Hit the nail on the head,” Ruda agreed. “Come on, the timing alone. We clear a path to the big bogey and that’s the moment they show up to whisk it away? There is some serious behind-the-scenes fuckery going on. I think we blundered across the tip of a very big iceberg, guys.”

“Belosiphon the Black,” Teal murmured. “Incredible.”

“It kind of explains it, though,” said Fross.

Trissiny heaved a sigh, sweeping her gaze around the church. Fross’s ice had been removed, but not without leaving some signs of water damage to the pews. There was also the broken window and the fact that most of the sanctuary was piled knee-deep in bones. Altogether the cathedral had seen better days. “Well, for the moment it’s over. I agree, though, Ruda. There’s something more to this. I don’t think we can just leave it alone in good conscience.”

“Well…our actual assignment here is done, though, right?” said Juniper. “Which…shoot. We weren’t the ones who actually solved the problem, were we? I hope that doesn’t affect our grade. It wasn’t our fault the Church stepped in.”

“Your priorities are on point as always, Juniper.”

“Cut it out,” Gabriel said curtly, smacking Ariel’s hilt. “What’s been happening up here, guys?”

“The whole city got quieter,” Fross reported. “The Army’s been fanning out, cleaning up and helping people. Colonel Adjavegh sent Timms to check on us.”

“We reported the cathedral currently clear of both hostiles and civilians,” said Shaeine. “We felt, though, it was best we remained here to secure your exit. Timms apparently agreed; at least, we have heard nothing further from them.”

“We tried to clean up a bit in here,” Fross added glumly. “It’s gonna be a long haul, though. I feel really bad about the church.”

“Oh, don’t worry your pretty little head about it,” Embras Mogul said cheerfully from the dais behind them. “The Church does not lack for resources. They’ll have everything shipshape in no time.”

All of them whirled on him, most drawing weapons; Vadrieny burst forth, flexing her claws.

No one attacked, though. Seven robed warlocks stood on the dais with Mogul. Each of them was carrying a crystal-tipped divine disruptor, including the ones the students had collected from the cathedral itself.

“How dare you show your face in front of me,” Vadrieny snarled. “You tricked and assaulted my friends, and now you steal from us!”

“Your pardon, lady, but I believe that’s a bit unfair,” Mogul replied evenly, tipping his hat to her. “You were dealing with chaos cultists in possession of Imperial weaponry capable of neutralizing a paladin. They had laid traps for you. I’m still stuck on how those crazy buggers managed to plan all this; it was an altogether respectable operation, and all done by people who couldn’t string two coherent sentences together. Something’s fishy as all get-out, here. Regardless! Caine, Arquin and Avelea would have found themselves de-powered and at the mercy of insane necromancers with ample undead slaves had we not stepped in.”

“Stepped in and put us at your mercy!” Trissiny growled, brandishing her sword.

“Why, yes,” Mogul replied mildly. “While more than half of these weapons were still in hostile hands, I went out of my way to secure you three where you would be safe until the disruptors could be rounded up. I’ve dealt too much with Pantheon worshipers to expect gratitude for such a paltry favor as saving your lives, of course. Seeing you safe and hale is reward enough.”

“That’s a load of bullshit,” Gabriel snapped. “We’re the Hands of the gods. Whatever you think of Vadrieny, I don’t believe for a second you would go out of your way to protect us.”

“Don’t you?” Mogul replied, tilting his head like an inquisitive bird. “There is, as you say, the matter of Lady Vadrieny’s high regard for you—that’s far from nothing in my estimation. But no indeed, I make it a point never to do anything that serves only one purpose. I do have an ulterior motive. Y’see, kids, if you kill a paladin, all that happens is another one gets called—by a deity who makes you the new one’s first order of business.”

“Better to play with them, I suppose,” Juniper said quietly.

“Well, now, a daughter of Naiya would know all about batting her prey around before delivering the final mercy, I bet!” Mogul replied, grinning. Juniper dropped her gaze, shoulders slumping. “But no, kids. That’s logic for more stable times. A great doom is coming, and secrets are unraveling on all sides. Dead paladins are worth nothing to anybody, but paladins who know the truth?” His grin broadened; with his head angled so the brim of his hat hid his eyes, the effect was deeply creepy. “Paladins who are in on the secret their gods are trying to hide? That’s a thing that’s never been seen. I do believe I want to let that unfold. The Black Wreath, you see, has always been on the side of truth. And now, that means we have a vested interest in your welfare.”

“What truth?” Fross demanded.

“Ah, ah, ah.” Mogul wagged a chiding finger at her. “That’s the downside of having a reputation as terrible as ours: we can’t tell the truth, or it becomes tainted by association. No, you have to find it out yourselves. We have to content ourselves with unraveling the Pantheon’s secrecy from a safe distance. Pursuant to that, I believe you kids are acquainted with a certain Joseph Jenkins?”

“What about Joe?” Gabriel demanded, taking aim with his wand. Instantly the other warlocks on the dais pointed their disruptors at him.

“Joe,” said Mogul smugly, “is or is about to be in possession of some extremely interesting information that sheds light on what’s been happening here in Veilgrad. One might say that you and his group of friends each hold half the pieces to this puzzle. You’ll want to drop him a line at your earliest opportunity. He can be found in Tiraas these days; if he’s not gotten around to listing his address, Bishop Antonio Darling will know how to reach him. That’s yet another name familiar to you, I believe!”

They all stared at him in silence.

“Well!” Mogul said briskly. “Time waits for no man. No one, I should say; my apologies, General Avelea. We must be off, then. These devices need a new home—”

Silver mist shot in through the broken window at a steep angle, slamming into the floor of the cathedral midway between the students and the warlocks. It swirled upward in a twisting pillar, then resolved itself into the lean figure of Malivette Dufresne.

“Embras!” she squealed, throwing wide her arms. “How just perfectly lovely to see you!”

“…Lady Malivette,” Mogul replied, suddenly looking wary. “I must say, this is unexpected.”

“Why, yes, of course,” the vampire said cheerfully. “Because everyone knows Malivette is hiding in her manor while the kids are here. She’s afraid of the valkyries, you see! Y’know, the ones right now crawling all over this building.”

“They’re not going to harm you,” Gabriel said carefully. “It’s, uh, nice to meet you, by the way.”

“Good heavens, boy, I know that,” Malivette said, turning to wink at him. “Right back atcha, by the way. And frankly I wouldn’t much care if they did. It’s not like I so very much enjoy existing.”

“Well,” said Mogul, shaking his head. “Well, well, well. If there is one thing I respect, it’s a well-executed ploy. My hat is off to you, madame.” He suited the words with actions, lifting his straw hat to reveal a shiny bald head and bowing to her. “If you’ll forgive me a prying question, how did you even know we would be here?”

“My, someone thinks a lot of himself!” Malivette tittered, turning back to the warlocks, who edged back away from her. “No, Embras, actually I was hoping to catch whoever was behind all the crap afflicting my city, but…you’ll do. Yes indeed, this is quite fortuitous! It seems you’re in possession of some very exciting items belonging to the Empire!”

Abruptly the cheer melted from her features, and she stared coldly up at Mogul.

“Give them to me.”

He cleared his throat. “Ah. Perhaps you would care to discuss—”

The vampire moved with such speed that not even a blur was visible. One moment she was standing on the floor of the sanctuary; the next, she was in the midst of the Wreath’s formation, arms wrapped around Vanessa, one hand tangled in the warlock’s hair, wrenching her head back to expose the side of her neck.

Shadows swelled around Vanessa and Malivetted, then instantly dissipated.

“No, no, dearest,” the vampire cooed, “none of that. It’s rude to leave a party before the guest of honor has even had a drink.”

Vanessa emitted a thin keening sound of pure panic.

“Nessa, easy,” Embras said urgently. “She’s just making a point; if she wanted you dead, you would be. Don’t rile her! Lady Dufresne, if you want a hostage, I’m more valuable.”

“But you care about this one,” Malivette said sibilantly. “I know your great secret, Embras Mogul. Everyone is afraid of the big bad Wreath; afraid of your eeeevil, baby-sacrificing ways. I know a thing or two about being a monster, and I know about faith. You just might care more about the world and each other than any of the other cults.”

“Stop this,” Toby said urgently. “All of you! Malivette, please—”

Vanessa was crying openly now, practically vibrating with tension.

“Do you know what it’s like,” Malivette continued softly, her crimson eyes fixed on Mogul, “being hungry all the time? Never getting your fill? Worse, living in a world inhabited by delicious walking steak dinners? The smell alone… I never take more than the bare minimum I must to survive. It’s been so long since I just…drained someone.” Slowly, she leaned in, pressing her nose to the side of Vanessa’s neck, and inhaled deeply. “Mmmfffnn… Warlocks are so spicy. And best of all, nobody would miss one.”

Vanessa squeezed her eyes shut, whimpering.

“Enough,” Mogul snapped, tossing the disruptor to the ground at the foot of the dais. “You win. Everyone, give them up.”

“But Embras—” a man in gray robes started to protest.

“Do it!” Mogul barked. “Enchantments are replaceable—people aren’t!”

The rest followed suit, tossing down their weapons, and backed away.

“Let go of her,” Mogul said, glaring at Malivette. “You have no idea the harm you’re doing. You know what the Church did to her just this summer?”

“You know how many of those disruptors there are, Embras?” Malivette replied in a hiss. “Because I do. Please don’t lie to me. It makes me peckish.”

She drew her upper lip back, leaned in, and pressed the tips of her fangs to the nape of Vanessa’s neck.

The warlock fainted.

Mogul held out his hand to one side, glaring mutely at the vampire. Seconds later, another robed figure flickered into visibility and placed one last divine disruptor in his outstretched hand. He tossed it onto the pile with the others.

“Attaboy!” Malivette said, suddenly all sweetness and light again. She knelt, gently lowering Vanessa to the ground and somehow managing to make the awkward movement look graceful. “Don’t you worry, kids, I will ensure that most of these find their way back into the Army’s hands.”

“Most?” Toby said sharply.

“Well, yeah,” she replied, winking at him. “Like I told you once before, I’m patriotic enough. I think it’s a grand idea for my government to have the best and newest weapons available! But no government needs to be the only entity with access to any weapon. Or so I hear from some Eserites I’m acquainted with, who I bet will know just how to disseminate these shiny new enchantments into the world. All right, this was fun, but I gotta go get a drink now before I accidentally kill a whole bunch’a people. See you at home, kids!”

She dissolved abruptly into mist, which flowed down the steps and over the pile of disruptors, then vanished. The weapons disappeared along with it.

Embras Mogul stepped over to Vanessa as soon as the vampire was gone, kneeling to gently gather her into his arms.

“And with that, it’s official,” he said grimly. “Now no one is pleased with the outcome of this, except the blood-sucking undead. Y’know, they say you can tell a lot about a person based on the company they keep; what interesting friends you’ve got. I’ll be seeing you kids again soon.”

Shadows swelled up over them, and then the Wreath were all gone.

For several moments they could only stand in stunned silence.

“Um,” Juniper said at last, “how come warlocks and vampires can just do whatever they want in a church? Aren’t these places supposed to be consecrated? Cos…I’m not feeling de-powered either, now that I think of it.”

Gabriel rubbed at his eyes. “Yeah. Well. Crisis over. The chaos is gone, the Wreath is gone, the Army’s even getting their weapons back.”

“Most of them, apparently,” said Shaine.

“Right.” He sighed. “So why do I feel like we didn’t win here?”

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“Catacombs, huh,” Toby mused, absently tapping his fork against his plate. The morning’s cloud cover had been pushed away by wind and sun, and it was bright and pleasantly warm on the pub terrace overlooking the square. The general mood at the table did not reflect this. “Well, I suppose that explains a few things. If there’s some core of chaos cult activity, that accounts of how these smaller cults keep popping up and getting busted, and why they all have the same consistent pattern.”

“And how they’ve been keeping their heads down, literally,” Ruda added, “though the question remains why the Empire hasn’t caught ’em yet. I dunno how familiar they are with the catacombs, but they can’t be unaware of it. It defies reason to think the Imps missed something so obvious.”

“They’re the ones who just got their central base raided,” Juniper pointed out.

“Yes,” Trissiny agreed, “which is just another of the things about this situation which don’t add up. The local Imperial forces are seriously underperforming against this threat, which means they are either hamstrung in ways that have been hidden from us…”

“Or the enemy is a lot more competent than they’ve let on,” Fross finished.

“Exactly,” Trissiny said, nodding.

They fell quiet, all frowning at their food. Around them came the babble of conversation from the busy pub, but at the students’ table there was only the rhythmic tapping of metal against crockery.

Gabriel reached across and placed his hand on Toby’s fork.

“Uh, sorry,” Toby said with a grimace, putting it down.

“Well, that was our morning,” Ruda said, leaning back in her chair and folding her hands behind her head. “How ’bout you guys? Anything turn up?”

“I can’t say we had a very productive time,” Toby admitted. “We tried hard with those guys, but…” He trailed off, glancing at Juniper.

“They were just broken,” she said. “In the head. I mean, the Imperial guards said they were all crazy, but I’ve noticed when humans say that about someone it usually means they haven’t tried to understand them, but… This time, no. They were crazy. Not one of them could hold a coherent train of thought.”

“That’s a fairly common result of looking too hard at the things that live where chaos comes from,” Trissiny murmured. “It can occur simply from prolonged exposure to chaos energies, but… It’s more likely we’re dealing with some kind of rift, anyway. Hm, how many were there?”

“Seven in the jail,” Fross reported. “We talked to all of them. Well, tried to talk to them. I mostly just ended up feeling sad for them. The warden said there had been four others who died in custody. He didn’t know how many other cultists there may have been originally.”

“Well, sounds like you thought to ask,” Ruda said approvingly.

“It could be important!” Fross chimed. “The less information you have, the more you should try to obtain.”

“Have you heard anything from…you know?” Gabriel asked Teal.

She grimaced. “Not a word. And I have to admit I’m a little glad about it, no matter how much we need the information.”

“Good,” said Trissiny.

“The morning was not unproductive, however,” said Shaeine. “We’ve made arrangements for Scorn to have a proper wardrobe. Perhaps not a large one, but there are limits to what a tailor can produce on short order, and anyway, she does not appear much troubled by vanity.”

“I think she’ll be happy enough not to go around dressed in curtains,” Teal added with a small smile. “It was almost a bust, though. The tailor thought we were playing some kind of prank at first.”

“Why,” Ruda asked lazily, “because you’re a girl dressed like a boy and a drow placing a rush order for clothes for a seven-foot-tall woman built like an ox?”

“It was altogether less troublesome than getting Scorn’s measurements,” Shaeine said serenely. “In any case, the craftswoman we employed was admirably professional after being shown bank notes drawn on the Imperial treasury under the name Falconer.”

“So we’re the only ones who didn’t get anything actually done, then?” Juniper sighed.

“You ruled out a possibility,” said Shaeine. “Disappointing as it may have seemed, that is a vital step.”

“Are you not planning to eat that?” Gabriel asked Ruda, pointing at her mostly untouched plate.

“I had a little snack earlier, as you may recall. Help yourself.”

“Awesome.” Grinning, he pulled it over and tucked in. “You know what, I really like the local food. Does Malivette feed you guys as well as this?”

“It’s a little fancier,” said Trissiny. “Pearl is quite the chef. I think she enjoys having a full house to cook for.”

“And it’s always good to make our hostesses happy,” Juniper said pointedly, “since I don’t think Sapphire is going to forgive you for yesterday, Triss.”

“Um, excuse me?”

They all turned to regard the waitress, who was standing a few feet distant, visibly nervous. She gingerly held out a small roll of parchment, bound by a twist of black twine. “This was delivered for, um, the young lady with short hair.”

“Heh,” Ruda chuckled. “They could’ve just said to take it to the weirdo table and you’d know just where to go, right?”

The girl’s cheeks colored deeply. “I, um… Here you go.” Ducking forward, she set the parchment on the edge of their table, shoulders hunched as if she expected to be struck. “Enjoy your lunch.”

They watched in silence as the waitress scurried off back into the pub. People at other tables were staring, now, averting their gazes only when the students met them.

“Good work, Princess Social Skills,” said Gabriel.

“Gimme that.” Ruda yanked her plate back. “I’m hungry now.”

“Have they lost their minds?” Teal breathed, picking up the roll of parchment. The black twine which bound it had been woven with tiny strands of some kind of dried vine, making an unmistakeable wreath. “I thought these people were supposed to be subtle.”

“What do they have to say?” Toby asked.

Teal slipped the tiny wreath off, crushed it in her fist and stuffed it in her coat pocket. She unrolled the parchment and frowned. “Flower stall, one o’clock. Well, that’s…terse.”

“The less said to and by them, the better,” Trissiny grunted.

“One o’clock.” Teal produced a watch from an inner coat pocket, winced, and started to rise. “Whoof… Assuming they mean the flower stall over by Malivette’s warehouse, we just have time to get there—”

“You sit your butt back down, Falconer,” Ruda ordered. “Finish your lunch. They can wait.”

“You do know who we’re talking about, right?” Gabriel demanded. “Maybe we don’t wanna get pushy with them.”

“That is exactly what we wanna do,” Ruda said firmly. “You remember what that imp said, Teal? These people are obligated to look after Vadrieny, and therefore you, for religious reasons, and at least some of ’em aren’t happy about it. Undoubtedly others will be trying to see if they can work Vadrieny into whatever plans they’ve got. Well, the ideal thing would be to have no contact with them at all—”

“These are expert manipulators,” Trissiny agreed sharply. “The only way to win at their games is not to play.”

“Excuse me, Triss, I must’ve been trying to talk while you were interrupting.” Ruda gave her roommate a baleful look before returning her attention to Teal. “It’s about managing expectations. As far as we want these fuckers to think, we’re the spoiled, buffoonish princess and her weirdo friends who they have to accommodate now and again. Being a little difficult is exactly the approach we want to take.”

“I think there’s good logic in that,” Toby said. “I don’t generally make plans with an eye toward manipulating or inconveniencing people, but with that caveat this makes sense to me.”

“I tentatively agree,” Shaeine said slowly. “If we cannot avoid interacting with these…individuals, making ourselves uninteresting and disagreeable might be our best fallback position.”

“Okay, but we’re still talking about the Bla—” Gabriel broke off, glancing around the terrace; no one was nearby, or seemed to be trying to listen in, but he lowered his voice anyway. “I’m stuck on the point where trying to play mind games with them of all people seems like a fantastically bad idea.”

“This isn’t mind games, Arquin,” Ruda snorted. “Believe me, I’ll show you mind games sometime, just so you’ll know the difference. Finish your lunch, everybody. No rush.”


 

Despite Ruda’s insistence, no one except Juniper had much of an appetite after that, and the dryad was self-conscious about eating while everyone else sat around and watched. They made their way out fairly shortly following the delivery of the note, and found their way back to the alley behind the warehouse, arriving at the flower stand a little less than half past one.

The eight of them were apparently more excitement than that sleepy little street was accustomed to seeing, to judge by the way everyone stopped in their business to stare. The students ignored them, following Teal straight to the stand against the back wall of the warehouse, where stood the same person as before.

“My, you do travel in style,” Vanessa said mildly, not pausing in her work. She was busily wrapping bouquets of flowers together with lengths of ribbon. In fact, her cover was either an actual hobby of hers or she took it very seriously, to judge by the artfully arranged bunches she had already bound together and hung. “A whole party! I suppose I should feel honored.”

“I will say this once,” Trissiny snapped, stomping up to the front of the group. “At the first hint that you intend—”

“At the first hint that you intend anything remotely rough, including finishing that threat, I will be gone before you can snap off a prayer,” Vanessa said with a wintery little smile. “I have no time for games and no intention of getting into any manner of scrap with you, Trissiny. Is this how you treat everyone to whom you come for help?” She transferred her gaze past the paladin, frowning at Gabriel. “Young man, you look like you’ve just found your long-lost sister or something. Which, for the record, you have not, I assure you.”

He closed his mouth and gulped, but didn’t diminish the wideness of his eyes. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean… It’s just that… Well, you look an awful lot like…uh, someone I know. Knew. Used to know.”

Toby was frowning at the woman, too; at this exchange, Trissiny narrowed her own eyes, taking a more deliberate look at the warlock.

“Okay,” said Vanessa, nonplussed. “So, Miss Falconer, I take it all these people have your confidence, and we can speak freely?”

“Absolutely. Ah, that is, with regard to them.” Teal glanced pointedly up and down the street. “Should we maybe go someplace a little more private to have this conversation? There’s a way into the warehouse here…”

“Young lady, you really should learn to pay more attention,” Vanessa said with a smile. “Do you not notice the sudden lack of interest everyone seems to have in us? Do you recall anyone raising an outcry yesterday when I shadow-jumped right out from under your nose? No one will notice us until I see fit to be noticed. And no, Trissiny, before that look on your face blossoms into commentary, none of them are harmed, or being touched in the slightest by infernal magic. In fact, your staring Vidian friend here undoubtedly knows the trick and can explain it.”

“With regard to our inquiries, then?” Shaeine prompted.

“Ah, yes. That.” Vanessa tilted her head. “I suspect I know the answer, but how did you manage to get a Rhaazke up here? Are you positive that’s what you have?”

“We’re sure,” Teal said firmly. “And we didn’t get her here. We rescued her from Leduc Manor.”

Vanessa sighed heavily and rolled her eyes. “Leduc. Right. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had the impression someone ought to finish wiping out that family. But getting into Hell and opening yet another dimensional portal would seem to be well above little Sherwin’s capabilities…”

“He didn’t,” said Teal. “He summoned her directly here. Apparently he was trying to get a succubus, and ran afoul of a chaos effect.”

“Mm. Chaos. Yes, that’s about the only thing that could explain it.” Vanessa narrowed her eyes. “So Leduc deliberately tried to summon a child of Vanislaas?”

“We lay about fifty-fifty odds he’ll try again,” Ruda said, leering.

“No, he will not,” the warlock said firmly. “The Wreath will not have those creatures running around the mortal plane. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, children. We’ll deal with Leduc.”

“Enough!” Trissiny exclaimed. “We didn’t come here to give you information. What can you do about the Rhaazke?”

Vanessa sighed. “Sending her home would mean, first, traveling through a hellgate. I’m afraid no one in the Wreath will or can help you there. Apart from the minor matter that doing so is straightforward suicide, it is explicitly forbidden by the Black Lady herself.” She shrugged apologetically at Teal. “You of all people can perhaps arrange an exception, if you were to ask her. But she’s the only one who can help you with that, now.”

“You’re refusing to help?” Juniper said. “I thought you had to help Vadrieny.”

“In any way we can,” Vanessa replied. “What you’re asking is, as I said, prohibited, and for excellent reason. Traffic between the planes in general is disallowed. The Wreath only keep demons we have caught here, and only those which prove amenable to control; we don’t summon our own familiars from Hell. The reverse is true: we don’t go into Hell, nor allow anyone else to if we can prevent it.”

“How come?” Fross asked.

“That dimension has extremely scarce natural resources,” Vanessa said, continuing to bunch flowers. “Very little metal of any kind, and even the stone is…well, it’s not exactly stone as we’d recognize it. There’s some megafauna, which provide the only building and crafting materials that are widely available. We don’t want people going into Hell because we don’t want them taking stuff with them. Just the clothes on your backs would be worth a fortune down there—that would’ve been true five hundred years ago, but with enchantments as common as they are now, every item you bring down there is conferring a vast advantage on someone. And nobody in the infernal realms needs any advantages. The Lady is taxed keeping them under control as it is.”

“Oh, that’s just fuckin’ silly,” Ruda snorted. “How much damage could one person’s effects do to an entire dimension?”

“You do realize it is possible, in theory, to travel to the divine plane from here?” Vanessa said, raising an eyebrow. “The gods try to prohibit that for exactly the same reason. You, paladin.” She wagged a bouquet at Trissiny. “You have an un-killable horse which doesn’t need food or sleep and will come to you at a moment’s thought, anywhere you might happen to be. A sword, shield and armor that will stand up to virtually any power, and which you can also summon across the entire world if you chose. All of those things originate from the divine plane. Do you honestly believe it’s never occurred to anyone to try to get there and acquire more stuff like that?”

She let that sink in for a moment before continuing. “The gods very carefully restrict access. That is one of the reasons they don’t let departed souls communicate back down here if they can prevent it. The same reason we don’t let demons get their claws on the kinds of things we have. Knowing such things exist is one thing; seeing them can provide inspiration to challenge the barriers that keep them from you. No, the Wreath doesn’t go through hellgates, nor allow anyone else to. Even the Empire doesn’t do that, except to send in strike teams and close one. All policies by everyone remotely sane with regard to Hell center on keeping it as isolated as possible. Even if we were willing to make an exception like this, none of the mortal Wreath have the authority.” She shook her head. “Ask Elilial, if you truly wish. That’s all you can do.”

“So…we’re stuck with this creature?” Trissiny exclaimed.

“It could be a lot worse, as you know very well,” Vanessa said dryly. “A Rhaazke is just about the only sentient demon we wouldn’t consider a crisis just for being in this realm. She’s as mentally stable as anyone, and in fact can handle infernal magic without being an automatic hazard to herself or her environs. Teach her the language and the customs, try to keep her out of trouble. I should think several of you could relate to a fish so dramatically out of water.”

“But…what about her family?” Fross asked in a small voice. “They must be so worried…”

Vanessa pursed her lips. “What’s her name?”

Teal rolled her jaw once before replying very carefully. “Schkhurrankh.”

“Schkhurrankh.” Vanessa mouthed the name once more after speaking it. “I will pass that along to our high priest, who can request a message be sent. If the plea comes from Vadrieny, I’m certain Elilial will arrange it. We can let Schkhurrankh’s family know she is all right, and open the question of sending her back home.”

“Thank you,” Teal said feelingly.

Vanessa smiled and made a little half-bow from her seat. “I am pleased to be of service.”

“That’s one thing addressed,” Trissiny said shortly. “What do you know about the attack on the Imperial barracks?”

“Ah, yes. That.” Vanessa shook her head. “I am instructed, against all established policy, personal experience and instinct, to be forthcoming with you about that. Yes, the Black Wreath did move on the barracks to secure those experimental weapons.”

“You injured and very nearly killed a lot of good people for that,” Trissiny growled. “Give the weapons back.”

Vanessa smiled coldly. “We don’t have them.”

“I do not have the patience for—”

“That being the case, kindly let me get a word in edgewise and this will all go much faster.” Vanessa raised an eyebrow archly, shifting on her stool. “I was not personally involved in this, but I’ve been brought up to speed. Running around in carefully-timed adventures isn’t really my thing these days.” She patted her hip. “I understand, however, that the planned robbery was basically a work of art. Weeks of observation and strategy, multiple agents committed, the whole thing carefully designed to create a perfect sequence of distractions and disruptions in the base’s security so our people could grab the weapons and get out, leaving no trace and nobody so much as disheveled.”

“Sounds like you fucked up,” Ruda observed.

“Yes,” Vanessa said with an annoyed grimace. “Because the second we launched our initial distractions, someone else hit the place. Very, very hard. The Wreath’s opening move was calculated to draw away the personnel who would ordinarily respond to an emergency and neutralize the equipment available to those remaining, so when some louse firebombed the infirmary, the soldiers were at a much more severe disadvantage than they would ordinarily have been.” She sighed. “In the ensuing chaos, the Wreath aborted and withdrew. Whoever tried to blow the place up ended up getting the prototypes.”

“Who?” Teal demanded.

“It seems,” Vanessa replied, “there are chaos cultists active in this city. They are the only agents we have identified who even could be responsible, of the interested parties at work in Veilgrad. Malivette has no motive to do this and can’t risk antagonizing the Empire. Likewise for the Huntsmen. The Shadow Hunters and the local Thieves’ Guild lack the capacity. Justinian’s Church would definitely not hesitate to injure troops and steal from the Empire, but the Church has been slowly abandoning Veilgrad over the last several months; I assure you we have investigated that carefully, and the very few remaining agents he has in the city are simple priests, not operatives.” She tapped her just-finished bouquet against the stall’s counter in irritation. “So, we don’t yet know who perpetrated that debacle, but our standing assumption is that chaos-worshiping fools were behind it. They have apparently been a persistent nuisance in Veilgrad recently.”

“In fact,” Teal said slowly, “we just met one.”

“Specifically,” Ariel added, “we met one in the company of a very large, very potent necromantic construct which had to have been the result of considerable labor and resources. The only thing he could think to do with such an important asset was to hurl it at two paladins, who dispatched it effortlessly. These are not long-term planners, or strategists of any kind. Chaos devotees never are; their religious practices have a deleterious effect on higher brain functions.”

“Ariel’s right,” Trissiny said. “Pitting those cretins against the Empire would be a joke. It’s far more likely that you’re simply lying to us.”

“Yes, I’m certain it seems that way to you,” Vanessa said sardonically. “Never mind the damage that would do to the relationship we are trying to cultivate with Vadrieny.” She pointedly turned away from Trissiny, addressing herself to Teal. “We need not pretend that we are all friends, or that we want all the same things over the long term. Right now, though, you can add the Black Wreath to the list of everyone else who wants what you want: to cut down whoever is doing all this to Veilgrad. Our strength is your strength, lady.”

“I think we’d better head over to the barracks,” said Toby. “If nothing else, we know a little more, now. Colonel Adjavegh should be told about this—all of it. The cultists in the catacombs, the involvement of the Wreath.”

“Whoah, there,” said Ruda. “We’ve got sources to protect, remember? Adjavegh doesn’t know we know about his experimental weapons.”

“Well, here’s our explanation right here,” said Gabriel, jerking his head toward Vanessa. “As far as he needs to know, we just learned about it from her.”

“Let us not discuss plans in front of the warlock,” Trissiny exclaimed.

“You seem to be moving on in your campaign,” Vanessa said calmly. “Shall I take this to mean you have no further questions for me at this time?”

“For now, no,” said Teal. “If I think of anything…”

“You have only to ask.”

“Okay, I have to know,” Gabriel said hesitantly. “Miss…uh, Ms., ma’am… Do you know someone named Madeleine? A relative, maybe?”

“Young man,” Vanessa said calmly, “I am disinclined to spark hostilities with paladins under any circumstances, and as Vadrieny’s friend you are entitled to a measure of respect from me. But if you go prying into my personal life, I will not hesitate to hex you. Any lady would.”

“That’s all right, forget it,” Toby said hastily before Gabriel could reply. “Thank you, Vanessa, for the information.”

“Of course,” the warlock said with a languid smile, still bunching and sorting her flowers. “I am only pleased to help in any way I can.”

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