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“So naturally, you brought it here,” Tellwyrn said in exasperation.

“She,” Toby said firmly. “Come on, Professor. That’s a person you’re talking about.”

“Hello,” Scorn offered, apparently noticing that attention was focused on her.

“What,” Tellwyrn demanded, “do you think I’m going to do with a Rhaazke? I’m not even going to bother being taken aback that you kids managed to get one. Somehow it’s always you lot!”

“Point of order!” Fross chimed. “We didn’t get her! A stupid man was trying to summon a succubus and fell afoul of an unpredictable chaos effect. So, really, it wasn’t even his fault, though it’s very tempting to blame him because he was really dumb and also a great big creep. But still. These things just happen.”

Professor Yornhaldt burst out laughing, earning a glare from Tellwyrn. Her office was rather crowded with the entire sophomore class present, plus Tellwyrn behind her desk, and Yornhaldt and Rafe in chairs against one of her bookcases. Scorn stood in the corner nearest the door, hunching somewhat awkwardly to keep her horns from brushing the ceiling.

“Maybe what you do with any of us?” Ruda suggested. “I mean, let’s face it, the student body here is probably the biggest collection of weirdos on this continent, if not the planet.”

“This is not a hostel,” Tellwyrn said acidly. “We don’t take in strays just because they have no place better to be!”

“Where would you suggest sending her, then?” Trissiny asked quietly. “What else could we have done?”

“BEHOLD!” Scorn shouted.

Tellwyrn buried her face in her hands, displacing her glasses. Rafe howled with laughter.

“If I may?” Shaeine said with customary serenity. “Scorn is a daughter of nobility in her own realm; her principal problem seems to be unfamiliarity with the mortal plane. The speed with which she is picking up Tanglish suggests a capable intellect, and she certainly meets the qualification you set out for us in our very first class last year. She is too dangerous to be allowed to wander around untrained. All in all, she would appear to be the very model of an Unseen University student.”

“I know it’s unusual to enroll a student at this point in the academic year, Arachne,” Yornhaldt added, “but really. These are unusual circumstances, and what is this if not an unusual place?”

“She’s completely clueless about every detail of life on this plane,” Tellwyrn grated. “Can you lot even begin to imagine the havoc that could ensue from her mingling with the student body? Or worse, the general populace. What would she do if sent out on one of your field assignments? And the curriculum here is not designed to hand-hold people who have no concept what anything in the world is. The closest parallels to this case in the University’s entire history are Juniper and Fross, and they at least speak the language!”

“Well, we have to put her somewhere,” said Gabriel. “I mean, it’s not like you can just kill her.”

“Oh, really,” Tellwyrn said flatly.

“Yeah, really,” he replied, meeting her eyes unflinchingly. “Just. I said you can’t just kill her. You can no doubt do that or anything else you want, but not until you’ve plowed through every one of us first.”

“Whoah, guys,” Juniper said soothingly. “Of course she’s irate, we just dropped a Rhaazke demon in her lap. Professor Tellwyrn’s only that mean to people who’ve done something to deserve it. C’mon, let’s everybody calm down, okay?”

“Excellent advice,” Shaeine agreed.

“All right,” said Tellwyrn, drumming her fingers on the desk and staring at Scorn, who peered quizzically back. “All right. This is what we’ll do. I am not enrolling this walking disaster in your or any class at this juncture. Don’t start, Caine, I am not done talking! She can stay with the girls in Clarke Tower; it has a basement space that should be big enough to be fairly comfortable for her. If she’s going to be on the campus, she’s not to leave it; I refuse to have to explain this to the Sheriff. You lot, since you had the bright idea to bring her here, will be responsible for bringing her up to speed on life in the world. Teach her Tanglish, local customs, the political realities of the Empire, the cults… You know, all the stuff none of you bother to think about because you’ve known it for years.”

“I bother to think about it,” said Fross.

“Me, too,” Juniper added.

“Good, that’ll make you perfect tutors, then. We’ll revisit this issue next semester, and if I judge her prepared, she may join the class of 1183 at that time. If not… She can take that semester and the summer for further familiarity, though frankly I will consider it a big black mark if she hasn’t the wits to get her claws under her in the next few months. If she is still not ready or willing to be University material at the start of next fall’s semester, that’s it. No more chances. Then I’ll have to figure out what to do with her, which I frankly do not suspect anybody will like.”

“That’s fair,” Trissiny said quickly. “She’s smart. I’m sure she’ll be good to go by this spring.”

“Not kill?” Scorn inquired.

“Sadly, no,” Ruda said while Tellwyrn leaned far back in her chair, letting her head loll against it to stare at the ceiling.

“Well, anyway,” Rafe said brightly, “you’ll get my detailed report later, Arachne, but the kids did a damn fine job. Not at all their fault that the Church butted in at the last moment—they were right on the cusp of getting to the bottom of Veilgrad’s problem, and I have to say their investigation was deftly handled. A much better showing than the Golden Sea expedition!”

“Aw, we can’t take too much credit,” Ruda said sweetly. “Professor Rafe helped a lot by fucking around in Malivette’s house with her concubines instead of sticking his clumsy fingers into our business. Like in the Golden Sea expedition.”

“HAH! Straightforward, on-target sass, Punaji! Ten points—”

“Admestus, shut your yap,” Tellwyrn snapped. “I am in no mood. For the time being, pending a full report, you kids can consider your grade for this assignment in good shape. All right, all of you get lost. Go settle in, get some rest; you’ve got assignments waiting in your rooms. Classes are tomorrow as usual. Have fun explaining this to Janis,” she added, flapping a hand disparagingly at Scorn.

“Pointing is for no,” the demon said severely. “Rude. Social skills!”

“Malivette is scary even when she’s not here,” Fross whispered.

“Hell, Janis loves having people to mother,” Ruda said, grinning. “I bet Scorn’s never had muffins. C’mon, big girl.”

“I’m a little nervous how she’ll react to the tower,” Teal said as they began filing out the door. “Any sane person is unnerved by that tower at first glance.”

“Welp, I’ll just get on with my paperwork, then, shall I?” Rafe said, rising and following them.

“How industrious of you, Admestus,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “What did you do this time?”

He grinned insanely. “Wait, learn, and be amazed.”

“Get the hell out.”

“Aye aye, fearless leader!”

Fross hesitated in the top of the door after everyone else departed. “It’s good to see you back, Professor Yornhaldt!”

“Thank you, Fross,” he said, smiling. “I’m quite glad to see all of you again, as well!”

The pixie shut the door with a careful push of elemental air, leaving them alone.

Tellwyrn set her glasses on the desk, massaging the brim of her nose. “Those kids are going to be the graduating class that brings me the most pride and satisfaction if they don’t burn the whole goddamn place down, first.”

“That’s not entirely fair, Arachne,” Yornhaldt protested. “They are pretty obviously not the ones who opened the hellgate. And they were, after all, instrumental in closing it.”

“You know exactly what I mean.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” he said with a sigh. “But this is business as usual, Arachne, just more of it. Some of those kids have fearfully direct connections to significant powers, but in the end, we’ve been training up heroes and villains for half a century now, and sending them out to face their destiny.”

“There are no such things as heroes or villains,” she grunted. “Or destiny.”

Yornhaldt smiled, folding his thick hands over his midsection. “I disagree, as you well know.”

“Yes, yes, let’s not get in that argument again.” She put her spectacles back on and gave him a more serious look. “You were in the middle of telling me of your adventures when Admestus barged in with the goslings.”

“Actually, I had just finished telling you of my adventures. Although I had a rather interesting time procuring a new suit with most of my money having walked off during—ah, but I gather you don’t care to hear about that.”

“Naturally I’ll reimburse you for any expenses,” she said. “But the research, Alaric. It’s really a dead end?”

Yornhaldt frowned in thought, gazing at the far wall but seeing nothing. “I cannot accept that it’s a dead end, but I may be forced to accept that continuing down this particular path is beyond me. It’s an alignment, Arachne, I’m sure of it. But an alignment of what is the question. I am certain there are astronomical factors, but this is unique in that the stars and bodies coming into position are beyond our current society’s capacity to detect. That much I can say with certainty; a few of the surviving sources were of a scientific mindset and blessedly plainspoken. There must have been means for such long-distance viewing during the time of the Elder Gods, but right now, we simply cannot see the distant galaxies which must be taken into account.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” she said, frowning heavily. “On the cosmic scale you’re talking about, eight thousand of this planet’s years is nothing. An eyeblink—it’s one tenth of one percent of a fart. There wouldn’t be significant deviation from their positions relative to us eight millennia prior. And that’s not even addressing the question of how such distant objects even could influence matters on this world. You know as well as I the upper limits of magical influence. It’s not constrained by the lightspeed constant, but it’s far from infinite.”

“Just so,” he agreed, nodding. “Which brings me to the other issue: I am convinced that what is being aligned is planar as well as physical. Perhaps more so. There are factors relating to the positions of the infernal, divine and elemental planes relative to this one. Unfortunately,” he added with a scowl, “most of this information seems to have been recorded by bards. Or at least, individuals who thought a poetic turn of phrase was a useful addition to the historical record. Considering that this work requires finding the few sources that have even survived, translating them out of dead languages… We’re in the realm of lore, now, Arachne. I have a hankering to continue the project, but I also need to acknowledge that I’m not the best person for it. If you can help me work out a means of measuring and scrying on things in other galaxies, that I’ll do with a will. This… We need a historian. Preferably a somewhat spoony one.”

“I should think a less spoony mindset would be more useful in untangling those records,” she said dryly.

Yornhaldt grimaced. “I consider myself as unspoony as they come, and I mostly found the work frustrating.”

Tellwyrn sighed and drummed her fingers on the desk again. “Well. Based on the speed with which actual events are unfolding, we have at least a year. Likely more; apocalypses like this don’t just drop from the trees like pinecones. If the alignment does lead to another apotheosis, as everything seems to suggest, the gods will be taking action, as will those closest to them, before it actually hits. For now,” she went on with a smile, “I’m damned glad to see you home safe, Alaric.”

“I have to confess I am as well,” he replied, grinning.

“Unfortunately, I can’t put you back at a lectern just yet. I promised Kaisa the year; I don’t even know whether she wants the full year, but the issue is it was promised to her. The last thing I need on top of everything else is an offended kitsune tearing up my campus.”

“Arachne, I’m sure I have no idea what you are going on about,” Yornhaldt replied, folding his hands behind his head and leaning back against the books. “Teach classes? You forget, I am on sabbatical.”


 

“It is a great relief to see you all back unharmed,” Archpope Justinian said with a beneficent smile. “Your mission brought you into conflict with some very dangerous individuals.”

“Yep,” the Jackal replied lazily. “Since apparently that was the entire and only point of the whole exercise, it sure did happen.”

“None of us are shy about conflict, your Holiness,” Shook said tightly. “Being jerked around, lied to and sent into big, pointless surprises is another thing. You want someone killed? We’ll do it. I don’t appreciate being told to dig in the desert for weeks for damn well nothing. As bait.”

Kheshiri gently slipped her arm through his and he broke off. A tense silence hung over the room for a long moment.

Their assigned quarters in the sub-level of the Dawnchapel temple in Tiraas were actually quite luxurious. Private rooms branched off from a broad, circular chamber with a sunken floor in the center. This had originally been some kind of training complex, probably for the martial arts for which the temple’s original Omnist owners were famous. Now, the area was tastefully but expensively furnished, the chamber serving as a lounge, dining room, and meeting area.

The five members of the team were arrayed in an uneven arc, their focus on the Archpope, who stood with Colonel Ravoud at his shoulder. The Colonel looked tense and ready to go for his wand, but if Justinian was at all perturbed by the destructive capacity arranged against him, he showed no hint of it.

“I understand this assignment has been the source of several surprises for you,” he said calmly. “For me, as well. I found your choice of strategy extremely intriguing, Khadizroth. Did I not know better, I might conclude your decision to attack Imperial interests was designed to draw their interest to your own activities. You must forgive me; dealing with as many politics as I do, I tend to see ulterior motives where they may not exist.”

“I believe we have been over this,” Khadizroth replied in a bored tone. “It was necessary to deal with McGraw, Jenkins, and the rest—indeed, it turns out that was the sole reason we were out there. At the time, depriving them of their secure base of operations seemed the best strategy.”

“And yet, neither you nor they suffered any permanent casualties,” Justinian said. “How fortuitous. Surely the gods must have been watching over you.”

“Would it be disrespectful to snort derisively?” Kheshiri stage-whispered to Shook, who grinned. She was in human guise, as always on temple grounds. The original consecration on the place had been lifted to allow her to function here.

“I think you could stand to consider who you’re dealing with, here, your Archness,” said the Jackal, folding his arms. “Really, now. We’ve all got a sense of honor, or at least professionalism. None of us mind doing the work. But is this really a group of people it’s wise to jerk around?”

“None of you are prisoners,” Justinian said serenely. “If at any time you wish to discontinue our association, you may do so without fear of reprisal from me. Indeed, I’m forced to confess I might find some relief in it; our relationship does place a strain upon my conscience at times. Due to my position, I am beholden to the Sisters of Avei, the Thieves’ Guild, and other organizations which are eager to know about the movements of most of you. It would assuage my qualms to be able to be more forthright with them.”

Shook tightened his fists until they fairly vibrated; Khadizroth blinked his eyes languidly. The others only stared at Justinian, who gazed beatifically back. Ravoud’s eyes darted across the group, clearly trying to anticipate from which direction the attack would come.

“For the time being, however,” said the Archpope after a strained pause, “I encourage you all to rest after your travels. Unless you decide otherwise, I shall have more work for you very soon. Welcome home, my friends.”

With a final nod and smile, he turned and swept out of the chamber, Ravoud on his heels. The Colonel glanced back at them once before shutting the doors to their suite.

Shook began cursing monotonously.

“Well said!” the Jackal said brightly.

Khadizroth stepped backward away from the group and turned his head, studying the outlines of the room. “Vannae, assist me?”

The elf nodded, raising his hands to the side as the dragon did the same. A whisper of wind rose, swirling around the perimeter of the chamber, and the light changed to pale, golden green. The shadows of tree branches swayed against the walls.

“I attempted to insulate any loose fae energy,” Khadizroth said, lowering his arms. “Kheshiri, are you aversely affected?”

The succubus pressed herself close to Shook’s side; he tightened his arm around her. “Not really. Doesn’t feel good, but I’m not harmed.”

“Splendid.” The dragon smiled. “This will ensure our privacy, since we were not able to catch up before returning here. How did your…adventure go?”

She glanced up at Shook, who nodded to her, before answering. “Everything went smoothly—I’m good at what I do. You were right, K. Svenheim was a trap.”

“You’re certain?” Khadizroth narrowed his eyes.

“Not enough that I’d stake my life on it,” she admitted. “But the Church is an active presence in the city, and I observed some very close interactions between its agents and curators at the Royal Museum.”

“I knew that fucking dwarf was gonna backstab us,” Shook growled.

“Not necessarily,” Khadizroth mused. “Svarveld may have been a double agent, or he may have been as betrayed as we. The point ended up being moot, anyway. We will simply have to remember this, and not underestimate Justinian again.”

“Why would he bother with that, though?” the Jackal asked. “He knew the skull wasn’t even in circulation. We were never going to acquire it, much less send it to Svenheim instead of Tiraas.”

Khadizroth shook his head. “Unknowable. I suspect there are currents to this that flow deeper than we imagine. Did you have time to tend to the other task I asked of you, Kheshiri?”

“Easy,” she replied, her tail waving behind her. “I swung by Tiraas on my way back; only took a few hours.”

“What’s this?” the Jackal demanded. “I thought we were sending the demon to Svenheim to snoop. How did you even get across the continent and back?”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Kheshiri said sweetly, producing a twisted shadow-jumping talisman from behind her back and tossing it to her. “You shouldn’t leave your things lying around.”

The assassin rolled his eyes, catching it deftly. “That’s right, let’s have a ‘who’s sneakier’ pissing contest. I’m sure there’s no way that’ll backfire.”

“Quite,” Khadizroth said sharply. “Kindly show your teammates a little more respect, Kheshiri. This group is primed to dissolve into infighting anyway; we cannot afford such games.”

“Of course,” she said sincerely. “My apologies. But in any case, your message was received and acknowledged. No response as yet.”

“Give it time,” he murmured.

“Message?” Vannae inquired.

“Indeed.” The dragon smiled thinly. “Justinian is not the only one with dangerous connections.”


 

“Busy?” Rizlith sang, sliding into the room.

Zanzayed looked up, beaming. “Riz! Never too busy for my favorite distraction. He’s got me doing paperwork. Help!”

“Aw, poor baby,” the succubus cooed, sashaying forward. “I bet I can take your mind off it.”

“I should never have introduced you,” Razzavinax muttered, straightening up from where he had been bent over the desk, studying documents. “Zanza, Riz…don’t encourage each other.”

“Well, joshing aside, there’s been a development I think you’ll urgently want to hear,” Rizlith said, folding her wings neatly and seating herself on one corner of the desk.

“A development?” Razzavinax said sharply. “Do we need to revisit that tedious conversation about you leaving the embassy?”

“Oh, relax, I’ve been safely cooped up in here the whole time,” she said sullenly. “No, the development came to me. And by the way, if you’re just now hearing of this, your wards need some fine-tuning. I had a visit from one of my sisters.”

“Sisters?” Zanzayed inquired. “Like…an actual sister, or is that just demon-speak for another of your kind?”

“You do know we’re not an actual species, right?” Rizlith turned to Razzavinax. “You’ve explained it to him, haven’t you?”

“Never mind that,” the Red said curtly. “Children of Vanislaas are not sociable with each other as a rule, Zanzayed; developments like this are always alarming.”

“Oh, quite so,” the succubus said with fiendish glee. “But Kheshiri brought me the most fascinating gossip!”

“Kheshiri,” Razzavinax muttered. “That’s a name I’m afraid I know. How bad is it?”

“That depends.” Rizlith grinned broadly, swaying slightly back and forth; her tail lashed as if she could barely contain herself. “Weren’t you guys looking for Khadizroth the Green a while back?”


 

Even strolling down the sidewalk in civilian attire, Nora did not allow herself to lose focus. She had been trained too long and too deeply to be unaware of her surroundings. When four people near her suddenly slumped sideways as if drunk, it wasn’t that fact alone so much as her reaction to it that told her something was badly wrong. She paused in her own walk, noting distantly that this was peculiar, and well below the level of her consciousness, training kicked in. It was much more than peculiar; her mind was not operating as it should.

Nora blinked her eyes, focusing on that tiny movement and the interruptions it caused in her vision. Mental influence—fairly mild, and clearly concentrated on an area of effect, not just targeting her. That meant the solution was to keep moving…

Then she was grabbed, her arms bound roughly behind her, and tossed into the back of a carriage that had pulled up next to the curb.

She hadn’t even seen anyone approach. Hadn’t noticed the delivery carriage pull up. How humiliating. It began moving, however, and the effect subsided with distance, enabling her to focus again on her surroundings.

It was a delivery truck, or had been originally; basically a large box with a loading door on the back built atop an enchanted carriage chassis. The runes tracing the walls indicated silencing charms, as did the lack of street noise once the doors were shut. One bench was built against the front wall of the compartment, with a single dim fairy lamp hanging in on corner, swaying slightly with the motions of the carriage.

The space was crowded. Four men stood around Nora, one with a hand knotted in her hair to keep her upright—she only belatedly realized that she had landed on her knees on the floor. On the bench opposite sat a thin man with glasses, who had a briefcase open on his lap, positioned to hid its contents from her. Against the wall on the other end of the bench perched a woman Nora recognized from a recent mission briefing.

“Good morning, Marshal Avelea,” Grip said pleasantly. “Thanks for joining us, I realize this was short notice.”

“I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t get dressed up,” Nora said flatly.

The thief grinned. “Saucy, aren’t we? Just like a hero out of a bard’s story. I thought you Imperial professionals were supposed to clam up when captured.”

“Would that make you happier?”

“I’m not here to be happy,” Grip said, her smile fading. “I get a certain satisfaction from my work, sure, but it’s not as if breaking people’s joints makes me happy, per se.”

“I don’t think you’ve considered the implications of this,” said Nora. “I’m an agent of Imperial Intelligence. If you intend—”

“Now, see, that attitude is why you are in this situation, missy. People seem to forget that we are a faith, not a cartel. This isn’t about intimidation—because no, the Imps don’t really experience that, do they? But when you start boasting about how your organization is too powerful to stand for this, well…” Grip leaned forward, staring icily down at her captive. “Then you make beating your ass an absolute moral necessity, rather than just a satisfying diversion.

“Besides, it’s all part of the cost of doing business. Your training means you won’t be excessively traumatized by anything that happens here, and your superiors will accept this as the inevitable consequence of their blundering and not push it further. You may not know, but I guarantee Lord Vex does, that the Empire is not a bigger fish than Eserion. At least one sitting Empress found herself unemployed as a result of pushing back too hard when we expressed an opinion. So this right here is a compromise! We’ll discuss the matter of you attempting to kill a member of our cult, Vex will be especially respectful for a while, and we can all avoid addressing the much more serious matter that you, apparently, are not afraid of the Thieves’ Guild.”

Grip very slowly raised on eyebrow. “Because believe you me, Marshal, I can fix that. But then there really would be trouble. So, let’s just attend to business and go our separate ways, shall we?”

“Fine, whatever,” Nora said disdainfully. “Could you stop talking and be about it already? Some of us have plans for this evening.”

Grip sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t say such things,” she complained. “Now this is going to suck up my whole afternoon. Toybox, start with that nervous system stimulating thingy of yours. When I’m satisfied the bravado is genuinely regretted, the lads can move on to the more traditional means.”


 

“This is on me,” Darling said, scowling.

“You’re awful eager to take credit for someone who wasn’t there,” Billie remarked, puffing lazily at one of McGraw’s cigarillos.

Darling shook his head. “Weaver, want to explain why she’s mistaken?”

“Always a pleasure,” said the bard, who sat crookedly in the armchair with one arm thrown over the back. “First rule of being in charge: everything is your fault. Being the man with the plan, he takes responsibility for any fucking up that occurs. More specifically, he sent us out without doing some very basic research that could’ve spared us all this.”

“Knew I could count on you,” Darling said dryly.

“Acknowledging that I am not generally eager to let you off the hook, Mr. Darling,” said Joe with a frown, “realistically, how could you have known the skull wasn’t in the Badlands?”

“Known? No.” Darling sighed, slouching back in his own chair. “But Weaver’s right. I found a trail and followed it without doing any further research. Hell, I knew about the werewolf issue in Veilgrad—we even discussed it, briefly. All I had to do was check with my contacts in the Imperial government for signs of possible chaos effects. Too late to say what difference it would have made—we might have decided to go for the Badlands anyway, as the Veilgrad case wasn’t a confirmed chaos incident until mere days ago—but it would’ve been something. Instead I got tunnel vision, bit Justinian’s bait and risked all your lives for damn well nothing. Somehow, ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t really cut the mustard this time.”

“You know better than this, Antonio,” Mary said calmly. “Learn the lesson and apply it next time. Recrimination is not a constructive use of our time.”

“Right you are,” he said dourly. “Regardless, I feel I owe you all something for this. The oracles settled down when the skull was secured, so the projects I’m pursuing on you behalf are again proceeding. It’s hard to tell, but I’ve a hunch that I’m close to an answer for you, at least, Mary.” He grimaced. “Unless the trend of the responses I’ve been getting reverses, I’m starting to fear it’s an answer you won’t like.”

“I do not go through life expecting to like everything,” she said calmly.

“Wise,” he agreed. “Anyway, it’s Weaver’s question that I think will be the toughest. I get the impression they’re actively fighting me on that. It may be my imagination, and the general difficulty of working with oracular sources, but still…”

“Wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest,” Weaver muttered.

“If nothin’ else,” said McGraw, “this wasn’t wasted time. We’ve learned some interesting things about our opponents.”

“And about ourselves,” Weaver added caustically. “Such as that Billie’s too theatrical to just kill an assassin when she has him helpless, rather than painting him with a stealth-penetrating effect.”

“Aye, now ye mention it that would’ve been more efficient,” Billie mused. “Hm. I’m well equipped for big bangs, but it occurs t’me I’ve got little that’d straight-up off a single target at close range. Funny, innit? I’ll have to augment me arsenal. I love doin’ that!”

“You said that green fire came out of a bottle?” said Joe. “That’d be a remarkable achievement if it was just a spell. How in tarnation did you manage to do it alchemically?”

“Oh, aye, that’s a point,” Billie said seriously. “Don’t let me forget, I owe Admestus Rafe either a really expensive bottle o’ wine or a blowjob.”

Weaver groaned loudly and clapped a hand over his eyes.

“Can’t help ya,” Joe said, his cheeks darkening. “I’m gonna be hard at work forgetting that starting immediately.”

“How do you plan to proceed?” Mary asked Darling. “It would appear that waiting for Justinian to take the initiative is a losing strategy.”

“You’re right about that,” the Bishop agreed. “And I do believe that some of what you’ve brought back is immediately relevant. For example, that he is harboring a fugitive from the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Is it wise to act on that point?” McGraw inquired. “Shook bein’ on his team is part o’ that game of intelligence chicken you’n Justinian are playin’, right? The one you’re not s’posed to acknowledge knowin’ about.”

“Some day I’m gonna hold you and Jenkins at wandpoint until you both prove you can pronounce the letter G,” Weaver grumbled.

“Oh, I’m sure Justinian will know exactly how the Guild learned of this,” Darling said with a grim smile. “If he didn’t want to play that game, he shouldn’t have made the first move. I’m not waiting for him to make the next one.”


 

“I’m sorry this business didn’t work out the way you hoped, your Holiness,” Ravoud said as the two men arrived in the small, glass-walled enclosure atop the ziggurat behind the Dawnchapel.

“On the contrary,” Justinian said, gazing out over the city, “this has been an extremely successful field test. We now have an idea of the effectiveness of Khadizroth’s group against Darling’s, which was the purpose of the exercise.”

“They seem pretty evenly matched…”

“Power for power, yes, but we knew that to begin with. And power is not so simply measured.” Justinian tilted his head backward, studying the cloudy sky. “Considering the violence all those people are capable of, their total lack of casualties indicates a mutual disinclination to inflict them. That is the most important thing we have learned. Using adventurers to winnow each other down will only work if they do not comprehend where their true best interests lie. These, clearly, do. Another strategy will be necessary.”

“I suppose this proves we can’t expect loyalty out of that group,” Ravoud said, scowling. “Hardly a surprise.”

“Indeed,” Justinian agreed with a smile. “Khadizroth deems himself above me, Vannae is loyal only to him, and the rest of them are simply monsters of one kind or another. Loyalty was never on the table. What is interesting to me is how quickly and openly Khadizroth set about undermining me. He is more than patient and far-sighted enough to play a longer, more careful game. Holding back from killing their opponents, attracting the Empire’s attention, that ploy to have the skull sent to Svenheim… To take such risks, he must perceive an urgency that I do not. That must be investigated more closely. It will also be important to learn whether the other party is operating on the same principles, or has developed an actual loyalty to Antonio. They are a more level-headed group, generally, and he is quite persuasive.”

“Forgive me for questioning you, your Holiness,” said Ravoud, carefully schooling his features, “but it is beyond my understanding why you tolerate that man. You know he’s plotting against you, and there’s not much that’s more dangerous than an Eserite with an ax to grind.”

“Antonio Darling is one of my most treasured servants,” the Archpope said softly, still gazing into the distance. “I will not have him harmed, nor deprive myself of his skills. Matters are tense now, because I cannot yet reveal everything to everyone. He has no cause to trust, and thus I have to arrange these diversions to keep him from investigating things he is not yet ready to know. When the full truth can be revealed, he of all people will find my cause the best way to advance his own principles and goals.”

“As you say, your Holiness,” Ravoud murmured. “Did… Do you intend to make some use of the skull?”

“Objects like that are not to be used,” Justinian said severely, turning to face him. “I fear I have abused my authority by making it a part of my plans at all. Frankly, my predecessor was unwise to have the Church take custody of that thing; it is far better off in the hands of the Salyrites. The goddess of magic can keep it safe better than anyone.” He sighed heavily. “My attempts to compensate for the risk seem to have backfired. We are still gathering intelligence from Veilgrad, but indications are the charms and blessings I designed to protect the people from the skull’s effects enabled those cultists to remain lucid enough to do significant harm, rather than blindly lashing out as chaos cultists always have. In addition to the damage to Veilgrad and its people, that has drawn the attention of the Empire.”

“That, though, could be useful by itself,” Rouvad said slowly. “If those same blessings can be used for agents of the Church… If there is ever another major chaos incident, they could protect our people, keep them functional.”

“Perhaps,” Justinian mused. “Regardless, I will have to meditate at length on a proper penance for myself; I have unquestionably caused harm to innocents with this. I badly misjudged the risks involved. Still… From all these events I feel I have learned something of great value.”

He turned again to gaze out through the glass wall over the rooftops of Tiraas. “In Veilgrad, a class from the University at Last Rock were hard at work interfering with my plans. And I note that one of the first actions undertaken by Darling’s group was to visit Last Rock itself. Everywhere I turn, Arachne Tellwyrn’s fingers dabble in my affairs. Just as they nearly upended Lor’naris last year, and Sarasio months before.”

“That’s…sort of a fact of life, isn’t it, your Holiness?” Rouvad said carefully. “There’s just not much that can be done about Tellwyrn. That’s the whole point of her.”

“No power is absolute, Nassir,” Justinian said softly. “Be they archmages, gods, or empires. They only have the appearance of absolute power because the people agree that they do. Such individuals live in fear of the masses discovering that they do not need to tolerate their overlords. Every tyrant can be brought down.

“I was always going to have to deal with Tellywrn sooner or later. We cannot rid the world of its last destructive adventurers when she is spewing out another score of them every year—to say nothing of her specifically elitist methods of recruitment. She targets those already most powerful and dangerous and equips them to be even worse. No… Arachne Tellwyrn must be dealt with.”

He nodded slowly to himself, staring into the distant sky. “If she insists on making herself a more urgent priority… So be it.”

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9 – 36

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Khadizroth physically swelled, drawing in a long breath, his face descending into a deep scowl. “You, Kuriwa, I had minimal patience for to begin with. If—”

“Truce,” Mary said calmly, holding up a hand, palm forward.

The dragon paused and narrowed his eyes. “Truce? Why?”

“Let me second that incredulous question,” added McGraw. “With you bein’ here, finally, this ruckus seems about to take a turn for the beneficial. For some of us, that is.”

“There are some things you should all know before pursuing this matter any further,” Mary said equably, lowering her hand. “If you will kindly give it a minute or two, let the others gather. I’ve had to send help for some myself, but—ah, here they come now.”

Now might have been overstating it for those without the benefit of elvish hearing. Vannae turned his head slightly toward the far end of the square, narrowing his eyes; Khadizroth glanced fleetingly in that direction before focusing his attention back on Mary.

“I am impressed, at the least, with your nerve. That you should presume to speak politely with me after our last encounter…”

“Khadizroth, I will not have this conversation if you plan to contend that your treatment was unwarranted,” Mary interrupted. “Existence is not fair, and people cannot be expected to be scrupulous in their judgment; we are not all Avei, nor Themynra. Your actions have consequences, and you knowingly took a substantial risk by launching a scheme which, frankly, was beneath you on multiple levels. If you wish to discuss the removal of my curse, we can. As soon as you are no longer attached to Justinian.”

“I see,” the dragon said evenly. Vannae scowled deeply at Mary and opened his mouth.

The sound of footsteps came from around the corner at the end of the square. The flaming green silhouette of the Jackal, eerily visible through intervening buildings, dashed toward the corner and whipped around, not slowing as he pelted straight for his compatriots. A second later, the huge panther rounded the corner, sliding on the dusty street, and lunged after him.

The Jackal unashamedly skittered behind Khadizroth; the panther skidded to a halt and glared at the group, tail lashing.

“Raea, please don’t play with that,” Mary said with a smile. “You have no idea where it’s been.”

“Look who decided to show up,” Raea shot back, her expression decidedly unfriendly. “After leaving this whole situation to devolve into carnage, here you are to clean everything up and take credit. As usual.”

“Petulance does not become you, child,” Mary chided gently. “If it makes you feel better, there will be very little credit here for anyone. If you will join us, we are going to have a chat shortly. I’ve had to send some help to escort the last few interested parties to this location.”

“Did you sign off on this?” the Jackal asked, peeking around from behind Khadizroth.

“Regardless of any outstanding personal business between myself and the Crow,” the dragon intoned, folding his arms, “it has been my long experience that it is worth listening when she speaks. I’ll grant a few minutes to hear this…revelation.”

“Oh, good,” said the assassin, brushing fruitlessly at the flames on his sleeves. “Can you do something about this?”

Khadizroth half-turned to glance over him. “Probably. Not here, in the presence of opportunistic hired thugs who I don’t trust not to take advantage of my distraction.”

“That’s a little rich,” Joe protested. “All’s fair in war, as they say. Now we’ve agreed to a truce.”

“This is the first time I have heard you voice such agreement,” Khadizroth replied. “Regardless, complex magics can wait.”

“Oh, sure, I’ll just wait,” the Jackal said sullenly as Raea came to stand next to McGraw, laying a hand on his shoulder. After a moment of no visible effect, the old wizard straightened up slightly and rolled his shoulders as if suddenly freed of stiffness, then smiled and tipped his hat to her.

Everyone shifted to stare at the mouth of a side street when a swirling cloud of dust emerged from it, moving far too slowly to be natural. The cloud slowed and arced back toward the street from which it had come, and for a moment during the shift a vaguely humanoid outline was visible in its form. Then it shifted again, drifting toward Mary, and rippled in an indecipherable series of gestures.

She smiled and bowed to the air elemental from a seated position. “En-shai da.”

The elemental swelled outward and dissipated, a few leftover streamers of dust drifting to the ground.

From the street behind it came Weaver, carrying Billie seated in the crook of his left arm; he had his wand in his other hand, pointed currently at the ground. The bard glanced rapidly around the growing assemblage in front of the well, but spoke to his passenger.

“Quit drinking those, you idiot. You of all people know what the effects of healing potion overdose are!”

“Ah, quit yer maunderin’,” Billie said with a grimace, tossing the vial she had just emptied to the ground. “All the worst times I ever had seem to’ve begun with somebody tellin’ me not ta drink somethin’.”

“And did you ever follow that advice?”

“Course not, what d’ye take me for?” She grinned at his ostentatious sigh, raising her voice to address the others. “Well, what’ve we got ‘ere? Back to talkin’, eh? You wankers had enough?”

“Hello, Billie,” said Mary, finally getting up from her perch and stepping over to them. As Weaver carefully lowered the gnome to the ground, she knelt and placed both hands on Billie’s cheeks.

Billie grimaced, then shuddered, staggering, and apparently would have fallen had Mary not held her up. “Ach! Blech, that tingles. Thanks, though. Feels a lot better.”

“He’s right, you know,” Mary said more severely. “One more vial of that and you’d have had much more serious problems than the internal bleeding. Remedying that was more difficult than what remained of your actual injuries.”

“Well, sorry, yer Crowness, but if you just turn up at the last second, don’t expect ta be handed the easy jobs!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Weaver said dismissively, glaring around the square. “Either someone explain to me why we’re not still killing these assholes, or let’s just resume.”

Khadizroth reached behind himself unerringly and planted a hand over the Jackal’s mouth, just as the assassin opened it. “We are as eager to learn the point of this as you, I’m sure, deathspeaker.”

“Just a moment, please,” said Mary calmly. “Our final guest is arriving.”

She stepped in front of McGraw, Joe, and Raea, crossing the space separating the two groups, and met a large figure emerging from another street.

It was easily eight feet tall and seemed made of stone, which made the silence of its movements deeply incongruous; only upon closer inspection was it apparent that the elemental was not made of solid rock, but slowly shifting sand. In its blocky arms was the unconscious form of Jeremiah Shook.

The sand elemental bent and carefully laid him out on the ground, where Mary knelt to touch his forehead. “Hm, he’s been healed recently. Your work, Vannae? Neatly done.”

“Mary,” Joe said tersely, “that man—”

“Is your diametric opposite in nearly every respect, Joseph, and altogether would have been a better choice for a first nemesis than a dragon.” Mary straightened up, turning her back on Shook, and strode serenely back to her perch on the rim of the well. The elemental, rather than rising again, slowly sank back into the dusty street, leaving no trace of its presence.

Shook twitched once, then sat bolt upright, groping at his belt where his wands should have been and not finding them. He fell still, staring at those gathered in the square through narrowed eyes.

“Come on, really?” the Jackal protested. “No one’s dead? Nobody? You guys suck at this.”

“Okaaaay,” said Shook, ignoring him. “What the hell now?”

“That is what we’re about to find out, apparently,” said Vannae, returning his attention to Mary.

“I have spent the last several days traveling widely,” Mary said, while Shook got to his feet and joined the other members of his party. “Much has been going on behind the scenes, and I’ve been working to determine what, and why, and at whose behest. I had some advance warning of these events, you see, thanks to my own divinations. When the oracles begin to warn of danger, there are always some of us who hear the alert first.”

“Thanks for keeping us in the loop,” Weaver snorted.

Mary raised an eyebrow. “I’ve worked toward the betterment of the world for a very long time before you came along, Weaver, though I would still have included you, had I any reason to believe you would act for the greater good when not being paid. Regardless, there is a point within your griping, whether you intended it or not. There is one secret I knew long beforehand, which I wish I had been present to share with you before you were sent off on this errand. It could have spared us all a great deal of needless fuss and bother.”

She folded her legs beneath herself and regarded them all solemnly. “You were sent here to obtain the skull of Belosiphon the Black—or more accurately, to fight over it. For the last eight hundred and twelve years, the skull has lain in a sealed barrow in the mountains outside Veilgrad, reachable through the city’s ancient catacombs.”

There was a beat of silence.

“Veilgrad?” Shook said incredulously. “Bullshit.”

“Veilgrad,” Mary continued, “has been the scene of all manner of catastrophe in the last few months. Necromancy, werewolf activity, multiple misfired spells. Chaos cultists.” She cocked her head to one side. “Exactly the sort of goings-on one would expect to see in the presence of a major chaos artifact, and which has not been seen here.”

“Well,” McGraw mused, “suddenly I feel a lot less intelligent than I did this morning.”

“So…what, this is a race to Veilgrad, now?” Joe asked. “Then I don’t see what’s different about this encounter. Stands to reason we’d be best advised to prevent each other from settin’ out first.”

“I suspect we are not done being surprised,” said Khadizroth.

“Indeed,” Mary said with a smile. “The skull is now secure, or will be very soon. An extraction team sent from the Universal Church, composed of members of the Holy Legion and spellcasters of multiple schools form the cult of Salyrene, were dispatched in a borrowed zeppelin. Their operation was exquisitely timed; I expect they either have the skull in their hands now, or will within the hour.

“Most interestingly, to me,” she went on, her expression growing more serious, “is the timing. That skull was inside a casket sealed by Salyrene herself. It has endured for centuries and in theory should have indefinitely. This summer, the roof over it was collapsed, cracking the seal—a most interesting development, considering the protections laid upon that place. I would venture to say such a thing could not happen unassisted. This caused the taint of chaos to flood Veilgrad, slowly growing until it became a severe enough threat to alarm the oracles, leading to…all of this.

“So Justinian sent you here,” Mary said, turning to nod at Khadizroth’s group. “Bishop Darling, to whom I spoke just yesterday, researched the oracles’ warnings on his own time, finding the Church’s records to indicate the Badlands as the skull’s resting place. There is no historical reason why they should.”

“Wait,” said McGraw, frowning. “There’s the matter of Imperial Intelligence. Darling looked through Imperial records too, and got the same info. And they’ve sure as hell been a presence in Desolation of late.”

“The inner workings of the Empire are frustratingly opaque to me,” Mary allowed. “Who has done what and why in the halls of Imperial Intelligence I cannot say. But I can interpret the events unfolding as I see them. The new Imperial presence and construction in Desolation, among its other aims, is directly targeted at extending the Rail network to Rodvenheim and Puna Dara—two sovereign states which have emphatically refused to give Tiraas a clear route to their front doors. Now, with adventurers brawling, plains elves prowling and rumors of a major chaos artifact flying about the desolate region where all their territories abut, I rather suspect both governments are under significant pressure, from both within and without, to join hands and impose mutual civilization on this last piece of wilderness.”

She paused to let her words sink in for a moment before driving them the rest of the way with a veritable hammer. “Of course, there is exactly one man who could arrange for the skull to be exposed, you four and your succubus companion to be sent here, and a trail of breadcrumbs laid exactly where Darling would look for it. Now, I’ve said my piece. We can resume this affair to its logical conclusion, which in any outcome involves massive damage, injury, and likely fatalities. Considering who has arranged all this, who is the only party who will benefit from both our groups weakening each other… Well, I find that I, for one, am disinclined to dance for his amusement. I am even less interested in helping the Tiraan Empire advance its foreign policy ambitions. My proposed truce has now seen its purpose fulfilled. I suggest that rather than continuing to fight… This is a good time for us all to walk away.”

The wind whistled emptily over the shattered rooftops of the town, carrying the scents of smoke and ozone. Both groups assembled in the square stared suspiciously at one another, at their own members, at Mary positioned neutrally apart from them.

Then Joe, moving slowly and very deliberately, slipped his wands back into their holsters.

“I said it to begin with,” the Jackal said, still swiping absently and fruitlessly at the green flames limning him. “Whatever problems we’ve got with each other, with Darling or anyone else—and you’d better believe there are going to be a series of reckonings on all those scores—at the end of the day, Justinian’s still the big spider in the middle of this web. And the son of a bitch went and made us forget that for a while.”

“Yes,” said Khadizroth softly. “A fitting reminder why he is dangerous.”

“You don’t have to answer to him,” said Joe.

“Someone does,” Khadizroth replied. “I like him better in my proximity than weaving his schemes behind my back.”

“Aye?” Billie snorted. “How’s that workin’ out for ye?”

Shook grunted. “Pains me to admit it, but the gnome makes a point. We have every fucking one of us just been played like a whole band of fiddles.”

“A veritable orchestra of dupes and patsies!” the Jackal said, grinning. Shook gave him a filthy look.

“Now, I might be mistaken,” said McGraw. “It wouldn’t be the first time. But all this talk seems to be leadin’ toward the conclusion the lot of us have more urgent matters in common than we have reason to fight.”

“You’re not completely right there,” Weaver replied. “The matters in common, yes. But every time we meet, this shit gets more and more personal.”

“I’m sure this has nothing to do with the proclivity of several of you to be gratuitously vicious toward each other,” Raea commented.

“The enemy of my enemy,” Vannae began, and was drowned out by a loud snort from Shook, a peal of hysterical laughter from the Jackal, and a theatrical groan from Weaver.

“Enough.” Khadizroth did not raise his voice, but it nonetheless cut off the noise. “You are all right. We have between us matters which must be settled. However… The Crow is also right. The matters need not be settled right now, and we have in common one figure who would presume to control or destroy all of us. We would be wise not to let ourselves forget that, when next we meet.”

“I can’t help but see the utility in havin’ one group in the Archpope’s camp and one outside it,” said Joe. “If we were willin’ to…compare notes, so to speak. Not to mention that, let’s face it, Darling ain’t a whole lot better. If he’s any better.”

“Darling is as duplicitous a player as the Archpope,” said Mary, “and I think has an even greater capacity for viciousness. The ultimate difference between them, however, is that Darling does not aspire to rule. He is Eserite to his core; his aim is to bring down those who would set themselves above others. That makes him useful, despite his…numerous annoying character traits.”

“Hm,” Shook muttered, frowning at nothing.

“I accept your recommendation, for now,” said Khadizroth, taking one deliberate step backward. “We will continue to play Justinian’s game because we must. Henceforth, however, we must be very careful not to find ourselves doing his dirty work.”

“Agreed,” Joe replied, nodding. The dragon nodded back.

There were a few more mutters and grunts from various persons, but with that, it seemed the main topic of conversation was exhausted. Mary stood and strolled calmly over to join her own group, as both parties began shuffling backward from each other. They eased away in reverse at first, keeping eyes on their rivals, but gradually, as they neared the edges of the square, everyone relaxed enough to turn around and slip into the streets on opposite sides.

The desolate wind whistled into the space left behind as both groups walked away.

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9 – 33

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A nimbus of arcane blue ignited around Shook, Joe’s first shot slamming into nothingness just above his heart. A split-second later, Shook had squeezed off two return shots, which sparked against shielding charms over Joe and McGraw, and then absorbed two more clean bolts of light from Joe’s wands and one flash of lightning from Weaver’s, forcing him backward.

Before the shoot-out had a chance to burn through anyone’s shielding charms, the Jackal hurled a tiny object to the ground at his feet, and with a burst of highly compressed air, a fog of dense gray smoke billowed out over the ruined street.

More wandshots flashed blindly through the sudden darkness, and the high-pitched, theatrical laughter of the Jackal faded rapidly into the distance.

“Circle up,” McGraw said urgently. “Don’t let the bastard flank anybody!”

Raea, again an elf, had called up another burst of wind to clear the smoke away from them, giving the group a clear view at least of each other. Following the old wizard’s directive, they swiftly arranged themselves back-to-back in a knot, with McGraw and Joe facing down the street at where their enemies stood.

In the next moment, the Jackal’s smoke was dissipated entirely by another burst of wind, this one conjured by Vannae. Shook still clutched his wands, and raised them once he had a view of McGraw’s team again. Of the Jackal there was no sign.

Before Shook could fire, Khadizroth stepped forward past him, placing himself at the front of the group. McGraw unleashed a bolt of pure arcane energy straight at him.

The dragon made a contemptuous swatting motion and the blast veered sideways, slamming into the half-collapsed front of what had long ago been a general store and completing its demolition. With his other hand, Khadizroth made a grasping motion in midair, then gestured sharply upward.

A conical spire of rock burst out of the ground in the dead center of their formation, hurling them in multiple directions. The formation was twelve feet high in seconds, the violence of its emergence tossing everyone away, and its ever-expanding base preventing them from regaining their footing—except Raea, who nimbly bounded up the rising tower.

She just as nimbly leaped away from it as the peak of the now twenty-foot outcropping exploded, emitting a burst of fire and superheated air. Blazing droplets of magma oozed over the edges of the tiny crater thus formed, adding considerably to the heat of the air and forcing the adventurers still further away. A few more wandshots from Shook and a couple of fireballs hurled by Vannae herded them farther away from each other, until the whole party was forced to split, each diving for whatever cover they could find.

“That was good advice,” Khadizroth said calmly. “Stay together, gentlemen; with the exception of our assassin friend, we are stronger as a group. Force them apart and pick them off one-by-one…” He broke off suddenly, frowning and swiveling his head to stare at a collapsed structure behind which one of their foes had taken shelter.

“My lord, what is it?” Vannae asked urgently.

“A pocket of fast time,” Khadizroth replied, narrowing his glowing eyes. “The sign of a mage who wants to cast something very complicated very quickly. Stay together and move back; whatever he is doing will—”

Again, he abruptly stopped talking, this time to turn and dash between Shook and Vannae, down the street in the opposite direction. Behind him came a veritable wall of air which picked up both men and dragged them along, Shook cursing vehemently.

Moments later, Khadizroth skidded to a stop over forty yards away, at the very outskirts of the town, and released the air spell that had gathered up his comrades, along with a great deal of dust and rubble. Vannae laded lightly on his feet, but Shook was hurled face-first to the street with a small drift of rubble dropped atop him. Having his face in the dirt stifled his obscene commentary for a moment.

Not wasting any time, Khadizroth gestured again, pulling up a wall of rock from the ground between them and the place where they had been standing. Not a moment too soon; an enormous fireball had come screaming out of the sky, slamming into the street where they had tried to form up and trailing a retinue of smaller objects which peppered the already-demolished town. The main impact shook the earth and threw up a shockwave of dust and heated air, which was mostly ablated by the dragon’s hurriedly-summoned wall.

Khadizroth pushed the wall back into the ground, its duty done, and called up another burst of wind, again dispelling the fog of dirt from the air.

“How did he do that?” the dragon demanded.

“What the fuck?!” Shook choked, dragging himself upright and immediately falling into a coughing fit.

“I see the portal magic,” Khadizroth murmured, peering intently back down the street at the brand new crater. Of their enemies there was no sign. “He… Ah. Temporal bubble, open a portal to the upper stratosphere and conjure a rock. I can only guess how he handled the trigonometry—the math involved is more than even I could do in my head. Truly, the man’s technique is inspiring. But the thing should have taken considerable time to fall this far—how did he shorten it? One can only twist time a very little bit before Vemnesthis intervenes.”

“How ’bout this,” Shook rasped, pausing to cough again. “Less admiring the fuckers and more killing them!”

“I suppose so,” the dragon mused, shaking his head. “Tis a shame—one always hates to destroy a true artist. First, though, we now have to find them.”


 

Billie plunked herself down atop the very highest point of the half-building, half-rubble pile that had previously housed Khadizroth’s office and began withdrawing components from her pockets.

“There y’are,” she murmured, squinting at the three figures well down the street even as she connected a sturdy tank of liquid to a metal charm containing impossibly pressurized elemental air with an extremely durable hose. “Don’t suppose I could get ye to stand still fer a bit? Aye, that’s even better,” she added with a predatory grin as the three began cautiously advancing back up the street. Screwing a wide spraying nozzle onto her nearly-finished apparatus, she glanced down the other side of the pile, where from this vantage she could see McGraw and Joe lurking behind cover across the street.

Suddenly the air around her seemed to thicken; several arcane charms pinned to her coat blazed to life, and a shockwave of pure force blasted outward from her in all directions.

Dropping the device she’d been crafting, Billie bounded to her feet, dipping one hand into a pocket and spinning around with the other outstretched. The indicator charm pinned to her cuff pointed her dead in the right direction; the instant she came to a stop, she pulled a rune-engraved cylinder from her pocket, slapped it into her other palm, then released it. The directional charm flashed brightly once more and propelled the object forward in a straight line.

She was quick, but not as quick as an elf. Even elves were subject to the laws of physics, however, and the Jackal’s agility and speed did not enable him to change direction in midair. The runic device struck him in the back before he touched the ground, still in the process of being hurled backward by the blast.

The charm flashed brightly once and tumbled to the ground, inert; the Jackal went the opposite direction, shooting three yards straight upward, where he hung, grasping at nothing.

“Joe mentioned that trick,” Billie said, gathering up her pump device and beginning to pick her leisurely way toward him. “Makin’ an entire suite o’ the best shielding charms available just up an’ collapse. Once I got to thinkin’ how such a thing might be done, it was child’s play slappin’ together a little countermeasure. Ach, what’m I sayin’? I don’t do little. Ironically enough.”

“A bard once told me,” the Jackal commented as she neared, “that if you find yourself delivering a monologue to a helpless foe, you are clearly the villain of the piece.”

“Now, now, lemme brag a bit. I’m very smart, an’ I want ye to appreciate it before ye die here in a minute.” She stopped, grinned, and aimed the pump at him; he was drifting rapidly lower, whatever magic she had used wearing off quickly. “Smile pretty, now.”

The Jackal hurled out a hand, propelling a cluster of small throwing knives at the gnome; they flashed against her shield charm and fell to the ground. In the same moment, she activated the pressurized air in her gadget and sprayed a gout of green fire directly at him.

The elf yowled and twisted about frantically in midair, unable to dodge; he was coated completely in flames. He continued to yell, thrashing and flailing, as Billie backed up a few paces and set down the pump.

“Oh, quit yer whinin’, ye big baby, it doesn’t hurt,” she said dismissively.

Indeed, the assassin quickly found that he was unharmed. He was on fire, completely coated in flickering green flames, but they weren’t even hot. They just didn’t come off, as he discovered upon trying to pat and brush at his sleeves and torso.

Billie, meanwhile, produced a palm-sized leather ball attached to a brass runic seal and hurled it. More prepared this time, the Jackal swatted it away, but the device activated upon impact with his hand, letting loose another blast of compressed air and sending him sailing off toward the edge of the town. The levitation charm gave up the ghost under that abuse, and he hit the ground gracelessly for an elf: bouncing once on his rump and only belatedly getting his feet under him.

The assassin glared up at the gnome, lunged to the side, and vanished.

While he disappeared from sight, the green flames clinging to him did not.

“Oi!” Billie shouted gleefully from above, waving with one hand and pulling out another grenade with the other. “That’s some right top-notch stealth magic ye got there! Be a shame if somebody went an’ made it completely useless!”

Hissing a curse, the Jackal changed course, dashing around the edge of the town and pressing himself close to a still-standing wall, placing some cover between himself and Billie.

There, he skidded to a halt, face-to-face with a giant panther.

She growled once, crouching to spring.

“Raea, my dear,” he said with great dignity, straightening up and adjusting the invisible lapels of his coat as if they weren’t on fire, “since this is our first real meeting and I may not have the chance later, I just want you to know something.” He smiled pleasantly. “Your mother pays dire wolves to fuck her in the—”

The panther lunged.


 

“That is a right disconcerting spectacle,” McGraw mused, staring at the figure of a slim man outlined in green fire. It was a good twenty yards away, and on the other side of a collapsed building and a standing one besides, but the flames were visible between it. According to Billie, they’d have been visible on the other side of the planet, if anybody there had eyesight keen enough to see it. He was correct; the ghostly image was deeply disconcerting, making the brain struggle to place it against its backdrop.

“Mm hm,” Joe murmured, jerking his head up the street, where Khadizroth and Vannae were approaching at a walk. “Can you occupy these two for a moment?”

“Reckon I can whip somethin’ up,” McGraw said idly, taking aim with his staff and unleashing a blast of pure, destructive arcane force.

Again, the dragon deflected it, then the second one, but he slowed under the onslaught as McGraw continued to pepper him with arcane bolts. Vannae ducked into a side alley behind his master.

“The other elf just went outta sight,” McGraw said tersely. “Watch your ass, Joe.”

“Damn,” the Kid hissed, lowering his wands, their tips smoking. Neat holes had been burned into the pile of rubble between them and the Jackal, but were quickly erased as the debris shifted. The Jackal, engaged in a fighting retreat from Raea, had moved out of the way of the shots, not that it mattered; powerful as Joe’s wands were, it was simply too much mass for him to shoot through. “I’m gonna—”

“Son, do not go off chasin’ him,” McGraw ordered. “We’ve taken his element of surprise; he’s not a match for Raea hand-to-hand. I could use your help here!”

Joe whipped around, baring his teeth, and stepped up next to the old wizard, adding a barrage of wandfire to McGraw’s assault.

At that, Khadizroth was finally forced to halt his advance, ducking into another alley. A final blast from McGraw collapsed the entrance after him.

“So,” the wizard said, breathing heavily, “he can deflect unfocused bursts of arcane power, but not wandshots. Interesting.”

“And good to know,” Joe added. “Gives me an idea. C’mon.”


 

Sometimes simple devices were the best devices; rather than relying on any magical augmentation, Billie’s Throwing Arm was a simple length of pipe with a gripping claw attached to one end linked by spring to a handle on the other. It enabled her to lengthen her arm by more than her body height, and thus hurl bombs a very great distance. She had practiced with it extensively. Not enough to bullseye an elf in an alley at seventy yards, but the nice thing about bombs was that you didn’t really need to bullseye anything.

She chuckled to herself as the grenade hit right in front of Vannae, reducing his path to a pile of rubble and catching him in the blast. It was too much to hope that it had done him in; between elvish relfexes and magical defenses, he wouldn’t be taken so easily. Unfortunately the fire, smoke and debris prevented her from seeing the results of her attack in any detail.

The only warning she got was a rasp of stone on stone behind her.

Billie whirled, another explosive in hand, but Shook was already on her. The angle of the climb to her perch had prevented him from just shooting her down, and he’d given himself away by clambering fully up onto the small ledge rather than reaching out to grab her. He was there, though, and close enough to land a vicious kick square on her chest.

The gnome was propelled into space, plummeting over twenty feet into the crater below. Baring his teeth in an expression that was triumphant but not a smile, Shook stepped up to the edge of the platform, leveling both wands.

He, unfortunately for him, was much taller than a gnome; the angle of the climb did not protect him from wandshots.

His shielding charm sparked at the impact of a lightning bolt; he whirled, almost losing his balance, and blindly returned fire.

Weaver stalked forward up the much gentler side of the rubble pile, the one Shook had avoided because it was within Billie’s line of sight. The bard glared fury at the enforcer, both wands upraised, and pressed forward one step at a time, unleashing blast after blast as he came.

Shook regained his balance and shot back; blue flashes lit up around both men as their respective charms absorbed wandfire. Meeting his assailant’s glare with his own, Shook began striding down the incline right at him.

Both men advanced at a walk, surrounded by flickering shields of light, and pouring on arcane destruction with two wands each. Those shields were starting put put off smoke and high-pitched whines of protest; they were not meant to stand up to continuous fire. Neither man wavered or slowed, however.

When they were only five yards apart, though, Weaver suddenly dropped his wands. Shook finally paused, hesitating in his own assault.

The bard reached into his coat, pulled out a flute, and raised it to his lips. The enforcer unleashed a furious volley of blasts straight at his face; Weaver’s shield sparked dangerously, the charm pinned to his coat glowing hot enough to make the fabric smoke.

Then Weaver blew a single note, and the world tilted out of balance.

Shook lost his footing, stumbling to his knees; he dropped one of his wands, barely catching himself from keeling over entirely. Weaver continued to play, the sound seeming to make the very air resonate sickeningly.

Then Shook raised his head.

His lips were peeled back in an animal snarl, eyes bulging with pure rage. Weaver’s own eyes narrowed; after a quick pause for breath, he blew harder, the note resuming even louder than before.

Shook stumbled again, wavering… Then, slowly, straightened up, climbing fully to his feet. Blood began to drip from his nose. Raising his remaining wand, he took aim at the bard.

Weaver let off playing for a moment. “It rattles the brain, y’know. To stand up to that, you’d have to be more wild animal than man. You’ve got some issues, don’cha, Mr. Shook?”

His shield sparked against the wandshot that would otherwise have burned through his throat. He put the flute back to his lips.

What struck him from the side was not a gust of air so much as a compressed sphere of it. Weaver kept his hold on his flute, though his wands were sent flying away even as he himself was tossed off the incline to skid down it on his back and land in a heap at the base.

“Stop,” Vannae ordered, bounding onto the ledge as Shook made to follow Weaver. “Persevering through that would damage your mind. If it is not healed—”

“I’m fine,” Shook snarled, his features twisted in animal fury. “Fuck off, I’m gonna finish—”

A light touch of the elf’s fingers on his forehead caused him to slump forward, unconscious. Vannae caught him, grunting as he carefully lowered the much bigger man to the ground.

“In my opinion,” the elf murmured, gently placing a hand over Shook’s eyes and concentrating on the healing flow of magic, “it would be more sensible to let you finish him off and kill yourself in the process. Two birds, as they say. But Khadizroth has stated all our lives are to be protected above all other considerations. There, that should—”

A brilliant tower of pure light burst up from a juncture of streets over a block distant, accompanied by a wail of agony in Khadizroth’s voice.

Vannae bounded off the ruined building in one great leap, leaving Shook unconscious at its peak.


 

McGraw stumbled backward, barely getting an arcane shield up between himself and the fireball thrown by the dragon. There was barely room to maneuver in the square; this end of the town was less destroyed than the other, but it was also more cramped. The only reason there was an open space here at all was due to the old well at one end, set in the base of a rock outcropping atop which a house had been raised.

Joe and McGraw had intercepted the dragon here and managed to hold him for a few minutes. While the wizard approached at street level, Joe had positioned himself on the rooftops, firing streams of white light in an intensity that left molten streaks of glass in the sandy dirt of the street. His onslaught had forced Khadizroth to keep moving, even as he himself had had to rapidly dodge and shift to defensive measures when the dragon hurled fireballs, and at one point caused an enormous thorned vine to crawl up the wall on which he was standing. Joe’s wands were crafted with the ability to project tunnels of ionized air to redirect incoming wandfire; it didn’t work nearly as well on fireballs, but worked somewhat, at least causing them to lose cohesion.

McGraw, meanwhile, had poured on a more direct attack, hitting the dragon with fire, ice, lightning, wind, sheer kinetic force and blasts of pure arcane energy. His assaults, while stronger pound-for-pound, were less concentrated than the wandshots, and Khadizroth mostly chose to block or deflect them rather than evading.

The dragon was kept busy with defense and evasion, only finding time to fire off one counterattack for every three or four of theirs, but still, it was apparent from the beginning that they were only keeping him at bay. And while both humans grew increasingly sweaty and short of breath, Khadizroth remained in perfect equilibrium, and even wore a calm smile.

Finally, sensing a moment’s weakness, he followed his fireball with a wall of solid air, smashing McGraw backward into the house behind him. The wizard lost his footing at the impact, stumbling to the side and barely catching himself on his staff.

“Stop!” Joe thundered as the dragon stepped forward. He leaped from the rooftop on which he’d been balancing, landing in the street a few yards away.

Khadizroth did, indeed, pause, turning to face him. “Unless you intend to parley, Mr. Jenkins, I do believe this matter is at an end. I would take it well if you did; I told you once before that your brand of honor is sorely needed in the world. It would pain me to expunge it.”

“Step away from him,” Joe grated, advancing with both wands upheld, “and don’t you dare speak to me of honor, you two-faced filth.”

The dragon’s sage smile finally vanished. “Child, you speak of things far above your understanding.”

“I understand integrity,” Joe snapped back, firing a stream of light at the dragon’s feet; Khadizroth stepped away, but made no other move as the Kid advanced. McGraw, against the wall, hauled himself upright, panting, but also held off, watching them carefully as if afraid to interrupt the conversation unfolding. “You know what kind of man you’re working for.”

“Yes,” Khadizroth said coldly, “and what kind of man you are working for. I’m certain you have this worked around in your mind so that you taking orders from your particular deceitful weasel is more noble than me doing so from mine, but—”

“Darling an’ Justinian aren’t the problem,” Joe interrupted, pressing forward. He fired another shot at the ground; Khadizroth glanced at it but did not move, the beam not coming close enough to singe him. “Neither am I. We work for Darling because of what he’s payin’ us—it’s that simple. We’re mercenaries. Not the noblest thing, but it is what it is, an’ none of us claim to be any better. You, though, you’re Khadizroth the Green. You’re supposed to stand for something. You’re supposed to matter, damn you! What can you possibly be doin’ with Justinian that’s worth leeching the honor outta the world?”

Khadizroth blinked his eyes, his expression very nearly shocked. “I—Joseph, much as we would like matters to be simple, we rarely have that luxury.”

“The world ain’t simple,” Joe said bitterly, coming to a stop only two yards from him. “It largely ain’t decent, and neither are a lot of folk in it. Difference is, people can be better. What makes ’em better, most times, is somebody settin’ an example. That is what you could be doing, and it’d matter a hell of a lot more than any a’ your schemes.”

The dragon drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. “I…wish I could say that you are wrong, young man. Perhaps it would be better for you not to live to understand the compromises that must be made for the greater good. You’ll be happier, not learning.”

“Whatever,” Joe said coldly. “Done with this conversation, anyway.”

He moved one foot forward, planting a toe on a still-hot length of burned, glassy sand, and closed his eyes.

Blue light flared up from the ground all around Khadizroth; the dragon whirled in sudden dismay, only belatedly realizing that Joe’s shots had carved a sprawling spell circle into the dusty street, and he was standing in the middle of it.

Before he could move, the air trembled as if rung like a bell, something rippling outward from the dragon’s form.

A column of blinding light blazed skyward and a shockwave of force ripped in all directions, tossing Joe and McGraw against the walls. Within the magical inferno, Khadizroth let out an unearthly howl of pain.

It was over as soon as it had begun, and the dragon collapsed in an unconscious heap.

“Whew,” Joe gasped, picking himself up and retrieving his wands from where they had fallen. “Well, that’s not gonna work a second time… You okay, Elias?”

“Wouldn’t say that, but I’ll live a few more minutes,” McGraw grunted, hauling himself upright using his staff. “Kid, what the hell was that? It looks like a simple transmutation matrix.”

“Yup,” Joe said, managing a weak grin. “Straightforward divine-to-arcane energy conversion. I figured, he wouldn’t have many divine spells, but dragons are known to use all kinds of magic, even apart from the one they specialize in. All four schools an’ even some shadow magic, right?”

“An’ if that quantity of divine energy were converted to arcane in his own aura, where he wasn’t expecting it to be, and reacted with the fae magic he’s filled with…” McGraw let out a low whistle. “Kid, you have any idea how risky that was? Quite frankly there are more reasons it shouldn’t’ve worked than reasons it did.”

“I figure we’ve learned by now that improbable plans are the only kind that work against dragons,” Joe replied, leveling both wands at Khadizroth, who was still unconscious. “Now, what to—”

Vannae lunged at him from the rooftop nearby, only prevented from hitting the Kid head-on by a blast of unfocused arcane energy from McGraw. The elf tumbled to the street, singed and snarling, where he swiftly planted himself between them and the fallen dragon, brandishing a tomahawk.

McGraw and Joe glanced at each other, then fired simultaneously.

Wandshots and arcane bolts alike slammed harmlessly into the rock wall that sprang up out of the street in front of them, incidentally obliterating part of the spell circle. In the next moment, it shattered into fragments, exploding outward and pelting both of them with shards of rock, knocking Joe over and pushing McGraw backward.

“I,” Khadizroth growled, getting to his feet, “have had enough!”

The dragon straightened up fully, baring his teeth at them, and held his hands out to both sides. White-hot flames burst into being in each palm.

Just as suddenly, they winked out, leaving him holding two handfuls of smoke and looking flummoxed.

A soft caw sounded on the air.

Everyone froze, turning to watch the crow as it glided down to settle on the rim of the old well.

Mary smiled, shifting to nonchalantly tuck one leg beneath herself.

“Am I late?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“VOLLEY!” she roared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um,” Casey said. “We’re trapped.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They froze as a muted whirring noise sounded from above.

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

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

“No,” Farah whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

“Hell yes!” Merry crowed, grinning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

They apparently weren’t needed here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fascinating,” Ariel mused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Agreed,” said Trissiny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was quick, but the Kid was faster.

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9 – 29

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

“Why that one again?” Merry wondered aloud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?” Ephanie demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re listening,” Principia said warily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can see auras?” Ephanie asked warily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s up?”

“How are talking swords made?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“By release,” Toby said, “you mean…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, hell,” Razsha whispered.

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

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

“What’s happening?” Juniper demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone stared at the perfectly mundane, apparently harmless object.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Toby exclaimed. “Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is a catastrophe,” Timms whispered.

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

“At least half a dozen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

“Who’s we?” Weaver snorted.

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

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

“No?” Raea arched an eyebrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Think they’re here after us?”

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

“Shift back,” Shook said quietly.

“Master, I—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shook eyed him up and down. “Bullshit.”

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

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

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

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

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

“An assassin,” Shook said curtly.

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

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

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

“Khadizroth the Green,” finished the Jackal.

“I hate my life,” Shook corrected himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are young,” the dragon said dryly.

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

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

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

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

“What the fuck—”

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

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

Shook narrowed his eyes. “What?”

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

“Hm,” Khadizroth said thoughtfully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go on,” Khadizroth prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shook nodded slowly.

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

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

“That never works out in the long run.”

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

“I will join you,” Khadizroth said solemnly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alia?” he whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He froze. “…go back?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All right,” Alia said, reluctantly letting herself be drawn away. “Don’t take too long, though, Nassir? I really want to talk with you, and, and, I can’t be gone too much longer.”

He only managed to nod, trying for a smile. A lump of congealed horror in his throat blocked all efforts at speech.

“Oh, but maybe you can meet mistress!” she said brightly, her face lighting up at the idea. “I just know you’ll love her. Everyone loves her.”

He couldn’t even nod. Alia didn’t seem to notice. She let Branwen escort her to a side door near the fireplace, and then through.

The moment it clicked shut, he rounded on the Archpope.

“What is wrong with her?! A spell?”

Justinian shook his head, his expression grave. “Narisian drow do not waste energy on such effects when more mundane methods will do. The crude term is ‘brainwashing.’ There is a hidden compliment to your sister in this; she would not have been so dramatically…worked upon, were she not unusually resistant to them in the first place. The mind, Captain, is always growing, ever adapting. The essence of the technique, as I understand it, is to introduce the subject to sufficiently severe trauma that they are forced to adapt new ways of thinking to survive, and then guide that adaptation in directions that serve your purposes.”

Ravoud was barely conscious of being ushered over to a large desk and gently pushed into a chair in front of it. He bit his fist, gazing emptily into the distance in shock. “Can… You can undo it?”

“There is no going back, I’m afraid. Only forward. That is how the mind works, Captain; you cannot change what has been done.” Justinian placed a glass of brandy on the desk in front of Ravoud, who hadn’t even seen him pour it. He went on more gently, a calm smile wreathing his face. “But we will put her right. It will be many times easier than having so distorted her in the first place. She already knows how to be a free, independent person, and has memories of the habits and patterns that will enable her to do so. It is simply a matter of bringing them back to the forefront, giving her time to heal, and to forget the behavior modifications that were forced upon her. It is a process, Captain; you must understand this. There is no magic incantation. It will take time and expert guidance. Luckily, we have the best. A man named Orthilon, once a Narisian slave trainer and now a resident of Lor’naris. There is no better expert on their methods.”

“More drow,” Ravoud said bitterly, closing his hand around the glass. He didn’t lift it to his mouth.

“Some disdain to use the tools and weapons of the enemy,” Justinian said mildly. “Personally, I find there is no more elegant victory for the righteous than to unmake the wicked upon their own depravities. Orthilon is trustworthy and diligent; I will personally vouch for your sister’s care. I am also,” he continued, turning and pacing over to gaze out the window at the arcane-lit city, “working to extract Tamra Faroud, who I understand was engaged to your late friend Corporal Khalivour. This is taking time and substantial energy, but I am confident it will be done. Unfortunately, so doing will expend the last of my resources in Tar’naris; I likely will not be able to rescue any more of the enslaved unfortunates there. The drow city is in the grip of a pagan goddess. It is possibly the place where my influence is thinnest.”

Ravoud swallowed the lump in his throat. “I… I can never thank you enough, your Holiness. What have I done to deserve this favor?”

Justinian turned to face him, his expression calm, thoughtful. “Let me ask you a question in return, Captain. What do you think of my Holy Legion?”

Ravoud carefully removed his fingers from the glass of untouched brandy. “They are…very impressive, your Holiness. Very dramatic. Stylish.”

“Anyone could tell me that,” Justinian said with a faint smile. “I am asking you not as a casual observer, but as a military man.” When Ravoud hesitated, he added more gently, “I beg you to speak honestly, Captain. I can assure you that nothing you have to say will offend me.”

“Well,” Ravoud said slowly. “From a strictly military standpoint… I don’t see any use for them. At all. Almost no one fights with armor and bladed weapons anymore, and of those who do… Honestly, those men wouldn’t stand a chance against the Silver Legions. I just… Your Holiness, I assumed they were meant to be strictly ceremonial. You can’t send those men against any significant threat. They’d be slaughtered.”

He trailed off, afraid he’d gone too far, but the Archpope only smiled warmly. “You have the right of it, Captain. I fear I had to engage in distasteful maneuvering and expend a great deal of political capital to gain authorization for the Church to build a military force within the Empire’s borders. Making that force an obviously ceremonial token army with little practical value has been a necessary step in soothing the feathers that were ruffled in this process.”

Justinian folded his arms behind his back, his expression growing distant. “The world, alas, is not so blessedly simple as to let me carry on in such a fashion. The fate of your sister is an example of a persistent problem the Empire faces: all too often, the Emperor is constrained by politics and unable to act…or perhaps, simply lacks the will to do so. I would not presume to judge his heart; I can only analyze his actions. Then, more recently, events in Lor’naris have reaffirmed the concerns which prompted me to form the Holy Legion in the first place. The shadowy forces at work in that debacle prove the need for the Church to strike directly against evil when it arises. It is a capacity we must develop.”

“Are you… Your Holiness, have you managed to learn anything about the people who were trying to organize that uprising? The Army’s investigation hit an immediate wall.”

“Suffice it to say, Captain, that you will hear no more from the individuals responsible,” the Archpope said with a smile. “I can assure you of that personally. I do, you see, have some ability to act where needed. As these events prove, however, more direct and forceful action is often necessary. You may not have heard of it yet, but the Black Wreath is rising, the fae in the wild places are growing restless, and in all corners of the world are whispers that a great doom is coming. Where the Empire cannot or will not act, the Church must. And to that end… While those who would oppose us are calmed by my extremely pretty, entirely useless guards, I have a mind to put together a smaller but considerably more effective force to act on my behalf.” He paused, studying Ravoud thoughtfully. “I will need someone to lead it. Someone trained in modern military tactics, experienced in leading men… And, while loyal to our Empire, someone very personally aware that governments cannot always be counted on to act where action is necessary. The more I learn of you, Captain Ravoud, the more I begin to think I have found that man. I understand you have been offered the chance to resign your commission in the Imperial Army due to the recent events in Lor’naris. While this may have seemed a punishment to you at the time… Often, the gods have a greater plan for us.”

Ravoud barely waited for him to finish speaking. He practically lunged up from his chair, starting at the Archpope and nearly trembling with fervor as he replied.

“Your Holiness, I am your man. To the death.”

Justinian smiled kindly, reached out and squeezed his shoulder.

“I know.”


The Imperial Rail station in Tiraas never truly closed. Despite the end of standard running hours, there was often a need for various persons on Imperial or other urgent business to charter private caravans. One of these was just now departing a platform, laden with agents of Imperial Intelligence on some clandestine night mission. In the relatively quiet hours of the night, though the doors remained open and the lights on, the station was protected from loiterers, vagrants and vandals by a light but steady presence of soldiers.

By and large, they let people be. Various night owls wandered through the station on no particular business; it was also a popular spot for all sorts of assignations, being clean, well-lit and safe. By the very nature of the traits that made it attractive, the Rail station was not prone to hosting any gatherings that were illicit or illegal, so the soldiers patrolling its platforms rarely interfered with anyone who did not give them specific cause.

The guards certainly didn’t bother three men in Imperial Army uniforms, standing on a platform next to a station trolley loaded with an assortment of backpacks and small satchels, rather like the light luggage of maybe a dozen people or less. After the men had been there for well over an hour, though, just standing, one of the guards finally approached them.

“Evenin’, lads,” he greeted his fellow soldiers, finally getting close enough to note their faces. One looked amused, one furious, the third merely perplexed. “Need any help?”

“Brother,” said Rook with a grin, “you have no idea.”

“They can’t possibly have just forgotten us!” Moriarty burst out.

Finchley sighed heavily, turning to the mystified station guard. “Do you happen to know if there’s a telescroll office open this late?”

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5 – 23

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“Elf candles.” Weaver pointed to a small stand of conical flowers nodding in the faint breeze.

“Versithorae,” Joe corrected.

The bard turned to frown at him. “What?”

“They’re called versithorae in the elvish. Plains tribes discovered them long before any humans moved into the area. Obviously, they didn’t call them ‘elf candles.’”

“Joe,” said Weaver with ostentatiously thinning patience, “are you just trying to be a pain in the ass, or do you seriously imagine that bit of trivia to be in any way significant?” He turned his back on Joe and the versithorae and resumed picking his way up the slope. “Elf candles in terrain like this are a sure sign we’re entering a green dragon’s territory.”

“How’s that?” Billie asked.

“Really?” He grinned down at her. “You, the famous adventurer who knows all the continent’s dragons, don’t know how to spot dragonsign?”

“First of all, ponytail, I know the names of the dragons on this continent because I had a good, solid gnomish education. Second, I’m a city girl. You point me at something you want dead and I’ll deadify it before you can finish givin’ the order. But the workshop is my fortress and the back alleys my stalking ground. I know bugger all about tracking diddly anything out here in the howling wilderness.”

Mary fluttered her wings, disembarking from Joe’s shoulder, and in the next moment was walking alongside them as though she’d never been anywhere else. “Versithorae are a lowland plant, native to the Golden Sea and the surrounding Great Plains. They do not like altitude. Powerful users of fae magic frequently cause the germination and growth of plants that would otherwise not thrive in a given environment, either by design or as a byproduct of their workings. Versithorae, however, need more than magic; they need ash. They only grow where the ground has been burned. Thus, Weaver is correct; seeing them where they should not grow is a near-certain sign that a green dragon lives nearby.”

“Well, how ’bout them apples,” Billie said cheerfully.

“Glad to hear it,” McGraw grunted, pulling himself resolutely along with his staff. “I’ll be happy to leave off all this hiking and tend to something more relaxing, like duking it out with the dragon.”

“Is this the part where you grouse about how you’re getting too old for this?” Weaver asked with a grin.

“Ain’t my policy to point out the obvious, sonny boy. Leads to people takin’ a dim view of one’s mental faculties.”

Joe gave him a sidelong glance, but kept his mouth shut. In fact, he was a little worried about McGraw. Mary had spent the hike from Venomfont perched on his shoulder—he still wasn’t sure whether to feel honored or alarmed—and Billie seemed to be a bottomless fount of energy, but the rest of them were clearly feeling the effects of the day-long uphill walk, particularly McGraw. Several times the old man had surreptitiously tossed back vials of some alchemical solution, and Joe had repeatedly felt the faint buzz of arcane magic being activated around him, but despite whatever preparations he invoked, the old man was still breathing and sweating more heavily than any of them, leaning much of his weight on his staff.

Keenly aware that he was the least experienced member of the party, Joe had been somewhat relieved that he wasn’t the only one struggling. Even Weaver was moving more stiffly this late in the day…but then again, he’d apparently spent the last few years lurking in some library. The trip through the Golden Sea hadn’t prepared him for this. Grateful as he was to have been prepared for the reality of blistered feet, uncomfortable behind-a-bush toilet breaks and a diet of jerky and flatbread, there was a great difference between hiking across mostly flat territory and hiking up into a mountain range.

“Anyway, no great surprise we’re seein’ dragonsign,” Billie said, taking out the map again and unfolding it. She held the expanse of paper in front of her face as she walked, somehow not slackening her pace or losing her footing despite completely obstructing her own view. “This here is Mount Blackbreath itself, an’ we’re not far from the caldera.”

“Should we think about settling in for the night and continuing on tomorrow?” Joe suggested, glancing around. The sun was long out of sight; climbing westward as they were, it had vanished not long after noon.

“Bad idea,” said Weaver, shaking his head. “We don’t want to be camped and vulnerable this close to a dragon’s territory. In his territory, most likely. They have differing ideas about visitors, but they do not like trespassers. Settling in crosses that line.”

“Seems like splittin’ hairs,” said McGraw.

Weaver shrugged. “I don’t disagree, but it’s standard practice for approaching a dragon. Anyhow, there’s also the basic tactical concern that he can get the drop on us if we’re asleep. Even if we post a lookout, the rest of the group will have to wake up and get their pants on if he chooses to attack. Better to face him while we’re a little tired than to risk that.”

Mary made a lifting motion with one hand and murmured a few indistinct words. Instantly, Joe felt his weariness ease, leaving him alert as if he were freshly rested. Even better, the growing soreness in his legs, which had reached nearly excruciating levels, vanished completely. The group paused in unison.

“Much obliged, ma’am,” said McGraw fervently, tipping his hat to her. Mary nodded in return with a small smile.

“Here.” Weaver had taken advantage of the brief stop to reach into his coat and pull out what appeared to be a small cigarette case. From this he removed pairs of wax earplugs and began passing them out. “These are attuned to my instruments. They won’t impede your hearing, but they’ll protect you from the effects of spellsong.”

“At the risk of soundin’ paranoid,” said McGraw, bouncing his pair on the palm of one hand, “it occurs to me that if you planned to turn against the group, puttin’ these things in our heads would be a great first step. Being that we don’t know what spells are on ’em, that is. I can tell it’s fae magic, and not much else.”

Weaver shrugged, tucked away the case and turned to continue on. “Fine, leave them out, get bespelled as soon as we go into combat. Learn how much I care.”

“They do precisely what he says they do,” said Mary, putting her own pair of earplugs in one of her belt pouches. “Don’t be so suspicious, Elias; a betrayal from within the group isn’t likely, and would damage us less than if we spent all our time watching one another. In any case, Weaver, I have my own methods.”

Ahead of her, just behind Billie, he shrugged again. “Could everyone keep an eye out for bugs, please? I need to catch one.”

“Bugs?” Joe frowned, confused.

“Bugs,” Weaver repeated patiently. “Spiders, insects… A small lizard will do, if necessary.”

“Any preferences?” McGraw asked dryly.

“Non-venomous, not prone to stinging or biting, ideally. If I can’t have my druthers, though, all that’s necessary is that it be alive.”

Joe glanced around at the others; if they thought this as odd as he did, none of them gave sign. He wondered whether it was just standard adventurer aplomb, or if they knew something about Weaver’s methods that he didn’t. As they continued on, he slipped the plugs into his ears, grimacing. True to Weaver’s promise, they didn’t impede his hearing in the slightest, which didn’t make the sensation any less odd. If anything, it made it worse. Unnatural.

He had time to grow accustomed to them as they pressed on. The Wyrnrange was mostly bare, craggy stone, the kind of rocks that resulted in scrapes or even cuts and punctures if one slipped. As they ascended, greenery began to appear in increasing abundance, mosses and lichens predominating, but there were also flowers—including more versithorae—and small shrubs, even a few stunted saplings.

It was another half hour before they rounded a jagged heap of boulders and came to a stop, the path—such as it was—having ended.

“Welp,” Billie drawled, “this is the place, all right. Now what?”

Ahead there was an obvious pass, a wide crack in the towering rock wall before them. They couldn’t see what lay beyond, however, and not just because of the gathering dark. A thick network of vines, bedecked with mismatched flowers and bristling with evil-looking thorns, crisscrossed the opening, obstructing it completely.

McGraw held out his staff, and a clean white light glowed from the large crystal set into its head. The illumination didn’t help much; there was nothing to see except bare stone and the arboreal blockage.

“Used to run around with a witch back in the day,” he mused. “Had a pixie familiar. Damn annoying little thing—they’ve got the intellect of a two-year-old and the personality of a puppy, as a rule. Still, it was, among other things, a hovering lamp. Very handy at times like this. Now, I’m no expert on witchcraft, but is that barrier as magical as I think it is?”

“That and much more, I suspect,” said Mary, stepping forward to examine it. “This is no mere deterrence; Khadizroth seems quite serious in his desire for privacy. Oh, and Weaver…here.” She turned and gestured toward him; as if thrown from her hand, a large white moth fluttered out of the gap above the lattice of vines, drifting toward him. She smiled as he carefully caught the insect in his cupped hands. “I couldn’t find a butterfly, but that is close enough. It seems to suit you better than something that skitters.”

“I can’t imagine how you came to that conclusion. Thanks, though, this is perfect.” He held the helplessly fluttering moth up to his face, whispering inaudibly.

“So!” Billie said brightly. “What’ll we do about this, then? Blast it open?”

“Excellent way to die,” said McGraw. “It’ll be enchanted not just to resist attacks, but to react to them. Dragons are very serious magic users, as you know very well.”

“Bah! Problems I can’t solve with brute force are beneath my notice.”

“I can unravel it,” said Mary, peering at the vines from inches away, “but it will take time, and the process will surely alert the dragon to our presence, if he does not already know we’re here.”

“Best to assume he does,” McGraw opined.

“I concur. Be on your guard. Tampering with his gate may encourage him to come let us in, or it may prompt an attack. This could take… I am not sure. Hours, possibly.”

“May I?” Weaver asked. As they all turned to look at him, he crushed the poor moth between a thumb and forefinger, murmuring something to it. In the pale light of McGraw’s glowstone, Joe thought the man’s expression seemed oddly tender as he killed the insect; he dismissed the notion. Weaver was hard enough to figure out without adding in weirdness like that.

Brushing his fingers clean of moth guts on his coat, the bard stepped up to the barrier, Mary making room for him. He withdrew a wooden flute from within his coat, lifted it to his lips and began to play.

The first note seemed to resonate in Joe’s very bones, its tone far deeper than such a little instrument seemed like it should have been able to produce. Weaver played on, however, and the pitch climbed, forming a slow, mournful song. A dirge that seemed to cry with a nearly human voice. The others stepped unconsciously back away from him, Billie grimacing, her ears twitching violently amid her mass of curly hair.

The vines began to die.

It started slowly, a black rot appearing like a fungal disease on the green, but the more widely it grew, the more quickly it spread. Vines shriveled, thorns dropped off, flowers wizened away to nothing and disintegrated. A faint rustling began, then grew, the green barrier reduced in the course of a minute to a collapsing net of pitiful dried husks.

Weaver blew the final notes of his lament. In the silence immediately afterward, the others stood around him as if frozen. Finally, he tucked his flute away carefully, then casually kicked what was left of the vine barrier.

The whole thing collapsed.

“Life magic,” Weaver said dismissively. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

“May I just say,” Billie said, “that that was fuckin’ terrifying.”

“How did you do that?” Joe demanded.

Weaver turned to grin at him over his shoulder. “You’ll have cause to ruminate on this when you get to be forty and people are still calling you the Kid. The fact of the matter is, Joe, we adventurers don’t get to pick the moniker we get known by. Those are elected by the ignorant masses and the bards who shepherd them. Believe me, I campaigned to be called Glittergiggles Weaver, but for some reason they stuck me with Gravestone. Go figure.”

He turned back, straightened his coat, and stepped through. The others, after a moment, followed. There didn’t seem much else to do.

It wasn’t a tunnel or even a canyon, merely a break in the wall of the great crater. In the darkness, little of the huge space beyond was visible, the light of McGraw’s staff not penetrating far. The five of them trailed into the caldera, pausing not far beyond the break to peer around. Trees made dimly-perceived shapes at the edges of their vision, hinted at only by the farthest reaches of the light. It was overcast, denying them moonlight by which to see, but at least it wasn’t as windy as a mountaintop ought to be. Air currents whistled above them, rustling in branches, but the walls all around sheltered them.

“We are being stalked,” Mary said quietly.

“The dragon?” asked McGraw.

She shook her head. “An elf.”

“Darling mentioned an elf servant,” Weaver noted. “Well. Should we…what? Introduce ourselves?”

“We have entered Khadizroth’s domain,” said Mary. “He would have greeted us if he intended to. As he has not, it appears we shall have to disrespect his wishes.”

“How do you propose to command a dragon’s appearance?” Joe asked.

“Hm,” she said noncommittally, peering around.

“Oh! You leave it to me!” Billie sat down on the ground, unslung her pack and began rummaging around in it. “I’ve got just the—ah! Here we go. Behold the wonders of modern enchantment!”

She pulled out a complicated apparatus that looked like the offspring of a telescope and an enchanted sewing machine, brandishing it and grinning broadly.

“Nice,” said Weaver sarcastically. “Unless that’s a dragon detector, I don’t see the point.”

“Don’t be daft, you can’t just detect dragons. Aside from the usual means, of course. Giant shadows, roaring, fire, all that. This is a gold detector! Me own design!”

“You can do that?” Joe asked, fascinated.

“Oh, aye!” she said, nodding enthusiastically. “These babies are essential in modern mining operations.”

“Dragons have hoards,” McGraw mused. “Messing with their hoards is the surest way to get their attention. Yeah, that’d work, if we’re willing to risk provoking an immediate attack. If it does work, that is. Seems likely Khadizroth would have enchantments laid over his treasures to prevent people doing exactly what you’re proposing.”

“Aye, but I spent last night tweakin’ it while you louts were snoring. See, I’ve rigged out the focusing lens with a holy charm to help penetrate his nature magic, and significantly boosted its operational range and spell penetration by way of amping up the power source to ridiculous, even dangerous levels!”

She flicked a switch on her device, grinning insanely, and a low hum sprang up around them, along with an electric tingling in the air that made the fine hairs on their arms stand upright. All four of them immediately took three steps back away from her.

The sound of powerful wings was the only warning they got. A massive shadow swept past above them, blotting out the very dim glow of the cloudy sky; the pale light of McGraw’s staff glittered briefly across viridian scales before the huge shape vanished beyond its range. The dragon settled to the ground some thirty feet distant, rearing up against the night. In the darkness, he was only a faintly perceived shape, towering like a church steeple, the only thing visible his intensely glowing green eyes near the top.

“That will not be necessary.” Khadizroth’s voice was a peculiar sound, a light tenor that was so deep from the sheer power of its projection that Joe could feel it through the stones beneath his boots. “Kindly turn off your device.”

“Aw,” said Billie. “But I was really hopin’—”

“Billie,” Mary said firmly, “please do as he asks.”

“Pooh,” the gnome pouted, but flipped the switch back. Immediately the arcane buzz was silenced, and she sullenly began packing it away in her satchel.

“Khadizroth the Green, I presume?” said McGraw, tipping his hat politely.

“You presume a great deal,” replied the dragon, “but in that, at least, you are correct.”

His darkened silhouette shrank, seeming to disappear entirely into the ground beyond. However, footsteps crunched on the stony ground, rustling in occasional patches of underbrush, and within moments a human-sized figure stepped into the circle of light.

Khadizroth, in this form, was a tall elf in entirely typical costume for a forest tribesman: tight vest and baggy trousers in matching brown, with a blousy-sleeved shirt of dark green and simple leather boots. His hair, likewise, was green, slicked back and falling past his waist behind him, from what could be seen of it fanning out around his lower back. In the manner of the oldest elves, he had a slim beard adorning his pointed chin. Those eyes were the same, though, the distinctive draconic eyes like glowing, smooth-cut gemstones.

“Mary,” he said, bowing to her. “You honor my residence; I apologize for the state of my hospitality, but I was not expecting visitors.”

“In fairness,” she replied equably, “we clearly forced our way in.”

The dragon actually smiled at her, before turning to the others. It was discomfiting, being unable to follow his gaze, but the lack of pupils hid the direction his eyes were looking. “Of the rest of you I have, of course, heard, though we have not met. With one exception, however.” He turned his entire head this time, making it clear he was looking directly at Joe.

“Joseph P. Jenkins, at your service,” he said, tipping his hat.

“Ah, Jenkins. That name I do know; you are well thought of by the elves near your town. Welcome.”

Khadizroth spread his arms, and light began to blossom in the crater.

It began with the flowers, but spread, pale shades of pastel accentuating bright silver and white. Stands of tall mushrooms, luminous flowers, vines twined through trees, even some of the trees themselves; it seemed fully a third of the plants occupying the crater were bioluminescent, and they came to life at their master’s command. Light rippled outward from Khadizroth, till it reached the edges of the caldera. It was like a meadow, trees, bushes and flowers scattered artfully across the stony ground, stands of tallgrass waving faintly, all illuminated by soft organic lights.

“Wow,” Billie breathed. “Oh, hell, that’s gorgeous.”

“I am glad you approve,” said the dragon, sounding actually sincere. “But you have not come all this way to admire the view, and it is not my custom to be excessively sociable with assassins.”

“Well, now, that’s a mite unfair,” said McGraw. “We’re not necessarily assassins.”

“We’re strictly unnecessary assassins,” added Weaver, grinning when McGraw nudged him with the butt of his staff.

“Indeed, let us to business and have done with it,” said Khadizroth seriously. “You are here at the behest of Antonio Darling, are you not?”

“We are,” said Mary, nodding.

“And am I correct in assuming that he desires my death?”

“No.” She shook her head. “He desires a cessation of hostilities between you. Your death is one way that could be accomplished, yes, but any number of others would be preferable. An arrangement, for instance.”

“In fact, I sent my servant Vannae to offer the Bishop exactly that,” said the dragon, his face growing stern. “He saw fit to assault my man and issue insults to be delivered back to me.”

“He did?” Billie asked delightedly. “Well, that ol’ poof has more balls than I gave him credit for. You go, Darling!”

“Will you kindly button it, you little freak?” Weaver exclaimed.

“Oh, so it’s only funny when you do it?”

“I should further note,” Khadizroth continued, ignoring both of them, “that while I sent one individual presenting no threat to offer a civil conversation, Darling has sent back five individuals representing significant destructive force. I question his good faith.”

“If one must send mice to consult with the cat,” said McGraw, “one doesn’t send the smallest or weakest, and certainly not one alone.”

Khadizroth smiled thinly. “You are not without a point, Longshot. The fact remains, though, that your master and I have little to discuss.”

“You could always renounce your claim on those two elf girls,” suggested Weaver. “That’s really all he wants.”

Khadizroth was shaking his head before the bard finished speaking. “I must take it as given that my security is compromised; that proverbial pigeon has flown the coop. The matter does not end there, however. If Shinaue and Lianwe wished to leave my company, they had only to do so. Instead, they chose to abduct every member of the family I had laboriously built up, hiding them away among elven groves where I may not safely retrieve them, turning the elves and now the humans against me in the process. Quite apart from the damage they have done to my long-term plans… It is not in my nature to lightly tolerate such betrayal.” His face grew ever grimmer till he was outright scowling, and Joe fought down the urge to back away from him. “There shall be reprisal for that. Darling, in assaulting, unprovoked, my last loyal servant, has invited further vengeance upon himself. Tell me, what has he offered as recompense for these various affronts?”

A pause fell; the five of them exchanged a round of glances.

“So,” the dragon said grimly. “Bishop Darling does not seek to bargain, but to intimidate. He sends killers and so-called ‘heroes,’ and offers nothing toward earning my favor. It seems, as I initially said, that we have nothing to discuss.”

“You’re quick to place blame, sir,” said Joe, stepping forward. “With all respect, perhaps you should consider whether you’ve brought this treatment down on yourself.”

“That’s right, let’s taunt the dragon,” Weaver mumbled to himself.

Khadizroth raised an eyebrow. “You presume to judge me, boy?”

“My judgment is as flawed as anyone’s, I suspect, but it’s all I’ve got to work with,” said Joe. “Unless we’ve been badly misled—which ain’t impossible, I’ll grant you—the plan was for you to breed yourself an army of loyal dragons… Using girls taken from their tribe for the purpose.”

“Rescued from disaster at the hands of the Tiraan Empire,” the dragon said firmly. “Raised in the shadow of my wings, willing to pursue the duty I required of them.”

“You can dress that up any way you choose,” said Joe coldly. “There’s not a one that makes it seem a respectful way to treat ladies.”

The dragon stared at him in silence for a long moment. Joe stared right back. The weight, the sheer force of personality pressing outward from those featureless green orbs was almost enough to push him physically backward, but he refused to yield ground. His companions stood silently around him, seeming not even to breathe.

“I accept your condemnation,” said the dragon at last, nodding deeply in a gesture that was very nearly a bow. “I wonder, Mr. Jenkins, whether you have yet faced a situation in which your principles were tested against one another, and against grim necessity?”

Joe opened his mouth to reply, but his voice caught in his throat. He suddenly couldn’t think of a single thing to say.

“It is an agonizing position,” Khadizroth continued. “Faced with the growing depredations of the Tiraan Empire, the reality of the threat it represents, yet lacking a good means of throwing it back. There are only poor methods available of accomplishing this vitally necessary task; I assure you, I have looked for better and found none. The best I could do was to carry out my plan with the greatest kindness possible toward those upon whom it depended. Even so, I confess to as much relief as disappointment that I was denied the opportunity to bring it to fruition. For all the wasted effort, all the lost years, even despite the heartache of losing those I have come to regard as family, I shall emerge from this with my integrity undamaged. I was prepared to mourn its loss. For that, my retribution upon Shinaue and Lianwe shall be mild indeed.

“However, the initial problem remains. This new Empire is a disastrous thing, a teeming cauldron of evils waiting to be tipped out upon the world—again. The carnage of Athan’Khar must not be forgotten, and that was only the greatest ill in a long and endlessly-growing list. I remain in opposition to this Empire, more certainly so now that my errant girls have evidently begun to set humanity against me. I reject the judgment of Tiraas and all its agents, and in particular that of Antonio Darling, a man who has exhibited neither respect nor courtesy, whatever his aims. I will not be pressed by his lackeys.”

“Will you not?” Mary asked quietly. “You suggest confidence in your powers that may not be warranted.”

“If you are counting on the ancient respect you are owed to stay my hand, Mary,” he said, “you will find the matter changed entirely by the fact that you have come to me offering violence. I have no animosity toward any of you; should you choose to turn and walk back down this mountain, you may go in peace, and with my blessing. But whether I win or lose any battle you offer, I shall not yield to the corruption you serve.”

“And there you have it,” Weaver said in disgust. “History, politics and adventuring in a nutshell. You can work around the selfish and the depraved in a thousand different ways, but all it takes is one idiot with principles to throw everything into chaos.”

“Indeed,” Khadizroth said quietly. “Will you leave, then? Or strike first?”

“Sure there’s nothing we can say to change your mind?” McGraw asked, tightening his grip on his staff.

“Oh, the hell with all this,” Billie snorted, pulling a pair of wands from her belt. “Let’s just burn him down and get outta here.”

“So be it,” said the dragon, spreading his arms again. This time, instead of a show of lights, he rose up, swelling in seconds to his full form, and despite himself, Joe backpedaled frantically.

Khadizroth the Green in his true shape was over three stories tall, reared up on his hind legs. He was a serpentine symphony of scaled muscle, massive claws digging into the living rock, his enormous wingspan blotting out the sky before them. He opened his fanged mouth, drawing in a deep breath, and telltale flickers began to form around his jaws.

Joe was distracted by the tiniest sound from behind him. Instinct snapped into play and he whirled, whipping out his own wands.

A tomahawk was speeding toward his head; reacting without conscious thought, he blasted it out of the air. If the elf—Vannae, that was his name—was surprised or intimidated by this, he gave no sign, pulling a wand of his own and leveling it at the group, his face resolute.

Elf and dragon attacked simultaneously, catching the party right between them.

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