Tag Archives: Vidius

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This, naturally, begat a confused pause.

“Um,” Gabriel finally ventured, “where are we going?”

“On the next leg of your journey,” the god of death replied, smiling vaguely at them with his eyes half-lidded. It was a mild, almost sleepy expression, and something about the contrast of that with who and what he was, plus the sunshine and cheerful people in the near distance, was subtly unsettling. “I was asked to give you a ride, by a mutual acquaintance of ours.”

“Vesk,” Toby guessed unnecessarily.

Vidius inclined his head slightly in Toby’s direction. “Chauffeuring isn’t among my usual duties, but what the hell. Three paladins are worth making an extra trip for, if anyone is. And hey, it’s a chance for us to chat! We get so few. Assuming, of course,” he added, turning to Trissiny, “you’re all coming along.”

She hesitated scarcely a moment longer, then nodded politely and stepped up to climb into the open carriage. “Thank you kindly, Lord Vidius.”

“Please, none of that ‘lord’ nonsense,” he said lightly, waving a hand. “We’re the next best thing to family, as I see it.”

“Family,” Gabriel repeated in a nonplussed tone, still standing there and making no move toward the carriage.

“Well,” Trissiny said, settling down into the surprisingly deep padding of the seat, “I hardly know how to talk to him, which pretty much sums up my experiences with family.” That earned a laugh from the death god up front.

“So you are coming, after all?” Toby asked, himself climbing into the carriage now. Gabriel shrugged fatalistically and clambered up behind him.

“Apparently so,” she replied. “Some good advice I got is sort of stuck in my mind.”

“Ah.” Toby nodded, smiling. “I had a feeling that’s what Rainwood wanted to talk to you about.”

“As a matter of fact it was, but that isn’t what I meant. I’ve heard from several people over the years that the things you don’t try end up being much greater regrets than the things you try that go badly. And besides, the involvement of a god who has some credibility improves the overall outlook of this…quest.”

“Happy to be of service,” Vidius said brightly, and flicked the reins. The carriage lurched into motion as its creepy steeds started forward, and they trundled off up the path toward the park gates. People got out of the way without once seeming to notice it was even there.

“Okay,” said Gabriel, shifting uncomfortably and pulling Ariel into his lap. The bench seats were not designed for people with things attached to the belt. “But…where are we going?”

“All in good time,” Vidius replied. His position on the driver’s seat put his back to them, but his voice carried just fine. “I understand that Vesk and his antics can be rather frustrating, especially from the perspective of any mortal caught up in an affair in which he takes an interest. But I’ll tell you this much: the rest of us in the Pantheon, however we may feel about him personally, choose to accommodate him. The reasons for that are challenging to explain…and often unnecessary. You will likely gain some insight into the matter in the course of following him around. For the moment, though, if you don’t trust Vesk, I’ll ask you to trust me. And Omnu, and Avei, who would already have intervened if they didn’t want you going along with this.” He turned his head, so as to give them a sidelong glance. “This will work out for the best. Even if none of us yet know how.”

Another uncertain silence fell at that, the three paladins studying one another’s faces for cues which were not forthcoming. Toby had seated himself on the front bench, facing backward, and on the opposite side from Vidius so he could still see the god by turning his head. Gabriel and Trissiny were opposite him. Now, both frowned when Toby suddenly straightened up in surprise, his eyes shifting past them.

“Gah!” Trissiny had turned to follow his stare and let out a yelp, then immediately subsided, placing a hand on her chest. “Oh. Sorry, Vestrel, you startled me.”

The valkyrie was perched on the back of the carriage like a gargoyle, her wings arched protectively over them. Apparently proximity to Vidius—or maybe it was the carriage—rendered her visible, but she was still clearly disconnected from the world, a wavery and faded image whose details were completely obscured. The black wings and dark armor, contrasting with a pale complexion and blonde hair, were all that could be discerned.

She also, apparently, could still not speak across the gap. In silence, Vestrel reached forward and very gently patted Trissiny on the head. Or at least, sort of; her hand didn’t quite make contact, and Trissiny couldn’t help stiffening slightly at the sheer eeriness of it.

“Oh, there was also a message,” Vidius said from up front, defusing the awkwardness. “For when you arrive.” He turned again, this time laying his arm across the back of the driver’s seat to look at them directly. “You will need his help.”

“Well…we’re already in the carriage, so I guess that’s taken care of,” Gabriel said, frowning.

“I doubt it means Vidius,” said Toby. “I mean, we are in the carriage. What would be the point of that?”

“I question how much of a point there is in any of this,” Trissiny muttered. “All we know for sure about Vesk’s directives so far is they are deliberately misleading more often than not.”

She glanced to the side, and blinked in surprise. They were trundling down a sparsely-trafficked highway, on a gentle slope that was clearly several miles from Calderaas. Evidently this thing moved much faster when its passengers weren’t paying attention. Which, all things considered, wasn’t surprising. It also meant there was no way of even guessing where Vidius might be taking them. She knew better than to ask again.

“So,” their driver said lightly, “you kids have been doing fairly well for yourselves. This is all uncharted territory, for all of us. A lot changed with your calling; the old routines simply don’t work as they once did. And we gods are nothing if not creatures of routine. We’re all feeling our way in the new world together, but you three, slowly but surely, are acquitting yourselves well. Trissiny in particular.”

The boys both looked at her in surprise, and she blinked.

“…thank you,” Trissiny replied uncertainly.

“I have my biases, of course,” Vidius acknowledged, turning his head again to glance at her. He wore a knowing little smile which was made to look even more sly by his hawkish profile. “You’ve recently gained a great appreciation for duality. More than most Hands ever have; paladins, particularly those of Avei, tend to be rather fixed on one idea. And, of course, you have become more acquainted with death.”

He turned to face forward again, and the silence which fell had a distinct chill. Trissiny stared ahead, at a point past the god’s shoulder.

“You can’t appreciate,” Vidius said after a pause, “how unusual it is that three paladins, two of them five years into their calling, are still so insulated from the effect of death. A Hand of Avei with your seniority, Trissiny, would ordinarily be standing on a veritable mountain of corpses by now.”

“I’ve killed,” she said tersely.

“And even those of Omnu,” the god continued as if she hadn’t spoken, “would be expected to have known the loss of friends. Yours is dangerous work. Of course, the situation is new, as I said. Sending you to Arachne has been a good practice, I think, but not without its downsides. You are a little coddled by the tutelage of such a fire-breathing mother hen.”

“Coddled isn’t a word I would have chosen,” Gabriel said, grinning.

“How many friends have you had to grieve, Gabriel?” Vidius asked mildly, instantly wiping the smile off his face. “I don’t think this is good for you, to be frank. Death and life are intertwined deeply; to live on is to know the loss of those you have loved. You, Trissiny, have only recently become acquainted with death. So far, you could be handling it more gracefully—but you are doing no worse than I might expect. With time and experience you will become better acquainted, and better able to cope.”

She turned to stare out over the side in silence. They were now plowing through a rolling field of stubby tallgrass, the slope of the mountain on which Calderaas stood far behind them.

“I think I’ve killed more than Trissiny,” Toby said, also staring into the distance.

“Hey, that isn’t fair,” Gabriel protested. “You’re still talking about the hellgate? You were the conduit Omnu used to vaporize a lot of demons. Blaming yourself—”

“I don’t think of it in terms of blame,” Toby interrupted. “But I was there, and voluntarily or not, I was the means by which it was done. Demons or not, those were sapient beings—thinking, feeling people. To cause such destruction…” He shook his head slowly. “I’ve grown used to living with it, and I think that bothers me the most. It’s been a year, and I still don’t understand. And…Omnu won’t enlighten me. I don’t know what I’ve done wrong.”

“Nothing,” said Vidius. “Omnu isn’t displeased with you, Tobias, trust me. He’s just…not very communicative. As a general personality trait, but particularly with regard to his Hands. Your lineage has always had the least personal guidance from your patron. Omnu’s approach has always been to trust his Hands to make the right choices, and encourage them to trust themselves.”

“By not answering simple questions?” Gabriel demanded, frowning.

“Yup,” Vidius said noncommittally. “You’ll note I don’t go out of my way to hold your hand, either, Gabe. But in my humble opinion, Omnu overdoes it.”

“I feel…like I’m not doing so well as a paladin,” Toby said quietly, still staring off at nothing.

“You could be doing better,” Vidius said bluntly. “If I’m any judge. It’s not time to worry just yet, Tobias, but you have room for improvement. Let me tell you this much, as an observer who knows Omnu and has watched you with interest: a big part of the reason the gods call Hands is because we are bound by concept and structure in a way that ‘mere’ mortals are not. A Hand is an agent of action, and of change. You confuse pacifism with passivity, Toby, and that is what predominately holds you back. The world doesn’t respect peace; if you intend to bring piece to the world, understand that you will have to inflict peace where it is not wanted. Learn to assert yourself, boy.”

Toby was frowning by the end of that, but nodded. “Thank you for the advice.”

“Wow,” Gabriel murmured. “After all that, I’m almost afraid to ask how I’m doing.”

Vidius glanced back at him. “Toby and Trissiny represent a departure from established patterns, Gabe. You represent something new entirely. I encourage you to learn from them, and from past paladins, but please don’t try to walk in their footsteps.”

“I…really haven’t been,” Gabriel said, shifting nervously in his seat. “I mean, what I’ve been trying to do is pretty much what you just said.”

“I know. But you could be trying harder.”

Gabe’s expression flinched before he marshaled it. “I…see. How so?”

“For example, your scythe. You haven’t done a lot of experimentation with its capabilities, have you?”

“I note that they weren’t explained to me,” Gabriel retorted with some exasperation.

“That is correct,” Vidius replied calmly. “What do you make of that?”

Gabriel opened his mouth, scowling, then snapped it shut.

“Y’know, it wasn’t so long ago that nothing would have stopped you from spouting the first thought that flittered across your mind,” Trissiny said, and lightly punched him on the shoulder. “I’m proud of you, Gabe.”

“It wasn’t so long ago that your support came with a dose of condescension,” he shot back. “Oh, look! I guess we haven’t all changed too much.”

She just grinned at him and leaned back in her seat.

“The scythe destroys things,” Gabriel continued in a more measured tone. “Just about anything the blade touches. Even magic. That’s… I mean, quite apart from the fact that a divine artifact deserves to be treated with some respect, this thing is incredibly dangerous. It’s not something to just screw around with.”

“Gabriel,” said Vidius, turning again to fix him with a look. “What I’m about to tell you is in response to that, but it also applies well beyond it. Screwing around is your greatest strength.”

“Oh…kay,” Gabriel said slowly, after a momentary pause. “I’m…not sure what that means.”

Vidius chuckled and turned to face forward again. “It’s something to chew on, isn’t it?”

“Or screw around with?” Toby suggested with a smile.

The god laughed. “See? He gets it.”

“This may be none of my business,” Trissiny said hesitantly, “and I’m sorry if that’s so, but… Why now? Why, after eight thousand years, have you suddenly decided to make such an enormous change as calling a paladin?”

Vidius gazed ahead without responding, and they glanced at each other again. The only sounds were the gentle rumbling of the wheels and the creaking of the carriage itself, oddly mundane for a divine vehicle, and the much more exotic ringing of the unearthly horses’ hooves against the ground. They were now wending their way through a forest, a moss-carpeted and well-tended vault of redwoods that had to be an elven grove.

“Have you ever given much thought to religion?” Vidius asked suddenly, just when the quiet had begun to stretch into discomfort. “Not to yours in particular, I know you’ve pondered your specific dogmas. But the thing itself, religion as a phenomenon. What it is, how it works?”

“I’m…not sure I understand the question,” Trissiny said, frowning.

“Sure you do,” he replied easily. “But the answer is ‘no’ and you feel awkward admitting that even to yourself. Don’t back down from such challenges, Trissiny. We are all our own greatest rivals; growth is a process of overcoming your own weaknesses. But yes, religion. Seems peculiar how something can both uplift and destroy people to such a great degree.”

“Well, that’s any tool, though,” Gabriel pointed out. “It’s only as good or bad as what you do with it.”

“Yep, and faith is a powerful tool indeed,” Vidius agreed easily. “But for context. You boys recall the faith of the Infinite Order you encountered in Puna Dara?”

“Ugh,” Gabriel said, grimacing. Toby just nodded.

“Fross mentioned something about that,” Trissiny said. “She disapproved of it pretty firmly.”

“It’s sheer positive thinking,” Gabriel explained. “The idea is that what you think becomes your reality.”

She frowned quizzically. “How is that a religion?”

“Well, it comes with its own cosmology,” said Toby, “which itself is rooted in fact. The Rust cultists talked about arcane physics a lot, how observation determines reality.”

“Ah, yes,” Trissiny said, nodding. “We’ve been over the broad strokes of that in Yornhaldt’s class. So, if they’re correct, what’s the problem?”

“The problem,” Ariel interjected, “is that the entire barrier to widespread understanding of arcane physics is that sub-atomic particles and their interactions are subject to fundamentally different rules than the physics which govern your experience. Such principles describe nothing with which a sapient mind will ever interact under ordinary circumstances. Attempting to apply arcane mechanics to one’s personal life is like trying to shoe a horse with a toothbrush and a wheel of cheese. Those tools are wildly unsuited to that task.”

“That about sums it up, yeah,” Gabriel agreed, grinning. “You’ll have to excuse Ariel. She’s designed to assist with magic, and misconceptions about it irritate her.”

“I am not irritated, I am simply right.”

“And that’s the crux of it,” said Vidius, his hat shifting as he nodded without looking back at them. “That cult was authentic, at least to that extent. That was the official religion of the Infinite Order—the original Infinite Order, the Elder Gods. In fact, they were utterly contemptuous of religion. They didn’t call themselves gods, and got mightily offended when someone did. Which, of course, is why I still do,” he added with a chuckle. “They instituted and spread that faith for the specific purpose of hampering the mortal population of this world. It served the dual goals of impeding actual scientific understanding, and shifting the onus for the plight of every suffering person onto themselves, instead of the megalomaniacal omnipotent beings oppressing them. And yet… It was something that, at its core, they believed in. The Infinite Order came to this world to pursue their great experiment with godhood because of faith. They were scientists, but what impelled them was sincere belief.”

“The…Elder Gods…believed in positive thinking?” Trissiny said slowly, frowning in pure confusion.

“Their driving faith was that the process of evolution was an orderly and purposeful progression,” Vidius explained. “From the great explosion that created reality, to the formation and death of stars, to the formation of planets, to the birth of life from a coincidental chemical reaction, to the process of evolution, to the emergence of sapience, with its capacity to deliberately advance evolution according to plans rather than random chance. They believed the universe was trying to understand itself, and the emergence of intelligent life was the most recent step in the process. They wanted to advance to the next step, and approached the task with great reverence. Who knows, they may even have been right; it explains the universe as well as any other idea I’ve ever heard. Based on what happened next, ascension was obviously not that next sacred step, but that doesn’t necessarily invalidate the idea. It does demonstrate my point, though. That same faith was used for great advancement and great oppression, by exactly the same people.”

“It’s not exactly a surprise to me that people can misuse religion,” said Trissiny. “I’ve met wonderful and terrible people among the Eserites. Some of the best people I know are Avenists, but I think the very Bishop of the Sisterhood is a dangerous, deviant lunatic.”

At that, Toby and Gabriel both gave her sharp looks, but Vidius nodded.

“And so, my question: What is a religion?”

“What do you think it is?” Toby asked carefully.

“There are many ways to answer that question,” said the god. “To embrace my own idiom, I think that a faith, a true faith, is a duality of two things: a problem, and a solution. A religion which actually provides for the spiritual needs of people must posit what the core problem of mortal experience is, and then offer a way to solve it. And this has been true since long before the emergence of actual gods, going back to the faiths of the old world from which the Elders came. Humanity had faiths before it had actual deities. Faith speaks to something in the core of what it means to be a person.”

“Wait, how does that work?” Gabriel protested. “How did they have religions if they didn’t have gods?”

“Well, perhaps I misspoke,” Vidius said, amusement lightening his voice. “They had gods, all right. They didn’t strictly exist in the physical sense, but they had ’em.”

“What’s the point of a god that’s not even real?” Trissiny huffed.

He glanced back at her. “Anything that makes a difference in people’s lives is real. The gods of the old world were invisible and silent, unverifiable and imaginary, but they were very real. The weight of their presence was deeply felt. It was inevitable, because there were problems, and there needed to be solutions. To the Christians, the problem was sin and the solution was grace. To the Muslims, the problem was hubris, and the solution was submission to the divine.” His shoulders shifted minutely in a little chuckle. “To the Satanists, the problem was corruption in all the other cults, and the solution was mischief and defiance. And so on, and so on. There were more faiths there than there are here. A lack of gods did not mean a lack of problems.”

“Hey.” Grinning, Gabriel nudged Trissiny with an elbow. “Those last guys sound a lot like Eserites.”

“And that is another point,” Vidius agreed, turning his head and nodding at Gabe. “Creating religions was the last thing my brothers and sisters in the Pantheon were after. We sought to bring down the gods, not join or replace them; we simply adapted to the way things turned out, from sheer necessity. We had become beings whose very identities were broadcast throughout the world via the magic which fills it. Dogmas and rituals rose around us over time, rooted in what we each thought was best in life. And our own ideas, like everyone’s, were shaped by the knowledge of those who came before us. There is an iron barrier across your history, children, but you are the heirs of traditions much older than you know. Ancient faiths still resonate through the cults that exist now.

“And that brings us to the world as it is today. We have the Pantheon, guided by gods who acknowledge and—to an extent—respect each other. In a way, this has eased a dilemma which plagued the old world: that everyone does not have the same problem. That the faith which soothes one person’s anguish might be the very cause of someone else’s.”

The carriage was now climbing, the road taking them up a steep incline. All around rose the rolling hills Trissiny remembered from her childhood; they were passing through Viridill.

“Works in theory,” Gabriel said skeptically. “Actual religions, though, don’t tend to be quite so…open minded.”

“Yes,” Vidius agreed, nodding. “The fallacy of the god-shaped hole survives; people of faith tend to assume that what fills the void in their heart must do the same for everyone else’s. Which, unfortunately, isn’t the case. But consider the different gods and cults, and how they approach this. Take the gods which embody simple, straightforward archetypes: Izara, Ryneas, Nemitoth. Love, art, knowledge. Their core duality is quite clear: these are the solutions they offer, to the problem of the lack of whatever it is. Now, have any of you ever heard of an Izarite, Rynean or Nemitite loudly insisting that someone should convert to their faith?”

“Izarites do tend to be awfully preachy,” Trissiny muttered, glaring at the passing hills.

“To an Avenist, I’ll bet,” Toby said in a much milder tone. “There’s a deep and well-known doctrinal divide, there. With all respect, Trissiny, Izarites are just about the most inoffensive people in existence. I think your perception of them simply comes from disagreement.”

She snorted, but didn’t try to rebut.

“Good,” Vidius said from up front, nodding again. “In such simple pillars of faith is a built-in acknowledgment that there are answers they cannot provide. Now, consider some others: Eserites, Veskers…” He hesitated fractionally. “Elilinists. Defiance, narrative, cunning. Less concrete ideals, less simple ones, and designed to address a different sort of problem. Overarching problems, the problems which infect whole societies. These cults also do not presume to be universal; they want only a specific kind of person to join them, and don’t aspire to run anyone else’s life. They are, at their core, oppositional.”

“Solving other people’s problems,” said Gabriel, “whether they want it or not.”

“Exactly,” Vidius agreed. “That’s an aggressive way to live, but not a domineering one. And now broaden it further, to the gods of multilayered concepts. Myself, for one. Avei, Omnu, Themynra, Shaath. Duality and death. Justice, war, femininity. Life, the sun, peace. Those are big things, ideas which span huge swaths of mortal experience; things which are not easy to sort into neat little boxes. Even judgment and the wild… Singular concepts, but what are they? How is a person supposed to separate such sweeping ideas out from other aspects of their lives? They subsume everything. And what else do you notice about those cults in particular?”

“Those,” Gabriel said almost defiantly, “are the ones most likely to tell somebody else how they ought to be living their lives.”

“I’ve never heard a Themynrite say such a thing to anyone,” Trissiny protested.

“Themynra’s worship has a racial component which pretty well precludes that,” said Vidius. “The noteworthy thing there, Trissiny, is that it wasn’t Avei you immediately defended.”

“Okay,” she said with growing irritation. “You’ve made your point, but I still don’t think I really understand why you made it. What’s the lesson, here?”

“Speaking as an Avenist, Trissiny,” he said, “what problem are you trying to solve?”

“Injustice,” she replied immediately. “And that is also speaking as an Eserite; it’s only the methods that differ.”

He let out a whistle. “A tall order. What about you, Toby? What’s the problem, and what’s the solution?”

Toby stared rigidly at the distance, looking quite perturbed. “I don’t…know. That’s not… I was never taught to think of it in those terms. Life is important because we are life. Peace is the optimal condition for living. That’s just…how things are.”

“Mm hm,” Vidius said noncommittally. “And you, Gabriel? What problem and solution do you find in Vidianism?”

“Man, the fuck if I even know,” Gabriel said bluntly. “Almost every Vidian I’ve ever met was fully invested in creating their own damn problem, as best I can see.”

The god turned again in his seat to look at them with a satisfied smile. “And that is why I have called a paladin after all these millennia: to correct what I see as a growing problem. In the world, but specifically within my cult. Because when a faith encompasses potentially everything, its practitioners will try to make it encompass everyone. Because people who think they have all the answers are incredibly dangerous, to themselves and everyone around them. And so, I have given the clever Vidians a paladin who has no idea what the hell he’s even doing, one whom I trust to screw around. Because they know a lot less than they think they do, and they need to be made to appreciate that fact. And so, Gabriel, does everyone else.” He fixed his gaze on his own Hand, expression becoming more severe. “You are called to question, to challenge, and to generally make everyone uncomfortable. I don’t expect you to have all the answers. I expect you to force people to consider the questions.”

Gabriel could only gape at him.

“That,” Trissiny said slowly, “just might make this the single most appropriate choice of Hand in all of history.”

“You just had to sneak in a shot,” he muttered, giving her an accusing look.

This time, it was she who prodded him with an elbow. “It’s a good thing, too, Gabe.”

“It’s something to think about,” Vidius said brightly, turning forward again and giving the reins a pull. “Well, this has been great! I’m glad we had the opportunity to chat. But for now, we have arrived.”

The carriage had pulled to a stop on the street of a city, next to a canal. All around them rose structures of white marble, and the city itself ascended along one side in terraces, falling in the other direction to a double set of high walls and a broad plain beyond. In every other direction, towering mountains arose.

“This is Vrin Shai,” Trissiny said in surprise. “Why are we here?”

“I suspect you’ll find that out quite soon,” Vidius said solemnly. “For now, though, I have to be moving along. The business of death is eternal. Everybody out!”

“Thank you very much for the ride,” Toby said politely, standing. “And…the lesson.”

“Yes,” Trissiny agreed. “I have a feeling I’ll be mulling this conversation for quite a while.”

“That’s the mark of a really good conversation, you know,” Vidius replied, while they all clambered out onto the cobblestones. Vestrel flared her wings and ascended, her vague shape vanishing from sight when she departed the carriage. “I hope you do continue to think, and learn. But such things are interludes in life; eventually, the action picks up again. I hope you’ll be ready.” He touched the brim of his hat, nodding to them. “Take care, kids. I’ll see you again.”

And with that, the god of death flicked the reins, the unearthly steeds began moving, and his carriage rolled off into the crowd.

Its departure left them standing with their backs to the stone wall separating them from a drop to the canal below, looking at the street. And directly in front, revealed by the departure of the carriage, was a man staring right at them.

A man with tousled blonde hair, spectacles, and a scowl, with a glowing rat perched on his shoulder. Both of them had their arms crossed.

Trissiny’s eyes widened. “Oh. Um. Hi, Hershel.”

“Hello, Trissiny,” Schwartz said flatly, then raised his hand. A blast of concentrated wind rose out of nowhere and shoved her right into the canal.

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14 – 6

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“As promised.”

Yasmeen handed her the object, a shaft of metal no longer than Trissiny’s index finger. She accepted it almost gingerly, immediately holding it up to the intermittent light passing through the windows of the carriage. If the vehicle had interior fairy lamps, they were dormant, leaving only the shifting glow of the city to illuminate them. In a way, that helped prove the composition of the key fragment. Under full sunlight, the blade of Ruda’s sword might pass for steel, but in dimmer and especially moving light, it caught and refracted illumination in a way that both emphasized its paler color and made it almost resemble a jewel. This piece had the same quality. She lightly probed at its indentations with a fingertip; they matched the illustration in the book. Had she stumbled upon this thing without context, Trissiny doubted she would have interpreted its shape as part of a key, but knowing the fact made the arrangement obvious.

“I had the royal jeweler extract it from its setting,” Yasmeen continued while she studied Gretchen’s Dowry—or what was left of it. “I honestly thought the poor man was going to burst into tears.”

“I hope this won’t get you into trouble with your mother,” Trissiny murmured.

“Oh, nonsense, you don’t think I’m keeping this from her, do you?” Yasmeen snorted in a distinctly un-royal manner, and Trissiny had the sudden thought that between her and Ruda she had no evidence that the snooty stereotype of princesses actually existed outside of books. “Believe me, the Sultana of Calderaas is always pleased to assist the Hand of Avei in a quest, and while tonight’s main event was my idea, I wouldn’t dare set something like that into motion without Mother’s approval. She regrets not being able to present her compliments in person, but House Aldarasi’s involvement in all of this must remain a secret, or there’ll be real trouble from the Houses represented in that party you just crashed. Speaking of which…”

“I’m sorry, what?” Trissiny glanced up at her. “Who are you? How’d you get in this carriage?”

“The Sultanate appreciates your discretion,” Yasmeen said primly.

“In seriousness, though, does your mother know that you came to supervise this personally?”

“Ah, well.” The princess turned to face forward, folding her hands demurely in her lap, but ruined the effect by giving Trissiny a sidelong look accompanied by a sly little smile. “Mother can’t be expected to know everything. Ruling a country is complicated business, after all.”

“Yeah, I had a feeling.”

The princess had arranged two carriages with drivers; Trissiny did not quite follow her assertion that this would be more discreet than piling everyone into a larger, more luxurious model, but had been too distracted by her thoughts to make an issue of it.

“You seem unhappy.”

She glanced up to find Yasmeen looking at her now, her expression open and even. Trissiny closed her fist around the fragment of mithril; she hadn’t handled it long, but it didn’t seem to have picked up any heat from her hand.

“I understand the necessity of what happened back there, or I wouldn’t have agreed to participate. But I think something would have to be very wrong with me if I came away feeling good about it. I just beat and tormented a woman who was no physical threat to me, at all. Do you really think Lady Araadia deserved that treatment?”

“Wrong question,” Yasmeen murmured in a pensive tone which took any rebuke out of the statement. “Whether she did or not, summarily assaulting someone isn’t justice. If I know my Avenists, that’s the thing that sits most poorly with you.”

“Good insight.”

The princess nodded. “No, frankly, I don’t think she did. Irina Araadia is a splendidly useless creature as only a noble can be, but she wasn’t by a wide margin the most corrupt person even in that room. While her little museum scheme is surely one of the more asinine manifestations of the problems in Calderaas, it certainly was not among the most abusive. The point was to remind an entire stratum of society that there are limits, and beyond them, consequences. Yours was merely the ugly part; Toby’s role was equally important, and there will come more maneuvering by my mother and the cults in the days ahead to encourage the Houses to act rightly, using more…positive methods. A jolt of fear to shake their arrogance is but one tactic in a larger strategy.” She shifted her head to gaze aimlessly out the window at the passing city scenery. “In that, Irina was a sacrificial lamb. The greater good always leaves victims, by definition. Otherwise it would just be the good.”

“You sound almost Eserite,” Trissiny said with a sigh of her own. “I went to the Guild to learn how to plot my way around confrontation, the way the Wreath has done to me a few times. What they mostly taught me was how to be creatively cruel and terrorize people into compliance.”

“Good,” Yasmeen said firmly. “The more you can frighten someone into obeying, the less you’ll have to hurt them.”

“You don’t find that attitude just a little horrifying?”

“Yes, but it’s the basis of all criminal justice. Almost every aspect of rulership is a little horrifying, that’s just how societies work. Someone has to do some brutal jobs so that the majority of people can go about their lives in peace. You are, unfortunately, one of those specialists. As long as you do your job only when it’s needed and don’t try to run a whole society that way, all will be well. Let me ask you this, Trissiny.” Yasmeen shifted toward her almost fully on the seat, folding one of her legs across it between them. “How familiar are you with the history of paladins?”

Trissiny opened her mouth to answer, then hesitated. “Well. That was a major emphasis of my early education, but not so long ago an Eserite courtesan of all people pointed out a few massive blind spots in it. What did you have in mind, specifically?”

“I had a feeling,” Yasmeen said, nodding. “We have a bit of the same issue here. With all the Avenist influence, the history most people learn is just a tad romanticized—and the Church pushing a narrative of a united Pantheon exacerbates it. At this point you have to go to the Veskers or Nemitites to learn how paladins historically related to each other. Which is to say, like strange cats, most of the time.”

“Really?” Trissiny’s eyebrows involuntarily shot upward. “All right, you got me. That I wasn’t taught. I mean, there have been scuffles between paladins in all the great adventure stories, but…”

“But they were presented as passing misunderstandings?” Yasmeen shook her head, smiling ruefully. “There’s a reason an episode like that happens in almost all the great epics. Hands of Avei and Sorash considered each other worse than demons. Hands of Omnu firmly disapproved of just about everything every other paladin did, and most of Toby’s predecessors did not share his reluctance to assert himself. Hands of Salyrene were only intermittently useful to the cause of protecting humanity; their goddess was just as interested in advancing knowledge through experimentation, and quite a few of her Hands got up to things that resulted in other paladins putting them down. Magnan the Enchanter took it to a new extreme, but he was treading a well-worn path. There is an entire theological school of thought, which has fallen out of the public eye only in the last century, that the whole purpose of gods calling paladins was to fight with each other without using their full power and thus devastating the world the way the Elder Gods did.”

“Why does everyone know more about the history of my lineage than I do?” Trissiny complained.

Yasmeen laughed, reaching over to squeeze her upper arm below the silver pauldron. “Oh, I assure you, everyone does not. Like I said, the Church has gone to great lengths to encourage the view you were taught; not everybody has access to royal archives and a fondness for old adventure sagas. But I wasn’t changing the subject, Trissiny. Remember that I didn’t just ask you to barge into that party and slap Irina around; I asked all three of you to intervene, and in specifically different ways. Toby to appeal to their better nature, you to impose order, Gabriel to project chilling eldritch menace. You see the hierarchy, there?”

“Velvet mentioned the same thing,” Trissiny acknowledged. “Toby’s part, anyway. Maybe some of those people will be more receptive next time an Omnist politely asks them to consider others.”

“Oh, I guarantee they will,” Yasmeen assured her. “And not just because they don’t want to meet your fist, or even because they don’t want to find out what else that scythe can do. House Araadia is going to take a long time to recover from this setback, but every other House represented at tonight’s gala is, I promise you, already planning how to take advantage of this. Most will reach out to the Sisterhood directly; I expect your Silver Missions will find themselves most generously funded in the days to come. If you stay in one place and make yourself accessible, aristocrats will begin trying to court you—in some cases, quite literally.”

“What kind of person flirts with their own natural predators?” Trissiny demanded in exasperation.

“Nobles,” Yasmeen answered immediately. “That’s what we do, Trissiny. It’s what we are. Nobles are predatory toward each other to a truly insane degree; we expect nothing less, from anyone. Nobody takes it personally. Well, Irina will after the way you lit into her, but the rest? You didn’t damage them directly, so the question is not how they will stop you, but how they can use you. That is why it was so important to present yourself as a force of nature beyond their control, not a rival for power. Otherwise, anything you did to any of them would have been business as usual.”

Trissiny could find no immediate answer for that, and Yasmeen heaved a deep sigh, her gaze growing unfocused.

“That’s the thing, you see. The best thing that ever happened to me was getting out of my palace, going to Last Rock and spending time with peasants, oddballs, and people from all walks of life. The most important thing I learned from interacting with them is that they all want the same things I do. Growing up rich and in control, it’s so easy to assume that poor people are…lesser. Lazy, selfish, somehow to blame for their situation. But people are just people. And even at their most venal, the basic drives that motivate them ensure that most people, most of the time, do the right thing. People want to contribute, to belong, to feel and to be valuable, to be part of something greater than themselves. No end of trouble results from people misunderstanding or disagreeing on what is the right thing to do, but in the end? We all want what’s best, as best we understand it.”

Slowly, she shifted back to face forward, still perched in that awkward way half-on the seat. Her gaze had become distant; Trissiny wasn’t sure whether Yasmeen was still talking to her, or arguing with herself.

“The two exceptions are despair, and power. People who are so ground down that they have no hope stop bothering with anything that could give meaning to their lives. And people who have power…” Her whole expression tightened unhappily. “Power distorts the mind like nothing else. It becomes the end and the means, the only thing you think about or care about. Most people will do right because with a modicum of intelligence, self-interest is at least somewhat altruistic. The powerful only do right when they are afraid to do otherwise. And powerful people are the leading cause of populations falling into despair. So, yes.” She turned back to face Trissiny, her eyes coming back into focus and glinting in the dimness. “You’d better believe I am comfortable unleashing whatever monster I can catch against the powerful. That’s what constitutes working with them.”

“And then,” Trissiny said quietly, “there’s us, who can do a thing like we just did and then flitter off into the night without consequence. What does that say about us?”

Yasmeen expelled a soft breath that might have been a sigh, though she smiled thinly at the same time. “It says we are walking a very narrow path, and had best watch where we step.”

“You are a puzzle,” Trissiny said frankly. “You seem downright happy-go-lucky most of the time. But the way you talk about the responsibilities of your position, you make it sound so grim. Which one is the act?”

“Oh, Trissiny.” Yasmeen eased closer and placed an elbow on the back of the seat, to lean her cheek into her hand and give Trissiny a fondly chiding look. “Any Vidian can tell you that the secret to acting is not to act, but to believe.”

“That’s a deflection if I ever heard one.”

“Not at all, it’s an explanation.” Casually, she reached out to brush back a blonde lock which had come loose from Trissiny’s braid, and only her practice with the Guild on not giving away every little thought prevented her from stiffening up. Surely the princess didn’t… “Life is grim, if it’s nothing but responsibility. Taking time for oneself can feel like selfishness, to the conscientious person, but in truth a little maintenance for the mind and spirit is necessary.”

“Now it sounds like you’re describing prayer. Or exercise.”

“Both good approaches,” Yasmeen agreed readily. “It depends on the individual. It’s an absolute necessity to find moments of joy, whatever form they may take for you.” Idly, she shifted her hand again, lightly brushing the back of her fingers along Trissiny’s cheekbone, while very slowly but inexorably leaning closer. “We serve no one by falling into grim despair, my dear. We must take whatever pleasure we can from life. With whoever will share it, for however long the opportunity lasts. After all…who can say what might happen tomorrow?”

Well, this explained the separate carraiges, anyway.

Carefully, Trissiny eased backward, away from those caressing fingers. “I don’t get a lot of opportunities to…share pleasure. It’s probably the armor. Only women ever seem to approach me, and I have never been even slightly attracted to my own sex.”

Yasmeen stopped, her eyes widening in open surprise. “…really? But you’re the actual Hand of Avei! Didn’t you grow up in Viridill?”

“Ooh, darling, yes,” Trissiny said, utterly deadpan. “Stereotype me. Harder, please.”

The princess stared for a shocked moment, and then burst into laughter so hard she almost doubled over. Somehow, though, she turned the movement into gracefully retreating back to her side of the seat.

“All right, point vividly made,” Yasmeen gasped once she could, brushing a tear out of her lashes. “Well! My loss, then. Can’t blame a girl for trying.”

“Nothing will happen if you don’t try,” Trissiny agreed, smiling back. With the awkwardness defused, Yasmeen’s mirth was quite infectious.

“Stay reckless, Trissiny.” Just like that, though, the laughter faded from the princess’s countenance. “As long as you can be hurt, as long as you’re not too comfortable, not insulated from the consequences of your actions, you’re not turning into one of them.” She shifted to stare out at her city as they passed through it in the night. “I hope.”


“Man, what is it with you and that entire family?” Gabriel asked, shaking his head. “You’re like Aldarasi catnip.”

“I shouldn’t have told you,” Trissiny grumbled.

“You probably shouldn’t have,” he agreed. “I’m constitutionally incapable of letting it go, now.”

“Such a funny little thing, to be the focus of so much trouble,” Toby mused, studying the key fragment on his open palm. Strolling through the park under the morning sunlight as they were now, it looked like any miscellaneous piece of metal, albeit highly polished. “I’m really curious what it is this thing is supposed to unlock, when it’s restored.”

“It’ll turn out at the last minute that the real treasure was friendship or something,” Trissiny said, rolling her eyes. “Mark my words.”

“So…you’re still coming along, right?” Gabriel asked, nudging her with an elbow. “You’ve come this far with us!”

“I’m still considering that,” she hedged.

She was saved from having to go into any more detail by their arrival. The park seemed more crowded today than on her previous visit, but then, they weren’t creeping off into its most secluded corner this time. The three paladins had followed the footpath as directed to a small fountain in a little paved roundabout surrounded by benches and lamp posts, where their contacts were waiting. All were making a go at discretion, now that they’d thoroughly offended a swath of the city’s nobility. Trissiny was back in civilian clothes, her armor left in the Sultana’s palace for safekeeping—under the care of a particularly devout steward who Yasmeen said would doubtless consider the task the highlight of her life. Toby could’ve been any young Western man to someone who didn’t know his face, now that he was back in street clothes rather than formal robes, and Gabriel had taken the precaution of hiding his distinctive coat in a dimensional pocket. Ironically, he was sweating more without it; the weatherproof enchantments on traditional Punaji greatcoats were the reason sailors wore them from the equator to the arctic.

“Hey, guys!” Jeb called, waving exuberantly. “Ya made it!”

“Course they made it, ya galoot, what’d ya think was gonna happen,” Zeke said, but tipped his hat in greeting, grinning at them.

“Boys,” Trissiny said, nodding distractedly. Most of her attention was caught by the other person present.

“You wanna make a quick sketch?” Rainwood suggested dryly. “It’ll last longer.”

“Sorry,” she said automatically. “I’m just surprised by how well you clean up.”

In fact, he looked a lot like he had in her shamanic vision, though his hair was still much shorter. It was clean, now, brushed and even styled, giving him a rakish look. He also wore a green robe of supple dyed leather, ornately decorated with silver accents and beads, and carried a hardwood staff which was oiled and polished till it fairly glowed, topped with a chunk of rose quartz the size of her fist. Rather than a homeless layabout, he fully looked the part of an elvish shaman.

“A word in your ear, cousin, if I may?” Rainwood said more quietly, tilting his head pointedly to the side. Trissiny glanced at the others; Toby gave her a smile and a nod, Gabriel already in conversation with the Jenkinses.

She and Rainwood stepped a few feet away, not truly out of earshot but gaining a little privacy.

“So, have you decided on your next move?” the elf asked her.

“Not…entirely,” Trissiny admitted. “I’m leaning toward going back to the grove. This whole episode has left me feeling the need for more quiet contemplation.”

“Well…with apologies…I’m going to offer you some unsolicited advice,” he said seriously. “I know little enough of your life, Trissiny, but I’ve been around. A lot. So take it for whatever it may be worth. Go on the quest.”

She sighed. “Why?”

“If I’m not mistaken, you have an Avenist’s impatience with pursuits in which you see no practical benefit. Right?” He smiled lopsidedly.

“That’s not just an Avenist thing,” she pointed out, folding her arms. “I don’t know of anybody who enjoys wasting time with other people’s pointless nonsense.”

“Actually, lots of folks do. Anyone who would rather enjoy life than stress about meeting arbitrary goals, in fact. But that isn’t an argument I would pitch to you, of all people. Let me put it this way…” He shifted, half-turning to look out over the park, where people were walking, playing, and reading in the sunlight. “Vesk’s missions are never pointless, any more than a story is. To him, they’re one and the same. They are very literally character-building exercises. To put it in Avenist terms, training. He will break you down and build you back up, just like you would a new recruit into an army.”

“I’m not sure I trust what Vesk would want to build me into,” she retorted.

“Well, what are you?” Rainwood looked at her again, smiling faintly. “Because that’s what he’ll aim for. Think in storytelling terms, in archetypes. Are you the knight in shining armor? The thief? The orphan? The point of a hero’s journey is to bring you through the darkness and into the wisdom and greater power you earn on the other side. He’ll try to make you more of whatever it is you are.”

“That sounds…unpleasant,” she admitted.

He nodded slowly, turning his eyes back to the park. “Mm. Education is usually no fun, even when you seek it out and pay your tuition. Having it thrust upon you unsolicited is almost as enjoyable as surprise dental surgery. But the fact remains, it’s one of the best and most important things you can experience. I will say this, though, Trissiny: if you do decide to continue on, have a care. You’ve begun this journey by besting weaker foes with scornful ease. If this were a story, that would mean you have a real test coming down the line. And if you’re working for Vesk, it’s always a story.”

“No.” She shook her head slowly, also gazing out across the park now, even as Rainwood turned to look at her in mild surprise. “That wasn’t the test, or the lesson. Those simpering nobles were never the enemy. I was. I…don’t think I won that battle.”

He reached up to squeeze her shoulder. “Yeah. You’ll do just fine, kiddo. All right, now I’ve gotta be moving along myself.” The shaman hiked up his staff, leaning it over his shoulder, and turned to amble back toward the group, Trissiny following along. “As I mentioned before, I have my own quest. The spirits are guiding me westward, where my help is needed.”

“By whom?” Toby asked, turning to him.

Rainwood grinned and shrugged. “No idea! That’s the fun of both shamanism and adventure: you figure it out as you go.”

“Well…uh, nice meeting you, then,” said Gabriel.

“I’ve got a funny feeling our paths haven’t crossed for the last time,” Rainwood replied, winking. He patted Trissiny on the upper back. “But who knows? We’ll all find out what’s in the future when we get there. Till then.”

It was the strangest thing to observe; he didn’t seem to transform, exactly, but one moment he was an elf and then he wasn’t, and it was as if he never had been and they’d only just noticed. Trissiny recalled Kuriwa doing very much the same thing. Jeb let out a muffled exclamation of surprise, which the little black cat ignored, trotting away across the park. They all stared after him until he ducked under a bush and was gone from sight.

“That was one weird dude,” Zeke observed. “Paid well, though.”

“You’ve got interesting relatives, Triss,” said Gabe.

She sighed. “You don’t know the half of it.”

“So!” Jeb grinned broadly at them. “Where y’all off to next, then?”

“I think you boys mentioned you were between steady jobs at the moment,” Trissiny said. “And that you came from a ranch originally. Right?”

“Hey, you remembered!” Jeb said cheerfully. “See, Zeke, I told you she was nice! Pays attention to us little folk an’ everything.”

“I never said she wasn’t nice, Jeb,” Zeke said quickly, glancing at Trissiny. “I said she has more important stuff to do than worry about the likes a’ you an’ me. Which was true.”

Trissiny opted not to weigh in on that. Instead, ignoring Gabriel’s snickering, she reached into her coat and carefully extracted the sealed letter she had stashed there, holding it out to Zeke. “Right. Well, you did help me, in the end, and I didn’t want to just cut you loose and vanish—”

“All right!” Jeb whooped, actually jumping into the air and pumping a fist skyward. “You just say the word, boss lady! We’re off ta kick ass and praise Avei!”

She stared at him for a moment, then turned back to his brother. “…so I wrote you a letter of recommendation. If you decide you’ve had enough of Calderaas, charter a Rail caravan to Last Rock and give this to Mr. Ryan Cartwright. He owns most of the horses along that stretch of frontier; anybody in town can direct you to him. Gabe and I worked for him last year, and he liked us both well enough I’m confident my recommendation will get you a job.”

Jeb had fallen still, frowning at her in consternation. Zeke slowly reached up to accept the envelope, also looking puzzled. “Uh, maybe it’s none o’ my business, ma’am, but why was a couple’a paladins workin’ as ranch hands?”

“Punishment duty,” Gabriel explained, grinning. “One of the options Tellwyrn gave us was jobs in town with wages transferred to the University. We both went for that one, since it involved the greatest distance from her squawking.”

“Last Rock is a tiny town,” Trissiny continued, “but it’s not a boring one. You’ll meet all kinds of people. Especially girls,” she added, giving Jeb a pointed look. “The sort you like, with backbones and no patience for your crap, Jeb. Townies, passing adventurers, University students. If you get tired of trying your luck in the city, it’s an option, anyway.”

“Girls?” Toby’s eyebrows had risen so high it almost looked painful. “Trissiny, you’re helping them get dates?”

“Uh…how certain are we that this is really Trissiny?” Gabriel muttered out the corner of his mouth, sidling closer to him.

“Her aura is unmistakable,” Ariel replied, making Jeb jump and look around for the source of her voice.

“That’s…real thoughtful of you, ma’am,” said Ezekiel slowly. “I appreciate the gesture. You don’t owe us nothin’, though. It was a plumb honor to help out a little.”

“I thought we might could come with you!” Jeb burst out, suddenly giving up searching for the voice and turning to her, hat in hand and being roughly squeezed the way he did when nervous. Zeke sighed, but his brother continued on, undaunted. “Cos, y’know, you’re sorta right, Calderaas ain’t been that great for us. But, come on, what’re the odds a’ two guys like us meetin’ a paladin? Twice? Maw always said, the gods move in mysterious ways. We can both ride an’ shoot and we ain’t afraid o’ hard work!”

“Good,” she said firmly. “Those are traits you’ll need on Cartwright’s ranch.”

“Yeah, but—”

“People like you get killed for following people like me!” she snapped. “Ignore anything Rainwood told you about adventure, Jenkins. That stuff’s for storybooks. My life is violence, destruction, and being manipulated into one disaster after another. Do you understand? You will die, and I don’t need to see that happen.”

“Well…shit, Ms. Trissiny, everybody dies a’ somethin’,” Jeb said earnestly. “Our great uncle Leroy, Vidius rest his soul, got swarmed by kobolds. But he made it mean somethin’! He protected his family an’ the house till help could come. I figured, ever since, if everybody’s gotta go out, I wanna make it…y’know, important.”

“Well, you can do that on your own time, if that’s what you want,” she said curtly. “I have real work to do, and no more time to babysit you.”

“C’mon, Jeb,” Zeke said quietly, taking him by the elbow. “It was a good day’s work, now let’s not waste the paladin’s time.”

Jebediah resisted his brother’s tugging, still staring at Trissiny with a frown of increasing consternation. “Hell, ma’am, we ain’t made a’ glass. If you just don’t like us, you can say so.”

“Why would I like you?” Trissiny roared, causing him to shy back in shock. “The whole time I’ve been saddled with you two nincompoops has been one mess after another, all cause because you two are more incompetent at everything you attempt than any human being can possibly be and still be alive! I swear, you’re either fairies in disguise or you’re doing it on purpose, and either way I have had just about enough of your nonsense. You act like that in my business and within one week, tops, you’ll be dead with your entrails spread around a two-acre area. And just because I don’t want to watch that doesn’t mean it would be any less of a relief!”

Jeb gaped at her with his mouth open. Zeke, Toby, and Gabriel were a little more contained, but not by a lot; the shock appeared to be universal.

After a few excruciating seconds of silence, Jebediah closed his mouth, swallowed heavily once, and took a step backward. He carefully tipped his hat to her, turned, and walked away.

Zeke, seeming unsure what to do, himself, finally cleared his throat and tipped his own hat in her direction. “…ma’am.” Then he followed after Jeb, leaving stillness behind.

Trissiny watched them go, slowly drawing in a deep breath. She let it out with the same deliberate slowness, as if maintaining that control could expel everything seething in her at that moment.

Toby stepped up next to her. His expression, now, was purely concerned.

“Please don’t,” she said. He opened his mouth, closed it, nodded, and patted her on the shoulder.

“So, uh,” Gabriel said from behind them, “far be it from me to interrupt all the awkwardness, but you guys might wanna look at this.”

They turned, and what was coming up the path drove the whole conversation out of their minds.

Easily the most incredible thing was that none of the other people in the park reacted to the approach of the carriage; it appeared no one could even see it. Apart from being an unusual open-topped model and painted solid black, the carriage itself was not very noteworthy. Its driver, though, was a lean man in a broad black hat, holding a vicious-looking scythe which towered over his seat. It was the horses pulling the vehicle which were most alarming, though. Skeletally emaciated, they had eyes which flickered with dim blue flames, and streaming wisps of black smoke for manes and tails; their hooves made a peculiar ringing sound on the path, shod with brightly glowing metal which tended to send up sparks when it touched the ground.

The carriage pulled up to a stop right alongside them, and the driver tugged the brim of his wide hat, which was too broad to comfortably lift, and gave them a thin smile.

“Morning, kids,” Vidius said pleasantly. “Interest you in a lift?”

 

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10 – 34

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“Well, I do believe each of us who plans to attend has arrived,” said the woman with shifting patterns of light irridescing across her midnight black skin. “For whom of the mortal persuasion are we waiting, Izara?”

“No one,” said the goddess of love, currently no more dramatic in appearance than a somewhat homely young woman with unruly hair, her only odd affectation being the choice of peasant garb a century and a half out of date. “I appreciate you all going out of your way to join me; I realize not everyone enjoys coming here.”

“Some of us enjoy coming here very much,” Eserion commented from the table in the corner, raising his eyes from his card game to wink at her.

“Why here, then?” Salyrene asked with a reproachful frown, causing the ripples of blue and gold light decorating her form to shift subtly to more angular patterns. “Particularly if you’re aware that we do not all find this place equally comfortable.”

“This, I believe, is not a conversation that should be had in comfort,” Izara said seriously. “And forgive me for pointing it out, but we all know that assuming a discrete form improves our ability to focus.”

“Assembling on the mortal plane is an unnecessary risk,” Avei said, swiveling on her stool to put her back to the bar and giving Izara a very direct stare. No one took offense at her brusque tone, which they all knew was characteristic and signified no hostility. “We established this place to have a secure meeting spot wherein to speak with significant mortals, in neutral ground outside the aegis of our cults or the Universal Church. If no mortals are to be involved in this conversation, I suggest moving it to someplace less vulnerable.”

“Forgive me, sister,” Nemitoth mused, not looking up from the massive tome laid out on the small table at which he sat alone, “but ‘secure’ was the operative word in that declaration. No one presently has any designs on us. No one is aware that we are here.”

“You know the glaring weakness in that book,” Avei said pointedly.

Vidius chuckled, leaning back in his chair so that it tipped up on its hind legs. “Yes, and Elilial is always after us and usually hidden from view, but come on. If she had any weapon that posed a threat to the lot of us gathered here, we wouldn’t only now be learning of it. Besides, Izara’s right and you know it. Too much divinity is not healthy. Or have you forgotten how our…predecessors…ended up?”

Avei’s answering snort was evocative of a disdainful warhorse, but she offered no further comment, merely reaching for her whiskey on the rocks and taking a sip which did not lower the level of drink in the glass.

“Thank you,” said Izara, nodding graciously to the god of death, who tipped his broad hat to her in reply. “Then, in the interests of not keeping you all here any longer than absolutely necessary, I will come to the point. We need to discuss Arachne.”

From the assembled gods there came a chorus of sighs and groans, and two muted laughs.

The expensively appointed common room of the Elysium had rarely been this crowded; as a couple of its current occupants had mentioned, most of them did not enjoy coming here without good and specific purpose. For all of that, the majority of them would not at a glance have been taken for anything but a gathering of perhaps oddly-dressed friends at a posh bar. Of those present, only Salyrene and Ouvis made themselves visually striking, and only the goddess of magic did it as a deliberate affectation. The god of the sky sat by himself in a corner, facing the wall, and manipulating the tiny clouds and whirlwinds surrounding himself like a child lost in the inner world of his toys. In fact, he hadn’t even been specifically invited to this gathering; none of them were ever certain how much of their conversations he was aware of, much less paying attention to.

The entire Pantheon was not present, of course. Some of those whom Izara had included in her call had not troubled to show up, which was characteristic of the group as a whole. The usual absentees were, of course, absent. Shaath and Calomnar disdained any sort of gathering they weren’t firmly bullied into attending, and nobody went to the trouble except at great need; they generally weren’t missed. Vemnesthis, as usual, could not be bothered to tear himself away from his own ceaseless vigil, and even kind-hearted Izara hadn’t troubled to invite Naphthene, who these days tended to reply to social overtures with threats.

Most of them had clustered together at a few tables, though as usual Nemitoth had taken a private table upon which to lay out his book, and Avei preferred to seat herself at the bar, where she had a more tactically useful view of the room. Eserion and Vesk had tucked themselves away at a small table in the corner, playing a card game whose object appeared to be making up increasingly ridiculous rules and bullying or tricking each other into abiding by them.

“I have a very effective way of dealing with Arachne, which I’m surprised you haven’t all adopted,” Avei said disparagingly. “Just slap her when she needs it. She doesn’t even mind all that much; some people simply have to be constantly reminded of their boundaries.”

Izara sighed. “I’m sure you know very well why I’ll never embrace your tactics, sister.”

“Because you’re soft-hearted,” Avei replied, but with clear affection.

“And others,” added Omnu in a basso rumble, “because those tactics are about as productive as they are kind. I’m sorry, Avei, but I don’t think you’ve ever really understood the Arachne. Brute force is what she prefers to use, not what she is. She isn’t the least bit impressed by pain or the threat thereof.”

“And yet, my methods get exactly the results I want,” Avei said dryly.

Eserion chuckled again. “I’d have to say that most of you have never bothered to understand Arachne, you least of all, Avei. Arachne doesn’t continue to push at you because you don’t have anything she wants. Be grateful she’s running that school, now; for a while, there, I was seriously concerned she’d just get bored and start seeing how much she could get away with before we had to step in. Go fish.”

“You can’t tell me to go fish,” Vesk protested. “It’s a Wednesday and I’ve already played a ducal flush.”

“Oh, bullshit, that rule was retired when I annexed your queen.”

“Aha!” Grinning, the god of bards plucked one of the cards from his hand and turned it around, revealing a portrait of Eserion. “But I get to re-activate a retired rule of my choice, because I have the Fool!”

“Oh, you are such an asshole.”

Verniselle cleared her throat loudly. “In any case! The Arachne’s personality and general goals are not news. I assume, Izara, if you’ve brought us here to discuss her, there is new business?”

“I’ll say there is,” Vesk muttered, eyes back on his cards.

Izara sighed. “I’m afraid she’s rather worked up at the moment, more than ever before. She’s taken to barging into temples and threatening priests in order to get our attention.”

“Temples, plural?” Avei said sharply, glancing over at Vesk. “Our?”

“She’s done it to the both of us, now,” Vesk affirmed, nodding distractedly. “Checkmate.”

“Foiled!” Eserion proclaimed, laying his hand down face up. “Full suit of Cats! And since it is Wednesday and you forced me to crown your red piece, your entire hand is converted to wave-function cards!”

“Son of a bitch,” Vesk cried in exasperation, but grudgingly laid his hand face-down on the table, where they each became indeterminate, their values only determined when observed again.

Avei cleared her throat pointedly. Vesk ignored her, picking up his hand again and scowling at its new contents.

“Can you two keep it down, please?” Salyrene said irritably, her luminous skin patterns taking on a subtly orange hue.

“Sorry,” both trickster gods said in unison without looking up from their game.

“Well, that kind of behavior is not acceptable,” Avei said sharply. “Something must clearly be done about this. Thank you, Izara, for bringing it to us.”

“That is not why I brought it to you,” Izara said firmly. “Please don’t rush off and do anything drastic, or rash. I wanted to talk about this, because I’m not certain that she doesn’t have a point. Arachne is having trouble with Justinian.”

“Justinian?” Vidius inquired, frowning. “What’s he done now?”

A sudden hush fell over the room, even Ouvis’s clouds falling momentarily still. Nemitoth blinked, then frowned, flipping back and forth several pages in his book as if he had suddenly lost his place, which none of the other gods seemed to notice, each of them also frowning into space in apparent confusion.

The moment passed almost immediately, and Verniselle spoke in a sharper tone. “Nonetheless, we clearly cannot allow the Arachne to think she can bully us this way. I saw no harm in indulging her when her aspirations were lower, but if there is a repeat of what happened to Sorash…”

“That isn’t going to happen,” Vidius said wryly.

“No, it won’t,” Avei replied in an even grimmer tone than usual. “Because if she tries—”

“Oh, settle down,” Vidius said, folding his arms. “Honestly, I’m appalled at how little most of you have troubled to even understand how Arachne thinks.”

Both trickster gods cleared their throats pointedly, then shouted “Jinx!” in virtually perfect unison. Eserion, who had been roughly a quadrillionth of a second behind, let out an irritated huff and tossed two cards face-down in the center of the table, where Vesk selected one smugly and added it to his own hand.

“I said most.” Vidius gave them a sardonic look before turning back toward Avei. “Sorash was an extremely anomalous case; she is simply not going to light into any of us that way. Do you even know what he did to set her off? He tried to keep her on a leash.”

“Sorash was always obsessed with power and dominance,” Omnu rumbled pensively. “Arachne never failed to do her research; surely she knew to expect that before campaigning for his attention.”

“I don’t think you understand,” Vidius said darkly. “That was not a coy turn of phrase. It was an actual leash. It came with a jeweled collar and a skimpy little outfit, and a cute nickname.”

Salyrene winced, her lights abruptly shifting to a dark blue. “We don’t need to hear—”

“Silky,” Vidius said, giving them all a long face.

Avei’s whiskey glass abruptly shattered into powder. She hadn’t been touching it at the time.

“So, no,” Vidius continued, “there’s not going to be a repeat of that incident. Sorash went well above and beyond the call in antagonizing her, while simultaneously placing her in such a position that he was uniquely vulnerable to attack. None of the rest of us are foolish enough or, to be perfectly frank, assholish enough to do such a thing. And let’s not pretend that anybody here mourned Sorash’s passing. Those of you who didn’t actively express relief were merely being discreet, and you all know it.”

“I wasn’t discreet,” Avei said grimly, pausing to sip from a restored glass of whiskey, this time neat. “I made no secret that I was glad enough to be rid of him. In fact, I never knew the details of that; I find myself rather regretting the mild ire I felt toward Arachne for the sheer presumption.”

“This is why I wish we wouldn’t keep secrets from each other,” Omnu said sorrowfully. “It leads to nothing but misunderstanding. In Sorash’s case, his lust for privacy was his downfall.”

“It sounds like that wasn’t the lust that caused his downfall,” Vesk commented cheerfully.

“Hah!” Eserion grinned at him. “You said the L-word! And since you brought the Seven Deadlies back into play…”

“Oh, bullshit,” Vesk protested. “You do not have the—”

He broke off when the god of thieves plucked a card from his hand, turning it around to reveal the portrait of a succubus garbed in filmy scarves, looking coquettishly over her shoulder.

“Omnu’s balls,” Vesk said in exasperation, pulling out three of his cards and handing them over.

“Excuse me?” Omnu exclaimed. Verniselle placed a hand over her eyes, slumping down in her chair.

“Be all that as it may,” said Salyrene, “it is obviously a matter of concern if Arachne is going to start being overtly hostile. Even if we take it as given that there will be no further deicide, it’s just not acceptable for her to push gods around toward her own ends.”

“Especially if she is going to use such violent tactics,” Salyrene added.

“I really don’t think she would have harmed any priests,” said Vesk distractedly. “Complain all you want about the woman’s general lack of social skills, but have you ever known her to deliberately hurt someone who hadn’t done something to deserve it?”

“I had the same feeling,” said Izara, nodding. “Consider who she tried that on. Vesk and myself would both intervene on behalf of our people, and she knows us well enough to know that. I think she is wise enough not to attempt it with someone who would call her bluff.”

“Still,” Salyrene said pointedly.

“Yes,” Avei agreed. “Still.”

“Still,” Izara said doggedly, “at issue here is that she isn’t necessarily wrong—in her purpose, if not her methods. When, as appears to be the case, she is under an unprovoked and undeserved attack by the Universal Church, the matter reflects upon us.”

“So,” Vidius mused, “you believe this will sort itself out if we rein in the Archpope?”

Again, a momentary pall fell across the room, marred only by Nemitoth’s irritated grunt and the ruffling of pages.

“I think it’s worth appreciating the source of her hostility,” Vidius continued as if nothing had transpired. “She blames most of you for being selfish and cowardly when she came to you for help. And she isn’t wrong, there.”

“Not this again,” Verniselle groaned, rolling her eyes.

“Her story was sheer nonsense,” Salyrene said sharply, the patterns of light limning her shifting into a far more rapid speed.

“Elilial believed her,” Vidius retorted. “More to the point, Themynra believed her. Whatever you think about either of them, the fact is they have been dealing more closely and regularly with Scyllith than any of us since the ascension.”

“Have you even thought about what you’re suggesting?” Salyrene said heatedly, her lights glowing redder and speeding up further still. “It is simply inconceivable that Scyllith would have the power to do a thing like that. None of the Infinite Order could have managed it before we brought them down, and the survivors now are deprived of most of their power and agency. Scyllith, further, has never been anything but a troublemaker; if she could impact the world so severely, we would definitely have learned of it.”

“We know that the fundamental nature of the surviving Elders was changed by the ascension,” Nemitoth interjected thoughtfully. “That was the whole point of it. Don’t think in terms of sheer power—you of all people should know better than that, Salyrene. Naiya and Scyllith have both been trying to acclimate to their new circumstances ever since, experimenting with different methods. If Scyllith’s fundamental nature and approach to manipulating reality altered significantly from what we knew when last we had her directly under our gaze, it’s reasonable to conclude that she might be capable of things which would surprise us.”

“Don’t tell me you believe that fairy tale now,” Salyrene exclaimed.

“I believe nothing,” Nemitoth said calmly. “There is not data to support Arachne’s claim—and notably, it is an unprovable hypothesis. Reasoning, however, suggests that it is not necessarily impossible.”

“And consider this,” Vidius added. “We all know how severely Scyllith was further weakened after her clash with Arachne and Elilial. It only makes sense that she wouldn’t be able to pull off a feat like that a second time.”

“That works the other way, too,” Salyrene countered, her lights moving in calmer patterns now. “Why would she suddenly have the capability in the first place? And how? Remember, Elilial took her down alone—and that while she was isolated from support in Scyllith’s own realm.”

“I’m not sure how significant that is,” Avei murmured, gazing into her glass. “Elilial was always the vastly superior strategist, and Scyllith’s brutality and overweening arrogance frequently caused her trouble. We all know about the Belosiphon affair. Elilial turned the demons against her, which was as much Scyllith’s fault for how she treated them as Elilial’s for suborning them.”

“This is an old argument, though,” Izara said patiently. “No, I can’t find it in myself to believe Arachne’s account of her history, either, which has little bearing on this situation. The question is this: is she right to be specifically upset with us now? Because if so, I feel she should not only be forgiven for her suddenly more aggressive moves, but we should also think seriously about defending her to Justinian.”

Silence held sway for a moment. Nemitoth narrowed his eyes, bending closer to his book as if having trouble making out what was written on the page.

“I’ll give you my two bits,” said Vidius. “Arachne is a difficult personality, yes, and it’s undoubtedly true that she takes full advantage of our need to protect her. However, I have never found her hard to predict, or even to work with. The key is simply to extend a little compassion and patience—more than we are accustomed to having to offer anyone, anymore, and for that reason alone I say she’s worth keeping around. We have all seen firsthand how badly it can go when gods have no one to keep them humble.” He nodded to Izara. “I support a patient approach.”

“I agree,” Omnu said quietly. “I cannot say I have troubled to know her as well as you have, brother, but the broad strokes of your analysis are borne out by my own experience. The Arachne is not more problematic than we can bear…and she does not inflict harm without provocation. If she has become more aggressive, we ought to consider that she may be justified.”

“That is not how justice works,” Avei said flatly. “She doesn’t get to invade temples and assault priests just to make a point!”

“It was a matter of threats more than assault,” Vesk commented.

“I consider them to be in the same category of actions,” Avei retorted. “Whether she was provoked or no, I see only trouble coming from indulging her in this behavior.”

“I abstain from this,” Salyrene declared, glowing slightly more golden. “It was not my temple she desecrated—if she had, I would certainly not have indulged her in anything but a blistering reprisal. What she has done to Izara and Vesk, I’ll trust them to have the judgment to address themselves. Until Arachne starts another campaign of dragging us all into her problems, I say leave her alone. This isn’t an issue the Pantheon as a whole needs to answer.”

“There are points to be made on both sides of this,” Verniselle said thoughtfully, flipping a platinum coin back and forth between her hands. “Arachne’s nature does suggest that she would not be so assertive without reason…but on the other hand, there are lines she should not be allowed to cross. I think I concur with you, sister,” she added, nodding to Salyrene. “If anything is to be done, let it be up to those who have a personal stake.”

“Hm,” Nemitoth grunted, gazing abstractly at the wall.

All the gods present, including the onlookers who had abstained entirely from the convesation, turned to study the two card players in the corner.

Eserion slapped his hand down on the table. “Zoological flush. Eat it, banjo boy.”

Vesk carefully laid out three cards in a row, then pantomimed setting down an invisible fourth one. “Queen of Cups, Queen of Rods, Queen of Diamonds, and the Emperor’s New Clothes. The game is still afoot.”

“Oh, come on,” Eserion exclaimed. “You seriously expect me to believe you had the Taming Maidens just waiting for that play?”

“Would you like to phrase that as an accusation?” Vesk asked sweetly. “Of course, you know the penalty a Penitent Jihad carries if you are wrong.”

“Just deal,” Eserion said sullenly.

“I see,” Izara mused, then smiled around at the assemble deities. “Well, I’m sorry to have brought up such a difficult cluster of subjects…but I thank you all for your contributions.”

“Have you come to a conclusion, then, dear?” Vidius asked, smiling.

“I believe I have,” she replied. “Now the question becomes one of timing… In any case, I appreciate you all coming at my request. I’ll take up no more of your time.”

With a final smile around at them and a respectful nod, she vanished.

Avei drew in a deep breath and let it out as a sigh through her nose, then likewise disappeared. One by one, the other deities flickered out of being, all except Salyrene disappearing without fanfare or production. The goddess of magic made sure to leave early enough that she had an audience for the rather overwrought light show that marked her departure.

Quite soon, the Elysium was again as quiet as usual, nearly all of its inhabitants gone.

“You know,” Vesk said casually, studying his cards, “I really like Justinian. I think he’s a great Archpope.”

“Mm hm,” Eserion replied in an equally mild tone. “Stand-up guy. I don’t have a thing to say against him.”

“Exactly! In fact, it’s a funny thing, but I can’t think of anything I would change about him.”

“I’ve noticed the same. I don’t remember the last time I had a thought about him that wasn’t purely approving. All right, I didn’t want to do this, but I’m playing the One of Unicorns.” Smirking with intolerable smugness, he laid down a card face-up, which bathed the entire room in a glow of breathtaking silver purity. “All cheating is now suspended; lay down all the cards up your sleeves.”

“Oh, you did not just do that,” Vesk grumbled, setting his hand down face-down and grudgingly extracting five whole decks from various places within his coat and adding them to the cards already on the table. “You realize how long this game is going to drag on, now?”

“You could always yield.”

“You could always blow me.”

“I’ll take a rain check.” He drew another from the now-towering deck, adding it to his hand and gazing thoughtfully at his cards. “Yeah, though, great guy, Justinian. I can’t think of a single thing wrong with him. I can still think about thinking about him, though. Seems almost odd, when I think about thinking about it. I’m ordinarily so…critical.”

“I’ve thought about thinking about that myself,” Vesk agreed idly, studying his own cards. “Almost makes me glad I’ve got people who can do my thinking for me.”

“Mm hm,” Eserion said. “Very fortunately, I’ve a few of my more trusted mortals circling the very excellent Archpope even now. If anything in particular needs to be thought about him, I’m sure they can attend to it.”

“You know, I’m glad to hear you say that,” Vesk replied. “I’ve been thinking about considering such a thing myself. Perhaps I’ll make an idle mention of my thoughts in a few particular ears.”

“Oh, sure, that’s a good idea. There’s never any harm in spreading rumors, after all.”

“All right, wiseass, you asked for it.” Smirking, the bard god pulled two cards from his deck and stood them on end facing each other. “Facing Portal Jokers. I can now draw any face card of my choosing from the aether. You want to call this now, or shall I drag you down screaming?”

Smiling beatifically, Eserion selected a single card from his hand and stood it up between the first two. They were both instantly sucked into it, and the remaining card crumpled itself into a tiny ball, then vanished. “And my portable hole reduces your standing wormhole to a quantum singularity. Did you enjoy wasting your turn, buttercup?”

“Oh, you magnificent bastard!”

In the far corner, Ouvis idly played with his clouds, seemingly oblivious to the world.

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“Wait—”

“Cover me!” Ruda ordered, charging straight at the hthrynxkh, sword-first. It brandished its own weapon, which seemed to be a black jawbone still full of jagged teeth, and gargled something at her in its own language, which neither of them understood. The hiszilisks awaiting orders nearby also charged, however, forcing Fross to choose between dealing with that and upbraiding her classmate.

She decided the second option could wait for later.

Fross ascended a few feet and shot forward, placing herself between Ruda and the oncoming hiszilisks. Whether they even saw her was debatable, but she rendered it irrelevant by emitting a cloud of freezing vapor that neutralized their wings, sending them squawking to the ground. Despite the number of spells she had been carefully learning over the last few months, in the stress of the moment Fross fell back on what was most familiar, not to mention what cost her the least energy to use. A dozen icicles formed in the air, slashing forward and pinning each demon to the ground. They wouldn’t last long in this climate, especially not driven through Hell-formed flesh, but any of the hiszilisks still alive when they melted wouldn’t be going anywhere.

Ruda was having a harder time of it. In the few seconds which had passed before Fross could pay attention to her again, she had found herself grappling with the hthrynxkh at a much closer range than her rapier favored. They had stumbled into the shade of the cafeteria’s rear colonnade, and the demon had pushed Ruda against the wall; Fross could see her hand gripping its wrist, preventing it from bringing down its weapon, but it had a similar grip on her sword arm. In that position, the demon’s greater height and reach gave it the advantage.

Fross quickly considered her options; most of her commonly-used attacks were out. Electricity would conduct through Ruda, any area-of-effect spell like the icy cloud would strike them both, and impaling it with an icicle risked stabbing her classmate as well as the demon. She had to settle for something much less dramatic.

The hthrynxkh barely reacted to the snowballs with which she pelted its back. It growled, but Fross couldn’t tell if that was in response to her or its struggle with Ruda, who had just kicked it hard in the knee, trying to wrench it to the side and off her. Even down on one knee, it was nearly as tall as she, and was already pushing back upright.

Chiming in annoyance, Fross drew on her stored arcane energy for something so counterintuitive to her that she’d been almost afraid to try it, though the spell itself was quite simple. Basic, even, one of a mage’s most elementary standbys.

Basic it might have been, but the fireball which impacted on the hthrynxkh’s back made it shriek in pain, stiffening and nearly losing its grip on Ruda.

In the next second it started squealing and stumbled backward, dropping the black jawbone and swatting at the girl. Not until they had staggered a few feet away and spun almost completely around, leaving Ruda’s feathered hat lying on the pavement, could Fross see that the pirate had clamped her teeth onto the demon’s throat and was growling and trying to shake a bite loose like a terrier.

“Oh, that’s not good,” Fross said, and was completely ignored.

The hthrynxkh had finally had enough; it relinquished Ruda’s arm to bludgeon and push at her with both hands. That was exactly what she’d been waiting for; she allowed it to shove her away, then calmly whipped up her sword and stabbed it straight through the throat, right where the marks of her teeth were oozing ichor.

“Blech,” Ruda spat, whipping her blade free as the hthrynxkh collapsed. “Thing’s got hide like leather.”

“Yeah, that’s for armor and support; they have kind of frail bones. Ruda, you got demon blood in your mouth.”

“I noticed,” Ruda said, scrubbing black blood off her chin with a sleeve. “Fuckin’ ew. Tastes like coffee, but somehow worse.”

“It’s also really dangerous! Most demons are at least somewhat toxic, and the infernal corruption—”

“Whoop, we got company. Chat later.” Ruda turned, raising her sword, as two more hthrynxkhs rounded the corner of the cafeteria. They paused, apparently startled at seeing the students, but one whistled sharply and the other quickly collected itself, running forward to meet Ruda’s charge with its bone-spear upraised.

“Oh, crud,” Fross complained. A well-directed blast of frost knocked over the shadowlord which had summoned help, and then she was occupied dealing with that help. An entire group of hiszilisks had dived toward them at the signal. Fross sent three successive bolts of lightning through their formation—not natural lightning as wands fired, but a combat spell that sent arcs of it snapping between them, burning them badly even though they avoided the worst of it by not being grounded. No sooner had that small swarm fallen, though, than another came at them.

Those she brought down with a cloud of freezing mist, then had to pause to ice the hthrynxkh again, lest it join its comrade in attacking Ruda, following that up with two fired icicles. One missed entirely and the second only grazed it, but she had to turn and deploy lightning at the grounded hiszilisks before they could get aloft again. In the time that took, the shadowlord took refuge behind a pillar.

Fross was by far the more nimble of them, but she paused to check on Ruda rather than chasing it.

Somewhat to her surprise, the pirate was just finishing off the hthrynxkh she’d attacked; somehow she had ended up holding both her rapier and the pointy end of its spear, which had been broken off in the middle. She was just straightening up from stabbing it in the chest with both—it had several other bleeding wounds already—when its companion let out another, louder whistle.

Three separate squads of hiszilisks turned sharply, coming at them from multiple directions.

Luckily, Fross’s education among mortal society had equipped her with appropriate commentary for just such a situation.

“Shit fuck crap damn hell!”

Her attacks were less effective because they had to be faster and more diffuse; she had no shielding spells (that was pretty advanced arcane work, well beyond her level), and wouldn’t be able to protect Ruda if the demons closed with them. Clouds of ice, balls of fire, arcs of chain lightning all lashed out, wounding and driving back their attackers but not doing significant damage to any one group. A single hiszilisk fell from the air, and she couldn’t spare the attention even to discern what had brought it down.

“You come to my world?”

The hthrynxkh staggered out from behind the pillar, Ruda right on top of it, her features twisted in rage. It caught its balance, settling into a fighting crouch, but she pressed forward, lashing out with her sword. The demon actually caught the blade, then howled in shock and pain as she ripped it free of its grip, severed fingers flying. Apparently there was enough magic in its being to be extremely vulnerable to mithril, which it had likely never encountered in Hell.

“You come to my campus, attack my friends, and get into my fucking face with your greasy-ass hide and you fucking little bug-thing asshole buddies?!” Ruda screamed, slashing wildly. That was no proper rapier technique, but despite the lightness of the blade, she was opening wide gashes on its tough skin with each blow. The demon staggered away from her, now trying to turn and flee in earnest.

Fross diverted her attention from that to send a much more serious cloud of ice at the closest group of hiszilisks, which had gotten entirely too close for her liking. Not close enough that the spell had the full effect she wanted, but they spun out, several plummeting to the ground and the rest drifting away from her. The other two swarms had coalesced into a single unit, which actually made her job easier. Two flashes of chain lightning brought down a handful of them, convincing the rest to circle away and try from another angle.

The hthrynxkh let out a squall that demanded her attention. Fross threw a desultory fireball at the retreating hiszilisks before turning to stare.

Ruda had chased it out from under the awning and into a tree. Into the tree, literally; the demon was groping at the broken-off shaft of its compatriot’s spear, which had been thrust through its belly into the trunk behind. It shrieked again when Ruda drove her rapier straight through its upper chest. The fact that it managed suggested they didn’t keep their lungs in the same place as mortals.

She was snarling savagely now, flecks of foam actually forming at the corners of her mouth.

“You want a piece of mortal life? Well here it is, you little shit!”

Ruda drew back her fist and punched the demon hard, right in the face. Its head rocked backward, cracking against the tree trunk. Then she pulled back and struck it again…and again. She kept up the barrage of blows, roaring the whole time, punctuating her words with punches.

“You came! To the wrong! Fucking! Town!” The demon jibbered pitifully, trying to ward her off with both hands, which she ignored. “I’m not! Some easy! Meat! I am a MOTHER! FUCKING! PIRATE! QUEEN!”

The crack which followed was loud enough to be audible despite the buzzing and yelling going on in all directions. The hthrynxkh’s head deformed under Ruda’s final blow, her fist sinking deep into the center of its face. Foul-smelling ichor spurted out through its nose and mouth, leaking from the eyes and ears, and finally the demon slumped, falling still.

Fross realized that she had been staring at this spectacle in shock for several long moments, and she wasn’t the only one. The nearby hiszilisks had fallen into a stationary hovering pattern, watching.

Ruda stood with her fist embedded in the shadowlord’s face for several seconds, panting so heavily that her shoulders heaved. Then, quite suddenly, she stepped back, seized the hilt of her rapier and yanked it loose, causing the hthrynxkh’s corpse to slough forward over the spear haft still pinning it to the tree. She turned, grinning insanely, and pointed her sword up at the assembled hiszilisks.

“All right, fuckers, there’s plenty for everyone. Form a line.”

Instantly, they broke formation, turning and buzzing away from her at top speed.

Ruda laughed loudly. “Candy-assed little daffodils! C’mon, partner, let’s go find something else to kill.”

“Whoah, hold up!” Fross protested, buzzing down lower. Ruda’s eyes were alarmingly wide, her pupils narrowed to pinpricks, and she was baring her teeth like a coursing hound. “Ruda, you’ve ingested demon blood. A small amount, but it’s clearly affecting you.”

“Bullshit, I’ve never felt better in my life!”

“Uh, yeah, that’s the euphoria and aggression. You’re drugged.”

“I don’t get drugged!”

“And I’m still curious about the mechanism behind that but right now I bet it’s the only reason you’re not dead. Infernal biomatter reacts very badly with—”

“Oh, blah blah yackety horseshit,” Ruda snorted, stalking off toward the corner of the cafeteria and the main lawn beyond. “You can scholarize on your own time, right now there’s…a…”

She slowed to a halt, swaying, and abruptly crumpled to the ground, dropping her rapier.

“Ruda? Ruda!” Fross buzzed about her frantically. Ruda’s eyes were rolled back, her mouth flecked with foam. She wasn’t convulsing, at least, so probably wouldn’t choke… Fross chimed discordantly in wordless dismay. Why didn’t she have healing potions stored in her aura? A first aid kit, at least! Her entire social circle consisted of reckless people who attracted danger.

“Medic! Healer!” she called, fluttering in frantic circles above her fallen classmate. “Trissiny? Juniper! Shaeine! Help!”

A loud buzzing and rapidly approaching cries alerted her. A whole throng of hiszilisks were zooming toward her, apparently drawn by her shouts. The pixie came to a stop, staring up at them.

“Oh, great,” she muttered. “Didn’t think that all the way through, did we, Fross?”


 

“Now where are they all going?” Vadrieny asked, frowning, as a flock of hiszilisks buzzed past overhead.

“Look,” said Toby, pointing at the corner of the cafeteria. From the space beyond, there came a flicker of bluish light. A group of hiszilisks vanished around the corner, another approaching from above. Whatever it was, they seemed awfully attracted to it. “You think that’s one of…”

“Must be,” Gabriel said tersely. “We’ll catch up, Vadrieny, go.”

She was already aloft, diving through a flock of flying demons in passing and scattering them, sending a couple to the ground in pieces. Gabriel and Toby followed at a run. They were no match for her airborne speed, but reached the corner in only a few moments, rounding it at full tilt.

They took in the scene without slowing. Ruda, on the ground; Fross above her, defending desperately. The pixie lashed out with ice, fire, lightning and beams of pure arcane light, but it wasn’t enough. Though she heavily outclassed any of her attackers, their numbers were inevitably overwhelming her, and her very spells were creating a spectacle that seemed to constantly attract more.

Vadrieny cleaved through an oncoming flight of hiszilisks, circling around to smash the formation of a second group, but more still streamed around her on all sides. Gabriel took aim with his wand and let loose a gout of hellfire that reduced an entire squad to ash.

Still more were coming. It was almost as bad as the students’ first stand against the initial charge, and this time they hadn’t the benefit of Shaeine’s shield.

“Get in there and flare up,” Gabe ordered tersely. “It’ll weaken Fross but it might help Ruda.”

“But you and Vadrieny—”

“She can take it, and it’s just pain. I fight better from range anyway. Hurry!”

Toby redoubled his speed, pulling ahead—he’d always been in better shape than Gabriel, and even having the hellfire coursing through him under control didn’t augment his actual attributes any more than berserking had.

A wash of gold light spread outward from Toby, causing Fross to flutter drunkenly toward the ground for a moment and several hiszilisks to peel off, screeching in distress, but the bulk of them slowed only slightly.

They weren’t going to be fast enough.

One demon dived in, taking advantage of the pixie’s momentary lapse in cover fire, landing atop Ruda and raising his stinger. Gabriel and Fross shouted in unison, both too far away.

Juniper had to have come at a dead run, judging by the speed with which she was skidding. She slid in on one hip, pouring her full weight and momentum into the hiszilisk in a kick.

It departed the scene horizontally so fast they didn’t even see it move, leaving one wing and a splatter of icor behind. The demon smashed through one of the pillars outside the cafeteria, making a crater in the brick wall behind it.

A silver shield slammed into place above the group, forming a disk against which a squadron of hiszilisks bashed themselves. Shaeine came running in right behind Juniper, her robes flying behind her; she reached the fallen pirate about the same time Gabriel did. With that, the shield flexed, forming a hemisphere, the edges coming to the ground around them and sealing them off from their attackers.

Vadrieny landed at the apex of it, threw back her head, and let out a long scream.

The buzzing demons whirled away, screeching in dismay, their siege broken. In moments they had cleared the area.

Gabriel considered demanding why she hadn’t just done that in the first place, and decided nothing worthwhile could come of it.

“Yeah, you better run!” Fross shouted, then immediately contradicted herself. “Get back here! I’m gonna hex you so hard eighteen generations of your descendants will piss themselves at the sight of fireflies!”

“I think you’ve been hanging out with Ruda too much,” Gabriel informed her. “Toby, how is she? Safe to move?”

The bubble vanished and Vadrieny hit the ground beside them, immediately sweeping Shaeine up into a hug. For a wonder, the drow didn’t offer a word of protest.

“She’s poisoned, not injured,” Fross reported. “Carefuly, Toby, it’s basically pure infernal magic. Holy healing might cause a bad reaction. She got blood from one of them in her mouth.”

“She bit one?” Gabriel exclaimed. “Man, I wish that surprised me more than it does.”

“Oh, this sounds I’m better suited to treat it, no offense, Toby.” Juniper knelt over Ruda, grimacing. “Sorry ’bout this, Ruda, I don’t know another way to do it.” Gently tucking a hand behind Ruda’s neck, the dryad lifted her head and kissed her full on the mouth.

Gabriel turned his back, scanning the skies with his wand up. The hiszilisks appeared to have taken Vadrieny’s warning seriously, and they weren’t being approached by any shadowlords. In fact, the only hthrynxkhs in sight were corpses. “Is everyone okay? What happened?”

“We went to the astronomy tower,” Shaeine said, standing on her own now, but still pressed against Vadrieny’s side, with one clawed hand resting on her waist. “It was the last plan we had, and we hoped the others would gather there.”

“We were trying,” said Fross. “Is she gonna be okay?”

“Pleh,” Juniper said, straightening up and grimacing. “Yeah, I got it all. Yuck. Why in the world would she bite a demon?”

“It probably made more sense in context,” said Toby.

“Fuck!” Ruda abruptly sat bolt upright, snatching up her sword from where it had fallen next to her. “Fucking—where the— Oh. Hi, everybody. Did we win?”

A deep hiss from the nurdrakhaan, somewhere out of sight, made them all freeze.

“We’re working on it,” Gabriel said tersely.

“Where’s Trissiny?” Juniper peered around, her forehead creased in worry. “She’s the only one still missing…”

“Trissiny…” Toby broke off at another distant hiss, then straightened his shoulders resolutely. “…is better prepared than any of us for exactly this kind of situation. We’ll assume she’s fine until we learn otherwise.”

“Okay,” Juniper said, nodding, and turned back to Ruda. “How do you feel?”

“Oddly refreshed,” the pirate reported, scrubbing at her mouth with the back of her hand.

“Good,” said Teal, still with her arm around Shaeine; Vadrieny had only just receded. “What possessed you to bite a demon?”

“Teeth are an excellent natural weapon when you’ve got no others available,” Ruda said dismissively, climbing to her feet. “Never mind that, you see that asshole nailed to the tree? I punched his fucking skull in!”

“Bet that’s not the part that made you collapse.”

“Fuck you, Arquin.”

“He’s not wrong, though. At least when I do it I don’t faint afterwards!” Juniper’s grin faded as they all turned to stare at her. “…right. Too soon. Sorry.”

“We’ve got a breather here,” Gabriel said, “but it won’t last. Plan still stands; let’s get to the tower and under what cover there is, and try not to attract more attention till someone important comes through the portal. Once we can get our hands on an officer or warlord or whatever they’ve got, we’ll be making progress toward getting rid of them.”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Teal, nodding.

“Why the fuck are we taking orders from Arquin?” Ruda demanded. “And… Holy shit, your eyes are black. How are you talking at all?”

“First part because he’s talking sense, and I think we can wait to hear the second part until there’s less of a crisis going on,” Toby said. “It’s a good idea, let’s move.”

“Uh, guys?” said Fross. “We’re waiting for a bigger, more important demon, right? How’s that look?”

They turned and craned their necks in unison, staring up at the portal. Another wave of a dozen hthrynxkhs was descending, each borne aloft by two hiszilisks, but behind them came a lizard-like creature with feathered wings, bigger than a horse. It dived almost straight down, giving them a view of the hulking, bronze-scaled demon astride the saddle on its back.

“That looks promising,” said Gabriel with a smile. “Vadrieny, if you would?”


 

“Uh…why do you have a rack of battlestaves in the faculty lounge?” Rook asked, gripping the staff he’d been offered.

“This is a college,” Tellwyrn said, handing the last weapon to Moriarty. “Why wouldn’t there be a rack of battlestaves in the faculty lounge? Now keep close, I may need some covering fire if I have to do anything complicated.”

She led the way out into the hall, striding toward the lobby.

“As long as we don’t have to get into any kind of conveyance with you, sure,” said Finchley. “In fact, I am never, ever doing that again. If the options are ‘ride with Tellwyrn’ or ‘get eaten by demons,’ I’ll just take poison and hope they choke on me.”

“Most of them don’t eat people,” said Tellwyrn. “They might make an exception for you, though. I hear melodrama makes the meat sweeter.”

The door of a nearby classroom burst off its hinges and a scrawny, black-scaled figure burst into the hall, hissing at them. All three soldiers let out wild yells, bringing up their weapons and unleashing a barrage of lightning.

Two seconds later, there was silence. The tips of the staves smoked slightly, and the smell of ozone hung heavy in the air. Black char marked huge swaths of stone surrounding the now-scarred doorframe. In the center of it, the demon clutched at its chest as if feeling for wounds.

Then it exploded. Bits of gore and scaly leather splattered the floor around them, held back from the men by an invisible shield.

Standing a couple of yards to the side of them, Tellwyrn lowered her hand, which had been pointing at the demon. She wasn’t even looking in its direction, but staring at them in disbelief.

“Um,” Finchley offered weakly, “…I think these are misaligned.”

“That was a shadowlord,” she said. “They have a proper name, but it just sounds like a throat full of phlegm. Stealth and short-range teleportation, plus very resistant skin, but rather brittle bones. Try to shoot them from a distance if you see more; if they close with you, don’t bother trying to cut them. Use blunt force.”

“Except we don’t have any cutting or clubbing weapons,” Rook protested.

“A staff is a clubbing weapon, you shambling simpleton,” she exclaimed. “Someday I need to pin you to an examining table and try to figure out how your ancestors managed to breed. Stay behind me and… You know what, just keep those staves pointed at my back. That’s probably my best bet for not getting shot.”

She stalked off into the lobby. The three crestfallen soldiers followed her after a moment’s silent brooding.

Tellwyrn led the way through the lobby and out onto the front steps of Helion Hall, where the group paused for a moment, taking in the spectacle. The hellgate swirled above them, its surrounding funnel of clouds glowing faintly orange and flickering with the afterglow of red lightning. Hiszilisks buzzed everywhere in the near distance, though there currently appeared to be none close to the ground on the uppermost terrace.

“Hm,” Tellwyrn said thoughtfully, planting her fists on her hips and peering around. “What we need is…ah, yes. Perfect timing.”

The red-scaled lizard dropped like a stone, banking at the last possible moment with a dramatic sweep of its colorfully feathered wings and settling to the ground on the lawn just down the steps. It hissed loudly, shaking its frilled head, and the hulking creature perched on its neck stepped down. Nearby, more shadowlords dropped to the grass, released by the hiszilisks that had been carrying them.

Tellwyrn bounded down the steps of the Hall, strolling forward to meet the demons and looking totally unconcerned. Behind her, the soldiers crept forth more warily, weapons up.

The baerzurg stomped up to her, grinning. “This land is claimed in the—”

“You are on my lawn,” Tellwyrn announced.

The demon paused, apparently surprised, then narrowed its already beady eyes, looking her up and down. “I could crush you with one hand.”

She burst into gales of laughter. The baerzurg scowled heavily; around him, the shadowlords looked at him, and then each other, as if uncertain what to do. They likely weren’t accustomed to being greeted this way.

“Who dares to stand in my way?” the baerzurg demanded finally.

“My name,” she said, her laughter cutting off instantly, “is Arachne Tellwyrn.” She tilted her head forward, peering up at the demon over the tops of her spectacles. “And you. Are on. My lawn.”

“Tellwyrn?” The demon’s eyes widened. “Oh—I didn’t—I mean, nobody told us… That is, perhaps we can—”

And then a streak of flame flashed past, and he was gone. Screaming triumphantly, Vadrieny arced back up into the sky, the baerzurg flailing as it dangled from one of her claws.

Professor Tellwyrn blinked her eyes twice in astonishment, before a thunderous scowl fell across her features. “Did that spoony bard just—”

The hiss that sounded from above was enough to shake the very ground.

“Oh, fuck,” Rook said, looking upward.

The assembled shadowlords, coming to the same conclusion, whirled and fled. The three soldiers bolted, too, diving past Tellwyrn and all attempting to huddle behind her slender frame. She turned, watching calmly, as the titanic shape of the nurdrakhaan bore down straight at them. It was listing sideways in flight, one of the air sacs behind its head burst open and trailing streamers of fire, and seemed to be falling more than flying.

Tellwyrn lifted one hand and made a swatting motion.

The beast was wrenched to one side in midair, its bulk hitting the ground just in front of Helion Hall and pulverizing the pavement. It continued to slide past, tearing up ground as it went, its armored face plowing into the cafeteria and demolishing that entire half of the building. The thrashing coils of its body smashed into the front of Helion Hall, crushing the decorative stonework and collapsing the atrium and a good chunk of the structure behind. The entire structure rumbled, more distant rockfalls sounding as some of the pieces which abutted the edge of the cliff apparently fell off.

The silence which fell when the nudrakhaan finally stopped moving was quite sudden, and seemed absolute in comparison to the havoc of its landing, even with the buzzing of hiszilisks forming a constant backdrop.

Then, just behind the ruptured air sac, a line of gold appeared between two plates of the creature’s armor. They flexed outward, emitting a much brighter glow along with a gush of smoking black blood that withered the grass where it fell. The fragments of armor pulsed twice, then one suddenly tore loose entirely, falling to the ground. It landed, smoldering, inches from Professor Tellwyrn.

Trissiny Avelea staggered out, completely coated in ichor, and bent double, dropping her sword and shield to lean on her knees with both hands, panting.

“Young lady,” Tellwyrn said severely, “you are so very grounded.”

“’m fine, thanks f’r ask’ng,” Trissiny wheezed. “Sec…”

She straightened up, and a blaze of brilliant gold shone out from her. Acrid smoke billowed up as the demonic effluvia coating her boiled away, sending the three soldiers staggering backward away from the stench. In its aftermath, as the light slowly died down, she rolled her neck and shoulders, shaking her arms, a dozen bruises and cuts fading from her skin.

“Right,” the paladin said more crisply, bending to retrieve her weapons. “What’s the situation?”

“Grounded,” Tellwyrn repeated.

“You…you killed a nurdrakhaan,” Moriarty all but whispered, staring at her in awe.

“Yes,” Tellwyrn said acidly, “irritating and generally obstreperous as she is, one tends to forget that a Hand of Avei is very serious business indeed.”

“Last time a nurdrakhaan came onto this plane, it took four strike teams, an Imperial mag artillery unit and the Ninth Silver Legion to bring it down,” Moriarty said, still staring. “They suffered seventy percent losses.”

Tellwyrn turned to him, finally looking surprised. “You know your history.”

“Yes, well, it turns out there’s a trick to it,” Trissiny said. “They’re only impervious on the outside.”

“Uh huh,” the Professor said skeptically. “And did you have some kind of plan that involved this outcome, or did you just stick your sword—”

“Would you mind holding your usual sarcastic commentary until we’re out of this?” Trissiny interrupted. “My friends are probably still in immediate danger, and I need to find them.”

Tellwyrn snorted. “Oh, they’re in danger all right, but it starts after I get rid of the demons on my campus and have you all to myself. As far as the demons themselves go, they seem to be doing just fine.”


 

“Huh,” said Gabriel, staring at the fallen corpse of the nurdrakhaan. Its bulk hid most of the lawn behind it from them, the part that wasn’t embedded in what little remained of the cafeteria. “How about that. What do you suppose happened to it?”

“I think something it ate disagreed with it,” said Toby. For some reason, he was grinning widely.

“Killing me will change nothing!” the baerzurg raged. “More will come!”

“Hush,” Vadrieny ordered, planting a claw on his chest just below the mouth. He was lying spread-eagled on the grass, four small silver shield spells pinning each of his limbs to the ground. “Do you know who I am?”

“It doesn’t matter,” the demon spat. “We do not recognize your authority!”

“As far as you’re concerned, buttercup, her authority is absolute,” said Gabriel, leveling his wand at the creature’s face. He was feeling dizzy and spent, the modified berserking state having passed while they had been relatively still. As much of a relief as it was not to have that maddening pressure building up in him, he was left drained, which had never happened before. Not to mention that the ability to cast hellfire through his wand would have been very useful right about now. Still, he kept himself upright by necessity and force of will. “Now then, you are going to tell us how to cancel this invasion and send all your creepy buddies back where they came from.”

The baerzurg gnashed its jaws, but their position on its upper chest meant it couldn’t get them around anything. Even Vadrieny’s foot was out of his reach. “And if I do not?”

“That outcome will not occur,” Shaeine said placidly, folding her hands at her waist. “All that is yours to determine is what happens to you before you comply.”

Toby looked distinctly unhappy with the way this conversation was turning, but had the poise to keep silent about it. Fortunately he was standing out of the baerzurg’s limited range of view.

“Trissiny!” Fross shouted suddenly.

They turned to behold the paladin striding toward them with a relieved smile.

“Hey!” Toby said, his own expression changing to match hers. “Are you all right?”

“I’ll do,” she said, grinning. “Is everyone okay?”

“It’s really good to see you,” Gabriel said sincerely. She gave him a surprised look, then smiled again.

“We’re here too,” Finchley added from behind her.

“Uh, yeah,” said Ruda. “Why are you here?”

“Fuck if we know,” said Rook, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “Ask the boss lady.”

The three of them parted to admit Professor Tellwyrn, who was staring at the students with a distinctly predatory glint in her eye.

“Ohhhh, crap,” Juniper whispered.

“Oh, you have no idea,” said Tellwyrn. “But we’ll deal with that later. Since you are here, we can see about closing that damned hole.”

“No!” the baerzurg squawked, struggling against his bonds. “That is our opportunity to—”

“Oh, shut up!” Tellwyrn snarled, pointing at it.

There came a sharp pop, and suddenly there was nothing held down by the tiny shields. A patch of bronze skin lay on the grass, with a spiraling streamer of bones, organs and muscle arching upward toward the roof of the half-collapsed cafeteria. It hung for a moment in the air, then collapsed, splattering a trail of black blood across the lawn.

“What the fuck,” Gabriel whispered. “Why do you even know a spell like that?” Finchley turned away, bending over and retching.

“That,” said Tellwyrn, “is what happens when you try to teleport this close to an active hellgate. Actually you normally have to be a lot closer, but this one is freshly opened and the whole area is dimensionally unstable. Don’t ever attempt it, for reasons you can see.”

“But we were gonna interrogate that guy!” Fross protested. “He was our leverage to get the rest of the demons to back down!”

“Oh?” Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “Hum. That’s not a bad plan, actually. Regardless, it is now superfluous, as I am here. I am going to show you the proper procedure for closing a hellgate.”

“If you could do that, why is all this even happening?” Ruda demanded. “You coulda just—”

“Because,” Tellwyrn said caustically, “when all this started I was operating under the assumption that I would have Imperial strike teams to perform the procedure from one end, not untried students for whose safety I am responsible. The Empire is not sending help, however, and you idiots are here, so we’re going to make the best we can of this. Provided you can follow simple directions, this is over.”

Suddenly, everything went still.

The droning of demon wings was silenced. The very movement of the wind over the mountain froze; the slowly rotating pattern of clouds above halted in place, the red flashes ceasing. A pale glow fell over the campus, rather like moonlight, casting everything in a silvery luminescence. After the sickly illumination of the hellgate, it was a refreshing sight.

“Seriously?” Tellwyrn exclaimed. “Now?”

Shadows gathered, the darkness of the night air itself seeming to take form and twist, as though momentarily opening onto a place where matter existed in more than three dimensions, and a figure stepped forth onto the lawn.

He towered high above, more than twenty feet tall, dressed in a sweeping black coat and battered, wide-brimmed hat. His narrow face was lined by a thin beard, and in his left hand he carried an enormous scythe.

For a moment, all was silent as the god stared down at them, and then he grinned.

“Arachne!” Vidius exclaimed with evident delight. “Always good to see you. I’m sorry I haven’t dropped by to look over your new place yet. You know how it is. Busy, busy.”

“Well, your timing is abysmal as usual,” she said, folding her arms. “I’m in the middle of redecorating.” Tellwyrn panned her gaze sourly around the ravaged campus. “…apparently.”

“Ah, yes, had a bit of a tiff here, haven’t we? Why don’t I help you straighten up a bit?”

And just like that, everything was fixed.

The cafeteria, astronomy tower and Helion Hall stood as untouched as they had that morning. Nothing was on fire anywhere; there was no sign of the dozens of smashed windows, uprooted bushes and other petty acts of vandalism inflicted by various demons over the course of the evening. Not a single corpse remained, from the enormous nurdrakhaan to the runtiest hiszilisk. It seemed there wasn’t a blade of grass out of place on the whole campus. It was a lovely late spring night, clear and with a faint, cool breeze.

Above, there were no swirling clouds, no eerie light of another world, no skin-crawling leakage of infernal energy. No sign the hellgate had ever existed.

“Holy fuck,” Ruda whispered.

Finchley whimpered.

“Yes, gods are amazingly useful on the very rare occasions when they decide to show up and damn well do something,” Tellwyrn said.

“Have a little respect!” Trissiny exclaimed shrilly. “You are in the presence of—”

“Ah, and you must be Ms. Avelea,” Vidius said, bending down and tipping his hat politely to her. “A pleasure. I appreciate the thought, but I really don’t need to be defended. It’s quite all right, Arachne and I go way back. I know very well she doesn’t mean any harm.”

“You know more than we do, then,” Juniper said.

“That’s rather the point of divinity, don’t you think?” The god of death smiled down at the dryad. “Or at least one of its biggest perks.”

“I know you didn’t come here just to be helpful,” Tellwyrn said. “What do you want, Vidius?”

“You really shouldn’t talk to him like that,” Moriarty muttered, looking ashen. Nobody paid him any heed.

“Well, you’re correct, Arachne,” Vidius said, his expression growing more serious. He straightened up and rested the butt of his scythe against the ground. “The hellgate and the events of today—both here and elsewhere—came as a surprise, even to us. Of course, that in and of itself is enough to indicate Elilial is on the move, and yet I have firm evidence that even she was taken aback by what happened here. Apparently there are other powers working behind the scenes, powers that support neither the Pantheon nor Hell. This is far from the first hint of such recently. A great doom is coming, and we must be prepared to meet it. To that end, I have been…studying something.”

“Something?” Tellwyrn asked dryly, raising an eyebrow.

“A possibility,” Vidius replied. “The prospect that I—that we—have been wrong. I don’t have to tell you that the world is changing rapidly, I’m sure. The gods are considering how we should and must adapt to the new realities. All but the most hidebound of us are deeply involved in this, but I, for my part, have been looking at…older errors. Things that have gone far too long uncorrected. Indeed, we have clung to ideas even when they seemed imperfect because so much depends upon our constancy. What hope can we offer the mortal world if we ourselves are always changing our minds? The sudden need for change, then, has provided an opportunity.”

The god smiled. “Gabriel, how are you?”

“Confused as hell,” Gabriel answered promptly.

Vidius laughed. “Get used to that, my young friend. Seriously, I’m not just joshing with you. Life is a confusing and constantly surprising muddle. It’s about when you decide you have everything figured out that you start to be consistently wrong. Knowing the truth of one’s own foolishness is the beginning of all wisdom.”

“Um… Okay,” Gabe said after a moment in which no one else spoke.

Vidius’s expression grew more solemn. “I cannot speak for any of my kin, Gabriel Arquin, but for my part, you have my apologies, inadequate as they are. The way you have been treated your entire life is frankly unjust; this treatment of all who share the blood of demonkind has, I now judge, been the cause of more harm than good in the world. I can only hope it is not too late to correct it.

“I have another purpose here, tonight: the gods need to be more in touch with the mortal world than we truly can be, now more than ever. My brethren have a number of means of keeping themselves grounded, so to speak… Means which have served them well but which I have never thought appropriate to my own designs. As the world changes, though, those designs change with it, and I find myself needing a representative. Someone resourceful and brave, who understands very well the principle of duality. After watching you for a time, I believe I’ve found my man.” He grinned again. “What say you, Arquin? Would you like to work with me?”

Gabriel gaped up at the god. “As…are you asking… You want me to be a…a…”

“For lack of a better term, a paladin, yes.” His smile widened. “The Hand of Vidius, the first of the line.”

There was total silence for a long moment, everyone gaping in shock at either Gabriel or Vidius. With the exception of Tellwyrn, who looked mildly intrigued.

“I can’t be a paladin!” Gabriel exclaimed at last. “I’m a demonblood! There’s no way for me to even touch divine magic, it would kill me!”

“The pool of energy you refer to as divine magic,” Vidius replied, “is the remains of the previous generation of gods, the Elders. As far as its inherent traits go, it is not normally accessible to mortals—with the exception of dwarves and some gnomes, due to a genetic quirk. Other races draw on the divine through the auspices of the gods, according to our own discretion—which, as you have had cause to observe, varies by deity. Themynra has fewer and entirely different rules than the Pantheon. Even Scyllith’s followers can wield the divine light, and in the same breath as they channel infernal power. The light of the Pantheon burns demonkind because we will it to be so.” He paused, then nodded slowly. “I now judge this to be in error. What I am asking, Gabriel, is that you help me prove it to my brethren. That means you will have my personal blessing and protection. Those who make the rules, in short, can make the exceptions.”

“But…why me?” Gabriel whispered. “I mean… If we’re going to be frank, here, I’m kind of a dumbass much of the time.”

“You do seem to have trouble listening,” Vidius agreed.

“Oh, you can’t begin to imagine,” Tellwyrn muttered.

“I was just saying,” the god continued, “that I consider the awareness of one’s own flaws to be a great asset; it’s something relatively few people your age possess. Yes, you have flaws aplenty, but you know it, and you know them. That sets you apart from the herd, Gabriel. As for the rest… I do have my reasons, and my plans. If you choose to accept, you will learn more with time. Be warned, though, that this is not a small thing I’m asking.” He nodded once to Toby, and then to Trissiny. “You are more personally acquainted with the realities of a paladin’s life than most, I think. Your path won’t be like theirs; I don’t plan to do everything the same as Omnu or Avei. It will involve great danger, however, and great sacrifice. Be sure.”

Gabriel lowered his eyes, staring aimlessly into the distance. Toby stepped forward, laying a gentle hand on his shoulder, and squeezed. Finally, Gabe raised his head.

“Well, what the hell, I wasn’t gonna have much of a lifespan anyhow. Might as well make a difference, right?”

“That’s the spirit,” said Vidius, grinning.

There was a flash in midair, a small fountain of sparks, and another scythe appeared, hovering in front of the god’s face. It was sized for human hands, and appeared very old and roughly-made, only its solid black haft distinguishing it visibly from any farmer’s implement. Slowly it descended through the air to hang in front of Gabriel.

“By this is our pact sealed,” said the god, solemn-faced now. “Take your weapon, Hand of Vidius, and with it, the first steps toward your destiny.”

Gabriel lifted one hand, hesitated for a moment, then squared his shoulders resolutely. He reached out and grasped the haft of the scythe.

The moment his fingers touched it, the weapon shrank, shifting form, and in the next moment Gabriel was left holding a long, black wand with an uneven shaft.

“We both have a lot to learn in the days and years to come,” said Vidius. “We’ll get started on that soon. For tonight, you have a victory to celebrate, and well-earned rest to acquire. I will leave you to that.”

The god tipped his hat again. “A pleasure to meet all of you. Gabe, Arachne, I’ll be in touch.”

He was gone with as little fanfare as he had come.

The wind whispered softly around them; even in the god’s absence, no one dared to so much as breathe. Gabriel was staring, wide-eyed, into space, apparently seeing nothing.

“Gabe?” Trissiny asked hesitantly.

He swallowed once, lifting his head, and turned to meet her eyes.

Slowly, almost hesitantly, he began to glow. Golden light blossomed around him until he was lit by a blazing corona of divine energy.

In the middle of it, tears began to slip down his cheeks.

Toby and Trissiny stepped forward in the same moment, each draping an arm around Gabriel’s shoulders.

“I don’t even know how to feel,” Gabe whispered.

“You have time to figure it out, brother,” Toby said, giving him a gentle shake. “And… Man, I am just so damn proud of you.”

“Yes,” Professor Tellwyrn intoned softly. “This is going to change absolutely everything. Not just for you, Gabriel; the repercussions of this will rock the world. You have time, indeed, though not much. Not as much as you’ll need, perhaps. We will work on it. You’ll have a great deal of help, and you will learn what you need to know, hopefully before it’s time for you to call on that knowledge. All that’s in the future, though. Right now, you need to focus on the present, because I AM PERSONALLY GOING TO ASS-KICK EVERY ONE OF YOU LITTLE BASTARDS DOWN THE MOUNTAIN AND BACK!”

The entire freshman class shied away from her, Fross darting behind Juniper.

Ruda cleared her throat. “The gods made us do it.”

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5 – 13

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“Are you pleased with yourselves?”

They weren’t, and his tone indicated that he knew it. Moriarty folded his arms, staring down at his two fellow soldiers with an expression that was just a shade too grim to qualify as a smirk; Rook and Finchley hunched in their seats, refusing to meet his eyes, or each other’s.

The inn’s common room was quiet this early in the morning, this not being the sort of establishment whose patrons relied on the in-house kitchen for breakfast. The party from the University had commandeered a table in one corner, and ordered a pot of tea, which the inn’s notorious cook hadn’t found a way to botch. Aside from the two privates, who were sitting somewhat limply, Toby leaned against the wall nearby, watching the stairs and ostensibly ignoring the byplay. Moriarty stood as stiffly as ever, starting to really get into his tirade.

“This is why we have regulations. This is why societies have rules, and standards of what constitutes decent behavior. The fact that you two are having an awkward morning after spending much of the night in uncomfortable proximity to one another’s junk is pretty much a best-case scenario. You do realize that, right? Not only fraternizing with with the object of your escort mission, not only indulging in I don’t even want to know what hedonistic revelry, but fooling around with a threat level eight sapient monster? In the heart of a city where the bulk of our assignment involves keeping her calm? Do you realize all the ways this could have blown up in your faces? The mind boggles.”

“The tongue doesn’t boggle, I notice,” Rook muttered.

“Oh, you want to criticize me?” Moriarty demanded acidly. “Maybe you should occupy yourselves thanking Avei there are no superior officers here to rip you a whole new set of orifices. I have half a mind to report this whole boondoggle to General Avelea!”

“I really can’t imagine anything good resulting from that,” Toby said without looking over at them.

“I suppose it’s not a worthwhile reason to bother her,” Moriarty allowed. “I’d be embarrassed on behalf of our unit, anyway.”

“Our ‘unit?’” Rook said incredulously. “You mean, the three losers who only aren’t court-martialed because it wouldn’t be worth what ImCom spent on paperwork to do it?”

“And yet, you keep testing Command’s patience,” Moriarty snapped. “By, for instance, engaging in some kind of depraved orgy with—”

“All right, enough!” Finchley exclaimed, finally lifting his stare from his cooling tea. “I would really like it if we never, ever discuss this again. Agreed?”

“I’ll drink to that,” Rook muttered, lifting his teacup.

“And if we promise not to do it again,” Finchley barreled on as Moriarty opened his mouth to speak, “will you finally freaking drop it already?”

“I suppose that’ll have to do,” Moriarty said, his expression reverting to vague smugness. “So long as you learned something from all this.”

He was spared Rook’s reply—which, to judge by the look on his face, would have been scathing—by the arrival of Fross. The pixie appeared at the base of the stairs and shot over to their table in a frantic streak of white light.

“Juniper doesn’t wanna come out today!” she announced.

Toby straightened, frowning at her. “What?”

“Yeah!” Fross bobbed up and down in midair twice. “She says she doesn’t like the city and would rather just stay in the inn.”

“I’ll go talk to her,” Toby said with a sigh.

“Uh, are you sure that’s smart?” asked Rook. “Or, um, necessary? If she wants to sleep in, I say we respect her wishes.”

“I said I’d talk to her, not try to persuade her of anything,” Toby said patiently. “If she just wants to rest, there’s no harm at all in that. But if she’s starting to get fed up with the city or the people in it… One way or another, that needs to be addressed before she decides to do something about it.”

“Fuck a duck,” Rook muttered.

“Well, so long as you two don’t take it into your heads to try to improve her mood through sexual healing again,” Moriarty began while Toby headed off to the stairs, the pixie darting around his head.

“We had an agreement!” Finchley said, pointing accusingly at him.

Moriarty snorted. “Fine, fine. You two sit here and sulk. I’m going to go procure some rations for us.”

“Have you not noticed the food here sucks?” Rook demanded.

“We’re in the army,” Moriarty shot back. “Food is supposed to suck. Living on that campus is turning you two soft.” He hesitated, then sniffed disdainfully. “Softer. I’ll be back momentarily; try not to have an orgy while I’m gone.”

They watched him go with matching expressions of disgruntlement.

“Not a word,” Finchley said after a moment.

“Right.”

“Not one word!”

“Right.”

“Ever.”

“Agreed.”

They sat in silence, staring at their now-lukewarm beverages. The sleepy common room was still and dull, the only sounds being muted conversation from the direction of the kitchen, where the inn’s cook was being introduced to Moriarty’s people skills. It was several minutes before either spoke again.

“…she gives really good—”

“Oh, yeah.”

They clinked their teacups together, grinning.


 

Gabriel had long since decided the chill of the winter morning was far less oppressive than the atmosphere in the common room, to say nothing of Private Moriarty’s nagging. It had been a good ten minutes, though, and no sign of movement from within. He tucked his hands into his pockets and hunched down to bring his ears into the protective aegis of his upturned collar; the weatherproofing enchantment on his coat was truly marvelous, but did no good for the skin left exposed to the frigid air. Cold probably wouldn’t harm him, the way it could a full human, but it certainly wasn’t his favorite thing. He was considering going back inside to wait for the rest of the group to decide they were ready to leave.

“Why, hello! Gabriel, wasn’t it?”

He looked up, blinking in confusion for a moment before he placed the figure now approaching him. The man wore a much heavier coat, which made perfect sense given the weather, but his broad black hat was distinctive, as was the long, narrow face beneath it, angular jaw lined by a thin strip of beard.

“Well, hey there!” he said with a smile. “You made it out of Sarasio!”

“Most of us did, thanks to the intervention of your group,” the man remarked, coming to a stop alongside him.

“I think maybe ‘interference’ is the word you want,” Gabriel said, grinning. “Possibly ‘meddling.’ There are adventuring traditions to be maintained, after all.”

“Pah.” The man in black waved a hand. “It’s meddling if you screw it up. Save the day and you get to be heroes. Savor that, my boy; the world increasingly seems to have little use for heroes. Had a chance to consider my advice?”

“Lots of chances,” Gabriel nodded, “and even some to practice. I have managed not to start arguments with Ruda and Trissiny on at least half a dozen occasions. It, uh… Doesn’t always come back to me in time,” he admitted, wincing.

“Well, they wouldn’t call them habits if they were easy to cast off. The effort is the important thing. It’s been a good long time since I was in school, but isn’t this during the academic semester? You haven’t dropped out, have you?”

“No such luck. We’re here on another of Tellwyrn’s jolly little field trips.”

“We?” The man raised an eyebrow. “All of you? In the city? That sounds like an utterly terrible idea.”

“Well, yes. If you want to explain that to Tellwyrn, be my guest. Just give me time to get at least three streets away, first. How about you? This seems like an odd place to run into you.”

“The place isn’t odd,” the man mused. “All roads lead to Tiraas. It’s fairly interesting that the two of us would cross paths, though; it’s not a modest-sized city by any means. In fact, you could say I’m following up on the events in Sarasio, myself. There’s an enchanting shop in this district, rather famous in some circles, run by a half-demon. Seemed like a worthwhile place to visit.”

Gabriel frowned pensively. “How so?”

The man in black regarded him in silence for a moment, his expression serious but difficult to read. “I come from a rather conservative background,” he said at last. “My…family…are quite heavily invested in certain well-trod notions about the way the world is. Lately, though, I’ve begun wondering if we might have been very wrong, all this time, about certain things. Demonbloods, just for instance.”

“That’s…maybe not an unhealthy attitude,” Gabriel said slowly. “Demonbloods are dangerous. By definition.”

“Lad, nobody isn’t dangerous. A schoolchild can ram a pencil through your eye socket into your brain and kill you in seconds.”

“That’s cheerful.”

“It’s an example. The measure of the threat a person poses is in what they do with their capacity to inflict harm. Some make a point of doing none; some devote that destructive potential to protecting the first group from the third, which are those who spread damage around wherever they think it benefits them most. The real question, then, is whether being part demon makes a person more inclined to be dangerous.” He tilted his head, dark eyes studying Gabriel piercingly. “Any thoughts on that?”

“…it’s not a simple question,” Gabe replied after a pause for thought. “For one thing, there’s more than one kind of demon.”

“Mm.” The man nodded. “Lots of complicating factors. That fact alone makes it seem somewhat foolish to dismiss all demonbloods as one category, wouldn’t you say? Particularly after speaking with you and Mistress Elspeth, I wonder if I’ve not made a right fool of myself all these years by brushing aside the half-demons I’ve encountered. Lots of possible friends and allies, never given a chance. All that wasted potential.”

“You meet a lot of half-demons?” Gabriel asked, raising his eyebrows. “Th—we aren’t exactly commonplace.”

“Oh, I travel around a fair bit,” the man said easily. “You meet all sorts, if you spend enough time circulating.”

“Hm.” Gabe shuffled his feet, which were growing chilled. His shoes, though sturdy, lacked the coat’s magical protections. “Well…I guess it’s good and all if you’re being a bit more progressive. Won’t make much difference in the long run, though. The world at large is never going to be accepting of devilkin.”

The man in black stroked his beard thoughtfully. “I was in the city for the hanging of that lady from Sarasio. The proprietress of that establishment that provided us all with room and board, and apparently instigator of the whole uprising. Actually, there were a few visitors from Sarasio on hand, aside from those on the scaffold. Young Mr. Jenkins, for one. It was all…surprisingly tasteful.”

“…tasteful?” Gabriel said warily.

“You read about public executions in fiction,” the man said, now gazing across the street, apparently lost in his train of thought. “Jeering and cheering from the crowd, dramatic speeches about the glory of the state and the evils of whoever was on the chopping block. All manner of rotten food being thrown. Fairly accurate, in a lot of cases; people did stuff like that. When life is hard, life is cheap, and people learn to mock death as the only way they can stand to live so close to it. None of that happened at the hanging, though. Not much of a crowd, and they were all… I want to say bemused, and saddened. No pontificating from the Imperial officials, either, just a list of charges and the pronouncement of sentence. The fellow was even quite polite to his…guest of honor.” He shook his head slowly. “As knowledge increases, so does understanding. Philosophy…decency. People are truly getting better. Oh, not consistently, and not as quickly as one might hope. But looking at the grand scale of progress, I’m inclined to be optimistic. So who’s to say who may or may not find acceptance in the world tomorrow, or next year?”

“I don’t think I’d know how to live in a world that accepted me,” Gabriel mused, now staring into the distance himself. The man in black turned his penetrating gaze back on him.

“You’re accustomed to keeping your head down, I’m sure. There are two sides to everything, though. Ever thought about trying to make yourself part of that progress?”

Gabriel was quiet for a while. When he finally spoke, his voice was soft. “I’m not sure if I ought to. It’s not like the world’s ever given me a break. What’s my motivation to help it?”

“That, son, is a question to which you should give some real thought.”

Gabe shook himself as if rousing from a reverie, turning back to the man with a smile. “Heh, you know, this is twice we’ve met, and I never have gotten your name.”

“Hm… I suppose that’s so, isn’t it? Tell you what.” The man in black grinned and reached up to tug the brim of his hat. “If our paths should happen to cross a third time, I’ll consider that a sign that you need to know it. Till then, perhaps.” He strolled off down the icy street, whistling.

Gabriel watched him go, momentarily forgetting even the cold. “Weird.”


 

“I did not sleep enough,” Teal said, yawning.

Trissiny rolled her eyes. “Nobody told you to stay up half the night dancing.”

“You are not being fair, Trissiny,” said Shaeine. “Someone did tell her to stay up dancing. And I stand by that directive.”

“I didn’t need to sleep enough,” said Teal with a smile, brushing the back of Shaeine’s hand with her own. “Dancing was much better. We should do that more often.”

“Goddammit, what is it going to take for you two to quit acting like a fairy tale?” Ruda exclaimed. “Breakfast wasn’t so fantastic that I want to taste it again.”

“Oh, let them be happy,” said Trissiny, smiling faintly. Ruda just snorted.

They paused, breaking their formation to press themselves against the front of a store and let a woman with two children pass. The mother, a drow, gave them a deep nod of the head and a polite little Narisian smile. The two kids stared openly, the girl with the happy grin of pure innocence. Both had ash-gray skin and dusty blonde hair; the girl’s ears were human in shape, while her little brother’s came to points, but were not as long as an elf’s.

“This place is kind of amazing,” Ruda said to herself as they continued on their way.

“Proof that differences need not result in conflict,” said Trissiny, nodding. “And that, I suspect, is precisely why someone seems determined to undermine the district. A closed mind is directly threatened by the presence of open ones.”

“Oh, you see evil conspiracies in every shadow,” Ruda said disdainfully. “Sometimes, Triss, people are just assholes. You don’t need to reach for hidden agendas to perfectly explain everything going on here.”

The paladin sighed. “Maybe. Well, after last night, I can at least hope something will be done.”

“I thought you weren’t happy about your conversation with the General?” said Teal.

“Not particularly, but sometimes the goddess provides in unexpected ways. Very unexpected. Panissar brushed me off, but Bishop Darling seemed far more motivated to step in.”

“For whatever good that’ll do,” Ruda grunted. “The man seemed smart, but…shifty. Nobody who’s that full of himself helps just to be helpful.”

“He’s not by any means the help I would have preferred,” Trissiny admitted. “Certainly not someone on whom to rely. ‘Smart but shifty’ sounds about right, but… I’ll take whatever works. Whether it’s the General properly keeping order among his troops or Antonio Darling protecting whatever illicit business interests he has in the district, so long as it results in these people getting the support they need, I can live with it.”

“That’s the spirit! A little pragmatism goes a long way, I say.”

The four came to a sudden stop, turning to stare at the speaker, who had just appeared alongside them. She was a young woman of Punaji origin, to judge by her accent, complexion and traditional boots, greatcoat and feathered hat, though her ensemble was of a much thicker shirt and trousers than Punaji style dictated and had been accessorized with a huge scarf and wooly mittens. She grinned cheerfully at them.

“Can we help you?” Trissiny asked at last.

“Why, yes! Yes you can!” the girl said, her grin widening. “I was just about to ask if you’d be willing to do me a little favor. Word is you’ve gotten fairly friendly with Bishop Darling.”

“How could you know about that?” Trissiny demanded. “That was just last night!”

“Ah, but you see, Trissiny, it’s my business to know things,” the girl replied mysteriously.

“That,” said Ruda, rolling her eyes, “and you were just talking about it. Literally seconds ago.”

“Spoilsport,” said the visitor, her grin returning. “By the way, it’s a real honor to meet you, Princess Zaruda.”

“You haven’t met me, spanky. You just walked up and started talking.”

“Right, sorry, I get carried away. You can call me Peepers!”

Trissiny suddenly grimaced. “Oh.”

“Yes, oh,” Peepers said cheerfully. “Anyway, since you offered to help me out, it’d be a real boost to my career if you could mention how much I helped you with your Lor’naris project to Darling next time you see him.”

“Wh—how much you what?” Trissiny exclaimed. “You haven’t…you just walked up! What help are you talking about?”

“Well, as to that.” Peepers turned to point one of her thick mittens up the street. “Left side, bout forty yards ahead, there’s an alley between a boarded-up building and an accountant’s office on the other side. You’re gonna want to have a look at what’s going on in there, General Hand, ma’am. In fact, you probably wanna get to it soon. And don’t go alone.”

They all stared at her.

“Like, today,” Peepers prompted. “Nowish. Time’s wasting.”

“Why?” Teal asked suspiciously.

“What, I’m supposed to give you all the answers? Hold your hand the whole way? You’ve got your tip, ladies; if you’re gonna act on it, now’s the time. Remember, my regards to the Bishop!”

The girl turned and actually skipped away, back up the sidewalk in the direction from which they’d come. Ten feet distant, she slipped on a patch of ice, barely avoided tumbling to the pavement, and from there proceeded at a much more sedate pace.

“The fuck kind of name is Peepers?” Ruda demanded.

“It’s not a name,” Trissiny said grimly. “That sounds like a Thieves’ Guild tag.”

Ruda’s face crunched into a grimace. “What? That girl was Punaji. We don’t have Eserites in Puna Dara.”

“There’s nowhere that doesn’t have Eserites,” said Trissiny. “If you do a better job than most at pushing them underground, that just means you don’t know who they are. Come on, we’d better have a look at that alley.”

“Oh, good, sure, let’s fuckin’ do that,” Ruda groused, though she fell into step alongside Trissiny as the paladin set off, Teal and Shaeine trailing along behind them. “Since it’s not an obvious trap or anything.”

“Maybe,” Trissiny allowed. “It wouldn’t be the first case of a Guild agent playing a prank on a Legionnaire, but they never take it to the point of causing actual harm. The Guild is quite deft at toeing the line, when they choose to.”

There had been no precipitation overnight, so there was no more buildup of ice on the sidewalks; unfortunately, that meant there had been less effort than yesterday to clear them, and treacherous patches remained where the morning frost lurked almost invisibly. The girls proceeded much more purposefully than their previously meandering pace, but not so quickly that they didn’t watch each step with care. Trissiny kept her attention on their destination, the others falling silent in her wake.

The boarded-up building was broader and squatter than most structures in the district; it looked like it might have been a warehouse or factory when in use. The accountant’s on the other side of the alley was in much better shape, its brickwork a little pitted and chipped like almost everything in Lor’naris, but it had a large window set into its front, apparently new and freshly painted with the firm’s name. No one appeared yet to be active within. The four gave it barely a glance before following Trissiny into the alley.

Here, the dimness quickly faded to real dark only a few steps in. Trissiny slowed to a halt, peering into the gloom; she could make out shapes, but not much more, and her vision was better in the dark than Teal or Ruda’s.

“Shaeine, cover your eyes,” she said quietly, then drew her sword. The blade ignited with golden radiance, lighting up the dismal space as if the alley suddenly had its own private sun.

For the most part, it would have been better left unseen. It was a dead-end alley, terminating in the bedrock below the city walls, with no doors to its bordering structures on either side. Consequently, despite the general ethos of cleanliness and order that prevailed in Lor’naris, upkeep here had been neglected, and truly ancient trash of all descriptions littered the ground, gathering into drifts in the corners, all of it coated with a layer of uncleared ice. The walls themselves were somewhat grimy, water-stained in many places. The girls spared none of this so much as a glance, however.

The man standing two thirds of the way down the alley wore a scarf wrapped around his lower face; his eyes were concealed by a thick pair of tinted goggles. He stood utterly still, apparently having frozen upon their entry in a bid to remain unnoticed. Before him, against the wall of the warehouse, sat a disorderly stack of barrels and old planks; the light glittered on small bottles of fluids and iridescent powder strategically placed throughout. In his hands he held a modern arcane firestarter of the kind sold to pioneers for extended trips into the wilderness.

For a moment, there was utter stillness.

Then Trissiny spoke, her voice several degrees colder than the winter air. “You have six seconds to convince me this is not what it looks like.”

He dropped the firestarter and reached into his coat.

“No,” she barked, striding forward with her glowing sword upraised.

The man withdrew his hand and swung it at the ground; something small tumbled from his fingers to strike the icy pavement.

A tremendous clap of thunder echoed through the alley, and for a split second an utterly blinding white radiance overwhelmed even Trissiny’s light. She yelped and staggered, clapping her free hand over her eyes; behind her, the others cried out as well. The divine glow vanished along with Trissiny’s concentration, but none of them could see the alley plunged back into darkness. They couldn’t see anything. She felt a figure brush past her, then heard a curse from Ruda followed by the thud of someone losing their footing on the slick ground. Stars and comets still swarmed her vision, leaving her blind and helpless.

The man slipped as he burst out from the mouth of the alley, but didn’t moderate his pace, dashing back toward the entrance to Lor’naris. People got out of his way as quickly as they saw him approach, his progress half running and half sliding.

“Hey!” shouted a drow man, turning and setting off after him, but he didn’t respond or slow.

Then, to a chorus of screams and curses, a streak of fire burst out from the alley behind him.

Vadrieny arced overhead, swooping past above and executing a graceful pirouette midair, transferring her forward momentum downward with a flap of her burning wings. Her talons sank into the very pavement with a crunch as she landed, securing her footing on the slick street. People bolted in all directions, several standing their ground and reaching for weapons.

“I think you’re about to be under arrest,” the demon commented calmly. She only stood, blazing wings extended to block his progress; she flexed her claws, but made no movement to attack.

Fumbling slightly with cold and nerves, the man drew a wand from within his coat and pointed it at her.

Vadrieny grinned, displaying a mouthful of terrifying fangs. “Whatever mistakes you have made in life, that would surpass them.”

He hesitated, the wand quavering but still aimed in his general direction. Too late, he registered and responded to the sound of bootsteps behind him, turning to face back the way he’d come.

Trissiny deliberately launched herself onto a patch of ice, hurtling forward in a slide. As the man pivoted to face her, she slammed her shield into his face, transferring her full momentum into the blow. He hurtled backward to the street, the wand tumbling from suddenly nerveless fingers.

The fallen would-be arsonist groaned softly, one hand twitching, then fell still.

Ruda stomped up, slipping and cursing vehemently even by her standards, while Trissiny knelt next to the fallen man. Several drow and humans had stepped cautiously forward, still eying the burning demon askance, but having taken their cue from the fact that the paladin was clearly not alarmed by her. Some might even have recognized the Talisman of Absolution pinned to her lapel.

“Is he dead?” Ruda demanded, coming to a stop.

“Stunned,” said Trissiny. “I’m not much of a healer; I hope I didn’t crack his skull. That can cause serious problems…” She raised her head, then glanced around. “Isn’t Shaeine with you?”

“Here,” called a voice far behind them. Shaeine had just emerged from the alley and was picking her way with great care along the sidewalk, keeping one hand on the wall for balance. The other was still held over her eyes.

Vadrieny pumped her wings once and shot back overhead, coming to a much more gentle landing beside the drow. With astonishing tenderness, she wrapped her arm around Shaeine, huge claws curling over her shoulder protectively; the priestess actually leaned against the demon. “Forgive me,” she said, raising her voice to address the others up ahead. “I’m afraid my eyes were more sensitive than yours to that device. Give me a moment to apply healing, please.”

“Sorry for leaving you,” Trissiny said with a wince.

“Not at all, you had an obvious tactical concern,” Shaeine replied absently, her whole head alight with silver. Vadrieny stood silently by, one blazing wing arched protectively over the priestess.

Ruda, meanwhile, had tugged free the fallen man’s scarf and goggles. “Anybody recognize this asshole?” He was a young human, clean-shaven and with his hair cropped short, with a perfectly unremarkable Tiraan complexion.

“He’s a city guard,” said a drow woman standing nearby. A human girl next to her nodded in agreement, grim-faced.

“Are you sure?” Trissiny asked, her expression dissolving into a scowl.

“Quite,” said the drow. “I have found it is wise to know them all on sight.”

“Unbelievable,” Ruda muttered. “Does the Imperial Army deliberately train its troops to wade hip-deep in the most idiotic bullshit they can find? I mean, fuck, those three privates we have at the school are kinda funny, but the shit going down in this city is starting to get seriously fucked up.”

“An accusation isn’t proof, Ruda,” said Shaeine, approaching, her eyes open and apparently working. Teal hovered protectively behind her, the demon once again submerged. Shaeine carefully knelt on the man’s other side, reaching out to place a fingertip against the center of his forehead. “Give me a moment… Yes, he is very mildly concussed. Easily fixed.” Her hand glowed momentarily, then she looked up at Trissiny. “I have placed him in a natural sleep, and taken the liberty of helping him relax more deeply than he is accustomed to, while leaving his ability to speak. You may find him…suggestible.”

“Excellent,” Trissiny said grimly. “All right, you. Why were you trying to set a fire?”

The alleged guard turned his head, smacking his lips for all the world like a man deeply asleep in his own bed. She was about to repeat her question when he finally answered, his voice dreamy. “Jus’ a small one, nobody hurt. Empty building. Setting an example… Make it clear the district’s not under control. Still need soldiers.”

Ruda snorted loudly; Trissiny made a shushing motion at her. The surrounding citizens were now dead silent, the drow impassive, the humans looking increasingly furious.

“Why now?” Trissiny demanded. “Why this escalation?”

“General Panissar…throwing his weight around,” the man mumbled. “Inspections… Paladin sticking her nose in. Captain says we—”

Abruptly, Shaeine reached out to touch his forehead again, and he fell silent with a deep sigh, a goofy smile passing across his face.

“What—why did you stop him?” Trissiny demanded. “He was confessing!”

“His use of ‘we’ indicated he is, indeed, a soldier,” Shaeine replied calmly. “This man is a Tiraan agent; for me to interrogate him under magical coercion would be a violation of treaty.”

“You knew that already!”

“Suspected,” she said impassively. “He was accused. Hearing it confessed from his own mouth changed the situation entirely.”

“Bah,” said Ruda. “I say we wake him up again, smack him around till he goes back to talking.” There were several mutters of agreement from the onlookers.

“No!” Trissiny shouted, then continued more quietly, dragging a hand over her face. “…no, Shaeine is completely right. Without law, justice is impotent. Though you were playing it pretty close with the technicalities,” she added, turning a wry look on the drow.

“Yes,” said Shaeine with a satisfied little smile. “We call that ‘diplomacy.’”

Trissiny stood with a sigh. “All right… Clearly, he must be placed under arrest. Just as clearly, there is a conflict of interest with the local guard barracks, which means we can’t hand him over to them. I’ll take him to the Legions. May I have some help getting him on the horse, please?”

There were gasps and curses, and even visible startlement on several drow faces, when the crowd turned to find Arjen waiting patiently just behind them. The Lorisians quickly marshalled themselves, however, and as requested helped lift the slumbering guard up, draping him across the saddle behind Trissiny. No one, luckily, indulged in the temptation to be unnecessarily rough with their captive, though there were several good-natured offers of rope and chains to lash him down.

“I can manage,” she demurred, reaching behind her to keep a one-handed grip on the fellow’s belt.

“You might have some trouble getting through the city, though,” Ruda commented, planting her fists on her hips. “Paladin or no, carrying a man draped over your horse’s ass like a sack of flour is gonna draw you some attention. And what if you pass more assholes from this guy’s barracks on the way? They might arrest you.”

Trissiny gave her a small, cold smile. “I almost hope they try.”

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4 – 9

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The Shady Lady’s position near the outskirts of town had probably been necessary in the days when Sarasio had possessed a functional society. No matter how upscale, nobody enjoyed living near a brothel. The fenced-in yard behind the bordello contained little but tamped-down earth, a couple of storage sheds and some moldering old farm equipment of uncertain provenance, though a smaller plot had been roped off with stakes and twine, and was apparently being used as a garden. It was completely barren, having apparently been planted recently, far too late in the season. At the far end of the yard was an old fieldstone barn, more sturdily constructed than most of the wooden town, and also in ruins; at some point in the past, fire had gutted it, leaving only the standing stone walls. These were heavily marred by scorch marks and what seemed to be the damage of small explosions.

Gabriel wandered out after a desultory lunch of strictly rationed and unseasoned beans and rice, to find Joe practicing quick-draw shooting against the old barn. To judge by all the scoring on the stones, this was a long-standing custom. The wall had been pitted almost through in a few places, and had a sizable chunk blown out of one corner. Off to one side and behind the shooting, Ruda was trying to show some of the Shady Lady’s girls some knife fighting tricks, though it seemed to be slow going as they were rather distracted watching Joe. Their tutor took this with good humor, and in fact contributed a murmured observation that sent them all into peals of laughter.

Glancing over at this, Joe noticed Gabe approaching and nodded in greeting, holstering his wands. “Afternoon. How’d your planning session go?”

“Eh, it…went.” Gabriel made a face. “I think everyone’s more or less on the same page now. It was a bit of an uphill battle getting them to take my ideas seriously at first.”

“Oh?”

“To be fair, I guess I haven’t shown them much reason to respect my intelligence up till now,” he said ruefully.

“Mm. First impression’s a hard thing to overcome.”

“Tell me about it. Anyhow, we didn’t mean to chase you off. In fact, I’m sure everybody would’ve welcomed your input.”

Joe shook his head. “Afraid I’m not much of a strategic thinker. Put me in a situation with an armed enemy and I do fine. Arranging those situations…not my strong suit.”

“Yeah, well…” Gabriel shrugged. “We’re gonna try to do just that. It’d help a lot if we could count on you to come along. Both in dealing with the Riders and in gathering support. You’re basically a hero in this town, and according to Robin even a number of the elves respect you.”

“Amazing how easy that is,” Joe said wryly. “People become remarkably less standoffish if you’re polite to ’em. But…no, I’m afraid not. Me bein’ here is what keeps the Riders elsewhere. Last time I took it into my head to go out an’ do somethin’ proactive about them, they hit the Lady as soon as I was too far away to get back quickly.” He looked away, staring at the old barn with an intensity that belonged to something else, a muscle in his jaw working. Gabriel was struck by the contrast between his youthful face and haggard expression. The Kid had lived through much more already than a person should have to. “One of the men was killed, an’ two of the girls hurt. One badly. Robin called in some kinda favor at the grove an’ got a shaman to come out here and help. He wasn’t pleased to be dealing with humans, but for all of that, he did good work. The elves respect life, and balance. I guess lettin’ a young woman die slowly of lightning burns was more’n he could stomach.”

“How is she?” Gabe asked quietly.

“Alive, pretty much well,” he replied, nodding. “She has some scars. Not bad ones, but… That’s still a hard thing for a girl, specially one used to makin’ her living by bein’ pretty. Burn wounds are nasty. So, what’ve you got there?” He directed his gaze to the object in Gabriel’s hand.

“Ah, well… Actually, I’m sure you probably get pestered quite a lot about it, but since we’re all sort of cooped up here for the moment, maybe you could give me some pointers?” He lifted the wand he was holding, his voice rising hopefully.

“Ever used one of those before?”

“Nope.”

“Hm. Where’d you get it?”

“Oh, some guy accosted us in the street when we got here. Trissiny beat him down and broke his wand hand, and he sort of…left this behind in his hurry to get away.” He grinned. “Triss has that effect on people. I asked if she wanted it—spoils of battle and all that—and she just looked at me like I was an idiot. Or at least I think she did. Maybe that’s just what her face looks like. When I’m around, anyway.”

“Mind if I have a look?”

“Sure.”

Gabriel handed over the wand and Joe held it lightly, turning it this way and that to examine it. “Mm. Mass-produced, not exactly a showpiece, but not a cheap knockoff, either. Indifferently maintained, but no major damage. Yeah, not a bad little piece. Actually, pretty nice for a first weapon. How much do you understand about how these work?” he asked, handing it back.

“Um… How annoyed will you be if I say ‘aim the pointy end at the other guy?’”

“Depends on whether you’re genuinely dumb or think that’s funny,” Joe replied with a wry half-grin. “All right, the good news is you’re a college student, so you’re pretty well accustomed to lectures. We’ll start with basic assembly.” He drew one of his own wands and held it up. “First thing you’ll note is the grip here at the base unscrews from the shaft, like so. Inside that grip, you’ll find…yup, there it is. Looks to be in pretty good shape, too.”

“Is this quartz?” Gabriel asked, studying the small crystal which had been hidden inside the grip of his wand. The rest of it lay in pieces in his other hand, now; in addition to the grip, the trigger mechanism had come loose when he’d screwed the two main pieces apart, as it apparently rested between them.

“That one looks to be, yep. It’s rough-cut, but that doesn’t make as much of a difference as some enchanters think. See how it’s glowing, just faintly? Means it’s got a pretty good charge. Hard to make out at this time of day, but you can use your wand’s power crystal to read by at night, assuming you keep it charged. Recharging is simple enough, you can do it with standard enchanting dusts of the kind shops carry.”

“Does it ever wear out?”

“Eventually, that one will. Natural quartz is both cheap and effective, which is why it’s popular, but after too much recharging it’ll start to develop cracks, and then you wanna switch it out for a fresh one as quick as you can.”

“Otherwise…boom?” Gabriel winced.

Joe shook his head. “Not from that. Wands don’t blow up easily; if you overheat it, it can, that’s why they tend to go off if you set them on fire. But even that won’t happen if you have a safety charm on the clicker. Nowadays, all wands use crystals for power sources. They’re more stable, less volatile than older methods.” He held up the one from his own wand; it was both longer and thicker than Gabe’s, glowing steadily with an intensity that rivaled Fross in flight, and capped on both ends with gold filament. “This has a much greater capacity and is endlessly rechargable; it also slowly regains energy from ambient arcane magic between actual rechargings. Some folks’ll swear that natural materials are best; they are either hidebound traditionalists or trying to sell you natural materials. Modern alchemical synthetics are more expensive—by far—but perform much better. In the old days, wands would use things from magical creatures as power sources. Phoenix feathers, dragon heartstrings, unicorn horn…”

“Yikes.” Gabriel grimaced. “Feathers I can see, but… Wouldn’t you have to kill something to get its heartstrings or horn?”

“Yup,” Joe said grimly, nodding, “which is the main reason that practice has died off, apart from the inefficiency of those power sources. They last longer—possibly infinitely, in fact. There are early phoenix-feather wands still functioning. They’re fickle, though, and don’t give you the kind of consistent output as a modern lightning wand. Different kinds of power for each one. Half the fight was knowing what kind of weapon your opponent had, and you tended to make enemies depending on what kind you had. A dragon wand would prompt pretty much any dragon to roast you on the spot, and elves get very unfriendly toward people who use pieces of unicorn as magical gear.”

“Well, hooray for modern enchantment!”

“No kiddin’. Now, you’ll note yours has a clicker and mine doesn’t. That’s because I’m an enchanter; I fire it with my mind.”

“How’s that work, exactly?”

“I’ll show you in just a minute, we’re almost done with the physical inventory of pieces. All that’s left is the shaft. See those markings?”

Gabriel held the shaft of his wand up to his face and squinted at them. “Oh, yeah. That’s really faint…”

“They don’t need to be deep, just precise. Those carvings are treated with enchanting dusts; they’re what makes the wand work when the shaft is exposed to raw arcane energy from the power source. Squeeze the clicker to open a gate between them, then the shaft is drawing pure power from the crystal and turns that into a lightning bolt as per the instructions coded into those runes. Lightning tends to sort of jump all over, so it’s actually multiple enchantments; the directional charm makes a tunnel of ionized air that it prefers to travel through. Your aim will still be messed up if the bolt arcs too close to something metal, though. The upside is it’ll naturally tend to jump into a body, so you don’t have to be too precise in your shots. That’s why these things are pretty well impossible to dodge, even with magical speed boosters in effect.”

“Um… What does ‘ionized’ mean?”

“I do not know.” Grinning, Joe shook his head again. “Had a wizard explain it to me once; after a half hour lecture on advanced arcane physics, all I came away with was the realization that I wasn’t that curious after all. Now, see how your carvings there are slightly eroded? That happens with time and use. This one’ll pull slightly to the left, your ionized airstream is weaker on that side with the decay pattern. And that’s why you never, ever fire a wand with a damaged shaft. There is really no telling what will happen.”

“So…the lightning bolt travels along the shaft and out the front…”

“No, no. Arcane energy is drawn along the shaft and forms a lightning bolt several inches in front of the wand, proceeding from there.”

“Really? Seems…roundabout.”

“Gabriel, have you ever seen a tree that’s been struck by lightning? That is what happens when a massive charge of electricity passes through wood.”

“Oh.” He blinked. “Then…why use wood?”

“Metal holds enchantments better, precisely because it inhibits them from moving around, and it conducts electricity beautifully. It would try to stabilize the charge and not propel the lightning outward; and if it did, it’d just arc back along the shaft, frying you. Wood is the opposite. It’s an excellent magical conductor, but doesn’t conduct lightning. Alchemically treated synthetic wood is, of course, even better.” He held up his own wand; the shaft was black and longer than Gabe’s.

“So, the actual lighting bolt isn’t formed in the shaft.” Gabriel tilted up the disconnected shaft, peering at the tip from inches away. “Good to know. Is that why—”

He broke off as a scowling Joe snatched it out of his hand. “Don’t ever point that thing at your face, you lunatic.”

“It’s in pieces!”

“Don’t. Point it. At. Your. Face.” The Kid’s eyes bored into his fiercely. He handed back the piece of Gabriel’s wand, holding up his own for emphasis. “This is an enchanted device whose only function is to dispense white-hot death. You never treat it as if it’s disarmed, or harmless. Do not point it at anything you don’t fully intend to destroy.”

“Right,” Gabriel said a little weakly. “Noted. Gotcha.”

“Put her back together,” Joe said a little more easily, “and take a shot at the wall there.”

Gabriel re-inserted the power crystal and carefully screwed the wand back into one piece, being certain to keep it pointed away from himself and anyone else. The girls were unabashedly watching, now, but he ignored them. Holding the weapon out at arm’s length, he squeezed the clicker.

CRACK!

Lightning leaped forward, adding another black scar to the stone wall, where it blended with its predecessors.

“Wow,” Gabe murmured, tilting the wand upward. Smoke rose faintly from the tip. “You were right. Little to the left.”

“They’re made of interchangeable parts,” said Joe, “so you’ll be able to find a replacement shaft without much trouble. It’s wise to carry spares of everything, in fact, if you’re gonna be away from a supplier for any length of time.”

“Can it be…repaired?”

“If you’re an enchanter? Sure. Should it be?” He shook his head. “Not if you have any other option. Re-engraving the shaft will make the enchantment…unreliable. It wears out exponentially faster each time, assuming it keeps working long enough for a second re-engraving. Using a cracked power crystal will just make the thing shut down and turn into so much driftwood if the crystal shatters—which it will. Firing a wand with a faulty clicker… Either the safety charm will lock and it just won’t fire, or it’ll lock itself open and you’ll be holding a stick that constantly sprays lightning with no control. Actually, it’ll only do that long enough to heat the wood till its binding matrix fails and the power all goes out in one big blast.”

“Yikes. So…take care of your equipment. Got it.”

“See that you do. Now, on the subject of clickers…put that away, let me show you how these work.”

Joe placed the grip of his own wand in Gabriel’s hand, then laid his own hand over it. The wand was identical to the one in his other holster: longer than the standard-issue one Gabe had just tucked into his coat pocket, coal black and its grip banded with yellowed ivory. “The thing about enchanter wands is…well, either you can, or you can’t. It depends on whether a person has any magical potential at all, any gift at using the arcane.”

“I’m an enchanting major…”

“Yeah? Actually done any enchanting yet?”

“All theory so far,” Gabriel admitted.

“Then this’ll be an important test for you. There’s pretty much no way to figure this out but to be attuned by someone who already uses such a wand. Now, you’re holding the weapon, but I’m holding you. A person is magically conductive, so… I’m going to fire the wand through you. Keep your attention on the wand, and tell me if you feel anything.”

The bolt of energy that shot forth before Gabriel could speak was different than the wands he had seen used thus far. Clean, pure white and traveling in a straight line, it was more like a concentrated moonbeam than a lightning bolt, though it made the same sound and left the same sharp scent of ozone drift from the tip of the weapon.

“Oh…wow,” he whispered.

“Got it, you think?” Joe pulled back, stepping away from him.

“I got…something. It felt like… I dunno.”

“You don’t need to be able to describe it,” the Kid said with a grin. “Some folks write poetry about the sensation, if you’re the type who enjoys that. Just see if you can reproduce it. Keep the wand aimed at the wall, and recall what it felt like. Call it up again. If you can get the same—”

Light blasted forth, making a small crater in the side of the barn. There came an outpouring of cheers and applause from the watching girls, led by Ruda.

Gabriel lowered the wand, grinning. “Wow.”

“Congratulations,” said Joe with an easy smile. “You’ve got the spark.” He held out his hand, and Gabriel placed the wand in it with a trace of reluctance. “Yeah, she’s a beauty, isn’t she? Eventually you’re gonna want to create your own weapon, if you’re planning to be an enchanter. Don’t be in a hurry, though. Trying to craft a custom wand without understanding the spells involved is an excellent way to blast yourself right off the mortal plane.”

“I’ll remember that. So…where’d you learn all this?”

There was quiet for just a moment, then Ruda began loudly resuming her own lessons. Joe held his peace a bit longer, staring down at the wand in his hand before finally holstering it.

“People ask me what makes me such a good wandfighter,” he said at last. “Truthfully, I always considered it some sort of mental defect. I can…feel numbers.”

“You, uh…” Gabriel blinked. “I don’t think I understand.”

“Angles,” said Joe, looking up at him. “Force, voltage, temperature, pressure… Most people, as I understand it, live in a wet and squishy world of variables that don’t explicitly mean anything to them. Me, I live in a world of math. Everything is made of hard quantities—I see just how they all intersect, where the tiniest force will have the most impact. Frankly I don’t even know the terminology for most of the kinds of energy I can perceive, and I ain’t interested in learning. Knowing how electricity and heat work mean I have a great intuitive command of wandfighting, yeah, but it also means I’m always conscious of the weather in a way you’re probably not. It’s…distracting.”

“Damn,” said Gabe slowly, and for once Joe didn’t correct his language.

“Mamie taught me a lot more,” the Kid said more quietly. “After Hoss and his gang killed my pa, she took me in, here. Took in lots of kids, mostly girls… And some’d say that making a runaway girl a whore was a heartless thing to do, but here, Mamie could look after ’em, teach us all skills we’d use later in life. It’s not like any of us had better prospects. Anyhow, I’ve been luckier’n most—I make my living at the card table.”

“You can…make a living playing poker?” Gabriel said in astonishment. To judge by the Kid’s fine suit and the huge chunk of tigerseye in his bolo tie, to say nothing of those clearly custom-made wands, it must be a pretty good living at least.

Joe’s mouth quirked up in a half-smile. “I can. World of numbers, remember?”

“Ah. Right. Yeah, I can see how that’d help. So, Mamie runs this place? I don’t think I’ve met her yet.”

Joe turned back to look at the girls, one of who was being guided through a series of knife attacks by Ruda while the others looked on. He shifted his gaze from there to the Shady Lady itself. “She was actually a wandfighter, too, in her youth. Dabbled a bit in fae magic, mostly bits and bobs she picked up from the local elves; never got good enough to be considered a real witch. For that, you have to either enslave some kind of fae creature or form a relationship with one, and she had other things to do. When the Riders started getting bad, Mamie rode off to deal with ’em.” He clenched his fingers into fists, then very deliberately relaxed them. “We ain’t seen ‘er since.”

Gabriel just looked at him helplessly for a long moment while the princess and the prostitutes laughed and scuffled in the background.

“We’ll get them,” he said finally, quietly.

Joe nodded. “These people are depending on me; I can’t leave ’em.” He turned to fix Gabriel with a hard stare. “But you bring those Riders here, and…we’ll see.”


 

Deep in thought, he wandered back through the main area, barely noting the refugees, students and miscellaneous others dotting the room, and took a seat at the bar.

“That’s an even longer face than the situation warrants,” said the man next to him, and Gabriel started.

“Oh,” he said lamely, “sorry, I… Didn’t even see you there. Kinda lost in thought. Sorry, I don’t mean to disturb you.”

The man waved a hand dismissively. “If I can manage not to be disturbed by this town and this very charming prison, you’re no threat to my equanimity, no offense.” He reached into his long, black coat and pulled out a silver flask. “Have a drink with me. It’s not like there’s much else for us to do.”

“Sure,” said Gabriel with a bit more interest as Horace set a couple of glasses in front of them. “What’re we having?”

The man chuckled as he poured two fingers of amber liquid into one of the glasses. “You’re having water, as usual. I clearly heard your Professor’s orders concerning her students and drinking. Now that’s a lady I don’t need mad at me.”

“Boy, ain’t that the truth,” Gabriel muttered, nodding thanks at Horace after his own glass was filled with water. “I could do with having her mad at me a little less.”

He studied his new companion sidelong. Dressed in a sweeping black coat and a wide-brimmed matching hat which he hadn’t removed despite being inside, he looked sort of like a Universal Church parson, but something about his aspect didn’t agree with that impression. He had a long, narrow face, his jaw lined by a thin beard, and there was something sly in the movements of his deep-set eyes and long fingers. Not menacing, but crafty.

“What is it you keep doing to make her mad, then?”

Gabe shrugged, toying with his glass. “Speaking without thinking, mostly. She takes particular exception to that.”

“Sounds like an educator, all right.” He swirled the untouched liquor in his glass, smiling thinly to himself. “Also sounds like a bad habit on your part. Forgive my eavesdropping, but there’s a stark lack of anything else to do around here. Your friend the paladin certainly seems to believe in you, and you managed to get the rest of your class on board with your plan. It’s not as if they think you’re stupid, then.”

“I guess. Just…thoughtless. Which is fair.”

“Is it?”

Gabe took a sip of water and chuckled bitterly. “When you’re born a half-demon, you learn quickly enough to accept that you’re just never going to be quite…right. And yeah, I was, and am. You can run screaming now, if you want. Promise I won’t be offended.”

“And what if, instead of screaming and running, I doused you in holy water?” the man suggested. Gabriel leaned away, looking at him askance, and he laughed. “Oh, relax. You’re in luck; I don’t happen to be carrying any. Anyhow, I think I can understand your position. A dual nature, caught between one thing and another. You might find it surprising how many people could relate, if they bothered to try.”

“Why should they?” He shrugged morosely. “Demons are evil creatures.”

“Destructive creatures, sure, but the nature of evil is a little subtler than that. To the fly, the spider is an evil creature.”

“Spiders are evil creatures to everyone.”

“Really? Have you shared that insight with your friend the dryad?” He grinned. “If not for spiders we’d be knee-deep in bugs at all times—bugs that, unlike spiders, are actually harmful to human life. There’s a place in this world for creepy, venomous things.”

“Yay. Woo.” Gabriel threw up one hand in a lackluster parody of enthusiasm. “I have a place.”

“I just wonder, though, how much effort you’ve made to find a place that suits you,” the man said thoughtfully, staring into his glass. “Seems to me you’ve got a couple of things mixed up. Being half-demon, now…that’s something you are. Can’t do anything about that. Growing up with a thing like that, maybe you start to see everything that’s wrong in your life as some kind of immovable object, when in fact, a lot of them are well within your power to change.”

“Yeah?” Gabriel gave him a skeptical look. “Like what?”

“Like, for example, your habit of blurting out the first thing that pops into your mind. All your friends over there who don’t do that, especially the pirate. You think that’s not a learned trait? It’s only children who are so honest; everyone else learns some self-control. I wonder if you’ve ever made a serious go at it.”

“Ruda?” Gabe said, then snorted. “If anything she’s got a bigger mouth than me.”

“That girl is smarter than any two of the rest of your group put together,” said the man with a smile that was dangerously near to a smirk. “The signs are there if you watch for ’em. Oh, she flaps her tongue a lot, but she does it to create a specific impression; she’s not just venting the contents of her skull, like you. So let me pose you a question: what have you done, exactly, to bring your own yapper under control? Ever made a solid effort at it? Or did you just decide that spouting off like a dumbass is as much a part of you as bursting into flames when you step into a temple?”

Gabriel frowned at his water. “I…hadn’t really thought about it.”

“Maybe that’s your problem then, eh?”

“Maybe so,” he said slowly. “I, uh…don’t think I caught your name.”

“Don’t think you did, either.” The man rose from his stool, his motions smooth but somehow off; it was like watching a spider in human form unfurl his limbs. “Something to think about, anyway. Here’s a little advice for free: stay clear of the woman in red.”

“Lily?” Gabe looked up at him, blinking. “Tellwyrn’s friend? She seems harmless enough.”

“Nobody’s harmless, son. Nobody. The ones who seem harmless are hiding something. But by all means, don’t take my word for it.” He tugged the brim of his hat. “I’m sure we’ll have time to chat later. Try some things out; be sure to let me know how they go.”

The man backed up two steps, then turned and strolled away with his glass of untouched liquor. Gabriel watched him go for a moment, then swiveled back forward and frowned into his own drink, quickly growing lost in thought.

How long he sat there, mulling, he couldn’t have said, but it was brought to an end by a thump on the bar next to him that made him start nearly out of his stool.

Trissiny slid onto the recently-vacated seat, unfolded the wooden chessboard she had just laid down and began setting up pieces from a bag she plopped into the bar next to it.

“There you are,” she said. “Took me a while to find one of these.”

“Um…Triss?” He blinked at her. “Can I…help you?”

“Yes. You can be white.” She gave him a cool look, but a more considering one than he was used to getting from her. “Show me what you’ve got.”

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Darling couldn’t help noticing that he had never noticed this place before.

Positioned in the Steppes, an upscale mercantile district which had been formed into a series of terraces rather than flowing with the gradual slope of the ground as most of Tiraas did (hence the name), it was a little over a quarter of the way downhill from Imperial Square in the opposite direction from his own home. He had been here many times, both as Sweet and on the more aboveboard business of the Church, and knew it well, yet the Elysium was an unknown sight to him. From the outside, it could have been any upscale tea room or winery (the very wealthy did not loaf about in bars or pubs, at least not where their friends were likely to see), with an understated sign bearing its name and nothing else to distinguish its modest facade. This was exactly the sort of place that should have caught his interest many times before.

Of course, there were enchantments that could conceal a place from those who were not invited, or who were not looking for it specifically, or based upon any number of other variables. They were complex and expensive spells, though, which raised questions about what was hidden behind them and who would bother to place them there. Luckily he knew who he was here to meet, which answered several such questions, but he could not shake the feeling that he wasn’t being told everything.

He paid close attention to this feeling. It had saved his life repeatedly.

Thus, he loitered for over a minute on the sidewalk, studying the plain stone construction, the tastefully gilded sign—and wondering what “Elysium” meant, aside from sounding vaguely elvish—the wrought iron bars on its curtained windows and bordering the stone staircase descending to its subterranean entrance, which was lit only by a single fairy lamp.

He was already uncomfortable, dressed as he was in a simple but expensive suit, with his hair styled in the Bishop’s well-groomed coif rather than Sweet’s slicked-back look. Lurking between identities set off a dissonance in his mind that only exacerbated his general unease, but given who he was here to meet and how little he knew of what to expect, this was the best he could do.

With a sigh, he descended the stairs. At the bottom was a clean little nook containing an elegant stone bench and the entrance. The Elysium’s door was of redwood, polished to near luminosity, offset by clouded glass panels and a brass handle. Darling rolled his neck, straightened his shoulders, double-checked his aloof smile (in place and operating normally), then pulled the door open and strode in as though he owned the place.

It was a pub, though its target clientele would probably have disdained the word. A more expensively appointed space he had rarely seen outside of the mansions of the rich; everything was dark-stained wood, with accents of marble and gilt, with silken tablecloths and draperies, surmounted by a chandelier of actual crystal, which glowed without benefit of candles. The room was tall, easily a story and a half, but neither broad nor deep. Tables were scattered widely enough that those sitting at them would have relative privacy. A bench lined the wall adjacent to the street above, a long bar lined the other immediately to his right, and at the rear of the room a short flight of steps rose to an elevated nook containing a lavishly-appointed booth, at which his “date” for the evening waited.

Darling didn’t immediately fix his eyes upon her, however, first taking stock of the room’s other inhabitants. The Elysium was sparsely inhabited at the moment. Closest to the door was a woman in an Imperial Army uniform, sitting at the bar; she glanced up at him when he entered, then returned to nursing her drink, clearly dismissing him as unimportant. She was also, he noted, quite pretty: tall and strongly built, with black hair drawn back in a severe ponytail which cascaded down her back in an avalanche of curls. Women could and did serve in the Imperial Army—the Empire’s goddess of war being also the protector of women, there was no discrimination by sex among the armed forces. Most women who wanted to be soldiers joined the Silver Legions, though. Still, this wasn’t the first female Imperial soldier he’d ever seen. The Legions didn’t take everyone who applied, and besides, there were always the patriotic, the irreligious, and various other outliers.

Like the soldier, the bar’s other denizens gave him barely a glance before returning to their own business. In the corner opposite the door, a burly blonde man dressed as a laborer and a slim man in the black coat of a Church priest were hunched over a game of chess; they ignored him entirely. A young couple was canoodling in another corner. He made a point not to stare. The mix of people in here made little sense to Darling—from the rich trappings and extravagant magical security, not to mention the company he was to keep this evening, he’d have expected lords and ladies, high priests, possibly even the better class of criminals. Soldiers, preachers, farmers…the list of incongruities continued to grow.

He nodded respectfully toward the alcove at the back and moved forward to approach it.

“Evening, Antonio! Punaji Sunrise, right?”

Darling blinked in surprise, turning to look at the bartender, who had been hidden behind the soldier from his position at the door. This was a face he knew very well: lean, swarthy, with shaggy black hair and perpetual mirth lurking about the eyes. On the bar before him was a drink, a layered confection of different liqueurs and syrups that cost far too much and took far too long to make, which was exactly why Darling habitually ordered it. The man pushed it gently toward him.

For a moment, his mind went blank at the sheer enormity of the implications. Then, the pieces snapped into place, and he cast another swift glance about the room. The soldier, the farmer, the dark man…of course. No wonder he’d never seen this place before. None of them looked up to acknowledge him, but the woman took a contemplative sip of her whiskey on the rocks as his eyes slid across her. Realization did nothing to lessen his unease—if anything, it did the opposite.

Then he was back in character, the interlude having taken a sliver of a second that few humans could have noticed and the bar’s occupants surely had. “You remembered!” he said cheerfully, stepping over to collect his drink. “Should I be flattered, or concerned at the prescription?”

“Prescription, bah,” the bartender waved him away, grinning. “Worst you’ll get from that thing is a sugar rush. Best go on, your date’s waiting.”

“Aren’t they always,” he said vaguely, tilting the Sunrise toward him in toast, then turning to resume his course.

He ascended the steps carefully to the alcove. Quentin Vex sat above, at one side of the table, but Darling ignored him for the moment; it would not have done at all to greet him first. Instead, he bowed deeply to the person who had asked him here.

“Your Majesty.”

Empress Eleanora Sultana Tirasian was, needless to say, a strikingly beautiful woman. She was also a crafty and formidable individual who was known to have little regard for looks—her own, anyway. The reality was, however, that one did not marry onto the Imperial throne without being something of a showpiece. She certainly was that: waves of sable hair, deep mahogany skin, black eyes that glinted like daggers. She was tall and fell right into the combination of “slender yet curvy” that occurred so often in cheap novels and so rarely in biology. Indeed, she might have suited the (so called) Avenic ideal perfectly, except that she lacked the strong build of a woman who worked and/or fought for a living. Eleanora was a noblewoman and born politician; she had never run two steps in her life, nor lifted anything heavier than a wine bottle.

“Bishop,” she replied coolly, not inclining her head in return. There was probably no one in the world to whom she would bow. “Please, join us.”

“My thanks, Majesty,” he said, then set his drink on the table. Taking one of the gilded chairs by its back, he slid it around and seated himself at the side of the table, opposite Lord Vex, rather than directly before her as indicated. She raised an eyebrow and even the normally-somnolent Vex straightened slightly at this flagrant breach of protocol, but the hell he was putting his back to that room full of…them.

Eleanora flicked her eyes once to the main floor of the bar, then smiled very faintly. Darling took this for a sign of understanding; she was far too savvy to accidentally betray her thoughts with careless gestures.

“How may I be of service, your Majesty?” he asked once seated.

For a moment she just looked at him. There was a stillness about her, a piercing intelligence in her gaze, that threatened to ruffle his equilibrium. As both Sweet and the Bishop he was accustomed to the presence of dangerous people and rarely met anyone who penetrated his calm. Something about her, though… Eleanora had certainly not become Empress because of her looks.

“I am in need of a priest,” she said finally.

“I am flattered,” he replied. “And somewhat perplexed, I confess. Surely you could have your pick of the services of any priest in the Empire?”

“I have,” she said dryly, “and it is to my great fortune that my pick of priests is available to me, as I think you know that many are not.” This was skating close to the dangerous topic of the rivalry between Church and Throne, a subject he was eager to avoid in this of all company, but she went smoothly on. “The gods are fond of reminding us that no degree of mortal power entitles any human being to a greater stake of their attention, but the reality is as you see it here. For the leaders of the Empire, certain little courtesies are extended, to our great gratitude. One such is access to this…sanctuary.”

Again, she glanced past him to the bar area, and he did likewise. The barman winked.

“Here,” the Empress continued, “we are effectively outside the world and its concerns. Its bloody neverending politics. Here I can forget for a moment about being Empress, you can relax the tension that leading the multiplicitous existence you do must cause. Neither of us need pretend that we don’t all know exactly the nature of my relationship with the man I call husband.” She leaned forward slightly, holding his gaze. “I can approach you as a woman with a spiritual problem, seeking help from a cleric who happens to be the leading expert in this topic.”

“All right, then,” he said slowly. “Is there…something you would like me to steal?”

The corners of her eyes crinkled very slightly in amusement, but she quickly mastered her expression and spoke a single name. “Elilial.”

“Ah,” he said ruefully. “I’m afraid I was never one for kidnapping, but I’ll see what I can do.”

Vex cleared his throat. “I believe I warned your Majesty that the Bishop fancies himself…amusing.”

“He is,” the Empress said, not taking her eyes off Darling, “but I would prefer that we be serious now.”

“My sincere apologies, your Majesty.” He bowed to her from his seat.

“She was in my home,” she said, and from beneath her iron self-control there whispered hints of ferocity, barely contained. “She shared a bed with the man I think of as a brother. We talked, shared meals, even games.” The Empress clenched her jaw momentarily. “I once let her rub my shoulders. She was remarkably good at that.”

Darling put on and held his very best sympathetically attentive face. In truth, this was a situation he had little idea how to handle.

“Among the theologians who have studied Elilial extensively,” Eleanora went on, “most are so heavily wedded to Church dogma that every other word from them is a sermon in miniature. But Lord Vex tells me that you are something of an expert on her movements as well. More importantly, he suggests that you see her as an individual, not an…incarnation.”

“You know what invaded your home,” he said softly. “You want to understand who.”

“Precisely.”

Something tingled at the back of Darling’s neck, a sensation with which he was well acquainted: risk, and opportunity. “What, then, would your Majesty like to know?”

“First of all…how did you come to devote such time and study to Elilial?” Apparently she wasn’t one to come right to the point, but then, few politicians were. “It seems a peculiar hobby for an acolyte of the god of thieves.”

“On the contrary,” he said smoothly, simply running with it, “the cults of Elilial and Eserion have many similarities. Sometimes I am tempted to conclude that ours are the only faiths which inherently value subtlety.”

Below, one of the chess players—the thin man in the dark coat—cleared his throat. Darling carefully did not betray himself by glancing at him.

“As for why… I have often thought that the Church’s approach to warning people against Elilial’s schemes has done more harm than good. So much effort putting into portraying her as the destroyer, the deceiver, playing up her relationship to the demonic plane without ever mentioning how that is happenstance caused by the Pantheon and not her own choice. It warns the faithful and the casual away from seeking her out, yes—well, most of them—but leaves people frighteningly vulnerable to her when she does choose to move among us.”

“How so?”

“She’s a thief,” he said, warming to his subject. “A con artist, a trickster. All theatrics and misdirection, someone who plays as many parts as the job requires. You could say that from a certain perspective, I empathize with her. More to the point, I understand the broad strokes of how she operates, and why telling people that she’s some kind of slavering monster is the worst possible thing we can do. The Black Wreath is older than the Empire by a wide margin, older than the Church, and while it’s damnably difficult to track their movements, we know they’ve never suffered from a lack of membership. That’s because Elilial, when she wants to be, is just so bloody nice.”

“Nice,” Eleanora said flatly.

“I think, Majesty, that you are in a position to know that better than most, if you’ll pardon me saying so.”

She held his gaze silently for a moment, then glanced to one side in thought, and nodded slowly.

“And so we shoot ourselves in the foot,” he said. “People meet this fearsome Queen of Demons, and find her warm, charming, rather funny, in fact. It throws everything the Church has taught them about her into question. That, by association, throws all the Church’s teachings into question. Thus, she gets one fingernail into their minds, and knows exactly how to work that until she has a loyal convert, willing to die for her.”

The Empress narrowed her eyes slightly. “Funny?”

“People are always so surprised when I say that,” he said wryly. “Yes, she has quite the sense of humor. Was that not apparent when you met her?”

“I didn’t merely ‘meet’ her, I knew her well for several months, or so I thought.” She pressed her lips into a thin line. “And yes…she did, in fact, have a sardonic wit that Sharidan and I both enjoyed. In hindsight, I’ve been second-guessing everything I remember about her in light of what I now know.”

“Don’t do that,” he advised, “it’s a trap. You are, by reputation, both perceptive and clever when it comes to people. Elilial is certainly sly enough to use that against you, but that doesn’t mean everything she said or did was a deception. Encouraging you to think it was gives her a kind of invisibility. If nobody believes what they know about her, they don’t really know anything, do they?”

She kept her gaze to the side, frowning slightly in contemplation. Vex sipped at his own wineglass, staying silent. Darling sat, not reaching for his Punaji Sunrise, allowing the Empress to think.

“How certain are you of the things you know? Why is it you know better, as you believe, than most of the Church’s theologians?”

“Simple scholarship, your Majesty,” he said modestly, refusing to back down from her intent stare once she returned it to him. “There are over eight thousand years worth of materials about Elilial’s movements to sift through, much of it muddled by simple time or tainted by the agendas of millennia of history. Not to mention that some incarnations of the Black Wreath have been quite adept at spreading misinformation. I simply hired a bunch of university and seminary students to sort through the information there was and single out the bits that met a good historian’s standards of believability. Thirty of them, for over two years…there really was a lot of material. In the end, only the tiniest amount could be considered reliable. That tiny amount was merely the work of another couple of years for me to study through, and the picture it painted of our girl was remarkably consistent.”

“Our girl?” Eleanora raised an eyebrow.

“Forgive me,” he said contritely. “If one spends enough time studying somebody’s life, one tends to feel oddly attached. No matter how horrifying the subject matter may be.”

“Hm.” Whatever she thought of that, her face gave nothing away. “She had ample opportunity to harm Sharidan, myself, and many of those closest to us. As far as we can tell, she did not.”

“That is consistent,” he said, nodding. “Historically speaking, she only harms people in particular and for specific reasons. If anything, I’d say she’s more careful about collateral damage than some gods of the Pantheon.”

“Really. Regard for others?”

He leaned back in his chair slightly, frowning in thought. “No…and yes, but no. It’s wasteful, inelegant. A good con artist uses only the lightest touch and leaves as little trace as possible. A good kneecapper relies on the threat of force rather than the use of force; you have to beat a few people down now and again to establish that you can and will, but nobody could do business if everybody were constantly attacking each other. It becomes…a code of honor, so to speak, a set of best practices that all good scoundrels follow, irrespective of any affiliations or moral leanings they may have. In time, that can be internalized to the point that causing unnecessary pain is troubling to the spirit, like a twinge of conscience. Not true compassion, but…” He groped silently for the word. “An ethic of restraint.”

“Again, you speak of her as you would a member of your Guild.”

“I think she’d do very well in the Guild. This business of infiltrating an organization in human guise… The recent events in the Palace are not the first time she’s done this. I’d be totally unsurprised to learn she has been a member of the Thieves’ Guild at one point.”

Below, the bartender laughed aloud, but did not look up from wiping the glass he was working on. The soldier shot him an irritated look.

“To move this back to my original concern…how likely do you think it that she left some trap behind, some delayed way of harming my family?”

“Not very likely at all. At least, that would be wildly out of character.” He drew in a breath slowly, looking down at the table. “Your Majesty, I’m not certain how to phrase this with any delicacy…”

“Then don’t concern yourself with delicacy,” she said firmly. “I’ll neither break nor demand your execution if you ruffle my feathers.”

“Very well,” he said gravely, keeping amusement hidden only through a truly heroic effort. “Everything in the histories suggests that Elilial’s attachments are quite real, at least to her. She’s been known to discreetly watch over people with whom she has formed relationships through deception, giving assistance when they need it years after their part in her schemes is over, sometimes avenging them when necessary.”

Eleanora narrowed her eyes. “You suggest she is truly a caring person, deep down.”

“I am not sure I’d go that far,” he hedged. “No… My perception has always been that she’s a lonely person. Her only real peers are the gods she turned against, and who cast her into Hell for it. She’s down there with nothing but demons for company most of the time. All things considered I have a hard time seeing her as particularly soft-hearted, but able to form real attachments? Maybe even desperate to do so? That I have no trouble believing.”

“Then…with regard to my family…”

“I am not sure how much of the story I know,” he admitted, “but from the basics that I do… If there were any hostility, any animosity there, you’d know already. If she behaved toward you and yours with affection, that affection is likely to be sincere. Oh, she’ll use you in her schemes like she does everyone else, and I know I needn’t tell you how these schemes in particular could well kick the very Empire right out from under us all. But on a personal level? No, I don’t believe your family has anything to fear from Elilial. If anything…should you ever find yourself in truly desperate straits, you might find yourself with a very unexpected protector.”

There was silence. In the stillness of the chamber, the very soft voices of the two in the other corner were almost intrusive; the echo of a chess piece being set down seemed to reverberate.

“That should be encouraging,” Eleanora said at last, “but if anything, I find myself more disturbed.”

“I know what you mean,” Darling said with perfect sincerity. “This is why I am always careful to study Elilial and her people from a safe distance. Reading old stories, rather than interviewing those of the Wreath we’ve managed to capture. It’s terrifying, how easily she can suck you in.”

“We still have no Imperial heir, nor any sign of one forthcoming,” she said abruptly. “The court physicians are positive that the problem is not with Sharidan. But then, they say that about each of the women in his harem, as well, and it defies reason that someone hasn’t ended up with child by now. He’s quite energetic. You will repeat that to no one.”

“Repeat what? Your pardon, Majesty, I’m a trifle deaf on this side.”

“Good. Elilial has twice hinted broadly that she is now carrying his child. Once to his face, once to three hapless soldiers who, luckily for them, had no idea what she was talking about. Is there any chance she is lying?”

“Of course. Lying is the better part of what she does. I fancy myself probably most likely of those outside the Wreath itself to give credit to Elilial’s better traits, but even I won’t try to present her as anything less than a compulsive deceiver. Before the Fall, she was simply the goddess of cunning. The other gods didn’t turn their backs on her then, and that’s when they counted her an ally.”

“But on the other hand…”

“On the other hand, yes, she has birthed several demigods that we know of. One of whom is currently attending classes in Last Rock.”

The Empress’s mouth twisted in dislike, a curiously strong reaction, but she simply went on: “Could she have been responsible for the childlessness of the other women in the Palace?”

“It does seem consistent with her apparent scheme, but… I’m sorry, your Majesty, I’m glad to share my insights into what Elilial is likely to do, based on what she’s done in the past, but as to what she can do…nobody can really help you. The one thing we know she is very good at is concealing her movements, a trait which extends to members of the Wreath. Just as priests of Omnu have that calming aura, and Izarite clerics get the uncanny ability to discern someone’s emotional needs, invested followers of Elilial gain the gift of hiding their movements. Even from the gods.”

There were no fewer than three small sounds of activity from the floor below. He reflexively froze for a moment.

“Which, obviously, makes any other powers they possess…particularly unknowable.”

“Just so, your Majesty.”

“You have been very helpful, Bishop Darling,” the Empress said, leaning back in her seat. “Not that my mind is put at ease, but I feel I can worry constructively rather than generally, now.”

“I do what I can,” he said modestly.

“Well, that is another question,” she said in a mild tone that instantly made his hackles rise. “Rather like Elilial, it is a curious conundrum…what you can do, and what you are likely to do.”

“I beg your pardon?” he said politely. His mind was racing at the shift of mood. Vex, still silent, was watching him fixedly through half-lidded eyes. Eleanora’s attention was less subtle, and there was a hint of a satisfied smile hovering about her mouth that he didn’t like at all.

“Tell me, are you acquainted with Bishop Syrinx?”

“We have spoken in passing,” he said, tilting his head to the side in a gesture of innocent curiosity. “I can’t say I know her well.”

“She is possibly the worst Avenist I’ve ever met,” Eleanora went on conversationally, not even flinching when the soldier set her whiskey glass down hard on the bar. “Vindictive, underhanded, and altogether a better politician than a priest. But if I do say so, she makes an excellent Bishop.”

“I begin to wonder if I should feel offended.”

“There is an interesting layer to the power struggle in this city, you see. Not just between the Throne and the Church, but between the Church and the disparate faiths it is supposed to collect under its aegis. So many of their doctrines contradict one another outright that the Archpopes have always been forced to dance a very delicate line, keeping a unified doctrinal front.”

Darling nodded pleasantly, refusing to glance at the door. He knew this, she knew he knew it; everyone who was a player in this game, or even just a somewhat educated cleric, knew it. She was giving a monologue, like a villain in a novel. This was not a good sign; Eleanora Tirasian was clever enough and ruthless enough to make an excellent villain. Vex, even less encouragingly, had begun to smile. Both of them had a theatrical streak.

“This results in things like the Bishops,” the Empress went on, still in that conversational tone. “By and large, they are a consistent bunch. Crafty, better at rising through the ranks of religious hierarchies than at practicing any actual faith. I imagine their respective High Priests were just as glad to get rid of them, and they make excellent pawns for Justinian. And then there is you.”

“I’ll have you know I fit in splendidly with my colleagues,” he said mildly. “I get along with everyone.”

“I know you do, Sweet. You are everybody’s friend.” Her eyes bored into him; he refused to react to the use of his tag. “This city is just lousy with people who owe you favors, or simply like you enough to do you favors, which has been the secret of your success. And that is what makes you stand out among your fellow Bishops. You are actually a really good priest of Eserion.”

“You’re going to make me blush!”

“It may just be that Eserion’s cult is an inherently unusual one,” she went on, ignoring him. “Where most of the gods direct their followers to some beneficial end, or what they believe to be one, disciples of the god of thieves are sent to go out and steal things. So I have to wonder… Why would the Guild send their once high priest to the Church?” She folded her hands primly on the table and smiled pleasantly at him. “What, exactly, are you supposed to steal?”

Darling made a show of glancing back and forth, then leaned in close. “Can you keep a secret?”

Still smiling, she raised an eyebrow.

He grinned. “Everything. Every damn thing, down to Justinian’s fuzzy slippers. It’ll be the heist of the millennium.”

“I believe I asked you to be serious.”

“So you did, and so I was. And then you attempted to maneuver an avowed thief into a corner. I’m curious, your Majesty, what response you expected that to get.”

“There is a question here, Darling, about loyalty. I am intrigued by you on a number of levels, but it is hardly possible for me to take any action with regard to you before I know with whom you stand. Is it the Empire? The Church? Your god, or the gods in general?”

“This I know about gods,” he said, picking up his untouched drink. The layers had begun to blend into each other after long minutes sitting idle. “I am fully aware of and grateful for their gifts to us. But gods, like people, are individuals, with their own personalities and agendas. They are people, however fundamentally different. And like any other group of people, they can be a right bunch of bastards.”

Her eyebrows climbed at that, and a deathly silence fell over the room. Darling raised his glass to her in toast and focused his attention, reaching for that inner glow deep inside himself.

They were not encouraged to draw on it; thieves had little use for it. But Eserion, for good or ill, was a god of the Pantheon, and he and his followers were therefore entitled to certain benefits—including the healing light. Channeled through his hand, it caught the liquid in the glass, blazing from each of the slightly-muddied layers of the drink and causing it to glow like a stained glass fairy lamp.

“Those who have my loyalty know it. Those who would have my loyalty can earn it, in the usual ways. To them, and to you, your Majesty…good health.” He smiled at her, sipped his drink, and turned to look once out at the bar. It was a look he’d had ample occasion to practice on Guild business: not quite a challenging look, but more than simple acknowledgment. It was a look that said “Yeah, I see you, what of it?”

The gods were looking back at him, and most were smiling. The exception was Avei, who had swiveled around on her barstool to give him a look of weary disdain. Eserion, behind the bar, laughed aloud as he added a splash of whiskey to her glass. In the corner, Izara’s eyes twinkled merrily, brightly enough to be visible from across the room; beside her, Vesk, the god of bards, lifted his hands and patted them together lightly in a silent ovation. Both the chess players were staring at him now, Omnu with a gentle smile, Vidius wearing a grin of wry humor.

The Empress, when he turned back to her, looked decidedly less amused. “And I am left to wonder, still, at the exact nature of your apparently considerable interest in, and sympathy for, a certain goddess of cunning.”

“Oh,” he said softly, “so that’s it, then.”

“I have the Black Wreath running rampant in my Empire and in my city,” she went on, “more so than we had previously imagined. Aside from recent shenanigans in the Palace itself, an entire cell of them recently popped up in a little flyspeck town, with a suicide summoner and dwarven technology that we’ve never seen before. Unfortunately, Arachne bloody Tellwyrn demolished them before any useful questions could be asked, but the fact remains: they’re growing bolder, and stronger, at the same time their mistress is up to something well beyond her usual antics. This, obviously, is not acceptable.”

“Obviously,” he said dryly. “But if you’ll pardon my narcissism, what does it have to do with me?”

“Imperial Intelligence are the best in the world at what they do,” she said, absently patting Vex’s wrist, as one might acknowledge a favored pet, “but they face certain stark limits against the Wreath. To say nothing of the inherent challenges of chasing after diabolists and dark priests, we have no effective counter to Elilial’s gift of stealth. The Church doesn’t either, and while they are better equipped to contend with demons, they lack any personnel with the skill Lord Vex’s people have in this kind of skullduggery. Besides, I obviously cannot trust Justinian or any of his lackeys.”

“What, you don’t think I’m his lackey?”

“I don’t know whose lackey you are, if anyone’s,” she said evenly. “And that is where you may be exactly what we need. You said yourself that the Thieves’ Guild is very like the Black Wreath in its operations and general outlook.”

“The Guild is not going to start a war with the Wreath.”

“For innumerable reasons, obviously, no. But a man whose loyalties are stretched multiple ways to begin with provides deniability to all his putative masters.”

“Ahh,” he nodded, smiling, “now I see. If I were to go chasing after the Wreath, they wouldn’t know against whom to retaliate. Very clever. Quite elegant, really.”

“I’m glad you think so.”

“Of course, I’m absolutely not going to do it, but I do appreciate the merits of the idea.”

“I think you mistake my intentions,” she said with a smile. “You spent what had to have been most of your earnings in your first years as Bishop, not to mention the years in question, on a colossal research project just to build up a working understanding of Elilial’s psychology. Strange behavior, for a thief.”

“What, a man can’t have hobbies?”

“No. People like you…and like me…do not have hobbies, we have obsessions. One singular obsession for each of us, really, which fills our lives and colors every activity we undertake. You are an information man, Sweet, a connection man. You wanted to know the Black Lady’s ways for a reason.” Her smile widened a fraction of an inch. “You’re hunting her.”

“Or perhaps,” he offered, swirling his glass idly, “I’m looking to join her. She does run a most admirable outfit. Perhaps I already have.”

“And what would you do if you had? Wage war on the gods? Overthrow the Empire? No, Darling, she has nothing you want. You want the chase. We are talking about the single most challenging prey that has ever existed. I think if you ever manage to catch her, you’ll find yourself at a loss.”

“You presume to know me well, your Majesty.”

“Indeed so. And perhaps I am wrong.” Still she kept that smile, but her eyes burned with intensity. “I am not threatening you, nor will I ever. I’m not asking you to do anything. I am extending an offer.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“How is it the organized criminals always put it in the novels?” she mused. “You’ve done me a favor today. Perhaps someday I’ll be in a position to do you a favor. Especially if it leads to progress in uprooting the Black Wreath from my city.”

Darling matched her smile. “Your Majesty has a fertile and eloquent imagination.”

“Thank you,” she said sweetly. “But my offer stands. Whatever aid I may lend you, should you need it in hunting the Wreath.” With that, she stood. Vex and Darling did likewise, as protocol demanded. On their feet, she was shorter than he, though not by much. Whereas most women of her breeding and upbringing would never miss a chance to look up at a man through their lashes, Eleanora tilted her head to gaze at him directly. “And, of course, should you decide that your loyalty lies against the Empire…I will not bother to threaten you then, either. You are a most valued subject, Antonio Darling.”

“There are not words in our inadequate mortal language for my appreciation at your acknowledgment, your Majesty,” he replied, bowing deeply.

“Thank you for your time, Bishop.”

He took the dismissal for what it was, backed up a step, and descended the stairs.

The gods were all watching him.

He nodded to Eserion, and then tipped Avei a wink. For just a moment he thought something very bad was about to happen to him, but Izara let out a peal of delighted laughter from across the room, and the goddess of war wordlessly turned her back on him. He didn’t breathe again until he was back outside, and not deeply until he had climbed the stone steps and stood safely on the streets of Tiraas. Already, the tense atmosphere within the Elysium was starting to fade like a dream.

Darling wondered, as he started walking, whether he would still be able to see the sign if he turned around. He didn’t check. His mind was already furiously at work, teasing apart the details of that conversation.

None of this made sense. The Empress had as much as accused him of having divided loyalties, offered her support, and then dismissed him. Vex, too, by implication. Those actions were totally self-contradictory. Why? One didn’t just baldly come out with such details right in front of the person one suspected of double-dealing, especially if one intended to secure that person’s aid. Traitorous people could be incredibly useful, but only if you knew they were traitorous and they didn’t know you knew. This disarming honesty…this was no way to play the game.

Unless…

Darling frowned as he walked, letting his feet carrying him home by sheer muscle memory.

Unless the game was not going in your favor, in which case the best move available was sometimes to introduce a little chaos. Forcibly change the board, realign the players, knock a few pieces out of place. It might improve your position, or might not. It was a gambit for when no sensible actions could lead to victory.

The Wreath, the gods, Elilial, Tellwyrn, the Church, the cults within the church…all swirled around and within the Empire, nipping at it from all directions. And, he now realized, the Empire, or at least its Empress, believed it was losing.

Interesting.

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