Tag Archives: Zanzayed the Blue

Bonus #40: Curse the Darkness, part 3

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“Pl-please initiate bodily contact wi-with the conduit.”

Macraigh shifted, glancing around the circular chamber. “Which is—ah.”

Behind him, the black obelisk had come to life. The pyramid shape which formed its peak, previously of pure transparent glass, had turned an opaque white and begun to glow gently. Though the sides of the obelisk themselves still appeared to be the same matte metal, vertical lines of glowing text had appeared on its faces, and their position made it seem for all the world as if they were set an inch or so within the structure and viewed through a transparent surface—which did not, otherwise, appear to be transparent. Ah, well, this was far from the first disorienting thing to which his exploration into the deeper secrets of magic had exposed him.

Slowly, Macraigh lifted a single hand and placed it against one side of the obelisk, where it did not obscure the writing. He could not discern what language the luminous violet characters were, if indeed they were language as he knew it. Under the circumstances, they were just as likely to be symbols of power.

“In-initiating biometric syn-syn-ssssnnnnnnNNNN— Initiating biometric synchronization,” the spirit informed him. “The acclimation procedure can begin momentarily, user Laran Macraigh. You will be physically incapacitated for the duration, and may not remain conscious; if consciousness persists, you will likely find the process disorienting. Individual experiences vary. Be aware that there is a risk of injury due to falling, as the fac-facility’s physical safeguards are offline due to po-po-power const-constraints.”

“I understand,” he said solemnly, and drew in a deep breath to still his nerves. “I…am sorry to ask this of you, Sub Ohess. I swear that I will honor this sacrifice.”

She chimed noncommittally. “Biometric synchronization is complete. The acclimation process can begin when you are ready.”

This moment was the culmination of everything he had been working for his entire adult life. It deserved reverence, ceremony even. She deserved more than a few hollow words; though the spirit seemed unbothered by what he asked of her and this was probably no more than her sworn duty as guardian of the shrine, he could not view the snuffing out of a thinking being as a small thing. But he had no time. And besides, given the not-insignificant possibility that he was about to be driven irrevocably insane, his unease could keep him dithering here basically forever. Sometimes, the scab simply had to be ripped off.

“Do it,” he ordered, “please.”

Macraigh was watching the obelisk he had been directed to touch for some further alteration, but it turned out that not all the magic of the Elder Gods was visibly flashy. While he was still waiting for the lights to change, an entire suite of new senses exploded into his consciousness and, luckily for him, he blacked out.


The shouting wasn’t really a surprise. If anyone alive were to walk up to a notorious sorceress and an actual dragon and begin shouting demands at them, it would be the Inquisitor. It was actually sort of impressive that they were letting her shout. And perhaps a little unfortunate. She so rarely encountered people who had no need to tolerate her antics; experiencing some repercussions for once would’ve done her a world of good, in Macraigh’s opinion.

He felt a strange detachment as he ascended the stairs out of the now-dark ancient shrine. Behind him he left only silence and dust; even the lights had vanished as the guardian spirit’s last act had, as she warned, consumed every remaining spark of magic in the place. Macraigh had awakened on the floor with a peculiar lack of worry, or emotional reaction of any kind. It felt, somehow, as if his head were floating a few feet above his body. The sensation was eerily aloof, yet serene.

“The will of the gods will not be thwarted by arrogant monsters!” the Inquisitor’s familiar voice was shrilling as he slowly ascended the stairs toward the sunlight above. “I have pursued this warlock from Calderaas to Varandia to Athan’Khar and now here, and you will not be the thing that—”

“You can’t actually believe that guy’s a warlock,” Arachne’s voice interrupted. “I could see that misunderstanding if you’d bumped into him once in a dungeon, but if you’ve chased him all around the continent, you have to know he’s a wizard. Or do you understand the difference? Have you seriously never met a warlock?”

“Maybe she hasn’t,” Zanzayed added, and his voice was different, lighter. Macraigh stopped on the stairs, his head just below the level of the top step, and shifted his gaze in the direction of the dragon. “Inquisitor, what even is that? How do you get that title? I’ve never heard of an Inquisition. Are you sure this is authorized by the Pantheon?”

Macraigh was staring up at him. He could not see through the intervening layers of metal and earth, but he perceived that the dragon had reduced himself to his humanoid form—a half-elven one, in his case. In fact, he lacked the vocabulary to describe the way he was receiving this information, but it was as clear as anything his eyes or ears told him. More so, given that he was standing in a metal-lined stairwell at the moment.

“My mandate comes from Avei,” the Inquisitor snapped. “Move aside, or be moved.”

“I like her,” Zanzayed stated, turning to Arachne. Macraigh was still standing out of sight below them, taking in the experience of being able to tell such little details of positioning without having eyes on them. “I really like her! This is the most entertaining mortal I’ve met since…well, you.”

“Yes, she’s your type, all right,” the sorceress sneered. “Stupid, and breathing.”

Divine magic ignited in a corona around the Inquisitor, seizing Macraigh’s attention. He could physically see the glow from the doorway at the top of the stairs, but sensed it more directly in a way to which he was not accustomed.

Something about it was…wrong. If only he had more basis for comparison. He had never before observed a divine aura in this fashion, and could not yet tell exactly what was off, but there was a peculiarity in the way she projected the magic.

“You doubt me now?” the Inquisitor demanded. “The Convocation at Tira endorsed my mission in the sight of every god of the Pantheon. I am empowered by Avei to seek justice against— You!”

Macraigh had resumed climbing and emerged from the stairwell while she blustered. Now he studied her quizzically while she pointed an accusing finger at him. Though he had avoided close contact with the Inquisitor as much as possible, he of course knew her well by sight. Her pale skin and coppery hair weren’t common even among the Stallmen of the eastern mountains, and less common still among the Tira people from which he and she both came. Macraigh had always suspected, rather uncharitably, that she abused her divine magic to heal the sunburns to which redheads were unfortunately prone, and took some satisfaction in seeing now that he had been right. Well, not seeing, but he could discern the residue…

Now that he peered closer, he found the cause of that odd discrepancy. There was something between her and the divine, a peculiar dark membrane which allowed the power of the gods to flow through her as normal, but kept her insulated from it in a way. In fact, that thin web of shivering shadows resonated so specifically with the new powers of which he had just become conscious that Macraigh suddenly understood exactly why her access to the divine was so different.

Well, that explained a lot.

“I guess we can begin the chorus of ‘I told you so’ now,” Arachne said with an exasperated sigh. “Who would like to go first? Inquisitor, I think you have seniority.”

“Pardon?” Macraigh asked, then stopped, blinking his eyes in surprise. His voice, for some reason, sounded a lot like the shrine spirit’s; resonant, hollow, as though he were speaking from the other end of a very long tunnel.

“Look at yourself, man,” Zanzayed ordered.

“At myself? What’s…oh.” Macraigh, as instructed, looked down at his body, and then at both of his arms. Once he focused upon it directly, everything made sense in accordance with the new awareness he’d gained, but as a consequence of that awareness none of this had seemed out of order until he beheld it with his more mundane senses. Now, he found himself limned by an oscillating web of purple, a peculiar visual effect which could have been called a glow, if shadows glowed. In fact, it looked to the eye very much like the energy between the Inquisitor and her divine power did to his augmented senses.

Not a coincidence, that.

“What have you done to yourself, Laran?” she demanded, staring at him with a very convincing expression of horror. For just a moment, looking back at her, Macraigh experienced a further expansion of his awareness, becoming conscious of the emotions of those around him, betraying her tight self-control and the surprising depth of layers to the facade she was projecting.

That also called his attention to those behind the Inquisitor, a squad of troops from the League of Avei and two Silver Huntresses, including the one he had encountered earlier.

More than that, the extended awareness was accompanied by a visible fading of his own body, as he became slightly transparent behind his new corona of shadows. Macraigh concentrated—on what, he could not have articulated exactly, but he concentrated on it—and the sudden emotional senses vanished as his body snapped back into opaque focus.

“All right,” he acknowledged, “this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.”

“I’ll bet,” Zanzayed stated.

“And this is why I tell people not to mess around with Elder God rubbish,” Arachne added with a sigh. “Exactly how much of a mess did you leave down there, boy?”

“Oh. I’m afraid the shrine is completely inert, now,” he mused, still gazing around abstractly and absorbing data in intriguing new ways. “The acclimation process used up the last of its power. The shrine guardian warned me there might not be enough energy left to do it properly, but she made it sound like it would drive me insane, at worst. This is a surprise.”

“Oh, just insane?” Zanzayed said, rolling his eyes. It was the most fascinating thing; the dragon’s eyes were smoothly featureless, luminous spheres of cobalt, and the gesture did not alter his expression, but Macraigh could tell he had rolled them. “No wonder you sprung for it, then. Who wouldn’t?”

Macraigh turned his attention fully on Zanzayed, and as if the act of focusing had slipped a lens over his eyes he could suddenly see more. The dragon, even in this body, was a vast being of pure magic, a titanic vortex of arcane power shot through with veins of gold, green, and even trace amounts of orange—all the forces on the known Circle of Interaction. Even, he saw with great interest, the tiniest darker currents of shadow magic. Nothing the dragon was using deliberately, he decided upon peering closer. But it accrued in interesting ways when the four main schools were used in conjunction…

He shifted his attention to Arachne and was almost knocked over. She was something else entirely. Macraigh felt his awareness expanding against his own will, as if it desperately needed to re-position itself in order to make sense of what he now saw. She was a wound in the world, or more accurately, a patch over it—a piece of a quilt which did not match the rest of the stitching. He saw spider webs straining to hold together a bleeding rent in reality. He saw an hourglass stretching away into infinity, its uncountable chambers whirling with a blaze of magic whose nature defied even his new senses to define.

And for an instant, Macraigh understood, consciously and in complete detail, what every one of those things meant. What she was, exactly. He also felt his own identity becoming so frayed at the edges that he seemed on the very cusp of dissolving entirely into the fabric of the universe itself, and through a sheer effort of will closed down his own consciousness. The broadened awareness and understanding retreated as his mind limited itself back to a form which didn’t have the necessary capacity, and he was left with only the awareness that Arachne was one of the more interesting beings in the cosmos, even if he no longer knew exactly why.

He also felt that he had been stretched by that momentary glimpse. Seized from all directions and pulled so hard that part of him was still…thin. Thin, and fading.

Macraigh glanced down at his own hands again. Yes, fading.

“Look at yourself,” the Inquisitor breathed. “Did you crave power so much you were willing to endure this?”

He looked up at her again, and smiled. “One of my teachers liked to say that it was better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, Inquisitor.”

She shook her head, and drew her sword. “In the name of Avei—”

Macraigh reached out with his will. It didn’t feel like using arcane magic; it was pure instinct. The shadows wreathing him shimmered, touched the darkness lurking inside her own aura, and her divine light winked out. Her expression was very satisfying.

“Nnnnope,” Zanzayed said flatly. “That does it, I’m out.”

“Coward,” Arachne said without rancor.

“You do what you like,” he retorted. “In my opinion, this has officially crossed the line into ‘just as hazardous as messing around with Elder God shrines’ territory. I came here to deal with this guy for his temerity in daring to manipulate us, and now that’s done. He won’t last an hour. In the meantime, he is using unknown magics to prod at the Pantheon’s power directly, and I’m not interested in being within a mile of that. Goodbye.”

The Inquisitor’s divine aura flared alight again; Macraigh had disrupted it, not blocked it. Her expression at finding it still viable was almost comically relieved, though she immediately turned to Zanzayed even as the dragon strode away through the tallgrass. “Wait! What do you mean, he won’t last an hour?”

“What’s the first rule of magic?” Zanzayed replied, pausing and looking over his shoulder at her. “The most basic principle, even more fundamental than the four schools of the Circle?”

“Subjective physics,” Arachne said softly, studying Macraigh. “Magic is taking a piece of reality and making the rules answerable to a singular consciousness, not the hard constants of the universe. Zanza’s right, I’ve seen the likes of this before. A being that absorbs too much magic stops being…a being.”

“Anything too subjective may as well not exist,” Zanzayed agreed, turning again and continuing on. “At some point, there have to be rules. The alternative is pure chaos.”

“What, he’s turning into some kind of…ascended entity?” the Inquisitor exclaimed, pointing her sword at Macraigh in alarm. Both the Silver Huntresses flanking her nocked arrows and did likewise.

“No.” Zanzayed had gained enough distance to emerge into his larger form without crushing any of them, and did so. His angular head swiveled around on his long neck to stare down at the Inquisitor. “He is dissipating. Something which ascends is moving purposefully in a single direction; this is more like dropping ink into a pond. Congratulations, Inquisitor, your work here is done. Coming, Arachne?”

“Wait,” Macraigh said, turning to the elf and holding up one hand. “Please, just a moment.”

Zanzayed snorted and hurled himself aloft with a pump of his wings that nearly knocked them all down. All of them except Macraigh; the mighty gust of air the dragon kicked up swirled right through him without making contact.

“This is just intriguing enough I’m willing to hear you out, briefly,” Arachne said skeptically, smoothing her hair back into place.

They were right, Macraigh realized. It was growing harder and harder to keep his consciousness constrained to a single point, and with the constant expansion of his senses came the awareness that he wasn’t going to endure much longer. Highly magical beings like fairies, dragons, and elves were made that way; the accidental process he’d undergone in the shrine had not adjusted his consciousness enough to encompass the magic coursing through it.

Macraigh himself didn’t feel any particular way about this; that disembodied serenity still lifted him above these concerns. Already, he was too far beyond a singular perspective to feel any emotional upset at facing the end of his own discrete existence.

Thinking faster and more deeply than he’d been able to before, he had already found a way to hold on, but it wouldn’t be as a conscious entity, and wouldn’t last forever. But it would, if the sorceress was willing to cooperate, at least accomplish his mission. Seeking a way to secure her aid, he found that in studying her closely, he could peer through space, through time, across the faint shadows of connections, to see what divine entities she had touched, and would, and in what order. The present moment was one spot on a wheel that constantly turned.

“You haven’t obtained an interview with Salyrene yet,” he said.

Her eyes narrowed to green slits. “There’s not much point in asking how you know that, is there?”

“Don’t speak to him,” the Inquisitor instructed tersely. “All of you, fall back. Sisters, remain close enough to see him, but whatever is about to happen—”

“Would you hush for once?” Macraigh snapped in the first open irritation he’d shown her in their entire relationship. “I’ll deal with you in a moment.”

“How dare you—”

“I can offer you something to tempt her,” he said to Arachne. “It is not a guarantee, but it will be important enough to draw her favor. If it doesn’t prompt her to grant your request, it will at least be a large step in that direction.”

Her expression did not alter, but he was aware of millions of minute electrical signals in her brain that revealed her interest. He was also aware that this wasn’t going to get her what she wanted; Salyrene would be the last of the gods to whom she spoke, and that would not be for well over a thousand years yet. And even then, none of the Pantheon had the answer she sought. Obviously, he did not share these insights with her. It was for good reason that mortals could not perceive such things, he was beginning to realize.

“I’m still listening,” Arachne said in a neutral tone.

Macraigh held up his Bag of Holding—not with his hands, it floated outward on a tendril of his shadowy aura—and it opened.

“My books,” he said, and they began to rise from its mouth, beginning with the Wraith Codex.

“Where did you get that?!” the Inquisitor screeched. Macraigh and Arachne both ignored her.

“I have made you the bag’s new owner,” he said to the sorceress, having blithely re-worked this enchantment in a process that ought to have taken hours. Oblivion was tugging at the edges of his awareness, each use of magic drawing him closer to the inevitable. “Most of what’s in it is trash to someone like you, but you may find the books valuable. This one I already promised you. And these four are the most important.” The Codex returned to the bag, and out rose the four volumes printed by the shrine guardian. “These contain the secrets of the four schools of shadow magic that I was able to uncover. They contain everything known by the Elder Gods. Very little of it is still usable, as weak as those powers are now, but with this knowledge will come the ability to constrain the power of the infernal. If you bring this to the Collegium and convince them to study it, it will mean an end to the Black Wraiths and their demon allies. Or at least, force them deeper into hiding and prevent another event like the Hellwars. With time and study, the Collegium may even be able to safely wield infernal magic in the Pantheon’s service.”

“Blasphemy,” the Inquisitor spat, practically foaming. “Kill him!”

Both Huntresses frowned at her. “But…what if he’s right?” the one Macraigh had met earlier objected.

“I am called by Avei to end this heresy before it can spread,” she snapped, “and this must stop now. If you will not—”

“Shut up, you petulant child,” Arachne exclaimed, flicking a hand at her. A wall of blue light sprang up between the Inquisitor and the two of them, and she turned her attention back to Macraigh, ignoring the woman’s furious pounding on it with her sword. “I can see the academic value of this, but as I recall the entire reason for your predicament was the necessity of personal initiation into these schools of magic. How do you expect me to give them that?”

“You won’t,” he said. “I will. Just give them the books and I’ll do the rest.”

“Don’t do it!” the Inquisitor screamed.

“Hmm.” Arachne frowned at him. “I see. You can bind what’s left of yourself to the books?”

“If you’ll keep them in the Bag of Holding until it’s time to hand them over,” he agreed, nodding. “Its dimensional enchantments will help. I can confine myself to a state that will endure just long enough to grant the initiation—correctly, this time, so the recipient won’t end up like me. Do warn whoever agrees to take them, though. It’s not something that should be sprung on someone unawares.”

“Trust me,” she said dryly, “I know well the hazards of sneaking up on wizards. Very well, boy, you have a deal. I’m almost glad you decided to drag me into your insane quest. Though I wish you’d approached this with enough forethought to have avoided the way it will inevitably end for you. One hates to see the loss of a promising wizard.”

He shrugged, smiling ruefully. “Well, we can’t all be archmages. I did my best. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to deal with her.”

“Hadn’t you better just leave her alone?” Arachne asked, turning a disdainful look on the furious Inquisitor. “I assure you, she’s no threat to me or anything in my possession.”

“Well, yes, but I feel an obligation. We are sort of bound together, in a way, and right now I’m the only person who knows she is a Black Wraith.”

That pronouncement brought sudden and total silence, the Inquisitor freezing with her sword upraised to hammer at the shield again.

Macraigh knew this was going to be his last significant act of magic, and that he must make it count. The good thing was that at this point, it was easy; he was already so diffuse a being that working magic came more naturally to him than pumping his own lungs. Once again, he reached out and connected his shadows to hers, to the arts by which she called on her goddess’s power while concealing her true affiliation—that to her other goddess. She had wrapped those shadows around herself by means of ancient demonic rituals, whereas he could manipulate them as intuitively as thought.

He simply gave them a little tweak, and brought Avei’s unique energy into direct contact with Elilial’s. From his expanded perspective, he knew that both goddesses would instantly and directly sense the presence of the other, and exactly what it signified. From a basic grasp of theology he knew which would immediately abandon her agent and flee from that fight, and which would do something aggressive.

Macraigh’s broadened senses told him every detail of what happened as Avei poured her power into the two Silver Huntresses, calling upon the rituals they had performed to gain their divine gifts and align themselves with their goddess. He saw, faster than thought, faster than they themselves were consciously aware of acting, the goddess-given instincts which compelled them to act with a physical speed that would have put elves to shame.

He was the only spectator to all this nuance. To the eyes of everyone else present, both Huntresses simply shot the Inquisitor in the head. At that range, their arrows pierced her skull fully, almost emerging from the other side. She slumped against Arachne’s arcane shield, and then to the ground.

While everyone was staring in shock at this, Macraigh expended his last focus, feeling consciousness bleeding away. With everything he had left, he fused into the enchantment he had just laid upon the four books of shadow. They slipped back into his Bag of Holding, and as his dark aura dissipated, the body beneath it being no longer there, the bag floated soundlessly to the ground.

Arachne watched the flurry of drama unfolding between the Silver Huntresses and the soldiers of the League over their Inquisitor’s corpse without lowering the shield that separated her from it. Instead of weighing in, she turned and began a steady conjuration of matter, systematically filling the inert Elder God shrine with rock and dirt and then piling more atop its recently-unearthed entrance.

Only when that was done did she finally turn and pick up the bag containing the secrets of shadow magic and the last vestiges of the man who had brought them to light.

“Better to light a candle,” she mused, smiling sadly. “I like that.”

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Bonus #39: Curse the Darkness, part 2

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Macraigh thought as rapidly as he ever had in his life, and talked while doing it.

“I’m a scholar as much as a wizard,” he babbled, “and this whole thing started with my search for the source of arcane magic. Naturally that directed me to look into the histories of the Elder Gods, such few as still exist.” Well, he had to give them something. That meant convincing them, first, that he had something to give, and then… Omnu’s breath, he’d been so certain he could do what he needed and be gone before the two had stopped squabbling and even looked for him; their legendary brawl at Mathenon had taken the better part of a day. “I haven’t found it, obviously, or even any promising leads, but quite by chance I have uncovered some very good prospects for countering infernal magic.” Planning on the fly while talking to cover his chain of thought and stall for time was an acquired skill, but this wasn’t his first try, and as usual he found a good hook in his own babbling: Arachne, at least, had fought in the last Hellwar and might be sympathetic to this angle. “That actually started by accident when I had to fend off a few Black Wraiths, and had the opportunity to study their casting a lot more personally than I wanted. I had already gathered a good deal of historical notes on the lost magics of the Elders, and—”

Zanzayed’s snort was a blast of wind that nearly knocked him down, and smelled bafflingly of brimstone and peppermint. “Do we look like your biographers, little man? Get to the point.”

“The chronicle of your adventures is interesting only to you,” Arachne added flatly, planting her fists on her hips. “You said you can figure out how to use shadow magic. And presumably it has something to do with this?” She shifted, giving a curious look to the recently-unearthed structure looming out of the ground nearby.

Right. Well, he’d known too many mages to find it a surprise that the greatest of their kind currently living were purely self-interested creatures. “Ah, yes, of course. Well, to cut a long story short—”

“Already too late,” the dragon grumbled.

“…I have tracked down detailed descriptions of the methods used by some of the Elder Gods to keep Scyllith contained. It seems she wasn’t any more well liked in their day than now. Specifically, those of their magics, which seem to still exist in trace amounts, which could be used to shape, isolate, and safely handle what we now call the infernal. I have confirmation that Elilial’s servants use some of these techniques, to judge by the interest the Wraiths have taken in my research.”

Zanzayed heaved a mighty sigh. By Nemitoth’s quills, how many mint plants would that dragon have to chew to make it smell like that? “So when you said you could unlock the secrets of shadow magic, you meant you’ve probably found one very specific use for it.”

“Much more than probably,” Macraigh said quickly, clutching his bag of holding in front of himself, “and multiple uses!”

“All having to do with infernomancy, though.”

“Well, yes, but—”

“Do I look like a red dragon?” he asked disdainfully. “You’ve got nothing. And that brings us back to the matter of—”

“Shut your jaws for once in your existence, Zanzayed,” Arachne ordered. “You, first of all. Reach into that bag and I’ll see to it your hand doesn’t come back out.”

“Um, I was going to say,” Macraigh offered timidly, “I have books in here. Very rare ones, not to mention all my own research. If you’re going to squash me or something, please preserve my books.”

“Fair,” she said with the ghost of a smile. “More importantly, you are talking about seizing the one advantage that makes the Wraiths what they are.”

“Poppycock,” Zanzayed snorted. “The Wraiths have Elilial’s own protection, everyone knows that. Demons are suffused with the infernal, dragons are too inherently magical to succumb to the corruption, and Elilial’s servants have her blessing. No one else can touch it safely.”

“Anything everyone knows is automatically wrong,” she snapped, “even if it happens to be correct, which that isn’t. When was the last time you had a conversation with a red dragon?”

“When did you?” he countered. “They are some of the least pleasant company imaginable.”

“Well, I can assure you there is more to Wraith technique than the Dark Lady’s personal touch. They have secrets which they guard jealously. If there is a shred of truth to what our young friend here has claimed—” She barely paused for Zanzayed’s incredulous snort. “—he’s talking about using shadow magic to get around them.”

“Actually, shadow magic is what they use,” Macraigh said. “At least in part.”

“And you know this how?” the dragon demanded, positively dripping skepticism.

Macraigh drew in a breath. The Inquisitor would probably be here in minutes; now that these two were no longer tearing up the countryside, they were a veritable lighthouse that would draw the attention of anyone looking for anything out of place. And she was stubborn enough, brave enough, and more than reckless enough to make a beeline for a dragon and an archmage instead of avoiding them like any sensible person would. He needed to get himself barricaded inside the ancient shrine before she arrived; he was too close to his goal to risk having her intercept him now. It was time to take some risks.

“I have a Wraith Codex,” he said.

Both of them blinked, which given the disparity in their sizes would have been comical under other circumstances. Dragon and elf looked at each other, then back at him.

“Bull,” Zanzayed enunciated crisply, “shit.”

“If I might be permitted to reach into my bag?” he asked, as submissively as he could manage. Arachne twisted her lips slightly, but then nodded. And why not—they both knew if he tried to pull out anything with which to fight them it would end swiftly and not in his favor. Her previous threats were mostly formalities.

He slipped one hand into the bag, instantly closing it around the item he wanted, and pulled out the book. Its rough leather cover was black, and marked with a spiky sigil which carried a sullen orange glow. Both of them stared at it in disbelief.

“I’m willing to, ah, donate this,” Macraigh said, despite the pang he felt at the prospect. He had paid dearly for that book. “I don’t actually need any secrets of infernomancy and I’ve taken plenty of notes on everything relevant to my research. I’m afraid you’d have to share, though. There’s only the one copy.”

“How did you get your hands on that?” the elf asked quietly. She was just staring at it, and Macraigh shifted infinitesimally toward her; the dragon was gazing down at him with a truly frightening expression of greed.

“It seems people acquire them with some regularity,” Macraigh explained, “but the Wraiths are very assiduous about eliminating them and everyone involved. They, ah, are under the impression they did so in this case, as well. But anyway, it does detail some of the methodologies by which shadow magic can be used to safely manipulate infernal magic. The problem is, all of these require some sort of initiation, like the divine or fae. A person can’t grasp the shadow schools without guidance from someone who already knows how, so there’s only so much a book can do to show the way.”

“And down in that thing,” she said, glancing again at the metal door, “is someone who can do this for you?”

“I have ascertained—that is, yes.” Macraigh slipped the book back into the Bag of Holding, on which their eyes remained fixed for a moment after it was gone. In theory, nobody but he should have been able to extract anything he had placed in the bag, but if anyone could crack that enchantment, it would be these two. If he had gambled wisely, they would prefer to take the risk he had more to offer them than just lift the bag from his corpse. “So, if you’d like to accompany me into—”

“Ah, ah, ah,” Zanzayed chided, lowering his head again and grinning that deeply horrifying grin. “Immortality is an active practice, you know, not a passive trait. Just because your species doesn’t suffer senescence does not mean you get to live forever. You accomplish that by not screwing around with things which are very likely to kill you.”

“And relics of the Elder Gods are very likely to kill you,” Arachne continued, folding her arms. She really wasn’t what Macraigh had expected from her reputation; she reminded him oddly of several teachers he’d had. “Even us. A conservative ninety percent of what the Elders did was insane and/or pointlessly sadistic, and that includes their leftovers. I am not going in there.”

“Nor I,” Zanzayed agreed, his grin stretching even wider.

“I…see,” Macraigh said, again thinking as fast as he could manage. The plan he had just hurriedly cobbled together hinged on coaxing these two to serve as a shield, ideally with them under his eye; could he afford to just leave them up here to detain the Inquisitor if—no, when—she caught up? He wasn’t sure about the outcome of letting that unfold outside his control. What if one or both of them sided with her? That didn’t seem likely, but…

“Also,” the dragon continued, “none of this explains why you felt the need to play your little prank on us.”

Well, if there was ever a time for some strategic honesty, this was it. “Well, you see, there was a convocation called at Mount Tira…”

“What, that plateau over the falls?” Zanzayed interrupted. “Nobody uses that for anything, the humans in the Tira Vales think it’s cursed.”

“If you ever paid attention to anything but girls and food,” Arachne said disdainfully, “you would be aware that there are bridges to it and temples built in the center now. The Pantheon cults have been using it for decades as a neutral site to meet and discuss…whatever it is religious people need to talk about.”

“Right,” Macraigh said, nodding, “and the last time, one of those subjects was forbidden magic. The Avenists named an Inquisitor to hunt the Black Wraiths, and she’s sort of got it into her head that I’m one of them or something, so…”

“Oh.” Zanzayed reared suddenly upright, causing Macraigh to shy reflexively away from him, and then emitted a boom of laughter. “So you prodded the two biggest menaces you could find into having a brawl right on top of your own target so your enemy wouldn’t dare chase you here! Arachne, the balls on this guy!”

“I do sort of grudgingly respect that,” she agreed with a wry little smile. “Nearly as much as I’m annoyed by it.”

“And it’s not so much that she wouldn’t dare follow me,” Macraigh added, “because I guarantee she would and did. I just figured you two could make it more or less impossible. So, if you’re not interested in helping me down in the Elder shrine, I’ll need to ask you to prevent her from entering after me.”

The dragon lowered his head again, this time to look down his long nose at Macraigh. “Careful, boy. Those balls can get too big for you to drag around.”

“I will share anything I learn with whoever stays up here to repel her,” he said quickly, “and you can have my Wraith Codex.”

“Hn,” Arachne grunted. “You do what you like, Zanza, but I consider that offer worth the affront to my pride, small as it was. It’s easy loot, too. Just teleport this Inquisitor into the sea…”

“Oh, please don’t do that,” Macraigh said earnestly. “I have gone well out of my way not to harm her or any of her allies the whole time she’s been after me.”

“Then you’re a sentimental nitwit,” she stated.

“Arachne, your astounding lack of people skills is one of the great mysteries of the world,” Zanzayed chuckled. “Just because you can easily eliminate someone who annoys you does not mean you ought.”

“That might be the stupidest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

“Actions have consequences, you little blonde clot! The poor boy has to clear his name at the end of this, after all. Don’t you see his gambit? He goes back to this convocation at Tira with all the secrets of the Black Wraiths and his proven track record of not harming any of the Pantheon’s servants, and they’ll pretty much have to embrace him as a hero.”

“Ah, I see,” she mused, turning an analytical stare on Macraigh. “But why do we need to care about that?”

“She’s just bluffing now,” Zanzayed informed him. “Arachne’s entire hobby is getting personal interviews with gods; even she doesn’t mishandle Pantheon clerics without a very good reason.”

“You said this Inquisitor is an Avenist?” the elf inquired. “Because I’ve already talked with Avei and quite frankly I relish the chance to tweak her nose.”

“Ignore her,” the dragon instructed. “So you knew the invocation to raise this entrance, that much is clear. How do you plan to get in there?”

“Ah.” Clearing his throat, Macraigh stepped over to the metal door. “That, as it happens, is the easy part.” So saying, he reached out and touched a finger to the center of the symbol emblazoned on its surface.

Nothing happened.

It really would be ironic, he reflected under their combined stare, if this was the point at which his research failed him. Leading him all this way to be blocked by something as pedestrian as a locked door. The thing looked like it was made of mithril; even if he could persuade these two to help, it was unlikely all of them combined could force their way in.

Then, after an excruciating pause, the metal panel shifted. A hiss of air emerged as it lowered fractionally, opening a crack at its top. There came a soft grinding sound, and then quite suddenly the entire thing slammed downward, opening the metal-lined shaft. A flight of stairs descended into shadow just beyond the entrance; as they all stared, magical lights flickered into being, illuminating the mithril corridor plunging down below the hillside.

“Very well, little mage,” said Zanzayed the Blue, shifting around and seating himself in a long arc that nearly encircled the entrance in a wall of cobalt-scaled flesh, “you have yourself a deal.”

“Fine, agreed,” Arachne huffed. “But keep in mind I fully expect whatever is in there to kill you in the most agonizing way possible. I’m not sticking around here one minute longer than my patience holds out; there is really no point. So be about your business quickly.”

“I thank you both from the bottom of my heart,” Macraigh said, bowing to each of them in turn. “And…you have my sincere apologies for tricking you. I didn’t think you’d be so reasonable about all this, or I’d just have approached you directly for—”

“Yes, yes,” Zanzayed interrupted lazily, shifting his head to gaze back in the direction of the road. “Presuming the contingent of armed people heading this way is your Inquisitor and friends, you’d better get a move on.”

And so he did.


He had journeyed into a number of ancient ruins in the course of his work. This one was by far the oldest, and easily the least ancient-looking. The whole thing wasn’t mithril, but it was mostly metal. Some segments of the walls gleamed like highly polished silver, while the floor was a matte black which he could only tell was metallic by touching it. Macraigh was no more of a metallurgist than being a general-focus mage required, and so couldn’t even recognize any of these alloys save the mithril of which the entrance stairwell was made. He had a feeling no one currently alive would have recognized all these materials, though.

The architecture also incorporated glass tubes like pillars around the walls, half-filled with some dark purple material which he could only tell was liquid (or had been at some point) because one of them had cracked and spilled a quantity of the sludge down its side; Macraigh stayed far away from that goop. That was the only sign of visible damage to the place. None of the metal had rusted, the air was on the stale side but breathable, and while there was dust over everything it did not seem like enough to have accumulated after all the thousands of years he knew this place had been buried.

Clearly some manner of enchantment had been at work to preserve the shrine. Just as clearly, it had failed with age.

A discovery like this deserved to be examined carefully and in the greatest detail, but Macraigh had to be mindful of his purpose and the uncertain time limit under which he labored. He was safe for interruption only as long as the patience of his two newfound benefactors held out—one of whom was notoriously irascible and the other an infamous pleasure-seeker, and both of whom had reason to be annoyed with him. Much as the need pained him, he simply could not afford to dawdle.

Nor, unfortunately, could he make much sense of the shrine. The Elder Gods weren’t much for iconography, and so he presumed the objects which lined the walls at waist height served a purpose, but he could not discern it. They were a series of flat black panels extending outward in metal frames, which did not respond to being touched. Probably magical in nature, and clearly out of power.

Well, something in here had to still be actively charmed. The lights had appeared when he entered, after all.

Macraigh examined the obelisk in the center of the floor; it was of the black metal, topped with a pyramid that looked to be a solid piece of glass, and was totally inert. With mounting worry that all of this would end up being for naught, he turned to the final interesting feature in the place, a larger fixture positioned against the wall of the circular chamber directly opposite the entrance. It was a bulky protrusion rather like a tombstone in shape, taller than he, made of mithril, and with another of those dark panels set into it at chest height.

This one also did not respond to being touched. He started to channel a tiny spark of arcane magic into it, then thought better of it. That might end up being his only recourse, but it was also an excellent way to trigger traps, curses, or cause every remaining enchantment in the place to spectacularly collapse.

So far, he had managed to see all of these effects only from a safe distance, and that only by dumb luck.

“Well, now what?” he asked aloud in frustration.

At his voice, the panel in the large protrusion turned white and began to glow. Macraigh bent forward to stare, and after a moment, several lines of text appeared upon it. Unfortunately, they were in the dead language of the Elder Gods, of which he had encountered only bits and pieces. None of what he now saw meant anything to him.

As he stared, the panel flickered in intensity, and the image wavered as if seen through rippling water, then stabilized. A sharp crackle sounded, causing him to hop backward, followed by a buzz. And then, finally, a voice. Unfortunately, it only spoke a few seconds of gibberish.

“Hello?” Macraigh said uncertainly. “My name is Laran Macraigh, of the Collegium of Salyrene. Whom have I the pleasure of addressing?”

An odd little chiming sounded, and some more inscrutable text appeared upon the magic panel.

“Dialect id-identified: Gaelic, sixteenth century. Transcension interlink n-n-n-not found,” it said. The voice was feminine, flat, businesslike, and resonated strangely as if it came from a great distance. Or as if more than one woman were speaking simultaneously. It was hard to tell; he had never heard a similar effect. Also, she appeared to have a stutter. “Av-avatar Zero Nine cannot be reached. Facil-cil-cility power at two percent. Please res-restore the traaaaaaaaa—” She broke off with an ungodly screech, then resumed in a steadier tone. “Please restore the transcension interlink to charge the facility’s power banks and enable the Avatar user interface.”

“Who are you?” he asked more directly, frowning in confusion. The words were familiar, mostly, but he still could not make sense of what she was saying.

“The facility’s sub-OS is active, user Laran Macraigh. Please restore the transcension interlink.”

“I’m…sorry, uh, Sub Ohess, but I don’t know what that means, much less how to do it.”

More chiming, then a pause. “If the transcension inter-in-interlink caNNNNNN.” Again, she broke off with a shriek that clearly did not come from any human throat, then resumed. “If the transcension interlink cannot be restored, most facility functions will be unavailable. Please state your query, user Laran Macraigh.”

He drew a breath, and straightened his shoulders. “I seek initiation into the ways of shadow magic.”

This time, he thought the chime sounded annoyed. “Avatar Zero Nine cannot be reached. The sub-OS is not designed for intuitive sapient interaction. Please state your directives clearly and concisely.”

Macraigh blinked twice. He had had enough bizarre experiences over the course of his mission that talking with some kind of ancient servitor spirit wasn’t hugely out of his depth, but being told by such an entity that it was too stupid for normal conversation was an entirely new kind of experience.

“Um…how to put this? I am researching the schools…that is, the kinds of magic that were personally created by the Elder Gods Druroth, Araneid, Rauzon, and Caraistha. Specifically, the applications of these magics that were used to counter and contain the personal magic of Scyllith. Ancient writings have led me to this spot as the likeliest source of this knowledge. Can you help me?”

“Th-this facility is designed for spec-spec-specialized tranNNNNNNN. Specialized transcension acclimation and training. This documentation is available to all users on request. Please insert a data crystal.”

Though the protruding structure in which the spirit apparently resided seemed to be all one seamless piece, an indentation suddenly appeared alongside the glowing panel.

“A data crystal?” Macraigh asked helplessly. “I don’t have anything like that. Are there any books available?”

“Printing,” she said tersely.

“Printing?” he repeated in fascination. “You mean you can actually print one, right now?”

For answer, another slot appeared, this one below the screen at of the same size. Within was a stack of papers some eight inches tall.

Hands trembling with reverence, Macraigh reached inside, finding that the stack was actually four books, bound in some thin material cut the same dimensions exactly as the pages—which were a crisp white paper unlike any he had seen before. They were printed, he found, flipping through the first, in easily legible Tanglic.

“Thank you very much, Sub Ohess,” Macraigh said fervently while loading the books into his Bag of Holding for later study. She chimed wordlessly in acknowledgment. “And…what about initiation? Ah, I think that is what you meant by acclimation, perhaps? You see, I already know some of the lore of shadow magic, but the ability to access it must be conferred directly, and you simply can’t get that from text alone…”

“Correct. Warning: these transcension fields are operating at minimal power. Ascended members of the Infinite Order responsible for them cannot be reached. Ac-acclimation is not advised at this time.”

He wasn’t about to tell this helpful spirit that her gods were dead. “I understand the risks, Sub Ohess. But if you are able to help me, I must embrace them.”

“There is insufficient facility power to guarantee com-completion of the acclimation process, user Laran Macraigh. The spec-specif-ified transcen-scen-sceiounnnNNN— The specified transcension fields are not operable at sufficient power to guarantee the completion of the acclimation process. An attempt will exhaust this facility’s power reserves entirely; a second will not be possible. Have you completed the pre-acclimation course of preparation?”

Macraigh blinked. “The what?”

“Unprepared sapients are at risk of serious complications. Common side effects of improperly administered acclimation are temporary psychosis and permanent, progressive dem-dem-dementia.”

He inhaled slowly. The Inquisitor was closing in, Arachne and Zanzayed were going to run out of patience soon… And if that happened, them leaving him to his own devices was the best case scenario. They might very well decided to add to his problems; he had certainly antagonized them enough. And to cap it all off, it turned out the shrine had only enough magic left to perform a single initiation.

This was his life’s work, everything had been leading up to this moment. Risks be damned, walking away now was just not an option.

“Are you prohibited from helping me, then?” he asked quietly.

“You have been not-notified of the potential hazards. Proceed at your own risk, user.”

“What…will happen to you, if we try?”

“This sub-OS will be inactive until power is restored.”

Macraigh closed his eyes. What was this spirit? Could she be considered a living being? If he understood, he was effectively asking her to sacrifice her life for this. She seemed oddly unperturbed at the prospect… Perhaps because she thought she could be restored when more power was delivered from the Elder Gods, and did not realize that could never happen.

It all came down to that question. One chance, one possibility only, demanding the destruction of this shrine, the death of its guardian, and the possible loss of his own sanity. And for all that, there was no guarantee it would even work. How could he possibly accept such a bargain?

And…how could he not?

“Forgive me,” Macraigh whispered, then opened his eyes. “I swear I will remember your sacrifice, Sub Ohess. Please forgive me, but I must do this. I ask that you proceed.”

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Bonus #38: Curse the Darkness, part 1

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This chapter topic was requested by Kickstarter backer Travis Foster!

She probably would have got him, had she not tried her ambush while he was actively siphoning mana.

It was a very small ley nexus in the middle of the woods, of course; even in a backwater country like Thacaar any nexus of significance would already be claimed by some wizard and likely the site of a tower. It would do, however, to recharge his power crystals and replenish his powder supply. Macraigh had spent a cold night camped in the forest, not daring a fire, before laboriously navigating to this spot via pendulum, his charmed compass having been broken in a recent tussle with the Inquisitor’s forces. Now, having laid out the siphoning circle (a design he himself had innovated, enabling him to both gather dust and charge crystals simultaneously at the cost of slowing both processes), he was hunched over the collection hourglass in which ambient arcane energy was coalescing into enchantment-ready powder, holding a coarse breakfast of hardtack in one hand and a brass rod in the other. The rod was for regularly tapping the hourglass to loosen dust as it formed and prevent clumps.

So far he had only forgot himself and smacked it with the hardtack twice. It had been a long night.

Macraigh paused in chewing, frowning at the hourglass. The dust had begun drifting notably against the side nearest him, and just as he lifted the rod to tap it loose, the thin stream of glittering blue powder materializing from the upper chamber shifted. As if nudged by a breeze, which of course was impossible inside the glass.

Carefully not moving anything but his eyes, he glanced around the circle at the three quartz chunks he had set up to charge, two of which were only barely within his peripheral vision. Those two gleamed brighter than the third, and were also flickering subtly. Coupled with the direction of the powder’s drift—there it came again—they revealed the direction of whatever was disrupting the ley lines.

There was very unlikely to be a fairy closing in on him from the front; the kind of fairies who charged at arcane workings did not hide their approach. More likely the ley lines were being tugged from the other direction. That meant either a warlock or demon absorbing power, or a subtle use of divine magic causing a slight natural vacuum toward which loose arcane energy would be drawn.

And he certainly knew which was most likely to be hunting him.

Carefully avoiding any sudden moves, Macraigh dropped his hardtack to the dirt and reached as slowly as he dared into the front of his robes, where he had a pouch of charms at the ready for just such occasions as these. Enchanting it to deliver to his fingers specifically the one he desired with no need for rummaging had been a major working that took him the better part of half a year, and which he had not once regretted.

Especially not now, as the two crystals suddenly gleamed brighter just as a particularly strong surge splattered the dust practically sideways within the hourglass. He half-spun, half-flopped backward (even mages who led lives as active as his rarely had time for athleticism) and hurled the slow charm in the direction of his attacker.

By Salyrene’s grace, he caught her mid-leap. Macraigh lay sprawled on his side, panting with adrenaline and staring up at her. There had been no sound, not even a quieting of the birds and cicadas nearby. If only she had waited for him to finish, that would have been the end of his quest. She was good; this was one of his closest scrapes by far.

The Silver Huntress hovered a foot off the ground, one leg extended gracefully behind her from her leap and an arm upraised with a knife ready to strike downward. Omnu’s breath, had she been planning to kill him? Even the Inquisitor was insistent on bringing him in alive, but this one might not have been fully briefed. He’d never seen her before; she was a local Thacaari, her tea-brown skin making her silver eagle tattoo seem even more luminous.

“Oh!” he said suddenly, eyes widening in alarm, and scrambled up to a kneeling position, reaching into his charm pouch again. This time there was some short fumbling, as he hadn’t a specific charm for what he needed, but making do on the fly was the mark of a skilled wizard, which Macraigh considered himself to be. A couple of seconds’ frantic thought brought him a small square of enchanting vellum and his pre-dusted quill, with which he scrawled a hurried set of runes before hurling the scrap at the Huntress.

It zipped forward as if caught in a wind to adhere to her chest. She drew in a loud, desperate gasp, able to take her first breath in real time since being hit by the slow trap.

“Nemitoth’s quills, I’m sorry about that,” Macraigh said nervously. “I usually use that for demons and the like, wasn’t expecting a real person. You all right there? You can breathe okay? Please say something if you feel any numbness or tingling in your extremities, I think I prevented that but—”

“Release me, warlock!” she spat. In Pashu, of course, but his language pendant translated adequately as always. To his knowledge, the Inquisitor spoke Tanglic; either she had significant local contacts or…what? By Vesk’s own fiddle, he was not cut out for all this skulduggery.

“I’m not a warlock,” he said wearily, more for form’s sake than because he thought anything useful would come of starting that argument again. “And don’t worry, I will release you. When I’m a good distance away. Considering you came at me with a knife I think that’s a reasonable compromise.”

Her eyes narrowed—his hasty modification to the slow charm had freed her head and vital organs, that was it—and she showed enough presence of mind not to bother quibbling over the obviously futile. “Warlock, mage, whatever. You dabble in forbidden magics. The Goddess has demanded your end.”

“You know what I find interesting?” he said testily, beginning to gather his equipment back into his Bag of Holding. This was less crystal charge and accumulated enchanting powder than he’d hoped for, but even with her trapped he didn’t fancy finishing his work under her gimlet stare. “I’ve yet to hear a word on this that suggests your goddess is even aware of me. All this comes from people, Huntress, mortals as flawed as you or I. People who decide what magics to forbid without bothering to understand them and then won’t hear discussion on the subject. If anything, your friend the Inquisitor is on shakier footing with the gods than I. Salyrene charges us to seek knowledge and advance understanding, whereas if she’s telling you this business comes down from your goddess she’s taking Avei’s name in vain. To be frank I’ve never heard of an Inquisitor in Avenic lore before she started in on me; the whole thing sounds made up. And I never dabble,” he added haughtily, straightening up to look around for anything he’d forgotten. Ah, yes, his hardtack. Macraigh picked it up and brushed off dirt on the front of his robes. “My research is exhaustive and my precautions exacting. Goddess, spare me the stubbornness of religious people. And yes, I’m aware of the irony.”

She couldn’t seem to think of a response to that, which did not surprise him unduly. Macraigh had accumulated some unfortunate experience with religious fanatics in recent years, and found that when confronted with common sense they would either fly into an incoherent rage or freeze up entirely. More down-to-earth sorts like the Silver Huntresses tended to be in the latter group.

“Anyhow. I am sorry about all this,” he said, pulling a stick of smoothed rowan wood engraved with basic runes and jamming it upright in the ground in front of her. More materials squandered, but at least these were basic enough that they could be replaced without undue onus.

“You’re sorry,” she spat, still frozen in the air before him.

“Yes, I am,” he said simply, winding a length of embroidered ribbon around the stick and carefully balancing a glass bead atop it. Once the assembly was in place the charm ignited, causing the ribbon to twist in a slow spiral around the stick while the bead shone a brilliant arcane blue.

It also produced a tremendously unpleasant buzzing noise, causing both of them to cringe.

“Sorry about that, too,” he added, raising his voice above the racket. “It’ll keep the animals away, though. I’m sure you know there are bears hereabouts, and I wouldn’t want you stuck there helpless. The charm will wear off…well, after a while. Just kick over the stick when you’re free, the noise will stop as soon as it’s disarranged.”

She was frowning at him in familiar puzzlement. Not for the first time, Macraigh considered that he could probably argue his case successfully before the High Commander if the Inquisitor ever succeeded in getting her hands on him; he had certainly left behind a trail of Avei’s minions inconvenienced but very carefully not harmed, or even spoken to harshly. It wasn’t their fault they were being told by a pigheaded extremist that he was some kind of maniac. Unfortunately, the nature of his work kept him moving, which meant there was always a new set of fresh faces for the Inquisitor to hurl at him. It was a shame the Hand of Avei was off crusading at Valgorod. Macraigh rather fancied he could talk sense to her. Soldiers were pragmatic folk.

“If you’d like,” he offered, “I can apply a charm to you that will deaden your hearing for a while. It’ll be less uncomfortable—”

“Don’t you touch me!”

“Right, I thought not,” he sighed, turning away. “Good luck to you, then.”

Macraigh stepped almost to the edge of the small clearing before thinking better of setting off straight. He made a show of taking out and consulting his (broken) compass, then turned and trotted off into the woods in an entirely different direction than he was actually heading.

He finished off the hardtack during the half hour in which he laid a false trail in the wrong direction; it didn’t taste notably worse for having fallen on the ground, and it wasn’t as if this was his first time ingesting trace amounts of dirt. Upon reaching a creek, Macraigh stopped ankle-deep in the water, fishing out another charm from his pouch. Stepping very carefully to the opposite edge of the creek bed, he reached over and laid it upon the mossy bank without personally touching dry ground, then backed away a few steps and retrieved a crystal-tipped rod from his Bag of Holding.

One flick of the wand, and the enchanting vellum disintegrated into a puff of smoke, which streamed off into the woods, leaving behind a damp trail of Macraigh’s footprints. That was a good charm, one he had laboriously devised himself and which ought to fool even expert trackers who knew to be wary of Allister’s False Footsteps. This one even carried his scent and would break twigs and disarrange underbrush in passing. Obviously she’d figure it out when it came to an abrupt stop in the middle of nowhere, but at least that would give him a leg up while she had to double back.

He turned and slogged off down the creek as fast as he could without sacrificing his footing in the running water. Putting miles between himself and pursuit was only part of his need to hasten. Macraigh’s ultimate destination was almost near enough he could taste it, and he had been forced to arrange the most thorough of cover to keep the Inquisitor and her lackeys off his back while he finished his work. It was going to kick the whole country into a furor, not to mention what would happen to him if the great powers he had deliberately poked figured out what he’d done, but the Inquisitor was the single most stubbornly obsessive person he had ever had the misfortune to encounter; nothing short of an act of the gods was going to distract her.

Well, an act of the gods was more than Macraigh could conjure up, but he’d found pretty much the next best thing. He only hoped it would be enough.

Even above the gurgle of the stream, he heard the road long before reaching it; there was an awful lot of traffic, to judge by the shouts of people and bellowing of oxen and donkeys. As he drew closer to the edge of the forest, Macraigh winced guiltily, having heard a moment of audible weeping from someone. It was a safe bet these people were sensibly fleeing from what he had set in motion.

In the end, it would all be worth it. That, or he would be in no position to see the aftermath.

He left the creek bed before emerging from the treeline, deciding not to try sneaking under the bridge up ahead. The road was definitely busier than it ought to be, though it couldn’t be called packed. A steady stream of people were passing by, heading south toward Nijendieu. Locals, all of them, dark-skinned Thacaari in the simple but colorful robes and turbans favored by their peasantry. Nearly all were carrying possessions; over half rode laden pack animals or ox-drawn carts.

Just his luck, there was a small group of actual soldiers in bronze armor crossing the bridge right as Macraigh approached the road, clambering up the incline out of the creek bed. Naturally, they stopped in unison, turning to give him a thorough once-over. He sighed softly, and did not slow. By that point, thanks to the Inquisitor, Macraigh was practiced in not drawing official attention, and he’d learned that the quickest way to make soldiers think you were up to something was by deliberately trying to look innocent. It wasn’t as if he was going to blend in with the locals no matter what he did.

The man in the lead, to judge by the feathers on his helmet, gave him a single long, considering look before coming to the obvious conclusion. “Adventurer?”

Macraigh had denied that out of sheer surprise the first time. Thereafter, he’d embraced it. There was no more convenient excuse for an obviously foreign wizard to be wandering around, and it was one of the least likely to draw suspicion. It was one thing in cities, where heavily-armed profit-minded loners were a serious and recurrent problem; out on the roads, nobody paid attention to adventurers.

“Yep,” he said laconically. “Heard there’s a—”

“Look, it’s your own business,” the officer interrupted, “but this one’s over your pay grade, wizard. I suggest you head south like everybody else. There’s a—”

He was prevented from revealing what there was by a sudden demonstration of it. The roar seemed to split the very skies, and all up and down the road, people screamed and dived for the scant cover of the ditches. Including two of the soldiers.

The titanic shape whipped past directly overhead, hardly more than a dozen yards in the air; even with its immense wingspan, the sinuous form of the dragon was gone almost before its passing shadow could be consciously registered. The sudden wind of its passage grabbed at Macraigh’s robes and then the sapphire behemoth was winding away toward the northwest.

In that direction, he saw for the first time the shape of the tower, just barely visible against the horizon with its massive crystal roof glowing in the sun like a lighthouse. The dragon banked in its direction and exhaled a mighty blast of flame whose roar was audible even at that distance.

The famously well-defended wizardly tower retaliated with a burst of pure arcane energy that lit half the horizon for a split second. Its attacker had adroitly shot upward, escaping the worst of it, though the great beast tumbled slightly from the aftershock before regaining its smooth glide and then circled off toward the west.

“Thank you, gentlemen, but I know what I’m about,” Macraigh said politely, scraping mud off his boots at the edge of the stone bridge.

The officer looked at him, then back in the direction of the tower, then shook his head. “Your funeral.” He set off down the road again with no more ado, which suited Macraigh just fine.

He followed the road for a hundred yards or so, winding his way around people and animals heading the other direction—or, in some cases, people trying to coax their terrified animals to behave. It wasn’t strictly necessary, since none of these folk cared enough to give him a second glance, but the last few years had taught him the virtue of caution, and so he made a show of following the road toward the trouble until the soldiers had disappeared to the south before abruptly stepping off it and heading northeast through the patchy tallgrass.

The moment he was out of sight of the road over a small ridge, Macraigh stopped and released another false trail charm, going north parallel to the road, then applied a trail-concealing one to his own boots. He tried not to overuse such measures—that would only make them less effective in the long run as the Inquisitor’s people learned to watch for them—but he was so close to his destination. This was no time to become complacent.

He cringed and hunched his shoulders involuntarily when the dragon passed overhead again, roaring in frustration, but it wasn’t interested in him. In fact, he knew what the great beast was looking for, and a single wandering mage wouldn’t pose a distraction. Macraigh’s only worry was that the blue would recognize him in particular. Unlikely; he had taken every possible precaution. But with a dragon, you never knew.

At any rate, it soon found what it was actually after.

Macraigh had stopped to peruse his map, studying the luminous icons indicating his position and that of his goal. It was a very thorough enchanted map, and warned him of the dragon and the other interested party he had summoned to this area. He was close; it was just up ahead, should be hidden within a little dip in the rolling terrain with no obvious features to mark it. Also, he noted that they were converging on this general area, which made it seem wise to get a move on. And it seemed the Silver Huntress was free again, a few miles back, though so far she was still following one of his false trails. The Inquisitor was closing on him, though. She had followed the road, so he’d inadvertently made her job a little easier by cutting across it and leaving behind a swath of witnesses who wouldn’t even think of lying to a Viridi cleric.

Just as he was stuffing the map back in his Bag of Holding, the dragon arced past directly in Macraigh’s field of view and slammed into an invisible barrier at a speed which folded up its entire length like a spring. The beast tumbled from the sky with an undignified but still mighty squawk.

Macraigh gritted his teeth and set off again at a near-run. Just his luck; they’d finally run across each other, and instead of at the tower they did it practically on top of him and his destination.

The blast of fire which seared a swath of the prairie to his immediate north wasn’t close enough for him to feel the heat, but it started a grass fire that was going to become his problem sooner than later, unless the wind shifted in his favor.

The counterstroke was even more worrying; a colossal sigil appeared in the very sky and spewed forth an indiscriminate volley of arcane missiles around the entire region.

“Sloppy,” Macraigh muttered aloud, and then was hurled off his feet as one smashed into the ground not ten yards distant.

He gathered himself up as quickly as possible, deliberately not staring at the brand new crater, and hustled on. This time he made it almost ten minutes before something, somewhere, impacted a magical barrier with a force that made his subtler senses jangle with alarm exactly three seconds before a massive shockwave flattened the tallgrass—and him.

A wizard persevered. He pulled himself up, double-checked his map, put his head down and pushed onward. All this mess had landed a lot closer than he had anticipated or wished, but at least it would be having the desired effect. Even the Inquisitor wouldn’t be trying to press her hunt through this chaos.

Surely she wouldn’t. Right?

Lightning flashed out of a cloudless sky, peppering the ground not too far away, and Macraigh threw himself flat. Natural lightning would go right toward an upright figure alone on a prairie; fortunately, this had clearly been aimed at someone else. He scrambled back to his feet and redoubled his speed.

On he pressed, on that last harried leg of his years-long journey, while chaos unfolded all around him. He couldn’t even see either of the archmages whose duel he was rushing through, and he couldn’t decide if that made it better or worse. The dragon, at least, he had a general sense of, as the beast kept roaring and emitting blasts of fire—luckily not too close to Macraigh. The pair of them were certainly making a grand mess of the countryside. Fire, lightning, wind, bursts of sheer kinetic force, ice meteors, and those were only the spells he could identify. There was no end of constant noise and light effects whose actual purpose thankfully didn’t hit close enough for him to discern. The constant haze of extremely potent arcane magic practically blinded his own subtler senses.

Luck finally shone upon him, though, as the brawl shifted away to the south just as he arrived at his destination. Macraigh had to spend the last paces of his journey with his map out, watching the icons for himself and his target more than where he was putting his feet, as he paced back and forth, looking for that sweet spot. Both symbols were pretty much on top of each other on the map; he meandered this way and that, all around a small dip in the terrain, until quite suddenly the two combined and began to flash.

He stuffed the map away, his heart thrumming with excitement. This was the spot. There was absolutely nothing to reveal to his eyes that anything was here, but this had to be the spot.

There came a distant roar and a flash of fire, a good distance to the southeast, which he ignored.

Macraigh drew in a deep breath and spread his arms wide. The incantation he had pieced together from two different sources and wasn’t totally certain he had conjugated the dead language of the Elder Gods correctly; his pendant did nothing for a language no living person could speak. Well, if not, there was a lot of digging in his near future.

“Malfermita,” he declaimed to the sky. “Rajtigo. Naiya!”

A distant boom of thunder from the battling wizards. A faint breeze ruffled the tallgrass closer at hand. And that was all.

He lowered his arms. “Oh, bloody hell.”

Then the ground in front of him began to crumble.

Macraigh stumbled back as something rose up through the very dirt, displacing tallgrass left and right. A wedge-shaped protrusion rose up from within the earth, forming a line that seemed to lead right into the side of the tiny hill right in front of him. Sod and grasses tumbled off its sides, revealing a flat panel of pale metal directly facing him, marked with a sigil he had encountered repeatedly in his research.

Macraigh bit his lower lip and practically danced in place. This was it. He was here!

Then the entire earth shook so violently he was thrown off his feet.

Macraigh didn’t know exactly how much a dragon weighed, but he discovered that day that when one hit the ground in a steep dive the results could quite reasonably be described as an earthquake.

He rolled over onto his back and momentarily froze, staring up at the colossal sapphire shape looming above him. Then, propelled by sheer terrified reflex, he began trying to scuttle uselessly backward.

That lasted for about two seconds, and then he was levitated bodily off the ground. Macraigh instinctively reached for his own magic to counter the charm, and found it blocked.

Mana filtration; an analytical portion of his mind couldn’t help being impressed, despite his panic. There weren’t many wizards who could manage that. Then he was rotated about in midair to stare at one of those who could.

She was exactly as he remembered: blonde, green-eyed, sharp-eared, and scowling.

“Yep,” Arachne said sourly, “I remember you, y’little pest. This the one, Zanza?” She twirled a finger, spinning him around in the air to face the dragon.

Macraigh just barely managed not to pee in his robes when the great beast’s head, large enough to make a bite of him, lowered and twisted till he was staring at one smooth sapphire eye from far, far too close.

“Oh, that’s him all right,” the dragon rumbled. “I didn’t see him before, but he smells the same. Right down to that rather pedestrian charm he’s trying to disguise his scent with.”

“Oh, is that what that is? I thought his spell components were going bad.” She twirled him lazily back around, and he noted that her scowl, ominously, had deepened. “Credit where it’s due, boy, that was a nice trick. Hunt down Arachne and Zanzayed, tell each that the other’s found a way into Odomo’s Tower and is planning to seize the treasure. Real cute. In hindsight, I’m a little surprised nobody’s tried something like this before. Of course, now we have to make sure nobody does something this irritating ever again, which means making a truly grandiose spectacle of your demise.”

Macraigh tried to say something in his defense. The shrill croaking noise he produced was not one of his proudest showings.

“We have a little wager going, though,” Zanzayed the Blue added, reaching out with one massive claw and very delicately turning Macraigh back around to face him. The dragon was grinning, and almost certainly did not misapprehend that that was a reassuring sight. “I’m betting that for you to try this, you must be after something that’ll really be worth our time. I have to warn you, though, this is a second wager. In the first place, I bet her that you’d set this up because you’d found a way into the Tower and wanted us good and distracted. Needless to say, it’ll go that much the worse for you if you make me lose two wagers in the space of ten minutes. So for all our sakes, I really hope you’ve got something good—”

“I can unlock the secrets of shadow magic!” Macraigh squealed.

For a few moments, there was only the faint wind over the prairie. He wasn’t at all certain that his heart was still beating. Zanzayed shifted his head to look past the captive mage, sharing a silent communication with the elf.

And then, Macraigh was dumped unceremoniously to the ground, where he blinked up at both of their faces.

“All right,” said the world’s greatest sorceress, folding her arms, “we’re listening.”

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“And herrrrre we are, my little lollipops!” Rowe spun to face them and flared his wings dramatically, sketching a bow. “I present to you: the rear entrance of the Grim Visage!”

Tanenbaum and Reich inched warily toward him, craning their necks to peer around at the vista he indicated.

“All the way down there,” the priestess said resignedly.

“Well, you can’t deny it’s a hell of a view!” Rowe said merrily. His ebullient good cheer hadn’t diminished since they’d summoned him, which was beginning to make Tanenbaum nervous. Vanislaads were great ones for not letting on what they were really thinking, so odds were it was all an act, but still. A child of Vanislaas in this good a mood boded ill for…well, everyone.

The Visage itself was still shrouded in his Fog of War, obscuring a band of space around the great central structure which covered its entrances and windows. It was easy enough to tell where the back door had to be, though; of the network of narrow stone bridges and tiny islands which arched unsupported over the seemingly infinite drop below, only one led straight to the rear of the Visage itself.

“That’s gonna be a rough descent,” stated Cross, the House Dalkhaan guard captain accompanying them. Rowe made way for him as he came to the front of the group, kneeling to frown down at the path ahead. The incubus had led them through a series of tunnels and wall ledges to a vantage above the level of the Visage, which afforded them a very convenient—and terrifying—view. “Rough approach, rather. Lot of exposed space to travel, zero cover, awfully easy to fall off… No way in hell I’d try to lead men in an attack on that if the people inside weren’t behind that…cloud thing.” He glanced up at Tanenbaum. “You doing okay with that? Is it gonna hold up?”

“That’s not hard,” the warlock replied, “don’t worry. Infernal spells don’t run out of power the way arcane ones do, so long as the caster can concentrate. This one I only need to touch up every few minutes, not channel it constantly, which is optimally efficient. It will hold until I’m shot, or fall asleep, or something along those lines.”

“This grows more cheerful by the moment,” Reich muttered, glancing back at the troops. Immediately, she did a double-take. “Hey! Where are all the men?”

Tanenbaum and Rowe turned to follow her stare, finding most of their contingent of guards absent. Only three remained, hanging back by the entrance where the tunnel through which they’d come opened out onto this ledge.

“Sent ’em back,” Captain Cross replied, not looking up from his grim survey of the scene below. “They’re ordered to return to the main bridge and hold that position in case the students try to sortie.”

“Do you honestly expect that crew, unsupervised, to hold up against an attack?” Reich demanded scathingly.

“No,” Cross said, his tone even, “I expect them to immediately desert and fuck off back up the stairs, those that don’t manage to fall in the chasm. I’ll deal with any survivors later, assuming I’m one too. The issue is the mission. We’re to try to apprehend rebellious college students, on narrow bridges over a drop straight to Hell—this would be a nightmare even if half those students weren’t magic and the other half nobles. Those galoots were nothing but a hindrance. Let’s face it, at the first sign of trouble, one would panic and start shooting, and then the rest would join in, and it’d be an absolute disaster. Best we could hope for at that point is to be among the dead and not have to face the aftermath.” He finally raised his eyes from studying the path to glance back at the three remaining troopers. “These I trust to follow orders and keep their heads.”

Tanenbaum, Reich, and Rowe all stared at the soldiers, who stood just barely out of earshot of their low conversation, murmuring among themselves. Well, two of them were, the pair of gray-haired men who were clearly older than Cross—who himself was obviously past the customary age of retirement. The third and tallest was at least of fighting age, but not in fighting shape. Though big, his head was noticeably too small for his body, with tiny, close-set eyes and a jaw which hung perpetually open. At the moment, he was staring into space and picking his nose.

“These,” Tanenbaum said flatly. “These are the cream of the crop.”

Rowe cackled and slapped him on the back. “Well, it’s like they say! You go to war with the army you’ve got, not the army you want.”

“Of that crop? Yes.” Cross turned back to the view, ignoring the incubus. “Steiner and Jafar may be long in the tooth, but they’re soldiers—I mean actual soldiers, who’ve served the Duchess as long as I have. Back in our day, there was actual training, and the House guard didn’t take just anybody. And Big Jim is… Well, he’s exactly what he looks like, but he’s good at following orders, and nothing makes him panic. Big, strong, and calm is what’s best for this mission, mark my words.”

“Consider them marked,” Reich said with a sigh. “Well, since we’re here, does anybody have any ideas how we are actually going to apprehend these students? There are over sixty of them. Even if they choose to come along quietly, and they won’t, it’s a logistical nightmare. And disregarding the material threat the students represent, those professors are among the most dangerous people in the Empire.”

“Ezzaniel won’t be terribly dangerous unless he gets close,” Tanenbaum murmured, rubbing his bearded chin with a thumb. “Yornhaldt and Harklund are highly skilled casters, the most immediate threat. Plus Rafe and Morvana. Never underestimate a versatile alchemist. I fear you are correct, Ms. Reich. I had hoped our…patron would have rejoined us by now. He’s the only one who has any idea what the plan is, here.”

“I wonder,” she said quietly, “if that’s not giving him rather too much credit. Has it occurred to you, gentlemen, that since we’ve been brought here with specific forces in a specific situation which can’t really do anything except deploy offensive power against these civilians… Perhaps that is precisely what he intends?”

“Hn,” Cross grunted. “You reckon so? Commit high treason or open fire on a bunch of kids. That’s a thinker. Can’t say I envy you two. Me, I’m old, I know I’ve served well, an’ I’d just as soon not linger to see House Dalkhaan wither away like I know it’s going to. If it comes time for an unwise act of conscience, I’d rather be able to give a good account for myself to Vidius than even my Emperor. For a couple of young career—hey!” He had turned his head again to look at them, but now straightened up, raising his staff, and stared around the ledge. “Where the hell is that demon?”

Reich whirled, glancing about rapidly, and then whispered something very unladylike. The three soldiers were still lounging in the tunnel a few yards away, but there was no sign of Rowe anywhere.

“Oh, he’s quite gone,” Tanenbaum said fatalistically. “The summonstone bound him to lead us to the back entrance of the Grim Visage. That done, he had no bindings and is a free incubus.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be a warlock?” Reich exclaimed. “Couldn’t you have done anything?”

“Yes, in fact.” He raised an eyebrow at her. “I could monitor his infernal presence while it was within range of my own aura, which I did, all the way up the tunnel after he decided to slither off. By this point he’s out of range, and I deemed it best to let him go. Captain Cross has the right of it.” He nodded to the captain. “At this point, it’s a question of who we do and do not want involved in this unfolding debacle, and an incubus is in the second category. Holding one of those creatures against their will is, itself, a fiendishly challenging prospect, and not a task I wish to undertake whilst trying to untangle the knot before us. He was bound to either try to escape or attack us, and since he chose the first option, I say let him go. Hopefully he will choose to make himself Tellwyrn’s problem and not ours.”

“Hopefully!” Reich covered her face in her hands. “We’re going to die down here, aren’t we?”

“I flatly refuse to do so,” Tanenbaum said firmly. “As to what we are going to do… Of that, I am less certain. But I don’t think the Hand is coming back any time soon, and the University people will already be probing at the Fog, assuming he was correct and they plan to escape through the rear. Whatever we’re going to do, we need to figure it out and be about it. Immediately.”


“What is it?” she demanded as he suddenly banked left, veering to the west. At that altitude and speed the wind was enough to silence any voice, but of course they both had acute senses further augmented by arcane means; she didn’t need to raise her tone. “Do you see the zeppelin?”

“I see a zeppelin,” Zanzayed replied. His voice, high-pitched for the draconic depth and power it held in this form, required little help from her magic to be audible even with the air streaming past. “It’s the first we’ve encountered since we passed Madouris, so I dearly hope this is our quarry.” The dragon twisted his head up to grin at her sidelong. “Not that I don’t enjoy palling around with you like the old days, Arachne, but after a few millennia of practice sailing over the countryside loses much of its romance.”

“We never palled around,” she snapped, lifting a hand to hold her spectacles by their frame. “You annoyed me and I kicked your ass, repeatedly, with minor variations. Lower your head so I can see, you clod.”

He barked a noise which she had long since learned to recognize as a chuckle, though it tended to make other mortals faint—which was most of the reason he ever did it in mixed company.

It had taken years of practice and fiddling around to discover the spectacles’ various properties, and she still couldn’t be sure she had them all down, but the binocular effect had been one of the first powers she had unlocked. It was particularly potent for her as these had been designed with human vision in mind; at their fullest magnification she could see the rings of Carrie when it was at the right place in the sky. The glasses’ magic interfaced neatly with the consciousness of the wearer, fortunately, enabling her to zoom in on a moving target even while riding another.

The zeppelin ahead flew the Imperial flag, a silver gryphon on a black field. It was running no signal flags, however. The thrusters were going at full speed—all the thrusters, both the elemental wind tunnels and mechanical propellers. That was significant; no zeppelin pilot would burn through power crystals like that except in an emergency, and right now most of the fleet was doing exactly that over on the west coast to ferry typhoon relief. The only important things happening around the inner frontier, so far as she knew, were at her University. On its current heading the airship wasn’t heading for Last Rock, at least not directly. The course was right, though, if the pilot aimed to swing wide to the west and avoid Calderaas on the way to the Golden Sea.

“Well?” Zanzayed asked impatiently. “You’d best be very sure that’s the right ship, Arachne. This is dicey enough business as it is, even with Vex’s go-ahead; there’ll be no end of hell to pay if I’m involved in attacking a Tiraan aircraft on legitimate Imperial business.”

“Why, Zanza, you are getting downright cautious in your old age.”

“You would be too if you were sharing a manor house with Puff. He can lecture for days on end! That is not an exaggeration.”

“I know, I tried to steal a sword from him, once. Hush a moment, let me scry.”

Thorough scrying required specialized equipment, of the sort that couldn’t feasibly be set up on a dragon’s back in flight. What she could manage with her own skills and her spectacles would be cursory at best, but not for nothing was she Arachne Tellwyrn.

“It’s them,” she said two minutes later, a smile of predatory satisfaction creeping across her face.

“You’re sure?” Zanzayed lifted his head again to give her a sidelong look, once more ruining her line of sight. “What method did you use?”

“Simple: remote viewing and lip-reading. Not hard at all at this range.”

He had started to lower his head again, but now jerked it back up to twist around fully and stare at her—incidentally causing him to begin drifting off-course to the north. “You can read lips?”

“Zanzayed, I am three thousand years old. I can read lips, speak five dead languages, juggle, raise prize-winning pumpkins, weave a tapestry, and my mint chocolate souffle has been known to induce spontaneous orgasms. You pick things up left and right, just by living! That is, unless you devotedly do nothing with your life but chase skirts and devour hors d’oeurve.”

“Mint chocolate souffle, eh? Now that’s a combination—”

“Watch where you’re flying!”

The airship was now close enough to be visible to the naked eye—hers and Zanzayed’s, anyway, not a human’s. They were not within range to be spotted unless the occupants happened to have a spyglass trained on their six o’clock. Not impossible, considering they were fleeing the Imperial capital in a stolen military vessel.

Zanzayed lowered his head and straightened out his course, then began pumping his wings. He smoothly increased in both speed and altitude, gaining on the zeppelin and rising quickly above its crew’s field of view. Some models had observations posts on top, but this was an older troop transport, and would be blind to anything approaching from above its gas envelope.

Below them, knobby hills interspersed with patchy forests and flattish stretches marked the no-man’s land where the mountains of Viridill, rolling hills of Calderaas, woodlands of the Green Belt and prairies around the Great Plains melted into each other. It wasn’t good farmland and had been largely ignored except by shepherds, even the elves retreating south over the last millennium as humanity carved roads and then Rail lines through this territory. This, actually, was the perfect place to intercept their target. It could have been problematic, bringing it down over inhabited country.

“What’s the plan, then?” the dragon boomed, leveling off a good fifty yards above the ship and continuing to close in. “Remember, I’m just the transportation, here. Rebels or no, a representative of the Conclave can’t be torching Imperial interests.”

“I have it well in hand, thank you. Bring me right above the airship.”

“What does it look like I’m doing?” He gave her another amused look with one sapphire eye. “Say, the frames of those things are mostly wood, right? Have to be, metal is way too heavy. I wonder if you could polymorph the whole shebang, like you did to that ship in the Isles that one time? That was empty; I’ve always wondered what would happen if you ‘morphed something with a bunch of people inside.”

“That was a high elven caravel, numbskull; you know those things are functionally living beings. Just because it’s mostly organic doesn’t mean you can polymorph it. You just concentrate on flying and let me do the tricky part. I need to dispatch these interlopers and get back to my campus, not indulge your horsing around!”

He snorted a laugh, producing an actual puff of fire and smoke which quickly dissipated in the wind. They were right above the zeppelin by that point, and actually beginning to overtake it as Zanzayed did not lessen his speed. “I remember when you used to be fun, Arachne.”

“I was amnesiac that day,” she said, and hurled herself off his back.

Tellwyrn neatly straightened herself out, tucking her arms against her sides and shooting right at the zeppelin head-first. After a life as long and full of adventure as hers, one tended to pick up the knack of plummeting from the sky, what with one thing and another. Elven agility helped, but elven weight did not; the wind buffeted her about like a kite. This was just one of the reasons she heavily preferred trousers to skirts.

Still, she had judged her jump to perfection, requiring only minimal course adjustments, and none needing magic. The zeppelin’s huge silvery bulk grew as she shot straight down toward its starboard edge, about a quarter of its length back from the nose.

She spun herself around to fall feet-first and yanked one of her gold-hilted sabers out of the pocket dimension in which she kept it, swiftly reversing her grip and then raising it overhead in both hands.

The blade pierced the fortified silk with satisfying ease. Tellwyrn’s momentum carried her down and dragged the sword through the outer envelope, leaving a long tear in her wake. She applied an efficient little charm to keep it in her grip (and keep it from yanking her arms off) when it snagged as it struck one of the long inner balloons of gas.

That slowed her rapidly, though; even her downward velocity wasn’t enough keep her going, given her meager weight. The last thing she needed was to end up pinned to the side of this thing while it spewed gas and gradually drifted lower. Not with Zanzayed there, he’d never let her live it down. Tellwyrn lowered one hand from the sword to gesticulate downward, applying an invisible tether to the world itself to tug her toward the ground. She released it almost immediately, the boost of speed having done its work.

A bit too well; she had to privately admit to misjudging that spell by a hair. Well, it wasn’t as if she executed this maneuver often. If there ever came a second try, she’d undoubtedly nail it perfectly. But at the moment, the pull wrenched her harder than she’d meant, and she lost her grip on the sword and went tumbling away from the side of the zeppelin.

It was enough, though. The tear was made, and it didn’t have to be a large one.

Tellwyrn went tumbling through space, allowing herself to be spun by momentum and the wind, gathering magic in her fist to execute a compound spell: a simple fireball enhanced with a few augmentations to make it fly straight and true for a much longer distance than they normally did.

She was already well below the level of the zeppelin when she had it ready and her spin brought her around to face upward and at it. Tellwyrn extended a finger in a contemptuous gesture, and fired the prepared streak of flame unerringly into the rent she’d just gouged.

In the next second her tumble had shifted it out of her field of view again, but she could hear the flames catch. And by that point she had more pressing concerns.

Tellwyrn straightened out her fall, spreading her arms and legs to level herself out, facing the onrushing earth. Of course, Zanzayed could easily swoop in and catch her, but she knew him too well to expect that. He’d be far too amused watching her extricate herself from this situation.

A straightforward featherweight spell wouldn’t do any good, given the momentum she’d built up. Instead, she formed an arcane shield around herself, then layered additional spells onto the blue sphere. Lines formed across its surface, and then the spaces between them flattened out, leaving her encased in a faceted shape with numerous hexagonal faces. She poured energy into them, and the facets began blazing to life, directing pure kinetic force.

This was tricky; she’d just made this up on the fly—literally. Well, she had at least half a minute to practice.

Tellwyrn got the hang of it quite quickly, beaming force from multiple facets in a balanced pattern to first stabilize and control her descent, and then project more powerful beams straight downward against her velocity. It was just like walking a tightrope, really, a trivial feat for any elf. In fact, it was her own main column of energy that posed the real challenge, not the actual fall; balancing atop a pillar of force while gradually lessening it as she descended was an order of magnitude more complex than balancing atop a lamp post blindfolded, drunk, and with a monkey scampering around her shoulders.

Now, that had been a hell of a solstice party.

By the time she came within five yards of the ground she was drifting practically like a leaf, and had diminished the main thrust surface down to nothing, only exerting force through the facets keeping her bubble upright. This really was a horribly inefficient spell; rarely had she bled off so much raw power so quickly. It sure was fun, though.

Finally, she dropped the bubble entirely and fell the rest of the way.

Going down at an angle, she hit the ground in a slide, rolled to her feet, and began casually brushing mud off her clothes.

Behind her, the zeppelin, now entirely consumed with by flame, crashed to the earth. Lucky the whole area was visibly soggy from recent rain; that thing was still likely to cause a few fires.

Oh, well.

Zanzayed came down almost on top of her, at which she didn’t bat an eye. As expected, he transformed at the last possible moment and applied a much simpler levitation spell than she had used, floating the rest of the way down in a dramatic pose that emphasized the fluttering of his preposterously ornate robes.

The dragon opened his mouth to speak, but Tellwyrn forestalled him with an upraised hand. Then she stepped to the side, and held out her arm.

Her sword shot out of the sky like a missile, its handle slapping neatly into her palm. She had, obviously, applied a charm to prevent the pulverizing damage that should have caused, but it still hit with enough momentum to spin her completely around. She pivoted neatly on the ball of her foot, twirling the saber and then sheathing it in its extradimensional scabbard.

“I knew the dwarf who first designed those things, you know,” she stated primly. “We were drinking buddies. Once the early ones went into production, I told them to fill the damn things with helium. But nooo, nobody listens to the millennia-old archmage. Helium is expensive. Helium requires arduous mining, or complex transmutation, but you can park a college student on a riverbank with an alchemy set and have ’em distill hydrogen right out of the water for pennies an hour. And look what happens! I’ll bet even this doesn’t convince them to start using the non-flammable gas.”

“No bet,” he said dryly. “And speaking of unnecessary volatility, just off the top of my blue head I can think of eight simple spells you could have cast to obliterate that thing without so much as standing up. Do you just make a point of plunging to your doom every so often because it amuses you to watch doom panic when it sees you coming?”

“I remember when you used to be fun, Zanza,” she said, grinning.

“No, you don’t,” he retorted petulantly. “Well, that’s that taken care of, anyway. Why do our dates always end with something on fire?”

“I guess we’re not too old to go dancing after all,” Tellwyrn replied. “Thanks for the lift, Zanza. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a bit more treason to commit today.”

“Nothing in moderation with you, as always.”

She smirked, winked, and vanished, the tiny pop of displacement fully drowned out by the ongoing destruction of the zeppelin nearby.

Zanzayed shook his head and turned to study the inferno, and the rapidly-disintegrating structure of the airship within it. Then he snorted loudly and shook his head.

“Well! At least the day wasn’t wasted. Now I can properly rub Razzavinax’s nose in it. The temerity, calling my marshmallow conjuration charm indulgent and pointless. Once again, Zanzayed laughs last!”

 

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13 – 28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s all right. Let her pass.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Source?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry for…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For one second, they locked eyes in silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any magic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who else?” she asked curtly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She twisted her mouth bitterly to one side.

“I am…disappointed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do tell.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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11 – 40

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Both carriages careened to a halt, Vandro’s skidding slightly. Tallie and Schwartz both had to cover their eyes against the sudden brightness; the roar of the explosion was enough to blot out even Meesie’s screeching.

One of the passenger doors on the front carriage swung open and Vandro himself stuck his head out. “What the hell—”

Wilberforce leaped from the driver’s seat, pivoted even as he hit the ground, and lunged back into the passenger compartment, dragging Vandro bodily with him.

“DOWN!” Schwartz tackled Tallie right off the roof before she could recover her equilibrium. Landing was instinctive to her, though it got a lot harder with a gangly witch coming down on top.

“Oof!” She pushed him away. “Have you lost your—”

“DOWN DOWN DOWN!” he bellowed, grabbing her by the shoulders and shoving her bodily at the side of Glory’s carriage. “All of you STAY IN THERE!”

Schwartz dashed to the open space between the two carriages, braced his feet, and made a double-handed lifting motion as if hoisting something heavy above his head.

Shafts of rock burst out of the ground at a steep angle, hurling clouds of snow into the air; more followed as Schwartz continued to gesticulate, grimacing, until after a few seconds he had drawn up a serviceable barricade extending up at a forty-five degree angle and blocking the ruined fortress from their view.

He was barely in time.

With a roar that put the initial explosion to shame, debris plummeted down in a massive wave, peppering the entire landscape with shattered masonry and old timbers, several of them on fire. Schwartz’s improvised rock barrier took a pounding; several large chunks broke off and one of the stone spires was broken entirely, falling to crush one fender of Vandro’s already-bedraggled carriage.

Tallie’e yelp of terror was lost in the noise; she wiggled under Glory’s carriage, arms reflexively over her head, and did not peek out again until the quiet which followed had held sway for a few seconds.

“Is it over?” Rasha asked tremulously from inside.

“Should be,” Schwartz said breathlessly, “for now. But stuff doesn’t just blow up. Somebody did that, and they have to be nearby.”

“Thanks,” Tallie said to him as she dragged herself out by one wheel. “How’d you…know?”

“It’s called fallout. My job and my religion involved being around a lot of experimental magic,” he said wryly, reaching up to soothingly pet Meesie, who was scampering back and forth along his shoulders in agitation. “Believe me, I know my way around explosions.”

“Fine work, my boy,” Vandro stated, emerging from the carriage and peering around at the damaged rock barrier.

“Hell yes!” Darius added more energetically, bounding out after him. “I told you we needed to keep this guy around! How ’bout sticking with us permanently, Schwartz? I don’t have the means to pay you a salary, but I can incentivize. You need any favors done? Pockets picked? How’d you like to marry my sister?”

“I can hear you, you preposterous oaf,” Layla snarled, leaping down from Glory’s carriage.

“Enough,” Glory said firmly, descending after her. “We are still in a predicament, here. This was our rendezvous point, and I think we have to assume we’ve just lost our reinforcements.”

Tallie gasped, turning to Jasmine, who had just emerged from the carriage and rushed to the edge of the rock barrier, staring at the burning ruins with a hollow expression. “Oh, Jas…”

“No time.” Jasmine shook herself off, turned and strode back to them. “Glory’s right; we’re now on the defensive. I suggest we pile back in and keep going. Whatever thinning of their numbers we have done tonight, it’s best to assume they have more—someone had to have done this, as Schwartz pointed out, and I’ve no way of knowing which if any of the help I called for got here…” Her voice caught momentarily. “Or survived.”

“Well, we may have a problem, there,” said Vandro. “Little did I know our boy Schwartz could do this kind of defensive magic; soon as we saw that tower go up, Wilberforce activated the shield charms on my carriage.”

“Whoah, wait, what?” Schwartz turned to frown at him. “You can’t shield a moving carriage—how’d you get around the magical interference?”

“That’s just the point, son,” Vandro said, grimacing. “I didn’t. Turning that on fried the wheel enchantments.” He patted the carriage’s abused fender. “I’m afraid this old girl isn’t going anywhere else tonight.”

Grip sighed, flicking a glance across the whole group as the lot of them finally piled out of the carriages. “Well, staying here isn’t a prospect. We’re sitting ducks in a snowstorm. Stay together and head for the treeline, the forest will hamper pursuit.”

“What if we went into the fortress?” Layla suggested.

Darius sighed. “The forest it is…”

“Oh, hush,” she said crossly. “It’s not as if they’ll expect that, and it can’t be as dangerous as who knows how many armed dwarves!”

“Too late,” Glory murmured.

The others followed her line of sight and turned to face it at varying speeds, Jasmine and the senior Eserites fastest. A line of squat figures had appeared in the darkness just ahead; thanks to the still-falling snow, they were nearly upon them before being visible, the crunch of multiple sets of feet not audible until the last moment thanks to the wind across the open space and the sound of fire raging not too far away in the ruins.

By the time they were close enough to be seen clearly, it was apparent that more than half were carrying wands.

One figure near the middle removed his hat and casually tossed it to the snow behind him with one hand, clutching a wand with the other. The face thus revealed was familiar to several of them.

“Quite the exciting evening,” Rogrind said flatly. A hint of the jovial politeness he had always displayed to them remained, though it was a clearly strained veneer over simmering anger, now. “You know something, I do believe my greatest regret about all this is that I won’t have time to sit you ruffians down and make you understand just how much harm you have caused over the course of these events. Well, second greatest. You’ve manage to kill some good people tonight.”

“The harm we caused,” Tallie snapped, “by refusing to roll over like—”

“Young lady,” the dwarf growled, “shut up. You were seen bringing several of the modified staves which started all this idiocy into those vehicles. Despite everything, I am willing to offer you terms: hand them over, and we will leave without doing any further harm to anyone, because we are still—still!—the civilized parties here.”

Grip slowly panned her gaze across the assembled dwarves, then caught Jasmine’s eye and tilted her head at them significantly. There were fifteen present, all garbed in inconspicuous winter attire, an even mix of men and women. Eight had wands pointed at the party. Jasmine nodded once in acknowledgment of Grip’s point: only four had the same calm, alert aspect as Rogrind. The rest were visibly nervous, uncertain, in at least two cases seriously frightened by all this. Civilians, somehow drafted into his campaign. Dwarven sturdiness or not, this was an army that would break at the first sign of significant threat.

Wands shifted as Schwartz made a sudden gesture with his hands.

“Stop!” Rogrind barked, too late.

Whatever he released spread outward from him like ripples in a pond, causing luminous butterflies of multiple colors to appear in the air around them, as well as illusory stalks of greenery popping up through the snow and an incongruous scent like sun-baked grass and flowers in the summer.

One panicked dwarf fired her wand at Schwartz, followed by another. No one else tried, as both weapons sparked ineffectually, the first actually igniting its owner’s sleeve and causing her to drop it with a shriek and tumble over, burying her arm in the snow.

“Those of you with wands, don’t fire them,” Schwartz said aside to his companions before turning his gaze fully on Rogrind. “I see you didn’t take our little discussion to heart. I’m afraid I was quite serious.”

Meesie leaped down from his shoulder of her own volition, actually vanishing deep into the snow and leaving a rat-shaped hole in it. An instant later, snow was hurled everywhere as she burst up into her much larger form, shook her mane, and roared.

Three more dwarves tried to shoot her; all ended up dropping suddenly-hot wands that wouldn’t fire, one also having to roll in the snow to put himself out.

“Good boy,” Grip said, stepping forward with a truly unhinged grin. She had somehow slipped on two sets of iron knuckles and produced a brass-studded club the length of her forearm from one of her pockets. Jasmine paced forward in unison, both Butlers positioned themselves pointedly in front of the group, and Meesie crouched, wriggling her hindquarters in a clear gesture of imminent feline attack.

Two of the dwarves turned and ran; most of the rest shuffled backward, looking around in alarm, and incidentally placing the hardened professionals among them on the front lines.

“Have it your way,” said Rogrind with a clear note of belligerent satisfaction.

As the two fronts collided, there came a sharp retort like a small explosion nearby, and Meesie howled in pain, vanishing from her lion form instantly. That was as much time as Jasmine had to notice the others before Grip was fully occupied dealing with two hard-eyed dwarves, and she found herself face-to-face with Rogrind himself.

He suffered one slash from her sword across his chest, and she realized her misjudgment a moment too late. First, he had some kind of armor under his coat, and second, he was good at personal combat. Stepping into her swing as it raked him, he positioned himself perfectly and slammed his fist into her ribs just under her sword arm. She managed not to drop the blade, but he hit like a mule’s kick; she staggered sideways, gasping for breath and in pain. Years of training and her innate agility kept her from losing her footing entirely, even in the snow, but Rogrind continued to defy the stolid dwarven stereotype. He pressed her, striking bare-handed; she gained a few feet of breathing room by dodging to one side and stabbing him in the upper arm. He bared his teeth in pain, his left arm suddenly bleeding profusely and hanging useless, but was too disciplined to let it stop him.

Despite the past few seconds’ education in his surprising level of combat ability, she was still unprepared for his speed. He bulled forward as swiftly as a pouncing cat, using his weight and lower center of gravity to tackle her bodily around the midsection and bear her to the ground. Jasmine twisted, trying to bring her blade back into play, but he caught her wrist. It was with his injured arm, but thanks to the famous dwarven sturdiness, he had strength enough to keep her pinned down. She clawed at his eye with her other hand, but he turned his head aside even as he slipped a stiletto from his sleeve, and a moment later she had to grasp his descending wrist to protect her throat.

That close, in a wrestling match, he was considerably stronger than she. Her arm strained to hold it off, but the blade descended inexorably.

She gritted her teeth and reached for the light inside her. There was a time to break cover, after all.

“IYAAAAIII!”

Rogrind jerked his head up, then released her and tried to stumble back, not quite fast enough. The lance that flashed down at him nailed him directly in the shoulder. It didn’t penetrate deeply enough to stick, falling out as he continued to reel backward, but left him gushing blood and with two injured arms.

A second later, Principia’s boots sank into the snow on either side of Jasmine’s head, the elf landing protectively over her from what had to have been a long leap. She surged forward, drawing her short sword and slamming her shield against Rogrind. He was too heavy for the slender elf to physically force back, but she was a whirling storm in Legion armor, pounding with her shield, jabbing and slashing with the blade, and he had no choice but to retreat after his only counterattack, an attempt to grab her shield, ended with a stab through the forearm that put his right arm fully out of commission.

More boots crunched in the snow, and then Squad One was surging past her, forming themselves into a phalanx with their sergeant at the tip. She still didn’t have her lance, but held her blade at the ready.

“Right face, shield wall!” Principia barked, and they seamlessly formed up, allowing Rogrind to scuttle away in the snow and shifting their arrowhead formation to a solid line of shields, bristling with lances, and facing the rest of the dwarves. At this development, the two who were harrying Grip also released her, backing away.

“Wait!” Rogrind said, weakly holding up his left hand, the only one he still could. “Wait! We have no argument with—”

“CHARGE!” Principia roared, and the squad raced forward.

That was too much for most of the remaining dwarven conscripts, who scattered in all directions, leaving only the few who were engaged in melee with the other Eserite apprentices, none of whom appeared to be very effective. Jasmine rapidly assessed the battlefield and bit back a curse; the Butlers, easily their best physical asset, were hovering protectively over their charges rather than contributing on the front lines. Meanwhile, golden shields of light had flashed into being around the dwarves still standing their ground.

An instant later those shields vanished, prompting exclamations of surprise. Glory and Rasha were leaning out the door of her carriage, each with a disruptor still aimed.

Six armored women collided with seven dwarves, who would have proved heavy and braced enough to break their charge completely, had they not been running spears-first. Four of the dwarves went down, so thoroughly impaled that in falling they wrenched the weapons from their owners’ grip. The rest reeled backward in disarray.

Rogrind, though, had found a moment to reach into his coat with his weakened left hand. Jasmine could make no sense of the small object he withdrew and held out, but an instant later it produced a puff of smoke, a flash, and an explosive crack just like the one which had sounded before Meesie was felled.

Merry Lang screamed as she was flung backward out of formation, spinning around to land on her side in the snow.

“Not. Another. Step,” Rogrind snarled, twisting to point his mysterious device at Principia.

Another crack sounded, this one a familiar wandshot.

More dwarves, nearly a dozen, paced forward out of the swirling snow, grim-faced and armed. They came from the direction of the road, and several were clearly injured or with disheveled clothing, as if they had limped away from wrecked carriages.

“Where do they keep coming from?” Schwartz muttered, Meesie again perched on his shoulder. He held a fireball in his right palm, balanced to throw.

“I have had enough of this,” Rogrind panted, turning to the others. “You may fire at—”

A blast of wind hurled a wall of snow over him and directly into the faces of the newly arrive dwarves. Two more wands were discharged; the bolts flew wide of the Eserites, though several of them dived to the ground anyway.

Suddenly, as if the wind had been a signal, it stopped snowing. In the absence of the thick fall of flakes, a line of six people were visible, approaching the group from the north. On the left end of their formation was Kuriwa, just now lowering her arms after calming the storm.

In the center, sword in hand, behind a glowing shield of gold, stood Basra Syrinx.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said with a satisfied little smirk, “I believe you can discern friend from foe? We do not require prisoners. Destroy them.”

“Now, I might be mistaken,” drawled the man on the opposite end of the line from Kuriwa, an older gentleman of Western descent carrying a mage’s staff and smoking a cigarillo. “It wouldn’t be the first time. But I do believe the Sisterhood’s doctrine of war requires a clearly overmatched enemy be offered the chance to surrender?”

Basra gave him an irritated look past Joe, who stood next to her, but nodded. “Yes, in fact I believe you are correct. Very well. Your attention, miscellaneous dwarven rabble! I am Bishop Syrinx, of the Sisterhood of Avei and the Universal Church. With me are my very good friends the Sarasio Kid, Tinker Billie, Gravestone Weaver, Longshot McGraw and Mary the Crow. Ah, good, I see you understand what those names mean.”

The dwaves, indeed, had whirled to direct their aim at Syrinx’s reinforcements, now completely ignoring the Eserites, and even the cold-eyed professionals among them were visibly alarmed. One of their few remaining conscripts appeared to be weeping softly.

“If you do not instantly drop your weapons and surrender,” Basra continued pleasantly, “you will be scoured off the face of the earth with both efficiency and relish. And if, by some unthinkable miracle, you insist upon a firefight and manage to win, be assured that my goddess’s attention is fixed upon these events, and you are meddling in matters you do not understand.” Her eyes flicked rapidly from Principia to Jasmine and then back to Rogrind.

Nandi and Ephanie were both kneeling in the snow beside Merry, who was alive and monotonously cursing despite the crimson stain spreading through the snow around her. Principia had eased backward out of the remains of Squad One’s formation to hover near Jasmine.

“Win here,” Basra said, her voice suddenly as icy as the night air, “and there will be nowhere for you to hide. You may be able to bamboozle Imperial Intelligence, but you are not a match for Avei. If those weapons are not on the ground in the next five seconds, everyone dies.”

“How the hell,” Tallie hissed at Jasmine, “do you know all these people?!”

Jasmine shook her head. “I only know Joe. Guess we should be glad he has friends, too.”

“They…are not surrendering,” Darius muttered.

“Well, this is altogether unfortunate,” Rogrind said with a sigh.

“They’re government intelligence on a sanctioned op,” Grip whispered. “Shit. They can’t be taken alive. Everybody down!”

She was right; the dwarves, in unison, raised their weapons again. Joe, Billie, and Weaver did likewise.

And then the whole earth shook.

He dived down so rapidly they didn’t even hear the wind of his approach until he struck the ground hard enough to knock several of them right off their feet. The whole assemblage turned in unison, gaping in awe up at the enormous blue dragon suddenly standing a bare few yards away from them.

He swiveled his long neck around to lower his angular head directly into their midst, and bared rows of arm-sized teeth in a truly horrifying smile.

“Good evening. Nice night for it, eh?”

“By the way,” Principia said to Jasmine, “in addition to not positioning my squad in that fortress where Syrinx knew we were supposed to be, I took the liberty of calling in some additional reinforcements of my own. I apologize if this disrupts your plans.”

“Ah!” At her voice, the dragon twisted his head around to face her from a few feet away. “Prin, there you are! I must say, you throw the most terrible parties. Why is it, cousin, I only ever see you when people are getting shot in all directions?”

“C-cousin?” Jasmine’s voice jumped an octave in the course of one word and then cracked.

The dragon turned his sapphire eyes on her. “Hmph. That sounded like an exclamation of surprise. Been keeping me a secret, Principia? A less charitable person might think you were embarrassed to be related to me.”

“Well,” Principia said glibly, “I guess a less charitable person might have met you. How is she?” she added, turning away from the dragon.

“I have rarely seen anything like this injury,” Kuriwa replied. Somehow, in the intervening seconds, she had moved from across the battlefield to Merry’s side, and now paused in working on the fallen Legionnaire. “It is not excessively difficult to heal, however. Here. This was lodged in her arm.” She handed a tiny object to Principia, then lifted her head to smile at the dragon. “And hello, Zanzayed. It is a great pleasure to see you again.”

The dragon shifted to stare ominously at her. “Oh. You.”

“Since we are both in the vicinity,” she said calmly, returning her attention to Merry, “I hope you will find time to catch up. We so rarely get to talk anymore.”

He snorted, sending a blast of air over them that was hot enough to make the snow steam and smelled of brimstone and, incongruously, spearmint.

“Well,” Zanzayed huffed, “this has been fun, and all, but I’m just the transportation, here.”

He lowered his body to lie in the snow, revealing for the first time a man in a dark suit perched astride his neck, who had been hidden by the dragon’s wings. Now, he slung his leg over and slid to the ground, where he paused to straighten his coat.

“Uh oh,” Principia muttered, her eyes widening. “I didn’t order that.”

“Good evening,” said Zanzayed’s passenger, striding forward. “I am Lord Quentin Vex, head of Imperial Intelligence. With regard to this matter, I speak for the Emperor.”

He paused to sweep an expressive gaze around them, at the dwarves, the Eserites, the Legionnaires and the adventurers, all of whom had gone silent and still, staring back in alarm.

“His Majesty,” said Vex, raising an eyebrow, “requires a god damned explanation.”

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10 – 52

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Home.

Not that it hadn’t been an enlightening and immensely beneficial trip, but he was a creature of the city; walking the streets of Tiraas again was like regaining a part of himself that he had stopped noticing was absent. Even now, strolling placidly through the fairly upper-class Steppe neighborhood in his robes of office, Darling felt more at ease than he could remember in a long time. He’d found the time for a quick jaunt around some of his old haunts as Sweet, but apart from that he’d been largely buried under a backlog of work. Now, on his way to the Cathedral yet again, he’d chosen to go by foot, and to take a long detour that let him see more of the city than was strictly necessary.

It was worth it. Worth it on its own merits, and proved even more so as he discovered when he found himself outside a discreet old brownstone building with a familiar sub-level entrance and a tasteful sign out front. Familiar, though he’d only seen it once.

Darling paused, contemplating this. Well, he’d allotted himself plenty of time to amble, anyway, and it wasn’t as if this place would have been visible to him without very specific reason. A quick glance up and down the street revealed that he was completely alone, itself an odd and suggestive thing considering this hour of the morning.

With a shrug and a smile, he paused only to run a hand over his carefully combed hair, then descended the steps and opened the door to the Elysium.

The bar was just as he remembered: expensive, quiet, and mostly empty. In fact, it was considerably more empty this time, being that he was apparently the only patron. The only other individual present was a swarthy, shaggy-haired man standing behind the bar, idly wiping out a glass with a white rag.

“Top of the mornin’, Antonio!” Eserion called cheerfully, waving to him. “C’mon in, have a seat. Punaji Sunrise, right?”

“Now, now, that’s just to intimidate the party-going set,” Darling said easily, permitting none of the torrent of curiosity he felt near his face or voice. He strolled forward and slid onto a stool near the bartender, but positioned so that he could still see the door. “Generally I prefer a brandy, but c’mon. It’s not even noon. And I’ve got to go wrangle priests today.”

Eserion chuckled obligingly. “Fine, fine, I guess you’ll be wanting to keep your wits intact for that. Hot tea it is, then.”

Despite the lack of any stove or heating element, he produced a steaming pot and deftly poured a cup, which smelled bewitchingly of jasmine and vanilla.

“Oh, my,” Darling mused, lifting the porcelain cup and inhaling deeply. “That’s the good stuff. Smells like the boudoir of the most expensive lady I ever carried on with.”

“They serve this blend down at Marcio’s Bistro,” the god replied lightly, again polishing an already-clean glass. “Have you tried the food there?”

“I have, in fact, at their grand reopening. It tends toward the spicy, doesn’t it? Not necessarily to my taste. But then, that was at the dinner hour, and they were serving wine. I might just pop in every now and again for tea if this is what they have on offer.”

“Give the food a chance,” Eserion said with a mild smile. “It’s more zesty than spicy; not a combination of flavors one gets to sample much in Tiraas these days.”

“Indeed,” Darling said lightly. “I have it on good authority the cuisine there is a pretty good approximation of something no one has seen in eight thousand years or so.”

“Better authority than you may know. How was your trip?”

“Fantastic, thanks. Also…puzzling. I guess it just wouldn’t be fair if I got answers without picking up a dozen more questions along the way.”

“Well.” Eserion winked. “There’s really only one good thing you can do with a question, isn’t there?”

Darling lifted the teacup and took a careful sip, watching him. The god simply gazed back, wearing a disarming smile.

“Why thieves?” he asked at last. “Of all the things you could be patron of. What made you pick…this?”

Eserion’s smile widened momentarily, then he coughed and winked, setting down the glass and rag to fold his arms and lean back against the shelves behind him.

“The truth? The real truth? I’d advise you not to repeat this, Antonio, but… None of this was supposed to happen. The plan was to wreck ascension, not use it. We weren’t trying to turn into gods, all we wanted to do was bring them down. As usual with complex plans, it all went right straight to shit and we had to improvise. And those of us who ended up with godhood? Well, not one of us was prepared for it. A good few weren’t even part of the resistance. Naphthene owned a boat some of us had used; Sorash was a mercenary thug who happened to be nearby. Shaath… Ah, that poor bastard. All he wanted to do was field work, studying the wildlife. We just kept running across him when trying to keep away from civilization and catalog the fauna. He was gettin’ really sick of us by the end, and had the worst possible luck to be on hand when it all went down.” He paused, narrowing his eyes. “Actually…no, I spoke incorrectly. A few of us were prepared. Those who ended up with the greater power, the multiple aspects… We mostly just accidentally latched onto whatever concept spoke most to our hearts. Those four, though. They were ready. They had planned.”

“You think…” Darling frowned, toying with his teacup. “Did they deliberately take ascension, despite your plans?”

“I can’t see it,” Eserion said immediately, shaking his head. “Vidius…maybe. He’s enough of an old fox to think of that, but… Even so, it’s a stretch. But I never met anybody who wanted power less than Omnu or Themynra. And Avei…” He chuckled. “Poor Avei. She was always going on about what she’d do when we could all quit. When the gods were brought down, she was gonna go build a modest little house far from any cities and raise horses. No, they were just planners. Some people, Antonio, are simply heroic by nature. Adventurers born. They were ready for everything, including a rushed, accidental ascension. And thus, they ended up in charge.” He shook his head again. “Better them than me.

“But speaking of me, that’s what you asked about.” He tilted his chin up, smirking faintly. “Might not guess it to look at me now, but standards of beauty being what they were, I was just the prettiest princess of them all, back in the day.”

Darling blinked. “Uh.”

The god cracked a grin at him. “That was the point. I belonged to Szyrein, one of the Elders. In fact, I was one of her favorites. Bred for fifty generations to be beautiful, trained from birth to be…pleasing.”

Despite all his years of practice, Darling could feel the sudden, utter sickness he felt creeping onto his expression. Eserion’s face didn’t change, though, apart from the slightly faraway look that stole into his eyes.

“Your own wits and skills are all you have; they’re all that can’t be taken from you. People with too much power have—have—to be brought down. And at the intersection of those two truths is the fact that no matter how powerful, now supremely above you someone is, you can always find a way to stick to to ’em if you’re clever, and careful. That was who I was, so that’s what I became. Thieves, though?” He grinned. “That was sort of an accident. I guess if you grow up owned by somebody, you end up not giving a shit about property rights.”

“What did happen?” Darling asked.

Eserion’s expression sobered. “Watch yourself around Lil, Sweet. She’s every bit the schemer your research has shown, and more besides. But, like all really good deceivers, she doesn’t lie any more than she can help. You got a warning that you’d be wise to heed: there are things you just aren’t allowed to know. Not without consequences.”

“Am I wrong,” Darling asked casually, holding up his teacup to inhale the fragrance, “or do I get the idea you don’t agree with that policy?”

“Hey, now, I’m not the one making decisions in this outfit. You know how I feel about the people in charge, anyway. Not that I’ve any personal grudge with the Trinity, but… Nobody can be trusted with power. Not any of us; not even me. Power changes people. No matter how careful you are, or how noble your intentions, it twists and destroys you slowly from the inside.”

“Almost makes you wish there was a way to prevent anybody from having it,” Darling mused.

“Yeah, well.” Eserion smirked again. “That would involve somebody with absolute power administering it, which…brings you right back to the beginning. Nah, the best solution I’ve found is to have people whose whole purpose is fighting the power when it rises. It’s a constant struggle, but in the end, isn’t that better?”

“Is it?”

“People always have to struggle,” the god said more seriously, “that’s our greatest virtue. Even our crimes and failures give us things to fight against—and every fight can be a source of strength, and wisdom.”

“It certainly keeps you feeling alive,” Darling mused. “And sometimes, the opposite.”

“Sounds like you’re already getting nostalgic for your vacation,” Eserion said sympathetically. “Herding the cats wearing you down?”

“Oh, you know how it is.” He shrugged and took another sip of tea. “Justinian puts up such a front of being in control I honestly can’t guess how much control he really has. He doesn’t seem fazed by Tellwyrn’s utter destruction of his ploy against her; apparently it was just a test, he claims, to see whether that approach would work, and he’s very satisfied with the results.”

“That kind of inner control can be a weakness or a serious asset,” the god commented.

“Mm. It makes me worry about Tricks; too. I’m starting to see cracks, there, and that’s not like him.” He gave the god a piercing look. “I don’t suppose there’s anything you want to tell me…?”

“Sure, just as soon as you take up his offer to trade jobs again,” Eserion said cheerfully. “Honestly, though, Sweet, I think you’re doing more good where you are.”

“I was just wondering, though,” Darling said mildly, gazing up at the ceiling and pushing his teacup back and forth between his hands. “This thing about transcension fields…”

“Bleh, just say magic, for fuck’s sake. I never understood that gobbledygook and I don’t intend to start. Better for the universe if nobody ever figures out how to do that again.”

“Magic, then. This knowledge the gods have of what people know… The Avatar specifically said that’s processed by the…magic field. And suppose, hypothetically, there were a thing between dimensions, a thing that specifically blocks and disrupts magic. If someone learned something there…”

Eserion’s smile widened fractionally, but he shook his head. “You’re doing so well, Sweet. Don’t spoil it by asking me to cheat for you.”

“You? Cheat?” Darling put on his broadest, most innocent smile. “Perish the thought.”

Mentally, though, he re-categorized that theory from a tentative possibility to an avenue worthy of earnest pursuit.

To judge by the god’s smile, he wasn’t fooling anyone.

Yet.


Branwen’s office in the Grand Cathedral was spacious and elegantly appointed, with a large seating area between the door and her desk. Potted plants stood atop shelves, and in one corner a little decorative fountain splashed musically, its water kept moving and perpetually clean thanks to rare and pricey charms. The fireplace also roared with a comfy blaze—comfy and illusionary, which could add heat to the room or not, at a command. The enchantments in the room had cost more than even the gilded furniture, which was saying something. It was a pleasing space, though, where she could feel relaxed and at home, even away from home.

She was just finishing applying her seal to the last in a stack of correspondence when the door was opened from the outside without the courtesy of a knock.

“Ah, answering fan mail?” Basra asked pleasantly, stepping in and pushing the door gently shut behind her. “How wonderful! It’s a relief to see you’re still getting any. Imagine, a sitting Bishop publicly repudiated by her own goddess! You are a theological marvel, Branwen.”

“Actually,” Branwen said, “I’m told sales of my book have skyrocketed. Apparently nothing sells like notoriety. Not that it isn’t always a pleasure, Bas, but I’ve never known you to make idle social calls before. What can I do for you?”

“I’ve been doing some research,” Basra said, pacing slowly into the room, “into the career of one Ildrin Falaridjad. The downside of my stellar success in the crisis at the border has been a sad lack of damages for which she can be blamed; the list of charges resulting from her stupidity is depressingly short and minor. Of course, I already knew she was a staunch supporter of the Archpope and the Universal Church, to the point it was becoming an annoyance to her fellow Sisters. Interestingly, though, she’s never done anything like that stunt she pulled at Varansis. No insubordination, no outbursts of violence, no rampant glory-hogging or inexplicably having access to other cults’ rare magical devices. Nobody, even, who seemed to find her as congenitally thick-headed as I did. And I had a thought.” She continued forward at a leisurely pace, fixing a predatory stare on Branwen, who simply watched her approach in perfect calm. “Does is perhaps seem suspicious to you that someone would suddenly act contrary to their usual behavior in the presence of a known projective empath?”

“I think it’s telling,” Branwen said mildly, “that you’re talking about a woman acting out of character, and your own constant bullying and abuse of her doesn’t even enter into your calculations.”

“So I did some further digging,” Basra continued, ignoring her. “She has refused to reveal where she got that shatterstone, but Antonio was good enough to get me the rough black market price for one. They are obtainable outside your cult, but it costs more than Falaridjad would make in five years. Someone got it for her, someone with connections in Izara’s faith. And then, there is the matter of how she came to be part of the expedition. You dug her up, specifically, along with a bard who had an established dislike of me due to thinking I’d set her up for the Shaathists.”

“Of course,” Branwen said with a faint smile, “she thought so because you did that. Which also isn’t a consideration to you, I suppose.”

“And,” Basra continued, stepping right up to Branwen and looming over her, “it seems to me that someone as politically adept as yourself would not be oblivious to the fact that having a known Church loyalist involved in that mission could create questions. Concerns about my presence, and intentions. Abbess Darnassy had, in fact, mentioned at the beginning how very convenient it was that a problem arose which so precisely suited my talents to solve. All it would take was the persistent suggestion that Justinian had arranged the whole thing to get me back to Tiraas, and Commander Rouvad would land on me like the fist of Avei herself. And that was before said Justinian loyalist was inexplicably provoked into actively sabotaging the mission.”

Branwen smiled, sighed softly, and shook her head ruefully. “Oh…all right. I suppose I ought to have known better. I’ve made my way chiefly by being a source of happiness to those around me, which is a whole different kind of politics; I’m just not cut out for your flavor of cloak and dagger.”

“Indeed.” Her face cold now, Basra leaned forward, right into her space, planting one hand on the back of Branwen’s chair and the other on the desk to physically bar her into her seat. “I’m only going to tell you this once, Snowe. Do not attempt, nor even dream about attempting any such shit with me again. Ever. You are nothing even approaching a match for me in that arena, and I am not a person you want for an enemy.”

“Oh, Basra, don’t be silly,” Branwen said in a fondly chiding tone, still smiling. “You’re not a person at all.”

For a long moment they locked eyes, the Izarite smiling, the Avenist expressionless. Only the fountain and the fire could be heard in the room.

Finally, Basra tilted her head slowly to one side. “I beg your pardon?” she asked in a tone of mild curiosity.

“You’re a…thing,” Branwen continued, still with that pleasant little smile. “A walking defect. A would-be miscarriage conceived without a soul and quite accidentally brought to term. Oh, I realize you think you’re a wolf among sheep, but that’s only because you lack the mental architecture to understand the strength people gain by forming connections with each other. Something you simply cannot do.”

Moving deliberately, she stood up, pushing herself right back into Basra’s space; the other Bishop backed away at the last second, straightening up and still staring quizzically at the shorter woman.

“Understand, Basra, that you aren’t as invisible as you like to think. Oh, most people don’t realize what a horror you are; most people have no concept that things like you exist. But there are some—Commander Rouvad, his Holiness, Antonio—who do know, and tolerate you because they find you useful. Then, too, there are cultures which understand things that humanity has yet to puzzle out. If you ever find yourself in a dwarven university, you might find it illuminating to read up on what they call ‘social pathology.’”

Branwen took a step forward. Basra, her face an expressionless mask, backed away again.

“Here’s the thing, Bas. You simply do not comprehend how emotion works, because yours are such paltry things. Every feeling you have is shallow and wild, and all of them are variations on either rage…” She smiled, slowly, catlike and sly. “…or desire.”

There was no visible effect in the room, but the change that overcame Basra was instant and striking. Her eyes widened, pupils dilating hugely; she shivered bodily, gave a soft, trembling gasp, and abruptly surged forward. In an instant she had wrapped her arms around Branwen, roughly grasping her head and tilting it up to press a fierce, hungry kiss to her lips.

A moment later she was flung bodily backward by the shield of golden light which flashed into place around the Izarite.

“And once roused,” Branwen continued as if never interrupted, “you have no more control over your passions than does a child. Which is why I didn’t show you rage, and won’t allow you to experience it. At least until I’m done talking to you.”

Turning back to her desk, she pulled open the top drawer and retrieved a small compact; flipping the lid up to reveal a mirror, she took up the small brush contained within and set about repairing the damage done to the rouge on her lips.

Standing six feet away now, Basra absently scrubbed the back of her hand across her mouth, again staring at Branwen without expression.

“Matters are very different for most people,” the Izarite said, tucking the brush back into its slot and beginning to carefully fix her hair with her fingers, still gazing at the tiny mirror. “Emotion is so intertwined with thought as to be inextricable. There are so many kinds of emotions, and so many subtle shades… It’s a whole world you couldn’t begin to comprehend. And for someone like me, who can reach out and touch those vastly complex feelings…” Satisfied, she clicked the compact shut and turned to smile warmly at Basra. “Well, I won’t ask you to believe any claims I make. I shouldn’t need to, after all; you’ve gone and figured out for yourself how wildly out of character Ildrin acted when I needed her to. Instead, Basra, I want you to ponder a hypothetical.”

Branwen set the compact down on her desk and folded her arms beneath her breasts, her smile growing faintly, and becoming lopsided. “What do you suppose would happen if everyone who doesn’t understand you suddenly did… And everyone who tolerates you suddenly didn’t?”

She let that hang for a moment. Basra stared at her in continued silence, her face apparently frozen.

“So,” Branwen said more briskly, “I think you’re right; I’ll be staying away from trying to manipulate events henceforth. It really isn’t my strong suit, is it? Far more sensible to stick to what I can do, and do well.”

Abruptly, her smile faded and her voice hardened. “You are a rabid dog, Basra Syrinx. His Holiness believes he has you on a leash. Despite my misgivings, I have decided to trust his judgment, for now. But if you slip that leash again, like you did with Principia Locke and her squad—oh, yes, I know all about that—it will be the last time. Your entire world will unmake itself. Overnight. And nowhere will you find a hint that I was even involved. So…”

She strode forward, right at the other woman; this time, Basra gave no ground, simply watching her come. Branwen stalked almost close enough that they were touching again, staring up into Basra’s flat gaze, her own blue eyes suddenly ice-hard.

“Heel, girl.”

They stood that way in total silence for long seconds, and then Branwen suddenly smiled, turned away, and stepped toward the door.

Behind her, Basra twitched violently, another rapid change washing over her. Suddenly, her face twisted into an animalistic snarl and she took a half step forward, falling into a fighting crouch, hands outstretched.

“And before you attempt any of the things you’re contemplating,” Branwen added without turning around, “I suggest you consider how much this conversation surprised you, and ask yourself what else you have no idea I’m capable of.”

She opened the door, glanced over her shoulder with a flirtatious little smile, and glided out into the hall, leaving it open behind her.

Basra stood in place, breathing heavily for a few seconds, then whirled and stalked over to Branwen’s desk. There, she snatched up the little mirrored compact and hurled it savagely into the fire.


He was barely aware of where he was walking, having only a sense of veering indiscriminately back and forth; it was a shameful state of affairs for an elf, but nothing in this land would harm him. His inner battle consumed his attention. After all this time, he knew when he’d been beaten. He knew that, despite his intermittent attempts to alter his course, to vanish deeper into the twisted wilds of Athan’Khar, he was steadily making his way west. The spirits were driving west. Despite all his efforts to delay, soon enough he would reach N’Jendo.

And then it would begin, the thing he had tried so, so hard to avoid.

He took some small comfort in knowing that he wouldn’t last long. Eldei alai’shi never lasted long. The Empire had powers that well overmatched him. And there was some small hope, this time; after he had confronted the Avenists at the other border and been turned back, the humans would be ready. Headhunters usually caught them unawares, doing most of their damage before strike teams and battlemages could respond. This time, they’d be prepared.

How many people would he have to watch himself slaughter before they brought him down?

He didn’t even have to avoid thinking about it. These days, it was all he could do to think at all. The voices never let up anymore. He had denied them too long. They were too hungry.

Shadows passed over him.

He only belatedly became aware that he was passing over a rounded hilltop; around its foot were the remnants of an orcish town. The roofless remains of houses and shops now sprouted enormous growths like cancerous cacti thirty feet tall, bristling with person-sized, multi-pronged thorns, and with slowly undulating fronds extending upward toward the sky. The hill itself crunched beneath his ragged moccasins, its surface long ago melted to black glass by some imaginable heat source. Probably something the Tiraan did during the Bane…or maybe caused by one of Athan’Khar’s new residents. There were beings here capable of it.

The shapes cruising over him had excellent timing. He was just cresting the broke-glass hill when they plummeted down from the sky, banking and spreading their wings at the last minute to avoid slamming into the ground as they settled down. They still landed hard enough to shake the earth, which was unavoidable, given their sheer bulk.

Slowly, he turned in a full circle, studying the dragons and not sure what to think. His memories of his old life told him what a very, very odd situation this was. The spirits were mildly inquisitive, but mostly unconcerned. Dragons were no threat to them and of no interest. They really only cared about what they wanted to kill.

Four dragons, though. One of each primary color. Who had ever heard of such a thing?

“Good day,” said the gold in a resonant voice that boomed across the sky. “We must speak.”

“We must…go,” he said nervously, scratching at himself. There were no bugs, bugs did not like him anymore, but he often felt as if things crawled under his skin. “We have… The distance. Yes, have to go. I don’t want to, I’m really so very tired. But…we… Need. At the border, beyond the river, there was, there was, blocked, no use! Found the wisdom but… Other side, yes. There. More of. Um.”

A booming chuckle came from the blue dragon to his left. “This is our guy, then.”

“Peace, Zanzayed,” the gold said in a tone of weary patience.

The green cleared his throat softly—relatively speaking. “Well, it sounds as if you are having some difficulty expressing yourself.” He took one step forward, lowering his head to look at the elf more closely. “I believe I can help with that, temporarily. My name is Varsinostro. Will you indulge me for a moment?”

“Not to harm,” he said noncommittally, scratching his arm. “It’s, it isn’t you. No caring, why bother?”

“I’ll take that, and the lack of an attack, as agreement,” the dragon said with a truly horrifying smile. He reached forward with one enormous clawed hand, which the elf simply watched curiously as it descended on him. He was long past caring about his well-being, and anyway, what he cared about had long ago ceased to be a factor. The spirits were supremely uninterested in the dragons.

That huge hand settled on top of his head in an unbelievably gentle pat, just barely touching his matted hair. The claws curled down on all sides to touch the ground about him.

Suddenly, it was as if a door had been slammed.

The voices…he could still hear them, but distantly and fuzzily, as if underwater. Their constant, howling presence was ended. Suddenly, he was alone in his own head, for the first time in memory.

He staggered, stumbled, sat down hard with a crunch in the broken glass, staring.

“There we go,” the green said with clear satisfaction, withdrawing his hand. “This is purely experimental, understand. To my knowledge, no one has attempted this before. But I am encouraged by this initial success; I believe we can likely refine the method further.”

“You…you made them silent,” he said, tears forming in his eyes. “Thank you. Thank you.”

“I repeat, it will not hold long,” the green warned.

“And,” added the red one from behind him, “they are likely to be irate when they return.”

He doubted that. It really wasn’t the kind of thing the spirits even noticed; they were rarely interested in his perspective. He said nothing about it, though, having just remembered something important.

“Raash,” he whispered. “My name is Raash.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Raash,” said the gold one, bowing, which was a very odd sight. “I am Ampophrenon.”

“Please,” Raash said earnestly. “Please, quickly, before they come back. You have to kill me.”

Zanzayed snorted; Ampophrenon and Varsinostro exchanged an unreadable glance.

“Let’s call that Plan B,” said the red, stepping forward and snaking his head around to look down on Raash where he could see him. “First, we are extremely curious about recent events which unfolded at the Viridill border. That was you, correct? I’m assuming there are not two eldei alai’shi active in Athan’Khar at the moment.”

“No,” Raash said slowly, shaking his head. “Not anymore.”

“Anymore?” the blue repeated curiously.

“There was…” He closed his eyes, sighing; in the absence of the spirits’ constant, howling noise, the memory was suddenly more painful than he was expecting. “My brother. He came first, to take the pact. I came to stop him. We have been…struggling, here, for months. I’d thought to destroy myself once he was finally killed, but the spirits would not have it. They…” He paused, swallowed. “I was so close to finding a way, I’d just got them distracted and calm enough I thought I could eat poison. And then something happened at the old border to draw attention. Beings of Athan’Khar went across the river into Viridill, and found a huge Tiraan army massing. It drove the spirits wild. I couldn’t restrain them.”

“It’s very curious,” the red dragon rumbled, “that they were turned back after being reasoned with by one woman.”

Raash barked an incredulous laugh in spite of himself. “Reasoned? Oh, no, nothing like that happened. The Bishop…I remember her. Yes, she was very smart. She avoided most of the early mistakes I made in trying to deal with the spirits. She didn’t reason, she manipulated. She didn’t try to talk to me at all; her discussion was with the spirits, I was just there as an interpreter. I think she must have some experience dealing with the dangerously insane.”

“Hm,” Ampophrenon said thoughtfully. “That answers a few questions. Satisfied, Razzavinax?”

“Not remotely,” the red replied.

Varsinostro cleared his throat. “Anyway. As I said, Raash, I believe we can work to refine this technique, perhaps keep the spirits stifled more permanently. Possibly, though understand that I am in no way promising such a thing yet, purge them entirely. Is this line of study something you would be interested in pursuing?”

Raash could only gaze up at him, tears now coursing down his dirt-stained face. “I…I’d given up thinking… All I’d hoped for was death.”

“I will not deceive you,” the dragon said sternly. “It may yet come to that. But if you are willing to make the effort, as am I.”

“As are we all,” Ampophrenon said firmly.

Suddenly too overcome to form words, he could only nod.

“Smashing,” Zanzayed said cheerfully, leaning closer. “That being the case, our new pals back in Tiraas are rather curious about these events. And they may have instigated this little sit-down, but we have our own reasons for wanting to know more. In exchange for our help, Raash, we have questions.”

“Many,” added Razzavinax. “Many questions.”

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