Tag Archives: Zanzayed the Blue

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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9 – 38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“BEHOLD!” Scorn shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, really,” Tellwyrn said flatly.

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

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

“Excellent advice,” Shaeine agreed.

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

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

“Me, too,” Juniper added.

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

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

“Not kill?” Scorn inquired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get the hell out.”

“Aye aye, fearless leader!”

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

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

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

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

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

“You know exactly what I mean.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shook began cursing monotonously.

“Well said!” the Jackal said brightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Give it time,” he murmured.

“Message?” Vannae inquired.

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would that make you happier?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weaver groaned loudly and clapped a hand over his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

“They seem pretty evenly matched…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“It’s a standard strategy,” Vex explained, folding his hands on the table in front of him. Only he and Zanzayed had seated themselves; the rest stood around the rim of the conference room, with Squad One clustered against the wall opposite Vex. He, of course, sat at the table’s head. “In fact, this particular ploy deserves a great deal of credit for the Tirasian Dynasty’s reconstruction of the Empire in an era when anti-Imperial sentiment was rampant. Resistance movements and terrorist organizations exist even today, and Imperial Intelligence has a hand in all of them. We started a good many, wherever there lay a dangerous degree of citizen unease with no outlet. For the rest, we are the primary provider of funding. Obviously, they are all unaware of this.”

“Why the dragons?” Principia asked. “Surely they had little to fear from general dislike to begin with.”

Vex glanced at Ampophrenon, a clear invitation to speak. The dragon nodded to him before turning to Principia. “It is not that we feared for our own welfare. Our kind have always been rather unpopular among many peoples—I fear, not without reason. One of the Conclave’s aims is to remedy this, but that will likely be the work of generations. What we wished to ward off was an organized movement that would damage that work. Normalizing relations would be much more difficult with substantial public opposition in place.”

“And it is not the Empire’s policy to squash protest movements,” Vex added. “The temptation to do so has brought down many a kingdom; one can only repress the people’s will for so long. The Empire prefers more elegant methods of managing its citizens.”

“You’re being remarkably forthright,” Casey observed, eyes narrowed.

Vex smiled languidly; he seemed almost half-asleep. “The facts of Imperial strategy and tactics aren’t classified. Some of the details of these specific events are, of course, but it’s known, generally, how we do things. What have we to fear from exposure? Whatever its aims, the Empire’s policies result in a public that can generally do what they like. Oddly, they rarely seem to object.”

“The handling of this concern,” Ampophrenon went on, “was an early sticking point in our negotiations with the Empire. Rather than dwell upon it, we mutually decided that making a joint operation would help bind us together, and hopefully smooth over further points of difficulty.” He cast an unreadable look at Zanzayed, who grinned. “Thus, this has all turned out to be a rather more elaborate operation than, frankly, it strictly needed to be. More than half the point was to have the Conclave and the Empire working closely together. After seeing the number of people interested in joining this movement, however, I begin to worry we have created a problem where one did not exist.”

“The method is one we borrowed from the Black Wreath, Lord Ampophrenon,” the marshal said. Her outfit was still rather theatrical, with its black leather and red corset, but without the grisly wing-cloak and skull mask she was otherwise a much less impressive-looking woman, younger than middle age and with the dark hair and tilted eyes common to Sifan. “A wide net of recruitment brings in any remotely interested parties, most of whom want little more than to feel subversive. That attitude is particularly common among the wealthier classes. From there, we carefully weed out the truly motivated for more specific tasks, and a higher degree of trust. It’s a very effective strategy; there’s a reason the Wreath has relied on it for centuries.”

“Allow me to interrupt this self-congratulatory back-patting,” said Zanzayed. “The fact is I blatantly misused my rather tenuous connection to you, Principia, to make you a peripheral cog in this machine. You have my sincere apologies.”

“Only because you’re afraid of the Crow,” Principia said smugly.

His faint smile vanished. “I am not afraid of the Crow,” Zanzayed said testily. “I would rather not have another drawn-out exchange with her, though. Those are time-consuming and costly. In any case, you were never supposed to be in any danger. All of this was quite carefully planned; shining a bright light on you was merely a recruitment method to help us identify anybody who took the bait as a potential target. It was our assumption that a Legion-trained veteran Guild thief could deftly handle any such annoyances; we went to great lengths to keep you out of any real danger.”

“Which brings us to an extremely pertinent point on which I require information,” said Vex, steepling his fingers in front of his face. “We went to considerable trouble to have you and the Guild investigating a harmless gathering far from this fortress. And yet, here you are, and I confess I am without a clue as to how you learned of this. We have reliable reports placing your squad and a group of Guild enforcers en route to your intended target. What are you doing here, Sergeant Locke?”

Principia raised an eyebrow. “I already explained that to your agent, here.”

Vex turned his head, fixing the Marshal with an inquisitive look.

She cleared her throat. “Locke claimed to have been sent here by Vesk, sir.”

Vex simply looked back at Principia, showing no reaction to that news. “Interesting. That is the story you intend to stick with?”

“Believe what suits you,” she said with a shrug. “It’s possible it wasn’t Vesk, but a man matching his description materialized out of nowhere with none of the usual hallmarks of arcane or infernal rapid transit, possessing information there is—you yourself claim—no realistic way he could have, not to mention an aura which was absolutely blinding at that proximity. You probably already know this, but they don’t reveal their auras to elves unless they specifically wish to be recognized. If it wasn’t Vesk, it was another god masquerading as him, which… For our purposes and probably yours, comes out to the same thing.”

“Hmm,” Vex mused. “Lord Ampophrenon, I believe you are the resident expert on the gods. Have you any idea why he would take an interest in this matter?”

“With Lord Vesk, it is even more than usually difficult to say,” the dragon replied with a thoughtful frown. “He is capable of acting toward specific ends through quite elaborate means, just as they all are. There are records of him having done so. On the other hand, he also tends to intervene just because he thinks the outcome thus modified will make for a better story.” He glanced apologetically at Squad One. “If we consider Sergeant Locke and her troops as the likely protagonists here, that would seem to be the case. As I’m sure you can guess, those two motives provide excellent cover for each other. Vesk is a trickster god and less predictable in his motivations than even gods in general. It is an open question. I doubt that another deity would impersonate him, though. Only Elilial would show such disrespect, and I rather think she would find the prospect extremely insulting.”

Vex heaved a sigh. “Well…such is the world. All blasphemy aside, it seems sometimes that the gods only step in when they see a chance to cause more trouble.”

“Sounds like a fair observation to me,” Zanzayed said cheerfully. “Don’t make that face, Puff, it’ll freeze that way.”

“And so you set Saduko up to misdirect the Guild and the Sisterhood,” said Principia. “Exactly how many cults are you trying to antagonize?”

“I can only offer you my inadequate apologies, ladies,” Ampophrenon said, bowing. “We really did attempt to prevent you from being in a dangerous position. Lord Vesk’s intervention was unforeseeable.”

“Do you have some connection to Saduko, Marshal?” Farah inquired.

The marshal raised one eyebrow. “Right. By your apparent reasoning, Privates Avelea and Elwick must be long-lost sisters, being both of apparently Stalweiss descent.”

Farah flushed slightly. “I didn’t mean it like that. Was just a thought…”

“I am an Imperial citizen, born and raised,” the marshal said flatly. “And for your edification, my ancestors were Sheng, not Sifanese.”

“Anyway,” Farah said hastily, “if you weren’t expecting us to be there, how were you planning to bluff your followers? It looked a lot like you were actually trying to kill us.”

A grim silence fell over the room. The marshal stared expressionlessly at Farah.

“Because,” Farah said more hesitantly, “I mean, surely an Imperial agent wouldn’t—”

“Presented with an unforeseen situation with no good outcome,” Vex interrupted, “an Imperial agent keeps her eye on the broader situation and acts to complete her mission. Sometimes, our work necessitates extremely regrettable actions.”

“I believe I was clear on the subject of Locke and her crew being harmed,” Zanzayed remarked in a deceptively mild tone. “It’s fortunate they had a few surprises of their own handy, or you might have found your definition of ‘regrettable’ expanded.”

“While I am certain that you know your business, Lord Vex,” Ampophrenon added, “our honor was at stake in this matter as well. The Conclave would prefer that your agents remember to keep that in consideration when acting on any joint operation, henceforth.”

“I will definitely make a point of that to all operatives involved in Conclave-relevant assignments,” Vex said politely. “I am, of course, very grateful for your timely intervention; you seem to have saved us all a great deal of unpleasantness.”

“Some more than others,” Merry said coldly.

“Quite,” Vex replied, watching the squad through half-lidded eyes. “And you have my apologies as well, ladies. To reiterate, we did make a substantial effort to avoid placing you in harm’s way, but nonetheless, it is regrettable that your involvement put you at risk. Obviously, the Tiraan Empire wishes no harm to the Silver Legions.”

“Oh, obviously,” Principia said wryly.

“I must emphasize, Sergeant, ladies,” Vex replied in a subtly firmer tone, “that you are all Imperial citizens, and thus have a duty to the Silver Throne. You have my word that I shall personally see to arranging remuneration for your hardships. All these affairs, however, are strictly classified.”

“Noted,” said Principia in perfect calm. “I will be sure to include that in my report to the High Commander.”

Vex cleared his throat. “Perhaps you don’t take my meaning, Sergeant Locke…”

“Oh, I understand you just fine. I’m pretty good with subtext.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Casey said, barely above a whisper.

“I thought we’d already established that the unpleasantness was at an end?” said Zanzayed mildly.

“I’m sure you understand the necessity of security in this matter, Lord Zanzayed,” Vex replied, his eyes still on Principia. “With all respect, I would suggest that you speak with Lord Razzavinax before deciding on any courses of action.”

“I think you’d better think carefully about courses of action, Lord Vex,” Casey said sharply. “You’re not just dealing with the Sisters of Avei, here. Locke is still a member in good standing of the Thieves’ Guild. You know what they do to—”

“Elwick, enough,” Principia said quietly.

The marshal smiled sardonically. “I can’t possibly emphasize enough that Imperial Intelligence is not afraid of the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Marshal,” Vex said sharply, and she fell silent. “Sergeant, there is no need for this hostile tone. Rather than exchanging threats, let’s see if we can reach a middle ground.”

“No, I think I’m pretty content exchanging threats, my lord,” Principia said calmly. “Bargaining is an action for people in a weaker position.”

“Ah, yes,” Vex said with a very faint smile. “Your sense of humor is all part of your legend. You are in Tiraas, Locke. Even on the other side of the planet you would not be beyond the reach of Imperial Intelligence. We are merely asking for a little consideration and respect—”

“Such as your agent showed by attempting to murder us,” Principia replied. “I am giving you considerably kinder treatment in return. Keeping secrets from my chain of command is not on the table. Zanzayed!” she said more loudly when Vex opened his mouth again. “What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”

The blue dragon raised an eyebrow. “Really, Prin? You want to chat now? Anyway, I thought we’d established that the matter was a ruse.”

“Sure,” she said equably, “but considering your goal was drawing attention to me and publicly making a connection, the ideal result was if I had agreed to a sit-down, and thus you’d have been prepared with a story if I went for it. You said it was family business, yes? I’ve been turning over and over in my mind just what business you could possibly have with my family, and all I can come up with is your several well-documented brawls with Mary the Crow.”

“She really is the most disagreeable person,” Zanzayed complained to Ampophrenon. “You have no idea.”

“I have met her,” the gold replied mildly. “I found her rather personable, in fact.”

“But beat-downs like that are rather out of character for her,” Principia continued, glancing at Vex, who remained silent. “Against someone like a dragon? If the Crow really considered you an enemy, she’d have carefully arranged for you to be dead, not torn up half the countryside boxing your scaly ears. Three times, that I know of. That is more like what she does with members of the bloodline who…disappoint her.”

“So we can assume she’s boxed your ears a time or two?” Merry suggested.

“The Crow doesn’t play too roughly with family who are too fragile for one of her legendary beatings,” Principia replied, glancing at her. “You asked me once, Lang, why I never pursued true mastery of arcane magic? That’s why. The more I think about this, though, the more I realize the only thing that would surprise me is if one of my aunts or grandmothers hadn’t carried on with a dragon at some point. A lot of them have done weirder things by far. So, Lord Vex, I do believe if you intended to threaten harm to me or anyone under my protection, you have placed yourself in a small room with the wrong dragon. Isn’t that right, cousin?” she asked Zanzayed.

He sighed. “Damn it, that was going to be my big reveal. Has anyone ever told you you suck the fun out of everything, Prin?”

“Nonsense, I am a non-stop barrel of laughs. At least, with people who aren’t involved in plots to murder me.”

“Regardless,” Zanzayed stated in a bored tone, “yes, she’s quite right. I feel the need to take this matter somewhat personally.”

“Zanzayed speaks not only for himself,” Ampophrenon added. “A dragon’s kin are considered sacred to all of us. The Conclave would take exception to any harm brought on Principia by the Empire.”

“You really shouldn’t stir up the Crowbloods anyway,” said Zanzayed with a grimace. “The only reason anybody gets any peace is they mostly don’t like each other, and they all have grudges with the Crow herself. You get two or more pointed in the same direction and you’re about to have a very bad day. Take it from someone who knows firsthand.”

“This is very fascinating information,” Vex said with a calm smile. “I would very much prefer to have known some of it before agreeing to involve Locke in this operation in the first place.”

“Family business is none of yours,” Zanzayed replied with a toothy grin.

“I hope we can consider the issue resolved now?” Ampophrenon asked. “To make our position unequivocally clear, it is not reasonable to suggest that Principia Locke or her troops should try to conceal these events from the Sisterhood of Avei. Any reprisal against them for making a full report will damage the Empire’s relationship with the Conclave of the Winds.”

“What he means,” said Zanzayed, his smile widening alarmingly, “is that Eleanora will be tetchy after I have personally dropped you in the center of the ocean.”

“Zanzayed,” Ampophrenon said reprovingly.

“I have told you over and over, Puff, that it’s necessary to be polite and considerate of mortals if you mean to get on their good side. Which is true. The other half of that equation, though, is that it tends to make some of them forget they are addressing a being who can unmake their entire world with a sneeze. Once in a while, a gentle reminder is constructive.”

“Well, it sounds like you lads have things to discuss,” Principia said. “We’ll be going, then.” Shouldering her lance, she turned and strode past her squad to the conference room’s nearest door.

“I’ll be in touch, cuz!” Zanzayed said brightly, waving from his chair. “Since we’re both living in town now, we’ve gotta get together!”

“Ugh,” she muttered, pulling the door open and stepping through. The squad filed out after her, Farah shutting it behind and sealing in the remainder of Lord Vex’s conversation with the dragons.

Soldiers were about in the fortress as if nothing had ever happened; they were walking, chatting, cleaning, standing guard and doing all the things troops on duty in a boring position in peacetime tended to do. Nothing about the scene was unfamiliar or eerie to Squad One. The Imperial troops gave them curious looks, several respectful greetings and even a salute or two, but they were not stopped. There was nowhere the merest hint that this vital fortification had been completely deserted an hour ago.

They kept quiet until they had descended from the upper conference room to the ground floor and finally emerged into the street. The fog was lifting, though the sky remained overcast, and Tiraas was altogether livelier and brighter than when they had come this way in the first place.

“I can’t believe you tried to arrest them,” Merry said once they were a block distant from the gates. “Did you really think that would work?”

“Of course not,” Principia said without breaking stride.

“Why do it, then?” Ephanie asked. “All due respect, Sarge, trying to assert authority you don’t have just makes you look weak.”

Principia’s eyes darted swiftly about, taking in the nearby scenery without betraying her glance with a move of the head. It was still early in the day, and they weren’t drawing much attention. Still, she turned sharply, taking them off the city’s central avenue and down a quieter side street before answering in a low tone.

“Because a god was involved. Where one is working, it’s a virtual guarantee that others are at least paying attention. I’ve been a faithful servant of Eserion for longer than you four have collectively been alive. I’ve also had no shortage of brushes with Avei—not personally, but I’ve had my hands on a number of sacred objects and rubbed shoulders with her priestesses. I’ve more recent reason to believe she is aware of me. More to the point, girls, those specific two gods, the ones with the greatest likelihood of noticing what was happening here, were the ones most likely to take an interest. Here we have powerful men behind locked doors abusing people for their own benefit. I gave them the chance to submit to justice, and they blew me off. If Eserion or Avei were paying attention, they are now pissed.” She finally glanced back at the others, all of whom were watching her raptly. “If I’m going to have the Conclave of the Winds and Imperial goddamn Intelligence batting at my tail, I would rather have deities take an interest in teaching them humility than have to deal with it myself.”

“Do you think that’ll work?” Farah asked.

Principia shrugged. “You never can tell with gods. It was worth the attempt, anyway.”

“You didn’t invoke Avei’s name,” Casey pointed out. “Wouldn’t that have helped?”

“A sergeant in the Silver Legions doesn’t have that right,” said Ephanie. “It takes more than a little rank in the actual clergy to speak on Avei’s behalf. If the goddess was watching, she would have been offended at the presumption. That’s taking her name in vain.”

“What’s done is done,” Principia said. “Keep the pace up, ladies; I have a feeling our next appointment is going to be even less fun than the last one.”


 

Commander Rouvad paced slowly along the length of the table that had been set up in the underground gymnasium Squad One had used to practice, examining the armor and weapons laid out upon it. Off to one side stood Captain Dijanerad, her expression grim, and a much more serene Bishop Shahai. Also present was General Tagheved, the commander of the Third Legion. A silver-haired woman whose frame was corded with muscle and not diminished in the slightest by age, she watched the proceedings with an unreadable expression.

Squad One stood at a respectful distance, at attention. They were still in full armor, with the exception of Principia, who was dressed only in her white regulation tunic and trousers. It was her armor currently laid out for examination.

“Shielding charms,” Commander Rouvad said at last, reaching out to slide a fingertip along Principia’s breastplate. “Do you know why the Army doesn’t rely on them, Sergeant Locke?”

“For three reasons, Commander,” Principia said crisply. “Because it is always better policy to avoid spellfire than to try to repel it, because Imperial infantry prioritizes mobility above defense, and because the portable charms they are able to carry are serviceable against wandfire but unable to stand up to heavier weapons, like staves. Large metallic objects hold enchantments much better than light uniforms, and armor takes defensive charms very well due to sympathetic principles.”

“Mm,” Rouvad mused, slowly rounding the head of the table and pacing down its other side, her eyes still on its contents. “What other augmentations did you make?”

“Silencing and tracking concealment charms on the boots,” Principia reported. “Much heavier defensive charms on the shields, including a feature whereby the phalanx’s shields magnetically lock together to share a single defensive barrier. They are also equipped to disperse incoming magical energy into the ground, which requires a sizable metallic apparatus to function. This wasn’t tested today, but if it works it should enable a squad to stand up to much heavier fire at the cost of mobility. Charms on the helmet enhance night vision while protecting the wearer from excessive light and sound.”

“Risky,” Tagheved grunted. “You impede your senses in battle, you die.”

Principia stood silently at attention. Rouvad finally raised her head to glance at her.

“Answer her, Sergeant.”

“Yes, ma’am. Modern enchanting is much more precise than that, ma’am. The light-filtering charms are specifically designed to keep a soldier’s visibility at optimum level; it is resistant to flares and improves vision in darkness. I wasn’t able to work it to penetrate smoke, but I’m confident that is achievable. The sonic dampener only activates at a level of sound which is injurious to hearing; in the presence of such noise, soldiers would communicate by hand signals anyway.”

“Mm,” Taghaved said noncommittally.

The High Commander picked up Principia’s lance and held it to the light, peering at the subtly positioned switch on the haft.

“Will this thing fire if I press the button, Locke?”

“Negative, ma’am. That switch releases the firing mechanism. It can’t fire until you’ve pressed the button.”

Rouvad did so, and a narrow vertical slice of the shaft slid inward, a staff-sized clicker mechanism sliding out in its place. At the same time, the spearhead parted down the center, revealing the firing crystal.

“This would have to be partially hollow, then,” Rouvad mused. “That would seriously impair the structural strength of your weapon. Right?”

“Negative, ma’am. It is designed like a standard battlestaff, which means a hollow core of alchemically augmented metal to hold the engravements channeling the firing charge. It’s actually stronger than our steel-cored wooden lances.”

The Commander tilted the lance, studying the parted spearhead. “You can’t tell me this doesn’t utterly gut the physical integrity of the blade.”

“Correct, ma’am. The blade is enchanted to compensate, but that is sub-optimal. It’s a basic rule of enchantment not to do through magic what is more easily done physically. The use of a crystal firing surface is also not ideal; they burn and crack after prolonged use. That weapon is a prototype; it has substantial room for improvement. I was working on a tight schedule.”

“Incredible,” Rouvad murmured, poking at the base of the parted spearhead with a fingertip. “I can’t even see the hinges. I didn’t know you were a metalsmith on top of your numerous other talents, Locke.”

“The physical design was done by a Svennish engineer working in the city, ma’am. He has thoughts on how to improve it, but again… I had to rush them into service.”

“And I press the button again to return it to spear form?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Rouvad thumbed the release, and the clicker slid back into the haft, the spearhead snapping back together. “Awfully close to the clicker when it’s out. In a combat situation you could accidentally disarm your weapon.”

“Yes, ma’am, I noticed that. I plan to rotate the release switch forty-five degrees along the haft and position it several inches forward to reduce that risk. In the next iteration.”

“Why,” Rouvad asked, carefully setting the lance down, “did you feel the need to do this, Locke?”

Principia hesitated, glancing over at the other officers present. Shahai and Tagheved remained impassive, but Dijanerad scowled at her. “Permission to speak freely, Commander?”

“Oh, this should be absolutely priceless,” Rouvad said with a heavy sigh. “Permission granted.”

“Ma’am, the Silver Legions are totally unprepared for combat in this century. We are coasting on the goodwill of the Tiraan Empire and the historically naïve presumption that large-scale military resistance to Avei’s aims will never be faced again. Right now, one for one, any Tiraan and most other military organizations would obliterate a Silver Legion unit of corresponding size in any open confrontation. We are not trained, equipped or prepared for combat with energy weapons. We aren’t prepared to contend with teleporting battlemages, zeppelin air support, mag artillery or tactical scrying. We have nothing that could even begin to stand up to an Imperial strike team, with the possible exception of a Hand of Avei—and frankly the nature of strike teams makes them powerful counters to any magic user, no matter how potent. Commander, if the Silver Legions go to war—any war—as we are, we will be utterly destroyed.”

Deafening silence weighed on the room.

“And of course,” Rouvad said finally, “you believe you are the only person in all of Avei’s legions to have thought of any of this, Sergeant Locke.”

Again, Principia hesitated. “With the greatest respect, High Commander, I have been aware of the Silver Legions longer than you have been alive. They have not changed in that time. What anyone has thought is unknown to me; I only see that nothing has been done.”

“Right,” Rouvad said in a dangerously soft tone. “Because from the exalted rank of sergeant, you are positioned to see everything being done in every Legion on every continent.”

Principia remained silent.

“You enabled her to do this, Shahai?” Rouvad said, turning to stare at the Bishop.

“I arranged this space in which Sergeant Locke could drill her squad,” Shahai said in perfect equanimity. “I was unaware of the specifics of her plans, though I guessed the general sense of it. In hindsight, I stand by that decision. This is good work. A good start, at least.”

“A good start undertaken without authorization, without her commanding officer even knowing of it,” Rouvad grated.

“Remind me, Nandi,” Dijanerad said flatly. “When did I interfere in the running of your command?”

“Enough, Captain,” General Tagheved said.

“I’m sorry if you felt stepped upon, Shahdi,” Shahai replied calmly. “I was given provisional authority over this squad for the duration of my mission. I judged this to be mission-relevant. Indeed, it appears to have saved their lives during the course of this duty. Not only have we not lost five valuable soldiers today, but they have come home with extremely pertinent intelligence.” She gave Rouvad a pointed look.

“I don’t know how many times it is worth bothering to lecture you about the chain of command, Locke,” Rouvad grated. “You do not just run off and do things. You are a sergeant; your decision-making prerogatives are specific and limited, and have been thoroughly explained to you. Major undertakings such as this are to go through the chain of command. You have no idea what is happening at the level above you—any of those numerous levels! Running off to completely alter your squad’s method of operation without your commanding officer’s consent or even knowledge could get good women killed in a crisis.”

“Understood, ma’am.”

“No, Locke,” Rouvad said, and suddenly her tone was purely weary. “You don’t understand. I can go on and on about it, but you’ll only ever think of authority as something you have to circumvent. You are such an utter Eserite at heart… Well, despite what you persist in believing, in the military it is not easier to seek forgiveness than permission. The difference is you might get permission.”

She picked up the lance again, tapping its point against the table. “This is good work, Locke. If you had come up with a proposal for this, I would have cleared it. Your squad’s whole purpose is to explore new methods of operation for the Legions. I would have funded it! And now, since you can’t seem to demonstrate your competence without undercutting your credibility, I have to drag the source of one of the most promising developments I’ve seen in years over the coals before you go down in flames and take your entire squad down with you!”

“What you need to do,” Shahai said calmly, “is give Locke a slap on the wrist and a pat on the head. And then a research budget.”

“I didn’t ask your opinion, Captain Shahai,” Rouvad snapped.

“You’re getting it for free,” Shahai replied. “You badly need to stop trying to browbeat these women into place, Farzida.”

The High Commander rounded on her. “You will not speak to me in that manner in front of soldiers I am in the process of disciplining!”

“Or what?” the Bishop shot back, a sharp edge to her own voice now. “You’ll fire me? Do it, Farzida. I have plenty of hobbies I can pursue until the next High Commander realizes I’m too valuable to leave collecting dust in Viridill. You brought me into this to serve as a liason, to be a calmer voice where you can’t afford to; well, that is exactly what I am doing.

“Soldiers fight and die for each other. You know this. They’ll do the same for a commander who is one of them. Respect is earned, not commanded; you know that as well as any soldier and better than many. Have you thought at all about this squad’s experience in the Legions and how it would affect them? They have been singled out, persecuted, forced to circumvent the chain of command to ensure their very survival, and finally had to watch as the quite frankly unhinged agent who did all this to them was given a pittance of punishment and a promise that she will be back! And now you upbraid them for assuming their officers can’t be trusted? Honestly, Farzida, would you trust you?

“The problem,” she went on fervently, “is that you have to be the Commander with them. They don’t have the privilege of seeing how you agonize over this, how you grieve for soldiers under your command mistreated by others, how it grinds on you having to keep a creature like Basra Syrinx on the rolls because her particular brand of viciousness is something we can’t function without in this tangled modern world. What makes you such a good leader, Farzida—one of the things—is that you hurt the same as your troops hurt, whenever they do. But these women here have never seen that. You’ve never let them; I understand why you cannot afford to. You’ve shown them a cold bureaucrat who seems bent on getting them killed.

“Each of these women are in this Legion because they have nowhere else to go. Well, the Legion has formed them into a unit. Now we badly need to make them understand that they need the Legion as much as the Legion needs them before they start to realize that as a unit, they could go anywhere, do anything they like, and handle anything thrown at them. Because we do need them. Badly. You know and I know how right Locke is; we’re in no way prepared for what we all know will have to come eventually. Right here are represented the talents and the mindset that can help bring the Legions and the Sisterhood forward and ensure our very survival.

“You and Locke have got to start respecting each other on a personal level, and if that’s not good for the chain of command, so be it. For the goddess’s sake, you two would get along swimmingly if you didn’t have so bloody much in common!”

Captain Dijanerad looked shocked by the time Shahai’s speech came to an end, but General Tagheved only watched the elf with an expression of mild amusement. Rouvad stared at her, utterly blank-faced.

The silence stretched out, and none of Squad One dared disturb it with so much as an injudicious breath.

“Sergeant Locke,” the High Commander said suddenly, turning to stare at her. “You will personally scrub every inch of your cabin with your own two hands until it is in new condition. The rest of your squad, since not a one of them had the thought to go over your head when you decided to spit on the chain of command, can do the same with your cohort’s parade ground. Quit doing crap like this, Principia. I have all my future gray hairs carefully planned and have none to waste on you. And…” She set down the lance. “This is damn fine work, Locke. Starting tomorrow, I want you to submit material and budgetary estimates to Captain Dijanerad for the continuation of this research. Squad Three Nine One will continue to have access to this facility for drilling; your mission statement is now expanded to include research and development of modern weaponry and defenses suitable for incorporation into Silver Legion equipment and the necessary techniques to use them.”

She paused, glanced around at all the women present, then sighed and shook her head. “And now I have to go contend with the Thieves’ Guild and Imperial Intelligence. Fortunately, I’ll probably have the Guild on my side for this, disconcerting as that is. General, if you’ve anything further to say to this lot, they’re all yours.”

The High Commander turned and strode off toward the far door, leaving them behind.

General Tagheved watched her go, then turned a contemplative expression on Squad One.

“You’re a poor excuse for a soldier, Locke,” she said thoughtfully. “But you’re the kind of poor soldier who sometimes makes a priceless officer in tumultuous times. You watch your step. Dismissed, ladies.”

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“We’re with the Silver Legions,” Principia called to the two golems. “If you can understand me—”

She received an answer in the form of two staff blasts that rocked herself and Ephanie back a half-step, making their formation quaver. An acrid smell rose over the lightning-induced tang of ozone in the air, the sign of a shield charm nearing the point of burnout. Those things hit much harder than the wandshots fired by the protestors.

“Retreat!” she barked, and the squad began backing away as quickly as they could, considering they were climbing damp stairs backwards. The golems remained where they were, not attempting to follow, but kept their staves trained on the Legionnaires. They did not fire again, however.

“That’s a defensive posture,” said Ephanie. “They’re blocking access to that landing, not trying to kill us.”

“Sarge,” Casey warned, glancing over her shoulder, “we are back in range of that cannon. It’s still aiming at us!”

“Veth’na alaue,” Principia muttered, turning to look. At their current height on the staircase, their heads and shoulders were visible above the top, just enough to put them in view of the artillery emplacement. It was indeed still trained on their position. For a moment she held onto the hope that it had been left there and abandoned, but even as she peered up at the mag cannon, its barrel began to glow. This time, it appeared to be building up a significant charge rather than firing right away. “Shit, there’s no cover.”

“Cannons would need to have this platform in their range of fire to clear away attackers,” Ephanie said crisply. “Sarge, I think we have a better chance taking on the golems.”

“No,” said Principia. “Break ranks and get to the far corner over there, just on the other side of the opposite gate. Go.”

She led the way, the others following; they bounded up the last few steps and dashed diagonally across the platform, huddling into the very far corner between the city wall and the stone balustrade. The active mag cannon swiveled to track them, but it couldn’t turn as fast as they could run, and ultimately didn’t manage to turn all the way. Its rotation stopped short of giving it full coverage of the platform.

“Okay, that’s something,” said Merry, who was sandwiched between Farah and the wall. “We’re still in range of the artillery on this side, though.”

“Nobody attacked us from east gatehouse,” said Principia. “Avelea, are they connected?”

“Not directly,” Ephanie replied, “but they could cross the battlements above to reach it.”

“Still no sign of movement from over here,” Principia murmured, her eyes sweeping the scene. “Keep your shields up and attention on the arrow loops; if anybody fires from there, return fire. Sing out immediately if one of these cannons starts to move. Time’s on our side; the Army has to be back in place sooner than later.”

“But we don’t know what kind of timetable that is,” Farah said tremulously.

“Right, which is why we’re not gonna sit here and wait for rescue,” Principia replied. “Listen up: once we start moving we’ll be back in range of the cannon, so we’ll need to work fast. When I give the word, fall into wedge formation facing that mag cannon and rake it. Avelea, how badly can we damage it?”

“With five staff-equivalent weapons, easily enough to take it out of commission, assuming five direct hits—and assuming whoever’s up there doesn’t know to activate its shields. Sarge, you remember our accuracy when we drilled with these things. And that cannon is still charging; the second we’re in its line of sight it’ll fire.”

Prin nodded, scowling at the mag cannon. It was partly hidden from view by the slight protrusion of the gatehouse, but they could see most of it from their position. “Scratch that, then. Avelea, Lang, you’re the best shots. Take position against the wall here and start peppering it. See if you can put it out of action. As soon as that thing is down, we form up and concentrate fire on this door. I want us off this ledge and back inside the walls ASAP.”

“Pretty sure attacking the city defenses is technically treason,” Merry muttered, kneeling with her shoulder against the wall while Ephanie took aim above her head. They fired simultaneously, then kept up a steady barrage, pausing only long enough between shots to keep their weapons from overheating.

Lightning scored black rents in the stonework near the mag cannon, but most of their shots hit it directly. The blue flash of heavy-duty shielding charms signaled that this would not be that easy, but no charm had an infinite charge, heavy or not.

Whoever was at the cannon’s controls clearly agreed; after a few seconds of taking fire, it retaliated. This time, it was fully charged.

The whole squad mashed themselves flat against the wall, raising shields in front of themselves, and even so, it was barely enough. The blast of white light that roared past them barely a yard from their faces was accompanied by a corona of ferocious static electricity; their shield charms flared almost opaque, whining in protest, and Casey’s shattered in a cascade of sparks. A cart-sized chunk of the platform adjacent to them was smashed to rubble.

“Elwick!” Principia shouted a second later, blinking the glare from her eyes. “Report!”

“Singed, not hurt, ma’am,” Casey said, still huddled behind her shield. “Sarge, my charm’s broken! If that fires again—”

“It’s not gonna fire again,” Principia said grimly. “Hold your position. If this doesn’t work, Avelea’s in command.”

She darted out into the open, crossing the platform in seconds and dropping her shield and lance on the way. The elf launched herself into a running jump, landing at the edge of the far balustrade and kicking off it; she spun in midair to kick off the very narrow protrusion of stonework that sheltered the gate, soaring higher in the direction of open space, but caught herself on the edge of an arrow loop. Dangling from it by both hands, she swung her body to the left, and then back to the right, actually running along the wall at a steep angle till she hit the narrow rim of stone again and kicked off, getting a grip on the next loop up.

A figure leaned out of a nearby arrow loop, aiming a wand at her; he was instantly struck by shots from Ephanie and Merry, and fell forward without a scream to lie smoking on the platform below.

“Now that’s interesting,” Merry muttered. “I thought Legion training for elves meant they weren’t that agile anymore…”

Principia was in the middle of another improbable leap when a figure peeked out from behind the battlements shielding the mag cannon, taking aim at her with a wand. Ephanie and Merry immediately fired on him, but the cannon’s defenses absorbed the bolts, leaving him with a clear shot at the sergeant.

A shadow fell across the platform.

The man at the cannon turned to look, then let out a squeal and dived back into cover; Principia paused, dangling from the bottom of an arrow loop and twisting her neck to see what was happening.

Though he landed with as much gentleness as possible, the beat of his massive wings was nearly enough to jar her loose from the wall. Bracing his hind legs on the platform, Ampophrenon the Gold grasped the upper battlements of the gatehouse with his right hand and laid the other on the mag cannon that had been harassing Squad One. With obvious care, he very gingerly turned it to face out to sea.

The cannon’s mounting rent asunder in a shower of sparks, leaving the dragon holding the broken weapon.

“Ah,” he rumbled, staring at the cannon in his hand with an abashed expression that was astonishing on his reptilian face. “Well, drat.”

Setting the cannon down on its ledge, he placed his hand under Principia’s dangling feet. “If I may, Sergeant?”

She gave him a long, considering look before letting go, dropping lightly into his palm. Ampophrenon lowered her carefully to the ground outside the gates.

A yelp cut through the air, and a figure emerged from the battlements above, drifting out into space. Dragonsbane, in her distinctive mask and wing cloak, squirmed as she was levitated above the gates, flailing about wildly with her saber. Behind her, another figure in lavish blue robes appeared, standing lightly on the battlements themselves.

“This isn’t over!” the woman ranted, shaking the weapon at him. “You can kill me, you can kill all of us, but one day—”

“I’m sorry to cut off what’s shaping up to be a really good monologue,” Zanzayed called out, “but you might want to save that one for another occasion, Marshal. The rest of your cohorts are all under a sleeping charm; nobody can hear you but us.”

Dragonsbane halted her gyrations, then very deliberately twisted herself to peer pointedly downward at Principia and the rest of her squad.

“Oh, don’t mind us,” said Merry. “This just got very interesting.”

“I believe the sun has set on this particular bit of subterfuge,” Ampophrenon rumbled, rearing up and spreading his wings. Moments later, he had shrunk down to his humanoid form and stepped off the balustrade onto the platform. “I said from the beginning that we should have been up front with Locke instead of trying to manipulate her, Zanzayed. All this chaos is what results from attempting to play such games with notoriously clever people.”

“You just hate fun, that’s all,” Zanzayed replied gaily, as he and Dragonsbane slowly drifted to the ground.

Ampophrenon grimaced at him, then turned to Dragonsbane and bowed. “I apologize for damaging the cannon, Marshal. Needless to say, I will be financially responsible for that and all damage to Imperial property incurred here.”

“That’s generous of you, m’lord,” she said carefully, “but there is really no way to arrange that without revealing your complicity in this. I’m sure the Imperial treasury can absorb it.”

“Shut up,” Principia said, bending to pick up her lance. “I don’t know what this is, and right now I am past giving a shit. You’re all under arrest.”

Ampophrenon blinked his luminous eyes at her. “Ah… Forgive me, Sergeant Locke, but I don’t think you understand—”

“Here’s what I understand,” she short back, leveling the lance at Dragonsbane and fingering the trigger charm that parted its blades to reveal the firing crystal. “I want all of you on your knees, weapons on the ground and hands on your heads before I have time to repeat my instructions.”

Before any of them could respond to that—which was perhaps fortunate, given Zanzayed’s gleeful expression—the side gate through which they had originally come opened, and a well-dressed man in his middle years stepped out. He glanced once at the scene—the two dragons, the Legionnaires, the improbably-dressed woman in the mask—and cleared his throat.

“Thank you for your commitment to civil order, Sergeant, but that won’t be necessary. My name is Quentin Vex; I head Imperial Intelligence. Perhaps it’s time we had a talk.”


 

Wide slashes were the opposite of proper rapier technique, but Ruda had quickly discovered that whatever magic animated the skeletons ran very thin in each individual specimen; it didn’t agree at all with mithril. The merest touch of her sword sufficed to reduce them to inanimate bone. Thus, she swept the blade around herself in wide, scything arcs, carving a path through the horde of undead and so far avoiding injury at their skeletal hands.

Which was not to say this was a winning strategy; the sheer numbers of skeletons were turning the tide gradually against her and her classmates. It would have been a significant challenge to keep up with them even if they crumbled to dust on each hit, but she was accumulating drifts of fallen bones all around herself, forcing her to constantly retreat in order to retain her footing. And still they came on, no matter how many she felled.

Another of those peculiar golden blasts hit her in the side; there was some pressure to it, but despite what it had done to Shaeine (which had caused her to formulate a theory), it had had no other effect on Ruda, and she had decided not to worry about it.

“Would you quit doing that?” Juniper exclaimed off to her right upon being shot with another of them. The dryad turned and stalked toward the cultist who had fired on her, evidently having had enough. She had been bulling through the undead by sheer brute force; the ones she smashed had a tendency to keep moving, just in smaller pieces.

On Ruda’s other side, Vadrieny screamed in fury at a knot of onrushing skeletons, which fazed them not in the least. In the next second she was being swarmed by them—not taking any discernible damage, but being crawled over by human-sized enemies was enough to hamper even her strength.

“For fuck’s sake, Vadge, they’re not afraid of you!” Ruda exclaimed, cutting down another swath of undead. “Teal, tell your demon to just kill the bastards!”

The cultist shrieked in panic as Juniper got her hands on him. Wrenching the augmented staff out of his grasp, she hurled it to the side, then picked the man up and tossed him into the air. The dryad caught him by the ankle, and proceeded to swing him bodily around, using him as a grisly flail against the summoned undead.

Vadrieny hurled off the last of the skeletons swarming her and pumped her wings once to leap across the sanctuary to Ruda’s side, where she swiped half the undead attacking the pirate into shards. Standing back-to-back halved the area each had to control and made their task suddenly a great deal easier.

“Don’t ever call me that again,” the archdemon ordered.

“Yeah,” Ruda agreed. “Didn’t really think that one through before I opened my mouth.”

One of the remaining cultists was clipped by a skeleton thrown by Juniper in the act of firing his weapon at Vadrieny; the shot went wild, smashing one of the cathedral’s stained glass windows. Apparently they had that much force, at least.

A silver streak zipped in through the open door and discharged a blast of wind at him, followed by a splatter of sleet.

“THIS BUILDING IS A HISTORICAL TREASURE, YOU DEGENERATE POLTROON!” Fross roared, lashing out on all sides with ice—and notably avoiding the use of any of her more destructive spells. Restrained or not, it worked. Even undead had trouble moving with their feet frozen to the floor, and those that got loose were deprived of traction.

“Finally, some fucking progress,” Ruda growled as she and Vadrieny began edging sideways toward the dais where the remaining two cultists stood, now firing persistently at them. In that concentration, the mild blows of the golden shots were enough to impede their advance, though not by much.

Then, the skeletons began to die.

It started in the front corner of the room, with those which had gotten past the students and neared the front doors. They simply collapsed en masse, and a wave of destruction flashed through their ranks. Undead fell to pieces in a long trail as if something invisible were cleaving through them.

Within seconds the phenomenon had ripped across the entire cathedral, then those still pouring out of the doors behind the dais fell as whatever it was passed within to finish the job.

The sudden quiet was astonishing. Juniper halted amid a heap of fallen skeletons, blinking, then looked down at the man in her hand. Blood splattered her, the bones and everything in her vicinity; he was limp and seemed to bend in far too many places.

“Uh oh,” the dryad said sheepishly. “I broke mine, guys.”

The doors, which Vadrieny had shut after putting Shaeine outside, swung open, and all three paladins stalked into the sanctuary, shoulder to shoulder.

“Ah,” said Ruda. “Valkyries. That explains it. Coulda used some of those before. Welcome back, guys!”

She and Vadrieny were slightly off to the side, leaving a clear path between the doors and the dais, along which the cultists and paladins now locked eyes.

“Do your worst!” the man in the center screeched, taking aim with his staff. “A million shall fall, a million shall rise, and all comes to naught! Chaos cannot die!”

Gabriel stepped in front of Trissiny, drawing Ariel and glaring. He pulled back his arm and hurled the sword forward. It was a somewhat awkward throw, exhibiting all of his usual athleticism, but the blade flared blue in midair and zipped across the entire length of the sanctuary, spinning end over end.

The cultist staggered back as Ariel slammed into his chest, impaling him cleanly through the ribs.

Gabriel held out his left hand and made a grasping motion; a phantasmal glove of arcane blue flickered momentarily around Ariel’s hilt, and suddenly the sword wrenched slightly to the side, lodging herself firmly in the man’s ribs and eliciting a gasp of agony from him. Then Ariel jerked backward, sailing across the room to her master and dragging the impaled cultist along.

They came to a clean halt less than a yard from Gabriel, who calmly grasped Ariel’s hilt with his left hand and stepped forward, bringing his face to within inches of the man’s filthy, matted beard. With his other, he grabbed the augmented staff, which the cultist still clutched.

The Hand of Vidius sneered and spoke in a growl that resonated throughout the church.

“Nothing. Doesn’t. Die.”

Gabriel ripped Ariel out sideways and yanked the staff away simultaneously, brandishing both weapons out to the sides. Suddenly unsupported, the cultist staggered, then sank to his knees, whispering something under his breath, before finally falling to the ground. After a few weak twitches, he lay still.

In the silence that followed, they could actually hear the buzzing of Fross’s wings.

“Badass is a weird look on you, Arquin,” Ruda said finally. “Quick, say something dumb before I lose all faith in reality.”

Seemingly galvanized by her voice, the last robed cultist took aim at Gabriel. In the next moment, Vadrieny landed next to him, casually ripping the staff out of his hands and tossing it away, then grabbed him about the neck with one clawed hand and hauled him back to the students.

“You will tell us the source of the chaos,” the archdemon said matter-of-factly, roughly pulling back the cultist’s hood.

This one, thus revealed, was actually a woman. She was as filthy as the others, her face smeared with a grime of blended sweat, dust and caked skin oil, her hair matted and filled with the grunge of the catacombs. Eyes wide and rolling, she stared blankly at a point above Trissiny’s head as the paladin stepped up in front of her.

“The source, there is no source, everything is the source. You don’t see—you should see. You will see, but too late. It shines, but it’s darkness. It’s all. Everything that’s not is is illusion, because it’s illusion. It is and it’s not, you understand?”

“Just like the ones at the prison,” Toby murmured.

“Chaos is very unhealthy to be around,” Trissiny said grimly. “It was a good thought, Vadrieny, but I’m afraid trying to get information out of her is pointless. She’s not even resisting; she just can’t think in terms that would be useful.”

“Unless it’s an act,” Ruda said skeptically.

“Possible, but this is consistent with the observed behavior of chaos victims,” Ariel commented as Gabriel wiped her blade clean with a handkerchief.

“I dunno, they managed to plan and execute all this,” Gabriel said.

“Chaos cultists are known to exhibit a certain animal cunning,” said Trissiny. “It’s the higher functions of intelligence that suffer from chaos exposure; they still have instinct. That’s arguably all they have. Also, let’s keep in mind that the Black Wreath is present and active and has betrayed us once today. I don’t believe for a moment that they are as innocent in all this as Vanessa claimed.”

“They did what?” Vadrieny demanded, turning on her.

“The summoners were a trap,” said Gabriel. “The Wreath was already there, with weapons like these. They claimed to have taken them from the chaos cult, but they used ’em on us and tried to hold us prisoner.” He held up the staff in his hand, studying it with a distasteful grimace.

“What the fuck do those even do?” Ruda demanded.

“These are what the Empire was making,” said Trissiny. “They block divine magic. A cleric shot by one is temporarily unable to cast. Or a paladin, as we discovered.”

“That was the theory I developed,” said Shaeine, striding toward them from the door. “You did say temporarily?”

“Yeah, actually,” said Toby, stepping toward her, “and it turns out Omnu is inclined to override the effect. Shaeine, I’m not certain if this’ll work for you—you’re not a Pantheon cleric. But I don’t see any way it could hurt…”

“Please,” Shaeine said with barely restrained intensity, “try.”

Toby reached out, his aura flaring gold, and laid a hand on her shoulder. Vadrieny stepped up to Shaeine’s other side, squinting against the glow but not backing away.

After a moment, Toby let his light subside. “There. I… That’s it, Shaeine. Any more and we might both burn.”

Shaeine closed her eyes, and a halo of pure silver rose about her. She let out a deep sigh, the obvious relief on her features jarring considering her usual composure. Vadrieny wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulders.

“Thank you,” the drow said feelingly to Toby, who grinned back.

“That’s one fear addressed, then,” said Ruda, poking gingerly at the still-babbling cultist with the tip of her sword. When Vadrieny had released her, the woman had just slumped to her knees, making no move to either flee or attack. It was starting to look more and more as if her mind was simply gone. “Now what the hell are we supposed to do with this?”

“She’s no use to us,” Toby said firmly as the cultist continued muttering under her breath. “She’ll have to go into prison with the others. Despite everything, she’s as much a victim in this as anyone.”

Juniper wrinkled her nose. “Are you serious?”

“Yes,” Trissiny said firmly. “She’s not even mentally competent to stand trial. No one sets out to do things like this, Juniper; chaos damages the mind if you get too close to it. There are established legal precedents, here. She is to be considered insane and treated accordingly.”

“That leaves us back at square one, then,” said Gabriel. “With a city-wide disaster on top of everything else.”

“Not quite,” Ruda replied. “Think, guys. Undead coming up everywhere, sure. But this is the only place we’ve seen multiple cultists. They all came pouring out of the catacomb access right under this cathedral.”

“You think the source must be nearby,” said Fross.

“It’s as good a theory as any,” Toby agreed, nodding.

“And we’d better move our asses before the trail gets any colder,” Ruda added. “The chaos-whatsit may be close. We’ve got valkyries, three paladins, and my friend, here.” She held up the rapier. “And one of our paladins knows a thing or two about magic.”

“It’s possible he knows as many as three things,” said Ariel.

“I agree,” Trissiny said, drawing her sword. “Fross, Juniper, Shaeine and Vadrieny, please try to help the Army and the citizens outside. Those of us less vulnerable to chaos had better head below. If there’s a chance we can finish this, we have to take it.”

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9 – 22

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“She needs a minecart,” Teal said as they emerged into the cellar of Dufresne Manor.

“A what?” Trissiny asked distractedly.

“You know! A little box on wheels, set on tracks, to go back and forth. I mean, that’s a long walk in the dark.”

“Mm,” Trissiny said noncommittally, heading for the stairs up to the kitchen. “Let me do the talking.”

“What a good idea,” Shaeine said serenely. “Then Toby and I can handle the punching, and Juniper can go chop down a tree so we have something with which to stake our hostess through the heart.”

“I would never!” Juniper exclaimed in horror.

“I think that’s the joke,” Fross stage whispered.

Trissiny had stopped and turned to stare incredulously at Shaeine.

“Triss,” the priestess said in a gentler tone, “we are all taking this seriously, but you are not the most diplomatic person here.”

“Actually,” Fross said, “since Ruda stayed in town with Gabe she may be the least diplomatic person here!”

“Thanks, Fross,” Toby said resignedly.

“No problem!”

“That was exactly my point,” Trissiny said sharply. “Sometimes you need diplomacy. Sometimes you need to make a stand and demand answers.”

“It has been my considerable experience, and that of my House over many centuries of practicing and perfecting that very art, that getting answers—or anything in general—is easiest when one doesn’t make demands.” Shaeine shook her head. “We know Malivette practices some necromancy; we all saw the horses. We utilized them, in fact. She is trusted by Tellwyrn and Rafe, and has been kind to us. We will approach her calmly.”

“I have every intention of being calm,” Trissiny said stiffly. “Did you forget the commonality in every chaos cult that’s sprung up in Veilgrad lately? They all turned to necromancy.”

“So we’ll ask for answers,” Toby said. “And if she doesn’t want to give answers…”

“We’ll ask more assertively,” Trissiny said, nodding. “Fine, we’ll try it your way first.”

“And if it comes to being assertive,” Teal said firmly, “no stabbing, please.”

“Assaulting Malivette is not even on the table,” Trissiny said with a sigh, turning back to the stairs. “Frankly I’m not positive the lot of us could take her. If, and I am not suggesting that it’s going to happen, but if we end up needing to fight her for any reason, we’ll retreat and get Gabriel. Let the valkyries do their jobs.”

“I foresee that this will not be a negotiation about which I will tell my mother with pride,” Shaeine murmured, following Trissiny up the steps.

They paused at the top, the others having to gently push Trissiny forward, to take in the scene.

Pearl stood with her back to them, washing her hands in the sink. Professor Rafe lounged in a chair beside the fireplace; he grinned at the students as soon as they entered. At the center island, Schkhurrankh the Rhaazke demon stood wearing an apron at least two sizes too small over a dress that had clearly been hastily constructed from what seemed to be curtains, chopping onions.

She paused, staring at the students.

“BEHOLD!” Rafe shouted. At the sink, Pearl jumped and whirled, finally catching sight of them.

“Hello,” said Schkhurrankh.

“W—you speak Tanglish now?” Trissiny exclaimed.

The demon blinked and tilted her head. “Khhhhhello?”

“Oh. Right.”

“We’ve been having lessons!” Rafe proclaimed. “Rather one-sided conversations, but upon my honor, progress was made!”

“I’m surprised that conversation had any sides,” Teal said, frowning.

“Hah! Oil of Understanding, baby!” Rafe grinned, rocking his chair back and forth and ignoring Pearl’s disapproving look. “Of course, that only works on me, and me understanding her growling and snarling was only half the battle. A lot of alchemy is buggered up by demons, we’ve been over that in class. Actually, though! I can make a brew that’ll work for her, too, but for that I need a blood or tissue sample.” He paused, glancing speculatively at the demon. “I, uh, figured we’d wait till Vadrieny was here to translate before having that conversation. Not sure what’d happen if I came at her with a mithril scalpel, but I don’t reckon it’d leave anybody happy.”

Schkhurrankh grinned and casually tossed a handful of raw diced onion into her mouth, crunching happily.

“Save them for the roast,” Pearl said firmly. The demon stopped chewing, looking actually guilty, and hastily spat the mouthful back onto the pile. Pearl sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Thank you, Scorn.”

“Hello,” she said sheepishly.

Teal blinked rapidly. “W—Scorn? How did that happen?”

“Very carefully,” Pearl said, shaking her head and turning back to the sink.

“So it’s a mortal insult if you pronounce her name wrong,” Trissiny said, frowning, “but she’s okay with a nickname?”

“Well, not at first,” Rafe admitted. “But with much pantomime, we were able to express to her what it means. And now she likes it.”

Schkhurrankh—Scorn—grinned again. “Hello!”

“Vrackdish khnavai?” Teal asked.

Scorn blinked at her twice, then began snickering.

“I really need to practice that language,” Teal muttered. Shaeine patted her gently on the back.

“Shkhalvrik, d’min sklacth,” the demon said, still grinning.

“Well, she seems to be having fun, anyway,” Teal said. “Do you have any garlic?”

Pearl turned to frown at her. “…is that a joke?”

“Oh!” The bard clapped a hand to her face. “Oh, gods, I’m sorry, I didn’t even think… I mean, um, turnips or anything like that? She’ll really enjoy starchy things like roots, and strong flavors. If you set her to chopping onions she’ll probably just eat them unless you give her something else to snack on.”

“Ah. That’s not a bad idea,” Pearl said with a smile. “Thank you. Yes, we have garlic; I’ll get her a few cloves.”

“Hello!” Scorn said brightly.

“Wait, you do have garlic?” Toby asked.

“It’s not actually harmful to vampires,” Trissiny said. “That’s a myth. Come on, we can catch up with Shl—Scorn later. I want to speak with Malivette before it gets any closer to dark.”

“It’s not much past noon,” Juniper pointed out.

“The mistress is resting at the moment,” Pearl said, giving Trissiny a narrow look. “Between chaperoning your demon friend and contracting repairs to the manor, it has been an eventful morning.”

“That was a broad hint,” Professor Rafe explained. “Pearl is suggesting you should refrain from stirring up any further shit, being that you’ve already been less than ideal houseguests, what with all the nonsense and whatnot. She didn’t come out and say that because she’s super nice.”

“Thank you, Professor,” Pearl said, shaking her head as she strode over to a cupboard.

“I live to serve!”

“We will try to keep this conversation brief, then,” Trissiny said, turning and striding out of the room before anyone could say anything else. The others followed more slowly.

“Uh, how do you know where you’re going?” Teal asked as they ascended the stairs in the main entrance hall.

“Sense evil,” Toby murmured. “Whether or not she’s actually evil, she…registers. I could point her out exactly anywhere on the grounds.”

“Excuse me,” said Sapphire, frowning at them as they stepped into the upstairs hallway. “I know it can be easy to get turned around in here. Your rooms are in the other wing.”

“We need a word with Malivette,” Trissiny said, not slowing. “Now.”

“She is taking some time to herself,” Sapphire said more sharply, stepping in front of the paladin. “Can this wait?”

“It’s about necromancy and Veilgrad,” Trissiny replied, staring evenly at her. “Excuse me.”

“That can wait, then,” Sapphire replied, not moving an inch. “You should perhaps take some time to freshen up. Pearl will have lunch ready soon; you can talk to Malivette this evening.”

“We can also talk to her now,” Trissiny said, taking a step forward. “When it is broad daylight and we have someplace to go if Malivette doesn’t like the direction of our discussion.”

“Trissiny,” Shaeine said firmly. “You are being provocative, and very nearly rude.”

“Young lady,” Sapphire said, staring the paladin down, “it is exceedingly bad manners to impose upon your hostess in this fashion.”

“I’m sorry for that,” Trissiny replied inexorably, “truly. But this won’t wait.”

“We are perilously close to having a disagreement,” Sapphire said quietly.

“Whoah, now,” Teal exclaimed. “Peace, please! Triss…”

“Yes, I know exactly what your capabilities are,” Trissiny said, her eyes locked on Sapphire’s. “You are no threat to me, and I am no threat to Malivette, and I think you know both those things. So we’re going to go speak with her, and nobody needs to get needlessly upset.”

“Trissiny,” Toby said sharply. “Stop. We are the guests here—don’t talk to her like that.”

“Fine,” Sapphire said curtly, abruptly stepping backward. “I see war and justice leave little room for social skills. You apparently know where you’re going, then.”

“Thank you,” Trissiny said politely, nodding deeply to her. Sapphire folded her arms and wrinkled her nose disdainfully.

“Sorry,” Fross whispered loudly. “Really. She has the best intentions, I promise, she just gets worked up when things are evil.”

“There is nothing evil here,” Sapphire said bitterly, directing it at the paladin’s back rather than the pixie.

Trissiny, ignoring her, pushed open a set of double doors and stepped into the cavernous bedroom beyond. Its furnishings were carved of dark-stained wood, sparse in number and simple in design, though elaborate and clearly expensive rugs littered the floor haphazardly and the large four-poster bed was strewn with rumpled sheets of crimson satin. There were no wall decorations aside from the sconces of fairy lamps, currently unlit.

She didn’t pause, turning and striding toward another door along the wall, the others trailing along after her.

“Hang on, wait a second,” Toby said, hurrying to catch up. “I really don’t think you should burst in on—”

Ignoring him, Trissiny grasped the latch and yanked the door open, revealing a brightly-lit bathroom with brass and marble accents.

Malivette stood at the sink, wearing a bright pink bathrobe of some impossibly fluffy material. On her feet were whimsical slippers shaped like rabbits, also pink. She stood with one hand in the robe’s pocket, the other holding the end of the toothbrush currently in her mouth. Minty foam was bubbled up around her lips. The vampire stared at them quizzically, her crimson eyes wide and surprised.

“If fher a profful?” she inquired.

“Vette,” Sapphire said anxiously from behind the students, “I’m so sorry, I tried to stop them, but this pushy girl insisted…”

“If fife erfay, uffee,” Malivette said kindly. “Un fife f’gheff.”

“Can we speak to you, please?” Trissiny asked, finally looking uncertain.

Malivette finally withdrew her hand from her pocket, holding up one finger. “Uff a momum, phleef.”

While they stared, she resumed scrubbing her teeth, humming softly to herself. It went on for easily another minute; she was quite thorough. The vampire turned her back to spit in the sink and rinse her mouth.

“There!” she said brightly, turning to face them again. “Ah, much better. Let me tell you, nothing drives home the importance of oral hygiene like having to subsist on blood. Even if you like the stuff, once it starts getting all congealed…blech. And that happening between your teeth! Blargh. Bleugh! Bleughrer!”

“Why are you collecting materials and equipment for necromancy?” Trissiny demanded loudly.

“What makes you think I am?” Malivette asked pleasantly. “I mean, I’m not even going to consider the idea that you’ve been rummaging about in my personal possessions.”

“We are exceedingly sorry to impose like this,” said Shaeine, looking pointedly at Trissiny. “There are surely any number of reasons you might have need of necromantic arts, not least of which are the horses. Perhaps this conversation could have waited for a more convenient moment.”

“Yes, I suppose this may be rather jarring to you,” the vampire said, smiling with a hint of mischief. “It doesn’t really make it into the bards’ songs, for whatever reason, does it? They’re like terriers going after rats.”

“Uh, what?” Juniper asked. “Who is?”

“The Hands of Omnu are a conservative lot,” Malivette went on, nodding to Toby, “always have been. It’s all about healing and blessing wherever they happen to be. Hands of Avei have this compulsion, though. It goes well beyond just sensing evil. If there’s something nasty occurring, they go right for it, every time. Often without fully realizing what they’re doing. It’s instinct, see? You kids should listen to your friend more, especially when she seems irrationally aggressive. The obvious reason Trissiny is worked up about necromancy is I’m doing horrible, dangerous and utterly depraved necromantic experiments on the grounds.” She grinned broadly, showing off her fangs. “Wanna see?”

“Uh,” said Fross.

“Hang on a tick, lemme just change into something less comfortable.” Malivette suddenly erupted into a cloud of mist and shrieking bats; all of them stumbled reflexively back from the door, Trissiny drawing her sword. She re-formed in seconds, now wearing her customary slinky black dress. “Well, c’mon, this way!” she said brightly.

She dissolved again into silver mist, flowing like water through their legs and taking form again behind them, standing in the door and beckoning eagerly. “Come along, now! I think you’ll like this. Follow me!”

The vampire turned and skipped into the hallway, her fluffy pink bunny slippers peeking out from below the hem of her gown.


The Conclave’s embassy had not changed much in the short time since Bishop Shahai and Squad One had last visited, except with regard to personnel. The building was the same, and still guarded by Imperial soldiers; there were still petitioners in the entrance hall, and lining up outside. Now, however, there were more humans present who had clearly aligned themselves with the Conclave. They had no livery as such, at least not yet, but several of those in attendance wore badges like that sported by the man who had accosted Principia in the old spice market.

They were a disparate lot, having in common only that they were relatively young, none yet into middle years, and all physically fit. Their attire varied widely, though none seemed shabby or excessively casual. Aside from the badges, what marked them out was their bearing. These few men and women were proud, alert, and taking their jobs very, very seriously. Considering their jobs seemed so far to consist of standing around the embassy looking officious and chaperoning the various petitioners, it was an open question how long they could keep that up.

The Avenist delegation paused in the middle of the floor, conversations trailing off and eyes turning toward them. Principia looked questioningly at the Bishop, who nodded deeply to her and took a step back. Principia saluted and turned, making a beeline for the nearest individual with a Conclave badge, her squad at her heels.

“I will speak with Zanzayed the Blue,” she said sharply, coming to a halt in front of the young man. “Now. I have a personal grievance to discuss with him.”

The fellow blinked, then glanced to the side at another nearby dragonsworn, who only shrugged helplessly. He was the youngest-looking individual among their ranks, of blond Stalweiss stock, tall and broad-shouldered. Despite this, he seemed somewhat cowed by the aggressive elf before him, despite the fact that he dwarfed her, armor and all.

“Ah… I can add your name to the list,” he offered. “Of course, there are many people who wish an audience with the exalted delegates. You, um, are likely to be accorded special consideration—”

“Not good enough,” she snapped. “I’m not negotiating with you, young man. If you can’t get me to Zanzayed, get me to someone who can. You have sixty seconds.”

He finally seemed to locate his backbone, straightening up and frowning disapprovingly down at her. “Now, see here, miss—uh, Ms… Uh, soldier—”

“Sergeant,” she said caustically.

“Suppose you tell me the nature of your grievance,” he continued doggedly, “and I will convey the message. You surely can’t expect to just walk in here and talk with a dragon.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Principia said coldly, her voice even by carrying through the marble hall. “This is what you can tell Zanzayed: I am Principia Locke, of the line of the Crow, favored agent of Eserion and soldier of Avei. Zanzayed the Blue is going to answer to me, to my face, for his recent transgressions. If I’m not in front of him within five minutes, I will leave, and when I come back it’ll be with a mix of backup from those various sources I just named. And I promise you, boy, I will make very certain you are present to learn firsthand who and what a dragon does not want to challenge.”

“Uh,” he said frantically, his aplomb now disintegrating in rising panic. “I, uh—”

“That is a new approach,” purred a more musical voice. Principia stepped back from the flummoxed young dragonsworn, turning to the speaker. Gliding toward the assembled soldiers was a strikingly beautiful young woman, pale and dark-haired, wearing a flowing gown of blood-red silk. “Few people would approach dragons with threats. My congratulations, Sergeant Locke; you are the first since we came to Tiraas. I had rather expected such would come from the Empire, not…well. What’s Zanza done to you?”

“Well met,” Principia said flatly. “Whom have I the pleasure of addressing?”

“Of course, my apologies. How rude of me.” The woman curtsied, gracefully but not deeply. “I am Maiyenn, consort of Razzavinax the Red. If you will kindly leave off badgering my household staff, I will be only too glad to escort you directly to Zanzayed. It sounds as if you have very serious business indeed.” She smiled languidly, her eyes half-lidded. “I ask your pardon for the reception. Niels is actually a most admirable young man, but we are still in the process of training all our people. If you will follow me?” She gestured at the curving marble stairs, the motion smooth and elegant.

“My thanks, Lady,” Principia replied, bowing. “Lead on.”

“Oh, my,” Maiyenn said, smiling more broadly. “You actually do know some draconic etiquette. What fascinating stories you must have! I believe I shall enjoy observing this conversation.”

She led them up the stairs and down a side hall branching off from the upper landing. Bishop Shahai stepped forward to walk alongside Principia, the rest of Squad One marching on their heels. Behind them, the group left a thunderous silence; only when they passed the threshold into the corridor did muted conversations begin to rise again in the entry hall.

It was somewhat less awkward to follow Maiyenn once they were off the stairs, and her waist no longer at their eye level. The woman walked with an entirely gratuitous sway in her hips.

Their guide led them the full length of the hallway, ignoring the doors they passed. At the end, rather than terminating in a wall or a room, the hall widened into a small sitting area occupying what was clearly a tower; the space was circular, and instead of walls had paneled windows braced between gracefully fluted columns. Above, more glass panes were set into the domed roof, creating a kind of greenhouse. Fittingly, there were large potted ferns at the bases of columns, and one dwarf fig tree, with settees and chairs casually laid out between these.

There was also, incongruously, a crib on wheels pushed against one window. Maiyenn went directly to this, after giving her guests a final mysterious smile, bending over to coo softly at what lay within. The Legionnaires spared her scarcely a glance, their attention on the other individuals present.

The dragons, to judge by their eyes and hair, could be none other than Zanzayed the Blue and Razzavinax the Red. Upon Maiyenn’s arrival, Razzavinax rose from his seat to join her over the crib, giving the visitors a brief, inquisitive look in passing. He place a hand on Maiyenn’s lower back, his expression softening as he peered down at his infant child.

Even they didn’t command the soldiers’ full attention. The other person present, who had stepped away from the crib to make room for the proud parents, was a striking young woman with milky pale skin, deep black hair and peculiar crystalline eyes in an unlikely shade of aquamarine. She also had spiny bat wings and a spaded tail.

“Easy, now,” Zanzayed cautioned them, grinning idly. He made no move to rise from the settee on which he was lounging. “Rizlith is a friend.”

“Demons make poor friends,” Bishop Shahai said quietly.

“And Avenists make poor guests,” the succubus retorted. Her eyes flicked across the group, coming to rest on Ephanie, and a sultry smile unfolded across her lovely face. “As we are all poor together, why can’t we…get along?”

“Riz,” the red dragon said reprovingly. “Please don’t taunt Silver Legionnaires. In fact, don’t do anything with them. If you’re bored, I can find entertainments for you.”

“I am anything but bored, Razz,” she said idly, taking two steps back and draping her wings about her shoulders like a cloak. The demon leaned backward against the window behind her and folded her arms under her impressive bosom, deliberately emphasizing it. “This all looks to be exceedingly fascinating. You may have to send me away after all, but give a girl a chance, hmmm?”

“I assume you must know a little something of demonology,” Razzavinax said apologetically to the Bishop. “One must make allowances for the children of Vanislaas. I assure you, Rizlith is no threat to you, or to anyone here.”

“At this time,” Rizlith crooned to no one in particular.

“One must make allowances for one’s hosts,” Bishop Shahai replied smoothly, keeping her eyes on the dragon and ignoring the demon. “If you are confident you have the creature under control, no more need be said about it.”

“Well!” Zanzayed said brightly, straightening up to a sitting position and rubbing his hands together, his numerous jeweled rings flashing in the light. “Before this devolves any further, let me just say how delighted I am that you’ve accepted my invitation, Principia! I guess you found something to say to me after all!”

“Yes, I did,” she said acidly. “Quit sending people to pester me, you swaggering jackass!”

“He set himself up for that one,” Maiyenn murmured.

“He did it deliberately,” Razzavinax replied, sliding an arm around her shoulders. “Zanza has peculiar ideas about fun.”

“All right, so maybe I was a tad overbearing,” the blue acknowledged, grinning unrepentantly. “But…here you are! Can’t really fault my strategy, then, can you?”

“Your strategy,” Principia said flatly. “How many women have you had, Zanzayed?”

“Oh, my!” he said, placing his fingertips against his lips in an expression of mock horror. “You surely wouldn’t ask a gentleman to kiss and tell! And in front of these fine upstanding soldiers, no less!”

“You are old enough to have carried out some great seductions,” Principia continued unrelentingly. “Any dragon more than two centuries along has, and you’re at least as old as Arachne.”

“Older,” he said idly.

“So you understand how the game is played. So do I.”

“Why, Principia,” Zanzayed exclaimed, grinning. “How many women have you had?”

“More’n you, I bet,” she shot back. “And we both know that this is not the way to do it. You don’t gain someone’s attention or their favor by drowning them in aggressive, unfriendly solicitations. That is harassment, Zanzayed, and I’ll not stand for it.”

“Are you going to let her talk to me like that?” he asked Bishop Shahai.

“If it comes down to it,” she said mildly, “I’m going to let her punch you.” Maiyenn laughed in pure delight.

“Prin, my dear, you’ve got me all wrong,” Zanzayed protested, spreading his hands innocently. “As I told you before, this is a simple matter of family concern. I have nothing but the highest regard for your bloodline, and you’re a particularly famous example of it! How could I do anything but extend to you every possible courtesy?”

“I am not blind to the fact that there are anti-dragon activists at work in Tiraas,” Principia said coldly.

“Anti-dragon activists,” Maiyenn repeated, her voice oozing disdain. “More correctly called ash stains in training.” Rizlith giggled.

“And I am not dumb enough to fail to see what you’re doing,” Prin continued. “Painting a target for them on my head is an extremely hostile act, Zanzayed.”

“You seem absolutely determined to ascribe the worst possible motivations to me, no matter what I say,” he replied in a mournful tone. “I’m starting to wonder if I have been mistaken. It doesn’t look like we’re going to have a productive discussion, here.”

“On the subject of my bloodline,” she replied with a cold smile, “Mary the Crow is in Tiraas.”

“No, she isn’t,” he shot back, with the same expression. “She was in Tiraas.”

“Want to know how quickly I can find her?”

“Exactly as quickly as everyone else can,” he replied, grinning. “If anything, less. Look, Principia, you’ve clearly got this all worked up in your mind so that I’m out to get you, and just as clearly you’ve brought your friends, here, on board.”

“I am guided by my own reasoning,” Bishop Shahai said serenely. “I have chosen to allow Principia to make this a personal issue because that will cause far less trouble than what will occur if I’m forced to address your treatment of a Legionnaire under my command in an official capacity.”

“They do bluster, don’t they?” Maiyenn mused.

“And here I thought these Legionnaires would be boring,” Rizlith said, her tail waving excitedly. “Elves aside, this is statistically the straightest group of Avenist women I’ve ever seen together in a room. They must have the faith’s officially dullest barracks.”

“Both of you, cease,” Razzavinax ordered, his voice quiet but firm. “Zanzayed is capable of being more than provocative enough for all of us.”

“Well, I’m gonna have to let you down, then, Razz.” The blue finally stood, and bowed extravagantly to Principia. “I give you my word, upon my honor, Principia Locke: I mean no ill to you or yours. I will not harm you, nor suffer you to be harmed if it is up to me to prevent it. Does that satisfy you?”

She pursed her lips. “Is there a single reason it should?”

Zanzayed’s monochrome eyes made it impossible to tell when he was rolling them, so he threw his entire head backward melodramatically, letting out a long groan. “You just can’t win with some people!”

“You want to make progress here?” Principia said coldly. “Quit sending people out to pester me.”

“Is that really all you want?” he said with a sigh. “All right, fine. Done. Is there anything else I can do for you, while you’re here?”

She stared at him in silence for a long moment, then turned and looked inquisitively at the Bishop.

“If you’ve no further business, Sergeant, I am content with this, for now.” Shahai smiled languidly. “This has been an extremely instructive meeting.”

Aside from the other members of Squad One, who remained woodenly stiff at attention, all those present smiled at one another with eyes like daggers.

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Several hours later, a confused and increasingly frustrated Squad One found themselves at Bishop Shahai’s modest apartment not far from Imperial Square, laden down with bags and packages. It was actually quite the achievement to have found a modest apartment this close to the seat of Imperial power, as the real estate here was some of the most expensive in the world. Most people who had the need or desire to be that close to the Palace (or the Grand Cathedral, or the central Omnist or Avenist temples) and the money to move in wanted something larger and more luxurious anyway. There were a number of clerics who preferred proximity to their temples, however, and as such there were buildings owned by the Church and several of the major cults, divided into humble dwellings that suited the desires of their occupants.

Hers was a simple one-story affair that couldn’t have been more than a handful of rooms, to judge by the fact that its kitchen and main living area were all one open space. A space which was cozy verging on cramped with all six of them present; they were packed in close enough to be reminded how much bulk armor added to a person.

“Just put those down wherever it’s least inconvenient, please,” the Bishop directed them. “Then have a seat. I don’t entertain much; I apologize for the lack of comfortable chairs. Feel free to pull one over from the table if you need. I’m going to make us some tea.”

They obeyed slowly, setting down bags and paper-wrapped packages as neatly as possible against the walls, out of the way of the furniture, looking warily around all the while. The furniture was bland and could have come with the place, though personal touches had been added. Soft elven blankets woven of geometric patterns had been draped over the small sofa and single armchair, and on the mantle stood a golden eagle idol—stone, not gold, of course—with several strings of carved beads draped around its heavy base and hanging over the lip of the mantlepiece itself. The only article of really unique furniture was a display case containing a peculiar variety of things behind glass: a broken Avenic short sword, two ornately carved tomahawks, a battered shield bearing the golden eagle, several small leather pouches, and four glittering unicorn horns.

Bishop Shahai moved efficiently about the stove, preparing a pot to heat and setting up a tray with cups, sugar, and other paraphernalia, her back to them. Straightening up from setting down a folded package of expensive silk cloth, Merry scowled at Principia, leaned closer and opened her mouth to whisper.

Prin thrust a finger into her face, glaring, and pointedly tugged at her ear. Merry snapped her mouth shut and contented herself with looking disgruntled.

“Private Elwick, you’re closest,” Shahai said over the soft clink of crockery. “There’s a plate of sandwiches in the cold box, top shelf. Would you kindly set them on the table? And the rest of you, dig in. Tea will be ready in a few moments, I’m sure you’re hungry.”

“Do you…commonly have plates of sandwiches ready for guests, your Grace?” Ephanie asked in a carefully demure tone.

“No,” Shahai replied with an amused little smile, finally turning back to face them. Casey passed between her and the group, obediently carrying a platter stacked with ham sandwiches to the table. “I specifically have one ready. At this point in the evening I expect you all to be rather tired, and increasingly fed up with me. Food and strong tea make a good pick-me-up; we’ll need this little respite before finishing our tasks for the evening.”

“You planned this?” Farah inquired.

“I plan ahead as much as possible, in as much detail as possible, for all situations,” the Bishop said serenely, pulling out a chair and seating herself. “Thank you, Elwick. Please, all of you, sit down. Yes, Szaravid, according to my schedule, by this point in the evening Squad One has spent several hours accompanying me hither and yon to a variety of luxury shopping establishments, standing guard while I browsed and carrying my purchases. I’m aware of the relationship this squad had with Bishop Syrinx, at least the broad strokes; I can only imagine how irate you must be by this point. My compliments on your poise, by the way.”

“I assumed all this was mission relevant, somehow,” Principia said mildly, helping herself to a ham sandwich.

“Oh?” Shahai raised an eyebrow.

“The accumulation of luxury and misuse of temporary authority over a squad would be dramatically out of character, your Grace. I know something of your record as well; you were quite right about Bishop Syrinx. It seemed wise to cultivate an awareness of her successor.”

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised,” Shahai said, smiling. “Well, in any case, this building is owned by the Universal Church, its apartments rented to various clerics. The walls are exceedingly thick, and additionally bolstered with noise dampening enchantments. It’s a very discreet sort of building. This marks the first point in the evening where we can converse in guaranteed privacy. My apologies for making you wait, but the whole point of our performance this far tonight has been just that: a performance, put on for whoever might have been watching. I was unwilling to make assumptions about the security of our environs except in—ah, excuse me.”

The teapot had begun whistling; she stood and glided briskly back to the stove. The assembled Legionnaires glanced uncertainly about at one another, then at Principia, who was chewing away as placidly as if she hadn’t a care in the world.

Shahai returned, setting the tea tray beside the sandwiches and beginning to pour out cups. “Eat or not as you wish, ladies, but I do insist upon the tea. This is a very strong blend, and just the boost we will all need, as we are about to go deal with dragons at the end of an already long day. Please, use as much sugar and milk as you need to make it palatable. If anyone is especially fatigued, I have something even stronger for emergencies. Have you heard of coffee?”

She looked up in surprise at the chorus of groans; Principia chuckled into her sandwich.

“That’s the stuff that tastes like the inside of my boots, keeps you awake for about four hours and then you’re suddenly comatose standing up unless you take another dose,” Merry said, accepting a cup of tea. “Sarge gave us that once.”

“Once,” Principia emphasized, “when I’d kept them out past midnight. Generally I think you get better results from people by letting them get enough rest.”

“I quite agree,” Shahai said, smiling. “Drugs are a poor substitute for any of the things for which people substitute them, but they can bridge the gap in a rough situation. Well, then, on to a much-overdue explanation. What do you know about dragonsworn?”

There was a beat of silence; Farah paused in the act of sipping her tea, staring at the Bishop in surprise.

“People who are sworn to a dragon,” Ephanie replied at last, “just as the word says. I understood that wasn’t common.”

“It’s uncommon for the simple reason that dragons are uncommon,” Shahai said, “and many of them are rather standoffish. But yes, as long as dragons have interacted with the mortal races, some members thereof have dedicated themselves to a certain dragon’s service. In fact, with the Conclave’s current ambitions, I suspect this will be the greatest sticking point in their negotiations with the Empire. Now that they seek to be acknowledged as an independent government, anyone taken into their service will effectively become an agent, if not a citizen, of a foreign power, rather than an eccentric who keeps unusual company. I’m actually quite curious to find out how they will resolve the matter, because at the moment, I’ve no idea. But yes, dragonsworn are a known phenomenon, and their whereabouts are carefully watched by anyone who takes an interest in world events. Including the Sisters of Avei.”

“I figured,” Principia said, pausing to take a sip of tea. “Accumulating expensive hoard-worthy trinkets was an obvious link to the dragon issue. You think there are dragonsworn in the city? It was my understanding the dragons arrived alone.”

“Ah, yes, the…trinkets.” Shahai sighed, giving the piles of packages a disapproving stare. “I am sorry about putting you ladies to that kind of work. But yes, Sergeant, people are already lining up outside the de facto Conclave embassy, wanting a variety of things. Some—perhaps more than a few—are interested in working for the dragons. They have that aura of majesty that tends to inspire such responses. Beyond that, however, there have always been some few dragonsworn in the city, and somewhat less few who are known to do business with them. This afternoon we have visited most of those. These comprise more of a grapevine than an actual intelligence network, but I don’t imagine it will be long before our draconic visitors are aware that I have just gathered a pile of…hoard-worthy trinkets, as you put it.” She paused to smile at Principia.

“People from all walks of life, but notably the wealthy and powerful, will be trying to curry favor with the dragons for a variety of reasons, most of which are no concern to us. My mission here is simply to establish open lines of communication and friendly terms with them, to ward off any potential hostilities and create opportunities for possible future benefit. A vague and simple directive, which nonetheless is made quite challenging by the fact that the dragons have no incentive to take us seriously at all. Virtually the only interaction between dragons and the Sisterhood in eight thousand years have been occasional clashes between individuals and Hands of Avei. Most of those ended in the fatality of one or the other. In this, it’s fortunate for us that they have no particular interest in our cult. What I have to do is make them interested, and favorably so.”

“A tall order,” Principia mused.

“Indeed,” Shahai said wryly. “This afternoon’s errands were the first half of the plan, though it may take some time for word to get back to our targets. This evening’s will finish the job. We discussed earlier the impact of having two elves in the delegation sent to speak with them. When we meet the dragons themselves, I intend to be vague; the point is to set them wondering what we are up to. To set us apart from the countless petitioners who will be competing for a slice of their attention. They, if all goes well, will come to us. As such, once we return tonight, I mean to withdraw somewhat and give them time to stew. If no overtures have been made within a week, we’ll try something else, but apart from that, your squad will return to regular duty rotation to be called for when I have need of you again. With the exception of tomorrow,” she added with a smile. “I’ve reserved you for the morning. Do get some sleep.”

“We appreciate that,” Principia said approvingly.

“Ah, your Grace?” Casey said. “It’s…dark out. Almost everything is closed by now. People will be going to sleep. Is this an appropriate time to visit dragons?”

“All part of the plan, Elwick,” Shahai said, sipping her tea. “Dragons… It’s an open question whether they need to sleep, or just indulge in it occasionally for the pleasure of dreaming. Regardless, they can do it for days at a time, even weeks, but generally only do so two or three times a year. They won’t be in bed. Most people don’t know this, so we won’t have to fight through a crowd. And they assuredly know what a peculiar time of day this is for us to be making social calls.”

“Thus contributing to the infamy you’re cultivating,” Principia said with a smile. “Apologies for any perceived brown-nosing, Bishop, but you’re good at this.”

“At this?” Shahai stared ruminatively into her tea. “This has never been done. Let’s hope we all prove to be good at it. In any case, ladies, finish up here. We are not in any hurry.”


 

The hastily repurposed palace currently housing the Conclave delegation stood not far from Imperial Square, in a residential neighborhood that was wealthy in the manner that the sea was damp. These were the homes of the highest ranking officials of the Imperial government, the various cults and the Universal Church, not to mention the residences of foreign ambassadors and several properties kept by heads of state from overseas. Some of these actually visited with some regularity—the Tiraan Empire did not seek anyone’s favor, but waited for seekers to come to it—while others maintained these properties simply as a point of status. No official embassies stood here, though flags of many countries were displayed and no small amount of diplomatic business had been done behind these walls. None of the buildings on this street could truly be called a house. They ranged from mere mansions at the lower end to palaces which had prompted the current Emperor’s mother to pass laws limiting just how defensible non-Imperial structures in the city could be made.

This one was of an older style, all done in white marble with fluted columns—in fact, it ironically resembled an Avenist temple, if one ignored the highly decorative stonework. Imperial soldiers stood guard on the grounds in significant numbers, almost as if the government expected some kind of attack. Or perhaps they were simply keeping the peace. Whatever the reason, every entrance and ground floor window was covered, as well as the gates of the property itself. More soldiers patrolled the grounds, the outer wall, even the roof.

There were two long banners hanging in gaps between columns flanking the front door. They formed a white field with a divided hexagon in the center, split into six colors: blue, green, red, gold, silver, and black. A peculiar sigil lay over that, in white with a black border that distinguished itself from the background. The symbol didn’t appear to depict anything in particular; it looked more like a glyph in some foreign language.

“Looks almost like a wing,” Farah murmured. “See, the—”

“Scenery,” Bishop Shahai said, quietly but pointedly. Farah instantly fell silent, staring straight ahead. Principia gave her a very sharp look.

Rank had its privileges; the soldiers on duty at the gate saluted the Bishop rather than attempting to stop her. She nodded back in perfect calm, striding up the slightly curving path toward the doors with Principia just behind and to her right and the rest of Squad One forming the four corners of an invisible box around them.

The soldiers at the door saluted, as well, but made no move to usher them in. Principia stepped forward to pull the door open herself.

Within, the palace looked suitably wealthy, but also rather bare. Everything was marble trimmed in gilt, with an extravagantly frescoed dome forming the entry hall’s ceiling and a geometric mosaic for a floor. There was no furniture, though, of any kind, not even rugs or curtains. Apparently the new residents had brought nothing with them, and the old had left nothing behind.

There were more banners, however. These were also white, lacking the multicolored hexagon, but there were six of them and each bore the sigil in one of the draconic colors.

At this hour, the property was relatively quiet. A few people were present in the room; two more Imperial Army officers stood silently at attention, a mixed handful of folk in nondescript attire loitered near the walls, and a portly man in his later middle years in an obviously expensive suit was in the process of crossing the space toward two figures who had just entered from a side door.

Both were dragons.

To judge by their obviously displayed colors, these were Zanzayed and Varsinostro, and two less similarly attired people had rarely stood together. The blue dragon was an almost comical portrait of less-than-tasteful opulence, while the green wore simple wood elf attire. Nonetheless, their presence was arrestingly powerful, even ignoring the people present as they were. A tremor rippled through the onlookers at their entrance, several people letting out soft sighs or murmured observations.

The Avenist party had crossed the room at a sharp pace, and were just barely beaten to intercepting the dragons by the rich man, thanks to his head start.

“Your Eminences,” he said, bowing low and doffing his stovepipe hat, “if I might—”

“Good evening,” Bishop Shahai spoke over him, striding forward.

“Good lady,” the man said in indignation, puffing his chest out at her, “kindly wait your—”

He broke off as Ephanie stepped in front of him, planting the butt of her lance on the floor with a thunk that echoed through the bare chamber, staring flatly from behind her faceguard. The fellow gaped at her, then flushed and stepped backward, muttering something that might have passed for polite.

“Well, this is different,” Zanzayed the Blue commented, smiling in a way that might have been sincere or sarcastic. Something about his featureless eyes made his expression hard to read. The green dragon, who had come to a stop beside him, folded his arms and watched, his face a mask of patience.

“I am Nandi Shahai, Bishop of the Universal Church from the Sisters of Avei,” she said, nodding to them. It was a deep, respectful nod, but clearly the sort of gesture bestowed on an equal, not a being of fathomless, catastrophic power. “Welcome to Tiraas.”

“Thank you, your Grace,” Varsinostro said evenly. “We have found the city most welcoming, with some few specific exceptions.”

“Why, Principia!” Zanzayed exclaimed, grinning in apparent delight. “I must say, this is the greatest and best surprise I’ve had in a whole day of surprises! When did you join the Silver Legions? That’s got to be one of the crazier things I’ve ever heard. Well, regardless, it’s a delight to see you!”

“It is?” Principia asked, nonplussed.

“I wasn’t aware you knew Zanzayed, Sergeant Locke,” Shahai said in a perfectly pleasant tone. The warning was hidden in the awareness of their orders, invisible to onlookers.

“We’ve never met,” Principia said firmly. “I’m positive I would’ve remembered that hairdo.”

“Oh, it’s all secondhand,” Zanzayed said with an airy wave of his hand, rings glittering in the light. “I’ve heard all about you, of course. You might say I’m an old friend of the family,” he added to Shahai, winking. “We really ought to find the time to sit down for a chat, since we’re both in the city!”

“I don’t talk to my family,” Principia said in a tone that was just a hair too polite to be overtly unfriendly.

“I note that your Conclave’s chosen iconography reflects all six draconic colors,” Shahai remarked. “There have been no silver or black dragons for some time, if I am not mistaken.”

“The Conclave is for all of our kind,” Varsinostro stated. “Present and future. We would not have any potential members excluded even by implication. In particular, those…extremes…would better be brought into the fold to deal with the rest of us socially than left to pursue their own ends, unfettered.”

“I see,” the Bishop mused. “That does make sense.”

“To what do we owe this unexpected pleasure, your Grace?” the green dragon asked pointedly.

“I’m certain you know the areas of Avei’s interest,” Shahai said crisply. “We promote justice and protect the interests of women. As you have decided to assertively join civilized society, this creates a potential interest, my lords. Any actions you take will fall under the purview of the judicial system. And dragons have a…fraught history with regard to women.”

“Ah, yes,” Zanzayed said solemnly, folding his hands. “That. You mean that thing where we sometimes take mates and lovers exactly like anyone else, and mortal societies regard the matter with revulsion because… Well, actually, I never have cared enough to figure out what the specific objection was, once I determined there was no actual logic in it.”

Shahai smiled at him very pleasantly. “On another subject, Zanzayed, have you visited Mathenon Province recently? I believe dwarven archaeologists recently unearthed some very unusual ruins directly off the Old Road between Viridill and Stavulheim. Some sort of amphitheater.”

He sighed dramatically, turning to Varsinostro. “There, you see? This is why religious people are a pain to deal with. Every nice thing you do gets swept under the rug, but you make one little error in judgment and somehow their descendants manage to shove it in your face after two thousand years.”

“Let’s be polite, Zanzayed,” Varsinostro said calmly. “We are guests in this city as much as the Bishop is in this house.” Despite the muted warning directed at both of them, his expression was one of amusement.

“Did you really come here just to be confrontational?” Zanzayed asked, impatience creeping into his tone as he turned back to Shahai.

Her smile wavered not by a hair. “On the contrary, Lord Zanzayed, if anything, I would like to offer my services. You may find it…challenging…to cultivate personal relationships among human society, given the reputation you have with regard to women, justly or not. The Sisterhood is in a unique position to help you navigate these waters. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you would like any assistance in settling in.”

“How very considerate,” Varsinostro said, gazing intently at her.

“It is the duty of a priestess and a soldier to serve,” Shahai intoned, bowing. “I will take no more of your time this evening, my lords. Welcome, again, to Tiraas. Squad, fall in.”

“Wait, that’s it?” Zanzayed asked behind them. The Bishop simply kept moving toward the door.

Not that the dragons were left with nothing to do. They had gotten scarcely a few feet when the gentleman in the hat surged forward again. Once again, he was beaten to the punch.

This time it was a young Sifanese woman who slid smoothly forward, holding a glowing rune on the flat of her open palm. It sparked faintly, then abruptly transformed into a steaming platter.

At the burst of magic—and rare magic at that, for transfiguration was usually done only by a master mage, the pre-formatted kind being very expensive—both dragons turned to stare sharply at her.

“Good evening, most exalted ones,” she said deferentially. In addition to her lilting accent, she had a raspy quality to her voice, not quite the husky tone of a lifelong smoker, but as if something had injured her throat at one point. “My employer, like each of these good people, most humbly craves but a moment of your attention, and does not presume to so impose without offering some small recompense for the distraction. I understand, Lord Zanzayed, these are a favorite of yours.”

Shahai led the squad outside, the front doors of the palace shutting firmly and cutting off sound from within. They heard only one more line of the girl’s spiel.

“Bacon-wrapped shrimp?”

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