15 – 40

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Natchua indulged in a slower approach on the way home to Leduc Manor, shadow-jumping only enough to avoid people or a trip that would have taken much of the day. She did enjoy a little time spent walking in the mountains, and approaching the half-ruined mansion from its switchbacking access road gave her a few minutes both to savor the view, and to think.

Melaxyna was out in front in a simple human guise, her own customary features with a less eerie coloration and her wings and tail hidden, whittling a chunk of wood with a rusty-looking knife.

“That took a good few hours,” she observed as soon as Natchua came into view. “I was on the verge of getting worried.”

She kept walking up the path. The succubus had called out once Natchua was within the range of elven hearing; she opted to approach closer rather than try to have a discussion while shouting back and forth. It was a small thing, and she didn’t regard Melaxyna as hostile, but it did not escape her notice that this placed Mel in control of the conversation’s dynamic. Holding her peace until she arrived at a position of her choosing was another small thing that served a similar purpose. She would probably never come to enjoy thinking in terms like this, but it was an unfortunately important habit to acquire, and Natchua was starting from behind.

“I had a really peculiar moment today,” Natchua said as soon as she was close enough to do so without raising her voice. “Kind of an epiphany. There was this one point during the…generally pretty difficult discussions I had to have, where suddenly these two incredibly clever, powerful women I was trying to wheedle just visibly dismissed me as a concern and focused on verbally fencing with each other instead. Like I obviously wasn’t smart enough, or important enough, to be a player in that game. And what made it so strange was that I was pleased by it. That’s usually…enraging.”

“Reputation is a powerful thing,” Melaxyna said sagely. “No matter what it’s a reputation for, there’s always some way to leverage it. And being thought of as less smart than you are is always crazy useful, I’ve gotten great mileage out of that one over the years. So, how’re our girls getting along?”

“They’ll keep each other busy for a while, that much I’m confident in. I’m going to have to separate them again before too long,” Natchua continued with a contemplative frown. “If Kheshiri actually messes up Malivette’s situation it’ll mean major problems for me, and likely everyone in the province. And if Vette decisively wins that… Well, actually, that would solve the Kheshiri problem neatly, but then I’m right back to needing to do something about her, and it might be better to still have Kheshiri around to help with that. Well, anyway, hopefully this’ll buy me a few days without either of ’em underfoot, and a chance to see what they both do under pressure.” She paused, then drew in a breath to steady herself. “How’s it looking on the home front? Awful quiet in there…”

“Most of the others are over in the north wing,” Melaxyna said, turning to nod in the direction of the half-ruined arm of the house. “The hobs have pretty well reached the end of what they can do in the front hall, here, without a lot of materiel and supplies, so they’re surveying the damage in the next section. They seem to be getting along well with Xyraadi, now. She’s surprisingly down to earth when she’s trying to make an impression; I was expecting more snobbery, what with all the gratuitous Glassian, but nope! Sweet girl, really. Probably due to her history with adventurers. The chapbooks lie, Natchua. Adventurers were usually filthy hobos who went off to kill things in dungeons because they couldn’t hack it in actual society. Classy, they were not.”

“Right,” Natchua said impatient. “And…?”

Melaxyna gave her a knowing little smile, which she repressed the urge to slap. It was in the nature of a succubus to needle, and she was beginning to think this one in particular was deliberately training her in self-control.

“Jonathan seems steadier with something to do with his hands. We took a stroll down to the nearest lumber camp. They don’t actually cut the trees around here, I think their roots are what keeps the mountainside from sliding down on Veilgrad, but there’s a lot of logging in the province and there are a couple of sawmills pretty close by. We got some price estimates on what the girls will need, and picked up a few bits and bobs. He’s currently up in my little improvised kitchenette, fixing it to be a tad less improvised. I do appreciate a man who’s handy around the house,” she added, putting on one of those little succubus smiles that was a hair’s breadth in every direction from becoming a smirk. “What with one thing and another, I never had the chance for a cozy domestic life.”

“A cozy domestic life would drive you gibbering insane,” Natchua said flatly. She knew too well how right Mel was, though. Jonathan liked working with his hands; having a project would do a lot to settle his mind. “Right, well then… I guess I’d better go deal with this while I have a reprieve from Kheshiri sticking her nose into it.”

She swept up the stairs to the ruined doorway, or tried to. Melaxyna reached out to stop her with a hand on her shoulder.

“You’re a flawed person, Natchua, and this is going to hurt,” the demon said softly. “Don’t be afraid of either. You will be okay. Getting there may be a bitch, but you’ll be okay.”

Natchua could only stare at her for a moment, finding no ready reply to that. She reached up to squeeze Melaxyna’s hand, then gently removed it and continued through the doorway.

With the space defined by the broken remains of its outer walls, the once-grand front hall of Manor Leduc was effectively a courtyard, now, with a gaping hole in its floor leading to a basement. There was certainly little in the way of privacy separating it from the front steps, ensuring that her conversation outside had been audible to the shattered room’s sole occupant. Natchua had, of course, known she was there, having reached out to locate her unique infernal signature along the faint lines of magic that connected them, and being aware of her presence, it was easy to hear her breathing.

Hesthri was perched at the edge of the room, near the doorway opening onto the corridor to Sherwin’s kitchen apartment, squatting on her heels in the way hethlaxi often did. The way the armor plating covered their joints made it more comfortable to adopt a slouch, but they were quite capable of standing up fully straight, as Hesthri now demonstrated on Natchua’s arrival. She rose smoothly to her full height, putting her head up, shoulders back, and chest out. The posture served to accentuate her figure, and by this point Natchua was certain she did that quite deliberately. Hesthri watched her approach for a moment before stepping forward to meet her, holding out her hands in a position that sought Natchua’s own.

She, however, kept them at her sides, maintaining her own straight-backed posture and drawing the cloak of Narisian reserve back over herself. Hesthri stood right in the middle of the narrow lip of navigable space between the wall and the hole; an elf was more than agile enough to slip past her, but Natchua didn’t intend to evade this discussion.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she said, coming to a stop and projecting calm. “I take it Xyraadi and the horogki are getting on well enough that—hey, what are…”

Natchua having failed to reach out to take Hesthri’s hands, the hethelax instead raised them to gently cup the drow’s cheeks. Natchua started to pull away from her, but didn’t try very hard or very fast, and failed to escape before Hesthri stepped closer, raised her own face, and kissed her.

She stopped trying to move. It was barely two more seconds before she stopped pretending to be stiff. The breath leaked from her, mingling with Hesthri’s own, and her eyes drifted shut.

Hard and soft, just like Hesthri’s rapidly switching behavior. Her strategic plates of natural armor were as smooth and cool as iron, as if to emphasize what an otherworldly creature this was in Natchua’s arms. Elsewhere, though, she simply felt like a woman, at least in shape. She was so very warm; it was like embracing the coziness of a hearth. Her skin, where not armored, had an unusual but pleasing texture not unlike a snake’s scales. And her lips were just…

Natchua was the one to pull back, slightly, eventually, though by that point she had lost her grasp of how much time had passed. Her forehead rested against the unyielding armor of Hesthri’s, their breath still mingling. The hethelax’s blunt claws still cradled her face in a tender grasp, but Natchua found that she had at some point pulled the demon close and wrapped both arms around her.

Melaxyna, she now understood, had been entirely right. Her weakness wasn’t about a desire for sex, at least except as a means to an end. It was just the closeness, the warmth, the addictive feeling of another person touching her with tenderness, so sharply sweet it was nearly painful, like the first taste of candy on an unprepared tongue. She was just so unaccustomed to being loved that even the pretense melted her like butter in the sun. This was something she absolutely needed to fix, somehow. Kheshiri would make easy pickings of such a vulnerability, and after Melaxyna’s warnings Natchua well understood that even seeing her coming wouldn’t be enough to stop it.

“I don’t know you that well,” she said aloud, her voice rough, but soft. Hesthri’s eyes opened, regarding her own from inches away. “I don’t…truly know what it is you want.”

The demon’s smile was warm, and sad. “I want what’s best for you, Natchua. And I’m hardly surprised you’re wary, given how much I tend to disagree with you about what that is. Luckily for you, our pact requires my loyalty rather than obedience. I can’t decide if you’re the cleverest fool I’ve ever known, or the other way round.”

Natchua had to smile back at that, if somewhat bitterly. “What’s best for me, is it? Even at the expense of what’s best for you? Or Jonathan?” She hesitated, then pressed. “Or Gabriel?”

“I can’t say how I would handle it if you brought those loyalties into conflict,” Hesthri murmured, sliding her hands slowly down Natchua’s neck to her shoulders and making her entire spine tingle as if she were standing too close to an arcane spell matrix. “It hasn’t come up, Natch. If you and Jonathan will just stop being difficult about it, there’s no reason at all this cannot work out equally well for everyone.”

“Difficult,” she huffed, finally pulling back. “No reason to put yourself out, if it’s—”

“Of course there is. I love you.”

It hurt to hear. It was so unexpectedly blissful that it actually hurt. Gods, she was in so much trouble.

Natchua drew in another steadying breath, only belatedly noting that her reserve was long since in tatters. “Hesthri… It’s been days. We don’t actually know each other.”

“Intimacy takes time, and work.” Hesthri agreed. “But falling in love is easier than falling down the stairs. Faster, harder to do on purpose, and usually makes even less sense. Haven’t you studied any martial arts, Natchua? You lean into a fall. You get hurt by trying to fight it. Dear heart, I wouldn’t compel you even if it was within my power. If you truly want to struggle against this every step of the way instead of trying to see if we can make something good of it… Well, do you?”

Natchua backed up fully, out of her grip, and roughly dry-scrubbed her face with both hands. “I can’t decide whether we should have this out between the two of us first, or just go get Jonathan and see how much of a spectacle we can make of ourselves all at once.”

“Second one,” Hesthri said immediately. “This is a mess for everybody involved, and the three of us need to resolve it. It’s not fair to come at him as a united front. Jonathan deserves to be treated as an equal in this.”

“Your relentless logic is beginning to annoy me,” Natchua grumbled. Hesthri smiled at her with simple affection, and leaned forward to press a light kiss to the corner of her mouth. Natchua, despite her better judgment, let her.

“Come on, then. Let’s not put it off any further.”

Sherwin must have been off with Xyraadi and the hobgoblins; at least, there was no sign of him in his apartment, for which Natchua was grateful. She needed the entire walk through that space and up the stairs to the landing in which Melaxyna had cobbled together her little kitchen to settle her own mind. Despite what Hesthri claimed to intend, she had her own thoughts on how this situation needed to be settled. The sound of hammering grew louder as they climbed, each blow tightening the knot in her stomach, but at least the approach gave her the opportunity to pull back ahead of Hesthri and compose her features again.

Jonathan was kneeling with his back to them, pounding what looked like the last nail into a counter he had assembled along one wall of unfinished planks. The whole thing looked rough, but less so than Melaxyna’s arrangement of boxes and mismatched old furniture.

Their footfalls weren’t particularly heavy and it wasn’t as if he had elven ears, but regardless, he stilled as soon as the two of them emerged from the stairwell.

“Jonathan,” Hesthri said quietly.

Finally, he turned around, straightening upright and laying the hammer down alongside a handful of spare nails atop the surface he had just assembled. He was, Natchua found herself suddenly reminded, really tall, and much broader across the chest and shoulders than any elf. And, with his previous anger under control, dignified in a way that contained an emotional intensity, which she had always seen as more worthy of respect than the cold aloofness she had been taught in Tar’naris.

“So,” he said after a pause, looking back and forth between the two of them. “I guess we’re doing this, then.”

Steeling herself and clinging to every shred of her reserve, Natchua stepped forward before Hesthri could say anything.

“It’s time for you to go, Jonathan.”

His eyebrows shot upward. “Go? Excuse me, but—”

“Yes, yes, I know, you figured you were good and blackmailed into this, and at the time I was flustered enough to let you get away with it. But you aren’t really going to set the Empire and the Church and whoever else after Hesthri, are you? No matter how mad you are at me. And now that would drag Xyraadi into this, not to mention the three hobgoblins, who you know don’t deserve that trouble. So that’s enough of this, Jonathan. You’re going—”

A sharp blow to the back of her head made her stagger. Natchua caught her balance, whirling to glare at Hesthri, who was scowling right back and lowering her hand.

“I can’t decide which of you is more ridiculous,” the hethelax snapped. “Honestly. All of this could be so easy!”

“I can’t see any damn way it possibly could,” Jonathan exclaimed. “She’s right about one thing, this entire business is built on lies, blackmail, and infernomancy. Nothing about it is easy in any respect!”

“Because you make it hard! The both of you!”

“I am trying to make it easy!” Natchua shouted. “I don’t know how you’ve got this worked around in your head, but he has no business here and he’s just going to get killed.”

“I thought we all were,” Jonathan retorted. “Wasn’t that the entire plan, Natchua?”

“It doesn’t need to include you!” she yelled back. “Goddammit, haven’t I done enough to you? Would you just let me protect you?! Can’t I do one good thing?”

“Oh, Natchua,” Hesthri sighed. Jonathan was staring at her in something akin to shock, blinking rapidly.

He rallied, though, squaring his shoulders. “You should know I’m not afraid of death or pain, especially not when the end goal is to help my son. Because you weren’t totally wrong, Natch, despite being so amazingly wrong-headed about every detail in between here and your ultimate conclusion. You are in a unique position to mess up whatever Elilial is planning and that will be a way to protect Gabriel. Considering the kinds of powers he has to contend with now, it’s about all I can do. So, no, I’m not leaving. We are doing this stupid bullshit scheme of yours. Especially since, somehow, you’re actually making it work.”

“You do know if I decide to just send you somewhere, there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”

“I think you’d be surprised what I can do,” he retorted, stepping toward her. “Do you think I got tangled up with a hethelax demon and protected her on this plane long enough to have Gabriel without being pretty damn resourceful? Has she told you the full story yet?”

“Oh, vrasksha sknithal!” Hesthri shouted, throwing both her hands in the air. “Enough! Get in the room, both of you. Come on!”

She grabbed each of them by an arm and harried the pair across the hall to the nearest accessible doorway, which luckily was to Natchua’s bedroom. Jonathan and Natchua exchanged a look past Hesthri even as she was dragging them, mutually deciding to submit to this with good grace rather than engaging in a pointless scuffle with her. Anyway, she was right; there were a number of ways the rest of this discussion could go, and they were all better done in privacy.

Hesthri didn’t give either of them a chance to start in again, however, whirling on them the instant she had shut the door behind.

“All right, we could hold an entire lecture series on everything Natchua has done wrong here, but by all the gods, Jonathan, she’s twenty.”

“Twenty-one—” Hesthri reached out and clamped a clawed hand over her mouth, by which Natchua was so astonished that she allowed it to happen.

“But you,” the hethelax continued, pointing accusingly at him, “are being purely thoughtless and selfish about this, and it’s beneath you. I expect better.”

“Selfish!” Jonathan’s voice, uncharacteristically, climbed an octave and a half, along with his eyebrows. Natchua finally pulled Hesthri’s hand off her face as he turned his incredulous stare on her. “Did you put her up to this?”

“Don’t look at me, I have no idea what she’s talking about,” Natchua protested. “Come on, Hes, he’s the only one of us who makes any sense. That’s why I want him away from all this!”

“Natchua, shut up a minute,” Hesthri said with a sigh. “And Jonathan, stop making all of this about yourself, because none of it is. Despite how Natchua mistreated you in the process, the truth is you were caught up in the edge of something that was never meant to involve you, by a combination of chance, her terrible ideas and your own damn stubbornness. Yes, she used and lied to you, but ever since she’s been trying to protect you. And she did all of this to protect Gabriel in the first place!”

“Thank you!” Natchua explained.

“You shut your mouth,” Hesthri shot back. “I know you’re trying your best, but you seduced and deceived the man so you could recruit his own former lover into your suicidal crusade. Never mind facing off with Elilial at the end of all this, between that and your general pattern of decisions it’s astonishing you’re not dead yet! Can the pair of you honestly not see how badly you need each other? Jonathan, you were moldering away in Mathenon while Gabriel is out risking his life for the Pantheon, and I know that was eating away at you. It’s not like you to accept your own helplessness that way. Say what you will, Natchua’s nonsense has gotten you back moving, working, and helping, and you love it. And you!” She tried to swat Natchua’s head again, but this time the drow saw it coming and ducked away. That did nothing to stop Hesthri’s tirade. “Why is every idea you have just convoluted and outlandish enough to be completely unworkable? Are you honestly under the impression you can outmaneuver the goddess of cunning with the power of sheer daffy nonsense? That will work right up until she actually notices you. Natchua, Jonathan Arquin is the best thing that’s ever happened to you and the way you keep trying to get rid of him is the dumbest thing you’ve done yet. That is really saying something.”

They both stared at her in shock.

Hesthri sighed heavily. “You need her energy. You badly need his steadiness. She inspires and pushes you; it’s her influence that’s returning you to the vital, driven man I knew and fell in love with. He has so much to teach you about life, and love, and his influence is so exactly what you need to even you out. This man is exactly the one who can help you grow into the enormous potential I see in you. You’re a charming enough kid, Natch, but it’s the woman you are trying to become…” Her voice hitched, but she steadied it and continued. “…that I fell in love with. You need each other. It’s time to forgive, let go, and take the risk. Yes, we’re all going to get hurt. But if we’re together, we’ll get over it. That’s what people do.”

Another few seconds of silence passed between them before Jonathan cleared his throat roughly. “And…are you suggesting… How exactly do you fit into this, Hes?”

“In all the spaces between you,” Hesthri said, smiling now. “I’ve been a servant my whole life, Johnny. I am comfortable letting others take the lead. It’s… What I’ve never had is someone I respected, someone I loved, to dedicate myself to. Somehow, the three of us are a ridiculous, perfect couple. That is, if you two clowns will stop fighting it.”

He shook his head. “I don’t…that’s just too weird, even for—”

“Selfish,” she interrupted, but more gently this time. “We represent three different cultures here, Jonathan, and yours is the only one where it’s not completely normal to have multiple partners.”

“I don’t have a culture,” Natchua muttered. “Narisian anything is a vicious nightmare.”

“Even better, then,” Hesthri replied, taking her by the arm and pulling her forward. “This will just continue to be a wreck if we keep trying to be where we’re from. Can’t we just be who we are, instead? Everyone in this room is stupidly in love with everyone else. I’m not trying to claim this will be magical, or easy, or not prone to dramatic episodes like this. But it can work. And even if it doesn’t, it’s worth trying. Life is short, and often bitter, my darlings. You have to embrace whatever warmth and sweetness you can find. Even if it fails, take a chance on love. Even in Hell we know that.”

“It’s not that…” Jonathan swallowed painfully. “That wasn’t easy to get over, Hesthri. The way she—”

“Stop,” Hesthri ordered. “Say it to her, not to me.”

His expression turned wry for a moment, but he complied, shifting his eyes to Natchua’s. “It hurt me, Natch. It wasn’t just…being conned by some smooth operator. I know we didn’t talk about where any of this was going, in Mathenon, and I was content to just let things develop as they would, but…but she’s right. I loved you.” He hesitated, breathed in and out once, and corrected himself. “I love you. And you betrayed me.”

“I’m sorry.” Her voice was ragged, but she had to say it anyway. “I know that…that’s not enough, nothing is. It’s all I can say, Jonathan. I knew it was going to hurt you, and I hated myself for it, but I did it anyway. I thought…it was important enough. I didn’t have a better idea. I’m just sorry.” She had to stop talking, mostly because the lump in her throat was too painful, but partly because trying to babble out her feelings wasn’t getting her anywhere.

Tears, she noticed belatedly, were running down her face. This was a bad day for Narisian reserve.

“Look at her, Jonathan,” Hesthri all but whispered, stepping next to Natchua and wrapping one arm around her waist, leading her gently but inexorably toward him. “Isn’t that just Natchua in a nutshell? It was stupid and hurtful, but she didn’t have a better idea. She did what she could think of, because it was important, and it doesn’t really matter to her whether she gets hurt. Look at your girl. Your brave, selfless, reckless, beautiful, dumb, clever girl. What the hell is she going to do without you?”

“He doesn’t owe me anything,” Natchua mumbled, looking away.

“That’s for damn sure,” Jonathan sighed.

“Exactly. You’re better off hating me.”

“Oh…hell.” He sighed heavily. “Never once did I hate you. I was… Goddammit, Natch, it’s hard even to stay angry at you, no matter how much you deserve it. At times I downright resent how hard you try to do better. I’m just…I’m not even mad, anymore. It just still hurts.”

His callused fingers took her chin, gently moving her face back toward him. She let him, finding he had stepped close enough to embrace.

“You are not getting rid of me, Natchua. So all that leaves is…how are you planning to make it up to me?”

She opened her mouth, producing exactly as much useful commentary as a fish.

“You’re so focused on everything you do wrong all the time,” Hesthri said softly, gently stroking her back, “I don’t think you’ve ever even noticed how you bring people alive around you, Natchua. Everyone in this house is a better person because you lit a fire under them. People are loyal to you, even after knowing you for just a few days. It’s not because you have any particular idea what you’re doing, and you know it. It’s because your stubborn effort to be better, to accomplish something with the limited and horrible tools you’ve got, inspires people. You showed me the importance of my own potential. And Natchua, you’ve brought my love, the father of my child, back to life. He needs you, too.”

“This…is crazy,” she whispered. “I’m just going to fuck it all up again.”

Jonathan’s hand was still on her chin, and now shifted to caress her cheek. “Yeah…I’m pretty sure you will. You’re kind of a dumbass. Natchua…the hell with it. Hesthri is right, anything breakable is still fixable. I have no idea how this is going to work out, I really don’t. But doesn’t it beat the alternative?”

“I…I don’t…” She could barely breathe out the words; there were no more thoughts forming behind them. Just his face looming right above her, gazing down at her with that gentle expression she had fully expected never to hear again. Everything inside her was cracking under the weight of it.

Hesthri shifted to position herself between them, wrapping an arm around each to push them closer. One clawed hand took each of them by the back of the neck, pushing them the last few inches together.

If not for the both of them holding her up, Natchua probably would have collapsed when he finally kissed her. She slumped against his broad chest, barely held in place by one of his arms and one of Hesthri’s binding her to him. It felt as if she were molten, a warm jelly of sunshine wanting to dissolve into their embrace.

Hesthri nuzzled her cheek when they came up for air. Then the demon lifted her chin as the embrace around them shifted, to be the three holding each other in a circle more than Hesthri pulling them together. Jonathan’s lips met Hesthri’s, and Natchua watched from close enough to taste their shared breath. She looked for jealousy inside herself, and found nothing. She was too close, too much a part of this.

Jonathan pulled them both against his frame, his big hands caressing up and down both their backs, gazing down at them avidly as Natchua and Hesthri kissed deeply in his arms.

Hesthri was the first to hook a claw in Natchua’s robe, insistently tugging the garment aside and slipping in, blunt claws tracing over the soft shape of her. Hands caressed bodies, touching light brown skin and slate gray skin and chitin plates over snakelike scales, catching in the edges of fabric and pulling clumsily.

They shuffled backward, Jonathan’s knees coming to the edge of the bed, and Natchua wasn’t sure which of them giggled as they staggered down onto it.

It was awkward, and uncomfortable, and at moments embarrassing, and somehow, it all worked.


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15 – 39

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“So you did see him again,” Khadizroth said, leaning forward in his armchair to gaze intently at Shook.

“The one time, yeah,” he replied. “He and I had the same idea, for once: took one look at Syrinx losing the last ounce of her shit and even your famous diplomacy barely managing to keep her in check, and we both fucked off in different directions. He went right out the goddamn window. I take it the asshole never bothered to report back in?”

“As of the time Vannae and I departed, no,” the dragon murmured, frowning now. “Jack’s failure to do so indirectly led to that decision. When you vanished and it became clear to Inquisitor Syrinx that her title now amounted to nothing more than house steward for the two of us, I’m afraid she rather…well.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet she rather,” Shook grunted. “Sorry for leavin’ you guys in the lurch like that. At the time, it sure did look like my last opportunity to get my ass outta there in one piece.”

“It’s quite all right, Jeremiah,” Khadizroth assured him with a small smile. “I see how you would have concluded that—and you may well have been entirely right. She might not have exploded had you stayed, but on the other hand… Well, what’s done is done. You’ve acquired valuable intelligence and we’ve extricated ourselves from Syrinx entirely. In a way, it worked out.”

“You don’t intend to return, then?” Branwen asked.

The dragon sighed softly, looking over at Vannae and then Shook again, then shook his head. The two of them were upright in opposite corners of the small parlor in the Bishop’s temporary residence, Snowe herself seated on the loveseat adjacent to Khadizroth.

“I have dealt with people sharing Syrinx’s particular disability a number of times over the years,” Khadizroth stated. “In fact, that is the core of what is wrong with the Jackal, though every manifestation is somewhat unique and naturally he is a distinct aberration from Syrinx, or any other anth’auwa. The outbursts of temper are explosive, but usually brief; most of the time they are quite unemotional and often focused. In Syrinx’s case, they have been coming closer and closer together, and growing more severe with each, which is a major warning sign. As the Inquisition has been shedding personnel and making no progress, her resources and options have continued to close in on her like the walls of a cell. Coming on the heels of her lost career in Tiraas…”

“This is bad,” Branwen muttered. “Steadily increasing pressure is one of the worst things for people like that. They need stimulation and variety to… Someone is going to be hurt.”

“I fear you are correct,” Khadizroth agreed, nodding. “With no outlet for her aggression and no other way to exercise her will, she will seek out or create a target. I deemed it best that this not be Vannae or myself. Unfortunately… I think we must all face the facts that our goals here have ended in failure. The smart thing for Syrinx to do, and the best outcome for everyone, would be for her to return to the Archpope and report the Inquisition’s failure. Any of her other options will bring her swiftly afoul of established powers in Ninkabi. Either way, it would seem our window of opportunity to silence her for good has closed.”

“Well, I dunno,” Shook said dryly. “I figure one of the things Jack is likely to do next, when he gets tired of picking on hapless city guards, is go after his own former team. And of the lot of us, Syrinx is both the most reachable and probably the most interesting physical challenge.”

“Do you really think that’s going to be his next move?” Branwen asked.

“I am glad to report I have zero fuckin’ clue what goes through that nutjob’s brain, Bishop. At his best, he’s only ever kept his crazy at a low simmer with a lid on top. Now? I think the pressure’s just built up till he couldn’t contain it anymore, and he’s just gone off on a wild-ass spree.”

“In this case, I don’t think I agree,” Khadizroth said pensively. “I can scarcely guess what he actually is trying to accomplish, but I suspect it is still goal-directed. Your assessment of the Jackal’s character lines up well with mine, but consider that he has kept it at a simmer for the two years we have known him. Unlike Syrinx, he has shown no pattern of increasing instability. And remember: the entire idea of our group was his. He not only brought us together and made his case for keeping ourselves close to Justinian, but it was he who laboriously laid the groundwork with the Archpope himself beforehand.”

Shook raised his eyebrows, glancing at Branwen. “Uh, K…”

“I think we are past the point of dissembling, Jeremiah,” the dragon said wryly. “The good Bishop has made no secret of her loyalties. In the worst case she can report this conversation to Justinian, who I assure you is already well aware that we have only endured his control for our own ends and bear him no goodwill. Now? That, too, appears to have ended in failure. He’s managed to make some use of our abilities and it seems the time has come for us to discreetly depart from his service.”

“So you’re saying he won?” Shook growled.

“I am afraid he has,” Khadizroth agreed, himself baring teeth for a moment in displeasure. “Sometimes, as the saying goes, the bear eats you. Now, at any rate, we are no threat to him and so our antipathy would appear to matter little. We are still here, in a city beleaguered by the Black Wreath, this mysterious cult which Justinian himself set up, and at least three of our own former compatriots gone dangerously rogue. Bishop Snowe is still an ally, at least for the moment, and our list of such has dwindled sharply. Let us all continue to get along.”

“It goes without saying that it would be a mistake to take anything the Wreath said to you at face value,” Branwen added, turning to Shook, “but if they were more or less correct, I consider this evidence that this cult is no longer under his Holiness’s control. I have already made it plain that I disagree with some of his methods—that is, after all, why I’m here—but I cannot believe he would do such a thing as open hellgates in a major city. There is no possible benefit to anyone in such an action.”

“Except, perhaps, an apocalyptic cult,” said Khadizroth. “Several extant hellgates were originally the work of such. If this is indeed what this lot are up to, they appear to be more ambitious than most.”

“Fuck,” Shook said feelingly.

“I understand you gentlemen are all rather short on options,” Branwen said with every appearance of genuine worry, looking at each of the three of them in turn. “Where will you go after this?”

Shook glanced for a moment at Vannae, who met his eyes, and then both turned back to her with matching fatalistic shrugs, both savvy enough not to betray anything by looking to their de facto leader for confirmation. Snowe might be an ally for the moment, but she was still directly in the Archpope’s camp and there was no reason at all for her to know about the other allies Khadizroth had already begun discreetly gathering at his old hidden lair. Even their little pantomime of conceding defeat to Justinian had been a bit of impromptu misdirection; one of the things Shook most enjoyed about working with the green dragon was how on the ball he was about things like that, even stuff he’d only have expected fellow thieves to have practiced. Khadizroth might still be acting against the Archpope out of a sense of duty, but for Shook’s part, he was bound and determined to make something stick to Justinian before all this was over. And it was not over, not as long as they still weren’t dead.

The dragon sighed heavily, rubbing his forehead with one hand and generally making a very convincing show of his quiet despair over this state of affairs. “I hope you won’t judge me too harshly if I choose to procrastinate dealing with that, your Grace. I even dare to hope something may come up while we are addressing the present urgency.”

“Of course,” she said with a warm smile, reaching forward to pat the dragon’s knee. Shook and Vannae again locked eyes, this time sharing a different silent message. “Well, for the time being at least, you are all more than welcome to whatever hospitality I can offer. I guess what we need to figure out now is what to do next.”

“Well, I know both my uses and my limits,” said Shook, folding his arms and leaning against the wall, “and playing brain checkers with the Black fuckin’ Wreath is beyond both. I brought you every detail I can remember, so forgive me if I leave it to wiser heads to suss out how accurate their song and dance was.”

All of them turned to look at Khadizroth.

“I know little of dimensional mechanics,” said Branwen, “and even less of necromancy. It sounds implausible, but…could something of the kind be done, Lord Khadizroth?”

The dragon had folded his hands and was staring into space with his eyes narrowed in thought. “The difficulty in answering that question is that necromancy is not a school of magic. There are several ways it can be approached, utilizing all four schools, most requiring heavy alchemy and minor shadow magic to boot. In theory? The answer is usually ‘yes.’ Magic is applying a localized subjectivity to physical reality. The highest possible application of any school of magic is the transcendence of its limitations. Mastery is often defined as performing any possible task with those originally limited tools.”

“So,” she said, equally pensive in expression, “the question becomes one of psychology and capability rather than magical theory. Can they do this?”

“Well said,” he agreed, nodding to her with a smile. “Unfortunately, we suffer a near total lack of data on this particular cult. I realize you are protective of his Holiness’s secrets, Branwen, but can you shed any light on this?”

“I’m afraid I have already shed what I have,” she said with an apologetic grimace. “I am only reasonably sure that the project was his Holiness’s. The Church has records of them and there are few other organizations which could create such a thing, the other main candidate being the Empire, which is contradicted by the group’s use to attack the Emperor. Circumstantial, but compelling. But that is the best I can offer.”

“Then all we have left to analyze is the Wreath,” Khadizroth mused.

He fell silent, and they all stared at him, the tension in the room creeping upward. The dragon just gazed narrowly at the wall, seemingly undisturbed by the weight of their combined attention.

“Nothing can be certain,” he said at last, so suddenly into the long silence that Shook and Branwen both twitched. “But based upon the available evidence, I am inclined to think they were serious, and at least as much as can be expected, honest.”

“Okay,” Shook said simply. “How so?”

“It is counter-intuitive,” the dragon continued, “but I have found over my long years that when clever people with a penchant for deception tell you something wildly implausible, they are more often serious than not. The logic is there, if you look closely. Deception hinges on fitting a piece of false reality into established patterns so that a victim does not look closely or think deeply. The last thing a deceiver wants is for you to stop and consider what is going on.”

“Hell, I can vouch for that much,” Shook agreed, nodding. “I’m no con artist by trade, but every Guild member knows the basics. You wanna con somebody, you gotta show ’em something that makes sense in their eyes, something they’ll expect.”

“Just so,” Khadizroth said. “And the Black Wreath is more than a rival crew of deceptive operators. They contain demons and prevent the opening of hellgates as a matter of religious duty; it is the reason for what little tolerance is extended to them by mortal governments and the other cults. Be assured, they absolutely would not scruple to take advantage of such events if they were already unfolding and the opportunity existed. But they are on record, very long and consistent record, taking these matters with the utmost seriousness. If they are concerned enough about this to seek help, the most probable explanation is that they need help.”

“That, at least, we can verify,” Vannae said quietly.

“Yes,” the dragon mused, folding his hands in his lap, “now that I know to look for an intersection of necromancy and dimensional warping, I can seek such through the flows of magic. There will be an element of chance at first, but if the Wreath has told the truth about this, once I have found one such and identified the workings used in its creation, I can locate any others with greater ease.”

“And…” Shook deliberately un-clenched his fists, flexing his fingers. “…what happened to me? The Wreath claimed not to have been behind it.”

“About that, I would be less sanguine,” Khadizroth said gravely, turning to him. “They do have reason to deceive you, and no reason not to; if they seek allies and had identified you as connected to the Inquisition, it would hardly serve them to admit they had assaulted you and confiscated Kheshiri’s reliquary. In addition, the alternative is that there is yet another player active in Ninkabi, who is capable of feats of infernal magic which the Wreath have never been able to manage before. That seems implausible…as does the alternative. Remember that Kheshiri was outside the reliquary for a time after its seizure, and for reasons I just went over, the Wreath would have immediately sealed a daughter of Vanislaas had they the means. This is a dangerous dilemma,” he said, leaning forward to gaze intently at Shook. “If there is such an additional party, their presence changes every equation and leaves us blind and vulnerable until we identify them. If not, the Wreath has not only increased their capabilities beyond what I knew, but has proven themselves willing to attack and curse even those to whom they turn as allies.”

“Damned if they did, damned if they didn’t,” Shook said, and blew out a breath of pure frustration.

“Well put,” Khadizroth agreed with a tiny smile of dark amusement. “At the very least, we should keep it in mind as a reminder of two things: the Wreath cannot be trusted, and we do not fully understand what is happening here.”

“So, you tracking our quarry to one of these portal sites is a starting point,” said Branwen. “I can provide transportation, since your movements in the city must obviously be discreet. Beyond that, though? If these people are sufficiently numerous and equipped that even the Wreath is desperate enough to seek help in dealing with them… Even with your aid, Lord Khadizroth, I’m concerned that adding ourselves to the effort is simply…not enough.”

“Who else is there?” Vannae all but whispered.

“Ain’t like we can go to any legitimate authority,” Shook grunted. “What the hell would we tell them? A tale like this…even if the Bishop blows her cover, I figure this is as likely to just damage her credibility as it is to add it to the claim.”

“Well, I can call in aid from the Church,” Branwen said slowly, pausing to chew her lower lip. “But… The Church is already involved in this. And they may not know what this cult is doing or why, but if they think they know, revealing that we are on their tail…”

“We were sent explicitly to hunt this cult,” Khadizroth added, “with the aid of this Inquisition. Two Church-aligned forces which cannot officially be acknowledged to exist, set directly into conflict. As far as the Church goes, all we can know for certain is that the left had doesn’t know the right exists, much less what it is doing. To seek official backup from that source would be, at best, a roll of the dice.”

“Especially since we’re all AWOL from our official backup,” Shook added. “So, can’t count on the Church. The Empire wouldn’t listen to us. What else we got?”

“The Guild?” Vannae suggested, looking at him.

“Leaving out that the Guild would haul me into a dark room for disciplinary thumping before they even thought about listening to what I had to say, we happen to be in one of the worst places for it. Guild presence in Ninkabi is just about as abnormal as it gets this side of Sifan. This is where the Fount of the Fallen is, one of our few actually holy sites. More Eserite priests here than almost anywhere else per square mile…which might be specifically applicable to this problem, sure. But that’s still not many, and there’s a lot less in the way of Guild muscle on hand than in basically any other major city.”

“I face a similar dilemma,” Khadizroth acknowledged, grimacing. “Here it is, an unprecedented moment in history when, for the first time, I could actually call upon other dragons for aid. But only in theory; in practice, I fear the Conclave of the Winds regards me very much as the Thieves’ Guild does you, Jeremiah. Inviting their attention would likely result only in my own removal from the scene. If I could persuade them to lend aid, just the persuading would surely take longer than we can spare.”

“My tribe is long dead and scattered,” Vannae murmured.

“Well, isn’t this cheerful as all fuck,” Shook growled, straightening up. He turned and began to pace up and down one side of the room.

“Are you all right?” Khadizroth asked, suddenly intent on him. “If you feel manic or unsettled, Jeremiah, please let me know. That can be a side effect of the magic that eased your weariness.”

“I’m fine,” Shook said, giving him a tight smile in passing. “Thanks, but this is just my thinkin’ posture. Not that I’m the best thinker in this outfit, but every little bit helps.”

“Very well. Do be sure to get actual sleep when you can, my friend. I can only ease the symptoms of weariness; your brain still needs rest.”

“I’ll get a nap while you’re hunting down necro-portals. Not like I’m any damn use for that. Shit, who else is there? The Wizard’s Guild?”

“Even less likely to listen to us than the Empire,” Branwen said a little morosely. “Oh! The Order of the Light?”

Shook barked a derisive laugh.

“Severely lacking in personnel in this day and age,” Khadizroth said more gently. “And no longer able to defy governments and move with impunity through their territory; that would leave us back at needing to persuade the Empire. I suppose, if we are desperate, I could try sending a telescroll to Last Rock. I understand Arachne has taken to using real world crises as testing grounds for her students. If she took me seriously it might get a party of young adventurers out here. I have found those to be surprisingly effective, when they are not amazingly ineffectual.”

“That’s twice now we’ve reached for solutions from the last century,” Shook grumbled, still pacing. “Is this the point where we officially acknowledge how fucked we are?”

“It’s worse than needing more help,” Branwen said, frowning deeply. “It’s the existing help. Talking of Last Rock… I don’t have privileged access to military records, but I have access to people who do, and I’ve learned that the Black Wreath was allowed to ‘help’ during the chaos crisis in Veilgrad. Apparently they did render material aid, and overall made the whole thing worse by causing more chaos effects with their demon summonings and then deliberately incapacitating all three paladins. And then it seems they tried to steal Imperial equipment as soon as the matter was resolved and only failed in that because the local vampire intervened. You are quite correct, Lord Khadizroth. Even if the Black Wreath helps in good faith, they will find a way to manipulate events and people to further their own goals. Furthering the Wreath’s goals is the absolute last thing I want.”

The dragon drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, then reached over to take her hand. “Then the question we must ask ourselves is whether that prospect is worse than the alternative. If they are correct… Twenty hellgates, Branwen. Ninkabi would be a complete and permanent loss. Most of N’Jendo would be rendered uninhabitable.”

Shook came to an abrupt halt. “Hey, your Grace. Two questions. One, you got a pen and paper anywhere around here?”

“Of course,” she said, turning a quizzical frown on him. “Anything you need, Mr. Shook. You have an idea?”

“Probably not a very good one, but I guess we’re down to that point now. Which leads to my second question.” He grinned. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to loan me some money?”

Branwen raised her eyebrows. “That would depend. It might be more practical for me to buy whatever it is you need.”

“Yeah. Yeah, actually now you mention it, that’s absolutely right. Yeah, I’m a dumbass for not thinking of that up front, it’s obviously gotta come from you.”

“It?” she asked pointedly. “From me?”

“Right, it’s like this.” He stopped right behind the couch, leaning both arms against it to stare at the group with a grin even he could feel was a little unhinged. “We’ve got no resources and no credibility among the kinda dangerous people we need—but we all know somebody who does. And he may not wanna hear from most of us, but if we piggyback a little o’ my know-how on some of her Grace’s credibility, I bet we can get some real shit started.”


“I very much appreciate this, Antonio,” Bishop Ferdowsi said, his voice trembling just slightly. “I realize it verges on exploiting our professional connection…”

“Not in the least little bit, Mehmed,” Darling assured him, laying a hand on the older man’s thin shoulder. “This is exactly why we have a Universal Church: to help one another out in situations like this. I will take this directly to Boss Tricks, and we’ll get people on it at once.”

“Please understand, it’s not my intention to get anyone in trouble. We just want the Codex back. It is entirely irreplaceable.”

“It would be easiest and fastest if one of our people had taken it,” Darling said seriously, “since we could just get it back from them in that case. I have to warn you though, Mehmed, that’s a lesser possibility. Guild thieves are not to mess with the other cults unless on the Boss’s direct orders and under exceptional circumstances, and even then it’s usually the Vernisites. That rule is fiercely enforced. But we can still help a great deal. There aren’t so many people in Tiraas who would even want a five hundred-year-old illuminated manuscript, and any of those who are willing to receive stolen property will already be known to us. I’ll lay even odds we find it before the police do.”

“I understand. Regardless, I remain deeply grateful, Antonio, as does the entire Archive.”

“You can assure the Curator that we’re on it,” Darling said kindly. “I’ll head right to the Guild; I was going there anyway this afternoon. Thieves work best at night, so I dare to hope I may have something to tell you by tomorrow.”

He was frowning as he finally parted from the Nemitite Bishop, his steps quickening nearly to the point of breaking the serene gliding gait which helped characterize his ecclesiastical persona. He hadn’t had the heart to say it to the old man, but this was very likely to have been an inside job. Such things usually were, and honestly, who but a librarian would even think to steal a rare scroll? One thing he could be sure of: if this had been some rogue Eserite, he just might tell Flora and Fauna to work them over before Style got a chance. They’d do it, too. All three of them had felt rather protective of the Nemitites ever since that ugly business with Aleesa Asherad.

“Your Grace.”

Darling snapped out of his reverie, focusing his gaze on one of the last people he’d expected to meet in the Grand Cathedral.

“Price?”

“I apologize for disturbing you here, your Grace,” his Butler said crisply. “You received a telescroll at the house, brought by specialty courier, and I deemed it urgent. It came on a Universal Church priority signal, bearing Bishop Snowe’s name, from Ninkabi.”

Darling blinked. It was a forgivable lapse; they were alone in that corridor, Ferdowsi having vanished around a corner in the other direction.

“What the hell is Branwen doing in Ninkabi? She’s supposed to be…” Now that he thought of it, he hadn’t seen her in a few days.

Price produced the scroll from within her coat, folded and flattened by transit. “It is an unusually long communique, your Grace, and only the first line is from Bishop Snowe. The rest is in a Thieves’ Guild cipher, signed by Thumper.”

“What?!” He snatched it from her, raking his eyes across the row after row of scrambled letters as fast as he could without losing the thread. It was an older code and a simple one, but well, if it actually was Thumper, that made sense.

Darling read the while thing again, more slowly, just to be sure he had it right, before finally raising his head to stare at the vaulted marble ceiling.

“Price.”

“Your Grace?”

“Is there even the slightest chance my five adventurer friends haven’t vanished into the Golden Sea by now?”

“They have, at least, vanished from the city, your Grace. Beyond that, I regretably seem to have left my pocket oracle in my other trousers.”

“All right. Welp. I had to head down to the Casino anyway.” Sweet stuffed the telescroll into his sleeve and turned, striding down the hall with no regard at all for Bishoply poise. “C’mon, let’s go ruin Tricks’s entire week. I’ll be damned if I’m the only one who has to suffer.”

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15 – 38

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No one ever made it more than a few steps into an Izarite temple without being approached by a priest, but given the way he looked by that hour of the morning, Shook couldn’t blame them for being particularly on the ball. He was still in a tailored suit, at least, and had made sure his hair was still slicked back with the aid of his pocket comb and the tin of Sly’s Gentleman’s Cream he always carried—plus a judicious use of his reflection in store windows—but after the night he’d had, he was unshaven, hollow-eyed from lack of sleep, and teetering on his feet. As such, he didn’t even make it fully in the door before a priestess materialized seemingly out of nowhere and gently took him by the arm.

“Welcome,” she said in a soft tone, leading him to the side out of the doorway. “This is a safe place; you can rest here. We’ll take good care of you. What’s your name?”

“Uh…call me Jerry,” he stammered, embarrassingly unprepared for that simple question. With, by this point, Syrinx and her bullshit Inquisition doubtless added to the list of people hunting for his head, which already included the Sisterhood and the Guild, neither his full name nor his tag were safe things to throw around. Of course, in the last couple of years he’d almost never had to interact with the general public, except briefly and in passing, and usually Kheshiri had handled that.

“Jerry,” the woman said, smiling up at him warmly as though she were genuinely delighted to make his scruffy acquaintance. His customary annoyance at the two-faced trickiness of women in general started to well up, but he deliberately pushed it away. She was Izarite, after all; the expression was probably genuine. They were a bunch of feather-headed nutbars, but it was impossible to hate them for it. “I’m Nakhi, and I’m so glad you came. Come sit with me for a moment, and let’s talk.”

“Yeah, about that.” He planted his feet, causing her also to stop, still with a light grip on his arm. “I’m not lookin’ for the usual run of TLC, here. Who’s in charge of this temple?”

Nakhi looked quizzically up at him, stepping closer. “Brother Lokoru is the head priest, but he’s usually not up at this time of morning. We keep unconventional hours here, as you may have heard. But I’ll be more than glad to help you with anything, Jerry. Whatever’s going on, I can tell it has you under a lot of pressure. You’re in exactly the right place to have that turmoil relieved. That is what we do in Izara’s name, after all.”

She gave him that warm, gentle smile again, and he noted she was actually sort of pretty. Not a woman he’d have looked twice at on the street, but Izarites had a way about them; something about that relentless kindness of theirs was irresistibly attractive regardless of what they looked like.

“Thank, doll,” he said, gently extricating his arm from her grip. “Look, I know you got a job to do and I’m sure you’re good at it, but I’m gonna have to pass on having that turmoil relieved. I’m still using it. Can you maybe answer a couple questions about Izarite business in Ninkabi?”

“Well…it depends on the questions,” the priestess replied, her expression growing concerned. Exactly like a nurse whose patient wouldn’t take their medicine. “Obviously, we place a high value on privacy here. I would never repeat anything you shared with me in confidence, and I can’t betray any other guest’s confidence to you, either. But the cult itself doesn’t have many secrets. I meant what I said, Jerry: if there’s anything I can do to help you, then that’s what I’m here for. Are you in some kind of trouble?”

Omnu’s balls, was he in some kind of trouble. Nothing she could actually help with, though, and trying would likely just land him in hot water with the Church or one of the Pantheon cults with which he was already having problems.

“If there was some higher-up in town,” he said, evading the question, “some big important Izarite personnel from the capital, and they were being discreet and didn’t want their presence known, what’d be my best chance of meetin’ up with ’em?”

Nakhi blinked twice. “I’m…not sure I understand the question, Jerry. If somebody important were here and specifically wanted to avoid being known or seeing anyone, then it sounds like you couldn’t meet them. And I probably couldn’t, either, for that matter. I’m definitely not aware of anybody like that being in Ninkabi.”

“And if you were, you couldn’t tell the likes of me, anyway. Well, it was worth a try. Thanks anyway.”

“Are you looking for someone in particular, Jerry?” she asked. “We just don’t have a lot of celebrities or important officials within the Brethren. I can’t think of anybody who might match your description other than High Priestess Delaine or Bishop Snowe, and they’re both in Tiraas.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it,” he said, forcing a grin. “Sorry to waste your time, sister. Have a good one.”

He turned to go, but she reached out and caught his arm again. Anger surged; he did not appreciate being grabbed.

“Are you sure you won’t stay and talk for a while?” Nakhi asked, her voice as tender as a doting mother’s. “Whatever else is going on, Jerry, it’s obvious you could do with some rest, and probably a hot meal. We can provide both. And even if you weren’t looking to unburden yourself, I bet you’d be amazed at the difference it can make.”

Fucking whore, exactly like all the rest of them, looking to ferret out whatever secrets she could exploit. Izarites were supposedly empathic as a gift of their goddess; she had to be aware of how angry she was making him, but there was no sign on her face of any concern. As if to prove she was operating on some hidden agenda…

Breathe. Let it go.

Everyone is absolutely out for themselves, Sweet’s advice whispered in his memory, but you have to put yourself in their perspective, think about what they want. People are social animals, Thumper. You’d be amazed how many of their selfish agendas will actually impel them to do nice things for others and except nothing in return.

She was an Izarite. This was her hidden agenda. Losing his cool over this was his own weakness, exactly the thing his teachers had tried to get him past, and Kheshiri had worked so hard to exacerbate. It was past time he paid due honor to the men who’d been actually trying to help him.

“I appreciate it, honey,” he said, once more removing her hand from his arm as gently as he could. She didn’t resist, giving him no reason to handle her at all roughly. He patted her hand once before letting it go. “You’re a sweetheart, but you don’t have what I need. Take care, now.”

Shook turned and strode back outside into the sunlight before she could try again to dissuade him, not slowing his steps to a more typical walking pace until he had rounded the temple’s corner and was pacing down its length on the sidewalk.

It wasn’t much of a play, but it was the best he could think of on short notice. It was pretty clear that going back to the Inquisition wasn’t an option. With Kheshiri run off and the Jackal himself evidently having snapped under the pressure of his own scheme, to say nothing of that rabid loon Syrinx now holding the reins, he had to face the fact that this entire keep-tabs-on-the-Archpope plan had gone belly up without producing any results.

That pretty much left him with Khadizroth as the only person to turn to. He already knew it was within K’s power to locate him in the city, and didn’t know why he hadn’t yet done so, though he could think of several possibilities. The least dismal was that the dragon was just too preoccupied keeping Syrinx from burning Ninkabi the fuck down to come looking; it was also possible he knew Shook had spent the night with the Wreath and assumed the worst about him. That left him with one, more slender hope.

Khadizroth was of the opinion that Snowe was a much cleverer operator than she let on, and Shook respected his opinion highly. She’d pretty much have to be, anyway, to have come out here in order to put Syrinx down—itself a worthy goal in his view. He was gambling that she was sufficiently on the ball to make sure she’d be informed of interesting developments in whatever city she was in. Such as a scruffy person matching his description sniffing around for her at Izarite temples, for example.

He pulled out the pamphlet he’d acquired at a small Universal Church chapel, which gave the addresses of all the temples of Izara in Ninkabi, double-checking the next on the list. Yep, he was heading the right way, at least if his recollection of the street layout was solid.

Now there wasn’t much left but to hope Snowe found his trail before the Inquisition, the Guild, or the Avenists did. Or the Wreath. Or the Jackal, since the gods only knew what that demented fuck was up to right now and given his personality, killing off his former allies was an ample likelihood. Or this mysterious necromantic cult of Justinian’s, since that was evidently a real thing and was actually up to big trouble in this city.

Nothing could ever be easy, could it.


It was her own fault for leaving Kheshiri unsupervised for five minutes, Natchua reflected when she returned to the kitchen to find everyone assembled and the whole group in the process of exploding.

The entire story was obvious at a glance. The bit players had carefully removed themselves to three corners of the room: the three hobgoblins huddled together with their heads down in one, Sherwin in another watching the unfolding show as avidly as a theater patron during the fight scene, while Xyraadi perched daintily on a stool near the fireplace, sipping tea from a cracked mug with the aloof aspect of someone who wanted something to occupy her hands and mouth a lot more than she wanted tea.

It was just in front of the hall door, opposite the external door through which Natchua and Melaxyna emerged, that the real drama was playing out. Jonathan and Hesthri faced each other across the gap, he with his fists clenched and apparently on the verge of lunging at her, she just looking resigned. Natchua was in no way worried about that; aside from Hesthri’s physical invulnerability, she knew Jonathan Arquin would never get any closer than that to striking someone he cared about, especially a woman. That it had gone this far was a testament not only to how upset he was, but how suddenly the provocation must have come on, clearly before his prized self-control had a chance to re-assert itself.

And between them, just far enough back in the doorway not to obstruct their view of each other, Kheshiri looked confused and worried, glancing back and forth as if this outcome were a complete surprise to her. Given who and what she was, that was unlikely to be fooling anyone. It was certainly not fooling Natchua, who could read the malicious glee coursing through her aura like a newspaper headline.

Well, Mel had warned her Kheshiri’s campaign would begin with deliberately making a nuisance of herself.

“Oh dear,” Kheshiri said worriedly, wringing her hands. “Should…I not have said anything? I’m sorry, I don’t know all the history here…”

Jonathan tore his eyes from Hesthri to turn an incredulously furious stare upon Natchua. “Is this true?”

“Is what…” He physically swelled, and she broke off, shaking her head. “No, Jonathan, I am not being disingenuous. I’m pretty sure I know what this is about, but since the rogue succubus obviously started it, I’m not willing to assume.”

“That’s what this is about,” Hesthri said quietly. “And yes, Jonathan, it’s true.”

Amazingly, he managed to puff up even further, his face flushing almost crimson with the pressure of not lashing out. At least he managed to keep it strictly verbal.

“What is wrong with you?” he roared, addressing himself to the ceiling.

Natchua chose to assume, regardless, that it was directed at her.

“Well, if I knew the full answer to that, I’d already be at work fixing it, now wouldn’t I?” she asked wearily. “Nothing you don’t already know about, really. And I did try to warn you.”

“Nothing is wrong with me,” Hesthri said, her voice still soft. “Not now that I’m with you, and safe from my former mistress, and able to help Gabriel. All of it thanks to Natchua. What’s more,” she added in a firmer tone, stepping forward to compel his attention, “a lot less is wrong with Natchua than either she or you thinks, and none of it able to be addressed by carrying on this way. This isn’t how I wanted to you find out, obviously, but I was also not going to hide it from you, Jonathan. Since this is how it’s begun, though, let’s talk about it.”

“You want to talk.” He clutched his head for a moment, fingers clenching into bloodless claws. “…no. This is more shit than I can deal with.”

“Jonathan,” Hesthri said urgently as he rounded on Kheshiri. “Please, you can’t—”

“Later,” he snapped, not looking at her. “I can’t even look at you right now. Get out of the way!” he roared at Kheshiri, who quailed backward, still blocking the door.

The nigh-hysterical mirth roiling in her aura rose to such a pitch that Natchua was honestly impressed she managed to keep acting, but indeed she did, quivering and stammering and giving a very good impression of a woman too panicked by the sight of the man cornering her even to flee.

Natchua wasn’t sure what would result from the succubus continuing to antagonize Jonathan right now, but was not about to indulge her. A simple extension of her will caused the shadows to flicker and gather, sweeping Kheshiri away to stand at the opposite side of the room, well out of his path.

“Jonathan,” Hesthri said as he stomped out down the corridor toward the ruined great hall. She only spoke his name, though, not raising her voice or trying to call him back.

“Mistress, I’m so sorry,” Kheshiri burbled frantically, “I didn’t realize—”

“Silence,” Natchua ordered with neither emphasis nor inflection. “I’ll deal with you in a moment. Melaxyna, would you please go make sure Jonathan doesn’t do anything…unwise?”

“He will not,” Hesthri stated, turning to her. “And he definitely doesn’t want to be hovered over. Just let him calm down on his own time.”

“I agree,” Natchua replied. “Which is why I asked Melaxyna, whose presence he won’t detect if she doesn’t wish it. I trust Jonathan, but I’ve never seen him that angry, and the woods around Veilgrad are not safe even by the standards of woods in general.”

Hesthri nodded at that, as did Melaxyna, pausing only to squeeze Natchua’s shoulder once. She slipped across the room, diverting momentarily to the corner to peck Sherwin on the cheek, then departed silently into the hallway, fading to invisibility as she went.

“Xyraadi,” Natchua said, turning to the khelminash, with a deep bow of her head, “this is more menial than the work you’re used to, I know, but can I ask you to supervise the horogki’s work today?”

“Pas de probleme,” Xyraadi assured her, rising smoothly and setting her cup on the mantle. “After helping Mortimer in Second Chances, I fancy I have acquired a knack for administration.”

“Oh, uh, about that, boss lady,” Pizzicato squeaked. Natchua turned to find her hunched as if expecting to be kicked; Glissando and Staccato were actually trying to hide behind her. “We, uh, sorta need some quality time with Mr. Moneybags, here. We gotta see about orderin’ some stuff to work with—stone, lumber, glass, tools, nails an’ shit. Cleanup’s well and good and a lotta that rubble is reusable but not even we can rebuild a house outta good intentions and slobber.”

“That’s Lord Moneybags, actually,” Natchua corrected her, smiling in spite of herself.

“Hey, just Sherwin’s fine,” he demurred. “The House of Moneybags doesn’t stand on formality. What’s left of it. And anyway, uh, I don’t really know what to tell you. I have my lawyers arrange for my supplies and stuff. If I need something in particular that’s not on the regular delivery I have them order it. If you just write down what you need…”

“I can certainly attend to that myself,” Xyraadi said, smiling. “If you girls will just tell me what you need, I shall arrange a full list for Sherwin to deliver to his steward.”

“Oh,” Pizzicato croaked, looking less than reassured. “Well, then. Great. Okay.”

“Is there a problem?” Natchua asked.

All three of them suddenly straightened up, frantically waving. “No, no! No problem! Everything’s fine and dandy!”

“There is not a problem,” Hesthri interjected, “but I see why they would fear otherwise. Girls,” she went on more gently, turning to the hobgoblins, “Xyraadi is not like the other khelminash. She fled from their cities and from Hell itself to come here and live free of them. I have found her to be kind and entirely reasonable; she won’t treat you the way the mistresses back home did. Right?” she added, turning a pointed look on Xyraadi.

“Oh, absolutement,” Xyraadi agreed hastily. “I apologize, ladies, for failing to consider your perspective. I, of all people! No, we are all five of us exiles from the same nightmare, are we not? And good riddance to it. I see no reason we cannot all be friends; it is not a hard thing to treat one another with a little basic respect.”

“Xyraadi has my trust as well,” Natchua added, seeing that the three hobs looked less than convinced. It would likely take time and exposure to bring them around; she just needed to apply a little encouragement to get them started. “But if anyone here has any problem with anyone else, you bring it right to me and I will take care of it. Okay? You’re not slaves here. It’s not possible for you to leave and roam this plane, I’m afraid, but if you wanted to go back to where you came from, I’ll arrange it.”

That prompted another round of frantic demurrals, and Hesthri winced.

“I’m sorry,” Natchua said ruefully, “that sounded like a threat, didn’t it? I promise it wasn’t. Don’t worry, girls, I’m not going to banish you unless you ask me to. I just mean, this is a small community and we need to get along. So long as everybody pulls their weight, I will make sure you’re treated as well as I can reasonably arrange. Fair?”

“Come, why don’t you show me what you have done so far?” Xyraadi suggested, smiling at the quailing hobgoblins and gesturing toward the door. “I would be delighted to hear your plans for the ongoing repairs.”

“Hes,” Natchua said, “would you mind going along? Not that I think they need more supervision, but they might feel better with you there.”

“Not at all. In fact, I’d be grateful to have something to do with myself right now.” She gave Natchua a warm smile before gently shepherding the still-uncertain horogki toward the great hall.

Sherwin cleared his throat as Xyraadi followed them out. “Well! I guess I’ll, uh…”

“That’s okay, Sherwin, it’s your room, after all. Don’t put yourself out; I’ll just get the rest of this mess out of your hair. Come, Kheshiri.”

The sunlight wasn’t as glaring as it had once been; the actual shadow spell to protect her eyes from the brilliance hadn’t been part of the repertory of infernomacny Elilial had given her, but it had been easy enough to work out. She didn’t even need dark glasses anymore.

“Mistress, I apologize,” Kheshiri said demurely. “It seems I misread the situation and spoke out of turn. If any trouble has resulted—”

“Yes, I know,” Natchua interrupted in a disinterested tone. Narisian reserve didn’t exactly prepare her for this kind of playacting, but she made do by trying to channel the attitude she felt best fit her needs: Tellwyrn’s. One of Tellwyrn’s specific attitudes, in fact, the slightly irritated dismissal she showed to problems that were only just barely worth addressing. As if this pivotal conversation with this highly dangerous individual were a fleeting annoyance, beneath her attention. “You’ve only seen me using brute force to solve problems, so you assumed that was the only trick I had, and therefore assumed you’re smarter than I. And that was fine, while you were an unwanted stray I had to gather up. Now, however, I have a task for you, and so it’s time for you to learn some things.”

“Oh?” Kheshiri murmured. “I will be glad to serve you in any way I can, mistress.”

Her expression, now, was surprised and intrigued, and for once the emotion in her aura was exactly the same.

The thing was, Kheshiri absolutely was smarter than she, and had to at least suspect it. But if she thought Natchua was dim enough not to recognize the disparity in their scheming ability, she might relax her efforts enough to make a mistake. Plus, by taking a leaf out of Hesthri’s book and abruptly changing her entire demeanor every so often, apropos of nothing, she might stave off the succubus from getting a true handle on her actual personality.

Gods, this was going to be exhausting.


By the time early afternoon rolled around, Shook was seriously considering trying to catch a nap in an alley like some kind of bum. Keeping moving the whole day was exactly the exhausting icing his already exhausting cake did not need; after visiting every Izarite temple in Ninkabi to sow the necessary seeds of suspicion, he had carried on a gradual circuit of the city, pacing between the temples in the hope that anybody who came looking for him would be less likely to catch him unawares as long as he was moving. If he got the first look, he could meet up with Snowe or Vannae if it was one of them, or flee from anyone else. But gods, he was about ready to drop right where he stood. It wasn’t like this was his first all-nighter, but it also wasn’t as if he were as young as he’d once been.

And ultimately it didn’t even work. He was shambling along, too out of it even to register where he was going anymore, much less what was happening around him, when a luxury enchanted carriage driven by a man in nondescript livery pulled up to the curb alongside him.

One of its windows swung outward, and Branwen Snowe’s face appeared in the gap. “May I offer you a ride, Mr. Shook?”

He was too tired to hesitate or even upbraid himself for being snuck up on after all his preparations. He just turned toward the carriage and grasped the door handle, Snowe already retreating along the seat. Shook clambered in and slumped against its plush cushions, only belatedly remembering to pull the door shut.

“Gods, am I glad to see you, lady,” he said as the carriage pulled smoothly back into traffic. “How’d you find me?”

“Khadizroth has been instrumental in tracking you. I must say, though, your plan to draw my attention was impressively clever. I’ve already had several confused reports of your movements. I’d like to think that even without our dragon friend, I would have been sharp enough to locate you.”

She smiled, and it was even better than the smiles he’d been getting from Izarite priests all morning, for all that it had that same ineffably gentle Izarite quality to it. The difference, he figured, was that Branwen Snowe was also out and out gorgeous, and clearly worked at it. None of the others had worn cosmetics, or applied more to their hair than water and a comb. She looked like she was on the way to one of her book signings or public addresses. He’d known plenty of women like this; they always looked that way.

“So K’s with you,” he said wearily. “Good. Makes this a lot easier.”

“Yes, it will be good to have everyone’s information in the same room,” she agreed. “I gather you must have had a very interesting night. And Khadizroth will be able to update you on events within Basra’s Inquisition since you slipped out.”

Shook grunted. “I bet Syrinx is about ready to chew her fuckin’ foot off.”

“She was close to that point before all this started.”

Despite the fatigue, he studied her face closely. “I guess that’s the best news you’ve had all week, right? You must really hate the bitch to go to all this trouble.”

Snowe sighed very softly, turning her blue eyes to the passing scenery outside the window. “Even if I were inclined toward hate…no. That seems like an emotion for enemies. Other people. Basra Syrinx is just a mad, deadly thing which has run amok for far too long. All I feel is pity for those she has harmed, and…remorse. This summer I stood in the Grand Cathedral while the paladin of her own faith demanded she be brought to justice, and heard the fellow Bishop whose opinion I respect the most point out something which has stayed with me ever since: all those of us who tolerated Basra because she was politically useful, even knowing what a monster she is, are complicit in her crimes. Her destruction is redemption, to me. That’s all.”

“I can respect that,” he said, nodding and letting his eyes close of their own accord. Shook was just too bone-weary to dissemble; that actually was a sentiment to which he could relate. “Oh…right. You’d best not bring me to whatever safe house you’re using, Bishop. Among the shit I need to bring everybody up to speed on, I spent the night with the Black fuckin’ Wreath. I’d bet my left nut they’re still tracking me. They damn sure can, and they’d be pretty stupid not to.”

“I see,” she said, turning back to him with her eyebrows raised. “Well… Thank you for the warning, but we must go where we are going regardless. That is where Khadizroth awaits us. After that, however, I’m confident he can erase any trace the warlocks can lay upon you, and my own roots in this city are shallow. We can move to a new, safer location easily enough.”

He just nodded. Sounded like good sense.

“I’m proud of you, Mr. Shook,” she said quietly.

He opened his eyes. “Excuse me?”

“I know nothing except what I cannot help but sense,” Snowe said, again giving him that Izarite smile. “But it is…familiar to me. You are a man struggling with inner demons, and slowly but surely, rising above them. Forgive my presumption; I just wanted you to know that I honor the effort.”

Shook stared at her for a moment. It seemed that this was the sort of thing that usually made him angry. Right at that moment, though, he just didn’t have the energy.

He leaned his head against the window and let his eyes drift shut again.

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15 – 37

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“Where’d everybody go?”

Teal looked up at Principia’s approach, straightening from her crouched posture at the edge of the cliff. As a young girl she had been nervous of heights, but bonding with Vadrieny had caused that to fade over time, and even reverse, to the point that her parents and even Shaeine protested her habit of lurking on ledges and atop things. But if you could fall all the way from above the atmosphere without suffering ill effects, not to mention being able to fly anyway…why not?

“Nowhere,” she said, unconsciously straightening her coat. “They’re in the building, packing up. Well, that and goofing off, it’s not like we had much to pack. I went. Just wanted to be alone and think for a bit. Which, now that I think about it, you could already tell, right? I mean, you can hear everything happening on this plateau. So why ask me?”

“Halfway there,” Principia said cryptically.

“What?” Teal frowned at her.

“You looked past the surface, but not far enough. Why would I indulge in such a harmless, pointless deception?”

“Sheer force of habit?” Teal said acidly. Then, when the elf just smiled at her for a moment, she spoke again more slowly. “Or it’s just a way to start a conversation and get me talking.”

Principia cocked a finger at her. “Bingo. See, you can spot these things as well as any bard, you’re just not in the habit of it. Anyway. I’ll go spread the bad news to the others, but since you’re here, our departure has been delayed so everybody might as well unpack again. I’ve just spoken with our Order guides and they don’t want to leave until dawn.” She shrugged irritably. “I can see their point. The trail has only a few safe spots to camp and the way they’re spaced out… Well, they’re accustomed to hiking in a certain rhythm for a reason.”

“Did you explain why it was important to go?”

“Explain what?” Principia asked with a wry little grin. “That we have an incredibly dangerous weapon we need to dispose of and I’ve got this feeling it’s gonna be more trouble alone on this barren mountaintop than if we take it back down to where there’s people? I didn’t even get into how we planned to hand it off to Arachne Tellwyrn. Somehow I think that might’ve made them even less sympathetic.”

“That’s…” Teal frowned. “That seems ominous, though logically I can’t put my finger on exactly why.”

“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end,” Principia intoned, putting on a sarcastically pompous aspect. “Seriously, though, you’re right. Ordinarily I wouldn’t think it meant anything, but the god of bards his damn self was right here, sticking his fingers into this pie. An arbitrary, barely-justified delay that keeps us isolated in the open for another day has ‘plot device’ written all over it.” She turned her head toward the building in which the other students could be faintly heard having an argument. “I can’t imagine what could happen out of the blue up here, but I’ve got the feeling something’s going to. Well. It’s not like you aren’t the most capable group of people alive when it comes to fielding threats, even without that crazy universal trump card you just created. I better go tell everybody to be ready for…whatever.”

She turned and made it five paces before Teal suddenly called after her.

“Locke, wait. Can you spare a minute?”

Principia paused, half-turning to look back at her with a raised eyebrow. “We’re not gonna be any less stuck here after a minute, sure.”

“You were an adventurer,” Teal said, her words slow as if she were pondering each with care as she spoke. “During the Age of Adventures. You must’ve known a lot of other adventurers, right? I mean, back when they were common and respectable.”

“For a sentence that’s basically not wrong, that one is full of a lot of misconceptions,” Principia said, turning to face her fully again. “You may be overestimating how common and how respectable adventurers were even during their heyday. And as for me, well, I was even less of both than the usual. Also I tended to be a pretty solitary type. Your average dungeon delving party has little use for thieves unless they’re hitting Manor Dire or someplace with a bunch of traps. I’m a con artist, I don’t do traps. But still… Yeah, I knew people. It never paid to stay too far out of circulation.”

Teal nodded, chewing the inside of her cheek for a moment. “Did you ever know any who were pacifists?”

“Sure, that wasn’t uncommon,” Principia said immediately. “Party healers, basically. The majority were clerics, and the majority of those who went adventuring and were more into healing than stabbing were Omnists, Izarites, and Salyrites. Of course, Salyrites will do pretty much whatever they can get away with, but Omnists are explicitly pacifist. Izarite dogma itself isn’t pacifist, but several Izarite denominations are, and have gone through phases where they predominate in the cult.”

Teal’s face had fallen while she spoke, and now she nodded again, a little disconsolately. “Party healers. That’s it?”

“That’s by a wide margin the majority, yeah. Of course, you can pick any adjective and it applies to somebody who called themselves an adventurer at some point, including a lot weirder than ‘pacifist,’ but you asked about people I knew. That’s not a trait I seek out in my friends. I’ve known the odd pacifist who wasn’t insufferably preachy, but that combination of traits seems oddly uncommon.”

Teal made a wry grimace at her, getting a grin in response.

“You’re looking for a role model, then?” Principia said after a momentary pause.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m sure that must be hilarious to you…”

“Absolutely not,” the elf said with a totally serious expression. She turned fully and walked back over to stand by Teal at the edge of the cliff. “If you’re looking to adopt a given way of operating, modeling someone who mastered it is an excellent starting point.”

“Just a starting point, though,” Teal said quickly. “I obviously need to tailor my own approach, but…it’s hard to know where to begin. I figured following someone’s footsteps would get me pointed in the right direction, until I can figure out my own methods through practice.”

“That’s exactly how you acquire basically any skill,” Principia agreed. “Well, I’m sorry I lack personal connections that would apply to you, but I’ll tell you what. You might find a lot of inspiration in my own favorite trickster heroine, and I’m willing to bet you already know a lot of stories about her. Every young pacifist reads everything they can find about Laressa of Anteraas.”

“Of course,” Teal said, now frowning quizzically. “She was already a great inspiration to me, since I was a little girl. But…did you say trickster heroine? I never really saw her that way.”

“Of course you didn’t,” Principia replied with a wide grin. “Nobody does, not now or in her own day, and that is why she’s my favorite. Peak technique for con artistry is to avoid being known for it; that’s how you keep people off their guard. Then and now, everybody oohed and aahed over her ‘peaceful warrior’ shtick and the spectacle she made of that, and never really caught on to how she schemed rings around them.”

“Really.” Teal was still frowning, but more thoughtfully now.

“For example, you know the story of Safiya’s Shaming, right? It’s one of the most famous.”

“Safiya’s Persuasion, they call it in Calderaas,” Teal said, smiling in spite of herself. “Sure, of course, I always liked that one. Sultana Safiya was planning to invade Akhvaris, but Laressa walked into the Royal Palace and spent three days following the Sultana everywhere she went, reciting from the Aveniad until she abandoned that plan and swore to leave the drow alone.”

Principia was grinning, too. “And how about the Lasher’s Loss? That one’s dear to my heart, for reasons I’m sure you can imagine.”

“I don’t… Wait, no, that’s familiar. Lasher was a Thieves’ Guild boss, right?”

“An underboss in Anteraas, yeah. Basically, Laressa was warned by an oracle—or an insider, depending on which version of the story—that Lasher and his thieves were going to rob the local temple of Avei. So she emptied out the treasury coffer and locked herself in it. When the thieves took it back to their base, they opened it up and boom! Instead of a box of gold, box of paladin.”

“Oh, yeah, I did hear that one!” Teal said, growing more animated by the moment. “Lasher kept her there one night, and by the time he let her go he was so enraptured he asked her to marry him.”

“Again, depends on the version,” Principia said, matching Teal’s mounting excitement in gesture and expression exactly, “but whether or not that happened, it’s a fact that she thwarted a Guild job, was kept overnight at their mercy, and in the morning they let her leave on good terms. Oh, but I know you know about Laressa’s Stand in the Briar Wars.”

“Yes!” Teal exclaimed. “Where she faced down four armies!”

“Every major participant in the war,” Prin said enthusiastically, “armies from Tiraas, Calderaas, Veilgrad and Leineth. They all marched on the plain west of Leineth itself…”

“And they found Laressa there, sitting right in the middle of it in an armchair…”

“Eating grapes and reading a book!”

“And all four generals stood there watching her for an hour…”

Principia laughed aloud. “And then every last one of them turned around and marched the fuck home! And it’s not just the big things like that, either, Laressa was sharp and in control of every one of her encounters. One of her favorite tricks was letting people attack her, doing her Sun Style evasion and deflection thing with just a touch of divine shielding, and let them work themselves into a fury and get worn out doing her no damage while she talked them around to her way of thinking.”

Teal nodded eagerly. “Yeah, I’ve seen Toby do that.”

“It’s a great trick, if you’ve got the skill. But with all respect to Toby, you’ve seen him do half of it. Laressa was also a master of, shall we say, conversational Sun Style. You’ll never persuade someone by proving them wrong, that just makes people dig their heels in. Most thought is emotional more than it’s logical. Changing people’s minds requires salesmanship and manipulation. Laressa was sly enough to do that, while also fighting physically. Honestly, I don’t think there have been many people who even could do the kind of things she did.” Her expression sobered by degrees until she was left with a small, knowing smile. “And it all worked because she decided what people should think about her and made it happen. To the point that even now, her biggest fans think the big deal about her was her pacifism.”

“Wasn’t it?” Teal countered. “Who but a pacifist would even have thought to do such things?”

“Well, for starters, every Avenist ever, if they were smarter and actually meant that high-minded talk about how the art of war applies to all confrontations, not just violent ones. I may be a bit biased here, Teal; I’m no pacifist, but I’m definitely not a fan of violence. It’s wasteful and destructive at best, brings out the worst in people and creates a mess that somebody’s going to have to rebuild from. It is far and away better to accomplish your goals through cleverness and maneuvering than by hurting people and breaking stuff. You can’t achieve that just by showing up and being all serene and peaceful. People who try that are usually the first to die. But it can be achieved with the proper technique, and Laressa of Anteraas had technique in spades.”

“How do you mean?” Teal’s eyes were narrowed in concentration now, as if she could read insight straight from Principia’s face.

“Well, think about just those examples we talked about. Stalking a Sultana through her palace until she buckles sounds like an effort of sheer brute force pacifism, until you read between the lines. There’s a lot of politics, there. Hands of Avei are traditionally given the run of the Palace in Calderaas, but do you really think a crowned head of state would submit to that kind of treatment if she felt it within her power to get rid of the person doing it? You have to understand that whole situation. The core of Calderaas’s army has always been heavy cavalry—basically the worst possible choice for invading a drow city. Safiya was young, inexperienced, and pretty painfully naive, and being given a lot of deliberately bad advice to cause her to blunder severely enough that the Calderaan Houses would be justified in removing her so one of her rivals could take over.”

“By, for example, getting most of the army massacred underground,” Teal murmured.

Principia nodded. “The Aveniad is basically a series of romanticized war stories; it’s laid out to teach lessons in Avenist battle doctrine and military strategy, not so much moral principles. It’s pretty incredible how anybody thinks you can shame someone with that. Laressa used her position to insert herself forcibly into Safiya’s inner circle, and you had better believe they spent the whole time trying to remove her. She fended off physical and political attempts to get rid of her—already requiring a broader skill set than most people will ever have—and protected the young Sultana from the same while giving her a crash course in military and political leadership. Safiya’s advisors had built up her ego til she wouldn’t hear contradiction from anyone, so Laressa spent three days making her realize for herself what was going on. She did all this while dancing around the temper of a spoiled teenager who was in the habit of ordering people who said things she didn’t want to hear out of the city. That whole affair ended with most of Safiya’s inner circle banished or beheaded, and Laressa her most valued advisor. Pacifism, my ass; if I was half that sly I’d be Empress by now.”

Teal was frowning deeply, her eyes slowly tracking from side to side as she formed connections. Principia watched her for a moment before continuing.

“Then there was Lasher. There are so many version of that story specifically because nobody knows what exactly happened between Laressa and the thieves that night. But what is known is just…general knowledge. Eserites have no respect for Avenists, very little sense of humor about having their operations busted up by outside forces, and an immediate strategic need not to let people see inside their hideouts and then leave to tell tales. And let me assure you, the Thieves’ Guild is not impressed by pacifist ideals. Laressa barged into the middle of that and got a bunch of Eserites to embrace her as a friend. I’m pretty sure Hands of Avei have achieved that exactly twice now.”

They both glanced at the building where the other students were still talking, then exchanged a small smile.

“And the Stand?” Teal asked, her expression and tone showing simple curiosity.

“You have to know a bit of background to understand that one, too. Another of Laressa’s tricks—not a favorite, as there are only so many times a body can do this—was to let her enemies beat her. Physically, I mean. But she only did this in public, and after carefully laying the groundwork, so that the outrage at this abuse of the peaceful paladin prompted backlash that soon destroyed whoever had ordered her roughed up. Leineth came later in her career, by which time it was widely rumored that if you harmed Laressa of Anteraas, Avei’s curse would come down on you and cause your utter ruin. Of course, if Avei could be arsed to show up and fight her own battles, she wouldn’t need Hands, now would she? That was all Laressa’s cunning at work. The Stand was the payoff of years of strategy and building a reputation, till entire armies didn’t dare to even try fighting around her.”

Principia turned her head to gaze absently out at the Great Tree in the distance, a little smile playing about her lips.

“In a lot of ways, Laressa of Anteraas was the ultimate bard. She succeeded by carefully crafting a narrative around herself that guided people to fit themselves subconsciously into the roles she wanted. And by all accounts, especially to people she set herself against, she was annoying as hell.”

Teal had to crack a smile at that, but it faltered quickly. “So…within all that, where’s the role of principled pacifism?”

“There’s not a thing in the world wrong with moral pacifism as long as you aren’t stupid about it,” Principia said with a shrug. “Morality is a fine thing for your personal life. Laressa clearly had it in spades, as do you. The main difference between you was the strategic ability to get shit done.”

Teal dropped her eyes.

“Then again, maybe take me with a grain of salt,” Principia added in a lighter tone. “Gods know I’m hardly one of the world’s great moral philosophers. Although… I do have a pet theory I’ve been wanting to bounce off someone for a while.”

“Oh?” Teal said warily.

“It’s a universal principle across every culture: you take care of your group. Loyalty and love for whatever social clusters you belong to is paramount to being a person. I’ve been mulling it, lately, and I have come to think that the closest thing there is to an objective gauge of someone’s goodness is the size of their in-group.”

Teal frowned. “So, what, the better someone is, the more popular they are?”

“Oh, is that vividly not the cause,” Principia chuckled. “No, I mean, the extent of their empathy—where they draw the lines between friend, foe, and uninteresting stranger. So at one extreme end of the spectrum is the Omnist ideal: absolute, universal compassion for all living things, everywhere. There’s a reason even the Omnists consider that an ideal to strive for, not something you can just up and do. I’m pretty sure a person would go crazy from the sheer pressure long before they managed to fully invest themselves in the well-being of everyone and everything alive. And then, at the other end, is what the elves call anth’auwa, someone whose entire group is themselves, with no moral regard for any other person. Good and evil are just points of view in ninety percent of situations where they meaningfully clash; the least subjective measure I’ve been able to find is a count of how many people are so important do you that you would sacrifice your own well-being for their sake. Your family? Village? Nation? Your religion? The whole world?”

“Huh,” Teal grunted, also turning to look out at the Tree now. “I think…I’d have to ponder that for a while. It feels like you might be onto something with that, though.” She turned back to give Principia a sharp look. “So how good a person would that make you, Principia Locke?”

“Not fucking very,” the elf said frankly. “Mostly because I don’t aspire to be any better. According to my little theory, I’m a better person than I was the first time we met, and I’ve gotta tell you I’m not real happy about it. Being invested deeply in other people seems largely an experience of broadened vulnerabilities and the stress of trying to take care of them. Before all’s said and done,” she went on in a softer tone, “I expect to be a better person still, by far. Gods, I am not looking forward to that.”

Teal was still studying her from the corner of her eye, both of them facing the edge of the cliff now but with the human’s head slightly tilted toward Principia, who was now staring at the horizon and chewing pensively on her tongue.

“So you admire people who are crafty irrespective of being moral, then?” Teal said at last.

“Hmm…” Principia made a waffling gesture with her hand. “I admire cunning for its own sake, true. But even being a self-described amoral creature, it’s hard to feel positively toward people who abuse and exploit others, isn’t it? I’m still Eserite at my core. I would say, rather… I admire people who are crafty about being moral.”

“And that’s the hardest thing about dealing with you, of course. It’s so difficult to untangle your good advice from your agenda that just hearing you say something that sounds like good sense makes me question the concept of sense itself.”

“Well, now, that’s its own trap,” Principia said, turning back to her directly. “Being too trusting will lead you into trouble, sure, but second-guessing everything and trying to look for hidden layers of lies in every shadow will cause you to blunder just as badly, and drive you nuts to boot. What’s important is understanding what a person’s agenda is, and keeping it in mind when you analyze their actions.”

“Hm.” Teal folded her arms, making a show of studying Principia. “What am I to think about you, then?”

“Now, now, you know what I’m after,” the elf chided gently. “Same thing I have been since before the first time I crossed your path.” She didn’t look again at the building where Trissiny was currently holed up with the others, but Teal did. “In a way, Teal, the lesson of Principia Locke is exactly the point I was trying to illustrate with Laressa. Whatever it is you’re after in life, if you get greedy and reckless and just charge in, you’ll make enemies and make a mess it’ll take you gods know how long to straighten out. The path to success is careful. The best victory is to find a way for everybody to win—and if somebody needs to lose, better to arrange for them to trip themselves than to walk up and punch ’em in the gob. That’s one of those things that’s regarded as a moral truth by a lot of people, but even to someone like myself without a lot of use for moral truths, it’s just good practical advice. I suspect that at the back of most morality, if you follow it to its original source, is something that a long-ago group of people agreed to do mostly because they got the best results from it.”

Teal nodded slowly. “So. Laressa of Anteraas. Hm… We haven’t had much luck in making the Mask show us specific people on request. But then, relying overmuch on a magical doodad like that is missing the point, isn’t it?”

“You don’t need me to tell you that,” Principia said. “I mean, I’ll tell you anyway just because it bears repeating: don’t mess around with that damn thing any more than you absolutely must. But I give you the credit of assuming you can figure that out for yourself.”

“And I do have at least one friend who probably knows a lot of stories about Laressa,” Teal mused. “And has both an Avenist and Eserite mindset. And who I’d trust more than you, no offense.”

“I’m never offended by good sense.”

“I’m not sure how much your…agenda…makes you a source of good advice, though.”

“Think in terms of what I’m looking to gain,” Principia suggested. “Above all else, I want Trissiny to be okay. To do that, I need the lot of you goobers to be okay; paladins historically don’t accomplish much or live long without their support systems. Their party, in a word. And sure, I could worm my way into your affections and make you uncritically regard me as a trusted source. Ruda and Shaeine would be pretty hard to bring around but I’m confident I could manipulate the rest of you pretty easily.”

“Wow,” Teal muttered.

“But that would be a lesser benefit,” Prin continued with a lopsided grin. “I’m a useful kinda person to have around, in certain specific circumstances. Of far more aid toward the goal of keeping you kids safe would be teaching you how to watch for people like me, and deal with us whenever we pop up. That skill is useful all the time, in every situation. And that even has the ancillary benefit of achieving the first goal; you’ll end up being able to get the best use out of me and my own skills when I happen to be around that way. Always go for the longer goal with the greater benefit, unless your back’s to a wall and you have no better choice. That’s what I fucked up two years ago in Clarke Tower. I got hasty, and greedy, and stupid.” She sighed softly. “And this is what I mean when I say it’s a lot of trouble, caring about people. I am very smart, Teal. Anything that makes me dumb, I have to resent.”

There was a silence, in which Teal frowned at her as if unsure what she was seeing.

“Well, anyway, that was well more than a minute,” Principia said, suddenly brisk. “I’m sure everybody is completely packed up by now, the better to be nice and pissed off at the news I bring. Allow me to go face the music.”

“You do know Shaeine can hear everything we’ve been saying. And I guarantee she’d be paying attention, just from the mere fact that it’s you and me, talking alone.”

Principia grinned and winked. “Then allow me to make a graceful exit. We’re perilously close to talking about my feelings, and I obviously can’t have that.” She backed up two steps before turning to walk toward the others.

“You’re missing the point, you know,” Teal called after her. “Same mistake Toby keeps making. Being connected to people is only exhausting if you insist on being responsible for taking care of everybody. You’re supposed to let the people you love take care of you too, Locke.”

Principia turned around without slowing, walking backwards while she spread her arms in a self-effacing shrug and grinned. “Well, that sounds like one of those pieces of excellent advice I intend not to take. I’ve gotta be my beautiful, flawed self, after all.”

She turned again and strolled the rest of the way to the shadowed doorway, her step a carefree saunter.

Teal stared after her, thinking.

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15 – 36

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“It’s not going to be like the last time,” Natchua insisted. “I’m not going to just set her loose. You’re right, that was reckless. Look, I was serious when I told Malivette I wanted to talk with her about this; she’s my likeliest chance of getting rid of Kheshiri. All that’s changed is that if it doesn’t work, I might still gain some benefit by having Kheshiri disrupt her activities…whatever those are. The beauty of it is I don’t need to deceive anyone. I can tell Malivette the truth that I’m bound by contract not to deliberately rid myself of Kheshiri, but I won’t shed a tear if somebody powerful and clever enough makes her vanish. I can tell the demon that I’m somewhat dependent on Vette’s goodwill and don’t want anything too awful to happen to her, but she’s apparently decided to be clever at my expense and it would be swell if somebody gave her something more urgent to worry about. Which is also true. Vette will probably be happier with the succubus under her eyes than mine, and Kheshiri needs something dangerous and cunning to chew on to keep her engaged. It’s perfect.”

“You’re learning fast,” Melaxyna said with a hint of approval. “The best deceptions are not lies, but truths carefully framed. You can rely on people to act toward their own interests, irrespective of yours. Control what someone knows and you control what they’ll do. Good lessons, all. But you’re still committing the very major blunder of trying to play this game against people you know are better at it than you.”

“This isn’t the final play of this game,” Natchua murmured, her eyes narrowing as her gaze turned inward in thought. “Unless… Maybe if Malivette abruptly does something extremely final to Kheshiri, but I don’t think that’s the likeliest outcome, she knows better than to kill a child of Vanislaas and there’s no reason she would know how to make a soul jar. No, there’s not really a win condition for me if I let that keep playing out, is there? Keshiri is unlikely to overthrow Vette and will only make a big mess for me if she has a serious go at it. Plus, the longer they’re in contact, the greater the chance of them mutually deciding they like each other more than they like me, and that could be no end of trouble. I suspect something awkward will happen pretty soon, but even if it doesn’t, I’ll find an excuse to draw Kheshiri back here and keep them separated. I don’t understand either of them nearly well enough, is my problem. Forcing them into contact and seeing what they do when both are off-balance will be…illuminating.”

“Ah, the potential,” Melaxyna sighed.

“You agree, then, it will work?”

“I mean you. For such a ham-fisted little galoot, you do have a mind in there. Given time, practice, and some guidance, you could become something really…” She trailed off, then shook her head. “Well, keeping our eyes on the here and now, let me illuminate something important that you haven’t figured out.”

“I’d be grateful for the advice,” Natchua said in all sincerity.

Melaxyna turned to face her directly. “You should be more open with Kheshiri.”

The wind whistled softly between them while they regarded each other in silence. The half-crumbled tower rooftop of Manor Leduc on which they stood offered several advantages in terms of privacy, not least of which was that it was inaccessible without the benefit of wings or shadow-jumping, but rising above the treetops as it did, the constant wind streaming down from the mountains made for an ever-present threat of a tumble. Not that an elf and a succubus were likely to lose their balance.

“I know what you’re doing, you know,” Natchua said at last. “A statement like that obviously requires an explanation. You’re not getting the satisfaction of hearing me beg for it.”

“You really do learn,” Melaxyna murmured. A pleased smiled bloomed on her features, but just as quickly withered. “Think in terms of motivations, not your own prejudices. Yes, it’s always wise to be wary of children of Vanislaas, but that becomes a weakness if you think of us as boogeymen who must be tiptoed around in constant terror. Believe me, we get excellent mileage out of that. You need to consider what Kheshiri is and what she wants. Right now, you’ve got her cooped up in one place with nothing to do except talk to your other followers, which is a nightmare waiting for an excuse. Natch, your mad crusade against the Dark Lady has been a hard sell to everyone so far, I know, but Kheshiri? Her entire shtick is testing her talents against the most dangerous foes she can, with no regard for her own well-being, just to see how far she can push it. And Elilial, don’t forget, is personally responsible for her being in that reliquary for a century. I respect the impulse to keep her at arm’s length, but I think it would be better to brief her fully. Odds are she will love this whole insane scheme of yours. And she can sure as hell contribute a lot to it.”

“Hm,” Natchua grunted, turning to gaze out at the stunning view their vantage gave them of Veilgrad and the Great Plains beyond.

“And more immediately,” Melaxyna continued, “that will give her something to focus on besides you. She’s tricky to read, even for the likes of me, but I have a strong sense that she’s actually quite enamored of you. If you can’t distract her with something good and juicy, well, she has nothing better to do than squirm her way into your affections.”

“I am not going to take that creature to bed,” Natchua said acidly. “I realize I’ve earned some skepticism, myself, but I’m not that stupid.”

Melaxyna gazed at her in silence for a moment before answering in a softer tone. “The only person who cannot be seduced is a person who’s perfectly content. Does that describe you, Natch? In the slightest?”

“Oh, what are you on about—”

“That really is the most elementary mistake, you know. Love and hate aren’t opposite things. They are two aspects of one phenomenon: infatuation. The emotional fixation on another person which precludes all rational thought. Their mutual opposite is apathy. Someone whom you despise can seduce you far more easily than someone in whom you have no interest at all, so long as they know the technique. I assure you, Natchua, there are few techniques Kheshiri doesn’t know.”

“I am skeptical.”

“Did you know hostages have a tendency to fall in love with their kidnappers?”

“If anything, she’s the hostage in this scenario.”

“But you’re the emotionally agitated one, and that’s what matters. A hostage has to watch an abductor closely for their own survival; they must learn their moods and methods, avoid provoking them, learn how to earn little kindnesses. Understanding someone begets empathy; empathy and an emotional charge is the recipe for passion, and what emotion specifically is used in the brew matters far less than most people think. To seduce someone, the last thing you want them to feel is safe.

“She’ll continue playing pranks like that business with the milk this morning. Anything to keep you annoyed and off-balance. She’ll gradually, the smallest bit at a time, reveal little vulnerabilities—and they’ll be real ones, things you could use to actually hurt her. She will prove this by giving you some ammunition she knows you’ll use, wittingly or not, to cause her real pain. You’ll be watching her for trouble this whole time, tense and on edge, and growing gradually more intimately acquainted. It will build, and blossom, and then all she has to do is wait till it’s built enough and then find the right moment, something that has emotions running high enough to crowd out rational thought. The aftermath of some kind of battle is perfect for that, and in a group like this, one of those is never too far off. I realize you like to think you’d never fall for it, but…so does everyone. That’s why it works. It’s not weakness on your part, Natchua, it’s just arithmetic for someone who knows all the variables.”

Natchua chewed on her bottom lip. “I…respect your insight, Melaxyna, but come on. That all sounds kind of far-fetched.”

“Oh, yeah?” The succubus tilted her head back, arching an eyebrow. “That’s pretty rich, considering Hesthri just pulled that exact routine on you. Quite successfully.”

The drow froze, then closed her eyes. “So…you know about…”

“Oh, honey, I’m an empathy demon. Of course I do.”

“Then…”

“Yes, I guarantee Kheshiri knows, too. What she’ll do with that information precisely remains to be seen.”

Natchua covered her face in both hands. “Fuck. That is exactly what she did, isn’t it? Fuck. Why am I such a horny idiot? I never was before.”

“Oh, child.” Melaxyna stepped close and wrapped an arm around Natchua’s shoulders, folding one spiny wing around her protectively. “An overactive libido has never been your problem.”

“Sure looks like it,” Natchua said dully.

“Mm. So, you hate your mother, your House, and your entire home culture. It’s not much of a stretch to guess you did not have a warm and caring childhood.”

“I don’t want to discuss that,” Natchua snapped, trying to pull away. To her surprise, Melaxyna’s grip tightened, clinging stubbornly to her.

“Then, at the University… Well, why exactly did you stop fooling around with Juniper? Even I know she’d happily open her arms to just about anyone, and I only saw her twice a year at most.”

“That…she…” Natchua swallowed, giving up on her attempted escape to concentrate on controlling the unpleasant lump of emotion trying to climb up her throat. “That was fine, it was a good thing anyway. Juniper felt I was growing too attached, and wasn’t comfortable having a close emotional… Which, I mean, it’s good that she drew the line before I got in over my head. Falling in love with a dryad would be an utter disaster.”

“Mm hm.” Melaxyna rubbed her shoulder soothingly with the hand around her. “And why was Chase Masterson your closest friend on campus?”

“I did not sleep with Chase!”

“Okay. But he’s the one you hung around with the most, am I right?”

“My fucking classmates gossip too much,” Natchua growled.

“At a guess? That surly, hostile act you were putting on to protect yourself drove everyone else away; most people will quickly get tired of being snapped at, and even born therapists like Toby Caine will eventually figure out when their help isn’t actually helping. But Chase, being the twisted little shit he was, remained undeterred by punishment and lived to have fun. He stuck by you, no matter how much of a snot you were to him about it, and always had something to do that kept you entertained. Right?”

“What the hell is your point?” Natchua snapped. She still didn’t pull away again, though.

The demon folded her wing tighter, hugging her close. “Natchua, honey, people need to be loved. It is as essential to life as food, if not as urgent. Deprive a person of all social contact and they’ll start going insane within mere days; deprive them of love, and the damage is slower to build, but still severe. It’s not weakness on your part that you melt for anyone who shows you genuine affection. As starved for it as you are? It’s like waving a sausage in front of someone who hasn’t eaten in a week.”

They were silent for several full minutes. Natchua eventually let herself lean against Melaxyna, who continued to gently rub her upper arm.

“Kheshiri will have no trouble figuring that out, will she,” Natchua finally whispered.

“And using it,” Melaxyna said, nodding.

“What am I going to do?”

“Well, first of all, I recommend you let Hesthri continue with what she’s doing.”

“Oh, gods.” Natchua squeezed her eyes shut again. “Are you barking mad? There was enough of a mess between me and Jonathan, and between her and Jonathan, before that. Now, this is a whole order of magnitude more… I don’t know what the hell she was thinking.”

“Exactly. Filling in the third line is the most stable solution to the problem of a love triangle. Unfortunately it’s not an option in most cases; most people get too jealous to carry on a relationship like that. Someone usually ends up feeling neglected and hurt. But if the option exists? Absolutely go for it.”

Natchua leaned away slightly to frown at her. “What?”

“You three aren’t just any three randos, y’know. Well, two of you aren’t. One’s a self-effacing submissive brought up and conditioned to slavery who seems to draw her only joy from satisfying the people she cares about. Trust me on this; empathy demon, remember? Then, one’s an aggressive, over-emotional young tyrant who needs, above all else, a support system. If anything, Jonathan’s the sticking point here, being the most…forgive the word…normal of the lot of you. But I rather think if you continue to let Hesthri work on it, she’ll bring him around. It really shouldn’t be all that hard. He’s busy castigating himself for loving two women; I quite think the prospect of being able to have both will be extremely persuasive.”

Natchua just stared at her. “You’re…actually suggesting…”

“I am,” Melaxyna said seriously, meeting her eyes. “Come on, who are you to get hung up on what’s conventional? I’m telling you, Natchua, as your friend, this would be the best thing for you if you can make it work. You need some comfort, and safety, and love more than almost anyone I’ve ever known. The fact that both of them are twice your age is, if anything, the best part. You can definitely use four times the maturity to help balance you out.”

“Why is it even when you’re being sweet it comes out insulting?”

“Well, be fair,” Melaxyna said, grinning. “I’m a demon, and you’re a mess. I’m serious, though. I know these things aren’t your strong suit, but Hesthri is capable of arranging such intimate details. My advice to you is to let her.”

Natchua rubbed at her eyes with both fists. Not to repress tears, as none were coming, but just because the pressure and flashing lights it caused in her vision were a welcome distraction from the roiling turbulence inside her head.

“On the other hand,” Melaxyna said solemnly, “this is all gonna be hysterically awkward if you ever do link up with Gabriel again.”

The laughter that burst out of her was a simple release of pressure. Melaxyna just held her, even as it built to near hysteria, helping balance them both against the wind and sheltering the drow within her wing for the several minutes it took her to calm herself back down somewhat.

“Remember, too,” the succubus said at last, “with Kheshiri slinking about, tending to your own happiness is a strategic necessity. Your martyr complex doesn’t change the fact that she can wreck your entire psyche unless you position yourself such that it’s too difficult for her to manage. Support system, Natchua. Let the people willing to love you do so, as long as they’re all alive to do it.”

Still hiccuping, Natchua nodded weakly, brushing tears out of her lashes. Melaxyna squeezed her again.

“I want to make sure you’re as…all right as can reasonably be arranged, before I go.”

At that, Natchua stiffened, turning to stare at her. “Wait, what? Go?”

“We had a deal,” the succubus said, quietly but implacably. “Remember? In exchange for my freedom from the Crawl, my help to set yourself up with the assets and crew you need for your campaign. But you promised I would be released once I was no longer needed, before you get too close to drawing Elilial’s ire. Look around, Natch. You have a secure base, and what amounts to a staff working to build it up. Xyraadi is a major tactical asset, a warlock close to as knowledgeable as you and able to actually do a lot of those really dicey infernal spells that you can’t without incinerating yourself. And…without any false modesty…anything I can do tactically, Kheshiri can do better. You just need to get her aimed in the right direction and be certain she’s working with rather than against you—which is more feasible, I assure you, than it may look. I told you, it’s all about providing what she really wants, which you’re uniquely positioned to do.” Melaxyna gave her a gentle shake. “You’re there, Natch. You have what you need to watch for that opening you were talking about taking against Elilial. Or, at the very least, to continue building your position and assets. The truth is, you don’t need me anymore.”

“It’s…that’s not what…” Natchua swallowed painfully, refusing to meet her eyes now. “You’re not just an asset anymore, Mel. I don’t…want to lose…a friend.”

The succubus was silent, until she could no longer bear the strain and finally raised her face to meet her gaze. Melaxyna’s expression, though, was soft, a sad smile lingering on her lips.

“Friends don’t drag friends into suicidal crusades when they’ve explicitly promised not to.”

Natchua had to lower her eyes again. But she nodded, acknowledging the point, and not trusting herself to speak.

“Hey, I’m not gonna flitter off right this minute,” Melaxyna said more lightly, giving her another affectionate little jostle. “Or this week. I do want to stick around till you resolve this thing with Hesthri and Jonathan, and help with it if I can. I’m also making some good progress with Sherwin that I don’t want to abandon; he’s got potential in him under all the…well, Sherwin-ness. Nobody’s ever encouraged him to be something more. I’m still doing stuff, is what I’m saying, and not looking to cut this too short. I just wanted you to be aware, it’s coming. I won’t be around a lot longer.”

Natchua nodded again, drawing in a succession of deep breaths to steady herself.

“Thank you, Melaxyna. For…all of this. You’re a good asset, after all. And thank you for being a friend. I know you didn’t have to.”

“Well, now, the truth is I sort of did,” the succubus replied with a rueful chuckle. “Maybe another child of Vanislaas in my position wouldn’t have to, but hell. I gotta be me.”

Natchua hesitated before speaking again. “I…have been examining Kheshiri. Not in detail, yet, though I do intend to find time to study her closely. I’m learning things about how Vanislaads are put together… Mel, if it’s possible to cure you of the itch, would you want me to?”

Melaxyna stiffened slightly. “Natchua, that’s my outlet. It’s what lets us process the infernal corruption. If you cut that off, there’s no telling what madness and decay you’d be condemning me to.”

“Possibly, yes; I know that’s what everyone believes. But I’ve been looking, Mel, and I’m really not so sure anymore. It’s easier for me to study Kheshiri, due to her being contracted to me and all the shadow magic inside her, but I can see it in you, as well. You’re a framework of infernomancy around a captive soul. But the thing is, that’s a stable framework. It’s perfectly balanced, not drawing any excess power. You can do that with infernal magic, it’s just hard. It’s not outside the skill of a creature like Vanislaas, though. I can see the mechanism of the itch, even if I don’t understand it very well yet. It’s woven through the connections between your soul and the magic that provides your body and powers, right where it’s hooked up to your emotions. And… I’m not absolutely positive yet, and I definitely won’t tamper with anything unless I am. But looking at it… I think it may not be necessary. It doesn’t seem to do anything but cause that emotional effect. It’s not siphoning off any excess power. There is no excess.”

Melaxyna was dead silent; Natchua turned to watch her for a moment, finding her face uncharacteristically lacking expression.

“It just seems to me,” the drow said quietly after a pause, “if I were going to create creatures like succubi and incubi, I’d want some mechanism of keeping them doing what I wanted them to do, rather than integrating into mortal society to build lives of their own, free from my influence.”

“Son of a bitch,” Melaxyna whispered.

“I’m not certain,” Natchua repeated hastily. “It needs more study, and I may still be wrong. I just… Well. If I have an answer by the time you’re ready to go, Mel, I… It may not be in your contract, but you are a friend. I also want to make as sure as I can that you’ll be okay out there. Whatever I can do to help you, I will.”

Now it was Melaxyna’s turn to draw in a deep, steadying breath. “Well. There’s some time yet, after all. If you learn anything more, before… Keep me posted.”

“I will,” Natchua promised.

They were quiet again after that. Just standing there, now, leaning against each other and against the wind. There wasn’t much time before the next trial would have to be faced, but there was a little.

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15 – 35

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“Are we in danger?”

“You mean, more than usually and aside from the obvious?” Rainwood made a wry face, glancing back at the others trooping along behind Ingvar and himself at the head of their loose formation. His expression quickly returned to the pensive frown he’d worn all day, though. “I don’t think so, specifically.”

“I realize we’ve not known each other long, but based on what I have seen from you in the last few days, the fact that this development clearly alarmed you stood out in my mind,” Ingvar said, watching him sidelong as they walked through the patchy brush toward the ridge. “Whatever happened… The main thrust of what I’ve asked you involves reaching out through these spirit companions of yours. Obviously I have to wonder whether this will affect our business, but more immediately, I don’t want you to do something that might expose you to harm on my behalf.”

“I wish I knew,” Rainwood murmured, shaking his head in frustration. “I don’t…think this is dangerous, at least not immediately or to us. It’s all whispers and portents, great events in the offing, something big having begun up in the Wyrnrange. Something quite sudden, unexpected. I’ve lived long enough to have seen this sort of thing before, and it can take years to lead to anything concrete. If it’s the birth of someone destined to be a great hero, for example. Or the death of one, or the forging of a magic sword, just to list a few specific incidents I remember.”

“So you don’t think we will be affected?”

Rainwood narrowed his eyes. “That’s the part I can’t exactly tell, Ingvar. I…think not. My intuition tells me it’s not to do with us directly. It is complicated because the spirits are agitated over my own link to this event; fae magic in general responds strongly to connections. But that, I think, is because a relative of mine was present and involved.”

“We’ve already leaned on your power considerably, my friend. If you need to go aid your kin, please don’t let my business stop you.”

“The spirits directed me here, to you, not there to her,” the elf said, waving a hand airily, then grinned. “Anyway. The kinswoman in question is one of the most capable individuals alive, and has gotten along just fine without my help for nearly her entire life. No, I believe we should proceed as we agreed.”

“I didn’t feel anything,” Aspen said petulantly, pushing forward to walk between them.

“Is there a reason you would?” Ingvar asked, patting her on the back. “You’ve never indicated you were sensitive to oracular portents before.”

“Well, if it was that big a deal and had to do with fairy magic, surely I would’ve felt something.”

Ingvar and Rainwood glanced sidelong at one another around her, saying nothing.

“I saw that,” she snapped.

“What I’m curious about,” Taka said from behind them, “is precisely what fuckery you’re wanting to get us into that might be affected by giant fairy nonsense up in the mountains.”

“All life is connected through the Mother,” Tholi murmured.

“Oh, very profound,” she said scathingly. “Now tell me what it means.”

“It’s an old Shaathist truism, something recited to give us comfort in painful times. As for what exactly it means, the elder Brother I asked that same question told me it meant to trust the shaman, if you’re lucky enough to have one to listen to. If Rainwood says it’s fine, I’m going to assume it’s fine.”

“I said I think it’ll be fine,” Rainwood clarified.

“And we have no reason not to trust him,” Ingvar added in the tone he’d developed to put an end to pointless discussions. He had rapidly gotten very good at it in the last couple of days. “Please let us know if anything changes, Rainwood. Barring that, we can do nothing but press on.”

“Sounds good and all,” November piped up, “but on the subject of pressing on, it’s still not clear to me why you think this is going to go any better than the last time.”

“In fact,” Ingvar said, gazing up ahead at the place where the Ranger lodge lay hidden atop the ridge, “I rather expect it to go worse. But circumstances have changed, and therefore so must our strategy. I wish I could be more certain this is the right thing to do,” he added in a softer tone, “rather than just the best thing I can think of.”

“We definitely trust your judgment, Brother,” Tholi assured him.

“Ingvar is very smart,” Aspen said proudly.

He patted her back again, saying nothing. With the rest of the group behind him, he could not see November or Taka’s expressions, and at that moment felt he was probably better off.

The lodge wasn’t any less hidden now that they were approaching it in daylight; Ingvar still had nothing but Taka’s say-so to tell him they were going in the right direction, and might have actually doubted had they not met five lantern-bearing Rangers descending toward them from that same ridge in the twilight.

Paradoxically, it seemed the Rangers were better at hiding in the daylight. Of course, it probably helped when they were not carrying lights and trying to be seen.

“Back already?”

Ingvar stopped; behind him, Taka muttered a curse and November yipped softly in surprise. He glanced over at Rainwood and Aspen, who had surely been aware they were approaching a human, but hadn’t seen fit to say anything. From that, he interpreted a lack of danger.

She sat in the fork of a tree, some ten feet up, motionless; even having spoken, Ingvar might not have spotted her had she not moved her head. It was a good hiding place, giving her a vantage over the surrounding area while concealing her behind a convenient spray of leaves. Her traditional hooded cloak, a garment that more resembled elven camouflage than any Tiraan or Jendi attire, certainly helped.

“Good day,” Ingvar said. This woman’s voice was familiar, now that he focused on her. Yes, in fact, she was the Ranger who had paused to direct them to a safe campsite even after her lodgemaster ordered them away. “It’s…Dimbi, am I correct?”

“Not bad,” she said, not sounding particularly impressed. “Last time, you seemed pretty adamant you weren’t going to push your way into our business. What changed your mind?”

“Your leader did,” Ingvar replied. “I am certainly able to deal with Huntsmen of Shaath, but I was very surprised when the master of a Ranger lodge deliberately sought them out and set them after me. For this, I feel, he owes me an explanation.”

With her hood shadowing her dark face, he couldn’t make out her expression. “That’s a hell of an accusation, Huntsman. If you had trouble with your own kind, why would Arjuni have been behind it?”

So he had a name, at least. “The party of Shaathists who intercepted us said they were sent at his urging.”

She let out a soft huff. “And you believed them?”

“I am very familiar with Huntsmen; I know their virtues and the faults to which they are prone. If you are like most Rangers, I suspect you have some insight into both those things as well, do you not?”

“What of it?” Dimbi asked in a more guarded tone.

“Well, of all their flaws, have you ever found the Huntsmen to be prone to political maneuvering?”

She stared down at him in silence, her eyes hidden.

“Personally,” he went on after a momentary pause, “I have found them more likely to err on the side of pride, and not likely to give Rangers credit for anything if it wasn’t warranted. When a Huntsman of Shaath tells me he was sought out and warned by a Ranger of my presence, especially when said Ranger has already expressed surprising hostility toward me, I see little reason to doubt him.”

More silence; she might as well have been part of the tree. Had he not already spotted her shape among the leaves Ingvar could still have failed to detect her.

“Am I wrong?” he asked in a deliberately mild tone. “If so, I’d like to know it. If not, I think I am sufficiently entitled to an explanation to insist. This is very strange behavior for a Ranger, is it not? I would be foolish indeed not to investigate closer, when I don’t know what other out of character hostility your lodge might produce.”

Still, she said nothing, just staring down at them.

Finally, Tholi snorted. “It appears this is pointless, Brother. Let’s be on our way.”

“Hey, Aspen,” Taka cackled, “can you knock down that tree she’s in?”

“I’m not gonna hurt the tree,” Aspen snapped, offended. “The tree isn’t hurting anybody.”

Dimbi suddenly surged into motion, spooking Tholi into nocking an arrow. She plunged straight to the ground, her cape streaming behind her. The Ranger landed as fluidly as a drop of water, compressing her body into a deep crouch to absorb the impact, then just as quickly straightening back upright.

“Arjuni sent up the signal smoke first thing on the dawn after your visit,” she stated. “A Huntsman came within the hour. He spoke to him alone, then he left, and Arjuni told us all to forget about it.”

“I see,” Ingvar said. “Perhaps you are finding it as difficult as I to forget these things?”

“What’s so dangerous about you?” she asked softly.

He spoke slowly in answer, buying time while his brain tried to race ahead. Ingvar was too long away from Tiraas and the currents of Veisroi and Andros’s maneuvers among the city folk; his political instincts were slow to reawaken, and yet he was keenly conscious that this was a delicate moment within a more broadly delicate situation.

“Don’t take this for a deflection, but why is it you think I am dangerous? Aside from the obvious, I mean.” He patted Aspen’s shoulder, and she tossed her hair proudly. “For months, Aspen and I have been traveling across the continent, visiting Ranger lodges and finding welcome. Even the elves have hosted us gladly, and I’m sure you know they are not over fond of strangers. Arjuni’s reaction to us is very strange. I’m wondering if it makes some sense to you?”

“He’s frightened,” she said, grasping her bow in both hands. “Arjuni is no weakling; he doesn’t scare easily. But he has some gift toward witchcraft himself, and I think he sees a portent of something dire in you. I don’t see it myself,” she admitted. “I don’t know what to think. Do you? I have a feeling you have some idea why it is you’d scare him. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we were told of a Huntsman traveling with a dryad, and instead you show up with an entire party of followers?”

“Oh, are we followers, now?” Taka muttered.

“I think I understand,” Ingvar said, nodding slowly. “Well. Perhaps Arjuni is not wrong to be alarmed. But I believe he has the cause and effect mixed up.”

Dimbi shifted her stance subtly, sliding one foot backward and putting more weight on it. Poised to flee.

Ingvar kept his voice low and calm, as if to soothe an animal, or a child, but deliberately avoided any cadence that she might take as condescending. It was coming back to him after all. “Until a very few days ago, it was just Aspen and myself on a journey to gather knowledge. With no schedule and no end point in sight, the ultimate goal distant and so unattainable… Well, I confess I got myself through the days by focusing on what was right in front of me, and not on that. I saw no way to it.”

“Ultimate goal?” she asked warily.

“Shaath is bound,” he said. “Imprisoned by his own believers—who are, themselves, imprisoned by belief. The code of the Huntsmen has been corrupted, used against our own god. He reached out to me to seek a solution. Tell me, wouldn’t you be awed by the scope of it?” he added with a self-deprecating little chuckle. “I’m just a hunter, not a prophet or even a priest. I know more than I want to of the ways of people; I would rather just know the ways of nature, and immerse myself in it. Who could approach such a task? How would you even start?”

“By asking questions, I suppose,” she acknowledged, though he hadn’t really expected an answer. “Elves and Rangers are a good enough starting place if you want to learn secrets the Huntsmen have tried to bury. Why does that make you dangerous?”

“I have the impression you’re aware of at least some of what is wrong with modern Shaathism; the Rangers in general are experts on it, or so I’ve found. Tell me, how do you think they will react to being told their faith is built on lies? If Arjuni is in contact with their lodges and aware of their movements, then yes, I am likely to create a stir he will feel directly.”

Behind him, Tholi shifted in muted agitation, but held his peace. Ingvar wanted to reach out comfortingly to the lad, but he sensed it would be a mistake to divide his attention away from Dimbi.

“These last days have brought sudden change on me, though,” he said. “It has been made vividly clear that my sojourn will not be indulged any longer. With me is Rainwood, a shaman of the line of the Crow, who was directed by his own spirit guides to seek us out and lend aid.”

“Just Rainwood to my friends,” the elf added wryly. “In fact, it’s worth knowing that elves of the line of the Crow don’t generally care to be reminded of it.”

“Tholi is an old friend from my previous lodge,” Ingvar continued, finally turning to give the young man a nod, which he returned. “He had an experience amazingly similar to my own: dreams and visions, directing him to find me. November is a follower of Avei, and was given the same from her goddess, who I am frankly astonished to learn knows or cares of this at all. I might be skeptical of both their claims, except they were both sent exactly to the place where they could meet me, here in the back wilds of N’Jendo where even I did not expect a month ago that I would be. And then Taka just sort of invited herself along.”

“Nice,” Taka said irritably. November and Tholi both grinned at her.

“And so, to my own amazement, it’s as you said: I have followers, now. More alarmingly, they are being sent to me by gods and spirits of various sources. And others are beginning to accrue, apparently just of their own will.”

He turned back to face Dimbi directly. “So it sounds to me like Arjuni is both correct, and mistaken. There is a storm coming. Gods know I want nothing to do with it, but I’ve been placed at the center of this thing, and I have better sense than to try to flee. I have never yet encountered a storm that obligingly blew the other way when I turned my back on it. What I would tell your leader is that I’m a messenger, nothing more. None of this will go away if I do. The next time the storm roils over his lodge, it may come in a shape less willing to hear him out.”

She stared at him in silence a moment longer, then lifted one hand from her bow to pull back her hood. Dimbi was younger than he, to judge by her face, though not so young as Tholi or even November. Her expression was troubled, but focused.

“So you’re going to…what? Reform Shaathism? How, exactly?”

The others all shifted minutely, looking at Ingvar.

“I have no idea,” he admitted. “The wind is at my back, here. I am following what guidance I am given as best I can, and trusting that I was chosen for this for a reason, as little sense as much of it makes to me.”

She nodded once. “The storm cares not.”

“Old Punaji proverb,” he said, nodding back.

“Heh…not many people know that. Around here the sea folk are the Tidestriders. But a well-traveled fellow like you… Arjuni is not going to listen to you,” she said abruptly. “He’s a good leader and a good man. But he’s the most godawful mama bear, and it never occurs to him that he doesn’t know best.”

Ingvar let out a slow breath. “The last thing I want is to get into a confrontation with Rangers. Do you think Arjuni will continue to create trouble for me?”

Dimbi nodded, her expression unhappy. “Until you either leave the purview of our lodge, or something happens to make him listen. If you’re being pushed along by gods and the spirits of the wild, that might actually… What kind of storm are you talking about, Ingvar?”

“I don’t know that either,” he said, shaking his head. “I came here to find answers, not bring them. Whatever agenda is pushing these matters forward now isn’t mine. We’ll all find out what kind of chaos gods and spirits can unleash at the same time. All I can do is try to position myself to ride it rather than be swept away, and bring as many as I can with me.”

She chewed her lower lip for a moment, glancing to the side. “There…are others who will listen to you. A lot of us have complicated feelings toward the Huntsmen. We have ample reason to be hostile toward them, but also…attached. Arjuni seems to think you’re going to try to agitate the Rangers into some kind of war against the Shaathists, and I know a few of our number would be up for that. But a lot more of us would be interested in helping cut the rot out of them, trying to save what’s worth saving…. If you truly think you can do that.”

“An inquisition is absolutely the last thing anyone needs,” he said firmly. “Shaath can’t be freed by destroying the Huntsmen, but by showing them the truth. And leading them to accept it for what it is, which will be the harder part. You can’t persuade anyone by declaring war on them. I also didn’t come here looking to incite a schism within your lodge,” he added.

Dimbi snorted softly. “No, just within the Huntsmen, I suppose. It’s different with us. Arjuni won’t listen to you, but if you can reach enough of our number…even if it’s just a few. He’ll listen to us above an outsider.”

“You’re taking this awfully well,” Taka said, wearing open skepticism on her face. “I’ve been following this guy for a couple days now and I’m still not a hundred percent on these shenanigans. Why’re you so eager to believe him, if your own leader isn’t?”

“Willing,” Dimbi said with a soft sigh. “I wouldn’t say eager, but…willing. I gather you don’t have a background in the nuanced philosophical differences between Rangers and Huntsmen. In light of that, all of this makes way too much sense. And besides, even so I might dismiss someone showing up making these claims as a con artist or a madman, but neither of those is likely to hoodwink an elvish shaman. Let alone a Crowblood.”

“Why does everyone insist on bringing that up?” Rainwood complained. “You wouldn’t find it nearly so nifty if you’d ever met the meddlesome old bag.”

“If you go to the lodge,” Dimbi continued, again addressing herself to Ingvar, “Arjuni will just get his back up. I doubt he’d try to shoot you, not with a dryad and a shaman right there, but any direct confrontation with him will only make all of this harder. I can persuade some of our number to give you a chance, though. Quietly.”

“And you would do this?” Ingvar asked. “Forgive me, but it does seem the more logical action in your position would be to warn Arjuni against this.”

“You’ve got some face,” she retorted, “to show up out of nowhere asking for this kind of trust and not offer any in return.”

“Yes…I see the fairness in that. You’re right.” He made a shallow bow toward her. “Forgive me.”

“We have less need to offer trust, too, as long as I’m here,” Rainwood added, now watching Dimbi through half-lidded eyes. “She means well, and speaks truly.”

“I’m not sure whether that’s an honor, or creepy,” the Ranger muttered, giving him a wary stare before returning her focus to Ingvar. “So. When I gather a few sympathetic souls, where will we find you?”

That made him hesitate; it was a question to which he simply did not have an answer. Providential as her offer of help was, it jumped him farther ahead than he had planned. In truth, Ingvar had refrained from planning in detail beyond the point where he could straighten out just what the local Rangers were up to, which he had assumed would involve a tense encounter with their standoffish leader at the very least. Now he was suddenly two steps past that, and needing to fit these new developments into a framework he hadn’t even built yet.

But that feeling was still there, the sense guiding him toward what he was sure was the right path, even if he couldn’t have said why to save his life. In this case, it prompted him to make use of an old training exercise he had used to induct Huntsman initiates.

“By the end of today, at dusk,” he said, “I intend, with Shaath’s blessing and Rainwood’s assistance, to reveal a truth you Rangers know well, which has been kept hidden from the Huntsmen. The truth about wolves. You know of what I speak?”

It was very slight, but her eyes did widen and she leaned her head back. That was all the acknowledgment he required.

“It was revealed to me through the Ranger ritual with which you are familiar; our method will be somewhat different. But we will do this at the proper time and place. And anyone who has a purpose in being there will be able to find us.”

In these circumstances and with his delivery, it had a suitably mystical sound, but it was also simple practicality. Anyone who deserved to call themselves Ranger or Huntsman would have no trouble tracking down a party of six people in the woods, especially when two of them were November and Taka.

Dimbi regarded him pensively for another long moment. Then her full lips suddenly quirked in a smile, and she reached up to pull her hood back into place, casting her features in shadow once more.

“Till the proper time and place, then, Brother Ingvar. I guess we’ll see…what we will see. You’d better impress, or this reform of yours may not get off the ground.”

She turned and bounded off into the trees heading toward the ridge and her hidden lodge without waiting for any response.

“Twerp,” Taka muttered.

“Sooo…once again, we’re not going to the mysterious Ranger lodge?” Aspen asked irritably. “I’ve gotta say, all this bait-and-switch is getting tiresome.”

“The truth about wolves,” Tholi murmured to himself.

Ingvar had narrowed his own eyes in thought, letting their chatter pass him by. Still hovering in that fugue-like state, as if being urged forward by unseen guides, he was suddenly aware of connections and patterns that had not occurred to him before, but now seemed obvious.

“Rainwood,” he said, turning to the shaman, “I am about to ask you for another favor.”

“You’re always so polite,” the elf chided gently. “They’re not favors when I’m explicitly here to help you, of my own free will. What do you need, Ingvar?”

“If your guides are not too disturbed by whatever has upset them, can they reveal whether another party of Huntsmen of Shaath will be intercepting us tonight? Not, perhaps, to offer hostility, but to see whether I do indeed have truth to offer them is something they want to hear, out of sight of their leadership.”

Rainwood let his eyes drift closed and leaned his head back, drawing in a slow breath that made his thin chest swell to its maximum extent. Sunlight shifted through the leaves above, a stray beam illuminating his face directly. Seemingly from nowhere, a small cluster of white butterflies danced about the elf for a few seconds before dispersing into the trees around them.

Then Rainwood opened his eyes and turned an incredulous frown on Ingvar. “Now, just how exactly did you know that?”

“I can’t say that I knew it,” he admitted. “But the shape of it was there. All of this… It’s politics, it’s organized religion, and there’s a certain predictable kind of theater to both. All the more so when we’re being ushered along by divine and fae influences. I just had to make a very similar speech to the one I made to those Huntsmen. All the same points, but an opposite tone. These two encounters…they are a parallel. It’s a pattern, leading to a point.”

“Man,” Taka muttered, rubbing her palms unconsciously on her tunic, “every time I start to convince myself you’re full of it, you come out with something like that.”

“I told you Ingvar was smart!” Aspen added.

“Rainwood,” Ingvar said, “are you certain it will be well?”

“No one can have certainty of anything,” the shaman demurred. “I promise you, Ingvar, I won’t deliberately lead you into trouble. I have trust in my spirit friends, and I will take every possible precaution. What more can we do?”

“What more indeed,” Ingvar murmured. “Well. Back the way we came, I supposed. Those who will be coming after us will have to find their own way, but they’re well suited to do so. We have the whole day, but by the end of it we need to be positioned somewhere suitably distant from both Shaathist and Ranger lodges, and in proximity to the wolves we must call.”

“And then we’ll learn this mysterious truth about wolves you’ve been hinting at?” November asked.

“One way or another, we will,” he replied, deliberately keeping the grimness he felt out of his tone, and turned to lead the way. “Come along. There should be plenty of time to find and cook something to eat before tonight, and we should have our strength at its fullest.”

Inwardly, he could not help but worry, despite Rainwood’s reassurances. They were proposing to perform an improvised variant on a Ranger ritual without the alchemical component that he knew made it work, trusting the elf’s spirit guides and guardians to enable them. And now, they would be doing so when the spirits were unaccountably agitated by something which had evidently sent unknown shockwaves across the magical world. Common sense told him this was no time, that they should wait for a calmer certainty.

But now, there was the pattern of events already set in motion and too late to stop. Come dusk, he would be found by the young and inquisitive among both the Huntsmen and Rangers, and would have to prove the truth of his mission to them. If they showed up and Ingvar failed to produce dramatic results, that would be the end of it, and likely, the end of his entire quest. He had been around the circles of clerical power enough to know the damage such an embarrassment could do to a young spiritual movement. It had to be tonight. Whatever was wrong in the spirit world, they would have to risk it.

And hope that what awaited them in the wolf dream was only truth, which he knew from experience would be painful enough for many of those who saw it. If there were some additional danger caused by whatever had just happened in the Wyrnrange, there was no telling what might unfold.

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15 – 34

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Teal lowered the mask from her face once again, frowning pensively down at it. The inner surface lacked the silvery decoration, leaving nothing but a blank wooden surface with cursory holes for the eyes and mouth.

“Still not Foxpaw?” Fross chimed after a moment.

“I don’t…know,” Teal said slowly. “There’s not really any way to know, is there? It’s worked every time, so far, but heck, there have to have been people besides Ashner Foxpaw who were smart enough to play word games. Merry, you sure you weren’t…”

Merry raised her hands in a gesture of innocence; despite this being at least the fifth time she’d been asked, she had yet to grow exasperated by the questioning. On the contrary, she seemed to be concerned mostly with establishing that she’d done nothing wrong. It was a subtle thing, but her tacit position that even using the Mask of the Adventurer was a sketchy action had cast a further pall over the group’s experimentation.

“All I was thinking was that there had to be someone who could match Tellwyrn for power, and if the Mask does what it seems to, it should be able to recreate them. That was the entirety of my thought process. Maybe it just threw up Tellwyrn because no one else can beat her.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not true,” Trissiny murmured, also staring at the mask in Teal’s hands. “More importantly, Tellwyrn’s pretty sure that’s not true. She’s mentioned it, now and then, how even the most powerful and immortal people get along by not picking the wrong fights.”

“Perhaps the semantics are important,” Toby suggested. “Corporal Lang wanted something to match Tellwyrn, not defeat her. After all, if you want to beat a powerful mage, you need an equally powerful warlock, or a more powerful witch.”

“Yeah, well, forgive me if I’ve had about all the fuckin’ semantics I can stomach for a while,” Ruda grunted, sitting down on the ancient paving stones and pulling a bottle of bourbon out of her coat.

After Merry’s use of the Mask—since which she had adamantly refused to touch it—they had spent hours exploring its subtler capabilities. By unspoken agreement, Teal continued to serve as the test case, while the rest of the group took turns applying intellectual pressures rather than physical ones. It turned out the Mask was able and willing to assist with these challenges as well, and nothing they’d produced had managed to stump her as long as she was wearing it—though, at Fross’s insistence and accompanied by a shrill lecture about scientific procedure and the importance of control groups, Teal hadn’t donned the Mask to meet any challenge until she failed to come up with an adequate solution on her own, which had ruled out several of their efforts.

In general, these transformations were less dramatic, not only involving less moving about but fewer and subtler costume changes, and no conjured weapons or tools. In a few cases, they could only tell that the Mask was active because it wasn’t visibly in evidence while being worn.

The first two Omnist koans used up most of an hour, because it turned out that when one tested a question that was designed to have no answer against an artifact that provided an answer to anything, the result was a profoundly involved spiritual conversation. Toby, Juniper, and Teal had certainly seemed invested in their long discussion about what it meant that the way which could be known was not the way, but Ruda had finally broken under the pressure and loudly demanded they try something else.

More concrete challenges were answered more directly, not to mention faster. Trissiny’s challenge had taken the longest of those remaining, as well as being one of the few which created a costume change, though even the paladin couldn’t identify the military uniform Teal had been wearing when she provided answers to a series of military exercises and dilemmas. This had involved the two of them kneeling in the dust and scratching diagrams of troop positions on the ground. In the end, Trissiny had come away looking slightly shaken at Teal’s borrowed military ingenuity; according to her, those were problems on which Silver Legion officer candidates were tested to gauge the flexibility of their thinking and capacity to make inventive use of meager assets. They were supposed to be as impossible as Toby’s koans.

Fross, by contrast, had been so delighted by the answers provided to her probing questions into advanced arcane mechanics and theoretical physics by the robed wizard Teal channeled in response that Ruda had had to insist yet again on ending their session. In this case, it was because she wanted to try something of her own. Bringing up Merry’s channeling of Tellwyrn, she had posed Teal a series of questions and challenges taken directly from Foxpaw’s Exploits in an attempt to see whether the Mask could channel the archetypal master thief. The results of that had rather frustrated her. Teal had taken the Mask off and put it on several times over the course of that conversation, creating clear changes of her approach to these hypothetical dilemmas each time, and it turned out that a series of ancient thieves, bards, and miscellaneous tricksters mostly responded to being interrogated by turning the game around on the one asking questions. After Ruda had lost patience, demanded a straight answer, and been serenaded with a new verse of “I’d Hit Sally” featuring herself in reply, had stomped off in a huff.

“I had…” Gabriel trailed off, frowning, then shook his head when they all turned to look at him. “Never mind. Probably not a good idea.”

“Well, don’t let that stop you,” Trissiny said with a smile. “Screwing around is your greatest strength.”

His lips twitched in a reluctant reciprocation of her amusement. “Yeah, well, I was just thinking. It seems to me that this specific thing we’re doing here might have more important possibilities than the Mask’s ability to imitate dangerous people. I was just considering trying to stump it with a couple of intractable strategic problems I’ve been wrestling with, and it occurred to me that it would be amazingly practical if that thing could actually solve those for me. And from there… Think about it, this is way more than a weapon. It potentially turns its wearer into an oracle who can answer any question to which someone, at some point, knew an answer.”

“Isn’t that kinda what Fross tested?” Ruda asked.

“Not exactly!” chimed the pixie. “I was more asking for deeper comprehension and precise methodology than actual physical understanding. The tricky thing about arcane physics is that the underlying concepts are predicated on an entirely different physical logic than that which sapient minds evolved to process. The actual answers to those questions are known, otherwise it wouldn’t have been a valid test to ask them; we’d have no way to check the results! It’s just, that stuff is really hard to learn.”

“So we could still actually test that, then,” Toby said. “It sounds worth a try, at the very least.”

Teal frowned, slowly turning the Mask over in her hands.

“Are you all right?” Shaeine asked softly, stepping up next to her. “You don’t need to be the test case every time, love. Or we could stop.”

“No…” Teal lowered one hand from the Mask to gently take Shaeine’s, giving it an affectionate squeeze. “Actually, I was just thinking, myself, about the potential of this thing. This has been a lot more instructive than combat tests. My own entire problem has been…learning to find my own false face. You know, project a mask I can use as a mask to both protect myself and take on challenges in a way that’s not… Well. Teal ducking and hiding or Vadrieny smashing everything. A middle ground between those extremes is such a mess to figure out that it just makes more sense to obviate the entire thing by creating a character to use. The way Vidians do, and Veskers are supposed to.” She hefted the Mask of the Adventurer, frowning quizzically at it. “Every time I put this on, get a new angle from which to see the world, I feel like I’m getting one step closer to my own goal.”

“Well, we don’t mind you being the one to test it,” Juniper said, looking around at the others. “Right? Especially if it helps you. Helping with that specific issue is kinda why we did that whole ritual in the first place, isn’t it? And anyway, I don’t mind admitting that thing scares me. I don’t want to put it on. The absolute last thing I need is more power.”

“Yeah, that’s my concern,” Teal agreed, nodding at the dryad. “I am way too prone to lean on crutches when they’re available. Testing this thing out is helping me, but… Guys, I hope you don’t think this is cowardly, but I don’t want to be its guardian. I don’t want the option of just whipping it out as soon as things are tough.”

“I think that’s extremely wise, Teal,” Toby said, smiling at her.

“Hey, Fross,” said Trissiny. “Would it harm either you or the Mask to put it in your aura storage?”

“I don’t really see how,” Fross replied, bobbing up and down in thought. “I store magical objects in there all the time, and there’s no bleed effect with each other or my own aura. Clearly, we can’t actually know until we try it, and that object is orders of magnitude more powerful than anything else I’ve ever held onto. But in principle, yeah, that should work fine.”

“Well, if you’re willing to take on the responsibility,” Trissiny said, “and if no one else objects, how about we have Fross hang onto it when we’re not experimenting? That aura storage of hers seems like the best way to keep anyone else from being able to steal it from us. And more important, Fross is the most rational person I know. No disrespect meant to any of you, but I can’t think of anybody I’d trust more with something that dangerous. Myself included.”

“Hell, I don’t think you’ll get any argument from anyone here,” Ruda said, grinning and toasting the pixie with her bottle.

“Wow,” Fross said, as the others all nodded agreement. “I’m really honored, guys. And sure, I don’t mind. If it does cause me a problem we might have to revisit this, but yeah, I’ll definitely tuck it away. But first, weren’t we going to test Gabriel’s question?”

“That’s right,” Teal agreed, raising the mask toward her face.

“Wait!” Fross zipped around her in a circle. “Control group, remember? He’s gotta ask the question first!”

“Oh, right. Okay, Gabe, let’s hear it.”

He regarded her every bit as seriously as if he were actually consulting an oracle, a slight frown of sheer focus creasing his forehead. “How can you block a telepath… No, an incredibly powerful telepath, one who can no only read thoughts but read information right out of reality itself. How can you prevent someone like that from seeing your mind?”

Trissiny and Toby both stiffened as he spoke, eyes widening in comprehension. Ruda glanced speculatively at each of them, but the rest of the group just regarded Gabriel in puzzlement.

“Okay, yeah,” said Teal after a pause. “I have absolutely no idea. That’s a doozy of a test case. Let’s see, then…”

Still holding Shaeine’s hand, she lifted the Mask to her face again with her other, and in a short whirl of energy was left wearing a loose, slightly ragged robe of brown and maroon, with a hood pulled forward far enough to obscure her eyes.

“The question is, Gabriel Arquin,” Teal asked with a knowing grin that was not exactly unlike herself, but not the sort of face she would make under these circumstances, “who is you?”

“Do you mean…who are you?” he replied, blinking.

Teal’s new robe shuffled softly as she shook her head. “Who is asking the question? Do you wish to know how such a thing might be done by anyone, or by yourself specifically?”

He narrowed his eyes. “Why does it matter?”

“The essence of deterring a telepath is not to create a wall to keep them out, for they will only take that as a challenge. It is to create an illusion, a superficial layer of false thought to distract them, and prevent them from looking deeper. No matter how powerful the enemy, once they have seen what they expect, they will rarely look a second time. The mental discipline this demands is vast. People train for lifetimes to hone their minds this way. But for you? There are answers within the berserking blood of the hethelax—”

“Bad idea,” Ariel interjected, the first she had spoken since they had begun the ritual at dawn. “Self-enchantment, taking advice from mysterious warlocks, taking advice from poorly-understood magical artifacts; this is in fact a whole stack of bad ideas.”

“Aren’t you a poorly-understood magical artifact?” Gabriel countered, placing a hand on her hilt.

“Not in the least. Just because you cannot make a talking sword does not mean the method isn’t fully a matter of record. That thing, by contrast, is an entire mystery and as far as I can tell an object completely without precedent. Tampering with your own mental and magical underpinnings at its suggestion would be terrifyingly reckless.”

“I happen to agree,” Teal said, barely an instant after she pried the Mask off her face again. “That one was…that was uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure that was some kind of warlock. And anyway, Ariel’s right. Getting theoretical knowledge from it is one thing, since it’s apparently the knowledge of people from the past. But that very fact means we have no way of vetting who they are or what agenda they had, or what might result from following their suggestions.”

“So in other words,” Gabriel said, still clutching Ariel as if for comfort, “the oracular powers that Mask presents might be just as dangerous as its combat powers.”

A short silence fell in which they all frowned in thought.

“Well, if we’re done playin’ around for now,” Ruda said at last, “I guess that brings us to the real question, here: what the fuck are we gonna do about that thing?”

Teal turned to meet Shaeine’s eyes, and the drow nodded minutely to her, squeezing her hand.

“Hey, Locke,” Teal called. “What do you think we should do with the Mask?”

They were far from alone on the plateau, though their various companions and minders were mostly providing them with some space. Sniff and F’thaan were both asleep nearby, having been up most of the night along with their respective masters, and their two Order of the Light guides were lurking on the periphery, watching the group from the entrance of the old building in which they were encamped. Merry had brought them up to speed on events, having designated herself the party’s gofer, likely as much to keep busy as anything. Principia had settled down on a rock near enough to the group that she could have heard their conversation even without an elf’s ears, but had not spoken to them since. She was currently stripped to her tunic and breeches, having occupied her hands in thoroughly checking, cleaning, and oiling her armor. Now, she set down the rag and pauldron she was holding, turning to face them directly.

“Here’s a question: what can you do with it?”

“What the fuck kinda question is that?” Ruda demanded. “Is that another one of those koans?”

“Not exactly, except in the sense that the point of it is to have you consider the implications, rather than provide me with an answer. What you’ve got there is an instant win card for any possible conflict. What do you plan to do with it, exactly? I think Juniper so far has come closest to the heart of the matter. Do any of you need more power?”

“Ruda sort of does,” Fross offered. “I mean, in relation to the rest of us, at least.”

“Oh, the absolute fuck I do,” Ruda snorted. “I can’t imagine anybody more weak or stupid than a person with a gimmick that automatically wins all their fights for them. You learn by failing, and you grow by being challenged. You lot can do what you like, but I will have to lead a nation, and I can’t let myself get soft by leaning on a crutch like that.”

“And that is a very smart outlook,” Principia agreed, nodding. “What about the rest of you? No judgment, there are no wrong answers. Do any of you feel you need that artifact, or have any particular plans to use it?”

“I…sort of,” Teal said softly after a short pause. “But just the way I said. It’s useful for me as a tool for self-exploration, but I’m specifically alarmed by the possibility of coming to depend on it. Overall I can’t shake the feeling that this thing is bad news.”

“I’m hearing a lot of good sense, here,” Principia said with clear approval, “which is very reassuring after the absolutely harebrained stumblebumblery by which you created that chunk of madness in the first place. Anyone else? Does anyone have a need or desire to use the Mask?”

She let the silence hang while they glanced at each other.

“Good,” the elf said finally, nodding again. “Then if you’re not going to use it, the question becomes: who should?”

“I cannot help but think,” Shaeine said softly, “the obvious answer to that is no one. I am uncertain that any person could be trusted with such power. I say that as one whose House and nation would be very eager indeed to control it. As we were responsible for creating the Mask, I feel we must be responsible for keeping it out of the wrong hands.”

“Yeah, the thing is,” said Juniper, grimacing, “are there any right hands?”

“I tend to agree with Shaeine,” said Gabriel. “We’ve all got people we trust and causes we support. But… That is a hell of a trump card. Does anyone deserve to have that kind of power?”

“More troubling to me is what power does to people,” Trissiny added. “Corruption is only the beginning of it. By entrusting the Mask to someone we respect, we might well be condemning them to a slide into madness.”

“I think that’s an unnecessarily dramatic way to put it, but in principle I don’t disagree,” said Ruda.

“So.” Principia folded her arms on her knees, leaning toward them with an intent expression. “You don’t want to use it, or give it away. That leaves taking it out of circulation. And that is complicated by how very much absolutely everyone who learns of that thing will want it.”

“Well, I mean, who even knows?” Gabriel asked. “It’s not like we’re gonna take out a newspaper ad.”

Principia pointed at the distant Great Tree. “That is one of the most powerful nexi of fae and divine magic in existence. You just stood at the base of it and did…this. Given the nature of oracular divination? Every witch and shaman in the world above a certain threshold of capability just lifted their heads to sniff the air, even if they don’t know why. The strongest among them will definitely have a general shape in mind of what happened here—and even if it’s just ‘something incredibly powerful was just created,’ that’s enough. Not to mention the existence of actual oracles, and the fact that they tend to end up in the hands of major governments and the Universal Church. It is not impossible that some highly motivated people already know exactly what you’ve got there. Maybe not likely, but at the very least, the hints are already spreading.”

“Oh,” he said quietly.

“And that’s only the beginning,” Principia went on, shifting to glance at the dwarf and human still keeping a respectful distance from them.

“Hey, now,” Ruda protested. “I’m not saying those two’re the kind of people I’d invite to my poker game, but they don’t strike me as squealers.”

“You have to think in terms of connections, and obligations,” Principia said seriously. “They are members of the Order of the Light. They cannot fail to report something like this to their Order.”

“The Order has fallen far from relevance since the Enchanter Wars,” Shaeine pointed out.

“The Order,” Principia continued relentlessly, “is nominally led by Ampophrenon the Gold. He is a founding member of the Conclave of the Winds. The draconic government is a formal ally of the Tiraan Empire, and I have personally twice seen its members cooperating closely with Imperial Intelligence.”

“Well, then, just, fuck, that’s all,” Ruda said feelingly.

“And don’t forget, Vesk was here when you were doing this. Just because they didn’t make their presence specifically known doesn’t mean the other gods aren’t just as aware. At minimum, the four to which the paladins are connected will know. Gods have their own agendas and aren’t very communicative as a rule; it may be that most of them wouldn’t share news of something like this with their cults. But Vesk, himself? Everything he came here to do, he could have done anonymously and in silence. Instead, he couldn’t resist putting in an appearance just to be mysterious at me—the very definition of a pointless exercise. Gods are constrained by their nature and their aspects. Vesk is well known for doing things for absolutely no other reason than that a rollicking good story will result. Which, for everyone not a bard, means a sequence of barely manageable disasters.”

Silence answered her as they all considered this. Principia stared at them, her expression revealing nothing of her thoughts.

“It sounds like it might be best if we destroyed it,” Juniper said at last in a small voice. “Gabe? Maybe that scythe of yours—”

“If you destroy the Mask, two things will happen,” Principia interjected. “First, the absolutely unfathomable amount of energy contained in it will all be released at once, and I don’t care how supposedly invulnerable anybody here is, there’s a very good chance nobody would survive that. Or what would happen to any who did; that kind of uncontained magic of all four schools and shadow besides can do hellaciously unpredictable things. Second, there would be pieces of it left, whether fragments or just dust, and there’s absolutely no telling what those would do, much less where they might end up. It is possible to safely dispose of artifacts like that, but you’re back to the issue of power and the temptation thereof. Any magic users who could handle that task, like the cult of Salyrene or the Wizards’ Guild, might very well want to possess that thing badly enough to risk pissing off the nine of you.”

“You’re a real ray of sunshine, you know that?” Gabriel commented.

“You goobers accidentally created the ultimate superweapon. I will stop pointing out what a fucking mess this is just as soon as it stops being urgently necessary.”

“That’s a lot of things we can’t or shouldn’t do with the Mask,” Teal said pointedly, “but I asked you what you thought we should do.”

“And this is me answering,” Principia replied with the ghost of a smile. “The absolute last thing you need is someone to hold your hands, kids. I’m just guiding you in the right direction, here. You already know what you should do with it.”

“Tellwyrn,” Toby said softly.

“Whoah, hang on,” Ruda objected. “I like Tellwyrn as much as anybody, but come on. Does she of all people need something like this?”

“No, she doesn’t need it,” Trissiny said thoughtfully. “Maybe…that’s why she can be trusted with it.”

“Here’s what I know,” Principia added. “I entrusted Arachne with the Mask of Calomnar a hundred years ago and nobody’s heard a whisper of that damn thing ever since. She can be trusted to hide dangerous artifacts away where no one can get at them.”

“Whoah, wait a sec,” Gabriel exclaimed. “What the hell were you doing with the Mask of Calomnar?”

“Getting the hell rid of it, is what.” Principia grimaced, rubbing her palms on her tunic as if at the memory of a greasy sensation. “I wouldn’t have gone near that thing at all, but I was in Onkawa when it popped into circulation nearby, and a particularly squirrelly succubus was that close to getting her hands on it. Obviously I couldn’t just let that happen; I have to live on this planet too. Arachne was…a friend of a friend, at the time, and someone pointed out to me as both trustworthy and powerful enough to handle a thing like that. And like I said, that was back during the Enchanter Wars; time has proven it was the right thing to do. She’s powerful enough to be able to contain such things, savvy enough not to mess with anything too dangerous to handle, and arguably so powerful that more power doesn’t tempt her. Give it to Arachne, and nobody else after the thing will even have a chance.”

Another pause fell, in which they digested this advice.

Then Fross let out a chiming little laugh. “Oh, wow… And I was just hoping we might be able to resolve this without her finding out about it. Man, she’s really gonna kill us this time, guys.”

“You did the thing; it’s time to take your medicine like big boys and girls.” Principia turned again to look at the distant Tree. “I just hope there’s time enough to get to her. The clock started ticking the moment that Mask was created, maybe before. I wouldn’t think anyone could reach us here before we return to Last Rock, but… It’s a new world, kids, and nobody knows all the rules, yet.”

She did not add that Vesk himself had predicted a new Age of Adventurers to be spawned from this day’s work. There was little point in spooking them further; they couldn’t do much to be more prepared than they already were. Depending on the powers already assembling, it might have been too late before they began.

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