Bonus #62: Coming to Dinner, part 3

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The Madouri family being what they were, the Manor’s formal dining room was laid out with a giant display behind the seat at the head of the long table, positioned so that a huge House crest would loom above the person seated there, with below that a broad flat space like an altar which could be used for any situationally suitable decoration, the better to emphasize whatever point was being made. For this dinner, the Duke had apparently taken some amusement in designating this a suitable display spot for the gifts his family had just received, with the result that now a silver statue of the cowled goddess Themynra loomed directly behind him, just beneath the Madouri crest.

This, needless to say, was not appropriate placement for a sacred sigil. Any sigil; the symbolic implication that House Madouri stood above a god was too clear to have been anything but deliberate. Shaeine did not overtly react, of course, but considered the implications. Teal had described Duke Ehriban as motivated chiefly by ego, but that was when dealing with his own subjects. Surely a man in his position couldn’t be brash enough to kick up an international incident? Regardless, being Narisian, she filed the insult away to be redressed at a better time, and took some dark amusement of her own in the fact that Tellwyrn’s sword and dagger had been laid at the feet of Themynra’s idol, in an extra layer of symbolism.

Actually, Tellwyrn probably would have laughed at that, too. And blasted the Duke across the room for good measure, but with a sense of humor. Still, Shaeine rather suspected he wouldn’t have dared add that little touch had Tellwyrn herself been present to see.

And despite all of the diplomatic weight behind this pageantry, it wasn’t what commanded most of her attention.

“You like it, Lady Shaeine?” the Duke drawled at her in the manner of a man who knew he was being antagonistic and either didn’t care enough to fully hide behind a shroud of civility or simply lacked the requisite emotional control. “My House is rather famous, if you’ll forgive the boast, for the rarity of the treasures within its vaults, but even we haven’t a lot in the way of drow artifacts. Mostly arms and armor confiscated from various Narisians who’ve attempted to raid Madouri lands over the centuries. This was the only piece I could find on such short notice that seemed at all suitable for display on a dinner table. Alas, I had only scant warning to expect the pleasure of your company!”

“I do hope not to have inconvenienced you unduly, Lord Ehriban,” she replied, noting the resulting twitch of his left eye and not reacting—she, at least, could control her emotions while delivering a veiled insult. The correct title was Duke Madouri, the one she had used being suitable for a lesser member of his House, and to judge by the lack of an immediate rebuke, he wasn’t sure whether she’d done it deliberately. “Truly, it is a…remarkable piece. It is not, however, Narisian. I am very curious how it came to be in your House’s vaults.”

It was a candelabra of sorts, carved delicately of what appeared to be white marble in the shape of a tree, a strange motif for drow, but the marble trunk and obsidian base were both inscribed with runes in elvish—neither the surface nor Narisian dialects, but intelligible with a bit of effort to anyone who knew the language. Among the white tree’s bare branches were stretched delicate silver wires in the shape of intricate spider webs, and suspended within them were lodged thirteen tiny, exquisitely crafted silver skulls. Each contained a magic source, projecting beams of pure white radiance through the minute eye and nose holes, and the even more tiny gaps between teeth.

“Is that so?” Duke Ehriban replied with a deliberately knowing smirk. “Well, I’d love to know myself. Unfortunately, most of my more adventurous ancestors were rather more interested in collecting treasures than keeping records. I’m afraid there’s just no accounting for a good number of the artifacts collecting dust down there. What do you think, Dazan, could it be from that other city up north? What’s it called, Akhvaris?”

Lord Dazan paused in lifting a forkful of meat to his lips, giving his father a rather stupid look of surprise. “I, er…”

“The Akhvari refuse all contact,” Shaeine said quietly. “It is, in fact, Scyllithene, and most likely came to the surface through Tar’naris, which must have been an incredible story indeed. I appreciate the gesture, my lord Duke, but I must warn you that artifacts of Scyllith are as dangerous as those of the Elder Gods. Especially those, such as this one, which are magical in nature.”

“How fascinating!” the Duke said merrily. “I know what you mean—my ancestors have several Elder God trinkets squirreled away. Surely there’s no need to worry, though; those are all fully secured. The ancient Madouris did at least manage to catalog everything too hazardous to mess with and lock it up with all the requisite warnings. That this one wasn’t buttoned up similarly tells me it can’t be all that bad! Clearly it’s just a decorative centerpiece.”

“But father,” Dazan said, frowning, “I thought—”

“There’s only the one Elder God relic that’s even accessible down there,” Ehriban interrupted swiftly, shooting his son a cold look. “The sword of light, remember? I showed it to you once.”

“Oh! Yes!” Dazan’s face positively lit up. “Beautiful thing—it not only glows but makes music!”

“A musical sword?” Teal asked, her attention predictably grabbed.

“Not good music, of course,” Dazan said, turning to her and pantomiming swinging a blade with both hands. “It makes a rather pleasant humming sound that changes pitch as you move it. I suppose one could create a melody from that with a bit of effort, but that clearly wasn’t the intent. Father was loath to let me test it properly, but according to the notes old Lady Avelaan Madouri kept, the blade is weightless and will cut through anything! Since you mention it, Father, perhaps a demonstration for our guests would be the perfect excuse to show—”

“No fewer than five of your ancestors have dismembered themselves handling that fool thing, Dazan,” the Duke said in a quelling tone. “Two lethally. The Elder Gods did enjoy their little pranks. It’s for good reason the weapon is behind glass and displayed so as to be seen, not touched.

“But…you took it out,” Dazan protested. “That’s how you demonstrated the humming.”

“In any case,” Ehriban continued, “my ancestors, in their wisdom, saw fit to place no such protections around this piece of decoration and no ill has befallen as a result of it. I’m afraid your concerns are misplaced, Lady Shaeine.”

“As you say, your Grace,” she replied smoothly, deeming this a hill not worth planting a flag on…yet. It was not yet clear to her whether he truly had no idea what he was tampering with or intended something specific with the…lamp, if that was indeed its purpose. If the latter, they were all likely to regret it. Surface people tended to forget that Scyllithene artifacts by definition were Elder God artifacts, and exactly as dangerous for exactly the same reasons.

“I gather, from your wariness, that you’ve not seen the like in person?” Ehriban prompted, still watching her.

Shaeine shook her head. “In Tar’naris, such a thing would be summarily destroyed.”

“Ah, yes,” he said with a sage nod, taking up his knife and fork to begin cutting into the slab of meat before him. “Your people do have that historical tendency.”

Marguerite drew in a short breath and Teal’s jaw tightened; Dazan had the effrontery to smirk. Shaeine, of course, did not give him the satisfaction.

In fact, her attention was caught by Ravana, who was seated at her right, in the position directly to the left of her father and across from Dazan. The young noblewoman’s aspect had subtly but entirely changed during the conversation; where she had been virtually silent and adopted an almost aggressively unobtrusive posture all night, with her hands clasped in her lap and head slightly bowed, she was now sipping her wine. Slowly, her spine having straightened, holding a small mouthful on her tongue and inhaling gently through the nose with the glass held before her, eyes half-lidded in pleasure. It was the most unguarded posture Shaeine had seen her assume, and though a relatively minor thing, it was like looking at an entirely different person.

Ravana swallowed and her eyes shifted, noticing Shaeine watching her. She did not, as the drow half expected, hastily change her posture back or at all react as if caught in something, but delicately set her wineglass back down and once more folded her hands, returning smoothly to her previously demure pose.

Interesting.

“So,” Geoffrey said in a strained voice, clearly grasping for any change of subject, “how is the carriage serving you, your Grace?”

“Ah!” The Duke’s eyes lit with a little spark of malicious interest which had already become familiar to even his newest guest over the course of the evening. “Fine work as ever, Mr. Falconer! Smooth as satin on the roads; you’ve truly outdone yourself. I don’t know, though…” He picked up his glass and took a long sip which somehow did not interrupt his smirk. “Now that I’ve seen it on the streets a few times, I’m not so sure about the…detailing.”

Teal immediately set down her silverware and placed her hands in her lap, which Shaeine knew was to conceal the clenching of her fists. Her parents both tensed but retained careful facial control. Presumably a carriage commissioned by the Duke himself would have been one of the special projects overseen by the Falconer family personally, which meant its decorations would have been designed and in large part hand-crafted by Marguerite.

“What seems to be the issue, your Grace?” Marguerite asked in an impressively even tone.

“I’m afraid I can’t quite put my finger on it,” Ehriban said lazily, lounging back in his seat and holding up his wineglass as if it were a royal scepter while gazing down his nose at her. “I haven’t the benefit of your…artistic education, my dear. Something about it just seems off to me, once I observe the vehicle outside the carefully staged environment of your showroom.”

“I confess I’m surprised to hear that, your Grace,” she replied, still outwardly calm. “I recall you expressed effusive satisfaction when we displayed the carriage to you here on the Manor grounds.”

“Yes, well, you can’t really expect me to make a properly informed decision without observing it in action. An enchanted carriage is meant to travel, after all! To be seen in a variety of circumstances. There’s simply no way one can appreciate its final effect by looking at it parked on the driveway.”

“Art is indeed contextual,” Marguerite agreed, shooting a laden look across the table at her husband, who was beginning to glower openly. “Perhaps when it is convenient for you, your Grace, I could revisit the detailing to incorporate any notes you have.”

“Ever so accommodating, Marguerite! I always know I can rely on your kind nature and professionalism. I suspect you’re a luckier man than you know, Geoffrey,” the Duke added with an insufferable wink.

“Oh, I assure you I know,” Geoffrey replied in a tense tone which only made Ehriban grin more widely. Dazan made no attempt to hide his chuckle, sawing off another chunk of meat.

Shaeine held her peace, glancing at Teal, who appeared to be meditating, and Lady Ravana, who had touched nothing except her wine and currently looked half-asleep at the table. Altogether she was less impressed than she could possibly have imagined with these apparent apexes of Tiraan nobility. It wasn’t that her own people were any less cruel, particularly among noble circles, but the Madouris were just so boorish. Such barbaric behavior would be an invitation for attack from all sides in Tar’naris, not just by those they personally insulted but by every other House which would see nothing but weakness in this casual display of poor manners.

“While we are talking business, though,” Duke Ehriban continued after letting his guests simmer in the discomfort for a deliberate few seconds, “it’s good that I have you here before the formal announcement goes out. I’m afraid this concerns you directly.”

All three Falconers, just having relaxed somewhat, visibly tensed. Shaeine did not, of course, but she understood the impulse; Ehriban’s expression utterly failed to conceal his malicious satisfaction in whatever he was doing. Dazan, whom she did not assess as intelligent enough to pick up on such cues, was also smirking intolerably, which told her that this was indeed the planned main event of the evening. A quick sidelong glance found Ravana staring down at her plate with the hollow expression of someone determined not to think too hard about anything happening around her.

“More regulations, then?” Geoffrey asked after enough seconds had passed to make it clear the Duke did not intend to continue until prompted.

“Oh, no, nothing like that,” Ehriban replied with a magnanimous wave of his hand. “I don’t suppose you heard about the half-demon incident here in the city just this month?”

Teal failed to contain an expression of alarm; the older Falconers glanced uneasily at each other.

“I’m afraid not, your Grace,” Geoffrey said warily. “I gather it can’t have been all that bad, then. Usually such things make considerable waves.”

“Easy enough for you to say from the comfort of your mansion,” Ehriban snorted in such an astonishing display of hypocrisy that even Ravana blinked. “I assure you it was a big enough deal for those caught in the middle of it. Some half-shondrict creature that had been masquerading as a laborer went feral and mauled a few teenagers before they subdued it.”

“Schanthryct,” Teal corrected in a whisper which fortunately the Duke seemed not to hear; Dazan shot her an irritated look.

“So,” Marguerite replied in a firmer tone than she had used to defend her own work, “a half-demon citizen who was clearly stable enough to hold down a job attacked several youths. I can think of a number of common teenage pastimes which might provoke someone to violence even without demon blood. The sort of ruffians who get up to such antics do like to single out those who are different.”

“Well, the details hardly matter, do they?” the Duke scoffed. “We simply can’t have demons ravaging citizens in the streets. It’s an utter mockery of law and order.”

“How lawful or orderly is it for citizens to harass minorities in feral packs of their own?” Teal demanded. “It sounds like the details matter very much, your Grace, otherwise you risk acting to solve exactly the wrong problem.”

“I’ll thank you not to lecture me on the running of my province, girl,” Ehriban snapped, and right then and there Shaeine decided that rather than watching for an opportunity to knock him down a peg, she was going to begin making efforts to arrange one. Best to keep that firmly private from her mother and Heral, though Nahil would gleefully help… “The point is that even a Duke must respect a public outcry, lest it turn into actual unrest.”

“What outcry was this, precisely?” Geoffrey inquired. “I subscribe to every major newspaper in Madouris and two from Tiraas, and this is the first I’m hearing about any of this.”

The Duke was beginning to look annoyed at these interruptions. “Let us take it as given that I have access to sources of information you do not, Geoffrey. This situation has compelled me to draft new restrictions upon the activities and movements of demonbloods…and the demonically touched of any sort.” He looked sidelong at Teal, not even troubling to conceal an expression of vindictive satisfaction. “Obviously, as these affairs concern your family directly, and you have been such staunch friends to House Madouri, it is the least I can do to provide you with forewarning.”

“As I understand it,” Shaeine stated, “such restrictions would overtly contradict the Tirasian Dynasty’s long-standing policies toward racial minorities within the Empire, and possibly the Writ of Duties itself.”

“So you do know a bit about Imperial governance,” Ehriban said irritably. She inclined her head in a gracious gesture, already thinking several steps beyond this conversation. She was right, and he knew it; more to the point, while House Madouri would love nothing more than to challenge House Tirasian, for a century they had not, which could only mean such a challenge would not only fail but backfire. Thus, he was not actually planning to do this. Rather, the play was here and now—not the proposed legislation, but the revelation of it to the Falconers.

Not for the first time that evening, Shaeine longed for the ability to surreptitiously communicate with her allies. Elves could have entire conversations under the nose of humans who were none the wiser, and even Vadrieny was quite sensitive to sound, but not to the degree necessary for her to convey such complex information without betraying that she was doing so.

“And who knows?” the Duke continued, once again affecting a genial demeanor. “Perhaps you can help me in shaping the necessary rules. After all, it must be said that you have a unique insight into the matter, is that not so, Teal? But then again, mayhap I am asking the wrong half. Let’s see what Vadrieny has to say about this!” He waved a hand at her. “Bring her out.”

Teal’s shoulders tensed as she drew in a sharp breath. “With all respect, my lord Duke—”

“The only necessary respect I need be shown is obedience,” he interrupted, eyes glinting in the white beams of the Scyllithene candelabra. Shaeine focused on the thing itself again, beginning to get a sense of what he intended.

“She…” Teal frowned deeply and swallowed. “I apologize, your Grace, but something is wrong. Vadrieny senses…danger. She says it would be hazardous to embody herself physically here.”

“You question the security of my house?” Ehriban demanded. “I assure you, I do not take risks with my own safety. My security here is absolute. Come now, there is no call for shyness, Teal.”

“Vadrieny is the furthest thing from shy,” Shaeine interjected. The man had the abominable rudeness to make a silencing gesture at her, still focusing upon Teal.

“I understand your need for discretion, and the pressure this may place upon you, so allow me to make the question easier. It is technically unlawful for any Imperial subject to be in the presence of a provincial governor without revealing themselves; in the eyes of a magistrate, this is considered evidence of hostile intent. Now, clearly,” he drawled, gesturing broadly around the table at his guests, “common sense dictates that we make allowances for circumstance, does it not? I am a reasonable man and I do not seek to discomfit my subjects unduly. But I have, here, the legal prerogative to insist upon meeting your demonic counterpart face to face, and I do hereby invoke it, Teal Falconer. Now, then!” He leaned back in his chair and folded his hands before himself in a satisfied gesture. “Does that provide sufficient incentive to overcome your girlish reticence?”

“Your Grace,” Geoffrey practically growled, now gripping the arms of his chair as if about to lever himself forward out of it, “Vadrieny is an archdemon, not a misbehaving teenager. If she is warning of danger, it would be wise—”

“Enough,” the Duke interrupted, his convivial mask collapsing. “I have made my command clear.”

“I—we h-have been given a Talisman of Absolution,” Teal stammered, touching the artifact itself where it was pinned as usual to her lapel. “Vadrieny and I aren’t to be regarded as enemies by—”

“When last I looked,” the Duke said in a truly menacing tone, “it was Ehriban Madouri, not Justinian Darnay, who rules Tiraan Province.”

“I say, it’s just…Justinian, isn’t it?” Dazan piped up. “Without a surname, I mean. It’s a whole ritual formality, Father. The Archpope foregoes an identity beyond the office of…”

He trailed off as his father slowly turned his head to fix him with an exceedingly flat stare.

“Your Grace,” said Shaeine, “I must protest this.”

“Your protest has been heard,” he said impatiently. “Proceed, Teal. Or is it your intention to openly defy your liege before his entire household? I’m sure I needn’t remind you of the consequences to your business and family of forswearing my good graces.”

“This is a poor showing, your Grace,” Shaeine said coolly, seizing his attention again. “Where I am from, when one wishes to manufacture a pretext to create an incident, one does so in a plausibly deniable manner. Perhaps your Grace should consider trying this again when you have done sufficient preparatory work to withstand the inevitable inquisition of the Church and Empire into whatever results from—”

“You are not where you are from, Lady Shaeine,” he shot back, “as I’m sure you can see by the lack of spiders and general barbarism. If there is one consistent virtue of your people displayed since the Narisian Treaty, it has been the pragmatism and restraint not to bite the hands that feed you. This would be a most unwise moment to forsake that quality.”

“Don’t threaten her!” Teal snarled, slamming her hands down onto the table and half rising from her seat.

Except that it wasn’t in Teal Falconer’s nature to snarl, slam, or do any of that. The impulsive actions preceded her emergence, but Vadrieny was a split second behind, too fast even for Shaeine to warn her that she sensed a trap. Flames burst behind Teal’s eyes and in her hair; her clenched fingers upon the table lengthened into black claws which pierced the rich tablecloth.

And instantly, with a high-pitched keening sound that grated painfully upon the ears, the Scyllithene artifact beaming decorative light from the center of the table blazed with intense white radiance.

Vadrieny let out a shriek as multiple beams of white light concentrated directly upon her, staggering backward in a destructive flailing of arms that raked deep gouges in the table and smashed the heavy oaken chair she’d been sitting in.

At Shaeine’s side, the previously somnolent Lady Ravana burst out of her seat and fled from the room in the first sign of physical or mental coordination she’d displayed.

Shaeine herself reached within for the divine power, lashing out with a moving wall of silver light to sweep the hateful object off the table and smash it against the wall. That brought forth the second abrupt surprise, however, as contact with it caused an explosive backlash as if she had connected her power directly to a demonic source of similar concentration. Her own protective shield barely absorbed the burst of magic which impacted her directly, bowling her and her chair over backward.

Both she and Vadrieny ended up hurled forcibly away from the table, smoking slightly from the impacts, while the “lamp” continued to blaze fervently, untouched and apparently untouchable. Of course; there was only one source of power which would react violently to both Themynrite magic and infernal power, while still bypassing the Pantheon’s protection as embodied in the Talisman of Absolution.

Then the stomping of booted feet roared through the chamber as the doors opened and a dozen House Madouri soldiers streamed in, weapons at the ready.

“Attempting violence against your Duke?” Ehriban tsked reprovingly, sounding not the least put out for a man claiming to have just survived an attempt on his life. “I thought you had better judgment than that, Teal.”

“Oh, you cannot be serious!” Marguerite exclaimed, hovering protectively over the fallen archdemon, while Geoffrey had also risen from his seat, managing to place himself half in front of Shaeine before multiple battlestaves were leveled, causing everyone to freeze.

“I warned you,” Shaeine rasped, rising slowly and ignoring the weapons aimed at her. “This was…slightly clever, I’ll grant. Few would make plans against an exotic trinket such as they wouldn’t consider you might possess. But this is so obviously a plot of your own arranging it will disintegrate under the slightest challenge.”

“That only matters if anyone remains to challenge it,” the Duke said, grinning maliciously. He had pushed back from the table to cross his legs and now slouched in his thronelike dining chair, hands still folded before himself. “If I wished to charge you with something, to be sure, it would have to pass muster before a magistrate or the Empire. But when an attempt has been made to assassinate me? In the extremity of self-defense, you see, I have a great deal more…leeway.”


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Bonus #61: Coming to Dinner, part 2

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Teal’s room was in a tower. Not one of the castle towers; it occupied a timber-framed space with a shorter but more interesting history, which had once housed the machinery of a windmill connected to a primitive mana turbine over two centuries prior, in a time when the sorcerer who had then owned the property had been one of very few people who would even think to own such a thing. Subsequently, the machinery had been dismantled as much as possible by a later owner of noble birth who had been affronted at the very idea of something so functional visibly attached to her home, leaving only a vertical shaft suspended from the ceiling like a ship’s mast that didn’t quite reach the deck. It was a square space, rising three stories to shadowy beams hidden high above and a second-floor balcony surrounding the entire room accessible only by a ladder.

Teal loved it. The resemblance was partly why she spent so much time in the uppermost clock chamber of Clarke Tower—that, and the grand pianoforte. In her own room she had only an upright one which had been in need of tuning since before Vadrieny had entered her life.

As much as Teal had been anticipating showing Shaeine her personal space since leaving the University, immediately upon their arrival she had other concerns. The second the door closed behind them, signifying privacy for purposes of Narisian social mores, Shaeine clutched at her head, hard enough to make strands of her white hair bunch out between her fingers.

“Oh no, no no no…”

“What is it?” Teal demanded in alarm, rushing to her from the door. “Are you all right?”

Shaeine inadvertently evaded her intended hug without noticing it, whirling to begin pacing around the floor with a haunted expression directed at nowhere.

“A Duke who is also a provincial governor would be equivalent to a Matriarch in rank. And considerably greater in prestige, each one controlling a territory far larger than the whole of Tar’naris! It would be one thing if I were on intimate terms with him, but the Madouri family are strangers. Or even if it were a class trip! A visit at Tellwyrn’s behest would place the onus upon her… But I’m to represent my House and my people and I didn’t bring any suitable gift for such a person! I have to… Veth’na alaue, what am I going to come up with? If my mother learns I disgraced the name of Awarrion in front of a Duke…”

“Hey, it’s okay,” Teal said soothingly. “Madouri doesn’t care about anything beyond his own ego, there’s no way he even knows about Narisian noble customs.”

“That’s not the point!” Shaeine snapped.

Teal froze in the act of reaching out toward her again, blinking.

In the next instant the drow also went rigid, turning a stricken expression on Teal. She rushed forward and gently clasped Teal’s hands in her own, bowing her head before the surprised human in a posture of formal submission to press Teal’s fingers to her lips.

“I am so sorry, my love. To lash out at you is unforgivable. I can offer no excuse.”

“Hey, hey.” Teal gently extricated her hands to cup Shaeine’s cheeks and raised her face till their eyes could meet. “That’s not like you at all, so I know this must be something a lot more serious than I realized. I didn’t mean to minimize it. We’re a team, sweetheart. Explain to me what the problem is, and we’ll find a solution. Okay?”

Shaeine closed her eyes, leaning forward until she could rest her forehead against Teal’s. “What a time to show you one of my flaws. I am… I do adequately, I think, at balancing my own personal life with the needs of my position. But I’m the third daughter, a last-minute replacement for the Last Rock program. I am still not accustomed to being in a position where the prestige of my house and entire culture might rest on my actions. Clearly the pressure illuminates flaws in my character.”

“Maybe so, but unfortunately I can’t really help you work on that. I’m still kinda giddy about you being willing to show that much emotion to me, even if it’s…the less cuddly kind. But let’s talk about now. You’re stressed about providing a guest gift, right? Can you walk me through why it’s such a big deal?”

Shaeine inhaled deeply and let the breath out slowly in a meditative practice. “It is an apparently simple tradition, steeped in deeply complicated Narisian issues that are…tricky to summarize. The guest gift is basically about prestige.”

“Right,” Teal nodded, gently bumping their noses together. “That thing Narisian Houses compete in so they don’t compete in ways that cause blades to come out.”

Shaeine nodded back, finally lifting her head. “The Duke’s ignorance of our culture is thus irrelevant. If the representative of House Awarrion failed to offer a suitable token to House Madouri upon being formally hosted, the social and political damage to our standing in Tar’naris could be…significant.”

“If they even learned of it.”

“There is nothing preventing them from doing so, save the relative improbability of Duke Madouri commenting upon it at any potential date in the future, which…”

“Right, I see your point,” Teal winced. “Well… Love, it’s like my parents said, you don’t actually need to do this. You can still invoke diplomatic privilege, and we’re definitely in a position to absorb whatever new bullshit Madouri wants to throw at us. Mom and Dad will understand.”

“Me and my big mouth,” Shaeine moaned. “This is exactly how I ended up at Last Rock in the first place, you know. Tellwyrn was disrespectful to my mother and I ripped her a new one.”

“Yes, you’ve told me,” Teal said, grinning in spite of herself, “but I never get tired of that story. Well, at least that one worked out, right? If you hadn’t, we wouldn’t have met.”

The drow couldn’t help giving her a glowingly warm smile at that, again leaning forward to nuzzle her nose against Teal’s. “Yes. I acted rashly, out of temper, but even so… I was serious, Teal, and I stand by what I said. I won’t have you mistreated on my account.”

“We can still—”

“I would consider it a pure failure of character to retreat now,” the priestess interrupted, her garnet eyes fiercely intent. “And…it’s a failure I may yet have to accept. But if I can still do this, I would join you. To stand alongside your family against an enemy would be a deeply meaningful gesture in my culture.”

“In any culture,” Teal said, leaning in to give her a quick kiss. “Okay, then. Like you said: there has to be a way to turn this to an advantage. Let’s assume we can find a sufficient guest gift. From what I do know about Narisian culture, there’s no possible way you don’t have a tradition for giving something suitably prestigious in a way that’s also backhandedly insulting.”

“Well, ouch,” Shaeine said in clear amusement, “but also, very much so, yes. It’s the particulars that matter. Mmm…who would be the lady of House Madouri?”

“There’s not one at the moment. The Duchess passed away years ago and the Duke hasn’t remarried. He’s got a daughter. Um…Rava, I think? She’s named after the former Duke, Ravaan, but I forget what the feminine form is. She’s a child, and kind of a non-entity, to be honest. I pretty much only know the kid exists because Madouri likes to prance her out at public functions like a show pony.”

“That has potential,” Shaeine murmured. “Yes, it suggests a method… But to make that work I would need a much more modest token, and still a sufficiently grandiose guest gift to satisfy my House’s honor. The dilemma is still how to scrounge up a national treasure in the next hour.”

“Okay!” Teal clasped her hands for a moment to give them an affectionate squeeze, then pulled back. “All right, actually, I think I can solve that.”

She stepped away, turning to the neat stack of luggage the house servants had arranged alongside the door. The box teal wanted required a little bit of excavation, being of sturdy bronze-bound oak and thus currently underneath a suitcase, guitar case, and handbag, in that order, but with a little bit of shifting she extricated it and trotted over to the piano, where she laid the flat case down on the bench and carefully unlatched it. Shaeine drifted over to observe, peering past Teal’s shoulder as the lid was raised.

Within, upon a bed of black velvet, lay a gracefully curved saber and matching dagger, in apparently pristine condition and marked along their blades with subtle scripts in elvish.

Shaeine inhaled sharply. “Those are…”

“Yep.” Teal stepped back, slipping an arm around the drow’s shoulders and staring down at the weapons. “The grand prize from our Crawl expedition: Arachne Tellwyrn’s personal weapons, from before she switched to those two gold-handled swords she’s got now. The ones Rowe was using as the focal point for his jiggery-pokery. I actually did a little digging in the library and I’m pretty sure she wasn’t pulling our legs; there are several old paintings that depict her having these. So, I’m thinking, just on the surface they’re elven masterwork blades and over a thousand years old at least. That’d be enough for anybody’s collection, but these are also the weapons a major historical figure used to stab a bunch of other major historical figures, which makes them priceless. Betcha even Duke Madouri can’t get something like this easily.”

She hesitated, then gently squeezed Shaeine’s shoulder.

“I, uh, was gonna use them as my guest gift, to your mother. I figured that’d made a decent enough impression.” Shaeine jerked her head up, staring wide-eyed, but Teal was still gazing self-consciously down at the case containing the sword and dagger, now with a faint pink hue hovering on her cheeks. “But, we have the leeway of a few more days before we go to Tar’naris, and Madouris is a major city. I’m not exactly broke, so I’m sure we can find something that’ll make a respectable gift for a Matriarch. If worst comes to worst, it’s barely an hour’s drive to Tiraas, but I’m pretty sure we won’t even have to go that far. Madouris even has a Glassian district, lots of import stores, some very exclusive. Those people love their artwork. We can take a day and I’m sure come up with something suitable. Meanwhile, would this satisfy House Awarrion’s honor as a gift?”

“Teal,” Shaeine said tremulously, “these are yours. You won the Crawl challenge.”

“I was the one who went to the center to get them,” Teal argued, “but that only worked cos the rest of the team kept Rowe off my back. So, they’re ours. Besides.” She turned fully to Shaeine, gently wrapping her arms around the shorter girl. “I told you: we’re a team. I thought we were in agreement that’s what this relationship is going to mean. Not that I don’t enjoy…ah, you know.” She cleared her throat, flushing, and Shaeine’s lips quirked slightly in a mischievous smile. “But I’m not in it just because you’re beautiful and charming. You are the partner I want. You don’t have problems, Shaeine; we have problems. So we find solutions.”

“Oh, my songbird.” Shaeine squeezed her, leaning in and burying her face against the side of Teal’s neck. “I can only hope to someday deserve you.”


The city of Madouris spread outward from the peak of its low mountain in a series of semicircles bisected by the great canyon at its back. Far below rushed the River Tira, with no crossings except at Tiraas a few miles to the south and many more miles to the north, where the first bridge was near the Calderaan border and before the riverbed descended into the chasm. Before the Imperial period, the canyon had been a useful natural barrier against the warring feudal desmenes of Leineth, which were more likely to send raiders than traders over the river; during the reign of Tiraas, it better suited the Silver Throne’s interests to route traffic and commerce through the capital.

Over the course of centuries the city had descended the slopes of its core mountain, building and then surpassing concentric semi-rings of walls till it sprawled even beyond the outermost battlements, confident in the security of Imperial rule. The lowest tier of Madouris had paid for that complacency during the Enchanter Wars, but though the city itself had been not only rebuilt but expanded further since then, another ring had not been established as the advent of mag artillery had rendered city walls nearly as superfluous as they were expensive. The half rings grew richer as they grew more secure, with the outskirts being mostly new manufacturing facilities and the neighborhoods where those who worked them lived. Inside the first wall was the largest part of Madouris, occupying a gentle slope up the foot of the small mountain until it was arrested by the second wall and home to most of its relatively prosperous middle class. Beyond that lay a smaller band around the mountain itself, home to nobles, government offices, foreign consulates, major cultural and financial institutions, and the various commercial ventures which served them, including the city’s famed Glassian district.

And beyond that, further up and farther in, was the oldest ring of walls, the original city of Madouris, now in its entirety the largest single residence in the known world: Madouri Manor. As if the looming structure of domes and spires were not impressive enough, the approach to it necessarily intimidated its guests, which was the only way the House of Madouri preferred to deal with all who dared approach them.

Like the Falconer mansion, Madouri Manor had a great entry hall, which was the totality of the resemblance. The entire Falconer house could have fit the colossal chamber which was a visitor’s first introduction to the palatial manor; some of its wings would have to be rearranged, of course, but by volume there was more than enough space. The room dwarfed even several of the world’s great temples and cathedrals.

Of the four guests invited this evening, only Teal looked even slightly nervous at the overwhelming grandeur into which they were ushered. Marguerite and Geoffrey had seen it all before, repeatedly, and the associations it carried forced them to concentrate on repressing expressions of annoyance, not awe. Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion was Narisian, a priestess, and a daughter of a noble House in her own right. It would take a great deal more than shocking displays of wealth to crack her serenity.

By contrast, the Duke Ehriban Zefraam Talos Madouri had a degree of facial control about on par with the two elder Falconers, which was definitely on the low end for his social class. He covered his emotions well, but not so well that it was not obvious he was covering. There were enough hints left clear to reveal his smugness toward the Falconers, and the unease Shaeine sparked in him. And, as the introductions progressed, his mounting annoyance with her.

“What a charming custom,” Duke Ehriban said with a bland smile, holding the silver idol of Themynra with which Shaeine had just presented him. The artifact, hastily acquired from the Narisian consulate in Madouris, was more valuable than anything a factory-working family might own just due to its material and craftsmanship, aside from its religious significance; the Duke handled it like a bouquet of flowers he’d just been given and didn’t have a place to put down yet. In this of all households the treasure was scarcely a knickknack, which did not offend Shaeine as it had been a calculated move on her part. “Perhaps I should introduce it among my own peers! Far too many of them lack manners, I find. Thank you, Lady Shaeine, for your most gracious gift. I shall see about finding a suitable place of honor for its display.”

Having thus shown the offering the minimum necessary appreciation, he turned to hand it off to a steward who slid up to him on cue. The servant held the idol more respectfully, correctly upright and protectively in both hands, even as he withdrew with a bow toward the Duke who it was plain had already dismissed him from thought.

“The honor is mine, your Grace,” said Shaeine, inclining her head politely. Ehriban’s eyebrows drew together in a momentary expression of consternation, swiftly suppressed. In the Empire there was hardly anyone save a few members of the Imperial court of sufficient rank to address him with such shallow obeisance; he had failed to entirely disguise his satisfaction at keeping the Falconer family kneeling for several seconds longer than protocol required. Even among other Dukes and Imperial governors, there were few Houses which commanded as much history or respect as the name of Madouri, possibly none save the ruling family of Calderaas. Of course, civil relations with Tar’naris were still new, historically speaking, and matters of rank and deference between Narisian and Tiraan nobility were still somewhat up in the air.

Nobles of any culture, however, were sensitive to the subtleties of status, and the Duke was not about to forget that his holdings alone rivaled the power and wealth of all Tar’naris, considerably dwarfing that of House Awarrion. This fact was clearly not being reflected in the posture the Matriarch’s daughter had taken toward him.

For the moment, he alone reflected the tension. Shaeine remained purely unruffled as always, Teal was managing a decent approximation of Narisian reserve, and they had mutually decided not to brief the two elder Falconers, who were deeply disinterested in noble contests of ego even if they’d had the training to follow them. As it was, Geoffrey and Marguerite were waiting patiently for the entire night’s business to be over with, a fact which they were failing to disguise.

The two Madouri children likewise showed no response to the subtle challenge to their House’s authority. Neither of them appeared to be very bright.

Dazan Madouri, heir to the House, closely resembled his father, being still square of jaw and shoulder in a way that spoke of a fondness for active pastimes and not yet showing the softness around the jowls and midsection that the Duke had acquired in middle age. He was a few years older than Teal and as prideful as his father, but even less subtle about his satisfaction at the subordinate position of the Falconers and evidently not as perceptive of subtleties of rank.

Ravana, the younger scion, clearly took after her mother, being blonde, pale, and quite noticeably petite where her father and brother had large frames. She was also demure to the point of submissiveness, keeping her eyes downcast and her voice so soft that her murmured pleasantries at being introduced to her family’s guests were barely audible. Standing next to her brother, she had a tendency to shuffle both closer to him than etiquette suggested and to edge a step behind, as if to hide in his shadow. Altogether, as Teal had observed, she gave the impression of a deliberate non-entity, which made the next step in Shaeine’s campaign of mischief even more pointed.

“I ask your pardon if this seems odd,” the priestess continued, “but please be assured I mean only respect to your House, my lord Duke. My people are matrilinial, and the honor of my own family demands a token of respect to the lady of the manor.”

“Ahh.” Ehriban nodded, looking mollified now, and turned a fond smile in the direction of his children. “An unusual thing, here in the Empire, but what father could raise a complaint about that? Ravana, my little starling, the drow has a present for you!”

The comment was so breathtakingly condescending, both to Shaeine and his daughter, that Geoffrey blinked and Marguerite let a scowl slip through before marshaling her expression, but Shaeine of course remained fully serene. Ravana finally raised her eyes, wide with apparent nerves, and glanced up at her father, then at the priestess, saying nothing.

“My Ravana takes after her mother,” the Duke said proudly and somewhat unnecessarily. “I’m afraid she is rather frail; Dazan and I are perhaps a little too protective, but here on the surface we treasure our women, rather than sending them into danger. I’ve still not decided whether she should attend a proper university next year or continue studying under her tutors, you know. It’s hard to believe she’s just a year younger than you, Miss Falconer!”

“She is?” Teal blurted in surprise before clamping her lips shut. Marguerite shot her daughter an exasperated look, but Teal, despite her own faint blush at her gaffe, was studying the youngest Madouri in bemusement. Ravana, a full head shorter than she and diminutive to match, looked about fourteen at the absolute most. The young Lady herself showed no sign she had even heard the question, glancing rapidly between Shaeine and her father in trepidation.

“Of course, there’s no question of sending her to such a…quaint institution as Last Rock,” the Duke said with a bite in his tone belying his broad smile. “Imagine, a school for adventurers, in this day and age! I’m sure it has its value for some, but a lady of my Ravana’s breeding obviously requires a proper education.”

“Indeed,” Shaeine agreed placidly. “Professor Tellwyrn is fond of saying the University is meant for those who will determine the course of the future. Given the choice of students she has gathered, I have never quite managed to discern what she means by that.”

Dazan chuckled, and Ehriban blinked, visibly struggling to determine whether she had just embraced his jab or retaliated. Teal, by then, had fully composed her own features, and now held up the wooden case for Shaeine, which drew the eyes of all three of the Madouri family. They had of course noted her carrying it, but had not commented.

Now Shaeine opened the latch and raised the lid, reached in, and withdrew the sleek elven weapons from within. The watching House Madouri soldiers tensed as the drow produced sharp steel within range of the entire family, but Shaeine held them deftly by the blades, bowing before Lady Ravana and offering both hilt-first.

“My Lady Ravana of the honored House of Madouri, I offer a humble gift as a token of your prestige, in the spirit of friendship between our families. These were, for centuries, the personal weapons of Arachne Tellwyrn, crafted and enchanted over a millennium ago through the greatest of elven skill and wielded by the archmage herself in countless battles. May they serve you well, as tools of violence or simply trophies to honor your household.”

“I say,” Dazan exclaimed, patting his bewildered little sister on the back so hard she nearly stumbled forward into the swords. “Tellwyrn’s own blades? Ravana, that’s a priceless treasure, a bit of history right in your hands! However did you come to possess something like these, Lady Shaeine?”

“Yes, that must be a curious story indeed,” rumbled Duke Ehriban, staring down at the drow from under lowered brows. Dazan was just impressed, and Ravana appeared mostly confused on top of having been barely aware of what was happening to begin with; the Duke, however, had immediately noticed that his shy young daughter had been offered a prize which utterly dwarfed in value that which had been given to him.

“I fear it is less so than it ought to be, my lord Duke,” Shaeine said ruefully, still holding out the handles of the weapons to the befuddled young noblewoman.

“They were a prize from an academic exercise,” Teal added. “I know how that sounds, your Grace, but… If you were acquainted with Professor Tellwyrn, it would make more sense. The woman is as odd as she is impressive. At least.”

“I shouldn’t wonder!” Lord Dazan guffawed. “Elves are queer folk to begin with, and living that long, doing half the things Tellwyrn has done? Why, I’d be mad as a hare!”

“Well, go on, little starling,” the Duke said in a surprisingly gentle tone. “We mustn’t be rude. Take your gift and thank the Lady.”

Ravana started as if only just realizing what Shaeine’s gesture meant and hastily reached forward to grasp both handles. The moment Shaeine withdrew her hands, Ravana’s arms dropped precipitously before she caught herself, as if totally unprepared for the relatively meager weight of the slim elven blades. She managed to mumble something indistinct and dipped her whole body in a quick, awkward facsimile of a curtsy, then actually retreated backward a step and half-hid behind Dazan, the weapons hanging uncomfortably at her sides.

To what school the Lady Ravana would be going might be a moot question; to judge by her performance tonight, the girl wasn’t all there in the head.

“What a charming guest you’ve brought me this evening, Geoffrey,” Duke Ehriban said, his frosty stare sliding from Shaeine to the man he was addressing only after he began speaking. “You must be thrilled to be keeping such exotic company.”

“Yes, your Grace,” Geoffrey said in the flat tone of a man who knew there was no correct answer.

“We feel very honored to be hosting Shaeine, your Grace,” Marguerite added softly. Her voice remained polite, but she wasn’t quite as adept at keeping the aggression out of her eyes.

“Indeed, and I can see I shall owe you a favor in kind for sharing that honor with me,” replied the Duke, his lip curling up in a lopsided grin which had more than a hint of sneer in its lineage. “But I fear I am being rude, keeping you standing about in the hall! Come, let us repair to the dining room. I do believe you will find this an…interesting evening indeed.”

He paused, taking the time to make eye contact with each of the four of them, then turned with no further comment and strode toward a doorway at the far end of the hall. His son gave their guests an even more openly sly smile before following.

Ravana dithered, looking rapidly between her occupied hands and her retreating family as if perplexed by the task of walking while carrying something before belatedly hurrying after them, leaving their guests to bring up the rear.

They did so slowly, clustering together as they walked.

“Well, that wasn’t even subtle,” Teal muttered.

“Oh, good,” grunted Geoffrey. “I was about to ask whether I was being paranoid or that was a threat.”

Shaeine nodded at him.

“Yes.”

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Bonus #60: Coming to Dinner, part 1

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Author’s Note: The next two side stories are set in the summer after the Class of 1182’s freshman year, between Books 7 and 8. They were originally planned to be short story ebook releases, but that ended up never happening and I want them to actually see the light of day, so here they are, belatedly.

In the future I may adjust the chapter links to place them in their right position chronologically for those reading through TGAB in the future. For now, here’s a look back at the early days of the story.


They did not sit in awkward silence, because there was none of that to be had aboard a zeppelin. Wind rushed past the glass surrounding the cockpit, the powerful hum of the propeller thrusters was audible even from up here at the front of the craft, and as always there was an omnipresent multi-tonal hum of arcane magic everywhere from the instrument panels to the wiring in the bulkheads. It was not silent, just awkward.

After years of partnership in marriage, business, and their shared creative work, Geoffrey and Marguerite were simply never awkward with each other. They had that in their favor, at least; awkward spells were always a unified front of the pair against whatever had left them both stymied for something to say.

“Well,” Marguerite finally said after glancing over her shoulder to verify that the hatch between the cockpit and cabin was properly sealed, “she’s…certainly polite.”

“Of course she’s polite!” It was as if the cork had been pulled from a shaken bottle of beer; Geoffrey turned to his wife with a furious scowl, finally releasing his unnecessary death grip on the wheel. “They’re all polite, Rita! It’s all smiling and bowing while they’re kidnapping your son for some inbred darkling’s harem!”

“Are you worried Sheen is going to enslave Teal?” Marguerite replied with a slight smile. “In all honesty I think I would enjoy the aftermath of someone trying that. Surely she knows about Vadrieny by now.”

“You think it’s funny?” he snapped. “You want me to go tell Telimaan how funny it was? Daoud was down there for two years before we managed to lean on the right people and get him out. Did you hear what he went through?”

Marguerite’s smile vanished entirely and she turned to face her husband with a flat stare. “You know very well better, Geoffrey Falconer.”

At that, at least, he looked abashed, lowering his eyes. “Right. I’m sorry, Rita, I know. That wasn’t fair. It’s just…” He gestured helplessly with both arms, a risky move in the tight confines of the cockpit had his wife not known him well enough to have already leaned out of the way in anticipation.

“Geoff,” she said more gently, reaching up to squeeze his shoulder, “it’s the nobles who do that. Not to sound all Eserite, but you can’t blame an entire race of people for what the most powerful of them do. How’d you like it if people’s treatment of you was based on the Duke’s behavior? Look on the bright side: this is still an improvement in Teal’s judgment. Or have you forgotten Lady Hesthia?” She grimaced. “I have not forgotten Lady Hesthia.”

He made an identical expression. That was more understandable. I would definitely have fallen for the ol’ big-boobs-covered-in-practically-nothing routine when I was a teenager. That you grow out of.”

“Do you?” Marguerite countered in a dangerously wry tone. “Because my experience with men older than you says otherwise.”

“Well, you can,” he acknowledged with a faint grin of his own. “My point is, that’s not something I worry about with Teal. She’s steady enough not to make libido-based life decisions. At least, I’d thought so before this…”

“Geoffrey, Hesthia was in her thirties and transparently angling to make political connections. That woman was a slimy creep and I’m just grateful Teal wised up before I had to go and do something against my principles. This is a completely different situation.”

“Is it?” Geoffrey demanded, again clutching the wheel, which didn’t need his help to hold steady. “You know what they’re like, Marguerite.”

“Geoffrey Falconer, I do not like the sound of straightforward racism out of your mouth.”

“Oh, please, you know very well it’s not about that! We both know enough elves to know that people are just people. I mean they’ll deny it but there’s no ‘strange’ elven behavior anyone else wouldn’t do exactly the same if they’d been raised in that culture. That’s what it’s about, culture!

“Okay,” she said soothingly, “but Geoffrey, consider your sample bias. We’ve had one employee whose son was the victim of a serious crime in Tar’naris. Have you had any other interaction with the drow? At least have enough faith in our daughter to believe she wouldn’t bring home a criminal or predator.”

“Right, because Lady Hesthia was such a good pick,” he grumbled.

“Oh, now you’re just reaching,” his wife retorted, not without fondness. She slid a hand up his back to ruffle his hair gently. “I won’t say I wasn’t startled. Just give it a chance, Geoff. Give her a chance. She could be a perfectly lovely girl.”

“A perfectly lovely example of someone raised in a society of grasping, murderous raiders! Shane might well be the best of the lot, for all we know, but come on. How much is that worth?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s pronounced Sheen. Look, Geoff, you can look on the bright or the dark side of it all you want—and yes, there are definitely upsides, especially if the girl’s a Matriarch’s daughter—but at the end of the day this is Teal’s choice. Has it been so long since you were nineteen that you’ve forgotten what someone will do if her parents forbid her to see her new object of infatuation?”

“For all the time and effort it took to get somebody out of Tar’naris, it was money well spent. I wonder how hard it is to send somebody back—”

The cockpit shuddered from impact, and before either could react to that, the door was yanked open. Not the hatch behind them, which opened onto a corridor leading to the passenger compartment. The exterior door, opening onto cold wind and a thousand-foot drop.

HEY!” Vadrieny shouted at them, sticking her face practically into Geoffrey’s while clinging to the frame with all four claws. It was a slightly less aggressive action than it otherwise might have been; she needed to raise her voice to be heard over the howling of the wind around them. Fortunately, Vadrieny had more than sufficient lungs to overcome this challenge. “For a couple of people who’ve had elf friends their whole lives, you two sure are in a hurry to forget to those ears are not just decorative!”

Marguerite and Geoffrey had both been staring in wind-blown shock just beginning to morph into displeasure, but at that, they simultaneously cringed in embarrassment.

“Teal had this carefully planned,” the archdemon continued to lecture them. “She spent weeks working out the best way to introduce you to Shaeine and minimize the shock, but no. You two just had to surprise us all by flying the damn airship to Last Rock like a couple of newspaper caricatures of out-of-touch rich people! Seriously, who flies a zeppelin to school? Is the company that hard up for advertising? Did you think Last Rock was a great expansion market? Or was this a prank to make sure we spend the next three years getting relentlessly mocked?”

Geoffrey gaped at her with a fishlike expression of bemusement; Marguerite had her lips not only sealed but tucked inward and clamped between her teeth.

“So I’m sorry if this has your feathers ruffled,” Vadrieny spat, “but if you’d just done as Teal asked it wouldn’t be this bad, so now we all get to suck it up. If you can manage to show the same manners you raised your daughter to have and not talk shit about Shaeine where she can hear for the rest of this trip, that would be fantastic, but right now I’d settle for making it the rest of the flight home. And now, if you’ll excuse me, apparently we have to go explain Hesthia. So…” She bared her fangs in an exceedingly displeased expression. “Thanks for that.”

Vadrieny let go with three of her claws and used the last to slam the hatch shut as she unfurled her wings and let the wind catch and yank her backward toward the other entry to the passenger compartment. It was suddenly a lot quieter in the cockpit, a relative silence that was a lot less awkward and a lot more stunned.

“Well,” Marguerite managed after a protracted pause, “she sure told us.”

Geoffrey blew out a long breath. “Yep. Kid wasn’t wrong, either.”

“Hey, that’s a positive, right? At least there’s one surprising girl in our daughter’s life who turned out a lot better than we had any right to expect. I’m…you know what, I think Vadrieny has been a really good influence. For a long time I was concerned about how Teal let other girls push her around.” She managed a soft chuckle, shaking her head. “I guess this is at least worth having a daughter who occasionally turns into a flaming fanged monster.”

“Mm.” Geoffrey stared straight ahead out the windscreen toward Madouris in the distance ahead, keeping his expression deliberately neutral. “Not that much different from just…having a daughter, is it?”

Marguerite had to laboriously tug the seat cushion out from under her struggling husband to clobber him with it, but it was worth it.


The Falconer household had been the residence of several noble families over the course of its long life, all various vassals of House Madouri and all either extinct or sufficiently diminished in stature that they could no longer afford such a sizable estate. Or, in the case of its previous owners, sufficiently advanced in stature that they had moved to a palatial mansion in the heart of Madouris itself, feeling that their expanded dignity was too great for such a rambling, eccentric manor. Indeed, the house, though as sizable as most nobles’ mansions, was built on an erratic, improvised plan that was generally difficult to navigate and reflected multiple architectural styles spanning nearly seven hundred years, with its oldest section being a literal castle. A very small one, little more than a fort, but still complete with battlements, arrow loops, and a couple of proper towers; Geoffrey had installed a telescope on one, his wife having talked him down from putting in a vintage siege engine that would have antagonized both the neighbors and the government. The most recent additions were to the grounds: the Falconer family had elven friends who had been invited to make themselves at home, and now the sprawling wings of the estate could be difficult to see from the road through the various groves of trees which filled the grounds.

Altogether it suited the Falconer family perfectly, for many of the very reasons it was no longer considered suitable for most of the noble families who could have afforded such a manor.

Like any edifice which had been the residence of Imperial nobility, the house had a great hall, a grandiose entry chamber which served to formally greet important guests and impress upon them the wealth and power of their hosts. Unlike most, this formal entry was accessible from the main driveway only by going over a small bridge, through a grove of imported cedars, around a long wing of Avenic marble colonnades, down the center of a courtyard lined with dogwood trees and rose bushes, and up a one-story flight of broad stone steps. It was, even for nobles, a little much, especially considering the great hall beyond really wasn’t. Barely twenty feet long, lined with simple wood pillars instead of the traditional stone columns and lit by floating fairy lamps which drifted about just out of reach overhead, the great hall was disproportionately small for such a sprawling manor. Also, its position marked what had originally been a drawbridge, which was why its opposite side from the door terminated in the former exterior wall and main gateway of the old castle, opening onto the former great hall and current indoor garden.

One would, of course, never know the Falconer estate could be considered unusual, much less insufficient, by the reaction to it of Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion.

“Your home is as beautiful as it is impressive, Mrs. Falconer,” the drow said with a deep bow toward Marguerite, after pausing to spend enough time admiring the woodwork that the observation seemed plausibly sincere. “I confess I already feel somewhat at home here. Most places in the Empire seem rather wedded to their stylistic themes; this is the first I have seen which has as much personality as the University. I could almost imagine it being a product of the same mind which designed Clarke Tower.”

“Why, aren’t you sweet!” Marguerite beamed. “I’m afraid we’ve not had the likes of Arachne Tellwyrn to lend a hand to our décor, but I am rather proud of how we’ve made this place our own.”

I helped,” Geoffrey commented in an uncharacteristically stiff tone. “You may’ve noticed it’s not just the women who do things on the surface.”

Behind Shaeine, Teal bared her teeth at him and pantomimed a strangling motion with both hands.

“Geoffrey, stop pouting before your face freezes that way,” Marguerite chided. “It’s true, Sheen, ours isn’t a matriarchial culture, but as long as my husband insists on being difficult you can feel free to address yourself to me. I’ll smack him later.”

Shaeine,” Teal enunciated. “It’s an elongated vowel, like the ‘aa’ in Tiraas, but smoothly transitioning in the middle. It sounds trickier than it is; you already speak elvish, Mom, you can pick up Narisian pronunciation before you know it.”

“Please do not discomfit yourself on my account,” Shaeine said smoothly, bowing again. Without straightening up, she extended both hands, offering Marguerite the folded length of dark cloth she had been carefully carrying since disembarking from the zeppelin. “I am grateful for the hospitality offered, and humbled by this household and your benevolence. I dare to hope that this meager token of my thanks may in a small way enhance the splendor of your home.”

“Oh, that’s all right, dear,” Marguerite said hastily, “you didn’t need to—”

Teal shot across the space between them, leaning close to her mother’s ear and gritting out very quietly through clenched teeth, “It’s an important cultural tradition which I will explain later, please take the gift.”

“I guess that’d be one of those things we’d have been properly prepped for if we hadn’t decided to take the zep,” Geoffrey observed, not without humor.

“Well, it was your idea—oh!” Marguerite was distracted from retorting when she focused on the length of folded silk she had just absently taken from Shaeine’s hands, then immediately brought it up to her face to squint through her glasses. “Oh, my, this is… Geoffrey, look at this! The texture…why, this is woven in patterns that—yes, these are pictures! Oh, and the dye, Geoff, just look!”

She very carefully unfolded the silk and held it up to the light; to the human eye in the relative dimness of the hall it might have been taken for a plain black sheet at a casual glance, but it was in fact dyed in intricate patterns of very dark red, blue, and purple, not to mention embroidered in raised patterns of thread with subtly glinted under the fairy lamps.

Sinit isthr’adh is a Narisian traditional art,” Shaeine explained while Marguerite cooed enthusiastically over the fabric and Geoffrey leaned over her shoulder, studying it with unfeigned interest. “Each color of dye depicts a different scene, overlaying and interconnecting with the others, while the embroidered image in raised thread is another which ties together the narrative and philosophical theme. The intended means of viewing is to study it at length and let the eye focus on the individual images, while the mind contemplates the interplay between them. Some isthr’adh pieces require a grounding in Narisian history or culture to understand the references, but I selected a design I thought would be more broadly accessible. Teal has described you as an artist; I hoped you would enjoy a cultural expression that might be new to you.”

“Oh, but you thought so very right,” Marguerite all but squealed. “This is the most beautiful thing! Omnu’s breath, the skill that went into—look at this dye work! Why, these threads were woven into it in that order to… Oh, my stars, Shayeen, what an absolutely gorgeous piece. I can’t thank you enough! Teal is right, I definitely enjoy meeting a new form of art. And that’s probably the kindest way she’s ever described me,” she added with a wry glance at her daughter.

“Mom, you named me after a color.”

“A pretty color. Be glad I was over my Glassian phase; you could’ve been called Chartreuse.”

“You wouldn’t dare!”

Shaeine was smiling now, with as much genuine warmth as Narisian manners permitted in public. “She did say you had designed the stained glass in this very hall. I do note a preference for blue-green hues.”

“Hah!” Marguerite gave her a delighted grin. “Would you care to guess how old Teal was before she made that connection?”

“I have been asked not to embarrass her unduly while, as she put it, ‘they have that job covered,’” Shaeine said solemnly. “May I?”

“Oh, please!” Marguerite gestured enthusiastically toward the north wall of the great hall and the drow glided over to it to examine the glass up close. She started to follow, then hesitated and leaned over toward Teal, murmuring as softly as she could, “How’d I do?”

Teal wrapped an arm around her mother in half a hug, replying in the same tone. “She wouldn’t expect you to know the Narisian formalities, or perform them in your own home. The guest gift to the matron of a house is important in her culture. Anyway, you can’t go wrong by gushing over a present.”

“Well, I wasn’t faking, this is the most stunning piece I’ve seen in ages. I definitely see what she meant; I’m going to have to spend some time just looking once I’ve got it properly displayed. I’ll find a place in—no, what am I saying? This is a centerpiece, it deserves to have a suitable setting designed around it. Geoffrey, what do you think about… Geoff?”

The man of the house had been handed a letter by one of the servants not engaged in bringing Teal and Shaeine’s baggage in, and was now staring at it with a truly thunderous expression, the expensive-looking paper creasing in his grip.

“Oh,” Teal said in resignation, “isn’t that House Madouri stationary?”

“You better believe it,” Geoffrey grated. “We have been invited to dine with his Grace the Duke. Tonight.”

“An honor,” Shaeine said neutrally, drifting back over to them. She remained poised as ever, but could not mess the tension that had suddenly gripped all three Falconers.

“Is this…the sort of invitation we can beg off?” Marguerite asked warily. “Teal just got home, and with Shaeine…”

“Oh, he knows,” Geoffrey spat. “Teal and her ‘guest’ are mentioned. No, love, I don’t think this is one of those optional invitations.”

“How did he know?” Teal demanded.

“The University campus is quite secure,” Shaeine observed, “but Last Rock itself would not be difficult to keep under observation. I surmise that several political forces and newspapers within the Empire do so. Apparently there was an episode last year when several of them annoyed Professor Tellwyrn. Please forgive my ignorance, but I did not realize a Duke had the authority to command people to his presence?”

“Well, there’s authority and then there’s authority,” Geoffrey said bitterly, folding up the letter with little regard for its original creases. “There are things they can order because the law gives them that explicit prerogative, and things they can order because they can make your life unbearably difficult if they feel slighted.”

“Ah,” she said, nodding in total comprehension.

“It doesn’t matter,” Marguerite interjected in a firm tone, clutching the tapestry protectively to her chest. “You’re our guest, Shayeen. I’ll not have you forced to dance for that man’s amusement.”

“Yeah, I should warn you that this is a trap,” Geoffrey added. “The Duke is… Hon, what’s a polite way to put it?”

“He’s a big enough asshole that the stick up his doesn’t even slow him down,” Marguerite said primly. Teal made a choking noise.

“That about sums it up, yeah,” Geoffrey agreed, grinning at his wife. “His Grace likes swinging his…um, authority around. Usually at us; he seems to feel personally slighted by FI’s success. Any time he does something like this, it means he’s planning to pull something squirrely before it’s over. If we’re very lucky the whole plot is just to inflict embarrassment on us. Rita’s right, you’re a guest of our family and Teal’s girlfriend. I’ve put up with a lot from that man; I’m not going to have him start in on you as well.”

“I am grateful for the sentiment,” Shaeine answered with a gentle smile. “I urge you not to risk House Madouri’s censure on my account, however. It may be an unplanned diversion, but I confess I am rather intrigued by this invitation.”

Marguerite and Geoffrey exchanged a long look.

“It’s kind of you to think of us,” Marguerite said, “but…”

“Allow me to be more plain,” said Shaeine, nodding deeply toward her. “There are politics, of course, and on that point I am inclined to defer to your judgment and familiarity with the situation. If it comes down to it, I have the prerogative to invoke the strictures of international relations. I can easily make a case that to meet with an Imperial Duke without my mother’s oversight exceeds my diplomatic mandate. However, would I be correct in surmising that his Grace would vent his frustration at such a maneuver on you?”

“That’s not something you need to worry about,” Geoffrey said firmly. “He’s going to vent something on us, one way or another. I don’t mind at all getting to tweak his nose out of the bargain.”

“That being the case, I reaffirm that I would like to attend,” the drow said, smiling more broadly.

Teal cleared her throat. “Mom, Dad, you know I respect your intelligence…”

“Oh, nothing complimentary ever follows that setup,” Marguerite said, giving her daughter a long look.

But,” Teal continued doggedly, “we are none of us the most socially adroit or cunning people.”

“It’s true,” Geoffrey acknowledged. “Those are rather famously not gifts of the Falconer clan.”

“Shaeine, however,” said Teal, turning to the priestess with a proud smile, “is a professional diplomat.”

A contemplative pause descended.

“Sometimes,” Shaeine said pleasantly, “the greatest retribution one can have against a person who is determined to be hostile is to skillfully deprive him of any excuse for hostility. Powerful as he may be, an individual of the higher nobility in any culture lives and dies by social perception. If it could be arranged, for example, that his Grace the Duke is left with no cause to acceptably express anything but satisfaction with the Falconer family and have his blood pressure elevated to dangerous levels in the process, would you perhaps find that…amusing?”

Geoffrey and Marguerite exchanged another married look at that, both of them having to visibly repress smiles. Marguerite, at least, sobered quickly.

“Amusing, yes, but… Shayeen, honey, we may be rich enough that a Duke isn’t all that dangerous to us, but that doesn’t make it a good idea to poke at him unnecessarily.”

He is poking at us,” Teal protested. “As usual!”

“You have expressed a laudable determination not to allow a guest under your roof to suffer even a minor indignity,” Shaeine said. “I relate strongly to that sentiment. Not simply out of guesthold honor, or consideration for politics. Marguerite, Geoffrey… I realize that I am not only a stranger to you, but an unexpected one, and perhaps an alarming thing to have suddenly dropped into your lives. I hope to earn a measure of affection and trust, but that inevitably takes time. What matters in this moment is that you are Teal’s family, and…” She hesitated the merest fraction of a second before voicing something which would not have been acceptable in her own household. “And I love Teal dearly. Where I am from, we do not suffer those we love to be put upon.”

“Well,” Geoffrey mused, studying her with a new interest, “that’s…a starting point, then, isn’t it? Because that is definitely one thing we have in common.”

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16 – 58

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“Above all, in such times, we must have faith.”

The sanctuary of the Grand Cathedral was as packed as it had ever been, despite the Empire-wide state of emergency and warnings for all citizens to take shelter. In a way, they had, for all that a dense crowd might be even more vulnerable to attack; shelter was more than physical, and just as the Archpope now said to the assembled throng, it was in precisely such times that people sought the comfort of faith.

“The word is often invoked in this temple, and countless like it,” Justinian continued, his mellifluous voice filling the sanctuary to its farthest corners with its perfect, sonorous gravity. “Faith, most often spoken of as a religious sacrament. Faith in a god, in a dogma, in a church. I will remind you all in this most desperate hour, my friends, that faith goes far beyond religion. It is upon faith that everything hinges. We have faith that our friends and loved ones will not abandon us. Faith that those who sell our food, our clothing, our tools, have not shortchanged us. Faith that our governments will protect and provide as we need them to. Every interaction each of us has with another person is a thread of faith, and it is of the countless thousands of these threads that the web of our lives is made.”

He paused, gripping the sides of his lectern for a moment. No arcane magnification charm was applied to the ancient wood; Justinian needed nothing but the Cathedral’s acoustics and his own trained diaphragm to make himself heard in the back row, even now, when he lowered his voice for emphasis.

“And never is the importance of faith clearer than when it disappoints us. I understand, sisters and brothers, how your faith has been betrayed. We may speak of the gods and their mortal agents which we thought to protect us from crises such as this. We might speak of our government with its armies, which in city after city has been powerless to stand against threat after threat. But even in the midst of renewed crisis, I caution you: do not abandon faith. Faith, you see, is not certainty.”

He smiled, with both sorrow and warmth.

“In life there are no certainties; even the gods do not promise us that. The universe is chaotic, and it is not given to us to live in perfect bliss. For what would be the point of that? What is life without opportunities to strive, to grow wiser and stronger? And how could we do so if we were never challenged—and not only challenged, but specifically beyond what our faith can bear?

“No, friends, we must not despair because our faith has not protected us. The role of faith is that we may continue to believe, even in the face of evidence that what we believe in has failed. And this, friends, is the true power of faith: its capacity to triumph over reality itself. For by acting upon faith, by proceeding upon assumptions that have been broken, we remake the world around us until it falls back into line with what we have faith that is should be. Faith, friends, is the power to band together and triumph.

“I will not minimize the threat we face, nor excuse those who have failed when they should have protected us. Instead, I will caution you all not to abandon faith. Have faith in the gods, in paladins, in thrones, in all those things you count upon—for even if they have responded imperfectly, it is through the support of our faith that they may be empowered to rise to the threat.

“Above all, have faith in one another. It is the darkest times which show us the brightest light within our hearts. It is when we are tested that we raise ourselves up to persevere. It is when the bonds between us are attacked that they strengthen.”

He raised his hands in an uplifting gesture, both benediction and incitement.

“Have faith, brothers, sisters, friends, fellow members of this human family. Have faith that all will be well—and in so doing, go forth together and make it so.”


“That brilliant, evil son of a bitch,” Ruda said, hurling the transcript of the Archpope’s sermon down on Ravana’s dining table.

“Eh, it sounded a right nice speech t’me,” Maureen admitted. “So, I assume that means I missed somethin’, aye? I never claimed t’be the savvy type, politically speakin’.”

“He’s changed the terms of engagement.” Teal’s voice was barely above a whisper, her eyes fixed on a distant point beyond the fireplace. “It’s…a brilliant move. The cults are beginning to turn on him, and after Veilgrad Triss and the boys have what they need to prove he’s behind the chaos monsters.”

“Okay, I don’t get it either,” Iris said in some annoyance. “Why isn’t that good? I mean, now he’s gone and let loose dozens of the fuckers. Obviously that’s a big problem but if there’s proof Justinian is behind it, hasn’t he just nailed himself to the wall?”

“I can’t.” Ruda slumped down in her chair, tipping her hat forward to cover her eyes. “I just cannot with this horseshit. Not you, Iris, you’re fine, it’s just the sheer fuckery of it. I need a moment to wring some of the sleaze outta my soul. Shaeine, can you take over?”

“By unleashing both unstoppable monsters and immortal warriors which are among the only things which can combat them, the Archpope has effectively invalidated all the laborious preparatory work that has been done up till now to work him into a corner,” Shaeine said tonelessly. “It is now a matter of public opinion, and the facts are thus barely relevant. Now, any accusations against the Archpope will be seen as sowing division exactly when it can least be afforded—especially by Ravana and the paladins, who by taking a stand against him previously will have made it seem they are prioritizing old political vendettas above the public good.”

“But they ‘ave proof!” Maureen protested.

“That matters a lot less than it should,” Teal replied wearily.

“Politics and facts are, at best, tenebrous allies,” said Szith.

“It’s a crisis,” Ruda explained from under her hat, not shifting her position. “Can’t have division in a crisis. Didja note in the speech, how he emphasized that? And also how the gods an’ paladins and especially the Throne have let everybody down by allowin’ all this to happen.”

“Just the…the gall,” Iris hissed. “He did all this!”

“It’s politics,” Teal said, heaving a sigh. “Fuck. He played us all. He played everyone.”

“I seriously do admire the gambit,” Ruda admitted, finally lifting her hat enough to peer up at everyone. “It’s maybe the evilest bullshit I ever fuckin’ heard of but god damn was that clever. A master fuckin’ play.”

“That is public opinion, though,” said Scorn, who was not wearing her disguise ring, drumming her clawed fingertips upon the table. The group assembled was somewhat diminished in size; Juniper was still in Tiraas and the paladins, after checking in, had gone right back out to hunt necro-drakes with assistance from the Conclave. “There is still proof. The Empire can act upon this, yes?”

“That is what makes it a master stroke, as opposed to simply a clever one,” said Shaeine. “The great secret of power is its fragility. The cults, the Throne, the Church… Indeed, all religious, political, financial and other establishments, rely upon consensus for their very existence. They only come to seem immutable because we grow accustomed to them. Any can be toppled if enough of their followers decide they should no longer be obeyed—or if not destroyed outright, deprived of enough of their support to function. That was the overarching lesson of the Enchanter Wars, and that lesson is still very much on the minds of the cults and the Houses.”

“So, in order for the Empire or the Trinity cults or anyone to act on the proof,” Teal chimed in, “they would have to, in essence, invade the Cathedral in force to seize Justinian. It could still work, if it was possible to do it swiftly, but with all the power of the Pantheon backing him up and him apparently able to control it even against the Pantheon’s will… Well, the various forces assembled against him could maybe take him down eventually, maybe not. Either way, it would be a long, bloody, drawn-out struggle. And given all Justinian’s done to make himself and the Church popular over the years, a lot of the public will side with him. Especially now. It would mean a schism in basically every participating cult and very likely a rebellion against the Empire.”

“Most of the Houses’d side with ‘im,” Ruda grunted in a dispirited tone. “Specifically because they don’t give a fuck about religion. They care about their own power, which means they’re automatically against the Throne reaching beyond its traditional powers.”

“House Tirasian does have its allies,” Shaeine murmured. “Powerful ones, even. Houses Madouri, Leduc and Dufresne represent enough of a threat to give many of the lesser Houses pause, but there would also be opportunists… He also has the orthodox Shaathists, doubtless other loyalists within every cult. Justinian will not have done this until he is certain of enough allies to at the very least force a stalemate if the established powers dare attack him openly. He is, by all appearances, a meticulous planner.”

“That’s what everybody will be considering,” Teal added. “The political cost of turning on him now would be crippling… And even if he is transparently behind it, the fact is there are chaos dragons rampaging across the continent and nobody can afford a civil war in the middle of that.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask,” Iris said tremulously, “but…I mean, surely the Trinity cults? The Guild? Didn’t the paladins just go through all that rigamarole to make sure they’d side against the Church?”

“And that’d be why Justinian just yanked out the rug,” said Ruda with a bitter laugh. “Way Boots an’ the boys tell it… Boss Tricks ain’t exactly the portrait of reliability right now, the Dawn Council isn’t interested in doin’ fuck all under any circumstances, an’ Lady Gwenfaer’s paper cuts bleed politics. High Commander Rouvad seems like the kind o’ broad who’d take a stand on principle, but then again, she’s also the one who decided Basra fuckin’ Syrinx being good a politics made ‘er worth putting up with all the rest of her general Syrinxitude. We got coin tosses in the best case scenario.”

“Some might still be willing to act, if there were a plan in place and a certainty of, at least, a chance,” Shaeine said quietly. “But whoever acts first will embrace tremendous risk, and the full brunt of the opposition. The pressure will be heavily against anyone sticking their neck out.”

“I’ll go one further,” Teal said quickly. “Soon as we can talk to ‘em again we need to make sure our paladins don’t try to charge at Justinian with blades out.”

“There’s really only one of ‘em likely to do that,” Ruda said with a grin.

“Sure,” Teal replied a touch impatiently, “but it matters that they have credibility and the pull to motivate a lot of people into action behind them. Frustrating as it is, appearances matter, even to paladins. They can’t squander it by seeming to pick a political fight in the middle of a crisis.”

“So,” Scorn rumbled, “what is needed is a person in a position of power, interested in doing the right thing, and willing to be seen as a villain.”

She immediately turned to look straight at Ravana. One by one, so did everyone else in the room, until every eye was fixed upon her except that of her Butler, who stood silent as a gargoyle behind her left shoulder.

Ravana said with perfectly ladylike posture at the head of the table, casually swirling her wineglass in one hand and gazing thoughtfully at nothing. As the room fell silent, she ceased toying with the glass and raised it to her lips for a sip. It was a pink elven wine; she usually did not prefer their sweetness, but the lower alcohol content made it a beverage of choice when she had thinking to do.

Lowering the glass, and seeming to ignore the silent regard of her friends and classmates, the Duchess allowed her lips to slowly curl upward into a viper’s smile.

“Yancey,” she said, “make the arrangements for another press conference tomorrow. In addition to my accusations at this morning’s event, I will publicly charge that Archpope Justinian is behind the chaos drakes, and that he has deliberately caused all this destruction and loss of life for personal, political gain.”

She paused to take another dainty sip; Yancey, attuned to his mistress, watched her without acknowledging the command, as he detected another part forthcoming.

“I will also,” Ravana continued after swallowing, “detail the method by which an Angelus Knight is created, describe the final fate of Sister Lanora, and announce that any cleric who has been personally excommunicated by their former deific patron will be made welcome in Madouris and placed under my personal protection. Along with a warning that their lives are in urgent danger otherwise.”

“Very good, my Lady,” said Yancey. “Shall we arrange protection for the source of this intelligence?”

The Duchess shook her head. “She indicated confidence that her involvement was absolutely unknown to the enemy, and in this case I fear we must take her at her word. The irritating truth is that none of my field agents are of a quality that can match what Justinian has at his disposal. Posting a watch over her would likely do nothing but to draw his attention to her, and in the end my people would be unable to provide sufficient protection.”

“I might’ve known you’d Ravana it,” said Ruda, sounding impressed despite herself. “I know we practically asked for it this time, but c’mon, that’s gonna put you right at the top of Justinian’s shit list.”

“Yeah, no offense,” Teal agreed, “but this business in Madouris up till now has been small potatoes, Ravana. You’re not high on his priorities. If you start spewing his secrets in public…”

“It is a strategic truism,” Ravana said, again idly swirling her wine, “that when one is losing a game of chess to a clearly superior opponent, the correct move is to punch them in the face and overturn the board. This advice, while a valid point, ignores the broader political ramifications which you were just discussing. To be seen as the one to forebear the pretense of civilized behavior that we like to think governs us is to cede a significant material advantage. The solution, thus, is to provoke one’s opponent to throw the punch, and accept the censure of the onlookers.” She smiled again, showing just the tips of her teeth. “And then, in the name of self-defense, stab them in the throat.”

“Why is it even your hypotheticals jump directly to six steps too fuckin’ far?” Ruda demanded.

“Ravana,” Szith said quietly, “the Archpope can punch harder than you can. Significantly.”

“One does not just punch, though,” Ravana replied primly. “As a martial artist, you know it very well. There are questions of position, leverage, angle, maneuver… Teal has the right of it: I must admit, to my chagrin, that I have been up till now little but an inconvenience to his Holiness. If I begin revealing in public fundamental secrets which he will have no idea how I learned, I become a problem. He will be forced to…solve…me. And for me to defend myself will look altogether different than if I, or anyone, were to assault the Universal Church during a universal crisis.”

“I fear you have missed my point,” Szith insisted. “You would have to survive his attack, Ravana. Giving you full credit for the ability to cause trouble upon which this plan seems to rest, even you must acknowledge that you are not at your best on the defensive!”

“Am I not?” Ravana narrowed her eyes; her smile, if anything, widened. “Justinian is a creature of meticulous plans. Unexpected and uncontrolled violence is antithetical to his mode of operation. Even when he has unleashed it—such as now—it has always been safely far from his own base of operations, and with himself in at least partial control of all sides of the performative conflict. True carnage, the rapid unfolding of unforeseeable events, heavily disadvantages web-weavers such as he. That is the domain of paladins, adventurers, and it must be said…” Smirking, she actually bowed slightly from her chair. “…villains. I do not delude myself that this is my fight to win, or that I even could. No; our predicament is that Justinian has changed the nature of the battle to advantage himself. I will simply change it again.”

She sipped her wine once more, eyes glinting with manic anticipation.

“If his Holiness truly wishes to play about with chaos, then we shall go on a journey together, and explore the truth of what chaos means.”


“Really. Two minutes?” Despite the disappointing news, Justinian sounded more impressed than anything.

“That’s a broad guess,” Rector grunted, hunched over an instrument panel as usual and not looking up at his guest and patron. “Approximating from initial attack range, but even at the most conservative value, it was fast. Way faster than the one lost at Veilgrad. Weird readings, too… The chaos shard itself blinked out. Usually there’d be a major divine event concentrated on it before nullification. I think it was moved back to the dimensional insulation layer.”

“I suppose it is no more than should be expected,” Justinian mused. “Very well. I see I shall have to arrange something to keep the good Professor occupied. Interference of that caliber could be disastrous at this stage.”

Rector finally hesitated in his manipulation of the ancient data screen. He did not look up from it, but froze with his fingers above the glowing panel, staring at nothing.

“Thought you decided to leave her alone. Tried that, right? Didn’t work.”

“I probed at her, yes,” Justinian said mildly. “The point was, in part, to gauge her reaction; among other things, the attempt verified that she does have an interventionist streak, which has just become immediately relevant. I will consider my options. Fear not, Rector; I have several contingencies in varying states of readiness. Some may require your aid, but as always, I shall provide you the greatest advance notice I am able.”

“It’s Tellwyrn,” said the enchanter, still not moving. “Not much gets her attention except for threatening her students. Right? Is that… There’s already a lot of collateral damage.”

Justinian studied the back of his head pensively for a second before answering. “These are the painful decisions of strategy and moral cost versus benefit of which I spoke to you before, Rector. I fear that the closer we come to the final steps, the more…difficult they will grow. And we are very close indeed. Have patience for just a while longer. Soon, all of this will be finished.”

Rector remained in his rigid position for a moment, then grunted and resumed scrolling the screen as if he’d never stopped moving. After watching him for a moment longer, the Archpope retreated, not bothering with a farewell. He was not one to forebear such courtesies, but had learned that Rector was more annoyed than reassured by extraneous social rituals.

Seconds after the door shut behind the Archpope, Azradeh appeared from invisibility in the corner.

She was still testing her limits. According to one of her books—theology was among the subjects Justinian had been quite willing to let her read—a sitting Archpope gained a great deal of divine power but lost the cult-specific gifts as they were elevated from the servant of one god to the servant of all. So, in theory, he shouldn’t have Izarite empathy. Thus, she’d been lurking about him invisibly to see if he ever reacted, which he had not.

Unless he was a natural empath; those did seem to be drawn to Izara’s service. That would mean he was only pretending not to know when she was invisible in his vicinity, a thought which verged on paranoia but also wasn’t entirely implausible when it came to Justinian. But even in that eventuality, he was still pretending he couldn’t sense her, which meant she had a little leeway of maneuver until he was willing to blow his advantage. Even that was useful.

Of course, it was more likely he just couldn’t tell, period, but she was unwilling to commit to assumptions about the man.

“Wow, busy day, huh?” she said cheerfully, sauntering over toward Rector.

He just grunted, as usual. The handy thing about Rector was how little interest he had in anyone else’s comings and goings. As long as she didn’t pop out of invisibility right in front of his eyes, he wouldn’t wonder where she’d come from. Actually, Azradeh wasn’t completely sure even that would get his attention.

“Now, you make sure you’re getting enough sleep,” she lectured, circling behind him. “I will not hesitate to tattle to Delilah on you, see if I don’t.”

“Go away, pest,” he growled.

“Yeah, yeah.” Azradeh sat down on one of his less-cluttered workbenches, just loudly enough to make it clear from behind that that was what she’d done. He twitched in the most amusing way, but didn’t turn to chastise her further. “So what was that about collateral damage and attacking students? That doesn’t sound like you.”

He froze again.

“Or his Holiness,” she continued in a light tone. “Or…well, I wouldn’t’ve thought so, but who knows with that guy? He’s been really good to me, y’know? And you too, I guess. Man, though, it’s hard to say what goes on in his head. I wouldn’t think he’d deliberately get anybody hurt, but—”

“Just get out!” the enchanter snapped, snatching up a handful of brass screws from the nearest table and hurling them backward in the vague direction of her voice. Azradeh watched them sail past a good yard to her right. “I don’t have time for you right now!”

“Hey, it’s okay,” she said soothingly. “You’re just the equipment guy, right? It’s Justinian who makes the decisions. If somebody gets hurt, well, is that really your fault?”

“GET! OUT!”

Rector finally spun, snatching up a wrench and flinging it with far more accuracy. As usual she didn’t blink when it bonked off the bridge of her nose, but when he hurled his data screen she plucked it deftly out of the air.

“Hey, be careful,” Azradeh urged, setting the panel gently down on the workbench. “I know those things are durable, but they’re thousands of years old and it’s not like you can make more.”

“LEAVE! GO AWAY, DEMON!”

“Okay, I can see you’re busy,” she said, hopping off the table and ignoring the constant barrage of tools, crystals, and metal parts which pelted her. “Promise you won’t forget to eat, all right? See ya later.”

Azradeh turned and strolled toward the door, not reacting when a glass tube shattered on the back of her head. The deluge of metal and glass only halted before she actually exited because he ran out of conveniently throwable objects within easy reach.

Once the door shut behind the archdemon, Rector abruptly sat back down in his chair and sagged, leaning forward and resting his face in his hands.

For once…for perhaps the first time in a long time…the architect of so much of the future was not thinking about his next project. He just sat alone in his secret underground laboratory, thinking about some of the things he had created.

And what they might mean.

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16 – 57

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They came streaking out of the depths of the Golden Sea, leaving trails of black smoke across the sky. The skeletal figures made no formation, in fact fanning outward as they traveled; when they failed to do so, conflict erupted in brief midair scuffles, the necro-drakes snapping and clawing at each other before separating and banking away in a different direction. One particularly fractious pair actually locked together in a body brawl that cost them the use of their wings and began plummeting toward the prairie below. Only the intervention of a third spared them a crash, ironically, as another aggressive drake dive-bombed the clawing couple, the impact sending all three necro-drakes wheeling away in different directions, howling their outrage at one another.

And still more came, in twos and threes, snapping and shrieking and then separating, a steady stream of dozens emerging from the deep magical frontier and fanning out, their mutual hostility goading them to set off on multiple courses. Briefly they would turn and lash out at one another, but unlike the mad, almost demonic aggression of the first necro-drake which had perished at Veilgrad, something pushed them to restraint, at least with one another. The damage their brief clashes inflicted was healed immediately, but it served to nudge them away from further conflict, propelling them to fan out and fly far until they could no longer see one another.

As if something were guiding them from the outside, against their own nature.

Thus, what had begun as an airborne column from their point of summons was a broad fan by the time they began passing beyond the border of the Golden Sea itself, into the visually unremarkable Great Plains beyond, and spread further, widening into an array of courses that would send the monsters toward every part of the Empire east of the Wyrnrange and south of the Sea, from Veilgrad to Mathenon, and most definitely toward the central cluster of Tiraas, Madouris and Anteraas on the southern coast. And, of course, everything they would pass by on the way.

For all that it lay almost due south of the origin point in the Golden Sea’s center, by the time the flock had traveled that far they had spread to such an extent that only one of their number spied the lone mountain rearing up out of the prairie and veered toward it, driven by its fundamental compulsion to attack. Emitting its unearthly howl across the plains, it folded its wings and dived, streaking in a shallow descent toward the spires and terraces at the peak of the mountain, where it sensed life, and magic.

“Absolutely fucking not.”

Last Rock’s most notorious denizen was far too well-schooled in the ways of chaos to bother striking it directly with magic. Instead, the actual spell was deployed far in advance of the necro-drake’s course, and with a thunderclap that cracked windows and traveled even farther than the monster’s scream, a burst of solid air directed with the precision of a wandshot ripped out of the sky and slammed into the diving construct, physically shattering its pieces and sending them hurtling straight down to the prairie far below, well over half a mile short of the mountain itself.

They began reassembling almost immediately; within seconds the thing had drawn itself mostly back together, its broken body knitting into place and the cracks healing. It was just picking itself up out of the smashed tallgrass and shaking its head when she arrived.

Not reckless enough to teleport that close to a chaos effect, Tellwyrn nonetheless arrived with a suddenness that went well beyond an elf’s natural speed; despite her characteristically bombastic displays, she held countless tricks in reserve against the possibility of someone seeing and preparing for them, for situations exactly such as this.

“What part of I am on vacation do you lot keep failing to comprehend?” the diminutive blonde figure demanded shrilly, stomping through the tallgrass toward the chaos beast. “If it’s not tedious social events in Veilgrad or royalty gatecrashing my beach bungalow, it’s whatever the hell this is supposed to be!”

The necro-drake gathered itself enough to lunge at her, snapping its jaws, and immediately was yanked backward.

The wind picked up, howling all around them as the tallgrass in a broad circular area bent toward a point directly behind the drake’s tail; loose strands of vegetation, dirt, and insects went hurtling into the spot as if a hole in reality were trying to suck the entire contents of the prairie into a pinprick-sized point. The necro-drake barely managed to flatten itself to the ground, digging in its claws into the earth, as the force of wind dragged it inexorably backward. Its strength sufficed to keep it from coming loose, but the task demanded all four limbs. It couldn’t even raise its head to snap at Tellwyrn again.

“I’m a reasonable woman, despite what they say,” she commented, strolling closer at a more idle pace which belied the wind tugging at her hair and clothes, her slim figure otherwise undisturbed even though the force of attraction was now ripping up clumps of tallgrass and sucking them into the vacuum. “I get it; life is just full of inconveniences, interruptions, and miscellaneous pains in the ass. All I ask is that some effort be made to compensate me for my trouble, you know? Even if it’s just a token gesture.”

The necro-drake tried to lift its head to howl at her and immediately lost four feet of ground as the raised posture provided more surface area for the wind to push against. It flattened itself again, clinging desperately to the spots where its claw marks in the dirt terminated. The slim elf still stood upright against the torrent, unruffled aside from her ponytail.

“Vette is always a gracious hostess, if cloyingly quirky. Besides, it was gratifying to see Natchua thriving despite her various self-imposed setbacks. I worry about that kid. And Eleanora at least offers possibly the most fabulous set of knockers it’s ever been my privilege to rub my face all over. Top five, definitely. Not to mention her…statuesque personality and voluptuous intellect. Honestly it’s a shame she happened along at this point in both our lives; that girl is wife material if I ever saw it. You see my point, though?”

Tilting its head to one side, the necro-drake managed a desultory snap of its jaws and a noise that was more like a plaintive croak than its typical unearthly howl. Tellwyrn stared down at it over the rims of her golden spectacles.

“All you have to do is make it worth my while. In all the old stories, you’d never approach a great sorcerer or dragon, archfae or even demon lord without an offering in hand. There is a reason for that. Any interruption can be forgiven with the right bribe, or at minimum a token of respect. You, though? You neglected to bring me a present. And so you get the full grumpy.”

By sinking half its front foot into the ground, the necro-drake achieved enough leverage to haul itself two yards forward against the gale, stretching its neck and opening wide its jaws to threaten the elf even as dirt and loose tallgrass bounced off its obsidian skeleton.

Tellwyrn held up her right hand and snapped her fingers.

Another thunderclap roared across the prairie, the explosion of air for one instant pushing the tallgrass flat even against the ongoing torrent of pressure. With it came a second, massive blast of nearly solid air, striking the necro-drake full in the face from virtually no distance away. The hit dislodged and shattered it, and its pieces were sucked into the vacuum point before the monstrosity had the chance to be aware at had been attacked.

The moment the shards of obsidian and magic were drawn into that point, the pressure and howling wind ceased. With the spell in abeyance, an apple-sized black orb containing all the matter sucked into that point, compressed around the crushed chaos shard funneled into its center, fell to earth from a point about four feet up. Naturally, being as massive and impossibly dense as it was, the small object hit like an artillery strike, sinking several yards straight down and making the already-ravaged surface of the prairie around it ripple like water.

Event that failed to dislodge Tellwyrn, who was left standing on a disc of solid and undisturbed ground moments later when the dust settled. Scowling, she gestured with one hand, and the orb rose back up out of the ground to hover in place for a few seconds while an intricate weaving of divine, arcane and infernal magic slid into place around it, forming a lattice which funneled its inner chaos back in on itself to prevent so much as a flicker from escaping. Not for nothing was she one of the foremost experts on chaos magic still alive. The sorceress made a beckoning motion with her hand and the ball, now wrapped in streamers of multicolored light, drifted closer to her.

“Ugh,” she grunted. “Looks like valkyrie problems to me.”

Tellwyrn twisted her wrist, making a grasping motion in midair, and with a terrible screeching noise reminiscent of rending metal, the air itself tore apart, opening a doorway onto a dimmer version of the prairie with a seething mass of colossal tentacles blotting out the distant sky. Amid the twisting morass, enormous eyes blinked, several immediately turning to glare directly at the aperture.

The elf just flicked her hand and sent the ball of compressed chaos hurtling through, then released her grip on the portal itself before it could hit the ground. The gate slammed closed with another burst of thunder.

Snorting irritably, Tellwyrn adjusted her spectacles and turned slowly around, scanning the sky in various directions. Nothing out of the ordinary was visible to the naked eye, but for multiple reasons that applied no limitation to her.

“Huh. That is…a lot of those bastards. And you just know they’re gonna expect me to deal with this. Of course, I always have to do everything. What’s it going to take for everybody to comprehend that I am retired? For fuck’s sake, I teach history now. I gave the world twenty-nine centuries of adventuring services, you can all fix your own shit for once!”

She hesitated, glaring at the sky, then sighed heavily.

“Oh, bah.”

After all the thunderclaps, the minute pop of her departure was anticlimactic, leaving behind a thoroughly destroyed stretch of prairie outside Last Rock in the universal symbol that Tellwyrn had been here.


“Down! DOWN!”

Captain Afarousi’s bellow was barely audible through the discharge of battlestaves, the crash of broken masonry and the spine-twisting howl of the monster itself, but her soldiers weren’t idiots. The beast finished climbing out of the wrecked tower it had just dive-bombed and lunged across the battlements, where the wall’s defenders were already lunging out of the way, taking shelter behind chunks of fallen stone or within craters made in the wall itself; several chanced the ten-foot drop to the sloping tile roof of the guardhouse below.

Its tail scraped what was left of the battlements as it roared across the walltop, swiping at fleeing Royal Guards. Afarousi yanked open the heavy door to the next guard tower, frantically gesturing the three nearest soldiers through before being the last after them; the necro-drake bore down on her with such speed she very nearly didn’t make it.

There was no time to pull the door shut after, she just dived out of the way around the wall, and in the next instance the whole tower shook. Stone bulged inward from the outer wall where the monster impacted, and in the shuddering of the whole edifice Afarousi found herself fearing the structure was about to come down on top of them.

She landed on her back, losing her grip on her staff, and was forced into an undignified crab scuttle to gain further distance as one skeletal claw was thrust through the tower door, swiping blindly at them.

The crack of a battlestaff discharging in an enclosed space that close was utterly deafening, but Captain Afarousi wasn’t about to complain when the monster’s entire claw shattered, obsidian bones splintering to fragments and its necrotic-looking ligaments dissolving. Another keening roar of outrage made the already beleaguered tower shudder further, but at least the necro-drake pulled back what was left of its arm.

The shot had bought only seconds, she knew. Already the pieces were flowing back outward as the thing reassembled itself. Afarousi got her feet under her and lunged to the side, scooping up her staff and shouting for her soldiers to retreat to the tower’s opposite entrance, where the stretch of wall on the other side hadn’t yet been hit. She herself knelt beside the wholly inadequate shelter of an upturned table, bracing her battlestaff in a firing position to buy them moments when the monster attacked again.

It would attack again. Nothing stopped it. She’d already seen it tear through priests and mages as well as common soldiers, both Calderaan and Imperial. Directed magic misfired in wholly unpredictable ways around the chaos beast, but at least the lightning bolts of conventional wands and staves did some damage. Small damage that immediately reversed itself, but that was the best they’d managed.

Before the second blow finished off the tower, though, there came a fusillade of shots from the near distance and the necro-drake yowled again as it was hammered by lightning bolts from the north, outside the walls. The tower shuddered again as it shifted and launched itself off the broken battlements.

Wasting no time, Afarousi darted to the doorway and peered out.

A squad of Imperial troops had taken position on a stony rise just outside the city, where they had formed a firing line and hammered it with a full volley. The necro-drake immediately descended on them, and she could only watch in sickened anticipation, having seen this already.

But a cerulean glow had already risen around the small squad, and with a flash of blue light, the entire group vanished, seconds before the monster landed on their hill. Keening in frustration, it pivoted this way and that, actually lifting its claws to check under them like a confused cat which had just lost a mouse.

Captain Afarousi spared a prayer of blessing for the Emperor. She and the other Sultana’s Royal Guards had been holding the line purely because the Imperial troops helping man the walls of Calderaas had been among the first to perish in the attack; they had better weapons, and had even managed to hit the monster with a mag cannon burst. In those first moments, none of them understood what they were facing, and by the time Afarousi and the other survivors had learned that magic would backfire against this foe, it was too late for the first line of defenders. The superior tactics and weapons of the Imps had been their own undoing.

They’d already learned, though, repurposing their battlemages to strict teleportation. As she watched, another squad heckled the necro-drake with staff fire from further out, on another rise flanking the north road out of the city, then themselves disappeared in another flash when it tried to charge them.

“Report,” she ordered hoarsely.

“We’re proper fucked, Captain,” Saldaan stammered.

Afarousi jabbed him with the butt of her staff, but not hard. She didn’t spare him the full strength of her glare, though.

“No more of that, Guardsman,” she snapped. “These are the walls of Calderaas. They don’t fall while there is a living drop of the Royal Guard’s blood still up and fighting!”

That turn of phrase didn’t exactly hold up to semantic scrutiny, but it did its job; Saldaan and the others within her field of view straightened up, their expressions hardening, and she got a salute from him and several other grim nods.

She also got a stark visual reminder that there were only seven of them. Seven of her soldiers, still standing and with weapons in hand. Avei send that more of the cohort were sheltering elsewhere and seeking to regroup, but Afarousi did not kid herself that she hadn’t lost a great deal of her command today. What remained of the battlements were liberally splattered with blood and worse; she had seen far too many fall with her own eyes. Goddess’s grace, right within her field of view now was an arm protruding from beneath a boulder that had minutes ago been part of the next tower. No need to guess why it wasn’t moving; it was even odds whether it was still attached to the rest of someone under there.

“We hold,” she stated. “The Imperials are adapting their tactics: look, they’re leading it away. We don’t have attached mages like them, and our…” She had to pause and swallow heavily against a swelling in her throat. Aliana had died right in front of her, early on, standing fearlessly up to the beast like a Sister of Avei should. Afarousi had been counting down days till the Sisterhood rotated their detachment again, so Aliana was no longer under her command and it wouldn’t be inappropriate to ask her… In the next moment, she shoved all that ruthlessly aside to be dealt with if she was still alive at the end of the day. There was no time while the battle still raged. “What we have are our weapons and our training, and our oath to the Sultana. So long as any part of this wall stands, we will hold it.”

“CALDERAAS ETERNAL!” they chorused, two brandishing staves overhead. Including, Afarousi was gratified to see, four more of her men and women who had clambered out of improvised cover elsewhere along this shattered stretch of the wall.

That relief was short-lived, though, as the third attempted guerrilla strike by the Imperials failed spectacularly. The mages were just a hint too slow, and the teleportation fizzled as the necro-drake dived onto them.

Several of her Guards averted their gaze; Afarousi forced herself to watch. It didn’t last long. At least the Imps got in a few shots before they fell. Sometimes, that was all a soldier could hope for.

Gods above, this was supposed to be peacetime. This was Calderaas, deep in the heart of the Empire. Mosters attacking cities was fairy tale nonsense out of the Age of Adventures. This wasn’t supposed to be happening.

Immediately she could see the crack in the Imps’ improvised strategy; it depended on improbably precise timing. The next leapfrogged squad was already too far away to continue the maneuver. They fired a volley at the necro-drake but they were already out of effective staff range, and the lightning bolts arced off course well before reaching their target.

The beast raised its skeletal head as if sniffing the air. It did, indeed, turn to glare at the Imperial squad, which they answered with more potshots, but then it twisted again to look at the city.

Staring at its disturbingly chromatic eyes, Afarousi felt she could feel the hatred simmering in it. That thing wasn’t trying to eat, or seek revenge, or anything an animal might do. It just wanted to cause destruction. To kill.

With one beat of its wings, it launched itself into the air and surged back toward the city.

“We need to consolidate,” Captain Afarousi heard herself say. “Saldaan, take everyone to the north gatehouse and place yourself under Colonel Fedmadhev’s command. I’ll make sure you’ve got time to get there.”

“Captain—”

“I have given my orders!”

To their credit, her soldiers turned and ran without further debate, though they knew what this meant.

As a line of soldiers fled through the half-broken tower and across the wall on the other side, the necro-drake shifted its focus slightly, winging toward them just as she had expected. It had already demonstrated it was drawn to moving targets.

So Afarousi shot it. Not with her battlestaff—it was still well out of range—but her sidearm.

In many ways, service in the Royal Guard was a welcome reprieve from the Game of Houses that constantly plagued the city; in the Sultana’s direct service there was strict discipline and she was addressed only by military rank by both superiors and subordinates. She had been eager to enlist for that reason, and not just because service was an honored tradition of House Afarousi. But she was still the Lady Shahrizad Fatimah Afarousi, and that meant she had certain privileges—such as her custom wand, a gift from her father. While a true enchanter’s wand would deploy a versatile beam of magic and thus prove ineffective here, this was a layperson’s sidearm, expensive for far more than its mother-of-pearl grip and intricate platinum fittings. It fired a particle beam that would travel for miles if uninterrupted and strike with the precision of a logarithm.

And Captain Afarousi was a crack shot, because she had practiced until she could make that claim. Because she felt a soldier ought to be.

She nailed the bastard right between the eyes.

Very much to her surprise, it went down.

With a howl that sounded very much like pain, the necro-drake folded up in midair and twisted about as if it had just plowed into a wall, plummeting to the road while the Captain lowered her wand, staring in disbelief. Had she accidentally found a weak point?

Not weak enough, she discovered as it immediately surged upright again, its gaze now fixed unmistakably on her. The necro-drake screamed in rage. She shot it again; this time it twisted its skull just enough that the beam raked its cheek instead of hitting it again in the forehead.

“Come on then, you evil shit,” Afarousi hissed, then roared back at it. “CALDERAAS ETERNAL!”

Death met her challenge, springing forward and shooting right at her, this time undeterred by the beams and lightning bolts with which she pelted it, firing with both hands. There was a strangely pure clarity in that moment, knowing how it was about to end, so much so that she felt something like vertigo when it did not.

A streak of Light plummeted from the sky right in front of her, and for the second time in ten seconds, the necro-drake hit the ground, this time with a winged shape atop it, hacking with a glowing sword.

The monster screamed, twisted, and bucked violently, managing to dislodge its attacker. It surged aloft again, no longer coming at Afarousi, who was so startled by these developments that she forgot to shoot it again.

Almost immediately, though, the other flying figure got its bearings and resumed the attack, arcing through the air to strike the necro-drake directly on its side, where its neck met its body. They both crashed down right atop the wall just yards from Afarousi, so close she had to jump back to avoid an errant swipe from one skeletal wing as the beast thrashed.

Its struggles were short-lived as the glowing warrior brought its sword down in one mighty swing and hacked straight through the neck, beheading the monster.

Immediately, of course, it began trying to knit itself back together, but that momentary decapitation made the rest of the body go limp, buying the warrior time to leap astride the upper part of its remaining neck, bring its sword up, and ram it straight downward, point-first, through the exact spot in the center of its forehead where Afarousi had shot it.

In the next instant, it was nothing but black glass. The necro-drake disintegrated in pieces which fell to litter the broken walltop and cascade down both sides; as the multi-hued light vanished from its eye sockets, the smoke put off by its body and the glowing tendrils binding its “bones” together vanished, leaving behind nothing but shards of obsidian.

Captain Afarousi found herself alone atop the wall with something even more out of legend than the monster.

It was a tall and rather androgynous figure, clad in luminous golden armor over a pure white robe, its eyes blazing with holy light. Behind it spread glowing wings, like those the Hand of Avei was said to manifest in moments of the Goddess’s personal blessing, but these seemed permanent, and solid. As she stared, the divine warrior withdrew its sword from the cracked skull, raised one booted foot, and stomped hard.

The black skull shattered under it.

“What,” she said numbly. “Who are…”

“I am Angelus.” The warrior’s voice was like a choir, like a dozen voices in perfect harmony. “I serve the Universal Church.”

“And what…was that?”

“It was evil,” they replied, “and there are more of them. I must go. Rally your defenders, soldier; this fight is just begun. All must be ready.”

They fanned their wings once, and shot aloft, leaving her alone on the wall with the shards of the greatest enemy Calderaas had faced in living memory.

Captain Afarousi craned her neck, watching the glowing figure arc away through the sky until it was lost to distance, then turned to stare around her.

The walls were all but shattered along this stretch. Dozens if not over a hundred brave soldiers had fallen in their defense. But alarm bells were ringing through the city, the belltowers and minarets untouched, citizens still rushing to get to shelter. For all that they had been slaughtered, the defenders had stopped the beast at the wall. Or at least, kept its attention long enough for the Angelus to arrive. It had not gotten so far as to fly inward and rampage in the city itself.

The walls of Calderaas had held.

She wished it felt more like a victory.

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16 – 56

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“Nurdrakhaan,” the Archpope repeated, staring pensively at the ancient data screen affixed to Rector’s apparatus by a framework of commercially available brass fastenings. Currently it was displaying strings of text and numbers which conveyed raw data that the enchanter could evidently interpret, though Justinian understood only bits and snatches.

“That’s what I said,” Rector snapped, still testy from his morning’s excursion into the cold. He tended to wilt outdoors even when the weather was pleasant, hence his complete comfort with living underground for years on end. “Not a lot of data on those, rarely see ‘em on this plane, but size and configuration’s unmistakable. Nothing else makes an infernal signature like that. Apparently got banished back to Hell, too, that’s a first. Usually gotta just kill ‘em.”

“Demonology is not my field of specialty,” Justinian admitted, “but they are mostly magical, are they not? By description, they don’t seem very aerodynamic.”

“Aerodynamic,” Rector scoffed, still tapping rapidly at the screen. “Completely made of magic. Never mind flying, the square/cube law would kill those things just for existing if there was any mundane physics involved. So, no, they should not have been able to tangle with the chaos drake. Makes no sense. Obviously missing a lot of data here.” He irritably flicked the screen with the backs of his fingers. “But I don’t know why or how. This is a direct transcension interlink, it shouldn’t have blind spots like that.”

Justinian raised his head, inhaling slowly as he considered. “A chaos construct destroyed by infernomancy, with key details inexplicably obscured from magical oversight… An explanation presents itself, though it seems improbable.”

“Actually improbable in the mathematical sense, or just counter-intuitive?” Rector grumbled. “Go where the data leads. Data doesn’t respect your prejudices.”

“Point taken,” the Archpope replied with a small smile which Rector was not positioned to see. “I suppose, on further reflection, it does make a certain sense, in light of Antonio’s great research project. Hmm. Natchua…of House Leduc. An interesting choice, but then, the Dark Lady has always been fond of those who skillfully oppose her. We may be forced to adapt to this development, Rector. I would like you to adjust the final array plans to deal with the possibility of large-scale infernal interference.”

Rector let out a long hiss and finally took both his hands off the screen to clutch its edges in a knuckle-bleaching grip. “You told me to key it for divine and arcane effects. Adding another school of potential problems will increase its complexity exponentially!”

“I am sorry to lay it upon you, Rector, but this is now the situation. The final array cannot fail. Everything else can be worked around, but that…”

“Forget the difficulty, you do realize every extra layer of complication introduces more possible things that might go wrong?”

“I do. I must rely on your skill, as always.”

The enchanter heaved an exasperated sigh. “You want me to just go ahead and make adjustments for all four schools while I’m at it?”

“I fear that burden would be prohibitive. I cannot foresee the fae becoming a significant concern, but if the situation changes again I will give you as much advance warning as I am able. We must be prepared for infernal interference because it is now a significant prospect, but not a certainty. I do, after all, have leverage over Elilial, should she set herself against me. For now…” He paused, narrowing his eyes in thought. “…this development forces my hand. You are certain the construct summoning apparatus is stable?”

“I said it was, didn’t I? Completely solid, no significant errors. I even tweaked its efficiency to tighten up the core matrix, should work faster now.”

“Good. We will have to deploy it remotely. Please initiate the summons with all our remaining prepared shards simultaneously.”

Rector went completely still. For a protracted moment he was silent, still apparently staring at the device.

“All of them,” the enchanter repeated at last.

“Yes.”

“We only have the one Angelus Knight.”

“The necessary components to make more are secured and on their way here already. The timing will be awkward, but should suffice.”

“Components,” Rector repeated in a flat tone. “If we let all of them loose with only one Angelus, plus the three paladins and whatever intervened at Veilgrad… There’s going to be a lot of damage. A lot.”

Justinian paused, studying the back of the man’s head; Rector remained still in his seat as if arrested by the ideas he was considering.

Rector could be difficult to read, even for a veteran Izarite. At this point Justinian suspected Delilah was the only person who was truly adept at communicating with him, though Azradeh had made surprising inroads in her brief time here, for all that Rector affected to dislike her. The man was not as oblivious as he often appeared, and certainly the farthest thing from stupid. He had, however, always seemed rather narrow of focus, incurious about politics or anything occurring above his subterranean lair with its sprawling complex of workshops in which he was provided everything an enchanter could dream. To Rector, the projects he worked on were absorbing as intellectual exercises. He had never expressed an interest in what the Archpope actually did with his technology, even when the Throne’s retaliation through the interlink had blown up one of his original labs.

But that was before he’d been taken out into the world, seen a nearly headless corpse firsthand and been present when twelve willing souls sacrificed themselves to form a construct of which he had been the principal designer. Considering him now, it occurred to Justinian that Rector’s tense, annoyed demeanor since that morning’s events might arise from more than the inconvenience and cold.

“I’m afraid so,” Justinian answered, glancing back at the closed door to the chamber. Rector hadn’t overtly mentioned the events at the ruins that morning, the risk of which was exactly why he had not invited Delilah to be present for this conversation. Even Nassir was beginning to have questions; she would definitely not have been sanguine. “Everything we do here is toward a greater purpose, Rector. The great difficulty of our work is that it is the greatest purpose, an unprecedented elevation of the whole of humanity. In any complex endeavor there are costs to every benefit, and when one operates on this level… Well, as the saying goes, you can make a desert verdant, but it might empty an ocean. Some of our actions will have unforeseen consequences, and some will carry costs of which we are forewarned, and must choose to accept anyway.”

“And this.” Rector paused abruptly; knowing him, more likely for thought than emphasis. “This will be worth it?”

Justinian exhaled deeply. “I have calculated as best I can to ensure it is so. Life is unpredictable, Rector. I have erred in the past and others have suffered for it; that is a burden I would not wish upon anyone. That is why I have to continue on this course: to spare others having to do so, and to ensure that we meet our goal, and that everything will have been worth it. There are no guarantees, but I swear to you that everything I do is designed toward the greatest possible good, using information and resources to which no one else has access. If I believed anyone could do this task better, I would gladly step aside and let them.”

The enchanter was still for a few more moments, then finally, slowly, released his grip on the machine and returned his hands to their position over the touch screen, beginning once more to scroll through the data.

“Simultaneous deployment should be possible. The array isn’t set up for that, but the difference isn’t qualitative and it’ll be a…relatively minor adjustment. The power source is more than adequate, so…” He tapped a sigil in one corner of the screen and began poking and flicking at the resulting diagrams. “Mm, yeah, it’s more a software than a hardware issue. I can make most of the changes from right here, then go augment some of the conduits, lock in the necessary foci…should just take a few hours.”

“Thank you, Rector.” Anyone else Justinian would have patted on the shoulder, but the enchanter did not like to be touched. “I appreciate all you do.”

He didn’t answer, already fully absorbed again in his device.

Behind them, and behind the illusion of a closed door, the actual door to the room was pulled carefully shut as Azradeh, invisible under the same magical camouflage, eased back out into the hall. She retreated back toward her room, claws silent on the floor. She had only recently worked out how to do this; it was tricky, experimenting with the latent magic within her in moments when she was certain she would not be observed, but some judicious testing on Rector, Delilah, and Nassir had confirmed the stealth worked. Branwen was another matter; Azradeh didn’t want to risk trying to get too sneaky around an empath. But Branwen wasn’t here right now.

For now, she kept her secrets close. Every little advantage could be crucial, and based on what she’d just heard, the moment when they might was fast approaching.


Amazingly, the day just continued to get more interesting. Rasha fancied that she handled the arrival of several huge, glowing wolves which shifted into people rather well, being by that point somewhat inured to outlandish magical bullshit. Glowing wolf-people didn’t hold a candle to what the Archpope had just done right in front of her. At any rate, the Shadow Hunters (as they introduced themselves and she carefully avoided laughing—really, what a name) did, just as Eserion and then Rogrind had suggested, work for the provincial government. Rasha had somewhat ignored the details of political news outside the capital, but confronted with this it did not escape her that by fostering the reformist Shaathists the Duchess Madouri had, contrary to customary practice for nobles, inserted herself in a bold and direct way into cult politics. This was most relevant to Rasha’s concerns because it showed Madouri had aligned herself firmly against the Archpope. Firmly, and rather more aggressively than she would expect from an Imperial governor.

All of this danced about in the forefront of her mind when, scarcely an hour later, she found herself sitting down for tea with the Duchess in person.

The Shadow Hunters had decided to escort her and Rogrind straight to Madouris, since they were apparently a distance from their own headquarters that would have required magic to reach before the two bedraggled refugees began to succumb to the cold. There had followed a flurry of introductions and polite escalations, as Rogrind and Rasha between them had sufficient connections that dropping Trissiny’s name just proved the straw that broke the donkey’s back. The dwarf had ultimately vanished without so much as a farewell, not that she particularly missed him, and no sooner was Rasha herself bandaged, clean, and freshly attired than she was informed by Yancey, the Duchess’s Butler, that she had been invited to join the Lady for tea.

It was Lady, he diffidently made certain she knew in advance. The Duchess did not care for the more traditional epithet of “her Grace.”

“I can’t thank you enough for your generosity, my Lady,” she said, drawing on every scrap of the demure poise Glory had drilled into her.

“Pish tosh, I would be absolutely disgraced to do a whit less,” Ravana Madouri replied in an airy tone which belied the sharp focus of her eyes. “You are a personal friend of my own dear comrade Trissiny, and here I find you have been heinously mishandled on my own lands. I can at the very least see to your comfort and convenience. Consider it a matter of honor, if you wish, but rest assured this is no imposition.”

Whatever she might say, it was generous. Rasha was attired in a new dress—an expensive one in keeping with the latest trends in fashion, and which fit her. Not as perfectly as a properly tailored garment, but quite well. And that raised the question of just why such a thing was so readily on hand, as it certainly did not belong to the Duchess. It would not have fit her.

Rasha was deeply wary of this woman simply due to Trissiny’s description of her personality, but that description had largely omitted the physical and left her imagining the Duchess as some statuesque, imperious figure of impossible beauty and a downright draconic aura of power. To her surprise, Ravana Madouri was tiny. Unusually for Tiraan nobility, she was blonde, and shorter even than Rasha by a few inches. Not to mention just daintier in every proportion. Rasha herself was happy with her body as it had turned out, for all that Sister Eivery had tried to prepare her for disappointment as there were limits to what transformative alchemy could safely do. Far from being disappointed, she found that a tomboyish aesthetic rather suited her tastes, hence her shorter hairstyle. Still, she was not accustomed to being the the taller or more voluptuous of any two women, and yet…here they were.

The infamous Duchess was like a little doll. A tiny, pretty doll who gazed at Rasha with blue eyes like icicles sharpened to killing points. Meeting that dissecting gaze above that bland smile, she found herself believing every detail of Trissiny’s warnings about this woman.

“With regard to that,” she said aloud, “I do hope you don’t put too much blame on Rogrind. Given our history it feels odd to say that, but he actually is, to my amazement, an ally in this.”

“Quite so, quite so! Don’t worry, the situation was explained to my satisfaction. An unusual scenario, to be sure, but I, he, and I suspect you are all accustomed to, shall we say, extenuating circumstances?” She smiled again, then took a sip of her tea, eyes drilling into Rasha over the lip of the cup. “My people escorted Mr. Rogrind to the Svennish consulate here in Madouris. By this time I expect he is back in the capital; it would be standard procedure for them to have a portal mage on call. The gentleman’s account of your morning’s adventures was fascinating! Though somewhat incomplete, I must say.”

“Well,” Rasha murmured, “you know spies.”

“Of course.” Ravana’s smile was a shark’s. “Then, too, he appears to have been oddly incapacitated during part of the events in question. I understand you observed something of great interest?”

And there it was. The Duchess might even have been serious about that “matter of honor” business when it came to tending to Rasha herself, but a woman like that wouldn’t have only one motivation for anything she did. This was the meat of it.

“This is…difficult to talk about,” Rasha said, speaking carefully and thinking as rapidly as she could. Madouri would, of course, be an excellent ally, and already was politically aligned with her by default, but nothing she’d heard about the Duchess suggested she should or could be trusted. “For several reasons. I am entrusted with certain confidences, and also I’m afraid I understood relatively little of what the Archpope did there. High-level magical shenanigans are rather outside my wheelhouse.”

“So the Archpope was there,” Ravana mused. “Observed by you, without noting your presence?”

“It’s difficult to talk about,” Rasha repeated, affecting an abashed little smile.

The Duchess acknowledged that with a slight inclination of her head. “A pity. So much future trouble might have been avoided had you or Rogrind thought to slide a poisoned knife into his back.”

“Eserites don’t carry poisoned knives, my Lady.”

That had been a test, and the result was interesting. Ravana’s eyes shifted almost imperceptibly, crinkling with what looked like real humor. Of course, a person so self-possessed was more than capable of believably faking an emotion, but that wouldn’t be a likely choice of feigned feeling, given the innate rhythm of a conversation such as this.

“Oh?” she said aloud. “How surprising. I should think that would be stock in trade for a Guild agent.”

“The Guild doesn’t do assassinations, and poison is a poor choice of implement for the occasions when we find it necessary to dispense pain. It is more effective, pursuant to our goals, to see it inflicted by a conscious hand than some invisible agent. Also, in the Tiraan Empire, having any combination of poison and bladed weapons on one’s person at a time is considered evidence of murderous intent. A magistrate can impose a prison sentence for that alone.”

“A pity,” Ravana said with a soft sigh. “I’ve not found occasion to poison anyone, but I must say it seems too elegant a tool to be left in the drawer, as it were. Still, it does not do to criticize the experts at their own craft. I have been immensely satisfied with the Guild’s presence in my lands. It is my inclination to let them go about their business without interference from me.”

“It is unusual, my Lady,” Rasha said in the most carefully polite tone she had ever employed, “to meet an aristocrat who feels positively toward the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Do not mistake me, I rather doubt I would make a good Eserite myself. I believe in the importance of strong leadership and centralized power, you see. But I do highly regard the Guild’s approach to corruption. It must be excised without hesitation or mercy. Those who abuse the public for their own profit should receive not an iota of tolerance.”

Their eyes locked, and after a momentary pause, Rasha nodded once, slowly, in simple agreement. Ravana inclined her head again in response, and for just that second, the two shared a real mutual understanding. Not forgetting their respective places and agendas, of course, but it was a beginning.

Rasha decided to take a risk.

“You have a reputation, my Lady,” she said, allowing her delicate caution to relax just enough to meet the other woman’s gaze with open wariness, “for an interest in…unconventional assets, magical or otherwise.”

“I suppose I should be grateful that is the part of my reputation you’ve heard,” Ravana replied in a wry tone. “To be sure, I lack the magical expertise to understand exotic spellcraft, much less create it, but I do enjoy making myself at least aware of such…interesting assets. Especially if I can then employ specialists who are able to exercise them on my behalf.”

“A pragmatist.”

“Just so.”

“Especially when there is…corruption to be excised.”

This time, the Duchess’s answering smile was slow, and somehow icy and warm at the same time. It was a complex expression, one Rasha took as another gesture of camaraderie.

“Just so,” Ravana repeated softly.

Carefully, carefully. Obviously, she intended to tell Trissiny, and Glory, every detail she could recall save those Eserion had asked her specifically to withhold. Those exceptions were enough of a personal burden without adding the guilt of offloading the entire responsibility for this onto the shoulders of her paladin friend. Rasha was not at all sure whether Trissiny would choose to involve the likes of Ravana in what was unfolding between their growing alliance and Archpope Justinian; the Duchess was a potent asset, but not a notably reliable one.

But in the end…Rasha was not her subordinate. This was not Trissiny’s secret, and thus not her decision. And after the day she’d had, it seemed to her that unleashing a monster against her enemies would be a fine payback.

“Hypothetically,” she said aloud, setting her teacup down on the table between them and leaning back in her chair, “as someone with at least a layperson’s interest in obscure magical powers… What would you do if your enemy could deploy what is effectively an archdemon, except powered by divine rather than infernal energy?”

The Duchess’s expression changed not by a whit, and her answer was smooth and immediate. “Well, one is tempted to immediately resort to esoteric magical measures to undermine and neutralize such a foe. What can be created by intricate spellcraft is often best undone by more of the same. And then, of course, it becomes a game of perpetual one-upmanship between those in control of these opposing magical forces. I do quite enjoy such contests of wit, skill, and organizational aptitude, myself.”

“Forgive me if I presume, my Lady, but I perceive an implication in your response that you might act otherwise than according to what you describe as best practices.”

Ravana’s answering smile was downright vulpine. “Indeed. My very inclination toward games such as those obligates me to be mindful of occasions when it is most appropriate not to play them. The best tricks, as they say, are often simple tricks. Facing such an enemy, I would recall my Circles of Interaction and blast it with the most intense concentration of arcane magic it is humanly possible to accumulate and deploy.”

She set her cup down on the table with a solid clink, still holding Rasha’s gaze.

“And then, when the great weapon of the enemy was weakened and near death, I would personally stand upon its neck until I could watch the divine light fade from its eyes.”

“It’s,” Rasha said slowly, “that last bit, there…”

“Come now, I should think an Eserite of all people would understand. Sometimes, it is not enough to defeat one’s enemies. Sometimes, they must be taught fear.”

A shiver traveled up Rasha’s spine, a warning that she was treading in very dangerous waters indeed. It was not, however, a shiver of apprehension, but excitement. With it came the anticipatory prickle of vengeance beginning to take shape. Rasha might not be able to match any of these great powers in strength or even wits, but that did not make her anyone’s football to be kicked around. And what better ploy was there for a weaker player than to set the stronger against each other?

“I hope I am not taking up too much of your time, my Lady,” she said with a gracious nod of her head. “If you would be so kind as to indulge me, I would dearly like to discuss these matters with you further.”

“My dear Rasha,” the Duchess Madouri replied with a smile of pure kindness and warmth, “you are an honored guest here. My time is yours.”

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Rasha sat down on the end of the cot. There was plenty of room, its occupant being a dwarf; Rogrin’s shoulders both bulged over the sides but his feet didn’t come near the end. Then again, it was a conjured prop placed there by a literal god, so its properties were probably whatever they needed to be. That’d explain why it not only held up to a solid dwarf worth of weight plus hers, but remained completely stable on the uneven snow when she plunked down.

Thinking about nonsense like that was a welcome reprieve.

The Archpope, his surviving non-sacrificed lackeys, and his horrifying new creation did not linger. She paid enough attention to note that Rector was their teleportation specialist, and he wasn’t even a mage; apparently the equipment back at the Cathedral connected to his handheld device included a rapid transit function. Which itself was worth knowing, as to the best of Rasha’s awareness enchanted machines that could perform a teleportation were far beyond the current state of the art. At any rate, that seemed important enough that she managed to dully make a note of it despite the numb sensation that had settled over her after what she had just witnessed.

At any rate, in just a few more minutes, they were gone back whence they had come, which was a relief. She needed to think.

“Keystone souls,” Rasha whispered, then continued, her voice growing stronger as she worked through thoughts out loud, the process helping to regain her equilibrium. “So…he needs one of those per…Angelus. Imbued with the Pantheon’s power and then cut off from their attention? By the sound of it, any Pantheon priest who’s been personally excommunicated by their god. Okay. Okay, that’s…that’s good. That can’t be a common occurrence, so that puts a limit on how many of those things he can make, even beyond…” She trailed off and swallowed heavily. “Gods in pants. Uh, no offense.”

“None taken!”

“How many brainwashed soldiers could he possibly have?”

“The Holy Legion aren’t brainwashed,” Eserion said idly, now leaning one shoulder against the rock outcropping Schwartz had made last year, apparently perfectly at ease. “Just recruited and groomed with exacting care. That’s also significant, y’know. Justinian’s dabbled in real brainwashing, too—that’s what happened to those poor Tide bastards he threw at his problems with all the care of a man upending a bucket of crabs. No, I reckon his Angelus thingumajig requires willing and cognizant souls to power it.”

“But…not the keystone soul,” Rasha mumbled, frowning at nothing. “Lanora was dead, and even if she hadn’t been… I fancy I have a decent grasp of that woman’s flaws, and I can’t see her as the type to sacrifice herself for…something like that.”

“A good point,” the god agreed.

Rasha straightened up suddenly. “Wait a second… A divinely excommunicated priest, who doesn’t even need to be loyal? He’s already got Basra Syrinx squirreled away in that Cathedral! If this was their prototype attempt, why was it so important to come all the way out here in the snow and risk exposure, not to mention reversing time, just to get Lanora? That Rector guy made it sound like they were taking a lot of risks by doing it this way!”

“Mm, good point,” Eserion mused. “Good ol’ Basra sure doesn’t seem to be useful for much except raw materials for an appalling science experiment…at least, not to the likes of you or me. And yet, here we are. It’s almost as if Justinian’s the kinda guy who keeps multiple irons in multiple fires. He sure isn’t shy about making use of her particular brand of crazy.”

“Crap in a hat, after this I don’t even wanna imagine what kind of special plan he has for that woman,” Rasha muttered. She’d not had to deal with Syrinx directly, but between Trissiny’s personal stories and Glory’s collection of rumors the picture that emerged was frightening. “That’s probably gonna be a paladin-sized problem, whatever it is, anyway. Yeah, okay, I get why you wanted me to see this, it’s crucial intel. I can get Glory, Thorn…and Sweet. Between them, they know everybody. We’ve got a good chance of finding these keystone people before Justinian does, if we get the Guild and the Sisters and Imperial Intelligence on it.” She glanced down at Rogrind. “And Svennish intelligence, I guess. Thorn’s in good with them and I just heard the Archpope isn’t, so…” Rasha trailed off, frowning at a sudden thought. “Why’d you go to the trouble of knocking him out, then? Not like I’m this guy’s greatest fan but it seems like seeing this stuff for himself would’ve helped a lot.”

“Ah, well, you know how it is,” Eserion said with a cavalier grin. “He’ll have to be content with you catching him up after the fact, Intelligence types are used to patching together secondhand information. More to the point, such a perspicacious fella would immediately set about connecting the dots if I sleeped him now, instead of for the duration of my visit. So rather than ‘Eserion and Rasha are hiding something specific from me,’ he’ll be more inclined to think ‘Eserion is an asshole,’ which, y’know. Not incorrect.”

In that moment Rasha was abruptly reminded that while he might be the focus of her own religion, gods were dangerous creatures to be around.

“So there is more,” she said carefully. In different company this shift in mood might have her reaching surreptitiously for her throwing knives, but she’d already lost them, and realistically…what would be the point?

Eserion tipped her a singularly knowing wink. “Oh, very much so. I’ve been keeping an eye on you for a little while now, Rasha. Not that I arranged for you to be out here, exactly, but it was shaping up so conveniently I opted to just manage this situation rather than cutting it off. Sorry to put you out, and all that.”

“Yeah, well…I guess I can’t exactly complain. Thanks for helping me and Zafi out yesterday. That coulda been bad if you hadn’t stepped in.”

“Just don’t get used to it,” he advised. “Not that you aren’t a swell gal and all, and I have every confidence you’ll shape up to be one of the best of your generation, but you just can’t get in the habit of counting on the gods to step in and rescue you from danger. Nobody can, generally speaking, but that goes triple for Eserites.”

“Yeah, I’m well aware you expect us to fix our own shit. It’s one of the things I respect the most about Guild doctrine. So…what’s all this about, then? Why me?”

“Ah, ah!” Grinning, he held up a finger. “Now that, Rasha, is an important question, and it’s just not time for it yet. We’ve gotta address that one with all due seriousness, and that means we have to go through storytime first. These things have to be done in a certain order, as the bards tell us.”

“Fucking bards,” she muttered.

“They have some good points, though. For example, that everybody is the hero of their own story.”

Rasha shrugged. “Sure, everyone thinks they’re justified in whatever damn thing it is they’re doing, that’s not a groundbreaking insight. And it doesn’t mean they are justified, or that good intentions excuse anything.”

Eserion nodded, then took one step away from the rock slab and squatted on his heels in the snow. He continued to look perfectly comfortable in his partially-undone tuxedo, which of course was no surprise. His presence was probably the reason she also wasn’t cold, despite her lack of a warming charm and the fact that her half-dose of weather resistance potion had to be wearing off by now.

“Correct. But again, like I said, sometimes people have a point, even when it’s super uncomfortable for you to acknowledge that they might. That’s not the same thing as being right, or justified, but you will often find that a lot of folks who are antagonistic toward you aren’t as wrong, in an objective sense, as they probably seem to you. For example, let’s take his Holiness, Justinian.”

“Oh, I’m not gonna like the rest of this, am I?” she whispered.

Eserion grinned but did not pause. “Well, I did promise you storytime. Once upon a time, there was a wandering priest who came upon a great secret. A secret as ancient as divine magic itself, and so terrible that as a consequence of the nature of divine magic, anyone who learns it will be instantly struck dead, so that they can’t spread it around. But here’s the twist: he didn’t find this by accident. Because you see, those of us with a degree of control over the divine are able to shield people from that effect, at need. A certain deity with uncertain motivations led this man to this truth, opened his eyes to a terrible injustice that has been allowed to linger and determine the course of the world ever since.”

“You…what?” Rasha breathed. “What could…I don’t…”

“Easy,” the good said soothingly, giving her a smile far more gentle than his more customary rakish grin. “Don’t worry, Rasha, I’m not gonna dump that on you. I’m already laying enough of a burden on your head without painting a target on it as well. What you just saw was a hint, but it’s not close enough to the secret that you could figure it out unaided. You’re safe.”

“Well, now I kinda want to know.”

He regarded her solemnly. “Of course, you’re human. And I could tell you, and protect you. But you might not want to know after you did. Not all knowledge is useful, Rasha. Some of it’s only a burden.”

She nodded slowly. “And this story is about Justinian, right?”

“Ah!” He grinned again. “But that’s the second twist, Rasha. For you see, this isn’t actually a story, but two. This has happened a handful of times since the Elder Wars, and mostly nothing came of it, though occasionally it caused a mess. Elilial loves this trick; the upper echelons of the Black Wreath all know the secret, and it’s a big part of why they’re so dang cranky all the time. But this time, in this generation, this exact story has played out twice. A god with an agenda counter to the Pantheon’s led someone to the secret and protected them from the inevitable doom that followed. The stories diverge from there, however. The first, yes, was a young adventuring priest named Justinian Darnay—an educated man with, nonetheless, a head full of romantic notions about justice and valor that might better suit an Avenist than the Izarite he was. The second,” he grinned more broadly, and paused slightly for dramatic effect, to her vast irritation, “was a scrappy but charming street kid, name of Antonio Darling.”

Slowly, Rasha straightened up on the cot, only at that point becoming aware she’d allowed her posture to slouch. Glory would have been disappointed.

“Well…you had my attention already. Go on.”

“What matters to our twinned stories, what makes the fundamental difference between them, is the two disparate directions these two men went with this knowledge. Justinian began a methodical climb to power and is now engaged in trying to rearrange the world itself to fix that injustice. Darling… Didja know his great project as Bishop was to fund and direct the work of theological scholarship of this century? He set every young priest and clerk he could recruit to comb through every archived source of information known to exist, leveraging his own influence to get access even to the most hidden ones, about Elilial. Weeding out contradictions and unverified accounts, to assemble the definitive historical and psychological profile of the Dark Lady. The Nemitites were downright huffy it was an Eserite who did this. Interesting difference, though, right? Presented with the same revelation, one man sets out to fix it, while the other sets out to figure out what the fuck happened, and why.”

She frowned again. “Well… Different people are different, after all.”

“Ahh. But tell me, Rasha, does Sweet seem like the kinda guy who can look at a terrible injustice and not immediately want to pop open a tin of kickass on whoever did it? Remember, we’re talking about the man who was Boss of the Thieves’ Guild at one point.”

“Sweet is…uncomfortably comfortable with moral conflicts. According to Glory, he’s sorta notorious for playing all ends against the middle.”

“But he has a line he won’t cross, which you know specifically because Justinian crossed it. Sweet had been sticking close to the Archpope for the same reason he’s been stalking Elilial for years: trying to understand what was really happening, so he could figure out what to do about it. But Justinian went too far, and he broke away, hence the current state of religious politics in Tiraas.”

“Hm. I get the impression you’re leading somewhere with this.”

“Always. It’s about how and why both came upon the revelation, you see. Because they weren’t guided to it by the same god, or by the same agenda. Justinian was led by the nose along a prepared course meticulously calculated to guide him to certain conclusions—and then, crucially, offered aid and support in his campaign to right the great wrong. Antonio just had a piece of nonsense shoved in his face that was guaranteed to break his understanding of how the world works, and then cut loose to deal with that, without even the knowledge that he possessed forbidden information, much less that he’d been granted divine protection from it. All things considered, it’s only natural, the different ways these two reacted to the revelation.”

Rasha narrowed her eyes. “So you’re suggesting… Sweet doesn’t know everything Justinian knows. Or thinks he knows.”

“And there, we come to it.” With a sigh, Eserion leaned back, actually sitting down in the snow, from which position he gazed up at her with a purely weary expression. “You see, Rasha, I have been running…a con. You may have noticed some off-kilter behavior from the Guild and the Boss recently.”

“You bet your ass I have. You have any idea how much trouble it’s been, trying to keep this whole thing from blowing up?”

“Course I do,” he said, smirking unrepentantly. “I’m gonna tell you a secret, Rasha: I’m not the god who set Sweet on the course he’s on now, nor the one who protected him from the knowledge. He thinks I am, but I’m not. By the same token, I am not the renegade god currently doing the most to ensure Justinian’s schemes are thwarted before they’re completed. But he also thinks I am.” He grinned, the expression downright gleeful despite his posture of exhaustion. “It’s a fake out, see? After all, I’m Eserion the defiant, humbler of the mighty and bane of corrupt systems everywhere. Obviously I’d be the one to squirm out from under the influence Justinian’s using to keep the gods off his back, and set myself to cutting him down to size. He’ll be coming after me, not realizing what the real threat is. And Sweet won’t be able to clue him in, because he doesn’t know, either!”

“Wait! You don’t think Sweet would betray you to the Archpope, surely.”

There fell a pause of several seconds, over which Eserion’s grin faded.

“Well, there…we come to it. The heart of the issue. Because you see, Rasha, you don’t know everything Justinian knows. Sweet doesn’t know everything Justinian knows. And Justinian tolerates Sweet’s ongoing meddling and defiance because he firmly believes that once he’s able to bring Darling fully into the loop, to learn everything he knows and be able to protect him from divine retaliation for knowing it, Darling will side with him against the Pantheon. Against me.”

Rasha inhaled just as slowly to steady herself against the vertigo. “But…he’s wrong. I mean, he wouldn’t.”

“The thing is?” Eserion shrugged fatalistically. “The thing is…he might. Rasha, I am not saying I agree with Justinian’s take. But I’m also not saying the man is definitively the villain of this twisted-up multi-threaded story. What I am saying is that there’s an argument to be made for both sides. That a person who knows the whole picture could reasonably decide to side with Justinian, or against him. And Antonio Darling is a veteran of playing the angles, and navigating complex moral dilemmas. He could absolutely tip either way. The real, scary truth? I don’t honestly think I would blame him if he turned on me. I was never comfortable with the Pantheon’s choice; I argued hard against it at the time, and for correcting it before Elilial had her little tantrum and effectively locked us all on this course. But in the end, I’ve gone along with it. For eight thousand years, I have lived with what we did, and not tried to overthrow the system. The inherently…corrupt system.”

He hesitated before continuing.

“So now, finally, it’s time for the answer to your question: why you?”

“I’m suddenly very afraid I don’t wanna know,” she whispered.

His answering smile was sympathetic. “It didn’t have to be you, Rasha, I’ll level with you about that. You’re just the most suitable candidate who happened to wander too close to the core of these events and get tangled up in it. Two years ago you were nowhere on anyone’s list of relevant players, and are still barely in the notice of most of them. And that’s the very thing that makes you perfect. Because as much as I can relate to their perspectives and respect their ability to ponder the deep truths of the universe, I am tired of these Great Men with their Great Thoughts, their angst and compromise and complex agendas. And believe me, I include myself in that description. When it comes right down to it, if the world has to tip on somebody making a moral decision? I would always rather trust it to a woman who’s had to live with her boots on the ground in the world men like that have made, who’s fought and clawed and connived for everything she’s got, including her very identity.”

“…I am wearing a dress that cost more than my dad’s first boat, and I didn’t even pay for it myself.”

“And that dress is burned, torn, and stained with your own blood because you preferred to ride an explosion than quietly submit to somebody pushing you around. Life’s not about what is or isn’t handed to you, Rasha, but what you do with it.”

She shook her head, heard. “No, this is too much. I’m not some chosen one, okay? You want Trissiny.”

“The con is ongoing,” he said as if she hadn’t spoken, his eyes holding hers. “I’m still guiding these events to their necessary conclusion. A moment’s going to come when Antonio Darling has to make a choice; that much is part of the agendas of everyone else involved. My little contribution is you. When that moment happens, it’ll be under your eyes, Rasha. And I will make sure, in that moment, you have a knife in hand, and a window of opportunity to do what needs to be done.”

Rasha stared at him in horror. “You can’t mean— No, you’re not asking me to kill Sweet?”

He just stared up at her with the same expression. “Nope. I’m asking you to decide, when the moment comes, if that is the right thing to do. And then act on your decision.”

She bounded up off the cot hard enough to tip it over if it hadn’t been weighed down by an unconscious dwarf. “Fuck you! I don’t want this, you understand? This is… This is too much! I’m just a kid from Puna Vashtar, I can’t decide the fucking fate of the world!”

Her god just looked at her with sad eyes in a tired face.

Rasha took a step closer, brandishing a fist at him. “You can’t do this to me!”

“That’s right at the heart of the issue, you see,” he replied. “Gods are powerful beings, yes, but constrained ones. We are limited by our natures, by our aspects, even by the influence of our faithful. And this summer, dear ol’ Lil went and spilled the beans at Ninkabi about exactly how that can be used against us. The way to kill a god, Rasha, is to separate them from their aspect. Get them to act in a way contrary to the binding force that holds them to the world, or catch them doing it, and you can pry the consciousness loose from the power.

“But here’s the trick of it.” He had the temerity to wink at her again. “I believe I alluded to Justinian’s knack for evading the wrath of the gods, yeah? That’s why his personal presence was needed for rewinding time, which would otherwise set Vemnesthis on him in a heartbeat. He’s been fucking around with some real dark secrets, ancient stuff—specifically, the machinery of the Elder Gods that both they and we used to attain godhood in the first place. His schemes have come this far because he’s able to deflect our attention, make it so we can’t take an oppositional stance toward him.

“Unless our very godhood itself is in question. See?” Eserion grinned, looking both bitter and pleased with himself. “Like, for example, if the god of thieves and defiance starts directing his faith to do nonsensical and abusive things, coercing his high priest to mislead the Guild itself. Or forcing some poor apprentice who deserves better treatment into world-shaking shit that’s way above her pay grade. That is some very un-Eserite crap right there, Rasha. It all makes me just a little bit less me, or less the god I’ve become. And thus, a little less constrained. Most importantly, it’s enough to squirm out from under Justinian’s control.”

“But… Doesn’t that specifically make you vulnerable to being, y’know, killed?”

“Exactly!” He leaned forward, grinning more broadly still. “Exactly. And that is the con. Because he’s gonna have to deal with me, you see? Not only am I no longer under his thumb and a threat to him, I’ve made myself vulnerable in the process. It’s gonna be Justinian against me, in a struggle that could legitimately go either way, but which he has to win because if he doesn’t, I will personally wipe the floor with his ass at the moment when he’s the most vulnerable. But! The real beauty of it, Rasha, is that it’s all a distraction. It’s like I said: I’m not the god who backed Sweet. That one has made his own arrangements to shrug off Justinian’s control and set up the board to thwart him at that final moment. And as long as the Archpope is focused on me as the biggest threat, he’ll never see the real one coming.”

Rasha could only stare at him in silence for a few heartbeats before she finally shook her head. “I could blow the whistle on all this, you know. You’re so convinced Sweet might betray you—what makes you think I won’t just right right to him with this whole story? Hell, I could even go to Justinian. Bet that’d earn me a pretty cushy position in whatever world order he’s trying to set up.”

“Aside from the fact that you just saw how Justinian treats his most loyal followers?” The god smiled up at her, and it was no longer his wolfish grin, but a simple smile. Kind, and tired, and sad. “Nah. You could do all that, Rasha, but…I trust you. I picked you for a reason, you know. You’re a good kid.”


Rogrind sat bolt upright, unconsciousness fading right into perfect alertness as his training dictated.

They were in the same place. Except now, he was lying on a cot, at the foot of which sat Rasha, sipping from a steaming porcelain cup of tea and staring moodily into the distance. Despite the surrounding snow, it was pleasantly warm.

Without even looking over at him, Rasha wordlessly extended her arm, handing him a silver flask. In matching silence, Rogrind accepted it and unfastened the cap, raising it to sniff. His eyebrows lifted in surprise; that was good Svennish brandy. His personal favorite brand, in fact, the bouquet was quite distinctive. He did not, of course, take a drink.

“How embarrassing,” he said aloud, closely watching the young thief. She looked unharmed, but more dour than she’d been when he was last conscious. “I seem to have drifted off.”

“You missed some real shit,” Rasha said sourly. “No fault of yours. Eserion was here, knocked you right out. Apparently he wanted some one-on-one time with me.”

“Ah.” Well, a divine intervention could explain the cot, the drinks, the unnatural warmth around them…though it was not the only thing that might, and he was not one to take Eserites at their word.

“Some of that was personal, but you did miss important developments I better catch you up on,” she continued, finally turning to look at him. Her eyes looked downright hunted. “And you are not going to believe it, for the simple reason that you’re not a crazy person. He said that in order to demonstrate my veracity I should forewarn you that we’re about to be rescued by talking wolves. I don’t know what the hell that means, but by the sound of it I’m half hoping he was just fucking with me.”

“Ah, that sounds like Duchess Madouri’s new Wardens. Curious, though; last I was informed, they were all concentrated at the other end of the province. But then, I suppose their inherent fae magic would be quite an aid in both predicting events throughout Tiraan Province where their attention might be needed, and crossing overland faster than the mortal norm.”

Rasha stared at him. “Excuse me, the Duchess’s what.”

“You don’t keep up with the political news?” he said, keeping his tone deliberately mild. “That surprises me, Rasha, especially coming from a student of the esteemed Ms. Sharvineh.”

“I’m a girl of specific and limited interests,” she replied, shaking her head. “Well, okay then. While we wait for…that…you’ll probably want to hear about Justinian’s exciting new superweapon.”

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16 – 54

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“First things first: you do not give me orders.”

Natchua brandished an accusing finger right in Ampophrenon’s face, and her hair was immediately blown back by a powerful draconic snort which wasn’t the worst thing she’d ever smelled, but she could altogether have done without. Trissiny clapped a hand over her eyes; Toby just leaned his head back to stare at the sky as if he might find patience there. Gabriel, Natchua noticed peripherally, was making small steps and squinting at the ground as if looking for something, but she paid him no further mind, what with the dragon dominating her perspective.

“I came here to aid and protect, not to interfere with you or anyone,” Ampophrenon growled. “That does not mean I will forebear whatever action is necessary to prevent more harm done to the mortal world by demonkind.” His huge head shifted slightly to direct a baleful glance behind her at the Wreath; most of them shuffled backward nervously, though Mogul just folded his arms and met the dragon with a defiant stare. Ampophrenon had already returned his attention to Natchua, though. “In matters of chaos or infernomancy, to say nothing of both, I will not take needless risks. Explain.”

She narrowed her own eyes, thinking rapidly. The thought suddenly at the forefront of her mind was that being cagey and keeping secrets was risky and just not sustainable. Natchua wasn’t a deceptive person by nature; sooner or later she’d slip up if she tried leading a double life of any kind. And that wasn’t even touching on the fact that Mogul and the Wreath knew of her connection to Elilial, and she didn’t doubt for a second they would drop that into the open the moment they saw advantage for themselves in it. Or just for the sheer assholery of it.

At the first opportunity, Natchua decided, she needed to sit down with the three paladins—the three other paladins, technically—and explain what Elilial had done to her. Apart from avoiding the effort of keeping secrets, they might well be able to help. That was them, however. This particular situation did not call for excessive honesty; she had a strong feeling she knew exactly what Ampophrenon the bloody Gold would do if he found himself nose-to-nose with the first ever Hand of Elilial.

“The same way anybody gets magic to work around chaos,” she said shortly. “I rustled up some divine intervention.”

His golden eyes narrowed to slits. “You…managed to stir Salyrene from her isolation to aid your craft? Impressive. And dubious.”

“Oh, I wish,” Natchua replied, emitting a short bark of involuntary laughter. “That would have been so much better! No, I have no idea how to reach out to Salyrene, if that’s even possible anymore, for anybody. Nah, it’s worse than that.”

“Elilial.” The growled word was not a question.

Natchua folded her arms. “I guess she pays attention to anybody who manages to tweak her nose good and proper. And no, I’m not saying it was a good idea, just that it was the only one I had. Obviously, if I’d known you four were on the way I would’ve just stalled until you got here. But I didn’t, did I?”

“I more than guess at the Dark Lady’s habits,” Ampophrenon stated, baring his huge fangs at her. “You court more peril than you understand, young woman. Elilial has long held a fascination for those who thwart her. Many a defender of the Light has become entangled in her schemes after winning a great victory, ending as a pawn of Hell, willingly or not. Those unwise enough to wield infernomancy against her are likelier than most to face that fate.”

“Huh,” Natchua muttered, intrigued in spite of herself. “I did not know that.”

“Then consider yourself warned, if only belatedly. I dearly hope you paid for this aid up front, warlock. If you incurred a debt to her…”

“Oh, the price was quite explicit.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder at the assembled Wreath. “I had to let them help. Y’know, first step in cleaning up their image with the truce in place. Since I needed somebody to hold the line for me while I put together the necessary spells, it worked out. As far as I knew then, anyway,” she added, scowling. “Again, if I’d known proper help was coming…”

“Ingrate,” Mogul snorted.

“Yeah, and that’d be why she was so eager to lend you a hand,” Gabriel commented from the sidelines, still pacing about and studying the trampled earth.

“Indeed,” Ampophrenon rumbled, rearing back to gaze down at them from his full, towering height. “I apologize that I was not swift enough to assist against the chaos event. But I am here now, and at the very least, I can prevent this from becoming a further issue. You are owed thanks…Natchua. I scarcely imagined I would find the entire surviving Black Wreath, gathered conveniently within range of my claws.”

“Hang on,” Toby interjected, “Lord Ampophrenon, Elilial does have a truce with the Pantheon.”

“I have ever labored to serve the Pantheon’s interests,” the dragon rumbled, the first hints of golden flame beginning to flicker around his jaws. “But I have never served under them. If Elilial chooses to take this up with me directly…well, it will not have been our first such discussion.”

“Stop,” Natchua barked over her shoulder, holding up a hand as if that would forestall the cluster of infernal spells she felt being formed, as if anything a dozen warlocks could conjure would take down three paladins and a gold dragon. “And you, back off! As much as it galls me, these fuckers are under my protection.”

“Oh?” the dragon growled.

“We made a deal,” she insisted. “They did their part. They risked their lives fighting to protect my city, and that places them under my guarantee of safety. That was my end of the bargain, and it doesn’t change because you offer me a convenient out. It’s called honor; I hear it was kind of a big deal, back in your day.”

He snorted again, this time producing a short gout of lightfire along with the rush of hot breath. “I respect your position, young woman, but this matter is larger than you by far. If I will not stand down for the Pantheon’s truce, yours certainly will not change my mind. Stand aside.”

“Listen here, dragon!” Natchua snarled, again pointing accusingly at him.

Ampophrenon lowered his head so abruptly that for a split second she thought he was striking at her with the intent to bite, but he simple dropped his enormous skull to ground level, the better to glare into her eyes.

“Yes?” The dragon’s retort resonated through the ground and her very bones, a pointed reminder of just what she was facing.

And for one brief moment, she was within a hair’s breadth of making a similar point right back at him. By the way Trissiny and Toby tensed up, it seemed they saw the same coming.

It was the urge that stopped her, the indefinable impulses that had guided her to this point in life. Her cunning, according to Elilial; the result of her magical imbuement reacting with her own intelligence, by Bradshaw’s theory. It told her to stop, and this time, Natchua forced herself not only to listen, but to think. She tried to embrace it consciously, follow the impulse with her reasoning. Why was this new plan the one she should pursue?

Obviously, throwing down with a gold dragon was a very bad idea, but not a worse one than taking on Elilial, and her so-called cunning hadn’t stopped her from doing that. Could she take him on? The Wreath would pretty much have to help her, and in this case, the three paladins might not intervene… Of course, he was Ampophrenon the Gold. Hero of the Hellwars, vanquisher of archdemons, and who knew what else over thousands of years of storied activity against the forces of Hell. She was likely not even the first grandmaster warlock he’d faced, and his continued existence attested to how that had turned out.

No…that wasn’t it, wasn’t the thing forewarning her. It didn’t feel right. Natchua tried to follow that to its source, to something she could parse rationally. Feelings were just mental shortcuts, enabling quick responses to huge gluts of data the conscious mind couldn’t sort as quickly. Somewhere, deep within it, there was cogent reason—especially in her case, if Bradshaw’s theory was correct.

“Well?” Ampophrenon growled pointedly, emphasizing that she’d been frozen in thought for several long seconds while the tension thickened around them.

As if inspired by his prompting, she had it. The warning wasn’t telling her to surrender or retreat, but to change strategies. No matter how she might wish otherwise, Natchua was not Tellwyrn. She could defeat a dragon, just not in a contest of magic or might. But a Duchess had resources an archwarlock did not.

Natchua raised her chin, attempting to look down her nose at the towering beast before her.

“Is it my understanding, then, that the Conclave of the Winds intends to intervene unilaterally, by force, in the internal affairs of an Imperial province? Please state your position specifically and in detail, Lord Ampophrenon. I wish to deliver an accurate and thorough complaint to the Silver Throne and to your embassy.”

He blinked.

“Ah, yeah,” Gabriel remarked lazily. He’d wandered a few yards distant by that point, and now finally looked up from his search of the ground to make a wry face at them both. “We kinda skipped over the introductions, didn’t we? Lord Ampophrenon, this is Duchess Natchua of House Leduc.”

“Leduc.” He bared his teeth at her again.

“She’s not wrong, also,” Trissiny added, grimacing. “House Leduc doesn’t hold the governorship of Lower Stalwar Province at the moment, but this deal of patronage in exchange for service was ratified by Duchess Malivette, who is the governor. I witnessed the agreement myself.”

Ampophrenon twisted his neck around to stare incredulously at her.

“I know,” she exclaimed, raising her hands in defeat. “I blame myself. Apparently when you’ve half-drowned one noblewoman, the ones who don’t have to be physically afraid of you lose all regard for your opinion.”

“Malivette’s the vampire,” Toby added helpfully. “So…oof. I’m afraid this isn’t as simple as we’d like. You are a representative of a sovereign government, and they are protected agents of the provincial defenses… Wow. That would technically be an act of war, wouldn’t it?”

“I can assure you,” Natchua added, “Whatever the Silver Throne decided to do to the Conclave in that eventuality, I would personally guarantee the closure, on pain of lethal measures, of this and our allied province in Madouris, to all Conclave personnel. Shut the fuck up, Mogul,” she snapped, breaking her haughty demeanor momentarily in response to his cackling before turning back to the dragon. “And that, Lord Ampophrenon, would be a very regrettable position for me as well as for you. Because I find myself in such a situation that I have to not only tolerate but embrace the Black Wreath in my province, and I for once would feel a great deal more comfortable if a certain gold dragon could be made welcome to visit Veilgrad at his leisure.”

Slowly, Ampophrenon’s expression shifted, one of the scaly ridges above his left eye rising. The expression was recognizable but awfully peculiar on his reptilian face. His tone of voice, at least, was far more thoughtful, if unmistakably loaded. “Oh?”

“Oh, very nice,” Mogul snorted behind her, his laughter fading abruptly. “I see how it is.”

“You know what, Embras?” Natchua rounded on him. “You’re goddamn right that’s how it is. We have our arrangement and I’m a woman of my word, but that doesn’t make me a fucking idiot. I don’t trust you nearly as far as I could throw you. So long as you do your part and toe the line, I will faithfully look out for your interests, but honestly? I’m expecting you to manage that for about a week, tops. And I’d love nothing more than to have a big friendly dragon around to charbroil your ass the second you step out of order.” She looked rapidly back and forth between him and Ampophrenon. “We all know where we stand, here?”

“It is still the fairest deal we have been offered by the mortal powers of this world since long before living memory,” Hiroshi said softly.

Bradshaw grunted. “She’s still a vicious little shit, Embras, but she stood up to a gold dragon for us. It’s… Like Hiroshi said, it’s fair.”

Trissiny had paced slowly forward while they spoke, and now reached up to rest one gauntleted hand against Ampophrenon’s elbow, which even with him crouching to the ground was slightly above her head height. He twisted his neck to look at her again.

“She’s serious, though,” The paladin assured him quietly. “Natchua is…Natchua. What you see is what you get; this conversation alone probably tells you more or less what you need to know. But she does try to do her best toward the right thing. Her first act as an Imperial noble was to try to entice Eserites back to Veilgrad, just because she felt nobility should have some check on their power.”

“Thanks, Triss,” Natchua said sourly. “Look, Ampophrenon, we can be enemies if it’s that important to you. Or we can be allies, even if you find the prospect uncomfortable. If I can play nicely with these assholes, I will definitely not turn up my nose at you.” She hesitated, feeling the intuition rise up again, this time prompting her to do something she really didn’t want to. But it hadn’t led her wrong yet. Swallowing her pride—and swallowing physically in the process—Natchua continued grudgingly. “Look, I… It’s probably not news to you that I have no idea what I’m doing here. I’ve been staying one hop ahead of a crisis, not just with this chaos horseshit but…generally. I’m certainly not blind to the fact that fucking around with infernomancy is almost certainly gonna be what kills me in the end, not that that was my choice to begin with. I would… That is, if you’d be willing to accept my welcome to visit Veilgrad at your own leisure, to keep an eye on whatever you feel could do with some oversight, I would… I’d be grateful for any guidance you could spare me.”

Slowly, Ampophrenon reared up again so that his neck arched high above, and gazed quizzically down at her, even tilting his head to one side as if puzzling over what he saw. Everyone stared up at the dragon in anticipatory silence. Everyone except Gabriel, who was now poking about in the charred and flattened mat of tallgrass with his booted toe and the butt of his scythe.

At last the golden dragon shook his head once, then shifted. The transition was remarkably smooth considering the change of size involved; a second later, Natchua found herself face to face with a tall man in golden armor, his eyes featureless orbs of light. Even in that smaller form, he projected presence almost like a physical force. Now that she had a moment to pause and consider it, she had the distinct impression that only her own native orneriness was keeping her from falling to one knee before him. Dragons were intense, even when they weren’t tacitly threatening to destroy you.

“I have lived a long time,” he said, his voice sonorous still, but at least not overpowering to the eardrums, “and seen a great many things, some more…surprising than others. Rare as such individuals are, the truth is that I have counted infernomancers and even demons among my allies in the past. They face a high hurdle when it comes to earning trust, as it should be. Yet in the end, real situations are complicated, and individuals should be judged by their actions. I am reminded of the paladins’ friend Xyraadi, whom I understand they liberated from imprisonment quite recently.”

“My friend, too,” Natchua interjected. “I invited Xyraadi to my coming out party yesterday. I think she came even closer than Trissiny to fireballing Mogul here off the face of the earth. Not that I blame her.”

Wonder of wonders, a faint smile tugged at one corner of Ampophrenon’s mouth. “Ah? On the one hand that seems an improbable coincidence… And yet, speaking to you now, it fits together oddly well. What I recall, now, is that the common factor among every warlock I have found worthy to work alongside, over the centuries, has been that they sought out restraints upon their power and safeguards against their own inevitable failure to contain it.” He narrowed his eyes and tilted his on chin up, giving Natchua a long and openly judgmental look that made her bristle, but she restrained herself. “You have certainly not earned my trust, Natchua Leduc. But based upon what I see, and the recommendation of the Hands of the gods… I am willing to believe you deserve the chance to earn that trust.”

She drew in a deep breath. “I grew up in Tar’naris, y’know. And not as a noble, either; I was a low-caste orchard picker. I’m only mentioning it so you have a bit of perspective when I inform you that that was the single most condescending thing anyone’s ever said to me.”

“And if you are very blessed indeed,” Ampophrenon replied, unabashed, “that will be the worst discomfiture you are forced to endure for some time. May we all be so blessed, but let us not count on it.”

“Natchua, enough,” Trissiny interjected when she opened her mouth again. “This is the closest thing to a win we’re all going to get out of this. You can’t put this many people who want each other dead in the same place and expect hand-holding and hugs.”

“Yes,” Toby added, quiet but firm. “Let us please have peace, as long as we can.”

Vanessa heaved an exasperated sigh; fortunately, everyone ignored her.

“Quite so,” said Ampophrenon, now inclining his head forward. “The Conclave’s very formation was an acknowledgment of the new reality of the world: that we who wield tremendous power can no longer prosper simply by exercising it.” He glanced past her at the robed warlocks with a flat expression before meeting her eyes again. “It seems we must find ways to…tolerate the presence of detestable people, at least up to a point. Learning to find the proper balance will not be swift or easy, I expect, but I will make the effort in good faith.”

“Ah hah!” Gabriel crowed, fortunately before Natchua had to find something polite to say to the overbearing dragon. Everyone turned to watch him bend over and carefully pick something up from the mess of dirt, charred tallgrass stalks and fragments of shattered obsidian that had been pieces of the necro-drake’s exposed skeleton. “Found it.”

He held it up: a black shard that resembled the broken bits of glass all around at first glance, save that it was smoothly curved and not crystalline in structure. Moreover, to the magically-attuned eyes of everyone present, it was wrong. Not visually, but to look at the thing was to feel the twisted energies permeating it, struggling against the very shape of nature around them.

Toby took an involuntary step forward. “Is that…?”

“The chaos source,” Natchua said, frowning. “It was embedded in the monster’s skull. I was just about to go looking for it when you lot landed on top of me.”

“And he’s holding that thing with his bare hands?” Rupi marveled. “Well, folks, there it is: the dumbest thing any of us will ever see.”

“Oh, blow it out your ass,” Gabriel snapped. “I’m a paladin, and I came here prepared for chaos specifically. It’s a good thing we did arrive before you got down to cleanup, Natchua. I’m not sure your impromptu deal with Elilial would’ve extended to you handling something like this safely. As long as it’s one of us three holding it, with the Trinity paying direct attention to this, it should be…” He hesitated. “Yeah, uh, safe doesn’t seem like the right word. Stable?”

“Well, that’s great for now,” Trissiny said, scowling, “but what do we do with it?”

“If I recall,” Toby offered, “the standard practice everybody’s agreed on for chaos artifacts is to have Tellwyrn secure them—”

He had to stop, being overwhelmed by a cacophony of shouts and complaints from the various Wreath warlocks present.

“Silence.” Even without changing to his greater form, Ampophrenon could project his voice with a tangible power that permitted no contradiction. To Natchua’s surprise, the Elilinists didn’t resume their protests even after the sheer force of it cut them off, and the dragon continued in a much calmer tone. “Chaos artifacts, perhaps. I will spare you a recitation of Arachne’s faults, as I’m sure most of those here are familiar with them intimately, but it is true that she has proved herself trustworthy when it comes to securing such devices away from meddling hands. Those are deliberately created objects meant for mortal use, however, not…this. That is a fragment of pure evil; the danger it poses comes from its very existence.”

“I can guarantee you it was being used in something deliberately created,” Natchua scoffed.

“Indeed. Gabriel, if I may…?”

Gabriel obligingly stepped closer to the dragon, holding up the shard; everyone else shifted away, but Ampophrenon leaned forward, peering closely at the incongruously small object without reaching to touch it himself. Slowly, the dragon’s expression descended into a scowl of barely restrained fury.

“That,” he stated icily, “is dragonbone. Ancient, and infused with chaos while the dragon was still alive.”

“And that,” Toby whispered, “tells us everything.”

“Belosiphon the Black,” said Trissiny. “His skull was here, in Veilgrad, not long ago. We saw it with our own eyes.”

“…before it was taken away by Ravoud, and agents of Archpope Justinian,” Gabriel finished, baring his teeth in a grin of angry triumph. “Finally, we’ve got the slippery bastard dead to rights!”

“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch, son,” Mogul interjected, ambling forward to join them and generally ignoring all the hostile expressions directed his way. “I reckon at least some of what happened here today would’ve taken even Justinian by surprise, but that’s a man who doesn’t so much as scratch his ass without layers of plausible deniability and contingency plans in place. Not that I’m saying it’s nothing, just be prepared to be disappointed if you were hoping this’d be the—”

He broke off with a muffled curse and stumbled backward as Gabriel suddenly shoved the dragonbone shard into his face, barely avoiding being touched by it.

“Gabe, that was just plain juvenile,” Toby reproached.

“Yes, it was,” Trissiny said solemnly. “Do it again.”

“Please do not play around with that,” Ampophrenon in a tone that brought all levity to an instant halt. The dragon paused, shaking his head, before continuing. “Power is granted to paladins to neutralize and destroy chaos sources such as this. Each of your cults has its own ritual magic to achieve that end, requiring chiefly one or more god’s direct attention through an intermediary such as a Hand or high priest. Have any of you been taught such craft yet?” He met each of their eyes before continuing. “No matter, I know both Avenist and nondenominational variants of the spell, which I shall gladly teach you. Aside from the urgent need of this moment, I suspect this portends a further use for this knowledge in the days to come. Best that you be prepared.”

“Whoah, hang on,” said Natchua. “You’re not suggesting there are going to be more of those things?”

“That one, it seems, was made from one tiny shard of bone,” Ampophrenon replied gravely. “You just saw firsthand how large a dragon’s skull is. It smacks to me of conserving a resource for which further use is intended. Not to mention that this appears to have achieved little except some random destruction in the vicinity. For a cunning operator such as Justinian, that seems an uncharacteristic action…unless it was only a trial run.”

“Fuck,” Gabriel whispered.

“Yeah, well, you guys can get the next one,” said Vanessa. “Not that that wasn’t some decent exercise, but—”

“If the next one comes here, you’ll do your part and like it,” Natchua informed her. “But yeah, for the record, I will much prefer to have paladin or draconic help if it’s available.”

“And while we’re on the subject of cooperation,” Mogul said cheerfully, stepping back up to the conversation, though this time he pointedly did not come within arm’s reach of Gabriel. “Just to lay out the facts: the truce between the Dark Lady and the Pantheon prohibits combat between their servants and hers, yes? But based on the information Vesk provided her—and thanks to you three for collecting it, by the way—it was Justinian himself who meddled in our summoning to destroy the Lady’s daughters.” His grin stretched till it looked almost painful, a rictus of pure malice barely cloaked in unhinged glee. “And now, it seems, we have confirmation that Justinian is no servant of the Pantheon, after all. I believe you know what that means.”

“In my considerable experience,” said Ampophrenon, staring him down, “the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.”

“There was never any question of us being friends, let’s not pretend otherwise,” Mogul agreed. “But in the here and now, ladies, dragons, and paladins, it appears that we all have the same problem. And as of this moment, it is officially open season on his ass.”

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16 – 53

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A god of the Pantheon made a pretty good host, even for surreptitious surveillance. In addition to shielding himself, Rasha, and Rogrind from detection by the Archpope’s party, Eserion ensured a comfortable temperature for them that somehow did not affect the surrounding snow, and even conjured a cozy little cot for the unconscious dwarf. By that point Rasha half expected him to provide snacks, which she did not mention due to her suspicion that if she did, he would, and that would just be a little too weird.

“You’re sure he’s okay?” she inquired, glancing again at Rogrind. By the rise and fall of his chest, he might just be peacefully asleep.

“Why, you suspect me of ill will toward the ol’ boy?” Eserion asked, tearing his eyes from the spectacle amid the ruins to grin at her.

“Well, I mean, he did sort of stalk, harass, and try to murder several Guild members, not to mention abducting, drugging and torturing Pick…”

“Never pad a rap sheet, Rasha,” the god chided. “Pick wasn’t tortured; they wanted intel and the Svennish are too professional to make that blunder. Anyway, all that’s settled, yeah?”

“I’m just…I dunno, surprised. The Guild itself is pretty big on force as a deterrent. I assumed that came from you.”

“There are people who just can’t be reasoned with,” Eserion said, his expression immediately growing solemn, almost glum. “People who cannot be redeemed and won’t improve. There are people in this world who are unsalvageable, intolerable, people with whom you can do nothing but destroy them before they can harm anyone else. As an Eserite you’re going to have to deal with a few of those people over the course of your life, Rasha, and as such you need to be aware that that is a tiny number of people. Nearly everyone is doing the best they can to do what they think is right, and when they fail, it’s just failure, not sin. Often well-meaning people have to be stopped, but there’s rarely a point in pursuing them after that.”

She frowned down at the sleeping dwarf again. “Well, okay, but…I mean, all the kidnapping…”

“Your dwarf friends saw shadowy abusers behaving violently and were willing to get violent themselves to shut that down.” He glanced at her again and winked. “Eserites of all people should respect that. Perspective’s a powerful thing, Rasha; if you can put yourself in someone’s shoes, you’ll be much better able to tell if you can find common cause with them. Do so, if they’re not too depraved to be worth it, which these guys aren’t. Thorn had the right idea on this. Ooh, eyes front, it’s about to get interesting again!”

The interlopers had not been idle while Rasha and Eserion got the unconscious dwarf settled. The twelve soldiers had positioned themselves in a ring encircling, oddly enough, not the Archpope or his companions but Lanora’s corpse. Though they carried battlestaves at the ready and all faced outward, eyes ceaselessly scanning the area for potential threats, to Rasha it appeared more like a ritual formation than a military one. All twelve were arranged in a perfect circle, spaced around it totally evenly, and though Eserion had been chattering to her at the time, she hadn’t missed Justinian and the officer apparently in charge of them, Nassir Ravoud, directing each to stand in their exact spots. Once placed, they stood immobile—not more still than military attention demanded, but not straying from their assigned places by so much as a toehold.

“This is entirely unsatisfactory,” the grouchy enchanter named Rector barked moments after Eserion’s warning. “These conditions— I need my equipment for the kind of certainty you’re talking about!”

“I will be able to guide the temporal transfer to a degree,” the Archpope told him patiently. “You need only initiate the basic rift, Rector. What is essential is the Angelus configuration. Is there any problem with the remote link to your equipment setup?”

“Wait, temporal transfer?” Rasha muttered while they continued to argue. “Rift? That sounds like time travel. There’s no way, even he would have Scions crawling up his ass…”

“Justinian’s got a way with gods,” Eserion said with a grim chuckle. “The Scions don’t respond to what Vemnesthis is prevented from noticing, see?”

“That’s…horrifying.”

“More for me’n for you, I bet. Hsst, this part’s important.”

“It should work, but this is not ideal,” Rector was saying in response to the Archpope’s last comment. “It’s not just remote interfacing with the machines, it’s translocating the entire ritual effect from the prepared chamber to…out here. You have any idea how much data has to be transferred for that to work? Even along a trascension interlink this is pushing it! And this is the prototype version! Makes way more sense to write this one off and start over with the next—”

“Rector,” Justinian interrupted, his voice still patient and gentle but now with a firmness that stifled all debate, “we cannot waste a keystone soul. It is not a common state of affairs for a soul to be imbued directly with divine power by the Pantheon, and then specifically cut off from its notice. I am gathering others, but none are yet in the vicinity of Tiraas, and events have made the need for a functioning Angelus Knight urgent. It is profoundly regrettable that we failed to secure Lanora in time to prevent this, but this is now the situation, and these the extraordinary measures we are forced to take to recover her. Can you do it? If it will not be possible, you must warn me before we make the attempt.”

Rector scowled at the inscrutable machine he was hunched over, and Rasha gaped at the scene.

“He can’t…surely he can’t bring her back from the dead?!”

“Oh, if only,” Eserion murmured. “No, I’m afraid it’s a lot worse than that, Rasha. Watch.”

“It…should work,” Rector said reluctantly. “I don’t like it. This is not tested. First attempts should always be in secured conditions, not in the field. If it goes wrong…”

“Will it?” Justinian asked, calm as ever.

The enchanter blew out a heavy huff of air. “I said it should work, didn’t I? It’s just not proper. It’s not safe procedure!”

“I have faith in you, Rector.”

“The tracks terminate over there, your Holiness,” Ravoud reported as he returned to the Archpope’s side from studying the mess left in the snow around the crash site. “Abruptly; I think they teleported out. Two of them, a dwarf and an elf.”

“An elf?!” Rasha exclaimed.

Eserion cackled and patted her on the back. “You’ve got small feet, and those slippers leave tracks that look like moccasin prints. Cos, y’know, nobody would be wearing shoes like that in the forest on purpose. Goes to show, a person can reason with perfect logic and still be dead-ass wrong without all the facts.”

“The Confederacy is too unstable yet and has no interest,” Justinian was musing to himself while Ravoud stood patiently by and Rector growled at his machine. “A dwarf and an elf who can teleport… Last Rock?” He frowned at Lanora’s body, then shook his head. “No. Neither Tellwyrn nor Yornhaldt would have done this. But…” Slowly, Justinian’s expression cleared, and then he actually smiled. “Trissiny. Avei chose well; that young woman is rapidly growing into her mother’s cunning.”

“I…suppose the second set could have been a half-elf,” Ravoud said, clearly dubous, “but they weren’t wearing Silver Legion boots, I would have recognized that.”

“Indeed. We shall have to add Svenheim to our roster of potentially hostile actors, Nassir.”

The soldier winced. “That would be trouble, your Holiness. The Church lacks influence in the Five Kingdoms.”

“Indeed, that is what makes it a clever move on her part.”

“I do not like how intelligent this guy is,” Rasha muttered. She hadn’t made that connection until Rogrind spelled it out, and she’d been standing in the middle of it, not looking at the aftermath. The god beside her just nodded.

Rector heaved another large, overdramatic sigh. “My fingers are cold. All right, I’ve made this secure as I can. Everything was already set up on the other end for the Angelus configuration, and initiating the temporal rift…well, it’s ready. Long as you’re just accessing the divine field’s battery bank, it hasn’t been long enough to make that any harder. I can’t do anything to make it all more ready.”

“Thank you, Rector.” Justinian nodded deeply to him, which he appeared not to notice. “Then we shall delay no longer.” The Archpope stepped forward from his position to the side of the circle, not crossing into it but changing his placement in a way Rasha recognized as symbolic. Spreading his hands at waist height, he addressed the assembled soldiers. “My faithful friends.”

None shifted from their assigned spots, but all twelve turned to face Justinian and dropped to one knee in the snow, not lowering their heads but gazing up at him raptly. Looking at their faces, Rasha felt an involuntary shiver that had nothing to do with the weather. Those expressions… It was as if they were staring at the source of all light and hope in the universe. She had rarely been in proximity to true fanaticism, but Glory had taken pains to bring her apprentices as guests to religious services where they could see it, and recognize it in the future. There was nothing more dangerous that came from the hearts of people, Glory had warned, and in this moment Rasha believed that. The Universal Church was supposed to be a simply administrative body, a facilitator of interfaith diplomacy between the Pantheon cults. For these men and women to so obviously regard the Archpope as an object of worship, Justinian had clearly twisted everything beyond all recognition. Even if he was successfully deposed, repairing what he’d done to the Church itself would be the work of years, if not generations.

“Each of you knows what comes next,” the Archpope addressed his devotees, his delivery a masterpiece of presentation: grave, solemn, yet kind. “Each of you has volunteered, unasked. What lies before you is not sacrifice, but ascension. And yet, it will be a change—a transition to something you cannot yet conceive. I would ask no one to embrace this except fully of their free will. If any of you would step back from this task now, this shall be the last moment to do so. There will be no recrimination, and no punishment. The task before you I cannot ask of you; it must be fully of your own volition. I would condemn none who choose to turn aside from this path.”

There was silence. Not one of them spoke, or even moved, merely gazed up at him in something very like rapture. Rasha had to tear her own eyes away from them in sheer, sick horror. Even not knowing yet what was about to happen, that little speech told her everything necessary. Faith was a powerful thing, able to uplift people, but if twisted, could utterly destroy them.

“Yeah,” Eserion said gently when she turned to stare helplessly at him, patting her shoulder once. “I know, hon.”

“We can’t just—”

“You gotta let people make their choices, Rasha. Even when those choices are obviously uninformed, or formed out of somebody’s deceit. None of us are qualified to control someone else’s life. Not even me, certainly not you.”

She clamped her lips shut miserably, suddenly sure she didn’t want to know what was coming next.

“I am humbled,” Justinian whispered, bowing his head before the silent soldiers kneeling in front of him. “As you have kept faith beyond what anyone could ask or expect, I swear your actions shall be honored as long as human memory persists. Even as you transcend the need for names of your own, the names you leave behind will be kept for eternity, that all who come after us will be reminded of the meaning of duty. Go forward, my dearest friends, with my gratitude, and the certainty that you are bringing salvation to the world.”

Ravoud, Rasha noted, didn’t look remotely comfortable with this, either. Wide-eyed and stiff beyond the demands of military bearing, he looked like a man on the verge of making a protest. But he didn’t, and when he turned his head to look at Justinian she saw something that, in a way, was even sadder than the blind fervor of his soldiers: simple, unconditional trust.

Rector was a living contrast to the mood, watching the Archpope with an impatient grimace. Justinian turned to him and nodded once, and with a soft exhalation, the enchanter placed his fingers in position upon the device he was carrying and began to move them in precise patterns.

The world around them grew lighter.

“Easy,” Eserion soothed, patting her on the shoulder again. “What you’re about to see isn’t gonna be comfortable but you’re in no danger. This part here is just a general surge of divine magic in the area. Hell, after the morning you’ve had, it might do you a world of good.”

It actually was sort of pleasant, incongruously with the scene thus far. Aside from a general lightening of the atmosphere, which looked odd due to how gentle it was and not glaring off the surrounding snow the way sunlight did, she felt a sense of imposed calm pushing against her mounting unease, plus a pleasant tingling replacing the sore spot at her shoulder where the destroyed warming charm had burned her. At the very edge of her hearing was a soft tone, reminiscent of both bells and flutes; Rasha couldn’t quite place what it sounded like, but it was soothing.

Justinian had closed his eyes and tilted his head back in a pose Rasha recognized as common among spellcasters focusing on something, and now the light suffusing the area brightened further around him, coalescing into a golden aura illuminating his body in particular. Except, unlike any divine aura she had personally seen, it seemed to solidify into constant, ever-shifting rays of discrete light beaming out from him in all directions, rather than a simple suffusing glow.

“Uh…” Rasha leaned away from a sunbeam that flashed past to her left.

“Relax, those wouldn’t hurt if they hitcha dead on,” Eserion assured her. “And they won’t, anyway. You’re not what this hoodoo is targeting.”

“That doesn’t look particularly targeted.”

“Just watch.”

Almost as soon as he spoke, a target did indeed emerge. More and more of the rays shifted forward, peppering the blood-stained snow in the middle of the circle, until they clustered to the point that a scintillating spotlight was focused on Lanora’s nearly-beheaded corpse.

“Target locked in,” Eserion murmured, watching intently. “Now comes the ‘temporal’ bit. This may start to get disorienting.”

“And yet you keep telling me to watch it.” Most people’s gods probably didn’t appreciate being sassed, but he chuckled.

It was at that point the ritual began to truly demand her attention, because Lanora twitched.

Not physically, the way a body would, Rasha realized; golden after-images were beginning to flicker around the corpse, suggesting at movements it was not actually making. At least, for the first few moments, before it quite abruptly sat up. In a single jerky motion the body heaved upright to a kneeling position, then passed through another series of blurry flashes before even those consolidated into a kind of reverse spray of light flashing into place around Lanora’s head.

This consolidated into the missing parts of her skull, formed out of golden light. The rest of her body had taken on a luminous quality, as if the solid matter were dissolving into energy even as energy flowed in to make up for what had been lost. She twitched and heaved again, jerking unnaturally upright into a hunched standing posture. Only when another reversed explosion flashed into place at the missing chunk of her side did Rasha’s appalled brain catch up with what she was seeing.

“He’s reversing what happened to her!”

“Think this is the cutoff point you were looking for,” Rector grunted, eyes fixed on his machine rather than the awesome spectacle in front of him. “Right? Right. Re-syncing.”

The light changed, no longer streaming directly from the Archpope but still lingering around Lanora’s upright body—and in fact, beginning to glow more brightly from it. Justinian’s eyes opened and he heaved a breath, not ostentatiously but enough to reveal the exertion of his performance, and his chest continued to rise more heavily as he stepped back from the circle, Rouvad hovering about him like a worried mother hen.

“Translocation’s working fine,” Rector reported tersely. “Whole system seems to be running, power’s sufficient to activate the ritual remotely, no significant throttling of energy or data across the connection. Everything’s within expected tolerances. This seems to be working.”

Justinian just nodded at him, which he didn’t see, eyes still fixed on his gadget. Rasha was barely paying attention to them, her gaze fixed on Lanora.

The body continued to change, color seeming to gradually leech from it as the glow intensified, as if its physical substance was dissolving to leave a person-shaped construct of Light behind. Now, as the glow intensified further, she actually began to rise off the ground. Her limbs shifted in an almost lifelike way, as though the woman’s intelligence were once again operating them. Now fully translucent and golden, Lanora ascended vertically, still in the center of the circle, until her feet dangled just above the heads of the onlooking soldiers. Spine arched, she leaned her head back to gaze at the sky, extending her arms behind her. Rasha couldn’t see her expression from that angle, but the pose could have indicated a sublime experience, or the furthest extreme of agony.

Staring at this, it took her an extra few seconds to notice the changing light was beginning to affect the twelve soldiers as well. More divine auras were slowly rising into existence around each of them, somewhat unevenly as if the energy affected every individual in a subtly different manner. Gradually, their own postures shifted; all had turned by that point to face Lanora’s transmuting body in the center, and one by one, military bearing began to yield to postures similar to hers. Heads back, arms going loose, spines slowly arching, their bodies clearly gripped by some extreme sensation, for good or for ill.

None of them made a sound. The scene was so chillingly silent that the distant, high-pitched chiming of divine magic at work seemed far louder than it was.

Rasha had to avert her eyes at the sudden explosion of pure golden light from the center of the circle, bursting with a sound like an enormous bell. A surge of wind and sheer kinetic force rushed outward, blasting snow in every direction—not the bloody snow, thankfully, that appeared to have dissolved along with Lanora’s corporeal form—and only Eserion’s hand against her back saved Rasha from being tipped over by the sudden impact.

When she could see again, Lanora was gone, and what had happened to her was beginning to take hold of the twelve soldiers. Slowly, they each rose off the ground, the colors and textures of their physical forms fading into constructs of translucent gold.

“Oh, no,” she whispered, “they’re not…”

Eserion made no reply, and no one else heard her.

The effect wasn’t as simple as it overtook the twelve sacrificial volunteers. Where Lanora had hovered there was now a single point of light, blazing like a second sunrise and connecting each of them with streamers of luminous energy. More such tendrils coiled and connected each of them around the circle, and across it, making a web of intricate rays. Not just direct beams connecting them, either; the more Rasha stared, the more she felt there was a pattern to them, something fiendishly complex, and yet, something it felt she should be able to grasp the purpose of, if she could only study it long enough. Narrowing her eyes in concentration, she glared against the throbbing pain that began to grow behind them…

A hand settled atop her head and Eserion forcibly turned her face away from the scene.

“It’s like an eclipse,” he advised. “Glance, then glance away. You don’t stare directly into that unless you wanna seriously hurt yourself.”

“But…it’s…what is…”

“Trust me, Rasha, that only seems like you should be able to parse it. You’re looking at sheer mathematics of a caliber that’d tie your brain in knots. Study the edges, get a broad impression, and don’t fixate. This is almost over, anyway.”

She tried to follow his advice, averting her gaze and glancing across various soldiers’ rising forms individually without trying to take in the whole scene, checking in on the Archpope and his two lackeys—none of whom were doing anything interesting, just watching the unfolding ritual like she was—then turning her head to take in the ritual with only her peripheral vision. That didn’t make much difference, but as long as she didn’t gaze too long at any one point or let her consciousness get sucked back into the intricate riddle of magic unfolding in the center, she could follow the progression of events.

By that point, what had befallen Lanora was in the final stages of affecting the twelve soldiers, and Rasha very much feared she knew what was next for them. Unlike Lanora, though, they were being pulled forward as they rose into the air—or more accurately, toward the center. The whole thing gave her the intuitive sense of a well-made sailor’s knot tightening in on itself to form a solid structure from loose coils of rope as the tension was pulled taut. Even without understanding what was happening, she could sense the momentum, feel the pull on her very soul as existence bent around them, the magical forces at work tugging everything into a single point of collapse.

Something was taking shape, something forged from thirteen mortal souls, crafted of impossibly intricate flows of magic.

Rasha finally had to look away entirely as all dissolved into Light. She could no longer make out any details with her eyes, nor could they stand to be directed at the intensity of luminous power that shone from the ritual circle. There was nothing now but the blaze of divine magic, so intense it felt warm on her cheek as she shifted her head away from it.

Then it faded, quickly at the end. The finality came not with another burst of power, but almost anticlimactically, the glow dissipating and the ringing in Rasha’s ears receding to a barely discernible tone at the faintest edge of hearing. Reluctantly, fearing what she would find, she turned back to see the result.

In the center of the disturbed snow, now cleansed of every trace of the twelve soldiers or Sister Lanora, including the sprawling bloodstain itself, there knelt a glowing…lump. Rasha blinked, unable to visually parse what she was seeing for a moment, until it shifted.

An arm emerged from amid the golden shell, bracing itself against the ground as if it had nearly toppled over. The luminous outer coating continued to crack and shift, reshuffling itself confusingly until the face emerged, along with the shape of a kneeling person within, and perspective snapped into place, finally letting her realize what she was seeing.

It was wings. Broad pinions wrought of sheer golden light, glowing gently and somehow distinct enough that she could pick out every single feather. They had been mostly wrapped around the kneeling form, obscuring its shape, but now flopped outward to spread across the snow in an ungainly manner. The figure lifted its head, and she realized its hair had also contributed to the glowing confusion. That, too, was golden, and not like simple blond hair: it seemed not only made of light, but subject to some force outside the norm, shifting slowly about as if in a soft breeze, or an ocean current.

The winged person had white skin, the color and texture of marble, so pure it resembled a moving statue more than skin. Its features were angular, androgynous, and it wore a robe of snowy white, over which was laid a suit of armor, golden and glowing as its wings and hair. Rasha saw the hilt of a sword buckled at its waist, also gold, but apparently actual gold, and not made of glowing energy.

Justinian paced forward, the soft crunch of snow under his careful steps incongruously loud in the stillness, and knelt before his creation, reaching out with both hands.

“Mnn,” Rector grunted, ruining the moment. “Looks like…success. All measurable values within their expected ranges based on the Vadrieny and Azradeh data and my extrapolations. We’ll have to do proper tests in a secured location, of course.”

The Archpope ignored him, gently taking the hands of the Angelus Knight, as he had called it.

“Rise, most honored servant of the Light.”

The Angelus fully lifted their head finally, opening their eyes. Within were pure, fathomless pools of the Light itself. It answered him in a voice like a choir, thirteen resonant souls speaking in unison.

“What is your command?”

“What?” Rasha echoed faintly, the single word sounding dumb even to herself. It was all she could come up with, though.

“Demigods are interesting critters, y’know,” Eserion commented, once again bracing a hand against her back to help keep her upright. Rasha didn’t ordinarily care for being touched by men she did not know very well, but his little pats and pushes had all been simply reassuring, and now she just felt grateful for the support. “They don’t follow…any established rules, see? Basically a god’s apex creation, something they make out of bits of themselves and usually some mortal they found especially worthy. They cause the most abominable fuckin’ trouble, which is why most of us haven’t done that in the longest time. For a good while, the only demigods were the daughters of Elilial.

“Then, well, the worst befell them. Only Vadrieny survived, stuck in the body of Teal Falconer… And just about the first thing that happened to the two of them was that they spent weeks in the Universal Church, being poked and prodded and studied by Justinian’s best and brightest minds. What he learned from that formed the basis of this little science project, along with some additional sources of info he’s scrounged up since, and a lot of really high-level magical understanding that was necessary to fold all that data into a useful form.”

“But what is it?”

“That,” Eserion said quietly as Justinian helped the Angelus to their feet, “is for all intents and purposes an archdemon, minus the demon part. Crafted from divine magic, and loyal only to him. And now that he knows it works, he can make as many as he wants.”

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