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“How much do you remember?”

Principia paused while taking a slow sip of the tea she’d been handed, narrowing her eyes slightly as she considered Trissiny’s question.

“I…think almost everything?” she finally offered after swallowing. “The whole sequence of events is pretty much intact in my mind, including me making a big levitating spectacle of myself and you reacquainting me with basic sense, Triss. That part has a hazy quality, though, not unlike the first and last time I tried peyote.” She grimaced as if pained and raised the teacup in both hands to partially obscure the lower part of her face. “If you held a wand to my head I couldn’t explain why I thought any of that was a good idea.”

“A sudden glut of raw data has that effect on people,” Mary stated, outwardly calm. After checking Principia’s vitals she had retreated a few paces, so as not to compete with Trissiny and Merry, who were both hovering protectively closer to the younger elf. “Many of the most foolish actions I have ever witnessed resulted from the combination of abundant information and insufficient emotional maturity.”

“Kuriwa, please,” Trissiny said with a soft sigh. “Locke, is there anything of the information you absorbed that you still have?”

“Hm. Like what, specifically?”

Trissiny scowled. “Can’t you for once just answer a question without being difficult?”

“That isn’t really how brains work, Trissiny,” Mary interjected in a gentle tone. “She’s not a machine, even if she was uncomfortably similar to one while under the Mask’s effect. Information recall follows organic pathways; if there is anything still there, she did not acquire it through the normal means, and it will need connections to follow if it is to resurface. Ask specific questions, and we shall see if anything connects.”

“I see,” Trissiny murmured, frowning pensively now. “Sorry, Locke.”

“Thank you, Kuriwa,” Principia said, giving her elder a careful sidelong look.

“You are welcome,” Mary said in a tone layered with meaning. Principia heaved a sigh and buried her nose in her tea again.

“While you were in that Archon fugue, you were saying vague things about plans,” Trissiny prompted. “More people you wanted to recruit and things about to happen that required urgent intervention. And you said both those categories applied to something happening in N’Jendo. Ring any bells?”

Principia squinted again, staring into the distance through the steam of her tea. “N’Jendo… Yes. I remember saying that. But the data…damn, I’m coming up blank. Gods, this is a weird feeling. I do recall talking about that and I sure made it sound important, didn’t I? But the reason for it is just gone. I’m sorry, Trissiny, I don’t know.” She lowered her cup, turning her head to look seriously at Trissiny. “I think the information was probably accurate and not something we should just forget about. I don’t have the details anymore, though.”

“N’Jendo’s a big place,” Merry murmured. “That’s not much to go on.”

Trissiny sighed softly. “I have a couple of friends in Ninkabi, but that’s it. Also, we’re on a class assignment for Tellwyrn. Which is not to say I’m firmly opposed to haring off on our own if the needs is sufficient; gods know we’ve done it before. But this time she’ll be really mad. That might have worse consequences for you than anyone, Prin.”

“Oh, Arachne loves to bluster,” Principia said lightly. “She banks on people always taking it seriously because of all the shit she’s blown up over the years. But nah, her dirty little secret is she’s annoyingly reasonable under all the chest-thumping. If she didn’t vaporize me for breaking into your dorm and drugging your friends that one time, she’s probably not gonna.”

“You,” Mary said very evenly, “Did. What.”

Principia grinned at her, and fortunately, that was the moment Toby entered the room, carrying a steaming bowl.

“Good to see you up and about, Lieutenant,” he said pleasantly, stepping right into the clearly tense atmosphere without hesitation and kneeling to offer Principia the bowl. She was sitting upright with the blanket still over her legs, but otherwise hadn’t moved from where she’d been laid after collapsing. “Juniper suggested I bring you a little something to recharge the ol’ crystals. Sorry, I know hot soup is traditional for recuperating, but we’re on a barren mountaintop with travel rations. Best I could do is porridge with dried fruit.”

“Oh, bless you, young Master Caine,” Principia said, setting aside her mug to accept the bowl with a grateful nod. “You are too pure for this world.”

“Nah, just too pure for the people he hangs around with,” Trissiny said, smiling up at Toby.

He winked and backed away a few steps. “Sing out if there’s anything else you need.”

“We will,” she promised, and he nodded, turned, and departed to the open plaza outside.

“So…” Principia paused in blowing across her porridge. “I wasn’t hallucinating, right? I did stick Kuriwa in a cage?” Merry sighed, shook her head, and rolled her eyes.

The Crow’s shoulders tensed up in a tiny gesture that was oddly reminiscent of a bird ruffling its feathers. “Yes, Principia, you did. I had set that aside while the more urgent matter of your well-being was attended to, but I see you are now feeling up to discussing it.”

Principia grinned at her. “Worth it.”

“Seriously?” Trissiny demanded.

“I have deliberately left you at liberty, child,” Kuriwa said ominously, “because you have, I assumed purposefully, kept yourself at a level of activity that falls below the threshold of impacting the course of world events. And so, unlike most of the rest of our extended family, I reasoned that it would harm little to let you work out your various issues on your own. It appears, now, you intend to insert yourself into important matters with no more maturity than you had a century ago. So I suppose I no longer have the luxury of letting you run around unattended.”

Principia’s grin sharpened until it looked painful. “Even more worth it.”

“Enough!” Trissiny exclaimed. “For the love of—just stop it, both of you.”

“Young woman,” Kuriwa began.

“Don’t you ‘young woman’ me!” Trissiny barked, pointing imperiously at her. “Based on my conversations with every single one of them so far, Kuriwa, I may be your only descendant who actually likes you! Consider that before you decide to try shoving your beak up my nose. I know how you’re accustomed to relating you kin, so let me assure you up front that if you try to push me around I will not hesitate to bring Avei into it in person. Principia knows the error she made. We have established that she wasn’t in her right mind when she briefly inconvenienced you. You’re fine now, so drop it. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hold you to the same standard of behavior you ham-fistedly demand of the rest of your family. And you!”

Principia had opened her mouth to speak around a smug smile, but now visibly quailed as Trissiny turned on her.

“What the hell is your problem?” Trissiny shouted. “I do not care how affronted your free-spirited sensibilities are by being lectured, why would you try to pick a fight with someone who can wring you like a dishcloth? Do you want her to smack you around like she does Zanzayed? We just established that you weren’t on her list of people who needed that treatment, and there you go, campaigning for it! Locke, if I hadn’t just seen you clowning around with that mask you made such a production about being too dangerous to touch, I’d have assumed you were smarter than that. And yet, here we are!”

They both stared at her, blinking. Merry held herself rigidly still, hardly breathing.

“Honestly,” Trissiny said, rubbing her face with both hands. “You’re a pair of immortals; I am twenty years old. Why am I the adult in this room?”

“You,” Principia said at last, “are starting to sound eerily like my mother. It is…really disturbing.”

“Eat your porridge,” Trissiny snapped. “I can tell you one difference between us: Lanaera told me most of your arguments were her fault, because she just wasn’t cut out for motherhood. All the problems in our relationship are your doing, Principia.”

Principia hesitated with a spoonful of porridge almost to her mouth, staring at her. “…she said that?”

Trissiny sighed deeply. “Corporal, if you wouldn’t mind…”

“Oh, hey, I just remembered,” Merry muttered, standing upright, “I urgently needed to talk to, uh, one of those weirdos outside about…I dunno, I’ll think of something.”

The room was quiet while she hustled out, and then for a few more seconds thereafter.

“I hate to admit it,” Kuriwa said at last, “but I begin to suspect she gets that level head from the human side.”

“Anton was good people,” Principia agreed after swallowing a bite of porridge. “He deserved better friends than me.”

“Young Herschel impresses me favorably, as well,” the Crow agreed with a faint smile.

Trissiny shook her head and shifted, adjusting her seat to draw her knees up to her chest and wrap her arms around them. “What is Avei’s strategy?”

Principia paused with another spoonful almost to her mouth, staring at her. “You’re asking me?”

“Don’t get cute,” Trissiny ordered. “When you were high on Mask, you said you were acting in accordance with your orders, and with Avei’s strategy. I know nothing of this. What is it?”

“Ah.” She lowered the spoon back to the bowl, glancing sidelong at Kuriwa. “That…was an exaggeration. The orders are Avei’s; the strategy is mine. It’s part of that thing I told you about when we met at Last Rock. On the mountainside, remember?”

“The part you said was classified,” Trissiny said. “Even to me.”

“And as I told you then, I would rather bring you into the loop,” Principia said frankly. “Not just because I don’t care for keeping secrets from you; I think that you specifically would be an important asset to the whole thing. If for no other reason than because I would really like to verify with Avei that I’m doing what she wants. I can’t see any other way to go about the task she set for me, and it’s been my assumption that this is why she wanted me in the Legions in the first place, but… It’s not like we’re on first name terms. I get my orders from Rouvad, who in her warmest and kindest moments deigns to tolerate me and has made no secret that she resents Avei shoving me down her throat.” She grimaced, ducking her head to stare at her porridge. “It’s not like I’m generally very big on authority, as you well know. But…this is important. I wish I could be sure I was doing it right.”

Trissiny watched her in silence for a few more seconds. Principia met her eyes, then sighed and went back to eating.

“Kuriwa,” Trissiny said at last, “would you please give us a few minutes?”

The Crow rose smoothly, nodding at her. “I think it for the best. Call for me if there is anything I can do to help.”

She departed in silence, leaving Trissiny and Principia to study each other.

“I’m not directly in your chain of command,” Trissiny said, “and there are formalities—not to mention political implications—that would come up if I were to officially countermand the High Commander’s orders and insert myself into a classified program. But it’s just us in this room, and we both understand how Eserion’s mindset can complement Avei’s, when necessary. If you think I can help, Prin, tell me what’s going on.”

“Okay.” She set the spoon back in the half-eaten bowl, and turned to set it on the ground next to her cooling tea. “It’s like this.”


She finished her sandwich first. It was a really good sandwich, some of the best food she’d been able to get since arriving in this city—fresh and hot, with juicy meat and vegetables on warm flatbread, not at all like the kind of stuff she found behind buildings. So she made sure to savor it before setting to work, even if this wasn’t the best place for eating. The smell alone spoiled the experience a little bit. Well, she still had money; after handing over the gold coin for the sandwich she’d gotten some silver and bronze ones back. There would be other good food. She was loath to take her eyes off the thing after stumbling across another one, so there she sat, balefully watching it until she had licked the last of the grease from her fingers.

Then, finally, she rose from her seat on an old barrel, stretched, picked up her stick, and went to work beating to pieces and scattering the rancid structure of old bones, flesh, and magic that had been concealed behind a currently shuttered factory.

“Found another one, did you?”

She spun, raising the stick. She recognized that voice. Grinning insufferably at her, the man in the floppy had stepped out of the shadows into the relatively lighter shadows nearby, where the blue sky peeked through the gap between buildings high above.

“You know they’re just going to make more, don’t you?” Vesk said condescendingly. “There are far more capable heroes than you working on this—you ran into a couple, I understand. Well, antiheroes, anyway. These things are going up faster than they can tear them down. At best you’re amusing yourself.”

She threw the stick at him. He didn’t flinch when it bounced off his head. It didn’t even disturb his stupid hat.

“I take it I’m still not forgiven, then,” he said solemnly. “Seriously, I am sorry for the presumption, but you wouldn’t have fared a lot better left out there in the howling wilderness where I found you. Why didn’t you go to the Omnist temple like I suggested? You definitely wouldn’t be scrounging for food; Omnists love feeding people.”

She drew back her lips, opened her jaws, and made a rough hissing noise from the back of her throat, like an angry cat.

“The gods aren’t all like me and Salyrene, you know,” he remarked. “You have to be trying pretty hard to make Omnists hurt you. Hell, most people can’t try hard enough. They’re almost insufferably nice.”

She blasted him with a shadowbolt. He swatted it aside.

“I hope you don’t think you’re spiting me with this stubbornness,” the god said frankly. “I get what I want either way. You’re not gonna work your way out of the ‘mysterious stranger’ role in the time it’ll take events to wash over this city no matter what you do. I was hoping to position you as ‘strange, mute charity case’ for your sake, because I thought you could do with a spot of good luck, but I can work with ‘crazy street person’ just as well.”

She concentrated, gathering power in the form of motes of light out of the air around her. When it was sufficiently formed, she thrust her hands forward and the arcane bolt tore across the alley, filling it with blue light.

He caught that one, then had the audacity to bounce it in his palm like a luminous ball. “The nearest Omnist temple is less than a block from here, due west. That’s down toward the next lower steppe of the city, if you’re disoriented. You don’t even have to do anything; just show up looking like that and they’ll make sure you get a meal, a bath, something clean to wear and a bed if you want it. They can even set you up with work, and work is important for a lot more than making wages. Never underestimate the value of a purpose. But then,” he added, looking past her at the destroyed altar, “maybe you’ve figured that part out on your own.”

Gritting her teeth, she ignited a golden shield of divine light around herself and charged forward to body-slam him.

She bounced right off, staggering for balance, and the god casually tossed her own ball of arcane energy back at her. It impacted the shield in a loud shower of sparks which extinguished both.

“Really?” Vesk asked sardonically. “We can literally do this all day, kiddo. One of us can, at least. Nobody’s gonna be impressed with your Every Salyrite Apprentice Ever package of basic spells—they just prove you don’t know enough of any one type of magic to be actually scary. For heaven’s sake, don’t do any of that at the local police. They are very short on sense of humor at the moment.”

She regained her footing and hissed at him again.

He sighed. “Well, I’ve told you where the temple is. Or… There’s another of these altars about half a block to the south. The alleys made for a deliberately obfuscatory path, but as long as you know the requisite elementary fae magic to go with your other novice tricks, you’ll be able to follow your nose to it now you’ve already encountered two of them.”

The god hesitated, then shook his head and turned to go. “Just be careful. These Tide idiots are trying to avoid direct conflict, but I wouldn’t swear you’re a match for one in your present state. I brought you here because you’ve got every potential for a great destiny. If you just end up getting killed, I will actually feel bad.”

He actually walked away down the alley instead of just disappearing like last time. She shot him in the back with another shadowbolt. It did nothing, of course, but it was satisfying.


Trissiny gazed at the far wall in silence for long moments after Principia stopped talking.

“That,” she finally said, “might work.”

“Well, I thought so,” the elf said petulantly, finishing off the last of her now-cool tea before setting the cup back down next to the empty porridge bowl. “I mean, acknowledging my bias, I could definitely see it working. It’d be nice to have some confirmation, though. I wouldn’t put it past Avei to upbraid me for failing to read her mind. That may be a little paranoid of me, but I’ve not had the best experience within the Sisterhood so far.”

“I will ask her,” Trissiny promised with a fleeting little smile. “Orders aside, I see why you would want to keep that under wraps as long as possible. The whole idea sits right in that sweet spot of being bonkers enough that nobody but you would have come up with it, but plausible enough to others will undoubtedly try as soon as the idea gets out.”

“Yeah, well, I suspect it’ll be out sooner than later,” Principia said, frowning. “Maybe sooner than I’m ready. I know we’re within Shaeine’s earshot, and there is absolutely no way Kuriwa’s not actively listening. She comprehends the concept ‘none of my business’ as well as a horse understands trigonometry.”

“And you were wanting to gather people from N’Jendo and Veilgrad, as well as here, and throw them into some unfolding disaster,” Trissiny murmured. “It makes a lot more sense now.”

Principia blinked. “Wait, Veilgrad? Really?”

“I take it you don’t recall that, either.”

“Now that you mention it, I recall saying the name, but… Veilgrad is full of Shaathists and werewolves. The place is basically a giant miscellany of things that bump in the night. I can see it being a prospect but I wouldn’t wanna go there without a good and specific lead, which no, I don’t have.”

“I know some people there, too, but same problem applies. That’s there, we’re here, and I’m not sure how eager I am to learn what Tellwyrn would do if I went that far afield. She once threatened to chain me and Gabe together at the wrist. I’ve only come to understand how serious she was in hindsight.”

“You could do worse,” Principia said with a sly quirk of her lips.

Trissiny turned a flat stare on her. “We are not that close yet, Locke.”

“Yes’m,” the elf said solemnly.

Trissiny shook her head, and then turned again to stare at the wall, eyes narrowed in thought.

Principia watched her in silence for more than a full minute before suddenly speaking.

“I knew Sabah Aldarasi.”

Trissiny blinked in surprise and turned back to her. “The Hand of Avei who was killed by the Enchanter’s Bane? The way I was taught, that was a big part of the reason Viridill turned on the Empire after it was fired.”

“Yeah,” Principia whispered, herself gazing off into the distance now. “Her, and Sarsamon Tirasian. I knew him as Sarsa, dumbass wannabe adventurer from southern Calderaas. We were kind of a team for a while, there, just as what would become the Enchanter Wars was getting started. That’s incidentally also how I met Arachne, a bit later. Of course, far as we knew, it was just the latest occurrence of the orcs going on one of their crusades across the borders, and some shenanigans in the background where Magnan had a bug up his butt about fae magic and was leaning on both the Emperor and the Archpope to crack down on witches. Chaotic times, but eh…I’d seen worse. The whole world didn’t go nuts until that idiot fired off the Bane. And quite accidentally killed my friend.”

“So,” Trissiny said very quietly, staring at her, “when you heard I’d been called as the new Hand of Avei…”

“Look, I won’t say any part of my judgment at any step of that entire process was sound,” Principia said, wincing. “But that particular moment… Yeah, haring off to Viridill to plow through Abbess Narnasia was a uniquely unwise thing to try. That just triggered something in me I had made myself forget was there.”

“I see,” Trissiny murmured.

“I abandoned them too.” Principia’s expression was completely hollow, eyes far away. “After Sabah… You’ve never been around a Hand of Avei without being one, you can’t know what it’s like. Even if your grasp of history warns you that there’s always a bigger fish, that they always end up meeting something they can’t defeat in the end… A paladin is an inspiring presence. You believe they can do anything, no matter how stupid you know that is. You want to be the best version of yourself you can be to help them, if they welcome you into their circle.”

Trissiny kept silent as if afraid to distract her as the elf carried on in an uncharacteristically haunted voice.

“That was new, to me. And then, boom. She was dead. Just so much fucking dust. Sarsa was a wreck—those two were the kind of irrationally in love that mostly only happens in great adventure stories. Slap slap kiss, it was all very amusing and sweet until it turned into a tragedy. The others… And, well, the whole world started falling apart. The Empire was falling into civil war, three major cults were actively trying to tear down the Universal Church, the Collegium was collapsing as different kinds of magic users started slaughtering each other. Viridill full of orc refugees. It was a time when heroes were desperately needed. Sabah made me believe I could be something truly great. And suddenly she was gone, and I needed to step up. For my friends’ sake, if not the world’s.”

Her shoulders hunched as if she wanted to collapse in on herself.

“So, naturally, I fucked off to Onkawa to get some sun.”

“You’re not a coward,” Trissiny said quietly.

“Don’t—”

“I’d like to think you know by now I don’t do platitudes. I am very well acquainted with your faults, Locke, and cowardice isn’t one.”

“Of course it is,” Principia said bitterly. “I’m not afraid of pain or death, but my own feelings? Oh, that I just can’t face. Onkawa didn’t exactly work out either, shit was going down in every corner of the world and I immediately ended up neck-deep in Black Wreath nonsense, but at least that had nothing to do with me. There was nobody I cared about involved; it was damn well therapeutic.”

They were silent again for another minute. Trissiny just watched her, waiting.

“The only way I knew how to relate to people was the only safe way I managed with my mother and everyone else in the grove,” Principia whispered at last. “Long as I made enough of a pest of myself that nobody wanted me around…well, that was always how it ended up anyway, and I felt better when it was on my terms. I kept moving, didn’t keep any friends around for very long. The Guild is well set up for that kind of lifestyle. Then fucking Sabah came along and ruined everything. I never did manage to completely straighten myself out again after that.”

She glanced up at Trissiny again and then dropped her gaze immediately, avoiding her eyes.

“Part of it…that one child support con, the whole reason you exist… Well, I thought it would be good to have a child. And then I did and it was terrifying beyond the capacity of words to express. You can’t run from that; you can’t just leave them behind. To love someone that way means you will be shattered, completely broken down to your core, if you lose them.”

Principia paused, swallowed heavily, and spoke in a ragged breath.

“So…I got it out of the way, instead of waiting for it to happen to me. Thank the gods Arachne was around, or… I’m just so goddamned sorry, Trissiny. I chickened out, that was all there was to it. What it means to be truly connected to people… The vulnerability is horrifying.”

“Yeah,” Trissiny agreed, nodding once. “I wouldn’t want to live without it, though. Without people to love… What’s the point?”

“I get it, finally,” Principia said with a deep sigh. “My squad… Omnu’s balls, I’m amazed I’ve kept them alive this long. Between Syrinx and dragons and whatever else, it’s been a whole series of incredibly close shaves. And it’s just not gonna work forever. Soldiers die, that’s what they do, and I am going to lose some of those girls way too soon. I mean, I could live with Nandi kicking it, she’s been around forever and still hasn’t gotten over her own lost mate, but the others? They’re just kids. Brave, smart…the kind of heroic dumbshits I was supposed to be if I hadn’t run away instead.”

Drawing in a deep breath, she threw her head back to gaze up at the ceiling.

“What I do not get is why it’s such a relief. Both them, and you. Making peace with what it’s going to mean when someone else is taken from me and deliberately sticking by them anyway. I feel like I could piss myself from terror every moment I’m awake, and yet… I think I like it better this way. Is that normal?”

“Yes, Prin,” Trissiny said, smiling, “you ridiculous two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old child, that is normal.”

Principia lowered her head to meet her daughter’s eyes.

“That’s fucked up.”

Trissiny blinked once, and then began laughing so hard she fell over.


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15 – 53

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“Touch me and she dies.”

Syrinx already had two wands aimed at her, to say nothing of the knives coming out; that sentence bought her a momentary pause.

“You’re gonna sit there and threaten my apprentice right in front of me?” Grip asked in a dangerously serene tone. “Ballsy.”

“Your…? Oh, Covrin’s here.” Syrinx barely glanced at Jenell in passing. “No, I was referring to Ninkabi. Forgive the dramatic phrasing, but you thugs clearly needed encouragement not to shut down your brains entirely. Now, here’s the situation.”

“Really, holding the entire city hostage?” Sweet said with a derisive little smile. “Well that’s…an approach.”

“Don’t pretend to be stupid, Antonio,” she snapped. “You know very well I am not behind the threats here, but without me you haven’t a prayer of thwarting them.”

“Yeah, that’s bullshit,” said Thumper. “She’s got nothin’, not even her crew anymore.”

“I cannot believe we’re still talking to this woman,” Schwartz exclaimed. “Jenell, do you want to do the honors or may I…?”

“I’ve gotten my pound of flesh from her,” Jenell said stiffly, looking away from Basra. “Knock yourself out.”

Syrinx slapped a hand down on the table, rattling the silverware again. “You’ve got nothing. You have neither the necessary forces to head off the coming attack, nor adequate knowledge of where it will come from. The fact that you’ve invited this into your ranks only proves how desperate you are.”

Bradshaw met her sneer with a raised eyebrow. “Well, I have no personal horse in this race, but if the consensus of the group is that we table other business and char Basra Syrinx down to her skeleton, I’m for it.”

“A person with a scrap of self-awareness would take note that others are more willing to ally with the Wreath than herself and reflect on that,” Grip drawled.

Shook snorted a bitter laugh. “Damn, woman, nobody doesn’t hate you. Even I don’t have a hundred percent aggression rating, and that’s literally my job.”

“Your inability to do your job is another topic, Shook,” Syrinx sneered. “Having to deal with me is the tax you lot will have to pay for this one and his cronies splitting my forces. I know that dragon is helping you track down the summoning sites; had he and you not run off on your own I could be sending troops to each one. But they did, so here we are. You can maybe keep tracking down those portal sites, but the cultists will just keep making more, and you quite simply do not have enough warm bodies to throw at them. Sooner than later they’ll have enough up and running to put their plan into motion while you’re still chasing your tails.”

“Troops?” Sweet asked mildly.

“Oh, come on, you know she has nothing of the kind!” Jenell spat. “This is nothing but a ploy to get us off her back so she can prolong her existence another day.”

“She could have easily done that by not coming here,” Sweet pointed out. “It’s not as if anybody here has time to go hunting her down, we’re fully occupied with shit that matters.”

Jenell slammed a fist on the table in an ironic echo of Basra and started to rise from her seat. “I cannot believe you’d even consider—”

“Covrin!” Sweet did not raise his voice, but projected in a sharp tone that cut her off. “If somebody makes you mad enough to go on the attack without thinking, they’re beating you. Basra, you will either wipe that smirk off your face or Schwartz will burn it off.”

Meesie puffed up like a spikefish, hissing, and Schwartz cracked his knuckles, staring at Basra. Jenell sank more slowly back into her seat, deliberately marshaling her expression. Syrinx smoothed her own as swiftly as if a switch had been flipped.

“We’re gonna do this smart,” Sweet announced, again in a tone of calm. “If Basra has something critical to offer, we’ll get all the available info and decide logically what to do. If what she offers isn’t very good—and I mean, incredibly persuasively necessary—she doesn’t leave this room alive. Agreed?”

A few grudging mutters of assent followed, though most of those at the table just watched Syrinx in silence. She herself curled her lip disdainfully, but nodded.

“All right, then,” Sweet said with an unconvincing little smile. “Let’s hear your pitch, Bas. I assume you wouldn’t have risked coming here if you didn’t have something good.”

“I have the one thing you need and do not have,” she replied. “Men who can follow orders. As a designated emissary of the Archpope, I can take direct command of the Holy Legionaries in the city, and have pull with the local police and Imperial Army presence.”

“You seem to be forgetting that both of us didn’t get de-Bishoped,” he said with a pleasant smile. “I also have—”

“This isn’t Tiraas, Antonio,” she interrupted. “Nobody here knows you—and by the looks of it, you came in your Eserite persona, looking to rummage around in the city’s underground. Sure, you can prove your identity and your status…eventually. Except you’re forgetting that the Tiraan Empire is currently in a state of war footing, which means civilians do not have access to the Rails or telescroll network as of this morning. You were probably among the last people to be able to travel freely to get here. And let’s say the local police recognize you: the Eserite Bishop. We all know how much police love Eserites.”

She smirked again, while he regarded her impassively. Flanking him, Flora and Fauna narrowed their eyes to blue slits.

“How’d you find us here so fast, Basra?” Sweet asked lightly.

“That is not among the things you need to know.”

He shifted his gaze. “Mr. Bradshaw, if I might inquire, how much manpower can your group lend to this effort?”

“I trust you won’t be surprised if I decline to share exact numbers,” the warlock drawled. “But it won’t come as a surprise to anyone here that the Wreath is running low on competent and trusted personnel, since you in particular are the lion’s share of the reason for that, Darling. With shadow-jumping we can cover ground quickly, of course. But we have…let us say a bare handful of warlocks on the ground in Ninkabi, and it would be a very hard sell to get Embras to place them directly at the disposal of you or your pet dragon. We all remember well the last time we tried to protect a city from demon attack while you were involved.”

“I suppose I’ll have to accept that,” Sweet said slowly. He studied Basra for a moment, then Schwartz, and finally met Grip’s eyes. She nodded minutely. “All right. As I see it, this is a matter of weighing risks against each other. We can take out Basra since she’s offered herself up on a plate, and embrace the risk that we just won’t have enough people to stop the enemy from opening multiple hellgates, much less find and shut them down in person. We can agree to work with her, for now, and take the risk of whatever bullshit she’s planning to pull harming us or the effort, because it’s not even in question that she’s scheming something.” Syrinx made a sardonic face at him, but didn’t interrupt. “There is also an inherent risk in cooperating with the Wreath, of course. Even when they act in good faith, they never do so without ulterior motives, as they proved in Veilgrad, and as our new friend Bradshaw pointed out they have good and specific reason to feel unfriendly toward yours truly, and by extension now, the rest of you.”

Leaning forward with his elbows on the table, he interlaced his fingers and turned his gaze on Jenell. “In my judgment, these risks are similar in both likelihood and severity—too close to call, even if we knew all the nuances, and the fact that we clearly don’t is another factor. So in cases like this, where the simple practicalities don’t tell us what to do, we must look to our ethics. And with regard to that, while quite a few of us here have reasons to be annoyed at Basra Syrinx, you have by far the biggest claim. So it’s your call, Covrin.”

Jenell blinked twice, then slowly raised her eyebrows. “I…what?”

“If you don’t want the pressure you can pass it right back to me and no one will blame you,” he assured her. “This is not an obligation. But it is your prerogative. You know the situation, the balance of risks. It comes down to whether this is a monster we can work with, and you’re the one with the biggest right to make that call, if you want it.”

She stared at him for a silent moment, then nodded once, turning her gaze back to Syrinx.

Basra had gone completely rigid in her chair, despite her insouciant pose straddling its back, watching Jenell with a complete lack of expression.

“So,” Jenell said quietly after a long pause, “that makes it twice now I’ve held your life in my hand, Basra. I’m officially ahead, now. Isn’t that a hell of a thing?”

Basra’s left eyelid twitched and she drew in a breath to speak.

“Open your mouth and lose an eye,” Schwartz stated flatly. “You don’t need depth perception to make yourself useful.” Meesie growled in agreement.

Shook pointed at him, and then turned the gesture into a thumbs up. Grip shook with almost-silent laughter.

“Well, apprentice,” she chuckled, “I officially approve of your boyfriend, here.”

“Sweet, do you see any practical concern that tips the scales one way or another?” Jenell asked, turning back to him.

He leaned back against the rear of the booth, pursing his lips for a moment in thought. “I suppose…it’s two gambles against one. With Basra, we risk…Basra. Without her, we’re betting that I can drum up some manpower from the police and military by hook or by crook—definitely without the Holy Legion, because I have no pull at all there—and also that the Wreath will come through. I feel like that’s making it sound simpler than it is, is the thing. This city is crawling with extraneous factors. The Jackal is still jacking around and all of this is contingent on Khadizroth behaving himself, which is a hell of a coin to flip.”

The look Jenell gave Syrinx was purely contemptuous, and caused Basra’s eye to twitch again. “Then I say put her to work. The days when she was important enough to risk the safety of a city over are long past. None of this changes the reality of the sword hanging over Basra’s head. She may as well get to survive a little while longer, if it means she’ll be of some use for once.”

Syrinx shifted her head to face Jenell directly, opening her mouth.

Schwartz raised one hand from under the table and blew across it. A thin streamer of dust wafted forward, caught fire, and coalesced into a single needle of flame which then hovered in the air, pointed directly at Syrinx.

She shut her mouth.

“Well, there you have it!” Sweet said magnanimously. “Once again, Bas, you are the lesser evil, a position I know you find comfortable. How soon can you marshal these boots on the ground?”

She rose smoothly, swinging one leg over the chair and retreated a strategic two steps from the table. “I have Holy Legionaries I can send out immediately. Getting movement from city and Imperial forces is going to take some politicking, as you well know. By the time you and your dragon have useful targets, I’ll have forces ready to move.”

“Splendid,” he said, smiling. “And where shall I look for you?”

“Oh, no, you don’t,” Syrinx retorted, her flat expression a contrast to his languid smile. “I can locate you cretins when I need you. I will decide when it is time to link up again. Just do your job with a minimum of your usual screwing around, and maybe we can prevent this city from being burned to the ground.”

She turned and strode out of the room without another word.

“Son of a bitch,” Thumper whispered.

“Yeah, no kidding,” said Schwartz.

“No, not…her in general,” the enforcer said impatiently. “I think… Sweet, this whole thing where our crew was gonna join up with Justinian to keep tabs on him was the Jackal’s idea, though Big K basically took over leading it by the time it all fell apart. It was the Jackal who suggested I get out from under Syrinx’s thumb right before disappearing himself. He’s been carving up the local police, making damn sure there’s a shortage of manpower to protect the city, right when she’s got Holy Legionaries just where we’ll need ’em. And didn’t you start to say you had a brush with him on the way in, just before that bitch somehow found us here? You seein’ what I’m seein’?”

“Why, Thumper, I think you’re onto something,” Sweet said slowly. “And I was just wondering what the hell the Jackal could possibly be playing at. It seems he and Basra are Ninkabi’s newest power couple.”

Schwartz let out a low whistle.

“Soon as this is over,” Grip said in a resigned tone, “we’re gonna have to go on a serious murdering spree.”


“Thanks,” Merry said, accepting the steaming cup from Juniper. The dryad smiled and handed the other mug to Trissiny, who nodded in gratitude as she accepted it.

“How’s she doing?” Juniper asked, carefully seating herself on the floor beside Merry. They had brought Principia into the building where they’d camped the night before and laid her on a bedroll, covered with a blanket and with a portable fairy lamp resting nearby. In the hours since she had collapsed, Mary had checked on her several times, as had McGraw and Shaeine, but for the most part the others had preferred to respect their privacy. Given the various people assembled here, there was no shortage of conversations to be had elsewhere. Only Merry and Trissiny had remained by Principia’s side steadily.

“Asleep,” Merry said tersely, then offered a thin smile. “According to the Crow, that’s the best thing for her now.”

Juniper nodded again. Sniff padded around behind her and gently inserted himself between his mistress and Merry, making a cooing noise deep in his throat. Juniper smiled and leaned her head against him.

“I feel like I get what it must be like for you, Triss,” she said quietly. “At least a little. Not the same situation, but…I’m seeing parallels.”

“What do you mean?” Trissiny asked.

“Family,” the dryad whispered. “The idea being new…and so much more complicated than I would’ve expected.”

“Well, that definitely sounds like my experience of the last couple of years,” Trissiny replied with a wry chuckle.

“I never thought I was an orphan like you,” Juniper said softly, staring over Princpia’s prone form into the fairy lamp. “I had my mother, and my sisters… It was painful, coming to understand that Naiya only ever thought of any of us as basically pets. That my sisters—just like me—were all immature, selfish monsters who’d never had a reason or a chance to actually grow up. Now, there’s pixies and kitsune and valkyries, and they’re all so strange and…in the case of valkyries, terrifying. But…good? It’s an amazing thing, to be loved by someone who actually understands what that means, just because they feel a kinship with you. Even if they’re a bossy know-it-all like Kaisa, or something like Yngrid who makes my blood run cold just looking at her. And that just reminds me what a cruel thing it was for Naiya to design us to have that reaction. It’s all so… It’s a mess. It’s sweet, and bitter, and generally confusing.”

“Yep,” Trissiny said, nodding and staring into her tea. “That hits the nail on the head. I have different weirdos, is all, but that’s exactly the feeling.”

“You guys are actually making me miss my parents,” Merry commented. “The worst thing they ever were was boring.”

“They sound very nice,” Trissiny said solemnly. Juniper laughed, then Merry did, and finally Trissiny herself had to chuckle. Her expression sobered again, though, as her gaze fell once more on Principia’s face. “I hope you don’t have to sympathize with this, too, Juno. It’s kind of a heck of a thing, finding yourself worrying over someone before you’ve been able to figure out how you even feel about them.”

Juniper heaved a sigh. “Sort of too late, there, too. Over the summer, we… I mean, me, Aspen, Fross, and Kaisa, we went back to the pixie grove.”

Trissiny looked up at her. “Oh. To see… I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten what her name was.”

“Jacaranda. It’s okay. We, uh…” She winced, then shook her head, causing Sniff to chirp softly in comfort. “Well, it was Kaisa’s idea. It seemed kind of harsh, but honesty harsh measures might be the only thing that could help. Even Kaisa wasn’t sure if it would.”

“The Pixie Queen is fully transformed by trauma, right?” Trissiny asked. “What did Professor Ekoi do?”

“We took her to a place where she could be… Kaisa wasn’t exactly clear. Tested, or treated, or possibly imprisoned? You know, she made it all sound very necessary at the time but in hindsight the more I think about it the less sure I am.”

Trissiny straightened up suddenly, setting her tea aside. “Hang on. This summer we also—that is, me, Gabe, Toby, and my brother Herschel—had to visit the Tower of Salyrene.”

Juniper’s eyes snapped back to her. “You did?”

“The talking sword there said something about a kitsune dropping off a transformed dryad.”

“He did?” Juniper herself perked up in excitement. “Did you see her?”

“Sorry, June, when we were there the place was empty. It was just us and Athenos.”

“Oh.” Juniper deflated just as abruptly, and Sniff rubbed his head against her shoulder. “I…hope that’s good. You didn’t see Petal or Bugsy, either?”

Trissiny blinked twice. “…who?”

“The pixie and the imp. They were in the tower when we got there.”

“An imp? Uh…no, like I said, the place was dead empty. Gabe and I encountered some caplings in one of the testing rooms, and Toby and Schwartz said they had to fight a demon. That was it. Nobody who seemed intelligent enough to talk with us except the sword and then Salyrene.”

Juniper chewed on her lower lip. “I hope that means it helped her and she got out. Though that raises the question of where she is.”

“You guys have really interesting lives,” Merry commented.

Trissiny and Juniper both stared at her, then burst out laughing in unison. After a moment, she had to smile along with them.

“Well,” Trissiny said at last, catching her breath, “I really hope Jacaranda’s okay, Juniper. If she went through the Tower and got out, I’m pretty sure she must be at least better. The way it was described to us, the whole point of that place was tests of intellect, character, magical skill…”

“I sure hope so,” Juniper said with a sigh. “It’d be nice to know what happened to her, is all. I’m not sure how feasible it is to get a message to Kaisa all the way over in Sifan but I’ll ask Professor Tellwyrn about it as soon as we’re back home.”

“That sounds like a good idea.”

“And I hope Principia’s all right when she wakes up,” the dryad added.

“Kuriwa seemed pretty sure she would be,” Trissiny said. “Sounded like she just needed some rest.”

“This is jarring,” Merry whispered. “That’s the word. It’s just jarring. This is the least like her I’ve ever seen Locke.”

Both of the others turned their heads to watch her in silence. She stared down at the sleeping elf, her brows drawn together pensively.

“I’ve hated and loved and everything in between this crazy knife ear,” Merry continued at last. “And she’s just always in control. No matter what goddamn thing is trying to kill us on a given week, there she is, all smug and knowing and with a plan. You could look at her and just…just be able to calm down, because Locke was there, and she was working on it, and that was always enough because she always came up with something. The only thing I’ve never seen her pull off before is lose. Whatever happened, she had three schemes in place to meet it, and if something outmaneuvered her even so, she’d pull something else out of her butt and we’d still win, because she’s Principia fucking Locke and that’s what she does.”

Trissiny nodded slowly, also turning her eyes back to the elf.

“Until today,” Merry added in a bare whisper. “Man…she really got twisted around and then smacked down this time, didn’t she? That was… I mean, watching that… I still haven’t sorted out how to feel. Is it weird to be a little bit relieved?”

“No, I think I can understand that one,” Trissiny said with the ghost of a smile. “I’ve seen her vulnerable, too. I think it’s the only reason I’ve been able to give her a chance.”

“It’s still a pretty good record,” Juniper offered. “Getting outmaneuvered by an actual trickster god isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Locke being someone who can scheme her way around anybody except Vesk… That’s plenty impressive.”

“And hey, look at it this way,” Trissiny added with a heartier smile, “maybe it was all part of her cunning plan. Letting herself get outfoxed just so she could look all pitiful in front of us and gain sympathy.”

Merry chuckled, a sound both derisive and rueful.

“Yeah, sure, let’s go with that.”

All of them abruptly leaned forward, setting down drinks, as Principia’s eyes opened. Her voice was hoarse and barely above a whisper, but she still managed a weak grin as she continued.

“I like the sound of it. All according to plan. Omnu’s breath, my head hurts… So, what have I missed?”

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15 – 52

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Once his back was to the temple, Sweet stopped putting so much focus on controlling his expression, allowing a pensive frown to settle on his features. He bounded down the stairs three at a time, perhaps not terribly respectful conduct for visiting a religious sanctuary, but Izarites were hard to offend and his thoughts were already elsewhere.

“Any luck?” Fauna asked as he reached the street level.

“You know, I’m increasingly unsure,” he mused. “Still nobody who’d acknowledge having seen Bran, but this is the third place in a row where I’m starting to get…a mood.”

“Uh oh,” Flora said, widening her eyes. “He’s getting a mood. Where’s Price with a brandy when we need her?”

Sweet playfully swatted the back of her head. “Not my mood, wiseass, from the priests. It’s a pretty subtle thing, just a tension and wariness when I ask after Branwen. I wasn’t convinced I wasn’t imagining it until this place; that dude up there was definitely annoyed by me asking.”

“Huh. Now that’s weird,” Fauna said, also frowning as the three of them set off down the sidewalk, both elves flanking their trainer.

“I didn’t know it was possible to annoy Izarites,” Flora agreed. “We’ve…um, absolutely never tried.”

“Yeah, your not trying has been brought to my attention,” he said dryly. “But the thing is, you’re right, they’re a pretty unflappable lot. And hypothetically, if they were hiding Branwen for some reason, they would definitely not reveal it by betraying emotion when asked. So what’s this about, then?”

“Mmm,” Fauna hummed thoughtfully.

“Wasn’t a rhetorical question,” Sweet clarified. “Let’s hear some theories. Consider it a training exercise.”

The two leaned subtly forward to exchange a glance across him, in one of those brief, silent conversations they were always having. Sweet just waited, keeping to an average walking pace.

“They might react that way,” Flora said slowly, “if someone else had recently been here sniffing around after Snowe.”

“Especially,” Fauna added, “if it was somebody who might make them nervous.”

“Someone like Thumper,” Flora continued, nodding to herself. “Izarites are hard to rattle, but for empaths, being around that guy has to be like getting slapped in the face with a live fish.”

“Nice imagery,” Sweet said with a grin. “Of course, all this is pure speculation, but that was the same thought I had. Glad to hear I’m not the only one following that logic. So, now the question becomes whether this should alter our approach, and if so, how?”

“Well, before you decide on anything, we gathered some new intel for you while you were in there,” said Fauna.

“You two were supposed to be staying within sight,” he reminded them.

“Yes, but there are these wondrous new things called newspapers,” Flora replied sweetly while Fauna handed him one. “I know this must be mind-blowing for someone of your generation, but people actually go out and collect the news! And then they write it down!”

“Y’know what, I’m not even mad. You go ahead and milk this shtick for every drop you can.” Sweet held up the paper and rapidly skimmed the front page article as they walked. “You two’re going to spend a lot longer than I will having people point out how very old you are. Well, this is a hell of a mess. You thinking what I’m thinking?”

They both nodded, their expressions rapidly sobering.

“A bunch of murdered police doesn’t have to be any specific person, by itself…”

“But when we already know the Jackal’s in town, that’s pretty damn suggestive.”

“Plus, the gross things done to some of the bodies.”

“That is exactly that twisted fuck’s sense of humor.”

“Something like this is obviously going to enrage the local cops and trigger a city-wide crackdown,” Sweet murmured, lowering the paper and staring ahead in thought. “That’s too obvious for someone like him not to see it coming. So is it something he’s willing to risk for another purpose, or is it the purpose by itself? Hm. In theory, he answers to Justinian, who I absolutely know is ruthless enough to do such a thing as this, but he’s ruthless with an agenda. I cannot fathom what the hell this accomplishes except making everything he might want to do in Ninkabi a lot more difficult.”

“Makes shady shit difficult for anybody,” Fauna offered.

Flora nodded. “Maybe that was the point? If what Thumper talked about in that scroll was true, it could be beneficial to have an increased police presence.”

“Yeah, but you don’t increase the police presence by reducing the number of police,” said Sweet. “Almost thirty officers so far, if this reporter is right. In a city the size of Ninkabi the local force can maybe absorb that, but…probably not any more. Plus there’s not much in the way of reinforcements available, even if the mayor wants to request them. With the Empire moving to war footing in response to this wolf nonsense, Ninkabi’s getting a detachment like every other city, but after that there are no other soldiers to send. They’ll all be deployed.”

“Thumper was vague,” Fauna mused, “probably cos he doesn’t understand the subject well, but this sounds like more magic bullshit. Could it be related to the wolf dream thing?”

“Worth considering,” Sweet agreed, “but we’re still just speculating. We need some hard info to go with these wild theories. Hmm… Well! You know how I hate to cogitate on an empty stomach. I’m gonna keep heading toward the next temple on the list; think I’ll cut through the alleys across this block…”

“You wanna cut through alleys while there’s a serial killer on a rampage,” Flora said flatly.

“It’s broad daylight and I’m not a cop, and also don’t interrupt. See if you can find a vendor slinging local cuisine, something we don’t see often at home. Tiraas doesn’t import much Jendi food. Catch up when you’ve found us something to nosh while we walk.”

“Really?” Flora protested. “Really? You’re sending us on a snack run?”

“That is correct,” he said piously. “As is no less than your duty to your spiritual guide and guardian.”

“We should dose him with laxatives,” Fauna suggested.

“Nah, he needs to work today. Tempest peppers will suffice.”

“I’m still hungry,” Sweet said in an annoying singsong cadence.

Both elves groaned and rolled their eyes melodramatically, but turned and slouched back up the sidewalk the way they had come, complaining the whole time. Sweet kept to his course, grinning and tucking the folded paper under his arm.

It was impossible not to feel a swell of pride in the girls. When he’d switched to code words they had played along seamlessly, without reacting or breaking character for an instant. Really, he reflected, they might be coming to a point where he just didn’t have much more to teach them. Sponsored apprentices always studied longer than those who rose through the Guild’s general pool, gaining the benefit both of a particular trainer’s in-depth tutelage and access to their existing connections to get the student started on a career. Of course, he’d always have the benefit of greater experience, but there came a point when the baby birds had to leave the nest. Keeping them under his wing longer than they needed to be could be detrimental to them in the long run. It had been nearly three years, which was about typical for a sponsored Guild apprenticeship. And the girls unquestionably knew their stuff. They were at a point where he was quite comfortable treating them as partners on a job, not just pupils.

But when it came to his two apprentices in particular, there were concerns beyond their command of Eserite philosophy and technique. Obviously, he couldn’t keep a pair of headhunters on short leashes forever. He had extra concerns about setting them loose, though. Sweet more than trusted his girls by now. He’d never fully stop worrying about them, though…

Sweet gently pushed that chain of thought aside to be pondered on at a less urgent moment, redirecting his attention to the city as he strolled through it.

He didn’t have his finger on the pulse of Ninkabi as he did in Tiraas, of course, but some things were universal. The tension in the city was evident in the way people walked and spoke to each other—faster and furtively, respectively. Between the police murders and the night spent listening to howling wolves and trying to rouse people taken by the dreams, this place was steadily rising beyond a simmer. It wasn’t boiling over just yet, but there was only so much tension a city could take.

That had to have been the point of the Jackal’s rampage, but…why? Eserite doctrine made it absolutely clear that you did not fuck with cops; the Jackal was no Eserite, but he was also no fool, and that particular creed was fully rooted in pragmatism. Even when the problem being addressed was a corrupt police force, the Guild dealt with that by cutting into the crooked politicians and other rich figures behind them. Directly attacking police was an open invitation to urban war. He had to know this. What did it gain him, or Justinian?

He picked the clearest-looking alley, a fairly wide one which appeared to cut through the entire block to the main street on the other side, and strolled in without slacking his pace. In fact, he lengthened his stride slightly, as if eager to get through it and out quickly. Of course, a darker, dimmer, and more private space would have suited his purpose better, but for the same reason he couldn’t give the impression that’s what he was up to.

Perhaps nothing would come of it, anyway. It was a long shot, banking on the idea that his poking around among the Izarites had already been noticed, but given that the most likely person to have been doing the same recently was Thumper, it wasn’t improbable that that route was being watched. Still, codewords aside, it had been simple truth he’d pointed out to Flora: it was broad daylight and he wasn’t the preferred target of whoever was preying on police in this city.

Still, he didn’t manage to be truly surprised when, far enough into the long alleyway that the streets in both directions were comfortably out of sight, a sphere of golden light sprang into existence around him, ringing like a bell as it repelled a brutal strike.

“Cheating,” the Jackal complained loudly, already skittering backward and switching his grip on his knife to a defensive posture.

“Smarter than you,” Sweet corrected, turning and giving the elf his most shit-eating grin. The divine shield faded from around him in a perfect invitation—particularly admirable, as it wasn’t under his control. They really were ready. “That was a good try, though! Seven out of ten—points for form, even if you flubbed the landing.”

“I just keep wondering,” the Jackal cooed, grinning right back, “going over and over it in my mind. Why the hell has nobody killed you yet? It really is a cosmic oversight.”

“Didn’t we just go over this?” Sweet replied, rolling up the newspaper to wag it at him reprovingly. “Smarter than you. And also than most people, though I guess that doesn’t necessarily follow. Hey, remember that time in Tiraas when I walked right into a trap you’d set and still ended up kicking your ass?”

“Oh, please,” the elf scoffed, “as if I’d be that easily baited—”

He shot forward mid-sentence with no warning, at a speed which suggested his natural elven gifts had been augmented further in preparation for this. Had he been contending with simple human reflexes it might have worked; Sweet couldn’t have sworn he’d have been able to get another shield up in time to avoid a knife to the throat. As it was, though, the Jackal was adroitly kicking off the golden sphere that had snapped back into place by the time he’d realized what was happening.

And then it was pretty much none of his business as two more forms in dark clothing tore into the assassin. Sweet stood placidly behind his bubble—since he couldn’t actually take it down, the thing having been put there by one of the girls—and watched the three elves scrap in the narrow alley.

It really was something to see, not least because his eyes could scarcely follow it. Three slim blonde figures ricocheted about the alley like billiard balls, bouncing wildly off the walls and each other with impossible agility, slashing with knives and the odd beam of light from Flora’s wand. The pair had subdued the Jackal on their last encounter, assassin though he was, and that was before they’d had two more years of Eserite training.

In seconds the assassin saw which was the wind was blowing and retreated straight up, kicking back and forth off the closely-spaced walls without trouble. In fact, Sweet could have done that; what made it impressive was that with Flora and Fauna still trying to bring him down, all three of them made an erratic path up, down, and sideways, before the moving scuffle finally managed to climb over the lip of one of the facing buildings, four stories up.

Sweet was impressed in spite of himself that the Jackal had managed it, with two trained elven street fighters nipping at his heels. Nothing wrong with that; it was generally a better idea to respect an enemy’s skills than to underestimate them.

Then they were gone, and he was left standing there, effectively imprisoned by the shield.

He’d just had time to make an annoyed face when it flickered out. Sweet sighed, shook his head, and turned to continue on his way. A large part of him wanted to reach for the comforting glow of divine light, just in case the Jackal gave his apprentices the slip and doubled back, but it wasn’t as if he’d be able to put up a shield fast enough should it come to that. Sometimes, you just had to trust your crew. And besides, Eserion didn’t encourage his priests to rely overmuch on magic. What was the point of having wits if you made excuses not to use them?

Nonetheless, and though he kept his physical aspect relaxed and focused, he remained actively worried for the next twenty minutes as he made his way back into a public street and toward the next temple on the list. Not just for himself, either. Flora and Fauna were good, and they’d bested the Jackal before… But he was the Jackal.

Sweet was actually a little proud of himself for managing not to react with open relief when the pair of them emerged silently from a narrow alleyway he passed to fall back into step flanking him.

“Let’s see,” he said, putting on a thoughtful expression and pointing to each of them in turn. “One, two…”

“Yeah, yeah,” Fauna groused. “We lost him, obviously.”

“We could’ve got him, or at least finished him off,” Flora added, scowling, “but not without making a big damn mess.”

Sweet nodded. It went without saying that in truth, the Jackal was not a match for the pair of them, or even probably just one, not if they went all out. Whatever enchanting and alchemy he’d used to augment his stealth, speed, and whatever else, a headhunter would tear him apart like a dog catching a squirrel. If, of course, they used the power available to them.

Unfortunately, Flora and Fauna were hamstrung by the need to conceal what they were. They were fully capable of chasing down incubi, but as they’d discovered after a close call last year, they could be evaded by the simple expediency of their target getting lost in a crowd, which was a trick someone might use to escape pursuit even if they didn’t know their pursuers couldn’t afford to show powers in view of the public. That incident had nearly been a disaster; they’d caught the demon’s trail again by sheer luck, and thereafter only summoned Vanislaads for their hunts far out into the wilderness, where the risk of exposure was minimal.

“You made the right call, then,” he said. “All right, I’m calling this. Change of plans; let’s meet up with the others. Even if we haven’t managed to locate Branwen, we’ve got info they’ll need.”


Notoli’s was one of those establishments which catered to a concept more than a crowd: discretion. Its maze-like main floor was laid out in a series of deeply secluded booths and private rooms, tables serviced by waiters who wore tiny bells on their uniform caps so there was no chance of them accidentally sneaking up on any patron’s conversation. It was the preferred meeting place in Ninkabi of not only visiting Eserites, but numerous other parties who did not want their business known.

Quite coincidentally, the food was very good.

Having cut off their own pursuit a bit early, Sweet and the elves were the first to arrive, and secured a quiet corner booth in one of the larger public rooms; he didn’t think absolute discretion would be necessary given their business, and given the presence of such as Grip and, if the other party proved more successful, Thumper, it might be better to have other diners within view to discourage any unfortunate outbursts. Not that he was really expecting it to come to that. His own quarry should’ve been easier to find, and Grip, for all her strengths, was not a tracker.

In his heart of hearts, though he of course kept it to himself, Sweet was therefore a little bit peeved when, after a shorter wait than he’d expected, a waiter escorted no less than five people to his booth.

“Well, well,” he said as soon as the diffident serving man had departed. “This is quite a haul, Grip.”

“It all went much better than expected!” Schwartz said brightly, sliding into the booth without hesitation. “I won’t lie, I was dubious about our prospects, lacking any direct link to Mr. Shook to use for tracking purposes, but the spirit guides came through! Meesie was quite helpful, of course.” His fire-rat familiar sat upright on his shoulder, squeaking proudly. “I hypothesize that the general disruption in ambient fae magic due to recent events may have worked in our favor instead—”

“Yeah, yeah, best witch,” Grip interrupted, not without a small smile. “I’ll buy you a cookie. Now hush up.”

“Thumper,” Sweet added blandly, “you’re looking well, all things considered.”

Shook grunted and slid himself onto a seat, on the opposite side from Schwartz. Jenell had seated herself next to the witch; now Grip sat down on Thumper’s other side, boxing him in. Sweet was impressed in spite of himself. Both enforcers had to understand fully the logistics of their posture, but the usually prideful and cantankerous Shook had let himself be pinned in without protest or even hesitation. Flora, next to whom he was now sitting, eyed him sidelong but kept her peace.

“I’ll tell you what I told Grip,” Shook said flatly. “I know I’ve got some stuff to account for, but I’ll explain myself to the Boss. Not you two goons.”

“I’ve already pointed out that’s not how it fucking works and he knows it,” Grip added in a bored tone.

“Fine, then there’s no need to keep picking at that scab,” Sweet said soothingly, noting the way Thumper was tensing up. “I believe this time we can defer old business, while we deal with fascinating new business.”

He looked pointedly at the last person to join them, still standing there at the head of the table wearing an ash-gray robe and a sour expression.

Thumper cleared his throat. “Sweet, this here’s my very good buddy Bradshaw, on loan from the…” He glanced casually around the room. There were other diners, in other booths, but the place was designed with heavy fabric curtains and numerous potted plants to muffle acoustics. Still, he lowered his voice significantly before continuing. “…Black Wreath. Bradshaw, this is Bishop Darling and his apprentices.”

“Delighted,” Bradshaw stated in a flat drawl that couldn’t be mistaken for anything but hostility.

“Annnnd…” Sweet deliberately tore his gaze from the warlock to meet Shook’s eyes. “You trust this character?”

Grip snorted loudly.

“Trust ain’t the word,” Thumper said, shooting Bradshaw a neutral look. “I am… I’m gonna say about eighty-five percent confident he doesn’t plan to hex my ass, at least until our current mutual business is taken care of. And assuming that goes well, I’m inclined to give him an’ the rest of his buddies a fair head start before I tell any authorities where I last saw ’em. That’s about as warm and fuzzy as it gets around here.”

“Oh be still, my trembling heart,” the warlock said, deadpan.

“Well, all righty then,” Sweet said congenially. “While your credibility is running pretty thin these days, Thumper, I’m willing to extend a little faith. Gods know I’ve made worse deals with worse people, probably for lesser stakes. Please have a seat, Mr. Bradshaw, and let’s talk about what we all might have in common.”

Bradshaw’s mouth thinned into a disgruntled line and he deliberately peered at each of them in turn.

“Oh, sit down,” Grip exclaimed. “Omnu’s balls, it’s not like you can’t just shadow-jump away the second anything happens you don’t like the smell of. And nobody else here is stuffed to the gills with cancer magic. Don’t act like you’re the one making allowances.”

“My goodness, are you always this charming?” Bradshaw snipped. “And all the way over here I thought you were putting on an act for my sake.”

“Oh, she’s rarely this charming,” Shook said wryly.

“Children, please,” Sweet said in exasperation. “Not at the dinner table!”

Bradshaw shook his head, but finally deigned to perch at the very end of the booth seat next to Jenell, who gave him an extremely neutral look.

“Great, all friends!” Sweet said magnanimously. “I’ll open with a question: Thumper, when’s the last time you saw the Jackal, and are you still working with him?”

Shook grimaced bitterly. “Couple days ago, an’ fuck no. Our whole group’s been pared down to the bone. Somebody stole Kheshiri’s reliquary and she’s gone, and now that demented fuck has finally snapped. At least, that’s my theory, since I can’t conceive of a single goddamn productive goal he could have for the shit he’s been doing. Last I heard he’s taken to offing cops. I don’t have to tell you where that kind of horseshit leads. I think two years of acting like an actual fucking person half the time was too much pressure for all the crazy in his head.”

“Well, how about that,” Sweet mused. “Funny story, we just had a brush—”

On either side of him, Flora and Fauna abruptly tensed and started to rise from their seats. Their sudden movement made Bradshaw half-stand himself, turning to stare suspiciously and raising one hand as if prepared to cast.

“Good, you’re all here.”

A chair was slammed against their table, its back impacting the edge hard enough to make the silverware bounce. Basra Syrinx seated herself straddling it, fixing her eyes on Sweet’s and seeming to ignore everyone else present, though most of them had just drawn weapons on her.

“Shut up and listen,” she ordered. “We don’t have much time.”

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15 – 51

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Having been expecting it, Natchua ignored the outbursts from the crowd which resulted from her abrupt arrival. She also was careful not to react overtly to the soldiers at the edges of the platform who spun to level weapons at her, though she did of course mentally prepare a proper defense against lightning bolts. It was such universal knowledge that infernal magic had no defensive application that the several she knew, advanced though they were, she was able to have prepared without need to mask the effect. Nearby priests or other warlocks might have been able to tell she was doing something, but not what. Besides, such spells were fiendishly complex even without the extra effort of concealing them; just that much concentration distracted her momentarily, long enough for Grusser to step away from the podium and take her by the arm.

“Natchua, what are you doing?” he demanded in a low tone, angling his face away from the voice projection charm on the podium.

“Preventing this from becoming a bigger mess than it already is,” she replied, equally quiet. “At least, hopefully.”

“I do not need—”

“Mr. Grusser, you’re one more minute of waffling from a riot and you know it.”

“And you are trained in public speaking?”

Not thoroughly, but yes. She didn’t bother getting into that, though. “We don’t have time for this. Seconds are precious and this is about to explode. Let me help.”

He pressed his lips together into a disapproving line, clearly unhappy with her attempted appropriation of his job and about to put up an argument. Natchua chanced a sidelong glance at the crowd, not that it was needed as her ears already told her the shock of her appearance was wearing off and rapidly turning into more anger. She simply did not have time to reason Grusser down the way he’d futilely been trying to do with an incipient mob.

Unfortunately, while Natchua had countless ways of removing obstreperous people from her path, employing any of them here would magnify her problems exponentially, starting with kicking off the very riot she was trying to prevent.

For just a moment, she thought this particular action might have been a little too hasty.

“If you don’t know me,” a new voice boomed across the square, “I’m Agatha Svanwen, founder and president of Svanwen Unlimited. My company came here from Stavulheim to oversee the renovation of the catacombs, and train local laborers in our specialty of underground masonry. At a guess, I’d say there are a fair handful of folk in this crowd who have a job because of me, and when I’m gone, will have a skilled trade they can put to work anywhere in the Empire.”

Grusser turned back toward the podium and Natchua subtly leaned around him to see.

The thing had not been designed with dwarves in mind; Svanwen had had to climb precariously onto the fortunately sturdy structure, bracing her feet on a conveniently placed shelf near its base and gripping both its sides for balance. It left her head just barely above the top, with the protruding projection charm closer to her eye level than her mouth. Still, she seemed to make do, with not a hint of strain from holding herself up entering her voice.

“A lot of you likely heard about the recent problem we had with drow; let me just assure everyone that she wasn’t part of it. This is Natchua, a friend of Duchess Dufresne’s from Last Rock. And in fact, she’s the one who chased off the Narisians so my company could get back to work. So if anyone here is drawing a paycheck with my name printed on it, you can thank her that you’re still getting yours.”

Natchua could actually see the moment Lars Grusser decided to swim with the current instead of against it. While the crowd murmured at that pronouncement, he turned to face them, raised his hands, and clapped them together repeatedly. The response was hesitant at first and never spread far, but there were apparently a good few Svanwen employees in the square. Applause and a few cheers rang out. It wasn’t much, but it helped to shift the mood, at least a little.

“And more immediately,” the dwarf continued, turning her head slightly to give Natchua a sidelong look, “when there’s weirdness afoot, Natchua is someone I think we should listen to.”

With that, she hopped down and stepped to the side in clear invitation. Natchua hesitated only to glance at Grusser; his eyes expressed a silent warning, but then he took a step backward, clearing her path to the podium.

Almost immediately, she found herself gripping its sides nearly as hard as Svanwen had. This was a lot of expectant faces. For a moment, Natchua found herself envying the relative bluntness of human senses; to Grusser and Svanwen this crowd would have been largely a blur past a certain distance. She could clearly discern every puzzled and irate frown clear to the other side of the square, and it was an entirely new kind of pressure.

The murmuring rose again, and she realized she had been standing there in silence for several seconds. She realized, then, that she didn’t actually have any specific thing to say.

But she had to say something. Well, hell, winging it hadn’t actually gotten her killed yet.

“Well, you heard them,” Natchua stated. Fortunately the charm picked up her voice and carried it across the square, but in it she heard its faltering quality. From the diaphram, as she’d learned in that one class on oratory. She tightened her midsection and when she continued, her voice was a lot firmer than she felt. “I’m afraid I haven’t much to add. What I know, you now know: the howling of wolves, dreams and portents coming to those sensitive to the fae. It’s happening all over the Empire, possibly all over the world. No one knows why, or what it means.”

The murmuring swelled again, taking on an angry note. She could pick out every individual muttered complaint. This, so far, was not going much better than Grusser’s attempt.

A frown settled over Natchua’s features and she heard her magically enhanced voice say, in a biting tone, “I must say, I find myself disappointed.”

Quiet fell. Not absolute quiet, but those who still muttered now did so mostly in confusion. Natchua pressed on, still not sure herself exactly where she was going with this but feeling she had slipped into a groove somehow.

“I’m hearing a lot of anger here,” she stated. “And to that I say: good. Whatever is going on, getting mad about it is better than buckling to fear. You had better make damn sure your anger is direction to the right place, though, and that’s at who or whatever is attacking everyone’s dreams. And since we don’t yet know who that is, you need to control yourselves.”

She had to push on over a surge of more irate voices, but did not falter; between her projecting and the vocal charm, there was little chance of anyone drowning out her voice. “Where I come from, in an event like this the Queen and matriarchs would loudly demand blind trust from everyone and send guards out to clobber anyone who wasn’t fast enough to offer it. That would be the practice in most countries in this world; I guarantee it is what’s happening right now in some parts of this Empire. Not, however, in Veilgrad. Here, you have a mayor who has led this city well, and is willing to stand before you and take the greatest risk there is in politics: admitting he does not know something.” She half-turned to shoot Grusser a long look. “A lot of politicians would have told Lars Grusser it was not wise to do this. I, however, will tell you why he did.”

Natchua turned her head back forward, and swept her stare around the assembled crowd. Somewhat to her surprise, they were even quieter now, most faces intent upon her. Apparently those public speaking techniques actually did work. It might have been wise to verify that outside a classroom and before inserting herself into this situation, but oh well.

“Because this is Veilgrad, and you have earned that respect.”

Another surge of murmuring rose, this one softer—and for the first time since she had arrived to watch the proceedings here, approving.

“If there is one place in the world where people can handle this kind of thing, it is here,” she declared, to louder noises of approbation. Repetition, her professor had said, building to a climax; Natchua rapidly cast about for examples prior to the big one on everyone’s mind. “This is the Empire’s acknowledged capital of spooky nonsense; you all live with fear and mystery, and despite that constant pressure, Veilgrad still stands. This is the place where the civilizations of Stalwar, Calderaas and Tiraas clashed for centuries, and finally found a union. That is the kind of history that destroys cities, but Veilgrad still stands!” This time, she got a smattering of cheers. “This is the city where people listen to the howls of werewolves in the mountains at every full moon, and the next day get up and go back about their business. Where not a month goes by without some new word of a disappearance or monster or unexplained event in the forests just outside, and yet here you all are still! Despite the best efforts of every specter and spook on this half of the continent, Veilgrad stands!” More cheering; her own voice was rising in pitch and volume, and it was not fully a facade anymore. Once she got going, this was gratifying. “No matter what lurks in the forests, or in the catacombs, Veilgrad stands! And when it all came to a head, when this city was tested like no other before—when the dead rose, when demons filled the skies, when monsters breached the walls and chaos itself intruded on this reality, you were pushed to the very breaking point. The forces of darkness threw everything at you, more than enough to break the spines of a lesser breed of people. They hit Veilgrad with every foul trick they had, certain it would finish you off for good. And yet?!”

“VEILGRAD STANDS!” a thousand voices roared back at her, hundreds of fists brandished in the air.

For just an instant Natchua was almost overcome by the sheer power of it all; it was heady, like a drug, like nothing else she had ever experienced. That passed immediately, though, because she was, after all, a warlock. And looking out at the mighty surge of energy animating this beast made of hundreds upon hundreds of souls, she recognized how very much like demonology this was. She held the leash of a monster that she did not control. She had only persuaded it, for now, not to turn on her. One wrong move, and it still might.

“In the days to come,” she said, loudly and firmly but with deliberately less emotion, “we’ll all know more. The Tiraan Empire is devoting every resource it has to this crisis,” or so she presumed, anyway, “and has the finest mages in existence.” Debatable, between Syralon and the high elves, but this was no time for careful attention to facts. “They will find answers. That’s what governments and leaders are for: to take care of issues that everyone else can’t while still going on about their lives. And that’s exactly the duty that falls to the rest of us now. Each and every one of you is the leading expert in one thing: going about your business. Now, while leaders, soldiers, and mages deal with whatever power is at work in the world, the call goes out for each of us to perform that ordinary task while under the most extraordinary pressure. Because life must continue, or all our struggles are meaningless. All of our lives have the worth we give them, and that’s never more clear than when danger looms over us. Around the Empire, all around the world, people are summoning the necessary courage to keep their heads down and carry on, while not knowing what’s happening. But not here. In Veilgrad, you’ve faced worse than this, and come out the stronger for it. No matter who else falls, Veilgrad stands!”

“VEILGRAD STANDS!” they shouted back. Still enthused, but less exuberant now, just as planned. Following Rafe’s instruction, she had taken hold of their emotions and was now carefully, a bit at a time, leading them back toward calm.

“Each of you must know someone who has been affected, even if you have not. If you don’t, you’ll be able to find someone. For now, this is what we all have to do: take care of each other. Everyone has a role to play in keeping the city running, and as you have time and energy left, watch for chances to help your fellow citizens. Reach out to other people in case they need a helping hand, and never be too proud to ask for one yourself. The temples and churches will be able to direct you to where you can do the most good. Because right now, this is the crisis, and that is the task: find where you can help.”

Natchua paused, looking again across the crowd. They were quieter, calmer. Her job here was almost done; with every necessary point made, it was time to wrap this up. And not a moment too soon, as she was beginning to feel a weak tingling sensation in her limbs, as if from exhaustion. Or more likely, adrenaline fading away.

“None of us knows what will happen in the future, but no one ever knows that. And we don’t need to. What we know is how to keep living. And here, in this city, we’ll keep living no matter what throws itself at us. I don’t need to tell you why.” She held her hands out in a silent invitation.

“VEILGRAD STANDS!” hundreds chorused.

“Veilgrad stands,” Natchua agreed. “Because every one of you stands, and no one stands alone. So long as you remember that, it always will.”

Nerves and fatigue had suddenly started to wear on her after the unaccustomed effort of putting on such a face for so many people; she just didn’t have much left to give. Fortunately no more was needed, as this crowd knew a stopping point when they heard one. Natchua probably couldn’t have kept going over the cheers that now broke out, anyway, and so didn’t try to.

She considered, for a bare moment, trying to surreptitiously mend fences with Grusser, but thought better of it. She needed a strategic retreat, and her performance her called for a dramatic exit.

Shadows gathered, and a moment later she was back in the tower.

Natchua blew out a breath in one gust, her cheeks puffing with the effort, and Jonathan laughed at her even as he wrapped her in his arms. She melted gratefully into his sturdy chest, closing her eyes and just letting him hold her up.

This was nice. Last night had been an experience she was still trying to parse, but this? This was really just incredibly nice. Natchua hadn’t realized how much she’d craved such simple comforts. She still was not at all sure she deserved them.

“You just never cease to surprise,” Jonathan chuckled, resting his chin on her head and stroking her hair. “I had no idea you were good at public speaking. Honestly, it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you’d be into.”

“Had a semester of it,” she mumbled. “Oratory is an elective at Last Rock, taught by Professor Rafe.”

“Rafe,” he murmured. “Wait, isn’t that the one who…”

“Yep, that’s him.”

“You didn’t let me finish.”

“Unless the rest of that sentence was ‘is known for his good taste and restraint,’ the answer is always Rafe.”

He laughed again, and subtly twisted his body back and forth, rocking her. Natchua permitted herself a sigh, snuggling closer. Gods, this was just so nice… It just needed Hesthri to be perfect.

Outside, the chants of “Veilgrad stands!” had sprung up again. No doubt Grusser, politician that he was, had seized the chance to step in front of that and put his face on it. Well, she was inclined to let him, so long as the man didn’t get himself pelted with produce like he’d been about to.

“Well, I can’t say you didn’t pull it off,” Jonathan stated after a pause. “I’ll admit I was worried, when you vanished. No offense.”

“None taken, Jonathan, I’ve met me. It was a hasty thing to do, but I wouldn’t have tried it if I hadn’t had at least a little coaching in the art. Grusser was doing everything all wrong, trying to reason calmly with a crowd like that. Rafe said something in class that’s always stuck with me: if you ask a crowd of people to be brave, or calm, or intelligent, or anything with an ounce of virtue, they’ll probably lynch you. But if you convince them they already are those things, they’ll love you for it, and then if you give them an opportunity to prove it, they probably will.”

“Cynical,” he murmured.

Natchua nodded wearily, rubbing her cheek against his shirt. “Well, you know me. Cynical reasoning is more likely to appeal to me than idealism. Based on how that went down, it seems he was right.”

“Do you really believe that?” Jonathan asked softly, stilling his rocking of her. “That people can’t be reasoned with?”

“They absolutely can’t. A person can be reasoned with. I have to believe that, whether or not it’s true, or the sheer despair would drive me bonkers.” He chuckled, and she couldn’t help smiling in response. “People, though? The way Professor Rafe explained it… People are social animals. Get them in groups and they’ll always look to each other to see what they should be doing instead of thinking it over themselves. So you have to treat a crowd like an excitable child, because a crowd always ends up reflecting the outbursts of the most emotional person in it. It doesn’t mean people are stupid, or unreasonable, it’s just a reflection of how they think. How we all think. We can’t really help what we are.”

“Hm. I have to say, that makes a troubling amount of sense,” he mused. “Explains a lot of stuff I’ve seen, too.”

Natchua stiffened suddenly, pulling back to look around the small tower room. “Wait. Where the hell is Kheshiri?”

“She went back to Malivette,” he assured her, “muttering something about damage control. I’m none too sure about letting that creature run around loose, but I was even less sure of my ability to contain her.”

“No, that’s…yeah, you made the right call, there. I can always count on you to do that, Jonathan.”

He gazed seriously down at her, gently brushing a lock of white hair back out of her face with one big, callused hand. “On the subject of things that’ll have to be dealt with, Natch… You just shadow-jumped, twice, in public. In the most public kind of public you could possibly have arranged. Unregistered warlocks in the Tiraan Empire tend to attract attention from the government.”

“The government’s pretty busy right now,” she pointed out with a little smile.

He gave her a look.

“It’s okay, Jonathan,” she reassured him. “I think. I’d planned to make a point of how I was working for Malivette, but as it happened, Ms. Svanwen went and did it for me, bless her. Nobles can get away with a lot, including having pet warlocks in their employ. Believe me, I read up on that; it’s part of why I decided to attach myself to Sherwin. If anybody comes ’round asking questions I can point to the backing of both local Houses.”

“Malivette isn’t likely to appreciate that,” he pointed out.

Natchua smiled darkly. “Malivette should maybe have thought more carefully before she decided to try fitting a leash on me.”

He sighed. “So you ended up vying with her for political power, after all. Exactly like Kheshiri wanted you too.”

“I know, Jon, I know. The fact is…she wasn’t wrong. That may well be the best way to keep from ending up as Vette’s lackey. At least, I couldn’t think of a better one. And hey, it also worked to prevent that crowd from turning into a riot.”

“Grusser does seem to be doing a better job of leading them now,” Jonathan agreed, glancing to the iron-barred windows. The chanting was trailing off, but the ambient sounds of the crowd weren’t angry anymore, and that was still an improvement over how it had started. “I just worry. Succubi… I’m still not sanguine about Melaxyna, and Kheshiri makes my skin crawl.”

“Good,” she said frankly. “Embrace that, it’s your intuition being extremely right. We can’t cease to think, though. Just because Kheshiri suggests something doesn’t automatically make it wrong; that’s it’s own trap, and a quick way for us to drive ourselves nuts, besides.”

He pulled her back in for another hug, and she willingly let him, resting her head on his shoulder and letting her eyes close once more.

“What’s our next move, then?” Jonathan asked.

“This fae business is way outside my wheelhouse,” Natchua muttered. “Still. It would be utterly daft to just ignore it and hope it goes away. First I’ll see if Xyraadi has any ideas; the khelminash know secrets even I don’t. Failing that, I have other avenues of investigation. I don’t like turning to Qadira; djinn are as tricky as Vanislaads. Just checking on how willing she is to talk can provide hints as to how serious the matter is, though. At some point soon, I’d also like to jump back to Ninkabi to talk to Mr. Agasti. Even if he has no hard data—which is possible, he’s pretty connected in that city—he’s a smart fellow.”

“Mmkay,” he said. “And…generally?”

“This is a nice excuse to deal with something that probably doesn’t concern us directly,” Natchua admitted. “Good chance to…settle in. Let the hobs work on the house, let Mel work on Sherwin. Let us…”

His breath was warm on her ear; she trembled in spite of herself when he bent to lightly kiss its pointed tip. “Yes?”

Natchua grinned into his shoulder, wrapping both arms around him to squeeze as hard as she was able. “Let’s go home. We really shouldn’t leave Hes out of the loop.”


The narrow slats between the blinds which covered the windows of the town hall’s uppermost room served much the same function as the decorative ironwork in the tower’s windows. Someone standing there could see everything in the square below while being functionally invisible to anyone looking up at the house.

Nonetheless, Malivette stood well back from the blinds, and the sunlight peeking through them. That small amount of sunlight wouldn’t have been any worse than a discomfort for her, but it would be a discomfort with no purpose. She didn’t need to see out to know what was happening. Every word of Natchua’s speech had been perfectly audible to her, as was the crowd, still chanting their new slogan.

Kheshiri slithered up behind her, wrapping first her arms and then her wings around the vampire’s gaunt form and resting her warm chin on Malivette’s bony shoulder.

“You see what I mean, though,” the succubus cooed in her ear. “Right, m’lady? She has…such potential.”

Malivette stood rigid as a gargoyle, not about to indulge the demon’s flirtatious insinuations. Her crimson eyes narrowed to slits as she gazed pensively at the window.

“Hmmmm.”

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15 – 50

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“Really, that’s your concern?” Captain Antevid asked in a tone just a hair too polite to be openly sardonic. “The world being rocked by what can only be called an apocalypse, and you’re most worried about whether the Empire will use it against you?”

“Thou speakest in haste, as is ever the wont of thy kin,” Shiraki intoned solemnly in his archaic Tanglish. “In the passing of our ages, we have observed many upsets such as this. They harkened not the end of our world, and nor will the current travail. And yet, however dire the portents and deep the suffering, ever do the thrones of mankind scheme toward their own advantage. Wherefore, then, should we blindly offer trust amid this tumult?”

By and large, the strike team were doing an excellent job of keeping pace with the three elves as they navigated through the Jendi forest. It showed an uncommon degree of agility for humans, but perhaps not unexpected of the Empire’s finest. Now, the captain proved he was adroit enough to cast meaningful looks at each member of his team and then another on Sheyann, all while traipsing through waist-high brush and without slowing his pace.

“Is he really going to do that all day?” Antevid inquired.

“You must forgive Elder Shiraki, Captain,” Sheyann replied with a wry expression. “He makes it a point of pride to be out of touch.”

Shiraki, of course, had absolutely no difficulty navigating the forest at a brisk walking speed, which he now demonstrated by bowing while in motion, as if he had just been paid a compliment.

“Every hospital is filled to capacity,” Antevid said abruptly, eyes ahead now. “Religious, private, government…all of them. And there’s just not much they can do for persistent nightmares and vision comas. Temples are being swamped and police forces barely keeping a lid on the agitated public. There were riots in Shaathvar overnight, and apparently it came very close to that point in Veilgrad and Leineth. ImCom is inundated with pleas for help from every corner of the Empire. And that’s just what we were briefed on before being deployed this morning before dawn. This is a crisis. The Emperor has decreed that we’re to go to war footing. Every unit of the Army is activated and are being spread across every inhabited region of Tiraan territory. By this time tomorrow there will be at least some military presence in any town in the Empire with a population of more than a hundred souls.”

The team’s cleric cleared her throat. “Lance, should you really be briefing the elves…?”

“I’m going to assume that anything they could read in today’s papers isn’t classified, Rosa,” he replied. “If I’m wrong, I guess I’ll owe Lord Vex an apology.”

“And what can soldiers do against dreams?” Sheyann asked quietly.

“As little as your tone implies, Elder,” Antevid replied in a nearly identical tone. “But their presence will reassure people that they are being protected, and that the government has not abandoned them. Also, soldiers with battlestaves will be more than capable of repelling incursions by wild wolves. Even if they come in impossible numbers out of the elemental planes in random locations, which ImCom is treating as a serious possibility.”

“Highly unlikely,” Sheyann murmured.

“Impossible?”

“Unlikely,” she repeated. “I only wish I could say what is not possible on this day.”

“War footing is about logistics and infrastructure as much as military deployment,” Tellwyrn mused, pensively tapping her lips with a fingertip. “It means suspending civilian access to the Rails and telescroll network, and clearing non-Imperial traffic from the highways. That’ll slow the spread of rumor and refugees, which will help preserve stability. It also activates the House guard of every House that has one and places them under the command of the Throne; in addition to having the extra troops, any nobles inclined to stir up trouble will be deprived of one of their biggest stirring spoons. And while the Throne can’t command the cults directly, under the Third Covenant they will all be mobilized as well, coordinating under the Universal Church to assist the public according to their specific talents. With the soldiers heading out, a lot of peacekeeping duties will be taken over by the Silver Legions…” She glanced sidelong at the strike team, who continued to walk alongside the elves with a few feet of space between the two groups. “War footing would usually mean military forces being concentrated along borders and frontiers.”

“If you’re worried about your school being occupied, relax,” Captain Antevid replied, winking at her. “The Golden Sea frontier hasn’t been a military concern since Sarsamon’s day. Last Rock will get the same token Army presence as every other tiny town, and there’s no reason any Imperial personnel would set foot on University grounds. Anyway, as I said, troops are being dispersed as evenly as possible across the Empire. Which is basically the worst possible deployment in military terms, but the threat is evenly dispersed, everywhere, and so that’s where the response has to go.”

Tellwyrn nodded, apparently mollified. “Politically speaking, this is serious business indeed, Sheyann. The Emperor didn’t even go to war footing during the hellgate crisis. It’s a good move, but only in the very short term. The longer this goes on, the more pressure it’s going to put on every sector of the economy and on the public’s patience, not to mention that the very term war footing will make people think the Empire is under attack, even if that’s not explicitly the case. Sharidan is gambling with very high stakes that he can identify and end this threat quickly. It’s a bold strategy. Pretty risky, though.”

“The next time I see his Majesty I will relay your concerns, Professor,” Antevid said solemnly. “I’m sure he’s kicking himself for not consulting you. My point is, Elders, this is a hazard of unprecedented scale. The idea of seizing control of…whatever’s going on, while it may alarm you, is not even a factor in the Empire’s response. If I were handed a golden opportunity to take control of a conveniently pocket-sized fae weapon, gift-wrapped and served on a silver platter and garnished with a handy instruction manual, then yeah, sure, I’d take the opportunity. That falls under my general mandate as a servant of the Silver Throne. But I consider that possibility too remote to be arsed about. My orders are to find out what is happening and shut it down with extreme prejudice. Secondary objectives are to gather enough intelligence to prevent this from happening again, and keep other interested parties from interfering, to the extent that those goals can be pursued without compromising the core mission. So I assure you, the Empire is not regarding this as an opportunity.”

“Do the elves need to know the full details of our mission?” Lieutenant Mahmenaad asked in a strained voice.

“Rosa is very concerned about operational security,” Antevid confided, winking again. “It’s a laudable trait in a soldier. But, again, so long as I’m in command I will exercise judgment concerning what we’ll do about whom. If three elves want to help put a stop to all this and not take control of it themselves, I will gladly accept their help. You can’t do much better than grove Elders when it comes to handling fairy nonsense.”

“Have you had to deal with many other concerned parties here?” Sheyann asked.

“Most of the personnel now combing this stretch of N’Jendo are Imperial,” he replied. “The Azure Corps is out here in force, as well as multiple strike teams. We’ve not met anyone else personally, but evidently other teams have removed personnel from Syralon and Rodvenheim to Tiraas for a remedial lesson in the sovereignty of national borders. We were just the few lucky enough to run across your charming selves.” He gave them a sunny smile.

“Lance Antevid,” Tellwyrn said thoughtfully. “Of House Antevid, in Vrandis?”

“Indeed! My great-aunt attended your school.”

“Telora, yes, I remember. What an insufferable pest of a girl. I quite liked her.”

“We shall reach the lodge anon,” Shiraki noted. “I have seen no sign of Huntsmen on the watch ’round their home—another troubling portent.”

“This will have upset them more than most,” the team’s witch noted. Though clean-shaven in contrast with Shaathist sensibilities, he was a blond man of clearly Stalweiss origin, complete with a heavy mountain accent that only came from deep in the remotest reaches of the Stalrange.

“Well, our new friends have brought us the first solid lead all day,” said Antevid. “As soon as we find out what there is to be found at the lodge, we’ll need to report in. You three stay with the elves while I ‘port to field command and back.”

“I will shadow-jump to deliver the report,” Lieutenant Agasti replied impassively.

“Maehe sometimes forgets she’s not in command of this team,” Antevid commented, giving Tellwyrn a conspiratorial smile.

“Lance sometimes forgets he’s not a storybook wizard with three sidekicks,” the warlock retorted in a sharper tone. Unusually for a Tiraan soldier, she was a Tidestrider woman, complete with braids and facial tattoos. “This is a fae threat; my magic is all but useless here. I will handle rapid transport while you conserve mana for whatever more aggressive measures are needed, as protocol dictates.”

“You know she’s right,” Lieutenant Mahmenaad added. “If you wanna be a hero, Lance, at least be sensible.”

“Verily, ’tis a passing strange turn,” Shiraki observed, “that amongst the Emperor’s retainers, ’tis the warlocks who speak sense. Hark, now, we approach.”

“Yes, better hark if we’re close,” Antevid added solemnly. “Rolf, what’re we walking into?”

“The lodge is at the top of this rise, just over the ridge,” his witch reported. “There are people present. Agitated people, some with fae gifts… I’m sorry, Captain, that’s the best I can do right here and now. This whole forest is practically swimming with agitated spirits. I’m only able to do that much because the Elders are exerting a calming presence.” He half-turned while walking to nod deeply to the elves.

Sheyann nodded back. “Listening to the whispers of the spirits, I feel the fear and anger of the Huntsmen and their families even from here. They appear fully focused inward, not even keeping their customary watch. And…I believe there is an elf among them, a shaman. This, it would seem, is the place.”

“Form up,” Antevid said quietly, his expression completely serious now. The strike team smoothly shifted to a square formation with himself and Mahmenaad in the front, positioned to meet any fae threat with divine and arcane magic. Shiraki gave them a sidelong look, but kept his face expressionless.

The forest was mostly flat, coming quite abruptly to the foot of the rise upon which the lodge was hidden. The paired groups emerged from the treeline several yards from an obvious trail leading up to the top, and without speaking strode over to that before ascending. There was still no visible sign of anyone’s presence, though by that point the distant conversations atop the ridge were audible to the elves, at least.

Only upon reaching the top were they met. Cresting the rise, they found the lodge itself, a classic Shaathist longhouse of modest size, positioned against a higher hill at the rear with a long yard stretching out before. The whole flat top of the ridge was surrounded by a low lip of earth and several pines, helping to obscure its presence from sight below. People were clustered around the fire pit before the longhouse, one of whom was just striding toward them as they arrived.

He was a Huntsman, clearly, a man with graying hair and rather sunken eyes, likely due to the sleepless night he and everyone else here would have just spent.

“I apologize,” he said curtly, “but the lodge is not open to visitors this day.”

“Well, it’s about to be,” Captain Antevid replied with a pleasant smile. “We need to have a word with you about the recent events I’m sure you’re aware of.”

The Huntsman scowled more deeply. “I don’t wish to be rude—”

“Let me spare you the trouble,” Antevid interrupted. “We, if you can’t tell from the uniforms, are from the Imperial Strike Corps. That means I have the legal authority to go wherever my mission requires on Imperial territory, the physical capacity to flatten this entire lodge, and the legal authority to also do that. Whatever you people just did has had repercussions all across the Empire, and I do not have time for Shaathist standoffishness right now.”

“The Captain, though pushy, isn’t without a point,” Tellwyrn added. “Fortunately, my friends here are extremely well-versed in fae magic and can probably help. Since we all know,” she amended with a significant look at Antevid, “you lot didn’t have the magical wherewithal to do this.”

“Do we?” Antevid demanded. “Do we really know that?”

“Lodgemaster,” the Huntsman said, turning to another man who approached them. “Imperial soldiers. And elves, who say they want to help.”

“Oh, really,” the new arrival stated sourly. “I am Arjuni, and I lead here. I’ll ask your forgiveness for the state of my lodge’s hospitality, but we have had about as much help from elves as we can survive today.”

“So you’re in charge here, then?” Antevid inquired. “Right. What do you know about what’s happened here?”

“Oh, let them help!” piped up a new voice. “Please, I should think you know very well that we need any and all help we can get.”

“And this is what I meant,” Arjuni said with a heavy scowl, turning his head to glare at the man who approached him from the lodge. This one was an elf, with upright ears and black hair. “Huntsmen are always inclined to greet Naiya’s children with respect, but that was before I learned of your role in this gigantic mess, Rainwood. And now, more of them? Are these at least better elves?”

“Well, I dunno from better, but these know their way around a disaster,” Rainwood said bluntly. “All three fought in the Third Hellwar and that one’s Tellwyrn, if that helps you any.”

“Indeed.” The look Arjuni turned back on them was thoughtful, and more respectful.

“Rainwood,” Shiraki said with heavy disapproval. “I confess, thy presence and involvement in this disappoints me. Wandering vagrant though thou art, I had for thine intellect more respect than this, ere this day.”

“And I see Elder Shiraki is still doing that,” Rainwood said disparagingly. “Look, Arjuni, it’s not my general habit to roll out the welcome mat for Imperial troops and I definitely don’t care for the airs grove Elders like to put on, but I wasn’t kidding. Any competent help here will be important. Please let them in.”

“Rainwood,” Tellwyrn interjected, “what in the hell did you do?”

“Well,” he hedged, “it is a bit of a story. If you’d—”

“He tried to replicate a Shadow Hunter ritual,” Arjuni said, “for communion with wolves. Except he didn’t know how it was done and used fae spirits to stand in for the alchemy they use. He did this to a mixed party of younglings from my lodge and more from the local Shadow Hunters, as well as a group of apostates led by Brother Ingvar from Tiraas.”

“There’s a bit more backstory that explains—”

Once again, Arjuni pressed on over Rainwood’s attempted explanations. “You would know better than I exactly how ill-advised that was, but even Rainwood acknowledges that he failed to account for the effect of the existing disturbance among the spirits on his ritual. And further,” he added, shooting Rainwood a hostile look, “for the effect of casting this upon a group which included the dryad Aspen. I did not even know that dryads have a latent transformative ability, but he appears to have triggered that, as well as her deep connection to her mother’s magic. As a result, an entire group of people and a pack of wolves have been transformed into some sort of spirit beasts, which are now heading right toward Ninkabi, and apparently calling out as they go to everyone who has the slightest sensitivity to fae magic, everywhere.”

There was a momentary silence in which everyone stared at Rainwood. He chewed sullenly on the inside of his cheek, saying nothing.

“Aspen,” Sheyann said at last. “Why did it have to be Aspen? We just un-transformed her. It is so very like you to wreck someone else’s hard work, Rainwood.”

“He’s one of Kuriwa’s get,” Tellwyrn mused. “She’ll be seven shades of pissy if we kill him.”

“Oh, everything’s murder with you,” Sheyann retorted. “This is not one of those situations that will be neatly solved by striking down the person responsible, Arachne.”

“I think,” Antevid stated, still staring at Rainwood, “we had better listen to the long version before we do anything else. And then make with the doing as soon as we have a plan of action. The Elder is right, you can be dealt with after your mess is cleaned up.”

“Oh, good,” Arjuni said, scowling. “Excellent. More help.”


One face of the sprawling castle-like structure which served as the city hall and governor’s residence in Veilgrad faced the city’s largest square. Not the side on which it had its entrances; along the wall here was a permanent dais intended for public addresses.

Currently, the square was filled by an alarmingly restless crowd, and the no less than a dozen staff-carrying Imperial soldiers barring access to the dais were themselves beginning to look quite tense. Lars Grusser currently stood at the podium, his voice projected by an arcane charm as he alternated pleas for calm with attempted explanations of what had been happening. Given that his explanations thus far had consisted mostly of admissions of ignorance and platitudes to the effect of the Empire having everything under control, he did not appear to be having much of an effect on the clearly riled populace. Behind him stood several other city and provincial leaders, who as the address went on had begun to display increasing nervousness themselves by clustering closer together under the crowd’s angry stares.

One tower at the corner of the city hall held an excellent vantage over both the dais and the square, and further had its windows covered by elaborate wrought ironwork which left just enough of a gap that those in the space behind could clearly see out, while being completely obscured from view from below.

“This looks bad,” Jonathan murmured, staring down. “I realize that’s probably unnecessary to point out, but I’ve seen a few riots; I don’t know if you two have. If not, you may not appreciate exactly how bad this could get. That guy means well but he clearly has no idea how to handle a riled-up crowd.”

“Oh, I’ve seen more than a few,” Kheshiri cooed. “Ranging in scale from bar brawls to full-sized revolutions. You’re right, this has all the hallmarks of a situation which is not under anyone’s control. That Grusser fellow will be lucky if the worst thing that happens is that the Empire replaces him with somebody who can actually placate the rabble.”

“Who’s that dwarf on the dais?” he asked.

“She heads the company from the Dwarnskolds that was brought in to restore the catacombs,” Natchua said. “I met her the other day.”

Jonathan leaned back from the window, shooting Kheshiri a sidelong look. “I may regret asking, but I don’t suppose your particular gifts could help calm this down…”

“Sorry, handsome, but de-escalation isn’t part of the succubus toolbox. Now, if you want this turned into a riot, gimme two minutes and a kiss for luck.” She shrugged, grinning. “I can give a pretty good speech, but I’d need both a way to get to the dais and an excuse for being there, both of which are tricky.”

“Jonathan, we don’t ask Kheshiri to help,” Natchua said pointedly. “Her talents are properly used skulking around backstage collecting information. Speaking of which, why exactly did Malivette want you to show us this?”

“It wasn’t so much that she wanted you to see it, per se, as she gave me permission to show you,” the succubus said sweetly.

Natchua grunted. “So she wanted you out from underfoot. How much of that was due to the situation itself and how much to you needling at her?”

“See, that’s why I adore you, mistress,” Kheshiri simpered. “You’re nowhere near as daft as you like to act. It’s a classic grift, but a respectable one.”

“Kheshiri,” the drow warned.

“I didn’t have a specific end in mind,” Kheshiri said, immediately growing serious. “But it’s always my base assumption that you’ll want to know what’s happening so you can make your own plans. You don’t strike me as the kind of person to sit back and let things just happen to you. Whatever’s happening, it is clearly going to have wide-ranging repercussions that have only just started to be felt. If nothing else, we’re based just outside this city, and the last time there were riots in Veilgrad a mob went right after Manor Leduc.”

“Great,” Jonathan muttered.

“What do you know about what’s happening?” Natchua asked.

“Very little,” Kheshiri shrugged again, “but I insist that’s no reflection on me; I know as much as anyone does, which is still almost nothing. Unseen wolves howling all night, and constant nightmares about wolves for everyone sensitive to dream magic. This isn’t just here, either, it’s happening at least all over the Empire, and the leading assumption last I heard was that the event is worldwide. The government is scrambling to figure out what’s going on and deal with it, as is everyone else who fancies themselves a player, but they’ve barely had time to start, and nobody has any answers. At least, no answers that are going to calm down that crowd. Apparently Shaathvar’s already had to be fully occupied by Imperial troops to restore order. It may come to that here.”

“Veilgrad is not a good place for this, Natch,” Jonathan said, turning to her. “It’s always been known for mysteries and wild magic, which is the only reason this isn’t already worse, but that chaos crisis a year ago left a mark on the city and the minds of everyone here. These people are entirely out of patience with magical crap.”

“Mm.” Natchua stared down at the increasingly angry crowd, absently rubbing her thumb across her fingertips. “Why, Kheshiri, did you want me to see this?”

“Why, mistress, as I told you—” There was a sharp snap as if a very small firecracker had gone off in the room and the succubus broke off with a yelp, seizing the tip of her tail.

“I’m not in the mood,” Natchua stated.

“Nobody appreciates my flair for subtext,” Kheshiri complained. “All right, fine, this is all part and parcel of what you asked me to do with Malivette. She wants to control you; you don’t want her to. It would be inconvenient to leave Veilgrad and disastrous to try to challenge her directly, and having me trip her up is at best a holding action. The best course of action to thwart her, mistress, is to seize the initiative. She wants you to work as some kind of fixer and problem-solver for Veilgrad? Perfect, start solving problems before she asks you to. The more known, liked, and respected you are around here, the less ability Malivette has to keep a leash on you.”

“I hardly want to challenge Malivette for control of the province,” Natchua said scathingly.

“Well, that’s the age-old dilemma, mistress,” said the succubus. “Power is freedom. Hermits and recluses aren’t truly free, they’ve only chosen the nature of their prison. Being free from the influence of others means having influence of your own.”

“She’s talking plain sense, Natchua,” Jonathan warned. “That means she’s trying to manipulate you.”

“Yes, I know,” Natchua murmured, squeezing his hand. “Put that idea right out of your head, Kheshiri. I want a peaceful coexistence with Malivette, not a feud.”

“Okay,” Kheshiri said with another shrug. “Just think about what conditions will have to be met before she lets you have one.”

“I think your original idea is best, love,” Jonathan murmured, placing a hand against Natchua’s lower back and leaning in toward her ear. “We’re better off staying out of sight, in the background.”

“I agree,” she said with a soft sigh, momentarily leaning against him, “but it may be too late for that, after the production I made of the last favor Malivette asked of me. And if there’s one thing I’m good at doing, it’s coping with the consequences of my mistakes.”

“I believe that,” he said frankly.

She grinned at him. “You have to lean into the fall, Jonathan. Freezing up or trying to abruptly change course will only make it worse. I’m already the local warlock who loudly cuts through complicated problems… And this situation right here is clearly not under anyone’s control. If something isn’t done very quickly it’s going to get ugly beyond belief. We definitely can’t afford for Veilgrad to be entirely upended.”

“Natch,” he said delicately, rubbing her back in a soothing motion, “you know I respect your ability, but I think it’s worth considering how applicable your particular skills—”

Suddenly he was caressing shadows, and then nothing. From below there came a general outcry from across the square as Natchua materialized abruptly on the dais.

Jonathan heaved a sigh. “And there she goes.”

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15 – 49

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“Nothing here, either?”

“My particular magic isn’t well-suited for locating people,” Bradshaw reminded him. “I could check more definitively, but not without attracting a lot of attention. But even at a cursory glance… I rather suspect they’ve been and gone here, as well. To judge by the decomposition of this…altar…it seems to have been abandoned for several days, at least.”

Shook wrinkled his nose and took another step back from the now-familiar sight (and smell) of the necromantic construction languishing behind the wall of old boxes at the rear of a dead-end alley. More specifically, he stepped to put some distance between himself and the altar’s cloud of flies.

“The fuckers called themselves the Tide,” he muttered, covering his mouth with the hand not holding his wand. “Gonna wash across the world and cleanse all impurity, you know, standard-grade doomsday cult horseshit. For a primal force of destruction, they sure are shy.”

“Must be low ebb,” Bradshaw quipped. “Well, I rather suspect what we’re dealing with are the paltry leftovers after they expended most of their warm bodies in Tiraas. Tactics like these are a much better idea when one is low on resources and personnel.”

“I guess you’d know.”

“Exactly. I am more concerned that a brainwashed cult is capable of this level of planning. It suggests those in charge are still in charge. Justinian was party to that plan to unleash demons in Tiraas and blame the Wreath for it, along with the Imperial government itself, but that was a far more discreet and controlled action; just a few bands of holy summoners calling up demons one at a time. Opening multiple hellgates in a city is above and beyond even by the standards of that.”

“Uh huh,” Shook grunted. He had also been present at that event in Tiraas; in fact, that was the first time he and Bradshaw had crossed paths, and a source of lingering antipathy between them. Shook was the first to admit he’d not exactly had a good vantage from which to see the intricacies of what had happened that night, but he remained skeptical of the Wreath’s claim that it had been the Church and the Empire actually bringing the demons, especially since his own encounter with them had come when the Wreath had tried to break into Dawnchapel to vandalize the temple. “Well, then, I guess we’re back to the same question. Wreck it or leave it?”

“May I see the map?”

Shook handed it over and Bradshaw frowned at the scrawled markings in the dim light that made it down from the overhead gap between the three-story walls that loomed on all sides.

“Mmm,” the warlock murmured. “All right, look here. This is the site we’re at, reached by a straight walk from a main avenue behind us, see? Next one on the list if we proceed in the same pattern is hidden away in a cul-de-sac well behind several warehouses that looks quite impossible to find by accident. I think we’ll clean this site up and leave that one intact after we’ve checked it. And so on, going forward. If we create the impression we’re operating on foot, by a standard search grid, the planners of this will prepare to counter the wrong tactic and be unprepared for us. I don’t want them to know we have your dragon to sniff out all of their locations.”

“Promise you’ll let me be in the room if you ever call Khadizroth ‘my dragon’ right to his face,” Shook said, grinning. “I really don’t wanna miss that.”

Bradshaw gave him an annoyed look over the top of the map. “Shall I take that to mean you concur with my plan?”

“Hey, I’m just the muscle, here. But it sounds like a solid one, yeah. That bein’ the case, you want me to smash this thing up?”

“I can destroy it far more thoroughly with my magic, you know.”

“Yeah, we both know what hellcraft’s good for. But that’ll reveal they got warlocks after ’em, an’ warlocks with a plan pretty much always means you guys in particular. If the thing just gets fucked up with blunt trauma, could be anybody. More discreet that way, right?”

“Hum. I suppose it needn’t be a complete cleansing, under the circumstances. Enough blunt trauma, as you put it, will render this site inoperable.”

“Blunt trauma is what I do best,” Shook said, holstering his wand and cracking his knuckles. “Take over watchin’ our backs, this won’t take a sec.”

In fact, he didn’t relish the thought of laying his hands on that arrangement of rancid meat, bones, twigs, and tainted enchanting dust. Aside from being disgusting, the thing just looked wrong; he suspected that even the urchins who haunted these back alleys wouldn’t have tried to scavenge the power crystals out of the rotting altar. He was half-tempted to just rake it with wandshots, but Shook didn’t need Bradshaw’s protestations to know that discharging even conventional magic into unknown magic was a bad idea.

Casting about while the warlock stepped past him to watch the head of the alley, he fixed his gaze on the one thing there was to work with. Grinning, Shook picked up one of the crates that had been stacked to obscure the altar from the front of the alley and hurled it right into the center of its mass.

The first hit dislodged the carefully-arranged lattice of old sinew-bound bones and scattered a spray of enchanting dust. That probably would have been sufficient, but Shook grabbed a second crate and smashed it bodily down upon the largest remaining cluster of bones. He broke a third over the altar for good measure, only stepping back to dust off his hands when the ritual array was mangled beyond recognition and full of splinters and old nails to boot.

“There,” Shook said, turning back to Bradshaw with a grin. “I can confidently say any asshole coulda done that; nothing about it’ll scream ‘Black Wreath,’ no matter how smart their handlers are. Where to next?”

“Hold this, if you would,” the warlock replied, handing the map back to him. “I want to place and conceal wards on this site. That is about the limit of what infernomancy can do to detect anyone’s comings and goings, but if they do return here to restore this altar it may enable us to catch them.”

“Sure, take your time.” Shook folded the map and tucked it back into his coat pocket, then drew his wand again and positioned himself to keep an eye both on Bradshaw and the distant mouth of the alley.

In the next moment he began edging away as Bradshaw started making broad gesticulations with his hands and conjuring patterns of sullen orange light out of nowhere. The warlock carefully assembled a spell circle in midair while Shook watched, moved it to lie flush against one of the alley walls at head level, then made it disappear from view and took another few moments to stare at the spot where it had been with one hand upraised and fingers twitching minutely, no doubt adding to its layers of concealment.

Shook wasn’t in the least ashamed of his own discretion; staying the hell away from infernomancy being done was universal common sense, not cowardice. If he was a little phobic about it after having had hellcraft done at his own brain recently, well, that was deserved.

Rather than that, Shook found himself surprisingly bothered by the tense silence that stretched out while Bradshaw moved on to begin conjuring another ward against the opposite wall. He just wasn’t accustomed to awkwardness. For close to two years his whole social circle had been small and predictable: the Jackal was an intolerable pain in the ass, Vannae a diffident non-presence, Kheshiri simperingly submissive and Khadizroth beneficently able to get along with anyone. Aside from various unfortunates they’d been sent to smack around and the odd visit from a barely-tolerated authority figure such as Justinian or Syrinx, that had been it.

And before that, he’d worked with Guildmates. Thinking on it now, he actually couldn’t recall the last time he’d been stuck sharing a job with somebody he didn’t know how to talk to. What did you say to a warlock? Especially since Bradshaw, while he kept it professional on the job, had made it clear from the start that he wasn’t pleased by Shook’s very existence, much less his involvement in this project. Not that Shook was much of a social butterfly either, but even he could see that this was going to lead to trouble if they were going to be the mutual points of contact between the Wreath and what remained of the Inquisition.

Bradshaw finished his second ward and Shook perked up, hoping for an incipient end to this, but the warlock instead began casting a third. He sighed. Well, thoroughness was laudable.

“So,” Shook said aloud, looking the other way up the alley and affecting a nonchalant tone. “That Vanessa, huh? What’s her deal?”

“…deal?” The short pause didn’t bode well, but Shook pressed gamely on. In his experience there was one topic over which any two guys could always bond.

“Yeah, I mean, she’s not hard to look at, am I right?” He turned back to Bradshaw, who had his back to him. “You hittin’ that? Be a shame if somebody isn’t.”

“Ah, yes, that’s right. You have been keeping company exclusively with a succubus. I strongly advise you, Mr. Shook, to rid yourself of any habits Kheshiri taught you before attempting to talk to a real woman again. Any woman, but especially one who can hurl shadowbolts.”

Shook clenched his jaw. Then breathed in deeply, and immediately regretted it; days-old necromancy was surely one of the least pleasant things he’d ever smelled. But at least that helped serve to distract him from the surge of anger Bradshaw was trying to rile up.

“Hey, just sayin’,” he replied finally, deliberately keeping his tone mild. “No need to get all defensive, I’m not about to move in on your territory. It can’t make that much of a difference, anyhow. Trust me, I’m in a position to know: succubi may be particularly sly, but in the end those’re just female traits taken to their logical maximum.”

“Is that a fact,” Bradshaw murmured, starting on a fourth ward. How many of those damn things did he need?

“Come on, don’t tell me you haven’t noticed. Sly is your bread and butter, right? Somehow I don’t think it’s a coincidence there’s a goddess of cunning, and not a god.”

“Where’re you from, Mr. Shook?” Bradshaw asked, his tone also too light to be natural.

Shook narrowed his eyes at the warlock’s back. “What’s it to you?”

“No, wait, let me see if I can guess. The Stalwar provinces or Mathena, somewhere deep into the new frontier. Am I right?”

Breathe, deliberately…without gagging on the smell. “Oh, please, you don’t need to be a cunning warlock to piece that together. Old gnomish surname on a Stalweiss face means frontier stock. Even so, you’re only partly right. The frontiers in Mathena aren’t new. North of the elven forests, people have been pushed out toward the Golden Sea since before the Empire.”

“Ah, yes, of course. I’m revealing my bias; Bradshaw is also an old gnomish surname, after all. But in Calderaan territory, where I hail from, human settlement north of the Green Belt dates barely to the Enchanter Wars.” The warlock lowered his hands, finally, as the last ward faded from visibility, and turned around, wearing a knowing little smile which Shook didn’t like the look of. “And you, obviously, aren’t from Calderaas.”

“That obvious, huh,” he said as evenly as he could.

“You’re right, we tend to pick up sly people,” Bradshaw said lightly, folding his hands. “That’s a lot easier than recruiting idiots and teaching them to be cunning. And you know something, Mr. Shook, you’re not without a point. There is a definite gender imbalance in who tends to seek out the Wreath.”

“Well, yeah,” Shook replied, even as he braced himself for the other shoe to drop.

“Depending, of course, on where they’re from.” The warlock held his gaze, frank and un-intimidated, even verging on aggressive; this was not at all how Thumper was used to people looking at him. “And in country where Shaathist ideas are ascendant, that usually means women. The Stalrange, Mathena, Thakar, Vrandis. Funny enough, in Avenist territory it’s the opposite. We definitely get more men from Calderaas, Virdill, and Onkawa. People are pretty much people, Shook, and the way people develop depends a lot on the kinds of pressures placed on them growing up. Give people the prerogative to stomp around yelling and getting their way with little effort, and they’ll generally do exactly that. Push people aside and deny them a fair chance to participate in society, though, and they’ll not only develop a tendency to be underhanded but also harbor the kind of resentment that makes them ideal recruits for the likes of us. Or, for that matter, the Thieves’ Guild.” He tilted his head back slightly, as if to study Shook from a different vantage. “You say you find women in general to be as sly as succubi? You know what, I believe you. Even allowing for your extremely obvious biases, yes, I could see that. But that’s no reflection on women, Mr. Shook…or even the women you happen to know. It’s a reflection on the way those women were treated by whatever society produced them. Institutionalized power creates its own downfall, in the end. Brutish authority creates cunning, and resistance. Targeting groups of people for abuse creates deadly enemies. If the Pantheon and their followers were the icons of virtue they like to claim, the likes of us wouldn’t just be unnecessary; we would be impossible. And yet, here we are.”

“Huh,” Shook grunted when he finally stopped talking.

Bradshaw’s mouth twisted in a bitter half-smile. “Deeper thoughts than you’re used to, Mr. Shook? I have to wonder what you thought was going to happen here. Do you commonly find you can persuade people you barely know to embrace your prejudices?”

Breathe. Three heartbeats to inhale, three to exhale, ignore the stench. Emotions were just things; just because this guy wanted him angry didn’t mean he needed to be. In fact, it was a good reason not to be.

“Hell, I was just making conversation,” Shook said at last, and was pleased to find his own voice still light and even. “You wanna know my clever scheme? I was thinkin’, ‘this guy clearly hates my guts and we’ve gotta work together for who knows how long.’ Y’know, in normal places, Shaathist, Avenist, or what-the-hell-ever, guys can usually clear the air by chatting about chicks. Sorry, I didn’t realize you were gonna make a whole thing about it.”

Bradshaw stared at him with the expressionless facade of someone who’d just heard something he did not expect and was too self-contained to betray overt surprise.

“You can’t win a conversation, you know,” Shook said when he didn’t reply. “Everybody’s not trying to play brain chess with you. Is that how you people think all the time? Omnu’s balls, man, that sounds fuckin’ exhausting.”

“Right,” Bradshaw said dryly. “Well. I’m finished here, so unless you have something else to say…?”

“Yeah. Now you mention it, I do.” Keeping his expression flat, Shook took a step forward, bringing himself within punching range of the warlock and enjoying how the man tensed up in response. Bradshaw didn’t quite flinch when he raised his hand, but the way he froze was almost as good. Shook just patted him on the shoulder, though. “You’ve given me some shit to think about, Bradshaw. That was a perspective I did not have. So, thanks. All right, where to next?” he added, stepping back again and deliberately altering his posture to the indolent lounging stance common to Guild enforcers seeking to portray a general rather than specific threat.

“The next altar site, obviously,” Bradshaw said tonelessly. “Map, please?”

“You got it.” Shook fished it out of his pocket and handed it over with a bland smile.

This, he reflected while Bradshaw unfolded and perused the map, was fun. Weirdly, he’d never managed to get the hang of it when people had been actively trying to teach it to him, but now that the trick of it had clicked, it was amazingly satisfying to deny a confrontation to somebody who was openly fishing for one. And he hadn’t lied; Bradshaw’s philosophy on women and underhandedness was troubling and deserved some further thought. Not right at the moment, though. Shook did not have time to be pondering such things while busting necromancers in cooperation with somebody he half-suspected was planning to hex him in the back before this day’s work was done.

“All right, I know the place,” Bradshaw stated at last, folding the map again. “Off we go.”

The darkness swelled, then dissipated, and only the particulars of their surroundings changed. A filthy alley was a filthy alley, and there were only so many kinds of places where one could hide illicit dealings in a major city. He was already resigned to seeing a lot more of these today, with possibly the odd empty warehouse or condemned tenement to break up the monotony.

Both men stiffened upon arrival, however, as this alley was a lot less quiet.

It also wasn’t quite straight; they had to creep forward and peek around a corner to locate the little nook behind several buildings in which the Tide’s portal altar had been concealed. This time, someone had beaten them there. Someone who seemed to be on the same mission, to judge by the way she was busy smashing what remained of the altar with a piece of wood that looked like the headless haft of an ax or sledgehammer.

Actually, upon closer look, this individual probably wasn’t on any mission to speak of: she had matted hair trailing from her head in greasy tangles, filthy bare feet, and wore a stained and ragged dress that was more patches than fabric.

Shook and Bradshaw exchanged a resigned look. Wreath and Guild alike did a lot of their business in shady back alleys, and members of both were well-acquainted with a basic rule of urban living: do not interact with crazy street people. This time, though, it seemed unwise to let this pass without at least investigating.

Shook stepped out into the space in the leonine saunter he’d been taught in his apprentice days, keeping one hand casually tucked in his pocket. “Hey there, li’l lady. Whatcha doin’ that for?”

She spun to face him, wild-eyed, and raised the ax handle like a club. Not, he noted, like someone who’d been actually trained to wield a weapon; her stance was imbalanced and had her weight back on her heels. If she tried to swing that thing at him, he gave it even odds that she’d just fall down, and if not it would be child’s play to dodge and push her over. Luckily she was all the way across the grimy little courtyard and well out of range.

“Easy, there,” Shook said in an unimpressed tone. “No need to get all agitated. What’s your name, doll?”

The woman just stared suspiciously at him, her eyes darting to take in his suit, and then the gray-robed Bradshaw stepping into the alley behind him. Blocking her exit, as it happened. She was, Shook noticed, a fairly young woman. Might not have been bad-looking had she not been smeared with dirt and gaunt from more than a few missed meals.

“Name?” he repeated wryly, giving her a half-smile. “You got one? Most people do, I hear.”

She scowled at him, but straightened up after a moment and shifted her improvised weapon to one hand. With the other she patted the base of her throat, opening her mouth wide.

“Oh,” he said sourly. Mute, naturally. Well, street people usually had something wrong with them our they wouldn’t be on the street; just his luck the one he needed to answer questions, couldn’t. She wasn’t missing her tongue, he saw—also, not only did she have all her teeth, none of them were stained blue from glittershrooms. The girl couldn’t have been on the streets long, then. “Now, what would possess you to go whacking at that heap of evil that way? You take a stick to random piece of black magic and you’re likely to end up cursed to a greasy stain on the walls.”

She narrowed her eyes and brandished the stick again.

“No need to take that tone with the lady, Mr. Shook,” Bradshaw admonished dryly. “That’s what we came to do, after all. At least she’s spared us a little bit of work. He’s not wrong, though,” he added to the woman with the stick, who had lowered it again as he spoke. “Getting physically involved with necromancy is extremely dangerous; I don’t recommend making a habit of this. Was there some reason you felt the need?”

She grimaced almost comically, turning a look of pure disgust on the remains of the altar, and kicked away a stray bone that had fallen near her feet. Then spat on it.

“That’s surprisingly hard to argue with,” Bradshaw said, turning to Shook.

“Yeah, I gotta give her that,” he agreed. The girl, having made her point, had begun sidling toward the alley’s entrance, which the two of them were standing in. Shook gave her a thoughtful look. It was doubtful she’d seen anything, and anyhow, getting info out of her would be a giant pain in the ass. Just an unhinged homeless person who wandered into the wrong alley, most likely; that would make a workable disguise, any number of thieves had used that routine, but it wasn’t the method of this Tide or anyone else who had taken an interest in their business. He sighed, stepped out of the way so she could get by, and pulled a doubloon from his pocket, which he tossed at her. “Here. Go eat something, for fuck’s sake.”

The young woman fumbled to catch it, clearly not being the most coordinated, but once she got the coin in her grip her eyes went wide. Then, to Shook’s great discomfort, they filled with tears.

“Whoah—uh uh! No,” he said sharply, stepping back and reaching out to push her off when she ran at him, arms wide for a hug. “This is a tailored suit, you greaseball. You smell as bad as that voodoo you just smashed. Go on, get outta here. Get some lunch that’s not out of a trash pile.”

She pouted at his rebuke, but seemed to decide it was more than worth the doubloon. Pausing only to blow him a kiss, she skittered past them down the alley, actually skipping with no heed for her bare feet and the refuse-strewn floor.

“That was pointless, you know,” Bradshaw commented as she disappeared around the next corner. “There’s a reason you don’t give money to those people. She’ll most likely just buy cheap booze and shrooms.”

“Yeah,” Shook replied with a soft sigh, jamming both hands in his pockets. “Maybe I’m the asshole here, after all. Old teacher of mine used to say givin’ handouts to people like that is almost as bad as stealing from ’em; makes you feel better about yourself and doesn’t change their situation any. Oh, well, whaddayagonnado.”

“Sounds almost like Vernisite doctrine,” Bradshaw said, smiling wryly. “Charity being cruelty in disguise, and all that. Don’t let Embras hear you talking that way, he’s got a real bug up his butt about them.”

“About bankers? Can’t rightly blame a man for that. Well, anyway, I guess your plan’s bungled now; too late to leave this site intact and convince ’em we missed it. Now what?”

“According to your map, we still have thirty sites to visit; we can still lay out the pattern I described, and one anomalous spot shouldn’t make too much difference. It really was an anomaly, too; that was an unpredictable intervention if I ever saw one. Let me just lay wards again and then we’ll move on.”

He handed the map back to Shook, who accepted it silently.

A moment later, though, he turned from his perusal of the alley back to Bradshaw, frowning. The warlock was staring fixedly at a blank patch of wall, not moving to begin casting his wards.

“Something wrong?” Shook asked.

“There’s…a faint residue,” Bradshaw said slowly. “Maybe nothing important, but it’s definitely divine. Somebody used powerful divine magic here at some point not long ago. I wouldn’t think anything of it in most cases, just some nearby priest casting a blessing, but it’s odd to find in proximity to that pile of horror.”

“Hm.” Shook looked over at the wreckage of the necromantic portal altar, then back down the alley. “You don’t suppose she…”

“I really don’t. That was just some garden-variety human with no magic to speak of, or I wouldn’t have let her go. Had we the luxury of time I’d have wanted to hold and question her just for the sake of thoroughness, but we’re working on a solid strategy already, and there’s no telling how close the Tide is to activating these. We don’t even know what they’re waiting for. I don’t think we can spare a few hours to fish for what’s probably nothing. Let’s just…”

He broke off, whirling, as a tiny streak of fire zipped into the cul de sac from the alley along the ground. Shook whipped out his wand by reflex, but didn’t shoot even as the little glowing thing came to a stop, revealing itself to be a luminous read mouse-like creature almost the size of a small cat. It sat up on its haunches, emitting a series of shrill squeaks, and pointed one tiny paw accusingly at Shook. Then, just as quickly as it had come, turned and bolted back out.

“What the fuck,” Shook wondered aloud, staring after it in mystification.

“Trouble,” Bradshaw said tersely. “That was an extremely sophisticated elemental. Creatures like that don’t just wander around cities, they’re familiars of skilled witches. We need to—”

“Well, well, well. I thought I recognized that voice.”

Shook went rigid, bringing his wand up again just in time for three figures to round the corner. He ignored the two on the sides, even the reedy fellow with the red elemental rat now sitting on his shoulder; the teenage girl on the other side was even more uninteresting. His attention was fully occupied by the one in the middle. The one he knew very well, who was now regarding him with her trademark predatory smirk.

“So glad to see you, Thumper,” Grip said. “All kinds of people are interested in having a word with you.”

He allowed himself a small sigh. “Aw, shit.”

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15 – 48

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“Still?” Gabriel protested.

“This thing is some serious shit,” Ruda grunted, shifting position. “There, think I got it.”

The mithril blade of her rapier did cause the bars of the cage to dissolve, as they had guessed upon concluding that the thing was actually made of magic. Unfortunately, that meant it couldn’t be simply wedged into them to weaken it, as the slender blade could make contact with a maximum of four bars at a time, and on being touched they disintegrated, causing the blade to drop.

And the bars to re-form. That was the kicker; made of solid magic as it was, the relative ease of breaking the bars made no difference as they regenerated instantly. Joe’s wandshots made no lasting impact and the group had been unwilling to risk any less precise spells or energy attacks with Mary trapped inside. Even so, it was easy to make individual bars crumble, thanks simply to the unique arsenal in the group’s possession. The trick was getting them to stay that way.

Now Gabriel, Ruda, and Yngrid were huddled awkwardly around the cage, with the mithril rapier and both valkyrie scythes carefully positioned to press against as much of its outer surface as they could manage. They had made three small gaps in the cage’s coverage, and it still remained otherwise solid.

“Maybe if you move the scythes so they’re nullifying one continuous stretch of the bars?” Fross suggested, fluttering closer to inspect the two patches that had rusted away to nothing and failed to restore themselves so long as the reaper weapons remained in position.

“This is not as easy as it looks,” Yngrid said irritably. The long hafts and curved blades of her and Gabriel’s weapons made arranging them that way physically difficult, especially with the need to keep three people huddled around the tiny cage holding them there. And, most importantly, the need for everyone present to avoid touching one of those blades.

“Wow, that must be really challenging then,” Fross chimed innocently, “cos it doesn’t look easy at all.”

“Anyway, don’t think that’d help,” Gabriel muttered. “We can make gaps in the bars, but then the scythe blades are in those gaps, and she sure as hell doesn’t wanna touch those.”

Mary croaked desultory agreement, ruffling her feathers.

“What if she grabs the mithril?” Juniper suggested from behind them. “Maybe that would cure the transformation?”

“Bad idea,” said Gabriel. “You don’t wanna see what would happen if somebody suddenly expanded to twenty times their size while surrounded by unbreakable metal bars. We’d all be standing in a puddle of elf noodles.”

Mary began squawking in a constant staccato rhythm.

“We are working on it, Kuriwa,” Trissiny assured her. “I’m sorry, I know that can’t be comfortable, but it would be worse if we just tried to hammer that thing with spells.”

“Actually, that may be worth a try,” said Ariel. Mary’s squawks increased in pitch and volume.

“You have an idea, partner?” Gabriel asked tersely.

“The cage is both recycling its own expended energy and drawing ambient power to sustain itself; the intensity of both processes increases the more pressure is put upon it, and after the addition of the rapier those currents of magic have grown unstable. I believe a careful application of brute force at this juncture may shatter it entirely.”

“Sure doesn’t look like it’s givin’ up the ghost,” Ruda growled.

“Sophisticated magics intended for purposes of security rarely betray their weaknesses at a glance. That is rather the point of them.”

Mary squawked shrilly.

“Could you stop?” Gabriel snapped. “That isn’t helping! Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of shaman?”

“I don’t think she can actually use much in the way of magic in that form,” McGraw noted. “Never seen ‘er do it. For that matter, my friend Raea has an animal form, too, an’ she’s always limited herself to fangs an’ claws while usin’ it.”

Mary chattered at him angrily.

“Well, I’m sorry if I’m blowin’ your secrets,” the old man said wryly. “Unfortunately for you, I like you too much not to help get you outta that thing. You’ll just have to forgive me.”

“Aye, well, if it’s brute force we need,” Billie began, reaching into her pockets with both hands.

Everybody yelled at her so loudly that no individual exhortations were distinguishable.

“I never get to have any fun,” the gnome grumbled, turning away in a sulk.

“Well, let’s either come up with something or take a goddamn break,” Ruda complained, still hunched over the cage to hold her rapier in place in a careful posture that didn’t interfere with Gabriel or Yngrid, or bring her into contact with either scythe. “I’ve got cricks in places I didn’t fuckin’ know I had, here.”

“The original problem still applies,” Toby pointed out. “We can’t just pour magic at that thing while she’s in there…”

“I believe that if we sacrifice some power for precision, we still have methods at our disposal,” said Shaeine. “Allow me to try something.”

A silver sphere slightly smaller than the cage appeared above it, then pressed downward. The shield bubble flickered and sparked from the pressure, continuing to push itself against the cage until the brass bars trembled. There was no other visible effect.

“That is further destabilizing the flow of restorative magic,” Ariel reported. “An additional source of pressure may finish breaking the spell entirely.”

“Well, then, let’s try this again,” said Joe, drawing his wands.

There was a tangle of bodies arranged all around the cage, but tiny gaps existed between them, and that was all he needed. Rather than attempting to explain this and reassure everyone, he shot first, dispatching two clean beams of light into the cage itself. One, the angles being what they were, only struck and disintegrated a single bar, but the second he was able to position such that the beam pierced two on its path through.

“What the fuck!?” Ruda shouted. “Watch what you’re—oh, hey.”

For those not immediately clustered around the cage, the first sign of success was the crow herself shooting upward out of the group, cawing triumphantly. Ruda, Gabriel and Yngrid all stepped back, carefully disentangling their weapons, just quick enough to afford the rest of those assembled a last sight of the cage, which now lay in metallic strips stretched outward from its base as if it had burst open at the top, unfurling its bars like a flower. In fact, it died rather like a flower, the strands of brass curling up and rusting away to dust before their eyes, until seconds later the last scraps had dissolved to nothing.

Mary spent this fleeting moment circling overhead, evidently just because she could, before settling to the ground. By the time everyone turned from the spectacle of the disintegrating magical cage, she was an elf again. Shifting to face the group directly, Mary curved her upper body forward in a gesture that fell between a deep nod and a shallow bow.

“Thank you very much for the assistance, children.”

“Oh, I’m sure you woulda gotten out of there eventually,” Gabriel remarked, shrinking his scythe down to tuck away in his pocket, a performance Yngrid watched with a small frown. “Prin seemed to think so, anyway.”

“In all likelihood, yes, but I am no less grateful nonetheless. I find nothing enjoyable about languishing in a cage for any period. Now, with that addressed, there are more important matters.”

She turned and strode toward Principia, who was still laid out on the cracked pavement, now draped by a blanket and with Merry sitting by her head. At Mary’s approach, the other Legionnaire rose to her feet, eyes narrowing.

“Kuriwa,” Trissiny said, moving to intercept her, “I don’t think what Locke needs right now is more punishment.”

Mary actually stopped, raising an eyebrow at the paladin. “The concept of punishment, Trissiny, is only applicable to people who understand precisely what is happening to them and why. Tormenting an unconscious victim is nothing but pointless sadism. I have my faults, but I hope you don’t think that is among them.”

“Right,” Trissiny said vaguely. “Just checking.”

“On the contrary,” Mary continued in a lower tone, taking the last steps to Principia’s side and sinking to her knees, “I am concerned chiefly for the girl’s well-being. Everything else aside, what she just went through was clearly traumatic for multiple reasons, not least of which that having excess data pumped into an unprepared brain can damage it significantly. The magelords of Syralon have been known to use that as a punishment before even they outlawed the practice as too cruel.”

There was a constant and usually soft whistle of wind across the plateau; as Mary reached out to place her fingertips along the side of Principia’s face, it shifted in tone. The effect was subtle, likely expressing itself as a subconscious sense of harmony to some of those present, but those with acute hearing or musical training could discern that the voice of the wind itself had shifted to a flawless three-tone harmony in major key.

“My thanks again, priestess,” Mary said, turning her head toward Shaeine with another deep nod. “Your instincts were correct, and your quick action likely saved her from serious harm. Her mind is undamaged, but still struggling to process the sheer volume of material. I can aid her recuperation by way of an elemental blessing that will purge foreign contamination. This is usually meant as a counter to curses and the like; adapting it for this purpose may be tricky. Please give me quiet in which to concentrate. Mind magic is the province of the divine, and achieving these effects through the fae requires great exactitude.”

“Okay, well, I’ll ask everybody’s forgiveness in advance because this is a pretty ruthless thing to suggest,” said Gabriel, raising both his hands in a gesture of surrender, “but maybe that’s not the best course of action? As long as Locke’s not in urgent danger, we should think about letting her have some extra time to sleep if it means she wakes up with that knowledge intact. To say nothing of the immediate stuff going on, like whatever she was warning us about in N’Jendo and Veilgrad, the sheer scope of knowledge…”

“That is ruthless, Gabe,” Toby said with a frown. “Who knows what kind of strain that’s putting on her, even with Shaeine’s help?”

“He’s not wrong,” Mary said curtly, “and the suggestion has merit, but in this case it is not up for discussion. Principia is a child of my own blood. And while her actions here have added up to possibly the single most wrong-headed thing I have ever seen anyone do, it was nonetheless a courageous act, undertaken to protect young people under her care. I will not suffer her to be permanently harmed for it. Besides, I want her good and lucid when I am explaining to her in exquisite nuance the depth of her poor judgment.”

“What,” Ruda snorted, “so the difference is she’s one of yours, so you’re throwing all greater concerns out the window and claiming privilege?”

Mary had lowered her eyes to stare fixedly at Principia’s face. Now she lifted her gaze to meet Ruda’s, impassively. “Correct.”

McGraw cleared his throat. “Don’t pull that thread, miss. Sometimes you just gotta make allowances for people who can blast you over the horizon.”

“Yeah, thanks for the advice, but we all have a history class with one of those,” Fross chimed.

“All right, fair enough,” Ruda said with a shrug. “I gotta mention, Boots, your granny reminds me of Naphthene.”

“Ouch,” Trissiny drawled.

While they chattered, the light around Principia had gently shifted, taking on a pattern of shadows over the prone elf as if waves were being reflected about her. Merry was frowning in unease, alternately at this and at Mary, but had not yet decided to intervene. Quite suddenly, though, Mary straightened up, her eyes widening, and the light vanished.

“What happened?” Trissiny demanded, turning toward her.

“Well,” the Crow mused, raising one eyebrow and gazing down at Principia in renewed interest. “Never mind, I suppose.”

“Never mind?” Trissiny exclaimed. “What, is she…?”

“She’s fine,” Mary assured her. “Better by far than I expected, in fact. It appears that she is being taken care of. Further intervention by me will not be necessary. Nor would it be welcomed.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“With this no longer a cause for immediate concern, there remains another matter we urgently need to address,” Mary said seriously, straightening up and turning toward her. “What exactly is that mask, and where did it come from?”

The tension increased palpably as the assembled students stared either at her or at Trissiny. No one answered.

“In all my many years,” Mary continued after a short silence, “I have never observed an artifact that could reproduce a powerful being from the age of the Elder Gods, in the person of whoever used it. I infer from your brief mentions of the subject that it can grant its wearer the gifts of a variety of persons. I am also, being attuned to the currents of fae magic, not unaware that some event of world-altering significance occurred in this vicinity a few days ago. The dots are not difficult to connect. I think you children had better start explaining yourselves.”

“Yeah, we’ve kinda made peace with that,” Juniper said. “The explaining, I mean. When we get home to Last Rock, Tellwyrn’s probably gonna chew us into mulch. I don’t really think we need to explain anything to you, though.”

“No offense intended,” Toby added.

Mary half-turned to stare pensively at the Great Tree rising in the near distance for a moment. “I suppose the sequence of events which led to this point is less important than that which must follow. With regard to that, however, there is the future to consider.” She turned her stare on Fross. “You still have that mask. What, precisely, is your plan for it? I should hardly need to tell you that such a thing cannot simply be allowed to tumble around the world unsupervised.”

“Oh. Really?” Ruda turned to direct a wide-eyed stare at her classmates. “Hey, guys, turns out that fuckin’ thing can’t be allowed to tumble around the world unsupervised. Holy shit did we miscalculate! Maybe we shouldn’t pawn it, after all.”

“Ruda,” Trissiny said quietly, “don’t. Not with this one.”

“Uh, yeah, ‘scuze me,” Joe added. “Mary, I know these folks, an’ there ain’t a thing wrong with their intelligence.”

Weaver snorted very loudly.

“I have a high opinion of Trissiny’s faculties in general,” Mary replied, “and her tacit endorsement of the rest of this group counts for a lot, in my view. All other things being equal… But things are not. I can imagine no sequence of events which would lead to the creation of that artifact which does not presuppose that Principia’s complete lapse of all sense and reason was not the first to take place here recently.”

“It was Arquin’s idea, just for the record,” said Ruda.

“I don’t care whose idea it was,” Mary said, her voice rising slightly. “I care what is done about it. This, I am aware, is the last thing an independent group of young people ever wants to hear from anyone—”

“Don’t say it,” McGraw warned. She ignored him.

“—but you had better let me take it.” Mary turned to stare expressively at Principia. “Before it causes even worse harm than it already has.”

Joe pinched the bridge of his nose and grimaced into his fist. Billie puckered her lips as if to whistle, but produced no sound, just glancing around at everyone else present. Yngrid gripped the haft of her scythe in both hands, looking warily at Gabriel.

All eight students just stared impassively at Mary.

“With stakes like this,” she said softly, “make no mistake, I will not hesitate—”

“Kuriwa,” Trissiny interrupted, “please believe that I’m very grateful for all the help you’ve given me. I love you and have absolutely no intention of ever causing you any upset. And you are not, under any circumstances, getting your hands on that mask.”

The Crow sighed very softly. “Can we not find room to negotiate on that point?”

“If you’re thinking about trying to take it by force,” Gabriel said evenly, “think a lot more carefully. None of us is capable of sticking you in a cage, lady. All we’ve got is sharp objects and massive firepower to hit you with.”

“And none of us wants to do that,” Shaeine added. “You are honored kin to Trissiny, who is precious to all of us. The safety of the world, and the responsibility for actions we have set into motion, must supersede those concerns, however.”

“Yeah, so, please don’t push us on this one,” said Fross.

“The safety of the world,” Mary said, a tinge of bitterness creeping into her voice. “What, then, is your idea to ensure it?”

“We’re gonna give it to Professor Tellwyrn,” Juniper replied.

Mary clenched both fists; the very breeze around them suddenly blew colder. “That is absolutely—”

“The single best idea I’ve ever heard out of these twerps,” Weaver interrupted. “You weren’t there, Mary, but the rest of us have already been through this, back during the Belosiphon affair. When faced with the question of what to do with an impossibly dangerous artifact that nobody could ever be allowed to have, the least terrible solution we could come up with was letting Tellwyrn have it.”

“Arachne,” Mary spat. “That reckless, aggressive, thoughtless—”

“You want things, Kuriwa,” Trissiny said. “Tellwyrn may be all of that and worse, but she also has no ambition. All she wants to do is sit on her mountain and teach. She has everything in the world she’s after. You? You’ve got plans and an agenda. If you had the Mask, there’s no question that you’d use it toward your ends. This is not about us thinking Tellwyrn would find a better use for it. This is because she would have no use.”

“It is incredible to me that you could believe that,” Mary retorted. “I have known her a great deal longer than any of you, and trust me—”

“Arachne Tellwyrn is a creature of vastly more discretion and restraint than basically anyone gives her credit for,” Yngrid interjected. “Even my sisters know of her… Well, actually, some of that’s secret. But for what it’s worth, I agree. She’s already got too much power to be tempted by a thing like that and nothing she would actually want to do with it.”

Weaver stepped up beside the valkyrie, sliding an arm around her waist. “And it’s academic, besides. Tellwyrn already has a whole collection of dangerous objects of about this caliber, which nobody’s seen hide nor hair of since she got them. We know she can be trusted to hide things and not touch them.”

“No,” Mary snapped, “you know she can be trusted so far. None of you have seen Arachne backed into a corner, desperate, or enraged beyond reason. I have. The best I can say about it is that in the past, she had no such collection of horrors upon which to draw. And now you want to add to it?”

“Yeah, okay, but…why are you better?” Teal asked.

Mary turned to her. “For better than four thousand years, I have walked this world doing my best to protect it.”

“Good fuckin’ job,” Gabriel snorted. “Cos as we all know, nobody’s ever terrified by the name Mary the Crow.”

“They talked about you in the grove, when I was there,” Juniper added. “The Elders made it sound like you really only bother to protect the elves. Actually…they didn’t sound super grateful for your help.”

“They really aren’t,” Trissiny said quietly. “I’ve mostly heard about it from my grandmother, and a story from one source can be inaccurate, but the way Lanaera tells it the only people who are less happy to have Kuriwa’s sudden help than the elves in general are her own descendants in particular.”

“I see her elevation to grove Elder has done nothing to blunt that nest of brambles Lanaera calls a tongue,” Mary grated.

“Mary,” Joe said gently, taking a step forward. “Look, I dunno anything about you and other elves. What I know is that all of us have learned to trust you.” He gestured toward the rest of his party with one hand. “You’ve saved all our butts more than once, and I for one really appreciate having the benefit of your experience. I feel like I’ve learned an incredible amount from you.”

“But?” Mary prompted bitterly.

“But,” he echoed with a slow nod. “I think Trissiny’s right. Nobody needs to have that mask, not if it does the kind of stuff we just saw. It ain’t a question of who’s got a better purpose for it. It should go to somebody who’ll lock it away an’ forget about it. And Tellwyrn’s the only name that comes to mind.”

“Esteemed elder, forgive my frank speech, but we must call this what it is,” Shaeine said solemnly. “Your perspective is understandable: for ages you have labored hard and done your best, making difficult choices to guide the world to the best outcomes you could manage. You have learned in that time to rely only on yourself. It is understandable that you are reluctant to trust anyone else with possession of such power, accustomed as you are to the assumption that if you want something done right, you must do it. Am I wrong?”

“I cannot say that you are,” Mary replied, mastering her expression.

“And that’s fair,” Teal agreed, nodding. “But…everybody thinks that about themselves. We are each one of us the hero in our own story. But to pull back and look through the perspectives of others… Does your record of actual achievements really suggest you’re the most qualified to take on a burden like that?”

“I begin to wonder,” she said stonily, “if I am wasting my time trying to talk about this with you.”

Gabriel drew his wand back out. “I really hope that wasn’t meant the way it sounded.”

“Kuriwa.” Trissiny stepped forward until she was a few bare feet from Mary, staring her in the eye. “Let me be clear: I don’t know whether or not you have the physical capacity to seize that mask from us, but even if so, that would only be the beginning. If I have to press the issue, the next time I do so it will be with Lanaera, Rainwood, and Zanzayed, plus anyone of our bloodline they know who would think it a valuable use of their time to humble you and take an artifact of power out of your hands.”

“Child,” Mary said sardonically, “if you think to get more than two of our family to tolerate one another’s company for more than an hour, much less cooperate toward a common end, I sincerely wish you luck.”

“You haven’t managed it,” Trissiny replied softly, “because you’ve never been able to offer them the one goal on which they would all agree: thwarting you.”

They locked eyes, and slowly, Mary’s wry expression melted away to a flat stare of displeasure.

“What,” Ruda snorted, “so even her own descendants would rally to mess her up over this? And you wanna go and claim you’re the most competent person who could be trusted with that mask? Fuck you, lady.”

“Hey, now, maybe we should all take it easy,” McGraw said soothingly, tucking his staff into the crook of his arm so he could raise both hands peaceable as he stepped forward. “Mary, given the disparity in our levels of experience, I’ve never tried to pitch myself as your equal, but with all due respect, I reckon there’s one area of understanding where your agelessness leaves you at a disadvantage.”

Mary finally tore her eyes away from Trissiny’s to turn a weary grimace on him. “Oh, do tell.”

“There comes a point,” he said, “where a person’s just gotta acknowledge that their time has passed. That the best use o’ their talents is in offering the benefit of their years to the younger generation, steppin’ back and lettin’ ’em take over.”

“Aye, ain’t that more or less exactly what grove Elders do?” Billie added.

“That’s what Tellwyrn’s done,” Juniper said softly.

“As much as any group of kids I’ve ever met, I reckon these know what they’re about,” McGraw continued, nodding at the students. “I ain’t sayin’ everything they do’s gonna be the right call or that they won’t mess up and create havoc now’n again. But if you’re gonna try to fix that, well, you’re not just dealin’ with this one specific situation anymore. You’ll have set yourself up to straighten out somethin’ absolutely fundamental to the world, and honestly, even your talents ain’t equal to that task.”

Mary stared at him for a moment, then at Trissiny, then Gabriel, and finally at the comatose form of Principia.

“This conversation is not over,” she said abruptly. “But…you have all given me some important things to ponder. Thank you, again, for helping me out of that trap.”

She turned away from them and strode off. The entire group stared in silence as the ancient elf went right up to the edge of the plateau, facing the Great Tree in the distance, and squatted on her heels in a posture not unlike a roosting bird. There, she fell still.

“So,” Brother Toraldt said loudly from the far edge of the gathering, “shall I infer that we are yet again not going to depart today?”

Everyone turned to stare at him.

Sister Elaine sighed, even as she stifled a small smile, and patted the dwarf on the shoulder. “Come, Toraldt, we may as well go unload the packs again.”

“Again,” he huffed, but turned and followed her around the corner of the nearest building. The rest of the group watched in silence until their two Order of the Light guides were once more out of sight.

“Okay, I’ll be honest,” Fross stage whispered. “I completely forgot they were here.”

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