Gabriel was first off the caravan. He stumbled to his hands and knees, gasping. Juniper practically threw herself out of the car to his side, looking distressed.
“I’m sorry! I don’t think I can do anything for… I mean, injuries, that’s another—”
“Excuse me,” Shaeine said politely, stepping around her to kneel at his other side.
Gabe lifted his head, eyes widening as a silver glow lit up around her. “Wait,” he said hoarsely.
She placed a hand on his shoulder, and like a ripple in a pond, silver washed across him. Gabriel blinked twice in surprise, then slowly straightened up. “Oh…wow,” he said, then cleared his throat. “Wow. That’s amazing. Is that what divine healing always feels like?”
“I’m afraid I have no basis for comparison,” Shaeine said, straightening. “Are you well?”
“Mostly just embarrassed,” he admitted, accepting a hand from Juniper to get to his feet.
“That dovetails nicely with a little history lesson,” Tellwyrn remarked, stepping down from her own car. The rest of the students had already assembled on the Rail platform and were clustered around Gabriel. “The divine energy we know was created by the Pantheon when they first organized. It is, basically, the collected corpses of the previous generation of gods.”
Ruda wrinkled her nose. “Fucking gross.”
“Yes, well, the good stuff in life usually is,” said the Professor with a grin. “Gods are beings of unfathomable power. When they die, that energy has to go somewhere. It was, in part, by killing off the Elder Gods that the future Pantheon rose to godhood. There was more to it, but I really couldn’t tell you what. Apotheosis is not well understood.”
“Sounds like they might not want anybody to know how,” Gabriel suggested, “if it’d mean someone doing to them what they did to the Elders.”
“You are flirting with blasphemy,” Trissiny warned.
“He’s not wrong, though,” Tellwyrn said. “In fairness it should be acknowledged that the Elder Gods were nightmarish things. They brutalized the mortal inhabitants of the world; the Pantheon’s rebellion didn’t just happen on a whim, and it wasn’t about seizing power. The gods acted to free their people. Anyhow, once all this was done, they gathered up as much of the remaining free energy of the slain Elders as they could and created the wellspring of divine light we know today, establishing certain rules in the process. One of those, of course, is that the light burns demons and their kindred. This was just after Elilial had been expelled to Hell, and they had every reason to expect she’d be out for vengeance.”
“And Themynra isn’t part of the Pantheon,” Toby said, nodding at Shaeine.
“Just so,” Tellwyrn replied. “She is, in fact, the goddess of judgment. When you call on power from the Pantheon gods, there’s something rather mechanistic about it; the light does what it does according to its established nature. Shaeine’s method is different. She is inviting her goddess’s attention and intervention, which means that rather than a simple exercise of energy, Themynra is passing judgment upon the situation.”
Gabriel blinked, then wrapped his arms around himself. “That’s… A little creepy.”
“Oh, relax,” Tellwyrn said wryly, “you just got a free healing, didn’t you? Honestly, Mr. Arquin, I can’t imagine Themynra is impressed with your judgment, but that evidently doesn’t mean she thinks you deserve to suffer. Anybody who believes you are in any way evil is suffering from a severe case of narrow-mindedness.”
Ruda and Juniper looked at Trissiny; the others very pointedly did not. Trissiny drew in a deep breath and let it out through her teeth, but said nothing.
“Anyway!” Tellwyrn said brightly. “Welcome to Sarasio, kids. Let’s unload our junk, we don’t want to keep the caravan waiting.”
They drifted toward the baggage car, belatedly studying their new surroundings. The first and most immediate thing the students noticed was that they were not in Sarasio. The Rail platform stood alone on the prairie, with subtly rolling land dotted with a patchier, more uneven sort of tallgrass than grew around Last Rock dusting the area. To the west, the ground smoothed out into the Golden Sea, and there were other interesting features in the near distance. A forest grew about a mile to the east, and the road north led to a huddle of buildings beneath a drifting cloud of firewood smoke, evidently Sarasio itself.
The platform itself was severely run down compared to its counterpart in Last Rock. There was no ticket office to be seen, just the flat stone platform and a small wooden frame over which a canvas awning had been stretched as meager protection from the elements. The wood had been painted at one point—blue, to judge by the flecks that still remained. The awning had holes and had fallen entirely on one end, waving dolorously in the faint breeze. Old cans, broken glass, scraps of wood and other miscellaneous trash littered the ground.
“Suddenly I’m glad we packed light,” said Gabriel. “Damn, never thought I’d find myself missing Rafe and his pants of holding.”
“I’ll be sure to mention to Professor Rafe how eager you are to get into his pants,” Ruda said cheerily.
Gabriel sighed. “You just had to, didn’t you?”
“I really, really did.”
Trissiny hefted her own knapsack, hoisting it over one shoulder so it left her hands free, keeping an eye on their surroundings. They weren’t alone. Sitting around a small, weak campfire were three men in denim and flannel, with scuffed boots and ten-gallon hats that had clearly seen better days. Though they were just sitting, their postured hunched and uninterested, two were clutching wands and the third had a staff in his hands, and all three were staring fixedly at the group on the platform, unease written plain on their faces.
“What’s their story, I wonder,?” Toby murmured, glancing at them.
“Oh, they’re probably just waiting there to rob anybody fool enough to ride the Rails to Sarasio,” Tellwyrn said brightly, loud enough to be plainly audible. “Of course, they probably weren’t expecting a paladin, a dryad and a drow. If they knew how dangerous the rest of you were, they’d already be running.”
Apparently the three men thought this was good advice; she hadn’t even finished speaking before they bolted to their feet and set off for the town at a run.
“Hey!” Trissiny shouted, grasping her sword and taking a step after them.
“Leave it, Avelea,” said Tellwyrn.
“They were actually going to—”
“Leave it. That is an order.”
“This is my—”
“Young lady, you are going to drop this and accompany the rest of us into town. You can do this under your own power, or be levitated and pushed ahead with a stick. Go for whatever you think best serves Avei’s dignity; I assure you, I have no preference.”
“Y’know, Professor, you could really stand to work on your social skills,” Gabriel commented.
“All my skills are at precisely the level I require, boy. Ah, here’s our escort, splendid.”
Another figure was rapidly approaching from the direction of the forest, this one mounted. She was, it quickly became clear, an elf astride a silver unicorn. She was dressed somewhat like Professor Tellwyrn, with a leather vest over a blousy-sleeved green shirt and trousers, but while Tellwyrn tended to wear simple pieces in fine fabrics, this elf was the opposite; her pants were coarse leather, but they and the vest were decorated with bright embroidery, and her blouse had been tie-died in shades of green and brown that would have made it effective forest camouflage. She had a short staff slung in a holster on her back, its end poking up over her blonde hair, which was tied back with a green bandana.
Drawing up adjacent to the platform, the elf hopped nimbly down from her mount before it had even stopped moving, landing lightly among them. This close, the small but beautifully engraved tomahawk hanging at her belt was visible.
“There you are,” Tellwyrn said in a satisfied tone. “I was beginning to think you’d forgotten.”
“No need to be insulting, Arachne,” the elf replied. “I try not to loiter close to humans obviously bent on mischief. I was watching for you.”
“Students, I’ll let you all introduce yourselves as the opportunity arises, but this is Robin. She’ll be escorting you into town, and hopefully helping us deal with the local tribe.”
“Deal with them how?” Ruda demanded. “What are we doing here?”
“All in good time,” Tellwyrn said, smiling with a hint of smugness. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go arrange quarters for us. You catch up at your own pace.” She vaulted neatly from the platform onto the unicorn’s back; the animal pranced nervously at the unfamiliar rider, but plunged into motion at the merest squeeze of her knees. It bounded away in a series of fluid horizontal leaps, like a deer, with Tellwyrn balanced skillfully on its back.
“Huh,” said Gabe. “For some reason it seems odd that she knows how to ride.”
“She knows how to do a great many things,” Robin said dryly.
“Not how to plan ahead, apparently,” Ruda grunted. “Who packs nine people off to a town without arranging things ahead of time?”
“Many of Professor Tellwyrn’s actions seem calculated to force us to adapt and learn,” Shaeine noted. “Perhaps this is more of the same.”
“That may be part of it,” Robin said, nodding, “but in any case it would have been hard for even her to make arrangements anyway. Communications in and out of Sarasio are difficult at the moment. I suspect that’s why you’ve come.”
“What’s going on in Sarasio?” Trissiny asked with a frown. On her Rail trip to the University, the Imperial Surveyor she’d met had indicated the town was a trouble spot. But that had been months ago; surely he’d been on the way there to deal with it?
“It’s a long story, which you’ll be told in due time,” Robin replied, hopping lightly down from the platform. “Come along, now, no need to dawdle. Arachne will have plenty of time to make arrangements without us dragging our feet.”
They followed her, picking up baggage as they went. Per Tellwyrn’s instructions, they had packed lightly, everyone carrying no more than basic toiletries and a change of clothes. Evidently this wasn’t expected to be a long trip. Still, that was more than they’d been allowed to bring into the Golden Sea, the aim of that excursion having been outdoor survival as much as anything.
“So, you’re a friend of Professor Tellwyrn’s?” Toby asked their guide, walking with her in the head of the group.
Robin was silent for a few moments before answering not taking her eyes from the town ahead. “To the extent that she has friends, yes, I would like to think that I am. Arachne is, as you have doubtless discovered, a person who goes her own way.”
“This one’s got a knack for understatement,” Ruda snorted.
“It is not something very widely discussed among elves. The individual is respected, of course, but our tribes live in harmony with one another and the world as a way of life. Persons who run out into the world to do their own thing are seen as…disruptive. Tauhanwe are not widely welcomed among most tribes. My acquaintance with Arachne is, at best, tolerated.”
“Ansheh used that word, too,” Teal said, frowning. “Remember, Rafe’s friend from the Golden Sea? I thought I’d heard wrong, though… It translates as something like ‘person who stirs a pot.’”
“Tauhanwe translates more directly as ‘adventurer,’ Robin said, turning her head to smile at Teal. “But you have a solid grasp of the etymology. You studied elvish in school?”
Teal shook her head. “One of my parents’ best friends is an elf. He sorta helped raise me, actually; they work a lot.”
Robin nodded. “To be quite precise, the ‘pot’ referred to is what you would call a chamber pot.”
For a moment, there was only the sound of their footsteps.
“Hold on,” Gabriel said. “So basically Tellwyrn is known among elves as a shit-stirrer? That may be the single most appropriate thing I’ve ever heard.”
Trissiny did not join in on the round of laughter that followed, frowning into the distance ahead. By Robin’s description, Principia would be tauhanwe, too. What did that make her? If anything…
“So how do you know Tellwyrn?” Ruda asked.
“It’s a long story.”
“We’ve got time!”
“Ruda,” Trissiny said patiently, “when someone tells you ‘it’s a long story,’ that usually means they don’t want to get into it.”
“Yeah? And when someone keeps picking it it, that usually means they wanna hear it anyway.”
“No harm meant,” Gabriel assured their guide somewhat hastily, though Robin seemed totally unperturbed. “It’s just hard not to be curious. For being such a straight-shooting in-your-face person, Tellwyrn is damn hard to figure out.”
“It’s tempting to conclude that she is simply mentally unbalanced or obstreperous,” Trissiny said. “But then out of nowhere she’ll do something…oddly kind. Or perceptive.”
“Wait, what?” Ruda said, frowning. “What’s she done that’s kind or perceptive?”
“You’ll know it if you see one,” Gabriel replied, “which is kinda the point. She’s so…cranky most of the time, it takes you by surprise.”
“Don’t judge Arachne too harshly,” Robin said, still watching the town. The monotonous nature of the prairie made perspective tricky and distance hard to judge; they hadn’t covered more than half the path. The Rail platform was a long way from the town…why? The elf went on before Trissiny could start considering it in any detail, however. “She has always been somewhat difficult, but she is generally reasonable. And she is devoted to her students, in her own way. Keep in mind that she is grieving; that will explain much of her behavior.”
“What?” Juniper looked shocked. “Grieving who? What happened?”
“I tell you this because knowing will help you understand her,” Robin said, “but I don’t advise raising the subject with her. Arachne lost her husband a little over a century ago.”
Gabriel let out an explosive sound of surprise that started as a laugh and finished as a gasp in reverse. “What, a century? I dunno how much that excuses. I mean, sure, it’s very sad, but that’s plenty of time to get over it.”
Robin glanced over at him. “You must be Gabriel.”
He turned to watch her warily, the levity fading from his face. “Yeeeaah. That’s me. For some reason, I suddenly feel offended and I’m not sure why.”
“That’s the little voice inside your head that tells you when you’re being a fucking dumbass,” Ruda informed him. “You might try listening to it before talking, just for a change of pace.”
“How would you like it, Gabriel,” Robin went on calmly, “if I pointed out in conversation that you are a snub-eared land ape with the lifespan of a prairie dog?”
Gabe actually stopped walking, staring at her in shock. “Excuse me?”
“No?” Robin glanced back at him, but did not slow her pace, forcing him to start moving again or be left behind. “Then let us not pick at one another’s racial traits. In a group such as this, I would expect you to have learned that lesson long since.”
“He ain’t the quickest learner,” Ruda said with a grin, thumping Gabe with her elbow.
“What the hell are you even talking about?” Gabriel demanded.
“Immortality is not without its drawbacks,” she explained. “Humans do not live shorter lives so much as faster lives. You mature faster, and you heal faster, both physically and emotionally. For an elf, a papercut is an inconvenience for several weeks or months. A broken bone means a year at least of inaction. Luckily we do not cut or break as easily as you. To an elf, however, a heartbreak dominates the mind for longer than the average human lives. I assure you, to an elf, the loss of a mate a century ago is a very raw wound indeed. So have a little patience with Arachne. She lives with a great deal of pain, and yet devotes her energies to educating people who will likely be dead before she herself is fully healed.”
Nobody found anything to say to that, and they walked on in silence for a while. At least until the edges of the town drew closer, and they came within viewing range of Sarasio’s scrolltower. It was harder to spot than most of its kind because this one was horizontal.
The metal framework of the tower itself was in pieces, bent and snapped in multiple places, forming a ragged line between the shattered crystal orb that now lay on the prairie and the burned out husk of the office that had been at its foot. Only the two largest pieces of the orb remained; they were probably the only two pieces too big to carry away. The larger of the two would have been difficult to fit into a wagon. Scrolltower crystal wasn’t high quality and would degrade quickly once separated into bits, but it was still laden with potent magic. There was value in such things.
“What the hell…” Gabriel whispered, frowning.
“Welcome to Sarasio,” Robin said dryly. “Keep your eyes open and your wits about you; this is not a friendly place.”
She wasn’t kidding.
The town wasn’t as badly repaired as the Rail platform had been; obviously people lived here and took at least some care of their environs. Next to Last Rock, however, it was a shambles. A number of windows were boarded up, and nearly every building had some small touch that was in need of repair—peeling paint, broken gutters, missing shingles. The streets were dirt, and in awful repair, marred by deep wheel ruts and potholes, with a liberal spattering of animal droppings, which added unpleasantly to the sharp smell of wood smoke hanging in the air.
Worst, though, were the people.
The only individuals out on the street were men. None were well-dressed, and all were armed. Most could have done with a bath and a shave. It wasn’t their general scruffiness that made the group draw closer together, though, but their behavior. At this time of day, townsfolk should be working, or possibly socializing, depending on their jobs, but the men of Sarasio—at least, those currently visible—seemed totally idle. They lounged against storefronts on the mouths of alleys, faces blank and eyes narrowed, staring—in many cases, glaring—at the new arrivals. Far too many hands crept toward holstered wands.
“Good gods,” Gabriel murmured. “Professor Tellwyrn just ran this gauntlet. I wonder if she killed anybody.”
“The body would still be here if so,” Robin said quietly. “These people are not quick to care for each other. But this is more hostility than they usually show, even accounting for my presence. I suspect she did something.”
“Your presence?” Shaeine asked softly. She had put her hood up as they approached the town, despite the early hour and her shaded glasses, and now kept her hands tucked into her sleeves. Without skin or hair showing, her race was hidden, which was doubtless to the good.
“Elves are not well thought of in Sarasio at the moment,” Robin replied dryly.
“Here we go,” Toby muttered as a cluster of four stepped out of an alley ahead of them, pacing to the center of the street. Two more men crossed from the other side to join them, placing themselves in a staggered formation to bar the whole road. One stepped forward, his thumbs tucked into the front of his belt.
“Morning, gentlemen,” Toby said more loudly as their group came to a stop. “Something we can help you with?”
The man in the lead eyed him up and down once, then twisted his mouth contemptuously and spat to the side before addressing Robin. “Get on outta here, elfie. Your kind ain’t wanted.”
“I have a simple errand to run,” Robin replied calmly. “I’ll be on my way then.”
“You’ll be on your way now,” he snapped, then grinned unpleasantly and took another step forward. “’less you wanna make yourself useful, first. Only one use I can see for an elf bitch that don’t involve stringin’ them ears on a necklace.” He dragged his eyes slowly down Robin’s figure, smirking, while his companions grinned and snickered.
“Boy, it’s like they want to get smote,” Gabriel muttered. Indeed, Trissiny dropped her pack in the street and stalked forward, pushing past Toby, and stepped right up into the man’s face until her nose was inches from his. She was very nearly his height. He reared back slightly in surprise, but didn’t give ground or move his feet.
“Move,” she said simply, her voice deadly quiet.
“Yeah?” he drawled. “Or what? This ain’t no place for a Legionnaire, girl. Or didn’t your mama ever teach you not to bring a sword to a wandfight?”
Another round of guffaws followed this, instantly cut off as light erupted from Trissiny. The man in the lead threw a hand up to shield his eyes, staggering back; with his other, he yanked his wand from its holster, but not before Trissiny slammed her shield into his chest.
Reeling, he nonetheless managed to bring the wand up and fired a lightning bolt directly at her torso at point blank range.
Sparks flew from the sphere of golden energy that had formed around her; those standing closest felt their hair rise from the static electricity.
“What the f—” He got no further as Trissiny stepped calmly forward, reversed her grip on her sword and slammed the pommel into his solar plexus. The man crumpled to the street with a wheeze, and she stomped hard on his wand hand. He emitted a strangled sound that didn’t quite manage to be a scream, the breath having been driven from him. It wasn’t loud enough to cover the crack of breaking fingers.
Trissiny pointed her sword at his head, the blade burning gold. From the nimbus of light around her, golden eagle wings coalesced, flaring open in a display of Avei’s attention.
“Never point your wand at a paladin, fool,” she said coldly, then lifted her gaze to the nearest of his allies. “Does anyone else want to try me?”
They broke and ran, vanishing back into the alleys. All up and down the street, figures shifted backward, sliding into doors and alleyways or just folding themselves into shadowed corners. Within a minute, they had the street to themselves.
“That was overly dramatic,” Robin said, her neutral tone giving no indication what she thought of it. “You very likely just bought yourself another visit from this poor fool’s friends, when they think they have the advantage.”
“What will be, will be,” Trissiny said, removing her boot from the fallen man’s hand. He gasped, cradling his crushed fingers against his chest and scuttling backward away from him.
“We could offer him a healing,” Shaeine said.
“We could,” Trissiny said coldly, “but we won’t. Right?” She gave Toby a sharp look. He returned her gaze, then looked back at the man who had now scrambled to his feet and was fleeing to the nearest alley, leaving his wand lying in the street. Toby’s mouth drew into a thin line, his eyebrows lowering, but he only shook his head and said nothing. Trissiny felt a sharp pang, but dismissed it. She had her duty. The light faded from around her.
“Well,” Robin said with a shrug, “on we go, then.”
They made no further conversation until they reached their goal. Down a couple of side streets, they came to a fairly large building in somewhat better repair than most of Sarasio seemed to be. The wooden sign above its doors proclaimed it to be the Shady Lady in a curly font. Two large men wearing grim expressions flanked the doors, ostentatiously carrying wands. Unlike most of the town’s inhabitants, though, they were clean-shaven and well-dressed in neat suits. They looked over the group but made no move to challenge their approach.
“What’s this?” Juniper asked curiously. “What makes you think Tellwyrn is here?”
“There are exactly two places in Sarasio where a party of this size can find room and board,” Robin said. “The other is neither clean nor safe. The Shady Lady is not my kind of place, but it is, in a sense, an island in a sea of squalor. In we go.”
So saying, she hopped lightly up the steps and pushed through the swinging doors. The two guards watched her enter, then returned their stares to the students, but held their peace. One by one, the nine of them stepped inside.
True to Robin’s word, the interior of the Shady Lady was a sharp contrast to the rest of Sarasio. The wide-open main room soared two stories tall and was well-lit and spotlessly clean. The furnishings and décor were of good quality and showed understated good taste, running toward highly polished wood and fabrics in dark jewel tones, with subtle brass accents. It had clearly all been decorated with an eye to theme; everything matched. A spiral staircase led to a second-floor balcony; a grand piano sat in one corner, being played right now—the music wasn’t audible from the street, suggesting a sound-dampening enchantment on the building—and a heavy wooden bar lined one side of the room, behind which were a huge assortment of gleaming bottles. Most of the floor area was taken up by round tables encircled by chairs.
More startling, though, were the people present. There were three more burly guards in suits, as well as a man with a handlebar mustache behind the bar, presently polishing a glass mug; he looked up at them and smiled. A lean young man was playing the piano, his attention fully focused on the keys. Several of the tables were occupied by customers. Most of those present, though, were young women, and most were in nothing more than lingerie. Perched on the bar—and on the piano—seated with customers and laughing flirtatiously, leaning over the balcony rail, they had scattered themselves around the area like merchandise on a showroom floor.
“Um,” Gabriel said hesitantly. “…never mind.”
“No, go on,” Ruda insisted, grinning from ear to ear. “What’s on your mind, Gabe?”
“I said never mind. I’m following our advice, Ruda. The little voice is telling me I’m about to say something dumb.”
“Is it telling you to ask if we’re in a brothel?” she asked, her grin stretching till it looked almost painful. “’Cos if so, your timing sucks, as usual. You picked the one moment when you’d have been right to start keeping your mouth shut. Because we are, in fact, in a brothel.”
“How?” Teal demanded, then lowered her voice. “I mean… I know brothels exist, but how could somebody run one this big, and this…fancy?”
“Supply and demand,” Toby murmured. “Can you really see someone setting up a temple of Izara in this town?”
“Okay, that’s a point.”
“What’s a brothel?” Juniper asked curiously. Shaeine leaned in close and stood on her tiptoes to whisper in her ear. The dryad’s eyes widened. “You can sell that?!”
A hush descended on the room, all eyes shifting to the party at the door. Then the pianist resumed his piece, and others gradually went back to what they’d been doing.
Juniper, meanwhile, shook her head slowly. “Man, humans are bonkers.”
“When you’re right, you’re right,” Trissiny agreed.
“Um. Well, yes. When I’m right, I by definition am right. I’m not sure why that needs to be said.”
“It’s one of those figures of speech,” Fross told her.
“Yoo hoo!” Professor Tellwyrn sang. She was seated at a large round table across the room with several other people, and now waved enthusiastically at them. “Over here, kids! Chop chop!”
They dutifully trooped over to join her, Robin falling to the rear as they crossed the room and arranged themselves in the empty space near her table.
Tellwyrn, uncharacteristically, seemed to have made friends. A teenage boy in an extremely well-tailored suit sat next to her. He looked a few years younger than the University students, certainly not old enough to be hanging out in a place like this. A deck of cards sat under his gently drumming fingers on the table; the huge piece of tigerseye set in his bolo tie flashed distractingly. He nodded politely to them at their approach.
On Tellwyrn’s other side, Trissiny was surprised to note, sat Heywood Paxton, the Imperial agent she had met and blessed several months ago on his way to Sarasio. He didn’t even look up, now, staring morosely at the center of the table, his mind clearly elsewhere. He had lost weight, and to judge by the bags under his eyes, sleep.
The fourth person present was seated with her back to them, but on their arrival she turned in her chair, draping her arm across the back to eye them over. She was a slim woman with a bronze complexion, with a long, sharp face that was subtly lovely though disqualified for true beauty by a slightly beakish nose. She wore a close-fitting red dress that showed a daring amount of cleavage, and had her black hair pinned up in an elaborate bun bedecked with scarlet feathers and rubies.
“Well, hello,” she purred. “So you’re Arachne’s students? What an absolute pleasure. You can call me Lily.”