“Well, at least we didn’t have to have coffee,” Merry said.
“Are you still going on about this?” Ephanie exclaimed. “You lost a few hours of sleep. By tomorrow, it will be like it never happened.”
“Now, Avelea, keep in mind your squadron duties,” Principia said solemnly. “Lang is the designated complainer. She can’t do her job if you’re going to be all reasonable about stuff.”
Merry rolled her eyes. “I can do my job just fine, unless you take a vow of silence, Sarge.”
“Indoor voice, Lang,” Principia replied calmly. “You know I like to keep things casual, but you can’t be flouting the chain of command in public.”
Merry hesitated at that, glancing back at the parade ground from which they had just retreated. Most of the other squads were also trickling back to their cabins, though Squad Three were on cleanup duty. None appeared to be in earshot. Not human earshot, anyway.
“Sorry, ma’am,” Merry said anyway. She didn’t quite manage a tone of authentic contrition, but also didn’t sound sarcastic or bitter, for once. Principia gave her a sly half-smile which brought a scowl in return. A silent scowl.
“Goddess bless LQ,” Farah groaned, setting her helmet down on the bench set up outside their cabin and pouring herself a glass from the pitcher of water laid out waiting for them. Beads of condensation wreathed it, testifying to its temperature. Though the weather wasn’t hot by any means, chilled water was a treasured luxury after their drill, and until the recent shakeup in the cohort’s leadership, would have been an undreamed one.
Their new quartermaster, one of the lieutenants Dijanerad had brought in, was indeed a gift from the goddess, or so the soldiers saw her. She was clever enough to obtain things like ice that would normally not be part of their budget, thoughtful enough to do so and efficient enough to have things like this ready and waiting, leaving no other sign of her passing. The Ninth Cohort, being city-stationed and still somewhat under strength, was far from the best-equipped in the Legion, but they got remarkable mileage from what they did have.
“Mm hm,” Principia agreed, standing to one side and studying the corner of their cabin in silence. Casey gave her an odd look in passing, before joining the others around the bench. In addition to chilled water, there were towels—slightly threadbare, which probably explained how LQ had obtained them—a welcome touch as they wouldn’t have time to bathe properly before mess. “Can I help you with something?”
The others paused, looking up at her uncertainly; she was still watching the edge of the building, rather than them.
Then someone stepped around the corner and bowed.
“Forgive me,” she said smoothly. It was a very distinctive voice, cultured, accented and slightly raspy. “I of course did not wish to disrupt your practice. Though I am no judge, it is very impressive to see you at work. Your unit is like a finely-tuned machine.”
“Are you lost?” Principia asked mildly. “The temple complex, where you’ll find the priestesses, is immediately reached from Imperial Square. That’s also where you’d go first to enlist. Sorry, I’m at a loss what else a person might want in the Legion’s grounds.”
“Actually, my business is personal,” the young woman said with a calm smile. She kept her hands folded demurely in front of her, a picture of nonthreatening goodwill, but the rest of Squad One slowly straightened up nonetheless, putting down towels and cups. Each still had a lance in hand, due to the lack of a place to set them and the presence on the grounds of Captain Dijanerad, who had vivid opinions on the subject of weapons casually lying around like toys. “Lord Zanzayed is most eager to speak further with you, Ms. Locke.”
“Not to quibble,” Principia said, “but under the circumstances it would customarily be Sergeant Locke.”
“Of course, of course, forgive me,” the woman replied smoothly. “It is difficult to know, in an unfamiliar situation, which of a person’s aliases they wish to use, is it not? I thought perhaps I would gain Keys’s attention faster than the Sergeant’s, but decided upon a middle ground.”
“And…you are?” Principia asked, staring her down.
She bowed again. “My name is Saduko. I am both pleased and honored to make your acquaintance.”
“Yes, sure,” Principia said, raising an eyebrow. “But who are you?”
The young Sifanese woman smiled, and this time there was something subtly gleeful in the expression beneath the courtesy. “Well. The word translates poorly, but on this continent, they call me Gimmick.”
“And now you’re carrying messages for the dragons,” Principia mused.
“For one dragon,” Saduko said modestly. “I do not presume to reach above my station.”
“You work fast,” Principia noted. “This is quite a promotion from serving canapes.”
“Ah, so you did notice me,” she replied demurely. “How very flattering. I am merely a humble messenger, however. It is Lord Zanzayed who craves the honor of your company.”
“Lord Zanzayed knows how to reach Bishop Shahai, I’m sure. In fact, there are numerous official channels to her. That would be a great deal easier than getting someone in here to talk to me.”
“It is not for me to ponder the motives or desires of my employers,” Saduko said with a self-effacing smile. “But perhaps his lordship has not sought out the Bishop because he wishes, specifically, to speak with you. I understand why, if I may say so. You have…quite the reputation, in various quarters.”
“Form and stand!” Principia barked. Immediately, her squad made a line extending from her left, standing at attention, lances in hand and planted on the ground. Saduko reflexively stepped back from them, only the faintest flicker of uncertainty passing across her expression, quickly mastered.
“Who let you in here?” Principia asked quietly.
“I’m not sure I understand…Sergeant,” Saduko replied, her calm smile returning. “The gates are not closed.”
“The gates are attended, and the guards do not admit just anyone to a military facility. They would definitely not have sent you here to give a personal message to a non-commissioned officer who is on duty. So, Gimmick, did you gain entry to these grounds on false pretenses, or did you just sneak in?”
“That, with all respect, is poor form, Keys,” Saduko replied. Her polite smile was still in place, but her tone had become noticeably cooler. In fact, it seemed to worsen the slight rasp in her voice. “One does not interrogate a fellow professional as to her methods. You have surely lived long enough by the Big Guy’s example to know better.”
“You are, depending on what you think is going on here, either failing to respect my cover or maliciously interfering with my personal life,” Principia barked. “You see these armed, unamused-looking women? They are shortly going to expel you from the grounds, and let me assure you, Saduko, this is the kinder approach from where I’m standing. I can believe Zanzayed might have told you to do this, in which case someone is going to correct his manners in due time, but I know damn well the Guild didn’t send you. In fact, considering their arrangements with the Sisterhood concerning individuals involved in both cults, I also know they aren’t aware you are doing this, and if I really wanted to harm you, I would tell them. I don’t, so I won’t. At this time.”
“I see.” Saduko’s smile had faded, though her expression was still calm. “I apologize, Sergeant, for my misstep; I had honestly hoped we would get along better. There is no need for weapons; I can find my own way out.”
“You can find it faster with help,” Prin said flatly. “Squad, escort this young lady—politely—to the exterior gate.”
All four saluted crisply and moved forward, forming a four-point formation around Saduko. They stood a touch too close to be mistaken for an honor guard.
“This way, if you please,” Ephanie said firmly to their uninvited guest.
Saduko paused to bow deeply to Principia. “I look forward to seeing you again, Sergeant, under more congenial circumstances. Is there a message I may carry back to Lord Zanzayed?”
“If his mother didn’t teach him manners, it’s certainly not your job or mine,” Principia said dryly. “Forward march.”
Saduko didn’t force Squad One to subject her to the indignity of a manhandling; she began moving when they did, though the first few steps were backward as she kept an appraising stare on Principia. She turned, though, and strode calmly along with her head high. By her manner, one might have thought the four soldiers were an honor guard.
Principia let out a sigh as they retreated toward the gate, finally turning around and saluting Captain Dijanerad, who stood a few yards distant.
“Why,” the Captain asked, “Locke, is it always you?”
“I am a very interesting person, Captain,” Prin replied. “If you’ll forgive my absence from the mess, I think I had better go report this posthaste.”
“Bishop Shahai is dining with the High Commander, as it happens,” said Dijanerad. “Do you think this is important enough to interrupt their lunch?”
“I’ve got a dragon apparently interested in me, ma’am,” Principia replied. “It’s at least important enough to go stand outside until they’re done.”
“I can’t really argue with that,” the Captain said with a faint smile. “Your squad knows how to attend their duties in your absence?”
“That hurts, Captain,” Prin said reproachfully. “Really. I thought we were friends.”
Dijanerad’s lips twitched in poorly suppressed amusement. “Dismissed, Locke. And don’t joke with the High Commander. I believe you know her opinion of your sense of humor.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said solemnly, saluting again and turning to stride off toward the temple. She waited until she was well out of earshot of the parade grounds to indulge in a scowl and mutter to herself. “Got me barking orders and having Eserites thrown out… Omnu’s breath, these bloody women are turning me into one of ’em.”
It wasn’t a large square, nor was it in a central location, being skewed far toward the northwest wall of the city, but this was by far the most crowded and lively place they had yet seen in Veilgrad. Much of that, of course, was due to the thriving market taking place here. Stalls ringed the buildings facing the square itself, wooden affairs sheltered only by canvas awnings, but despite their lack of walls none of them appeared to be temporary structures. Their posts and boards are as sturdy as anything else in town, and many were as carefully polished and carved. Several had stovepipes running from cast iron stoves which, though not now lit, would become very important when winter rolled down from the Stalrange.
Aside from the economic value of Stosshlein Square, the place clearly had cultural value. The buildings framing it were tall stone structures ringed by battlements, one of which was topped with floors in a more decorative style—like the central keep in which Grusser lived, it resembled a sprawling cottage planted atop a fortress. The other two were just fortresses. They were actually guild halls now, each hosting several craft and trading houses, but had originally been made for war. From the very center of the square rose a tall column atop which sat a statue of a man in armor astride a rearing horse. To judge by the style of his armor, this commemorated a Tiraan warrior, though they had seen other memorials to Stalweiss heroes as they passed through the city. Veilgrad clearly honored every part of its complex history.
It was easy to appreciate Stosshlein Square from their current vantage; not only did they have a fantastic view, but they were distanced from the press of people going about their daily business. The larger, more complex of the structures bordering the square had a pub on its upper floor which had a wide terrace looming over the square itself. It was a lovely day to sit outdoors and enjoy a cup of tea, sunny and with a slight wind.
“Trissiny, I have a question and I’m concerned it’ll make me sound conceited,” Fross confessed in a low tone, hovering close to Trissiny’s ear. At some point she had finally learned to control her volume.
“Well, go ahead and ask,” the paladin said with a smile. “I know you well enough to know you aren’t actually conceited.”
“Thanks! Well, it’s… I mean, everywhere we go, people kinda make a big deal of us, don’t they?”
Trissiny nodded, keeping her gaze on the view over the battlements and the square below. “Yes, I’ve noticed. I think I see where this is going.”
“It’s just that…we’re a paladin and a pixie. I mean, those are both unusual sights, right? And it’s pretty crowded around here. Does it seem weird to you that no one’s come over to talk to us?”
Deliberately, but unhurriedly, Trissiny turned slightly in her chair, glancing back at the pub. Its front wall was an ingenious structure of wooden panels on hinges attached to tracks in the floor and ceiling; it could be folded back entirely to made a single open space leading from within to the balcony. Now, at her gaze, over a dozen people abruptly turned away, devoting themselves intently to their own drinks and conversations. None of the tables immediately adjacent to the one they’d chosen were occupied.
“I think,” Trissiny said softly, “it’s common knowledge where we are staying.”
“Yeah…I had a feeling that might be it,” Fross said. “Well…shoot. I hope this isn’t going to cause us trouble later.”
The pixie swooped over the table once, seemingly just for something to do, before coming back to hover near Trissiny again. “Well, anyway, do you think it’s good or bad that we’re the first ones back?”
“I think we’ll really only be able to tell in comparison,” Trissiny said, idly turning her teacup in a circle on the table. “Objectively our meeting went pretty well. I’m not sure what to make of everything the Colonel said, but at least we have tacit permission to proceed.”
“Yeah, this would be pretty difficult if the Empire told us not to. Oh! Hey!”
She shot upward and then darted out into the pub, buzzing around Toby and Juniper, who had just emerged from the stairwell. Both smiled as they greeted Fross, the dryad waving at Trissiny. She was wearing the enchanted ring Tellwyrn had given her last winter, altering her coloration to a Tiraan standard, though this time she was also in one of her customary sundresses and with bare feet. Juniper wasn’t exactly a secret, but everyone (including the dryad herself) agreed that it was probably wisest not to flaunt her presence in the city.
“Wow, I’m a little surprised,” Toby said lightly, coming over and pulling out a chair. “I was actually expecting we’d be the first ones back. Good news or bad?”
“Good…ish. Neutral news,” Trissiny replied with a smile. “Basically, Imperial Intelligence was already aware of us and doesn’t mind us working.”
“I had the impression they were glad to see us!” Fross reported. “Well, some of them, anyway.”
“Yeah, that’s the other bit,” Trissiny said, frowning thoughtfully. “There was a bit of a difference of opinion… Well. How about we wait for the others before making a full report?”
“Sure, makes sense,” Toby said agreeably, reaching for the teapot. “Probably best to go over things when all eight—uh, nine—I mean, ten, of us are here. Mind if I…?”
“Oh, sure, help yourself! I got a pot for everybody, but we can get more if it runs low. And…ten?”
Juniper rolled her eyes. “He means Ariel.”
“Oh,” Trissiny said, grimacing. Juniper laughed.
“Ariel is very smart!” Fross chimed.
“I think she is, yes,” Toby said solemnly, pouring himself a cup of tea.
“She’s also a jerk, though. In the long run, it all balances out.”
Juniper began laughing outright; both paladins had to grin.
“Yes, I tend to agree,” Toby said. “Well, anyway. I don’t mind telling you how our visit went. I can repeat the whole report when the others are back, because it’s quite simple: we got nothing.”
“We made some friends,” Juniper said, shrugging. “That’s not quite nothing. I thought they were very nice.”
“Yes, they were,” Toby agreed. “Omnists in general are inclined to be friendly and kind to guests. Also, you’re basically a fertility idol to them. Juniper was a celebrity,” he added to the others, winking.
“Eventually,” the dryad said, reaching for a teacup. “Once everyone was confident I wasn’t going to… Um, hurt anybody.” She fell quiet, eyes on her cup as she poured, expression carefully neutral.
“Point being,” Toby continued, “they just aren’t involved in anything. They certainly aren’t going to impede us—I was never worried about that, anyway—but they also don’t know anything useful. The friar who greeted us didn’t even seem to know that Veilgrad was having problems. They weren’t all that oblivious, just not…”
“Not tactically helpful?” Trissiny prompted.
“Yeah, that sums it up.” He nodded. “I have to admit it’s a running weakness of Omnists. Being a monastic order, and being positioned so that people who need our services come to us, rather than vice versa… Well, there’s a kind of perpetual lack of involvement in the world.”
“But you study martial arts!” Fross protested. “I mean, famously! The Sun Style is serious business!”
“As an exercise form,” Toby said, “and in extreme situations, for self-defense. This is why Omnu has a history of calling Hands, I think. Not just to keep himself active in the world, but to keep the whole faith active. We have a tendency to retreat behind our walls and just tend our gardens if nobody shakes us up from time to time.”
“There are worse ways to live,” Trissiny mused, gazing out over the square. Toby blinked, looking over at her in surprise.
“I know we’re waiting for the others, but could we get some food?” Juniper asked. “I have a little money…”
“My treat,” Trissiny said with a smile. “I opened up a tab. It seems likely we’ll be coming back here, and… Okay, I’ll say it. The less we stay in that manor, the better.”
“It’ll be important to stay in circulation!” Fross agreed.
“Exactly,” Trissiny said, nodding.
“And also, you don’t like Malivette.”
“Exactly,” Trissiny repeated in a grimmer tone.
“Is there a waiter?” Juniper asked, peering around. “Or do we go to the bar?”
“There are waitresses, but I have a feeling we’re going to have a hard time getting their attention,” Trissiny said dryly. “At least, we have so far. I had to chase one down to get a pot of tea.”
“Oh. Uh, Toby, would you mind?” Juniper asked. “I hate to impose, but… I mean, all these people, it’s a little…”
“Say no more,” he replied with a smile, setting down his teacup and standing up. “What would you like?”
“Oh, whatever’s handy! Nothing too heavy, though, I think we should be polite and wait for the others before having an actual meal. Just something to snack on.”
“I’ll go see what they’ve got warmed up and ready,” he said, smiling. “Back in two shakes.”
“Trissiny,” Juniper asked thoughtfully as Toby retreated into the noisy pub, “how much do you know about Omnism?”
“The basics. My education covered that much of all the Pantheon cults. I don’t have any real spiritual insight into their practices or dogma, or anything.” She tilted her head curiously. “Why do you ask?”
“It’s just that…well, at the temple, with all the monks and…um, monkesses?”
“Nuns, technically,” said Fross, “though in that cult they’re also called monks.”
“Oh. Right, well… I mean, before today I’d been thinking it was just Toby, but I have never been around a bunch of people so sexually repressed. It was almost painful. Is…is there a reason they’re like that?”
Trissiny coughed, her cheeks coloring. “I, uh… I really don’t… If you’re that curious, June, you’d probably be better off asking an Izarite.”
“I guess,” Juniper said, settling backward in her chair and frowning. The chair, which was a sturdy wooden affair that looked like it could be used as a battering ram, creaked slightly with the motion. Juniper sometimes forgot to moderate her weight when she was distracted.
“So, uh…” Fross did a slow figure eight above the teapot. “Should we be…worried? About the others? I mean… I don’t know how long these things should take.”
“I’m sure they’re fine,” Trissiny said quickly. “Huntsmen aren’t animals, despite what they seem to think. Gabriel and Ruda are both important enough people to be greeted at the lodge with all courtesy, no matter how awkward or rude they are.”
“Ruda isn’t generally rude to important people,” Juniper said, “and I kinda don’t think they’re the ones we should be worried about.”
“I know,” Trissiny said with a sigh. “But honestly… I wouldn’t have agreed on Teal and Shaeine taking that task if I thought they wouldn’t be fine. The worst case scenario is basically Vadrieny having to introduce herself. Reclusive warlock or no, this Lord Leduc can’t possibly be crazy enough to start trouble up with her. I doubt he’d try to hex two visitors, anyway; he’s apparently the one member of his family who had enough restraint to survive their…hobbies.”
“That is good reasoning and you’re probably correct,” Fross chimed, bobbing in the air above her head. “But, y’know, that’s reasoning. On a strictly emotional level… I’m a little worried.”
Trissiny nodded slowly, staring out over the square. “Yeah. I know.”
Yornhaldt retained the presence of mind not to whistle—it was a library, after all, but he couldn’t fully restrain the spring in his step as he made his way through the halls back toward the exit. It was one of the more remote repositories of knowledge in Svenheim, and he had been in one of its most distant wings; he had a good long hike to get back to, well, anywhere.
Not that he minded. His brain was seething with possibilities, implications, and more than a fair share of jubilation at the puzzle he had cracked. Now, the foremost question was whether he should extend his stay in Svenheim or head back to Last Rock and share his finding with Arachne. In truth, this was an excellent stopping point. The lore he had dug up and connected presented a puzzle with no immediate solution, one which required thought and planning before a solution could be approached. It was a good opportunity to add her insight to the mix. Well, anyone’s insight, really, but Arachne was the only one he trusted to help him with this particular puzzle. But research was calling to him. There was more knowledge out there, just begging to be uncovered… What to do?
Anyhow, that could be decided that evening, over a celebratory scotch in his suite. For now, he had his thoughts and the walk to occupy him. Long as it was, the journey was hardly onerous. Others were about, and the halls of the Drassynvardt Archive were pleasingly quiet and orderly. Just the thing after his months of research. Well, part of the thing; he was also looking forward to that scotch.
Yornhaldt’s tenure as an adventurer had been brief. Just a couple of years, really, accompanying Arachne to the locations of several treasure troves she knew. The wealth buried in old dungeons and the hidden places of the world was staggering, and she was aware of an awful lot of it, having left most where it was because, as she put it, “what the hell would I buy?” It had taken them a few years to round up enough capital to found the University, and she had insisted the whole time that it wasn’t proper adventuring, lacking mystery. Still, it had been an adventuring career, and he hadn’t come through it without developing a few instincts.
They not only gave him warning but gave him a rudimentary plan of action. Finally noticing the unpleasant prickling on the back of his neck, Yornhaldt brought his focus back to the present and mentally reviewed the last few minutes, which he had been too distracted by his own thoughts to fully experience as he was going through them. He was walking through a long hall, illuminated by slightly flickering electric lamps, the Drassynvardt curators disdaining Tiraan enchantments on a point of principle. Only the tunnels were carved out of the rock, the actual library chambers being situated in natural caves, which resulted in a very sprawling floor plan with long hikes like this one between areas. Someone was following him—a dwarf, male, neatly groomed and avuncular, just the sort of academic who was a perfect fit for the environment. What was tweaking Yornhaldt’s instincts, then?
It was, he realized, the man’s behavior. He walked in silence, and hadn’t been behind Yornhaldt the whole way. The man had been there while he had navigated his way down the iron stairs and balconies ringing the library chamber in which he’d been studying, and had been watching Yornhaldt specifically and unflinchingly. Just staring, his focus on the dwarf, not the books.
He was being stalked.
Up ahead loomed a side passage; Yornhaldt altered his course, going left rather than straight on back to the central archive and its path to the city.
The footsteps behind him continued, taking the same turn.
Well, he’d been certain enough the man was following him—now, at least, he was less likely to be heading into an ambush. What the blazes did the fellow want? Someone who’d been watching him closely might have an inkling what he was researching, but who would even do that?
The parties that might bother to watch him and might object to the nature of his studies made a short, disturbing list.
Yornhaldt stepped to his right as he emerged into another small cavern filled with shelves of books, lit by a single flickering chandelier hanging from above. Really, this was no larger than his classroom back at Last Rock. That could be good, or bad.
He planted himself a few feet from the door to the right, just out of easy reach, facing it. Sure enough, in seconds his pursuer appeared, clearly having picked up his pace to keep Yornhaldt in view. Finding his quarry clearly waiting, he slammed to a halt, rearing back in obvious surprise.
“Pardon me, friend,” Yornhaldt said politely, “I seem to have turned myself around somehow. Do you know the way back to the main archive?”
For a moment, they simply stared at each other in silence.
Then suddenly the other dwarf burst alight. Golden radiance flared out from him, solidifying in the next moment into a divine shield.
A similar sphere formed around Yornhaldt, in arcane blue.
“Something the matter?” he asked pleasantly. “Are we in danger?”
The man simply glared at him, not deigning to answer. He held out his hand to one side, pointing at the ground; a golden circle formed, and Yornhaldt sensed a rush of infernal energies as a dimensional barrier was perforated.
A holy summoner. Well, that told him nothing; in human lands, there were only a few cults (and more recently, the Universal Church) which did that, but they had first learned the art from the dwarves. Being able to access divine magic without the need of a god’s blessing, their race had found that if demons were needed, it was best to call upon them using divine means. It was a roundabout method which lacked both the power and the fine control attained by true warlocks, but one greatly reduced one’s chances of spontaneously combusting or contracting terrible degenerative diseases.
Yornhaldt kept one eye on the summoning circle, most of his attention on his opponent. This close, he could feel the relative strengths of their shields. The arcane neutralized the divine, in theory, though it was the weakest interaction on the Circle, and he could tell this chap was powerful enough that simply overwhelming him would be time-consuming and difficult. The addition of a demon leveled the field considerably. Light above, if he was calling up something sentient, Yornhaldt could be in real trouble. Spellcasting demons could wrench arcane energies away and channel them into their own infernal spells.
He formed an exploratory burst of raw arcane power, refined enough to be controlled rather than just flung, poured it into his shield and then mentally directed it to be extruded from the outside. His opponent glanced over at his ongoing summons, doubtless expecting Yornhaldt to try to disrupt that—a logical move, and thus one for which the summoner would have countermeasures prepared. Instead, Yornhaldt was playing a hunch.
The amorphous flow of magic came free of the shield and he dropped it to the ground, then forward at the man’s feet, where he deliberately destabilized it, causing an explosion.
The summoner cried out in surprise and pain as he was flung off his feet and sent careening against the shelves, shoes smoking. Yornhaldt permitted himself a satisfied smile.
Those spherical shields had that weakness: what did you do where your sphere intersected the ground beneath you? Paladins and such were drawing power directly from a god, who handled such details; Yornhaldt took advantage of the nature of the arcane to phase it slightly so that it continued under the ground without disrupting that. A fellow mage could seize upon that phasing and use it to penetrate the bubble (he had countermeasures ready for that, of course), but it was sturdy enough against the other schools of magic. You couldn’t do that with a divine shield, though; the divine light, once made solid, was unyielding. This fellow had left himself the tiniest gap to stand on. A tiny gap had been all Yornhaldt had needed.
Unfortunately, he was a hair too slow, and the thing being summoned burst forth, shooting upward and spiraling around the ceiling.
Well, it wasn’t as bad as it could be. Just a katzil demon, very like an enormous snake that flew and could spit fire. A problem to deal with, but not something that could counteract his defenses.
Yornhaldt threw a cage of arcane currents around the creature, designed to impede its movement without forming solid barriers. Making hard objects used a lot of power, but these free-floating spells where more efficient; it would hurt and interfere with the demon proactively, and also react to contain any fire it tried to exhale.
His enemy, meanwhile, had rolled back to his feet, apparently not minding his scorched and still steaming shoes, snarling now at Yornhaldt. He flung out a hand and Yornhaldt felt disruption ripple through the energies around him. A simple banishment? Please. A moment’s concentration, and the divine spell was neutralized and absorbed, its energy boosting his own shield. Clearly this fellow had expected to take him by surprise. He wasn’t prepared for a real fight.
He revised his opinion a moment later when the spell cage he’d put over the katzil collapsed, destroyed by a second divine banishment while he’d focused on the first. Those simple disruptive charms were a cleric’s main counter to a mage; not surprising the summoner would make use of them. More to the point, he had cast two simultaneously, and with the presence of mind to make a dramatic gesture calling attention to one while sneaking in the second.
It occurred to Yornhaldt that he might be in real danger here.
The katzil dived at him, hissing in fury—it had not liked that cage. Greenish flames splashed harmlessly against his shield, and Yornhald directed a wall of pure force at it, knocking the demon off balance and sending it reeling away, then projected another at the summoner. He staggered backward, his divine shield protecting him from the worst of it, and Yornhaldt followed that up with a simple arcane bolt. The shield held against that, too, but flickered, and he called up another one.
This time, the katzil attacked his shield bodily, fangs scraping across its surface and its coils striking the sphere hard enough to imperil Yornhaldt’s balance. He released the spell rather than risking it flying off in a random direction, painfully aware they were having this confrontation surrounded by precious books.
Another attempted banishment rippled through his shields; he gathered it up into another arcane bolt, chiding himself for having nothing to use here but exchanges of brute force. He was sadly out of practice at this. Teleporting away was an option, of course, but he held that in reserve in case this went badly. Far better to neutralize his enemy and find out who was after him, and why.
The bolt smashed the divine shield, and the katzil dived at him again, this time spraying flames in a wide arc over him.
“Not the books!” Yornhaldt bellowed, desperately throwing up a wall of solid light between the gout of fire and the shelves. “Damn your eyes, control that beast!”
Suddenly his shield flickered; in that moment when he was distracted forming the wall, something had seized onto his aura. Reaching out with his mind, Yornhaldt belatedly realized he was standing in a summoning circle, stealthily placed around his feet while he had been busy with the fight. It wasn’t calling anything up, per se, but forming a channel of infernal energy, which was disrupting his workings.
Ingenious, really. He had to admire the technique, and the strategy.
Unfortunately, it meant the next banishment caused his shield to collapse.
His retaliatory bolt was far more powerful, collecting a great deal of loose energy as it went, and upon its impact his rival’s shield also imploded and the caster was sent hurtling backward to slam against the bookshelves. He slumped to the ground, stunned.
And then the katzil sank its fangs into Yornhaldt’s shoulder.
It had only a split second to worry at him like a hound before he nailed it point-blank with another arcane bolt; the unfortunate demon perished, fragments of flesh turning to dust and charcoal before they’d been flung far enough to hit anything.
Yornhaldt staggered, clutching his wounded arm and taking stock. Demon destroyed, summoner temporarily down. He’d better deal with the man more permanently…somehow… That bite was really throbbing. Also burning. His sleeve was rapidly becoming soaked through with blood.
It occurred to him belatedly that katzils were venomous. Not one of the worst poisons out there, but any venom of infernal origin was going to be very bad.
It was bad enough he almost didn’t notice the prick in his other shoulder. In fact, he became really aware of it a second or two after it had occurred, and looked over to find a small brass-bound hypodermic syringe stuck into his arm, plunger fully depressed. Blinking his eyes against suddenly blurry vision, Yornhaldt lifted his gaze to behold a figure—tall, human, and swathed in an ash-gray robe.
“Oh, drat,” he mumbled.
“I believe that’s enough exertion, old fellow,” the man said, amusement in his voice. “You just relax, now.”
Yornhaldt was only dimly aware that he was falling, aware that his senses were diminishing into unconsciousness. This was a disaster. He had to get back to Arachne with what he’d learned.