“This is too soon.”
“Bradshaw, you are turning into a regular old nanny,” Embras replied, not looking up from the diagram he was scrawling on the ground.
“Let me remind you what happened to us the last time you decided to get too aggressive,” Bradshaw said sharply, nodding at Vanessa, who just folded her arms. “I’m not blaming you, Embras, but keep in mind you’re working with people who have earned some caution.”
At that, Embras did raise his head, his expression serious. “I wasn’t being condescending when I suggested you two sit this out, you know. Lady knows, you’ve gone above and beyond the call lately. And frankly, aside from having earned a break, there’s the matter of it being in the best interests of the organization to have you fully rested and recuperated…”
“We’re both still in fighting shape,” Vanessa said tersely. “For a given value of ‘fighting,’ anyway.”
“The kind we usually do,” Bradshaw added. “Which doesn’t involve the sort of bear-poking you’re doing right now. But leaving that aside, Embras, I’m not just being conservative or cautious. Speaking as a fellow strategist, I believe this is too soon. I’d leave her alone for a bit—at least a day or two—to let this morning’s event settle to the back of her mind. The next one will have more impact that way.”
“Well, you aren’t wrong,” Embras acknowledged, kneeling again in the flattened tallgrass to resume work. He was using nothing more than his finger now, the enchanting dusts, sigils and charms all having been laid; a thin stream of bruise-purple energy was slowly scoring lines where he pointed it, adding to the already considerable complexity of the circle. “Under other circumstances, that’s exactly the approach I would take, too. However, we haven’t the luxury of a luxurious, drawn-out game this time. There’s a timetable here, and I’m not sure exactly where the numbers lie just yet. I want the girl good and spooked now, before she can convince herself it was her imagination, so she stays that way. We’ll have to adjust the schedule on the fly as things develop. Not ideal, I know, but we make do. All right, I think this is done. Nessa, Vlesni, kindly double-check my work?”
Vanessa silently limped over to him and began perusing the sigil through narrowed eyes, her head moving slowly as she studied each aspect of it in detail. The fourth member of their party sashayed forward to join her, unfurling her wings and re-folding them about her shoulders as a kind of cloak. Such little displays were as natural as breathing for the succubus, but were notably unaccompanied by comment this time. Vlesni had been unusually quiet all evening.
Bradshaw cast a grim look at the distant form of the mountain rising up from the flatness all around them. They were right at the edge of the effective range of the spell Mogul was crafting; the towering feature that gave Last Rock its name was a thumb-high blot on the horizon, both the town below it and the University at its peak invisible in the falling twilight.
“What kind of schedule?” Bradshaw asked, turning his attention back to Mogul, who was watching Vlesni pace slowly in a circle around the diagram.
“I’ve been thinking,” Embras said slowly.
“That could be good or very bad,” Vanessa commented without looking up. Not so long ago she’d have been moving around the circle like the succubus, but her leg didn’t appreciate unnecessary walking.
“Yes, yes,” Embras said. “Laugh it up. But seriously, now. We’ve been over the improbability of Justinian’s apparent plans, here. Turning Last Rock against Tellwyrn would barely inconvenience her. It makes a little more sense, though, if you consider it as the first step of a longer game. Turning the world against her might cause her annoyance, even impediment, but it won’t stop her operations. She’s just not the kind of personality or creature to care overmuch what people think, and unlike most governments and heads of institutions, has no need to concern herself with public opinion.”
“So that’s still wasted effort on Justinian’s part,” said Bradshaw.
Embras nodded. “And Justinian does not waste effort. However, one thing he could do by stirring up ill feeling that would hurt her greatly is turn the students against the University.”
Vanessa looked up at that, frowning. “Do you think he could?”
“Not the way he is so far,” Embras replied, “but it’s been established that these are obviously the opening moves of something more complex. That is both the dilemma and the solution, my friends. Not knowing the shape or nature of Justinian’s plans, we’re in the dark as to the schedule of events. But this creates an opportunity we cannot afford to waste. Whatever the exact details, the general form of his plan is clearly disharmony, division, and discord. Others can take advantage of that.”
“You surely don’t think you can turn the University students to our side,” Bradshaw protested.
“We could, but nah. There are nearly eighty of them; we could unquestionably gather up a few, but not the specific ones I want. Those are going to take some careful handling.”
“Again with the paladins,” Bradshaw grunted, folding his arms.
“Yes, the paladins,” Embras said implacably. “Think what Justinian must be after. Tellwyrn isn’t enough of a hazard to him that he would risk making her one unless he had a specific goal in mind. And there are some very interesting individuals on that campus with whom he already has fingerholds. Specifically, the same ones we are interested in. The paladins, and our dear Vadrieny.”
“The paladins are the least likely to give you so much as the time of day,” Vanessa scoffed. “And Vadrieny has made it plain she wants nothing to do with us. Amnesia clearly did wonders for her disposition, but it’s not made her any easier to handle.”
“And that, my dear, is our advantage,” Mogul said, raising a finger and grinning. “Those three owe much more to their own cults than the Church; he has to win their favor, and their loyalty, specifically to himself to get anywhere. He has to win—we just have to not lose.”
“I see,” Bradshaw said slowly, frowning. “Well, some of it. If you can discredit Justinian while putting us in a positive light… We don’t need to convert them to come out on top. I’m still not clear on how this leads to prodding at Avelea this way.”
“I don’t want to convert them,” said Embras. “Then their patrons would just kick them to the curb, and what use would they be after that? Even Vadrieny; the Lady has made it clear she wants the girl staying on campus and out of danger as long as possible. No, I want those kids questioning everyone. Us, the Church, their own gods. And the best part is, I cannot imagine Professor Tellwyrn objecting to that goal.”
“This looks good to me,” Vlesni said curtly, coming to stand next to him.
“Agreed,” said Vanessa, taking a few uneven steps back from the spell circle. “If you intend to do this, let’s get on with it.”
“Very good,” he said cheerfully, producing a heavy hunting knife out of thin air. Its pommel was hammered into the bronze wolf’s head that symbolized Shaath’s cult.
“I’m still waiting to hear the story behind that thing,” Bradshaw noted.
“Vlesni, my dear, you’re up,” Embras said, holding out a hand to her.
The succubus wrapped her arms and wings around herself, and looked away at the mountain on the horizon. “We’re too close to that place. I don’t do valkyries, not after last time. We had an agreement, Embras.”
“There are no valkyries here,” he said patiently. “I went well out of my way to chart the area from multiple dimensions. They don’t patrol the region, just come and go. Seems they like to visit their new Hand when they’ve nothing better to do, is all. And speaking of hands, dear, I’ll need yours.”
“I’m not so sure I like this,” Vlesni complained. “Why can’t you summon up someone else for these things? Last thing I want is that paladin getting the scent of my blood in her nose.”
“Vlesni,” Embras said, his tone just perceptibly harder. “You know I like to lead with a gentle hand, my dear, but that doesn’t mean you don’t obey. You get to run around on the mortal plane so long as you follow my rules, and make yourself useful. If that deal is no longer working for you, just say the word.”
For a bare instant, the succubus fixed him with a sly, calculating look. Then she sniffed dramatically and extended her hand, palm down and wrist limp, as if expecting a kiss on the knuckles.
“You don’t need to get all huffy,” she huffed, languidly raising one forefinger. The nail spontaneously grew till it curled a good three inches outward.
“That’s my girl,” Mogul said cheerfully, taking her hand and swiftly but carefully cutting free the overgrown nail with the fae-blessed Huntsman knife.
Mogul stepped over to the spell circle, knelt, and very carefully laid the demon’s fingernail in the center of one elaborately glyphed ring positioned at the edge of the overall design.
Instantly the entire thing glowed purple. Then, as if being sucked down a drain, the lines and glyphs began to crawl free of their place on the ground, inching toward the circle containing the severed nail. Only one spot seemed to resist: directly opposite that circle was a rendition of Avei’s eagle sigil, bound by another inscribed ring, which now began to glow a dull red and let off sparks in protest.
Its resistance finally gave, however, and the entire thing swirled into the point around Vlesni’s fingernail and vanished.
For an instant, all was silent.
The final discharge of the elaborate spell was an anticlimactic puff of purple smoke, which swirled into an off-center twister no bigger than a mule, and sailed off in the direction of Last Rock, vanishing from view as it did so.
“And that’s that!” Embras said brightly, clapping his hands. “All right, folks, let’s clean up the site—full scrub, no stone unturned, you know the drill. I’m sure you know better than to assume the Lady’s stealth works on Tellwyrn, especially after she got her hands on those materials Locke stole from us. I can’t imagine why she’d be sniffing around out here, but it pays not to make assumptions.”
“And while we’re going that,” Bradshaw said pointedly, then stopped, looking over at Vanessa. “No, you don’t, Nessa! Sit down, we’ll take care of this.”
“I am not an invalid,” she said sharply.
“You kind of are, though,” Vlesni commented. Embras snapped her fingers, and the demon obligingly fell silent, still wearing a placid smile.
“Bradshaw’s right,” said Embras. “All assets should go where they are most useful, and your skills at the moment don’t include repeatedly bending over. Vlesni, don’t you dare.”
“Oh, please,” the demon said scornfully. “Way too easy.”
“As I was saying,” Bradshaw continued, while kneeling to slowly run his palms over the apparently featureless dirt where the spell circle had been moments ago, “this would be a great time for you to explain how goosing Trissiny Avelea with pieces of Vanislaad aura leads to turning her against Justinian.”
“Well, now, just playing to type,” Mogul said innocently, bending to repeat Bradshaw’s motions on the other side of the erstwhile circle. “If you read the old epics, the really popular songs and stories about paladins, a sort of pattern emerges. It begins to seem that, whatever their stated goals, the purpose of a paladin’s enemies is always the same in the long run.” He grinned broadly as he worked. “To make her a hero.”
Veilgrad wasn’t much of a travel destination these days; the Empire had taken steps to prevent gawkers from impeding the repairs to the city. Said repairs seemed to mostly be done at this point, to judge by the condition of buildings they had passed today, and the number partially encased in scaffolding. Still, Ingvar suspected that Darling’s connections were a major reason they’d been able to secure a ticket to Veilgrad so quickly. On the upside, it was nice and quiet, particularly now, on the upper floor hallways of the inn in which they were staying.
Darling followed him past the door of the room he was sharing with Joe, and Ingvar, having already said his goodnights, steadfastly ignored him, opening his own door and stepping through in the hope that the Eserite was simply on his way back down to the common room for a nightcap.
“So!” Darling said, his chipper voice as usual dashing all of Ingvar’s hopes. “You know the chair trick, right?”
Ingvar stopped, turned, and stared at him. “The chair…trick?”
“Let me show you!”
Darling slipped past him into the room, and even as he bristled at the presumption, Ingvar had to respect the man’s physical adroitness. Not many people could maneuver around him so neatly—but then again, perhaps the could and simply didn’t try to. Most people gave Huntsmen a respectful berth.
The thief had already picked up the ladder-back chair which was one of the few items of furniture in Ingvar’s room. “C’mon, shut the door so I can demonstrate.”
Ingvar gave him a considering look before complying. Something about shutting himself in this small room with the man put him on edge.
Darling stepped past him, set the chair down on its back two legs and wedged it in so it was lodged directly under the door handle.
“There!” he said, giving the door a jiggle to demonstrate. “Snug as a bug. It’s damn near impossible to open a door from the other side with the chair in place like that—anybody who wants in that badly will pretty much have to break it down, and in pieces. Physics is a wonderful thing.”
“I see. Thanks for the tip,” Ingvar said tersely, only un-tensing slightly when Darling removed the chair. Being blocked in the room with the man had been even worse.
Rather than opening the door to leave, however, Darling turned to face him, his expression serious.
“It wasn’t a random suggestion. I’m pretty sure we were followed today.”
“Followed?” Ingvar tensed further, a hand straying toward his tomahawk. “By whom?”
Darling shook his head. “I didn’t get a good look.”
“Not sure… It was just an impression I had. The sense of increasingly familiar shapes out of the corner of my eye, conveniently behind us whenever I happened to glance, and absent when I looked specifically.”
Ingvar was torn between the urges to laugh and to cuff him about the ears. “That’s it? Really, that’s all?”
“It’s instinct, Ingvar,” Darling said, seemingly unperturbed by his tone. “Instinct is just the summation of a thousand tiny observations and calculations you could never consciously do. You of all people should know to trust it. Or are you going to tell me that when you’re out hunting, you don’t have a grasp of the forest? Doesn’t nature talk to you at all, if you know how to read the signs?”
“You’re equating the hunt with this…premonition you had?” Ingvar said skeptically.
“They’re exactly the same thing,” Darling replied with a faint smile. “Cities are my woods, Ingvar, and stalking people through them was my bread and butter long before I got promoted into playing mind games with the powers that be. When I have a feeling that I’m being followed, I’ve learned it means I’m being followed. And when I can’t get a solid look at the person doing the following, that means they’re good.”
“Hm,” Ingvar grunted, frowning. With it all explained like that, it did make sense. He understood the value of instinct very well—better, he felt, than the Eserite, for he didn’t feel a need to explain it away as unconscious calculation. It had come as a surprise that Darling of all people would understand the instincts of hunter and prey, but there, too, he was right. Who better to know such dynamics in the city than a thief?
“I’m not going to rule out random pickpockets, or some unknown new party,” Darling continued, “but I can’t help thinking the only people we know expressed an interest in our group today were those three Huntsmen. And we know who they’re interested in.” He patted the back of the chair. “So…chair trick. May it serve you well.”
“I see,” Ingvar mused, then nodded. “Thank you. I’ll put that to good use. Will you two be okay?”
Darling grinned. “I almost hope I get to see someone try to sneak up on the Sarasio Kid on this trip. Sleep well, Ingvar.”
After he had finally slipped out, pulling the door shut behind him, Ingvar stared at it in thought for a long moment.
He propped the chair in place as Darling had shown him, then went to collect his satchel. Everything was packed exactly where he could lay hands on just what he needed; it was the work of moments to extract a few lengths of rawhide cord and small tin discs. Working them into a snare alarm took only a moment, the motions well-practiced. Arranging them on the window was only slightly trickier; its latch was designed to be minimally obtrusive, and Ingvar was used to setting this on convenient lengths of twig and branch, not angular surfaces against which they’d lie too flat to chime. He did get it rigged up, however, and tested his handwork to ensure that anyone opening the window would unavoidably cause the chimes to jangle loudly together. Perfect.
After a moment’s thought, he arranged a second such alarm on the chair propped against his door. He couldn’t see any way to open it from the outside, but considering who had told him to do that…
It never hurt to be sure.
The room filled with golden light; Ruda was on her feet before being fully awake, snatching up her sword from beside the bed and only belatedly pulling it from its scabbard. Trissiny was already up, naked blade in hand, glowing like the sun. The paladin turned this way and that as if looking for something. Barefoot, dressed only in the plain shift in which she slept and with her hair pillow-mussed, she was quite a sight.
“What is it?” Ruda finally demanded. “Boots? Say something, you are wigging me the fuck out, here.”
“Demon,” Trissiny said tersely.
Ruda tightened her grip on her sword. “Like before?”
“Just like before.” Trissiny turned in a slow circle, panning her gaze around the room. “It’s…gone. I only felt it for a moment… Hang on.”
She frowned in concentration, and the glow around her expanded gradually, until it filled the room.
“Hey, be careful with that,” Ruda chided. “If you incinerate yourself, they’re gonna say I murdered you. Triss? Seriously, stop. There’s nothing here.”
Trissiny sighed and nodded, relaxing slightly. The light around her diminished to the normal scale of her divine shield, then further, till she was barely glowing. “I didn’t imagine it.”
“Didn’t say you did.” Ruda padded across the room to the switch by the door, igniting the fairy lamp. “But after that display, we can be certain nothing’s in here. Or out in the hall, or in the bathroom. Unless that glowy shit is stopped by walls?”
“It isn’t,” Trissiny said tersely.
“Right, then.” Ruda glanced down at her own pajamas, then over at her hat hanging from the bedpost and scabbard lying against the wall where she had flung it. “So what happened?”
“I’m not crazy,” Trissiny muttered to herself. “I know I felt…”
“Boots, if you were crazy, Avei would damn well take notice. Whatever’s going on, that’s not it. Look…last time, Scorn felt it too.”
“Right,” Trissiny said vaguely, then her gaze focused. “Right. You’re right. Let’s go check on her.”
Ruda followed her out into the hall and down the stairs, their steps utterly silent on the luxuriant carpet.
Trissiny hesitated outside the fairies’ door, but continued past when no sound emerged from within. Fross didn’t actually sleep, but she used her nights to study, which Juniper claimed didn’t bother her. Since reshuffling the rooms after their first semester, they had developed a comfortable rhythm, which had taken time to re-establish after Jack was added to the picture. Everyone had been extra careful around that door this semester. The jackalope didn’t appreciate being awakened, and those antlers hurt.
The next door down opened as they neared it, however, and Shaeine slipped out, garbed in a black nightdress.
“What’s amiss?” she asked.
“I felt another demonic presence,” Trissiny replied. “I don’t suppose you…?”
“Nothing like that,” the drow replied with a faint frown. “I heard you two coming down, is all. At this hour and as fast as you are moving, it seemed unlikely to have been in search of a midnight snack. Are you going to wake Janis?”
“May not be much point in that,” Ruda said. “We’re gonna check with Scorn. Last time she had the same sense Trissiny did…”
“Good thinking,” Shaeine agreed, gently pulling her door shut.
“Uh…” Ruda glanced at it. “Just for the record, she listens to Teal…”
“She listens to each of us,” Shaeine said firmly. “I think it is best not to get her used to interacting politely only with one person. And Teal needs her sleep.”
“All right,” Trissiny agreed. “Come on.”
The stairwell terminated into the living room downstairs; getting to the basement from there meant creeping down the hallway past the kitchen and Janis’s door. There was no door blocking the steps that led down into the giant, hollowed-out floating stalactite on which Clarke tower perched, which meant Scorn lacked some of the privacy the tower’s other residents enjoyed, but she had never objected to that. Vadrieny had hinted that privacy was at a premium in her home dimension anyway.
The basement room, blessedly, had no windows. Aside from its leveled floor, it could have been a natural cave, the walls rough-hewn. Stored barrels and trunks had been rearranged to make a sleeping area for the Rhaazke; she was presently curled up in it, having chosen to construct a huge nest of quilts and pillows, propping the bed she’d been provided up on its end against one wall to serve as a rack for clothes and her large collection of cheap jewelry.
They continued to step quietly, but Scorn (as they had previously discovered) was apparently accustomed to being snuck up on, and rose as they filed into the room. Trissiny let her golden glow flicker out, leaving the room lit only by the small fairy lamp Scorn used as a nightlight. The demon had never given any indication of being afraid of the dark; she seemed to find it a sign of wealth and privilege to have a light on all the time while she slept.
Which she did in the nude. It didn’t bother her to be visited in that state, and after the initial surprise, no one but Teal was particularly flustered by it.
“What?” Scorn demanded irritably. “Is late. Am sleeping.”
“Did you feel a demon nearby just now?” Trissiny asked.
Scorn snorted. “I feel nobody in my bed. Boys not allowed, remember? Yes?”
“That’s not what I meant,” Trissiny said, her cheeks coloring slightly. “This morning, you sensed a demon when I did. I just had the same feeling—exactly the same. You didn’t sense anything?”
“No,” Scorn said with a huge yawn which showed off her jagged teeth alarmingly. “Why you were up to sense?”
“I…wasn’t,” Trissiny admitted. “It woke me up.”
The demon rolled her eyes. “You have a dream. Good night, let everyone else have some.”
“I really don’t think—”
“Night!” Scorn flopped back down on her pillows, face-first, and said something else which was too muffled to be understood.
“Well…thanks anyway,” Trissiny said with a sigh. Stifled but still ostentatious snoring began to emerge from the demon’s nest. Shaking her head, Trissiny turned back to the stairs. “I’m not crazy.”
“No, you aren’t,” Shaeine agreed. “No one has suggested otherwise.”
“They will, though,” Trissiny said glumly. “When you start sensing things no one else can…that’s just not a good sign. Maybe it was a dream. Feeling that…thing…out of nowhere this morning… Well, that’d give anybody nightmares.”
They had navigated back up to the darkened living room, where Ruda stopped. “That was no nightmare, Boots.”
Trissiny frowned at her. “How would you know? You have insight into my dreams, now?”
“Fuck yes I do,” Ruda retorted. “I’ve slept in the next bed over for a year and a half now. You get nightmares, you know that? They tend to wake me up. But never anything like that. That was pure, divinely inspired fight or flight. Something real happened up there.”
“Do you think we are in any danger?” Shaeine asked.
“I don’t…know,” Trissiny said, frowning. “Both times, it was just the sensation, quickly gone.”
“First,” said Ruda, “I can’t picture an actual demon getting past Tellwyrn’s wards unless invited, like Scorn or Vadrieny. Or Gabriel, even. Second, supposing one found herself in this tower—and it’d have to be a her, or the charm would keep it out—she’d be locked in with a crew of women who individually are a match for most things and collectively for damn near anything. No demon clever enough to penetrate the outer defenses would wanna be in that position. Nah…we’re not under attack.” She turned to look at Trissiny. “Both times this shit has been targeted at you, Boots.”
“You do believe me, then?” Trissiny seemed half grateful and half disbelieving.
“Triss, I’ve got a pretty firm handle on your flaws by now,” Ruda replied with a grin. “You’re judgmental and not the most socially adept person when it comes to people. When there’s battle or evil shit afoot, though, I trust your instincts. They’ve saved all our asses more than once.”
“I agree,” Shaeine said, nodding.
“This is what I don’t like,” Ruda continued, her features falling into a scowl. “If we accept that Trissiny’s reactions are real, and that this doesn’t seem to be a physical threat to us… The logical conclusion is that somebody is deliberately fucking with you.”
“Who would do something like that?” Trissiny demanded. “And why?”
“I think we had better devote some serious thought to those questions,” Shaeine said, her forehead infinitesimally creased in one of her faint frowns, an expression that indicated severe worry. Whether they had grown accustomed to her or she had begun to open up slightly, her classmates had become more perceptive of her subtle displays of emotion.
“Whoever it is,” Ruda growled, “they’re gonna fuckin’ quit it. First we find them, and then we explain it to ’em.”