“What are you doing?” Scorn demanded suspiciously, drawing back her lips to bare fangs and scowling at Rook.
He skittered back a step, eyes widening. “I—oh, uh, I was just… I mean, it’s not like they trained us for honor guard duty, I was just trying to be polite…”
“Armed man sneaking up on my behind is being not polite,” the demon snapped.
“Scorn.” Ravana’s voice was gentle and soft, but nonetheless stilled the growing confrontation. “He’s correct, that was a polite gesture. It’s a custom, here, for a man to hold a lady’s chair for her as she sits.”
“…oh.” Scorn rolled her shoulders once, then nodded curtly at Rook. “Thank you, then, for custom.”
“You’re welcome,” he replied, still edging backward.
Ravana cleared her throat very softly, catching Scorn’s gaze and raising one eyebrow.
The demon drew in a deep breath, swelling menacingly, then let it out in a sigh. “I am sorry for snapping at you. I misunderstood.”
“No offense taken at all!” he said with forced cheer, retreating all the way to the wall. “Enjoy your dinner.”
“Wow,” Teal murmured. Shaeine gave her a sidelong little smile; Maureen grinned and winked.
“Is a good custom anyway,” Scorn added, seating herself. “Man showing respect to a woman. We do not have that at my home. Maybe I start it when I go back.”
“It’s actually a complicated question whether chivalrous gestures like that are respectful or just sexist,” Teal mused. “Or both.”
“Such cultural practices are often difficult to parse in such simple terms,” said Shaeine. “We have many such customs in Tar’naris, and while we largely eschew discriminatory practices that cause unnecessary strife, I must acknowledge that many of them are quite openly sexist.”
“Well, not everything discriminatory is overtly disruptive, necessarily,” Sekandar remarked.
“Indeed,” the drow replied, nodding to him. “In fact, I have had several very interesting conversations with Trissiny about this very subject.”
“If by ‘interesting’ ye mean ‘long,’ I don’t doubt it,” Maureen said cheerfully.
Sekandar hid a smile behind a discreet little cough. “By the way, where is Trissiny? I thought you were going to invite her, Ravana.”
“I did indeed,” the Duchess said serenely. “Invitations were extended to, among others, all three paladins and Princess Zaruda. Unfortunately, that forms a roster entirely of people who have no interest in dinner parties. In frankness, while I would have welcomed anyone who chose to attend, I mostly made the offer so that no one would feel excluded.”
“Ah,” the prince replied, keeping his expression even. Iris sighed softly, glancing down at her hands in her lap.
“I’m afraid the rest of the sophomore class begged off, citing prior commitments,” Ravana said calmly. “But no matter! We are here, and have the place to ourselves. It promises to be an enjoyable evening.”
The place in question was one of the closest things Last Rock had to a back alley: the space between the rear of the Ale & Wenches and the warehouse behind it, which was town property communally used by local businesses for storage. Ravana had somehow arranged for it to be not only scrupulously cleaned, but decorated with tasteful paper lanterns and bunches of hanging flowers. Their table and chairs were of the folding variety, but the tablecloth was a rich brocade. And the food was better than anything served in the A&W. They could hear (and smell) the town clearly, and had a clear view of more back buildings in one direction and the prairie in the other, but a little care had somehow transformed this spot into a peculiar kind of outdoor dining room.
“So,” Scorn said carefully, peering around, “this is a…formal occasion?”
“Oh, not particularly,” Ravana said airily, reaching for the basket of rolls. “I use the term ‘dinner party’ somewhat euphemistically. Really, more of a picnic.”
“Okay, good,” Scorn said, nodding. “I am… There are customs, yes? I don’t know them.”
“Precisely,” Ravana agreed, smiling and glancing over at Teal. “Consider it an opportunity for us to get to know one another better, without the pressure of expectations. And you can get some practice toward dining customs without any stakes.”
“I am not being laughed at,” Scorn said, dragging a scowl around the table.
“Most certainly not,” Sekandar agreed gallantly. “I’m sure no one here would dream of it.”
“Anyone who does will be asked to leave,” Ravana stated. “Which is why I was careful to invite only people who I trust not to do any such thing.”
“And notably,” Iris added, smugly pouring herself a glass of wine, “our other roommate is absent.”
“I begin to wonder if your fixation on Addiwyn isn’t making things in our room worse, with all respect,” said Szith. “I know her flaws as well as you, but she has been notably quiet since the first week of classes.”
“Well, of course,” Iris said acidly. “Since her behavior in the first week was utterly psychotic, that isn’t setting much of a bar, now is it.”
“She did save yer life in the Golden Sea trek,” Maureen pointed out.
“I’m sure that was just reflex,” Iris muttered.
“Granted, I wasn’t as close at the time,” said Sekandar, “but I never met anyone whose reflexes include grabbing a manticore by the tail to prevent it from stinging someone.”
“This roommate,” said Scorn. “I think I have met her. She is the rude elf?”
“That sums her up perfectly,” Iris agreed.
“Hm.” The demon nodded. “Why do you let her to act this way? Best to have things out, openly. If she is being mysterious and nasty, force a confrontation. Then you get the truth!”
A short silence fell.
“I quite agree,” Ravana said after a moment. “In fact, I said so at the time.”
“Aye,” Maureen added wryly. “An’ we tried that. Didn’t go so well.”
“Sometimes forcing a confrontation is the last thing you should do,” Teal said gently. “Um…on another note…are we really just gonna make the guys stand around while we eat?”
“We are on duty,” Moriarty said crisply from the other end of the alley. “Per the statutes governing use of Imperial soldiers by the Houses, our current arrangement with the Duchess constitutes a binding—”
“What he means,” Rook interrupted with a grin, “is that if her Grace wants to pay us to stand around, then stand we shall. You kids have fun, don’t worry about us. Frankly, I feel like we’re gettin’ away with something as it is. Not likely you’re in any danger in this town.”
“Why did you feel the need to hire them on as security, if you don’t mind my asking?” Shaeine inquired.
“I am not concerned for my physical safety, considering the company,” said Ravana, calmly buttering a roll. “Given the tensions in Last Rock, of late, I thought an official Imperial presence might keep things…calm.”
“Well, that’s a good thought, but maybe going a little overboard,” Iris remarked. “Nothing ever happens in this town.”
Teal and Shaeine exchanged a look, but said nothing. At the other end of the alley, Finchley turned to glance at his compatriots.
Rook leaned over and nudged Moriarty with an elbow. “Permission to mention the hellgate?”
“Oh, shut up,” Moriarty muttered.
“No trouble at all,” Tarvadegh assured him, “It’s not like there are any temple ceremonies at this hour, and I tend to stay up late reading, anyway. My time is yours. What’s on your mind, Gabe? Made a breakthrough on that shadow-casting?”
“Actually, this isn’t about training,” Gabriel said slowly, pacing down the center aisle of the underground Vidian sanctuary and finally sinking down onto a bench. “I… Well, I sort of wanted to talk. Are you available in your, y’know, priest-like capacity?”
“Absolutely,” Tarvadegh replied, sitting beside him. “Is this…something you can’t discuss with your friends?”
Gabriel sighed heavily and slumped forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. “Well…it’s about them, is the thing. Sort of.”
“Okay.” Tarvadegh just nodded, then waited silently for him to continue.
“What if…you knew something?” Gabriel said finally. “Something important…maybe even urgent. Something that affects the people closest to you, and…something you weren’t sure you could tell them?”
“Well, there are a lot of ‘somethings’ in that hypothetical,” the priest replied. “A whole lot depends on the situation. Gabe you don’t have to tell me any details that may be sensitive, rest assured. I’m here to help if I can, though.”
“The thing is…we’ve always been a group, y’know?” Gabriel sighed and absently drew Ariel, turning the sword over and over in his hands. “Maybe not at first, we had to learn to work together… But as things are, we’re a unit. My first instinct is always to trust the group, to bring them stuff like this so we can plan, but… I dunno, I have this feeling that it would be a bad idea in this case. The specific problem in question, I’m afraid, might provoke a, uh, fearful, ignorant reaction.”
“How so?” Tarvadegh asked mildly.
Gabriel glanced over at him. “…this is confidential, right?”
“Absolutely,” the priest said immediately. “Assume that Vidius hears anything you have to say here, but confession is sacred in all faiths I know of. I wouldn’t reveal your thoughts even to Lady Gwenfaer.”
“Well, there’s some heavy stuff going on,” Gabriel said, watching the light flicker dimly across Ariel’s blade. “The…Black Wreath is sniffing around us. Rather aggressively. And yeah, that sounds like exactly the kind of thing I should warn somebody about, right? Except… Based on what I know, I really think it’s smartest to take a step back and let them, for now. And…that would be a really, really hard sell. Even Toby probably wouldn’t go for that; Trissiny would absolutely lose her mind. Teal and Vadrieny have their own issues with the Wreath, and after what happened in Veilgrad, we’ve all got cause to be nervous about them. But I’m also thinking about Veilgrad, and the Wreath, who they are and what they want. And in this case…they are specifically not trying to hurt us. They seem to be trying to provoke a reaction.”
“That sounds like a rather hostile action in and of itself,” Tarvadegh observed.
Gabriel nodded. “But I’ve got indication their motive may actually be helpful… And there are other things. Professor Ekoi is circling them like a hawk, which I’m pretty sure means Professor Tellwyrn knows about this, too. And neither of them has done anything. What I think… I think the right thing to do would be to quietly watch and see what they do. And I think my friends will insist on going on the attack. And…I think that would be a disaster.”
“Can I ask a few questions?” Tarvadegh asked mildly.
“Sure, of course.”
“I suspect I know this already, but what source of information do you have that your classmates don’t?”
Gabriel grimaced. “Yeah, well…that’s another thing. I think certain issues may come up about the fact that I’m having valkyries spy on people. Do you… This isn’t some kind of abuse of my position, is it, Val?”
“I doubt you have to worry about that,” the cleric assured him, placing a hand on his shoulder. “You can’t really make the reapers do anything—if they choose to help you, take it as a sign of their favor. And additionally, anything you do involving them is all but guaranteed to have the god’s attention, so be assured he would let you know if he disapproved.”
“Okay, good.” Gabriel sighed, nodding. “That’s actually quite a relief.”
“Whether it’s an abuse of anyone’s trust is another matter,” Tarvadegh continued. “A paladin’s role is a martial one more often than not, and there are circumstances in which gathering intelligence is necessary and appropriate. Especially against the Black Wreath.”
“And…” Gabriel paused to swallow. “…what about certain new priestesses of Vidius and Avei who may have moved to the town recently?”
For a long moment, Tarvadegh stared at him in silence. Finally, he leaned back, his expression growing thoughtful.
“I’ve not been in a hurry to introduce you to some of the more complex inner workings of the cult,” he said at last. “Since our earliest practice sessions, it’s seemed to me that you do better being yourself first and a Vidian second. There must be a reason Vidius called our first paladin from outside the faith. But as a general rule, Gabriel… This kind of thing is not at all unusual within our ranks. The doctrine of masks and false faces makes trust a thing that we perceive differently than most others. We don’t value it less—if anything, we value it more. But within the cult, there is an expectation that no one is going to tell you the full truth about themselves, their ambitions, or their activities. If you’re spying on a priestess of Vidius, for whatever reason… Well. Without saying anything personal about the woman in question, just by virtue of her position, she’s probably done as much to others.”
“Have you?” Gabriel asked, frowning slightly.
Tarvadegh gave him a grin. “Yes, of course. Though for future reference, that’s a question you’ll probably want to avoid asking people outright.”
“Yeah, that occurred to me as soon as I said it,” Gabriel agreed, wincing.
“And as I said, if you’re using valkyries to do this, you would be told if Vidius disapproved of your activities. If anything, I’m encouraged to see you taking some initiative with intelligence-gathering. Now, spying on a priestess of Avei is another matter. To my knowledge, the Avenists have no craft that could detect a valkyrie’s presence, but for future reference, absolutely do not try that on a Salyrite.”
“And be wary of the likely repercussions if you are discovered. The only cults that actively spy on the Sisterhood are the Black Wreath and the Thieves’ Guild. You have probably heard from Trissiny what they think about that.”
“Yep,” he said ruefully.
“But back to your original question,” Tarvadegh said in a more serious tone, again squeezing his shoulder. “First, let me say that I’m very glad to see you thinking carefully before acting. Honestly, Gabriel, in general I’ve observed that you thinking of yourself as thoughtless is more of a fault of yours than actually being thoughtless, though thoughtlessness is still a real issue you have. I, uh, sort of lost control of that sentence. Need me to re-phrase?”
“No, I think I got it,” Gabriel said, grinning. “And you’re pretty much not wrong.”
“Okay, good,” Tarvadegh replied with a smile. “So yes, I’m glad you’re thinking about this first. However, the main reaction I take from it is that you don’t seem to respect your friends very much.”
Gabriel straightened up, his eyes widening, and stared at Tarvadegh in mute dismay.
“Think about it,” the priest went on gently. “These are some of the most dangerous people in the world—and, as you have seen firsthand, some of the most effective. Sure, they have their foibles. Just from your own descriptions, I know of several, and yes, I can see how the information you’re withholding could generate some rather strident reactions from several of them. But ultimately, none of them are stupid, and you aren’t without flaws. Gabriel, when you decide to determine who knows what, you’re effectively trying to control what people do. And that means you’ve placed yourself at the head of the group—a group which you’re now trying not even to lead, but to manipulate.”
“But…but…” Gabriel clenched his jaw, swallowed heavily, then lowered his eyes.
“And,” Tarvadegh said kindly, “I know that isn’t what you intend. Honestly, as a Vidian paladin…well, you’re unprecedented, but if someone had told me ten years ago there would be a Vidian paladin, I’d have pictured someone doing exactly that. The problem here, as I see it, is that your actions are in conflict with your ethics and your desires. I think you’ve stumbled into this box accidentally, not out of a desire to control the situation. That, in my opinion, is the root of your problem.”
“Yeah,” Gabriel said quietly. “That’s…wow. Holy crap, I’m an asshole.”
“As we were just saying,” Tarvadegh said wryly, “you’re a little thoughtless. People make mistakes. Whether or not you’re an asshole is a function of what you do next.”
“Right. You’re right.” He drew in a deep breath and let it out explosively. “Yeah, I have to tell them everything. I should’ve just done that from the beginning…crap, this is gonna be a difficult conversation.”
“The important ones usually are.”
“Thanks, Val. This…was exactly what I needed to hear.”
“Well, that’s why they pay me the big bucks,” Tarvadegh said with a grin. “That’s a joke. They don’t actually—”
He broke off and both of them looked at the ceiling as the sound of hoofbeats thundered by overhead.
“What the…” Gabriel frowned. “It’s after dark, who’d be…” He trailed off, glancing to the side at the invisible figure which had just dived in from above. “Oh, shit. Trissiny.”
“Bishop Syrinx, may I have a word with you?”
Basra glanced over at Ildren, who had just emerged from the rear door of their borrowed townhouse, but did not pause in stretching. Against the far wall of the rear courtyard, Jenell also glanced up, then immediately resumed packing away their practice swords and surreptitiously rubbing the several bruises she’d just acquired.
The house, though its décor was purely Viridill, was built in the Tiraan style, which meant a short public garden in the front, by the street, and a walled courtyard behind. Since this particular house sat on a corner, bordered by streets on two sides, it was less private than some—they could hear the traffic outside from the courtyard, and there was no telling what anyone had thought of the sounds of two women going at each other with wooden swords for the last hour.
“Certainly,” Basra said after leaving her to stew for a calculated moment. “I’m about to head inside, though; make it quick, if you please.”
Ildrin glanced over at Jenell. “In private, please?”
“I’m willing to indulge you, but not the point of going out of my way,” Basra said brusquely. “And Covrin is my assistant; she’s likely to end up hearing anything you have to say, anyway. I have a habit of venting to her about the various time-wasters I’ve had to deal with in the course of a day.”
Ildrin clenched her jaw for a moment. “…fine. What is your problem with me? I hardly know you, but I came here to offer my assistance when asked, and you have been nothing but dismissive and hostile.”
“Very well, you want the simple truth?” Despite her claim to be on the way inside, Basra turned and strolled over to a stone bench set against the courtyard’s far wall, seating herself. “Working where I do, in the Universal Church, dealing largely with the results of Archpope Justinian’s various…agendas…I have incidentally become acquainted with a number of individuals whom he considers useful and trustworthy. Yours is a name that has repeatedly come to my attention, both in the Church itself and from sources within the Sisterhood. You have a well-established reputation, Sister Falaridjad, as someone interested in Justinian’s cause as much as Avei’s. If not more so.”
“That is a false dichotomy and you know it!” Ildrin exclaimed. “I have never been anything but loyal to Avei and the Sisterhood. But yes, I see a great deal of sense and virtue in the messages that the Archpope has put forth during his tenure, and I’d like to think that’s reflected in my actions. So why is this a problem?” She took a step forward, pointing an accusing finger at Basra. “You have the same reputation, and far more than I! I’d say anyone in the Sisterhood or the Legions would contend you’re as much Justinian’s creature as Rouvad’s. I’ve heard more than a few rumors that’s the reason you’re now out here. What, exactly, is your problem with me?”
“I have no problem with you,” Basra said in perfect calm. “I barely know you, nor have any particular interest in you. My problem is with a Universal Church element meddling in this matter. From the Sisterhood’s perspective, intervention by the Church is not appropriate unless called for. From mine…” Her voice and expression abruptly hardened considerably. “If Justinian or you have any thoughts of ‘helping’ me make a name for myself out here to restore Commander Rouvad’s high opinion of me, any attempt to do so would horribly backfire. And then I will be angry.”
“Your Grace,” Jenell said, staring at a spot in the far corner of the courtyard, where dust had begun to swirl upward in a slow spiral that had nothing to do with the very faint movements of air that drifted over the walls.
“Furthermore,” Basra barreled on, making a silencing gesture at Jenell, “Justinian, at least, is wise enough to know that any attempt by him to intervene would only worsen matters. Which means you’re either here on your own initiative, or far more likely, this is Branwen’s idea. Allow me to let you in on a secret, in case you haven’t noticed: Branwen is an idiot. Letting her graduate beyond serving Izara flat on her back has been a sad waste of the only use she has.”
Ildrin narrowed her eyes. “Whatever issues the two of you have, she has the same reputation among Church-related circles. She’s trusted, and loyal to his Holiness. So, yes, when she approached me about this, I was glad to offer my services.”
Basra snorted. “I’ll consider my point made.”
“Ma’am?” Jenell said in alarm, having put down the practice swords and picked up her metal one. The dust column had silently swelled to a height greater than a person, and was coalescing slowly into a humanoid figure.
“Fine, whatever!” Ildrin exclaimed. “You can still control the situation—it’s not like I’m going to run around trying to slay elementals behind your back! Just give the orders and I’ll follow them; that was the job I signed on for. There is no reason for you to be so hostile! I came here in good faith. Does it matter to you at all how this affects me?”
Basra stared blankly at her. Jenell started to speak again, but the Bishop made a swatting gesture in her direction. “Of course. Sure, of course your perspective matters. But not at the expense of the mission. I’ve told you already, Falaridjad, just be ready; when trouble arises, you’ll get your chance to prove yourself.”
“And in the meantime,” the priestess said bitterly, “I’m to continue being treated like a—”
“Basra!” Jenell barked.
Basra snapped her head sideways to glare at her, and in the next moment was on her feet, falling into a ready stance. Jenell threw her sheathed sword, which she deftly caught and drew, tossing the scabbard down onto the bench.
Despite being formed from dust, the massive figure’s slow movements made a soft grinding of stone against stone, and indeed it looked, now, like it was assembled from irregular chunks of rock. Towering over eight feet tall and proportioned in a way that would have been imposing even had it not been made of boulders, the elemental dwarfed both them and the courtyard itself. As Jenell backed up toward Basra, it turned to face the three women. The lower of the slabs of rock that formed its head shifted, opening up an obvious mouth, and a deep rumble sounded from within.
“Well, Falaridjad, now’s your chance,” Basra said quietly. “Don’t make any moves to agitate it, but on my signal, I want you to draw as much divine energy as you can. Weakening it is the only chance we have against that thing.”
“Will that be enough?” Jenell asked, her voice trembling.
“We are about to find out,” Basra said, apparently in total calm. “Try to circle around, slowly, toward the door. If this doesn’t work, we’ll have to run, and it can’t fit…”
She trailed off as the door to the house opened and Ami came strolling out, strumming a soft tune on her guitar and looking perfectly unconcerned. She ambled out into the courtyard, beginning to sing a lilting tune in elvish.
The rock elemental had been shifting toward the three women, its posture clearly aggressive, but suddenly it went quiet, turning to focus on the bard. Another rumble sounded from within, but this time a very soft one; it took one ponderous step toward her, then sank slowly down onto its knees, peering down at her.
Ami smiled calmly up at it, continuing to play, but the words of her song changed.
“Oh, don’t stop planning on my account,
You were really going strong!
Get an idea and please spit it out—
I can’t keep this up for long.”
“Okay…same plan applies,” Basra said. “Move toward the door, slowly so as not to agitate it. Talaari can back inside last, and it’ll be trapped out there.”
“I’m pretty sure that thing can beat down the wall and get out into the city,” Ildrin said tersely.
“And we’ll deal with that,” Basra replied. “but first we have to survive, and that means not being trapped in a box with it.”
The back door abruptly banged open again and Schwartz came skittering out, Meesie clinging to his hair. “Your Grace! Bishop Syrinx! My wards have picked up a major elemental ohhhhh, shit.”
He slid to a halt, frozen and staring up at the elemental, which had turned its head to peer at him, beginning to straighten up.
Ami’s fingers danced nimbly across her strings, and her voice glided upward into a deft arpeggio that seemed almost to fill the courtyard with light. The elemental turned back to face her, seeming to relax again, and shuffled forward a couple of grinding steps, bending closer.
“Ah, good, our specialist,” Basra said sharply. “Schwartz, do something about this.”
“Right,” Schwartz said weakly, staring up at the elemental, then physically shook himself. “Right! I can…yes, I think I can banish it. How did that thing get in here?”
“It didn’t start like that,” Jenell said. “It formed from dust.”
“Dust to stone! That’s amazing! Whoever summoned this must be—ah, yes, right, on topic. Yes, I can still banish it, provided it’s in a weakened state. Ladies, when I give the word, I’ll need you to channel as much raw divine energy at it as possible—but not until I’m prepared! That will make it very angry.”
“Covrin, go get Branwen out here,” Basra said curtly. Jenell darted through the door into the kitchen without another word.
Schwartz, meanwhile, knelt on the ground and pulled several small pouches and vials from within his sleeves, while Meesie scampered down his arm to cling to his hand. “Ami, can you keep it in that position, please? I’ll just need a couple of minutes.”
Ami didn’t even glance at him, nor allow her relaxed posture and kind smile to waver, but switched again to a stanza in Tanglish.
“I hardly have it on a leash!
Be quick about it, Schwartz.
Fine control’s outside my reach.
Nothing rhymes with Schwartz.”
“Warts?” Ildrin suggested; Basra made a slashing motion at her.
Schwartz, meanwhile, had picked Meesie up and bodily dipped her in a bag of powder, held her up to whisper into her twitching ear, then set her back down. The fire-mouse immediately dashed toward the towering elemental, leaving behind a trail of sparkling powder on the ground. Upon reaching it, she began running around it, first in a simple circle, then in more complicated patterns. Gradually, a full spell circle began to form around the elemental’s feet, positioned so that it was entirely inside it, and Ami was just barely within its outer edge.
“Don’t!” Basra said urgently when Ami took a half-step back. “It’s fixated on you, Talaari; it’ll follow you. Retreat when we’re ready to move.”
The bard made no response, continuing to play, sing, and gaze placidly up at the rock elemental.
It made another soft rumble, then reached over with one huge, clumsy hand to grab a small rose bush from nearby. This it ripped right out of the ground, and set down next to Ami.
Meesie’s powder was not running out, fortunately, but it took the tiny elemental time to weave in and out, forming the circle. Schwartz kept his eyes focused on her, expression intent; Ami played on, and Basra stood with her sword at the ready, a half-step in front of Ildrin, whose eyes darted nervously about.
Jenell ran back out the kitchen door, trailed a half-moment later by Branwen, who stared at the scene intently but without apparent alarm.
“Schwartz?” Basra said quietly.
“Almost,” he murmured, beckoning. Meesie dashed back to him, and he gave her a small handful of nuts, which she stuffed into her mouth, making her cheeks bulge comically. “Just another moment…”
Meesie ran back to the spell circle, and made a quick but halting trip around it, pausing every few feet to retrieve an acorn from within her mouth with her nimble front paws and place it in a specific spot on the circle. The whole time, Ami kept up her singing.
The effect was clearly beginning to waver, however. The elemental made another rumbling sound, shifting as if in a shrug. It began clambering back upright.
“Schwartz,” Basra said urgently. For the first time, Ami glanced aside at him, betraying nervousness.
“Done!” he said, as Meesie dashed back toward him. “Swamp it with light and I’ll do the rest!”
“On my signal,” Basra said rapidly, “you two join me at the edge of that circle, and you get out of there, Talaari. Three…two…now!”
She rushed forward, her aura flaring alight, with Branwen and Ildrin flanking her. Ami skittered backward, keeping up her strumming for good measure, but between that and the sudden wash of divine energy, the elemental’s calm was effectively shattered. It threw up one arm to shield its head from the glow, letting out a low, awful roar of displeasure.
Shifting its body around, it drew back its other arm, clearly preparing a devastating punch at Basra, Branwen and Ildrin.
“Herschel!” Jenell cried.
“Got it!” he said, planting his hand, palm-down, on the very edge of the trail Meesie had made toward the elemental, the one feeding into the circle itself.
Rather than anything rising up from the circle, a column of white light slammed down from the sky, filling the space defined by the spell circle and momentarily blotting out the elemental from sight. It let out another unearthly roar, and suddenly the light vanished.
Where it had stood, there was only dust. It didn’t hold together even for a second, collapsing to the ground and washing over them in a cloud that seemed to fill the courtyard. All six staggered backward from it, coughing and spluttering, Ami trying to hold her guitar overhead and out of reach of the tide of grit.
In seconds, however, the dust dissipated as well, seeming to melt back into thin air. Only a few swirls of powder were left on the ground, in and around the remains of Schwartz’s banishment circle. A double handful of fragrant mint leaves drifted on the air, settling gradually to the ground.
Branwen caught one. “What on earth…?”
“Oh, ah, that’s mine,” Schwartz said awkwardly. “Well, I mean, you’re welcome to have it, if you want, but that was conjured by my… That is, it’s perfectly safe! All my doing, nothing to do with whoever called that thing here.”
“Good work, all of you,” Basra said, lowering her sword to her side. “Especially you, Schwartz, and you, Talaari.”
“All in a day’s work,” he said modestly.
“Well, I do have a few uses, if I may say so,” Ami replied with a smug smile. “Don’t think of me as just the bitch with the nice ones.”
“Oh!” Scwhartz’s eyes widened. “Bishop Syrinx! I came out here to tell you—it wasn’t just here! I detected multiple elementals appearing—all over the city!”
In the sudden silence that fell over the courtyard, they finally took note of the sounds drifting in from outside. The normal mild clamor of early evening traffic had been replaced by a distant but distinct cacophony of crashing, splashes, and screams.
“Stop!” Basra barked as Ildrin whirled to dash for the courtyard’s side door. “Running out there with no plan will only make things worse. Back into the house, grab any weapons or supplies you need, and meet at the front door in two minutes. We will find what’s going on and put a stop to it, but in an organized fashion. Go!”
They all turned and moved toward the door, following the Bishop, who suited her words with action by being the first one through. Jenell paused and backtracked a moment to retrieve Basra’s scabbard from the side bench where it still lay.
“You, ah, might want to be careful with the b-word, Ami,” Schwartz said, following the bard in at the tail of their procession. “Avenists really don’t like it.”
“Yes, I know,” she said, turning to give him a coy smile. “Ildrin definitely didn’t, I could tell. But Bishop Syrinx, who is never too shy to express her displeasure about anything? Not even a hint that she’d noticed.” She turned forward again, her smile only broadening as she stepped back into the shadows of the house. “Interesting, is it not?”