13 – 28

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The door was hard to close; once Mogul had shown her the trick, she had managed to deflect her attention from it but not shut it off entirely. It was something that had always been there, creeping out in Vadrieny’s relationship to sound, in the way her magic sometimes sang through when Teal created music and they were both caught up in it. It was more than physical sound, more than the delicate mechanisms of the ear detecting vibration in the air. Something in her being that superceded mundane physics, like the means she used to fly, sought out and connected to it, and Mogul with his bell and his explanations had opened a door she had no idea how to close again.

Despite the speed of the air rushing past her, the sounds of the city rose up in an infinite clamor as she soared above Tiraas. Teal had been in cities plenty of times and was familiar with their cacophony, but now each sound, each voice and crash and clatter, registered individually. Mogul had said it could be overwhelming, but she viewed it with some detachment. Whether it was her musical training or just the long experience of disregarding unimportant noise, she let the hubbub slide past.

She could definitely detect the shrieks and responses to her arrival in particular, and winced. Well, there was nothing to be done about that, unfortunately.

Vadrieny arced toward the center of the city, but not too far, carefully avoiding Imperial Square. Both the government and the Church knew who she was, but she was under no illusions what would probably happen if an archdemon came diving out of the sky right at the Palace with no warning. Even coming over the walls had been pushing her luck. She only needed to glide in a wide sweep to orient herself; during previous trips to the capital she had not been encouraged to take to the air. It was quick work, though, to get her bearing and locate the Narisian embassy, in the aptly-named Embassy District two blocks distant from the Square.

Very carefully, she slowed her descent, banking as she approached and pumping her wings to settle as gently as possible into the courtyard. The people crossing the space between the front gates and the doors, a mix of drow and humans, wisely scurried off the main path to make room, while soldiers in House An’sadarr uniforms stepped forward with weapons upraised.

Immediately upon landing, Vadrieny submerged herself, leaving Teal standing in the chilly air in her House Awarrion robes. She turned to face the startled onlookers with the calmest expression she could muster, painfully aware that her hair must be a disaster.

“I am very sorry for startling you,” she said with well-practiced public calm, bowing to the public. “Everything is all right; there is no danger here. My apologies for the intrusion.”

She turned to approach the embassy’s door, and found her way blocked by two soldiers. Already stepping forward, Teal trailed to a halt; these had swords out and upraised. They were An’sadarr, not Awarrion, but surely they had been told about her?

“It’s all right. Let her pass.”

The armored women obeyed immediately, sheathing their weapons and stepping aside to flank the open door again, in the process revealing the slim figure of the Ambassador.

Shariss yr Shareth a’nar Awarrion wore her hair shorter than most Awarrion personnel save the House guards, in a style not dissimilar to Teal’s which was more associated with a martial path than a diplomatic one in Narisian culture. She generally had a famously unique sense of style, as evidenced by her robes: black, rather than deep red and green as was common among her House, and custom-designed in a shape evocative of a Tiraan business suit, complete with lapels and high collar and subtle embroidery hinting at pinstripes.

“Teal,” Shariss said, a masterpiece of a syllable which conveyed a greeting, a question, and a dire warning all at once.

“Ambassador,” Teal replied, bowing again. “I apologize for interrupting your business, but mine is urgent. May I speak with you in privacy?”

“Of course,” Shariss said neutrally. “This way, if you please.”

The Ambassador set a brisk pace, which suited Teal perfectly. They strode—or in Shariss’s case, glided—through the embassy’s main entry hall, both acknowledging the stares of visitors with polite nods, then passed through a side door into a hallway. Shariss led her up a narrow flight of stairs, along a short hall, and through a heavy wooden door into a small conference room with a window overlooking the street outside, which marked it as a place for meeting human visitors as Narisians generally preferred fully enclosed spaces. It also bore some kind of enchantment for privacy, to judge by the way the sounds from without were fully cut off once Shariss shut the door behind Teal.

“It’s just lucky I was alerted to your approach in time to meet you personally,” Shariss said, an open edge in her tone now that they were in private, turning to fix Teal with a stare. “I trust you realize the trouble that entrance may have created, and that this is worth it?”

“I do, and I think so,” Teal said, swallowing nervousness with the help of a rush of wordless support and affection from Vadrieny. “I was just intercepted in Puna Dara and informed that the Sleeper has been identified.”

Shariss’s eyes narrowed, but she just nodded for Teal to continue.

“His name is Chase Masterson, and I can well believe he would do such…things. My source indicated he fled Last Rock upon being outed and was directed to come to Tiraas to be recruited by the Imperial government. And further, that Professor Tellwyrn had been sufficiently agitated that she would be pursuing with the intent to kill him on sight.”

“Source?”

“An agent of the Archpope. Embras Mogul of the Black Wreath was also there, and he is under orders from Elilial herself to support Vadrieny as needed. He was able to confirm some part of the story and clarify others. And debunk a few obvious lies.”

“So,” Shariss said with another nod, “you consider this account credible, overall.”

“Mostly, but it also contains misdirection. Tellwyrn is not a fool, nor is she mindlessly violent; she’ll be trying to capture Chase as well, to get the cure for the sleeping curse.” Teal drew in a steadying breath. “According to Mogul, the Archpope’s intent is to prolong conflicts in Puna Dara and Last Rock by removing Vadrieny and Tellwyrn, respectively, from those locations. It was probably he who outed Chase. And as infuriating as it is to have to take the bait…this is a question of loyalty.” She permitted a hard edge to creep into her own voice. “While he’s here, and not caught by Tellwyrn or the Empire yet, Chase is in play. Vadrieny possesses a tracking ability that may lead to him, which makes this our one chance to put him in the hands of House Awarrion. I…abandoned an assignment from the University and left my friends facing a very uncertain situation to come here after him. I can’t let it be for nothing.”

Shariss simply nodded once more. To a Narisian drow, choosing House above all other considerations was nothing more or less than expected, particularly of a daughter of the Matriarch. Teal was not so sanguine; her friends were physically powerful enough to resist most material dangers and neither she nor Vadrieny likely could have contributed much to fixing ancient Elder God machinery, but this had still been a painful decision. It was her decision, though, and she had made it. Now there were only the consequences to deal with.

“Very good, then,” the Ambassador said. “What do you need from me?”

“I’ll need to be on the roof,” Teal said, “to listen. And…in Vadrieny’s form.”

“That will cause nearly as much of a stir as your entrance,” Shariss noted.

“I’m sorry for…”

The drow held up one hand. “Be sorry for nothing. I will run whatever interference is necessary with the Imperial government to buy you time. That’s nothing more or less than the task your mother and the Queen charged me with; it is my duty and an honor to aid you.” She turned and unlatched the window, but then paused just before pushing it open. The Ambassador shifted her head and gave Teal a look that was very undiplomatic. “Get him.”

Teal nodded deeply in thanks, stepping forward and pushing the window open. Shariss stepped back from the rush of city noise and cold air, but Teal climbed up onto the sill and leaped out.

There were shouts from the street below, followed by screams when Vadrieny burst forth again and propelled herself upward with a powerful beat of her wings. She paid them no mind, rising and circling till she was above the embassy and then setting herself down carefully on its highest point, a small spire surmounting its central done.

It was a position not designed for perching upon, but with her claws wrapped around it, she held still even against the buffeting of the wind. Vadrieny closed her eyes, fully extended her fiery wings, and listened.

Deliberately, consciously opened to it like that, it was overwhelming for a moment. She could tell how that ability had always been there, but unnoticed and ignored till now—the way sound interacted with her, the way Teal’s music poured out and Vadrieny’s perception of it had aided her in creating it. Having been crammed into a mortal body and nearly destroyed in the process, she had rebuilt her consciousness by clinging to Teal’s; who knew what other senses she might still possess, dormant and waiting to be awakened? Thanks to Mogul’s intervention, now, she didn’t know how to stop it.

But it was Teal, not Vadrieny, who provided the key to making this useful. According to the warlock Vadrieny had, in times past, used precisely this ability to separate sounds out in order to hunt her mother’s enemies, but right now she had no idea how that was done. Teal, though, could single out one note from an orchestra… Or one voice from a city.

They clung there, feathers spread like hundreds of antennae, with every tiny vibration of sound thrumming through fiery plumes, ears, aura. Slipping through their shared consciousness like threads of silk through fingers, searching for one familiar voice.


She arrived first upon a flat rooftop not far from the city’s center. Tellwyrn took a moment to glance about, noting the nearby spires of the Grand Cathedral and the Temple of Avei; the structure atop which she stood had a view straight down the avenue which passed between them into Imperial Square. Well enough; a central position wasn’t really necessary for this, but it couldn’t hurt.

Finding him was the work of moments. She had to close her eyes and release a gentle pulse with her will, the softest exertion of arcane energy that rippled out across the entire city, passing through and around its chaotic morass of active enchantments without disturbing them. Rare was the wizard who could detect that, but if any were near enough to feel it, they would also feel whose locator spell that was and know better than to meddle in her business. Indeed, she felt a tiny ripple in response, the distinctive faint pressure of Zanzayed off in the Conclave’s embassy, acknowledging her presence. She ignored him; her business lay with the other ping that resulted.

Chase Masterson was in no position to detect that spell, but he was a student of her University and therefore Tellwyrn had long since made certain of her ability to find him at need. In theory, she could have done so from anywhere in the world, but it was easier and much faster to start from close by. Her information was correct: he was in the city. That would make this a very short pursuit indeed.

She opened her eyes, this time channeling power through the inherent charms on her spectacles. In the sixty years since acquiring them in that unfortunate little town on the N’Jendo border, she had made certain not only to research their history but to experiment with their abilities, and it was now the simplest thing in the world to turn her head and focus her eyes and mind to see him. Though he was far enough away that even elven eyes could barely have picked him out from the crowd, and there were hundreds of buildings and other objects separating them, Chase was a speck in her vision that she would not lose now that she had it.

Not even when he abruptly shadow-jumped to a different part of the city. She turned again, unerringly. She had the scent now, and he wasn’t getting away that easily.

First, preparations. The spell she wove using only the exertion of her mind; no reagents, no gestures even, simply a matrix of arcane and infernal energy crafted into an invisible cage on the rooftop, half-completed so as to allow its target to move within, ready to be finished and snare him once he was in position. That took only moments longer. The more time it spent here, the more likely someone would find it—or blunder into it—but she did not expect this to take long enough for that to become an issue.

Tellwyrn opened her eyes, studying the flows of magic through her spectacles. Everything was in order; no reason to delay further.

Teleportation was a specialty of hers; many mages hesitated to use it in cities at all, particularly in crowded areas, but Tellwyrn had no trouble planting herself abruptly in an opening in the crowd barely big enough to accommodate her. She ignored the cursing and single shriek that resulted from her sudden arrival, focusing only on Chase.

She had appeared right in front of him, which wasn’t deliberate; any arrival point within a few feet would have ensured the reaction she wanted. He had apparently just slipped out of an alleyway and was heading down a busy sidewalk, but now skidded to a halt to avoid running right into her.

For one second, they locked eyes in silence.

“Okay, y’got me,” Chase said with a bashful grin, raising his hands. “I’m away from campus without permission. I was gonna get a note from Miss Sunrunner, but—”

Doubtless he thought he was being clever by shadow-jumping away mid-sentence, but no amount of infernal mastery made his reaction time a match for an elf’s. Tellwyrn’s eyes shifted minutely, following the trail he made through spacetime, which was at the same time a tunnel connecting two points and those points being brought to the same location for a moment. Like most such effects, this made no sense to minds accustomed to classical physics; it had taken her several decades of practice to be able to do that without suffering crippling nausea and a migraine, but a wizard’s mind was flexible.

Intercepting and redirecting a shadow-jump was doubtless part of the knowledge Chase had been granted; at least, Elilial definitely knew the technique. Just because he understood the theory, though, did not mean he could do it. That required a great deal of practice; it was as much a matter of intuition as skill. Countering that technique was a whole order of magnitude harder. Even she would have been hard-pressed to manage it, which was one of the reasons she disdained shadow-jumping. Chase had no chance.

Tellwyrn teleported back to her rooftop, arriving at the same moment Chase’s interrupted dimensional jump spat him out right into the middle of the snare array. It instantly closed like the jaws of a bear trap, meeting his own reflexive defenses.

With more time and attention she could have carefully crafted a spell to ensnare a specific foe, but it hadn’t even been necessary in this case. Chase was no wizard; he wasn’t even a proper warlock, just a silly boy with powers he didn’t respect or deserve. His instinctive reactions were exactly as she had assumed, a retaliatory use of infernal magic to disrupt the arcane element of the snare and try to convert it per the Circles of Interaction to a form he could subvert. Then, he encountered the spell’s infernal component and wasted precious seconds being stymied.

“Oh ho!” Chase exclaimed, grinning in delight. “Someone’s been dabbling in the dark arts herself! Shame on you, Arachne, and after you present yourself as such an upstanding—”

A proper caster of any kind would also know better than to try engaging in repartee while already in a battle of magic. She could have arranged an even more complex spell to finish trapping him while he stopped to jabber. Knowing Chase as she did, this outcome was predictable enough that it would have been a safe bet. Again, though, there was no need to have bothered. She simply applied the last element of the spell.

The divine magic that flared around them was pure white and of an intensity that met and incinerated the infernal he was trying to use. Not that in her own spell, though; that had been arranged beforehand in precisely the proper configuration. Magic of the third school fit neatly into the existing array.

The whole thing collapsed inward, plunging to a single point in the middle of Chase’s aura like a balloon popping in reverse. Arcane, infernal and divine energy clamped down on and through him, settling over his mind and his very being like a solid shield and cutting him off from accessing magic.

Any magic.

“…okay, I’ll hand it to you,” he said aloud after a moment. “That I was not expecting. But…you know, in hindsight, I dunno why.” Again, he grinned insouciantly, not in the lease perturbed by his predicament. “All those thousands of years doing nothing but chasing down gods and getting their attention, it’s downright idiotic of me and everyone else not to have guessed. So, whose priestess are you? Wait, don’t tell me! It’s Vidius, isn’t it? In the stories you always got along real well with him.”

She continued to ignore his prattling, already weaving another spell. This one was visible, since she felt no need to conceal it, and Chase stopped talking to warily eyeball the circles of arcane blue that appeared around him, rotating and marked with glyphs.

“Hnh,” Tellwyrn grunted, eyes tracking rapidly back and forth as she extracted data on the spells he had recently cast, pulling the information directly from his own aura. “And there it is, the infamous curse. It really was you.”

For once, he seemed to have nothing to say. The binding did not restrict him physically, but he just stood there. Even Chase Masterson wasn’t daffy enough to think trying to escape or attack her would lead anywhere useful.

“And…oh, Chase.” She shook her head. “Of all the idiotic… You know, embarrassingly, it was Ezzaniel and not one of the magic professors who came up with the theory that you were reacting like a Vanislaad. He’ll be insufferably smug about this. But honestly, you summoned one and destroyed its soul to absorb that aspect? There is a reason warlocks don’t do that, Chase! Because any warlock knows where his soul will go in the end, and refrains from doing things which will ensure Prince Vanislaas spends an eternity ripping him a series of new ones!”

“Eh,” he said lightly, shrugging and regaining his characteristic grin. “I bet I can take him. It’ll all work out for me in the end. It always does.”

“You sad little idiot,” she grunted, already studying the cluster of data that was his sleeping curse in four dimensions. It really was hellishly complex, pun entirely relevant. She could crack this, though. It might take time, but certainly less than Alaric, Bradshaw and the others would have to spend.

“Hey, you’re supposed to be my teacher. If I’m an idiot, whose fault is that?”

She consigned the data to a carefully partitioned-off segment of her memory and focused on him again.

“Who else?” she asked curtly.

“Ah.” Chase stuck his hands in his pockets and smirked at her. He was dressed for a Last Rock winter—which wasn’t even properly a winter—but despite the snow scattered around the roof and the sharp wind, he didn’t even shiver. “That’s right, you’ll be wanting to know who else got a brainjob from the Dark Lady. How many, what they know, the whole works. Well, that seems like important information, doesn’t it? Not to mention, and I don’t mind admitting it, the only thing I’ve got to bargain with, here. So, say I’m in a mood to be accommodating. What’s in it for me?”

Tellwyrn sighed. “You have to know you’ll tell me anything I want to hear, in the end.”

Chase gazed back at her with that insufferable little smirk for a long moment. She waited; his patience was no match for hers and they both knew it. Slowly, the smirk receded, but rather than intimidated, his expression grew thoughtful.

“Why’d you ever bring me here, Arachne? Oh, not this.” Grinning, he gestured around at the empty rooftop. “No, I totally get this part right here. I meant…the school. Your big infamous University for future heroes and villains and other things that haven’t been things since the Age of Adventures. Me, just some fucking guy who got chucked out of a lodge. I never understood it, but I wasn’t gonna look that gift horse in the mouth. But seriously, since we’re here… Why? Tell me that. What the fuck was I ever doing at that school?”

Tellwyrn pursed her lips, debating internally. Well, if all he wanted was conversation, that cost her nothing. It was one of the less troublesome paths to an accord.

“Are you aware, Chase, of just how you are…different?”

“I think the word you mean to use there is ‘defective,’” he replied with a wink. “Oh, not that I think I am. Mostly I notice that almost everyone but me are hypocritical idiots obsessed with mushy shit that objectively does not matter. They don’t even really believe it, either; we just all have to pretend, because that what you’ve gotta do to live in a society. I’ve always had a feeling that you, of all people, knew better.”

“That mushy shit is what makes everything possible,” she said, heaving a sigh. “Empathy begets cooperation; cooperation begets everything else. You think you’re so special? Without people connecting to each other, working together, you’d be special running naked through the woods searching for tubers and grubs to eat. Civilization is a product of people being able to look into one another and see reflections of themselves. And Chase…you should know better than that by now.”

“Ah, yes, here it comes,” he said sagely. “The long speech about how I suck. Lay it on me, teach.”

“I had a friend,” she said, shifting her eyes to gaze at the city’s distant walls. “Morgan Corrassan. A charming asshole who loved fun a lot more than self-preservation, like you. Just like you, Chase. Anth’auwa, as the elves say: missing that little piece in the brain that contains your connections to other thinking, feeling beings. But the thing is…my friend Morgan figured out how to get along in the world. He made himself useful, was always friendly and kind to others, spoke respectfully to authority figures. Hell, the man carried candy around to give to children every time we passed through a village. Do you think he gave a shit about them? Children were just particularly annoying meat-marionettes as far as he was concerned. Morgan got it, Chase. He grasped that the way to succeed in life was to be a source of pleasure and utility to others. That society is a thing you can neither ignore nor spit on without consequences. He and I had some crazy times together—this was back when dungeon-delving was a legitimate career. Every time I needed someone really reliable, there was always good ol’ Morgan. Because, in a way, he was more stable than a so-called normal person. His issues were comprehensible; I always knew exactly what he was, what he was about, and what might cause him to turn on me. So I never let that happen. A normal person might do any goddamn thing at all—people are as skittish and irrational as horses at the best of times. If you know how to handle them, if they know how to handle themselves, anth’auwa can be some of the best friends out there.” She shook her head slowly, turning back to him. “Morgan died a rich man, at the age of seventy, in bed from a stroke. On silk sheets, under a literal pile of prostitutes. He willed his entire fortune to the Universal Church, and I will be eternally bitter about that because it’s a practical joke I will never top. That’s all it was, Chase. He wasn’t a better man than you. I don’t think terms like ‘better’ are even applicable to people like you. He just did the one thing you apparently couldn’t be bothered to: used his fucking brain.”

“That’s a beautiful story,” Chase said solemnly. “Truly, I am touched.”

“Most human societies have never worked out a way to cope with your kind,” she said, folding her arms and staring at him over the rims of her glasses. “Or even to recognize them. Plains and forest elves just expel anth’auwa from the tribe to be someone else’s problem. In Tar’naris, you would be identified and studied, and if found useful, put to work. Narisians are great ones for not wasting resources, and your nature does lend itself to particular fields. Someone with obsessive focus and no regard for the pain of others can make a fantastic surgeon, for example. Of course, they would also assign you a dedicated handler, and if you weren’t found to be useful enough to justify the expenses of keeping both yourself and your minder, you’d end up food for the spiders that make the silk. Then, of course, there are the Eserites; the Guild attracts anth’auwa. They probably think they’re doing the public a service by slitting their throats and dumping them in ravines. And I don’t have to tell you of all people how Shaathists react to the kinds of trouble you cause.”

“Oh, that wasn’t personal,” he said lightly, waving a hand. “They’ll take any excuse to boot boys out of the ol’ fraternity. More wives for whoever’s left.”

“It’s just a damn shame, is all,” she said quietly, still gazing at him. “So much potential, constantly going to waste. And worse, turning out to be a danger to society in most cases, because society fails to identify people with your condition and give them the support they’d need to turn out productive. It can be done; I’ve seen it done. There’s no reason it can’t be done on a large scale. You were my first real try, Chase.”

She twisted her mouth bitterly to one side.

“I am…disappointed.”

“Yeah? Sounds like quite the noble goal you’ve got going there.” Chase grinned broadly, stuck his hands back in his pockets and slouched nonchalantly. “It lines up really well with your oft-stated educational philosophy, too. Yeah, I actually have listened to all your talk about how every problem in the world is due to people not thinking. And you know what, maybe you’re not wrong about that. I don’t think that’s what went wrong here.” He grin broadened. “Maybe, Arachne, you’ve just bitten off more than you can chew with this one. Maybe it’s a worthwhile goal, and ought to be left up to a competent teacher.”

The wind whistled across the space between them, carrying with it the chill of late winter and the hubbub of the city. Tellwyrn shifted her gaze to stare past his shoulder, and pushed her spectacles back up her nose.

“So, anyhow!” Chase said in a cheerful tone. “Here we are. I still have information you need, so the question is: what’s it worth to you for me to cooperate, hmm?”

“I confess I had hoped you’d start acting in your own best interests, belatedly,” she said with a heavy sigh. “Of course, I came prepared to get it out of you by whatever other means proved necessary. Circumstance does tend to intervene, though. Now that we’re all here, I think I’ll just let her take care of it.”

He blinked, his grin faltering, but it returned in full force the next moment. “Oh, come on, that’s downright insulting. You don’t think I’m gonna fall for—”

Probably expecting Tellwyrn to intervene, Vadrieny came swooping in at a low angle and high speed. She slowed just enough to snatch Chase without maiming him, but in the next instant had pumped her wings and shot upward in an arc carrying her straight for the walls, captive clutched firmly in her claws. It was only seconds more before they were out of sight, an orange streak of fire vanishing above the horizon.

Tellwyrn sighed softly. “You may as well come out. I assume you wanted to talk to me, since you showed up in person. Admirably quick response time, by the way.”

“Truth be told, I had scryers on standby watching for something else when you started flinging spells around.” At the other end of the roof, near the fire escape, Quentin Vex materialized out of the air in the act of removing an invisibility ring from his finger. “You’re not going to stop her?” he asked, pacing forward to join the Professor.

“Oh, I will be having words with that girl about what she’s doing here instead of where I directed her to be,” Tellwyrn said grimly. “But later. With regard to this… No, that’s an acceptable resolution. She’s heading west by northwest, toward Tar’naris. The drow will get any answers needed out of him. They are better prepared to handle both warlocks and anth’auwa than you or I are, frankly. And whatever else they do to the little shit, he’s brought on himself. So!” She turned to face him directly. “Sorry my little bag of tricks distracted your attention, but since it’s you and not half the Azure Corps here to greet me, you must want something.”

“Well, this is rather embarrassing,” Vex replied, “but I’m afraid we’ve had a problem containing a local…issue. And it has come to affect us both.”

“Do tell.”

“The short version is that a cabal of treasonous individuals loyal to the Archpope above the Empire have been rounded up and arrested over the course of the last two days. Most were members of various cults, and the cults have taken point on this. A group of two dozen Imperial soldiers, however, slipped our net, stole a zeppelin, and according to its last sighting, are heading toward Last Rock.”

“…why?” Tellwyrn asked in a dangerously calm tone.

“Come, Professor, you have to know all the events going on here are interconnected. Justinian’s sticky fingerprints are all over the mess in Puna Dara, and while this is the first solid indication I’ve had that he’s also involved in your problems out there, it doesn’t surprise me. Does it you?”

She grunted. “Well, Lorelin Reich is in Last Rock again. Two dozen troops, hm. Where’s that zeppelin now?”

“I don’t know,” he said, scowling. “That’s the problem. Probably somewhere over the Green Belt by now, but they know very well that if they come withing range of any mag cannon emplacements they’ll be shot down. So they aren’t. The farther they get into the Great Plains, the more empty space there is in which to hide.”

“I’m not sure what you expect me to do,” Tellwyrn snapped. “Scrying the location of a moving vehicle isn’t as easy as that, or your people would just do it yourselves. By far the most effective action here would be to use another, faster flying unit, and go search.”

“I don’t expect you to do any specific thing, Professor,” Vex said, resuming his customary mild smile. “I just thought you deserved to know about the group of armed men and women apparently planning to intervene on your campus. And to know that the Empire has already written the airship off. Anyone reducing it to shrapnel would be doing the Silver Throne a service. But, with that message delivered, I had better get back to my increasingly exhausting duties. Always a pleasure, Professor.”

He bowed politely to her, then turned and ambled back toward the fire escape. Tellwyrn watched him go, and waited until he reached the street below before acting.

She devoted two solid minutes to cursing under her breath, cycling through twelve languages. At last, still grumbling to herself, she held out a hand.

A polished wooden flute popped out of midair into her grasp. She lifted the instrument to her lips and began to play. Only a few bars of music emerged before yet another person stepped out of thin air onto the rooftop; after her earlier seeking spell, he had probably been waiting specifically for this.

“Seven down,” Zanzayed the Blue crowed, a living portrait of smugness, “three to go! Have you given any thought to names yet, darling? Me, I’ve already picked out curtains for the nursery. Blue, obviously.”

“If it ever gets as high as nine, I’ll just drop the damn thing into the Azure Sea,” she snorted. “Don’t flatter yourself any more than you can absolutely help, Zanza. When have you ever gotten the better of me in the long run?”

“Now, now, poppet, if you were going to get rid of it you’d have done so when we first made our little bet. And at seven of ten allowed favors invoked, I am numerically winning. So!” He grinned a particularly insufferable grin. “How may I be of service?”

“You’re going to think this is dreadfully prosaic,” she said dryly, “but I need a ride.”

 

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43 thoughts on “13 – 28

  1. Today’s trope is The Reason You Suck Speech!

    So if you haven’t heard, Patreon has changed their rules in such a way that small donors and people who are supported mainly by small donors are getting stiffed on fees. That category includes me and most of my backers. For the moment I’m watching to see how this unfolds, but so far, it’s not good. Today alone I lost ten backers, and I can’t blame them in the slightest. If Patreon is determined to stick with this plan, I may need to take my business elsewhere. I’m gonna watch and hope they backtrack, but if not… We’ll see. Stay tuned for changes.

    Here’s something that I watch when I need cheering up. I needed it a lot today.

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    1. Hmm, the Patreon changes odd and I will need to study them a bit more, but they will affect people who back at small amounts the most. If I’m looking at it right, someone backing at $5 could back at $4, have the fees assessed, and then roughly equivalent money would go to the creator.

      People who back a lot of creators at $1 would not have much recourse except to discontinue some of their pledges, though, if they want to give the same amount in total, as far as I can tell.

      In story news, I am surprised Tellwyrn did not mention the Hand to Vex.

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    2. Do you have an alternative ? I won’t stop supporting you but Patreon’s decision seems to emanate from a comfort of monopoly on the market no ?

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    3. I never understood the point of patreon. It’s just a chat service attached to what paypal already does, why not just do it with paypal and facebook?

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    4. I appreciate how much content creators are freaking out on behalf of their patrons, but…I mean. I literally don’t make an income at the moment and I can afford to just deal with the $0.35 increase despite how small my pledge is in the first place. It’s not great, but I’m not going to pull out. I’m sort of assuming those that are are just doing so as a sign of protest and trying to find alternative means to keep supporting you. But at the end of the day, oh well.

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    5. For me, the only advantage Patreon has over Paypal is that I don’t have to remind myself to donate money. Which is not enough to pay extra money.

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  2. Haha, Zanzayed is getting ridden by Tellwryn, if not the way he wants. And Gods Below, I so want to see a kid from those two now. But she’s still mourning her last family, so I don’t think that’ll happen anytime soon unless shit really hits the fan.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I also don’t think she likes him that way and as she told Trissiny, she’s not the motherly type or any sort of a good parent, so she’s probably going to avoid becoming one again.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. She may not be a good parent by her own admission, but when the entire draconic race provides for and protects their young, I don’t think that really disqualifies her.
        Now, this might just be the hundreds of romance novels I’ve read or the whiskey talking, but I really think there is potential for those two to end up together. They’ve got a much longer history of irritating each other than most, sure, but if they really didn’t like each other, one or both would already be dead. Besides, after a certain amount of time, the back and forth pissing each other off can become a really weird way of flirting.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. She doesn’t have to be. I get the impression Zanz could totally mother for six and leave change. Just as long as a gold/red or two lurks in the background to keep him kind of linear and thump him when he starts melting into too much goo… 😀

        However, once kiddie gets old enough for latter-stage secondary or full tertiary education (say, when his colour starts coming in in earnest)… cue Mum.

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      3. Zanza is the guy who locked up women in a tower and then forgot about them. For a few decades. That’s not exactly the caring attitude I wish to see in parents. 😉

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  3. Just caught up with the story, thanks for it, it’s great.

    Chase being the sleeper with Natchua being the second warlock was my favored theory (though I had a moment of doubt).

    It’s the most logical conclusion after all.

    Curse yourself to divert blame (à la “And then there where none”) then at the same time curse the only person who can rat you out… with the added benefit of depleting the only antidote. He would have been screwed if there where more than one dose though (unless he could use his warlock power to somehow detect how many doses where available).

    I’d be very surprised if Natchua ain’t the second warlock.

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    1. I agree. There aren’t many other named female students older than the sophmore class, and Natchua had a potential reason to be down there – Chase could have talked here into summoning the djinn to resolve her family problems.

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      1. At that point in the story Natchua didn’t have problems yet, but I may be mistaken. She’s also not struggling in any class, in fact she’s doing well enough to earn various scholarships.
        I don’t really see the motivation for her to summon demons, especially not with her background (Narisian drows kill most demons on sight). Unless she was still pretending to be that edgy hardcore drow… except that everyone already knew that was a lie.

        But I was wrong about Chase, too. Okay, I couldn’t have known he would have altered his personality by absorbing a Vanislaad soul but still. I didn’t want to believe it was him until the reveal.

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      2. Daemion :

        Main clue is that she was the first victim after Chase, best way to shut her up…

        Else, we’d have have to assume the second warlock is either complicit, compelled to stay silent or somehow manipulated Chase to take the blame…

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  4. Shariss seems like an interesting character, would it be correct to assume that she would have turned up in that bonus chapter where Teal and Shaeine meet Ravana for the first time? I still want to read that btw. 😉

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  5. One interesting thing here; Tellwyrn implied long ago that she absorbed power from the God she killed. This is the first time she’s done something that obviously called upon that. Though she could be fueling her Arcane Magic with Divine Magic all the time for all we know.

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      1. Hmm, I would more say it’s been all but stated that she has a strong connection, but that we don’t know the nature of that connection. I suspect she’s an artificial avatar of Aranid, in the same way the Dryads are of Naiya.

        A way of fooling security credentials basically, and that whatever exploit Scyllith used to achieve this can’t be repeated as long as Tellwyrn lives.

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      2. Arachne is the last high priestess of Araneid, correct. That’s what her name means. There is the matter of the missing 5000 years between the fall of the Infinite Order and Arachne’s first appearance in the world but that will be explained later (I hope).

        Problem is, divine energy is new, it was created 8000 years ago by the new pantheon by pooling all the power of the previous gods. To access it you have to be a priest of the pantheon/Themynra, a dwarf or an abnormality like November. If Arachne was using Araneid’s transcension field, then it would be a different kind of magic than the divine. Which is why Chase asked her which god she follows.

        Another point, the divine light she uses is being described as pure white, while the pantheon’s is golden and Themynra’s is silver.
        So I guess it is not the traditional divine energy? Curious.

        There’s also the theory that at the highest point of magic you can all use all kinds freely and if someone managed to get that good, it’s Arachne. Or maybe she hacked into the divine distribution system and accesses the transcension field directly, without going through the gods?

        Liked by 2 people

  6. “I just thought you deserved to know about the group of armed men and women apparently planning to intervene on your campus. And to know that the Empire has already written the airship off.”

    Methinks the world population is about to be reduced by about 2 dozen 🙂

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    1. I suspect spiders. Eventually.

      Poor Chase basically put forward his “I intend to only screw with society by being an antisocial dick” thesis. Methinks that will go down about as well with the drow as it did with Arachne.

      I had hoped he’d been pushing the boundaries to work out how not to get tarred feathered rather than being a part, but… hey. *shrugs*

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    2. The drow will squeeze Chase until he’s no longer useful, then sell his remains.

      He really never had an endgame, he just tried to play pranks on everyone and hoped it would all work out in the end.
      If I had been in his situation, I would have gone straight from the Crawl to Arachne, accepted my punishment for summoning a demon without permission and then learned to use my gifts under a competent teacher. Maybe write everything I learned from Elilial down for other warlocks to learn from.
      Hell, in time I could have become one of the chief researchers in Arachne’s expanded university.

      Chase had good options, he just didn’t want to take them.

      Whoever the second warlock is, they are guilty by association. They could have revealed Chase at any time and put a stop to his antics but they kept quiet. Right after the hellgate was the perfect opportunity to speak up.

      Which means they are just as bad and will share Chase’s fate soon enough.

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  7. Well, things are moving along! Chase has been (it seems) positively identified as not just one of the arch-warlocks, but also the Sleeper. And if I’m understanding right the fact this seemed out of character is due to him having basically imbued himself with essence-of-succubus, apparently including the pressure to act out and cause disruption on a scale like this. We’ve also learned more about Tellwyrn’s glasses and her magical capabilities, and the bet with Zanza, plus unlocked some of Vadrieny’s power.

    Good show. I’ll admit to finding it odd that while Tellwyrn was standing three feet from Vex she doesn’t see fit to mention the unhinged Hand of the Emperor trying to take her down, seemed like something worth discussing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. She thinks the empire knows about it, and for everyone’s sake it’s best to pretend he doesn’t exist and let the situation there take care of itself. And if the Empire doesn’t know about it their reaction would likely make things messier rather than actually helping matters.

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  8. Probably somewhere over the Green Belt by now, but they know very well that if they come withing range of any mag cannon emplacements they’ll be shot down.
    I think “withing” isn’t supposed to have the letter G on the end there?

    I am not surprised that Chase would think legendary demon terrors just aren’t anything special after managing to fight off two paladins. Paladins are legends, the demon prince of succubi is a legend, and he managed to hold his own against two paladins, a dryad, a wizard, an archdemon, and a bunch of other folks at once. So he’s going to be just fine, right? Cue epic disabuse session that lasts as long as Prince Vanislaas says it does.

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    1. Once Chase arrives in Hell, he’ll just be a powerless soul without his new abilities. Good luck avoiding even minor demons, not to mention a demon prince.

      Btw… souls? We know the gods are humans and magic as well as heaven and hell are artificial. I believe I remember Walker implying that souls aren’t really souls… mh, I wonder what exactly they are? Memory imprints at the moment of death given agency again?

      Is Vidius deciding to which server he copies the new information each time someone is being judged after death? Decent people are being uploaded to heaven, bad to hell? That would explain why banishing Vanislaad returns them to hell.
      But why give them “life” again? This is technically a twisted kind of immortality, the person continues to exist, just without a body. Basically, just reduced to their mind. What’s the utility of that? I mean, aside from not really dying. Did the gods create it because it fits into the divine narrative or do they profit from amassing all the information? Do they automatically know everything a “soul” experienced in life once it is being uploaded? In that case… why send anyone to hell? That’s just a loss for everyone unless they need to keep things going down there so they always have an enemy.

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      1. If you’re trying to do anything that would require something like strong AI, there are worse ideas than making high-res scans of natural intelligence to use them when you want AGI.

        Aside from that hypothetical, we know that the Infinite Order have made light sabres and got people to duel with them just because they could. I wouldn’t put it past them to implement heaven, hell, and Roko’s Basilisk just because they can.

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  9. As someone who could be accurately called “anth’auwa” (or sociopath or psychopath or whatever), I’d like to note for the record that we can benefit from being nice to people in ways beyond direct compensation. (Though of course some of us who are kind are like Morgan and really are just nice to people because it works as a strategy).

    First of all, even though we don’t feel anything in response to other people’s emotions, we can still enjoy interacting with people. Interpersonal interaction can still be nice. And from that can stem an enjoyment of vulnerability. Being emotional vulnerable, being in a place with someone where you don’t have to keep up any walls or think about any lies or hide who you are or worry about what people with think of you, that’s a wonderful feeling. It’s fantastic. All of the best memories of my life involve cuddling with someone in an emotionally vulnerable moment.

    But to reach that place of emotional vulnerability, I can’t be the kind of person who’d flay someone for fun or kill people for the rush of it. Sane people don’t give hugs to amoral monsters who don’t value them or care about them and would kill them given half a chance. Emotional vulnerability, properly done, is a two way street. You can’t receive without giving. So to be emotionally intimate with people in a way that allows me to drop those walls and be content, to be at peace rather than on guard, I have to be the kind of person for whom kindness and compassion is a reflex rather than a calculation. Otherwise I’d drop my walls and people would spit on me. Or run screaming.

    So we can benefit emotionally from being kind towards others, it’s just … a couple steps removed from the typical feedback mechanisms governing that kind of thing for neurotypical people.

    Second, we are missing one (1) piece of mental machinery. We’re not alien, we’re just people with a missing piece. A single piece. So other stuff, like parental instinct, still functions.

    Case in point, I love kids. So goddamn much. Obviously not all sociopaths do, same variation as everybody else (Morgan thinking of kids as meat puppets didn’t break my immersion for a moment). But *I* love kids. I don’t feel anything when they get hurt, no heartstring tugs or flinching, but I … care? No, wrong word. I’m *impelled* to do something about it. It’s the weirdest damn feeling when I actually try to examine it. Like seeing a bike without a rider. But yeah. I love kids. I’ve gone to some pretty serious lengths before to protect children, at substantial personal cost, with no benefit (not even indirect social status benefits). Because in addition to sociopathy, I apparently got a double-dose of parental instinct. The two are not mutually exclusive.

    Romantic bonding still works too (for alloromantic sociopaths, obviously, and of course even alloromantic empathetic people are sometimes selfish assholes regarding love and that goes double for sociopaths, etc, etc). My own experiences in this regard didn’t end well (very complicated story told quickly: I’m bi, my partner was asexual, I was fine with a sexless relationship and not interested in sleeping around; this worked until it came out that they held unkind religious views regarding my sexuality and past sexual history). But that’s off track. Suffice to say that from personal experience I can testify that sociopaths can romantically bond and can want to make someone else happy as a terminal value. And that heartbreak is a thing for us.

    On a personal note though: when I first decided as a youth that hurting people was not the route I should take in life, I wasn’t trying to be like Morgan (I didn’t understand the benefits of cooperation well enough back then to even think of that) and I wasn’t trying to reach the place I’m at today with emotional intimacy (I definitely couldn’t have understood that). I did it because the idea of holding a non-isotropic ethical system was utterly abhorrent and made my skin crawl, and I couldn’t think of an isotropic ethical system which would allow me to kill people. In fact, the only isotropic ethical system I could think of was doing my best to value other’s happiness on par with my own. So I did that.

    (Well, I did that as best I could at the time. Looking back I really didn’t get people well enough to actually make them happy. I was pretty much limited to being polite, cheerful, friendly, and listening when other people talked. I didn’t really understand just how much people valued social attachments or simple acts which signal “I care about you”. I did get better eventually though. Actually now I regularly get complimented as being an absurdly nice person, which just goes to show that effort and hard work matter a lot more than innate talent in the end.)

    I consider myself lucky beyond belief to have, from that decision, stumbled into being a nice person and reaping the benefits of emotional vulnerability and intimacy which come with that. I mean even if I didn’t benefit as I do, I’d still do it (because I’d rather die than willingly hold non-isotropic beliefs). But as I do benefit … *shrug*. Like I said, lucky beyond belief. (Though in the interest of honesty, I probably would not be as good at being good if I didn’t benefit. Nothing really can replace positive reinforcement as a learning tool).

    So … yeah Tellwyrn’s commentary about Morgan is probably the best thing to say to a young sociopath like Chase, even if there are other reasons for sociopaths to be nice to others.

    P.S. Seriously though, I’m so happy you pointed all this stuff out about cooperation though. Too many sociopaths don’t get that empathy *works*. It *functions*. It gets shit done and keeps society together. And it’s lovely to see someone point that out, that kindness and reciprocity are beneficial even absent the driving emotions behind them.

    Also if there’s any other kind sociopaths/psychopaths/whatever reading this, poke me. I’d love to start a mutual advice group. Parsing neurotypical interpersonal advice is a nightmare and I think we’d all benefit from being able to talk shop without having to translate empathetic moral reasoning into something we can understand.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Both the chapter and your comment were fascinating to read. While I still have no idea how I could have worked better with a shit-useless boss I think was a sociopath, that there might be solutions with esrlier support is an interesting idea (among other things he held the belief that anything he was required or agreed to do for a subordinate was something he didn’t have a reason to do; he learned no lesson from a 6-figure payout from the company to another person related to his actions).

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      1. Sociopaths can be useless people too.

        (Always remember, sociopaths aren’t emotionless automatons driven by reason and self-interest. We’re just humans with a piece missing. A pretty complicated piece governing how our social reinforcement conditioning works at a root level, but still, just one piece. And like all humans, we are fully capable of stupidity, laziness, and bad decision making.)

        I definitely think early-life support tailored for sociopaths is a concept worth pursuing, much like what Tellwyrn is trying. Unfortunately for Tellwyrn, I think you’re much better off working with adolescents (right at the developmental stage where children start questioning the moral judgement of adults) rather than college-aged individuals. Actually I’d prefer to start even earlier, but it’s hard to identify really young sociopaths. Kids are just too unaware of others and the impact of their own actions, it’s too difficult to distinguish between what’s ordinary ignorance and sociopathic detachment.

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  10. I’m re-reading to look up the word Anth’auwa, and there’s a lot of really subtle things here I missed in earlier readings. The description “like a balloon popping in reverse” is mind-blowing. Then the little throwaway line about Tellwyrn shunting off data to a partition in her memory is very interesting. THAT line has implications.

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