Darius had to help Trissiny tug the warehouse door shut; it opened outward in exactly the wrong direction, and the wind had immediately seized and slammed it against the wall. By the time they had wrestled it closed, both were utterly drenched.
“The Archmage was not kidding about this storm!” he said cheerfully, shaking water from his hands. “Raining sideways is right. So what’re we gonna do, then? Right now all we know is there are renegade cultists, and the Archpope is probably behind ’em.”
“It would seem the most obvious course would be to wait out the weather,” Layla said, opening the unfastened lid of a nearby crate. “It’s not as if we can scout in this… Ah, textiles! Splendid, something you two can towel off with.”
“Get outta there,” Tallie ordered. “That’s somebody’s livelihood you’re screwing around with.”
“Tallie, we’re thieves,” Layla said, giving her a long look. “And we’re already breaking and entering.”
“Nah, Bossypants is right,” Darius interjected. “We’re Eserites, not bandits; don’t take stuff from people we don’t know deserve it. A little water won’t kill us.”
“I’m not sure how long we can afford to wait, either,” Trissiny added. “If what’s happening here is urgent, the storm actually provides excellent cover to begin moving. Punaji like storms, but even most of them won’t be out in the streets in a blow-down like this. By the same token, our enemy may also be acting under cover of the weather.”
“That still leaves us with the problem of gathering info in that racket,” Darius replied, and was punctuated by a helpful thunderclap.
“I think Schwartz has an idea?” Tallie pointed out.
The group had materialized in a half-filled warehouse that was dim almost to the point of darkness, with little natural light thanks to the storm and no lit fairy lamps. A small light had appeared now, though, courtesy of Schwartz, who had evidently begun work as soon as they’d arrived. He had constructed a tiny altar in the cleared space in the middle of the floor, consisting of little more than a piece of stone upon which he had set and now carefully lit a small candle. The group edged closer, leaning forward to stare at the witch’s work without crowding him. Schwartz gave a handful of feathers to Meesie, who set about scampering around the altar laying them down in a careful arrangement forming a kind of spell circle, while Schwartz himself sat back on his haunches, busily scribbling on a narrow strip of parchment with an incongruously modern fountain pen.
“Amazing all the stuff he’s got in those robes,” Darius stage whispered.
“Shh!” Layla elbowed him, then grimaced and rubbed at the wet patch created on her own arm.
Ignoring them for the moment, Schwartz finished his writing just as Meesie completed her feather diagram and scurried back up him to her customary perch on his shoulder. The witch carefully held his parchment over the candle flame, dipping just the corner into the tiny fire.
Immediately, the whole thing went up in a rush of sparks, causing him to jerk his fingers back. The candle was snuffed out by the reaction, the plume of smoke this caused mingling with the ashes of the parchment and rising upward far more energetically than was normal. They all tilted their heads back to watch the small cloud separate into streamers above them, each of which zipped away toward the windows lining the walls just below the ceiling, where they slipped out into the storm through tiny cracks where the panes didn’t fit exactly.
“Well?” Darius said pointedly. “We’re in suspense, here, buddy.”
“A while back I got some really good advice,” Schwartz said, beginning to pick up the feathers and tuck them inside one of his wide sleeves. “A smart old lady told me, among other things, to start equipping myself with aggressive kinds of magic. I’ve always been a bit of a bookworm, you see. More into research than adventure.”
“Surely you jest,” Layla said sweetly, earning annoyed glances from Tallie and Trissiny (and Meesie). Schwartz just continued, unperturbed.
“Well, I got to thinking, and it seems the Avenists are always harping on about war being ninety percent strategy and ten percent actual violence, right?”
“Avenist doctrine doesn’t break it into percents,” Trissiny said dryly, “but the sentiment is close enough.”
“Right. It put me in mind of a time in Vrin Shai where I… Where my group was stuck basically twiddling their thumbs while I tried to gather information from, y’know, oracular sources. The general way fae magic is good for. It took an awful long time and it was terribly imprecise… So! Since then I’ve set about working on that blind spot! That’s the thing that drew me to the fae craft in the first place—my dad was an arcanist, you know. But in witchcraft, it’s all connections and friendships with fairy beings. Power’s about who you know and how much they like you. It rewards being nice.”
“Nice people and good people are two very distinct categories,” Layla said quietly.
“Yeah, I discovered that pretty early on.” Schwartz had finished gathering and putting away his reagents, and now straightened up a little stiffly. “But anyway. In the last few months I’ve been working on getting on good terms with a fairy whom I’ve just called for help. He’s really good with information, if he wants to be. We’re not exactly close, yet, and this is the first time I’ve actually asked him for anything, so I guess we’ll see… But I have a feeling he’ll help us! This is a textbook adventure we’re in, and sylphs love those.”
“Whoah, whoah!” Darius exclaimed backing away. “I’m not the witch here, but aren’t sylphs sort of… Notoriously dangerous?”
“Oh, yes, extremely,” Schwartz replied, while Meesie nodded earnest agreement. “So for heaven’s sake be polite to—”
One of the upper windows shattered, admitting a blast of wind and rain, and a streak of silver feathers and fangs that dived straight for Schwartz with a chilling scream.
Nandi bolted straight up out of her chair, turning to face the staircase up to the battlements. The surrounding Punaji all swiveled to stare in bemusement at the sudden motion, but her squadmates came to their feet in unison, drawing weapons.
“Shahai?” Ephanie demanded.
“The walls are under attack!” Nandi declared, her eyebrows drawing together in concentration. “I hear fighting above—no, not fighting, voices and people falling… They’re coming this way!”
“Who is?” Lieutenant Laghari asked, picking up a battlestaff from the nearest weapons rack. This was a barracks, not an armory, but the troopers present kept their personal armaments close at hand.
“I don’t know, but the wall guards are falling quickly,” Nandi said urgently. “With very little struggle, which means magic at work. People are—they’re in the stairwell!”
Laghari and Ephanie both barked orders at once. Squad One snatched up shields and lances and planted themselves in a defensive line across the center of the room while the Punaji soldiers swiftly tipped up tables to create improvised barricades, grabbing firearms and huddling behind them.
In the resulting tumult, the sound of something bouncing down the stairs was totally obscured, but with everyone’s attention on the entrance, the small object’s arrival was immediately seen. Spinning to fast to be studied closely, it was white and about the size of an apple; the thing ricocheted off the edge of the doorway and tumbled straight for the hastily-erected defenses.
“Bomb!” one of the Punaji shouted, and they all ducked behind their tables while the Legionnaires dropped to their knees, huddling as much behind their shields as possible. Nandi, the only priest among them threw up a wall of golden light across the room in front of them. Stretched so thin, it would assuredly crumble under the first blow, but that was still standard procedure against explosive attack; even a fragile shield could blunt the initial blast enough to save the troops behind it.
And had the thing been a bomb, it might have worked.
It didn’t explode or even flash; only the faintest distortion appeared in the air around it as it arced toward Nandi’s shield, as if it were suddenly putting off great heat. An instant before it struck the wall of light, a thin, piercing whine spiked straight through everyone’s eardrums, completely uninhibited by the shield.
Soldiers collapsed, most crying out and several vomiting, behind their wooden barriers. Two staves were accidentally discharged, the ordinarily deafening sound of lightning in an enclosed space going unnoticed around the noise bearing everyone to the ground.
The Legionnaires fared no better, their shield wall collapsing instantly. Nandi screamed in anguish, dropping her lance and shield to pitch over backward, clutching at her head. Everyone in the room was brought down by sheer pain. The few who bore up against it well enough to retain some spine had little better luck. Laghari and Ephanie both caught themselves before falling completely prone, and tried to call for order, immediately discovering that their voices were completely silent, even to themselves. Nothing could be heard except the excruciating whine.
In addition to the pain, it caused disorientation and nausea that made several of the victims present empty their stomachs and prevented any of them from so much as straightening up. Ephanie tried and staggered drunkenly, barely catching herself on the edge of the nearest table.
Farah keeled over backward, then rolled on top of Nandi and took her hands away from her own head to help cover the elf’s ears; Nandi had curled herself into a ball and was twitching with silent sobs. Merry, losing her lance, had got her hands on someone’s dropped battlestaff and managed to flop down atop her own shield with the weapon aiming in the general direction of the door. The dizziness was not lessened by being stretched out on the floor, and it was all she could do to line up a shot at that general end of the room.
At the first flicker of movement she fired, the lightning bolt seeming soundless to them and blasting a futile crater in the wall a full yard distant from the door itself. All she accomplished was to warn the person coming in.
None of them were coherent enough to get a close look at the object which peeked around the corner at about chest height before it fired in Merry’s general direction.
They were not quite fast enough to prevent an alarm from sounding. Quickly silenced as it was, the damage was done, and soldiers upon the upper towers of the Rock itself leveled staves and opened fire upon the cyborgs emerging from the north gatehouse.
Ayuvesh strode, unconcerned, out into the rain pounding the courtyard. Lightning flashed, gouging rents in the flagstones and sparking harmlessly against his personal shield and those of his comrades. Let them burn through their power crystals; these deflectors were of a make like nothing the Punaji had ever seen. If they were expecting to wear them down with continuous fire as one could a standard arcane shield charm, they would be frustrated.
The counter-fire did not last long, anyway, as each sparking battlestaff only presented a target. Members of the Order took aim with blasters and the air was filled with the shrill whine of the sonic weapons—harmless to their wielders, thanks to enhancements he had been certain to make to all of their installed machine systems. The effect of sonic blasters would be inhibited by the solid stone walls of the Rock, but battlements and arrow loops would offer little protection from sound waves. One by one, the firing staves halted as their owners were incapacitated.
Fortunate that his foresight had demanded they all install the protection against sonics before the Infinite Elixir had suddenly dried up, forcing him to make this extremely risky gambit. But no, he corrected himself inwardly, there was no fortune. There was only will, and his was stronger.
“South gatehouse is contained,” one of his comrades reported, the voice sounding in Ayuvesh’s artificial ear. “They actually got into fighting position, but didn’t stand up to the blasters.”
“Don’t get careless,” another warned. “There’ll be more troops below, out of range of the weapons.”
Ayuvesh turned to face Shankri, and tilted his head back toward the southern gatehouse. “Try to get inside from the ground floor and sweep upward with your group; meet in the middle. You mustn’t let them secure a position inside the gatehouse.”
“Yes, Leader,” she replied, bowing, then turned and dashed for the small door at the side. The four assigned to accompany her, having heard, followed without comment, all carrying sonic blasters.
Of all the Order present, only Ayuvesh himself was without one.
“Come,” he ordered, striding forward toward the inner gates of the Rock itself. “We must not give them time to organize.”
Staff fire had completely ceased by then; at his side, Gupter switched his arm attachment from a standard hand to a cutting tool, against which the fortress door would hold for seconds at the most.
“Spread out when we are inside,” Ayuvesh ordered. “Fan as widely as you can, neutralize everyone you see. No looting, and do not harm fallen foes. Keep moving through the fortress in small groups and stay in touch. Notify me at once when you find the King. Only then will we be able to end this.”
It was one thing for a person to test his will against the universe itself. Tonight, the will of the Infinite Order would come against that of a king and a nation.
And what would be, would be.
“Wait, wait, wait!” Schwartz cried shrilly—to Trissiny, who had burst alight with a golden glow and whipped out her sword. He didn’t seem at all perturbed about the great sinuous beast which had coiled itself around him. While she had taken a threatening step forward, the other apprentices had judiciously retreated. Atop Schwartz’s head, Meesie mimicked his posture, frantically holding up her tiny palms and squeaking at Trissiny. “It’s all right! He’s a friend! Everything’s fine.”
“You’re…sure,” she said warily, but lowered her sword. Schwartz was fully encased in serpentine coils, but not constricted—and in fact, as she took a careful step back, the sylph continued moving, loosening his encirclement to give Schwartz more space and fixing a stare on the paladin.
“I’m quite sure, trust me. That was a heck of an entrance, Rad,” he added, the sylph having unwound himself to a position bringing his head adjacent to Schwartz’s. “You scared everybody half to death.”
“Mmm. Just half? All is well, then.” The voice might have been human, albeit rather high-pitched for a male.
“Everyone, this is my friend, Aradeus the Noble.” Schwartz actually reached out to pat the sylph’s neck, smiling reassuringly. “Rad, these are my other friends. Layla and Darius Sakhavenid, Tallie… I’m sorry, I don’t know your last name.”
“That’s how I like it,” she replied warily, eyes still on the sylph.
“And, of course, Trissiny Avelea, the Hand of Avei.”
“An honor!” Aradeus gracefully slid out from around Schwartz, spread his wings, and executed a strangely courtly bow, dipping his head and tucking one foot momentarily behind the other.
He was the strangest combination of snake, bird, and dog in appearance. Fully twelve feet long from nose to tail, his whole body was sinuous and lean, covered in silvery fur which ruffled constantly, more than the wind blowing in from the window he’d broken could account for. His wings were feathered, the plumes oddly crystalline in appearance, and banded in bright colors like a macaws; directly below them he had two long, stork-like legs, ending in huge, glittering talons. The sylph’s head looked canine, though tipped with two birdlike nostrils instead of a wet little nose, and he had blade-shaped ears twice the length of his skull.
Aradeus smiled at them, which may have been intended as a pleasant expression. His long rows of needle-sharp silver teeth just made it unnerving.
“Let’s see,” the sylph mused, turning and stepping over toward Layla with a mincing gait that suited a wading bird. He paused when Darius edged in front of her, and folded his wings back along his sinuous body. “Mmm, young nobles. Of House Sakhavenid! You are a long way from home.”
“You’re aware of our House?” Layla asked in surprise, peeking around Darius’s shoulder.
“Not until just now.” Aradeus seemed to have lost interest already, turning and approaching Tallie, who held her ground. For the most part he kept his neck—or at least the long portion of his body between his wings and head—arched upright to bring his eyes to about human level, but he lowered it now to sniff at her midsection.
“Excuse you?” she exclaimed.
“Now, Tallie,” Schwartz said nervously.
“Mmmm. Circus folk. An acrobat? How excellent!” Aradeus straightened up to grin at her. “I like performers. Such a sense of fun!”
“Well, thanks, I guess…”
The sylph had moved on by then. Trissiny carefully slid her sword back into its sheath, watching quizzically as Aradeus stepped over and sniffed all up and down her form.
“Find what you were looking for?” she finally asked after the third round of this.
“Mmm, how fascinating!” He straightened again, showing her all his teeth. “Avenist, Eserite, human, elf. And what diverse friends you have! Avei is branching out, it seems. Herschel, you didn’t tell me you—” Twisting his head around to look at Schwartz, he suddenly broke off. “Oh. Oh, I see. You don’t know, yet.”
“Omnu’s balls,” Darius interjected. “Is there something else you need to tell us, Trissiny?”
“No, no, no secrets,” Aradeus assured him, twisting his neck fully into a position that looked very uncomfortable. “She doesn’t know yet, either. Not my place to say, you’ll find out in time, no doubt. Or perhaps not. Mmmm. And you call me here without an offering, Herschel? Presumptuous.” The sylph straightened his neck, turning to prance back toward Schwartz and lowering his head as he came. “You have always been so well-mannered, too.”
Meesie sat upright in Schwartz’s hair, waving and squeaking brightly. Aradeus paused in his approach to grin up at her.
“Hey, there, cutie. I missed you, too.”
“I am sorry to call so abruptly, Rad,” Schwartz said, himself wearing a grin now. Oddly enough, in the presence of one of the most infamously unpredictable and violent types of fairy, he seemed more at ease than ever. “But I thought you might get a kick out of this, and we could definitely use your help. The short version is we’re chasing renegades from various cults of the Universal Church, and all we know is they’re attacking Puna Dara. Which would be interesting enough on its own, but right now the city’s being pounded by a sudden storm sent specifically by Naphthene. What do you think?” His grin widened. “Sound like fun?”
“Mmmmmmmmmm.” Aradeus emitted a long hum, tilting his head and twitching both his ears. Though apparently rigid along their length, they swiveled where they attached to the skull, and he used them as expressively as a horse. “It’s a very good storm. Hers are always the best ones. Interesting, I’ll give you that. It’s not running from Athan’Khar monsters, but you do keep yourself entertained, don’t you?”
“You actually did that?” Darius scoffed.
Schwartz shrugged and rolled his eyes heavenward. “Why doesn’t anyone believe me about that?”
“Mmm. I will not fight, here, I think,” Aradeus mused. Turning away from Schwartz, he began pacing in a circle, head upraised, sniffing the air steadily as he went. “There is no evil here…just humans struggling over human concerns. Not my business. There was a succubus, quite recently. She’s gone, though. Alas, no evil is left to chase.”
“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?” Layla said. “The last thing we need to deal with is a succubus.”
“Oh, but they’re such fun!” the sylph crooned, swiveling his head to grin directly at her. “So clever! Excellent hunting.”
“And it’s not necessarily good that she’s gone,” Trissiny added, frowning. “If a Vanislaad has been here and left, that usually means they’ve accomplished whatever they were trying to do. Which is always trouble of the worst kind.”
“Oh, yes!” Aradeus turned his eyes on her, grinning widely. “Oh, yes. Mmmm. Yes, I don’t mind helping you, this is a most entertaining hunt. There are no Pantheon cultists here for you to chase, oh no. Very different cultists, men and women of machine and ancient lore. They do not answer to your enemy, but have been manipulated by him. Encouraged, and used. The succubus let them into the palace, the Rock. Even now, they close upon the Crown.” He raised his head, sniffing the air again. “Mmmm. A most curious battle. They fight with…sound, yes. Weapons that strike the ear. Painful, but not lethal. A strangely bloodless coup. The Punaji have no defense against this.”
“Shit fire,” Darius whispered.
“How can you tell all this?” Tallie demanded.
“Sylphs can smell anything,” Schwartz said, stepping up and patting Aradeus on the back of the neck. Humming softly in pleasure, the sylph arched into the touch, and the witch ruffled his fur affectionately. “It’s not like elves, who just have more acute senses. Aradeus can scent whatever the wind has witnessed. If he says he smells sound weapons, then that’s what it is.”
“This succubus,” Trissiny said, narrowing her eyes. “Does she work for the Archpope?”
“For now.” Aradeus gave her a small grin, the faint light glittering along his silver teeth. “Under duress, of course. A succubus, elves…a dragon. What an interesting Archpope, this one. Mmm. Strange company, for such as him to keep.”
“Well, that answers the question of timing, anyway,” Trissiny stated, turning to the others. “The King is under attack now. We have to move.”
“How?” Layla asked skeptically. “How are we going to fight sound-based weapons that apparently took out the whole Punaji army?”
“You’re not a soldier,” Tallie said. “Don’t try to think like one. You’re a thief. Weapons are no use if they never even get pointed at you. We’ve got a paladin and a witch to draw their attention. We operate best in the shadows.”
“Okay,” Trissiny said, nodding. “I like it so far. What’s your idea, Tallie?”
Suddenly put on the spot, Tallie froze for a moment. Just a moment, though, then she swallowed. “Uh, well… Okay. What is it we need to accomplish, here? We’re saving the Punaji government, right?”
“That seems more or less the sum of it,” Schwartz agreed. “We came here to oppose whatever Justinian has set in motion. If he wants Rajakhan to fall, we want him to win.”
“Right. Then… There’s the military solution, where we take out the people attacking them.”
“Unlikely,” Aradeus commented. “Mmmm. Forty- three of them, spreading through the palace. Humans augmented with machine parts, carrying shields and weapons of ancient design. Mmm. Hershel and Trissiny, either, are more than a match for a handful at a time. But hunting them down would take you too long. And if you got them all to gather… Even a Hand of Avei might be pressed.”
“You are a very helpful fairy,” Tallie told him.
“Yes, I am. And you are a very interesting human!”
“Thanks, I try. Well, that leaves the other solution: we get the King out of the palace, somehow. Finding and extracting someone isn’t exactly a thiefly skill, but it’s closer to up our alley.”
“There is more help coming,” Aradeus said suddenly, raising his nose to the air again and inhaling. “Mmm… Yes. Help. Good help… Enough to crush the metal men!”
Tallie threw up her hands. “Okay, never mind! Back to Plan A, I guess.”
“No, wait a moment,” Trissiny said slowly. “Aradeus, do the invaders have control of the fortress gates?”
“Mmm, well spotted. Yes, they have. One they used to enter, the other they overtook. Stopping the soldiers inside from helping their king, mmm.”
“How many gates are there?” Layla asked.
“Two,” said Trissiny, “at right angles, flanking the western corner tower.”
“I thought you’d never been here before,” said Darius, frowning at her.
“I haven’t, but the Rock is one of the most impregnable fortresses on this continent; you’d better believe they made me study it back in Viridill. Tallie’s plan is still our best bet. We hit the gates; Schwartz and I will draw their attention while you get the doors open.”
“How.” Tallie’s voice dripped with so much skepticism it was barely a question.
Trissiny actually grinned at her. “Each gatehouse has a side door, just the kind of thing a thief can breach. I’ll walk you through it on the way.”
“Mmmm. They entered through the north gatehouse,” Aradeus added, again sniffing the air. “Mm. Yes. That door is not secured…yet. These are not military people, nor planning to hold the fortress; they are after the King. Not expecting to be attacked from behind, and overconfident in their weapons. You can get in the same way they did.”
“And once you’ve opened the gates,” Trissiny said, nodding, “the rest of these reinforcements will aid us in taking back the fortress. Who, exactly, is coming?” she added, turning to Aradeus.
“Mmmm, that is the best part,” he said, giving her a huge grin. “People you know… Know very well. But you will need to hold that gate open for them, Trissiny, Hand of Avei. Mmm, yes. They are going to be delayed.”
The appeared in a harbor warehouse, with the storm pounding against its walls and the windows rattling under its fury. The Avatar had teleported them so abruptly the group lost seconds to sheer disorientation. Then, they reflexively clustered together, even Fross darting to hover above the center of their formation.
They were not alone.
This particular warehouse was clearly serving as a living space; there were rows of beds and other furniture marking of a sleeping area to one side, as well as other sections delineated by cheap wooden dividers or simply the furniture within to indicate its purpose. A makeshift kitchen and armory were apparent at a glance, but the group didn’t bother to study the rest in more detail, being more concerned with the people present.
The warehouse was packed with people sheltering from the storm. A surprising number of them were armed, with swords, wands and staves. Milady, Principia, and the students landed right in the center of the space, directly in front of a makeshift dais made by stacked crates, upon which a man had been clearly in the middle of giving a speech. He gaped at them, arms still upraised in an interrupted gesticulation.
After a shocked moment, every weapon in the place was pointed at them.
“Identify yourselves!” the man on the platform finally commanded, regathering his poise.
“Uh…how ’bout you first?” Gabriel suggested.
“This is our home, and you are the intruders, here.” The speaker was regaining equilibrium by the moment, and now leveled a finger at them dramatically. “You trespass upon the domain of the Infinite Order!”
A short silence fell.
“You cannot be serious,” Milady finally said with a sigh.
“So help me,” Ruda growled, “I am going to find a way to get back down there and kill that fucking purple glowshroom.”