“Adventurers?” High Commander Rouvad uncharacteristically slammed the hefty budget request down on her desk, atop all the other paperwork Principia had assembled. Fortunately, they were alone in the Commander’s office—or perhaps unfortunately, as an audience might have tempered Rouvad’s ire, or at least its expression. “Locke, your orders were to assemble an army!”
“Excuse me, Commander, but they weren’t,” Principia said calmly, standing at attention before the desk. “My orders were to assemble a force capable of defeating any extant military power. Leaving aside that I wasn’t given the time or resources to build a conventional army, especially not one up to modern standards, I don’t actually think one of those would accomplish that directive anyway. I found an approach that will.”
“You think you can counter modern military equipment and strategies using assets that were notoriously impossible to control even before they were obsolete?”
The High Commander stared at her for a long moment in silence, during which the lieutenant just gazed back, perfectly composed. Rouvad finally sighed, and seated herself in her desk chair, notably not directing Locke to do likewise, or even stand at ease. “All right, Lieutenant. I suppose Avei wouldn’t have deliberately set you this task if it was anything that could be done conventionally. Go ahead, let’s hear your reasoning.”
“The Imperial Army is the most powerful military in the world right now,” Principia said immediately, “and not because of its size, but because of its constant embrace of new techniques and strategies. Most armies stagnate if unused for long periods, but the Tirasian dynasty has funded new enchantments and technologies for the Army’s use, had Imperial Intelligence keep regular reports on methods fielded by other nations, and directed the Army to constantly update itself even over the last century of peace. Thus, I began with the approach of hypothetically neutralizing Tiraan units, and settled on a strategy which will be universally applicable.”
“Adventurers,” Rouvad said, her tone utterly flat.
“Adventurers,” Principia agreed. “The Imperial Army’s greatest strength is its embedded magic users. In the field, infantry units deploy in small squadrons, relying on teleportation to obviate the need for supply trains, stay in communication, and even rapidly position themselves on the field. Using specialized mages, a commander can deploy infantry and mag artillery instantaneously via teleportation, and other specifically trained battlemages provide light magical artillery in the form of a standardized catalog of combat spells. The Army still employs its Corps of Engineers to erect field fortifications, bridges, and the like, but now relies more heavily on the Corps of Enchanters to position shield foci designed to be immediately salvageable even if they are broken by enemy fire. Spells and enchantments are also the source of most of the Army’s current use of traps and munitions. They even use conjured water to keep troops hydrated in the field.
“I think, in analyzing the disparity of capability between the current Silver Legions and the modern Imperial Army, it’s far too easy to view the Army’s advanced equipment and methods as an unequivocal advantage. I certainly fell into that trap with my own alternate weapons program. It misses the equally important fact that these advantages come with a critical drawback. Imperial units can be seriously interfered with by a warlock who neutralizes their enchantments, or a witch who causes them to blow up. They could be brought to a complete halt by coordinated action from both.”
“Asymmetrical warfare is Tiraan operational doctrine, Lieutenant,” Rouvad said impassively. “I hardly think you are going to beat them at that game. You will never assemble anything to compete with the Strike Corps out of antisocial misfits.”
“Yes, Commander, exactly. Trying to match the Army’s sophistication and overall power is a losing game. It’s an arms race, a question of who has the most money and warm bodies to throw at a problem—which aside from its practical drawbacks flies against Avenist doctrine. The strength of modern militaries comes from their systems. Technology, spellcraft, organization. And systems have weak points.”
“Those weak points are known and protected.”
“Protected according to structured doctrine and established methods. An army’s strength is organization; its enemy is chaos. Therefore, I propose to weaponize chaos. During the Age of Adventures, it was well known that experienced adventurers were a serious threat to military forces simply due to their ability to create unexpected hazards, target officers, split formations, and so on. In the absence of adventurers, these weaknesses have only grown. Heavy reliance on arcane magic makes them vulnerable to Circle effects, a weakness the Army has not remedied simply because there are no organized infernomancers of sufficient scope to threaten them, and even demons are as vulnerable to lightning weapons as anyone else. They have never faced any serious threat from witches or fairies simply because those avoid modern civilization precisely due to all the arcane magic. Not to mention that there are other ways of dealing with modern charms. I’ve already got one recruit who could neutralize an entire battalion’s energy shields just by making it rain on them.”
“Yes, the dragon,” Rouvad said, shuffling the papers on her desk and pulling out Principia’s personnel file on Khadizroth the Green. “Goddess preserve us, Locke.”
“There are other structural weaknesses created by the modern world of systems and connections,” Principia continued smoothly. “As Avei teaches us, the aim of warfare is to eliminate your enemy’s ability to wage war. Less than that risks defeat, and more abandons morality. The modern reliance on complex machines and charms creates opportunities to neutralized armed forces before combat occurs. A battlestaff is a device orders of magnitude more complicated and expensive than a spear, and you can break it just by getting dust in its clicker mechanism. And did you know there are exactly three factories in the entire Empire capable of producing power crystals large enough to run mag cannons, or zeppelin engines?”
Rouvad slapped the file down atop the others. “Let us say I consider your point valid, Locke. These…these are your recruits? ULR students? A Shaathist offshoot sect? Archpope Justinian and Bishop Darling’s personal hit squads? A gaggle of warlocks and demons led by a renegade drow? And, again, Locke, the dragon!”
“No, Commander,” Principia said serenely, “that is our recruitment pool. I have signed on Khadizroth the Green, the shaman Vannae, Longshot McGraw, Tinker Billie, the Sarasio Kid and Gravestone Weaver. Those names alone are weapons; most of them are modern legends. We both know it was the bards who decided the outcome of the Enchanter Wars as much as any soldiers. I rather think Xyraadi will take up my offer soon, which would likewise be a boon; she is an established ally of the Sisterhood, with a legend of her own.”
“A khelminash demon,” Rouvad said, rubbing her temples. “You do realize there are spiritual factions within the Sisterhood which consider the very existence of those creatures a living insult to Avei.”
“Yes, Commander, and I am also aware that those spiritual factions fixate on khelminash because they never expect to actually see one, and many of their fellow Sisters forcibly prevent them from picking on the women they actually want to bully. If there is any blowback as a result of this, I will requisition those spiritual factions a regulation spoon so they can eat my entire ass.”
“Watch it, Lieutenant.”
“I do not expect this Brother Ingvar or his followers to join up, which is probably for the best, but I do advise cultivating a relationship with them. His sect is half women and appears to be focused on fixing everything objectionable about Shaathism as its entire point. But that’s a matter for the Bishop, not my division.”
“We don’t have a Bishop, Locke,” Rouvad snapped. “Justinian has refused to confirm two candidates already. Given his spurious reasoning, I am pretty sure he means to just forestall the Sisterhood having representation within the Universal Church as payback for that whole business with Syrinx.”
“That’s above my pay grade, Commander,” Principia said pleasantly.
Rouvad leaned slowly back in her chair, staring up at the elf. “I truly, deeply hope that whatever the goddess wants from your presence proves worth the unmitigated pain in the ass you are, Locke.”
“Only time will tell. We must trust in Avei’s wisdom.”
The Commander shook her head and picked up the budget proposal again. “You asked for a facility in Viridill, specifically.”
“Yes, Commander, a remote one. Given the nature of the First Legion I have proposed, a rural headquarters is optimal both for security and practicality. And its location in Viridill will be important to underscore that this is an Avenist venture.”
“Yes, you made mention of that in this personnel request,” Rouvad said, picking up that document with an even more acid expression. “You want your pick of soldiers from First Squadrons throughout the Legions? This is going to make you even more enemies than your winning personality.”
“I much prefer volunteers, actually. At issue is that only Squad One soldiers are going to be of the kind I can even use, and it’s vital that at least half my personnel be gathered from the Legions, or the civilian Sisterhood. Adventurer guilds were still an active force during the first few decades of my career, Commander, and I’ve seen how they operate. Like any social group, each has its own culture and unique values. This thing is being commissioned by Avei, and needs to be specifically Avenist. In order to be effective, I’m going to have to acquire the best talent available, from wherever I can find it. I need at least their number in Sisters and Legionnaires to maintain the culture of the unit. I rather think the squad commanders won’t mind giving up a soldier or two if it’s made clear that we are assembling a support team for Hands of Avei.”
Rouvad’s expression softened almost imperceptibly. “You indicated that, as well, in writing. Your plan is for the First Legion to be under Trissiny’s command?”
“Under the Hand of Avei’s command,” Principia corrected. “Right now, that’s Trissiny, but there will be more after her. Historically, paladins have very rarely acted alone, and I’ve always found it purely odd that the Sisterhood has not had a dedicated support team for its Hands since the Silver Huntresses. With this unit being formed in response to the changing world, it’s only natural. One woman acting alone, sword-first, isn’t going to get much accomplished in this day and age. Trissiny has done an admirable job of absorbing that lesson already. Not to mention that any Hand of Avei is going to be a more qualified commander than I ever could.”
“Your unit’s not even formed and you’re already trying to weasel out of command.”
“I’ve made no secret that I consider commanding a Legion outside my wheelhouse,” Principia said frankly, “but this is the job and I agreed to do it. It’ll be another year and a half before Trissiny’s done at Last Rock, anyway. I wouldn’t suggest this if I didn’t consider it in the best interests of the mission. The Sisterhood needs a versatile, permanent force directly under its paladins a lot more than it needs me in charge of anything forever.”
“I would hardly suspect Trissiny of trying to undermine me,” Rouvad mused, studying Principia through narrowed eyes, “but after that stunt you two pulled with Syrinx, you and Trissiny in combination… There is already a rift between us that I don’t like. Schisms between Hands and High Commanders have happened in the past, and always to disastrous effect. It can be difficult enough to justify the complexities of politics to a paladin without the likes of you leaning on her from the other direction.”
Principia hesitated, then straightened infinitesimally. “Permission to speak freely?”
Rouvad regarded her in silence for a moment, then her shoulders shifted in a minute sigh. “Permission granted.”
“Trissiny understands the importance and the complexities of politics just fine,” Principia said, holding the High Commander’s gaze. “I won’t attest to how good she is at it just yet, but she’s young and learning. What matters is that she comprehends that someone in your position has to make tough calls and compromises, and I think she’s wise enough to recognize and respect when someone more experienced has to take the reins. If her faith in you was damaged by the Syrinx affair, it’s because you made a bad call. The utility of keeping that woman around was never worth the harm she did, and in the end it was Trissiny who had to clean up your mess. You can’t expect her not to have questions about your leadership after that, Commander. It doesn’t mean it’s unsalvageable. Trissiny is also intelligent enough to recognize that even experienced commanders make mistakes. If you want to mend that rift, you should talk to her, and acknowledge what went wrong.”
Rouvad slowly worked her jaw as if chewing the elf’s words, shifting her eyes to stare at the far wall. Only for a few seconds, though. Suddenly brisk again, she leaned forward in her chair, setting down the personnel request. “Your opinion has been noted, Lieutenant. Moving on, when I gave you permission to offer amnesty and the Sisterhood’s protection in order to recruit key personnel, I was not expecting you to make it a blanket offer to an entire assembly of random would-be adventurers. Which, of course, you knew, and didn’t say that was your intention because you were well aware I’d have squashed that.”
“It was not my intention, Commander, just how the situation transpired. I have made it clear the Sisterhood doesn’t have the legal authority to pardon crimes, and its protection has limits. Though it wasn’t my plan exactly, I think it worked out well. This gives me some wiggle room to apply the offer of amnesty to those who are worth it, and discreetly direct the requisite authorities to any other applicants if it’s deemed necessary.”
“Despite everything, Locke, I can’t find it in me to just blithely assume you know what you’re doing. The fact that you always seem to come out on top is not the same quality as being in control of your own life, much less the unit under your command. But… You have earned at least some trust. And there is always the fact that you were put here by Avei. She, I have to assume, knows what she is about.”
Another pause ensued while she studied Principia’s face. Then Commander Rouvad picked up the pen from its holder, dipped it in her inkwell, and began to sign forms.
“Goddess watch over us all.”
It was the same room in which the three of them had had their last meeting, close to two years ago. Being a basement space in the Thieves’ Guild underground chambers used for clandestine interviews, it was never the most wholesome of spaces, but the atmosphere between them the last time had still been particularly dour. Now, it was oppressively grim.
“And that’s it,” Tricks said softly, his tone giving no indication of his feelings.
Thumper nodded once. “Long and the short of it, Boss. I figure you’ll want me to sit down with Questions for the fine points, but I’m pretty sure that covers everything you need to know right off the bat. Whole thing was just a complete fuckin’ waste,” he added bitterly, dropping his gaze to scowl at the floor. “The whole plan to interfere with Justinian amounted to diddly shit, the Keys situation apparently resolved itself before I ever even ran into her, and all I did for two years was get conned and pushed around by every asshole who gave it a try. Omnu’s hairy balls, I don’t think I’ve ever fucked up that consistently or hard in my life. An’ that’s sayin’ something.”
“It matters that you recognize that,” Tricks said mildly. “I more than half expected you wouldn’t.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s worth a whole goddamn lot,” Style rumbled, “but not nothing.”
“And I’m not ready to completely write off the time you spent answering to Justinian and Syrinx,” Tricks added. “Yes, Thumper, you’ll definitely be having regular sessions with Questions until he’s fully satisfied. There may yet be something buried in that head of yours that you don’t even know is important.”
“Sure, however many sessions he needs,” Thumper agreed, nodding. A skilled interrogator had uses far beyond extracting information from the unwilling; one as talented as Questions was employed just as often to tease out details and secrets from the memories of those who didn’t even know they knew anything of value.
“So, you’ve had an interesting couple of years,” Style stated, striding forward. Thumper tensed instinctively at her approach but made no move even when she stopped, looming ominously over him. “Seen and done some real shit, apparently. But before that, there was the assignment the Guild sent you on out to Last Rock. Way I hear it, there are some teeny-tiny details you failed to report on, particularly with regard to your handling of Keys on site. She shared with us, after you left, exactly what you’d threatened to do to…what was it…ah, yes, motivate her. You wanna dispute that account, Thumper?”
He tensed further, shoulders lifting with an indrawn breath, but the enforcer leaned his head back to meet her eyes. “Nope. Sweet told me what she said. Sounds like pretty much how it went down.”
Style’s foot came crashing down onto the front of his chair right between his legs, missing him by a fraction of an inch and causing him to jump.
“And are you fully cognizant, Thumper,” she said in a sibilant hiss, “exactly why conduct like that is not fucking acceptable under any circumstances, but most especially toward a fellow member of the Thieves’ Guild?”
“I wasn’t…gonna actually do it,” he said weakly. “It was just a bit of…motivational theater.”
“Ohh, Thumper,” Style whispered, reaching down with one big callused hand to very tenderly brush his cheek with the backs of her knuckles. Thumper bit down on his lips, going white with sudden terror. “Taking that at face value, let’s just forget about the monumental failure of enforcer technique that is issuing a threat you don’t intend to follow up on. Hell, we will set aside, just for the moment, the fact that even threatening rape is, according to Avenist, Imperial and Eserite doctrine, an act of sexual assault. Let’s just brush all that under the rug for a moment, here, and address the fact that THAT IS NOT WHAT I FUCKING ASKED YOU.”
She seized his hair and wrenched his head to one side, bending down to bellow directly in his ear. Thumper cringed, grabbing the seat of the chair with both hands and going stiff as a board in her grasp, but made no physical reaction aside from that.
“No, Style, I get it,” he said, his voice tight with pain. “I apologized to Keys, for what that’s worth. It was a shit thing to do and I was way over the line.”
Style held him in place for three more heartbeats, then abruptly released his head and stepped back, staring down at her fingers. “Thumper, why the fuck does your hair smell like oranges?”
“Samivir’s Hair Cream,” he said weakly, lifting one slightly trembling hand to smooth his hair back down into a semblance of order. “For the discerning gentleman, it says on the tin. It doesn’t stay this flat by itself, y’know.”
“We’ve had some pretty interesting correspondence concerning you,” Tricks said idly, lounging back in his own seat in an utterly relaxed posture and regarding Thumper with an expression that was almost bored. “Webs vouches for you, because of course he does. Then again, his story about a succubus manipulating your actions has been corroborated, so… There’s that. Also, before you reported in, Sweet has informed me that in addition to the demon you recently had memory-altering infernomancy done on you, and then more mindfuckery by a green dragon. You understand how all this really muddies the waters when it comes to sussing out your exact degree of culpability for your actions.”
“I don’t think Big K would do me wrong,” Thumper said, frowning. “He’s a good sort, for a fuckin’ scary primordial lizard monster.”
“Which is more or less exactly what someone laboring under a magic dragon whammy would say,” Tricks observed. “I’m calling Glimmer down here from Mathenon to give you a good working over, too. I wanna know exactly what’s been done to your brain in as much detail as possible before we go deciding what to do about it. Meanwhile, we have also received a written communication concerning you, from Keys herself.”
“Oh, I think you’ll get a kick out of this,” Style said with grim amusement when he tensed again.
“Keys,” Tricks stated with a faint, bemused frown, “has requested clemency from us concerning your punishment for anything done by you to her and forsworn any intent to seek restitution.”
Thumper blinked twice. “…huh?”
“In basically any other circumstances,” said Style, “that would mean I’d haul her ass in here for an analysis, because that’s the kind of thing victims of abuse are prone to do for somebody who’s got his tentacles worked into their brain. Now, we all know you’re not that specific breed of asshole and Keys would still be three times as smart as you after getting hit on the head by a whole tree full of coconuts, but still, it’d be policy. But this is Keys, she whose industrious labor over the course of lifetimes to be the greatest possible pain in everyone’s ass I have decided I shall respect. In fact, I’ll go so far as to caution you that she is clearly only doing this to get you to join that asshat adventurer guild she’s running for the Sisterhood, and don’t even get me started on that horseshit, because she wants you under her thumb to torment you at her leisure. Hate to spoil a sister’s grift, but it is, as I’ve mentioned, Keys, so if she wants to piss away her right to restitution, fine and fuck her anyway. But that still leaves us, and you, and what it is that we are going to do about you.”
She planted herself directly in front of him and leaned forward, stretching her lips into a psychotic death’s head grin, and said in a saccharine tone, “Would you like to know what we are going to do about you, Thumper?”
He swallowed once before answering. “It’s pretty heavily on my mind right now, yeah.”
“Well, you’ve got a monumental asskicking coming, that’s for goddamn sure,” Style said, abruptly straightening up and crossing her arms to glare down at him. “Sexual harassment of a Guild member, failure to report in when ordered, and a whole ream of shit that flirts with the boundaries of outright treason. Oh, yeah, you’ve got a foot up the ass in your future. But with each new revelation the curious case of Jeremiah Shook has become more layered, like the world’s most obnoxious shit-soaked onion, until what I recently assumed would be a very satisfying case of me stomping you into an orange-scented stain on the floor has turned into a whole ream of goddamn detective work before we manage to sort out exactly how responsible you are for everything you’ve been blundering around in, and how badly your brain has been fucked with already.
“So I have decided, Thumper, that we are going to give this aaaallllllllll the time it needs. You’re gonna spend as long with Questions and Glimmer as they want, and then a little bit longer, and then a little bit longer still, until the both of them are entire sick of your face and my meddling, because I am not gonna leave a pebble unturned in that greasy-ass head of yours.
“And then, once it has been established beyond all possible hint of doubt exactly what the fuck you’ve done and what you deserve for it… Then, and only then, will I kick your ass. And oh, Thumper, the asskicking I shall rain down upon you will be the crown jewel of my career, an unimpeachable masterwork of retribution.” She raised both her arms as if in benediction, gazing at the ceiling with a nearly rapturous expression. “Your culpability shall be known to the most infinitesimal degree, and you shall be stomped with godlike fucking exactitude. I will smite you with an exquisite fucking symphony of fairness, measuring every blow to the tiniest iota of its positioning and force until you have been punished so flawlessly for your two-year parade of shitheadery that not even your self-involved victim complex will enable you to walk away feeling you’ve been mistreated. Vidius himself shall descend from his throne on high to sit at my feet and learn the ways of fairly judging souls, that’s how precisely I’m gonna pulp you. I shall be a cleansing fire of fists and feet, and you shall emerge with the dross burned away to leave only a sore and chastened, but pristine and new, piece of shit of exactly the caliber the gods half-assedly created you. From the divine instrument of flawless retribution that is my size nine boot, you will ascend, born anew by the baptismal asskicking of Style which will echo down through the ages as a legendary arbiter of the very abstract fucking concept of justice.”
By that point, even Tricks was eyeing her askance. Thumper gaped up at the chief enforcer with his mouth slightly open as she finally lowered her arms, planted her fists on her hips, and grinned down at him.
“And I shall do all of this on your behalf, Thumper, not because you matter to that degree, but because I am sick of your bullshit. Now how’s that sound to you, hm?”
He finally shut his mouth, swallowed once more, then cleared his throat. “I… Yeah, okay. Let’s do that. Sounds pretty good, actually.”
Slowly, Style’s grin faded. “Thumper, I get that you’ve been through some shit, but the one thing I did not expect you to acquire from your travels was a sense of humor.”
“No foolin’, Style, I mean it,” he said, now frowning faintly. “I’ve been… I’ve been looking back at all the shit I’ve ever done over the last few days, and I can’t get away from the fact that I just don’t know what’s what anymore. Kheshiri sure screwed with my head, yeah, but it’s from a lot longer back than that. The farther back I think, the more I realize I’ve been fed a mix of real good advice and complete bullshit, and only listened to about half of each, and now all I know is that a lot of what I thought I knew is bullshit, and I’m not even sure which part. It’s like… Y’know when you go up a staircase without paying attention and don’t count the steps right, so you get to the top expecting more stairs and there’s this second where the whole world’s out of balance cos the floor’s not where you thought it should be? It’s like that, except all the time. And it fuckin’ sucks.
“Khadizroth said something to me about punishment, how’d he put it… Yeah, he told me when you’ve done somethin’ wrong, it puts you kinda out of balance with your whole existence, an’ from a state like that taking a punishment you’ve earned can be, like, medicinal. Puts you back in order with the world. Sounded like the dumbest fuckin’ mumbo-jumbo I’d ever heard at the time, but I dunno anymore. I can’t go on stumbling around with no idea who I am or what’s true or exactly why and how I keep fucking up everything. So… Yeah, Style, let’s go for it. You do what you gotta, I trust you to know what’s fair.”
Both Style and Tricks were staring at him, blank-faced. Thumper looked rapidly back and forth between them, then cleared his throat awkwardly.
“So, uh… Not to change the subject or nothin’, but while I’m here bein’ examined and all, am I allowed to leave the Guild?”
“What the fuck do you think, Thumper?” Tricks asked wryly.
He nodded. “Yeah, fair enough. Can I get people visiting me?”
“Depends on the people, but I don’t really see why not,” said the Boss. “Webs has moved his operation to Tiraas; I’m pretty sure he’ll want to chat with you at the first opportunity. Way I heard it, you owe him an apology, too.”
“Gods, I really do,” Thumper grimaced. “So…and I’m just askin’, here…if Sweet was to do his interfaith thing and could find one willing to come, could I get a priestess of Avei to come here an’ chat with me?”
They both stared at him again, now openly incredulous.
“It’s nothin’ urgent,” Thumper hastily clarified. “Just, y’know, spiritual stuff. Sweet’s got more important shit to do, so if it’s a problem don’t even worry about it. I just got some, uh, questions.”
“I think,” Style mused, “this may take even longer than I thought.”