“Just who I was looking for, in fact.” Sister Magden stepped forward, grim-faced and blade first. “To begin with—”
“Back off!” Zafi barked, lunging in front of Rasha and bringing up her sword in a guard position. “You get one chance to back down, lady.”
Magden stopped, looking incredulous. Then she glanced at her own longsword and blinked as if surprised to find herself brandishing it. To Rasha’s surprise, the priestess lowered the weapon.
“Ah…excuse me, that wasn’t… Well, regardless, I need to speak with—”
“Back. Away.” Zafi pressed forward, raising her short sword again.
Despite having her own guard lowered, Magden spared the other woman’s blade a scant glance, looking only miffed and not the least bit worried. It was not lost on any of them present that she was an Eagle Style duelist facing a young graduate of Legion basic training who didn’t even have her shield.
“Regardless of anything you witnessed in the sanctuary yesterday, Private, you are speaking to a priestess of Avei. I suggest you lower your…”
Pounding feet from behind them made her eyes shift past Zafi’s shoulder. Rasha steeled herself, tucking her chilly fingers into her sleeves to touch the metal secured there, while Zafi looked rapidly back and forth in apparent panic, visibly coming to grips with the fact that she couldn’t cover Rasha from both directions.
The two white-robed Purists slowed to a stop rather than attacking, though; one was carrying one of those longswords, but the other appeared unarmed.
“Farzi, Janelle,” Magden replied, narrowing her eyes. “What’s all this, now?”
“I knew you’d come,” the woman with the sword said eagerly. “Don’t let them past! The others will catch up, and we can finish this.”
“Finish?” Magden’s voice rose in pitch and volume. “I hope that does not mean what it sounds like, sister.”
The two Purists both frowned. Rasha and Zafi shifted position subtly, catching the mood, directing more of their attention away from Magden, the apparent lesser threat.
“It’s just…it’s just a last detail,” the other Purist said, her voice firming up as she spoke. “One thing to be cleaned up.”
Magden’s eyes cut to Rasha and then back to her fellow priestesses. Incredible as it seemed, her expression was growing more furious by the second.
“Oh, yes? A little detail, to be cleaned up. With your sword, in some dark alley, while the detail is running away from you. Forgive me, sisters, I think there’s some confusion here. Whose priestess do you claim to be now? Because when we last spoke, you served the goddess of justice.”
“Well, blow me down,” Zafi mumbled, catching Rasha’s eye sidelong. “Is one of ‘em actually gonna be reasonable?”
Her voice had been low, and it was probably fortunate that none of the Avenists responded to the comment, or appeared to notice.
“I thought you were with us, Sister Magden,” the Purist with the sword said, having the effrontery to sound hurt. “If you’re not— What are you even doing here?”
“I was just asking myself that,” Magden snapped. “Now it seems the goddess directed me here. I am doing as a priestess of Avei should. What are you doing here?”
“Ambushing a civilian with intent to abduct or assault,” Rasha said with a pleasant smile. “They also deliberately deceived Imperial police with criminal intent. Would you like to know the established penalty for all of that? We are taught such details in my faith. Of course, it would likely be lesser for you. Magistrates are usually lenient with Avenists, especially clerics.”
All three priestesses turned baleful looks on her, and Zafi added an incredulous one. Rasha kept her hands hanging at her sides, clinging to her serene bearing as Glory had trained her. Folding her hands demurely at her waist would have better heightened the effect, but this way she could keep her concealed knives ready to deploy.
“Maybe,” Magden said in a dangerous tone, “you should shut up before you somehow make this even worse. In fact, that’s enough of all of this. You two, Private and…thief. We’re leaving.”
“They’re not leaving!” snarled the sword-carrying Purist, taking a compulsive step forward and raising her weapon.
“Are you forgetting who taught you to use that sword, Farzi?” Magden said contemptuously. “Lower it before you embarrass us both any further. If you can belatedly summon the sense to drop this nonsense, I will report it as a lapse in judgment rather than the premeditated abrogation of your vows it looks like.”
More shapes loomed up out of the darkness behind them, these approaching at a less breakneck pace, but the three additional ex-Purists who now stepped forward arrived in time to hear Magden’s last statement. All five were now glaring—at her, rather than Rasha for a change. Two of the new arrivals had swords; the third carried a wand.
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this,” the woman who by default had to be Sister Janelle hissed. “You’re— You of all people, Magden! You cannot possibly side with this…this creature over your own Sisters!”
“The creature in question hasn’t committed any crime, or harmed anyone,” Magden shot back, “and even if he—sh—even if that were true, nothing justifies Sisters of Avei murdering people in alleys! What are you all even thinking?! Just being here… Avei commanded our order to disperse! Avei! The Goddess herself!”
That seemed to bring them pause, but only for a moment.
“Gods are…difficult creatures,” said one of the new arrivals, pushing to the front of their group with her sword still held at her side. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand, sister, given your special fields of study, but you know I am a student of theology. It’s a known fact that the commands of deities can be influenced by the way they are invoked. We can’t consider it definitive when Trissiny Avelea called down judgment while we know her sympathies were already tainted by…this one.”
She sneered overtly at Rasha, who didn’t spare her a glance, being focused on the one with the wand.
“Is that a fact,” Magden said in deadly quiet.
Golden light blossomed in the alley.
Everyone present shied back and shaded their eyes for the seconds it took them to adjust, Zafi and a few of the Purists with hisses of displeasure. Sister Magden had lit up with a golden halo of pure divine light as she channeled energy actively without yet directing it. Pushing forward between Rasha and Zafi, utterly ignoring any threat they might have presented her, the priestess planted herself between them and her own former comrades.
The second she was clear, the light around her hardened into a golden sphere.
“I stand with Avei,” Magden’s voice rang through the cold alleyway. “I serve Avei, and an oath of service is not suspended when I am ordered to do something I happen not to like! I’m confident I remain in the goddess’s good graces, sisters. It’s far simpler to obey her commands than to rationalize why I shouldn’t have to. But if your faith is wavering, don’t take my word for it! You can call judgment down on yourselves, you know.”
The five of them shuffled backward. Magden gave them no quarter, taking a step to maintain the distance.
“Well?” she barked. “I note none of you have called on the goddess’s light. Why? Is there some reason you fear to draw her attention? Are you perhaps doing something right this minute you know to be wrong?”
The woman in the lead drew a deep breath and let it out in a puff of mist, her expression hardening, and raised her sword.
“I don’t want it to come to this, Magden,” she said coldly, “but anyone not with us is against us.”
Magden’s sword flashed in a horizontal arc that impacted hers with a furious clash, and the other woman was sent stumbling against one of the alley’s walls by the force. Magden, in addition to her mastery of the sword, had clearly trained in the knack of modulating a divine shield to let her attack through it while blocking outside forces.
“Avei is against you,” she stated. “I didn’t want it to come to this either, sisters, but if this is where you must plant your flag, I like my chances.”
The woman in the lead quickly recovered her feet, and the two others with swords hesitated, visibly recalculating their odds against their order’s finest swordswoman in a cramped alley, but Rasha was still not watching them. Most of what she knew of divine shields came from correspondence with Trissiny, according to whom a paladin’s barrier could stand up to a lot, but an average cleric’s shield would rapidly decay if subjected to point blank wandfire. So, when the Purist with the wand took aim at Magden, Rasha flung out her own arm.
It wasn’t one of her better throws; her fingers were half-numb from being bare in the cold. The throwing knife struck the woman in the upper chest where it wouldn’t do much damage, but at least the blow succeeded in making her stagger back with a shriek. Lightning flashed deafeningly in the confined space, punching a crater in one wall a few feet above their heads and showering them all with fragments of brick.
For doubtless the first and likely the last time, Rasha, Zafi, and Magden all had the same thought. All three turned and dashed away up the alley, the two of them not needing Magden’s shouted order to flee. Rasha saved her breath for running, but privately had to wonder whether Magden was uncertain of their chances against five of them or was just reluctant to take a blade to women she likely still thought of as friends.
Unfortunately, she also seemed to presume herself to be in charge, and pushing her way up the alley behind them surrounded by a bubble of hard light gave her more authority than she perhaps deserved.
“Take this right!” she ordered as a gap in the wall loomed up.
“No,” Zafi shouted back, “keeping left will lead us to—”
“Do as you are told, Private!” In a frustratingly impressive display of Lightworking skill, she dropped the shield to dart forward and to their left, swelling it again to push both of them into her chosen alley.
Rasha hissed in wordless displeasure, but didn’t try to fight, as that would only let their pursuers catch up. She was inclined to chalk this up to Magden’s naive arrogance and presumption that she was automatically in command. A crafty enemy might have used this whole incident to earn trust in order to get them alone for an assassination, but by Rasha’s reading the woman didn’t have that kind of subtlety in her. So far, the extent of Purist cleverness seemed to be setting up ambushes that anyone could have warned them were sure to backfire. Hell, their best case scenario if they succeeded in what they were trying to do here was Trissiny hunting them all down like stray dogs.
Magden immediately revealed the reason for her insistence by kicking over the stack of crates lurking in the mouth of this side alley, forming an impromptu obstruction that would definitely not inhibit their foes enough to have been worth this detour, and Rasha privately decided that next time she was going to follow her own damn path if it meant she had to stab the woman. Incompetent help was basically the same as another enemy.
“This is insanity,” Magden snarled at no one in particular as they pounded down this new back alley in the wrong direction. “What are they thinking? Avei spoke to us! The Goddess herself! I didn’t like it either, but nobody needs to like it. She’s the Goddess! The subject is closed!”
“It’s pretty normal, actually,” Rasha puffed, annoyed that Magden was less out of breath with this exertion than she was. The priestess’s legs were a lot longer; Rasha had to take more steps faster to keep up. “If you conclusively debunk something somebody really wants to believe, they’re not likely to change their minds. Most will get mad and dig their heels in, start massaging reality until it looks more like they want it to. Honestly, the fact you actually did what Avei said shows unusual character.”
“I do not need validation from you,” Magden spat, giving her a bitter scowl.
“Okay, maybe not too much character,” Rasha allowed.
“If you’re not with them, why are you looking for Rasha?” Zafi demanded.
“I need to speak with General Avelea,” Magden grated. “And it turns out a Sister of Avei like myself has less direct access to her than some Eserite…person.”
“Then how’d you know to look for me here?” Rasha exclaimed.
“A few minutes ago I met a scruffy man wearing half a tuxedo who said you’d be down these alleys. I assumed he was sending me into some manner of ambush, but I was in a mood to vivisect a few muggers anyway, so here we are. The Goddess works mysteriously at times.”
“I’m not sure that’s the deity you’re working with right now,” Zafi muttered.
Then the three of them had to skid to a stop, Rasha nearly losing her balance on a patch of ice until Zafi caught her. The alley had abruptly opened up into a kind of courtyard surrounded on all sides by four-story structures, each with a rear loading door facing the cul de sac. There was, or at least had once been, another alley leading out of it in the opposite direction, but someone had built a ten-foot-tall wooden slat fence across it at some point. That looked dubiously climbable, at best, and definitely too tall to jump.
“Oh, good,” Zafi exclaimed. “I’m just so glad we went this way instead of staying left! Just think, we could be back on a main street with police now instead of trapped like rats, and wouldn’t that be awful.”
“Young woman,” Magden shot back, “if you cannot find something more—”
“Shut up!” Rasha barked at both of them, already heading to her left. “Try these doors, we only need one unlocked!”
None were unlocked, of course. Most didn’t even have handles on this side.
Zafi began pounding on one with her fist, loudly demanding it to be opened, while Rasha swiftly crossed to the only door with a visible keyhole and knelt, already extracting her lockpicks from their hidden pocket. All the other doors were clearly meant to be openable only from the inside. She set to work, both annoyed about what the filthy floor of this alley was now doing to the hem of her dress and grateful the lock was an old-fashioned one any idiot could have picked. All she needed was a minute…
And naturally, that was also a forlorn hope. The angry Purists pounded into the alley—now there were six of them—and immediately fanned out in the open space, raising weapons. Magden and Zafi pivoted and brought up their own blades in readiness, and Rasha wasted precious seconds pausing to reach for her remaining throwing knives before deciding that getting this door open was a better use of her abilities.
The woman who’d argued with Magden was still in the lead and now opened her mouth to deliver another no doubt riveting spiel, but then gasped, raising her eyes to the top of the wooden fence.
Their only warning was a clatter of bodies rapidly clambering up something stacked against it—of course, there’d be a convenient path up the other side—and then yet another white-robed priestess of Avei vaulted over the top, this one a Westerner with a multitude of narrow braids flying about her head.
She hit the floor in a roll and charged forward. Zafi pivoted to slash at her, but the priestess flowed under the relatively clumsy swing as if she were made of water and kept going. Magden turned, sword upraised, but the new priestess did not join the others in attacking her.
On the contrary. Before they could react, the woman ducked under the Purist leader’s stab and simultaneously ripped the sword out of her hands while dropping the woman with a knife-handed jab to the throat. She moved like no one Rasha had ever seen in a fight, flinging the confiscated sword almost contemptuously and yet nailing another Purist on the skull with its heavy pommel while turning to barehandedly disable a third.
With a roar, another woman in a white robe under a more mundane winter coat hit the ground from the fence and charged forward. She moved with much less grace, slamming fist-first into the only Purist who didn’t have a weapon and sending her reeling backward.
A beam of clean white light flashed silently through the air, piercing the hand of the woman who had been taking aim with her lightning wand, which she dropped with another shriek of pain; despite being the most dangerously armed member of her group, she was not having good luck today. Turning to look in the direction the shot had come from, Rasha could only gape in surprise.
“Hey, Rasha!” Joseph Jenkins said cheerfully, hopping down from atop the fence while another young woman with a Legion short sword bounded over it right after him. “Sorry to leave it so close. Seems we’re cursed with dramatic timing.”
“This behavior is utterly contemptible,” stated the dark-skinned woman who had just taken down four fellow priestesses with her bare hands in a few seconds. Two were clearly unconscious and the rest had been disarmed; all who could still walk were frantically backing away now. “I urge you to submit to citizen’s arrest, sisters. Penance begins a path to redemption.”
“Fuck that, let’s beat ‘em up for a while longer,” suggested the other new priestess, grinning and raising both her fists. “Asskicking is good for—”
“Heel, Shay,” ordered the teenage girl who incongruously seemed to be in charge of this lot. “That’s more than enough carnage. Bandi, is that one going to die?”
“Possibly,” the martial artist allowed, dispassionately studying the fallen Purist who was struggling to breathe around a damaged windpipe. “That would be unfortunate; permission to render healing?”
“Please do. Let’s not have any corpses here.”
“Finally, a voice of reason!”
“Oh, what the hell now,” Zafi demanded as the retreating Purists flocked away from the alley mouth, leaving one of their number sprawled insensate on the ground and another clutching her neck while Bandi knelt beside her, applying golden light to the injury from her hands.
Of all things, two Huntsmen of Shaath entered the courtyard from behind them.
“Unbelievable,” Magden hissed, raising her sword again.
“Now, now, Sister, let’s have peace,” the Huntsman in the lead said in the same smooth tone with which he had already interrupted them. “I think all of this has gotten more than sufficiently out of hand, don’t you? I propose everyone take a moment to breathe and find some calm. Brother Arlund, would you kindly make sure the fallen Sister here is all right?”
“Don’t you touch her!” one of the other Purists squawked while the second Huntsman strode forward to bend over their unconscious comrade.
“I assure you Arlund would never handle a woman, or anyone, with anything less than the utmost respect,” the more loquacious Huntsman said in a soothing tone.
He actually stood out, to the eyes of anyone familiar with Huntsmen of Shaath. The man was neatly groomed, his winter tunic boasted subtle embroidery in the elven style, his long hair was tied back in a tight tail and his beard gathered into a chest-length braid, and even his traditional bearskin cloak appeared to have been brushed. He also spoke with a smooth, cultured intonation at odds with the (mostly accurate) popular conception of Shaathists as scruffy outdoorsmen.
Unlike Arlund, who looked up from the fallen woman with a much more characteristic grunt. “She breathes. Took a knot to the temple. Head injuries need quick treatment, but mostly likely she’ll be fine.”
“Now that is a relief,” his companion said with evident sincerity. “Sisters, perhaps it would be best if you withdrew your friend from the line of fire, as it were? That is, if these good people will kindly stand down,” he added with a courteous bow toward Magden.
“Whaddaya think, Casey?” Joe asked. He had not put away his wand, but was currently aiming it at the ground.
“I think they’re beyond the point of any funny business,” Casey said, watching the Shaathists warily as Arlund stepped back and the Purists began to edge forward. “There’s absolutely no justification for denying someone healing. Speaking of, Bandi, how is she?”
“Serviceable,” Bandi reported, also retreating from the oncoming Purists and Shaathists while the woman she’d been treating now backed away. “She is in no danger, though I imagine that is still uncomfortable.”
To judge by the way the priestess continued to clutch her neck while glaring daggers at Bandi, she was correct.
“Good,” Casey said curtly. “Please be more careful in the future, the last thing I need is you killing someone by accident. Now, then, I don’t know what business Huntsmen have in this, but with all due respect, you need to back off. We’re taking these women to the Imperial authorities.”
“I wonder if that is the best use of everyone’s time?” the more talkative Huntsman asked with a calm smile, while Arlund lurked behind his shoulder, glaring at them. “Here we stand amid the ruins of multiple grievous errors in judgment. Does it not seem to you that it’s best we all step back and allow one another to depart in peace?”
“Yeah, that’s not on the table,” Casey stated. “Thanks for your help, but we’ve got it from here.” Magden nodded in agreement.
“Ah, forgive me, I have failed to express myself clearly,” he said, his smile not diminishing. “We in Shaath’s service are men of action, not of words.”
Everyone’s eyes shifted, and he half-turned to follow their gaze. Then his smile widened and he turned back to Casey while three more longbow-wielding Huntsmen paced silently out of the alley behind them.
“No one is taking anyone into custody.”
This unusual Huntsman might be polite, even suave, but he was definitely not obsequious. He held Casey’s gaze, clearly having pinned her as the person in charge despite Magden’s puffing up, and the two stared one another down in a mute contest of wills. Her expression was icily blank, while he managed to keep smiling even as his eyes silently offered the very violence from which he was courteously urging that they all abstain.
“Are you certain,” Casey asked at last, in the same tone of deadly quiet, “you want to embrace the consequences of your actions here, Huntsman?”
“That is tomorrow’s hunt, miss,” he replied politely, inclining his head. “Here and now? Surely it is best that we all refrain from exacerbating this…misunderstanding. It seems to me we have been lucky there has been no more serious injury, yet. Just a little more aggression from anyone present would imperil that clean record.”
“This one sure does talk fancy,” Shay observed. “They aren’t breeding Shaathists like they used to, I guess.”
“The wolves of Shaath hunt with Ingvar, now,” Joe drawled, twirling his wand. “All that’s left under Veisroi are the tame dogs.”
“Joe,” Casey growled as four of the Huntsmen present turned to him with bared teeth, one raising his bow.
“I should hope,” the leader said, more loudly but still calmly, “that I can count on the men of Shaath to show more character than to rise to childish insults. Someone here must be the adult, after all. Now then, I believe it’s past time we separated these groups of people who so clearly do not enjoy sharing space. Ladies, after you.”
He turned to the Purists, bowing respectfully and gesturing toward the alley mouth, which his followers had just shifted aside from.
“Are we lettin’ ‘em go?” Shay demanded, turning to Casey.
“Well, he’s not wrong,” Casey replied, still staring at the smooth-talking Huntsman. “If this becomes a real fight… No matter who wins, everyone loses.”
He smiled and favored her with a deep nod. She just narrowed her eyes, and kept staring until the Huntsmen and Purists had all filed off up the alley. He was the last to go, giving her a final smile over his shoulder.
At last, Casey heaved a sigh. “Fuck, that was closer than I like ‘em. Rasha, are you okay?”
“Well, my date was interrupted,” Rasha said, indulging in a bit of petulance now that the danger seemed past, “but otherwise, this has been no worse than some decent exercise.” Zafi chuckled, stepping over to take her hand. “Excuse me… Casey, was it? This is embarrassing; I’m certain I know you from somewhere, but I can’t recall exactly.”
“My squad threw you in jail once,” Casey said with a wry smile.
“Oh, that’s right!”
“Does that really narrow it down?” Magden asked acerbically.
“Maybe not, but then we made her muck out a stable. Tends to leave an impression. Who’s this, then?”
“This is Sister Magden,” Rasha introduced her. “A former big name among the Purists who now…I think…is…on our side?”
“I am on Avei’s side,” Magden corrected with barely-repressed dislike. “Even if that puts me in…strange company.”
“Strange company ‘bout sums it up, no offense,” Joe commented.
“Okay, that’s a sufficient amount of banter,” Casey stated. “This looks like it’s gonna need to be a long-ish conversation. Let’s have it someplace less frigid, shall we?”
“Heh, that’s what she s—”
“Shut up and march, Shay!”