All posts by D. D. Webb

About D. D. Webb

D. D. Webb is a highly suspicious character who is widely believed to be up to no good. Currently residing in Portland, Oregon, he is the author of one novel, Rowena's Rescue, and the ongoing epic fantasy webserial The Gods are Bastards.

Hiatus Notice

The Gods are Bastards will be going on official hiatus until mid-August, aiming to resume the third week of the month.  I sincerely apologize for this.  Explanation to follow; if discussion of depression, mental health, or various current events (you probably know the ones) are uncomfortable or triggering for you, you may want to skip the rest of this post.

So, the long and the short of it is I’m having the most severe mental health breakdown I’ve had in years.  Not the worst ever, but the worst in a long time, and I am basically failing, entirely, to function.  It’s not just updates to the story that have ceased; it’s been weeks since I’ve managed to do anything.  This has been a perfect storm of problems, I think.  My depressive episodes have been getting steadily worse for the last few years anyway, I’ve grown increasingly burned out on the story itself to the point that I was starting to dread having to write each chapter, and then came the outside influences.  I have been responsibly socially isolating and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future because I live in a country whose pandemic measures have been blitheringly incompetent on average, and the isolation has been progressively wearing on me, interacting with my existing condition in a way I did not anticipate and am handling poorly.  And now, most recently, the city I live in has become the front line in my government’s attempted slide into fascism.  I don’t think I’m in immediate physical danger from that, hiding in my apartment as I’ve been anyway, but the stress it causes is still constant and severe.  Basically, this has moved beyond one of my standard depressive episodes and verges on a full-blown crisis.

I don’t know what, if anything, I can do about it.  There’s really no mental health care of any kind available to me.  I hate to call a hiatus now; it’s an incredibly stupid time, with this book in its climax and last few chapters.  I was trying so hard to get to the end of Book 16 and then take the break, but I failed to make it.  I’m sorry for that.  At this point, though, the only real change I’m able to make toward self-care is declaring the break official just to remove the weight of my ongoing failure to produce chapters from hanging over me so immediately.  That’s been my greatest source of additional stress the last couple of weeks.

I just want to reiterate how sorry I am for all of this.  I hate letting down the people who’ve done so much to support me, and I wish I could do better for you.  I love and appreciate everyone who reads my story; all I want is to make something cool that brings people a little happiness, because we certainly all need some.  I’ll try to do better in the future, but for right now I’m forced to acknowledge that the best thing I can do is try to pull myself back together a bit.

I’ll still be reachable via discord, and will post any updates there, as well as here.  There will be a few changes when I return in August; I have some ideas I want to try, particularly toward offering some additional benefits for Patreon backers.  At any rate, once TGAB resumes the standard update incentives will, and given the backlog that has accumulated while it was suspended, extra chapters will be funded for quite a few weeks to come.

Please stay safe out there, and take care of yourselves.  I’ll be back as soon as I can.  Sorry about everything.

edit: I only realized after the fact I first posted this in the wrong part of the site.  Seriously, I’m not functioning well.  Sorry, should be fixed now for RSS readers.

16 – 52

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With a unified, resonating hiss that tore the skies, the two nurdrakhaan surged forward at a terrifying speed, undulating rapidly just like eels slicing through the water. Their disproportionately small crimson eyes narrowed to slits and their beaked jaws opened wide as they closed the distance in preparation for their attack, revealing multiple rows of serrated teeth behind the hard beaks themselves.

At this unmistakable aggression, the necro-drake’s momentary unease vanished as if at the flip of a switch. It forgot the warlocks who’d been harassing it for the last half hour; in a single beat of its wings which scattered stray wisps of inky smoke, it launched itself aloft and pelted straight across the prairie, low enough that the wind of its passing disturbed the tallgrass which remained in the wake of its battles with Natchua and the Wreath. Black smoke trailed behind like a comet’s tail and the chaos aberration let out its own eerie howl in counter to the nurdrakhaans’ distinctive hiss.

The massive creatures were separated by over half a mile, but the distance closed in a terrifyingly short span of seconds. At the last moment, the necro-drake beat its wings a final time, shooting upward in order to dive down at the nurdrakhaan, which were less agile in the air and, though they tried to correct, were unable to change course quickly enough to meet the skeletal monster with their menacing jaws.

With an impact that could be felt through the ground a mile distant, the necro-drake slammed into one nurdrakhaan from above, seizing its neck and driving it into the earth. The second demon overshot but swiftly circled back to where the chaos beast was savaging its flailing companion. Rather than attempting again to seize the necro-drake in its beak, it simply headbutted the skeleton at full speed, tearing it loose and sending it flailing through the air.

The necro-drake recovered itself quickly, turning and hurtling forward again, this time at the second nurdrakhaan. Both grappled in midair for a moment before the drake managed to seize the demon with its limbs, clawing at its side and repeatedly slashing at the three of its eyes on that side with its bony tail, while the nudrakhaan hissed in fury and thrashed about. It took the second demon several seconds to position itself properly to seize the necro-drake in its beak and rip it bodily clear.

All three knew nothing but attack. They thrashed and flailed, hurling themselves repeatedly against one another in mindless savagery, only the infernal bindings on the nurdrakhaan preventing them from attacking each other as well. Individually, they were at a disadvantage: the chaos beast was far more agile, both in the air and especially on the ground, and with not only fanged jaws but four clawed limbs and a tail, it possessed far more in the way of natural weapons. But there were two, and each time it managed to latch onto one, the second was there to clamp a massive beak onto its body, to smash it with an armored head or a lash of a flat tail.

In short order, the damage began to accrue—not merely on the landscape, which so quickly accumulated craters and massive gouges from repeated impacts of the huge monsters that a radius of several acres soon ceased to resemble a prairie. The combatants accumulated damage, as well, even the hardened hide of the nurdrakhaan acquiring rents from which seeped acrid black blood that smoked when it struck the ground. The necro-drake’s actual structure was brittle black glass, tenuously held together by ligaments of shimmering magic barely visible through its haze of smoke. It suffered greatly from body-blows which would have pulverized a castle. Its innate self-repair kept it alive, but only just; the sheer physical punishment it received from two colossal, unrelenting demons started to wear it down as none of the spellfire it had soaked up since arriving in Veilgrad could. It was a creature of chaos; much of that magic had misfired or fizzled on contact, doing little harm. The nurdrakhaan, their own inherent magic shielded by Elilial’s intervention, bypassed its defenses by the simple expediency of hitting it.

Repeatedly, unceasingly, utterly disregarding their own accumulating injuries. Demons did not know mercy or retreat. If they felt fear, it only fueled their rage. Not for anything would they stop.

Wisely, all the mortal warlocks observing this had removed themselves further as soon as the necro-drake’s attention was off them. Not so far as to be completely absent from the scene, but they could watch it far more comfortably from a distance of several miles. It was a clear day on the vast prairie, and not at all hard to see the three titans trying to pound each other to smithereens from far enough away not to be in the fallout zone.

The Wreath were too enraptured by the spectacle, and perhaps too exhausted as the adrenaline began to ebb from them, to even register surprise when darkness swelled in their midst and Natchua stepped out of midair.

“Everybody okay?” she demanded brusquely, glancing back and forth to get a quick headcount.

Embras Mogul had plucked a strand of brittle winter tallgrass and was idly chewing on the broken end, staring at the awesome spectacle in the distance.

“Lady,” he drawled after a pause, “do you have any idea how illegal that was?”

“A lot less for me than for you,” she retorted. “Hereditary privileges of House Leduc, law of expedient measures in defense of the realm… And that’s before the Throne weighs how much trouble there’d be if they try to come down on a very popular noble for saving an Imperial city. I might have to pay a fine.”

“Fine, nothin’,” he huffed. “You just went from Quentin Vex having a thick file on you to having your very own office at Intelligence of dedicated agents making sure he gets a daily briefing on what you have for breakfast. You’re gonna be someone’s job now, Natchua. Several someones. Ever hear the term Zero Twenty?”

A particularly furious hiss echoed across the prairie, followed by a howl of impotent rage as one of the nurdrakhaan seized the necro-drake’s ribcage in its jaws and arced through the air to slam it into the ground.

“You’re sweet to worry about my well-being,” Natchua said, “which is what I’ll have to assume is going on here since I know you are constitutionally incapable of giving a shit where you stand with the legitimate authorities. It’s the only thing about you I’ve ever been able to relate to. I gather, regarding my earlier question, you all actually are okay?”

“Do you care?”

He turned to her, raising his chin so as to meet her eyes without the wide brim of his omnipresent hat in the way, just watching her with an expression as neutral as his tone. In almost any situation that phrase would be a challenge, or at least sarcastic, but Mogul was strangely subdued. It was just…a question. One by one, the rest of the warlocks shifted their attention from the colossal thrashing taking place in the distance, turning to watch her with the same weary neutrality.

“Course I do,” Natchua replied, shrugging once. “We made a deal, and you did your part. You protected my city, so I protect you. Doesn’t mean any of us have to like each other, but I keep my word.”

Mogul made a broad, chewing motion with his jaw, shifting the tallgrass stalk to the other corner of his mouth, and then nodded once. “Yup. We’re fairly winded, but no injuries. That’s a little bit more exercise than we like to get on our operations, but you are dealing with professionals, here.”

“I think I’m getting a blister,” Rupi complained. “I’m gonna file for compensation from House Leduc.” Vanessa halfheartedly nudged her with an elbow.

“Knock yourself out,” Natchua grunted. “I have a steward now; he strikes me as somebody who could use a laugh. Thank you for holding that thing back, all of you. If everyone’s still shipshape, your part in this is done. Go rest up while I finish this.”

Another surge of shadow and she was gone.

“So, this may go without saying,” Embras announced, turning to the others, “but there’ll be no question of letting Duchess Bossypants get the impression she’s going to order us around.”

He was answered mostly by grins, though not entirely.

“Is it necessary to be defiant for defiance’s sake, Embras?” Bradshaw asked. “She just jumped to nearly within swiping range of that…mess. I don’t know if getting any closer is a smart thing to do.”

“You’re not wrong,” Embras replied, “but ask yourself how confident you are that a girl whose main strategy in all conflict is ‘hit it with the craziest thing you can imagine’ can actually clean this up, instead of inventing an exciting new way for it to be worse.”

Bradshaw sighed heavily.

“I suspect that common sense concerning Natchua will never be the easiest or most pleasant thing to hear,” Hiroshi said with a small smile, and then was the first to shadow-jump out.

They arrived in a staggered formation, materializing one by one over several seconds behind Natchua, who was holding out both hands toward the conflict between the three enormous monsters, which itself was uncomfortably close. She did not look up at them, but at that distance an elf could not have failed to detect their presence, even through the enormous noise of screeching, hissing, and earth-shaking impacts.

“Really?” she said in a sour tone, otherwise remaining focused on her work.

“Well, we’re not allowed to wage war on the Pantheon’s servants,” Embras said reasonably, “or you. Putting down demons and…I guess…other assorted creepy-crawlies is all we’ve got left. And surely you don’t think we trust you to handle this unsupervised.”

“Just don’t get in the way,” Natchua snapped. To summon the nurdrakhaan, she had used a scaled up version of the basic katzil summoning and binding spell—it had required exponentially more power and certain parts of the matrix were fiendishly complex in comparison, or anybody could have been able to do it, but the result had been a spell that worked more or less the same, including having a built-in mechanism to banish the creatures back to their own plane at will and familiar controls the caster could leverage to direct the demons.

After leaving them to soften up the necro-drake for a few minutes, she now seized those reins actively, not least because the chaos monster was softening them in turn and the whole idea was to finish this business as efficiently as possible. It took her a few false starts to get the hang of it; the process was very similar to the intuitive control she had over her own muscles, but there were inherent mental barriers against applying that to two entities separated from her physically, with very different types of bodies and startlingly simple nervous systems, and through whose senses she could not see directly. It was both intuitive and counter-intuitive, and it was not at all helped by the fact that she was trying to pin down a thrashing monstrosity which did not at all want to cooperate.

But in the end, the nurdrakhaan were huge, and bulky, and Natchua’s own personal lack of subtlety in her approach to life found a harmony with their simple minds and the task at hand.

One of the gigantic demons got a firm grip on the necro-drake’s long neck; under her careful control, it was light enough not to shatter the brittle glass of its “skeleton,” which would have just freed the monster and caused its self-healing ability to restart the whole struggle. Natchua directed that nurdrakhaan to bury its nose into the earth itself, pinning the necro-drake down by an inexorable grip right behind its head, exactly the way one would hold a venomous snake. This mostly denied it leverage, though there remained the problem of its four legs, tail, and wings, all of which could be used to push off from the ground.

She settled that by having the second nurdrakhaan curl itself up like a sleeping cat and sit on the chaos beast. That, ironically, took more doing, as nurdrakhaan did not normally touch the ground at any point in their life cycle and the demon had trouble parsing the concept. But Natchua prevailed, and soon enough the necro-drake was weighed down by an iron grip on its neck and the huge bulk of a coiled beast flattening it against the earth. It continued to struggle, but ineffectually. There was little it could do but twist its head very slightly from one side to the other, and claw helplessly at the ground with its talons.

“Damn,” one of the Black Wreath warlocks murmured from behind her, followed by a low whistle from another.

Several of them drew breath to protest as Natchua stepped forward toward the pile of monsters, but ultimately decided against bothering to argue with her. They did catch on, eventually.

She strode up until she was less than her own height distant from the necro-drake’s nose. It snapped its jaws at her, its attempts to lunge forward carrying it only a few inches, which were immediately pulled back. Even the impact of its teeth were practically a thunderclap at that proximity.

“You’re not very smart, are you?” she asked aloud. “I suppose there’s no point in asking you to explain yourself. Do you even know who sent you here, to do this?”

It parted its jaws to scream in helpless fury, trying to twist under its attackers. The question was rhetorical, anyway; now that she finally had the luxury of examining the necro-drake up close, Natchua could tell at a glance that it had no sapience. She was not versed in chaos magic, save for Professor Yornhaldt’s warnings that it was an inexact science at best and incredibly likely to backfire. Chaos did not submit to containment and could only with great exactitude to coaxed to flow in certain directions. From an academic perspective she could appreciate the incredible skill that had gone into this creation.

Not that that was going to stop her from smashing it until barely fragments remained.

More to the point, regardless of one’s own magical specialty, one could always discern the presence or lack of a mind in a magical creature. Magic was information, and so was thought; a discrete intelligence was a raging bonfire within the flows and currents of whatever spells shaped a being. This one’s barely constituted a flicker. Modern arcane golems were more intellectually sophisticated.

With time and care, she could undoubtedly have examined the necro-drake in enough detail to discern its weak points, the flaws in its component spells which would cause it to collapse if struck in just the right way. Whether she had the time was debatable, but she sure as hell lacked the inclination.

Natchua summoned the shadows to her, held both her hands forward, and poured pure shadow magic into it.

The idea had come from Kheshiri, the way the succubus had laboriously suffused her own being with shadow magic to better illuminate and control her own component spellcraft. It had taken her months, though. Most people thought shadow magic was limited by the paucity of the long-dead magic fields whose remains it was collectively composed of. Natchua, though, knew a trick.

You had to both recycle the shadow magic continuously—something that would not occur to most practitioners because none of the four primary schools could do that, given how they interacted with sapient minds—and augment one’s supply by reaching for the shadow residue held in other dimensions, a skill available only to warlocks, as drawing power and creatures from Hell was all part of their stock in trade, and no one else’s.

Shadowbeam was a spell that rarely saw the light of day, so rare was the warlock who suspected it existed, much less knew the method. Its base effect was similar to the garden variety shadowbolt, except in a continuous stream rather than a single discharge. In this case, Natchua prolonged its duration significantly by dimming the components of the spell which added its kinetic force and neurological pain. She simply cast a steady stream of bruise-purple darkness straight into the necro-drake’s face.

Shadow magic poured into it, flooding its aura, filling the spaces between its component spells and causing them, as it had with Kheshiri, to stand out in stark relief to her subtler senses. Natchua still could not make heads or tails of most of what she saw, but doing this, she could more clearly discern the presence of chaos. She felt it, trying to seize and twist the massive inflow of shadow magic, and being actively countered by the direct effort of the goddess now looking over her shoulder.

From Elilial she sensed nothing directly, but knowing the Dark Lady was watching so closely regardless made her equal parts angry and uneasy.

More to the point, she could finally discern the source. It was an incongruously tiny thing, for such a powerful creature as it inhabited, but there it was: the merest sliver of absence, pushing against all the magic around it. She could get a vague sense of the way the necro-drake’s component spells had been ingeniously balanced against that constant pull and one another to float around that tiny seed of chaos without being drawn in or destroyed, while all other magic done at it would be instantly countered. All magic not aided by the hand of a god, at least.

It was just one little speck, embedded in the skull, right between its chaotic eyes. One minuscule source for all this horror.

She started to reach out with one of her shadow-tendrils to extract the thing, then thought better of it. Instead of a scalpel, Natchua summoned a hammer: a burning, entropic spear of infernal power, which she hurled straight into the center of that chaos spark. Guided by Elilial’s own protection, it struck true, smashing right through the will of chaos to twist reality around itself.

That careful balance of spells was suddenly not so carefully balanced at all. In a chain reaction taking barely two seconds, they failed, imploded, and burst, spraying fragments of shattered black bone in every direction—save straight forward, as Natchua pushed against the explosion with a shockwave of her own power. Both nurdrakhaan dropped, the one holding the necro-drake’s neck diving straight down and half-burying its head in the soil, the other thumping to the earth. Around them washed a pulse of pure darkness which immediately dissipated, the vast well of shadow magic with which she had suffused the monster rushing out and back to its source now that it had no spell matrix to inhabit.

Natchua took two steps backward, and reached out with her mind to nudge her two demon thralls. They rose up from the ground in silence, leaving her to examine the scene. Where they had pinned the necro-drake there was nothing but a shallow crater, with flecks of broken obsidian strewn outward in all directions. No taint of chaos or infernomancy remained among most of the wreckage, but she could still feel that tiny shard, somewhere. Natchua frowned and started to kneel down to look closer. That had to be found and dealt with, urgently. It shouldn’t be too hard, now that she had time to work…

Then an entirely new kind of roar split the sky, accompanied by a rapidly approaching beat of wings. Several of the gathered Wreath yelled in alarm, and Natchua shot back to her feet, turning to face whatever the hell was happening now.

She barely spun in time to catch it; dragons could move with impossible speed when they wanted to.

An enormous golden form descended from the sky like a diving falcon, seizing one of her captive nurdrakhaan in his claws and bearing the hissing demon to the ground. At the edge of her awareness, Natchua could clearly hear familiar voices shouting her name, but she had no time to listen to that.

With Elilial’s laughter ringing gleefully in her head, she lashed out in sudden fury.

This time the shadowbeam carried the full force of its unmodified base spell, and with all the loose shadow magic still lingering in this area, it had enough impact to bodily rip the gold dragon off his target and shove him physically into the sky like a blazing comet. Dragons might be the universal masters of magic, but the shadow schools were a wild card against which few casters could be prepared, especially for exotic spells like the shadowbeam which hardly any would ever encounter. She sent the dragon hurtling a good three hundred feet straight into the sky before he gathered himself enough to counter her attack with a rock-solid shield of divine light, and then a pulse straight back at her with ran right down her beam of shadow magic and dissolved it.

Natchua allowed that, only holding onto it long enough for the divine attack spell to be soaked up by her shadowbeam before striking her directly. She only needed a few seconds to do the needful, anyway.

Not for nothing was the banishing spell worked right into the summons and control matrix, ready to be activated at an instant’s need. One should never bring forth demons without the ability to put them back down. Both nurdrakhaan seemed to dissolve from their heads backwards as the fiery collars of light suddenly raced down their sinuous bodies, dissipating past their tails. Behind them sounded a pair of thunderclaps, staggered by less than half a second, as air rushed in to fill the void left by the two huge creatures being returned to their home dimensions.

That was all the time it took for the dragon to be back.

This time, instead of coming at her with fire and claws the way he had the nurdrakhaan, he landed on the ground right in front of her, lowered his head and roared in fury, a show of surprising restraint she attributed to those same three voices still shouting desperately at her and him both.

“Wait, wait, Lord Ampophrenon, she’s a friend!”

“It’s all right, stop attacking, both of you—”

“Natchua, no!”

Instead of whatever no was supposed to mean in this context, Natchua shot straight upward on another pillar of conjoined shadow tentacles holding her by the legs, till she was at eye level with the towering divine beast. He bared his fangs fully, emitting trickles of acrid smoke, his luminous citrine eyes narrowed to furious slits.

Natchua drew back her hand and slapped him hard across the tip of his nose.

Obviously, that did nothing physically to the dragon—in fact, her own hand hurt quite a lot after impacting his surprisingly hard scales—but he blinked, shook his head and snorted, apparently out of sheer surprise.

“What the hell is your problem?” she bellowed right into Ampophrenon’s face. “You show up immediately after a crisis and the first thing you do is attack the people who just solved it? Who raised you?”

“She did not just do that,” Rupi said in an awed tone from behind her. Natchua wondered for a moment what any of the Wreath were still doing there, only belatedly realizing that the unpleasant tingle at the back of her neck was a divine working spread across the area. One quick mental push revealed that the dragon had blocked shadow-jumping, no easy thing to do. But then, he was a dragon.

“Everybody stop!” Trissiny shouted, finally clambering up Ampophrenon’s neck from where she’d apparently been seated and grabbing him by the horns, a position from which she could command both his attention and Natchua’s. “This is clearly a misunderstanding! Natchua, could you not be yourself for five minutes until we straighten this out?”

Behind her, Gabriel slid off Ampoprhenon’s neck and tumbled gracelessly to the torn-up prairie below, followed by Toby, who landed beside his sprawled friend with catlike agility.

“Well, look here,” Natchua spat, “a dragonload of paladins. Exactly what I needed half an hour ago.”

“If you think we coulda got here faster, I’d like to know how,” Gabriel complained, getting to his feet and dusting dirt, ash, and shards of necro-drake off his coat. “Gods, what a mess. What’d you do this time, Natchua?”

“Your job is what she did, boy,” Embras Mogul commented, and Natchua very nearly turned around and pegged him with a shadowbolt for his trouble.

Ampophrenon the Gold shifted his pointed head to look directly at the leader of the Black Wreath and all his assembled followers, then snorted again.

“I sense the taint of chaos here,” the dragon rumbled. “Am I to understand that you put it to rest?”

“No thanks to you,” Natchua retorted.

He bared his fangs at her once more. Each was longer than her forearm, and he had a lot of them. “You, a spellcaster, destroyed a threat most notable for its imperviousness to magic? You will explain yourself, warlock. Explain quickly, and for your own sake, explain well.”


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16 – 51

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Tendrils of shadow rose beneath her, twining together into a great twisted trunk and entangling her legs, and lifted Natchua straight up. She rose to a solid twenty feet in height, balanced perfectly in the tentacles’ grasp, until she judged that a sufficient altitude to do what she needed. Off to the south, beyond the range of human senses, she could see the necro-drake thrashing about and erratically charging in different directions as its new targets teased and tormented it from all sides. The green blotches of elven groves were barely visible to her in other directions—close enough the woodkin shaman would undoubtedly be aware of the large-scale infernomancy that was about to be performed on this spot. Hopefully they’d do as woodkin usually did: duck their heads and wait it out rather than taking action. The last thing she needed was nosy shamans disrupting her casting, to say nothing of what would happen if they appealed to the Confederacy and brought more of those damned Highguard.

Projecting steady streams of fire from her palms, Natchua quickly sketched out two huge spell circles, establishing only the basic boundaries to delineate their overall purpose, then paused to survey her work before getting down to refining the specific—rather elaborate—details this was going to need. For a moment, she considered a third, then thought better of it. Two should be plenty.

Next was supplies. In quick surges of shadow, she summoned from Leduc Manor the extra materials necessary for this that she hadn’t carried on her person: a selection of power crystals, enchanting dusts of three distinct grades, and finally, two bemused succubi.

“What the f— ” Melaxyna broke off and clapped a hand over her eyes. “Well, at least she’s not dead, I was more than half convinced…”

“What kind of bassackward nowhere is this supposed to be?” Kheshiri complained, peering about at the vacant prairie. “You never take me anywhere nice.”

Both demons fell silent as they caught sight of the sprawling circles burned into the ground to either side of their arrival point, the nearby stalks of tallgrass still smoking. In eerie unison, their expressions changed to a matching look of tremulous uncertainty as they recognized what she was about to do and basic pragmatism rebelled at the implications, while their Vanislaad attraction to carnage reveled in them.

“Have you finally lost your last vestiges of sense?” Melaxyna demanded. Kheshiri just began squealing and giggling. After that first moment of uncertainty, they seemed to have taken off in opposite directions, almost as if they’d planned it.

“Enough!” Natchua barked from atop her shadow-tendril perch. “I do not have time to argue; either you trust me or you don’t. I need those circles charged. You both understand the proper lines to augment with enchanting dust and the runic nexi where power crystals will need to be placed. Each of you pick a circle and get to work. Double-check with me if you have any questions, but otherwise no dawdling! We have one chance to save Veilgrad.”

Kheshiri instantly snapped her wings out, snatching up a bag of enchanting dust and swooping off to begin tracing glittering purple lines around the perimeter of one of the circles. Melaxyna hesitated for two full seconds, just long enough Natchua feared the succubus was about to rebel at this. But then she just shook her head, gathered up an armful of power crystals and launched herself at the other circle, muttering under her breath. Even Kheshiri wouldn’t have been able to make out any words at that distance, but Natchua of course heard her clearly.

“Hell with it, either I trust the little freak or everything’s twice-fucked anyway. She hasn’t ended the world yet.”

Natchua forbore comment outwardly, though she spared a moment to hope that remark didn’t prove prophetic. Then she resumed firing jets of flame into the ground, carefully avoiding both swooping succubi and searing the finer details of her summoning circles into place. The Wreath would hold the line for a while, but the clock was ticking.


Despite his dire commentary on their situation, Rogrind seemed in little hurry to remedy it. Of course, as he subsequently pointed out when she complained, they were a short walk from one of the province’s main highways, and with an iota of luck, could there flag down a lift to Tiraas. In the absolute worst case scenario, they’d have to walk to Madouris, which was closer; in nicer weather that would have been merely tiring and time-consuming. At present, it would be a very unpleasant slog through the thick snow, though Rogrind insisted he had enough of his resistance potions to tide them both over. Which did nothing to make the prospect appealing to Rasha, who was already not enjoying standing here in the snow while he fussed over the ruins of his carriage.

She understood his purpose, of course, for all that it was no concern of hers and thus annoying. A custom carriage outfitted by Svennish intelligence contained all sorts of goodies his agency wouldn’t want falling into the hands of anyone who might come to investigate this wreck. Already Rogrind had pried loose multiple concealed devices and made enough of them disappear to reveal he had potent bag-of-holding enchantments on multiple pockets. Including, she noticed with amusement, the vehicle registry plates. Undoubtedly those wouldn’t lead directly to the Svenheim embassy, but Imperial Intelligence would take one look at what had happened to this carriage and begin tracking everything as far as its substantial resources would allow.

“Oh, that’s real subtle,” she scoffed as Rogrind very carefully uncorked a vial from his apparently substantial alchemy kit and poured its contents over a console which had been hidden beneath the driver’s seat. Most of its dials were shattered anyway, but the thing itself must have been distinctive. At least before the metal had begun to dissolve under the potent acid with which he was now dousing it. “I’m more nobody’s gonna have any questions about that.”

“Obviously,” the dwarf replied without looking up, continuing to be unperturbed by her disapproval, “the best technique is to avoid notice entirely. When that fails, it can suffice to ensure that there remains nothing to notice. Alas, this is somewhat more labor-intensive, and less likely to succeed. In the business one must not expect the fates to align in one’s favor.”

“Can’t see, don’t see, won’t see,” she agreed. The dwarf sighed softly but said nothing, and Rasha gleefully filed that away. He didn’t like being reminded that the Thieves’ Guild’s work was very similar to his own. There was more amusement to be leveraged from that, surely. “While we’re standing around making small talk anyway, what are you still doing in Tiraas at all? I’d’ve figured you’d be reassigned as hell after your cover got blown last year.”

“An agent whose identity is not known has many uses,” he explained, still outwardly calm. “An agent whose identity is known in his country of operation has other, specific ones. In particular when one operates opposite skilled players like Quentin Vex, it is vastly useful to have obvious targets for him to follow around. There are no wins or losses in the great game, Rasha, merely changes upon the board. Hm.”

“Something wrong?” He’d stopped pouring, as a faint light had begun to flicker on one of the surviving pieces of the instrument panel he was destroying. Rogrind hesitated before continuing his work, quickly drizzling acid over that, too, and snuffing it out.

“No more wrong than we should expect, I think. Apparently we are being tracked by means of fae magic.”

“Hm,” she echoed, frowning. There were tradeoffs in fae versus arcane divination; fae tracking was all but impossible to deflect or evade, but so inherently imprecise that it was often not more useful than more vulnerable but specific arcane scrying. “Friend or foe?”

“Sadly, we would need an actual practitioner to determine that. The simple ability to detect fae attention via a passive enchantment is state of the art. By your leave, I believe we should adopt a cautious posture, in any case.”

“Leave granted.”

He took great care to re-cork the bottle which had contained acid and wipe it off on the surviving upholstery before stowing it away. Rasha would’ve just discarded the bottle on the grounds that any idiot would be able to discern what had happened here and one more piece of glass wouldn’t tell them anything, but then again, thieves and spies weren’t so similar that they had exactly the same training. Only when that was done did he produce a device made to look like a pocketwatch—a standard deception, Glory had over a dozen enchanted devices set in watch casings—and flipped it open.

Whatever it was, the information it contained instantly changed the dwarf’s mood.

“Hide,” he hissed, already turning and bolting. Rasha’s only instincts were trained enough to set her into motion before she bothered to ask questions. For a dwarf, Rogrind was amazingly agile, but she was still faster, and so managed to beat him to the shelter of one of the angled sheets of rock Schwartz had summoned out of the ground last year. Funny how things worked out; for all she knew, this was the second time she’d taken shelter behind this particular bulwark.

“What is it?” Rasha breathed once they were concealed. Rogrind still had his device out; she snuck a peek over his shoulder but couldn’t make heads or tails of the multiple tiny dials set into its face.

“We’re about to have company,” he whispered. “An arcane translocation signal just activated in this vicinity.”

“Scrying?”

“No such luck, this is for teleportation.”

“Shit,” she whispered. It might not be bad; Rasha’s friends would definitely be looking for her by now. Off the top of her head, though, she didn’t know of anyone in her inner circle who could teleport. Then again, Trissiny knew all sorts of wacky people, and Glory knew everyone. She looked at the very clear tracks the two of them had made through the snow right to their hiding spot and grimaced, noting Rogrind doing the same.

He pulled out another vial, drank half, and handed the rest to her. Rasha downed it without asking, and he immediately tugged her arm, beckoning her to follow. They set off to another position behind a large hunk of fallen masonry—this time leaving behind no traces in the snow. That was some good alchemy; thanks to Glory’s tutelage, Rasha had some idea what potions like that cost. It stood to reason an intelligence agent would have resources, but she hadn’t realized Svenheim made such heavy use of potions. That information was worth taking back to the Guild.

Even as they moved, a shrill whine like a very out-of-season mosquito began to resonate at the very edge of her hearing, growing steadily louder. No sooner had the pair ducked behind their new concealment than sparks of blue light began to flicker in the air over by the carriage’s wreck. It was but another second before a bright flash blazed across the ruins, and then over a dozen people materialized.

Rasha did not curse again, though she wanted to. These were not friendlies.

By far the majority were soldiers in crisp uniforms, with battlestaves at the ready; they instantly spread out, forming a perimeter around their landing zone and several detaching themselves from the formation to cover the wrecked carriage and the body of Sister Lanora. Rasha didn’t recognize those uniforms. They were white, vaguely resembling Silver Legion formal dress, but their insignia was a golden ankh over the breast. She’d thought the Holy Legionnaires only wore that ridiculously pompous armor, but one of the other parties present revealed the troops could not be anyone else.

Glory had insisted all her apprentices attend occasional services at the Universal Church, simply for the sake of being exposed to polite society. It was not the first time she had seen him, thus, but his presence here threw everything Rasha thought she understood into disarray. Archpope Justinian never left the safety of his power base in the Cathedral. And why would he? There, he was all but invulnerable, even against the countless factions and powerful individuals he had spent the last few years industriously antagonizing. Yet, there he was, his powerful build and patrician features unmistakable, behind a golden shield which had flashed into place around him the instant he’d arrived.

Rasha snuck a glance at Rogrind, who was staring at the new arrivals with the closed expression of an observant man determined to take in all possible data and reveal none in turn.

“Ugh!” shouted one of the other people with the Archpope, a stoop-shouldered individual bundled up as if against an Athan’Khar winter rather than a clear day in the Tira Valley. “These conditions are totally unacceptable!”

“Unfortunately, Rector, this is what we have to work with,” Justinian replied, his mellifluous voice utterly calm. “I apologize, but I must rely on your skill to overcome the inconvenience. This is the last place Lanora’s spirit existed upon the mortal plane, and distance from it makes the task more difficult. Seconds and inches are precious. Nassir, is that…?”

“Think so, your Holiness,” reported one of the soldiers, straightening from where he’d been kneeling at the very edge of the bloodstained patch of snow. The man’s face was hard, but Justinian’s grumpy companion took one look at the remains of Sister Lanora and was noisily sick into the nearest snowdrift. “No other bodies nearby, and she’s wearing Purist gear. Unfortunately her face is…gone.”

The Archpope, perhaps fittingly, was made of sterner stuff. His expression was deeply grave as he joined the soldier and gazed down at the body, but he did not flinch or avert his eyes. “What terrible damage. I don’t believe I have ever seen the like. It’s almost as if…”

“It looks like something triggered small explosions inside her body,” Nassir said, scowling deeply. “In the head, and look, there in the side. That wound would’ve been inflicted first. The head wound would be instantly lethal, so there’s no point in attacking again after that.”

“Have you seen such injuries before, Nassir?”

“Not in person, your Holiness. I’ve been briefed on the like, though, in the Army. Not sure anything I’ve heard of would’ve done it here, though. Some fairies are known to do nasty things like this, but nothing that lives this close to the capital. And of course, if you see unusually ugly wounds, infernomancy is always a suspicion…”

“There has been nothing of the kind done upon this spot in many years,” Justinian stated, raising his head to slowly direct his frown across the scenery. “At this range, I would sense it even under the Black Wreath’s concealment.”

The soldier nodded. “That leaves arcane attack spells. They exist. Very illegal, though. The Wizards’ Guild and the Salyrites both prohibit such craft.”

A moment of contemplative silence fell.

And then, a hand came to rest on Rasha’s shoulder, causing her to jump.

“Go on, say it,” breathed a new voice next to her. “Ask him.”

She just barely managed to stay silent, turning to gawk at the man who had appeared from nowhere between her and Rogrind: the waiter from the cafe who had warned her and Zafi of the Purist ambush. He was even still in his askew tuxedo, the cravat untied and hanging unevenly down his chest. Now, he was watching the scene unfolding before them with the wide-eyed eagerness of a child at a play.

Then she noticed that Rogrind had slumped, unconscious, to the ground, face-down in the snow.

“What of a Thieves’ Guild hedge mage?” Justinian asked, and the waiter began cackling aloud in sheer glee. Rasha frantically tried to shush him without adding to the noise herself.

“They…would be very hesitant to do such a thing, your Holiness,” the soldier named Nassir answered, his voice slowed with thought. Amazingly, neither he nor any of the others appeared to notice the gleeful hooting coming from Rasha’s hiding place. “The legal authorities would investigate any such thing, and possibly get Imperial Intelligence involved. Plus, if the Guild were feeling particularly cruel, they’d do something that would kill far more painfully and slowly. As deaths go, it doesn’t get much more merciful than the sudden loss of the entire brain. It’s not in their nature to risk official attention for something that gains them so little. Still,” he added pensively, “if I had to list mages who might know spellcraft like this, a back-alley Guild caster would top the list, even if they were hesitant to use it in practice. For example, this could be a vicious repurposing of a lock-breaking spell.”

“Oh, relax,” Rasha’s new companion chuckled, patting her on the head as the conversation over Lanora’s corpse continued. “They can’t hear or see us, I took care of that. Also your dwarf buddy here. Don’t worry about him, he’ll be fine; he’s just taking a nap. We’re about to see some shit that he really doesn’t need to, is all. You’ll have to convey my apologies when he wakes up.”

There were just too many questions; she settled on one almost at random. “Who the hell are you?!”

The man turned to meet her gaze, still wearing a cocky half-grin. And for just an instant, he let the veil slip, just by a fraction.

Weight and sheer power hammered at her consciousness as Rasha locked eyes with an intelligence as far beyond her own as the sun was beyond a candle. It was just for the barest fraction of a second, but it was enough to cause her to sit down hard in the snow.

Before them, Justinian raised his head suddenly like a hound catching a scent, and once more turned in a slow circle, studying his surroundings with a frown.

“Easy, there, Rasha,” Eserion said kindly, helping her back up. “I know you’ve had a pisser of a day already, but stay with me; you really need to see this next bit. Moments like this are rare, and you’ll almost never get forewarning of them, much less a front-row seat. We’re about to watch the world change right out from under us.”


One of the worst things about Natchua was that she was sometimes extremely right.

The Black Wreath didn’t fight; at most they laid ambushes. They contained, and that only after preparing the ground ahead of them to the best of their ability, luring their prey exactly where they wanted it before striking. Whether putting down loose demons, rogue warlocks, or their own traitors, it was simply not their way to engage in a frontal assault. Maybe, occasionally, the appearance of one after setting up the scene with the most exacting care, but actually fighting? Hurling themselves into the fray with spell and weapon and their own lifeblood on the line? It simply wasn’t done. It was not Elilial’s way.

Be foxes, not spiders.

The damnable thing was that their usual approach absolutely would not have worked here. The necro-drake was very much like a demon in how predictably it reacted, but there was a lot they could do about demons. Against this thing, their spells were simply not able to make a lasting impact. The mission wasn’t even to destroy or contain it, but only to keep it busy. There was nothing for it but to fight.

Embras Mogul wasn’t particularly surprised at how satisfying it was to simply let loose with all his destructive skill at an enemy, nor how the other survivors of his cult were clearly finding the same liberating vigor in it. After all they’d been through, it was only natural. He was rather surprised to find out that they were, in fact, pretty good at it.

They knew each other intuitively, with the intimacy of long cooperation and bonds forged in suffering. The Wreath moved in small groups, noting and reacting to one another so intuitively it felt like pure instinct. One trio would vanish as the necro-drake dived at them, and others would pummel it from multiple directions with shadowbolts, forcing the increasingly frustrated monster to whirl about and struggle to pick a target while under attack from all sides, only to be thwarted again when its chosen victims vanished into their own conjured darkness when it even tried to get close.

The poor thing was actually rather dumb. It never improved its strategy, just got progressively sloppier as going on and on without making any progress made it ever more angry.

It wasn’t as if they were making progress, either, but the difference was they were having fun. For once, the shoe was on the other foot: after a string of debacles and defeats, they were the cats tormenting the mouse and not the other way around. Embras kept an eye on the others every moment he could spare his attention from the necro-drake, watching for injury or signs of fatigue, but rather than growing tired, he saw his compatriots having more fun than he’d seen them have in years. Some, like Hiroshi, seemed to have fallen into a trancelike state of flow, concentrating in apparent serenity on their spells and tactics, while others were smiling, grinning with savage vindication as they did what no responsible warlocks ever allowed themselves to do: poured unrestrained destruction at their target.

It was, as Vanessa had said, cathartic. And he was a little afraid of what it might mean for the future, perhaps more than he was of the inept monstrosity trying to slaughter them all. It was going to be…a letdown, going back to their usual ways after this burst of sheer release. If they even could. Was there still a place for the Wreath as it was in the world? And if not, how big a mistake was it to tie their fates to Natchua of all bloody people?

Despite his misgivings, Mogul was having such a grand time shadow-jumping about and hammering the chaos best with infernal carnage that his immediate reaction to the sudden end of the exercise was a surge of pure disappointment. In the next moment, as he beheld the nature of that end, his emotional response felt more…complex.

The sound that echoed suddenly across the prairie brought stillness, as warlocks and necro-drake alike all stopped what they were doing and turned to stare. It was a terrible noise rarely heard on the mortal plane, and always a herald of catastrophe: a low sibilance that was like a hiss, if a hiss was a roar, a sound that was at once subtly slender and deafening.

The necro-drake’s bony face was unable to convey expression, but somehow, its body language as it turned to confront this new threat showed shock, even a hint of fear. It crouched, letting its wings fall to the sides, and lowered its head.

Embras Mogul, meanwhile, suddenly sat down in the tallgrass, laughing his head off.

Vanessa appeared next to him in a swell of shadow. “You know, I think we may have miscalculated, allying ourselves with that girl.”

“She doesn’t do anything halfway, does she?” Rupi added, coming to join them on foot. “Bloody hell, Embras. It’s like a…an infernal Tellwyrn.”

He just laughed. It was all too much.


They were adolescents; she’d made the summoning circles smaller on purpose, simply because full-sized adults would be too large to effectively grapple with the necro-drake the way she needed them to. All they had to do was pin the bastard down so she could step in and deliver the coup de grace. Behind their beaked heads, between their triple rows of crimson eyes and the flared directional fins, they wore collars of glowing crimson light, containing the runes which imbued them with the pact of summoning, restricting their behavior to that commanded by the warlock who had called them to this plane. Such bindings had never been placed on demons of this species before. They floated above her, eel-like bodies larger than a Rail caravan undulating sinuously as they awaited their mistress’s command.

It was with grim satisfaction that Natchua beheld the suddenly cowering necro-drake. Standing on the prairie beneath two captive nurdrakhaan, she pointed one finger at the monstrosity.

“Boys? Sic ‘im.”

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16 – 50

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She didn’t dare stop moving.

The necro-drake reacted a lot like a demon, for all that there was no infernomancy in or around it and indeed, any such conventional magic would have disintegrated due to its innate chaos effects, as Natchua had been quick to observe. When attacked, it attacked back, predictable as clockwork. It had gone after everyone in Veilgrad who had fired spells at it, and only been dissuaded from dive-bombing the mag cannon emplacement because Natchua had intercepted it mid-attack. And like many species of demon, it had no strategy beyond rabid frontal assault. That was the good thing: leading the creature away from the city was as simple as hammering it with spells and shadow-jumping away to strike again before it could kill her in retaliation. It didn’t get tired and never wised up to her strategy, just kept coming after her. The beast was no dragon; it wasn’t sapient, and not even particularly clever as animals went. A bear or wolf would have long since given up and gone to do something less futile.

That was the extent of the good news.

Natchua had nothing with which to fight except magic, and against a creature of chaos, magic was useless. Worse than useless—some of the misfires caused by her infernal spells hammering the necro-drake could easily have rebounded on her devastatingly had she been standing closer, which of course was exactly why she kept herself at a distance (aside from the threat posed by the beast itself). Also why she only attacked with magical projectile spells, no energy beams or other effects that would make a connection between her and her target. Spells rebounded, disintegrated, fizzled, transformed into harmless puffs of mist or far less harmless bursts of fire and acid; it seemed each one found a new way to go wrong. They certainly weren’t doing the necro-drake any harm, for all that it clearly perceived her hostile intent and continued coming after her.

She had worked out one trick so far which seemed to do the thing some damage, and was reluctant to use it. It was complex enough that only her elven speed and infernal mastery made it possible: she had to summon a fragment of native rock from Hell and use the inherent volatility of the dimensional transit to fling it at the necro-drake at high velocity, which was at least three individual things few warlocks could have done. Worse, that would leave infernally irradiated chunks of rock littering the landscape unless she took the time to both banish them back to Hell and siphon up the local infernal energy before it corrupted someone, two more feats that were beyond the average warlock’s ability and difficult enough even for Natchua that taking a few seconds to clean the mess she’d left in Veilgrad had nearly allowed the chaos monster to grab her. Thus, she wasn’t about to do that again, for all that it had been far more effective at harming her foe than any of her direct spells.

Worst of all, what harm she did do was quickly reversed; the thing had some kind of innate healing ability. Amid all the constant misfires, there were now again explosions and conjured projectiles which struck the necro-drake, revealing that the craggy black glass of its skeleton was exactly as fragile as it seemed like it should be, but when broken its shards would immediately flow back into place.

Infernomancy was the magic of destruction. All other things being equal, Natchua was certain she could destroy it through brute force alone; she had more than enough of that at her fingertips to compensate for any amount of rejuvenation. But things were not equal, and all her terrible power was good for nothing more than antagonizing it. That wasn’t nothing; she’d managed to lead it away from the city, out past the outlying towns and into the wide empty stretches of the Great Plains, leaving behind a trail of charred tallgrass, outcroppings of conjured rock, at least two mutated trees which had spontaneously grown from nothing, and an annoyingly whimsical variety of other lingering effects. Between constantly dancing ahead of the beast, checking the distance to make sure she wasn’t leading it toward a village or a woodkin grove (the Confederacy would really let her have it for that), and also doing her due diligence to make sure nothing being left behind was too dangerous, Natchua was rapidly becoming overextended. Even elven stamina wouldn’t enable her to keep this up forever, or for long. She needed a solution.

And of course, the only thing she could come up with was the absolute last thing she ever wanted to do: prayer.

“Hey, bitch!”

Undoubtedly the Wreath had rituals for communing with their goddess as did any faith, and undoubtedly that wasn’t one. Natchua didn’t know them, though; Elilial had given her knowledge of infernal magic, not Elilinist ritual practice, and while there was overlap it didn’t extend to religious sacraments. But she was, after all, connected to the Queen of Hell on a personal level, and so she fell back on her own character and resorted to shouting at her. The necro-drake didn’t seem to take the yelling personally; it was already trying to slaughter her due to all the spellfire, so it wasn’t as if some harsh words would make a difference.

“Yeah, I’m talking to you,” Natchua snapped aloud at the air as she stepped out of another swell of shadows twenty yards to the northwest of where the necro-drake was now clawing at the ground where she’d been standing a second before, and fired and short burst of shadowbolts right at its head to get the stupid thing’s attention. There was one factor that would make all the difference here, and only one person she could ask about it. “Paladins are supposed to be immune to chaos! That’s why they always send paladins when there’s a chaos event. I know you can do that, so why the fuck isn’t my magic working on this thing?”

The thing in question emitted its spine-grating wail and vaulted through the air at her. Natchua peevishly launched a carriage-sized fireball right into its face and shadow-jumped out of range a split second before its claws reached her, already conjuring another flurry of shadowbolts to be discharged once she’d positioned herself to lead it farther toward the Golden Sea. If worse came to worst, maybe she could keep going long enough to lure the thing into there and just let it get lost?

Of course, then there’d be no telling where or when it’d come back out…

In all honestly Natchua had not really expected an answer. Thus, the surprise at receiving one caused her a moment’s hesitation that nearly proved fatal before she jumped away again, scowling at the amused voice that rang clearly inside her own head.

Oh, Natchua, you do get yourself into the most interesting situations.

“Yeah, that’s real fuckin’ cute,” she snarled. “Are you going to help me or not?”

I believe you made it clear we would not have that kind of relationship, my dear. I acquiesced readily to those terms. You want nothing to do with me…unless you need help?

She hammered the necro-drake with another huge fireball. Then a second, when the first fizzled out into a harmless puff of smoke seconds before impact. The follow-up spell detonated in a shockwave of kinetic force that sent her flying backwards and smashed the skeletal dragon into the ground.

Natchua was back on her feet immediately, wincing and taking stock. Nothing broken; Professor Ezzaniel had taught her how to fall and her reflexes had been enough to compensate for the suddenness. She was nicely bruised all over, though, just from the force of the hit. The necro-drake stumbled drunkenly about, its bones re-forming right before her eyes.

“And you,” she replied, straightening her sleeves, “said I could call on you for help when I needed it!”

And you don’t need it. There is no need for you to continue fooling about with that thing. You can easily escape—even retrieve your family from Leduc Manor and go back to Mathenon until all this blows over.

“It attacked my city!” she snarled, blasting the chaos beast with a particularly heavy shadowbolt. It transmuted into a three-second burst of choral song in four-point harmony, of all things, but at least that sufficed to get the monster’s attention. It came after her yet again, and she shadow-jumped deeper into the plains, heckling it with desultory spells to keep it interested while she focused on mobility and arguing with the recalcitrant deity in her head. “Protecting Veilgrad is my responsibility! That is not negotiable.”

I will protect you if I must, Natchua, but not from the consequences of your own choices. Trust me, I know more of the history of House Leduc than you ever will, dear. No one will be surprised or even disappointed if you duck your head and sit this one out. Playing hero accomplishes nothing except to fluff your ego.

“Oh, you evil—” It was doubtless for the best that she had to break off and jump repeatedly away as the monster came after her in a renewed frenzy; for a few moments she didn’t even have to fire back at it to hold its interest. Natchua ultimately made a longer shadow-jump, putting enough distance between herself and the necro-drake that it paused, looking around in confusion.

Then she launched a seething kernel of hellfire into the air in a parabolic arc that came down directly on top of the beast. Before it drew close enough to be mangled by the chaos effect, she detonated the spell, causing another huge swath of tallgrass to be charred flat and the monster crushed into the ground. It instantly began trying to rise again, though it took several moments to regather itself sufficiently.

This was not a winning strategy. She needed to kill this thing. She could kill it, of that she was absolutely certain, if only the stubborn goddess would lend her protection to Natchua’s spells.

“I. Need. Your. Help.” Baring her teeth, she growled the admission with all the reluctance of her desperate predicament.

The surge of amused laughter resounding her head made her right eyelid begin to twitch violently.

Because I like you, Natchua dear, I’ll share with you a vital life lesson someone should really have made clear to you long before now: nobody cares what you want. They care what they want. Negotiation is the art of convincing others that meeting your needs will meet their own.

She chewed on that almost literally, working her jaw and watching the necro-drake get its bearings. Despite the distance, she was the only visible landmark around them as by that point she’d taunted it far out onto the prairie. With a keening roar, it charged across the ground at her like a galloping bear rather than trying to fly.

Natchua exploded the ground under it, sending it hurtling away. Unfortunately the monster had enough wit to recognize and abandon a doomed strategy, and came at her through the air again, forcing her to shadow-jump once more to avoid its dive. The interlude had bought her precious seconds to mull Elilial’s words.

“Well, I’m not leaving,” she stated aloud. “Not until that thing is dead. If it kills me, you lose your anchor.”

I like you, my dear, truly I do, and I’m willing to help you up to a point simply because I acknowledge how much I owe you. That doesn’t mean you have a blade to my throat, Natchua. You’ve bought me enough stability that if you insist on squandering your life, I have time to find a replacement. Your existence is not vital to me. Try again.

She cursed a few times each in elvish, Tanglish, demonic and Glassian (Xyraadi was right, it was perversely gratifying to be obscene in such a pretty language). And then for a few minutes longer as Elilial laughed at her again and she had to dance once more with the necro-drake.

It wasn’t getting tired. Natchua wasn’t either, yet, but she knew that would come before too much longer. She had already kept this up longer than a human spellcaster could, and even elven stamina had its limits.

“This is your chance to redeem yourself,” she tried again, moving and firing ineffective spells while speaking. “With the truce in place, if you take action to protect—”

It doesn’t work that way, not for creatures like me. You can have a redemption story because you’re a mortal woman. I am a goddess, a fixture of history. No one will believe I acted out of anything but self-interest.

Natchua did not shriek in frustration, instead channeling her ire into a particularly vicious blast of infernal destruction. The spell disintegrated an instant before smashing into the necro-drake, instead showering it with a cloud of flower petals.

She and it stared at one another in disbelief for a second. Then she zapped it again with a shadowbolt, and carried on evading its furious retaliation.

“What do you want?” she demanded in desperation.

More infuriating, wordless amusement. You’ve already hit on the real issue, and I have explained it to you further. Show me you can work that brain, Lady Leduc. Connect the dots and make this crusade of yours useful to me; you know exactly how. Do that, and I promise you’ll have your divine protection. And yes, you’re correct: with that, you can bring this thing down.

It hit her in a burst, the way her own squirrelly schemes often did, the insight that told her what Elilial was hinting at but refused to say outright. And then she could only curse again, because she knew what she had to do.


As distractions went, it wasn’t anyone’s best work, but Natchua figured it was pretty good for a spur-of-the-moment desperation spell. One of the basic summoning spells for katzil demons bound them to obey certain commands, and if carefully memorized and practiced beforehand could be employed to instantly summon a pre-bound flying, fire-breathing servitor to attack one’s enemies. That was one of the old standbys of the seasoned warlock. She was able to augment the base spell considerably, requiring only a few more seconds of conjuration, to compel one of the flying serpents to harass the chaos dragon while remaining out of reach and avoiding leading it toward any signs of civilization. Designing a binding to make it goad the necro-drake toward the Golden Sea proved more intricate than she could manage while casting by the seat of her pants, but hopefully this would distract it long enough to buy her a few precious minutes.

Natchua returned to Veilgrad in a series of jumps rather than directly just to lay a pattern of wards across the general path back, to warn her of the necro-drake’s return if it came back to the city after finishing off her enhanced katzil, which even optimistically she didn’t think would keep it busy for long. Most of them might not help, as the thing might not fly in a straight line and infernal wards had a starkly limited radius of sensitivity, but close to the city walls she swiftly set up three wide arcs that should give her a few seconds of forewarning if it returned.

From there, it was just a matter of shadow-jumping to the last place she’d seen her quarry and stretching out her senses. They were adept at concealing their presence from magical detection, even from her, but had little recourse against the ears of an elf. Natchua hated opening herself up this way in a city—even subdued as it was, Veilgrad was still painfully noisy, and the amount of screams and weeping she could hear made her heart clench.

Finally, though, something went right. It worked, and she found them not far at all from the rooftop on which their smoking barbecue still stood, abandoned.

The collected Black Wreath were making their way three abreast through a wide alley toward the mountainside gate of the city, and slammed to a stop with a series of muffled curses when her final shadow-jump placed her directly in their path.

“You’re going on foot?” Natchua demanded. “Well, whatever, I’m glad I caught up with you.”

“Excuse me, lady, but not everyone’s crazy enough to shadow-jump in the presence of a chaos effect,” Embras retorted.

“It’s arcane teleportation that’ll fuck you up if you do it anywhere near chaos. Shadow-jumping is relatively safe, so long as you don’t actually jump into the source.”

“You may have forgotten,” Vanessa said icily, “but we have particular reason to be leery of anything chaos-adjacent.”

“Right.” Natchua drew in a deep breath, steeling herself. That was the worst possible segue into her next argument, but she didn’t have the luxury of time to finagle this conversation back around. “I need your help to take that thing down.”

Mogul, Vanessa, and about half a dozen of the others outright laughed in her face. Which, she supposed, wasn’t the worst reaction she could have expected.

“Bye, Natchua,” Mogul said, shaking his head and stepping forward and one side as if to brush past her. “Good luck with that.”

Natchua reached to to press her hand against the cold brick wall, barring his path. “We made a deal, Embras.”

“No part of our deal involved us committing outright suicide,” he shot back, his expression collapsing into a cold scowl. “Don’t pretend what you’re asking is anything else. Remember when you handed me that oh so helpfully collated binder of yours? You said in particular to avoid chaos-related issues until everything else was wrapped up. If you intend to make this a stipulation of our arrangement…deal’s off.”

In the back of her head, Natchua felt one of her outlying wards disintegrate as proximity to a chaos effect unraveled it. The beast was coming back. Time grew ever shorter.

She had to inhale once fully to compose herself. Mogul being recalcitrant and petty in the middle of a crisis was just begging to be screamed at and belabored, but Natchua had a suspicion that was exactly the reaction he was fishing for, the perfect excuse to blow her off. As she had just been reminded, he didn’t care what she wanted to begin with. People cared about their own interests. She had to put this in the right way…

“This is your one chance,” Natchua said aloud, not a hundred percent sure where she was going but riding the sense that some subconscious part of her knew what it was doing; that approach had mostly led her to success so far. “The Wreath have always talked a big game about how you’re really in the business of protecting the world—”

“From demons,” Rupi interrupted, “not chaos.”

“—but the last time there was an incident like this in Veilgrad, your help was blatantly self-serving and only caused more problems. This is the moment when you can prove you mean your own rhetoric. Fight to protect this city, and it will be remembered.”

Mogul, expression skeptical, opened his mouth to reply, but Natchua pressed on, overriding his intended interruption.

“This is the only chance! Running away is not the neutral action here, it will sink your prospects permanently. We’re at a unique moment in history: Elilial is at peace with the Pantheon, the Wreath has official sponsorship from Imperial nobility, and you’ve been winnowed down to a fragment of a remnant. Elilial’s name will be mud for centuries to come, no matter what she’s done now, she’s been the universal enemy of civilization for so long. But you are at a moment, the only moment you’ll get, when you can prove you have changed and people just might start to believe it. This can either be the rebirth of the Black Wreath, or its final slide into obscurity.

“That thing reacts like a demon; you know how to deal with demons. Magic isn’t effective against it, but it’ll attack anything that attacks it, however futile the spell is. Mages can’t reliably teleport around it, but with shadow-jumping you can stay mobile, get it to chase you away. I did it, and I’m just one person; a whole group can watch each other’s backs and pull it out of range of the city. Only warlocks can do this. It’s not just your reputation on the line here, but the future of infernomancy itself! I don’t even need you to take it down! I can do that, but I need someone to buy me time to prepare the spells I need.”

They were silent, now. Another ward went dark—much farther inward. To judge by the position, the necro-drake wasn’t returning in a straight line, but it was definitely coming this way. Fast.

“Help me,” Natchua said urgently, “and you can change…everything. This is your chance to make a new future, where the Wreath and Elilial can be part of the world instead of pushed into the shadows. Throw this chance away, and you won’t get another.”

Slowly, Mogul shook his head. “I can respect your passion, Natchua, but not enough to die for it.”

Then the chaos beast crashed through her outer string of wards arcing past Veilgrad’s western walls, then the next, and time was up. Natchua snarled at him and vanished in a swell of shadow, already cursing to herself when she rematerialized on the plains outside just as the necro-drake, roaring, crashed through her final line of wards and nearly reached the walls. She immediately snared it with a colossal tentacle of shadow—which, for a wonder, actually did snare it, as the purple-black tendril of energy solidified into a huge structure of glass upon contact with the chaos effect. It immediately shattered, of course, but it had been enough to interrupt the monster’s flight and send it flopping awkwardly to the ground just outside the gates.

She was already hammering it with fireballs and shadowbolts before it could get up, and retreated in a series of small shadow-jumps even as the necro-drake regained its bearings and came after her, howling in outrage. The whole time, she never stopped cursing.

This development not only sank her best idea, but her Plan B as well. With a promise of a paladin’s resistance to chaos and accomplices to buy her a few minutes to put her plan into action, she was certain she could kill the monster. Failing that, there were other paladins, and Natchua was certain they’d come running for something like this.

And had it been several hours ago, she could’ve shadow-jumped right to Madouri Manor and collected them. But now all three were neck-deep in major political actions in their own temples—structures with ancient and powerful wards that prevented her shadow-jumping, to to mention basically all of her magic, currently swarmed with dozens if not hundreds of people each who’d be demanding the paladins’ attention, and staffed by clerics who were unlikely to be impressed by her noble title and would probably become overtly hostile at the first hint of infernomancy. Untangling that could take, potentially…hours.

Natchua had just learned that she could distract this thing for, at best, a few minutes at a time. She was officially on her own. Which left the backup plan: stay alive long enough to goad it for hundreds of miles until they reached the Golden Sea and try to lose it there. That would be kicking the problem down the road, and probably not by more than a few days, not to mention guaranteeing it was uncertain where it would come back out again. But at least it would buy enough time for the paladins to rally, and the Empire to throw something together. Tiraas ran mostly on arcane magic, but its resources were unfathomable. Surely Imperial Command could come up with something.

That was a hope for later, though. For now, she had her task in front of her.

Cursing didn’t take much energy, so she didn’t stop even as she retraced her steps, past the wreckage and peculiar stains left by her last try to leading the necro-drake away from Veilgrad. Having to cover the same ground, in the same exhausting way, made it all feel so…futile.

But Natchua Leduc did not stop fighting in the face of futility. She cussed at futility and smashed it with shadow-bolts. So that was what she did.

The surviving spires of Veilgrad were still within view when suddenly infernal magic swelled around her. In the next second, the skies were filled with demons.

Katzils swarmed the necro-drake, distracting it from Natchua’s own attacks and earning her a reprieve. They fared poorly, of course, dramatically dying just by coming too close, to say nothing of what happened if it got its claws on one. But there were dozens of them, and they were being directed to spray it with green fire from the maximum possible distance. Better yet, they whirled around the monster, attacking it from all directions, which sent it into a confused frenzy. The necro-drake whirled like a dog chasing its tail, snapping and slashing, and demons perished, but for the moment, they held its attention.

Natchua took the opportunity to turn around and stare incredulously at the assembled warlocks who had just appeared behind her.

“Did you seriously just do that so you could make a dramatic entrance?” she demanded. “Are you bards now? No, wait, never mind, what am I saying? Bards would never do something so cliché.”

“Excuse you, bards wallow in cliché like pigs in their own filth,” Embras Mogul retorted, grinning at her. “Anyway, no, we obviously had to discuss our options without you hovering around to overhear and put in your two pennies’ worth. Fact is, Natchua, you made a compelling case, but you are also just about the last person we trust. There’s a general feeling, here, that you’re as likely as not to be planning to double-cross us at the first opportunity. It was Vanessa who pointed out that we’ve got a pretty good handle on your numerous character flaws. And not only are you too generally bullheaded to be duplicitous, if there is one thing we can rely on you to do, it’s keep going after an enemy long after all sense and reason should tell you to drop it and leave well enough alone.”

Despite herself, despite everything, Natchua found herself grinning as he spoke, and finally barked an involuntary laugh.

“Besides,” Vanessa added, “since we’re apparently not allowed to murder you, pummeling the hell out of a chaos creature sounds fucking cathartic.”

“I’ve never been so glad to see a bunch of assholes in my life,” Natchua replied. “Just…stay moving. This is no time for grandiose schemes or clever plots, you need to be agile and think on the go. The monster isn’t hard to trick as long as you don’t get too cocky. Keep in motion, watch each other’s backs, and keep it distracted and agitated. Be foxes, not spiders.”

“I am not losing any more of my people because of you,” Mogul warned. “If someone’s injured or we collectively get too tired to keep on, we’re pulling out. However long that takes, that’s how long you’ve got to put together whatever you’re planning.”

Natchua glanced behind her. The necro-drake was still tearing apart the katzils; it was getting close to finishing them off. Any second it might decide the assembled warlocks were a more tempting target than a mere handful of swarming demons.

“I’ll be as fast as I can manage,” she promised. “I will not abandon you. Just hold out for a few minutes. And Mogul—”

He held up a hand. “Don’t say it. Just get to work, Duchess. If we’re all still alive in an hour, I plan to gloat at length.”

“Here’s hoping,” she said, and called the darkness to carry her away to another broad, flat stretch of tallgrass, unmarred by habitation or any sign of combat, leaving the Black Wreath to tangle with the monster.

Before she could even start work, the resonant voice sounded in her head.

A deal’s a deal. You’ll have your divine protection.

“Good,” Natchua said curtly, pushing up her sleeves. “Now, I’ll also need spell formulae to confer that protection into the binding element of a demonic summoning. Damned if I’m gonna be the only one in this relationship earning my keep.”

The dark goddess’s delighted laughter echoed in her mind as she began casting.

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16 – 49

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“It went very well,” the newly re-minted Bishop Shahai assured her quietly, smiling.

“It’s kind of a blur,” Trissiny admitted, having to restrain herself from rubbing her hands against herself. At least the uniform gauntlets ensured no one could tell her palms were still sweaty. “I hate public speaking. Goddess, send me more demons instead…”

“More and more, politics is the arena of modern warfare,” said the elf. “No disrespect, Trissiny, but perhaps you should be glad you have a knack for making speeches and make peace with the need.”

“General Avelea!”

At that voice, they both looked up at the still-chattering scrum of reporters being held behind the line of Silver Legionnaires in the Temple’s main sanctuary. He was not the only person calling Trissiny’s name, as many of the journalists were still trying to get her or Shahai’s attention, but that voice out of them all cut straight through the noise. He did much the same physically, striding forward with a courteous nod to the Legionnaires—who, despite orders, instinctively shifted to let him through.

You just didn’t argue the right of way with a dragon.

“Lord Ampophrenon?” Trissiny asked in surprise.

Ampophrenon the Gold strode up to her and Shahai and inclined his head respectfully to each of them. “General, Bishop. Congratulations on your day’s work. I am truly sorry to so abruptly impose myself on Avenist business, especially at a time like this, but I fear the need is urgent. General Avelea, have you received a personal summons from Avei recently?”

“I haven’t…” She paused, narrowing her eyes. “What’s this about?”

Ampophrenon was already standing with his back to the reporters, and at that made a quick gesture with one hand. A shimmering rose in the air behind him like a heat mirage and the sound of voices cut off.

“I dare to hope that I will owe you an apology for wasting your time, General, but if not, you and your two counterparts may be urgently needed. The Conclave has had advance warning that a chaos event may be unfolding, or about to. And,” he added with a piercing glance at Shahai, “the specific timing rouses…suspicions.”

“Chaos event,” Shahai murmured, narrowing her own eyes. “He…would, wouldn’t he? If we presume his hand was behind the events at Ninkabi…”

“And at Veilgrad,” said Ampophrenon. “The evidence that he was involved with the skull of Belosiphon is all but conclusive. By the General’s own account, it is now in his possession.” The dragon paused, turning his attention on Trissiny, who had closed her eyes in an expression of concentration.

She opened them not two seconds later, her face going pale. “Veilgrad. Again.”

Ampophenon drew in a breath. “Curse that man’s remorseless ambition. That was at the goddess’s warning, I take it?”

“I had to ask directly, but yes. If she didn’t reach out to me first, it may not be as serious as it could.”

“There is that,” he agreed, “but such things must never be taken lightly. We cannot afford to risk teleportation to or near a chaos event, but I can still provide quick transportation there, for you and the other paladins.”

“Hopefully their gods will have warned them as well,” she said quickly. “I appreciate your aid, Lord Ampophrenon. Nandi…?”

“You go do what you do best, Trissiny,” the Bishop answered. “Goddess be with you. I’m going to summon Elwick and the squad. If Justinian has been forced by your maneuver to act in haste, he may have made a mistake upon which we can capitalize. Let me worry about the politics for now.”

Trissiny nodded, then grimaced. “And let that teach me to be careful what I pray for.”


“Hunter’s Quarter reports civilian evac is complete!”

“Squad C is in position, sir. Squad D moving up. The bait squad is standing by.”

“Colonel! Quartermaster reports there’s enough raw flashpowder in that fireworks depot to assemble enough explosive bolts for a full volley from the crossbows we’ve got on hand. He’s proceeding with the construction.”

“Good,” Adjavegh grunted without taking his eyes from their ceaseless scan of the windows. “Make sure his entire department is on it, Timms. There are no other priorities.”

“Yes, sir!”

A shadow fell over the command center and most of those present reflexively crouched down. It passed, though, and seconds later the skeletal dragon set down on another rooftop halfway across the city. Colonel Adjavegh alone had not moved, standing at parade rest in the center of the activity around him, eyes on the enemy. It was simple bravado, perhaps, but it mattered to the men and women under his command to see their leader focused and calm in the face of absolute, literal chaos.

Veilgrad’s Army barracks had its command center in a squat, square chamber on its roof, below only the watchtowers. All four walls had tall windows interspersed with thick stone columns—an addition constructed well after the Enchanter Wars, but in the age of mag cannons stone walls were of little use and the commanding view over the city and its surroundings was of more utility, especially at a time like this. Even so, the windows of course were heavily enchanted. Right now, several of them had soldiers with spyglasses keeping a constant watch on the beast currently terrorizing the city, while the command center itself roiled with messengers keeping Adjavegh appraised of all unfolding developments and conveying his orders.

“Sir!” His aide, Sergeant Timms, darted to his side bearing a sheet of paper she’d just taken from another such messenger. “A response from ImCom!”

“Finally,” Adjavegh grunted, snatching it from her. “I’m glad this is more interesting than the fresh gossip in the capital—what in the hell?”

“It’s pretty garbled, sir.”

“I can see that it’s garbled, Sergeant!”

“It was transcribed faithfully, sir. This came via telescroll, like our initial report to ImCom.” She craned her neck over his shoulder to study the page, which was a mishmash of letters strung together in an order that only formed words about half the time. “The scrolltower transmissions were probably scrambled by the chaos effect, Colonel. See, this looks like a request for clarification. The message they got from us was probably just as mangled.”

“If that’s the case…” Adjavegh hesitated a moment, squinting at the message, then raised his voice to a battlefield roar. “I want a full emergency shutdown on the Rail stations, now!”

“Sir,” replied a lieutenant, “the Rails immediately stopped running when—”

“The emergency shutdown, son! Get on it!”

“Yes, sir!” The man snapped off a salute and dashed for the stairs. The Rail stations in cities as large as Veilgrad were capable of launching a shutdown signal through the physical Rails themselves that would effectively disable the entire network, Empire-wide. It could be re-activated from Tiraas, but that would let Imperial Command know there was a crisis here, if they couldn’t communicate directly. To Adjavegh’s knowledge, the emergency shutdown had never been used, even during the Battle of Ninkabi. Its implied message was that the city sending it was under conditions too dangerous to approach.

They had worked out very quickly that the dragon was a chaos beast, when it had come under immediate attack from both the city’s formal defenders and several magic-wielding civilians. That had gone disastrously; Adjavegh had lost four squads of soldiers in the first five minutes, and who knew how many citizens who’d rallied to the defense. But with that bitter lesson had also come the insight that conventional lightning weapons did damage the beast, so long as they were fired from beyond point blank range. Once past the enchantment itself which conjured the lightning bolt, it was just an electrical discharge like those that came from the sky. The dragon seemed to recuperate rapidly from damage, but it had been damaged, if briefly.

Hence his current strategies in place. Adjavegh was laying a trap in one of Veilgrad’s open squares, positioning soldiers with battlestaves in windows surrounding the square. Once they were in place, the all-volunteer “bait squad” would attempt to provoke it into the killbox where it could be blasted apart by a torrent of lightning from all directions. So far the skeletal dragon hadn’t used any kind of breath weapon, merely attacking with its jaws, talons, and tail. If that failed, there was his backup plan underway: Timms and the Quartermaster had rustled enough working crossbows to outfit two squads and Q was at work crafting explosive bolts, using chemical flashpowder from fireworks rather than alchemicals, which might be ineffective against chaos.

As of yet, he had no Plan C.

“Damn scrolltowers,” he growled, crumpling the garbled message in his fist. “Guess that means we won’t be hearing an explanation from the Conclave of the Winds, either.”

“That’s not a dragon, sir!” called one of the young men at the windows with a spyglass.

“Come again, soldier?”

“It’s too small by half, sir, and when I can get a glimpse through all the smoky shit… Yeah, those aren’t bones. It’s made to look like a dragon, but that isn’t a skeleton, it looks like carved…uh, what’s that shiny black rock? Volcanic glass?”

“Obsidian,” said Timms.

“Right, thanks, Sergeant. It’s a necromantic construct, sir. Like those things with the last chaos crisis.”

“Good eye, soldier,” said Adjavegh. He had no idea how to put that information to use, yet, but more intel was always better. “Keep it up. Timms, what’s the status of the killbox?”

“Squads still moving into position, sir. It’s slow getting through the catacombs, with all the civilians down there.”

He gritted his teeth, but didn’t complain. It wasn’t safe to move troops aboveground, but this inconvenience was a sign that the measures in place to protect Veilgrad’s citizens were at least working. With the upper levels of the catacombs cleared and entrances to them in countless buildings across the city, people had fled below. Most had gone without even needing to be chivvied along. This was now city policy in response to emergencies like this; at Duchess Dufresne’s insistence, they had held drills. Bless that creepy woman’s foresight.

Now, the city was almost eerily quiet, for all that parts of it were burning and dozens of buildings in various states of collapse. With everyone fled or fleeing underground, there were few screams, and even the alarm bells had gone silent—mostly because once people stopped shooting at it, the chaos dragon had gone after those. Only two of the belltowers were still standing, as they were mostly automated and the chaos effects caused by the dragon’s mere proximity had shorted out the enchantments running them before it felt the need to knock them down.

Unfortunately, that left it with nothing to do but circle above the city, hunting for stragglers. Which it was now doing again, perched atop a trade hall and craning its neck this way and that.

“What?” Timms burst out suddenly. “No, no. Who ordered— Stop them! You, get over there and shut that down!”

Adjavegh turned to follow her furious stare even as another soldier darted to the steps. To his incredulous horror, he saw one of the mag cannon emplacements atop the nearest watchtower powering up and swiveling to take aim at the dragon. Some clicker-happy artilleryman apparently couldn’t resist the opportunity of the thing finally holding still.

“Omnu’s hairy balls,” he breathed, seeing the inevitable unfold. He hadn’t given orders that the dragon not be fired upon with mag cannons; instead, he had disseminated the information that it was a chaos beast and presumed his soldiers knew what the fuck that meant, since every damn one of them had been trained on it. Allegedly. A running messenger wasn’t going to get down the stairs, across the battlements, and up the stairs in time…

And didn’t. Everyone in the command center cringed half a minute later as the mag cannon discharged with a roar.

It was a good shot. The barrel-thick beam of white light pierced the sky above the city and nailed the target dead-on—or would have, had it not been a chaos dragon. Several yards before the point of impact the beam itself dissolved, spraying the dragon with a heavy dusting of snowflakes. A solid coating of ice formed across the rooftop on which it sat, and then the ice burst into flame. A mag cannon burst contained a lot of magic for chaos to randomly distort. Adjavegh supposed it could have been a lot worse.

Not that it wasn’t plenty bad enough. The dragon shook itself furiously and roared, it’s eerie voice like nails upon a blackboard. Then, turning its blazing chromatic eyes upon the barracks from which the shot had come, it launched itself into the air and came winging right at them.

“Colonel!” Adjavegh turned to Timms just in time to catch the battlestaff she tossed at him. She was holding another herself. The two locked eyes for a second, and then he nodded. There was no need to communicate more.

Staff fire wouldn’t do much to help them, but if it was time to die for their Emperor, they would go down shooting. Across the command post, other officers and enlisted were drawing sidearms or equipping themselves from the weapon racks. There really wasn’t time for more than that, not even evacuating the tower.

It was a damn shame, Adjavegh reflected as time seemed to slow around them with the chaos dragon bearing down. He’d been skeptical of having an Eserite as his personal aide—you didn’t get many of them in the military—but Timms was the best he’d ever had. A con artist’s approach to logistics meant his soldiers got what they needed, regardless of what ImCom had decided to send where, and she had a deft hand at navigating Veilgrad’s peculiar local politics. Timms would’ve made a damn fine officer in time, if she wasn’t poached by Intelligence first.

Plus, now he wouldn’t get to tar and feather whatever absolute driveling moron had fired that cannon. That was a regret, too.

“Gentlemen, ladies,” the Colonel said, raising the battlestaff to his shoulder and keeping his eyes fixed upon the apparition of smoke and black bone surging toward them, “I am honored to have served with every one of you. For the Emperor!”

Then an explosion burst in midair directly next to the dragon, sending it tumbling away over the city walls and shattering windows and rooftiles in a four-block radius.

While the soldiers gaped from their command post, the dragon recovered, pirouetting in midair to face this new threat, and immediately being peppered by a series of purple-black streaks, all of which misfired in some manner upon impacting it. They fizzled, careened off-course, transformed into bursts of fire or clumps of dirt, even a flurry of flower petals. Enough of those effects were painful to fully distract their target from the barracks.

The dragon pivoted on a wingtip, diving at another rooftop. Adjavegh saw a blot of darkness swell seconds before its impact, and then the beast was under attack from another direction as it investigated the crushed roof under its claws. An orange summoning circle appeared in midair and out of it hurtled a chunk of black stone. That was apparently not magic; it hit the beast hard enough to send it tumbling off into the street below.

Once it burst into the air again, another series of shadowbolts seized its attention and it went haring off in a new direction.

“What in the hell?” Adjavegh lowered his staff in disbelief.

“Sir!” exclaimed the soldier with the spyglass, “it’s the Duchess!”

“The vampire?”

“No, sir, the other Duchess. The new one!”

“The—wait, the warlock? What in blazes is the woman thinking? No spellcaster can bring that thing down!”

“No,” said Timms, “but she can herd it out of the city!”

Indeed, the distant shape of Natchua Leduc was only visible now in the momentary surges of shadow as she vanished from one rooftop after another, continually firing her ineffective spells at the chaos dragon and goading it to chase her ever farther away. Toward the western walls, and the empty prairie beyond.

Colonel Adjavegh had not been best pleased at the recent political developments. In his opinion, the last thing House Leduc needed was to continue existing, and his impression of Natchua herself was that she was an irascible brat whose primary talents were rabble-rousing and preening. It had certainly not pleased him to learn that she’d publicly cut a deal with the Black bloody Wreath just the night before. In this moment, he was forced to revise his opinion somewhat.

“Avei’s grace,” he said grudgingly. “the girl may be an evil bitch, but if she’s going to be our evil bitch, I can live with it. All right, people, we’ve got a breather! The killbox and flashpowder plans are not to be discontinued in case it gets away from her and comes back. Timms, see if we can get some telescrolls through to Tiraas now that that damn thing’s leaving the area. Send physical messengers, too, through different city gates. Carriage and horse riders; worst case, something’s gotta slip through. Notify the evac squads there’s been high-level infernomancy cast above the streets and put together a cleansing team to get to work as soon as we have an all-clear.”

He paused amid the flurry of activity his orders provoked, and then added another.

“And I want the officer in command of that artillery post replaced and in a cell before I finish this sentence.”

“On it, sir,” Timms said crisply, already scribbling on her clipboard and gathering two messengers with pointed jerks of her head.

Adjavegh allowed himself a deep, steadying breath as he turned back to the western windows of his command post. In this day and age, one could forget that the oldest Imperial Houses were founded by adventurers. Modern nobles were the descendants of the people who had the fancy magic weapons looted from deepest dungeons and the skill and experience to use them. They made themselves rulers by stepping up and doing what was necessary during crises, when no one else had the will or the capability. Even the Leducs and Dufresnes had earned their position by conquering the greater part of the Stalrange on the Empire’s behalf. Having known his share of prissy aristocrats, he had assumed those days were long over.

Instead, he now found time, and a need, to mutter a prayer for the warlock of Veilgrad.

“Godspeed, you crazy witch. Give ‘im hell.”

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16 – 48

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“Do you realize how infuriating all this is?”

“I can only imagine the depths of your inconvenience,” Rogrind said dryly.

“Oh, to be sure, you and your bullshit are not a positive addition to my day, but frankly? You’re just the icing on the cake,” Rasha informed him. “I am having the most frustrating week. Do you know how many times I’ve been chased, attacked, or abducted in just the last few days? This is ridiculous. I joined the Thieves’ Guild in large part so I would never have to feel helpless and put upon again. The damsel in distress bullshit is getting old fast.”

She expected either a glib retort or silence, depending on whether the dwarf was more inclined to play the freelance adventurer or hardened government agent at this moment. Not that it much mattered; Rasha herself was merely filling the air with an admittedly desultory attempt to deflect his attention while she searched for something she could use to leverage herself out of this new mess. Even so, she was surprised when Rogrind canted his head slightly as if giving her words serious consideration.

“The truth is,” he answered after a contemplative pause, “you are a diminutive specimen of your race, Miss Rasha. If you pursue a religion and career which consist mostly of entering combative situations with established powers, I’m afraid that inevitably means you will be on the back foot, physically speaking, for much of your life. Obviously, much the same is true of your mentor, Ms. Sharvineh, but she is adept at avoiding situations in which she is physically imperiled. That, of course, is the result of years of skilled effort bent toward establishing her secure position. Until you are able to establish such a bulwark, yourself…here you are.”

“Here I am,” Rasha repeated, now peering back at him closely. “Well, since we’re chatting, how would you have avoided getting nabbed, in my position?”

“First of all, don’t wander off by yourself.”

She winced. “Yeah, fair enough. Though in my defense, somebody was supposed to be watching my back. He took a break to get laid.”

“I wondered.” The dwarf’s face melted into an expression of pure disapproval. “How grievously unprofessional.”

“In his defense, it was with a dryad. And if you’d seen her—”

“I did see her, and while I take your point, I don’t consider that a mitigating circumstance. Sexual enticement is one of the oldest ploys in the book to distract an enemy agent; to fall prey to it from one’s own allies is a truly lamentable display. I expect that from newly enlisted soldiers, not field agents, or even established Guild thieves. In any case, aside from not committing rookie blunders, there are preparations you can make to ameliorate your physical vulnerability.”

“The martial arts, so I’ve been told.”

“Formal martial arts require a significant level of mastery to be useful in real-world situations. A Sun Style grandmaster could perhaps have disarmed me from your position, but few others. For practical purposes, the basic Eserite brawling techniques you’ve been taught should suffice for situations in which fighting would do you any good at all. No, by preparation, I mostly refer to equipment, and practice in using it. For example, the style of dress you seem to prefer provides ample fabric in which to conceal quite a variety of devices.” He gestured toward her heavy winter dress with the hand not currently holding a wand aimed at her heart.

Rasha idly lifted her left arm to inspect the sleeve—not the one in which her wand was hidden. “I suppose I could slip a knife in here…”

“Weapons are only the most basic of options,” said Rogrind. “Skilled foes will be prepared for them. Your resources would be better spent on unconventional applications of enchanting, or alchemy. One always has an advantage when one possesses tools and techniques for which the enemy is unprepared.”

Slowly, she lowered her arm, definitely not making the compulsive twitch of her right fingers toward her wand, as they wanted to. A thought had just descended into her awareness, bringing with it a note of embarrassment that she hadn’t made this observation immediately.

He hadn’t searched her.

Rasha was a member of a faction known for carrying concealed weapons—and he himself had just pointed out that she was dressed in a way which facilitated that. Rogrind was a veteran field agent, government trained. He knew better than this. And yet, not only had he failed to make even a cursory check for any such weapons on her person, he hadn’t even secured her hands before putting himself in a small moving box with her.

There was something going on here beyond the obvious.

They stared at each other in thoughtful silence for a long moment. The carriage passed through the busy city in eerie silence, its walls clearly charmed to cancel noise.

“You’re surprisingly free with the advice,” Rasha said at last, “considering I’m pretty sure you’re taking me out of the city to be murdered and hidden in a ditch somewhere. Wasted effort, isn’t it?”

“It’s not often, these days, I get the opportunity to speak as an old professional to a younger one,” he answered lightly. “And on that note, Rasha, a relevant piece of advice one of my early mentors gave me: if you are in a position to ask ‘is this the end,’ the answer is ‘not yet.’ A situation may be futile, but it only becomes hopeless when you decide that it is.”

“You’re…actually encouraging me to keep on fighting you?”

“After all we’ve been through?” One corner of his mouth twitched upward in a wry little partial smile. “I confess I would be disappointed if you did not.” The dwarf hesitated, his eyes flicking away from her toward the window separating the passenger compartment from the driver’s seat, where Sister Lanora would be partially visible from his perspective. Rasha nearly took advantage of his momentary distraction, but was forestalled by the fact that she didn’t actually have a plan yet, except maybe to tackle him. Which she had tried once before, to a dismal lack of effect, and then they hadn’t been in an enclosed space, nor he armed. The moment passed and he returned his focus to her face. “Sometimes, Rasha, the needs of the mission require us to accept…unwanted company. For a short while.”

Interesting.

She made no comment in reply, mulling. Was he hinting at something? There were enough little indications to indicate this whole situation was more than it appeared, but not enough yet to suggest what. Rasha, clearly, was still in a very dicey situation, and most likely a lethally dangerous one…but not exactly the one she’d thought.

She looked toward the side window of the carriage, noting the soldiers manning the guard post right outside as they passed through one of the city gates. Then she considered, for a second and a half, the hints Rogrind had dropped that his intentions were not as immediately murderous as he had first suggested, and inwardly steeled herself, deciding to take a risk.

Rasha exploded suddenly into motion, hurling her body with as much force as she could against the side of the carriage, grabbing and yanking the door handle.

“HELP! I’m being abducted!”

Rogrind did not move—didn’t even shift his wand hand to continue covering her, just watched in silence. The entire performance was utterly fruitless; the handled didn’t budge, the military police showed no indication they could see her through the windows or hear her shouting, nor her pounding on the door, and even her body-checking the vehicle itself didn’t make it rock by so much as an inch. Slowly due to the pace of traffic but still inexorably, the view outside changed to the walls of the bridge linking Tiraas to the mainland beyond.

This was the west gate, she noted; they were heading into Tiraan Province, not Vrandis. The domain of Trissiny’s Duchess friend, Ravana Madouri. That made absolutely no difference to Rasha inside this carriage, but it might become relevant if she managed to get out of it.

Slowly, Rasha drew back from the window and re-seated herself, folding her hands primly in her lap. “Worth a try.”

“Only naturally,” Rogrind said with a gracious nod of his head and the supreme confidence of one who knew his prisoner had no options.

Rasha had not really expected anything to come of that, in terms of getting out; her goal was to gather information, and she had just succeeded at that rather well.

His lack of reaction proved little, as he’d been aware before she moved that she wouldn’t succeed in escaping the carriage. But Rasha had just learned several interesting things about the carriage itself. One-way darkening of glass was a common charm, and in fact, the only charm she’d just detected which could be called common. The kind of silencing enchantments which could be laid upon windows with common enchanting dusts would bar noise from either side, but not the thumps of impacts directly on the windows themselves, yet the soldiers hadn’t even glanced over when she pounded on the glass. More telling was that the carriage hadn’t rocked in response to her sudden movement. Shock enchantments protected the wheels; it was a heavier-duty balancing charm than was standard that would prevent a vehicle from being shifted by sudden motion within. Rasha was small, but no carriage was that perfectly balanced without some extra enchantments. Then, there was the door itself; the lock hadn’t budged when she’d twisted the little knob. The lack of any further mechanism suggested it, too, was enchanted, and the kind of charm which would key it to a specific person’s touch was both definitely not standard and required its own power source.

This was a later-model Dawnco sedan, the sort of vehicle the Guild commonly used for getaway carriages, and not unlike those the Svennish agents had driven when chasing Rasha and her friends about last year. And it had been modified with serious extra enchantments, which told her two things.

First, this was not some piece Rogrind, a disavowed ex-agent, could have picked up from a dealer. Custom charm jobs were expensive, and charms of this nature drew eyes from the government if they noted them being applied. After last winter’s events, nobody in Tiraas who did this kind of work for the Guild would sell to a Sven for fear of blundering into the latent hostility between Eserites and the Kingdom of Svenheim. Which meant Rogrind’s story about being sacked was a lie. Fired government agents might be lucky to walk away with the contents of their pockets, not expensive major equipment like this. That led to the question of just what the hell the Svennish secret service wanted with her now. That issue with the divine disruptors was long put to bed, and from everything Rasha knew of the dwarves the most believable thing Rogrind had told her was that they would want nothing to do with Purists.

And second, all these extra enchantments needed extra power. Basic carriage design had been part of Rasha’s unconventional training—not to the extent of being able to fix enchanted carriages, but specifically with an eye toward finding hidden modifications in them. She had re-positioned herself in a different spot on the seat, and already noted the difference in vibration. This might be a stroke of luck; beneath the rear-facing passenger seat would be one of the standard spots…

With that, Rasha had a plan. A desperate one with a high chance of backfiring catastrophically, but with the alternative being to trust that this old enemy, who had abducted her in concert with a new enemy, wasn’t really as hostile as he appeared… It was time to roll the dice.


Not exactly time; there were a couple more ducks she needed to line in a row before she could make a move, and of course, that lining up proceeded with terrifying lack of speed while the carriage itself picked up its pace, carrying her ever further from the city, and witnesses.

Rasha did not miss the irony that they were following almost exactly the route of the last winter carriage ride she and Rogrind had taken out of the city: north from the bridge, on the main highway toward Madouris, which at this pace they would reach within the hour, at the absolute most. That had been in the dark of night during a blizzard, which (despite the reckless speed at which every vehicle in that chase had driven) had slowed them considerably. Now, they were making good time on a well-traveled road, which warned Rasha what to watch out for. Once Lanora turned off onto a side road with fewer prying eyes, the end was close.

But not, as Rogrind himself had just advised her, yet at hand.

She’d made a performance of shifting this way and that on the seat, brimming with nervous energy that kept her readjusting her position and sliding back and forth to peer out the windows on both sides. Rogrind watched her, but did not comment or try to interfere, merely keeping his wand trained on her. At one point Lanora, apparently catching sight of Rasha’s constant movement through her peripheral vision, had thumped on the window separating the driver and passenger compartments in annoyance, which Rasha only happened to notice because she was moving at the time and had it in her field of view, as the silencing enchantment covered that window as well. Neither she nor the dwarf acknowledged Lanora’s displeasure. The actual point of all the shifting about had been for her to examine the vibrations coming from under the bench. And bless the thin padding of Dawnco’s economy carriage seats, she’d done it within minutes. Rasha had identified the spot, slightly left of center and directly under the front passenger bench, where the vibrations were most perceptible: the likeliest position for the secondary power crystal keyed to the carriage’s various extra enchantments.

So she finally planted herself as far from it as possible, leaning against the right wall in a position that both maximized her distance and gave her a clear line of sight to the spot, which she’d landmarked by identifying one button in the pattern sewed into the seat cushions. Now there was nothing but to wait for an opportunity, and hope it didn’t come too late.

And since that was too great a risk, Rasha did the properly Eserite thing and set about creating her own damn opportunity.

“I can’t square this geniality with your whole mission of revenge,” she commented.

“Revenge. Is that what you think?” Rogrind raised an eyebrow.

“You pretty heavily implied it. Besides, if you have such a low opinion of Purists, why else would you be helping her? It’s not like you and I have any business, apart from you settling the score after I spanked you last year.”

“That is certainly one way to describe those events,” the dwarf said, smiling faintly. “Another would be that you were in the vicinity when someone actually competent foiled my mission.”

“Yeah, and I note you’re not going after any of them. Bullying, petty grievances, assisting religious fanatics you claim to dislike… I can’t decide which part is the worst reflection on you.”

“You are attempting to provoke an emotional reaction from me,” he said, still with that ironic little smile. “I don’t mind that as such, except that the effort is so halfhearted. One does hate to have a front row seat, as it were, for an inept performance of one’s craft.”

She didn’t need him actually agitated, just to look away for a second; even a relatively minor emotional upset would cause most people to shift their eyes momentarily, but she wasn’t dealing with most people here. Rasha glanced out the window herself and stiffened.

The moment was nearly here. They were turning off the main road onto…

“Well, well,” she said quietly, staring at the scene as best she could from this angle. “Doesn’t this take you back. This was your idea, I take it?”

Apparently the old fortress had been a landmark, an unused Enchanter Wars-era ruin left intact purely for its historicity. After the murderous schemes of Basra Syrinx had blown the whole thing up last winter, the Empire hadn’t even bothered to clean the grounds; the field was now littered with widespread outcroppings of fallen masonry, currently dusted with fresh snow. It made them look oddly serene, a contrast to Rasha’s memory of the violence through which this spectacle had been created. She even caught a glimpse of the angled sheets of rock Schwartz had summoned out of the very ground to shield them from the fallout. Only the wrecked carriages had been removed.

“Not as such,” the dwarf murmured, finally shifting his head to follow her gaze. “It does make for a conveniently isolated spot, though, positioned along this otherwise well-trafficked route. How history repeats itself, hmm?”

She’d started moving the instant his gaze was off her, letting the wand slide gently out of her sleeve rather than flicking it into her palm as she normally would; a slower motion was less likely to catch his eye. Rasha looked over at the button she’d identified, made an educated guess how far down the target would be, and fired.

Moment of distraction aside, Rogrind could not miss the soft hiss of a beam wand discharging at that proximity, much less the light. In a split second he was on top of her, trying to wrestle the weapon from her grip. He only failed because he’d mistaken her intent; the dwarf was much stronger than she, but in gripping her wrist and keeping the wand aimed away from himself and Lanora, he inadvertently kept it pushed in more or less the exact direction she wanted.

Rasha grunted and struggled against him in dreadful futility, managing only to twitch under his weight and muscle. Her shot had achieved nothing save a smoking hole in the upholstery. Now, in defiance of all wand safety, she clamped down on the clicker and kept up a continuous beam. Immediately the handle began to warm dangerously in her grip as she raked it this way and that across the general area of her target, able to move only in minute jerks and hoping that would be enough—


Her vision returned, fuzzy. She could hear nothing but a shrill whine deep in her own head, beyond which the world was silent. Had she actually been unconscious? Everything was so hazy. It was cold. Rasha was…face down? Weakly, she tried to rise…

A big hand grabbed her arm, hauled her upright; she was too dazed to protest. Then there came a stab of pain through the sensory fuzz. She managed to focus on the thing he tossed away as it fell to the snow: a fragment of wooden paneling from the carriage, one jagged end crimson where it had been lodged in…her. Oh, right, that was why her shoulder suddenly hurt. Good, good, her training whispered at the back of her head. Shoulder injuries could disable your arm, but rarely killed you, at least not immediately.

He—the dwarf, Rogrind, she focused on him now, noting his disheveled hair and burned suit—was hauling her bodily away; she stumbled, trying to keep up. What was… Oh, fire. There was burning wreckage. Blearily, Rasha looked back. The carriage was blown perfectly in half, both large pieces burning merrily and a wide spray of charred wood spread around the site. It sat in brown winter grass in the ditch by the road, the nearby snow blasted away by the explosion.

Well, that was one thing gone according to plan, anyway. Shoot the power crystal, disabling the carriage. It had been disabled a little harder than she’d hoped; that crystal must’ve been powering a lot more than the enchantments she’d identified to have had that much oomph in it. Made sense in hindsight, a spy agency vehicle would have all kinds of hidden tricks. Well, live and learn. Which she had, so far.

Suddenly the grip manhandling her shifted. Rasha blinked, trying to focus again on Rogrind as he pressed something against her lips. Glass? A bottle? No, a vial. With his other hand he gripped the back of her neck and made her tip her head up, pouring it into her mouth. Poison? No. She knew this flavor—sour, subtly fruity, tingling with contained magic. Healing potion.

Rasha’s vision and her mind began to clear, and the pain in her shoulder receded along with the shock. Also, the ringing dropped steadily in pitch, descending into a dull roar and then even that faded as her eardrums were mended. She became conscious of a different pain on her other shoulder—right about where her heating charm had been pinned. Ah, yeah, that would’ve burst from being that close to an arcane explosion, and healing potions didn’t work well on burns. Still, she was still alive, and now she could see, hear, and think.

Also, she was cold. Outside in the winter, with no heating charm or even a coat.

“Well, I have good news for you, Miss Rasha,” Rogrind said in a layered tone of aggressive joviality. “If you are so devoted to your freedom as to blow up vehicles while inside them, I can safely predict you will not be a prisoner often or for long.”

“I do what I can,” she said modestly, giving an experimental tug on her arm. His grip shifted not an inch; he was half-covered in soot, his hair and clothing charred and half his coat torn away, but other than that appeared unperturbed. Dwarves were inconveniently sturdy folk.

Something small bonked off the other side of Rasha’s head, and by sheer instinct she tried to catch it. Her cold-numbed fingers didn’t succeed in seizing the object, but she did note as it fell that it was another glass vial. She turned her head in the direction it had come from and met Sister Lanora’s burning gaze.

The Purist had her sword out; she was disheveled and not as badly burned, having been separated from the explosion by more layers of carriage, though blood dropped down half her face from where something had struck her on the temple. It made a perfect complement to her expression.

“I hope you’re proud of yourself, you little monster,” she hissed, bringing the sword up. “That was your last act of defiance.”

Rasha was suddenly yanked away, struggling to stay on her feet as Rogrind hauled her behind himself. “Ahem. This inconvenience aside, the terms of our agreement are met, Sister Lanora. We are in private, and you have the girl.”

“That is not a girl!”

“Whatever you say,” he grunted. “Before this proceeds any further, it is time for your end of the deal.”

“As soon as that pestilential brat is—”

“No.” Even without shouting, he projected his voice at a volume which cut her off neatly. It was a good trick, Glory had of course taught her apprentices that one early on. “You have already unilaterally modified our agreement once, and I have to say I am not best pleased with the results. The documents, Lanora. Now.”

The ex-priestess glared, her grip on the sword shifting, and for a second Rasha thought she might take a swing at the dwarf. Then she produced a wordless, feral snarl and stabbed the tip of the longsword into the frozen earth to free her hands, with which she snatched a bag hanging from her belt and began to rummage inside it. Even Rasha knew better than to treat bladed weapons that way; Trissiny would have… Well, that was the least of what Trissiny would be upset by, here, but it really said something about the Purists as a whole.

“Here,” Lanora snarled, hurling a leather-bound journal at the dwarf, which he neatly snatched from the air. “Take it and get out of the way!”

Saying nothing, he did so. Rogrind released Rasha, stepping aside and immediately opening the book, his eyes darting rapidly across its contents as he began to leaf through pages.

That left Rasha and Lanora facing one another with nothing between them but the chill of winter.

“I don’t think I’ll ever understand you,” Rasha admitted, taking a step back and tucking her chilled fingers into her sleeves. Her wand was lost, but she still had the knife in her other sleeve, right where she’d minutes ago suggested to Rogrind that she could one day start keeping one. “You had an actual message from a goddess. Do you know how many people have only dreamed of something like that? Who cares if it wasn’t what you wanted to hear? You could—”

“Shut up!” the woman shrieked. “Just shut it! I lost everything, do you understand that? I gave my life to Avei and she threw me away like so much trash. And for what?! To make some kind of point? All I have is this, boy. I can’t stick a sword in that bitch goddess—or even Trissiny Avelea, realistically. But at every step, your face has been there mocking me, and I can sure as hell do for you.”

“Well,” Rasha acknowledged, continuing to retreat as the former priestess kept pace, raising her sword. “I have to admit, I have no argument for that. Except to point out that you’re a moron. But then, you know that, don’t you?”

Lanora bared her teeth like a wolf about to pounce and raised the longsword over her head.

Rasha whipped her left arm forward, hurling the knife.

It went spinning away a full yard to Lanora’s right. Her fingers were almost numb from cold.

Lanora barked a mocking laugh and stepped forward, bringing the sword down. Mid-swing, there came another deafening boom from close by. The carriage was already done for; this time, what exploded was Lanora herself.

The left side of her midsection burst, spraying blood and viscera across the snow; she physically buckled as the core of her body was suddenly lacking a chunk of its structure. The sword tumbled to the ground, sinking beneath the snow, as its owner collapsed. She tried to press her hand over the wound, but the hole was bigger than her hand. Staring uncomprehendingly at the crimson stain spreading around her, Sister Lanora slumped fully to the ground.

“General Avelea sends her regrets,” Rogrind said dispassionately. Rasha turned her incredulous stare on the dwarf. He had tucked the black book under one arm and was now holding a… It resembled a wand, but heavier, an iron tube with a wooden handle and a clicker mechanism, now emitting smoke from its business end. Rogrind was already tipping a small vial of some powder into it, followed by a little metal ball. “She preferred an amicable resolution. Unfortunately, she is not here. And I like my loose ends neatly tied.”

He leveled the weapon. Lanora stared up at him in dull-eyed disbelief, and then the sound came again. It was thunderously loud, even more so at that proximity than a lightning wand. The Purist’s expression vanished along with her face and the greater part of her head.

Rasha averted her gaze, cringing, and wasn’t ashamed of it. The Guild inured one to violence, somewhat, but that…

Rogrind lowered his weapon with a sigh. “What a mess. If only I hadn’t lost my wand… Ah, well. You are a clever lass, Rasha; I trust I needn’t explain too much of this?”

“You…” She had to swallow and then clear her throat before she could speak properly. “Yeah, I guess after last winter, you did owe Trissiny a favor, huh?”

“Fortunately for us both, Trissiny Avelea is too intelligent to deal in such intransigent currencies as favors and debts,” he answered with a wan smile. “She presented herself at the Svennish embassy the day after our last visit to this spot, and rather than making complaints or demands, arranged for the Silver Legions on multiple continents to be armed and armored with Svennish steel. It all but singlehandedly resurrected our metalworking industry; a masterful exercise of soft power. My King has made his orders clear: what the Hand of Avei wants, she gets. In this case,” he held up the book, tucking his weapon back inside his coat now that the smoke had stopped, “documentation linking the Purists to the Universal Church.”

“You could have told me what you were doing, instead of scaring me half to death with this nonsense! Don’t you think I would have helped?”

“Rasha,” he said patiently, already fishing in his pockets again (what remained of them), “what part of our previous encounters do you think left me with the impression that you could be trusted to hold up your end of a sensitive operation? Not that you haven’t grown dramatically under Tamisin Sharvineh’s tutelage, but I could hardly take that risk. I do greatly regret involving you. Our arrangement was a hair’s breadth from completion on optimal terms—Lanora was about to be taken into protective custody in return for the documents, where she would have been safe, as the Archpope’s influence in the Five Kingdoms is minimal. But alas, you happened to cross her field of view as we were making the handoff, escorting three of her erstwhile companions evidently in custody. And then…” He grimaced. “She demanded your head for her compliance. That ridiculous woman was quite irrationally obsessed with you.”

“Yeah, she, uh, mentioned that.” Rasha glanced at the spreading stain that had been Lanora, then shuffled back; the blood was seeping rapidly through the snow and had nearly reached her own slippers. “Wouldn’t it have been easier to just take the book from her at that point?”

“Her bag of holding was spelled to open for no one else; it would take a skilled enchanter weeks to extract it. And a person in her mental state, while easily manipulated, is nearly impossible to coerce. Once a person has nothing left to motivate them but spite, they can’t be forced to do anything. Here.” He had found what he wanted in his pockets: another vial of liquid. The agent downed half of it with a grimace, and then stepped forward to hand the remainder to Rasha. “Potion of weather resistance. It’s no personal heating charm, but it will stave off hypothermia for a while.”

Rasha accepted without hesitation; her fingers were already so numb she could barely tip the liquid into her own mouth, but she managed, and immediately blessed warmth began to spread through her.

“She was a centimark from freedom,” the dwarf murmured, frowning down at the woman he’d just killed. “Protection for herself and any of her comrades we could find. It was a generous deal, and a better ending than she deserved. But she threw it away for a chance at petty vengeance, and now look. This is what vindictiveness gets you.”

“Revenge is a sucker’s game,” Rasha quoted, nodding.

“And now we are stranded in the woods, in midwinter, standing over a fresh corpse.”

“You’re awfully liberal with the complaints, for somebody whose fault all this is!”

“And who blew up the carriage?” he countered, then smiled and held up a hand to forestall her rebuttal. “This is how it goes sometimes, Rasha. We made the best decisions available with the information we had, and ended up needlessly at cross-purposes to our mutual detriment. Such is life. Now, let us put that aside and see what we can do about survival.”

“Yeah, I guess it’d be a shame if Trissiny didn’t get those documents, after you went to all this trouble.”

The spy nodded, his polite smile firmly in place. “Precisely.”

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16 – 47

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“Don’t touch the equipment, obviously. The visual effects are harmless and not interactable unless you’re doing magic, so don’t do magic.” Rector paused, looking up from his instrument panel, a construction of modern enchanting parts and engineered dials and levers around a millennia-old Infinite Order data screen, and leveled an accusing finger at one particular member of his audience. “And for anybody who is a living incarnation of magic, that means don’t even think too hard about magic! No focused intent! Do not subjectivize any physical principles!”

Azradeh raised both of her clawed hands innocently. “C’mon, Rector, you know me better than that.”

A wrench bounced off the bridge of her nose. His aim had been steadily improving.

“I shall be the very soul of discretion and restraint,” she promised. “Demon’s honor.”

She didn’t push too hard; it was enough of a privilege to be allowed to observe this event, which was being held in one of the underground experimental chambers beneath the Church Azradeh had not seen before. She didn’t even know how many of these Justinian had authorized, but like the others, this one was a melange of enchanting and engineering equipment completely inscrutable to her built into and around various priceless relics of the Elder Gods. Azradeh had to wonder whether the Universal Church had always had what was probably the world’s largest collection of that old technology or it was all collected by Justinian for his purposes.

Currently, the equipment wasn’t even the most interesting thing present. In the air all around them swirled shapes and sigils of floating light, representing everything from mathematical equations to arcane sigils, rotating around the room in orderly patterns. Orderly, but fiendishly complex.

“Does anything look familiar to you?” the Archpope himself asked her quietly.

Azradeh turned to him, raising her eyebrows. “Is there a reason it should?”

“All right, fixed it,” Rector stated before he could reply. “Yeah… Good, good, piggybacked a translocation signal off the native displacement waves. Using the Golden Sea as a manifestation portal is never gonna be completely stable, but if you want distance, I got that at the cost of precision of placement. Should spit out the target a good distance out past the Great Plains instead of right on the frontier.”

“How much precision did it cost, Rector?” Justinian asked.

The enchanter shook his head irritably, still scowling at his instruments. “Dunno. This is frustratingly vague. Gotta stay at the controls, steer it in real time. Way too many variables to account for—this is just not proper engineering, gonna be at least somewhat intuitive. How much precision you need?”

The Archpope nodded gravely. “If the manifestation will be at a radius outside the Golden Sea, it must be along the southern half. The entire process will be wasted if the subject materializes inside the Dwarnskolds, or flies off over the Stormsea.”

“Doable, no problem,” Rector said brusquely.

“And it must not appear in the vicinity of Last Rock.”

Rector hesitated. “…shouldn’t be a problem. That’s prob’ly too close to the frontier anyway. Straight line from there down to Calderaas, more or less… Yeah, think I can keep it clear of that range.”

“And,” Justinian continued, noting the way Rector’s shoulders immediately tensed, “if possible, I would rather it did not emerge near Veilgrad.”

In the short pause which ensued, the enchanter actually took his hands off the controls to drum all his fingers on the panel. When he finally spoke, his voice was even tighter than usual. “How important is that?”

Justinian had found that dealing with Rector was quite unlike, say, Ravoud, who obeyed him with implicit trust even against his own better judgment. With Rector, he needed to explain his reasons as clearly and in as much detail as possible, as the enchanter would tend to disregard instructions for which he didn’t see the point.

“The entire point of this manifestation will be psychological. We must create shock, and horror. Apart from the benefits of spreading this widely, the people of Veilgrad have always been somewhat inured to that, and have grown especially so after the events of the last few years. In addition, Veilgrad has recently acquired new protectors of significant potency and as yet undetermined capabilities. I would not wish the creature to be dispatched before the paladins can be brought to face it.”

“Not much chance of anything but a paladin doing it,” Rector said, un-tensing slightly. “I will…see what I can do. Not promising anything. Aiming this at the southern half of the radius while avoiding the point in the center of that might be all the precision I can squeeze out of it. Upside is, Veilgrad’s one spot. Worst comes to worst it’s just straight unlikely it’ll pop out there as opposed to any other point.”

“Please do what you can, Rector,” the Archpope urged, nodding at his back. “I have faith in your abilities.”

The enchanter grunted, going back to work.

“So, uh,” Azradeh said quietly, edging up next to him, “aren’t those paladins doing politics at you right now? I’d’ve thought you’d put this on hold while dealing with that.”

“This is me dealing with that,” Justinian said, giving her a sidelong smile. “It’s called asymmetrical warfare; attack your enemy with whatever they can least anticipate and counter. The children did this by moving into an arena in which I have up till now decisively overmatched them. They’ll not expect an abrupt shift back into territory in which they are more comfortable.”

“Huh. Doesn’t that…just give them back the advantage?”

“Momentarily,” he agreed, returning his gaze to Rector’s form, still hunched over the controls and jabbing irritably at the screen. “In the moment after that, it will render all their efforts irrelevant.”

Azradeh idly reached up, letting one stream of symbols pass intangibly through her hand. The visible data swirling around the chamber was all focused upon a point in its center, a save ten yards away from Rector’s control station. There, an elaborate construction of magic and technology surrounded the object at the center of the entire effect, keeping it contained, but visible. Theoretically visible; it was difficult to look at directly. When stared at for a few seconds, the black sliver of bone began to waver, as if shifting color to something in a spectrum she could not ordinarily see.

“I appreciate how you’re always willing to explain things to me.”

Justinian smiled at her again. “Gladly. You were known to be quite the strategist in your previous life; I retain hope that thoughts in that vein may yet jar some memory to the surface. I only regret that I do not have more time to visit with you.”

“Nah, you’re busy, I get it.”

“Do you have to chatter back there?!” Rector exclaimed.

“Oops.” Grinning, Azradeh took a series of loud, stomping steps backward. “I’m withdrawing, Rector! Going back to the wall, out of your radius!”

“Do it quietly! I am trying to focus!”

Pressing her back against the wall, the archdemon raised her claws to frame her mouth and bellowed, “IS THIS FAR ENOUGH?”

He made a sound like a prematurely awakened bear and did not otherwise respond.

Behind him, Delilah slipped discreetly over to the Archpope’s side from where she had been hovering by the door.

“Has this personality clash become a problem?” Justinian asked her, softly enough that Rector could not overhear.

The priestess shook her head, answering in the same near-whisper. “I thought it would, at first, but… She’s very careful not to cross any of his hard lines. It took me a while to realize it, but he actually enjoys having excuses to shout and be grumpy at her. Throwing things at someone who can’t be harmed by it is something of a release. She actually may be good for him.”

“How intriguing,” Justinian said, smiling.

Several yards behind them all and out of anyone’s field of view, Azradeh stepped silently forward, reached out with one hand, and tapped a point in midair. Beneath the tip of her claw, a single fragment of incorporeal data, a paragraph-sized equation, froze in its orbit and adhered to her hand. She swiftly shifted it to a different orbit and then withdrew, leaving it to float off on its way.

Smiling aimlessly, Azradeh once more retreated and leaned against the wall again, humming.

“What is that noise!?” Rector exclaimed.

“Oh, not a fan of lullabies? I take requests!”


He had not hesitated in following Rizlith through the Conclave’s embassy, simply because it was so out of character for her to seek him out. The succubus was a presence Ampophrenon tolerated solely to maintain the peace with Razzavinax, a fact of which she was well aware, and wisely kept her distance from the gold dragon. Now, as she had begged his attention on an urgent matter, he let her lead him deep into one of the embassy’s sub-basements. Wordlessly, Rizlith opened a door Ampophrenon recognized and gestured him through with a deferential bow.

He gave her a nod of acknowledgment as he stepped in, and for a single instant when she started to close the door behind him he considered the possibility of some kind of trap—you could never lower your guard around a child of Vanislaas—but then again, with her errand complete it was just as likely she simply didn’t want to be shut in a room with a gold dragon.

Surveying the scene before him, Ampophrenon amended that supposition to conclude the succubus had probably not wanted to be shut in a room with any of what was going on here.

This was one of the “hoard rooms,” subterranean chambers below the embassy which they had enchanted to be far larger than their physical dimensions, so as to let the dragons have private spaces in which they could rest in their larger forms. None of them, of course, kept an actual hoard here, right under the noses of other dragons; that was a recipe for several kinds of disaster. But they were welcome sanctuaries, nonetheless. This particular cavernous chamber was the private residence Varsinostro the Green shared with his roommate.

Varsinostro himself lay stretched along the ground, half-curled in a protective posture with one arm, his tail, and the edge of his wing enfolding the diminutive figure he clutched against his side. Ampophrenon met the green’s eyes and bowed his head once upon entering his personal space, but thereafter focused his attention on the gibbering elf.

“Where is it, where is the light? It was calm it was so—no, no more. Stop! Stop!” Raash sobbed aloud, actually pounding his fists against the dragon’s armored hide, which of course had not the least effect. At least he wasn’t lashing out with magic. “It’s not dark or light, they’re so angry. It’s wrong! It’s wrong! Please, I can’t make them…” Burying his face against Varsinostro’s side, he heaved silently as he struggled to breathe.

“What has happened to him?” Ampophrenon asked quietly. “Our protections have failed, after all this time?” It had taken some trial and error to refine the magic through which they kept the mad spirits of Athan’Khar from driving the headhunter insane, but not even in his worst moments since coming to the Conclave had Raash been this bad. In fact, this was the worst Ampophrenon had seen him since the four dragons had originally rescued him from Athan’Khar after Khadizroth’s escapade in Viridill. Worse, possibly; then, the elf had been only babbling and incoherent. Now he appeared to be in pain.

“The protection stands,” Varsinostro answered, his voice soft even in the booming resonance granted it by his greater form. “It seems we crafted them to be…inadequate. It is the spirits which have changed; they are riled beyond anything we have seen since Raash came home with us.” With one huge claw, he very tenderly stroked the elf’s hair as he wept silently against the dragon’s hide. “I have been forced to intercede with brute power and prevent him from casting magic. Until this subsides, I can do nothing but stay with him and provide safety, and whatever comfort I may.” His expression was nearly as pained as Raash’s as he looked down at the maddened elf Varsinostro had taken the primary role in managing the headhunter’s condition, and the two had become quite close.

“Zanzayed has already departed for Viridill to check for activity in Athan’Khar itself,” said Razzavinax, who stood to the side in his smaller form. His own face was grave; despite the well-earned reputation red dragons carried, Razzavinax was a self-described people person and disliked seeing anyone suffer needlessly, especially the companion of a fellow dragon. “I’m afraid that may be a mockingjay hunt, though, Ampophrenon. This agitation is severe; it has taken all of Varsinostro’s focus to keep Raash from hurting himself, and my own familiarity with the Athan’Khar spirits is much lesser. Still…I strongly suspect they are reacting to an outside stimulus. This is…reminiscent of the agitations observed along the Viridill border during recorded major chaos events.”

Ampophrenon inhaled slowly, mastering his own alarm. “Then Zanzayed’s errand is worthwhile, even if it is only due diligence. If your suspicion is correct…”

“Even our strength means little against chaos,” Razzavinax agreed grimly. “Raash wasn’t with us during the disaster at Veilgrad, but we all remember how that set off the oracles at the time, and…”

“And this is different,” Varsinostro rumbled. “Sudden, and acute. I can only hope it passes as quickly as it has come on. If not…” Raash groaned and began cursing softly in agonized elvish; the dragon gently rested his chin atop the elf’s head.

“While we’re talking of due diligence,” said Razzavinax, “I think it would be a good idea for you to visit your paladin friend, Ampophrenon; Zanza says she might actually like you more than him, anyway. And then the other two. If there is a major chaos incident brewing, they’ll be needed front and center, and we can provide them quick transport to wherever it occurs.”

“Yes,” Ampophrenon said, narrowing his own eyes. “That raises an ominous prospect, however. The paladins are right now—”

“We know what they’re doing,” the red dragon said, his expression growing steely. “And who will be most inconvenienced if they succeed. In light of what is strongly suspected about his previous involvement in chaos events, isn’t that suggestive?”

“Let us be aware of possibilities without borrowing trouble,” Ampophrenon cautioned. “You are right, though, it is perilously suggestive. And should this suspicion be borne out, his decisive removal will become an urgent priority.”

“I’m glad to hear you say it,” Razzavinax replied, his mouth twisting with black humor. “I’m the wrong color to be safely making pronouncements like that toward the Universal Church or its figurehead. For my part, I’m going to go pull at my connections in the city. We need fresh information, and to be positioned as well as possible for whatever comes next. Varsinostro, I hate to leave you alone with this, but I think it would be a bad idea to have Rizlith in here. I’ll ask Maiyenn to come keep you two company, if you don’t object.”

“She would be welcome, if she is willing,” Varsinostro agreed softly. “Your lady has always had a gentle way with Raash.”

Red and gold nodded at him, and then Ampophrenon stepped forward, reaching out to lay a very soft touch against Raash’s shoulder where it emerged above the tip of Varsinostro’s wing.

“Courage, friend,” he murmured. “We will not desert you.”

Raash shifted his head so Ampophrenon could see one of his eyes, but his stare was unfocused and wild. It was unclear whether he could even see him.

Then the two dragons turned in unison and marched toward the door together. The sight of their grim expressions and purposeful stride would have been enough to make the world tremble, if it could see them.


Even after they had spread the population to well-constructed tents around the lodge’s grounds (well-made structures complete with modern heating charms that were almost like temporary houses, provided by Ravana’s generosity), it was still dense enough with lizardfolk refugees that relatively small incidents could create a stir felt by everyone present. The stir currently underway was not small. As such, Ingvar had been unsurprised when Ilriss, a young lizardwoman apprenticing as a shaman, had run to him frantically demanding his presence.

The Elder had made his semi-permanent home in the great hall of the lodge, with his belongings arranged around a simple pile of sleeping furs near the fire, no barriers or concessions to privacy added. Ingvar respected his dedication to making himself available to his people, and while the lizardfolk remained reluctant to discuss their religious rites, he had inferred that this accessibility was related to the fae ritual by which the Elder had divested himself of his very name.

Admirable as that was, it carried the downside that when something was wrong with the Elder, it spread panic. Now, Ingvar and Ilriss had to push their way through agitated lizardpeople as more received word and streamed into the great hall to spectate. The Shadow Hunters had also begun gathering, and were barely managing to keep order.

“He’s been like this ever since it started,” Ilriss fretted as she finally brought Ingvar to the Elder’s bedside. The old shaman lay on his back, eyes squeezed closed and his face contorted in a grimace of apparent pain; his entire body was tense, nearly arching off the furs, as if he were physically struggling with some weight despite his prone position. “It struck us all, but he…he…”

“The Elder has taken it upon himself,” interjected Fninn, the other junior shaman who most often accompanied the Elder, as Ilriss seemed about to succumb to her own worry. “Something has agitated our familiar spirits. Badly. They screamed in anger and fear, and… The Elder has gathered to himself all their voices, so the rest of us are not affected.”

“All fae spirits?” Ingvar demanded, now recognizing the reason for their alarm. Warnings like that usually heralded some world-altering disaster. He knew a bit about fairy warnings, himself. “Has anyone else felt…?”

He looked around at the onlookers, meeting Aspen’s eyes; she held up both hands. “Hey, don’t look at me. Maybe if Juniper was here…”

“I didn’t feel anything either!” chimed Zap, who as usual was flitting about Ingvar’s head in little bursts of nervous energy.

“I think…not all spirits,” said Ilriss, having regathered some of her poise. “Because of our mission, we are more closely attuned to…certain events.”

“The Elder asked for you, Brother Ingvar,” Fninn added.

“A spiritual disturbance, related to you…” Ingvar trailed off, eyes narrowing as his mind raced ahead.

“Sounds like we better warn that Duchess,” said Aspen.

Ingvar shook his head. “Lady Madouri left very specific instructions; she’s not to be informed of any developments like this unless they affect her personally and are critically important.”

“Huh?” The dryad blinked. “But that’s… I figured she’d be way more of a control freak than that.”

“This is about magic, not conventional operational security. The very reason the Elder gave up his name, and the People have moved in secret.” He met her eyes, keeping his head partially turned so he could still peripherally see the beleaguered shaman. “Recognition by and through spirits. Every conscious mind that’s aware of this is another risk factor. We need to be…careful.” Ingvar returned his full focus to the Elder, who despite having apparently asked for him now showed no sign of being aware of anything beyond his inner struggle. “All right. I want people who can blend in to get down to Madouris and Tiraas and see what they can dig up. November, Dimbi… Is Tholi here?”

“Young hunter,” the Elder suddenly rasped. Ingvar broke off and knelt beside him. The old lizardman lifted one hand into the air, his eyes still closed; Ingvar grasped it and his clawed fingers clutched him as if he were a lifeline. The shaman’s grip trembled with the tension wracking his entire body.

“I’m here,” Ingvar said quietly. “How can I help?”

“The guilty are there,” said the Elder, his voice taut with strain. “Something dark comes. Great and terrible… But not the great doom. A weapon to distract and befuddle. It is not time to address the guilty. The innocent…must be protected. They will come here, the dark and light alike. A soul at the heart of the doom, in need of protection. To these wilds of yours…”

His grip went slack and he grimaced, baring pointed teeth. Ingvar waited for a few moments, but apparently there was no more. Releasing the old shaman’s hand, he slowly stood back up.

“Thank you for the warning, Elder.”

“Uh, I don’t wanna be rude,” said Aspen, “but are you sure…?”

“I’ve learned the hard way to respect the messages of spirits and the shaman who convey them,” said Ingvar. “Very well, you all heard the Elder. Ilriss, Fninn, I trust you to look after him until…whatever this is calms down. Shadow Hunters, we have our own duty. Gear up and prepare to move out.”

“What are we moving out for?” November asked.

“For souls in need,” said Ingvar. “This is why we’re here. To keep watch over these lands.”


“This is a prayer room,” Rasha hissed. “In the Temple! Of! Avei! Do you have any idea the hell there’ll be to pay if you’re caught? And that’s just from the Sisters, never mind when Glory gets her claws into you!”

“Rasha,” Darius said solemnly through the crack in the door leading to the small chamber, “I understand fully. All the risks, and all the consequences. There are just some things that are worth it.”

“Are there?” she growled. “Are they?”

He released the door, still staring at her with his eyes wide and pleading, and held up both hands with his fingers spread in a vulgar squeezing motion. “But Rasha, did you see…?”

She heaved a sigh. “Yes, I saw them. They’re magnificent. The stuff about which legends are sung and odes composed. But, again, this is the Temple of goddamn Avei and that is a prayer room and you two—”

“I know what an imposition this is,” he intoned, then reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Rasha, I didn’t want to play this card, but… If our situations were reversed, you know I’d do it for you.”

Rasha stared at him in silence for a moment. Then Juniper’s face appeared over his shoulder, the same earnest plea in her big brown eyes, and Rasha finally sighed again, even more heavily. “You would, wouldn’t you? Damn it, Darius. You’re such a…bro.”

“Always and forever,” he promised.

“That wasn’t a compliment.”

“I’ll make it up to you.” He was already edging back, the crack in the door slowly diminishing. “I owe you big for this, Rasha.”

“Too right you fucking do.”

“Thanks so much, Rasha,” Juniper added with a winsome smile. “You’re a good friend!”

“No reason you should be bored,” Darius chimed in the last second before he shut the door in her face. “You can go hang out with Zafi!”

Then it closed with a decisive click.

“Zafi is on duty,” Rasha informed the sigil of Avei carved into the wooden surface. “But then again, so are you, in theory.” She turned to look down at Sniff, who stood silently against the wall, peering up at her. “I dunno how you stand it.”

The bird-lizard-whatever made a soft croaking chirp deep in his throat.

“Well, the hell I’m gonna stand here for… Fuck, I give him five minutes, tops. Still not waiting outside. Hold down the fort, Sniff.”

Sniff raised his head crest in acknowledgment. Shaking her own head, Rasha turned and ambled down the hall.

Darius and Juniper were really pushing their luck; this was perilously close to the main sanctuary of the Temple, which was still roiling like a kicked beehive even with Trissiny’s big address concluded. Rasha was just another woman strolling through the furor, idly half-listening to conversations as she passed, many of which were about the Bishop announcement.

It was odd to find herself at loose ends like this. Thumbing the heating charm hidden under the fur-trimmed collar of her dress, Rasha made her unhurried way to the front doors of the temple and slipped out. The fresh winter air was just what she needed, at least with the charm active.

Imperial Square wasn’t a lot more quiet, between its normal traffic and ongoing agitation caused by the back-to-back paladins’ announcements. Rasha herself had been occupied being debriefed about the captured (and then rescued) Purists, but she likely wouldn’t have been inclined to watch politicians giving speeches anyway. No matter how important, and even with one of the politicians in question being a good friend. Somehow, knowing that Trissiny hated being a politician only further soured an arena of action in which Rasha had no inherent interest. With the Purists finally good and done for, she was looking forward to not having to think about any of this crap for a good long while. Just seeing the effect Trissiny, Toby, and Gabriel had had on the capital with three little press conferences was plenty satisfying to her.

Glory would be disappointed, of course, but Glory lived and breathed politics. Rasha appreciated the education in it she was getting, and didn’t deny the importance of understanding the forces that moved people, but she had already decided long since that she wasn’t going to follow in her mentor’s footsteps, at least not directly. Her own path wasn’t quite laid out, but she had time to consider it.

On the Temple’s front colonnade, she finally found a relatively clear space in which to breathe, all the way down at one end beneath the shadow of one massive column. Rasha wasn’t about to leave the Temple grounds; this was as far as she was willing to get from Darius, despite her frustration with both him and Glory’s insistence that she not go off alone. It was still a crowded public space; she could take two steps in several directions and reach out an arm to touch someone, and the babble of excited chatter washed over her from all sides. But it was a spot, clear and open, where she was in no immediate danger of being bumped into and knocked down. For a moment, she just paused there, people-watching.

A single point of pressure poked into the center of her back.

“Good afternoon, Miss Rasha. It has been some time.”

Rasha did not freeze, or panic. Among Glory’s more esoteric training programs had been teaching her to identify various implements being poked into her back; she knew the tip of a wand when it nestled between her vertebrae. She also knew how to act in such a situation. Rasha breathed in and out once, seizing calm like a shield, and then very slowly, giving no cause for a sudden reaction, turned her head just enough to see who was behind her.

As the proper technique for this maneuver dictated, he was standing close enough to her that his body concealed the wand from the numerous onlookers. She found herself looking at a square, bluff face, framed by red hair and a very neatly trimmed beard. Rasha had to pause and reinforce her carefully maintained calm facade. That was a face she had only recently stopped seeing in recurring nightmares.

“Rogrind. And here I thought I was done having to deal with your nonsense. I have moved on to fresh new nonsense, thank you very much.”

The dwarf smiled thinly. “After the catalog of insults and injuries for which you were directly or indirectly responsible? Only an Eserite could be so arrogant. I see your training is progressing well. Please walk forward, miss, at a steady pace, with your hands at your sides and not in or near your pockets.”

“You can’t be serious,” she said incredulously, glancing to one side. There were two Silver Legionnaires not eight feet away. “I don’t remember you being this sloppy. All I have to do is shout.”

The pressure against her back shifted as he adjusted the wand. “At this angle and at this range, a beam weapon of this caliber will sever your spinal cord and destroy most of your heart. Temple or no, there is not a healer alive who could help you then. Yes, I would receive a swift comeuppance; perhaps it would give you some comfort for your last thoughts to be of that.”

“That’s a bluff.”

“Call it, then. Do you know what happens to field agents whose identity is compromised in the course of creating a humiliating public debacle in a foreign capital? You have a great deal to lose, Rasha, including your life. I? Nothing. Walk forward, if you please.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather just goad me into tackling you? C’mon, it’ll be like old times. We can go to jail, reminisce about—”

“That’s very droll, young lady, but my time is short, and thus, so is yours.” He physically pushed with the wand until she had to take a step.

So she did. Keeping her hands still, eyes darting about and mind racing, but moving. Complying, for now. Something would come up; there would be something she could use. There was always something. No situation was hopeless, for a properly prepared mind, and she wasn’t the fresh-off-the-boat kid she’d been when last she’d tangled with the dwarf.

Was he serious? It wasn’t impossible that he was that desperate, but it was also quite likely he was lying. That was the thing about professional spies. They were often both of those things.

“Well, anyway,” she said as they moved in lockstep through the crowd swirling in Imperial Square, keeping her voice even and at a volume he could hear without being loud enough to make him twitchy, “thank you.”

“For?”

“You didn’t misgender me. Or even start to. My own friends took a while to consistently remember.”

“Please. I am from a civilized country; Svenheim solved its Purist problem years ago.”

“Must be nice.”

“It is. I can see it has been an eventful year for you, but if I may say so, you appear to be flourishing.”

“Good of you to notice.”

She could barely hear his soft sigh over the hubbub of the surrounding crowd. “I fear it makes what comes next rather embarrassing, but surely you of all people will understand the exigencies which can force one to accept…unfavorable allies.”

That was nearly as alarming as the weapon pressed to her spine. He had guided her over to one edge of the Square, and in fact up the sidewalk of one of the main avenues opening onto it. Now, Rasha observed that their destination was a carriage, active and idling in wait.

And in the driver’s seat, another familiar but unwelcome face. Rasha looked up at the grin of savage triumph Sister Lanora wore, and let out a hissing sigh through her teeth.

“Fuck.”


It came from the Golden Sea, a living streak of smoke and shadow marring the sky. Shooting outward toward civilization like a missile, it seemed to take shape as it progressed, growing in size, developing visible features, and steadily leaving behind a trail of thick black mist that lingered on the air like an ink stain.

The thing soared over an elven grove, sending several shamans into an uncharacteristic panic as fae spirits screamed in horror at its passing, and for the first time spread its wings. They were skeletal, with none of the membrane between their long fingers that should serve to hold it aloft, had its flight been a matter of aerodynamics.

In fact, it was entirely skeletal, a fact which became more clear as it traveled and continued to form. Black bones were rough, jagged as if every one had been repeatedly broken and improperly healed, and fully exposed. In fact, though its shape suggested a skeleton, it looked more as if it were formed of shards of volcanic glass, haphazardly glued together. Color emerged from the swirling darkness of the thing’s being as its wings began to beat against the air, spraying swirls of inky smoke. Ligaments and tendons materialized, growing more like fungus than tissue to connect its shattered bones. They were purple, glossy as jewels and faintly luminous, what little could be seen of them through the haze of its body. Rather than flesh, the creature formed a steady outward bulk of vapor, a black mist which continued to billow out behind it with the speed of its passing, roiling and only partially obscuring its craggy inner workings.

Mountains rose up ahead, and at their base, a city of spires and terraces perched along a peninsular plateau which extended out over the surrounding plains. As the thing shot toward this landmark, it finally opened its eyes.

They were brightly colored, in a color that made no sense, that was painful to observe and not expressible in the spectrum of visible light. When they opened for the first time, a pulse burst out from the foul beast, flattening a stretch of tallgrass.

It shifted its trajectory, shooting upward with a powerful flap of its skeletal wings, and slowed as it soared higher… Only to descend upon Veilgrad from above, giving the unprepared city just enough time to see it coming.

Wings spread, it landed upon the cathedral, the impact collapsing part of the roof and sending its ancient stone spire tumbling to the streets below in pieces. The wings remained fully extended in an animalistic threat display as screams and alarm bells began to sound in all directions. Drawing its sinuous neck up and back, it opened its angular jaws and emitted a noise that was at once a roar, a hiss, and a scream, an unearthly sound which clawed at the mind as much as at the ears.

The chaos dragon howled its challenge to an unprepared world.

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16 – 46

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“I haven’t done anything wrong!” Rehvad Salimon protested, his voice growing shrill.

“Master Salimon,” Ravana said in a calm and not unkind tone, “there is no one truly innocent. We all have something upon our conscience. The only person who makes such a blanket protest of innocence is, quite obviously, laboring to conceal guilt.”

He gaped at her for one fishlike moment, then began stammering. “I—but that—what does—”

Keeping her expression even as always, Ravana inwardly rebuked herself. It was a pointless observation, which a man less intimidated and out of his depth would naturally dismiss for the silly philosophical time-wasting it was. Playing such mind games with someone like this was purely self-indulgent, and needlessly cruel.

“More specifically,” she went on, cutting off his fumbling protests, “I should remind you that it is not customary for miscellaneous citizens to have a personal audience with their Duchess in the preliminary stages of an investigation. I am well aware of your role in organizing that lamentable incident outside Falconer Industries. Of greater import, I am aware that you did so at the instigation of the Universal Church, in exchange for a monetary bribe.”

“That’s not a crime!” he burst out, and then went pale. “I mean—that is, I don’t know what… My concerns about that archdemon were perfectly valid! Our concerns.”

The man was visibly sweating now. Ravana stared at him in silence. It was a favorite trick of Tellwyrn’s, one she’d not had an opportunity to learn before Last Rock. When her father had wanted to unsettle someone, he blustered and threatened. Cold silence was far more deadly to an already-burdened conscience, and easier to deliver with dignity.

This room was carefully chosen for such a purpose, a small office lined with dark-stained oak paneling and deep blue wallpaper that made it feel close, even claustrophobic, especially with five people present. Mr. Salimon occupied an uncomfortably small wooden chair in the center of the room, with two House Madouri guards looming behind him in positions flanking the door. Ravana sat across from him, in a comfortable armchair designed to evoke the aspect of a throne, Yancey standing like a solemn statue at her left. It was an interrogation chamber, designed for exactly this use, and all the more intimidating for a middle-aged shopkeeper like Salimon for being in Madouri Manor rather than a police barracks. Soldiers and police officers in the Empire scrupulously followed the letter of the law and handled citizens with care under the Tirasian Dynasty’s rules, with the occasional exception of Imperial Intelligence. The Madouris, on the other hand, were known to make inconvenient people vanish.

He drew in a deep and slightly shaky breath, making a deliberate effort to square his shoulders, and raised his chin. “I believe that the Writ of Duties requires me to be represented by a qualified attorney before any judgment is rendered.”

Ravana lifted one eyebrow. “Of course. Master Salimon, our purpose here is to determine the details of what happened. It has not yet been decided that you are to be charged with any crime. Should it come to that, you will of course have access to a lawyer of your choosing, or be provided one by the state if you are unable to secure such services on your own. Why?” She subtly leaned forward, holding her gaze on his. “Is there something to which you would like to confess that would require a trial?”

Even more color leached from his cheeks. That was the only reply he managed to produce.

“So,” Ravana continued more briskly, “as a key witness in this ongoing investigation, you will naturally be our guest here until the matter is brought to a conclusion, one way or another.”

“Y-your Grace,” he said weakly, “I…I mean, my Lady… I have a family.”

She frowned in reproach. “Good heavens, man, we are hardly going to torture you. This is the twelfth century, and we are all professionals here. You will be interviewed at whatever duration the specialists I employ deem necessary, and until they are finished, housed here when not speaking with them. Comfortably, Master Salimon, not in a dungeon cell. With all due respect, I imagine my humblest guest chambers are more salubrious than your own home. Simply cooperate with your interviewers to the greatest extent you can, and this matter can be resolved with the utmost speed.”

“But I…” He wrung his hands, staring pleadingly at her. “Please, Lady Madouri, you must understand I only meant to do what was right.”

“And make some easy coin in the process?”

Salimon cringed. “It—it was just that—”

“These are the details you should explain at length when asked. Now you must excuse me, Master Salimon, as I have many other engagements today.”

“I beg you, Lady Madouri—”

“That will be all.”

The guards immediately stepped forward and helped their guest to rise and make his way to the door. Politely, even gently, but no less firmly for that. Ravana had taken pains to ensure that her House Guard understood the distinction.

When the door clicked shut behind them, leaving herself and Yancey alone in the chamber, she allowed her expression to descend into a flat stare at the wall.

“He is a small business owner,” she said aloud after nearly a minute of silence. “A lifelong resident of Madouris. Born and raised.”

“Yes, my Lady,” Yancey replied. “A bootmaker. His shop is not large, but rather successful.”

“And that,” she whispered, “due to one of the business loans furnished by my treasury, before which he was a cobbler in a factory. I consigned everyone I loved to the headsman to rescue this province, Yancey. Opened my House’s wealth and resources to improve my people’s lives to the greatest extent I could—and with amazing success, if I may boast, in only two short years. Now, here I find one of the most direct recipients of my generosity, paid in my family’s blood, trying to stab me in the back. For a handful of doubloons. I begin to understand why the powers of this world still insist on resorting to torture, despite centuries of accumulated knowledge to show how ineffective the tactic is. There’s an appeal to the simplicity, is there not? If the subject won’t comply, hurt them until they do.”

“Torture is indeed an extremely effective tool for securing compliance, my Lady,” the Butler said diffidently. “It is sadly counterproductive when used to acquire valid information.”

“And even so,” Ravana hissed, her fingers tensing into claws on the arms of her chair, “it is tempting. So very tempting, when the subject in question is an infernally presumptuous ingrate.”

Two heartbeats of silence ensued before Yancey discreetly cleared his throat. “Veilwin and Barnes have both successfully attached magical traces to the priority targets Barnes’s spirits identified. The ‘bigger fish,’ as he put it. Lord-Captain Arivani also has his best men observing their movements. It is my understanding, my Lady, that those are the anticipated sources of intelligence on his Holiness’s connections in the province. Mr. Salimon’s detention is more designed to provide a pretext for your upcoming declaration, and convince the Archpope that we have failed to identify his true agents. If we do not truly expect to garner worthwhile information from Mr. Salimon… Strictly speaking, it would seem not to matter what befalls him here.”

With a Butler’s customary subtle precision, he managed to express the suggestion without voicing it directly.

Ravana continued staring at the wall in silence for another long moment before very slowly shaking her head. “Such self-indulgent brutality all too quickly becomes a habit, Yancey, and I have seen firsthand what that habit in a leader does to a realm. No… I fear I have already indulged myself to excess, here. The wretch will be handled with all due care and then thrown back to his sad little life when he’s no longer useful. Perhaps that, at least, will teach him some caution, if not virtue.”

“Very good, my Lady.”

She could not fault him for the suggestion, for all that it ran against her practices and stated policies for the running of her province. In truth, this entire interview had been unnecessary; nothing about Salimon’s case had required her personal attention, and indeed only took time away from the actually professional interrogators she employed, not that she expected them to get anything useful from him anyway. All of this was simply because she’d wanted to look him in the eye, see the man and hear his excuses for aiding the enemies of his Duchess. Ravana had expected nothing from him, and still come away disappointed. From Yancey’s point of view, it was a purely logical extrapolation to suggest she might wish to vent her ire on the little toad of a man—and Yancey, of course, would not venture an opinion on the subject one way or another. Whatever his mistress chose to do, he would see done with the greatest efficiency.

Ravana did not have that luxury. As a leader, she had to make better choices. The monster within her that eternally snarled for vengeance must remain leashed, until there were more fitting targets upon whom to loose it.

And in fact, only for minutes longer. She was about to declare total war upon a worthy target indeed.

“Time?” she asked crisply, rising from the chair.

“The reporters you invited have begun gathering, and will be ready when you appear to deliver your address,” he replied smoothly, the Butler of course not needing to consult any messengers or even a watch to know the exact status of any project within his domain. “As you requested, my Lady, only journalists from Madouris have been summoned, though we have not limited the conference to representatives of papers under your direct control. The paladins will begin delivering their own speeches within the hour.”

“I hope they took my advice,” she murmured.

“It appears so, my Lady. All three will make their announcements in a staggered order, to avoid drawing attention from one another, and build political momentum.”

“Good. And we have magical oversight to notify us when the last paladin announcement is complete?”

“Yes, my Lady. Veilwin expressed her displeasure at the need for her to remain sober for the duration.”

“She will live, provided she does not antagonize her employer much further.” Timing would be important; Ravana had suggested to the paladins that they would achieve a greater effect by chaining their formal announcements one after another rather than delivering them simultaneously, and she planned to launch her own as soon as they were finished to further extend the chain, and avoid stepping on their toes. Against the right kind of foe, a rapid succession of blows could be more devastating than a single more powerful one.

Ravana swept toward the door and her much anticipated date with full-scale conflict, but hesitated with her hand upon the latch. “And Yancey, make arrangements for me to have a fencing tutor during my vacations from Last Rock. Professor Ezzaniel believes I am not without talent, and… I suspect this seething desire to pummel the crap out of someone is going to become a recurring part of my life. I should cultivate a properly graceful means of expressing it. As befits a Lady.”


She emerged in a split-second surge of darkness as usual, and immediately had multiple destructive spells aimed at her. For a given value of “immediately;” Natchua had the dual advantages of faster-than-human reflexes and preparation, since only she had known in advance the precise timing of her arrival. Infernal countermeasures were already sizzling at her fingertips before the stepped out of the shadows onto the rooftop, and had assembled mental preparations to neutralize or reverse every hex the other warlocks conjured before they could attack.

But they didn’t. After a tense second, most of them released their gathered energies, and the few holdouts kept their spells in a suspended low-power state. Natchua, frankly, was disappointed. Her life would be so much simpler if they would just throw down honestly so she could put a final end to all this. And yet, here they were.

“Only you weirdos would hold a picnic on a rooftop in Veilgrad at midwinter,” she snorted, folding her arms and looking down her nose at the assembled Black Wreath.

“Like it?” Embras Mogul asked cheerfully, gesturing around. They had dragged—or more likely shadow-jumped—a wooden table and several benches up here, and even set up a grill. None of the warlocks appeared to be cold, which meant they hadn’t actually done any serious infernomancy, as that would destabilize most commercially available arcane heating charms. No, it appeared they were simply relaxing in the open air, working their way through a big cauldron of mulled cider and sandwiches made of grilled sausage and a horrible local specialty called sauerkraut which Natchua didn’t care to be within smelling range of. “I’m surprised more people don’t do this, what with modern warmth charms. Hot food and cold air make for a delightful contrast! Rupa, get the Duchess a sandwich.”

“The Duchess can get her own fucking sandwich,” retorted a Punaji woman before taking a long draught of cider.

“No, thank you,” Natchua sniffed. “I don’t suppose the owners of this building even know you’re up here?” She was answered by a variety of disdainful expressions. For once, and for whatever reason—likely having to do with eating and drinking—the Wreath had their hoods down. They were a collection of humans of various ethnicities; Natchua wasn’t sure she liked seeing all their faces this way. Wiping them all out would feel easier if they could be dismissed as formless robed mooks.

“Really, how many flat rooftops are there in Veilgrad?” Mogul retorted. “They’re practically asking for it. We should demand payment for clearing off the snow; that’s exactly why they build those steep gabled roofs around here, you know.”

“I guess I can’t fault your inventiveness when it comes to finding new ways to get my attention.”

“Yes, that’s right, Natchua,” he replied with gratuitously heavy-handed sarcasm. “Everything we do revolves around you.”

She folded her arms, refusing to rise to that bait. “Well, here I am. So go ahead, Mogul, do your gloating. Don’t hold back, let’s get it all out of your system up front.”

He actually hesitated with a sandwich halfway to his mouth, staring at her through slightly narrowed eyes. Several of his fellow cultists were regarding her with similar expressions, those who weren’t scowling outright.

“Gloating,” Mogul said slowly, rolling the word around as if to taste it.

“Are you really going to make me start?” Natchua demanded. “You know what, fine, whatever gets this done with faster. I’m big enough to admit when I’ve been beaten. So congratulations, you called my big bluff. I’ll own up to it: the thought genuinely never crossed my mind that you would actually grovel in public. I wouldn’t have. So, you win. And now I’m stuck with you freaks, because no, my word means too much for me to renege on a public promise, even to…you. I’m sure I have many long years of you finding ways to torture me with it to look forward to.”

She grimaced right back at their scowls, only belatedly noting that some of those scowls had melted into expressions of confusion. Natchua glanced back and forth at the displeased warlocks whose picnic she had crashed; now, for some reason, they mostly looked bemused or suspicious, as if trying to figure out what she was up to. Mogul himself was just staring at her with a curious blank face, sandwich still held halfway to his mouth.

“Well?” she prompted. “That’s it. If you were hoping for more, you’re gonna be waiting a long time. I just said I’m not willing to humiliate myself any—”

Natchua broke off again as Embras Mogul burst out laughing, then just stared while he appeared to fall into outright hysterics. Dropping his sandwich, the high priest of Elilial staggered into the picnic table, only haphazardly managing to slide onto a seat rather than tumbling to the frozen rooftop along with his spilled bread and sausage. Even the other Wreath were watching him with varying degrees of confusion and alarm, Vanessa stepping closer and reaching out but then hesitating, as if unsure how to deal with this.

“Does he often…?” Natchua gestured vaguely at the cackling warlock. Nobody answered her, except with a few spiteful stares.

“Y-y’see,” Mogul wheezed, removing his omnipresent hat and tossing it carelessly down on the table. “You see what she’s doing, though?”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Natchua huffed. “What is it you think I’m doing now?”

“Not you,” he snorted, his laughter cutting off as abruptly as it had begun. “No, Natchua my dear, you pegged me right in the first place. I’m right there with you; I’d sooner chew off my own foot, if the alternative was making a degrading public spectacle of myself. Only a direct command from the Dark Lady could make me even consider such a thing.” He bared his teeth at her in an expression very much like a fox in the kind of trap that could only be escaped by the means he’d just suggested. “And so it was.”

Natchua narrowed her own eyes, feeling a chill down her back that was unrelated to the cold air. She had suspected at the time, having felt that moment of Elilial’s dark attention in the moment before the man had buckled to the ground. “I really don’t know how you can still trust her enough to do such a thing, after all that’s happened. Much less why she would see any advantage in humiliating you like that.”

“Why, that’s exactly what I just realized,” he replied, grinning bleakly up at her. “It’s a classic trick—but then, simple tricks are the best tricks. If you want mutually hostile people to get along, you give them a mutual enemy. And for people who are all, to varying degrees, averse to being ordered around, there’s no more tempting enemy than someone in authority over them. You see?”

She did see, but found nothing to say, for once.

“I don’t believe it,” one of the warlocks growled.

“That’s too…” Vanessa trailed off mid-sentence, as though unsure what she’d actually meant to say.

“It fits, though,” Mogul said, still staring up at Natchua. “It has to be said there’s not a shred of trust here, nor even amity. You know, what with all the murder and torture and ambushing and all.”

“I don’t believe you,” Natchua managed at last, echoing one of Mogul’s own followers. “I can believe Elilial would be cruel enough to make you humiliate yourself, but not for no point. There’s no reason she would care enough whether we get along. There’s no reason we need to.”

“I think you know better,” he replied, his stare again gone flat and expressionless. “There’s a new paradigm brewing; none of us know what the new order will shape up to be. But the Dark Lady isn’t one to just let things happen without applying her own finger to the scales. And obviously, whatever plans she has are better off with her cult and her paladin able to work together.”

Wind whistled over the rooftop, carrying with it the sounds and smells of the bustling city laid out around them.

“So,” Natchua said at last, “you do know about that.”

“Oh, come on, why did you think we were here?” he scoffed, spreading his arms. “Our only business with you should have been a quick and lethal ambush. But we had to know, Natchua. What other question could there have been, except why. In all of recorded history, even we have no hint there was ever a Hand of Elilial. And she chooses an enemy? Someone who did to us what you did? Of all the possible prospects, why you?”

It would be so easy to seize that opportunity to say something spiteful, or simply deflect the question, but something stayed her impulse. They were all starting at her with an intensity which, if it didn’t exactly bring down the masks, said this question was absolutely sincere, and pivotal. That was only understandable, even if she couldn’t see the raw aspect of their faces. Natchua had been trying to pay attention to this feeling, and while she didn’t feel she’d made much progress in understanding it, she had learned to at least recognize these moments of decision, when an unknown impulse prompted her to do something that seemed irrational. So far, these had turned out better for her than she had any right to expect. This time, it pushed her to simply be straightforward with the Black Wreath.

“She said I was cunning,” Natchua answered him, fixing her eyes on Embras’s and ignoring the intent stares of the other warlocks—and not, of course, relaxing her defenses for an instant, just on the chance one of them got agitated and then impulsive. “Apparently the archdemons were her equivalent of a paladin, and with them all gone and Vadrieny effectively against her, she needed something to fill the gap. It didn’t make sense to me why an avowed enemy was a good choice, either, but…here we are. Cunning, she said. I got the impression your cult has been disappointing in that regard. Clever and deceitful rather than cunning. She spent some time lecturing me about the difference.”

She hesitated, once more glancing around; Mogul remained expressionless, but some of the other warlocks were starting to look angry again. On that, she couldn’t exactly blame them.

“As for what’s really going on, I couldn’t tell you,” Natchua snorted. “The whole thing was a crock of bullshit. I have no idea what her game is, but honestly. Cunning? I know my faults, thank you, and I’m not stupid enough to swallow that. I’m impulsive and lucky, that’s all. Whatever game Elilial is playing, I guess she didn’t feel the need to bring you into the loop either, and I’m afraid I can’t help. Cunning, my gray ass.”

“Hm,” a bearded man grunted from one side of the group, shifting his eyes to stare pensively out over Veilgrad’s skyline rather than at her.

“I know that grunt,” Mogul said with a sigh, turning back to him. “That is the grunt of forbidden wisdom. Well, come on, Bradshaw. Let’s not keep us in suspense.”

Bradshaw’s eyes focused on him, and then he glanced again at Natchua. “Are we giving explanations to the…her, Embras?”

“The her has deigned to be forthcoming with us,” Mogul acknowledged. “And it does seem we are stuck with one another for the time being. Let’s hear what you know.”

The other warlock’s nostrils flared once in a silent sigh which connoted annoyance, but he did turn back to Natchua. “What you did at Ninkabi was…or at least, could be interpreted as a ritual called an Offering of Cunning. Someone who out-maneuvers the Black Wreath in open combat and then…” He paused, gritting his teeth so hard the expression was visible even behind his beard. “Well, the spirit of the thing calls for withdrawing at that point before delivering a deathblow. You technically didn’t kill anyone with your own hands, though your next actions certainly were the next worst thing. For whatever reason, it seems the Dark Lady chose to interpret that as an Offering of Cunning. The reward is a personal audience with her, in which the successful offerer is allowed to ask questions and receive truthful answers.”

“That’s the first I ever heard of that nonsense,” she assured him. “I really was just trying to kill you and ruin her day.”

“Yes, well, the last time we got an Offering of Cunning was two years ago and at that time, none of us had heard of it, either, including Embras. Understand that for most of the Wreath’s history, our core operations have been concentrated on this continent, as with most of the Pantheon cults. And that led to a dramatic change in the nature of our operations a century ago, as the Wreath was damaged almost as badly as the Empire during the Enchanter Wars.”

“I didn’t know you fought in the Enchanter Wars,” Natchua admitted, beginning to be intrigued in spite of herself.

“Ugh,” Vanessa grunted, folding her arms.

“Oh, I assure you our forebears did their level best to stay out of that mess,” Mogul said wryly. “Unfortunately, other parties taking advantage of the chaos took their own toll. The Wreath’s leadership at the time was entirely wiped out by… Well, actually, your friend Kheshiri could tell you that story far better than I, as she was neck-deep in it.”

“You lost the right to complain about Kheshiri when you let her out of her bottle in the first place.”

“I have to give you that one,” he agreed. “Anyway, your pardon, Bradshaw. Please continue.”

“The point,” said Bradshaw, “is that the Wreath keeps a mostly oral tradition; few of our secrets were ever written down. That loss of important personnel cost us a great deal of our magical and ritual knowledge, and so the Wreath subsequently pivoted from a largely mystical to a mostly political organization. A lot of its more esoteric knowledge was left lost. After the battle at Tiraas two years ago when we were abruptly reminded of the Offering of Cunning, I’ve been focusing on digging up what I can of the Wreath’s past mystical traditions. Ironically, the best sources now are hidden archives of the Pantheon cults recording their various observations. It’s been slow, but I have turned up a number of fascinating things.”

“One of which you just recognized,” she said.

“The grunt of forbidden wisdom,” Mogul said solemnly. “Go on, Bradshaw, lay it on us.”

“I know of cases like yours,” Bradshaw explained, now studying Natchua through narrowed eyes, his stare more analytical than angry. “Not exactly like it; I’ve seen no record of the Dark Lady gifting someone the way she did you and that Masterson boy. But the old Wreath used to deliberately do a similar thing, using the auspices of greater djinn. Actually that practice had fallen by the wayside long before the Enchanter Wars, as it was more risky than rewarding. Given the kinds of people who’d be selected for a task like that, the circumstances in which the risk was considered warranted and what usually happens when a greater djinn is invoked, it was mostly a recipe for losing key personnel exactly when they were needed most. When it did work, though, the warlock could gain, all in one moment, vast knowledge of the infernal.”

“Sure, no great mystery there,” Natchua said with a shrug. “Obviously a more powerful warlock is more useful.”

“It wasn’t about power,” Bradshaw said irritably. “It has never been our way to go head-to-head with our enemies. Even if we weren’t heavily outnumbered in every contest, we serve the goddess of cunning. And cunning was always the point. A person who was abruptly gifted a vast command of infernomancy would usually become almost preternaturally devious. Able to think faster than any of their foes, taking actions that seemed nonsensical at the time but always seemed to work out to their advantage.”

That, finally, brought Natchua up short. She narrowed her own eyes to slits, and at last nodded grudgingly. “…go on?”

“Subjective physics,” the one called Rupa said thoughtfully. “What’s that old expression, Hiroshi, the one the Salyrites like to use?”

“Magic,” replied a man with Sifanese features in a soft tone, “is data processing.”

“That’s basic magical theory,” Vanessa agreed. “Magic isn’t about power; the power comes from mundane universal principles. Magic is…information. It bridges the gap between what conscious minds can conceive and sub-atomic phenomena, and then performs the vast calculations necessary to produce physical effects based on ideas.”

Bradshaw nodded. “If you already have the right personality type…say, an aptitude for lateral thinking, that probably wouldn’t manifest well before you received the gift. Would I be right in guessing your antics mostly caused you embarrassment and trouble before your first encounter with the Dark Lady, Natchua?”

She managed not to cringe at the forcible reminder of her behavior during her first years at Last Rock. “That’s…not inaccurate.”

“Some people are just dumb,” Bradshaw continued, raising an eyebrow. “Or thoughtless, or overly aggressive, or any number of other things. But sometimes, people who act unpredictably or unwisely are just trying to extrapolate too much from their surroundings. Sometimes, if gifted with a great deal of magic, the gaps are filled in. They start to draw information from sources even they aren’t consciously aware of, and process it faster and in ways most people can’t. Their actions appear random, but they are instinctively led by…magic. Data processing.”

“Huh,” she said, blinking. “I guess…people with odd magical mutations do exist. Tellwyrn sort of collects them. November, Fross, Iris…”

“Yes, I’m sure you’d like to think of yourself as a unique and beautiful snowflake,” Bradshaw said with a disdainful sneer, “but no, I’m not talking about anything so interesting. It’s simply one possible effect of being suddenly inundated with magical knowledge the way you were, and it explains your subsequent pattern of blundering and failing your way into ever-greater success better than…well, anything.”

“Why am I just now hearing about this?” Mogul demanded.

Bradshaw turned back to him with a shrug. “It’s just a theory, Embras. Another possibility is that she hasn’t actually succeeded at anything and is being used by more powerful figures for their own ends. This Duchess business is definitely an example of that. And after all, it’s usually wise to look for mundane explanations before exotic ones. We don’t know, but…given her description of what the Dark Lady said, it’s at least a possibility.”

“If our fate is to be tied to hers anyway,” Hiroshi said softly, “perhaps it behooves us not to allow rival powers to manipulate her too badly.”

To judge by their displeased expressions, none of the other warlocks were enthusiastic about that idea. But no one offered a word of rebuttal; the fact was, he was right. The same held true from Natchua’s perspective. As little as she liked any of these…people, she had given her word, in public. As long as they were willing to toe the line, they now had the right to demand her protection.

She and Embras studied each other in mutual reluctance. Despite the animosity here, this was the situation they were in. They could either struggle further, or try to make the best of it.

“Okay,” Natchua said grudgingly, “I see what you mean. She is a manipulative one, huh. Why are you so eager to be jerked around like this?”

“You’ve never devoted yourself to a cause greater than your own life, have you,” he replied, and it wasn’t really a question. “I could explain, but the result would only be another argument with no winner. You’ll come to understand in time, or you won’t.”

“That’s super fucking helpful, thank you.”

Mogul grinned unrepentantly. “Well, then… What now?”

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16 – 45

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“Miss Juniper! A moment, if you would?”

Juniper sighed and came to a stop. She’d barely made it into the alley. Ahead of her, the three Purists stopped also, clustering together like frightened sheep, a habit which in her opinion revealed a lot about their character when they didn’t have swords and a lot of backup; in any case, Sniff immediately circled around in front of them to bar their escape while the dryad turned to deal with whatever this fresh nuisance was.

She recognized the woman who approached from the broken gates, wearing a kind smile and a clearly expensive fur-trimmed winter gown. Also, she recognized the four younger people who had taken up a formation around their leader and were all staring at Juniper with much more visible unease. Or at least, one of them.

“Rasha,” she said, pointing at the young woman in question. “Which would make you… Glory, right? And Trissiny’s other friends.”

“Yep, that’s us,” said the only male in the group. “Trissiny’s other friends, that’s our identity.” The two other girls aside from Rasha both smacked him in the chest.

Juniper ignored that byplay, focusing on Glory, who had one of the most interesting scents she’d encountered on a human. Her sexuality was something avid, even fierce, and remarkably unconstrained; she didn’t seem to have an orientation so much as a hunger for new experiences. And yet, it was a controlled ferocity, smoothly integrated into the rest of her personality and harmonious in expression. It was strange. Most humans who smelled of that kind of sexual fervor were deviants of some sort, but this woman had firm self-control and a seemingly perfect serenity in her carnality. Actually, she smelled rather like an Izarite, except more… For once, Juniper found herself at a loss to define the extra element she was sensing. It was rather inspiring, really; she had long been of the opinion that humans in general needed to be more in touch with their sexual natures and less hung up about it.

The dryad couldn’t help feeling a bit sad at the awareness that what she was sensing meant this woman was probably more intellectually dangerous than any human she’d ever met. It was disappointing that the world had to be that way. People deserved better.

As always, she perceived these details without betraying any awareness, out of respect for everyone’s privacy. There wasn’t much of interest about the other four, anyway, save that Rasha smelled of fairly recent self-acceptance and the younger girl was going to be firmly bisexual when she finished grappling with a hangup about her attraction to women, something Juniper had noticed wasn’t uncommon in Tiraan teenagers. Glory replied before she had the opportunity to consider any of it in more detail.

“I am Glory, yes. Thank you for interceding in that…mess. Surprisingly, I think you created the least disastrous possible outcome.”

“Right, well…you’re welcome. Now, I gotta deliver three idiots to the Temple of Avei, so if you’ll ‘scuze me…”

Glory stepped forward, her four apprentices surging less smoothly to keep up their protective ring around her. “Wait, please. Before you go, there is some outstanding business regarding those three we need to settle.”

“I’m gonna give you the credit of assuming you know you’re not about to finish what your Boss tried to start,” Juniper warned. Rasha narrowed her eyes, but it was a pensive expression rather than a hostile one, as if Juniper were a puzzle she was trying to solve. The other three looked various degrees of nervous and angry at the implied threat, however.

“Please.” Glory shook her head. “Your action was the right one. To say nothing of the catastrophe that could have unfolded from those baggages being harmed by the Guild, Eserites of all people respect a show of force toward a noble cause. When we are the abusive parties forced to back down, we more than anyone should accept it as earned. No, I’m fully behind Trissiny on this matter—and thus, I infer, behind you. My intent is to help address the political situation here, not make it worse.”

Juniper glanced behind her at the open gateway. Somewhat to her surprise, no other thieves were emerging to involve themselves, though she’d be amazed if several weren’t lurking just on the other side of the wall to listen. Well, Glory was undoubtedly savvy enough to expect that, too, which meant she didn’t intend this to be a completely private conversation.

“What’s on your mind, then?”

Glory shifted her own eyes to the prisoners. “Just a simple question. How did you three get from the custody of the Church-aligned Huntsmen to that of the Church-opposed Thieves’ Guild in the space of one night?”

“W-we don’t answer to you,” the Purist with the most remaining spine (for whatever that was worth) stammered, trying to lift her chin. “We’re going back to the Sisterhood to be judged by our own—”

All Juniper had to do to silence her was turn and meet her eyes. She added some verbal encouragement anyway.

“Do you really think you’re in a position to get shirty, here? Give me any more backtalk and either Sniff’s gonna bite you, or I am.” Sniff obligingly hissed, spreading his wings and flattening down his head crest in a universal avian warning; two of the Purists squeaked in a manner any Avenist would have found shameful. “Answer the woman.”

After three seconds she began to be concerned she would have to back up that threat as the three just clustered together again; really, they were like traumatized pigeons. What had the thieves done to these women?

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that, as one of them burst out in a rush as if she needed to answer just to vent the building pressure.

“They just handed us over! We were separated from our sisters and, and herded here like sheep, we didn’t even know where we were going until—” She broke off and made a gulping noise.

“The Huntsmen did this?” Glory asked quietly. One of them, not the one who’d spoken, nodded jerkily. Juniper pondered whether she should find out their names. On reflection, she didn’t really want to; these women had been bullying assholes when they had power and were sniveling cowards now that they didn’t, and she preferred the comfortable distance of not thinking of them as individuals.

“Just Huntsmen?” the older girl who wasn’t Rasha piped up. “Not Church priests?” Juniper wondered whether the apprentice was speaking out of turn, but Glory just shifted to give her a nod of clear approval.

“The—yes,” the previous speaker said, nodding. “Huntsmen. We didn’t—we never actually saw any parsons. They never took us to the Cathedral.”

“Sisters,” Rasha murmured. “That’s right, Glory, there were more of them than this.”

“I see,” Glory said almost as softly, then raised her voice, turning back to Juniper. “Well! Thank you, that was what I needed to know. Now then, Juniper, please don’t take this amiss, but before you try to carry them off to the Temple of Avei I must critique your strategy.”

“Oh?” the dryad replied irritably.

Glory inclined her head with an apologetic smile that actually did ease the sting of criticism; Juniper had met grove Elders who didn’t have that degree of facial control. Yeah, this woman was not to be underestimated. “Do forgive the presumption, but this is, after all, an acknowledged area of Eserite expertise. You are planning to chivy three reluctant prisoners across a crowded city, using only your own two hands and an exotic animal helper, and relying on the power of fear to keep them under control. That, I’m afraid, simply will not work. Trust me, we employ fear as a matter of course, and are required to know both its uses and limitations. Fear makes people stupid, jumpy, and impulsive. At the first opportunity they will bolt in three directions and get lost in the crowds; in the best case scenario you will be able to secure two. That’s if the sight of you trying to bodily restrain a priestess of Avei doesn’t set the military police on your own head. I trust I needn’t explain the can of worms that would open?”

“You have a point,” Juniper said grudgingly, turning a sour stare on the quailing Avenists. “Well, that’s a big old nuisance.”

“We won’t be any trouble,” one said tremulously, “we only want—”

“Oh, shut up,” the dryad interrupted in disgust. “Do you really think anybody’s going to listen to you? I assume,” she added to Glory, “that you’re about to offer your own help in handling this.”

“But of course,” the Eserite replied with a warm smile. “Perhaps not in the way you’re thinking; more force isn’t the best solution here. Rasha! Would you be so good as to do the honors?”

“Gladly,” the younger woman replied, stepping forward with a grim stare fixed on the prisoners. “All right, you three, I am going to recite several obvious facts. If this seems at all belittling, you’ll just have to forgive me on the grounds that you have not presented yourselves as intellectually noteworthy thus far. Right now, nearly everyone wants you dead. To the Huntsmen and the Church, you are inconvenient witnesses who need to be silenced. Most of the Thieves’ Guild wants your asses in retaliation both for what you tried to do to me, and the humiliation they just suffered. No, that second part wasn’t your fault, but do you really think that’s going to matter?” She actually paused, planting her hands on her hips to give them a long, skeptical stare. “Most of those people back there have a very similar approach to life as yourselves. Do you imagine they’re going to try to start shit with a dryad when they could just take it out on you? You wouldn’t.”

All three of her fellow apprentices grinned, the older girl braying a derisive laugh.

“Furthermore,” Rasha continued her lecture, “no one else into whose hands you’re likely to fall will be able or willing to protect you. The Church and the Guild can both get at you in Imperial custody, one way or another. None of the other cults are going to want anything to do with you; they’ll likely send you right back to the Church, where you will be silenced as the inconvenient political leftovers that, to Justinian, you are. You could try to flee the city, I suppose, but do you really think you can escape either of those networks of influence? To say nothing of the Huntsmen, who—well, it’s right there in their name. No, ladies, the Sisterhood of Avei is your only hope. After the way you’ve been behaving, High Commander Rouvad is not going to be gentle with you, let’s not pretend otherwise. But she will be fair, and she will not under any circumstances hand you over to any rival power.

“So!” Rasha folded her arms and lifted her chin superciliously, managing to look down her nose at the three cowed priestesses despite being a head shorter than any of them. “You will go with Juniper to the Temple. Not because she is scary and powerful enough to tear you limb from limb if you don’t cooperate. No, you will go with her because she is scary and powerful enough to protect you from anybody who might try to snatch you off the street, as you just saw. She is your best chance of still being alive in an hour, and you should thank Avei at the earliest opportunity that she happened along. I have to say, I didn’t see that coming, either,” she added, giving Juniper a speculative look.

“Wow,” the dryad said, looking back with much the same expression. “Triss was not kidding, you’re one to watch.”

Rasha’s face broke into a pleased smile. It made her latent attractiveness, which seemed to be at least half cosmetics, suddenly blossom into real beauty. Juniper might have been sexually interested, not having had the opportunity to have sex with a trans person yet, but the girl smelled of burgeoning infatuation with someone not present and she didn’t want to risk damaging that. Just because she wasn’t inclined toward long-term romantic attachments herself didn’t mean she valued them less in those who cherished such bonds. Love was too important to treat lightly.

“Our sisters,” one of the three said in a very small voice. “The…others. They’re still…”

Glory’s shoulders shifted in a quiet sigh, and her expression, for a wonder, was sympathetic. “The prospects are not good. Right now, you need to accept the reality that there’s nothing you can do for them from your position. Your paladin, as well as the other two, are working as we speak to break through the Archpope’s corruption. It may already be too late to help your comrades, but if you want to have any hope of helping General Avelea penetrate the Church’s secrecy, go to Rouvad and tell her everything you know.”

She stared intently at them until all three had nodded in acknowledgment. One began to silently weep again, scrubbing tears from her eyes before they could freeze.

“And Juniper.” Glory stepped forward, looking up at the dryad, who found herself surprised to notice up close that she was notably taller. The woman had a presence that made her seem bigger, somehow. “This is not a criticism of your own abilities, but I’d like to send two of my apprentices with you.”

“To do what, exactly?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Not fight off attackers,” the Eserite replied with a grin. “In fact, if it comes to that, I must respectfully ask that you try not to involve my students. No, the Avenists, to their credit, are very particular about the procedures of justice. Rasha is a firsthand witness to the crimes of these three, and her testimony will be immediately useful to the High Commander.”

“They already have Zafi,” Rasha pointed out. “She was there, too.”

“But you were the intended victim,” Glory replied. “And the more witness corroboration, the better.”

“Oh, don’t even pretend you’re not dying to go see Zafi anyway,” the young man added, grinning broadly.

“And Darius,” Glory said, shooting him a look, “please accompany them. I would ordinarily come myself, for something as important as this,” she added to Juniper, “but politics are my area of expertise, and on that field there is a large battle about to unfold which demands all the attention it can be spared. I’m sure you will have your own business to return to afterward, and I’ll feel better if Rasha has someone to walk her home, given how frequently she has been the target of various ne’er-do-wells recently.”

“I am an excellent meatshield,” Dariues vowed, placing one hand over his heart and holding up the other. “Top marks in my class.”

“All the pastry he eats certainly helps,” his little sister added primly, poking him in the side.

“Sure,” Juniper said, a little bemused. “That all makes sense, and I guess some company I don’t automatically hate would be welcome.”

“Juniper…thank you.” Glory’s expression was solemn, almost grave. “For this, your intervention, the way you are supporting Trissiny. All of it. We owe you a lot.”

“You’re welcome,” she replied. “But nah, I don’t consider myself owed for anything. A person has to do what’s right. Don’t you think?”

“I very much do,” the older woman agreed with a pleased little smile. “It pains me more than you know that we must meet under such…annoying circumstances. You have my standing invitation to visit me at my home, at any time of your convenience. I would dearly love to show you proper hospitality. Not as thanks, if you’d rather not think of it that way! Simply because I want to. Entertaining guests is my great joy in life.”

She gazed up at Juniper, proud and serene, smiling warmly. The dryad tilted her head, studying Glory’s expression, taking in her scent, considering implications. Then, after several long seconds, she nodded and smiled in return.

“I don’t know when that will be convenient, but… Yeah, I’ll take you up on it. That’s very kind of you.”

They both nodded in unison, eyes fixed on one another, and Juniper was quite struck by the experience of being so in sync with someone she knew so little. The two women had just mutually decided and communicated, without any outward sign that any of the onlookers could have called flirtatious, that they would be making love at the earliest opportunity, and that both, despite being each more experienced than the average person, expected it to be a very memorable occasion indeed. Juniper found herself looking forward to that meeting almost as much to satisfy her curiosity as anything else. It was so strange to find such an instinctive harmony with a non-fae, non-Izarite, non-witch human, of all people. Glory didn’t seem one whit less dangerous to her, but… Trissiny trusted her. And respected her. That counted for a great deal. Plus, she was so intriguing.

“Until then,” Glory said, stepping back. “Tallie, Layla, I will need you back at the house; come, let’s not waste any more time. Rasha, don’t pout. I know you don’t need a minder, but with all that’s happening this is no time to take risks. You are a lightning rod for exactly the trouble that’s wracking this city. All of you, please be safe.”

“Don’t you worry, boss lady,” Darius promised. “I plan to live forever or die trying.”

Rasha rolled her eyes and started moving up the alley, which proved to be the impetus for both groups to separate. Glory retreated back into the Casino grounds with her two remaining apprentices, and the others herded their prisoners off toward the opening onto the street in the near distance ahead. The three Avenists were still subdued, but they seemed less panicky than previously, which Juniper had to think would help make this trip easier.

“So! I’m Darius, as you heard,” he said, falling into step alongside Juniper with an easy grin. “Lemme just apologize in advance for anything stupid I say; you’re my first dryad. Actually, I heard you were at Puna Dara that one time, but I didn’t see you. Pretty sure I’d have remembered that.”

“Yeah,” she said quietly, “I had…a lot on my mind that day. It wasn’t a good day.”

“Really wasn’t, was it,” he agreed, his own voice dropping. “That was… Well, it wasn’t boring, was it?”

She turned her head to study him thoughtfully as they walked. The young man put on a very convincing nonchalant expression and idly ambling gait, but she could tell from his scent alone that it was entirely an act. A really good act, something the Guild probably trained its apprentices to do. Outward attitude notwithstanding, he was terrified of her. And, of course, he desired her. Badly. The inner conflict was probably confusing enough that he preferred to bury himself in the pretense of feeling nothing. It was a complex tangle of scents and might have been tricky to puzzle out, but Juniper had encountered this exact reaction from numerous humans since coming to Last Rock. Fortunately, she knew a reliable way to put them at ease.

“Okay, then,” she decided with a smile, shifting closer to bump him very gently with her shoulder. “You, too, I guess. When the opportunity permits.”

“Uh…” Darius shot her a sidelong look, fear spiking in his scent. “Me, too…what, exactly?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll show you when we get there.”

Rasha snorted.

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16 – 44

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“Why, hello, Juniper,” the Boss of the Thieves’ Guild said pleasantly, wariness in every line of his stance. “Are you lost?”

“Nope, I don’t think so!” she said with as much good cheer as she could muster. Juniper had developed a habit of quiet and calm, helped along both by elven and Omnist meditative practices and a series of traumatic epiphanies that had overshadowed her sunny disposition, but at the same time, she had not failed to notice the difference in how she was often treated these days, as opposed to her first year among mortal society. It was easy enough to put on a smile and a chipper tone of voice; it helped to put people at ease, right up until the moment when it started to make everything worse. For some reason it really unsettled people when she did something scary with a smile. “These are Avenists, right? Those Purist jerks who’ve been causing trouble?”

Tricks glanced fleetingly behind her at the priestesses, two of whom were trying to revive their collapsed comrade. “All due respect, little lady, but this is a private function. Tell you what, how ‘bout we offer you something to eat and a discreet ride out of the city?”

“Oh, thanks, but I’m not really hungry.” There were several audible sighs of relief from around the courtyard, which she ignored. “So I see you’ve got your own thing going on here, looks like pretty important religious business, right? I wouldn’t wanna intrude or anything. I’m just gonna take these three back to the Temple of Avei, then. Don’t mind me.”

“The fuck you say,” Style snarled, stomping forward as Juniper started to turn toward the Purists. “Bitch, I do not care who or what you are, this is the fucking Thieves’ Guild. You do not walk in here and give us orders.”

“Style,” Sweet warned.

“I’m afraid we do have a religious imperative not to be pushed around, Juniper,” Tricks added in a more careful tone. “That, in fact, is the very reason those three are here to begin with. It’s simply out of the question to allow—”

“Yeah, I don’t care about that,” Juniper said blithely. “My friends—you know, the paladins? All three of them?—have been working hard to straighten out the political situation with the Trinity cults and restrain the Church, and what you’re doing here would throw a big wrench in that. So, you’re not gonna, that’s all.”

“That a fact,” Tricks said quietly.

“This reminds me of a funny joke I heard!” Juniper kept her sunny smile in place and undiminished. “Where does a dryad sleep?”

That brought her a few moments’ pause, in which the three Guild officers in front of her visibly reconsidered their position; Glory was gently but firmly shepherding Rasha back toward the other apprentices and out of Juniper’s easy reach. A steady breeze of whispering and muttering passed over her from the thieves on all sides, in contrast the silence in the center. Juniper almost never heightened her senses to anything near an elf’s while in a city, as the noise made it impossible for her to think, but she did customarily keep her hearing more acute than the human norm, and picked up a lot of distinct commentary.

“Don’t even think about it, they’re a threat level eight. Even the Army doesn’t dare…”

“…the fuck does she think she is, comin’ in here…”

“One of ‘em ate my grandpa!”

“Why is it in the city!?”

“By Izara’s bloomers, would you look at the rack on her.”

“Put that away, she’s actually Naiya’s child! You wanna cause a fucking earthquake?”

“Well, I wouldn’t mind that being the last thing I ever saw, know what I mean?”

“Fuck that, anything bleeds if you…”

“Screw this, I’m out.”

“Why do the pretty ones gotta be so scary?”

She kept her eyes on Tricks, still smiling, and pretended she didn’t hear any of it. Somehow, even the (technically) complimentary remarks weren’t exactly flattering, but Juniper couldn’t begrudge the humans their fear. Especially since she was about to specifically lean on it.

Apparently Antonio, even if he couldn’t hear as clearly as she, knew people enough to see where this was going and stepped in.

“In case there was some ambiguity,” he said in a carrying voice, “Juniper is a dryad. If you don’t know what that means, the short version is dryads are the demigod offspring of Naiya, impervious to most harm and strong enough to slap you into a spray of giblets. The only thing worse than getting attacked by a dryad is attacking one; if you succeed in hurting a dryad, you’ve just pissed off mother nature herself. Anyone who survives that gets to explain to the government what happened that caused half the city to be smashed.”

That only intensified the muttering, unsurprisingly, but at least the angrier voices abruptly went silent. Which wasn’t to say that the anger itself was gone, especially right in front of her. Tricks was now studying her through narrowed eyes, the very picture of a man rapidly putting together a plan, but Style took one long stride forward, close enough to lean in and plant one thick finger against the medallion Juniper wore on a braided cord.

“I’m gonna assume you’ve got some idea how faith works if you’re walkin’ around wearing the symbol of one, nature girl,” the chief enforcer grated. “Whatever else we are, we are a faith. Our central tenet is not getting pushed around by people with power. So unless you wanna kick off that local apocalypse Sweet’s talkin’ about, you’d better back the fuck off.”

She got quite a few mutters and several shouts of approval. Juniper just tilted her head, studying the taller woman with her eyes kept deliberately wide in an expression she’d been told made her look childlike and innocent, an idea she found bizarre in the extreme. Here and now, there was an obvious rebuttal to be made to Style’s statement, to the effect that pushing people around was the entire rest of Eserite faith, but getting into an argument here would defeat the purpose.

“It’s Style, right?” she said pleasantly. “You beat up Trissiny one time, didn’t you? Pretty impressive! That’s not gonna happen today.”

She planted her palm against Style’s sternum, and immediately the enforcer shifted the hand prodding at Juniper’s medallion to grab her wrist and attempt some manner of skillful arm twist, which was exactly as efficacious as trying to put a tree in a headlock. In the next second her grip was ripped free of Juniper’s arm along with the rest of her as the dryad stepped forward, straightened her arm, and pushed Style fifteen feet through the air. The chief enforcer crashed into the front rank of thieves, bowling the lot of them over and causing a general outcry around the courtyard.

With Juniper’s strength being a magical effect causing her movements to have the full weight of a tree behind them when she so chose, stepping forward into a movement didn’t add force as it did for most martial artists. On the contrary, Professor Ezzaniel had worked with her extensively to control her strength, mostly by controlling speed, on the principle that force was a product of mass and acceleration. If Juniper hit someone, she could reduce them to pulp. Learning to fight mortals non-lethally had been much harder, and the method they’d developed hinged upon smoothly accelerating from a dead stop after she had already made bodily contact. The timing was tricky, but Ezzaniel had drilled her without mercy until she could launch a watermelon across the quad from a standstill without bruising it through a combination of tightly controlled speed and smoothly increasing her own force mid-motion. Not that it was a perfect art; Style was going to have a badly bruised sternum, and possibly cracked ribs—not to mention whatever happened when she landed on a pile of people—but hopefully it would be nothing a good healer couldn’t fix in moments. And at least she still had ribs.

Obviously, the onlooking thieves didn’t like that one bit. There was a great deal of shouting; weapons were brandished and more than a few people actually stepped toward her, forestalled only by Tricks himself taking a step closer to the dryad, raising both his arms with palms out toward the crowd in a clear order for calm. He kept his eyes on Juniper’s as he approached, and after a couple of seconds, the spectators quieted enough that a mob was less immediately likely. The smell of fear predominated over anger, but Juniper knew that was no guarantee against violence. People in a panic were often more dangerous than people in a rage.

“All right, you’ve made your point, Juniper,” Tricks said once the noise had quieted enough that he could be heard throughout the courtyard without raising his voice. “You okay, Style?”

“Fucking,” Style wheezed, struggling upright and roughly shrugging off the hands that tried to help her. “…gonna…” Sweet had already disengaged from the confrontation, striding over to her and lighting up with a soft glow of divine light. He wasn’t so easy to dissuade, and based on what Juniper had observed of him, was probably aiming to prevent her from retaliating as much as intending to offer healing.

“Style also has a point, of course,” Tricks continued, his gaze holding Juniper’s. “You may be invulnerable, but you’re not alone. Those three you’re so determined to protect from the consequences of their actions are made of soft, squishy humanity. Not to mention that you yourself came here with somebody who I bet is a lot easier to bruise.” He finally tore his eyes from her face to look down at Sniff with a significant lift of his eyebrows, before focusing back on her and indulging in a faint smirk. “Didn’t plan this all the way through before you stepped in, huh?”

Juniper immediately dropped her own smile, ignoring the several indrawn breaths that resulted from her suddenly blank expression. “I guess not,” she answered. “You’re not wrong. And if you hurt my pet, I will tear off your right arm and eat it in front of you.”

The dead silence which resulted was broken only by soft weeping from behind her; the three Purists were not handling this drama very well, despite no longer being the focus of it. Everyone else was just staring at Juniper, with no sign that they didn’t believe her.

Teal liked to say that a threat was, in and of itself, an act of violence. It was Trissiny who’d told her the most effective way to leverage them, which ironically was with the least violence possible. People expected threats to be delivered with passion, and were far more unsettled to hear an offer of terrible harm spoken with calm detachment. Juniper didn’t really understand why, expect that humans inherently didn’t like unexpected juxtapositions. At any rate, the Eserite technique Trissiny had taught her was to make statements, not threats.

And, most importantly, to mean them with absolute sincerity. Which she did. To judge by the chilled silence now surrounding her, it worked.

Tricks, after a moment, dropped his gaze to her chest, and for a change he wasn’t looking at her cleavage, but the golden sunburst medallion resting on it.

“That’s not very Omnist of you, young lady,” he said softly.

Juniper shrugged. “Omnu doesn’t expect perfection. Everyone fails; you just can’t let a sin become a habit. You’ll only be the second guy I’ve devoured alive while he screamed and begged me to stop, and it’s been a few years. I don’t think that counts as a pattern.”

Now people were shuffling backward, pressing each other toward the walls to gain precious inches of space from her. Not Tricks, though; he just held her gaze, and she made herself stare back despite the surge of self-loathing she was now riding out.

Teal, Trissiny and Gabe all had various methods they’d been taught for controlling their emotions and putting on a performance; even Shaeine had described the method of Narisian public face, though that seemed proprietary to the drow and she’d never offered to teach anyone. None of that had made a lot of sense to Juniper. Instead, it was just her own faith by which she kept her own expression even, despite the feelings raging in her. Omnism was big on meditative disciplines, which Toby had patiently walked her through, and practiced with her. What she was doing here flew against everything she had so laboriously tried to change about herself, invoking her own savage propensity to violence as a means of coercing someone; remorse, shame, and grief clawed at her from the inside.

But she acknowledged them, and let them go. Feelings were just that; they did not require a response, didn’t even have to stick hard enough to change one’s expression. Juniper wrapped that hard-learned stillness around herself like a warm coat, allowing her emotions to pass over her unimpeded, including the pride she felt at being able to do this. Just a few short months ago, the practice had been frustratingly difficult.

At any rate, it worked. She could see in the minute shifting of Tricks’s expression that he took her calm promise at face value.

But, as the seconds ticked past and his eyes bored into hers, he still failed to back down. In his squint she interpreted rapid thought as he tried to reason a way out of this. Why was he being so stubborn? All around them, the other watchers had clearly decided she was not a fight they wanted; no one else continued to offer her any resistance.

Juniper finally tore her own gaze off the Boss’s to study one side of the courtyard and the thieves clustered there, and in noticing that they were all watching her and Tricks, she finally realized her mistake.

This was not, as she had first assessed them, a single pack, bound together by emotional closeness and common cause. Of course not, the Thieves’ Guild was too big an institution to be so united. It was more of a…watering hole, a meeting place of multiple packs and herds and lone wolves. She stood amid a meeting of different factions and isolated individuals, all with their own agendas. Personal devotion was the lesser share of what kept Tricks in power; he also could not be seen as weak, or they’d turn on him. She had inadvertently pushed him right into a corner from which he could not do anything except order violence that they all knew would be hopeless.

Well, shoot. The god had asked her to neutralize the brewing conflict, not ignite it twice as hard. Fortunately, her realization of what was actually happening immediately suggested a solution she could still enact.

“You Eserites.” Slowly, Juniper turned in a full circle, dragging her gaze around the room and studying the various thieves disdainfully in passing. “So scary. All the rich and powerful are just so intimidated by your… What? Clubs and brass knuckles? I guess it works for you. ‘Cause after all, you do work in your nice, safe, clean cities, where other people are the worst things you’re ever gonna see.” She completed her revolution, coming back to face Tricks, but let her eyes slide over him, turning again to regard the assembled thieves. “None of you have ever actually come face to face with a real monster, huh?”

She turned further, tossing her hair and staring around at them, this time in an obvious challenge.

From behind her came a muffled curse, and then scuffing footsteps. Unhurriedly, Juniper turned around to regard one of the thieves approaching her with a deep scowl, fitting a set of spiked iron knuckles onto his right hand. Just the sight of him told his story: he was taller than she and far wider, thickly muscled, with a twice-broken nose, cauliflower ear and a scar over one eyebrow.

She turned to face him fully and just stared as he came. In seconds, his expression faltered, and then his steps did.

Juniper made herself see, not a man, but prey. Taking in his size and build, the distribution of fat and muscle, she knew what the meat would taste like, how tough it would be to chew. How much energy it would give her, and how long it’d be before she felt like eating again. She knew the temperature of fresh blood, the smell of it. Where and how to exert pressure to deliver a quick death—or not to, simply incapacitate the prey so the heart kept pumping and the meat stayed fresher and more tender while she began eating.

She was not good at putting on false faces, but Juniper had a real one that could be a thing of horror. A street soldier like this man possessed an animal cunning of his own, instincts that enabled him to sum up people at a glance; they were enough to warn him, when she held those thoughts in the forefront of her mind, that he was not looking at a person. Meeting her utterly dispassionate gaze as it weighed him, he found himself staring into the eyes of an apex predator, and by pure instinct, stopped approaching.

“Uh, Rowdy?” said another voice from across the courtyard, “I really wouldn’t. This may be a good time to mention that dryad was at Ninkabi. Hey, it’s me, Thumper!” he added irritably in response to a round of scoffs from nearby. “You think I’m gonna forget a woman who looks like that? Seriously, I saw her kill a baerzurg demon by punching it. Y’know, one of those big armored ones that’re, uh…invincible?”

Slowly, the now-unnerved looking enforcer began to edge backward. Juniper turned to find that Tricks had also retreated to join Sweet and Style among the crowd. Because she’d accomplished her goal, buying him the opportunity to do so. He hadn’t backed down from her; the entire Guild had. Not one of them was in a position to call him out for it.

Movement caught her eye. Between two heads in the crowd was suddenly Eserion’s face; the god mouthed Thank you, then vanished in a shift of the throng.

Juniper heaved a sigh, shook her head, and turned to stare at the Purists. “Well, all right then, now for you.”

“Please don’t!” one shrieked, covering her face with her arms in a singularly counterproductive survival strategy, while one of her compatriots screamed wordlessly and the other just wept.

“Oh, shut up,” Juniper exclaimed, giving vent to her exasperation. After the last few minutes it felt good to just express what she was actually feeling. “I’m not gonna eat you! If I wanted you dead, why would I go to all this trouble? You three are going back to the Temple of Avei so Commander Rouvad can do some justice on you. After the crap you jackasses have been doing, that’s probably gonna be no fun at all, but it’ll be a lot better than what you were about to get here. Or what would happen if it was up to me. But it’s not, that’s the entire point. You get real justice, from somebody who’s authorized to actually hand it out, and you’re not gonna give me any sass about it. Right?”

All three of them quivered and stared at her mutely, and she sighed again.

“Okay, here’s how it is: dryads aren’t build for sprinting, see? So if you try to run away from me, I’ll have to have my friend here chase you down, and that’ll be a problem for you. Sniff, show ‘em your claw.”

Sniff paced forward, causing the trio to edge away from him, but they wisely stared at the proto-bird as he, fanning his short wings for balance, balanced on one leg and extended his other foot toward them. He had birdlike talons—mostly. One of his claws was considerably oversized in relation to the others, and murderously hooked, a natural weapon designed to rend flesh.

“Thank you, Sniff,” Juniper said primly. “His species evolved so that if they’re chasing something down, it’s to kill and eat it, see? He’s not good with catching things, exactly. So if you try to run, it’ll end with you lying in the street in a puddle of your own entrails. And if you make me have to explain that to the police, I’m gonna be really annoyed! We understand each other?”

“Thank you!” the least rattled of the priestesses blurted. “We won’t—you’ll have no—we’ll go— Uh…thank you.”

“Good.” Juniper nodded once and slipped her enchanted ring back on, changing her coloring to a Tiraan average. She wasn’t built like most Tiraan in the face or figure, but it seemed the majority of humans didn’t look beyond coloration when casually sizing each other up.

She strode past them to the big double doors that apparently opened onto the alley beyond, leaving Sniff to hover around the terrified Purists. Herding wasn’t something she’d trained him to do, exactly, but Sniff was extremely smart and their druidic bond enabled him to pick up on a lot more of her intentions than a normal animal; she trusted him to help chivvy their prisoners in the right direction as needed. For now, Juniper stopped in front of the gates. They were heavy, solid, and locked.

“Any of you wanna help me out here?” she asked, turning to look over her shoulder at the assembled thieves. The crowd was already smaller as some of them had started to sneak off back into the Casino. Those remaining just stared at her, offering no response. “Well, okay,” she said with a shrug. “It’s not my house.”

Juniper had to spread her arms fully to grasp one of the doors, sinking the fingers of one hand into the crack between the two and the other between it and the wall. But with that done, all it took was bracing her legs and pulling. The wood groaned in protest for a moment, and then with a terrible clatter the lock burst open. She’d pulled from both sides, though, and when one of the upper hinges was ripped out of the stonework, she decided to just run with that instead of trying to swing the damaged door normally. Another yank ripped it fully off, leaving the other now-unsecured door to swing a few feet open.

Juniper trotted over to the wall and leaned the towering wooden gate against it, then turned around, dusting off her hands.

“Well?” she said imperiously, staring at the cowed Purists, and pointed at the opening she’d just created. “Go on. Out.”

They hesitated, and then Sniff hissed loudly from his position at their backs. A moment later, their odd little group was leaving the silent Thieves’ Guild behind.

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