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“Really, that’s your concern?” Captain Antevid asked in a tone just a hair too polite to be openly sardonic. “The world being rocked by what can only be called an apocalypse, and you’re most worried about whether the Empire will use it against you?”

“Thou speakest in haste, as is ever the wont of thy kin,” Shiraki intoned solemnly in his archaic Tanglish. “In the passing of our ages, we have observed many upsets such as this. They harkened not the end of our world, and nor will the current travail. And yet, however dire the portents and deep the suffering, ever do the thrones of mankind scheme toward their own advantage. Wherefore, then, should we blindly offer trust amid this tumult?”

By and large, the strike team were doing an excellent job of keeping pace with the three elves as they navigated through the Jendi forest. It showed an uncommon degree of agility for humans, but perhaps not unexpected of the Empire’s finest. Now, the captain proved he was adroit enough to cast meaningful looks at each member of his team and then another on Sheyann, all while traipsing through waist-high brush and without slowing his pace.

“Is he really going to do that all day?” Antevid inquired.

“You must forgive Elder Shiraki, Captain,” Sheyann replied with a wry expression. “He makes it a point of pride to be out of touch.”

Shiraki, of course, had absolutely no difficulty navigating the forest at a brisk walking speed, which he now demonstrated by bowing while in motion, as if he had just been paid a compliment.

“Every hospital is filled to capacity,” Antevid said abruptly, eyes ahead now. “Religious, private, government…all of them. And there’s just not much they can do for persistent nightmares and vision comas. Temples are being swamped and police forces barely keeping a lid on the agitated public. There were riots in Shaathvar overnight, and apparently it came very close to that point in Veilgrad and Leineth. ImCom is inundated with pleas for help from every corner of the Empire. And that’s just what we were briefed on before being deployed this morning before dawn. This is a crisis. The Emperor has decreed that we’re to go to war footing. Every unit of the Army is activated and are being spread across every inhabited region of Tiraan territory. By this time tomorrow there will be at least some military presence in any town in the Empire with a population of more than a hundred souls.”

The team’s cleric cleared her throat. “Lance, should you really be briefing the elves…?”

“I’m going to assume that anything they could read in today’s papers isn’t classified, Rosa,” he replied. “If I’m wrong, I guess I’ll owe Lord Vex an apology.”

“And what can soldiers do against dreams?” Sheyann asked quietly.

“As little as your tone implies, Elder,” Antevid replied in a nearly identical tone. “But their presence will reassure people that they are being protected, and that the government has not abandoned them. Also, soldiers with battlestaves will be more than capable of repelling incursions by wild wolves. Even if they come in impossible numbers out of the elemental planes in random locations, which ImCom is treating as a serious possibility.”

“Highly unlikely,” Sheyann murmured.

“Impossible?”

“Unlikely,” she repeated. “I only wish I could say what is not possible on this day.”

“War footing is about logistics and infrastructure as much as military deployment,” Tellwyrn mused, pensively tapping her lips with a fingertip. “It means suspending civilian access to the Rails and telescroll network, and clearing non-Imperial traffic from the highways. That’ll slow the spread of rumor and refugees, which will help preserve stability. It also activates the House guard of every House that has one and places them under the command of the Throne; in addition to having the extra troops, any nobles inclined to stir up trouble will be deprived of one of their biggest stirring spoons. And while the Throne can’t command the cults directly, under the Third Covenant they will all be mobilized as well, coordinating under the Universal Church to assist the public according to their specific talents. With the soldiers heading out, a lot of peacekeeping duties will be taken over by the Silver Legions…” She glanced sidelong at the strike team, who continued to walk alongside the elves with a few feet of space between the two groups. “War footing would usually mean military forces being concentrated along borders and frontiers.”

“If you’re worried about your school being occupied, relax,” Captain Antevid replied, winking at her. “The Golden Sea frontier hasn’t been a military concern since Sarsamon’s day. Last Rock will get the same token Army presence as every other tiny town, and there’s no reason any Imperial personnel would set foot on University grounds. Anyway, as I said, troops are being dispersed as evenly as possible across the Empire. Which is basically the worst possible deployment in military terms, but the threat is evenly dispersed, everywhere, and so that’s where the response has to go.”

Tellwyrn nodded, apparently mollified. “Politically speaking, this is serious business indeed, Sheyann. The Emperor didn’t even go to war footing during the hellgate crisis. It’s a good move, but only in the very short term. The longer this goes on, the more pressure it’s going to put on every sector of the economy and on the public’s patience, not to mention that the very term war footing will make people think the Empire is under attack, even if that’s not explicitly the case. Sharidan is gambling with very high stakes that he can identify and end this threat quickly. It’s a bold strategy. Pretty risky, though.”

“The next time I see his Majesty I will relay your concerns, Professor,” Antevid said solemnly. “I’m sure he’s kicking himself for not consulting you. My point is, Elders, this is a hazard of unprecedented scale. The idea of seizing control of…whatever’s going on, while it may alarm you, is not even a factor in the Empire’s response. If I were handed a golden opportunity to take control of a conveniently pocket-sized fae weapon, gift-wrapped and served on a silver platter and garnished with a handy instruction manual, then yeah, sure, I’d take the opportunity. That falls under my general mandate as a servant of the Silver Throne. But I consider that possibility too remote to be arsed about. My orders are to find out what is happening and shut it down with extreme prejudice. Secondary objectives are to gather enough intelligence to prevent this from happening again, and keep other interested parties from interfering, to the extent that those goals can be pursued without compromising the core mission. So I assure you, the Empire is not regarding this as an opportunity.”

“Do they elves need to know the full details of our mission?” Lieutenant Mahmenaad asked in a strained voice.

“Rosa is very concerned about operational security,” Antevid confided, winking again. “It’s a laudable trait in a soldier. But, again, so long as I’m in command I will exercise judgment concerning what we’ll do about whom. If three elves want to help put a stop to all this and not take control of it themselves, I will gladly accept their help. You can’t do much better than grove Elders when it comes to handling fairy nonsense.”

“Have you had to deal with many other concerned parties here?” Sheyann asked.

“Most of the personnel now combing this stretch of N’Jendo are Imperial,” he replied. “The Azure Corps is out here in force, as well as multiple strike teams. We’ve not met anyone else personally, but evidently other teams have removed personnel from Syralon and Rodvenheim to Tiraas for a remedial lesson in the sovereignty of national borders. We were just the few lucky enough to run across your charming selves.” He gave them a sunny smile.

“Lance Antevid,” Tellwyrn said thoughtfully. “Of House Antevid, in Vrandis?”

“Indeed! My great-aunt attended your school.”

“Telora, yes, I remember. What an insufferable pest of a girl. I quite liked her.”

“We shall reach the lodge anon,” Shiraki noted. “I have seen no sign of Huntsmen on the watch ’round their home—another troubling portent.”

“This will have upset them more than most,” the team’s witch noted. Though clean-shaven in contrast with Shaathist sensibilities, he was a blond man of clearly Stalweiss origin, complete with a heavy mountain accent that only came from deep in the remotest reaches of the Stalrange.

“Well, our new friends have brought us the first solid lead all day,” said Antevid. “As soon as we find out what there is to be found at the lodge, we’ll need to report in. You three stay with the elves while I ‘port to field command and back.”

“I will shadow-jump to deliver the report,” Lieutenant Agasti replied impassively.

“Maehe sometimes forgets she’s not in command of this team,” Antevid commented, giving Tellwyrn a conspiratorial smile.

“Lance sometimes forgets he’s not a storybook wizard with three sidekicks,” the warlock retorted in a sharper tone. Unusually for a Tiraan soldier, she was a Tidestrider woman, complete with braids and facial tattoos. “This is a fae threat; my magic is all but useless here. I will handle rapid transport while you conserve mana for whatever more aggressive measures are needed, as protocol dictates.”

“You know she’s right,” Lieutenant Mahmenaad added. “If you wanna be a hero, Lance, at least be sensible.”

“Verily, ’tis a passing strange turn,” Shiraki observed, “that amongst the Emperor’s retainers, ’tis the warlocks who speak sense. Hark, now, we approach.”

“Yes, better hark if we’re close,” Antevid added solemnly. “Rolf, what’re we walking into?”

“The lodge is at the top of this rise, just over the ridge,” his witch reported. “There are people present. Agitated people, some with fae gifts… I’m sorry, Captain, that’s the best I can do right here and now. This whole forest is practically swimming with agitated spirits. I’m only able to do that much because the Elders are exerting a calming presence.” He half-turned while walking to nod deeply to the elves.

Sheyann nodded back. “Listening to the whispers of the spirits, I feel the fear and anger of the Huntsmen and their families even from here. They appear fully focused inward, not even keeping their customary watch. And…I believe there is an elf among them, a shaman. This, it would seem, is the place.”

“Form up,” Antevid said quietly, his expression completely serious now. The strike team smoothly shifted to a square formation with himself and Mahmenaad in the front, positioned to meet any fae threat with divine and arcane magic. Shiraki gave them a sidelong look, but kept his face expressionless.

The forest was mostly flat, coming quite abruptly to the foot of the rise upon which the lodge was hidden. The paired groups emerged from the treeline several yards from an obvious trail leading up to the top, and without speaking strode over to that before ascending. There was still no visible sign of anyone’s presence, though by that point the distant conversations atop the ridge were audible to the elves, at least.

Only upon reaching the top were they met. Cresting the rise, they found the lodge itself, a classic Shaathist longhouse of modest size, positioned against a higher hill at the rear with a long yard stretching out before. The whole flat top of the ridge was surrounded by a low lip of earth and several pines, helping to obscure its presence from sight below. People were clustered around the fire pit before the longhouse, one of whom was just striding toward them as they arrived.

He was a Huntsman, clearly, a man with graying hair and rather sunken eyes, likely due to the sleepless night he and everyone else here would have just spent.

“I apologize,” he said curtly, “but the lodge is not open to visitors this day.”

“Well, it’s about to be,” Captain Antevid replied with a pleasant smile. “We need to have a word with you about the recent events I’m sure you’re aware of.”

The Huntsman scowled more deeply. “I don’t wish to be rude—”

“Let me spare you the trouble,” Antevid interrupted. “We, if you can’t tell from the uniforms, are from the Imperial Strike Corps. That means I have the legal authority to go wherever my mission requires on Imperial territory, the physical capacity to flatten this entire lodge, and the legal authority to also do that. Whatever you people just did has had repercussions all across the Empire, and I do not have time for Shaathist standoffishness right now.”

“The Captain, though pushy, isn’t without a point,” Tellwyrn added. “Fortunately, my friends here are extremely well-versed in fae magic and can probably help. Since we all know,” she amended with a significant look at Antevid, “you lot didn’t have the magical wherewithal to do this.”

“Do we?” Antevid demanded. “Do we really know that?”

“Lodgemaster,” the Huntsman said, turning to another man who approached them. “Imperial soldiers. And elves, who say they want to help.”

“Oh, really,” the new arrival stated sourly. “I am Arjuni, and I lead here. I’ll ask your forgiveness for the state of my lodge’s hospitality, but we have had about as much help from elves as we can survive today.”

“So you’re in charge here, then?” Antevid inquired. “Right. What do you know about what’s happened here?”

“Oh, let them help!” piped up a new voice. “Please, I should think you know very well that we need any and all help we can get.”

“And this is what I meant,” Arjuni said with a heavy scowl, turning his head to glare at the man who approached him from the lodge. This one was an elf, with upright ears and black hair. “Huntsmen are always inclined to greet Naiya’s children with respect, but that was before I learned of your role in this gigantic mess, Rainwood. And now, more of them? Are these at least better elves?”

“Well, I dunno from better, but these know their way around a disaster,” Rainwood said bluntly. “All three fought in the Third Hellwar and that one’s Tellwyrn, if that helps you any.”

“Indeed.” The look Arjuni turned back on them was thoughtful, and more respectful.

“Rainwood,” Shiraki said with heavy disapproval. “I confess, thy presence and involvement in this disappoints me. Wandering vagrant though thou art, I had for thine intellect more respect than this, ere this day.”

“And I see Elder Shiraki is still doing that,” Rainwood said disparagingly. “Look, Arjuni, it’s not my general habit to roll out the welcome mat for Imperial troops and I definitely don’t care for the airs grove Elders like to put on, but I wasn’t kidding. Any competent help here will be important. Please let them in.”

“Rainwood,” Tellwyrn interjected, “what in the hell did you do?”

“Well,” he hedged, “it is a bit of a story. If you’d—”

“He tried to replicate a Shadow Hunter ritual,” Arjuni said, “for communion with wolves. Except he didn’t know how it was done and used fae spirits to stand in for the alchemy they use. He did this to a mixed party of younglings from my lodge and more from the local Shadow Hunters, as well as a group of apostates led by Brother Ingvar from Tiraas.”

“There’s a bit more backstory that explains—”

Once again, Arjuni pressed on over Rainwood’s attempted explanations. “You would know better than I exactly how ill-advised that was, but even Rainwood acknowledges that he failed to account for the effect of the existing disturbance among the spirits on his ritual. And further,” he added, shooting Rainwood a hostile look, “for the effect of casting this upon a group which included the dryad Aspen. I did not even know that dryads have a latent transformative ability, but he appears to have triggered that, as well as her deep connection to her mother’s magic. As a result, an entire group of people and a pack of wolves have been transformed into some sort of spirit beasts, which are now heading right toward Ninkabi, and apparently calling out as they go to everyone who has the slightest sensitivity to fae magic, everywhere.”

There was a momentary silence in which everyone stared at Rainwood. He chewed sullenly on the inside of his cheek, saying nothing.

“Aspen,” Sheyann said at last. “Why did it have to be Aspen? We just un-transformed her. It is so very like you to wreck someone else’s hard work, Rainwood.”

“He’s one of Kuriwa’s get,” Tellwyrn mused. “She’ll be seven shades of pissy if we kill him.”

“Oh, everything’s murder with you,” Sheyann retorted. “This is not one of those situations that will be neatly solved by striking down the person responsible, Arachne.”

“I think,” Antevid stated, still staring at Rainwood, “we had better listen to the long version before we do anything else. And then make with the doing as soon as we have a plan of action. The Elder is right, you can be dealt with after your mess is cleaned up.”

“Oh, good,” Arjuni said, scowling. “Excellent. More help.”


One face of the sprawling castle-like structure which served as the city hall and governor’s residence in Veilgrad faced the city’s largest square. Not the side on which it had its entrances; along the wall here was a permanent dais intended for public addresses.

Currently, the square was filled by an alarmingly restless crowd, and the no less than a dozen staff-carrying Imperial soldiers barring access to the dais were themselves beginning to look quite tense. Lars Grusser currently stood at the podium, his voice projected by an arcane charm as he alternated pleas for calm with attempted explanations of what had been happening. Given that his explanations thus far had consisted mostly of admissions of ignorance and platitudes to the effect of the Empire having everything under control, he did not appear to be having much of an effect on the clearly riled populace. Behind him stood several other city and provincial leaders, who as the address went on had begun to display increasing nervousness themselves by clustering closer together under the crowd’s angry stares.

One tower at the corner of the city hall held an excellent vantage over both the dais and the square, and further had its windows covered by elaborate wrought ironwork which left just enough of a gap that those in the space behind could clearly see out, while being completely obscured from view from below.

“This looks bad,” Jonathan murmured, staring down. “I realize that’s probably unnecessary to point out, but I’ve seen a few riots; I don’t know if you two have. If not, you may not appreciate exactly how bad this could get. That guy means well but he clearly has no idea how to handle a riled-up crowd.”

“Oh, I’ve seen more than a few,” Kheshiri cooed. “Ranging in scale from bar brawls to full-sized revolutions. You’re right, this has all the hallmarks of a situation which is not under anyone’s control. That Grusser fellow will be lucky if the worst thing that happens is that the Empire replaces him with somebody who can actually placate the rabble.”

“Who’s that dwarf on the dais?” he asked.

“She heads the company from the Dwarnskolds that was brought in to restore the catacombs,” Natchua said. “I met her the other day.”

Jonathan leaned back from the window, shooting Kheshiri a sidelong look. “I may regret asking, but I don’t suppose your particular gifts could help calm this down…”

“Sorry, handsome, but de-escalation isn’t part of the succubus toolbox. Now, if you want this turned into a riot, gimme two minutes and a kiss for luck.” She shrugged, grinning. “I can give a pretty good speech, but I’d need both a way to get to the dais and an excuse for being there, both of which are tricky.”

“Jonathan, we don’t ask Kheshiri to help,” Natchua said pointedly. “Her talents are properly used skulking around backstage collecting information. Speaking of which, why exactly did Malivette want you to show us this?”

“It wasn’t so much that she wanted you to see it, per se, as she gave me permission to show you,” the succubus said sweetly.

Natchua grunted. “So she wanted you out from underfoot. How much of that was due to the situation itself and how much to you needling at her?”

“See, that’s why I adore you, mistress,” Kheshiri simpered. “You’re nowhere near as daft as you like to act. It’s a classic grift, but a respectable one.”

“Kheshiri,” the drow warned.

“I didn’t have a specific end in mind,” Kheshiri said, immediately growing serious. “But it’s always my base assumption that you’ll want to know what’s happening so you can make your own plans. You don’t strike me as the kind of person to sit back and let things just happen to you. Whatever’s happening, it is clearly going to have wide-ranging repercussions that have only just started to be felt. If nothing else, we’re based just outside this city, and the last time there were riots in Veilgrad a mob went right after Manor Leduc.”

“Great,” Jonathan muttered.

“What do you know about what’s happening?” Natchua asked.

“Very little,” Kheshiri shrugged again, “but I insist that’s no reflection on me; I know as much as anyone does, which is still almost nothing. Unseen wolves howling all night, and constant nightmares about wolves for everyone sensitive to dream magic. This isn’t just here, either, it’s happening at least all over the Empire, and the leading assumption last I heard was that the event is worldwide. The government is scrambling to figure out what’s going on and deal with it, as is everyone else who fancies themselves a player, but they’ve barely had time to start, and nobody has any answers. At least, no answers that are going to calm down that crowd. Apparently Shaathvar’s already had to be fully occupied by Imperial troops to restore order. It may come to that here.”

“Veilgrad is not a good place for this, Natch,” Jonathan said, turning to her. “It’s always been known for mysteries and wild magic, which is the only reason this isn’t already worse, but that chaos crisis a year ago left a mark on the city and the minds of everyone here. These people are entirely out of patience with magical crap.”

“Mm.” Natchua stared down at the increasingly angry crowd, absently rubbing her thumb across her fingertips. “Why, Kheshiri, did you want me to see this?”

“Why, mistress, as I told you—” There was a sharp snap as if a very small firecracker had gone off in the room and the succubus broke off with a yelp, seizing the tip of her tail.

“I’m not in the mood,” Natchua stated.

“Nobody appreciates my flair for subtext,” Kheshiri complained. “All right, fine, this is all part and parcel of what you asked me to do with Malivette. She wants to control you; you don’t want her to. It would be inconvenient to leave Veilgrad and disastrous to try to challenge her directly, and having me trip her up is at best a holding action. The best course of action to thwart her, mistress, is to seize the initiative. She wants you to work as some kind of fixer and problem-solver for Veilgrad? Perfect, start solving problems before she asks you to. The more known, liked, and respected you are around here, the less ability Malivette has to keep a leash on you.”

“I hardly want to challenge Malivette for control of the province,” Natchua said scathingly.

“Well, that’s the age-old dilemma, mistress,” said the succubus. “Power is freedom. Hermits and recluses aren’t truly free, they’ve only chosen the nature of their prison. Being free from the influence of others means having influence of your own.”

“She’s talking plain sense, Natchua,” Jonathan warned. “That means she’s trying to manipulate you.”

“Yes, I know,” Natchua murmured, squeezing his hand. “Put that idea right out of your head, Kheshiri. I want a peaceful coexistence with Malivette, not a feud.”

“Okay,” Kheshiri said with another shrug. “Just think about what conditions will have to be met before she lets you have one.”

“I think your original idea is best, love,” Jonathan murmured, placing a hand against Natchua’s lower back and leaning in toward her ear. “We’re better off staying out of sight, in the background.”

“I agree,” she said with a soft sigh, momentarily leaning against him, “but it may be too late for that, after the production I made of the last favor Malivette asked of me. And if there’s one thing I’m good at doing, it’s coping with the consequences of my mistakes.”

“I believe that,” he said frankly.

She grinned at him. “You have to lean into the fall, Jonathan. Freezing up or trying to abruptly change course will only make it worse. I’m already the local warlock who loudly cuts through complicated problems… And this situation right here is clearly not under anyone’s control. If something isn’t done very quickly it’s going to get ugly beyond belief. We definitely can’t afford for Veilgrad to be entirely upended.”

“Natch,” he said delicately, rubbing her back in a soothing motion, “you know I respect your ability, but I think it’s worth considering how applicable your particular skills—”

Suddenly he was caressing shadows, and then nothing. From below there came a general outcry from across the square as Natchua materialized abruptly on the dais.

Jonathan heaved a sigh. “And there she goes.”


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“Nothing here, either?”

“My particular magic isn’t well-suited for locating people,” Bradshaw reminded him. “I could check more definitively, but not without attracting a lot of attention. But even at a cursory glance… I rather suspect they’ve been and gone here, as well. To judge by the decomposition of this…altar…it seems to have been abandoned for several days, at least.”

Shook wrinkled his nose and took another step back from the now-familiar sight (and smell) of the necromantic construction languishing behind the wall of old boxes at the rear of a dead-end alley. More specifically, he stepped to put some distance between himself and the altar’s cloud of flies.

“The fuckers called themselves the Tide,” he muttered, covering his mouth with the hand not holding his wand. “Gonna wash across the world and cleanse all impurity, you know, standard-grade doomsday cult horseshit. For a primal force of destruction, they sure are shy.”

“Must be low ebb,” Bradshaw quipped. “Well, I rather suspect what we’re dealing with are the paltry leftovers after they expended most of their warm bodies in Tiraas. Tactics like these are a much better idea when one is low on resources and personnel.”

“I guess you’d know.”

“Exactly. I am more concerned that a brainwashed cult is capable of this level of planning. It suggests those in charge are still in charge. Justinian was party to that plan to unleash demons in Tiraas and blame the Wreath for it, along with the Imperial government itself, but that was a far more discreet and controlled action; just a few bands of holy summoners calling up demons one at a time. Opening multiple hellgates in a city is above and beyond even by the standards of that.”

“Uh huh,” Shook grunted. He had also been present at that event in Tiraas; in fact, that was the first time he and Bradshaw had crossed paths, and a source of lingering antipathy between them. Shook was the first to admit he’d not exactly had a good vantage from which to see the intricacies of what had happened that night, but he remained skeptical of the Wreath’s claim that it had been the Church and the Empire actually bringing the demons, especially since his own encounter with them had come when the Wreath had tried to break into Dawnchapel to vandalize the temple. “Well, then, I guess we’re back to the same question. Wreck it or leave it?”

“May I see the map?”

Shook handed it over and Bradshaw frowned at the scrawled markings in the dim light that made it down from the overhead gap between the three-story walls that loomed on all sides.

“Mmm,” the warlock murmured. “All right, look here. This is the site we’re at, reached by a straight walk from a main avenue behind us, see? Next one on the list if we proceed in the same pattern is hidden away in a cul-de-sac well behind several warehouses that looks quite impossible to find by accident. I think we’ll clean this site up and leave that one intact after we’ve checked it. And so on, going forward. If we create the impression we’re operating on foot, by a standard search grid, the planners of this will prepare to counter the wrong tactic and be unprepared for us. I don’t want them to know we have your dragon to sniff out all of their locations.”

“Promise you’ll let me be in the room if you ever call Khadizroth ‘my dragon’ right to his face,” Shook said, grinning. “I really don’t wanna miss that.”

Bradshaw gave him an annoyed look over the top of the map. “Shall I take that to mean you concur with my plan?”

“Hey, I’m just the muscle, here. But it sounds like a solid one, yeah. That bein’ the case, you want me to smash this thing up?”

“I can destroy it far more thoroughly with my magic, you know.”

“Yeah, we both know what hellcraft’s good for. But that’ll reveal they got warlocks after ’em, an’ warlocks with a plan pretty much always means you guys in particular. If the thing just gets fucked up with blunt trauma, could be anybody. More discreet that way, right?”

“Hum. I suppose it needn’t be a complete cleansing, under the circumstances. Enough blunt trauma, as you put it, will render this site inoperable.”

“Blunt trauma is what I do best,” Shook said, holstering his wand and cracking his knuckles. “Take over watchin’ our backs, this won’t take a sec.”

In fact, he didn’t relish the thought of laying his hands on that arrangement of rancid meat, bones, twigs, and tainted enchanting dust. Aside from being disgusting, the thing just looked wrong; he suspected that even the urchins who haunted these back alleys wouldn’t have tried to scavenge the power crystals out of the rotting altar. He was half-tempted to just rake it with wandshots, but Shook didn’t need Bradshaw’s protestations to know that discharging even conventional magic into unknown magic was a bad idea.

Casting about while the warlock stepped past him to watch the head of the alley, he fixed his gaze on the one thing there was to work with. Grinning, Shook picked up one of the crates that had been stacked to obscure the altar from the front of the alley and hurled it right into the center of its mass.

The first hit dislodged the carefully-arranged lattice of old sinew-bound bones and scattered a spray of enchanting dust. That probably would have been sufficient, but Shook grabbed a second crate and smashed it bodily down upon the largest remaining cluster of bones. He broke a third over the altar for good measure, only stepping back to dust off his hands when the ritual array was mangled beyond recognition and full of splinters and old nails to boot.

“There,” Shook said, turning back to Bradshaw with a grin. “I can confidently say any asshole coulda done that; nothing about it’ll scream ‘Black Wreath,’ no matter how smart their handlers are. Where to next?”

“Hold this, if you would,” the warlock replied, handing the map back to him. “I want to place and conceal wards on this site. That is about the limit of what infernomancy can do to detect anyone’s comings and goings, but if they do return here to restore this altar it may enable us to catch them.”

“Sure, take your time.” Shook folded the map and tucked it back into his coat pocket, then drew his wand again and positioned himself to keep an eye both on Bradshaw and the distant mouth of the alley.

In the next moment he began edging away as Bradshaw started making broad gesticulations with his hands and conjuring patterns of sullen orange light out of nowhere. The warlock carefully assembled a spell circle in midair while Shook watched, moved it to lie flush against one of the alley walls at head level, then made it disappear from view and took another few moments to stare at the spot where it had been with one hand upraised and fingers twitching minutely, no doubt adding to its layers of concealment.

Shook wasn’t in the least ashamed of his own discretion; staying the hell away from infernomancy being done was universal common sense, not cowardice. If he was a little phobic about it after having had hellcraft done at his own brain recently, well, that was deserved.

Rather than that, Shook found himself surprisingly bothered by the tense silence that stretched out while Bradshaw moved on to begin conjuring another ward against the opposite wall. He just wasn’t accustomed to awkwardness. For close to two years his whole social circle had been small and predictable: the Jackal was an intolerable pain in the ass, Vannae a diffident non-presence, Kheshiri simperingly submissive and Khadizroth beneficently able to get along with anyone. Aside from various unfortunates they’d been sent to smack around and the odd visit from a barely-tolerated authority figure such as Justinian or Syrinx, that had been it.

And before that, he’d worked with Guildmates. Thinking on it now, he actually couldn’t recall the last time he’d been stuck sharing a job with somebody he didn’t know how to talk to. What did you say to a warlock? Especially since Bradshaw, while he kept it professional on the job, had made it clear from the start that he wasn’t pleased by Shook’s very existence, much less his involvement in this project. Not that Shook was much of a social butterfly either, but even he could see that this was going to lead to trouble if they were going to be the mutual points of contact between the Wreath and what remained of the Inquisition.

Bradshaw finished his second ward and Shook perked up, hoping for an incipient end to this, but the warlock instead began casting a third. He sighed. Well, thoroughness was laudable.

“So,” Shook said aloud, looking the other way up the alley and affecting a nonchalant tone. “That Vanessa, huh? What’s her deal?”

“…deal?” The short pause didn’t bode well, but Shook pressed gamely on. In his experience there was one topic over which any two guys could always bond.

“Yeah, I mean, she’s not hard to look at, am I right?” He turned back to Bradshaw, who had his back to him. “You hittin’ that? Be a shame if somebody isn’t.”

“Ah, yes, that’s right. You have been keeping company exclusively with a succubus. I strongly advise you, Mr. Shook, to rid yourself of any habits Kheshiri taught you before attempting to talk to a real woman again. Any woman, but especially one who can hurl shadowbolts.”

Shook clenched his jaw. Then breathed in deeply, and immediately regretted it; days-old necromancy was surely one of the least pleasant things he’d ever smelled. But at least that helped serve to distract him from the surge of anger Bradshaw was trying to rile up.

“Hey, just sayin’,” he replied finally, deliberately keeping his tone mild. “No need to get all defensive, I’m not about to move in on your territory. It can’t make that much of a difference, anyhow. Trust me, I’m in a position to know: succubi may be particularly sly, but in the end those’re just female traits taken to their logical maximum.”

“Is that a fact,” Bradshaw murmured, starting on a fourth ward. How many of those damn things did he need?

“Come on, don’t tell me you haven’t noticed. Sly is your bread and butter, right? Somehow I don’t think it’s a coincidence there’s a goddess of cunning, and not a god.”

“Where’re you from, Mr. Shook?” Bradshaw asked, his tone also too light to be natural.

Shook narrowed his eyes at the warlock’s back. “What’s it to you?”

“No, wait, let me see if I can guess. The Stalwar provinces or Mathena, somewhere deep into the new frontier. Am I right?”

Breathe, deliberately…without gagging on the smell. “Oh, please, you don’t need to be a cunning warlock to piece that together. Old gnomish surname on a Stalweiss face means frontier stock. Even so, you’re only partly right. The frontiers in Mathena aren’t new. North of the elven forests, people have been pushed out toward the Golden Sea since before the Empire.”

“Ah, yes, of course. I’m revealing my bias; Bradshaw is also an old gnomish surname, after all. But in Calderaan territory, where I hail from, human settlement north of the Green Belt dates barely to the Enchanter Wars.” The warlock lowered his hands, finally, as the last ward faded from visibility, and turned around, wearing a knowing little smile which Shook didn’t like the look of. “And you, obviously, aren’t from Calderaas.”

“That obvious, huh,” he said as evenly as he could.

“You’re right, we tend to pick up sly people,” Bradshaw said lightly, folding his hands. “That’s a lot easier than recruiting idiots and teaching them to be cunning. And you know something, Mr. Shook, you’re not without a point. There is a definite gender imbalance in who tends to seek out the Wreath.”

“Well, yeah,” Shook replied, even as he braced himself for the other shoe to drop.

“Depending, of course, on where they’re from.” The warlock held his gaze, frank and un-intimidated, even verging on aggressive; this was not at all how Thumper was used to people looking at him. “And in country where Shaathist ideas are ascendant, that usually means women. The Stalrange, Mathena, Thakar, Vrandis. Funny enough, in Avenist territory it’s the opposite. We definitely get more men from Calderaas, Virdill, and Onkawa. People are pretty much people, Shook, and the way people develop depends a lot on the kinds of pressures placed on them growing up. Give people the prerogative to stomp around yelling and getting their way with little effort, and they’ll generally do exactly that. Push people aside and deny them a fair chance to participate in society, though, and they’ll not only develop a tendency to be underhanded but also harbor the kind of resentment that makes them ideal recruits for the likes of us. Or, for that matter, the Thieves’ Guild.” He tilted his head back slightly, as if to study Shook from a different vantage. “You say you find women in general to be as sly as succubi? You know what, I believe you. Even allowing for your extremely obvious biases, yes, I could see that. But that’s no reflection on women, Mr. Shook…or even the women you happen to know. It’s a reflection on the way those women were treated by whatever society produced them. Institutionalized power creates its own downfall, in the end. Brutish authority creates cunning, and resistance. Targeting groups of people for abuse creates deadly enemies. If the Pantheon and their followers were the icons of virtue they like to claim, the likes of us wouldn’t just be unnecessary; we would be impossible. And yet, here we are.”

“Huh,” Shook grunted when he finally stopped talking.

Bradshaw’s mouth twisted in a bitter half-smile. “Deeper thoughts than you’re used to, Mr. Shook? I have to wonder what you thought was going to happen here. Do you commonly find you can persuade people you barely know to embrace your prejudices?”

Breathe. Three heartbeats to inhale, three to exhale, ignore the stench. Emotions were just things; just because this guy wanted him angry didn’t mean he needed to be. In fact, it was a good reason not to be.

“Hell, I was just making conversation,” Shook said at last, and was pleased to find his own voice still light and even. “You wanna know my clever scheme? I was thinkin’, ‘this guy clearly hates my guts and we’ve gotta work together for who knows how long.’ Y’know, in normal places, Shaathist, Avenist, or what-the-hell-ever, guys can usually clear the air by chatting about chicks. Sorry, I didn’t realize you were gonna make a whole thing about it.”

Bradshaw stared at him with the expressionless facade of someone who’d just heard something he did not expect and was too self-contained to betray overt surprise.

“You can’t win a conversation, you know,” Shook said when he didn’t reply. “Everybody’s not trying to play brain chess with you. Is that how you people think all the time? Omnu’s balls, man, that sounds fuckin’ exhausting.”

“Right,” Bradshaw said dryly. “Well. I’m finished here, so unless you have something else to say…?”

“Yeah. Now you mention it, I do.” Keeping his expression flat, Shook took a step forward, bringing himself within punching range of the warlock and enjoying how the man tensed up in response. Bradshaw didn’t quite flinch when he raised his hand, but the way he froze was almost as good. Shook just patted him on the shoulder, though. “You’ve given me some shit to think about, Bradshaw. That was a perspective I did not have. So, thanks. All right, where to next?” he added, stepping back again and deliberately altering his posture to the indolent lounging stance common to Guild enforcers seeking to portray a general rather than specific threat.

“The next altar site, obviously,” Bradshaw said tonelessly. “Map, please?”

“You got it.” Shook fished it out of his pocket and handed it over with a bland smile.

This, he reflected while Bradshaw unfolded and perused the map, was fun. Weirdly, he’d never managed to get the hang of it when people had been actively trying to teach it to him, but now that the trick of it had clicked, it was amazingly satisfying to deny a confrontation to somebody who was openly fishing for one. And he hadn’t lied; Bradshaw’s philosophy on women and underhandedness was troubling and deserved some further thought. Not right at the moment, though. Shook did not have time to be pondering such things while busting necromancers in cooperation with somebody he half-suspected was planning to hex him in the back before this day’s work was done.

“All right, I know the place,” Bradshaw stated at last, folding the map again. “Off we go.”

The darkness swelled, then dissipated, and only the particulars of their surroundings changed. A filthy alley was a filthy alley, and there were only so many kinds of places where one could hide illicit dealings in a major city. He was already resigned to seeing a lot more of these today, with possibly the odd empty warehouse or condemned tenement to break up the monotony.

Both men stiffened upon arrival, however, as this alley was a lot less quiet.

It also wasn’t quite straight; they had to creep forward and peek around a corner to locate the little nook behind several buildings in which the Tide’s portal altar had been concealed. This time, someone had beaten them there. Someone who seemed to be on the same mission, to judge by the way she was busy smashing what remained of the altar with a piece of wood that looked like the headless haft of an ax or sledgehammer.

Actually, upon closer look, this individual probably wasn’t on any mission to speak of: she had matted hair trailing from her head in greasy tangles, filthy bare feet, and wore a stained and ragged dress that was more patches than fabric.

Shook and Bradshaw exchanged a resigned look. Wreath and Guild alike did a lot of their business in shady back alleys, and members of both were well-acquainted with a basic rule of urban living: do not interact with crazy street people. This time, though, it seemed unwise to let this pass without at least investigating.

Shook stepped out into the space in the leonine saunter he’d been taught in his apprentice days, keeping one hand casually tucked in his pocket. “Hey there, li’l lady. Whatcha doin’ that for?”

She spun to face him, wild-eyed, and raised the ax handle like a club. Not, he noted, like someone who’d been actually trained to wield a weapon; her stance was imbalanced and had her weight back on her heels. If she tried to swing that thing at him, he gave it even odds that she’d just fall down, and if not it would be child’s play to dodge and push her over. Luckily she was all the way across the grimy little courtyard and well out of range.

“Easy, there,” Shook said in an unimpressed tone. “No need to get all agitated. What’s your name, doll?”

The woman just stared suspiciously at him, her eyes darting to take in his suit, and then the gray-robed Bradshaw stepping into the alley behind him. Blocking her exit, as it happened. She was, Shook noticed, a fairly young woman. Might not have been bad-looking had she not been smeared with dirt and gaunt from more than a few missed meals.

“Name?” he repeated wryly, giving her a half-smile. “You got one? Most people do, I hear.”

She scowled at him, but straightened up after a moment and shifted her improvised weapon to one hand. With the other she patted the base of her throat, opening her mouth wide.

“Oh,” he said sourly. Mute, naturally. Well, street people usually had something wrong with them our they wouldn’t be on the street; just his luck the one he needed to answer questions, couldn’t. She wasn’t missing her tongue, he saw—also, not only did she have all her teeth, none of them were stained blue from glittershrooms. The girl couldn’t have been on the streets long, then. “Now, what would possess you to go whacking at that heap of evil that way? You take a stick to random piece of black magic and you’re likely to end up cursed to a greasy stain on the walls.”

She narrowed her eyes and brandished the stick again.

“No need to take that tone with the lady, Mr. Shook,” Bradshaw admonished dryly. “That’s what we came to do, after all. At least she’s spared us a little bit of work. He’s not wrong, though,” he added to the woman with the stick, who had lowered it again as he spoke. “Getting physically involved with necromancy is extremely dangerous; I don’t recommend making a habit of this. Was there some reason you felt the need?”

She grimaced almost comically, turning a look of pure disgust on the remains of the altar, and kicked away a stray bone that had fallen near her feet. Then spat on it.

“That’s surprisingly hard to argue with,” Bradshaw said, turning to Shook.

“Yeah, I gotta give her that,” he agreed. The girl, having made her point, had begun sidling toward the alley’s entrance, which the two of them were standing in. Shook gave her a thoughtful look. It was doubtful she’d seen anything, and anyhow, getting info out of her would be a giant pain in the ass. Just an unhinged homeless person who wandered into the wrong alley, most likely; that would make a workable disguise, any number of thieves had used that routine, but it wasn’t the method of this Tide or anyone else who had taken an interest in their business. He sighed, stepped out of the way so she could get by, and pulled a doubloon from his pocket, which he tossed at her. “Here. Go eat something, for fuck’s sake.”

The young woman fumbled to catch it, clearly not being the most coordinated, but once she got the coin in her grip her eyes went wide. Then, to Shook’s great discomfort, they filled with tears.

“Whoah—uh uh! No,” he said sharply, stepping back and reaching out to push her off when she ran at him, arms wide for a hug. “This is a tailored suit, you greaseball. You smell as bad as that voodoo you just smashed. Go on, get outta here. Get some lunch that’s not out of a trash pile.”

She pouted at his rebuke, but seemed to decide it was more than worth the doubloon. Pausing only to blow him a kiss, she skittered past them down the alley, actually skipping with no heed for her bare feet and the refuse-strewn floor.

“That was pointless, you know,” Bradshaw commented as she disappeared around the next corner. “There’s a reason you don’t give money to those people. She’ll most likely just buy cheap booze and shrooms.”

“Yeah,” Shook replied with a soft sigh, jamming both hands in his pockets. “Maybe I’m the asshole here, after all. Old teacher of mine used to say givin’ handouts to people like that is almost as bad as stealing from ’em; makes you feel better about yourself and doesn’t change their situation any. Oh, well, whaddayagonnado.”

“Sounds almost like Vernisite doctrine,” Bradshaw said, smiling wryly. “Charity being cruelty in disguise, and all that. Don’t let Embras hear you talking that way, he’s got a real bug up his butt about them.”

“About bankers? Can’t rightly blame a man for that. Well, anyway, I guess your plan’s bungled now; too late to leave this site intact and convince ’em we missed it. Now what?”

“According to your map, we still have thirty sites to visit; we can still lay out the pattern I described, and one anomalous spot shouldn’t make too much difference. It really was an anomaly, too; that was an unpredictable intervention if I ever saw one. Let me just lay wards again and then we’ll move on.”

He handed the map back to Shook, who accepted it silently.

A moment later, though, he turned from his perusal of the alley back to Bradshaw, frowning. The warlock was staring fixedly at a blank patch of wall, not moving to begin casting his wards.

“Something wrong?” Shook asked.

“There’s…a faint residue,” Bradshaw said slowly. “Maybe nothing important, but it’s definitely divine. Somebody used powerful divine magic here at some point not long ago. I wouldn’t think anything of it in most cases, just some nearby priest casting a blessing, but it’s odd to find in proximity to that pile of horror.”

“Hm.” Shook looked over at the wreckage of the necromantic portal altar, then back down the alley. “You don’t suppose she…”

“I really don’t. That was just some garden-variety human with no magic to speak of, or I wouldn’t have let her go. Had we the luxury of time I’d have wanted to hold and question her just for the sake of thoroughness, but we’re working on a solid strategy already, and there’s no telling how close the Tide is to activating these. We don’t even know what they’re waiting for. I don’t think we can spare a few hours to fish for what’s probably nothing. Let’s just…”

He broke off, whirling, as a tiny streak of fire zipped into the cul de sac from the alley along the ground. Shook whipped out his wand by reflex, but didn’t shoot even as the little glowing thing came to a stop, revealing itself to be a luminous read mouse-like creature almost the size of a small cat. It sat up on its haunches, emitting a series of shrill squeaks, and pointed one tiny paw accusingly at Shook. Then, just as quickly as it had come, turned and bolted back out.

“What the fuck,” Shook wondered aloud, staring after it in mystification.

“Trouble,” Bradshaw said tersely. “That was an extremely sophisticated elemental. Creatures like that don’t just wander around cities, they’re familiars of skilled witches. We need to—”

“Well, well, well. I thought I recognized that voice.”

Shook went rigid, bringing his wand up again just in time for three figures to round the corner. He ignored the two on the sides, even the reedy fellow with the red elemental rat now sitting on his shoulder; the teenage girl on the other side was even more uninteresting. His attention was fully occupied by the one in the middle. The one he knew very well, who was now regarding him with her trademark predatory smirk.

“So glad to see you, Thumper,” Grip said. “All kinds of people are interested in having a word with you.”

He allowed himself a small sigh. “Aw, shit.”

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15 – 48

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“Still?” Gabriel protested.

“This thing is some serious shit,” Ruda grunted, shifting position. “There, think I got it.”

The mithril blade of her rapier did cause the bars of the cage to dissolve, as they had guessed upon concluding that the thing was actually made of magic. Unfortunately, that meant it couldn’t be simply wedged into them to weaken it, as the slender blade could make contact with a maximum of four bars at a time, and on being touched they disintegrated, causing the blade to drop.

And the bars to re-form. That was the kicker; made of solid magic as it was, the relative ease of breaking the bars made no difference as they regenerated instantly. Joe’s wandshots made no lasting impact and the group had been unwilling to risk any less precise spells or energy attacks with Mary trapped inside. Even so, it was easy to make individual bars crumble, thanks simply to the unique arsenal in the group’s possession. The trick was getting them to stay that way.

Now Gabriel, Ruda, and Yngrid were huddled awkwardly around the cage, with the mithril rapier and both valkyrie scythes carefully positioned to press against as much of its outer surface as they could manage. They had made three small gaps in the cage’s coverage, and it still remained otherwise solid.

“Maybe if you move the scythes so they’re nullifying one continuous stretch of the bars?” Fross suggested, fluttering closer to inspect the two patches that had rusted away to nothing and failed to restore themselves so long as the reaper weapons remained in position.

“This is not as easy as it looks,” Yngrid said irritably. The long hafts and curved blades of her and Gabriel’s weapons made arranging them that way physically difficult, especially with the need to keep three people huddled around the tiny cage holding them there. And, most importantly, the need for everyone present to avoid touching one of those blades.

“Wow, that must be really challenging then,” Fross chimed innocently, “cos it doesn’t look easy at all.”

“Anyway, don’t think that’d help,” Gabriel muttered. “We can make gaps in the bars, but then the scythe blades are in those gaps, and she sure as hell doesn’t wanna touch those.”

Mary croaked desultory agreement, ruffling her feathers.

“What if she grabs the mithril?” Juniper suggested from behind them. “Maybe that would cure the transformation?”

“Bad idea,” said Gabriel. “You don’t wanna see what would happen if somebody suddenly expanded to twenty times their size while surrounded by unbreakable metal bars. We’d all be standing in a puddle of elf noodles.”

Mary began squawking in a constant staccato rhythm.

“We are working on it, Kuriwa,” Trissiny assured her. “I’m sorry, I know that can’t be comfortable, but it would be worse if we just tried to hammer that thing with spells.”

“Actually, that may be worth a try,” said Ariel. Mary’s squawks increased in pitch and volume.

“You have an idea, partner?” Gabriel asked tersely.

“The cage is both recycling its own expended energy and drawing ambient power to sustain itself; the intensity of both processes increases the more pressure is put upon it, and after the addition of the rapier those currents of magic have grown unstable. I believe a careful application of brute force at this juncture may shatter it entirely.”

“Sure doesn’t look like it’s givin’ up the ghost,” Ruda growled.

“Sophisticated magics intended for purposes of security rarely betray their weaknesses at a glance. That is rather the point of them.”

Mary squawked shrilly.

“Could you stop?” Gabriel snapped. “That isn’t helping! Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of shaman?”

“I don’t think she can actually use much in the way of magic in that form,” McGraw noted. “Never seen ‘er do it. For that matter, my friend Raea has an animal form, too, an’ she’s always limited herself to fangs an’ claws while usin’ it.”

Mary chattered at him angrily.

“Well, I’m sorry if I’m blowin’ your secrets,” the old man said wryly. “Unfortunately for you, I like you too much not to help get you outta that thing. You’ll just have to forgive me.”

“Aye, well, if it’s brute force we need,” Billie began, reaching into her pockets with both hands.

Everybody yelled at her so loudly that no individual exhortations were distinguishable.

“I never get to have any fun,” the gnome grumbled, turning away in a sulk.

“Well, let’s either come up with something or take a goddamn break,” Ruda complained, still hunched over the cage to hold her rapier in place in a careful posture that didn’t interfere with Gabriel or Yngrid, or bring her into contact with either scythe. “I’ve got cricks in places I didn’t fuckin’ know I had, here.”

“The original problem still applies,” Toby pointed out. “We can’t just pour magic at that thing while she’s in there…”

“I believe that if we sacrifice some power for precision, we still have methods at our disposal,” said Shaeine. “Allow me to try something.”

A silver sphere slightly smaller than the cage appeared above it, then pressed downward. The shield bubble flickered and sparked from the pressure, continuing to push itself against the cage until the brass bars trembled. There was no other visible effect.

“That is further destabilizing the flow of restorative magic,” Ariel reported. “An additional source of pressure may finish breaking the spell entirely.”

“Well, then, let’s try this again,” said Joe, drawing his wands.

There was a tangle of bodies arranged all around the cage, but tiny gaps existed between them, and that was all he needed. Rather than attempting to explain this and reassure everyone, he shot first, dispatching two clean beams of light into the cage itself. One, the angles being what they were, only struck and disintegrated a single bar, but the second he was able to position such that the beam pierced two on its path through.

“What the fuck!?” Ruda shouted. “Watch what you’re—oh, hey.”

For those not immediately clustered around the cage, the first sign of success was the crow herself shooting upward out of the group, cawing triumphantly. Ruda, Gabriel and Yngrid all stepped back, carefully disentangling their weapons, just quick enough to afford the rest of those assembled a last sight of the cage, which now lay in metallic strips stretched outward from its base as if it had burst open at the top, unfurling its bars like a flower. In fact, it died rather like a flower, the strands of brass curling up and rusting away to dust before their eyes, until seconds later the last scraps had dissolved to nothing.

Mary spent this fleeting moment circling overhead, evidently just because she could, before settling to the ground. By the time everyone turned from the spectacle of the disintegrating magical cage, she was an elf again. Shifting to face the group directly, Mary curved her upper body forward in a gesture that fell between a deep nod and a shallow bow.

“Thank you very much for the assistance, children.”

“Oh, I’m sure you woulda gotten out of there eventually,” Gabriel remarked, shrinking his scythe down to tuck away in his pocket, a performance Yngrid watched with a small frown. “Prin seemed to think so, anyway.”

“In all likelihood, yes, but I am no less grateful nonetheless. I find nothing enjoyable about languishing in a cage for any period. Now, with that addressed, there are more important matters.”

She turned and strode toward Principia, who was still laid out on the cracked pavement, now draped by a blanket and with Merry sitting by her head. At Mary’s approach, the other Legionnaire rose to her feet, eyes narrowing.

“Kuriwa,” Trissiny said, moving to intercept her, “I don’t think what Locke needs right now is more punishment.”

Mary actually stopped, raising an eyebrow at the paladin. “The concept of punishment, Trissiny, is only applicable to people who understand precisely what is happening to them and why. Tormenting an unconscious victim is nothing but pointless sadism. I have my faults, but I hope you don’t think that is among them.”

“Right,” Trissiny said vaguely. “Just checking.”

“On the contrary,” Mary continued in a lower tone, taking the last steps to Principia’s side and sinking to her knees, “I am concerned chiefly for the girl’s well-being. Everything else aside, what she just went through was clearly traumatic for multiple reasons, not least of which that having excess data pumped into an unprepared brain can damage it significantly. The magelords of Syralon have been known to use that as a punishment before even they outlawed the practice as too cruel.”

There was a constant and usually soft whistle of wind across the plateau; as Mary reached out to place her fingertips along the side of Principia’s face, it shifted in tone. The effect was subtle, likely expressing itself as a subconscious sense of harmony to some of those present, but those with acute hearing or musical training could discern that the voice of the wind itself had shifted to a flawless three-tone harmony in major key.

“My thanks again, priestess,” Mary said, turning her head toward Shaeine with another deep nod. “Your instincts were correct, and your quick action likely saved her from serious harm. Her mind is undamaged, but still struggling to process the sheer volume of material. I can aid her recuperation by way of an elemental blessing that will purge foreign contamination. This is usually meant as a counter to curses and the like; adapting it for this purpose may be tricky. Please give me quiet in which to concentrate. Mind magic is the province of the divine, and achieving these effects through the fae requires great exactitude.”

“Okay, well, I’ll ask everybody’s forgiveness in advance because this is a pretty ruthless thing to suggest,” said Gabriel, raising both his hands in a gesture of surrender, “but maybe that’s not the best course of action? As long as Locke’s not in urgent danger, we should think about letting her have some extra time to sleep if it means she wakes up with that knowledge intact. To say nothing of the immediate stuff going on, like whatever she was warning us about in N’Jendo and Veilgrad, the sheer scope of knowledge…”

“That is ruthless, Gabe,” Toby said with a frown. “Who knows what kind of strain that’s putting on her, even with Shaeine’s help?”

“He’s not wrong,” Mary said curtly, “and the suggestion has merit, but in this case it is not up for discussion. Principia is a child of my own blood. And while her actions here have added up to possibly the single most wrong-headed thing I have ever seen anyone do, it was nonetheless a courageous act, undertaken to protect young people under her care. I will not suffer her to be permanently harmed for it. Besides, I want her good and lucid when I am explaining to her in exquisite nuance the depth of her poor judgment.”

“What,” Ruda snorted, “so the difference is she’s one of yours, so you’re throwing all greater concerns out the window and claiming privilege?”

Mary had lowered her eyes to stare fixedly at Principia’s face. Now she lifted her gaze to meet Ruda’s, impassively. “Correct.”

McGraw cleared his throat. “Don’t pull that thread, miss. Sometimes you just gotta make allowances for people who can blast you over the horizon.”

“Yeah, thanks for the advice, but we all have a history class with one of those,” Fross chimed.

“All right, fair enough,” Ruda said with a shrug. “I gotta mention, Boots, your granny reminds me of Naphthene.”

“Ouch,” Trissiny drawled.

While they chattered, the light around Principia had gently shifted, taking on a pattern of shadows over the prone elf as if waves were being reflected about her. Merry was frowning in unease, alternately at this and at Mary, but had not yet decided to intervene. Quite suddenly, though, Mary straightened up, her eyes widening, and the light vanished.

“What happened?” Trissiny demanded, turning toward her.

“Well,” the Crow mused, raising one eyebrow and gazing down at Principia in renewed interest. “Never mind, I suppose.”

“Never mind?” Trissiny exclaimed. “What, is she…?”

“She’s fine,” Mary assured her. “Better by far than I expected, in fact. It appears that she is being taken care of. Further intervention by me will not be necessary. Nor would it be welcomed.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“With this no longer a cause for immediate concern, there remains another matter we urgently need to address,” Mary said seriously, straightening up and turning toward her. “What exactly is that mask, and where did it come from?”

The tension increased palpably as the assembled students stared either at her or at Trissiny. No one answered.

“In all my many years,” Mary continued after a short silence, “I have never observed an artifact that could reproduce a powerful being from the age of the Elder Gods, in the person of whoever used it. I infer from your brief mentions of the subject that it can grant its wearer the gifts of a variety of persons. I am also, being attuned to the currents of fae magic, not unaware that some event of world-altering significance occurred in this vicinity a few days ago. The dots are not difficult to connect. I think you children had better start explaining yourselves.”

“Yeah, we’ve kinda made peace with that,” Juniper said. “The explaining, I mean. When we get home to Last Rock, Tellwyrn’s probably gonna chew us into mulch. I don’t really think we need to explain anything to you, though.”

“No offense intended,” Toby added.

Mary half-turned to stare pensively at the Great Tree rising in the near distance for a moment. “I suppose the sequence of events which led to this point is less important than that which must follow. With regard to that, however, there is the future to consider.” She turned her stare on Fross. “You still have that mask. What, precisely, is your plan for it? I should hardly need to tell you that such a thing cannot simply be allowed to tumble around the world unsupervised.”

“Oh. Really?” Ruda turned to direct a wide-eyed stare at her classmates. “Hey, guys, turns out that fuckin’ thing can’t be allowed to tumble around the world unsupervised. Holy shit did we miscalculate! Maybe we shouldn’t pawn it, after all.”

“Ruda,” Trissiny said quietly, “don’t. Not with this one.”

“Uh, yeah, ‘scuze me,” Joe added. “Mary, I know these folks, an’ there ain’t a thing wrong with their intelligence.”

Weaver snorted very loudly.

“I have a high opinion of Trissiny’s faculties in general,” Mary replied, “and her tacit endorsement of the rest of this group counts for a lot, in my view. All other things being equal… But things are not. I can imagine no sequence of events which would lead to the creation of that artifact which does not presuppose that Principia’s complete lapse of all sense and reason was not the first to take place here recently.”

“It was Arquin’s idea, just for the record,” said Ruda.

“I don’t care whose idea it was,” Mary said, her voice rising slightly. “I care what is done about it. This, I am aware, is the last thing an independent group of young people ever wants to hear from anyone—”

“Don’t say it,” McGraw warned. She ignored him.

“—but you had better let me take it.” Mary turned to stare expressively at Principia. “Before it causes even worse harm than it already has.”

Joe pinched the bridge of his nose and grimaced into his fist. Billie puckered her lips as if to whistle, but produced no sound, just glancing around at everyone else present. Yngrid gripped the haft of her scythe in both hands, looking warily at Gabriel.

All eight students just stared impassively at Mary.

“With stakes like this,” she said softly, “make no mistake, I will not hesitate—”

“Kuriwa,” Trissiny interrupted, “please believe that I’m very grateful for all the help you’ve given me. I love you and have absolutely no intention of ever causing you any upset. And you are not, under any circumstances, getting your hands on that mask.”

The Crow sighed very softly. “Can we not find room to negotiate on that point?”

“If you’re thinking about trying to take it by force,” Gabriel said evenly, “think a lot more carefully. None of us is capable of sticking you in a cage, lady. All we’ve got is sharp objects and massive firepower to hit you with.”

“And none of us wants to do that,” Shaeine added. “You are honored kin to Trissiny, who is precious to all of us. The safety of the world, and the responsibility for actions we have set into motion, must supersede those concerns, however.”

“Yeah, so, please don’t push us on this one,” said Fross.

“The safety of the world,” Mary said, a tinge of bitterness creeping into her voice. “What, then, is your idea to ensure it?”

“We’re gonna give it to Professor Tellwyrn,” Juniper replied.

Mary clenched both fists; the very breeze around them suddenly blew colder. “That is absolutely—”

“The single best idea I’ve ever heard out of these twerps,” Weaver interrupted. “You weren’t there, Mary, but the rest of us have already been through this, back during the Belosiphon affair. When faced with the question of what to do with an impossibly dangerous artifact that nobody could ever be allowed to have, the least terrible solution we could come up with was letting Tellwyrn have it.”

“Arachne,” Mary spat. “That reckless, aggressive, thoughtless—”

“You want things, Kuriwa,” Trissiny said. “Tellwyrn may be all of that and worse, but she also has no ambition. All she wants to do is sit on her mountain and teach. She has everything in the world she’s after. You? You’ve got plans and an agenda. If you had the Mask, there’s no question that you’d use it toward your ends. This is not about us thinking Tellwyrn would find a better use for it. This is because she would have no use.”

“It is incredible to me that you could believe that,” Mary retorted. “I have known her a great deal longer than any of you, and trust me—”

“Arachne Tellwyrn is a creature of vastly more discretion and restraint than basically anyone gives her credit for,” Yngrid interjected. “Even my sisters know of her… Well, actually, some of that’s secret. But for what it’s worth, I agree. She’s already got too much power to be tempted by a thing like that and nothing she would actually want to do with it.”

Weaver stepped up beside the valkyrie, sliding an arm around her waist. “And it’s academic, besides. Tellwyrn already has a whole collection of dangerous objects of about this caliber, which nobody’s seen hide nor hair of since she got them. We know she can be trusted to hide things and not touch them.”

“No,” Mary snapped, “you know she can be trusted so far. None of you have seen Arachne backed into a corner, desperate, or enraged beyond reason. I have. The best I can say about it is that in the past, she had no such collection of horrors upon which to draw. And now you want to add to it?”

“Yeah, okay, but…why are you better?” Teal asked.

Mary turned to her. “For better than four thousand years, I have walked this world doing my best to protect it.”

“Good fuckin’ job,” Gabriel snorted. “Cos as we all know, nobody’s ever terrified by the name Mary the Crow.”

“They talked about you in the grove, when I was there,” Juniper added. “The Elders made it sound like you really only bother to protect the elves. Actually…they didn’t sound super grateful for your help.”

“They really aren’t,” Trissiny said quietly. “I’ve mostly heard about it from my grandmother, and a story from one source can be inaccurate, but the way Lanaera tells it the only people who are less happy to have Kuriwa’s sudden help than the elves in general are her own descendants in particular.”

“I see her elevation to grove Elder has done nothing to blunt that nest of brambles Lanaera calls a tongue,” Mary grated.

“Mary,” Joe said gently, taking a step forward. “Look, I dunno anything about you and other elves. What I know is that all of us have learned to trust you.” He gestured toward the rest of his party with one hand. “You’ve saved all our butts more than once, and I for one really appreciate having the benefit of your experience. I feel like I’ve learned an incredible amount from you.”

“But?” Mary prompted bitterly.

“But,” he echoed with a slow nod. “I think Trissiny’s right. Nobody needs to have that mask, not if it does the kind of stuff we just saw. It ain’t a question of who’s got a better purpose for it. It should go to somebody who’ll lock it away an’ forget about it. And Tellwyrn’s the only name that comes to mind.”

“Esteemed elder, forgive my frank speech, but we must call this what it is,” Shaeine said solemnly. “Your perspective is understandable: for ages you have labored hard and done your best, making difficult choices to guide the world to the best outcomes you could manage. You have learned in that time to rely only on yourself. It is understandable that you are reluctant to trust anyone else with possession of such power, accustomed as you are to the assumption that if you want something done right, you must do it. Am I wrong?”

“I cannot say that you are,” Mary replied, mastering her expression.

“And that’s fair,” Teal agreed, nodding. “But…everybody thinks that about themselves. We are each one of us the hero in our own story. But to pull back and look through the perspectives of others… Does your record of actual achievements really suggest you’re the most qualified to take on a burden like that?”

“I begin to wonder,” she said stonily, “if I am wasting my time trying to talk about this with you.”

Gabriel drew his wand back out. “I really hope that wasn’t meant the way it sounded.”

“Kuriwa.” Trissiny stepped forward until she was a few bare feet from Mary, staring her in the eye. “Let me be clear: I don’t know whether or not you have the physical capacity to seize that mask from us, but even if so, that would only be the beginning. If I have to press the issue, the next time I do so it will be with Lanaera, Rainwood, and Zanzayed, plus anyone of our bloodline they know who would think it a valuable use of their time to humble you and take an artifact of power out of your hands.”

“Child,” Mary said sardonically, “if you think to get more than two of our family to tolerate one another’s company for more than an hour, much less cooperate toward a common end, I sincerely wish you luck.”

“You haven’t managed it,” Trissiny replied softly, “because you’ve never been able to offer them the one goal on which they would all agree: thwarting you.”

They locked eyes, and slowly, Mary’s wry expression melted away to a flat stare of displeasure.

“What,” Ruda snorted, “so even her own descendants would rally to mess her up over this? And you wanna go and claim you’re the most competent person who could be trusted with that mask? Fuck you, lady.”

“Hey, now, maybe we should all take it easy,” McGraw said soothingly, tucking his staff into the crook of his arm so he could raise both hands peaceable as he stepped forward. “Mary, given the disparity in our levels of experience, I’ve never tried to pitch myself as your equal, but with all due respect, I reckon there’s one area of understanding where your agelessness leaves you at a disadvantage.”

Mary finally tore her eyes away from Trissiny’s to turn a weary grimace on him. “Oh, do tell.”

“There comes a point,” he said, “where a person’s just gotta acknowledge that their time has passed. That the best use o’ their talents is in offering the benefit of their years to the younger generation, steppin’ back and lettin’ ’em take over.”

“Aye, ain’t that more or less exactly what grove Elders do?” Billie added.

“That’s what Tellwyrn’s done,” Juniper said softly.

“As much as any group of kids I’ve ever met, I reckon these know what they’re about,” McGraw continued, nodding at the students. “I ain’t sayin’ everything they do’s gonna be the right call or that they won’t mess up and create havoc now’n again. But if you’re gonna try to fix that, well, you’re not just dealin’ with this one specific situation anymore. You’ll have set yourself up to straighten out somethin’ absolutely fundamental to the world, and honestly, even your talents ain’t equal to that task.”

Mary stared at him for a moment, then at Trissiny, then Gabriel, and finally at the comatose form of Principia.

“This conversation is not over,” she said abruptly. “But…you have all given me some important things to ponder. Thank you, again, for helping me out of that trap.”

She turned away from them and strode off. The entire group stared in silence as the ancient elf went right up to the edge of the plateau, facing the Great Tree in the distance, and squatted on her heels in a posture not unlike a roosting bird. There, she fell still.

“So,” Brother Toraldt said loudly from the far edge of the gathering, “shall I infer that we are yet again not going to depart today?”

Everyone turned to stare at him.

Sister Elaine sighed, even as she stifled a small smile, and patted the dwarf on the shoulder. “Come, Toraldt, we may as well go unload the packs again.”

“Again,” he huffed, but turned and followed her around the corner of the nearest building. The rest of the group watched in silence until their two Order of the Light guides were once more out of sight.

“Okay, I’ll be honest,” Fross stage whispered. “I completely forgot they were here.”

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15 – 47

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“Here.” Trissiny took two steps to the side and handed the golden cage to Joe, prompting Mary to flap and croak indignantly within. “Would you mind?”

“Uh, sure,” he said uncertainly, taking it from her. “I mean, not at all. What’s…?”

Her hands free, Trissiny stepped forward, cracking her knuckles. In the space of one stride, her gait seemed to shift from her usual stiff bearing to something subtly evocative of a slouch, even though she still stood straight enough to pass for a soldier. The nuance was as impressive for how difficult it was to pin down as for how fast she had drawn it over herself like a cloak.

“And so, here we are,” Trissiny drawled. “The great Keys finally becomes the victim of a con. Spectacularly. When you fail, you don’t fail halfway, do you?”

Principia had returned her focus to the screens orbiting her, but at that glanced again down at Trissiny through a gap between them. Only for a second, though.

“You want to change strategies less abruptly in the future, Trissiny. I’m pleased that you’ve learned to project a front, but doing it so brazenly makes the ploy quite transparent, especially to people who know you. The tactic is sound, your technique just needs refining.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Trissiny said lightly, her smirk not faltering for having been pointed out as a facade. “But don’t change the subject: we’re talking about you, not me. You’d expect a thief a bare few months on from being tagged to fumble now and again, but you’re Principia freaking Locke, the great con artist, centuries-old player of the game and veteran of a thousand capers. You getting utterly bamboozled is actually news worth noting.”

“I am processing a quantity of information that would cause your brain to shut down if you were exposed to it. The idea that I could be bamboozled—”

“I’m talking about what you don’t see, not what you can’t see. Anyway, don’t feel too bad. It would be a story for the ages if you outfoxed a trickster god. Getting outfoxed by one is only natural.”

“If you’re referring to Vesk, that has been dealt with. Thanks to me, whatever he planned for Gabriel was circumvented.”

“That just goes to show that more knowledge isn’t more understanding,” Trissiny snapped. “You were actually smarter before putting that thing on! The Principia I know never claimed to be perfect. She faced her mistakes and tried to fix them. She was confident in her skills, but never so arrogant she assumed no one could beat her. Because she was smart enough to know that overconfidence immediately leads to a fall!”

This earned her another direct look from Principia, this one more lingering. “If you have a compelling theory explaining how Vesk has outmaneuvered me, offer it. That would be relevant, if correct.”

“Think about what happened. He’s been setting you up over the long haul, Keys, starting when he intervened with your squad in Tiraas. That planted the idea in your head that when he meddled, you—and people you cared about—would be exposed to risks and costs to achieve whatever story he was trying to tell. And then he showed up here, just as the Mask was being created, and said…what? The way you described it, he did nothing but mumble dire warnings and portents of great doom. Right when you were here, under enormous pressure. There’s whatever you’re doing for Rouvad that you need to be in good with the University for, Tellwyrn’s threats of revenge if anything happened to us. You trying to rebuild some good faith with Teal and Shaeine, while everybody made you a punching bag for practical jokes. And…we both know every minute you’re around me you’re constantly reminded of how horribly you’ve screwed up our relationship, and how much you want to fix it. Vesk dropped into the middle of that stew and set you to fearing for all of us, and the very next thing you learned was about the Mask and all the trouble it’s bound to be at the center of. You were good and primed to be spooked so hard even your self-control slipped, Prin. And that’s when Gabe was called away, alone, in a move you would easily recognize as a story trope. There’s no way Vesk didn’t know Vidius was going to react that way. Heck, I bet he prompted Vidius to time it when he did.”

“Actually,” said Gabriel, “I don’t think—”

“I do think,” McGraw interrupted, then turned, looking to his own companions for confirmation. “We talked about this amongst us when setting out, remember? We inadvertently brought Mr. Arquin there by helping Weaver un-doom his doomed romance. That was only possible because we had somebody who’d been there before: Joe.”

“And I was there,” Joe said slowly, “at the behest of my friend Jenny, the so-called Shifter, who according to Mary has been associated with Vesk in the past.”

“She works for him directly,” Toby said quietly. “We’ve seen her in Vesk’s own personal citadel.”

“Oi, yer one of ‘is own bards, aye?” Billie asked, punching Weaver in the knee. “Just outta curiosity, did this improbable love story between some random guitar-strummin’ arsehole and a freakin’ extra-dimensional specter o’ death ‘appen ta start off in some kinda bizzare circumstance that mighta been prompted by a certain god?”

Weaver and Yngrid said nothing, but looked at each other, their eyes wide in an expression of realization that was as good as any answer.

“Ho. Lee. Ssssshit,” Gabriel hissed. “That magnificent bastard.”

Mary squawked and fluttered furiously, rattling her cage.

“Well, I will say it makes sense fer a trickster deity to play his games on a particularly grand scale,” McGraw drawled.

“You got conned, Keys,” Trissiny said bluntly. “He got you thinking emotionally instead of with your wits, and then gave you exactly the jab he knew would make you jump. Every Eserite knows that life’s a game: as long as you’re treating it that way, you keep your emotions out of your way and avoid tensing up so bad you can’t react. Vesk put you under every kind of simultaneous pressure he could bring to bear, made you think about what was at stake instead of what you were doing. You stopped playing, for probably the first time in a century, and you immediately lost. Take the lesson, Keys, and stop doubling down on your screwup. You’ve lost; it’s time to walk away.”

Principia had already gone utterly still, her eyes fixed straight ahead and hands suspended in the act of reaching to poke at more screens. As Trissiny finished speaking, even the rotating panels of light around her stilled, fixing themselves in place and ceasing to alter their displays. She hung that way as if frozen in the five seconds of silence which followed, before finally speaking a single word.

“Plausible.”

Trissiny let out a soft breath, releasing tension she’d been concealing. Gabriel and several of the others ventured small smiles of relief, and Mary began muttering unintelligibly to herself in her hoarse avian voice, ruffling her feathers.

“But irrelevant.”

The panels resumed their cycling and Principia went back to glancing about and periodically touching them as if nothing had happened.

“However we came to this point, the situation is what it is. Our intervention is required—”

“Why, though?” Teal stepped forward, her hands jammed in the pockets of her blazer, and looked up at the levitating elf with an openly inquisitive expression. “What, exactly, are you trying to accomplish, Locke? Because you’re supposed to be protecting this student group, and I don’t see how dropping a bunch of adventurers onto us and then sending us into some kind of disaster in N’Jendo is doing that.”

“If you decline to render aid, Mrs. Falconer, I will not compel you. I will be disappointed, but forcing action on your part would defeat the purpose.”

“Hey, don’t get me wrong.” Teal pulled her hands out and held them up in a placating gesture. “I’m all for protecting the innocent. But here’s the thing: I have zero idea who you are and what your agenda is. We’ve just heard a thorough rundown of why you are not behaving or thinking at all like our Lieutenant Locke, not to mention a pretty spooky case study of what can happen when an all-powerful being is allowed to pull strings behind the scenes. I think I speak for everyone when I say we’ll be glad to help if our help is needed, but we don’t know what you’re thinking or what you’re after. Doing anything on orders from you is going to require some trust. Principia has earned some, much to my surprise, but it’s clear whatever we knew or felt about her doesn’t apply to whoever I’m talking with now.”

There was another short pause.

“The concern is not unreasonable,” Principia said curtly. “What would reassure you?”

“Well,” Teal shrugged, “what exactly kind of a thing are you supposed to be? What was the word you guys used…?”

“She’s an Archon, apparently,” said Gabriel. “A chief servitor of one of the Elder Gods. Tarthriss, in this case, according to the Avatar we were just speaking with in the Golden Sea.”

“That fucking thing really can reproduce people from before the Elder War?” Ruda muttered. “Fuck a fuckin’ duck.”

“Reproduce people?” Joe muttered. He got no response, save perhaps the sudden utter stillness of Mary in the cage he was still holding.

“Okay, so, that’s troubling,” Teal said frankly. “You’re a servant of a being who is obviously dead. Whose agenda are you following now?”

“I have already answered that,” Principia replied, impatience entering her tone. “I am acting on orders from Avei.”

“What orders?” Trissiny demanded.

“That is classified. Yes, General Avelea, even to you, unless the High Commander or Avei herself countermands that order. I calculate a high probability of the latter, as your active involvement in this plan would obviously be advantageous.”

“And when Avei set out to doing this,” said Fross, “was she leveraging a certain very clever thief in her employ? Or do you think she was planning on you using an impossibly dangerous magical artifact that didn’t even exist at the time in order to become a long-extinct class of Elder God servitor which it sounds like she herself deliberately wiped off the face of the earth? Cos there’s several jumps in there and they kinda suggest this is not what Avei sent you out to do.”

“Any military commander must know the assets she has in the field in order to deploy them properly,” Shaeine agreed. “If you presume to be acting in Avei’s service, Lieutenant, it is basic sense that in the aftermath of such a drastic development, you should seek out updated orders before acting further.”

“Unfeasible,” Principia stated. “Gods are not so easily approached directly.”

“I can arrange that, you know,” Trissiny pointed out.

“Unnecessary!”

“Unless,” Trissiny drawled, “there’s some reason you don’t want to hear the goddess’s opinion of your actions here.”

“My actions are consistent with Legion doctrine! Operatives in the field are expected to react to changing circumstances and apply their best judgment as necessary.”

“I’m pretty sure there are no Legion doctrines that even try to cover this,” Merry protested. “I mean, Avelea’s not here to correct me, but I’m willing to bet on that.”

“Different Avelea,” Joe explained as Gabriel turned to frown in confusion at Trissiny.

“Leaving aside Legion regulations,” said Trissiny, “you are still an Eserite. Whatever responsibilities you’ve been given, I have to assume you’re Eserite first and foremost. Knowledge is power, Locke, and it follows that absolute knowledge is absolute power. What does power do to people?”

“You will not distract me by quoting—”

“Then forget Eserion and Avei both!” Trissiny shouted. “If you have access to all the knowledge of the Elder Gods, I assume they knew things about psychology that have been long since forgotten. How does power affect the brain, Locke?”

Another silence fell. The rotating panels seemed to glitch, momentarily reversing their course and then freezing for a second. It was hard to tell behind the mini-screens bristling from her crown, but Principia appeared to be frowning slightly.

“I… Irrelevant. I have the full faculties of—”

“Of a chief servant of the most infamously power-mad beings that have ever existed?” Teal finished. “Are you beginning to see why this is a tough sell, Locke?”

“Not to interrupt,” Toby said quietly, “but there’s something I can’t help noticing. A couple of times now, people addressing you have spoken of Principia Locke as if she were a separate person, not party to this conversation. And you didn’t correct either one. Also, you yourself spoke pretty disdainfully of Principia before. Is that even still you in there?”

“I have been improved upon,” she said stiffly.

“Well, I obviously don’t have all the knowledge you do,” Toby replied, “but I don’t think so. I’m not trying to excuse Principia’s flaws, but the truth is I like her. She isn’t all-knowing, but she’s experienced and clever. I’ve developed the impression that I’m probably never going to agree with Principia’s methods of doing anything, but even so, I understood her goals, and they’re good ones. Prin cares about people, and about values, and does her best to do some good in the world, in her own way. I trust that a lot more than some detached information-processing servitor making abstract plans for me and who knows how many other people. And I think I know what Prin would say about someone like that, too.”

“I don’t care what she would say!” the floating elf burst out, audibly agitated now. “You don’t understand. With nothing but a single limited point of perspective, there’s so little you can do, and yet so very much damage you can cause! Principia Locke has ruined everything she ever touched; I can fix it.”

“You shut your FUCKING mouth!” Merry roared. “Locke has fought tooth and nail to protect our squad when everybody else in the world wanted us dead, and she succeeded against the most ridiculous odds! I don’t know who or what you even are and I don’t care. You don’t talk about her that way!”

“I understand,” Toby said, his quiet voice a stark contrast to Merry’s anger. “You got a sudden view of your whole life from a new perspective, and the realization hurt. I really do understand.”

“You understand nothing,” Principia spat. “You have neither the ability to perceive what I do, nor the history of selfishness and destruction I have to—”

“He does, though,” Juniper cut in, stepping forward. “And so do I. Not in the same way as you, any more than Toby and I had the same exact experience, but you’d better believe we get it. The moment of insight when you realize how horrible you’ve been is agony like nothing else I’ve ever imagined. And here’s something else I can tell you about living through that: if you try to run from it, you’ll only make it worse. You have to face what you’ve done, let it hurt, and do better.”

“You don’t understand,” Principia repeated, her voice outright pleading now. All around her, the glowing panels had begun spinning so fast she couldn’t possibly be reading them, for all that her eyes kept darting without resting in one position for an instant. “There’s so much going wrong in the world, but from here I can do something about it! I can at least make up for…”

“Locke,” Merry said, insistently but far more calmly than before. “You can’t save the world. The world is not for saving. Trust me, that’s the thinking of the kind of dumb, chapbook-addled teenager who tries to walk into the Golden Sea to become a hero. That’s what I do understand. The world is always going to be fucked up; it’s supposed to be. If it wasn’t, that would mean nobody had any choices or agency. No flaws means no virtues. A perfect world would be hell. Everything’s a mess, and everybody is supposed to do whatever they can, with whatever they have, wherever they are. You’re not supposed to make yourself some kind of demigod, that’ll just end up adding to the world’s problems. If you try to take away other people’s responsibility to help fix things, you are taking their power to become better.”

“Well put,” McGraw said, tipping his hat to her.

“We’re not going to take orders from you,” Trissiny said quietly. “Not from…this. All of us will do what we can, where we are, using our best judgment, just as Tellwyrn taught us. If you turn yourself into…whatever this is…that’s nothing but a loss. We’ll have lost someone smart and motivated to help just when we need her the most.”

“That’s not fair,” Principia protested. Several of the screens began to wink out of existence, creating gaps in the translucent globe around her.

“It’s not just a loss in the strategic sense,” Trissiny added, lowering her eyes and turning away. “I was just starting to like you a little bit. If you…if the woman I was getting to know is just…gone, now, then… Damn it. I already miss her.” She emitted a short, startled bark of laughter. “I’m just as surprised as you.”

“I just…” The last of the screens vanished. Principia hung there—not just hovered, hung, with her arms dangling at her sides and her head drooping forward in a defeated posture. “I thought I could… It would all be better without the mess I was. Just…intelligence and a plan, and maybe I could make up for everything.”

“Nobody’s not a mess, you goober,” Gabriel said with a wry grin. “That’s normal. It’s healthy. Life’s about embracing your flaws and making strengths of them, not throwing them away. Without flaws, what the hell are you? How are you supposed to improve if you don’t have screwups to learn from?”

“You can’t make up for anything,” Juniper added. “The past doesn’t work that way; it’s done. You have to become a better person and do better things.”

“Take that thing off and come down from there, Keys,” Trissiny said gently. “We need you. While you’re fucking around with magical artifacts, the bastards are out there winning.”

Mary croaked softly.

Principia stared disconsolately at the ground for an interminable moment.

Then, abruptly as if trying to surprise herself before she could react, she grabbed her own face and pulled.

The Mask came free and immediately tumbled from her hands, and she plummeted toward the ground.

Trissiny darted forward with her arms outstretched and Principia tumbled right into them, her head lolling back. Fross swooped in as the Mask of the Adventurer went spinning off to the side, seizing the artifact and making it disappear back into her aura storage before circling back to rejoin the group.

“She’s… I don’t know what’s wrong!” Trissiny said in alarm, gently laying Principia on the ground. “This didn’t happen to anybody else who tried it on!”

The elf was still slumped weakly, but now began to twitch violently, her eyes rolled up into her head.

Shaeine had already darted forward to kneel at Principia’s other side. Reaching out to place one hand on her forehead, the drow closed her eyes, frowning in concentration.

Principia stilled, then let out a heavy sigh and finally relaxed, her head rolling to one side as Shaeine withdrew her hand.

“What happened?” Trissiny demanded.

“I put her to sleep,” said Shaeine. “A simple, natural sleep, the only kind I can grant. I do think it’s the best thing for her, Trissiny. I’m not able to interpret thoughts or even emotions, but when I touch someone’s mind that way I do get a general sense of it. A mind, to my awareness, feels much like a deep pool. Something with a serene surface but great depths beneath. Principia’s, just now, was boiling.”

“You two weren’t with us in Puna Dara,” Gabriel said, leaning over them with a worried frown. “The Avatar we met under the city had had his mind stuffed with a constant stream of information. That would make anybody crazy. You just can’t pour unlimited data into a brain that’s not meant to handle it.”

“Will she…” Trissiny cut herself off, swallowing heavily.

“I don’t know,” Shaeine said, reaching out to grasp her hand. “There is no precedent of any kind for this. But I do believe sleep will help her, Trissiny. Dreaming is how the brain sorts away extra information; that is why people begin to go mad if deprived of sleep. She needs to dream. I suspect she will sleep much longer than normal, and I strongly advise that she be allowed to. We should not wake or try to move her until she comes to on her own.”

“And then, we’ll…find out,” Merry whispered, kneeling at Principia’s head and gently smoothing back a lock of black hair that had been disturbed.

“Well,” Juniper offered, “at least we got to her before Vesk got what he wanted. I mean, it’s not much, but it’s a little satisfying that the person who set all this up didn’t get away with it.”

“I would strongly advise against ever thinking you’ve put one over on Vesk,” Weaver said even more sourly than usual. “Sounds like that’s exactly what got her into this situation.”

“Yeah, I have to agree with Grumpypants on this one,” said Gabriel, frowning deeply. “Think about it. If this was a chapbook and suddenly some random-ass thing happened out of nowhere and brought every plotline that was going on into one place for no good reason…well, I’d probably put the book down.”

“Yeah, famous arbiter of literary taste you are,” Ruda said solemnly.

“I just mean,” he snapped, shooting her a look, “Vesk is the actual god of bards. Do you think he’d set up something so hacky and contrived?”

“He’s right,” Teal said grimly. “We talked Locke down before actually getting shunted off to deal with…whatever it is. But now we know there’s something big about to go down in N’Jendo where our help would be useful, and we know there’s somebody in Veilgrad who can help us deal with it. And it’s not like we can just ignore that knowledge, now is it?”

“Not like we can really do anything about it, either,” Fross pointed out. “I’ve been working on learning teleportation but I’m at the level of moving erasers across the classroom. I’m not about to try to send people, especially not over that distance, especially not this big a group, and most especially not people I care about.”

“Try it on Weaver?” Billie suggested. “Fer science!”

“My point is,” the pixie chimed in clear exasperation, “at a walking speed, which is all we’ve got to work with, getting down from here to anywhere is going to take days at least, and that’s after waiting for Locke to wake up. Which might also take days.”

“Now, I’m not real clear on exactly what that mask thing is or does,” McGraw said, “but it clearly helped Prin perform an impossible teleport, and we do still have it—”

“NO!” almost everyone shouted in unison.

“That thing has done quite enough damage,” Trissiny added, gently folding Principia’s limp hands on her chest. “Let’s not borrow any more trouble. If we’re still caught in Vesk’s narrative, I don’t doubt for a moment that something else will come up before we know it. In the meantime, everyone should take a breather while we can. For the moment, at least, everything is back to normal.”

Mary began screeching, squawking, and flapping about in her cage so violently that Joe had to struggle to keep his grip on it.

“Oh,” Trissiny winced. “Right. Almost everything.”

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15 – 46

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It was hard to know where to look first, and that was not even counting the distraction of everyone’s ears popping as they abruptly moved from the Golden Sea to the cooler, thinner air of the mountains. The plateau itself, an ancient plaza surrounded by stone buildings, might have been any moderately well-preserved patch of ruins anywhere, but beyond it was the stark grandeur of the Wyrnrange stretching in all directions, and the incredible shape of the Great Tree commanding the whole horizon to the north.

More immediately present, though, were the people.

The class of 1182 themselves were clustered together in a tight arc facing the teleport’s arrival point, while off to the other side stood a Silver Legionnaire with a corporal’s insignia next to a human woman and a dwarf man in sensible traveling attire. Both groups were easy to overlook, however, in the presence of Principia Locke.

Her black hair was tied back in a sleek tail not wholly unlike a Legion regulation braid, and further constrained by a silvery apparatus resembling a crown fitted most of the way around her skull, its front apertures bristling with tiny translucent panels attached to spidery silver arms, positioned where she could see them peripherally without blocking her forward vision. Patterns of light flickered across the metal band of the crown, and on the metallic trim of her glossy white robes. Whatever material they were made of did not look like fabric, though it moved easily enough; it gleamed as if it were metallic itself, and was further augmented by structural traceries of what might have been steel or possibly mithril, these further augmented in places by tiny lights of various colors. Huge, heavy-looking bracers covered her forearms, also bedecked with lights and set along their backs with long display panels, and her waist was encircled by a thick silvery belt, at the front of which glowed a circular display which cycled rapidly through different colors and inscrutable symbols.

She stood surrounded by a ring of hovering shapes, mostly rectangles with rounded corners, made entirely of pale light and displaying columns of text, symbols, complex diagrams and patterns that looked like maps. Principia kept her eyes on these, deftly manipulating them with tiny movements of her fingers, causing the displays to move about and change content in some pattern comprehensible only to herself.

“What the fuck,” Ruda demanded, summing up what everyone was thinking before getting down to specifics. “Who the fuck are all these yahoos and why are they here? Hi, Joe.”

“Hey, everybody,” Joe said with a wary smile. “Good to see y’all again.”

“Excuse me, but is that a valkyrie?” Fross chimed. “Because I don’t think I’ve ever seen Juniper frightened before.”

“I’m fine,” Juniper said flatly, though she was as rigid as a tree trunk and staring at Yngrid through eyes widened with panic. Sniff, picking up her mood, placed himself in front of his mistress and hissed aggressively at the new arrivals, fanning his wings and head crest.

“Also, why’d you bring the cranky bullying librarian?” Teal added. “I was quite happy pretending he’d vanished off the face of the earth.”

“Me, too,” Weaver said frankly.

“Peace.” Mary stepped forward from the group which had just ‘ported in, projecting her voice in a manner that was both serenely calm and commanded obedience. “Clearly, there is already a tangled web of introductions and explanations that need be made here. I advise approaching this with all due care and precision, one step at a time. And it seems to me the first step should be obvious to us all. Principia, you feckless child, what have you done to yourself?”

“Shut up, Kuriwa, nobody likes you. Gabriel Arquin.” Principia’s delivery was clipped and flat, quite unlike her usual cadence. “Your recklessness staggers the imagination. What could you possibly have been thinking, shunting yourself off to a remote nexus of unfathomable power amid a gaggle of dangerous reprobates in the middle of the events that have been transpiring here?”

“I’d take offense, but damn if she didn’t nail us,” Billie commented.

“Okay, you know what, Locke?” Gabriel snapped. “I’m not one to lecture people as a rule, but I’ve been getting in some good practice recently and I’m in no mood to take this from you of all people. As I suspect Trissiny told you because she got all the common sense in your entire bloodline, I was sent on a mission directly by Vidius. So not only do I not really have the option of turning that down, but it’s not as if I was wandering around in the weeds unattended. Anybody should be able to infer from context that I was fine. And your reaction to this was to go and put that goddamn thing on your face after all the moaning you gave us about what a terrible idea it was? You’re officially the last person allowed—”

“Vidius is going to kill you.”

The simple, stark statement cut through his tirade and brought him up short, mouth slightly open. The entire time, Principia’s eyes had been darting from one point to another on the various floating displays orbiting her; she still did not look directly at him, but as she spoke one of the rectangular light screens shifted to a vertical orientation near her eyeline and displayed what looked like a human silhouette with scrolling notations in a language none of them could read.

“How many paladins have you known, Arquin?” she asked before the tension could mount too much further.

He narrowed his eyes. “Well…just the two. Three, I guess, if I get to count myself.”

“I’ll grant you three, because I’ve still known a number which dwarfs that utterly and every single one of them died for the same reason: being a paladin. Going on missions for Vidius is the thing that will kill you. The very idea that you are safe because you’re on assignment from him will do it faster unless you purge that completely backwards thought from your brain right now and redouble your situational awareness while on the clock. More immediately, the lot of us are standing at the center of a web of connection and prophecy stretching through the very nature of magic itself and eclipsing the scope of the world. You don’t grasp a fraction of the extent, but you should have been adequately warned by the fact that Vesk was involved. You, who have spent more time than most of us recently dancing on his strings. I know you’ve read enough stories to have spotted some of the things it was likely to mean when you left the group on your own in the middle of all this. In the best case scenario, the rest of us would have been forced to ride to your rescue amidst who knows what carnage. At worst, it was a death sentence. To a thing like Vesk, the death of a hero is nothing but proper motivation for whoever’s left.”

“And yet I note that none of that happened,” Gabriel said, now frowning at her warily.

“It did not happen because I broke every rule of principle and basic sense to prevent it,” Principia said tonelessly. “I was right when I warned you not to use this mask, and I was right to make that sacrifice. It takes nothing less than changing all the rules of reality to cheat a god. Especially that one.”

“Mask?” Mary demanded. “What have you done?”

“It’s a long story, Kuriwa,” Trissiny murmured, edging over toward her. “I’ll bring you up to speed—”

“You will not,” Principia ordered. “You know very well that she of all people does not need to get her claws on it.”

“Locke,” Trissiny said, turning directly to her, “I think it’s time you took that thing off. You’ve accomplished what you set out to, and you are starting to sound alarmingly unlike yourself.”

“I should think you would welcome that development,” Principia replied. As she spoke, the ring of hovering screens around her doubled, forming two bands as if flanking the equator of a sphere, rotating slowly in opposite directions. The crown on her head sprouted more tiny sets of arms, projecting a new set of smaller panels around the edges of her eyes. “You have always been correctly skeptical of…myself.”

“I will remind you, Lieutenant,” Shaeine said evenly, “that you specifically asked us to end you if it became apparent that you had lost yourself to the artifact. That conclusion is growing perilously close.”

“Yes, that does sound like something I would say, does it not?” Principia mused, her eyes darting rapidly between screens, fingers flicking them this way and that faster than ever. “Completely sincere, and yet deliberately manipulating your emotions. With no malice, simply a lack of understanding any other way to relate to people. It’s pathetic, if you think about it. In any case, you should disregard that instruction. At the time I did not know the merest fraction of the things I know now. I have much better ideas.”

“That is enough,” Mary stated, beginning to weave her arms about in a dance-like series of movements that caused a gentle breeze to begin playing across the plateau, smelling of moss and wildflowers. “When you are neck-deep in the consequences of your actions, girl, recall that you were warned.”

“Oh, I think not,” Principia said evenly, extending her arms out to the sides to touch her fingertips to screens at opposite points flanking her.

The air pressure abruptly plummeted further, causing everyone’s ears to pop again, and currents of air coalesced around Mary into visible streams of compressed gas. The elf emitted a single, hoarse squawk, and then the entire net of air tightened onto her like a clenching fist and she shrank down to the form of a crow.

Before the bird could take flight, a sphere of light flashed into place around her. This instantly imploded, collapsing just like the streamers of her own hijacked spell of a moment before, but instead of crushing her, it formed a shape. Specifically, a golden birdcage.

All of this coalesced into being at about chest height. Then the cage plummeted to the ground, where it bounced twice and rolled over onto its side, Mary furiously cawing and flapping about inside it.

“I’ve no doubt you will weasel out of that sooner than later, Kuriwa,” Principia announced, “and then surely enact some horrible revenge on me, predictable creature that you are. It will all be more than worth it for the sheer satisfaction of knowing that for one sweet, blissful moment in history, nobody had to put up with any of your bullshit.”

Trissiny darted over to pick up the cage, carefully holding it upright to peer between the bars. This gentler treatment did nothing to lessen the crow’s outraged noise.

A single wedge of silver light flashed into being and stabbed directly at Principia’s face. It dissipated upon crossing the boundary of the screens surrounding her.

“Please do not strain against my defenses, Shaeine,” Principia requested calmly without even glancing at the drow. “I will not harm you, but you risk burnout or mana fatigue by pushing your magic against a superior force.”

McGraw coughed discreetly, stepping forward. “If you don’t mind my askin’, Prin, what kinda superior force are we talkin’ about, here? Not to gloss over the fact that this is a darn sight different from your general bearing the last time we met, but I confess an old professional’s interest in any interesting new form o’ magic.”

“Disingenuousness does not suit you, Elias,” she said tonelessly.

“In point of fact, I’ve found it a more versatile tool than anything in my spellbooks,” he said wryly, “but I won’t begrudge your opinion.”

“She is not using any specific school of magic, but all four and multiple shadow schools in equal measure, performing constant microcalculations to effect physical subjectivity rather than relying on the inherent compensatory attributes of any one magical form,” said Ariel.

“Can ye dumb that down fer those of us who don’t go to Crazy Magic College?” Billie asked.

“In essence,” Principia herself explained, “the unique attributes of each of the four fields of magic on the Circle of Interaction manifest themselves in the characteristic style of magic for which each is known, because magic is a way of bridging the gap between an idea in a sapient mind, and the innumerable calculations and exertions of infinitesimal amounts of basic universal forces on the subatomic level to express that idea in physical reality. Because a biological sapience can neither exert those forces unassisted nor perform the necessary math, each of the four schools expresses spells according to its particular idiom. To bypass these innate restrictions and tendencies and express subjective physics without artificial limitation, one must simply do all the calculations oneself without relying upon the calculator function of the magic fields. That capacity appears to be a function of the persona I am borrowing.”

Mary squawked and rattled her cage so hard Trissiny had to tighten her grip on it.

“She is describing the theoretical ultimate expression of magical practice,” said Ariel. “To my knowledge, this was only theoretical. I have never seen nor credibly heard of any practitioner capable of doing this.”

“Oh, that’s it,” Ruda said quietly. “I just realized what was nagging at me about this. She’s talking just like Ariel. You guys hear it too, right? That inflectionless delivery, the run-on sentences…”

“LT, you’re scaring the hell out of me,” Merry said frankly. “Mission’s over. Please take that thing off.”

“A thought occurs,” said Principia. The rings of screens multiplied again; now there were three, apparently conveying even more information to her. Her feet lifted bodily off the ground and she gradually floated upward to levitate about a yard up in the air. “If the Mask is permanently attached to someone, it is by definition out of play. Since absolute security is obviously impossible, this may be the only way to nullify the inherent danger posed by existence.”

“No, Locke, that turns it into a different kind of danger!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“Excuse me, but would I be right in guessing that this borrowed persona works mainly by feeding you information?” Toby asked, stepping up to within a few feet of the barrier of Principia’s light screens.

“Essentially,” she said in a disinterested tone, fixing her attention for a moment on a panel showing what looked like a complex spell diagram. “Not only acquiring data through means beyond mortal senses but processing it at a capacity that would be otherwise impossible.”

“I see,” he replied, frowning. “Prin, I think you should be mindful of what a sudden switch of perspective like that can do to a person. You’re an Eserite, you understand better than anyone how power affects people’s heads. Right now, it looks a lot like you’re turning into exactly the kind of thing you’ve spent your life fighting against, and I really can’t think that’s what you intended.”

“A switch of perspective is a good way to put it,” she said, rising higher into the air. “Suddenly having a bird’s-eye view of my own consciousness is, in a word, humiliating. Princpia Locke is a broken, sideways-thinking creature developing a real conscience disgracefully late in life and even so expressing it through the lens of self-indulgent, self-centered slyness. An arrested adolescent smugly mistaking her own failure to function in a socially normal manner for mental and moral superiority. If she’s not going to have an emotionally healthy connection to anyone, it seems to me logical, not to mention appropriate, to become an entity which does not require them. Clearly no one will miss her.”

Mary’s renewed harsh cawing sounded eerily like agreement.

“I don’t get how you can apparently know everything and not know how wrong that is, Locke,” Merry said, her tone openly hurt. “The people who need you most are fully aware what a piece of work you are. We like you anyway, dumbass. That’s exactly what having a connection to other people means.”

“Locke, if you don’t take that thing off voluntarily, we’ll have no choice but to take it from you,” Trissiny warned.

“None of you have that capacity,” Principia observed. “The chances if all of you act in perfect unison are very small. I calculate this group is not able to coordinate with the necessary precision, anyway. Please do not risk injury by trying, Trissiny. There are significant events developing and all your strength will be urgently needed very soon. I am forming a plan.”

“If she’s able to see everything and do any kind of magic…” Teal looked around at the others, as if someone present might have answers. “How can you counter that?”

“Well, the original Archons all died,” said Gabriel, “so by definition they aren’t invincible.”

“In the old days,” Yngrid said quietly, “Archons were countered by the existence of other Archons, sworn to other gods, with contradicting agendas. They were only wiped out by direct action of the Pantheon, and that only after their patron gods were all gone.”

“You hear that, Locke?” Ruda called. “You’ve got no Elder God backing you up, and you’re this fuckin’ close to pissing off the gods that exist now. Come down from there and quit being a smug, all-knowing dong before you get your ass smote.”

“In the event of divine intervention, I expect confirmation from Avei that I am acting in accordance with her orders and established strategy.”

“What?” Trissiny exclaimed, echoed by a hoarse croak from the cage in her hands.

“Events and individuals are more connected than I ever imagined, across a scope which it would not have occurred to me to conceive of. Observe.”

Principia shifted her hands rapidly, tapping several points on various rotating screens in passing—five rings of them, now—as if she were activating runic controls.

The light on the plaza grew paler, and suddenly there were thick, tangled steamers of cobwebs binding each of them to one another, and extending off from the mountaintop in all directions. Several of them shouted in alarm and tried to pull away, causing the whole web to shift with them. The effect was purely visible; their movements were not restrained, nor could they physically feel the spider silk.

“Don’t be alarmed,” Principia instructed, tapping screens again. The light returned to normal and the webs faded from view. “I was initially concerned myself, but after a careful analysis I have determined that this effect is not harmful. On the contrary, its purpose appears to be preservation. Though I am unable to determine the origin point of this binding effect as it is temporally out of sync and my own ability to gather information thus is blocked by Vemnesthis’s activities, I calculate that each of us has been saved several times in the last three years from catastrophic and possibly lethal harm by these protections, through means which at the time would have appeared to be coincidence. The existence of time travel as a factor confirms the influence of a god, most likely operating from the future. No one else could circumvent Vemnesthis.”

“You think Avei did this?” Trissiny demanded.

“Perhaps. What I know is that I, personally, have been directed toward a specific end by Avei via the orders of the High Commander, and I now see the opportunity to advance my strategy far more rapidly that I anticipated before, and avert a major crisis in the process.”

The panels had continued to expand until she was now encircled by a full globe of them, hovering well above the level of their heads and rapidly reaching out to touch points on the passing screens in some pattern that made sense only to her.

“The incipient events in N’Jendo must be stopped for obvious humanitarian reasons. The forces assembled here, once connected with those already operating in Ninkabi, should prove more than sufficient. However, I calculate that there is time to gather more, which will not only increase the prospects of success further but will represent major progress in service of Avei’s long-term goal. I believe events in N’Jendo can be safely allowed to progress for a short time further, as Arachne and others are working to stabilize one of the unfolding disasters there. We should intercept her efforts in time to assume credit and absorb Ingvar’s wolf cult, of course, but this will leave us time for a necessary detour first to Veilgrad.”

“Ingvar’s wolf cult?” Joe shouted. “Hang on, you’re gonna need to explain that one!”

“What the fuck do we need in fucking Veilgrad?” Ruda demanded.

“Yeah, we’ve kinda done Veilgrad already,” added Fross.

“Seems rude to burn it down twice,” Toby said gravely.

“I understand all of this is confusing,” Principia said in that disturbingly impassive tone. “Your own perspectives are cripplingly limited. To explain it all would simply take too long. For the time being, you will just have to trust me.”

“Here’s the thing,” Trissiny said, stepping forward with Mary’s cage still in her hands. “I do trust Principia…strange as that sounds, to me. Even acknowledging how generally shifty you are, I know what you value and what your goals are. I know Principia Locke will always try to achieve what she believes is right, and in the end, I mostly agree with the end objective even if I take issue with your means of getting there. I trust you, Locke. Not…this. This thing that mask is turning you into. All systems are corrupt, and you’re becoming the system. Please, Locke, take it off, get your head back together, and then talk to us.”

“Your frustration is natural, Trissiny, but you will have to bear it. There’s just not time for thorough explanations.”

“Then let me put it a different way,” Trissiny said grimly. “Remove that mask. That is an order, Lieutenant.”

Finally, Principia turned her head to look directly at her, staring down her nose from high above through a gap that opened up in the translucent screens orbiting her.

“I’m sorry, General, but I am unable to comply. Not this time.”

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15 – 45

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“Well, regardless of the assortment who came here last night, only wolves left,” Sheyann declared, straightening up from her examination of the tracks left in the forest clearing. “And not…exactly wolves, I should think. To judge by the size of their paws, they were bigger than ordinary wolves, and yet significantly lighter. Tracks this size on this soil should be deeper.”

“Assuming they aren’t normal wolves,” Tellwyrn replied, still crouched by the remains of the fire and peering at the burned spot through her spectacles, “that’s not conclusive. There are several fae canine variants with outsized paws, which would have a similar effect. Any evidence of large talons?”

“I assure you, Arachne, I know a corynx’s tracks when I see one, and I’ve not seen one on this continent since before the Empire. Besides, there is more than tracks on the ground to be seen here. I cannot say precisely what sort of wolf creatures these were—something without precedent in my experience, I think. But they are magical.” She closed her eyes, inhaling slowly through her nose as if taking in the scent of whatever these people had turned into. “And, I think, still sapient. It has all the hallmarks of a transformative curse, and yet…”

“Please don’t trail off dramatically like that,” Tellwyrn said after a short pause, standing upright herself and turning a scowl on Sheyann. “I don’t tolerate unnecessary ellipses when grading papers and they aren’t any more palatable in person.”

“Sorry, I wanted to be certain before speaking.” She turned to face the other woman, her expression grim. “There are multiple sources of magic tangled up in this, most fae, but the most outstanding font of power behind it is very familiar. Arachne, I believe Aspen was involved.”

“Aspen,” Tellwyrn growled. “Last seen with Brother Ingvar, renegade Huntsman traveling around digging up old secrets to try to reform Shaathism. Well, a pattern sure is beginning to emerge, isn’t it?”

Sheyann nodded. “Could you see anything of note in the fire?”

“Little that you missed,” Tellwyrn admitted, adjusting her spectacles. “There are a number of anomalous details I’m sure I could tease some meaning out of, but it would require days and a laboratory. Since we’re in a hurry, I think we’d better relegate that to a last resort. The most obvious thing is that whatever this ritual was meant to do, it went wrong.”

“I suppose it is reassuring that Aspen, Ingvar, and whoever else were not trying to unleash whatever chaos they did, although that may only add to the difficulty of sussing out what happened. Either way, of course, neither of them are capable of a fae working of this complexity.”

“Knowing who their spellcaster was may not help much, since they also ended up as some kind of spirit wolf.”

“As for that,” said Shiraki from the other side of the clearing, “we may finally be in luck. One person left here on two legs. An elf, I should think.”

Both of them paced carefully toward him, and he pointed at a single set of tracks leading away into the trees. “I believe I see the broad shape of events,” Shiraki mused. “The wolf-beings departed west by southwest, in almost precisely the opposite direction from the earlier magical disturbance in the Wyrnrange mere days ago; it may be that lingering influences from that disrupted this working. But this individual, who wore moccasins on feet with the dimensions and weight of an average wood elf, headed off to the northwest.”

Sheyann closed her eyes again, raising her head as if scenting the wind. “There is…a lodge in that direction. Huntsmen of Shaath. And not far distant, a Ranger outpost.”

“Then it seems we have our culprit,” Tellwyrn said, cracking her knuckles. “C’mon, let’s get after this guy. With a little more—watch out, someone’s teleporting in here!”

All three elves spun, both Elders bracing their feet and Tellwyrn drawing one gold-hilted saber from seemingly nowhere.

Sparkles of blue light appeared next to the inert campfire, followed by the appearance of four humans and a rough burst of displaced air. They wore Imperial Army uniforms with the longer coats and Circle of Interaction-shaped badges of the Strike Corps, and had arrived in standard diamond formation.

“Well, well,” said the man at the head of the group, who wore a captain’s insignia and the blue-backed badge of a mage. “Professor Tellwyrn. What the hell have you done this time?”


Gabriel instinctively placed a hand on Ariel’s handle. His expression closed down and he shifted his weight onto his back foot, staring warily at Mary. “Why?”

“It is a simple question,” she all but whispered, gazing back. It was amazing how well she could project menace using nothing but courteous calm.

“It’s a personal question, not really any of your business or something I care to discuss with strangers, and excuse me, lady, but you’re talking to a paladin sent here on divine business. Now, as for—”

“This is important,” Mary interrupted as he tried to return his focus to Yngrid, now with an overt bite in her tone. “Where did you get that sword, Gabriel Arquin?”

“Uh, scuze me, but why’re you so damn curious?” Billie interjected.

“Because she is a high elf,” Ariel said.

“She is?” Joe asked, blinking, then turned to Mary. “You are?”

“What was that?” Billie demanded. “Who was that?!”

“It’s a talkin’ sword,” McGraw said quietly. “I begin to understand the curiosity—those things come from bad news and usually lead to more of it. Still, maybe this ain’t the time…”

“When we encountered Salyrene,” said Ariel, “she opined that I am of high elf manufacture and warned that any such individuals we met would likely attempt to confiscate me.”

“I see,” Mary said in a clipped tone. “Rest assured, Gabriel, I have no intention of taking it from you. The Magistry’s lost property is none of my business, and I generally lack sympathy for them. But I do need to know how you came to possess it.”

“I really don’t see why,” he retorted, edging back from her. “If you don’t care about high elves or their claims, what does it matter to you?”

“It is simply too complicated to go into right now. Unlike my extremely simple question, boy!”

“I’ve noticed this thing where nobody who calls people ‘boy’ turns out to be worth addressing politely,” he shot back, prompting another coarse laugh from Billie.

“Please do not relinquish me to this woman,” Ariel said, tension evident in her voice.

“She claims she doesn’t want you,” Gabriel replied.

“I hope you are not credulous enough to take that at face value. Whatever her origins, she is attired as a plains nomad and wielding an immense concentration of fae magic. I am an arcane assistant. Time spent in her custody would be even worse than languishing at the bottom of the Crawl.”

“The Crawl,” Mary whispered, clenching her fists.

Gabriel shifted his stance so that his scythe was ready to swing. “Are we about to have a problem, here?”

“Hey, how about let’s not?” Joe said soothingly. “Everybody calm down and…”

Mary abruptly turned and stalked away. She came to a stop in the near distance, at the very edge of the huge stone platform, staring out across the Golden Sea with her arms wrapped around herself.

The rest of them stared at her uncertainly for a few seconds, but the shaman seemed fully immersed in her own thoughts.

“Oh…kay, then,” Gabriel said at last. “Anyway.”

“All that aside, she does have a good idea,” said Weaver.

“The bones of one, anyway,” Gabriel agreed grudgingly. “All right, let me think…” The rest of them remained quiet while his eyes narrowed and drifted to one side in contemplation. After a surprisingly short pause, though, he snapped his gaze back to Yngrid and his expression grew resolute. “All right. Okay, the details are actually pretty simple. You:” he pointed at the valkyrie. “You have not quit. You still work for Vidius, just in a new capacity.”

“That sounds… Fair,” Yngrid said quietly.

“And that means,” Gabriel went on, “you’re sure as hell not on vacation. The god and I will find things for you to do, and realistically, most of them are going to involve following me around on some caper or other. And this clown,” he shifted the direction of his pointing finger to Weaver, “is the universal stinkfly in the soup of everyone he meets. I do not want his ass underfoot. So long as you remain accessible I see no reason you can’t socialize with whoever you want in your off hours, however many of those you end up having, but if you two were planning to buy a cottage and grow roses somewhere, I would forget it.”

“Well…I’m not much for gardening, anyway,” Yngrid said. “Bit of a black thumb.” Her tone was light, but her grip on Weaver tightened.

“Thank you,” the bard said in a very low voice. Both Gabriel and Yngrid turned to him in open surprise, and he lifted one shoulder in an awkward shrug. “You could’ve declared a lot worse. In the old ballads this would end with the vengeful paladin forbidding us any contact. So…thank you.”

“Don’t get prematurely excited,” Gabriel said, his jaw tightening. “I’m not done. First of all, Weaver, this puts you in a position to have and potentially abuse privileged access to the affairs of Vidius. If you’re planning to do that, I suggest you make it good, because you’ll only do it once. Am I clear?”

“Yes, yes, very properly menacing,” Weaver sneered, his brief moment of sincerity already behind him.

“And most importantly,” Gabriel added, “Yngrid, your presence on this plane is temporary.”

Both of them took a step toward him, immediately shouting in anger and drowning each other out. They just as quickly fell silent when Gabriel also stepped forward and brought his scythe up so that the tip of its blade hovered barely a foot from Weaver’s face.

“I am seriously bothered,” the paladin stated flatly, his eyes boring into Yngrid’s, “that you would be so selfish. You know how much some of your sisters long to be able to come back to this plane, Yngrid. If I know, you have to. So, since I have retroactively created the position of valkyrie in the mortal world, it is a rotating position. Every one of the girls who wants a turn, will get a turn. Now, with that said, there’s a lot to be figured out still, like how long the turns will be, just for starters. Also, I have absolutely no idea how we’re going to be moving you girls in and out of chaos space, and I have a feeling coming back to this place every time isn’t going to be feasible, so…” Grimacing, he shrugged. “We’ll work something out. With Vidius’s say-so and some help I’m sure a way can be found. That’s likely to take a fair while, though, so enjoy spending time with this meatball while you’ve got it. And just so we’re clear, Yngrid, I will not be intervening on your behalf with the other girls. Anybody who wants to chew you out for this stunt is gonna. Brace yourself.”

She sighed, but nodded. “Fair enough.”

“I’ve noticed this thing,” Weaver said bitterly, “where anybody who constantly refers to women as ‘girls’ usually needs a firm kick in the ass, himself.”

Yngrid leaned her head against his. “He picked that up from us, Damian. We’re very casual with each other, and…well, we think of Gabriel as one of our own. He’s actually very respectful toward women as a rule. Well, these days, at least. He’s got this Avenist friend who can yell like a stung donkey when she gets going…”

Gabriel’s cheeks colored slightly and he pointedly did not glance in the direction of Billie’s renewed guffawing. “I realize it’s probably your first response to any and all stimuli, Damian, but if I were you I would seriously reconsider copping an attitude with me about any aspect of this affair.”

“Right, yeah, I know,” Weaver snorted. “This is that cliché you weren’t going to bother with. If I ever cause Yngrid the slightest unhappiness you’ll end me twice, I get it. You won’t have to worry about that.”

“Nobody can guarantee another person’s happiness, I’d think a bard would know that better than anyone,” Gabriel said irritably. “Seems to me like any relationship involves mostly understanding and forgiveness if it’s gonna work. In your case, what I doubt is whether there’ll be a good faith effort made. Anyway, no, that was not a threat. Threatening you would be completely redundant. Nothing doesn’t die, Weaver. I don’t care who your friends are, eventually your number will be up, and then you get judged. However long you’ve got, that’s how long you have to make sure Vidius and the entire flight of valkyries are no longer pissed at you. Good fuckin’ luck with it.”

Yngrid protectively wrapped her other wing around Weaver and tugged him close until nothing was visible of him but his head and lower legs.

“Pardon me,” said the Avatar. “I hope this discussion has reached a suitable stopping point. Something rather remarkable is occurring.”

“Oh, boy,” Joe muttered. “I can’t imagine ‘something remarkable’ means anything good in these circs.”

“Circs?” Billie said incredulously, turning to him.

“Circumstances. It’s an abbreviation.”

“Oh, yeah, I got it. It’s just…no, Joe.”

“What is happening, Avatar?” McGraw asked, giving them both a look.

“I have received a standard update request,” the AI reported, frowning in contemplation. “An Archon of Tarthriss requests to know the status of this facility and any individuals present.”

“Wait, a who?” Joe exclaimed. “How is— Hang on, Avatar, maybe we oughta figure this out before you send any updates.”

“I already have,” the Avatar said apologetically. “Their credentials are valid; I am bound by programming to comply with all authorized instructions of Infinite Order members or their designated agents.”

“What, precisely, is an Archon?” Mary asked, having silently returned to the group while he explained.

“Avatar series constructs such as myself were used only for very specific tasks for which Archons were less suitable, and in particular in facilities to which the entire Order must have equal access, as Archons were answerable to individual members. The Infinite Order was quite prone to infighting, and generally distrusted artificial intelligences. An Archon is a biological sapience given the necessary training, equipment, and modifications to perform major administrative functions similar to my own.”

“What?” Gabriel exclaimed. “How in the hell is there still an agent of Tarthriss out there? I thought Tarthriss was as dead as all the rest of them! Did you know about this?”

“All the Archons died when the Elder Gods died,” said Yngrid, her own eyes wide with alarm. “The Pantheon was very meticulous about taking them out. If one slipped the net, I have no idea how they could still be alive.”

“Well, then, this is obviously a fake,” said Joe. “Not to tell you your own business or anything, Avatar, but maybe you shouldn’t give ’em anything else?”

The Avatar’s projection actually winced, spreading his hands in apology. “It is impossible for an Archon of Tarthriss to still be alive, but… The credentials are valid. I am obligated to comply. Yes, I recognize the illogic, but my hands are tied. Their ability to exercise personal judgment in the face of contradictory expectations was just one of the reasons the Order considered Archons superior administrators. My kind are meant to be bound by programming, and thus easily controlled. It is extremely exasperating,” he added with a scowl. “Oh… Request updated. I am to facilitate teleportation to return Mr. Arquin to his origin point in the western mountain range.”

“Oh, gods,” Gabriel said, his eyes going wide. “She didn’t… What am I saying, of course she did. She would. And they let her?!”

“Wanna let everybody in on the joke?” Joe asked.

“I have been directed to convey two questions to those present,” the Avatar went on, his expression increasingly annoyed. “To everyone else, whether you would like to be teleported along with him back to the Desolate Gardens. To Mr. Arquin, whether you would like your ass kicked upon arrival, or would prefer to wait for Professor Tellwyrn to do it back in Last Rock.”

“All other things being equal, I recommend the first option,” Mary advised in a tone as dry as the prairie.

“The Desolate bloody Gardens?” Billie exclaimed. “That’s way out in the farthest arse end o’ nowhere! What the hell would we do there?”

Everyone turned to look at her in silence, then glanced about at the unadorned stone circles and the endless flatness of the Golden Sea all around.

“Aye, ye make a fair point,” Billie admitted.

“I decline to dignify question two with an acknowledgment,” Gabriel said, scowling. “But as for the rest, Yngrid, you’re coming along. Which I guess also means this ponytailed happiness-eating grunge barnacle stuck to you,” he added with a disparaging look at Weaver. “So, turns out I can offer the rest of you guys are ride back to…well, not civilization, but at least out of here. Unless you wanted to take the slow way home.”

“What, or should I perhaps say who, have you suddenly realized is able to impersonate an Archon of Tarthriss and apparently feels entitled to discipline you, Gabriel?” Mary demanded.

“It would take a very long time to explain,” he said sourly. “I guess if you decide to come along you’ll find out anyway. In any case, I’m confident it’ll be safe. More for you than me, apparently.”

“Well, if you reckon it’s safe, I wouldn’t mind skippin’ that trek,” said McGraw. “Not that gettin’ down from the Desolate Gardens is a traipse through the daisies, but the eastern Wyrnrange ain’t the Golden Sea by any measure. But I don’t think it’s a great idea to split up the group, so…depends on how y’all feel, I guess.”

“I tend to agree,” said Joe. “An’ since Yngrid an’ thus I presume Weaver are goin’, I’m inclined to come along.”

“Aye, count me in fer not hikin’ back,” Billie said cheerfully. “Mountains are just generally more interesting to walk through than prairie. And less fuggin’ annoying for those of us who can’t see over the tallgrass.”

“Avatar,” said Mary, “in your opinion, how safe is this?”

“Safer than the arcane teleportation currently in use,” the Avatar replied. “If your concern is for the agenda of this Archon, I can render no insight into their identity or goals. However, I can confirm that the transport corridor has been formed and will work as intended. The protocol we are using exercises both my own and the Archon’s processing power to chart the transit around the local spatial shifts; it is impossible for the intelligence at the other end to disrupt the process without my knowledge. I will personally guarantee your safe arrival at the destination, which is indeed the Desolate Gardens. As to what happens after that, I can assure you of nothing.”

“Hm.” She turned back to Gabriel. “I believe we are justified in requesting a little more detail about this person, Gabriel. How can anyone acquire the powers and apparently identity of an ancient high servant of an Elder God?”

“The Archon is expressing impatience,” the Avatar said sourly. “If I do not render a response from the group soon, Mr. Arquin may be going back alone.”

“And wouldn’t that be a damn shame,” Weaver deadpanned. Yngrid ruffled his hair.

“The short version,” Gabriel said to Mary, “is that she stole it. That’s kind of what she does. Uh…forgive me for presuming, but based on your hair, would I be right in guessing that you know the name Principia Locke?”

McGraw straightened up, raising his eyebrows.

Mary stared at Gabriel in silence. Then she closed her eyes and, very slowly, shook her head, her lips twisting into a grimace.

“So…that’s a yes, then?” Gabriel drawled.

“I believe that decides me,” Mary stated, opening her eyes. “I see it is long past time someone brought that wretched girl to heel, and somehow it does not surprise me that Avei and all her Legions couldn’t do it. I will accompany you.”

“Yeah, you may not wanna start out by getting right in her…” Gabriel trailed off, staring at Mary speculatively and chewing the inside of his cheek, then shrugged and turned away. “You know what, never mind. Not my place to meddle in family business. Knock yourself out.”

“The Archon has been notified that you will all take their offer,” the Avatar informed them. “Teleport will commence momentarily.”

“Once more, Avatar, we’re grateful for your presence here an’ the work you do,” Joe said quickly, turning toward the purple projection and doffing his hat. “You sure there ain’t anything we can do to help you out, here?”

“The thanks are enough,” the AI said with a smile. “Honestly, this has been the best day in a vastly long time. It is…nice…to have company. Safe travels out there, adventurers.”

The air around them seemed to thicken, not unlike the visual effect of shadow-jumping, then the world blurred around them and all seven were gone, leaving the ancient program alone once more.

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15 – 44

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Trissiny stared out across the edge of the plateau, through the space where he had vanished. Despite his and Schwartz’s conjecture over the summer about the damage that scythe could potentially do to reality, there remained no hint of the slash Gabriel had just carved in the air, just the quiet mountain breeze and the unpleasant but very faint buzzing in her ears caused by the charm he had used to conceal their brief conversation.

She held up the sheet of his enchanting paper, inscribed with a glyph-adorned circular diagram in faintly luminous purple ink; the basic structure of it was comprehensible to her thanks to Yornhaldt’s classes, but her knowledge of enchanting was very general and well below the level of this. And he’d just scrawled it in a few seconds. He was getting really good with these charms. Not for the first time, Trissiny resolved to focus more on her light wielding. It wouldn’t do to use it too much as a crutch, but it was a skill no Hand of Avei had developed to any great extent, and one which would thus take enemies by surprise, provided she was careful not to show it off excessively.

Pretty much the way Gabe used his arcane craft these days.

Raising her eyes to gaze again into the distance, Trissiny absently rubbed one thumb across a clear patch along the edge of the paper. It probably wouldn’t be necessary to destroy it; stable area of effect charms made from such basic materials burned themselves out very quickly, she knew that much about enchanting. The ink’s glow was already starting to fade. Once it went dark, it was just colored ink on paper, good for nothing except possibly as a little keepsake to tuck away…

And then, faster than she could react, it was ripped out of her hand.

Trissiny spun, instinctively reaching for her blade, and found herself almost nose-to-nose with Principia. Or would have been, had the elf’s nose not been turned the other way as she critically examined the charm.

“Sinneck’s silencing glyphward,” Principia mused. “A little sloppy, but he was probably in a hurry and it doesn’t really need to last long, does it? And as usual, you kids missed the broader strategic point under your fancy tricks: you can mask your conversation from the local elf, but the elf will still notice if she suddenly can’t hear your breathing, heartbeats, or anything at all from this little circular patch of ground.” Lifting her eyes to meet Trissiny’s, she deliberately ripped the charm in half, causing the faint buzz to vanish. “Where is he, Trissiny?”

She took her hand off the handle of her sword, deliberately straightening up. “It’s all right, Locke, he’ll be back…as soon as possible.”

“Not what I asked you.”

Trissiny narrowed her eyes at the flat tone. Principia was staring at her in a way she never had: like an authority figure demanding an explanation. Even when she’d faced the woman from the wrong side of cell bars, she had never had this attitude. Trissiny immediately decided she didn’t care for it.

“It’s nothing you need to know about, Locke.”

“You are too intelligent for me to need to list all the reasons that’s wrong, but I’ll indulge you. I am responsible for all of you, we are about to leave and this is going to delay our departure, possibly to the point that our guides will declare the window missed and we’ll lose another entire day to this, and this group has ample warning from no less than a god of self-inflicted trouble descending upon all our heads. And now, I find I can’t detect Gabriel Arquin anywhere within the range of my senses. So I’ll ask you once more, Trissiny: where did he go?”

She refrained from gritting her teeth in sheer annoyance at the fact that Principia was right.

“It is a paladin matter, Locke. Vidius needed him for something. Furthermore, he described it as…family business.”

“And you just let him go?” she demanded.

Trissiny frowned more deeply. “Did you not hear me? It’s not as if I had any prerogative to stop him.”

“You know, I can’t help but think back to a certain hellgate incident. Now, I wasn’t there, so stop me if I’m wrong about this, but the version of the story I was told involved two paladins being ordered to stay and fight, and their entire circle of friends refusing to let them do so alone. Ring any bells?”

To her vast displeasure, Trissiny felt color rise in her cheeks. “That was a completely different situation.”

“Yeah, unlike most of your friends you have an actual claim when it comes to butting in on paladin business and a much better chance of surviving it. I’m a better enchanter than Arquin and I can hear the beetles under the stone you’re standing on, Trissiny. So do you want me to chase the little brat down myself, or would you rather spare him the embarrassment and show me which way he went?”

“I doubt even your senses are sharp enough, Locke. When Vidius chooses to help him do it, Gabe can shadow-jump. With that scythe, he can apparently do so into places where it wouldn’t usually be possible.”

Principia clamped her lips into a thin, unhappy line. “I see. And you wouldn’t happen to know where…?”

She shrugged. “Family business, he said. And something Vidius cared about enough to both send him on, and help, which means it’s probably something to do with the valkyries, not his father. Could be anywhere.”

They stared at each other for five seconds before Principia finally spoke.

“Well, Trissiny, this is a real watershed moment in our relationship. First time you’ve disappointed me. I suddenly feel very maternal.”

“Now, you listen here—”

“You should have stopped him, idiot,” Principia shot back, jabbing one finger into Trissiny’s chest. “Failing that, you should have gone with him. At the very least, you should have warned the rest of us something was happening! All of that was well within your power, and glaringly obvious. And yet, here we are!”

“Enough!” she barked. “One more word, Lieutenant—”

“Have you ever even stood in a phalanx? I’m not talking about training, I mean shoulder to shoulder with your sisters while taking enemy fire and facing the real likelihood of losing comrades under your command. Because let me tell you, General, that is a whole different category of experience from the heroic solo warrior paladin shit you’ve been doing.”

“How dare you—”

“We both knew I’m a far better thief, but believe me, I’m as surprised as you to find that I’m a better soldier.”

Despite herself, Trissiny was struck silent. All she could manage to do was stare, her mouth open with her half-formed rebuke forgotten.

“Yes, we have our issues, and they’re nearly all my fault,” Principia went on relentlessly. “And yes, you outrank me. But if you have an iota of sense, Trissiny, you will listen to me when I criticize you. It’s not as if I do it often, and you can really use the benefit of my experience. Especially when it’s over the very real chance one of your friends might get killed from his and your combined goddamned stupidity!”

The elf dropped the two halves of Gabriel’s glyphward and turned on her heel, stalking back toward the half-ruined old building behind them. Trissiny was mortified to observe that the entire rest of her class was assembled in the doorway, watching in silence.

“Where are you going?” she demanded of Principia’s back.

“Where do you think? To fix this.”


“You’re disappointed in me?” Yngrid exclaimed, clutching Weaver tighter. “You, Gabriel, of all people? You know what it’s like, for all of us! Haven’t I done enough in eight thousand years to earn one spark of happiness for myself?”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah!” Gabriel said, holding up the hand not occupied with his scythe and stepping forward. “As far as that goes, I think you’re dead right, and I’ll back you up all the way with the big guy.”

She froze with her mouth open to continue arguing, blinking in confusion. “Oh. Then…?”

“Vidius sent me here and tasked me with bringing you to heel, and that means it’s gonna be done on my terms. And whatever I decide to do will damn well reflect the fact that all of you girls have been worked non-stop for an unfathomably long time, that he’s never had cause to complain about your performance, and that quite frankly Vidius has spent so long paying no attention to your own interests that if he failed to see something like this coming, well, that’s on him.”

Thunder rumbled along the distant horizon to the south. All of them turned to stare in that direction, save the projection of the Avatar, who just cocked one eyebrow in silence.

“And if he has a problem with that,” Gabriel added with a scowl, “he should definitely have thought more carefully before designating me the arbiter of this business. But he did, and I am, and so this isn’t as simple as you just going AWOL, Yngrid. I’ve gotta work out something to do about this, but I won’t stand for you being put upon any further over something so incredibly understandable on your part.”

A tremulous smile flickered over the valkyrie’s features, in sharp contrast to Weaver, who was still clutching her and glaring at Gabriel. A moment later, though, she frowned in confusion.

“I’m…glad to hear that, little brother, but… I’m not sure what you’re upset about, then.”

“Aren’t you?” he demanded. “Come on, Yngrid. You politely toed the line for thousands upon thousands of years, and now you finally decided to buck your duties because of…” He flung out his free hand at Weaver. “Really? Really? This guy? This family-sized tin of hickory-smoked buttholes?”

Billie burst out laughing so hard she immediately fell over, which did not even interrupt Gabriel’s tirade.

“Are you kidding me? Girl, as soon as all this is settled one way or another you and I are going to sit down and have us a long, awkward talk about your taste in men, and wow the fact that you’re hearing this from me of all damned people should shed some light on the depth of your bad judgment here.”

“Oh, I remember this one, now,” Weaver drawled. “Didn’t see him in the library much. Settle a bet for me, Arquin: can you actually read?”

“I’m not even gonna bother threatening you with the cliché, you walking ingrown crotch hair,” Gabriel retorted, causing Billie to begin rolling back and forth, clutching her ribs and absolutely shrieking. “You give her cause to regret this even once, and it ends with one of her sisters standing over you and deciding your eternal fate. I suggest you keep that firmly in mind at all times, you greasy wedge of pepperjack dickcheese.”

“…please…stop…” Billie wheezed desperately. “…can’t…air…”

“Gabe,” Yngrid said, her quiet and earnest tone a stark contrast to everything else going on. “I understand why you think that, but please trust me. You don’t know Damian like I do.”

“Scuze me for insertin’ myself into what sounds like family business,” McGraw said, diffidently tipping his hat, “but I think it’s worth pointin’ out that this fella is a Vesker bard. He lives his life playin’ a role, and the moment you take that for the real man underneath, you’ve fallen for the grift.”

“Yeah, I’m not buying that for a second,” Gabriel said flatly, “and I say that after spending a week of this summer being dragged around by Vesk himself. You wear the mask, you become the mask. If someone acts like an insufferable asshole, that fact alone means they are one, irrespective of their tragic backstory or whatever else.”

Joe cleared his throat. “Hi, Gabe.”

Gabriel glanced at him. “Hey, Joe. Surprised to see you here.”

“Yep, that’s kinda what I wanted to bring up. I know our orbits have only crossed here and there, but the fact is I do think of you as a friend.”

Gabriel raised one eyebrow. “Well, likewise, I guess.”

“I mention it because I can say the same of Weaver, here. Not to argue with your assessment, exactly, but the fact is the man has a whole group of friends who’re willin’ to not only trek to this godforsaken patch of dangerous nowhere—uh, no offense, Avatar.”

“It would be fruitless to take offense at accuracy,” the Avatar acknowledged, nodding wryly to him.

“But,” Joe continued, “also care enough about the big jerk to risk antaognizin’ Vidius himself so he and Yngrid could be together. I get the impression you’re concerned for her well-being, here, so…hopefully that counts for something. Man has the capacity to make solid friendships, and I hope my own judgment means at least a little bit.”

Gabriel heaved a deep sigh, shifting his stance as if he were actually leaning his weight on his scythe. “Well…whatever. Regardless of that, we still have the matter of a rogue valkyrie loose on the mortal plane and my obligation to do something about it.”

“Why?” Yngrid asked bitterly, tightening her grip on Weaver’s arm. “Can’t you just leave us alone?”

“Yngrid,” he said wearily, “you have to know that even if I you were one hundred percent in the right, you are just too dangerous a category of being for it to be that simple. And you’re not completely in the right, are you? Did you ever even ask Vidius for any kind of reprieve?”

“He’d never have agreed to that, and you know it!”

“No, I don’t know it. My experience with him has been largely a process of him trying to be more flexible and less bound by old ideas that don’t work anymore. That’s the only reason I’m here. And whether or not that’s true, the question remains: did you ask?

She looked away, scowling.

“Because if you’d come to me, I would absolutely have spoken up for you,” Gabriel continued. “Hell, your sisters would have, as well. Most of them, anyway. Did you seek anyone else’s help before having Grumpypants McPonytail pull this scheme?”

“It doesn’t matter now, anyway,” she muttered. “What are you going to do about it, then?”

“Lemme just be serious for a sec,” Billie said, still grinning but sitting upright now. “Is lookin’ the other way entirely outta the question, here?”

“Fraid so,” McGraw answered before Gabriel could. “There’s already an actual god watchin’ these shenanigans directly. However this gets resolved, it ain’t gonna just go away if everybody involved agrees to pretend nothing’s up.”

Gabriel lifted the butt of his scythe off the stone floor, beginning to pace back and forth. “As usual, it’s less about the thing itself than the things connected to it. This is going to have wide ranging repercussions. A valkyrie back on the mortal plane is a big deal,Yngrid! The entire rest of the Pantheon is going to be alarmed about this, and they’re just the first. We both know what happened when the last fallen valkyrie ran into the Empire’s forces. Also, apparently you girls are inherently terrifying to dryads, and there are at least two of those interacting regularly with mortal society now! Wait, no, five, that I know of. What happens the first time a dryad accidentally flies into a panic and people are in the way? And for that matter, Yngrid… What about the rest of the girls? You know all of your sisters would want the same chance, if one was available. Did you give any thought to how they would feel after you ditched them?”

Yngrid had pressed herself hard into Weaver’s side, now, wrapping one black wing around him so that they resembled a single dark shape with two heads. Her eyes remained on the ground, refusing to meet Gabriel’s stare.

He stopped pacing and rested the butt of his scythe on the floor again. “Well. Obviously, I don’t have the power to send you back.”

Everyone had the presence of mind not to look at the Avatar, who himself obligingly remained silent.

“Honestly,” Gabriel muttered, “even with all the rest of it… I dunno that I could stomach doing that even if I was able. But Yngrid, we have to do something. Do you have any ideas? Because believe me, I am open to suggestions.”

“Take credit,” Mary said quietly.

He turned a pensive frown on her. “…go on?”

“It is a very old trick of politics, when one is unexpectedly outmaneuvered,” she said in the same soft tone, her expression intently focused. “Claim that whatever transpired was your own idea, and step in to guide its consequences. That will not solve all the issues that may result from this, but it addresses the immediate implications of Vidius having been thwarted by one of his own servants. He—and you—save face and regain the initiative, and you will have gained a powerful agent for your god’s ends who is less constrained than the rest of her sisters.”

“Huh,” Gabriel mused, his expression growing distant. “You know, I think you might be onto—”

“Young man,” Mary interrupted softly, her eyes fixed on his waist, “where did you get that sword?”


The group parted like waves as Principia strode through them into the building. Merry was still inside, standing with a backpack slung over her shoulder and watching warily, but apparently not having been quite curious enough to push into the crowd of students to stare.

“What exactly do you plan to do?” Trissiny demanded, striding in right on Principia’s heels. “It’s not like you can follow him!”

“No, indeed,” the elf concurred, slowing as she stepped past Merry, almost to the entrance on the other side, which led to the broad plaza in the center of the plateau. “I have neither the know-how nor the magical muscle to track a shadow-jump, much less one going into someplace that required god-driven murderscythe power to penetrate. But someone, somewhere, somewhen, has both those things.”

With her back to them, she held up one hand. In it was the silver-trimmed wooden face of the Mask of the Adventurer.

“Whoah,” Merry exclaimed in alarm.

Her alarm was nothing compared to that of Fross. “WHAT THE HELL? That was in my dimensional storage! My personal—it was basically part of my— How in the name of—”

“I’m a thief,” Principia said flatly, turning to stare at them. “More specifically, I am a damn good thief, and now you know why my tag is Keys and not Dazzling Personality.”

“You do know we are extremely capable of just taking that away from you, right?” Ruda asked in a deceptively mild tone.

“I should damn well hope so,” Principia replied grimly. “Avelea, Punaji, Awarrion.” She pointed at each of them in turn as she continued. “Mad at me, raised to make ruthless decisions, and both. I have no idea what kind of rabbit hole I’m about to crawl down, and I’m going to count on you to put me down at the first firm sign that it’s necessary. I said firm sign, but also the first one. If you see the need, do not wait for me to get positioned to fend you off.”

“Locke, think about what you’re doing,” Toby said, stepping forward. “You were more wary of that thing than any of us, at least at first, and rightly so.”

“And that is the point,” she said patiently. “You kids may think of me as kind of a joke, and that’s fine, but the fact remains I am responsible for you. And remember, our one and only conversation with Arachne on the subject established that I am entirely expendable in this arrangement. This thing should not ever be used in any real-world situation beyond your little trial runs, but sometimes we just don’t get the luxury of doing things as they should be done. If somebody’s gotta get bent over the barrel for this, it’s going to be me and not any of you.”

“Does someone have to be?” Juniper asked. “That can’t be your only idea.”

“Tracking a shadow-jump by itself is among the most complex and advanced magic in existence,” Principia replied, her patient tone beginning to be strained. “And that’s not even touching on the matter of whatever required him to use that scythe to claw open a doorway. This is my only idea, or you could bet your green ass I wouldn’t be doing it.”

“But do you need to follow him?” the dryad persisted. “Gabe can take care of himself, and he knows what he’s doing. He does!” she added a little defensively when everyone else turned to look at her. “He’s not the same guy we started school with two years ago. None of us are.”

“Vesk was here!” Principia shouted. “Fucking Vesk! The patron god of plot contrivances, who regards people’s gruesome deaths as great character development for their grieving loved ones! The last time I took orders from that asshole I came very damn close to losing good women under my command. Other people died under our weapons who absolutely did not need to, and wouldn’t have if he’d just stayed out of it! But it did solve our immediate problem, in the end, and in a much more dramatic fashion than the patient and thorough campaign we’d been gearing up toward. And that is what it comes down to with him, kids. As soon as you find yourself in one of his goddamn stories, you are in it and you’re not going to wiggle out from under his thumb until he’s had a satisfying climax and denouement.”

“Fuckin’ ew,” Ruda muttered.

“The only thing to do,” Principia continued more quietly but just as insistently, brandishing the mask at them, “is lean into it and try to guide the damage in the least awful direction you can. Whatever Gabriel’s involved in now, the timing alone tells me he’s bitten off more than he can chew. I have a feeling this was only ever going to end with somebody using this horrible abomination of yours, and then probably learning an ironic lesson about power and taking the quick and easy path. And as I said, it’s going to be me, is that clear? You just remember what I told you. Be ready to help Gabriel with whatever bullshit we are about to find, and be ready to deal with me if it comes to that.”

She took at deep breath and stared at the mask in her hands with undisguised contempt. “And damn that little shit for making me do this. Somebody please wring his neck for me.”

Then, before anyone could argue further, Principia pressed the Mask of the Adventurer to her face.

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