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“I realize I’m repeating myself,” Jonathan said as the carriage eased up to the curb by the governor’s mansion in the center of Veilgrad, “but it bears repeating. This is a trap, Natchua. There’s no reason—”

“Jonathan,” she interrupted, “enough. It would be pointless for Malivette to maneuver me into a trap, given the number of daggers she’s got over my head. She’s already tight with Imperial Intelligence; it would take her one telescroll to ruin my day good and proper. Back me up, Mel,” she added, turning to the carriage’s other occupant. “Whether or not you can trust someone, you can rely on them to act logically toward their goals, and base your plans around that. Right?”

“Almost,” the succubus said with an amused little smile, already shifted into a human disguise—a local woman of Stalweiss coloring this time. “You can very rarely rely on people to act logically, at all. A better word would be ‘predictably.’ But yes, in this case, I agree with your assessment of Dufresne.”

“Back me up, Mel,” Jonathan said sharply. “This is at the very least a hostile move! She shows up out of the blue, demanding you do things, and now you’re being sent into the gods know what and refused to explain it!”

“I think,” Melaxyna said pensively, turning her head to look at the doors of the mansion through the carriage’s window, “you’re half right. This is a sneak attack, not a trap, and we aren’t the target. Consider: Malivette is about to drop Natchua into a situation she doesn’t understand and probably won’t like. It smells to me like the lady governor intends harm to somebody in there, not to us.”

“That tracks,” Natchua said irritably. “Our deal hinged on me being available to do her favors as long as I’m keeping my menagerie of demons in Veilgrad. Malivette Dufresne has all the scalpels she needs, and doesn’t dare wield herself as a hammer despite all the power at her disposal. She had mobs at her manor during the chaos crisis, and she wasn’t even behind that; everybody’s eager enough to blame the local vampire without her swooping around terrorizing people. No, for someone in Vette’s position, I can see how it would be very handy to have an unpredictable warlock she can just kick into the middle of things and then claim she wasn’t involved.”

“Oh, gods,” he grunted, rubbing at his face.

The carriage door was finally opened from the outside by Ruby, who peeked inquisitively in at them. “Everything all right?”

“Yep,” Natchua replied, sliding off her seat and clambering out as the vampire’s handmaid stepped back. “Just a little last-second strategizing. Come on, you two, let’s go see what this rhubarb is about.”

Jade was not in evidence, despite having accompanied Ruby on the driver’s seat. Ruby, with that vague little smile all four of Malivette’s attendants cultivated (a shade more sly than the Narisian average, just enough to be subtly threatening), opened the door to the governor’s mansion and led them inside, leaving the carriage unattended on the street outside, its undead horses standing motionless as tombstones. There was scant possibility of anyone in Veilgrad messing with it.

Natchua let her eyes wander as they passed through the corridors, though there wasn’t much to see as she was not a connoisseur of gothic architecture. This wasn’t her first visit to Veilgrad, but previous class trips had not brought her to this manor. Supposedly it was from here that the city and all of Lower Stalwar Province were actually run, but based on the lack of activity she heard in midmorning on a weekday, she had her doubts. Stretching out her senses, Natchua detected movement and conversation in multiple places throughout the manor, but not nearly the bustle the rule of such a region would generate. More likely administrative tasks were handled at the city hall and nearby structures, while the acting governor Mr. Grusser used the residence for the backroom dealings that kept Veilgrad under control. This city was a cultural nexus where Tiraan, Calderaan and Stalweiss sensibilities collided and often failed to blend; the friction between the heavily Shaathist Stalweiss and the heavily Avenist Calderaan kept local politics at a constant simmer, to say nothing of the Empire’s interest in keeping its fingers in this resource-rich area. Natchua was not a fan of surreptitious dealings that ran other people’s lives, but in fairness, it probably took a fair amount of constant cloak-and-dagger just to keep Veilgrad from exploding politically even when it wasn’t doing so literally, as had happened last time the paladins and their classmates were here.

It would be just her luck if she ended up creating a mess that topped even that. The prospect was regrettably believable.

“Just follow my lead,” she said quietly, but not so much so that the two flanking her one step behind would fail to hear. Ruby could also hear, of course, but that couldn’t be helped. Natchua had brought these two along because they blended best; even Hesthri in a disguise ring had some odd mannerisms that might pass in a crowded nightclub but would invite closer scrutiny in quieter circumstances. And she had wanted at least two to back her up. “Remember: don’t hesitate to interject if you think I need…to be reminded of restraint. Otherwise, try not to draw attention.”

“I do admire a lady who knows her weak points,” Jonathan said, tension warring with amusement in his tone. Melaxyna just reached out to pat her shoulder.

Ruby half-turned as she walked to give her a coy little glance, unperturbed by Natchua’s answering cold stare.

Fortunately, the next door through which Ruby guided them appeared to be their destination. Beyond it was a snug little sitting area with doors set in three walls; waiting for them were Jade and Lars Grusser, Malivette’s steward and the man who did the actual governing of the province. Natchua had met him once before, in passing. He was the perfect foil for Malivette: the living portrait of a bland, inconspicuous bureaucrat, to the point that it took her a couple of seconds of staring and the forewarning of whom they had come to meet to confirm it. She would not have sworn under oath that he was the same human.

Evidently the disinterest was not mutual.

“Why, it’s Natchua, isn’t it?” Grusser said, raising his eyebrows in surprise.

“Nope,” she replied, deadpan, “I’m one of the other green-haired drow. Common mistake.”

“You’re doing the thing, Natch,” Jonathan murmured behind her. Annoyance warred in her with guilty acknowledgment that he was right, as well as…another source of distraction. He had leaned in close enough that his warm breath was far too tingly on her sensitive ear.

“Ah…hah,” Grusser said, nonplussed. “Well! Jade tells me Malivette has sent us a negotiator to help resolve this little stand-off.”

Natchua blinked. “…did you say negotiator?”

Melaxyna made a noise that was too perfectly a strifled laugh to have been anything but premeditated.

“Well, I’ve learned to trust Vette’s judgment, and I’ll confess at this point I’m grateful for any help,” Grusser said, running a hand over his hair in frustration. “This is the second day of no progress being made, and quite frankly I’m surprised it hasn’t come to violence already. I’m confident that if something miraculous doesn’t unfold, it will before another sunset.”

“So, no pressure,” she sighed. “Summarize the situation for me, please?”

“Vette didn’t…? Oh. Well, then, in brief, it’s to do with the reconstruction. Most of the rebuilding of the city is either done or nearing completion, after the chaos crisis, but the catacombs were a major source of the problem. They provided a very convenient hiding place for cultists, and also are mostly emptied out now, after the…use to which the ancient burials were put.”

“That’s a very polite way to describe a skeleton army,” Jonathan commented.

Grusser sighed, nodding. “Well, the rebuilding started off later because the whole maze had to be crawled over by exorcists and archaologists first, but it’s now underway. We’re updating the city’s sewer system while we’re down there, and essentially retrofitting the upper levels of the entire catacomb system to be more…well, habitable, and more importantly, controllable. It’s an ambitious project that will effectively add an entire subterranean layer to the city. And for this, the city and the Empire have brought in dwarven contractors, since there’s a lack of domestic specialists in underground construction. We’ve never needed any, with the dwarves being as happy as they are to rent out their services. And of course, they do excellent work. The sewers of Tiraas are dwarven work; before that, the city flooded some three times in an average year.”

“Sounds like the matter is well in hand, then,” Natchua said impatiently. “Why do you need a negotiator?”

He grimaced. “As it turns out, there is another party interested in joining the work, also skilled in underground construction. We have no real need of them, and our existing contractors object strongly to their involvement. But, it turns out they have an official prerogative to put in at least a bid, and since we neglected to offer them the opportunity, they are now insisting on being assigned a share of the work. Unfortunately it’s over my head, and even Malivette’s. There is…an international treaty involved.”

Natchua closed her eyes. “Oh, bloody brilliant.” No wonder Malivette had called her in for this. Damn vampire was probably laughing herself sick right now.

“I don’t suppose,” Grusser said cautiously, “you have some standing that gives you…”

He trailed off at her bark of harsh, contemptuous laughter.

“Oh, pretty much the opposite, m’lord steward. But…I will see what I can do.”

“Ah, right,” he said warily, then turned and picked up a thick folder from the room’s sole desk, which he then held out to her. “I’ve prepared a set of documents you’ll find applicable. Established plans, reports on the work done thus far, a copy of the treaty in question with the relevant sections underlined, copies of the formal petitions and complaints submitted by the parties involved. If you’d like to take some time to study…”

“Thank you,” she said, immediately handing the folder off to Jonathan, “but I think I’d rather get right to work, as it were. Lead the way.”

“They’re assembled in the conference room just through here, actually,” he said, indicating one of the doors.

Natchua frowned. “I don’t hear anything.”

“Indeed, you wouldn’t. We’re prepared for elven guests; I situated the discussion in the Silent Room. The door enchantments ensure absolute privacy.”

“You sealed them off where they can’t be heard?” she said skeptically. “Well, maybe we’ll get lucky and they’re already dead.”

“I rather hope not,” he said. “The paperwork alone…”

“All right, let’s get this over with,” Natchua grunted, striding toward the indicated door.

“You think you can just get a delicate negotiation over with?” Jonathan demanded. “I don’t think that’s how that works, Natch.”

“Jonathan, Jonathan, when are you going to learn? As I had to explain to someone recently, I don’t do things the way they work.”

She yanked open the door, causing the sound of an argument in progress to billow out, and strode through it. The discussion broke off at her entry, and there was silence until Jonathan and Melaxyna had trailed in after her, the latter shutting the door.

“What’s this, then?” demanded one of the dwarves. “More of you?”

Three dwarves were seated along one side of the long table, a woman and two men. The woman wore an avuncular suit with gold cufflinks, while her companions were both attired in sturdy denim, cotton, and leather suited to physical laborers. All were glaring across the table with open hostility at the two impassive drow women who had now turned to regard Natchua and her companions, no sign of surprise crossing their features.

“I’m not with them,” Natchua said briskly. “The Duchess felt this discussion could use a neutral perspective.”

“Neutral?” the dwarf woman exploded, rising from her chair.. “And so she sends another drow! I’ll not have this blatant—”

“Sit your ass down!” Natchua barked.

Total silence descended. The dwarf did not sit down, but blinked at her in bemusement. If she’d spent the last two days contending with typical Narisian reserve and expected more of the same, that had to have been startling.

“Natchua yil Nassra y’nad Dalmiss,” one of the drow said quietly. “I confess, I am astonished to find you, of all people, here. And you are in the employ of Lady Dufresne?”

Oh, lovely. Now everyone in Tar’naris who might care where she was would know by the time a telescroll could be sent to Fort Vaspian. Fucking Malivette… Mastering her irritation, she kept her own voice even and soft. “Yil and y’nad, is it. My, my, the old bitch must’ve been royally torqued off.”

Both drow stiffened slightly, indulging in reproachful frowns.

“Come again?” Jonathan inquired.

“Apparently my mother had my honorifics changed,” she explained. “You don’t often hear those; usually anybody who offends their House that badly is just kicked out of it. Somebody must really want to have a claim to shove me in a spider box.”

“You know, I would honestly like to see someone try that,” Melaxyna said in a fascinated tone. Natchua gave her a filthy look, then turned back to the two bemused Narisians.

“Anyway. You may report to whoever it is you curry favor with that it is just Natchua. I renounce House Dalmiss, Tar’naris, and in particular my bloodless wendigo of a mother, and anyone who attempts to come collect me will be mailed home in a soul jar. Now!” She grinned broadly, and modified her tone to a sugary simper. “Whom have I the pleasure of addressing?”

A moment of silence answered her.

“I’m Agatha Svanwen,” the dwarf woman said finally, “and it’s my company that’s been performing the underground renovations in Veilgrad. To, I want it noted, nothing but praise from the local government.”

“I am Alrith nor Alvenn n’rin Vyendir,” one of the drow said, inclining her head fractionally toward Natchua, “here to represent my House’s claim to the opportunity we are owed by Tar’naris’s treaty with the Tiraan Empire.”

“I am Shinar syl Raelis n’rin Awarrion,” said the other, also nodding slightly. She had been the one to name Natchua. “I have been tasked by my matriarch with the honor of assisting in making the necessary arrangements to the satisfaction of all involved.”

“Not ruddy likely, that,” one of the dwarf men sneered. Neither male had offered names, and Narisian sensibilities being what they were, neither Natchua nor the other two felt it necessary to ask.

“An Awarrion,” she said, sighing softly. “Well. I suppose that buys you a smidge of favor. Ashaele is the only matriarch in that nest of vipers I even slightly respect, and I owe one of her daughters.”

“Excuse me,” Svanwen said sharply, “but I imagine you understand why I’m not happy to hear our supposedly neutral negotiator open by acknowledging a bias in favor of my enemy, here?”

“Let me add some context,” Natchua said with another wide grin. “The favor that buys her is not being summarily kicked in the throat for misnaming me. Now, then!” She stepped up to one narrow end of the table and leaned forward, planting her fists upon it. “Kindly state your positions, as succinctly as you can.”

Shinar and Ms. Svanwen’s eyes met, and for a wonder they both seemed more bemused than hostile. After a tense pause, Shinar nodded politely and gestured the dwarf to proceed.

“There’s not much to tell,” Svanwen said shortly, finally sitting back down, “and forgive me if I’ve grown a little sick of going over it. We were hired to do a job, we came to do a job, we’ve been doing our job—and doing it well, I might add. There was no problem here of any kind until these—” She broke off, looking warily at Natchua, then continued in a more careful manner. “…people showed up and involved themselves. Now work has been stopped, I’m paying skilled laborers to sit on their thumbs, the entire shebang is falling behind schedule and nobody is happy. Nor will be, until these interlopers butt out!”

“Tar’naris, in accordance with its treaty with the Empire,” Shinar said smoothly, “is granted the right to submit an offer to participate in certain types of infrastructural activity relevant to our specific skills as a culture, including subterranean construction. House Vyendir has already been denied that by what I feel certain was an accidental omission, and not a malicious breach of treaty. This has been an awkward situation for all involved, and it has always been our position to seek a compromise, rather than assert sole right to the work in question. Ms. Svanwen has, thus far, declined even the slightest measure to meet us partway.”

“And why the bloody hell should I?” Svanwen demanded. “Your treaty isn’t my problem. I have a contract, and it includes nothing to do with fucking drow!” She caught herself again, glancing at Natchua with a subtle wince.

“All right, then,” Natchua said, straightening back up. “Do either of you contest the facts of the other’s position, as stated?”

Shinar shook her head. “I understand and sympathize with Ms. Svanwen’s position, and give her full credit for not attempting to deceive us, or you, at any point.”

“Those who’re right have no need to deceive—”

Natchua cleared her throat loudly.

Svanwen drew in a breath and let it out in a huff, scowling. “Yes, fine. I’m no expert on your treaty, but she accurately described her attempts to insert her people into my business.”

“Very good,” Natchua said pleasantly. “Now, Shinar, I would like to hear you answer Ms. Svanwen’s question. Why the bloody hell should she stir herself to meet you halfway on this?”

Another moment of silence passed, marred slightly but a muffled chuckle from Melaxyna.

“Because,” Shinar said finally, her voice quieter now, “that is what civilized people do. Ms. Svanwen is not at fault for this situation, but it is what it is. We have our rights. A person who is in an uncomfortable situation has the option of making an accommodation with it, or being swept aside.”

“Well said,” Natchua concurred. “So! Since we all agree that you aren’t needed or wanted here and are only delaying this task by your presence, have you considered voluntarily withdrawing your claim?”

“That is not on the table,” Alrith said with an audible edge to her tone. Evidently two days of being shouted at by dwarves could fray even a Narisian’s reserve, if they weren’t an Awarrion and trained for such stress.

“I think,” Natchua replied pleasantly, “you should seriously consider putting it on the table.”

“Excuse me,” Shinar said in deadly calm, “but your phrasing there could be interpreted as a threat. I am certain that was not your intent. Would you like to clarify?”

“Do you think I’m out of line, here?” Natchua asked, turning back to her own companions.

“Nope,” Jonathan said immediately. He had the folder open and was leafing slowly through it, perusing pages with a practiced eye. “Been a while since I was in construction on this scale, but these work logs are impressive. These dwarves have put in fine work thus far. Everything’s been ahead of schedule, under budget and up to standards. Basically what we’ve got here is honest folks doing good work and bureaucrats mucking it up by trying to profit from what they’ve no business being involved in.”

“We have our rights!” Alrith insisted.

“What you don’t have is a three-way dilemma,” Natchua retorted. “This is not you against the dwarves against the province. Everything was fine and everyone getting along swimmingly before you showed up. This matter consists of Lady Dufresne’s government and Ms. Svanwen’s company doing just fine until you and your rights came blustering in from nowhere to make a godawful pest of yourselves. A veteran negotiator such as Shinar must surely be well aware of this shaky position.”

“In fact,” Shinar replied, “we have a very firm position, as laid out by treaty.”

“A firm position that gives you absolutely no prospect of winning,” Natchua said pleasantly. “Your best case scenario is to have a lot of innocent House Vyendir laborers stranded in a city where everyone hates them and resents their presence. I don’t know if you’re up on local history, but Veilgrad isn’t kind to the vulnerable and unwanted. Or, you could write all this off as a bad job, go home to your dank spider hole, and cease making an abominable nuisance of yourselves.”

The dwarves were now watching this exchange as avidly as children gawking at a parade.

“Are you acquainted with recent Imperial history, Natchua?” Shinar countered. “It was not very long ago that the previous Duke of House Madouri was executed for treason against the Silver Throne—for, among other things, deliberately intervening in the relations between Tar’naris and Tiraas. Perhaps Duchess Dufresne should be reminded of these events before sending her agents to…negotiate.”

“Excuse me,” Natchua whispered, “but your phrasing there could be interpreted as a threat. I’m sure you couldn’t possibly be that fucking stupid.”

“I intend only the best for all parties involved,” Shinar said with a placid little smile, her eyes half-lidded and knowing. “I firmly believe that no situation is so uncomfortable that a compromise cannot be reached.”

Natchua stepped around the table and began to slowly pace back and forth behind the drow. Alrith stiffened noticeably.

“One,” Natchua said softly, and the fairy lamps in the room dimmed. The dwarves glanced nervously at them. “The previous head of House Madouri was a corrupt, incompetent fool who mismanaged his province into the ground and sought to undermine the Emperor at every opportunity. His daughter, who was instrumental in getting rid of him, has single-handedly resuscitated the economy of Tiraan Province in less than a year, and that while ruling it remotely from Last Rock. She is also closely aligned with House Tirasian. Ravana’s a friend of mine,” she added in a confidential tone, leaning down toward Shinar from behind as she passed. An exaggeration—Ravana was a megalomaniacal little creep with whom Natchua was just as happy being on politely distant terms—but there was no reason Shinar needed to know that. “Now, can you guess which of those two options better describes Malivette Dufresne?”

She continued pacing for several more steps, letting that sink in. The lamps had continued to dim; now, the shadows in the corners of the room were deeper and darker than they had any reason to be, even with the light running low.

“Two,” Natchua said suddenly, just when Alrith had been about to crack and break the silence. “Malivette Dufresne is not here. I am not affiliated with her in any formal capacity. I’m just here as a favor to an acquaintance; I’m not even a citizen of Veilgrad. So if your intention is to run crying to the Empire about how I was mean to you…well, knock your little self out, precious. The only living person who cares less than I is Duchess Dufresne.”

The whispering had begun at the very edge of hearing, even for elves; with Natchua talking over it, the words would have been barely audible even to the Narisians. It swelled, though, smoothly but quickly, until even the dwarves could hear the faint breath of voices from the ever-darker corners of the room. Even Jonathan had backed up against the door, now, eyes wide in unease. Melaxyna just stood placidly with her arms folded; she had somehow contrived to position herself so that the fading light cast her face in a series of ominous shadows. There was still no real meaning in the whispers, just disjointed snatches of gibberish and occasional demonic.

Natchua placed a hand on Shinar’s shoulder and leaned forward between the two drow. “Three,” she said, herself barely above a whisper. “If you’ve been here a few days, you’ll have begun to notice. This is a place where chaos and cultists rise out of the catacombs, bringing undead and worse. Where cemeteries come alive, and werewolves howl in the mountains at night. Those who travel the forests do so in groups, if they want to come back. The last nobility of Veilgrad are a vampire and a warlock. Of all the rumors that swirl through the streets, only the least wild are made up.” She added a second hand to Arlith’s shoulder, grinning when the woman flinched. “People disappear in Veilgrad.”

She held them in silence for a moment. By that point, the fairy lamps were sullen reddish patches in a dim room, which did nothing to explain the writhing shadows which shifted across the walls. Natchua only belatedly noticed that both male dwarves had lit up with golden divine auras, which were doing nothing to push back the darkness.

She clapped both drow women on the shoulder once, and straightened up. “Some people should think about disappearing voluntarily, while they still have that option.”

Shinar rose abruptly but smoothly, shoving aside her chair and pivoting in place to stare at Natchua, icy anger plain on her features now.

“I speak for Tar’naris,” she hissed, “and I will not be bullied by a selfish, disrespectful brat.”

“Oh, no,” Natchua whispered, “it’s happening already.”

The darkness swelled, congealed, rose, and when it was gone, so was Shinar syl Raelis n’rin Awarrion.

“What?!” Arlith squawked, her reserve shattering, and tried to scrabble away only to freeze when she almost fell out of her chair. “Where is she?”

“Oh, I’m sure she’s fine, don’t worry,” Natchua said, strolling around her and back toward the door. “Veilgrad’s cathedral spire is very tall, but elves are quite agile. She should be able to get down pretty easily. And who better than an Awarrion to explain to the police what she was doing monkeying about on a protected landmark?”

“It’s a very sunny day, you know,” Melaxyna said in a sepulchural voice from one dark corner. “I understand drow eyes are…vulnerable, in the sunlight.”

Natchua made a show of hesitating in thought, then turned to the succubus and raised one chiding finger. “Now, now, that’s a negotiator of Tar’naris you’re talking about. Have a little faith.”

“You can’t…” Arlith choked off when Natchua turned back toward her.

The woman flinched again when she reached out to gently take her by the shoulder.

“Go home,” she said in a soft, kind tone, as if soothing a child. “Tell your House what you found. There’s no profit for you in Veilgrad. There’s nothing here for you but evil.”

Arlith stared up at her like a frozen rabbit.

“Go!” Natchua snarled, her voice cracking through the small conference room.

Arlith exploded out of her chair in a panicked dash and raced to the door with all the speed an elf could muster; Jonathan barely got out of the way in time for her to claw it open and scramble out, leaving it ajar. He gently pushed it shut behind her.

Just like that, the whispering and shadows cut off and the darkness vanished, leaving the room as pleasantly lit as ever.

Natchua turned back to the dwarves, finding all three had backed their chairs up against the far wall and were staring at her as if at a monster. Which…was fair.

“I’m sure the Duchess appreciates all the good work you’ve put in so far,” she said brightly. “Lars Grusser is a capable administrator, but…these things happen. If anything else comes up that he can’t seem to deal with, feel free to reach out to Malivette directly. All right, then!” She clapped her hands together, guiltily enjoying it a little when the dwarves all twitched in reaction to the sound. “Another successful negotiation, resolved. Let’s run along, now, these fine people have plenty of work to catch up on.”

She led the way back into the sitting room outside, pausing to let the others catch up. After looking back through the door, Melaxyna pulled it closed behind her; evidently the dwarves weren’t in a hurry to join them. Dwarves, after all, were famously reasonable folk.

Neither Grusser nor Malivette’s handmaids were in evidence. Of course; they wouldn’t have reasonably expected anything to be resolved in such a short time. Arlith, of course, was long gone.

“So that’s her play,” Melaxyna mused aloud.

Natchua turned back to her, drawing in a breath. Shapeshifting aside, this was the main reason she had brought the succubus along. She herself was painfully out of her depth when being maneuvered about by aristocrats, and fully knew it. Melaxyna was another matter. “You have a thought?”

“A whole host of people are about to know exactly where you are, and what kind of power you’re messing around with,” Melaxyna said seriously, holding her gaze. “Those drow will go squealing to both their Houses, and even if they don’t reach out to the Empire directly, House Awarrion absolutely will. They’ll also inform House Dalmiss.”

“I’m not worried about anything my mother or Ezrakhai might be able to send after me,” Natchua said dismissively. “You think Malivette’s trying to get me in trouble with the Empire? That still doesn’t make sense, she wouldn’t have to go to such an effort. All she has to do is tell them. I haven’t specifically done anything to cheese off Imperial Intelligence but I can’t imagine they’d be happy about anything I’m involved in.”

“I thought it was fishy you were able to talk Malivette down at all,” Melaxyna admitted. “Considering what you showed up with and what her position was. Letting you establish a base in Veilgrad was just…weird. The fact that she wants to use you as some kind of fixer makes it more clear, but this completes the pattern. If she tells the Empire or anyone else you’re here making trouble, she becomes your enemy. But! If she puts you in positions where you can’t avoid attracting their attention, then she can use her clout to prevent them from taking you away.”

“Shit,” Jonathan said feelingly. “She’s right. That vampire isn’t trying to destroy you, she’s trying to control you. If she becomes your only protector from the Empire or the Church or whoever else…”

“Then she gets her fixer,” Natchua finished, her face twisting into a scowl. “And she gets to keep her. Oh, well fucking played, Vette.”

“How much does she know about…what you’re actually trying to do?” Jonathan asked.

“Malivette is under the impression that I’m on a campaign to hunt down remaining Black Wreath cells. Which isn’t inaccurate, just…less than complete. After all, she has reason to empathize with that, considering the Wreath’s involvement with the chaos crisis.”

“We can always leave,” Melaxyna pointed out. “It would mean sacrificing your investment with Sherwin and the horogki…”

“More than that,” Natchua said, shaking her head. “Sherwin gives us access to resources, not just a leaky roof over our head. We wouldn’t have any of that hiding out in some ruin in the wilderness. House Leduc also has a veneer of legitimacy and a history with diabolism. No, that’s the perfect position for us to take as a base. That’s why Vette is doing this, she knows I won’t abandon it easily.”

She paused, frowning deeply in thought. Then, suddenly, her expression shifted, a smile curling across her mouth.

“Ohhh, hell,” Jonathan groaned. “I know that look. That’s the look that happens right before one of your trademark lunatic schemes.”

“Well, after all,” Natchua said reasonably, “Malivette likes to surround herself with pretty girls. And oh, look! I have one whom I was just fretting over what to do with.”

Melaxyna clapped a hand over her eyes. “Natchua, no.”

“Stop it, this could not be more perfect. Malivette and Kheshiri both like to play mind games, right? Well, let them chew on each other for a while. No matter which loses, I win.”

“Yeah,” Jonathan said, “because that’s always how it ends up, isn’t it.”


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Full dawn found Natchua pacing amid the ruins of Manor Leduc’s front hall.

The progress made by the hobgoblins in just one day was astonishing to eyes unfamiliar with their kind—or, like Natchua’s, acquainted only with the theory and lore. They had fully cleaned what had been a jumble of smashed stones, timbers, and shingles, with all the debris carefully sorted into piles on the lawn outside, including several neat stacks of wood and masonry they considered reusable. The now-cleared floor still had a large jagged hole in the center and dangerously buckling floorboards, forcing her to confine her pacing to the edges, but it now looked like a room, rather than a hopeless ruin. In horogki, the aggression of the infernal taint was channeled into preternatural physical strength and frenetic energy, causing them to be enormously efficient laborers when kept on task and disastrously erratic when not. No wonder Jonathan had been so tired last night, after a day of supervising those three.

Jonathan. Natchua grimaced and rubbed at her eyes with both fists. Gods, what a mess. Why was she always such a mess?

She had already fallen hard on old habits this morning, starting with a deft escape from Hesthri’s embrace enabled by elven agility and compounded by throwing on the only readily available garment in her room that wouldn’t require buckles, laces, or any such time-consuming fiddling: a loose Narisian style robe that she only kept for sleeping. The hour since she had spent mostly relying on her hearing to be certain of where everyone was in the manor. It wasn’t exactly a breach of principle, merely a disheartening set of reminders. Natchua had not entirely gotten over her rebellious phase, and relying on these things rankled. She had no problem with being an elf, as such, though she resented being defined by it. Anything Narisian grated on her, though.

Regardless, her keen senses had enabled her to avoid everyone else in the manor during that last gray hour of the night. Jonathan had been lightly snoring in his room, Sherwin and Melaxyna likewise in the kitchen apartment. Their night, like the previous one, had been busy, but apparently Sherwin was tired out from the exertion by that hour. Another tidbit of Vanislaad lore that was not widely known and which Natchua wasn’t about to reveal to Mel that she did know was their differing need for sleep. They could do it more or less at will, and used dreaming as a mechanism to sublimate the itch to cause chaos for a while. A sleeping child of Vanislaas was basically engaged in a hallucinatory meditation, no less aware of their surroundings and able to come fully alert instantly. They didn’t strictly need to do it, but tended to become rather somnolent when bored to take the edge off. By contrast, when engaged in some scheme, they could be up for weeks at a time working at it. All things considered it was probably a good sign that Melaxyna was sleeping, no matter why she was doing it.

Kheshiri sure wasn’t. Per Natchua’s orders she hadn’t left the house, but had been prowling around silently from the moment Natchua fixed on her location, and probably the whole night prior. She couldn’t actually hear Kheshiri moving, but after having isolated her infernal signature yesterday could detect her position and general status nonetheless. At the moment she was evidently exploring the Manor’s shuttered basement rooms—far from the corner in which the three hobgoblins had made their nest, ironically in the now-empty room where Sherwin had once caged Scorn.

Xyraadi was so quiet that Natchua had to actually stand outside her door to detect her breathing. She suspected the khelminash might be meditating rather than sleeping. They definitely practiced the art, and if Natchua understood the timeline correctly, Xyraadi was still feeling very fresh wounds from the loss of loved ones six hundred years ago right before she had been sealed away. She was certainly composed in public, but it made sense that she’d prefer the control of meditation to what dreams might show her.

Hesthri, it turned out, was a heavy sleeper. Fortunately.

Natchua had given herself a quick and very cursory washing at the outdoor pump in the chill pre-dawn; her hair and a patch of her robe below her neck were still wet. While she was doing that, people had begun to stir, and now she was out here in large part to avoid everyone else. Voices and the muted clatter of cookware echoed from the kitchen apartment, accompanied by a muffled argument between the two succubi. Apparently breakfast was being prepared there, rather than in Melaxyna’s improvised kitchen on the second floor. Natchua wasn’t particularly soothed by the discovery that Kheshiri wanted to participate in domestic tasks, but for the moment she was glad to leave Melaxyna to foil her. It gave her the chance to turn her thoughts inward.

There was nothing in there that she particularly wanted to face, but would have to nonetheless, and the sooner, the better. This fine new situation wasn’t going to go away if she ignored it. Her utter lack of self-control had landed her in the center of a trashy romance novel, exactly what she did not need following on the heels of having a particularly dubious child of Vanislaas dropped into her already precarious web of haphazard espionage and infernomancy. Gods, just three days ago she’d been peacefully in Mathenon, shadow-jumping away for the odd bout of research or treasure-hunting in and around her primary task of…dating someone under false pretenses.

She had botched that, too, unable to keep her damn feelings out of it. Women and men alike had been coldly using sex to get what they wanted in every society for millennia; in Tar’naris it was practically an art form. What the hell was her problem? Jonathan Arquin wasn’t even all that interesting by any objective standpoint, his mysterious demon-adjacent past notwithstanding. All he was…was decent. On reflection, that made him exceptional among the people she knew. Everyone in Tar’naris was some type and degree of evil, in Natchua’s mind. Tellwyrn had a core of kindness within her, but her entire personality was violently unstable by design, and she largely recruited staff with the same general mindset. There had been a few people at the University, like Professor Yornhaldt and Toby Caine, who were just plain good, altruistic and respectful for no particular reason except that that was how they were, and Natchua had deliberately avoided getting close to any of them. She’d not trusted that. Not, at least, until she got close enough to Jonathan to realize that there weren’t hidden depths to the man. Put into words that made him sound like the most boring individual alive, but when experienced firsthand it had made him a solid pillar of support she had helplessly found herself clinging to, and then lost herself in. Right up until she’d betrayed him.

Hesthri…was something else. Natchua didn’t consider it an excuse for her own lack of restraint—she owned her choices, at the very least—but Hesthri had unquestioningly been the aggressor last night. That Natchua hadn’t tried very hard not to melt under her surprisingly skillful touch didn’t make it any less an obviously deliberate seduction on the hethelax’s part. And Hesthri unquestionably had hidden depths. Natchua as yet could barely guess what lay in them, but they certainly existed. She had been willing to take the contract and had, after all, sprung at the chance to join a campaign which she was told up front was almost certain to end with her death, all in the hope that it might help Gabriel. Her intentions were, on some level, good. But what else was she after?

Natchua grimaced and halted her pacing, scrubbing at her face with both hands. Ugh, Gabriel. Well, it wasn’t like she had ever been close to him before, and there was a solid chance she’d never actually see him again. That might be more comfortable, in fact. As of last night, there was no possible conversation the two of them could have that wouldn’t be excruciatingly awkward. Hell, the way things were going, they’d probably accidntally wind up in bed. Gods knew he’d always been a horny goat when it came to women, and Natchua was discovering this week that she herself was evidently a degenerate idiot with less self-control than those hobgoblins she’d summoned. Why not complete the trifecta?

“Morning.”

She jumped violently, spinning. Jonathan had frozen in place, staring at her uncertainly.

“Uh,” she croaked. “Good…morning, Jonathan.”

“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to startle you. Actually, the thought that I even could sneak up on an elf never crossed my mind.”

She grimaced, running a hand over her damp hair. “Not one who’s paying attention. Don’t worry about it, I was just up my own butt.”

A faint smile quirked at the corner of his mouth. She loved it when he did that, when that little streak of mischief cracked through his resolute steadiness and oh, gods, she wanted to scoop out her brain and replace it with one that damn well worked.

“Yeah, I guess you’ve got plenty to think about,” he agreed. “Anyhow. Just letting you know, most of the group is up and straggling into Sherwin’s kitchen. The succubi made breakfast. Omnu’s breath, is that a sentence I never imagined I’d say.”

Natchua had to smile slightly at that, despite everything. “Thanks. I’ll…be along in a bit.”

He nodded, half-turned, paused, and shifted his face back to her, forehead creased in the tiniest frown.

“Anything else?” Natchua prompted after a tense little silence.

“Well…” Jonathan turned back to face her again across the three yards or so between them. “Like I said, you clearly have a lot to think about, and apparently more with everything that happens. Do…you want to talk about it?”

She really, really did, Natchua realized to her shame. She kept all of that away from her face, though. “Do we really have the kind of relationship where we talk about our feelings, Jonathan?”

His face lengthened, and the unspoken anymore hung in the air between them.

“It’s a pretty central question, isn’t it?” he said after a moment. “I won’t lie, I’ve spent a fair few hours in the last couple of days grappling with an overarching desire to punch you in the mouth. But—”

“Embrace that,” she said, her voice heavy with a harshness that wasn’t directed at him, though of course he couldn’t know that. “You should’ve just stayed in Mathenon instead of jumping aboard this doomed ship. With every passing day I learn more about what a weak, stupid, selfish creature I am. Fuck, I don’t even want to explain why, and that’s also selfish. I just don’t want you to…” Catching herself babbling, she broke off and drew in a ragged breath. “Never mind. The hell with it, even if I don’t manage to even dent Elilial, splattering myself across her defenses is probably what’s best for the world anyway.”

She couldn’t have said what she expected him to reply to that, but it definitely wasn’t what he actually did.

“You really think that, don’t you,” Jonathan murmured, staring at her as if piecing together a puzzle.

“Don’t you?” she demanded, then held up a hand. “No, don’t answer that. I’m just fishing for validation, and I don’t need or deserve any. Look, Jonathan, since you’re here, the best thing you can do is focus on getting yourself through whatever comes next alive. Try to save whoever else you can. Several of these demons are much better people than I am.”

His chest swelled with a deep indrawing of breath, and he stepped forward. Natchua wanted to retreat, but refused to, even as he came within arm’s length, close enough that she had to tilt her face up to meet his eyes.

“I’ve had some time to think about my various disappointments at your hands,” he said quietly.

“You were supposed to be watching the hobgoblins,” she retorted, a desperate attempt to misdirect him from whatever unbearable awkwardness he was planning to voice.

Again, his mouth quirked up in that damnable little half-smile. “Hell, they’re one of the best crews I’ve ever worked with. Those girls just need a reminder now and again when they get distracted, and the rest of the time they’re on task and making progress at an unbelievable rate. As you can see all around you. So yeah, I have had time to think, and I can’t escape the conclusion that while you have the most terrible judgment of any person I have ever known, you are struggling in your unbelievably mixed-up way to do what you think is right.”

“…best,” she whispered.

He raised his eyebrows mutely.

“I don’t deal in right or wrong. I’m not sure I believe in them. I just try to do…the best I can, with the ridiculous toolbox of destruction that’s all I have to work with.”

Jonathan sighed again. “And damn if that isn’t exactly what I mean. Augh… Look, the situation is what it is. You’ve made a damn mess, here. You sure as hell hurt me good and proper.” She flinched, physically enough for him to see, and immediately wanted to stab herself right through the heart. “But a few hours of thought and some insight from Hesthri and Melaxyna has pretty much taken away my ability to blame you. And with that, hurt or not, I’m finding it hard to still be angry.”

“Hesthri and Melaxyna should mind their own damn business,” she muttered sullenly, and he had the audacity to chuckle.

“Look,” he said gently, reaching out to take her by the shoulders.

“No!” Natchua jerked back out of his grasp. She raised her hands to cover her eyes, blocking out the sight of his expression. “Don’t. Can’t you please just stop being a good person for one damn minute?”

“Sure I can,” he said softly. “It’s scary easy. I refuse to.”

“Just…quit being gentle with me,” she croaked. “You don’t understand, I messed up again, and it’s just going to keep… I am a mess, Jonathan. Keep your distance and just let me do what I need to!”

“Hey.” She lowered her hands to find him taking a step closer, but he didn’t reach for her again. Of course; aggrieved party or not, Jonathan Arquin would never under any circumstances lay his hands on a woman who had told him not to. At that moment she resented it. Natchua wanted nothing more than for him to grab her in his strong, callused grip, even knowing how much objectively better it was for them both and the whole situation that he wouldn’t. At least one of them could managed to be an adult. “…okay.”

In spite of herself, Natchua straightened up in surprise. “Okay?”

“I’m not endorsing this, any more than any of the rest of your antics,” he said more seriously. “You really need to relax and accept some comfort before you twist yourself into an unfixable knot.”

“I know for an objective fact that is the literal last thing I need to do,” she said dully.

He just shook his head. “Well, the offer is on the table if you choose to take advantage. But that aside, in the here and now… You’re the boss, here, Natchua. You need to project steadiness to these people. And especially that Kheshiri; she’s going to have an eye out for any crack she can work a finger into.”

Natchua closed her eyes. He was dead right, of course.

“I am serious about opening up to somebody and dealing with your stress instead of choking yourself on it, even if that’s not me. If you trust Melaxyna enough, well…that sure wouldn’t be the most reckless thing you’ve done recently. But right now you need to put on the mask. Look… I know you hate anything to do with your upbringing in Tar’naris.” He did know that, didn’t he? He knew…her. Gods, this was a disaster. Jonathan continued in a softer tone. “But that did give you a skill you specifically need here. When you’re dealing with turmoil and you have people counting on you to be steady, you have to fake it. And nobody can do that like a Narisian.”

Word after word of relentless good sense. The asshole just wouldn’t stop being right. He had it pegged exactly: Tar’naris and its culture were as detestable as anything produced by Hell as far as she was concerned, but the drow had developed their ways in response to harsh practicality. Narisian reserve wasn’t simply custom, it had specific, strategic use.

And three measly years of trying to distance herself weren’t enough to eliminate the habits of upbringing. It came back with disheartening ease. She straightened her spine, tension in her posture fading away to linger in her gut where it belonged. All expression leaked from her features, leaving behind only her public face. The poise was meditative. A sublimation of everything that was her, put behind the facade of what she needed to be right now.

It didn’t make her the creature her mother and Matriarch Ezrakhai had tried to forge, she told herself. It just enabled her to be what the situation demanded.

Natchua opened her eyes and regarded Jonathan in icy calm.

He nodded once, approving. “Again, though. This isn’t good for you in the long term. When you can—”

“Enough, Jonathan,” she said in a chill tone that brooked no debate. He fell silent. And when she swept past him for the corridor into the kitchen, he fell into step behind her.

Xyraadi had yet to appear, but everyone else had gathered by that point. The three horogki were huddled in the corner around a pot of porridge, slurping noisily—for heaven’s sake, they’d managed to splatter the walls with it. Sherwin’s table had been cleared of his books and personal effects, which were now piled upon the unmade bed, and laid out with his mismatched collection of crockery now holding muffins, bacon, eggs, and tea.

“Help yourself, I have a powerful dislike of bacon,” Melaxyna was saying upon their entry. “Hey, you found her!”

“Good morning, Natchua,” Hesthri said to her with a neutral smile.

The stab of sheer emotion pulled her in half a dozen directions simultaneous, which she ignored. “Morning, Hes,” Natchua said briskly, striding over to the table and taking a seat. Enough chairs had been brought for everyone save the horogki; to judge by their dusty state, they had been pillaged from disused rooms in the residential wing. “Thanks for saving seats. Whom do I have to thank for this spread? I mean, aside from our host who’s paying for it,” she added, nodding to Sherwin.

His mouth was full of half a muffin, but he waved the other half at her in acknowledgment.

“I am taking care of the cooking,” Melaxyna said firmly. “This one kept trying to assist, but you’ll be glad to know I managed to remain in control of the proceedings and can thus guarantee that none of my food is poisoned.”

“Oh, honestly, you’re such a drama queen,” Kheshiri scoffed. “What could I possibly gain from poisoning everyone?”

“In your case, a cheap laugh,” Xyraadi replied, gliding into the room. “Bonjour, mes amis. Ah, this is what I smelled? May I?”

“Of course, you’re as much a guest here as anyone,” Sherwin said gallantly, somewhat to Natchua’s relief. In private conversation with Natchua the previous night, he had strained her already bedraggled patience trying to ascertain whether Xyraadi was the kind of khelminash woman who had a penis. She had ended that discussion by challenging him to predict a scenario in which that would matter to anyone but Xyraadi.

“Well, despite Miss Fusspot’s campaign of wet blanketry, I can assure you I do pull my weight,” Kheshiri said smugly. “I have provided milk for the tea.”

Hesthri, who had just poured some of said milk into her tea, froze.

Melaxyna narrowed her eyes. “We were out of milk.”

“Kheshiri,” Natchua growled, “you were told to remain in the house.”

“But mistress, how can you think I would disobey you? I’ve not set one toe outside!”

“I know I am going to regret learning,” Natchua said, “but how did you get milk here without leaving the Manor?” Jonathan had pulled the milk pitcher over to himself and was sniffing it suspiciously.

“It’s fresh-squeezed,” Kheshiri said proudly, shaking her shoulders back and forth. She was still wearing the outfit in which they’d first found her, a suitably succubesque bustier that supported amply and concealed little; the motion did interesting things to her chest. “The very freshest.”

Silence fell, in which everyone looked at Kheshiri’s smug expression, then at her bosom, then at the milk picture, and then back at her face.

“I am something of an expert at finely controlled shapeshifting,” the succubus said, beaming with pride. By contrast, the emotion pulsing through her aura was pure, malicious glee. “I can do things with my body chemistry you can hardly imagine! Don’t you worry, it’s completely free from infernal taint. You can feel free to check.”

In their corner, Staccato, Glissando, and Pizzicato burst into howls of laughter, falling over each other. Hesthri twisted away from the table, retching. Jonathan, curling his lip, pushed the milk pitcher away from himself. Sherwin immediately grabbed it, raising it to sniff, and Melaxyna just as immediately took it away from him.

“Repulsive creature,” Xyraadi sneered, delicately buttering a muffin.

“Right,” Natchua said, open annoyance leaking through her put-on reserve. “That’s my fault, I haven’t set down ground rules for you. To begin with—”

“And that would be the point,” Melaxyna interrupted. “Juvenile gross-out pranks are far beneath her level of scheming and, I suspect, not really to her taste. A system of rules favors whoever is best skilled at manipulating loopholes; anarchy favors whoever has the most power. Setting down rules for her cedes her much more of an advantage than if she has to devote that big brain to finding ways to stay on your good side.”

“Now, that is verging on the kind of behavior I should tattle to Prince Vanislaas about next time I see him,” Kheshiri said, scowling at the other succubus. “Laying out a sister’s angles in front of mixed company? Bad form, Melaxyna.”

“Oh, please,” Melaxyna grinned back at her. “You love it. After weaseling your way around Archpope Justinian and Khadizroth the Green for years on end, I’m the only thing keeping you from going completely stir-crazy here.”

Kheshiri stared her down for another beat, then a grin broke across her own features. “My, my. It’s been so long since I played with someone with a knack for proper foreplay.”

“I say,” Sherwin began.

“No,” Natchua declared, pointing at a corner not occupied by messy hobgoblins. “Kheshiri, go do one hundred sit-ups.”

Kheshiri’s expression flattened, and based on what went pulsing through her aura, her displeasure was real. Physical exercise was not the kind of thing that scratched her kind’s characteristic itch; they disliked tiring themselves out doing things that didn’t satisfy them. “Oh, but mistress—”

“Followed by one hundred push-ups. And then one hundred squats.”

The succubus put on a calm, very mildly piqued expression, while her aura seethed with resentment and offended pride. Good; at some point Natchua needed to refine her ability to manipulate Kheshiri’s aura directly, including managing her compulsion and emotions, but for now this would suffice to impose consequences.

“It was just a harmless little—”

“You have been given an order, and you will obey it.”

The succubus executed a bow that managed to be as mocking as it was obsequious, and then sashayed over to the indicated corner. Natchua remained twisted around in her chair to watch until she ascertained, to her grim satisfaction, that there was not a sexy way to do sit-ups, before turning back to her breakfast.

In a way, it seemed downright appropriate when the kitchen’s outside door burst abruptly open, admitting beams of garish sunlight and a vampire.

“Knock, knock!” Malivette Dufresne sang ironically. “Oh, good, everyone’s just sitting down for breakfast! None for me, thanks, I have a rule against snacking on neighbors.”

“Good fucking morning, Vette,” Sherwin grumbled. “Won’t you just come the hell on in.”

“I shall, thank you, but only because you were so gracious!”

“So…” Jonathan said warily, “that thing about vampires not being able to enter a house unless invited…”

“Complete myth,” Malivette said brightly, gliding into the room. “I am also not allergic to garlic! In fact, it adds a very nice texture to that is a khelminash demon. And…another succubus.” She stared at Kheshiri for a moment, and if she had any opinion about the unusual sight of a trickster demon grunting through a set of sit-ups, she offered no comment on it. Instead, her crimson eyes actually began to glow subtly as she turned them upon the group’s leader. “Natchua.”

“You knew I was looking for Xyraadi,” Natchua said irritably. “I told you that. Quit being melodramatic, I get more than enough of it from these freaks. That aside, Vette, you have good timing. I want to have a talk with you about these developments in particular.”

“Ah, so?” the vampire said, arching an eyebrow. “That has the ring of the fleeing deadbeat saying ‘I was just looking for you!’ to the thugs cornering him to collect what he owes.”

“I really couldn’t say, being that getting in debt to loan sharks is about the only dumbass thing I haven’t managed to do this week,” Natchua replied, marshaling her calm face again. “If you’re surprised to see the new arrival, I gather she’s not what you came here about. Before we discuss that, what is it you need?”

“Ah, yes. What I need.” Malivette gave a lingering, unfriendly look to Kheshiri, who was too busy exercising to acknowledge her, then redirected her attention to Natchua. “I’m sure you have not already forgotten our agreement, and the certain services you have promised to render as a condition for finding welcome in my province, and not being summarily handed over to Imperial Intelligence as common sense suggests I ought to do.” She smiled brightly, displaying her fangs in a manner that couldn’t possibly have been accidental. “It’s time to start paying the rent, Natchua.”

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15 – 31

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Principia never did get that nap, and it was starting to look like she wasn’t going to.

The kids reappeared barely an hour past sunrise, trooping in a loose cluster through the pass leading to the ramp up to the Order’s plateau base. Unable to settle down despite Merry’s harrumphing, Principia had maintained a watch toward the old fortress, and given her eyesight was the first to see them as they came around the rocky outcrop which blocked view of the path beyond. She narrowed her eyes in concentration; a swift headcount revealed no one missing, even the pixie. To judge by their pace and general demeanor, they didn’t appear to have suffered any catastrophe or even disappointment, despite Vesk’s dire maunderings.

On the other hand, they were carrying something which put off a magical aura nearly as blinding as the god’s had been. And it was definitely something, not one of them. Artifacts housing that colossal degree of power were incredibly rare, with good reason. Given the nature of her own career, though, Principia Locke had had her hands on several of them over the years.

Nothing good had ever come of it.

“See ’em?” Merry asked, trailing off in a yawn as she came to stand by Principia’s shoulder. Even the human should have been able to spot the seven figures rounding the pass if she focused, though she probably couldn’t distinguish individuals at that distance. Principia considered calling her down for over-relying on elven gifts which she might not always have access to, then decided to postpone that decision until she determined whether this was going to become a habit.

“Everybody seems fine,” she said quietly, nodding. No need to relay any more detail just yet…

She focused, mentally sifting through the vast wealth of sounds available to her sensitive ears. It was easier up here in the mountains, as there simply wasn’t a whole lot going on relative to an urban environment or one with denser wildlife. At that range she had to concentrate, and the echoes off the stone walls were more an impediment than the faintness of distance, but the voices of the students weren’t excessively hard to pick out.

“I bet it would work,” Teal was saying animatedly. “I mean, as long as you don’t go overboard on the magic, there has to have been someone who could handle that kind of attack!”

“When it comes to the martial arts, there’s always a greater master,” Toby agreed.

“Let’s try it, then!” Teal said, coming to a stop and turning to face him. Narrowing her eyes, Principia could make out the shape of the thing she was holding. A mask? It was clearly the focus of all the barely-contained power that blazed against her senses.

“What’re they saying?” Merry demanded practically right in her ear.

“Shh,” Principia urged, marshaling her irritation. “Let me listen.”

“…not the best idea,” Trissiny was saying in response. “We left the Tree for a reason, remember? No reason to try this right here in the middle of nowhere when there’s a nice flat plateau with our camp up ahead.”

“Yeah, I’m eager to experiment, too,” Fross’s squeaky voice agreed, “but there’s a time and a place. But aw, man, the possibilities! There’s gotta be some limit, surely you can’t just reproduce a paladin or something, that requires a god. But can it do a dragon? Or, say, a dryad?”

“Yeah, well, if we’re gonna wait on the scientific method to reach a better location, let’s go on and reach it,” Gabriel urged. Principia could just see him making shooing motions at the stalled group from the rear. “Hup hup, resume march, go on.”

Juniper muttered something that even Prin couldn’t make out at that distance, prompting a gale of laughter from Ruda.

She sighed, blinked, and rolled her shoulders, discovering that she’d been unconsciously leaning forward to squint at the distant group. Not exactly subtle, but then there was no call to be surreptitious up here.

“Problems?” Merry inquired when Principia’s eye fell on her.

“That remains to be seen,” she mused. “I’m guessing probably. Doesn’t appear urgent, though. Still, I have the strangest feeling nobody up here’s gonna be getting much rest once they get back. How’re the two from the Order?”

“Still asleep, last I checked, but that was a bit ago. I wouldn’t expect them to be for much longer, people from monastic traditions get in the habit of being up as early as soldiers.”

“Yeah, or more so. And the fire?”

“Burning low, but I didn’t let it go out. Figured the kids would be wanting some breakfast. I definitely do, and I note they let theirs die hours ago.”

“Attagirl. I’ll fetch a bucket from the well if you’ll break out the tea. Best make it good and strong. Something tells me everybody here’s gonna need some picking up before too long.”

“Wow,” Merry said, unimpressed. “Cryptic, ominous, and pushy. Do you have to be such a goddamn elf all the time?”

“Ow. My feelings.” Principia lightly shoved her. “That is the single rudest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

“Yeah, that’s a lie,” Merry retorted, grinning.

A few feet to their right, F’thaan suddenly stirred, lifting his head to sniff the air. His little tail began wagging furiously and he let out an excited yap, then bounded off toward the ramp, yapping all the way.

Principia considered collecting him, then decided he’d be fine. There was no one else up here in the mountains, and she detected no nearby animals any bigger than he. Plus, letting him run to meet his keepers might give them leverage to complain about her neglecting him, which they would enjoy and she could use as a conversational hook.

Juniper’s pet also stirred, watching F’thaan go. He straightened up his neck, crest rising in alertness, and turned his head toward the distant path, but did not move to follow the hellhound. After all, his mistress had told him to stay with Principia.

“Good boy, Sniff,” Prin said, stroking his feathers. “You’re a good whatever the hell you are. All right, Lang, let’s heave to. There’s probably time to get a pot of tea and some porridge ready by the time we get to learn what kind of apocalypse we’re in the middle of this time.”


They were still in a good mood when they reached the ruins in which the party was encamped. The more meditatively inclined among them—Toby, Trissiny, and Shaeine—were quiet, as usual; somewhat more surprisingly, so was Juniper, who had generally struck Principia during the trip so far as working hard to think before acting. Pensive or not, though, they were in good spirits, as evidenced by Shaeine giving her a single disinterested glance without any of the put-on hostility she’d been projecting since Last Rock. Both arcane sciences majors were practically abuzz with curious energy, and Teal was more excited than Principia had ever seen her, even with an exhausted little hellhound tucked in the crook of her arm. Most interestingly of all, Ruda was quiet and openly pondering, her eyes narrowed and expression far away. Principia took that as the most significant sign by far; the Punaji princess was thrice as sharp as she usually let people notice, and it said a lot both that something was occupying her mind and that she was too occupied by it to bother pretending otherwise.

“Is that tea I smell?” Toby asked, smiling at her as the group filed onto the plateau, where Principia was awaiting them at parade rest. Sniff finally broke discipline, rushing past her to rejoin Juniper, who knelt to ruffle his feathers affectionately and murmur to him.

“Yep,” she replied. “Lang should just about have some breakfast ready, too. Whatcha got there, Falconer?”

Teal’s ebullience cooled noticeably, though not to the extent of resuming her offended act. She did glance at Shaeine, receiving a small but warm smile in reply. Very interesting; nothing had changed relative to their situation, so if the pair had decided to drop it, that suggested some manner of profound emotional experience causing them to reconsider things in general.

“No offense, Lieutenant, but I’m not sure it’s any of your concern,” Teal replied, cool but not hostile.

“You can’t offend me,” Principia said gently, planting a seed of thought which she looked forward to harvesting. Let them chew on that for a while. “And I’m not looking to butt into your business. But I just had a surprise visit from a god of the Pantheon uttering dire warnings about whatever you’ve been up to, so I think I’m within my rights to be a little concerned.”

That got their attention, all right.

“Which god?” Gabriel demanded.

“Vesk.”

“Oh,” Trissiny said sourly, “great.”

“What did he have to say?” Toby asked in a more even tone.

“Being Vesk, very little that seemed worth the effort of saying, let alone showing up in person. Cryptic chunnering about great change about to happen in the world and you lot doing something over there that was to play a role in kicking it all off.”

“So in other words,” said Trissiny, “as usual he was just being annoying.”

“Now, be fair,” said Toby, “I don’t think Vesk does anything just to be annoying. He sure does manage to work it in every single time, though.”

“We aren’t all paladins, you know,” Principia said. “I’m not accustomed to having personal conversations with gods. Interestingly, it’s the second time in as many years that one felt a need to pay me a visit. The nature of narrative being what it is, if there’s a third I’m gonna be genuinely alarmed. Anywho, he also mentioned that he was present in part to exert some influence on your mysterious project to ensure it went well. With the implication that it could have gone very badly.”

“Oh.” Teal looked down at the wooden mask she was still holding with the hand not occupied by her dog. “I’m…not sure how I feel about that. Vesk had a hand in this?”

“Sobering,” Gabriel agreed. “But…it does sort of make sense, if you think about it.”

“Yeah, he’s kinda laid a claim to…wow, half this group, right?” Fross agreed. “In one way or another. And there was kind of a narrative component to that whole ritual.”

“You don’t trust me,” Principia said matter-of-factly.

They all turned impressively blank stares on her.

“Surely you cannot find that a surprise,” Shaeine said quietly. Certainly not friendly, but she continued not to be aggressive.

Principia grinned in response. “I confess I’d be more than a little concerned if you did. This one, at the very least, I would expect to know better.” She pointed at Trissiny, who pursed her lips in discontent at the gesture. “Well, the question needn’t be resolved this very instant. Let’s go settle in for some nourishment while you lot ponder how involved I already am and to what extent you feel I can be useful to you.”

She gave them a final vague smile as she turned to lead the way back to the campfire.


Principia could still hear their discussion, of course; separating herself and Merry from the group by ten yards to eat their breakfast separately made no significant difference to an elf’s hearing. But they knew that, and more importantly, they knew she knew they knew it, so there was no hint that she was trying to put one over on them. Besides, the hurried debate revealed nothing of interest, being entirely about whether she could and ought to be consulted on any of these matters.

Despite her efforts at detachment, Principia could not help being somewhat warmed by the fact that it was Trissiny who spoke most firmly in favor of asking her input. Sure, the girl made certain to clarify that she wasn’t moved by any personal attachment, and Prin altogether could have done without the reminder that she had none. But Trissiny had a proper Eserite’s understanding of the facts, how even an untrusted individual could be relied upon to behave consistently with their goals and personality, and therefore predicted so long as you knew what those were. She also did a good job of succinctly relating that to the group, aided by Ruda and Shaeine, who as nobles had been similarly trained practically from the cradle.

This tension was, of course, not the relationship she desired with Trissiny. It would have been a fatal blunder to push for more, though, and so as fiercely as she loved her daughter, and more so with every new thing she learned about her, Principia kept herself to the distance Trissiny mandated, letting her take the lead. And if that hurt, well, it wasn’t as if she didn’t royally deserve to be hurt after what she’d done. It all worked out, one way or another.

In the end, it was Fross who came buzzing over to them.

“Hi!” the pixie chimed. “So, I guess you heard all of that.”

“I assume that was directed at you, LT,” Merry said wryly.

“I’m not much of a proper elf, but we get good at minding our own business,” Principia said offhandedly. “So what’s the word?”

“If you’re up for it, Lieutenant Locke, we’d like to consult you on a matter pertaining to the Age of Adventures. Since you’re the only person here who lived through it.”

Interesting. Keeping her expression even, Principia set aside her teacup and rose from her seat. “My time is yours.”

Her expression remained even while Gabriel quickly recounted what they’d done and where the mask had come from, though it required the full two centuries of her experience at projecting a false calm under pressure. Honestly, after all the chaos these kids had been dumped into already, all the responsibility they’d been taught pertaining to their power and place in the world, they’d still done this? Gone to one of the most magically significant sites on this blighted earth, deliberately invoked every considerable metaphysical power to which they were connected, and then not only performed a sacred ritual they barely understood, but improvised it.

Well, to be fair, she’d had nearly as interesting a youth and still had been years older than they were now before she’d learned to think more than two paces beyond the tip of her nose. She also remembered enough about being that age to understand that they’d just get their backs up if bawled out the way they deserved to be. If only Arachne had managed to figure that out after fifty years of shepherding teenagers, maybe this whole situation wouldn’t have transpired in the first place.

“I see,” Principia said when Gabriel finished, looking at the Mask of the Adventurer, which had been set on the ground in the middle of the group. She thought she’d said it quite neutrally, but must have slipped, to judge by the way Trissiny and Toby looked abashed, and Ruda’s nostrils flared in annoyance. “So, I gather you’ve done some basic investigation into what, exactly, that thing does?”

“Well,” Trissiny said, frowning, “long story short, it makes you an adventurer.”

“Uh huh. And…that means…?”

“Well, if you don’t know, who the hell does?” Ruda cackled.

“There’s not much point in asking for her opinion if we’re gonna be difficult about explaining the situation,” Juniper said. Ruda stilled immediately, giving the dryad a slightly incredulous frown.

“I’m the only one who’s tried it on so far,” Teal said, picking up the mask and turning toward Principia. “When you put it on, you change. You get the full…attributes, I guess, of an adventurer. Their complete skills, whatever magic they could do, and the physical weapons and armor they used most effectively. I think these are actually taken from adventurers who once lived, not just made up by the Mask, because of the way it…decides. From the eight of us who contributed a mask to it, it seems to pick one as a kind of basic archetype and then tunnel backward through this haze of experiences until it settles on one. That feels like it takes a while when you’re going through it, but they tell me it’s almost instantaneous when watched from outside.”

“It’s using us as a kind of sorting algorithm!” Fross said excitedly. “Isn’t that fascinating?”

“Hm,” Principia grunted noncommittally, because it was that or fall over. If that thing did what Teal claimed, it was in the running for the most powerful magical artifact in existence. Whoever possessed the Mask of the Adventurer could do… Hell, there was nothing they couldn’t do. There was no one who could stop them. That fact alone made her skeptical; the idea that they had created such a thing by accident was just too ridiculous to bear. “And what adventurer did it turn you into, precisely? Might’ve been someone I know.”

“It didn’t give me any names or identifying details,” Teal said almost apologetically, “just the package of skills and relevant equipment. Oh, but it’s a different one each time! It depends on the situation, and what kind of… Well, actually, it might be easier to demonstrate than explain. Hey, Fross, let’s try you as a combatant again, that one was pretty dramatic.”

“You got it!” the pixie chimed, swirling up into the air. The rest of the group backed away as Teal and Fross squared off, Principia and Merry judiciously removing themselves a dozen paces or so.

“We found it works better to let the other person make an aggressive move first,” Teal explained to them, “that way the Mask knows what’s up and what to do about it. Okay, Fross, you’re up!”

“Sorry in advance if this hurts!” Fross replied, then conjured five points of burning arcane light in the air around herself.

Teal raised the Mask of the Adventurer to her face, and there ensued a split-second whirl of light and energy as if she were buffeted by a magical whirlwind. It resolved nearly instantly, though, leaving her with her hands free, no visible sign of a mask on her face, and attired very differently. She now wore a black robe with elaborate silvery trim and embroidery and holding a staff longer than she was tall, carved of gleamingly polished bone and tipped by fist-sized chunk of faceted obsidian.

Fross unleashed the five nascent arcane bolts, and Teal made a single, almost contemptuous gesture with her staff. All five, each representing enough firepower to punch through a castle door, veered off-course, sliding straight into the head of that staff, whereupon they vanished.

The pixie then fired a blast of pure elemental ice, which splattered fruitlessly against a shield of white light that enveloped Teal.

“Okay, better leave it there,” Teal suggested. “It’s not that I don’t have control, but this isn’t just magic—it’s skills and patterns of thought, including reflexes. I’m concerned if I’m put in real danger I might accidentally hurt you.”

“Good thinking,” Fross agreed, fluttering back down from the altitude she’d assumed to her usual head height. “I would prefer not to get hexed, even in the name of science!”

Teal reached up to her face and grasped the sides, as if taking hold of an invisible mask, then pulled her hands forward. Another brief whirl later, she was again holding the Mask of the Adventurer and wearing her customary suit. Turning to Principia with a grin, she raised her eyebrows. “Well? What do you think?”

“Holy shit,” Merry whispered.

“Corporal,” Principia said sternly.

“Sorry, ma’am. But in my defense…” She gestured at Teal. “Holy shit.”

“Back when I was living in Last Rock,” Principia said noncommittally, hoping Shaeine wasn’t able to hear the pounding of her pulse in her throat, “the Black Wreath tried to recruit me to smuggle you some books on diabolism and get you interested in the topic. I gave them to Trissiny, but they obviously thought you’d have an aptitude in that direction, which just makes sense. Are you sure you haven’t been studying anti-arcane craft on your own?”

“I certainly have not,” Teal retorted, now with an offended frown. “Anyway, you saw that shield—that’s no infernal craft. Actually I’m not sure what sort of magic all that was. It wasn’t the same thing the Mask gave me last time I sparred with Fross. None of it felt familiar.”

Principia’s question had been irrelevant cover for her own mounting unease; she knew exactly what that had been. A few of her least favorite adventures had left her able to immediately recognize the uniform and combat technique of a Scyllithene shadow priestess, something there was no possible way Teal Falconer could have learned.

“Of course,” she said mildly. “No insult meant, I’m just in the habit of reaching for logical explanations before outlandish ones.”

“That is an admirable mindset!” Fross chimed. “But there’s no reason we can’t demonstrate further, if that’d help.”

“Yeah, this one was pretty good,” Ruda chortled, drawing her sword and stepping forward. She adopted a ready stance, the tip of the rapier pointed at Teal’s heart. “En garde, bard!”

Teal raised the mask even as she danced forward, and the swirl of its magic instantly resolved into a swirl of Teal’s body as she spun into the reach of Ruda’s blade, batting it nimbly aside and seeming to flow around the pirate until she ended up, less than a second later, holding her immobilized in a headlock.

She was unarmed, now, but wearing what Principia recognized as the traditional garb of the Radiant Dawn, the Omnist sect from Shengdu which had originally devised and disseminated the Sun Style. They had been extinct since the Sheng civil war thirty years ago.

“Oh, bullshit!” Ruda squalled, struggling ineffectually. “Last time it made her this awesome assassin thing with these wicked daggers, all done up in black leather. Get the fuck off me, Falconer!”

“Obviously, there’s a lot we don’t know,” Trissiny said while Teal released Ruda and then removed the Mask again. “The question I keep coming back to is whether this is drawing from everyone who ever lived and fought during the Age of Adventures, or just the ones who were at that mountain top at the last battle of the Third Hellwar. I know there were a lot of them present, but history doesn’t record most of their identities.”

“Yeah, from a wider perspective adventurers stop being specifically interesting when you gather more than a handful of them in one place,” Principia said lightly. “Then they’re just a hilariously undisciplined army. Okay, so, first question I have is whether that would even work for anyone else. You said only Teal has tried it—given how it was created, there’s a chance it only works for the eight of you. Or nine, however Teal and Vadrieny count for this exercise. The only way to test that is for someone else to try it on.”

A stillness fell over the group and their expressions all became very flat as they turned a united stare on her.

“And I suppose,” Shaeine said softly, “you would like to try it yourself.”

“Well, there wouldn’t be much point in that, now would there?” Principia replied in her mildest tone. “I’m already an adventurer from the Age thereof. Actually, I think there’s an open question whether it would work for me even if it does for others outside your group, but that seems like one of the least important things for us to be settling, here. Say, Lang?”

“Whoah, now,” Merry said, backing up a step and raising her hands even as she turned an alarmed look on the Mask Teal was holding.

“Easy there,” Principia soothed. “I am not going to order you to put that damn thing on your face. Actually, I’m not sure I even can order you to subject yourself to risky magical experimentation—”

“You can’t,” Trissiny clarified.

“—but I wouldn’t anyway. In this case… It would help us all out if you tried, at least once. I don’t see any reason to think that Mask is dangerous to the person wearing it.”

Merry drew in a deep breath, absently scrubbed her palms against the divided leather skirt of her armor, and finally sighed. “I…hell, okay. Sure, if you think it’s safe, I’ll give it a shot.”

“It is specifically extremely unsafe,” Principia cautioned as Teal stepped forward, holding out the Mask. “Just not to you, we think. Remember what Teal said; a package of skills comes with a package of instincts. You can reflexively hurt someone if you let them take over, so keep a cool head.”

“Right. Got it.” Merry actually grimaced as she accepted the Mask from Teal, holding it gingerly by the edges.

“Uh, are we sure this is a good idea?” Gabriel asked.

“As someone who has witnessed Corporal Meredith Lang at her very stupidest moments,” Principia said solemnly, “I still trust her with my life.”

“That’s good enough for me,” said Trissiny.

“All right, then,” Gabe agreed, nodding. “Triss’s say-so is all I need.”

“Let’s not do magic at her, though,” Ruda said, raising her sword again. “That seems like it’s asking for trouble.”

“Actually, Ruda,” Toby interjected, stepping forward. “Would you mind if I cut in? She’s a Silver Legionnaire, after all. A sword duel is already well within her existing skill set.”

“What, you don’t think I can take a Legionnaire in a fight?” Ruda demanded.

“I think you know very well I respect your skills and are now trying to get a rise out of me,” he said with a beatific smile.

Ruda grinned, stepping back and sheathing her rapier. “Yeah, yeah, lemme have my fun.”

“This will not put you in any physical danger, Corporal,” Toby said politely to Merry. “I will come at you with both my magic and martial arts, but neither has an offensive application. My intent will be only to subdue you. Fair?”

“Yeah, that helps a little, I guess,” she muttered, fingers working nervously at the edges of the Mask as she raised it toward her face. “Okay, bring it on.”

He flared to light, projecting a bright aura, and conjured a staff of pure golden energy. Toby flowed toward Merry as she pressed her face into the Mask of the Adventurer.

In the next moment, following the distinctive swirl of energy, she was surging backward with an equally fluid motion. Gone was her Legion armor; instead she wore an incongruous formal suit, with a black tailcoat and gray trousers.

A Butler uniform.

Toby swept the staff at her knees and Merry, moving as fast as an elf, hopped onto it, using the barely momentary foothold upon the improvised weapon as a launching point to land a flying kick right on his face.

Even his reflexes were barely fast enough, even with his response requiring only thought and not a movement of the body. Toby’s staff vanished as he snapped a golden shield of light into place around himself, scarcely in time to avoid being stomped unconscious.

Merry didn’t miss a beat, turning the aborted kick into another launching motion, this time bounding straight upward. She landed right on top of his shield, the contact with her shoes causing it to fizz and sparkle at that point and making the entire sphere visible with the strain.

Toby whirled this way and that, tried to knock her or throw her off, to no avail. She deftly sidestepped his jabs at her feet, moving in tiny and precise steps no matter which way he tried to sling her, riding the bubble like a trained circus animal balancing on a ball. Every second she was physically in contact with the shield put more strain upon it, hastening its demise.

The paladin deliberately dropped the shield rather than waiting for her to wear it out, hurling himself to the side as he did so. Merry plunged straight down and flexed her knees slightly on landing, arriving back on the ground in a perfect parade rest pose.

She paused, straightened her bowtie, and then folded her hands behind her back, waiting impassively for him to attack again.

Toby stared at her, then raised his hands. “Okay, enough.”

“Holy fuck,” Ruda muttered.

Merry probed experimentally at her face with both hands, finding purchase and then pulling the Mask off herself. In the next moment, holding it, her expression morphed into sheer awe. “Whoah.”

“It would be bad enough if that thing only reproduced the skills of one of the eight of you,” Principia said. “But apparently it can give any package of known skills and powers to any person who puts it on. Okay, I am really not in the habit of taking a lecturing tone with any living person, even the ones I really should—ask Lang if you doubt me—so take that as a sign of how serious this is. Do you kids have any idea what you’ve done?”

They all stared at the mask now dangling from Merry’s hands, their expressions at least revealing that they were finally beginning to ponder the implications as well as the possibilities.

Principia blew out a breath of sheer incredulity. “Well. I’ll say this: Arachne is going to secretly be very proud while she’s murdering you all to death.”

“Hey, look on the bright side,” Merry offered with a sudden grin, and raised the mask to her face again.

After the whirl of energy, she was wearing brown trousers and a matching vest over a green shirt, and very distinctive golden-rimmed spectacles. Smirking, she snapped her fingers and teleported to the other side of the group. “After this? Maybe you don’t need to worry about what Tellwyrn will think.”

“Lang,” Principia said in her very calmest tone, “take that thing off.”

Merry’s expression stilled, then suddenly grew alarmed. She grasped at her face and practically clawed the Mask off, drawing a breath of relief when it was away. With no further prompting she strode to Teal and practically shoved the Mask back into her hands.

“Oh, boy,” Gabriel said softly. “This…is gonna have some consequences, isn’t it.”

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15 – 30

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Dawn came early in the mountains. They had set out from the old Order of the Light station at the first graying of the sky, and so arrived in the ancient, battle-scarred courtyard below the Great Tree just as the first orange light was peeking between the crags to the east.

The group proceeded in silent single file across the pitted ground until they reached a point as near the center of the space as could be reckoned at a glance. They were unaccompanied by animal companions this time, Sniff and F’thaan being back at the camp under Principia’s supervision. Without speaking, they moved smoothly into place, arranging themselves in a circle facing one another. There was silence save for the soft whisper of wind through the Tree’s branches for a moment, and then Gabriel drew in a deep breath, clearly to steady himself.

“Okay,” he said, his voice not quite nervous but just short of certainty. “This was my idea, after all, so I guess I’ll take point in guiding it…but that shouldn’t be a factor for much longer. We’re all equals in this circle, that’s the point. So… We know why we’re here. This started with Teal, but I want to reiterate that while I do hope this helps her…this is for all of us. We’ve all got our… That is, this is about the group.” He hesitated for two beats, unconsciously rubbing his palms against his coat. “This is a Vidian ceremony, or at least, is built on one. Truth is, only one of us here is Vidian and I’m, like, only technically. I’ve been getting the impression Vidius wants me as specifically a kind of anti-priest, which is…neither here nor there. Point is, this is not a ceremony for any one faith. It’s something that occurred to me because it has specific relevance to the issues that have been raised before us. This, I believe, is something we can all benefit from, so long as we make it our own.”

He gained poise as he spoke, straightening his spine and ceasing to hesitate and second-guess his words. “The Doctrine of Masks, like all great religious dogmas, is a very specific way of interpreting a universal observation about life. None of us here observe the Doctrine and several of you might not even be aware of it. We all wear masks, in a way, and we’re here to confront that fact and even make it work for us, but not to embrace Vidian practice exactly. We have all spent the night in contemplation, as I asked. By now, I’m confident that all of you have found the answers I asked you to bring forward. I have, for my part. If you’re less confident about whatever you’ve come up with, I’ll tell you this up front: it is enough. All of you are plenty smart in the ways that matter, and all of us know each other well enough by now to make of this what it needs to be. We will be borrowing from many sources of both power and wisdom, and so we’ll begin by making them ours. It’s dawn, a time of transition, a boundary between two states. To begin, we will define this space, for the duration we need it, as ours. Each of you has something to invoke, to set our ritual space apart. Before the sun rises further, I will begin.”

Gabriel took one step backward, drawing his gnarled black wand from within his coat; in his hand it extended to its full length, the scythe’s blade gleaming sullenly in the dim light, while its knotted haft seemed almost to be cast from shadow. He raised the weapon in both hands.

“By the blade of death itself, I cleave this space from the world. This spot, for as long as we need it, is ours.”

He swept the scythe in a wide arc through the middle of the circle, a mostly symbolic gesture that had an immediate reflection in the physical world. A line of shadow ripped across the ground around the eight students, forming into a ring enclosing them together. It was almost invisible upon the ground, but where the dim light cast shadows upon the ground from the many rocks and roots protruding, they changed angle, as though the light inside that circle had been rotated a few degrees.

Gabriel stepped silently back into line, and there was a momentary pause.

Then Toby stepped forward, hands folded at his waist.

“I ask Omnu’s light upon this place. By the shift in shadow, of Vidius’s own rank in the Pantheon, I will the light only to heal and to calm. None here are to be burned, or judged.”

Golden light descended upon them. Though the sun was only just coming up in the east, scintillating beams of sunlight streamed down from within the leaves of the Great Tree high above. Toby lifted his face to smile up at them, then stepped back into place.

“Uh, scuze me for speaking out of turn here,” Ruda said, sounding uncharacteristically nervous herself, “but is that supposed to happen? I’d like to think I’ve gotten a pretty good handle on paladin shit by now and I had zero idea you two could do that.”

“Actually, that was…a surprise,” Toby admitted.

“Yeah, I was thinking this was gonna be just a ceremonial invocation,” Gabriel agreed. “This…I dunno. It’s not what I would’ve expected, but it feels right.”

“This is an extraordinarily sacred place,” Shaeine said quietly, “and we are each connected to considerable powers through the web of magic. Surprises should not, perhaps, be surprising.”

“Trust your feelings,” Juniper added in just as soft a tone. “We’re safe here. You’ll know if something is wrong. And in fact, let that be my invocation.” She took a step forward into the circle, raising one hand toward the light beaming down from the tree. “Though severed from Naiya by my own crimes, I am still a daughter of nature, and a being animated by fae magic. The magic of emotion, and intuition. I call upon the trust and wisdom within each of us, within this place, and within reality itself. Let us know balance in what we do here.”

Small flowers popped up right out of the rocky ground, in a neat ring around their feet just inside the subtle rim of shadow.

Fross fluttered forward as she stepped back. “I don’t…really know what I am. Pixies don’t work the way I do. How I seem to convert fae magic to arcane just by existing, that’s…that’s never been explained to my satisfaction. But right now, I’m seeing a parallel to this situation here, so that is the invocation I want to offer you all. Building on Juniper’s blessing, I call on whatever it is that animates the arcane to add its gifts. From whatever peace of mind we’re given, let’s also draw comprehension and reason, to apply to whatever happens. I invoke my gift of arcane intellect on behalf of my friends!”

As she returned to her position, a faint tracery of blue lines shimmered into being across the pitted stone, forming a geometric pattern of intricate mathematical perfection linking them all together.

Ruda stepped forward next, drawing in a steadying breath of her own. “Okay, well, I’m out of my fucking element here. Magic I understand as something predictable and useful, but there’s some serious spookery going on that I do not get. But it doesn’t feel wrong. It comes from you guys, and hell, I trust you. Hardly anyone else in the world, but if my life and my soul are in the hands of the people here, I’m fine with it. So that’s what I bring to this apparently sacred space we’re apparently carving out.” She drew her sword, the mithril blade hissing gently in the quiet, and strode all the way forward till she could rest it point down in the very center of the circle. “By the unfair, unreasoning, bullshit wrath of the sea, by the blade that cuts magic itself, I claim this spot as ours. None are welcome to interfere.”

She withdrew her hand, and the rapier remained there, perfectly balanced on its tip, even as she backed slowly away to resume her position.

“Did you…know it was going to do that?” Trissiny asked.

“Hell, I know nothing,” Ruda muttered. “It felt right, is all. So, there we are.”

Trissiny nodded, then took a step forward into the circle. “None of the provinces of the particular gods I serve seem relevant to us here, but…there is a universal virtue that’s necessary to everything both Avei and Eserion seek to accomplish. Necessary to everyone, really. I know what we’re doing will involve looking within ourselves, finding and confronting some realities, and having done a bit of that I can tell you it’s harder and more frightening than anything I’ve faced that put my life in physical danger. So, that is what I wish for us. What I invoke, and share with all of you, my friends. Whatever comes next, while we are together in this space, I wish you courage.”

By that point they were accustomed to the occasional sight of the golden eagle wings that flared into being behind her, but this time there were eight pairs, flanking each of the. Only for a startled moment, and then they faded. But gold continued to drift down, accompanying Omnu’s sunbeams; shimmering, intangible feathers of light that drifted like falling leaves from the tree, fading out of being as they touched the ground.

Gabriel made an aborted noise in his throat and pressed his lips together firmly.

“Excuse me,” Trissiny said incredulously, “are you laughing?”

“I’m sorry!” he protested. “It’s just… Fross, with giant golden eagle wings. That image is gonna be burned into my memory forever.”

“Okay, I’m actually sort of sorry I didn’t get to see that,” Fross agreed.

Trissiny heaved an annoyed sigh, but by the time it had finished even she was forced to smile.

Shaeine glided forward a step, folding her hands in the same position Toby had. “My goddess, I think, is specifically relevant here, more so than I am personally. My House trains diplomats, but I think that between us… We are past the point of needing negotiation. I know and trust each of you like…” She hesitated, then swallowed heavily. “…like family. With Themynra’s permission, and by her grace, I ask the gift of judgment, to build upon what Juniper and Fross have already invoked. Whatever we hear, whatever we learn and discover, let us think carefully and seek to understand before reacting.”

Silver mist thickened out of the air, drifting on the ground around them—specifically, concentrated around the tiny flowers, and glittering softly above the blue geometric pattern of the circle.

As Shaeine stepped back into place, Teal took a step forward. She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply, then opened them.

“This will be for us, not just me,” she said quietly, and the fire subsumed her eyes, her hair, spreading from behind her as fiery wings. Claws and talons formed, lifting her almost a full foot higher off the ground. The harmonic chorus of Vadrieny’s voice was somber and incongruously gentle. “I feel we have little to offer of our own, but our gifts may build on what you have already invoked, all of you. Music is harmony, mathematics, emotion, passion, precision… All of it, all of life viewed from every angle. We lend our support to the peace and augmentation you have wished upon this space, to the barrier separating it out, and to the warning that any who mean us harm should not dare encroach. To all of you, to us, to this space, we offer our song.”

She closed her eyes, and hummed a single long note in her throat. The sounds around them were faint, only the distant sea of air and leaves, but a strangely harmonious quality descended upon them as Vadrieny softly lent her voice. The difference it made was barely comprehensible to mortal senses, but it could be felt. She slowly trailed off, her voice fading into silence, and by the end it was impossible to spot the exact point at which Vadrieny herself stopped humming and the music of the wind and earth took over.

As she stepped back into place and withdrew, leaving Teal behind, the silence was no longer silent. For a few long seconds, the whole group simply stood there, listening to inaudible harmonies surrounding them.

“I have the strangest feeling,” Fross finally said quietly. “Like…we’ve set into motion something super important, that we can’t fully understand.”

“I feel the same,” Shaeine agreed. “And that we must stay in motion. It is too late to stop.”

“It’s dangerous to do some things halfway,” said Gabriel, nodding. “But that’s the first half, done, and wherever this is going… Well, now’s the time to go there. This started with Teal, with the fundamental truth about bards, and the utility of masks. It expanded to Shaeine, and the discomfort between the expectations of her culture and how groups of people operate outside it. This…is all about masks. We’re borrowing from Vidian forms, as I said, but what we do here will be for us, by us, and it will be ours. We have a lot to learn from our faiths, but we won’t be defined by any one system.” He glanced at Trissiny and cracked a smile. “There’s an old saying about systems that comes to mind.”

She grinned back. After a momentary pause, Gabriel’s expression sobered and he continued, slowly looking around the group at each of them in turn.

“In our vigil last night, I asked you all to contemplate masks. Specifically, the one you wear which has the most use, the most potential, to be a gift offered to others. A Vesker bard plays a role in life in order to control the story they are in, but all that sets them apart is the skill and consciousness with which they do it. We’re all playing a role, wearing a mask; we wear many of them, in fact, in different situations. This ritual is one of sharing. It…is a great intimacy. Masks will be removed here, exposing true faces beneath. More than that, masks will be offered. Each of us will put forth into the circle the mask we wear most powerfully. In this way we not only make ourselves vulnerable, but we grant that power to each other to use. We will each share our strength eight ways.”

He paused before finishing in a quieter tone. “I love you all. I trust you with this…with the ability to hurt me. And I’m honored as hell that you’re all willingly here, doing the same.”

All of them smiled broadly. Even Shaeine, whose reddish eyes seemed to glitter in the drifting golden light.


So far, Principia was having a fairly quiet morning. The two Order of the Light guides were still asleep in their own improvised quarters, and the animals were very well behaved—or at least, Sniff was well-behaved, and F’thaan was asleep. By far the worst of her inconveniences was Merry and her pointed comments about Prin not getting the nap she had promised to.

The corporal was just gearing up for another of those when suddenly the elf, the protobird and the hellhound all snapped upright in unison, alert and watchful as deer which had scented a wolf.

“What?” she demanded, unconsciously reaching for her sword. “What is it?”

“Have you given much thought to the ramifications of this scheme of yours, Locke?” a new voice asked.

Merry whirled, then froze, her eyes widening. He was an oddly-dressed man in a truly ridiculous hat, otherwise physically nondescript, but she remembered him well from their previous encounter, brief as it was. Vesk winked cheekily at her in passing but did not slow, sauntering forward to stand next to Principia and stare across the distance at the Great Tree and the shattered fortress spread around its base.

The elf seemed to consider his question carefully before answering, one hand gently smoothing down Sniff’s crest of feathers. F’thaan huddled at her feet, staring up at the god in clear uncertainty whether he should be afraid.

“I give thought to everything I do,” Principia said at last. “But that wasn’t a sincere question, was it? You’re just opening the dialogue so you can talk at me.”

“Well, hey, you do know your theology!” Vesk chuckled, slapping her on the shoulder.

“I get by. What I don’t know is why you are here right now, but none of the possibilities aren’t terrifying. I remember what happened the last time.”

“I was okay with that,” Merry offered tremulously. “I mean, sure, we almost died half a dozen times, but it got us results.”

“See?” Vesk cocked a thumb over his shoulder at her. “She gets it. I’m gonna break character a bit and answer your question, my dear Keys. I’m here because a god is in truth a slave to their core concept. Because a motley collection of attractive and heavily-armed youths have just gathered up a big handful of every string tied to every magical force at work in the world and are fixing to yank on it until reality itself stretches so far that they can tear a piece off. And notably, because fully half of them are individuals I have personally sought out and designated my own protagonists in the big story playing out in the world right now. I’m here, to an extent, because somebody needs to apply a guiding hand to that so the result is something useful to them and not just a giant backlash that upends everybody’s applecart. But ultimately? I am here because I really don’t have a choice.”

“I see, she said sarcastically,” she said warily. “So…how come you are here, and not there? Nothing I’m doing is nearly as interesting as that.”

“Oh, that’s a very self-contained scene,” he explained. “It’s all very intimate; can’t have interlopers, it would throw off the whole dynamic. Nah, I can keep a weather eye on things from this close, and this way I’m not interfering in their business. Plus, this way I can indulge in some of my favorite pastimes! Y’know, light expository dialogue, perhaps a soupcon of character development. Specifically it allows me to ask that piercing question, which contains the hidden answer you’ll need to tell you what you will have to do in the aftermath of what’s about to happen thanks to those kids.”

He turned his head to regard her seriously.

“Do you realize, Principia Locke, what you are doing?”

“Okay, I’ll play along,” she said, subtly leaning away from him. “But not without spoiling the rhetorical game you’re playing by pointing it out. I still have to be me. What, Lord Vesk, am I doing?”

“You are building a bonfire that’s going to burn the world before it peters out,” he said in a much softer tone, turning back to gaze at the distant ruins. “Your actions here and in the days just ahead will gather the kindling and stack the wood, all so you can ignite a new Age of Adventures. And what those precious little bastards are about to do is strike a god damn spark.”


It was Teal who spoke first, after drawing in a steadying breath. “Well. This began with me, and with my own…bloody intransigence, that you all finally called me out for. It’s okay,” she added hastily when Toby and Juniper both opened their mouths to protest. “You were right, and I’m glad you did. I’ve been fighting with this for… Well, for my whole life. And while we were keeping vigil last night, I really focused on why. And I think, finally, I’ve sorted it out.

“Everything I have ever done in life has been a struggle between being myself, and hiding myself. From the very beginning, I think that’s why I was drawn to bards. In every story, the bard’s personality is both their armor and weapon. Gods, how I wanted that. My parents always wanted me to express who I was, but at the same time, there were always expectations… And then, there was Vadrieny, and the stakes suddenly became life or death. We… Well, I could retreat into myself and not be alone anymore. I needed less from others; she never needed others. We could be loved, alone together, and the world outside was nothing but expectations and rules. We managed. Without her own memories, she adopted my goals, and so we still loved the idea of the bard, wanted to be that. It’s just… Well, in our situation, adopting an oversized personality would have been a lethally bad idea.”

She turned her head to smile warmly at Shaeine. “And then there was her. All of you guys, don’t get me wrong, but mostly…her. Another person with whom to be vulnerable, and yet safe. Where there were no expectations, just us together. And… I realize, now, how I let us all slip into that rut. It was just so easy to let the few people we truly trusted give us roles to fulfill. We stopped trying to control our own life, let Tellwyrn and Ashaele tell us who to be. But…not Shaeine.”

Teal shifted to gaze directly at her mate, voice dropping to a whisper. “For all the strength you’ve given to me, to us, my love… Our love, I cherish the most that you were finally willing to stand up to me. Because I know how you hate to cause me pain, but you were willing anyway when I needed it. All of you,” she added, sweeping her gaze around the circle. “This is where we’ve come to after taking the night to try to parse it all. I don’t have answers, but thanks to you, I’ve faced the questions. I thank you for making me confront this. I don’t know where we are going next, but I realize, now, how we got here. And that is what I give you.”

She raised both hands to the sides of her face, pantomiming grasping the edges of a mask as Gabriel had instructed them all the night before. “This has become a crutch and a weakness for me, but it also enabled Vadrieny and I to survive when nothing else would have. I can’t depend on it any longer, but used the right way at the right time, there is great value in being able to project back at people whatever they expect to see. I take it off now, and give that value to you: the Mask of Mirrors.”

Teal moved her hands forward from her face, and there was a flash. She actually jumped, several of them gasped, and Ruda muttered a curse. Teal was holding an actual, physical mask, a simple oblong bowl shape with holes for the eyes and mouth. The entire thing was chrome, polished to such a gloss that it reflected in perfect detail like an actual mirror.

“Uh, whoah,” Teal said nervously. “I didn’t know it would make an actual… Gabe?”

“That…wasn’t supposed to…” He scratched the top of his head, squinting in puzzlement. “It’s a ceremony, all of this was supposed to be kind of metaphorical.”

“Yeah, so, here’s a theory,” said Ruda. “Maybe when you bring together a bunch of people intimately connected to a bunch of the major metaphysical powers of the world, have ’em improvise a ritual to magically define a sacred space right on top of one of the most already sacred spaces in the world and then have ’em do a ceremony they barely understand… Shit goes down.”

All of them were silent for a moment, staring at the light glittering across the Mask of Mirrors as Teal shifted it this way and that in her hands.

“Here’s what I can tell at a glance:” Fross said at last. “That thing is lousy with magic and I can’t tell at all what any of it does. Also, this part bothers me a little that I can’t articulate exactly why, but I’m not bothered. This feels okay. Is anybody else getting the same?”

There was a round of nods and murmurs of agreement.

“We are operating under a stack of blessings to judgment, intellect, and intuition,” Toby added. “I think if we were in danger, we would know. What I feel is that we should proceed.”

“Here,” Teal said softly. Holding up the Mask of Mirrors, she stepped forward two paces, turned its surface to face her, and then slowly released it, as though hanging it on a wall.

The mask remained in position when she let go. Teal stepped back into the line, and the Mask of Mirrors began a slow orbit, gliding in a continuous circle around Ruda’s sword as if to gaze at each of them in turn.

“Huh,” Juniper said in sheer wonder. “How’d you know it would do that?”

Teal shrugged. “It just felt right.”

“Well, then.” Trissiny stepped forward next. “I don’t even know what powers are operating here, but after last night I believe I know what I need to do. In a way…last night was kind of a point of closure for me. I know I’ve been apart from this group a lot lately, sorting out my own stuff, and while meditating on that I came to a surprising conclusion.”

She hesitated, then shook her head, smiling ruefully. “It’s the strangest thing. Going off on my own was what enabled me to find some truths I desperately needed. To grow in ways that were long overdue. It’s while I’ve been with you guys that I feel I’ve failed the most. Not because you were holding me back or anything—quite the opposite. Maybe because…because you were there to catch me when I fell.” Her eyes met Gabriel’s across the circle. “You have all seen me at my worst. And yet, I’m still welcome here. You’ve both backed me up and stood up to me when I needed it. I had friends, when I went to the Guild in Tiraas, this is true. People who helped me learn and supported me as I did them. It’s you who’ve come to define… Not who I am, but I think, the potential of who I could…who I want to be.”

Trissiny raised her hands as Teal had done, taking a deep breath and preparing to grasp the edges of a mask that did not yet exist. “My delusion was always the assumption that Avei was one thing, and Eserion something opposite. It’s more than those two; they aren’t even poles on one continuum. Life is vague, chaotic…there’s value in structures and systems, but we cannot be defined by them. The truth will not be handed to you. It must be hunted down, and it hides in surprising places. None of you are me; I know a bit about your personal journeys, by now. My answers won’t help you. But my means of finding them can. That is what I surrender, to offer my friends: the will and the method to seek out your own truth. The Mask of the Huntress.”

She pulled her hands away, the light flared in the circle, and Trissiny was holding a second mask. This one was identical to Teal’s in shape, but seemed to be carved of ebony. The right half of its face was marked with a silver eagle’s wing, just like the traditional tattoos worn by the Silver Huntresses of old. Trissiny held it up, hesitated, then released her fingers.

The Mask of the Huntress floated forward in the air to join the Mask of Mirrors, and began orbiting opposite it.

Gabriel blew out a short breath. “Man, this is all getting more real than I was planning on… Okay, here goes.” He stepped forward as Trissiny moved back into line. “I relate hard to a lot of what Trissiny just said. You guys…you’ve all see me do some pretty dumb stuff. I feel like you pretty much know what my foibles are by now so it’s not really worth reciting the list. If you really wanna hear the list I’m sure Ruda has it written down somewhere.” He paused, grinning, then let the expression of amusement subside quickly. “I fail a lot, even now. I’m not done growing, not by a long shot. The single most important thing I’ve learned is…to learn. Nobody has all the answers, or even most of them. Vidius himself told me that screwing around is my greatest strength, and I think I finally understand what he meant. You have to try things. Sometimes you’ll succeed, and gain a new trick. Sometimes you’ll fail, and get hurt, and gain a lesson. I couldn’t actually say which I think is the more valuable.”

He raised his hands to his face, taking a breath to steel himself. “Since this all started with talk about bards and archetypes, I’ve found myself thinking about that a lot. I remember some of the names people have called me over the years—including several of you lot—and something I picked up from a half-demon shopkeeper I met in Tiraas about fortune-telling: a tarot deck is just a list of archetypes, and a spread of cards doesn’t tell the future, it tells a story. That’s why the first card is the Fool, the ignorant kid who starts every great story not being worth a damn, but has the potential to grow into a hero. That’s the most valuable trait I have, and the one I want to share with you all:” He pulled, the air flashed, and he was holding up a third mask. “The Mask of the Fool.”

It was a little larger than the other two, due to its upper half being carved in the semblance of a multi-pointed jester’s hat. The rest was plain white ceramic, different from the previous two only in that its mouth was turned upward in a big smile.

Upon being released, it joined the other two in their slow circle, all three adjusting to be an equal distance apart.

“I think I like the way Fross put it,” Ruda said after a momentary pause. “I’m bothered that I’m not bothered. Yeah, this all feels weirdly correct, but… We are obviously fucking around with high-quality mojo that we weren’t expecting and don’t even slightly understand, and it’s doing some incredibly vivid shit that’s… I don’t even know what to make of this. Should we consider that maybe we ought to be more concerned than we are? I mean, Fross’s addition to that invocation was explicitly encouragement to trust our intellect.”

“It’s always wise to be wary of unknown magic,” Trissiny agreed, “but not every rule applies in every situation. This has a major fae component, it’s highly personal to us, and it is happening in one of the magically safest and most neutral spots in the world. At the moment, my intellect tells me to trust my feelings.”

“Yeah, I can see your point,” Ruda said, though she still frowned.

“Be mindful of what Yornhaldt and Ekoi have taught us,” Shaeine added. “In ritual magic, it is often far more dangerous not to finish what you start. In the interests of that, if no one objects, I would like to offer my contribution.”

The drow stepped forward one pace into the circle, again folding her hands at her waist, but unusually she inhaled a long deep breath, which was closer to a loss of composure than she usually betrayed in public.

“I hope that you will forgive my arrogance in saying this, but I feel that my journey at the University has been of a fundamentally different type than any of yours. I have found great joy in the privilege of watching you all grow into the people you will be, but for my part, I was assiduously trained and molded into the person I was to become long before we met. Not perfect by any means, and most certainly with a great deal to learn. But my path has been the least transformative of any of ours, I believe. I am a creature of Tar’naris, and would not—cannot—change that.”

She paused, lowering her eyes for a moment, then raised them again resolutely.

“Instead…I have been increasingly forced to face the limits of my perspective, even as I have become ever more committed to them. To be Narisian in an isolated society is a very different matter than to be Narisian in a wider, connected world. My people are grappling with this truth, and we must find answers as a society. Perhaps I can help with that, but I cannot presume to determine the solution Tar’naris as a whole will embrace. I only know what I feel I must do. And… And I am increasingly pained by the barriers between us. I need those; they are a central part of my identity. But the walls that define social roles, to me, are immutable and not for me to determine alone. Yet while I am outside my home city, they are not how things work. Not how people exist together. I am deeply grateful to all of you, to Gabriel, for this ceremony, for the half-measure it offers. To protect my identity as I must, while opening myself at least a little, as I so desperately want to.”

She met Teal’s eyes, the human smiling warmly with her eyes practically glowing with love. Shaeine raised her hands to touch the sides of her face, taking another long breath.

“I offer this mask to you all, partly in the hope that it may serve you. Because you all do tend to wear your hearts pinned to your robes, and some of you in particular might be better off with a bit of reserve to hide behind. But mostly, I do this to finally be able to remove it, and be…among you. One of the mess that is us.”

The change was the most dramatic yet, not just because she conjured a featureless gray mask out of thin air just by moving her hands, but because lowering it transformed her entire face. Suddenly, Shaeine was grinning at them, her features alight with joy, tears glistening unshed in her eyes.

“By the goddess, it feels good to say this. I love you. Each of you wonderful, ridiculous, brilliant, blithering idiots. I’d shed the last drop of my blood for the sake of any one of you, and I’m not just saying that because I know that having a bunch of ham-fisted powerhouses for friends means I’ll probably never have to back it up. Nobody gets to choose their family, and I sure as hell didn’t choose any of you weirdos—except Teal and Vadrieny, who already know this—but you’re as dear to me as any being alive and not for anything in the cosmos would I give up a single one of you. So I offer you the Blank Mask, and may it serve you at need. I’m just as glad to be rid of it.”

They were all grinning widely in return as the plain gray mask floated forward to join the others. Ruda chuckled aloud.

“Man, it really says something that the single most touching thing I’ve ever been told included calling me a blithering idiot.”

“Well, say what you will about this group,” Gabriel agreed, “we know who we are! And Shaeine, just, wow. You almost look like a different person! I wish I’d gotten to see you smile like that before, it makes you twice as gorgeous. I mean!” he said hastily, eyes widening as they shifted to look at Teal. “Not that I was—you know, I would never… Aw, crap.”

“Oh, look,” Juniper teased, “Gabe did an awkward.”

“At this point,” Trissiny said innocently, “shouldn’t we just call that doing a Gabriel?”

“Thank, Triss, that’s great.”

“I don’t mean to be a wet blanket or anything,” Fross chimed, “but is it maybe a bad idea to interrupt this inexplicably powerful sacred ritual with jokes and bickering?”

“Well, this is an extremely personal sacred ritual,” Toby replied, still smiling, “in a way the metaphysical and surprisingly literal embodiment of us. Looked at from that perspective, it might not work at all if we didn’t.”

“Okay, yeah, I’ve got no counterpoint and wow isn’t that just a little telling.” Fross fluttered forward a couple of feet to the accompaniment of laughter. “Since I’m already talking, then, I guess I’ll go next! So, irrespective of how this ceremonial thing works out, I’m already really grateful to Gabe for having this idea because of the vigil part last night. I’ve been learning and growing such a tremendous amount in just the last couple of years that I feel like an almost unrecognizably different person than I was when I first came to Last Rock, but I’ve never really stopped to look inward and think about why and how I’ve changed. Last night I realized I’m just not a very introspective person in general, and I feel like that might be a character flaw which I should watch out for in the future… But anyway, I feel like I’ve gained some valuable perspective here and I’m very glad for that. You all probably remember how I spent the first semester basically trying to memorize every rule and use that to get by in society?”

“The University isn’t exactly society,” Trissiny answered when the pixie paused, “but I don’t think I’ll ever forget you trying to teach us century-old adventurer slang on our first Crawl delve.”

Fross emitted an amused arpeggio of chimes. “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I mean. The thing is…it stems from the place I come from, what pixies are like, and how I’m inherently different. Not just the arcane magic thing, though I’m certain that’s connected. I had the chance to reflect a bit on this when Juniper and Aspen and…Professor Ekoi and I went to the Deep Wild a while ago.”

“You did what?” Gabriel asked, blinking.

Fross chimed again. “Long story, but anyway. There’s just not a lot to pixies, intellectually. As annoying as it is when people are surprised that I’ve got a functioning mind, I can’t a hundred percent blame them. Pixies are flying bundles of magic and emotion, and given how much I hated living that way I’ve tried really hard to devote myself to intellectual pursuits. And I regret none of that! Probably because all this has come along before I had the chance to find a way to really get myself in trouble with it, which I’m sure I would have because it seems like a core lesson of all history and psychology is that every virtue becomes a fault if you let it run away with you.

“What really struck me after spending a night pondering on it is how much I’ve been shaped as a person, and not just an intelligent being, by you guys. It seems like everything I’ve learned about functioning as a person in relation to other people was shaped by this class, and I’m suddenly incredibly grateful that I was in a class with you specifically and not a lot of the other people we’ve met, because wow. People can be pretty awful. Shaeine’s right, all of us can be ridiculous and weird and flawed at times, but when it comes down to it? You guys are the family I wouldn’t have known to ask for if anyone had told me beforehand that I needed one, and I’m so grateful for you.

“In the end it wasn’t hard at all for me to see the mask I’ve been hiding behind. And you know what, I still appreciate it. It’s a very useful quality which, no offense, most of you could use a little more of. But I’m glad for this chance to introspect, and see how I shouldn’t over-rely on one trait at the expense of others that are also valuable. So I’m taking off the Mask of Logic, and sharing it with you, but it’s a mask I plan to wear again. A lot. Maybe not as much, though.” She paused, then chimed discordantly. “I’m sure you can’t see but I’m totally doing that ceremonial gesture Gabe told us about. If this produces a pixie-sized mask I’m really gonna laugh.”

In fact, the flash of light seemed somewhat muted as the color of Fross’s bright aura reduced it to an anomalous flicker in context, but the Mask of Logic itself was full-sized to match the others. Its oval shape was the same, though its eye and mouth holes were simple, narrow rectangular slits, the mask’s porcelain white surface marked with angular geometric patterns in pale blue that were reminiscent of Fross’s addition to the protective circle around them now.

There was a short, pensive pause while they watched the five masks spin in their slow midair circle, the stylized faces seeming to study each of them in turn as they passed by.

It was Juniper who broke the quiet, stepping forward and unconsciously fingering her new sunburst pendant.

“I’ve really appreciated hearing all this,” the dryad said quietly. “Maybe I’m pretty self-centered, but I guess I never really understood that you were all grappling with these issues, too. You’ve all matured a lot and changed some while I’ve known you, but all of you always seemed… Well, it seemed to me like you understood what you were going through in a way I never did. Now I kinda feel like I was wrong about that. Um, no offense meant.”

“None’s taken,” Trissiny said a little wryly. “That’s a really valid observation, Juniper.”

“The more I learn,” Gabriel intoned with utter solemnity, “the more I understand that I understand fuck all about anything.”

“The more I learn,” Ruda added in the same tone, “the more I understand that Gabe knows fuck all about anything.”

“Your parents didn’t stab you nearly enough growing up, Ruda.”

“Guys,” Toby interjected. “Please go on, Juniper.”

“It’s okay,” she said, smiling. “I like this. It’s…gentle. I sort of appreciate how we are as a group, how we can joke and needle and even be a little hostile and yet there’s always this unspoken certainty that we’re safe together. It’s…a nurturing context that I badly needed, and I’ve only just learned how much.”

She hesitated, her expression wavering, and then steeled herself, squaring her shoulders.

“I started my personal adventure among society thinking that living by impulse and animal instinct made me natural and right, and all the rest of everything civilized people did was aberrant and I didn’t have to respect it. And…immediately I started to realize how wrong that was, but I hid from it for a long time. Until things built to a head and I couldn’t anymore, and…well, you were all there.” Juniper paused to take another deep, steadying breath. “I don’t know how much better I’ve done since then. I’ve tried. I’ve succeeded some…failed a lot. I’ve done some good and a lot of harm. The truth is, I have no idea what I’m doing, or where I’m going, or how to be a person. But… But I feel, for maybe the first time, like I’m getting there. Like I can afford to make mistakes, and be wrong sometimes, and it’ll be an opportunity to learn and grow and not just another disaster. Almost everything I understand about how to not be a monster, I got from you all. You’re my family, more than Naiya or even my sisters have ever been. You’re the forces that have shaped me the most in directions that I’m proud of. I will always be grateful for you all.

“And so.” She lifted her hands to her face, closing her eyes. “I still don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m gonna keep trying. And I now formally disavow this crutch, this lie that I’ve used to hide from reality. I will not touch it again. Maybe it will be of some use to you. I don’t really see how, but I mean to do my very best to be a good friend, and try to give you all the support you’ve given me. As a person, not as a vehicle for magical bullshit. And I will do all that, whatever happens, without hiding behind the Mask of the Wild.”

It emerged from nothingness in a flash, a deep crimson mask painted in the countenance of a great fanged, snarling mouth. Notably, it had no eye holes, only painted-on eyes with slitted snakelike pupils. Rather than just letting it go as the others had done, Juniper pushed it firmly away from herself. The action didn’t seem to affect the speed of its motion as it joined the rotating circle of masks.

Ruda took one stride forward even before Juniper had retreated. “Well! Sorry, Tobes, maybe this is selfish but I just don’t wanna be last.”

“It’s okay,” he said, smiling at her.

“So, real talk,” she said, tucking her hands into her pockets. “I feel a little like Shaeine in that I mostly had my shit sorted before I ever met you guys. Which is not to say the last two years haven’t been life-changing and revelatory, but more in the sense of giving me context than changing who I am. I, uh…” She cleared her throat. “Okay, truth is, I kinda let my guard down on this back during the hellgate crisis. Just with Trissiny, though. I mean, honestly, for someone I mostly wanted to stab from the moment we met, that girl really turned out to be a sister to me. In the sense that I never asked for or wanted her but god damn if my whole world wouldn’t fall apart without her.”

“I love you too, Ruda,” Trissiny said, grinning.

Ruda flipped her off, which only make her smile wider. “Here’s my truth: I’m the destined leader of what looks a lot like a doomed nation, and before I came to Last Rock I’d mostly made peace with the fact that the Punaji people were going to fall apart with me at the helm and that was just that. And when I said as much to Shiny Boots back then, she pointed out that we, this group here, are a passel of the most well-connected heavy-hitters in the world and something I could rely on for help. To change even the inevitable. It was…a nice thought. But then… But then you all came to Puna Dara with me…well, even if it was just most of you…and suddenly it wasn’t a thought anymore.”

She stopped, closed her eyes, and was utterly still for a long stretch of seconds. The rest of them just watched patiently until she was ready.

“I’m so fucking scared,” Ruda finally said, her voice cracking. “I can’t do this. I have no idea how to save my people, but I have to try, and I was so sure I would obviously fail. The first time I killed a man, my papa sat me down and told me how important it was to have family, people I could trust to be close enough to be vulnerable with. I listened, then, but I didn’t learn. It took you preposterous fucking assholes to really make me understand. When I say I’ve come to rely on you all, both now and in the future, it’s not because you’re an adventuring party of demigods and titans and shit that could tear apart an empire with your bare fucking hands. Well, all right, not just that, not even mostly that. It’s…” She scrubbed angrily at her eyes. “Fuck. My whole life has been projecting this…this mask of strength and savagery and it’s so fucking exhausting. I’m so grateful for you. It’s not easy for me to let it down, but…I know I can. I can be vulnerable, with you guys. And that means everything.”

Ruda inhaled deeply, her breath shuddering a bit, then rubbed at her eyes once more before putting her hands to the sides of her face. “I will always need the Storm’s Mask, but fuck am I glad to be able to take it off once in a while.”

And she did, pulling it away with a flash of light. The mask in Ruda’s hands glittered cerulean, it surface jewel-like with surprising depths like the sea itself. The single jagged white line of a lightning bolt descended from its crow to between its eyes, where it forked to bracket a snarling mouth. Ruda held it up and out slowly, in a gesture of more reverence than she showed to almost anything, and it drifted into place with the others.

“We may be a bunch of blithering weirdo assholes,” Gabriel said, “but we’ve got your back, Ruda. All the way.”

“That’s what family means,” Shaeine agreed, wearing an open smile that seemed to delight in its own existence. “Your people are our people, your problems our own. I’m sorry I didn’t get to help at Puna Dara last time. Next time somebody threatens your home I’ll be right there helping you fuck ’em up.”

“Okay, that’s even weirder than Boots coming back all smug and thiefy,” Ruda replied, grinning helplessly even while continuing to wipe away tears. “But y’know what, damn if I don’t dig it.”

Toby glided one step forward, but then just stood unobtrusively for a few moments, wearing a gentle smile while the group subsided and calmed on its own time, gradually turning their attention toward him.

“I’m very comfortable being last,” he said frankly. “That’s pretty much the theme I’ve come down to after spending a night contemplating on it. I’ve always been one to put others first, and I’m okay with that about myself. Even, as Shaeine once pointed out to me, when I take it too far; nobody can help anybody else if they use themselves up first. Virtues really do become vices when you stretch them past their natural end point. I’ll try to do better at remembering my place, relative to others, and looking out for myself. But honestly, one of the things I cherish about this group is how I get to just…take care of you guys. Because you take care of me, even when I forget to.”

He paused to grin broadly, the expression slowly subsiding to a softer smile as he continued. “I say this without pride or false modesty: I’m a good person. I don’t consider that a source of pride, even. I believe that people are good, that if you guide them away from mistakes what lies underneath is something fundamentally virtuous. Everything good about me was given to me by others. Because I had the opportunity to be raised by monks, and trained in virtue from the cradle, rather than having to develop selfish habits just to survive. A principled, austere childhood is an enormous luxury. I am very grateful for what I was given.

“But good or not, I am a very flawed person…as much as anyone, I think.” Toby’s face grew sober, and his eyebrows drew together. “That insight has been really important to me, the fact that you can take a good trait too far and make it a bad one. I’ve been guilty of that. Worse… This doctrine of masks has been a real eye-opener to me, and I’m very glad for having spent the night meditating on it. Because that’s exactly the stupid thing I have done my whole life. Not just abusing the kindness and calm I was taught to my own detriment, but using them…misusing them to hide from myself, and from reality. I’ve had a series of rude shocks and a serious talking-to by an actual goddess recently about how I’ve spent my whole life twisting the virtues of peace around to make myself functionally useless, and now that I’ve spent some time really contemplating it, I feel like I understand what I did wrong. How the truth has been in front of me the whole time. How, specifically, you have been a huge blessing that I’ve completely squandered from the moment I met you all. I’m deeply ashamed, and deeply sorry.”

“I don’t think you’re squandered, Toby,” Fross chimed.

“Let him get this out,” Trissiny said softly.

Toby smiled at both of them in turn. “Thanks, Fross, Triss. The thing is… Peace is good. Compassion is good. Serenity is good. I was taught to think they are the ultimate good, the core of life, and I still don’t think that’s wrong. But they’re not the only good. And worse, they become an easy mask for apathy and laziness and fear. If you dwell too much on peace, you can very easily start using that to hide from the world and from responsibility. From reality. From…the practical truth that Professor Ezzaniel laid down for me from day one, that I’ve taken an inexcusably long time to really accept: peace doesn’t happen unless someone forces it to. And that is the thing: you, as a group, are basically the best role models I could have had when it comes to controlled, careful, mindful, principled violence. Even at your worse, all of you are constantly trying to be better, to do better, both for yourselves and more importantly for others, and I’ve consistently betrayed that example. Looking back, the whole time we’ve known each other, I have been at my worst when I’ve tried to lead and teach you instead of watching and learning from you, which has been most of that time. I’m glad for however I’ve been able to help you, but the way I’ve wasted the example you’ve set is just shameful. I appreciate each and every one of you, as individuals, and all of you as a whole, and I have never appreciated you enough. I resolve to do better from now on.”

He lifted his hands, closing his eyes and letting his expression relax into a meditative calm. “There is great value in serenity, and I hope you can gain some from what I give up to you now. But there’s a dark side to it; serenity is a hair’s breadth from fatal passivity at its best. May you get good use from the Mask of Serenity in the future, as I have, and as I will. I must stop using it to hide from myself, and I thank you for teaching me that. I’m sorry it took me so long to listen.”

Toby pulled it away from himself, and then was holding the final mask. It was a gentle, matte gold, its carved mouth set in a faint smile, with a branch of dogwood flowers painted across its surface. He held it up with one hand and pushed it away, and it took its place with the others, the circle shifting to settle into its ultimate rotation of eight masks.

“Something about the sight of that, though,” Ruda murmured. “Just…those faces. It’s kind of uncomfortable. They don’t even look like people, but I can see how each one of them is one of us.”

“I can, too,” Juniper agreed. “I think…it’s because we know each other.”

“I feel kind of raw,” Trissiny said frankly. “It’s weird… I’m not used to ‘exposed and vulnerable’ being a good feeling.”

“It’s a good sort of pain,” said Shaeine. “Like the burn after good exercise.”

“Well, Gabe?” Toby asked, turning toward him. “How much is the rest of the ceremony thrown off by being, ah, unexpectedly physical?”

“I think,” Gabriel said thoughtfully, “the thing to do is just continue and let whatever’s going on sort itself out, the way it’s been doing. Shaeine was right, it’s a bad idea to start something like this and leave it half-done. Especially if it starts getting more real than you expected.”

He cleared his throat, deliberately marshaling his expression, and instinctively they all sobered as well, embracing the gravitas of the moment.

“This is about intimacy,” Gabriel said, his voice now ringing with purpose. “We are exposed to one another by lowering these masks, and baring our true faces. But it goes much deeper than that, and will continue to do so going forward. By sharing these masks, by explaining them, we grant to each other the opportunity to wear our own face, to see through our own eyes, to suffer our weaknesses and gain our strengths. We are bonded to one another through this. Whatever happens in the future, we have been open, together, and nothing will undo that.”

He paused, watching the masks spin, as did they all.

“And let’s be honest,” Gabriel said with a sudden grin. “The point was for this to be about us, and it could only be truthful this way: with a lot of aimless, time-wasting dicking around and fooling about with incredible powers we don’t understand. But hey, we made it work. We will make it work. I love you all, and I’m honored to be by your side.

“Truth is, guys…the world’s a mess. With the great doom and all, and also a million lesser forces trying to carve out a place for their own petty ambitions. Maybe it’s more of a mess now than it always is, but then again, maybe not. We can’t know that and aren’t qualified to judge it. We can’t save the world; as powerful as we are, even the gods have their limitations and we sure as hell have our own. But we can help. We’ve made ourselves better, and made each other better, and with all our various nonsense up till now, we’ve even made the world around us a little better. And that is all that’s asked of anyone, all that’s required of everyone.

“Do better. Be more. Keep on trying, and give it your best. That, my friends, we can do.”

The masks began to whirl faster. The students instinctively braced themselves as the orbiting circle continued to accelerate, and then light and shadow began to be drawn in as though by their very gravity. The circle of masks shrank, pulling ever tighter, and even the circles around them followed suit. Sunbeams and drifting feathers appeared to focus their descent onto a single point just above Ruda’s rapier, wisps of silver light streaming toward the same point from where they rose from the ground. The arcane traceries shifted inward, followed by the almost imperceptible ring of shadows outside them, and then even the tiny flowers springing up from the stones. Faster, deeper, everything was gathered toward a single point, the very wind around them rising and blowing inward as the gentle sound of harmonious air through leaves rose to a gale pitch.

It took only seconds, eight masks and multiple sources of light and magic coalescing to a single point. When it was all fully compressed, the thunderclap that split the air drove all of them to their knees, causing even Fross to plummet to the ground.

Disorienting as that was, though, it was no worse than that; the group slowly pulled themselves back up, blinking and taking stock, none of them hurt.

Ruda’s rapier lay untouched upon the stones. There were no more flowers or unusual light effects, only the soft sound of leaves rustling high above, and the pale light of early dawn rising in the east.

And in the center, still hovering in the air and slowly rotating, was a single mask.

It didn’t look much like any of the eight which had coalesced to form it: the mask was of wood, pale and polished with a deep reddish grain. Its small mouth opening seemed to show a neutral expression, but its eye slits were curved upward in a way that suggested a smile. Its only decoration was a rounded tracery of softly glowing silver lines over its left side, encircling the eye and descending to one corner of its mouth.

“So…what the fuck?” Ruda inquired.

Fross drifted closer. “Okay, well… Remember when I said the Mask of Mirrors was incredibly magical and I couldn’t tell how?”

“Yes,” said Trissiny. “I take it this is the same?”

“Not really the same. All the other masks were the same. This… You guys can sense it too, right? Those of you who are used to detecting magic?”

“Yeah,” Gabriel said quietly, straightening up. “Magically speaking… That thing is like standing next to the sun.”

“I’m pretty sure it incorporates all four major schools and a good bit of shadow magic,” Fross agreed, bobbing excitedly in the air.

“Okay,” Ruda said, nonplussed. She bent to pick up her sword, giving the hovering mask as wide a berth as she could in the process. “So…what are we supposed to do about it?”

“Well, after all, there’s only one thing you’re supposed to do with a mask,” said Teal. Having helped Shaeine to her feet, she released the drow and took three steps forward, reaching out toward the mask.

“My love, please,” Shaeine said, wearing open worry on her face. “Don’t be reckless.”

“I don’t…think…I am,” Teal said pensively, hesitating with her hand outstretched by not quite touching the artifact yet. “I’m open to correction if anyone disagrees, but I don’t believe this is about risk. It’s about…trust. Gabe? Any Vidian insight?”

“Well, masks are obviously sacred in Vidianism,” Gabriel said slowly. “And that is obviously something incredibly powerful. I think that’s two different things, though. This isn’t about Vidius, all things considered. It’s about us, and possibly the nature of magic itself. I think…you’re right, Teal. No, let me be more accurate: I feel you’re right. Trust is a good way to describe it.”

“Be careful, Teal,” Trissiny urged.

“This did start with Teal, after all,” Toby said quietly. “It became about all of us, but it began with us trying to offer her our support. It’s fitting if that’s where it leads, as well.”

“Yeah, be careful,” Juniper agreed, “but do what you need to. We’re all right here for you.”

Shaeine glided forward and embraced Teal openly from behind. She pressed a small kiss against her wife’s ear, then rested her chin on her shoulder. “Do what you must, beloved. You face nothing alone.”

“Thank you.” Teal closed her eyes momentarily, leaning her head to rest against Shaeine’s for a few seconds, then straightened up. “All of you.”

The mask did not react to her touch; she was able to pull it from its place suspended in the air without resistance. Teal slowly turned it over in her hands, studying it from all sides, while the rest of the group edged forward, watching in silence.

Then Teal Falconer raised the Mask of the Adventurer to her face, and plunged into another Age.

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15 – 29

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Ingvar was accustomed to relatively quiet evenings in Aspen’s company, their natural rhythms attuned to the cycles of the world around them, and so they were rarely up past dark. It was well into the night, now, and the group remained awake around a hearty fire, but he had decided to leave them to it since they were conversing with apparent harmony and goodwill—traits sorely needed in this fractious group. It was the first promising sign that they could get along and simply find some enjoyment in each other’s company. He decided that was worth more than a couple of hours of sleep.

When Rainwood had stepped over to whisper to him earlier, the rest of the group was mostly too engrossed in Taka’s current anecdote to notice, though Aspen turned her attention to him. Upon rising, Ingvar paused to murmur an explanation to her. Tholi looked up curiously, but Ingvar demurred the attention with a gesture, and so he and the shaman were able to slip off into the trees without disturbing the party.

He returned minutes later at a far more deliberate pace, striding forward to stand in the firelight at the edge of the group. At this entrance, the others all shifted their attention to him with expressions of curiosity.

“I have something important to show you,” Ingvar stated. “Please remain seated. And above all else, remain calm. You are in no more danger here than you create. Be peaceful, and peace will reign.”

“That is pretty ominous,” November commented.

He smiled. “I’m serious, though. Trust me.” Pausing only to sweep a look around at each of them, Ingvar then stepped aside, positioning himself so that he could see both the firepit, the four of them clustered by it, and the spot in the trees from which Rainwood now silently emerged.

The shaman slipped back into their little clearing and immediately moved off to the side, bowing low in the direction of the gap between trees from which he’d come. After a momentary pause, another shape slowly emerged out of the darkness.

There was a sharp indrawing of breath from multiple throats and a rustle as several of them shifted as though to jump up.

“Peace,” Ingvar murmured, keeping his voice low but projecting it firmly. The group stilled at his reminder, watching in wide-eyed silence as she came.

The firelight reflected in her eyes as she approached, a huge dark shape slipping out of the night with two burning points directed at them. In silence, she padded forward, her footfalls precise and stealthy but still audible against the carpet of grass and fallen leaves due to her sheer weight. One deliberate step at a time, the wolf emerged into the circle of light, ears upright and alert; as she came into the illumination, the dark shape she had seemed at first coalesced, revealing the mottled gray and brown coloring of her pelt.

She stopped, just at the perimeter of the light, where they could see her clearly. For several seconds, there was only the sound of the crackling fire, and the crickets in the woods outside. The wolf stared at them, shifting her head only minutely to focus on each of them in turn.

Then, ears still on the alert, she sat down on her haunches.

Taka drew in an unsteady breath. “It’s huge.”

“She,” Ingvar corrected quietly.

“She is like a pony!”

“Not quite,” he said with an amused little smile. “But they are not dogs. Domestication does a great deal to change an animal.”

“To call wolves,” Tholi whispered. “Only the most blessed among the Huntsmen’s shaman have this skill.”

“Wolves are not to be called,” Ingvar said firmly. “And a Shaathist shaman so blessed has not been known in so long that I, and many others, suspect that is nothing but an old story. She has agreed to come visit us. Remember: this is her land, not ours. Her family lives and hunts here. They know the nearby Rangers, and the Huntsmen of the lodge, and keep their distance. Wolves and people have no business with one another. We do not belong in each other’s homes. Only through the auspices of a skilled shaman,” he turned and bowed toward Rainwood, “can they be asked to join our company for a short time. And it is never more than a request. Of the pack which lives in these woods, only she decided to come.”

“Why?” November asked in a bare whisper. The wolf shifted her head to look at her directly.

“That is her business,” he said. “I can tell you this much, though. There are a number of myths about the world’s creation that seek to explain wolves; Aspen and I have gathered a few in our recent travels. The Huntsmen have their own story… Which I have learned, to my own very great chagrin, is a falsehood.” Tholi’s head snapped around to stare at him, but Ingvar simply continued in the same even tone. “I think the story told by the elves is the most likely to be true. They claim that it happened on another world far away, that none of our kinds are native to this world but were brought here by the Elder Gods. In their version, in the unthinkably ancient past, the first humans all lived as we are tonight: in small bands, hunting to survive off the land, clustering around their tiny fires at night. Over countless years, they tamed and bred wolves, developing them into the dogs we have today, creatures uniquely responsive to human beings because they were made for and by human companionship. But it all began with exactly what you see here.” He turned toward the wolf, inclining his head deeply to her. She looked at him then resumed her slow study of the rest of the group while he spoke. “One who was curious, and brave, and willing to extend a little trust. We will not be domesticating our visitor tonight, I can tell you that much. But you should also know this moment for what it is: a moment that, if we chose to make it so, could start this ancient process anew. This is a rare thing, a pivot point which we could seize, and initiate the process of making a slice of the wild our own.”

He hesitated, letting the pause hang.

“What makes us who we are, who we have gathered to become, is that we shall not do this, even as we respect the possibility.”

Ingvar shifted his focus to study each of them in turn, as the wolf was doing. The three humans looked exactly as he hoped, now that the initial shock had abated: all three were gazing at the wild creature avidly, their faces matching pictures of awe and wonder. Even, he was faintly surprised to observe, Taka. Perhaps the gods had indeed sent her to this group on purpose. Aspen, of course, was much less impressed by a wolf, but was regarding the creature with an expression of calm thought, her head cocked to one side as she did when mulling over something he had just explained to her.

“There is an awkward dichotomy to Shaathism,” Ingvar continued after the pause, again turning to regard the great beast among them. “Outsiders to the faith often use it to deride the Huntsmen. Shaath is the god of the wild, and so it is the wild that we take as both mission and guidance. We revere the example of the wolf—or at least, the Huntsman claim to, though they suffer from several severe misconceptions about wolves in the process.” Again, Tholi glanced sharply at him, but resumed gazing at the wolf as Ingvar kept going. “But that always leads back to the question: at what point must we stop being wild, and be tamed? If we truly immersed ourselves in the way of the wild to the utmost degree, we would simply be running naked through the woods scavenging for berries. Obviously, the Huntsmen do not seek to do this. And though I have been called specifically to correct them to the path from which they’ve strayed, I have no intention of doing so, either.”

He paused, drawing in breath and just looking at the wolf, drinking in her presence. She moved her head again, meeting his eyes.

“This is the balance the Huntsmen seek…that we must seek. If you, living in this moment, can feel the weight, the sacredness of what you are experiencing, then this is a path you can walk. This is what it means to be guardians of the wild. We sit here with our fire and our weapons, our clothing and our magic, our complex language and philosophies. But we do so out in the wild space, knowing—and respecting—that we are not the masters here. We invite the wild to sit at the edge of our fire, and are honored by her presence.

“We are not wild, nor tamed. We stand between two things and apart from both. Protecting them, from themselves and from each other.”

He fell silent, and no one spoke this time. The night stretched out, none of them willing to interrupt the reverence of the moment.

Until, fittingly, it was interrupted from outside. In the distant darkness, a single voice arose: the long, lonely howl of a wolf. Immediately it was followed by another, and then a third, singing together in harmony.

Right in front of them, the wolf at the edge of their firelight raised her own head and howled in reply. That close, her voice was almost piercing, but it was no less musical for that. She let out a single long note, ending it on a soft warble.

Then she stood up, turned around, and padded off into the darkness, in the direction of the family calling her back.

All of them stared into the night after the departing visitor, while wolves continued to cry from deep in the darkness beyond.

“We will meet her again,” Ingvar said quietly. “We have business with three packs in this area before it’s time for us to move on: the Huntsmen, the Rangers, and the wolves. Now that we are acknowledged by all three, we can truly begin tomorrow. It is from the wolves that we, and the other two, must learn the truth of the wild. It is a truth that I suspect they will not like. But they will hear it.”

The group were silent, listening to the wolves cry.


“I thought demonology and necromancy were completely separate things,” said Shook.

“Distinct, yes,” replied the stocky warlock introduced to him as Bradshaw, “but if by ‘completely separate’ you mean there are zero points of overlap, then no magical disciplines are completely separate, not even the four cardinal schools. Ultimately it all comes back to subjective physics—”

The woman, Vanessa, cleared her throat loudly.

“Yes, right,” Bradshaw said hastily. “Point being, what we are looking at here is soul magic. That’s not so much a school of magic in itself as a category of things you can do with magic—like necromancy itself, which you can do with infernomancy or fae craft most easily. There are some well-known uses of souls in infernal magic, notably the creation of incubi and succubi. Or those half-assed revenant things the local back-alley warlock is so fond of,” he added with a disparaging scowl. “Soulcraft is also well-known to the caster demons, too. Human souls barred from paradise by Vidius end up in Hell and only a very few impress Prince Vanislaas enough to become his children; the rest tend to get snapped up for use in spells by the khelminash or vrardexi.”

“I am torn between flattery that you think I understand any of this, and annoyance that you seem to think I give a shit,” Shook informed him.

Bradshaw blinked at him once and then turned to Mogul. “Embras, are you absolutely sure we need this clod alive?”

“Let’s show a bare minimum of courtesy to our guest, now,” Mogul said, grinning. “Think of it as setting an example.” The voluptuous, under-dressed woman clinging to his arm tittered, and Shook barely managed not to flinch. What with his recent experiences he was even more jumpy around succubi than a sensible person would be ordinarily. If anything, the fact that Vlesni was more overtly vampish than Kheshiri made him less alarmed by her. It was the innocent, well-behaved facade he feared.

“So,” he said pointedly, pushing down a surge of anger over Bradshaw’s crack at his expense, “these guys are using necromancy to get souls to power their magic?”

“Souls aren’t a power source,” Bradshaw said in a long-suffering tone that would’ve gotten anybody else punched. Shook might have punched him anyway, had there not been two other warlocks and a demon present. “They’re… Ugh. Comparing them to golem logic controllers is horribly inadequate and feels disrespectful, but the principle applies. A soul can process information, which is basically what casting a spell is, and serves as a focus point enabling the use of magic. The ability of a conscious being to observe and determine a reaction is key in any magical effect.”

“What about passive enchantments?”

“Those were made by a conscious caster, the effect is just delayed and tied to secondary stimuli. With a soul, you can do several interesting things. Attach it to something you want to animate, for example, or boost your own spells by adding what amounts to a secondary focus so it’s as if you are two casters working in concert, rather than one. What this does, as near as we can tell by examining the half-made array, is a kind of portal magic.”

“Huh,” Shook grunted, studying the spell circle scrawled in dried blood upon the warehouse floor. Empty warehouse: the best friend of anyone up to urban skullduggery. It was an open question whether the person who owned the place had any inkling what was going on here, much less whether they were complicit, but he didn’t bother to ask. This was the Black Wreath, they had undoubtedly seen and covered all the angles well in advance. “So. Basically, these guys are doing some kind of ritual sacrifice to make portals. Neat, I didn’t know that was possible.”

“All other things being equal, it should only be possible in theory,” said Mogul, patting Vlesni’s hand and then disentangling her from his arm to step forward and join them at the edge of the circle. “Here’s the fundamental problem with soul magic and necromancy in general: it is stepping very directly and aggressively on Vidius’s toes. Theoretically you can achieve almost any end with almost any type of magic, if you’re creative enough and powerful enough. The limits of possibility with necromancy are mostly unexplored, though, because as soon as you start doing necromancy on any significant scale you’ll find yourself ass-deep in valkyries.”

“And pause for dramatic effect,” Shook said dryly when Mogul did just that. “Next you’re gonna explain how these guys are doing this without pissing off Vidius. Oh, sorry, were you waiting for me to ask that?”

“Why is he here, again?” Bradshaw demanded.

“Oh, calm down,” Vanessa said with an amused little smile. “I like him. Or at least, I would if I knew a little bit less about his personal history.” She winked at Shook, who curled his lip. Vanessa was pretty enough, but he couldn’t get an idea what kind of figure she had thanks to that dumpy gray Wreath robe. Thinking back to Alan Vandro’s advice about women, he was keeping his focus on the fact that she could snap her fingers and boil his blood where he stood. In an ironic way, the conscious effort of reinforcing Vandro’s teachings above the habits Kheshiri had spent the last two years encouraging was helping to keep him grounded and alert.

“That is, indeed, the bloody knife in this little mystery,” Mogul drawled, showing no signs of annoyance at Shook’s attitude. “The last major necromantic event was that disaster at Veilgrad last year, which was caused by a chaos cult. Chaos, of course, fucks up all calculations by its very nature and can indeed be used to obscure the gaze of the gods. Once the Hand of Vidius was on-site, that place was swarming with soul reapers putting down skeletons. Last one before that was Tethloss the Summoner, who we killed because the son of a bitch had somehow got his mitts on a tome of Black Wreath spellcraft and was using our own workings to hide himself from the gods.”

“Hey, I remember that guy,” said Shook, interested in spite of himself. “I was up in Thakar when he got done in. I seem to recall it was the Fourth Legion that did it.”

“Pfft, they cleaned up his lingering summons. Which we left for them, as housekeeping is the proper duty of the Silver Legions once the real work is out of the way.” Mogul waved one hand in a languid gesture of dismissal. “No, the point is that when you see an organized use of necromancy, it always hinges upon some mechanism for hiding its use from Vidius. In this case, we have not identified the specific one, at least not precisely. What we have is circumstantial indication of who is behind this, and that provides a hint.”

“The Tide shall wash away impurity,” Bradshaw intoned, pointing to an arc of demonic runes scrawled around the edge of the circle. “This outer ring of text is in demonic, but it’s not spellcraft; it appears to be just dogma. And mostly gibberish, but…”

“But,” Mogul continued, “it fits. You are here ostensibly to hunt the cult that tried to kill the Emperor and was using some pretty damn advanced necromancy right in the middle of Tiraas.”

“We have no information on who or what that cult is,” Vanessa added, “which is incredibly suggestive. Nobody knows anything about these people, even the Thieves’ Guild and Imperial Intelligence. You know how hard it is to raise up an entire religion full of suicidal shocktroopers without anybody noticing? The very idea is ridiculous. It can be done, in theory, if you’ve got access to the huge amount of resources to keep the whole group—of hundreds, apparently—in total isolation. Plus a willingness to aggressively recruit—by which I mean borderline abduct and then brainwash—a lot of the kind of back-alley undesirables whom nobody will miss from cities all across the Empire. The Universal Church is one of the very few organizations with that kind of funds, and Justinian is probably the first Archpope since Sipasian who has cultivated enough personal loyalty from his clergy that enough of them would be willing to do something so skeevy and keep it under wraps.”

“And,” Mogul finished, nodding, “we’ve known for a while now that Justinian has some means of deflecting the notice of the Pantheon gods from some of his pet projects. Therefore this Tide is his creation.”

“Hn,” Shook grunted. “We more than suspected that already, but it’s nice to have a chain of evidence leading to it.”

“Circumstantial evidence, of course, but still,” Mogul agreed. “And that leads us to you, and as my dear friend Bradshaw keeps incredulously demanding, why I am bothering to bring you into the loop.”

“Pretty curious about that, myself,” Shook admitted. Bradshaw nodded emphatic agreement.

“Let me ask you this,” Mogul said to him in a less jocular tone. “Was the Jackal aware of any of this before he started his killing spree?”

“Well, I sure as fuck wasn’t, and I don’t think any of the rest of my crew were,” Shook said thoughtfully, “though Syrinx obviously has information she’s keeping from us. I don’t think Jacko was ever out of our sight before today enough to pick up details but…fuck if I know. Why?”

“Because this is the only example we’ve found of this Tide actually trying to do something magically constructive. Every previous indication was merely the site of a ritual sacrifice, where they murdered someone in a back alley to capture their soul. You said the Jackal is trying to rile the police; what he’s doing looks an awful lot like what the Tide were doing, only they were at least trying to be careful. He’s being the opposite.”

“Maybe,” Shook said reluctantly. “I have no reason to think so, specifically. That explanation does make sense, but honestly that twisted fuck might just as well be doing this because he thinks it’s funny.”

“What charming company you keep,” Bradshaw said flatly.

Shook pointedly turned to look at Vlesni and then back at him. “You don’t get to criticize, petunia.”

“The reason I’m showing you this,” said Mogul, “is so you can go back and inform your cronies. Because it doesn’t seem they have any idea what is happening here, and they really need to. Not that I trust most of your lot to buckle down and do what’s sensible, but you and Khadizroth, at least, I believe have that much basic intelligence. Plus that other elf who follows him around. Victor, was it?”

“Vespa,” Vanessa corrected.

“Vincent,” said Bradshaw.

“Close enough,” said Shook.

“This isn’t about trust, you see,” Mogul continued. “Syrinx, the Jackal, and Kheshiri neither know sense when it bites them on the nose, nor would they let it restrain them from scheming for their own advantage even if they recognized it. You, Khadizroth, and I think Snowe are another matter. I don’t mean to underplay the many, many currents blowing here, but this is more important.”

“Yeah?” Shook said warily, again reminding himself how dramatically untrustworthy these people were. It was an important reminder; Mogul was a very compelling speaker when he tried to be. “What the fuck is this, specifically?”

“That,” said Mogul, pointing to the scrawled circle, “is incomplete, but it is clearly intended to use a captured soul to open a dimensional portal, and its guidance runes are scribed in demonic. We have identified a dozen ritual murder sites where souls have been stolen and are assuming there are at least twice that out there since we haven’t once caught one of these bastards in the act. When I said twenty hellgates, Thumper, I wasn’t just trying to give you an example of the scale of the problem. I strongly suspect that that is the literal, specific plan.”

Shook let out a long, low whistle. “Why the fuck would anybody want to do a dumbass thing like that?”

“As for these Tide people, there’s this bit about washing away corruption,” said Bradshaw, wrinkling his nose as he stared down at the circle. “That’s bog standard doomsday cult horseradish. The world is corrupt, the world must be cleansed, yadda yadda. The kind of thing the ignorant think we set out to do.”

“But they’re just pawns,” Vanessa said quietly.

“What concerns me here is Justinian’s motivations,” Mogul agreed. “Unleashing huge amounts of random destruction is the desperate act of someone who considers himself cornered and urgently needs to upset the whole board. Believe me, I know. I’ve found myself repeatedly backed into that corner in the last few years. Why do you think I was willing to put a creature like Kheshiri into the hands of a creature like you?”

“No offense taken,” Shook said flatly.

Mogul grinned at him, but his expression just as quickly sobered. “What worries me, old boy, is what it means if Justinian feels he’s in that position. He’s one of the most powerful men in the world, and if we’re reading this right, he is willing to burn down a major city and unleash demons across half of N’Jendo just to create a distraction. The question is why, and no possible answer isn’t terrifying.”

“A great doom is coming,” Bradshaw murmured.

“Or,” said Shook, “to put it less pretentiously, shit’s about to get real.”


Merry emerged from the darkened old structure to creep up behind Principia. Trying to keep quiet was simple respect for their surroundings and the late hour; she was under no illusion that she was capable of sneaking up on an elf.

“I’ll take over,” she said softly, coming to a stop at the lieutenant’s shoulder.

Principia shook her head slowly, still staring across the flat plateau at the place where the eight students and their animal companions were arranged around the bonfire they’d built. “That’s okay, Lang. Go back to sleep, I’ve got this.”

“You need sleep too, LT.”

“Less urgently. I’m an elf.”

“Yeah, an elf who forgets I’ve got Shahai to fact-check your bullshit stories with. You need less food and air, not less sleep.”

“That sideways-eared race traitor,” Principia grumbled without rancor.

“Prin,” Merry said very quietly. “Go rest. Nothing’s gonna happen here. I can keep watch.”

“You know what they’re doing?”

Merry shifted her gaze to the students. The eight of them had arranged themselves in an equal formation around the bonfire, and were still awake despite it being well past midnight. Since coming back from the tree yesterday and arranging themselves thus, they hadn’t kept any specific pattern, for the most part staying in their assigned places, though they all moved around a fair bit. Sitting and kneeling in a variety of meditative postures, in some cases pacing (or in Fross’s case, hovering) back and forth in apparent thought. Occasionally they had crossed to one another’s positions for quiet exchanges, though they always returned to their assigned places.

Right now, Toby and Juniper were talking softly with their heads together, the only two currently out of position. Teal and Shaeine were both kneeling, eyes closed, facing each other across the distance between their specific spots around the edge of the firelight, F’thaan belly-up and fast asleep in the drow’s lap. Gabriel lounged on the ground, frowning at the horizon, while Trissiny stood at parade rest, staring at the Great Tree in the near distance with her hands behind her back. Ruda was pacing back and forth, absently swishing her jeweled rapier through the air and muttering to herself. Fross, for a wonder, was actually sitting on the ground at the moment, almost invisible in the firelight.

“Can’t say I do,” she said at last, “though it sure does look a lot more goal-directed than most of what they’ve done since Last Rock.”

“It’s a vigil,” Principia said quietly. “This is some Vidian thing Arquin suggested. They are going to do a ritual at dawn. Dusk and dawn are the powerful moments in Vidian ritual magic, boundaries between the two phases of the day. But first, an all-night vigil. It’s time to watch, to contemplate…to prepare.” She paused, then finished in a whisper. “I’m not sure what exactly they are keeping watch for, but I’m holding my own. I am not going to sleep, Lang. You may as well; there’s no sense in both of us being up all night. I’ll get a nap tomorrow, while they’re off at the tree.”

Merry stood behind her for several drawn-out seconds, studying the University students thoughtfully. Then she stepped forward and sat down at Principia’s side.

The elf shot her a sidelong frown. “Corporal…”

“I’m gonna crawl way out on a limb and guess they didn’t ask you to keep watch over them tonight,” Merry stated. “This is more one of those things you get to do because you avoided them telling you not to by not asking permission, right?”

Principia made an annoyed grimace at her.

Merry leaned over to bump the elf with her shoulder. “I’m not asking you, either.”

Principia shook her head, but didn’t protest any further. The plateau was quiet, then, as they all kept their vigil.


Dawn as always brought warmth, which was confusing when she opened her eyes, because it was not dawn. Yesterday she’d been awakened by sunlight streaming through the window right onto her bed, as the ramshackle old room in Leduc Manor lacked shutters, or even curtains. The sky outside was still just barely gray, though, at least an hour before sunrise. But it was so warm…

Hesthri stirred in her arms, and Natchua went fully rigid as memory and wakefulness crashed down on her. The demon mumbled in her sleep, burying her face back in Natchua’s collarbone. She was so warm, and surprisingly soft where she wasn’t armored, the texture of her skin smooth but patterned, almost like a snake’s. All of her skin, pressed close to all of Natchua’s.

The two of them entangled on one side of the wide bed, because the other was still a big damp patch where they’d…

Natchua squeezed her eyes shut again as if that would blot out the evidence of her most recent stupidity.

“Ssssshit.”

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15 – 28

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When the knock came at her door Natchua thought very seriously about yelling at whoever it was to go the hell away. Seriously, but briefly, and not with any real intent. Everyone in this place had reason to be on edge and they were all here because of her, after all. Well, all except Sherwin, but he had as much cause as anyone to seek her out.

And so she paused, looked longingly at the bed she had just turned down, then double-checked that her loose sleeping robe was buttoned, and was pleased at the calm of the tone with which she called, “Yes?”

The door opened just enough for Hesthri to lean her head and one shoulder into view. The demon’s gaze immediately flicked past Natchua to where the expensive Glassian designer outfit she’d just imported was thrown carelessly over a rickety old wooden chair that had not been entirely cleared of dust first. Just for a moment, though, and she did not let the pause drag on before speaking.

“Good, I was afraid I’d wake you.”

“I only came upstairs a few minutes ago, Hes.”

“Yes, but you’re as exhausted and tense as I’ve ever seen a person,” Hesthri replied, slipping the rest of the way inside and gently closing the door. “And you have cause, after all. I didn’t want to interrupt a needed rest.”

“I’m fine,” Natchua said shortly. “Not really that tired. Elves have a great deal more stamina than most demons.”

“Physically, sure. That’s not really the type of stress we’ve all been under, though, is it?”

She drew in a breath for patience before answering. “What do you need, Hesthri?”

Hesthri drew closer in small, diffident steps, her hands clasped behind her back, keeping her eyes below the level of Natchua’s; khelminash etiquette was not part of the infernal knowledge Elilial had given her, but Natchua was from a caste society herself and recognized a formal posture of submission. Which meant the hethelax was likely to smirk and start ribbing her any moment, to judge by her established pattern.

“Things are going better than I honestly expected downstairs,” Hesthri reported. “No one is giving Kheshiri any wiggle room. Xyraadi treats her like a servant, Melaxyna is running interference when she tries to pry at anyone, and the hobs appear to be terrified of her. Jonathan and Sherwin are both refusing to engage her, too. I was a little worried about the humans, but it seems they’re properly wary.”

“Well, Jonathan has no shortage of sense,” Natchua pointed out, “and has had plenty of time and reason to educate himself about trickster demons.”

“Yes,” Hesthri agreed with a fond little smile which caused a heavy knot of some uncomfortable emotion in Natchua’s stomach. “I was worried about Sherwin, though. A man who wants a succubus around, well…”

“Yes, I can see the concern. Sherwin had some of his ideas about women and demonology pretty roughly corrected a while ago, however. And he’s got Melaxyna to keep him happy for now.”

Hesthri nodded. “Xyraadi has been polite to everyone else. She…appears unimpressed by this manor. It’s better accommodations than I’m used to, but khelminash are all nobility in their own societies. I’m a little concerned she may lose patience with roughing it like this.”

“Give Xyraadi a little credit, Hes. She’s used to Agasti’s lavish style now, but she has spent most of her life adventuring in the old style, in the Glassian highlands, in a much more primitive time. I highly doubt she’s that insistent on creature comforts. In any case, the hobgoblins will be fixing this place up as quick as possible. I think I’ll take her to see Malivette’s place first thing in the morning, though,” she added, rubbing at her forehead. “I wasn’t in a hurry, but you have a point. Having a proper noble to hobnob with will probably do her good. And I bet those two will hit it off swimmingly.”

“Do you… Forgive me, but is it necessarily wise to inform Lady Dufresne about this?”

“Maybe, maybe not, but it’s moot. Keeping her informed of details such as what demons I’ve brought here is part of the deal we struck that keeps her from handing us over to the Empire or tearing this place down her own damn self. Besides, I’m actually looking forward to briefing her on Kheshiri. My contract with that… With her prevents me from deliberately sending harm her direction, but Malivette could be severely dangerous to Kheshiri if she chose. If she decides to claim noble privilege and deal with her, that solves one of my biggest headaches.”

“If Kheshiri dies,” Hesthri said softly, “she’ll return to Hell right at Prince Vanislaas’s citadel. I don’t know how willing she’ll be to cooperate with him, but by the rumors I’ve heard, his children can’t keep secrets from him.”

“Yes, because nothing can ever be simple.” With a heavy sigh, Natchua sat down on the edge of her four-poster bed, making the old thing creak. She’d already had to prop up its short leg with two sad little blocks that had been books before years of exposure ravaged them. Now, she let her hands dangle listlessly between her knees, unable to prevent her shoulders from slumping. “I’ll tell Vette the full situation, see what she thinks. At the very least, we know she keeps an eye on this place. If I fail to turn up and report on this, she might… Well, we don’t want to learn what she might do, let’s put it that way.”

“Fair,” Hesthri agreed, nodding. She had stopped creeping forward about a yard away, just out of arm’s reach. “Please excuse me if I overstep, but I wanted to ask about the details of that contract. I was…occupied while you hammered it out.”

“It’s not overstepping, Hes, I think you’re entitled to know.” Natchua tried to make her tone gentle; as frustrating as it was when Hesthri treated her like a temperamental noble, she was well aware that getting snappy about it would only make it worse. “She basically doesn’t want to be harmed, killed, returned to Hell, or imprisoned, and the contract bars me from doing any of that, or encouraging anyone else to do it, or allowing it to happen if I have a reasonable chance of preventing it. In return, she is required to be personally loyal to me.”

Hesthri narrowed her eyes, her expression growing intent. It was a timely reminder that despite her intermittent posture of servitude, she had a sharp mind. “That’s it? Just loyal?”

“It is actually the best practice in dealing with Vanislaads. Trying to dictate their actions both provokes them to resist you and gives them rules in which to sniff out loopholes. It’s basically inviting them to play a game at which they are better, for the highest stakes. That’s the mistake that Eserite clown Shook made in trying to control her. No, the better avenue is to dictate their motivations. She’s bound to look out for my best interests above all, which keeps all her creativity working for me rather than against me. In theory, anyway. Of course, because it is the established best practice and she’s Kheshiri, I’ve no doubt she’s already got some way around it, or if not is working on finding one.” Natchua scrubbed at her face again. “Gods. I really, truly did not need this pain in the ass.”

“And this happened because of me,” Hesthri almost whispered.

“It is not your fault, Hes,” Natchua said sharply, then carefully moderated her tone. “Look, I won’t hesitate to call you down if you actually screw something up, all right? But getting grabbed from behind and shadow-jumped… Well, there just aren’t many defenses against that, and hethelaxi have none of them. If anything, you being imprisoned like that is my fault for letting my eyes off you when I knew there was a succubus around.”

“I don’t think I’d know where to begin establishing actual fault,” Hesthri said, looking up with a small smile. “All I know is that I don’t blame you, and I can’t help feeling guilty.”

“Yeah, I get that,” Natchua said with another sigh. “Feelings…very inconvenient in general.”

The silence hung there.

“Oh,” Hesthri said suddenly, straightening up and bringing her hands around from behind her back. “Look what Xyraadi gave me!”

“Your gloves!” Natchua said in surprise. They were apparently of supple leather, a few shades paler than Hesthri’s own complexion and without her patterns of scales that decorated her skin; the fingertips were a little bulkier where some inner structure fitted over her blunt claws and rounded them out to softer shapes. “I’m sorry, I haven’t had time…”

“Oh, that’s all right!” Hesthri said hastily, raising her gloved hands. “It hasn’t been long, and it’s not like you haven’t had more important things to do. I just wanted to show you and withdraw my request, as it’s now moot.”

“Wait,” Natchua said, frowning. “Where did she get those, exactly?”

“She said she summoned them.”

“Summoned…” She scowled. “Which means they came from somewhere. Which means someone in Hell will notice they’re missing. It’s not as if resources are common there, isn’t that the whole point of the place?”

“A khelminash city is a reasonably well-equipped haven,” Hesthri explained, stepping closer. “I did ask about that, and Xyraadi insisted she knew what she was doing. I saw no reason to doubt her, but if you want to ask her more detailed questions, that might be smart.”

“Yeah, I think it would,” Natchua grumbled. She got as far as tensing her legs to rise, then slumped again. “…tomorrow.”

“Yes, tomorrow is plenty of time,” Hesthri agreed, coming up to the edge of the bed now. “I wasn’t kidding when I said you looked tired and stressed. Actually…that was the other reason I came. There’s something I wanted to show you.”

“Something you—hey, what’s the big ideeeeeaaauughh…” Natchua started to shy away when Hesthri reached out to grasp her shoulder, but then her forefinger and thumb had pressed into the stiff tendons of her neck in just the right spot and she found her entire upper body practically melting. Warm ribbons of bliss radiated out from where the demon’s fingers pressed. “Where…the hell…did you learn…”

“In fact, I was trained in this specifically,” Hesthri replied with audible satisfaction. She climbed onto the bed and sidled around behind Natchua, and the drow once again started to protest, but then both hands were on her shoulders, pressing right where the tension accumulated, and all she produced was an awkward burbling sound. “You see why these gloves are so important, hmm? Hethelax fingers never cramp or tire. And those of us trained as personal servants are expected to massage khelminash, who are all built like Xyraadi. Even more gangly than elves. I know exactly where every spot is.”

“I…um…ooooh.” Natchua’s head lolled bonelessly forward as Hesthri knelt behind her kneading right at the spot where her neck and shoulders melt. As hard as she was pressing it seemed like it ought to hurt, but it was a tremendously satisfying almost-pain. “Not sure if…nngh! I don’t really…like being…”

“Of course, I’ll stop if you’re not enjoying it,” Hesthri said in a whisper, practically right in her ear. “You’re the mistress. It’s just that… I can’t do much for you, but I can do this. I can at least thank you, Natchua. For coming for me.”

She slid her hands into the collar of Natchua’s robe, pulling it looser to gain access to her shoulders, and for a moment the drow tensed again. Just as quickly she relaxed, the unique sensation of bone-hard fingertips under a layer of padded leather pressing insistently into every spot where the rigid pain was and soothing it away.

Something in the back of her mind told her this might be a bad idea, but she couldn’t quite say why. Much more prevalent in her thoughts was that nobody had ever touched her this way.

“I…ffmmmnn. What the hell. Lower.”


“And this is the jewel of the collection, almost literally,” the smiling woman said, gliding into position next to the large display case in which stood a heavily begemmed golden gauntlet, upright on a model hand behind glass marked with alarm runes. “This, ladies and gentlemen, is our Arcane Fist! And I mean the original, not the comic book hero. What you see here is one of only two still in existence, the other being Empress Theasia’s personal weapon which is now on display in the Imperial Palace in Tiraas.”

Shook found himself drifting closer as she spoke, her tour group clustering in front to gawk at the jewel-studded metal glove. He’d been drifting basically since leaving the Inquisition’s piddly excuse for a headquarters, wandering into the museum merely out of idle surprise at finding it still open at this hour, wandering into the historical weaponry exhibit as it was the only collection that really interested him, and now wandering to join the tour group mostly because it was there. This surely had to be the last one of the day, but the docent seemed as bright and alert as if fresh from her morning tea. Then again, that was probably a requirement of her job.

“You can see the large gemstones incorporated into the gauntlet, and the large amount of gold,” she nattered on. “Those aren’t just affectations, but are essential to its function. The enchantments are designed around those materials specifically. An Arcane Fist fires a charge of electricity about fifty times the power of a modern battlestaff shot, at close range, and includes charms to protect its wearer from the blast. This little beauty delivers a blow that can shatter any magical shield known to exist, right up to the personal defense of a paladin or archmage. The Arcane Fists were created as part of Theasia’s initial push to develop better enchantments for the military, and used briefly by Imperial Intelligence. In fact, they emerged in the same generation as a number of big innovations we still use—shielding charms, telescrolls, the Rails, and mag cannons all came out of Theasia’s push for newer, better enchantments.”

“Is that thing still usable?” one of the tour group asked.

“Well, it’s behind unbreakable alarmed glass for more reasons than that it’s valuable,” she replied cheerfully. “We’re in the business of preserving artifacts here, and truly disabling the Fist would damage it significantly. In theory, sure, it could be charged up and used again. Obviously we don’t keep weapons like this sitting around carrying an arcane charge. Right now, its chief use as a weapon is that it’s heavy. You would not want to be punched by someone wearing a glove of solid gold.”

Shook meandered closer till he was at the very edge of the group as a titter rippled through them, eyes on the gauntlet. He wondered how many in this gaggle of rubberneckers knew that those old-fashioned powered gems couldn’t be drained of their charge, unlike modern enchanting crystals. Then again, they’d naturally lose charge over time. After sitting in that case for fifty-odd years it probably didn’t hold enough power to light a fairy lamp.

“How come they stopped using these?” he asked.

He wasn’t part of the tour group, but the docent gave him a warm smile, seemingly pleased at the question. “As with a lot of things, it was a combination of factors. What those factors added up to is that it simply isn’t practical. The necessary materials are wildly expensive, as you can plainly see—and it is, as I just mentioned, heavy enough to be hard to use for such a small device. The expense is made worse because they tend not to be reusable; when one of these has been fired more than a couple of times it’s all but destroyed by its own energy, and while gold can be melted down and re-cast, there’s not a lot you can do with shattered gemstones except make earrings. There were also a couple of very embarrassing cases when a Fist’s grounding charms failed, frying its wielder instead of their target. At least some of these problems likely could have been overcome with time and refinement, but that still leaves the fundamental fact that if you’re going to shoot lightning at someone, it’s a much better idea to do so from a distance than close enough to slug them.

“Which, in turn, led to political problems that pressured Theasia’s government to abandon the Arcane Fist as a field weapon. You see, anything it can do in terms of inflicting damage on an enemy can be done with more control and at a safer range by a wand or battlestaff. The Fist’s primary utility is as a shield-breaker, and it’s just plain inconvenient to have to get right up close to someone in order to beat their magical shield down. Besides which, it’s massive overkill for use against any conventional shielding charm. Remember, this all took place in the period early in Theasia’s reign, before the paladins disappeared for ten years, after Magnan the Enchanter was long dead and while Arachne Tellwyrn was missing and thought also dead.” She grinned and winked. “Can you guess who would’ve been the most likely target of a weapon that’s mostly used to break the strongest magical shields?”

“Wait, you mean Imperial Intelligence used this on paladins?” one of the onlookers asked, aghast.

“Believe me, you’d have learned about it in school if they ever had,” the docent replied. “But you’re right on the money, regardless. The Universal Church and especially the cult of Avei started asking extremely loud questions about why Imperial Intelligence needed a paladin-killer in particular. And so, the Empire quietly discontinued the Arcane Fist and scrapped those still in existence—except for the two which, luckily for us, slipped through the cracks. There are actually some pretty famous pieces of jewelry made from the remains of this weapon’s siblings. In the end, it ended up being an object lesson for the great age of magical innovation: just because you suddenly have the ability to do some exciting new thing doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea!”

“Good advice for everybody,” Shook mused aloud.

The docent nodded at him. “And that’s exactly how history works: the lessons are repeated until they’re learned, and the winners are those who learn them fastest. And speaking of that! Next we’ll be going backward in time a few more decades, thanks to an exhibition on loan to us from Mathenon. Here in the West we were spared the depredations of Horsebutt the Enemy and his hordes, so this is a rare treat for Ninkabi. This collection of weapons and armaments is significant for a number of reasons: in addition to being the last military offensive of the traditional Stalweiss archers, it was the first to begin incorporating modern enchantment—the beginning of a new military tradition that will never get to grow to maturity. History, as they say, is written by the victors. Which doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the losers!”

She glanced curiously at Shook while shepherding her flock off to the next exhibit, but he stayed where he was, staring at the old gauntlet. Something about the thing was strangely arresting. So much sheer wealth had gone into its creation, and for what? He had the uneasy feeling that there were lessons here that he wasn’t getting, truths only hinted at by the docent’s brief introduction. Shook had never been one for intellectual pursuits as a rule. The effort of pondering on things which held no immediate utility for him was frustrating and annoying. He felt exhausted, though, and oddly numb, and so stood there studying Theasia’s gauntlet while the sounds of the tour group faded as they rounded a corner into another gallery.

“Hope you’re not getting any ideas, old boy. A museum must be a veritable candy store for an Eserite, but that thing would be practically impossible to fence. Or so I’d assume!”

Shook was just too tired to react with overt surprise. He glanced to the left at the man who had stepped up beside him, also apparently studying the Arcane Fist behind its layer of protective glass. A lean fellow a few inches shorter than himself, his skin a few shades darker than the Jendi average, wearing a white suit and a wide-brimmed straw boater tipped at an angle that concealed his eyes.

“Embras Mogul,” Shook said, then let out an incredulous bark of laughter. “Well, I mean, sure. Why not? Yeah, this is the correct ending for this fucking day. Now I’m embarrassed I didn’t actually see it coming.”

“You have had quite the day, so I understand,” Mogul said lightly. “Mind you, I’ve only caught the high notes. No offense, my friend, but you don’t rate among the things I make sure to keep a close watch upon. Still! What a charming coincidence, us all running across one another in this exotic locale. Eh?”

“I see you still talk too much,” Shook grunted. “And I’m not enough of a hick to think a major Imperial metropolis is ‘exotic.’”

“It’s called polite conversation, Thumper old boy. Honestly, what do they teach you at that Guild?”

Shook glanced around. No one else was near them, at least not visibly. “So, what’s next? You here to even the score?”

“Now, now,” Embras demurred, raising both hands and shifting to he was angled more toward Shook. They studied each other’s reflections in the glass, rather than directly. “Let’s give one another a modicum of credit, shall we? I have no beef with you, old top. I did not set Kheshiri loose on the mortal plane without expecting to get bitten on the ass by it at some point, and I’m man enough to recognize when I’ve pushed a fellow hard enough to deserve a slug across the jaw. After that spanking you and your buddies handed to me and mine back in Tiraas, I would say the score is about as even as we could reasonably ask. Don’t you think?”

Shook snorted quietly. “Right. So this is, what? A social call? You just wanna catch up on old times?”

“Oh, you know how it is, one hates to be all business all the time. But still, it seems there’s plenty of current events you and I could chat about without dredging up ancient history, Thumper.”

“Yeah,” he said with a heavy sigh. “Whatever. Didn’t get everything you wanted from me already, then? If you’re gonna use your infernal bullshit to fuck with a man’s memory you might wanna make sure you finish picking his brain first. Or were you just so anxious to get Shiri back under control you couldn’t be arsed?”

Mogul tilted his head back enough that his eyes, or at least their reflection, were visible. He studied Shook’s image in silence for several seconds.

“Infernal bullshit,” he finally repeated slowly, “to fuck with a man’s memory.”

His face betrayed nothing. Shook narrowed his own eyes, staring back.

“If you were anyone else,” he said after another tense pause, “I might think you didn’t know what I was talking about. But you’re you. I figure looking like you know less than you do has to be half your religion, right?”

“Well, now, you’ve got me there,” Embras agreed. “I am assuredly not in the habit of handing out tidbits of useful information to people who’s as soon shank my ass as look at me. So I’ll just limit my commentary to common facts you could learn from the Topaz College, then, shall I? Using infernal magic to erase memories would be so incredibly useful to my cult in particular that if we could do that, believe me, everyone would know it by now. Which isn’t to say I’ve never heard of such craft. A few of the more exotic caster demons can allegedly do such a thing. Some of the red dragons, perhaps. May I infer from context, Jeremiah, that this incident is the reason you are no longer in possession of that bauble I gave you?”

Shook studied him out of the corner of his eye. “You trying to sell me that there’s some other master warlock sticking their nose into our business in Ninkabi?”

“You see why I am concerned. The only other warlock in Ninkabi I consider to be worthy of note is Mortimer Agasti, and I’ll eat my hat if he’d do such at thing—or even could.”

“So what’re you following me around for, if this is the first you’re actually seeking me out?”

“There’s some real shit going down in Ninkabi,” Mogul said in a much flatter tone. “There was before you and your little posse showed up, and with the greatest possible respect, Mr. Shook, you are not fucking helping. I have established already that ex-Bishop Syrinx is hunting the oh-so-mysterious cult which attacked the Emperor in Tiraas recently. That woman is maybe twenty percent as sly as she thinks she is at the top of her game—and she is very far from the top of her game these days. So that explains her, and you. But I do not know what game Bishop Snowe is playing, or what Justinian is up to in sending the lot of you to dig up a mystery we all know damn well he is behind. And after your knife-eared friend’s little performance today, I’m starting to think I cannot afford to let you lot wander around unsupervised any longer.”

Shook drew in a deep breath, slowly. “Knife-eared… Right. Vannae only wishes he was interesting enough to piss you off. What the fuck has that giggling freakjob done now?”

“Oh, is he not under your control, either?” Mogul’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “Well, I can’t say what specifically he is trying to accomplish by murdering seven police officers in the course of one day, but as a Thieves’ Guild veteran, I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you what the result of that will be.”

Very slowly, Shook reached up to grind his thumbs into both his temples. Only the fact that the glass in front of him was visibly marked with alarm runes spared it from being punched.

“News to you as well, then?” Mogul said lightly. “It may interest you to know that Syrinx is not here on a mockingjay hunt. My people have been trying to pin down Justinian’s mystery cult for weeks. What they’re up to is… Ah, but excuse me, I seem to be getting ahead of myself. I was wondering exactly how your group would fit into this whole mess, but now I learn that not only do none of you seem to know what any of the rest of you are doing, but there’s yet another interested party who can do shit with infernomancy that I’ve barely heard of and now have custody of Kheshiri. I say this as someone for whom the last two years have been a nearly unbroken sequence of disasters, Thumper: I don’t know what’s happening in Ninkabi, but it’s looking like it might shape up to be the biggest mess I have ever seen.”

“Right,” Shook growled. “On a scale of one to the hellgate, how bad are we thinkin’, here?”

“Try twenty hellgates,” Mogul said quietly. “In an urban area. I am after these guys for a reason, Thumper. I do not need you and your out-of-control friends getting underfoot, and neither does this city.”

Shook finally turned to stare at him fully. Mogul kept his own gaze on the Arcane Fist behind the glass.

“Thanks to you,” he said at last, “I’ve had some pretty vivid object lessons lately in the dangers of trusting people who I know are too slippery to even talk with.”

“Smart,” Mogul replied. “And from where I’m sitting, everyone in your current address book is either in the same category or too crazy to be reasoned with. So rest assured, when I take the gamble of assuming you just might be desperate enough to talk with me anyway… Well, you’re not the only one.”

Shook shifted again, glancing back at the exit from the museum gallery. A bored-looking security guard stood there, glancing at the two of them intermittently. One other patron was in this wing, ambling through the Horsebutt exhibit. At this hour, the place was quiet; it had to be near closing time. It was public enough to be semi-safe. A good place to talk business.

If he was willing to risk talking. Events had proven he hadn’t been a match for Kheshiri; he was not nearly dumb enough to think himself a match for the high priest of the goddess of cunning.

Of course, not having options made a lot of things much simpler.

“I’m listening.”

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15 – 27

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“And now, not only have we lost a major asset, that thing is on the loose in Ninkabi with knowledge of our plans! I want every warm body in this place out there until we catch that filthy—”

“Inquisitor,” Khadizroth said loudly, the deferential attitude with which he tried to address Syrinx finally buckling under the strain. “City-wide manhunts never succeed in catching a Vanislaad, even when one has the manpower necessary to mount one—of which we have here only the tiniest fraction. All this would accomplish would be to tip our hand and stir the pot irrevocably.”

Silence fell. Leaning against the wall outside the conference room, well out of view of the door, Shook turned his head to face it more directly. He had the hallway to himself for the moment, lit only by a single fairy lamp and no guards or servants in sight. The conversation on which he was eavesdropping was, so far, not going terribly well. Part of him wondered exactly how bad it would be if Syrinx poked her head out and caught him there. A larger part didn’t much care anymore.

“I hope you will excuse me for speaking out of turn, Inquisitor,” Khadizroth finally said into the chilled silence. “I only meant—”

“No,” Syrinx interrupted, the scowl audible in her voice. “No, you’re right. That was a knee-jerk reaction on my part and no good could have come of it. Well, the fact remains, we are still in this mess. In an amazingly short time, this operation has careened off the Rail and is heading for a truly unrecoverable disaster. I don’t think any of us are in a position to rebound from squandering his Holiness’s support. Or do you disagree?”

“I’m afraid I cannot,” the dragon said quietly. “The matter before us, then, is how to salvage…something from these events.”

“Well,” she grunted, “while we’re trimming the fat around here, we may as well acknowledge that this debacle has cost us two agents, in a manner of speaking. Honestly, what use does that fool Shook even have, if not for holding the succubus’s leash? With her gone, he may as well be stashed in a closet. Or hurled into the canyon.”

Shook clenched his fists so hard they vibrated. He could feel the pressure rising up through him, the familiar pounding in his head, the taste of bile at the back of his throat.

And this time, he stopped.

Mind on the on the job, not on the insult, Alan Vandro’s distant voice reminded him. They’ll try to make you mad to throw you off your game. Bottle up that anger and use it. Rage is a good weapon, so long as you don’t let it control your actions.

You’ve got to let things go, Sweet had told him, back when he was Boss. Remember the broader situation, not just what’s right in front of you. If some fool shows in front of a Guild enforcer that they need an ass-kicking, they’re going to get one. But at the proper time and place, administered with a cool head and an eye for strategy. A good enforcer doesn’t just break knees, he controls the circumstances so that they practically break themselves.

Breathe in, breathe out, and keep doing so, Khadizroth’s more recent advice whispered. Be present, be conscious, be aware. Emotions are things that pass by; they do not require a reaction. A child is ruled by them. A man rules himself.

He had mostly humored Khadizroth by listening, and not just because the dragon could have obliterated him with one swipe of his claws. He liked Khadizroth, for all that mystical mumbo-jumbo was not to his own tastes. But how long had it been since he’d remembered his old Guild sponsor’s teachings? Webs had let him down hard in Onkawa, but Thumper had only ever benefited from practicing what the old conman preached. And Sweet… As much as he was to blame for Shook’s present situation, none of that had come about until long after he had tried to offer him guidance. Of course he’d sided with Keys. She played the game, like he’d tried to teach Shook to do.

And Kheshiri… Shook’s breathing stilled, his eyes widening slightly, as the connections began to form. She was always needling at him. Throwing up little reminders of the various people who’d wronged him, coaxing him to rant about how he’d even the score. She gave every indication of enjoying being treated violently, responded avidly when he displayed his temper. Always bringing him drinks, providing such a constant stream of blisteringly heated sex that even his appetites began to flag under the exertion.

Training him, he realized, now that it was too late. It was subtle, but in hindsight, the pattern was there. Everything Thumper had ever achieved had been through the control his various teachers had drilled into him, the conquest of the anger that had driven his entire life. Kheshiri had carefully undone years of work, provoking outbursts of passion and rewarding them, evincing boredom and disinterest when he controlled himself, discouraging restraint and promoting indulgence of all kinds. And the very fact that she had worked at it so subtly said worlds about her intentions, in comparison with those of the men who had patiently explained to him how to better himself.

A knot twisted in his gut. In Onkawa… Even looking back, the whole scene was tainted by a haze of fury and betrayal, but in the end, hadn’t that final showdown been dueling displays of spectacle by Webs and Kheshiri? Because of course, he’d shown her that he had a powerful, well-connected patron who actually cared about him, and she couldn’t have that if she was going to keep him under control. Gods, had Webs actually betrayed him? What was there in all their years together that hinted he even might do such a thing?

And he had bought it. Hook, line, and sinker.

Shook slumped back against the wall, almost losing his balance. For once, the understanding of how he had been played and thoroughly defeated didn’t make him angry. He couldn’t have put a name to what it felt like.

Khadizroth had been completely right. He was better off with that bitch out of his life. She’d done this to him in only two years; gods only knew what he might have been reduced to if she’d kept her claws in his psyche much longer.

He had never been in control of her.

While Jeremiah Shook was reeling from personal epiphanies in the hall, the conversation in the conference room had continued. His attention focused back upon it just in time to catch up on matters very relevant to his interests.

“…as great a loss as it first seems, anyway. I have been working with this group for some time now, and I can assure you that everything you’ve been warned about children of Vanislaas is true of that one. She is strategically useful, yes, but I have never been wholly satisfied that the benefits outweigh the constant trouble of keeping her in line. If anything, I believe Mr. Shook will be more helpful now that he is freed of that burden.”

“Is this what passes for dragon humor?”

“Alas, I have never been a humorous person,” Khadizroth said wryly. “It’s a real shortcoming; a well-timed joke can do a lot to improve morale. No, Inquisitor, I still speak out of familiarity with the parties involved. Thumper is a Thieves’ Guild enforcer, personally trained by one of Eserion’s most esteemed servants, as I understand it. He is far more than merely muscle under any circumstances. With respect, I would remind you that we are now engaged in surreptitious maneuvers in an urban setting; his skills are particularly relevant to our situation.” The dragon paused, then continued in a quieter volume. “And on the subject of our situation, can we really afford to divest ourselves of any more assets?”

A silence hung briefly. Then there were footsteps heading toward the door. Shook straightened up belatedly, preparing to face the music, but no one emerged. Instead, the conference room door swung shut with a decisive bang.

“Whew,” the Jackal giggled right next to his ear. “I see it’s been a hell of a day here!”

“Goddammit!” Shook barely held onto enough restraint to keep his voice low as he jumped away from the grinning elf; that door was thick, but shouting would be heard through it. Planting himself across the hall, he bared his teeth at the Jackal. “Where the fuck have you been all day?”

“Me?” The assassin put on a wounded expression, placing a hand theatrically over his heart. “I am affronted by the doubts implied in your question, Jerry old man. Really, after all we’ve meant to each other! I’ve been out doing my job. You know, carefully stirring up trouble as only I can. The work is begun, not finished, but I believe I can attest with fair certainty that there will be an increased police presence in the area around Agasti’s club in the days to come.”

“I should really demand what specifically that means,” Shook growled, “but fuck it, I’m pretty sure I don’t even wanna know right now. Here’s what I already know: we’re down a person, our whole mission here might be fucked, and it’s taking all of Big K’s smooth talking to keep that cunt Syrinx from losing every last ounce of her shit and sending what’s left of this whole mess straight to hell with all of us strapped to it. So this is not a good time for you to be haring off on your own!”

“Hmm.” The Jackal struck a pose, rubbing at his chin and screwing up his face in an expression of deep thought. “Hummmmmm. No, my man, I do believe this is an excellent time to go haring off on my own. Think about it: the options are being stuck in an enclosed space with Basra Syrinx while her extremely delicate self-control is being tested to its limits, or doing anything else.”

Shook paused, blinking twice.

“There, see?” the elf said, once again grinning cheekily. “That’s why they pay me the extra-shiny coins. I consider these angles.”

“Yeah, well… I’m not sayin’ it wouldn’t be good to clear my head, but…”

“Oh, don’t mistake me, ol’ top,” the Jackal breezed, turning and sashaying away up the hall. “You do what you like, I wouldn’t want you getting the impression I care. I’m outta here. I’ll be back when the boss bitch has had time to cool down and be grateful to see me again.”

“I don’t really think that’s how her mind works,” Shook said, trailing off as the elf suddenly turned, threw open the nearest window, and launched himself out.

That window opened onto a cliff wall overlooking the canyon about halfway down it. But then…he was the Jackal.

Shook stood there, chewing on the inside of his cheek, for a good five minutes before saying aloud, “Fuck it.”

He strode off toward the front door of the Inquisition’s small offices. There would be a Holy Legion guard on duty, but he could probably bluff his way past by claiming to be on official business. And if not, he was a Guild enforcer and those clowns were little more than living accessories. Either way, he was getting some goddamn fresh air.


“There, see? All that’s settled and everybody’s friends. We can finally all one big family!”

Kheshiri beamed at the room at large, spreading her arms as if expecting a hug. Everyone glared at her.

“Are you sure,” Natchua began, turning to Agasti, but he was already shaking his head.

“I apologize for being so mercenary, my dear,” the old man said sincerely, “but I quite simply do not need the headache. Speaking as your attorney with regard to this matter, the contract we just drew up places you in the best situation relative to her that you could reasonably expect. I’m afraid that will have to suffice for reassurance. She’s your problem now.”

“Well, I have to say, I appreciate your forthrightness,” she replied, smiling in spite of herself. “Where I’m from, that would’ve been a flowery ‘fuck you’ shrouded in tedious layers of false courtesy.”

“Yes, I’ve been told by several of my colleagues in the legal profession that they get on surprisingly well with Narisians as a matter of course,” he said, smiling back. “Besides, it doesn’t do to indulge in sly doublespeak in front of the succubus. She’s inherently better at it, and I don’t care to give her the satisfaction.”

Natchua heaved a sigh, followed by a sullen mutter. “Why do I always have to have the satisfaction?”

“Yes, you are very put upon,” Melaxyna deadpanned. “Obviously you’ve brought absolutely none of this situation on yourself.”

“Mel,” Natchua said shortly, “do I look like I’m in the mood?”

“So, you’re with her and not him, right?” Kheshiri inquired, regarding Melaxyna inquisitively. “I’ve met the hethelax and the khelminash. What’s your story?”

Melaxyna stared back at her for a long moment, then glanced at Natchua. Then, her human disguise melted away to reveal her alabaster skin, crystalline eyes, wings, and tail.

Kheshiri’s own smile melted just as quickly, leaving her glowering morosely at the other succubus. “Oh. Goody.”

“I believe that’s my line, sugar tits,” Melaxyna drawled.

“Let me be explicitly clear on this up front,” Natchua stated. “There will be a maximum of zero demon catfighting. Am I clear?”

“Hey, you know me,” Melaxyna said cryptically.

“You command, and I obey,” Kheshiri declaimed, sweeping an elegant bow in her direction. “I live to serve you, my mistress.”

“Ugh,” Natchua grunted. The troubling thing was, as best as she could suss out from her newfound skill at analyzing the succubus’s emotions directly, she appeared to be sincere about that. It wasn’t as simple as detecting truth from lies; emotions, even when read through any attempted dissembling, were just more complex than that. But she could see as plain as written words what Kheshiri felt toward her, and while that was also complex, it was disturbingly positive. Downright avid, in fact. She wouldn’t go so far as to say the succubus was in love—and thank all the gods for that—but she was at the very least utterly fascinated and delighted by Natchua, without a hint of the predatory instinct or malice that such attraction usually meant from her kind.

Whatever this would mean, in the long run, it was a safe bet that she’d not heard the last of it by far.

She had already found that this ability worked on Melaxyna, too, now that she knew the method. It didn’t work as well; the shadow magic suffusing Kheshiri’s body and aura helped a lot once Natchua had detected it, but just having the method down provided the insight. She could read Melaxyna plainly with a bit more focus and concentration, and even interpret things about the other succubus’s magical structure to which she had been blind before. The new insight told her Melaxyna wasn’t very happy about their current situation, obviously. But she was also surprisingly fond toward Natchua, regarding her with a layered mat of feelings which she interpreted, belatedly and with some surprise, as protectiveness.

Natchua wasn’t much for scientific research, but even she was not blind to the possibilities here. Considering that all her current plans were leading toward her own inevitable death, she really ought to relay this to someone else, perhaps someone like Agasti. It would be an invaluable tool for warlocks to counter the predations of Vanislaads. Of course, once it was known, Vanislaas himself and all his children would begin developing countermeasures, which was why she had decided to keep this to herself for the moment, even with Agasti and Xyraadi both right there. For now, it would be a priceless strategic asset if she encountered any more of their kind, which was not unlikely considering what she was about. In fact, with a bit more study and experimentation, she thought she might be able to develop a way to see through their invisibility and shapeshifting at a glance.

But she currently had to cut short her ruminations, as Kheshiri had fixed her attention on Hesthri.

“I really am sorry about all that, you know,” she said earnestly. “It wasn’t personal, for whatever that’s worth. I suspect you know what it’s like to be backed into a corner and desperate for some leverage to survive. But we’re on the same side now! I’m sure I’ll find a way to make it up to you.”

“Speak to your owner or not at all,” Hesthri said curtly. “You and I have nothing to discuss. I’m sure no one else wants to talk to you, either.”

“Oh?” Kheshiri said innocently. “Well, at the very least, it seems you and I can discuss how no one else wants to talk to me! Any point is a starting point, don’t you—”

“Shut up, Kheshiri,” Natchua ordered.

The succubus bowed again, as courtly and grandiose as before. “As you command, mistress, I—”

“That isn’t shutting up!”

This time Kheshiri did indeed fall silent, but proceeded with a grotesquely detailed pantomime of sewing her lips shut which she had to have practiced.

Natchua, Hesthri, and Melaxyna all grimaced and averted their eyes. Fortunately, there were other things to behold, as Xyraadi had taken the opportunity presented by the sudden quiet to approach Agasti.

“I cannot thank you enough, Mortimer, for your hospitality and your kindness these last weeks,” she said, gently taking one of his hands in both of her own and smiling warmly.

Agasti lightly squeezed her slender fingers. “My dear, you owe me no consideration; your presence here has been just the breath of fresh air I needed. My prayers have heavily featured gratitude for you and those three young heroes coming here to kick some life back into these old bones. Are you…resolved to do this, then?”

“I know it is sudden,” she said, nodding, “but I am indeed. I feel, above all else, certain that this is right.”

The old warlock sighed, lowering his eyes. “I can’t pretend I’m glad to see you go, considering…what you are going toward.”

Slowly, Xyraadi shook her head, her expression growing distant. “I am sorry for that, Mortimer, truly. I hate to make a friend watch. But the truth is…” She turned her head, meeting Natchua’s eyes. “I am not afraid. I don’t rush headlong toward death, but its inevitability does nothing to dissuade me. This world has changed beyond recognition while I was imprisoned. And I… It has not been six hundred years for me. I have very old wounds that are still very fresh. I lost my friends, my cause, my love.” The demon closed her eyes, and Agasti again gave her hands a comforting little squeeze. “What this drow is suggesting may be madness, but it’s exactly the madness I wished for when I asked the Sisterhood to imprison me in that crystal. Elilial must be made to answer for all she has done. And who better to make her than those who are willing to give everything to it?” She opened her eyes again, still facing Natchua, and her stare hardened. “She stepped on me once, too. Very recently.”

“Wait.” Kheshiri appeared to have forgotten the order to shut up; right now, the expression of concern on her face matched what Natchua saw in her aura. “What…exactly…are you lot trying to do?”

“Oh, it’s a rollicking good tale,” Melaxyna said in her driest tone. “We’ll catch you up on what you’ve signed on for, don’t you worry. I wouldn’t miss that for the world.”

“Remember that I am only a shadow-jump away,” Agasti said softly. “I hope you’ll visit again, Xyraadi. Before… Well, when you can.”

“I encourage that,” Natchua added. “If nothing else, this place is a lot more comfortable. Our current base of operations is, well… A work in progress.”

Melaxyna and Hesthri snorted in unison.

“I guess we might want to invest in a Glassian dictionary, then,” Melaxyna added to Natchua.

“Excuse me,” Xyraadi retorted haughtily, “but you are complaining about having a little culture injected into your lives. You speak of a language which is an ongoing work of beauty and inherently superior for any purpose except counting to seventy.”

Agasti cleared his throat, releasing Xyraadi’s hands, and reached behind himself to pick up Kheshiri’s reliquary, which had been hidden against the back of his chair by his body. “Well, then. I suppose the only remaining business is for you to retain custody of this, Natchua.”

He held it out to her. Kheshiri’s eyes fixed on the reliquary and her tail lashed twice. Natchua, though, tilted her head, making no move to take it.

“Upon consideration,” she said pensively, “no, thank you.”

“Point of order,” Kheshiri interjected. “By the contract we just signed, you’re not to imprison me in that thing or give it to someone who might.”

“Yes,” Natchua said, turning a flat grin on her, “that was worded very precisely. Once I have it again I’ll definitely be bound by those provisions. But I can’t exactly give away something that’s not in my possession, now can I?”

Kheshiri smirked wryly at her. “Well, well. I knew you were a smart cookie, mistress, but you continue to impress.”

Her blasé attitude stood in marked contrast to the surge of fury that pulsed through her aura. Natchua’s grin widened as she held the succubus’s gaze for a moment, then turned back to the lawyer, who was smiling at her with patrician approval.

“Now, make no mistake,” he cautioned, “based on your description of how she slipped its control, it is very unlikely I would be able to restore the reliquary’s function by working on it alone. The problem is not with it, but with her.”

Natchua shook her head. “You’ve been tremendously helpful already, Mr. Agasti, I won’t expect you to solve any of my problems for me. Don’t worry about that, I’ll deal with Kheshiri.” She tried to ignore the sly amusement that radiated from the demon in question, who was at least still keeping her expression even. “To my knowledge, this kind of Black Wreath spellcraft is rarely available for Pantheon-aligned warlocks to study; I’m certain it will be of at least some value to you, even if not for its intended purpose. And if nothing else, do you recall what I said I’d planned to do with it in the first place?”

“I do,” he said slowly. “That might be a bit trickier for me than for you; I have no personal connection…there.”

“You are courteous and professional,” she assured him with a smile. “Despite her reputation, that’s really all you need.”

Kheshiri remained outwardly calm, but her increasing curiosity and alarm was deeply satisfying. Melaxyna was grinning openly.

Hesthri snorted. “If you ever do manage to get her back in that bottle, just do us all a favor and drop it in the ocean.”

“Never drop one of those in the ocean,” Melaxyna retorted, her smile vanishing. “Rookie mistake. If the water’s deep enough, the pressure will crush it and release the demon. If it’s not, mermaids will find it; they’re drawn to magical objects.”

“You’re awfully free with your advice,” Kheshiri commented. “Pretty confident you’ll never be stuck in one of those, are you?”

Melaxyna shrugged. “It looks like a more comfortable prison than the last one I was in. If I never taste bacon and mushrooms again it’ll be far too soon…”

Natchua just sighed. “Well, I believe we have caused enough trouble here for one night.”

“Oh, come now, it’s scarcely an hour past dark! The night is—”

“Shut up, Kheshiri. Gather in, everyone. The sooner we get home, the sooner we get the next round of awkward explanations over with.”

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